Episode 60 – Legnano

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This week we talk about the next leg in this the fifth Italian campaign Barbarossa undertakes. It involves an aborted battle, attempts at peace, a mediation award, a refusal of support and the most significant battle of not just his reign but one that reverberates into the present day.


Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans, Episode 60 – Legnano

This week we talk about the next leg in this the fifth Italian campaign Barbarossa undertakes. It involves an aborted battle, attempts at peace, a mediation award, a refusal of support and the most significant battle of not just his reign but one that reverberates into the present day.

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Last week we ended with Barbarossa abandoning the siege of Alessandria. Leaving behind the burning ambers of his exceedingly expensive siege engines and the graves of the soldiers who had burned to death inside them, he headed back to Pavia to lick his wounds.

Going back to Pavia is all fine, but not a way to defeat the Lombard league. The Lombard League that Barbarossa is up against in 1176 had evolved quite a bit from the purely defensive alliance formed in 1167. You remember that in 1167 the Lombard cities came together to protect each other against the ever-increasing imperial demands for taxes, soldiers and ultimate direct control of the cities. Its members had been archenemies who had been tied up in incessant internal fighting ever since the communes had been created in the 11th century. But the resistance against the laws of Roncaglia had unified them. They even worked together to resurrect Milan, the previous hegemon of Lombardy that had razed many of its fellow league members to the ground before.

White bit is Pavia!

What is most remarkable is that the Lombard League did not fall apart after Barbarossa had fled across the alps having lost his army and his allies in Italy. For six years he was brooding beyond the alps, but six years is a long time in politics.

Instead of falling apart, the Lombard league firmed up even more and developed its own institutions. The league was led by two rectors whose role it was to coordinate league activities and act as commanders in war. The League also resolved disputes between its members, for instance over property and control of territory. As time went by the League became a customs union abolishing all tolls and customs duties between the cities. The League was certainly not a state had become a political entity in its own right.

At its heart however the League was first and foremost a pledge of mutual support. An attack on one member was an attack on all and all members of the league were required to bring relief.

And that is happening now. The League army was  on its way to relieve Alessandria. Let’s take the story up with Cardinal Boso who wrote, quote: in the dawn of Easter Sunday he (Barbarossa that is) made his way with all his men towards Pavia. But since he could not avoid cutting across the Lombard army’s lines, he wanted to encamp near the Lombards in the village which is known as Santa Giulietta. He did not fear that he would be attacked by them, unless he himself provoked them to battle. The Lombards had not yet discovered what Almighty God had on the previous day wrought with the aid of Alessandria. When they saw Frederick coming against them with flying standards, they took up arms and manfully stood there in armour before him, prepared to do battle. But at first, they were watching what he would decide to do, whether he would start to fight (which seemed unlikely because he had much fewer men than they had) or whether he would set up camp peacefully and harm nobody.  End quote

On easter Sunday the two armies were still three miles apart near the town of Montebello. Then the Lombard cities brought their men and their great Carrioccos, the enormous war carts that symbolised the cities freedom and honour across the little rive that separated the armies. Barbarossa for his part also moved closer.

That gradual approach showed how little eagerness either side had for the battle. Barbarossa knew that his army was still demoralised from the failure to take Alessandria, the desertions and the utter misery of its muddy winter camp. But the Lombards themselves weren’t sure they want to go up against one of Europe’s most successful generals either. Even though Barbarossa had lost his great army before Rome, that had not been due to a military defeat, but due to disease. So far Barbarossa had a clean sheet on the field of battle. And there must be in the back of their minds the thought about the downside risk for the league. If the joint army were to be beaten, how long before the old imperial allies, Cremona, Lodi, Bergamo, Como, Vercelli, Novara sink back into the warm embrace of their Holy sovereign?

It was time for cooler heads to prevail. Communication lines were opened by the Malaspina family, whose patriarch was in the League’s camp whilst his son served the emperor. This is one of the earlier incidents of the kinds of split bets many Italian families made to preserve their wealth and position during the rolling waves of invasions over the next couple of centuries.

Inside the Castello Malaspina in Fosdinovo – now a guest house: https://www.castellodifosdinovo.it/en/

With channels opened, the parties met to hammer out a deal. On the imperial side the legation consisted of the usual sea of bishops led by Philipp of Cologne, Conrad Count Palatinate and the inevitable Otto von Wittelsbach. On the Lombard side there were one representative each of the 15 cities of the league plus the two rectors and commanders of the Leagues’ army, Anselmo da Dovara and Ezzelino Romano. That makes 17 negotiators on one side and ~7 on the other. And what they were to agree upon was detailed, complex, and contentious, in essence the rights and privileges of the emperor in Italy.

The imperial position is that the laws of Roncaglia go back to Ancient Rome and are eternal and unaffected by recent events. Hence the emperor has all the rights listed at the time by the four great lawyers. And anyway, as the fountain of all laws and jurisdiction, he can impose new obligations if he so chooses.

The communal side is happy to pay this emperor what they had paid the emperor Henry V, last of the Salian rulers. Since nobody really remembered any details of Henry V’s reign nor the exact set of obligations they had towards him, the bottom line was that they wanted to go back to the days of absentee imperial overlordship and were prepared to give the emperor a nickel a year.

Big gap to bridge and very little time. Hence instead of aiming high and going for a permanent peace treaty, they agreed on a procedure by which a peace treaty should be arrived at. That procedure consisted in two steps. First a committee made up of three members from each side would negotiate a settlement. Where agreement cannot be reached, the disputed issue would be brought to the consuls of Cremona for a binding mediation award.

Why Cremona? Cremona had not sent troops against the emperor in Alessandria and had been the closest imperial ally in Italy after Pavia. On the other hand, Cremona was still a member of the Lombard League. All that made them closest thing to a neutral party in the whole of Italy. Normally this job would have gone to the pope, but Pope Alexander was no neutral party at all but firmly in the League‘s camp.

Though all that had been agreed was a truce and a route towards an agreement, both sides wanted to enact the formal ceremony as if an actual peace agreement had been concluded. And that involved two things. The Italian communes would submit to the emperor so he could re-admit them back into his grace. The emperor on the other hand had would grant not just the city representatives, but also the two rectors of the Lombard league the kiss of peace.

It is obvious why Barbarossa wanted the first part. After the setback before Alessandria, he needed something that restored the honour and standing of the empire. What could be better than having the leaders of the Lombard League kneeling before him with their swords pointing at their hearts asking for forgiveness.

Why are the Lombards prepared to give him that just for the kiss of peace? By granting the kiss of peace to the two rectors in their capacity as representatives of the Lombard league, the empire formally recognises its existence. Before the kiss of peace in the eyes of the world, the league was an agreement between several communes, but after the kiss it was an institution in its own right recognised by the emperor. It is a bit like when separatist movements are asking for diplomatic recognition for their new political entity. That, they thought was worth kneeling for. And this time they could probably have a cushion for their weary knees and can keep their shoes on.

Kiss of peace

Having gone through the motions, both sides dismissed their armies. The mercenaries returned to their homes in Brabant, plundering and steeling along the way. The Carrioccos carrying the cities’ pride and honour rattled home on what had remained of the roman road network of antiquity

And they lived happily ever after….ah, no, they didn’t. Come on, this is the History of the Germans. No way we go home without some decent bloodshed, tragedy and humiliation.

As every marriage counsellor knows, going through the kiss and make up stuff before you have resolved the underlying issue may result in a great night, but you still wake up with the same headache. And one headache was even more searing than taxes, jurisdictions, Roman law, podestas, or regalia, and that was the wretched city of Alessandria.

Alessandria’s mere existence was an insult to imperial dignity. Alessandria has to go. Non-negotiable said the three imperial representatives. 

Alessandria is a city, a creation and a full member of the Lombard League. Alessandria has to remain. Non-negotiable said the three representatives of the communes.

From then on the discussions are split into the general negotiations and the “issue of Alessandria” that is passed on to the consuls of Cremona.

And the consuls of Cremona decide – dramatic pause – for Alessandria to be dismantled. If you have asked yourself these last 10 episodes, why have I never heard much about Cremona before, apart from it being a great musical centre and the home of the greatest violin makers like Amati, Rugeri, Guameri and Stradivari? The answer is right here. When Cremona sided with Barbarossa, the other members of the Lombard league are apoplectic. Never again will they trust Cremona and though Cremona remains a member of the league for some time longer, it’s influence is much diminished. And they did not even get their pay out for changing sides. The Germans too see the award as  a case of Italian falsehood and duplicity, a prejudice that takes hold in this period and persists until today.

Cremona – worth going

Objectively Cremona had good reason to side with Barbarossa. Milan had become ever more powerful within the league and Cremona was getting uncomfortable. Rebuilding bridges with the emperor would help them secure their gains, basically the land that used to be the city of Crema. Rational it was, yes, politically astute, not at all.

Though both parties had agreed they would respect the award by the consuls of Cremona irrespective of outcome, neither side seemed to have intended to do it after all. The representatives of the league are said to have torn the award charter to shreds. Barbarossa on the other hand was gathering troops to flatten Alessandria even before the award had come through.

With the award granting him the right to raze Alessandria to the ground, Barbarossa went to work. He secured help from Pisa and Genoa and even convinced Tortona to leave the League and join the imperial side. Remember that Barbarossa had besieged and destroyed Tortona in 1155 by poisoning their wells. Another „not his finest hour“ moments. But the people of Tortona were prepared to let bygones be bygones if only the emperor could get rid of Alessandria whose competition was beginning to impact Tortona’s trade.

Another piece of good news comes from the south where Archbishop Christian of Mainz had been waging war across Tuscany and the papal states. In Early 1176  he managed to defeat a Sicilian army that was on its way to strengthen the League’s hand. 

But if he wanted to put serious pressure on the league and regain more than the most basic regalia in Italy, he needed to raise an army in Germany. He had sent Philipp archbishop of Cologne and one of his closest advisors across the alps to bring him fresh troops. Philipp found this hard going. The secular princes apart from absolute Barbarossa loyalists pointed to all the losses in men and material they had already suffered and refused. This being the fifth campaign, there was no longer any feudal obligation to come across and help. All that Philipp could muster was probably 1,000 to 2,000 knights, mainly from bishoprics subordinate to Cologne and Magdeburg.

In the meantime, Barbarossa had broken another city out of the Lombard league, Como. The defection of Como was a major coup because Como controlled the entry to several crucial alpine passes. Not having to go around the long way via Burgundy and Savoy dramatically increased the ability to bring down reinforcements. It also meant that communication with Germany improved dramatically. Realising the German lay princes would not send reinforcements on the scale necessary to achieve any of his objectives, he redoubled his efforts to convince them and leant especially  heavily on Henry the Lion to send help.

Como is at the end of St. Gotthard and San Bernardino passes as well as several others

Now the next bit is heavily disputed, but on balance probably true.

In February 1176 Barbarossa meets with Henry the Lion in person, most probably in the small town of Chiavenna halfway between Italy and Germany. Barbarossa begs Henry to provide him with an army and even prostrates himself before the duke. We have encountered this act before. Henry II prostrated himself before his bishops to force the creation of the bishopric of Bamberg, Emperor Conrad II prostrated himself before his son, Henry III to gain support in his deposition of the duke of Carinthia. Imperial prostration is an act of last resort. It was impossible to refuse someone of superior rank who had so humiliated himself. Refusal would turn the pretend humiliation into a real one. If rejected, the pleading emperor‘s honour does not leave any other option than lethal revenge. Henry the Lion must know this but still refuses the request.

Barbarossa Kneeeling before Henry the Lioon (14th century image)

Before we go to the consequences of this act, the first question is why he would do that. It sounds like madness. As we heard last episode and several times before, the mutual support between Henry the Lion and Barbarossa was not only the capstone of the imperial peace but also enormously beneficial to Henry. Henry had become duke of Bavaria thanks to Barbarossa’s efforts, and he had enjoyed imperial support in establishing king-like power in Saxony. Inviting the wrath of the emperor would give and will give support to his enemies and undermines his position. The relationship had soured a bit when Barbarossa made moves on the lands of Henry’s uncle, Welf VI and other minor inheritance dispute, but that is business as usual.

Some historians argue Henry the Lion had been afraid that he may die in Italy as so many others had in 1167. His son and heir was still a child and he remembered how the House of Welf had lost so much of its position during his own infancy. Moreover his wife Matilda was also still young and a foreigner making her regency even more precarious. But that is not a valid reason to refuse a supplicant ruler by any stretch. So maybe he believed Frederick would perish in Italy before he could take revenge on him.

The alternative explanation is that the two had met and Barbarossa never fell to his knees but they had a straightforward conversation in which Henry the Lion pointed out that he was under no further feudal obligation to come along. And by the way these Italian campaigns are completely useless. The best value for money was to go east, massacre some Slavs, take their lands and religion and make it your own.

And finally there is the possibility that the meeting never happened, as many have argued.

Whether or not it happened or how it happened, the story of the emperor begging his duke for help in vain was repeated and reproduced a thousand times and became part of the Welf versus Hohenstaufen, the Guelph versus Ghibelline narrative, blaming Henry the Lion for what happens next.

Barbarossa is back in Pavia in February and plans his campaign. Item 1 on the grand strategic plan is to consolidate his forces. He has some troops in Pavia, there are the German reinforcements -such as they are- coming down via Como, the Margrave of Montferrato has promised an army and Christian of Mainz is on his way back North from his victory over the Sicilians. Plus the main strategic objective for 1176 was again Alessandria, which meant Pavia was a logical rallying point.

To reach Pavia the German reinforcements had to travel through Milanese Territory. Barbarossa decided to meet them as soon as they had come across the height of the passes and guide them down to Pavia. To get to Como, he first had to go through that same enemy territory himself. He decided to move fast and travelled light, accompanied only by about 500 to 1,000 knights with no baggage and no infantry. When the Milanese heard reports of the emperor travelling through their lands at the double, they dismissed them as obviously false and made no efforts to impede his progress.

Barbarossa meets his fresh troops in Serravalle in the Blenio valley, today in the Kanton Ticino in Switzerland. The combined forces of the fresh troops, Barbarossa’s companions and some men from Como, in total about 3,000 knights, set off for Pavia sometime after May 12th. From Como the plan is to go in an almost straight line Southwest to cross the Ticino river into Pavese territory. On May 28th the Imperial army takes a rest in Cairate. They expect to cross the Ticino river the next day.

Meanwhile in Milan the realisation had sunk in that Barbarossa had indeed crossed their lands north to pick up his brand-new army and would soon come back the same route. Given the element of surprise the League army had not yet assembled. Orders were sent to all the league cities to send troops but only the knights of horseback from Piacenza, Brescia, Novara, Vercelli, Lodi had arrived. The Lombards had to make a decision. Either letting the emperor pass and attack him later when the full contingents of the league were assembled, or to attack him now with what they had to prevent the imperial army from consolidating.

The Milanese decided to go ahead and intercept the Germans. The same day Barbarossa rests in Cairate, they set up camp near the town of Legnano, a place the imperial army was likely to come through on their route down.

They had brought their great Carrocio, the enormous war wagon that the Italian communes used as its banner and rallying point. Just to recap, this was a war cart drawn by oxen. It carried a platform that may have been as long as 15 meters and maybe 4 to 5 meters wide. On the platform that was covered in scarlet cloth stood an altar, a flagpole and in the case of Milan an enormous cross. A cross so large it took four men to put it upright. A priest would celebrate mass on the platform before battle and during the fighting trumpeters would stand on the Carrocio giving signals for attack and retreat. But most importantly, the Carrocio was the symbol of civic pride. Capturing the Carrocio meant victory and eternal shame for the defeated side. Captured Carioca would be displayed in the victorious cities. The cathedral of Siena still holds two oak bars from a Carioca captured from the Florentines. Cremona famously hung the trousers of defeated enemies from the ceiling of its cathedral.

Carrocio of Milan

An important feature of the Carrocio was that it moved very slowly forcing the citizens into a last stand around the Carrocio. The other advantage was that the carrocio was hard to overturn, so other than a bannerman, its flagpole rarely vanished before the battle ended.

This pride of the Milanese was positioned on the slope of a hill near the town of Legnano, overlooking the River Olona. The Milanese had maybe 12,000 men, mostly citizen soldiers on foot plus the couple of hundred knights on horseback that had come from the allied cities.

On the morning of May 29th these knights were out on a recce, thinking Barbarossa was still hundreds of miles away when they came across a detachment of 300 German knights. The Italians, numbering about 700 gave chase thinking these Germans were on their own and had blundered into Milanese territory by mistake. The Germans feigned retreat and lured them toward their comrades. The Italians were mightily surprised when 2000 of Barbarossa’s knights appeared over the hill. Now it was the German’s time to give chase and the Italian cavalry started running and running, barely stopping before they reached Milan. That left the Milanese foot soldiers near their immovable Carrocio without cavalry support.

Shortly after that Barbarossa got to Legnano where he found the the Milanese army camped across his path home. 12,000 men to his 3,000, lances and shields glinting in the sun, trumpets sounding, flags flying from the great Carracio.. If he had thought of turning back to Como, it has not been recorded. Most likely the idea did not even cross his mind. These Milanese infantrymen are no more than armed peasants, no match for his army of highly trained armoured killing machines. And let’s not forget that imperial prestige was already badly dinted thanks to the embarrassment of Alessandria and the abandoned battle at Montebello. Retreat was inconceivable.

The Milanese arranged their lines were four men deep in a semicircle around the Carrocio. The first row was kneeling behind their shields holding a 2m long lance. The next line was standing holding the shield before their chest and again pointing the long lance at the enemy. The third and fourth line held the back and swapped forward should the first have fallen. It was not exactly a classic Greek phalanx, but something not too dissimilar. And there were more similarities to the ancient Polis. The contingents were organised by city, borough and neighbourhood. Neighbour stood by neighbour, brother with brother, fathers next to sons. No way you could ever go back home if you had failed your friends and family in battle or worse, run away from the enemy.

Against them stood the German knights who had built a terrifying reputation amongst the Italians both for their military prowess and their cruelty. A charge of this heavy cavalry with their  shiny armour, lances out, mounted on their enormous warhorse must have been a terrifying sight to behold. More often than not the enemy foot soldiers ran even before the lances had made contact. In fact that was their main military purpose, breaking the infantry through fear and subsequently engage the enemy‘s cavalry.

Barbarossa arranged his cavalry against the Milanese positions and ordered his men to charge. And they galloped into a veritable forest of steel pikes.  The Milanese held the line. They were fighting for the continued existence of their city that Barbarossa had destroyed and empties 14 years before. They rather died than letting this happen again. Most of the knights stopped their horses when they saw that the line of death would not break. They turned round to do the same again half an hour later. Some could not rein in their horses or did not want to halt and were promptly thrown off, their armour pierced by the Milanese lances and their throats cut. One of those who failed to stop was the imperial bannerman whose fall took away the army’s focal point. Instead, they now looked towards the emperor himself whose shining armour could be seen from far and wide. As the Milanese lines refused to yield to the intimidating charges many knights dismounted and tried to hack their way to the carrocio on foot. These efforts were more successful and gradually the Germans pushed ahead whilst the Milanese massed around the symbol of their civic pride. Barbarossa was in the midst of the fighting spurring his men on to bring down that damned cart.

Do you remember the Italian knights on horseback that fled all the way to Milan? Milan was not that far away and when they encountered further reinforcements on their way towards Legnano, the knights were shamed into returning to the place of battle. When they arrived, they saw the lines of the Milanese still barely holding but the Germans off their horses and vulnerable on their flanks. They fell on them. Barbarossa disappeared in the fighting. His army deprived of their leader and focal point broke and ran. The Italians chased them all the way to the Ticino River which some crossed but many drowned.

News of the defeat reached Pavia the next day. When no news of Barbarossa’s whereabouts came for days, empress Beatrix put on her widow’s veil and mass was said for the dead emperor. But on day 7 he returned. His armour, lance sword and banner had been captured by the enemy, but the man escaped. The Milanese took thousands of prisoners, returned the German knights for ransom and made the men of Como who had come along suffer for months.

Milanese soldiers searching for Barbarossa’s body (postcard from 1913)

Was Barbarossa beaten militarily? Probably not completely. A part of his defeated army had made it down after all and he still had the allied forces of Pavia and Montferrrato. But his grand project was psychologically and politically broken. The destruction of his army before Rome, the failed siege of Alessandria and now the defeat of Legnano was seen as fate or god putting an end to these ambitions.

Legnano was a turning point in German, but even more in Italian history. There will now not be an absolutist imperial rule in Northern Italy. Instead, the communes will enjoy a century and a half of self-determination, endless fighting both internally and externally before they will fall one by one under the rule of a single man, sometimes a member of the great local families, sometimes a chancer from elsewhere before finally coming under the domination of a duke or count or pope. This constant competition and oneupmanship  spurred them on to create some of the greatest works of art and architecture the world has ever seen.

The Lombard league and the battle of Legnano formed the key element of a national narrative for the Italian people during the Risorgimento, the movement to create a unified Italy in the 19th century. The legendary success against an overbearing German emperor was a great parallel to the struggle with the Austrian imperial hegemony.  

Verdi wrote an opera about Legnano

At the same time Legnano gained a mythical “what if” significance in the German national narrative of the 19th century. It was seen as the moment when the chance to build a unified political entity was finally lost and the empire was heading to fragmentation. The refusal of Henry the Lion in Chiavenna was the showdown between two policies, gaining ground in the east versus wasting resources in Italy.

Very few things better illustrate how intertwined German and Italian history and historical perception are than the battle of Legnano. But where the two differ now is that in Germany the memory of Barbarossa’s struggle with the Lombard league has faded far in the background, whilst in Italy it is very much alive.

The Lega, formally Lega Nord is a right-wing populist anti-immigration party led by a gentleman, and I use the word reluctantly,  called Matteo Salvini. They are the second largest party in the Italian parliament and gained 33% of the votes in the 2019 European elections.

The Lega is not called Lega by chance, it is a direct reference back to the Lombard league. Their nickname is Carrocio and their symbol is the figure of a medieval foot soldier holding up an enormous sword.

That man is Alberto da Giussano, the commander of the Milanese army at Legnano and leader of the Company of Death, an elite squad on Milanese citizen soldiers who had sworn to fight to their last breadth.  And as with so many nationalistic stories, this company of death and this man are also entirely made up. Alberto da Giussano never existed. He is the brainchild of a Dominican friar called Gaivano Fiamma who wrote in the first half of the 14th century. Just saying…..

By the way, if you want to hear an Italian recounting the battle of Legnano, head to the History of Italy by Mike Mike Corradi who covers it in episode 60 and 61.

Enough of Italian politics, what about our friend Barbarossa? Plan A has gone down the swanny, it is time for plan B. No more imperial glory but focus on dynastic consolidation. And for that he needs peace, peace with the Lombards, reconciliation with the pope, a settlement with the Sicilians, a modus vivendi with the emperor in Constantinople. And where will he get this, in Venice, the location of the first European peace congress in 1177 and of a second Canossa. I hope to see you next week.

And in the meantime, if you feel like supporting the show or want to get hold of these bonus episodes, sign up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans. All the links are in the show notes.

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