The High Middle Ages: The Reign of Frederick II Hohenstaufen

From the Lecture Series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, P.h.D., William & Mary University

After the Salian Dynasty died out in 1125, there was not a single power dynasty to replace it. The Hohenstaufen and the Welf families mostly ruled the kingdom of Germany. But the papacy presented many challenges to the German kings.

Medieval battle scene with cavalry and infantry.
During the High Middle Ages, Investiture Controversy had negative consequences for the Holy Roman Empire. (Image: zef art/Shutterstock)

The Aftermath of the Concordat of Worms

During the High Middle Ages, and especially the Investiture Controversy, the relationship between the papacy and emperors was a troubled one. They both tried to depose each other. The Investiture Controversy caused two civil wars in the kingdom of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, which ended in the Concordat of Worms. According to this compromise, emperors agreed to stop investiture and guarantee the free election of church officials and gave them the symbols of those officials’ authority. Still, emperors had some role in the election of those officials.

Although a compromise was reached over the Investiture Controversy, it had already done the damage to the German kingdom. The kings of Germany had lost control over some parts of the Holy Roman Empire, including Italy. A lot of them tried to fix the damages done to the empire by reassuming their control over the city-states of northern Italy. One of these kings was Frederick II Hohenstaufen.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Frederick II Hohenstaufen: Henry VI’s Successor

The kingdom of Sicily, which included the southern half of the Italian Peninsula, was under the rule of Henry VI. Since Holy Roman Emperors were the theoretical rulers of northern Italy, the papacy saw that Germans had surrounded it. That territorial acquisition was alarming for the papacy.

Under these circumstances, Henry VI’s son, Frederick II Hohenstaufen, replaced his father after his premature death in 1197 at the age of 32. However, Frederick II Hohenstaufen could not immediately take his father’s place because he was only two years old. Fearing the rivals would challenge their right to rule in the Holy Roman Empire, the Hohenstaufen family chose a ruler from the family until Frederick II Hohenstaufen grew up. The name of this ruler was Philip.

Learn more about Philip II of France.

German Civil Wars

However, Philip’s rule did not prevent rivals from challenging the House Hohenstaufen’s position. A civil war broke out when one rival family, the Welf family, introduced Otto of Brunswick as the next emperor.

The civil war, which was an extra burden for the Hohenstaufen family, lasted sporadically from 1198 to 1214. Foreign rulers fueled these civil wars by supporting and supplying the fighting parties when they seemed to be exhausted. They would benefit from these wars since they would weaken the German kingdom.

Before the civil war, Otto of Brunswick had never set foot in Germany since he had lived in England all his life. That’s why he had the support of the king of England. On the other hand, Philip, the Hohenstaufens’ candidate, was backed by the French king, Philip II Augustus.

The conflicts within the German kingdom presented an excellent opportunity for the papacy to take advantage. Pope Innocent III, who was pope from 1198 to 1216, quite shrewdly assumed a role for himself in this fiasco. He announced that the kingdom of Germany was unable to reach an agreement regarding its next ruler, so he would settle the dispute. He told the two families to make an offer to him, which meant the family that agreed to papal demand would receive approval.

Fully aware of their need for papal support, the Welf family agreed to his demand. They vowed to give more freedom to the Church if the pope would choose Otto of Brunswick. The pope liked the offer, so he crowned Otto of Brunswick in 1209. It seemed that the position of the ruler of Germany had permanently gotten out of Frederick’s hand.

Learn more about heretic and heresy.

The Reign of Frederick II

However, this situation did not last because Otto of Brunswick did not keep his promises to Innocent III. Therefore, Innocent III excommunicated and dethroned him and shifted his support toward Frederick II Hohenstaufen. In 1211, Frederick II Hohenstaufen’s supporters elected him as king of Germany, and he was crowned in 1212. But it took him two years to achieve power in the Holy Roman Empire, which came with the help of Philip II Augustus.

Bataille_de_Bouvines_gagnee_par_Philippe_Auguste
The Battle of Bouvines in which Otto of Brunswick was defeated by the French king, Philip II Augustus. (Image: Horace Vernet / Public domain)

Otto of Brunswick had agreed to invade France at the same time as his ally, King John of England. He was defeated at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214. This defeat cost him his supporters, who decided to support Frederick II Hohenstaufen. Finally, in 1220, Frederick II Hohenstaufen became Holy Roman Emperor.

Common questions about The High Middle Ages: The Reign of Frederick II Hohenstaufen

Q: What was the Investiture Controversy during the High Middle Ages?

During the High Middle Ages, the Investiture Controversy was a conflict between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire over the right to choose church officials. It was settled by the Concordat of Worms, in which emperors agreed to abandon the practice of investiture.

Q: Who was Otto of Brunswick?

During the High Middle Ages, the German kingdom witnessed internal conflicts. After the death of Henry VI, the Welf family introduced Otto of Brunswick as the next ruler of Germany. The papacy chose him as the emperor under the condition of relaxing some limitations for the Church, but he could not keep his promises.

Q: Who were the rival aristocratic families within the Holy Roman Empire during the High Middle Ages?

During the High Middle Ages, there were two rival aristocratic families within the Holy Roman Empire, the Welfs and the Hohenstaufens.

Keep Reading
Heresy in the High Middle Ages
Carnival in the High Middle Ages
How Europe’s Population in the Middle Ages Doubled