Timeline of World History: Year by Year from Prehistory to Present Day








The Middle Ages

5th - 15th century



Italy in the Middle Ages



1 View over the city center of Siena in Tuscany, with the
Palazzo Pubblico and the Bell Tower built in the Middle Ages

Northern Italy was closely tied to France and later to the Holy Roman Empire. A Norman kingdom developed in southern Italy, then later went to the German Hohenstaufens and the French and Spanish royal houses. The papacy reached the pinnacle of its secular power in the 12th and 13th centuries. Its influence had decreased again by the Late Middle Ages as it was divided by the Great Schism.

Simultaneously a self-confident middle class, whose early capitalist economy expanded over the Continent in the course of the following centuries, emerged in 1 northern Italy. One northern Italian city-state, Venice, rose to become Europe's most significant economic power.

The Kingdom of Italy After the Carolingians


Several dynasties fought for the monarchy following the end of the Carolingians. Eventually, the Saxon Ottonians added the Italian monarchy to the German royal crown.


4, 5 Charlemagne conquered the kingdom of the Lombards in northern Italy in 774.

His sons and grandsons ruled over the Italian territories into the ninth century.

After the Carolingians died out, rulers of various families seized the Italian 2 royal crown most of these were descended from the female line of the Carolingians, although some were simply usurpers.

None of the kings were able to establish a permanent dynasty, however, and thus an unstable period followed in which local nobility and later cities were able to build up their independence.

4 Charlemagne marches into Pavia, capital of Lombardy,
wood engraving, 19th с

5 Charlemagne holds the Iron Crown,
crown of the Lombard kings, drawing,
19th century

2 The "Iron Crown," the Lombard royal crown
with an iron ring within, allegedly made from
a nail of Christ's cross, sixth-ninth century



Charlemagne, also called Charles I, byname Charles the Great, French Charles le Grand, Latin Carolus Magnus, German Karl der Grosse (born April 2, 747?—died January 28, 814, Aachen, Austrasia [now in Germany]), king of the Franks (768–814), king of the Lombards (774–814), and emperor (800–814).

Early years
Around the time of his birth—conventionally held to be 742, but likely to be 747 or 748—his father, Pippin III (the Short), was mayor of the palace, an official serving the Merovingian king but actually wielding effective power over the extensive Frankish kingdom. What little is known about Charlemagne’s youth suggests that he received practical training for leadership by participating in the political, social, and military activities associated with his father’s court. His early years were marked by a succession of events that had immense implications for the Frankish position in the contemporary world. In 751, with papal approval, Pippin seized the Frankish throne from the last Merovingian king, Childeric III. After meeting with Pope Stephen II at the royal palace of Ponthion in 753–754, Pippin forged an alliance with the pope by committing himself to protect Rome in return for papal sanction of the right of Pippin’s dynasty to the Frankish throne. Pippin also intervened militarily in Italy in 755 and 756 to restrain Lombard threats to Rome, and in the so-called Donation of Pippin in 756 he bestowed on the papacy a block of territory stretching across central Italy which formed the basis of a new political entity, the Papal States, over which the pope ruled.

When Pippin died in 768, his realm was divided according to Frankish custom between Charlemagne and his brother, Carloman. Almost immediately the rivalry between the two brothers threatened the unity of the Frankish kingdom. Seeking advantage over his brother, Charlemagne formed an alliance with Desiderius, king of the Lombards, accepting as his wife the daughter of the king to seal an agreement that threatened the delicate equilibrium that had been established in Italy by Pippin’s alliance with the papacy. The death of Carloman in 771 ended the mounting crisis, and Charlemagne, disregarding the rights of Carloman’s heirs, took control of the entire Frankish realm.

King of the Franks
The age of Charlemagne
Charlemagne assumed rulership at a moment when powerful forces of change were affecting his kingdom. By Frankish tradition he was a warrior king, expected to lead his followers in wars that would expand Frankish hegemony and produce rewards for his companions. His Merovingian predecessors had succeeded remarkably well as conquerors, but their victories resulted in a kingdom made up of diverse peoples over which unified rule grew increasingly difficult. Complicating the situation for the Merovingian kings were both the insatiable appetite of the Frankish aristocracy for wealth and power and the constant partitioning of the Frankish realm that resulted from the custom of treating the kingdom as a patrimony to be divided among all the male heirs surviving each king. By the early 8th century these forces had reduced the Merovingian rulers to what their Carolingian successors dubbed “do nothing” kings. Real power had been assumed by an aristocratic dynasty, later called the Carolingians after Charlemagne, which during the 7th century clawed its way to dominance by utilizing the office of mayor of the palace to establish control over the royal administration and royal resources and to build a following strong enough to fend off rival Frankish families seeking comparable power. During the 8th century the Carolingian mayors of the palace Charles Martel (714–741) and (prior to becoming king) Pippin III (741–751) increasingly turned their attention to activities aimed at checking the political fragmentation of the Frankish kingdom. Charlemagne was thus heir to a long tradition that measured a king by his success at war, which in turn required him to devise means of governance capable of sustaining control over an increasingly polyglot population.

New forces were at work in the mid-8th century to complicate the traditional role of Frankish kingship. As a result of Pippin’s reliance on the ecclesiastical authority to legitimate his deposition of the Merovingian dynasty and his usurpation of the royal office, the Carolingians had become, in the idiom of the time, rulers “by the grace of God,” a role that imposed on them new, not yet clearly defined powers and responsibilities. The assumption of that new burden came at a time when religious renewal was gathering momentum to add a new dimension to the forces defining, directing, and sustaining the Christian community. The 8th century witnessed intellectual and artistic stirrings throughout Latin Christendom which focused on reestablishing contact with the Classical and patristic past as a crucial requirement for the renewal of Christian society. The Frankish social system, which had been based on kinship ties, on bonds linking war leaders and their comrades in arms, and on ethnicity, was being overlaid by social bonds created when one individual commended himself to another, thereby accepting a condition of personal dependence that entailed the rendering of services to the superior in return for material considerations granted to the dependent party. Moreover, the world beyond Francia was being reshaped politically and economically by the decline of the Eastern Roman Empire, the triumphal advance of Arab forces and their Islamic religion across the Mediterranean world, and the threat posed by new invaders from Scandinavia, the Slavic world, and central Asia.

The distinguishing mark of Charlemagne’s reign was his effort to honour the age-old customs and expectations of Frankish kingship while responding creatively to the new forces impinging on society. His personal qualities served him well in confronting that challenge. The ideal warrior chief, Charlemagne was an imposing physical presence blessed with extraordinary energy, personal courage, and an iron will. He loved the active life—military campaigning, hunting, swimming—but he was no less at home at court, generous with his gifts, a boon companion at the banquet table, and adept at establishing friendships. Never far from his mind was his large family: five wives in sequence, several concubines, and at least 18 children over whose interests he watched carefully. Although he received only an elementary level of formal education, Charlemagne possessed considerable native intelligence, intellectual curiosity, a willingness to learn from others, and religious sensibility—all attributes which allowed him to comprehend the forces that were reshaping the world about him. These facets of his persona combined to make him a figure worthy of respect, loyalty, and affection; he was a leader capable of making informed decisions, willing to act on those decisions, and skilled at persuading others to follow him.

Military campaigns
The first three decades of Charlemagne’s reign were dominated by military campaigns, which were prompted by a variety of factors: the need to defend his realm against external foes and internal separatists, a desire for conquest and booty, a keen sense of opportunities offered by changing power relationships, and an urge to spread Christianity. His performance on the battlefield earned him fame as a warrior king in the Frankish tradition, one who would make the Franks a force in the world once contained in the Roman Empire.

Charlemagne’s most demanding military undertaking pitted him against the Saxons, longtime adversaries of the Franks whose conquest required more than 30 years of campaigning (772 to 804). This long struggle, which led to the annexation of a large block of territory between the Rhine and the Elbe rivers, was marked by pillaging, broken truces, hostage taking, mass killings, deportation of rebellious Saxons, draconian measures to compel acceptance of Christianity, and occasional Frankish defeats. The Frisians, Saxon allies living along the North Sea east of the Rhine, were also forced into submission.

While the conquest of Saxony was in progress, Charlemagne undertook other campaigns. As soon as he became sole king in 771, he repudiated his Lombard wife and his alliance with her father, King Desiderius. Soon after, in 773–774, he answered the appeals of Pope Adrian I (772–795) for protection by leading a victorious expedition into Italy, which ended with his assumption of the Lombard crown and the annexation of northern Italy. During this campaign Charlemagne went to Rome to reaffirm the Frankish protectorate over the papacy and to confirm papal rights to the territories conceded by Charlemagne’s father. Additional campaigns were required to incorporate the Lombard kingdom fully into the Frankish realm, however; an important step in that process came in 781, when Charlemagne created a subkingdom of Italy with his son Pippin as king.

Concerned with defending southern Gaul from Muslim attacks and beguiled by promises of help from local Muslim leaders in northern Spain who sought to escape the authority of the Umayyad ruler of Cordoba, Charlemagne invaded Spain in 778. That ill-considered venture ended in a disastrous defeat of the retreating Frankish army by Gascon (Basque) forces, immortalized three centuries later in the epic poem The Song of Roland. Despite this setback, Charlemagne persisted in his effort to make the frontier in Spain more secure. In 781 he created a subkingdom of Aquitaine with his son Louis as king. From that base Frankish forces mounted a series of campaigns that eventually established Frankish control over the Spanish March, the territory lying between the Pyrenees and the Ebro River.

In 787–788 Charlemagne forcibly annexed Bavaria, whose leaders had long resisted Frankish overlordship. That victory brought the Franks face to face with the Avars, Asiatic nomads who during the late 6th and 7th centuries had formed an extensive empire largely inhabited by conquered Slavs living on both sides of the Danube. By the 8th century Avar power was in decline, and successful Frankish campaigns in 791, 795, and 796 hastened the disintegration of that empire. Charlemagne captured a huge store of booty, claimed a block of territory south of the Danube in Carinthia and Pannonia, and opened a missionary field that led to the conversion of the Avars and their former Slavic subjects to Christianity.

Charlemagne’s military successes resulted in an ever-lengthening frontier, which needed to be defended. Through a combination of military force and diplomacy he established relatively stable relations with a variety of potentially dangerous enemies, including the Danish kingdom, several Slavic tribes inhabiting the territory along the eastern frontier stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Balkans, the Lombard duchy of Benevento in southern Italy, the Muslims in Spain, and the Gascons and the Bretons in Gaul. The Italian scene was complicated by the Papal States, whose boundaries remained problematic and whose leader, the pope, had no clearly defined political status relative to his Frankish protector, now his neighbour as king of the Lombards. In general, Charlemagne’s relations with the papacy, especially with Pope Adrian I, were positive and brought him valuable support for his religious program and praise for his qualities as a Christian leader. The expanded Frankish presence in Italy and the Balkans intensified diplomatic encounters with the Eastern emperors, which strengthened the Frankish position with respect to the Eastern Roman Empire, weakened by internal dissension and threatened by Muslim and Bulgar pressure on its eastern and northern frontiers. Charlemagne also established friendly relations with the ʿAbbāsid caliph in Baghdad (Hārūn al-Rashīd), the Anglo-Saxon kings of Mercia and Northumbria, and the ruler of the Christian kingdom of Asturias in northwestern Spain. And he enjoyed a vague role as protector of the Christian establishment in Jerusalem. By boldly and resourcefully combining the traditional role of warrior king with aggressive diplomacy based on a good grasp of current political realities, Charlemagne elevated the Frankish kingdom to a position of leadership in the European world.

Court and administration
While responding to the challenges involved in enacting his role as warrior king, Charlemagne was mindful of the obligation of a Frankish ruler to maintain the unity of his realm. This burden was complicated by the ethnic, linguistic, and legal divisions between the populations brought under Frankish domination in the course of three centuries of conquest, beginning with the reign of the first Merovingian king, Clovis (481–511). As a political leader, Charlemagne was not an innovator. His concern was to make more effective the political institutions and administrative techniques inherited from his Merovingian predecessors. The central directive force of the kingdom remained the king himself, whose office by tradition empowered its holder with the right to command the obedience of his subjects and to punish those who did not obey. For assistance in asserting his power to command, Charlemagne relied on his palatium, a shifting assemblage of family members, trusted lay and ecclesiastical companions, and assorted hangers-on, which constituted an itinerant court following the king as he carried out his military campaigns and sought to take advantage of the income from widely scattered royal estates. Members of this circle, some with titles suggesting primitive administrative departments, performed on royal orders various functions related to managing royal resources, conducting military campaigns and diplomatic missions, producing written documents required to administer the realm, undertaking missions across the kingdom to enforce royal policies, rendering justice, conducting religious services, and counseling the king.

A critical component of the king’s effectiveness and a matter of constant concern for Charlemagne was the army, in which all freemen were obligated to serve at their own expense when summoned by the king. Increasingly important in maintaining the military establishment, especially its armoured cavalry, was the king’s ability to provide sources of income, usually land grants, that enabled his subjects to serve at their own expense. The resources required to sustain the central government were derived from war booty, income from royal estates, judicial fines and fees, tolls on trade, obligatory gifts from noble subjects, and, to a very limited degree, direct taxes.

To exercise his authority locally, Charlemagne continued to rely on royal officials known as counts, who represented royal authority in territorial entities called counties (pagi). Their functions included administering justice, raising troops, collecting taxes, and keeping peace. Bishops also continued to play an important role in local government. Charlemagne expanded clerical involvement in government by increasing the use of royal grants of immunity to bishops and abbots, which freed their properties from intervention by public authorities. This privilege, in effect, allowed its recipients or their agents to rule over those inhabiting their property as long as they enjoyed royal favour. The effectiveness of this governance system depended largely on the abilities and the loyalty of those who filled offices at the local level. Charlemagne recruited most royal officials from a limited number of interrelated aristocratic families who were eager to serve the king in return for the prestige, power, and material rewards associated with royal service.

Charlemagne’s most innovative political measures involved strengthening the linkages between his person, his palatium, and local officials. He made full use of the traditional Frankish annual assembly, the mustering of those called to military service in a context which highlighted the common bond entailed in their willingness to follow their leader into war. Charlemagne expanded the function of these meetings to make them an instrument for cementing the king’s personal ties with counts, bishops, abbots, and powerful magnates. At these assemblies, he heard their complaints, accepted their advice, gained their assent for his policies, and delivered to them in his own words his commands for ruling his realm. The network of families from which the king selected most of his officials provided important channels through which pressure could be applied to assure that royal commands were executed locally. In addition, Charlemagne required all his free subjects to swear under oath to obey the king and to conduct themselves in ways that contributed to peace and concord. Especially important in strengthening the king’s hand politically was Charlemagne’s practice of establishing personal ties with powerful figures by accepting them as royal vassals in return for benefices in the form of offices and land grants to be exploited for their personal benefit as long as they remained loyal.

Charlemagne integrated the central and the local administration by regularizing and expanding the use of missi dominici, royal agents charged with making regular circuits through specifically defined territorial entities to announce the king’s will, to gather information on the performance of local officials, and to correct abuses. The greatly expanded use of written documents as a means of communication between the central and the local governments allowed for greater precision and uniformity in transmitting royal orders and in gathering information about their execution. Among these documents were the royal capitularies, quasi-legislative documents dispatched across the kingdom to set forth the king’s will and to provide instructions for enacting his orders.

The record of Charlemagne’s reign indicates his awareness of new developments affecting economic and social conditions. Although scholars are divided on the import of his actions, the evidence suggests that he was concerned with improving the organization and techniques of agricultural production, establishing a monetary system better attuned to actual exchange operations, standardizing weights and measures, expanding trading ventures into areas around the North Sea and Baltic Sea, and protecting merchants from excessive tolls and robbery. Royal legislation sought to protect the weak against exploitation and injustice. The king helped to clarify the incipient lord-vassal system and utilized that form of social contract to promote order and stability. Although his economic and social initiatives were motivated chiefly by his moral convictions, these measures gave modest impetus to movements that eventually ended the economic depression and social instability that had gripped western Europe since the dissolution of the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries.

Charlemagne’s effort to be an effective ruler was given fresh impetus and direction by a change in the concepts of the purpose of government and of the role of monarchs. That change led to the grafting of a religious component onto the traditional, somewhat narrow conception of the basis of royal authority. Drawing on the Old Testament and the teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo on the nature of the “city of God,” Charlemagne and his advisers progressively saw the king’s position as bestowed by God for the purpose of realizing the divine plan for the universe. Kingship took on a ministerial dimension, which obligated the ruler to assume responsibility for both the spiritual and the material well-being of his subjects. This new role entailed a vast expansion of traditional royal authority and a redefinition of the priorities that government should serve.

Religious reform
Charlemagne’s military conquests, diplomacy, and efforts to impose a unified administration on his kingdom were impressive proof of his ability to play the part of a traditional Frankish king. His religious policy reflected his capacity to respond positively to forces of change working in his world. With considerable enthusiasm he expanded and intensified the reform program rather haltingly instituted in the 740s by his father, Pippin, and his uncle, Carloman. In essence, Charlemagne’s response to the growing urge in his world to deepen spiritual life was to make that objective a prime concern of public policy and royal governance.

His program for meeting his royal religious responsibilities was formulated in a series of synods made up of both clerics and laymen summoned by royal order to consider an agenda set by the royal court. The enactments of the councils were given the force of law in royal capitularies, which all royal officials, but especially bishops, were expected to enforce. That legislation, traditional in spirit and content, was inspired by a conviction that the norms required to correct the deficiencies besetting Christian life in the 8th century had already been defined by Scripture and by earlier church councils and ecclesiastical authorities. The reform focused on a few major concerns: strengthening the church’s hierarchical structure, clarifying the powers and responsibilities of the hierarchy, improving the intellectual and moral quality of the clergy, protecting and expanding ecclesiastical resources, standardizing liturgical practices, intensifying pastoral care aimed at general understanding of the basic tenets of the faith and improvement of morals, and rooting out paganism. As the reform movement progressed, its scope broadened to vest the ruler with authority to discipline clerics, to assert control over ecclesiastical property, to propagate the faith, and to define orthodox doctrine.

Despite extending his authority over matters traditionally administered by the church, Charlemagne’s aggressive moves to direct religious life won acceptance from the ecclesiastical establishment, including the papacy. In assessing clerical support for the king’s religious policy, it is necessary to keep in mind that the king controlled the appointment of bishops and abbots, was a major benefactor of the clerical establishment, and was the guarantor of the Papal States. Nonetheless, the clergy’s support was genuine, reflecting its approval of the king’s desire to strengthen ecclesiastical structures and to deepen the piety and correct the morals of his Christian subjects. That approval was expressed in the glorification of the king in his own day as the rector of the “new Israel.”

Cultural revival
Another notable feature of Charlemagne’s reign was his recognition of the implications for his political and religious programs of the cultural renewal unfolding across much of the Christian West during the 8th century. He and his government patronized a variety of activities that together produced a cultural renovatio (Latin: “renewal” or “restoration”), later called the Carolingian Renaissance. The renewal was given impetus and shape by a circle of educated men—mostly clerics from Italy, Spain, Ireland, and England—to whom Charlemagne gave prominent place in his court in the 780s and 790s; the most influential member of this group was the Anglo-Saxon cleric Alcuin. The interactions among members of the circle, in which the king and a growing number of young Frankish aristocrats often participated, prompted Charlemagne to issue a series of orders defining the objectives of royal cultural policy. Its prime goal was to be the extension and improvement of Latin literacy, an end viewed as essential to enabling administrators and pastors to understand and discharge their responsibilities effectively. Achieving this goal required the expansion of the educational system and the production of books containing the essentials of Christian Latin culture.

The court circle played a key role in producing manuals required to teach Latin, to expound the basic tenets of the faith, and to perform the liturgy correctly. It also helped create a royal library containing works that permitted a deeper exploration of Latin learning and the Christian faith. A royal scriptorium was established, which played an important role in propagating the Carolingian minuscule, a new writing system that made copying and reading easier, and in experimenting with art forms useful in decorating books and in transmitting visually the message contained in them. Members of the court circle composed poetry, historiography, biblical exegesis, theological tracts, and epistles—works that exemplified advanced levels of intellectual activity and linguistic expertise. Their efforts prompted Alcuin to boast that a “new Athens” was in the making in Francia. The new Athens came to be identified with Aachen, from about 794 Charlemagne’s favourite royal residence. Aachen was the centre of a major building program that included the Palatine Chapel, a masterpiece of Carolingian architecture that served as Charlemagne’s imperial church.

Royal directives and the cultural models provided by the court circle were quickly imitated in cultural centres across the kingdom where signs of renewal were already emerging. Bishops and abbots, sometimes with the support of lay magnates, sought to revitalize existing episcopal and monastic schools and to found new ones, and measures were taken to increase the number of students. Some schoolmasters went beyond elementary Latin education to develop curricula and compile textbooks in the traditional seven liberal arts. The number of scriptoria and their productive capacity increased dramatically. And the number and size of libraries expanded, especially in monasteries, where book collections often included Classical texts whose only surviving copies were made for those libraries. Although the full fruits of the Carolingian Renaissance emerged only after Charlemagne’s death, the consequences of his cultural program appeared already during his lifetime in improved competence in Latin, expanded use of written documents in civil and ecclesiastical administration, advanced levels of discourse and stylistic versatility in formal literary productions, enriched liturgical usages, and variegated techniques and motifs employed in architecture and the visual arts.

Emperor of the Romans
Charlemagne’s prodigious range of activities during the first 30 years of his reign were prelude to what some contemporaries and many later observers viewed as the culminating event of his reign: his coronation as Roman emperor. In considerable part, that event was the consequence of an idea shaped by the interpretation given to Charlemagne’s actions as ruler. Over the years, some of the king’s chief political, religious, and cultural advisers became convinced that a new community was taking shape under the aegis of the king and the Frankish people, whom, as one pope avowed, “the Lord God of Israel has blessed.” They spoke of that community as the imperium Christianum, comprising all who adhered to the orthodox faith proclaimed by the Roman church. This community accepted the dominion of a monarch increasingly hailed as the “new David” and the “new Constantine,” the guardian of Christendom and executor of God’s will. Concern for the welfare of the imperium Christianum was heightened by the perceived unfitness of the heretical emperors in Constantinople to claim authority over the Christian community—especially after a woman, Irene, became Eastern emperor in 797. In a larger sense, developments in the 8th century produced the perception in the Carolingian world that the Latin West and the Greek East were diverging in ways that negated the universalist claims of the Eastern emperors.

Then, in 799, an even greater threat to the well being of imperium Christianum emerged. The pope’s capacity to lead God’s people came into question when Pope Leo III was physically attacked by a faction of Romans, including high functionaries in the papal curia, who believed that he was guilty of tyranny and serious personal misconduct. Leo fled to the court of his protector, whose role as rector of Christendom was now dramatically revealed. Charlemagne provided an escort that restored Leo III to the papal office; then, after extensive consultation in Francia, he went to Rome in late 800 to face the delicate issue of judging the vicar of St. Peter and of restoring order in the Papal States. After a series of deliberations with Frankish and Roman clerical and lay notables, it was arranged that, in lieu of being judged, the pope would publicly swear an oath purging himself of the charges against him; some hints in the record suggest that these deliberations also led to a decision to redefine Charlemagne’s position. Two days after Leo’s act of purgation, as Charlemagne attended mass on Christmas Day in the basilica of St. Peter, the pope placed a crown on his head, while the Romans assembled for worship proclaimed him “emperor of the Romans.”

Historians have long debated where responsibility for this dramatic event should be placed. Despite the claim of Einhard, Charlemagne’s court biographer, that the king would not have gone to St. Peter’s on that fateful day had he known what was going to happen, the evidence leaves little doubt that king and pope collaborated in planning the coronation: the restoration of the Roman Empire in the West was advantageous to both. Given the pope’s tenuous position at that moment and the king’s penchant for bold action, it seems highly likely that Charlemagne and his advisers made the key decision involving a new title for the king, leaving it to the pope to arrange the ceremony that would formalize the decision. The new title granted Charlemagne the necessary legal authority to judge and punish those who had conspired against the pope. It also provided suitable recognition of his role as ruler over an empire of diverse peoples and as guardian of orthodox Christendom, and it gave him equal status with his tainted rivals in Constantinople. By once again sanctioning a title for the Carolingians, the pope strengthened his ties with his protector and added lustre to the papal office by virtue of his role in bestowing the imperial crown on the “new Constantine.”

On the assessment of Charlemagne’s years as emperor, historians are not in full accord. Some have seen the period as one of emerging crisis, in which the activities of the aging emperor were increasingly constricted. Because Charlemagne no longer led successful military ventures, the resources with which to reward royal followers declined. At the same time, new external enemies appeared to threaten the realm, especially seagoing Northmen (Vikings) and Saracens. There were also signs of structural inadequacy in the system of government, which constantly took upon itself new responsibilities without a commensurate increase in human or material resources, and growing resistance to royal control by lay and ecclesiastical magnates who began to grasp the political, social, and economic power to be derived from royal grants of land and immunities. Other historians, however, have stressed such things as increased royal concern for the helpless, continued efforts to strengthen royal administration, active diplomacy, the maintenance of religious reform, and support of cultural renewal, all of which they see as evidence of vitality during Charlemagne’s last years.

Within this larger context there were developments that suggest that the imperial title meant little to its recipient. Indeed, in 802, when he first formally used the enigmatic title “Emperor Governing the Roman Empire,” he retained his old title of “King of the Franks and of the Lombards.” He continued to live in the traditional Frankish way, eschewing modes of conduct and protocol associated with imperial dignity. He relied less on the advice of the circle that had shaped the ideology that led to the revival of the Roman Empire. Indeed, the emperor seemed oblivious to the idea of a unified political entity implicit in the imperial title when, in 806, he decreed that on his death his realm would be divided among his three sons.

Other evidence, however, indicates that the imperial title was important to him. Charlemagne engaged in a long military and diplomatic campaign that finally, in 812, gained recognition of his title from the Eastern emperor. After 800 his religious reform program stressed changes in behaviour that implied that membership in the imperium Christianum required new modes of public conduct. He attempted to bring greater uniformity to the diverse legal systems prevailing in his empire. The terminology and the symbols employed by the court to set forth its policies and the artistic motifs employed in the building complex at Aachen reflected an awareness of the imperial office as a source of ideological elements capable of buttressing the ruler’s authority. In 813 Charlemagne assured the perpetuation of the imperial title by bestowing with his own hands the imperial crown on his only surviving son, Louis the Pious. The coronation of 813 suggests that Charlemagne believed that the office had some value and that he wished to exclude the papacy from any part in its bestowal. In its entirety the evidence leads to the conclusion that Charlemagne saw the imperial title as a personal award in recognition of his services to Christendom, to be used as he saw fit to enhance his ability and that of his heirs to direct the imperium Christianum to its divinely ordained end.

In January 814 Charlemagne fell ill with a fever after bathing in his beloved warm springs at Aachen; he died one week later. Writing in the 840s, the emperor’s grandson, the historian Nithard, avowed that at the end of his life the great king had “left all Europe filled with every goodness.” Modern historians have made apparent the exaggeration in that statement by calling attention to the inadequacies of Charlemagne’s political apparatus, the limitations of his military forces in the face of new threats from seafaring foes, the failure of his religious reforms to affect the great mass of Christians, the narrow traditionalism and clerical bias of his cultural program, and the oppressive features of his economic and social programs. Such critical attention of Charlemagne’s role, however, cannot efface the fact that his effort to adjust traditional Frankish ideas of leadership and the public good to new currents in society made a crucial difference in European history. His renewal of the Roman Empire in the West provided the ideological foundation for a politically unified Europe, an idea that has inspired Europeans ever since—sometimes with unhappy consequences. His feats as a ruler, both real and imagined, served as a standard to which many generations of European rulers looked for guidance in defining and discharging their royal functions. His religious reforms solidified the organizational structures and the liturgical practices that eventually enfolded most of Europe into a single “Church.” His definition of the role of the secular authority in directing religious life laid the basis for the tension-filled interaction between temporal and spiritual authority that played a crucial role in shaping both political and religious institutions in later western European history. His cultural renaissance provided the basic tools—schools, curricula, textbooks, libraries, and teaching techniques—upon which later cultural revivals would be based. The impetus he gave to the lord-vassal relationship and to the system of agriculture known as manorialism (in which peasants held land from a lord in exchange for dues and service) played a vital role in establishing the seignorial system (in which lords exercised political and economic power over a given territory and its population); the seignorial system in turn had the potential for imposing political and social order and for stimulating economic growth. Such accomplishments certainly justify the superlatives by which he was known in his own time: Carolus Magnus (“Charles the Great”) and Europae pater (“father of Europe”).

Richard E. Sullivan

Encyclopaedia Britannica


In 951 the widow of Lothair II, 6 Adelaide of Lombardy, sent a plea to the German king Otto the Great for help against the new king, Berengar II of the House of Ivrea.

3 Otto defeated Berengar and became king of Italy He united the kingdom and then integrated it into the Holy Roman Empire.

The German kings and emperors never had a power base of their own in Imperial Italy and were instead dependent upon the great nobles, the powerful cities, the Church, and the papacy during their rule. They attempted to play the individual parties off against one other, for example, by granting increased royal prerogatives to win over individual parties, but this ultimately undermined their authority. Thus Italy ultimately disintegrated into numerous independent city states.


6 Figures of the Empress Adelaide and
Emperor Otto I the Great at the
dome of Meissen

Berengar II

Berengar II, also called Berengario, marchese d’Ivrea (born c. 900—died Aug. 6, 966), grandson of Berengar I and king of Italy from 950 to 952.

Berengar was important in the career of the German king and Holy Roman emperor Otto I the Great. For several months in 951 he held captive Adelaide, the daughter and widow of kings of Italy; she escaped and married Otto, who assumed the title of king of the Lombards and made Berengar his vassal. Later (from 960) Berengar and his son Adalbert attacked Pope John XII, on whose appeal Otto marched into Rome and was crowned emperor (962). John’s subsequent negotiations with Berengar caused Otto to depose the pope and imprison Berengar in Germany (963).

Encyclopaedia Britannica

3 Berengar II of Ivrea before Otto I the Great, 1150


Saint Adelaide

Saint Adelaide, German Adelheid die Heilige, French Sainte Adélaïde, Italian Santa Adelaide (born c. 931—died Dec. 16, 999, Seltz, Alsace [now in France]; feast day December 16), consort of the Western emperor Otto I and, later, regent for her grandson Otto III; one of the most influential women of 10th-century Europe, she helped strengthen the German church while subordinating it to imperial power.

The daughter of Rudolf II (d. 937), king of Burgundy, and Bertha of Swabia, Adelaide was married (947) to Lothar, who succeeded his father, Hugh of Arles, as king of Italy in the same year. After Lothar died (950), Berengar of Ivrea, his old rival, seized the Italian throne and imprisoned Adelaide (April 951) at Garda. After her escape four months later, she asked the German king Otto I the Great to help her regain the throne. Otto marched into Lombardy (September 951), declared himself king, and married her (October/November 951). They were crowned emperor and empress by Pope John XII in Rome in 962. She promoted Cluniac monasticism and strengthened the allegiance of the German church to the emperor, playing an important role in Otto I’s distribution of ecclesiastical privileges and participating in his Italian expeditions.

After Otto’s death (May 7, 973), Adelaide exercised influence over her son Otto II until their estrangement in 978, when she left the court and lived in Burgundy with her brother King Conrad. At Conrad’s urging she became reconciled with her son, and, before his death in 983, Otto appointed her his regent in Italy. With her daughter-in-law, Empress Theophano, she upheld the right of her three-year-old grandson, Otto III, to the German throne. She lived in Lombardy from 985 to 991, when she returned to Germany to serve as sole regent after Theophano’s death (991). She governed until Otto III came of age (994), and, when he became Holy Roman emperor in 996, she retired from court life, devoting herself to founding churches, monasteries, and convents.

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Otto I

Otto I, byname Otto the Great, German Otto der Grosse (born Nov. 23, 912—died May 7, 973, Memleben, Thuringia), duke of Saxony (as Otto II, 936–961), German king (from 936), and Holy Roman emperor (962–973) who consolidated the German Reich by his suppression of rebellious vassals and his decisive victory over the Hungarians. His use of the church as a stabilizing influence created a secure empire and stimulated a cultural renaissance.

Early years
Otto was the son of the future king Henry I, of the Liudolfing, or Saxon, dynasty, and his second wife, Matilda. Little is known of his early years, but he probably shared in some of his father’s campaigns. He married Edith, daughter of the English king Edward the Elder, in 930; she obtained as her dowry the flourishing town of Magdeburg. Nominated by Henry as his successor, Otto was elected king by the German dukes at Aachen on Aug. 7, 936, a month after Henry’s death, and crowned by the archbishops of Mainz and Cologne.

While Henry I had controlled his vassal dukes only with difficulty, the new king firmly asserted his suzerainty over them. This led immediately to war, especially with Eberhard of Franconia and his namesake, Eberhard of Bavaria, who were joined by discontented Saxon nobles under the leadership of Otto’s half-brother Thankmar. Thankmar was defeated and killed, the Franconian Eberhard submitted to the King, and Eberhard of Bavaria was deposed and outlawed. In 939, however, Otto’s younger brother Henry revolted; he was joined by Eberhard of Franconia and by Giselbert of Lotharingia and supported by the French king Louis IV. Otto was again victorious: Eberhard fell in battle, Giselbert was drowned in flight, and Henry submitted to his brother. Nevertheless, in 941 Henry joined a conspiracy to murder the King. This was discovered in time, and, whereas the other conspirators were punished, Henry was again forgiven. Thenceforward he remained faithful to his brother and, in 947, was given the dukedom of Bavaria. The other German dukedoms were likewise bestowed on relatives of Otto.

Foreign conquests
Despite these internal difficulties, Otto found time to strengthen and to extend the frontiers of the kingdom. In the east the margraves Gero and Hermann Billung were successful against the Slavs, and their gains were consolidated by the founding of the Monastery of St. Maurice in Magdeburg, in 937, and of two bishoprics, in 948. In the north, three bishoprics (followed in 968 by a fourth) were founded to extend the Christian mission in Denmark. Otto’s first campaign in Bohemia was, however, a failure, and it was not until 950 that the Bohemian prince Boleslav I was forced to submit and to pay tribute.

Having thus strengthened his own position, Otto could not only resist France’s claims to Lorraine (Lotharingia) but also act as mediator in France’s internal troubles. Similarly, he extended his influence into Burgundy. Moreover, when the Burgundian princess Adelaide, the widowed queen of Italy whom the margrave Berengar of Ivrea had taken prisoner, appealed to him for help, Otto marched into Italy in 951, assumed the title of king of the Lombards, and married Adelaide himself, his first wife having died in 946. In 952 Berengar did homage to him as his vassal for the kingdom of Italy.

Otto had to break off his first Italian campaign because of a revolt in Germany, where Liudolf, his son by Edith, had risen against him with the aid of several magnates. Otto found himself compelled to withdraw to Saxony; but the position of the rebels began to deteriorate when the Magyars invaded Germany in 954, for the rebels could now be accused of complicity with the enemies of the Reich. After prolonged fighting, Liudolf had to submit in 955. This made it possible for Otto to defeat the Magyars decisively in the Battle of the Lechfeld, near Augsburg, in August 955; they never invaded Germany again. In the same year Otto and the margrave Gero also won a victory over the Slavs. A further series of campaigns led, by 960, to the subjection of the Slavs between the middle Elbe and the middle Oder. The archbishopric of Magdeburg was founded in 968 with three suffragan bishoprics. Even Mieszko of Poland paid tribute to the German king.

Coronation as emperor
In May 961 Otto procured the election and coronation of the six-year-old Otto II, his elder son by Adelaide, as German king. Then he went for a second time to Italy on the appeal of Pope John XII, who was hard pressed by Berengar of Ivrea. Arriving in Rome on Feb. 2, 962, Otto was crowned emperor, and 11 days later a treaty, known as the Privilegium Ottonianum, was concluded, to regulate relations between emperor and pope. This confirmed and extended the temporal power of the papacy, but it is a matter of controversy whether the proviso enabling the emperor to ratify papal elections was included in the original version of the treaty or added in December 963, when Otto deposed John XII for treating with Berengar and set up Leo VIII as pope. Berengar was captured and taken to Germany, and in 964 a revolt of the Romans against Leo VIII was suppressed.

When Leo VIII died in 965, the Emperor chose John XIII for pope, but John was expelled by the Romans. Otto, therefore, marched for a third time to Italy, where he stayed from 966 to 972. He subdued Rome and even advanced into the Byzantine south of Italy. Prolonged negotiations with Byzantium resulted in the marriage of Otto II to the Byzantine princess Theophano, in 972. Having returned to Germany, the Emperor held a great assembly of his court at Quedlinburg on March 23, 973. He died in Memleben several weeks later and was buried in Magdeburg at the side of his first wife.

Otto I’s achievement rests mainly on his consolidation of the Reich. He deliberately made use of the bishops to strengthen his rule and thus created that “Ottonian church system of the Reich” that was to provide a stable and long-lasting framework for Germany. By his victorious campaigns, he gave Germany peace and security from foreign attack, and the preeminent position that he won as ruler gave him a sort of hegemony in Europe. His Italian policy and the acquisition of the imperial crown constituted a link with the old Carolingian tradition and was to prove a great responsibility for the German people in the future. All areas under Otto’s rule prospered, and the resultant flowering of culture has been called the Ottonian renaissance.

Kurt Reindel

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Southern Italy from the 8th to the 15th centuries

Normans and Hohenstaufens made a model state of the kingdom of Sicily. French and Spanish dynasties fought over the wealthy Hohenstaufen crown.


Lombard principalities had survived in southern Italy.

Furthermore, there were still Byzantine bases that had in part fallen into the hands of the Muslim 8 Arabs who had occupied Sicily and Puglia in the ninth century.

8 Arabs besiege and conquer Messina in 842-43,
book illustration, 13th century

Since the eleventh century, Normans in the service of the southern Italian princes as mercenaries had also seized domains for themselves. The popes tried to bring the Normans under their control by legitimizing their rule through official investiture; in 1059 Robert Guiscard was made duke of Puglia and Calabria, and his brother Roger I count of Sicily.

7, 11 Roger II combined the Norman possessions and was granted the title of king by the pope in 1130. Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

7 Coat for the crowning of Roger II, twelfth century

11 Depiction of Roger II of Sicily crowned by Christ


Roger II

Roger II, (born Dec. 22, 1095—died Feb. 26, 1154, Palermo [Sicily]), grand count of Sicily (1105–30) and king of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily (1130–54). He also incorporated the mainland territories of Calabria in 1122 and Apulia in 1127.

Early life
Roger was the son of Count Roger I of Sicily and his third wife, Adelaide of Savona. He succeeded his elder brother Simon on Sept. 28, 1105, at the age of nine. Little is known of his childhood. These years, during which his mother acted as regent, he probably spent between Mileto in Calabria, the family castle in northeastern Sicily, and Messina; but it was at Palermo in 1112 that he was knighted and assumed the reins of government, and there his Sicilian capital was henceforth established.

Though the island that Roger I and his brother Robert Guiscard had conquered was populated predominantly by Arabs—with a strong admixture of Greeks—Roger I had always remained essentially a Norman knight. His son, by contrast, was a man of the Mediterranean. Deprived of paternal influence from the age of five, Roger was brought up in a cosmopolitan, multilingual world of Greek and Muslim tutors and secretaries and soon revealed an exotic strain in his nature. The latter was obvious enough in his complexion and in the darkness of his eyes and hair, but his contemporaries soon learned to their cost that he was not only a southerner—he was also an Oriental. He was a ruler for whom diplomacy, however tortuous, was a more natural weapon than the sword, and gold, however corrupting, a more effective currency than blood.

Two qualities, however, he had inherited from his Norman forebears: his energy and his ambition. It was these, combined with a gift for imaginative statesmanship all his own, that enabled him to profit from the fecklessness of his cousins—the son and grandson of Robert Guiscard—and to acquire, in return for military aid against a rebellious baronage, more and more of their mainland territories. By 1122 all Calabria was his, and in 1127, when Duke William of Apulia died without issue, Roger laid claim to the duchy as his rightful heir. Opposition was considerable; the barons had always resented the domination of the Hautevilles, whom they looked upon as upstarts no better than themselves, and the papacy had no wish to see too powerful a state established on its southern frontier. But they were no match for Roger’s particular technique of armed diplomacy, and in 1128 Pope Honorius II invested Roger as duke of Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily.

Thus, at 32, the young duke found himself one of the most influential princes in Europe. Only one thing more was necessary before he could weld his triple duchy into a single nation and treat with his fellow rulers on equal terms: a royal crown. Two years later he secured it. Honorius’ death early in 1130 led to a dispute over the papal succession. One of the two candidates, Innocent II, thanks to the energetic advocacy of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, soon had almost the whole continent behind him. His rival, the antipope Anacletus II, turned to Roger, who promised full support in return for coronation.

Enthronement as king of Sicily
The first king of Sicily was crowned on Christmas Day 1130 in the cathedral at Palermo. The antipope Anacletus died in 1138 and in the following year, after routing a papal army at Galluccio and taking the pope captive, Roger forced Innocent to confirm him in the Kingdom of Sicily, with the overlordship of all Italy south of the Garigliano River. After this he was quickly able to pacify his mainland realm, where his vassals—abetted by the German emperor Lothar II who led a large, though unsuccessful, expedition to South Italy in 1136–37—had kept up an almost permanent insurrection. In Sicily itself, where the ban on large fiefs had left little opposition to Roger’s rule, the new kingdom steadily grew more prosperous.

The king himself, more than any other ruler of his day, was an intellectual who had thought deeply about the science of government, and although he cherished no love for the empire of the East—which, like that of the West, maintained its claim to its former South Italian possessions—his whole upbringing inclined him toward the Byzantine concept of monarchy: a mystically tinged absolutism in which the sovereign, as God’s viceroy, lived remote and elevated from his subjects in a magnificence that reflected his intermediate position between Earth and heaven. It is no coincidence that in one of the only two portraits of Roger with any claim to authenticity—the mosaic in the Church of the Martorana at Palermo—he is depicted in Byzantine robes being symbolically crowned by Christ.

But splendour did not mean empty extravagance. A contemporary chronicler notes that Roger would personally go through his exchequer accounts, recording even the smallest expenditure, and that he was as scrupulous in the payment of debts as in their collection. Still less did it mean idleness. In the words of his court geographer, the king “accomplished more in his sleep than others did in their waking day.” Building on the foundations his father had laid, he created a civil service, based eclectically on Norman, Greek, and Arabic models, that was the wonder and envy of Europe. He entrusted finance to his Arab subjects, who also supplied him with the spearhead of his army. The navy, by contrast, was predominantly Greek; its chief, known by the Arabic title emir of emirs—from which the word admiral derives—served also as head of the government, ranking second after the king himself.

Roger’s navy
It was on this navy above all that Sicily’s security and prosperity depended, and Roger’s use of it was not overscrupulous. Under the greatest of its admirals, George of Antioch, it subdued much of what is now Tunisia to form a profitable, if short-lived, North African empire; it captured Corfu; it harassed the Greek coast, abducting the best of the Theban silk workers to found the court workshop at Palermo; and in 1149 it sailed up the Bosporus to fire a few impudent arrows into the gardens of the imperial palace. Significantly, however, it played no part in the Second Crusade of 1147. Roger had hated the Frankish rulers of Jerusalem ever since his mother’s disastrous remarriage to King Baldwin I of Jerusalem 34 years earlier. Besides, most of his Sicilian subjects were Muslims, and toleration was the cornerstone of his kingdom.

This policy even showed itself in his church buildings. Roger’s first great building, the cathedral at Cefalù, shows little Saracenic influence, but the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, conceived on a Latin plan and aglow with Byzantine mosaics, is topped by a stalactite roof of pure Arab workmanship. Oriental inspiration is equally evident in the five vermilion cupolas of the church of S. Giovanni degli Eremiti, built in 1142 for the Benedictines.

The Assizes of Ariano
After the pacification of South Italy, the king promulgated in 1140 at the so-called Assizes of Ariano a corpus of law covering every aspect of his rule. He then returned to Palermo, which he seldom left again. There he spent his last 15 years in the most intellectual court of Europe, surrounded by the leading thinkers of the time. Sicily was already the only land where scholars could study both Greek and Arabic—then the scientific language par excellence. Through Roger’s enthusiasm, Sicily became a cultural clearinghouse where, for the first time, Western and Oriental scholars could meet on an equal footing.

Roger II was married three times. He outlived his first wife, Elvira, daughter of Alfonso VI of Castile, and his second, Sibyl of Burgundy. His third wife, Beatrice of Rethel, whom he married in his last year, bore him a daughter, Constance, after his death. Constance married the future emperor Henry VI, bringing Sicily under the control of the Hohenstaufens. Upon his death at age 58, Roger was succeeded by his fourth but oldest surviving son, William. Despite his repeatedly expressed wish to rest in Cefalù, the king was buried in the cathedral at Palermo, having created, in a Europe rent by schism and exhausted by the Crusades, not just a kingdom but a political and religious climate in which all races, creeds, and cultures were equally encouraged and equally favoured.

John Julius Cooper, 2nd Viscount Norwich

Encyclopaedia Britannica


Jews, and Muslims lived at his 13 court in Palermo, a leading European cultural center of the time.

13 Palace of the Normans in Palermo, built from the ninth century onward

In 1194, the Hohenstaufen emperor Henry VI, son-in-law of Roger II, gained the crown of Sicily.

His son, Emperor 12 Frederick II, found Sicily more welcoming than the more northerly parts of the Holy Roman Empire and ruled from his home and power base there.

Because of his education, Frederick was known by his contemporaries as "Stupor Mundi" ("Wonder of the World"). After Frederick's death in 1250 and that of his son Conrad IV in 1254, Conrad's illegitimate brother Manfred ruled Sicily in the name of Conrad's son, Conradin.

In order to eliminate the Hohenstaufens for good, the pope gave the crown of Sicily to 9 Charles I of Anjou, brother of the French king.

12 Frederick II receives Arab deputies at his court,
painting, 19th century

9 Charles I of Anjou travels to Italy by sea (left);
his nvestiture by Pope Clemens IV with the kingdom of Sicily (right),
wood painting, 14th century


Charles I of Anjou

Charles I, byname Charles Of Anjou, Italian Carlo D’angiò (born March 1226—died Jan. 7, 1285, Foggia, Kingdom of Naples [Italy]), king of Naples and Sicily (1266–85), the first of the Angevin dynasty, and creator of a great but short-lived Mediterranean empire.

The younger brother of Louis IX of France, Charles acquired the county of Provence in 1246 and accompanied Louis on his Egyptian Crusade (1248–50). Allied with the papacy, he conquered Naples and Sicily in the 1260s, defeating Manfred and Conradin, the last representatives of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, at Benevento (1266) and Tagliacozzo (1268). He thereafter expanded his power into the Balkans and in 1277 became heir to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Charles’s transfer of his capital from Palermo to Naples and his introduction of French officials caused discontent in Sicily, where rebellion broke out in 1282. Aided by Peter III of Aragon, the Sicilians expelled the Angevins, defeating Charles’s fleet in the Bay of Naples in June 1284. Charles was preparing a counteroffensive when he died.

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Charles defeated Manfred and Conradin, who was 10 executed in 1268.

Charles's French administrators demanded high taxes from the Sicilians, who rose up in 1282 in the revolt of the "Sicilian Vespers." This enabled Peter III of Aragon, Manfred's son-in-law, to occupy the island. Charles, who died shortly thereafter, retained only his mainland possessions, which became the kingdom of Naples. A number of battles over succession in Naples took place among Charles's descendents. The last monarch of the House of Depiction of Roger II of Sicily crowned by Christ Frederick II receives Arab deputies at his court, painting, 19th century Anjou, Queen Joan II, first designated King Alfonso V of Aragon and Sicily as her heir, then a French cousin, Louis of the House of Valois. After her death in 1435, Alfonso secured the kingdom of Naples for his family. His nephew, Ferdinand the Catholic of Aragon, united Sicily and Naples in 1501. The possessions, along with the Spanish inheritance, went to his grandson, Charles V of the house of Habsburg after Ferdinand's death in 1516.

10 Execution of Conradin in Naples, copper engraving, 17th century



Salimbene di Adam, from his Cronica,


Emperor Frederick II

"Frederick... was crafty, wily, avaricious, lustful, malicious, wrathful; and yet a gallant man at times, when he would show his kindness or courtesy; full of solace, jocund, delightful, fertile in devices.

He knew to read, write, and sing, to make songs and music."

Book illustration to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick ll's book on falconry, 13th century




Frederick II

Holy Roman emperor

born Dec. 26, 1194, Jesi, Ancona, Papal States
died Dec. 13, 1250, Castel Fiorentino, Apulia, Kingdom of Sicily

king of Sicily (1197–1250), duke of Swabia (as Frederick VI, 1228–35), German king (1212–50), and Holy Roman emperor (1220–50). A Hohenstaufen and grandson of Frederick I Barbarossa, he pursued his dynasty’s imperial policies against the papacy and the Italian city states; and he also joined in the Sixth Crusade (1228–29), conquering several areas of the Holy Land and crowning himself king of Jerusalem (reigning 1229–43).

Early years.
In 1196, Frederick, at the age of two, was elected king by the German princes at Frankfort. His father, however, failed in his attempt to gain the princes’ support to make Frederick’s succession hereditary. Just before embarking on a crusade to the Holy Land, Emperor Henry died in September 1197 after a brief illness, only 32 years old. Though the medieval Roman Empire was at the height of its strength, the Emperor’s death brought it close to dissolution.

After the death of her husband, Empress Constance had young Frederick brought to Sicily, where in May 1198 he was crowned king of Sicily. Before her death later that year, Constance loosened the bonds that joined Sicily to the empire and to Germany by appointing Pope Innocent III her son’s guardian as well as regent of the Kingdom of Sicily, which was already under papal suzerainty. In Germany two rival kings were elected, Frederick’s uncle Philip of Swabia and Otto of Brunswick, as Otto IV.

Even the Pope, however, did not succeed in protecting Sicily from many years of anarchy. German and papal captains, local barons, and Sicilian Saracens, as well as the cities of Genoa and Pisa, fought for mastery of the country. The situation was not stabilized until the imperial chancellor conquered Palermo in November 1206 and governed in Frederick’s name. In December 1208 Frederick, then 14, was declared of age.

In 1209 he married the much older Constance of Aragon, who brought him an urgently needed troop of knights with whose help he gained control of Sicily, defeated a conspiracy of the barons, and was partially successful in regaining the crown properties that had been lost during his minority. At this time his relations with the Pope began to show signs of strain.

Frederick’s Sicilian efforts were seriously endangered when at the end of 1210 Otto IV invaded the realm on the mainland and in 1211 even threatened Sicily itself. Otto withdrew, however, when in September 1211 a number of German princes deposed him and elected Frederick king.

Before leaving for Germany in March 1212, Frederick had his one-year-old son Henry VII crowned king of Sicily and granted various privileges to the Holy See. Having rapidly conquered south Germany, where he met almost no opposition, Frederick was elected once again king of Germany by a large majority of princes at Frankfurt in December 1212 and crowned a few days later. In the same year he concluded an alliance with France against Otto, who was decisively defeated at the Battle of Bouvines in July 1214.

Consolidation of the empire.
In April 1220 Frederick’s nine-year-old son Henry VII was elected king by the German princes, thus negating Frederick’s promise to Pope Innocent that he would relinquish control of Sicily in favour of Henry, for it meant that Sicily and Germany would eventually be united under one ruler. Although Frederick sought to exonerate himself with Pope Honorius III by claiming that the election had been held without his knowledge, he had to pay for it by surrendering extensive royal prerogatives to the German ecclesiastical princes.

Crowned emperor by the Pope in St. Peter’s Church, in Rome, on Nov. 22, 1220, Frederick confirmed on the same day the legal separation of the empire from the Kingdom of Sicily while continuing the existing personal union. In addition, he granted important privileges to the Italian ecclesiastics and issued laws against heretics, and it seemed indeed that harmony had been reestablished between the Emperor and the Pope for some years to come. Frederick spent the following years consolidating his rule in Sicily. He broke the resistance of the barons to revocation of certain of their privileges and defeated the rebellious Saracens (1222–24), whom he later resettled in Apulia where they became his most faithful subjects, providing him with a loyal bodyguard immune against papal influence.

In addition to erecting a chain of castles and border fortifications, he had enlarged the harbours of his kingdom and established a navy and a fleet of merchant vessels. He instituted measures designed to bring trade under state control and make the manufacture of certain products the monopoly of the state. Finally, he created a civil service for which candidates were trained at the first European state university, in Naples, which he himself founded in 1224.

Years as a crusader.
In the meantime, the Pope was reminding the Emperor of the crusading vows he had taken at his coronations in 1212 and 1220. Frederick, however, was inclined to postpone such a venture until the Italian problems had been resolved. He claimed the Kingdom of Jerusalem for himself through his marriage to Isabella (Yolande) of Brienne, the heiress of the titular king of Jerusalem, who had become his wife in 1225 after Constance had died in 1222. Before embarking for the Holy Land, Frederick convened an imperial diet for Easter 1226 in Cremona, in northern Italy, in order to reinforce certain imperial rights in Italy and to prepare for the crusade. The cities of Lombardy, however, reconstituted themselves, under the leadership of Milan, as the Lombard League, and not only sabotaged the diet at Cremona but effectively opposed Frederick’s reorganization of northern Italy.

In September 1227, when Frederick was at last ready to embark from Brindisi for the Holy Land, an epidemic broke out among the crusaders. The new pope, Gregory IX, a passionate man who belonged to the intellectual world of Francis of Assisi—his personal friend whom he canonized as early as 1228—brushed aside Frederick’s justification and excommunicated him for his failure to carry out the crusade.

In June 1228, ignoring the excommunication, Frederick set sail from Brindisi. In the Holy Land, following complex negotiations, he obtained Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth from the Sultan al-Kāmil of Egypt. It was certainly the impact of Frederick’s personality on the Arab world, and not armed might, that made this treaty possible. On March 18, 1229, the excommunicated emperor crowned himself king of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This was the high point as well as the turning point of Frederick’s conception of sovereignty. Eschatological prophecies concerning his rule were now made, and the Emperor considered himself to be a messiah, a new David. His entry into Jerusalem was compared with that of Christ on Palm Sunday, and, indeed, in a manifesto the Emperor, too, compared himself to Christ.

In the meantime, however, papal troops had penetrated into the Kingdom of Sicily. Frederick returned at once and reconquered the lost areas but did not in turn attack the Papal States. His diplomacy was rewarded: after the Treaty of San Germano (July 1230) he was absolved from excommunication the following month at Ceprano.

In August 1231, at Melfi, the Emperor issued his new constitutions for the Kingdom of Sicily. Not since the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the 6th century had the administrative law of a European state been codified. Frederick’s codes contained many ideas that anticipated enlightened absolutism and the centralization of the state. During the same time, however, Frederick could not prevent his son, the German king Henry VII, from making a number of important concessions to the German princes. These concessions, confirmed by Frederick in 1232 at the diet of Cividale, strengthened the rule of the princes at the expense of the central power of the empire. These and other steps set back the development of communal self-government in Germany and furthered the independence of the principalities. In the meantime, relations between Frederick and Henry VII deteriorated steadily. Henry had been ruling independently in Germany since 1228, when in December 1234 he entered into an alliance with the Lombard League. This action amounted to high treason in the eyes of the Emperor. On Frederick’s arrival in Germany, his son’s rebellion collapsed; he died in a prison in Calabria in 1242.

His second wife having died in 1228, Frederick in July 1235 married Isabella of England. Shortly thereafter, he issued an edict of imperial peace, which also called for the appointment of a chief justice of the imperial court in order to protect the sovereign rights of the emperor from further erosion.

After some military successes in Lombardy against the Lombard League, the Emperor returned to Germany in 1236 to remove the rebellious duke Frederick of Austria and Styria from rule. In February 1237 he had his nine-year-old son Conrad IV elected king of Germany in Vienna. After several more months in Germany—it was to be his last visit—he descended into northern Italy. He defeated the Lombard League at Cortenuova, but, misjudging his strength, he rejected all Milanese peace overtures and insisted on unconditional surrender. It was a moment of grave historic importance when Frederick’s hatred coloured his judgment and blocked all possibilities of a peaceful settlement.

Struggle with the papacy.
Milan and five other cities held out, and in October 1238 he had to raise the siege of Brescia. In the same year the marriage of Frederick’s natural son Enzio with the Sardinian princess Adelasia and the designation of Enzio as king of Sardinia, in which the papacy claimed suzerainty, led to the final break with the Pope. Gregory IX deeply distrusted Frederick both in religious and political matters: Frederick was supposed to have jested that Moses, Christ, and Muḥammad were three impostors who had themselves been hoodwinked; and in the political arena the Pope was fearful that the Papal States were about to be isolated and encircled, particularly because a pro-imperial party had been formed in Rome. Under the pretext that the Emperor intended to drive him from Rome, Gregory excommunicated Frederick for the second time on Palm Sunday, March 20, 1239. This was the beginning of the last phase of the gigantic struggle between the papacy and the empire; it ended with the death of the Emperor and the downfall of his house.

Frederick countered the excommunication with a number of important manifestos, most of them composed by Pietro della Vigna, a member of the imperial chancery, who had outstanding literary gifts. The manifesto emphasized that the cardinals were meant to participate in the leadership of the church, and Frederick even tried to evoke solidarity among the secular princes. He also, however, intensified his military activities in northern Italy. In order to finance his constantly growing need for arms, he instituted a thorough administrative reorganization of imperial Italy (among others, the formation of 10 vice regencies) and of the Kingdom of Sicily. In addition, he decreed the rigorous surveillance of the population. In central Italy he took the offensive, occupying the March of Ancona and the Duchy of Spoleto, and in February 1240 his army marched into the Papal States and threatened Rome. At the last moment, however, the Pope won the support of the Romans.

Following the defeat of a Genoese fleet bringing delegates for a papal council to Rome, more than 100 high-ranking ecclesiastics—cardinals and bishops among them—were taken as Frederick’s prisoners to Apulia. This military victory proved, however, to be a political disadvantage: it provided material for propaganda depicting Frederick as an oppressor of the church.

While still encamped before Rome, Frederick received the news of Pope Gregory’s death and thereupon withdrew to Sicily. In the meantime, the Mongols had invaded Europe. They were temporarily halted in the extremely bloody Battle of Liegnitz in Silesia on April 9, 1241, but probably only the sudden death of their leader, the great khan Ögödei, prevented further Mongol advances at that time.

Celestine IV’s brief pontificate was followed by a long interregnum. When in 1243 Innocent IV was elected, Frederick, at the urging of the German princes and of King Louis IX of France, opened negotiations with the new pope. Agreement between the Pope and the Emperor seemed close on the evacuation of the Papal States, when in June 1244 Innocent fled the city. In Lyon he convened a council for 1245 and in July of that year deposed the Emperor, the obstacle to reconciliation apparently being the status of the Lombard communes.

The battle between the Emperor and the papacy then raged in full fury; on the papal side the Emperor was branded as the precursor of the anti-Christ; on the imperial side he was hailed as a messiah. The Emperor supported the contemporary demand that the church return to the poverty and saintliness of the early Christian community and again appealed to the princes of Europe to join in a defensive league against the power-hungry prelates. Most of the princes, however, remained neutral, and, although two successive German antikings received little support, the Emperor steadily lost ground in Germany.

In May 1247 Frederick’s planned journey to Lyon in order to plead his own case before the papal council was interrupted by the revolt of the strategically placed city of Parma. In the wake of this debacle much of central Italy and the Romagna was lost. The following year the Emperor was to suffer further blows of fate; Pietro della Vigna, for many years the Emperor’s confidant, was accused of treason and committed suicide in prison. In May 1249 King Enzio of Sardinia, Frederick’s favourite son, was captured by the Bolognese and was kept incarcerated until his death in 1272.

The Emperor’s position, both in Italy and—through the efforts of his son, Conrad IV—in Germany, was improving when he died unexpectedly in 1250. He was buried in the cathedral of Palermo near his first wife, his parents, and his Norman grandfather.

When the news of his death was published, all Europe was deeply shaken. Doubts arose that he was really dead; false Fredericks appeared everywhere; in Sicily a legend grew that he had been conveyed to the Aetna volcano; in Germany that he was encapsuled in a mountain and would return as the latter-day emperor to punish the worldly church and peacefully reestablish the Holy Roman Empire. Yet he was also thought to live on in his heirs. In fact, however, within 22 years after his death, all of them were dead: victims of the battle with the papacy that their father had begun.

Frederick’s character was marked by sharp contradictions, undoubtedly the result of his insecure and emotionally barren childhood. Enchanting amiability and gaiety were paired with cruelty; harshness and rigidity existed side by side with superior intelligence and a keen sense of reality; tolerance and intolerance went hand in hand; impulsive sensuality did not stand in the way of genuine piety; imbalance and inner discord pervaded his personality and his achievements.

Frederick cannot be considered the first modern man on the throne, nor a pioneer of the Renaissance, as some historians have maintained. Though his gifted personality heralded some of the intellectual trends of later times, he was, all in all, a man of the Middle Ages. He had indeed had the good fortune to have grown up in Sicily in a mixed culture that uniquely combined elements of antiquity, Arabic and Jewish wisdom, the Occidental spirit of the Middle Ages, and Norman realism. The intellectual life of his court reflected this heritage. A courtly “republic of scholars,” it nurtured and fostered the natural sciences as well as philosophy, poetry, and mathematics, and translations as well as original writing, both in Latin and in the vernacular. The pursuit of knowledge without special respect for traditional authorities was characteristic of Frederick and his court.

Witness to the intellectual vigour and distinction of Frederick himself and those around him are the content and style of his great legal codices and manifestos, many of them serving as examples to later generations; the edifices he erected, particularly the classic style of the Castello del Monte—a fusion of poetry and mathematics in stone; and, most outstanding, his own work De arte venandi cum avibus, a standard work on falconry based entirely on his own experimental research.

Frederick’s concept of the emperor’s function was rooted in the ideology of the late Greco-Roman period and the Judeo-Christian philosophy of the Middle Ages, emphasizing the sacredness and universal character of the office. In the light of it, Frederick claimed preeminence for the emperor over all other secular rulers—undoubtedly an ill-timed claim in an age when separate nation-states were developing. Thus, Frederick’s policies, full of intellectual and political promise, were in actuality dogged by tragedy.

Gunther Wolf

Encyclopaedia Britannica