Episode 50 – Barbarossa begins

History of the Germans Podcast: Episode 50 – Barbarossa Begins is live! (1149-1152)

In his last few years the ill and exhausted king Conrad III relies more and more on his nephew, Frederick, the duke of Swabia called Barbarossa because of his ginger beard.

Barbarossa forms the cornerstone linking the warring houses of Welf and Waiblingen. His military capabilities and diplomatic skills propell the barely 30 year old to the top of domestic and international politics.

When Conrad III died suddenly, he sees his chance. Pushing aside his cousin, the 8-year-old son of Conrad III, he gains support from both the old family allies as well as from its archrivals, Henry the Lion and Welf VI. He had to promise a lot, but it was enough for him to be elected and crowned in a record 24 days.

But that is where the hard work starts. Conrad had left a realm in anarchy. Can Barbarossa calm it down?


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans, Episode 50 – Barbarossa Begins

This week we bring the reign of Conrad III to its long overdue end and we watch the rise of he most famous and most popular of the Medieval emperors, Frederick I, Barbarossa

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Last week we left Conrad III surveying the wreckage of his grand strategy. His attempt to stamp his authority on the realm by recapturing Edessa and returning as Grand protector of Jerusalem had backfired badly. His army was destroyed long before it got anywhere near the Holy Land, his subsequent attempts at capturing Damascus and Ascalon failed in the most humiliating way.. He arrived back in the empire in early 1149 hoping that he may score at least one success. He intended to embark on his long overdue journey to Rome, get crowned emperor and then attack Roger II, king of Sicily. He may have been looking forward to that since the last campaign against Roger II in 1138 was one of the few highlights of his military career. But he was denied even that opportunity to rebuild his reputation when his old enemy, Welf VI resumed hostilities in Bavaria.

Conrad III dragged his old and tired bones across the alps in spring 1149. He was still suffering from the wounds he had received on crusade and occasional bouts of Malaria that he may have picked up during his campaigns in Italy.

As he feared, after 2 years of absence his inbox is overflowing. His most powerful vassal, Henry the Lion asks when he will get his duchy of Bavaria back, whilst the current duke of Bavaria asks for help fighting Welf Vi. His most important adviser, abbot Wibald of Stablo and Corvey asks for military intervention against riots in Lothringia and justice against the bishop of Minden. The contested election of the bishop of Utrecht caused brutal bloodshed etc.  Etc, etc,..pp

And his international allies are also restless. Pope Eugenius III is at least polite enough to open with condolences for his failed campaign before asking him urgently to come to Rome to put down the new city government that is still keeping the vicar of Christ from performing his offices in the church of St. Peter. In turn the Senate of Rome writes to him inviting to come down to what they claim is now his city after the corrupt prelates have been sent packing. The citizens of Rome hope that the great emperor will lead them back to the glorious times of the Caesars when Rome ruled the whole world. An actual Caesar, Manuel sends him letters asking what he had done with all the money and when exactly his army would go down to break that upstart Norman king in Sicily.

Being king is a hard job at the best of times, and these weren’t the best of times.

What made his job even harder was that the crusade of the Saxon lords had feared better than his own. You may remember that when Conrad set off for the Holy Land his opposition, in particular Henry the Lion, several Saxon lords and the Zaehringer had refused to come along. Bernhard of Clairvaux had organised an alternative crusade for them that would keep them from attacking Conrad’s lands in his absence. That was the so-called Wendisch crusade. The plan was to gather an army and forcibly convert the Slavic pagans who lived east of the Elbe river.

The whole thing was mildly idiotic because many of these peoples were already paying tribute to the Saxon lords and a successful mission to convert them was under way. Moreover, the colonisation efforts since Lothar III had brought a large number of Dutch, Lothringians and Frisians settlers into these areas.

When the Slavic leaders heard about the crusade and it’s aim to forcibly convert them, they fortified their castles and massacred the Christians on their lands. The crusader army found it impossible to break any of these great fortresses. And then the Saxon leaders quickly realised that they were trampling down fields that were supposed to be the source of their own income. So, after a few weeks of marching, murdering and sprinkling holy water on those heads they had not smashed in, the mighty army  went home.

But that was not the end. Henry the Lion did use the aftermath of the crusade to coerce the leaders of the Abodrites to submit more fully to his control. That brought him de facto ownership of what is now Mecklenburg and Pomerania. At the same time Albrecht the Baer “convinced” in inverted commas, the leader of the Ratibor Slavs to convert to Christianity and make him his heir. When he duly died, Albrecht took ownership of what is today the state of Brandenburg, making him now in truth the first Margrave of Brandenburg.

These new territories were much more loosely connected to the empire. They were private property of the Henry the Lion and Albrecht the Baer rather than Lands he held as a vassal of the king.

I short, Conrad now had to deal with an even stronger adversary in Henry the Lion and a much looser link to his ally, Albrecht the Baer. And, to top it off, Henry the Lion had married the daughter of the duke of Zaehringen, cementing an alliance that brought now 2/3rds of the duchy of Swabia into the anti-Conrad coalition.

As Conrad finds himself surrounded by ever more powerful enemies, an endless list of demands from his allies and dwindling resources he has to rely more and more on the one man with feet in both camps,, Frederick Barbarossa, duke of Swabia.

Barbarossa had grown closer to his uncle during the crusade and the senior Hohenstaufen began recognising the military and diplomatic sills of this junior member. But that did not break his links with the House of Welf. For the last decade Frederick and his uncle Welf VI were almost inseparable. They were camped together on the valley ridge when the German army nearly drowned in a river near Constantinople. They had fought side-by-side first in the civil war over the duchy of Bavaria and later at Doryleum and at Damascus. 

This link that Barbarossa provided became crucial during the last years of Conrad III. Thanks to Barbarossa’s involvement the conflict between the Welf and the Hohenstaufen began to calm down. Henry the Lion was still asking for the duchy of Bavaria, but he did not give military support to Welf VI’s rebellion. When Welf VI suffered a severe defeat, Conrad’s advisers pushed for the utter destruction of the rebellious lord. Instead, Barbarossa brokered a lasting peace between Welf VI and Conrad whereby Welf was spared the ritual humiliation normally required and was given rich benefices for giving up his claims.

Not that this brought the unrest in the realm to an end. Feuds kept going on all over. Lothringia was most affected thanks to a rabble of particularly warlike thugs. The most devastating of these feuds was caused by a disagreement over the election of the bishop of Utrecht that had turned into all out war between the allies of the two candidates. When Conrad called the two sides to come to his court to be judged, they told him he was no longer in charge of such matters and ignored him.

Another story that illustrates the level of anarchy is that of count Hermann II of Winzenberg. He had amassed a huge fortune through feuds and backroom dealings. This brought him into conflict with many Saxon lords, including the bishop of Hildesheim. In the night of January 29th, ministeriales of the bishop entered the castle of Winzenberg and murdered the count and his pregnant wife. They took the 6000 pounds of silver kept at the castle an astronomical sum. Henry the Lion and Albrecht the Baer, the first duke of Saxony and in charge of maintaining order, the latter a relative of the deceased, chose not to chase the murderers and their boss the bishop. Instead they started a feud  over who would get the now vacant Winzenberg lands.

Conrad’s strategy these last few years is hard to nail down. Officially he was working on an expedition to Rome to gain the imperial crown, to put the pope back in charge of the holy city and to deliver against his promises to emperor Manuel and attack Roger II. But these grand plans Were not based on any real options.

By 1151 Henry the Lion had enough of asking politely when the duchy of Bavaria would be handed back to him. Three times did Conrad invite him to a royal assembly to debate his case and three times he did not show. As far as Henry the Lion was concerned Bavaria was a family heirloom and Conrad had stolen it from his family. He was mustering an army and got his allies the Wittelsbachs to start an uprising against the current duke Henry Jasomirgott.. Conrad then went on a completely hare-brained scheme and took a small detachment to Saxony with the intention to capture Braunschweig, the capital of Henry the Lion. Suffice to say, this did not work out either.

Conrad turns again to Barbarossa to find a solution. Barbarossa opened negotiations with his uncle Welf VI and his cousin Henry the Lion. He brings the new duke of Zaehringen, Berthold into the fold so that things look marginally brighter when Conrad calls for a royal assembly in Bamberg in February 1152.

And there, on February 15th, Conrad III, the first of the Hohenstaufen rulers, died. He was 59 years old when he finally succumbed to Malaria and general exhaustion.

He left behind a son, Frederick who was 8 years of age. This Fredrick had not yet been elected and crowned king. But his election and coronation had been scheduled for right around now as part of the preparation for Conrad‘s journey to Rome. As we have seen before, these expeditions to Rome were extremely dangerous and hence emperors have their sons elected and crowned king before their departure, even if they were only minors. That had happened with Otto II, Otto III, Henry III and Henry IV.

By February 1152 all the necessary preparations for a royal election and coronation had been made, dates have been set, imperial regalia brought along, and archbishops summoned.

But it will not be little Frederick who will be elected and crowned, but his cousin Frederick Barbarossa. According to Otto of Freising old Conrad changed his mind on his deathbed. Because the empire was in such dire straits and his son so young he implored his nobles to elect Frederick Barbarossa a worthy man of proven military capabilities and diplomatic skill. Conrad handed Barbarossa the Imperial regalia and breathed his last. Barbarossa then travelled to Frankfurt where the great and the good of the country assembled in record time and elected him unanimously. He was chosen for his ability to reconcile the warring Hohenstaufen and Welf families and so – for the good of the realm- they rejected the claims of young Frederick. Barbarossa travelled in just 3 days with a small number of companions to Aachen where he was crowned with all the proper kit and by the proper archbishop. Done! It took just 24 days from Conrad‘s death to the coronation of the new king. This was the fastest turnaround during the whole of the early and high Middle Ages. And it was the first time a king was elected over a male descendant of the previous king.

Historians have been agonising over this sequence of events for centuries and all they can agree on is that it almost certainly did not happen the way Otto von Freising described it. The bishop writes this chronicle 6 years after Frederick Barbarossa had been crowned. And, he writes it because his nephew had commissioned him to produce his biography. Chances are, he would not make a big song and dance about stealing the crown from a kid.

The issues historians stumble over begins with Conrad‘s funeral. Conrad had requested a burial in the family monastery in Lorch about 200km southbound Bamberg. A slow funeral procession of the dead king and a proper sending would have cost not just days but weeks. Days and weeks Barbarossa did not have. Nobody knows what would happen if the princes had time to discuss the succession. Barbarossa wanted to use the scheduled election and coronation dates of little Frederick. If he wanted to make these dates he had to put Conrad III three feet under pronto. The solution was to bury him right here in the cathedral of Bamberg. Luckily for Frederick there weren’t many great aristocrats present to stop him. The local bishop was a friend/relative/client and could be persuaded to put the old king down in three days flat in exchange for a sizeable bribe, the abbey of Niederalteich. And to this day, the bones of weary king Conrad lie in a last corner of Bamberg Cathedral, forgotten, as king Conrad is now largely forgotten.

Whilst the funeral ceremonies are ongoing the scriptorium of the duke of Swabia is doing overtime and his riders race at the double. Within days Barbarossa‘s friends and contacts know about Conrad‘s demise and that the election was to go ahead in Frankfurt.  

The most important  letters went to the two necessary archbishops, Cologne and Mainz and his relatives in the Welf family, Welf VI and Henry the Lion. He sets up a meeting with all of them in a castle just outside Frankfurt to discuss the terms of their support. Henry the Lion’s demand is simple, the duchy of Bavaria. Welf VI is less clear, but some elevation of his status was on his docket. Cologne asks for ducal rights in lower Lothringia. Mainz remains undecided. No record of the meeting survives, but given that all these demands were met at a later stage,  is fair to assume that Barbarossa promised these privileges already at that point.  And then there is Wibald of Stabo, the abbot who had managed to stay at the heart of politics under Lothar III and Conrad III by moving into the right camp at the right time. He too joins the Friends of Frederick against a small donation.

All in it seems as if Barbarossa is happy to hand out goodies to all and sundry. He has learnt from his father’s failure in the 1126 election how important it is to press the flesh and hand out baubles.

That explains why on March 4th, a mere 17 days after king Conrad’s demise the great assembly of the German knights and princes  assembled at Frankfurt elect Frederick, duke of Swabia, called Barbarossa for his ginger beard, to be Frederick, King of the Romans, first of his name.

He and some of his closest associates, including the archbishop of Cologne board a ship that takes them to Sinzig on the Rhine river. There they pick up horses and ride the 100km to Aachen in just two days so that he can be crowned on March 9th, the Sunday Laetare Jerusalem, the fourth Sunday of lent. That day is of major significance to the Hohenstaufen, as it was the day Conrad and Frederick had to prostrate themselves before emperor Lothar III and it has been the day of Conrad’s coronation and now Barbarossa’s coronation.

So, did Barbarossa steal the election to use a recent term? I do not think so..

It hinges on whether the German nobles would have elected an orphan 8-year-old as king, only because he was the son of the previous ruler? If we go back to the assembly at Forchheim in 1078 that elected the anti-king Rudolf of Rheinfelden and laid out the criteria for elections, it stated explicitly that the choice should be driven by merit, not by descendance from previous rulers. And, as we saw with the elections of Lothar III and Conrad III, endorsement by the predecessor counted for very little. So, after Conrad’s death the chances of little Frederick were slim to start with, even if his father had wanted him to be king.

So, here we are

Just two months ago Barbarossa was helping his uncle to keep his tottering empire together by reconciling him with his enemies and now he finds himself wearing the crown.

A new king does not mean the old problems go away. The kingdom is still in anarchy, torn apart by feuds. Barbarossa had sworn the age-old coronation oath to honour and love the holy mother church and to provide peace and justice to the widows and orphans and the whole of the people.

And the  great mystic Hildegard von Bingen steps in,  beseeching to carefully investigate the many who have extinguished the light of justice with the blackness of their sins.

But how was he to achieve this.

Having seen his uncle’s reign close-up, he knew that he could not overcome the Welf even if he wanted to. Things had to be done differently this time around. Conflict with his magnates, in particular conflict with the house of Welf leads only to the ruin of the kingdom.

The new model of government is one of cooperation between the emperor and the princes. It was time  to recognise their  demands and find a way to grant them what they really wanted. Having spent the last 15 years as one of these princes he was uniquely able to identify what it was they wanted, which can often be different from what they said they wanted.

Barbarossa begins handing out goodies.

His beloved uncle Welf VI gets the duchy of Spoleto, the margraviate of Tuscany and -for good measure – the kingdom of Sardinia. Not that Barbarossa had any factual control over these lands, and in the case of Sardinia not even a legal claim does not really matter. Welf VI is now a duke, and that is all he ever wanted.

The new duke of Zaehringen, Berthold, becomes rector of Burgundy. Not that anyone knows what that is, but it sounds good. And if you have enough knights in shining armour, you can turn it into territorial gains in Burgundy, which is what he really wanted.

The counts of Meissen and our old friend Albrecht the Baer, well they get recognised in their recently acquired possessions in the east. And then he gives the archbishopric of Magdeburg to one of their relatives. He supports one of their candidates to become king of Denmark who also happened to be an old friend of his so no hardship..

And that gets us to the big one, the settlement with Henry the Lion. Conrad III saw the situation as irresolvable. Henry the Lion claimed the duchy of Bavaria as an inherited fief of the Welf family. It was his – full stop.. But Conrad could not give it to him even if he wanted to since the current duke was his half-brother, Henry Jasomirgott, the margrave of Austria and his only firm ally.  Basically, unless either one wins militarily or dies, as far as Conrad could think, this war would keep going.

That is where Barbarossa’s genius comes in. Barbarossa understood that the actual power associated with the ducal role was negligible. The ducal domaine had shrunk and the vassals were no longer following every  call to arms from the duke. It had become a title in the modern sense,  something that bestows standing and honour but no tangible assets. And if that is the case, it is a problem that can be solved.

Barbarossa negotiates the so-called Privilegium Minus with his uncle Henry Jasomirgott. In this agreement the Babenberger gives up the duchy of Bavaria, not to Henry the lion, but back to the King. Barbarossa then divides up the duchy and creates two new ones, Bavaria and the duchy of Austria. That means the Austrian is no longer formally obliged to give suit to the duke of Bavaria. And on top of that the Austrian duke is also relieved from the obligation to provide military services to the king. Austria is now an almost independent state within the empire, allowed to participate but not obliged to do so..The remaining Bavarian duchy then goes to Henry the Lion, who is now Duke of Saxony and duke of Bavaria.

And finally, his cousin, little Frederick who was not to become king, he gets the duchy of Swabia that Barbarossa hands over to him.

You see, all dukes now.

Barbarossa‘s change of approach does not end with handing out titles to anyone who demands one. This is a society driven by status, by how close you are to the king, how much influence you have.to repeat something I said many episodes ago, the great princes needed this closeness to the king in order to justify their role vis a vis their own vassals. They had to be able to provide their subjects with access to the royal justice at their discretion. If they lacked access their vassals would try to get past them to gain the favour, privilege or fief directly from the king. Hence Barbarossa makes sure they are seen close to the king. He was a master at massaging egos.

During Barbarossa’s reign all major decisions are always made, not by the king/emperor in the solitude of the throne room, but by consensus, in a court of princes. The transfer of Bavaria is not Barbarossa’s decision, it is formally a decision by the court of princes.

The great princes are being involved in the reign of the king, they are part, or as he loves to say, limbs of the body of the realm.

As one of his first acts Barbarossa declares a Landfrieden, a common peace. The peace contains 20 detailed provisions about what is allowed and what is not allowed and the sanctions for the perpetrators. It also contains specific rules on how fiefs can be inherited, lost and gained as well as the rights to bear arms, to graze cattle and horses and many other things that were at the heart of many feuds. And this being Barbarossa, the peace is not declared as a order of the king like the peace of say Henry III, but as a joint declaration by the king and the princes, who are also in charge of implementing these rules in their territories.

Otto von Freising rejoices at his nephew‘s reign. He calls him the cornerstone of the realm linking the two warring houses of Welf and Waiblingen bringing the eternal conflict to an end. As he pacified the big conflicts he gains the authority tonresolve the smaller feuds as well. The canons of Utrecht who had so rudely rejected Conrad’s offer of mediation are now falling on their knees before their new sovereign, promising to obey whatever he may decide. For the first time in more than a century the realm is at peace. 

All this is a radical shift away from the policy of ever tighter centralised reign that had started with Otto the Great. Barbarossa is taking a deliberate step back, back to the idea of ruling by consent of his nobles, nobles tied to him by links of friendship and common purpose.

If the reign of Conrad III reminded people of the reign of Conrad I the hapless first non-Carolingian king of East Francia, Barbarossa’s approach reminds people of Conrad I’s successor, King Henry the Fowler.

And that gets us to the second element of Barbarossa‘s reign. Like in Henry the Fowler‘s days, consensus is not enough to keep these power-hungry warlords in line. What a ruler needs is a common purpose. In Henry the Fowler‘s days the common purpose was the Defence against the Magyars. In Barbarossa times, well we will see next week when he sets out his big policy plan that he hopes will bring the empire back to the splendours of Rome of antiquity.

I hope you will join us again.

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