Frederick II, German King and Roman Emperor, son of Henry VI and Constance of Sicily; b. December 26, 1194; d. at Fiorentina, in Apulia, December 13, 1250. He adopted his father’s policy of making Italy the center of his power, and was interested in Germany only because it guaranteed to him his title to Upper and Central Italy. On the other hand, he could not arrest the dissolution of the empire hastened by the failure of his predecessor Otto IV. The possessions of the empire and those of his own Hohenstaufen family, by means of which Frederick I had sought to build up his power, were plundered. Frederick’s sole desire was for peace in Germany, even if to secure this he had to make the greatest sacrifices; and for this reason, he granted to the ecclesiastical and temporal lords a series of privileges, which subsequently developed into the independent sovereignty of these princes. This emperor’s policy was entirely dominated by the idea that without Sicily the possession of Italy would always be insecure, and that a king of Italy could not maintain himself without being at the same time emperor. This policy was naturally antagonistic to the papacy. The popes, isolated as they were in Central Italy, felt themselves compelled to prevent the union of Southern Italy with the empire. Frederick recognized this fact, and for several years strove to maintain peace by extreme concessions. Innocent III had chosen Frederick to be his instrument for the destruction of the Guelph, Otto IV. In return for Innocent’s support, Frederick had been obliged to make promises to the pope at Eger (July 12, 1215), which would put an end to the undue influence of the civil power over the German bishops. The emancipation of the Church from the royal power dates from this time. The cause of Frederick’s concessions to the Church lay not in his religious convictions but in his political aims.
Frederick had also been obliged to acknowledge the pope as his overlord in Sicily, thus abandoning his father’s cherished hopes of uniting Sicily with the imperial crown of Germany, though the attempts of the pope to entirely nullify this “personal union” were far from successful. Italian affairs continued to be the hinge on which turned the papal policy towards the emperor, for the popes in their efforts to sustain their traditional supremacy could not allow the emperor a controlling influence in Italy. The conflict between the two powers strangely influenced the Crusades. Frederick had been forced to pledge himself to take part in a new crusade, for which inadequate preparations had been made by the pope, and the Council of Lateran (1215) fixed June 1, 1216, as the time for beginning the crusade.
The condition of Germany, however, did not permit the absence of the emperor. At Frankfort in April, 1220, the German diet passed regulations concerning the Roman expedition and the crusade. After Frederick’s young son Henry had been chosen king, and Engelbert; the powerful Archbishop of Cologne, named vice regent, Frederick set out for Italy. “He was crowned emperor at Rome (November 22, 1220), and renewed his vow to take the cross, promising to begin the campaign in the following year. By a severe edict against heretics, he placed the secular power at the service of the Church, and thus appeared to have arrived at a complete understanding with the pope. Even when he failed to keep his promise to start the crusade in the following year, the friendly relations of pope and emperor remained unaltered. For this the peace-loving pope deserved the chief credit, though Frederick also strove to avoid a breach by his loyal policy towards the Holy See. Both pope and emperor, however, saw that this peace was maintained only by skillful diplomacy, and that it was constantly imperilled by their conflicting interests.
Frederick at this time was chiefly solicitous about Sicily, towards which he was drawn by his Norman parentage on the mother’s side, while the character of his own German people did not attract his sympathies. He had grown up in Sicily where Norman, Greek and Mohammedan civilization had intermingled, at once strengthening and repelling one another. The king, endowed with great natural ability, had acquired a wonderful fund of learning which made him appear a prodigy to his contemporaries, but, although he was intimately acquainted with the greatest productions of eastern and western genius, his soaring spirit never lost itself in romantic dreams. He eagerly studied both the more and the less important interests of the political and economical life of Southern Italy. The founding of the University of Naples sufficiently attests his interest in education. He was an intelligent admirer of the beauties of nature, his love for which was intensified by his natural powers of observation. The unlimited resources of the physical world and its constantly multiplying problems increased the inclination of this sceptical spirit towards a thorough empiricism. In none of his contemporaries does intellectual subjectivism show itself so strongly and at the same time so one-sidedly. This desire to penetrate into the secrets of the universe, as well as his scandalous sensual indulgence, brought on Frederick the reputation of an atheist. In spite, however, of his sceptical tendencies, he was not an atheist. An epigrammatic utterance about “the three impostors, Moses, Christ and Mohammed” has been unjustly ascribed to him in later times, and he remained true to the Church. Perhaps his nationalistic mind took pleasure in the strictly logical character of Catholic dogma. He was not, however, a champion of rationalism, nor had he any sympathy with the mysticoheretical movements of the time; in fact he joined in suppressing them. It was not the Church of the Middle Ages that he antagonized, but its representatives. It is in his conflict with the pope that his colossal character becomes manifest. At the same time, it becomes apparent how he combined force and ability with cunning and the spirit of revenge. His most prominent characteristic was his self-conceit. In Germany this megalomania was kept in check, but not so in Sicily. Here he could build up a modern state, the foundations of which it is true had already been laid by the great Norman kings.
The organization of his Sicilian hereditary states was completed by the “Constitutiones imperiales”, published at Amalfi, 1231. In these laws, Frederick appears as sole possessor of every right and privilege, an absolute monarch, or rather an enlightened despot standing at the head of a well-ordered civil hierarchy. His subjects in this system had duties only, but they were well defined. After practically completing the reorganization of Sicily (1235), the emperor attempted, like his powerful grandfather, to reestablish the imperial power in Upper Italy, but with insufficient resources. The result was a new hostile league of the Italian cities. Through the mediation of the pope, however, peace was maintained. During this time Archbishop Engelbert of Cologne, supported by several princes of the empire who had been efficiently assisted by the royal power in their struggle with the cities, preserved the peace in Germany. After the archbishop’s death, however, a new order set in—a time of savage feuds and widespread disorder followed by the first open quarrel between the papacy and the emperor. Frederick had completed extensive preparations for a crusade in 1227. Four years previously, he had espoused Isabella (or Iolanthe), heiress of Jerusalem, and now styled himself “Romanorum imperator semper Augustus; Jerusalem et Siciliae Rex”. It was his serious intention to carry out his promise to begin his crusade in August, 1227 (under pain of excommunication), but a malignant fever destroyed a great part of his army and prostrated the king himself. Nevertheless Gregory IX declared Frederick excommunicated (September 29, 1227), showing by this step that he considered the time had come to break the illusive peace and to clear up the situation.
Although the radical antagonism between empire and papacy did not appear on the surface, it was at the root of the ensuing conflict between Church and State. At the beginning of this struggle the excommunicated emperor started on his crusade against the express wish of the pope, wishing no doubt to justify his attitude by success. On March 17, 1229, he crowned himself King of Jerusalem. On June 10, 1229, he landed at Brindisi on his return. During the emperor’s absence the curia had taken vigorous measures against him. Frederick’s energetic action after his return forced the pope to recognize the emperor’s success in the East and to release him from excommunication. The treaty of San Germano (July 20, 1230), in spite of many concessions made by the Emperor, was in reality an evidence of papal defeat. The pope had been unable to break the power of his dangerous adversary. Frederick forthwith resumed his North Italian policy. Again his attempts were frustrated, on this occasion by the threatening attitude of his son Henry, who now appeared as independent ruler of Germany, thereby becoming his father’s enemy and unfurling the banner of rebellion (1234). After a long absence, Frederick now returned to Germany, where he took prisoner his rebel son (1235). Henry died in 1242.
About this time Frederick married Elizabeth of England (at Worms), and in 1235 held a brilliant diet at Mainz, where he promulgated the famous Laws of the Empire, a landmark in the development of the empire and its constitution. New measures for the maintenance of peace were enacted, the right of private feuds was greatly restricted, and an imperial court with its own seal was constituted, thereby establishing a basis for the future national law. As soon as the emperor had established order in Germany, he again marched against the Lombards, which conflict soon brought on another with the pope. The latter had several times mediated between the Lombards and the emperor, and now reasserted his right to arbitrate between the contending parties. In the numerous manifestos of the pope and the emperor the antagonism of Church and State becomes daily more evident. The pope claimed for himself the “imperium animarum” and the “principatus rerum et corporum in universo mundo”. The emperor on the other hand wished to restore the “imperium mundi”; Rome was again to be the capital of the world and Frederick was to become the real emperor of the Romans. He published an energetic manifesto protesting against the world-empire of the pope. The emperor’s successes, especially his victory over the Lombards at the battle of Cortenuova (1237), only embittered the opposition between Church and State. The pope, who had allied himself with Venice, again excommunicated the “self-confessed heretic”, the “blasphemous beast of the Apocalypse” (March 20, 1239). Frederick now attempted to conquer the rest of Italy, i.e. the papal states. His son Enrico captured in a sea-fight all the prelates who by the command of Gregory were coming from Genoa to Rome to assist at a general council. Gregory’s position was now desperate, and, after his death (August 22, 1241), the Holy See remained vacant for almost two years save for the short reign of Celestine IV.
During this interval the bitterness existing between the rival parties seemed to moderate somewhat, and about this time the emperor was threatened by a new and dangerous movement in Germany. The German episcopate could ill bear the prospect of being henceforth at the mercy of the reckless tyrant of Italy. Frederick sought to weaken the hostile bishops by favoring the secular princes and granting privileges to the cities. The energetic Innocent IV ascended the papal throne on June 25, 1243. To secure peace with the newly elected pontiff, the emperor was inclined to make concessions. The main issue at stake however was not settled, i.e., the jurisdiction of the emperor in North Italy. In order to nullify Frederick’s military superiority in the future phases of the struggle, Innocent left Rome secretly and went by way of Genoa to Lyons. Here he summoned a general council (June 21, 1245) by which Frederick was again excommunicated. Immediately there appeared several pretenders in Germany, i.e., Henry Raspe of Thuringia and William of Holland. It was only with the greatest difficulty that Frederick’s son Conrad could hold his own in Germany, since the greater part of the clergy supported the pope. Most of the lay lords, however, remained faithful to the emperor and exhibited an attitude of hostility to the clergy. A contemporary writer describes as follows the situation in 1246: “Injustice reigned supreme. The people were without leaders and Rome was troubled. Clerical dignity was lost sight of and the laity were split into various factions. Some were loyal to the Church and took the cross, others adhered to Frederick and became the enemies of God‘s religion.”
For some time fortune alternately smiled and frowned on Frederick in Italy, but, after completing all his preparations for a decisive battle, he died at Fiorentina in Apulia, and was buried at Palermo. In German legend he continued to live as the emperor fated to return and reform both Church and State. In more recent times, however, he has had to yield his place in popular legend to Frederick Barbarossa, a figure more in harmony with German sentiment.