Post-classical history

Chapter Ten



King Louis IX of France boards a ship in Cyprus on his way to Egypt at the head of a great army. Although both of the Crusades he led failed (he died during the second), he was so admired that twenty-seven years after his death he was canonized as Saint Louis.
© Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

AFTER THE THIRD CRUSADE, it had become obvious to Western leaders that the Holy Land could never be secure if its defense continued to depend upon emergency expeditions from Europe. It was pointless to keep sending forces to rescue Tyre, Antioch, and Acre when the major threat to the kingdoms was in Egypt. But if Western forces conquered and ruled Egypt, most of the Muslim pressure against the Holy Land would be removed and major Christian-controlled forces would be available close by to offer any needed protection. That became the new strategy.

Of course, the Fourth Crusade had set out to impose just that solution but ultimately had not made any effort to do so. Saladin’s heirs still ruled Egypt, Jerusalem was still in Muslim hands, and the security of the kingdoms was as imperiled as ever. Worse yet, there was growing opposition in Europe to the immense costs of crusading. So, fully aware of what was at stake, in 1213 Pope Innocent III began calling for a Fifth Crusade.


Things got off to a bad start. Innocent died suddenly in 1216, and many of the leading nobles had already crusaded once and did not wish to go again; Philip II still ruled France. Many of the nobility also were embroiled in local conflicts, and some in the “Crusade” against the Albigensians. Nevertheless, Pope Honorius III managed to get Duke Leopold VI of Austria and King Andrew II of Hungary to agree to lead armies. They arranged to march their troops (some sailed) to Spalato (Split) on the Dalmatian coast and there to board Venetian ships in August 1217.

This may have been the largest force yet to be assembled for a Crusade—perhaps ten thousand mounted knights and an appropriate infantry force.1 Keep in mind, however, that statistics from this era are estimates based on shaky evidence. In any event, the troops far outnumbered the capacity of the ships that had been hired, and they had to be transported in waves to Acre; the passage took about three weeks in each direction. In Acre they were further reinforced by troops from Cyprus led by King Hugh I and joined by forces from the kingdoms and by contingents from the knightly orders.

Before the crusaders could embark to attack Egypt, their plans were delayed when King Andrew of Hungary decided to go home instead. He had been ill; quite likely he had been poisoned by relatives who regarded him as a usurper of the throne. In January 1218 he gathered his forces and headed home.2 Andrew made many stops along the way, most of them to attend weddings. His departure so reduced the forces available that the decision was made to await the arrival of many additional contingents known to be on the way from Germany and Friesland.3 These forces began to arrive by sea in April 1218. Consequently, in May the crusader fleet began to arrive in the harbor of Damietta (Dumyât); the attack on Egypt had begun.

Damietta is located at the very mouth of the main branch of the Nile, about two miles inland, and backs on Lake Manzala. The city was heavily fortified, having a triple wall and many towers. On an island in the river, just opposite the city, was a very formidable tower, constructed of seventy tiers, from which a huge chain was suspended that, when attached to the city’s walls, blocked ships from sailing up the Nile.4

The crusaders established their camp on the west bank of the Nile, just across from Damietta. It was a fine defensive site with access to the sea. But it was not ideal for offensive purposes: the crusaders would have to attack across the Nile. On June 23 they did, “in 70 or 80 ships.”5 The attack was driven off. A week later they failed again. Then, at the end of August, the crusaders lashed two large ships together and on this base constructed a “a miniature castle”6 from which extended a massive ramp. The crusaders sailed this contraption against the tower in the Nile. Troopers stormed over the ramp, forced the garrison to surrender, and then cut the massive chain blocking passage up the Nile. It was a remarkable achievement in all respects, and the Muslims in Damietta were stunned by it all and expected the city to fall forthwith—which it probably would have had the crusaders made a serious effort.7 Instead, the crusaders decided to wait until the river receded and more reinforcements arrived. (Very little was ever done promptly during this entire campaign.)

By the end of September substantial reinforcements did arrive. Unfortunately, so did Cardinal Pelagius of Albano, sent by the pope to unify the crusader command. Pelagius was a Spaniard, “a man of great industry and administrative experience, but singularly lacking in tact.”8 He proceeded to threaten excommunication of all who disagreed with him and, mistaking stubbornness for determination, brought about the failure of the Fifth Crusade. It happened this way.

While the crusaders dallied after taking the great tower, the Muslims gathered their forces, and in October they attacked the crusader camp. Although greatly outnumbered, the crusaders not only repelled the attack but killed nearly all of the attackers. Again, though, they were content to enjoy their victory rather than go on the offensive. However, the sultan of Egypt was so convinced that it would be necessary to surrender Jerusalem to the Christians that he ordered that the Holy City be ruined. Demolition of the walls began late in March, and (Greek) Christian homes were sacked.9

Meanwhile, in February 1219 the crusaders finally were ready to attack Damietta again. At this same moment a succession conspiracy so frightened Al-Kimagemil, sultan of Egypt, that he mounted his horse and deserted his army during the night. At dawn, when the troops discovered they had been abandoned by their leader, they panicked and fled, many abandoning their weapons. But rather than storm Damietta, which could have had only a very small garrison by this time, the crusaders merely encircled the city, setting up a new camp there.

Now the Muslims wanted a settlement. They proposed to surrender all portions of the kingdom of Jerusalem, including the city itself, and sign a thirty-year truce if the crusaders would leave Egypt. The military leaders wanted to accept the offer. Count Pelagius said no. The Muslims then offered to pay thirty thousand bezants in addition to the previous terms. Again Pelagius turned them down. In doing so, he ignored two essential facts: his army was shrinking as various crusader contingents left for home, and the Egyptian army was being reinforced from Syria and other Islamic powers. In May 1219 the Muslims attacked the crusader encampment. An unmovable crusader infantry inflicted huge losses on them. Two weeks later the Muslims attacked again, and once again their corpses littered the field of battle.

Not content to keep on smashing Muslim attacks, Pelagius now turned tactician and ordered an attempt to storm Damietta. But the attack made no headway. Nor did a second, two days later. Another attack on July 13 and yet another on July 31 also failed. These defeats weakened the crusader forces and undermined their resolve while at the same time restoring some confidence to the Muslims. At the end of August the crusader army fell into an ambush and suffered a bloody defeat—losing perhaps as many as forty-three hundred men.10 Even so, they remained a large and dangerous opponent.

At this point the Egyptians once again sought a treaty. Unfortunately for them, as the new treaty offer was being discussed among the Crusade leaders who might have accepted it despite Pelagius’s opposition, some Christian sentries facing Damietta noticed a lack of activity in the nearest tower, got a long ladder, climbed up, and discovered that the tower and a whole section of wall had been abandoned. More troops were quickly summoned, and Damietta was taken without opposition. Although the various Arab chroniclers claim that the crusaders then proceeded to massacre all the inhabitants, far more consistent with the abandonment of the walls is the crusader claim that they found a city nearly deserted except for many dead and dying, presumably victims of some dread disease.11

Now in possession of Damietta, Pelagius took such complete control that King John of Palestine boarded his ships and sailed back to Acre. And in the spring (1220) many other crusaders did so, too. However, the defectors were replaced by many contingents of Italian troops led by various archbishops and bishops. Not only did these churchmen prove to be inept military leaders; they couldn’t even impose discipline at Damietta: the contemporary documents report widespread drunkenness and disorder. Nor could the clergy convince the army to march against the Egyptians.

A year passed, during which the Muslims constructed strong fortifications at El Mansûra to replace Damietta as a barrier to crusader penetration farther south. Then, with the arrival of more Germans and the return of King John of Jerusalem, Pelagius was able to mount a new campaign. While the troops marched south, a huge fleet of perhaps six hundred ships, galleys, and boats followed on the Nile. When they reached El Mansûra it was clear that a long siege would be required to take it. But rather than bypass the Muslim encampment, Pelagius began to construct a fortified camp facing El Mansûra. It was a dangerously vulnerable position. Worse yet, it did not isolate El Mansûra, and thousands of fresh Muslim troops flowed into their encampment. Pelagius and the clergy were warned repeatedly by the experienced military men as well as by Alice, the dowager queen of Cypress. Unfortunately, as Oliver of Paderborn, who was present, noted in his superb history of the Fifth Crusade, “[N]ow, for our sins, all sound judgment departed from our leaders.”12 At this point the Muslims placed substantial forces to the north, where they began to attack and sink supply boats coming from Damietta. Soon the Muslim forces were positioned not only to block supplies from coming south but to endanger any crusader retreat. Finally recognizing the danger, Pelagius led a withdrawal of his now disorganized forces, whereupon the Muslims destroyed some dikes and allowed the Nile to flood over the only land route north from the crusader encampment.

Trapped and lacking supplies, even Pelagius realized it was time for a peace settlement; the Muslims were unwilling to press too hard because the crusaders were still a lethal battle force, and both sides knew that substantial new German crusader contingents were expected at Damietta any moment. So, on August 30, 1221, an eight-year armistice was accepted, the crusaders agreed to the complete evacuation of Egypt, and both sides released their prisoners. Missing was the Muslim evacuation of the Holy Land that had been offered in their previous efforts to achieve peace.

As it turned out, the expected German reinforcements did not arrive until eight years later, when Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, after twice being excommunicated for failure to keep his vow to crusade, finally led a small force to Acre in 1229. Lacking the forces needed to accomplish much, Frederick nevertheless managed to negotiate a treaty with Al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt, that returned Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth to Christian rule. As a reward, Pope Gregory IX withdrew Frederick’s excommunication.

Jerusalem remained in Christian hands for fifteen years. Then, on August 23, 1244, the Khwarazmians—Turkish nomads newly arrived from Asia and allied with the sultan of Egypt—swept over the “feeble defences” of Jerusalem, “killing any Franks they found and desecrating the Christian Holy Places.”13 Next the Khwarazmians rode south to join up with an Egyptian army, and the combined force set out to drive the Christians into the sea. The kingdoms and the knightly orders quickly assembled all their forces and met the Muslim host at Gaza, where the Christian army was annihilated. The only reason crusaders were able to hang on to their port cities was because civil war broke out between the Turks and the Egyptians.


Within several weeks of the disaster, the bishop of Beirut sailed from Acre “to tell the princes of the West…that reinforcements must be sent if the whole kingdom were not to perish.”14 Fortunately for the kingdom, this appeal coincided with the king of France’s having taken the cross subsequent to having made an unexpected recovery from a severe illness. He may well have taken the cross before word of the latest disaster in the kingdoms reached the West; in any event, Louis IX was long revered for his crusading expeditions as well as his holiness: he was canonized as Saint Louis in 1297, only twenty-seven years after his death.

The Crusade led by Saint Louis probably was the best organized, best financed, and best planned of all the Crusades, and this was mainly due to the ability and rectitude of its leader.15 Louis began by convening a group of nobles in Paris in October 1245. At his urging, most took the cross. At the same time he imposed a very substantial tax to pay for a Crusade.

Once again the plan was to attack Egypt—landing at Damietta and marching to Cairo. This time the campaign would avoid the flooding season of the Nile that had led to the catastrophe of 1221. As he made his preparations, Louis attempted to enlist other European kings but could not do so. He was especially disappointed to have been unable to recruit King Haakon of Norway, since he could have supplied the needed fleet. Consequently, Louis arranged for ships from many different places including England and Scotland, but mostly from Genoa.

By 1248, after many delays, Louis finally set sail for Cyprus, arriving on September 17. The crusaders spent the winter there. Meanwhile, a request came from Bohemond V, Prince of Antioch, for aid in repelling attacks by Khwarazmian Turks, and Louis sent him five hundred knights.16 At the end of May 1249 the crusaders reboarded their ships and set sail for the Egyptian coast. They probably numbered “2,500 to 2,800 knights, 5,000 crossbowmen and about 15,000 other combatants.”17 They landed on the beach at Damietta and were immediately attacked by Egyptian cavalry. But the Muslim charges were unavailing against a solid wall of infantry spears (even the Christian knights fought on foot), and, after suffering heavy losses, the Muslims withdrew. Not just from the beach, but from the city—and the civilian population fled behind them. Damietta had fallen in only a few hours.18

Unfortunately, this quick victory upset the entire timetable. Louis had expected to spend the summer taking Damietta and to move on up the Nile in the fall, after the level of the river had fallen back to normal. To head south now would be to campaign during the flood stages of the Nile, an action that had brought the Fifth Crusade to grief. So Louis had his forces settle down and wait. This was never an easy undertaking. Camps were always disorderly and prone to high death rates from disease and disputes. As the summer passed, Louis’s forces slowly dwindled; some contingents even went home.

Finally, on November 20, Louis led his crusaders against the fortress of El Mansûra, which had been built to oppose Pelagius’s forces in 1220. It had been greatly strengthened during the interim. To reach El Mansûra, the crusaders had to cross the Nile. They were unable to build an adequate bridge, but they bribed a local Copt to show them a fordable spot.19 It was a difficult crossing, and some knights drowned. Worse yet, despite firm orders to form up on the opposite bank, the advance guard attacked Egyptian troops camped outside the walls without waiting for the rest of the army. When the Egyptians fled, the hotheaded advance guard chased after them despite furious efforts by the Grand Master of the Templars to halt them, and soon the crusaders were engaged in street fighting within El Mansûra. Here the Muslims rallied, and the greatly outnumbered advance guard was slaughtered. However, the rest of the army arrived and drove the Egyptians from the fortress. El Mansûra was theirs.

At that point the crusaders probably should have withdrawn back to Damietta. But victory gave them confidence to begin negotiations to trade Damietta for the Holy Land. As the talks dragged on, the Muslims began successfully to interfere with the passage of crusader supply boats up the Nile, and the army began to succumb to its very unhealthy location on a swampy shore. Soon, of about 2,700 knights who had marched south, only about 450 remained in fighting condition.20 Finally, Louis ordered his troops back to Damietta—but along the way all discipline fell apart, and through a misunderstanding the crusaders surrendered. The Muslims quickly killed all stragglers and all of the sick and wounded aboard crusader boats on the Nile. Many others were given the choice of death or conversion to Islam—and many chose death. Although he, too, was a prisoner, Louis was not faced with that dire alternative. Instead, an enormous ransom was negotiated (it was brought by the Templars), and Louis and his principal barons were freed.

Louis did not return to France for another four years. Instead, he went to the Holy Land and spent large sums strengthening and rebuilding the defenses at Acre and Jaffa. When he finally went back to France in 1254, he left a garrison of one hundred French knights and a substantial number of infantry to defend Acre; it cost Louis about ten thousand pounds a year to pay their wages and expenses, which amounted to about 4 percent of the crown’s annual income.21

The failure of Louis to lead a successful Crusade disillusioned many Europeans and contributed greatly to their growing opposition to crusading. Indirectly, it had even more dire effects in Egypt: the sultan was murdered by his father’s Mamluk slaves (see below), thus ending the reign of Saladin’s dynasty. The Mamluks ruled Egypt for the next 267 years.


One of the Egyptian commanders who helped defeat Saint Louis was a Mamluk named Baibars (Baybars). Ten years later the first Mamluk sultan of Egypt was assassinated, and Baibars seized the throne. He was a very effective, if brutal, ruler.

Mamluk was not an ethnic or tribal identity. In Arabic, the word means “to be owned.”22 All Mamluks were slaves who were kidnapped or purchased as children—often from villages in the Caucasus, so it was not unusual that Baibars had blue eyes and was very tall. These young Caucasian boys were raised as Muslims and trained as slave warriors dedicated to the sultan.

Having come to power in 1260, Baibars spent the first two years of his reign consolidating his power, reorganizing the army, and building a new navy.23 By 1263 he was ready to venture into the Holy Land. He began by sacking Nazareth and destroying its famous church. Then he led his troops to Acre but found it far too well fortified and defended—the garrison included the knights and infantry endowed by Louis IX—so he settled for sacking the area around the city and then returned to Egypt.

In 1265 he came with a far larger force and with lethal intentions. His first target was the small port town of Caesarea. It fell with little resistance. Next Baibars led his forces up the coast to Haifa. “Those inhabitants that were warned in time fled to boats in the anchorage, abandoning both the town and the citadel, which were destroyed; and the inhabitants that had remained there were massacred.”24 Then Baibars attacked the large Templar castle at Athlit. He was able to burn the village outside the walls but could make no headway against the fortress. So, toward the end of March, he continued south along the coast to the small port town of Arsuf (also Arsur or Apollonia). It was defended by 270 Hospitallers who fought “with superb courage.”25 The lower town fell to Baibars at the end of April, but the citadel continued to hold. Baibars proposed surrender terms allowing all the knights to go free. They surrendered, whereupon Baibars broke his word and enslaved them all. Then, fearing that the crusaders might someday recover this outpost, Baibars had citadel and town razed so completely that the site has never been resettled. Then once again it was Acre’s turn, and once again Baibars found it much too strong and so led his army back to Egypt.

In 1266 Baibars turned his attention to the islands of resistance that remained inland. First, he led his troops to the great castle of Montfort—but saw at once that it was too strong. So he led his troops to the great Templar castle at Safed, in the Galilean uplands. The garrison consisted of some Templars and a substantial number of Syrian mercenaries. With the arrival of Baibars, the Syrians began to desert, and soon it was impossible for the Templars to adequately man the walls. Baibars offered the Templars terms: to hand over the fortress and to withdraw without harm to Acre. The Templars opened the gates and marched out. The Muslims seized them and beheaded each and every one.26 Next, Baibars turned his attention to the Christian village of Qara, massacring all the adults and enslaving the children. That fall he sent an army to attack Antioch, but his generals decided not to make the attempt.

The next spring (1267), Baibars once again paraded his troops before Acre and this time made an attack on the walls, which was turned back in a bloody defeat. Baibars compensated for this by scouring the countryside for Christians, or suspected Christians, and surrounded Acre with their headless bodies. To no avail.

In 1268 Baibars conquered Jaffa and slaughtered the inhabitants. Then in May he launched his army against Antioch. The garrison lacked sufficient numbers to fully man the walls, but they were able to beat back the first attack. The knights knew that Baibars had failed to keep the surrender terms at Safed and Arsuf, so negotiations led nowhere. The second Muslim attack on Antioch burst through the walls. What followed was “the single greatest massacre of the entire crusading era”27—a massacre that even shocked Muslim chroniclers.28 The gates were closed and guarded, and an orgy of torture, killing, and desecration ensued—fully acting out the descriptions that Pope Urban II has used to arouse the crowd in the meadow at Clermont nearly two centuries earlier. Should there be any doubt, Baibars himself bragged about the massacre of Antioch in detail.

Since Count Bohemond VI, ruler of Antioch, was away when this disaster befell his city, Baibars sent him a letter telling him what he had missed: “You would have seen your knights prostrate beneath the horses’ hooves, your houses stormed by pillagers…You would have seen your Muslim enemy trampling on the place where you celebrate Mass, cutting the throats of monks, priests and deacons upon the altars, bringing sudden death to the Patriarchs and slavery to the royal princes. You would have seen fire running through your palaces, your dead burned in this world before going down to the fires of the next.”29 Granted, the city had resisted; but since Baibars’s surrender agreements had proved worthless in the past, what option was there?

Sad to say, it is no surprise that the massacre of Antioch is barely reported in many recent Western histories of the Crusades. Steven Runciman gave it eight lines, 30 Hans Eberhard Mayer gave it one, 31 and Christopher Tyerman, who devoted several pages to lurid details of the massacre of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, dismissed the massacre of Antioch in four words.32 Karen Armstrong devoted twelve words to reporting this massacre, which she then blamed on the crusaders since it was their dire threat that had created a “new Islam” with a “desperate determination to survive.” Armstrong also noted that because Baibars was a patron of the arts, he “was not simply a destroyer…[but also] a great builder.”33

With the fall of Antioch, the Christian kingdoms in the East consisted of only a very narrow fringe surrounding a few ports along the coast: Acre, Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, and Alexandretta, the latter being a tiny coastal enclave in what had been the kingdom of Antioch.34 Baibars chose not to attempt to take these last strongholds, partly because of their imposing fortifications and skillful defenders, and partly because their access to the sea made it impossible to put them under an effective siege. He had an additional worry as well. Word was spreading that Louis IX was organizing another Crusade.


Now in his fifties and somewhat frail, Saint Louis still longed to save the kingdoms and reconquer Jerusalem. After discussions with Pope Clement IV, in 1267 Louis took the cross once more, as did his three sons and two brothers—Charles of Anjou and Alphonse of Poitiers. But outside France, only King Henry III of England and King James I of Aragon agreed to join him.

This new Crusade was about as carefully planned and organized as its recent predecessor—which is why it took nearly three years to get rolling. It was, of course, another naval Crusade, and Louis chartered a fleet from Genoa to augment the ships available to him in Marseille. Again, the initial target was Egypt, and Cagliari in southern Sardinia was chosen as the assembly point. Louis arrived there in June 1270. But the fleet from Aragon was so badly damaged by a storm that it never arrived, the survivors having returned home to reorganize. In England, Henry III had decided not to go but sent his son Edward in his stead, which delayed the departure of the English fleet until August. So Louis decided to move without the others and led his troops almost due south to the African coast, landing at Tunis on July 18, 1270. The French quickly seized a fortress on the site of ancient Carthage and established a secure camp.35

It has long been debated why Louis sailed to Tunis rather than to Egypt or even Acre. The consensus is that he believed that Muhammad I, the emir of Tunis, was ready to convert to Christianity if he had the protection of a strong Christian army.36Only after the landing was it discovered that this was a false rumor. Although the city was only weakly defended, Louis decided to avoid stirring up trouble while he waited for the arrival of Aragonese and English crusaders. But what the local Muslim forces were too weak to do, the climate accomplished. “The summer heat beat down on the crusaders and nurtured an outbreak of deadly diseases in the camp. Soldiers began to die in great numbers.”37 Soon Louis fell ill, too. On August 25, 1270, King Louis IX died. His body was returned to France. His magnificent tomb at Saint-Denis was destroyed during the French Wars of Religion, and his remains disappeared.

Soon after Louis died, Prince Edward arrived with his English forces and was stunned to find the French forces preparing to sail home. His force was far too small to attempt an attack on Baibars in Egypt, but rather than simply throw in his hand, the prince sailed on to Acre, where he landed in May 1271 with two to three hundred knights and perhaps six hundred infantry.38 Although the troops available to him were insufficient to reclaim any of the lost territory, they made Acre virtually invulnerable. This allowed Edward to negotiate a ten-year peace treaty with Baibars. Then he went home, to discover his father had died and that he now was King Edward I.

Meanwhile, in 1271 Baibars sent his new navy to attack Cyprus. Even with the advantage of surprise it was no contest: by nightfall there was no Egyptian fleet. At about this same time, Baibars’s forces were able to conquer the huge Hospitaller fortress of Krak des Chevaliers, which gave the Muslims control of the approaches to Tripoli. But then Baibars agreed to the ten-year treaty with Prince Edward, ending his threat to the last Christian strongholds. On July 1, 1277, Baibars died. There are several traditions concerning his cause of death, but it is generally believed that he poisoned the drink of an Ayubite prince and then carelessly drank it himself.39


The crusading spirit did not die with Saint Louis, but the doubts that had long been building up were greatly encouraged by his failures. If such well-funded and well-organized Crusades, led by a skilled and saintly leader, could not prevail, what could? Moreover, even Louis had faced widespread opposition—especially by the clergy—to the taxes necessary to fund these undertakings. In the wake of Louis’s defeat and death, angry opposition to crusader taxes grew louder, and many prominent people began to condemn the continuing defense of the Holy Land as a useless, misguided, and perhaps wicked “quagmire.”

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