Frederick II Facts
Frederick II (1194-1250) was Holy Roman emperor from 1215 to 1250. His unsuccessful effort to establish a strong centralized Italian state brought him into a long and bitter conflict with the papacy and the Italian urban centers.
Born in lesi, Italy, Frederick II was the only son of Emperor Henry VI and of Constance of Sicily. His father died in 1197 and his mother, who served as regent for him, a year later. As the orphan king of Sicily, he was the ward of the great pope Innocent III, who ignored his education and training but kept his kingdom intact for him. Frederick grew up in Palermo, surrounded by factions who attempted to use him for their own ends and influenced by the Islamic and Greek culture that pervaded the dissolute Sicilian court.
At first Frederick was ignored in the empire of his father, where his able uncle Philip of Swabia and the Welf Otto IV, son of Henry the Lion, were quarreling over the imperial title. By 1211, however, Philip was dead and Otto IV had broken with Innocent III, who had previously supported him. So, when a group of German nobles asked him to go to Germany to assume the imperial crown, Frederick made his infant son, Henry, king of Sicily and hastened to Frankfurt, where in 1212 he was chosen ruler of Germany. He pacified the papacy, which feared a union between Sicily and the empire, by promising Innocent III that he would abdicate his Sicilian throne in favor of his son and that he would go on a crusade at the earliest opportunity. In 1214 Otto IV was defeated at Bouvines by Frederick's ally King Philip II (Augustus) of France, and in 1215 Frederick was recognized as emperor-elect by Pope Innocent III, who died a little while later.
Frederick began his reign as emperor in Germany by gaining the support of the magnates, both lay and ecclesiastical, by confirming in 1213 and 1220 their right to the privileges they had usurped in 1197 on the death of Emperor Henry VI. He then made his son, Henry, king of Germany and his viceroy and returned to Italy, which from this time on occupied most of his attention, for Germany never interested him except as a source of support for his Italian projects. Immediately upon his return he persuaded Pope Honorius III to crown him emperor and managed to put off giving up Sicily, as he had promised, on the grounds he needed to pacify it so that it could support his crusade.
The first task Frederick undertook was to establish firm control over the kingdom of Sicily, which had been in complete disorder since 1197. In 1220, in contrast with his actions in Germany, he revoked all privileges granted its towns and nobles since the death of King William II (1189), put down a Moslem revolt on the island of Sicily itself, and began to organize his realm into a tyrannical but well-administered kingdom. By 1225, prodded by Pope Honorius, he had married Yolande, heiress of the kingdom of Jerusalem (his first wife, an Aragonese princess, having died), and had made plans to proceed with his crusade to the East. He was still delaying on fulfilling this project when Pope Honorius died in 1227.
Honorius was succeeded by the aged pope Gregory IX (reigned 1227-1241), who, though over 80, was a vigorous, unrelenting foe of the young emperor. This aged pope almost at once excommunicated him for not going on crusade and, when Frederick then left for the East in 1228 without having the excommunication lifted, excommunicated him again and began planning a crusade against Frederick's Sicilian domains. Frederick proved very successful in the East, where he regained the city of Jerusalem from the Moslems by negotiation instead of war, crowned himself king of Jerusalem (a title which he retained until 1245), and built up his authority in the East. He returned in 1230 to find Pope Gregory IX attacking his kingdom of Sicily. After he had defeated the papal forces, he made Gregory lift his excommunication.
Policies in Italy
In 1231 Frederick promulgated the Constitutions of Melfi, an important code of laws that set up a nonfeudal state in Sicily. By this code the independence of towns and nobles was curbed, a centralized judicial and administrative system was established, mercenary armies were recruited, ecclesiastical privileges were limited, and commerce and industry were fostered by a uniform system of tolls and port dues and a common gold currency. At the same time his own revenues were increased by the establishment of royal monopolies over such things as salt production and the trade in grain. Sicily became one of the most prosperous realms in Europe.
Frederick then proceeded to attempt to extend his centralized rule to northern Italy, where in 1231 he made plans to subjugate its cities by appointing podestas, or imperial governors, over them. This alarmed the Pope, who saw the papacy, as in Henry VI's time, threatened between an imperial hammer in the north and the well-organized anvil of Sicily in the south. Gregory's answer was to reopen hostilities against Frederick II by attempting with some success to revive the Lombard League used against Frederick's grandfather Frederick Barbarossa. When these cities rose against him in support of a German revolt of his son King Henry, Frederick suppressed the revolt and in 1237 won a great victory over the Milanese at Cortenuova. As a result of this victory, the Lombard League temporarily collapsed and most of its cities submitted to him, as did the majority of the nobles of northern Italy.
While Frederick was establishing his authority firmly in Sicily and northern Italy, however, he was following quite a different policy in Germany. There in 1231 he issued the Constitution in Favor of the Princes, which had the result of making the magnates practically independent and even placed the towns under their rule. When his son Henry objected to this and revolted, Frederick suppressed his rising, threw him into prison, where he died, and replaced him as king in 1238 with his second son, Conrad. From this time on he made little attempt to exercise any real authority in Germany, whose princes, satisfied with their status, caused him no trouble. The only action of importance he took which affected Germany was his grant of a special charter to the Teutonic Knights, who, late in his reign, began their occupation of East Prussia, which they wrenched from the grasp of the kings of Poland.
In Italy, however, Pope Gregory IX still refused to accept Frederick's domination of northern Italy and excommunicated him. When his papal opponent died in 1241, Frederick reacted by using military force to keep a new pope from being elected for 2 years (1241-1243) and finally by procuring the election of a Ghibelline pope, Innocent IV (reigned 1243-1254). Innocent IV, however, soon broke with Frederick and fled from Italy to Lyons, where in 1245 he held a great Church council which condemned Frederick as the antichrist. The efforts of the Pope to enlist French and English support against this great Hohenstaufen ruler, however, proved abortive, and the war continued in Italy.
Frederick, relying on his able illegitimate sons and on lieutenants like Ezzalino, fought valiantly against the continuing resistance of the cities of Lombardy and the Papal States. Finally his army was badly defeated near Parma in 1248. By 1250, just as he was beginning to reverse the tide, he died suddenly, and his hopes of dominating all of Italy died with him. He left a number of illegitimate sons in Italy as his heirs, such as Manfred, Enzio, and Philip of Antioch, and one legitimate successor, the young Conrad across the Alps in Germany.
Frederick's character has long fascinated the historians and biographers who have studied him. He was married three times, first to Constance of Aragon, next to Yolande of Jerusalem, and finally to Isabelle of England. His real love was Bianca Lancia, with whom he carried on a lengthy liaison and who bore him several children. He had two legitimate sons and numerous illegitimate ones. He was reputed, probably with some justification, to have kept a harem in Palermo. His general lifestyle seemed to his contemporaries more Islamic than Christian; for instance, he maintained a force of Moslem mercenaries and scandalized his age by traveling with a private zoo. Though he remained formally a Christian, his spirit seemed more tolerant and skeptical than his age was ready to accept. In the cosmopolitan atmosphere of his Sicilian court, Arabic and Byzantine culture was highly prized.
Frederick proved an important patron of the arts throughout his entire reign. A poet himself, he prized southern French poetry highly, and he welcomed troubadour poets from this region when after the Albigensian Crusade they fled to his court. Through the influence of these poets, a new poetry began to be composed in the Sicilian vernacular tongue. He was also much interested in art and architecture, and under his aegis a classical artistic revival took place, anticipating that of later Renaissance Italy.
Frederick spoke a number of languages, and in 1234 he founded the University of Naples, the first state university in western Europe. He was much attracted to scientific ideas, perhaps because of his appreciation of Arabic culture. He is said to have conducted a series of experiments to determine how digestion took place, using the contents of the stomachs of executed criminals as his evidence. He also tried isolating children at birth to discover what language they would speak if untaught. He was also an enthusiastic falconer and wrote a book on the subject entitled On the Art of Hunting with Birds, which proved to be the most detailed scientific examination of ornithology written until the 19th century.
In short, Frederick deserves the title of Stupor Mundi (Wonder of the World), which his contemporaries bestowed upon him. This extraordinary man with all his faults, then, was a ruler who had the misfortune to be born before his time. He paid the price for this by seeing all his brilliance and ability brought to naught by a hostile papacy and a reluctant citizenry of the northern Italian communes. With his death Italy had to wait more than 600 years for the unity he had tried to bring about.
Further Reading on Frederick II
There are a number of excellent biographies of Frederick II. One of the best is Ernst Kantorowicz, Frederick the Second, 1194-1250 (1927; trans. 1931). See also Lionel Allshorn, Stupor Mundi: The Life & Times of Frederick II, Emperor of the Romans, King of Sicily and Jerusalem, 1194-1250 (1912); Georgina Masson, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1957); and Friedrich Heer, The Holy Roman Empire (1967; trans. 1968).
Frederick II (1712-1786), or Frederick the Great, was king of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. He combined the qualities of a warrior king with those of an enlightened despot.
The eldest son of Frederick William I of Prussia and of Princess Sophie Dorothea of Hanover, Frederick II was born in Berlin on Jan. 24, 1712. His father was a hardworking, unimaginative soldier-king, with no outward pretensions and no time to waste on superfluous niceties. Even as an adolescent Frederick, with the tacit support of his mother, rebelled against this mold. He preferred French literature to German and the company of young fops to that of old soldiers.
In 1730 Frederick and a young friend, Lieutenant Katte, planned a romantic escape to England, but their plot was discovered. The would-be escapees were arrested and condemned to death for desertion, and Katte was executed in Frederick's presence. The crown prince was spared upon the entreaties of Emperor Charles VI, although it is doubtful that his father ever intended to go through with the execution. Frederick, however, was imprisoned in the fortress of Küstrin in the most rigorous conditions until, after some 6 months, he voluntarily approached Frederick William with a request for pardon. For the next 2 years, although still nominally a prisoner, Frederick was employed in a subsidiary position of the local administration of Küstrin, thus learning the intricacies of the Prussian administrative system.
In 1732 Frederick was appointed commandant of an infantry regiment and, having decided to obey his father, he learned soldiering with all the thoroughness with which he had previously avoided it. In 1733, at his father's insistence, he married Elisabeth Christine of Braunschweig, but his aversion to women was so pronounced that the marriage was, over the many years it lasted, never consummated.
Between 1733 and 1740 Frederick, who had grown into a young man whose unimposing stature was balanced by piercing blue eyes, an aquiline nose, and a good chin, exceeded even the expectations of his father in his dedication to hard, dull routine. But he also found time to devote himself further to French literature, to begin a lifelong correspondence with a number of French philosophes, and to try writing himself. One product of this period was the Anti-Machiavel (1739), a work in which he argued that the Italian's ruthlessly practical maxims for princes were no longer compatible with the more advanced ethics of a new age. He was soon given the opportunity to test his own conduct against these views.
War of the Austrian Succession
On May 31, 1740, Frederick William died, and Frederick became king of Prussia as Frederick II. Before he had time to accustom himself to his new position, the death of Emperor Charles VI on October 20 created a political crisis and presented Frederick with a unique opportunity. Like all the other leading powers of Europe, Prussia had subscribed to the Pragmatic Sanction, guaranteeing the succession of Charles's daughter Maria Theresa and the integrity of her dominions. But it was an open secret that at least France and Bavaria intended to make demands upon Austria as soon as the Emperor was dead, and Frederick saw no reason to stand by while others enriched themselves at Austria's expense. He offered to assist Austria in the maintenance of its possessions in exchange for the cession of the rich province of Silesia to Prussia. When this outrageous piece of blackmail was indignantly rejected, in December Frederick marched his troops into Silesia, thus launching the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748).
In the first phase of this struggle the combined onslaught of Prussian, French, and Bavarian forces threatened to overwhelm Austria. Not wishing to bring about a situation more favorable to his potential rivals than to himself, Frederick withdrew from the war in 1742 with most of Silesia as his price. When Austria, relieved of the necessity of fighting the Prussians, threatened to crush its remaining enemies, Frederick reentered the war in 1744. The conflict was finally ended in 1748 with Silesia still firmly in Prussian hands.
Seven Years War
Since the Austrians were antagonistic over the loss of Silesia, Frederick had reason to fear a renewal of the struggle. In the aftermath of the war both sides engaged in complicated diplomatic maneuvers. Austria, which had enjoyed a tentative alliance with Russia since 1746, tried to strengthen this while making overtures toward its old enemy France. Frederick in turn concluded the Treaty of Westminster (1755) with Great Britain, promising Prussian neutrality in the war that had just broken out between France and England. These maneuvers led directly to the Diplomatic Revolution, which in 1756 left Prussia facing an overwhelming Continental alliance of Austria, Russia, France, and Saxony. Rather than await inevitable death by constriction, Frederick attacked Austria, which he regarded as the weakest among the great powers facing him. Thus began the Seven Years War (1756-1763).
In this conflict Frederick distinguished himself by continually keeping at bay much more powerful antagonists. He took advantage of the natural lack of cohesion of coalitions and fought his enemies, so far as possible, one at a time. The superior discipline of the Prussian army allowed Frederick to march it to the theater of war in small detachments, from various directions, uniting only shortly before a battle was to be fought. He also made the most of the oblique order of battle which he had inculcated in the Prussian army and which allowed him to concentrate his forces against emerging weak spots in his enemies' more ponderous formations.
In spite of these advantages, by 1762 Prussia was on the verge of bankruptcy, its army was in no condition to continue the war, and Russian troops had occupied Berlin. At this juncture Empress Elizabeth of Russia died; her successor, the mad Peter III, an admirer of Frederick, pulled Russia out of the war. Thus saved, Frederick was able to conclude the Peace of Hubertusberg (1763), which restored the prewar status quo.
The Seven Years War taught Frederick that, while Prussia's recently acquired position as a great power had been successfully defended, any further adventures in foreign policy had to be avoided at all costs. Hereafter his policy was a strictly defensive one, bent primarily on preventing changes in the balance of power. This became evident when, in 1772, it appeared as if Austria and Russia were about to succeed in partitioning the Ottoman Empire. As there was no chance of securing reasonable compensation for Prussia, Frederick blustered and threatened until the principals agreed on a three-way partition of Poland. In 1778, when Joseph II of Austria attempted to acquire Bavaria, Frederick reluctantly went to war but engaged in no more than a halfhearted war of maneuver of which the Austrians at last tired; and in 1784, when Joseph tried to trade the Austrian Netherlands for Bavaria, Frederick organized the League of German Princes to preserve the status of Germany.
Frederick had inherited a well-run state from his father, a circumstance that allowed him to fight his major wars. But he worked as hard at internal administration as at military leadership. He very reluctantly delegated authority, took all important decisions himself, and ruled through ministers responsible only to him. His ruthless insistence on hard work and honesty resulted in a doubling of the revenues of the state in his reign and a tripling of the available reserve fund, this last in spite of the devastation associated with the Seven Years War.
Frederick continued the traditional Prussian policy of encouraging immigration of economically productive elements, particularly peasants, into the more backward and underpopulated areas of the state. In contrast, his policy toward the established peasantry tended to be restrictive. In spite of the spirit of the times, he refused to abolish serfdom where it existed, fearing that such a measure would weaken the landed nobility, which produced both officers for his army and officials for his civil service.
In economics Frederick was a strict mercantilist, fostering the rather backward domestic industry with high tariffs wherever he could. He did not, however, extend these notions to the building of a fleet, so that Prussia did not participate in the great expansion of European overseas trade of the second half of the 18th century.
Apart from purely pragmatic measures, Frederick's reign was not a time of considerable reform. The one exception is the area of judicial procedure, where the efforts of his minister of justice, Cocceji, resulted not merely in a more extensive codification of the law but in the acceptance of the principle that the law is foremost the protector of the poor and the weak.
During his reign Frederick continued to concern himself with literature and music. He became, in a sense, the host of the most famous salon in Europe. Voltaire was only the best known of the philosophes to take advantage of his hospitality. The Prussian Academy of Sciences, which had long languished and which he renewed in 1744, provided much-needed subsidies for both major and minor luminaries of the French Enlightenment. At the same time Frederick had no use for those obstinate enough to persist in writing in "barbaric" German, and the young Goethe was not the only German author deprived of royal assistance for this reason.
But Frederick was not content to be merely a patron of literature. He found time to produce, besides Anti-Machiavel, the Mirror of Princes and a series of histories dealing with his own affairs that at his death filled 15 volumes.
Frederick was both lionized and vilified long after his death. In Germany his more nationally minded admirers produced a cult of Frederick the Great, the precursor of the all-German hero. In other countries he was blamed as the inventor of an implacable German militarism let loose upon the world. Both these views are gross distortions. Frederick was always a Prussian nationalist, never a German one. And while he was a soldier-king, his pervasive interests throughout his life were nonmilitary. The latter part of his reign was unquestionably pacific and in some cases even propitiatory in nature.
Frederick did not have a first-rate analytical mind, but Voltaire's denunciations of him after their famous quarrel do not sound much more convincing than his panegyrics when he still hoped to get some of the royal money. Frederick was parsimonious, perhaps to a fault, but his funds were in fact severely limited. His treatment of his queen, whom he refused even the right to reside near him, was perhaps unforgivable. Frederick II died at his beloved summer residence, Sans-Souci, near Potsdam on Aug. 17, 1786, and was followed on the throne by his nephew Frederick William II.
Further Reading on Frederick II
Among the older English biographies of Frederick, the best is probably W. F. Reddaway, Frederick the Great and the Rise of Prussia (1904). Other useful biographies are Edith Simon, The Making of Frederick the Great (1963), and D. B. Horn, Frederick the Great and the Rise of Prussia (1964). Gerhard Ritter, Frederick the Great: An Historical Profile (1936; 3d ed. 1954; trans. 1968), and G. P. Gooch, Frederick the Great: The Ruler, the Writer, the Man (1947), are both stimulating essays dealing with aspects of Frederick's life. See also John A. Marriott and Charles G. Robertson, The Evolution of Prussia: The Making of an Empire (1915; rev. ed. 1946); Hajo Holborn, History of Modern Germany, vol. 2 (1963); Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (2 vols., 1966-1969); and Walter Henry Nelson, The Soldier Kings: The House of Hohenzollern (1970).
Additional Biography Sources
Abulafia, David, Frederick II: a medieval emperor, London: Allen Lane, 1988; New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Duffy, Christopher, Frederick the Great: a military life, London:Routledge & K. Paul, 1985.
Duffy, Christopher, The military life of Frederick the Great, New York: Atheneum, 1986, 1985.
Mitford, Nancy, Frederick the Great, London; New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
Simon, Edith, The making of Frederick the Great, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.