History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

Frederick I, Redbeard

After the death of Conrad III, Frederick Redbeard, or Barbarossa as the Italians called him, was at once chosen and crowned as King. He was thirty-one years old and already a famous warrior. All Germany greeted him with joy, and it was hoped that the quarrels between Welf and Waiblingen would now cease, for Frederick's mother was a Welf. And to begin with, at least, there was great friendship between Frederick and Henry the Lion, the head of the House of Welf.

Frederick wanted to make the Empire great as it had been in the times of Charles the Great and Otto the Great. He meant to be master of Italy, but first he had to bring order into Germany. This he did with a strong hand, then in 1154 he marched into Italy to help the Pope who was once more in difficulties.

In the time of Henry II the Normans had begun to settle in Italy. Ever since they had been almost constantly in a state of warfare against the Emperor. They had now possession of the south of Italy and of Sicily, which they had formed into a kingdom called the kingdom of Sicily, the King being quite independent of the Empire. In Northern Italy, too, the great trading cities had grown powerful, and during the quarrels of the Pope and Emperor they had become almost free, and formed little republics in themselves.

Barbarossa now marched against these cities, and with much sternness and not a little cruelty he forced them to submit to him. Then he marched on to Rome. The Pope was now Adrian IV, the only Englishman who ever sat upon the papal throne. He was the son of poor parents. He himself had once begged his bread from door to door, but becoming a monk he had gradually risen to greater and greater power. Now that he was Pope his pride knew no bounds.

At Sutri the Pope and Emperor met. Riding upon a beautiful horse, surrounded by his cardinals in their red robes, came the Pope. Clad in splendid armour and surrounded by his nobles and princes, the King rode towards him. The two cavalcades met. The King and Pope dismounted, and the King led the Pope into a splendid tent and set him upon a throne prepared for him. Then, as the custom was, he threw himself at the Pope's feet and kissed his toe. Barbarossa then expected the Pope to raise him, and give him the kiss of peace. But the Pope did not move. His proud face was dark with anger. When he spoke his voice trembled with rage.

"You have not paid to St. Peter that honour which is due," he said. "You have indeed dishonoured him. You have neither held my stirrup nor have you led my steed by the bridle."

"Not want of reverence, but want of knowledge is the cause of this oversight," replied the King proudly. "For truly I am not used to the holding of stirrups."

But the Pope would not be pacified. "Shall I not judge great things by little?" he cried. "If Frederick out of ignorance neglects little things, how does he suppose that he can ever succeed in great things?"

When he heard these words the King started up in anger. "It behoves me to ask you how this custom arose," he cried: "if out of pure courtesy, or out of right and duty? If out of courtesy, then the Pope has nothing to complain of. For a courtesy freely done can never have the force of law."

Hot and long was the strife which followed. At length, full of pride, the Pope left the tent, with his cardinals behind him.

Many of the princes were troubled and anxious. "A quarrel between the Church and the Empire could only bring harm," they said to Barbarossa. "If you give way, your kingly dignity will not really be hurt, and the Pope will have no excuse for unfriendly acts."

So the King gave way. Next day he rode to meet the Pope. As they met he dismounted, and in the sight of the whole army, for a stone's throw, he led the Pope's horse by the bridle, then, stooping, held his stirrup while he alighted.

Thus the pride of the Pope was satisfied; he gave the King the kiss of peace, and together they rode towards Rome.

As the King neared Rome the people sent ambassadors to meet him, offering to acknowledge him as Emperor if he would pay a certain sum of money. But Barbarossa refused to buy his crown. "Am I your prisoner? Do I lie bound in your hands that I should free myself with gold?" he asked in anger.

In anger, too, the ambassadors departed, and it was plain that it would only be against the will of the Romans that Frederick would receive the crown.

But the consent of the Romans was not asked. Early one July morning St. Peter's Church was surrounded by German soldiers, the gate leading to it was closed, and then in secret, but with all rightful pomp and ceremony, the Emperor's crown was placed upon Barbarossa's head.

As soon as it became known that the Emperor was crowned, the Romans rose in wild revolt. They fell upon the Germans in fury, and a fierce battle raged in the streets of Rome from morning until the sun was near setting. Then at length the Romans gave way.

But although the Romans yielded for the time they were not really subdued. The King of Sicily too still held firm sway over Southern Italy. Yet, in spite of the Pope's entreaties, Barbarossa turned homeward. For his army was dwindling fast. Beneath the burning sun of Italy his northern soldiers drooped and died, and it was with sadly thinned ranks that he once more crossed into Germany.

Now for two years Barbarossa ruled his own land wisely and well. He quelled the lawless nobles who filled the land with bloodshed and strife. He punished robbers and evil-doers, he cared for trade, and in many ways sought the good of the country.

But after two years the Emperor resolved once more to march into Italy. For the Lombard cities, especially Milan, were still in a state of rebellion, besides which a quarrel had arisen with the Pope.

This quarrel was brought about once more by the Pope's pride. For he wrote a letter to the Emperor in which he seemed to want to make the Emperor understand that the Empire was the Pope's gift, and that the Emperor was merely his (the Pope's) vassal. This letter was read aloud to Frederick and his nobles who were gathered in the chapel of his palace. When the reading was finished the nobles were very angry. Such insolence was not to be borne, they cried. The Empire a fief of the Pope indeed! Where would his arrogance end? they asked.

"And from whom then does the Emperor receive the Empire, if not from the Pope?" insolently demanded his messenger.

"By heaven," cried Frederick in wrath, "if we were not in a church you would feel how sharp is a German sword for these words."

Even as he spoke one of the nobles sprang forward with drawn sword. Church or no church the insolent priest should pay for his words. But the Emperor held him back. With his own hands he protected the Pope's messenger, and presently the uproar ceased.

But although Barbarossa had saved the life of the Pope's messenger he had no mind to let his insolence go unpunished. So, burning with wrath, he crossed the Alps once more, determined to prove to all his might and right as Emperor.

Barbarossa besieged and took Milan, then he gathered the nobles and knights together. He called the learned professors from the Italian universities, and bade them search through all the old dusty records to prove from them that he was the rightful successor to the Roman Emperors, and that the Pope's great claims were without foundation.

The Pope now threatened to excommunicate the Emperor, but he died before he could carry out his threat. His death, however, only seemed to make the quarrel blaze more furiously. For immediately two Popes were elected, the Emperor's party choosing Victor IV, the Pope's party, Alexander III. The greater number of cardinals voted for Alexander III, and he is looked upon as the true Pope. But both were at once enthroned, and each at once excommunicated his rival. Barbarossa too was excommunicated because he had ruled, said Alexander III, not as an Emperor, but as a tyrant.

Meanwhile, Milan had again revolted. Again Frederick besieged the city, which for months held out, though famine and plague stalked through the streets, while a pitiless sun blazed overhead and a pitiless Emperor watched at the gates. Around the walls, too, fierce warfare raged. Fair vineyards and oliveyards were wasted, and fertile fields became a desert waste.

Barbarossa had vowed to crush the people of Milan, who had so often rebelled against him. And in order to strike terror into their already sinking hearts he treated the prisoners he took with horrible cruelty. Blinded and maimed he sent them back to the city as a warning to their fellows. Yet summer passed and winter came, and still the city held out. But ever deeper and deeper it sank into gloom and misery, such misery as at length could not be borne, and the city yielded.

With bare feet, with ashes on their heads, crosses in their hands, and their swords tied about their necks, the chief men of Milan threw themselves at the Emperor's feet, praying for mercy.

To him they delivered up their naked swords, the keys of all the gates, and the banners of the city. Last of all, the great standard was delivered up. It floated from a huge pole set upon a chariot with trumpeters on either side. As the chariot was drawn before the Emperor the trumpeters sounded their trumpets for the last time, and as the notes died away they laid their trumpets at the Emperor's feet. The standard was lowered, and amid the tears and groans of the people the pole was hewn in pieces.

Tears stood in the eyes of the princes as they saw the broken humbled men pass before them. Only the Emperor's face remained cold and hard, only the Emperor's heart remained unmoved. There was no pity in it for the rebels, no mercy for Milan.

"Milan," he said, "has been the centre of all the rebellion. So long as it remains peace and order will never return. For the sake of peace and order the punishment must be hard."

So the terrible command went forth, "Milan shall be a desert and empty, and the plough shall pass where its palaces have stood."

Hardly had the order gone forth when the destruction began, and in a week's time the splendid city of churches and palaces was but a mass of ruins.

In terror at this ruthless deed the other cities of Lombardy yielded. At length Italy seemed to be subdued and Frederick turned home again to Germany.

But Italy was not subdued, and again and yet again Frederick marched against the rebels. And in order the better to subdue them he placed German rulers over the Italian cities and provinces. These German rulers ground the people down with pitiless taxes. So heavy were these taxes that the people called the book in which they were written the "book of pain and mourning."

Such tyranny could not be borne, and soon the most powerful cities of Lombardy joined together in a league against the Emperor. In spite of his stern commands they rebuilt Milan. They built a new town too, which they called Alessandria, after the Pope Alexander, who was the Emperor's enemy. They did everything they could to weaken the Emperor's power or overthrow it altogether.

Yet although so much of Barbarossa's time was taken up in fighting in Italy he did not forget his own country. He kept peace in the land and ruled sternly. But although he ruled sternly he did not rule as a tyrant, for on all great questions he called the nobles together and asked their advice.

Many of these princes were very powerful. But there was one prince who was greater than all the others, and whose pride and possessions almost equalled those of the emperor. This was Henry the Lion. He was both Duke of Saxony and of Bavaria. He had married Matilda, the daughter of King Henry II of England. He had fought against the peoples whose countries bordered on his possessions, and added much of their land to his dukedoms. "From the Elbe to the Rhine, from the North Sea to the Hartz is mine!" he used to say, and he became so powerful and so proud that many of the lesser nobles took up arms against him. These, however, he subdued even without the Emperor's help. And proud and powerful though Henry became, he remained true to the Emperor, who was so busy trying to subdue Italy that he never tried to curb the pride of his great vassal.

Now at length in 1174 Barbarossa made another expedition into Italy. At first things went well for the Emperor, but suddenly they took an evil turn, and he found himself face to face with an enemy far stronger than himself. Without more help from Germany he knew that he must be defeated. So he sent urgent messages to the great nobles begging them to come to his aid. Chiefly he sent to Henry the Lion.

But although in the early days Henry had willingly followed his Emperor, he was now so taken up with trying to extend his own power that he had little desire to gather an army and march away to fight in Italy. So he refused to go. When the Emperor heard that Henry refused to come to his aid, he hurried to him to implore his help in person.

"You are the greatest prince in Germany," he said, "and you ought to be the example for all. Remember that I have never denied you anything, but ever increased your might. And now you lag behind when German honour, your Emperor's fame, aye, the prize of my whole life stands in the balance."

Still Henry remained unmoved.

"I do not remind you of the oath of fealty which you have taken to me as Emperor," cried Barbarossa. "I will only remind you of the sacred bond of blood which unites us. Now in this hour of need help me, my friend and cousin, and I promise I shall repay it to you fifty-fold, right willingly."

Still the Duke remained stubborn.

Then in despair the Emperor threw himself at his vassal's feet, and on his knees implored his help.

Abashed and alarmed at seeing his Emperor on his knees before him, the Duke tried to raise him up. But his lord high steward was pleased, "Let be, my lord Duke," he said, "the crown which you now see at your feet will one day be upon your head."

These were the words of a traitor, and a troubled stillness fell upon all who heard.

Then in the stillness the Empress came forward. "Rise, my dear lord," she said. "God will help you when you remember this day and this arrogance."

The Emperor rose; with wrath and grief struggling in his breast he turned from the place, and the Duke, mounting upon his horse, rode hastily away.