Thursday, December 3, 2009

Monarch Profile: Frederick Barbarossa

One of the most legendary monarchs in German history is Frederick Barbarossa, the popular name of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Born in 1122 he accompanied his uncle, King Conrad III of Germany on the disastrous Second Crusade where he made a name for himself even as a young man. Early on he displayed the strength of will, ambition and military prowess that were to characterize his reign as German Emperor. When his uncle died it was Frederick who was designated heir and he became the next King of Germany. In 1155 he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Hadrian IV in Rome.

The driving ambition of Frederick Barbarossa was to restore the Holy Roman Empire to the preeminence it had enjoyed under Otto the Great or Charlemagne; to make Germany dominant in Europe. At first he worked in alliance with the Pope to restore imperial rule in northern Italy, then had to return to Germany to deal with some minor uprisings there, before returning to Italy where he clashed with the Pope and the city-states loyal to the Pontiff. In 1160 the Pope, Alexander III, excommunicated Frederick, who promptly rallied his German bishops to elect an anti-pope Victor IV. He tried to enlist the support of France to have Alexander deposed but King Louis would not play along.

After devastating much of northern Italy, Frederick had to return to Germany again to deal with feuding princes, particularly Henry the Lion of Saxony who was increasingly going his own way. Henry the Lion refused to join his next invasion of Italy where Frederick won another great victory but was forced to retreat back to Germany after his army was decimated by plague. He claimed German imperial influence over Poland, Bohemia, Hungary and tried to maintain cordial relations with England, France and the Byzantine Empire. However, not all of these new allies proved very helpful.

The Pope was still viewed as his primary rival for supreme power in the empire and a new alliance of northern Italian city-states, known as the Lombard League, had formed in alliance with the Pope to defend against Frederick. Their reasons were religious and political for the Pope was willing to let them handle their own affairs whereas the Emperor demanded their submission as part of a more unified empire. In 1174 Frederick Barbarossa led his fifth invasion of Italy and all Europe was shocked when the Lombard League defeated the fierce warrior monarch. Henry the Lion would not help and Frederick was forced to concede the campaign as a loss.

Emperor Frederick and Pope Alexander at last made peace but Frederick was anxious to enact revenge on Henry the Lion for his failure to support him. He tried Henry in absentia, led an imperial army against Saxony which was abandoned by its allies and Henry the Lion, once the most powerful lord in the German states, was soundly defeated. Frederick did not kill him but exiled him from Germany for a few years (he went to stay with his father-in-law King Henry II of England) before coming back as a relatively powerless nobleman. However, Frederick was gloomy about his defeat in Italy, being humbled by the Pope and because of the continued independence of the German lords in resisting his efforts to centralize power.

In 1198 Frederick Barbarossa left for what was to be his final military adventure; the much hyped Third Crusade with King Richard I of England and King Philip Augustus of France. This last effort at martial glory was not to be however, as the mighty Frederick died by drowning in the Saleph River on the way to Antioch on June 10, 1190. All Europe was shocked and the massive German army quickly fell apart. Some went home, some killed themselves and others even joined the Muslim forces. Frederick’s son, Frederick VI of Swabia, tried to preserve his body in vinegar and carry on with the loyal remnant of his forces to Jerusalem where he would bury his father. However, the efforts at preservation failed and the remains of the German Emperor ended up scattered in a number of churches without ever reaching Jerusalem.

Throughout his reign Frederick had known both victory and defeat, but it was also a time of high hopes of expansion and greatness for the German people. It is the vision of Frederick Barbarossa more than anything else that cemented his place in history as a legendary figure. Like King Arthur in England a popular legend arose that Frederick Barbarossa was not dead but sleeping inside a mountain and at some time in the future he will awaken to lead the German people to glory and greatness.

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