The Hohenstaufen (1125-1268)

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The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.


Most other medieval German rulers are all but forgotten, so why has interest in the Hohenstaufen never completely disappeared. They were by no means the most successful emperors, that crown has to go the Ottonians, nor was their reign the most fateful, that award goes to the later Salians.

Frederick Barbarossa and his grandson Frederick II have been such fascinating personalities that almost any age could project their own perceptions and expectations onto them, from champion of national unity to modern man before his time. Time to find out what really happened, who they actually were.

As always a great many things keep happening, some good, some bad.

Key Events

Lothar III (1125-1138)

The age of the Hohenstaufen begins with an emperor who wasn’t a Hohenstaufen. Lothar of Supplinburg was a Saxon duke who had spent his early years in opposition to the reigning Salian house and their allies, the Hohenstaufen. The circumstances of his election victory against Frederick of Hohenstaufen kicks off the long lasting political antagonism between Staufer and Welf, between Guelphs and Ghibellines. But despite the outward differences in background and initial political positioning, Lothar III continued the Salian policy of forcing their will upon the princes and pushing back against the papacy. The new element he brings into imperial policy is the Eastern expansion that will ultimately bring about the Baltic empire of the Teutonic Knights and the Hanse.


Death of Emperor Henry V and election of Lothar of Supplinburg as Emperor Lothar III.


Civil War between Lothar III and the Hohenstaufen. Lothar defeats them


Church falls victim to a schism that pulls in all European monarchs. Lothar fights his way to Rome but dies upon his return

Conrad III (1138-1152)

Conrad III manages to gain the crown against overwhelming odds. His opponent Henry the proud was the son-in-law of Lothar III and the most powerful prince in the land. The coup resulted in a continuation of the civil war between the houses of Welf and Hohenstaufen. Participation in the Second Crusade was an attempt to break the gridlock that backfired badly


Conrad III snatches the crown from Lothar’s designated successor, Duke Henry of Saxony from the House of Welf


Conrad III fights endless civil wars against the House of Welf


The disastrous Second Crusade wipes out what was left of royal authority. The Reich falls into chaos

Frederick I Barbarossa (1152-1190)

The most famous of all the medieval German emperors. His reign divides into three parts, part 1 (1152-1160) when he brings peace to war torn Germany and rebuilds imperial authority, part 2 (1160-1177) where he struggles with the papacy and the Italian Communes, and finally part 3 (1177-1190 a period of consolidation ending in the Third Crusade.


Barbarossa is elected in another Coup d’Etat


Barbarossa mends the divisions between Welf and Staufer, finds an agreement with the church and gets crowned emperor


Barbarossa Second Italian Campaign, first defeat of Milan and the promulgation of theLaws of Roncaglia


The cities of Crema and Milan reject the new governance of Northern Italy and are besieged, defeated and razed.


Political and ideological conflict with the papacy. A series of imperial anti-popes fail to get traction. Barbarossa besieges Rome


Alongside with the schism the Lombard cities chafe under imperial rule leading ultimately to the creation of the Lombard League


After the catastrophic disintegration of the army before Rome, Barbarossa fundamentally resets his agenda and sets out for his fifth Italian campaign


The fifth Italian campaign is going from bad to worse as he is abandoned by his secular princes. The imperial army and the Milanese meet for a showdown in Legnano


Peace has to be made with the Pope, the Lombard League, the King of Sicily and Emperor Manuel. The first international peace congress meets in Venice.


Upon his return he finds his cousin and friend Henry the Lion under enormous pressure from the Saxon nobles. Barbarossa cannot protect him


After the shock of seeing his political infrstructure collapse, Barbarossa picks himself up and seeks new routes to expand his family’s power


The Hohenstaufen also need a new ideology, an ideology that makes them independent of papal interference.


Barabrossa sets out for his last adventure. Recapturing Jerusalem and laying down his crown at teh church of teh Holy sepulchre is the dream that ends in teh river Saleph


Barbarossa remains the best known of the medieval emperors. his image hads gone through so many iterations, it is now difficult to sperate the man from the myth

Henry VI. (1190-1197)

The least known of the great Hohenstaufen emperors may also have been its most successful. During his reign he takes possession of the immensly rich kingdom of Sicily thanks to the proceeds of the ransom paid by Richard the Lionheart. He maintains some sort of order North of the Alps and even gets the princes to agree to make the empire an inheritable monarchy. But all this is too much for the popes who feel encircled and threatened to the core.


For the first time in 150 years does the empire see a smooth transition of the crown from father to son. His wife’s inheritance of the kingdom of Siciliy did not remain uncontested. A first campaign ends unsuccessfully before the walls of Naples


Henry VI. wins the lottery – twice. King Richard of England is captured and the usurper Tancred of lecce died – Sicily is his – and his 40-year-old wife gives him an heir


The wonderous gains of 1194 need to be conserved. And that means an agreement with the papacy – not that easy

Philipp von Schwaben/ Otto IV (1198-1214)

Upon the death of emperor Henry IV two men contend for the crown. Philipp von Schwaben is the emperor’s younger brother and the duke of Swabia. His rival is Otto IV, son of Henry the Lion, the deposed duke of Bavaria and Saxony.


The crusade meant to appeas ethe papacy sets off – minus the emperor. Uprisings in Sicily hold him back and then he suddenly dies, throwing both the kingdom of Sicily and the empire into turmoil


The conflict between Philipp and Otto is only partially won on the battlefield. Diplomacy, bribery and entertainment play its role. But what nobody expected was murder most foul.


Only one male member of the House of Waiblingen is left. Otto IV goes after him inciting the wrath of pope Innocent III. Five miracles and the most important battle in medieval Europe later, Otto IV dies alone and forgotten in his palace in Brunswick

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.

Epilogue (1250-1303)

With the death of Frederick II the Hohenstaufen story usually comes to an end. But it isn’t really the end of the story. There are four heirs to get through and obviously the question whether the papacy, the victor of this struggle will enjoy the fruits of their success. And we look at the perception of the Hohenstaufen in the 19th and 20th century with a special episode on Ernst Kantorowicz.


When Frederick II died there were four legitimate male descendants of the emperor, his son Konrad IV, elected king of the Romans, his son Henry, a mere six years old, but from most noble blood, his son Manfred from his relationship with Bianca Lancia who he had married on her deathbed. And there was a grandson, the child of his unlucky oldest son Henry (VII). 18 years later when this episode ends, the House of Hohenstaufen will be wiped from the face of the earth.


The popes have won the 200-year fight with the emperors, first the Salians and then the Hohenstaufen. A total war that ended in total victory. The imperial family of the Henrys of Waiblingen has been annihilated either in battle, through illness or at a last resort by execution. The empire is reduced from dominating power in Europe to coordinating mechanism for the princes. How could anyone deny that, to use the words of pope Boniface VIII, “it is altogether necessary for salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff”.

Well, someone will deny that and six years after these words were uttered the church will march north into its Babylonian Captivity in Avignon. How did that happen?

1 Comment

  1. Hi Dirk. Having listened to all the episodes to Series 4 over the past 8 Weeks whilst commuting I have found the history of the Holy Roman Empire and it’s Germanic leaders fascinating.

    The story of the Hohenstaufen has been in depth and has riveting. I presume the Matthew Parris quotes are from his book “Great Unfrocked”.

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