Amazing, heart-warming stories about the triumph of the human sprit through the medium of homemade artillery are cool and all, but every once in a while you need to sit down and sink your teeth into a straight-up, no-bullshit medieval ass-annihilator who responded to dissenters with a crushing mace-wound to the balls, clawed together an empire by punching people in half with a steel-plated gauntlet, and enjoyed drinking lager amid giant steaming piles of broke-to-fuck corpses. Frederick Barbarossa is one of those men.
Barbarossa was one of the most stone-cold shit-wreckers of the 12th century, which is saying something because (as you all know) the 12th century was a pretty prime time in history for stone-cold shit-wreckers. He was born in the year 1122 to a family that claimed lineage to fellow-badass Charlemagne, and was intent on upholding the legacy of endless beatings and military ball-crushings initiated by their prestigious forefather. Fredericks' father was the Duke of Swabia, which is a weird name for a Duchy, and his mother was the daughter of a guy named Henry the Black, who I know very little about, though he doesn't sound like a super-friendly, totally-easy-going kind of person. Freddy grew up learning all the hardcore shit German royalty taught their kids in the Dark Ages, a curriculum that mostly featured people getting beat about the head and legs with inflexible wooden rods or tearing wild beasts apart with their hands or teeth. In order to further assert his manliness over the less-testosterone-y denizens of the Fatherland, Frederick one day decided to grow one of the most righteous beards ever recorded. This face-rug was so epic that it actually became part of his name – Barbarossa is just the Italian way of saying "Red Beard", which would be a totally sweet name for a Caribbean pirate or a plunder-seeking Viking warlord. Turns out it fit Frederick just fine in his role as the future iron-fisted totalitarian ruler of Central Europe. Despite already having a reputation for toughness, he made a name for himself in a live-fire exercise at the age of 25, when he traveled to the Holy Land and fought in the Second Crusade in a place of honor alongside the German king. The Second Crusade ended up being basically a huge clusterfuck of misery that resulted in what can perhaps be most eloquently described as OMG EPIC FAIL LOL, but in his role as a relatively-non-influential battlefield commander Barbarossa cleaved so many warriors to pieces and performed so well that nobody really blamed him for Christianity's poor showing in the campaign.
Frederick was such a hardcore warrior and natural leader that when King Conrad died in 1152 he snubbed his own son out of his inheritance and appointed Barbarossa king instead, which was a serious burn to the young Prince. Barbarossa thought this was pretty bitchin', but decided he'd much rather be an Emperor than just a King, so he went down to the Vatican in Rome and told the Pope to get busy with the crowning and the anointing and whatnot. The Pope – who was always quite the negotiator during this period of history – agreed to declare Frederick Emperor of a newly-reformed Holy Roman Empire, but only if Frederick went out and ruthlessly beat some commune-living atheists into submission for him. Before the Pope had even finished his sentence, Barbarossa was standing in a castle in Lombardy setting fire to priceless tapestries and bashing peoples' skulls in with an unrelenting series of vicious bearded headbutts.
Less than two years into his reign as King of Germany, Frederick Barbarossa had already married the moderately-hot Queen of Burgundy, been crowned Emperor, quelled rebellions in some unruly provinces, and intervened in a civil war in Denmark that he had absolutely no stake in. He solidified his position among the princes of Germany with his mad leadership skillz, and then used a combination of diplomacy, violence, and ultra-violence to assimilate Poland, Bohemia, Burgundy, Hungary, Denmark, and much of Northern Italy under his Empire. When this guy wasn't trampling the ass out of people with balls-out charges from heavily-armored Teutonic knights, Frederick made a bunch of important laws and shit. Like, for instance, he officially declared that if you were going to start a private war against some noble family that was pissing you off, you had to give them at least three days notice before stomping them into oblivion. This seems fair to me, and everybody else pretty much tended to agree as well.
It turned out that while calling yourself an Emperor and everything is really awesome, being the Holy Roman Emperor was kind of a pain in the ass because you always had to deal with power-hungry Popes trying to assert their authority over you. Frederick eventually got sick of that shit, and decided to make the Pope understand that no matter how much moral authority you may have, the dude with the giant fucking sword generally is the dude who makes the rules. In 1158, Barbarossa marched his armies over the Alps into Italy and started trashing everything he could find. The Italian armies were crushed, and those cities unwise enough to resist the German onslaught were surrounded and besieged. Frederick had places to go and people to kill, however, and he didn't want to screw around with extended sieges, so instead of starving out the inhabitants he just captured a bunch of still-breathing prisoners of war, stuffed them into catapults, and launched live civilians head-first into the enemy battlements until the defenders had the good sense to surrender. Barbarossa didn't even get to Rome before the Pope crapped himself and died, and Frederick just went home and called it a night.
The replacement Pope still stubbornly kept up the "I RULE YOU" shenanigans, but rather than walk all the way back to Italy and break heads apart Frederick just appointed an Antipope instead. The Antipope was kind of like a real Pope, only he had no actual authority, a unilateral loyalty to the German Emperor, and a much cooler title. This is pretty bizarre, but you kind of have to respect how awesome it is that Frederick Barbarossa arbitrarily gave himself the power to appoint the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Frederick eventually decided that the Antipope was fun and everything, but he couldn't really handle the fact that the real Pope was sitting around not bowing to his will. So in 1165 he conquered Italy again, burned down a bunch of cities as he passed through, and chased the real Pope out of Rome.
GIVE US UR POPEZ
Eventually the Italians got tired of having their cities set on fire and their people mercilessly massacred all the time, so in 1174 Frederick's territories in Lombardy openly rebelled against the Empire. This time, however, Barbarossa didn't wind up celebrating his ability to destroy Italian architecture - he was sold out by his own cousin (and vassal) when Henry the Lion refused to send troops to help in the war effort. Between battle, illness, and miscellaneous bullshit, Frederick lost the war, returned to Germany in defeat, and avenged his honor by invading Saxony, destroying Henry, stripping him of his lands, and exiling him to England. Legend has it that Frederick only spared his cousin's life after Henry the Lion fell at his feet and begged for forgiveness.
From this point on, Frederick let off on the gas pedal of the non-stop assbeatings, and decided to take a more diplomatic approach to world domination, gaining power over Italy through back-door power plays. He finally acknowledged the (real) Pope, convinced his former subjects in Italy to consent to allying themselves with him, married his son to the Princess of Sicily, and got his son coronated King of Italy in 1186, just twelve years after his attempt to conquer the land by force had failed.
But don't go thinking that this ass-wrecking manic got soft with his old age or anything - he could still talk shit with the best of them, and he wasn't too civilized to settle disputes with extreme violence at the first sign of trouble. Like when Saladin conquered Jerusalem to kick off the Third Crusade, Barbarossa was totally ripshit. In awesome badass fashion he sent the Muslim ruler a letter saying that he was coming down there to kick his ass personally, and that the next time they spoke it was going to be face-to-face (or, more appropriately, face-to-sword). He assembled 20,000 badass knights, charged over land through Hungary, Serbia, and the Byzantine Empire, and fought two successful battles in Asia Minor. Ultimately however, Barbarossa never got to make good on his thinly-veiled threat – he died trying to charge through a river in full armor to get to the front lines of a nearby battle when the current swept his horse out from under him mid-stream. It's an "A" for effort, but the execution was a little lacking. Barbarossa was buried in Antioch, though some German folklore claims that he's just resting in a cave, waiting to save his people in the time of their greatest need. Even today his name is synonymous with bloodshed, as evidenced by the fact that the WWII Operation Barbarossa - the largest and most violent and bloodiest campaign in the history of war – is named after him.
That seems appropriate somehow.
GO GET ME SOME NACHOS, BOY!!!!
Fines, John. Who's Who in the Middle Ages. Barnes & Noble Publishing, 1995.
Haaren, John and Addison B. Poland. Famous Men of the Middle Ages. Memoria, 2008.
Sime, James. History of Germany. H. Holt, 1884.