Frederick I, who was born in 1122, was the Holy Roman Emperor from 1155 until his death in 1190. He was elected King of the Germans at Frankfurt in 1152, King of Italy in 1155, was crowned Roman Emperor by Pope Adrian IV in 1155 and was crowned King of Burgundy in 1178. An imposing figure with a full red beard, from which he gained the name Barbarossa, he was a skilled politician and superb military tactician. His life was one of military conquest and political success such that his death was not the end but the beginning of a legend.
Barbarossa first came to prominence when he took part in the Second Crusade in 1147 with his uncle, the German king Conrad III. Although the crusade was a failure Barbarossa distinguished himself in battle and won the confidence of the king. When Conrad died in February 1152, he named Barbarossa as his heir, instead of his own son the future Frederick IV Duke of Swabia. Only Frederick and the prince-bishop of Bamberg had been present at Conrad’s death. Conrad’s son was only six-year-old son and at Frankfurt on 4 March 1152 the German electors designated Barbarossa as the next king of the Germans. He was crowned King of the Romans at Aachen several days later, on 9 March 1152.
When Barbarossa became king he inherited a largely nominal title with little real power. The previous years of internal disputes, the passing of the royal title from one dynastic family to another and the power of the Papal states had rendered the German King relatively weak. The only potential benefit the king held was the wealth of the rich cities of northern Italy, which were still nominally within his power.o
Barbarossa wished to restore the status of the Empire and started by reinstating his authority over the 1000 individuals German states. He did so with a combination of flattery, concessions and threats. The smaller states quickly swore fealty to the Emperor and this soon developed into the majority of the German princes recognising Barbarossa’s authority. Once the German states were subdued Barbarossa turned his attention to the northern Italian states. Although nominally part of his lands these city states had enjoyed a degree of independence for several years; an independence they had no intention of giving up.
In October 1154 Barbarossa marched down towards the northern Italian cities. Milan, Tortona and Pavia were subdued by 1155. Barbarossa then approached Rome. The Pope, Adrian IV, was struggling with the forces of the republican city commune. Frederick joined forces with the Pope to allow Adrian to regain control of the city. On 18th June 1155, Adrian IV crowned Frederick I Holy Roman Emperor at St Peter’s Basilica, amidst the acclamations of the German army. The Romans, angered at the German king’s involvement in their city politics, began to riot. Barbarossa used his troops to put down the revolt, resulting in the deaths of over 1,000 Romans. He then returned home to Germany.
On his return to Germany Barbarossa found several small rebellions in progress which he swiftly put down. Key amongst the squabbling German princes was Frederick’s cousin Henry the Lion. Although ostensibly loyal, Barbarossa recognised that Henry the Lion could be a powerful enemy.
When Barbarossa left Rome Pope Adrian IV felt threatened by King William I of Sicily. As a result Adrian granted William several territories that Barbarossa viewed as his. The relationship between Barbarossa and Adrian was further strained when a letter sent by Adrian suggested that the Imperial crown was a gift from the Papacy and that the Empire itself was a fief of the Papacy. In June 1158, Barbarossa set out upon his second Italian expedition, accompanied by Henry the Lion and his Saxon troops. After the capture of Milan Barbarossa intended to deal with Adrian but before he could begin the pope died and two rival popes were elected, Alexander III and Victor IV; both of whom sought Barbarossa’s support. Barbarossa demanded that Alexander appear before him and recognise that the imperial crown and the Empire were not in the gift of the pope. Alexander refused and in 1160 Barbarossa Frederick recognised Victor IV as the legitimate pope.
In response, Alexander III excommunicated both Barbarossa and Victor IV and joined in an alliance with the Norman state of Sicily against the Emperor. Barbarossa ignored the alliance and moved to the northern Italian states to suppress the rebellion which was brewing at Milan. Once the northern cities were once more subdued he returned to Germany at the end of 1162.
On his return to Germany he had to deal with the growing conflict between Henry the Lion and a number of neighbouring princes. In addition Barbarossa sought to restore peace to the troubled states of the Rhineland, where he organised a magnificent celebration of the canonisation of Charles the Great (Charlemagne) at Aachen, under the authority of the Paschal III who had succeeded Victor IV.
In 1166, rumours reached Barbarossa that Alexander III was about to enter into an alliance with the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I. Barbarossa prepared to leave for Rome but his cousin Henry the Lion refused to assist his Emperor. In 1167 Barbarossa besieged the city of Ancona, which had acknowledged the authority of Manuel I and was also victorious over the Romans at the Battle of Monte Porzio. He then lifted the siege of Ancona and moved to Rome, where his wife was crowned empress and he received a second coronation from Paschal III. At this point a sudden outbreak of an epidemic threatened to destroy the Imperial army and Barbarossa withdrew to Germany.
While Barbarossa was in Germany the northern Italian cities started to rebel again and in 1169. Barbarossa made his fifth expedition to Italy. Yet again Henry the Lion refused to help. Barbarossa was opposed by the pro-papal Lombard League which was joined by Venice, Sicily, and Constantinople. Barbarossa was defeated by the Lombard League Alessandria in 1175. This was followed by another heavy defeat at the Battle of Legnano near Milan, on 29 May 1176, where he was badly wounded. Ever the pragmatist, Barbarossa begin negotiations for peace with Alexander III and the Lombard League. In the Peace of Anagni in 1176, Frederick recognised Alexander III as pope, and in the Peace of Venice in 1177, Frederick and Alexander III were formally reconciled. Barbarossa acknowledged the Pope’s sovereignty over the Papal States; Alexander acknowledged the Emperor’s overlordship of the Imperial Church.
Frederick had not forgiven Henry the Lion for failing to come to his aid in 1174. Using the open hostility of several of the other German princes to Henry’s power and territorial gains, Barbarossa had Henry tried in absentia by a court of bishops and princes in 1180. Barbarossa declared that imperial law overruled traditional German law and Henry was stripped of most of his lands and declared an outlaw. The Lion was sent into exile for three years but after his return was no longer a threat to Barbarossa.
In 1188 Barbarossa embarked on the Third Crusade. Barbarossa led his army through Hungary, Serbia, and Bulgaria before entering Byzantine territory and arrived at Constantinople in the autumn of 1189. After some time spent in Constantinople the Crusaders pushed on through Turkey. On June 10th 1190 Barbarossa and his men reached the Saleph river. The bridge across the river was crowded with troops and camp followers so Barbarossa decided to walk his horse through the water instead. The Saleph river has a strong current which overpowered his horse; Barbarossa was in full heavy armour and was unable to swim to safety; he may even have had a heart attack. Whatever the full reason, he died in the river despite the best efforts of his men to save him.
Barbarossa body was preserved in vinegar but this was largely unsuccessful. His body was buried in the church of St Peter in Antioch, his bones were interred in the cathedral at Tyre and his heart was buried in Tarsus.
For such a man to die in such a way ran counter to his life. Barbarossa was the sort of man that should have died in the midst of battle, sword in hand. Or perhaps stabbed through the heart by an assassin’s blade. But certainly not drowned in a simple river crossing. And because of the ignoble nature of his death the legend soon arose that he did not die. Barbarossa, is the king in the mountain. He is not dead, but asleep with his knights in a cave in the Kyffhäuser mountain in Thuringia or Mount Untersberg in Bavaria. Great black ravens fly round the mountain top guarding the king and keeping a watch out for danger. Barbarossa sits at his great table with his knights and 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. For legend says that when the great black ravens cease to fly around the mountain Barbarossa will awake and rise with his knights and ride out to restore Germany to its ancient greatness