The Crusade Of Frederick II by Charles Morris

Story type: Literature

A remarkable career was that of Frederick II. of Germany, grandson of the great Barbarossa, crowned in 1215 under the immediate auspices of the papacy, yet during all the remainder of his life in constant and bitter conflict with the popes. He was, we are told, of striking personal beauty, his form being of the greatest symmetry, his face unusually handsome, and marked by intelligence, benevolence, and nobility. Born in a rude age, his learning would have done honor to our own. Son of an era in which poetry was scarcely known, he cultivated the gay science, and was one of the earliest producers of the afterwards favorite form known as the sonnet. An emperor of Germany, nearly his whole life was spent in Sicily. Though ruler of a Christian realm, he lived surrounded by Saracens, studying diligently the Arabian learning, dwelling in what was almost a harem of Arabian beauties, and hesitating not to give expression to the most infidel sentiments. The leader of a crusade, he converted what was ordinarily a tragedy into a comedy, obtained possession of Jerusalem without striking a blow or shedding a drop of blood, and found himself excommunicated in the holy city which he had thus easily restored to Christendom. Altogether we may repeat that the career of Frederick II. was an extraordinary one, and amply worthy our attention.

The young monarch had grown up in Sicily, of which charming island he became guardian after the death of his mother, Constanza. He was crowned at Aix-la-Chapelle, having defeated his rival, Otho IV.; but spent the greater part of his life in the south, holding his pleasure-loving court at Naples and Palermo, where he surrounded himself with all the refinements of life then possessed by the Saracens, but of which the Christians of Europe were lamentably deficient.

It was in 1220 that Frederick returned from Germany to Italy, leaving his northern kingdom in the hands of the Archbishop of Cologne, as regent. At Rome he received the imperial crown from the hands of the pope, and, his first wife dying, married Yolinda de Lusignan, daughter of John, ex-king of Jerusalem, in right of whom he claimed the kingdom of the East.

Shortly afterwards a new pope came to the papal chair, the gloomy Gregory IX., whose first act was to order a crusade, which he desired the emperor to lead. Despite the fact that he had married the heiress of Jerusalem, Frederick was very reluctant to seek an enforcement of his claim upon the holy city. He had pledged himself when crowned at Aix-la-Chapelle, and afterwards on his coronation at Rome, to undertake a crusade, but Honorius III., the pope at that time, readily granted him delay. Such was not the case with Gregory, who sternly insisted on an immediate compliance with his pledge, and whose rigid sense of decorum was scandalized by the frivolities of the emperor, no less than was his religious austerity by Frederick’s open intercourse with the Sicilian Saracens.

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The old contest between emperor and pope threatened to be opened again with all its former virulence. It was deferred for a time by Frederick, who, after exhausting all excuses for delay, at length yielded to the exhortations of the pope and set sail for the Holy Land. The crusade thus entered upon proved, however, to be simply a farce. In three days the fleet returned, Frederick pleading illness as his excuse, and the whole expedition came to an end.

Gregory was no longer to be trifled with. He declared that the illness was but a pretext, that Frederick had openly broken his word to the church, and at once proceeded to launch upon the emperor the thunders of the papacy, in a bull of excommunication.

Frederick treated this fulmination with contempt, and appealed from the pope to Christendom, accusing Rome of avarice, and declaring that her envoys were marching in all directions, not to preach the word of God, but to extort money from the people.

“The primitive church,” he said, “founded on poverty and simplicity, brought forth numberless saints. The Romans are now rolling in wealth. What wonder that the walls of the church are undermined to the base, and threaten utter ruin.”

For this saying the pope launched against him a more tremendous excommunication. In return the partisans of Frederick in Rome, raising an insurrection, expelled the pope from that city. And now the free-thinking emperor, to convince the world that he was not trifling with his word, set sail of his own accord for the East, with as numerous an army as he was able to raise.

A remarkable state of affairs followed, justifying us in speaking of this crusade as a comedy, in contrast with the tragic character of those which had preceded it. Frederick had shrewdly prepared for success, by negotiations, through his Saracen friends, with the Sultan of Egypt. On reaching the Holy Land he was received with joy by the German knights and pilgrims there assembled, but the clergy and the Knight Templars and Hospitallers carefully kept aloof from him, for Gregory had despatched a swift-sailing ship to Palestine, giving orders that no intercourse should be held with the imperial enemy of the church.

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It was certainly a strange spectacle, for a man under the ban of the church to be the leader in an expedition to recover the holy city. Its progress was as strange as its inception. Had Frederick been the leader of a Mohammedan army to recover Jerusalem from the Christians, his camp could have been little more crowded with infidel delegates. He wore a Saracen dress. He discussed questions of philosophy with Saracen visitors. He received presents of elephants and of dancing-girls from his friend the sultan, to whom he appealed: “Out of your goodness, and your friendship for me, surrender to me Jerusalem as it is, that I may be able to lift up my head among the kings of Christendom.”

Camel, the sultan, consented, agreeing to deliver up Jerusalem and its adjacent territory to the emperor, on the sole condition that Mohammedan pilgrims might have the privilege of visiting a mosque within the city. These terms Frederick gladly accepted, and soon after marched into the holy city at the head of his armed followers (not unarmed, as in the case of Coeur de Lion), took possession of it with formal ceremony, allowed the Mohammedan population to withdraw in peace, and repeopled the city with Christians, A.D. 1229.

He found himself in the presence of an extraordinary condition of affairs. The excommunication against him was not only maintained, but the pope actually went so far as to place Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre under interdict. So far did the virulence of priestly antipathy go that the Templars even plotted against Frederick’s life. Emissaries sent by them gave secret information to the sultan of where he might easily capture the emperor. The sultan, with a noble friendliness, sent the letter to Frederick, cautioning him to beware of his foes.

The break between emperor and pope had now reached its highest pitch of hostility. Frederick proclaimed his signal success to Europe. Gregory retorted with bitter accusations. The emperor, he said, had presented to the sultan of Babylon the sword given him for the defence of the faith; he had permitted the Koran to be preached in the Holy Temple itself; he had even bound himself to join the Saracens, in case a Christian army should attempt to cleanse the city and temple from Mohammedan defilements.

In addition to these charges, accusations of murder and other crimes were circulated against him, and a false report of his death was industriously circulated. Frederick found it necessary to return home without delay. He crowned himself at Jerusalem, as no ecclesiastic could be found who would perform the ceremony, and then set sail for Italy, leaving Richard, his master of the horse, in charge of affairs in Palestine.

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Reaching Italy, he soon brought his affairs into order. He had under his command an army of thirty thousand Saracen soldiers, with whom it was impossible for his enemies to tamper. A bitter recrimination took place with the pope, in which the emperor managed to bring the general sentiment of Europe to his side, offering to convict Gregory of himself entering into negotiations with the infidels. Gregory, finding that he was getting the worst of the controversy with his powerful and alert enemy, now prudently gave way, having a horror of the shedding of blood. Peace was made in 1230, the excommunication removed from the emperor, and for nine years the conflict between him and the papacy was at an end.

We have told the story of Frederick’s crusade, but the remainder of his life is of sufficient interest to be given in epitome. In his government of Sicily he showed himself strikingly in advance of the political opinions of his period. He enacted a system of wise laws, instituted representative parliaments, asserted the principle of equal rights and equal duties, and the supremacy of the law over high and low alike. All religions were tolerated, Jews and Mohammedans having equal freedom of worship with Christians. All the serfs of his domain were emancipated, private war was forbidden, commerce was regulated, cheap justice for the poor was instituted, markets and fairs were established, large libraries collected, and other progressive institutions organized. He established menageries for the study of natural history, founded in Naples a great university, patronized medical study, provided cheap schools, aided the development of the arts, and in every respect displayed a remarkable public spirit and political foresight.

Yet splendid as was his career of development in secular affairs, his private life, as well as his public conduct, was stained with flagrant faults, and there was much in his doings that was frowned upon by the pope. New quarrels arose; new wars broke out; the emperor was again excommunicated; the unfortunate closing years of Frederick’s career began. Again there were appeals to Christendom; again Frederick’s Saracens marched through Italy; such was their success that the pope only escaped by death from falling into the hands of his foe. But with a new pope the old quarrel was resumed, Innocent IV. flying to France to get out of reach of the emperor’s hands, and desperately combating him from this haven of refuge.

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The incessant conflict at length bowed down the spirit of the emperor, now growing old. His good fortune began to desert him. In 1249 his son Enzio, whom he had made king of Sicily, and who was the most chivalrous and handsome of his children, was taken prisoner by the Bolognese, who refused to accept ransom for him, although his father offered in return for his freedom a silver ring equal in circumference to their city. In the following year his long-tried friend and councillor, Peter de Vincis, who had been the most trusted man in the empire, was accused of having joined the papal party and of attempting to poison the emperor. He offered Frederick a beverage, which he, growing suspicious, did not drink, but had it administered to a criminal, who instantly expired.

Whether Peter was guilty or not, his seeming defection was a sore blow to his imperial patron. “Alas!” moaned Frederick, “I am abandoned by my most faithful friends; Peter, the friend of my heart, on whom I leaned for support, has deserted me and sought my destruction. Whom can I trust? My days are henceforth doomed to pass in sorrow and suspicion.”

His days were near their end. Not long after the events narrated, while again in the field at the head of a fresh army of Saracens, he was suddenly seized with a mortal illness at Firenzuola, and died there on the 13th of December, 1250, becoming reconciled with the church on his deathbed. He was buried at Palermo.

Thus died one of the most intellectual, progressive, free-thinking, and pleasure-loving emperors of Germany, after a long reign over a realm in which he seldom appeared, and an almost incessant period of warfare against the head of a church of which he was supposed to be the imperial protector. Seven crowns were his,–those of the kingdom of Germany and of the Roman empire, the iron diadem of Lombardy, and those of Burgundy, Sicily, Sardinia, and Jerusalem. But of all the realms under his rule the smiling lands of Sicily and southern Italy were most to his liking, and the scene of his most constant abode. Charming palaces were built by him at Naples, Palermo, Messina, and several other places, and in these he surrounded himself with the noblest bards and most beautiful women of the empire, and by all that was attractive in the art, science, and poetry of his times. Moorish dancing-girls and the arts and learning of the East abounded in his court. The Sultan Camel presented him with a rare tent, in which, by means of artfully contrived mechanism, the movements of the heavenly bodies were represented. Michael Scott, his astrologer, translated Aristotle’s “History of Animals.” Frederick studied ornithology, on which he wrote a treatise, and possessed a menagerie of rare animals, including a giraffe, and other strange creatures. The popular dialect of Italy owed much to him, being elevated into a written language by his use of it in his love-sonnets. Of the poems written by himself, his son Enzio, and his friends, several have been preserved, while his chancellor, Peter de Vincis, is said to have originated the sonnet.

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We have already spoken of his reforms in his southern kingdom. It was his purpose to introduce similar reforms into the government of Germany, abolishing the feudal system, and creating a centralized and organized state, with a well-regulated system of finance. But ideas such as these were much too far in advance of the age. State and church alike opposed them, and Frederick’s intelligent views did not long survive him. History must have its evolution, political systems their growth, and the development of institutions has never been much hastened or checked by any man’s whip or curb.

In 1781, when the tomb of Frederick was opened, centuries after his death, the institutions he had advocated were but in process of being adopted in Europe. The body of the great emperor was found within the mausoleum, wrapped in embroidered robes, the feet booted and spurred, the imperial crown on its head, in its hand the ball and sceptre, on its finger a costly emerald. For five centuries and more Frederick had slept in state, awaiting the verdict of time on the ideas in defence of which his life had been passed in battle. The verdict had been given, the ideas had grown into institutions, time had vouchsafed the far-seeing emperor his revenge.

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