July 7th, 2010 Headsman
On this date in 1285, a pretender to the Holy Roman Empire* throne was burned at the stake in Wetzlar, Germany.
This myth of a past hero who sleeps out of sight, awaiting the opportune moment for return, has a wide cultural currency; King Arthur would be the readiest example for most Anglos.
In Germany from the 13th century, a similar myth attached to Emperor Frederick I “Barbarossa”, who had suddenly drowned during the Third Crusade in 1190 after reigning as Holy Roman Emperor for nearly 40 years. It’s a myth with enough resonance for this poem by 19th century German romantic Friedrich Rückert:
The ancient Barbarossa,
Frederich, the Kaiser great,
Within the castle-cavern
Sits in enchanted state.
He did not die; but ever
Waits in the chamber deep,
Where hidden under the castle
He sat himself to sleep.
The splendor of the Empire
He took with him away,
And back to earth will bring it
When dawns the promised day.
The chair is ivory purest
Whereof he makes his bed;
The table is of marble
Whereon he props his head.
His beard, not flax, but burning
With fierce and fiery glow
Right through the marble table
Beneath his chair does grow.
He nods in dreams and winketh
With dull, half-open eyes,
And once an age he beckons
A page that standeth by.
He bids the boy in slumber:
“O dwarf, go up this hour,
And see if still the ravens
Are flying round the tower.
“And if the ancient ravens
Still wheel above us here,
Then must I sleep enchanted
For many a hundred year.”
(To say nothing of the resonance for the Nazis who codenamed their invasion of the Soviet Union Barbarossa.)
Anyway, by the time we lay our scene late in the 13th century, when the Hohenstaufen line has tragically vanished, a version of this myth — the “Emperor of Peace” (German link) — has attached itself to Barbarossa’s grandson, Frederick II. Like Frederick I, he was a great and long-lived consolidator of the Empire; unfortunately, he’s been dead since 1250. Or has he?!
Tile Kolup appears in 1284 claiming to be this Frederick, who would have been going on 90 years old at this time. The good citizens of Cologne are his first audience, and he totally bombs with them; only their conviction that he’s more madman than usurper gets him run out of town with only a taunting.
But he finds a more receptive crowd in Neuss, and for a time keeps a court there and issues documents on Frederick II’s authority. Rudolph I, King of the Romans and butt of reindeer jokes, eventually nabs him in nearby Wetzlar and tortures him into admitting his imposture.
* “This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” -Voltaire. (And the coffee talk lady.)
Also on this date
- 1911: Daniel "Nealy" Duncan, posthumous pardon candidate
- 1962: Talduwe Somarama, Ceylon assassin
- 1584: Anna Peihelsteinin, beheaded by Franz Schmidt
- 1730: Olivier Levasseur, "La Buse"
- 1891: Four to save the electric chair
- 1896: Charles Thomas Wooldridge, of The Ballad of Reading Gaol
- 1865: Four for Abraham Lincoln's assassination