Post-classical history

Fifth Crusade (1217-1221)

A crusade originally launched by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), but actually implemented by his successor, Honorius III (1216-1227). Its objective was to reestablish Christian possession of Jerusalem and the interior of the Holy Land by means of an attack on Ayyûbid, Egypt, and thus to make good the failings of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), which had started with similar aims but had been diverted to Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey). Despite the capture and temporary occupation of the port of Damietta in 1219, the crusade was obliged to withdraw from Egypt, having achieved almost nothing.


In a series of letters in April 1213, Innocent III announced his intention to summon a general council for the reform of the church and to launch a crusade. In the letter Vineam Domini, addressed to the hierarchy of the church and secular princes, he asked them for reports on the state of the church. In Quia maior he explained his plan for the crusade to all the faithful. Finally, Pium etsanctum was sent to those charged to preach the crusade. Clearly, Innocent wanted to allow time for recruitment and careful preparation. These steps were taken by a man who had already occupied the papal throne for fifteen years and who combined his commitment to the crusade with a strong desire to restore the unity of the various Eastern churches to Rome. He also recognized that there were serious obstacles to the achievement of that goal. His hopes for the Fourth Crusade had been frustrated by its diversion and conquest of Constantinople, which left bitterness among the Greeks and a sense of failure in the West. In all probability, the so-called Children’s Crusade of 1212 was related to a continuing feeling that the leaders of society, especially in northern France and the Rhineland, had deserted their obligations in order to conquer the Byzantine Empire. Against this background of failure and frustration, Innocent launched his plan for the council and the crusade, linking the reform of the church to the crusade and thereby responding to a longtime concern that the failure of previous crusades stemmed from the corruption of Christian society.

Recruitment, Finance, and Organization

This linkage was made very clear both by the reform-minded individuals Innocent appointed to preach the crusade and the sermons that they preached. Crusade sermons were summons to the “vocation of the cross” as a pathway of salvation for the laity; they had little emphasis on the military aspect of the crusade, which was depicted often as an imitation of Christ’s suffering and death, culminating in his resurrection. Those sermons that survive from the period of the Fifth Crusade are chiefly those of James of Vitry, which reflect his personal experience in the Holy Land but also emphasize the power of the cross. The connection between this emphasis on personal salvation and the instructions of Innocent III is confirmed by the inclusion of the pope’s letters in the Rommerdorf Letterbook, compiled for use by the abbot of that monastery in his preaching of the crusade.

Areas of campaigning during the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221)

Areas of campaigning during the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221)

The pope’s preachers were often bishops and abbots, most of whom would later participate in the Fourth Lateran Council. Some of those appointed (for example, Cardinal Robert of Courson) enjoyed the status of legate and were also charged with a mission to reform the church. The funding of the crusade was especially important, since the lack of adequate financial support had been largely responsible for the diversion of the Fourth Crusade, but this was a delicate issue, since some of the clergy had resisted a previous effort. What is evident is that Quia maior was not so much a crusade plan as a working paper laying out the tasks to be completed at the council in 1215. But that road itself faced various obstacles. Crusades were already under way in Livonia. The Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229), directed against Cathar heretics, was rapidly becoming a political conflict for control of southern France. The imperial title remained in dispute even after the victory of Philip II of France over Emperor Otto IV at Bouvines (1214), which benefited Otto’s rival, Frederick (II) of Sicily. The bishops in France were increasingly unhappy with Robert of Courson’s efforts to reform the church. These major issues would have to be dealt with at the council.

Although issues concerning the reform of the church dominated the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the crusade occupied as much or more time. It was clear that Innocent was determined to resolve the causes of conflict in the West in order to advance his crusade agenda, but he was only partially successful. Otto IV’s representatives got short shrift, as did the English barons’ protest against King John, but Innocent had little success in securing agreement over southern France. His major achievements, however, were to be found in the crusade bull Ad liberandam, which was the most sweeping effort to date to provide focus for the crusade program. It set the date of departure for June 1217 and provided for spiritual guidance for the crusaders. It levied a new tax of 5 percent on all clerical incomes; the pope and cardinals would pay 10 percent. Members of the laity who could not afford to go on crusade could band together to support one or more crusaders. The church would take the crusaders and their properties under its protection and would exempt them from payment of interest on loans, as well as suspending collection of principal during their absence on crusade. This applied also to Jewish lenders, but there enforcement was put in secular hands, since Jews were not subject to ecclesiastical penalties. Ad liberandam also prohibited trade and other relations with the Muslims in the eastern Mediterranean and granted pardon for all sins that crusaders had repented of and confessed. But it dealt only with the crusade to the Holy Land. The wars against Muslims in Spain and North Africa, the crusades against heretics and pagans, and the continuing military adventures in the Byzantine East had also to be dealt with if the crusade was to stand any chance of success. Shortly after the council, the pope set out to reconcile conflicts among the Italian communes, but he died in March 1216. His successor, Honorius III, an experienced cardinal who shared his commitment to the crusade, took up the task.

Manuscript illustration of the taking of Damietta during the Fifth Crusade. (Archivo Iconograpfico, S.A./Corbis)

Manuscript illustration of the taking of Damietta during the Fifth Crusade. (Archivo Iconograpfico, S.A./Corbis)

King John of England had taken the cross, but he died in October 1216. King Andrew II of Hungary had been pressured to fulfill the crusade vow taken by his late father, but his commitment was in doubt. Honorius turned to the youthful German king, Frederick II, who had taken the crusade vow in 1215 but still faced opposition from supporters of the deposed Otto IV. This necessitated some interim arrangement for leadership if the crusade was to stay on schedule. Such an arrangement, however, was to be left to the crusaders themselves. The German crusaders expected Frederick to join them shortly, but their expectations ran into the realities of prolonged negotiations with the papacy over terms for Frederick’s imperial coronation, which lasted until 1220. Only then did Frederick return to his kingdom of Sicily, for the first time in eight years, where he faced rebellion. Despite papal pressure, he delayed his departure.

The Course of the Crusade

Contingents from the Rhineland and Frisia left Vlaardingen in 300 ships on 29 May 1217, crossing to England where they enacted laws for the crusaders and took part in what may have been a ceremony of reconciliation, since many among them had previously been enemies. Aware that they were in advance of Frederick and other crusaders, they were in no great hurry to reach the Holy Land. When they arrived in Lisbon in Portugal, the local bishops sought their aid to lay siege to Alcacer do Sol, whose Muslim garrison menaced Lisbon. The Frisians preferred to continue their journey, taking 80 ships to Italy, where they wintered, leaving the Rhinelanders with the rest of the fleet. After a protracted and costly siege, Alcacer do Sol fell on 21 October.

The first crusaders to arrive in the East were Andrew II of Hungary and Leopold VI, duke of Austria, who landed at Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) in September 1217. The situation of the kingdom of Jerusalem was tenuous, and the arrival of a large contingent from the West was welcome, since defenses needed to be bolstered and the territory under Latin control expanded. Although no significant gains were made by Andrew’s forces in the short time he remained, their presence, together with that of Leopold, was helpful. Before the arrival of the Rhenish and Frisian contingents (April 1218), further operations were carried out in northern Palestine, including a rather halfhearted effort to capture Mount Tabor, which had been fortified by the Muslims.

This activity seems to have enhanced the short-term security of the kingdom; especially valuable were the efforts to strengthen Château Pèlerin (mod. ‘Atlit, Israel) and Caesarea (mod. Har Qesari, Israel). As more crusaders arrived, and it became clear that Frederick was not yet prepared to come to the East, they turned their attention to organization and planning. The choice of leader in the person of John of Brienne, regent of Jerusalem for his daughter Isabella II, was based not merely on his status but also on his reputation as a soldier. The decision to attack Egypt had already been taken, but now the crusaders decided to focus their main attack on the port of Damietta rather than Alexandria. As well as crusaders from the West, the army comprised troops from the kingdom of Jerusalem and the military orders.

Late in May 1218 the crusaders landed in Egypt near the Damietta mouth of the Nile. They met little resistance. In June, the cardinal legate, Pelagius of Albano, arrived, bringing some of the money raised by the tax on the clergy. With the arrival of John of Brienne, the crusaders began their attack on a tower near the west bank of the river. A stout chain stretched across the river to the wall of the city to prevent ships from moving further south. The siege was extremely difficult and dragged on through the heat of summer, and it was not until late August that the tower was taken. The victory had been costly. Only the arrival of large numbers of French and English crusaders in September restored the crusaders’ strength, but they were further delayed by disease, which carried off many, including Cardinal Robert of Courson.

Throughout the winter, the crusaders were harassed by Ayyûbid forces under the command of al-Kāmil, the son of the sultan al-‘Ādil I, who had died. Only a conspiracy against al-Kāmil that forced his withdrawal enabled the crusaders to cross the river and lay siege to the city. But the return of the sultan meant that they were virtually surrounded, with the river at their backs. Throughout the summer of 1219 there was a stalemate. Leopold of Austria departed with a large number of crusaders, and few reinforcements had arrived during the spring of 1219. Frederick II had postponed his planned arrival until spring 1220.

In the fall, Francis of Assisi, whose fame as a holy man was already widespread, arrived in the camp. While there, he preached to both the crusaders and the sultan. Although the details of his sermons are unknown, it seems that he advocated peace and conversion instead of military action. His arrival seems to have coincided with a period of truce. The sultan offered to surrender Jerusalem and other sites in the Holy Land in exchange for withdrawal. This was debated, but the crusaders rejected the proposal and additional concessions on the grounds that without the fortresses of Kerak and Montréal in Transjordan (which were excluded from the terms), the holy places could not be defended adequately.

The resumption of military operations in November 1219 resulted in the capture of Damietta, which forced al-Kāmil to move his forces further south. This victory had been accomplished at a horrendous cost after several costly battles, and the crusaders were in no condition to follow it up. The sultan still had hopes of a negotiated settlement, since his first priority was to consolidate his position as the heir to his father. Although the crusaders had rejected his previous offer, they were still open to further negotiations. But, at the same time, al-Kāmil was awaiting additional military support from his brothers, al-Mu‘azzam, sultan of Damascus, and al-Ashraf of Iraq.

During the winter of 1220-1221 the crusaders worked to consolidate their position. Men and money were running low. Evidence based on deaths among the aristocracy suggests that the casualty rate was well over a quarter of the entire force. There were also disputes as to the ownership of Damietta between Pelagius, as leader of the crusade, and John of Brienne, who claimed it for the kingdom of Jerusalem. Eventually, fear of an attack on Acre and other sites in the Holy Land led John to take a significant contingent back to shore up defenses. The arrival of Frederick had become a necessity for any future action beyond defense.

Ludwig I, duke of Bavaria, who arrived in spring 1221, was viewed as the harbinger of Frederick’s arrival, and pressure to move against the enemy now increased. Pelagius, who was well aware of the shortage of men and money, supported those who wished to act immediately. Acting on instructions from the emperor and the pope, Ludwig was only willing to attack the camp of the sultan, but his caution was unpopular. The time of the Nile flood was approaching, and delay might make an advance up the Nile impossible. Pelagius recalled John of Brienne and circulated prophetical writings that seemed to promise success to the crusaders. On 7 July 1221 John rejoined the army at the head of a large force; this was slightly more than a month before the Nile would flood. On 17 July part of the army advanced while the remainder stayed behind to garrison Damietta. Were some of these reluctant to join a risky venture? We only know that there was opposition.

On 18 July the army reached Sharamsah. The Ayyûbids put up almost no resistance, and by 24 July the army was advancing into a triangle formed by the Nile and the canal from Mansurah (mod. El-Mansûra, Egypt) to Lake Manzala (Bahra el-Manzala).

John’s counsel to retreat, based though it was on information about reinforcements for al-Kāmil and the unusually high water of the Nile, was ignored by Pelagius, who was caught up in the euphoric spirits engendered by the ease of the victorious advance. Yet al-Kāmil had moved ships through a canal that entered the Nile at El Baramûn, just north of the crusader fleet. On 26 August the army decided to retreat, but it was already too late. The fields were flooded, and the crusader fleet was impeded by four ships that al- Kāmil had ordered sunk in the Nile for just that purpose. With a danger of panic, the crusaders decided to negotiate, and on 29 August they agreed to surrender Damietta in return for being allowed to withdraw in safety. This decision was not popular with all, especially those who had remained behind in the city. The leaders tried, however, to save face by arranging that the eight-year truce would not be binding on Emperor Frederick II.


The Fifth Crusade failed largely for lack of resources. This lesson was not lost on others at the time. When Frederick II finally began to plan his own crusade, he put major emphasis on negotiations. This course was unpopular, but it was realistic in terms of his own resources and his understanding of the desires of al-Kāmil. Of course, there were bad decisions during the Fifth Crusade, but there was no consistency in the assignment of blame. Decision making was a collective process, and leaders were seldom able to make decisions without pressures from various parties in the army. Nor were these differences ideological; rather, they pitted those who supported one course of action against those who supported another. In the last months, some opposed action because they wanted to go home. There is, however, no question that the final move involved a feeling that this was probably a last chance. For Pelagius and those who supported him, the decision to advance was based more on hope than reality.

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