King of Germany (1169-1197) and Sicily (1194-1197), Holy Roman Emperor (1191-1197), and organizer of a crusade to the Holy Land (1197-1198).
Henry was born in Nijmegen in 1165, the second son of Frederick I Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor (d. 1190), and his second wife, Beatrix of Burgundy. In that same year Frederick secured the canonization of his predecessor Emperor Charlemagne (d. 814) from the imperialist antipope, Paschal III (d. 1168), who had been elected in opposition to Alexander III. By underlining Charlemagne’s role as defender of Christendom, the canonization was intended to support and exalt the imperial ideology of the Staufen dynasty, which already had acquired a crusading tradition of its own through the participation of Frederick Barbarossa and his uncle Conrad III in the Second Crusade (1147-1149).
The death of his elder brother Frederick (1168/1169) left Henry as the heir to the German monarchy of the Staufen family. At the age of four Henry was elected king by the German princes at a diet in Bamberg (June 1169) and crowned at Aachen on 15 August. During this summer Frederick Barbarossa recognized Paschal III’s successor, Calixtus III, thus prolonging his dispute with the Roman pope Alexander III and the Lombard League of northern Italy, which was not finally resolved until the Treaty of Konstanz (1183).
When Henry came of age in 1178, he began to take over political responsibilities. At a great festival held in Mainz at Whitsun 1184, Henry was knighted, together with his younger brother Frederick, duke of Swabia (originally named Conrad). Later that year Henry was betrothed to Constance, the daughter of King Roger II of Sicily and aunt of the ruling King William II of Sicily (29 October 1184). William’s marriage was childless and the line of succession uncertain; by allying himself to the mighty Staufen dynasty, he hoped to secure the position of the Hauteville family in Sicily. For Frederick Barbarossa the Sicilian alliance brought a powerful ally in the Italian peninsula, but also offered at least a prospect that Henry might eventually succeed to the Sicilian kingdom. At the end of 1185, Henry joined his father in Italy, where the Barbarossa was again attempting to assert imperial control. The next year Henry’s marriage to Constance of Sicily was celebrated in Milan (27 January 1186). About this time he seems to have received the title of Caesar, probably as a signal of Frederick Barbarossa’s intention to have him recognized as co-emperor, a desire that was opposed by the papacy.
Henry remained in Italy until 1187. In the autumn news of the great defeat at Hattin and the subsequent fall of Jerusalem to Saladin reached the West. Frederick Barbarossa and Frederick of Swabia took the cross at the so-called Court of Jesus Christ (Lat. Curia lesu Christi) at Mainz on 27 March 1188 in the presence of Henry VI, who was to take over government in the absence of his father.
During the Third Crusade (1189-1192), Frederick Bar- barossa was in frequent contact with Henry, among other things admonishing him to have the Italian cities equip a fleet and send it to the East to persuade the Byzantine emperor to support the crusade. William II of Sicily died childless on 18 November 1190 and was succeeded by an illegitimate half-brother, Tancred of Lecce. Henry now made peace with his enemies in Germany (the Welf family and their supporters), with the intention of pursuing his wife’s claims to the throne of Sicily. However, these plans received a setback when news of the death of Frederick Barbarossa during the crusade (10 June 1190) reached Germany in the autumn of that year. A German army went to Italy, and Henry followed across the Alps in early 1191. He was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on 14 April in Rome by the new pope, Celestine III.
Emperor Henry now launched a campaign to realize his claims to Sicily. However, he met with defeat outside Naples, and Constance was taken captive. Yet Henry still had strongholds in southern Italy, and he managed to secure his position in Germany. The pope tried to negotiate peace between Henry and Tancred, to little avail, although Constance was released in 1192. Then events turned to Henry’s advantage. At Milan he met with Philip II Augustus, king of France, who was on his way back from the Third Crusade. Henry and Philip concluded an alliance directed against King Richard I Lionheart of England, who was the principal ally of both King Tancred of Sicily and Henry’s enemies in Germany. The turning point came when Richard was taken captive on his way back from the Third Crusade in 1192 by Duke Leopold V of Austria, who handed him over to Henry. As a condition of his release, Richard was to pay a vast ransom and also to supply 50 ships for the campaign against Sicily. Deprived of a powerful ally, the German opposition collapsed; its leader, Henry the Lion, sought an accommodation with the emperor (March 1194).
In May 1194 Emperor Henry marched south with a land army consisting of perhaps 20,000 men supported by Genoese and Pisan fleets. In August these forces attacked the Sicilian kingdom, and after the capture and sack of Salerno in September the other cities surrendered one by one. In November Henry entered Palermo in triumph. On 25 December 1194 he was crowned king of Sicily; the next day Constance gave birth to a son, who was named Frederick Roger after his two grandfathers.
Henry’s main political aims from this point were to assert the authority of the Holy Roman Empire throughout Christendom and to secure the succession for his son in both the empire and Sicily. Continuing negotiations begun by his father, in 1197 Henry agreed to bestow royal crowns on Leon II, the Rupenid prince of Cilicia (king as Leon I), and Aimery of Lusignan, the ruler of Cyprus. Both of the newly created kings thereby became Henry’s vassals, accepting the overlordship of the Holy Roman Empire. In the meantime Henry had also concluded a marriage alliance between his younger brother Philip, duke of Swabia, and Irene, daughter of the Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos.
These diplomatic successes greatly enhanced Henry’s prestige and authority throughout the eastern Mediterranean region. In 1195 he proposed to organize a crusade to the Holy Land, hoping that this would help him gain the agreement of the papacy to his plans for hereditary rule of the Staufen dynasty in the empire and Sicily. Yet Henry was unable to reach an accommodation with Pope Celestine III, although the German princes were prepared to recognize his son Frederick (II) as king of Germany. The emperor returned to the kingdom of Sicily in April 1197, but his preparations for the crusade were delayed by a rebellion that broke out in May. It is uncertain whether Henry intended to lead the crusade himself, although he does appear to have taken the cross in March 1195. In the event, he appointed Conrad of Querfurt, bishop of Hildesheim, and the imperial marshal Henry of Kalden as leaders of the expedition. During the summer Henry fell ill with malaria, to which he succumbed on 28 September. He was buried in the cathedral of Palermo.
Like his father, Henry did not live to see the completion of the crusade he had launched. He was widely regarded by contemporaries as the most powerful ruler in Christendom, and his death at the age of not yet thirty-two plunged the empire into crisis. In Sicily he was succeeded by the infant Frederick, who had also been intended for the German throne. However, with the prospect of a rival Welf candidate emerging there, it was Henry’s younger brother Philip of Swabia who was crowned king of Germany by the supporters of the Staufen family.