Henry VI Biography

King, Emperor (1165–1197)
Henry VI (1165-1197) was a German king and Holy Roman Emperor. He increased the power of his empire by acquiring the kingdom of Sicily.


Henry VI (1165-1197) was designated the German king in 1169 and later became Holy Roman Emperor. Through his marriage to Constance I, daughter of Sicily's King Roger II, he increased his dynasty's power. Henry VI failed to make the German crown hereditary, like the Sicilian crown, but his son, Frederick II, still became king of Sicily after his death.

Early Life

Henry, the son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I and Beatrix of Burgundy, was born in the autumn of 1165, in Nijmegen, in the present-day Netherlands. At age 4, Henry was chosen to be the German king and was crowned in August of 1169.

His 1186 marriage to Constance I, the posthumous daughter of Sicilian King Roger II, potentially enlarged his holdings. Constance was the sole heir of William II of Sicily, and after William's death in November 1189, Henry gained title to the kingdom of Sicily.

Young King Becomes Emperor

At nearly the same time, Henry took control of the empire when Frederick I departed for the Holy Land on the Third Crusade. Between 1189 and 1190, Henry suppressed a revolt by Henry the Lion, a former duke of Bavaria and Saxony. In June 1190, Frederick died crossing the Saleph River in Cilicia (now part of Turkey). Henry made peace with Henry the Lion and was crowned Emperor Henry VI by Pope Celestine III in April 1191, with his wife, Constance, crowned empress.

Being declared emperor and being accepted as such proved to be two different things in Sicily, as the local barons rejected Henry's rule. They elected Tancred of Lecce, an illegitimate son of Constance's brother, Duke Roger of Apulia. Henry VI proceeded to conquer Sicily and bring it under control, but then Henry the Lion revolted again, forcing him to suspend the Sicilian campaign and return to Germany. Constance stayed behind in Sicily and was subsequently kidnapped by Tancred. Pope Celestine III intervened and negotiated Constance's release in exchange for Tancred being recognized as king of Sicily.

Unexpected Turn of Events

Military affairs had not gone well for Henry VI up to this point, when an unexpected circumstance turned things around. English King Richard I (a.k.a. "Richard the Lionheart") had been captured by Leopold V, Duke of Austria, in December 1192, on his return from the Third Crusade. Richard had earlier angered Henry VI for interfering in the affairs of Sicily, and Henry ordered Leopold V to turn Richard over to him. Through Henry faced excommunication for imprisoning a crusader, he proceeded with his plans. Through extended negotiations, Henry extracted a ransom of 150,000 silver marks in return for Richard's release and safe passage back to England.

Having obtained yet another truce with Henry the Lion, Henry VI was free to concentrate on finally subduing Sicily. When Tancred died in 1194, his young son William was made king. Henry was able to enter Sicily without much resistance and take control. He extracted a heavy toll on those who had resisted him, and he sent the young would-be king William to a dungeon in Germany, where he was presumably murdered.

Supreme Power and an Early Death

Henry VI was now arguably the most powerful monarch in Mediterranean Europe. He attempted to make the empire's crown hereditary, and for a time it looked as if he might succeed. However, a minority of German barons opposed hereditary rule.

In 1197, Henry VI was in southern Italy preparing for a crusade when he contracted malaria. He died on September 28. His son, Frederick II, inherited the kingdom of Sicily and was later made Holy Roman Emperor.

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