Episode 73 – One Pope, Three Emperors

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This week we will see the reverse of 1046 when there was one emperor choosing between three popes. Today, we have one Pope, given the choice between three emperors. How could that happen? Last time we looked we had Henry VI. at the peak of his reign, being king of Sicily, having pushed through the inheritability of the imperial title and de-facto encircled the pope militarily. But now, just 2 years later the picture is reversed. There is a reason the wheel of fortune is one of the favourite subjects of high medieval painting..


Hello and welcome to the history of the Germans: Episode 73 – One Pope, three Emperors

This week we will see the reverse of 1046 when there was one emperor choosing between three popes. Today, we have one Pope, given the choice between three emperors. How could that happen? Last time we looked we had Henry VI. at the peak of his reign, being king of Sicily, having pushed through the inheritability of the imperial title and de-facto encircled the pope militarily. But now, just 2 years later the picture is reversed. There is a reason the wheel of fortune is one of the favourite subjects of high medieval painting..

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Last week’s episode closed with the end of the negotiations between emperor Henry VI. and Pope Celestin III. Subject of the intended agreement  was nothing less than the resolution of all existing conflicts between the papacy and the empire. Henry VI. had put everything and the kitchen sink on the table. He had offered financial freedom for the papacy, a settlement for the lands of Matilda, a crusade, vassalage for the kingdom of Sicily and most bewildering of all, vassalage of the whole empire. But the ancient pope Celestin III, now in his 90s refused. He refused because an empire that held both Northern Italy including Tuscany and the Southern Italian kingdom of Sicily would have been the end of papal independence.

There was no possible compromise to be had. The pope is not going to accept Henry VI. as King of Sicily. Full stop.

Henry left Rome, frustrated but determined not to give up.  He had to perform a full 180-degree shift in policy.

The crusade that he had worked on for so long, that he had sacrificed the inheritable monarchy for and that he thought would be the lever to force the papacy into recognition of his kingship was now irrelevant. The Pope would not make him king of Sicily even if he brings Jerusalem back into Christian hands. That does not mean he would stop the crusade, but he would not join it.

His top priority is now to protect his reign in Sicily. As soon as the papal refusal of Henry’s offer was public, it would encourage more opposition and rebellion. And that he needed to nip in the bud.

To get on the front foot he called an assembly of the Southern Italian barons to Capua. There the nobles the cities were to show their charters and documents for inspection. All rights and privileges were put under scrutiny. Given how thin on the ground written documentation was at the time, any confirmation of their possessions was made dependent on their display of loyalty. To drive his point home, he also staged a show trial of Richard of Acerra, the defender of Naples in 1192. Richard had not only defied the emperor through his skilful defence of Naples, but he was accused of having committed atrocities. When the ancient city of Capua had fallen into his hands after Henry’s withdrawal in 1192, Richard had its German garrison massacred.

As soon as Henry had taken control of the kingdom, he had issued a search warrant for Richard of Acerra. Richard had fled but was betrayed by a monk who handed him over to one of Henry VI. Knights.

In an elaborate show trial, Richard of Acerra was condemned to death for high treason. The emperor had him dawn behind a horse through the streets of Capua, then hanged from the gallows by his feet where he remained alive for two days before the court jester put an end to his suffering.

The lack of legitimacy caused by the papal refusal to recognise Henry as king had to be made up for by terror.

Henry, satisfied with his handiwork, proceeded to Puglia to inspect progress of the crusade. The most senior of the imperial princes, Konrad, archbishop of Mainz was leading the first contingent of 30 ships that left Bari in March 1197. Contingents from Bavaria and Austria were on their way through Italy, looking to take ship from Messina or Bari. The same goes for the large number of mercenaries the emperor had hired. One detachment, led by duke Henry of Brabant had taken ship in the low countries and were sailing along the Atlantic coast towards Sicily, making brief stopovers to help the Portuguese in their expansion southwards. It was all a bit uncoordinated and undisciplined, leaving the population of his new kingdoms fearing rather than cheering the crusaders.

In this atmosphere of unrest and disapproval, Henry scheduled a re-run of the assembly in Capua for the Sicilian nobles. They too were asked to present their charters for inspection, leading to a redistribution of land and possessions from unreliable candidates to imperial loyalists. We should not forget that Henry VI. had brought a not insignificant number of his own Ministeriales and aristocratic followers to his new lands and these men were expecting to be rewarded with their own territories. Men like Markward of Annweiler, Konrad von Querfurt and Heinrich von Kalden took all the leading roles in the kingdom.

The Sicilian/Norman aristocrats realised that their days as the elite in the land was numbered unless they acted now. They arranged a conspiracy that involved not just the nobles but also many cities and the leaders of the large Muslim and Greek communities. It seems they had even involved the pope into their plans. At least we are told that old Celestin warned some German crusaders from travelling south.

The plan was to kill Henry during a hunting trip and simultaneously take out all his key advisors. The rebels had assembled a small army of armoured knights for that purpose and they may even have already elected a new king, the lord of Castrogiovanni who was variously known as Jordan le pin or as William the Monk. This new king was to marry Constance and thereby become the legitimate ruler of Sicily.

The plot failed literally at the very last minute. Henry VI. had already set out for his hunting expedition which was where the conspirators planned to strike. Outside town one of his spies rode up to him and told him not just about the extensive preparations of the conspirators but also about the armed men following him into woods. Henry just about managed to get back behind the walls of Messina. Markward of Annweiler and the Marshall Heinrich von Kalden mustered some of the mercenaries and crusaders who had gathered in Messina and rode out to meet the insurgents. At a bloody battle below Mount Etna the last of the Sicilian Normans were utterly routed. The survivors fled to their castle at Castrogiovanni. The imperial troops surrounded the castle and when Henry arrived with even more troops from Palermo the garrison surrendered. The leaders of the rebellion were caught alive, including their potential king.

Henry’s justice was even more cruel than at Capua. They were all condemned to death, some were hanged, others burned, drowned or sawn in half. The pretender was given the most brutal death. He had a crown fixed to his head with iron nails and Henry said to him: “Now you have this crown you so badly craved. I do not envy you for it, enjoy this you so desired.”

The irony of it. If there is one man in this narrative who craved the crown of Sicily above and beyond any other thing, it is Henry VI.  

These events are often cited as proof that Henry was a cruel and vicious ruler. And they are no doubt brutal punishments. But they were driven not by excessive brutality beyond the standards of his time, but out of a position of weakness.

Thanks to the papal refusal to legitimise Henry and Constance as the rulers of Sicily had changed his approach. When he still hoped for Papal recognition, Henry was magnanimous and did not condemn his opponents to death, let alone a humiliating and painful death. But now his only chance of staying on the throne was by taking away his opponents’ resources and establishing an atmosphere of fear and suppression. Like many a usurper before him, he resorted to a display of exaggerated brutality to cow the opposition.

All this took place in May. Over the next few months, more and more crusaders gathered in the harbours of Sicily, until on September 1, 1197 order was given for the 250 ships to set sail for the Holy Land.

Meanwhile Henry’s brother Philipp had prematurely ended his honeymoon and was on his way to Folignano to pick up little Frederick, by now elected King of the Romans, to take him to Aachen for his coronation.

Henry’s position was now fairly stable, not quite as stable as he wanted it, but stable. Sicily was cowering in fear before its ruthless new ruler and the imperial princes north of the Alps had finally elected his son to be king and his coronation was not that far away.

But then he suddenly felt weak. A fever that troubled him since the siege of Naples in 1192 had come back with a vengeance but was now accompanied by terrible bouts of diarrhoea. He was brought to Messina and the empress was called to expect the worse. But on September 25th he seemed to recover and ordered his imminent departure for Palermo. Most of the imperial train was already packed up and en route to the capital, when the emperor suddenly relapsed. On September 28th after confession and the last rites, emperor Henry VI. died in the presence of just his wife and few close advisors.

How is this possible. Henry VI. was just 32 years old, much younger at his death than even Henry V., whose unexpected and early death ended the Salian dynasty.  Only Otto III had died younger, at just 22 years of age, but then Otto III had been fasting himself to death since his teenage years.

Talk of poison spread. Suspicion fell on his wife, Constance. The couple had spent most of the last few years apart as Constance was first confined with her precious only child and then managed Sicily when Henry was up in Germany and Rome. As is common with medieval rulers, we know very little about the emotional side of their relationship.

Those who argue that Constance may have wanted Henry out of the way point to the fact that Henry had systematically replaced Sicilian Normans with German knights. And many of these Sicilian Normans were Constance’s cousins, respected courtiers, admirals and generals at the court of her father and her nephew. It may be that Constance shared their resentment at the takeover by the Annweilers and Kaldens from the North.

Politically it is harder to see how Constance would benefit from Henry VI. death. The death of the emperor threw Sicily into turmoil. The official legitimate heir was little Frederick. But Frederick was not even in Sicily. He was in Folignano and for all Constance knew could already be on his way to his coronation as King of the Romans in Aachen. And one thing is clear. Once Frederick was crowned as future emperor, the pope would not allow him to become king of Sicily. And without papal permission, a three-year-old and an ageing empress would not hang on to the crown for long. Hence for Constance to seek her husbands death would only make sense if (i) she knew that Frederick was still in Folignano and Philipp would not get to him in time, (ii) she had an agreement with the papacy that Frederick could become king of Sicily in exchange for renouncing the rights to the empire, and most crucially (iii) Constance believed that her husbands policy to hold on to Sicily and the Empire was doomed. And that is where the theory falls down. Yes, Henry was not popular in Sicily, but his regime was not doomed by any stetch of the imagination.

That being said, Constance next steps are exactly what I lined out above. Upon the emperor’s death she sends envoys to bring Frederick down to Sicily as fast as humanly possible. At the same time she opens negotiations with Pope Celestin III. She promises effectively Frederick’s renunciation of the imperial crown, makes the pope the little boys’ guardian, throws out all the German courtiers and replaces them with Sicilians. And with that she can have little Frederick crowned King of Sicily in 1198. This is where we will leave the two of them for the next couple of episodes. No worries we will get back to the beautiful south soon.

Taking Frederick to Sicily and dropping opposition to the papacy helps Constance and Frederick clinging to the Kingdom of Sicily, but it creates a huge problem for Henry’s younger brother Philipp, by now duke of Swabia,  for the Hohenstaufen position in Germany and for the empire as a whole.

I mentioned earlier that Philipp was on his way down to Folignano to pick up young Frederick and take him to his coronation in Aachen. But when he got there, he is told that his mother had already taken him down to Palermo. I guess medieval people did not say Oh shit, but whatever the equivalent of Oh Shit is in early high German, that is what Philipp must have said when he is shown the empty crip at the home of the Duke of Spoleto.  

The empire needs an emperor, and the elected future emperor is little Frederick. Philipp had spent the last years making exactly that happen. Having a child emperor is already a bit of an anomaly in an elective monarchy, but a child emperor that isn’t even here that is complexity cubed.

Philipp is wrecking his brain on his way back to Germany how to solve the issue. Constance, he is sure, will not hand over Frederick, because that would cause the same problem in Sicily, the new king is a child and a child that isn’t even here. So no, there is little chance that Frederick will come to Germany before he has reached adulthood.

But what shall we do in the meantime? A regency council headed by himself, Philipp and some of the loyal imperial princes? Or shall a new king be elected, either as a permanent ruler or to rule until Frederick comes back?

How and who should decide that? In the 12th century the answer to that question is increasingly to let the pope decide. Ever since the Investiture Controversy had broken the supremacy of the emperors over the other rulers in Europe, disputes over difficult questions like the succession to the throne were brought to the courts of the church. And thanks to the expanding network of papal legates, the church could provide dispute resolution quickly and locally.

Questions as fundamental as the one brought about by the death of Henry VI. should hence be decided by the church and most specifically by the pope. But the papacy was unable to act. Pope Celestin III had died at the start of the year 1198 at the ripe old age of 92. His successor, Innocent III who will become the most important pope of the Middle Ages. But it takes him a few weeks to get into gear, weeks during which no decision can be expected.

Into that vacuum steps Adolf, archbishop of Cologne. He is at this point the most senior bishop present in Germany and hence in charge of imperial elections. Konrad, archbishop of Mainz is down in the Holy Land and so are many other imperial princes.

Adolf had only reluctantly accepted the election of young Frederick, but now as circumstances had changed, acts as that had never happened.

He writes to the newest of the imperial vassals, Richard the Lionheart and invites him to come down for the election. Richard politely declines. But the former prisoner on the Trifels and imperial ATM realises that this is a great opportunity to get back at his now dead tormentor.  As a vassal and prince, he can make a suggestion for the election. And that suggestion was to elect Otto, count of Poitou, Duke of Aquitaine.

Otto who?

Otto was born around 1177, so is pretty much the same age as Philipp of Swabia. His father was Henry the Lion, known to you all and friend of the podcast. His mother was Matilda, daughter of King Henry II of England and hence the sister of Richard the Lionheart. The reason we have not heard anything about Otto is, because he grew up at the English court.  His father was exiled to England in 1181 when Otto was maybe six and he stayed there after his father had returned to Germany.

King Richard was exceedingly fond of his nephew, who had little prospects in Germany being the younger son of a family that insisted on Salian law inheritance. Richard first tried to make him the Earl of York though the locals rejected him. But he was successful in appointing him count of Poitou in France, a title Richard used himself= before he became king of England. As Count of Poitou he was also the acting as duke of Aquitaine, that great territory in South West France that had come into the Angevin family through the marriage of Eleanor and Henry II. Otto was now in one of the top positions of the Angevin empire.

If Henry VI. had not died in 1197, Otto would have likely played a significant role in English politics. He was not just one of Richards favourite nephews, but he was also a potential heir to his throne. Richard was 36 at the time and given the state of his personal inclinations and relationship with his wife was likely to remain childless. As we have been told by Erroll Flynn, John Derek, Russell Crowe, Cary Elwes, Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and four more, his brother John later to be called Lackland was not the right man to become king. Or at least that is what Richard thought after John had offered vast amounts of money to Henry VI. to prolong Richard’s stay in Germany.

The other potential heir was Arthur of Brittany, the son of Godfrey, another brother of Richard’s and John’s. Arthur had technically a better claim than John Lackland, since Godfrey had been older than John. But Arthur was living at the court of Phillippe Auguste of France, Richard’s arch enemy, which disqualified him.

That made Otto the technical# 3 to succeed and as far as Richard was concerned, the #1. But Richard also knew that if he were to appoint Otto as his successor, a civil war was unavoidable. Henry VI. death and the disappearance of little Frederick down south was an absolute godsend for Richard the Lionheart.

He wrote back to Adolf of Cologne that Otto was on his way, and he should get everything ready for the election and coronation.

Adolf may have been in opposition to the Hohenstaufen for a while, so a non-Hohenstaufen candidate was something he liked. But a Welf? The prospect of a Welf King and emperor was not exactly what an archbishop of Cologne could get excited about. Cologne had been one of the great beneficiaries of the fall of Henry the Lion. When henry the Lion lost his duchies of Saxony and Bavaria, Saxony was split in two, one, Westphalia had gone to Cologne and the other still called Saxony had gone to Bernhard of Anhalt and Bavaria had gone to the Wittelsbachs. It could not be their interest to get a son of Henry the Lion on to the throne.

But money talks and Richard of England had money, lots of money. We are entering the high Middle Ages and taxation is becoming a thing. England always had a coherent enough structure to force through taxation and the King of France was establishing the same in his territories. The Empire had fallen behind. The territorial lords and the independent cities of Northern Italy and increasingly Germany were building taxation infrastructure, but the empire as a whole had no such capabilities. Henry VI. had tax income from Sicily but nothing from the empire.

Richard was willing to use his money to buy his beloved nephew a crown, the crown of the empire no less.

And another force pushed for the candidature of Otto, one that appears for the first time on the imperial stage. The merchants, more specifically the merchants of Cologne. Cologne was the centre of trade between England and Germany and down the Rhine into Italy. The Cologne merchants were very keen on a close alliance between the empire and England and that meant they supported Otto.

With Adolf on board one crucial element of the process to become the anointed king was in place – Otto had the correct archbishop for the coronation. And, since the archbishop of Mainz was down in the Holy Land, Adolf was also in charge of the imperial duties of his colleague upriver, i.e, he was the correct archbishop for organising the election. The only thing that was missing were the imperial regalia, those were in the castle of Trifels, firmly in the hand of the Hohenstaufen.

Talking about the Hohenstaufen where is Philipp, duke of Swabia and currently leader of the clan? Well, he had rushed back to Germany after his failure to bring young Frederick to Germany and listened to all the chatter about an English-welfish candidate for the imperial crown.

What is he to do now? Should he try to be elected himself and be king in his own right, stepping over the rights of his nephew? Or shall he claim to act as his nephew’s guardian and representative? But how would that work?  Would the imperial vassals recognise the representative of a four-year old who wasn’t even baptised, let alone crowned as their liege lord?

We do not know what Philipps actual motives were, but he declared his willingness to accept an election as king and so, on March 8th, 1198 Philipp was elected King of the Romans and future emperor by an impressive number of imperial princes led by the dukes Bernhard of Saxony and Ludwig of Bavaria, the archbishop of Magdeburg and the bishops of Bamberg, Eichstaett, Merseburg and Worms. But he did not have any of the most senior archbishops, those of Cologne, Mainz and Trier on his roster. The election also took place in Muehlhausen in Thuringia, not exactly on Frankish soil, as was the custom.

As soon as Philipp was elected, a call went out to Otto to come down to Germany where he arrived in June. Otto’s allies besieged and entered Aachen on 12h of July 1198 where he was crowned by the correct archbishop, in the correct place, but with replicas of the actual imperial regalia.

Philipp had hesitated to proceed to his own coronation, in part because he hoped he may still be able to sway the archbishop of Cologne to join his side and also, because he wanted to have his nephew’s prior permission for this irrevocable step.

The permission from Frederick was also important because the German crusaders were now returning from the Holy Land. It is all a bit chaotic, even more chaotic than a normal succession. Henry’s crusade had simply ended with his death. As soon as the crusaders had heard of the demise of the emperor, they knew that their home would be in turmoil. Long gone were the days when the lands and possessions of a crusader were sacrosanct whilst he was down freeing Jerusalem. Everybody rushed home as fast as they could to protect or even expand their territory in the now inevitable rejigging of the cards. And these crusaders had sworn an oath on the succession rights of little Frederick. So, in order to transfer their loyalty to him, Philipp needed the little boy’s consent.

That came through in July and another obstacle was also cleared. In 1198 Philipp had still been under excommunication. Excommunication is by now so common, I barelyh mention them any more.. He had picked up the papal wrath when his brother had made him duke of Tuscany. In this role Philipp had pushed the imperial prerogatives against papal resistance. That was enough to have him excommunicated. As I said, the actual Middle Ages are gradually coming to an end and being replaced by a more cynical, everyone for himself attitude, where the papacy will use its moral superiority in the pursuit of purely temporal political objectives. This political excommunication was lifted by the papal legate so that a coronation could take place in Mainz on September 8th, 1198.

Mainz was not Aachen but had at least historically been a place of coronation. Philipp also had the correct imperial regalia, which we know are important to confer legitimacy. But he did not have the correct archbishop. In fact no German or any other archbishop was willing to perform this coronation in the see of the absent archbishop of Mainz. Philipp’s party had to resort to the rather obscure bishop of Tarantaise in Burgundy who apparently owed Philipp’s brother, the count of Burgundy big time.

There we are at the end of 1198. We have three elected Kings of the Romans.

There is the child Frederick, four years old and elected by most of the princes but far away and not yet crowned.

Then there is Otto counted as Otto IV, who could rely on English money and the Bishop and city of Cologne.

And finally, Philipp, usually not given a numeral though he sometime called himself Philipp II counting the emperor Philipp the Arab in the 3rd century as his predecessor. He had the strongest position amongst the territorial lords, counting the dukes of Saxony and Bavaria in his camp plus his own domain as duke of Swabia.

And then we have the throng of undecided princes many just on their way back from the crusades, Henry, the Count Palatinate, Bernhard von Zaehringen, the archbishop of Mainz and Trier just to name a few.

For the good of Christendom, the pope should decide this election and bring peace to the empire. That is what he is for. And the new pope, Innocent III, will decide it along of what is fair and best for the empire. Sorry, just kidding. He will certainly not do that. He will make his decision on the basis what is best for the political objectives of the papacy and only two years after the civil war had gone into full swing.

His reasoning in 1200/1201 boils down to the following:

Frederick should not have been elected when he was just 2 years old since Christendom requires a capable and proactive emperor, something a small child could not be, in particular not one that hasn’t even been baptised.

Philipp of Swabia, he argues is also unsuitable because at the time of the election he had still been excommunicated. The lifting of the ban by the papal legate was invalid because Philipp was descendant of a race of persecutors of the church who, like his father and brother had shown scant regard for the rights of the church.

Otto, he argues may not have had a lot of votes on his side, but that does not matter since he was descendent from the Kings of England and the House of Welf, both of which are renowned for their fealty to the mother church, something he had so aptly displayed himself.

This assessment will come back to bite his holiness in his unholiness, but before that we have to go through 10 years of civil war, political manoeuvring and hollowing out of royal rights, ending in murder most foul. I hope you will join us again.

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