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Ep. 51 - The Barbarossa - Who was the Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa?
Episode 5117th March 2022 • History of the Germans • Dirk Hoffmann-Becking
00:00:00 00:18:56

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In this episoe we examine Barbarossa's background, childhood and education. What is it that made him so exceptional? And we investigate whether the Cappenberger Head is indeed an individual likeness of the emperor, or just another image of what an emperor is supposed to look like.

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.

As always:

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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 51 – The Barbarossa

I do apologise for this slightly shorter episode. I picked up COVID last week and I am still not fully back on track. It was inevitable given that over the last 3 months roughly 3% of the UK population has symptomatic Covid. I am en-route to recovery so nothing to worry about – apart from a shorter episode.

So, this week we will take a look back at Barbarossa’s youth, childhood and his achievements until he had reached his 30s. Some of it had appeared in previous episodes, but mostly just as an aside.

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 Laurence, Joe and Leopold. who have already signed up. And a small correction. Last week I thanked a Shawn who does not exist instead of a Sean who very much exists and who I wanted to thank. So, here we go, thanks Sean.

There is practically no information about Barbarossa’s life before he was 15 years old. Since Barbarossa was not very fluent in Latin it is likely that he received an education commensurate with his future role as duke of Swabia. That meant mainly military training, military training and more military training. I still find it surprising that medieval aristocrats would split educational paths for their sons so decisively at an early age between those who will succeed to the fief and those who will join the church. Frederick probably did not receive more than rudimentary reading and writing skills, whilst for instance his uncle Otto of Freising was taught reading, writing, mathematics, and Latin from an early age and then sent off to the university of Paris to read with the great Abaelard. It did not make a lot of sense. Child mortality and just generally mortality was very high. More often than not the one chosen to succeed the father died and had to be replaced by the spare. That spare would have been destined for the church and hence had the thorough education in the medieval sciences, and quite a bit or martial skills as well, just to be on the safe side. These accidental successors did often do as well as those who had been trained to be counts, dukes or kings, take Henry II and Henry III as an example. So, giving your first-born some ability to hold his own with a silver-tongued prelate would have sounded like a great idea to me. But that is not how they did it, and Barbarossa did not learn much Latin if any.

What we hear later though is that he was very persuasive in his mother tongue Middle High German. And that mattered more in the royal council where debates were likely held in German, even though the prelate would produce the minutes in Latin. But as we will see, Barbarossa’s need to rely on translators and interpreters left a lot of room for misunderstandings and manipulations with far-reaching consequences.

Barbarossa’s mother died before he was 10 during a period where the Hohenstaufen luck was down. Conrad’s bid as anti-king had failed, the city of Speyer had fallen after a siege he probably experienced himself, his family had to leave their home in Alsace and retire on to the ancestral castle in Stauf, and finally his father and uncle had to kowtow before emperor Lothar III. His father remarried and he had a stepbrother, Conrad, who was much younger. We have no idea how these events have shaped young Frederick’s mind.

By the age of 15 as was customary, we find him at the court of another, in his case his uncle Conrad where he receives more military training. It is here where he forms a friendship with the Danish prince Sven he will elevate to kingship as almost the first of his actions once crowned.

All that training with sword and lance seems to have yielded benefits. He will spend almost his entire life on horseback going from one battle to the next. Allegedly found in the front line in every encounter, quickest with the lance and most energetic with the sword, but he also knew when to make himself less conspicuous when the lances were raining down on his men.

He equally enjoyed the hunt and was an accomplished fighter in the by now very popular and regular tournaments.

He was a pious man in the way pretty much everyone in the Middle Ages was pious. He went to mass regularly, prayed and made donations to churches and monasteries. He founded hospitals and sponsored the new and more radical monastic orders, in particular the Premonstratensians of his godfather, Otto of Cappenberg. But religion was not the driving force of his actions like it was with say Henry II or Otto III. He was first and foremost a political realist in a world where religion is paramount.

He received his political education during the years of Conrad III’s reign. As we mentioned he fought alongside his maternal uncle Welf VI against his half-uncle (is there such a word) Henry Jasomirgott. But in all this he maintained contact across the network of princes. Only once and in a different context do we hear that Conrad III complaining about him directly asking his brother to tame the young man.

In this period when his father is still alive Barbarossa seems to enjoy a high degree of freedom, not yet carrying the burden of ducal authority for Swabia. He takes part in tournaments and feuds joining whichever side he thinks has the stronger claim. He captures the count of Dachau in a tournament/battle but releases him without ransom, making him a friend for life.

Conrad III may at that point see him as an unreliable cove, but amongst his fellow nobles he is gaining a reputation as an honest and fearless man who rates justice over preferment. It is around this time that he begins gathering a group of younger nobles around him who would remain with him for a large part of his reign. Not just the aforementioned Conrad of Dachau, but also Ulrich of Lenzburg, Werner von Baden, Poppo von Giech, Rudolf von Pfullendrf, Adelgoz von Schwalbek and the most famous, Otto von Wittelsbach.

Whilst Barbarossa is rising in stature, we can observe a generational shift amongst the leading nobles of the realm. The older generation who had fought the civil wars of henry V, Lothar III and Conrad III was gradually dying out. Both Lothar and Conrad were quite old by medieval standards when they died.

story books. Welf VI was born:

Nothing shocks them more than the humiliating treatment of their ruler, Conrad III by king Louis VII during the Second Crusade. How is it possible that the ruler of urbi et orbi, the city and the world is now so weak he has to seek the hospitality and support of other lesser monarchs.

There is no way we can equate this to an emergence of actual nationalism in the modern sense. It is more the sense that the governmental system of which they are a part is falling behind. When their fathers thought the empire to be superior forever and hence taking away from the emperor for themselves would not harm the overall structure, this new generation is more watchful. They are less convinced the empire would be everlasting and if it falls, according to Augustinus it would literally be the end of the world. So in contrast to their fathers are willing to align themselves with the empire, drop their opposition, provided they have their say and they make a profit from it.

And hence they want a strong king, a capable ruler who can unite the kingdom and return it to its ancient glory, not another Conrad III.

This being the Middle Ages the other key criterion is being in God’s grace. You remember Otto the Great who was believed to be in gods grace after winning two most improbable victories? Barbarossa is the first on since Otto‘s days where the people believed in him being blessed – or lucky. And that had to do with the Second Crusade. Whilst the army overall perished, the Swabian contingent under Barbarossa remained largely intact. They definitely did not drown in the swollen river near Constantinople nor did they get caught in the worst of the fighting near Doryleum. Barbarossa bringing his men back from the Holy Land was a sign that God was with him.

When Barbarossa ascended the throne, he was less than 30 years old. The chroniclers describe him as follows: He was slim, not excessively tall but well honed. Trained in warfare since childhood he was physically strong, his body muscly and his limbs in perfect symmetry. “His Hair is golden, curling a little over his forehead. His ears are scarcely covered by the hair above them, as the barber out of respect for the empire keeps the hair on his head and cheeks short by constantly cutting it. His eyes are sharp and piercing, his nose well formed, his beard reddish, his lips delicate and not distended by too long a mouth. His whole face is bright and cheerful. His teeth are even and snow white in colour. The skin of his throat and neck, which is rather plumb but not fat is milk-white and often suffused with the ruddy glow of youth” Another chronicler, Acerbus Morena, a judge from Lodi adds his ready smile and the beauty of his hands.

If that is to be believed, he looks like Ryan Gosling with a perm. But did he?


This head most scholars agree had come into Otto von Cappenberg’s hands as a present from Barbarossa. If you have ever held a biography of Barbarossa you have probably seen this head. It is 31cm tall and weighs 4.6kg, is made of gilded bronze and sports piercing black eyes shining out of white enamel.

A number of scholars believe this to be a true likeness of Barbarossa, making it the first individual portrait of a living person since at least Carolingian times. And it does match the description given, the curly hair, trimmed beard and ready smile. But….

Throughout the Middle Ages descriptions and representation of the ruler were not meant to convey anything about their individual personality. A ruler was first and foremost a personification of the realm. His rule was assured by his symbolic acts, the splendour of his dress and the possession of the imperial regalia, the sceptre, the crown and in the case of the emperors, the Holy Lance. He appears royal not just in dress and accoutrements, but also in physical appearance because he is royal. The royal nature had been bestowed on him by god and since god never made a mistake, the ruler was by definition perfect inside and out. As god‘s instrument he was no longer an individual. Nobody cared what he actually looked like.

And if we take the descriptions of Barbarossa, they do follow a certain style dating back to the description of Frankish and Visigothic kings and the famous account of Charlemagne by Einhard. And if the verbal descriptions are standardised, then the features of the Cappenberger Head may also just be what an emperor should look like rather than what Barbarossa actually looked like.

The question ultimately hinges on why would there be an individual portrait of Barbarossa and none of his predecessors and very few of his successors?

I think there are some good reasons for believing it is an individual portrait. It is not so much the fact that the head was a present from godson to godfather. It is more that at the time the head was made Barbarossa was such a break with what had gone on before, he deserved having his features preserved for posterity.

As we heard last week, he had achieved the almost impossible, within just months he had brought a semblance of peace to a realm that had been caught in a civil war for 80 years. And he did that not by being merciful, I.e, by yielding to the bigger guns, but by bringing justice.

A piece of political theatre may illustrate that. During the procession out of the cathedral after the coronation in Aachen a ministeriale of Barbarossa’s prostrated himself before the king, begging him for forgiveness for a grievous offense. Despite the joyous occasion Barbarossa refused the man’s entreaties declaring that “it was not from hatred, but from regard for justice that this man remained excluded from his patronage”

This is a dramatic shift in the role of the emperor. His predecessors were expected to be magnanimous and allow transgressors back into the fold, even if their crimes were severe. Assuming this was staged, which it almost certainly was, Barbarossa made clear that the old model of the first strike to be forgiven was out and that harsh imperial justice was the order of the day now.

This focus on justice and his willingness to execute the judgements of the princely courts was a big step away from Conrad’s helpless call on the parties in the Utrecht feud to please come to his court and please, please follow its decisions.

Not only was he a strong and severe ruler, he also brought a new optimism to the realm. As we have seen, in the last years of Conrad III’s reign the mood in the empire was utterly depressed. And when medieval people are depressed, they blame it on god’s displeasure. And what else could have brought on God’s displeasure if not the sinful men attacking the Holy Mother Church. A helpless emperor unable to heed the pope’s calls for help against the Roman commune and King Roger of Sicily was a clear sign the empire and hence the world is nearing its end.

his coronation as emperor in:

The third astonishing thing about Barbarossa was that he ruled in his first couple of years almost without any personal resources. After his coronation he handed the duchy of Swabia and a chunk of the family possessions to his cousin, the 8-year-old Frederick of Rothenburg. He did not even have a particularly wealthy father-in-law. He was married to Adele of Vohburg whose father was dead and whose family had lost some of their previous positions. That made him entirely reliant on the royal lands and rights, such as they were. In other words, he would not have been able to face down a rebellion by say Henry the Lio, or even one of the other dukes he just created. His entire system of government relied on being able to persuade his vassals that his plan had benefits for all.

e, which was sometime between:

And that means he was more than a personification of an abstract empire, but an individual. And as such he was worth depicting for eternity in an individual portrait.

And if I am wrong and this is just a representation of a generic emperor, it is still a great piece and it does look a bit like Ryan Gosling – with a perm.

By the way I have published a picture of the Cappenerger Kopf on the historyofthegermans website. Just check out the Blog where you will also find the Transcript for this episode.

Next week we will take our exceptional king to become emperor after all, being crowned by the one and only English pope in history Hadrian IV. I hope you will join us again.



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