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Episode 56 - The Siege of Crema
Episode 5621st April 2022 • History of the Germans • Dirk Hoffmann-Becking
00:00:00 00:33:10

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1159-1162 This week we will see how the Italian Communes take the Laws of Roncaglia. Not well is the understatement of the 12th century. Prepare for some epic sieges and harsh imperial justice.

The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.

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Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 56 – The siege of Crema

First up, a quick apology for the delayed publication of this episode. I did go away for Easter and all that chasing of eggs and barbecuing is not conducive to producing history podcasts. Normal service will resume next Thursday.

This week we will see how the Italian Communes take the Laws of Roncaglia. Not well is the understatement of the 12th century. Prepare for some epic sieges and harsh imperial justice.

Before we start just a reminder. The History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at or on my website You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to John and Ed and Karri who have already signed up. And then I want to give a very special shout out to Suzanne – superfan of the show since literally day one. Thanks so much for all your encouragement, advice and generosity, something that kept me going when I got excited when an episode barely hit 200 downloads over seven days.

Now back to the show. Last week Barbarossa promulgated the laws of Roncaglia, or more precisely endorsed the application of Roman law for the Italian part of the empire. Roman law was the laws of Imperial Rome where the emperor is the source of all laws and laws apply at the pleasure of the ruler. And more tangible terms, the emperor reclaimed almost all the imperial regalia, the rights to mint coins, charge tolls and hold markets, rights worth 30,000 pounds of silver annually. Not just that but he also asserted his right to build fortified palaces inside all Italian cities, take over their jurisdiction and appoint podestas with dictatorial powers. That made him at least theoretically the richest prince in Christendom.

Though I thought I had done a reasonable job with last episode, and it was one of the more research-intensive ones I have done, but I must admit that I had missed something quite important. I did not talk about what the emperor offered the Italian cities in return for all that gold, palaces and sheer power. His deal was the same deal his most eminent predecessor, the divine Augustus had offered the Roman people in exchange for their republican freedoms – peace.

Civil strife in Italy was even more endemic and certainly even more brutal than in Germany. Each one of these cities was out to destroy the other, raze them to the ground and salt the earth. This kind of fighting had been going on for at least 40 years and from any third party perspective, the communes should be worn out and begging for peace.

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But the world of the Italian communes in the 12th century was the odd one out. These cities were at it hammer and tongs and saw no reason to stop. They may not be quite a war hungry as the Greek Polis of the classical period, but war was in their blood. Peace was for the wimps over in Bergamo, Tortona, Lodi or whichever competitor your own city most despised. Conflict and violence was not limited to the relationship between communes but also within communes. There was regular fighting between the bishop, the urban aristocrats, the merchants, the lower vassals, major landowners in the Contado like monasteries, and the urban underclass, all that in ever changing alliances. To say it with the Mandalorian, this is the way.

And way, did Barbarossa not get that. He did understand violence, that is not the problem. He had grown up in the German civil wars of the investiture controversy. But the difference was that in Germany the fighting was between cousins who were coveting political dominance or a specific right or land. But they weren’t out to utterly eradicate their opponents, roots and all. The rules of chivalry that gradually emerged also put limitations on the violence. And finally, the political actors were individuals who could be appeased, whilst the city factions and whole cities were like the Lernean hydra where you can cut off one head and two new ones would grow in their stead.

Bottom line, peace was not what the Italians wanted. As for the other component of Barbarossa’s successful policy in Germany, the integration of the powerful magnates in the decision-making process, there seems to have been little of that in Italy. In the German lands he could use established processes like royal assemblies and courts of princes. Italy had no established coordination mechanism between the different communes and Barbarossa did not establish one. Whether he did not do that due to the complexity involved in regular consultations or out of snobbery is hard to determine from the sources.

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Barbarossa, despite all the learned speeches and smart Doctors of Law and all that clever legalese was not going to leave his great new governance model to chance. At Roncaglia he demanded hostages from all the cities, not just from hostile Milan and its allies or waverers like Verona and Piacenza, but even from loyal Pavia and Cremona who had supported him all the way.

irst assembly at Roncaglia in:

Well, neither side had appetite for a full-blown conflict. Barbarossa had dismissed the bulk of his army and Genoa’s walls were in a pitiful state. So, the parties came to an agreement whereby Genoa paid the cash-strapped German 1,200 Mark silver and made hollow promises to hand over the proceeds of the regalia in the future and Barbarossa declared himself satisfied. The Genoese did what any sensible city father would do afterwards. They rebuild their walls post haste and within 53 days they were back in a shape to repel any attacker, at which point they probably ceremoniously burned the laws of Roncaglia and called the departed emperor names.

He did not hear that because he was already further south taking over administration of the Lands of Matilda in Tuscany. These lands were still contested between the Empire and the Papacy and had been granted to Welf VI, Barbarossa’s uncle. The Welf had however done pretty much nada with this extremely wealthy fief. That was now to change, imperial administrators took up the collection of dues and cities were sworn to the laws of Roncaglia. This expansion of imperial authority did not stop at the borders of the papacy. Agents were dispatched as far south as Campania to collect the Fodrum and even the cities in the papal states were instructed to hand over the Regalia. All that irritated Pope Hadrian IV adding to the massive irritation he already felt for the man he had crowned not so long ago.

By early:

The first real resistance came from the small town of Crema, east of Milan. Crema, like Piacenza had been traditionally allied with Milan. They were ordered to take down their walls completely. Why? Crema had not done anything to deserve this, well apart from being the archenemy of Cremona. And the Cremonese had paid the emperor 15,000 mark of silver, another utterly shocking amount of money, for getting rid of Crema.

sion of Matilda of Tuscany in:

The imperial order to take down their walls was nothing short of an order to abandon their home and subject themselves to Cremonese attack. No way the Cremasci could take it. They jumped the imperial envoys who barely escaped with their lives.

News of the events in Crema including the bribe of 15,000 quickly reached Milan. Not the kind of thing that lengthens the odds of a smooth implementation of the Laws of Roncaglia.

Rainald von Dassel and Otto von Wittelsbach had stopped at new Lodi when they heard the news. Initial soundings from the metropolitan city were not encouraging for Barbarossa’s cause. The Milanese insisted on the peace agreement with the emperor from last year. This agreement explicitly allowed consular elections, so why should they have to accept some Podesta appointed by the Kaiser. And that was pretty much the line of argument the consuls and citizens of Milan took when they received Rainald and Otto into their splendid City Hall. Arguments were going back and forth, and the envoys finally offered the consuls to be elected as long as they were invested by the emperor.

The consuls agreed to take this proposal to the people who had gathered inside the Cathedral. The response was less than positive. The people not only refused but broke out into full on rioting, screaming that these imperial creatures were to die. Last minute the consuls could calm down the mob and stop them from massacring the paladins.

The city leadership is now stressed out and begs the envoys not to tell the emperor and that they would do as requested and even threw in a huge pile of money.

The envoys returned and told what happened. This whole procedure was humiliating to the envoys and even more humiliating to the emperor.

But at that point he could not do that much. He had dismissed his army and it would take a while to get reinforcements from the north. Hence he went through a charade of negotiations. He called the Milanese before an imperial session where he harshly demanded why they were unwilling to adhere to the oaths they had sworn at Roncaglia. To that they allegedly responded that they may have sworn the oath but never had any intention of keeping them. If they really had said that, the only way they could have justified that was by saying that they had been coerced to take that oath. That feeds my theory that the assembly at Roncaglia really only accepted the laws because they were surrounded by imperial soldiers.

Anyway, the Milanese clearly did not want to yield. It still took a few more months before they could be formally put into the imperial ban for refusing to appear at the third summons.

In the meantime, both sides begin putting their ducks into a row.

Barbarossa sends an order for a new army to Germany. Interestingly, this time the order goes to henry the Lion, his uncle Welf VI and his wife, Beatrix who could raise troops in Burgundy. This is interesting because what he does here is a clever way to overcome the structural deficiencies of a medieval army of vassals. A vassal was only obliged to serve for a set period of time and there were often even more limitations for services in a different country. That had been a problem for almost all of Barbarossa’s predecessors who had called all their vassals down to Italy in one go and found that they returned home after 12 to 18 months, which often meant all the gains of the campaign were almost immediately lost.

Barbarossa established a rotation system. In his first part of the campaign, he had demanded suit from the duke of Austria, the king of bohemia and the duke of Zaehringen. Henry the lion, the most resourceful German prince was allowed to stay home which means he could not refuse the imperial call now. This rotation system allowed Barbarossa to remain on campaign in Italy for years.

In the first campaign against Milan his army, though truly huge by medieval standards was not able to completely encircle the city. His new contingents were unlikely to be larger than last time, so a full investment of the city was not an option. The other point was that Milan did not fall because of a breach in the walls or a battle outside the walls. Milan fell because of its biggest vulnerability, its size. Milan had 150,000 inhabitants and that number had risen even further during the siege when the inhabitants of the surrounding area seek refuge behind its fortifications. Feeding these people and providing enough drinking water was the city’s Achilles heel.

What he needed to do to defeat Milan was to cut them off from food supply. The lands of Milan, as mentioned before, is a giant river island. Access to its Contado required crossing the Ticino, the Adda and the Po River. That was once their first line of defense but will now be their key vulnerability. Crossing these rivers to bring large amounts of food into the city requires bridges. If the imperial army can block all the bridges and devastates the land surrounding Milan, food will become scarce and sooner or later the city will fall.

And that is why he spends the next three years building a ring of fortified cities surrounding the Contado of Milan. Going anticlockwise from the southeast we have the city of Lodi that had moved to a new location. The Lodese are working overtime to set up the new fortifications. Milan will try several times to interrupt the effort but gets repulsed. Further north, Frederick helps the inhabitants of Come to rebuild their fortifications and neutralizes their old enemy and ally of Milan, the now lost city on the island in Lake Como. Bergamo, Novara, Vercelli and above all Pavia, do not need the slightest encouragement to go after the Milanese which covers the western and southern shore.

Piacenza is the big issue. They have a bridge across the po river and could resupply Milan. Not only that, but its city leadership is also showing signs of wanting to revive its old alliance with Milan. Hence the order to reduce their fortifications. Things come to a head when they stole some of the £1,200 the Genoese had been sending the emperor. Barbarossa does not have an army large enough to besiege Piacenza and quite frankly they did not work superfast at taking their walls down. So, he simply enters the city in all his splendor as a guest and the Piacentini do not dare to lay hands on him. They hand back the funds and promise to support the blockade.

That gives the emperor an inner ring around Milan that allows him to block all large-scale food supplies into the Contado. He then proceeds to lay waster to the territory itself. His army will constantly raid the lands around Milan for the next three years and at times drag out Milanese armies. It is a re-run of the torched earth policy that worked so well before, just on a larger scale.

This elaborate and sophisticated plan now needs one last element to succeed. The cities that sit outside this ring and have traditionally been allies of Milan need to be brought to heel. Brescia gets beaten by the Cremonese and caves early on. Tortona is too far and too small.

But there was one town that still defied the grand scheme. And that was the small town of Crema. Crema mattered because it lies right behind Lodi, was fiercely loyal to Milan and militarily punching well above its weight. Crema was the weakest link in the strategy and hence Crema needed to be brought down, brought down at all cost.

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The siege began in July 1159. The first to arrive before the four heavily fortified gates were the Cremonese. The emperor arrived a few days later and over time the reinforcements of Henry the Lion and Beatrix of Burgundy appeared so that the small city of maybe 10,000 could be completely surrounded. Whilst Milan was to be starved out, for Crema that would not work since the city was smaller and better provisioned. Inside the city were not just the warlike Cremasci, but also opponents of the imperial cause from Brescia, Piacenza and a contingent of Milanese.

This siege was conducted with utmost brutality. Either side would publicly execute its prisoners in full view of the other side and allegedly even torture them.

To break the formidable walls, the besiegers built multiple siege engines. One of those was an enormous moveable siege tower. The tower was allegedly 70 feet tall and 30 feet wide. It was mounted either on wheeled axles or logs and it took 500 men to move it. It had six stories of which the first one was on the level of the city walls and had a bridge the soldiers could go across on to the walls. The top five floors contained rooms from where a thousand archers could clear the walls of defenders.

The initial plan was to cross the moat with battering rams and the tower following behind, providing cover for the men operating the battering ram. To implement this plan the moat needs to be filled first. Over 2,000 wagons filled with dirt are brought forward and their content dumped in. That done the battering rams crossed over followed by the tower. The Cremasci responded by hurling stones from five mangonels and several petraries at the tower. The tower, which had cost near 2,000 pounds of silver had to be protected.

For that Barbarossa had the hostages he had taken earlier tied to the tower assuming the Cremasci would not want to kill their own people. The hostages were tied to the tower day and night and at night were made to hold a candle showing the defenders that they were still there.

The Cremasci remained undeterred and kept the bombardment of the tower going, even though the hostages were badly maimed, and some killed. It is said that the hostages themselves encouraged the defenders to keep shooting.

Barbarossa had the tower withdrawn, probably because it had not worked or maybe even he was appalled by the brutality. The engineers came up with a different solution. They covered the tower in double braided bundles of faggots, hides and bales of wool.

In the meantime, the battering ram had managed without air cover and created a gap in the wall. The city’s population built a new defensive line inside the wall overnight preventing the besiegers from breaking through. They sent out a commando squad in the night through a tunnel to destroy the ram, which failed. The next day they dropped incendiary material on to top of the housing of the battering ram, which almost did for Barbarossa who had been inside directing operations from the front.

still holding out by January:

At this point Marchesius, the master engineer of Crema defected to the imperial side. Whether he was bribed, had despaired of the cause of the little city or had been held under duress in the first place, we do not know. What he did though was pointing out the weaknesses in the city’s defenses. His recommendation was to attack again at the place the walls had initially been breached but this time to bring the tower up to the walls. He also constructed a second siege engine so that the wall could be attacked on two locations. The troops of Konrad, Count Palatinate on the Rhine and Barbarossa’s half brother and Otto von Wittelsbach were to lead the operation. They did manage to get onto the top of the walls under cover of the tower’s archers but did not manage to completely dislodge the Cremasci. Konrad’s standard bearer, Bertolf of Urach jumped off the wall into the city hoping his troops would follow him. But they stayed up and he was left alone in amongst the enemy. He was immediately cut down and one of the defenders scalped him, combed his hair and attached the gruesome trophy o his helmet. Whilst this goes on the defenders keep lobbing stones at the two towers and, fearing to be cut off, Konrad ordered his men to retreat.


The next day the inhabitants of the city all left, being allowed to carry their moveable possessions on their backs. Even the men were allowed to leave as were the soldiers from Brescia, Piacenza and Milan after handing over their weapons.

The army of Germans and Italians then looted Crema for five days, burning the city down in the process. Not just the walls, but all the houses and even the churches were razed. Nothing was to remain of the city of Crema. It will be 25 years before Crema is re-founded and it is today a quiet, beautiful little town where Germans are no longer at risk of being scalped.

With Crema gone, the war of attrition with Milan became the focus of imperial activity. Because the siege had taken so long, Piacenza had rejoined their alliance with Milan so that most of the effort was focused on disturbing supply into Milan. The other key activity was the comprehensive destruction of Milanese food production in the Contado.

Henry the Lion and others in:

By August 7th, 1161 Milan was ready to negotiate. They had asked several German princes, including Barbarossa’s half-brother Conrad, the Landgrave of Thuringia and the Bohemian dukes to intercede on their behalf. They offered to reduce their walls, fill in their moat, destroy some tower houses, hand over 300 hostages and pay a fine of 10,000.

The princes had guaranteed the Milanese safe conduct for the negotiations and so the consuls arrived with a small contingent of knights. It is not clear what exactly happened there but Rainald von Dassel by now elevated to archbishop of Cologne and hence in control of 500 knights fell upon the Milanese and a fight broke out. Barbarossa ordered the princes to join the fight by they reduced being deeply offended that von Dassel had refused to honor their promise of safe conduct. Barbarossa and some parts of the imperial army joined Rainald despite the complaints.

The outnumbered Milanese fled towards the city, but the citizens refused to open the gates for them fearing the imperial army would follow them through. Several hundred Milanese knights and consuls were taken prisoner. Thus ended negotiations

After that the siege tightened further and the imperial army apprehended anyone who dared to step outside the walls. Those found to be collecting food or wood had their hands cut off. The blockade became tighter and tighter and hunger took hold of the city of 150,000.

On 21st of February they dispatched their consuls to the emperor offering two options, unconditional surrender or a negotiated settlement. The second offer included the total destruction of their walls and towers, the building of an imperial palace of whichever size and location he desired, the acceptance of a podesta and a fee to be determined.

Though several princes suggested to take the negotiated option, in the end the hard liners around Rainald von Dassel prevailed. It was to be unconditional surrender. The Milanese were made to bring their Carrioco, the enormous war cart that was the symbol of civic pride all the way over to Lodi. There they would lay down their banners before the emperor and offer their lives to his mercy.

Barbarossa took 400 hostages and then decided to visit the city himself. He ordered all the inhabitants to leave and entered the empty metropolis with his army. And then he decided his verdict. Milan, that had so often razed cities to the ground, that had shown no mercy to the people of Lodi, of Como, of Novara or Pavia should suffer the same fate. The whole of the city was to be destroyed, its walls broken and the moats filled in, their houses taken down and the great campanile knocked down. Nobody was allowed to live there anymore, only the venerable churches were allowed to remain. The Milanese were told to move into the countryside and live in villages, as they had ordered the Lodese not so long ago.

Each of the Italian allies and the German contingents were given a section of the city and destruction raged for five days. Most of it was done with fire, but some, like the Lodese who had suffered so much from Milanese oppression were the most thorough.the Campanile fell on the cathedral, destroying on off the most splendid Romanesque churches and making way for its current duomo.

This destruction of Milan is often attributed to the counsel of Rainald von Dassel, now Archbishop of Cologne. His hardline stance was very consistent across his career, and he did advice the emperor on this. Equally some of the Lombard communes insisted on a brutal punishment. But ultimately the decision and responsibility lay with Barbarossa himself.

Of all the loot that was taken from Milan during the five days following March 26th the most famous went to Rainald von Dassel. The relics of the three kings, the magi who had brought presents to Bethlehem at Jesus’ birth. He took them from the church of Saint Eustorgio where they were kept since Constantine had sent them in 314. They are now in a most magnificent shrine in the Cathedral of Cologne, a shrine believed to be the largest reliquary in the western world.

The year:

What put a major spanner in the works is the thing that always puts a spanner in the works of medieval German monarchs, the papacy. The relationship with Pope Hadrian IV had already deteriorated to a point where he was about to excommunicate the emperor in early 1160. That could only be avoided by the pontiff’s sudden death. As we will see next week, the election of a new pope prove difficult and we end up again with a schism, a schism that will last 17 years, dominating the political landscape in Europe.

I hope to see you then.

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