Sean Mcglynn

The Teutonic King Arthur

John B. Freed describes the legendary Holy Roman Emperor as intelligent, pragmatic and luckier than most — except in his death by drowning, foretold by a soothsayer

Hitler, ever seeking to emulate strong German hero types (especially if their Christian name was Frederick), unsurprisingly named his great invasion of Russia ‘Operation Barbarossa’. It is in this context that the name — meaning ‘Redbeard’ — is best known today. Apart from that, a rather clunky eponymous Italian film from 2011 and a presence in the underground heavy metal music scene, awareness of the medieval German emperor outside of Germany and Italy is very limited. This owes much to the fact that John Freed’s biography is the first in English for half a century. A 700-page doorstopper, this impressive, learned book certainly makes amends for this previously serious oversight.

Frederick was the most powerful figure in 12th-century Europe. Born c.1123, by 1147 he had inherited the duchy of Swabia from his father and, as the compromise candidate (fittingly for such a committed pragmatist), he won the election to be King of the Romans in 1152; he was consequently crowned emperor in 1155 (the Holy Roman part came formally in 1180 but appeared first, as Freed shows, in 1157). The empire stretched from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. It comprised three kingdoms: Germany (the Roman kingdom), Italy (the Kingdom of Lombardy); and Burgundy (including the Kingdom of Provence). No wonder he was considered by many to be ‘lord of the world’.

Collectively, these presented him with a constantly bubbling cauldron of political interests and complex wars during his long reign. It would be easy for both author and reader to be overcome by the multiplicity of events and power machinations, but Freed’s notable achievement is admirably to elucidate these without clutter, embellishment or condensed compromise. This is all the more impressive as Freed is primarily a social historian (this sometimes shows: the bibliography, extensive as it is, lacks some key military texts).

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