The Papacy: Alexander III, Frederick Barbarossa, and the Third Crusade (1181-1198)

The death of Pope Hadrian was met with a dramatic confrontation in the papal conclave as a cohort of cardinals were divided between successors. In the ensuing squabble behind the high altar at St. Peter’s, one cardinal named Octavian simply dashed for the papal throne and declared himself Pope Victor IV. It was a most silly coup that was nevertheless effective for a period until his support began to dwindle. An opposition party began to form around another cardinal named Roland who was then formally consecrated as the next pope –Alexander III. One of his first acts was to promptly excommunicate the antipope Victor IV, who then responded in turn by excommunicating the sitting pope, as well, and for the second time in three decades, there was a schism within the church.

To make matters worse, Frederick Barbarossa decided to recognize this ridiculous antipope Victor IV, thus pushing Alexander closer into the hands of William of Sicily. The pope then excommunicated Frederick! And then he promptly fled Rome for two years realizing he was without proper military defenses. As was universally the case with the papacy, the institution only served at the whims of its more powerful neighbors –namely, strong military empires with deep pockets. Alexander then exiled himself to France with the hopes of rallying a unified front against Frederick Barbarossa (it never truly materialized), meanwhile abroad in England, Henry II was having his notorious dispute with the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose vicious murder struck like lightning throughout the Christendom.

As fate would have it, the antipope Victor was eventually banished from Rome and the Senate invited Alexander to return, but while the antipope Victor died in pain and poverty, Frederick Barbarossa could not bring himself before Alexander. He supported yet another antipope, Paschal III. Frederick rallied a massive contingent of German forces and conquered his way through cities, climbing over the Alps, until he finally stormed the gates of Rome only to find that St. Peter’s had been converted into a military garrison with wide trenches and outposts placed at each corner. For eight days the papacy held out in the basilica against a massive invading army, until the germans finally stormed the basilica. Per John Julius Norwich, “Never had there been such a desecration of the holiest shrine in Europe” (159). When the fog of war finally lifted, St. Peter’s was in ruins. The high altar was smeared with blood and slaughtered corpses lay strewn about the church –all of this came from the crowned emperor of Western Christendom. All was not well in the West. Pope Alexander escaped the city disguised as an ordinary pilgrim. He made his way to the coast. He was discovered sitting on a beach awaiting a ship (luckily the pope was discovered by friends). in the meantime, the antipope Paschal reigned in Rome.

This was the height of Frederick’s career –conquering Northern Italy, invading Rome, and installing a new pope– but as pride goeth before a fall, Frederick now set his sights on finally subduing Sicily. In only a week’s time, his fortunes turned and his army was decimated by inclement weather and a brutal plague that mercilessly killed scores of soldiers each day. Forced to turn back, he was forced to leave piles of rotting corpses all throughout Tuscany while facing unfriendly towns throughout the land. And the Alps was equally as treacherous. Frederick’s humiliation was made complete when he was forced to retreat home in the guise of a common peasant. Nevertheless, the pestilence raged throughout Rome, leaving the banks of the Tiber filled to the brim with sick and dying people. Suddenly, Paschal and Frederick were blamed for bringing divine wrath on the city and Alexander was yet again welcomed back as the true pope, however this being the third such occasion, Alexander declined the invitation from Rome. He was by now disgusted with the city and decided to conduct the papal business elsewhere –it would be another eleven years before he would again enter the city of Rome.

By 1170, Frederick Barbarossa was finally ready for peace with the pope. They met in Venice where he was to officially recognize the pope, make peace with the Lombard League, and in return the pope would recognize Frederick’s empress and other such concessions. It was a supreme achievement for Alexander, who was by now in his 70s, but he still had more to accomplish. In 1179, he convened the Third Lateran Council which established a new decree governing papal elections. The elections were to be restricted to the College of Cardinals with a two-thirds majority (for the most part, these same rules apply today). When Alexander died in 1181, his body was returned to Rome for burial, even though this was the city he despised above all others, and before he was buried in St. Peter’s, hoards of Roman citizens welcomed him in kind by tossing filth at his bier.

John Julius Norwich claims that alongside Innocent III, “Alexander III was one of the greatest of the medieval popes” (165). Though Innocent’s time in the sun would come soon enough, it was actually seventeen years and five popes which separated Alexander from Innocent. All of these five popes had to contend with the Hohenstaufen emperors (Barbarossa’s empire) and the rabble-rousing Roman Senate. The first, Lucius III, left Rome after finding it too hot (he died in Verona), and he was followed by Urban III, who was forced under the heel of Frederick Barbarossa. Before he could excommunicate the rebellious emperor, however, Urban promptly died of shock –apparently he had just heard the news that Saladin had captured Jerusalem. It was left to his successor, Gregory VIII (nearly eighty years old), to muster the forces of Christendom on a new Crusade, but Gregory died a mere eight weeks later. The cause of the Third Crusade was then taken up by Pope Clement III alongside Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, Richard Couer-de-Lion of England, Philip Augustus of France, and William II “The Good” of Sicily (though he died at age thirty-six before he could embark on the Crusade). Unlike the others, Frederick elected to lead his army over an arduous land-march until they reached Calycadnus River near the town of Seleucia. Here, Frederick raced ahead of his troops to the flowing water but he was tragically never seen alive again. Perhaps he was swept into the current, or perhaps his aging body simply could not handle the cold water. Either way, he was fished out and found dead on the banks immediately by his men. Almost instantly, this spelled doom for the soldiers in the Holy Land.

The death of Frederick was, however, a deliverance for Clement III. Relations finally improved between Rome and Germany under its new ruler, Henry VI. This was despite the fact that the Third Crusade was another utter failure (though admittedly not a complete fiasco like the Second Crusade). Frederick’s death sent many of his princes turning back for home and defections were common. Those who pressed on were brutally attacked in Syria. The limping survivors collapsed upon entering Antioch, and the cause of Third Crusade was only salvaged by the arrival of Richard and Philip but Jerusalem was unable to be recaptured. Pope Clement died and was instantly replaced by an elderly but distinguished deacon who was consecrated as Pope Celestine III. His brief tenure was plagued by the domineering personalities of Henry VI of the German Hohenstaufen dynasty (Frederick’s successor), as well as King Tancred of Sicily, and King Alfonso IX of León. Of these three, Henry proved the most difficult: he effectively bought his coronation by raising the money to free Richard I from captivity under Duke Leopold V of Austria, and his wife publicly gave birth to their only son, Frederick, in the little town of Jesi during his coronation. Shortly thereafter, Henry died of malaria while putting down a rebellion in Sicily. He was only thirty-two. A mere three months later, Pope Celestine, some sixty years his senior, also passed on. The man who was to follow him was one of the truly great popes to ever sit on the throne of St. Peter: Innocent III.


For this reading I used John Julius Norwich’s 2011 single volume history of the papacy Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2009 work of popular history, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

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