1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Frederick II., Roman Emperor

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FREDERICK II. (1194–1250), Roman emperor, king of Sicily and Jerusalem, was the son of the emperor Henry VI. and Constance, daughter of Roger I., king of Sicily, and therefore grandson of the emperor Frederick I. and a member of the Hohenstaufen family. Born at Jesi near Ancona on the 26th of December 1194, he was baptized by the name of Frederick Roger, chosen German king at Frankfort in 1196, and after his father’s death crowned king of Sicily at Palermo on the 17th of May 1198. His mother, who assumed the government, died in November 1198, leaving Pope Innocent III. as regent of Sicily and guardian of her son. The young king passed his early years amid the terrible anarchy in his island kingdom, which Innocent was powerless to check; but his education was not neglected, and his character and habits were formed by contact with men of varied nationalities and interests, while the darker traits of his nature were developed in the atmosphere of lawlessness in which he lived. In 1208 he was declared of age, and soon afterwards Innocent arranged a marriage, which was celebrated the following year, between him and Constance, daughter of Alphonso II. king of Aragon, and widow of Emerich or Imre, king of Hungary.

The dissatisfaction felt in Germany with the emperor Otto IV. came to a climax in September 1211, when a number of influential princes met at Nuremberg, declared Otto deposed, and invited Frederick to come and occupy the vacant throne. In spite of the reluctance of his wife, and the opposition of the Sicilian nobles, he accepted the invitation; and having recognized the papal supremacy over Sicily, and procured the coronation of his son Henry as its king, reached Germany after an adventurous journey in the autumn of 1212. This step was taken with the approval of the pope, who was anxious to strike a blow at Otto IV.

Frederick was welcomed in Swabia, and the renown of the Hohenstaufen name and a liberal distribution of promises made his progress easy. Having arranged a treaty against Otto with Louis, son of Philip Augustus, king of France, whom he met at Vaucouleurs, he was chosen German king a second time at Frankfort on the 5th of December 1212, and crowned four days later at Mainz. Anxious to retain the support of the pope, Frederick promulgated a bull at Eger on the 12th of July 1213, by which he renounced all lands claimed by the pope since the death of the emperor Henry VI. in 1197, gave up the right of spoils and all interference in episcopal elections, and acknowledged the right of appeal to Rome. He again affirmed the papal supremacy over Sicily, and promised to root out heresy in Germany. The victory of his French allies at Bouvines on the 27th of July 1214 greatly strengthened his position, and a large part of the Rhineland having fallen into his power, he was crowned German king at Aix-la-Chapelle on the 25th of July 1215. His cause continued to prosper, fresh supporters gathered round his standard, and in May 1218 the death of Otto freed him from his rival and left him undisputed ruler of Germany. A further attempt to allay the pope’s apprehension lest Sicily should be united with the Empire had been made early in 1216, when Frederick, in a letter to Innocent, promised after his own coronation as emperor to recognize his son Henry as king of Sicily, and to place him under the suzerainty of Rome. Henry nevertheless was brought to Germany and chosen German king at Frankfort in April 1220, though Frederick assured the new pope, Honorius III., that this step had been taken without his consent. The truth, however, seems to be that he had taken great trouble to secure this election, and for the purpose had won the support of the spiritual princes by extensive concessions. In August 1220 Frederick set out for Italy, and was crowned emperor at Rome on the 22nd of November 1220; after which he repeated the undertaking he had entered into at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1215 to go on crusade, and made lavish promises to the Church. The clergy were freed from taxation and from lay jurisdiction, the ban of the Empire was to follow the ban of the Church, and heretics were to be severely punished.

Neglecting his promise to lead a crusade, Frederick was occupied until 1225 in restoring order in Sicily. The island was seething with disorder, but by stern and sometimes cruel measures the emperor suppressed the anarchy of the barons, curbed the power of the cities, and subdued the rebellious Saracens, many of whom, transferred to the mainland and settled at Nocera, afterwards rendered him valuable military service. Meanwhile the crusade was postponed again and again; until under a threat of excommunication, after the fall of Damietta in 1221, Frederick definitely undertook by a treaty made at San Germano in 1225 to set out in August 1227 or to submit to this penalty. His own interests turned more strongly to the East, when on the 9th of November 1225, after having been a widower since 1222, he married Iolande (Yolande or Isabella), daughter of John, count of Brienne, titular king of Jerusalem. John appears to have expected that this alliance would restore him to his kingdom, but his hopes were dashed to the ground when Frederick himself assumed the title of king of Jerusalem. The emperor’s next step was an attempt to restore the imperial authority in northern Italy, and for the purpose a diet was called at Cremona. But the cities, watchful and suspicious, renewed the Lombard league and took up a hostile attitude. Frederick’s reply was to annul the treaty of Constance and place the cities under the imperial ban; but he was forced by lack of military strength to accept the mediation of Pope Honorius and the maintenance of the status quo.

After these events, which occurred early in 1227, preparations for the crusade were pressed on, and the emperor sailed from Brindisi on the 8th of September. A pestilence, however, which attacked his forces compelled him to land in Italy three days later, and on the 29th of the same month he was excommunicated by the new pope, Gregory IX. The greater part of the succeeding year was spent by pope and emperor in a violent quarrel. Alarmed at the increase in his opponent’s power, Gregory denounced him in a public letter, to which Frederick replied in a clever document addressed to the princes of Europe. The reading of this manifesto, drawing attention to the absolute power claimed by the popes, was received in Rome with such evidences of approval that Gregory was compelled to fly to Viterbo. Having lost his wife Isabella on the 8th of May 1228, Frederick again set sail for Palestine, where he met with considerable success, the result of diplomatic rather than of military skill. By a treaty made in February 1229 he secured possession of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and the surrounding neighbourhood. Entering Jerusalem, he crowned himself king of that city on the 18th of March 1229. These successes had been won in spite of the hostility of Gregory, which deprived Frederick of the assistance of many members of the military orders and of the clergy of Palestine. But although the emperor’s possessions on the Italian mainland had been attacked in his absence by the papal troops and their allies, Gregory’s efforts had failed to arouse serious opposition in Germany and Sicily; so that when Frederick returned unexpectedly to Italy in June 1229 he had no difficulty in driving back his enemies, and compelling the pope to sue for peace. The result was the treaty of San Germano, arranged in July 1230, by which the emperor, loosed from the ban, promised to respect the papal territory, and to allow freedom of election and other privileges to the Sicilian clergy. Frederick was next engaged in completing the pacification of Sicily. In 1231 a series of laws were published at Melfi which destroyed the ascendancy of the feudal nobles. Royal officials were appointed for administrative purposes, large estates were recovered for the crown, and fortresses were destroyed, while the church was placed under the royal jurisdiction and all gifts to it were prohibited. At the same time certain privileges of self-government were granted to the towns, representatives from which were summoned to sit in the diet. In short, by means of a centralized system of government, the king established an almost absolute monarchical power.

In Germany, on the other hand, an entirely different policy was pursued. The concessions granted by Frederick in 1220, together with the Privilege of Worms, dated the 1st of May 1231, made the German princes virtually independent. All jurisdiction over their lands was vested in them, no new mints or toll-centres were to be erected on their domains, and the imperial authority was restricted to a small and dwindling area. A fierce attack was also made on the rights of the cities. Compelled to restore all their lands, their jurisdiction was bounded by their city-walls; they were forbidden to receive the dependents of the princes; all trade gilds were declared abolished; and all official appointments made without the consent of the archbishop or bishop were annulled. A further attack on the Lombard cities at the diet of Ravenna in 1231 was answered by a renewal of their league, and was soon connected with unrest in Germany. About 1231 a breach took place between Frederick and his elder son Henry, who appears to have opposed the Privilege of Worms and to have favoured the towns against the princes. After refusing to travel to Italy, Henry changed his mind and submitted to his father at Aquileia in 1232; and a temporary peace was made with the Lombard cities in June 1233. But on his return to Germany Henry again raised the standard of revolt, and made a league with the Lombards in December 1234. Frederick, meanwhile, having helped Pope Gregory against the rebellious Romans and having secured the friendship of France and England, appeared in Germany early in 1235 and put down this rising without difficulty. Henry was imprisoned, but his associates were treated leniently. In August 1235 a splendid diet was held at Mainz, during which the marriage of the emperor with Isabella (1214–1241), daughter of John, king of England, was celebrated. A general peace (Landfrieden), which became the basis of all such peaces in the future, was sworn to; a new office, that of imperial justiciar, was created, and a permanent judicial record was first instituted. Otto of Brunswick, grandson of Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony, was made duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg; and war was declared against the Lombards.

Frederick was now at the height of his power. His second son, Conrad, was invested with the duchy of Swabia, and the claim of Wenceslaus, king of Bohemia, to some lands which had belonged to the German king Philip was bought off. The attitude of Frederick II. (the Quarrelsome), duke of Austria, had been considered by the emperor so suspicious that during a visit paid by Frederick to Italy a war against him was begun. Compelled to return by the ill-fortune which attended this campaign, the emperor took command of his troops, seized Austria, Styria and Carinthia, and declared these territories to be immediately dependent on the Empire. In January 1237 he secured the election of his son Conrad as German king at Vienna; and in September went to Italy to prosecute the war which had broken out with the Lombards in the preceding year. Pope Gregory attempted to mediate, but the cities refused to accept the insulting terms offered by Frederick. The emperor gained a great victory over their forces at Cortenuova in November 1237; but though he met with some further successes, his failure to take Brescia in October 1238, together with the changed attitude of Gregory, turned the fortune of war. The pope had become alarmed when the emperor brought about a marriage between the heiress of Sardinia, Adelasia, and his natural son Enzio, who afterwards assumed the title of king of Sardinia. But as his warnings had been disregarded, he issued a document after the emperor’s retreat from Brescia, teeming with complaints against Frederick, and followed it up by an open alliance with the Lombards, and by the excommunication of the emperor on the 20th of March 1239. A violent war of words ensued. Frederick, accused of heresy, blasphemy and other crimes, called upon all kings and princes to unite against the pope, who on his side made vigorous efforts to arouse opposition in Germany, where his emissaries, a crowd of wandering friars, were actively preaching rebellion. It was, however, impossible to find an anti-king. In Italy, Spoleto and Ancona were declared part of the imperial dominions, and Rome itself, faithful on this occasion to the pope, was threatened. A number of ecclesiastics proceeding to a council called by Gregory were captured by Enzio at the sea-fight of Meloria, and the emperor was about to undertake the siege of Rome, when the pope died (August 1241). Germany was at this time menaced by the Mongols; but Frederick contented himself with issuing directions for a campaign against them, until in 1242 he was able to pay a short visit to Germany, where he gained some support from the towns by grants of extensive privileges.

The successor of Gregory was Pope Celestine IX. But this pontiff died soon after his election; and after a delay of eighteen months, during which Frederick marched against Rome on two occasions and devastated the lands of his opponents, one of his partisans, Sinibaldo Fiesco, was chosen pope, and took the name of Innocent IV. Negotiations for peace were begun, but the relations of the Lombard cities to the Empire could not be adjusted, and when the emperor began again to ravage the papal territories Innocent fled to Lyons. Hither he summoned a general council, which met in June 1245; but although Frederick sent his justiciar, Thaddeus of Suessa, to represent him, and expressed his willingness to treat, sentence of excommunication and deposition was pronounced against him. Once more an interchange of recriminations began, charged with all the violent hyperbole characteristic of the controversial style of the age. Accused of violating treaties, breaking oaths, persecuting the church and abetting heresy, Frederick replied by an open letter rebutting these charges, and in equally unmeasured terms denounced the arrogance and want of faith of the clergy from the pope downwards. The source of all the evil was, he declared, the excessive wealth of the church, which, in retaliation for the sentence of excommunication, he threatened to confiscate. In vain the mediation of the saintly king of France, Louis IX., was invoked. Innocent surpassed his predecessors in the ferocity and unscrupulousness of his attacks on the emperor (see Innocent IV.). War soon became general in Germany and Italy. Henry Raspe, landgrave of Thuringia, was chosen German king in opposition to Frederick in May 1246, but neither he nor his successor, William II., count of Holland, was successful in driving the Hohenstaufen from Germany. In Italy, during the emperor’s absence, his cause had been upheld by Enzio and by the ferocious Eccelino da Romano. In 1246 a formidable conspiracy of the discontented Apulian barons against the emperor’s power and life, fomented by papal emissaries, was discovered and crushed with ruthless cruelty. The emperor’s power seemed more firmly established than ever, when suddenly the news reached him that Parma, a stronghold of the imperial authority in the north, had been surprised, while the garrison was off its guard, by the Guelphs. To recover the city was a matter of prime importance, and in 1247 Frederick concentrated his forces round it, building over against it a wooden town which, in anticipation of the success that astrologers had predicted, he named Vittoria. The siege, however, was protracted, and finally, in February 1248, during the absence of the emperor on a hunting expedition, was brought to an end by a sudden sortie of the men of Parma, who stormed the imperial camp. The disaster was complete. The emperor’s forces were destroyed or scattered; the treasury, with the imperial insignia, together with Frederick’s harem and some of the most trusted of his ministers, fell into the hands of the victors. Thaddeus of Suessa was hacked to pieces by the mob; the imperial crown was placed in mockery on the head of a hunch-backed beggar, who was carried back in triumph into the city.

Frederick struggled hard to retrieve his fortunes, and for a while with success. But his old confidence had left him; he had grown moody and suspicious, and his temper gave a ready handle to his enemies. Pier della Vigna, accused of treasonable designs, was disgraced; and the once all-powerful favourite and minister, blinded now and in rags, was dragged in the emperor’s train, as a warning to traitors, till in despair he dashed out his brains. Then, in May 1248, came the tidings of Enzio’s capture by the Bolognese, and of his hopeless imprisonment, the captors refusing all offers of ransom. This disaster to his favourite son broke the emperor’s spirit. He retired to southern Italy, and after a short illness died at Fiorentino on the 13th of December 1250, after having been loosed from the ban by the archbishop of Palermo. He was buried in the cathedral of that city, where his splendid tomb may still be seen. By his will he appointed his son Conrad to succeed him in Germany and Sicily, and Henry, his son by Isabella of England, to be king of Jerusalem or Arles, neither of which kingdoms, however, he obtained. Frederick left several illegitimate children: Enzio has already been referred to; Frederick, who was made the imperial vicar in Tuscany; and Manfred, his son by the beloved Bianca Lancia or Lanzia, who was legitimatized just before his father’s death, and was appointed by his will prince of Tarento and regent of Sicily.

The character of Frederick is one of extraordinary interest and versatility, and contemporary opinion is expressed in the words stupor mundi et immutator mirabilis. Licentious and luxurious in his manners, cultured and catholic in his tastes, he united in his person the most diverse qualities. His Sicilian court was a centre of intellectual activity. Michael Scott, the translator of some treatises of Aristotle and of the commentaries of Averroes, Leonard of Pisa, who introduced Arabic numerals and algebra to the West, and other scholars, Jewish and Mahommedan as well as Christian, were welcome at his court. Frederick himself had a knowledge of six languages, was acquainted with mathematics, philosophy and natural history, and took an interest in medicine and architecture. In 1224 he founded the university of Naples, and he was a liberal patron of the medical school at Salerno. He formed a menagerie of strange animals, and wrote a treatise on falconry (De arte venandi cum avibus) which is remarkable for its accurate observation of the habits of birds.[1] It was at his court, too, that—as Dante points out—Italian poetry had its birth. Pier della Vigna there wrote the first sonnet, and Italian lyrics by Frederick himself are preserved to us. His wives were kept secluded in oriental fashion; a harem was maintained at Lucera, and eunuchs were a prominent feature of his household. His religious ideas have been the subject of much controversy. The theory of M. Huillard-Bréholles that he wished to unite to the functions of emperor those of a spiritual pontiff, and aspired to be the founder of a new religion, is insufficiently supported by evidence to be credible. Although at times he persecuted heretics with great cruelty, he tolerated Mahommedans and Jews, and both acts appear rather to have been the outcome of political considerations than of religious belief. His jests, which were used by his enemies as a charge against him, seem to have originated in religious indifference, or perhaps in a spirit of inquiry which anticipated the ideas of a later age. Frederick’s rule in Germany and Italy was a failure, but this fact may be accounted for by the conditions of the time and the inevitable conflict with the papacy. In Germany the enactments of 1220 and 1231 contributed to the disintegration of the Empire and the fall of the Hohenstaufen, while conflicting interests made the government of Italy a problem of exceptional difficulty. In Sicily Frederick was more successful. He quelled disorder, and under his rule the island was prosperous and contented. His ideas of government were those of an absolute monarch, and he probably wished to surround himself with some of the pomp which had encircled the older emperors of Rome. His chief claim to fame, perhaps, is as a lawgiver. The code of laws which he gave to Sicily in 1231 bears the impress of his personality, and has been described as “the fullest and most adequate body of legislation promulgated by any western ruler since Charlemagne.” Without being a great soldier, Frederick was not unskilful in warfare, but was better acquainted with the arts of diplomacy. In person he is said to have been “red, bald and short-sighted,” but with good features and a pleasing countenance. It was seriously believed in Germany for about a century after his death that Frederick was still alive, and many impostors attempted to personate him. A legend, afterwards transferred to Frederick Barbarossa, told how he sat in a cavern in the Kyffhäusser before a stone table through which his beard had grown, waiting for the time for him to awake and restore to the Empire the golden age of peace.

The contemporary documents relating to the reign of Frederick II. are very numerous. Among the most important are: Richard of San Germano, Chronica regni Siciliae; Annales Placentini, Gibellini; Albert of Stade, Annales; Matthew Paris, Historia major Angliae; Burchard, Chronicon Urspergense. All these are in the Monumenta Germaniae historica. Scriptores (Hanover and Berlin, 1826–1892). The Rerum Italicarum scriptores, edited by L. A. Muratori (Milan, 1723–1751), contains Annales Mediolanenses; Nicholas of Jamsilla, Historia de rebus gestis Friderici II., and Vita Gregorii IX. pontificis. There are also the Epistolarum libri of Peter della Vigna, edited by J. R. Iselin (Basel, 1740); and Salimbene of Parma’s Chronik, published at Parma (1857). Many of the documents concerning the history of the time are found in the Historia diplomatica Friderici II., edited by M. Huillard-Bréholles (Paris, 1852–1861); Acta imperii selecta. Urkunden deutscher Könige und Kaiser, edited by J. F. Böhmer and J. Ficker (Innsbruck, 1870); Acta imperii inedita seculi XIII. Urkunden und Briefe zur Geschichte des Kaiserreichs und des Königreichs Sicilien, edited by E. Winkelmann (Innsbruck, 1880); Epistolae saeculi XIII. selecta e regestis pontificum Romanorum, edited by C. Rodenberg, tome i. (Berlin, 1883); P. Pressutti, Regesta Honorii papae III. (Rome, 1888); L. Auvray, Les Registres de Grégoire IX. (Paris, 1890).

The best modern authorities are W. von Giesebrecht, Geschichte der deutschen Kaiserzeit, Band v. (Leipzig, 1888); J. Jastrow, Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Hohenstaufen (Berlin, 1893); F. W. Schirrmacher, Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite (Göttingen, 1859–1865); “Beiträge zur Geschichte Kaiser Friedrichs II.” in the Forschungen zur deutschen Geschichte, Band xi. (Göttingen, 1862–1886), and Die letzten Hohenstaufen (Göttingen, 1871); E. Winkelmann, Geschichte Kaiser Friedrichs II und seiner Reiche (Berlin, 1865) and Kaiser Friedrich II. (Leipzig, 1889); G. Blondel, Étude sur la politique de l’empereur Frédéric II. en Allemagne (Paris, 1892); M. Halbe, Friedrich II. und der päpstliche Stuhl (Berlin, 1888); R. Röhricht, Die Kreuzfahrt des Kaisers Friedrich II. (Berlin, 1874); C. Köhler, Das Verhältnis Kaiser Friedrichs II. zu den Päpsten seiner Zeit (Breslau, 1888); J. Feiten, Papst Gregor IX. (Freiburg, 1886); C. Rodenberg, Innocenz IV. und das Königreich Sicilien (Halle, 1892); K. Lamprecht, Deutsche Geschichte, Band iii. (Berlin, 1891); M. Huillard-Bréholles, Vie et correspondance de Pierre de la Vigne (Paris, 1865); A. del Vecchio, La legislazione de Federico II (Turin, 1874); and K. Hampe, Kaiser Friedrich II. (Munich, 1899).  (A. W. H.*) 

  1. First printed at Augsburg in 1596; a German edition was published at Berlin in 1896.