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Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor

Frederick II (December 26, 1194December 13, 1250), Holy Roman Emperor of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, was pretender to the title of King of the Romans from 1212, unopposed holder of that monarchy from 1215, and Holy Roman Emperor from 1220 until his death in 1250. His empire was frequently at war with the Papal States, so it is not surprising that he was excommunicated twice. Pope Gregory IX went so far as to call him the anti-Christ. After his death the idea of his second coming where he would rule a 1000-year reich took hold, possibly in part because of this.

Said to speak nine languages and be literate in seven [Armstrong 2001, p. 415] (at a time when many monarchs and nobles were not literate at all), Frederick was a very modern ruler for his times, being a patron of science and learning, and having fairly advanced views on economics. He abolished state monopolies, internal tolls, and import regulations within his empire.

He was known in his own time as the Stupor mundi ("wonder of the world"). Frederick wrote a manual on the art of falconry, De arte venandi cum avibus ("On the art of hunting with birds"), of which many illustrated copies survive from the 13th and 14th centuries.



Born in Jesi, near Ancona, Frederick was the son of the emperor Henry VI who died in 1197, when Frederick was three years old. The previous year in Frankfurt am Main the child Frederick had already been selected to become King of the Germans, but the early death of his father prevented the accession of such a young child; that monarchy was, instead shared by Philip of Swabia and Otto IV. His mother, Constance, had been in her own right queen of Sicily; she had Frederick crowned King of Sicily and established herself as regent. In Frederick's name she dissolved Sicily's ties to the Empire and also renounced his claims to the German kingship and empire. Upon her death in 1198, Pope Innocent III succeeded as Frederick's guardian until he was of age, and the young King of Sicily was educated at Rome.

Otto of Brunswick had been crowned Holy Roman Emperor by pope Innocent III in 1209; In September 1211 at the Diet of Nuremberg Frederick was elected (in absentia) German King by a rebellious faction backed by Innocent, who had fallen out with Otto and excommunicated him; he was again elected in 1212 and crowned December 9, 1212 in Mainz; yet another coronation ceremony took place in 1215. Being King of the Germans had been the traditional precursor step for emperorship. However, until the debacle at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214 Frederick's authority was quite tenuous, and he was only recognized in southern Germany, as Otto IV had largely held on to the reins of royal and imperial power until then despite the excommunication, especially in northern Germany, the center of Guelph power. As a result of the decisive military loss at Bouvines Otto had lost the practical means to hold on to kingship and emperorship (and he withdrew to the Guelph hereditary lands to die, virtually supporterless, in 1218). (See also Guelphs and Ghibellines.) The German princes, supported by Innocent III, again elected Frederick king of Germany in 1215, and the pope crowned him king in Aachen on July 23, 1215. It was not until another five years had passed, and only after further negotiations between Frederick, Innocent III, and Honorius who succeeded to the papacy after Innocent's death in 1216, that Frederick was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome by Honorius III on November 22, 1220. At the same time his oldest son Henry took the title of King of the Romans.

Unlike most Holy Roman emperors, Frederick spent little of his life in Germany. After his coronation in 1220, he remained either in the Kingdom of Sicily or on Crusade until 1236, when he made his last journey to Germany. (At this time, the Kingdom of Sicily, with its capital at Palermo, extended onto the Italian mainland to include most of southern Italy.) He returned to Italy in 1237 and stayed there for the remaining 13 years of his life, represented in Germany by his son Conrad.

In the Kingdom of Sicily, he built on the reform of the laws begun at the Assizes of Ariano in 1146 by his grandfather Roger II. His initiative in this direction was visible as early as the Assizes of Capua (1220) but came to fruition in his promulgation of the Constitutions of Melfi (1231, also known as Liber Augustalis ), a collection of laws for his realm that was remarkable for its time and was a source of inspiration for a long time after. It made the Kingdom of Sicily an absolutist monarchy, the first centralized state in Europe to emerge from feudalism; it also set a precedent for the primacy of written law. With relatively small modifications, the Liber Augustalis remained the basis of Sicilian law until 1819.

During this period, he also built the Castel del Monte and created the University of Naples (1224, now Università Federico II).

In 1226, by means of the Golden Bull of Rimini he confirmed the legitimacy of rule by the Teutonic Knights under their headmaster Hermann von Salza over the Prussian lands east of the Vistula, the Chelmno Land.

At the time he was crowned Emperor, Frederick had promised to go on crusade. In preparation for his crusade, Frederick had, in 1225, married Yolande of Jerusalem, heiress to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and immediately taken steps to take control of the Kingdom from his new father-in-law, John of Brienne. However, he continued to take his time in setting off, and in 1227, Frederick was excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX for failing to honor his crusading pledge - perhaps unfairly, at this point, as his plans had been delayed by an epidemic. He eventually embarked on the crusade the following year (1228), which was seen on by the pope as a rude provocation, since the church could not take any part in the honor for the crusade, resulting in a second excommunication. Frederick did not attempt to take Jerusalem by force of arms. Instead, he negotiated restitution of Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem to the Kingdom with Al-Kamil, the Ayyubid ruler of the region, who was nervous about possible war with his relatives who ruled Syria and Mesopotamia and wished to avoid further trouble from the Christians. The crusade ended in a truce and in Frederick's coronation as King of Jerusalem on March 18, 1229 — although this was technically improper, as Frederick's wife Yolande, the heiress, had died in the meantime, leaving their infant son Conrad as rightful heir to the kingdom. Frederick's further attempts to rule over the Kingdom of Jerusalem were met by resistance on the part of the barons, led by John of Ibelin, Lord of Beirut. By the mid-1230s, Frederick's viceroy had been forced to leave Acre, the capital, and by 1244, Jerusalem itself had been lost again to a new Muslim offensive.

However, Frederick's seeming bloodless victory in recovering Jerusalem for the cross brought him great prestige in Europe, and in 1231 the pope rescinded Frederick's excommunication; this event is known as the Peace of San Germano .

While he may have temporarily made his peace with the pope, the lesser German princes were another matter. In 1231, Frederick's son Henry claimed the crown for himself and allied with the Lombard League. The rebellion failed, though not utterly; Henry was imprisoned in 1235, and replaced in his royal title by his brother Conrad, already the King of Jerusalem; Frederick won the decisive Battle of Cortenuova over the Lombard League in 1237, but rejected a suit for peace, demanding total surrender; Milan and five continued to resist, and in October 1238 he was forced to raise the siege of Brescia.

His war with the Lombard League resulted in an invasion of the Papal States. This renewed the bitter fight between Frederick and Innocent III (and the latter's successor, Pope Innocent IV). Frederick was again excommunicated in 1239 and in 1245 by the Council of Lyon under Innocent IV declared him to be deposed as emperor, backing pretenders Heinrich Raspe (who, after some military successes died in battle) and then William II, Count of Holland. (Again the terminology of Guelphs and Ghibellines is often applied to this conflict; in this case the pope is on the Guelph side, so that the usual meaning of the two terms came to be that Guelphs were supporters of the Pope, and Ghibellines of the Emperor.)

After his return to Sicily, he wrote his book on falconry (1246), and introduced the concept of zero to European arithmetic. His 1241 Edict of Salerno (sometimes called "Constitution of Salerno") made the first legally fixed separation of the occupations of physician and apothecary. Physicians were forbidden to double as pharmacists and the prices of various medicinal remedies were fixed. This became a model for regulation of the practice of pharmacy throughout Europe.

He was not able to extend his legal reforms beyond Sicily to the Empire. In 1232, he was forced by the German princes to promulgate a Statutum in favorem principum ("statute in favor of princes"). It was a charter of aristocratic liberties for German princes at the expense of the lesser nobility and commoners. The princes gained whole power of jurisdiction, and the power to strike their own coins. The emperor lost his right to create new cities and castles over the territory of the Empire. The Statutum weakened central authority in Germany. From 1232 the German princes had a veto over imperial legislative decisions.

Despite the various betrayals he had faced, Frederick died peacefully on December 13, 1250 in Fiorentino near Lucera , wearing the habit of a Cistercian monk. At the time of his death, his preeminent position in Europe was challenged but not lost, and was passed on to his son Conrad IV. However, upon Conrad's death a mere four years later, the Hohenstaufen dynasty fell from power and an Interregnum began, lasting until 1273. During this time, a legend developed that he is not truly dead, but merely sleeps in the Kyffhaeuser Mountains and will one day awake to reestablish his empire. Over time, this legend largely transferred itself to his grandfather, Frederick I, also known as Barbarossa ("Redbeard").

His sarcophagus (made of red porphyry) lies in the cathedral of Palermo, beside those of his parents (Henry VI and Constance) as well as his grandfather, the Norman king Roger II of Sicily. A bust of Frederick sits in the Walhalla temple built by Ludwig I of Bavaria.


Frederick's son Henry, sometimes styled Henry VII, especially during his period of rebellion in alliance with the Lombard League — not to be confused with Henry VII of the House of Luxembourg, Holy Roman Emperor 1275-1313 — was born 1211 in Sicily, son of Frederick's first wife Constance of Aragon . King of the Germans (or, equivalently, "King of the Romans"), King of Sicily, claimant to the imperial title. After quarrelling with his father and forming an alliance with the Lombard League, he was captured by Frederick's forces and imprisoned from 1236; he died in Martirano in 1242, probably of the consequences of an attempted suicide.

Frederick's son Conrad IV, son of his second wife Yolande de Brienne, Queen of Jerusalem, was born April 25, 1228 in Andria, Apulia. He became King of Jerusalem at birth (his mother having died in childbirth), and was elected German king and future emperor 1237 in Vienna, although no coronation took place. In 1250, he succeeded his father as King of Sicily, as well. Conrad died May 21, 1254 of malaria in an army camp in Lavello .

Frederick's illegitimate son Manfred, King of Sicily, was born in 1231 of Bianca, the daughter of Count Bonifacio Lancia. According to some accounts, Frederick married Bianca on his deathbed, in order to make Manfred's birth legitimate, but there is no consensus on this. Manfred, initially as regent for Conrad's young son Conradin, and, after 1258 as King of Sicily, continued - after initial attempts at reconciliation - Frederick's conflict with the Pope and was also placed under papal interdict. Manfred died February 26, 1266 in battle near Benevento against Charles of Anjou, brother to the French King, who had been entrusted with the Kingdom of Sicily by the Pope. Still under excommunication, he was buried in unhallowed ground in the rocky valley of Verde . His wife Helena, and also their sons Frederick, Henry, and Enzio died in prison, the sons having been held in lifelong solitary confinement, like animals, never even learning human speech.

The last legitimate male heir of the Hohenstaufen dynasty was Frederick's grandson Conradin, son of Conrad IV. The grandson, born March 25, 1252 at Burg Wolfstein near Landshut, held the titles of Duke of Swabia, King of Jerusalem and Sicily. He invaded Italy in 1268 to reclaim his Kingdom from Charles of Anjou, but was defeated and captured by Charles at the Battle of Tagliacozzo and publicly executed at age 16 on October 29, 1268 in Naples.

In 1284 Frederick's ghost resurfaced in the form of a very convincing false Frederick [Tile Kolup], who impersonated the emperor with such expert knowledge and an amazing similarity that many of those who had known the true Frederick fell for him. Kolup was captured and executed, but rumors persist to this day that Kolup had been another illegitimate son of Frederick II.


In Frederick II we encounter one of the most remarkable personalities in world history. His contemporaries called him stupor mundi, the "wonder" — or, more precisely, the "astonishment" — "of the world"; the majority of his contemporaries, subscribing to medieval religious orthodoxy, under which the doctrines promulgated by the Church were supposed to be uniform and universal, were, indeed astonished — not seldom the repelled — by the highly developed individual consciousness of the Hohenstaufen emperor, his tempermental stubborness and his unorthodox, nearly unstoppable thirst for knowledge.

Frederick II was a religious sceptic. He is said to have denounced Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad as all being frauds and deceivers of mankind. He delighted in uttering blasphemies and making mocking remarks directed toward Christian sacraments and beliefs. Frederick's religious scepticism was most unusual for the era in which he lived, and to his contemporaries, highly shocking and scandalous.

Even his birth was remarkable. In order to stanch any doubt about his origin, the already 40-year old Constance gave birth to the child publicly in a marketplace. After Henry VI, his father, died at 31, Frederick came under the guardianship of the pope, which the latter, however, neglected him on the basis of power-politics. In Palermo, where the three-year-old boy was brought after his mother's death, he grew up like a street youth. On his own, he roamed a city which swarmed with adventurers and pirates, beggars and jugglers, Arab and Jewish merchants. The only benefit from Innocent III was that at 14 years of age he married a 25-year-old widow named Constance, the daughter of the king of Aragon in what is now Spain. As it happened, both seemed reasonably happy with the arrangement, and Constance soon bore a son, Henry.

Later, it appeared opportune to the pope to support Frederick as a legitimate king to support against the Emperor Otto — whom up to that time the pope had supported. He brought him to Rome, gave him a round of instruction in things political, and sent him, provided with a bull of excommunication against the Guelph Otto, in the direction of Germany. After a difficult passage over the Alps (the Brenner Pass was occupied by enemy troops), he came to Konstanz. The city was preparing to receive Otto and would not allow the new aspirant to the imperial title to remain in the city. However, After a solemn reading of the pope's Bull of Excommunication, the gates of the city were opened for him. Otto, who meanwhile had waited in Überlingen for the ferry, came three weeks later before the city gates and was turned away. Frederick conquered the realm by means of generous promises and donations, without spilling a drop of blood. Otto died some years later, a lonely man in the Harzburg , while Frederick would be crowned Emperor in Rome by the pope. In his coronation, too, he showed how unusual he was. At his coronation he carried a brand-new, red coronation robe with a strange ornamentation at the edge. In reality it was an Arabic inscription, which indicated that this robe dated from the year 528, not by the Christian but by Muslim calendar! About this was an Arab benediction: "May the Emperor be received well, may he enjoy vast prosperity, great generosity and high splendor, fame and magnificent endowments, and the fulfillment of his wishes and hopes. May his days and nights go in pleasure without end or change." This coronation robe can be found today in the Schatzkammer of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

This was typical of him: while he was being crowned by the Pope to be the highest defender of the Christian faith, his coat referred to the history of Islam. And not only that. He did not exterminate the Saracens of Sicily with fire and sword; on the contrary, he allowed them to settle on the mainland and even to build mosques. Not least, he enlisted them in his - Christian - army and even into his personal bodyguards. As these were Muslim soldiers, they were immune from papal excommunication.

A further example of how much he differed from his contemporaries was his Crusade in the Holy Land. Outside Jerusalem, with the power to take it, he parlayed five months with the Egyptian Sultan el-Kamil about the surrender of the city. The Sultan summoned him into Jerusalem and entertained him in the most lavish fashion. When the muezzin, out of consideration for Frederick, failed to make the morning call to prayer, the emperor declared: "I stayed overnight in Jerusalem, in order to overhear the prayer call of the Muslims and their worthy God." The Saracens loved him, so it was no surprise that after five months Jerusalem was handed over to him. The fact that this was regarded in the Arab as in the Christian world as high treason did not matter to him one whit. As the Patriarch of Jerusalem refused to crown him king, he set the crown on his own head.

Besides his great tolerance (which, however, did not apply to Christian heretics), he had an unlimited thirst for knowledge and learning. To the horror of his contemporaries, he simply did not believe things that could not be explained by reason. So he forbade trials by ordeal on the firm conviction that in a duel the stronger would always win, whether he was guilty or not. Also, it can be forgotten amidst the general enthusiasm over his book on falconry releases frequently that he also wrote a scientific book about birds or that many of his laws continue to affect life down to the present day, such as the prohibition on physicians acting as their own pharmacists. This was a blow at the charlatanism under which physicians diagnosed dubious maladies and also at the same time in order to sell a useless, even dangerous "cure".


Frederick II was considered singular among the European Christian monarchs of the Middle Ages. This was observed even in his own time, although many of his contemporaries, because of his lifelong interest in Islam saw in him "the Hammer of Christianity", or at the very least a dissenter from Christendom. Many modern medievalists view this as false, and hold that Frederick understood himself as a Christian monarch in the sense of a Byzantine emperor, thus as God's Viceroy on earth. Other scholars view him as holding all religion in contempt, citing his rationalism and penchant for blasphemy. Whatever his personal feelings toward religion were, certainly submission to the pope did not enter into the matter. This was in line with the Hohenstaufen Kaiseridee: the ideology, claiming the Holy Roman Emperor to be the legitimate successor to the Roman emperors.

Modern treatments of Frederick vary from sober evaluation (Stürner) to hero worship (Ernst Kantorowicz). However, all in all, agreement prevails over the special significance of Frederick II as Holy Roman Emperor, even if some of his actions (such as his politics with respect to Germany) remain quite dubious.

Parentage and Children


  • Karen Armstrong, Holy War - The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World. Anchor Books, second edition, December 2001, ISBN 0385721404.
  • R.H.C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe. Longman Group UK Limited, Second edition, 1988, ISBN 0582014042

In addition, this article uses material from the corresponding article in the German-language Wikipedia, which, in turn, gives the following references; the notes are theirs.

  • Klaus van Eickels: Friedrich II., in: Bernd Schneidmüller/Stefan Weinfurter (editors): Die deutschen Herrscher des Mittelalters, Historische Porträts von Heinrich I. bis Maximilian I., Munich 2003, p. 293-314 and p. 585 (Bibliography). An outstanding short biography. Van Eickels also edited a volume of source materials on Frederick II.
  • Ernst Kantorowicz: Kaiser Friedrich II., 2. volumes, Stuttgart 1985-86 (Nachdruck der Ausgabe aus den 20er Jahren), Beautifully written, but very romanticized, so to be read with caution. The author, a late-emigrated Jew, was close to the circle of Stefan George.
  • Wolfgang Stürner: Friedrich II. (Gestalten des Mittelalters und der Renaissance), 2 volumes, Darmstadt 1992-2000. The best and most recent biography of Frederick II. Sober and objective, with an extensive guide to other literature on its subject.
  • Gunther Wolf (editor).: Stupor mundi. Zur Geschichte Friedrichs II. von Hohenstaufen (Wege der Forschung 101), 2. veränderte Aufl., Darmstadt 1982. An important collection of essays on Frederick II.

See also

|- style="text-align: center;" | width="30%" |Preceded by:
Otto IV | width="40%" style="text-align: center;" |Duke of Swabia
12121216 | width="30%" |Succeeded by:
Henry II

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