More ambitious even than his father, Henry VI wanted to dominate the known world. To secure peace in Germany, he put down a rebellion by the returned exile Henry the Lion and then restored him to power. He forced the northern Italian cities to submit to him, and on the basis of an inheritance claim through his Norman wife, he seized Sicily. Intending to create an empire in the Mediterranean, he exacted tribute from North Africa and the weak Byzantine emperor. However, when Henry died suddenly in 1197 while planning a new crusade, his empire immediately fell apart. The German princes refused to accept his young son, Frederick II, as king and thus initiated a new civil war between backers of the Hohenstaufen Philip of Swabia and those of the Welf Otto of Brunswick. When Otto invaded Italy, Pope Innocent III secured the election of Frederick II in 1211 on the promise that the young king would give up Sicily so as not to surround papal territory.
Outstandingly accomplished in many fields, Frederick II, who reigned from 1212 to 1250, was called Stupor Mundi (Wonder of the World). Determined to keep Sicily as his base of operations, he revised his coronation promise to the pope, giving up Germany rather than Sicily to his young son Henry. In exchange for the German princes’ support of his Italian campaigns, Frederick allowed them to usurp many of his own powers, making them virtually kings in their own territories. On the empire’s eastern frontier, he granted a fief to the Teutonic Knights, a military religious order that eventually created the Prussian and Baltic states, on the condition that they convert the natives to Christianity. In Sicily, Frederick suppressed the local nobility, reformed the laws, founded the University of Naples, and kept a brilliant court, where he shone as scientist, artist, and poet.
He was also an excellent soldier, diplomat, and administrator, and led a successful crusade to Jerusalem in 1228. In his absence, however, Pope Gregory IX invaded Sicily. Frederick quickly returned and made peace with the pope, but by 1237 he was waging battle against a second Lombard League of cities in northern Italy. Once again, their ally, the pope, excommunicated Frederick, but this time Frederick responded by seizing the papal states. Gregory’s successor, Innocent IV, fled to Lyon and declared the emperor deposed. Frederick died before he could secure his position against the league, however, and under his successor, Conrad IV, the Hohenstaufens were finally ousted from Sicily. The empire then suffered the turmoil of the Great Interregnum (1254-1273), during which two non-Germans—Richard of Cornwall and Alfonso X of Castille—claimed the crown, although neither was ever crowned.
The German princes, meanwhile, exploited the absence of an emperor, further solidifying their own political independence. At the very time that French and English kings were centralizing their power, German lands moved ever further into political pluralism and fractured authority. The Great Interregnum marked a decisive turning point in the history of Germany and the empire, beginning the slow decline of real imperial power. "Germany" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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