The Investiture Controversy

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The Investiture Controversy is seen often times as a significant conflict between Church and State in medieval Europe. However, it was really a conflict over two radically different views of whether the secular authorities such as kings or dukes, had any legitimate role in appointments of spiritual offices such as bishoprics. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the control of appointments or investitures of church officials such as bishops and abbots became a conflict between Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor.

This reveals that medieval society had to decide which authority figure to support, either the secular or spiritual authority, because each one believed that the other was entitled to more authority than the other. The Investiture Controversy was significant in medieval history because though Henry IV and Gregory VII had very different opinions of what the spiritual and secular authorities duties were they both wished to preserve the Catholic faith against corruption. The Middle Ages began after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Significant changes began to occur in every part of the continent due to the lack of an absolute ruler, which was Rome. The churches around Rome looked to the Pope for guidance but seeing that their needs were not being met, nobles and especially kings assumed numerous Christian duties, including the protection and foundation of churches and abbeys. Although canon law, which is the body of laws and regulations made for the government of the Christian organization and its members, declared that bishops were to be elected by the clergy and the people but the rulers ignored it.

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Secular authority slowly started to become more dominant than spiritual authority being that weak church authorities were monitoring their powers. During the eighth and ninth centuries, the Roman aristocracy dominated the election of the papacy due to no Carolingian powers to control them. The aristocratic family with the most power would have the ability to elect the pope or sell his office. Bishops and abbots were nominated and installed by rulers in a ceremony known since the second half of the eleventh century as investiture.

This was a ceremony conducted by the king who granted the new bishop or abbots with a staff and, since the reign of Emperor Henry III (1039-1056), a ring signifying that they “receive the church”. By church it did not only mean the spiritual office but also the secular rights. In return to the king, an oath of fealty to the ruler was made that indicated homage to the king that the bishop or abbot would assist the ruler spiritually and materially, which would fulfill the requirement of “service to the king” including paying fees, distribution of fiefs to royal supporters, military support, and court attendance as an adviser and collaborator.

A notable monarch who practiced investiture was Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III. Henry III wanted to be crowned emperor but currently there were three popes, Benedict IX, Sylvester III, and Gregory VI because of the domination of the Roman aristocracy. Henry III reached Rome in 1046 and imposed his secular authority over the situation and elected as the new pope a German, Suidger, bishop of Bamberg, who was inaugurated as Clement II.

Control over the Roman Church passed into the hands of the German king. In succeeding years, Henry III used his secular authority to appoint a pope at three more occasions. The spiritual authority was in ruins and a need for reformation within the church was necessary. A man who began reforming the church was Bruno of Eguisheim-Dagsburg, who later became Pope Leo IX, was a German aristocrat and a powerful spiritual ruler of central Italy while pope.

On the death of Pope Damasus II, Bruno was selected as his successor but as a condition of his acceptance for the papacy, he had to first proceed to Rome and be freely elected by the voice of the clergy and people of Rome. After receiving much support of his election, Bruno formally became Leo IX. Favoring traditional morality in his reformation of the Catholic Church, Pope Leo IX publicly declared that he was against simony that had been occurring due to a weakened and corrupt papacy. Simony is the act of paying for sacraments and consequently for holy offices or for positions in the hierarchy of a church.

Another type of reformation in church that had been occurred before the Investiture Controversy was the establishment of Cluny Abbey. Founded by William I, Duke of Aquitaine in 910 this Benedictine monastery was located in Cluny, France. William I nominated Berno as the first Abbot of Cluny who forced a strict enforcement to the Rule of St. Benedict. Though this was a demonstration of a secular authority appointing an abbot to a spiritual office, William I released the Cluny abbey from all future obligation to him and his family ther than prayer: Therefore be it known to all who live in unity of the faith and who await mercy of Christ, and to those who shall succeed them and who shall continue to exist until the end of the world, that, for the love of God and our Savior Jesus Christ, I hand over from my own rule to the holy apostles, Peter, namely, and Paul, the possessions over which I hold sway, the town of Cluny, namely, with the court and demesne manor, and the church in honor of St. Mary the mother of God and of St.

Peter the prince of the apostles, together with all the things pertaining to it, the vills, indeed, the chapels, the serfs of both sexes, the vines, the fields, the meadows, the woods, the waters and their outlets, the mills, the incomes and revenues, what is cultivated and what is not, all in their entirety. This is an extremely significant declaration by a secular authority figure because not only did many other secular authorities follow William I’s example, monasteries across Europe began adopting the Rule of St.

Benedict causing many leaders in the spiritual realm to rise against the secular authority and start to divide the powers between the church and state. Before becoming the pope who would challenge secular authority over the topic of investiture, Hildebrand of Sovana was a cluniac monk who was deacon and papal administrator for the Leo IX. During the reign his reign, Nicholas II established a new election system for the papacy. The Papal Election Decree of Nicholas II was established in 1059.

It declared that a College of Cardinals would convene, during a period of vacancy in the papal office to elect a Bishop of Rome who then becomes pope. However, Hildebrand did not become Pope Gregory VII by the College of Cardinals. He was elected in an informal fashion and the decree of Nicholas II was ignored, nevertheless Hildebrand did not encounter strong opposition and received sacerdotal ordination thus becoming pope Gregory VII. A reformer, Gregory VII’s main focus was to reform the church and by that he wanted to reduce the secular authority over the spiritual.

He strongly believed that God alone founded the Church and that she is supreme over all human structures, especially the secular state. However, he did believe that there could be coexistence of church and state, but in no way were they two equals. The superiority of church was much greater than that of the state because God elected the church officials while men who could be corrupt selected the state officials. Henry III had retained a firm hold on the church and resolved a schism.

However, after Henry III died at an early age, his son Henry IV believed that he had been appointed by God to become Emperor and spiritual authority figures like the pope were subordinate to him and his decisions. Known as the Milan Controversy, there were two candidates in the running for the position of archbishop. The people of Milan who were supported by the pope supported one of the candidates. However, Henry IV countered by having his own nominee demonstrating a secular authority attempting to elect a candidate of a religious authority, referring to a king-committing investiture.

Henry IV interfered in the situation to help resolve the issue rather than allowing the people of Milan with the support of Pope Gregory VII to achieve a resolution. Refusing to obey the spiritual authority, Henry IV received a letter from Pope Gregory VII warning him of an awful fate if he is to ignore the pope’s negotiations in regards to the investiture problem. Offended by this threat, Henry IV refused to obey the pope because of his belief that God had made him emperor. God alone was the only one who determined the wrongs of kings or emperors.

Nevertheless, Pope Gregory VII replied by excommunicating Henry IV for refusing to accept that a king or emperor must obey the wishes of a spiritual authority and continue to interfere in church matters, thus the Investiture Controversy ensued. A series of letters by Gregory VII and Henry IV presented the positions of each side and their attempts to best their opponents in public opinion. Gregory VII wanted Henry IV’s acknowledgement that the spiritual authority triumphed over the secular authority.

Pope Gregory VII demonstrates in many of his letters that though Henry IV was an emperor he is unfit to appoint bishops or abbots because God had elected church officials who are able to perform such actions. Hence, Henry IV should withdraw all his power from church matters just like William I had done for the Cluny Abbey. Establishing that royal powers were subordinate to the priesthood because secular authority figures continuously lusted for power, which in the eyes of the church lowers their spirituality for committing an act that is considered a sin.

Henry IV retorted with the claim that Pope Gregory VII was never a pope due to the fact that he had been appointed by an invalid election and even attempted to gain the papal office while the current pope was alive. Again, when a synod was celebrated in the time of Pope Nicholas [II], in which one hundred twenty-five bishops sat together, it was decided and decreed under anathema that no one would ever become pope except by the election of the cardinals and the approbation of the people, and by the consent and authority of the king.

In this statement, Henry IV agrees with the idea that cardinals have the right to elect a new pope but a person of extremely high authority, like himself, has the right to agree or disagree with the decision made by the College of Cardinals. Among other accusations that Henry IV made against Gregory VII, he deemed the pope as a “bad monk” who did not follow what he preached and had mistresses before and after he became pope. Henry IV finally indicated that God alone can judge the actions of the secular authority and that no spiritual authority, especially a corrupt one such as Gregory VII, could assert their authority over a king.

The Investiture Controversy was between the church and state and the main issue was the rulers’ ability to continue to invest and install bishops and abbots with the symbols of their office. It soon quickly became an argument between Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor and Pope Gregory VII trying to determine which had more authority, spiritual or secular. Gregory VII saw the emperor’s disobedience to the papacy as an attack on the church, while Henry IV viewed it as the pope forcing his authority over an emperor.

However, each saw that the other side was corrupt and unfit to make decisions within the church. Both wished to control the matters of the church since according to each side, God had elected him to his position of authority signifying more power than the other one. Nevertheless, their main goal was to keep the sacrifices of mass and the church untainted, with no influence of corrupt authority figures.

Bibliography Geary, Patrick J. “Pope Gregory VII and King Henry IV”, in Readings in Medieval History , 562-586. Toronto: University of Toronto Press Incorporated, 2010. Geary, Patrick J. “Cluniac Charters”, in Readings in Medieval History , 315-321. Toronto: University of Toronto Press Incorporated, 2010. Thompson, James Westfall. “Church and State in Medieval Germany. ” The American Journal of Theology, 22, no. 4 (1918): 513-540, doi: 19, Feb. 2012. http://www. jstor. org/stable/3155326 -------------------------------------------- [ 1 ]. Henry III was the son of Conrad II and Gisela of Swabia. His accession to the throne did not lead to civic unrest due to the fact that he was a descendent from the two sides that were causing civil war in the empire. [ 2 ]. The Rule of Saint Benedict is a book written by St. Benedict of Nurisa for monks living communally under the authority of an abbot. [ 3 ]. Patrick J. Geary, “Cluniac Charters”, in Readings in Medieval History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press Incorporated, 2010), 316. [ 4 ]. Patrick J. Geary, “Pope Gregory VII and King Henry IV”, in Readings in Medieval History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press Incorporated, 2010), 580.

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The Investiture Controversy. (2018, May 10). Retrieved from

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