This Day in History: The Synod of Worms starts the Investiture Controversy

On January 24, 1076, King Henry IV of Germany launched one of the most infamous feuds in medieval history by trying to depose a Pope.
The walk of Canossa
The walk of Canossa / Culture Club/GettyImages


The medieval world was controlled by two main forces: the monarch and the church. But what happened when they disagreed? This was the basis of a major conflict with the Catholic Church in 1076, called the Investiture Controversy.

While this struggle was ultimately a way to see who had more power in Europe, it was theoretically based on the question of who should get to appoint church administrators. Kings wanted to be able to appoint their own church leaders for political purposes, while the Pope felt it was his right as the head of the Catholic faith.

This question came to a head when King Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII disagreed on who should be Archbishop of Milan. The resulting feud had lasting impacts on all European power dynamics. In order to understand this event, however, we'll need to take a moment to back up and examine how Europe functioned after the fall of Rome.

The coronation of the emperor Charlemagne
The coronation of the emperor Charlemagne / Leemage/GettyImages

Europe after the end of the Western Roman Empire

The Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, when Emperor Romulus Augustus was removed from power and exiled. Technically, the Roman Empire continued in the east, but the loss of Italy itself led to the creation of individual European monarchies.

This was a much more fragmented system than had existed for a while, and the Catholic Church became a form of stability. Most of the western European countries accepted Christianity as their official faith, and in return, the papacy acknowledged the divine right of the king to rule.

One notable example of this was when Charlemagne, a French king, was named "Roman Emperor" by Pope Leo III. This established a state that historians call the "Holy Roman Empire," which is largely a title granted by the church to honor the country as being similar to the original Roman Empire.

While this was a mutually beneficial system, there were always questions about what was owed to the Church versus the King. The Church would often ally with particular countries based on what money or power they could offer. However, as defined states became more solidified, there were more conflicts, as some monarchs felt they could thrive without the Church.

This sets the scene as we transition from late antiquity, or the Early Middle Ages, to the High Middle Ages. No longer desperate for the stability of Rome after 500 years, political leaders were more willing to test their powers. One way this happened was through appointing bishops and abbots, who the Church usually accepted without question.

Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor.
Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor. / Print Collector/GettyImages

What started the Investiture Controversy?

By the 1000s, the Holy Roman Empire was more centrally located in Europe, roughly where modern-day Germany is. It was a major power in Europe at the time, and the Emperors frequently tried to appoint a Pope that would be favorable to their plans.

King Henry IV of Germany was trying to gain control over his country. He had become King at age 5 after his father's death, and by the time he was old enough to rule, his kingdom was weak. One of the ways he gained enough money to reclaim land was by appointing the younger children of wealthy families to the church.

In 1070, Henry appointed Gotofredo da Castiglione as the Archbishop of Milan. The Pope excommunicated Gotofredo. Henry then tried to make Charles of Magdebur the Bishop of Constance. Luckily for Henry, Pope Alexander II died before he could investigate too deeply. Unluckily, his successor was even more fiercely opposed to this practice.

Enter Pope Gregory VII, who became Pope in 1073 and swiftly began reforming the church. One of his major beliefs was that the Church was above all political states, and thus it had final authority over who was appointed bishop and where they would practice. This ran counter to the common practice of simony, where someone could essentially pay the King to become a church leader.

While Henry maintained a cordial relationship with the Church when he was struggling to control his country, he continued to cause trouble once he felt more secure in his position. Yet again, he appointed an Archbishop of Milan.

Gregory wrote to King Henry IV of Germany, informing him that he was harming the church by appointing bishops for political or financial reasons, rather than spiritual ones. Henry was to change his ways, and if he did not, Gregory threatened that "you should consider how dangerous it is to place your honor above His."

Pope Gregory claimed he had the right to depose a king. King Henry felt he had the right to remove a Pope. And that was exactly what they tried to do.

Saint Gregory VII Pope
Saint Gregory VII Pope / Fototeca Storica Nazionale./GettyImages

What was the Synod of Worms?

In response to Pope Gregory's threats, Henry decided to make a bold move of his own. On January 24, 1076, Henry gathered religious leaders together at the Synod of Worms to contest Pope Gregory's election.

The gathered bishops and religious leaders wrote "Renunciation of Gregory VII," where they explained why they felt Gregory was no longer Pope. The document included three major arguments:

  • Pope Gregory had sworn an oath not to become Pope (which was now broken)
  • Pope Gregory was declared Pope by acclamation, not election, which is invalid
  • Pope Gregory had proven to be opposed to Christian beliefs by claiming to remove a king or emperor, when they were appointed by God.

In addition to these legal arguments, the Synod generally claimed that Gregory was evil, acted against the church, and was likely having an affair with a married woman. The formal document ended up being incredibly inflammatory, likely in the hopes of gaining support from the other European powers.

"Since your accession was tainted by such great perjuries, since the Church of God is imperiled by so great a tempest arising from abuse born of your innovations, and since you have degraded your life and conduct by such multifarious infamy, we declare that in the future we shall observe no longer the obedience which we have not promised to you. And since none of us, as you have publicly declared, has hitherto been a bishop to you, you also will now be pope to none of us."

Renunciation of Gregory VII

Gregory was informed of the Synod's decision by a letter from Henry, in which he cited scripture to claim that Gregory's actions were not based on the words of Jesus or Peter, who was seen as the founder of the Catholic Church. Fundamentally, though, Henry felt that kings had more divine authority to rule than Popes did, as they were elected by men.

"Our Lord Jesus Christ has called us to the government of the Empire, but He never called you to the rule of the Church."

King Henry IV

In response, Pope Gregory excommunicated Henry. This effectively cut him off from any allies who claimed to be Christians, upon threat of excommunication themselves. In addition, Pope Gregory claimed that, without God's support, Henry was no longer a valid king.

"I now declare in the name of the omnipotent God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that Henry, son of the Emperor Henry, is deprived of his kingdom of Germany and Italy.
He has cut himself off from thy Church, and has attempted to rend it asunder; therefore, by thy authority, I place him under the curse."

Pope Gregory VII

The two leaders effectively played a game of political chicken. The only question was: which would balk first?

Henry IV Doing Penance at Canossa, 1882
Henry IV Doing Penance at Canossa, 1882 / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Who ended up winning?

In the end, Pope Gregory won and Henry became a cautionary tale. A series of political rivals used the excommunication as an excuse to siege the German territories, and Henry quickly learned that he was not as powerful as he thought he was. As an outcast from the Church, he had extremely limited support.

To get back in the Church's favor, Henry had to travel to Canossa to apologize and perform penance. He stood outside the castle for three days, barefoot in the snow, to demonstrate his sincere repentance. Whether or not he believed him, Gregory was forced to acknowledge the performance by lifting the excommunication.

"And there, having laid aside all the belongings of royalty, wretchedly, with bare feet and clad in wool, he continued for three days to stand before the gate of the castle. Nor did he desist from imploring with many tears, the aid and consolation of the apostolic mercy until he had moved all of those who were present there, and whom the report of it reached, to such pity and depth of compassion that, interceding for him with many prayers and tears, all wondered indeed at the unaccustomed hardness of our heart, while some actually cried out that we were exercising, not the dignity of apostolic severity, but the cruelty, as it were, of a tyrannical madness."

The Penance of Henry IV At Canossa

While similar conflicts would continue over the next century, this moment set the precedent that, when a Pope and a King went to war, the Pope was the one with the ultimate authority. This remained a threat over monarchs' heads until King Henry VIII of England broke from the Catholic Church and managed to keep his country.

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