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The Election and Coronation of an Emperor by Otto of Freising

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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Otto of Freising (1114-1158) was a bishop from the Hohenstaufen family, a German noble family of the highest order. His father was the governor of a border province of the Holy Roman Empire and his maternal grandfather was a Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. His nephew was Frederick I of Schwabia, the subject of this reading, who became the Holy Roman Emperor known as Frederick Barbarossa in 1152. In addition to his family background, Otto's religious career was also exceptional. When he was young, he studied at several French schools and became a monk in the early 1130s. The members of the monastery at Morimond (in the Champagne region of France) elected him as their abbott, where he served until when he was appointed the Bishop of Freising in 1138.

Statue of Bishop Otto at Freising Cathedral, photo by Jim
Jones, 2007
Statue of Bishop Otto at Freising Cathedral
Photo by Jim Jones, 2007


  • abbot: leader of a Roman Catholic monastery, selected by the other monks, unlike bishops who were chosen by a pope (often with input from kings or emperors).
  • excommunication: expulsion from the community of believers, which meant the accused could no longer receive communion, the rites of marriage, or any other sacrement performed by a priest. Excommunication was therefore the ultimate penalty in the Catholic Church. In medieval Europe, excommunication was often followed by execution if the accused did not repent and ask for forgiveness.
  • Frederick I "Barbarossa": a German noble of the Hohenstaufen family who controlled land in both Germany and southern Italy. He was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1152.
  • Holy Roman Emperor: a political leader who was theoretically heir to the empire created by Charlemagne. He represented power on earth, in contrast to Roman popes, who were spiritual leaders and represented the power of the Christian god.
  • legate: an ambassador or representative
  • Pope Innocent III: one of the most powerful popes in European history. He was responsible for calling the 4th and Albigensian Crusades.


Frederick I, the Duke of Swabia, known as "Barbarossa" (literally "red beard") was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1152. Unlike his predecessors, Frederick was a very powerful noble thanks to his ties to the two leading German noble families, the Hohenstauferns on his father Frederick's side and the Welfs on his mother Judith's side. The main reason for his election was the weakness of his uncle and predecessor, the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad III (ruled 1138-1152), who was unable to subdue cousin Henry "the Lion" who ruled Saxony (located north of Swabia). The resulting wars ruined Germany in the 1140s, especially after Conrad left on the Second Crusade in 1149, leaving the German nobles to fight among themselves. While he was gone, his rival Henry the Lion launched his own crusade against the Slavic peoples living to the east.

Map of central Europe in the 12th century
Central Europe in the 12th century
Charleamgne's cathedral in Aachen Charlemagne's cathedral in Aachen (center)
plus later additions (from an 18th century painting)

At first glance, launching a crusade (war) against the Slavs seems like a bad idea, since war costs money and produces casualties. On the other hand, it also produces loot for the victors, and captives that could be ransomed or sold into slavery. The prospect of acquiring wealth in this way attracted soldiers to victorious armies, and in this way Henry's crusade against the Slavs proved popular. His choice of target -- the Slavs, who lived to the east of Germany, was also a good one, since Conrad could make no claim on any land that Henry acquired during his crusade.

By the time Conrad died in 1152, Germany was so torn by civil war that all of the German nobles desired a strong Holy Roman Emperor who could force an end to the fighting. Normally, Conrad's first son (also named Henry) would have been selected, but he had already died in 1150. Conrad's second son (also called Frederick) was too young. so as Conrad neared death, he indicated his support for his nephew, Frederick of Swabia. Since Frederick's mother was the aunt of Henry the Lion, Frederick was in a good position to get the two sides to end their civil war. In addition, Frederick of Swabia inherited large estates and the personal loyalty of soldiers from both sides, giving him the wealth and military power he needed to convince both sides to stop fighting.

There was another power to consider. A powerful Holy Roman Emperor was a threat to the Catholic Pope, Eugene III (ruled 1145-1153), and his successors. While no Holy Roman Emperor would dare to attack Rome, he could make it more difficult for the Roman Church to collect money and to settle disputes between nobles. Frederick was particularly wary of Rome, and demonstrated his independence early by staging his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in Aachen (northern Germany) instead of Rome. Only after the ceremony was over did Frederick sent legates to Rome and northern Italy to inform the Pope and other officials of his new office.

For the rest of his life (he died in 1190), Frederick challenged Roman popes. Although he followed papal orders by participating in the Second (1147-1149) and Third Crusades (1189-1192), he considered himself to be the political and spiritual heir to Roman emperors like Constantine and Justinian, who held authority over the church. Frederick's disputes with Roman popes led him to invade Italy six times, and although he did not attack any pope directly, his invasions disrupted the economy of Italy and interfered with Papal authority. As a result, various Popes excommunicated Frederick a total of four times for disobedience.

Despite that, Frederick became even more powerful during his lifetime. By marrying Beatrice of Burgundy in 1156, he acquired additional land and soldiers. He also purchased more land in Germany and southern Italy. In order to maintain peaceful relations with his cousin, Henry the Lion, Frederick granted him authority over the land east of the Elbe River and gave him Austria in 1156. In exchange, Henry gave up his claim to Bavaria, which enabled Frederick to consolidate his control over all the land from Germany to northern Italy.


  1. How did Frederick, Duke of Swabia, get to be the Holy Roman Emperor?
  2. Why were most Holy Roman Emperors throughout European history "weak" and what did it mean for a noble to be considered weak?
  3. What part of this reading reveals Frederick's attitude towards Rome?
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