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Frederick’s concern with southern Germany and Burgundy involved him in nearby Italy. He has been severely censured by many historians for his actions in this area. But it is hard to see how he could have avoided an interest in this part of the empire, where since the days of the emperor Henry V (reigned 1106-1125) German rulers had played little role and had allowed both the northern towns of Italy and the papacy to develop relatively undisturbed. Now all this changed.Pope Adrian IV, at odds with his powerful vassal and protector the Norman king of Sicily, William I, asked assistance from Frederick in getting rid of Arnold of Brescia, a religious reformer who had seized control of the city of Rome. In 1154-1155 Frederick answered this request by advancing on Rome and capturing and executing Arnold. In return he was crowned emperor by the Pope. Frederick, however, was obviously reluctant to accept the seeming subordination that this ceremony entailed.
By 1157 Pope and Emperor were definitely at odds, since, when Frederick held a diet in Besançon in Burgundy, he interpreted a papal letter as a slur upon his independence. From this time on he began to refer to his empire as a holy empire on a par with the Church. When he returned to Italy with a huge army in 1158, he was ready to challenge papal authority. He did so at a diet which he held at Roncaglia, where he claimed, as Roman emperor, complete authority over northern Italian cities, including both the right to appoint podestas, or imperial governors, for them and to levy heavy taxes upon them. He based such claims upon rights given emperors by the Roman law, which had newly been rediscovered and was being studied at Bologna and elsewhere in northern Italy. When Milan, the most powerful northern Italian city, resisted his claims and revolted, he captured it after a long siege and razed it. By 1161 he had crushed all resistance in northern Italy and seemed well on his way to organizing this rich area as an imperial domain under his direct rule.Frederick’s success, however, disturbed the papacy, which was now in the hands of a new pope, Alexander III. It also alarmed the Norman kings of Sicily to the south and the inhabitants of northern Italian towns who by 1168, with papal blessing, had organized the Lombard League to oppose Frederick’s authority. Faced by this rising opposition, Frederick attempted to counter papal hostility by setting up an antipope and thus forced Alexander for a time to flee to France (1162-1165). He also planned an attack on the kingdom of Sicily.
In the long run, however, his enemies proved too many for him to subdue. The Lombard League grew in power, and Milan was rebuilt while Frederick was unavoidably absent in Germany.Finally, in 1174 Frederick returned again to Italy with a relatively small army, since he could rally only minimal support for his Italian plans among his German nobles. With this force he attempted several unsuccessful sieges of towns and then in 1176 was badly defeated by a Milanese force at the Battle of Legnano. Recognizing that this defeat had doomed his Italian prospects, Frederick made peace with Pope Alexander III and gave up his antipope. Alexander in return deserted his Lombard allies and allowed Frederick full control over the Church in Germany. In 1183 Frederick also came to terms with the Lombard League by signing the Peace of Constance, by which these centers were guaranteed self-government and the right to control their own taxes and judicial administration. Frederick’s Lombard adventure had ended in failure.
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