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Ep. 57 - The Hand of God - The siege of Rome in 1167 that changes everything
Episode 5728th April 2022 • History of the Germans • Dirk Hoffmann-Becking
00:00:00 00:38:09

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This week we do what we have done so many times and seem to be unable to avoid, talk about the conflict between pope and emperor. And that always means trouble, bad decisions and a siege of Rome.  But boy, this time is not another standard schism, this time it is showdown.

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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To make it easier for you to share the podcast, I have created separate playlists for some of the seasons that are set up as individual podcasts. they have the exact same episodes as in the History of the Germans, but they may be a helpful device for those who want to concentrate on only one season.

So far I have:

The Ottonians

Salian Emperors and Investiture Controversy

Fredrick Barbarossa and Early Hohenstaufen

Frederick II Stupor Mundi

Saxony and Eastward Expansion

The Hanseatic League

The Teutonic Knights

The Holy Roman Empire 1250-1356


Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 57 – The Hand of God

This week we do what we have done so many times and seem to be unable to avoid, talk about the conflict between pope and emperor. And that always means trouble, bad decisions and a siege of Rome. But boy, this time is not another standard schism, this time it is showdown.

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 Paul, Gerrit and Gunnar who have already signed up.

Last week we had left Barbarossa standing in the smouldering ruins of what was once Western Europe’s largest city, Milan. His harsh justice here and in the small town of Crema had broken communal resistance in Italy for now. But despite the military success, several strands of Barbarossa’s policy were coming apart.

When the Staufer had set out his reign, he saw a good relationship with the papacy as a crucial element of his longer-term plan. The antagonism between Rome and Germany that culminated in the so-called Investiture Controversy that had broken the back of the Salian regime. Subsequent emperors including Barbarossa had made huge efforts to maintain a good relationship with the papacy. Right at the start of his reign Barbarossa had entered into the treaty of Constance with pope Hadrian IV. The two parties had agreed on a common approach vis-à-vis the King of Sicily, the Roman Commune and emperor Manuel in Constantinople.

But by:

But it was Pope Hadrian IV who formally broke the treaty when he came to an understanding with King William of Sicily. He called the Sicilian the most brilliant in wealth and achievement amongst all the kings and dearest son in Christ before granting him more fiefs than any of his predecessors possessed.

The agreement with William could probably be overlooked given the emperor had left the pope defenceless and without a secure hold on Rome when he had to go home. But what broke the camel’s back was the fateful letter to Besancon where Hadrian may or may not have implied Barbarossa was his vassal by using the word “Beneficia”. Attempts were made to calm things down and Hadrian even wrote a conciliatory letter saying that this was a terrible misunderstanding, but on a personal level the two men no longer trusted each other.

urned around and went home in:

The differences were part political and part ideological.

The political differences stemmed from Barbarossa’s attempt to establish firm imperial control over Northern Italy. An emperor who would reside regularly on the Italian peninsula was a distinctly uncomfortable prospect for the pope. Other than the king of Siciliy, the emperor could and did claim overlordship of what would later be called the papal states. Though the papal propaganda machine pushed it at every opportunity, it was widely known that the Constantine donation was a fake. The pope had not been granted full suzerainty over large parts of central Italy because he had cured the imperator of leprosy. Though Pippin the Short and Otto the Great had confirmed papal rights to this territory, the legal basis on which it rested was wobbly to say the least. Even more worrisome, the city of Rome itself had moved into the imperial camp, acknowledged imperial overlordship of the city and sent troops for the first siege of Milan. Things became even more tense when Barbarossa began applying the laws of Roncaglia to the papal lands, demanding the regalia and the Fodrum.

Somewhat ironically the conflict between pope and emperor in Italy was a long-term effect of the Investiture Conflict. As the papacy had helped undermine the power of the monarch in Germany, Italy became the place where emperors sought the resources to compete with the powerful German magnates. In particular the later Hohenstaufen saw Italy as the power base from which to control the German part of the empire.

Apart from the political chasm that had opened up between pope and emperor, there was also an ideological divide. The papacy had by now fully absorbed the Gregorian reform, or at least the parts relating to papal omnipotence. Even those popes who could barely hold on to Rome fundamentally believed that all legitimacy flowed from God and that they, as the vicar of Christ were the ones who invested the kings and emperors. All secular rulers were to be subservient to the pope. The cardinal Rolando Bandinelli had put it most succinctly in Besancon, “From whom did he get the crown, if not from the lord Pope”

Barbarossa and his circle, in particular Rainald von Dassel and the Four Doctors of Bologna, created a new, competing ideology. The empire was holy in and of itself, not through derivation from the church. It was part of the world order god has created where the two swords, that of secular power and that of spiritual power fought as equals and in harmony against the enemies of Christendom. And the empire went back to a time well before Christ and before the church was established. Its rulers, as laid out in the code of Justinian were given ultimate temporal power over all their subjects, and that includes the members of the church.

This ideological rift has gone well beyond the quite specific issues of the investiture conflict that had been put to bed by the Concordat of Worms. By now the gap has become unbridgeable and conflict between pope and emperor resumes.

This conflict was not only structural but even comparatively minor issues couldn’t be resolved thanks to a specific element of papal – the idea that there was no man or court of men could judge a pope. For instance, Barbarossa had suggested to resolve the question of the application of the laws of Roncaglia by arbitration. He suggested that a court of three imperial and three papal representatives would decide whether imperial regalia can be claimed within the Patrimonium Petri. But that was unacceptable since it would subject the pope to the judgement of a court of men. The inability to create a resolution mechanism meant that whatever conflict arose, it would only end with either one party defeated or some miracle of diplomacy.


As this conflict heated up, pope Hadrian IV made contact with the Lombard cities opposed to the Laws of Roncaglia, specifically Milan, Piacenza, Brescia and Crema. Whether as a part of this agreement or independent thereof, Hadrian IV had made up his mind to bring the conflict into the open and excommunicate Barbarossa. The only reason this did not happen was because Hadrian IV died on September 1st, 1159.

The college of cardinals which just 10 years earlier was all geared up to fight the King of Sicily was now overwhelmingly supportive of the Normans. Hadrian IV’s chancellor Roland Bandinelli who had negotiated the alliance with William of Sicily was their leader. Bandinelli was not only the proponent of the Sicilian alliance, he was also the man who had brought about the wrath of Barbarossa when he suggested the emperor was just a vassal of the pope.

The minority faction was led by cardinal Octavian of Monticelli. Octavian was from the highest Roman aristocracy and a distant cousin of Barbarossa.

No prizes for which of the two candidates the Imperial party wanted to see on throne of St. Peter. Whether there was imperial involvement in the election is almost as debated as the question whether Roland Bandinelli and his faction had made a secret deal with the Communes and Sicily. What we can say though is that there were imperial envoys in Rome at the time of the election. One of those envoys was Otto von Wittelsbach, the man who had tried to run Roland Bandinelli through with his sort at the diet of Besancon.


On September 7th, 1159, an unknown number of cardinals gather behind the high alter of the Basilica of St. Peter to elect a new pope. The majority vote for Roland Bandinelli and he proceeds to put on the papal mantle. At that point cardinal Octavian rugby tackles the elected pontiff and grabs the mantle. He then tries to put the mantle on himself but the pro Bandinelli cardinals rip it out of hands. An attendant brings Octavian a copy of the original mantle that he now attempts to put on but gets it back to front. Despite the wardrobe malfunction, the minor clergy of St. Peters acclaims him as pope Victor IV. Meanwhile some armed men, supporters of Octavian enter the basilica and Bandinelli and his band of bishops flee into one of our favourite places, the fortress of the frangipani in the Colosseum. They skip town a few days later and Bandinelli himself was crowned pope Alexander III in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in the town of Ninfa. The town was abandoned in 1382 and the ruins of its church is today a centrepiece in one of the greatest garden landscapes in Europe, the Giardini di Ninfa.

Now back to Victor IV. Though it looked initially as if he had some support in the city and clergy of Rome, that dwindled away quite quickly and, instead of a proper enthronisation in St. Peter, he had to settle for a low-key ceremony in the monastery of Farfa. By that time he only had one cardinal bishop supporting him who happened to be his close relative. Many of the 9 who had voted for him had by now defected to Alexander III.

Another schism. This one will last for a long time, 17 years to be precise.

Victor IV may not have much support within the church, but he thought he could rely on his imperial sponsors. Nobody knows what Otto von Wittelsbach had promised him before the election and we do not know whether Barbarossa was happy for things to escalate as they did.

itially scheduled for January:

Victor IV came to that synod as expected but Alexander III refused arguing again that he, as pope, cannot be judged by men. His refusal to show was the main argument why the synod voted for Victor IV.

However, this event dd not resolve much. Though invitations had gone out the episcopate of France, England and Spain, none of them showed. Apart from imperial bishops only the church leaders of Bohemia, Poland and Denmark made an appearance. And even some German bishops abstained, most prominently the archbishop of Salzburg.

Imperial diplomacy had made great efforts to convince king Louis VII and king Henry II to come in on Victor IV. side. This failed in part because Alexander III inherited the papacy’s diplomatic machine. Most papal legates who had built relationships with local bishops and aristocrats of France for decades had sided with Alexander III. Vitor’s supporters within the church and the imperial envoys had little standing in the west. Yes, there were ties of friendship and Barbarossa knew Louis VII personally from the Second Crusade, but it was not enough.

Empire. In particular in the:

This schism is one of the most impenetrable events I have come across in the making of the podcast so far. The reason for that is that primary sources are contradictory on almost every single event. That is new and has a lot to do with the improved public relations machine of the empire. During the investiture conflict, practically all sources were supportive of Gregory VII and the papacy, largely because most of the authors were clerics and because Henry IV did not place enough emphasis on controlling the narrative. Barbarossa is very different. He is a competent politician and understands very well how important it is to put his side of the story across. He regularly publishes circulars laying out his side of the argument and employs biographers like Otto von Freising to create his legacy.

With such a confusing set of sources I could take you through the pro and con of the storyline on each event but that would take us probably about 60 minutes and I am not sure it would add much. Hence you will now hear a version of the story that I found most convincing or where it is unclear, the most amusing. Just remember, it may all have been different.

on is that When Milan fell in:

Barbarossa made another attempt to resolve the schism through a church synod. He agreed with King Louis VII of France that they should gather at a bridge on the border between France and the empire near Dijon. Barbarossa would bring Victor IV and Louis would bring Alexander II as well as a large contingent of bishops and abbots. The bishops and abbots would then debate the question who the right pope was and make a binding decision. Everyone agrees to follow that binding decision and hey presto that would be the end the schism.

Which gets us to the question why did Louis VII consent to this when Victor IV had no appeal to him and his episcopate?. Well, that has a lot to do with bits of English history you guys may be more familiar with. Louis VII is that French king who had been married to Eleanor of Aquitaine who divorced him and married Henry II of England. That marriage and the lands he had inherited from his father Fulk of Anjou had made Henry the by far most powerful prince in France. Henry and Louis were tied in a practically never-ending war. So far Barbarossa had kept out of this fight, but the defeat of Milan, the schism and support for Alexander III created the risk of a German intervention in this rather precariously balanced conflict. So, Louis had to appease Barbarossa and would probably have thrown Alexander III to the wolves in order to protect his crown. But Alexander escaped from this predicament by brokering a peace agreement between Henry and Louis at the very last minute. With that in place, no more need to kowtow to the emperor and risking eternal damnation for sending the rightful pope to a dank imperial prison.

Louis now has only one problem, which is how to wiggle out of the agreement with Barbarossa.

Given he had promised to come, and a royal promise has to be kept, the King of France arrived on the bridge at the prescribed time and date, but he did not bring pope Alexander III. In one telling Barbarossa simply missed this crucial appointment and Louis VII turned around after waiting a few hours. That sounds very improbable. In the other version Barbarossa did meet Louis on the bridge and Louis told him that unfortunately the pope was held up. But he promised Alexander would be here within the next 3 weeks.

That was a smart way to blow up the synod without looking bad. A 3-week delay is not unusual given the state of roads in the 12th century and king Louis cannot be expected to drag Alexander to Dijon in chains. So he looks as if he is willing to resolve the schism. Barbarossa on the other hand cannot wait 3 weeks. To make sure he had the numbers to get his man elected he had brought some 50 bishops, 8 abbots and 30 great princes. Even the king of Denmark had come along. Overall, there were some 3,000 people camped along the River Saone. No way these poor lands could feed such a large number of people for a whole 3 weeks.

Under these circumstances the planned synod with the French could not go ahead. To avoid completely cancelling it, Rainald von Dassel changed it into a imperial synod only. What mad eit worse was that he declared that the pope to be no more than the bishop of Rome and given Rome was an imperial city, an imperial assembly was enough to decide who was pope. The French were not necessary and all that trip to Burgundy had only been a courtesy.

This was an epic PR disaster that made abundantly clear that Victor IV was an imperial puppet.

The schism continued unabated.

2 years later pope Victor IV was dead. Two days after his death Rainald von Dassel arranged the election of Guido of Crema as pope Paschalis III. Bishop Henry of Liege consecrated him. The fact that only one cardinal and maybe 8 bishops and some Roman noblemen were present at this “election” shows how little support the antipopes had within the church.

with lands and privileges in:

The election of Paschalis III not only prolonged the schism but also sheds light on how imperial rule has changed between 1152 and 1164. You may remember the episode The Barbarossa where I enthuse lyrically about the emperor as he was depicted on the Kappenberger Kopf. This image was most likely made before 1158 and the person depicted there was a great politician who had negotiated an end to the endless German civil war, had found an accommodation with the papacy that resulted in a quick imperial coronation and had re-established imperial rights in Italy.

The Barbarossa of:

I do not want to go too far down the slippery slope of historical parallels, but the transition from recovery to world domination in a short period seems a pattern that goes back a long time. This medieval episode we discuss today is long forgotten and overshadowed by the events of the 19th and 20th century, but it is part of the German and European subconscious. It is this idea that Germany has been so unaccustomed to political and military strength that it cannot control it or be trusted with it. Margaret Thatcher fundamentally believed this, which is why she insisted on deep integration of a reunified Germany within the European union, including the Euro. And it still drives concerns at least in Germany over the recent announcement to heavily invest in the Bundeswehr. This is a history podcast, not a political one, so I will leave it at that.

th century. By:

Despite the opposition Barbarossa doubles down and makes his princes swear the oath of Wuerzburg, never, ever to acknowledge Alexander III. To convince his reluctant bishops and princes to take the oath, he took it himself. That is an extremely rare occurrence. The emperor, like the pope does not swear oaths as all his pronouncements carry the weight of the office. Where treaties require oaths, these are usually taken by the most prominent princes or ecclesiastics. Emperor Henry IV did not even swear to the terms of reconciliation at Canossa himself but had his intermediaries including abbot Hugh of Cluny swear on them on his behalf. An emperor making an oath himself is a big deal. Barbarossa is willing to throw away one of the great symbols of his office to support this bishop of Rome.

This oath of Wuerzburg does not help at all. What it meant was the emperor was now in a corner. Any reconciliation with Alexander would cause massive reputational damage. He now has to go after the pope at all and any cost.

The first victim is the archbishop of Salzburg whose lands are devastated, and the city of Salzburg burnt down. Barbarossa who had brought peace now brings war into Germany.


In a splendid ceremony the grave of Charlemagne is opened again. Last time that happened was when Otto III did open it in this weird attempt at communing with the long dead predecessor. This time the bones of the great Carolingian were lifted and placed into golden reliquary. Not the one you see today, that was made during the reign of his grandson, Frederick II. Barbarossa however left many valuable presents in Aachen, most famously the great chandelier made from gilded copper comprising 8 semicircular elements flanked by 8 towers that exactly reflects the octagonal structure of the chapel at a ratio of 1:4.

Did it work? Not really. Charlemagne is still shared or split depending on your viewpoint between Germany and France.

solution now was military. By:

The imperial army set off in October 1166 from Augsburg. This army was no longer an army of loyal princes who brought along their retinue of knights. Yes, some of it still was, but by now Barbarossa had used up all his feudal credits and had to rely on mercenaries. These were known as Brabazones or Brabanters presumably because many hailed from the low countries. The army’s progress was slow and impeded by the Lombard cities. We will talk about the developments in Northern Italy between 1162 and 1167 in the next episode. Just for the purposes of this narrative you should know that with few exceptions the Lombard cities had risen up against imperial rule.

These regular skirmishes with cities slowed down progress and required Barbarossa to split his army. Rainald von Dassel led one contingent along the West coast of Italy through Tuscany south, whilst Barbarossa himself went along the eastern shore.

Rainald von Dassel’s journey was unexpectedly successful. He encountered a Roman/papal army near Tusculum at the end of May Despite being seriously outnumbered his forces beat the Romans comprehensively. The new archbishop of Mainz, Christian von Buch, made his name as a warrior in this battle. As a cleric he was not allowed to use a sword and hence brought death and destruction to his enemies with his enormous club. On the opposite side, two cardinals also died in the fighting. When the imperial army appeared before the gates of Rome the Senate and the populace turned against Alexander who took again refuge in the Frangipane fortress in the Colosseum.

Barbarossa meanwhile got bogged down first in a siege of Ancona and then with relieving a castle under attack from the Sicilians. It took him until the end of July to arrive in Rome. The imperial army broke through the gates of the Vatican city quite easily but then found resistance at the Castel St. Angelo and at the now fortified basilica of St. Peter. In the attack on St. Peter the church of Santa Maria in Turri which was adjacent to the great basilica caught fire. Several priceless relics and images of Christ were destroyed. The fire spread to the atrium and then the doors of St. Peter itself. At that point the defenders of St. Peter surrendered and the fires could be extinguished. The destruction of this most holy place in Christendom was shocking. Many believed the fires were laid deliberately by imperial soldiers making it even more of a sacrilege. Welf VI, Barbarossa’s uncle and in his youth his best friend, ally and mentor cursed his nephew and the entire army.

With the Vatican city taken by imperial troops the Senate of Rome was ready to come to terms. Rome accepted imperial sovereignty and gave up some of the more radical pretences of communal independence and in exchange Barbarossa and Paschalis III recognised the Senate in perpetuity.

Paschalis III was enthroned in the damaged church of St. Peter on 1st of August and immediately crowned the empress Beatrix and Frederick for a second time, just for good measure

Barbarossa’s victory would have been complete had it not been for the escape of Alexander III. The pontiff had left the city just before the coronation, disguised as a simple pilgrim.

On August 2nd a torrential downpour pounded the city. The sudden storm swamped the camp and tore the tents away. Within hours many men and horses began to die. The symptoms included a high fever, headaches, intense pains in the stomach and intestines, great fatigues and an awful stench emitted by the stricken before they died. It was long believed the epidemic had been malaria, but it is more likely to have been dysentery. The sudden rainfall had overwhelmed the primitive sanitary conditions and the drinking water became contaminated with faeces.

Barbarossa and Beatrix, whose accommodation was on a hill overlooking the camp escaped the disease. But of the great princes that accompanied the emperor many died. The bishops of Prague, Liege, Verden, Regensburg, Augsburg and Speyer. But most devastating for the emperor, his trusted advisor, Rainald von Dassel fell victim of the plague. As did some great princes, Welf VII, Frederick of Rothenburg, the son of King Konrad III, Theobald of Bohemia, the counts of Nassau, Pfullendorf, Sulzbach, Tubingen, Leuchtenberg and many more.

Estimates for the overall death toll varied but everyone agreed this was an act of God. The emperor had desecrated not just the Basilica of Saint Peter but the church itself with his support of the antipope. Barbarossa left Rome on August 6th, 5 days after his triumphal entry and coronation.

Alexander III returned to the Lateran palace and renewed his excommunication of Barbarossa. He relieved all Italians from their oath of fealty to the emperor. Apart from a handful of cities all of Lombardy was now in open rebellion. Whatever was left of his army shrunk by the day due to defections of princes as well as unpaid mercenaries.

the county of Turin. In March:

In a way this it is ironic that acts of god stand both at the beginning and the end of medieval imperial ambitions. The battles of Birten and Andernach were the acts of God that allowed Otto I’ s ride to imperial power. Now it is the destruction of the imperial army in Rome that puts an end to them.

Though we are not done with the Holy Roman Emperors by any means but that byword, instead of being an ideology that dominates Europe will turn into a witty pun.

Next week we will first take a look at developments in Northern Italy during the time period we just discussed and see how Barbarossa fundamentally changes his policy. You may not believe it, but we are only half way through his reign. I hope to see you then.

And in the meantime, if you feel like supporting the show or want to get hold of these bonus episodes, sign up on All the links are in the show notes.



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