To avoid confusion, one remembers that there were two Frederick IIs, Frederick ‘The Great’, an eighteenth century monarch, and our subject in this article, Frederick ‘Stupor Mundi’ a title given him by his courtiers, meaning ‘wonder of the world’.
He was born in 1194, son of Henry VI King of ‘Germany’ (Germany was divided into kingdoms, principalities, dukedoms, archdukedoms and palatinates) and a mother whose background was Sicilian. His grandfather was Frederick I, known as ‘Barbarossa’.
Frederick was an orphan by the age of four, and stayed under the guardianship of Pope Innocent III. It is said that he was nicknamed Stupor Mundi because of the breadth of his power, and his administrative, military and intellectual abilities. His had plenty of enemies however, preferring to dub him ‘Dragon’ or ‘The Beast’.
In 1215 was crowned King at Aachen, on the wholly marble throne of Charlemagne no less.
In 1220 the then Pope Honorius III made him Emperor, an honour Frederick consented to, though he was not really interested in Germany. He had been born in Ancona, and it was Italy that held all his attention. He had grown up in Southern Italy, and thought Sicily was the most sophisticated monarchy in Europe.
His reign therefore consisted of a lengthy struggle for power with the papacy. Despite leading a successful crusade to Jerusalem (1229) and securing that city, plus Nazareth and Bethlehem for Christianity, he was twice excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX. He was unpopular in Italy with the Lombard League, and Germans were not fond of the fact that he spent a great deal of time and Imperial resources inside Germany with the Princes in an effort to obtain their support, while he concentrated on building a power base in Sicily. This led to success in the form of the Constitution of Melfi in 1231.
He battled against the Lombard League at Cortenueva in 1237, won and went on to humiliate Gregory IX prior to this pope’s death in 1241. He failed however to convince the successor, Innocent IV who ordered (from exile in Lyons) the Germans to revolt at the Synod held there in 1445. Frederick’s power and position dissolved in the face of revolt, internal dissension and excellent propaganda organised by the Papacy. He was also defeated militarily (at the Battle of Vittoria 1248); he died in 1250 leaving an impossible situation for his heirs to solve. One good result was that many scholars, artists and other intellectuals left Germany to live in Italy, becoming precursors of the eventual Renaissance (q.v.).
Frederick II lies entombed with his father and grandfather in Palermo Cathedral.