Post-classical history


The Fifth Crusade 1213–21

Writing in an optimistic mood in 1208 to the crusade enthusiast Duke Leopold VI of Austria, Innocent III characterized holy war as an imitation of Christ, an act of unconditional devotion. In recognition of this he sent Leopold a cloth cross and letters conveying the plenary indulgence.1 This innocuous exchange encapsulated the distinctive elements of Innocent III’s crusade policy: theological precept, moral conviction, papal authority, pastoral care, administrative control and bureaucratic precision. The developments set in train by the Third Crusade reached new levels of thoroughness as Innocent sought to accomplish what he had failed to achieve in 1202–4, the destruction of Ayyubid Egypt, the recovery of Jerusalem and the spiritual renewal of Christendom. To this end, the so-called Fifth Crusade, planned in 1213, launched in 1215 and fought in a series of running expeditions between 1217 and 1229, marked the climax in papal cooperation with secular power. Innocent is often depicted as the most successful promoter of papal monarchism, wishing to control, even exclude, lay domination in his crusading policy after the debacle of 1202–4. It is frequently asserted that the Fifth Crusade represented the church’s greatest and last serious attempt to run a holy war though its own leadership. Yet although the last acts of the Fifth Crusade were conducted in a hail of mutual recrimination and mistrust between popes and the emperor, Frederick II, leading to the bizarre, but not entirely unprecedented, scene in 1228 of a Holy Land crusade under an excommunicated leader, as with the Albigensian wars, Innocent III and his successor Honorius III based their policy on trying to obtain the cooperation and support of lay monarchs. The Fifth Crusade was intended to marry the universal ambitions of the papacy with the imperialism of the Hohenstaufen rulers of Germany and southern Italy. Innocent’s involvement of the young Frederick II opened the prospect of a new order in Christendom. A mutually advantageous acceptance of the respective authority of pope and emperor would be signalled by the fulfilment of the eastern aspirations of Conrad III, Frederick I and Henry VI no less than those of Urban II, Eugenius III or Gregory VIII. The failure of the enterprise, and the reciprocal demonization that dominated papal-Hohenstaufen relations for the subsequent fifty years, obscured this central feature of Innocent’s conception. If historical turning points exist, the Fifth Crusade was one; the direction of international high politics could have been set on a very different course.2

The organization and conduct of the Fifth Crusade witnessed growing bureaucracy. In concert with developments in secular government and law, increasingly the crusade was becoming a written phenomenon.3 Preachers received licences and based their sermons on circulated papal bulls. Recruitment and finance was sustained by central and local record keeping, lists of crucesignati, accounts of moneys raised and expended, and written authorization for individuals’ legal and fiscal privileges. While the creation of new technologies of record may not coincide with changes in what is being recorded, the weight of writing indicated the growing institutionalization of crusading as a social and religious activity.


Crusade preaching, taxation and liturgical propaganda reached an extended audience beyond the ranks of those who were able to join up: the poor, the old, the landless, the rootless and the young, all in their ways disenfranchised from direct involvement in the increasingly highly structured armies of the cross. The broader social and religious demands of crusading stimulated engagement in what would later be described as civil society, as observers, commentators, critics and participants, by sections of the community not necessarily included in the ruling hierarchies. The Albigensian crusades were attended by so-called ribaldi, low-born camp followers, as well as local peasants.4 The organization of some contingents, such as the fleets from northern European waters, revolved around sworn communes, wide consultation across social groups and a measure of general debate, even occasionally, as at fraught moments during the Fourth Crusade, public consent.5 The collective commitment to the crusade evinced in communal ceremonies of dedication, in cities from London to Cologne to Venice, was matched by the development of regular parochial rituals of devotion and support. Taking the cross, like sermons, assumed the witness of congregations. Innocent III’s offer of the indulgence to those not themselves soldiers of the cross and the spread of crusade taxation further lent the negotium sanctum a genuinely popular, public dimension. Political and social anxieties could be articulated through support for the transcendent cause of the Holy Land by groups habitually excluded, ignored, marginalized or simply disorganized by virtue of low material status. An extraordinary demonstration of this penetration of the crusade into wider political consciousness and communal action came with the phenomenon known as the Children’s Crusade.6

In the winter and spring of 1211–12, Innocent III’s habitual concerns at the sinfulness of the faithful, the heretics in Languedoc, the Moors in Spain and the precarious plight of Outremer were focused by papal decree and battalions of preachers on just two: the Albigensian crusades and the advances of the Almohads of north Africa in the Iberian peninsula. An intensive recruiting campaign for the Languedoc war in the Rhineland and northern France was led by James of Vitry and Archdeacon William of Paris, Simon of Montfort’s siege expert.7 At the same time, Almohad victories in the autumn of 1211 prompted Innocent III to appeal for aid for the Christians in Spain, instituting a series of special penitential processions to be held in mid May. The impression of heightened crisis, reinforced by repeated calls for Apostolic simplicity and active penance, through taking the cross or collective liturgical contrition, stimulated unlicensed popular response. In at least two regions this coalesced into demonstrations of public support for the defence of Christendom from those not normally associated with leadership of formal crusading.

In the spring and summer of 1212, crowds of penitents assembled in the Low Countries, the Rhineland and northern France, areas heavily evangelized for the crusade. They called for an amendment of life and, in places, the liberation of the Holy Land. Some contingents apparently crossed the Alps into Italy in search of transport to the Levant. Details of intentions varied locally, but all these marches were seen to have been inspired in part by the rumours of the threats to Christendom, the dissemination of a redemptive theology emphasizing the crusade as a collective penitential act and the failure of the leaders of society to perform their obligations on either count. The most striking feature of these marches lay in that they were conducted by ‘pueri’, literally children. In fact, these‘pueri’ may have been less juvenile than the name implied. To a Cologne chronicler, who may be reporting eyewitness memories, the pueri ‘ranged in age from six years to full maturity’.8 Norman and Alpine monks recorded that the marchers were adolescents and old people.9 Accounts indicated that participants came from outside the usual hierarchies of social power – youths, girls, the unmarried, sometimes excluding even widows – or economic status: shepherds, ploughmen, carters, agricultural workers and rural artisans without a settled stake in land or community, rootless and mobile. Signs of anti-clericalism and the absence of clerical leadership accentuated this sense of social exclusion. Yet despite the absence of ecclesiastical authority, there was little church condemnation. The popular movements of 1212 demonstrated the success of Innocent’s evangelism. The marches sprang from communal anxiety, not specific social or economic hardship. Dissatisfaction with the inability of the leaders of the social hierarchy to secure victory in Spain, Languedoc or Palestine may have coincided with a more diffuse trend whereby rural populations were attracted to towns, especially at a time of increasing demographic pressure in the countryside. Yet the immediate impulse appeared to be religious.

The recorded chronology of events is confusing. There were two distinct areas of enthusiasm, one in northern France, south-west of Paris, the other in the Low Countries and the Rhineland. From chronicle accounts it is possible to argue that the Ile de France marchers combined with those from the Rhineland, or, less likely, that the Rhinelanders joined the French uprising or that the two movements remained separate, coinciding only in timing. According to the Cologne chronicler, around Easter (25 March) and Whitsun (13 May) 1212 large processions of youths from the traditional crusade recruiting grounds of the Rhineland, the Netherlands, north-eastern France and western Germany, defying family and friends, began to move in the general direction of Italy. Although some groups assembled in Lorraine, a number being stopped at Metz, the main body gathered at Cologne, where a leader emerged called Nicholas, a youth from the surrounding countryside. As reported, their declared purpose was the relief of the Holy Land. A contingent of crusaders from Cologne under the provost of the cathedral had joined Simon of Montfort in Languedoc in April that year, but this commitment had been too restricted in scope to satisfy the spiritual expectations aroused by the attendant evangelizing.10Instead, the failure of the experienced, rich and proud (an apparent reference to the Fourth Crusade) was to be redeemed by the innocent, pure and humble. Some of the German marchers adopted the pilgrim’s scrip and staff as well as the cross. Their leader, Nicholas, was remembered as carrying a tau cross, a symbol elsewhere associated with Francis of Assisi and his dynamic brand of poverty and humility.

The German processions were reported to have assembled at Speyer on 25 July 1212 before heading south through Alsace to the Alpine passes, probably the St Gotthard or the Simplon, before arriving at Piacenza on 20 August. This sequence of events fits badly with the Cologne chronicle’s dating of the beginning of the movement to March, April and May. Other accounts trace marchers at Liège and Trier earlier in July, which might find confirmation in the Cologne writer’s mention of trouble at Metz. Some modern historians have tried to combine the Lorraine, Netherlands and Rhineland crusaders as mustering together at Speyer, while others have explained the Lorraine marchers as coming from further west, from the uprising in northern France.11 There, the link between the official programme of special penitential processions appeared even more specific. Here the leader who emerged from the crowd, Stephen from Cloyes, near Vendôme, was a shepherd, a highly symbolic occupation in the context of Christian populist fundamentalism. The area of enthusiasm, the Dunois, Chartrain and Ile de France, like the Rhineland, had recently witnessed recruitment for the Albigensian war. In June 1212, Stephen led groups of penitents – boys, girls, youths, old men – to St Denis near Paris, coinciding with the annual Lendit Fair, the high point of the abbey’s pilgrim and commercial calendar. Stephen’s followers carried crosses and banners, the trappings of liturgy, while chanting ‘Lord God, exalt Christianity! Lord God, restore to us the True Cross!’ echoing papal preaching.12 Some of Stephen’s companions may have been recruited for the Albigensian war, but there is no exactly contemporary evidence linking his march with the recovery of the Holy Land or the simultaneous German enterprise. If the Colognechronicle’s dating is accepted, then it is possible that rumours of the marches in the Rhineland provoked emulation in northern France. If the Lorraine and Speyer July dates reflect the chronology of the eastern expedition, then the inspiration, and even reinforcements, may have travelled in the opposite direction.

The fate of those penitents and crusaders who reached the Mediterranean is similarly clouded, not least by later lurid romantic fantasies. The German bands, once in Italy, dispersed. Some may have reached Genoa, or even Brindisi and Marseilles. Others – a handful of the many thousands who set out – returned home. Stories circulated that some embarked for the east while others had been sold into slavery or worse. There is no convincing evidence of the French marchers making a separate journey to the Mediterranean ports. All soon vanish from the record, leaving only startled memories or eccentric morality tales. Unlike similar subsequent popular uprisings associated with crusading, these outbursts left no trace in the surviving papal registers. However, whatever its fate, the so-called Children’s Crusade reveals a popular and ordered reaction by sections of the usually silent public, in this case it seems predominantly rural, to the propagandizing of the church authorities. This was no outpouring of inchoate mass hysteria. The zeal may have been untempered by official direction. Ecclesiastical unease was evident. Yet few demonstrations of the effectiveness of the thirteenth-century church’s redemptive message could have been more potent. The events of 1212 reveal the success of Innocent’s policy of using crusade preaching and ceremonial to promote reformist as well as militant messages. The depiction of those involved as shepherds or pueri captured the preachers’ insistence on a return to apostolic simplicity, free from the snares and obligations of materialism. Like the friars who were soon to become the shock troops of church evangelism, the marchers in 1212 were mendicants. Initially at least, some clerical observers were distinctly sympathetic to the marchers’ aspirations. The extent and potential of spiritual excitement throughout the wider Christian public exposed in 1212 may have encouraged Innocent to launch a new general crusade to the Holy Land the following year. One Alpine monastery preserved an apt, if possibly ben trovato, tradition that Nicholas of Cologne himself joined this new expedition and found himself a few years later facing the infidel at Damietta on the Nile.13


The papal encyclical Quia Maior of April 1213, the conciliar decree Ad Liberandam of November 1215 and the attendant papal instructions to preachers, legates and tax collectors set in motion a vast new enterprise to recover Jerusalem while establishing rhetorical, legal, fiscal, liturgical and administrative norms of official crusading for the next century and a half. The circumstances seemed propitious; the planning meticulous. In July 1212, the Almohads had been destroyed at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. Simon of Montfort, after successfully completing his annexation of the Trencavel lands in Languedoc in 1211, had secured control of most of the Toulousain. With the political objectives of the anti-heresy war seemingly achieved or even exceeded, Innocent III suspended that crusade in January 1213.14 By contrast, in Outremer, the truce between the Franks and Sultan al-Adil of Egypt, renewed in 1211 and due to expire in 1217, barely concealed the Christians’ weakness, penned up in a few northern Syrian enclaves. John of Brienne, king of Jerusalem, regent for his infant daughter Queen Isabella, doubted that the truce would hold and urged a new crusade. While al-Adil showed no willingness to provoke a western challenge, the recent fortification of Mt Tabor in western Galilee by his son, al Mu ‘azzam of Damascus, posed a potential threat to Acre and the Franks’ precarious presence on its surrounding plain. Given western sensitivities, it took little to arouse a Holy Land scare. Mt Tabor, ‘where Christ revealed to his disciples a vision of his future glory’, supplied the pope with a casus belli.15

The secular politics of western Christendom provided an equal, if riskier, opportunity. The German succession remained in dispute between the fading former papal protégé Otto IV and the then pope’s new favourite, Frederick of Hohenstaufen, son of Henry VI. Their struggle reverberated across Germany and Italy, subsuming and focusing myriad local rivalries and political contests. The consequences of Simon of Montfort’s conquests in Languedoc had created a whole class of dispossessed nobles as well as a legion of angry, suspicious or fearful neighbours, beginning with Peter of Aragon. England had been under a papal interdict since 1208 over King John’s refusal to accept Innocent’s nominee Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury. Now, faced by an assassination plot in 1212, hints of a papal deposition and French preparations for invasion, John was eager to reach a settlement that would allow him to take the offensive to recover his lost French lands. Modern historians have commonly assumed that the distractions of these warring monarchs allowed Innocent III to fashion the crusade to his own design. Yet, so far from regarding these divisions as a hindrance, Innocent exploited them as an opportunity. He began Quia Maior by insisting that the transcendent cause of the Holy Land demanded the active support of all Christian faithful on pain of damnation. This required a decisive turning away from material concerns to follow Christ. To assist such a commitment, the goods and property of crucesignati would receive the protection of the church, thus reinforcing the moral imperative to resolve temporal conflicts with practical security. Innocent placed the resolution of civil conflict at the heart of the preaching of the new crusade. Crusading had traditionally been associated with management of disputes, witnessed by the persistent links with the Peace and Truce of God throughout the twelfth century. It provided a context within which disputing parties could resolve their differences without loss of face or advantage, as, notoriously, between the Angevins and Philip II. Innocent, with characteristic intellectual clarity, administrative verve, and the experience of fifteen years as pope, now used this passive tool as a weapon to impose ecclesiastical arbitration on material as well as spiritual problems. This was no accident, rather a recognized property of crusading in the academic circle around the pope. One of the leading preachers of the Fifth Crusade, the Englishman Robert of Courçon, legate to France from 1213, explained in an academic treatise how ‘recently’ a number of barons had used the crusade to remove themselves from an awkward choice of rebellion or disinheritance, probably a reference to the counts of Flanders, Blois and Perche after the collapse of their alliance with Richard I against their lord Philip II in 1199.16

Quia Maior established a comprehensive practical as well as religious framework for a new crusade. After presenting the universal moral obligation, the continuing scandal of Christians in Muslim captivity and the immediate crisis threatening the Holy Land, the pope announced an unequivocal plenary indulgence for all who took the cross and served or sent proxies at their own expense and to the proxies themselves: ‘full forgiveness of their sins of which they make truthful oral confession with contrite hearts truly repented of’. Familiar temporal privileges were rehearsed: ecclesiastical protection of crusaders’ property; moratorium on debts to Christians and their cancellation if owed to Jews. Citing his authority to ‘speak as Vicar of Christ for Christ’, Innocent instructed the clergy, civil communities and non-crusading lay magnates to supply troops for three years out of their resources and demanded naval help from maritime cities. The pope promised that he would also contribute. Income from clerical benefices could be pledged for three years. Trade with Muslims was banned, as was consorting with pirates. The efficacy of the practical rested on the penitential. Special monthly processions were to be accompanied by the preaching of the cross. Prayers for the Holy Land were to be supported by fasting and almsgiving with special chests placed in churches to receive pious donations. A new intercession was to be inserted in the mass. More controversial, but no less pragmatic, was Innocent’s invitation ‘that anyone who wishes, except those bound by religious profession, may take the cross in such a way that his vow may be commuted [i.e. replaced by another penance], redeemed [i.e. dispensed in return for a cash payment equivalent to the cost of crusading] or deferred by apostolic mandate when urgent or evident expediency demands it’. Poverty, incapacity, illness, age, gender or legitimate prior calls no longer prevented the enjoyment of crusade indulgence, a measure at once reducing the delays in checking suitability of putative crucesignati and increasing their numbers and social range. To focus attention and resources on the Holy Land expedition, Innocent cancelled the crusade indulgences for those fighting the Moors in Spain or the heretics in Languedoc who came from outside those regions. Knowing from the experience of the previous quarter of a century how long recruitment could take, Innocent preferred to wait until recruits had taken the cross before setting a deadline for the crusade muster.

Quia Maior operated within a wider policy. Simultaneously, Innocent summoned a general council of the church to meet in 1215 to discuss church reform and the crusade, and instituted elaborate systems to preach the cross. Papal control was central. The pope himself took the lead in Italy. Legates were appointed for France and Scandinavia. In Hungary, each bishop was authorized to preach the cross. Elsewhere, panels with legatine powers were established in every province to delegate the work of recruiting to deputies. Preachers were instructed to use the details of Quia Maioras the basis of their message. To avoid the controversy that swamped Fulk of Neuilly before the Fourth Crusade, they were to refuse money for themselves and, reminiscent of the bishop of Osma and Dominic Guzman in Languedoc, to travel modestly and set a good example by sober behaviour. On the ground, preachers kept written records of those they recruited and were ordered by the pope to deposit any crusade donations with local religious houses before rendering annual returns to the papal Curia so Innocent could assess the progress of the vast operation.17 The pope maintained close scrutiny over his agents across Europe. To the dean of Speyer’s request for clarification, Innocent reiterated the need to deflect Languedoc crusaders to the Holy Land, to allow recruits to take the cross despite their wives’ opposition, and to follow the encyclical’s radical extension of vow redemption and commutation, which was clearly arousing some concern. At his request, Bishop Conrad of Regensberg was allowed a grander entourage than Innocent had proposed. He was also permitted to absolve certain categories of criminals provided they took the cross. The abbot of Rommersdorf in Austria compiled a collection of Quia Maior and other papal letters as a reference tool while other preachers, such as James of Vitry, descanted on Innocent’s themes.18

While the preaching campaign began, Innocent prepared the diplomatic ground, once more aided by events. John of England’s submission to the pope in 1213, the defeat of his allies by Philip II of France at Bouvines in 1214 and the subsequent English civil war prompted the king to take the cross on Ash Wednesday (4 March) 1215, using his new status in Magna Carta three months later to postpone settling disputed judgements from his predecessors’ reigns.19 John’s intentions probably owed more to politics than penance, adopting the cross may have been an attempt to facilitate a settlement with his enemies, many of whom were or were about to become crucesignati. The commitment to the crusade among the English propertied classes reached levels similar to the Third Crusade. The context of civil war also influenced Frederick II of Germany and Sicily’s decision to take the cross in the same year, a move encouraged by papal agents now actively supporting his cause.20 Further east, Leopold VI of Austria and King Andrew of Hungary were already crucesignati. Such was his determination to involve the whole of Christendom, Innocent even called on the Venetians to honour their still unfulfilled and unabsolved crusade vow of 1202.21

The array of monarchs, princes and cities added to a sense of united purpose when the 1,300 ecclesiastical delegates from all parts of Latin Christendom from the Atlantic to Syria met at the Lateran Palace in Rome in November 1215. These included most of those appointed to preach the cross, the Latin Patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem, and representatives from the Maronite church in Lebanon (in communion with Rome since 1181) and of the Melkite (i.e. Syrian and Egyptian Greek Orthodox) archbishop of Alexandria, with whom the pope had maintained a regular correspondence over the conditions of Frankish prisoners in Egypt.22 The business of the council was Christian renewal, reform and the crusade, regarded by Innocent as different aspects of the same religious enterprise. The decisions concerning the crusade suggest some hard bargaining, with the pope not necessarily getting his way. Innocent’s defence of Raymond VI of Toulouse failed to convince the council, who condemned the count in favour of Simon of Montfort, whose activities had long since given the pope pause. More general papal anxieties over the legal proprieties of the war against heretics were seemingly brushed aside in the council’s third decree, which established their canonical legitimacy as attracting the equivalent indulgences and privileges ‘as is granted to those who go to the aid of the Holy Land’.23 This may mark a victory for the bellicose French hierarchy, which had consistently been more robust in prosecuting the Languedoc campaigns than the more legally fastidious pope. The reverse may have been true regarding the plans for the Holy Land crusade, with the implementation of the provisions in Quia Maior regarding vow redemptions, debt and tax exemption causing disquiet in French official circles as being too radical.

The council’s final decree (no. 71), Ad Liberandam, largely endorsed Quia Maior but with additions, modifications and omissions.24 It established the ‘sanctum propositum’, the ‘negotium Jesu Christi’ in canon law. After two years of active preaching and recruitment, the tone was urgent. The muster was fixed for June 1217, significantly in the ports of the Sicilian regno, the lands of the new papal protégé and imperial candidate Frederick II. For those intending to take a land route, a legate would be appointed. Clerics were encouraged to participate and allowed to fund themselves from their benefices. The pope contributed 30,000 pounds and a ship for the contingent from the city of Rome. Tax exemption was clarified, although behind the scenes concessions may have been made to Philip II, who already in March 1215 had published an ordinance restricting crusaders’ legal immunities in accordance with French customs.25 The direct encouragement to indiscriminate adoption of the cross and vow redemption, another bone of contention, was dropped, although not explicitly contradicted, a convenient obfuscation.26 Proportionate indulgences for ‘aid’ remained. Tournaments were banned for three years and a general Peace, backed by the threat of excommunication, was instituted for four years.

By far the most important innovation involved the imposition of a tax of a twentieth on ecclesiastical incomes or three years. Perhaps as a quid pro quo, the pope and cardinals agreed to pay a tenth. Innocent’s earlier attempt to tax the church on papal authority in 1199 had failed. Now, to ensure compliance, the explicit approval of the general council, ‘sacro concilio approbante’, was invoked, in the conciliar decree and in every letter sent out concerning the tax’s collection.27 Both Roman law and political custom across Europe, as, famously, in Clauses 12 and 14 of Magna Carta five months earlier, indicated the importance of representative consent for extraordinary fiscal burdens.28 To effect his financial and legal arrangements, Innocent was simply bowing to contemporary constitutionalism to bind all parties more absolutely than any unilateral recourse to papal absolutism. Clerical crusade taxation combined with the extension of full and proportionate indulgences redeemable by material and cash contributions, the detailed provision for alms and donations, and the beginnings of an international ecclesiastical network of collection and audit, to transform the way crusades operated. All subsequent major crusading enterprises sought similar financial provision, especially ecclesiastical taxes, often to the consternation of local churchmen. The translation of the ideology of inclusive obligation to the cause of the Lord’s War into cash deposits, while arousing the cynicism of some, allowed for more central control of operations by crusade commanders with access to these funds. This made crusading attractive to magnates and kings while encouraging greater professionalism in recruitment, funding and military organization. Immediately after the Lateran Council, the fiscal scheme lent a new coherence to fundraising and papal control. In law, finance and management, Innocent left an indelible imprint on the business of the cross.


By the time Ad Liberandam received the council’s approval on 14 December 1215, preaching and recruitment had been going for over two years. It was to continue intensively for another six years then, more sporadically, for at least a further six. The undertaking was massive, in every province and diocese from Scotland to France to Sweden to Hungary to the Mediterranean and even Acre itself, whose new bishop James of Vitry was despatched east in 1216 to drum up local support. It is the first such campaign that has left detailed evidence of every stage of its operation: the reception and dissemination of papal letters; chronicle and personal accounts of the preaching and its effect; the contents of sermons; the mechanics of spreading propaganda between preachers; accounts of money raised and spent. All indicates the grandeur of Innocent’s design. However, its success depended on innumerable local encounters and individual responses.

The success of crusade preaching depended on skilful manipulation of listeners’ aural, intellectual, emotional and visual perceptions. Evidence from the preaching tours after 1213 shows few opportunities were missed to provide the most receptive circumstances for the papal message. Oliver,scholasticus (i.e. teacher) at the cathedral school at Cologne, later bishop of Paderborn, recorded his experiences preaching the cross to Netherlanders in 1214.29 At the village of Bedum in northern Frisia he preached after mass to a crowd that overflowed the church into the fields outside, a familiar literary and possibly actual scene. His text, Galatians 6:14 (‘God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’) exploited the rhetoric of the cross and Christ Crucified in Quia Maior, the language of its special crusade prayer and the liturgy of the Eucharist to emphasize penance, obligation, vocation. On cue, so Oliver reported, a vision of three crosses appeared on the sky, two empty, the one in the centre bearing the image of the crucified Christ. Witnesses, apparently about a hundred drawn from all social and age groups, literally saw the point. One recognized the crosses as predicting the recapture of the Holy Land. Another, who had been following Oliver’s preaching tour for some time, was finally persuaded by this visible evidence to take the cross. Other similar apparitions in Frisia confirmed the message of Bedum. Such celestial manifestations were increasingly common in accounts of crusade preaching and usually credited, as here, with inspiring heavy recruitment. In the Cologne region, the success of John of Xanten was directly attributed to such phenomena.30 The link between cloud-gazing and the spoken message, in sermon and liturgy, was clear. At Bedum, Oliver recorded, the vision lasted for as long as it took to sing mass. However the effect was contrived during actual sermons, news of such wonders spread by letter to fellow preachers and, from them, to later chronicle descriptions.

Other techniques included prophecy. One circulated after the accession of Honorius III as pope in 1216 told of how in 1187 the future pope had been apprised by a mysterious old man, later presumed to be St Peter, that Jerusalem would be regained during his pontificate.31 This clutching at straws seemed to provide a necessary adjunct to the official programme of evangelical preaching that the abbot of Rommersdorf kept in his letter book. The use of the supernatural reflected the context of the preaching. In Frisia and the Rhineland in 1214 the emphasis lay on collective, public visions, with reports careful to record details of time and place. A decade later, a mission to Marseilles under the provost of Arles, which claimed to have enlisted 30,000 citizens for the cross, was accompanied by a series of private miracles and personal visions. Women in ecstatic trances saw ‘many secrets of the cross’.32 Although numerous anecdotes favoured by crusade preachers or poets cast women more often as obstacles to male recruitment, either as wives or lovers, female commitment could be presented as further evidence of universal appeal. At Genoa in the autumn of 1216 James of Vitry managed to attract large numbers of noblewomen to take the cross as a prelude to enlisting their husbands.33 At Genoa and Marseilles, the preachers were careful to publicize their experiences and to establish that their crusade work formed part of a more general campaign to assert orthodoxy.

The wider political dimensions of the recruitment campaign emphasized the resolution of conflict. Just as in Marseilles, where reception of the crusade acted as a ritual of reconciliation between the church and a city under the ban of excommunication, so Oliver of Paderborn’s tour of western Germany and Netherlands seemed to be aimed at areas supportive of Otto IV, even though the crusade was sponsored by Hohenstaufen partisans such as the Fourth Crusade veteran Bishop Conrad of Halberstadt, as well as by Frederick II himself. James of Vitry’s preaching in Genoa was aimed at securing peace between the city and its enemies. Between 1214 and 1219, disputing factions within Bologna were drawn together to sponsor and join a crusade contingent. Similar procedures characterized the activities of crusade preachers across Tuscany and northern Italy, led, from 1217, by Cardinal Ugolino of Ostia, the future Pope Gregory IX. He helped engineer pacification of disputes at Lucca, Pisa, Padua, Pistoia, Genoa, Bologna and Venice. By 1221, armed with money from the clerical twentieth, Ugolino was easing his diplomatic path with grants of funds to mercenaries for the eastern enterprise as well as crucesignati, a distinction that reflected the changes wrought in crusade recruitment by the relaxation of conditions for taking the cross and the arrangements for central church funding.34 More prominently, Robert of Courçon, crusade legate in France from 1213, attempted, without success, to resolve the Anglo-French conflict for the sake of the Holy Land. While managing to recruit a few magnates, Robert failed prevent the campaigns in northern France of 1214, which ended in the defeat of King John, or the French invasion of England in 1216–17. John’s adoption of the cross in March 1215 and Prince Louis of France’s crusading jaunt to Languedoc that spring owed nothing to Robert’s efforts.

These different aspects of the function and conduct of crusade preaching and recruitment were reinforced by the sermons’ contents. Playing on the mutually supporting emotions generated by the plight of the Holy Land, personal penitence, corporate guilt and communal anger, preachers’exempla – uplifting anecdotes – were crafted to match theology and recruitment by encapsulating common assumptions, anxieties and expectations. According to the collection of preaching materials assembled during the raising of the Fifth Crusade in England, known as the Ordinatio de predicatione Sancti Crucis, exempla were designed to attract attention, prevent boredom, inspire contrition and encourage the rejection of earthly vanities.35 Their form may have been deliberately demotic, punchy vignettes in the French vernacular in contrast to the Latin meditations on the figure of Christ Crucified that comprised the bulk of the Ordinatio. While much of the text explains the significance of the cross and the requirement on the faithful to imitate and follow Christ, a section, ‘The call (or Vocation) of men to the cross’, uses repeated refrains and the exempla to transmit the message to the audience’s memory and arouse immediate engagement through the frisson of almost trance-like emotion, a sort of flexible liturgy. Many exempla involved crusade heroes and heroics, stressing the heavenly reward for those who died. Other anxieties concerning the process of becoming a crucesignatus were addressed: family pressure, difficulty with obstructive spouses, the pain of leaving children, the value of the indulgence. The two strands, heroic and domestic, signified the double battle waged by the crucesignatus, against the enemy within – doubt, luxury, sin, the devil – and the enemy without, the Saracen. While some anecdotes did the rounds of crusade preachers, assuming common currency, others attempted to explain the theology of crusading with more local resonance. The divine guarantee to crucesignati was confirmed ‘as if by charter’, a familiar legal image to the property owners of western Europe.36 One rather charming exemplum, recorded after the Fifth Crusade, was aimed at the sort of Netherlandish audience to whom Oliver of Paderborn preached. Just as people in Flanders pole-vaulted over small canals, so the crusade indulgence allowedcrucesignati to pole-vault across purgatory.37 Elsewhere, gender resistance to crusading was addressed in stories of the consequences – uniformly dire – of women obstructing their spouses from taking the cross, just as later in the century more sympathetic accounts of the involvement of the Virgin Mary and miracles of the Holy Blood were thought to encourage female support. Accounts of local heroes and their martyr’s deaths spoke directly to the practical fears of potential crucesignati as well as to their wider patterns of devotion and belief.

Tapping into popular religious enthusiasm and anxieties at the same time as offering social respectability, the patronage of the church and money appeared to be highly successful. Oliver of Paderborn asserts that his labours among the coastal settlements and islands of the Netherlands netted at least 15,000 fighters, who, with the Rhineland recruits, required a fleet of 300 ships to carry them east. Such a prominent and potentially disruptive church enterprise inevitably did not pass without controversy. In France, the activities of Robert of Courçon ran foul of royal interests and magnates’ rights. Official apologists criticized the whole approach to vow redemption and commutation inaugurated by Quia Maior, a hostility that may have contributed to the toning down of such provisions in the crusade conciliar decree in 1215.38 Another consequence was possibly less predictable. The wide authority delegated to regional agents allowed for highly devolved recruitment. Despite Innocent III’s conciliar proclamation in November 1215 that the expedition should be prepared to depart on 1 June 1217 from the ports of southern Italy and Sicily, no mechanisms were devised to coordinate the gathering of so many autonomous local, regional or national groups. Innocent knew from his experiences of 1198–1202 and memories of 1187–90 how long a major eastern expedition could take to assemble, so his deliberately long preparation period of four years was prudent. However, the pope’s and the council’s failure to address the issue of unified leadership and planning of the sort seen in 1146–7, 1188–90, 1201–3 and even 1095–6, bequeathed a distinctive character to the Fifth Crusade, at once universal and endemically fissiparous. The scope of papal centralization grated with the complexity of its own devolved operation, producing damaging and potentially fatal political weakness. In the very size and ambition of the project lay the seeds of its failure.

By contrast, too, with previous mass expeditions, the Fifth Crusade was not dominated by recruits from the kingdom of France. Many important French magnates took the cross, including the dukes of Burgundy and Brabant and the counts of Bar, la Marche and Nevers, the last a veteran of the Languedoc wars. Recruitment from eastern France and Champagne, traditional areas of crusade enthusiasm, appeared brisk, even though it was complicated in Champagne by becoming entangled in a protracted succession dispute. Anecdotal evidence indicated large-scale adoption of the cross from all sections of society in town and country. However, the Albigensian adventure and Prince Louis’s invasion of England in 1216–17 offered alternative occupation, even to crucesignati waiting to go east. At the same time, a combination of Robert of Courçon’s wider puritanical agenda and the legal and fiscal implications of the papal arrangements aroused conflicting emotions, including resistance. Philip II and some leading nobles objected to what they regarded as papal interference in French customs and the prohibitions on usury loudly endorsed by Legate Robert. Odo of Burgundy objected to the church’s blanket protection given to crusaders and their property, their immunity for repayment of debts and the ban on Jewish credit. There were stories of tensions between lords and the mass of crucesignati and complaints that French crusaders were still being forced to pay taxes, despite earlier promises to them to the contrary. A formal agreement between Philip II and the French episcopacy in March 1215 sought to limit the impact of the fiscal, credit and legal implications of Quia Maior, for example by removing immunity from those charged with capital crimes and certain civil suits concerning obligations to lords.39 Crusaders’ protection risked disrupting tenurial as well as financial obligations. Negotiated limitations on privileges became a common feature of thirteenth-century crusading, a seemingly important prerequisite for the harmonious cooperation of church and state over the intrusion of canon law into the habitual conduct of secular life and the rights of governments increasingly conscious of their legal jurisdiction.40 Yet, whatever the reaction to his controversial mission in France, Robert of Courcon, one of western Europe’s leading intellectuals, was to die in the fetid camp before Damietta in the last days of 1218.41 The crusade depended for its success on thousands of similar commitments.

In England, recruitment was interrupted by the civil war of 1215–17 to which, with ecclesiastical encouragement, some protagonists as well as observers applied the instruments and rhetoric of holy war.42 Following King John’s reconciliation with the papacy in 1213, his rule was supported by the presence of a succession of papal legates. Preaching the cross was in the hands of a team of academics, Walter, archdeacon of London, Philip of Oxford, a veteran of organizing the Fourth Crusade, John of Kent and, after 1214, William of London and Dean Leo of Wells. The crusade became an important political gesture with the king’s adoption of the cross in March 1215, a precedent followed, on John’s death, by his nine-year-old son and successor, Henry III, immediately after his coronation in October 1216. Both sides in the civil war were led by crucesignati, some of whom were offered commutation of their vows if they fought for the royalist cause while others may even have been induced to take the cross to fight for the king, an early and rather confused example of a crusade with an essentially secular political purpose. Despite attempts to the contrary, in England the crusade not only failed to achieve a political reconciliation, it may have temporarily exacerbated divisions as one side tried to appropriate a cause common to both. Only once the civil war had ended, when magnates from both sides left for the east, did the reconciling aspects of the Holy Land crusade emerge. Between 1218 and 1221, departing crusaders included rebels, such as the earls of Hereford and Winchester and the rebel leader Robert FitzWalter, and royalists such as the earl of Chester, who may, as John’s executor, have been fulfilling his late master’s crusade vow, and the loyalist captain Savaric of Mauléon. Savaric’s contacts with crusading illustrate the futility of judging crusaders’ motives and perceptions, still less the integrity of the institution itself. He fought against Simon of Montfort’s crusaders at Castelnaudary in 1211 and seems to have temporarily commuted his crusader vow in favour of defending the Angevin cause in England in 1216, before joining the Fifth Crusade in Egypt and, finally, accompanying Louis VIII’s crusade to Languedoc in 1226. A professional fighting man, Poitevin lord and royal servant, Savaric seemed attracted to paymasters and respectability. His actions reveal much about the cosmopolitan reach of the western European aristocracy but little of any inner spiritual life.43

The English contingent was not negligible but without royal leadership it lacked cohesion in structure or timing of departure. Groups, based around lordship or regional affinities, reached Egypt on each biannual passage from western ports. The earl of Chester, briefly a strong voice in the crusade’s high command, left soon after the capture of Damietta in November 1219 after two years’ stay, while the earl of Winchester had arrived only shortly before. Some, such as Philip of Aubigny, only appeared in eastern waters after Damietta had been returned to the sultan in 1221, while the bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches, the controversial former justiciar, only took the cross eleven days after the city had, unknown to him, fallen. Repeatedly during the Egyptian campaign, the English presence was noted.44 The earl of Arundel played a prominent role in acrimonious debates on strategy. It was later recorded that, after the capture of Damietta in 1219, to honour the English presence two converted mosques were dedicated to the national saints Edmund the Martyr and Thomas Becket. The new church of St Edmund was decorated with wall paintings of the martyr’s passion commissioned by an English knight, Richard of Argentan, who during the expedition made himself something of an expert on eastern customs and legends. Whatever their military impact, the English crusaders reignited a habit of involvement in eastern crusading that lasted for generations. Philip of Aubigny, royalist and tutor to the young Henry III, arrived off Damietta in September 1221 to find the Christian evacuation in full swing. His father, Ralph, had died in the Third Crusade. In 1228 Philip again took the cross and, with his nephew Oliver and a significant company of knights, embarked for Palestine in 1235. He died in Jerusalem (which had been restored by treaty in 1229) the following year and was buried outside the church of the Holy Sepulchre in view and under the feet of all who visited. Philip’s tomb slab, bearing his arms, name and inscription ‘May his soul rest in peace’, still survives. In the words of his contemporary, the St Alban’s monk Matthew Paris, it was a grave ‘he had long yearned for in life’.45

This process of piecemeal departures, fragmented leadership and almost permanent recruitment stretched across Germany and Italy. From the time he took the cross in 1215 with papal encouragement, Frederick II, king of Sicily as well as Germany, became the putative commander of the crusade. His departure for the east was repeatedly predicted and constantly expected. From his southern Italian ports, Innocent III announced in 1215, the main fleets were supposed to depart. Frederick’s failure to fulfil the vow, which he repeated at his imperial coronation in 1220, deprived his subjects of a focus for engagement. However, given the nature of his kingdoms as well as the role the crusade played in resolving a whole series of local and national disputes, Frederick’s delay, while central to the expedition’s weak leadership, was not crucial to the response, except in the kingdom of Sicily. There, the main contribution came as a direct result of Frederick’s command. When it became obvious he would be unable to travel east in the immediate future, the king despatched Matthew Gentile count of Lesina to Egypt in the summer of 1220 with seventy knights and six galleys and another fleet a year later under Count Henry of Malta. However, these expeditions were sent as tokens of good faith, neither being substitutes for the major Sicilian force that would have accompanied Frederick himself. In his German lands, Frederick’s procrastination inhibited the active involvement of crucesignati among his political partisans. Only in the spring of 1221, after his coronation as emperor at Rome in November 1220, did he send Duke Louis of Bavaria, a crucesignatus since 1215, to represent him on the Egyptian campaign, which was then about to enter its disastrous final phase. Other Italian contingents timed their departures east according to local conditions; Lucca, Genoa and Rome in the summer and autumn of 1218, Bologna a year later, followed by Milan and Venice in spring 1220.46

This lack of cohesion was reflected in the time spent in the east. The main campaigns, in the Holy Land 1217–18 and in Egypt 1218–21, lasted four years in total, yet the average length of time lay and clerical aristocrats stayed in the east was about a year, the precedent of Philip II, not Richard I, still less the veterans of the first two great eastern enterprises.47 Even the expedition of the only western crowned head to embark, King Andrew of Hungary, although oversubscribed when it assembled at Split in August of 1217, fizzled out after its leader left the Holy Land in January 1218, a few weeks after arriving. While such insouciant disregard for the wider interests of the enterprise may have been unusual and Andrew possibly an unwilling crusader, this lack of staying power was typical. Due directly to the fragmented nature of assembly and command, the transient fluidity of tours of service between 1217 and 1221 ensured that the best funded, most widely preached and professionally recruited crusade to date failed to convert numerical popularity into lasting achievement.

This was far from apparent in the summer of 1217, the deadline for departure. Despite the pope’s unexpected death on 16 July 1216 at Perugia, where his corpse, stripped by thieves of its rich vestments, was seen by James of Vitry, the momentum of preparations scarcely slackened.48 A new pope, Honorious III, the aged papal financial expert Cencius Savelli, was quickly elected, commended by his experience, understanding of the fiscal relationships between the Curia and ecclesiastical provinces and his past association with Frederick II, whose tutor he had been. Arrangements for the crusade became his prime concern. Within a year, two great armies gathered at opposite ends of Christendom, in the Adriatic and the North Sea. In August 1217, the armies of King Andrew of Hungary and Duke Leopold VI of Austria assembled at Split in Dalmatia. A longstandingcrucesignatus, Duke Leopold’s contingent included partisans of both sides in the recent German civil war. By contrast, King Andrew appears to have been more reluctant, forced by papal pressure to honour the crusade vow of his father, Bela III (d. 1196), his crusade less of a process of pacification than an exercise in expiation. Andrew had rebelled against his brother King Emeric (d. 1204), another crucesignatus, and was accompanied largely by his own supporters from Slavonia and Dalmatia. Their combined forces were substantial. While Leopold sailed for Acre almost immediately, taking only sixteen days to complete the passage, Andrew found difficulty securing adequate transport for his followers. His shipping contract with Venice, secured by the formal ceding of Zara to the city, provided for at least ten large ships, with an unspecified number of smaller vessels, suggesting an expected military complement of perhaps as many as 1,000 knights and 5,000 infantry. In the event, in ironic and diametric distinction with 1202, the number of troops exceeded the Venetians’ immediate capacity to carry them. Surplus local shipping may have been requisitioned by the Germans, who were not covered by Andrew’s agreement, or by a number of other groups who arrived at Split, including some from France. Entering Split on 23 August, Andrew was not able to reach Acre until late September. If, as is just possible, he had been expecting to find or have news of the impending arrival of the great northern fleet, he would have been disappointed. In a failure of coordination that came to typify the whole enterprise, the Germano-Hungarian crusaders found themselves an isolated vanguard of the larger forces massing rather slowly in the west.49

In late May and early June 1217, flotillas from Frisia, the Netherlands and the Rhineland left their home ports to rendezvous, like their predecessors in 1147 and 1189, at Dartmouth. Led by William count of Holland and George count of Weid, and carrying their recruiting officer Oliver of Paderborn, the combined fleet may have comprised between 250 and 300 ships, including numerous cogs capable of shipping upwards of 500 people each, implying a force of many, perhaps tens of thousands.50 Their leaders appeared to regard their expedition as part of the greater design to be led, in due course, by Frederick II, but there was no indication of any direct imperial direction. During a brief stop at Dartmouth they again followed precedent by forming what amounted to a commune under which ‘new laws’ to secure peace within the army were agreed. Although at the same time they appointed ‘communiter’ the count of Weid as ‘lord of the army’, subsequent decisions and disagreements operated within a communal rather than command structure. New arrivals in the fleet were incorporated into this sworn commune, from those who met the main armada off Brittany later in June 1217 to those from Civitavecchia in Italy in March 1218 who joined the Frisian contingent, which had spent the previous winter there. While the commune may have provided the means of maintaining peace and discipline within the fleet, it failed to impose political unity. Reaching Lisbon in late July after a stormy and costly passage of the Bay of Biscay, the fleet split. The main part, under the counts of Weid and Holland, accepted the proposal of local bishops and commanders of the military orders to attack the troublesome Muslim garrison at al-Qasr (Alcazar do Sal). The Frisians under the abbot of Werde refused to join them, insisting that their duty was to press forward to the Holy Land and that, in any case, Innocent III had refused support for such a campaign at the Lateran Council. Leaving Lisbon on 28 July 1217, the eighty or so Frisian ships entered the Mediterranean and, hugging the northern shore, finally wintered at Civitavecchia, where they enjoyed papal protection. Meanwhile the counts, with possibly up to 160 ships, helped in the costly investment of al-Qasr, which fell on 21 October. As in 1147 and 1189, the effort of this act of vigorous fraternal charity seemed adequate service for some, who managed to obtain absolution from their crusader vows. The rest remained in Lisbon until March 1218 before sailing to Acre. In late April and May, the various surviving elements of the great fleet that had gathered at Dartmouth almost a year earlier arrived in the Holy Land. A year from the North Sea to Palestine repeated patterns established on the Second and Third Crusades. As with those earlier campaigns, this northern fleet found that, by accident or design, they had timed their arrival to coincide with the most significant action of the crusade.


A decision to attack Egypt had been taken at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.51 Unlike in 1201–2, there was no need for secrecy, the new strategic orthodoxy being apparently well established and accepted. Preliminary operations in northern Palestine in late autumn and early winter of 1217 by the newly arrived Germans and Hungarians provided employment for restless western troops, badly needed food supplies for Acre and a measure of increased security for the Frankish enclave without provoking any serious counter-attack by al Mu ‘azzam of Damascus. From their camp south of Acre, the crusaders, careful to avoid a pitched battle with local Ayyubid forces, conducted a leisurely promenade across the river Jordan and a circuit of the Sea of Galilee, followed in December by two fruitless assaults on the Muslim fortress on Mt Tabor, Pope Innocent’s casus belliof 1213. A subsequent foray by a splinter group of 500 Hungarians into the Lebanese mountains ended in disaster. However, the success of the earlier foraging excursion was followed in the New Year by the crusaders’ refortification of two vital links on the road south, the Templar castle of Athlit or Château Pèlerin south of Haifa (now the site of an Israeli naval base) and Caesarea. Although this did not foreshadow an immediate march on Jerusalem, reestablishing these strongholds put pressure on Muslim strategists as well as protecting Acre. These manoeuvres may also have played a part in an alliance with Kay Kavus, the Seljuk sultan of Rum, who invaded northern Syria and attacked Aleppo in 1218. Given the westerners’ Egyptian plan, such Syrian diversions were extremely useful in stretching the resources and resolve of Sultan al-Adil’s family and allies who controlled Muslim Syria and Palestine in uneasy cooperation or competition.

The sense of a carefully prepared strategy was reinforced in the early months of 1218. Even Andrew of Hungary’s precipitate departure from Acre with many of his Hungarian followers in January 1218 may have played an incidental role. Unusually, he travelled west overland, giving money to northern Syrian castles, arranging marriages for his sons with Armenian and Greek princesses as well as probably passing through Seljuk territory.52 There may well have been a subsidiary diplomatic purpose in this unusual itinerary to assist shoring up the crusaders’ distant northern flank. To allow Acre or Antioch to be attacked while the main armies fought in the Nile Delta would have made no sense. That the Egyptian attack was planned by this time cannot be doubted, as immediately the northern fleets arrived in late spring an assault was launched. When the fleets’ commanders assembled with the duke of Austria and the local lay, clerical and military order leadership, their support for the Egyptian campaign was, according to James of Vitry, who was there, unanimous. The only issue in the mind of the king of Jerusalem, John of Brienne, was whether the crusaders should sail for Alexandria or Damietta. Regarded by common consent in Outremer as ‘the key to Egypt’, the choice fell on Damietta.53 By the end of May, the crusaders had established a bridgehead on the left bank of the Nile opposite Damietta and began to probe the city’s formidable defences. For the next three and a half years, this narrow waterlogged region of flats, marsh, canals and rivers remained the focal point for the thousands who joined the crusade from the west, the longest static campaign in the history of the eastern crusades.

Damietta, set among the silt, lagoons, sandbars, dunes and mud flats at the mouth of the main eastern estuary of the Nile, was, in Near Eastern terms, a relatively minor port, with a population of perhaps 60,000, smaller than Alexandria, much smaller than Cairo. However, because of its strategic importance, guarding one of the main routes of access to Cairo, it was well fortified with walls and protected by canals and river channels. The warfare around Damietta fell into four phases. After the initial landings in late May 1218 and the establishment of a camp opposite Damietta, strenuous assaults led to the taking of the so-called Tower of Chains, which stood in the Nile, midstream between the crusaders’ camp and the city, on 24 August 1218. A series of increasingly desperate efforts to secure a hold on the right bank of the river, as well as some fruitless sallies against the city walls led, in February 1219, to the complete investment of the city when the new Sultan, al-Kamil, withdrew from his camp at al-Adilyah. During the summer of 1219, despite some heavy mauling, the crusaders held their positions. At this moment Francis of Assisi arrived in the crusader camp.54 After accurately predicting the crusaders’ failure to dislodge the Muslims from their camp at Fariskur, he was reluctantly given permission to cross through the lines on a hopeless mission to convert the sultan. Francis barely escaped with his life. The failure of Ayyubid relief, increasingly dire conditions within the city and consequently negligent defence led to the fall of the city in November 1219. The nearby port of Tinnis fell soon after. The third phase witnessed a long, curious twenty-one-month period of edgy diplomacy and phoney war, during which the leadership squabbled as to the best strategy to adopt; whether to accept Muslim peace terms, as preferred by King John of Jerusalem, or to press forward to capture Cairo, a policy supported by the increasingly assertive Cardinal Pelagius. These disagreements were conducted against a backcloth of regular crusader departures for which new arrivals failed to compensate. A growing impatience at inaction was exacerbated by the failure of Frederick II to honour his commitment to join the Egypt campaign. The final act saw a failed march on Cairo in August 1221 and the Christian evacuation of Damietta the following month. While a few crusaders remained to help defend Outremer and a trickle of new recruits continued to travel east, the surrender of Damietta marked the end of the central action of the crusade. The lesser expeditions of 1227 and of Frederick II in 1228 acted as codas for the Damietta enterprise as well as setting a pattern of continual small-scale western military assistance for Outremer that characterized the rest of the thirteenth century, with the exception of the French crusade of 1248–50.

The Damietta campaign of 1218–21 revolved around problems of leadership, reinforcement, technology and diplomacy. The delay in capturing Damietta raised questions over the central thrust of the Egyptian strategy. Were the crusaders there to conquer Egypt or to force a panicked Ayyubid sultan to restore the kingdom of Jerusalem? All the central features of the operation touched on this issue. Who determined the crusade’s objectives? Did the western host possess the technical ability successfully to prosecute a campaign in the Delta and an attack on Cairo? Were there enough troops to achieve and sustain such a conquest? How far could negotiation with Ayyubids or other Near Eastern powers guarantee the security of a restored Jerusalem? In the event none of the answers to these questions proved satisfactory for the crusaders. It said much for the enthusiasm and levels of commitment aroused during the recruitment process that the effort was maintained for so long despite very modest material gains.

The problem of leadership arose as soon as the vanguard of the crusader fleet reached Egyptian waters on 27 May 1218. In the absence of most of the more important leaders, delayed by contrary winds, the crusaders elected Count Simon of Saarbrücken to lead the landing and the establishment of a camp on the west bank of the Nile opposite Damietta.55 Born of immediate military necessity, this was only a temporary measure, probably reflecting the Rhenish composition of the ships in the vanguard. Once the full army had assembled, ‘with the agreement of all’ (par accort de toz),56John of Brienne king of Jerusalem was chosen as leader of the host. Although his partisans later claimed that he had also been promised rule of any conquests made, his position was considerably less dominant than that of Richard I or even Conrad III on earlier campaigns. John’s leadership was of military convenience rather than recognition of political authority. Western lords were unlikely to accept his orders unconditionally, not least because they led their own contingents, many tied to their lords by close regional, tenurial or familial association. The papacy, in the form of the legate Pelagius cardinal bishop of Albano, who arrived in September 1218, demanded influence, supported by the significant amounts of treasure derived from the 1215 clerical tax, redemptions and donations. Control of these funds placed great practical power in the legate’s hands. Oliver of Paderborn recorded at least two occasions when he used the central fund: in May 1219 to help the Pisans, Genoese and Venetians conduct an assault on the walls of Damietta and in 1220, when he hired French and German troops to join his retinue.57 A papal account of 1220 recorded payments made to Pelagius from the papal Camera (i.e. treasury) and the 1215 tax of well over 35,000 silver marks and more than 25,000 gold ounces.58 This pivotal role in funding as much as his supposed arrogance and imperious self-confidence propelled Pelagius into playing a key part in tactical decisions in an army whose lay recruits continually found themselves running short of cash.

King John’s own position was less than secure. John of Brienne, a nobleman from Champagne, had carved a career for himself out of his military usefulness in high places. However, despite a number of golden opportunities, through lack of political acumen or luck, he repeatedly failed to translate his skills into a throne of his own. In 1210 he had arrived in Palestine and married Queen Maria, the daughter of Conrad of Montferrat and Isabella I. She had died in 1212, leaving John technically regent for their infant daughter Isabella II. John was remarried, to an Armenian princess, daughter of King Leo II (d. 1219), through whom and on behalf of their son he laid claim to the Armenian throne. These foundered on his wife’s and son’s deaths at Acre in 1220 only shortly after he had withdrawn from the crusade army in Egypt to pursue their Armenian inheritance.59 Losing even his Jerusalem position when Isabella II married Frederick II in 1225, John campaigned in Italy for the pope and finally served as regent for Baldwin II and co-emperor in the Latin Empire of Constantinople. The political vulnerability of King John was emphasized by the crusade’s collective leadership with its constantly changing membership. This was partly a product of the expedition’s composition, partly of its constitution. The insistence that decisions were reached collectively could involve, as they had during the Fourth Crusade, the wider military community of the host. The crucial debate in the spring of 1220 on whether or not to advance from Damietta to attack Cairo was decided, against the advice of Cardinal Pelagius, the archbishop of Milan and other luminaries, by the opinion of the knights, not the divided leadership.60 The crusaders stayed put. At Sharamsah in July 1221, the mass of crusaders overruled John of Brienne’s counsel to withdraw.61 As on every previous large crusade, decisions of the high command had to pass the close and critical scrutiny of their troops’ public opinion in ways unusual in normal contemporary western warfare. The lack of political cohesion, the rhetoric of voluntary service and the reality of sworn communal rules of discipline created a robust and, for the leadership, at times awkward and unpredictable climate of participation.

Overshadowing everything was the promise of the appearance of Frederick II, held out from the arrival of the Germans in 1217–18 and Pelagius in the autumn of 1218 to the appearance of Matthew of Lesina in 1220–21, repeated regularly by the pope and earnestly desired by crusaders. Frederick, although not yet the figure of self-promoted glamour and outrageous ambition he was to become, seemed, in his inheritance of Sicily, Germany and the imperial dignity, to represent a new secular order in Christendom, for the moment allied with the papacy. His arrival was regarded as totemic of optimism and success. As Peter of Montague, Master of the Temple, put it, the emperor was ‘long expected’.62 As late as 1221, one compelling argument against accepting apparently generous peace terms was that Frederick had forbidden any deal prior to his own arrival.63 No secular figure could replace him, not even his representatives in 1220–21. Frederick’s absence unsettled tactical considerations and strategic planning. Cardinal Pelagius, representing the other universal power, had the unenviable task of trying to maintain the crusade until the emperor was ready to join it.

This was made considerably more difficult by the rhythm of departures and arrivals. The regularity of the two annual passages, the number of ships and crusaders carried provided remarkable testimony to the development of Mediterranean shipping and trade routes during the twelfth century. It did little to support an effective military campaign. A key element in previous long crusading expeditions had been the emergence of an esprit de corps based on shared expedience rather than shared origins – 1097–9, 1191–2, 1203–4. During the operations around Damietta from May 1218 to September 1221, death or departure deprived the Christian army of consistent command. Not a single great western lord remained in the Nile Delta for the complete duration of the war. Oliver of Paderborn was one of a very few leading clergy who did. In contrast with the Third Crusade, the Outremer barons, clergy and the masters of the military orders, spent significant passages of time away from the front line. Pelagius’s continuous presence from the autumn of 1218 of itself added to his influence. Each newly arrived contingent was balanced by the departure of others.64 Few seemed reconciled to staying until the Egyptian campaign was completed or Jerusalem recovered. As with the Albigensian wars,crucesignati appeared to believe that seeing only limited active service in the cause of the cross was sufficient to merit the indulgence. Although Quia Maior and Ad Liberandam indicated that Innocent III envisaged a campaign lasting three years or more, in neither was any conditional time limit set for the enjoyment of the plenary indulgence. The temporary quality of the crusaders’ commitment exerted a powerful influence. Even the legate’s threats of excommunication failed to prevent some, such as the count of Katzenellenbogen in 1220, from deserting.65 In October 1218, the news of crusaders leaving encouraged the Muslims to attack the Christian camp. Later, the pressure to retain as many troops as possible on station prompted Pelagius in 1220–21 to argue for a more aggressive policy. Without fighting and the prospect of booty or success, hanging about in Damietta indefinitely was hardly an attractive or sustainable option. Equally damaging, the incessant merry-go-round of arrivals and departures consolidated the regional, national and social divisions that dominated the public and private debates on the course the campaign should take, a disunity fed by the lack of an accepted single leader.

Technology assumed a central place in the Egyptian campaign. Eyewitnesses noted when new crusaders brought with them siege equipment, as they had during the siege of Acre during the Third Crusade. Apart from the contest of throwing machines on both sides, much of the fighting was determined by the respective merits of the attackers’ and defenders’ engineering and shipping as the struggle was played out across the Nile around Damietta and later, in the summer of 1221, upstream towards Cairo. Water protected and threatened by turns in a landscape where military aggression was fraught with hazard as it almost invariably required crossing rivers or canals. The first great obstacle, the seventy-foot-high Chain Tower, situated in the Nile between Damietta and the crusader camp, was separated from the Christian-held left bank by a narrow channel. From the tower to the city walls ran a chain, restored by Saladin, that was raised to prevent unwelcome river traffic proceeding up the Nile. It was only captured in August 1218 thanks to an elaborate floating fortress designed by Oliver of Paderborn himself.66 Although paid for and built by the Germans and Frisians, the design – a fortified platform equipped with scaling ladders suspended above two large ships lashed together – resembled the devices constructed by the Venetians before the walls of Constantinople in 1204. A number of Venetian maritime experts may have been on hand, left behind to find new clients when Andrew of Hungary decided to return home overland.

Oliver’s engine was needed because the garrison of 300 in the Chain Tower could not be starved out as a bridge of boats supplied the tower from Damietta. Another pontoon bridge further upstream protected the Ayyubid camp at al-Adilyah, south of the city, as well as allowing Muslims to attack crusader positions across the river. This bridge became the focus of operations for both sides, producing one of more remarkable engineering feats of the campaign. To outflank the bridge, the crusaders dredged and enlarged the al-Azraq canal, which ran for some miles, linking the Mediterranean coast to the Nile south of the Christian camp and upstream of Muslim defences, which now included hulks scuttled in the main channel of the river.67 The enlargement of the canal took a month. Any immediate advantage was dissipated by a devastating storm and flood of seawater in late November that almost engulfed the two hostile camps, followed by an epidemic, possibly of scurvy. Christian fatalities may have been as high as 20 per cent.68 However, after a grim and unsettled winter, the engineering efforts of the previous autumn contributed to the occupation of the Ayyubid camp on the right bank of the Nile in February 1219 which had been deserted as a consequence of an attempted coup against the new sultan al-Kamil.69

Thereafter, the lack of adequate technological capacity first blunted the crusaders’ attempts to take the city during the summer of 1219 and later, on the march south in July and August 1221, placed the western host at a fatal disadvantage. The lack of manpower, exacerbated by the departure in the spring of 1219 of Leopold of Austria and many others the following autumn, proved significant. This left the crusaders outnumbered and unable to press forward attacks. Muscle power, human or animal, provided the energy upon which the army depended, a role taken in much later centuries by gunpowder, petrol and electricity. Among the skills well represented on all crusading expeditions, those of the carpenter stand out. John of Brienne employed one of his, Aubert the Carpenter, to reconnoitre the deserted Ayyubid camp in February 1219.70 On land or water, wood technology occupied a central place in medieval warfare. The Nile Delta presented peculiar problems, not least its lack of suitable local timber, a point recognized by Innocent III’s attempt to ban western exports of wood or ships to Egypt in 1213 and 1215. From the winter of 1218–19, although able to maintain a blockade of Damietta once the city was encircled in February, the crusaders made no progress and were only barely able to resist counter-attacks by Sultan al-Kamil, now stationed further to the south. In the event, the blockade worked, starving the city so that resistance slackened, an unguarded section of wall leading to its fall in November 1219. The main bulk of the Muslim forces were deliberately never engaged. When, finally, almost two years later, they were, the crusaders’ technological limitations were exposed. They lacked sufficient flat-bottomed barges to carry the bulk of the army and so had to maintain a precarious link between the land army and many of its leaders, including the legate, on board ship. This form of amphibious warfare was beyond the experience of many, the departure of Frisians and Netherlanders over the previous two years being keenly felt. The absence of adequate craft in sufficient numbers allowed the Egyptians to outmanoeuvre the crusaders. By using shallow side canals, the Muslims cut them off from their base at Damietta and imperilled any chance of retreat once the Christians pressed southwards into the heart of the Delta beyond Sharamsah in late July 1221.71

Yet these problems of leadership, manpower and technology did not prevent the crusade from threatening the survival of the Ayyubid empire, if only, but especially, in the minds of Egypt’s defenders. From their discomfort came a policy of military containment and appeasing diplomacy, which unlike the Richard–Saladin negotiations over Palestine in 1191–12, nonetheless failed seriously to engage the Christians. On this failure, traditionally blamed on the myopic stubbornness of Cardinal Pelagius, the crusade has been seen by many to have foundered. In fact, the objectives of each side were incompatible. The fragile unity of the Ayyubid empire was severely shaken by the death of Sultan al-Adil in August 1218, just after the fall of the Chain Tower.72 Thereafter, no claimant to the succession among his sons or nephews could realistically have surrendered control of Palestine, still less the Holy City of Jerusalem, any such offers being so territorially circumscribed as to be unconvincing. The Ayyubid military weakness exposed by the simultaneous attack on Egypt by the crusaders and on Aleppo by the Seljuks in 1218 imposed a temporary unity of self-interest on the rival dynasts. Hard-pressed al-Kamil, al-Adil’s son and successor in Egypt, received vital help from his brother al Mu ‘azzam of Damascus. Al Mu ‘azzam campaigned in Egypt in 1219 and 1221 and launched a series of assaults on Frankish positions in Syria, recapturing Caesarea late in 1219 and in 1220 threatening Acre and Château Pèlerin. Yet it was entirely unclear whether al-Kamil exerted sufficient control over Palestine for any promise to restore Jerusalem to the Christians to be implemented. The Franks may have known this. The hollowness of any negotiated return of Jerusalem was emphasized when al Mu ‘azzam dismantled its walls in 1219 and ordered further demolition in the city in 1220.73

The perceived threat from the crusaders was real enough. Taking the fight to Egypt dealt a profound blow to morale and hence was a key element in support for the Ayyubids, whose power had been grounded on their ability to unite and protect Islam against the infidel invaders. Al-Adil had been careful to avoid risking direct confrontation or a pitched battle. Al-Kamil had no option, especially as his own position was challenged at least once by a failed palace coup implicating another brother, al-Faiz, early in 1219. This had caused al-Kamil to abandon his frontline camp at al-Adilyah in February 1219 and regroup further south. Just as the crusaders’ long failure to capitalize on the fall of the Chain Tower sapped their morale in 1218–19, so their opponents’ inability to expel them from Egyptian soil placed great strain on Egyptian logistic, military, defensive and financial resources. The mere presence of the crusaders in the Nile Delta, supported by fleets from a number of Italian trading cities, threatened Egypt’s immensely lucrative commerce far more certainly than the wishful papal bans on trading. Al-Kamil, rebuilding his army early in 1219, had to resort to increased taxes on the Coptic and other Christian communities. The sultan’s anxiety over the military threat in 1219 led him to devote attention to the fortifications of Cairo itself. Two years later, news of the crusaders’ long-awaited push towards Cairo caused panic.74 Some members of the political elite tried to ingratiate themselves with Christian captives in Cairo as insurance against a crusader victory. The sultan announced a general call-up probably as much to stiffen morale as to provide effective additional military strength. Both the old and new cities of Cairo were evacuated. Ayyubid rule had arisen from Frankish attempts to occupy Egypt, with Frankish troops stationed in Cairo and Alexandria in 1167 and Cairo besieged in 1168. They feared that their rule might end the same way. The total number of combatant crusaders, peaking at perhaps 30,000 fighting men in 1218 and gradually if irregularly decreasing thereafter, with a casualty rate among the leaders of around a third, may never have been adequate to achieve or maintain such a conquest. Yet the threat to political stability and the prospect of a return to the factional chaos of the last days of the Fatimids was a distinct possibility. According to Oliver of Paderborn, whose figures are impressively precise and possibly based on official estimates at the time, the army that set out for Cairo in July 1221 included a modest 1,200 knights and 4,000 archers, with a fleet of 600 boats of various sizes, as well as unspecified, perhaps a few thousand, auxiliary cavalry, such as Turcopoles and infantry.75 This would have been unlikely to have been able to lay serious siege to Cairo, even if the army had used the timber from its ships to construct siege machines. However, the danger for al-Kamil lay in the loyalty of his emirs and of his and their askars or professional military households. Sustained warfare on home soil denied participants much chance of booty or profit, placing a strain on the military system that supported Ayyubid political authority. As it was, the crusaders received some local support, including, according to Oliver of Paderborn, ‘a great multitude of Bedouin’, resentful of the fiscal exaction of the parvenu Ayyubids.76 Fears of such internal dissent, exacerbated by the attempted coup of February 1219, prompted al-Kamil at least twice to offer what he thought the crusaders might accept for withdrawing their forces from his territory, the return of Jerusalem.

The first offer came after al-Kamil had successfully repulsed the crusader attack on his camp at Fariskur in late August 1219, when it became clear that a quick military solution was unlikely. The worsening conditions in both camps and in Damietta, the inability of either side to establish a clear military advantage and the strains within both leaderships indicated that a negotiated settlement might find sympathetic hearing. Francis of Assisi’s intervention at this precise moment hinted that a peaceful agreement was being considered by the Christians as well as the Muslims. Francis may have inclined to pacifism, but his mission to Sultan al-Kamil was rather different. He went to convert, not to secure a lasting armistice. He sought no accommodation with Islam, rather its eradication through reasoned evangelism. However, the naive grandeur of his vision failed to conceal that immediately in the crusader camp and more generally among the intellectual elites there existed a Christian alternative to military crusading. The idea of removing Islam’s grip on the Holy Places and as a threat to Christendom by conversion, not conquest, attracted more adherents as the size, racial and religious diversity of the world became more apparent to western Europeans during the thirteenth century at the same time as warfare failed to achieve the desired objectives of crusading.77 Whatever else, in the circumstances of the depressed, divided and wretched Christian camp on the Nile in the late summer of 1219, Francis’s mission to al-Kamil expressed, however eccentrically, the desire of many to arrange an honourable end to their difficulties.

As reported by western writers, the sultan proposed, in return for the crusaders’ evacuating Egypt, to restore the Holy Cross lost at Hattin as well as Jerusalem with all castles west of the Jordan to Christian rule, with a financial subsidy to help rebuild the walls of the Holy City demolished earlier in the year.78 Unsurprisingly, John of Brienne urged acceptance, as it would, at a stroke, incontestably provide him with a greatly expanded kingdom. Despite the assumptions of sympathizers, John’s claims to any Egyptian conquests were opposed both by the legate, acting on papal instructions handing him the power to dispose of any territorial gains, and by the representatives of the emperor. Swapping an uncertain acquisition for the traditional goal of the expedition made complete sense to the king, as it did to most of the northern crusaders and the Teutonic Knights. However, the legate, the rest of the clergy and the Italians disagreed. For the Italians this was not necessarily, as has usually been supposed, a simple question of a material desire for control of a commercial centre in Egypt for their own profit. Rather, many of them, like the Venetians in 1203–4, sought compensation for the interruption to business with Egypt. The restoration of the kingdom of Jerusalem hardly offered them this. In the light of the anger from the rank and file at the lack of booty when Damietta was captured two months later, it is likely that many of those advocating acceptance of al-Kamil’s terms might similarly have felt disgruntled in the event of the deal being achieved. Crucially, King John’s essentially self-interested position was contradicted by the Hospitallers and Templars, the military orders which, unlike the Teutonic Knights, had institutional and corporate memories of the problems of the twelfth century. They argued that the absence of Kerak, Montréal, and with them control over the Transjordan region, made Jerusalem untenable. During 1191–2, they had supported Richard I in believing that even if captured Jerusalem could not be held because of the departure of most of the western crusaders. Now they again stood on strategic realities. Al-Kamil’s terms, even in the unlikely event of being acceptable to the Ayyubids of Syria, offered no lasting peace or security to a revived kingdom of Jerusalem, any more than had the treaty of Jaffa in 1192. By insisting on the retention of Transjordan, al-Kamil signalled his intention to retain his hold on the vital sinews of Ayyubid power uniting Egypt and Syria, and that his proposals came from self-interest not generosity. His seriousness was further impugned by the memory that Saladin, when he had promised to return the True Cross, had failed to find it. Any evacuation of Egypt after the struggles of 1218–19 would almost certainly have led the crusade to break up, exposing Outremer to immediate vulnerability. After a debate further damaging the unity of the enterprise, the sultan’s offer was rejected.

Two years later, as the crusaders were preparing to advance on Cairo in August 1221, al-Kamil repeated his peace offer: Damietta for Jerusalem. Seriously alarmed at the potential erosion of his political position any prolonged fighting in the Egyptian hinterland would cause, let alone the prospect of defeat, al-Kamil may have reckoned that this proposal would sow dissension in the crusader ranks and encourage delay. This would allow more time for his Syrian allies to assemble as well as bringing the timing of the Christian advance awkwardly close to the annual Nile flood. It is possible that the deal had been presented to the crusaders more than once; Oliver of Paderborn described the terms as ‘so often proffered by the enemy’.79 A striking but unsurprising feature of the Egypt war 1218–21 was how much informal contact existed between the two sides as they manoeuvred for advantage in the narrow region around Damietta; spies, renegades, prisoners of war, ambassadors all featured prominently. Each side had a shrewd idea of the circumstances, motives and fears of the other. Once again, as in 1219, al-Kamil’s diplomacy split the army, although this time even some of Pelagius’s admirers seemed, with hindsight, less than enthusiastic at his steadfast refusal to countenance compromise. In Oliver of Paderborn’s case this may reflect the different stages of composition, his earlier support for Pelagius being written before the failure of the crusade had occurred.80 While it is likely that the arguments of 1219 were still canvassed, by August 1221 both the pope and the emperor had expressly forbidden their representatives in Egypt to agree to a treaty. In those circumstances, negotiations could not succeed. The crusade’s fate would be determined on the battlefield.

In retrospect, this final rejection of al-Kamil’s peace terms appears stupendously perverse or foolish. The prohibition of the pope and emperor hardly seems adequate explanation for the imbalance of chances between a risky campaign in alien territory soon to be inundated with flood water and the peaceful return of the Holy City and most of Palestine. Richard I may have jumped at such terms. Yet Richard’s pragmatism had failed to deliver lasting success. It seems that, just as John of Brienne may have been too openly moved by self-interest, Pelagius had begun to believe his own propaganda, which had been fed in unexpected ways. Resident for these years on the rim of Asia, the crusaders grew familiar with the complexity and, to a westerner, exoticism of regional politics. They acquired news of events further east and north, from Georgia to the great Eurasian steppes. Distorted rumours of the extraordinary conquests of Genghis Khan (d. 1227) filtered through. By 1220, the Mongols seemed to threaten Iraq and the Baghdad caliphate. Even though al-Ashraf of Greater Armenia, another of al-Kamil’s brothers, judged the crusaders a greater menace than the Mongols, the stories of a non-Muslim conqueror to the east of the Islamic world aroused considerable excitement in the crusader camp. Genghis Khan, or rather a garbled version of him, became King David of the Indians commonly called, as James of Vitry wrote to the pope, Prester John.81This figure of legend, the Christian priest king who combated Islam from the east as the crusaders did from the west, had haunted western imagination since the mid-twelfth century, when stories of Nestorian Christians in the Far East and great victories over Muslims in the Eurasian steppes first reached western Europeans. To wishful observers shut up in Damietta, keen to clutch at signs of grace for their enterprise, the great events in the east presaged another reordering of temporal affairs in a manner similar to the First Crusade. In this vein James of Vitry described the privations of the camp at Damietta in words taken verbatim from William of Tyre’s account of the First Crusade.82 History, they hoped, was about to repeat itself. For this they had additional and unusual confirmation in a series of prophecies that very conveniently came to light in the months before and after Damietta fell in November 1219. The prophetic tradition formed a powerful element in preaching and the promotion of the crusade. Now, it appeared, there was more to it than fancy biblical exegesis and intellectual prestidigitation.

Even before the capture of Damietta, an apparently prophetic work in Arabic had been brought to the crusaders’ attention predicting the capture of the city. Rumours circulated of a pan-Christian rising against the power of Islam. Such heady influences formed the emotional context within which the peace diplomacy of 1219–21 was conducted. The atmosphere of cosmic expectation was further heightened after the capture of the city by the supposed discovery of further prophetic works that were widely circulated though the crusader ranks in translation, their content directly informing official propaganda and preaching.83 One of these, the Prophecy of Hannan, son of Isaac, while purporting to be by a ninth-century Persian Nestorian doctor, was probably composed by local Egyptian Nestorians in 1219–20. Another associated the prophecy of ultimate success with an unimpeachable Christian source, The Revelations of the Blessed Apostle Peter by his Disciple Clement. These rather esoteric works were provided with suitably hoary provenance, complete with references to ancient languages, local custody and old bindings. While evidently feeding directly into the stream of optimism that sustained the clerical propagandists in the crusader camp, these prophecies seemed to gain credence when combined with the contemporary news of the events in the east, of ‘King David’ and of Prester John, even if there was some confusion over the location of the latter’s kingdom, in eastern Asia or east Africa. Pelagius and his high-powered intellectual advisors, such as James of Vitry, seemed to have been convinced of the essential accuracy of these prophecies of triumph. They had them translated, sent to the west and broadcast to the troops, especially in the prelude to the advance south in July 1221. These auguries combined with the instructions from the leaders in the west to incline the clerical leadership against throwing away what all sides agreed was an advantage by agreeing to the sultan’s terms. Imperialist support in 1220–21 stiffened this resolve.

Pelagius did not hope the crusaders would win; he thought he knew they would. While it is impossible to reach into the minds of the protagonists, the acceptance of what struck intelligent witnesses as objective prophetic documents, while anathema to most sane modern observers, fitted well into the mind set that placed crusading within a frame of universal history. To reject the possibility of prophetic truth would have been to deny the crusade mentality itself. To ignore the prophetic message in favour of the naked short-term self-interest of John of Jerusalem would have seemed treason to God’s purpose. The forged Damietta prophecies of 1219–21 exerted such an impact because they operated with, not against, the grain of expectation and understanding of the progress of human history towards Judgement Day. Only in retrospect did the refusal to accept al-Kamil appear foolish. The central failure of the Fifth Crusade was not diplomatic but military.


The outcome of the Egyptian campaign surprised and appalled in almost equal measure. The canny Iraqi pundit Ibn al-Athir called it ‘unexpected’.84 Western observers were less charitable, attaching blame variously to Pelagius, the pope, the dilatory Frederick II, the clergy, the crusade leaders, sin, pride, materialism and avarice. Many remained confused, by the decisions taken on the ground and the judgement of God on his followers. ‘What mass of evil caused it?’85 Reaction on all sides was sharpened by the appreciation of how near to success the crusaders had come. A major Egyptian port had been secured in the face of fierce opposition, an undefeated land army and hostile terrain, in its way an achievement to rank with the taking of Acre in 1191. The Ayyubid empire had been severely shaken, especially in the aftermath of the death of al-Adil in 1218. The perceived seriousness of the threat to Egypt had briefly united the rival Ayyubid factions across the Near East. For two years Sultan al-Kamil had been prepared to offer superficially generous terms simply to get the crusaders out of his territory. The prospect of the crusaders’ assault on Cairo in 1221 had caused widespread alarm. Yet that final foray into the heart of the Nile Delta in the summer of 1221 exposed the westerners’ consistent weaknesses of leadership, control and manpower. The army in 1221, as for the previous three years, was too hesitant, too divided and too small. Traditionally these problems have been seen in terms of a personal conflict between Pelagius and John of Brienne. The reality was more complex.

The lack of a settled army of itself need not have undermined the crusade. Regional or national divisions were never submerged during the Third or even the First Crusade. However, in Egypt in 1218–21 these divisions were not balanced by a decisive command structure, which went some way to explaining the lethargy that gripped the expedition between November 1219 and July 1221. When Damietta fell, the high command failed to distribute the booty and plunder in ways regarded as equitable by the mass of their troops, reminiscent of events following the fall of Constantinople fifteen years earlier.86 The conflict was triangular. Pelagius, as controller of the central fund, bore responsibility for dispersing the plunder and incurred the anger of the common crusader for perceived meanness. He was also opposed by John of Brienne, who insisted on his right to rule the city and, supported by his barons, resorted to arms to press his case. While Pelagius received the support of the imperialists, eager to preserve any future rights of Frederick II, John could play on Pelagius’s unpopularity to secure a favourable compromise. He was granted the city until the arrival of Frederick and the division of spoils was increased. This represented a hollow victory, as the city’s property and mosques were assigned to separate western national groups whose distinct identities were preserved by the constant arrival of fellow countrymen. Neither Pelagius nor John was in control of events, these national groups pursuing their own policies with an inconsistency that meant that neither could rely on their support. As the legate discovered with some of the French and Germans, not even cash guaranteed loyalty.87 Elaborate military operations were often conducted as separate private enterprises by one contingent or another. For once, corporate leadership did not work.

This serial dislocation of command and control not only frustrated Pelagius’s policies but encouraged King John to leave the army around Easter 1220 for more than a year.88 His departure drew criticism from the legate’s adherents and weakened the king’s standing among the veterans at Damietta, who remembered the promises of unwavering support before the campaign had begun in 1218. John’s withdrawal prompted many others to leave, further emasculating its offensive capacity. John was attempting to secure a claim to the Armenian throne though his wife, Stephanie, eldest daughter of Leo II of Armenia, and their infant son. Leo II died in the summer of 1219, leading to a damaging succession dispute between his great nephew, Raymond Roupen, a recently failed prince of Antioch, and Leo’s daughters Stephanie and his preferred heir Isabella. While John may have despatched troops to support his cause in Armenia, his claim was negated by the deaths of his wife and son in Acre shortly after he arrived from Egypt. John’s failure to return to Damietta for another year after the collapse of his Armenian hopes further eroded his position. By the time he reappeared, seemingly reluctantly, in July 1221, while the familiar divisions between the aggressive and defensive parties remained, the army had been joined by influential newcomers, especially imperialists led by Louis of Bavaria and the count of Lesina, who owed no allegiance or respect to John’s rights or authority. In his absence, faute de mieux, Pelagius had assumed a more dominant role. Thus, when John sensibly advised caution in the face of the risks of a Delta campaign, he lacked the political credit to impose his will, a weakness not entirely of his enemies’ making. However, John’s absence may have served the crusade’s interests in ways not recognized by his opponents at Damietta. By remaining in his kingdom in 1220–21, John was on hand to blunt al Mu ‘azzam’s and al-Ashraf’s continued probing of the Franks’ Syrian and Palestinian defences, including attacks on Château Pèlerin and Acre.

One of the most remarkable features of the Egypt campaign was its tenacity, first in the face of the desperate warfare of 1218–19 and then during the long period of defence and inactivity 1219–21. By the summer of 1221 the Christian host remained intact. But action now appeared an absolute necessity if the army were to remain in Egypt.89 Certainly the clerical elite around Pelagius believed the whole enterprise was becoming mired in corruption, indolence and sin by the enforced inaction. Only activity would raise morale, morals and the integrity of the army. Nonetheless, with hindsight, the decisions reached by the crusade high command in July and August 1221 seem to defy reason. The first was to launch an attack on Cairo in early July perilously close to the annual flood season with a force, perhaps a minority of the troops available, far smaller than the combined Egyptian and Syrian Ayyubid armies facing them and comprising too few to take the Egyptian capital by siege or even protracted assault. The plan to march on Cairo was unlikely to have been made suddenly. In Louis of Bavaria, who reached Damietta in May, the legate found an ally for his strategy and a commander for his troops. The arrival of King John and a large force on 7 July precisely coincided with the Damietta troops reaching battle readiness. However, the final muster at Fariskur, on 17 July, came with only a month left before the Nile flooded. The leadership also knew of the Syrian reinforcements coming to aid al-Kamil. Yet such had been the effort in preparing the expeditionary force that further delay or even acceptance of the sultan’s renewed peace terms would not only have split the leadership but risked the complete disintegration of the Christian army. This, in turn, would have encouraged the sultan and his allies to renege on any offer made while the crusader army was strong and threatening. Once embarked upon, the advance could scarcely be cancelled. Although he expressed his doubts, at no stage did King John withdraw his troops. Indeed, he had timed his return to Egypt precisely to coincide with the advance.

The second fateful decision was to continue the march southwards from Sharamsah, a town twenty miles south of Damietta on the Cairo road, at the end of July. To that point, progress had been relatively unopposed. The prevailing insistence of the mass of the crusaders to press on came as a direct consequence of the effort to mobilize the force in the first place. It also provided testimony to the fragile hold over public opinion within the army. Once again, although vociferously unhappy with the outcome, King John loyally remained with the army as it picked its way towards Mansourah. He had declined to break up the army when he had a final chance at Sharamsah to remove his own contingent. The details and motives behind the leaders’ debate are irrecoverable. However, it was not be the first or last occasion when contested military judgement was proved wrong. It should be remembered that up to its departure from Sharamshah, the army had only made contact with the enemy’s Turkish light cavalry. The Christian failure to see the trap being prepared for them suggests a collapse in intelligence rather than cussed obstinacy or myopic amateurism.

The third decision was less finely balanced. The crusaders had marched, open-eyed, into a position opposite Mansourah between the Nile and the al-Bahr-as-Saghir, a canal that linked the river to Lake Manzalah to the north-east. From one aspect, they were protected from attack by these waterways. From another they were cornered. During their march south, the crusaders ignored a side channel that flowed into the Nile north of Baramun. Now the Muslims used it to blockade the river downstream from the Christian camp opposite Mansourah. At the same time the Syrian levies moved to positions on land north-east of the crusaders, obstructing access to their base at Damietta. The Christians were trapped. Once this became apparent, a debate began on whether to withdraw or to dig in, hoping for relief from Damietta or from the promised arrival of Frederick II. With provisions for only twenty days, trying to hold such an advanced, exposed position made little sense. On 26 August, the crusaders began a ragged but not entirely disorderly retreat. Beset by constant enemy attack and the rising waters of the Nile, the Christian army struggled northwards. Many common crusaders decided to drink the wine supplies they could not take with them, reducing their military effectiveness still further. As a final throw, the sultan opened the sluices, flooding the Christians’ camp near Baramun, catching them, in the words of the Master of the Temple, ‘like a fish in a net’.90 Pelagius bowed to the inevitable and asked John of Brienne to sue for peace.

Despite appearances, the crusaders still held some bargaining chips. The large garrison at Damietta remained unconquered. The substantial field army, although badly mauled and carrying heavy casualties, remained intact, largely thanks to the organization imposed by the Templars. Reinforcements from Europe were expected to arrive any day. Al-Kamil’s priority remained the same as before: the removal of foreign troops from Egyptian soil. He had no desire to press for a definitive military solution, not least because the continued presence of his Syrian brothers and their armies in his kingdom presented a potential threat to his authority. A siege of Damietta could take months. After some ineffectual sabre rattling by both sides, terms were agreed on 29 August that struck Oliver of Paderborn as ‘excellent’.91 This stretched a point. In return for the surrender of Damietta, the Christians were to be allowed to evacuate Egypt freely, without ransom. All prisoners were to be exchanged and a truce of eight years established that was not to be binding on Frederick II if he chose to campaign in the east. As a fig leaf to conceal Christian disappointment, the return of the True Cross was promised, by now a formal, not realistic, part of such treaties. After some trouble when the news of the treaty reached Damietta, the evacuation was conducted in orderly fashion, even though a new imperial force under the count of Malta had just arrived in port. The crusaders dispersed, some travelling to Acre, others sailing directly for the west.

However brave a face apologists presented, the failure of the Egyptian campaign stood in barren contrast to the hopes raised in 1219 and, more widely, to the prodigious efforts made across Christendom after 1213. While the fundraising and recruiting continued, the political appetite for a renewed general crusade ceased. Increasingly, the relationship between the pope and the new emperor, upon which the success of whole enterprise had come to be predicated, became marred by recrimination and mutual suspicion, leading to Gregory IX’s excommunication of Frederick in 1227 following his failure to embark on crusade that year.92 Other contingents journeyed east, including a substantial army with the English bishops Peter des Roches of Winchester and William Brewer of Exeter in 1227. This was intended as part of Frederick II’s crusade, and some of its members stayed to join the emperor when he finally arrived in the Holy Land in 1228.93 However, the sight of an excommunicated crusade leader, shunned by large sections of the Frankish political and clerical hierarchy, eagerly securing a deal with al-Kamil that had eluded the crusaders on the Nile was hardly the result envisaged by Innocent III and his army of preachers and recruiting agents a decade and a half earlier.

Perhaps the surprise of the Fifth Crusade lies less in its failure than in how nearly it succeeded, at least in destabilizing the Ayyubid empire at a critical moment of insecurity on the death of al-Adil in 1218. This is the more remarkable as it appears unlikely that the expedition ever contained enough troops to attempt a serious conquest, still less occupation of Egypt. Its disturbing impact on the region testified to the fragility of Ayyubid power structures. However, lasting achievements in the east were few. The fortification of Château Pèlerin stood the test of time. It was never captured by the Muslims, only being evacuated in August 1291 after the fall of Acre had rendered further resistance impractical. The experience of regular traffic of seaborne armies across the Mediterranean set a trend for the rest of the thirteenth century which sustained the mainland outposts of Outremer as its Muslim neighbours became increasingly united and bellicose. The financial, propagandist and penitential systems that were perfected during the crusade’s preparations formed the basis for the conduct of future expeditions. Ironically, even the strategy of an assault on a Nile port was deemed to retain the promise of success. It was rehearsed, with even more disastrous results, in 1249–50 by Louis IX of France and remained a staple of crusade planning for another century. Although many blamed the defeat in Egypt in 1221 on excessive church control, the integration of ecclesiastical wealth into the ‘holy business’ transformed the nature of the exercise for succeeding generations, as did the availability of cash vow redemptions and donations. The crusade failed to secure a lasting papal–imperial alliance, but did not necessarily point to mortal combat between the two. More generally, the reaction to the Fifth Crusade was not, as it could have been, the abandonment of the ideal or practices of crusading.94 Instead, contemporaries took the lesson that their efforts needed to be more sharply focused in terms of logistic preparations, military organization and religious commitment. The Fifth Crusade met military defeat for itself while securing institutional success for its cause.

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