Episode 88 – A Road to Peace

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This week our story kicks off with the death of pope Gregory IX, nonagenarian impeccable foe of emperor Frederick II. Peace is in the air. Of the 11 cardinals getting together in the dilapidated Septizonium once built by emperor Septimus Severus, half wanted a more conciliatory vicar of Christ, but the other half did not. The very first papal conclave followed as the senator Matteo Orsini locks the cardinals up in horrible conditions. When finally one of them is chosen, he died just 17 days later from the exertions. By now all the cardinals have fled and the church remains without a head for almost 2 years. At the same time the descendants of Genghis Khan descend upon Europe. Jerusalem falls to the Turks, the Latin empire of Constantinople is on its last leg..

Is it time for the emperor and the pope to bury the hatchet and face the real enemies of Christendom…..?


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 88 – A Road to Peace?

This week our story kicks off with the death of pope Gregory IX, nonagenarian impeccable foe of emperor Frederick II. Peace is in the air. Of the 11 cardinals getting together in the dilapidated Septizonium once built by emperor Septimus Severus, half wanted a more conciliatory vicar of Christ, but the other half did not. The very first papal conclave followed as the senator Matteo Orsini locks the cardinals up in horrible conditions. When finally one of them is chosen, he died just 17 days later from the exertions. By now all the cardinals have fled and the church remains without a head for almost 2 years. At the same time the descendants of Genghis Khan descend upon Europe. Jerusalem falls to the Turks, the Latin empire of Constantinople is on its last leg..

Is it time for the emperor and the pope to bury the hatchet and face the real enemies of Christendom…..?

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 Hugo G., Sighvatur, and Stefan B. who have already signed up.

Last week we left Frederick II and pope Gregory IX hurling the wildest accusations at each other. The pope, Frederick insists is a “false father” who acts out of unjust ill will against him, whilst the pope denounces the emperor as a heretic who believes the world deceived by three deceivers, Moses, Mohammed and Jesus Christ, a veritable monster of the sea, the antichrist himself. Multiple attempts at negotiating at least a truce have failed. The two sides are now firmly painted into their corners.

Emperor Frederick II has the upper hand militarily. His troops have surrounded Rome and could attack any time. His navy had just achieved a major victory, sank or captured 25 Genoese war galleys and got hold of a large number of bishops and abbots, including two cardinals. However, he did not dare to apply any more brute force for fear of a public relations backlash. Meanwhile the war with the Lombard League is still ongoing. Occasionally smaller cities are overwhelmed, but the large ones, in particular the mighty walls of Milan cannot be scaled. Money is running low. Every month the excommunication lingers on, and the Franciscan monks preach against him, his authority diminishes. Frederick is stuck. Neither can he take the pope and force him into submission, nor can he get him to agree to peace.

Pope Gregory IX too is in a difficult situation. His hold on the papal lands and the city of Rome is tenuous at best. His great council where he wanted to get Frederick condemned by all of Christianity had to be cancelled after the attendees had been captured on the high see and disappeared into southern Italian dungeons. His alliance with the Lombards raises eyebrows as at least Milan is harbouring a large community of Cathars. The kings of England and France are using their influence to pressure him into making peace. In particular the King of France is pushing for a reconciliation so that the forces of Christendom could be unified in another crusading effort. Jerusalem is much less secure as the 10-year peace agreement with Sultan Al Kamil had ended and Turkish raiders have appeared in the levant. The Latin Kingdom of Constantinople is teetering on the brink of collapse from both internal and external threats. Emperor Baldwin of Constantinople, formerly the count of Flanders, has to sell the great relics of the ancient city to the crowned heads of Europe, which is how the crown of thorns ends up in Sainte Chapelle in Paris.

Into all this, news reach Italy of an invasion by a new foe. Hardy men riding on fast and agile horses, shooting arrows from the saddle. The Mongols had arrived. The Mongol empire was about to reach its furthest extent under their great Khan Ogedei, a son of Genghis Khan. His lands stretched from Beijing to the Polish border, when he ordered an invasion of Central Europe in 1241. The Mongols advanced in three columns, one going into Poland, one into Bohemia and one into Hungary. The rulers of Poland were beaten at the battles of Liegnitz on April 9 and 2 days later King Bela IV of Hungary’s forces are smashed at the even larger battle of Mohi. Bohemia held out better, mainly because King Wenceslaus avoided open battles and focused on defending the walled cities. A forward Mongol detachment entered the city of Meissen in Saxony and burned it down. The Mongol forces broke through to Dalmatia and stood on the shores of the Adriatic.

Two people were expected to lead the response against these challenges in both the Holy Land and the eastern frontier of Christendom, the pope and the emperor. Demands for an immediate reconciliation were going up across Germany and eastern Italy in particular.

And right then, on August 22nd, 1241, Pope Gregory IX died, according to Matthew Paris he was almost 100 years old. He had sat on the throne of St. Peter for an impressive 14 years. We saw him manly through the lens of his conflict with Frederick II, but he was an important pope on other levels too. Being an accomplished jurist his pontificate saw the publication of the New Decretals, a systematic compilation of all papal pronouncements that forms the basis of canon law to this day. He was an huge supporter of the mendicant brothers, he elevated St. Francis, Dominic, Elisabeth of Hungary and Anthony of Padua to sainthood. He regularised the persecution of heretics by expanding and professionalising the inquisition. At this point the inquisition was an improvement on the uncontrolled lynching of presumed heretics by mobs of townspeople. For instance Matthew Paris reports in 1240 the city of Milan, (quote) “more for fear of punishment than from love of virtue and in order to redeem their good name burnt the heretics who inhabited the city in great numbers; by which deed the number of citizens was greatly diminished. (end quote). Milan in 1200 had probably 100,000 if not 150,000 inhabitants, so you can do the maths.  

The death of Gregory IX may have been a lamentable event, but it also opened up the opportunity to resolve the differences between pope and emperor and focus on what really mattered, defence against the Mongols and support for the Christians in the Holy Land.

Hence you would expect the cardinals, of which there were 11 in the city of Rome and two in Frederick’s jails, to come together and quickly elect a pope. Getting together they did, but electing took its time.

The college of Cardinals was split right down the middle. Four of them, led by a Genoese, Sinibaldo de’Fieschi pushed for a candidate very much in the mould of Gregory IX, a committed foe of the emperor. Another six were taking a more conciliatory approach, looking for a candidate who could find an amicable resolution to the conflict. That group was led by the cardinal Giovanni Colonna.

To understand what happens these next few weeks months, we have to take a quick look at the political situation in the city of Rome. When Gregory IX returned to the city after the imperial army had failed before Brescia, he began to rejig the internal power structures. Frederick’s supporters were expelled from the city and even amongst the pro-papal faction, the Frangipani lost a lot of influence. Rome is gradually settling into two competing camps, one led by the Orsini and one by the Colonna family. These two families will dominate Roman politics until the papal states are subsumed into Italy in the 19th century.

In 1241 the Colonna had aligned themselves with Frederick II, whilst the Orsini had become supporters of Gregory IX. When the pope died, Matteo Orsini was the senator and de facto rule of the city of Rome, whilst Giovanni Colonna, himself a cardinal, was in Frederick’s camp outside the city.

Matteo Orsini had – as one would expect – a strong personal interest in who would become pope. And he took on the task of organising the election process. The process of papal elections had gradually become more formalised over the previous 200 years. In 1073 Pope Gregory VII had still ascended the throne of St. Peter by spontaneous acclamation by the people of Rome. Subsequently elections were the privilege of the college of cardinals. Pope Alexander III had introduced a rule that a papal election required a 2/3 majority of the cardinals, since there had been several previous elections where the minority party had still elected their pope, causing endless schisms and wars.

As things stood, neither side could bring together a 2/3 majority. As the debate raged on, Matteo Orsini became concerned this could go on for ever and he feared there would simply not be a pope for a long time. So he ordered the cardinals to gather in a hall inside an ancient Roman monument, the Septizonium of emperor Septimus Severus and not leave until they had elected a pope.

This was a building, initially constructed in the 3rd century as part of the imperial palace at the foot of the Palatine Hill. Its appearance can best be described as an oversized Roman Theatre wall. It was a free-standing façade divided into seven segments and three stories high. Somehow the Frangipani family had turned this thing into a fortress and private accommodation, though by the time of the papal election of 1241 it was allegedly already quite dilapidated. I will post some pictures of what it looked like in antiquity and then later in the 16th century on the episode webpage. When you look at it you will realise that it is almost impossible to figure out where there could have been rooms inside this structure. But all sources agree that this is where the cardinals met.

The 11 cardinals began their deliberations inside the Septizonium on September 21st. Amongst them was Giovanni Colonna, who had been admitted to the city of Rome by his rival Matteo Orsini to ensure the legitimacy of the election.

The four anti-imperial cardinals proposed Romano of Porto, whilst the pro-imperial faction proposed Goffredo of Santa Sabina. Ballot followed after ballot, but the numbers did not shift. The conditions in the hall where 10 elderly men were now living full time began to become difficult. Matteo Orsini tried to accelerate the process by allowing his guards to urinate in the attic above the hall, letting nasties rain down on the cardinals every time the heavens opened. At one point Matteo threatened to have pope Gregory IX exhumed and put on a throne inside the hall to accelerate the process. But for the cardinals on either side of the aisle, the choice to be made was more important than their discomfort. An English cardinal, Richard of Somerscote even died during this conclave.

Frederick II tried to break the gridlock by offering to release the two cardinals he held in custody, one of whom was pro-imperial, the other strongly on the Gregory IX’s side. His condition for the release of the two cardinals was however stringent, he would only allow it if the cardinals were to elect the imperial-friendly cardinal Otto of St. Nicholas.

This blatant attempt at blackmail and the prospect of continuing to live in this pigsty during November and December stirred the cardinals into action. The hardliner candidate Romano of Prato was out, largely because rumours went around, he had done something naughty to or with the queen of France. That opened up a space to elect Goffredo de Castiglione as pope Celestine IV. Celestine IV wasn’t the oldest of the cardinals, but he clearly had suffered more than others from the ordeal in the Septizonium. He called it a day after 17 days. This was the third shortest pontificate in history during which he managed to do one remarkable thing which was to excommunicate Matteo Orsini, the man who had locked them all up and had caused his own death.

So the process had to be restarted. But that was now more difficult. Once released from their horrific conclave the cardinals had sprinted out of Rome, faster than a Sicilian war galley. The only ones left in Rome were Giovanni Colonna, who had been locked up by his enemy Matteo Orsini as soon as the result had been announced. And Sinobaldo de’Fieschi, the papal hardliner and 2 of his fellow cardinals. That was not a sufficient quorum. Several of the remaining cardinals gathered at Agnani, a papal palace by the sea.

For the next one year and 9 month there would be no pope. The cardinals in Agnani refused to come to Rome, afraid of the general lawlessness of the city and the treatment they had received from Matteo Orsini who seemed to have shrugged off his excommunication more easily than Frederick. Three-way negotiations followed between the emperor, the cardinals in Rome and those in Agnani.

Frederick had hoped that the cardinals, once freed from the authoritarian fist of the pope would rejoice in their control of the church, but that is not what happened. The cardinals felt deeply uneasy about the lack of actual papal authority, and probably even more uneasy about the fact that it was largely their fault being unable to agree on a joint candidate.

So they did what people ever so often do. They deflected their sense of failure on to someone else, and who better than the emperor, heretic and apocalyptic monster. They blamed the lack of decision on the imprisonment of the two cardinals, James of Praeneste and Otto of St. Nicolas in Puglia. If only the emperor would release them from the terrible conditions of their incarceration and let them take part in the conclave, they would have selected a new Vicar of Christ months ago. The constant repetition of this allegations by the cardinals and then the Franciscans all across Europe, complemented with horror stories about the conditions in southern Italian jails, the PR war had developed not necessarily to the emperor’s advantage.

Public opinion blamed the emperor, not Matteo Orsini’s ambition or the stubbornness if Sinibaldo de Fieschi for this lack of papal guidance in the midst of the great calamity that was engulfing Europe.

Even though Frederick finally released the two cardinals he did it too late. The college had finally got together and unanimously elected Sinibaldo de’Fieschi, the proponent of a hard line against Frederick, as pope Innocent IV.

Upon receipt of the news, Frederick had church bells rung in jubilation all across his lands. Some Historians argued because he was mistaken in believing Innocent was a man he could deal with. I am more in the camp of the cynics who see this as a publicity stunt making Frederick out as a penitent sinner rejoicing in the restoration of the natural order of things where a pope leads the church.

In any event Innocent IV picked up right where Gregory IX had left off. He immediately renewed the excommunication of the emperor. Innocent IV’s demands were the same as those of Gregory IX. Reversal of the damage done to the church in Southern Italy, return of the papal lands occupied since the conflict erupted in 1239 and an inclusion of the Lombard league in any peace agreement.

The continuation of the struggle blew a major hole into Frederick’s arguments. Frederick had insisted that his disagreement was not with the Holy Mother Church, but with the old man on the papal throne who abused his position to pursue a personal vendetta. Now that we have a new pope, this new pope continues to go after the emperor. Frederick’s struggle is clearly not with one angry old man, but with the whole of the Church of Rome.

As the military struggle in Northern Italy continued to be inconclusive and costing him money he did not have, he was trying to get to some sort of compromise. He put together a negotiation team headed by Pietro de Vigna and Taddeo di Suessa and the new High master of the Teutonic Knights, Heinrich von Hohenlohe and sent them to Rome. They had wide ranging authority, which was something they needed. Innocent IV’ demands were huge. In fact what he asked for was literally 100% with no concessions whatsoever. All he was prepared to grant in return was an examination of the emperor’s faith by a commission comprised of episcopal and lay princes. But he would make no commitments as to the outcome of that investigation nor about the ultimate sanction. A commission with such a broad remit and decision power may well arrive at the solution that the emperor would have to put down one of his crowns, a solution Frederick would have found completely unacceptable.

Whilst the negotiations were ongoing, Frederick suffered a military setback. The city of Viterbo, just North of Rome had gone over to the imperial side in 1240. In 1243 the cardinal Rainier of Viterbo, one of the most anti imperial of the cardinals convinced his compatriots to stage a coup in the city. The insurgent Guelfs apprehended their Ghibelline neighbours  and took the reins of the state. The Ghibellines that had escaped the purge fled into the citadel inside the city where the imperial garrison and the Podesta were holding out. Frederick took his army and besieged Viterbo, but the commune had and still has some impressive fortifications whilst the imperial army was small and poorly equipped, another sign of how short money had become.

In November 1243 it was clear that Viterbo could not be taken. Frederick negotiated a truce, and pope and cardinal promised safe conduct for the besieged garrison inside the city. As the remaining Ghibellines and the imperial soldiers abandoned their stronghold to leave the city, the Guelfs broke through the thin line of papal officers protecting the safe conduct. Disregarding any promises made by their feudal and spiritual overlords, the jubilant Guelfs massacred most of them.

This so-called “Viterbo affair” provided a much-needed boost to the imperial PR machine. The reluctance to negotiate in good faith and the massacre of the imperial garrison revealed the pope as duplicitous and solely focused on his fight with the emperor.

Meanwhile the situation on the eastern border is becoming ever more concerning. Yes, the Mongols had disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. But nobody knew why they retreated and more importantly, when they would be back. In fact the decision to retreat is something that confuses historians to this day. For a long time the prevalent theory was that the Mongol leaders had to go back home to vote on the succession of Ogedei Khan, the son of Genghis Khan who ruled this vast empire that simultaneously fought wars in Korea, India, Georgia, Armenia and in eastern Europe. That theory is now largely dismissed since they retreated before the message of Ogedei’s death could have reached them. What is more likely is that the campaign in Eastern Europe had overstretched their supply lines plus the wet climate in the 1240s made their composite bows less effective. I guess we will talk about this in a lot more detail next season when we discuss the north of Germany, the Teutonic Knights and the Hanseatic League. For our narrative today it is important to remember that whilst we know the Mongols will not come back, the peoples living on the Eastern side of the empire, in Poland and Hungary did not know that. They desperately wanted the emperor to be free to come to their aid.

But what caused even more pressure on the pope was a knock-on effect of the Mongol invasion of Central Asia. Between 1077 and 1231 the region that makes up Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran was ruled by the so-called Khwarazmian empire. To my utter shame, I know nothing about this empire that included cities like Samarkand, Isfahan, Merv and Rey, each larger and richer than any Western European city, safe maybe for Paris and Milan. If you are interested in this region, Peter Frankopan’s book The Silk Roads is a fantastic way to get an idea of all these lands and cultures we have been studiously ignoring for far too long.

This great Khwarzmian empire broke under the onslaught of the Mongols between 1218 and 1231. The shahs who ruled it either died or fled. One of the last descendants of the Shahs formed a mercenary army that he hired out in the endless wars between Muslim powers in the Middle East. In 1244 the Ayyubids, that is the family of Saladin and Al Kamil allowed the mercenaries to take and sack Jerusalem, which they did. The story of the fighting is a bit convoluted, but it seems a battle had occurred before the gates of the city which ended in a complete defeat of the crusader army. The master of the Hospitallers at Jerusalem described the outcome as follows:

Quote “In the said battle, then, the power of the Christians was crushed, and the number of slain in both armies was incomputable. The masters of the Templars and Hospitallers were slain, as also the masters of other orders, with their brethren and followers, Walter, count of Brienne, and the lord Philip de Montfort, and those who fought under the patriarch were cut to pieces; of the Templars only eighteen escaped, and sixteen of the Hospitallers, who were afterwards sorry that they had saved themselves.“

The city fell after barely a month of siege. The graves of the kings of Jerusalem were opened, their bones dispersed. There was some murdering and plundering, though they let 6,000 Christians leave the city unmolested which suggests it was a lot more civilised than the siege of Jerusalem by the first crusaders who let the streets run red with blood.

This put immense pressure on pope Innocent IV. In particular king Louis IX, the most ardent of crusaders thought the conflict with the emperor a pointless distraction. All of Christendom’s efforts should be in his mind be directed towards the crusade in the Holy Land. In England the barons were already restless and resented the hapless king Henry III’s subservience to the pope. The Latin emperor of Constantinople having sold everything and anything that had not been nailed down in this once greatest city of the world was journeying from court to court looking for help.

Innocent IV was dragged kicking and screaming to the negotiation table. A deal was hammered out, details of which I will spare you. Suffice to say they were very much in favour of the papacy, land and privileges returned. Frederick was to recognise his errors and support Louis IX’ crusade as well as bring help to the German princes defending the eastern border. It also included some restrictions on his ability to operate in Lombardy.

Frederick was willing to accept it. He had simply run out of money and the excommunication was weighing on his authority. It has now been going of for five years and as I said before, time is a factor here. The German princes had been loyal at the beginning, but now the front is crumbling. The archbishops of Mainz and Cologne had moved over to the papal side, largely for financial reasons. The pope simply threatened to remove the implicit financial guarantee for the repayment of loans to the Lombard bankers and since Frederick no longer had the funds to pluck the hole, they moved.

So once the terms of the agreement had been finalised in Rome, he wrote to his allies in Germany that soon the issue will be resolved and he will come to help with the Mongol threat.

But then problems emerged. Innocent had not made any commitment as to when and how he would release Frederick from the ban. Innocent insisted on a gradual process. Frederick was to hand over the lands and privileges, display his devotion to the church in general and the pope in particular, and then, and only then, once he has been stripped down of his power, then Innocent would surely absolve him. Even some of the cardinals and certainly those pushing for immediate reconciliation such as the king of France and the recently arrived Latin emperor of Constantinople thought this was unworkable. Rather than yielding to his colleagues, Innocent appointed a brace of new – more malleable – cardinals. 

This was now no longer a question of irreconcilable differences but a problem of trust. And Frederick thought – quite rightly – that the best way to deal with the issue of trust was to talk it through, man to man, sinner and priest. That is what happened in 1230 where he hammered out his deal with pope Gregory IX and he was confident that his charisma and negotiation skills would be enough to bring this one over the line. He was after all the man who sweettalked a Muslim ruler out of Jerusalem.

They would meet, it was decided, at Narni, a hilltop town north of Rome. There all will be resolved. The pope left Rome and headed north. But at Sutri, halfway to Narni, Innocent IV put on a disguise and with few companions rode down to Civitavecchia, the harbour city of the papal states. There he boarded a Genoese Galley that took him to his home city, Genoa. He would stay in Genoa for three months before he moved on further to Lyon. Lyon may be formally in the empire and hence technically a territory under Frederick’s control, but just across the Rhone River lay the Kingdom of France, a last resort should Frederick come down with military might.

This flight to Lyon foreshadows the later and more significant flight of the popes to Avignon. Why he did it? Most likely not for fear of being apprehended and locked up in Puglia as Matthew Paris suggested. There had been many other opportunities for Frederick to have done this earlier. It was more likely the fear that when he was to meet Frederick, he would run out of arguments/fall under his spell. Frederick could have staged another Canossa, done ostentatious penance before the merciful pope who had to readmit the prodigal son. Innocent ran because he could not stay without lifting the ban. And he had seen what happened to his predecessor when he had lifted the ban in 1230. Gregory IX lost so much influence and Frederick was able to first consolidate his rule in Southern Italy and then inflict the victory at Cortenuova on the Lombards. Peace with Frederick looked very much like the end of the imperial papacy.

And that is the ultimate reason for this endless and irreconcilable conflict between Frederick and his popes. There may be some personal animosity and an abhorrence for the emperor’s ideas about science and truth. But it cannot be just that. We have gone through dozens of popes since 1077 and not one was willing to be a true friend and supporter of an emperor. The two institutions were on a diametrically opposing track. They could not make peace, because peace would mean one of them had won.

If Frederick had got his peace, his armies would encircle the papal lands. He would be able to dominate the papacy. The pope could not immediately excommunicate him again. A couple of years of that and the successor of St. Peter would be nothing more than an imperial chaplain. And that was acceptable to a Sylvester II but inconceivable for a 13th century pope. We have gone beyond the point where either side can pretend. The Popes and the House of Hohenstaufen now fight it out to the death.

The next instalment of this epic tale may come through next week, December 29th, though I do not want you guys to count on it. There is the tiny issue of Christmas along the way that tends to disrupt production. I also caught the coughing lurgi last week and struggle to shake it, so there may not be a show for the simple reason that I have no voice. All I can promise is that I will try. I know for a fact that I often crave my favourite shows during that lull period between Christmas and New Year.

In any event a very, very merry Christmas to you all. Another year has gone, a solid 45 episodes, all about just one family, the Hohenstaufen. I hope you have enjoyed it. I definitely did. I learnt a lot. Many events I thought I knew how they happened I had to re-evaluate, I encountered rulers like Lothar III and Konrad III I had never given much thought, we had saints and heretics, we found out about the Italian communes and their badass Carroccios and so much more. So thank you to all of you who make it possible for me to do what I enjoy doing and many happy returns!

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    1. Thanks for that. I am not sure where Wiki gets their info from. The sources given in the article are a bit thin. The most recent biographies I looked at all mention the Septizodium as does Matthew Paris. What makes me unsure is that there is no space inside that could work as a place for the cardinals to gather, so maybe Theresia something to this theory..

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