Stopping only very briefly in Cyprus, the Emperor reached Brindisi on 10 June. He found his kingdom in a state of helpless confusion. His old enemy Gregory IX had taken advantage of his absence to launch what almost amounted to a Crusade against him, writing to the princes and churches of Western Europe demanding men and money for an all-out attack on Frederick’s position both in Germany and in Italy. In Germany the Pope’s attempts to establish a rival Emperor in the person of Otto of Brunswick had had little effect. In Italy, on the other hand, he had organised an armed invasion with the object of driving Frederick out of the south once and for all, so that the whole territory could be ruled directly from Rome. Furious fighting was at that moment in progress in the Abruzzi and around Capua, while several cities of Apulia, believing the rumours – deliberately circulated by papal agents – of Frederick’s death, were in open revolt. To encourage others to follow their example, Gregory had recently published an edict releasing all the Emperor’s subjects from their oaths of allegiance.
The situation could hardly have been more serious, yet from the moment of Frederick’s arrival the tide began to turn. Here was the Emperor, once again among his people, not dead but triumphant, having recovered without bloodshed the Holy Places for Christendom. His achievement may not have impressed the Christian communities of Outremer, but to the people of south Italy and Sicily it appeared in a very different light. Moreover, with his return to his kingdom, Frederick himself instantly became a changed man. Gone were the anger, the bluster, the insecurity, the lack of understanding; he was back now in a land he knew, and deeply loved; once again, he was in control. All that summer he spent tirelessly on campaign, and by the end of October the papal army was broken.
Gregory IX, however, was not, and the final reconciliation between the two was a long, difficult and painful process. In the months that followed Frederick made concession after concession, knowing as he did that the obstinate old Pope still retained his most damaging weapon. He was still excommunicated: a serious embarrassment, a permanent reproach and a potentially dangerous diplomatic liability. As a Christian, too – insofar as he was one – Frederick would have had no wish to die under the ban of the Church. But still Gregory prevaricated; it was not until July 1230 that, very reluctantly, he agreed to a peace treaty – signed at Ceprano at the end of August – and lifted his sentence. Two months later still, the two men dined together in the papal palace at Anagni. The dinner, one feels, must have been far from convivial, at least at first; but Frederick was capable of enormous charm when he wanted to use it, and the Pope seems to have been genuinely gratified that the Holy Roman Emperor should have taken the trouble to visit him, informally and without pomp. So ended yet another of those Herculean struggles between Emperor and Pope on which the history of medieval Europe so frequently seems to turn.
In 1231 Frederick was in a position to promulgate what came to be known as the Constitutions of Melfi – no less than a complete new codification of the law on a scale unattempted since the days of Justinian seven centuries before. The Emperor took full control of criminal justice, instituted a body of itinerant judges acting in his name, curtailed the liberties of the barons, the clergy and the towns, and laid the foundations of a system of firm government paralleled only in England, with similar representation of nobility, churchmen and citizens.
The truth was that, of all his dominions, the Regno (as the Kingdom of Sicily was generally known) was the least troublesome. He had been born there; he knew every inch of it; he understood its people. Things were very different in the two other great regions subject to his rule, north Italy and Germany, in which imperial power – having no solid basis of the kind which England and France, with their firmly hereditary monarchies, were rapidly building up – had declined dramatically over the previous hundred years. In north Italy in particular, the great Lombard cities and towns had been a perennial thorn in the flesh to successive Emperors – none of whom had suffered more than Frederick’s own grandfather, Barbarossa, soundly defeated at Legnano little more than half a century before. To maintain their independence, their most successful policy had always been to play Pope and Emperor off against each other; news of the reconciliation of 1230 had consequently filled them with dismay. The Lombard League had been hastily revived, its members closing ranks against the coming danger.
They had been right to do so. Had Frederick been willing to divide his empire, allotting Germany to himself and entrusting Sicily to his son Henry – or even vice versa – north Italy might have been left to its own devices, but that was not his way. Determined as he was to rule both territories himself, he knew that a safe overland route between them was essential. And there was another reason too. For him, Italy was more important than Germany would ever be. This was after all the Holy Roman Empire, not the Holy German. Its capital belonged in Rome – and to Rome, one day, he hoped to transfer it.
As a first step towards this objective, the Emperor summoned his son Henry, all the principal German princes and the representatives of the great cities of north Italy to a council, to be held in Ravenna on All Saints’ Day, 1 November 1231. He did everything he could to allay Lombard fears. He undertook to bring no military escort, only a small personal suite; the proceedings would be dedicated to ‘the honour of God, the Church and the Empire, and the prosperity of Lombardy’. Doubtless he meant every word, but for the Lombard leaders the alarm signal was unmistakable. They did not want him; still less did they want a horde of truculent German barons. Instantly, they closed the Alpine passes. The measure was not entirely successful – a good many of the delegates managed to circumvent the blockade and make their way round by an eastern route through Friuli – but it delayed the conference by a good two months.
For all that, the delegates celebrated Christmas with a round of elaborate festivities and displays, including special exhibitions of the Emperor’s famous menagerie, which accompanied him on all his travels and which included not only his unrivalled collection of falcons but lions, panthers, camels, apes and monkeys and even an elephant – whose effect on the local peasantry is not easy to imagine. Frederick was always good at putting on a show; he was conscious, however, that one delegate remained absent, and that delegate the most important of all: his son Henry, King of the Romans. Henry had sent no message of explanation – let alone of apology – and it soon became clear that he had made no effort to answer his father’s summons.
The cause may well have been sheer embarrassment. This is not the place to discuss the imperial administration in Germany. Suffice it to say that Henry had been left by his father as titular sovereign at the age of eight; in consequence, when he came of age at eighteen, he felt little affection or loyalty towards a father of whom he had only vague childhood recollections. By adopting towards the German princes a confrontational policy diametrically opposite to that followed by Frederick he had already succeeded in dangerously antagonising them, and when matters came to a head in 1231 they had extracted from him a whole series of rights and privileges, thus seriously weakening imperial power in Germany.
Furious, Frederick called another council for the following summer in Aquileia, making it clear that his son would ignore the summons at his peril. This time Henry dared not disobey, and was forced to swear an oath that he would henceforth defend the rights and standing of the Emperor, dismissing those counsellors who had encouraged him in his disastrous policies. But if Frederick thought that with a submissive son and well-disposed princes he could subdue Lombardy, he was wrong. Most of the last nineteen years of his life were to be spent in warfare up and down the Italian peninsula, striving, as his grandfather had striven before him, to establish his authority. There was, however, an important difference between them. Frederick Barbarossa had been a German through and through; his empire was a German empire. For Frederick II, Italy always came first; despite the occasional temporary reconciliation this guaranteed the hostility of the Pope, uncomfortably squeezed as he was between the two nominally imperial territories, Lombardy and the Regno.
Over those last years, many of the leading characters would be replaced. Henry, King of the Romans, after further acts of disobedience, was dethroned in 1235 and was succeeded two years later by his half-brother Conrad. (That same year Frederick himself remarried, taking as his third wife Isabella, sister of King Henry III of England.) Pope Gregory, having excommunicated Frederick yet again in 1239, died in 1241. If his successor – the hopeless old Celestine IV – had lived, Frederick’s worries might have been almost at an end, but after just seventeen days Celestine had followed Gregory to the grave. For the next year and a half the Emperor, while simultaneously preparing a huge fleet to sail against Genoa and Venice, did everything he could to influence the next election, but in vain; the Genoese Cardinal Sinibaldo dei Fieschi, who in June 1243 became Pope Innocent IV, proved if anything an even more determined adversary than Gregory had been. Only two years after his accession, at a General Council in Lyons, he declared the already excommunicated Frederick deposed, stripping him of all his dignities and titles.
But Emperors could not be thrown out so easily. The Hohenstaufen name retained immense prestige in Germany, while in the Regno Frederick’s endless peregrinations had ensured him a consistently high profile, to the point where he seemed omnipresent, part of life itself. Loftily ignoring the papal pronouncement, he continued the struggle; it was still in progress when in December 1250 he was seized by a sudden violent attack of dysentery at Castel Fiorentino in Apulia. He died a few days later on Tuesday, 13 December, just thirteen days short of his fifty-sixth birthday. Inevitably there were rumours of poison, but no real evidence has ever been put forward. His body was taken to Palermo where, at his request, it was buried in the cathedral, in the magnificent porphyry sarcophagus that had been prepared for his grandfather Roger II at his own foundation of Cefalù but had till then remained unoccupied.
As his heir in Germany and the Regno Frederick had named Conrad, son of Yolande of Jerusalem, and during Conrad’s absence in Germany he had entrusted the government of Italy and Sicily to Manfred, the favourite of his eleven illegitimate children. Manfred proved a worthy scion of his father. He recreated Frederick’s brilliant court, founded the Apulian port of Manfredonia and married his own daughter Helena to Michael II, Despot of Epirus, an alliance which gained him the island of Corfu and a considerable stretch of the Albanian coast, including the historic city and port of Durazzo. Another daughter, Constance, became the wife of Peter, heir to the throne of Aragon (the second Constance of Aragon to rate a mention in this chapter).
Even after his half-brother Conrad died in 1254, Manfred did not – to the Pope’s inexpressible relief – seek authority over northern or central Italy; nevertheless, his increasing power in the south could not but reawaken anxieties in Rome, and these became greater still when, in August 1258, he prevailed upon the Sicilian baronage to proclaim him king. Ever since Frederick’s theoretical deposition in 1245, Pope Innocent had been seeking an ‘athlete of Christ’ who would rid south Italy once and for all of the house of Hohenstaufen and lead the army of the Church to victory in the peninsula. Richard Earl of Cornwall, the brother of King Henry III and the richest man in England – he had been elected King of the Romans in 1257 – had at one moment seemed a possibility, but Innocent had been unable to persuade him to take up the challenge. The Pope was still trying to find a suitable candidate when he died in 1261, to be succeeded by Urban IV, the first Frenchman to occupy the papal throne. Urban’s eye soon fell on a compatriot, Charles of Anjou.
The brother of King Louis IX, Charles was now thirty-five. In 1246 he had acquired through his wife the county of Provence, which had brought him untold wealth; he was also lord, inter alia, of the thriving port of Marseille. To this cold, cruel and vastly ambitious opportunist the Pope was now offering a chance not to be missed. The army which Charles was to lead against Manfred, and which began to assemble in north Italy in the autumn of 1265, was to be officially designated a Crusade – which meant that it would be as always something of a ragbag, with the usual admixture of adventurers hoping to secure fiefdoms in south Italy, pilgrims seeking the remission of their sins and ruffians simply out for plunder. With them, however, was an impressive number of knights from all over western Europe – French, German, Spanish, Italian and Provençal, with even a few Englishmen thrown in for good measure – who, Charles firmly believed, would be more than a match for anything that Manfred could fling against them.
On 6 January 1266 Pope Urban crowned Charles of Anjou with the crown of Sicily; less than a month afterwards, on 3 February, Charles’s army crossed the frontier into the Regno. This time there was to be no long campaign. The two armies met on the 26th outside the old Roman city of Benevento, and it was all over quite quickly. Manfred, courageous as always, stood his ground and went down fighting, but his troops, hopelessly outnumbered, soon fled from the field. The battle had been decisive: the Crusade was over. And so – or very nearly – was the house of Hohenstaufen. Two years later King Conrad’s son Conrad IV – better known as Conradin – and Prince Henry of Castile made a last desperate attempt to save the situation, leading an army of Germans, Italians and Spaniards into the Regno. Charles hurried up and met them at the border village of Tagliacozzo. This time the battle, which was fought on 23 August 1268, proved a good deal harder, resulting in hideous slaughter on both sides; eventually the Angevins once again won the day. Conradin escaped from the field, but was captured soon afterwards. There followed a show trial in Naples after which, on 29 October, the young prince – he was just sixteen – and several of his companions were taken down to the marketplace and beheaded on the spot.
Manfred and Conradin were both, in their own different ways, heroes. It was hardly their fault that they were overshadowed by their father and grandfather; so, after all, was much of the known world. Fluency in six languages was an even rarer accomplishment in the thirteenth century than it is today; in addition, Frederick was a sensitive lyric poet at whose court the sonnet was invented, a generous patron of the arts, a skilled general, a subtle statesman and the greatest naturalist of his time. A passionate intellectual curiosity gave him a more than passing knowledge of philosophy and astronomy, geometry and algebra, medicine and the physical sciences. Not the least remarkable of his qualities was his talent for showmanship. His force of character alone, the sheer dazzle of his personality, would always have ensured that he impressed himself on everyone with whom he came in contact, but he deliberately built up his image still further: with that extraordinary menagerie, with his personal regiment of Saracens, even with his harem. These last two attributes were regularly held against him by his enemies, but they too carried a clear message: the Emperor was not as other men. He was a giant, a demigod, to whom the accepted rules of conduct did not apply.
In a word, he had style – and style has always been, as it still is today, a speciality of the Italians. Frederick was probably one of the first men – and in all history there have been surprisingly few – to have had a foot in both worlds, the Italian and the German, and to feel equally at ease on either side of the Alps; but his heart remained in Italy where he spent most of his life, and it is as an Italian that he finds his place in this book. Culturally, he gave the country much. Had the Provençal troubadours, fleeing from the horrors of the Albigensian Crusade, not found a warm welcome at the court of Palermo and fired the local poets with their ideals of courtly love, Italian literature might have taken a diametrically different course and the Divine Comedy might never have been written. In the field of architecture, too, he was an innovator. The immense fortified gateway to his frontier city of Capua, built to defend its bridge across the Vulturno river and designed by the Emperor himself, no longer stands; but much of its sculpture is preserved in the local museum, from which it is clear that the Emperor drew liberally on the decorative language of ancient Rome, pre-echoing the Renaissance well over a century before its time. Classical pediments and pilasters appear even more remarkably in his magnificent hunting-box of Castel del Monte, a vast turreted octagon in limestone crowning a remote Apulian hilltop. But perhaps we are wrong to be surprised. Frederick was after all a Roman Emperor, and he was determined that we should not forget it.
Politically, on the other hand, he was a failure. His dream had been to make Italy and Sicily a united kingdom within the Empire, with its capital at Rome; the overriding purpose of the Papacy, aided by the cities and towns of Lombardy, was to ensure that that dream should never be realised. It was unfortunate for the Emperor that he should have had to contend with two such able and determined men as Gregory and Innocent, but in the long run the struggle could have had no other outcome. The Empire, even in Germany, had lost its strength and cohesion; no longer could the loyalty of the German princes be relied upon, or even their deep concern. As for north and central Italy, the Lombard cities would never again submit to imperial bluster. Had Frederick only accepted this fact, the threat to the Papacy would have been removed and his beloved Regno might well have been preserved. Alas, he rejected it, and in doing so he not only lost Italy; he signed the death-warrant of his dynasty.