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On the trail of Frederick II: Stupor Mundi

“And I saw a beast full of blasphemous names coming out of the sea, which resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. He opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven” [1].  Gregory IX used these words in July 1239 to present to the clergy one of the most controversial historical figures: Frederick II. The passage is taken from the book of the Revelation and describes the features of the antichrist. It was an addiction of the bull of excommunication issued three months before. It was not unusual to see discords between the Pope and the Emperor, however, in that occasion the conflict took on eschatological connotations. 

Frederik II
A portrait of Frederick II from his De arte venandi cum avibus, Biblioteca Vaticana, Pal. lat 1071.

Frederick II and the inauspicious prophecies by Gioacchino da Fiore

The evangelism by the theologian Gioacchino da Fiore, focused on the figure of the antichrist, contributed to the negative image attributed to the Emperor. According to the abbot an evil human figure was close to coming into the World. He would have been the alter ego of Christ, denying the Cross. Moreover the antichrist would have done unimaginable attrocities during his life; at the end of his reign the Universal Judgement would have taken place. 

A fresco that portrays Gioacchino da Fiore (XVI century), cathedral of Santa Severina.

Fra’ Salimbene de Adam, historian and Franciscan friar and faithful follower of Gioacchino da Fiore, provided an extraordinary representation of the thoughts of his time. In his cronica he wrote [2]: 

“Here the prophecy by the abbot Gioacchino seems to be verified. The emperor Henry, father of Frederick, asked the abbot about his son’s future. His answer was: your child will be perverse! Bad your child and heir. Oh God, he will get the world upset and will trample the saints of God”. 

Moreover: “A pestiferous and cursed man, schismatic, heretic and epicurean, corrupter of all the world, since he sowed the seed of the division and discord all over the Italian cities”. 

A controversial man

For a strange self-fullfilling prophecy, during his growth the child seemed to assume the traits of the monster described in the book of the Revelation. His contemporaries were convinced that actually the end of times was forthcoming. Whilst Frederick’s oddities increased, there were even rumors that the emperor was having heretical philosophical digressions with Muslims. Then, the belief that Christ was coming back spread. 

However, there was a similar number of people sustaining that Christ had already returned. Who else could have been, if not Frederick II? He was born the 26th of December 1194 in Jesi (called by him “my little Bethlehem) during a travel of luck by his mother Constance. His father Henry VI had just inherited the Reign of Sicily; in fact, Constance of Altavilla was the last heir of the Norman king dinasty. Henry had been crowned the day before in Palermo. So, Frederick was born during the travel his mother was doing towards Sicily.

Henry VI  crowned in Palermo, extracted from an illuminated code by Pietro da Eboli, the Liber ad honorem Augusti preserved at the Biblioteca della Borghesia of Berna (1196)

Frederick II, prince of peace

Frederick II was described by Pier delle Vigne, his faithful executioner, as the “savior sent by God, prince of peace, messiah-emperor”.
He was the most controversial man of his time, and probably of the entire history. The emperor was loved by many people and opposed by many other. This sort of living contradition nowadays does not permit the reconstruction of his personality and exceptionality. 

The relationship with the South 

Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz [3], an important German historian of the 20th century, told Frederick II embodied the real essence of the Germanicity and his lineage, the Hohenstaufen. This assertion was based on the strong and resolute appearance of the emperor as it is noticed in the Medieval chronicles. Instead, Frederik was actually a man from Southern Italy, who took care of the kingdom of his mother, Constance of Altavilla. She was the daughter of the king Roger II, born and lived in Palermo. Fra’ Salimbene told that Frederik II exclaimed after he had got to the Holy Land: “Have the Lord seen my Kingdom of Sicily? When he sent the Jews to this land saying it was the most beautiful country in the World, the Lord had forgotten how beautiful my Kingdom of Sicily is”.

The coat of arms of the Kingdom of Sicily during the reign of Frederick II Hohenstaufen

Frederick spoke the Sicilian as well as the paternal Germanic language. Further, his mediterranean origins were evident by his childhood nickname: the puer apuliae, the kid of the South.

Two distant worlds

Frederick II unified two distant worlds. When he was three his father died, and the following year his mother Constance died too in Palermo. Frederick inherited the noble Hohenstaufen descent from his father Henry VI and his grandfather, Frederick Barbarossa. So, he had the possibility of aspiring to the elective throne of the Holy Roman Empire. Moreover, he inherited the Kingdom of Sicily from his mother. These were distant and, in a certain way, antithetical worlds. From one side there was the empire of Otto I, depositary of the ancient Roman times; to the other sides, the little kingdom at the center of the Mediterranean, which had faced two centuries of Arab domination before the arrival of the Altavilla Normans.

This destiny was manifested through the choice of his name. In origin he was named Constantine but during the baptism, inside the Cathedral of San Rufino in Assisi, he was renamed Frederick Roger. This name recalled the ancestry of his grandparents and the legitimate claim of their respective thrones.  

Frederik II
The church of San Rufino in Assisi
Baptismal font where Frederick II received the baptism, Basilica di San Rufino

The regency of Innocent III

However, Frederick was too young for reigning when his parents died; before dying, his mother had entrusted him to the regency of the pope Innocent III. There was a time when Frederick was considered “filius Ecclesiae“, the son of the Church. 

Pope Innocent III in a manuscript of the British Library

Innocent III was a great pope, charismatic and farsighted. He understood that the atavistic conflict against the emperor was uncertained. The contention had been lasting since the 11th century, since popes declared himself as vicar of Christ. The pontifex was afraid his dominion could be surrounded by a unique empire. Then, Innocent III asked Frederick to renounce to the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. The puer apuliae first accepted, then broken this promise, an another sign of contradiction.

The Reign of Sicily heritage 

Frederick spent his youth in Palermo, here he was educated in the Palazzo Reale (now Palazzo dei Normanni). When he became an adult (at the age of 14), the 26th of December 1208, came out of the Pope’s tutelage and could manage the Reign of Sicily. Some months before he had married Constance of Aragona, who bore him a son, Henry.

The riots of the Empire 

In the meanwhile some events were happening in Germany. In 1209 Otto IV was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Innocent III. However, the king began to be hostile with the State of the Church and went down to Italy to claim the pope’s territories [4].

Fra’ Salimbene [5] delineated the new political situation: “Otto was crowned by the pope Innocent III the 11th of October. […] However, after his coronation, Otto rebelled with great efforts against his father who had crowned him and the mother Church who had generated him, and quickly armed against the little king of Sicily who had no other help than the church. The following year, in 1210, the venerable father Innocent, mighty in word and deed, excommunicated the emperor Otto”.

That excommunication delegitimized Otto before the German nobility, who asked the help of Frederick. The nobility guaranteed the support to the puer apuliae for being elected as emperor.

Political situation in 1210

The rise to the Holy Roman Empire

In 1212 Frederick went to Germany with his army, leaving the regency of Sicily to his wife. In September he entered the city of Konstanz, advantaged by the excommunication of his enemy Otto. After a formal acknowledgment by the German nobility, the 9th of December 1212 the bishop Siegrfried III crowned Frederick in the Mainz Cathedral. The year later he promised again to the pope to maintain the indipendence between the Empire and the Reign of Sicily, by the drafting of the Golden Bull. Moreover, he pledged to organize a crusade for reconquesting Jerusalem. Otto IV was finally defeated by Philip Augustus of France in Bouvines (1214).

The always posponed crusade 

Suddenly the protector of Frederick, pope Innocent III, died. So every scenario completely changed. The new pope Honorius III did not accept the various promises by Frederick II, especially his beating around the bush. The pope insisted that Frederick organized the Crusade. So, the pope decided to crown him personally as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. However, he had nominated his son Henry to the crown of Germany in 1220, in order to maintain the control. It was a conservative decision to evade the papal promises: only an emperor could lead a crusade!

Nevertheless, Honorius III was too cunning to fall into this trap. The pope was aware that Frederick could have not refuse his solemn coronation. In fact, most of the German nobility had supported the candidacy of Frederick, and a formal renunciation could have opened new and unexpected political scenarios. In november 1220 Honorius III crowned Frederik II as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire at the St. Peter’s Cathedral.

Frederick II crowned by pope Honorius III, extracted from the Speculum historiale, Vincenzo di Beauvais

The Saracen uprising

Frederick seemed to give more importance to the political and cultural details of his reign than to the Crusade. He also created the Naple university, that today has his name.

In 1221 he started a violent repression of the Saracen riots in Sicily. They were the last Muslims populations in the island. Sicily was completely liberated by Roger of Altavilla after two centuries of Arab invasion. Some Saracen groups still lived in Sicily during the Frederick’s reign. They were mostly farmers, who started to revolt.

Initially Frederick tried to solved the situation by enactment of laws which enlarged the Saracen’s rights. However, when the rebels decided to kidnap the bishop of Agrigento, Urso, who was hidden for one year, the emperor opted for a radical solution.

Fifteen thousands Saracens were deported to Lucera, where they organized an independent settlement for 50 years; the others one were killed. The peasant workers were eradicated through a really genocide. Frederick, especially in some rurale area like Corleone, had to replace the Saracen farmers with Lombard- Piedmontese people.

The city of Lucera

Lucera had an extraordinary religious and cultural independence. In a Christian area, near the place where crusaders left towards Jerusalem, there was a Muslim settlement. Here the minarets substituted the bell towers of the Christian churches, and the Muezzins sang in place of the bells. Lucera became loyal to the emperor, maybe as a sign of gratitude, giving him a devoted armed guard of archers.

Frederik II, a bridge among different cultures

Frederick was not so interested to religious issued. Although he was a Christian man (and sometimes he punished blasphemy with the stake), his main interest was the Reign of Sicily. The contacts with the Egyptian sultan al-Malik al-Kamil were frequent and friendly, maybe for the nearness with the island or just for thirst of knowledge. In fact, Frederick II fluently spoke Arab and asked the wise Saracens about philosophical questions. This demonstrates that he was not interested to organize a Crusade, since he considered Muslims as learned interlocutors than enemies.

The modernity of Frederick is extraordinary. The king had understood that religion was a communication and not a conflict tool. It was a modern concept of ecumenism that only one another man had tried to follow: a Franciscan friar who some year before, barefoot and unarmed, abandoned the crusaders settlement for going to visit the sultan al-Malik al-Kamil and discuss about Christianity. He was St. Francis of Assisi.

Frederik II
Benozzo Gozzoli, Francesco d’Assisi e il sultano al-Malik al-Kamil, fresco at the museum of San Francesco in Montefalco.

The stupor mundi

Frederick II was a man of extraordinary culture and his contemporaries called him as stupor mundi. He was interested to math, philosophy, natural sciences and astrology. He had various algebraic digressions with Leonardo Fibonacci. The questions he asked to the Saracen philosopher Ibn Sab’in are so famous, they are best known as Sicilian questions (Al-masāʾil al-Ṣiqilliyya). Frederick was also the author of a famous naturalistic book (De arte venandi cum avibus) about the falconry, a hunting method that he loved so much.

In literature, Frederick II was the patron of the Sicilian School, which originated a new way of writing and poetry. During this period Jacopo from Lentini invented the sonnet.

A new architectural style 

The cultural contaminations influenced the new European style promoted by Frederick II: the Gothic. He led the construction or the reconstruction of several religious Cistercian buildings, based on the model of the Abbeys of St. Galgano and of Casamari. Particularly, the emperor introduced the typical Gothic stylistical elements in Southern Italy, as a new space and light conception, and the renewed classicistic imprint of the figurative arts.

Frederik II
The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Altamura was built from 1232 by the will of Frederick, who decided to repopulate the city.

The several castles spread all over Puglia, Basilicata and Sicily reflect the Frederick style. Some of them are simply reconstruction of the existent Normans buildings, whilst other are completely new, like Castel del Monte in Andria. It is certainly the most fascinating, designed by his trusted architect Riccardo da Lentini or, maybe, it is a work by Frederick himself.

Frederik II
Castel del Monte in Andria

The Diet of St. Germano

The real aim of Frederick was to unify the King of Sicily with the Holy Roman Empire, in order to extend his power all over Italy. It was in contrast with what promised to Innocent III. Hence, he followed a policy aimed at expanding his power even in the State of the Church. Honorius III was extremely scared, so he took a drastic decision: with the Diet of St. Germano (1225) he intimated Frederick to organize the Crusade by the subsequent two years. Otherwise, the emperor would have been excommunicated.

Honorius was aware to obtain two important results. Firstly, he would started the Crusade for the conquering of Jerusalem. Secondly, Frederick would have been moved away from Italy, and the threat to the papal ownerships too.

The marriage with Jolanda de Brienne

For the first time Frederick II seemed to accomplish the papal requests. A confirmation of this commitment was the marriage with Jolande de Brienne, married by Frederick after the death of his first wife, Constance, in 1222. Jolanda, the daughter of Giovanni de Brienne, was the legitimate heir of the crown of Jerusalem. However, the city had to be conquered yet.

The 9th of November 1225 the marriage between Frederick and Jolanda de Brienne was celebrated at the Brindisi Cathedral, Wwith the eternal illusion of a new crusade.

Frederik II
Honorius III married Frederick II and Jolanda de Brienne, extract from the Nova Cronica by Giovanni Villani. Roma, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

The true love of a lifetime: Bianca Lancia

The marriage with Jolanda de Brienne was planned just as a political strategy; in the same period Frederick met an extraordinary woman, Bianca Lancia, the true love of the emperor. Her real name is unknown. From that relationship Manfredi, the future king of Sicily, was born.

The excommunication

Honorius III had not the possibility to see the results of his actions. The pope died the 18th of march 1227 and his successor was the uncompromising Gregory IX, named Ugolino of Anagni. In the month of september of the same year Frederick II decided to leave to the 6th Crusade. However, a few days after leaving the port of Brindisi, he had to come back to Puglia due to a pestilence.

Gregory IX had not the same patience of his predecessors: the 29th of September 1227 the pope excommunicated Frederick at the Bitonto Cathedral, for his non-participation at the reconquest of Jerusalem.  

Frederik II
The Cathedral of St. Valentine in Bitonto
Frederik II
The Door of Excommunication of the Bitonto Cathedral, where Gregory IX excommunicated Frederick II

The Sixth Crusade

Fredirick did not accept the excommunication, since he was a true Christian man. Nonetheless, his complaints to the pope were worth nothing. Moreover, a further disgrace awaited him: his wife Jolanda de Brienne died at the age of sixteen while giving birth to his son, Conrad.

This events led Frederick to leave to the Holy Land. The 28th of June 1228 the excommunicated emperor left again to the Sixth Crusade, announcing his departure in Barletta. It is not clear if Frederick hoped the withdrawal of the excommunication or just wanted the crown of Jerusalem.

In any case, the behaviour of Frederick II was exactly as we would expect. His crusade was similar to a courtesy visit to his correspondent, the sultan al-Malik al-Kamil. No one battle did take place, and the crusaders stayed bored in the Holy Land. Frederick was certainly a genius, the stuport mundi: he dared what any Christian could not even have imagined. The emperor preferred to use the power of the words instead of organizing bloody battle. 

The agreement with the sultan 

Frederick simply signed an agreement with his enemy. The sultan al-Malik al-Kamil guaranteed Jerusalem to Christians (except Umar mosque). The walls of the city were removed, and even Nazareth and other places linked to Christ were given to Frederick. It was an unrepeatable historical event, which provided the grandeur of two people: Frederick and the sultan.

Frederik II
The meeting between Frederik II and the sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, extracted from the Nova Cronica by Giovanni Villani. Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

The two kings had strong personalities and embedded the genius typical of the Renaissance. Like other genius, they were misunderstood. No one liked the agreement for the division of the Holy Land. Christians were scandalized by the behaviour of Frederick: in fact, Jerusalem was accessible but indefensible, and it was shared with the enemy. Muslisms had a reduction of their ownership without nothing in return and didnt’t fight battles against the Christian infidels.

The Crusade against Frederick II 

The pope took advantage of the discontent and also of the absence of the emperor. Then, he supported the riots of the imperial Italian cities. This event is well known as Crusade against Frederick II. In the meanwhile the emperor had crowned himself as king of Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Moreover, Frederick probably wanted to stay in Palestine for a longer time. However, due to the news coming from Italy, he decided to go back to Puglia. At his arrival Frederick found that only the cities of Lucera, Barletta and Andria stayed faithful to the emperor. Then, he started the reconquest of the lost cities from there. The war avoided in the Holy Land was having place in Italy.

It was a conflict between the papal army, often composed by mercenaries, and Frederick, whose army was composed by Sicilian, German and Saracen men. The event ended with the restoration of the status quo, even though Frederick was obliged to sign a peace treaty, known as Treaty of St. Germano (23rd of July 1230). With this agreement Frederick acknowledged the vassalage of Sicily to the State of the Church. Moreover, he returned all the papal assets unduly stolen. In exange, the emperor he obtained the revocation of the excommunication.

The Liber Augustalis and the Henry rebellion 

During the subsequent years the imperial power was reaffirmed in the dissident cities and a complex law system was enacted in the Reign of Sicily. By the Liber Augustalis of Menfi the emperor wanted to reorganize the little state, limiting the privileges of ancient noble families.

In the same period a a diatribe with his son Henry arose. Henry joined with the cities of the Lombard League, which were proud opponents of the Empire since the time of Frederick Barbarossa. Frederick II firstly asked the pope to excommunicate his son, and after imprisoned him. During a a transfer of prison Henry threw himself into a cliff. He was buried at the Cosenza Cathedral, and the tomb is still there.

The fate of the Lombard cities was disastrous. Frederick defeated them in Cortenuova the 27th of November 1237; this event determined the definitive dissolution of the League. 

Frederik II
The defeat of the Carroccio in Cortenuova, extracted from the Nova Cronica by Giovanni Villani. Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

A second excommunication 

In the month of May 1235 a violent riot organized by the Ghibelline nobility obliged the pope Gregory IX to take refuge in Umbria. Frederick II supported the pope and joined the papal militias; however, after a month, he left the siege of Rome. Gregory IX was disappointed and embittered. Although the city was reconquered, the desertion by Frederick II was never forgiven. Then, a series of discords between the pope and the emperor arose, leading to a second anathema (1239).

The reason of the discord was Sardinia. The Judge of Torres, Adelasia, had promised the island in succession to the Pope. However when she had become a widow she decided to marry Enzo, the son that Frederick II had from one of his lovers, Adelaide of Urslingen. 

The marriage inevitably changed the line of succession in favor of the emperor. Gregory IX had to elaborate the bitterness of losing a territory and so decided to punish Frederick with a second excommunication.

The pope hostage of Frederick II 

The excommunication would have solemny confirmed by a council, announced by the pope Gregory IX in Rome on Easter day of 1241. Nevertheless, Frederick II immediately reacted: to avoid the council he marched on the city in an attempt of making it unreachable. Along the land routes the emperor ordered the capture of the cardinals going to the city; in the meanwhile, the son Enzo was fighting a decisive naval battle at the Giglio island against the Genoeses, the papal allies.

In any case, while the imperial army were reaching Rome, suddenly Gregory IX died. Fastly his successor was elected: Celestine IV (Goffredo Castiglioni) became the pope, whereas Frederick II was surrounding the city. However, after 17 days, the new pope died.

The situation was blocked: some cardinals and many prelated were captured by Frederick, and the free one did not want to meet in a conclave, since they feared to suffer the same end of Celestine IV. In fact, someone said the pope had been poisoned, and this circumstance has not ever been proved. The lack of the pope lasted for a year and a half. After long and grueling negotiations a conclave was organized in Anagni, where the cardinal Sinibaldo Fieschi, the new pope Innocent IV, was elected.

Frederik II
Innocent IV in a miniature of the Speculum historiale by Vincenzo of Beauvais

The agreements with Innocent IV

Innocent IV was able to do what his predecessor had failed. Few months after his election, the papal militias defeated the Frederick army at the Viterbo battle. So, the emperor had to accept a compromise: in order to obtain the revocation of the excommunication, he promises the pope the restitution of the occupied land. This would have determined the definitive waiver to a lifetime dream: the union of the loved Reign of Sicily with the Holy Roman Empire.

This was the reason why Frederick was not honoring the agreement when Innocent IV called a council in Lyon, the 28th of June 1245. Uncontrollable rumors that Frederick was the antichrist, who wanted to destroy the Church, were supporting by the Guelph opponents. They wanted to obtain the support of the German nobility to the Church. The crown of the Holy Roman Empire was revoked and a new crusade against Fredrick II was launched. Furthermore, a third anathema was imposed on him.

Frederik II
The Council of Lyon in a 13th century miniature, Libreria Universitaria of Siracusa

Who really was Frederick II? 

Since then the Christian world split irrimediably. Frederick II, the stupor mundi, had embodied the essence of the contradiction. The affair between the emperor and the pope assumed the symbolic characteristics of an eschatological conflict. The real problem was to identify the real good and the evil. Frederick II was alternatively depicted as an antichrist or a saint, even as Christ himself. For instance, the Ghibellines considered the emperor as the person who would have bring the corrupted Church to its original purity. In fact, the policy by the pope Innocent IV seemed so ambiguous that some of the Guelphs suspected he was an impostor.

The opposite ideological positions lasted even after the death of the two protagonist. Still today one of the most difficult historical question is: who really was Frederick II? Was he a believer who wanted to follow Christ rather the pope, as he had declared, or was he a persecutor of the Church, as told by his opponents? Was he simply a man interested to his political interests?

The legend of his death 

Frederick II died in Fiorentino di Puglia the 13th of December 1250 for an intestinal pathology. According to the legend, his death had been predicted by the court astrologer, Michele Scoto. The famous philosopher would have announced him a death sub flore, expression that recalls the village of Fiorentino, where the emperor died. 

Frederick II was buried inside the Palermo Cathedral, in a sacrophagus of red porphyry like the Roman emperors. The tomb is next to his parents Constance and Henry VI and his grandfather Roger II. Manfredi succeded him on the throne of Sicily, in temporary place of the legitimate heir Conrad. The destiny left his power to the son born by the relationship with his lover, Bianca Lancia. According to the legend, Frederick gave her the biggest gesture of love, deciding to marry her on the deathbed.

Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by Daniela Campus)


[1]  Reg. Vat. 19, cc. 156v-159v, nr. 256, presso l’Archivio Segreto Vaticano.

[2] Cronaca by Salimbene de Adam da Parma, Italian translation by Berardo Rossi, Bologna, Radio TAU, 1987. English translation by Daniela Campus.

[3] Federico II di Svevia (2 voll.), Ernst Kantorowicz, translation by Maria Offergeld Merlo, Piccola collana storica, Milano, Garzanti, 1939. English translation by Daniela Campus.

[4] Chronicon, a.D. 1210, Riccardo da San Germano.

[5] Chronicon, Salimbene de Adam, translation by C.S., NOBILI, Roma, Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato 2002.

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