Germany: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The House of Hohenstaufen

Upon the death of Lothair, his old foe, Conrad of Staufen, Duke of Franconia, was elected King of Germany as Conrad III. Now Henry the Proud, Duke of Bavaria and Saxony, had hoped to follow Lothair, whose daughter he had married. War broke out between Conrad III and Henry the Proud, and after Henry's death the war was carried on by his son, Henry the Lion, a famous warrior about whose name a great store of romantic legend has gathered. This conflict split the kingdom in two: on the one side were the Welfs, who followed Henry, the Welf Duke of Bavaria, on the other the Waiblings, who fought for the House of Hohenstaufen. The battle cries were "Hie, Welf " "Hie, Waibling " that is, "Here, Welf!" "Here, Waibling!" The name Waibling was taken from that of a small town in Suabia, a stronghold of Hohenstaufen. These names were carried into Italy, and upon Italian lips became changed to Guelf and Ghibelline, and applied to the parties who fought for the Emperor and the Pope.

Conrad III was victor in the struggle, and crushed the Welfs at the town of Weinsberg. The place was held firmly by the Welfs, and Conrad could only gain it by a long, hard siege. Angry at the resistance offered, the Emperor vowed that every man of the garrison should be put to death, but that the women might go free, each taking with her what most she prized of her belongings. But when the gates were opened a very strange procession marched forth, for every woman came out, bearing her husband on her back. Thus the lives of the men of Weinsberg were saved, and the spot which the women crossed with their precious burdens is known to this day as "Weibertreu," or "Woman's Fidelity."

In 1147 Conrad joined Louis VII of France in leading the Second Crusade. A vast army of knights and men-at-arms and pilgrims followed the two monarchs to Asia Minor, but they did not reach Jerusalem. Disease and famine thinned out their ranks more terribly than battle, and a mere handful returned to Europe, to mourn the utter failure of the expedition.

Conrad died in 1152. He left a little son, but the times were too rough for the rule of a child, and he advised the nobles to elect his nephew Frederick. This was done, and one of the most famous of German emperors came to the throne, the mighty Frederick Barbarossa, Frederick Redbeard. He had won great fame as a warrior in the Second Crusade, and all Germany received him with joy as their ruler. But on the other side of the Alps things were very different. The North Italian towns, with Milan at their head, had formed themselves into a strong league, and were resolved to throw off the Imperial rule and govern themselves.

Frederick marched into Italy with a powerful army and was crowned at Pavia with the iron crown of Lombardy. He took Milan and beat it almost entirely to the ground, and the other cities, fearing a like fate, made haste to offer their submission to the great Emperor. He received the Imperial crown at Rome from the hands of the Pope, but he would not consent to be the Pope's man, and bitter strife rose between him and the Pontiff. The quarrel grew to such a height that each party set up its own Pope, and banned and excommunicated each other. The cities of Lombardy took advantage of the struggle and again tried to make themselves independent, and the affairs of Italy fell into the utmost confusion.



Frederick's troubles were increased by his chief vassal, Henry the Lion, who refused to come to his sovereign's aid, and Frederick was forced to make peace with the Pope. Matters now became quiet in Italy, and Frederick was free to return to Germany, where much work awaited him. First he dealt with Henry the Lion, against whom many complaints were made. There was much sharp fighting before Henry was defeated, when Frederick banished him from the Empire. Next Frederick turned on the robber barons who had set up their castles on the heights beside the high roads and on the banks of rivers. From these strongholds the lawless nobles pounced on merchants and travellers, plundering the mule-trains or seizing the laden ships, and holding their captives to ransom. Frederick assailed these dens of thieves and beat the castles to the ground and put many of the robber barons to death, to the great joy of all peaceful people.

After many years spent in warfare in Italy and in maintaining order in Germany, Frederick Barbarossa resolved to lead a Crusade into the Holy Land, where Jerusalem had fallen into the hands of the great Sultan Saladin, the Saracen Emperor. Together with Richard the Lion Heart, King of England, and the King of France, he marched to Palestine, where in 1190 he lost his life in crossing a river.

When it was known in Germany that the great and good Emperor Barbarossa was dead there was deep grief, but among the people it was said that he was not dead, that he would some day return, and for many years they watched eagerly for his coming. In time a legend grew up that he had come back, and lived under a spell of enchantment in a castle in the heart of a lonely mountain. There he sat sleeping beside a broad stone table through which his great red beard had grown. Once in a hundred years he woke up and asked if the ravens were flying over the hill. If they were he went to sleep again. But on the day that they no longer hovered there, he and his men would march forth to bring a Golden Age to a new and glorious Germany.

Barbarossa was followed by his son, Henry VI (1190-1197), who found himself at once at war with Henry the Lion, who was raising fresh disorders in Germany. Henry the Lion had made an alliance with Richard the Lion Heart of England against the Emperor. But Richard of England was seized by Leopold of Austria and shut up in a castle, so that he could give no aid to the old rebel. In the end Henry the Lion's son married a daughter of the House of Hohenstaufen, and the turbulent old warrior made friends with his former opponents and died in peace.

When all was quiet in Germany Henry VI crossed the Alps and conquered the south of Italy, destroying his foes with the greatest cruelty. His mind was set upon conquests in Eastern Europe, but death seized him in the midst of his plans, when he was only thirty-two years of age. His son was a child three years old, and two kings now sprang up. The Waiblings and the Welfs were at heart as bitter enemies as ever, and the Waiblings, or Ghibellines, chose Philip, Henry's brother, to succeed him; the Welfs, or Guelfs, chose Otto, son of Henry the Lion.

For ten years these rivals struggled for the throne, until, in 1208, Philip was murdered. Otto now received the Imperial crown at Rome, but in a short time a fierce quarrel broke out between him and the Pope, Innocent III. Innocent was one of the strongest men who have ever sat in the papal chair, and he was resolved to make the rule of the Church absolute over both priest and layman. He excommunicated Otto, and called upon the nobles of Germany to choose another ruler. They chose the boy who had been set aside fifteen years before, Frederick, the son of Henry VI and grandson of Barbarossa, who now came to the throne as Frederick II. Thus the House of Hohenstaufen was restored.

Frederick reigned from 1212 to 1250 and, as became the grandson of Barbarossa, he proved himself a great warrior and a powerful ruler. He had need to be a warrior, for his whole reign was filled with fierce and unceasing strife between Guelfs and Ghibellines, between the party which supported the Pope and the party which supported the Emperor. The Guelfs were strong in the great towns of Italy, and the towns and the Pope formed two great Powers which waged unending warfare against Frederick at the head of his Ghibelline followers.

This constant strife in Italy was a bad thing for the German portion of the Empire. Frederick was not often seen among his German subjects, and turbulent barons were not kept in order. These men raised anew the robber strongholds which Barbarossa had thrown down, and not only plundered passing travellers but the country around for far and near, robbing the peasants and ill-treating all who opposed them or refused to surrender their wealth.

It was during this reign that the famous league of trading towns was formed, the Hanseatic League. For two hundred years the towns of Germany had been growing swiftly in wealth and importance. The Crusades had caused a great trade to spring up with the East. Spices, gems, rich stuffs, all the luxuries of the East poured into Europe along the routes opened by the Crusaders. The towns which received these goods and spread them on every hand rose in importance, and the merchants who dealt in these rare and costly things became wealthy and powerful men. The towns bought many privileges from the lords who had owned them. They bought freedom and the right to live under law instead of under the lord's pleasure. The burghers built walls to secure their safety, and within these walls rose the stately palaces of merchant princes. Such was the strength and splendour of many of the great Imperial towns that each city became, as it were, a small republic, ruled by its own officers, making its own laws, and if need be waging war on its own account with any great lord who might seek to oppress it, or a rival city who wished to oppose it.

From time to time a number of these towns would form a league or confederation to protect or aid each other, and the greatest of these unions was the Confederation of the Hansa, a league of great trading towns, mostly seaports on the North Sea and the Baltic, though some large inland towns were also included. At the height of their power the Hanse towns rose to the dignity of a kingdom: they had armies and fleets; they waged wars and made treaties; they fought with kings and overthrew them. This Confederation was formed in the reign of Frederick II, and for the next two hundred years its influence was great; in the end it fell to pieces owing to quarrels between the towns, and the rise of rival trading centres in neighbouring countries.

At the time of the bitterest strife between Emperor and Pope, Germany was attacked by Mongol hordes from the East, the hosts who had been led to conquest by Genghis Khan. These Tartar barbarians overran Russia and Prussia and advanced far into Germany. Frederick was fighting in Italy, but the progress of the invaders was checked by the Duke of Silesia and they retired. Up to this period the province of Prussia had been a pagan land, one of the last outposts of heathendom in Europe. It was now conquered by the knights of the German Order, who introduced Christianity and civilisation. In a short time churches, monasteries, and towns began to rise, and in time Prussia became a most important part of the German Empire.

Frederick II died in 1250 and was followed by his brother, Conrad IV. The latter's reign was very brief, for he died in 1254, leaving a little son named Conradin. The story of Conradin is very sad. He was only a child when his father died, and he was too young to ascend the German throne. But when he was sixteen he set out with an army to win back his father's kingdom in the south of Italy, the kingdom of Naples and Sicily. The Pope had given the crown of Naples and Sicily to a French prince, Charles of Anjou, a stern and cruel man who had no mercy on any foe who fell into his hands. Conradin marched south through Italy, gaining all hearts by his youth, his handsome face, his gallant bearing, and his winning. tongue. Rome received him with open arms, Sicily rose in his favour. But when the day of battle came Charles was the victor and Conradin was taken captive. Two months later the gallant lad was beheaded at Naples in 1268, and with the fall of his head the famous House of Hohenstaufen came to a tragic close: he was the last of his great race.