The Investiture Controversy

Learning Objective

  • Analyze the events of the Investiture Controversy

Key Points

  • When the Holy Roman Empire developed as a force during the 10th century, it was the first real non-barbarian challenge to the authority of the church.
  • A dispute between the secular and ecclesiastical powers known as the Investiture Controversy emerged beginning in the mid-11th century.
  • The Investiture Controversy was resolved with the Concordat of Worms in 1122, which gave the church power over investiture, along with other reforms.
  • By undercutting the imperial power established by previous emperors, the controversy led to nearly fifty years of civil war in Germany, and the triumph of the great dukes and abbots.
  • The papacy grew stronger in its power and authority from the controversy.



The sale of church offices to a successor.


The authority to appoint local church officials such as bishops of cities and abbots of monasteries.

Concordat of Worms

An agreement between Pope Calixtus II and Holy Roman Emperor Henry V on September 23, 1122, that found a resolution to the Investiture Controversy.


The Investiture Controversy was the most significant conflict between church and state in medieval Europe, specifically the Holy Roman Empire.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, a series of popes challenged the authority of European monarchies. At issue was who, the pope or monarchs, had the authority to appoint (invest) local church officials such as bishops of cities and abbots of monasteries. The conflict ended in 1122, when Emperor Henry V and Pope Calixtus II agreed on the Concordat of Worms. It differentiated between the royal and spiritual powers and gave the emperors a limited role in selecting bishops. The outcome seemed mostly a victory for the pope and his claim that he was God’s chief representative in the world. However, the emperor did retain considerable power over the church.

The Investiture Controversy began as a power struggle between Pope Gregory VII (1072–1085) and Holy Roman Emperor Henry V (1056–1106). A brief but significant struggle over investiture also occurred between Henry I of England and Pope Paschal II in the years 1103–1107, and the issue also played a minor role in the struggles between church and state in France.

By undercutting the imperial power established by previous emperors, the controversy led to nearly fifty years of civil war in Germany, and the triumph of the great dukes and abbots. Imperial power was finally re-established under the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Historian Norman Cantor writes of its significance:

The age of the investiture controversy may rightly be regarded as the turning-point in medieval civilization. It was the fulfillment of the early Middle Ages because in it the acceptance of the Christian religion by the Germanic peoples reached its final and decisive stage…The greater part of the religious and political system of the high Middle Ages emerged out of the events and ideas of the investiture controversy.

Investiture. A woodcut by Philip Van Ness (1905), A medieval king investing a bishop with the symbols of office.


After the decline of the Roman Empire and prior to the Investiture Controversy, investiture, while theoretically a task of the church, was in practice performed by members of the religious nobility. Many bishops and abbots were themselves part of the ruling nobility. Since an eldest son would inherit the title of the father, siblings often found careers in the church. This was particularly true where the family may have established a proprietary church or abbey on their estate. Since Otto I (936-972) the bishops had been princes of the empire, had secured many privileges, and had become to a great extent feudal lords over great districts of the imperial territory. The control of these great units of economic and military power was for the king a question of primary importance, as it affected the imperial authority. It was essential for a ruler or nobleman to appoint (or sell the office to) someone who would remain loyal.

Since a substantial amount of wealth and land was usually associated with the office of a bishop or abbot, the sale of church offices (a practice known as simony) was an important source of income for leaders among the nobility, who themselves owned the land and by charity allowed the building of churches.

The crisis began when a group within the church, members of the Gregorian Reform, decided to rebel against the rule of simony by forcefully taking the power of investiture from the ruling secular power, i.e., the Holy Roman Emperor, and placing that power wholly within control of the church. The Gregorian reformers knew this would not be possible so long as the emperor maintained the ability to appoint the pope, so their first step was to forcibly gain the papacy from the control of the emperor. An opportunity came in 1056 when six-year-old Henry IV became the German king; the reformers took advantage of his young age and inability to react by seizing the papacy by force. In 1059 a church council in Rome declared, with In Nomine Domini, that leaders of the nobility would have no part in the selection of popes, and created the College of Cardinals as a body of electors made up entirely of church officials. Once Rome regained control of the election of the pope, it was ready to attack the practice of investiture and simony on a broad front.

In 1075, Pope Gregory VII composed the Dictatus Papae. One clause asserted that the deposal of an emperor was under the sole power of the pope. It declared that the Roman church was founded by God alone—that the papal power was the sole universal power. By this time, Henry IV was no longer a child, and he continued to appoint his own bishops. He reacted to this declaration by sending Gregory VII a letter in which he withdrew his imperial support of Gregory as pope in no uncertain terms.

The situation was made even more dire when Henry IV installed his chaplain, Tedald, a Milanese priest, as Bishop of Milan when another priest of Milan, Atto, had already been chosen by the pope for candidacy. In 1076 the pope responded by excommunicating Henry and deposing him as German king, releasing all Christians from their oath of allegiance to him.

Enforcing these declarations was a different matter, but the advantage gradually came to the side of the pope. German princes and the aristocracy were happy to hear of the king’s deposition. They used religious reasons to continue the rebellion started at the First Battle of Langensalza in 1075, and to seize royal holdings. Aristocrats claimed local lordships over peasants and property, built forts, which had previously been outlawed, and built up localized fiefdoms to secure their autonomy from the empire.

The Investiture Controversy continued for several decades as each succeeding pope tried to diminish imperial power by stirring up revolt in Germany. These revolts were gradually successful. Henry IV was succeeded upon his death in 1106 by his son Henry V, who had rebelled against his father in favor of the papacy, and who had made his father renounce the legality of his antipopes before he died. Nevertheless, Henry V chose one more antipope, Gregory VIII. Later, he renounced some of the rights of investiture with the Concordat of Worms, abandoned Gregory, and was received back into communion and recognized as legitimate emperor as a result.


Henry IV. This illustration shows Henry IV requesting mediation from Matilda of Tuscany and abbot Hugh of Cluny.

The Concordat of Worms and Its Significance

After fifty years of fighting, the Concordat of Worms provided a lasting compromise when it was signed on September 23, 1122. It eliminated lay investiture while leaving secular leaders some room for unofficial but significant influence in the appointment process. The emperor renounced the right to invest ecclesiastics with ring and crosier, the symbols of their spiritual power, and guaranteed election by the canons of cathedral or abbey and free consecration.

The Concordat of Worms brought an end to the first phase of the power struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman emperors, and has been interpreted as containing within itself the germ of nation-based sovereignty that would one day be confirmed in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). In part this was an unforeseen result of strategic maneuvering between the church and the European sovereigns over political control within their domains.

While the monarchy was embroiled in the dispute with the church, it declined in power and broke apart. Localized rights of lordship over peasants grew. This resulted in multiple effects:

  1. Increased serfdom that reduced human rights for the majority;
  2. Increased taxes and levies that royal coffers declined;
  3. Localized rights of justice where courts did not have to answer to royal authority.

In the long term, the decline of imperial power would divide Germany until the 19th century. Similarly, in Italy, the Investiture Controversy weakened the emperor’s authority and strengthened local separatist forces. However, the papacy grew stronger from the controversy. Assembling for public opinion engaged lay people in religious affairs that increased lay piety, setting the stage for the Crusades and the great religious vitality of the 12th century.

The conflict did not end with the Concordat of Worms. Future disputes between popes and Holy Roman emperors continued until northern Italy was lost to the empire entirely. The church would crusade against the Holy Roman Empire under Frederick II.