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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

Byzantium and the Crusades

Henry VI and his eastern plans 


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If the danger had been great for Byzantium under Frederick Barbarossa, it became still more threatening under his son and successor, Henry VI. The latter, filled with the Hohenstaufen idea of unrestricted power granted him by God, could not, for this reason alone, have a friendly attitude towards another emperor who claimed to possess the same absolute power, that is, the Emperor of Byzantium. But besides that, he inherited, as the husband of the Norman princess Constance, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; therewith he inherited also the whole stubborn enmity of the Normans for Byzantium, and their aggressive plans. It seemed left for Henry VI to carry out what his father had not done, namely to annex Byzantium to the Western Empire. A sort of ultimatum was sent to Constantinople. In it Henry reclaimed from Isaac Angelus the cession of the territory in the Balkan peninsula between Dyrrachium and Thessalonica, which had been conquered by the Normans but later restored to Byzantium; in the same document the question was raised of compensation for the damages which Frederick Barbarossa had suffered during the crusade and of help for Henry by the Byzantine fleet in his expedition to Palestine. Isaac had scarcely sent Henry an embassy when in 1195, he was dethroned and blinded by his brother, Alexius III.

After this revolution the conduct of Henry VI became still more threatening. He arranged the marriage of his brother Philip of Swabia to Irene, daughter of the deposed Emperor Isaac, and thereby created for his brother some rights to Byzantium. In the person of Henry VI the new Byzantine Emperor was to fear not only the Western Emperor, the heir of the Norman kings and crusader, but also, first of all, an avenger in behalf of the dethroned Isaac and his family. The objective of the crusade which was being fitted out by Henry was as much Constantinople as Palestine. His plans embraced the possession of all the Christian East, including Byzantium. Circumstances seemed to be favorable to his aim: an embassy from the ruler of Cyprus came to Henry begging the Emperor to confer upon him the royal title and expressing the desire to be forever a man (i.e., vassal) of the Roman Empire (homo imperii esse Romani). The ruler of Armenia Minor applied to Henry with a similar request for the royal title. Had Henry succeeded in establishing himself in Syria, he would have been able entirely to surround the Byzantine Empire.

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