Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor

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Henry VI
Kaiser Heinrich VI. im Codex Manesse.jpg
Portrait from the Codex Manesse, circa 1304, folio 6r
Holy Roman Emperor
Reign 15 April 1191 – 28 September 1197
Coronation 15 April 1191, Rome
Predecessor Frederick I Barbarossa
Successor Otto IV
King of Germany (King of the Romans)
Reign 15 August 1169 – 28 September 1197
Coronation 15 August 1169, Aachen
Predecessor Frederick I Barbarossa
Successor Philip and Otto IV
King of Italy
Reign 21 January 1186 – 28 September 1197
Coronation 21 January 1186, Milan
Predecessor Frederick I Barbarossa
Successor Otto IV
King of Sicily
with Constance
Reign 25 December 1194 – 28 September 1197
Coronation 25 December 1194, Palermo
Predecessor William III
Successor Frederick
Spouse Constance of Sicily
Issue Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor
House Hohenstaufen
Father Frederick I
Mother Beatrice I, Countess of Burgundy
Born November 1165
Died 28 September 1197(1197-09-28)
Burial Palermo
Religion Roman Catholicism

Henry VI (November 1165 – 28 September 1197), a member of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, was King of Germany (King of the Romans) from 1190 and Holy Roman Emperor from 1191 until his death. From 1194 he was also King of Sicily.

He was the second son of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and his consort Beatrix of Burgundy. In 1186 he was married to Constance of Sicily, the posthumous daughter of the Norman king Roger II of Sicily. Henry, still stuck in the Hohenstaufen conflict with the House of Welf, had to enforce the inheritance claims by his wife against her nephew Count Tancred of Lecce. Based on an enormous ransom for the release of King Richard I of England, he conquered Sicily in 1194, however, the intended unification with the Holy Roman Empire ultimately failed.


Early years[edit]

Henry was born in autumn 1165 at the Valkhof pfalz of Nijmegen to Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Beatrix of Burgundy. At the age of four, his father had him elected King of the Romans during the Hoftag in Bamberg at Pentecost 1169, and Henry was crowned on August 15 at Aachen Cathedral.

Frederick Barbarossa with his sons Henry and Frederick, Historia Welforum, Weingarten Abbey, c. 1180

He accompanied his father on his Italian campaign of 1174-76 against the Lombard League, whereby he was educated by Godfrey of Viterbo and associated with minnesingers like Friedrich von Hausen, Bligger von Steinach, and Bernger von Horheim. Henry was fluent in Latin and, according to the chronicler Alberic of Trois-Fontaines, was "distinguished by gifts of knowledge, wreathed in flowers of eloquence, and learned in canon and Roman law". He was a patron of poets and poetry, and he almost certainly composed the song Kaiser Heinrich, now among the Weingarten Song Manuscripts. According to his rank and with Imperial Eagle (Reichsadler), regalia, and a scroll, he is the first and foremost to be portrayed in the famous Codex Manesse, a 14th-century songbook manuscript featuring 140 reputed poets; at least three poems are attributed to a young and romantically minded Henry VI. In one of those he describes a romance that makes him forget all his earthly power, and neither riches nor royal dignity can outweigh his yearning for that lady (ê ich mich ir verzige, ich verzige mich ê der krône – before I give her up, I’d rather give up the crown).

Emperor's son[edit]

Having returned to Germany in 1178, Henry supported his father against insurgent Duke Henry the Lion. He and his younger brother Frederick received the knightly accolade at Mainz in 1184. The emperor had already entered into negotiations with King William II of Sicily to betroth his son and heir with William's aunt Constance. As William's marriage had remained childless, she was his sole legitimate heir, and, after the latter's death in November 1189, Henry had the opportunity of adding the Sicilian crown to the imperial one. He and Constance were married on 27 January 1186 in Milan, and they were crowned King and Queen of Italy.

In the Hohenstaufen conflict with Pope Urban III, Henry moved to the March of Tuscany, and with the aid of his liensman Markward von Annweiler devastated the adjacent territory of the Papal States. Back in Germany, he took the reins of the Empire from his father, who had died while on the Third Crusade in 1190. Henry tried to secure his rule in the Low Countries by elevating Count Baldwin V of Hainaut to a margrave of Namur, and at the same time he tried to reach a settlement with rivalling Duke Henry of Brabant. Further difficulties arose when the exiled Welf duke Henry the Lion returned from England and began to subdue large estates in his former Duchy of Saxony. A Hohenstaufen campaign to Saxony had to be abandoned when King Henry received the message of the death of King William II of Sicily on 18 November 1189. The Sicilian vice-chancellor Matthew of Ajello pursued the succession of Count Tancred of Lecce and gained the support of the Roman Curia.

To assert his own rights in the inheritance dispute, Henry initially supported Tancred's rival Count Roger of Andria and made arrangements for a campaign to Italy. The next year he concluded a peace agreement with Henry the Lion at Fulda and moved farther southwards to Augsburg, where he learned that his father had died on crusade attempting to cross the Saleph River near Seleucia in the Kingdom of Cilicia (now part of Turkey) on 10 June 1190.

Imperial coronation[edit]

While he sent an Imperial army to Italy, Henry initially stayed in Germany to settle the succession of Louis III, Landgrave of Thuringia, who had also died on the Third Crusade. He had planned to seize the Thuringian landgraviate as a reverted fief, but Louis' brother Hermann was able to reach his enfeoffment. The next year, the king followed his army across the Alps. In Lodi he negotiated with Eleanor of Aquitaine, widow of King Henry II of England, to break the engagement of her son King Richard with Alys, a daughter of late King Louis VII of France. He hoped to deteriorate English-French relations and to isolate Richard, who had offended him by backing Count Tancred in Sicily. Eleanor acted cleverly; she reached Henry's assurance that he would not interfere in her son's conflict with King Philip II of France, and she would also prevent the marriage of Henry's younger brother Conrad with Berengaria of Castile to confine the Hohenstaufen claims to power.

Holy Roman Emperor
Armoiries Famille Hohenstaufen.svg Holy Roman Empire Arms-single head.svg
Coats of arms

Henry entered into further negotiations with the Lombard League cities and with Pope Celestine III on his Imperial coronation. At Easter Monday on 15 April 1191, in Rome, Henry and his consort Constance were crowned Emperor and Empress by Celestine. The crown of Sicily, however, was harder to gain, as the Sicilian nobility had chosen Count Tancred of Lecce as their king. Henry began his work campaigning in Apulia and besieging Naples, but he encountered resistance when Tancred's liensman Margaritus of Brindisi came to the city's defence, harassed Henry's Pisan navy, and nearly destroyed the later arriving Genoese contingent. Moreover the Imperial army had been heavily hit by an epidemic, and Henry ultimately had to abandon the siege. Constance, who stayed behind in the palace of Salerno, was betrayed and handed over to Tancred, and she was only released on the intervention of Pope Celestine III, who in return recognized Tancred as King of Sicily.

Henry had to return to Germany when he learned that Henry the Lion had again incited a conflict with the Saxon House of Ascania and the Counts of Schauenburg. His son Henry of Brunswick deserted from the Imperial army in Italy and was ostracized by the emperor at the Hoftag in Worms at Pentecost 1192. However, Henry VI had to realise that his powers were limited: after his closest ally in Saxony, Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg died, he concluded another armistice with inflammatory Henry the Lion. On the other hand, the emperor was able to strengthen his power base in the Duchy of Swabia, when he inherited the possessions of Henry the Lion's cousin Welf VI. In September 1192 he proceeded to Lüttich (Liège) to enforce the succession of his candidate Count Lothair of Hochstaden as Bishop of Lüttich against Albert of Louvain, the brother of Duke Henry of Brabant. Albert had to yield and sought support from the pope in Rome and from the Archbishop of Reims. In Reims, he took the holy orders with papal consent, but he was killed soon after by hired assassins. His brother Duke Henry chose to conclude a peace agreement with the emperor but remained a bitter enemy.

Emperor Henry already was concerned with the deposition of the Welf supporter Archbishop Hartwig II of Bremen. He further had to arbitrate in a conflict in the Margraviate of Meissen on the eastern border of the Empire, where the Wettin margrave Albert I had to fend off the claims raised by his brother Theoderic and Landgrave Hermann of Thuringia. Meanwhile the opposition in the west took on a dramatic scale, when the dukes of Brabant and Limburg joined forces with Archbishop Bruno III of Cologne. A massive confederacy against the emperor loomed ahead, including Archbishop Conrad of Mainz, Archchancellor of Germany, and Duke Ottokar I of Bohemia, as well Henry's old rival Henry the Lion, the Swabian House of Zähringen, the English Crown, and the pope, irritated by the killing of Albert of Louvain.

Capture of Richard the Lionheart[edit]

Richard the Lionheart submits himself to Emperor Henry, Liber ad honorem Augusti, fol. 129R

At this stage, Henry had a stroke of good fortune when the Babenberg duke Leopold V of Austria gave him his prominent prisoner, King Richard I of England, whom he had captured on his way back from the Third Crusade and arrested at Dürnstein Castle. On 28 March 1193, Richard was handed over to the emperor in Speyer and imprisoned at Trifels Castle, taking revenge for Richard's alliance with Tancred of Lecce. Ignoring his excommunication by Pope Celestine III for imprisoning a former crusader, he held the English king for a ransom of 150,000 silver marks and officially declared a dowry of Richard's niece, who was to marry Duke Leopold's son Frederick. The opposition princes had to face the defeat of their mighty ally and to refrain from their plans to overthrow the Hohenstaufen dynasty.

Backed by his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, who successfully defended his interests against his rivalling brother John Lackland and his ally King Philip II of France, Richard procured his release in exchange for the huge ransom, a further interest payment, and his oath of allegiance to Henry. In turn the emperor under threat of military violence demanded the restitution of the French lands, which John had seized upon approval by King Philip during Richard's absence. Henry not only gained another vassal and ally, he could also assume the role of a mediator between England and France. He and Richard ceremoniously reconciled at the Hoftag in Speyer during Holy Week 1194: the English king publicly regretted any hostilities, genuflected, and cast himself on the emperor's mercy. He was released and returned to England.

At the same time, Henry settled the longstanding conflict with the Welf dynasty when he married Agnes of Hohenstaufen, daughter of his cousin Count Palatine Conrad, to Henry the Lion's son Henry of Brunswick, followed by a peace agreement in March 1194.

Conquest of Sicily[edit]

Meanwhile the situation in Southern Italy had grown worse: After Henry's defeat at Naples, Tancred's brother-in-law Count Richard of Acerra had reconquered large parts of Apulia, and Tancred himself had reached the allowance of his claims by the pope. Henry was granted free passage in Northern Italy, having forged an alliance with the Lombard communes. In February 1194, Tancred of Lecce died, leaving as heir a young boy, William III, under the tutelage of his mother Sibylla of Acerra. In May Emperor Henry, based on Richard's ransom, again set out for Italy. He reached Milan at Pentecost and occupied Naples in August. He met little resistance and on 20 November 1194 entered the Sicilian Palermo and was crowned king on 25 December. On the next day his wife Constance, who had stayed back in Iesi, gave birth to his only son and heir Frederick II, the future emperor and king of Sicily and Jerusalem.

The young William and his mother Sibylla had fled to Caltabellotta Castle; he officially renounced the Sicilian kingdom in turn for the County of Lecce and the Principality of Capua. A few days after Henry's coronation, however, the royal family and several Norman nobles were accused of a coup attempt and arrested. Henry is said to have had William blinded and castrated, while many of his liensmen were burned alive. Some, however, like the Siculo-Greek Eugene of Palermo, transitioned into the new Hohenstaufen government with ease. William probably was deported to Altems (Hohenems) Castle in Swabia, where he died in captivity about 1198.

Woodcut illustration of Constance of Sicily, her husband HRE Henry VI and her son HRE Frederick II

In March 1195 Henry held a Hoftag in Bari and appointed his wife Constance Sicilian queen regnant, though with Henry's liensman Conrad of Urslingen, elevated to a hereditary Duke of Spoleto, as Imperial vicar to secure the emperor's position in Southern Italy. He placed further ministeriales in the Sicilian administration, like the Troia bishop Walter of Palearia who became chancellor. His loyal henchman Markward von Annweiler was appointed a Duke of Ravenna, placing him in a highly strategic position to control the route to Sicily via the Italian Romagna region and the Apennines. Henry's younger brother Philip of Swabia was vested with the large estates of late Margravine Matilda in Tuscany. The emperor also felt strong enough to send home the Pisan and Genoese ships without giving their governments the promised concessions.

Universal ruler[edit]

At that point, Emperor Henry was the most powerful monarch in the Mediterranean and Europe, since the Sicilian kingdom added to his personal and Imperial revenues an income without parallel in Europe. However, his aims to integrate Sicily into the Empire as a second power base of the Hohenstaufen dynasty were not realised during his lifetime. The negotiations with Pope Celestine III to approve the unification (unio regni ad imperium) in return of another crusade reached a deadlock. On the other hand, his beliefs of a universal rule according to the translatio imperii concept collided with the existence of the Byzantine Empire, reflected in Henry's expansionist policies by forging alliances with King Leo I of Armenia and King Aimery of Cyprus.

In 1195 Henry's envoys in Constantinople raised claims to former Italo-Norman possessions around Dyrrachium (Durrës), one of the most important naval bases on the eastern Adriatic coast, and pressed for a contribution to the planned crusade. Upon the deposition of Emperor Isaac II Angelos Henry openly threatened with an attack on Byzantine territory. He already evolved plans to betroth his younger brother Philip to Isaac's daughter Princess Irene Angelina —deliberately or not— opening up a perspective to unite the Western and Eastern Empire under Hohenstaufen rule. According to the contemporary chronicler Niketas Choniates his legates were able to collect a large tribute from Isaac's brother and successor Alexios III, which, however, was not paid before Henry's death.

Emperor Henry came down to earth, when an armistice between Pisa and the Republic of Venice ended and the Pisan navy immediately entered the Adriatic to attack the Venetian harbour of Pola (Pula), where they suffered a disastrous defeat. La Serenissima had suspiciously eyed Henry's claims to Adriatic ports threatening her dominating position and commercial interests in the region. The emperor had to culminate the conflict by arranging a peace treaty and confirming the Venetian autonomy.

Hereditary monarchy[edit]

Main article: Erbreichsplan
Henry's grave in the Cathedral of Palermo

Henry's next aim was to make the imperial crown hereditary. At the Diet of Würzburg, held in April 1196, he managed to convince the majority of the princes to vote for his proposal, but in the following one at Erfurt (October 1196) he did not achieve the same favourable result.


In 1197 the tyrannical power of the foreign King in Italy spurred a revolt, especially in southern Sicily, which his German soldiers suppressed mercilessly. In the same year Henry prepared for a Crusade, but, on 28 September, he died of malaria in Messina,[1] although it is also widely believed that he was poisoned.[2]

His son Frederick II was to inherit both the Kingdom of Sicily and the Imperial crown.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ In 1197, although “the well-prepared crusade of Emperor Henry VI aimed at winning the Holy Land, it also aimed at attaining the ancient goal of Norm[an] policy in the E[ast]: the conquest of the Byz[antine] Empire.” See Werner Hilgemann and Hermann Kinder, The Anchor Atlas of World History, Volume I: From the Stone Age to the Eve of the French Revolution, trans. Ernest A. Menze (New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1974), 153; “Henry pressed territorial and political claims against Constantinople, demanding territories the Normans had held in 1185 and using a remote family connection to pose as the avenger of the deposed emperor Isaac II. . . . even Pope Innocent III was frightened by the German emperor’s claims of world domination. As events turned out, however, Henry died suddenly in 1197 before he could carry out his plans for eastward expansion.” See Timothy E. Gregory, A History of Byzantium (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 273.
  2. ^ "Henry VI died in Messina, poisoned, so it was believed, by his own entourage because of his Italian policy," Page 41, in Kenneth Varty (editor), Reynard The Fox: Social Engagement and Cultural Metamorphoses In the Beast Epic from the Middle Ages to the Present (Berghahn Books, 2000). ISBN 1-57181-737-9
Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor
Born: 1165 Died: 1197
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Frederick I
King of Germany
Succeeded by
Philip & Otto IV
Holy Roman Emperor
King of Italy

Succeeded by
Otto IV
Preceded by
William III
King of Sicily
with Constance

1194 –1197
Succeeded by