Church and State: Allies or Opponents?

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Church and State: Allies or Opponents?


Feudal Overlords. During the Middle Ages, the Church fought to establish and maintain its autonomy, while secular rulers wanted to treat Church officials in the same way as members of the nobility. Since the Church had substantial holdings in western Europe, the income from them was a considerable fortune for whomever had control over them. Nobles held their lands and titles at the pleasure of the king, who could take both away if a liege lord displeased him. Thus, kings maintained that they, not the Church, should be able to appoint bishops and abbots and to determine what land should be allotted to them.

The Role of the Holy Roman Empire. By the ninth century the Holy Roman emperors had established themselves as the “protectors” of the Church, a role that gave them extraordinary power over both the bishops of the empire and the papacy itself. In 1046, in fact, Emperor Henry III (reigned 1039–1056) had resolved a dispute over papal succession by deposing three rival claimants and placing his own choice, Clement III, on the papal throne. Later in the century, however, Pope Leo IX (reigned 1049–1054) began a campaign to establish papal autonomy, and in 1059 Pope Nicholas II (reigned 1059–1061) asserted the right of the pope, not the emperor, to elect cardinals.

The Investiture Controversy. When the great church reformer Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII in 1073, he began a crusade to free the Church from secular control, but he underestimated the power of the emperor and the German bishops he controlled. His prohibition of simony (the buying and selling of Church offices) and clerical marriages in 1074 had already angered German bishops and priests when Gregory decreed at the Lenten Synod of 1075 that no lay person should henceforth have the right of ecclesiastical investiture (conferring a Church office). When Emperor Henry IV (reigned 1056–1106) ignored Gregory’s order and continued to appoint German and Italian bishops, Gregory threatened him with excommunication and the loss of his throne in December 1075. Instead of backing down, Henry staged a show of strength. In January 1076 twenty-six bishops gathered at the Diet of Worms in Germany and deposed Gregory from the papacy on the grounds of supposed irregularities in his election. Gregory then excommunicated Henry and freed his subjects from their oath of allegiance to him, effectively deposing him as emperor. By October support for Henry had eroded, and the princes of the empire gave him an ultimatum: apologize to the Pope or lose the crown.

Henry’s Penance. In January 1077 Henry surprised everyone by arriving at the Castle of Canossa, where Gregory was staying, and standing for three days in the snow barefoot and dressed in penitential garb. (Despite romanticized depictions of this event, the idea that he stood shoeless in the snow for three days is an exaggeration.) Impressed by Henry’s humbling himself, Gregory lifted his excommunication. Henry, however, had made no concessions on the investiture issue and the battle of wills continued.

The Antipope. Gregory’s German supporters decided to ignore the so-called reconciliation between emperor and Pope, and in March 1077 they elected a new emperor, Rudolf of Rheinland, sparking a civil war. In 1080 Henry told Gregory that unless he excommunicated Rudolf, Henry would depose him and replace him with an antipope. Gregory responded by excommunicatedRudolf,TogetherLanfranc and deposing Henry for a second time and repeating his ban on lay investiture. Many of the Pope’s supporters, however, felt this excommunication was unjustified, and the balance of power shifted decisively in Henry’s favor. At the Synod of Brixen in June 1080, the bishops who supported Henry deposed and excommunicated Gregory, as well as electing Guilbert, Archbishop of Ravenna, Pope Clement III. After Rudolf was slain in battle the following October, Henry was free to follow through on his threat to install an anti-pope in Rome. Beginning in 1081 he attacked Rome four times, finally taking control of the city in 1084 and making Clement pope. Gregory fled the city and died in exile the following year. Gregory’s supporters rallied and managed to elect a new Pope, Victor III (reigned 1086–1087), who was too weak to force a resolution to the investiture controversy between the empire and the papacy.

The Conflict in England. At roughly the same time as Gregory was trying to impose his will on Henry, similar issues were causing contention in England. After William I (the Conqueror) invaded England in 1066, he set out to take charge of the English Church and lessen the influence of the Pope among his subjects. In 1070 William appointed one of his trusted advisers, the Italian prelate Lanfranc, to the powerful post of archbishop of Canterbury and proclaimed that he owned no fealty to the Pope. When Gregory objected, William decreed that England would recognize no pope without the king’s consent and that no English noble or royal official could be excommunicated. Together Lanfranc and William instituted major reforms in the English Church, but they incurred the displeasure of Rome by doing so without direction or sanction from the Pope. After Lanfranc died in 1089, the Conqueror’s son, William II (Rufus), did not appoint a successor for several years, during which he appropriated the revenues of archbishopric lands for crown use. In 1093 he named Anselm of Bee, in Normandy, archbishop of Canterbury, expecting that Anselm, like his fellow Norman, Lanfranc, would support the crown in opposition to the Pope. Anselm, however, did homage to William for the temporal aspects of the office but insisted on investiture from Pope Urban II (reigned 1088–1099). He also demanded that William recognize Urban as rightful Pope against the antipope Clement III. William reluctantly agreed, and over the next few years relations between the king and archbishop worsened until 1097, when Anselm went into exile in France. He

returned to England when Henry I took the throne in 1100 but fled into exile almost immediately after Henry insisted that he, not the Pope, should invest Anselm as archbishop. The dispute was settled at the Synod of Westminster in 1107, when Henry gave up the right of investiture in return for the right to supervise the election of the archbishop and to receive homage for the secular aspects of the office before the investiture could take place.

The Conflict in France. In France Philip I (reigned 1059–1108) openly sold Church offices and invested bishops and abbots, but Urban II gained an advantage in France, and his successor Paschal II (reigned 1099–1118) was able to bring about a resolution. In 1094, after Philip repudiated his first wife and married the wife of a vassal, Urban excommunicated Philip. When Philip’s son, who became King Louis VI in 1108, took over the administration of the kingdom in 1104, he and Paschal negotiated a reconciliation that included an agreement that French kings would no longer appoint or invest bishops and abbots but would have the right to ratify their appointments and to exact an oath of temporal fealty from them.

The Empire Strikes Back. Despite its successes in France and England, the papacy remained at odds with the Holy Roman Empire. Under Urban, the Church gradually eroded support for the antipope, and when Clement died in 1100 Henry IV seemed ready to recognize Urban’s successor, Paschal II. When Henry refused once again to renounce the right of investiture, however, Paschal renewed his excommunication—and when the emperor’s successor to the throne of Germany, Henry V (reigned 1106–1125), continued to assert the right of investiture, Paschal excommunicated him in 1108. Three years later, as Henry led a strong army toward Rome, Paschal offered a compromise in which the German clergy would give up all their lands and privileges to the crown if Henry would renounce investiture. Henry agreed at first, but after a storm of protest from the German prices, he insisted that Paschal not only restore his right of investiture but also crown him Holy Roman Emperor. When Paschal refused, Henry kidnapped and imprisoned him and thirteen cardinals. After two months of imprisonment, Paschal agreed to Henry’s demands. The following year, however, he renewed the ban on lay investiture, leading to more conflict and excommunication. In 1119 Henry even tried appointing another antipope but had less success than his father garnering the bishops’ support. Finally in 1122 Henry and Pope Calistus (reigned 1119–1124) agreed to the Concordat of Worms, which was modeled on the agreement reached between the Pope and Henry I of England at the Synod of Westminster in 1107.

Henry II and Thomas Becket. The resolution of the investiture controversy did not end all conflict between the Church and secular rulers. Kings continued to involve themselves in ecclesiastical affairs and tried in other ways to exert control over Church property and officials. The best-known medieval example of such attempts is probably the quarrel that arose between Henry II of England (reigned 1154–1189) and his one-time friend Thomas Becket. In 1162 Henry was able to have Becket, who had served the king ably and loyally as chancellor since 1155, elected archbishop of Canterbury. Henry hoped that he and Becket would run the English Church as William I and Lanfranc had done in their day, but once Becket became archbishop, he placed loyalty to the Pope over loyalty to his king in regard to the rights of the Church while acknowledging the king’s sovereignty in temporal matters.

The “Criminous Clerks” Issue. The tension between the two friends reached crisis point in 1163, when Henry sought to redress the unequal punishment of clerics who broke civil laws. In western Europe these “criminous clerks” were by tradition tried in Church, rather than secular, courts and were generally given punishments far less severe than laymen were given for similar crimes. He demanded that once a cleric was found guilty in a Church court, he should be sent to a royal court for sentencing. Becket took the position of the papacy, which asserted that only the Church had the right to try and punish clerks in major orders. The following January Henry included his position in the Constitutions of Clarendon, which also banned the excommunication of royal officials, forbade clerics from appealing to the Pope without the king’s permission, and gave the king the right to revenues from vacant sees—all provisions that were contrary to Church law. Becket verbally agreed to the constitutions but later revoked it and appealed to Pope Alexander III (reigned 1159–1181).

Exile and Return. Henry responded by summoning Becket to trial on the charge that he had misused royal funds while chancellor, and the archbishop fled to France. After six years of exile, Becket and Henry were reconciled without resolving any of the issues that had divided them. Once back in England, Becket continued to anger Henry by taking the side of the Church and suspending bishops


Accounts of Becket’s death circulated throughout Europe soon after his murder in 1170. Writing a generation later, clergyman-historian William of New-burgh offered a more balanced treatment of Becket and Henry II than any of their contemporaries.

The bishops… being suspended, at the insistence of the venerable Thomas, from all episcopal functions, by the authority if the apostolic see, the king was exasperated by the complaints of some of them, and grew angry and indignant beyond measure, and losing the mastery of himself, in the heat of his exuberant passion, from the abundance of his perturbed spirit, poured forth the language of indiscretion. On which, four of the bystanders, men of noble race and renowned in arms, wrought themselves up to the commission of iniquity through zeal for their earthly master; and leaving the royal presence, and crossing the sea, with as much haste as if posting to a solemn banquet, and urged on by the fury they had imbibed, they arrived at Canterbury on the fifth day after Christmas, where they found the venerable archbishop occupied in the celebration of that holy festival with religious joy. Proceeding to him just as he had dined, and was sitting with certain honourable personages, omitting even to salute him, and holding forth the terror of the king’s name, they commanded (rather than asked, or admonished him) forthwith to remit the suspension of the prelates who had obeyed the king’s pleasure, to whose contempt and disgrace this act redounded. On his replying that the sentence of a higher power was not to be abrogated by an inferior one, and that it was not his concern to pardon persons suspended not by himself, but by the Roman pontiff, they had recourse to violent threats. Undismayed at these words, though uttered by men raging and extremely exasperated, he spoke with singular freedom and confidence. In consequence, becoming more enraged than before, they hastily retired, and bringing their arms, (for they had entered without them,) they prepared themselves, with loud clamour and indignation, for the commission of a most atrocious crime. The venerable prelate was persuaded by his friends to avoid the madness of these furious savages, by retiring into the holy church. When, from his determination to brave every danger, he did not acquiesce, on the forcible and tumultuous approach of his enemies, he was at length dragged by the friendly violence of his associates to the protection of the holy church. The monks were solemnly chanting vespers to Almighty God, as he entered the sacred temple of Christ, shortly to become an evening sacrifice. The servants of Satan pursued, having neither respect as Christians to his holy order, nor to the sacred place, or season; but attacking the dignified prelate as he stood in prayer before the holy altar, even during the festival of Christmas, these truly nefarious Christians most inhumanly murdered him. Having done the deed, and retiring as if triumphant, they departed with unhallowed joy. Recollecting, however, that perhaps the transaction might displease the person in whose behalf they had been so zealous, they retired to the northern parts of England, waiting until they could fully discover the disposition of their monarch towards them.

Source: William of Newburgh, History, Book II (circa 1200), quoted in The Church Historians of England, volume 4, part 2, translated by Joseph Stevenson (London: Seeley, 1856), pp. 478–481.

who disagreed with him. Finally, Henry made an angry statement that was misconstrued by four knights. Thinking to please the king, they murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170.

Sainthood and Resolution. Almost immediately, people began making pilgrimages to Becket’s grave, and Alexander III canonized him in 1173. To make amends with the Pope, Henry accepted a compromise that allowed royal courts to try clerics on violations of forestry laws and gave Church courts jurisdiction over all their other crimes, but he did not back down on any of the other provisions of the Constitutions of Clarendon. Finally, after he did penance at Canterbury and allowed the monks there to scourge him, Henry received absolution. While medieval Christians tended to consider Thomas a martyr and Henry the villain, some modern historians have praised Henry’s attempts at reforming the English legal system and accused Becket of fanaticism.


Uta-Renate Blumenthal, The Investiture Controversy: Church and Monarchy from the Ninth to the Twelfth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988).

David Knowles, Thomas Becket (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971).

Colin Morris, The Papal Monarchy: The Western Church from 1050 to 1250 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

Ian S. Robinson, The Papacy, 1073–1198: Continuity and Innovation (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Jane E. Sayers, Innocent III: Leader of Europe, 1198–1216 (London &New York: Longman, 1994).

Walter Ullmann, A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages (London: Methuen, 1972).

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Church and State: Allies or Opponents?

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