Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The Holy Roman Empire—Strife with the Popes—Commercial Progress

The Saxon line of emperors came to an end with Henry V (see Chapter XX), and under the Hohenstaufens the bitter struggle between popes and emperors continued. Emperors, too, still strove after world dominion, while their power over Germany was yet unstable.

At length both Germany and Italy became divided into two great parties. In Germany the factions were known as Welfs and Waiblings, in Italy as Guelphs and Ghibellines. The Welfs or Guelphs were followers of the pope, the Waiblings or Ghibellines were followers of the emperor, Waibling being a sort of surname given to the Hohenstaufens from their castle of that name.

Frederick I, Barbarossa

In the tremendous struggle between pope and emperor the Empire was to succumb, but for a time the inevitable end was staved off by the genius of a great man. This was Frederick I, Barbarossa. Strong and just, a great statesman and a great soldier, he was, perhaps, the best emperor who has ever ruled over Germany.

Under him once again the warring states were united. Even he could not entirely put down private warfare but he greatly reduced it, and in the comparative peace the country became more prosperous and united than ever before. It would have been well for Germany had Barbarossa been content with his work there. But once again the desire for world dominion and the fatal connection with Italy brought ruin.

The Normans were by this time firmly established in Italy, and the south was thus practically lost to the Empire. In the north the great cities had grown powerful, and taking advantage of the quarrels between pope and emperor had wrung themselves free and formed republics. The emperors' quarrels with the pope were bitter and frequent, and in these struggles the popes sometimes sought help from the Normans, sometimes from the Lombard cities. They used their spiritual powers against the emperor also, and like some of his predecessors, Barbarossa was excommunicated. But the thunders of the Church did not affect him as they had affected Henry IV. For Barbarossa ruled Germany with a strong hand, and the German bishops were emperor's men rather than pope's men. They did homage to the emperor for their fiefs, and rode with his army. Had the German Church always been thus true to the emperor the fate of the German Empire might have been other than it was.

Italy and the Empire

Soon after his coronation Frederick entered Italy and in several campaigns reduced the Lombard cities to submission. It was done with not a little cruelty, Milan being razed to the ground. He placed German rulers over the cities and provinces and laid upon the people such a burden of taxes that the record of them was called "The book of pain and mourning."

Frederick's first papal quarrel was with Adrien IV, the only Englishman who ever sat upon the papal throne. It began over a very small matter. Adrien wrote a letter to Frederick in which he seemed to claim that the Empire was his (the pope's) gift and the emperor merely his vassal. At this assumption the imperial wrath blazed furiously. The pope was roused to equal fury, and only his death saved the emperor from excommunication.

But his death, far from ending the quarrel, only added more fury to it. For two popes were now elected, the emperor's party choosing Victor IV, the pope's party Alexander III. Each pope, as soon as he was enthroned, excommunicated his rival, and Alexander III also excommunicated the emperor.

Barbarossa cared little for the thunders of the Church. But Alexander was a formidable foe. It was he who later threatened Henry II of England with excommunication for the murder of Thomas Becket. Against such a pope the emperor needed all his strength, and soon his cause was endangered by the death of his own pope. But nothing daunted, he elected another, Paschal III, and marching on Rome, he took the city, and triumphantly enthroned his pope there, while Alexander fled in dismay.

The emperor had conquered, but in the very moment of his triumph disaster overtook him. Pestilence wasted his army, and the Lombard cities, joining hands with Pope Alexander, rose in revolt. Frederick sent to Germany for reinforcements, they were refused, and in the battle of Legnano he was defeated by the Lombards.

This battle was a turning point in Frederick's reign. After it he saw that it was useless longer to struggle against the growing spirit of freedom which had grown up among the cities of Italy. So he made peace with the Lombards, keeping only a vague suzerainty over them. He also gave up the cause of the rival pope, and made peace with Alexander, who removed the ban of excommunication from him. Even after this, however, his dealings with the popes were never altogether smooth.

A few years later Frederick made peace with Sicily also, and arranged a marriage between his son Henry and Constance the heiress of Sicily. Thus at length Sicily became a fief of the Empire. The pope, however, was ill-pleased with this last stroke of policy on Frederick's part. For with Sicily a fief of the Empire he lost an ally in his struggles with the emperor. Yet angry although he was he did not renew the ban of the Church.

Three years later Barbarossa set out with the third Crusade, and died somewhere in Asia Minor. But he had impressed himself so thoroughly on the German people that they did not believe in his death. So a legend arose that he was only resting after his great labours, and that he would come again. He sits, it is said, within a cave in the heart of the Kyffhausen Mountains, waiting till his country has need of him.

The emperors who succeeded Barbarossa were all involved in the same old round of struggle—with angry popes, with rebellious German states, with revolting cities in northern Italy—and to all was added the struggle to conquer Sicily securely for the Empire. At length, under the weight of all these evils the Empire was crushed to the dust.

In the days of Otto IV the land was filled with strife. First Otto disputed the crown with Philip of Swabia, and after he was accepted as emperor, Frederick of Hohenstaufen, king of Sicily, appeared as his rival. In this quarrel foreign nations also became involved, King John of England allying himself with Otto, and Philip of France allying himself with Frederick. This was the first international war in the history of Europe. It ended in the triumph of France at the battle of Bouvines (see Chapter XXI).

Otto rode from the field a fallen emperor, and Frederick II took his place. He, at first sustained by the pope, was soon involved in quarrels with him. During his reign four popes ruled in Rome, but his bitterest quarrels were with the two last, Gregory IX and Innocent IV. He was excommunicated more than once, but he was unbending in his defiance, and, to prove his contempt for the pope's authority, while still under the ban of the Church, he insolently undertook the fifth Crusade. Yet this was the only one of the later Crusades which produced the result for which it was initiated.

Frederick was brilliant and learned, a lover of science and art, and his ideas of statesmanship were far before his times. But he was far more a Sicilian than a German, and during his long reign of thirty-five years, although he ruled Sicily well, he neglected Germany and spent little of his time there. Indeed, during the last thirteen years of his reign he never crossed its borders. The German nobles taking advantage of this neglect once more did as they would, and the land was filled with private wars and bloodshed. Yet out of this time of confusion a great trade organization arose in the Hanseatic League.

[Illustration] from The Story of Europe by H. E. Marshall

Hanseatic League

During his reign Barbarossa had greatly encouraged the towns with their trade and commerce, and had made many of them free cities owning allegiance to none but the emperor. Now these towns had no mind to lose their freedom and their trade through the depredations of robber knights. So for protection they banded themselves into leagues, of which the Hanseatic League soon became the chief. It grew to such importance that all the trade of the Baltic, and most of the trade of the North Sea, was soon in its hands. It owned armies and fleets, and even kings were forced to bow to its power.

Much of the trade of England was carried on by the Hanseatic merchants. The English called them Easterlings, or men from the East. They were probably even allowed the privilege of coining English money. From this we have our word sterling, used still in connection with British coinage to express its genuineness and good quality. Thus early the German people, as distinct from the German nobles, showed their aptitude for peaceful commerce. And once again history seems to show that if the emperors had been content to forget their wild dream of world dominion, and advance their country in the ways of peace, the fate of the Empire might have been very different. As it was, because of this dream and the wars with the Popes which were one of its consequences, both the House of Hohenstaufen and the Empire were brought to ruin.