Rise of the Red Beard: Who Was Frederick Barbarossa?

Frederick Barbarossa was a leading figure in medieval Europe. Read on to find out the facts behind one of Europe’s most famous men.

Jun 2, 2022By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History

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Frederick Barbarossa (which literally translates as “the red beard”) was one of medieval Europe’s most famous rulers. Originally from Swabia, Germany, he grew up and united almost 1600 German states and micro-states, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, went on two crusades, was excommunicated, supported an anti-pope, reconciled his relationship with the Pope once more and built diplomatic relationships with royal houses across Europe, from Byzantium to the British Isles.


Frederick Barbarossa’s Early Life

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Frederick Barbarossa, by Christian Siedentopf, 1847, via DW.com


As with many key figures from the Middle Ages, very little is known about Frederick’s early life. He was born in December 1122, to Frederick II, Duke of Swabia, and Judith of Bavaria. According to some sources, he learned to ride, hunt, and use weaponry, but he never learned how to read or write, and he could not speak Latin.


However, this did not put him at a disadvantage when compared to his contemporaries, as he was still actively involved in politics. His uncle, King Conrad III of Germany (r. 1138-52), invited him to take part in what was known as a Hoftag: an assembly convened by princes in the Holy Roman Empire. It is reported that Frederick took part in at least four of these: Strasbourg (1141), Konstanz (1142), Ulm (1143), Würzburg (1144), and Worms (1145). These Hoftags undoubtedly gave Frederick the vital experience he would need in his later life to become Holy Roman Emperor.


The Second Crusade

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Frederick Barbarossa and his sons, Henry VI and Frederick VI, from the Chronic of the Guelphs, c. 1179-1191, accessed via Wellesley College


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Upon his father’s death, Frederick Barbarossa inherited his duchy, and became Frederick III, Duke of Swabia. Just a few months later, Frederick set out on the Second Crusade with his uncle Conrad, the latter who had taken his crusading vows in December 1146.


Although (for the crusaders) the Second Crusade was a disaster, Frederick Barbarossa distinguished himself as a keen military leader and adept politician. In August 1147, when crossing Byzantium, a crusader who had fallen ill stopped at a monastery in Adrianople (modern-day Edirne in Turkey) to heal and recover from his illness. While he was recovering, he was robbed and murdered. Conrad ordered Frederick to avenge the crusader — and avenge he did. He razed the monastery to the ground, captured and executed the robbers, and demanded a return of the stolen money.


Later on the journey, Frederick had a lucky escape when flash flooding destroyed the majority of the crusader camp; fortunately, he reached Constantinople the following day, on 9 September 1147.


Conrad III decided to lead the Crusader forces across Anatolia, but found this task too difficult, with a wave of Turkish attacks near Dorylaeum, which resulted in the Battle of Dorylaeum. Conrad’s forces were defeated, and turned back. In doing so, the rear guard of Conrad’s forces were annihilated. Conrad then decided to send Frederick ahead to King Louis VII of France (r. 1137-80) to ask for help, and to inform him of the disaster at Dorylaeum.


Louis’ forces joined with Conrad’s, and the two crusading armies, French and German, marched towards the Holy Land together. Conrad fell ill at Christmas 1147, and, along with Frederick, returned to Constantinople to recover. In March 1148, the Crusaders left Constantinople, and arrived in Acre on 11 April.


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Conrad III, from the Cologne Kings’ Chronicle, c. 1240, via Timetoast.com


Both Conrad and Frederick visited Jerusalem, and Frederick was impressed with the charitable work of the Knights Hospitaller. Due to his experience in Conrad’s Hoftags, Frederick was invited to take part in the Council of Acre on 24 June 1148. This Council discussed what the best plan for the crusaders was, and they came to the conclusion that their best bet was to attack Damascus.


The result was the Siege of Damascus, which lasted from 24–28 July 1148, and was another disastrous defeat for the crusaders. Staring defeat in the eyes, the crusaders left, and departed for home. Conrad and Frederick sailed from Acre on 8 September 1148, drawing the failed Second Crusade to a close.


However, just because the crusaders failed in their objective of retaking the Holy Land from the Muslims and for Christianity, it did not mean that Frederick himself had personally failed. For a start, he was still alive, something which many of his contemporaries who had set out with him were not. In addition, the chronicler Gilbert of Mons, writing at the turn of the thirteenth century, when describing the Siege of Damascus, wrote that Frederick “prevailed in arms before all others in front of Damascus”. Frederick arrived back in Germany in April 1149.



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Aachen Cathedral, Germany, via WD.com


In February 1152, Conrad III died, and only Frederick Barbarossa and one of the prince-bishops were present at his deathbed. Both confirmed that Conrad had handed the royal insignia to Frederick Barbarossa, rather than his own six-year-old son (who was also called Frederick, and would later become Frederick IV, Duke of Swabia). Barbarossa duly pursued the crown, and was elected on 4 March 1152 as the next King of Germany.


Just five days later, Frederick was crowned King of the Romans at Aachen. For years, the German crown had been crumbling, and royal power had been losing its grip on the country. Frederick Barbarossa wanted to put an end to this, and attempted to do so by uniting the 1600 states of Germany together. Many of these states were too small to pinpoint on a map, but others were larger, such as Bavaria and Saxony. However, Frederick knew that if he were to have any chance of uniting the country, it would be by taking power from elsewhere and he turned to northern Italy.


The Italian Campaigns

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Pope Adrian IV, by Johannes Berardi, c. 1200, accessed via the National Library of France


In total, Frederick Barbarossa undertook six campaigns in Italy, in order to extract wealth from Germany’s southern neighbour, and to confirm his allegiance to the Pope. Frederick was crowned King of Italy on 24 April 1154. On his way to Rome, he discovered that Pope Adrian IV (r. 1154-59) was struggling with a man called Arnold of Brescia, who was challenging the Catholic Church. As a sign of his faith to the Pope, Frederick and his forces dismissed Arnold and his supporters, and Arnold was duly captured and hanged for treason and rebellion.


Pope Adrian IV welcomed Frederick Barbarossa into Rome, and to reward him for his efforts (and to support the fact he had been crowned as King of Italy and Germany), he crowned him Holy Roman Emperor on 18 June 1155. However, for the Romans, Italians, and some of the Germans, this was an unpopular move. Frederick spent his first day as Holy Roman Emperor supressing popular revolts against his election, and reportedly over 1000 people died.


The following year, Frederick married Beatrice of Burgundy, daughter and heiress of Reginald III, and thus added Burgundy to his ever-expanding territory. Frederick’s second Italian campaign was launched in 1158. Prior to this, Pope Adrian IV had come to terms with William I of Sicily, and granted him territories that Frederick viewed as his. He set out, with the support of Henry the Lion and his Saxon troops. This expedition led to the revolt and capture of Milan, the Diet of Roncaglia (which saw the establishment of imperial officers and ecclesiastical reforms in the cities of northern Italy), and the beginning of a long power struggle with Pope Alexander III (r. 1159-81).



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Pope Alexander III, by Artaud de Montor, 19th century, via Britannica


When Pope Adrian IV died in 1159, two rival popes were elected: Alexander III and Victor IV (an anti-pope), both of whom sought Frederick’s support. At the time, Frederick was busy with the Siege of Crema (when he took Milan), and appeared unsupportive of Alexander. In turn, he recognised Victor IV as the legitimate pope in 1160. In response to this, Alexander excommunicated both Frederick and Victor. Frederick then attempted to convene a joint council with Louis VII of France, who was prepared to attend, until he found out that Frederick had unfairly meddled with the votes.


Frederick had to then turn his attention back to Milan, only to subdue another rebellion, but he crushed it to such an extent, that other northern Italian cities — including Brescia and Placentia — also submitted to the Holy Roman Empire, helping him to achieve his goal of expanding royal influence.


In 1164, Victor IV died, and Paschal III was the latest in a line of antipopes. Frederick openly supported him, but he was soon ousted from Rome, leading to the return of Pope Alexander III in 1165.


Return to Italy

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Crown of the Holy Roman Emperors, 10th century, via the BBC


Amid rumours that Alexander was going to enter into an alliance with the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, Frederick embarked on another Italian campaign in 1166. Frederick was victorious at the Battle of Monte Porzio (29 May 1167), where his Holy Roman forces of approximately 1,600 men comfortably defeated the City of Rome’s force of 10,000 men. Frederick hurried to Rome, and crowned his wife as Holy Roman Empress, as well as receiving a second coronation from Paschal III.


However, this particular campaign was suddenly brought to an abrupt halt when an epidemic outbreak of disease (largely thought to have been either malaria or plague) threatened to wipe out the Holy Roman forces. As a result, it forced Frederick back to Germany, where he remained for the next six years.


Diplomatic Relations and Future of His Dynasty

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Stained glass image of Frederick Barbarossa, artist unknown, Strasbourg Cathedral, c. 13th century, via Wikimedia Commons


It was during this period in Germany that Frederick brought even more territory under his belt, including Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary. In addition, Frederick also initiated friendly relations with Manuel I, and gained a better understanding of his relationship with both Henry II of England (r. 1154-89) and Louis VII of France.


It was also during this period that his young cousin, Frederick IV, Duke of Swabia died, and was thus replaced by Frederick Barbarossa’s younger son (confusingly also called Frederick), who became Frederick V of Swabia (r. 1167-70), adding the County of Swabia into Barbarossa’s bloodline. Meanwhile, Barbarossa’s eldest son, Henry, became Henry VI, King of the Romans (r. 1169-97), alongside Barbarossa himself.


Frederick’s Final Italian Campaign

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Battle of Legnano, by Amos Cassioli, 1860-70, accessed via the Web Gallery of Art


Increasingly anti-German sentiment had swept through Lombardy since the late 1160s, and by 1169, Milan had been restored. In 1174, Barbarossa made another expedition to Italy, without the help of Henry the Lion who refused to support him. However, by this time, the northern Italian cities had become increasingly wealthy (and thus powerful) through trade. They united against Barbarossa’s forces, and inflicted a huge defeat on his forces at Alessandria in Piedmont in 1175. Frederick then suffered another catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Legnano near Milan on 29 May 1176, where he was badly injured, and, for a short while, believed to have been killed.


It was this defeat which really marked a turning point in Frederick’s claims for territory for the Holy Roman Empire. He had no other choice than to negotiate with the Pope, his old nemesis, Alexander III. At the Peace of Anagni in 1176, he formally recognised Alexander III as Pope, and at the Peace of Venice in 1177, he was reconciled with Alexander. However, in order to consolidate his position as a military king, he was formally crowned as King of Burgundy at Arles on 30 June 1178.


But Barbarossa did not forget that Henry the Lion had not answered his call for support. In 1180, he declared that imperial law overruled traditional German law, and stripped Henry of his lands, referring to him as an outlaw. Henry’s allies deserted him, and he was forced out of the empire as an exile for three years. He returned, and died shortly afterwards.


The Third Crusade: Frederick Barbarossa’s Final Fling

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Map of the Third Crusade, via Weaponsandwarfare.com


Pope Alexander died in 1181, and was succeeded by two more Popes (Lucius III, r. 1181-85, and Urban III, r. 1185-87), until the news of the broke: the infidel had taken Jerusalem under their ruler, Saladin.


It was neither of these popes who actually called for the crusade, it was the octogenarian pope who only ruled for two months before his death: Gregory VIII. Although it took some time to convince Barbarossa to take his crusading vow again (at this point, he was in his sixties and had already been on one failed crusade), he eventually agreed and led a meticulously organized force towards the Holy Land.


Frederick camped in Adrianople in autumn 1189, in order to avoid the harsh winter conditions of the Anatolian plains, and in March 1190, he left to embark on his journey to Asia Minor.


Frederick Barbarossa’ s Death and Legacy

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Frederick I, from a minature in the vatican library, 13th century, via Britannica


Frederick Barbarossa opted to take the local Armenians’ advice, and cross the Saleph River, while a larger contingent crossed the mountain path. It was during this crossing that Barbarossa drowned, and died. Frederick’s death caused a semi-mutiny in the crusader forces; thousands of German troops left and headed back home. Only a third of the original forces reached Acre.


The legacy that Frederick Barbarossa left behind was that he was unquestionably one of medieval Europe’s finest military leaders. He entered the world as an illiterate young man, and he left it as Holy Roman Emperor. He united a disunited Germany, and reconciled his relationship with the Pope — something which many future monarchs (such as the infamous King Henry VIII of England) failed to do.

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By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.