A King on His Knees: the Investiture Controversy

If you have been reading the news in Britain this week, you may have heard of ‘Horsegate’, a rather insipid scandal involving the British Prime Minister David Cameron, a retired Police horse, and an editor of defunct tabloid newspaper The News of the World.  While most Britons seem indifferent to the revelations of the scandal, its wide media coverage ensured that news of the Prime Minister’s potential misdeeds have been recorded for posterity to puzzle over.

Every age has its own scandals, and the Middle Ages is no exception. Today I wanted to explore one such episode, which is possibly the greatest confrontation between Church and State that you’ve never heard of. It’s called the Investiture Controversy by historians, and it has its roots in the practice of Christianity around the turn of the first millennium.

Contrary to the popular perception, Christianity in the Middle Ages was far from being a cohesive Catholic entity under the control of the Pope. Instead, the boundaries of church practice and belief were constantly being debated, particularly during the 11th century, a period of ‘reform’. Previously, practices like clerical marriage, simony (the purchasing of ecclesiastical office,) and lay investiture (the appointment of religious offices by secular authorities) had characterised the operations of the church, and many considered them perfectly orthodox. Increasingly, however, these practices became the target for reform, which wanted to establish clerical celibacy as the norm (as it later became), abolish simony, and reserve the rights of appointment to church positions for religious leaders.

The issue of lay investiture in particular began to dominate discussion in the years between 1044 and 1085, when cronyism between Roman families produced a particularly unstable succession of Popes, few of whom had genuine religious experience.  The politics of papal election became even more complicated through the actions of Henry III, the Holy Roman Emperor, who used his influence to steer the selection of popes and bishops.

The Holy Roman Empire. At the time of the Investiture Controversy, the Empire did not yet control Southern Italy and activity centred in the Northern regions.

Covering much of modern-day Germany and Italy, the Holy Roman Empire had a huge political presence in Church politics. With Henry III’s death in 1056, however, his powerful but controversial throne fell to his six year old son, crowned Henry IV. During the emperor’s youth, Hildebrand, a fiery church reformer, is elected into office as Pope Gregory VII by the people of Rome.

The personalities of these two figures, Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV, clashed as the latter grew into a young man. In 1075, the Pope declared that he had the power to depose any Emperor–including Henry IV–through the authority given to him by God, and that the Pope was likewise the only power authorised to appoint bishops. Henry IV (who, like many Holy Roman Emperors, used his control over church appointments for political ends) retaliated by calling for Gregory VII to step down as pope, declaring that without imperial support, no papal election was valid.

The tipping point came later that year, when Henry IV disregarded the papal candidate of Bishop of Milan and appointed his own chaplain instead. It was a huge insult to the authority claimed by Gregory VII, who reacted in 1076 by excommunicating the emperor.

Today, we think of excommunication as an exclusively spiritual weapon, threatening the living individual with the damnation of the soul. Its implications for Henry IV, however, were far more immediate. At this time, all oaths made to an excommunicate became void, including the oath of loyalty from a subject to his king. Over the next year, Henry’s  realm began to unravel as his nobles deserted him and an anti-king, Rudolf of Swabia, was elected to replace him.

Desperate, Henry IV travelled across the Alps from Germany to Italy in winter to beg Gregory VII to lift his excommunication. What followed was a powerful piece of political theatre, with the castle at Canossa as backdrop. Barefoot, dressed in sack-cloth, Henry IV came to the courtyard of the castle and knelt in the snow–for three days.

Henry's penitence at Canossa remained a compelling theme for artists, (http://www.reformation.org/saint-martin-luther-birthday.html)

His penance forced the Pope to lift his excommunication, but their antagonism continued until Gregory VII was forced from his office into exile and Henry IV was deposed by his own son. Both died in exile, far from the turbulent politics which had defined their careers. The debate itself continued to resonate around Europe until 1122, when the Concordat of Worms (yes, Worms) finally surrendered the power of investiture to the Church.

This drama, between reforming Popes and Emperors, transformed the church from its early mediaeval form–decentralised, closely linked to the powers of the land–into a more powerful and independent international organisation, much the way it is today.

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