Frederick II (Holy Roman Empire)

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Frederick II, 1194–1250, Holy Roman emperor (1220–50) and German king (1212–20), king of Sicily (1197–1250), and king of Jerusalem (1229–50), son of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI and of Constance, heiress of Sicily.

Rivalry for the German Crown

In 1196, Henry VI secured the election as German king, or emperor-elect, for his infant son Frederick. When Henry died (1197), his brother, Philip of Swabia, was unable to hold the German magnates to this election, but in Sicily Constance secured Frederick's investiture as king from Pope Innocent III. Prior to her death (1198) Constance named the pope as Frederick's guardian; as a child, however, he passed from one Sicilian faction to another.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Otto of Brunswick (Otto IV) and Philip of Swabia were elected rival kings. Otto finally prevailed and was crowned emperor (1209) at Rome, but immediately alienated the pope by attempting to reassert imperial control in Italy. His invasion of Apulia (1210) led Innocent to promote Frederick's coronation (1212) at Mainz as German king, even though this meant putting a Hohenstaufen on the imperial throne. After Otto's defeat at Bouvines (1214) by Frederick's French ally King Philip II, Frederick was recrowned (1215) at Aachen and took the Cross (i.e., pledged to lead a Crusade).

Beginning of Reign in Sicily

Despite his promises to Pope Innocent III that when crowned Holy Roman emperor he would separate Sicily from the empire by establishing a regency there for his infant son Henry, he reversed these arrangements in 1220. Promising Pope Honorius III to start on his crusade, he secured Henry's election as German king, and thus his position as imperial successor, shortly before his own imperial coronation (1220) at Rome. This action seemed to insure the union of Sicily and the empire. Under Frederick, however, no such union was effected; Henry governed, first under a regency, in Germany, and Frederick governed Italy and Sicily, which became the seat of his empire.

After his coronation Frederick returned to Sicily. While in Germany, the success of Frederick's early rule (1212–20) was due largely to his lavishness with imperial lands and rights. In his Sicilian kingdom, which included S Italy, he pursued the reverse of his German policy; he suppressed the barons, transported the Saracens to a colony on the mainland, recovered alienated lands, and began his legislative reforms. In 1224 he founded the university at Naples.

King of Jerusalem

Having married (1225) Yolande, daughter of John of Brienne, he claimed the crown of Jerusalem, but again postponed his departure on crusade. He further offended the pope by reasserting at the Diet of Cremona (1226) the imperial claim to Lombardy. The Lombard League was immediately revived, but open conflict did not break out until 1236. On the insistent demand of the new pope, Gregory IX, Frederick embarked on a crusade (Sept., 1227), but fell ill, turned back, and was excommunicated.

In 1228 he finally embarked. His "crusade," actually a state visit, was a diplomatic victory. At Jaffa he made a treaty by which Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem were surrendered to the Christians, with the Mosque of Omar being left to the Muslims. In 1229 he crowned himself king at Jerusalem. The pope denounced the treaty by Frederick, who was still under excommunication, and sent a papal army to invade Frederick's kingdom. Frederick returned in 1229 and signed (1230) the Treaty of San Germano, by which he was temporarily reconciled with the pope.

Conflict in Germany and Italy

He then turned to strengthening his Sicilian domains in preparation for the inevitable conflict with the Lombard League. Among his achievements in Sicily were his Liber Augustalis (1231), a new body of laws that were the most constructive of the era. In Germany, Frederick attempted to insure support for his Italian policy by granting the princes practically absolute authority within their territories. This policy led to a conflict with his son Henry, who objected to Frederick's virtual renunciation of his imperial rights in Germany. In 1234 Henry rebelled with the aid of the German towns, but Frederick easily deposed and imprisoned (1235) his son. At the Diet of Mainz (1235), Frederick issued a land peace establishing an imperial court of justice to try all cases except those involving the great vassals. This land peace is one of the monuments of imperial legislation.

In 1236 Frederick began a successful campaign against the Lombard cities, but in Mar., 1239, Pope Gregory IX joined the Lombards and excommunicated the emperor. Frederick issued a circular against the pope and seized most of the Papal States; in May, 1241, he captured a number of prelates en route from Genoa to a general council in Rome, and he was threatening Rome when Gregory died. While emperor and pope were thus at swords' points, Europe was threatened (1241) by a Mongol invasion under Batu Khan. The Mongols withdrew in 1242.

After the election (1243) of Pope Innocent IV, Frederick offered sweeping concessions to the pope and his allies, but the pope fled (1244) to Lyons, deposed Frederick at the Council of Lyons (1245), and gave the emperor's foes the privileges of Crusaders. The election (1246) of an antiking to Conrad IV, Frederick's younger son, plunged Germany into civil war. The war in Italy turned in Frederick's favor in 1250, but in December he died of dysentery.

Character and Legacy

Frederick II was one of the most arresting figures of the Middle Ages. He called himself "lord of the world" ; his contemporaries either praised him as stupor mundi [wonder of the world] or reviled him as anti-Christ. Norman and German in ancestry but essentially a Sicilian, Frederick always felt a stranger in Germany. He spent most of his time in Italy and Sicily, where his legal reforms set up an efficient administration. This system he tried, with some success, to transfer to Germany.

Himself an expert trader engaging in far-flung business affairs, Frederick encouraged commerce and soon expanded it to Spain, Morocco, and Egypt. Agriculture and industry were likewise fostered. Towns, though at first somewhat curbed, enjoyed a more generous treatment in the later years of his reign, and many developed into important trade centers.

Frederick was also a gifted artist and scientist. A poet himself, he was surrounded by Provençal troubadours and German minnesingers. He patronized science and philosophy and interested himself in medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and astrology. His De arte venandi cum avibus, on hawking as well as the anatomy and life of birds, was the first modern ornithology. Frederick's personality was a curious mixture of German-Christian and Byzantine-Muslim influences. Although Christian, he maintained a harem; though he was frequently at odds with the papacy, he ruthlessly persecuted heretics; though sensitive to art and poetry, he could be extremely cruel.

The intense struggle between Frederick and the papacy led to the ruin of the house of Hohenstaufen and severely damaged papal prestige. With his rule the great days of the German empire ended and the rise of states in Italy began. The interregnum (see Holy Roman Empire) ended only with the election (1273) of Rudolf I of Hapsburg.


See biography by T. C. Van Cleve (1972); study by G. Masson (1957, repr. 1973).

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Frederick II (1194–1250) Holy Roman Emperor (1215–50), king of Germany (1212–20), Sicily (1198–1250) and Jerusalem (1229–50); son of Emperor Henry VI. Frederick devoted himself to Italy and Sicily. He promised to make his son, Henry, King of Sicily but gave him Germany (1220) instead. Frederick's claims on Lombardy and postponement of a crusade angered Pope Honorius III, who excommunicated him and revived the Lombard League. Frederick finally embarked on a crusade in 1228, and was crowned King of Jerusalem. In Sicily, he set up a centralized royal administration. In Germany, he devolved authority to the princes; Henry rebelled against his father, and in 1235 Frederick imprisoned him and gave the throne to Conrad IV. In 1245, Innocent IV deposed Frederick and civil war ensued in Germany and Italy.