In Chapter 25 of Winning His Spurs, the fictitious Sir Adelbert of Rotherheim mentions his crusading experience as a soldier under the Emperor Barbarossa. By 1190, Frederick I Barbarossa (Redbeard) had ruled the Holy Roman Empire in Germany for almost four decades and was one of the most powerful and respected monarchs of his era. Despite his age and his past disputes with the papacy, Frederick decided to lead a German army to recapture Jerusalem as a part of the Third Crusade.
Frederick I Barbarossa (1152–90) set out from Ratisbon (Regensberg) in southern Germany for the Holy Land in May 1189. In a career marked by almost continual battle with the Church, it was an unexpected act of devotion for the 67-year-old emperor. Frederick was brought up amid rivalry between the two principal German houses of Hohenstauffen and Welf. The son of a Hohenstauffen duke, his peers elected him Emperor in 1152 because he was considered the best candidate to bring an end to an era of warfare and rivalry.
Frederick spent most of his reign ensuring that Germany enjoyed a degree of political stability, while he struggled to improve the political power of his office. His conquest of Lombardy in northern Italy brought him into conflict with Pope Alexander III (1159–81), who feared any further erosion of papal supremacy. The bitter struggle lasted for 17 years from 1160, when Alexander excommunicated Frederick. In response, the emperor elected a rival antipope. The two sides were publicly reconciled in 1177, but resentment lingered. Alexander probably assumed Frederick’s crusading zeal resulted from guilt. But in reality, Frederick saw the crusade as a means of bringing to heel the German nobility who – unlike their Frankish counterparts – had a healthy disregard for the principles of the feudal system. Under the banner of a religiously sanctioned common cause, he aimed to unite the nobles under his leadership.
The German crusading army numbered 15,000 men, including 3,000 knights. Frederick had managed to recruit the flower of the German nobility to the cause. Unlike the kings of England and France, the emperor elected to take the overland route through Hungary and the Byzantine Empire. Envoys were sent ahead to ensure the army’s safe passage. The king of Hungary obliged the Germans, but Byzantine Emperor Isaac II Angelus (1185–95) proved more fickle. He sent assurances to Frederick, promising guides and supplies, but blocked the mountain passes into his realm. Not to be outdone, Frederick forged an alliance with the rebel Serb princes and bypassed the Byzantines.
When the German crusaders arrived at Constantinople they found the city barred against them. Frederick immediately declared war against the Byzantine emperor. He defeated a Byzantine army in Thrace and campaigned in Macedonia before entering winter quarters in the Byzantine city of Adrianople. By this time the Byzantines had taken enough and made peace, agreeing to ferry the crusaders over to Asia Minor.
In March 1190, Frederick led his army east toward the Seljuq Turkish border. The Germans defeated the Turks in a battle near Philomelium, then captured the regional Turkish capital of Konya (Roman Iconium). The local sultan made peace and provided supplies to the near-starving crusaders, then hurried them on their way towards Cilicia.
The Germans crossed the Taurus mountains and came down through the valley of the River Calycadmus (Göksü), within easy reach of the Cilician capital of Tarsus, which was linked to Antioch by road. Then, on 10 June 1190, as the army crossed the river, through unknown means Frederick drowned in the fast-flowing current. Half of his army had already perished on the long march. The emperor’s son, Frederick of Swabia, tried to re-establish control of the army but old rivalries re-emerged and the survivors refused to elect him leader.
The survivors struggled on to Antioch, carrying Frederick’s preserved body so that the emperor could fulfil his vow of reaching the Holy Land. When an epidemic swept the city, many Germans elected to return home by sea, while the few thousand who remained finally reached Acre in October, where they provided meager reinforcements for Guy of Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, and his depleted army. Saladin had been spared fighting a formidable foe. Outremer had to wait until Richard the Lionheart arrived to find its champion.
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Gilded bronze reliqary, c.1160. Said to contain the remains of St. John, it was a gift from Frederick Barbaross to the Count of Cappenberg. It is regarded as the first independent portrait since Carolingian times, and can be considered to be a reasonably accurat eportrait of the emperor.