Historical Tales: 5—German - Charles Morris

Frederick Barbarossa and Milan

A proud old city was Milan, heavy with its weight of years, rich and powerful, arrogant and independent, the capital of Lombardy and the lord of many of the Lombard cities. For some twenty centuries it had existed, and now had so grown in population, wealth, and importance, that it could almost lay claim to be the Rome of northern Italy. But its day of pride preceded not long that of its downfall, for a new emperor had come to the German throne, Frederick the Red-bearded, one of the ablest, noblest, and greatest of all that have filled the imperial chair.

Not long had he been on the throne before, in the long-established fashion of German emperors, he began to interfere with affairs in Italy, and demanded from the Lombard cities recognition of his supremacy as Emperor of the West. He found some of them submissive, others not so. Milan received his commands with contempt, and its proud magistrates went so far as to tear the seal from the imperial edict and trample it underfoot.

In 1154 Frederick crossed the Alps and encamped on the Lombardian plain. Soon deputations from some of the cities came to him with complaints about the oppression of Milan, which had taken Lodi, Como, and other towns, and lorded it over them exasperatingly. Frederick bade the proud Milanese to answer these complaints, but in their arrogance they refused even to meet his envoys, and he resolved to punish them severely for their insolence.

But the time was not yet. He had other matters to attend to. Four years passed before he was able to devote some of his leisure to the Milanese. They had in the meantime managed to offend him still more seriously, having taken the town of Lodi and burnt it to the ground, for no other crime than that it had yielded him allegiance. After him marched a powerful army, nearly one hundred and twenty thousand strong, at the very sight of whose myriad of banners most of the Lombard cities submitted without a blow. Milan was besieged. Its resistance was by no means obstinate. The emperor's principal wish was to win it over to his side, and probably the authorities of the city were aware of his lenient disposition, for they held out no long time before his besieging multitude.

All that the conqueror now demanded was that the proud municipality should humble itself before him, swear allegiance, and promise not to interfere with the freedom of the smaller cities. On the 6th of September a procession of nobles and churchmen defiled before him, barefooted and clad in tattered garments, the consuls and patricians with swords hanging from their necks, the others with ropes round their throats, and thus, with evidence of the deepest humility, they bore to the emperor the keys of the proud city.

"You must now acknowledge that it is easier to conquer by obedience than with arms," he said. Then, exacting their oaths of allegiance, placing the imperial eagle upon the spire of the cathedral, and taking with him three hundred hostages, he marched away, with the confident belief that the defiant resistance of Milan was at length overcome.

He did not know the Milanese. When, in the following year, he attempted to lay a tax upon them, they rose in insurrection and attacked his representatives with such fury that they could scarcely save their lives. On an explanation being demanded, they refused to give any, and were so arrogantly defiant that the emperor pronounced their city outlawed, and wrathfully vowed that he would never place the crown upon his head again until he had utterly destroyed this arrant nest of rebels.

It was not to prove so easy a task. Frederick began by besieging Cremona, which was in alliance with Milan, and which resisted him so obstinately that it took him seven months to reduce it to submission. In his anger he razed the city to the ground and scattered its inhabitants far and wide.

Then came the siege of Milan, which was so vigorously defended that three years passed before starvation threw it into the emperor's hands. So virulent were the citizens that they several times tried to rid themselves of their imperial enemy by assassination. On one occasion, when Frederick was performing his morning devotions in a solitary spot upon the river Ada, a gigantic fellow attacked him and tried to throw him into the stream. The emperor's cries for help brought his attendants to the spot, and the assailant, in his turn, was thrown into the river. On another occasion an old, misshapen man glided into the camp, bearing poisoned wares which he sought to dispose of to the emperor. Frederick, fortunately, had been forewarned, and he had the would-be assassin seized and executed.

It was in the spring of 1162 that the city yielded, hunger at length forcing it to capitulate. Now came the work of revenge. Frederick proceeded to put into execution the harsh vow he had made, after subjecting its inhabitants to the greatest humiliations which he could devise.

For three days the consuls and chief men of the city, followed by the people, were obliged to parade before the imperial camp, barefooted and dressed in sackcloth, with tapers in their hands and crosses, swords, and ropes about their necks. On the third day more than a hundred of the banners of the city were brought out and laid at the emperor's feet. Then, in sign of the most utter humiliation, the great banner of their pride, the Carocium—a stately iron tree with iron leaves, drawn on a cart by eight oxen—was brought out and bowed before the emperor. Frederick seized and tore down its fringe, while the whole people cast themselves on the ground, wailing and imploring mercy.

The emperor was incensed beyond mercy, other than to grant them their lives. He ordered that a part of the wall should be thrown down, and rode through the breach into the city. Then, after deliberation, he granted the inhabitants their lives, but ordered their removal to four villages, several miles away, where they were placed under the care of imperial functionaries. As for Milan, he decided that it should be levelled with the ground, and gave the right to do this, at their request, to the people of Lodi, Cremona, Pavia, and other cities which had formerly been oppressed by proud Milan.

Amphitheatre at Milan


The city was first pillaged, and then given over to the hands of the Lombards, who—such was the diligence of hatred—are said to have done more in six days than hired workmen would have done in as many months. The walls and forts were torn down, the ditches filled up, and the once splendid city reduced to a frightful scene of ruin and desolation. Then, at a splendid banquet at Pavia, in the Easter festival, the triumphant emperor replaced the crown upon his head.

His triumph was not to continue, nor the humiliation of Milan to remain permanent. Time brings its revenges, as the proud Frederick was to learn. For five years Milan lay in ruins, a home for owls and bats, a scene of desolation to make all observers weep; and then arrived its season of retribution. Frederick's downfall came from the hand of God, not of man. A frightful plague broke out in the ranks of the German army, then in Rome, carrying off nobles and men alike in such numbers that it looked as if the whole host might be laid in the grave. Thousands died, and the emperor was obliged to retire to Pavia with but a feeble remnant of his numerous army, nearly the whole of it having been swept away. In the following spring he was forced to leave Italy like a fugitive, secretly and in disguise, and came so nearly falling into the hands of his foes, that he only escaped by one of his companions placing himself in his bed, to be seized in his stead, while he fled under cover of the night.

Immediately the humbled cities raised their heads. An alliance was formed between them, and they even ventured to conduct the Milanese back to their ruined homes. At once the work of rebuilding was begun. The ditches, walls, and towers were speedily restored, and then each man went to work on his own habitation. So great was the city that the work of destruction had been but partial. Most of the houses, all the churches, and portions of the walls remained, and by aid of the other cities Milan soon regained its old condition.

In 1174 Frederick reappeared in Italy, with a new army, and with hostile intentions against the revolted cities. The Lombards had built a new city, in a locality surrounded by rivers and marshes, and had enclosed it with walls which they sought to make impregnable. This they named Alexandria, in honor of the pope and in defiance of the emperor, and against this Frederick's first assault was made. For seven months he besieged it, and then broke into the very heart of the place, through a subterranean passage which the Germans had excavated. To all appearance the city was lost, yet chance and courage saved it. The brave defenders attacked the Germans, who had appeared in the market-place; the tunnel, through great good fortune, fell in; and in the end the emperor was forced to raise the siege in such haste that he set fire to his own encampment in his precipitate retreat.

On May 29, 1176, a decisive battle was fought at Lignano, in which Milan revenged itself on its too-rigorous enemy. The Carocium was placed in the middle of the Lombard army, surrounded by three hundred youths, who had sworn to defend it unto death, and by a body of nine hundred picked cavalry, who had taken a similar oath.

Early in the battle one wing of the Lombard army wavered under the sharp attack of the Germans, and threw into confusion the Milanese ranks. Taking advantage of this, the emperor pressed towards their centre, seeking to gain the Carocium, with the expectation that its capture would convert the disorder of the Lombards into a rout. On pushed the Germans until the sacred standard was reached, and its decorations torn down before the eyes of its sworn defenders.

This indignity to the treasured emblem of their liberties gave renewed courage to the disordered band. Their ranks re-established, they charged upon the Germans with such furious valor as to drive them back in disorder, cut through their lines to the emperor's station, kill his standard-bearer by his side, and capture the imperial standard. Frederick, clad in a splendid suit of armor, rushed against them at the head of a band of chosen knights. But suddenly he was seen to fall from his horse and vanish under the hot press of struggling warriors that surged back and forth around the standard.

This dire event spread instant terror through the German ranks. They broke and fled in disorder, followed by the death-phalanx of the Carocium, who cut them down in multitudes, and drove them back in complete disorder and defeat. For two days the emperor was mourned as slain, his unhappy wife even assuming the robes of widowhood, when suddenly he reappeared, and all was joy again. He had not been seriously hurt in his fall, and had with a few friends escaped in the tumult of the defeat, and, under the protection of night, made his way with difficulty back to Pavia.

This defeat ended the efforts of Frederick against Milan, which had, through its triumph over the great emperor, regained all its old proud position and supremacy among the Lombard cities. The war ended with the battle of Lignano, a truce of six years being concluded between the hostile parties. For the ensuing eight years Frederick was fully occupied in Germany, in wars with Henry the Lion, of the Guelph faction. At the end of that time he returned to Italy, where Milan, which he had sought so strenuously to humiliate and ruin, now became the seat of the greatest honor he could bestow. The occasion was that of the marriage of his son Henry to Constanza, the last heiress of Naples and Sicily of the royal Norman race. This ceremony took place in Milan, in which city the emperor caused the iron crown of the Lombards to be placed upon the head of his son and heir, and gave him away in marriage with the utmost pomp and festivity. Milan had won in its great contest for life and death.

We may fitly conclude with the story of the death of the great Frederick, who, in accordance with the character of his life, died in harness. In his old age, having put an end to the wars in Germany and Italy, he headed a crusade to the Holy Land, from which he was never to return. It was the most interesting in many of its features of all the crusades, the leaders of the host being, in addition to Frederick Barbarossa, Richard Coeur de Lion of England, the hero of romance, the wise Philip Augustus of France, and various others of the leading potentates of Europe.

It is with Frederick alone that we are concerned. In 1188 he set out, at the head of one hundred and fifty thousand trained soldiers, on what was destined to prove a disastrous expedition. Entering Hungary, he met with a friendly reception from Bela, its king. Reaching Belgrade, he held there a magnificent tournament, hanged all the robber Servians he could capture for their depredations upon his ranks, and advanced into Greek territory, where he punished the bad faith of the emperor, Isaac, by plundering his country. Several cities were destroyed in revenge for the assassination of pilgrims and of sick and wounded German soldiers by their inhabitants. This done, Frederick advanced on Constantinople, whose emperor, to save his city from capture, hastened to place his whole fleet at the disposal of the Germans, glad to get rid of these truculent visitors at any price.

Reaching Asia Minor, the troubles of the crusaders began. They were assailed by the Turks, and had to cut their way forward at every step. Barbarossa had never shown himself a greater general. On one occasion, when hard pressed by the enemy, he concealed a chosen band of warriors in a large tent, the gift of the Queen of Hungary, while the rest of the army pretended to fly. The Turks entered the camp and began pillaging, when the ambushed knights broke upon them from the tent, the flying soldiers turned, and the confident enemy was disastrously defeated.

But as the army advanced its difficulties increased. A Turkish prisoner who was made to act as a guide, being driven in chains before the army, led the Christians into the gorges of almost impassable mountains, sacrificing his life for his cause. Here, foot-sore and weary, and tormented by thirst and hunger, they were suddenly attacked by ambushed foes, stones being rolled upon them in the narrow gorges, and arrows and javelins poured upon their disordered ranks. Peace was here offered them by the Turks, if they would pay a large sum of money for their release. In reply the indomitable emperor sent them a small silver coin, with the message that they might divide this among themselves. Then, pressing forward, he beat off the enemy, and extricated his army from its dangerous situation.

As they pushed on, the sufferings of the army increased. Water was not to be had, and many were forced to quench their thirst by drinking the blood of their horses. The army was now divided. Frederick, the son of the emperor, led half of it forward at a rapid march, defeated the Turks who sought to stop him, and fought his way into the city of Iconium. Here all the inhabitants were put to the sword, and the crusaders gained an immense booty.

Meanwhile the emperor, his soldiers almost worn out with hunger and fatigue, was surrounded with the army of the sultan. He believed that his son was lost, and tears of anguish flowed from his eyes, while all around him wept in sympathy. Suddenly rising, he exclaimed, "Christ still lives, Christ conquers!" and putting himself at the head of his knights, he led them in a furious assault upon the Turks. The result was a complete victory, ten thousand of the enemy falling dead upon the field. Then the Christian army marched to Iconium, where they found relief from their hunger and weariness.

After recruiting they marched forward, and on June 10, 1190, reached the little river Cydnus, in Cilicia. Here the road and the bridge over the stream were so blocked up with beasts of burden that the progress of the army was greatly reduced. The bold old warrior, impatient to rejoin his son Frederick, who led the van, would not wait for the bridge to be cleared, but spurred his war-horse forward and plunged into the stream. Unfortunately, he had miscalculated the strength of the current. Despite the efforts of the noble animal, it was borne away by the swift stream, and when at length assistance reached the aged emperor he was found to be already dead.

Never was a man more mourned than was the valiant Barbarossa by his army, and by the Germans on hearing of his death. His body was borne by the sorrowing soldiers to Antioch, where it was buried in the church of St. Peter. His fate was, perhaps, a fortunate one, for it prevented him from beholding the loss of the army, which was almost entirely destroyed by sickness at the city in which his body was entombed. His son Frederick died at the siege of Acre, or Ptolemais.

As regards the Germans at home, they were not willing to believe that their great emperor could be dead. Their superstitious faith gave rise to legendary tales, to the effect that the valiant Barbarossa was still alive, and would, some day, return to yield Germany again a dynasty of mighty sovereigns. The story went that the noble emperor lay asleep in a deep cleft of Kylfhaüeser Berg, on the golden meadow of Thuringia. Here, his head resting on his arm, he sits by a granite block, through which, in the lapse of time, his red beard has grown. Here he will sleep until the ravens no longer fly around the mountain, when he will awake to restore the golden age to the world.

Another legend tells us that the great Barbarossa sits, wrapped in deep slumber, in the Untersberg, near Salzberg. His sleep will end when the dead pear-tree on the Walserfeld, which has been cut down three times but ever grows anew, blossoms. Then will he come forth, hang his shield on the tree, and begin a tremendous battle, in which the whole world will join, and in whose end the good will overcome the wicked, and the reign of virtue return to the earth.