Barbarossa: German King and Roman Emperor

Barbarossa, Heinrich VI and Friedrich II, the last of the Hohenstauffens

On March 4, 1152, Friedrich 1 was crowned German king. He was a tall, strong man of majestic appearance with a thick red beard. People would call him Rotbart or Barbarossa. There was great joy because it was hoped that he would end the internal strife of the kingdom since he had the blood of rival dynasties as the son of the Friedrich II, the Hohenstaufen Duke of Swabia, and Judith, daughter of Heinrich IX, the Welfen Duke of Bavaria. Their hopes were not misplaced.

With Charlemagne as his ideal of a German emperor, Friedrich was determined to expand his supremacy to its utmost limits. In this context, Barbarossa sought to make the power of the crown as independent as possible by vigorously furthering the interests of his ancestral house. To accomplish this, he hired managers and ministeriales, who were also warriors.

The negotiations between the king and the pope had revealed a radical difference between the policies of the Church and the State. The king, although a deeply religious man, was convinced that while the secular and ecclesiastical powers should cooperate with each other, the pope should respect him as the imperial lord. This led to constant conflict between Barbarossa and Rome.

Lombardy, a province in Northern Italy, was at that time part of the German Empire, and in 1158, its main city of Milan revolted, bringing down upon themselves an army of 100,000 German soldiers led by Barbarossa. After a long siege, the city surrendered, only to rebel and be defeated again. This resulted in Milan and the other Lombard cities of Verona, Vicenza and Padua forming the Lombard League. They were soon joined by Venice, Constantinople, and Sicily. Barbarossa requested help from various German dukes to defeat them and all but his cousin Heinrich the Lion, Duke of Saxony responded favorably. The Lombards completely defeated Barbarossa’s army, and he was forced to grant freedom to Lombardy. The other dukes charged Heinrich the Lion with treason and then summoned him to a meeting of the nobles to which he refused to appear, and in his absence the dukes declared him guilty and took away all he possessed except the lands he had inherited.

These internal troubles prevented the Emperor’s success with the League and a deadly fever had decimated his army as well. Conditions had also changed in Italy, and the Pope went from being an opponent of the Normans to being their ally and asserting of the power of the pope over emperors. Barbarossa’s repeated attempts to overthrow the League and the Pope failed, and this left him willing to negotiate for peace, the most important result of which was the treaty of Venice, 1177 when the Emperor had to confess the defeat of the imperial pretensions.

However, with the Treaty of Constance in 1183 between the Emperor and the Lombards, the pope was deprived of his important allies, the combined cities of Northern Italy. When Barbarossa’s son Heinrich married Constance, the Norman princess of Sicily, the papacy was suddenly threatened by both the north and the south. The coronation of Barbarossa’s son Heinrich as King of Italy in 1186 led to an open rupture. With the aid of most German bishops, Barbarossa evaded threatening peril.

Barbarossa now devoted himself to uniting Germany and keeping peace among the nobles in the different provinces. He used various unusual means to accomplish his goal, and in one instance he forced two constantly quarreling nobles to walk the breadth of the land with dogs upon their shoulders. His methods worked, and his reign was at peace for many years, enabling it to prosper. Barbarossa gained the love and respect of his people. On his eastern frontier, he successfully Germanized and Christianized the local tribes, and he also maintained amicable relations with Poland, Denmark and Hungary.

In 1187, the Pope proclaimed another Crusade after the Moslems under Saladin had recaptured Jerusalem from the Christians. Barbarossa immediately raised 150,000 Crusaders and left for Palestine, passing through Asia Minor where they attacked and defeated the Moslem forces in two great battles. The aging Barbarossa was said to have drowned here in a freak accident, and his body was recovered and buried at Antioch (some accounts say that he died on the way back from Turkey from a fever). The grief-struck German Crusaders, his son among them, in large part returned to Germany, where the news of Barbarossa’s death caused anguished grief across Germany.

Sons of Barbarossa

Heinrich VI (1165 – 1197) was king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor from 1190-1197. He was the son of the emperor Barbarossa and Beatrix of Burgundy, and at four years old was crowned King of the Romans at Bamberg in June 1169. After receiving the Empire from his father, he engaged in a Crusade from 1189 to 1190. He wed Constance of Sicily 1186. After the death of her father William II of Sicily in 1189, Heinrich added the Sicilian crown to his own.

In Rome in 1191, Heinrich and Constance were crowned Emperor and Empress by Pope Celestine III, but the barons of southern Italy chose Tancred, a local relative of the Norman ruling family, as their king. Heinrich besieged Naples, but he had to quit after his army was devastated by a plague and his wife was taken prisoner and brought to Tancred. Moreover, Heinrich the Lion had revolted again, forcing him to return to Northern Germany. However, a lucky thing happened: Leopold, the duke of Austria, had taken King Richard I of England as prisoner, and Heinrich managed to receive a large English ransom for him.With this money he raised a powerful army.

In the following April, he solved the problem with Heinrich the Lion. Then Tancred died, and Heinrich had Tancred’s young heir blinded and castrated and many Sicilian nobles burned alive.

He was crowned king, and since Sicily added money without comparison in Europe, he became the most powerful monarch both Europe and the Mediterranean. In 1194, he had a son Friedrich, the future emperor and king of Sicily and Jerusalem. In 1197, a revolt took place, mainly in southern Sicily where Arabs were the majority of the population, and his soldiers suppressed it mercilessly. In the same year, Heinrich felt ready for a Crusade, but on September 28, he died of malaria in Messina. Heinrich was intelligent, eloquent, fluent in Latin and quite knowledgeable as to Roman law. He was a patron of prophets and poetry, and probably composed the song “Kaiser Heinrich.” The poem below is a song of Heinrich’s about a lady and her love, “Rîtest du nu hinnen”

“Now fare you well and ride,
closest of all men,
chosen one that I so
desire most again.

I’ll die with longing for you every day:
not even God can pay me back,
in all the world, for what I’ll lack,”
said she, “while you’re away.”

“It was your fortune, good friend,
that we lay face to face:
I touch you in my mind
and still feel your embrace.

I want you to feel the thoughts I hold,
since you are what is best in them,
as the setting of a noble gem
adorns a work of gold.”

His son, Emperor Friedrich II, the last of the Hohenstauffens, was regarded not only as one of the most fascinating ruler personalities of the Middle Ages, but also as a scientist. After observations of birds for many decades, he wrote an extremely detailed text book about the falcon hunt under the title “De venandi cum avibus” (“The Art of Hunting with Birds”). The scientific accuracy and information of the text are enriched by the glorious illustrations.

Called stupor mundi, and the “astonishment of the world,” Friedrich II, Holy Roman Emperor, was born on December 26, 1194. His 40-year-old mother was said to have given birth in a marketplace. Unlike most Holy Roman emperors, Friedrich spent little of his life in Germany. His mother was the daughter of Roger II of Sicily, and he was raised and lived most of his life in Sicily. After his father died at age 31, Friedrich came under the guardianship of the pope, who neglected him. In Palermo, he grew up like a street urchin. When he was 14 years old, Pope Innocent III arranged his marriage to Constance, the 25 years old daughter of the king of Aragon.

Later, the Pope supported Friedrich as a legitimate king to act as a balance to disfavored Emperor Otto, and in 1212, Friedrich was brought to Rome and given a papal indoctrination. Soon, Friedrich made a voyage and with the pope’s blessing conquered Otto’s empire without spilling a drop of blood. Friedrich was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome by Honorius III on November 22, 1220, while his oldest son, another Heinrich, simultaneously took the title of King of the Romans.

Friedrich remained emperor and King of Sicily until his death in 1250. He was excommunicated twice, and even called the anti-Christ by Pope Gregory IX, as his empire was frequently at odds with the Papal States. In 1224, Friedrich II confirmed the inhabitants of Terra Prussia, Prussian Lands, as Reichsfreie: under authority of the emperor, accountable only to the empire and the church and exempted from service to or jurisdiction of any local dukes. Later in 1224, the pope authorized bishop William of Modena as Legate in Prussia. In 1226, by means of the Golden Bull of Rimini, he confirmed the legitimacy of rule by the Teutonic Knights under their headmaster Hermann von Salza over the Prussian lands east of the Vistula.

Known for his unusual tolerance, Friedrich did not exterminate the Saracens of Sicily, but allowed them to settle and build mosques and even serve in his army as his bodyguards. He had a genuine thirst for knowledge and it is believed that he knew Arabic very well. Because of his lifelong interest in Islam, as well as his religious scepticism (he is said to have denounced Moses and Jesus as being frauds and deceivers of mankind), some saw him as a dissenter from Christendom.

Emperor Friedrich II loved falconry and maintained up to fifty hawkers at a time in his court, and requested Arctic gyrfalcons from Lübeck and even Greenland. He commissioned his Syrian astrologer Theodor to translate the Arabic treatise “De arte venandi cum avibus” and he corrected and rewrote it himself. One of the two existing versions was modified by his son Manfred, also a keen falconer.

Friedrich also maintained a mobile zoo which included hounds, elephants, giraffes, cheetahs, lynxes, leopards and exotic birds. In 1232, he sent the Egyptian sultan a rare white bear in exchange for a planetary worth 20,000 marks as Friedrich was also attracted by stars and had filled his court with astrologers and astronomers. He communicated with major scholars of the time both in Europe and abroad, and he enacted several legal reforms.

Friedrich died peacefully on December 13, 1250 in Puglia. At the time of his death, his preeminent position in Europe was challenged but not lost: his testament left his legitimate son Conrad IV the Imperial and Sicilian crowns. Son Manfred received the principate of Taranto and the government of the Kingdom, son Heinrich got the Kingdom of Arles and that of Jerusalem, and his grandson was entrusted the Duchy of Austria and the Marquisate of Styria. His will was that all the lands he had taken from the Church were to be returned to it, all the prisoners freed, and the taxes reduced.

Sadly, all of Friedrich’s heirs met unlucky fates. Friedrich’s son from his first wife Constance of Aragon was born in 1211 in Sicily. After quarrelling with his father and forming an alliance with the Lombard League, he was captured by Friedrich’s forces and imprisoned from 1236 until he died in Martirano in 1242 after an attempted suicide. Friedrich’s son Conrad IV, born of his second wife Yolande de Brienne in 1228 became King of Jerusalem at birth, and in 1237 was elected German king and future emperor in Vienna. In 1250, he succeeded his father as King of Sicily as well, but died May 21, 1254 of malaria in an army camp in Lavello.

Friedrich’s illegitimate son Manfred, King of Sicily, was born in 1231 to Bianca, the daughter of Count Bonifacio Lancia. Manfred initially acted as regent for Conrad’s son Conradin and as King of Sicily after 1258, but after Friedrich’s continuing conflicts with the Pope, he was placed under papal interdict. Manfred died February 26, 1266 in battle near Benevento against Charles of Anjou, brother to the French King. His wife Helena, and also their sons Friedrich and Heinrich died in prison after lifelong solitary confinement where they were “raised like animals, never even learning human speech.” In 1249, son Enzio held the titles of King of Sardinia and Imperial vicar in Northern Italy before life in prison in Bologna. He died in 1272.

The last legitimate male heir of the Hohenstaufen dynasty was Friedrich’s grandson Conradin, son of Conrad IV. Born March 25, 1252 at Burg Wolfstein near Landshut, he held the titles of Duke of Swabia, King of Jerusalem and Sicily. He invaded Italy in 1268 to reclaim his Kingdom from Charles of Anjou, but lost and was captured at the Battle of Tagliacozzo and publicly executed in Naples at age 16 on October 29, 1268.

In 1284, Friedrich’s ghost resurfaced in the form of a very convincing impostor, Tile Kolup, who impersonated the emperor so expertly that even those who had known the true Friedrich believed him. Kolup was captured and executed, but rumors persist to this day that Kolup had been another illegitimate son of Friedrich II.