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Frederick Barbarossa awards the city of Haarlem with a sword for its shield or coat-of-arms. By Pieter de Greber, 1630.

Frederick I Barbarossa: A Megalomaniac Roman Emperor On a Crusade for Power


Some people believe they were born for greatness but fall short and some go on to exceed all expectations. Frederick I Barbarossa falls into the second category. His ambition for power was limitless and it seems he believed his authority second only to God. Certainly, he thought the Pope his inferior, and, although a fearless supporter of the religious crusades of the Latin Church, he could not accept the authority of the Papacy over his own.

Emperor Frederick Red Beard

Frederick I, known also by his nickname, Barbarossa (which, in Italian, means ‘Red Beard’), was a Holy Roman emperor who lived during the 12th century. During his lifetime, Barbarossa was a popular ruler, and was well-loved by his subjects. To future generations, he is often regarded to be one of the most prominent Holy Roman emperors during the Middle Ages. Amongst other things, Barbarossa is remembered for his challenges to papal authority in his empire, his administrative and organisational skills, his military campaigns in Europe, and his participation in the Crusades.

Emperor Frederick I, known as "Barbarossa". Colored copper plate by Christian Siedentopf,1847.

Emperor Frederick I, known as "Barbarossa". Colored copper plate by Christian Siedentopf,1847. ( Public Domain )

Born to Be King

The exact date of Frederick I Barbarossa’s birth is unknown, though his year of birth is commonly given to be AD 1122 or 1123. His father was Frederick II, Duke of Swabia, whilst his mother was Judith, the daughter of Henry IX, Duke of Bavaria, known also as Henry the Black. Barbarossa’s father was a Hohenstaufen, whilst his mother was a Welf, two leading dynasties in the Holy Roman Empire that were traditionally rivals.

During the Second Crusade, Barbarossa had accompanied his uncle, Conrad III, King of Germany, to the East. Ultimately, this crusade was a disaster, and the crusaders, including the Germans, did not fare too well during the military expedition. At Dorylaeum, for instance, Conrad’s army was ambushed by the Turks, and were badly beaten. Nevertheless, Barbarossa gained some military experience from this campaign, as well as the confidence of his uncle.

Stone depiction of Barbarossa, at Kyffhäuser Mountain.

Stone depiction of Barbarossa, at Kyffhäuser Mountain. ( Public Domain )

Barbarossa’s First Reign

The latter came in handy in 1152, when Conrad died. As the German king laid on his deathbed, he presented the Imperial seal to Barbarossa, and expressed his desire that his nephew succeed him. This was witnessed by the Prince-Bishop of Bamberg, who was the only other person at Conrad’s deathbed. Conrad’s six year old son, who did not succeed his father as king, was appointed as the Duke of Swabia. In addition to being named as Conrad’s successor, Barbarossa’s claim to the throne was accepted by all due to his familial links with the Hohenstaufens and the Welfs. Barbarossa’s vision for his empire as he ascended the throne was to restore it to the glory it enjoyed under Charlemagne. To achieve this, the new king travelled round his realms to meet local princes, and to unite them behind him.

The Marriage of the Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa to Beatrice of Burgundy

The Marriage of the Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa to Beatrice of Burgundy ( Public Domain )

Higher than a King

One thing of Charlemagne’s that Barbarossa had yet to possess was the title ‘Holy Roman Emperor’. In 1153, the Treaty of Constance was concluded between Barbarossa and Pope Eugenius III. In essence, the treaty stipulated that in exchange for aiding the Papacy against its Norman enemies in Sicily, Barbarossa would be crowned as Holy Roman Emperor. Thus, in 1155, Barbarossa was crowned as the new Holy Roman Emperor by Eugenius’ successor, Pope Adrian IV, after which he returned to Germany. He was to discover that internal strife had once again broken out during his absence, and he took measures to bring back order to his realm.

A miniature of Frederick I Barbarossa as a crusader.

A miniature of Frederick I Barbarossa as a crusader. ( Public Domain )

An Unhappy Alliance

Although crowned by the Pope, the relationship between the Barbarossa and the Papacy had been growing tense. The issue at hand was whether the emperor should be subjected to the pope, or the other way round. Naturally, Barbarossa believed that the pope should be subjected to the emperor, and the pope took the opposite view. This eventually resulted in Barbarossa’s excommunication by Pope Alexander III. In retaliation, Barbarossa threw his support behind a series of antipopes.

Frederick Barbarossa submits to the authority of Pope Alexander III by Spinello Aretino, 14th century

Frederick Barbarossa submits to the authority of Pope Alexander III by Spinello Aretino, 14th century ( Public Domain )

Eventually, in 1176, Barbarossa made peace with Alexander, and had his excommunication lifted, following the emperor’s disastrous campaign against the Lombard League in northern Italy. Nevertheless, the actions taken by Barbarossa in the following years served only to once again strain relations with the pope. In spite of this, when the Third Crusade was called, Barbarossa responded immediately by raising an army of 150,000 men, and setting out for the East. The now aging emperor, however, was not destined to reach the Holy Land. In 1190, Barbarossa drowned in the Saleph River in south-eastern Anatolia. According to some accounts, the emperor drowned whilst attempting to cross the river, whilst others claim that he had jumped into the river to cool himself down. In any case, the weight of his armour has often been blamed for his drowning.

Monument to Barbarosa, at Kyffhäuser Mountain.

Monument to Barbarosa, at Kyffhäuser Mountain.   Kyffhäuserdenkmal in Germany ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

The Legend of a Sleeping Barbarosa

The death of Barbarossa dealt a severe blow to the morale of his troops, the majority of which abandoned the campaign, and returned to Germany. Back in Germany, the death of this beloved emperor was a great shock to the people, and a legend later arose stating that Barbarossa is not actually dead, but sleeping on his throne in the Kyffhäuser Mountain. This legend became more and more elaborate over the centuries. According to one popular version of this legend, the emperor would arise from his sleep, and lead Germany once more to greatness when “the ravens cease to fly round the mountain”.

Top image: Frederick Barbarossa awards the city of Haarlem with a sword for its shield or coat-of-arms. By Pieter de Greber, 1630. ( Public Domain )

By Wu Mingren


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Available at: http://www.lordsandladies.org/frederick-barbarossa.html

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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