THE WOLF AND THE LION: The Death of Frederick Barbarossa

One of the most interesting leaders of the Third Crusade has to be Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. What makes Barbarossa unique among crusading monarchs was not his reign, his life, or his deeds, which were all noteworthy, but his death. Frederick’s story is too compelling to leave confined to the dusty pages of history books, so I bring him to life in my debut novel, the THE WOLF AND THE LION, in which he and his tragic death play a lead role in the story of my lost crusaders.

Barbarossa, or Red Beard, ruled the Holy Roman Empire from 1152 to 1190, a lengthy reign of almost four decades. Elected by his fellow noblemen, Frederick Barbarossa set out to unite the warring houses of Germany and bring relative stability to the Empire. At this he was largely successful. It was a lifelong undertaking, and some argue that the aging Frederick led the Third Crusade as a means of unifying, once and for all, the German nobility under his authority.

After Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1187, Frederick was the first to respond to the Pope’s call for a holy crusade against the Muslims. What makes Frederick’s response so remarkable is not only the speed with which the 68 year old Emperor ‘took up the Cross’, but the fact that for most of his reign he had been embroiled in disputes with the Church. The animosity between Frederick and the Church peaked in 1160 when Pope Alexander the Third had him excommunicated, and Frederick responded by electing his own Antipope. Although there was a formal reconciliation in 1177, relations remained chilly until Frederick unexpectedly announced himself the champion of the Third Crusade.

Frederick led his army of crusaders out of Ratisbon in May 1189, choosing the historic land route of earlier crusaders rather than the new ocean route being contemplated by King Philip and King Richard. Chroniclers said Frederick’s army was over 100,000 men, though contemporary historians place the number closer to 15,000. On route, Frederick allied with King Bela of Hungary, but was not as successful with Byzantine Emperor Isaac Angelus. Blocked in the mountain passes by Isaac’s men, Frederick allied with Serbian rebels and declared war on Byzantium. Frederick defeated the Byzantines in Thrace, setting up a winter camp at Adrianople to continue his pressure on Isaac. Eventually the Byzantine Emperor capitulated, and in the spring of 1190 helped Frederick cross the Bosphorus to continue his march through Asia Minor to the Holy Land. Frederick went on to defeat the Seljuk Turks at Philomelium, and again at Konya.

The gruelling march, the winter camp at Adrianople, and the battles with the Turks had taken their tolls, costing Frederick more than half his army. On June 10, 1190, the weakened German army reached the Saleph River in Cilician Armenia, not far from the Holy Land. As Frederick led his men across the shallow but fast-flowing river, he fell into the water and drowned. Barbarossa’s son, the Duke of Swabia, tried to unite what was left of the crumbling German army, but failed. The young Duke continued the march to the Holy Land with only a handful of crusaders and the body of his father pickled in a barrel of vinegar. The German Third Crusade was over.

There is much debate about how the great and virile Frederick Barbarossa came to drown in a shallow river after half a century of victories in battles that spanned half the known world. Some say his horse stumbled and he fell into the water, his heavy armor dragging him down. Others say he was being vainglorious and leapt into the fast moving water and was swept away. Others say he had a heart attack, then fell into the water.

No matter how it happened, Frederick’s death was a bizarre and unexpected end to the life and reign of one of the greatest leaders on both sides of the Third Crusade, and a defining event in THE WOLF AND THE LION.

The Death of Frederick Barbarossa by H.Vogel 19th century (Eon Images)

The Death of Frederick Barbarossa by H.Vogel 19th century (Eon Images)