Episode 85 – Cortenuova

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This week we are back to action stations. We resume our narrative in 1235 when Frederick II gathered his vassals in Mainz to implement his grand plan to regain the imperial rights in Northern Italy. He picks up where his grandfather Barbarossa and his father Henry VI had to leave things, trying again, but this time with the resources of Southern Italy behind him….and it’s déjà vu all over again


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 85 – Cortenuova

This week we are back to action stations. We resume our narrative in 1235 when Frederick II gathered his vassals in Mainz to implement his grand plan to regain the imperial rights in Northern Italy. He picks up where his grandfather Barbarossa and his father Henry VI had to leave things, trying again, but this time with the resources of Southern Italy behind him….and it’s déjà vu all over again

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As I said we resume our narrative in 1235. Frederick has just apprehended and imprisoned his son Henry (VII) (in brackets) to regain the support of the imperial princes. He needs them to return imperial power to northern Italy. As this will be the last great struggle of the House of Hohenstaufen and in some ways the last attempt at an empire that is truly Holy, Roman and an Empire, let’s first take a look at the big big picture.

Up until the Investiture controversy that started in 1077, the emperors relied heavily on the imperial bishops to provide the administration of the realm and the resources they needed for war. The bishops had received a large chunk of what used to be the crown lands as well as rights and privileges to fund these activities.

Over the 145 years following Henry IV’s penance in Canossa, the crown’s access to these ecclesiastical resources had become less and less immediate until in 1220 Frederick II granted the Confoederatio cum Principibus ecclesiasticis which formally transferred all imperial rights and privileges within their territory to the bishops in perpetuity. From that point onwards the bishops were no longer obliged to support imperial military efforts beyond the standard duty as an imperial vassal. They still often did, but on their own volition, not because they had to.

The emperors tried fill the gap left by the disappearance of  the imperial church system with other sources of income and soldiers. Henry IV, Henry V, Lothar III and Konrad III tried to create a coherent imperial territory that was meant to do act as the nucleus of a centralised government. That policy put them into conflict with the imperial princes and resulted in endless civil war.

Barbarossa broke out of this gridlock by shifting his focus to Northern Italy. If he could make the rich cities of Lombardy pay for the cost of his administration and his military, he could use that to consolidate royal power as was happening in France and England around that same time. And he would avoid conflict with the imperial princes.

Northern Italy was an attractive target for a number of reasons, apart from the fact that it was rich.

  1. The emperor held the regalia  as successor to the ancient Lombard kings and they had never been given these over to the cities, hence they were still his, and
  2. The imperial princes were happy to support a campaign in Northern Italy in exchange for plunder, land and titles down south, and
  3. The Lombard cities were disunited. There were two principles. #1: All my neighbours are my enemies and #2: My enemie‘s enemies are my friends. Hence my neighbours neighbour is my ally.  political landscape looked like a chessboard where all the White squares fought the black squares.

It is very unlikely that Barbarossa wrote this down as a grand strategic plan, so it just  is ex-post rationalisation, but it sort of helps getting your head around what happened.

Barbarossa’s initial campaign was successful. His army supplied by German princes and Italian allies, namely Cremona and Pavia besieged and ultimately defeated Milan and its allies. On the back of that success Barbarossa issued the Laws of Roncaglia that consolidated all the imperial rights, in particular jurisdiction, taxation and the selection of the city consuls in the hands of the emperor.

However, things went pear shaped fairy quickly. Barbarossa handed out brutal punishment to the defeated cities. Crema and Milan were both flattened, and their citizens were forced to live in the open countryside. The suppression of the Milanese in particular was a costly exercise and the broken communes delivered little if anything to the imperial coffers. As a consequence the tax burden shifted more and more on to the allied cities. Cremona, Lodi and the others had not expected that support for the imperial cause would put them into the same position as their defeated enemies.

The emperor had overstretched the patience of the communes. Led by Cremona, Barbarossa’s former ally, the citizens of Milan returned to the ruins of their old home. The northern Italian cities buried their conflicts and united into a league against Barbarossa. Moreover the papacy, worried about the presence of the emperor just north of Rome, threw its lot in with the league. And the king of Sicily as well as the Byzantine emperor, enemies for centuries, also ganged up on the king form the north.

In 1167 Barbarossa attempted to steal their thunder. He marched one of the largest medieval armies ever mustered down to Rome. He took the city and nearly caught pope Alexander III, but his forces succumbed to dysentery. The flower of German chivalry sank into the filthy mud. After that disaster support for southern adventures vanished. Barbarossa will make one last attempt in 1176 that fails before Alessandria, the city of straw and is followed up by the final defeat at Legnano.

In 1183 Barbarossa signs the peace of Constance that guaranteed the Lombard cities  complete autonomy within the empire in exchange for an annual payment.

The great fight for northern Italy and with it the fight for a sustained basis for imperial rule seems lost for good. But not so fast. As one of the last acts before his death on crusade, Barbarossa plants the seed for one last attempt to gain control of Northern Italy and build a central imperial monarchy, the marriage of his son Henry VI with Constance, the heiress of the kingdom of Sicily.

But for the four decades from 1189 to 1235 nothing comes of it as far as the Lombards are concerned. Philipp of Swabia, Otto IV and Frederick II in his first decades on the throne did not have the resources to make any inroads in Northern Italy. The communes are free to do as they like and what they like is fighting each other. The original Lombard League dissolves in 1208. Whatever payments were made under the peace of Constance seize completely. Lombardy reverts rapidly back into its old chessboard pattern, my neighbour is my enemy, my enemy’s neighbour is their enemy and therefore my friend.

History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Frederick II’s position in 1235 almost perfectly mirrors Barbarossa’s position in 1152, i.e.,

  1. Frederick has  a legal basis to assert imperial rights in Italy as the league had broken the peace of Constance, disobeyed imperial orders and thereby forfeit its autonomy
  2. The imperial princes were obliged to support his move into Italy after he had sacrificed his oldest son for the project and given them the same privileges the bishops had received, and
  3. The Italian cities were again disunited. The Lombard League had reformed in 1226, but with fewer members and less coherence.

But not just that. He also had resources his grandfather could not call upon.

The first of those were the riches and military power of the kingdom of Sicily. Opinions vary about what Sicily could bring to the party, but you would not be laughed out of a history seminar if you guessed them to be similar to England at the time, if not more. We have a register of feudal obligations for the duchy of Puglia and the principality of Capua that adds up to an obligation to field 8,000 knights and 11,000 foot soldiers, for these two principalities alone. That would be larger than both armies fighting at Bouvines combined. However, there is a time element here. A vassal was only obliged to serve for 40 days. To have an army in the field all year round, you need to divide the total by factor 9. That would mean Puglia’s and Capua’s obligation was a more manageable 900 knights and 1,200 foot soldiers and the whole of the kingdom could field maybe 3,000 knights and 5,000 foot soldiers on a continuous basis. And then there were the Saracens of Lucera who were paid soldiers and came allegedly to 7,000. So very sizeable even in a pan-European context.

The other additional military advantage came from a man called Ezzelino da Romano, who is an entirely new type of power player. A type that would dominate Italian politics well into the early modern period. To explain his rise we need to take another look at the political set-up of the Italian communes.

Each of these cities wasp riven with discord. It is often abbreviated as the fight between Ghibellines, supporters of the emperor and guelfs, supporters of the papacy. But the realty was more complex. Socially Ghibellines were often aristocratic knights who happened to live in fortified houses in cities. The Guelphs often recruited amongst the rising merchant and banker class. But then there were all sorts of personal animosities and feuds going back decades. Think Montagues and Capulets. These disparate factions were simply unable to agree on any of their fellow citizens as military and administrative leader. The only solution was to bring in someone from outside who would be neutral, could keep the peace and lead the city’s military contingent in war. This was called a Podesta and he had often dictatorial powers. To stop him from actually becoming dictator, his term was usually limited to just one year.

Being a Podesta became a lucrative career for the nobility of Northern Italy. Some did it as a job, others did it whilst still loyal to their hometown. Venice for instance tried to control the cities on the mainland through Venetian podestas.

Ezzelino was one of these Northern Italian nobles based in what is now the Veneto. He had his first break when he became Podesta of the city of Verona in 1226 where he stayed with interruptions until he resigned in 1230. He returned in 1232 called in by his supporters within the city. Ezzelino was no Cincinnatus. Once he had obtained the role of Podesta, he showed no intentions to leave again after one year as was the law. He simply stayed put, in charge of the military and holding the city fortresses. He did become the city’s tyrant and ruler, ending its time as a self-governing commune.

Ezzelino would remain podesta of Verona until his death. As we will see, Ezzelino will gain more podesta positions over time, usually by force until he commanded almost the entirety of what is now the Italian region of Veneto, minus the city of Venice. Ezzellino was famous for the brutality of his rule. Stories of decapitated adversaries and children of once eminent citizens ending up destitute and begging for food were everywhere. Dante placed him into the 7th circle of hell where murderers and thugs sink into rivers of blood and fire. Ezzelino was one of the first of the Italian city despots, the della Scala, Visconti, Gonzaga, Malatesta and so forth. Ezzelino had declared for Fredrick in 1232 and in 1237 marries Selvaggia, one of Frederick’s illegitimate daughters from a relationship with an unknown mother.

The alliance with Ezzelino would be an important support for his cause but it would also bring him into conflict with Venice. At this time Venice was usually neutral in the fights on the mainland. The city had no mainland territory yet and no intention of acquiring any. They were solely maritime in outlook and focused on the East. They were also formally not part of the Holy Roman empire but of the Empire of Byzantium, so a return of imperial regalia would not necessarily bother them. But that does not mean they would be tolerating a massive thug in the form of Ezzelino da Romano on their doorstep. With Ezzelino came the enmity of Venice.

In summary, we are on the verge of war in Northern Italy. On Frederick’s side are the Imperial princes, the Italian cities of Cremona, Pavia, Parma and a few more, the Kingdom of Sicily and Ezzelino da Romano. On the side of the League were, well the members of the League, that means Milan, but also Lodi, Crema, Bergamo, Brescia, Verona, Vicenza, Padova, Treviso, Mantua, Alessandria and Vercelli and support from Venice.

And what about the pope you ask? Well, technically the pope and Frederick were at peace. They had agreed to a mutual understanding in 1230 after Frederick had chased the papal troops all the way back to Rome and still granted his holiness a generous settlement instead of coming in and slapping him in the face, as the king of France will do so successfully in 1303. In the subsequent period Frederick would regularly support the pope, help him out with soldiers and generally maintain a good relationship. All the excommunication stuff was forgotten…

In light of that the pope could not take sides but had to act as peacemaker. Though in reality he did not want Frederick to succeed. Not at all. If Frederick had won Lombardy, the church would be completely encircled. And in that case, there would be no more kissing of feet and holding of the reins of horses for the successor of St. Peter. So the league had the tacit but not the formal support of Gregory IX.

So much about the lay of the land. Let’s get into the action.

In 1235 at the royal assembly at Mainz, Frederick declares an imperial sanction against the cities of the Lombard league and calls his vassals to go to war in Italy in 1236. He states the following demands:

  • The cities have to swear an oath of fealty to their emperor
  • The re-formed league of 1226 is to be dissolved
  • The imperial regalia as laid out in the laws of Roncaglia to be returned to the emperor
  • The cities provide satisfaction to the emperor to make up for the insults he had endured.

This last point refers to the blocking of the alpine passes that stopped the German vassals of the emperor from joining the crusade in 1226 and coming to his assembly at Ravenna in 1231.

The Lombard cities refused all that by referring to the peace of Constance without saying anything about the failure to make any payments for at least 30 years.

The pope suggested arbitration. An imperial assembly with papal participation was called for Piacenza in 1236 to discuss the fight against heresy, the disagreements in Lombardy and another crusade. Item 1 and 3 were clearly put in to placate the pope, which did not quite work.

The pope laid out the terms of his arbitration which said that whatever the pope decided the emperor was to follow to the letter without recourse, since “the verdict of the Holy see was supreme”. In a private letter Gregory IX came out with his most famous comment: “the necks of kings and princes bent underthe knee of the priest, and Christian Emperors must subject their actions not to the Roman Pontiff alone; they have not even the right to rank him above another priest” In other words, according to Gregory IX, the Emperor of the Romans ranks below a village parson.

This hyperbole of the papacy in the 13th century  never ceases to amaze me. Gregory is writing this letter from Anghani, a small town in the papal lands, because for umpteenth time the pope had been thrown out of Rome by the city magistrate. The pope cannot even get a city bailiff to take his orders but commands an emperor to accept whatever his decision might be.

Frederick does not even respond to the letter. The negotiations which Hermann of Salza was still conducting with the Pope might drag on to the accompaniment of military campaigns. In this affair only deeds could decide.

Frederick II appeared in Verona in August 1236 with a thousand knights that joined another 500 sent ahead to secure this important city at the exit of the Brenner pass. The fact that Ezzelino da Romano, was podesta of Verona was certainly helpful.

The first objective was to link up with the troops gathered at the loyal city of Cremona. An army of the League tried to prevent this by blocking the road between Verona and Cremona. But the Ghibelline cities’ troops took a major detour north via Brescia and joined the emperor which allowed the united army to crack open the road to Cremona.

Ezzelino held the Verona end and Frederick II the Cremona side. And then nothing much happened until the end of October when the cities of Vicenza, Treviso, Padua and Mantua raised an army to take on Ezzelino down in Verona. Ezzelino called on Frederick for help and the emperor’ troops covered the 120km distance to a position east of Verona in 1 day and two nights. When he got there, quote “in the time it takes a man to eat a piece of bread”, he switched strategy and pushed on east to Vicenza.

That was a very smart move. The army of Vicenza was standing before Verona and when they realised the emperor was heading to their defenceless hometown, the Vicentini dropped everything and chased after him. The other contingent did the same for fear their city would be next and Ezzelino was free again. Frederick had half a day on his pursuers, arrived at the city of Vicenza, got in and bang, had conquered his first city. He made Ezzelino the Podesta of Vicenza.

The fall of Vicenza had a big impact on the other eastern cities. Ferrara, Treviso and Padua, the by far richest city of the Veneto safe for Venice itself, all fell to Frederick and his allies. Ezzelino was. Made podesta of all of them and imperial vicar kicking off his tyrannical reign in the Veneto that would last over 20 years.

In the first half of the next year, 1237 military activity in Lombardy itself slowed down. Frederick had to go back to Germany since the duke of Austria had refused to appear at the royal assembly and to support the Italian campaign which was seen and meant as a rebellion. We will talk about that in more detail in a later episode. For now it is enough to mention that Frederick was successful and in a deviation from typical pattern of behaviour north of the Alps, Frederick deposed the duke of Austria and attempted to incorporate the duchy into his personal domain. Now that has not happened for quite a while.

Another sign of how his power and prestige has risen was that the princes without any concessions elected Frederick’s second eldest legitimate son Conrad as king Konrad IV. However, Konrad was not crowned as his brother had been, presumably to keep him on a tighter leash – but then he was just 9 years old.

In the meantime good old Hermann von Salza still tried to negotiate a settlement involving the papacy. Positions had thawed a bit in light of the setbacks for the League. Gregory IX replaced his legate with one more amenable to the emperor. The Lombards as well were looking for some form of compromise. But the Venetians were refusing to back down. Ezzelino on their doorstep and a tighter imperial control over Lombardy made them nervous. They managed to scupper any solution by getting the podesta of Piacenza, who was a Venetian, to make the citizens swear never to accept an imperial podesta, which was one of Frederick’s key demands.

In late summer 1237 Frederick reappears in Italy. His next objective is Mantua, the strategically most important city in Northern Italy. Mantua sits right in the middle of all major road connections north south and east west. It is surrounded by marches and easy to defend. In the 18th century the Habsburgs extend the fortifications and create three artificial lakes that turn it into the key to Italy. Napoleon will spend almost two years trying to break this fortress. Frederick was quicker, or luckier. After his army captured two castles on the way to the city, the political weights in the city councils shifted and Mantua declares for the empire.

Next on the list is Brescia. Frederick takes another fortress that protected its approaches from the south. The road to his target was now open, except for the trifling matter of a League army 10,000 strong standing between him and the city. As the leader of an army of knights, Frederick would have loved to take them on in open battle, but that is exactly what the League does not want to do.

The city contingents had no structural advantage over the armies of knights an emperor could field. What the cities had were two things, the great walls that were almost impossible to break with the technology available at the time, and the resources to pay soldiers to stay in the field almost permanently. Hence the strategic objective was to keep the pressure on the imperial side, prevent them from establishing a long siege, but mostly keeping them wondering about the countryside until the vassal’s allotted time was up and/or the emperor runs out of money. With that strategy the League was quite successful in the late summer and autumn of 1237.

For two months the two armies had lain facing each other near Pontevico, separated by a marshy little river which there flows into the Oglio River. Operations had come to a standstill. The emperor could not allow his heavy cavalry to attack across the marshy land, the Lombards accepted no challenge.  November was almost over.  Negotiations had been unsuccessful in spite of considerable concessions by the towns.  There seemed no hope of dealing a decisive blow to the Lombards before the year was out.

On November 24 Frederick orders his camp to be broken up. His men built bridges across the Oglio, which runs north to south from the alps to the Po River. From the other side of the Oglio it was about 3 to four hours ride south back to Cremona where Frederick had his winter quarters.

As the Lombards see Frederick setting off for home, they too decide the campaign is over for the year. They pack up and march north. The largest contingent of this army was from Milan. To get home, they too had to cross the Oglio. They decided to march about 50km north along the river. That, they thought would be far enough from Cremona and Frederick’s army to be safe from any attacks during the dangerous crossing.

And that is exactly what Frederick’s plan had been. He had only sent his foot soldiers and the train back to Cremona. His armoured knights on horseback and his Saracen bowmen he kept with him on a clandestine march following the Oglio river upstream shadowing the Milanese. They waited for the enemy to cross. On the 27th of November1237 they spotted them near the town of Cortenuova. Immediately the vanguard of 500 knights fell on the unsuspecting Milanese. Shortly after Frederick himself arrived with several thousand knights. Finally he had the open battle he had craved. At this point it was a pure cavalry battle. The Saracens on foot had not yet arrived and the city forces tended to be dominated by riders. The Milanese fell back to their carroccio.

I know I have described the carroccios several times in the podcast but I am still amazed by these contraptions. A Carroccio is an ox-driven cart that carries the standards of the city. It is the rallying point for the army, similarly to the imperial eagles and the French Oriflamme. The difference is that the bannerman of a knightly army sits on a horse and if things turn nasty, he can turn around and run or he may be cut down and the flag disappears in the melee. Once the flag has fallen a knight can also leave the field of battle without much loss of honour as the case is clearly lost.

The concept that it was dishonourable to flee whilst the standards are still flying also apply to the communal armies of Northern Italy. However, an enormous ox-driven cart can neither run away nor is it easily overturned. Hence the knights in the city armies held out longer and fought harder than anyone else. The loss of the Carroccio was the biggest humiliation a city could endure and the capture of an enemy carroccio tends to be celebrated for centuries afterwards. 

Ok, there we are. The Milanese are gathered around their carroccio, determined to defend it to the last. They had done that at their great victory at Legnano where emperor Barbarossa could not break the defence, was unhorsed and trampled into the ground. For three days he had been presumed dead before he returned to Pavia broken and dissheveled.

But this was a different emperor, and it seems a different Milanese army. Frederick and his men attacked in wave after wave. Only when night fell did they have to stop. Frederick ordered his men to sleep in their armour as fighting was to resume at first light. Meanwhile the 7000 Saracenbowmen on foot had arrived, either towards the end of the fighting or in the night.

At sunrise Frederick’s army witnessed a most unusual sight. The Milanese, famed for their courage and ferocity had left. The carroccio stood, undefended. They could see their enemies running home as fast as their legs could carry them. Those who had taken refuge in the nearby town of Cortenuova surrendered. 1000 knights and 3000 foot soldiers were taken prisoner, including Pietro Tiepolo, the podesta of Milan, who was also the son of the doge of Venice.

Vert few medieval battles ended with such comprehensive defeat.

In the contemporary propaganda the battle and the narrative around it takes on a distinctly Roman tinge. Though most of the imperial knights had come from Germany their battle cry had allegedly not been German, but came out in the Latin of ancient Rome: Miles Roma, Miles Imperator they shouted – Roman soldiers, Imperial soldiers.

Frederick entered Cremona a few days later in the manner of a Caesar, Pompey or Trajan. As in the ancient Triumphs staged to honour successful generals, the spoils of war are paraded through the streets of Cremona. The great Carroccio of Milan is not pulled by oxen, but by one of Frederick’s elephants. On its platform, tied to the lowered mast that once flew the standard of proud Milan leans Pietro Tiepolo, podesta of the city and most noble of prisoners.

Frederick II has reached the absolute high point of his political career.

I finish with Ernst Kantorowicz interpretation of the event:

Quote: “The Emperor’s yellow banner with the Roman eagles floated aloft, while from a wooden tower on the elephant’s back trumpeters made known the triumph of the new Divus Caesar Augustus. The emperor himself told the Romans that his triumph was a reversion to the original Roman form.

The intoxication of this exotic, pagan-Roman, assuredly most unchristian, celebration of victory, marked a turning point in Frederick’s life. All the magnificent Roman titles which he, like his predecessors bore, were justified. The empty formula, meaninglessly used, “Imperator Invictus,” suddenly meant once more what it had meant of old. Without the need of transcendental interpretation he was now in the naked literal sense:


The shades of Rome, of the Romans and their Caesars, had tasted blood: they began to stir again and to be visible in the flesh once more; a genuine breath of antiquity revivified by life itself.”

Yes, I too struggle with the weird pathos, but it isn’t that wide off the mark. Frederick at this stage of his life increasingly identifies with the emperors of ancient Rome and their practically unlimited power. It is this hybris that will stop him from turning an extremely rare complete victory into a sustainable political position. How that pans out we will discuss next week. I hope you will join us again.

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