Youre here: Home » eDigg Biographies » Biographies A-F » Frederick Barbarossa


» Biography Home

» Biographies A-F

» Biographies G-M

» Biographies N-S

» Biographies T-Z

Frederick Barbarossa

      It seems almost incredible that no history should exist of the childhood and early life of an emperor of such note as "Barbarossa;" yet, in spite of most diligent search, we have been compelled almost to renounce one of the most pleasing tasks of a biographer, which consists in making acquaintance with a hero in his infancy, and through childhood and youth following his career to fame and glory. So far as we have been able to discover, no trace, except a few dry data, exists of "Frederick of the Red Beard," until we find him setting out with his uncle, Conrad III., in the spring of 1147, to join the second crusade against the Saracens. The date of his birth is given as 1121, his father being Duke Frederick of Hohenstauffen (surnamed "le Borgne") and his mother Judith, daughter of Henry the Black, Duke of Bavaria; opinions are divided on the subject of his birthplace, some writers mentioning the castle of Veitsberg, near Ravensburg, others the town of Weiblingen, in Nuremburg; but since the main interest of his history does not begin until his succession to the paternal duchy of Swabia, and his departure for the Holy Land in 1147; his marriage with Adelaide, daughter of Theobald, Margrave of Vohburg, in 1149; and finally his accession to the imperial throne in 1152, we must resign ourselves to silence on the subject of his earlier years, and take up his history from the death of Conrad III., and that monarch's choice of him as a successor, to the exclusion of his own son.

      From every possible point of view, Frederick of Hohenstauffen justified his uncle's choice: endowed with the most brilliant qualities of heart and mind, he had already earned the suffrages of a great portion of his new subjects by the manner in which he had distinguished himself during the above-mentioned campaign in the Holy Land; moreover, as the son of Frederick of Hohenstauffen and Judith, daughter of Henry the Black, Duke of Bavaria, Ghibelline by his father and Guelph on his mother's side, there seemed good ground for the hope that in him might terminate the differences of the two contending factions. The election diet was accordingly assembled at Frankfort, and it being there decided to confirm Conrad's choice and to invest Frederick with the imperial insignia, he was proclaimed King of the Romans and of Germany, and anointed at Aix-la-Chapelle on March 5, 1152, the ceremony being performed by Arnoul de Gueldre, Archbishop of Cologne. Not lightly or eagerly did the new emperor accept these dignities, but after mature and careful consideration of his capacity to undertake the responsibility of guiding Germany through shoals and quicksands which had little by little enveloped the fair countries won three hundred years before by the valiant Charlemagne.

      Tidings of ever-recurring disturbances determined Frederick to make an expedition into Italy, as soon as affairs in Germany would admit of his absence; but there was much to be done first--many princes to be dealt with, who, from different motives viewing his election with dissatisfaction, would take immediate advantage of his departure to bring all the horrors of civil war into his dominions. Bavaria, for example, had been wrested from Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, during his minority, by Conrad III., and now he conjured Frederick, with tears and threats, to restore it to him. This, by dint of much diplomacy, Frederick effected, and the result was that for some years he gained a stanch ally, instead of a designing enemy.

      Having decided this quarrel and several others, into which we need not enter, Frederick prepared for that first expedition into Italy which, as we have seen, he had resolved on from the commencement of his reign.

The Death of Barbarossa.

      At the head of a numerous army he passed into Switzerland, and encamped near the lake of Constance; when, under the banner of Count von Lenzburg, the inhabitants of the three "cents" or cantons of Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden came to do homage and offer their feudal service in the field. At the same time, and while still engaged in assembling the forces with which to march into Italy, deputies from the city of Lodi arrived, and throwing themselves at his feet, besought his interference against the oppressions of the Milanese, who had declared for Adrian IV., and whose town was indeed the very hot-bed of the papal faction. The emperor instantly sent letters commanding the Milanese to make full reparation to their unfortunate neighbors; but on perusal of his behests they tore the missives in a thousand pieces, and flung them in the faces of the messengers, sending back by them as their sole answer an open defiance of his authority. Enraged at this insolence, Frederick crossed the Alps, but, too prudent to risk an immediate attack on Milan, strongly fortified and well garrisoned as it was, he sought rather to weaken it through the other towns with which it was in league, and accordingly besieged in turn Rosate, Cairo, and Asti, which all fell into his hands, and ended with the total demolition of the city of Tortona, which he reduced to ashes, afterward even levelling the ground upon which it had stood. This last victory proved the accuracy of Barbarossa's judgment, as regarded the remainder of the fifteen towns of the so-called "Lombard League," most of which, intimidated by his energetic measures, sent ambassadors to do homage on their account. He now seized the iron crown of Lombardy; was crowned at Pavia and again at Monza, after which he entered into negotiations with Adrian IV. for the performance of the coronation ceremony at Rome.

      We now come to the second marriage of our hero, when Beatrix, the only child and heiress of Reinold of Burgundy, became his bride; and an echo of the old romantic halo which surrounds that incident in Barbarossa's life reaches us, even in this prosaic age, as we picture to ourselves the gallant, handsome Frederick riding off with his trusty knights to deliver the fair heiress of Count Reinold from the gloomy prison in which her uncle, Count William, had confined her in order to appropriate the rich domains of "Franche-Comte." Over hill and dale sped the chivalrous band till the grim castle was reached; a halt was ordered, and an envoy sent to summon Count William to yield both his fortress and the fair prisoner. At first the count meditated resistance, but on looking out and investigating the number of Frederick's followers, he decided to submit, and congratulated himself on his determination when Frederick's messenger said, on behalf of his master, that if the castle were not given freely it would be taken by force, the fair Beatrix released, and her gloomy prison walls be prevented from hiding any other like iniquity by being razed to the ground. Prudence, we hear, is the better part of valor, and evidently Count William shared in the opinion, for we learn that he promptly let down the drawbridge, over which Frederick and his followers passed, and whence they presently issued, bearing in their midst the quondam prisoner, the lovely Beatrix, whose eyes, moist with tears of gratitude, looked trustingly in the handsome face of her deliverer. So now, away, away to the old church at Wurtzburg! deck the streets, ring the bells, bid priests don their vestments and burghers their best, and fall in merrily with the gay procession that comes to do honor to Barbarossa and his fair bride!

      Thus far the little romance of our emperor and Beatrix; now to return to the sober and solemn statement of facts. During 1157 and the next year, Frederick busied himself with a campaign against Poland, and compelled Boleslaw, the king, to acknowledge the supremacy of the head of the German Empire, and to take the oath of fealty, barefoot and with his naked sword hung round his neck; after which he bestowed the kingdom upon Wladislaw of Bohemia, whom he had appointed regent of the German states during his absence, and whom he now took this opportunity to reward. New disputes began to arise between Pope Adrian and Frederick; and when at Besancon some indiscreet remarks of His Holiness as to having "conferred the imperial crown" on, and "accorded it by favor" to Frederick, were mentioned, that monarch waited no longer, but collected a fresh army, and marched into Italy to chastise the pontiff, who, on hearing of his approach, and scared at the prospect of such a calamity, hastened to explain away his words as best he might. The emperor accepted his excuses, but as he was so far on the road, determined to attack Milan, whose inhabitants had increased the anger he already felt for them by rebuilding Tortona (which, as we know, he had totally destroyed), and expelling the inhabitants of Lodi from their dwellings for having called him to mediate on the subject of their wrongs. With 100,000 men (for almost all of the Lombard cities had, either willingly or by force, contributed their militia) and 15,000 cavalry, he advanced toward Milan and laid siege to it. The inhabitants made a most obstinate resistance, and were at length only vanquished by the impossibility of finding food for the vast population within the walls. A capitulation was effected, by which the emperor contented himself with very moderate conditions, the most severe being that which condemned the city to the loss of her privileges; but when the chief nobles came to deliver the keys, barefooted and with every token of humility, he forgot their former insolence, and only required, in return for his clemency, a renewal of the oath of fealty and their promise to rebuild the town of Lodi.

      To put an end to these ever-recurring disputes Frederick called together a diet at Roncaglia, to which each of the Italian towns was commanded to send its representative; the four most learned jurists from the university of Bologna being also requested to attend, for the purpose of drawing up a document which should conclusively define the relations between himself, as head of the empire, and the vassals and imperial cities of Italy. But when the learned quartet had heard all the points of dispute, and were in possession of the facts, their decision gave such almost limitless power to Frederick that several of the towns, and more especially Milan, refused to abide by it and prepared for further resistance.

      Frederick had not been idle all the time these schisms were raging; on the contrary, he had made a third expedition to Italy, from which he had been compelled to return, leaving the flower of his army lying dead, stricken down with pestilence. The next six years were spent in settling various disputes and complications which had arisen in Germany during his absence; in causing his son Henry, a child of only five years of age, to be crowned at Aix-la-Chapelle; and in keeping some sort of check on his vassal, Henry the Lion, who, now that he had increased his power by a marriage with Matilda, daughter of Henry II. of England, was no unimportant person in the empire, and moreover one extremely liable to become sulky and unmanageable if he had a chance, or the smallest grievance to complain of.

      The news now spread through Europe of the reconquest of Jerusalem by Saladin. These tidings effaced every other thought; the new Pope, Urban, forgot the thunders of the Church which he had been keeping, like a second sword of Damocles, suspended over Frederick's head; the emperor buried his resentment; a general peace was concluded, and Barbarossa, then in his seventieth year, gave the regency of his dominions to his son Henry, and joyfully taking up the cross--accompanied by his son Frederick, the flower of German chivalry, and an army of 100,000 men--marched by way of Vienna to Presburg, and thence through Hungary, Servia, and Roumelia.

      Isaac Angelus, the Greek emperor, who had promised to furnish the German troops with provisions and assist Frederick in all ways, with the proverbial duplicity of his nation, broke his word, harassed him on his march, and threw Count von Diez, his ambassador, into prison; which treachery greatly incensed the emperor, and caused him to give permission to his soldiers to plunder; the results being that the country soon bore sad traces of their passage, and that the two important towns of Manioava and Philippopolis were completely destroyed. This reduced Isaac, professedly, to a state of contrition; and when Barbarossa advanced toward Constantinople, the Greek emperor, anxious to conciliate him, placed his entire fleet at his disposal for the transport of the German army. Scarcely had they entered Asia Minor before Isaac's good resolutions abandoned him, and leaguing himself with another faithless ally of Frederick, the Sultan of Iconium, they beset the German troops, and did everything they possibly could to make the march more difficult; however, though they tried both fair means and foul, their evil practices resulted in their own defeat, and the Oriental Christians soon found they had every reason to congratulate themselves upon the arrival of such a champion.

      The fanaticism of a Turkish prisoner, who, acting as guide, wilfully sacrificed his life in order to mislead Frederick's army, involved the Germans in almost endless troubles by taking them amidst pathless mountains, where the horrors of starvation and the entire lack of water added yet more miseries to their condition. Brave where all were despairing, encouraging his men with cheering words and hopeful looks, their gallant old leader rode on, and footsore, half-starved, thirsty, and wretched as they were, the men tried, though tears of agony filled their eyes, to raise the notes of their Swabian war-song to please him. Frederick, Duke of Swabia, hastened forward with half the remaining army, and gaining a victory over a body of Turks, pushed on till he came to the town of Iconium; when, scattering the enemy before him, he put the inhabitants to the sword, gained a great booty, and, more than all, food, drink, and rest for his weary men.

      A body of Turks had meanwhile crept round the town, and surrounded the columns which were advancing under Barbarossa; worn out with sorrow, hunger, and thirst, even his courage gave way for one moment, as he thought that this band of Turks had only, in all probability, reached him by passing over the dead bodies of his brave son and the gallant Swabians; the aged monarch bowed his head, and the scorching tears of rage ran down his cheeks; then dashing his hand across his eyes, he cried: "Christ still lives! Christ conquers!" and shouting to his followers, they fell on the Turks like lions; Barbarossa with his own hand sending many a one to his last sleep. Then they marched forward to Iconium, where rest and plenty awaited them, and where the old emperor doubtless found much cause for thankfulness when he threw himself into the arms of his brave son.

      At Iconium the army stayed for some time, the soldiers being in sad need of repose; and then starting afresh, continued as far as the little river Saleph; when, the road being encumbered with cattle, and the emperor impatient of delay, he commanded his men to cross the stream and plunged into the water. Here this hero of many combats, this brave and wise king, was destined to end his long life in an obscure river, of which he had probably never heard; the current was too strong for his horse, and, nobly as the animal battled against it, both rider and steed were drowned.

      The Germans, almost frantic with grief and dismay, made frenzied efforts to regain the body of their leader; and, when at last they succeeded, they conveyed it with much loving care to Antioch, where it was buried in St. Peter's Church.

      With the history of the crusade after the death of our hero, we have nothing to do further than to say that his son, Frederick, took the chief command and led the brave followers of his gallant father until a pestilence occasioned his death at Acre, in the following year, when the remnant of the once formidable army returned to Germany.

      How Barbarossa still lingers in the hearts of his people even now, when all these hundreds of years divide his time from theirs, is shown by a dozen legends. Most of these profess an utter disbelief in the death of their loved emperor; one of them tells how, in a rocky cleft of the Klyfhaueser Mountains, Barbarossa still sleeps calmly and peacefully; he sits before a marble table into which and through which his red beard has grown; his head is bowed on his folded hands, and though he from time to time lifts it and opens his eyes, it is but to shut them again quickly, for the right time of his awakening is not come; he has seen the ravens flying round the mountain, and his long sleep will only end when their black forms are no longer visible, when he will step forth and avenge the wrongs of the oppressed.

      Another story says that he is lying in the Untersberg near Salzburg, and that when the dead pear-tree which, thrice cut down, plants itself afresh, shall bud forth and blossom, the gallant "Rothbart" will come out into the bright daylight, hang his shield on the pink-flowered bough, throw down his gauntlet as a gage to all evil-doers, and, aided by the good and chivalrous few who will still be inhabitants of this bad world, will vanquish cruelty and wickedness, and realize the dream of a golden age they have for so long anticipated.

Privacy Policy
Copyright © 1999-2008 All rights reserved.