Holy Roman Emperors

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Holy Roman Emperors

Otto the Great

Born 912

Died 973

German king, Holy Roman emperor

Otto III
Born 980
Died 1002
German king, Holy Roman emperor

Frederick I Barbarossa
Born 1123
Died 1190
German king, Holy Roman emperor

Frederick II
Born 1194
Died 1250
Sicilian and German king, Holy Roman emperor

"The Renewal of the Roman Empire"

Inscription on seal ring of Otto III, signifying his life's goal

T here is a joke almost as old as the Middle Ages themselves, to the effect that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Actually the observation, originally made by the French writer Voltaire in the 1700s, has a grain of truth. A revival of the realm established first under Charlemagne (see entry), the Holy Roman Empire represented an attempt to restore the glories of the Roman Empire of old, but its center was in Germany, and it was seldom unified. As for being "holy," this title referred only to the fact that rulers of the empire, like the four men profiled here, were traditionally crowned by the pope. Ironically, as the career of Emperor Henry IV (see dual entry with Gregory VII) illustrated, the popes were to be the emperors' greatest foes in their quest for power.

From Charlemagne to Otto

By the time Pope Leo III crowned him "Emperor of the Romans" in 800, Charlemagne controlled most of Western Europe. Initially it seemed that he had revived the Western Roman Empire, but a number of forces conspired to prevent this from happening. One was the resistance of the Eastern Roman Empire, which still existed—and would continue to exist until 1453—in the form of Byzantium. Another was the fact that Charlemagne's successors were not his equals. Finally, Charlemagne's son ended all imperial hopes by dividing his lands between his three heirs. In 911, the year before the future Otto the Great was born, the last of Charlemagne's line lost his throne.

Germany at that time was mostly covered with forests, and geography—mountains, rivers, and other natural barriers—served to further divide the land. The region consisted of five duchies, or realms controlled by a duke: Franconia, Saxony, Thuringia (thoor-INJ-ee-uh), Swabia (SWAY-bee-uh), and Bavaria. The dukes elected one of their members as king, and Otto's father, Henry the Fowler of Saxony (c. 876–936), was elected king in 919. Despite the election, however, he had to fight to bring the other duchies under his control.

Otto the Great's early years

Otto spent his early years training for leadership, which for a medieval king involved a great deal of education in fighting, but little in the way of classroom education. Though he would later support learning in his kingdom, Otto himself only learned to read and write in his middle age. At the age of eighteen, he was married to Edith, an Anglo-Saxon princess from England with whom he had two sons. Six years later, Otto's father died, and he was elected king of Germany.

From the beginning, Otto faced opposition from all sides, including a number of revolts instigated by a brother and a half-brother. By 939, however, he had resolved these problems—at least for the time being—and the kingdom enjoyed relative peace for the next twelve years. During this time, he consolidated his power by placing trustworthy family members in positions of influence, and led a successful campaign to subdue Bohemia in 950.

Otto is crowned Holy Roman emperor

Edith died in 946, but Otto would marry a second time. Unlike his father, Otto had dreams larger than Germany itself, and made it his goal to restore the empire of Charlemagne by conquering Italy. An opportunity presented itself in 950, when a princess named Adelaide, widow of the king of Italy, sent a plea for help. She had been imprisoned by a noble named Berengar (BAYR-un-gur), who had seized the throne, and Otto marched his troops into Italy, rescued the princess, and married her.

In the years immediately following, a number of problems—including a revolt at home, led by one of his sons—prevented Otto from completing his Italian campaign. He also faced an enemy that had long plagued Germany's eastern borders: the Magyars, who would later establish the nation of Hungary. In a battle on August 10, 955, Otto decisively defeated them, in the process earning the title "Otto the Great." Later that year, Adelaide gave birth to a son, who would reign as Otto II from 973 to 983.

In 961, Otto and Adelaide led a sizeable army into Italy, and on February 2, 962, Pope John XII crowned the couple as emperor and empress. Otto would spend most of his remaining years in Italy, fighting to maintain control. In 972, he arranged the marriage of his son to the Byzantine princess Theophano (thee-AHF-uh-noh), a move designed to ensure his family's future imperial status. Later that year, he returned to his beloved Germany, where he died on May 7, 973.

From Otto the Great to Otto III

Otto III, born seven years after the death of his grandfather, would grow up nourished on dreams of empire. In large part, this was due to the influence of Adelaide and Theophano, who raised him on tales of Byzantine glory. Indeed, the role of women was a consistent and powerful theme in the story of the medieval Holy Roman emperors, who were strongly impacted by their mothers and wives. After the death of Otto II in 983, Theophano and Adelaide ruled the empire as regents until Otto came of age at fourteen.

Like his grandfather, Otto spent much of his career in Rome, where in 996 his cousin Pope Gregory V crowned him emperor. Two years later, Gregory died, and Otto made his friend Gerbert pope as Sylvester II. Otto the Great had established the tradition of Holy Roman emperors choosing popes when, a year after his coronation, he had removed the corrupt John XII from his papal seat. In so doing, the grandfather had established a source of later conflict with the popes.

The fact that Otto III spent most of his reign in Rome rather than in Germany indicates his grand designs of a restored Roman Empire. So, too, does the motto on his seal ring, which he used to inscribe official documents: "The Renewal of the Roman Empire." He sent a crown to the Byzantine emperor Basil II (see entry), proclaiming him ruler of the East as Otto was ruler of the West. Basil had no interest in forming such an alliance, but he did offer his niece in marriage to Otto. Twenty-two-year-old Otto, however, did not live long enough to marry.

From Otto III to Frederick I

Power in the Holy Roman Empire passed from Otto's Saxon house to the Salian (SAY-lee-un) house, which would include Henry IV, in 1024. The Salian line ended when Henry V died without an heir, and was replaced in 1138 by the Hohenstaufen (hoh-un-SHTOW-fin) dynasty. The Hohenstaufens would maintain the throne until 1250, and their line would include Frederick I and II.

Frederick I, nicknamed Barbarossa (bar-buh-ROH-suh) or "Red Beard," was born more than a century after Otto III. A nephew of Hohenstaufen founder Conrad III, he joined his uncle on the disastrous Second Crusade in 1147, and learned much from the mistakes made by the Europeans in that doomed effort. Conrad died in 1152 without an heir, but he had designated nineteen-year-old Frederick as his successor.

Frederick I fights to control Italy

Like his predecessors, Frederick would spend much of his career trying to maintain control over Italy. This enduring instability, in fact, would ensure that the "Holy Roman Empire" remained little more than a name. Crowned emperor in 1155 (though he had actually assumed power three years earlier), he established Europe's first university in the Italian city of Bologna (buh-LOHN-yuh) in 1158. In 1154, however, he had become drawn into a long and essentially fruitless campaign to subdue Lombardy, a large region in northern Italy.

In this effort, Frederick encountered a number of foes. One was Pope Alexander III (ruled 1159–81), who in 1160 excommunicated Frederick, or formally expelled him from the church. In 1167, Alexander helped organize the Lombard League, an alliance of cities opposed to Frederick. Then in 1175 Frederick began to have trouble with Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony, who opposed him both in Germany and Italy.

Frederick defeated Henry's forces in Germany in 1181, and in 1183 signed the Peace of Constance, which gave Lombard League cities their freedom. He strengthened his position in Italy by arranging the marriage of his son, the future Henry VI, to the Norman princess Constance, who controlled Sicily and the southern portion of the Italian Peninsula.

The death of Frederick I

He also restored his relationship with the popes, and in 1189 Pope Clement III convinced him to join Richard I (see entry) and Philip of France in the Third Crusade. Like many crusaders before, Frederick became embroiled in conflicts with the Byzantine Empire, and he never made it to the intended destination of Palestine. Having defeated Byzantine forces in battle, he and his armies were crossing a river in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) when Frederick drowned in late 1189.

During his reign, Frederick strengthened the feudal system in Germany, and would be remembered as one of his nation's greatest heroes. According to a German legend, Frederick was not dead but asleep at a stone table in Thuringia, his red beard continuing to grow—and when Germany needed him again, he would awaken. Eventually the myth would also become associated with his grandson, Frederick II.

The early career of Frederick II

It was ironic that Frederick II would be associated with a Germanic legend since he was not completely German, and only spent time in Germany because his role required it. Raised in Sicily by his mother Constance, Frederick at age fifteen married another Constance, sister of Pedro II of Aragon in Spain. Despite the fact that this was an arranged marriage—like most unions involving royal figures of the Middle Ages—it appears that Frederick and Constance grew to genuinely love one another. When she died in 1122, he had his crown placed in her tomb.

Frederick was extremely well educated for a medieval ruler, and would maintain a lifelong interest in the arts and sciences. Affairs of state plagued his early years, however, and since he was something of a foreigner, he had to spend much of his time securing his power in Germany. Soon after he was crowned German king in 1215, he made a promise to undertake a crusade; however, he would spend the next fourteen years putting off the intended trip.

The Sixth Crusade

German kings usually became Holy Roman emperors, but not always, and Frederick had to wait until 1220 to receive the imperial crown. Widowed two years later, he married Isabella, sister of King Henry III of England, in 1225. He faced continual pressure from the popes to go on his promised crusade, and in the late 1220s Gregory IX excommunicated him for his failure to do so. This seemed to appeal to Frederick's cantankerous nature, and he responded by going to the Holy Land anyway.

The result was the Sixth Crusade (1228–29), which was chiefly a matter of negotiation rather than warfare. By then, Europe had lost much of its crusading spirit, and the shrewd Frederick—who, unlike most Europeans, had a profound respect for the Muslims and their culture—secured a treaty that briefly restored Christian control of Jerusalem.

The court of Frederick II

The real fighting was back in Europe, where the pope and other enemies threatened his control over Sicily and other lands. These efforts occupied most of Frederick's attention during the last two decades of his life, but he found time to establish a highly organized state in Sicily. He also gathered around him so many scholars and artists that his court had no rival for cultural achievements.

Frederick distinguished himself by his willingness to associate not only with Christians, but with Muslims and Jews, and he drew representatives of all these cultures to Sicily. He even wrote a scholarly work, On the Art of Hunting with Hawks, and encouraged the arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture in Sicily.

Though he became the source of many bizarre rumors—for instance, many referred to Frederick, notorious for his opposition to the popes, as "The Antichrist"—he was undoubtedly one of the most fascinating men of his time. He died on December 13, 1250, at the age of fifty-six. On his tomb were inscribed the words, "If probity [high ideals], reason, abundance of virtue, nobility of birth, could forfend [prevent] death, Frederick, who is here entombed, would not be dead."

For More Information


Barraclough, Geoffrey. The Origins of Modern Germany. New York: Norton, 1984.

Berry, Erick and Herbert Best. Men Who Changed the Map,a.d. 400 to 1914. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968.

Duckett, Eleanor. Death and Life in the Tenth Century. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1971.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, second edition. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

Munz, Peter. Frederick Barbarossa: A Study in Medieval Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969.

Web Sites

"Chronology of Germany." [Online] Available http://www.ac.wwu.edu/~stephan/Rulers/chron.germany.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Die Deutschekulturseite—Otto I" (in English). [Online] Available http://res3.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/5011/otto.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

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