1902 Encyclopedia > Frederick II, surnamed the Hohenstaufen

Frederick II, surnamed the Hohenstaufen
Holy Roman Emperor
(1194-1250)




FREDERICK II. (1194-1250), Holy Roman Emperor, surnamed the Hohenstaufen, the most remarkable historic figure of the Middle Ages, grandson of the preceding, and son of Henry VI. and of Constance, heiress of the throne of Sicily, was born at Jesi, near Ancona, 26th December 1194. He was elected king of the Romans in 1196; and, his father having died 28th September 1197, he was in May 1198, crowned king of Sicily, his mother obtaining for him the recognition and support of Pope Innocent III. by acknowledging the feudal supremacy of the papacy, by the sacrifice of certain ecclesiastical rights, and by the payment of a yearly tribute. Dying the same year, she bequeathed his guardianship to the pope ; but for some time after this, Sicily was the scene of hopeless political anarchy, and the custody of the young king at Palermo was the occasion of continual and complicated intrigues, and of a confused and protracted civil war which had very varying results. The pope could thus only fulfil his trust imperfectly, but the education of his ward, so far from suffering on this account, was exceptionally thorough and complete ; and the different nationalities with which he came into contact contributed each its quota to the instruction and development of his strong and many-sided character.

Though crowned in infancy king of the Romans, he actually inherited from his father no other throne than that of Naples and Sicily. In 1208 he entered upon the per-sonal government of his kingdom, and in the following year he was married to Constance of Aragon. About this time, Otto, second son of Henry the Lion, had, on account of the murder of Philip of Hohenstaufen by Otto of Wittelsbach, obtained undisputed possession of the throne of Germany; but immediately after his coronation at Rome in 1209 the inevitable jealousy between pope and emperor led to the usual results, and when Otto was meditating the subjugation of Naples and Sicily, he was met in 1211 by a bidl of excommunication. At a diet held at Nuremberg in October of the same year it was resolved to offer the crown of Germany to the young king of Sicily. Innocent III. on certain conditions gave his sanction to the offer; and to Frederick, even had he seen in it nothing to incite his imaginative ardour, it must have appeared almost in the form of an unexpected deliverance from impending ruin. Having therefore resolved to dispute his ancestral throne with his rival, he set out in the spring of 1212 on his romantic and hazardous quest. Landing at Genoa on the 1st of May accompanied by only a few adherents, he made his way over the Alps by unfrequented passes to Coire, and learning at St Gall that Otto was about to occupy Constance, he by great good fortune was able to anticipate him by three hours. The town at once declared in Frederick's favour, and Otto, without seriously attempt-ing to resist his progress in southern Germany, retired to Saxony. In November of the same year Frederick 731 made a treaty with Philip of France, and in December he was elected king at Frankfort, and crowned at Mainz. By inherent force of character, aided by his unrivalled diplomatic skill and his bold and rapid movements, he had won success almost without striking a blow; and his task was at least denuded of all difficulty through Otto's disastrous defeat by Philip at Bouvines, near Tournay, 27th July 1214. Any further organized resistance was thus rendered impossible against the progress of the Hohen-staufen, who in July 1215 ascended the marble throne of Charlemagne at Aix-la-Chapelle, and received the silver crown. At a solemn ceremony which followed he took the cross; but even after the death of Otto in May 1218 he was fully occupied in establishing his influence in Germany. In 1220 he succeeded in obtaining the election of his son Henry to the German throne, but the favour was dearly rewarded by the charter which by the independent privi-leges it conferred upon the princes virtually dissolved the unity of the kingdom. The election was contrary to a promise made to Pope Innocent III. to appoint Henry king of Sicily, but Pope Honorius III., anxious for the success of the crusade, was pacified without much difficulty, and Frederick leaving Germany in the autumn of 1220 was crowned emperor at Borne on the 22d November, renew-ing at the same time his oath to set out on the crusade with all possible speed. His absence in Germany had permitted the growth of disorder and confusion in his southern king-dom ; and to restrain the licence of the Apulian nobles he now established at Capua a tribunal to revise their privileges, while, to deliver the Christians in Sicily from the attacks to which they were continually exposed from the Saracen mountain tribes, he transferred 2000 Saracens to Lucera, an expedient which also established in Italy a con-venient instrument of resistance to the papal power.





The departure of the crusade, at first fixed for 1223, was deferred till 1225, and even then it was found necessary to delay it for two years longer; but, his wife Constance having died in 1222, he gave a pledge that his ambition coincided with the papal wishes by marrying in 1225 Yo-lande, daughter of King John of Jerusalem; and he also bound himself by heavy penalties to set out with a stipu-lated force in August 1227. The hostilities between him and the Lombard league, begun in 1226, were suspended through the intercession of Pope Honorius in February 1227, and the Lombards agreed to furnish a certain number of knights for the expedition. In March Honorius died, and was succeeded by Gregory IX., who on the very day of his accession addressed a new and imperative warn-ing to the emperor against delay in the fulfilment of his oath. Frederick actually set out at the time agreed upon, but returned three days afterwards, and, asserting as his reason a serious illness,, permitted the armament to be dissolved, whereupon Gregory without further negotiation launched against him, September 30, the solemn bull of excommunication. The appeal to Christendom with which Frederick met the church's fulmination is remark-able in that, so far from contenting himself with defending his own conduct, he, besides denouncing the temporal pretensions of the pope as menacing the whole of Christen-dom wi th an " unheard-of tyranny," asserted that instead of rolling in wealth and aspiring to worldly influence the church's representatives ought to cultivate the simplicity and self-denial of the early Christians. In resolving to set out on the crusade, notwithstanding his excommunication, Frederick was therefore actuated, not merely by the wish to take possession of a secular throne, or to demonstrate the sincerity of his purpose to keep his oath, but by the determination to assert his right still to act as the temporal head of the church. His preparations were not delayed by | the death of his wife Yolande in April 1228. and he set sail from Otranto on the 29th June. Meanwhile, by securing the favour of the Frangipani and the other Eoman patricians, he procured the expulsion of Gregory from Rome; but the subtle spiritual influence of the papal ban was not affected by this seeming victory, and tidings of his excommunication reaching the Holy Land almost simultaneously with his arrival, the Knights of the Temple and the Hospital refused to take part in the crusade. Frederick, however, by mere diplomatic tact succeeded in persuading the sultan of Egypt to agree to a treaty, by which the church obtained possession of Jerusalem and the holy places on granting to the Saracens, besides various other privileges, free access to Bethlehem; and on the 18th March 1229 he, without any religious ceremony, crowned himself with his own hands king of Jerusalem. Such a striking and unexpected success wrought almost imme-diately throughout Europe a complete revolution of opinion in his favour; and when shortly afterwards he succeeded in defeating the papal forces which had invaded his dominions, the pope deemed it expedient to come to terms, and released him from the ban of excommunication 28th August 1230.

In the interval of peace which followed, Frederick occupied himself in forming for his Sicilian kingdom a code of laws, the main features of which were the superseding of irresponsible feudal and ecclesiastical jurisdictions by a uniform civil legislation administered under direct imperial control; the toleration extended to Jews and Mahometans, and the severe enactments against schismatics; the provisions for the emancipation of the peasants ; the regulations for the encouragement of commerce, which contain perhaps the fjrst enunciation of the modern doctrine of free trade ; and the establishment of annual parliaments, consisting of barons, prelates, and representatives from the towns and cities. He also devoted much of his attention to the advancement of learning and of the arts and sciences. The university of Naples, founded in 1224, but whose operations had been for some time suspended, he now restored and liberally endowed ; at the medical schools of Salerno he provided Arab, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew teachers for the students of these different nationalities; and he caused the translation into Latin of the works of Aristotle and of other philosophers both Greek and Arabic. He himself was learned both in Mussulman arts and sciences and in Christian scholasticism and philo-sophy ; he knew Latin, Greek, French, German, Arabic, and Hebrew. He had a great interest in architecture, and he fostered the infancy of Italian sculpture and painting; he and his minister Peter de Vinea were among the first culti-vators of Italian poetry; he also devoted much attention to natural history, and besides forming large collections of rare and curious animals wrote a treatise on the art of falconry, which shows a minute acquaintance with the habits of birds. With the influences of Western civiliza-tion there was conjoined at his castles on the Apulian shore an Oriental luxury and splendour; and in the harem of the Christian emperor his accusers found a convenient corroboration of their insinuation regarding his secret enmity to the Christian faith.

The short period of peaceful progress was broken in 1234 by the rebellion of Frederick's son Henry, who, secretly instigated by the pope, joined the Lombard league. The revolt was, however, suppressed on the arrival of the emperor in Germany in 1235, and Henry was sent as a prisoner to the castle of San Felice in Apulia. In the same year Frederick married Isabella, sister of Henry III. of England. Conrad, second son of the emperor, was chosen king by the German princes in January 1237 ; and Frederick, after the disastrous defeat of the Lombards at Cortenuova, November 27th of this year, appointed, in October 1238, his natural son Enzio king of Sardinia. Alarmed at the success of the imperial arms, Gregory, in March 1239, renewed against the emperor the ban of excommunication ; but the latter advancing into the states of the church, cap-tured Ravenna, Faenza, and Benevento ; and after gaining, through the help of Enzio, a brilliant victory over the Gen-oese fleet, was nearing Rome when Gregory died August 21, 1241. After the short pontificate of Celestine IV. and an interregnum of eighteen months, Cardinal Sinibald Fiesco, up to this time one of the emperor's chief friends, became pope as Innocent IV. in June 1243. At once negotiations were entered into for an arrangement between them ; but the papal demands were too humiliating to per-mit of their acceptance; and Innocent, suddenly making his escape to Lyons, not only renewed, July 17, 1245, the church's ban against the emperor, but declared his throne vacant. Henry Raspe of Thuringia, elected by the papal party king of the Romans in May 1246, gained a victory over Conrad at Frankfort on the 5th August, but, suffering a total defeat near Ulm, February 17, 1247, died shortly afterwards ; and between his successor William of Holland and Conrad the struggle was carried on with indecisive results, In this same year Peter de Vinea, the minister and most intimate friend of Frederick, was discovered plotting against his life; on 18th February 1248 Frederick's army in Italy was surprised and utterly routed by a sally of the citizens of Parma; in May 1249 his son Enzio was defeated and captured by the Bolognese; and, although in 1250 various successes in the north of Italy and the prospect of new and powerful alliances seemed to promise him a speedy and complete triumph, his strength had been so worn out by his arduous struggle, and his spirit so broken by such a succession of disasters that he died somewhat suddenly on the 13th December, at his hunting lodge of Fiorentino (also called Firenzuola), near Lucera.





The general contemporary opinion regarding Frederick II. is expressed in the words stupor mundi \ and whatever amount either of approbation or censure may be bestowed upon his career, wonder and perplexity are the predominant sentiments which its contemplation even yet awakens. It was not merely that his mental endowments were excep-tionally great, but that, owing to his mingled German and Italian blood, the various influences to which he was sub-jected in his early years, the strange times in which he lived, and the events with which destiny had connected him, his character was exhibited in such multiform aspects and in such an individual and peculiar light that in history we look in vain for his parallel. As to the nature of his religious faith there are no data for arriving at a certain conclusion. The theory of M. Huillard-Breholles that he wished to unite with the functions of emperor those of a spiritual pontiff, and aspired to be the founder of a new religion, is a conjecture insufficiently supported by the isolated facts and statements and the general considerations on which it is made to rest. Indeed the character of Frederick seems to have been widely removed from that of a religious enthusiast; and at every critical period of his life he was urged to daring and adventurous projects rather by external circumstances than by either the prompt-ings of ambition or the consciousness of any divine com-mission. On any theory his enactments in reference to religion are, however, somewhat enigmatical. His perse* cution of heretics may not have been entirely due to a desire to vindicate his orthodoxy before his Christian subjects; but although his ideas regarding freedom of conscience were either inconsistent or hampered in their action by a regard to expediency, his toleration of the Jews equally with the Mahometans prevents us ascrib-ing his toleration of the latter either to secret sym-pathy with that form of faith or wholly to political considerations. He was in all probability a believer in astrology, and he shared in many of the other super-stitious ideas of his time ; but there is no indication that he dreaded any other than temporal consequences from the ban of the church; and if certain features of the Christian system had perhaps an attraction for him, yet both from his reported jests and serious conversation it is evident that his Christian belief, if he possessed one, bore little resemblance to that current in his age. In the ex-travagant accusations of cruelty, perfidy, and licentiousness with which the church has assailed his memory there is some nucleus of truth; but a candid judgment will arrive at the conclusion that few exposed to such pernicious influences have shown such a decided preference for goodness and truth, and that there have been almost none who against such immense difficulties have wrought to such wise pur-pose in behalf of human progress and enlightenment, or have fought such a resolute and advantageous battle in behalf of spiritual freedom. In this contest he was not an immediate victor; and indeed the dissolution of the imperial power in Italy which followed his death must be chiefly traced to the fact that his policy was governed by prin-ciples too much in advance of his age. But although the beneficial results of his reign are not at a first glance so pal-pable and undeniable as some of its injurious results, yet so far was he from being a mere untimely precursor of the new era which dawned in Europe more than two cen-turies after his death that, perhaps in a greater degree than any other, he was instrumental in hastening its arrival, both by sowing the first seeds of the Renaissance in Italy, and by giving to the old system of things a shock which was felt throughout Europe, and continued to work silently long after its reverberations had passed away.

After the death of Frederick the followers of Abbot Joachim continued to assert that he was still alive, and both in Sicily and Germany impostors sprang up who attempted to personate him. The superstition that the " emperor continued to haunt the castle of Kyffhäuser," at one time thought to refer to Frederick Barbarossa, has now been shown to have had its origin in the tradition that Frederick II. still lived after he had ceased to exercise the functions of emperor.

The contemporary documents bearing on the reign of Frederick are unusually numerous. Most of those not contained in the Fcedera of Thomas Khymer, the Annates eccles. post Baronium of Raynaldus, or the historical collections of Muratori, Bouquet, Böhmer, or Pertz will be found in the great work of Huillard-Breholles, Historia Diplomatica Frederici Secundi, 12 vols., Paris, 1852-1861. The principal ancient chronicles are the Historia Major Anglice of Matthew Paris ; the chronicle of the Franciscan monk Salimbene, first published in Monumenta ad provincias Parmensem et Placentinam spectantia, Parma, 1857; the Life of Gregory IX., by the Cardinal of Aragon ; the Annates Mediolanenses 1230-1402 ; the Ohronieon Berum per Orbem Gestarum (1159-1242) of Richard de San Germano; and the Chronicon Placentinum and Chronicon de rebus in Italia gestis, published in one volume by M. Huillard-Breholles, Paris, 1856, the former printed from the copy in the Imperial Library, Paris, and the latter never before published, and printed from the copy in the British Museum. The chief modern authorities are Muratori, Cherrier, Von Raumer, Milman, Freeman as above under FREDERICK I.; Giannone, Storia del Regno di Napoli, 1723 ; Hoeffer, Kaiser Frederick IL, Munich, 1844 ; the great work of Huillard-Breholles, and also his Vic et Correspondance de Pierre de la Vigne, Paris, 1866 ; T. L Kington, History of Frederick the Second, Emperor of the Romans, London, 1862 ; Sehirrmacher, Kaiser Friedrich II, 4 vols., Göttingen, 1859-65; Winkelmann, Geschichte Kaiser Friedrichs II. und, seiner Reiche, vol. i., Berlin, 1863, vol. ii., Revel, 1865, and a continuation for the years 1239-41 in the Forschungen zur deutschen Geschichte, xii. 261-294, 521-566; A. del Vecchio, La legislazione di Federico II. Imperatore, Turin, 1874 ; and Reuter, Geschichte der religiösen Aufklärung im Mittelalter, vol. ii., Berlin, 1877. (T. F. H.)


Footnote

Regarding the Friedrichsage, see papers by C. Voigt, S, Riezler, and M. Brosch, in the 26th, 32d, and 35th volumes of H. von Sybel's Historische Zeitschrift.




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