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The Lay Investiture Contest

Tim Austen

The final centuries of the first millennium AD are remembered as the Dark Ages, robbed of light and safety by fearsome invasions that radically transformed the world of classical antiquity so that it no longer recognized itself. The various European kingdoms that were left to themselves in the wake of the sack of Rome in AD 410 would spend the subsequent centuries adapting to a radical decrease in centralized political regulation. New powers emerged and challenged one another in the struggle for order. It is precisely in the midst of the unsettled dust of an age of invasions that emerged one of the most notable controversies in Western European history, namely, the lay investiture contest.

In order to set the lay investiture contest in its proper context, it is important to recognize the dire nature of the last centuries of the first millennium AD. Vikings from the North wrought havoc in England, established kingdoms on Frankish shores, and even ventured as far as Italy and Byzantium. Saracens—Arabic warriors who fought in the name of Muhammad’s newborn religion, Islam—conquered massive portions of the Mediterranean world. In 678 the caliph Muawiyah attacked Constantinople, and but for his defeat at the hands of Constantine IV (owing largely to the newly invented weapon, Greek fire), George Ostrogorsky wonders if the Western world as it is now known would have then been subsumed by Islam.[1]

Other groups, the Magyars not least of these, threatened the burgeoning Germanic kingdoms—English, Frankish and otherwise—that were beginning to assert themselves as the new dominant powers in the West. Otto I the Great of East Frankia obliterated the Magyars in 955 in Lechfield, essentially ending their raiding forever. Alfred the Great of Wessex won a tremendous victory against the Danes at Edington in 878. This was the culmination of a defensive campaign, the failure of which would have most certainly meant the destruction of Anglo-Saxon kingship forever.

Despite this hard-won victory, the English continued to have difficulty with the Danes in the following centuries. On the thirteenth of November 1002, Æthelred Unræd, paranoid that the Danes who had been living in England for over a century were plotting his downfall, ordered that all Danish men in England be slaughtered. The results were catastrophic: raids ensued against which England could not defend itself, and in 1013 Swein Forkbeard with his army captured the English throne. Duke William of Normandy would arrive and conquer England only fifty-three years later.

Such disarray and volatility as England experienced were present elsewhere in both Eastern and Western Europe. For the last centuries of the first millennium AD, Islam’s surge across the Mediterranean was held at bay largely by the strong military government of the Byzantines. However, as internal struggles caused the Byzantine military structure to crumble, Islamic Turkish forces began to barrage Byzantium’s borders. In 1071, the Turks defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert, forever destroying the Eastern Roman Empire’s theme system, the backbone of its military defense. The East was thrown into turmoil and civil war. Meanwhile, the West was still reeling.

The Church was uniquely affected by the era of invasions. Martin Ryan writes that during the invasions, “monasteries and churches seem to have been particularly singled out,” as these “were simply wealthy but poorly defended sites, many of them occupying coastal or riverline locations that were easily accessible by boat.”[2] The dawn of feudalism meant that Church owed something to local lay lords. The right of the lords to exercise substantial authority in ecclesiastical affairs—the investment with offices, the donation and overseeing of lands, the debt of protection—was brought into sharper focus than ever before.

The lay investiture contest began with the dawn of feudalism. Feudalism was hardly a system of government, but rather a sociopolitical accouterment of a culture in which fidelity (whether to lord or lady) was the highest virtue. During this age of invasions, farmers, monks and anyone without means to protect themselves against invaders would surrender a part of their livelihood or service to the local lord in return for his protection. Those in need of protection were thus bound to their lord protectors by a mutual debt of fealty. Historians of the middle ages denote this system of mutual oaths with the term feudalism.

While feudalism was a unique invention of the second millennium AD that called attention to several forms of abuse that accompanied lay investiture, lay investiture itself was not a recent innovation. Kings and lords, though laypeople by the reckoning of the Church, believed that it was their right and solemn privilege as the spiritual protectors of their kingdom to decide in certain cases to appoint individuals of their choosing to ecclesiastical offices. In addition, these lords would invest their appointees with the symbols of priestly office, namely the ring and the crozier.

Such ideals of theocratic kingship were not viewed as novel or even irregular. The English for example (borrowing largely from Carolingian customs) had allowed lay lords power over ecclesiastical affairs since the beginning. Indeed, the first Roman see on English soil was not founded in 597 until after the missionary Augustine and his company obtained a house in Canterbury and permission to preach from King Æthelberht of Kent. Neither Augustine nor Pope Gregory I saw any problem with this.[3] In the tenth century, at the height of England’s Benedictine reforms, King Edgar practiced lay investiture unabashedly, with Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester acting, as his advisor.

In the early middle ages, kingship was seen as a divinely instituted theocracy, in which the king was considered the Vicar of Christ on earth[4] and therefore had not the privilege, but rather the solemn responsibility of appointing bishops, priests and abbots. The Anglo-Saxon Church, at least, conceded to the king’s authority invariably. Sir Frank Stenton remarks, “There is no sign that the king’s ecclesiastical patronage was ever contested by English churchmen of the age.”[5] Unfortunately, not all to whom fell the right to invest local church offices were nearly so noble. Robber barons throughout Europe seized rights that were now theirs more than ever before. Simony and nepotism were rampant. Dysfunctional bishops seemed to become a rule rather than an exception. Concubinage, absenteeism and the holding of multiple bishoprics by one bishop abounded. The age-old institution of lay investiture was now coming to be associated with a coarse coagulation of abuses, especially simony, which had snowballed exponentially with the rise of feudalism.

Many ecclesiastical officials yearned to escape this culture of abuse and disingenuousness. In 910, one Duke William (not of Normandy) was persuaded to give land for the foundation of a monastery. This monastery came to be known as Cluny, and was intended to be a haven from the abuses that arose from feudalism. There it was not permitted that any other than the monks elect the abbot. The abbot of Cluny did not answer to anyone except the bishop of Rome. Essentially, the abbot of Cluny was hierarchically positioned just below the pope himself. Historian H.E.J. Cowdrey sees Cluny as the seedbed of the eleventh century reform movement that would arise in response to widespread simony and abuse.[6]

Such abuses increasingly became the favorite topic of dispute in Rome in the 1050s. Reformers indeed arose, eager to remedy the evil of simony. One such reformer was Humbert, a cardinal, of whom historian Brian Tierney writes:

Humbert was coldly intellectual, a man more concerned with justice than with charity, more swayed by abstract argument than practical considerations of human need. He could never resist pressing an argument to its logical conclusion and if the process led to results that were subversive of the whole existing order of society, to ideas whose implementation might throw the whole world into chaos, he would rather risk the chaos than reconsider the argument.[7]

No one in the Church, neither priest nor pope, agreed with simony, save those who bought their offices. The reformers, therefore, were not at all unique in their disdain for simony. They were unique, however, in the radical ways that some among them sought to reform the Church. Humbert was a radical’s radical; he went so far as to assert that the Eucharist, baptism, consecration or any sacramental action performed or administered by a bishop who had bought his office, was no longer efficacious. That is to say, a bishop who practiced simony no longer had any right or power to dispense the grace of God’s Spirit. Further, any bishop or priest ordained by a simoniac was likewise bereft of the ability to dispense God’s grace. Of Humbert’s radical reforms, Tierney writes, “The acceptance of Humbert’s argument, incidentally, would have rendered suspect the ordinations of half the priests of Europe—a conclusion that the cardinal seems to have envisaged with total equanimity.”[8] If Humber would have had his way, the vast majority of ecclesiastical offices would have been vacant, and few would remain as legitimate ministers of God’s grace. Even so great a harm to the church, however, was in his eyes still better than the even greater harm of simony.

One Peter Damian, also a cardinal and vehemently opposed to simony, was by no means as radical, nor was he as cold as Humbert. Peter’s description of himself in a letter to cardinal-bishop Boniface of Albano speaks volumes about his humility and his willingness to consider human needs as well as doctrine. He styled himself simply, “Peter, monk and sinner.”[9] Peter believed that simony was best addressed if the Church utilized existing structures of authority to keep itself in check; overhaul would not do. The pope was to ensure that only he was responsible for the appointment of those just below him, and so on and so forth from the top down. As regards the temporal powers, they were owed obedience as long as they themselves were obedient to God. “The king is to be revered,” Peter wrote, “as long as he obeys the Creator. On the other hand, when a king resists the divine commands, it is right that his subjects despise him.”[10] Peter sought an order in which neither the temporal nor the sacred powers were vying for supremacy over each other, but were instead both submitting to God.

In the late 1050s, legislation was passed to combat lay investiture and simony. Humbert’s extremism was mostly rejected in favor of more moderate solutions. The reforming party, however, had not yet elected to the papacy its most zealous member. A cardinal during the reign of Leo IX named Hildebrand would be elected to the papacy in 1073. Taking the name Gregory VII, Hildebrand embarked on a campaign of reform that would come to be remembered in his name as the Gregorian reforms. Tierney writes:

This program of Gregory VII has provoked a variety of conflicting judgments from historians. Some condemn the pope as a worldly-minded prelate obsessed by a selfish ambition to dominate Europe. Others praise him as a selfless servant of the church whose life was dedicated to the ideals of religious liberty and ecclesiastical reform… Both views of the pope’s character may contain an element of truth.[11]

In 1075, Gregory officially forbade lay investiture and issued a document called the Dictatus Papae. The document listed the powers unique to the papal office, not least of which was the right to depose emperors. Inherent to Gregory’s reforms was a pitted struggle against the sacred (auctoritas) and temporal powers (potestas). Lay investiture, he believed, was a usurpation by the temporal powers of rights that belonged only to the Church. He cited famous examples of popes, priests and bishops—such as Ambrose of Milan and Pope Gelasius—who enacted penance on rulers, exercising the Church’s rightful supremacy.

Gregory was no Humbert, but he was undoubtedly a radical in his own respect. Indeed, many who knew him must have thought so, for Peter Damian referred to him as “My holy Satan.”[12] Peter was not the only one to be put off by Gregory’s new regime of reform. The German emperors were also rising to a new zenith of power and influence alongside the papacy. In the past the papacy and the emperor had worked together to solve problems, most notably during the partnership of Pope Leo IX and Emperor Henry III. But after the death of the pope in 1054 and that of the emperor in 1056, harmony began to disintegrate.

After his father’s death, Henry IV practiced lay investiture as the German emperors and the majority of the rulers in Europe had always done. When Gregory VII issued his official ban on lay investiture, Henry IV had no intention of complying. A bitter conflict between the emperor and the pope arose, grabbing the attention of the watching world. Gregory sent a letter to Henry, ominously prefaced, “Gregory, bishop, servant of God’s servants, to king Henry, greeting and apostolic benediction—but with the understanding that he obeys the Apostolic See as becomes a Christian king.”[13] The letter was a polite but unyielding demand that Henry submit immediately. Henry replied with a letter that began, “Henry, king not by usurpation, but by the pious ordination of God, to Hildebrand, now not pope, but false monk.”[14] Henry IV rallied any and all loyal to him against the pope, even selecting his own anti-pope whom he intended to install in Gregory’s place. Responding in kind, Gregory excommunicated Henry and wrote to local lords that any who supported him would be likewise excommunicated. Gregory was able to rally more to his cause than Henry, and he began the journey to Germany to depose the emperor. Henry saw very quickly that the odds were by no means in his favor, and rushed to the pope to beg pardon (no doubt, with dubious sincerity of penitence).

Henry met Gregory at the castle of Canossa in January 1077 and stood outside in the snow for three days before Gregory would absolve him. Many of the reforming party viewed this as a compromise on the part of Gregory. Henry, they believed, ought not to have been absolved. Furious with Gregory, many of the German princes rallied against him and joined Henry’s cause. Henry rose up against Gregory a second time and succeeded in imprisoning the pope. Gregory died in captivity and obscurity.

The lay investiture contest was now fully actualized in the collective imagination as a pitted struggle against the sacred and temporal powers. Immediately following this dramatic altercation was, to quote Tierney, “an unprecedented outburst of polemical pamphleteering.”[15] An anonymous writer from York published a pamphlet in advocacy of royalist theocracy, which stated that a king was hardly a member of the laity, but rather the seat of Christ on earth. As such, the tractate announced, the pope had no right to harass him. One Manegold of Lautenbach in 1090-93 reiterated a slightly moderated Gregorian perspective: one ought to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but the Church is a supreme entity above the temporal powers. After all, he argued, the king only held power inasmuch as his people granted it to him.

Yet another solution to the investiture contest was suggested by Ivo of Chartres. Ivo suggested a division between the temporal possession of a bishopric, which was granted by the king, and the spiritual role of the bishop, which could only be granted by ecclesiastical consecration. Hugh of Fleury’s solution was quite similar. He maintained that a king or emperor might in fact be a pious man, chosen to govern by the Holy Spirit. A ruler could invest a bishop with the temporal possession of his lands, but not the spiritual care of his people.

The lay investiture controversy was, as German historian Gerd Tellenbach has proposed, a search for the right order in the right world. Tellenbach highlights three primary points of view at work during the controversy. The first was that of the emperor. The emperor was to protect, Christianize and catechize his subjects. Second was that of the secular clergy. The priests and bishops who lived in the midst of the world were to educate and catechize the people, and to oversee the actions of the local church. The third worldview was that of the monastics, or the regular clergy. Monks formed communities whose essence was prayer, and prayer demanded that one live piously. God, after all, would not hear the prayers of one living in sin. These three worlds had to interact and search for order within themselves, and in relation to each other.[16]

The investiture contest was very much a matter of tradition. The teachings of Holy Scripture, as well as the works of the Church Fathers (the most notable of these in regard to the investiture contest was Augustine’s De Civitate Dei) had to be interpreted in light of the traditions that had emerged by this era. Historian Karl F. Morrison adopted St Vincent of Lerins’ definition of tradition and applied it to the study of the investiture contest.[17] St Vincent proposed that tradition is that which is held by everyone, at all times, everywhere. Pope Gregory VII fashioned for himself, an ecclesiastical ideology of which he, the supreme pontiff, was at the center. The Church was everywhere, it was Apostolic and therefore for all times, and it was also Catholic and therefore comprehending everyone. Gregory became a unilateral authority, the sole source and voice of tradition. As such, he claimed for Rome powers that the Catholic Church had never possessed before.

The changes brought to the Church by the Gregorian reforms, though undoubtedly well intentioned, were most certainly not for the better. The decades following Gregory’s death in captivity and the war of propaganda that ensued thereafter saw no end to the controversy. Not only did Gregory’s conflict with Henry IV do very little to remedy simony, it caused the German emperors after Henry to severely distrust the papacy. Instead of propagating harmony between the sacred and temporal powers as Gregory I had done with Æthelberht of Kent and Leo IX with Henry III, Gregory VII’s attempts at reform merely aggravated the German emperor. The Church of the eleventh century, with Gregory the VII at its helm, sadly ignored Peter Damian’s careful warning against Humbert’s extremism, that simony could only be remedied if the church worked cooperatively with the crown.

No doubt continuing the frustration of his father Henry IV, the Henry V marched on Rome in 1111, “hoping to be crowned as emperor and to achieve a final settlement of the dispute with the papacy.”[18] Paschal II, then pope, proposed an earth-shattering, but simple solution: the German churches were to renounce all temporal holding, lands and otherwise, and donate them to the German crown. The crown, however, was to renounce lay investiture, and never again meddle in the affairs of the Church. Henry said he accepted. It appears, though, that Henry never took this proposal seriously. He captured the pope, who was then forced to return to the German crown the authority to invest bishops. The Church was infuriated by Paschal’s concession. Soon after his release, Paschal revoked his concession, placing the Church and crown back at square one.

A supposed final resolution of the controversy was enacted in 1122 under pope Calixtus II at the Synod of Worms. It was agreed that the German emperors were no longer to invest bishops with the symbols of office (namely, the ring and crozier), and that all bishops were to be canonically elected. The emperor did, however, have the authority to receive pledges of fealty from bishops as holders of land under his protection. This technically granted the emperor some measure of veto power, thus upholding a semblance of imperial authority.

To say that the investiture controversy was neatly resolved by a fair compromise is wide off the mark. No doubt the investiture controversy was eased in 1122, and the Church and crown came to a new agreement about the relative coexistence of their respective spheres. Nonetheless, what the investiture controversy ushered in was an unprecedented enmity between the Church and crown that had not existed to this degree ever before. The dividing line between the sacred powers and the temporal powers was now a canyon, and one that, though functionally bridged, would yawn agape for the rest of history. Gregory’s reforms had put into the Catholic Church’s imagination that the pope could in fact be so powerful. The unadulterated right to depose emperors, and the idea that “the Roman Church has never erred, nor ever, by the witness of Scripture, shall err to all eternity”[19] are frightening innovations of the era. The lay investiture contest ultimately forced the sacred and temporal powers, once married under a banner of relative cooperation, into a bitter divorce in which much time was wasted quarreling over a settlement.



Bede, The Venerable, Ecclesiastical History of the English People (New York: Penguin, 1990).

Cowdrey, H. E. J., The Cluniacs and Gregorian Reform (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970).

Higham, Nicholas J. and Martin, Ryan J., The Anglo-Saxon World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013).

Morrison, Karl F., History as a Visual Art in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).

Ostrogorsky, George, History of the Byzantine State (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969).

Stenton,Sir Frank M., Anglo-Saxon England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1943).

Tellenbach, Gerd, Church, State, and Christian Society at the time of the investiture contest, trans. with introduction by R.F. Bennet (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1940).

Tierney, Brian, The Crisis of Church and State 1050-1300 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988).



[1] George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969), 116.

[2] Nicholas J. Higham and Ryan J. Martin, The Anglo-Saxon World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 237-8.

[3] The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People (New York: Penguin, 1990), I.25-6.

[4] Sir Frank M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1943), 546.

[5] Ibid., 547.

[6] H.E.J. Cowdrey, The Cluniacs and Gregorian Reform (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970).

[7] Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State 1050-1300 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), 33.

[8] Ibid., 34.

[9] Letter of Peter Damian to cardinal-bishop Boniface of Albano, “Against the promotion of courtiers to ecclesiastical dignities”, trans. A.P. Migne, in Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 36.

[10] Peter Damian on “Priesthood and kingship”, in Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 39.

[11] Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 46.

[12] Ibid., 46.

[13] Gregory VII, his letter to Henry IV (trans. E. Emerton), in Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 57.

[14] Henry IV, his letter Gregory VII (trans. T.E. Mommsen and K.F. Morrison) in Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 59.

[15] Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 74.

[16] Gerd Tellenbach, Church, State, and Christian Society at the time of the investiture contest, trans. with introduction by R.F. Bennet (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1940).

[17] Karl F. Morrison, History as a Visual Art in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).

[18] Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 85.

[19] Gregory VII, Dictatus Papae (trans. S.Z. Ehler and J.B. Morrall), in Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 50.