Henry VI, German King and Roman Emperor, son of Frederick Barbarossa and Beatrice of Burgundy; b. in 1165; d. September 28, 1197. He became German King on August 15, 1169. In many ways he afforded a strong contrast to his father. Whereas the latter, even in his old age, was an imposing figure on account of his powerful frame and the impressiveness of his actions, his son, pale and slender, was of a more quiet and serious disposition; the former a man of action, experienced, and idolized by his people, the latter a somewhat solitary, positive character, not easy to penetrate, who took his measures according to well-considered and statesmanlike views. Henry VI was great in his conceptions, great also in the energy with which he pursued his aims, clearly conscious of passing failures but never daunted by them. The restlessness which led him ever to advance his aims, and the ambition that ever impelled him to enlarge his empire (semper Augustus), often make him appear nervous and not less frequently hard and unfeeling. It is natural that such a man living in such an age should aim at world-empire. And the key to this ambitious policy of Henry’s lay in Sicily. Having married Constance, daughter of Roger II of Sicily, Henry became the heir of William II upon the latter’s death without issue (November 18, 1189).
Henry was the legitimate heir, but the Neapolitan princes were in no humor to tolerate a German emperor over them. Precarious as the conditions were for him in Germany, Henry was determined to act at once and with vigour. Henry the Lion had returned from exile in violation of his oath. His father-in-law, Richard Coeur de Lion of England, abetted him in his revolt. After fighting with varying success, both parties were inclined to make peace. This was especially true of the king, who wished to have his hands free for his Italian projects. The peace was a sham. It provided that Duke Henry should be left undisturbed and should have half of the revenues of Lubeck, while on the other hand Brunswick and Lubeck were henceforth to be open cities and two of the duke’s sons were to remain at the king’s court as hostages. Meanwhile the nationalist party in Sicily had placed the able Tancred of Lecce on the throne. Pope Clement gladly ratified the election of this national king and absolved all the Sicilian nobles from the oath they had sworn to the German king. His successor on the papal throne, Celestine III, thought that he might safely refuse the imperial crown to the German king though his power was steadily growing. By skillful diplomatic methods, and especially by taking advantage of the local conditions in the city of Rome that were the cause of so much trouble to the papacy, Henry finally managed to change the pope’s mind.
Henry was crowned emperor in St. Peter’s, April 15, 1191. Thereupon he started at once for his hereditary possession, Sicily, at the head of his army. But the enterprise was doomed to complete disaster. While the emperor was besieging Naples, Henry the Lion’s son, Henry, escaped from the king’s camp in order to stir up the rebellion in Germany. In fact, Cologne and the Lower Rhine, as well as the Saxon Guelphs, entered into an alliance against the emperor. England was the backer of the league. Upon Henry’s return to Germany the opposition was fostered by the dispute over the Liege succession. Henry now acted with offensive recklessness in filling the vacant bishoprics. In Liege this led to bloody disturbances. In that town the pope’s candidate, Albert, a brother of the Duke of Brabant, was murdered by German knights (1192). The emperor was accused of complicity—probably without reason. The insurrection now spread throughout all the provinces on the Lower Rhine. The conspiracy of the princes assumed constantly increasing proportions. It was in league not only with the King of England but also with the pope and the rival King of Sicily. In this critical situation Henry showed himself to be an able diplomat and his shrewd, statesmanlike measures checked the formidable uprising for a considerable time. Then an unexpected stroke of fortune came to the aid of the king. King Richard Coeur de Lion of England, on his return from Palestine, was taken prisoner by Duke Leopold of Austria and delivered into Henry’s hands. Thereupon the dangerous opposition of the princes was paralysed. The Guelphs themselves were won over by means of a matrimonial alliance with the emperor’s consent, between the Guelph Duke Henry and Armgard, a cousin of the emperor and daughter of the Count Palatine Conrad of the Rhine.
Richard of England had returned to his kingdom as a vassal of the German king. Thereby the first step had been taken towards a far-reaching policy of expansion. Henry was now able to start on his second expedition to Italy (1194) with a much stronger force. King Tancred had died there, February 20, 1194. His only issue was an infant son. Henry was able to enter Palermo without opposition. The day after his coronation his wife Constance bore him a son who was baptized and received names held in especial honor by the Normans, Frederick and Roger. This child was now the legitimate heir to the throne of Sicily. With the birth of this son the idea of an hereditary imperial crown first assumed really tangible shape in the emperor’s mind. He was already thinking of the constitutional union of Sicily with the empire. Thereby—so ran his thoughts—the hereditary right to the throne of Sicily would accrue to the Roman imperial crown. This plan was naturally the first step to a policy looking towards world-empire and would have divested the empire of its national character. Henry pursued this design obstinately, although as he well perceived, it was unfeasible without the cooperation of the pope and of the German princes. He was prepared to purchase the assent of the German princes by concessions. Consequently he was willing to give up the right of spoils to the spiritual princes and to grant the temporal princes the right to transmit their fiefs which had become hereditary by tradition, to the female line. Perhaps they were only apparent concessions, perhaps it was Henry’s purpose after the acceptance of his scheme to extend Sicilian regulations with their princely officials to Germany. The German territorial lords would have been automatically and gradually reduced thereby to the status of large landed proprietors. The emperor’s power was so great that at first no serious opposition was made to his plan. But it was not long before the Saxon princes and the Archbishop of Cologne opposed it. Henry shrewdly put aside his great plan of an hereditary empire, satisfied for the time being with the election of his son Frederick as king at the Frankfort Dict.
The years 1196-97 saw the Staufian kingdom at its zenith. England and half of France were vassals to the empire, Hungary and Denmark acknowledged the suzerainty of Germany. Once more the national party in Sicily rose in rebellion against the emperor’s growing power, and this time it seems to have been in league with Henry’s hot-blooded wife, Constance. But a plot for a general massacre was discovered in time and suppressed in a most cruel fashion. The course was now absolutely clear for Henry’s policy of world-empire. With Sicily as a center, Henry pursued a Mediterranean policy that was to recall ancient Roman times. Already he seriously thought of conquering Constantinople and had demanded the cession of territory from the Byzantine emperor. Already the Kings of Cyprus and Armenia became the vassals of Henry. A crusade on a magnificent scale was to crown Henry’s world-policy. In fact, 60,000 crusaders left Sicily in 1197, led by Henry’s chancellor, Conrad. The emperor intended to follow later. However, Henry VI died at the height of his power. Of this the chronicler of St. Blasien writes: “His premature death should be mourned by the German people and by all men throughout the empire. For he increased their glory by the wealth of foreign countries, struck terror into the surrounding nations by his bravery and proved that they (the Germans) would certainly have surpassed all other nations had not death cut him short.” Henry’s death in truth foreboded a catastrophe for Germany.