Episode 77 – A Nail in the Coffin

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This week we take a look at the reign of Frederick II in Germany from 1212 to 1220. Most of what he did was putting a nail in an actual coffin whilst also putting the metaphorical nail into the carcass of imperial rule in Germany.

And was that such a bad thing? What happens when the emperor just hands out what is left of the royal demesne? Cathedrals go up, princes hold splendid courts and none of them think about disturbing the peace in Italy. If you are the king of Sicily, that is a near perfect result.

And if you are the pope, even more so, in particular when Frederick II throws in a brand-new crusade and swears on all that is holy that he would never pursue a link-up between Sicily and the empire.

Everybody happy? Let’s see..


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 77 – The Nail in the Coffin

This week we take a look at the reign of Frederick II in Germany from 1212 to 1220. Most of what he did was putting a nail in an actual coffin whilst also putting the metaphorical nail into the carcass of imperial rule in Germany.

And was that such a bad thing? What happens when the emperor just hands out what is left of the royal demesne? Cathedrals go up, princes hold splendid courts and none of them think about disturbing the peace in Italy. If you are the king of Sicily, that is a near perfect result.

And if you are the pope, even more so, in particular when Frederick II throws in a brand-new crusade and swears on all that is holy that he would never pursue a link-up between Sicily and the empire.

Everybody happy? Let’s see..

Before we start just 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. And thanks a lot to Sharon, q and John who have already signed up.

Let’s start and end this episode with Frederick II’s relationship with the papacy, something we will probably have to do in most upcoming episodes as well, so brace yourselves.

Frederick’s trip to Germany had been sponsored financially and politically by his godfather, pope Innocent III. And once Frederick had settled down north of the Alps, had been elected and gone through his first coronation, it was payback time. Payback happened in the shape of the Golden Bull of Eger. A golden bull is not a grown-up version of the Golden calf the Israelites danced around. It refers to a decree that had received a special status thanks to the use of a golden seal, a bulla aurea. These golden bulls were rare and usually reserved for the most important decisions. The most famous of those was the Golden bull of 1356 that set forth the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, namely the institution of the 7 electors.

Golden Bull of 1356

In short, in 1213 Frederick II issued a decree that was to be of utmost importance. It consisted of three main commitments. First that the crown gives up the right to the spolia, i.e., the right to receive the income from any bishopric that happened to be vacant after the incumbent’s death. Second, Frederick II gives up his rights to decide contested episcopal elections, and finally he recognises the pope’s right to central Italy, specifically to the March of Ancona and the duchy of Spoleto. That is pretty much the end of the concordat of Worms. The church in Germany is now fully independent of the emperor. All its resources can now be used as the bishops wish. All the generous donations in lands and rights that the Ottonian emperors had made in the hope these would remain at their disposal are lost to the crown for good.

In 1216 when his rule is fully established Frederick was made to swear to these concessions again and had to get the imperial princes themselves to swear to them as well. And he had to agree to another condition. He had to abandon the crown of Sicily in favour of his son Henry, so as to ensure that there would not be a union between the Holy Roman Empire and Sicily, a union that would encircle the papal states.

“Recuperation”of the Papal States under Innicent III

We all know by now know what an oath is worth in 1216. At no point did Frederick II contemplate to put down the crown of Sicily. Southern Italy is his home. Even though he now styles himself all Swabian grandson of Barbarossa, in truth, the only reason he came up to Germany in first place was to protect Sicily from imperial invasions.

He comes up with a cunning plan to outmanoeuvre the pope. If he cannot be king of Sicily and emperor at the same time, well, let us see whether my son Henry can. Whilst he solemnly reaffirms all these commitments about not being king of Sicily anymore, he negotiates with the princes about electing young Henry as king of the Romans. And in December 1216 young Henry and Frederick’s wife, Constance of Aragon arrive in Nurnberg and by 1220 young Henry is elected and crowned.

One reason Frederick gets away with such blatant disregard for his godfather is that he died, quite unexpectedly, in 1216. Innocent III had been a young man by papal standards when he was elected, just 37 years old. He died on July 16th, 1216 of a recurring malaria in Perugia. Sometimes the great defence mechanism of the papacy takes one of its own..  

Earlier that year he had presided over the 4th Lateran council, which must count as the absolute high point of medieval papal authority. Present were 400 bishops and archbishops from all corners of the Christian world. Even the patriarchs of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria had come. 800 abbots and priors as well as delegates of the emperors, both our Frederick as well as the now Latin emperor of Constantinople, the kings of England, France, Aragon, Hungary, Cyprus and Jerusalem. Remember that in 1204 the fourth crusade had taken Constantinople and placed a French nobleman onto the throne of the Basileus.

Innocent III at the 4th Lateran Council (19th century engraving)

The council promulgated 71 decrees covering a remarkable wide field. The doctrine of transubstantiation was defined in the very first of them. Number 13 forbade the formation of new religious orders, though the Dominicans were approved at the same council, the 18th abolished the use of boiling water and red-hot irons in trials by ordeal; the 21st insisted on confession and communion for all Catholics at least once a year at easter; the 31st banned illegitimate sons of clergy taking over their father’s churches. The last segments were directed against the Jews. No Christian was to have commerce with Jewish usurers; both Jews and Muslims had to wear distinctive dress, nor were they allowed to be seen in public during Holy Week.

But at least he did not call for their expulsion or destruction. That was reserved to heretics, namely the Albigensian or Cathars of Southwest France. The 4th Lateran Council granted any knight who would be prepared to undertake the tough job of slaughtering peasants a free ticket to paradise.

The overarching theme of the council was however the recapture of the holy sites in Palestine. The crusader states still clung on to the coastline but despite several attempts, including the huge third crusade, Jerusalem was still in Muslim hands. After the catastrophe that was the 4th crusade, pope Innocent III did even contemplate to take a crusader army to Outre Mer himself. As the true emperor that he saw himself, that was a natural conclusion. A date for the crusade was set for 1217 and a special tax was levied on all bishops and cardinals to fund the expedition. That project collapsed with the death of Innocent III.

Though Innocent III was probably the most powerful medieval pope, his remains did not get treated with the respect they deserved. The night after his death, the house he had died in was raided and his body stolen. It was found the next morning, stripped naked in the street, rapidly decomposing in the heat. The citizens of Perugia buried him hastily in their cathedral. It is said that his bones ended up being mixed up with those of Urban IV and Martin IV in a box that was kept in the sacristy. In the 19th century Leo XIII ordered that the bones should be brought to Rome to be buried in a splendid tomb in St. John Lateran. A priest was dispatched to pick them up. Innocent III came back to Rome by train in a simple suitcase.

Tomb of Innocent III

“Brief and empty is the deceptive glory of this world” is what Jacques de Vitry said when he saw the popes naked body in the street.

Innocent III’s successor was Honorius III, a much older man and, as it happens, a former tutor of Frederick in his very early years. We will get back to Honorius towards the end of the episode when he will perform the imperial coronation in Rome.

The pope is as we know by now only one of the trifecta of horrors an emperor has to deal with. The other two are the princes and the Italian communes. We get to the communes in one of the next episodes, so today it is only imperial princes.

The way Frederick dealt with them was a combination of exalted ritual and plain bribery. Bribery was the way Philipp and Otto IV had competed for the crown and Frederick just continued the process. Other than Philipp he had never seen a different model of how to manage the Holy Roman Empire and none of the princes would have told him otherwise. And there is also the question whether there was a road back to the governance in the first years of Barbarossa’s reign. The idea that an emperor could rally his princes behind him with the promise of the riches of Italy had died from dysentery before the walls of Rome in 1167. Even Frederick’s grandfather had replaced a policy of centralising royal power with a policy to strengthen the territorial power of the Hohenstaufen family.

But Fredericks level of generosity was unprecedented, in particular given his rival, Otto IV was utterly defeated and by 1218 also utterly dead. Even poor Walter von der Vogelweide, the itinerant Minnesaenger finally gets his fief that allows him to live in relative comfort.

The most generous donation though goes to the bishops. In 1220 he agrees to the Confoederatio cum principibus ecclesiasticis. A very long word for the total abandonment of even the last remaining vestiges of royal power in ecclesiastical lands. He hands over the right to mint coins and raise duties on the rivers.  These are the most financially valuable rights. The right to mint coins does not just involve the ability to physically stamp coins, but it also includes the right to determine which coins are legal tender. And that can be really lucrative. The tradition was to declare certain coins invalid as of a particular day and require the inhabitants of the territory to swap them for either a smaller number or inferior coins. The prince or king would then pocket the difference. This may help filling the pockets of the bishop but had devastating impact on the economy. Constant devaluation or replacement of the currency created uncertainty and made transactions riskier. In England the kings did not resort to such policies. The English pound remained fairly stable throughout the Middle Ages despite occasional royal bankruptcies, one of the many reasons for England surpasses Germany in terms of prosperity during this period.

See the lands held by the church before teh reformation shown here in pink

Granting the right to levy duties on river and road transport was even more devastating for the German economy. The rhine river is the natural link between Northern and Southern Europe. It is navigable from Rotterdam to Basel. From there it is 400 km to Milan across alpine passes or 250 km overland to Chalons where one can pick up the Rhone River and sail down to Marseille. It is the natural transport artery of Europe. Today transport volume on the Rhine, Main, Mosel and Neckar is 6 times that of all French navigable rivers. Nevertheless, by the 15th century the cities from Reims to Lyon matched or exceeded the economic power of the German cities along the Rhine. And that had a lot to do with the ability of all sorts of princes with access to the river to demand duties. On top of that came the Stapelrecht, the right to demand that any passing merchant had to offer his wares at market in the town he passed. The Rhine was still a great way to transport things from North to South, but it had to fight with one arm tied behind its back.

You cannot blame all that on Frederick II whose room to manoeuvre was limited and who may not fully understand the economic implications.  Though his grandfather did at some point cut down to duty posts along the Rhine and Main River to facilitate trade. So maybe he could have understood that in part. In his beloved Sicily we will see him deploying much more beneficial policies. Detractors may claim he simply did not care.

Generosity towards the princes was one part of Fredrick’s governance model. The other was the power of rituals. We have already seen how Barbarossa had tried to wow his contemporaries with the imperial diet of Pentecost 1184 and how Philipp of Swabia used splendid feasts as a way to bring wavering princes over to his side.

Frederick turbocharged these events by leveraging potent symbols to legitimise his regime. The first of these elaborate ceremonies took place in 1213, so before the battle of Bouvines and Frederick’s rise to undisputed power.

He had the remains of his uncle Philipp who had been murdered and quickly buried in Bamberg dug up and laid to rest in the cathedral of Speyer. Speyer was the St. Denis of Germany, the place where the emperors had been buried. Once the greatest and most splendid church building in Western Europe, next to Cluny it was the German Metropolis as a chronicler called it.

Remember that the family of Barbarossa never called themselves the Hohenstaufen. They saw themselves as descendants of the Henrys of Waiblingen, the dynasty we call the Salians. Hence the Salien burial place in Speyer, built by Konrad II and Henry IV was their family mausoleum. That was true even though until 1213 no Hohenstaufen rulers had been buried in Speyer. Frederick Barbarossa’s remains had been lost in Palestine. Henry VI was buried in Palermo and Konrad III, well Konrad III nobody talks about. He was also in Bamberg in a long-forgotten corner. But the women of the family were buried in Speyer. Beatrice, the wife of Barbarossa and grandmother of Frederick was there as well as her daughter Agnes.

By staging a great reburial of the murdered Hohenstaufen king, his uncle, in the burial ground of the old emperors, Frederick II establishes a link between himself and the splendour of the empire of old. He, the child of Puglia is lifted to the true heir of the kingdom. Not quite the same as the revelation of Aragorn of Gondor, but the same idea. The true king is back.

The next big set piece is linked to the coronation. You may remember that his first coronation in Mainz was a bit haphazard. In 1215, after Otto IV had lost the battle of Bouvines, this was to be remedied. Aachen had been firmly within the territory controlled by Otto IV. But when Frederick II took an army up north along the Rhine, the Welf allies came across one by one, even Otto’s father-in-law, the duke of Brabant. The city of Aachen opened its gates and Frederick entered in all his splendour.

What followed was the full medieval coronation ceremony inside Charlemagne’s palatine chapel. That chapel not only held the fabled throne of Charlemagne that Frederick ascended, but it was also lit by the enormous Barbarossa Chandelier, made from gilded copper, 4.2m in diameter and hanging off a 27 metre chain that symbolised the new Jerusalem.

But that is not the only relic that Barbarossa had left behind. In 1165 Barbarossa had arranged for his antipope to elevate Charlemagne to be a saint. The Holy Roman Empire still lacked a saint. The Hungarians had Saint Stephen, the Norwegians Saint Olaf, the English had Edward the Confessor. Charlemagne was to become a symbol of the divinity, holiness of the empire, independent from papal authority. No surprise then that the official church never acknowledged the sainthood of Charlemagne.

As part of the sanctification of Charlemagne Barbarossa had his grave opened and his bones put into a temporary casket. Ever since then the debate raged about how to properly honour the greatest of all the emperors. Finally, Otto IV had commissioned the metalworkers of Maastricht and Aachen to create a splendid, golden shrine, almost as large and as splendid as the three kings’ reliquary in Cologne. By the time it was finished, Bouvines had happened, and Aachen had fallen to Frederick.  

Two days after his coronation and on the first anniversary of the battle of Bouvines, Frederick had the remains of Charlemagne solemnly translated into its final resting place. Once the lid had been put over the casket, the king took off his royal mantle, mounted the scaffold together with the Master of Works and personally nailed the coffin shut.

With this, almost intimate act, he declared not just his veneration of the saint, but also his personal, familial connection. He is the pious son who gives rest to his great, great, great grandfather, reaffirming his membership to the everlasting imperial dynasty that traces back to Julius Caesar and ultimately ancient Troy.

We may grin at this ham-fisted historical fabrication, but the medieval world swallowed it hook line and sinker. There were over 100 locations across the empire where Charlemagne was venerated as a saint.

The shrine is obviously more than worth travelling to Aachen for. What I find fascinating is the iconography. First on the front we see Charlemagne enthroned flanked by two smaller figures of pope Leo III and the archbishop of Reims, i.e., the emperor is bigger than the pope.

Then on the sides where you would normally find apostles or prophets, we have depiction of emperors and kings. Chronologically we have Louis the Pious, Lothair, Charles the Fat, one unknown emperor, Zwentibold King of Lothringia, Henry the Fowler, Otto I to III, Henry II, Henry III, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Otto IV and Frederick II. There are some surprising absences. No Louis the German who founded East Francia. Instead, we have Lothair and Zwentibold, rulers of Lotharingia of which Aachen was a part. This is not a German shrine then. The next absence is Conrad II, probably an oversight. Conrad III because nobody liked him. Lothar III, grandfather of Otto IV is an odd absence. But the most confusing omission is Barbarossa himself. Why is he not there when Otto IV is? Given Frederick II himself is on, the piece must have been reworked in the months before Frederick had entered Aachen. So why not remodel Otto IV into Barbarossa? If all this is about the everlasting Staufer dynasty, why having the interloper there? It is a mystery.

The Karlschrein is one of the absolute highpoints in European medieval goldsmith art, together with the shrine of Mary also in Aachen and the slightly older three kings reliquary in Cologne. In these years following the battle of Bouvines, Europe experiences a period of incredible artistic flourishing. We already talked about the troubadours and Minnesaenger whose most productive period is between 1190 and 1230. Many of the great medieval epics were written down and finalised in this period. Parzival, Tristan and Isolde, The Nibelung, Dietrich von Bern and one of my favourites, the story of duke Ernst – do you remember it from episode 23?

In architecture we are transitioning from the Romanesque to gothic. The first gothic church had been St. Denis near Paris that was begun under the abbot Suger in 1135. In 1207 the cathedral of Magdeburg, the great church erected by Otto the Great had burned down. Its replacement was the first German gothic church. It was followed shortly after by the cathedrals of Bamberg and Naumburg. Where German artists and craftsmen excelled was in the sculptures decorating these new gothic cathedrals. There is the statue of St. Maurice in Magdeburg, the first realistic depiction of an African man since Roman times. The great figures of the founders of Naumburg cathedral which includes the gorgeous Uta von Ballenstedt and, the greatest of them all, the intriguing Bamberg Horseman, the first monumental equestrian statue since antiquity, depicting, well we do not know who. Some say it is Frederick II, but it could equally have been Henry II, Imre of Hungary or a saint, if not the messiah.

The funding for these great works came at least in part from the incredibly generous donations Frederick had to do to keep the imperial princes on side.

By 1220 Frederick feels he had spent enough time and money in Germany, 8 years overall. The realm north of the alps is at peace. His legitimacy is recognised by all. All the generosity had also allowed him to have his son Henry elected and consecrated as king.

The next, inevitable step is the coronation as emperor in Rome. And that required the agreement of the pope. As I said, this episode begins and ends with the relationship between pope and emperor.

Innocent III had died in 1216. His successor, Honorius III was a much more conciliatory man. He was much older and more of an administrator than a visionary. That does not mean he lacked political objectives, but other than Innocent, he lacked the ambition to achieve all of them at once.

Honorius III cared about one thing, regaining Jerusalem. For that objective he was willing to overlook many a thing.

In 1215, at his coronation in Aachen Frederick did not only ascend the throne of Charlemagne and nailed his coffin shut, he also emulated him a third time, by taking the cross. The notion of what constitutes a crusade had gradually shifted from the liberation of the Holy Sepulchre to a more general Holy war on Muslims and pagans. As a consequence Charlemagne’s brutal raid on the pagan Saxons was recast as a crusade, a crusade even before crusades were a thing..

Hence when Frederick took the cross in 1215, he did that to elevate his standing as future emperor, as a descendant and follower of Charlemagne, not as a faithful son of the church. That is why Innocent III largely ignored it and called his own crusade at the 4th Lateran Council, a crusade he planned to lead himself without material involvement of the emperor.

Honorius III, as I said, was less ambitious. He embraced Frederick’s commitment to take the cross. It is probably also in this context that Honorius accepted the election of little Henry as king of the Romans alongside his title as king of Sicily. He must have realised that this would mean a de facto union between the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Sicily, in other words, the encirclement of the states of the Church.

Pope Honorius III (by Giottto)

When Frederick arrives before the Porta Collina on November 22, 1220 he promises again that he would never seek a union between the empire and Sicily and only them is he admitted to the Holy city. From there he rides in procession behind the prelates and cardinals of Rome to old St. Peter. He enters the Atrium, a space that, like Old St. peter itself, no longer exists. In there stood on one side the enormous sarcophagus of Otto II also now relocated and replaced. On the other is St. Maria dei Turri, rebuilt after his grandfather had so sacrilegiously destroyed the predecessor church. Here he swears all the oaths of fealty and obedience to the pope his predecessors had sworn before him. Upon entering the basilica itself he is made a canon of St. Peter, in other word he is now a priest, able to administer sacraments.

He is anointed by Hugolino, the cardinal bishop of Ostia who had also anointed Otto IV just 11 years earlier. Hugolino was a nephew of Innocent III and will later become pope Gregory IX.

The climax of the ceremony comes when Frederick receives the imperial robes, the orb, the sceptre and the crown from the pope himself at the altar of St. Peter. Amongst the great imperial garments are now the wonderful items brought across from Palermo. The imperial coronation mantle, the imperial socks and the even more over the top imperial gloves. I will put pictures of all of these and the sculptures I mentioned before on to the episode webpage. The link is in the show notes.

After that the pope celebrates mass at which the emperor – having taken his clothes off again – assists him as if he was a junior priest.

At last Frederick again pledges to take the cross and receives the crusaders robes from the cardinal bishop of Ostia.

Leaving St. Peter the pope mounts his horse, again helped by the emperor who holds his stirrups. Frederick then performs the service of Strator and leads the Pope’s horse over an unknown distance.

My god has this changed from the days of Otto the Great. The emperor is made to bow and assist and kneel and reaffirm the supremacy of the pope so often, it almost looks as if the pope is crowned, not the emperor. Remember the fallout between Barbarossa and the pope over the strator service? That feels a long time ago.

In the Middle Ages, these ceremonies were supposed to mean an awful lot. It used to be that the displayed reality became truth through its performance. An emperor leading the pope’s horse like a groom became a servant of the pope.

But we are also coming to the end of the true medieval period, which means that oaths and rituals are still performed and intended to convey reality, the truth is that oaths are broken, and rituals do not protect from political realities.

What nobody knows and probably nobody even imagines is to be possible is that this is the last imperial coronation performed by a pope in Rome for the next 150 years.  

Next week we will see what Frederick does with his newly acquired imperial crown and crusading pledge. Suffice to say that oaths will be broken, political necessities will overturn ritually confirmed relationships. But that is not all. Frederick will set out on crusade despite being excommunicated, will be successful without a shot being fired and still….well, I hope you will join us again.

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