Stories from German History - Florence Aston

Frederick the Red-Beard


Frederick's manner and appearance were such as to inspire confidence. He was of medium height but very strongly built, and his short fair hair waved over a broad forehead and steady, intelligent blue eyes. The mouth was beautifully curved and gave to his face an expression of cheerfulness and gentle kindness. The reddish tinge of his beard gained for him the surname of Barbarossa, or red-beard.

Frederick was a truly religious man, a strict ruler over his people and a determined opponent of the increasing claims of the papacy. His experience on the Crusade had taught him to act on emergency with quickness and decision, and he was at all times punctiliously just, and only evildoers had need to fear the power of his wrath.

His first task was to curb the power of certain nobles in Germany, who depended upon the strength of their castles and the number of their followers to protect them from punishment. They built great fortresses and from these made sallies into the country, burning and plundering other men's goods. The villages suffered most from these raids, since the towns were generally strong enough to defend themselves.

This evil had increased enormously during the last Crusade, when the King and most of the stronger barons 15o were safely out of the country, until no traveller was safe, especially priests or merchants, who would be captured on their way and not released until they had paid substantial ransom. Frederick levelled many of the strong castles to the ground, so that the robber barons had no refuge left, and he encouraged the peasants who were oppressed by cruel lords to seek the protection of the cities.

His example inspired other princes, who saw the wisdom of this course of action, and they curbed lawlessness with a strong hand.

Louis II of Thuringia once took refuge in a blacksmith's cottage, having lost his way when hunting. The blacksmith did not know the exalted rank of his guest, but offered him shelter for the night, and went on with his work as usual. Louis watched him hammering on his anvil and noticed the little song he hummed to himself meanwhile: "Harder, Louis, harder, my boy!"" What does that mean?" he asked. "It is our wish for our landgrave," answered the blacksmith, "that he may hit the wicked barons hard." And Louis determined to deliver his poor peasants from their oppressors.

Stimulated by his emperor's example, he overthrew his nobles in a battle, and, harnessing four of the most turbulent to a plough, he ploughed a field in this manner; and the field was named after them 'The Nobles' Acre.' For his sternness in suppressing lawlessness, Louis earned for himself the title of 'The Iron Margrave.'

Germany became more tranquil and more powerful than she had ever been before, for Frederick married the daughter of the Duke of Burgundy, thereby increasing his dominions, the Kings of Poland and of Denmark owned him as their overlord, and Henry II of England sent offers of friendship and homage. But from the very beginning Barbarossa saw that he must curb the pretensions of the Pope, since, encouraged by his example, the German possessions in Italy were ready to throw off their allegiance to their lawful emperor.

During the Crusades the trading cities of Lombardy had grown great and rich, so much so that they ignored the governors sent from Germany, and chose their own magistrates, assessed their own taxes and coined their own money. Moreover they cruelly oppressed the smaller towns and villages around.

When Barbarossa appeared over the Alps on the way to his coronation at Rome, small towns sent deputations to him begging for help against the larger cities, especially against Milan, the most arrogant of them all.

The Emperor, after hearing of all the evils that existed, was very angry, and promised redress. He sent a warning letter to the Milanese, who only tore it in pieces and trod it underfoot.

Unfortunately the Imperial army was not large enough to proceed against the city of Milan, which had already shut her gates in defiance, so the Emperor reduced to submission the smaller towns, and promised himself an expedition against Milan in the future.

Having been crowned King of Lombardy with the ancient iron crown of Pavia, Barbarossa continued his march toward Rome and encamped outside. He found the city in a state of the greatest excitement, for the populace had just risen under a republican leader named Arnold of Brescia, and had driven away the pope, Hadrian IV.

Hadrian appeared in Barbarossa's camp and was courteously received, but he took offence' and retired because the Emperor had not held the stirrup for him to dismount. More amused than vexed, Barbarossa promised subservience, and once more the Holy Father appeared, and this time his stirrup was duly held, the Emperor remarking that he feared he performed this office but badly, never having acted as groom before. Arnold of Brescia sent ambassadors to Frederick, who might now have humbled the Pope had he so desired, but he was a devout man and would not intrigue with the enemies of the Church. When the republicans offered to crown him in return for 5000 pounds' weight of silver, his wrath burst forth. "It is not among you, effeminate liars that ye are, that ancient Rome and her virtues are to be found t "he thundered; "but among us, who are full of vigour and truth. The glory of your city is departed to dwell among the Germans. Karl and Otto conquered your land, and would ye demand money from your conquerors?"

He gave Arnold of Brescia into the hands of the Church, and, on his way to Saint Peter's the next morning, saw the republican leader led out to execution. Without molestation Barbarossa proceeded to the church, where he received the Imperial crown with due solemnity from the hands of the Pope.

Meanwhile, enraged at the loss of their leader, the citizens had risen and were thronging the streets, swarming like angry wasps ready to sting. A German servant who had lingered behind in Saint Peter's was murdered in the holy place where he stood, and his death was the signal for a free fight.

The Pope fled to the Vatican, fearing for his life and that of his cardinals, but Barbarossa called up his men and advanced into the streets. As he charged the mob, his horse stumbled and fell, and he would have been killed had he not been dragged out by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, an ancient enemy of his house, whom he had conciliated by the gift of Bavaria.

"Heinrich, I will remember it!" he gasped, as he was being pulled from under the horses' feet, but to the Romans he cried, waving his sword: "Here is the gold wherewith the German Emperor buys his crown," and they slunk away abashed and subdued.

Having taken Rome, Barbarossa was in no mood for remaining there, since the unhealthy climate was already breeding pestilence among his soldiers, so he turned his face homeward.

Before departing, however, he destroyed a picture which he found there, representing the Emperor Lothair receiving the Imperial crown as a fief from the Pope. This was an intimation to Hadrian that, although he had been defended by Barbarossa from his enemies, the Emperor had no intention of submitting to papal authority.


The return journey to Germany was beset with perils. On one occasion Barbarossa took refuge in the castle of a knight who was secretly in league with his enemies. Having secured the King's person, this knight sent word to the enemy, and a plot was formed by which Barbarossa was to be murdered while he slept

But the nobility of bearing which so much impressed all who surrounded the King soon began to exercise its softening influence on his host, and, stricken with remorse, he threw himself at his feet and confessed his treachery.

The castle was already surrounded by a guard, and Barbarossa's escape seemed wellnigh impossible. But the love of his people never failed, and a knight named Hartmann von Siebeneichen, who was a member of his train, came forward and offered to sacrifice his own life for the safety of his lord.

Very unwillingly Barbarossa changed clothes with him, and while Hartmann showed himself at the window in the kingly purple robes, the real Emperor made his way through the castle gates, telling the guards who barred his passage that he was a servant sent on in advance to prepare for the next night's lodging. At midnight the enemy entered Barbarossa's sleeping apartment, prepared to murder him as he lay. When they found a stranger lying on his bed, and learnt from him the whole story, they could only admire the courage of a knight who was willing to die for his lord; so they allowed Hartmann von Siebeneichen to go free, and smothered their vexation at the loss of their prey as gracefully as they could.

Many other difficulties also Barbarossa had to face, for armed bands met him in the passes of the Alps, but he cut his way through them, and eventually arrived safely home.

Here he once more set the affairs of his kingdom in order, punishing sternly any lawlessness among the nobles, and receiving ambassadors from Italy, France, Spain and England, countries which all held him in high esteem.

Lombardy alone continued to bid the great Barbarossa defiance, so in the year 1158 he went again with a large army, and laid siege to Milan. Worn out with hunger, the city capitulated in September. The chief nobles appeared with swords hanging round their necks, and the citizens with ropes, and all threw themselves at the conqueror's feet, imploring mercy. Frederick treated them very kindly, only stipulating that the Milanese should swear fidelity to him, pay down a sum of 9000 silver marks, build him a palace in their city, and permit him to nominate their magistrates. No sooner, however, had the German army departed than Pope Hadrian IV began once more to sow seeds of dissension. He intrigued with the German bishops, telling them that their Emperor was a rapacious dragon, who would fly through the heavens, and tear a third part of the stars from their spheres, and a ravening wolf, who spoiled the vineyard of the Lord.

The German bishops, however, remained faithful to their lord the Emperor, but Hadrian was more successful among the cities of Lombardy, and he was on the point of inducing them to throw off their allegiance when he died. Milan then expelled Frederick's governor, whereupon an army was raised, and once more the Germans besieged Milan, this time for a period of nearly three years. The siege dragged on and on, and Frederick was in continual danger of his life, for besides the usual perils of war, assassins were busy on every hand. Yet he always seemed to escape unhurt. On one occasion, whilst alone at prayer beside a river, he was thrown into the water by a Milanese of gigantic strength who had stolen up behind him, but the Emperor was young and strong, and dragged his assailant with him, so that his attendants had time to reach him and put the Milanese to death.

Another time a strange old man was discovered in the camp, selling wares which were steeped in subtle poison and would cause death to all who touched them. Barbarossa was secretly warned, and the merchant was promptly secured and led to execution. But these attempts were very hamming, and Barbarossa swore never to place the crown on his head again until he had humbled in the dust the proud city that had caused him so much trouble.

Accordingly, when on the first of March 1162, Milan surrendered, it found its Emperor no longer in the genial mood of his first conquest of the city. He sat on a throne erected in the open air, robed in royal splendour, his enormous army encamped around, while twenty of the chief magistrates of Milan, with ropes and naked swords hanging round their necks, appeared before him and surrendered their city with all their citizens and property.

A few days afterward 800 chosen knights waited on him, gave into his hands the keys of the town and its thirty-six flags, and, like the magistrates, took the oath of fealty. Then came the citizens, with a band of priests and warriors, in their midst a chariot drawn by four white oxen harnessed in red, and on the chariot a tremendous crucifix, held in great veneration in Milan. Each man walked barefoot, with ashes on his head. In dead silence the long procession wound past the throne, each section laying down its flag at the feet of the mighty monarch whose wrath they had incurred. Then they waited, and wept as they waited.

At last the Emperor spoke.

Their lives were spared, he said, but he would take measures to prevent a repetition of disobedience to his will.

Within eight days the citizens were bidden to quit Milan in four bodies, and build themselves four towns, each two miles distant from the other. The city was then set on fire and destroyed, with the exception of churches, palaces and works of art. Salt was strewn over the ground, and the plough was driven over all.

Not until then did Barbarossa solemnly place the crown again upon his head at a thanksgiving service of victory in the great church at Pavia.

When the Germans returned home, they took with them the skulls of the Magi, or Three Wise Men of the East, which had been placed in Milan during the First Crusade. They are now in the cathedral at Cologne, and are reverenced under the names of Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, the Three Kings of Cologne.

While Frederick Barbarossa was away in Italy, the chief man in his kingdom at home had been Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria.

During his Emperor's absence, he had extended his borders over the Elbe and fought against the Wends, a heathen tribe who lived in the districts now called Pomerania and Mecklenburg.

He succeeded at last in carrying his dukedom as far as the mouth of the River Oder, founding many towns, the principal of which is Lubeck, building churches, sending priests to convert the Wends and Saxon peasants to colonize and teach new methods of agriculture.

The friendly relations between Barbarossa and the Lion, however, were destined to become strained.

Barbarossa took possession of land in Swabia, which Henry had hoped to inherit, and the Lion sulked and growled, and when Barbarossa proposed to make yet another raid on the cities of Lombardy, Henry refused to come, pleading a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in excuse.

Meanwhile revolt was again brewing, for Milan had formed a league with Verona and other Lombard cities, who had declared themselves fiefs of the new pope, Alexander, and had built a new city, calling it Alessandria, in his honour. A third expedition undertaken against them by Barbarossa ended in disaster, since the intense heat brought on a fearful pestilence among the Germans, accustomed to the cooler climate of the North, and it was with the greatest difficulty that Frederick managed to bring his sadly thinned army back over the passes of the Alps.

Barbarossa in Milan


Later he prepared an army once more, and called upon Henry the Lion for aid. Newly arrived back from Jerusalem, he was in no mood for war, and grumbled openly to the Emperor that service under his banner had made him old and worn before his time. Money and soldiers he offered freely, but resisted all entreaties to go in person.

"Cod above has raised you over all other princes, so it is but fitting that you should fight for the honour of the 'realm," pleaded Barbarossa, and it is said that he even kneeled to the Lion, but all in vain.

The next year, 1176, Frederick's army was completely routed at the battle of Legano, where his whole camp and even his shield and banner fell into the hands of the enemy. He himself disappeared in the confusion, and it was three days before he found his way back. All his plans in Lombardy were shattered, he was obliged to submit to the Pope, kneel at his feet and receive the kiss of peace, but in his humiliation he did not forget Henry's refusal of help.

No sooner had Barbarossa arrived back in Germany than Henry the Lion was summoned to answer for himself, an invitation which he saw fit to despise, and did not appear. He was therefore deprived of both his dukedoms and all his offices, and, seeing that nothing but speedy submission would save his life, he hastened to throw himself at the Emperor's feet. Mindful of the occasion on which he had been dragged from under his fallen horse, Frederick generously forgave him, and commuted his sentence into one of banishment from the land; but Henry the Lion lost all his possessions, which were distributed among other German princes, and he took refuge with his wife's father in England.


Having settled the affairs of his country, Barbarossa held a great diet or parliament at Mayence during Whitsuntide of the year 1184. Old songs and stories tell of the glories that were seen there, for 40,000 knights and countless princes of the Church were present, together with ambassadors from foreign courts, lovely ladies, minstrels, poets and artists. The city could not possibly contain the multitude, and a great town of tents and wooden huts was erected outside the walls. Pageants, plays and tournaments took place, and the Emperor himself displayed his prowess in the lists. His two sons there received knighthood at his hands. Even the elements took part on that great occasion, for in the midst of the revels a great black cloud appeared in the sky above the city of Mayence, and it burst upon the assembly there in torrents of rain with a hurricane of wind that tore down the wooden encampment and overthrew the tents. This was regarded as an evil omen by many of those who were there, and they whispered to each other that ill would come of it. Frederick Barbarossa, however, thought lightly of such omens, and only planned to secure his power even more firmly for the future.

In the following year he married his eldest son, Henry, to the Lady Constance, heiress of the kingdoms of Sicily and Naples, counting that thereby he would gain power not only in the North but in mid-Italy and the South. "Italy," he said, "is like an eel, which a man must grasp firmly by the tail, the head and the middle, yet which may nevertheless give him the slip."

Pope Alexander saw the significance of the alliance, and in great rage excommunicated the bishops who had officiated at the wedding. A quarrel would have been inevitable, but news having arrived in Germany that Jerusalem was in the hands of the Saracens once more, private grievances were forgotten in the face of a common ill.

Since the Second Crusade under Conrad III and Louis VII of France, little had been done to consolidate the Christian power in Palestine. The Europeans who had settled there grew weak and indolent in the hot, enervating climate, and as their power declined, the might of the Saracens grew. A period of great glory for the Saracens was the reign of Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Damascus, a chief of much enlightenment and an ardent Mohammedan, whose courage in war, and whose courteous chivalry has been handed down in many a story and song. His growing power was a threat to the little Christian state, yet for some time he lived on more or less friendly terms with Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, with whom he made a truce. Meanwhile a knight of Jerusalem named Reginald de Chatillon took prisoner Saladin's mother while she was on a journey from Egypt to Damascus, which violation of the truce Saladin avenged by marching at once on Jerusalem.

He was met by the Christian army before he arrived there, and at Tiberias a great battle was fought in which the Christians were routed, Guy de Lusignan and Reginald de Chatillon taken prisoner, and 11,000 men slain. Saladin put Reginald to death with his own hands, and with very little difficulty made himself master of all the Christian cities.

On the 3rd of October 1187, eighty-eight years after its first conquest, the Sultan Saladin entered Jerusalem, to the music of trumpets and kettle-drums. The cross, which had been erected on the Temple Chump, was torn down and sent as a present to the Caliph of Bagdad, who buried it outside one of the city gates and placed one end level with the surface of the road, so that all who passed over it might tread it with their feet.

When this news reached Rome, Pope Gregory VIII issued a manifesto calling upon all who valued their soul's health to fight for the cross, and thousands obeyed the summons.

King Philip Augustus of France and Richard I of England each raised an army, and, although seventy years of age, Frederick Barbarossa determined to join them.

He travelled through Hungary and Bulgaria, losing many a good warrior in skirmishes with foes and by attacks of robbers, and wintered in Adrianople in the dominions of the King of Greece.

When the spring came, the Crusaders pushed forward through Asia Minor, encountering ever-increasing perils, until finally they met a large body of Saracens before the city of Iconium. There a battle was fought which would have ended disastrously, had not the aged Barbarossa rallied his men with much spirit, and so encouraged them by rushing on the foe himself, that they performed prodigies of valour.

Meanwhile, Barbarossa's son, Frederick, Duke of Swabia, had taken the city and unfurled the Christian flag, capturing such quantities of rich booty that it was impossible to carry all away. The Germans then advanced as far as the River Calycadnos, where Duke Frederick led the van, followed by the baggage, and the Emperor brought up the rear.

The bridge upon which they crossed was narrow and their progress so slow that Barbarossa, desirous of joining his son, and daring as ever, urged his horse into the river and essayed to swim to the opposite bank. But the current was too strong, and the gallant old King was swept down the stream some distance before his knights were able to draw the lifeless body on shores

The consternation of the army was indescribable. They could not realize that their mighty Emperor was no more.

Many turned at once and went back to Germany, others followed Duke Frederick as far as Tyre, where they buried the great Barber; and then on to Acre, where the young Duke died of fever.

Disheartened and miserable, the Germans struggled onward, following Leopold of Austria as their leader, and joined the English and French forces. But the princes quarrelled, and nothing was done. Richard of England was proud and overbearing, and trod the Austrian banner underfoot, speaking contemptuously of "Austrian swine." Thus insulted, Leopold departed home in disgust.

Philip Augustus also retreated, and although Richard fought bravely, he could not take Jerusalem, and the only concession he could gain from Saladin was a promise that he would abstain from molesting Christian pilgrims who visited the Holy City.

When the news of Barbarossa's death reached Germany, consternation and dismay spread throughout the country. He had been a father to his people, and in return they loved and reverenced him. The more ignorant among them refused to believe that he was really dead. It was of no use to tell them that he was buried in Syria. They had never heard of Syria, and they maintained for many a year that he was in the great mountain, K "user, sitting at a marble table. A German poet tells us that he has sat there slumbering for many a hundred years, and his red beard has grown right through the marble table, and curls round his feet upon the floor. He tells how ravens circle round the mountain, and prophesies that one day an eagle will frighten them all away, and then the great Barbarossa will rise again and bring back a golden age to happy Germany.

So ended the disastrous Third Crusade, in which many a bold warrior besides the Red-Beard found a grave.

Perhaps the last to reach his home was Richard I of England, for he was caught by Leopold of Austria, who gave him to Barbarossa's son, the Emperor Henry VI, and the legend runs that he was shut up in Trifels Castle on the Rhine for thirteen months. At the end of that time he was discovered by his own minstrel, Blondel, who wandered from prison to prison and castle to castle, singing his master's favourite song. A voice from Trifels replied by singing the refrain, and, full of joy, Blondel hastened home to arrange for King Richard's ransom.

Nothing more was done for the rescue of the Holy Sepulchre until the year 1212, when scenes of the strangest and wildest enthusiasm were witnessed in France, where a shepherd boy named Stephen appeared in the district of Vend8me, bearing a letter which he declared he had received from Jesus Christ himself. Only innocent children could save the Holy City, so Stephen affirmed, and he gathered together an army of 7000 boys, who were murdered by pirates on the Adriatic coast.

After this, more than 80,000 children, both boys and girls, set out upon the Children's Crusade, tang ship at Marseilles for Palestine. But they were wrecked upon the coast of Africa, and many were drowned and the rest sold into slavery.

So ended one of the maddest, strangest expeditions that the world has ever seen.

The Fourth Crusade was undertaken by Barbarossa's grandson, the Emperor Frederick U, who had made a vow early in life that he would do what one man could to win Jerusalem again. He was prevented for some time from fulfilling his vow, since he had much to do at the beginning of his reign to settle his kingdom in Germany and the south of Italy. At last, in the year 1227, being strongly urged thereto by the Pope, he set forth, together with his friend, the Landgrave Ludwig of Thuringia, the husband of the famous Saint Elizabeth. This gentle lady, whose name is now known throughout the world, was the daughter of Andrew II, King of Hungary, and was born in the year 1207. She was but fourteen years of age at the time of her marriage, and was lonely and miserable at the court of her husband. Her mother-in-law disliked her and the courtiers sneered at the poor little girl-wife, but her husband was kind and good-natured, and she turned to him and to religion for comfort

She would fast and pray till the pale, sweet face looked almost too ethereal for this world, and she would rise from her bed during the night and lie on the cold stone floor, believing that thereby she was expiating sin and earning heaven for herself and her husband.

Ludwig was much disturbed when he discovered the terrible privations she endured, and at last he sternly forbade her to injure her health by self-mortification, or to make her accustomed gifts of food and clothing to the poor.

But Elizabeth was convinced that her services for others were right, and that it would be wrong to obey her husband on this point, so she continued her almsgiving as before

One day, so runs the legend, as she was leaving the palace with loaves of bread in her robe to distribute to the poor in the town, her husband met her suddenly and demanded to know what she was clasping in the folds of her robe. Frightened and confused, Elizabeth murmured: "Roses," amid the agitation the only clear thought left to her mind being that the poor must not lose their daily dole of bread. "Show me," commanded the Landgrave sternly. And to shield the gentle lady, the Lord God changed the loaves of bread into red roses, and when she confessed all to her husband, he forgave her the deceit, and reverenced her for her saintliness, allowing her to follow her own will. He aided her in her gifts to the poor and loved her as long as he lived.

Unfortunately for Elizabeth, she was only a girl of twenty years of age when Ludwig died and she was left alone. She had fallen under the influence of her confessor, Conrad of Marburg, who was anxious for the honour of producing before the world a saint who had lived under his guidance.

He persuaded her to renounce the world entirely, and to leave her tiny children for a cell. When the poor girl died, at the age of twenty-four, worn out with the privations she had suffered, she was canonized by Pope Gregory IX on account of the frequent miracles reported to be performed at her tomb.

It was on the Fourth Crusade that the Margrave Ludwig, husband of Saint Elizabeth, died, seized by a frightful infectious disease which broke out in the army, and carried off the men in hundreds. Frederick himself was attacked by it and obliged to abandon his project as soon as he was well enough to return home. But the new pope, Gregory IX, was very angry, and, declaring that the accounts of fearful pestilence were only a pretext to evade fulfilment of the vow, he placed Frederick under the ban of the Church.

Frederick was much hurt by this unjust punishment, and, to show that he really meant to keep his faith, set off for Jerusalem the next year.

The ruler of Egypt and Palestine was now the Sultan Malek-Camhel, and with him Frederick became friendly, the Sultan allowing him to be crowned King of Jerusalem, and permitting his pilgrims to visit the Holy Sepulchre in peace, on condition that his Mohammedan followers were allowed to do the same.

Pope Gregory immediately excommunicated Frederick a second time, and forbade any priest to crown him; so he crowned himself, and returned home in peace.

Jerusalem was once more in the hands of the Christians, but it was impossible for them to hold it, and in the year 1244 the Mohammedans regained it. In 1517 it came into the hands of the Turks, who have held it ever since.

The effects of the Crusades on Germany were deep and far-reaching. The religious fervour which they enkindled naturally increased the power of the Church, and since princes and nobles followed the Crusades, bishops and abbots remained at home with extended powers. Also many thousands of the men who perished in their struggles with the Saracens left their property in Germany to the Church, and the widows and daughters of the fallen warriors frequently retired into convents, enriching them with their wealth. Thus the results upon the whole were good, since a spirit of true religion and chivalry was developed which contributed to raise the moral tone of society.

The citizens too benefited much, since new channels for commerce were opened, and industries introduced which had never existed before.

Adventurous spirits followed in the wake of the armies and obtained much useful knowledge in the preparation of medicines and the healing of wounds, for such things were better understood in the East in those days than in the West of Europe. Eastern furniture and stuffs, Eastern fruits, flowers and spices, Eastern carving, weapons and pottery found their way into Europe, bringing wealth and prosperity to the German burgher.

Thus the cities grew great and flourishing and were able to maintain their own against the encroachments of greedy priests and lawless nobles, which contributed greatly to the safety and consolidation of the land.