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Saturday, 7 March 2015

Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor


Frederick II was born in Iesi, near Ancona, Italy on December 26, 1194 to the emperor Henry VI and forty-year-old Constance of Sicily.

The birth of Frederick II

The 3-year-old Frederick was in Italy travelling towards Germany when the bad news reached his guardian, Conrad of Spoleto that his father had died. Frederick was hastily brought back to his mother Constance in Palermo, Sicily, where he was crowned as king on May 17, 1198.

Upon Constance's death later that year Pope Innocent III succeeded as Frederick's guardian.

The Pope ignored the poor little orphan boy on the basis of power-politics and Frederick was bought up by the citizens of Palermo, Sicily. He roamed the city, mixing with the common people.

Frederick's tutor during his early years was Cencio, who would become Pope Honorius III.

A keen student, Frederick studied languages and read widely. Frederick could speak nine languages notably Arabic and was literate in seven (at a time when many monarchs and nobles were not literate at all)


Frederick was a very modern ruler for his times, being a patron of science and learning, and having fairly advanced views on economics. He abolished state monopolies, internal tolls, and import regulations within his empire.

Unlike most Holy Roman emperors, Frederick spent little of his life in Germany. After his coronation in 1220, he remained either in the Kingdom of Sicily or on Crusade until 1236, when he made his last journey to Germany. He returned to the Kingdom of Sicily in 1237 and stayed there for the remaining 13 years of his life, represented in Germany by his son Conrad.

Statue of Frederick II at the Palazzo Reale, Naples

Frederick founded the University of Naples, the first university to be founded and run by non clerics. Candidates for the civil service he set up were trained there.


Having expressed a wish to lead in Crusade 13 years earlier, Frederick kept putting it off. The Holy Roman Emperor finally set off for the Sixth Crusade in August 1227 but returned to the port within a few days as was taken ill. Pope Gregory IX, unsympathetic at this delay, excommunicated the unfortunate stricken emperor on September 29, 1227.

Frederick eventually sailed again from Brindisi in June 1228 and reached Acre on September 7th. After negotiation with the Ayyubid sultan, Al-Kamil. Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem, and a small coastal strip of the Kingdom of Jerusalem were recovered from the Muslims.

On March 18, 1229, Frederick II crowned himself king of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This was the high point as well as the turning point of Frederick's conception of sovereignty. Eschatological prophecies concerning his rule were now made, and the Emperor considered himself to be a messiah, a new King David.

In preparation for his crusade, Frederick had married Yolande of Jerusalem, heiress to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Frederick's coronation as King of Jerusalem was technically improper, as Yolande had died in the meantime, leaving their infant son Conrad as rightful heir to the kingdom.

Frederick's seeming bloodless victory in recovering Jerusalem for the cross brought him great prestige in Europe, and in 1231 the pope rescinded Frederick's excommunication; this event became known as the Peace of San Germano.


At the age of 14, Frederick's guardian, Innocent III chose as his wife the 25-year-old Constance of Aragon, the widow of the King of Hungary. She brought him an urgently needed troop of knights with whose help he gained control of Sicily.

Both seemed reasonably happy with the arrangement, and Constance soon bore Frederick a son, Henry.

In 1225 three years after Constance's death, he married 16 year old Yolande (1212-28) daughter of the King of Jerusalem, John of Brienne. On her death Frederick became King of Jerusalem.

 In 1235 Frederick married the 22 year old Isabel Plantagenet the daughter of England's King John. She died 6 years later.

Frederick only ate one meal a day, in the evening. His favorite meal was “scapace”, a sort of fried fish and vegetables marinated in a white wine and saffron sauce.

Frederick was a great builder of castles in order to administer his empire. They had bounteous gardens full of pools and singing birds. He was the first European to include bathrooms and lavatories with running water.

Frederick lived in a variety of castles, which he moved amongst in the course of a year. Each castle had a large dovecote built within and sharing some of the castle walls. The court relied on this source of pigeon meat for a significant proportion of its food.

His main court was at Palermo, Sicily. (At this time, the Kingdom of Sicily, with its capital at Palermo, extended onto the Italian mainland to include most of southern Italy.)


The most cultured man of his age, Frederick was the first person to write love songs in his native Italian tongue.

A lover of nature, Frederick introduced the first giraffes to Europe and has also included in his imperial caravan cheetahs, leopards, lions and lynxes.

Frederick had a polar bear which he gave to the Sultan of Damascus.

A keen hunter, Frederick rode a black charger called Dragon

Frederick was especially adept at falconry. He wrote a manual On the Art of Hunting with Birds, a Falconry and Ornithological Manual, which was both a scientific book about birds and a guide to falconry.

Frederick enjoyed experimenting, though at times they were on the macabre side. On one occasion he locked prisoners in an airtight room until they suffocated, then tried to watch their souls escape when he opened a door.

Another experiment involved Frederick feeding two prisoners the same large dinner. He sent one to bed, the other on a long hunt, then cut them both open to see who had better digested the meal. (Naturally the sleeper had.)


In 1220 Frederick II was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor, where as part of the ceremony he promised to be the highest defender of the Christian faith. However Frederick was a religious skeptic. He delighted in uttering blasphemies and making mocking remarks directed toward Christian sacraments and beliefs.

Frederick was, unusually for the medieval era, broad-minded towards other religions including Islam. On his coronation robe there was written an Arab benediction and at his court Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars rubbed shoulders in academic harmony. To his contemporaries his views were outrageous, especially the papacy with whom the medieval maverick was forever feuding and he eventually ended up excommunicated three times.


Frederick died peacefully, wearing the habit of a Cistercian monk, on December 13, 1250 in Castel Fiorentino near Lucera, Sicily, after an attack of dysentery.

Frederick was buried in the cathedral of Palermo beside those of his parents (Henry VI and Constance) as well as his grandfather, the Norman king Roger II of Sicily.

The tomb of Frederick II in the Cathedral of Palermo. By © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro 

For about a century after his death, legend had it that Frederick was still alive. He was said to be residing in a cave in the Kyffhauser Mountains and would return as the latter-day emperor to punish the worldly church and peacefully re-establish the Holy Roman Empire.

Source Food For Thought by Ed Pearce

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