Frederick Barbarossa was the Holy Roman Emperor from 1155 to 1190. During his reign, he undertook numerous campaigns to subdue northern Italy and keep it a part of his Empire.
His extensive campaigning in Italy eventually brought him in conflict with the Papacy. It also caused an anti-German feeling to flare up in northern Italian cities which were frequently ravaged by Frederick’s wars.
Despite his inability to decisively subdue Italy, Frederick is considered an excellent battlefield general of his period. His contemporaries cited him as having a very charismatic personality which often helped him resolve matters diplomatically as well.
Frederick Barbarossa’s Rise to Power
Frederick Barbarossa was the son of the powerful Duke of Swabia. Upon his father’s death, he inherited the duchy in 1147. This, together with his prestigious ancestry, made him a primary choice for electors in Germany.
In 1152, Barbarossa was crowned the King of Germany. This was a time when the imperial power in Germany was virtually non-existent and the prince-electors chose a nominal Emperor who wielded little authority.
Barbarossa aimed to change this by restoring power to the imperial crown in Germany. And to this end, he began active involvement in German affairs.
The earliest of these involvements was the restoration of relative peace and stability to the hundreds of states which comprised the Holy Roman Empire at the time. To this end, he initially forged amicable ties with the German princes.
Throughout his reign, Frederick Barbarossa struggled to maintain a hold over northern Italy. Although the region had traditionally remained under the nominal authority of the Holy Roman Emperor, this had changed by the time of Frederick.
Northern Italian cities had grown prosperous through trade and attained wealth as well as power. Frederick undertook the first Italian campaign in 1154 in which he successfully subdued northern Italy and reached as far as Rome.
Between 1158 and 1174, he undertook three further successful Italian campaigns, subduing the cities in the north. His fifth campaign in 1175 ended in an unexpected defeat for the imperial army.
Frederick was consequently forced to give up most of his claims over Italian territories and agreed to retain nominal power over northern Italy.
Conflict with the Papacy
Frederick Barbarossa was crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor at St. Peter’s Basilica by Pope Adrian IV in 1155. He helped restore Adrian’s authority in the city of Rome.
After Adrian’s death in 1159, Frederick supported the papacy of anti-pope Victor IV. Pope Alexander III consequently excommunicated both Frederick and Victor IV.
Despite this, Frederick continued to oppose Alexander III. The Pope, on the other hand, formed a Lombard League to oppose Frederick’s ambitions in Italy.
When the Lombard League defeated Frederick in 1175, he had to come to peace with Alexander III and recognise him as the legitimate pope. Towards his later years, Frederick reconciled with the Papacy and participated in the Third Crusade where he died along the way.