Stupor Mundi I

Frederick II (26 December 1194 – 13 December 1250; Sicilian: Fidiricu, Italian: Federico, German: Friedrich) was King of Sicily from 1198, King of Germany from 1212, King of Italy and Holy Roman Emperor from 1220 and King of Jerusalem from 1225. His mother Constance was Queen of Sicily and his father was Henry VI of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Frederick’s reign saw the Holy Roman Empire reaching its all time territorial peak.

A few days after the Empress Constance had given birth in the village of Jesi on the day after Christmas 1194,1 she and her son continued their journey to the south. It was in Palermo, on the premature death of his father just four years later, that the child – named Frederick Roger, after his two grandfathers – was in his turn crowned King of Sicily.

There it was that he spent his childhood, receiving an education as far removed from that normally given to German princes as could possibly be imagined. Latin, Greek and Arabic were all official languages of Norman Sicily; to these Frederick was to add German, Italian and French. Ever since the days of his grandfather Roger II, the court had been the most cultivated in Europe, the meeting place of scholars and geographers, scientists and mathematicians, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. His personal tutor was very possibly Michael Scot, translator of Aristotle and Averroes, who is known to have spent several years in Palermo and was to become his close friend. It was impossible to find a subject which did not interest him. He would spend hours not only in study but in long disputations on religion, philosophy or mathematics. Often, too, he would withdraw to one of the parks and palaces that, we are told, ringed the city like a necklace, watching the birds and animals that were to be a constant passion. Many years later he was to write a book on falconry, De Arte Venandi cum Avibus, which became a classic, displaying a knowledge and understanding of wildlife rare indeed in the thirteenth century.

The physical energy fully matched the intellectual. A contemporary, who clearly knew him well, wrote:

He is never idle, but passes the whole day in some occupation or other, and so that his vigour may increase with practice he strengthens his agile body with every kind of exercise and practice of arms. He either employs his weapons or carries them, drawing his shortsword, in whose use he is expert; he makes play of defending himself from attack. He is a good shot with the bow and often practises archery. He loves fast thoroughbred horses; and I believe that no one knows better than he how to curb them with the bridle and then set them at full gallop. This is how he spends his days from morn to eve, and then begins afresh the following day.

To this is added a regal majesty and majestic features and mien, to which are united a kindly and gracious air, a serene brow, brilliant eyes and expressive face, a burning spirit and a ready wit. Nevertheless his actions are sometimes odd and vulgar, though this is not due to nature but to contact with rough company … However he has virtue in advance of his age, and though not adult he is well versed in knowledge and has the gift of wisdom, which usually comes only with the passage of years. In him, then, the number of years does not count; nor is there need to await maturity, because as a man he is full of knowledge, and as a ruler of majesty.

This description was written in 1208, when Frederick was thirteen. He came of age on his fourteenth birthday, 26 December, and nine months later was married to Constance, daughter of Alfonso II of Aragon, ten years older than he and already a widow, her first husband having been King Imre of Hungary. She was the choice of Pope Innocent III, and at least in the early days of the marriage Frederick does not seem to have altogether shared the papal enthusiasm for her; but she brought 500 armed knights in her train, and in view of the continuing unrest throughout the kingdom, he needed all the help he could get. She also introduced, with her knights and ladies and troubadours, an element of worldly sophistication which had hitherto been lacking in Palermo. To Frederick, always alive to every new stimulus, there now opened up a whole new world, the world of courtly love. The marriage itself remained one of political convenience – though Constance duly presented her husband with a son, Henry, a year or two later – but it removed the rough edges; long before he was twenty, Frederick had acquired the social graces and the polished charm for which he would be famous for the rest of his life.

Early in January 1212 an embassy arrived in Palermo with a message from beyond the Alps. Once again, western Europe had been shown the perils of an elective monarchy; since the death of Henry VI, Germany had been torn apart by a civil war among the various claimants to the imperial title. One of these, Otto the Welf, Duke of Brunswick, had actually been crowned Emperor by Pope Innocent in 1209, and two years later had taken possession of south Italy, the entire mainland part of Frederick’s kingdom. Unfortunately for him, however, he went too far: his invasion of the papal province of Tuscany led to his instant excommunication, and in September 1211 a council of the leading German princes met at Nuremberg and declared him deposed. They it was who had despatched the ambassadors, with an invitation to Frederick to assume the vacant throne.

This invitation came as a complete surprise, and created a considerable stir in the Sicilian court. Frederick’s principal councillors strongly advised against acceptance; so too did his wife. He had no ties of his own with Germany; indeed he had never set foot on German soil. His hold on his own kingdom was still far from secure; it was scarcely a year since the Duke of Brunswick had been threatening him from across the Straits of Messina. Was this really a moment to absent himself from Sicily for a period of several months at least, for the sake of an honour which, however great, might yet prove illusory? On the other hand a refusal would, he knew, be seen by the German princes as a deliberate snub, and could not fail to strengthen the position of his chief rival. Both in Italy and in Germany, the Duke of Brunswick still had plenty of support. Having renounced none of his long-term ambitions, he was fully capable of launching a new campaign – and he would not make the same mistake next time. Here, on the other hand, was an opportunity to deal him a knockout blow. It was not to be missed.

Pope Innocent, after some hesitation, gave his approval. Frederick’s election would admittedly tighten the imperial grip to the north and south of the Papal States, and it was in order to emphasise the independence – at least in theory – of the Kingdom of Sicily from the Empire that the Pope insisted on Frederick’s renunciation of the Sicilian throne in favour of his newborn son, with Queen Constance acting as regent. Once these formalities – and a few others of lesser importance – had been settled, Frederick’s way was clear. At the end of February he sailed with a few trusted companions from Messina. His immediate destination, however, was not Germany but Rome; and there, on Easter Sunday, 25 March 1212, he knelt before the Pope and performed the act of feudal homage to him – technically on behalf of his son the King – for the Sicilian Kingdom. From Rome he sailed on to Genoa in a Genoese galley, somehow eluding the fleet which the Pisans (staunch supporters of the Duke of Brunswick) had sent to intercept him. The Genoese, unlike their Pisan rivals, were enthusiastically Ghibelline, none more so than their leading family, the Dorias, who put their principal palace at the disposal of the Emperor-elect until such time as the Alpine passes were once again open to enable him to complete his journey. Meanwhile, an agreement was reached, to the benefit of both sides, by the terms of which Frederick promised – in return for a substantial subsidy – to confirm on his accession as Emperor all the privileges granted to Genoa by his predecessors.

Even then his path to Germany was not clear. On 28 July he was given a warm welcome in Pavia; but the Lombard plain was being constantly patrolled by bands of pro-Guelf Milanese, and it was one of these bands that surprised the imperial party as they were leaving the town the next morning. Frederick was lucky indeed to be able to leap on to one of the horses and, fording the river Lambro bareback, to make his way to friendly Cremona. By which route he finally crossed the Alps is not recorded; it was certainly not the Brenner, for we know that the Duke of Brunswick and his army were at Trento. By the beginning of autumn Frederick was safely in Germany.

On 25 July 1215, in the cathedral at Aachen upon the throne of Charlemagne, the Archbishop of Mainz crowned Frederick King of the Romans, the traditional title of the Emperor-elect. He was just twenty-one. All that he now needed for the full imperial title was a further coronation by the Pope in Rome. Almost exactly a year before, on 27 July 1214, the army of Philip Augustus of France had defeated that of Otto of Brunswick and King John of England on the field of Bouvines, near Lille, effectively destroying all Otto’s hopes of opposing him. From that day his supremacy was unquestioned, and it was now – perhaps as a thank-offering to God, perhaps as a way of winning further papal approval – that he announced his intention of taking the Cross.

Few acts in Frederick’s life are to us today more incomprehensible. He had never been particularly pious; moreover, he had been brought up among Muslim scientists and scholars, whose religion he respected and whose language he spoke. Nor at this time was he under pressure from the Pope or anyone else. Indeed, there is plenty of reason to believe that he soon regretted his promise; he certainly showed no eagerness to fulfil it. He was in fact to remain in Germany for another four years, spent largely in ensuring the imperial succession of his son Henry, who in 1217 arrived with Queen Constance from Sicily. In the late summer of 1220 his parents made their way back to Italy, leaving their disconsolate little eight-year-old behind them. There followed a solemn progress through Italy, during which Frederick dispensed royal grants and diplomas with his usual largesse. In mid-November he arrived in Rome, and on the 22nd Pope Honorius III laid the imperial crown on his head.

Just sixty-five years before, his grandfather Barbarossa had been obliged to undergo a hole-and-corner coronation which had been followed by something not far short of a massacre. Those days, however, were long past; this time Rome was at peace – Frederick’s boundless generosity had seen to that – and the ceremony was perhaps the most splendid that had ever been seen in the basilica. When it was completed, and Pope and Emperor emerged into the winter sunshine, it was noted that the Emperor – unlike Barbarossa – unhesitatingly grasped the Pope’s stirrup as he mounted his horse, which he then led by the bridle for a few paces before mounting himself. Such gestures meant little to him. Not only was the Empire his own; he had also extracted from the Pope an undertaking which he valued very nearly as much – the restoration to him of his Sicilian realm. After eight years in Germany he longed to return to Palermo.

Those years had brought him the greatest secular title the world could bestow, but they had also showed him that he was at heart a man of the south, a Sicilian. Germany had been good to him, but he had never really liked the country or felt at home there. Of his thirty-eight years as Emperor, only nine were to be spent north of the Alps; throughout his reign he was to do all he could – though without conspicuous success – to shift the focus of the Empire to Italy, and it was in Italy that the main body of his life’s work was to be done. He began it in late December 1220 even before he had crossed the Straits of Messina, in the first important city within his northern frontier: the city of Capua.

About the state of Sicily he was under no illusions: for over thirty years – ever since the death of William the Good in 1189 – it had been in chaos. His father’s reign of terror had only increased the unruliness and dissatisfaction; then there had been his own minority – his mother as regent had barely succeeded in holding things together – followed by his long absence in Germany, during which the state had survived more in name than anything else. As the most urgent priority, order must be restored; it was with what are known as the Assizes of Capua that Frederick took the first steps in doing so, promulgating – in no less than twenty chapters – a series of laws that he must have pondered for many months before, laws which laid down the foundations for the national regeneration that was to continue for the rest of his reign. Essentially, they involved a return to the status quo existing at the time of William’s death, and a recentralisation of power under the Crown. The most far-reaching law of all was the de resignandis privilegiis, which decreed that all privileges, however small or seemingly insignificant, granted to any person or institution since that time should be submitted to the Royal Chancery for confirmation before the spring of 1221. Obviously, this edict fell hardest on the chief recipients of such privileges, who also constituted the most serious threat to the supremacy of the Crown: the nobility and the Church. For the nobility, moreover, there were two additional blows. No holder of a fief was permitted to marry, nor his children to inherit, without the consent of his sovereign. And all castles built anywhere in the kingdom since King William’s death were automatically forfeit to the Crown.

The proceedings at Capua were repeated, if on a slightly more modest scale, in the following months at Messina, Catania and Palermo; the Emperor then moved on to Syracuse, where he had serious business with the Genoese. Genoa had always been his friend, but as long ago as 1204 Genoese merchants had virtually taken possession of the city, from which they had spread their influence all over the island. One of the chief causes of the decline of Sicilian trade over the previous thirty years had been the fact that most of it had fallen into the hands of foreigners; there was no chance of a return to prosperity while outsiders remained in control. And so, despite the help that he had received from the Genoese on his journey to Germany, Frederick acted with characteristic firmness. He threw them out. His new laws gave him all the authority he needed. All the concessions that had been granted to Genoa, not only in Syracuse but in Palermo, Messina, Trapani and other trading centres across the island were summarily withdrawn, all Genoese depots and warehouses declared confiscate, with their contents, to the Sicilian Crown. Similar action was taken against Pisa, although the Pisan presence in Sicily was insignificant and her losses were relatively small.

But alas, there was another, far greater enemy than Genoa to be faced: the Muslims of western Sicily. Three-quarters of a century before, in the days of King Roger, the Arab community had been an integral and respected part of the kingdom. It had staffed the entire treasury and had provided most of the physicians, astronomers and other men of science who had earned Norman Sicily its outstanding reputation in the field of scholarship. But those days were long gone. Already during the reign of William the Good much of the semi-autonomous Arab region had been granted to the Abbey of Monreale; with the final collapse of Norman power, the Arabs had found that they were no longer appreciated or even respected. They had consequently been forced back, entrenching themselves in the wild and mountainous west, where Arab brigands and freebooters now constantly terrorised the local Christian communities. Frederick’s first campaign against them, in the summer of 1221, proved inconclusive; not until the following year did his troops capture the Saracen fortress of Iato, and with it the Muslim leader Ibn Abbad, who soon afterwards ended his days on the scaffold.

Not even his execution, however, marked the final solution to the problem. This came about only between 1222 and 1226, when Frederick adopted a still more drastic measure. He decided to remove the entire Muslim population of the rebellious western region – perhaps fifteen or twenty thousand people – altogether from the island, and to resettle them at the other end of his kingdom: at Lucera in northern Apulia, which became effectively a Muslim town, virtually every one of its Christian churches being replaced by a mosque. This was not, it must be emphasised, in any sense a penal colony. Its citizens enjoyed complete liberty and the free exercise of their religion, and Frederick, who had been brought up with Muslims from his cradle, ultimately built his own palace there – a building in distinctly oriental style which was to become one of his favourite residences.

The Saracens of Lucera, for their part, showed their new loyalty by providing him with his personal bodyguard. They also manned his principal weapons factory, their swordsmiths producing blades of damascened steel that only Toledo could equal, their carpenters constructing those vast engines of war – catapults, trebuchets, mangonels and the like – without which effective siege operations were impossible. Meanwhile, their women provided the Emperor with his harem: the Saracen dancing-girls who lived in considerable luxury in a wing of the palace, with their own staff of female servants and a body of eunuchs to see that they came to no harm. A number of these girls would accompany the Emperor on his constant travels, and although it was always maintained that they existed only to provide innocent entertainment for the imperial court there can be little doubt – as Gibbon remarks on the similar establishment kept by the Emperor Gordian – that they were in fact intended for use rather than ostentation.


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