Episode 59 – The City of Straw

This week we talk about Barbarossa’s next moves after his disastrous fourth Italian campaign. It takes him a few years to come to grips with the failure of his great imperial programme before he makes one last attempt to resurrect it.


Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 59 – The City of Straw

As you can hear I have a terrible cold and I am afraid it is sniffle, sniffle all the way through this episode. I will re-record it as soon as I am out of it, so if you find it irritating, delete this episode and reload it in say five days.  It if you cannot wait to find out what happens next, here is episode 59.

This week we talk about Barbarossa’s next moves after his disastrous fourth Italian campaign. It takes him a few years to come to grips with the failure of his great imperial programme before he makes one last attempt to resurrect it.

This episode also has an episode website to go with it where you can find transcripts, maps and images. And this time I will even help you find the page, it is on historyofthegermans.com/59

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On March 9th, 1168, Barbarossa left Italy via the pass of Mont Cenis disguised as a servant and accompanied by just a small number of attendants. He even had to leave his wife, Beatrix of Burgundy behind in the town of Susa whose inhabitants he feared were about to murder him. He arrived in Basel on March 15th, 1168, and he was not going to return to Italy before September 1174 making these 6 years the longest continuous stay in Germany during his entire reign.

So, how did he react to the catastrophe before Rome and the collapse of his imperial policy?

As we know, medieval monarchs are not exactly famous for oversharing, but we can  get  glimpses of his initial reaction from the circulars he  sent to the German princes in September 1167. That is when he was still in Italy raiding Milanese territory in a futile attempts to bring down the Lombard League.

At that time he writes, quote “the heavens were astonished and the whole world trembled at the news that certain cities of Lombardy, namely, Milan, Piacenza, Cremona, Bergamo, Brescia, Mantua and the Mark of Verona had rebelled against our majesty, against the honour of the empire without cause. The empire that had been preserved until now at great exercian and with the blood of so many illustrious men and princes”. End quote. He describes it as the “Imperium Teutonicorum”, the empire of the Germans, for the first and only time in his reign.  He goes on to say that the Italian cities no longer wished to be ruled by him or to be subject of the lordship of the Germans. But that he would rather die than leave his successors with a much-diminished Reich. This sudden outburst of nationalist sentiment is extremely unusual. Much has been made of this turn of phrase in the past, implying that people were beginning to  think in nationalist categories. But it is important to remember that this is literally the only time the term is used and that it is used at a point of extreme stress when Barbarossa is still figuring out what had gone so badly wrong. Hence  I like to see it as the exception that proves the medieval rulers did not think in nationalist categories.

A few weeks after this “honour or death” shout, he leaves Pavia to save his bacon. And, as I said, even leaves his wife behind as a decoy to escape his pursuers. That is an unexpected behaviour for the man. There was never any indication he lacked personal bravery. He was often found in the centre of the fighting, he even took on menial tasks like operated the battering ram in the siege of Crema, an effort that nearly got him burned to death.

Why did he run? It is not that he absolutely had to. He could have stayed in Pavia and if the city could withstand a siege for long enough, relief from Germany would surely have come. The princes may no longer have  been keen to support Italian campaigns, but they were honour bound to relieve their emperor.

I do not want to fall deep into armchair psychology, but it seems that Barbarossa is utterly shaken by the events of 1167. He had lost his army, he had lost Northern Italy, the funding source of his policies, he had lost Rainald von Dassel, his closest advisor, and he had lost the fight with Pope Alexander III. His standing in Europe had collapsed.

John of Salisbury wrote that quote “the ex-emperor driven out in disgrace and shame, is a fugitive and an exile from Lombardy, has thrown his own Burgundy into confusion as he passed through and has found all of Germany in uproar. Now the fall he has earned seems to be at hand” end quote.

John of Salisbury teaching philosophy, frontispiece miniature of the Policraticus by John of Salisbury, translated by Denis Foulechat.

For the next 6 months his chancery does not produce a single document. Barbarossa ceases to act as ruler, at least temporarily. Some chroniclers claim that Barbarossa had suffered a severe illness as an explanation for this inertia. Only gradually does he return to his previous levels of boundless energy.

Political priorities had to change in light of what had happened. For the first time since 1154, Germany becomes the centre of Barbarossa’s agenda.

His long absences and regular demands for military support had eroded the ability of the imperial administration to maintain peace. Feuding amongst the princes had returned with a vengeance.

In his own homeland of Swabia, the counts of Tubingen and Welf VI were tied in a deadly struggle that had pulled in both the dukes of Zaehringen and the Frederick of Rothenburg, the duke of Swabia.

Tubingen and its castle as it looked in 1643

And then his young brother, Konrad, the Count Palatinate on the Rhine fought with the archbishopric of Cologne, pitting two of the emperors closest supporters against each other..

Burg Rheineck, the cause of teh disagreement between Konrad and the archbishops of Cologne

The biggest source of turmoil was however Saxony. Henry the Lion as duke of Bavaria and duke of Saxony had become an overbearingly powerful force. Whilst Barbarossa had been in Italy, Henry had expanded his territory eastwards into what is today Mecklenburg and Pommern. These lands had been occupied by pagan Slavic peoples since the days of the Great Migration. Margrave Gero and Hermann Billlung had conquered them but they threw off the imperial yoke in 983. After that they been subject to regular raids by Saxon nobles but a permanent integration into the empire was no longer on the agenda. That changed with Lothar III It is now under Henry the Lion that these territories are permanently settled by colonists from Saxony and Flanders and cities like Lübeck, Schwerin and Rostock are established. The last purely pagan society on the Island of Rügen is forcibly Christianised in 1172.  Henry built himself the palace fortress of Dankwarderode, now in the centre of Braunschweig, a structure that rivalled any royal or imperial residence in size and splendour. In 1164 he had become engaged to the then 9-year-old daughter of king Henry II of England, Matilda. The marriage took place in 1168 with all the pomp and circumstance of a royal wedding. His position and demeanour had by now become king-like in every aspect.

Wedding of Henry teh Lion and Matilda of England

For his fellow Saxon nobles such behaviour was unacceptable. Albrecht the Bear and his sons, the Wettiner counts of Meissen and Lusatia, the Landgrave of Thuringia, the archbishops of Magdeburg and of Hamburg-Bremen formed the core of the opposition. As we have seen the Saxons have always been most insistent on their ancient rights and freedoms defending them against emperors. Nor were they willing to bend themselves to a mere duke. An veritable war broke out between Henry and the Saxon magnates which resulted in the burning of Bremen and sieges of Magdeburg and Goslar.

See Welf lands (green) and the lands of Albrecht the Baer top right in pink (unfortunately same colour as Staufer lands

Barbarossa ordered the magnates and Henry the Lion to appear before the Reichstag but the rebels did not head the call, Only upon the third summons did they show, fearing that a no-show would result in an imperial ban. Barbarossa’s efforts resulted in a truce which turned into a more permanent settlement after Albrecht the Baer had died aged 70. The settlement was however not at all equitable. Barbarossa had continued his policy of keeping the Welf on side, almost at all costs. Underlying it was the notion that a united front of the by far most powerful duke and the emperor was the best guarantee for stability.

But it wasn’t much more than stability. The reluctance of the Saxon nobles to show up for the Reichstag is a clear indication that they either did not expect a fair hearing, or worse, did no longer respect the imperial authority.

The silver lining in this otherwise quite grim time came from an unexpected windfall of the catastrophic events before Rome. Before 1168 Barbarossa had very little allodial property, i.e., property he owned in his own right. His most valuable possession was the county of Burgundy he had received through marriage to Beatrix.. His father and his uncle Konrad III had built up a large territorial powerbase stretching along the Rhine River from around Basel to outside Mainz and then along the Main River and into Nürnberg. But the majority of these lands had gone to Frederick of Rothenburg, the son of Konrad III as compensation for missing out on the crown. Rothenburg also took over as duke of Swabia from Barbarossa. Rothenburg died before Rome without an heir and Barbarossa inherits his lands.

The other magnate who died before Rome was Welf VII, the only son of Welf VI, Barbarossa’s uncle and friend. Grieving over the loss of his only son the older Welf gave himself away to a life of debauchery. Hunting, drinking, mistresses, lavish feasts and largesse drained his finances so that he sold his rights to the Lands of Matilda to Barbarossa in 1173.  His true wealth was however in the lands of Swabia around lake Constance/ Those he offered to sell to his nephew Henry the Lion, who was however too stingy to pay the old man on time. So, Barbarossa came in, provided his old friend with the means to enjoy a bit more of his carnal comforts in exchange for some of the richest lands North of the Alps.

Next one was the inheritance of Rudolf of Pfullendorf, another member of Barbarossa’s inner circle who also lost his only son before Rome. This required a bit more finesse as Rudolf was still alive and his daughter was married to the Count of Habsburg. But somehow, he finagled that one and another chunk of valuable Swabian territory came to him. To appease the Habsburgs, they were given the county of Zurich and the advocacy over the abbey of Saeckingen. So, if you had ever asked yourself how come that Wilhelm Tell and the Swiss Confederacy were oppressed by the Habsburgs, that is why.

Then there are a number of further lands he received, again mostly from his closest friends who either themselves or whose male heirs had died on his campaigns. Some he bought, some he wrestled from the heirs in ways that weren’t always cricket. I will not bore you with the names of all the places, but what he ended up with was a fairly coherent territory. If you follow along of historyofthegermans/59 you can see the map showing the Hohenstaufen controlled territories covering a lot of Southwest Germany and an extension eastward onto the modern Czech-German border. This process went on until the end of his reign at which point the personal territories of the Hohenstaufen were almost all coherent and sizeable as those of the Welf.  

Staufer lands in the south west before 1168 (left) and by the end of Barbaroissa’s reign (right)

The sudden focus on enlarging the dynastic territory is probably the biggest political U-turn of Barbarossa’s reign. Until 1168 his political concept was to create an imperial authority that lives above the squabbles of mere princes and cities. A Holy Roman Empire that is universal and can demand allegiance and support in exchange for providing security and the rule of law. The funding of that entity should come from imperial regalia rather than from the territories of the reigning monarch.

He does not give up on that notion, but his build-up of the dynastic lands of the Hohenstaufen is his plan B should the grand plan of being the undisputed leader of Christianity fail permanently.

But this is not the only strategic shift. His attitude towards the schism also shifted. His antipope Paschalis III had died in 1168 and his cardinals had elected a new anti-pope, Calixtus III. Though Barbarossa formally recognised him, he never met the antipope, he did little to support him..

The papal project had clearly failed, and Barbarossa needed to find a way out of it. His biggest constraint was the oath of Wurzburg, where he had sworn not to ever recognise Roland Bandinelli as Pope. As the emperor he could not walk away from this oath without a devastating blow to his credibility and prestige.

In 1169 he came up with a somewhat convoluted but at the same time genius plan. He had made the German princes elect his 4-year-old second son as King Henry VI. He then offered that his son would swear allegiance to Alexander III as the only pope, in exchange for a coronation. That would have solved most problems. Alexander could declare that the empire had returned into the fold of the catholic church, whilst Barbarossa would not have to break his oath. But it did not work out. Barbarossa insisted that all the bishops appointed by his antipopes like Christian of Mainz and Philip of Cologne remained in place which was something Alexander could not accept since there were archbishops of Mainz and Cologne. With two archbishops of Cologne, who will crown the new king. Schisms are messy and they get messier the longer they last.

Little Henry VI was crowned king in August 1169 in Aachen by the archbishop of Cologne, one of those appointed by the antipope. As for his two brothers, his older brother Frederick had been sickly all his life and died either before or shortly after Henry’s coronation.  Henry’s younger brother was initially called Konrad but then renamed Frederick after the death of the eldest. He became the duke of Swabia, though at the age of three his father ran the duchy for the next decade or so.

Having a son who is now king and another one who is a duke means there are options to strengthen the political position of the house of Hohenstaufen through marriages.

The oldest son had been promised to the younger daughter of King Henry II of England. But that son was now dead. And so was the relationship with King Henry II. Barbarossa had tried to forge closer ties with Henry II during the schism as the King of England had himself a major issue with the church. That issue was called Thomas a Beckett. This is not the place to go into detail on this and I assume many of you know the story anyway. But as far as we are concerned, the important point was that Pope Alexander III managed to keep both sides, the archbishop of Canterbury and King believing he was supporting them. So Henry II never really came around to the imperial side even though he did send some envoys to the oath of Wurzburg event. There was even a very brief moment after the murder of Thomas a’Beckett where Barbarossa had his hopes up that England would come across but that vanished quickly. The murder, as we know, backfired badly and Henry II had to do penance before the shrine of his now saintly adversary, which also meant that he was pretty much tied for good to Alexander III.

And that meant Barbarossa turned to Henry II’s arch-enemy, King Louis VII of France, the guy who had stood him up at the bridge near Dijon in 1164. In the world of medieval realpolitik, this was literally water under the bridge. The two monarchs meet in February 1171 on another bridge near another town. And that meeting is a lot more successful. They discover they have something in common, both do not like Henry II very much, which is enough to agree a marriage between Louis’s daughter to Henry VI. They also agreed a treaty of friendship and interestingly agreed to jointly fight the feral mercenary troops of Brabanters that had become a menace after they had returned home to the low countries from Barbarossa’s campaign. We can see a glimpse of the late middle ages here already.

That marriage however never took place because Alexander III appealed to Louis’s brother the archbishop of Reims to block it. But a bridge was built between the Hohenstaufen and the Capetians that would only strengthen over time.

That project having fallen through, another appeared on the horizon, a marriage to Maria, the daughter of emperor Manuel in Constantinople. That is a bit of a surprise, right. Last time we heard about Manuel, he had been funding the league of Verona and teamed up with Venice against the Holy Roman Empire. What happened?

The thing that always happens when 5 guys team up to kick one guy. Suddenly they realise they only ever shared one objective, defeating their enemy. Barbarossa five adversaries in the 1160s were Pope Alexander III, the Sicilians, Venice, the Lombard league and emperor Manuel. All of them felt threatened by Barbarossa’s power in Northern Italy and had buried their differences to overcome him. But now that he is gone, they realise that they have very little in common after all. The first crack appeared in the relationship between Venice and Constantinople. Manuel had been fighting for decades in the Balkans and had just occupied the coast of what is now Croatia. That was within the Venetian zone of influence. Moreover, Manuel also had sort of control of Ancona, on the opposite shore of the Adriatic. Venice was concerned that Manuel could block their shipping routes. And with good reason, because that is exactly what Manuel wanted to do. It is the whole reason why he wasted money on Italian squabbles and wanted a foothold in Italy. And Manuel was right to be afraid of the Venetians, because merely 34 years later they will put an end to the Byzantine empire of old. In 1169 Venice ordered its citizens to leave Constantinople, effectively a trade embargo. Manuel reacted by getting in touch with Pisa and Genoa to make up the shortfall and had all Venetians on his territory  arrested.  He still had a problem, his navy was no match for the Venetians. He needed to stop them to come down the Bosporus and burn his capital to the ground. The only one who could prevent that was King William of Sicily. A marriage alliance is hastily concluded and William is promised the princess Maria. So far so good, but then an epidemic breaks out in Venice and suddenly there is no longer a threat to Constantinople. Manuel who does not trust the Sicilians any more than the Venetians decides to leave William waiting by the alter, something William II of Sicily will never forgive. And so, Manuel now has a spare daughter and an open slot for an ally. Having pissed off everyone else, Barbarossa becomes a choice. Some negotiations ensue that go on until 1174 but nothing comes of it.

Byzantine empire shortly after Manuel. see teh adriatic with Ancona pointed out

An even more unexpected diplomatic effort was directed at Saladin, the ruler of Egypt and avowed enemy of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. They exchanged letters and in 1173 Saladin’s envoys come to Germany bringing gifts and the proposal of a marriage between the sultan’s son and the emperor’s daughter. That is quite something, an alliance between the enemy of the Christians in the middle east and the Holy roman empire. Anyway did not happen either.

Whilst this goes on, another line of diplomacy opens up between Barbarossa and King William II of Sicily, the unlucky suitor of little Maria. He is offered Barbarossa’s daughter Beatrice as part of an alliance between Sicily and the Holy Roman Empire. Now that is new. Ever since the Sicilians had appeared on the scene, the emperors had been fighting them tooth and nail, apart from that very first time they appeared and Conrad II made Rainulf count of Aversa in 1038.

What is clear is that the great anti-Barbarossa alliance is breaking apart. In the end their interests are not as closely aligned as they appeared. And even the imperial position in Italy had made a modest recovery. Pisa and Genoa remained at least positively disposed if not supportive of the empire. A not insignificant chunk of the Lands of Matilda in Tuscany remained loyal. The city of Rome had opened its gates to Paschalis III and even the rather useless anti-pope Calixtus III could hang on to the Holy City, at least as long as the Senate remained opposed to Alexander III.  

In 1174 Barbarossa concludes that he should make one last attempt to re-establish his old dream of the universal empire. As I said, he had invested much in his plan B and was in negotiations with all and sundry, even with Alexander III, but the dream of world domination is hard to give up.

If the grand coalition of the five major powers of Alexander III, Sicily, the Lombard League, Venice and Manuel had broken down on the back of internal differences, why wouldn’t the Lombard league break apart as well. Cremona and Milan had been at each other’s throats ever since the Italian communes had first emerged. And what about Lodi, Como, Novara, Vercelli or Bergamo, did they really live happily under Milanese hegemony? Pavia was still standing and a still an ally.

The Lombard League

In September 1174 Barbarossa appears with an army of 8000 milites in Italy. Knights they were not, but almost all mercenaries. Hardly any of the German princes had volunteered to follow their emperor across the alps. The only names that are confirmed participants in the venture apart from the usual gaggle of bishops, was Barbarossa’s brother Konrad, duke Oldrich of Bohemia who owed the emperor his position and the ever faithful Otto von Wittelsbach.

The only pass open to this army was the Mont Cenis, in what is today the French alps. That is the emergency pass, the one emperors take when things are going badly. It is the pass Henry IV took in that winter dash to hold off Gregory VII and the one Barbarossa had fled across 6 years earlier. None of the traditional routes could be taken as all of them were in the control of the League or of Venice. That led him past the town of Susa whose inhabitants wanted to kill him in his bed 6 last time he passed. Never one for mercy, he had the whole city burned to the ground.

The major alpine passes (then and now)

From there the army progress into Piedmont where they meet up with the army of the Margrave of Montferrato.  Turin and Asti opened their gates. From there, instead of following the open road to Pavia he headed to a red rag the Lombards and the pope had put in his way. That red rag was the city of Alessandria.

There are over 40 cities called Alexandria in Europe and Asia from Alexandria in Egypt, Iskenderum in Turkey,  Termez in Uzbekistan, Merv in Turkmenistan, Herat and Kandahar in Afghanistan and even half a dozen cities in Pakistan. The US alone has more than 30 cities called Alexandria.

Not any of those would have brought the wrath of the emperor upon it, because they are all named after Alexander the Great. Alessandria in Italy is not. Alessandria was created in 1168 from a couple of small settlements along the via Emilia. It was created by the Lombard League and they named it after -drumroll- Pope Alexander III. They definitely knew how to trigger this German warrior. Alessandria had to be destroyed. It did not matter that it was not even on his way towards Lombardy or that it was a modest settlement without a major garrison that could attack the supply lines. No, Alessandria had to be wiped out.it was a matter of honour and principle.

Barbarossa’s army had been further reinforced with troops from the ever-faithful city of Pavia and counted almost 20,000 men. The citizens of Alexandria most likely less than half that number were prepared to surrender as soon as the host appeared. If the city surrendered without a fight, the conventions of medieval warfare demanded that the city would remain standing. And that was a no go. Who cares about strategy and genuine military objectives when the reputation of the Empire is at stake.

The army settled down for a siege. It should have been a quick thing. Alessandria had only been founded in 1168 and its walls were not completed in stone but mostly of wood. Its defenders were the citizens of this new town reinforced by just 150 soldiers from Piacenza. The Germans called it the city of straw and believed they could make short thrift of it. But hey, were they wrong.

The founders of Alessandria may not have been able to finish the city walls in stone, but they had dug deep ditches and redirected the river to flow around the city. These turned out to be formidable barriers. The siege started in late autumn and the winter was unseasonably cold. Incessant rain turned the imperial camp into a swamp. The Bohemians deserted. Provisions were scarce. It was ridiculous, this one-horse town was resisting the might of the empire for 6 months.

At Easter 1175 Barbarossa agreed a ceasefire for the holiday and the citizens of the battered settlement agreed. It is a measure of how desperate Barbarossa is by now. Despite it being a holy day and the promise of a ceasefire he ordered 200 of his best men to enter the city through tunnels dug during the siege. His army waited outside the gates, ready to storm once the gates are opened from inside. But the invaders were spotted and killed. The gates did open, but instead of the crack team of Delta Force, the defenders sallied froward, ran down the surprised attackers and burned the siege engines with all their occupants.

The siege of Alessandria in a “patriotic” painting from 1851

On Easter Sunday, April 13th Barbarossa burned and abandoned his camp. He marched towards an approaching Lombard army that was finally sent to relieve Alessandria. The city of straw turned out to be a city of iron. 

The emperor with his chastened army of mercenaries and the whiff of sacrilege hanging over him is heading into battle against the Lombard league.

Next week we will see how this pans out. I hope you will join us again.

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