Frederick Barbarossa

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Frederick Barbarossa was a powerful figure on the European political and military scene in the 12th Century. He was Holy Roman Emperor and led forces into the Holy Land on Crusade. He famously died in a rather odd way.

He was born in 1122 or 1123. His parents were representatives of two leading dynasties of Europe, the Hofenstaufen and the Welf, that were well respected and powerful and were major players in the regular competition to be named Holy Roman Emperor.

The Holy Roman Empire was a loose confederation of territories in Western and Central Europe that existed for about 1,000 years, from the crowning of the Frankish king Charlemagne as Emperor in 800 to the dissolution of the Empire during the Napoleonic Wars.

Frederick's uncle was Conrad III, who was named King of Germany in 1137. Conrad and Frederick had led a number of German troops to the Holy Land to fight in the Second Crusade. The Crusaders were badly beaten on more than one occasion, and Frederick could claim little more than military experience for his efforts.

Frederick Barbarossa

Frederick, who became known as Barbarossa (Italian for "Red Beard"), was named Duke of the southern German region of Swabia in 1147 and King of Germany in early 1152, when his uncle Conrad died. Conrad had bypassed his own son (who was only 6) and named Frederick, his nephew, as his successor.

Frederick still needed the support of Pope Eugenius III in order to be named Holy Roman Emperor, and the two signed a treaty of understanding that required Frederick to support the Pope's efforts fighting in Sicily. Frederick agreed and, in 1155, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Adrian IV, who had succeeded Eugenius III as Pope. The following year, Frederick married Beatrice of Burgundy. Frederick and Beatrice had 11 children, five of whom lived into adulthood: Henry (1165), Conrad (1167), Otto (1170), Conrad (1170), and Philip (1177).

At the time, the Holy Roman Empire consisted of more than 1,600 individual states and territories, each of which had its own prince. Frederick set about trying to unify all of the princes under his banner; he had a modest amount of success, especially after reinstating the Roman Rule of Law to the Empire. He also set about conquering neighboring lands, including six invasions of Italy.

Earlier Holy Roman Emperors, most notably Henry IV in 1077, had tried to assert their own authority not only over the Empire but also over the papacy. Henry IV ultimately apologized to then-Pope Gregory VII who, after letting Henry IV wait outside a castle for three days in freezing cold weather, restored the king's place in Christendom. Frederick was of the same view as far as his authority of the Pope was concerned. Frederick marched at the head of an army into Italy and claimed several cities. Another new Pope, Alexander III, excommunicated Frederick, who did not give in right away, instead throwing his support behind others who were opposing the Pope. Eventually, though, after another invasion of Italy ended in defeat, he made his peace with the Pope, in 1177. Alexander III restored Frederick to the Church fold.

Frederick Barbarossa at Iconium

The Muslim warrior Saladin led a takeover of Jerusalem in 1187, and Pope Gregory VIII called the Third Crusade. Seeing another chance to prove his mettle and might, Frederick assembled an army of 150,000 men and set out for the Holy Land. English King Richard I and French King Philip II traveled by sea with their forces. Frederick's army was too large to go by sea and so went by land. Then went through Hungary, through Serbia, and through the Byzantine Empire. They won two battles, one a major victory against a Turkish force in the Battle of Iconium, in southeast Anatolia. However, as the army was crossing the Saleph River on June 10, 1190 Frederick drowned. Some historians says that Frederick's horse slipped and the heavily armored Frederick fell in the river and and lost his life because he didn't know how to swim. Other historians says that he jumped in the river and, weighted down by his armor, wasn't able to surface. Still other historical accounts say that Frederick suffered a heart attack while crossing the river, possibly because the water was so cold.

The majority of shocked troops turned around and went home. Frederick was succeeded on the imperial throne by his son, who became Henry VI. Henry was with his father at the time and led a small force on to meet up with the English and French forces at Acre.

Like England's King Henry II, Frederick Barbarossa is remembered as a great warrior, a powerful and charismatic personality, a skilled diplomat, and a highly competent administrator.

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