Frederick I (1123-1190), or Frederick Barbarossa, was Holy Roman Emperor from 1152 to 1190. He was one of the greatest monarchs of medieval Germany, and his strong rule set many patterns of future development.
The son of Duke Frederick II of Swabia, Frederick I was the nephew of Emperor Conrad III of the Hohenstaufen family. Frederick's mother, Judith, however, was a Welf, the sister of Henry the Proud, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria. Thus in his own person he united these rival families, whose feuding had torn Germany apart for some decades. He was brave, intelligent, and chivalrous and, in his later years, wore a long red beard, hence his name of Barbarossa, or Red Beard.
After Frederick was elected king of Germany in 1152, his first task was to negotiate a settlement with the Welf family in the person of his cousin Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony. By 1156 an agreement between the two had been reached. Frederick gave Henry a free hand in Saxony, where Henry could exercise imperial powers and expand freely into Slavic lands beyond the Elbe River. Henry was given almost the same authority in Bavaria, where he was also made duke.
With the Welfs conciliated, Frederick Barbarossa then proceeded to build up an imperial domain in western Germany along the Rhine near his ancestral Swabian holdings, giving special privileges to the towns, improving the status of the peasantry, and encouraging a well-structured feudalism among the nobility. He also gained control of the resources of Burgundy by marrying its heiress, Beatrice. Meanwhile Henry the Lion was behaving similarly in eastern Germany, where he advanced into Slavic lands, founded towns like Lübeck and Munich, cleared the Baltic of Wendish pirates, and encouraged Flemish and northern German peasants to settle lands beyond the Elbe. Their joint efforts resulted in Germany's making progress like that taking place in France and England during this same period.
Conflict with the Papacy
Frederick's concern with southern Germany and Burgundy, however, involved him in nearby Italy. He has been severely censured by many historians for his actions in this area. But it is hard to see how he could have avoided an interest in this part of the empire, where since the days of the emperor Henry V (reigned 1106-1125) German rulers had played little role and had allowed both the northern towns of Italy and the papacy to develop relatively undisturbed. Now all this changed.
Pope Adrian IV, at odds with his powerful vassal and protector the Norman king of Sicily, William I, asked assistance from Frederick in getting rid of Arnold of Brescia, a religious reformer who had seized control of the city of Rome. In 1154-1155 Frederick answered this request by advancing on Rome and capturing and executing Arnold. In return he was crowned emperor by the Pope. Frederick, however, was obviously reluctant to accept the seeming subordination that this ceremony entailed.
By 1157 Pope and Emperor were definitely at odds, since, when Frederick held a diet in Besançon in Burgundy, he interpreted a papal letter as a slur upon his independence. From this time on he began to refer to his empire as a holy empire on a par with the Church. When he returned to Italy with a huge army in 1158, he was ready to challenge papal authority. He did so at a diet which he held at Roncaglia, where he claimed, as Roman emperor, complete authority over northern Italian cities, including both the right to appoint podestas, or imperial governors, for them and to levy heavy taxes upon them. He based such claims upon rights given emperors by the Roman law, which had newly been rediscovered and was being studied at Bologna and elsewhere in northern Italy. When Milan, the most powerful northern Italian city, resisted his claims and revolted, he captured it after a long siege and razed it. By 1161 he had crushed all resistance in northern Italy and seemed well on his way to organizing this rich area as an imperial domain under his direct rule.
Frederick's success, however, disturbed the papacy, which was now in the hands of a new pope, Alexander III. It also alarmed the Norman kings of Sicily to the south and the inhabitants of northern Italian towns who by 1168, with papal blessing, had organized the Lombard League to oppose Frederick's authority. Faced by this rising opposition, Frederick attempted to counter papal hostility by setting up an antipope and thus forced Alexander for a time to flee to France (1162-1165). He also planned an attack on the kingdom of Sicily. In the long run, however, his enemies proved too many for him to subdue. The Lombard League grew in power, and Milan was rebuilt while Frederick was unavoidably absent in Germany.
Finally, in 1174 Frederick returned again to Italy with a relatively small army, since he could rally only minimal support for his Italian plans among his German nobles. With this force he attempted several unsuccessful sieges of towns and then in 1176 was badly defeated by a Milanese force at the Battle of Legnano. Recognizing that this defeat had doomed his Italian prospects, Frederick made peace with Pope Alexander III and gave up his antipope. Alexander in return deserted his Lombard allies and allowed Frederick full control over the Church in Germany. In 1183 Frederick also came to terms with the Lombard League by signing the Peace of Constance, by which these centers were guaranteed self-government and the right to control their own taxes and judicial administration. Frederick's Lombard adventure had ended in failure.
Even before this final peace with the Lombard League, however, Frederick had decided to deal with the nobility of Germany, whose lack of support he blamed for his failure at Legnano, and especially with his cousin Henry the Lion. Henry was in a vulnerable position because many of the magnates of northern Germany had been alienated by his ruthlessness and high-handedness. In 1179 Frederick returned to Germany and ordered Henry to appear in court to answer charges brought against him by discontented vassals. Henry refused, his fiefs were declared forfeit, and he was driven into exile. His holdings in Saxony and Bavaria were broken up and divided among Frederick's supporters.
Victorious in Germany, in his last years Frederick finally won a great victory in Italy too—by marriage rather than by war. In 1186 he formed an alliance with King William II of Sicily to attack the weakening Byzantine Empire, which both coveted. William was young but childless, so to cement the alliance Frederick had his son Henry (later Henry VI) marry Constance, William's aunt and heiress to his throne. Three years later William died unexpectedly, and Henry found himself the ruler of the kingdom of Sicily, which had so long opposed his father's ambitions. Frederick then not only was supreme in Germany but had gained for his house in Italy the strong kingdom of Sicily.
In his last years Frederick took the cross and went on the Third Crusade. But on the way to Palestine in 1190 he died of a stroke while bathing in a stream in Cilicia. So great was his prestige among his contemporaries that a legend soon grew up in Germany that he had not died but was sleeping in a cave high in the Bavarian Alps. There, it was said, he sat on his throne, with his great red beard filling the cavern and ravens flying in and out. Someday, said the legend, he would awake and lead Germany again to glory.
The legend, however, differed considerably from the facts, for, although Frederick seemed to have won success in his later years, his reign was not what it might have been. His destruction of the territorial consolidation achieved by Henry the Lion benefited only the princes of Germany, while his loss of northern Italy set the stage for the later failure there of his able grandson Frederick II. Both Germany and Italy benefited little from his long reign.
Further Reading on Frederick I
The only good biography of Frederick I in English is Peter Munz, Frederick Barbarossa (1969). See also Austin Lane Poole, Henry, the Lion (1912). Valuable accounts of Frederick's reign can be found in James Westfall Thompson, Feudal Germany (1928); Geoffrey Barraclough, The Origins of Modern Germany (1946; 2d rev. ed. 1947); R. H. C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe: From Constantine to Saint Louis (1957); and Christopher Brooke, Europe in the Central Middle Ages, 962-1154 (1964).