Episode 63 – Recovery

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Following the Peace of Venice and the Fall of Henry the Lion, our great emperor has reached the end of the road. Being a man of infinite resource and sagacity he climbs out of the hole, resets his political allegiances and recovers some of his previous standing.


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 63 – Recovery

Following the Peace of Venice and the Fall of Henry the Lion, our great emperor has reached the end of the road. Being a man of infinite resource and sagacity he climbs out of the hole, resets his political allegiances and recovers some of his previous standing.

As always, this episode has a dedicated website with the transcript and maps, pictures and additional comments to read along. It is to be found at historyofthegermans.com/63-2

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Last week we left Barbarossa at the Assembly of Erfurt crying tears of rage and self-pity as he raised up his cousin Henry the Lion and gave him the kiss of peace. His great imperial political plan had been unravelling for the last 15 years. It was time for a fundamental revision of the process.

We already talked about one part of that great U-turn, the shift in his domestic policies in Germany. No longer does he act as the independent arbiter between the princes but he has become one of them. He is now a territorial lord whose sole objective is to grow his and his families allodial possessions. With Henry the Lion out of the picture and after accumulating first the lands of his cousin Frederick of Rothenburg, his wife’s county of Burgundy and Welf VI’s ancestral lands in Swabia as well as number of counties along the Main river and into Thuringia, Saxony and Northern Bohemia, he is now the richest territorial lord in Germany. He is also the most prestigious one on account of his imperial honour. Barbarossa has been King for 30 years and emperor for 27, a very long reign, only comparable to Otto the Great and Henry IV. Having just celebrated the Queens 70 years on the throne it brings it home that length of reign confers a degree of legitimacy by itself. The vast majority of people alive in the UK cannot remember a time when the Queen had not been on the throne. In the 12th century when life expectancy was shorter and reproduction rates higher, it may well be that for the majority of inhabitants of the empire Barbarossa was the only emperor they had ever known. That may explain why he could maintain his standing in Germany despite the very obvious setbacks he had experienced.

But what about his standing on the global stage, in Italy in particular. The empire and the Lombard league had signed a 6-year truce at the peace of Venice in 1177. This truce runs out in 1183, and so negotiations start up again.

The issues are still the same, the status of that irritating City of Straw or Steel, Alessandria and the extent of imperial rights in Italy.

As for Alessandria, the artful bishops and lawyers entrusted with the negotiations come up with an ingenious decision. What we will do they say is simply re-founding the city. So, one day, sometime after June 25th, 1183 all the inhabitants of Alessandria have to leave the city. An imperial herald enters the deserted place and declares the foundation of a new city called Caesarea, named after the Kaiser Barbarossa. After that the now faithful subjects of the imperial city of Caesarea return back into their houses – and all is good.  Why did no one come up with that before – how much pain and misery could have been avoided.


Item two on the list of disagreement was a lot more complex. Remember the legal positions were as follows. The imperial side argued that Roman law has been eternal and made the emperor the source of all laws and the highest judge in the land.  Hence the laws of Roncaglia apply irrespective of the defeats at Alessandria and Legnano. As a consequenmce the communes owe the imperial purse the regalia. These include the rights to markets, tolls, jurisdiction and even poll taxes.

The Communes argued that all these regalia had transferred to them over the centuries and that only some of them like the Fodrum had been paid in ay man’s memory. Their established legal traditions overruled the older Roman law.

What complicate the issue was that regalia varied from city to city. That could be resolved if one appointed an independent judge or committee to adjudicate what was the emperor’s and what the city’s. But, the highest judge in the land was the emperor and the emperor like the pope insisted that they are not subject to a court of mere men. On the other hand, Barbarossa’s harsh and often biased rule in Lombardy in the 1160s had eroded any notion that he would act as an impartial judge.

These arguments could go back and forth forever, which is why the pope decided in 1177 that a comprehensive peace agreement was simply not feasible within the given timeframe and so suggested the 6-year truce.

In these six years Barbarossa finally came to the conclusion that he could no longer insist on the application of Roman law. Or well, he could insist but it would not get him anything. He was no longer able to intervene militarily in Italy to push through his claims and as long as there was no peace agreement there was no money coming from Lombardy at all.

So, he caved and accepted that established communal legal practice superseded imperial law. In return he got two things. One was that from now on the consuls of the cities of the league would have to swear allegiance to the emperor before they could be invested into their position. And secondly, a one-off payment of 15,000 mark of silver plus an annual regalia payment to be paid by the Lombard League and the payment of the Fodrum, every time the emperor comes to Italy.

With that Barbarossa regained at least nominal control over Northern Italy again.  It was better than nothing but nothing like his position in 1162. And he was even denied what League had been prepared to do in 1176 at Montebello, a formal submission. No longer are the rectors willing to kneel before the emperor with their swords on their backs and begging for forgiveness.

None of that. The signing of the peace agreement was set for June 25th in Constance, the place where 30 years earlier the merchants from Lodi had begged the emperor to intervene of their behalf which kicked off the conflict. Instead of bending the knee in a hare shirt, the representatives of the Lombard cities handed over golden keys to their cities as a sign that the emperor was welcome to take possession of their town as their overlord. They swore oaths of allegiance and did curtsy. That is a nice thing to do and not unusual when monarchs enter cities in their own lands. But is not exactly an act of penance for the acts of treason they had committed in the eyes of the imperial court.

Peace of Constance from the City Hall in Constance

Not at all. The cities and the Lombard league have been negotiating eye to eye with their ruler. They were more equals rather than vassals and even the emperor had to swear to the terms, though as was customary not by himself but through a proxy.  Even though the final documentation of the peace wasn’t made out as a bilateral treaty but an imperial privilege, the reality was that the emperor was no longer the head of Christendom but just another monarch. But then he had 15,000 Mark of silver in his pocket which is not to be sniffed at.

And what did he do with the Money? He threw a party, a party that would be talked about for centuries. England has its field of cloth of Gold, Germany has the Whitsunday Court of 1184 in Mainz. The occasion was the knighting of Barbarossa’s two eldest sons, the King Henry VI and the duke Frederick VI of Swabia. Guests had come not only from the empire but from other kingdoms as well. Franks, Germans, Slavs, Italians who dwelled between Illyria and Spain, an incredible multitude of men from different regions and diverse tongues were present for the festivities that took three days. Allegedly 70,000 men and women of rank had shown, which must be an exaggeration. But we do hear about the duke of Bohemia coming with 2,000 knights, Archbishop Philip of Cologne with 1,700, Conrad Count palatinate, Louis III of Thuringia and the new archbishop of Mainz, Conrad bringing 1,000 and even the abbot of Fulda showing up with an entourage of 500.

Barbarossa and his two eldest sons

To house these crowds a wooden city was built on the opposite side of the Rhine River from Mainz featuring a great hall as well as an even greater wooden church. The imperial princes chipped in with their own wooden palaces, each trying to outdo the other. Of the 97 Imperial princes, 71 showed up.

To give an impression of the scale, Arnold of Lubeck describes two large houses filled with crossbars on which chicken and any other kind of fowl perched from floor to ceiling, all of which will be eaten within the next three days. Wine had been brought from up and down the Rhine and Moselle Rivers. Pepper, that exotic and most expensive spice was used generously as a display of imperial wealth and largesse. Count Baldwin of Hennegau who had come to be elevated into the ranks of imperial princes felt especially under pressure to display his riches and hence clad all his men in silk. Count Bernard of Lippe found himself on the cheap seats away from the imperial radiance which upset him so much he threw the elaborately embroidered coats that served as cushions into the crowd of onlooking townsfolk. We are moving rapidly from the part of the Middle Ages when nobles would go round and say “have you seen the length of my sword to the part where they ask “have you seen the tightness of my pants?

Festivities began with a procession during which emperor and empress were wearing their crowns, as did king Henry VI. Most probably that had been preceded by a solemn mass where Frederick, Beatrix and Henry been crowned again. These festive coronations did not have any constituent effect but were just ways to elevate ceremonial events. Soe very time you see a Shakespeare play where the king wears a crown, not historically accurate. Like today, in the Middle Ages crowns are only worn on special occasions.

The next day was the main event, the knighting of the imperial sons, another great display of wealth and power, followed by a tournament. The first recorded tournament in Germany dates back just 40 years, organised by Barbarossa’s father and uncle, but by now the Buhurt has become part of the aristocratic way of life. Barbarossa, despite being already over 60 years of age took part on the fighting. This event was fought with blunt weapons, a style that gradually became the norm.

Some historians, both old and modern have traced the emergence of chivalric culture in Germany back to this event. Barbarossa’s participation in the tournament marks another step in the transition of the emperor from vicar of Christ to secular ruler who is at heart a knight like the others, bound by the same rules and ethos. I find that not very convincing as we have heard about tournaments before and the very first one is one Barbarossa had participated in. He may not have had much use for romances and Minneang, but he shared his life with his men on horseback, had fought in the heart of the battle more than once. He did adhere to the chivalric code no more and no less than other “knightly rulers” of the time. So I am more with Goerich who argues that it was a gradual transition that reflected the sign of times more than a manifestation of the political turnaround.

There is an element of politics, however. A key element of Plan B was to raise the profile of and support for the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Presenting the next generation of Hohenstaufen leaders to the empire, one already wearing the crown of a king of the romans establishes a sense of continuity, not just of the empire but also of its ruler.

Another large tournament was scheduled as a sort of closing ceremony. However, on the Tuesday a massive storm destroyed the village of tents and even some of the wooden structures. As so often in these times, it was regarded as a sign from heaven. The tournament scheduled for the next day at the nearby imperial Pfalz of Ingelheim was cancelled. Many had seen the inclement weather as gods way to enforce the papal decrees of the Third Lateran Council that banned tournaments and insisted that people who had died in these fights were not to be given Christian burial.

That was unfortunately not the only thing that went wrong at this joyous occasion. There can be problems when so many status conscious men show up for an event that at least in part is there to emphasise rank. On the festive banquet on the second day the abbot of Fulda, one of the great imperial Monasteries insisted that it was his ancient right that on royal assemblies in Franconia his place was to be seated to the left of the emperor. The right was reserved to the archbishop of Mainz which nobody disputed. That upset Philip Archbishop of Cologne and by now the most powerful imperial prince. He believed the honour should be his. When the abbot sat down he rose up and declaimed the ingratitude of the emperor in whose service the archbishop had risked his life more than once as his grey hair can attest. More than his life, he had put his soul at risk to preserve the honour of the empire, only to be now so insulted. He threatened to leave and demanded that his vassals, which included Barbarossa’s half-brother the Count palatinate as well as the count of Nassau to leave with him. At which point one of the abbot’s vassals, Louis landgrave of Thuringia mocked the count of Nassau that he was earning his fief the hard way. Nassau was about to draw his sword when young king Henry VI diffused the situation by embracing the archbishop and Barbarossa himself offered to swear an oath that he never intended to insult the archbishop.

Henry VI calms down archbishop Philip of Collogne

There have been doubts voiced whether the scene actually happened, but if it did not take place as described, it still had a cornel of truth. Following the Fall of Henry the Lion, the relationship of Barbarossa with his former chancellor and most trusted paladin, the archbishop of Cologne was on the rocks. That was probably because Philip had been one of the princes who had dragged him into dropping his cousin and who had benefitted most from the fall of the House of Welf. As we will see soon, the break between him and his former chancellor will gain momentum mirroring the more famous break-up between King Henry II and his chancellor Thomas a Beckett.

Talking about Henry the Lion note that he had now been in exile for three years and it was time to smooth things out for his return. We do know much about the detail but it seems Barbarossa and King Henry II of England, the father in law and current host of the former duke of Bavaria and Saxony hatched a plan. Despite or maybe because of their estrangement Barbarossa sent Philip, Archbishop of Cologne to London to find an arrangement with Henry. Under the watchful eye of the Plantagenet king a solution was arrived at so that by 1185 Henry the Lion was back in his ostentatious palace of Dankwarderode. But he was no longer a duke, not even an imperial prince, just a very, very rich landowner.

Dankwarderode today, a reconstruction from 1897-1906

Whilst Philip is out in England, Barbarossa goes on his sixth and final Italian expedition. This time he is not accompanied by soldiers since for the first time he is at peace with his subjects in the Regno Italia. That does not mean he travels alone. The usual gaggle of archbishops and bishops follows along as do Duke Leopold of Austria and Louis II, Landgrave of Thuringia. The point of the trip is to emphasise the recently won peace between the empire and the Lombard league. Barbarossa’s visit kicks off with a sumptuous court in Milan. From there he takes a long tour staying in Pavia, Cremona, Verona, Vicenza, Treviso, Padua, Brescia, Bergamo, Piacenza, Parma, Reggio, Modena and Bologna. Wherever he goes, the city opens its gates and welcomes their overlord. Detail is sadly sparse but one should assume that the visits are punctuated by festivities, solemn church services, the wearing of crowns and maybe again, tournaments. In a barely believable turn of events, Barbarossa even takes part in a council of the Lombard League though we do not know what his role was in the proceedings of what had been the archenemy of the emperor 7 years earlier.

One event we get to hear more about is an unusual one. You remember the siege of little Crema, this formidable little town that held out against a massive imperial army for nearly a year.  Well, the Cremaschi are still around, now living in permanent suppression by their enemies, the Cremonese. The emperor had maintained the ban on rebuilding Crema and the Lombard league, influenced by Cremona did not allow rebuilding either. When Barbarossa journeyed through their former Contado, the desperate former inhabitants of the fallen town prostrated themselves before the emperor and begged to have their case heard. Before Barbarossa could even bend down to listen to their pleas, Cremonese soldiers descended upon the unfortunates, dispersed them and killed and wounded some. This was an affront to imperial dignity, preventing him from exercising one of his key functions, adjudicating the quarrels between his subjects.

Barbarossa will use this event as an argument for something that has been in the works for at least two years by now. Cremona, which had been almost as reliable an ally as Pavia was no longer enjoying imperial favour. When Barbarossa had been down and out after the battle of Legnano he had taken refuge in the monastery of S. Agatha in Cremona. The consuls of Cremona saw the weakness of the emperor as an opportunity to force through concessions he would otherwise never had given. At the same time Cremona had lost traction with the Lombard league, in part thanks to their inept handling of the mediation after Montebello, but also simply because they were the only Lombard city that could rival Milan. One of them had to leave the League and given Milan’s dominance, that was Cremona. Barbarossa now being best mate with the League shifted allegiance to Milan and stood against Cremona.

Cremona realised that things weren’t exactly going their way. They first tried to smooth relationships with their overlord by granting him a particularly spectacular entrance into the city. They even built a special scaffold similar to what had been built for pope Alexander III in Venice so he could sit there on his throne and take their humble vows of allegiance. And, just to be on the safe side, they also built a new fortress town in Castelleone.

Cremona Cathedral finished 1170

Barbarossa made things clear when he signed an agreement of peace and friendship with Milan in February 1185. Milan promised to pay him 200 mark of silver per year and to host him and his son whenever they came down to Italy. In return he granted Milan the former Contado of Crema and promised to rebuild it. In May he set out with knights from Milan and Piacenza for the site of old Crema. The Milanese travelled with their Carroccio, the war cart before which Barbarossa had almost died fighting in 1177. Welf VI who had a crucial role in the siege of Crema was there as well. It must have been very awkward. Nevertheless, on May 7th, 1185 he leads the former citizens of Crema back into their old home. He hands the city’s consuls a wooden staff thereby enfeoffing them and the citizens with the Contado, the lands surrounding Crema. All Lombard cities were asked to help with the rebuilding, and many did. Cremona did not.

City of Crema today

The state archive of Cremona holds a slim piece of parchment that contains the transcript of a long tirade Frederick Barbarossa made before the imperial court against the city of Cremona. Cremona he says had forced him into the siege of Crema, betrayed him by rebuilding Milan in 1167, convinced the city of Lodi to defect, barred him access to the alpine passes, helped found Alessandria, paid an assassin who tried to take his life when he was besieging Alessandria, attempted to blackmail him into making concessions when he stayed at the monastery of S. Agatha in 1176 and most recently preventing the Cremasci from receiving imperial justice. In fact Cremona was responsible for the failure of Imperial policy in Northern Italy and did him and the empire damage in an amount of 300,000 Mark of silver. In light of such crimes against the honour of the empire, Cremona was put into the imperial ban, its lands forfeit and its vassals relieved from their oaths.

Barbarossa then mustered an army, mainly of forces from Milan and Piacenza, age-old enemies of Cremona and set off for the fortress town of Castelleone. It was panic stations in Cremona. No way could they hold out against the combined power of the Lombard league and the Empire. The fate of crema loomed large above the city fathers and they sent the only one in their midst who had a relationship to Germany, their bishop, Sicard. Sicard had taught canon law at the school of Mainz and had been employed by the imperial side in recent negotiations with the Papacy.

In the negotiations followed, Sicard managed to achieve a more than reasonable result. Yes, Cremona had to accept the rebuilding of Crema and their right to their Contado, handed over two fortresses they had seized from the empire and allowed the destruction of Castelleone. They also paid the emperor 1,500 denarii. But that was it. They did not have to humiliate themselves before the emperor nor did he call in the full amount of damages. The emperor even formally forgave them for the mistreatment in the past.

This is a new approach to Northern Italy of the ageing emperor. The agreement with Cremona was a balanced outcome that was acceptable to the actual principals in the dispute, Milan and Cremona. Barbarossa could finally act as the honest broker between the parties. In a weird way his policy had flipped geographically. As he had lost his position as impartial judge in Germany by pursuing his territorial ambitions there, his abandonment of territorial ambitions in Italy had turned him into the trusted authority south of the alps.

If this complete reversal of Italian communal politics isn’t astonishing enough, his changed relationship with Sicily is even more so. You remember that Barbarossa and King William II of Sicily had agreed a 15-year truce at the Peace of Venice. Not only was the truce much longer dated than the one with the Lombard League, it was also much less contentious. For a variety of reasons Barbarossa had never managed to come down to Sicily despite having intended to do so multiple times. Hence both sides could agree on the fabrication that they never really had any quarrel in the first place. That was clearly not true since the papacy had played one against the other since time immemorial. But after the German army had been destroyed before Rome in 1167 the empire could no longer reach Sicily. The relationship had already improved remarkably since then. Preliminary talks had taken place about a marriage alliance whereby William II would have married Barbarossa’s daughter Beatrice. That had not come through and William had married the daughter of King Henry II instead..

Kingdom of Sicily

Nevertheless, both sides wanted to turn the truce into a lasting peace. For William formal imperial recognition would remove any remaining doubts over the legitimacy of his kingship. For the empire a link-up with the dynasty that acted as the papal army was very attractive in light of events during the last 100 years. And it seems even the papacy itself was supportive of such a move, though I cannot for the life of me figure out why they would want an alliance between their historic foe and their most powerful defender. But then even the wily popes must make a mistake sometime.

So, everyone wants an alliance and if one wants an alliance, one wants a marriage. And that is where the problem is. The Hautevilles, once so famous for their incredible fecundity had run out of legitimate offspring. William II had not yet produced an heir with his wife, Joan of England. He had no brothers with legitimate offspring. There was an illegitimate cousin called Tancred who had daughters, but that was no good. That only leaves his aunt, Constance. Constance was born in 1154 and was hence 3O years old. Being literally the last living legitimate member of the House of Hauteville apart from King William II, she was also the heiress of the kingdom. Sending the heiress to the greatest of Norman kingdoms to Germany wasn’t what anybody wanted, but Constance was the only option. A risky gamble but William II was till young.

She was to marry Henry VI, himself born 1165, hence 10 years her junior. The engagement was announced in 1184 and the couple first met in August 1185 at Rieti. Not since the arrival of the empress Theophano In 972 did a German emperor see such an impressive entry. The riches of the King of Sicily were legendary, but seeing 150 horses laden with gold, silver, velvet, cloth and furs let the assembled knights’ jaws drop to the floor. Later the value of her dowry was taxed at 40,000 mark of silver, almost 3 times what the Lombard league paid to have peace with the empire.

Constance of Sicily

The marriage took place on January 27th, 1186 in the Monastery of Sant Ambrogio in Milan, that same church where you can find Leanardo’s last supper. At that ceremony, Henry VI was crowned King of Italy by the Patriarch of Aquilea and Constance Queen of the Romans by a German bishop. The wooden scaffolds and seating built in the courtyard was so elaborate that when the monks sold it later they received enough funds to stage another procession in the honour of the new king and queen.

Milan St. Ambrogio Courtyard

At the same time Barbarossa, in line with ancient Roman and Byzantine tradition declared his son Henry VI a Caesar, an imperial title below his own as Augustus.

Before Constance had set off for Milan, the Sicilian Barons had again been asked to swear allegiance to her just in case King William II would die without an heir or heiress. Nobody think this would happen as William was 31 and his bride 20 years old, plenty of time to make more babies.

But they will not, make babies, turning Constance into the richest heiress in Europe, richer than Eleanor of Aquitaine whose son’s ransom will ultimately pay for the army needed to enforce that inheritance. But that will come later.

Before we get to this, we still have at least two episodes of Barbarossa to get through. The guy is bloody tenacious. Another six years to go before he finally meets his maker on a small river in Anatolia. I hope you will come along.

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