Barbarossa - George Upton

Frederick Ascends the Throne

The German Empire suffered many grave calamities the following year. Henry, who already had been designated successor of Conrad III, suddenly died, and all hope of filling the vacancy on the throne without exciting dangerous quarrels among the princes and their adherents seemingly was gone. The seriousness of the situation was soon apparent. Two years passed, and no successor was found. Then the sudden death of Conrad occurred, causing great sorrow and even dismay in the German provinces; for he had been a good ruler, even though he had not always been successful in securing peace.

The situation was alarming. In Lombardy, on the other side of the Alps, the great and rich cities were struggling for absolute independence. Each of them demanded exclusive privileges and individual freedom. They refused to pay taxes or take commands from any one. Each sought to dominate the others and make them tributary. At one time they formed alliances to subjugate others, and when this was accomplished they turned against each other. One day in alliance with the Pope, the next with the Emperor, as soon as they were on good terms with each other,—which was not often the case,—they would join hands against both.

Every device was employed to prevent a lasting agreement between Church and State, and nothing gave them greater delight than the desperate conflict between the Emperor and the representative of Christ, when excommunications and edicts of outlawry were hurled from the respective thrones. They favored the one who would concede the most to them, though perhaps a few days before they had bitterly detested and harassed him. They pretended to submit to the victor, with the secret determination to throw off his yoke at the first opportunity. Indeed, in the very act of making an agreement, they were often planning to break it. Many a ruler had vainly exerted his utmost power to end this wretched business. After the death of Conrad, Italian affairs were in almost inextricable confusion, and the German fatherland was in almost as desperate a condition, growing out of lust for power, and oppressive restrictions.

The grand dukes repeatedly defied the imperial power, and forcibly extorted from weak rulers privileges and immunities which they used for their own profit in dealing with their inferiors. Their vassals, the knights, were humiliated, deprived of all authority, robbed of their possessions, and even church and convent property did not escape spoliation. Many resorted to arms to defend their rights against the feudal lords, or indemnified themselves at the expense of the common people. The freedom of the latter grew continually less, and their humiliation greater. The regular taxes were increased and new ones were levied, until at last the peasant had little left but life. The industrious workers of the cities hardly ventured to carry their products to the nearest market without first purchasing protection from the nobles. Even then, they were often plundered by having to pay ransom to save themselves from being dragged to some dungeon.

This is but a feeble description of the wretched plight of the mightiest Empire in Christendom. To redress these evils and restore order required almost superhuman ability, and the princes looked around in vain for a deliverer. The haughty Henry the Lion, an aggressive, ambitious prince, had no one's confidence. Some were only solicitous to increase their personal power, while others lacked the ability to protect themselves successfully against any assailant.

The dying Conrad, however, took every precaution. He had experienced the difficulty of ruling such an Empire, and had decided upon the right man for the place. His own son Frederick was still a boy, and Conrad knew the Empire would not be safe in his hands. He proposed his nephew, Frederick of Swabia, whom we have already met. In a full assembly of the princes at Frankfort-on-the-Main, one praised the heroic courage he had displayed in the Crusade, another his judgment and wisdom, a third his knightly virtues, and a fourth was confident he would shortly put an end to the long and bloody conflicts of the Guelphs and Ghibellines. He was unanimously elected, March 4, 1152. All the German provinces voluntarily and enthusiastically endorsed the choice of the princes, and a vast multitude of all classes and conditions exultantly greeted him when the coronation ceremony took place at Aix-la-Chapelle, on the tenth of the same month.

No complaint was made this time of irregularity in the election. Some slight regret was expressed that it had not been conducted publicly instead of in the Frankfort town-hall, but this was of little moment. The choice satisfied every one. All hoped to see the glorious old period of Charlemagne restored, and considered, it auspicious that the selection was made in a city which, according to tradition, owed its origin to that great hero of the olden time; for, when hard pressed by the Saxon heathen, it was there he discovered a ford across the Main, which saved his army, and near that spot he founded the city of Frankfort.

The coronation ceremonies at last were over, and the various popular entertainments gradually came to an end. The tumult of the crowds about the hall was hushed, and only two knights remained, who walked up and down the spacious apartment engaged in earnest conversation. The one, although only of medium stature, was strong and well made. His piercing glance, so terrible to an enemy on the battlefield, rested quietly upon his friend and helper. It was easy to recognize the new Emperor by his fair complexion, which the burning sun of Asia had but little browned, his blond hair, and his red beard. The other was Conrad of Feuchtwangen, his friend and comrade in arms at a time when deeds almost passing belief were performed.

"I know as well as thou, my dear Conrad, the magnitude of my task," said the Emperor. "Whichever way I turn I find difficult problems, any one of which will require almost superhuman ability to solve. Germany and Italy, so widely separated from each other, are involved in desperate complications, but I feel that I have sufficient strength and courage to face the situation and fill my high position.

"The princes were certain of that when they elected thee."

"With divine help I will prove myself worthy of their confidence. The history of our people shows that the man who is called to high duties, and places his reliance upon God, is a safe guide and protector of the people, and such an one often accomplishes important results in a short time. The incomparable Charles the Great (Charlemagne) united all classes of his people into a powerful whole, forced the most rebellious to recognize his authority, eradicated heathenism in a single generation, reformed the habits of the people by the glorious teachings of Christianity, and established a well-ordered Empire. At a later period, when princes failed to profit by what he had accomplished, when fraternal strife swept away the best and devastated the country, they suffered many years from the disgrace of it and bowed their necks under the yoke of the barbarous Magyars, until the matchless Henry came with all the old authority and the old virtues, and made the barbarians tremble at the very name of Germany."

"How faithfully thou hast treasured in thy memory the actions of the great!"

"Yes, I have vowed that these men, but above all that Charles, the noble-hearted founder of German power, called 'the Great' by the world and ennobled by the Church, shall be my constant exemplar. The German authority shall again prevail, and the German Empire shall flourish again as in the days of old."

"And yet, how many obstacles stand in the way of this achievement!"

"Charles also encountered obstacles, and certainly as great ones as these, but he finally overcame them. He found the most potent remedies for the evils of his time, and we must do the same for ours."

"But the evils now are entirely different."

"I think they are very similar. He was forced to break the power of the grand dukes and protect the common people, and that is what we must do."

"The first task may be impossible, for it is extremely difficult to decide what the dukes have rightly inherited and what they have usurped."

"In such cases we shall have to prevent any further increase of their power,—the remedy which Henry attempted to apply. The great cities with their industries and commerce, where the arts and sciences are cultivated more assiduously than in many knightly castles, must employ their wealth and power to curb insolence and punish offences against the laws. This will enable them to help each other and manage their own affairs. They certainly should know better what is for their welfare than those at a distance, who are ignorant of their circumstances."

"That will exercise an important influence upon the general welfare."

"True. The Emperor will find in every city a power already organized with which to punish those who now violate the law with impunity; because the law-enforcing power is so distant they can escape with their plunder behind protecting walls."

"But how about the people in the open country?"

"They, too, must have the protection of the law, and their actions must not be arbitrarily controlled."

"Excuse me, noble sire. The Italian cities manage their own affairs. The possessions claimed by the nobles were inherited from their ancestors. They associate freely with the common people, also, and yet these cities do not enjoy the blessings of freedom."

"That is true, but they mistake their real position and welfare. They dream of the glorious fame of ancient Rome, but they have not the slightest comprehension of its exalted virtues. Where will you find a Mucius, a Fabricius, or a Cincinnatus? But at every step you will find a Catiline, a Nero, or a Heliogabalus. 'Freedom for us, but none for others,' is the motto of the Lombardian cities, as it is of Rome. That is the cause of their decadence."

"And do you expect to maintain a powerful authority there?"

"With God's help, yes. I will curb their audacity, but will concede to them all their chartered rights. By demanding only what belongs to the sovereign, protecting the weak against the strong, and firmly and judiciously administering the government, there may be a successful result."

"But have you considered what obstacles the temporal and spiritual powers may place in your way? Should the latter oppose you, you will find that bans and interdicts are dangerous and far reaching weapons."

"All honor to the princes of the Church who administer its sacred functions, but in all my relations with them the great Charles shall be my exemplar. Spiritual affairs shall be respected and protected, as they were by my great predecessor; but when unjustifiable encroachments are made upon imperial rights and privileges, I will resist them just as firmly as he did. Each must keep in his own place. I will take care not to interfere in spiritual matters when I have no right to do so."

"The union of spiritual and temporal authority has never been productive of good."

"For that very reason it is better for them to be separated. To the emperor, the sword; to the bishop, the Scriptures. If God helps me, and grants me the good fortune to win as sovereign such friends as I have as Frederick of Swabia, I shall not be uneasy."

Conrad knew what the Emperor meant. Honored by his confidence, he promised him anew his unchanging love and devotion. He pressed the extended hand of his royal friend and they separated.

Frederick had an opportunity that very year to demonstrate his authority. Two Danish princes, who were contending for the crown left by their father, appeared at the Diet at Merseburg and requested the Emperor to arbitrate their claims. Frederick decided Canute should be king and Sven should be indemnified with territorial possessions. His decision was particularly approved by the Germans, because it made Denmark once more a vassal of Germany.

Two years after this, in 1154, Frederick made his first journey to Rome, and but for a pestilence which broke out among his soldiers, would have permanently settled Italian affairs. Returning to Germany, he exercised his authority as effectively as any of his predecessors had done. He summoned Archbishop Arnold, of Mayence, and the Count Palatine Hermann before him because of their bloody conflicts during his absence, through which several provinces had been devastated. They were powerful princes, but Frederick did not hesitate to punish them severely. A dog was fastened to the Count Palatine and his associates, and they were compelled to go a mile with it amid the derision of high and low. The same penalty was pronounced against the Archbishop, but was remitted in consideration of his position and age.) Soon after this, the Emperor mustered a strong force and destroyed the castles of the robber knights along the Rhine, who had plundered the fertile districts in their vicinity and rendered life insecure.

The German people joyfully listened to the accounts of these exploits. They were proud of their Emperor, and hope now rose in many a breast that all the burdens and misfortunes from which they had suffered would be speedily removed. The Emperor hastened from Reichstag to Reichstag, everywhere suggesting, reproving, and rewarding. He compelled King Boleslaus IV of Poland to recognize him as feudal lord and to make compensation to the children of his brother, Ladislaus; this resulted in taking Silesia from Poland and making it a separate duchy.

The power of the Empire steadily increased. Order and quiet were everywhere restored, the cities were prosperous and the people were happy and contented. Feared abroad, loved and honored at home, the Emperor was at the very summit of his power. In the Reichstag at Wurzburg (1157) representatives from Italy, France, Burgundy, Denmark, Spain, England, and Greece were present and paid homage to the German Emperor. The King of England was also conspicuous in displaying his good feeling, and sent costly gifts.