Episode 86 – Oops, we did it Again

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Emperor Frederick II has knocked the Milanese for six at Cortenuova. Their war cart, symbol of communal freedom has been captured and taken into Cremona in triumph. The Lombard league that once defeated his grandfather Barbarossa is falling apart and pope Gregory IX is cowering in the Lateran Palace. What shall he do now? Negotiate peace or go for complete submission? This decision will seal his fate and that of his entire family…


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 86 – Oops we did it again

Emperor Frederick II has knocked the Milanese for six at Cortenuova. Their war cart, symbol of communal freedom has been captured and taken into Cremona in triumph. The Lombard league that once defeated his grandfather Barbarossa is falling apart and pope Gregory IX is cowering in the Lateran Palace. What shall he do now? Negotiate peace or go for complete submission? This decision will seal his fate and that of his entire family…

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 Brendan, Matthew and Robert who have already signed up.

And another thing. I was recently interviewed by Willem Fromm from the History of Cologne Podcast. It was a great chat mainly about the Coup of Kaiserswerth and the reign of Henry IV that kicks off the sequence of events that leads us to where we are today in our narrative. We talk about the kidnapper, archbishop Anno of Cologne, his background and role in the broader context of the 11th century. I can only recommend Willem’s podcast. It is not just for people interested in Cologne, since Cologne is one of the few major cities north of the Alps that have continuously been inhabited since Roman times and as such is a true microcosm of European history. You can find the History of Cologne or in German, die Geschichte der Stadt Koeln everywhere where you get the History of the Germans.

And with that let’s go back to our favourite medieval emperor, Frederick II, who we last saw watching his elephant dragging the broken Carroccio of Milan – complete with shackled Podesta – through the streets of Cremona. What a triumph, but not a true triumph. A real triumph, one worthy of a Caeser, Augustus or Marcus Aurelius can only be awarded by the Senate and the People of Rome, which is exactly what they do.

The Carroccio of Milan arrives in Rome in January 1238. Not pulled by its traditional team of oxen, nor by the imperial elephant, but most humiliatingly by a span of mules. According to the Senate’s instructions the booty was escorted to the Capitol amidst the rejoicings of the people. There the chariot was mounted on five marble pillars. Then a relief was carved in white marble depicting this token of victory, with an inscription that said the following:

“O Rome, receive the chariot as a gift from Frederick II Caesar Augustus, an auspicious ornament for the city. This, taken by force from Milan, comes a sacred gift to report the triumph of Caesar; is sent in honour of the city of Rome. Love for her made him send it”

This inscription is still there on the Capitoline Hill, tucked away in one of the meeting rooms used by the City Council. Three of the five columns are accounted for, one carrying a copy of the Capitoline Wolf on the Campidoglio, the heart of the city of Rome.

As I said, the whole of Frederick’s propaganda takes on a distinctly ancient Roman tinge. And that is not entirely by accident.

Ever since Gregory VII wrestled the concept of sacred kingship out of Henry IV’s frostbitten hands, the emperors had been searching for a new source of legitimacy, independent from the coronation by the pope.

Barbarossa and his chancellor Rainald von Dassel had come up with the concept of the Sacrum Imperium, the empire that is holy in and. Of. Itself, not derived from a third party. In its next iteration the Hohenstaufen propaganda machine created the everlasting imperial dynasty that traces its way back to ancient Troy via Aeneas, last surviving prince of ilium, ancestor of Caesar and Augustus whose bloodline miraculously re-emerged in Constantine, Charlemagne and then via the Ottonians and Salians spawned the most ancient House of Waiblingen. Total nonsense and a long, long way from the obscure Friedrich von Buren, count in Alsace who was the true ancestor of Barbarossa.

Neither of these constructs could stand up to the increasingly imperial stance the papacy took in the 13th century. Innocent III had declared himself the “verus imperator”, the true emperor. He saw the pope as the sun and the emperor as the moon, the latter merely reflecting the light he received from Vicar of Christ. Gregory IX, as we heard, declared the emperor of the Romans ranking below even the lowliest of village parsons. All this was based on the Constantine Donation, a document faked in the 8th or 9th century which in its actual text allegedly granted the pope temporal power of the City of Rome and its surrounding lands. That was now interpreted to cover not just the so-called papal states in central Italy but the whole of the ancient Roman empire. Constantine, it was claimed had given all of his powers to the pope in recognition of his role as the representative of Christ on earth.

This too is obviously nonsense, but it had been repeated from every church pulpit for centuries, Henry IV had kneeled in the snow and a 100 years later Barbarossa did the same in Venice. The popes had taken on the symbols of imperial rule, the Tiara, the purple and the title of Vicar of Christ. No wonder people in the 13th century believed the spiritual power of the pope made him the supreme leader of the empire.

But if the pope was the true heir of the Roman emperors, what was the emperor. Barbarossa and Henry VI kept holding on to the idea of two swords, the spiritual one yielded by the successors of St. Peter and the temporal sword, yielded by Constantine and his successors. But with every move the popes had made since Gregory VII declared the pope supreme and infallible in 1077, the space for an emperor legitimised as a spiritual leader had shrunk to the point that by 1238 there was nothing left.

Frederick II never gave up on the notion of the two swords, but after Cortenuovo he started a new approach. He began to style himself as a Roman emperor of old, as a Caesar, Augustus or Trajan. Rome and its pagan emperors had gained their power through conquest, and they could hold on to this power because Rome brought peace and justice to the empire’s inhabitants. Underpinning this is the idea that would much later feature heavily in Thomas Hobbes Leviathan, that Home Homine Lupus est, a man is wolf to other men. That the state has been created to stop the inevitable violence between humans. And because of that humans accept the authority of the state.

We have already heard about this concept when we discussed the constitutions of Melfi. Frederick now expands the idea to the whole empire. In Frederick’s definition, his job is not mainly to help his subjects to gain access to heaven as an Otto III or Henry II may have thought, but to bring peace and justice in the here and now. He is emperor because he can stop the violence by enforcing the law. The people accept his authority, not because he is closer to God, but because he can make their lives better. To make their lives better he needs to do what the Romans did first, before the pax Romana, conquering.

And that gets us to the next leg in the story, the one that follows the triumphs and celebrations.

After Cortenuova the Lombard League is broken. When the conflict started in 1236 the Lombard League comprised 13 cities. At the time of Cortenuova, five of those, Verona, Vicenza, Padova, Treviso and Mantua had already swapped sides. After Cortenuova, another 2, Bergamo and Vercelli surrendered unconditionally and a third, Lodi that had been pro imperial ever since Barbarossa had re-founded it, threw off its Milanese overlords and came across to the imperial side. That left the League with just 5 members, Milan itself, Crema, Alessandria, Brescia, Bologna and Piacenza that had defected from the imperial side just before Cortenuova.

But how much co-ordination the League could still exert is unclear. Each of the cities was negotiating individually with the emperor. But nevertheless, Milan was the key. If Milan surrenders, the other four would bend the knee as well.

When Frederick II had set off in 1236 he had announced four main objectives he wanted to achieve:

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

Let’s have a look at the Milanese negotiation position as the British chronicler Matthew Parris described it: quote: “At this time the Milanese, fearing the imperial mightiness, sent to the emperor, with all possible earnestness, begging him, whom they openly declared to be their true and natural lord, to avert his anger from them, to cease to attack them, and to cherish and protect them, as his liege subjects, under the wings of his mighty protection. They declared that they would thenceforth, as formerly, serve him as their lord and emperor, with all reverence; that, in token of this obedience, and that they might be protected in the arms of his affection, and that their previous rebellion might not be remembered, they would freely give him all the substance they possessed in gold and silver; moreover that, as a sign of their subjection and obedience, and of the imperial victory, they would collect all their standards and burn them at the feet of the emperor.

Besides this, that they would, when he, the emperor, was again fighting in the service of the cross in the Holy Land, find him annually ten thousand soldiers for the advancement of the Church and for his own honour, on the condition that he would love the citizens without any dissembled malice, and that the state of the city and citizens should be maintained.

That sounds like a complete victory. Oath of fealty – tick, dissolution of Lombard League – tick, return of regalia – tick and satisfaction – tick.

Well, as always, the devil is in the detail. Yes, the Milanese were willing to hand back the imperial regalia, safe for those granted to them individually by imperial charter. Yes, they would accept an imperial Podesta and judge, but not recourse to imperial jurisdiction. Yes, they would bow to the emperor, but they would not accept unconditional surrender. And that is what he wanted, unconditional surrender.

Matthew Paris records the response to the demand of unconditional surrender as follows: quote “We have learned by experience and fear your cruelty; we would rather die under our shields by the sword, or spear, or by javelins, than by treachery, famine, and flames.” The Milanes have a point. The last time they had submitted themselves to an emperor’s grace following a lost battle, the then emperor, Barbarossa had the whole city razed to the ground and its citizens expelled to live in open countryside, prey to attacks from their neighbours. So, they had good reasons to demand terms.

Most Historians – equipped with 20/20 hindsight  – believe this insistence of total submission to be Frederick’s big mistake. Olaf Rader says that Frederick had been “led by the euphoria of victory to push his demands to a point the proud Milanese could never accept”.

I would agree that Frederick was prone to hybris. He had set off as a teenager from his crumbling kingdom barely able to pay the fare to Rome and now 35 years later, he was Roman Emperor, king of Sicily and King of Jerusalem. No wonder he was a bit full of himself. And let us not forget that even in today’s world we are not short of people who get a bit full of themselves following great success and then take some very foolish decisions. Though the stakes in Frederick’s case were a bit higher than losing money one could never spend on a social media platform. Excessive Ego certainly played a role here. Frederick’s hatred of the Milanese goes back a long way. It was them who made him take an unintended bath back in 1212 and have forever called him Frederick of the wet pants. He wanted to see them kneeling in the dust.

But bad motivation does not always equal bad decision. Two reasons are usually given why insisting on total submission was a foolish thing to do.

The first was that the deal on the table was a great one, giving him all he had wanted to achieve in the first place. And secondly, that the war was unwinnable. For one, knightly armies could not break city walls, as Barbarossa had seen in Crema and Alessandria and Henry VI in Naples. And secondly, the cities were so much richer than the emperor and even comparatively small ones could keep larger armies in the field much longer than he could ever do.

All of this is true but put yourself into Frederick’s shoes.

As for the deal on offer, it was not what he needed. To use a modern term, the unique value proposition of imperial rule was to bring peace. As we have seen, as soon as the external threat goes away, the Italian cities resume their eternal fighting and even inside the cities, violent conflict was endemic. Frederick’s offer was to bring peace in exchange for the cities’ freedoms. It was the same deal Barbarossa had offered with the Laws of Roncaglia and it is the same deal Frederick had offered his Sicilian subjects with the Constitutions of Melfi.

And if you remember the constitutions of Melfi, the underlying idea was that peace and justice are two sides of the same medal. There could not be peace without justice and no justice without peace. To stop the eternal feuding between and within the cities, he needed to be able offer conflict resolution before the courts. That is why the Milanese refusal to allow the emperor full jurisdiction was a dealbreaker. That is why he had to get unconditional surrender so that every city would be governed by the same set of rules and submit to the same hierarchy of courts. So, it made sense for Frederick to insist on unconditional surrender.

But then I also agree with the Milanese that Frederick would probably had burned down their home had they surrendered.

That means there was no compromise, well unless Frederick would have known that the war was unwinnable. Did he know the war was unwinnable? Did he know that his army could never take a major city, except through year-long siege? That was not at all evident at the end of 1237. Frederick and his henchman, Ezzelino da Romano had just taken 5 cities, and not the smallest ones. Padua and Mantua were much larger, much better defended and much richer than Crema and Alessandria, where Barbarossa had spent so much of his resources. The Milanese had left their Carroccio behind instead of fighting to the very end as they had in Legnano. Frederick could well have come to what investment professionals call the worst of all conclusions “This time things are different”.

So, I can see why he went down this route, irrespective of his uberinflted ego telling him to do it. But in hindsight, it was still a pretty awful decision.

The first blowback was the PR disaster. Matthew Paris again (quote): “From that time the emperor began to lose favour with many, because he had become a tyrant ; and the Milanese, for their humility, were extolled and gained strength. According to the words of the Gospel, ” God resisteth the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” The Milanese, then, seeing that it was a matter of life and death, fortified their city more eagerly than usual with arms and trenches, and by entering into alliance with other cities.” (end quote)

The next pushback came when he demanded the city of Genoa to swear fealty. Genoa had strong Ghibelline leanings and it was on Genoese ships and with Genoese escorts that he had travelled on his epic journey to Germany all these decades ago. But the Genoese were a proud commune and though sympathetic to the Hohenstaufen, were not willing to bend the knee. Frederick’s response was swift, rough and ill-judged, he had the Genoese declared traitors, rebels and enemies of the empire. This triggered an unprecedented response. The Genoese who had been rivals with Venice and Pisa since time immemorial, joined into an alliance with the Serenissima – so deep sat their fear and disappointment with the emperor. Venice, just to close that loop was not at all happy about the imperial success in 1237. Now they had a thug on their doorstep and an emperor controlling most of Italy right behind him. They also did not take kindly to the son of their doge, Pietro Tiepolo being paraded around Italy as a prisoner and at a later stage strangled in a dank prison in Puglia. Venice openly supported the last remaining cities in the Lombard League with money, weapons and military leaders.

Frederick II undertook his own PR campaign. Right after the battle he wrote to the monarchs of Europe that he had broken a dangerous rebellion. He painted the Lombard cities as upstarts who were undermining the God-given order of things. All monarchs should unite to eradicate the last remnants of disease before it unseats the rulers themselves. This call did surprisingly have some effect. The king of England sent him a contingent of knights and it seems the king of Hungary did too.

The army Frederick had put together in 1238 was even bigger and even more formidable than the one he had fielded in 1237. Apart from the English and Hungarian knights there were German princes led by his son Konrad IV, the allied Italian cities, the Sicilians, his Saracen archers, contingents from Florence and Rome, a company of Burgundian knights, Castilians and even the emperor of Nicaea, ruler over one of the splinters of the old empire of Constantinople had sent his support.

This great army sent to suppress the Lombard League once and for all went not to Milan itself, but against the small, high-lying town of Brescia. A siege was contemplated, and the emperor boasted his great stores of siege implements. He had, moreover, commandeered the services of a Spanish engineer, Calamandrinus, who was a great inventor and deigner of battering-rams and the like. This Spaniard had it seems not come quite voluntarily. Ezzelino had despatched him to the emperor: in fetters, so that he might not escape.

By bad luck or the captive’s ingenuity, the reluctant engineering genius fell into the hands of the Brescians. They took a gentler approach to hiring, welcomed him with gifts of hearth and home and a Brescian bride, and he was forthwith employed in exercising his skill in the service of the beleaguered town against the emperor.

The campaign had begun with this minor calamity and the emperor sought in vain to bring about a change of fortune. In spite of successful skirmishes near Brescia, in spite of great gallantry amongst individual contingents — the English particularly distinguished themselves — the siege made no progress. Numerous assaults were made, none were successful. The missiles of Calamandrinus, which found their mark with great accuracy, destroyed the emperor’s siege equipment.

In order to protect his instruments of war Frederick tied captured Brescians to his attacking towers. A technique that had failed before Crema before and was again unsuccessful in Brescia. Moreover, the Brescians retaliated in similar ways by tying their imperial prisoners to the walls, also unsuccessfully. The fighting continued savagely for weeks.

After a fortnight of it, the emperor, who had counted on the rapid victory of his immense army, opened negotiations, but the townsfolk refused to treat. A plague broke out amongst the cattle in the imperial camp, bad weather and deluges of rain made the enterprise more difficult, Frederick’s peace-envoy appears to have betrayed his master; instead of persuading the Brescians to surrender he had encouraged them to hold out. After two months of useless sacrifice, and a final unsuccessful attack, the emperor finally broke off the siege in October.

Here is Matthew Paris again: quote “In this way the summer season was spent and ended, so that on the approach of winter, a truce was agreed to by consent of both parties, and those who had come to the assistance of the emperor, went away without effecting their purpose; and the emperor himself as he could not conquer and subject to his rule the city of Brescia, which was a small one in comparison to the other cities, became less formidable to his enemies, and less respected by his friends.” (end quote)

What a disaster. A middling town had defeated all and everything the monarchs of Europe could field. This was worse than a lost battle, it was proof that there was no chance for the knightly class against a determined city population.

It will take a long time for this to sink in across Europe, but pope Gregory IX immediately realised the implications. There was hope to take down this menace who was not just encircling the papal lands but had the audacity to stage a triumph in Rome, his very own city. Gregory had left Rome in February just as the carroccio of Milan had been dragged up to the Capitoline Hill. Almost all of Rome was on the imperial side at that point, the great families of the Frangipani, the Colonna and Orsini, all had become vassals of the emperor who had promised them great honours and positions in the kingdom of Italy he was to remould in the image of Sicily.

Gregory returned in November 1238 to a fundamentally changed situation. Imperial support had melted like snow in the sun. Gregory ordered the great fortresses inside the city built into the ancient monuments and held by supporters of the emperor to be destroyed, marbles and mosaics from antiquity lost for good.

Gregory’s efforts were not confined to Rome. He sent a legate, a sworn enemy of Frederick and accomplished diplomat to Lombardy to reforge the old Lombard league, he helped bringing together that unusual alliance between Genoa and Venice. Slowly but surely the opposition to Frederick consolidates whilst his allies doubt his abilities to keep control.

Gregory issued a list of 14 complaints against the imperial behaviours, mainly about his treatment of the church in Sicily – excommunication was in the air. Hermann von Salza, the eternal go-between, the one who could have been able to keep the peace, is mortally ill.

The final straw that breaks the Camel’s back is a wedding. Enzio, the emperor’s favourite son is to wed. Despite his unpromising name Heinz, he was the ultimate 13th century heartthrob. Well built, alert and light of foot, incomparably daring and fearless, the first in every fight, a hero rejoicing in danger and bearing many a wound is how he had been described in contemporary sources. Not as much an intellectual as his father, but a poet of joyous, love and life affirming songs. You can imagine him pulling out his lyre during a pause in battle to amuse his friends. He was so close to his father, people even called him falconello, the little falcon.


For sure, Frederick wanted to have the best possible bride for the true apple of his eye. And that bride was Adelasia, heiress to two of the four Sardinian provinces. These territories had a weird and wonderful history that should not interest us for this story, but suffice to say that they came with the title of king of Torre and Gallura, titles Enzio picked up. And to simplify things, he would from now style himself as King of Sardinia.

As much as Adelasia may have cherished the idea of bagging the Prince Harry of his day, the marriage was a poke in the eye of more important Italian powers than can be counted. Sardinia was claimed by the papacy and formed part of the zone of influence of Genoa and Pisa. The sudden presence of an imperial general on Sardinia suddenly gelled these eternal rivals together. Pisa joined their archenemies Genoa and Venice in their alliance against Frederick, all that under the auspices of the pope.

By the beginning of 1239, Frederick knew that a papal move was coming. He sent his best negotiators – just not Hermann von Salza – promising renewed persecution of the heretics and efforts to bring about another crusade to calm the pope down, but that was no good. In parallel he wrote to the Cardinals and tried to splinter the church, pointing out to them that St. Peter had only been a primus inter Pares and that they, the cardinals were the true leaders of the church. But no, nothing worked.

Let’s end with Matthew Paris: (quote) “As the emperor, however, contumaciously refused his request, and excused his actions by arguments founded on reason, his holiness the pope, on Palm Sunday, in the presence of a great many of the cardinals, in the spirit of glowing anger, solemnly excommunicated the said emperor Frederick, as though he would at once have hurled him from his Imperial dignity, consigning him with terrible denunciations to the possession of Satan at his death; and making use of these  words, and, as it were, thundering forth the fury of his anger, he excited terror in all his hearers.” (unquote)

That same day Hermann von Salza, the only person bot Frederick and Gregory trusted, died.

Let’s leave it here. Frederick is excommunicated. His vassals are released from their oaths. He is not yet deposed though, that will come later. The first part of this battle will be fought not with swords and spears, but with quills, and ships – yes a naval battle. An absolute first for the history of the Germans. Brace yourselves. The stage is set for the last and final struggle between on one side the emperor with his offer of peace and justice and on the other side the pope brandishing spiritual power and the communes thirsting for independence. I hope you will join us again.

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