Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor

Henry VI
Duke of Swabia, King of Burgundy,
King of Sicily, King of the Romans,
King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor
Portrait of Henry VI from the Codex Manesse (folio 6r)
Portrait of Henry VI from the Codex Manesse (folio 6r)
Reign December 25, 1194-September 28, 1197
Coronation December 25, 1194
Queen Constance of Sicily
Issue Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor
Royal House Hohenstaufen
Father Frederick I
Mother Beatrix of Burgundy
Born November, 1165
Died September 28, 1197
Buried Palermo

Henry VI (November 1165, Nijmegen28 September 1197, Messina), sometimes called the Cruel, was king of Germany 1190-1197, Holy Roman Emperor 1191-1197, and king of Sicily 1194-1197.

Henry was the son of the emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Beatrix of Burgundy, and was crowned King of the Romans at Bamberg in June 1169, at the age of four. After having taken the reins of the Empire from his father, who had gone on the Crusade, in 1189-1190 he suppressed a revolt by Henry the Lion, former duke of Saxony and Bavaria and relative of Frederick.

Constance of Sicily was betrothed to Henry in 1184, and they were married on January 27, 1186. Constance was the sole legitimate heir of William II of Sicily, and, after the latter's death in November 1189, Henry had the possibility of adding the Sicilian crown to the Imperial one, as his father had now died crossing the Saleph River in Cilicia, now part of Turkey June 10, 1190.

In April 1191, in Rome, Henry and Constance were crowned Emperor and Empress by Pope Celestine III. The crown of Sicily, however, was harder to gain, as the barons of southern Italy had chosen a local relative of the Norman ruling family, Tancred, count of Lecce, as their king. Henry began his work besieging Naples, but he had to leave the siege after his army had been heavily hit by an epidemic, and the Salernitans had taken his wife prisoner and taken her to Tancred. Moreover, Henry the Lion had revolted again, forcing him to return to Northern Germany in the August of that year. His difficulties soon disappeared when the duke of Austria Leopold gave him his prisoner, the king of England Richard I. Henry managed to exact from the English a ransom of 150,000 silver marks, a huge sum for that age, and with this money, he could raise a powerful army to conquer southern Italy.

Henry was granted free passage in Northern Italy, signing with the Italian communes a treaty in January 1194, and the following April he also reached a settlement with Henry the Lion. In February Tancred died, leaving as heir a 7 year old boy, William III. Henry met little resistance and entered in Palermo, capital city of the Kingdom of Sicily, on November 20, and was crowned on December 25. He also had the young William blinded and castrated, while many Sicilian nobles were burned alive.

At that point, Henry was the most powerful monarch in the Mediterranean and Europe, since the Kingdom of Sicily added to his personal and Imperial revenues an income without parallel in Europe. Henry felt strong enough to send back home the Pisan and Genoese ships without giving their governments the promised concessions in Southern Italy, and even got tribute from the Byzantine Empire. In 1194 his son, Frederick, the future emperor and king of Sicily and Jerusalem, was born. Henry secured his position in Italy, naming his friend Conrad of Urslingen as duke of Spoleto and giving the Marche to Markward of Anweiler.

His 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, where Arabs were the majority of the population, but his German soldiers suppressed it mercilessly. In the same year Henry prepared for a Crusade, but, on September 28, he died of malaria in Messina.

Henry was fluent in Latin, and, according to Alberic of Troisfontaines, 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 almost certainly composed the song "Kaiser Heinrich", now among the Weingarten Song Manuscripts.

According to his rank and with Imperial Eagle, regalia, and a scroll, he is the first and foremost to be portrayed in the famous Codex Manesse, a fourteenth century manuscript showing 140 reputed poets and at least three poems are attributed to a young and romantically minded Henry VI. In one of those he describes a romance which 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).


Preceded by:
Frederick I Barbarossa
King of Germany
Succeeded by:
Holy Roman Emperor
Succeeded by:
Otto IV

Parentage and children

Frederick II of Swabia Judith of Bavaria Renald III of Burgundy Agatha of Lorraine
Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor Beatrix of Burgundy
Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor
Spouse(s) Children
Constance of Sicily Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor

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