Part 1: A Dynastic Union To End All Wars

In the cold December of 1122, a child was born in a sleepy hunting lodge in the backwoods of Swabia. This boy would go on to be one of the Holy Roman Empire’s greatest Emperors: uniting the two enemy families of Welf and Hohenstaufen, taking the Empire to a territorial extent it would never again match, taming the power of the Pope, and setting up his successors to rule as Kings in Sicily. Had Frederick’s grand ambitions come to pass, the whole of Italy would have been welded into the Holy Roman Empire, forging a vast empire truly worth of its Ancient namesake, from the icy Baltic fjords to the smoky slopes of Mount Etna. But Frederick was merely a man: the Northern Italian city-states remained an insurmountable obstacle to his plans, as did the Pope and his troublesome Welf relatives – and he would meet his end in a senseless accident. Nevertheless, his achievements were significant, bequeathing his successors with a stable, effective Empire with a rising bureaucracy and a new purpose. After Charlemagne, his name is probably the most well-known of all of his fellow Emperors today, remembered with a distinctive nickname: Emperor Redbeard, Frederick I Barbarossa.

A depiction of Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa as a Crusader, from a manuscript contemporary with Frederick’s life. (via Encyclopedia Britannica)

The Child of Two Dynasties

The hunting lodge where the (as yet beardless) Barbarossa was born was built by his grandfather, the legendary founder of the house of Hohenstaufen, Duke Frederick I of Swabia. And though this would become Barbarossa’s retreat in later life, extended into a luxurious royal palace, the young Frederick grew up in an atmosphere of civil war. Barbarossa’s father, Duke Frederick II of Swabia, had married Judith of Bavaria, the daughter of the Welf Duke of Bavaria: this union had aimed to settle the growing rivalry between the two houses, and young Barbarossa’s twin Welf-Staufer heritage would doubtless inform his even-handed future policy. But the ambitions of the Staufers were not yet easily appeased. The elder Frederick maneuvered to become Holy Roman Emperor, but when Barbarossa was only four year old, his father was partially blinded during the conflicts between Welf and Hohenstaufen that broke out under the reign of Emperor Lothair III, rendering him illegible for the throne by ancient custom. Thus, the Duke’s younger brother Conrad took the throne instead – and‘Frederick the One-Eyed’ began to groom his son for his coming responsibilities.

Attending the Hoftage called by the uncle Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III would have been Frederick Barbarossa’s first experience of real politics. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Barbarossa’s early life was one was luxury. Whilst neither the Swabian dukes nor the Holy Roman Emperors were wealthy beyond imagination, Frederick Barbarossa would have had everything he could have needed: a settled upbringing in string of opulent residences and lodges, nourishing and delicious food, education in letters and military training. From the age of nineteen, Frederick attended his uncle’s Hoftage, the informal councils convened by the Emperor, where he was expected to learn the affairs of the Empire and its dizzying array of tiny fiefs. He grew into a physically imposing man with a sharp intelligence and a distinctive ginger beard (he is known today in Germany with the nickname ‘Kaiser Rotbart’, literally ‘Emperor Redbeard’).

Frederick Comes Of Age

His responsibilities began in earnest in his 25th year. Barbarossa’s uncle Emperor Conrad III had pledged to lead the Second Crusade to re-liberate the County of Edessa from the Seljuk Turks, and the young Staufer jumped at the opportunity to see real war. Barbarossa’s father, ageing and unwell, was furious, likely concerned that his foolhardy son would imperil their dynasty’s tenuous hold on power if he died in battle – and the Welfs were ever jockeying to reverse their losses (as we saw in our article on the Guelphs and Ghibellines, Emperor Conrad III stripped the Welfs of their German holdings, resulting in the Siege of Weinsberg). Nevertheless, Barbarossa took the cross in December 1147, and six weeks before he was to depart, his father passed away. Now as Duke of Swabia in his own right, Barbarossa marched from Germany to the Holy Land as part of his uncle Conrad’s army. The Second Crusade was a military disaster for the Westerners: the armies of Emperor Conrad III and King Louis VII of France travelled to the Holy Land separately and failed to coordinate their attacks, and so the Turks handily crushed them individually. Though the Crusade itself bore few fruit, Frederick saw his first military action, in which he acquitted himself bravely.

The young Frederick Barbarossa received acclaim for his conduct on the Second Crusade – pictured is a 15th century depiction of the unsuccessful Siege of Damascus (1148 CE) (via Wikimedia Commons)

On their march home, Emperor Conrad III paid homage at the court of Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, strengthening the alliance between the two monarchs. This alliance was predicated on a common enmity: the Norman Kingdom of Sicily – and Conrad reaffirmed the Hohenstaufens’ commitment to a restart his predecessor’s Byzantine-German campaign against the Sicilian King, Roger II. To understand this dynamic a little more fully, we need to fill in the history of Southern Italy – if you remember from our Guelphs and Ghibellines article, I told you that the Normans would be important!

Normans and Byzantines, Oh My!

The Eastern Roman Empire (a.k.a. the Byzantines) had a persistent interest in the Italian peninsula, which, with a few breaks, was an inescapable feature of the region’s politics throughout the Early and High Middle Ages. Since Byzantine Emperor Justinian I’s retaking of Italy from the Ostrogoths during the Gothic Wars (538-54 CE), the Byzantines fought to hold Italian coastal towns against both Lombard and Muslim invasions, with varying degrees of success. The reasons for this constant involvement in Italian affairs can be explained by both ideological and economic interest: Italy, as the homeland of the Roman Empire, was a huge legitimizing prize for a Byzantine Emperor, cementing the domestic political legacies of Justinian I and Basil I – and also, Italy was a wealthy land just across the Ionian Sea from Byzantine Greece, far ‘closer’ than we imagine it in our era of air-travel and motorways!

Before the Norman conquest of the Mezzogiorno, southern Italy was a patchwork of Lombard principalities, Byzantine coastal cities, and an Almohad Muslim Emirate in Sicily. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Thus, its loss to the Normans in the late 11th century was a crushing blow to the Byzantines. Norman mercenaries from north-west France had been flooding into the Italian peninsula from the start of the 1000s CE, drawn by the prospect of endless employment in the petty wars of the Lombard nobles against one-another and the Byzantine Empire. Under the noses of the preoccupied Byzantines and the German Emperors, individual Norman mercenaries began acquiring territories in the region, either in payment for their services, or merely seized from their former owners by force. By the time that the regional powers became aware of the danger these landed Normans posed, it was too late. In the early 1050s, the backbiting Norman nobles temporarily united to smash a joint Byzantine-Papal invasion aimed at subdueing them, leading to permanent recriminations between the allies and the eventual excommunication of the Byzantine Church (the Great Schism of 1054 CE). From this point on, the Popes would be constantly susceptible to pressure from the Sicilian Normans, their nearest largest neighbour to the south. The Normans went on to expel the Byzantines from the Mezzogiorno for good, taking their stronghold of Bari in 1071, and taking Sicily from the North African Muslims over the following 20 years.

By the late 11th century, Byzantium had been dislodged from the Italian peninsula altogether – the Norman states of Sicily and Apulia & Calabria dominated the Mezzogiorno (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Norman King Roger II of Sicily united all the mainland Norman states under his control in 1130 CE with the blessing of a pet Sicilian Antipope. Uncle Conrad’s predecessor Lothair III united with the official Pope and the Byzantine Emperor to try to smash Roger’s fledgling state, but Lothair was hamstrung by a rebellious army, and was forced to return north, passing away on his return journey. Soon after, Roger II reimposed his authority over the Pope, and was secure on the Sicilian throne. It was this situation that Conrad III and Manuel I Komnenos sought to reverse: Manuel in pursuit of a revived Byzantine foothold in Italy, and Conrad in pursuit of an ‘independent’ (ie. Pro-Hohenstaufen) Papacy.

In 1130 CE, King Roger II of Sicily united all of the Norman states in the Mezzogiorno into a unified Kingdom of Sicily. (via Italian American Podcast)

King Of The Romans

But Conrad’s duty duty would go unfulfilled. In 1152 CE, he became gravely ill. Contemporary historians recount that only two people were present at Conrad’s deathbed: Frederick Barbarossa, and a ministering bishop. Both attested that Conrad, of sound mind, had designated his nephew Frederick as his successor. We can surmise that Conrad, whose eldest son had predeceased him and whose only other was but four years old, selected Frederick as a stable ruler who could become a compromise candidate for both Welf and Hohenstaufen interests. Indeed, the Imperial election of 1152 was a brief affair: where many elections in the past were either fractious, requiring months of haggling and bribery to settle, or openly rebellious, with opposing irreconcilable camps electing their own Kings and anti-Kings, Frederick was elected as King of the Germans swiftly and unanimously. Even the disgruntled patriarch of the Welfs, Duke Henry the Lion of Saxony (Barbarossa’s second cousin), apparently gave Frederick his vote. Was the era of conflict between Welf and Hohenstaufen finally at an end?

A gilded-bronze effigy recorded as being made ‘in the likeness of the Emperor’, donated to Cappenburg Abbey by Frederick Barbarossa in the 1160s CE. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Judging by Frederick’s course of action, it was looking promising. Barbarossa issued a proclamation declaring his intent to end the civil conflict that had weakened the Empire consistently since the start of the Investiture Controversy almost three-quarters of a century ago. He engaged in a campaign of killing disloyalty with kindness: he would even reverse Conrad’s decision to strip the Welfs of the Duchy of Bavaria, granting it to Henry the Lion in 1156 CE. After all, he would need to muster Henry’s fearsome Saxon knights for his lofty aims: the incorporation of Italy into the Empire.

It’s All Part Of The Plan…?

Historians debate whether great historical figures who achieve much in their lifetimes have some master-plan in mind from the beginning. We can only guess at Barbarossa’s private thoughts, as documentary history of the High Middle Ages is patchy at best, often confined to official proclamations and rather dry ecclesiastical histories. Unlike previous Emperors, he made no move to rush to Rome to seek the Imperial crown from the Pope. Rather, he sent an austere letter to the Pope, merely informing him of his election – demonstrating that Barbarossa’s attitude to the Papacy would be markedly different to those of previous Emperors.

But if Barbarossa did aim to depose Roger II and incorporate all of Italy, in 1154 CE it appeared a daunting task. Northern Italy had become lawless in the century of neglect past Emperors had given it, with cities governing themselves in republican fashion. Pope Adrian IV was currently exiled entirely from Rome, which was in the hands of a Commune government styling itself as the revived Roman Senate. This is to say nothing of the Normans, expert warriors who had merged their traditional knightly tradition with the light infantry of the Mediterranean. But he had help: the Pope appealed for help, offering Barbarossa an Imperial coronation in return for restoration of his lands and freedom from the Normans. And he had temporarily united the German princes behind him. Barbarossa metaphorically cracked his knuckles and set to it.

First Blood In Italy

His first campaign in Northern Italy was spectacularly successful. The city of Milan submitted after a series of raids upon its hinterland, but the city of Tortona put up fierce resistance. Frederick Barbarossa subjected it to a brutal sack, leaving ‘no building standing but the churches’, according to tradition. In Pavia, the historical capital of the Kingdom of Italy, he had himself crowned with the Iron Crown of Lombardy – symbolically reuniting the lapsed realm with his German holdings. It is likely during this time that he acquired his unusual nickname: ‘Barbarossa’ – literally, ‘the red-bearded’ in Italian. When he reached Rome, he ruthlessly suppressed the Commune government, having its leaders hanged for rebellion and restoring the Papal States to the Pope.

The Iron Crown of Lombardy, possibly the oldest surviving royal regalia in the world, is now on permanent display at the Duomo of Monza. (via Encyclopedia Britannica)

However, things were not to go entirely smoothly with the Pontiff. Frederick Barbarossa’s letter simply notifying the Pope of his election had ruffled feathers in the Holy See – and Frederick was noted to have failed to comply with proper protocol: refusing to guide the Pope’s horse by its stirrup at their meeting. The Pope accordingly refused to give an official kiss to the Emperor, and a standoff ensued. Eventually, Barbarossa grudgingly performed the rituals, although it is said that he did so with bad grace, muttering ‘Pro Petro, Non Adriano’, whilst he did so. ‘For [Saint] Peter, not Adrian [IV]’, ie. I’ll do it for the office of the Pope, not for this Pope!

Holy Roman Emperor

Poor manners aside, Barbarossa was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor the following day, on 18th February 1155 CE. But the Roman populace were having none of it. A Roman mob attempted to crash the coronation, and Frederick had to order his occupying army to suppress the revolt, at a cost of more than a thousand Roman lives. But further campaigns would have to wait: an illness, likely because of Rome’s more tropical location, forced Barbarossa to abandon his planned campaign against King Roger II of Sicily. Back in Germany, Barbarossa again indulged in a round of reshuffling his feudal duchies to prevent revolt, granting he Duchy of Bavaria to Henry the Lion – although in a reduced state; the eastern marches of the Duchy were split off and turned into a new Duchy of Austria, which would become the power-base of the future Habsburg mega-dynasty. Around this time, he married the extremely eligible Beatrice of Burgundy – her father King Reynaud III of Burgundy had died without a male heir, and so she had inherited the kingdom – which Barbarossa would therefore add to his growing personal portfolio.

So by now, Frederick I has gotten his nickname: Frederick Barbarossa, from the Italian for ‘red-bearded’. The Emperor was secure on the throne, having bought off his rivals with duchies and titles – and his ambitions could not be greater. In our next parts, he will go for broke: he’ll invade Northern Italy again, using a mixture of brutality and Imperial rights, he would aim for the restoration of the Roman Empire. Will he succeed? Keep reading to find out!

Part 2: The War For Italy

After Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa returned from his first Italian campaign, he was well on the way to restoring the prestige of the Imperial throne. After a century of civil war, he had successfully quieted his squabbling princes and begun to bring the independent (or, he would say, merely rebellious) Northern Italian cities to heel. But his grand plans for a reunified Roman Empire would go rapidly off the rails. Italy would become a mire for the German Emperor. His authority could be imposed by force of arms – but whenever affairs called his attention elsewhere, matters would slip and local pressures would reassert themselves. His grand project would founder upon the rocks of Eastern-Mediterranean politics, outplayed by the Pope, the Sicilians and the Byzantine Emperors. Nevertheless, Frederick Barbarossa would make his indelible mark on the history of the Empire.

The Man Of Laws

Settling back into court life in 1155 CE, Frederick Barbarossa did not permit himself to relax. He applied the same rigirous energy that he gave to his military matters to the issue of civil administration, and he began to seriously experiment with legal bureaucracy as a solution to Germany’s wider problems. Whilst in Italy, it is likely that Barbarossa encountered the legal codes of Justinian in serious practise as part of the commune’s legal systems: this old Roman legal system had been revived in the vacuum of any Imperial power, and it justified legal authority without reference to God and the divine right of kings. At the same time, the Holy Roman Imperial legal system had just been forced to divorce itself from its theological justifications due to the Investiture Crisis: in the popular imagination, no longer did the Emperor receive his mandate directly from God (via the Pope) – now, he was merely an elected monarch amongst German princes. For this reason, the Justinian legal code doubtless caught the attention of Barbarossa, offering an independent, non-theological administrative framework, on the basis of common civic virtues, with which to run his Empire. As part of his attempts to mitigate internal conflict, he issued the Großer Reichslandfrieden (the Great Imperial Peace), which attempted with some success to displace armed feudal conflicts between rival nobles into a system of centrally-administered courts.

This 19th century painting depicts Emperor Henry IV declaring a Landfrieden in 1104 CE – but Frederick Barbarossa’s Großer Reichslandfrieden was the first to attempt to solve the issue of feuds and civil strife with a legal framework of courts. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Although we can only guess at the bedtime reading of the monarchs of the Middle Ages, it seems more than coincidental that Justinian law may have influenced Frederick Barbarossa’s Reichslandfrieden – it around this time that Barbarossa officially rescinded his recognition of Manuel I Komnenos as Emperor of the Roman world, claiming that title for himself. Had Barbarossa been impacted by his experiences of the Roman past whilst in Northern Italy? Were his ambitions now beginning to look more like those we outlined at the beginning: refounding the Roman Empire itself?

The Italian Ulcer Opens

However, things were not going well back in Italy. Since Barbarossa had abandoned his campaign against the Normans, the Byzantines suffered a significant defeat at their hands – and so, standing alone, Pope Adrian IV had no option but to make peace with King Roger II of Sicily, ceding a large swath of Holy Roman Imperial lands to the Normans without the Emperor’s permission. Further alienated by Barbarossa’s attempts to impose secular law on the Empire at the expense of the Church, the Pope now was a determined enemy of the Emperor, and so went about a public campaign to denigrate Barbarossa, which damaged his popularity with the German princes. The Pope even went as far as reopening the wounds of the Investiture Controversy by writing insulting letters to Barbarossa implying that the Imperial crown was merely a title bestowed by the Emperor, and that he ruled at the Pope’s pleasure. The Imperial Diet at Roncaglia, called to settle the legal status of the Northern Italian cities, voted to rescind their special status and impose taxation like any other part of the Empire – but the enforcement of its decrees was meeting stiff resistance. Before long, Frederick saw no other option but to march south again – which he did in 1158 CE, with the loyal (for now) Henry the Lion of Saxony.

Pope Adrian IV was the only Pope to have been born in England. This rare contemporary image of Adrian IV is from a Benedictine text dating to the second half of the 12th century CE. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Again, Barbarossa successfully reimposed military rule on Milan and the other smaller city-states – but not without cost. During this siege upon Milan, his new wife Empress Beatrice was somehow captured by the Milanese and was paraded through the streets upon a donkey as form of humiliation. When he recaptured the city and liberated his Empress, Frederick’s vengeance was terrible. Although the legends differ, some say that the town elders were forced to hold donkey excrement in their mouths, and say ‘Ecco la fica’ (‘behold the fig’). Other say that the elders were made to eat figs from the rear ends of donkeys. Nevertheless, this inventively scatological punishment entered Italian popular culture, with the offensive gesture known as the ‘fico’ (‘fig’, made with the thumb between the first and second finger of a clenched fist) said to originate from this incident.

The ‘fig’ gecture (top left) became associated with the revenge-humiliation of the Milanese elders by Frederick Barbarossa – although there is some evidence it had been used as an offensive gesture since the Roman era. Along with the ‘horns’ (bottom), it retained its meaning in central Italy well into the modern era, although by the 20th century its meaning was lost and it has fallen out of use. (via Midori Snyder)

Some cities were beginning to come to terms with Imperial rule, but this was far from uniform. The arrival of Barbarossa in 1154 CE had sparked off internal conflicts within the Northern Italian cities: the factions of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, formerly a cipher for local family feuds and petty interests, now became critically important political dynamics, resulting in sometimes open warfare between the two sides. Barbarossa was joined on campaign allied troops from the town of Cremona (where the local Bishop had successfully allied with the Ghibelline political faction to achieve ascendency). But whilst the Emperor was preoccupied with the siege of Crema (a neighbouring Guelph-dominated town), Pope Adrian IV died unexpectedly. The stress of a difficult papacy had driven Adrian to exhaustion and illness, and whilst his death removed Frederick Barbarossa’s determined enemy, it threw Papal politics into chaos.

Papal Politics

Amid the breakdown of Papal-Imperial relations, the election of a new Pope was bitterly contentious. The majority of Cardinals in the Sacred Council elected the pro-Sicilian Pope Alexander III – but a minority refused to consent, and elected the pro-Imperial Victor IV. Alexander was widely seen as a continuity candidate of Adrian’s anti-Imperial policy; he had been one of the Papal legates who negotiated the peace with King Roger II of Sicily, and he had also been tasked with delivering Adrian’s calculatedly belittling letters to Frederick. The rival Popes set about canvassing the other European powers for support for each of their respective camps, and meanwhile Frederick laid waste to the city of Crema, levelling the city and banning its inhabitants from rebuilding (the city would be a deserted ruin for two decades). Pope Alexander III called a Synod at Pavia to settle the disputed election, but Frederick packed the synod with Imperial sympathizers. There, he demanded that Alexander submit to Imperial decree. When Alexander refused, replying that his authority was subject only to God, Barbarossa, unsurprisingly, declared for Victor, and the Synod followed suit. In kind, Alexander excommunicated both Victor and Frederick.

The town of Crema, depicted here on ceramic tiles made from a 15th century map of the city, was levelled by Barbarossa as punishment for resisting Imperial authority. 20,000 inhabitants were banished from the city, and were mot permitted to rebuild until after the Peace of Constance in 1183 CE. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, Frederick’s intervention southward had been little more than a firefighting mission. The Papacy was now firmly within the Sicilian orbit, and although his anti-Pope had received international support from across Europe, Alexander III already had powerful backers in the form of the Iberian states and Sicily. Emperor Frederick again attempted to settle the schism with the aid of King Louis VII of France – apparently, the French King was even nearing the site of the meeting when he received word that the Emperor had again packed the meeting with pro-Imperial churchmen. Stung by this lack of good-faith, the French King refused to attend the meeting, and returned home.

Brutality At Home And Abroad

Failing to make headway in his acquisition of the Papacy, Barbarossa hoped that military affairs might swing his way. But resistance to Imperial rule (and, more importantly, Imperial taxes) was beginning to harden. The brutal destruction of Crema did not cow the other states into submission as he had hoped: rather, it simply raised the stakes, and made them all the more determined to resist. Milan, again, went into rebellion in 1162 CE, and this time, the Emperor did not mince words. He gave Milan, one of the wealthiest and most populous towns in a wealth and populous region, the ‘Crema treatment’. He razed around two-thirds of the city, carting off large amount of treasure and relics, and destroying an incalculable amount of priceless Ancient architecture and artefacts. When they heard of the atrocity inflicted upon the Milanese, other city states finally bent the knee – but they did so with fingers crossed behind their backs. When Barbarossa had received their submissions he again left, called home by rumblings of discontent amongst his princes, hoping against hope that his rule over Northern Italy would stick, over the bones of many of his supposed subjects.

A 19th century engraving of Frederick Barbarossa entering into Milan in 1162 CE. The fallen Classical masonry symbolizes the destruction of the ancient Roman city by Barbarossa. (via Look And Learn)

Back in Germany, Frederick had to deal with domestic issues once again. Barbarossa demonstrated that his brutality was not reserved merely for his Italian subjects, but for his fellow Germans as well: he put an end to a revolt in the Free Imperial city of Mainz, which had been inspired by the example of the Italian Communes, returning it smouldering and bloody to its Imperial Archbishop. As well, Henry the Lion, Frederick’s chief military ally and scion of the Welf family, was accruing favours from the Emperor at an alarming rate, and his neighbours were chafing at his ambitions on their lands. Henry was clearly becoming dissatisfied with his position as second fiddle – when Barbarossa went south to again address the intransigence of the Northern Italian cities and to install his anti-Pope in Rome, the Lion of Saxony demurred, citing his conflicts with his neighbours as well as his expansion eastward into the land of the Slavs. Frederick chose to ignore the snub, for now, and instead made the journey anyway.

Henry the Lion (centre-left), depicted at his wedding to Matilda of England (centre-right) – a contemporary depiction, taken from the Gospels of Henry the Lion, a masterpiece of 12th century illumination commissioned for him personally. (via Wikimedia Commons)

In his absence, the Northern Italians had organised themselves. Horrified and alienated by the utter brutality of the Emperor, the cities had formed an alliance. Several years earlier, the Veronese League had formed between a handful of independent city-states in the North-West, including Verona and several smaller towns. Now, the idea of mutual defence against Imperial interference had spread: dozens of Italian cities had formed the Lombard League, which determined to resist Barbarossa at all costs. The Emperor could no longer drive wedges between the cities, and play games with their local Guelph/Ghibelline politics to divide them. But first, Barbarossa’s target was Rome. And he had to strike fast.

A Roman Disaster

Barbarossa had heard grave news. Rumours abounded that Pope Alexander III was attempting to enter into an alliance with Emperor Manuel I Komnenos of Byzantium. Relations between the Eastern Roman Emperor and Barbarossa had also soured over the years: Barbarossa’s claim to be the sole Roman Emperor, and his attacks on Byzantine-sympathetic Italian cities in his territory had hampered any chance he had of holding together the remains of his anti-Sicilian alliance. A Papal-Sicilian-Byzantine axis, added to the northern Lombard League, would spell a permanent end to his Italian ambitions: he had to seize the Papacy at once. Frederick sent an Imperial army numbering about 1,300 under Christian of Mainz to Rome in order to capture the city. Attacking the small city of Tusculum as a staging post for the main attack, Christian was surprised by an enormous Roman Communal army numbering about 10,000, hoping to catch the Imperial forces unprepared. Despite this spectacular numerical disadvantage, the Imperial force was highly disciplined and well-armed. The Communal army was smashed to pieces at the Battle of Monte Porzio, and only a minority of the Romans made it back within the city walls; Christian of Mainz took many thousands prisoner.

The crushing defeat of the Roman Communal militia at the Battle of Monte Porzio took place on the plain below the Monte Porzio Catone hill on the outskirts of Rome, pictured in a modern photograph. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Hurrying up with the main Imperial army, Frederick was astonished to find the city nearly defenceless. Pope Alexander III soon realised that the situation was hopeless and fled the city. Barbarossa was once again master of Rome, and elected to have himself re-crowned Holy Roman Emperor (this time by his anti-Pope) – but again, the Emperor soon became seriously ill. As the sickness decimated his army’s ranks, he was forced again to abandon his campaign southward, and again, matters collapsed without the presence of the Imperial armies to enforce peace at the point of the sword. Having lost his political support, Frederick’s anti-Pope effectively barricaded himself into a fortified manor, and died of cancer soon after. The replacement anti-Pope was not widely recognised, would come to an agreement with Pope Alexander III several years later. Alexander had weathered the storm, was in vigorous health, and would not be seriously threatened by Barbarossa again.

The Final Showdown

Thus, Barbarossa’s dream, by the end of 1169 CE, looked to be shattered. The Papacy was irrevocably poisoned against him, the Sicilians had sunk the Byzantine fleet and secured the Pope, and the Byzantines were frostily uninterested in any joint campaigns. But Barbarossa was far from finished: he had one last campaign in him. In preparation, he secured his diplomatic position at home and abroad, reaching out to the Byzantine Emperor for détente, and attempting to mend his battered relationship with the great Western kingdoms of France and England. He placed his young son, future Emperor Henry VI, on the throne of the Germans as co-King, a long-standing tradition in the Empire to leave no doubt as to succession.

A Lombard League standard bearer, depicted re-entering the city of Milan after its destruction in 1162 CE. Detail from a bas-relief on the Porta Romana (Roman Gate) of Milan, dating from 1171 CE. (via Wikimedia Commons)

But whilst he was away, the Italian city-states were not idle. The citizens of Milan had defied the ban on its reconstruction, and had been busy repairing and extending the city’s sleighted walls. Pope Alexander III had even acceded to be the nominal leader of the Lombard League – and the cities delivered a stinging slap to the Emperor by founding a new free city in the region without Barbarossa’s permission, named Alessandria in honour of the Pope. The Lombard League would be supported by the Papal States, Sicily and even Byzantium. Frederick had indeed succeeded in uniting Italy – but against him, not under him. Raising a huge Imperial army numbering many thousands from his lands of Swabia, the Rhineland and Burgundy, Barbarossa crossed the Alps for the final showdown, and made straight for Alessandria.

The stakes could not be higher. On the one hand, the Lombard League were fighting to save not only their cities’ rights and freedoms, but also to prevent Frederick from laying waste to their homes, as he had done to Tortona, Crema and Milan. On the other, Emperor Frederick’s ambitions for the whole Italian peninsula hinged upon cracking apart the Lombard League’s will to fight, and bringing them beaten back into the Imperial fold. On the blood-slicked fields of Legnano, the matter would be settled, once and for all.

Part 3: The Greatest Holy Roman Emperor?

Frederick’s fifth and final campaign in Italy would not be like the others. It was now 1174 CE, and the cities of the Lombard League had had five years of peace – and they hadn’t wasted it. Their troops were now far more disciplined, with military guilds that organised and trained their citizenry, and their wealthy citizens had equipped them with state-of-the-art weapons including powerful steel-limbed crossbows and anti-siege weaponry. Frederick was attempting to reimpose feudalism on city-states whose wealth and circumstances had allowed them to break their chains – and they weren’t going back.

A medieval statue of renegade Duke Henry the Lion of Saxony, taken from Brunswick Cathedral, which he founded in the late 12th century CE. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Barbarossa’s grand Imperial army laid siege to the newly-built city of Alessandria – the Emperor and his generals expected a quick victory, before the march onward to Rome. But the Imperial armies were repulsed and beaten back by the defenders of the city. This event was met with absolute shock around the courts of Europe: an Imperial army stopped in its tracks by a ragtag bunch of upstart peasants? A story spread that a quick-thinking peasant had fed the last of his grain to his cow, which he then allowed to be captured by the Imperial besiegers. Upon cutting the cow open, the Imperial troops were dismayed to see grain tumbling from the unfortunate creature’s belly. If they could spare so much grain for their cows, they reasoned, then surely a siege is pointless – and thus they lifted the siege and the city was spared. Though this legend appears throughout medieval history in several different sieges (eg. the Siege of Carcasonne in the 8th century), and the Imperial withdrawal may well have had more to do with the depletion of the Imperial forces by camp diseases, it was nevertheless a serious warning sign for Barbarossa’s prospects.

A reconstructed bust of Dame Carcas (Lady Carcass), who is said to have saved the city of Carcasonne from Muslim invaders using the same grain-fed animal trick as that which supposedly saved Alessandria – in the Carcasonne version, the animal is usually a pig, which is thrown from the walls of the city. Interestingly, the tale appears in the historical record at about the same time as the siege of Alessandria. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The depleted Imperial army retreated to Pavia, Frederick’s Italian capital, where Frederick Barbarossa was forced to dismiss many of the exhausted troops. With a much-reduced force, if Frederick wanted to continue his campaign, then he needed help. And there was only one person he could ask: Henry the Lion. Summoned to meet Frederick’s court at Chiavenna, the second-cousins embraced – but Henry was stiff and cold. He refused the Emperor his aid. Controlling his anger in public, Frederick Barbarossa asked the German nobles and Italian allies present at the meeting for their support – which they granted, but could only scrape together another couple of thousand reinforcements at best. He would have to make do with what he had – if the Emperor was uneasy, he didn’t show it. He couldn’t show it. His throne would not allow it.

Lombards Learning Lessons

For their part, the Lombard League had learned lessons from the past two decades’ war. Waiting for the Imperial armies to besiege them one-by-one had been a fools’ strategy of futile individual resistance. A disorganized massed sally, as was attempted by the Romans at the disastrous Battle of Monte Porzio, was also a hiding to nothing. The Lombards needed experienced warriors, training and organized tactics – and expert leadership. The civilian leadership of the League wisely acceded actual military command to a man of action: Guido da Ladriano. Though legends and popular tales surround the man, we know little of him beyond his name and a handful of glancing documentary references. He was Consul of Milan during Frederick’s second invasion of Italy, and he was subsequently imprisoned by Imperial forces in Pavia. By 1167 CE he had become a leading councillor of the Lombard League – and it is recorded that he was an experienced military commander. Even though the League’s forces were still streaming in to the staging point at Milan, he determined to meet the Imperial army in open battle as quickly as possible, before it could receive its reinforcements, marching directly on Frederick’s capital at Pavia to force an engagement.

The 20th century ‘Monument to A Warrior of Legnano’ near the battle-site in modern Legnano. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Lombard army moved with haste through the night, whilst Barbarossa’s army rested at a nearby monastery. Even though Frederick’s forces were only 3,000 in number, they were almost all heavy cavalrymen, professional knights equipped with the best armour and weaponry in Europe, each one backed by vast estates in Swabia and the Rhineland. By contrast, though they were better organised and equipped than before, the Lombard army was still effectively a volunteer militia, consisting mostly of burghers and peasants from the cities and their hinterlands.

The Fields Of Legnano

The two armies met at Legnano, north-west of Milan, just as May was slipping into June, in 1176 CE. The Lombards had expected Barbarossa to approach from a different direction, and so were surprised to find their cavalry screen being driven back by the vanguard of the Imperial knights – pinning the citizen infantry with their backs to a river. Common military wisdom of the day placed the heavy cavalry as the ultimate battlefield force, against which infantry had no chance. Finding the Lombard League’s footmen unable to retreat, Frederick Barbarossa ordered a headlong charge – his military style and his desire to uphold the honour of the Imperial throne at all costs would never allow him to refuse an opportunity like this. One might have expected the poorly-equipped Veronese and Milanese militia to crumple and flee, as the Roman Commune’s had done. But what happened would point the way to the rest of Medieval military history.

The enormous carroccio of Milan – note the city’s emblems and banners, as well as the team of oxen pulling the cart. At Legnano, the militia fought to the death to defend the carroccio. From a medieval miniature. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Under the direction of the condotierro Guido da Ladriano, the militia closed into four or five ranks, planting large shields or pavises into the earth before them, and levelling spears and lances between them to make an impenetrable hedgehog – this is an early example of the massed spear/pike formations that would end the age of the knightly cavalry in battles like the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 or the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302. At the centre of the formation was the Carroccio, a large oxen-drawn cart carrying the cities’ emblems and banners: the militias knew that they were defending the very independence of their cities themselves. The Imperial cavalry charged the Lombard formation again and again, driven onward by Barbarossa’s implacable force. But, though at times the Imperial knights broke several ranks of the formation, they never managed to pierce its heart.

The battle lasted all day, with some breaks to recover and gather up the dead. In the late afternoon, the Lombard cavalry screen which had been driven off in the opening phase of the battle returned to the field, crashing into the rear of the Imperial army, causing panic and giving the opportunity for the Lombard infantry to finally counterattack. The Imperial standard-bearer fell, spitted by a Lombard spear, and the Imperial army collapsed. The Emperor, bleeding from a dozen injuries and psychologically broken, fled the field, only narrowly escaping capture. His whereabouts were unknown for days, and many believed he had been killed in the fighting, until he limped back into Pavia with only a few dozen faithful knights.

A Humiliating Peace

The Battle of Legnano marked the end of Frederick Barbarossa’s ambitions. The Italian city militias, under their condotierri commanders, had asserted their right to independence in the most emphatic way possible – and Barbarossa had almost not returned home to tell the tale. The only option now was formal reconciliation with Pope Alexander III, and the recognition of the rights of the Italian cities. In the Treaty of Venice in 1177 CE, the Pope and the Emperor were formally reconciled – and much like Emperor Henry IV at the gates of Canossa in the snow, Barbarossa ate humble pie. He abandoned his anti-Pope, and recognised Alexander as sole Pontifex. Since it was his anti-Pope who had crowned his Queen Beatrice as Holy Roman Empress, she had to revert to being merely Queen of the Germans. And Frederick was forced to observe a 15-year peace with King Roger II of Sicily, paving the way for an unparalleled period of growth in the Mezzogiorno, with Roger carving out a Siculo-Norman-Byzantine empire in the region that covered Italy, Sicily and the North African coast.

The spectacular Capella Palatina in Palermo dates from the Sicilian Golden Age, largely made possibly by Frederick Barbarossa’s military failures in Northern Italy. (via Wikimedias Commons)

Negotiations with the Lombard League cities were more protracted, but eventually they hammered out the Peace of Constance in 1183 CE: the Lombard League would remain in effect, with cities pledging mutual defence against any future interference from the Holy Roman Emperor, and Frederick had to recognise their councils and their laws. However, they remained a formal part of the Empire, mandating an oath of allegiance to the Emperor and having their republican governments formally invested by his grace – and whilst the lower courts remained in the hands of local communal jurists, the Imperial court retained the right to hear appeals. But in practical terms their de facto independence was all but confirmed.

A Tragic End

Frederick’s last years contain a handful of successes – but one gets the impression that Barbarossa had spent his considerable energies and intellect upon Italy, and was now much diminished. Whilst he could not intervene in Sicilian affairs militarily due to the treaty with the Pope, he could still influence their dynastic affairs. Through clever politicking, he married his son Henry to King Roger II’s daughter Constance, and in time the Sicilian throne would fall into the hands of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, achieving what he had manifestly failed to do with force of arms. Responding to the capture of Jerusalem by the Ayyubid Sultan Salah al-Din (a.k.a. Saladin), Western Europe geared up for another Crusade – and Frederick, eager to regain some of the military prestige and glory he lost in Northern Italy, pledged to lead it.

Prolific 19th century engraver H. Vogel’s dramatic depiction of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa’s downing in the River Saleph. (via Eon Pictures)

But this was a century on from the First Crusade, and the politics of the region were not so easily laid aside. Frederick Barbarossa’s old rivalry with the Byzantine Emperors flared, and Barbarossa led a callous plundering expedition across the Eastern Roman Empire. Whilst crossing a river in Armenian Cilicia on the 10th June 1190 CE, before he had engaged Saladin in battle, Barbarossa would suffer a freak accident. Accounts differ: some say that he had stopped to bathe briefly, whilst some say that his horse slipped and threw him into the water. Regardless, the sixty-six year old warrior, weighed down by his armor, drowned in waist-high water.

Taming The Lion

A footnote to this tale of frustrated ambition is how Frederick dealt with Henry the Lion of Saxony. The head of the Welf household had become very unpopular in his use (abuse?) of Barbarossa’s desire to end their families’ feud, and so had few allies when Frederick publically blamed his lack of support for the failure of the Italian campaigns. Barbarossa tried Henry in absentia for his disloyalty, finding him guilty (to the shock of nobody) – and invaded Henry’s lands with his loyal vassals. Whilst this might have had the making of a new civil war, the Lion of Saxony had alienated all of his allies, and so was forced to confess his wrongs before the Imperial Diet. Henry was exiled, and would spend the next three years bouncing around his relatives’ courts in Europe. When Barbarossa left on the Third Crusade, the Lion saw his opportunity to make a come-back, raising a fresh army to contest his ancestral lands – but Barbarossa’s son Emperor Henry IV would defeat him once again. The Lion, finally tamed, would retire to his lands and lick his wounds.

The Greatest Emperor?

So. If Frederick Barbarossa’s Italian ulcer ended in a near-total defeat, why do we consider him one of the greatest medieval Holy Roman Emperors? In between his campaigns, Frederick engaged in extremely effective statebuilding: though was seen as indulgence and lavishness by his contemporaries, Barbarossa’s policy of ending disputes within the Empire bore fruit, with a huge reduction in civil strife. His turn toward legal structures and an independent secular bureaucracy (as inspired by Justinian’s codes) marked an important step toward the development of the Imperial state without recourse to a Church bureaucracy after the Investiture Controversy: compare, for example, with Emperor Otto I’s Imperial Church policy. But, at the same time as having some forward-looking elements, Frederick was without doubt a Medieval king: he spent enormous resources and many thousands of lives trying to turn back the clock on the collapse of Northern Italian feudalism, and only made peace when all other options had been exhausted. His legacy is a complex one: 19th century German romantics saw him as an example of Teutonic glory; 20th century nationalists weaponized him as an example of the ‘master race’. But when we look at him in detail, we can see him for what he was: an Emperor with one foot in the future, and one in the past.


About Charles J Lockett

Ever since Charles was a lad, he’s been a history obsessive – summer holidays were always spent dragging his family around Welsh castles! He pursued that passion through University, studying Early-Modern Europe and the French Revolutions, receiving his MA in Politics from the University of Sheffield. Nowadays, he is a writer specialising in history and politics, based in Yorkshire, UK. In his spare time, he is a Dungeon Master, aspiring fantasy novelist and cat dad.