Episode 76 – Urchin to Emperor

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This week we will go back 20 years and pick up the other strain of our history of the Hohenstaufen. The last three episodes we focused on events in Germany and the struggle between Philipp of Swabia and Otto IV. Today we take a closer look at the early years of Frederick II, before he came up to Germany and took over.

Little is known but much has been written about the youth of emperor Frederick II, not only because it was exceedingly turbulent, but also because it forged a man who burst on the European stage aged 14 already displaying many of those personality traits that would make him known as the Stupor Mundi, the Astonishment of the World. How did he become who he became?


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 76 – From Urchin to Emperor

This week we will go back 20 years and pick up the other strain of our history of the Hohenstaufen. The last three episodes we focused on events in Germany and the struggle between Philipp of Swabia and Otto IV. Today we take a closer look at the early years of Frederick II, before he came up to Germany and took over.

Little is known but much has been written about the youth of emperor Frederick II, not only because it was exceedingly turbulent, but also because it forged a man who burst on the European stage aged 14 already displaying many of those personality traits that would make him known as the Stupor Mundi, the Astonishment of the World. How did he become who he became?

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Let us go back to 1194. Emperor Henry VI is still sitting on his throne. Not only that, he had just been crowned king of Sicily the fulfilment of all his ambitions. In that year, on December 26th, the day of St. Stephen, in the city of Jesi was born to him a son, Frederick, by his wife Constance who had been in her fortieth year and barren for so long.

We very rarely know the birthdays of even the most important personalities in the Middle Ages. Birthdays were barely recorded, not just because so many children died. The birthday was not as significant as the day of baptism and in some places the name day which established the connection of the child to the divine or saintly. Frederick is different in that as in many other areas of life. He remembers his birthday and even orders his birthday to be celebrated with great feasts throughout his realm, the first ruler in post Roman times to do so.

Not just that, but there is even a poem written shortly after the birth by Peter of Eboli, a monk and chronicler of the reign of Henry VI. He wrote:

“From Italy came the palm of a triumphal new birth

Having the distinction of a fortunate father

He was brought to life through screams [heard] by those present

The palm tree brought forth its fruit, although delayed.

A son is born to Augustus, a boy who will excel at arms,

Though the father is fortunate, the son will be more so,

This boy will in every way be blessed.”

This is lifted almost word for word from Virgil and ties little Frederick back to the Romans, Aeneas and the city of Troy. As you may remember by now the official Hohenstaufen ideology is that there is only one imperial dynasty that goes back to Troy and has ruled ever since Julius Caesar in an unbroken line that led to this little boy in a crib in the march of Ancona. It even has some messianic connotations that Frederick would rekindle in 1245 when he writes to the citizens of Jesi calling their hometown his Bethlehem where his blessed mother had birthed him.

Peter writes these words sometime between 1195 and 1197, so little does he know about the fate of the blessed boy.

Because these first years are not at all fortunate.

The first image we have of Frederick is again in the book of Peter of Eboli. We see a baby wrapped up tightly, wearing a tiny crown being handed over by his mother to the duchess of Spoleto who will look after him. The duchess and even his mother touch the precious child only with their covered hands. 

Frederick will stay with the family of the duke of Spoleto for the next three years. The duke, Konrad von Urslingen was an aristocrat from Swabia with possessions around the city of Rottweil. Konrad had come to Italy in the train of emperor Barbarossa. Barbarossa had acquired the duchy of Spoleto from his uncle Welf VI and had put Konrad in, first as administrator and a little later as duke. The Urslinger was able to hold on to Spoleto even through the upheaval following the battle of Legnano and the Peace of Venice. When henry VI came through these lands in his attempts to conquer Sicily, Konrad von Urslingen provided significant military help. Konrad and Henry VI became quite close, and he was one of the few people present at the emperor’s deathbed.

Konrad, like most medieval fathers, had very little to do with childrearing. That was largely left to the women and if money was no object, a tutor, usually a monk or bishop. Hence the first person Frederick formed an attachment to was Konrad’s wife, the duchess of Spoleto. About her, pretty much nothing at all is known. Neither a name nor whether she was German or Italian. Hence, we do not know what language he spoke his first words in.

Konrad and his nameless wife had two sons, marginally older than Frederick and a daughter, Adelheid, of roughly the same age. Later in life Frederick will have a mistress called Adelheid from noble Swabian stock who will give birth to Enzo, one of Fr3derick’s most favoured sons and later king of Sardinia and prisoner in Bologna. This may have been the same Adelheid he played with as a toddler.

The next important event in his life that he was probably blissfully unaware of was his election as King of the Romans sometime late 1196 or 1197. At that point he is 2 to 3 years old, but not yet baptised. The delay is explained by his father’s desire to make amends with the pope and one of his offers was to let the pope baptise young Frederick himself.

But that did not happen. In all likelihood Frederick was baptised in nearby Assisi sometime after negotiations with the papacy had broken down. Albert von Stade describes it as a splendid event attended by 15 bishops and the emperor himself. Such a great spectacle would almost certainly have attracted a young man, son of a wealthy cloth merchant in the city with a love of troubadour romances, court life and a burning ambition to become a knight. That young man/boy had been baptised over the same baptismal font in the name of Giovanni. But he would alter change his name to Francis and is known now as St. Francis of Assisi. The emperor and the most significant saint of the 13th century will cross paths many more times.

Baptismal font in the cathedral of Assisi

The time at the castle of Folignano where the dukes of Spoleto lived comes to an abrupt end when Henry VI died in 1197. Constance immediately sends for him to be brought to Palermo. And as we have heard, when Philipp of Swabia arrives in central Italy to pick up his nephew for his coronation in Aachen, the little boy is gone, and the House of Hohenstaufen is thrown into a severe crisis.

Again, nobody mentions anything about how Frederick took the separation from the person he in all likelihood regarded as his mother.

But this will not be the only trauma. When Frederick arrives in Palermo he meets his mother, presumably for the first time since she had left him in the care of the Urslingens three years earlier. Constance is at that point preoccupied with the question of how she can secure the kingdom of Sicily for her son. She de facto gives up the title of king of the Romans on behalf of her son so that he can be crowned king of Sicily with the papal blessing. That stabilised things for the moment. Meanwhile, as we know Philipp had himself elected king of the Romans and had received approval from Constance to be crowned. Sicily and the Empire are now separated.

Shortly after that, on November 27th, 1198, Constance of Sicily dies. Frederick is still only 4 years old and now an orphan. In her testament Constance had appointed Pope Innocent III guardian of young Frederick. Innocent kept entirely aloof from is ward. He would send papal legates to look after him. He felt anxiety for his dangers, praised his progress and expressed unfeigned pleasure at his escape from enemy hands. But he never saw him in all these years until the boy was 17.

There were no family members looking out for little Frederick. The only remaining Hohenstaufen was Philipp, and he was far away in Germany. His mother’s family, the Hautevilles had been decimated or exiled by his father Henry VI and those who returned bore him ill will.

In principle the kingdom was ruled by Frederick’s guardian, pope Innocent III. But Innocent stayed back home in Rome. In practice the kingdom was to be managed by a regency council headed by the chancellor of the kingdom, Walter of Palear. Walter was first and foremost interested in his own and his family’s advancement. But since his power rested on his appointment as regent for little Frederick, he was the closest thing to an ally Frederick had got.

Innocent III

After Constance’s death the kingdom collapsed into chaos. Several factions fought for supremacy and possession of the child king.

There were the Germans who had come to Sicily with Henry VI. Many had been Ministeriales or simple knights and out here in the south had risen to be counts or even attaining princely rank. Their leader was Markward of Annweiler, erstwhile trusted military leader of Henry VI armies and now elevated to Margrave of Ancona. Annweiler saw himself as the representative of Hohenstaufen power in Italy and took orders from Philipp of Swabia.

Walter von Palear (left) and Markward von Annweiler (right)

Opposed to the Germans was the old Norman aristocracy whose position had been curtailed after the fall of Tancred. They saw an opportunity to chuck out the northern invaders and either replace little Frederick with one of their own or to make him their plaything. Their cause got a massive boost when Innocent III pushed the regency council to return the provinces of Tarento and Lecce to Walter of Brienne, son in law of the former king Tancred. That gave this faction a natural focal point. Cleary Innocent III wasn’t looking out for his ward’s interests at all times.

And then we have the Muslim population in central Sicily who raided the lands outside the major cities, whilst the Pisans were enforcing trading privileges on the island, some real, some imagined. And for the barons on the mainland who were neither Norman nor German, their objective was simply a weak central power that allowed them to do as they please.

All these parties had only one thing in common: to pursue their own most obvious advantage, and to enrich themselves at the expense of the helpless king, who thus became the focus of all their activities. The goal, above all others, was to get possession of the King’s person, for this child represented the legal basis of the victor’s de facto power. Frederick became “a lamb amongst ravenous wolves” as the chronicler put it.

There is one story about Frederick when he was 7 years old. In 1201 Markward of Annweiler had overpowered Walter of Palear and had entered Palermo. He and his men searched for their quarry, the boy king who they found in some back room of the Castello a Mare. Frederick tried to fight them but when he realised the futility of his actions, he threw away his royal garments and began scratching himself with his nails in his impotent rage. The papal legate who informs the pope of these events concludes that it was “a worthy omen for the future ruler who cannot be false to his own nobility, who with royal instinct feels himself, like Mount Sinai, outraged by the touch of a beast of prey.”

The question arises how a child could grow up in such circumstances and become a commensurate ruler, an accomplished diplomat and skilled administrator with enormous appetites for life, love and above all knowledge. The story I grew up with is probably best told in the words of Ernst Kantorowicz whose biography of Frederick II we will encounter several times on our journey and which itself and its author’s life are worth a whole episode. Here is what he had to say about Frederick’s childhood:

Ernst Kantorowicz


“From this time forward (he means after the coup by Markward of Annweiler) no one in the fortress seems to have bothered his head about the boy. The royal property had been so shockingly squandered that the child was often literally in want of the barest necessaries till the compassionate citizens of Palermo took pity on him and found him food. One fed him for a week, another for a month, each according to his circumstances.

He was a handsome boy whose clear bright glance already caused remark, and the people were probably glad to see him amongst them. At eight and nine years old the young King wandered about without let or hindrance and strolled unchecked through the narrow streets and markets and gardens of the semi- African capital at the foot of the Pellegrino. An amazing variety of peoples, religions and customs jostled each other before his eyes: mosques with their minarets, synagogues with their cupolas stood cheek by jowl with Norman churches and cathedrals, which again had been adorned by Byzantine masters with gold mosaics, their rafters supported by Greek columns on which Saracen craftsmen had carved in Kufic script the name of Allah. Round the town lay the pleasure palaces and fountains of Norman Kings in the exotic gardens and animal preserves of the Conca d’Oro, the delights of which had inspired the Arab poets. In the marketplaces the people went about their business in many-coloured confusion: Normans and Italians, Saracens, Jews and Greeks. The lively boy was driven back on all these for company and soon learned the customs and the speech of all these tribes and races. Did any wise Imam play the part of Chiron to the lonely child? Did some unknown tutor teach the future ruler of men to observe, to know, to use, the forces of Earth and Nature? We do not know. We are certain only that his education was unique and radically different from any that ever fell to the lot of a royal child. Later, men marvelled at his knowledge of the habits of man and beast and plant as profoundly as they trembled at his actual approach.

Frederick was not brought up, as his father for instance had been, by a learned chaplain of the type of Godfrey of Viterbo, nor reared like many another prince by world-shy monks in the seclusion of a cloister. Amazed by his comprehensive knowledge, his astounding exotic erudition, men have sought diligently: to trace the real teacher of this great Hohenstaufen — research has not revealed his Aristotle. And with reason.

The teacher never existed whom he would not have surpassed and disillusioned, and the school of a mere fencing-master would not long have satisfied him.  Frederick II is a typically self-taught man: he had no one to thank for his education: what he was, he was sud virtute. Quite possibly he learnt the elements from that Magister William Franciscus who has once been mentioned in attendance on him as a seven-year-old child and is on record as still with him in 1208. Quite possibly one or another of the papal legates may have taken an interest in him and taught him the necessary amount of Scripture.  Quite possibly he received irregular instruction now and then in other things, but he never enjoyed a systematic education.  His later learning bears all the marks of being not the product of ” school” but of life itself. He was compelled from his tenderest years to absorb directly, without extraneous aid and from every source, the strength he needed. This differentiated his knowledge both in its content and in its application from that of his contemporaries.  Stern Necessity was his first tutor, and she — to quote the Pope’s expression — ” taught him the eloquence of grief and of complaint at an age when other children scarcely lisp aright.”  His next instructors were the marketplaces and streets of Palermo: Life itself. He laid the foundations of his wisdom in those wanderings which made him the friend of every man. (end quote)

This idea of young Frederick running wild through the streets of Palermo, a city second only to Constantinople when it comes to the mingling of cultures, is now sharply dismissed by modern historians. There are no real contemporaneous accounts of such activities and the citations used to confirm it have been written 70 and 100 years later. But most importantly, there is no way whoever was in control of Palermo at any given point would let Frederick II run free. To large is the risk he could be kidnapped by a rival in this endless civil war and used to prop up another rickety regime.

I hear all this, and it sort of makes sense. But then I look at teenagers and angry teenagers in particular. They can be so godawfully stubborn. And that is leverage in itself. Walter, or Markward or whoever just controlled Palermo needed Frederick to occasionally parade through town and perform some ceremonial function. And if they wanted for that to go smoothly, they needed to give Frederick some leeway. He may not be running around town all on his own, but he could have demanded his bodyguards to keep a distance whilst he is discovering all there is to see in the Conca d-Oro, the bay of Palermo.

In 1208, at the age of 14 Frederick receives the Schwertleite, which means he is now considered an adult and expected to gradually transition to independent personal rule. He is an accomplished politician well beyond his years. He has his grandfather Barbarossa’s inexhaustible energy and ability to charm people over to his side. And from his other grandfather, Roger II he inherited intellectual rigour and administrative skills. And he has this unquenchable curiosity to find out how the world works, the desire for new experiences, for adventures and for sexual pleasure, something entirely of his own. Can you believe that this man had been locked up in a castle with a dour monk as tutor for all his early adolescence? I can’t and that is why I stick to the romantic image of a future emperor roaming the streets of the Sicilian capital like an urchin.

What happened next, we already discussed last episode. If you haven’t, I strongly recommend you do check out Episode 75 – Wet Pants and other Miracles.

For those of you who do not have the time or inclination, here is the 60 second rundown.

In 1208 king Philipp of Swabia is murdered which brings his opponent Otto IV to the throne. Otto did enjoy papal support but makes the fatal mistake to go after Sicily in 1211. The papacy is utterly terrified by the idea of being surrounded by imperial territories, by Lombardy and Tuscany in the north and the Kingdom of Sicily that includes the southern Italian Mainland. Hence Innocent III withdraws support from Otto IV and encourages the German princes to elect Frederick II to become Emperor. That is when Otto IV makes his second mistake. His army is down in Messina and if he had crossed over to the island, Palermo had fallen, and he would have had his rival in custody. But he panicked and ran back home – all that also involves a dream about a bear. As I said, listen to episode 75, much better than this rushed story.

Anyway, Frederick II realises that he has to go to Germany and take the crown because whoever will be emperor in the future will try to take Sicily from him. He sets off, nearly dies a couple of times and then, in the nick of time, enters the city of Constance which gives him the much-needed foothold north of the Alps. The civil war resumes pretty much where Philipp and Otto had left off. That war ends with a battle Frederick is not involved in at all, the battle of Bouvines.

Bouvines was a battle between king Philippe Auguste of France against the Eking John Lackland. Otto IV was reliant on English support. King John had asked him to gather an army and, together with English forces – defeat the French monarch. The battle ends with a rout of Otto’s troops which triggers a set of events that reshape the face of Europe. Not only does Frederick II become the undisputed king of the Romans and subsequently emperor, but the French Monarchy enters its great expansionist phase that will see them becoming the dominant power in Europe, and most importantly, it leads almost directly to the barons’ rebellion and the signing of Magna Carta.

There you go, Frederick II is emperor. How he reigns, in particular how he approaches the politics in Germany will be subject to the next episode. I hope you will be joining us again. Before I go, let me thank all of you who are supporting the show, in particular the Patrons who have kindly signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans. It is thanks to you this show does not have to do advertising for matrasses or as I recently heard energy supplements and pension plans. If Patreon isn’t for you, another way to help the show is sharing the podcast directly or boosting its recognition on social media. If you share, comment or retweet a post from the History of the Germans it is more likely to be seen by others, hence bringing in more listeners. My most active places are Twitter @germanshistory and my Facebook page History of the Germans Podcast. As always, all the links are in the show notes.

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