Frederick I (Frederick Barbarossa)

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Frederick I (Frederick Barbarossa)

Circa 1123–1190
Holy Roman Emperor


Consolidation of Power. The son of Frederick II, duke of Swabia, Frederick I (Frederick Barbarossa or Frederick the Red Beard) of the Hohenstaufen dynasty was elected Holy Roman Emperor on 4 March 1152. As the king of Germany (1152–1190) and later the king of Italy (1155-1190), Frederick I constantly struggled for the predominance of the Empire over the various European monarchies and the papacy. His adoption of the term Holy Empire to describe his kingdom and steadfast opposition to the Pope made him a symbol of German unity for later generations.

Lombardy. The key to Frederick I’s plan to dominate Europe was the rich region of Lombardy in northern Italy. By integrating Lombardy with his German holdings, the emperor would have the financial resources to control his German princes and build a powerful state. Eventually, Frederick I conducted six military campaigns in Italy in a futile effort to accomplish this goal.

Opposition. In 1155 he restored Pope Adrian IV to power and received as his reward a coveted papal coronation. Although an imperial diet or general assembly officially sanctioned his Italian claims, Milan and the Norman Kingdom of Sicily resisted his extension of authority. Alexander III, the new pope as of 1159, also voiced his opposition. In 1176 Italian forces soundly defeated Frederick I’s army at Legnano, and in the subsequent Peace of Constance (1183) Frederick I recognized the autonomy of the Lombard cities.

Providing for the Future. After the Peace of Constance Frederick I seems to have come to the realization that the Holy Roman Empire would never be more than a fragmented entity. Nevertheless, he attempted to ensure a new territorial base for future emperors by permitting his son, the future Henry VI, to marry Constance, heiress to the Kingdom of Sicily, in 1186. Unfortunately, such political machinations only alienated the papacy even further.

Third Crusade. In 1189 Frederick I answered the call to participate in the Third Crusade (1189–1192) to free Jerusalem from the Muslims under Saladin. Before departing, he attempted to appease the Pope by returning lands in Tuscany to the control of the papacy. While fording the Saleph River in present-day southern Turkey in 1190, Frederick I fell from his horse and drowned.


Peter Munz, Frederick Barbarossa: A Study in Medieval Politics (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1969).

Marcel Pacaut, Frederick Barbarossa (New York: Scribners, 1970).

Brian Tierney and Sidney Painter, Western Europe in the Middle Ages, 300–1475, sixth edition (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998).