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Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor

Frederick in a 13th century Chronicle
Frederick in a 13th century Chronicle

Frederick I of Hohenstaufen (1122June 10 1190), also known as Frederick Barbarossa ("Frederick Redbeard") was elected king of Germany on March 4, 1152 and crowned Holy Roman Emperor on June 18 1155. He was also Duke of Swabia (1147-1152, as Frederick III) and King of Italy (1154-1186). As son of Duke Frederick II of Swabia and Judith of Bavaria, from the rival House of Guelph (or Welf), Frederick descended from Germany's two leading principal families, making him an acceptable choice for the Empire's princely electors as heir to royal crown.

In 1147 Frederick became duke of Swabia and shortly afterwards made his first trip to the East, accompanying his uncle, the German king Conrad III, on the Second Crusade. The expedition proved to be a disaster, but Frederick distinguished himself and won the complete confidence of the king. When Conrad died in February 1152, only Frederick and the prince-bishop of Bamberg were at his deathbed. Both asserted afterwards that Conrad had, in full possession of his mental powers, handed the royal insignia to Frederick and indicated that he, rather than his own six-year-old son, the future Frederick IV, Duke of Swabia, should succeed him as king. The kingdom's princely electors were persuaded by this account and by Barbarossa's energetic pursuit of the crown and he was chosen as the next German king at Frankfurt on the 4th of March and crowned at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) several days later.

The new king was anxious to restore the Empire to the position it had occupied under Charlemagne and Otto I the Great, and saw clearly that the restoration of order in Germany was a necessary preliminary to the enforcement of the imperial rights in Italy. Issuing a general order for peace, he was prodigal in his concessions to the nobles. Abroad, Frederick intervened in the Danish civil war between Svend III and Valdemar I of Denmark, and negotiations were begun with the East Roman emperor, Manuel I Comnenus. It was probably about this time that the king obtained a papal assent for the annulment of his childless marriage with Adela (Adelheid) of Vohburg (through whom he had gained ownership of much of Alsace), on the somewhat far-fetched grounds of consanguinity (his greatgreatgrandfather was a brother of Adela's greatgreatgreatgrandmother), and made a vain effort to obtain a bride from the court of Constantinople. On his accession Frederick had communicated the news of his election to Pope Eugenius III, but neglected to ask for the papal confirmation. Eager to make amends with the Papacy, Frederick concluded a treaty with Rome in March 1153, by which he promised in return for his coronation to support the Pope in his relations with the rebellious citizens of Rome.

He undertook six expeditions into Italy, in the first of which he was crowned emperor in Rome by Pope Adrian IV in the aftermath of the overthrow by Imperial forces of the republican city commune led by Arnold of Brescia. He left Italy in the autumn of 1155 to prepare for a new and more formidable campaign. Disorder was again rampant in Germany, especially in Bavaria, but general peace was restored by Frederick's vigorous measures. Bavaria was transferred from Henry II Jasomirgott, margrave of Austria, who became duke of Austria in compensation, to Frederick's formidable younger cousin Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony, of the house of Guelph/Welf. On June 9 1156 at Würzburg, Frederick married Beatrice of Burgundy , daughter and heiress of Renaud III , becoming King of Burgundy and adding the sizeable realm of the County of Burgundy, then stretching from Besançon (Bisanz) to the Mediterranean, to his possessions.

In June 1158, Frederick set out upon his second Italian expedition, accompanied by Henry the Lion and his fearsome Saxons, which resulted in the establishment of imperial officers in the cities of northern Italy, the revolt and capture of Milan, and the beginning of the long struggle with Pope Alexander III, which resulted in the excommunication of the emperor in 1160. In response, Frederick declared his support for Antipope Victor IV. Returning to Germany towards the close of 1162, Frederick prevented the escalation of conflicts between Henry the Lion of Saxony and a number of his neighbouring princes who were growing weary of Henry's power, influence and territorial gains. He also severely punished the citizens of Mainz for their rebellion against Archbishop Arnold. The next visit to Italy in 1163 saw his plans for the conquest of Sicily ruined by the formation of a powerful league against him, brought together mainly by the taxes collected by the imperial officers.

Frederick then organized the magnificent celebration of the canonization of Charlemagne at Aix-la-Chapelle, while restoring the peace in the Rhineland. In October 1166, Frederick went once more on journey to Italy to secure the claim of his Antipope Pascal, and the coronation of his wife Beatrice as Holy Roman Empress. This campaign was stopped by the sudden outbreak of the plague which threatened to destroy the Imperial army and drove the emperor as a fugitive to Germany, where he remained for the ensuing six years. This time, Henry of Saxony had refused to join Frederick on his Italian trip, tending instead to his own disputes with neighbors and his continuing expansion into Slavic territories in northeastern Germany. Conflicting claims to various bishoprics were decided and imperial authority was asserted over Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary. Friendly relations were entered into with the East Roman emperor Manuel, and attempts were made to come to a better understanding with Henry II of England and Louis VII of France.

In 1174, Frederick made his fifth expedition to Italy and, in response, the pro-papal Lombard League was formed to stand against him. With the refusal of Henry the Lion to bring help to Italy, the campaign was a complete failure. Frederick suffered a heavy defeat at the battle of Legnano near Milan, on May 29 1176, where he was wounded and for some time believed to be dead. He had no choice other than begin negotiations for peace with Alexander III and the Lombard League. In the Peace of Venice , 1177, Frederick and Alexander III reconciled. The Emperor acknowledged the sovereignty of the Papal States, and in return, Alexander acknowledged the Emperor's overlordship of the Imperial Church. The Lombard cities, however continued to fight until 1183, when, in the Peace of Constance , Frederick ceded the right to freely elect town magistrates.

Frederick did not forgive Henry the Lion for his refusal to come to his aid in 1174. Taking advantage of the hostility of other German princes to Henry, who had successfully established a powerful and contiguous state comprising Saxony, Bavaria and substantial territories in the north and east of Germany, Frederick had Henry tried in absentia by a court of bishops and princes in 1180, declared that Imperial law overruled traditional German law, and had Henry stripped of his lands and declared an outlaw. He then invaded Saxony with an Imperial army to bring his cousin to his knees. Henry's allies deserted him, and he finally had to submit in November 1181. He spent three years in exile at the court of his father-in-law Henry II of England, before being allowed back into Germany, where he finished his days as duke of Brunswick, peacefully sponsoring arts and architecture, and died on 6 August 1195.

After making his peace with the Pope, Frederick embarked on the Third Crusade (1189), a grand expedition in conjunction with the French army, led by king Philip Augustus together with the English, under Richard Lionheart. Frederick never saw the Holy Land because, after two victorious battles in Anatolia, he drowned while crossing the Saleph River in Cilicia, south-eastern Anatolia, on 10 June 1190. His son Frederick VI of Swabia carried on with the remnants of the army, with the aim of burying the Emperor in Jerusalem, but efforts to conserve his body in vinegar failed. Hence, his flesh was interred in the Church of St. Peter in Antiochia, his bones in the cathedral of Tyre, and his heart and inner organs in Tarsus.

Frederick's untimely death left the Crusader army under the command of the rivals Philip of France and Richard of England, who had traveled to Palestine separately by sea, and ultimately led to its dissolution. Richard Lionheart continued to the East were he fought Saladin with mixed results, but ended without accomplishing his main goal, the capture of Jerusalem.

Frederick sends out the boy to see whether the ravens still fly.
Frederick sends out the boy to see whether the ravens still fly.

Frederick is the subject of many legends, including that of a sleeping hero, one initially linked to his grandson Frederick II. He is said not to be dead, but asleep with his knights in a cave in Kyffhäuser mountain in Thuringia, Germany, and that when ravens should cease to fly around the mountain he would awake and restore Germany to its ancient greatness. According to the story his red beard has grown through the table at which he sits. His eyes are half closed in sleep, but now and then he raises his hand and sends a boy out to see if the ravens have stopped flying.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 was codenamed Operation Barbarossa.

Frederick's descendents by his wife Beatrice

See also: Dukes of Swabia family tree

Fiction about Frederick I


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