Frederick II – 1196-1250

There are few individuals in European history that have elicited as much controversy as this man. A ruthless, brutal power player or a free-thinking patron of the arts and sciences a man who drives his eldest son to suicide and elevates his illegitimate sons to become kings. They called him the Stupor Mundi, the Wonder of the World.


Little is known but much has been written about the youth of emperor Frederick II, not only because it was exceedingly turbulent, but also because it forged a man who burst on the European stage aged 14 already displaying many of those personality traits that would make him known as the Stupor Mundi, the Astonishment of the World. How did he become who he became?


This week we take a look at the reign of Frederick II in Germany from 1212 to 1220. Most of what he did was putting a nail in an actual coffin whilst also putting the metaphorical nail into the carcass of imperial rule in Germany


This is a story I was looking forward to telling for quite some time. It has everything – mindless fighting, stubbornness, and fake armies as well as elaborate diplomacy, cultural awareness and stunning success. It is the story of the crusade of Frederick II, that has no parallel, for one because Frederick did undertake it whilst excommunicated by the pope and further, because he brought Jerusalem back under Christian control for one last time, without a shot being fired.


For 30 years after the death of the last Hauteville king in 1190 the institutions of that kingdom had been eroded, the crown estate squandered, and powerful local forces had been riding roughshod over the royal administration. Fredrick will bring this land back under his firm control. That is however not your usual return of the king story, because the way he does it is no longer typically medieval…..


This week we come to what was long believed to be his masterpiece, the Constitutions of Melfi. Even if It isn’t the creation of a modern state in the 13th century as Kantorowicz had believed there is still something fundamentally different here. The Middle Ages is a world where progress comes from people moving forward whilst looking back. They ask questions about the world and seek the answers in the past, in the Bible, the Church Fathers, Aristotle, Averroes etc. Only where the ancients are silent will great minds like Albertus Magnus look at the real world, undertake experiments and collect observation to derive their answers. Frederick is different. He does turn around and look at the natural world first and at dusty books second.


today we will leave the shores of the Mediterranean to travel up north, though not with a train of mules carrying gold and silver, camels, dromedaries, leopards and apes as Fredrick II did in 1235. The reason for that journey was nowhere near as joyous as the display of wealth and exotic animals suggests. It is a tale of a father and son relationship that went disastrously wrong…


What do you do once you have condemned your eldest son and heir to life imprisonment? Exactly, you have a party, or more precisely you have two parties. But as always with Frederick II, these are not just knees-up for entertainment, but elaborately staged political events. The first is a wedding, the second a grand get-together of the whole realm and then there is a third, a funeral of a kind you would not have expected from our rational, seemingly agnostic hero. Lots to unpack as always…

Near the town of Andria in Puglia rising from a rock that makes it visible for miles stands entirely on its own a stone  structure we call the Castel del Monte. Its ground plan is unique, and like many other of the Emperor’s buildings it was probably sketched by Frederick himself: a regular octagon of yellowish limestone; its smooth perfectly-fitting blocks showing no joins and producing the effect of a monolith. Of all that remains of Frederick II nothing epitomises the personality of the great emperor more than this building, which may have been a fortification or a hunting lodge or an enormous marble crown celebrating the concept of universal imperial power.

De Arte venandi cum Avibus, The art of hunting with birds was produced around 1260. Yes, this is a book about hunting and quite frankly I normally put books about hunting in the same category as books about golf – extremely interesting to those who play golf, crushingly boring to everybody else. But this book is not about hunting, it is about nature about the beginnings of science and the awakening of the critical mind. Let’s take a look..


The last great battle that made the HRE look as if it was indeed, Holy, Roman and an Empire,


After his great victory Frederick II demands an unconditional surrender from Milan – the city refuses and war resumes. Meanwhile Gregory IX is busy forging alliances against the emperor


Frederick II has been excommunicated. A public relations war ensues. Meanwhile war rages on land and sea.


One last attempt at reconciliation. Will new pope Innocent IV take the Road to Narni to peace, or flee Italy?


Finally Innocent IV gets what he wants, the deposition of Frederick II, plus even a crusade against a consecrated Latin monarch. But not much happened after that until we get to Parma…


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.