December 26, 2011

The Eighth Wonder of the World: Frederick II Hohenstaufen King of Sicily; Holy Roman Emperor

Federico II di Svevia, Palazzo Reale, Napoli 
Photos by New York Scugnizzo
By Niccolò Graffio

“It is very obvious, and no more than natural, for princes to desire to extend their dominions, and when they attempt nothing but what they are able to achieve they are applauded, at least not upbraided thereby; but when they are not able to compass it, and yet will be doing, then they are condemned, and indeed not unworthily.” – Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince, III, 1513

The Kingdom of Sicily, founded by Roderigo (Roger) II on Christmas Day, 1130 passed to his fourth son Guglielmo (William) I upon his death on February 26th, 1154.  Growing up, Guglielmo had little expectation of ever becoming king.  Over the period of 1138-48 his three older brothers (Roderigo, Tancredo and Alfonso) all died under different circumstances, dramatically changing his fortunes.

Alas, Guglielmo had never been prepared for the rigors of kingship, and so his reign was but a shell of his father’s.  His time on the throne was marked by foreign invasions (in which he lost his father’s North African possessions) and by intrigues and revolts at home.  His last years were peaceful, him having made his peace with Pope Alexander III, who was installed in the Lateran Palace in November, 1165 under the protection of Norman guards.

With Guglielmo’s death on May 7th, 1166 his kingdom passed to his second son, Guglielmo (William) II, called the Good.  Though this Guglielmo was only 11 years old when he ascended the throne, and preferred to spend his time holed up in his palace devoting himself to carnal pleasures, his reign was markedly more aggressive, both diplomatically and militarily, than that of his father.  

Guglielmo II tried unsuccessfully to regain his father’s lost possessions in North Africa.  Failing this, he turned his attention to the Egyptian Sultanate of Saladin, whose own troops were threatening the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.  In July, 1174 Guglielmo II dispatched 30,000 troops to Alexandria, Egypt.  Saladin’s arrival shortly afterwards, however, forced them to withdraw.

In a move that would one day prove disastrous for Norman rule of the Kingdom of Sicily, he signed a peace treaty (Treaty of Venice) with the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa in July, 1777.  This treaty paved the way for 15 years of peace and prosperity for Sicily.  To cement it, Guglielmo II allowed his young aunt Constanza (Constance), daughter of King Roderigo II of Sicily, to be taken in marriage by Frederick’s son Henry (later Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI).  As part of the alliance, Guglielmo II required a general oath be taken to Constanza as his successor in the event he died without any heirs.
Another look at Federico II di Svevia, Palazzo Reale, Napoli 
Following this, he next took advantage of turmoil in the Byzantine Empire to invade that place.  Durres, a city in what is now Albania, was captured on June 11th, 1185.  He subsequently captured the Ionian islands of Corfu, Cephalonia, Ithaca and Zakynthos.  The important city of Thessalonica was captured in August, 1185.  With his troops marching on the capital of Constantinople, victory looked imminent for Guglielmo, but in an unexpected turn, Emperor Isaac Angelus personally led his troops to victory against the invaders at the Battle of Strymon (September 7th, 1185).  The Sicilians were forced to retreat from Thessalonica and four years later King Guglielmo II abandoned his Byzantine possessions.  

He next prepared his forces for a general invasion of the Holy Land.  Historians believe this was in anticipation of him playing a major part in the upcoming Third Crusade (1189-92).  His navy was able to keep the eastern part of the Mediterranean open for Frankish vessels sailing to the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, and Guglielmo’s forces were able to force Saladin’s armies to retire from their siege of Tripoli in the spring of 1198. 

King Guglielmo II died on November 11th, 1189 leaving no children.  The mantle of kingship was assumed by Tancredo, illegitimate son of Roderigo III, Duke of Apulia (who was the eldest son of King Roderigo II of Sicily).  Tancredo had previously joined an insurrection against Guglielmo II but was pardoned on condition he voluntarily went into exile, to which he agreed.  When Guglielmo died, however, he rebelled and proclaimed himself King of Sicily in the spring of 1190.  His cause was supported by the Royal Chancellor, Matteo d’Ajello and the official class.  Most of the Sicilian nobles, however, supported the rival claim of Constanza and her husband, Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI.

Tancredo’s reign would be short-lived and tumultuous.  Shortly after proclaiming himself king, his kingdom was invaded by King Richard I of England, who was on his way to join the Third Crusade in the Holy Land.  Richard demanded the release of his sister, Joan, who had been the wife/queen of Guglielmo II.  Shortly after his predecessor’s death, Tancredo had had Joan imprisoned.  Richard demanded her release along with her dowry and inheritance.  His claims were bolstered by the presence of France’s King Philip II and his armies.  

Tancredo ultimately agreed to Richard’s demands, in return for Richard and Philip recognizing his right to Sicily and peace between the three kingdoms.  When the foreign rulers and their armies left for the Holy Land, Tancredo next turned his attention to the threat brewing in the north.

Here, however, Tancredo ran into much greater trouble.  In April of 1191 Henry and his wife Constanza were crowned Emperor and Empress of the Romans by Pope Celestine III.  With this under their belts, the two then invaded Southern Italy to solidify Constanza’s claim to the Kingdom of Sicily which they claimed was her right as the posthumous daughter of King Roderigo II of Sicily by his third wife Beatrix of Rethel.

Palazzo Reale, Napoli 
Naples came under siege, but put up a spirited resistance that was bolstered by the presence of the fleet of Margarito of Brindisi, the last Grand Admiral of Sicily.  Malaria forced Henry to withdraw the bulk of his forces, and for a time Constanza actually became a hostage of Tancredo, having been turned over to him by the people of Salerno. Imperial soldiers aided her in escaping, however, and she fled north of the Alps.

Tancredo won some victories over Henry’s garrisons, but his death in Palermo on February 20th, 1194, a few days after the death of his young son and co-ruler Roderigo III, left the kingdom effectively leaderless.  When Henry VI returned at the head of his huge armies (paid for by his ransoming of King Richard I of England) the regency of Guglielmo III was vacated and Siculo-Norman rule over the Kingdom of Sicily came to an end, beginning the reign of the House of Hohenstaufen. 

Hohenstaufen rule over the Kingdom of Sicily as a whole was unremarkable for the period.  Most of the kings this line produced simply didn’t reign for very long. The single exception was an extraordinary character in Medieval Europe who left an indelible mark on the history of Southern Italy.

Federico II di Svevia (Frederick II Hohenstaufen) was born on December 26th, 1194 in the town of Iesi near the city of Ancona in what is now Italy. His father was Henry VI; King of Germany & Sicily as well as Holy Roman Emperor.  His mother was Constanza (Constance) of Hauteville, wife of Henry VI and Queen of Sicily in her own right being the posthumous daughter of King Roderigo II, founder of the Regno.     

Federico’s rule as sovereign was challenged almost from the time he was born.  He had been elected King of the Germans at the age of two in Frankfurt am Main and immediately his rights in Germany were disputed by his father’s brother Philip of Swabia and another claimant to the throne, Otto of Brunswick.  When Frederick’s father died a year later his mother had him recalled to Palermo where on May 17, 1198 he was crowned King Federico I of Sicily.  To secure his throne in the Mediterranean, she had herself proclaimed his regent, renounced all his claims to the German throne and Holy Roman Empire, and then sent his German counselors packing.

Constanza would die on November 27th, 1198.  In her will she made Pope Innocent III her son’s guardian.  It was her wish that her son be raised a Sicilian monarch and nothing more. She could not possible foresee the events that would follow her death.  Innocent appointed Cencio Savelli (later Pope Honorius III) as Federico’s tutor.  

However, Markward von Annweiler, an ambitious ministerialis, invaded the Kingdom of Sicily with the help of Philip of Swabia and a fleet of Genoese ships in 1200.  He seized the young Federico, ruling in his place as regent until 1202 when he died.  The regency was subsequently assumed by another German captain named William of Capparone who ruled until he was replaced by Gualtiero da Pagliaro (Walter Palearia) who remained regent until young Federico came of age in 1208.

Numerous legends exist of Federico’s life growing up in Palermo.  It is known he was a polyglot who spoke no less than six languages (Latin, Sicilian, Greek, French and Arabic).  Interestingly, there is no record of him ever having learned to speak German.  His mother Constanza’s desire that he should grow up to become a Sicilian monarch seems to have born fruition.  As historian William Harvey Maehl would write of him centuries later, "To the end of his life he remained above all a Sicilian grand signore, and his whole imperial policy aimed at expanding the Sicilian kingdom into Italy rather than the German kingdom southward.”  Truth be told, his actions would show he was really uninterested in Germany.

Palazzo Reale, Napoli 
Upon receiving his throne he set about to restore order in the Regno, which was now under the control of rebellious barons as well as Genoese and German adventurers.  Otto of Brunswick, King of the Romans and of Burgundy, was proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Innocent III in 1209.  He backed the cause of the rebellious barons in Sicily, hoping to exploit the troubles there to one day add the Regno to his domains.  Towards that end he invaded Calabria.  He also marched on the city of Rome itself, seeking to assert his authority over that of the Holy See. 

Pope Innocent III reacted furiously upon hearing the news!  In September of 1211 at the Diet of Nuremberg a group of rebellious nobles, angered by Otto’s neglect of the Imperial domains in Germany, elected Federico in absentia King of the Germans in opposition to Otto.  Innocent in turn had Otto excommunicated.  In response to this, Otto was forced to return to Germany.

Federico was crowned King of the Germans on December 9th, 1212 in the city of Mainz, but he exercised real power only in the south.  Otto, despite his excommunication, continued to exercise the powers of king and emperor in the north.  However, his influence had begun to wane.  He died on May 19th, 1218.  The German princes, with the blessing of Pope Innocent III, again crowned Federico King of the Germans on July 23rd 1215.  With the death of Otto no one remained in his way to becoming emperor.  He was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Honorius III (Innocent’s successor) in the city of Rome on November 22nd, 1220.

As part of the deal he made with the Holy See for the crown of emperor, Federico renewed his vow to take up the Cross against the infidel in the Holy Land the following year (which he did not do).  He also gave secular power to prosecute heretics in his domains to the Roman Catholic Church.

His bowing to ecclesiastical authority was apparently due more to political considerations than a sincere piety.  Writers of the time claim Federico was a religious skeptic who frequently made shocking if not outright blasphemous statements concerning Catholic sacraments and dogma.  One controversial account stated he called Moses, Jesus and Mohammed the three greatest frauds of all time!  These utterances would provide fodder for his enemies at the Papal court and earned him the moniker stupor mundi (Lt. “Wonder or astonishment of the world”).

On the flip side he was enamored by intellectual pursuits, and actively promoted them.  The Byzantine Greek and Islamic scholars he came into contact with while growing up in Palermo appear to have instilled in him an appreciation of the sciences.  He seems to have been particularly fascinated by the refractive properties of water, as demonstrated by correspondence he sent on this matter to Arab scholars.

He was also different from most other Holy Roman Emperors in that he spent relatively little time in Germany, despite his German heritage on his father’s side.  In fact, other than using its resources to help increase his power in Italy, he doesn’t seem to have had any real interest in Germany at all!

His neglect of his German holdings would have far-reaching consequences for that area of Europe.  According to modern historians, the many concessions he made to German princes severely weakened his hold on that area of his empire and delayed German unification for centuries

His apathy towards Germany was in no small way due to the influence of his mother, who saw to it his upbringing would keep him centered in the Mediterranean.  It would bear a wonderful fruit!  Under his aegis, the Sicilian language became the first Italio-Romance language to blossom through the use of literary form.  This was particularly apparent in his promotion of the Sicilian School of Poetry.  No less than Dante Alighieri praised the school for its contributions to literature and it would have a profound effect on later Italian writers.

While Federico excelled in his promotion of the arts and sciences, his physical appearance apparently left something to be desired.  The Syrian scholar Abu-Muzaffar wrote the following based on second-hand testimony of him: “"The Emperor was covered with red hair, was bald and myopic. Had he been a slave, he would not have fetched 200 dirhams at market."

Federico’s reign was troubled nearer to home as well, for his policies eventually put him into conflict with Pope Honorius III.  The source of the conflict was Federico’s attitude towards the Church.  He viewed himself as a direct successor to the ancient Roman emperors and therefore (in his mind, anyway) considered himself the supreme ecclesiastical authority as well.  This did not sit well with the Holy See.

As mentioned previously, in return for being crowned King of Germany (King of the Romans) he had promised the Pope he would mount a Crusade against Islam.  In particular the Pope wanted an invasion of Egypt.  Federico sent forces there under the command of Duke Louis I of Bavaria.  Egypt at the time was still under the command of the Ayyubid dynasty founded by Saladin.  At the time of this, the Fifth Crusade, the Ayyubid dominions were under the control of Saladin’s nephew, Sultan Al-Kamil.  Louis’s forces joined up with the armies of other Crusaders.  

However, delays caused by the anticipation of the arrival of Federico himself resulted in the Papal Legate, Cardinal Pelagius, foolishly turning down Al-Kamil’s offer of a restoration of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem to the Crusaders in return for their withdrawal from Egypt.  The whole expedition ended in disaster!  Pope Honorius III furiously blamed Federico’s hesitance for it; an opinion shared by much of Christian Europe.

In an attempt to assuage the hostility he had incurred in the halls of power of the Church, and also to shore up his crumbling influence in northern Italy (thanks to a reformation of the Lombard League), Federico agreed to a compromise proposed by Honorius.  He also gave to the Teutonic Order territories that would later become East Prussia that they might use in their prosecution of the so-called Northern Crusade against pagan peoples living along the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic Sea.  Nevertheless, the damage had been done, and for the remainder of his life Federico would have problems with his enemies in the Holy See.

In August, 1225 he married Yolande of Brienne (later Queen regnant Isabella II of Jerusalem), daughter of John of Brienne, who became King of Jerusalem by his marriage to Yolande’s mother, Queen Maria of Jerusalem.  She would bare him two children: a daughter who died in infancy, and later a son, Conrad, born April 25th, 1228.  She died shortly after giving birth to him.

Not too long after marrying Yolande, Federico deprived her father John of Brienne, of all his rights as king and had them transferred to him.  In August, 1227 he again took up the Crusader’s sword and set sail for Jerusalem.  Three days out, however, he was seized with an illness and was forced to return.  Due to his hesitancy during the Fifth Crusade it was believed by many (including the new pope, Gregory IX, himself no fan of Federico) the Emperor faked his illness to avoid honoring his commitments.  The testimony of the head of the Teutonic Knights, Hermann von Salza, as to the veracity of Federico’s illness mattered none.  On September 29th, 1229 Pope Gregory IX excommunicated the Emperor for failing to honor his promise.

That Federico eventually sailed again from Brindisi for the Holy Land in June, 1228 did not help matters; in fact, they made them worse!  As someone excommunicated from the Church, Federico was prohibited from leading a Crusade until he set things right with the Pope.  Failing to do that brought upon his head a second excommunication.  

He reached Acre in September and found himself in trouble, for none of the local authorities and most of the members of the military orders would not cooperate with an excommunicate.  Further complicating things was the fact his own force was too small to carry on warfare against the enemy.  He wound up negotiating a truce with Sultan Al-Kamini which gave the city of Jerusalem, along with the towns of Bethlehem and Nazareth to the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  In return, the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque would remain in Islamic hands while the city of Jerusalem would remain unfortified.

This truce did not sit well with the other Crusaders and it infuriated the Holy See!   Charges were levied that Federico used the truce as a ploy to increase his own power in the region.  In any event, by 1244 Jerusalem was lost to a new Moslem invasion.

While he was away in the Holy Land, his regent Rainald of Spoleto provoked a war with the Papal States by invading the Marche and the Duchy of Spoleto.  In retaliation Pope Gregory IX raised an army and invaded Southern Italy, reaching as far as the Emperor’s own home region of Puglia!  Federico arrived in time to take command and turn back the Papal invasion, ending his dispute with the Pope with the Treaty of San Germano in middle part of 1230. 

Farther north in Germany Federico’s son Henry (by his wife Constanza of Aragorn) had triggered a political crisis with the German princes.  The Emperor had to go to Germany, force his son to renounce the throne and all his lands, and then imprison him.  Nevertheless his power in Germany remained greatly weakened.

After this he turned his attention to the Lombard League.  Pope Gregory IX tried in vain to prevent Federico’s invasion of Lombardia.  The Emperor won a crushing victory over the Lombards November 27, 1237 at the Battle of Cortenuova, virtually destroying their combined armies!   The second Lombard League dissolved shortly after this, and all but the cities of Milan, Brescia, Piacenza and Bologna submitted to Imperial authority.  In celebration Federico held for himself a triumph in the style of the ancient Roman emperors.  At this point he was at the height of his power! 

Unfortunately for him, this victory would prove to be short-lived, for his hubris over his upset victory clouded his judgment.  He demanded the total surrender of the remaining warring cities, which they refused.  He in turn refused any attempt at negotiations, even though the city of Milan was willing to send him a considerable sum of money.  His attempt to capture the city of Brescia met with failure and by October, 1238 he was forced to withdraw his forces from the city.  

Further clouding his earlier victory was the fact Pope Gregory IX again excommunicated him in the early part of 1239.  Angered by this, he responded by expelling members of the Franciscan and Dominican orders from Lombardia.  Furthermore, Enzio of Sardinia, an illegitimate son of his, as Imperial vicar of northern Italy invaded the Papal States.  Federico used this opportunity to attempt an invasion of the Republic of Venice in order to destroy it.  His goal was to unite the entire Italian peninsula under his rule, including the city of Rome, thereby restoring the Imperium Romanum.  His attempts ultimately failed, however, and he was forced to return to his possessions in Southern Italy.

On August 22nd, 1241 Pope Gregory IX died.  Federico’s attempt at extending an olive branch to the Holy See accomplished nothing, and the two maintained a state of belligerency.  On June 25th, 1243 Sinibaldo Fieschi was elected Supreme Pontiff as Pope Innocent IV.  Due to the fact he came from a noble Ligurian clan, and that some members of his family were sympathetic to the Imperial cause, Federico was hopeful this would be a positive sign.  His hopes were dashed forever, however, when the new pope revealed himself to be an even more bitter and resourceful foe of the emperor than any of his predecessors!
Federico II di Svevia, Palazzo Reale, Napoli
Innocent was not content with merely continuing the policies of previous popes in attempting to increase papal power; he also worked tirelessly to bring ruin upon Emperor Federico himself!  In 1243 the city of Viterbo, located 50 km north of Rome, rebelled against him.  Federico laid siege to the city but was unsuccessful.  Innocent prevailed upon him to withdraw his troops from the city.  

The pope also sent large amounts of money to German princes in an attempt to undo Federico’s power in Germany.  In May, 1246 Heinrich Raspe, the Landgrave of Thuringia, was elected anti-king.  On August 5th of that same year he managed to defeat an army led by Federico’s son Conrad, but died later that year before shoring up his victory.  The following year William II, Count of Holland and Zeeland was elected anti-king in opposition to Federico and held the title until his death. 

In June of 1247 the city of Parma in Lombardia rebelled against Imperial authority.  Federico’s son Enzio appealed to his father for aid who responded by laying siege to the city.  However, while the Emperor was away from his camp one day on a hunting expedition his forces came under a heavy assault by the rebels, who utterly routed his army!  Pope Innocent IV, now emboldened by this turn of events, made plans for an invasion of Sicily itself.  In the meantime rebellious communes in Marche, Spoleto and Romagna threw off the Imperial yoke and declared themselves independent.  Though he was eventually able to recover these territories plus Ravenna as well, his position in northern Italy remained tenuous.

Through cunning, resourcefulness and sheer force of will Federico was able to block Innocent’s attempt to invade Sicily by almost annihilating Papal forces at the Battle of Cingoli in 1250.  His reversal of fortune, however, came at great personal cost.  In February of 1249 he had discovered his prime minister, Pietro della Vigna, was embezzling from him and possibly plotting against him as well!  Dismissing him from his post, he had Vigna blinded and thrown into a dungeon in Pisa where he committed suicide a year later.

In addition, he lost not one but two of his sons (Enzio of Sardinia and Ricardo di Chieti) over the course of a single year.  Ricardo had been killed in battle and Enzio captured by Federico’s enemies, who kept him in bondage until his death.  Nevertheless, Federico managed to regain much of his power in Germany thanks to several victories his son Conrad, King of the Romans, won over William II of Holland and Zeeland.

On December 13th, 1250 at Castel Fiorentino in his beloved Puglia Emperor Federico II died peacefully in his sleep from complications due to dysentery.  In his will he magnanimously proclaimed that all the lands he seized from the Holy See to be returned, as well as prisoners freed and taxes reduced.  The stipulation was that such acts did not in any way threaten the security of the Empire.

However, less than four years after his death, his son Conrad would likewise die, in his case of malaria.  His death would mean the end of the Hohenstaufen dynasty and the beginning of what came to be called the Great Interregnum; a period when no one would claim undisputed control of Imperial dominions in Germany until Rudolph of Hapsburg was proclaimed King of the Romans on September 29th, 1273.

Emperor Federico II Svevia is generally considered by modern historians to be the most powerful figure of the Middle Ages to occupy the seat of Holy Roman Emperor.  The centralized, efficient bureaucracy he crafted for his subjects predated that of King Louis XIV of France by centuries.  No less than German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche hailed him as the “first European”.  Nevertheless, his judgment was frequently blinded by his ambitions.  The policies he pursued for short term gains frequently had long term consequences, not the least of which was the dynastic empire he fought tirelessly to expand and maintain was brought to its ruin shortly after his death.  He is included among many as a case study of how both positive and negative qualities can exist simultaneously in a ruler.

Further reading:
• David Abulafia: Frederick II, A Medieval Emperor; Oxford Paperbacks, 1992
• William Tronzo: Intellectual Life at the Court of Frederick II Hohenstaufen; NGW – Studies in the History of Art Series, 1994