The struggle originated in 1046, when the emperor Henry III found three rival popes simultaneously in office while mobs of their supporters rioted in the streets of Rome. He deposed all three. After two successive German appointees had died—perhaps by poison—Henry named a third German, Bishop Bruno of Toul, who became pope as Leo IX (r. 1049-1054). Leo was committed to the Cluniac program of monastic reform; the whole church hierarchy, he insisted, must be purged of secular influences, and over it all the pope must reign supreme.
The emperor Henry III had thus put into power reformers whose chief target would be his own imperial system of government in Germany. Leo began to appoint cardinals, who now served as key advisers and administrators instead of merely ornamental dignitaries. By 1059 the papacy had given these cardinals the power to elect new popes, depriving the German emperors of that role. And the Normans of southern Italy promised to give the cardinals military backing, so that they could do their job without fear of German intervention.
In 1073 the Italian monk Hildebrand became pope as Gregory VII (r. to 1085). He was determined to push ecclesiastical reform by ensuring the canonical (legal) election of all bishops and abbots. This would mean sweeping away the system of royal selection and appointment and its subsequent ceremony of lay investiture—that is, the conferring of the prelate’s insignia of office by a layman, the emperor. Yet the German royal administration largely depended on this royal appointment of prelates, which involved not only lay investiture but the granting of royal estates to bishops.
Gregory declared that the pope was subject to no human judgment; that the Roman church had never erred and never could err; that the pope alone could make new laws, create new bishoprics, depose bishops, and change his own mind; that all temporal princes should kiss his feet; that the imperial insignia were his alone to use; that he could absolve the subjects of a temporal prince from their allegiance and could depose emperors. By the merits of St. Peter, he declared, all popes were saints. Such claims were a new interpretation of Pope Gelasius’s words of six centuries earlier.
In 1075 Gregory forbade lay investiture. Henry IV’s bishops responded in 1076 by declaring Gregory deposed. Gregory then excommunicated Henry as a usurper, declared him deposed, absolved his subjects of loyalty to him, and deprived the bishops of their offices. The Saxon nobles, opponents of Henry, thereupon joined forces with the pope and made Henry promise to clear himself of the excommunication within four months, on pain of the loss of his crown; they also invited the pope to Germany.
To prevent this unwelcome visit, Henry secretly went to Italy in January of 1077 and appeared before the castle of Canossa, where Gregory was temporarily staying. Henry declared himself a penitent; Gregory kept him waiting outside the castle for three days, barefoot and in sackcloth. When he was finally admitted, Henry did penance and Gregory absolved him.
The drama and symbolism of this famous episode have often led historians to marvel at the power of the pope. But it struck contemporaries the other way. By allowing himself to be publicly humiliated, Henry had forced Gregory’s hand; the pope had been compelled to absolve him, and while in a state of being forgiven he could not be deposed.
Before Henry returned home, his German opponents had elected a new ruler, an “anti-king,” Rudolf of Swabia. By refraining for three years from making a decision between the rival kings, Gregory VII did what he could deliberately to prolong the resulting civil war. When he did decide, it was against Henry, whom he deposed and excommunicated once more. But the pope’s efforts failed; Rudolf was killed in battle, and a new anti-king commanded even less support.
The German clergy again declared the pope deposed, and Henry marched to Italy, took Rome in 1084 after three years of bitter siege, and installed an “anti-pope,” who proceeded to crown him emperor. Gregory’s Norman vassals and allies did not arrive until after Henry had returned to Germany. They looted Rome and took Gregory with them to southern Italy, where he died.
No settlement of the Investiture Controversy could be reached until 1122. In the Concordat of Worms, Henry V (1106-1125) renounced the practice of investing bishops with the clerical symbols of ring and staff. The pope permitted the emperor to continue investing bishops with the regalia (symbols of the worldly goods pertaining to the bishop’s office). The investiture could take place before the bishop was consecrated, assuring the emperor of a previous oath of fealty from the bishop.
Moreover, clerical elections in Germany were to be carried out in the presence of the emperor or his representatives, giving him an opportunity to exercise a strong influence over the decisions. In Italy and Burgundy the emperor retained less power; consecration was to take place before the regalia were conferred, and the emperor could not attend clerical elections.
But by 1122 Germany had become feudalized. During the years between 1076 and 1106 the princes and other nobles acted on the pretext that there was no king, since the pope had deposed him. They extended their powers and administered their lands without reference to the monarchy. Castles multiplied and became centers of administrative districts, laying the foundations for territorial principalities; free peasants fell into serfdom; the weakness of central authority drove lesser nobles to become dependent on greater nobles.
In Italy the Investiture Controversy had seen the further rise of the Norman kingdom of the south. The struggle had also been responsible for the growth of communes in the cities of the north. These communes had begun as sworn associations of lesser nobles who banded together to resist the power of the local bishops. In Lombardy, where they were favored by Gregory VII, the communes took advantage of his support to usurp the powers of municipal government. In Tuscany, where the ruling house was pro-papal, the communes allied themselves with the emperor, who granted them their liberties by charter. Thus, in Germany the Crown faced a newly entrenched aristocracy; in Italy it faced a new society of powerful urban communes.
The German nobles now controlled the election of the emperor. In 1138 they chose Conrad of Hohenstaufen, a Swabian prince, who became Emperor Conrad III (r. 1138-1152). In so doing, they passed over another claimant, Henry the Proud, duke of Bavaria and Saxony and marquis of Tuscany in Italy, a member of the powerful WeIf family. Because of their ancestral estate, the Hohenstaufens were often known as Waiblings; in Italian, Waibling became Ghibelline and Welf became Guelf.
Thus in the first half of the twelfth century, the Guelf Ghibelline (or Welf-Waibling) feud—one of the most famous, lasting, and portentous in history—began. Henry the Proud, the Welf leader, refused homage to Conrad III; Conrad in turn deprived Henry of Saxony and Bavaria. Once more feudal warfare raged in Germany.