900 years ago, one of the most famous and fascinating rulers of the Middle Ages was born: Frederick of Hohenstaufen, who would be the first emperor of his name. He is known more commonly by his nickname “Barbarossa” – Redbeard. While not nearly all of his enterprises succeeded, the sheer amount of them – and how close he came in fulfilling even his highest ambition – leaves the modern onlooker in awe.
This is the first of three parts on his life & games, dealing with his early life and the rise to emperorship, his first failure and success, and his protracted struggle with the pope and the Italian cities. Future parts will look at Barbarossa’s later life and his legacy.
To the Crown
Frederick was born (without his trademark beard, we presume) in 1122. The exact date and the location of his birth are unknown. He grew up as the scion of a medieval noble family, learned how to ride, hunt, and fight, but never how to read. His family, the Hohenstaufen (Staufer), moved from relative obscurity into the spotlight of politics in the medieval Roman Empire (which, despite its name, included only a part of Italy, but all of Germany): Frederick’s father (also named Frederick) unsuccessfully tried to be elected king in 1125, Frederick’s uncle Conrad succeeded in 1138, thus becoming the first Hohenstaufen king. Frederick participated in various Diets (the judicial and legislative congregation of the empire, not a weight-loss regime) of his uncle and followed him on the Second Crusade (1147—1149). When Conrad III died in 1152, he left only an underage son, Friedrich of Rothenburg.
Minors were not regarded as fit for kingship, so a new candidate had to be found. Frederick Barbarossa had much going for himself: He was related to the previous king on his father’s side, and on his mother’s side, he was from the powerful Welf family. These two families produced the most illustrious characters of the High Middle Ages in Germany, and they are the contenders of the board game that deals with Barbarossa’s age most faithfully: Welfen und Staufer [Welfs and Hohenstaufens] (Gerhard Kuhlmann, Kuhlmann Geschichtsspiele) has the two families maneuver for support among the numerous German nobles and clerics… usually with the goal of getting a member of their family elected king.
Despite Barbarossa’s familial relations, he enjoyed only a limited hereditary power and thus seemed unlikely to bother the mighty German princes too much. Frederick Barbarossa was thus an ideal compromise candidate, enthusiastically supported by his Welf cousin Henry the Lion as well as other powerful magnates. However, those of the princes who’d been hoping for a weak, passive king soon turned out to be quite mistaken. His speedy move to Aachen to have himself crowned king mere weeks after Conrad’s death (likely taking advantage of a coronation prepared for someone else, probably Conrad’s son Friedrich of Rothenburg) already showed that Barbarossa was ready to boldly seize the opportunities presented to him.
Barbarossa soon prepared to cross the Alps into the southern part of the empire. There, he would have the chance to be crowned emperor as well as king (since Charlemagne, the first Roman emperor of the Middle Ages, Roman emperors were crowned in Rome by the pope). A more pressing concern for Barbarossa, however, was to establish imperial dominance over the Italian cities. These, mostly left alone by the emperors for almost a hundred years, had developed independent institutions. Barbarossa sought to reverse this trend which challenged his imperial authority. Thus, he marched against Milan, the largest and most powerful of the cities in northern Italy. What exactly the Milanese had done to arouse his anger is unclear (although there are colorful stories of them trampling an imperial flag) – all we know is that they had violated the honor of the empire (honor imperii).
Barbarossa was thoroughly schooled on this first Italian campaign. His pleas for support were ignored by most of his vassals and he could only muster 1800 fighters to bring with him across the Alps. He did not understand the political landscape of northern Italy with its cities, independent of liege lords and ever oscillating between rivalry and solidarity with one another. And he destroyed his chance to act as an impartial arbiter in their disputes early on by blatantly siding with any city that opposed Milan.
Militarily, the campaign was an utter failure. Even his imperial coronation was conducted as coup de main in Rome, where he stayed just long enough to be crowned while his soldiers kept the rebellious people of Rome away from pope Hadrian IV. Barbarossa bolted right after and left Hadrian in the lurch – a move sure to antagonize the head of Christendom. Barbarossa withdrew back over the Alps – not to lick his wounds, but to prepare for a second Italian campaign. There, he would show what he had learned in the first one.
The cardinal mistake of the first Italian campaign had been Barbarossa’s equation of his vassals’ obligation to send knights to him with their willingness to do so. The second time around, he actively courted them. Henry the Lion was confirmed as Duke of Bavaria (in addition to his Saxon dukedom). Vladislaus of Bohemia was raised from duke to king. Barbarossa himself married Beatrice of Burgundy to secure Burgundian backing. And he lobbied dozens of smaller nobles to lend him support. The result was that Barbarossa marched at the helm of an army that was ten times as large as the one of the first campaign.
Now, as we know, the size of something is not as important as how one uses it. And Barbarossa had markedly improved in that regard as well. The Alps were crossed in four distinct columns which united in Italy. Moving with remarkable speed and daring, Barbarossa outmaneuvered the Milanese army which had tried to stall him and threw it back into its city. Milan was besieged and, understanding the hopelessness of its cause, surrendered quickly.
Barbarossa now laid out an ambitious program at the Diet of Roncaglia: Judicial and legislative power as well as the right to invest municipal magistrates should rest with the emperor. That would have ended the independence of the Italian cities (together with their feuds) and made the pope an imperial prince). No matter if one regards that as a positive or negative development, Barbarossa had bitten off more than he could chew. While he swiftly subdued the prompt Milanese rebellion against the Roncaglian Laws, the pope proved a harder nut to crack. The next decades would be spent in a new imperial-papal struggle.
The Emperor and the Pope
Pope Hadrian IV died in 1159, only one year after the Diet of Roncaglia. The rifts in the clergy produced a double papal election: The minority of the cardinals elected Victor IV in Rome, whereas the majority elected Alexander III in exile. Alexander swiftly cemented the rapprochement between the papacy and the Norman kingdom of Sicily and thus strengthened the anti-imperial alliance.
Barbarossa then attempted to resolve matters by allying with king Henry II of England (who’d been at odds with the papacy anyway) and thus browbeat the king of France into recognizing Victor IV as the legitimate pope. His arrogant treatment of the “little kings” of both England and France, however, dashed these hopes. Once more, Barbarossa was going it alone in Italy. His third Italian campaign of 1163-1164 faltered from lack of support. Soon after, Victor IV died. He was promptly replaced by another pro-imperial pope, Paschal III.
Barbarossa’s subsequent fourth Italian campaign (beginning in 1166) went from triumph to tragedy: His chancellor Rainald of Dassel, archbishop of Cologne, beat the army of Alexander III and his Italian allies in the field at Tusculum. Barbarossa himself subdued a number of cities in Italy (all the way down to the Ancona in the south) and invested Paschal III with Rome. Then an epidemic (likely dysentery or malaria) struck his army. Thousands perished, including half of Barbarossa’s advisers. The Italian cities saw their chance to regain the upper hand and formed the Lombard League for mutual support. Imperial power in Italy collapsed. Barbarossa had to flee beyond the Alps dressed as a stable hand. He spent the next years consolidating his power by having his son Henry crowned co-king and imperializing the fiefs of nobles who died without heirs. However, he also had to accept the growing independence of the imperial princes within their territories. His effective reach in Germany was limited to Swabia, Franconia, and the Rhineland.
Barbarossa turned his thoughts to a fifth Italian campaign. This tenacity and his ability to overcome losses and rebuild is aptly captured in Barbarossa’s leader card in Through the Ages (Vlaada Chvátil, Czech Board Games).
The princes did not unanimously support the fifth campaign. The most powerful among them, the double duke Henry the Lion, refused to contribute soldiers despite Barbarossa’s pleas when they met at the castle of Chiavenna in early 1176. Allegedly Henry demanded to receive the city of Goslar with its rich silver mines in return for his support. Barbarossa refused and left without him. A few months later, a chance encounter of the imperial army with its Italian foes at Legnano developed into major battle. The Italians managed to halt the initial imperial onslaught before their standards were captured. Then Lombard reinforcements arrived at the field of battle, attacked the imperial flank and turned the tide. The imperial army was routed. Barbarossa barely escaped with his life.
So much for today! Next time, we’ll turn to Barbarossa’s later years – chastened, but still ambitious.
An analytical biography of Barbarossa that I enjoyed was Laudage, Johannes: Friedrich Barbarossa. Eine Biografie [Frederick Barbarossa. A Biography], Friedrich Pustet, Regensburg 2009 [in German]. Sadly, the author’s untimely death resulted in a gap of the narrative in the 1160s and 1170s.
The only recent English-language biography (which sadly does not draw much on either the Italian sources nor recent Italian scholarship) is Freed, John B.: Frederick Barbarossa. The Prince and the Myth, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT 2016.