Chapter 1: Stupor Mundi
The Reign of King Frederick I Hohenstaufen, Part One
The Reign of King Frederick I Hohenstaufen, Part One
Frederick Roger Hohenstaufen, in death as in life, is a polarizing figure. Grandson of the fearsome Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and the cunning Sicilian King Roger d’Hauteville, Frederick’s birth on December 26, 1194 was celebrated as no other contemporary. Renowned for his brilliance, his cunning, and his diplomatic skills, he is fondly remembered by Sicilians as the savior of the Kingdom from this disastrous reign of William the Lucky . However, he is less fondly remembered in other circles. Dante later placed him in the deepest pit of Hell in his Inferno for his treachery to his lord and benefactor, the Pope.
The truth is that Frederick was, at the same time, a remarkably lucky and unlucky youth. Born into the confusing time after the absorption of the Kingdom of Sicily by the Holy Roman Empire, he was crowned King of Sicily when he was merely 2 years old, with his mother Constance as his regent. Having united Sicily with the Empire with her marriage, Constance resolved to free the Kingdom from German control, breaking all ties between the two states. Unfortunately, in 1198, the same year Constance dissolved all ties with Germany, she died. Frederick was sent to Rome, to be in the care of the Pope, but in 1200, Genoese ships ferried German troops into Sicily, marking the end of the island’s long resistance to Holy Roman arms .
Frederick was never formally deposed as King of Sicily, but he lacked any real power, and spent much of his youth wandering Palermo. In 1208, at the age of 14, Frederick’s youth was declared over, but the feudal marks of the Holy Roman Empire had left his barons and nobles with an over-mighty attitude toward their young King. Frederick began to make attempts to reign in his vassals, which predictably earned him their feelings of anger.
In 1210, Otto IV, the first Welf Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire invaded Frederick’s Italian territories, and showed every sign of conquering with the support of Frederick’s barons. More than anyone else, this frightened Pope Innocent III. Papal policy had always dictated that Sicily and Germany remain separate, giving the Pontiff leeway with both factions. However, given the choice between Otto and Frederick, Innocent had decided that a united Empire with a 16-year old at the head was better than 36-year old veteran . Thus, at the Diet of Nuremberg in 1211, Pope Innocent III declared Otto IV deposed in absentia, and elected Frederick Hohenstaufen as the new Holy Roman Emperor.
Otto had been popular in Guleph lands in northern Germany and among the Southern Italian barons, but the cities of northern Italy and the lords of southern Germany chaffed under Imperial power. Although the meager force he could summon from his still-loyal vassals barely surpassed 5,000 men, support from the Pope and rebellious lords won Frederick a much larger force. Otto, meanwhile, sensed the danger and raced back to Mainz, while he ordered the passes through the Alps to be blocked for the winter .
Frederick was perfectly content to wait in Italy. Otto was surrounded on all sides by enemies - King Philip’s war to drive the English out of France was going poorly for the English-Holy Roman alliance, in the north King Valdemar II of Denmark was attacking the Empire, and, most pressingly, Pope Innocent III continued to support Frederick’s cause.
As the campaigning season of 1212 dawned, Otto was forced to end his blockade of the Alpine passes. He dispatched part of his force to fight off the Danes, and another to assist the forces of King John of England. Frederick was finally able to cross into Germany, accompanied by 1,000 Papal Guards with the Pope himself.
Innocent’s presence proved decisive for the campaign. In June, Welf forces smashed the main Danish force outside of Lubeck, freeing Otto of the danger from the north. Realizing that the Papal goal of keeping Palermo and Aachen separate, Innocent advised Frederick to avoid battle at every turn . Frederick, still young and unsure of himself, listened, and for the next two years the sides waged a war of attrition.
Frederick almost universally got the better end, as Otto was forced to split his attention between fighting Frederick and King Philip of France. Thus, the Franco-Angevin War and the War of Holy Roman Succession continued with little action. In 1215, however, Frederick and Otto finally met in the field, outside of Mainz. Frederick, despite having more troops, was completely routed by the more experienced Otto’s forces, and began a long retreat to Italy .
Frederick returned to Sicily with bruised pride, and immediately set about righting many of the issues created in the succession crisis. Absentee or rebellious barons were stripped of their land and titles by a ruthless Frederick, targeting those who had supported Otto IV. By 1217, he had stocked the nobility of Sicily with his own supporters.
In 1218, Frederick extended an offering of a parlay to Otto, who had been busy thrashing the French along with John of England . Honorius III (Innocent had died in 1216), who had, like his predecessor, swung back and forth in his support of the two claimants, invited both to Rome, where he would arbitrate a peace.
Frederick and Otto arrived in Rome in foul moods. Both had been betrayed, on various occasions, by the Pope, and both rightfully felt like the Pontiff’s puppet . None of the three leaders appeared willing to budge - Frederick demanded his birthright title of Emperor, Otto demanded the same title, which Innocent had bestowed him with, and Honorius wanted Sicily and Germany to remain separate.
It is Frederick who makes the first move. Known popularly as the “Son of Apulia,” Frederick felt far more at home in Palermo than he expected to in Aachen. Thus, he offers to drop his claim to the Holy Roman Empire, so long as he remains the independent King of Sicily .
Otto immediately accepts, as such a peace would immensely favor him. Frederick adds the stipulation that Otto releases all Sicilian prisoners, while he must ransom (at a high price) all of his own prisoners. Otto grumbles, but doesn’t object, as he is still sitting as the undisputed Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick, meanwhile, immediately uses that money to prepare for an offensive campaign. Mahdia and the North African coast had once been parts of the Sicilian overseas territory . Thus, in 1219, 15,000 men, supplied by Holy Roman and Papal gold, set sail for Mahdia.
The campaign goes off without a hitch. Frederick, at this point 25 years old, lead the army himself. Having learned about command since the disaster at Mainz, and at any rate faced with a foe caught off-guard with the speed of the attack, he managed to storm Mahdia and subdue much of the surrounding countryside. When an Almohad force finally arrived, they were seriously depleted by the need to keep a watchful eye on the Sultanate’s holdings in Spain, and were defeated in an ambush carefully laid by Frederick. A peace was hastily established, and at a stroke the Sicilians had reclaimed their overseas territories.
Upon returning to Palermo, Frederick began to work on his life’s great pleasure. In 1222, he chartered the creation of the University of Salerno. Shockingly (for the time), he allowed those studying medicine to dissect human corpses, a practice abhorred by the church. He richly endowed the university with books from across Europe, and it soon became the primary university of southern Italy (Bologna remained more prestigious in the north). He accompanied this endeavor with a renewal of King Roger I’s policy of questioning all ships entering a Sicilian port on their travels, creating a splendid map room in his palace in Palermo, filled with detailed maps from across the world.
Unfortunately, Frederick’s attention to his home Kingdom led to his disinterest with the world around him. In 1220, Pope Honorius III declared the Fifth Crusade, in an attempt to retake Jerusalem after the failure of the Third Crusade and the disaster of the Fourth. The crowned heads of Europe were encouraged to travel via the land route, through the Latin Empire of Constantinople. King John of England, King Philip of France, Emperor Otto of the Holy Roman Empire, and King Andrew II of Hungary al marched to the Holy Land. but noticeably absent was King Frederick of Sicily. Pope Honorius, already annoyed with the Sicilian King over the University of Salerno, demanded that Frederick join the crusade.
Frederick had become a convinced skeptic of the Catholic Church. While in Apulia, he had remarked “There grows your God,” when passing a corn field, which was unfortunately overheard by a bishop . This only added to the general perception of Frederick as a religious skeptic; a view that Frederick himself did little to disprove. When the Fifth Crusade predictably fell to squabbling between John, Otto, Philip, and Emperor Robert I of Constantinople, Frederick smoothly pointed out to Honorius that committing his own troops would only fan the flames of this discord, particularly among Otto’s ranks. Begrudgingly, Honorius dropped the matter, although he did extract a pledge from Frederick to participate in the next crusade. By 1222, the Crusader armies had returned home in stubborn opposition to one another, cementing another defeated crusade.
Frederick, however, had more important matters on his mind. In that same year, his wife, Constance of Aragon, had died of malaria, leaving behind a young and sickly son, Henry, who passed away later that year . Frederick, while grief-stricken, was also acutely aware of the importance of his spouse. The most politically attractive candidate was Marie de Courtenay, sister of the Latin Emperor of Constantinople and widow of the Emperor of Nicaea. In the Monreale Cathedral in Palermo, on August 2nd, 1223, Frederick and Marie were married.
The next five years of Frederick’s reign were largely spent in Palermo and Salerno, leaving his government in the hands of his former tutor Walter of Palearia. During this time, Frederick invited scholars from across Europe and the Middle East to his court. Greeks fleeing the wreckage of the Fourth Crusade and Arabs fleeing the advance of the fearsome Mongols were all welcomed with open arms, and invited to stay and study in Sicily. One visiting scholar from Bologna wrote of Frederick’s court in Palermo,
“The King surrounds himself with scores of Greeks and Saracens, who converse with the most learned men of Europe. The King himself seems able to speak to the wisest of the scholars about any topic he pleases, without appearing ignorant or lacking in knowledge. By this virtue, I am tempted to name him one of the geniuses of the world.”
Palermo rapidly rose to become one of the largest cities in Europe (it had a population skirting 90,000), and one of the most culturally dazzling. Constantinople had been wrecked by the Fourth Crusade, and Cordoba had become a backwater in al-Andalus, leaving it exposed to the force of Castilian arms. Thus, only Venice could claim cultural and demographic equality to Palermo in Europe. Only in Palermo could one learn Arabic, Greek, and Latin, making it the center for Medieval scholarship.
During the years between the Fifth and Sixth crusades, Frederick only entered the realm of foreign affairs once. In 1226, the cities of Milan, Verona, Venice, and Genoa - among many others - reformed the Lombard League, which had been defeated by Frederick’s grandfather, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. The Lombard League immediately rose in revolt against Otto IV.
While the cities themselves were not likely to defeat Otto on their own, they found an ally in Frederick. The Sicilian King had guessed at Honorius’s play to keep the Empire and Sicily in a balance in Italy, and thus by supporting the Lombard League he could free himself from the threat of an Imperial Invasion without prior warning from the League. Thus, in the summer of 1226, Frederick marched for Milan at the head of 10,000 men.
When he arrived, Frederick found the situation immensely pleasing. With summer ending, Otto had been forced to let his troops return home for the harvest. Taking command of the situation, Frederick had the Lombard League forces keep a watchful eye over the passes through the Alps, putting Otto in the humiliating position of having to overcome an obstacle he himself had used against Frederick 15 years earlier. The only move made against Frederick was by the Pope, who had furiously excommunicated him. Frederick, a skeptic of religion anyway, ignored the Pontiff’s threats and continued his work.
When 1227 came, fresh news of a revolt in Bohemia again diverted Otto’s attention, and in the autumn of that year he sent a messenger to Milan, offering to agree to the League’s demands so long as Frederick returned to Palermo and swore not to interfere in Holy Roman politics again. This agreement was settled, and Frederick dutifully marched back to Palermo, where he resumed his studies. This would be the status quo until 1229, when Pope Honorius III died and was replaced by Pope Gregory IX, who called the Sixth Crusade, forcing Frederick back unto the international stage .
 - OTL’s William the Good (William II of Sicily)
 - Robert Guiscard, Duke Roger I, King Roger I, and King William I had all fought off Holy Roman attempts to assert the Emperor’s authority over the Kingdom.
 - Innocent had initially supported Otto as Holy Roman Emperor, in the hope that he would leave Frederick to rule Sicily. When Otto did no such thing, Innocent promptly switched sides.
 - Our first POD. OTL, Frederick beat Otto to Konstanz by a few hours, allowing him to gain legitimacy and ultimately overthrow Otto.
 - Popes had used the Normans to counterbalance the Germans since the days of Robert Guiscard. In fact, the title “King of Sicily” was granted to King Roger I for assisting one Pope against a rival claimant.
 - Our second, and much more recognizable, POD. With no decisive defeats, Otto has the stronger hand thanks to Guleph support.
 - This will be explained more thoroughly in the next update, which will focus on John of England.
 - Otto for his work in the Franco-Angevin War, Frederick for his disastrous soiree into Germany, both of which were prompted by Innocent.
 - Such an offer is, IMHO, not outside the realm of possibility. OTL, Frederick far preferred Palermo to Aachen, and seems to have been far happier as a Sicilian than as a German. With the Pope’s influence and a past defeat at Otto’s hands, Frederick is getting a better deal here than he would with prolonged warfare.
 - Mahdia had been abandoned during the reign of William I
 - The comment is OTL.
 - Constance’s death is OTL. Henry’s death, while not OTL, is based on his extended time in Sicily (he had been in Germany longer OTL), where malaria is more prevalent.
 - I had Honorius live 2 years longer than OTL.