“When Emperor Redbeard with his band / Came marching through the Holy Land” - Frederick I's death during the Third Crusade

10 June 1190, 68 years old Emperor Frederick I, en route to Palestine during the Third Crusade, drowned in the River Saleph (Göksu) in Anatolia.
“When Emperor Redbeard with his band / Came marching through the Holy Land” (Ludwig Uhland, “Suabian Legend”)


The 20’ sandstone figure of the emperor by Emil Hundertrieser, part of the Kyffhäuser Monument (1896)


Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, the Red-Beard, took the cross during the Diet of Mainz in 1188 after the Near Eastern Outremer Principalities suffered disaster after disaster and Jerusalem fell to Saladin the year before. While Richard of England and Philip decided to reach the Holy Land by sea, Barbarossa decided to take the land route, like he did when he embarked on the Second Crusade with his Uncle Emperor Conrad 40 years before.

With 15.000 men, the greatest single contingent ever to go forth crusading, the emperor left Ratisbon in May 1189, reaching Constantinople in autumn, defeating the Turkish Sultan Kılıç Arslan II at the Battle of Iconium (Konya) in May 1190 and crossing the Taurus Mountains to the banks of the Saleph. If the old emperor drowned while trying to cross the river in full kit or suffered a stroke while taking a bath in it during a halt is still disputed. However, what was left of the Imperials after a year of marching and fighting through half of Europe and Asia Minor was completely shocked by his death and during continuous infighting of the remaining princes, the German contingent of the Third Crusade was almost completely wiped out before they reached Syria.

Death of the emperor Barbarossa during the Third Crusade, painting of Gustave Doré (1832-1883)    


Barbarossa’s remains were disposed of after the custom of the “Mos Teutonicus”, the flesh separated from the bones, the intestines buried in Tarsus, the flesh in Antioch and the bones probably in the Cathedral of Tyros – Frederick Barbarossa is one of the very few Medieval rulers who took the cross twice in his life and whose exact burial ground is unknown. 
The creation of legends began almost immediately after his death and reached their climax during the 19th century and Germany’s struggle for unity. The Brothers Grimm collected tales of the “king in the mountain” / “sleeping hero” variant, having Emperor Red-Beard sleep in the Kyffhäuser mountain on the southern edge of the Harz in Thuringia. He sits there, with his huge beard grown into the table and wakes every hundred years. As long as there are ravens circling the Kyffhäuser he knows his time has not come – the hour of the realm’s greatest need.

Frederick sends out the boy to see whether the ravens still fly.