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Beginning in the twelfth
century, western Europe became the battleground for a series of particularly
vociferous legalistic struggles between powerful monarchs and the Church
of Rome, the temporal authority of the latter greatly strengthened following
the Great Schism of 1054.
The conflicts took slightly different forms in different kingdoms, whether
in England, Sicily or the various realms forming the Holy Roman Empire,
but in every instance it was a question of a king refusing to bow to Papal
authority in domestic matters having little if anything to do with religion.
In England the greatest conflicts began with Henry II and Thomas
Becket, culminating (in a sense) with Henry VIII centuries later, while
in Sicily every monarch from Roger I to Frederick II (who was actually excommunicated) had to deal
with meddlesome Pontiffs. In the Holy Roman Empire the dynasty facing Papal
wrath was the Hohenstaufen family of Swabia, who
eventually claimed the Throne of Sicily, and the man to do that was Henry VI.
Born in 1165, Henry, son of the imposing Frederick Barbarossa and Beatrice
of Burgundy, was King of the Germans (from 1169) and Holy Roman Emperor
(from 1191). Historians believe that the key to his expansionist ambitions
was the Kingdom of Sicily, which then encompassed all of Italy south of
Rome and a few Mediterranean coastal areas in the Balkans and northern Africa;
Italy's northern city-states were already a nominal part of his Empire.
Having wed Constance, posthumous daughter of Roger
II of Sicily, Henry claimed by marital right to be the heir of William II of Sicily, who died without issue in 1189, though
Constance's nephew Tancred also claimed the Sicilian Throne. (Tancred was
the illegitimate son of Roger II's eldest son, Roger of Apulia.) Two years
later, following Henry's coronation as Emperor in Rome, his armies were
marching through Italy toward Sicily to oust Tancred, but this expedition
was doomed to failure as the result of machinations back in Germany by princes
aided by Richard Lionheart, necessitating Henry's
return to rein in some rebellious nobles. Conspiracies aside, Henry didn't
like the fact that Richard had recognized Tancred as King of Sicily.
By early 1194, with the death of Tancred, the last (adult) male Hauteville
claimant, the way was clear for a second invasion by Henry and Constance.
In the meantime, since March 1193, the annoying Lionheart had become Henry's
prisoner, thus removing one more thorn from his side. Pope Celestine III
excommunicated Henry for imprisoning a fellow Crusader,
but following payment of a hefty ransom Richard was released in February
1194. (Incidentally, as it has come down to us, the phrase a king's ransom
may be rooted in this historical event.)
By the time Henry arrived in Palermo,
his wife had given birth en route to an heir, christened Frederick
Roger, known to us as Frederick II.
From 1196 into the following year, the Hohenstaufen dynasty reached the
greatest geographic and economic extent of its power. On paper, England
and half of France were - however briefly - vassal states, while Denmark
and Hungary more practically recognized Staufen authority over the long
term. Moreover, two-thirds of Italy, in effect everything but the Papal
State, was now under Henry's direct rule. Further afield, the kings of Armenia
(which in those days stretched toward the Mediterranean) and the island
of Cyprus became his vassals.
The Emperor introduced numerous officials and vassals in Sicily. He brought
the Teutonic Knights, establishing them at Messina
and Palermo, where they would prove far more loyal than
either the Hospitallers or Templars. None
of this endeared him to the Norman and Lombard
barons. This led, in 1197, to a ruthless suppression of armed revolts in
Henry contemplated a conquest of Constantinople to take place in that
same year. Led by Conrad, his faithful chancellor, the first contingent
of this expedition had already departed when Henry died of malaria in Messina in September.
Sicily's first German king is entombed in Palermo Cathedral
where he was crowned. Next to his tomb are those of his wife and son.
About the Author: Historian Luigi Mendola has written
for various publications, including this one.