Thursday, December 26, 2013

Happy birthday, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II!

Today (December 26) is the 819th birthday of  Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, Stupor Mundi, and the last and the greatest of the powerful medieval emperors.

Yesterday much of the world celebrated another long-ago birth, but today I'd like to take a brief look at the unusual circumstances under which this remarkable individual came into the world.

Frederick was, in the course of his 56 years, Emperor of the Romans; King of the Romans (these are very different things, but that's another blog post); King of Germany, Italy, and Burgundy; King of Sicily; and King of Jerusalem.  He was also twice excommunicated, the bane of several popes' existence, and a brilliant ruler far ahead of his time.  But in 1194, when his parents set out to invade Sicily, he was still an unlikely embryo in his 40-year-old mother's womb.

A bit of background information:  Fred's mother, Constance of Sicily, was the posthumous daughter of Roger II and the heiress presumptive to the Sicily crown, since the holder of that title, her nephew King William II, was childless.

Constance, newly born, and Roger, slightly less newly dead

Unusually for such a valuable marital prize, Constance was 30 before she was betrothed, and this resulted in a rumor that she had become a nun and had renounced her vows to marry.  Dante believed this; he placed her in the Paradiso and introduced her thusly:
This is the light of the great Constance who by the second wind of Swabia generated its third and last power. - Paradiso 3, translated by Robert M. Durling
Dante encountering Constance (with crown) in Paradise
The man Constance was to marry, the future Emperor Henry VI, was the second son of Emperor Frederick I.  He wanted the throne of Sicily, and for that he needed Constance.

Henry and Constance

Unfortunately for this plan, Tancredi (another of Constance's nephews) had managed to seize the throne after William died in 1289.  When Henry and Constance were crowned Emperor and Empress in 1291, they headed south with an army to try to oust Tancredi, who had widespread support despite being illegitimate.

It didn't work out well.  Henry was forced to withdraw from the kingdom for the time being, and Constance was taken hostage in Salerno.  She found herself next in Tancred's custody, and even as the pope was negotiating for her release, the imperial army came to her rescue and managed to get her safely back across the Alps.

Tancredi and his army in Palermo

Thus, aged 40 by now and finally pregnant, she must have harbored some misgivings about going along when, after Tancredi's death in 1194, Henry headed south again to depose Tancredi's young son William III.  She went, but because of her pregnancy she traveled more slowly than Henry did.

The result was that on December 26, 1194, the day after Henry was crowned at Palermo, Constance gave birth to her son in Iesi, a small town near Ancona.  Some things just won't wait, coronation or not.

But Constance was a savvy lady.  She'd been dealing with royal politics for her entire life, and she knew perfectly well that given her age, somebody was bound to claim that Frederick was not truly her son.  So she arranged to give birth in a pavilion tent in the town square of Iesi, surrounded by local matrons to serve as witnesses.

Constance and Frederick in the birth pavilion

 It is also claimed that a few days later she breast-fed her son, the future Emperor, in that same town square, so there could be absolutely no doubt.

Constance was to die fairly soon, leaving her son, then four, under the protection of the Pope.  But her clever public relations move had paid off, and no one questioned Frederick's legitimacy.   So happy birthday to Frederick, and our compliments to his shrewd mother.

Images in this post are in the public domain by virtue of age.

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