Henry was born in autumn 1165 at the Valkhof pfalz of Nijmegen to Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Beatrix of Burgundy. At the age of four, his father had him elected King of the Romans during the Hoftag in Bamberg at Pentecost 1169, and Henry was crowned on 15 August at Aachen Cathedral.
Frederick Barbarossa with his sons Henry and Frederick, Historia Welforum
, Weingarten Abbey, c. 1180
He accompanied his father on his Italian campaign of 1174-76 against the Lombard League, whereby he was educated by Godfrey of Viterbo and associated with minnesingers like Friedrich von Hausen, Bligger von Steinach, and Bernger von Horheim. Henry was fluent in Latin and, according to the chronicler Alberic of Trois-Fontaines, was "distinguished by gifts of knowledge, wreathed in flowers of eloquence, and learned in canon and Roman law". He was a patron of poets and poetry, and he almost certainly composed the song Kaiser Heinrich, now among the Weingarten Song Manuscripts. According to his rank and with Imperial Eagle (Reichsadler), regalia, and a scroll, he is the first and foremost to be portrayed in the famous Codex Manesse, a 14th-century songbook manuscript featuring 140 reputed poets; at least three poems are attributed to a young and romantically minded Henry VI. In one of those he describes a romance that makes him forget all his earthly power, and neither riches nor royal dignity can outweigh his yearning for that lady (ê ich mich ir verzige, ich verzige mich ê der krône – before I give her up, I’d rather give up the crown).
Having returned to Germany in 1178, Henry supported his father against insurgent Duke Henry the Lion. He and his younger brother Frederick received the knightly accolade at Mainz in 1184. The emperor had already entered into negotiations with King William II of Sicily to betroth his son and heir with William's aunt Constance. As William's marriage had remained childless, she was his sole legitimate heir, and, after the latter's death in November 1189, Henry had the opportunity of adding the Sicilian crown to the imperial one. He and Constance were married on 27 January 1186 in Milan.
In the Hohenstaufen conflict with Pope Urban III, Henry moved to the March of Tuscany, and with the aid of his liensman Markward von Annweiler devastated the adjacent territory of the Papal States. Back in Germany, he took the reins of the Empire from his father, who had died while on the Third Crusade in 1190. Henry tried to secure his rule in the Low Countries by elevating Count Baldwin V of Hainaut to a margrave of Namur, and at the same time he tried to reach a settlement with rivalling Duke Henry of Brabant. Further difficulties arose when the exiled Welf duke Henry the Lion returned from England and began to subdue large estates in his former Duchy of Saxony. A Hohenstaufen campaign to Saxony had to be abandoned when King Henry received the message of the death of King William II of Sicily on 18 November 1189. The Sicilian vice-chancellor Matthew of Ajello pursued the succession of Count Tancred of Lecce and gained the support of the Roman Curia.
To assert his own rights in the inheritance dispute, Henry initially supported Tancred's rival Count Roger of Andria and made arrangements for a campaign to Italy. The next year he concluded a peace agreement with Henry the Lion at Fulda and moved farther southwards to Augsburg, where he learned that his father had died on crusade attempting to cross the Saleph River near Seleucia in the Kingdom of Cilicia (now part of Turkey) on 10 June 1190.
While he sent an Imperial army to Italy, Henry initially stayed in Germany to settle the succession of Louis III, Landgrave of Thuringia, who had also died on the Third Crusade. He had planned to seize the Thuringian landgraviate as a reverted fief, but Louis' brother Hermann was able to reach his enfeoffment. The next year, the king followed his army across the Alps. In Lodi he negotiated with Eleanor of Aquitaine, widow of King Henry II of England, to break the engagement of her son King Richard with Alys, a daughter of late King Louis VII of France. He hoped to deteriorate English-French relations and to isolate Richard, who had offended him by backing Count Tancred in Sicily. Eleanor acted cleverly; she reached Henry's assurance that he would not interfere in her son's conflict with King Philip II of France, and she would also prevent the marriage of Henry's younger brother Conrad with Berengaria of Castile to confine the Hohenstaufen claims to power.
Henry entered into further negotiations with the Lombard League cities and with Pope Celestine III on his Imperial coronation, and ceded Tusculum to the Pope. At Easter Monday on 15 April 1191, in Rome, Henry and his consort Constance were crowned Emperor and Empress by Celestine. The crown of Sicily, however, was harder to gain, as the Sicilian nobility had chosen Count Tancred of Lecce as their king. Henry began his work campaigning in Apulia and besieging Naples, but he encountered resistance when Tancred's liensman Margaritus of Brindisi came to the city's defence, harassed Henry's Pisan navy, and nearly destroyed the later arriving Genoese contingent. Moreover, the Imperial army had been heavily hit by an epidemic, and Henry ultimately had to abandon the siege. Upon his retreat those cities had surrendered to him resubmitted to Tancred, and Constance, who was left in the palace of Salerno as a sign that he would soon return, was betrayed and handed over to Tancred.
Henry had to return to Germany when he learned that Henry the Lion had again incited a conflict with the Saxon House of Ascania and the Counts of Schauenburg. His son Henry of Brunswick deserted from the Imperial army in Italy and was ostracized by the emperor at the Hoftag in Worms at Pentecost 1192. However, Henry VI had to realise that his powers were limited: after his closest ally in Saxony, Archbishop Wichmann of Magdeburg died, he concluded another armistice with inflammatory Henry the Lion.
Meanwille, despite his wife had been captured by Sicilians, Henry always refused Celestine III making peace with Tancred. While Tancred would not permit Constance to be ransomed, Henry complained her capture to Celestine. In June 1192 Constance was released on the intervention of Pope Celestine III, who in return recognized Tancred as King of Sicily. Constance was to be sent to Rome for Celestine III to put pressure on Henry, but German soldiers managed to set up an ambush on the border of Papal States, releasing Constance.
On the other hand, the emperor was able to strengthen his power base in the Duchy of Swabia, when he inherited the possessions of Henry the Lion's cousin Welf VI. In September 1192 he proceeded to Lüttich (Liège) to enforce the succession of his candidate Count Lothair of Hochstaden as Bishop of Lüttich against Albert of Louvain, the brother of Duke Henry of Brabant. Albert had to yield and sought support from the pope in Rome and from the Archbishop of Reims. In Reims, he took the holy orders with papal consent, but he was killed soon after by hired assassins. His brother Duke Henry chose to conclude a peace agreement with the emperor but remained a bitter enemy.
Emperor Henry already was concerned with the deposition of the Welf supporter Archbishop Hartwig II of Bremen. He further had to arbitrate in a conflict in the Margraviate of Meissen on the eastern border of the Empire, where the Wettin margrave Albert I had to fend off the claims raised by his brother Theoderic and Landgrave Hermann of Thuringia. Meanwhile, the opposition in the west took on a dramatic scale, when the dukes of Brabant and Limburg joined forces with Archbishop Bruno III of Cologne. A massive confederacy against the emperor loomed ahead, including Archbishop Conrad of Mainz, Archchancellor of Germany, and Duke Ottokar I of Bohemia, as well Henry's old rival Henry the Lion, the Swabian House of Zähringen, the English Crown, and the pope, irritated by the killing of Albert of Louvain.
Capture of Richard the Lionheart
Richard the Lionheart submits himself to Emperor Henry, Liber ad honorem Augusti
, fol. 129R
At this stage, Henry had a stroke of good fortune when the Babenberg duke Leopold V of Austria gave him his prominent prisoner, Richard the Lionheart, King of England, whom he had captured on his way back from the Third Crusade and arrested at Dürnstein Castle. On 28 March 1193, Richard was handed over to the emperor in Speyer and imprisoned at Trifels Castle, taking revenge for Richard's alliance with Tancred of Lecce. Ignoring his nearly excommunication by Pope Celestine III for imprisoning a former crusader, he held the English King for a ransom of 150,000 silver marks and officially declared a dowry of Richard's niece Eleanor, who was to marry Duke Leopold's son Frederick. The opposition princes had to face the defeat of their mighty ally and to refrain from their plans to overthrow the Hohenstaufen dynasty.
Backed by his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, who successfully defended his interests against his rivaling brother John Lackland and his ally King Philip of France, King Richard procured his release in exchange for the huge ransom, a further interest payment, and his oath of allegiance to Henry. In turn the emperor under threat of military violence demanded the restitution of the French lands, which John had seized upon approval by Philip during Richard's absence. Henry not only gained another vassal and ally, he could also assume the role of a mediator between England and France. He and Richard ceremoniously reconciled at the Hoftag in Speyer during Holy Week 1194: the English King publicly regretted any hostilities, genuflected, and cast himself on the emperor's mercy. He was released and returned to England.
At the same time, Henry settled the longstanding conflict with the Welf dynasty when he married Agnes of Hohenstaufen, daughter of his cousin Count Palatine Conrad, to Henry the Lion's son Henry of Brunswick, followed by a peace agreement in March 1194.
Conquest of Sicily
Meanwhile, the situation in Southern Italy had grown worse: After Henry's defeat at Naples, Tancred's brother-in-law Count Richard of Acerra had reconquered large parts of Apulia, and Tancred himself had reached the allowance of his claims by the pope. Henry was granted free passage in Northern Italy, having forged an alliance with the Lombard communes. In February 1194, Tancred of Lecce died, leaving as heir a young boy, William III, under the tutelage of his mother Sibylla of Acerra. In May Emperor Henry, based on King Richard's ransom, again set out for Italy. He reached Milan at Pentecost and occupied Naples in August. He met little resistance and on 20 November 1194 entered the Sicilian Palermo and was crowned king on 25 December. On the next day his wife Constance, who had stayed back in Iesi, gave birth to his only son and heir Frederick II, the future emperor and king of Sicily and Jerusalem.
The young William and his mother Sibylla had fled to Caltabellotta Castle; he officially renounced the Sicilian kingdom in turn for the County of Lecce and the Principality of Capua. A few days after Henry's coronation, however, the royal family and several Norman nobles were accused of a coup attempt and arrested. Henry is said to have had William blinded and castrated, while many of his liensmen were burned alive. Some, however, like the Siculo-Greek Eugene of Palermo, transitioned into the new Hohenstaufen government with ease. William probably was deported to Altems (Hohenems) Castle in Swabia, where he died in captivity about 1198. To take revenge of the capture of his wife Henry hanged Richard, Count of Acerra brother of Sibylla in 1196.
In March 1195 Henry held a Hoftag in Bari and appointed his wife Constance Sicilian queen regnant, though with Henry's liensman Conrad of Urslingen, elevated to a hereditary Duke of Spoleto, as Imperial vicar to secure the emperor's position in Southern Italy. He placed further ministeriales in the Sicilian administration, like the Troia bishop Walter of Palearia who became chancellor. His loyal henchman Markward von Annweiler was appointed a Duke of Ravenna, placing him in a highly strategic position to control the route to Sicily via the Italian Romagna region and the Apennines. Henry's younger brother Philip of Swabia was vested with the large estates of late Margravine Matilda in Tuscany. The emperor also felt strong enough to send home the Pisan and Genoese ships without giving their governments the promised concessions.
At that point, Emperor Henry was the most powerful monarch in the Mediterranean and Europe, since the Sicilian kingdom added to his personal and Imperial revenues an income without parallel in Europe. However, his aims to integrate Sicily into the Empire as a second power base of the Hohenstaufen dynasty were not realised during his lifetime. The negotiations with Pope Celestine III to approve the unification (unio regni ad imperium) in return of another crusade reached a deadlock. On the other hand, his beliefs of a universal rule according to the translatio imperii concept collided with the existence of the Byzantine Empire, reflected in Henry's expansionist policies by forging alliances with King Leo I of Armenia and King Aimery of Cyprus.
In 1195 Henry's envoys in Constantinople raised claims to former Italo-Norman possessions around Dyrrachium (Durrës), one of the most important naval bases on the eastern Adriatic coast, and pressed for a contribution to the planned crusade. Upon the deposition of Emperor Isaac II Angelos Henry openly threatened with an attack on Byzantine territory. He already evolved plans to betroth his younger brother Philip to Isaac's daughter Princess Irene Angelina —deliberately or not— opening up a perspective to unite the Western and Eastern Empire under Hohenstaufen rule. According to the contemporary chronicler Niketas Choniates his legates were able to collect a large tribute from Isaac's brother and successor Alexios III, which, however, was not paid before Henry's death.
Emperor Henry came down to earth, when an armistice between Pisa and the Republic of Venice ended and the Pisan navy immediately entered the Adriatic to attack the Venetian harbour of Pola (Pula), where they suffered a disastrous defeat. La Serenissima had suspiciously eyed Henry's claims to Adriatic ports threatening her dominating position and commercial interests in the region. The emperor had to culminate the conflict by arranging a peace treaty and confirming the Venetian autonomy.
In summer 1195 Henry returned to Germany, in order to call for support to launch his crusade and to arrange his succession in the case of his death. However, he first again had to deal with the quarrels in the Wettin Margraviate of Meissen upon the death of Margrave Albert I. As Albert had tried to gain control over the adjacent Pleissnerland, an Imperial Hohenstaufen territory, Henry took the occasion to deny the inheritance claims of the margrave's younger brother Theodoric and seized the Meissen territory for himself. In October he reconciled with Archbishop Hartwig of Bremen at Gelnhausen and was able to obtain the support of numerous Saxon and Thuringian nobles for his crusade which was scheduled to begin on Christmas 1196.
His next aim was to make the imperial crown hereditary. Henry tried to secure the Imperial election of his son Frederick II as King of the Romans, which however met with objections raised by Archbishop Adolf of Cologne. Spending the winter in Hagenau Castle, the emperor and his ministeriales evolved the idea of a hereditary monarchy. Though they would have lost their right to elect the kings, the secular princes themselves wished to make their Imperial fiefs hereditary and to be inheritable by the female line as well, and Henry agreed to consider these demands. The emperor also bought the support of ecclesiastical princes by announcing that he would be willing to give up the Jus Spolii and the right to receive recurring earnings from church lands during a period of sede vacante. At the Diet of Würzburg, held in March/April 1196, he managed to convince the majority of the princes to vote for his proposal. However, Archbishop Adolf of Cologne did not even put in an appearance and several princes, predominantly in Saxony and Thuringia, were still dissatisfied.
While in July 1196 Henry proceeded to Burgundy and Italy in order to negotiate with Pope Celestine III, the resistance in Germany grew. At the following diet at Erfurt in October, a majority of the princes rejected the emperor's plans. Furthermore, the Pope, still concerned in view of the Hohenstaufen rule over Sicily, broke off the talks. Nevertheless, on Christmas Henry's son Frederick II was elected King of the Romans in Frankfurt.
Henry's grave in the Cathedral of Palermo
At the same time, the emperor stayed in Capua, where he had Count Richard of Acerra, held in custody by his ministerialis Dipold von Schweinspeunt, cruelly executed. He entered Sicily in March 1197 and applied himself to prepare his crusade in Messina.
Soon after, the tyrannical power of the foreign King in Italy spurred a revolt, especially around Catania and southern Sicily, which his German soldiers led by Markward of Annweiler and Henry of Kalden suppressed mercilessly. The rebels even sought to make Count Jordan of Bovino king in Henry's place. Even Queen Constance, provoked by the neglect of Henry and pitying her countrymen, joined the revolts against him and besieged him in a castle, forcing him into a treaty. In the midst of preparations Henry fell ill with chills while hunting near Fiumedinisi and on 28 September died, possibly of malaria, in Messina, although it is also widely believed that he was poisoned. His wife Constance had him buried at Messina, his mortal remains were transferred to Palermo Cathedral in 1198. Various items were removed from Henry VI's grave in the mid nineteenth century, some of which made their way to the British Museum in London. They include the remains of a shoe, a head band and an ornate silk textile that originally wrapped the body.
Henry's minor son Frederick II was to inherit both the Kingdom of Sicily and the Imperial crown. However, a number of princes around Archbishop Adolf of Cologne elected the Welf Otto of Brunswick, son of Henry the Lion, anti-king. To defend the claims of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, Frederick's uncle Philip of Swabia had himself elected King of the Romans in March 1198. The German throne quarrel lasted nearly twenty years, until Frederick was again elected king in 1212 and Otto, defeated by the French in the 1214 Battle of Bouvines and abandoned by his former allies, finally died in 1218.