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Frederick II
The Empire Strikes Back

Frederick II statue Royal
                      PalaceThis statue of Frederick II (photo, left) is the second in a row of eight along the façade of the Royal Palace in Naples; they show the dynasties that ruled The Kingdom of Sicily (later known as the Kingdom of Two Sicilies or, simply, the Kingdom of Naples) from the Normans in the 11th century to the unification of Italy eight-hundred years later. They are all the same size, but if they were hewn to scale in terms of historical importance, none would be larger than Frederick. It would be very hard to fit this last great medieval emperor, this scholar, diplomat and warrior into that tiny niche. 

Knighthood and chivalry; popes and princes; kings, castles and Crusades; valor and skulduggery—all these things tumble together in our hazy modern perception of what the Middle Ages were all about. The Middle Ages are, indeed, confusing, but Frederick II provides an excellent focal point if we wish to understand not only the Middle Ages, but the essential point that some of the great issues which caused conflict then—religion, power, monolithic states versus cultural diversity—have not yet been resolved.

Centuries of struggle between the Church and the State in Europe came to a head in the 1200s. On the one hand, politically, Europe had been reformed by Charlemagne a few centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire with the view that The Empire, a vast monolithic state, should continue. In spite of Charlemagne's failure to forge a lasting empire, that idea took hold. It was, in hindsight, a rather futile endeavor in light of the emergence of separate 'national' identities in Europe—the French, the Germans, the Spanish and the Italians; yet, the idea remained that they could be joined through the single overarching person of the emperor. A strong contender among European royal houses of that age to provide just such a strong emperor was the German house of Hohenstaufen, the house of Frederick II. 

On the other hand was the Church of Rome. It had come into its own, on the worldly plane, in 756, when Charlemagne's father, Pepin III, rendered unto Christ a lot of what had belonged to Caesar: land. That gift—a large part of central Italy—was the beginning of the Papal States, a church-state ruled by the Pope King. Over the next few centuries, a papal vision took form, a vision of Europe as a single theocracy with earthly princes subject to the princes of the Church, or, in the words of Pope Gregory VII, pope from 1073 to 1085: "The Holy See has absolute power over all spiritual things: why should it not also rule temporal affairs? God reigns in the heavens; His vicar should reign over all the earth." Clearly these two points of view on how Europe should be ruled were destined not to get along very well. And, indeed, they did not.

Frederick II of Hohenstaufen was born near Seconal in the Papal States in 1194. He was the grandchild of emperor Frederick I and beneficiary of the marriage of his own royal family into that of the Norman rulers of the Kingdom of Sicily (a kingdom, remember, that included the southern Italian mainland). Frederick was crowned King of Sicily as a young child, and he spent much of his childhood in the south. His mother appointed Pope Innocent III guardian of the child, a fact that may have fooled the Pope into thinking that here, some day, at last would be an emperor the Church might get along with. 

Frederick was crowned Holy Roman emperor at age 26 and set about continuing the Church/State struggle that his grandfather had waged years earlier. His task was to unite the north of Europe, the lands of the German princes, with the south, the Kingdom of Sicily. Standing in the way was the Church, the Papal States, aided by some central and northern Italian city-states that had become independent of imperial authority and liked it that way. These, in essence, were the battle lines: the so-called "Ghibellines" (from the German place name "Waiblingen"), in favor of a strong emperor vs. the "Guelphs" (from "Welf," the name of a Saxon royal family, who supported Papal authority. 

Frederick had his own son installed as King of the lands of Germany, setting the stage for eventual unification of north and south. He then set about solidifying his own rule in the Kingdom of Sicily. He built a chain of castles and border fortifications, built a naval as well as a merchant fleet, and created a civil service for which candidates were trained at the very first European state university, which he founded in Naples in 1224. 


Bound by oath to undertake a Crusade, Frederick finally did so, and, amazingly, through a series of complex negotiations—as opposed to the usual bloodshed—obtained Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth from the sultan al-Kamil of Egypt. Considering the bloody Crusades of the previous century and the enmity between Christianity and Islam of that period, the fact the Frederick II of Hohenstaufen wound up—peacefully!—being crowned king of Jerusalem in the Holy Sepulcher in 1229 must rank high in the annals of diplomacy. Remembering his background, perhaps it is not surprising. Frederick had been raised in Sicily within living memory of Norman rule, that last great period of tolerance in European history, a time that saw Greeks, Italians and Arabs all forge their respective cultures—including religions—into a single state that worked. Frederick, himself, was fluent in Greek, French, Latin, vernacular Latin (which became Italian) and Arabic. (In his spare time, Frederick also wrote a treatise on falconry, considered one of the first European examples of natural history, based, as it was, on Frederick's own observations of the creatures in the wild.) 

The emperor's behavior in Jerusalem gave the Pope something to ponder, for Frederick had issued a proclamation comparing himself to Christ, recalling his earlier remarks, supposedly in jest, that Moses, Christ and Mohammed had been impostors! (There is actually an extant document entitled Three Great Impostors; there are, to be sure, other possibilities as to the author of that document, but Frederick is a plausible choice.) Papal troops invaded "continental Sicily" (that is, the southern part of the peninsula, not the island of Sicily) shortly thereafter; after all, it surely could not have been very comforting to a Pope to realize that there was now a powerful emperor with a Messianic complex on the loose. Frederick nevertheless managed to return to Italy, defend his kingdom, and smooth things over with the Papacy.

In 1231 Frederick came up with a new constitution for the Kingdom of Sicily. It was the first time since the rule of the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the 6th century that the administrative laws of a European state had been codified. The constitution was revolutionary, anticipating the central authority and enlightened absolutism of a later age. 

Frederick's troubles in the north were growing, however. He was unable to thwart the resistance by northern Italian city-states and the princes of Germany to imperial rule. Also, Pope Gregory IX, fearful of eventual encirclement by an earthly empire, excommunicated Frederick in 1239. Frederick countered by invading the Papal States in 1240, threatening to take Rome, itself. He did not carry out his threat, however; he settled for taking 100 clerics prisoner, thereby reinforcing his reputation not only as an oppressor of the Church, but perhaps as the Anti-Christ, himself. 

In 1245 the Pope declared the Emperor to be deposed. The effectiveness of such a declaration clearly depends on (1) ability to enforce, and (2) willingness to comply, neither of which elements were in great abundance. At the time of his death in 1250 Frederick was still in a strong position, but within 25 years, his heirs had fallen victim to the same struggle with the Papacy that had taken up his own life. The last Hohenstaufen pretender, Conradin, was executed in Naples by the Angevin rulers who had replaced Frederick. 

Frederick was entombed in the cathedral of Palermo, surrounded by symbols of Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Arab respect, eulogies to an emperor as well as appropriate tributes to the peculiarly southern fusion of cultures that had shaped him. Almost immediately the belief took hold that he would return some day to restore the Empire. Even Frederick II was not that much larger than life, but the Messianic overtones of such an idea help us understand just what it meant to command true awe in the Middle Ages.

So, who won the battle? Not Frederick, clearly. But not the Church, either. By encouraging anti-Imperial sentiment, the Church unwittingly helped foster the new European consciousness of "nationality". Within half a century of Frederick's death, France was so strong that the French king had the Pope taken hostage, and eventually forced the removal of the Papacy from Rome to Avignon. When the Papacy returned to Rome almost a century later, Italy and the times would be fertile soil for the new ideas of the Renaissance, an unprecedented wave of creativity that the Church itself would promote—and which had been foreshadowed by Frederick's wide-ranging abilities.

related: Lucera, a Muslim Colony in Medieval Italy;   Castel del Monte;

Capaccio—Castle & ConspiracyThe Constitution of Melfi and The Manfred Who Would Be King.


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