Episode 72 – Clouds on the Horizon

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This week we will watch Henry VI’s attempts to make the papacy comfortable with the fact that their neighbour to the south is now the same as their neighbour to the North. Pope Celestin may see it as encirclement by a family whose track record as sons of mother church had been to say it politely, a bit patchy. But Henry VI thinks there is a way to make this work. Let’s see…


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans, Episode 72 – Clouds on the Horizon

This week we will watch Henry VI’s attempts to make the papacy comfortable with the fact that their neighbour to the south is now the same as their neighbour to the North. Pope Celestin may see it as encirclement by a family whose track record as sons of mother church had been to say it politely, a bit patchy. But Henry VI thinks there is a way to make this work. Let’s see…

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Last time we left emperor Henry VI. enjoying a string of successes that made the year 1194 by far his best. Not only did he take possession of the Kingdom of Sicily, his by right of inheritance through his wife. What put the icing on the cake in 1194 was the birth of his son and heir in the city of Jesi on Christmas day.

He was only 32 but his wife had just turned 40 and hope of continuing his line must have been thin on the ground. Henry VI. Had probably resigned himself to the idea of not having a legitimate heir. For him to die without a direct heir was not particularly worrisome for the dynasty since Henry’s father, Barbarossa had 8 sons, of which 4, including Henry were still alive by 1194.  

But now even that possible wrinkle in his imperial career was resolved. Henry VI. was at the top of the world.

But the wheel of fortune that had catapulted him up keeps turning. Barely a month after his solemn coronation in Palermo, a monk appears in the imperial chamber and tells of a conspiracy. The Sicilian nobles were planning to murder their new ruler. Behind it he says are Tancred’s widow who just recently had been so magnanimously allowed to retain the ancestral lands of her former husband. Other key conspirators were the bishop of Salerno who had so vehemently insisted on putting Constance in chains and the admirals Margarito and Eugenius who had frustrated Henry’s siege of Naples in 1192.

Initially Henry VI. did not believe the story, but when he was shown documents that implicated the main conspirators, he had to strike. He invited them to court, confronted them with the proof he had gathered and had them all arrested. Within days the whole conspiracy collapsed and it’s leaders were in jail. Their crime was high treason and the sanction for that was death. Again, still magnanimous, Henry Vi. did not have them killed or blinded. They were exiled and kept under guard in Germany. The ex-queen Sybil and her daughters were confined to the monastery of St. Odile in Alsace where they were held until Pope Innocence III effected their release in 1198. The former boy king William III was brought to Hohenems, one of the largest Hohenstaufen castles near lake Constance. He would never see daylight again. The admirals and the bishop ended up on the Trifels, in the suite of rooms so recently vacated by Richard the Lionheart..

For many of his contemporaries this felt a little bit too convenient though. The conspiracy allows Henry to remove the potential leaders of the opposition to his rule, just when he is planning to go home. There is also the question why the conspiracy happened so soon after Henry had taken power. A few months earlier the conspirators were in charge of the kingdom, and they did surrender without much resistance. If they had thought imperial rule had to be opposed at all cost they could have struck after Henry had released his army in October when he had only taken Messina so far. Some questions are hanging in the air, and remember, this is a man some accused of having killed the elected bishop of Liege and who had a returning crusader apprehended and released only after a huge ransom was paid.

The conspiracy, disconcerting as it was, was also the background to one of the great love stories of the age.

Amongst those taken prisoner was Irene, the daughter of the Byzantine emperor Isaac Angelos. She had been sent to Palermo to marry the son of Tancred as part of an alliance to keep Henry VI. out of the Mediterranean. But this son, a man called Roger, had died before the marriage could actually take place. Irene had stayed in Palermo after Roger’s death, probably because the political situation in Constantinople was fragile. Her father would be deposed and blinded by his brother in 1195. As a member of the family of Tancred she was implicated in the conspiracy and her fate was to be buried alive in some monastery in Germany. But she did not.

Henry VI. youngest brother, Phillip had fallen deeply in love with the Greek beauty. The 18-year old prince had fallen head over heels for the beautiful and ill-fated princess from the East. Young Phillip was begging, beseeching, entreating and imploring his brother to release this wonderful creature, the love of his life. Henry VI. still magnanimous let her go. He even allowed Phillip to marry her even though she had zero political value now that her father was blinded and imprisoned. Henry VI. She travelled back to Germany with the Imperial party, not as a prisoner, but as the bride of Phillip, the emperor’s brother.

Phillip had initially been designated for the church and had even been elected as bishop of Wurzburg but in 1193 he had left the church and returned to being a laymen. That was probably in the wake of the death of his older brother Frederick who had died in the Holy Land and the realisation that his other brothers were falling short of their great father. Otto, the second youngest had inherited his mother’s county of Burgundy. There he managed to create absolute chaos. He began feuding with most of his neighbours. One he killed with his own bare hands, another was assassinated under implicating circumstances. He had the brother of the bishop of Strasburg executed and basically fought all the time with everybody, until he was mercifully himself murdered in 1200.

The next oldest surviving brother, Conrad had been made duke of Swabia upon his older brother’s death in 1191. Conrad was also fond of the occasional quarrel with his neighbours, but his true passion was sex, both with willing and with unwilling participants. His end came about thanks to such a case of rape. One theory is that he was killed by an enraged husband, but my preferred version is that the victim bit off his right nipple. The wound became infected, and this awful duke of Swabia succumbed in 1196. Phillip became his brother’s successor as Duke of Swabia and de facto the number 2 in the House of Hohenstaufen after his brother, the emperor Henry VI.

Ok so much for the family history. Trust me that will become relevant pretty soon, but before we get there, we should go back to Henry VI. and the fundamental problem he needs to address.

He might have found some compliant bishop who was prepared to crown him king of Sicily, but that is not the same as having the papal blessing for his ascension. Thing is that by 1194 the Kingdom of Sicily has become a fief of the papacy and only of the papacy. Yes, there used to be imperial overlordship over Southern Italy and emperor Lothar and Pope Innocent II had a bit of ding dong about who was to take the oath of vassalage of Apulian nobles. But 50 years later this imperial right had gone from theoretical to non-existent. The kings of Sicily beginning with Roger II had signed multiple agreements with the papacy that confirmed the pope’s feudal superiority. Usually, these agreements came about when the pope had – again – lost a battle against the Normans and was put in a cell. From there he was made to graciously accept the Norman upstarts as his vassals whilst signing an agreement  that limited his effective control of the kingdom to close to nothing. The last such agreement dated from 1156 and restricted papal over lordship to a mere formality. The pope did not even have any influence on the selection of bishops in the kingdom of Sicily.

Henry VI had taken Sicily not on the back of some long forgotten imperial rights, but as the inheritance of his wife whose rights have the same source as that of her ancestors, the investiture of the kingdom by the papacy.

Hence in order to be fully established as king of Sicily, Henry VI. needed the pope to formally invest him as King of Sicily. Without that the pope could at any point invest another third cousin twice removed of King Roger II as King of Sicily and Henry VI. would have another war to deal with.

But it is more than just this formality. The pope is now sandwiched between two territories the emperor controls. In the south the Kingdom of Sicily and in the North, the Kingdom of the Lombards as well as the Lands of Matilda that at this point are under imperial administration. This, Henry realises is an uncomfortable position for his holiness. It is important both for his reign, but also for his dynasty that a sustainable settlement is found.

Negotiations did not start slow. They did not start – full stop. Henry VI. and Pope Celestin III had not communicated at all for three years. Relations had been strained ever since the freshly crowned emperor rode out of Rome telling the Holy father that he did not care one bit about his opposition to him becoming king of Sicily.

To mend fences, Henry thought he could give the pope the one thing he should cherish more than him not being king of Sicily. And that would be the return of Jerusalem into Christian hands. So, Henry sends a letter to Celestin offering to take the cross. He asks to be sent a papal legate to discuss the details and formulate a plan. At the end of March the papal response arrives at the imperial court in Bari. It is delivered by a simple bishop who says – nothing. Celestin does not see why the promise of a crusade would any reason to speak to the emperor again.

Henry now changes the angle of attack. He sends a formal offer to the cardinals of the curia, promising to leave with 1,500 well-equipped and well-funded knights and the same number of infantry for the Holy Land. And he simultaneously calls all his vassals to join him on crusade.

Now the pope cannot ignore Henry any longer. He may have his differences with the emperor but at this point the church is not yet prepared to outright dismiss a sincere offer of crusade for purely political reasons. That they will do later. Celestin III has to  and does send some cardinals to help plan the upcoming crusade. Two high ranking Cardinals who have a good reputation at the imperial court arrive and the crusade is under way. They even bring a letter from pope Celestin where he addresses Henry as Emperor of the Romans and says nice things about working together and the like. But when Henry probes the cardinals to find out about Celestin’s willingness to accept him as King of Sicily, he gets the response he should have expected: what do these two things have to do with each other? We love the crusade idea, but that will not make you the legitimate King of Sicily.

And with that communication between pope and emperor goes silent again.

This failure to strengthen the legitimacy of his reign in Sicily forced Henry to go all in on the crusade plan. If he were to return to Europe as the prince who had returned Jerusalem to Christendom, the logic goes, there won’t be anything the pope could refuse him anymore. Equally, if he fails, the game is up, papal allies will revolt in Sicily and even the civil war in Germany may resume.

With failure not an option, he needed to massively increase the military commitment. When the crusade finally leaves in 1197 the knights and foot soldiers count up to 18,000, 6 times what he had promised the cardinals in 1195.

And he needs to go it alone. No other monarch should be allowed to share in the glory if he wants to return as the saviour of Outre Mer. And that is where the recent vow of allegiance of Richard the Lionheart comes in handy. Richard might have been interested to go back to the Middle East and relive his glory days. He went so far as to negotiate a peace with his foe, king Philippe Auguste to allow him to join the crusade. But Henry, as his now overlord, rejected the agreement so that the two kings had to keep fighting in France.

Henry now needs the support of the imperial princes, nobles and Ministeriales. To gain that he needs money, glamour and he will have to make major concessions.

As for items 1 and 2, his newly acquired kingdom provides plenty. He travels to Germany accompanied by 150 mules carrying selected treasures from the glittering court of Palermo. Amongst them is the coronation mantle of King Roger II. As the name indicates this mantle was used in the coronation ceremonies of the Kings of Sicily and until 1806 in the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor. It was made of silk and is covered in 100,000 pearls and pieces of enamel. On each side it shows a lion striking a camel. It also bears an inscription in Arabic that was only translated in the 18th century. It states that this coronation mantle was made in the royal workshops of Palermo in the year 528 of the Islamic calendar. It is today in Vienna, together with the other imperial regalia.

On his way home Henry VI. stopped in Folignano the seat of the Konrad, duke of Spoleto. This is where his son, little Frederick had been living for the last year. His mother, Constance had returned to Sicily shortly after giving birth to take over the regency of the kingdom whilst her husband was travelling back to Germany. It seems that in light of the recent conspiracy against the life of Henry, Sicily was still considered too dangerous for the precious heir to the throne. Little Frederick was left in the care of duke Konrad and his wife, who were German nobles, administering the duchy on behalf of the empire. Though Frederick was less than a year old, Henry puts him at the centre of his political schemes.

To gain the support of the imperial princes he offers a package deal.

The princes are to receive two important concessions they have been demanding for a while now.

Number 1 was to make fiefs fully inheritable. That means the duke or count has the right to pass on his fiefs not only to their eldest son, but to their daughters, nephews and even remote cadet branches. In other words, a fief never returns to the king but stays within the family.  This is a privilege some princes enjoyed, others did not. For instance, the duke of Austria enjoyed them under the Privilegium Minus granted by Barbarossa in 1156. And as we have seen in the aftermath of the fall of Henry the Lion, the emperor is already struggling to call back  fiefs that have become vacant.

Number 2 was to end the right of the Spolia. The Spolia allowed the emperor to confiscate the personal belongings of a bishop or abbot upon his death. And further it allowed the emperor to draw the income of the bishopric during the period a bishopric was vacant. That had been both a significant source of imperial income and a thorn in the side of the bishoprics.

In exchange for these concessions, the princes were to grant the following:

  • Election of the baby Frederick as Frederick II
  • Participation in the crusade

And – drumroll

Making the empire a hereditary monarchy.

Yes, that was his deal. No more elections. In the same way the princes can now pass on their fiefs to essentially whoever they want, the emperor should also be able to pass his crown to whoever he chooses. Fair dues, right. It is just an alignment of imperial practice to what has been the case in most other European monarchies, in England, in France, in Aragon and in Sicily.

Henry pushed his package hard. He first proposed it at a royal assembly in Mainz in early March 1196. As only few princes had shown up for that, a new assembly was set for Wuerzburg 2 weeks later. There he managed to coerce the princes into accepting the new concept of monarchy. They squirmed and wiggled, they moaned and groaned, but in the end, they took the deal. They cared more about their right to pass on their fiefs as they liked than the right to elect an emperor.

The princes signed a document that set out the new constitution of the empire, they swore an oath to elect the 2-year-old Frederick and many took the cross. It was agreed that the crusaders should come down to Sicily in the spring of 1197 and would take ship from there to the Holy Land. This again shows how significant the control of Sicily is for the empire. Previous German crusades had taken the land route via Hungary, the Byzantine empire and Turkish controlled Anatolia. And all previous efforts had perished along this route. Sicily with its splendid navy finally opened up the sea route for the skint German knights who could not afford the extortionate fares the Venetians, Pisans and Genoese were charging.

So far the wheel of fortune is still pushing our emperor Henry VI up. He has his Kingdom of Sicily, he has made the empire an inherited monarchy and his crusade is well under way and looks a lot more promising than his father’s. But just you wait.

And when things go well for the empire, the popes tend get very agitated. In fact, pope Celestine III is more than agitated. Henry VI. last move confirmed his worst suspicions. This emperor was out to get him and the papacy. Not only had he encircled Rome militarily, he also removed one of the papacy’s most significant political levers, the imperial coronation.

As we have seen time and again, the popes had used their right to crown the emperor to extract concessions. They made Lothar III wage war against the Normans, they made Barbarossa wrest Rome from the Senate and so on and so on. If the empire becomes an inheritable monarchy, the coronation will become nothing but a formality, similar to the coronation of the kings of England or France. The archbishops of Reims and Canterbury could not demand any concessions from their rulers for performing the coronation, and Celestine feared, quite rightly, that this would be the same for the popes once Henry VI. got his way. The papacy was facing its worst crisis since Henry Iii had deposed three popes in one go in 1046.

He needed to do something to derail Henry’s plans. But what?:

He did stop the marriage of the only daughter and heir of the King of Aragon to one of Henry’s brothers. This would have been an even further expansion of Hohenstaufen power that he could prevent. But it didn’t do much to improve the current situation.

There was however something else. His legates had noticed that many of the princes were uncomfortable with the deal they had just made. They became worried that an inheritable imperial crown could over time challenge their position. They could see how the Capetians across the Rhine were rolling up their once overbearing magnates. The landgrave of Thuringen and some other Saxon nobles publicly refuted the agreement they literally had just signed. They threatened to slow down or even abandon their commitment to go on crusade, thinking that pope Celestine would release them from their crusader oath.

Henry VI. was by now down in Italy as part of the preparations for the crusade. That made it difficult for him to confront the princes directly. He called them to an assembly at Erfurt where his representatives pointed to documents and letters where they had committed to the crusade and the recognition of an inherited monarchy. But to no avail. The princes simply refused to fulfil their obligations.

It is now October 1196 and with all the preparations for the crusade in full swing, ships being prepared, depots set up, mercenaries being hired, there was no time left for Henry VI. to go back to Germany, sort out the rebels and still set sail in spring 1197. And the worst case scenario could materialise, that the pope and the rebels join forces, excommunicate and depose him, establish an antiking and cause decades of civil war.

The only way to solve this was by going to Rome and bringing this conflict with the papacy to a solution, one way or another.

Henry travels south and sends his envoys ahead with a first offer to the pope. He offered the papacy financial independence and a settlement over the lands of Matilda. Oh yes, the lands of Matilda are still in dispute, 85 years after the death of the great countess. He offers the pope some of the most lucrative church benefices in the realm to be paid to him directly in exchange for a formal recognition of the imperial ownership of the lands of Matilda. That is at least financially a great deal since the Lands of Matilda have been under imperial administration for most of the last fifty years and yield close to nothing to the papacy.

Money talks and Celestine III agrees to talk. Henry, who had already travelled south en route to see his son at Folignano, turns west and moves towards Rome. In Montefiascone, 100km north of Rome did Henry VI. receive the cardinals Celestine III had sent to negotiate.

There he revealed an even larger and more comprehensive proposal, a proposal that would address more of existing conflicts between the papacy and the empire not just the Lands of Matilda.

We do not know what exactly Henry VI. proposed, but it was likely that on top of an enhanced financial compensation scheme for the Lands of Matilda, he would accept the pope as his liege lord for Sicily and would let the pope baptise little Frederick and consecrate him as king of Sicily.

That offer was rejected but not in such a way as to end negotiations.

Henry moves now closer to Rome to facilitate negotiations. He modified his offer sacrificing positions that so far no emperor had offered.

Again, Celestine III and his cardinals reject the offer.

In December Henry VI. makes his last and final offer. We do not know exactly what it was,  but Hartmut Jericke believes that Henry VI. offered to become a papal vassal not just for Sicily but for the empire too. That would be an absolute bombshell. The last time a papal envoy suggested the emperor was a papal vassal, he was almost run through with a sword by Otto von Wittelsbach. But here his son is offering the unimaginable, all that to stabilise his rule in Sicily.

Pope Celestine should be ecstatic. Imperial vassalage was the great objective of Gregory VII and Alexander III but neither of these greats popes achieved it. And now here it is offered on a silver platter. But he rejects this last and final offer. He rejected it because Sicily was more important, more important than anything Henry can offer, including himself and his empire.

Are they both mad or is Souther Italy really that important? Hard to believe from today’s perspective, but Short answer, yes it was.

 The rise of the papacy from plaything of Roman aristocrats and emperors to its formidable position under Gregory VII and Alexander III went hand in hand with the rise of the Normans in Sicily. The Normans were the counterweight the papacy needed to resist the emperor and they used the emperor as a counterweight against the Normans. Without the military counterweight in the south, the papacy was doomed to fall back into dependency on the emperors. Sicily was rich, rich enough to fund mercenary armies for years, something no emperor had been able to do before. And Sicily had a fleet, something no emperor commanded before.

And that is why Hohenstaufen control of the kingdom of Sicily was unacceptable. There is literally nothing Henry VI. can offer to make them accept it. Not money, not Jerusalem, not vassalage of the emperor, nothing whatsoever could cut a deal.

This is not the end of the Middle Ages, but a key pillar of it is falling in these December days outside Rome. The pope and emperor, the two swords of Christendom are no longer joined in the pursuit of a common objective. Military and political considerations take precedence over the spread of Christianity. Less than 10 years later crusaders will plunder Constantinople, the capital of a Cristian empire, others will be chasing heretics in southern France in the service of Phillippe Auguste’s aim to consolidate royal power in France.

The encirclement of Rome and the Ppatrimonium Petri pits Papacy and empire into a fight to the death for the next 60 years, at the end of which the Hohenstaufen will be gone and the popes will be locked in the golden cage that is the Palais de Papes in Avignon, courtesy of the heirs of king Philippe Auguste.

This epic struggle will feature two of the greatest popes and emperors in our story, Innocent III and Frederick II. It is going to be great and I hope you will join us. I should also revert to the normal Thursday morning schedule with the next episode and audio should also return to normal.

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