The twelfth century almost reminds me of the world created by Marvel for their superheroes such as Captain America and Iron Man. It is without a doubt my favourite era of the Middle Ages. The hero of today’s story, Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’, Holy Roman Emperor from 1152 until his death in 1190, shared the stage with some other truly larger-than-life figures who made sure they would occupy a good amount of pages in future history books. So, I naturally can’t tell Frederick’s story without filling in some of this context, for fear of these chaps coming back to haunt me.
Quickly rising to celebrity status was bold King Henry II of England, who consolidated what would become known as the Angevin Empire, and who famously quarreled with Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and had him stabbed to death inside his own cathedral. Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was a plotting she-wolf who joined some of her sons in rebellion against him. One of those sons, warrior-poet Richard I ‘the Lionheart’, placed his stamp on the crusades by making his Muslim adversary Saladin’s life fairly stressful. (By the way, for those interested in the poet part: look up Richard’s song ‘Ja nuns hons pris’ on youtube. It’s great.) And, according to Disney, Richard had a fabulous follower named Robin Hood. Finally – I’m forcing myself to cut this list short – my favourite Pope, Innocent III, who was incredibly pompous and stuck his oversized nose into literally everything within reach, began his reign just before the end of this century in 1198.
Now, let’s fill in part of the board on which these chess pieces played their game. Imagine upcoming cities with guilds, booming trade, a powerful Church, kings and vassals, knights in shining armour going off to chop Muslim infidels into tiny pieces in the Holy Land, and ever-shifting boundaries as neighbouring kingdoms harried each other’s territories. On this stage, tales of chivalric romance often sung by wandering minstrels carrying out-of-tune lutes, for example recounting the legend of King Arthur, were busy becoming the rock stars of their day. In short, this period is about as quintessentially medieval as it gets.
For Frederick Barbarossa, the conditions for becoming a medieval superhero were all in place, because by the time he became emperor the Holy Roman Empire was eh, having some issues. Superheroes must have something to battle and overcome, of course.
The Holy Roman Empire was made up of a plethora of principalities, duchies and the likes, stretching from the Low Countries to northern Italy, the core of which would later become Germany. A.K.A., not the most easily governed mishmash. Complicating matters further, its emperor was often elected, and was then crowned by the Pope. In time, the popes (in this case, Gregory VII) decided they wanted a piece of the pie and tried to strong-arm one of Frederick’s predecessors, Henry IV, into letting them appoint local church officials. The ensuing struggle, known as the Investiture Controversy, almost literally crippled Henry, who had to beg on his knees for forgiveness. Henry’s initiate pig-headedness had also led to uprisings within his empire, increased power for local German princes, and the rebellion of his sons. Even after the Controversy was ended in 1122, strife continued to plague the empire in the form of power hungry princes and two squabbling rival houses. So, you can imagine the Holy Roman Empire wasn’t entirely shipshape by the time Frederick appeared on the scene.
Perfect circumstances for some legacy-building, or so Frederick thought. Frederick, who was the nephew of King Conrad III, was born in 1122. In a Game of Thrones-worthy episode, he won the king’s confidence during the Second Crusade (1145–1149), and proceeded to make sure he was present at the king’s deathbed in 1152, along with just one other person. Both Frederick and his buddy afterwards declared that Conrad had handed the royal insignia to Frederick rather than to his own six-year old son. Not bad, Freddy.
He instantly realized that in order to restore some of the recently lost power to his position, he had to cut some smart deals. The first item on his to-do list was establishing peace in the mess that was the German states, which he achieved by making lavish concessions to the German princes. Consequently, he bombarded the empire’s Italian domains with a bunch of campaigns intended to restore imperial authority, which were moderately successful. He also reinstated the (originally sixth-century) Justinian Code of law, which he used to add divine powers to his office. Overall, this man had the skills and the charisma to breathe new life into imperial authority, and he is considered to be one of the Holy Roman Empire’s greatest medieval emperors.
Such a great man as this Redbeard (which is what Barbarossa means) obviously deserved a heroic – or at least a dignified – exit. There was certainly a grand opportunity for him to go out with a bang. In 1187, Balian of Ibelin, represented by ladies’ favourite Orlando Bloom in the film Kingdom of Heaven, had been forced to surrender Jerusalem to the Muslim leader Saladin; the Third Crusade was launched in 1189 in an attempt to reconquer the lost lands. Frederick Barbarossa joined King Richard the Lionheart and the French king Philip II Augustus in taking up the cross. It could have been great. It could have been wonderful. Instead, it was ever so slightly damp.
En route in Anatolia, before even reaching the Holy Land, the great Frederick Barbarossa drowned while crossing the river Saleph. How the hell did this happen? The sources all vary ever so slightly, and there’s no space here to go through all of the versions. According to our main source, the Historia de Expeditione Frederici Imperatoris, the army had trudged through the blistering heat on unforgiving terrain for days, scaling cliffs ‘accessible only to birds and mountain goats’. The author has it that Frederick wanted to cool down a bit, as well as avoid another mountain peak, so he jumped right into the swift-flowing river. Straight into a whirlpool, apparently. Thus, Frederick ended up sleeping with the fishes (bonus points if you get the Worms reference). There is also a source that states that Barbarossa attempted to give his horse some swimming lessons by crossing the river, but failing miserably; both Frederick and his horse were swept away by the current. Of course, as befits a proper knight, he was wearing his full plate armour, and sank like a guilty witch.
After his death, his army more or less dissolved and most of the German knights returned home. Without the German army, Richard the Lionheart failed to reconquer the holy grail that was Jerusalem, despite capturing the important cities of Acre and Jaffa. Luckily, in World War 2 the Nazis realised what a great emperor Frederick had been, and wanted to honour him by naming one of their operations after him. However, Operation Barbarossa, the code name for Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union which was started in June 1941, met a similarly awkward end when the troops drowned in mountains of Soviet snow. Perhaps they were tempting fate by naming it after Frederick.