Frederick I

Frederick I Barbarossa
Frederick I Barbarossa

Frederick I, called Barbarossa (Italian for “Red Beard”), ruled the Holy Roman Empire from 1152 until his death in 1190 while on the Third Crusade. He was elected emperor upon the death of his uncle, Conrad III, in 1152, when the empire was in decline. He led several expeditions to Italy to regain control over the northern part of the country.

In Germany he broke up the duchy of Saxony when its duke, Henry the Lion, refused to support the emperor on one of his expeditions to Italy. The duchy was divided between the emperor and the lesser nobles of the area in 1180. Germany then experienced a period of peace and prosperity. In 1189 Frederick set out on the Third Crusade, marching his army through the Balkans and Asia Minor. During 1190 while in Asia Minor, Frederick drowned in the Saleph River.

Frederick I was born in 1122 and became the duke of Swabia when his father died in 1147. He accompanied his uncle, Emperor Conrad III, on the Second Crusade and took part in the aborted siege of Damascus. As Conrad neared his death he designated Frederick as his chosen successor.

Thus when Conrad died in 1152 Frederick was elected emperor. The election took place in Frankfurt-am-Main on March 4, 1152. Between 1154 and 1183 he led six expeditions to Italy. On the first, he restored the pope’s authority in Italy and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. During the second, he captured Milan and placed friendly governors in several other cities.

He also supported the antipope and was excommunicated by Pope Alexander III. For the third expedition, Frederick planned to conquer Sicily but was stopped by a league of Italian states. His fourth expedition saw him storm Rome and place the antipope on the throne. The plague broke out in his army, forcing him to return to Germany.

The fifth expedition ended in failure when Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony, refused to accompany the emperor to Italy, where the emperor’s army was defeated. After his defeat, Frederick made peace with Pope Alexander III. His last expedition to Italy saw him make a lasting peace with the Italian states and marry his son to the heiress to the Norman lands in Sicily.

During this time Frederick was also working to keep the peace in Germany. Many of the German princes continued to feud with their neighbors and tried to expand their holdings. One of the more successful princes was Henry the Lion. Upon his return to Germany Frederick had Henry tried in absentia and stripped of his lands. Some of his lands went to the emperor, while the rest was divided up among various nobles.

Frederick had initially been married to Adelheid of Vohburg, but he had the childless marriage annulled. He married again on June 9, 1156, this time to Beatrice of Burgundy. Because of this marriage, he gained control of the kingdom of Burgundy. They had several children, including Frederick’s successor, Henry VI.

Answering the call for a new crusade Frederick assembled his army at Regensburg in May 1189. The army marched through Byzantine lands, arriving at Constantinople in the fall of 1189. Advancing through Asia Minor during the spring of 1190, he defeated the sultan of Iconium. He continued his advance and it was during this advance that he drowned. The exact circumstances of his death are not known.