Barbarossa meets a watery end
One of medieval Europe’s most powerful crusaders drowns, leaving his army in disarray
Ithe early months of 1190, terrible news swept Asia Minor. Three n years after Saladin had recaptured Jerusalem, the crusaders were returning. This time their expedition would be led by one of the most powerful men in Christendom: the Holy Roman Emperor himself, the colossally experienced and accomplished German king Frederick Barbarossa. On 18 May, Frederick smashed the Seljuk Turks at the battle of Iconium. Jerusalem was in his sights. A titanic showdown with Saladin seemed only a matter of time.
But then fate made an extraordinary intervention. On 10 June, Frederick’s army was just outside Silifke, in southern Turkey, and attempting to cross the river Saleph, when something went terribly wrong. Medieval chroniclers told different stories: some said the emperor had decided to go for a dip to cool off on a sweltering day, but others said that he had been leading his troops across the ford when his horse slipped and threw him into the cold water. Some claimed that Frederick drowned, others that he died from a heart attack brought on by the shock.
In the days following his death, everything went wrong for the late emperor’s army. His son, Frederick of Swabia, led them south, but they were ravaged by desertions and disease. In Antioch, Barbarossa’s body was boiled and filleted to remove his bones. His flesh was buried in the cathedral church of St Peter. The army hung on to his bones, hoping to bury them in Jerusalem. But they never made it to the city, and the bones found their resting place in Tyre instead.
A manuscript depicts the death of Barbarossa in the choppy waters of the river Saleph. Without his experienced leadership, the emperor’s army soon came unstuck