Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: German by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: German by  Charles Morris

The Fall of the Ghibellines

The death of Frederick II., in 1250, was followed by a series of misfortunes to his descendants, so tragical as to form a story full of pathetic interest. His son Enzio, a man of remarkable beauty and valor, celebrated as a Minnesinger, and of unusual intellectual qualities, had been taken prisoner, as we have already told, by the Bolognese, and condemned by them to perpetual imprisonment, despite the prayers of his father and the rich ransom offered. For twenty-two years he continued a tenant of a dungeon, and in this gloomy scene of death in life survived all the sons and grandsons of his father, every one of whom perished by poison, the sword, or the axe of the executioner. It is this dread story of the fate of the Hohenstauffen imperial house which we have now to tell.

No sooner had Frederick expired than the enemies of his house arose on every side. Conrad IV., his eldest son and successor, found Germany so filled with his foes that he was forced to take refuge in Italy, where his half-brother, Manfred, Prince of Taranto, ceded to him the sovereignty of the Italian realm, and lent him his aid to secure it. The royal brothers captured Capua and Naples, where Conrad signalized his success by placing a bridle in the mouth of an antique colossal horse's head, the emblem of the city. This insult made the inhabitants his implacable foes. His success was but temporary. He died suddenly, as also did his younger brother Henry, poisoned by his half-brother Manfred, who succeeded to the kingship of the South. But with the Guelphs in power in Germany, and the pope his bitter foe in Italy, he was utterly unable to establish his claim, and was forced to cede all lower Italy, except Taranto, to the pontiff. But a new and less implacable pope being elected, the fortunes of Manfred suddenly changed, and he was unanimously proclaimed king at Palermo in 1258.

But the misfortunes of his house were to pursue him to the end. In northern Italy, the Guelphs were everywhere triumphant. Ezzelino, one of Frederick's ablest generals, was defeated, wounded, and taken prisoner. He soon after died. His brother Alberich was cruelly murdered, being dragged to death at a horse's tail. The other Ghibelline chiefs were similarly butchered, the horrible scenes of bloodshed so working on the feelings of the susceptible Italians that many of them did penance at the grave of Alberich, arrayed in sackcloth. From this circumstance arose the sect of the Flagellants, who ran through the streets, lamenting, praying, and wounding themselves with thongs, as an atonement for the sins of the world.

In southern Italy, Manfred for a while was successful. In 1259 he married Helena, the daughter of Michael of Cyprus and Ætolia, a maiden of seventeen years, and famed far and wide for her loveliness. So beautiful were the bridal pair, and such were the attractions of their court, which, as in Frederick's time, was the favorite resort of distinguished poets and lovely women, that a bard of the times declared, "Paradise has once more appeared upon earth."

Manfred, like his father and his brother Enzio, was a poet, being classed among the Minnesingers. His marriage gave him the alliance of Greece, and the marriage of Constance, his daughter by a former wife, to Peter of Aragon, gained him the friendship of Spain. Strengthened by these alliances, he was able to send aid to the Ghibellines in Lombardy, who again became victorious.

The Guelphs, alarmed at Manfred's growing power, now raised a Frenchman to the papal throne, who induced Charles of Anjou, the brother of the French monarch, to strike for the crown of southern Italy. Charles, a gloomy, cold-blooded and cruel prince, gladly accepted the pope's suggestions, and followed by a powerful body of French knights and soldiers of fortune, set sail for Naples in 1266. Manfred had unluckily lost the whole of his fleet in a storm, and was not able to oppose this threatening invasion, which landed in Italy in his despite.

Nor was he more fortunate with his land army. The clergy, in the interest of the Guelph faction, tampered with his soldiers and sowed treason in his camp. No sooner had Charles landed, than a mountain pass intrusted to the defence of Riccardo di Caseta was treacherously abandoned, and the French army allowed to advance unmolested as far as Benevento, where the two armies met.

In the battle that followed, Manfred defended himself gallantly, but, despite all his efforts, was worsted, and threw himself desperately into the thick of the fight, where he fell, covered with wounds. The bigoted victor refused him honorable burial, on the score of heresy, but the French soldiers, nobler-hearted than their leader, and touched by the beauty and valor of their unfortunate opponent, cast each of them a stone upon his body, which was thus buried under a mound which the natives still know as the "rock of roses."

The wife and children of Manfred met with a pitiable fate. On learning of the sad death of her husband Helena sought safety in flight, with her daughter Beatrice and her three infant sons, Henry, Frederick, and Anselino; but she was betrayed to Charles, who threw her into a dungeon, in which she soon languished and died. Of her children, her daughter Beatrice was afterwards rescued by Peter of Aragon, who exchanged for her a son of Charles of Anjou, whom he held prisoner; but the three boys were given over to the cruellest fate. Immured in a narrow dungeon, and loaded with chains, they remained thus half-naked, ill-fed, and untaught for the period of thirty-one years. Not until 1297 were they released from their chains and allowed to be visited by a priest and a physician. Charles of Anjou, meanwhile, filled with the spirit of cruelty and ambition, sought to destroy every vestige of the Hohenstauffen rule in southern Italy, the scene of Frederick's long and lustrous reign.

The death of Manfred had not extinguished all the princes of Frederick's house. There remained another, Conradin, son of Conrad IV., Duke of Swabia, a youthful prince to whom had descended some of the intellectual powers of his noted grand-sire. He had an inseparable friend, Frederick, son of the Margrave of Baden, of his own age, and like him enthusiastic and imaginative, their ardent fancies finding vent in song. One of Conradin's ballads is still extant.

As the young prince grew older, the seclusion to which he was subjected by his guardian, Meinhard, Count von Goertz, became so irksome to him that he gladly accepted a proposal from the Italian Ghibellines to put himself at their head. In 1267 he set out, in company with Frederick, and with a following of some ten thousand men, and crossed the Alps to Lombardy, where he met with a warm welcome at Verona by the Ghibelline chiefs.

Treachery accompanied him, however, in the presence of his guardian Meinhard and Louis of Bavaria, who persuaded him to part with his German possessions for a low price, and then deserted him, followed by the greater part of the Germans. Conradin was left with but three thousand men.

The Italians proved more faithful. Verona raised him an army; Pisa supplied him a large fleet; the Moors of Luceria took up arms in his cause; even Rome rose in his favor, and drove out the pope, who retreated to Viterbo. For the time being the Ghibelline cause was in the ascendant. Conradin marched unopposed to Rome, at whose gates he was met by a procession of beautiful girls, bearing flowers and instruments of music, who conducted him to the capitol. His success on land was matched by a success at sea, his fleet gaining a signal victory over that of the French, and burning a great number of their ships.

So far all had gone well with the youthful heir of the Hohenstauffens. Henceforth all was to go ill. Conradin marched from Rome to lower Italy, where he encountered the French army, under Charles, at Scurcola, drove them back, and broke into their camp. Assured of victory, the Germans grew careless, dispersing through the camp in search of booty, while some of them even refreshed themselves by bathing.

While thus engaged, the French reserve, who had watched their movements, suddenly fell upon them and completely put them to rout. Conradin and Frederick, after fighting bravely, owed their escape to the fleetness of their steeds. They reached the sea at Astura, boarded a vessel, and were about setting sail for Pisa, when they were betrayed into the hands of their pursuers, taken prisoners, and carried back to Charles of Anjou.

They had fallen into fatal hands; Charles was not the man to consider justice or honor in dealing with a Hohenstauffen. He treated Conradin as a rebel against himself, under the claim that he was the only legitimate king, and sentenced both the princes, then but sixteen years of age, to be publicly beheaded in the market-place at Naples.

Conradin was playing at chess in prison when the news of this unjust sentence was brought to him. He calmly listened to it, with the courage native to his race. On October 22, 1268, he, with Frederick and his other companions, was conducted to the scaffold erected in the market-place, passing through a throng of which even the French contingent looked on the spectacle with indignation. So greatly were they wrought up, indeed, by the outrage, that Robert, Earl of Flanders, Charles's son-in-law, drew his sword, and cut down the officer commissioned to read in public the sentence of death.

"Wretch!" he cried, as he dealt the blow, "how darest thou condemn such a great and excellent knight?"

Conradin met his fate with unyielding courage, saying, in his address to the people,—

"I cite my judge before the highest tribunal. My blood, shed on this spot, shall cry to heaven for vengeance. Nor do I esteem my Swabians and Bavarians, my Germans, so low as not to trust that this stain on the honor of the German nation will be washed out by them in French blood."

Then, throwing his glove to the ground, he charged him who should raise it to bear it to Peter, King of Aragon, to whom, as his nearest relative, he bequeathed all his claims. The glove was raised by Henry, Truchsess von Waldberg, who found in it the seal ring of the unfortunate wearer. Thence-forth he bore in his arms the three black lions of the Stauffen.

In a minute more the fatal axe of the executioner descended, and the head of the last heir of the Hohenstauffens rolled upon the scaffold. His friend, Frederick, followed him to death, nor was the bloodthirsty Charles satisfied until almost every Ghibelline in his hands had fallen by the hand of the executioner.

Enzio, the unfortunate son of Frederick who was held prisoner by the Bolognese, was involved in the fate of his unhappy nephew. On learning of the arrival of Conradin in Italy he made an effort to escape from prison, which would have been successful but for an unlucky accident. He had arranged to conceal himself in a cask, which was to be borne out of the prison by his friends, but by an unfortunate chance one of his long, golden locks fell out of the air-hole which had been made in the side of the cask, and revealed the stratagem to his keepers.

During his earlier imprisonment Enzio had been allowed some alleviation, his friends being permitted to visit him and solace him in his seclusion; but after this effort to escape he was closely confined, some say, in an iron cage, until his death in 1272.

Thus ended the royal race of the Hohenstauffen, a race marked by unusual personal beauty, rich poetical genius, and brilliant warlike achievements, and during whose period of power the mediæval age and its institutions attained their highest development.

As for the ruthless Charles of Anjou, he retained Apulia, but lost his possessions in Sicily through an event which has become famous as the "Sicilian Vespers." The insolence and outrages of the French had so exasperated the Sicilians that, on the night of March 30, 1282, a general insurrection broke out in this island, the French being everywhere assassinated. Constance, the grand-daughter of their old ruler, and Peter of Aragon, her husband, were proclaimed their sovereigns by the Sicilians, and Charles, the son of Charles of Anjou, fell into their hands.

Constance was generous to the captive prince, and on hearing him remark that he was happy to die on a Friday, the day on which Christ suffered, she replied,—

"For love of him who suffered on this day I will grant thee thy life."

He was afterwards exchanged for Beatrice, the daughter of the unhappy Helena, whose sons, the last princes of the Hohenstauffen race, died in the prison in which they had lived since infancy.

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