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The death and boiling of Frederick Barbarossa

On 10th June 1190 Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor (i.e. the ruler of German-speaking Europe) died in a river inTurkey. The circumstances of his death have never been established with certainty.

Barbarossa had responded to calls from Rome for another Crusade to conquer Jerusalem and save the “holy places” for Christianity. Saladin, the leader of the Muslim armies, had recaptured the city three years previously, and Christendom felt obliged to put things right, as they saw it.

Frederick I (Barbarossa was a nickname meaning “red beard”) was born in 1122 and became King of Germany in 1152 and Holy Roman Emperor in1155. As a young man he had distinguished himself on the Second Crusade of 1147-49, and the call to arms in 1188 for a Third Crusade had a ready response from a man who, although now in his late sixties, presumably saw this as just one more campaign after a lifetime of military adventures.

Barbarossa headed an army of probably around 15,000 men, which marched overland towards Turkey. The Crusade was also joined in 1189 by the new English King, Richard I, who took the sea route.

On 18th May 1190 Barbarossa defeated the Turks at Iconium and the route towards Jerusalem was wide open. However, things went terribly wrong when Barbarossa reached Silifke in southern Turkey. 

There are various accounts of what actually happened in the River Saleph (known as the Goksu River today). One story is that Barbarossa took a dip in the river at the end of a hot day. Another is that his horse slipped as he was crossing the river and threw him into the water. Did he drown after hitting his head on a rock? Did he suffer a heart attack as a result of shock from plunging into very cold water? We shall never know for certain.

What is known is that the army proceeded on its journey, led by Barbarossa’s son, also named Frederick, but with little enthusiasm for the task. Many soldiers deserted and turned for home, while others fell victim to disease. 

Barbarossa`s body was given an unusual, not to say revolting, treatment. At Antioch it was boiled so that all the flesh fell off the bones. The flesh was buried in the Cathedral of St Peter, with the idea that the bones would find their final resting place in Jerusalem when the Crusade reached its goal and defeated Saladin.

However, this did not happen, so the bones were buried at Tyre instead.

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