Death of the Emperor Frederick II

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Death of the Emperor Frederick II


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


December 13th, 1250

The most gifted, vivid and extraordinary of the medieval Holy Roman Emperors was ill for some months before his death. Early in December 1250 a fierce attack of dysentery confined him to his hunting lodge of Castel Fiorentino in the south of Italy, which was part of his kingdom of Sicily. He made his will on December 7th, specifying that if he did not recover, he should be buried in the cathedral at Palermo, and sinking fast, died on the 13th, a few days short of his fifty-sixth birthday. He was escorted to Sicily by his Saracen bodyguard and buried in a sarcophagus of red porphyry mounted on four carved lions. The body was wrapped in cloth of red silk covered with inscrutable arabesque designs and with a crusader's cross on the left shoulder. The tomb can still be seen in Palermo Cathedral today.

When the news reached Rome, Pope Innocent IV was delighted. `Let heaven exult and the earth rejoice,' he proclaimed in a message to the Sicilian bishops and people. One of his chaplains, Nicholas of Carbio, went further. God, he wrote, seeing the desperate danger in which the storm-tossed `bark of Peter' stood, snatched away `the tyrant and son of Satan,' who `died horribly, deposed and excommunicated, suffering excruciatingly from dysentery, gnashing his teeth, frothing at the mouth and screaming ...'.

However vilely expressed, the relief of the pope and his party at Frederick's death was understandable, for the emperor had seemed to be on the verge of triumph at last in his long struggle with the papacy. Born in Italy in 1194, heir to the Hohenstaufen territories in Germany and grandson of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, he was also the heir to the Norman kingdom of Sicily. His father died young when Frederick was two, he was crowned King of Sicily at the age of three and his mother died before he was four. At fourteen he came of age and took control of Sicily. He went on to defeat his rival for the German kingship and in 1220, aged twenty-five, he was crowned emperor in St Peter's, Rome, by Pope Honorius III. This made him, in theory at least, the temporal head of Christ's people on earth and the overlord of northern Italy. The fact that he was also the ruler of southern Italy and Sicily, on Rome's doorstep, put him on collision course with the popes.

Frederick astonished his contemporaries because he was more like an oriental despot than a European king. …

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