Rome 1245 AD
Emperor Frederick slowed his horse’s canter to a slow walk as he approached his commanding general Ezzalino. He concluded his inspection of the troops and was impressed with its size and strength, but an uneasy feeling swept over him. For a moment, he was lost in thought.
He had been Holy Roman Emperor for twenty-five years. He had assembled the greatest fighting force since Richard the Lionhearted and Julius Caesar. He could attack and defeat any army on the face of the earth, but this what he was using it for?
“Rome is surrounded, Your Grace,” Ezzalino said. “The siege engines are in place, and we have secured all the gates entering and exiting the city.”
“It’s not Rome I have under siege,” Frederick snarled. “It’s the Vatican.”
“I understand, Your Grace, but the siege has to surround Rome in order to control the Vatican.”
Frederick snapped the reins and let his anxious horse turn in a circle before answering Ezzalino.
“Did you know the Vatican is a kingdom unto itself, even though it sits in the middle of my empire? I am the Holy Roman emperor, yet Pope Gregory is not a subject of my empire.”
“He is an enemy combatant, Your Grace.”
“I do not lay siege to Rome. I lay siege to the Vatican. I lay siege to the pope.”
“I understand the distinction, Your Grace,” Ezzalino said.
Frederick pondered his comment for a moment. He was laying siege to the pope. On the surface, it seemed like the actions of a monster.
But Pope Gregory had labeled Frederick the antichrist and ex-communicated him, attempted to have him assassinated, and called on the armies of Europe to fight against him, giving them crusading credentials for joining the holy war.
What choice did I have but to answer the pope militarily? Frederick thought. Still, isn’t this exactly what the antichrist would do?
Francis of Assisi had counseled Frederick to hold the pope in high esteem, if not for the person who was elected pope, then for the office itself; after all, he was the judge for God on Earth.
But how could Frederick maintain esteem for an office that called for a crusade against him and separated him from God?
Frederick passionately believed that God had ordained him to be the king of Sicily and the Holy Roman emperor. How else could he account for the obstacles he’d overcome?
The pope had declared war on him . . . on his own emperor. Frederick took excommunication and a crusade against him very seriously; it was more than just a symbolic gesture of disrespect. As such, Frederick brought his massive army to the gates of Rome and surrounded Pope Gregory and the Vatican to illustrate just how seriously he had taken the declaration.
But Francis’s words still rang in his mind. You must respect the pope. He is the mediator for God.
Francis had fought battles against religious leaders, religious armies, and even against his own father in Assisi, yet he always respected the pope.
Would Francis approve of my actions?
The answer would not come, for the man who’d started the Franciscan Order was now with God. Frederick could only attempt to make sense of this situation on his own, or pray for guidance . . . perhaps for a sign.
How did it come to this?
A messenger wearing the uniform of the Vatican Guard approached the exit gate and delivered a scroll with a Vatican seal emblazoned on its tie. Frederick dismounted his horse, took the scroll from the guard, broke it open, and read the short message.
Frederick put the scroll into a bag on his saddle and turned to Ezzalino.
“The pope is dead. The cardinals request an audience with me. I will go with this man to meet the cardinals.”
“How many guards will you require, Your Grace?”
“None,” Frederick said.
He removed his armor and called for his crown. His fiery-red hair was now mixed with gray, but his deep blue eyes were just as bright as the day he was born. His armor hid a gangly frame that never seemed to be comfortable wearing the regal clothing of an emperor. The Saracens in Egypt decades ago had commented that if he were a slave, no one would bid a single dinar on him. But Frederick was not a slave. Despite his unimpressive physical stature, he was every inch a king.
“Emperor Frederick, we are at war with these people. They have called for the armies of all Europe to fight against you. It would be prudent to take guards along.”
“Even at war, the Vatican is a holy place. I will go as an emperor, not as a warrior,” Frederick said.
“If they harm you in any way, I will let loose every siege weapon we have, and then set fire to Rome . . . and then the Vatican!” Ezzalino said defiantly.
“This meeting is not about that, my friend. This is about the selection of the next pope. I will meet with the cardinals, and then they will retire to a dark room and choose the next mediator to God. We will know their decision when smoke comes from that chimney.” Frederick pointed at a Vatican building that was visible from their vantage point. “We will talk again upon my return.”
Ezzalino nodded his understanding, and Frederick followed the guard past the gates and into the city.
Frederick and the Vatican guard walked along the familiar streets of Rome. A city once steeped with historic buildings and an almost carnival-like atmosphere of merchants and activity was now a desolate fort stocked with men in Vatican Guard uniforms and weaponry. The energy and excitement of Rome had been turned into a military outpost.
The Vatican guard turned to Frederick. “Have you ever been here?”
“I lived here when I was a child.”
“In the Vatican.”
The guard was stunned. “How does an emperor at war with the pope come to live at the Vatican?”
“So you know I’m your emperor, but you do not respect me by using my title?”
“I’m sorry our Grace. The cardinals told me to treat you as I would any person. They see you as an enemy to Christianity.”
“I understand. It was not by choice.”
“Not by choice?”
“I lived at the Vatican as a child. Not by choice.”
“And with all due respect, my lord, why are you—a Holy Roman emperor—attacking the Vatican?”
“What is your name?”
“Phillipe, Your Grace.”
“You have lived in Rome your whole life?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“My question in response to yours, Phillipe, is why does a pope find it necessary to call for a crusade against his own emperor? Shouldn’t he be more focused on mediating God’s word and less on European politics?”
Phillipe said nothing.
Frederick looked down the road and saw horses leaving a building.
“Do you have access to the Vatican stables?” he asked.
“That is where I am typically stationed, Your Grace. I am of the Equestrian Guard.”
“Why do you wear the uniform of the Vatican Guard if you work in the stables?”
“We are all in the Vatican Guard when the Imperial army is at our gates.”
“I pray you can come to a peaceful solution, Your Grace.”
“I do too, Phillipe.”