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4. Frederick I Barbarossa |
Frederick I Barbarossa, medieval man of steel: from ruin came victory

Frederick I Barbarossa is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 96, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The red-bearded emperor had his own rules, an iron fist, and a Grand Design that no papal ire nor civil insurrection nor excommunication could daunt; God was another matter

Frederick I Barbarossa - Frederick I Barbarossa, medieval man of steel: from ruin came victory

Frederick I Barbarossa - Frederick I Barbarossa, medieval man of steel: from ruin came victory
Barbarossa’s shadow lingers over the German nation from a mountain known as the Kyffhauser, where in this imposing memorial the red-bearded Hohenstaufen warrior sleeps through the centuries. When the ravens fly away from the Kyffhauser mountaintop, goes the legend, he will awaken and Germany shall rise to lead the world.

Above the bountiful meadowlands of Thuringia’s Golden Meadow Valley, where some thirty species of wild orchid are said to bloom in spring, looms a mystical mountain called the Kyffhauser. Above it the ravens swoop and circle, and within its limestone caverns, according to legend, an ancient warrior has slept for the past eight centuries. Seated at a stone table, his red beard slowly growing longer and longer, he awaits the day when a united and powerful Germany will rise again to spread justice and culture across the world. Then the ravens will fly away, and he will awake.

Moreover, on the mountain’s peak the menacing copper figure of another warrior atop a great stone monument declares just how Germany must triumph. He is helmeted and armored and is mounted on a magnificent warhorse. This is Kaiser (emperor) William I, whose grandson and namesake would send German armies marching eastward and westward in 1914 to fulfill this dream. But Kaiser William II did not succeed in achieving these visions of glory, nor did another would-be German conqueror a quarter century later. Far from the ascendant grandeur they had anticipated, all that they accomplished by 1945 was the ruin of their country on a scale hitherto unimaginable.

The legendary sleeper in the caverns below (and who is also depicted on the monument) could have forewarned them of their folly. He, too, was a German kaiser: Emperor Frederick I, known as “Barbarossa” because of his red beard. He, too, had been a would-be conqueror. But in the very hour of his triumph, he saw his plans overturned by what he viewed as a stern and reproving God.

The lesson that Barbarossa drew from this catastrophic reversal changed him to the soul, and he lived to become one of the most revered figures in European history.

Frederick Barbarossa was born in or about 1126, probably at Hohenstaufen Castle, east of Stuttgart–nowhere near Kyffhauser Mountain. Although little is recorded of his childhood, much can reasonably be deduced. Within and around Hohenstaufen’s massive stone walls the growing youngster would have roamed from his mother’s solarium to the kitchen and bakehouse, kennels and stables, battlements and keep, great hall and chapel. He would have been taught from his cradle the central fact of medieval life: that he was Christian and therefore a child of God, a servant of Christ, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven. This demanded a loyalty that all his life would haunt, direct, inhibit, infuriate, inspire, and baffle him–but would ultimately save him from his darkest enemy, the one within himself.

There were other essential loyalties, of course, of which the first was to his father, Duke Frederick II of Swabia, known as “Frederick the One-Eyed,” whose title he would inherit, and to his father’s family, the Hohenstaufens, and their allies. Also of primary importance, however, were his mother’s people, his assorted uncles and cousins of the powerful Welf clan, whose frequent feuding with the Hohenstaufens often resulted in open warfare.1

As the young Frederick’s understanding increased, he would have learned from his tutors something of the political geography of twelfth-century Europe. In France the descendants of Hugh Capet had ruled as hereditary kings for 165 years and would continue for another 640 through five successive dynasties, gradually asserting authority over France’s twenty-five counties and the four great duchies of Normandy, Burgundy, Gascony, and Aquitaine. However, the dukes of Burgundy still sometimes called themselves kings, while the dukes of Normandy had by seaborne invasion established monarchies in England and Sicily, and had expanded their Sicilian kingdom northward over nearly half the Italian peninsula.

The rest of the peninsula, known as the kingdom of Italy, consisted of three often hostile regions: Lombardy, where some dozen largely independent cities competed both commercially and militarily; the Welf-run duchy of Tuscany, north of Rome; and the so-called Patrimony of St. Peter, or papal states, ostensibly (and, to a degree, actually) ruled by the pope on the basis of an ancient document later discovered to be a forgery.2 Adding to Italy’s fractious composition was the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire to the east, still calling itself Roman fully eight centuries after Constantine founded it. Farther east the Slavic peoples were steadily being absorbed into either eastern or western Christianity. In Spain the Christians were halfway through their eight-hundred-year war to reclaim their country from Islam.

The boy would have been enthralled by stories and songs about heroic knights, especially those who a quarter century earlier had reclaimed Jerusalem for the Christians, defeating the infidel Muslims, who for five hundred years had tried to supplant Christianity and in much of the world, in fact, had. Joining such a crusade (a term not yet invented) was called “taking the cross.” This was regarded as the highest duty of a man, and dying in such an enterprise was the noblest death. Frederick would never lose this conviction, says his biographer Peter Munz (Frederick Barbarossa: A Study in Medieval Politics), and one day he would fulfill it.

Closer to home, even a child could perceive another reality throughout the countryside, namely the price of interminable petty warfare among Germany’s three-hundred-odd “noble” families: crops seized, burned, or trampled; castle, mansion, and hut destroyed by raiders; bridges and roads in ruin; marketing nearly impossible. In France, England, and Norman Italy, hereditary monarchies were beginning to provide a semblance of central authority. But jealously guarded tribal tradition required Germany’s king to be elected by the country’s chief nobles, indebting him to his supporters and guaranteeing political instability.

Such was the background of the boy’s entire life. A year before Frederick’s birth, when Emperor Henry V died, his own father had stood for election as king but had lost to the Welf-backed candidate, who became King Lothair III. Bitter and resentful, Duke Frederick and his younger brother, Conrad, launched a seven-year rebellion, which caused them at one point to be anathematized by the pope. By 1134, in immediate danger of losing their lands and titles, they had been forced to capitulate and acknowledge King Lothair. But when Lothair died in 1137, Conrad of Hohenstaufen was elected king despite fierce Welf opposition.

Inter-duchy warfare continued as usual, with the youthful Frederick Barbarossa soon playing a significant role. Contemporary accounts describe him as of medium height but strongly built, with blond hair, a reddish beard, piercing blue eyes, and thin lips habitually curved in a quizzical smile, and also as intelligent, energetic, and practical. In his late teens he led an invasion of Bavaria, capturing “a certain Count Conrad of Dachau” but chivalrously releasing him without ransom, then trounced a rebellious branch of the rival Zahringen clan in Swabia. Duke Frederick II, satisfied with his son’s capability, left him in charge of the duchy and retired to a monastery.

But in 1147 came a major disruption from outside, when the famous and charismatic Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux began preaching the dire need for a second crusade. Edessa, eastern outpost of the Christian kingdoms in the Levant, had fallen to the Muslims, who were now on the offensive. “If none stay their hand,” Bernard warned, “the time is near when they will burst into the city of the living God, to overthrow the very workshop where our redemption was wrought, to pollute the holy places with the crimson blood of the lamb without spot.” Twenty-one-year-old Frederick could not resist such an appeal. He arranged for Abbot Adam of Ebrach to deliver this message at a rally at Speyer, where he himself “took the cross” along with a throng of dukes, counts, and lesser nobility. King Conrad agreed to command them, apparently with some reluctance.

This powerful army set out eastward from Nuremberg that spring, and what followed would devastate the confidence of Christian Europe. As it proceeded through Hungary and then across Byzantine territory, it proved to be as much rabble as army. The crusaders fought with villagers and stole their goods. They fought with the Greek troops sent to escort them and with the French troops coming up behind them. They rioted, deserted, and rebelled. Finally, as they camped one night in a seemingly idyllic valley by a small river, a thunderstorm turned the stream into a raging torrent that drowned many. Frederick’s men, camped on higher ground, were unharmed. Then King Conrad rejected the advice of the Greek emperor, namely to skirt Anatolia (future Turkey) by sea. He marched half his troops direct to Damascus instead, where they were massacred in a surprise attack by Turkish cavalry. “The legend of the invincible knights of the West, built up during the great adventure of the First Crusade,” writes Steven Runciman in his History of the Crusades, “was utterly shattered.”

Already shattered was the lifelong friendship between Frederick’s father and his uncle Conrad. Frederick the One-Eyed, grief stricken and angry with his brother for permitting his son to take the cross, died that year. Thus, Barbarossa returned home as Duke Frederick III of Swabia and, judging from his subsequent conduct, with very specific conclusions of his own. He may already have resolved that to counter this disgrace, there must be a third crusade, although with all Europe so disheartened, this would be difficult. And it must be different in many respects. Every man, down to the last foot soldier, for example, must be a wholly committed Christian. Looting and pillaging must be unthinkable. So, too, must the seemingly inevitable persecution of Jews, which had marred both the First and the Second Crusades.

Swabia’s new duke may even have decided by then that such an enterprise would require nothing less than genuine restoration of the imposing realm ruled in the ninth century by the great Charlemagne, even suggestive of that of the Roman caesars four centuries before that.3 Therefore, the title of emperor, vacant since the death of Lothair III because Welf and papal opposition had denied it to Conrad, must be reclaimed and its Germanic prestige restored. Only thus could an army be assembled against which Islam would prove impotent. Ironically, the deplorable Second Crusade had actually enhanced Frederick’s own reputation; he had acquitted himself with courage and distinction. Nor had it diminished his respect and love for King Conrad. Although almost everything his uncle attempted seemed to have failed, Frederick would be inclined to blame Germany’s endemic internal warfare, not Conrad. The two remained close, and three years later Conrad, on his deathbed, entrusted to his nephew the regalia of the German monarchy, thus clearly indicating his choice of successor.

Duke Frederick III of Swabia was indeed a strong contender when the German nobility met at Frankfurt in March 1152 to elect their new king but not primarily because of Conrad’s blessing. The major factor, historians surmise, was his significantly intertwined Hohenstaufen-Welf lineage, carrying the hope that as a compromise candidate he might somehow mitigate that weary conflict. The vote for him was almost unanimous–an unprecedented occurrence. Then each elector swore fealty to the new monarch, a crucially important ceremony in a society where all authority hung on the sanctity of a simple oath. To violate an oath and not repent of doing so was to consign yourself to eternal damnation. Hell was real, as was paradise, and to arrive at the latter and not the former was life’s most dire challenge.4

With the oath-taking completed, the royal retinue voyaged down the Main and Rhine rivers to Cologne and thence by land to Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen), with cheering and hopeful subjects–peasants and priests, tradesmen and soldiers–lining the riverbanks and roads. In Aachen, on the throne said to have been installed by order of Charlemagne himself, Frederick was crowned and anointed king of the Germans by Archbishop Arnold of Cologne: the first step toward fulfillment of his vision of a German-led Europe. Next, the pope must be persuaded to crown him emperor, first of the Hohenstaufens to hold that title.

The timing was propitious. The populace of Rome, under the sway of an extreme and very popular preacher named Arnold of Brescia (see sidebar, page 101), had driven Pope Eugene III from the city. The new Norman king of Sicily, ominously known as William the Bad, was simultaneously threatening him from the south. Frederick’s proper course seemed self-evident–raise an army, invade Italy, rescue the pope, hang Arnold, defeat the Sicilian Normans, and graciously receive the imperial crown from the grateful pontiff–and the ecclesiastics among his counselors heartily agreed. The dukes, who must provide most of the army, did not. Peace and order in Germany must come first, they insisted. Reluctantly acquiescing, Frederick dispatched an ambassador to negotiate amicable relations with Pope Eugene, and set about establishing royal authority at home.

He proceeded to settle one stubborn territorial dispute after another, his chroniclers claim, often by arbitration. He tried to strengthen the monarchy by assembling a larger “royal domain,” quietly attaching key estates whenever they lacked an obvious heir and administering them through officials unconnected to the hereditary dynasties. He strove to ensure the allegiance of the dukes by reinforcing their authority within their own territories at the expense of their feudal vassals, expecting them in return to furnish him money and troops when needed. Of particular importance was his younger Welf cousin the powerful and unpredictable Duke Henry the Lion of Saxony.

Equally important, however, was the support of Germany’s bishops, who usually also served as temporal governors, collecting revenues and raising armies. Who was to appoint them, pope or king? And to which one must they chiefly answer? This knotty question had caused a deadly contest between Frederick’s great-grandfather Emperor Henry IV and the fiery reforming Pope Gregory VII, known as Hildebrand (see volume 6, chapter 3). Ostensibly, the issue had been settled by the Concordat of Worms in 1122, under which a king invested a bishop with secular authority over his territory and the pope with the spiritual authority of his office. This required mutual agreement on the actual selection, however, something not always easy to achieve.

Frederick tested Pope Eugene’s resolve early by appointing his own candidate to the strategic archdiocese of Magdeburg without papal consultation. Would the pope now bestow upon Frederick’s man the pallium, which conferred papal approval and spiritual authority?5 Well, no–at least, not yet. Frederick’s nominee eventually received it, however, from Eugene’s successor, Anastasius IV. A year after Frederick’s coronation he and Eugene arrived at a concord called the Treaty of Constance, whereby Frederick agreed to suppress the rebellious Romans, rid the city of Arnold, and protect the pope against the Sicilians while Eugene promised to crown Frederick emperor and to excommunicate any subject who defied his imperial authority. Both swore to make no treaty with the Sicilian-Norman monarch, and Eugene, in a goodwill gesture, even retired several German bishops so that Frederick could replace them with his own choices. It was time for step two, King Frederick decided, namely a significant military sortie into Italy.

He seems to have seriously underestimated one factor, however, one that would plague him for the next two decades. As emperor he could also claim the title “king of Italy,” with at least theoretical sovereignty over the north, including the chronically warring and increasingly wealthy cities of Lombardy. Milan in particular had assembled a mini-empire of allied municipalities that was often fiercely and bloodily opposed by other towns. In October 1154, when Frederick confidently led his small German army over the Brenner Pass (on the Italian-Austrian border), heading for Rome and his coronation as emperor, he seemingly expected to act as a benign and independent arbiter bringing peace to Lombardy. But such was not to be.

Initially all went well. He issued edicts strengthening the senior Italian nobility, as in Germany, and formally recognized the maritime republic of Venice.6 But soon he found himself more deeply embroiled in Lombard politics than he had intended. First, for example, came delegates from Pavia, capital city of his “kingdom of Italy,” beseeching him to compel the town of Tortona, an ally of Milan, to acknowledge certain Pavian claims, after which they would joyfully confer upon him the iron crown of the Italian monarchy. Tortona proving uninterested in Frederick’s polite requests, he was compelled to attack it.

The town was quickly overcome and the townsfolk dispersed, but its guardian castle held firm. Days became weeks. Frederick’s frustration grew. As a “persuader” he tried hanging prisoners in good view of the castle walls. Still no surrender. He poisoned the water supply. No surrender. Tortona’s clergy begged him to lift the siege, pleading that the defenders were starving and sick. Absolutely not, he replied, and three weeks later hunger and disease at last forced the capitulation of the castle. Frederick let the garrison go, then looted the place. The Pavians, with an eye to the future, paid him handsomely to let them completely demolish Tortona’s castle, and then with great festivity they crowned him king of Italy. But such experiences began to sour him on Italy, an attitude that was heartily reciprocated, and he was gaining a reputation for brutality–something he would never acquire in Germany.

In Rome, meanwhile, matters were deteriorating. In July 1153 Pope Eugene had died at Tivoli, in the papal states, after reigning eight years, nearly all them as a refugee. His successor, Anastasius IV, was friendly to Frederick but died after a mere seventeen months in office. And now came a radical change, notably the election of one Nicholas Breakspear as Pope Adrian IV at the relatively youthful age of fifty-four, the only Englishman ever so honored. No aristocrat–the new pope’s father had been a lowly man (one account calls him a shoemaker)–Breakspear neither liked nor trusted Frederick Hohenstaufen. In his youth he had been rejected as a monastic postulant. He nevertheless persisted, studied in Paris, became abbot of a monastery, and later was a notably successful papal legate. The usual problems soon beset him as pope. “Thorny is the throne of St. Peter,” he lamented, “and so full of the sharpest spikes is his mantle that it would lacerate the stoutest shoulders.”

For whatever his doubts about Frederick, right now Pope Adrian urgently needed him. Even before the arrival of the incendiary Arnold, the Roman populace had reestablished the ancient Senate and declared their city a republic. Now a mob had beaten up one cardinal, leaving him for dead, and made the pope, in effect, a prisoner within the Leonine City. In 1154, by threatening to place all Rome under interdict (a serious threat since it would have barred the faithful from the approaching Easter services), Adrian had forced the Roman Senate to expel Arnold. Such serious rioting followed, however, that he had to withdraw to Viterbo, sixty-five miles north. He begged Frederick to hurry.

Even so, their first meeting, in June 1155, at Frederick’s camp near Sutri nearly foundered on a crucial misunderstanding. It was customary for Frankish and, after them, German monarchs to honor a pope by leading his horse a short distance and holding his stirrup while he dismounted. But Frederick had decided not to do so, possibly fearing that with the growth of feudal ideas it might be seen as acknowledging himself the pope’s vassal. He did prostrate himself before Adrian, as was also customary, and kissed his feet–and was very upset when the offended pope did not in turn raise him up nor give him the kiss of peace. In earnest discussion, however, the German princes persuaded Frederick that he must follow precedent. But to make things right, they had to contrive a second papal arrival, so Frederick broke camp and departed. Pope Adrian joined him the next day, and this time Frederick held his stirrup–not as an act of feudal dependence, he in-sisted, but to honor St. Peter and St. Paul. With this matter settled, they all proceeded toward Rome.

Barbarossa’s troops made camp in the Leonine City,7 the rest of Rome being far too dangerous, but Frederick feared that hostile Romans might yet break through to St. Peter’s Basilica and disrupt his coronation as emperor. Papal advisers proposed a stratagem. The populace would expect the ceremony to occur on Sunday, so why not hold it on Saturday instead? Thus, on the Friday evening imperial troops cannily deployed around St. Peter’s, pope and cardinals stole over early next morning, and Frederick’s entourage rode up at eight o’clock. Kneeling before Adrian, he vowed to faithfully protect the pope and the Roman church. Then came a solemn procession and litany, after which Adrian anointed the prostrate king between his shoulders and on his right arm. Then, in the course of a Solemn Mass, he bestowed upon Frederick the sword, scepter, and crown of the empire. The German knights erupted in thunderous shouts of approval and then all prudently withdrew.

Before long, as word of this deception spread through Rome, furious citizens fought their way across St. Peter’s Bridge into the Leonine City to loot and kill. By nightfall Frederick’s soldiers had managed to beat them back, but the position remained precarious. Lacking provisions and seriously outnumbered, pope and emperor retreated next day to Tivoli, whence they were able to commandeer aid from neighboring small cities. Adrian said Mass on the Feast of the Apostles on June 29 and pronounced absolution for anyone guilty of killing Romans because, he declared, it was done in just vengeance in defense of the empire.

Now that Barbarossa was emperor, the German dukes considered their job done. They and their forces therefore left for home, and Frederick had little choice but to abandon the pope and do likewise at the head of his own relatively small contingent. Eighty miles north of Rome, needing supplies, he laid siege to Spoleto, trounced the overconfident citizen army that rashly emerged to give battle, then looted and burned the place. Next came Verona, 250 miles farther north, whose citizens, in one of history’s daffier ventures, built a special bridge across the Adige River downstream from the town. They planned to release a great mass of logs to collapse it as the Germans were crossing, while attacking them from the rear. But the logs arrived late, after Frederick’s men had crossed safely. Many Veronese soldiers were drowned instead, and Frederick hanged any who did make it across.

Not until October 1155, three months after fleeing Rome, did the new Emperor Frederick Barbarossa reach Augsburg, and hardly in triumph. Although he had gained the imperial crown, he had made powerful enemies, and the pope remained in acute danger. The following summer worse news arrived. Sicily’s William the Bad, striking northward, had trapped Pope Adrian at Benevento, and Adrian had signed a treaty making the Sicilian Normans the papacy’s new defenders. William had agreed to pay homage to the pope along with a substantial annual tribute that well might enable Adrian to satisfy Rome’s rebellious citizenry.

Back in Germany, the emperor erupted in fury at the news of Adrian’s “betrayal,” but it compelled him to acknowledge the failure of his plan. The Sicilian Normans were stronger than ever, and their friend and virtual agent, the pernicious Cardinal Roland, clearly dominated the papal curia.8 Far from rescuing Adrian, Frederick had left him a virtual refugee under Norman protection.

As for orderly government in northern Italy, he had, if anything, worsened that situation while leaving more than one bloody memorial to ironfisted brutality. Was this what God intended for him?

Surely not. There must be another way. Had his plans been too grandiose–or not grandiose enough? From such musings, historian Peter Munz theorizes, Frederick’s fertile imagination evolved a better idea, which Munz calls his “Great Design.” He would develop Swabia, Burgundy, and northern Italy into a powerful terra imperia, an imperial territory dominating Europe’s very center. Through German military power, Lombard financial power, and the spiritual power of a friendly papacy (Pope Adrian couldn’t live forever), he would gradually and unobtrusively expand the terra imperia until he had restored Charlemagne’s entire glorious realm. “God has committed to me the government of the Holy City and the world,” he confided to his official biographer, Bishop Otto of Freising.9

Barbarossa also discovered a man he thought could make this happen: one Rainald of Dassel, whose vaulting ambition far exceeded the horizons of the lesser Saxon nobility into which he was born. Rainald, seeking greatness, had decided the church offered the surest route. He might not be overly given to piety, he reasoned, but this was the twelfth century, after all; the church was broadening. He rose quickly in the Hildesheim diocese, near Hanover, refused as too limiting an offer to become its bishop, and joined a local delegation to Pope Eugene in Italy. There Frederick met him, was mightily impressed, and before long made him chancellor of his empire.

Though a consummate opportunist, Rainald did not lack strong convictions. He believed deeply in the concept of an empire governed by a German prince with uninhibited power both secular and spiritual. The pope clearly must be subject to the emperor, he reasoned, in fact must be appointed by the emperor. Thus, an imperial decree would carry the authority of God himself, and any who resisted would be subject to God’s punishment, with the emperor or his servants divinely appointed to administer it. How completely Barbarossa agreed with such views is unclear, but he conferred upon Rainald the chief responsibility to carry out his Great Design.

Within two years the emperor achieved three important preliminary steps. First, with a small but efficient army he whipped rebellious Poland into line. Second, he ingeniously settled the seemingly irreconcilable dispute between Duke Henry of Babenberg, in Bavaria, and Duke Henry the Lion of Saxony, who had long disputed jurisdiction over the duchy of Bavaria.10 The third coup, and the most spectacular, was his marriage to the heiress of Burgundy, the sprawling territory that covered much of the future southwestern Germany, France, and parts of Switzerland. Beatrix of Burgundy was still a child, possibly about ten, when she and Frederick were married, and their first child was born eight years later. Their marriage was by all accounts unusually happy. Unlike most medieval wives, the strikingly attractive Beatrix accompanied her husband almost everywhere; she would even be at his side a decade later when all his ambitions were destroyed by what inescapably seemed an act of God himself.

With the German problems resolved, Frederick addressed himself once again to Lombardy, particularly Milan. Surely, the Milanese would now see that with just a little imperial supervision and the consequent cessation of their endless wars, everyone would grow much wealthier, including the imperial treasury, of course. But Milan, still zealously defending its independence, predictably refused the emperor any such role. War followed, and as Barbarossa’s army advanced upon the city in June 1158, it was met by a pitiful demonstration. The town of Lodi had recently been razed by the Milanese. Its citizens–homeless, penniless, and set on vengeance–besought him to authorize the rebuilding of Lodi and also begged to share in the looting of Milan. Barbarossa gladly granted the first request but refused the second. Indeed, a month later, when starvation forced the Milanese to surrender, there was no looting. So lenient were the emperor’s terms that they converted Milan from enemy to ally, and Frederick felt justified in declaring peace upon Lombardy. His Great Design appeared to be working.

But this was not to last. For one thing, he had misjudged Pope Adrian. The tough old Englishman, now nearly sixty, backed by the canny and equally intransigent Cardinal Roland, accurately assessed Barbarossa’s determination to make the Christian church a virtual government department. So he fought back. Because Frederick had recruited Romans as reinforcements in the siege of Milan (making allies of the very people from whom he had “rescued” the pope), Adrian sent agents to foment further rebellion there. In November Barbarossa added fuel to that fire by calling an assembly of nobles and ecclesiastics at Roncaglia, outside the city of Piacenza. There he promulgated a series of decrees asserting wide imperial control over Lombardy and the papal states, covering everything from the appointment of dukes to the authorization of bake ovens and gristmills to the construction of bridges and control over taxes and excise duties. Of course, he emphasized, he did not really intend to exercise such domination–merely to declare it–but this, understandably, reassured no one.

Adrian, meanwhile, raised another issue. As a young man Frederick had married Adelaide of Vohburg.11 The marriage was childless and had been annulled. Adrian now publicly questioned the validity of the annulment, thereby humiliating both emperor and empress. More serious yet was the case of the kidnapped cardinal. When the aged and much-respected archbishop of Lund (then part of Denmark), passing through Germany, was seized and held for ransom by brigands, Adrian asked the emperor to punish the kidnappers. Frederick did nothing.

Much worse trouble occurred when Cardinal Roland traveled to the imperial court at Besançon to deliver the pope’s protest. The wording of Adrian’s letter, as translated into German by Rainald, seemed to imply that the empire was a fief of Rome and Frederick the pope’s vassal. “If we weren’t in a church,” the angry emperor shouted, “you would find how German steel bites!” Rainald’s close associate Otto of Wittelsbach reportedly drew his sword to kill Cardinal Roland on the spot but was restrained by Frederick himself.

A further dispute erupted over the appointment of the bishop of Ravenna, and another over a feud between the cities of Brescia and Bergamo as to who should adjudicate between them, emperor or pope. And then there were “the notorious paintings” (as Rainald regarded them) in the Lateran Palace, which allegedly portrayed Barbarossa’s predecessor, Emperor Lothair III, as a papal vassal. Despite imperial requests that they be removed, there they remained. Adrian’s biographer Horace K. Mann calls this one “a childish quarrel.”

Far from childish, however, was the rapidly deteriorating Lombard situation, which soon issued again in bloody slaughter. Rainald, pursuing imperial policy for “peace” in Lombardy, was energetically dismantling the fortifications of cities traditionally allied to Milan. When imperial troops began pulling down the defenses of Crema (an ally of Milan) while leaving undisturbed those of Cremona (an enemy of Milan) twenty-five miles away, Crema’s citizenry violently resisted. Barbarossa laid siege, and a horror followed, with both sides hanging and dismembering captives in full view of their enemies. Crema soon surrendered, its twenty thousand citizens fled, and the place was thoroughly looted and then burned.

Next came riots in Milan, where the anti-imperial party, probably spurred on by Pope Adrian and Cardinal Roland, was regaining power. The angry populace drove out Rainald and his commissioners when they tried to restore order, then proceeded to besiege the imperial town of Trezzo, slaughter the entire garrison except for knights, who might be ransomed, and pillage the place. The angry emperor consequently put Milan under “the ban of the empire,” meaning that it deserved complete destruction and its people should be enslaved. He called for reinforcements from Germany, and they arrived by the tens of thousands, bent on the destruction and pillage of Lombardy’s richest metropolis.

Milan held out for nearly two years while atrocity followed atrocity. Finally, with their people starving and sick, its consuls offered to surrender to imperial authority provided that the city not be destroyed and that the populace be spared. Barbarossa wanted to accept. Rainald did not; he demanded unconditional surrender, and he got it. On March 1, 1160, Milan’s consuls appeared before the emperor with their naked swords hung about their necks, swearing to obey his every command. On March 6 they returned with three hundred Milanese knights, who fell at his feet and begged for mercy. The unconditional surrender now proved a major error. Towns long dominated and exploited by Milan insisted on its total destruction, and with much of his army already dispersed homeward, Barbarossa had to agree. But Milan’s looting and burning as a concession to its enemies clearly demonstrated that the emperor could not rule Lombardy, that he could be manipulated, which doomed his whole plan.

Chancellor Rainald was by now otherwise occupied. Six months earlier Pope Adrian IV had died at Anagni, about thirty miles southeast of Rome. In Rainald’s view, it was time for the emperor to name Adrian’s successor, and both he and Frederick knew just the man. Cardinal Octavian was a member of the powerful Monticelli family, whose tenth- and eleventh-century ancestors had regarded the papacy as their private possession. His family’s Ghibelline (i.e., Hohenstaufen) connections extended through Bavaria and Saxony, and he shared bloodlines with the royal households of England, France, and Christian Spain. Furthermore, he headed the “imperial party” within the papal curia, in militant opposition to Cardinal Roland and the Sicilian Norman party. Thus, when the cardinals met in the chamber behind the main altar at St. Peter’s to name the new pope, Octavian was viewed as Barbarossa’s man. Rainald used money, threats, and anything else he could contrive to support him while the Sicilian Norman faction worked just as hard for Cardinal Roland.

After a three-day wrangle the vote was taken. Although Roland clearly won, both sides agreed to adjourn to the morrow, allowing time to reach a compromise and avoid schism. However, a truly bizarre scene followed. While Octavian’s backers ate their dinner, Roland’s supporters–arguing that their candidate, after all, had a majority–returned to St. Peter’s and sought to place the papal mantle on his unwilling shoulders and declare him elected. Then Octavian’s people suddenly appeared with an armed escort and a crowd of Roman citizens. In the resulting brawl, they, too, produced a papal mantle, placed it (upside down) upon Octavian, led him to the throne of St. Peter, and declared him Pope Victor IV, to the jubilant cheers of the crowd.

Roland and his supporters fled to the Castel Sant’Angelo, where Roland accepted the reassurance that he had indeed been properly chosen by the cardinals. Spirited out of the castle, he took refuge in Campagna, sixty miles southeast of Naples, safely inside Sicilian Norman territory, where the ceremony of immantation was once more performed and he was crowned Pope Alexander III.12 He took up residence at Anagni, where Adrian had died. Victor retreated to Segni, forty miles southeast of Rome, inside imperial territory. Each excommunicated the other.

Once more Barbarossa grew confident, having for the moment pounded Lombardy into submission and acquired his own pope. To make quite certain, however, he called a special church council to arbitrate the papal dispute, inviting only his own episcopal appointees. It, unsurprisingly, endorsed Pope Victor, who was also crowned again for good measure. But Frederick found it impossible to ignore Alexander, now far more formidable as pope than he had been as Cardinal Roland. Although destitute and militarily powerless, he was fearless and diplomatically brilliant, presenting a compelling figure for any devout Christian who did not consider wealth and power evidence of sincere faith. His response to the re-crowning of Victor was a thunderous declaration that the emperor had committed violence and fraud, was the “chief persecutor of the Church of God,” and had shattered its unity. He was therefore excommunicate and any oath of fidelity to him invalid.

Barbarossa dismissed his excommunication as meaningless and was shocked that many bishops did not so regard it. Over the ensuing six years, he watched in wonder as one prelate after another declared for Alexander. The clergy of Rome rejected Victor, as did two great religious orders, the Cistercians and the Carthusians. A plot conceived by Rainald to trick King Louis VII of France into opting for Victor backfired when Louis discovered the stratagem. France and, later, England came in on the side of Alexander. Wrathfully Frederick and Rainald arranged another council from the thinning ranks of acquiescent bishops and issued a declaration of imperial power that seriously alarmed most European monarchs. This Barbarossa, they concluded, was obviously menacing them all. Even his German bishops began to favor Alexander.

In 1163, in the midst of the conflict, Victor died. Rainald, fearful that Frederick might now reconcile with Alexander and thus end the schism, acted on his own authority to name a successor, who styled himself Pope Pascal III. By one account, Frederick sent orders forbidding Rainald to do any such thing, but they reportedly arrived too late; he was stuck with Pascal III, whose validity was everywhere questioned. So Rainald came up with a final and desperate expedient known as the Oath of Wurzburg. By imperial order all bishops of the church and princes of Germany, including Frederick himself, must swear never to recognize Alexander as pope. Few bishops took this oath, however, and some who did added provisos effectively negating it. Rainald himself backed out when it came to the point, fearful of losing his title of archbishop of Cologne if the wrong pope ever won. Frederick finally became exasperated with him. “You acted like a traitor and deceiver when you saddled me with a new pope,” he stormed. “Now you refuse to go into the trap you are preparing for others.”

The following year Chancellor Rainald did considerably redeem himself. By then the emperor believed that all his problems could be solved if only he could capture the pestilent Alexander. That intrepid gentleman had defiantly returned to Rome, where he was buying popularity with money provided by the Sicilian Norman king. Both Lombardy and Rome, having suffered several years under Rainald’s onerous taxes and corrupt administration, were in open rebellion against the emperor. Therefore, in October 1166 Barbarossa once again led an army into Italy, this time with Rome as the goal. Bypassing Lombardy, he sent Rainald ahead to Rome with a thousand men, and at Tusculum the chancellor’s small force sent some thirty thousand Roman troops fleeing across the Tiber. It was a sensational victory.

But still Alexander eluded them. As Frederick moved up to besiege the city, Alexander’s little group barricaded itself in the Castel Sant’Angelo. Several days later when the imperial troops broke through and began looting, they found it deserted. Alexander was rumored to have escaped down the Tiber to the sea, disguised as a pilgrim. So Frederick enthroned Pascal III at St. Peter’s and watched as the pope formally crowned Beatrix empress. His army was now in undisputed control of Rome and his own pope, in the Holy City. Furthermore, William I, the Norman king who had caused him so much grief, was dead. His heir was a ten-year-old boy, and civil war had broken out in Sicily. All Italy lay well within his grasp. What could stop him now?

The answer was not long in coming. Within a week it began to rain. Day after day it poured down. Flooded streets became veritable rivers. The city’s ancient sewage system failed. Food supplies were destroyed. Drinking water was polluted. Then came disease. Soldier after soldier failed to report for duty. Soon the army was in ruins. Word came that Rainald was sick, then that he was dead. Frederick himself became gravely ill and barely survived. The challenge now was to get out of the city and get home. With a small party the emperor and empress made their perilous way north through Lombardy. Twice they were held for ransom and escaped alone in disguise, much like Alexander had only weeks earlier. On March 16 they reached Basel, on the Rhine, with little more than the clothes they wore.

Then began in Frederick Barbarossa a profound transition that has baffled historians, who appear to ignore the obvious explanation. In mere days this man had fallen from the pinnacle of the world to a state of destitution and desperation. One question must have beset him: why had this happened? And given his beliefs, he can have arrived at only one answer, for however brutal, however cruel, however ruthless and crafty he had been, his Christian convictions had never wavered. Every campaign, every policy decision, indeed every day had begun and ended with prayer. So who could have destroyed him? Clearly, not the Lombards, not the Sicilian Normans, not even his archenemy, Alexander III. None of them brought on that rain. Who, indeed, could have done it but God himself? He had made God his enemy. He had been following the wrong path. Something had to change.

But what could be the right path? Forgive your enemies, Jesus said, but how could he do that? Left unpunished, his enemies would instantly destroy him. Who takes the sword, Jesus said, perishes by the sword. Then, must evil triumph? Early Christians had died bravely under persecution by an empire. But he as a Christian had to run an empire. Could Jesus Christ enable him to do so? “I am the Way,” Jesus said. But just what did that statement mean for an emperor? For some six years Frederick dithered, now seeming to follow his old master plan, now to reject it, now just to drift. But a new tendency gradually became apparent: rather than violently oppose the flow of events, he began more often to peaceably direct it. Yet there was one enemy he refused to stop hating, namely Alexander III. Love your enemies, said Jesus. Not this one, said Frederick.

This so-called pope seemed to take perverse pleasure in offending him, and his accumulating successes were as gall to Frederick’s soul. No sooner had the emperor fled Rome, for example, than Alexander sponsored a coalition called the “Lombard League.” For the first time in history Lombardy’s sixteen biggest cities were in full accord, all swearing to support one another against any German invasion. More outrageous yet, the homeless citizens of Milan were busy building a brand-new city about fifty miles away, which they defiantly named Alessandria–after the pope, of course. Equally troubling, Frederick had belatedly discovered the chief reason he was so thoroughly hated in Lombardy: Rainald’s administrators had purloined vast sums from the citizenry, looted their houses, blackmailed them, exacted forced labor, and, on occasion, raped their wives and daughters. Such was the record of Barbarossa’s empire in Italy.

Nevertheless, he realized that he must somehow reassert his authority there or abdicate all pretence to imperial suzerainty, so there must be yet another invasion. But few of the German princes rallied round. It took Frederick more than five years to assemble an army, and when it set out for Italy in 1174, it consisted largely of mercenaries out for loot. Moreover, Frederick’s customary tactic of allying himself with some Lombard cities against others no longer proved workable. Their oath to support the League held firm.

Still, his foremost target was the new city of Alessandria, which seemed an easy conquest because the city began by dickering with him for an imperial charter. When he laid siege to it, however, its citizens proved highly disciplined and mightily resolved. They held him off all winter. That spring when his troops successfully tunneled under the city walls, Frederick again compromised his faith by attacking through the tunnel on Good Friday, a violation of the Truce of God

(see sidebar, pages 26—27). In any event, this strategy backfired. The defenders beat back the assailants, sealing off the tunnel and burying many of them alive, while those who had gained entry to the city fled in terror over the walls. The re-maining mercenaries headed home, to cheers and jeers from the ramparts. It was a major defeat and humiliation for Barbarossa. He was still on the wrong path.

Worse was to come. Plainly shaken by the tenacity and efficiency of the Lombards, he began peace negotiations, which failed when league delegates insisted that Alexander participate. Frantically Barbarossa appealed again for help from Germany, and this time it came. Although Henry the Lion categorically refused, other German princes sent a thousand knights and as many foot soldiers. On the morning of May 29, 1176, when the imperial army met the Lombard force near the town of Legnano, about twenty miles northwest of Milan, Frederick’s powerful mounted force crashed into the less experienced Lombard cavalry and sent them flying in retreat.

It only remained to cut down the Lombard foot soldiers. But then a curious spectacle confronted the Germans. In the midst of the Lombard infantry stood a kind of sacred wagon, called a carroccio, bearing Milanese flags assembled around an altar and a cross. Seven hundred citizens who called themselves the “Company of Death” formed a phalanx before it. Savagely the German cavalry attacked, but the defenders fought back ferociously against repeated assaults, unhorsing and slaying many. Finally, in a pause in the battle, the soldiers of the Company of Death dropped to their knees, made the sign of the cross, and offered their lives to Christ. Frederick’s men may have scoffed, but it is doubtful that the emperor did. Could this be yet another sign? Was he still on the wrong path?

Suddenly trumpets blared from behind the imperial horsemen. The Lombard cavalry had re-formed and now smashed into the German rear, swiftly cutting its way right through to Barbarossa. His immediate guardsmen were killed; he himself, repeatedly slashed, was seen to fall, bleeding, from his horse. With the emperor down and surely dead, the Germans fled the field while the Lombards broke through and pillaged the imperial camp.

Some German knights escaped alive to bring the dreadful news to Empress Beatrix in Pavia, forty-five miles distant. So this, she must have thought, is how the story ends–but it was not. Several days later a small party of horsemen arrived at Pavia. Upright in their midst–bandaged, bloody, and bruised–rode her husband. Though the enemy had zealously searched the field for him or his body, he had somehow escaped. Now, amid the delirious rejoicing of his court, he had an urgent task still to perform. He sent emissaries to Anagni to acknowledge to the former Cardinal Roland that he was, indeed, Pope Alexander III and that in Pavia there was a beaten man who wanted to repent of his sins. Don’t fall for this, Alexander’s advisers warned; it has to be another of Frederick’s tricks. But Alexander knew his man, and he knew this was no trick.

Thus, the following summer, on July 21, 1177, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa signed a document known as the Peace of Venice, whereby he repudiated both the Oath of Wurzburg and the arrogant Declaration of Roncaglia, swore to respect the traditional rights of the Lombard cities, and proclaimed his empire at peace with both the Byzantine Empire and the Sicilian Normans. In a subsequent ceremony at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, he was formally received back into the church by Alexander, whose eyes, say the accounts, were streaming with tears. After Frederick led the pope’s horse into the church, symbolizing his subservience to the papacy, Alexander conferred his blessing on the emperor while the people intoned an ancient hymn, the “Te Deum,” which concludes, “In te, Dómine, sperávi. Non confúndar in ætérnum” (Lord, in thee have I trusted. Let me never be confounded).

Frederick reigned another thirteen years, and it is a matter of record that from then on he never was “confounded.” As he undoubtedly already suspected, Henry the Lion, who now more than matched the emperor himself in German lands and power, was about to mount a major challenge. Rather than respond with an army, however, in 1180 Frederick summoned Henry before a feudal court, then a relatively novel development, to answer to a charge of treason. When Henry stubbornly refused to appear, the court found him guilty of contumacy instead and deprived him of both Saxony and Bavaria.13 Only then did Frederick assemble an imperial army against him, and in 1181 the Lion finally capitulated. He was deprived of almost all his lands and banished from Germany, to return only with the emperor’s permission. Barbarossa was acquiring the legendary aura that would surround him for centuries to come.

The year 1184 stands as a pinnacle. In the seven years since his repentance many of Frederick’s youthful ambitions had somehow been accomplished. He was now unchallenged as ruler of Germany. The Lombard cities were at peace among themselves and with the empire, whose ultimate authority they recognized while retaining their cherished independence. The long rivalry between the Hohenstaufens and Sicilian Normans had subsided. The pope had become his strong ally and supporter. His two eldest sons were ready to enter the knighthood.

Emperor Frederick and Empress Beatrix therefore decided to put on a magnificent festival at Mainz. A great wooden church was constructed for the ceremony; dignitaries flocked in from across the empire and beyond; chefs, minstrels, and poets prepared entertainment. But following the knighting ceremony, just as further festivities were getting under way, it began to rain and then to flood. The church collapsed, killing fifteen people. Ominously reminded of those dreadful days in Rome seventeen years earlier, Frederick abruptly canceled the rest of the event.

The following month saw another major diplomatic achievement, however. Pope Alexander, vindicating the stalwart claim of the bishops of Rome to be the “Servus Servorum Dei” (Servant of the Servants of God), had died, reportedly of exhaustion, three years earlier. His successor, Pope Lucius III, now arranged a marriage between Barbarossa’s son Henry and Constance, aunt of the king of Sicily, who was believed impotent and likely to die without heirs. This marriage was in fact destined to unite the crowns of south and north Italy, and both Henry and his son after him would become emperors.

Even so, the great year ended sadly. In November 1184 Beatrix of Burgundy, the onetime child bride who had given Frederick six sons and two daughters and had accompanied him through most of the triumphs and disasters of his life, departed this world.14 Some claimed that this was the greatest loss he would ever suffer.

The marriage of Henry and Constance was celebrated fourteen months later, with great pomp and ceremony, by clergy from Lombardy, Sicily, and Germany in the last sizeable church Frederick’s troops had left standing in Milan. The city was rebuilding, the conflict that destroyed it assuredly over.

His sons now grown to manhood, Barbarossa’s work seemed to be done–yet such was not yet the case. In the fall of 1187 came appalling news: Jerusalem had fallen to the Muslims. Papal envoys hastened to the imperial court and to the courts of England and France, seeking aid for the Holy City. Propaganda spread everywhere, one picture portraying a horse defecating in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, another showing Arabs cruelly beating Christ. Such factors, however, may not have been what chiefly moved Frederick. To join a crusade, as everyone knew, could be a supreme act of penitence. Pondering his life, Barbarossa well knew how much he had to repent. And at nearly seventy he would also have known he was unlikely to return.

He therefore assembled what reputedly was the most highly trained and disciplined force ever to set out for Jerusalem, and also the largest: by one account, fifty thousand horsemen and one hundred thousand foot soldiers. Thieves, beggars, fraudsters, and prostitutes were forbidden to join. Crime against civilian populations was to be severely punished. Any lord accused of mistreating his men was to be tried by the clergy and executed if found guilty. Anyone discovered abusing a Jew would lose a hand and be sent home.

The massive contingent passed smoothly through Hungary but met setbacks in Byzantine territory, where Emperor Isaac Angelus, a weak-willed court sycophant who had gained the imperial throne by chance, mistrusted Barbarossa. Open warfare threatened before he finally agreed to transport the German army across the Dardanelles at Gallipoli. Thence, often parched for water and harassed by the Seljuk Turks, the army painfully crossed arid Anatolia and traversed the Taurus Mountains to the Cilician Plain, near Antioch.

And there, while fording the Saleph River in advance of his troops, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa perished, either by drowning or from a heart attack caused by the icy waters. With its hero-commander dead, discipline in his massive force collapsed. Some men deserted and went home; some units pushed south from Antioch and were quickly defeated; some moved south by sea and laid siege to Muslim-held Acre, on the Mediterranean coast, later joining the French and English forces. The great Muslim general Saladin, who reportedly had kept careful track of Frederick’s approach–and dreaded it–gratefully attributed his death to Allah.

The emperor’s body was carried into Antioch and buried, and there it remains, far from the circling ravens of Kyffhauser, where the legendary sleeper awaits the worldwide triumph of his people. Some might say that his people have triumphed already. With Japanese choirs diligently learning to sing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in its original language, with tens of thousands of children of every race and creed striving earnestly to master Brahms’s Violin Concerto, when the poet Goethe has been translated into more than two hundred languages, and when mankind travels to the planets on technology born in such places as Saxony, Austria, Burgundy, Prussia, Bavaria, and Swabia, German culture is certainly leaving an imprint on mankind without the use of an army.

But others see Frederick as triumphant in a very different way. He was a man who, like political leaders before and after him, strove passionately to hold together his strong sense of obligation to rule and yet still to be ruled by God. In the end he managed to do both, and that is no mean accomplishment.

This is the end of the Frederick I Barbarossa category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 96, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Frederick I Barbarossa from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at