Episode 64 – The Heirs of Troy

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Many of Barbarossa’s predecessors tried to wiggle out of the link of theoir legityimacy to the papal coronation, but few were as persistent as Barbarossa. His first attempt at redefining the relationship between pope and empire had ended in his prostration before Alexander III in Venice.

But he wasn’t done. This week we will discuss how he attempts to rebuild a new ideological underpinning of his role, how that leads to conflict with the popes and how he gets a chance to turn the mythmaking up to 11.


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans, Episode 64: The Heirs of Troy.

A small piece of housekeeping first. Last week I erroneously suggested that Leonardo’s Last supper was in the church of St. Ambrogio in Milan. As it happens, it is not. Leonardo’s last Supper is in the refectory of the Dominican Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie. When I last went to see it, I had also visited the church of St. Ambrogio nearby and in my scrambled memory the two buildings became one. Must be one of the seven signs of ageing, most of which I have forgotten. In case you have spent the last week wondering aimlessly around the St. Ambrogio looking for something that was not there, I apologise. Thank you @Trailoftears on Reddit for pointing this out.

Santa Maria della Grazie – Milan

Well and now we go to the year 750 AD. Pepin the Short, mayor of the palace sent an ambassador to pope Zachary. Pepin held all the power in the Merovingian realm, but he was not king. The king was Childeric III. Childeric was a “roi fainéant” a king who did not do anything apart from being wheeled out once a year on an ox cart. The real rulers were the mayors of the palace. And in 750, that was Pepin the short.

Other than his father Charles Martel, Pepin found this lack of royal title unbearable. He wanted to be king, really, really wanted to be king. But to be king in the realm that the legendary Clovis had built you had to be a descendent of Clovis and his grandfather, the legendary sea monster Merovech. Pepin was no such thing and could hence not be king under Merovingian rules.

If you do not like the rules you live under and you have absolute power, what do you do, you change the rules and to hell with the consequences. Pepin the Short ambassadors to Pope Zachary asked the pontiff: “Is it wise to have kings who hold no power of control?”. Pope Zachary was smart enough to know what the real question was and – since he needed Pepin’s help in Italy wrote back that: “It is better to have a king able to govern. By my apostolic authority I bid that you be crowned King of the Franks.” 

With that Childeric III was shorn of his auburn locks and ended up in a monastery, Pepin ended up on the throne of the Frankish kingdom and the German emperors ended up in a mess.  

Pepin’s letter created a precedent. Pepin’s son Charlemagne reenforced it when he accepted the imperial crown from Pope Leo III in Rome. Einhard, the Imperial propagandist tried to minimise the damage by claiming the crown was put on the emperor’s head without his consent. When the empire was re-founded by Otto the Great in 962, again the pope put the crown on his head. And again, Otto’s chronicler Widukind does not even mention the imperial coronation. He tells the story that the soldiers had hailed the Saxon king as emperor on the field of the battle of the Lechfeld, like they did it in ancient Rome.

Coronation of Charlemagne

But imperial twisting of history did not stick. Pepin, Charlemagne and Otto the Great had all received their crowns from the pope. Once the popes had declared they had apostolic authority to appoint and depose kings and emperors they will not let go of it. For centuries German emperors trekked across the Alps to finally receive the elevation they desired. Whether they saw any point in it is not recorded, but it had become non-optional by the 12th century. If you wanted to be emperor, you needed papal blessing and it had to be given in Rome, in the church of St. Peter. Nowhere else and by no-one else.

Meanwhile the French who had kicked off the whole mess got out scot free. By the late 12th centuries their kings had been the sons of the previous king for longer than anyone could remember, and they were crowned and consecrated in Reims by the archbishop of Reims. Sure, the pope had to send a letter, but he did not interfere let alone make the French king waste his blood and treasure coming down to Rome.

Many of Barbarossa’s predecessors tried to wiggle out of this order of things, but few were as persistent as Barbarossa. His first attempt at redefining the relationship between pope and empire had ended in his prostration before Alexander III in Venice.

But he wasn’t done. This week we will discuss how he attempts to rebuild a new ideological underpinning of his role, how that leads to conflict with the popes and how he gets a chance to turn the mythmaking up to 11.

But before we start as always, a reminder. The History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website historyofthegermans.com. You find all the links in the show notes. Thanks a lot to Derek and Eleanor who have already signed up.

And as is now customary, 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/64-2

Now back to our story.

We remember that after Besancon when Pope and emperor had fallen out over the definition of their relationship, Rainald von Dassel had developed the idea of the Holy Roman empire, an empire that was sacrum, i.e, in and of itself holy. It came with the theory of the two swords which assumes that God had handed out two swords to protect the church, the Spiritual Sword to the pope and the temporal Sword to the emperor. Together and as equals they should defend Christendom.

That part had fallen away in 1177. Pope Alexander III and his successors believed imperial power had been translated to the pope by the emperor Constantine and hence it was the Pope’s role to appoint emperors and if need be, depose them. They were his vassals. On the face of it, Barbarossa had accepted this when he prostrated himself before Alexander in Venice, as had Henry IV done when he begged for forgiveness from Pope Gregory VII.

(Venice) Il Barbarossa bacia il piede al Papa – Federico Zuccari – Sala del Maggior Consiglio

The court of Barbarossa almost immediately searched far and wide for an alternative way to support its legitimacy. Signing the peace of Venice is one thing but accepting the pope as boss who can hire and fire him was another thing.

The job to find a new framework was given to Godfrey of Viterbo, a member of the imperial chancellery. Godfrey came from the Italian city of Viterbo but was of German descent and had joined the imperial administration at an early age.

Godfrey went to work and wrote several books. The Speculum Regum, the mirror of kings, the Memoria Seculorum, the chronic of the world going back through the centuries and the Gesta Frederici, the history of the deeds of Frederick Barbarossa.

All these books were interrelated and told in a mixture of prose and poetry about what was an appropriate behaviour for an emperor and where he fits in the overall framework of the universe. And in this work, he established a theory. A theory that the empire has not only been there since the dawn of time, but that it has been held by the same family since the very beginning. Barbarossa himself traces his lineage back through the Salians and specifically Conrad II back to Carolingians and by some other linkage to the Merovingians who in turn came from the ancient city of Troy, as Aeneas did. Aeneas founded Alba Longa whose sons, Romulus and Remus founded Rome and as Virgil tells us culminated in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, one of whose descendants was obviously Clovis, whose name was the Germanic version of the name Claudius, which brings us back to the Salians and then Barbarossa.

This tilted and twisted story proves one thing, that it was God’s will that only one family should always, always rule the empire, and the latest incubation was the family of Barbarossa, or as they called themselves, the house of Waiblingen. By the way thanks to all these twists and turns a lot of the inheritance went through the female line again proving the middle ages were maybe less patriarchal than we have once been told.

By making the imperial honour a purely dynastic title that had, despite convincing proof to the contrary, had moved from father to son since time immemorial, you did away with the need to be crowned by the pope, you even could get away without going to Rome either.

It sounds bonkers given the Hohenstaufen were the ultimate nouveau riches. Barbarossa’s great-grandfather had been at best a count and Conrad II, that lynchpin of the story had also not exactly been a shoe-in for the imperial honour. But even though it should have been utterly nonsensical to most educated men and women at the time, it did have some real-world implications.

And that real world implication was the coronation of King Henry VI, the son of Barbarossa. Barbarossa was born in 1122 and had reached his 60s when Henry VI was knighted at the great Whitsunday court in Mainz in 1184. The last time an emperor had reached that age in a relatively stable position had been Otto the Great. Otto the Great had his son Otto II crowned not just king, but emperor as well. Having the future emperor all set up and anointed would be a good move that brings stability and in the current case does away with the need for a full-blown campaign in Italy. It sort of made perfect sense.

Well, it made perfect sense if you were the German emperor. It made no sense at all if you were the pope. Granting a coronation whilst the old emperor is still around would take away a major lever to extract concessions from a new and by definition not very established ruler. Remember that even the politically astute Barbarossa himself had to accept all sorts of conditions from Pope Hadrian IV when he ascended to the throne. So, the papacy blocked.

The current pope who had succeeded Alexander III, was Lucius III. Lucius III was much less of a dominant personality. But that did not mean he would give away papal prerogatives willy-nilly. Lucius III refused to crown Henry VI. That was quite a bold thing to do given his precarious situation.

Lucius III did not reside in Rome as befits a pope. The senate had thrown the papal administration out. Lucius III did not even reside in the papal lands in central Italy because here too he communes did not care much for the spiritual head of Christendom. He did in fact reside in the city of Verona.

Verona was a member of the Lombard League and as such now tied by the Peace of Constance to  Barbarossa. Giving the emperor the finger was not something his generous hosts much appreciated. So, Lucius did not publicly declare his opposition, but simply stalled.

The issue of the coronation was not the only point of contention. The other was that perennial source of conflict, the lands of Matilda of Tuscany. The inheritance of the formidable countess who had passed in 1115 was still not settled. Pope and emperor both had been named sole heir of her vast territories. Ownership and possession had moved back and forth multiple times between the principals, whilst the cities of Tuscany were throwing off the yoke of any overlordship anyway.

Lands of Matilda

But for the pope Tuscany was now absolutely vital. If he lost this, he would have lost the last piece of his directly controlled resources. He would be entirely dependent on the charity of others.

I am still amazed by the fact that on the one hand the pope cannot stand up to the citizens of Rome and it seems now not even the citizens of smaller places like Viterbo, Orvieto or Gaeta. But on the other hand, one of, if not the most powerful ruler in Europe seems unable to keep them down.

Anyway, either as a way to push through the coronation or as a matter of principle, Barbarossa insisted on his rights to the Lands of Matilda and signed an agreement with Milan for them to help enforce them.

And what did not help either was that Pope Lucius finally realised that supporting a lasting peace between the empire and the king of Sicily wasn’t just a mistake, it was an epically stupid mistake.  What is a pope to do when – God beware – the future emperor Henry VI would inherit the Kingdom of Sicily and hold the lands of Matilda, and has a strong alliance with Milan, and is recognised as the temporal overlord of Rome? Where is a pope to go when that happens?

Talking about papal woes, another issue he had to deal with was the emergence of so-called heretics, pious Christians who ploughed their own theological path. Lucius III condemned the Cathars, Paternians, Waldensians, Josephines, Pasagians, and Arnoldins and whatever other there may be in the future. These groups were a mortal danger for a clergy that often fell short in their standards of pastoral duties. The movement in lay piety that had first emerged during the reform papacy in the 11th century and had fuelled the Investiture Conflict never went away. It was suppressed as the papacy prevailed over the imperial bishops but was now re-asserting itself. The lay people’s demands for a church that walks in the footsteps of the apostles, was poor and kind and whose sacraments were pleasing to God had still not been fulfilled and was now emerging through these new movements.

Several of these trends came together in two disputes between pope and emperor.

The first was over the appointment of a suitable new archbishop of Trier. As was so often the case the canons had separately elected two different candidates. Under the concordat of Worms, it was the emperor’s prerogative to resolve such conflicts and furthermore no bishop could be formally invested before he had sworn allegiance to the emperor. Pope Lucius disregarded both of these provisions and invested one of the candidates without any regard for imperial rights.

The second issue was Lucius support for the archbishop Phillip of Cologne whose opposition to Barbarossa was coming out in the open. Why the two former friends fell out is not entirely clear, but it may well have something to do with the fall of Henry the Lion and Phillip getting his greedy paws on all of Westphalia whilst Barbarossa got the square root of nought.

With all the stress and irritation, Lucius did not last that long. He was also very, very old, 88 years to be precise, when he breathed his last.

His successor was Urban III, a member of the aristocracy of Milan. He inherited all these conflicts and for added frisson, had some axe to grind with the emperor on his own account. His relatives had been prominent defenders of Milan in the sieges of 1158 and 1162 and one of them had his nose cut off by the imperial Marshall. Urban III never forgot. He excommunicated the Marshall as soon as he had become pope, he pushed Phillip of Cologne on in his rebellion and kept blocking Henry VI coronation.

He had been archbishop of Milan before and was hence the correct archbishop to crown the King of Italy, that old Lombard kingdom. Contrary to standard procedure Urban III refused to step down as archbishop which meant that on the great wedding of Henry VI and Constance of Sicily a coronation as king of Italy could not really happen. Well, it could only happen if Urban had come over from Verona, but he did not. Barbarossa was having none of that obstinacy and called upon the Patriarch of Aquileia – whose title sounded sufficiently senior – to undertake the ceremony. And then he declared Henry VI to be a Caesar, a title not used in Western Europe at the time but a clear indication that Barbarossa was weaselling his way out of the need for an imperial coronation.

At that point Urban III almost exploded. He tried to book the cathedral of Verona to excommunicate Barbarossa, Henry VI and anyone and anything in his way. The worried citizens of Verona were deeply unexcited with the idea of an imperial army supported by Milan and to come before their walls seeking revenge. So, they blocked the entrance to the cathedral and told the Holy Father to find some other sepulchre to perform his evil deed.

Urban III set off for a suitable cathedral anywhere in Italy. After some wondering about, he alighted on the magnificent newly erected cathedral of Ferrara. That one would do.

Ferrara Catrhedral (by Markus Brunetti)

As he was laying out his vestments, prepared the frankincense and myrrh and lined up his choirboys, he keeled over and died.

What brought upon this last-minute respite was an event that took place at the other end of the medieval world, near a place called Hattin in Galilee.

The crusaders’ worst nightmare had come true between 1180 and 1187, Sala-ed-Din, the Vizir of Egypt had brought Damascus and Aleppo under his control. The entire southern and eastern border of the Kingdom of Jerusalem was now in the hands of just one man. The survival of Outre-Mer had so far relied on regular supply of new fighters from Western Europe and probably even more, on the endless squabbles amongst their Muslim and Armenian neighbours.

An attack was not only inevitable, but the likelihood of the survival of this outpost was already quite low. Internal squabbles between the now established Frankish aristocracy, the knightly orders and more recent arrivals impaired military decision making.

Nevertheless, when Sala-ed-Din mounted his great invasion army of 40,000 the crusaders rallied together and fielded the largest force they ever put together, at least a 1,000 knights and 10,000 foot soldiers and light cavalry.

Saladin’s began by attacking the city of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. For the crusader army to relieve Tiberias required them to cross an arid plateau, going from one spring to the next. Though his advisers, including the count who held city of Tiberias, counselled against exposing the army to a march through an almost waterless desert in July, the king, Guy de Lusignan, concluded it could, and it should be done.

On July 3rd, 1187 they left their camp at Sepphoris and marched towards Tiberias, about 30 kilometres away. They passed a spring at Tur’an which did not provide enough water for 11,000 men and their horses marching in the peak summer heat. As water became seriously scarce, the king decided to make a detour for the larger springs at Hattin. That had been anticipated by Saladin who blocked access to the springs. The Crusaders had to make camp in the middle of the desert. Saladin’s troop encircled the Franks and kept them awake throughout the night by praying, singing, beating drums and chanting. They lit the dry grass around the crusader camp making their thirsty throats even drier. Whilst the crusaders were dying of thirst, the Muslims had fresh water brought in from nearby sources and the sea of Galilee.

When the battle began the next morning, the outcome wasn’t in any doubt. Saladin’s troops outnumbered the exhausted fighters of the Kingdom of Jerusalem 2 to 1. That they mounted any kind of charge at all was a miracle. The desperate crusaders fought as hard as they could but in the end, they had to surrender. The Holy Cross that had been rediscovered in Jerusalem and had been carried before the army fell into the hands of the enemy. The elite of the crusader states became prisoners sold into slavery and the knights templars were executed.

With almost its entire military force spent, the cities of the Holy Land fell to Saladin, one by one. Acre, Nablus, Jaffa, Toron, Beirut and Ascalon had all fallen by September. Jerusalem was taken on October 2nd. The chronicler Ibn-al-Athir reports that when the victors took down the cross from the Dome of the Rock the Muslim inhabitants of the city broke into a triumphant Allah o Akbar whilst the Franks groaned in agony.

Only the city of Tyre held out thanks to reinforcements that had just arrived under the command of Conrad of Montferrat

Urban III allegedly died from shock when the message of the fall of Jerusalem reached him. His successor, Gregory VIII completely reoriented church policy in light of the calamity.

He blamed the loss of the Holy Cross and the execution of the knights templars on the division and sinfulness of Christians, not just in the Holy Land, but all over the catholic world. And he promised anyone who would undertake the journey to Jerusalem with a true heart and after repenting his sins, that those sins would be forgiven and that he would gain eternal life.

All resources need to be mobilised and old quarrels were to be forgotten, at least until Jerusalem is back in Christian hands. Gregory VII quickly ended the dispute over the succession to the archbishopric of Trier. Philipp of Cologne was ordered to reconcile with Barbarossa and the pope even called Henry VI the “elected emperor of the Romans”.

The first European monarch to take the cross was Richard the Lionheart, who will succeed his father at the end of 1189. Phillippe Augustus, king of France was next, thereby interrupting the incessant fighting between France and England that has become known as the first 100 years war.

Barbarossa and his youngest son Frederick duke of Swabia took the cross at the so-called diet of Christ in Mainz in 1188.

Barbarossa as Crusader

As we have seen with the first and second crusade, the call to go to Jerusalem caused huge risks to the Jewish communities in the cities of the Rhineland. Barbarossa, who had been on the Second Crusade knew about this and ordered all the priests and monks to refrain from preaching against the Jews. When thousands of visitors came to Mainz to formally take the cross, an altercation arose where a Jewish boy was beaten as a less convincing way to introduce him to the merciful Christian God. The circumstance could easily have turned nasty indeed, as it had done so before. Barbarossa defused the situation by riding through the streets of Mainz together with Joseph ha Cohen, a leader of the Jewish community, thereby making clear that the Jews were under his personal protection.  He imposed severe punishments on anyone who raised a hand against a member of the Jewish community.

As much as I would love to attribute this behaviour to an enlightened streak in Barbarossa’s consciousness, it is unfortunately mostly driven by commercial motivations. The Jews were subject to special imperial taxes and in return had a right to special imperial protection. In the run-up to the ruinously expensive Third Crusade, the emperor needed to protect one of his key sources of funds and financing.

For Barbarossa the Crusade was the great opportunity to not just rebuild his reign, but to bring about its apotheosis. A crowned and anointed emperor going to Jerusalem had a spiritual importance that far exceeded the notion of a French of English king doing the same.

And that has to do with Verse 20 of the Book of revelations otherwise known as the Apocalypse. Verse 20 reads as follows:

1 And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain.

2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.

3 He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time.

Msc.Bibl.140_r 0055

This is the text that stood godparent over a near endless number of delusions since the 1st century AD. On this podcast we did hear about the fear around the year 1000 that the coming of antichrist was imminent. We are now in the year 1188 and there was no mathematical way to suggest the 1000 years mentioned in the Book of Revelations relate to the period between Christ appearance on earth and the coming of the antichrist.

Moreover, these 1000 years were meant to be a time when Satan was bound and imprisoned in the abyss, a time when the people were to live happily and in peace. That clearly was not the time they were living in. hence the 1000 years of bliss are still to come, but how can they be brought about?

One way was prayer and good works. If only all of Christendom was cleansing itself of sin, live holy lives and stop fighting each other over worldly gains, that would bring about the 1000 years of bliss.

That notion then linked up with an older concept, the so-called imperial prophecy. According to this prophecy, a great emperor will appear just before the Millenium was to begin. That emperor will go to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. There he will put down his crown and his sceptre. And with that act he will bring about the prophecy of Apocalypse 20, i.e., the angel will appear and bind Satan for a thousand years. East and West will unite, the Jews will be converted, and the Muslims defeated. The kingdom of peace will come about that will last until the day Antichrist is to be released again bringing about the end of the world.

The shock of the loss of Jerusalem reconciled the kings of France and England who had been at war since the beginning of time, it brought pope and emperor into alignment and even the quarrelsome cities of Northern Italy united to ease the transport of crusaders to the Holy Land. No wonder that the people who were praying daily for the deliverance of the Holy Sepulchre thought that this prophecy was about to come true. Their great hope was Barbarossa the Holy Roman Emperor, heir of Troy, descendant of Augustus, Clovis and Charlemagne who will lay down his crown once he got to Golgotha so that the world will be saved.

But will it? We will see next week whether this prophecy comes true and we are now living in a time of love and unity. I am sure you are burning to find out. So, I hope to see you then.

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