Welcome back to the second part of the Life & Games of Frederick Barbarossa! In the first part, we’ve seen how this fascinating medieval emperor gave everything to establish imperial rule over the Italian cities and the pope in the first 25 years of his reign. In his later years, which are the subject of this post, his style of governance changed – Barbarossa turned from a universalist aiming for the highest goals into a pragmatic politician (who still conducted ambitious projects). These relate to Italy, the stomping ground of his early years as a ruler, to Burgundy and Germany, the western and northern parts of his empire, and finally, even to the Middle East whence he crusaded in the last years of his life.
The Italian Settlement
It is hard to say when exactly Barbarossa turned into a pragmatist, but a good argument can be made for his shattering defeat at Legnano in 1176. Not only was his army lost and his life only barely preserved, Barbarossa also caught malaria in the weeks after the battle (and had to fear for his life again). Despite his struggle against papal authority, Barbarossa – like most medieval rulers – was a devout man and cared deeply about his spiritual salvation. Now, with death at his doorstep, he was more than willing to find an agreement with the church: In the Treaty of Venice (1177), he accepted Alexander III as the rightful pope and paid homage to him.
His other enemies in Italy were not forgotten either: Barbarossa agreed on truces with both the Italian cities and the Norman king of Sicily. Before these truces expired, Barbarossa made the Peace of Constance (1183) with the cities. While they would pay taxes to him, he had to recognize their independence. The concept of universal imperial rule in Italy had failed for good.
The Sicilians were brought in another way: In 1184, Barbarossa’s eldest son and heir Henry was engaged to Constance of Sicily, an aunt of the childless king William II, and, besides him, the last living legitimate descendant of the great Sicilian king Roger II. If William would die without issue (as would happen in 1189), Constance would inherit his kingdom. Thus, the Norman Sicilians could keep their line alive and on the throne, the Hohenstaufen emperors could add the rich kingdom of Sicily to their domain (and possibly put pressure on the pope from north and south), and both of them hoped for campaign against their common enemy, the Byzantine Empire in the east.
Burgundy & Germany
When Barbarossa left Italy after the Treaty of Venice, he first moved into the ancestral lands of his wife – Burgundy. There, he had himself crowned king of Burgundy. That was not remarkable in itself – the Roman emperors had held that title traditionally for e century before Barbarossa already. It was a calculated move, though, to show the world that despite Legnano and Venice, Barbarossa was not a spent force. The nobles of the Provence, neighboring Burgundy, were quick on the uptake and abandoned their plans to join an alliance with the Byzantine Empire.
Now Barbarossa moved north of the Alps again to settle another score. He formed a coalition with some of German princes and moved against the single most powerful prince – his cousin, the duke of Saxony and Bavaria, Henry the Lion. How exactly Henry had given offense is unclear. The official charge against him was that he had engaged in feuds (which was almost to be expected for a noble of that age). There was the aforementioned matter of Henry refusing to aid the imperial campaign at Chiavenna in 1176 – but, as it only appears in later sources, that might have well been fabricated to justify the campaign against Henry. (Still, it acts as the starting point for the somewhat counter-factual scenario “A Refusal in Upper Italy” in Welfen und Staufer.) Personally, I suspect that Barbarossa’s motive was similar to the one employed in Burgundy: Remind the world that he was still powerful and deter defection. His allies in the campaign had a clear motive anyway, as Henry’s lands in Saxony and Bavaria would be divided among them. Modern scholarship also sees them as the principal drivers and Barbarossa only as a fellow traveler. With such a powerful phalanx of opponents, Henry the Lion did not bother showing up for his trial. He was found guilty in absence and stripped of his titles and most of his lands. The verdict was enforced with a military campaign in 1180 and 1181. Henry went into exile at the court of his father-in-law, king Henry II of England. His attempt to regain his former status by showing up at the Diet of Pentecost in Mainz (in 1184) ended in embarrassment.
Except for this nuisance, the Diet of Pentecost was a great success for Barbarossa. 70,000 people, thousands of knights among them, attended what was the greatest event of chivalry in medieval Germany (if not Europe). Visitors had come from all over Europe. A magnificent feast was followed by competitions ahorse, in which Barbarossa himself as well as his sons Henry and Frederick participated. The latter two were ceremoniously knighted afterward. Yet new shadows loomed over Barbarossa.
Three years after the Diet of Pentecost, news came to Europe of a decisive defeat of the Christian knights in the Holy Land. They had been beaten in open field battle by Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, and had lost so many men that fifty-two of their denuded castles and cities fell to Saladin in the aftermath.
The pope called for a new crusade – and Barbarossa was among the first to answer. He summoned his nobles to what he called the Diet of Christ (during the event, the throne remained empty in a symbolic nod to Christ’s superior authority) and swore them to support him on the crusade. He, of course, would lead it (notwithstanding his advanced age – at almost 70, Barbarossa was more forty years older than when he crusaded for the first time). The crusading army thus amassed was among the largest ever mustered – allegedly 100,000 men strong (although that is likely to be much exaggerated).
Barbarossa now led this massive host down the Balkans and to the straits which separate Europe from Asia (the Bosphorus and the Hellespont). These were in the hands of the Byzantine Empire. As the two emperors rivalled for the supreme temporal authority (and were divided over their faith, as Barbarossa was a western Catholic and the Byzantine emperor an eastern Orthodox Christian), the Byzantine emperor had good reason to be wary of large Catholic hosts at his doorstep – just over 20 years later his capital Constantinople would be sacked by a Catholic crusader army. He and Barbarossa negotiated a crossing of the Hellespont for the crusaders. The path to the Holy Land was open now.
Barbarossa’s army first met Muslim resistance (in the form of a Seljuk army) at Iconium (modern-day Konya) in southern Turkey. The battle was hard-fought, but when Barbarossa’s main army withstood the Seljuk onslaught while the detachment under his son Frederick took the city of Iconium, the Seljuk army was shattered. Barbarossa then moved on towards the beleaguered remnants of Catholic power in Palestine (where the board game Crusader Rex (Tom Dalgliesh/Jerry Taylor, Columbia Games) is set)… yet shortly before he arrived, he drowned in the river Saleph on June 10, 1190. It is unclear if he was swept away while crossing on horseback or wanted to take a refreshing swim, if he was naked, clothed, or even in armor, and if he might have suffered a heart attack in the scorching heat of the Turkish summer. What we do know is that with him the German part of the crusade died. Only about 2,000 men under his son Frederick remained to fight while the remainder of the large host returned home. The most famous leader of this crusade would not be Barbarossa, but the English king Richard I, the Lionheart.
Matters in the empire remained quiet. Barbarossa had taken care to ensure a smooth succession. His eldest son Henry had already been elected co-king while Barbarossa was still alive and now succeeded him as emperor Henry VI. It would be the first uncontested imperial succession in more than a century. That allowed Henry to pursue his grand schemes which netted the Staufen family Sicily (inherited by his wife Constance, conquered against her rivals by Henry). Even more ambitious projects – the attempt to turn the empire into an hereditary instead of an elective monarchy and a campaign against the Byzantine Empire – were forestalled by Henry’s untimely death in 1197. He was succeeded by his infant son, who – after overcoming the Welf family of Henry the Lion – would be the last great emperor of the Middle Ages. Of course, he was named after his grandfather: Frederick II.
Both Frederick I and Frederick II sparked popular imagination long after their death. Barbarossa’s legacy is the subject of the third and last part of this mini-series.
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.