The political condition of Europe was favorable to Innocent’s assertion of power. With the sudden death of Henry VI., Sept. 28, 1197, at the early age of thirty-two, the German empire was left without a ruler. Frederick, the Emperor’s only son, was a helpless child. Throughout Italy a reaction set in against Henry’s hard and oppressive rule. The spirit of national freedom was showing itself, and a general effort was begun to expel the German princes and counts from Italian soil.
Innocent III. has been called by Ranke Henry’s real successor.190 Taking advantage of the rising feeling of Italian nationality, the pope made it his policy to separate middle and lower Italy from the empire, and, in fact, he became the deliverer of the peninsula from foreign agents and mercenaries. He began his reign by abolishing the last vestiges of the authority of the empire in the city of Rome. The city prefect, who had represented the emperor, took the oath of allegiance to the pope, and Innocent invested him with a mantle and silver cup. The senator likewise acknowledged Innocent’s authority and swore to protect the Roman see and the regalia of St. Peter.
The pope quickly pushed his authority beyond the walls of Rome. Spoleto, which for six centuries had been ruled by a line of German dukes, Assisi, Perugia, and other cities, submitted. Mark of Anweiler, the fierce soldier of Henry VI., could not withstand the fortunate diplomacy and arms of Innocent, and the Romagna, with Ravenna as its centre, yielded. A Tuscan league was formed which was favorably disposed to the papal authority. Florence, Siena, Pisa, and other cities, while refusing to renounce their civic freedom, granted privileges to the pope. Everywhere Innocent had his legates. Such full exercise of papal power over the State of the Church had not before been known.
To confirm her son Frederick’s title to the crown of Sicily, his mother delivered the kingdom over to the pope as a papal fief. She survived her imperial consort only a year, and left a will appointing Innocent the guardian of her child. The intellectual training and political destinies of the heir of the Hohenstaufen were thus intrusted to the hereditary foe of that august house. Innocent was left a free hand to prosecute his trust as he chose.191
In Germany, Innocent became the umpire of the imperial election. The electors were divided between two aspirants to the throne, Philip of Swabia, the brother of Henry VI., who was crowned at Mainz, and Otto, the son of Henry the Lion, who was crowned at Aachen by Adolf, archbishop of Cologne. Otto was the nephew of Richard Coeur de Lion and John of England, who supported his claims with their gold and diplomacy. Both parties made their appeal to Rome, and it is not a matter of surprise that Innocent’s sympathies were with the Guelf, Otto, rather than with the Hohenstaufen. Moreover, Philip had given offence by occupying, as duke of Tuscany, the estates of Matilda.
Innocent made the high claim that the German throne depended for its occupant "from the beginning and ultimately" upon the decision of the papal see. Had not the Church transferred the empire from the East to the West? And had not the Church itself conferred the imperial crown,192 passing by the claims of Frederick and pronouncing Philip "unworthy of empire?" Innocent decided in 1201 in favor of Otto, "his dearest son in Christ who was himself devoted to the Church and on both sides was descended from devout stock." The decision inured to Rome’s advantage. By the stipulation of Neuss, subsequently repeated at Spires, 1209, Otto promised obedience to the pope and renounced all claim to dominion in the State of the Church and also to Naples and Sicily. This written document was a dangerous ratification of the real or pretended territorial rights and privileges of the papacy from Constantine and Pepin down.
Civil war broke out, and when the tide of success turned in Philip’s favor, the pope released him from the sentence of excommunication and was about to acknowledge him as emperor193 when the murderous sword of Otto of Wittelsbach, in 1208, brought Philip’s career to a tragic end. The year following Otto was crowned in St. Peter’s, but he forgot his promises and proceeded to act out the independent policy of the rival house of the Hohenstaufen.194 He laid heavy hand upon Central Italy, distributing rich estates and provinces among his vassals and sequestrating the revenues of the clergy. He then marched to Southern Italy, the territory of Frederick, and received the surrender of Naples.
All that Innocent had gained seemed in danger of being lost. Prompt measures showed him equal to the emergency. He wrote that the stone he had erected to be the head of the corner had become a rock of offence. Like Rachel he mourned over his son whom he lamented to have made king. Otto was excommunicated and a meeting of magnates at Nürnberg, 1211, declared him deposed, and, pronouncing in favor of Frederick, sent envoys to Palermo to convey to him the intelligence. Otto crossed the Alps to reclaim his power, but it was too late. Frederick started north, stopping at Rome, where Innocent saw him for the first and last time, April, 1212. He was elected and crowned king at Frankfurt, December, 1212, and was recognized by nearly all the princes at Eger the year following. Before setting out from Italy he had again recognized Sicily as a fief of Rome. At Eger he disavowed all imperial right to the State of the Church.195
Otto joined in league with John of England and the Flemish princes against Philip Augustus of France; but his hopes were dashed to the ground on the battlefield of Bouvines, Belgium, 1415. His authority was thenceforth confined to his ancestral estate. He died 1218. Innocent had gained the day. His successors were to be defied by the young king, Frederick, for nearly half a century.
With equal spirit and decision, Innocent mingled in the affairs of the other states of Europe. In France, the controversy was over the sanctity of the marriage vow. Philip Augustus put away his second wife,196 a Danish princess, a few months after their marriage, and took the fair Agnes of Meran in her stead. The French bishops, on the plea of remote consanguinity, justified the divorce. But Innocent, listening to the appeals of Ingeborg, and placing France under the interdict, forced the king to take her back.197
The Christian states of the Spanish peninsula felt the pontiff’s strong hand. The kingdom of Leon was kept under the interdict five years till Alfonso IX. consented to dismiss his wife on account of blood relationship. Pedro, king of Aragon, a model of Spanish chivalry, received his crown at Rome in 1204 and made his realm a fief of the Apostolic see. Sancho, king of the newly risen kingdom of Portugal, was defeated in his effort to break away from the pope’s suzerainty.
In the North, Sweden accepted Innocent’s decision in favor of the house of Schwerker, and the Danish king, who was attempting to reduce the tribes along the Baltic to Christianity, was protected by the pope’s threat of interdict upon all molesting his realm. The king of England was humbled to the dust by Innocent’s word. To the king of Scotland a legate was sent and a valuable sword. Even Iceland is said to have been the subject of Innocent’s thought and action.
In the Southeast, Johannitius of Bulgaria received from Innocent his crown after bowing before his rebuke for having ventured to accept it from Philip of Swabia. Ottoker, prince of Bohemia, was anointed by the papal legate, and Emmeric of Hungary made a vow to lead a crusade, which his brother Andrew executed. Thus all the states of Europe west of Russia were made to feel the supremacy of the papal power. The conquest of Constantinople and the Holy Land, as we shall see, occupied an equal share of attention from this tireless and masterful ruler, and the establishment of the Latin Empire of Constantinople, 1205, was regarded as a signal triumph for the papal policy.