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.
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.
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).