Post-classical history

Chapter Twelve


Frederick Barbarossa

Between 1147 and 1177 the Holy Roman Emperor loses Italy, but tightens his fist around Germany

SHORTLY AFTER the death of Peter Abelard, the authority of the Church was lent to another cause: the expansion of German power.

In March of 1147, Bernard of Clairvaux was traveling through the center of Germany, attempting to rouse German knights to take part in the ailing Second Crusade. In Frankfurt, he was met by a delegation of German Crusaders with a special request: they wanted to fulfill their crusading vows, but not by heading east. Instead, they suggested that they could also advance the kingdom of God by attacking the Slavic tribes known collectively as the Wends, just north of the German border.*

Unlike the Slavic tribal peoples of earlier centuries, the Wends were settled farmers. But they were, for the most part, not Christians. Drawing them into the Christian realm of Germany seemed to Bernard like a logical extension of the Crusade; he had, after all, been preaching for months that the purpose of crusade was to submit the heathen to the power of God. He agreed with the German warriors: the Wends should be attacked, and the fight should continue “until such a time as, by God’s help, they shall be either converted or wiped out.” Pope Eugenius III blessed the effort, and the Wendish Crusade began.1

Bernard had expected the Germans to overrun the entire Wendish territory, giving the Wends the options of baptism or death. But the Wendish Crusade had no clear leader; the Danes who had joined the German forces soon split off to make their own raids; the Germans themselves disagreed on strategy. In a matter of months, the entire attack had fizzled out. Nothing had been gained except a small amount of loot. Not a single Wend had been baptized.2

As a holy war, the Wendish Crusade was a failure.

As a political maneuver, it was more successful. One of the bands of German Crusaders was headed by the eighteen-year-old Henry the Lion, who had a grudge against the king of Germany. Henry’s father, Duke of Bavaria and Saxony, had opposed the election of Conrad III (at present still crusading in the east), and Conrad III had punished him by seizing the family lands as soon as the German crown was on his head. After the deposed Duke had died, Conrad III gave Saxony back to young Henry the Lion; but he did not return Bavaria, and Henry the Lion wanted it back.

In the middle of the Wendish Crusade, Henry the Lion managed to make a treaty with the most powerful of the Wendish leaders. Bolstered by this new alliance, he immediately reclaimed the dukedom of Bavaria. He was building his power, wooing allies, reinforcing his army. By 1152, he had become one of the most powerful noblemen in Germany.

In that year, Conrad III of Germany died. Led by Henry the Lion, the German electors gave the crown of Germany not to Conrad’s six-year-old son but to one of Henry’s own cousins, the thirty-year-old Frederick of Swabia.

Frederick was, in Otto of Freising’s words, a “lover of warfare . . . conspicuous for the extension of his kingdom and conquest of peoples.” He was also an adept politician; he rewarded his cousin Henry for his support by officially restoring the title Duke of Bavaria. Scrupulous in his religious observances, an enthusiastic hunter, a moderate drinker, sporting an auburn beard (earning him the nickname of “Barbarossa,” or “Red-Beard”), Frederick would rule Germany for nearly fifty years; and he would struggle with Henry the Lion for at least half of that time.3

He began his reign with a letter to Pope Eugenius III, announcing his election and spelling out exactly how authority in his kingdom was going to be divided. “There are two things by which this world is chiefly ruled,” he wrote, quoting the well-known words of the fifth-century pope Gelasius I, “that is, the sacred authority of the pontiffs and the royal power.” In other words, the empire had been given to him by God, not by the pope. He was perfectly happy to cooperate with, and even protect, the Church; but he intended to control his own affairs within his own domain. “By our careful application,” he concluded, “the catholic church should be adorned by the privileges of its diginity, and the majesty of the Roman Empire should be reformed, by God’s help, to the original strength of its excellence.”4

Eugenius III heard the message loud and clear. He promised to crown Frederick as Holy Roman Emperor, the title Conrad had never achieved, in exchange for Frederick’s help with a couple of nagging earthly problems; the Norman kingdom of Sicily was encroaching on the papal lands from the south, and the secular officials of Rome (the “Roman commune,” the senators who ran the city’s affairs) were agitating for more independence from papal power within the city itself.5

By the time Frederick arrived at Rome, with a fairly good-sized German army behind him, Eugenius III had died. His successor Adrian IV* (the only Englishman to ever hold the position) fulfilled the papal side of the bargain, and Frederick Barbarossa was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in June of 1155.

But whipping Italy into shape turned out to be a long-term project. The people of Rome were in no mood to acknowledge the German king. In fact, says Otto of Freising, they were “infuriated . . . that the emperor had received the imperial crown without their assent.” Right after the coronation, they rioted in the city streets; Barbarossa’s men killed over a thousand Romans as they fought their way out of the city and back to their camp.6

The mood north of the Papal States was no more welcoming.

Otto of Freising notes, with surprise, that the north of Italy had developed a very peculiar kind of society. Instead of loyalty to a king, Italians felt loyalty to their cities. “Practically that entire land is divided among the cities,” he writes, “. . . and scarcely any noble or great man can be found in all the surrounding territory who does not acknowledge the authority of his city.” So instead of reducing a single rebellious country to submission, Frederick Barbarossa found himself forced to address the loyalty of each city, one by one. The Genoese responded by building a whole series of new walls and openly defying the emperor. The consul of Milan persuaded a handful of other cities to join him in an anti-imperial coalition. Pope Adrian IV, reading the generally anti-Barbarossa mood of the peninsula, reversed himself and made a treaty with the Norman enemy to the south. He died shortly afterwards, before Barbarossa could come back to Rome and punish him, and two popes were elected in his place; a legitimate pope, Alexander III, appointed by the cardinals in proper ecclesiastical fashion; and an “antipope,” Victor IV, appointed by Frederick Barbarossa and installed in Rome by Frederick’s soldiers. Alexander III fled into Western Francia and excommunicated the antipope Victor IV, who paid no attention.7

Meanwhile, Henry the Lion was ruling the north and east of Germany in practical independence: a kingdom within the empire. In 1156, he began to push farther east against the Slavic territories. The following year, he founded the city of Munich on the Isar river, so that he could dominate the salt trade that crossed the river there; in 1159, he built a port at Lübeck to draw merchant ships in.

But he remained Frederick’s ally, accompanying his cousin into Italy to help him fight against the rebellious Italian territories. In 1162, with the help of both Henry the Lion and the armies of Pisa (Pisa had decided that there was more to be gained in fighting for the emperor, than against), Frederick Barbarossa finally conquered the stubborn city of Milan. It had been hostile to him since his coronation; it had caused him untold trouble, money, and men; it had been under siege for nearly eight months; and when the starving people finally surrendered, Barbarossa forced hundreds of the city’s elite to approach him barefoot, smeared with ashes, and kiss his feet. He then allowed his men to sack the city, burn its houses, and pillage its churches; when they were done, Milan no longer existed. All of its people were taken away and resettled in other villages.8


12.1 The Empire of Frederick Barbarossa

To remind his rebellious subjects that God had given him his imperial crown, Barbarossa took Milan’s most sacred relics—the bones of the Magi, the three kings who (tradition said) had brought gifts to the baby Jesus after his birth—back to the German city of Cologne. He installed them in the cathedral there, as patrons of the city; lending their recognition of a king greater than themselves to none other than Frederick Barbarossa. Three years later, he directed his puppet antipope in Rome—now Paschal III, appointed by Frederick in 1164 when Victor IV died—to canonize Charlemagne. Now he could claim that his royal office was holy in more than one way: given to him by God, first established by a saint.9

None of this helped him hold on to the Italian kingdom. The northern cities had been too independent for too long, and the old symbols of imperial authority counted for nothing with the tradesmen and guildsmen, merchants and artists, of Verona and Parma, Bologna and Venice. In 1167, the cities of the north banded together against Frederick’s claims, forming the Lombard League.

Frederick’s answering invasion was halted when his soldiers were attacked by a sudden and devastating epidemic of malaria. “A wind came from the southern zone with thunder and lightning,” wrote the Italian chronicler Godfrey of Viterbo, poetically. “Every man was drenched as the heat of the sun decreased, and became ill with a terrifying fever. . . . The soldiers ached with pain in their heads . . . and internal organs and legs.”10

The weakened imperial army crawled away, and the Lombard League consolidated its power. Together, the cities of the League began to rebuild Milan. They also joined together to build a brand new city, blocking the pass that the German armies used to descend into Italy. This new city they named Alessandria, in honor of the exiled pope.11

The malaria was bad luck, but when Frederick finally returned to Italy with fresh forces, he found that the Lombard League had passed beyond his control. In 1176, the combined armies of the League defeated the imperial forces decisively at Legnano; and Frederick, a realist, decided to abandon the struggle.

In 1177, at Venice, he made peace both with the cities of the League and with the legitimate Alexander III. The cities of the League were given the undisputed right to govern themselves. The antipope in Rome, Paschal III, had died in 1168; Frederick now abandoned his successor, the antipope Callixtus III, and recognized Alexander III as the sole authority over the Papal States.

It was not all bad news for Frederick, though. Returning to Germany, he confiscated the lands of Henry the Lion, who had refused to accompany him into Italy for the final confrontation, and drove his cousin into exile. Henry’s lands, which had grown to cover much of the north and the east, were partitioned up among less powerful noblemen who owed Frederick favors. Frederick had lost northern Italy; but now Germany was more firmly his than ever.


* The Wends were made up of a federation of five tribes: the Wagrians, Abotrites, Polabians, Rugians, and Liutizians. See John France, The Crusades and the Expansion of Catholic Christendom, 1000–1714 (Routledge, 2005), pp. 111ff.

* Eugenius died in 1153 and was succeeded by Anastasius IV, who held the pontificate for less than a year before dying; Adrian IV was elected on December 3, 1154.

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