With Conrad III. the powerful family of the Hohenstaufen ascended the imperial throne and occupied it from 1138 till 1254. They derive the name from the family castle Hohenstaufen, on a hill in the Rough Alp near Göppingen in Swabia.129 They were descended from a knight, Friedrich von Büren, in the eleventh century, and his son Friedrich von Staufen, a faithful adherent of Emperor Henry IV., who made him duke of Swabia (1079), and gave him his daughter Agnes in marriage. They were thus connected by blood with the antagonist of Pope Hildebrand, and identified with the cause of the Ghibellines against the Guelphs in their bloody feuds in Germany and Italy. Henry VI., 1190–1197, acquired by marriage the kingdom of Naples and Sicily. His son, Frederick II., raised his house to the top of its prosperity, but was in his culture and taste more an Italian than German prince, and spent most of his time in Italy.
The Hohenstaufen or Swabian emperors maintained the principle of imperialism, that is, the dignity and independence of the monarchy, as a divine institution, against papal sacerdotalism on the one hand, and against popular liberty on the other.
They made common cause with the popes, and served their purposes in the crusades: three of them, Conrad III., Frederick I., and Frederick II., undertook crusades against the Saracens; Conrad III. engaged in the second, which was a failure; Frederick I. perished in Syria; Frederick II. captured Jerusalem. The Hohenstaufen made also common cause with the popes against political and doctrinal dissent: Barbarossa sacrificed and punished by death Arnold of Brescia as a dangerous demagogue; and Frederick II., though probably himself an unbeliever, persecuted heretics.
But on the question of supremacy of power, the Hohenstaufen were always in secret or open war with the popes, and in the end were defeated. The conflict broke out under Frederick Barbarossa, who after long years of contention died at peace with the Church. It was continued by his grandson Frederick II. who died excommunicated and deposed from his throne by the papacy. The dynasty went out in tragic weakness in Conradin, the last male representative, who was beheaded on the charge of high treason, 1268. This conflict of the imperial house of the Hohenstaufen was more imposing than the conflict waged by Henry IV. with Gregory and his successors because of the higher plane on which it was fought and the greater ability of the secular antagonists engaged. Lasting more than one hundred years, it forms one of the most august spectacles of the Middle Ages, and furnishes some of the most dramatic scenes in which kings have ever figured. The historian Gregorovius has felt justified in saying that "this Titanic war of the Middle Ages filled and connected the centuries and formed the greatest spectacle of all ages."
After the fall of the Hohenstaufen, the German Empire maintained, till its death in 1806, a nominal connection with the papacy, but ceased to be the central political power of Europe, except in the period of the Reformation under Charles V., 1519–1558, when it was connected with the crowns of Austria, the Low Countries, and Spain, and the newly discovered lands of America, and when that mighty monarch, true to his Austrian and Spanish descent, retarded the Protestant movement for national independence and religious freedom. The new German Empire, founded on the ruins of the old and the defeat of France (1870), is ruled by a hereditary Protestant emperor.
Crowned emperor at Aix la Chapelle by the papal legates.