June 10, 1190: Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa drowns during Third Crusade! - History and Headlines

June 10, 1190: Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa drowns during Third Crusade!

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A Brief History

On June 10, 1190, during the Third Crusade, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (r. 1155-1190) drowned in the river Saleph while leading an army to Jerusalem.

Digging Deeper

Frederick I Barbarossa (known as “red beard”) is generally considered one of Medieval Europe’s greatest emperors.  He had a long reign as not only Holy Roman Emperor but also as King of Italy, King of Germany (which at the time also meant King of the Romans), and King of Burgundy, ruling some of these realms from 1152 until his death in 1190, or nearly forty years!

A golden bust of Frederick I, given to his godfather Count Otto of Cappenberg in 1171. It was used as a reliquary in Cappenberg Abbey and is said in the deed of the gift to have been made “in the likeness of the emperor”.

He accomplished much while emperor of a large portion of central Europe, including conducting six military campaigns in Italy.  Although a charismatic leader, he did not always prevail in his many ventures.  In 1176 at the Battle of Legnano, he suffered his most infamous defeat at the hands of the Lombard League in Italy.

In 1189, over a decade after his disastrous campaign in Italy, he joined forces with two of the other most renowned  leaders of his age: King Philip Augustus of France and King Richard the Lionheart of England.  The three monarchs planned to lead the Third Crusade with the objective of reconquering Jerusalem from Saladin’s Muslims who had themselves recaptured the city from Christians just a couple years earlier in 1187.  Frederick allegedly assembled an army numbering as many as 100,000, although such numbers may be an exaggeration.  Nevertheless, the expedition was a considerable undertaking by Western Europe’s three most powerful sovereigns.

The Third Crusade (1189-1192)

Unfortunately, before Frederick could even make it to the Holy Land, he drowned in a river in what is today Turkey.  He death was an absolute disaster for the Crusaders.  The now leaderless Germans previously under Frederick’s command panicked with unknown numbers deserting and in some cases even committing suicide.  Moreover, with Philip and Richard bitter rivals, Frederick’s death prevented him from being able to mediate disputes between the English and French kings.  What followed as the remnant of the Third Crusade was largely King Richard’s Crusade, which had mixed success, ultimately failing in the main objective of a Christian reconquest of Jerusalem.  We are left to wonder what might have had happened had Frederick survived a few years longer…

Some have apparently also actually questioned whether Frederick did in fact die.  Frederick is the subject of various rather bizarre legends with one legend suggesting that he is not dead, but asleep with his knights in a cave in the Kyffhäuser mountains in Thuringia or Mount Untersberg in Bavaria, Germany, and that when the ravens cease to fly around the mountain he will awake and restore Germany to its ancient greatness.  

Frederick sends out the boy to see whether the ravens still fly.

As far as we are aware, he has not yet awoken…

Question for students (and subscribers): If Frederick had not drowned in the river (or gone to an indefinite sleep), would the Third Crusade have met greater success, perhaps even taking Jerusalem back from Saladin?  Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Freed, John.  Frederick Barbarossa: The Prince and the Myth.  Yale University Press, 2016.

The featured image in this article, Barbarossa drowning in Göksu River from Sächsische Weltchronik (c. 1280), is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art.  The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

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About Author

Dr. Zar

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history in Ohio.