Post-classical history

Frederick I Barbarossa of Germany (1122-1190)

Frederick I, king of Germany (1152-1190) and Holy Roman Emperor (1155-1190), known as Barbarossa (“Red Beard”), was the most powerful ruler of late twelfth-century Europe. Much of his long reign was spent trying to secure domestic peace among the German princes, attempting to enforce his direct rule over the north Italian cities, and supporting a series of rival popes to the generally acknowledged pontiff, Alexander III (during the years 1159-1177). He played an important role in the Second Crusade (1147-1149) as chief lieutenant to his uncle King Conrad III, and after the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187 he led the first of the Western armies that went to recover the Holy Land on the Third Crusade (1189-1192).

During the Second Crusade, Frederick’s role was inevitably overshadowed by that of his uncle, though he may not have been fully in accord with the latter’s pro-Byzantine policy—certainly Frederick was responsible for the destruction of a Greek monastery in reprisal for attacks on the German column, which came close to jeopardizing good relations with the Byzantines. Later, as emperor, he was markedly less committed to an alliance with Byzantium than was Conrad. Otherwise, his first experience of the crusade seems to have had little subsequent impact upon him, although in 1158 he recalled that while at Jerusalem he had “seen with his own eyes the work of Christ for the poor” carried on by the Hospitallers [Die Urkunden Friedrichs I., no. 152]. However, he made no response to pleas for help after the failure of the kingdom of Jerusalem’s attack on Egypt in 1169, and in 1175 he even sent an embassy to Saladin. But at this stage he was still involved in major conflicts in Italy.

By 1187 Frederick’s situation was very different. Peace had been made with the papacy and the Italian cities a decade earlier, and even the long-running dispute between Germany and the kingdom of Sicily had been brought to an end through the marriage of his eldest son, Henry (VI), with the Sicilian heiress Constance in 1186. His dominant position in Germany had been consolidated by the confiscation of most of the lands of Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony, in 1180 and by the election of Henry VI as king in 1184. Frederick was thus in a position to lead the crusade to recover Jerusalem. Recruitment for this expedition began at his Christmas court at Strasbourg in 1187, although the emperor only formally took the cross at Mainz in March 1188, perhaps because he was waiting to see how much enthusiasm there was for the enterprise before committing himself. He also took the precaution of establishing diplomatic contacts with Sultan Qilij Arslān II of Rûm in an attempt to secure a peaceful passage through Asia Minor and thus to avoid the fighting that had so damaged the Second Crusade, and an embassy from the sultan was received at Nuremberg at Christmas 1188. (However, a letter purporting to be from Frederick to Saladin, ordering him to surrender the Holy Land, appears to be a contemporary forgery or propaganda document confected in England.)

Frederick was also anxious to limit the problems of supply and indiscipline that had hampered the German contingent on the Second Crusade: significant financial reserves were gathered, regulations were made for cash to be carried by individual crusaders, and stringent discipline enforced, even on those of noble birth. These measures were to stand the crusade in good stead on its march. Before leaving, Frederick took careful measures to ensure stability in Germany during his absence or in the event that he failed to return. A general land peace was proclaimed, and his heir, Henry VI, was left behind to rule the empire. His second son, Duke Frederick V of Swabia, accompanied him on the crusade. Henry the Lion, who was given the choice of joining him on the expedition or going into exile, chose the latter. The emperor also prevented a recurrence of the attacks on the Jewish communities of Germany that had accompanied the First and Second Crusades. The German army left from Regensburg in May 1189. Frederick was accompanied by a very large force, including 11 bishops and some 28 counts, with possibly as many as 4,000 knights.

The river Saleph in Cilicia where Emperor Frederick I died on 10 June 1190. The Armenian castle of Silifke dominates the hill in the background. (Courtesy Alfred Andrea)

The river Saleph in Cilicia where Emperor Frederick I died on 10 June 1190. The Armenian castle of Silifke dominates the hill in the background. (Courtesy Alfred Andrea)

The early stages of the crusade proceeded smoothly, with the willing cooperation of King Béla III of Hungary. However, problems developed once the army crossed into Byzantine territory at the end of June 1189. The Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos had made an alliance with Saladin some years earlier and had promised the sultan that he would do his best to prevent the expedition from crossing his territory. He was also suspicious of Frederick’s negotiations with the rulers of Serbia and with the Turks of Asia Minor—indeed, he arrested the envoys whom Frederick had sent to theRûm sultanate on their return journey. When the German army reached Philipopolis (mod. Plovdiv, Bulgaria) at the end of August, relations were already breaking down, and while the expedition remained in this fertile region for some eleven weeks, they grew worse. By the time the German expedition moved on to Adrianople (mod. Edirne, Turkey) in mid- November, there was open warfare with the Greeks. Indeed, there was strong pressure from within the army for an attack on Constantinople, not least because there appears to have been knowledge of Isaac’s alliance with Saladin. But although Frederick was prepared to threaten Isaac with such an attack, and even to open negotiations for the assistance of the Bulgarians in this, he was anxious that the crusade should proceed to its intended destination and restrained his troops.

After wintering with his forces in Adrianople, he reached an agreement with the Byzantines on 14 February 1190. The army crossed the Hellespont from Gallipoli (mod. Gelibolu, Turkey) during Easter week at the end of March without incident, transported on both Pisan and Byzantine ships. Frederick kept his army well in hand as they marched southeast through Byzantine territory, but once they crossed into Turkish territory at the end of April, attacks on the crusaders started almost immediately. Frederick had hoped that his negotiations with Qilij Arslān II, which had continued while the army was at Adrianople, would have prevented this. However, during the winter of 1189/1190 the sultan’s authority had been usurped by his eldest son, Qutb al-Dīn Malik-Shāh, who was reluctant to allow the Christian army to pass through Saljûq territory, not least since he had recently married a daughter of Saladin. Furthermore, the latter’s disputes with his brothers had led to a breakdown of the Saljûq state, which would have made restraining attacks on the crusaders difficult, even if the rulers had been so minded. A series of attacks were beaten off, but the crusaders soon began to run short of food, as well as fodder for their animals.

Silver penny minted at Aachen, from the Barbarossa Hoard. (Courtesy Ulrich Klein)

Silver penny minted at Aachen, from the Barbarossa Hoard. (Courtesy Ulrich Klein)

After defeating a major attack on 14 May, Frederick decided to attack the Saljûq capital of Ikonion (mod. Konya, Turkey), which was captured four days later. The Saljûqs then agreed to provide supplies if the army moved on, and while the expedition made its way toward the friendly territory of Cilician Armenia, attacks on the column were limited to minor harassment from Turcoman nomads. After 30 May, when the army reached this point, its problems were caused more by the difficulties of the terrain and the privations already suffered than by enemy action. The most difficult part of the journey had been accomplished when the army reached the plain of Seleucia (mod. Silifke, Turkey) on the morning of 10 June 1190, but here disaster struck. The emperor, who insisted, despite the pleas of his entourage, in swimming his horse across the river Saleph, was drowned.

Command devolved upon the emperor’s son Duke Frederick V of Swabia. The subsequent breakup of the army has often been ascribed to his shortcomings, with critics claiming that he lacked his father’s authority and qualities of leadership. However, one should note that the expedition arrived in Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey) only ten days after the emperor’s death, and that Duke Frederick had played a prominent and effective part in the early fighting, including leading the assault on Ikonion. Casualties in Asia Minor had been heavy, especially among the infantry, and the loss of horses and baggage animals, many of which were eaten, had posed serious problems. One Arabic source described the crusaders abandoning and destroying armor and equipment that they could no longer carry. The army remained together as a fighting force until it reached Antioch. However, there it was ravaged by disease, the impact of which was no doubt made much more deadly by the earlier sufferings and lack of food, of which the contemporary sources give a graphic picture. At Antioch, according to one eyewitness, “there was such widespread sickness and death that scarcely anyone was spared, for both noble and poor, young and old, were all struck down indiscriminately” [Quellen zur Geschichte des Kreuzzuges Kaiser Friedrichs I., p. 92]. Some of the survivors then went home; others accompanied Frederick of Swabia to the siege of Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel), but disease in the crusader camp continued its ravages there. Frederick of Swabia died in January 1191, and despite further reinforcements arriving by sea, the German contribution to the crusade was thereafter relatively minor.

The ultimate failure of the German expedition was a major setback to the Third Crusade. Its arrival in northern Syria did lead Saladin to withdraw substantial parts of his army from the siege of Acre, in an attempt to prevent the Germans from joining the other Christian forces, and those troops that did eventually arrive at Acre helped to prolong the siege until the French and Anglo-Norman armies arrived in 1191. Much more, however, had been expected. But it was disease, rather than Frederick’s death, that ruined the German expedition, even if his death was a significant blow to Christian morale. The sufferings of his army also showed that the land route across Asia Minor was no longer practical for crusader forces. The tragic, and seemingly random, nature of Frederick’s death was much commented upon by contemporaries, although most concluded, like the author of the Historia de Expeditione Friderici, that “one who stood forth as a knight of Christ and wore his Cross,... notwithstanding his sudden end, will undoubtedly find salvation” [Quellen zur Geschichte des Kreuzzuges Kaiser Friedrichs I., p. 91].

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