Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I
c. 1123 – June 10, 1190

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I was born in 1123 to Duke Frederick II of Swabia and Judith of Bavaria. His parents were members of rival German dynasties. Frederick II was a Hohenstaufen while Judith a Welf. Through their marriage, young Frederick was seen as the embodiment of both houses. As a result, his family and dynastic lineage would help him gain power later in life.

In December 1150, Frederick II died in Italy. Shortly after, Frederick inherited his father’s dukedom. When his uncle, King Conrad III of Germany, left to fight in the Second Crusade, the young duke accompanied him. Although the crusade failed, Conrad and his nephew grew closer during their journey.

Rapid Rise

King of Germany

 In 1152, Conrad III lay dying. On his death bed, the king made his nephew his successor. As the embodiment of two dynasties, many Germans believed that the duke would be able to solve the kingdom’s issues. Due to this belief, Germany’s prince-electors supported Conrad’s decision, and Frederick became king in March. Upon his accession, the king sought to rebuild Germany and the Holy Roman Empire. Inspired by Charlemagne‘s reign, the king hoped to one day return both to their former glory.

During the beginning of his reign, Frederick traveled throughout Germany. The king made peace with his father’s longtime enemy, Duke Henry of Bavaria. To further ensure peace, the king also granted his dukedom of Swabia to Conrad III’s son. As the king focused on ending internal struggles, he subtly asserted his authority. With his kingdom secured, Frederick turned his attention towards becoming Holy Roman Emperor.

Holy Roman Emperor

In 1153, King Frederick traveled to Italy with an army. In March, the king met with Pope Adrian IV. During the meeting, both men agreed to the Treaty of Constance. In exchange for military aid against the Normans, the pope crowned the king Holy Roman Emperor. Now at the height of his power, the emperor began to believe that even the pope should be subservient to him.

Conflict With the Church

Pope Alexander III
Pope Alexander III

By 1158, Frederick I began coming into conflict with the papacy. The emperor viewed the pope as having less authority than him. On the other hand, the pope saw the emperor as his servant. As a result of their disagreement, Frederick invaded Italy in June. The emperor captured many cities in Northern Italy. In response, Pope Alexander III excommunicated him.

Despite being excommunicated, Frederick I remained determined. In retaliation for his excommunication, the emperor started supporting antipopes. However, Italian resistance to the emperor prevented him from solidyfing his authority. Unlike former emperors, such as Otto I, Frederick couldn’t easily dominate the papacy. Riots began to occur against German occupation, and the emperor’s army started suffering from disease. Acknowledging the situation, Frederick and his army retreated from Italy.

Second Invasion

After returning to Germany in 1162, Frederick I began planning for another invasion. After crossing the Italian border, the emperor faced the Lombard League. The League itself was composed of North Italians who supported the pope. Although his army won multiple engagements, Frederick eventually lost at the Battle of Legano in May 1176. As a result, the emperor made peace with Alexander III the following year.

Although Frederick I’s relationship with the church improved, he continued to plot against the pope. During 1183, the emperor signed a peace treaty with the Lombard League.  In 1186, the emperor’s son, Henry, married Constance, Queen of Sicily. Upon Henry’s accession as king, the emperor gained a valuable foothold in Italy. However, his plans would be put on hold. Shortly after Henry’s marriage, Alexander III proclaimed the Third Crusade.

The Third Crusade

Philip II of France
Philip II of France

Despite his hostility towards the papacy, Frederick I honored the church’s call. European kings, such as Philip II of France and Richard I of England, chose to travel to the Holy Land via sea. Instead, the emperor opted to have his large army march across land. As he traveled, Frederick recruited additional soldiers from Hungary. When he arrived on the Byzantine Empire’s border, the emperor had a formidable force behind him.

The Byzantine Empire was reluctant to allow European crusaders to pass through. During the First Crusade, the crusaders had been unruly and caused problems for the Byzantines. Due to this, the empire remained wary of allowing crusaders passage during subsequent crusades. Frederick I’s request to pass would ultimately be denied. In response, the emperor led his troops through the Turkish territory of Seljuk.

Initially, the Turks offered the German army safe passage. In return, the emperor would have to pay a large sum of gold. Despite this offer, Frederick I flatly refused. The emperor instead countered by saying he would fight his way through Seljuk. As a result, the Turks continually harassed the crusaders as they traveled.

Conflict with the Turks

Frederick I and his troops made slow progress through Seljuk. As the number of casaulties increased, the crusaders began to feel demoralized. When the army reached Iconium, the emperor finally got to engage the Turkish army directly. Emerging victorious, the crusaders launched a siege of the city.

After Iconium fell, the Turks again fought against Frederick I. Once more, they suffered defeat. After the battle, the emperor allowed his army to rest. Once they had recovered, the army continued its march towards the Holy Land.

Death of an Emperor

The German army eventually arrived at the River Saleph. As it began crossing, Emperor Frederick I unexpectedly died on June 10, 1190. Although his cause of death remains uncertain, the old emperor allegedly drowned. Initially, his corpse was to be brought to Jerusalem. However, after it began to decay rapidly, the emperor’s body was buried elsewhere. Shortly after, a majority of the soldiers abandoned the crusade and went home.


During his reign, Frederick I’s strong leadership united his subjects. Upon his accession, the emperor focused on strengthening his authority both within and outside his empire. After securing his realm, the emperor tried to impose his will on the papacy. Although he failed at doing so, Frederick was able to make peace with the pope in 1177. Upon his death, the emperor left behind a powerful empire comparable to Charlemagnes.


Dougherty, M. J. (2018). Crusaders, Persecutors and Religious Reformers. In Kings & Queens of the Medieval World: From Conquerors and Exiles to Madmen and Saints (pp. 76-78). London: Amber Books.

Hickman, K. (2019, June 13). Biography of Frederick I Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor. Retrieved May 25, 2020, from https://www.thoughtco.com/crusades-frederick-i-barbarossa-2360678

Patze, H. (2019, June 06). Frederick I. Retrieved May 13, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Frederick-I-Holy-Roman-emperor


Andy Tree

I'm a European history enthusiast who seeks to share his passion with others. I hope to inform and inspire readers with my posts!

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