[Gregory VII, 11th century manuscript, source: Wikimedia Commons]
The biggest and best known incident related to this reform was the Investiture Conflict. Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, claimed the right to influence the election of bishops and invest them with their regalia. Gregory felt the entire process should be in the hands of the Church. The conflict dragged on for years. Gregory excommunicated Henry on two separate occasions and eventually supported a rival claimant to the throne. Henry, meanwhile, declared Gregory an unfit Pope, installed an Antipope, and invaded Rome in 1081. Gregory died in exile four years later.
Gregory’s opposition to lay investiture stemmed from in part from the fact that he considered it to be simony, the buying of Church offices, a grave sin, one of the two main issues he focused on. A great part of his reform had to do with what powers the Pope alone should have and what should be reserved to the Church rather than being in the hands of lay people.
In order to make much of that happen, however, the Church had to be worthy of this power. It had to reform itself as well. Simony was not the only problem Gregory and his supporters saw. Clerical marriage meant that local priests were not only polluted by sexuality but could also be influenced by women more readily than by their own superiors.** Nuns were moving about with too much freedom and having far too much contact with men for women sworn to virginity. Not all of Gregory’s reforms would take hold in the way he wanted. Many opposed him. Even so, when popular culture looks back and sees the powerful Church of the Middle Ages, it is often his Church we see.
*I really want to throw my hands dramatically in the air and quote Cicero here. The attitude is the same, even if the ideals don’t match up.
**And any property they had would go to their children rather than back to the Church.
Barber, Malcolm. The Two Cities: Medieval Europe 1050-1320. London: Routledge, 1993.
Cook, William R. and Ronald B. Herzman. The Medieval Worldview: an Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Stephenson, Carl and Bryce Lyon. Mediaeval History: Europe from the Second to the Sixteenth Century. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.