Episode 90 – Things Are Falling Apart

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This week the epic struggle between empire and papacy goes into its final stretch. The pope has fled to Lyon. There he calls a church council which Frederick is now unable to forestall. Pope Innocent IV deposes Frederick, and – for the first time in history – calls a crusade, not against the Muslims, not against pagans, not against heretics or Greek orthodox rulers, but against a Latin Christian monarch who for years had tried to find an amicable solution to what was a political, not a religious disagreement. And all that against the backdrop of Jerusalem having fallen into the hands of the Turks, and the Mongol armies on the march.


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 90 – Things are Falling Apart

I have to start with a correction. Last week I erroneously ascribed the quote “from my cold dead hands” to Clint Eastwood, though it was – as every child knows – Charlton Heston who said it. What makes this particularly embarrassing is that Clint Eastwood had been very vocal in his support for gun control since the 1970s. I can only apologize unreservedly and thanks to listener Gary for making me aware.

This week things will indeed be falling apart. The never-ending war is exactly what it is, a never ending, unwinnable war against an enemy that hides on the other side of the Alps and cannot be attacked. Money is running seriously low, and Frederick II is getting concerned about the loyalty of his closest associates. And those he will lose, one due to the vagaries of war, the other through a bout of paranoia.

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 Chris M., Geir and Curtis B. who have already signed up.

Last week we had left Frederick II in ever worsening frustration about the progress of his struggle with Pope Innocent IV. He had suffered a humiliating defeat before the walls of Parma. His great new imperial capital of Victoria had been burned to the ground by the men, women and children of Parma. His most trusted advisor, Taddeo da Suessa had been captured, tortured and had died in prison. The imperial crown, the one today displayed in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna had fallen to the enemy, was paraded through the city streets in a carnival procession. The soldier who took it sold it to the town for 200 pounds of silver and a small house next to the church of St. Christina so that for an undisclosed time thereafter it was kept in the sacristy of the cathedral of Parma. Salimbene reports that merchants from far and wide came to Parma to buy up the gold and silver vessels, the precious stones and cloth of gold for pittance. That is how the emperor’s own copy of the book on falconry ended up in the stock of a Milanese merchant in 1268 before vanishing forever.

What was almost a miracle was that Parma failed to trigger the domino effect the Guelfs had hoped for. None of the major cities went across to the other side in the immediate aftermath of Parma. He may have seen that as a sign of the unwavering loyalty of his communal allies, but it is more likely to be nothing but the continued animosity between Guelf and Ghibelline factions that is now largely detached from the fight between pope and emperor that had kicked it off in the first place.

Parma was nevertheless a massive blow to the imperial finances. The city of Victoria had held the imperial treasury, recently enlarged by the significant Babenberger funds. But all that had now been lost. Frederick had to again put a special tax on his Sicilian subjects. Subjects who had almost rebelled two years earlier.

Sicily had taken the imperial deal, which was peace and justice in exchange for obedience. They did accept loss of freedom of speech, worship and association into communes, but they drew the line when it came to their wallets. What had made things particularly irksome was that tax collection had been privatised. Tax farmers promised the emperor a fixed amount in exchange to charge his subjects whatever he can squeeze out of them. That meant taxation was not only a much heavier burden than necessary, but also grossly unfair. Frederick must have known that this was not sustainable, but at the same time, he could not give up. A one-sided end of hostilities would have brought the whole network of alliances to its collapse. And it would have allowed the pope to finally recruit what he called a true Athlete of Christ who would remove Frederick as emperor and as king of Sicily.

Politically Innocent’s position improved when King Louis of France finally left for his crusade in 1248. Until then Louis had undermined Innocent’s plans for a crusade against Frederick because Louis wanted all crusading efforts to focus on the Holy Land where Jerusalem had fallen to the Turks in 1244.

Do I need to mention that Saint Louis’ crusade was a catastrophic failure? Not really. You know the drill, though this one really is deja vue all over again. Because Saint Louis is a pious king and does things properly. So, he took his army to Damietta, and captured Damietta. The sultan offers peace with concessions and Louis being a true crusader, reject them. Then he moved on Cairo this time hoping not on prester John but on the Mongols. Yes, the Mongols, the same Mongols who had been putting the fear of god or fear of agile horsemen into anyone living east of the Rhine.

Just to give you an idea how deluded the papacy and the crusaders have become, here is a fun little story. In April 1245 Pope Innocent IV had sent two Franciscan friars to the court of the Great Khan in Karakorum with a letter. In this letter he enlightened the Khan about the errors of his ways, admonished him to get baptised in the catholic faith and recognise him as vicar of Christ. The great Khan Güyük’s response conveys his befuddlement with the papal proposition. Quote: “How do you think you know whom God will absolve and in whose favour He will exercise His mercy? How do you think you know that you dare to express such an opinion?” and concludes with “You personally, at the head of the Kings, you shall come, one and all, to pay homage to me and to serve me. Then we shall take note of your submission. If, however, you do not accept God’s order and act against our command, we shall know that you are our enemies.” (end quote). Unperturbed by this response Innocent sends further missions and for some reason the crusaders believe the Mongols are going to coordinate their attacks with their efforts in Egypt. Well they did not.

The crusaders get up to exactly the same spot the fifth crusade had perished at and -drumroll, did win the battle there. But then the inevitable happened. The honourable chivalric knights run into a trap laid by wily Egyptian commanders. The crusaders were beaten comprehensively, so comprehensively that the whole army including king Louis were captured. One year, 800,000 byzantine gold coins and the return of Damietta later, king Louis is released. Louis will stay in the Holy Land for another four years achieving nothing.

With Louis out of the picture, Innocent gains room to manoeuvre. He puts up a new anti-king to replace the luckless Heinrich Raspe. This “athlete of christ” is count William of Holland. This count has even less traction that the powerful landgrave. It takes him a year to get into Aachen and to get crowned. After that he returns back to Holland to fight some of his neighbours on the polders. His luck will improve later, but by 1248 he is no real threat to Frederick II and Konrad IV.

Innocent is also on the lookout for a second champion, the one who is supposed to take over the crown of Sicily. He talks to many, amongst them the two most ambitious men in 13th century Europe, both brothers of kings.

The first is Richard of Cornwall, brother of King Henry III of England. Richard has become a major player in the convoluted politics of England at the time. Usually supportive of his brother, but sometimes also siding with the barons. This game of back and forth has made him one of the richest landowners in England and Count of Poitiers. He does know Sicily well, having visited his sister, the beautiful Isabella who had been married to Frederick II. He was an accomplished soldier who had headed up the last partially successful crusade to the Holy Land in the early 1240s. But Richard turned Innocent down, claiming obligations under the still formally existing alliance between England and the empire. As with William of Holland, this is not the last we will hear from Richard of Cornwall.

The other ambitious man was Charles of Anjou, younger brother of King Louis of France. He too was carving out his own little empire. He had set his eyes on Provence, specifically on Beatrice of Provence, so beautiful she “set men’s hearts thumping and the fingers of Troubadours to fevered twanging of Lyres”. Beatrice was the daughter and heiress to Count Ramon Berengar IV of Provence. Provence was at that time part of the kingdom of Burgundy and hence part of the empire. Its counts were from the family of the counts of Barcelona who had by now risen to kings of Aragon. When Ramon Berengar IV died in 1245 king James I of Aragon immediately occupied the county, seeking to marry Beatrice himself. Beatrice hid in her castle at Aix-en-Provence and asked – who else, but pope Innocent IV for help. Meanwhile a number of other suitors were setting out for the land of olives, wine and troubadours. These included count Raymond VII of Toulouse and it seems Frederick II himself. In such a crowded field a younger son of the king of France needs a powerful sponsor – and that was our favourite pope, Innocent IV. Innocent used Provence as leverage to stop Louis to be overly supportive of Frederick and bang, the lovely Beatrice and her even lovelier inheritance goes to Charles of Anjou. So Charles owed Innocent big time. Still Charles too turns him down when he is asked to contest the crown of Sicily, officially because he was going on the ill-fated crusade of his brother. And again, this is not the last we hear about Charles of Anjou.

Hence in 1248 there was no rival monarch for Sicily and the pretender north of the Alps was a non-entity.

But that is not making things great. Frederick II was 54 years old and he was increasingly alone in his frustration. Not only had Taddeo da Suessa passed away, so had the love of his life, Bianca Lancia. Many of his closest advisors and fellow members of his poet’s society had turned against him in 1246. He began to only trust his immediate family members. His illegitimate sons, Enzio and Frederick of Antioch replaced members of his court as imperial vicars responsible for operations in Northern Italy.

By the end of 1248 he began losing confidence in one of his longest standing and most important advisers. Pietro da Vinea had joined the imperial chancery way back in the 1220s and had raced up the career ladder. By 1224 he was already a judge at the high court. In 1230/31 he was one of the authors of the constitutions of Melfi. In 1243 he was called the imperialis aule protonotarius et regno sicilie logotheta. As protonotary he produced the Latin announcements of the emperor and as we have heard before, was the brains behind the imperial propaganda machine after the excommunication in 1239. His elaborate style of Latin became the benchmark for future chancellors all across Europe. And as Logothet, a byzantine title, he was the actual voice of the emperor. On many of the great occasions when the imperial majesty is presented to the people, Frederick would not speak himself, but sit on a throne, wearing his crown and projecting the majesty of the ruler, whilst Vinea would speak on his behalf.

Between 1234 and 1239 Frederick had a monumental gate constructed in Capua. This enormous gate formed the grand entrance into his kingdom of Sicily. It had a lot in common with ancient Roman triumphal arches and was to symbolise the political program of Frederick II and his kingdom. He is shown in the guise of an ancient Roman emperor, the first time such an iconography had been seen in Western Europe since the fall of the empire. The message was that he has the power to provide peace and justice, the Pax Romana. And justice is made manifest through three tondi, just above the entrance in the kingdom, showing a female head of justice in the middle and two judges, one of the Piero da Vinea and the other either Taddeo da Suessa or Giacomo da Morro, the former loyal to the end, the latter a conspirator in 1246. Few things indicate how much Pietro da Vinea was at the heart of the concept of the state Frederick II had built.

And this heart is about to be torn out. We do not know what exactly happened, but by the end of 1248 Frederick became convinced that Pietro da Vinea was betraying him. Being at the heart of the financial, legal and political system of the empire and the kingdom of Sicily had made Pietro da Vinea immensely rich. Unsurprisingly that fuelled rumours that he was corrupt. But during this time it would have been most unusual for a man in his position not to amass a fortune. Kings and emperors were expected to be generous with their closest advisors and diplomacy involved expensive gifts being given to intermediaries.

The accusation that Frederick will bring forward in February 1249 is that Vinea had begun secret negotiations with the pope. Frederick had ordered that da Suessa and Vinea should always negotiate with Innocent IV together. Neither – so he said – should be allowed to have any conversation with the pope on their own. He did not accuse Vinea of having made any specific arrangements with his enemy, just that he had spoken to Innocent alone and unsupervised. Matthew Paris – always good for a bit a salacious gossip – reports that Vinea had bribed the royal physician to poison Frederick, all on behest of the pope.

Papal propaganda blamed the fall of Vinea on imperial money problems. According to them, Frederick had run out of other financing options and needed the wealth of his closest advisor to keep going.

Whatever the actual reason, Frederick ordered Vinea to be blinded and paraded across Italian cities “pour encourager les autres”. Pietro was not the kind of man who could bear such treatment. In April 1249 guards found Pietro da Vinea lifeless in his cell in the castle of San Miniato near Florence. He had smashed his head in on the column they had been chained him to.

Dante encounters Pietro da Vinea in the 7th circle of hell, where he has been turned into a gnarly dusky tree covered in poisonous thorns and picked at by Harpies. He is in the wood of suicides where men go who have thrown away their earthly bodies forsaking their right to have human form in the afterlife – according to Dante. On the question of his culpability, Dante let Vinea say the following: “By the strange roots of this tree, I swear to you, I never broke faith with my lord, so worthy of honour. If either of you return to the world, raise and cherish the memory of me, that still lies low from the blow Envy gave me.”  (End quote). That is my view too, Vinea was the victim of paranoia and court gossip.

That is not the only disaster 1249 has in store for Frederick. There is the city of Jesi where he had been born and which da Vinea had styled as the new Bethlehem in his propaganda that placed the emperor as the successor and vicar of Christ. Jesi had fallen to papal troops.

And a mere month later comes the next blow. Frederick had handed military command in Northern Italy to his oldest and favourite son Enzio, the Falconello, so similar to his father in appearance and interests. Enzio had been occupied with a retaliatory expedition against Parma when he is called upon by the city of Modena, one of the Ghibelline allies against an attack by Bologna. Enzio races along the Via Aemilia down to Modena. His exhausted troops encounter the army of Bologna at a creek called Fossalta on May 25th, 1249. In the initial encounter the imperial side is near defeated when nightfall stops fighting. The next morning the main combat action begins. As often in the warfare of this time, the battle is fought almost exclusively by knights on horseback who look for individual contests of strengths to show their chivalric mettle. The encounter is turning into dozens and dozens of individual skirmishes, one man against another. Both sides are almost equally matched. What turns the battle is that Enzio is getting unhorsed in one of his duels. Seeing their leader fall and the memory of the previous night’s failure disheartens the Guelfs and they run. Enzio is quickly back on a horse, but he cannot stem the tide. The imperial troops splinter and find themselves lost in the maze of rivers, creeks and canals that criss-cross the Po valley. Enzio and his remaining troop of knights find themselves surrounded by Bolognese fighters and concede.

For the Bolognese to capture Enzio, himself a king, even though only a king of Sardinia, but also the son of the emperor is a matter of enormous prestige. He and the other captives are led into the victorious city in a sumptuous parade. The citizens celebrate by hanging all their most valuable cloth out of the windows, put on their most sparkling jewels, most shiny armours as the mighty Carriocco of the republic of Bologna parades through the streets followed by the captives in chains, the broken imperial standards and finally King Enzio himself, riding on his warhorse and wearing his crowned helmet with his long blond hair flowing to his waist.  At the end of the great procession Enzio is brought to the palace of the Podesta where he is given a luxurious apartment, where he is held in honourable captivity. His father tries to get him out using both threats and concessions. Even when offered a silver ring going all around the city of Bologna, the consuls of the republic remain firm. They would not release Enzio since he would be the hostage that forever binds the wild boar that is Frederick II. For the remaining 22 years of his life, Enzio will remain in this building that still stands and is known as the Palazzo de Re Enzo in the centre of Bologna. Right in front of it rises the famous statue of Neptune by Giambologna and if visitors get to look at Enzo’s prison at all, it is because it houses the tourist office.

The domino effect that had been feared finally kicks in. Como, forever an enemy of Milan joins the league, the pass connecting Tuscany and Lombardy is taken and finally by the end of 1249 Modena, eternal enemy of Bologna makes peace. No worries, Bologna and Modena will resume fighting a few years later and their enmity is so deep they would fight a war over ownership of a bucket – not a joke. The bucket can still be seen in the cathedral of Modena. And let’s not forget that Ferrari is based in Maranello in the province of Modena whilst their rivals, Lamborghini are from Bologna. Modena going over to the League is a serious blow.

By the end of 1249 Frederick is tired and exhausted. There are no details, but from this time onwards he remains in Puglia, mainly in his favourite palace in Foggia. His health seems to be crumbling under the strain of a decade of warfare.

He leaves the fighting to his generals who are gradually being more successful. Even the citizens of Parma are being defeated, partially reversing the impact of the destruction of Victoria. He announced that he would travel to Germany and finally do the great show of unity with the princes, maybe even go on to Lyon and force the pope into an agreement. According to Matthew Paris Frederick renews his offer to go to the Holy Land, return church property and even abdicate, this time for the benefit of his youngest son, Henry, from his marriage to Isabelle of England. Here is how Matthew Paris describes the papal response (quote):

“To these offers, however, the pope obstinately persisted in the reply, that he would on no account so easily restore to his former condition him whom the general council of Lyons had deposed and condemned. By some it was positively affirmed, that the pope eagerly desired, above all things , to overthrow Frederick , whom he called the great dragon, in order that, he being trampled underfoot and crushed , he might more easily trample down the French and English kings, and the other kings of Christendom (all of whom he called “petty princes,” and “the little serpents “), who would be frightened by the case of the said Frederick, and might despoil them and their prelates of their property at his plea. These speeches, together with the enormous deeds which bore powerful evidence to the meaning of his words, generated offence in the hearts of many, and strengthened the justice of Frederick’s, so that his cause began to improve daily.”

But it is all too late. On December 13, 1250, at the now disappeared town of Castel Fiorentino in Puglia “Frederick, the greatest of earthly princes, the wonder of the world and the regulator of its proceedings, departed this life” to quote Matthew Paris.

On his last days he is surrounded by his son Manfred, the archbishop Berard of Palermo who had been his constant supporter and advisor since he was a teenager, the leader of his German knights, the Great Justice of Sicily and his personal physician. Neither of them left us with an eyewitness report what had happened.

Salimbene di Parma, consistent to the last in his disapproval of the emperor, says he had died as worms grew out of his corrupted body making his flesh fall off his bones under agonising pain. The stench of his cadaver he claims had been so unbearable, it could not be buried with the other kings of Sicily in Palermo. The fact that Frederick’s body is indeed buried in Palermo makes this account a little less credible.

Salimbene is not the only one on the papal propaganda team who has something to say about the manner of his death. The chronicler of the life of Innocent IV describes the emperor’s death as follows; Suffering from a horrific diarrhoea, gnashing his teeth and foaming at the mouth the emperor died under ear-splitting screams of agony, terrified of hell that awaited him, the excommunicate.

Then there is Giovanni Vilani who let the emperor die in his bed, but not from natural causes. According to him Manfred, his son by Bianca Lancia, had suffocated him with a cushion as he feared his father was about to cut him out of his will.

Matthew Paris paints a more typical death scene. The emperor feeling his end coming, makes his last will and testament.  Then he confesses his sins and takes on the habit of a Cistercian monk. Finally his old friend and longest standing supporter, the archbishop Berard of Palermo releases him from the excommunication. In Matthew Paris he dies a confessed sinner, a good death in the eyes of the Middle Ages.

What many agree is the death of the emperor is kept a secret for several days as Manfred grabs the levers of the state and informs his half-brother Konrad IV up in Germany about the demise of their father. News of his death are only circulated on December 26th, exactly 56 days after his miraculous birth in the town square of Jesi.

Meanwhile his body has been transported to Palermo. As he had ordered, he was to be buried in a large ancient Roman sarcophagus made from Porphyre, the most prized reddish marble. This sarcophagus had initially been destined for his grandfather Roger II, but Frederick had Roger put into another, still impressive tomb and reserved this one for himself.

He lies next to his father, Henry VI and his first mother Constance in Palermo Cathedral. There had been an inscription on his sarcophagus that is now lost, that read:

“If honesty, if wisdom, intelligence and success, if noble conduct could hold back death, then Frederick who lies in this spot, had never died.”

Manfred wrote to his half-brother Konrad IV: “Gone is the sun that shone above the people, gone is the beacon of justice, gone is the harbinger of peace. But great consolation is left to us as he, our father, lived his life joyfully and victorious to the end.”

Frederick had ordered his affairs before he died. His imperial title and the kingdom of Sicily were to go to his son Konrad IV, now a man in his thirties, an accomplished general and – other than his elder brother – an obedient son. Should Konrad IV die, the crowns should go to the youngest of his sons, Henry, from his marriage to Isabella of England. And finally, should Henry pass as well, his inheritance should go to Manfred, his son by Bianca Lancia, indicating that indeed Frederick had married her on her deathbed and legitimised their children. His grandson, the son of his unlucky eldest son was to gain the duchies of Austria and Steiermark.

At the end of December 1250 the picture is surely not rosy, but the imperial side is winning again and there are 4 legitimate Hohenstaufen heirs, let alone a brace of illegitimate ones. The empire North of the Alps is tightly managed by Konrad IV, Sicily is secured by Manfred as Konrad’s viceroy. What could possibly go wrong? Well, we will find out next week. I hope you will join us again.

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