Was Frederick Barbarossa a Failure?

Upon his accession to the throne in 1152, Frederick Barbarossa became the leader of an empire which had fallen from grace thanks to incidents such as the Investiture Contest and was weakened by power struggles between the Welf and the Hohenstaufen families since the end of the Staufen line in 1125. Frederick’s main aim was to re-establish the prestige and power of the Empire after the embarrassment of Henry IV at Canossa in 1077, and to help it to recover from it’s weakened state.[1] This essay seeks to establish whether Frederick could be considered a failure. There are two standards by which Frederick must be judged in order to determine whether he was a success or a failure: the traditional historiographical view of Germany and the personal aims of Frederick Barbarossa. It is erroneous for historians to judge Frederick Barbarossa as a failure in comparison to Phillip Augustus and Henry II as he had different goals. In his own aims, Frederick may not have achieved them all, especially in Italy, but his successes in Germany and against the Papacy means does he was not a total failure.


The traditional criticism of the German empire under Frederick Barbarossa originates from an analysis of the empire by Samuel von Pufendorf, which describes the empire as an “irregular and monstrous state” which was neither a monarchy nor a federal system of states.[2] Some historians, such as Geoffrey Baraclough, argue that Germany was “developing” between 911 and 1075 and this process of development was ruined by the investiture controversy and the Concordat of Worms.[3]  Historian John Gillingham has summarised the main arguments historians have used as to why Germany faced a decline at this time into four points: the Crown lost revenue due to the need to buy support during the civil war, the election of the monarch was not progressive towards a hereditary monarchy, control of the church was lost by the kings and the Investiture Contest fundamentally changed Germany.[4] These are perhaps not only insufficient markers of success, but inaccurate statements generally. For example, while the Hohenstauffen indeed lost some of their estates, by 1197 the Hohenstauffen had recovered vast amounts of land, (although there was a decline in the thirteenth century, after Frederick’s time).[5] Furthermore, the elected monarchy was not so different from elsewhere in Europe. In 1199 England, there was no clear successor to the throne, and John was elected instead of Arthur. Even the Capetians, who had a clear hereditary line from 987 – 1314, never made a specific hereditary claim.[6] Besides which, the election of a monarch may have actually been beneficial to a nascent idea of “Germany” as a nation.  The election of the emperor was more likely a unifying force, bringing together states which otherwise might not have had much to do with each other due to poor communication networks.[7] The loss of control over the church and how the investiture contest changed Germany are intrinsically linked, and the impacts of these will be examined in greater detail later in this essay. Therefore, criticisms of Frederick’s Germany under these criteria may be both inappropriate and inaccurate.


This being said, Frederick may have helped to bring the past closer to the present by other means, away from the area of high politics and the centralisation of power. In 1158, in an act considered the first university charter, Frederick recognised and agreed to protect the status of the university of Bologna.[8] Frederick’s support of the university of Bologna was largely because of the legal research of Roman law being conducted there, which strengthened his own position in the empire. Frederick himself said that, “There are two things by which we should govern the Empire, the sacred laws of the emperors and the good practices of our predecessors and ancestors”, but this was still a formal recognition of an institute of learning. [9] For a traditional historian looking for a progression towards modernity, no better example could be found than this, as it represents the official recognition of a university by a government, and the understanding that the rule of government should be based in law. The official recognition of a university, regardless of the motives behind it, represents a concrete step towards the modern era.


Furthermore, and somewhat paradoxically, Frederick was a driving force of a secular form of government. This is despite of this being at the time when “Holy” began to become incorporated into the title of the Empire, despite Frederick’s building of monasteries, and despite Frederick’s reliance on his anointment for his authority.[10] Frederick said of the duties of the Papacy and the Empire that, “that at the time of His passion Christ was content to have two swords, was, we believe, a marvellous revelation regarding the Roman Church and the roman empire, since by these two institutions the whole world is directed in both divine and human matters.”[11] This is far removed from the role of the Empire that Charlemagne defined in his letter to Pope Leo III, “It is our function – to the extent that divine goodness aids us – externally to defend Christ’s holy church on every side by force of arms against the incursions of pagans and the devastations of infidels (and) internally to strengthen it in knowledge of the Catholic faith. It is your, most holy father, to aid our struggle with hands raised to God, like Moses… ”[12] Frederick redefined the empire’s duties and theoretically removed the spiritual aspect. Thus the empire, better and more narrowly defined, was placed in a better position to succeed. This is ot necessarily as paradoxical as it seems. Frederick recognises that his power comes from God, but that God has granted him spiritual control. By emphasising this distinction, Frederick is able to pursue secular aims, and remove an aspect of the power struggle between the Empire and the Papacy. Despite neither the Empire nor the Papacy sticking to the definitions of their roles as defined by the Two Swords theory, this allowed the Papacy and the Emperor to be seen on equal terms, an eventuality which would not have been possible immediately after Canossa.


Focusing solely on whether Frederick was a success based on whether he helped Europe to progress to “modernity” is an inaccurate and somewhat arrogant endeavour, however. Frederick’s successes and failures must be considered against his own personal aims. Frederick’s aims were to “restore the glory of the crown.”[13] Although Frederick still desired to restore the glory of the crown in Germany, Frederick was happy to accept the power of the Princes as central to his own. He was not opposed to Princes exerting personal power over their vassals in the same way that he exerted power over his own. He was, however, able to exert influence over the Princes of Germany. For example, when Frederick issued a Royal Proclamation to the Princes to end feuding between them, and this was obeyed.[14]


Frederick could be considered a failure because his reign was only strong in the areas where he was periodically able to visit, thus displaying the weakness of the Empire.[15] It must be remembered however, that Frederick inherited a weak Empire, which he succeeded in strengthening.[16] Frederick was sometimes challenged in Germany, most notably by Henry the Lion, a Welf and the duke of Saxony and Swabia. When, following the Peace of Venice, Henry’s territorial expansionism became too great a concern for Frederick, Frederick confiscated Henry’s lands.[17] This represented a success for Frederick as his power was achieved through law, not force; Henry was declared an outlaw after refusing to attend a summons under the Landrecht in 1179, and his lands were not stripped until Henry failed to comply with three consecutive summons at Würzburg in January 1180.[18] This left no dispute that Frederick was the most powerful man in Germany. Furthermore, Frederick was able to extend the prestige of the empire internationally. In 1157, Henry II of England swore to Frederick “To you, as the superior, falls right to command; we shall not lack the will to obey.”[19] Although this was mostly a nominal pledge, binding Henry to little in practice, it represents that Frederick maintained a position of prestige in the Europe. Frederick’s ability to exert control and influence over the Princes of Germany, despite allowing them high degrees of autonomy represents a success with regards to his German aims as by earning the approval of the majority of the Princes (and deposing his major enemies) whilst strengthening his own position and that of the kingdom can only be a success.


Karl Hampe asserts that Frederick Barbarossa was “merely the first among equals”.[20] This is inaccurate. Hampe describes Frederick’s apparent weakness with regards to exerting his power over the Princes. It is as if Hampe is arguing that because Frederick was not a dictator, his leadership was a failure. It is true that Frederick Barbarossa was not a dictator, but he had rights which were vastly above what the remainder of the aristocracy in Germany possessed. For example, after the fall of Henry the Lion in 1180, Frederick was able to reassign land, raising various aristocrats of his choosing to the level of Dukes, such as Otto von Wiffelsbach in Bavaria, the Margrave of Styxia and the Count of Anduchs-Meran.[21] It could be argued that Frederick was a failure because the allodial land in possession of Henry the Lion returned to control of the Welfs.[22] However by returning allodial lands to the Welfs, this shows that Frederick believed in the rule of law, and that even the King was bound by it. This demonstrates honour and prestige, and a modern way of considering government. In Germany, a better analogy for the role of Frederick Barbarossa might be that of president of the United States; Barbarossa could not function without his Princes (Senators, Congressmen, etc.) but he did possess special privileges, such as the power to redistribute land, and was a lot more than a first among equals.


Frederick’s aims in Italy were different to Germany. Whereas in the Kingdom of Germany Frederick openly recognised that his position relied on the power of the Princes, in Italy Frederick wished to be recognised as a King in the same way the Kings of England and France were recognised. To this end, Frederick used force to attempt to subdue the Italian cities. In a letter to Otto of Friesing, Frederick writes that, “Because this land, on account of the prolonged absence of the emperors, had become arrogant and, conscious of its strength, had initiated rebellion, we were wroth and destroyed almost all its strongholds by the just and righteous anger not of out knights but of the lower ranks.”[23] This demonstrates that Frederick struggled to impress his power on the people of Italy, even using force. Although he did eventually coerce Milan into subjugation for a while and and as a result issued the Roncaglian decrees, which declared that all Italian men must swear fealty personally to him, this was not to last.[24] While the nobility of Italy generally acquiesced, the cities of Italy, especially Genoa and Milan, resisted him.[25] Not only this, but the Roncaglian decrees backfired considerably. Seeing Frederick’s imperial ambition as a severe threat, the Byzantine emperor Manuel I organised northern Italian cities, led by the Republic of Venice, into the powerful Lombard League in 1167.[26] Additionally, although the Papacy was fearful of the Empire’s ambitions for the Holy See territories, and was originally incapable of defending itself, the resulting schism found after the death of Pope Hadrian IV in 1159 saw divided support for the two Popes, which left Frederick facing difficult international position in Europe, with England supporting Frederick’s choice and France supporting Alexander III. This made advancement into the Holy See a more aruduous task. The formation of the Lombard League and their subsequent alliance with Alexander III, saw Frederick enter into a long struggle in Italy which for much of Frederick’s reign diminished his power in central Europe to almost nil. In this is evidence of some of Fredericks military failures, most notably in the six-month siege of Alessandria.[27] Italy at this stage is an example of Frederick’s failure. Not only did Frederick fail to earn obedience to his Roncaglian decrees but he failed to exert control over the Kingdom of Italy, and failed to establish himself as a Franco-English style ruler there.


This being said, the outcome of the conflict Frederick entered into with the Papacy during his second Italian campaigns is perhaps Frederick’s biggest success with regards to restoring the position and prestige of the empire, if not to his desired position in Italy. Thanks to turning Cremona to his own aims on the battle of Legnano in 1176, Frederick’s conflict in Italy ended with the Treaties of Anagni and Venice.[28] At a glance, the Peaces of Anagni and Venice may resemble another Canossa; in 1176 Frederick recognises Alexander as Pope after 17 years of struggle and kisses his feet.[29]  Frederick was in a much stronger position than Henry had been at Canossa, however. In Venice, Frederick, aware that the Papacy was weakened by the war and required a peace treaty more than he did, was able to exploit other parties at Venice and strengthen his position relative to the Pope.[30] Frederick’s negotiation’s reduced the power of both the Papacy and the Lombard League in Central Italy, making him the most powerful player in the area. Additionally, the Emperor’s power base in the Matildine Lands was to be retained under the Venetian treaty, and allowance not granted in the original treaty at Anagni. [31]Although Frederick did not achieve total domination over the Papacy, this was entirely consistent with his aims due to Frederick’s strong belief in the “Two Swords” concept of rule in Europe. As Frederick’s aims of domination were only in the Temporal sphere, this aim can be said to have been achieved. Thus whereas Canossa demonstrated the Emperor’s subordination to the Pope, Venice demonstrated that the Emperor was the Pope’s equal, the Temporal Sword to the Pope’s Spiritual Sword.


Frederick Barbarossa vastly increased the power and prestige of the Empire in Europe. His aims in Germany were to strengthen the Kingdom and the prestige of the imperial office. He was not concerned with being able to rule without the support of the princes, and thus was successful in his endeavours. In Italy, there was conflict between the aims of Frederick Barbarossa and the Italian princes. In Italy, Frederick wished to rule in a more authoritarian manner. The Princes resisted him, and although Frederick was unable to ever fully assert himself in Italy as a King, after a long power struggle with the Lombard League and the Holy See, clever diplomacy and a strengthened army were able to secure Frederick as the dominant power in Northern and Central Italy. Though seldom talked about, and not directly a part of his political aims, Frederick’s actions to promote institutions such as the university of Bologna and secularisation both helped to promote the status of the empire in ways Frederick may not have directly anticipated. Frederick Barbarossa did not achieve all of his aims, but it would be a harsh critic who labelled him a failure.





Arnold, B. (1997) Medieval Germany, 500-1300: A political interpretation. London:          Palgrave Macmillan.

Charlemagne, Charlemagne’s Letter to Leo III. From the Lecture One Handout.

Freising, O. of (1994) The deeds of Frederick Barbarossa. Translated by Charles Mierow. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Gillingham, J. (1971) The kingdom of Germany in the high middle ages (900-1200). London:        The Historical Association.

Hampe, K. (1974) Germany under the Salian and Hohenstaufen emperors. Oxford:           Blackwell Publishers. With an introduction by Ralph Bennet.

Haverkamp, A. (1988) Medieval Germany: 1056 – 1273. Translated by Helga Braun and    Richard Mortimer. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pacaut, M. (1967) Frederick Barbarossa. Translated by Arnold Pomerans. London and      Glasgow: Collins.


[1] Pacaut, M. (1967) Frederick Barbarossa. Translated by Arnold Pomerans. London and Glasgow: Collins, p. 65

[2] Gillingham, J. (1971) The kingdom of Germany in the high middle ages (900-1200). London: The Historical Association, p. 3

[3] Ibid, p. 4

[4] Ibid, pp. 4, 5

[5] Ibid, p. 5

[6] Ibid, pp. 5, 6

[7] Ibid, p. 5

[8] Pacaut, M. (1967), p. 86

[9] Arnold, B. (1997) Medieval Germany, 500-1300: A political interpretation. London: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 103

[10] Pacaut, M. (1967), p. 49 and Freising, O. of (1994) The deeds of Frederick Barbarossa. Translated by Charles Mierow. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 18

[11]Arnold, B. (1997), p. 104

[12] Charleagne, Charlemagne’s First Letter to Leo III. From the Lecture One Handout

[13] Pacaut, M. (1967), p. 56

[14] Ibid, p. 63

[15] Gillingham, J. (1971), pp. 30, 31

[16] Hampe, K. (1974) Germany under the Salian and Hohenstaufen emperors. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. With an introduction by Ralph Bennet, p. 157

[17] Ibid, pp. 199-200, 203

[18] Ibid, p. 203

[19] Ibid, p. 155

[20] Ibid, p. 155

[21] Gillingham, J. (1971), p. 13

[22] Ibid.

[23] Freising, O. of (1994), p. 18

[24] Pacaut, M. (1967), p. 86

[25] Ibid.

[26] Haverkamp, A. (1988) Medieval Germany: 1056 – 1273. Translated by Helga Braun and Richard Mortimer. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 226

[27] Ibid, p. 228

[28] Ibid, p. 229

[29] Arnold, B. (1997), p. 194

[30] Ibid, p. 195

[31] Ibid, p. 196


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