Frederick Barbarossa Is Elected King of Germany

Frederick Barbarossa’s reign firmly established the ideal of a united German nation as opposed to a collection of small independent political entities.

Summary of Event

By the time of Conrad III’ Conrad III coronation as king of Germany in 1138, the king-emperor’s power and the stability of the realm had greatly eroded. The powers of a king-emperor, charged by God with the rule of Christendom and supreme lord of both the laity and clergy, had greatly diminished. The pope had taken the power of investing bishops from the emperor so the prince-bishops no longer were strictly subject to the king’s control. In addition, the pope had become responsible for crowning the emperor, subordinating the emperor to the Papacy. Also, the rise of strong feudal nobles had further circumscribed the king’s powers so that the emperor was dominated by the powerful ducal families. As a consequence, Conrad III’s election as king was strongly contested, and he never fully gained control of the kingdom. He also never was crowned emperor. [kw]Frederick Barbarossa Is Elected King of Germany (1152)
[kw]Barbarossa Is Elected King of Germany, Frederick (1152)
[kw]Germany, Frederick Barbarossa Is Elected King of (1152)
Frederick I Barbarossa
Germany;1152: Frederick Barbarossa Is Elected King of Germany[1960]
Government and politics;1152: Frederick Barbarossa Is Elected King of Germany[1960]
Frederick I Barbarossa
Conrad III
Berthold IV of Zähringen
Frederick of Rothenburg
Henry II Jasomirgott
Henry the Lion
Welf VI, Count

Conrad III died February 15, 1152, and designated Frederick Barbarossa, duke of Swabia, as his successor. Frederick was elected king of Germany as Frederick I in 1152. The princes were almost unanimous in selecting Frederick, and the meeting apparently had been well planned to ensure a peaceful succession. According to one account, Conrad III designated Frederick his successor and guardian of Frederick of Rothenburg Frederick of Rothenburg , his eight-year-old son, because Conrad realized his young son would, in all probability, be the target of inimical forces during his minority.

In any event, the election necessarily would be negotiated in the face of deep divisions among the German princes and bishops. Rivalry between the Hohenstaufen Hohenstaufens family of Conrad III and Frederick I Barbarossa, and the Welf family, led by Henry the Lion Henry the Lion , plagued Conrad during his entire reign and easily could have disrupted the succession. Although Frederick was a Hohenstaufen, he also was the son of a Welf mother, Judith. Thus his election might be acceptable to both families. As duke of Swabia, Frederick had consistently favored his mother’s family, perhaps preparing for eventual promotion to kingship. During Conrad’s final illness, Frederick, in concert with Conrad’s closest advisers (Abbot Wibald and Bishop Eberhard of Bamberg), offered concessions to the Welfs. Henry the Lion was promised the duchies of Saxony and Bavaria. Count Welf VI Welf VI, Count (also known as Guelph) was offered an autonomous position as margrave of Tuscany and duke of Spoleto. Henry the Lion’s father-in-law, Berthold IV of Zähringen Berthold IV of Zähringen , was encouraged to carve out a sphere of influence in Burgundy. Henry II Jasomirgott Henry II Jasomirgott , a Babenberg who feared loss of Bavaria, was prominent in a small opposition group led by Archbishop Henry of Mainz, a Hohenstaufen opponent.

After his election in Frankfurt, Frederick received oaths of loyalty from the assembled princes. On March 6, he left for Aix-la-Chapelle and his coronation. There, he was met by a large crowd assembled to see the coronation. Seated on the throne of Charlemagne, Frederick was crowned king of Germany by Arnold, the archbishop of Cologne. Immediately thereafter, Frederick began preparing an expedition to Rome to be crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and to assert control over his Italian vassals. First, as was customary for newly elected kings of Germany, Frederick I Barbarossa immediately made a “grand tour” of the kingdom to receive fealty and to mediate conflicts within the kingdom. He also sent Bishop Eberhard of Bamberg to Rome to announce his election to Pope Eugene. Instead of begging papal confirmation of the election, Frederick merely informed the pope of the fact, reasserting imperial independence of papal authority.

Frederick quickly consolidated his position by confirming his Welf cousin, Henry the Lion, as duke of Saxony and granting him the dukedom of Bavaria as well. Henry, the most powerful of the German nobles, thus became Frederick’s loyal ally for twenty years. In 1176, however, Henry demanded the imperial city of Goslar and its rich silver mines in return for supporting Frederick’s campaign against the Lombard League. As a consequence, Frederick charged Henry with a breach of the king’s peace in 1178, an event that ultimately led to Henry’s eviction from his duchies in 1180. The powerful Babenberg family was compensated for its loss of Bavaria to Henry by separating the margraviate of Austria from Bavaria as a new dukedom. Frederick conferred the dukedom of Austria on Henry II Jasomirgott with rights of hereditary succession and immunity from many feudal obligations to the emperor. Thus, the Babenbergs were brought to accept Frederick’s rule. Frederick also confirmed Berthold IV Zähringen’s claims in Burgundy and Provence in return for Berthold’s support during the coronation expedition. Through these actions, Frederick established control in Germany and converted the powerful princes to be his sworn vassals.

Frederick Barbarossa receives Henry the Lion.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

In setting out to gain control of his Italian lands, Frederick mounted no less than five military campaigns. Although Frederick’s protracted conflict with the Lombard communes and the pope failed to establish direct royal government, he was more successful in Tuscany and central Italy. After the Peace of Venice Venice;Peace of (1177) in 1177 and the Peace of Constance Constance, Peace of (1183) in 1183, Frederick was able to extend direct imperial administration throughout Tuscany. He thus obtained enough income to expand imperial properties and ensure his maintenance in Germany.

Although his control of the Holy Roman Empire was in large part indirect, Frederick reestablished its territorial integrity and inculcated a strong sense of German nationhood. Feudal centralization of the Holy Roman Empire began with Frederick; after Hohenstaufen rule decayed, however, the centralized German state quickly reverted to an assemblage of essentially independent states uncontrolled by the emperor. The sense of nationhood developed under Frederick, however, eventually inspired reestablishment of a unified Germany in the nineteenth century.

Frederick’s reign ended when he drowned in the Saleph River of northwestern Syria while leading the Third Crusade Crusades;Third[03] . The actual circumstances of his death are unknown. According to one story, he was swept away while fording the river. Another report suggests that he suffered a seizure while bathing in the cold river water. Yet another tale has him thrown from his horse while crossing the river.


Artist’s rendition of a statue of Frederick Barbarossa astride his horse.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Although Frederick I Barbarossa’s demise apparently was received calmly as a not unexpected event, he became the centerpiece of a national legend five hundred years later. According to the early nineteenth century myth, Frederick did not die, but was supposed to be living in a cave beneath Kyffhäuser Mountain in Thuringia, Germany. He was expected to return from that mountain and save the German nation in a future cataclysmic conflict. One mythic variation has Barbarossa returning when his red beard grows long enough to surround the giant round table at which he supposedly sits. These myths long antedate Barbarossa’s identification as a German national hero and are steeped in contradictions. From 1250 until the sixteenth century, it was Barbarossa’s grandson, Frederick II, who was believed to be in the cave. Even before Frederick II was incorporated into the legend, Kyffhäuser had been a mythic shrine from at least the time of the Celts. Many other heroes, including Julius Caesar and Wotan, had been associated with the magic mountain.

Although Frederick failed to establish lasting political order in the Holy Roman Empire, he is generally considered the most effective of medieval Holy Roman Emperors. He also has become the acknowledged German national hero who lives in the communal German mind, comparable only to El Cid in Spain, Joan of Arc in France, and King Arthur in England.

Further Reading

  • Arnold, Benjamin. Princes and Territories in Medieval Germany. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Concentrates on fundamental institutional changes in Germany during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
  • Barraclough, Geoffrey. Factors in German History. 1946. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. One of the major scholars of the Middle Ages in general (and Germany in particular) provides a concise account of the major events in Barbarossa’s career.
  • Barraclough, Geoffrey. The Origins of Modern Germany. 3d ed. Oxford, England: B. Blackwell, 1988. An excellent discussion of Frederick’s effort to establish his government in the state of northern Italy. One of the best short summaries of the life and impact of Frederick.
  • Fuhrmann, Horst. Germany in the High Middle Ages, c. 1050-1200. Translated by Timothy Reuter. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Provides an overview of events before, during, and after Barbarossa’s reign.
  • Haverkamp, Alfred. Medieval Germany, 1056-1273. Translated by Helga Braun and Richard Mortimer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. A political, social, and economic history of the period, including Barbarossa’s reign.
  • Huffman, Joseph P. The Social Politics of Medieval Diplomacy: Anglo-German Relations, 1066-1307. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. This text uses the lens of Anglo-German relations to form a coherent picture of medieval German history from the mid-ninth to the early fourteenth century.
  • Kitchin, Martin. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Emphasizes cultural as well as political history. Recommended as an introduction for general readers.
  • Moore, R. I. The First European Revolution, c. 970-1215. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000. Frederick is discussed in the context of a study arguing that the changes in economic, political, and social structures during the eleventh and twelfth centuries were responsible for the creation of a uniquely European culture that has persisted through the centuries.
  • Munz, Peter. Frederick Barbarossa: A Study in Medieval Politics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1969. Scholarly biography of Barbarossa, with a focus on his political accomplishments.