History Highlights

Henry the Lion submits to Frederick Barbarossa, 1181 in Erfurt

Heinrich der Löwe (Henry the Lion) was one of the most powerful German princes of his time… but he lost it all when he angered Kaiser Friedrich I, Barbarossa (Frederick Barbarossa).

The image here depicts the moment that Henry the Lion submits to Frederick Barbarossa, 1181 in Erfurt. The painting is by Peter Janssen, 1882, entitled “Unterwerfung Heinrichs des Löwen vor Kaiser Friedrich I. Barbarossa in der Erfurter Peterskirche im Jahre 1181”.

At the height of his reign, Heinrich der Löwe ruled over a vast territory stretching from the coast of the North and Baltic Seas to the Alps, and from Westphalia to Pomerania. He achieved this great power in part by his political and military acumen and in part through the legacies of his four grandparents. But he left his own amazing legacy in the form of cities that he founded…you will be impressed by the list of these now great cities: Munich (in 1157 as München) and Lübeck (founded in 1143 but made into a trading center in 1159)…he also founded and developed numerous other cities in Northern Germany and Bavaria: Augsburg, Hildesheim, Stade, Kassel, Güstrow, Lüneburg, Salzwedel, Schwerin and Braunschweig (Brunswick).

Heinrich der Löwe faithfully supported his older cousin, Kaiser Friedrich Barbarossa, in his attempts to solidify his hold on the Imperial Crown. Heinrich also supported the Kaiser in his repeated wars with the cities of Lombardy and the Popes, several times turning the tide of battle in Friedrich’s favor with his Saxon knights. During Friedrich’s first invasion of northern Italy, Heinrich took part, among the others, in the victorious sieges of Crema and Milan.

However, in 1174 he refused to aid Friedrich in a renewed invasion of Lombardy because he was preoccupied with securing his own borders in the East. He also did not consider these Italian adventures worth the effort and thus defied Kaiser Friedrich Barbarossa. This act of disloyalty was Heinrich’s undoing.

Kaiser Barbarossa’s expedition into Lombardy ultimately ended in failure and he bitterly resented Heinrich for failing to support him. Taking advantage of the hostility of other German princes to Heinrich, Friedrich had him tried in absentia for insubordination by a court of bishops and princes in 1180. Declaring that Imperial law overruled traditional German law, the court had Heinrich stripped of his lands and declared him an outlaw.

Friedrich then invaded Saxony with an Imperial army to bring his cousin to his knees. Heinrich’s allies deserted him, and he finally had to submit in November 1181 at a Reichstag in Erfurt. He was exiled from Germany for 3 years and lived Normandy with his father-in-law, English King Henry II, before being allowed back into Germany in 1185. For his refusal to participate in the Third Crusade or to renounce his claims to Saxony, he was again banished, in 1189, rejoining Henry II in Normandy.

After all of his humiliation, Heinrich der Löwe was still rebellious. He seized his opportunity when Friedrich Barbarossa left Germany to lead the Third Crusade in 1189. Heinrich returned to Saxony, mobilized an army of his faithful, and totally destroyed the wealthy city of Bardowick. Only the churches were left standing as punishment for not being loyal to him during his fight with Kaiser Friedrich in 1181.

At this point a tragedy occurred that ultimately led to the failure of the massive Third Crusade. Friedrich Barbarossa, who was to be the leader of this multinational Crusade, accidentally died of drowning while crossing a fast moving stream on route to Jerusalem. The German contingent fell apart as Nobles returned to Germany to ensure that Barbarossa’s son, Heinrich VI, would be elected as the new Kaiser. They also needed men to protect their lands from invasion by the vengeful Heinrich der Löwe. Thus the Third crusade continued under the leadership of England’s King Richard the Lionheart, but with a greatly reduced German participation. The Crusade initially was victorious but ended after it failed to capture Jerusalem, the emotional and spiritual motivation of the Crusade.

Coat of Arms, Kaiser Friedrich Barbarossa

Meanwhile, back in Germany, Barbarossa’s son, now Kaiser Heinrich VI, once again defeated Heinrich. Several years later in 1194, just one year before his death, Heinrich der Löwe met with Heinrich VI and finally made his peace with the Kaiser. Heinrich der Löwe thereafter returned to his much diminished lands around Brunswick, where he finished his days as Duke of Braunschweig, peacefully sponsoring arts and architecture. In 1195, Heinrich fell from his horse and died shortly afterward at age 66.

The son of Friedrich I. Barbarossa , Kaiser Heinrich VI. (1165-1197)

The protagonists of this account both became legendary figures. Kaiser Friedrich Barbarossa is the subject of many legends, including that of a sleeping hero. Legend says he is not dead, but asleep with his knights in a cave in the Kyffhäuser Mountain in Thuringia, and that when the ravens cease to fly around the mountain he will awake and restore Germany to its ancient greatness. According to the story, his red beard has grown through the table at which he sits. His eyes are half closed in sleep, but now and then he raises his hand and sends a boy out to see if the ravens have stopped flying.


Kaiser Friedrich Barbarossa asleep with his knights in a cave in the Kyffhäuser Mountain in Thuringia

Heinrich der Löwe (Henry the Lion) became the subject of a folktale, the so-called Heinrichssage, which details a fictional account of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. According to legend, Heinrich witnessed a fight between a lion and a dragon while on pilgrimage and joins the lion in its fight and they slay the dragon. The faithful lion then accompanies Heinrich on his return home. After its master’s death, the lion refuses all food and dies of grief on Heinrich’s grave. The people of Brunswick then erect a statue in the lion’s honor.

Heinrich der Löwe (Henry the Lion)

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