History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

Frederick II, the World's Wonder

Until Frederick II came to Germany to fight for the crown he had lived all his life in Italy, and he was far more Italian than German. He was brilliant and clever, a scholar and a poet, as well as a soldier and statesman. He could speak six languages, and was learned in all the learning of his time, as well as in all knightly arts, so that he was called the World's Wonder.

So long as Otto lived Frederick dared not leave Germany. But after he died he began to think once more of Italy, and in 1220 he journeyed to Rome, to receive the imperial crown.

The Pope had helped Frederick greatly in his struggle for the throne. But he had made him promise him many things in return, one being that he should go on a Crusade. But now Frederick did not seem inclined to keep his word, and for this and other reasons the Pope soon began to quarrel with him. Yet again and again he prayed him to set forth on his promised Crusade. Again and again Frederick found some excuse. At length, however, he married the daughter of the exiled King of Jerusalem, and calling himself King of Jerusalem he set out upon a Crusade. But before he had been three days at sea, much sickness broke out among the army, and he himself became so ill that he turned back again to Italy.

When the Pope, now Gregory IX, heard of this return he hardly knew what to do for grief and anger. He believed that this illness was merely a pretence. He believed that this was merely the last and worst of Frederick's many excuses. So once more the thunders of the Church were launched against a German Emperor, and Frederick was excommunicated.

The next year, however, Frederick set forth again. But this only made the Pope more angry. That an excommunicated man should dare to lead a crusade was an insult to the holy places, a mockery of God. So this crusade was followed not by the Pope's blessing, but by his curse. And while Frederick marched to free the Holy Land, the Pope proclaimed a crusade against him and sent soldiers to invade Sicily.

Still, dismayed neither by the Pope's soldiers nor by his threats and curses, Frederick continued on his journey. He reached the Holy Land, but he fought no battles. For he won from the Sultan by treaty far more than all the crusaders before him had won by the sword.

He met the Turks with smiles and soft words, instead of spears and blows, and he won from them a ten years' peace, and the possession of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, as well as a strip of land leading from the coast to these towns. So henceforth without fear, pilgrims could pass through the land, to visit the holy places. Thus it was that a man under the curse of the Church won possession of the Holy Land for Christians, for the last time. Fifteen years later it was lost once more, and since then has never again been in the possession of Christians.

Greatly rejoicing at their quick and easy success, the crusaders now marched on to Jerusalem. But even here the anger of the Pope followed the Emperor, and because of him, the Holy City was laid under an interdict. No priest dared offer up a prayer of thanksgiving, or chant a hymn of victory. For he who had delivered the Holy Sepulchre was one accursed. No bishop dared set the crown upon his head, and anoint him King of Jerusalem. So it was through a silent church that Frederick walked in his kingly robes. He reached the altar where lay the crown. Lifting it, he placed it upon his head, and in silence as he had come, he returned with no holy oil upon his brow, with no blessing in his ear.

Frederick II of Germany


Less than a month later Frederick, having appointed a regent, left Palestine, and sailed back to Italy. Here he at once set himself to fight the Pope and drive his soldiers out of Sicily. This was soon done. Then, generously, Frederick tried again to make friends with the Pope. The Pope yielded; he removed the ban, and there was peace once more.

Now followed a quiet and prosperous time, during which Frederick ruled Sicily well, and with a statesmanship and wisdom far beyond that of any other ruler of his day. But he neglected Germany. The Emperor's young son Henry indeed ruled as regent, but he was a mere boy, and little regarded. Meanwhile, the great princes of Germany were pleased enough to be left to themselves, for they could do much as they liked. The great trading towns too grew more and more powerful. To protect their trade, they banded themselves together into leagues, the most powerful being the Hansa League.

This League became so important that all the trade of the Baltic and much of the trade of the North Sea, came into its hands. Much of the trade even of England was carried on by the merchants of the Hansa League. It had many soldiers in its pay, and great fleets of ships, so that not only the Emperor, but proud foreign kings like the King of England, or of France, were forced to respect its power.

Now between the strength of the nobles and the strength of the towns Frederick's power in Germany sank to little more than a name. And at length, when his power seemed at its lowest ebb, his son Henry headed a rebellion against him. Then, after fifteen years' absence, Frederick came back to Germany. Before his approach the rebellion melted away. He forgave his rebel son, but Henry would show neither sorrow nor repentance. So he was sent to prison in the south of Italy. There, still proud and unrepentant, he died a few years later, greatly to his father's grief. "I am not the first or the last," he said, "who, having suffered from a child's disobedience, must yet weep over his grave."

Frederick remained but a short time in Germany. Then he returned once more to Italy, and although he reigned thirteen years longer, he visited Germany no more.

Soon after Frederick's return to Italy he quarrelled once more with the Pope, and all his last years were filled with this struggle. The Pope once more excommunicated the Emperor and solemnly declared that he was deposed; but Frederick in his turn flung defiance at the Pope, and waged a war against him and his curses such as never King before him had dared to do.

The two heads of the Christian world fought with bitter hate, heaping scorn and insult upon each other. The Emperor called the Pope a mad priest, the Pope called the Emperor a pestilential King. The Pope then turned king-maker, and chose Henry Raspe as King. But he never had any power. Frederick's son Conrad, who now ruled Germany, defeated him near Ulm, and in a short time he died. The Pope then chose another King, William of Holland. But neither did he have any power. The whole country was, however, torn asunder by wars.

At length, in the midst of his struggle and defiance, Frederick fell suddenly ill and died in December 1250. "Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad," said the Pope when he heard of it.