Episode 58 – The Lombard League

This week we will talk about the second part of the pincer movement that brought that Hohenstaufen construct of imperial power crashing down to earth. The first was the schism in the Latin church and the second was the link-up of almost all northern Italian communes in a coalition against Barbarossa, the Lombard League.


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – The Lombard League

This week we will talk about the second part of the pincer movement that brought that Hohenstaufen construct of imperial power crashing down to earth. The first was the schism in the Latin church and the second was the link-up of almost all northern Italian communes in a coalition against Barbarossa, the Lombard League.

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 Frank, Rita and Alexander who have already signed up.

And there are another two housekeeping issues. First, I have a slot at the Intelligentspeech conference on June 25th where I will talk about Crossing the Alps, the German’s relationship with Italy. Many of the things we discuss right now will feature there but also the 18th century longing for “land where the lemons bloom” as well as the nationalist narratives of the 19th and 20th centuries that still have repercussions into modern politics, specifically the Sovereign Debt crisis of 2012. There will be lots more amazing podcasters to listen to so get in there. Jamie Jeffers from the Britsh History Podcast is our star turn. The conference is fully online. Early bird tickets cost $20 and you get 10% discount using the offer code “Germans”.

The other thing I wanted to tell you about is that I am revamping the Website historyofthegermans.com. There will now be episode pages with the transcript and maps and images to help you follow along. The idea is that you can listen to the podcast and read along with the transcript and when we talk geography a map will show up, when I talk about some church or castle, an image comes up etc. Check it out and leave a comment, even if you think this was not that helpful. It is quite a bit of work and if it isn’t great, then I rather spend my podcast time on something else.

Enough of this, let’s start the show.

Last week we talked about the schism and the catastrophic loss of the army in Rome in the summer of 1167. I did mention that during the time the schism was escalating, Northern Italy had gradually gone into open revolt. To trace these development we go back to the exact same spot where last episode started, the year 1162, when Barbarossa stands in the smouldering ruins of Milan, the city he had ordered to be destroyed and its population to be expelled.

The “chessboard” of Italian citiy alliances before 1162 – pro-Milanese black and anti-Milanese red

After all that military gore and glory our great ruler had to sit down to the boring drudgery of  building a sustainable administration. This administration was to implement the laws of Roncaglia. The laws that had been modelled on the Roman Law of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine had a professional civil service, an elaborate system of tax assessment and a fair judiciary.

That was something Barbarossa and his advisers had never seen before.. The only monarchy that had something approximating an administrative infrastructure with regular tax income, functionaries reporting to the ruler and central oversight was England. Roland von Dassel had been to England recently but if he had shown an interest in this sophisticated system, it did not impact the setup for the Kingdom of Italy.

The Justinian code itself was also less than useful. It is all good to say that the emperor is the source of all laws, that judges appointed by the ruler adjudicate on his behalf and that taxes can be raised at will. What the codex did not say was that these powers were unlimited only in theory. Even the all powerful Roman emperors had to restrain their lawmaking to things the population could swallow, had to provide justice that was fair in the vast majority of cases and raise taxes equitably. There  should have been a manual, but there wasn’t. Knowledge of the limits of absolute power had been handed down from emperor to emperor and administration to administration. For Barbarossa and his advisors this was unknown territory. They were like teenagers who have been given a drone to play with. Yes they understand how to get the thing in the air but they have no idea how to fly them.

So they made it up as they went along.

Barbarossa’s government had three main elements. The first were the consuls and Podestas of the cities. Some of them were elected by the citizens and the approved by the emperor, that was the case in places like Lodi, Cremona and Pavia, all trusted allies. On the other side of the equation were the former enemies, most prominently Milan where the podesta was an appointed dictator, usually one of Barbarossa’s close advisors. Then there were variations on the theme like Ravenna, where the imperial envoy would lead the election process when in town but otherwise they were free.. And finally there were the maritime republics of Genoa and Pisa that were so powerful that the administration operated without any imperial interference.

The other institution were the imperial legates. This concept was borrowed from the system of papal legates who have acted as very effective representatives of the Pope since the early days of the Church reform.

There were two kinds of legates, the general legate and legates sent for specific tasks.

The general legate was supposed to represent the emperor, hold court, mediate between hostile parties or cities, impose penalties, invest consuls and podestas and receive oaths of allegiance. The general legate or legate for Italy was effectively a sort of viceroy who exercised the entire authority of the emperor. When Barbarossa went home to Germany in 1163, none other than Rainald von Dassel became the viceroy of Italy. Other legates were sent to deliver specific objectives like collect the Fodrum from reluctant cities or raise soldiers. Sometimes the legate was also made the podesta.

An imperial legate taking oaths from Italian cities (a little later from Sercambi’s History of Lucca

And then we have another function, the Vicarius or imperial vicar. His job was to be the head of the judiciary, in particular act as the imperial court of appeal.

Even a cursory look at this structure tells you that there were huge problems with it. The job of Vicarius and general legate have a lot of overlap to start with.

Then there is the inconsistency of imperial influence in the government of the individual cities that would make many feel hard done by. But what really undermined confidence in this imperial administration is the application of the tax laws.

In Roncaglia the Four Great Doctors of law had produced a comprehensive list of all the imperial regalia in each of the cities. That should have been a good start for a reasonably equitable execution of the rights. Most of these regalia had been pre-existing, hence the citizens were used to pay them. The only difference would have been that instead of the funds going to the bishop or the city oligarchy, they would be sent to the imperial legate.

But as you remember, the laws of Roncaglia had another set of provisions, one being the “Lex Tributum”. That asserted the right to levy a poll tax on both  individuals and property. From 1162 the  imperial Podestas gradually introduced these kinds of taxes..

Taxes are always unpopular, in particular newly introduced taxes. And these poll taxes were new in many territories where they would now be applied. The other thing is that tax discipline is linked to whether people think taxes are equitable. Are they levied based on ability to pay, used for a common good and proportional. The taxes raised by imperial legates and podestas  between 1162 and 1167 were none of that.

To start with. Barbarossa did neither have nor did he commission the equivalent of a Doomsday book. He therefore had no idea of the money generation capacity of individual cities. Without that he could not determine who amongst his podestas was particularly egregious. The second element was that the taxation burden fell initially predominantly on the cities that had just been defeated, Milan, Brescia, Piacenza. As these demands weren’t a one-off reparation but seemed a permanent feature of imperial tax policy, these cities could not envisage a point in time where they could live with this new government.

Doomsday book is the record of the “Great Survey” of much of England and parts of Wales completed in 1086 by order of William the Conqueror. The survey’s main purpose was to determine what taxes had been owed during the reign of Edward the Confessor, thereby allowing William to reassert the rights of the Crown and assess where power lay after a wholesale redistribution of land following the Norman conquest

As for the level of taxation we have only biased and not very detailed accounts. Hence we cannot say for certain whether it was oppressive. It is however likely that taxation became excessive, maybe not right at the beginning, but certainly as time went by. And that had to do with a material change in the shape of the imperial army.

By 1162 Barbarossa had spent roughly half his reign in the South and the German princes had supplied him with knights and foot soldiers as they were obliged to under feudal law. We do not know what exactly these feudal obligations were, specifically how many and how often they can be called upon to send troops. But it is noticeable that after 1162 fewer and fewer of the great secular princes came down to Italy. Henry the Lion did not come along in 1167, nor did Henry Jasomirgott or Albrecht the Baer. And when they did, they may have asked for payment. We have one case in the 1175 campaign of a secular prince asking for a subsidy. Hence the German component of the army was predominantly made up of the contingents from the bishoprics and friends and family of Barbarossa. To make up for the shortfall Barbarossa now has to hire mercenaries. And those are expensive, in particular if the campaigns are prolonged.

Where is that cash to come from? Before 1167 Barbarossa’s personal landholdings were fairly modest. Revenues from the royal domain were also not huge based on the limited evidence available. Hence the funding needs had to be covered by the Italian communes. As time goes by  princes become ever more reluctant to die in Italy, leading to more need for mercenaries, which means more funding needs. Soon the tax collection and enforcement of regalia tightens, not just in Milan, Brescia and Piacenza, but everywhere, including the most loyal of loyals, Lodi, Pavia and Cremona.

Staufer family lands in red. The dark is the family owned lands, though most of it was held by Frederick v. Rothenburg until 1167

A rising burden of taxation is usually enough to upset people, but what makes them really, really angry is if the tax collectors are biased and corrupt. Again, all sources we have are from Italians who paid the taxes, but given how medieval notions of property work, it is likely the imperial podestas saw the city the administered as a fief. And as such they could squeeze it at will without breaking the honour code. They did have to send some of the money to the emperor, sure, but all the excess is theirs, right. It is a sign of the immaturity of this administrative system that there was no  accountability and oversight, and absent a register of wealth like the doomsday book, none could be established..

By tradition the oppressed cities had a right to appeal to the emperor and the princely court. But Barbarossa had de facto abolished this right to appeal. He made the vicarius and the legates the highest judges  in the land. There was no possibility to formally take the case further. Even when the citizens of Milan fell on their knees by the side of the road and demanded a hearing, he brushed them off and directed them to Rainald von Dassel.

There we are, new taxes, taxes that are constantly going up and tax collectors that fill their pockets by squeezing even harder and no recourse to imperial justice. In that scenario it was always unlikely that Milan, Brescia and Piacenza would ever become loyal vassals of the empire. These cities will forever dream of throwing off the imperial yoke and take revenge. But when this system gets extended to the loyal cities, they feel even more enraged. They had helped Barbarossa to defeat Milan and its allies, and now they are treated no better than their former foes.

What drives the nail in the coffin is that when uprisings begin, the legates have to grant privileges and exemptions to those cities who threaten to join the uprisings. As city A sees that city B gets relief from taxation for promising not to join city C in rebellion, then City A has all the incentives in the world to at least pretend to rebel. With more and more cities taken off the roster, the remaining ones, i.e., the defeated and the most loyal have to shoulder it all. That is when the powder keg explodes.

But I am jumping ahead. Let’s take it chronologically.

In November 1162 Barbarossa returns back to Germany. He leaves Rainald von Dassel as general legate for Italy behind. The cities of Piacenza, Brescia, Bergamo and Ferrara receive a German count as imperial podesta. The citizens of Milan have to live in a number of villages outside the now empty city are administrated by the bishop of Liege.

Lombardy again

Who was the most oppressive of these podestas is a bit of a tossup between the bishop of Liege and Arnold of Dorstadt who was put in charge of Piacenza. Von Dorstadt systematically plundered the finances of the city that was already struggling with paying back a massive loan taken from Pavia.  Piacenza finally bought off  their podesta with the staggering sum of 11,000 marks of silver. But even that was not enough and the great nobleman allegedly plundered the treasury of the church of Saint Antony on his way out. He seemed to have had pangs of guilt later in life and used his cash to fund the abbey of Dorstadt in his hometown..

The Bishop squeezed the Milanese hard, taking ¼ of all the tilled crops and 1/3 of all the nuts, chestnuts and hay one summer. On top of that he had them bring 100 carts of firewood to the imperial palace at Monza during an imperial visit where they were also made to erect a vast brand-new kitchen that’s supposedly cost 1,000 pounds.

Another key position went to Otto von Wittelsbach who had received the castle of Garda as his personal fief Garda sits on lake Garda and was once the prison for the empress Adelheid. But that was 200 years earlier. By 1162 Garda’s job was to keep an eye on the city of Verona and the Brenner pass.

The Castle of Garda

The Veronese, lukewarm in their allegiance to the empire at the best of times, took offence at having this daredevil fighter right on their doorstep. And in all likelihood old Otto did I am sure the odd spot of plundering and squeezing of merchants and peasants. So the Veronese, together with the citizens of Padua and Vicenza demanded an imperial hearing when Barbarossa had come back to Italy in the winter of 1163. Barbarossa may be able to ignore a rabble of defeated Milanese kneeling in the dirt before his carriage, but he could not quite ignore three major city states requesting an audience.

Some talks were held in Pavia, the bottom line of which was that Verona, Padua and Vicenza would get their day in court provided they accepted an imperial podesta. The imperial allies in Lodi, Cremona, Pavia etc. tried to convince their colleagues that this was nothing but a formality and that in their case the freely elected consuls were made podesta as a matter of course.

But Verona, Padua and Vicenza refused. They had found the guts to resist not just in the strength of their walls and a quick inspection of the rather modest number of soldiers the emperor had brought down with him. What stiffened their resolve was that they had received pledges of support from Venice and from none other than Emperor Manuel in Constantinople. Venice motivation to get involved was fairly simple to deduce. A coherent, tax raising and expansionist Holy Roman empire on their doorstep was the last thing they wanted. And Venice had declared for Alexander III in the deepening schism.

As for Manuel, he had decided long time ago that Italy was his main political objective. Having a foothold on the peninsula was his way to ensure a measure of control over Sicilian, Crusader and Venetian ambitions to take over his empire. And as we know, he had good reason to worry about that. It is also around this time that Manuel is discussing a reconciliation of the Eastern and Latin church with Alexander III with him as emperor both in the East and in the West. Manuel had hence an interest in undermining Barbarossa’s power base in Italy. Barbarossa on the other hand kept attacking the city of Ancona, the main ally of Byzantium on the Italian mainland.

In early 1164 Verona, Padua and Vicenza formed the league of Verona. This was the first league of Italian cities and the first created to defy imperial authority. The members of the league promised each other mutual support against any attack.

The League of Verona (blue) and teh cities that promise neutrality (green)

Barbarossa had no other option than to attack Verona. This siege quickly revealed how fragile imperial administration had become within the two years following the fall of Milan. His own troops from across the alps counted just a few hundred knights. His closest allies provided support, but their enthusiasm was somewhat lukewarm. The siege lasted a sum total of 5 days and ended with imperial withdrawal. The swift and humiliating abandonment of the siege was blamed simultaneously on a bout of malaria and the imminent birth of Barbarossa’s first son, but who cares. What mattered was that the league of Verona had prevailed.

This failure further undermined the imperial administration. The legates had to grant concessions to cities like Ferrara, Mantua and Treviso for the promise not to join the league of Verona.  Barbarossa even apologised for the behaviour of his representatives. This relief from imperial oppression provided quite some food for thought for the city oligarchs across northern Italy. On the one hand there was no legal or other recourse against the ever-increasing financial demands of the imperial legates, meaning these would only ever become harsher. On the other hand, defying the emperor and his creatures was seemingly a low-risk option.

After this debacle the emperor returned to Germany at the end of 1164. He intended to return, not just to go after the league of Verona but also to end the schism by force. And that required a much larger army, an army his German princes would by now be unwilling to provide. And that meant he needed even more mercenaries, which meant he needed even more money. So, he instructed his administrators in Italy to squeeze out as much as they could get from the communes. According to Cardinal Boso, a supporter of pope Alexander III, Barbarossa had become profoundly suspicious of the Italian cities and now preferred to be feared rather than loved by them.

But, where shall the money come from? The defeated communes, Milan, Brescia, Piacenza etc. were already stretched beyond breaking point. The waverers could not be touched for fear they would join the league of Verona. That leaves only one group, the loyal supporters of the empire, Lodi, Cremona, Pavia. A chronicler from Lodi writes that the imperial tax collectors did not just claim what was Caesar’s, but sevenfold what was owed. Everything was taxed, the mills, fishing in the river, hunting with nets, hunting with dogs etc. The Lodese now felt that this oppressive rule was no longer bearable. It was better to die than to bear this humiliation and pain any longer.

The loyal cities initially believed this was mostly the work of the imperial legates and their appointees and that once the emperor was back he would put things right. At the end of 1166 Barbarossa was back.

He held a great assembly in Lodi, the city he had re-founded and supported ever since he first set foot into Italy 11 years earlier. The communes brought their complaints and appealed to the emperor to end the oppression. Barbarossa professed much sympathy for their plight, but in the end did nothing.

He was in a bind. Fundamentally he did not have the fiscal wriggle room to reduce the pressure. And when it came to the excesses of his governors and administrators, what could he do? Corruption and cruelty was so wide spread, for all we know he should send his entire staff home. And what then? After the debacle before Verona, many of the Lombards no longer feared him. His German supporters had come down with him in 1166 hoping for exactly that kind of plunder he would now prohibit. No, things had gone too far for now. Assuming he intended to do something about the obvious problems in his administration, he probably postponed it for after the campaign against Alexander III. Right now, there was nothing to be done.

This recurring refusal to provide justice is what tipped the Italian communes serious irritation first into despair and then into deep anger. The spark that blew up the already crumbly edifice that was the imperial administration came from Cremona.

There is a most likely apocryphal story about  one of the leaders of Cremona, a city that had stood with the imperial side through thick and thin for literally a hundred years. This eminent citizen, had been a member of Barbarossa’s inner circle. One day he was on his way to the council room when he was told that today he was not welcome. Concerned about what was being discussed he investigated. He was utterly shaken when uncovered Barbarossa’s plan. The emperor intended to bring down the walls of all Italian cities, fill their moats and disarm their guards so as to limit their ability ever to resist imperial demands. This Cremonese patrician subsequently invited all other Lombard leaders to the monastery of Pontida where he informed them of the intended final assault on their way of life. All northern Italian cities immediately promised to defend each other against the tyrant and so formed the Lombard League.

The oath of Pontida – 19th century Italian “patriotic” picture

Well this was indeed the result but the process was a bit more complicated. We might not know what triggered it, but in the spring of 1167 the cities of Mantua, Brescia and Bergamo and most importantly, Cremona, met for a colloquium to debate all the harm they had experienced by the hand of the imperial envoys. They agreed a pact of mutual support, modelled on the league of Verona, to defend each other against overreach by the legates.

The citizens of Milan who were still languishing in their village accommodation applied to join as soon as they heard. Cremona and Milan had fought each other for as long as anyone could remember. The same goes for Bergamo. The last thing these cities wanted was to swap imperial oppression against oppression from the Milanese. So they put harsh conditions on a Milanese participation in what is now called the Lombard league. Milan agreed to all their terms, including that Crema would never be rebuilt and its lands were to be granted to Cremona. No fortifications were to be built between Milan and Cremona and Milan and Bergamo etc., etc., pp

Milan, Trezzo and Lodi

All these negotiations happened in secret, but rumours were running like wildfire through the communes of Italy. The Imperial podesta in Milan became suspicious and demanded first a hundred new hostages, then 200 more. He asked for even more money, presumably to hire mercenaries. The army of Pavia mustered near Monza and some citizens of Milan who had been neutral or supportive of the empire received messages to leave their accommodation now, before they would all be wiped out. For days as their representatives negotiated with the other cities, the terrified population of Milan expected to be murdered in their beds and their houses torched.

On April 27th, 1167 first an army from Bergamo, then one from Brescia and finally from Cremona arrived near Milan. Under great jubilation they led the citizens back into their devastated city where they immediately began the slow process of rebuilding. The imperial administration of Milan and their support vanished without a trace.

In 1171 the Milanese honoured the cities of Cremona, Brescia and Bergamo by putting a relief and a plaque on the rebuilt Porta Romana depicting their  return under the shields of the Lombard League. And surprise, surprise that image is on the artwork for this episode.

The triumphant entry into Milan from 1171

The now five cities then took their armies to Lodi, that changed sides after a brief siege. Lodi, the city that the emperor had re-founded, where he had himself a great palace built that was the centre of his administration when he was in Italy, Lodi that had been a sworn enemy of Milan, that had been burnt down several times and that had so enthusiastically devastated Milan Lodi joined the Lombard League. The League then besieged the mighty castle of Trezzo that held the key to Lombardy and had been a focal point of military activity during the two previous sieges of Milan. Trezzo held out until mid- August hoping for relief but in vain. Piacenza was next to sign a treaty of friedship with its old friends the Milanese and its old archenemies, the Cremonese. The joint army moved on to Parma, a city Barbarossa was utterly convinced would remain loyal. Again, Parma surrendered and joined, as did Bologna. Less unexpectedly, several months later, on December 1, 1167 the league of Verona and the Lombard league joined together. They agreed on the key political objective, not to completely throw off the imperial yoke, but to limit the regalia to those exercised in the hundred years before Barbarossa’s reign.

Within a month the imperial administration in Italy had completely disintegrated. Only Pavia, Novara and Vercelli remained loyal to the emperor. I doubt that was because they loved the imperial tax collector but more that they feared the power of a resurgent Milan.

Lombard league mebers – white bit in the centre is Pavia

The old chessboard model of Italian politics where all the white squares were constantly at war with the black squares suddenly went all white, or all black, whatever you prefer. The imperial tyranny had forged a coherent political entity from Venice to Pisa and from Ferrara to Verona. If the emperor were to attack one city an army from all Lombard cities could be raised quickly and brought to its defence.

What did Barbarossa do? Well, you know already. He was in Italy in the spring and summer of 1167. With a very large army. This army however was directed at the city of Rome.

In hindsight, the right thing for him to do would have been to return to Lombardy when he heard about the formation of the league , overrun the still broken walls of Milan and call an end to this rebellion. Hindsight is a fabulous thing, but rarely available at decision time.

If we put ourselves into Barbarossa’s shoes, the options were two. He could go back up to Lombardy, but that would have meant to leave Alexander III in control of Rome. And that would have been the last time he had a shot at Alexander III. No way he could muster a similarly sized army again. The financial support from Lombardy would surely be reduced even if he regained the upper hand over the communes. And without money there will be no mercenaries and the princes certainly had enough of Italy.  

If on the other hand Rome falls quickly, he could turn his men around and still knock these pesky towns for six. It might even be easier because having captured Alexander III the schism would be over, and he would control the papacy.

Option 2 looks rationally the better one. What he is unlikely to have thought about was option 3, the thing that actually happened.

The great old defence mechanism of the popes, disease, ended all of Barbarossa’s plans. Only days after breaking the walls and gaining entry into the holy city, dysentery took hold. His men and a large number of princes died within days, amongst the Rainald von Dassel, the man who helped design his policies and who he had put in charge of Italy. That we talked about in detail last week.

Malaria in Italy

Barbarossa’s return journey from Rome in the summer of 1167 turned into a nightmare. He managed to get to Pisa, a city still loyal as no taxes had been levied there. They gave him a great reception and hosted a meeting where he made plans to go to Lombardy using soldiers from Pisa, Lucca and other Tuscan cities.  But before that army could muster the cries for help from Pavia became shrill. Lodi had sided with the League. He needed to get there fast if he wanted to rescue anything of his previous acquisitions. But crossing the Apennine mountains proved difficult. The city of Pontremoli, not one of the greatest of medieval Italian powers and previous recipient of imperial largesse blocked his path. Even they had joined the Lombard league. The imperial bodyguard was barely able to ensure the safety and security of the empress Beatrix and the two sons, barely toddlers at the time. She had to protect them rom flying arrows with her shield. They only got through by climbing along mountain paths above the town of Pontremoli.

Strategic positioon of Pontremoli on the route between Tuscany and Padua

Somehow they reached Pavia where Barbarossa declared the imperial ban over the cities of the Lombard league by throwing down the gauntlet. But all he could muster were a few raids into Milanese territory that had little effect. As the league geared up to besiege Pavia, the decision was made to go home. At that point even Novara and Vercelli joined the League.

We talked about the return journey last time. The bribe for the count of Savoy, the rush to Susa where he was nearly murdered and the solitary transition of the mountain pass. Next week we will talk about what he did when he got back – well for nearly 6 years, very little. Only after that does he gradually regain his mojo and takes another run at Italy. Let’s see how that pans out. I hope to see you then.

And in the meantime, if you feel like supporting the show or want to get hold of these bonus episodes, sign up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans. All the links are in the show notes.