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This week in history: The death of Barbarossa

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Statue of Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor.

Statue of Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor.


SALT LAKE CITY — On June 10, 1190, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I died while leading his army to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslim forces of Saladin.

From the House of Hohenstaufen, Frederick was known as Barbarossa, or Red Beard. Prior to his embarking upon the Third Crusade in 1189, Barbarossa had become one of the most powerful men in Europe. Historian Thomas Asbridge writes that Barbarossa in his mid-60s was “Europe's elder statesman.”

Having proven his military ability and political skill, Barbarossa seemed a natural choice to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslims. Asbridge writes of Barbarossa's achievements and ability: “He had imposed an unprecedented degree of centralized authority over the notoriously independent-minded barons of Germany. ... In terms of wealth, martial resources and international prestige, his power easily outstripped that of the Angevins and Capetians.”

The Latin Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem had been conquered by Saladin after his success at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. In contrast to the arrival of the Christian armies in Jerusalem during the First Crusade, who slaughtered most of the city's inhabitants, Saladin allowed most Christians to flee the city unharmed.

This is not to say that Saladin was entirely merciful and benevolent. Historian Rodney Stark writes that Saladin's actions at Jerusalem were “an exception to Saladin's usual butchery of his enemies. ... Following the Battle of Hattin, for example, he personally participated in butchering some of the captured Knights Templars and Hospitallers and then sat back and enjoyed watching the execution of the rest of them.”

One of Saladin's followers, Imad ed-Din, wrote that Saladin “ordered that they should be beheaded, choosing to have them dead rather than in prison.”

Such atrocities outraged Europe, and soon the Third Crusade was launched under Barbarossa's leadership. High hopes were placed upon his ability to capture Jerusalem and return the Holy Land to Christian control. Barbarossa soon assembled an army of roughly 3,000 knights and perhaps 15,000 infantry.

Saladin knew he had to protect the land approaches to the Holy Land, and to that end he made an alliance with the Orthodox Christian Emperor Isaac of Byzantine, who ruled from Constantinople. Practical politics proved stronger than Christian solidarity, and Barbarossa took his army into the unfriendly lands of the “Greeks.” After besting Isaac's forces, the Byzantine Emperor singed the Treaty of Adrianople, which allowed the German army rights of passage and supply and gave Barbarossa important hostages.

Entering Asia-Minor, the Turks launched several attacks against him, which he was able to beat back. Despite heavy losses, Barbarossa's march had been a success. He had transported his army and preserved much of it for the campaigns to come in the Holy Land.

Then, near the southern Turkish town of Silifke, Barbarossa made a bad decision. Asbridge writes: “The emperor impatiently decided to ford the River Saleph ahead of his troops. His horse lost its footing in mid-stream, throwing Frederick into the river. ... Unable to swim, the German emperor drowned.”

Barbarossa's son, Frederick of Swabia, took over command for a time, but the heart had gone out of the German army. Stark writes: “The army was devastated by the emperor's death. Over the next several days huge numbers simply turned around and went home. ... Saladin breathed a sigh of relief.”

The Crusade was eventually commanded by Philip II of France and Richard the Lionheart of England. The Crusade achieved the protection of Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem, though never its ultimate goal of capturing the Holy City.

Not long after his death, legends began to stir about Barbarossa. Historian Kurt F. Reinhardt writes: “Popular imagination, coupled with certain prophesies, ... pictured the emperor asleep in the depths of the KyffhÄuser Mountains in Thuringia (in Germany), waiting for the day of his return to lead his people to unity and renewed glory."

Later generations would make use of this legend for propaganda purposes, and Adolf Hitler named his 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union “Operation Barbarossa” in honor of the long-dead emperor.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com