The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6

Author: John Rudd  | Date: A.D. 843-1161

Frederick Barbarossa

Not often has one man proven influential enough to dominate and alter the direction of his epoch; but very frequently we see one taking advantage of its tendencies and so managing these, so directing them, that he seems almost to create his surroundings, and becomes to all men the expression and example of his times. Such a leader was the emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1152-1190), and we may follow his fortunes in tracing the early part of this era.

The First Crusade had depleted Europe of half a million fighting men. Then came a pause of fifty years, after which it was learned that Jerusalem was again in danger of falling into the hands of the Mahometans. So, in 1147, another vast crusading army set out to the rescue. Barbarossa himself went with this Second Crusade, as a young German noble. He was one of the few who escaped death in the Asian deserts, one of the very few who from the colossal failure of the expedition returned to Europe with added honor and reputation. He was elected Emperor. The crusade had been as deadly as the first, though less successful, and when this nominal leadership of Western Europe was thus conferred on the gallant Frederick, he found the Teutonic races weakened by the loss of a million of their most valiant warriors—that is, of the feudal lords and their retainers.

Here we find at once one of the great causes of the decay of Feudalism. Many of the old families had become wholly extinct; and under the feudal system their estates lapsed to their overlords, the kings. Other families were represented only by heiresses; and the marrying of these ladies became a recognized move in the game for power, in which the kings, and especially the emperor Frederick, now took a foremost part.

Previous emperors had been figureheads; Frederick became the real ruler of Europe. The kings of Denmark and Poland fully acknowledged themselves his vassals. So also, though less definitely, did the King of England. For a moment the imperial unity of Europe seemed reviving. Only one of the Emperor’s great dukes, Henry the Lion, of Saxony, dared stand against him; and Henry was ultimately crushed. The war-cries of the two opponents, however, became eternalized as factional names in the struggle of Frederick’s successors against other foes. For generations whoever upheld the empire was a Waibling, and whoever would attack it, on whatsoever plea, a well. Frederick, having established his power in Germany, attempted to assert it in Italy as well; and so the strife passed over the Alps and became that of Ghibelline against Guelf, in Italian phrase, of emperor against pope, of monarchy against democracy.

It was this fatal insistence upon Italian authority that brought disaster upon Frederick and all his house, and ultimately upon the empire as well, and on the entire German race. The Italians had been quite content to call themselves subjects of a Holy Roman Empire which extended but vaguely over Europe, and whose chief took his title from their ancient city and only came among them to be crowned. They looked at the matter in a wholly different light when Frederick regarded his position seriously, and interfered in their affairs with the strong hand, crushing their feuds and exacting money tribute. Rebellion was promptly kindled, and for twenty years one German army after another dwindled away in the passage of the Alps, wasted under the fevers of Italian marshes, or was crushed in desperate battle. By the treaty of Constance, in 1183, Frederick confessed the one defeat of his career. He acknowledged the practical independence of the Italian cities.1

1See The Peace of Constance, page 28.


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Chicago: John Rudd, "Frederick Barbarossa," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed December 2, 2023,

MLA: Rudd, John. "Frederick Barbarossa." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 2 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Rudd, J, 'Frederick Barbarossa' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 6. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 2 December 2023, from