Post-classical history


Frederick II, the Fifth Crusade, and the Recovery of Jerusalem

“The emperor, as the custodians [of the Dome of the Rock] recall, had a red skin, and was bald and short-sighted. Had he been a slave he would not have been worth 200 dirham. It was clear from what he said that his Christianity was simply a game to him.”1This dismissive and derogatory description by a contemporary Damascene writer hardly brings to mind a crusading hero in the mold of Richard the Lionheart—yet it was Frederick II of Germany who recovered Jerusalem, rather than the great warrior-king. The fact that Frederick achieved this while an excommunicate and without striking a single blow signals what an intriguing and controversial personality he was. To his enemies in Christendom he was a heretic, a false crusader, a friend of Muslims and Mongols, a man hostile to the Church; for some, he even represented an apocalyptic figure; the fourth beast in the vision of the prophet Daniel. To his admirers, however, he became known as “stupor mundi” (the wonder of the world); a linguist, a patron of science, a philosopher, a mathematician, an astrologer, the author of the definitive treatise on falconry: an archetype for the renaissance man. He was also a victorious crusader and the most powerful ruler in medieval Christendom.2 Frederick spent the majority of his childhood and adolescence in the cultural and ethnic melting pot of southern Italy where Byzantine, Norman-Sicilian, and Islamic influences overlapped and blended to glorious and, usually, harmonious effect. The royal palaces were modeled on the cool chambers and highly decorated buildings of North Africa; Muslim and Christian officials worked alongside one another and some of the imperial bodyguard were followers of the Prophet too.3 Frederick himself was fluent in Arabic—surely the greatest advantage of all in his dealings with the Muslim world simply because the barrier of language is such a potent cause of fear and mistrust. The emperor was a highly educated, literate man who also spoke the Sicilian dialect, as well as Latin, Greek, French, and German. He engaged in debates and correspondence about issues such as the location of Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell. He also enjoyed entertainments, particularly dancing, although his reported enthusiasm for the performances of female Muslim artistes atop large glass balls formed just one of several charges of immorality laid against him by the papacy. There seems little doubt that the women at his court lived in some form of harem, kept in seclusion and cared for by eunuchs. One must be careful not to paint too rosy a picture of Frederick’s involvement with Arab peoples because in 1224 he savagely attacked a group of Sicilian Muslims who had resisted royal rule. It would, however, be fair to say that he was entirely familiar with the culture of the Muslim Near East and he had a manifest appreciation of what was important to its people.


Frederick’s crusading career began with the disastrous Fifth Crusade of 1217–21. As we saw in the previous chapter, Pope Innocent III had prioritized the recovery of the Holy Land above all else. Preparations for a new campaign to the East were well underway at the time of his death in July 1216; a year earlier, however, as preaching for the expedition reached its highest pitch, it gathered a surprise recruit. During Frederick of Hohenstaufen’s coronation ceremony the young man astounded onlookers in the magnificent octagonal marbled church at Aachen when he took the cross, a commitment of enormous magnitude for the young monarch. Since the death of his parents in 1197 and 1198, Frederick had, in effect, been a ward of the papacy. Innocent III had carefully preserved his rights to the German throne and, in return, anticipated a close and fruitful relationship between the leading secular and ecclesiastical powers of Christendom. In the short term the papacy paid little heed to Frederick’s actions at Aachen because it wanted to steer the crusade for itself; the harsh lessons of the Fourth Crusade’s diversion to Constantinople were still painfully apparent. Innocent’s successor, the aged Honorius III, chose only to involve the king after the expedition had actually set out—yet once Frederick became actively engaged in the crusade, the fate of the Holy Land came to overshadow his life for well over a decade and his career in the Levant did much to accelerate the secular powers’ removal of crusading from papal hands.

The Fifth Crusade was an odd campaign; it lacked a dominant leader and was marked by a bitter rivalry between the papal legate, Pelagius of Albano, and King John of Jerusalem; it was also unique for the enormous influence of visions and prophecy; finally, as a distant backdrop to events in the Levant, Europe began to sense the first destructive tremors of the Mongol invasions of the Near East.4 In the autumn of 1217 armies led by Duke Leopold VI of Austria and King Andrew II of Hungary reached Acre. Their forces fought the Muslims near Mount Tabor and then settled down to construct the enormous castle of Athlit for the Knights Templar. With walls over thirty meters high and eight meters thick it dwarfed any previous fortification in the Levant; by way of comparison, most castles of the early twelfth century had walls around two to three meters thick.5 This reliance on huge defensive sites, in part a consequence of the small Frankish field army, coupled with advances in building technology, typified the settlers’ strategy during the thirteenth century and leaves us with some of the most impressive visual reminders of their presence.

In May 1218 the nobles of Jerusalem and the knights of the Military Orders were joined by the Austrians, as well as new arrivals from Frisia, the Rhineland, and the Italian trading cities; a truculent Andrew of Hungary had already departed for home. The crusaders prepared to attack Egypt—the strategy favored, although never implemented, by both Richard the Lionheart and the Fourth Crusade. Their first target was the port of Damietta on the northern Egyptian coast at the end of a branch of the Nile. A formidable obstacle immediately blocked the crusaders’ bid to move up the river—a huge chain suspended between the city and, on the opposite bank, an immense tower. For weeks and months the crusaders pressed around Damietta and its stubborn satellite. A concerted assault finally caused the tower to surrender in August 1218. Yet the crusaders could not exploit this propitious moment because by now the Nile was in full flood and, in any case, some of the German and Frisian crusaders had chosen to return west by the autumn sailing. In their place, contingents of English, French, and Italian crusaders arrived, including the papal legate, Pelagius of Albano.6

Within days Saphadin, the aged and infirm Sultan al-Adil, died on August 31, 1218, and Egypt, Syria, and Iraq fragmented into a series of regional powers; Sultan al-Kamil took power in Cairo and it was he who led the defense of Damietta. To block the Nile he ordered the sinking of a series of boats across the river. To overcome this barrier the crusaders fixed upon a particularly ingenious solution, namely, to enlarge a nearby canal that connected the Nile to the Mediterranean. The presence of men from the Low Countries, a region familiar with complex hydrography through the reclamation of large areas of land from the North Sea, provided the necessary engineering skills to deepen the old canal and bypass the barrier. Local laborers and prisoners of war were pressed to help and a two-mile stretch of water was sufficiently modified to permit ships to pass. The completion of this scheme allowed the siege to tighten further although Damietta’s defenders remained resolute.

An atmosphere of gloom pervaded the winter of 1218–19; a flood devastated the crusader camp and an outbreak of scurvy took a heavy toll as well. One crusader described the position thus: “What are we doing here, dearest companions? It is better for us to die in battle than to live like captives in a foreign land.”7 In the summer of 1219 Duke Leopold of Austria left for home and morale in the camp fell further. Men were bored, their minds paralyzed by the unendingly dull vista of sea and sand; food was often in short supply and the Christians remained pinned between Damietta and a large Muslim army. The hot Egyptian summer sapped the energy of both sides and stalemate ensued. James of Vitry, the bishop of Acre, wrote that “we were in the grip of despair.”8


In the course of the crusaders’ stay outside Damietta one arrival was of particular interest: Francis of Assisi, the man who founded one of the greatest orders of friars in Christendom. The Franciscan vocation was to spread the faith to all and, for that reason, the fearless cleric decided to try to convert Sultan al-Kamil. The saint’s biographers praised his boldness in visiting the sultan.9 Al-Kamil treated him with proper respect but, unsurprisingly, was not swayed from Islam. The emergence of conversion as a theme in Europe’s dealings with the wider world is one of the most striking developments of religious and cultural life of the thirteenth century, and the close, if paradoxical, relationship between crusading warfare and the Church’s efforts to convince others of the need to become a Christian formed a central part of that.

The concept of reaching out beyond the bounds of Latin Christendom also applied to contact with the Eastern Christian Churches. It is estimated that almost 20 percent of the Egyptian population were Copts—a Monophysite Christian group who believed in the divinity, but not the humanity, of Christ and were thus theologically divided from the Catholic Church. Some in the papal court hoped for a grand Christian alliance against the forces of Islam: James of Vitry wrote from Acre in 1217 that “The Christians of the Orient, as far away as Prester John, have many kings, who, when they hear that the crusade has arrived, will come to its aid and wage war on the Saracens.”10 Prester John was a quasi-mythical figure who had existed on the fringes of Europe’s imagination for decades. He was thought to rule a Christian empire to the east, a notion based upon the memory of preaching in India by the apostle Thomas.11

Once the invasion of Egypt was underway the crusaders made contact with the Copts and in mid-1219 a prophecy, written in Arabic, was given to Pelagius.12 The legate was told its meaning and he became intrigued; it updated a ninth-century Nestorian tract to include Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem. This was followed by the prediction that an army from the West, led by a tall man with a lean face, would take Damietta and Egypt. Furthermore, a king would come from over the mountains and conquer Damascus while the king of the Abissi would destroy Mecca. The Abissi meant the Abyssinians, in other words, the powerful Christian kingdom of Ethiopia. Pelagius—in what, to a modern reader, seems a moment of alarming hubris—believed that he was the tall man with the thin face. He had the document translated into Latin and sent it back to western Europe where it was widely circulated.

In the meantime, the position inside Damietta had become desperate and in the autumn of 1219 Sultan al-Kamil suggested terms that included the return of the True Cross, the city of Jerusalem and other former Christian lands, and all prisoners. In return he wanted to keep Damietta and the strategically valuable castles of Kerak and Shaubak in Transjordan. On the surface this seemed immensely advantageous to the Christians, yet it provoked a furious debate in the crusader camp—Pelagius, the clergy, the Templars,the Hospitallers, and the Italian merchant communities were against it because they felt victory was imminent; with Damietta taken, the remainder of Egypt would fall and lead to a permanent reconquest of the Holy Land. On the other hand, King John of Jerusalem, most of the northern European crusaders, and the Teutonic Knights preferred the certainty of having possession of Jerusalem. Pelagius won the argument and al-Kamil’s proposal was rejected.

Within a few days, on November 5, 1219, Damietta capitulated. Al-Kamil had tried time and again to bring relief to his coreligionists but to no avail; it seemed as if the legate was right to turn down the sultan’s offer. Inside Damietta the crusaders found a city filled with the dead and the dying, but also containing immense riches. King John was entrusted with control of Damietta and it became part of the kingdom of Jerusalem. John minted coins bearing the legend “Iohannes rex” and “Damietta” to demonstrate the permanent nature of the conquest and his place as its ruler.13 Yet the need for reinforcements remained acute and the leadership issued a desperate appeal to the pope for more money and manpower; most particularly they wanted Frederick to fulfill his vow. Pelagius’s control over the income sent by the papacy (the result of levies in the West) meant his influence increased considerably. While other leaders simply ran out of money and went home, and John of Brienne could not fund large numbers of troops himself, Pelagius’s treasure chest allowed him to dictate the direction of the crusade.

Over the next few months the expedition stalled as contingents from the West came and went—a revolving-door effect that meant there was little continuity. John and Pelagius quarreled over strategy while the king also had to return to his territories in the Levant to face attacks from Damascus. The crusader army stayed encamped outside Damietta; any sense of advantage from its capture soon evaporated. In the summer of 1220 an imperial fleet reached Damietta bearing the news that Frederick planned to join the campaign later in the year. In the event he had to postpone his plans because of troubles in Sicily. The arrival of the emperor himself, presumably accompanied by a massive army, would, in theory, do much to secure victory. In the meantime, the crusaders remained pinned on the coast and, as with any military force that lies idle, discipline in the army degenerated and prostitution and gambling became rife. From the Muslim perspective this was a vital period of calm. The fall of Damietta had been a considerable blow; Ibn al-Athir, a contemporary Aleppan writer, claimed, “thus all the lands in Egypt and Syria were on the point of being overcome and all the people were fearful of them [the Franks] and had come to expect disaster any morning or evening. The population of Egypt wanted to evacuate their land for fear of the enemy, but it was not a time to escape, for the enemy had encompassed them on every side.”14 While al-Kamil issued desperate pleas for help to his brothers in Syria he also began to consolidate his own resources and to harass the Christian camp.

As the tedious, torpid months of 1220 and 1221 wore on, the clergy began to pay even greater attention to a number of new prophecies. More than almost anything else from the medieval period, the idea of trusting a prophecy seems peculiarly alien to the present day—a real whiff of superstition before the age of reason took over—yet the senior churchmen of the time were ideologically predisposed to recognize the biblical provenance of such ideas and to have faith in them. In any case, several of the predictions appeared to have come true: for example, Hannan’s prophecy had indeed foretold the Christian capture of Damietta in 1219.

In the spring of 1221 a text known as the Relatio de Davide reached James of Vitry. He considered this work so important that he dispatched numerous copies to the West where the recipients included the pope and the chancellor of Paris University.15 The letter described how David, the great-grandson of Prester John, had attacked Persia and taken cities such as Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khurasan. The story was “confirmed” by the amazing adventures of a group of Frankish prisoners who had been captured in Egypt and dispatched by al-Kamil to the caliph of Baghdad to try to convince him to help. The caliph sent them on to “David” (in reality a Mongol warlord), who, realizing that these men were fighting the same Muslims as he was, ordered them back to Frankish Antioch and thence they returned to Damietta! Given the Christians’ almost complete ignorance of the Mongols’ existence, plus the men’s obvious linguistic limitations, it is not surprising they had failed to appreciate the true identity of their captors. On the other hand, because the latter seemed hostile to Islam and ruled the areas said to be governed by Prester John, it appeared reasonable to suppose that this was indeed King David bringing the fight to Islam from the east. The reality, for both Christianity and Islam, was incalculably more sinister because this was an early report of the most westward foray to date of Chinggis Khan, emperor of the Mongols and arguably the most terrifying warlord in history; by c. 1240 the Mongol military machine would conquer lands from the China Sea to Hungary—the greatest land empire of all time.16 The fact that the Relatio de Davide mentioned the Mongol destruction of the Christian kingdom of Georgia was one inconsistency the clerics failed to take due note of, but in essence James and Pelagius were so receptive to the prophecies that they accepted the bulk of these works as fact.

The Copts soon gave Pelagius a third treatise, allegedly written by Saint Clement, which recorded the prophecies of Saint Peter himself. The Book of Clement predicted the capture of Damietta, and presaged that the decline of Islam and its defeat would be signaled by the meeting in Jerusalem of two kings, one from the East and one from the West, in a year when Easter fell on April 3. The next two occasions such dates would align were 1222 and 1233. Once again Pelagius believed he recognized what was happening. The king from the West was evidently Frederick and his counterpart was King David, about whom the Relatio de Davide had just reported such positive progress. For Jerusalem to be in Christian hands by the appointed time the crusade had to get a move on, starting with the capture of Cairo. Coupled with clerical anger at the continued moral decay in the Christian camp, this prophecy, along with the arrival of a group of imperial crusaders led by Duke Louis of Bavaria, jolted the leadership into action.


Pelagius made an impassioned speech in which he called upon the crusaders to march south. The need to depart immediately was compounded by the timing of the annual Nile flood—roughly early or mid-August to mid-November—which gave the Christians an extremely narrow window to operate in; the army set out on July 17, 1221.17 The Muslim world, meanwhile, had responded to al-Kamil’s pleas for support and started to pull together. The rulers of Damascus and Iraq came to help al-Kamil, and his call to resist the infidel, “I have set out on a jihad and it is essential to fulfil this intention,” began to take effect.18

Hundreds of boats began to move up the Nile. They contained 1,200 knights, 400 archers, and many noncombatants; a similar-sized force remained in Damietta. Ibn al-Athir commented on the crusaders’ apparent self-belief—or their naïveté: “The Franks, because of their overconfidence, had not brought with them sufficient food for a number of days, only imagining that the Muslim armies would not stand against them and the settlements and the hinterland would all be left in their hands, so that they could take from them all the provisions they wanted.”19 The Christians placed a heavy reliance on supplies from their fleet, and at first all appeared well; the army and accompanying vessels moved south in tight formation, reminiscent of the textbook advance by Richard the Lionheart’s forces from Acre to Arsuf during the Third Crusade. By July 24, however, ferocious Muslim attacks had slowed their pace; King John advocated a withdrawal but he was shouted down by his colleagues. The further the army moved from Damietta the greater became its dependence on ships coming up the Nile. The Egyptians quickly realized this and exploited their local knowledge to the full. Al-Kamil seized his chance and dispatched boats to a back canal and slipped behind the Christians. The plan worked to perfection; the crusader shipping was blocked and the army’s supplies quickly dwindled. By late August the crusaders accepted they could make no more headway and decided to retreat to Damietta. In contrast to the ordered march toward Cairo, the return journey was an utter fiasco; almost a parody of a military operation. The crusaders set out under the cover of darkness but soon lost any advantage because, having drunk all their remaining wine, they set fire to the camp making their intentions entirely plain. Noisy, inebriated, hampered by many sick and wounded men, plus the fact that by now the Nile was in full flood, they were easy prey for al-Kamil’s troops. The Egyptians opened sluice gates to restrict the Christians’ path even further and by August 28 there was no choice but to surrender. The crusaders had to hand over Damietta—a humiliating contrast to the offer that Pelagius had so haughtily rejected.

Many blamed Pelagius for the defeat. The Frenchman William the Clerk wrote: “Because of the legate who governed and led the Christians, everyone says that we lost that city through folly and sin. . . . For when the clergy take the function of leading knights certainly this is against the law. But the clerk should recite aloud from his Scripture and his psalms and let the knight go to his great battlefields. Let him remain before the altars and pray for the warriors and shrive the sinners. Greatly should Rome be humiliated for the loss of Damietta.”20

The troubadour Peirol, who had been at Damietta, targeted Frederick:

Emperor, Damietta awaits you
And night and day the White Tower weeps
For your eagle which a vulture has cast down therefrom:
Cowardly is the eagle that is captured by a vulture!
Shame is thereby yours, and honour accrues to the sultan.21

Still others put the responsibility at the pope’s door, but Honorius regarded Frederick to be at fault and on November 19, 1221, he gave vent to his feelings. A letter phrased in the most disparaging terms claimed the whole Christian world had waited for the emperor’s departure but his failure to crusade had demeaned the sacred offices of both pope and emperor. Ominously, Honorius suggested that he had been too easy on the emperor and from now on he would be far less tolerant. There is no doubt that Frederick’s repeated promises to appear in person had influenced the crusade considerably, but the constant coming and going of the other contingents, the dubious reliance on prophecies, squabbles between Pelagius and King John, and the increased cohesion of the Muslims were more important in denying the expedition any chance of success.


Frederick restated his determination to fulfill his vow and, over the next few years, he made further preparations. He showed a willingness to learn from the troubles of the Fifth Crusade by commissioning shallow-drafted ships for use in the Nile.22 In spite of his personal enthusiasm, the German nobility was indifferent and this caused another postponement; the papacy dispatched more preachers to try to rouse greater levels of support. Although the curia recognized there were good reasons for these delays, its patience was about to expire and a parallel dispute with Frederick over Church rights in Sicily gave an extra edge to Pope Honorius’s demands. At the Treaty of San Germano in June 1225—ten years after he had first taken the cross—the emperor submitted to an outrageous and demanding series of conditions that bound him to go on crusade or face the severest penalties. He agreed to depart on August 15, 1227, and promised to fight in the East for two years; during this time he was to pay for the maintenance of one thousand knights. He would provide fifty fully equipped galleys and one hundred transport ships capable of carrying a total of two thousand armed men with three horses each, plus ancillary personnel. He also consented to give 100,000 ounces of gold in five installments into the custody of the patriarch of Jerusalem, King John, and the master of the Teutonic Knights, Hermann of Salza. The gold would be returned to him at Acre, but if he did not reach the Levant it could be spent in defense of the Latin East. Lastly, Frederick accepted that if he failed to crusade then he would be placed under a ban of excommunication, the harshest penalty the Church could impose on a person, casting them out from the community of the faithful and placing their soul in danger of perpetual torment.

Frederick’s involvement in the Holy Land had increased in April 1223 when it was decided that he should marry Isabella, the heiress to the kingdom of Jerusalem. In August 1225 the emperor sent a fleet of galleys to bring back his fiancée to Sicily, although a curious ceremony took place at Acre where Isabella received her wedding ring and a bishop performed the marriage with Frederick in absentia. The queen reached Brindisi in November where she met her husband and the marriage was celebrated properly.

In theory, Frederick was supposed to wait until he arrived in the Levant to assume the title of king of Jerusalem from Isabella’s father, John of Brienne, whose own claim to the crown had rested upon his marriage to Isabella’s dead mother, Marie. Frederick was far more ambitious, however; he disregarded assurances from his own envoys that John could hold the kingdom for life and seized the title for himself. John was outraged and sought support from Honorius; the pope duly condemned the emperor’s actions as “no less prejudicial to your own reputation than to the interests of the Holy Land,” but could do little else.23 At this stage of his career Frederick had assembled a stupendous array of honors and the addition of the kingship of Jerusalem to his imperial title and the crown of Sicily meant his power far exceeded anyone else’s in Christendom. While becoming the ruler of Jerusalem certainly pulled Frederick toward a campaign in the East, it also meant that the Holy Land became just one element among his portfolio of dominions and his actions in the Levant would always be to some extent influenced, or potentially complicated, by affairs elsewhere in the empire. Frederick’s new title also sparked an increased German presence in the kingdom, most particularly through the Teutonic Knights, who had gained considerable prestige during the recent campaign in Egypt. Like the Templars and the Hospitallers they combined martial activity with the care of pilgrims and, as the recipients of generous gifts of lands, became highly important in the affairs of the Latin East.24

Back in Europe recruitment for the crusade gathered momentum and a good number of northern Germans took the cross, as well as a strong contingent from England. In the summer of 1227, as required by the pope, they moved over the Alps and began to gather at Brindisi. Ironically, given the earlier lack of manpower, the problem now became one of overcrowding and a lack of food. In the intense heat of an Apulian summer disease broke out. Fearful of breaching his promise to the pope, Frederick ordered a first group of ships to set sail ahead of him. Several members of the imperial court fell ill, then the emperor himself was laid low. He moved along to Otranto but it became impossible to continue and he went to the thermal town of Pozzuoli to recover. Common sense dictated that the new pope, Gregory IX (1227–41), should waive the strict application of the Treaty of San Germano; an illness was hardly something Frederick could control. Yet Gregory would not even receive the imperial ambassador; he had to act now, “or seem like a dog unable to bark,” as one contemporary wrote. Frederick’s ban of excommunication was invoked—no one in the Christian community was to have any contact with him.25 Gregory’s letter to the emperor pulsed with anger and disgust. He recounted how Innocent III had protected the young man: “see if there is any grief like that of the apostolic see, your mother, who has been so often and so cruelly deceived in the son, whom she suckled, in whom she placed confidence that he would carry out this matter, and on whom she has heaped such abundant benefits.” He emphasized that Frederick had now broken four oaths to help the Holy Land and was henceforth subject to the excommunication he had voluntarily submitted to. Gregory censured the emperor directly for the failure of the Fifth Crusade and claimed that it was his prevarication that had caused the loss of Damietta. He also blamed him for the death of many crusaders in the summer of 1227 because his delays had trapped them in the unhealthy ports of southern Italy.

Another of Gregory’s letters concentrated on the emperor’s alleged misdemeanors: his abuse of Church rights in Sicily, his use of Muslim soldiers in his army and hostility to the Templars and Hospitallers. The first of these points in particular suggested that Gregory saw the excommunication as an opportunity to advance long-standing papal claims against imperial power in Sicily, rather than dealing solely with the matter of the crusade. He also argued that Frederick took “more account of the servants of Muhammad than those of Christ,” an early sign that the emperor’s contact with Muslims was a target for papal ire.26 The belief that Frederick’s actions had impeded the crusade had some broader currency as well. Roger of Wendover, a contemporary English writer, noted a widely reported vision in which Christ appeared in the sky, suspended on the cross, pierced with nails and sprinkled with blood, “as if laying a complaint before each and every Christian of the injury inflicted upon him by the emperor.”27

Meanwhile the Germans who had sailed ahead to the Latin East helped to establish the castle of Montfort as the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights; they also took control of Sidon and fortified Jaffa and Caesarea. Once recovered, Frederick still wanted to fulfill his vows—in part to try to clear his name, but also to enforce his title to Jerusalem and to assist the Christian cause. At this moment fortune finally presented him with an opportunity to accomplish all three of those aims.

The rulers of Egypt, Sultan al-Kamil, and Damascus, Sultan al-Mu’azzam, were fierce rivals and in 1226 the former sent his vizier, Fakhr al-Din, on a mission to Sicily. The envoy offered to return Jerusalem to the Christians if the emperor would join him in an attack on Damascus. Almost forty years earlier, Richard the Lionheart had enjoyed a good relationship with Saphadin during the Third Crusade but Frederick, above all other western rulers during the age of the crusades, was particularly open to the idea of diplomatic engagement with the Muslims, in part on account of his own multicultural upbringing. The emperor sent an embassy to al-Kamil that bore splendid gifts, including a favorite horse with a jewel-encrusted saddle of gold. Just to cover all possible options, however, the imperial envoys also visited Damascus to sound out al-Mu’azzam. The response was exceptionally direct: “I have nothing for your master but my sword.” Nevertheless, Frederick’s approach to the Damascenes worried al-Kamil sufficiently for him to send Fakhr al-Din to Sicily again where it is likely that he was knighted by the emperor—a neat twist in the developing concept of chivalry as a broad-minded westerner bestowed the prime manifestation of his own warrior code on a Muslim.

In November 1227, al-Mu’azzam died, and in consequence al-Kamil’s need to make peace with the emperor became far less compelling. For Frederick, however, the momentum behind his crusade steadily gathered pace; it seems that public sympathy lay with his account of the conflict with the papacy—for example, a riot against Gregory IX forced him to flee from Rome. The death of Isabella of Jerusalem soon after the birth of a son, Conrad, was a serious setback, however. Frederick was now simply king by right of his dead wife (much as John of Brienne had been) but he insisted on maintaining his title rather than acting as regent on behalf of the infant. Rumors spread that Frederick was responsible for Isabella’s death—a ridiculous idea, but one that provided the emperor with another incentive to clear his name through a successful crusade.


Frederick set sail from Brindisi on June 28, 1228; thirteen years after he had taken the cross, his crusade was underway. The imperial fleet reached Cyprus in late July; five hundred knights had already sailed east in April, and several imperial vessels remained at Acre from the previous year’s sailings. Technically, Frederick was the imperial overlord of Cyprus and he demanded custody of the boy-king Henry, as was his right. He symbolically asserted his power at a banquet on the island. John of Ibelin, who had acted as regent for Henry, was made to serve wine and cut meat for the emperor—an imperial custom, but one that humiliated the locals. This unpleasant situation escalated further when a group of imperial soldiers entered the hall to intimidate the native barons. Frederick required ten years’ income from the period of John’s regency as well as the custody of the Ibelin fief of Beirut. John argued that the latter issue was a matter for the High Court of Jerusalem; as far as the money was concerned, he claimed that it had been spent on the defense of Cyprus. While Frederick’s actions had a basis in strict legal terms, his abrasive and confrontational attitude did little to secure support from the local baronage.

It was early September 1228 when Frederick landed at Tyre. The Templars, Hospitallers, and clergy greeted him with huge enthusiasm, prostrated themselves at his feet, and kissed his knees; on account of the ban of excommunication they could not give him the customary kiss of peace on his face. The emperor’s status placed the Military Orders and clergy in a peculiarly difficult position—they were, as a religious institution, subject to papal authority and should, in theory, have shunned him. At the same time, however, he was the most powerful ruler of the West, the king of their lands, a source of immense potential patronage, and, most important of all, actually present in the Levant; “in hope that by his [Frederick’s] means there would be salvation in Israel.”28 The emperor sent envoys to Gregory trying to persuade him to lift the ban but to no avail and the pope urged people to shun Frederick. As his army left Acre the German invented a clever ruse to get around this problem: those groups uneasy about an association with him marched a day behind and followed orders issued in the name of God and Christendom, rather than the emperor.

Diplomatic contacts opened with al-Kamil, although by now the sultan was unenthusiastic about a deal. Nonetheless, a combination of careful negotiation and a fear of Frederick’s military strength brought him to terms. As Ibn Wasil, a contemporary Muslim observer who later visited the court of Frederick’s son Manfred, wrote: “when the emperor reached Acre al-Kamil found him an embarrassment, for al-Mu’azzam . . . had died . . . [but] it was not possible to turn [Frederick] away because of the terms of the earlier agreement and because it would have led him to lose ‘the goals on which his heart was set’ at the time. He therefore made a treaty with Frederick and treated him with great friendship.”29 The phrase about losing “the goals on which his heart was set” indicates that al-Kamil saw the crusaders as a serious threat to his own power. By this time imperial forces in the Levant formed a potent task force: up to ninety galleys, a transport fleet of one hundred oared galleys capable of carrying horsemen (possibly 1,500 in number), and with the requisite shallow draft and maneuverability to penetrate deep into the Nile delta.30

The emperor’s old acquaintance Fakhr al-Din was the chief Muslim negotiator and in Frederick he found someone capable of playing the diplomatic game to the full. The crusader pointed out that he had come to Jerusalem at al-Kamil’s invitation; moreover, he needed to achieve something to preserve his own reputation—in any case, surely the sultan could relinquish a defenseless city. Frederick impressed the Muslims with a series of conversations and questions about philosophy (including Aristotle’s Logic, which he was reading at the time), geometry, and mathematics. The combination of charm, backed up with substantial military force, paid off: on February 24, 1229, a truce was sworn for ten years, five months, and forty days, and it was agreed that Jerusalem should be handed over to the emperor, albeit with several provisos: the walls were to remain demolished; no land around it was to be held by the Franks, although pilgrims could use a narrow corridor linking the city to the coast; the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock were to stay in Muslim hands, although the Franks might still visit them; the Christians also recovered Bethlehem and Nazareth to secure the three holiest sites for their faith. In many respects, therefore, these terms echo those rejected by Pelagius during the Fifth Crusade.

Controversy was almost inevitable with such extraordinarily sensitive issues at stake. The agreement sparked nearly as much dissent in the Islamic world as it came to provoke in the West. Many Muslims regarded it as deeply shameful that Saladin’s recovery of Jerusalem from the infidel had been cast aside. Sibt Ibn al-Jawzi, a contemporary Damascene writer, described the episode as a “disaster . . . so great a tragedy that public ceremonies of mourning were instituted. . . . [I] presided over a meeting in the Great Mosque of Damascus to speak of what had occurred.’31 Al-Kamil justified his actions by claiming the city was without walls and that once the truce expired he could drive the unbelievers out; in any case, he observed, the Muslims still administered their own sacred sites.

Frederick approached the holy city in mid-March 1229, accompanied by his host, the qadi of Nablus. One wonders what the emperor’s emotions were as he laid eyes upon Jerusalem: in spiritual terms, it was the center of his faith and its recovery was desired by all of Christendom, yet as the capital of his kingdom, it had been stripped of its defenses and probably looked pretty dilapidated. Muslim reports of Frederick’s visit to the Dome of the Rock may have been tinged with an element of propaganda as they tried to play down the fact that he had taken control of Jerusalem. They show him as rather casual in his Christianity, but by contrast interested in, and respectful of, Islam. He admired the mihrab in the Dome of the Rock, yet when he saw a Christian priest about to enter the al-Aqsa Mosque carrying a Bible he scolded the man in the harshest of terms and threatened to kill him if he behaved so tactlessly again. The emperor read out an Arabic inscription on the Dome of the Rock that said “Saladin purified this city of the polytheists” and teasingly inquired, “Who would these polytheists be?” After he had stayed overnight in the city, the emperor asked why the muezzin had not called the morning prayer, and was told by his host that it had been silenced out of respect for the emperor. Frederick responded: “my chief aim in passing the night in Jerusalem was to hear the call to prayer given by the muezzins and their cries of praise to God during the night.”32 He asked the qadi if he would have expected the bells to be silenced in a reciprocal visit to Sicily; the emperor also gave generous donations to the custodians and holy men of the sanctuary. Sibt Ibn al-Jawzi concluded that “it was clear from what he said that he was a materialist and that Christianity was simply a game to him.”33 While the Muslims were impressed with Frederick’s learning they seemed baffled by his apparent indifference to his faith; this may have reflected his understandable dislike of the contemporary papacy, rather than a deeper lack of religious feeling. Most crusaders were intolerant of Islam and overtly devoted to their own faith—Frederick, it seems, was not so easy to categorize.

To his opponents in the West the emperor’s willingness to engage with the Muslims and his long discussions with them—in the incomprehensible Arabic tongue—were further signs of his moral decay. Undeniably, however, he had achieved a tremendous success. On March 17, 1229, Frederick, accompanied by pilgrims and crusaders, entered the Holy Sepulchre to pray. Throughout the entire history of the crusades this surely stands as the moment of supreme irony: an excommunicate crusader took possession of Christ’s tomb wearing full imperial regalia and implementing his own claim to the throne of Jerusalem. To Frederick it was the ultimate justification of his actions—God had unambiguously endorsed his behavior and permitted the German crusaders to recover the holy city. The following day, in a frequently misunderstood ceremony, he placed the imperial crown on his own head, not, as often stated, the crown of Jerusalem. He was, in his own mind, already king of Jerusalem and this act of crown-wearing was a conventional aspect of ceremonial behavior for rulers across medieval Europe.34

Hermann of Salza read a speech on Frederick’s behalf. He cast back to the emperor’s assumption of the cross at Aachen in 1215; he related the problems in fulfilling the vow, and decried the malicious stories that others had fed the pope, a device to remove Gregory from direct blame for the troubles. Here, then, was a call for peace with the papacy, a chance to move on from the bitterness of the previous decade. The emperor seized the moment to spread news of his triumph and a letter to King Henry III of England gives the emperor’s side of the story with, in today’s terms, an impressive, and probably justified, level of spin: “By a miracle rather than by strength that business [the recovery of Jerusalem] has been brought to a conclusion, which for a length of time past many chiefs and rulers of the world . . . have never been able to accomplish by force, however great . . . [but] Jesus Christ, the Son of God, beholding from on high our devoted endurance and patient devotion to His cause . . . brought it about that the sultan of Babylon restored to us the holy city, the place where the feet of Christ trod.” Thus Frederick made it clear to all that he had received God’s favor; by implication, therefore, the status of excommunicate had been unwarranted. He continued: “We, being a Catholic emperor, wore the crown which Almighty God provided for us from the throne of His majesty, when of especial grace, He exalted us on high amongst the princes of the world . . . it is more and more evident that the hand of the Lord has done all of this . . . and has raised up the horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David.”35 The sheen of imperial authority now gleamed even brighter with Frederick’s succession to the throne of King David, a Christ-king, divinely ordained. Where the emperor stretched the truth a little further was in a claim that he was allowed to rebuild the city walls of Jerusalem (this was not so) and in his outline of the Christian position on the coast.

In response to the coronation, Patriarch Gerold of Jerusalem declared an interdict against Frederick and banned church services in Jerusalem, although his ruling arrived after the ceremonies outlined above. The Templars and the Hospitallers came into open opposition against the emperor, in part frustrated by his generosity toward the Teutonic Knights; the local clergy and some of the nobility feared his interference in their affairs as well. Patriarch Gerold wrote an incendiary and innuendo-laden letter to people in the West, and suggested that “the conduct of the emperor . . . from beginning to end, has been to the great detriment of the cause of Jesus Christ and to the great injury to the Christian faith; from the sole of his foot to the top of his head, no common sense could be found in him. . . . After long and mysterious conferences, and without having consulted anyone who lived in the country he suddenly announced one day that he had made peace with the sultan.”36

The day after his crown-wearing, Frederick departed from Jerusalem and headed toward Acre. The news that a papal army led by John of Brienne, the former king of Jerusalem, had invaded his lands in Sicily demanded urgent attention. These events exposed the difficulties in governing lands far distant from one another—Frederick had to cut short his stay in the Levant to preserve authority elsewhere in his dominions; the fact that it was the head of the Catholic Church who compromised his efforts in the Holy Land merely added another twist to the tale. In Acre itself tensions between the emperor and the Templars escalated. Rumors grew that Frederick planned to abduct the master of the order and take him back to Apulia; imperial troops blockaded the Templars’ quarters as well as those of the patriarch. By late April Frederick’s ship was poised to sail; he appointed representatives to govern on his behalf, although they would face a tough struggle against the legally minded nobles of Jerusalem whose insistence on preserving their rights meant that the imperial faction could never assert itself.

Frederick was ready to leave early in the morning of May 1; such was the ill feeling toward him that this was no grand send-off, but a private, hurried affair. As he waited on the quayside by the butchers’ quarter some hostile locals spotted him and began, first, to jeer and then to pelt him with offal. John of Ibelin arrived on the scene and, in spite of his disagreements with Frederick, reminded the unruly butchers who their king was and that he deserved their respect. This amazing little cameo brought to an end one of the most controversial crusades ever—not contentious because of some atrocity, but on account of a diplomatic agreement between Christianity and Islam. The image of a shower of stinking pigs’ innards raining down upon the most powerful ruler of the medieval age is an extreme indication of the passions the emperor’s expedition aroused. In spite of the immensity of his achievement, Frederick’s uncompromising determination to impose his authority as king of Jerusalem had alienated the nobility of the Levant, a group whose support could have added real luster to his triumph. In the West, what should have been the crowning achievement of his life was clouded in contention and propaganda.

Frederick arrived back at Brindisi on June 10, 1229. Gregory tried hard to displace him from southern Italy and Sicily to prevent the empire continuing to surround the papal states. The pope raised troops to invade, although he stopped short of calling a crusade against the excommunicate, and his soldiers wore the symbol of the keys of Saint Peter rather than the cross. Imperial forces had resisted strongly and a groundswell of support enabled the emperor to sweep aside his enemies. He also confiscated lands owned by the Templars and Hospitallers in southern Italy as a punishment for their opposition to him in the Holy Land. After months of threats and insults—Gregory, for example, described the emperor as “the disciple of Muhammad”—agreements in the summer of 1230 brought peace. Frederick managed to preserve his hold on northern Italy, Germany, and Sicily (as he always wished) although he promised the Sicilian Church elections free of interference and to return the properties of the Military Orders. On August 28 the ban of excommunication was lifted and thus Frederick had eventually emerged the victor, although he was careful not to humiliate the pope. At a private dinner at Anagni, Gregory, Frederick, and Hermann of Salza gathered together to plan the way forward for the Christian cause.37 In the short term, peace between Frederick and al-Kamil ensured a period of calm but by the mid-1230s Gregory started to make sure that a new crusade would be ready to set out once the agreement expired.


In 1234 the pope dispatched preachers across Europe. While the response from imperial lands was muted, France and England reacted with vigor to begin what is known as the Barons’ Crusade.38 A swath of the French nobility, headed by Thibaud IV, the count of Champagne and king of Navarre, took the cross. From England, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III and brother-in-law of Frederick II, led a large contingent. Neither King Louis IX of France nor Henry III joined the expedition, in part out of mutual suspicion. In Louis’s case his youth may also have counted against him (he was only twenty years old) although his later career would show an unmatched devotion to the crusading cause. Henry expressed some interest in the defense of the Holy Land and the settlers continued to target him for support. In the summer of 1247 he was sent a relic of the Holy Blood by the patriarch of Jerusalem and the masters of the Templars and Hospitallers. On October 13 the king personally carried the crystal vase that contained Christ’s blood from Saint Paul’s Cathedral to Westminster Abbey, and after Mass and a sermon it was presented to the clergy. Henry also had rooms at Westminster’s royal palace decorated with stories of the First Crusade, and while he assumed the cross in 1250 he never actually went to the Levant.39 The year after Thibaud took the cross, the papacy received a desperate appeal for help from Baldwin II, the Latin emperor of Constantinople. So alarmist was the tone of this message that Gregory decided to direct Thibaud to Constantinople instead of the Holy Land. Thus the tragedy of the Fourth Crusade continued to play itself out; the morally questionable circumstances in which the Latin Empire was created, coupled with the fact that Constantinople lacked the spiritual pull and unparalleled status of Jerusalem, caused the count to decline this proposal.40 Gregory tried to withhold papal funding for his campaign but Thibaud was rich enough to crusade from his own resources (although he did mistreat the Jewish communities in his lands to raise cash). If one considers the deviation of the Fourth Crusade to Constantinople, the success of the excommunicate Frederick II in recovering Jerusalem, and now Thibaud’s resistance to attempts to steer him toward the Latin Empire, papal control over crusades can be seen to be in tatters—yet impressive levels of recruitment for the Barons’ Crusade showed that the basic idea of fighting for God in the Holy Land remained strong.

The French crusaders sailed from Marseilles on the autumn passage of 1239. Once in the Levant they had to decide whether to attack Egypt or Damascus. In the meantime they raided enemy territory in Palestine. In one such episode the count of Brittany gathered rich booty but his success was to have a fatal coda. The sense of competitiveness so indelibly ingrained in the chivalric mentality of western European knights dictated that if one noble achieved great feats in battle, his colleagues should emulate, or exceed, him. A large group of nobles led by the count of Bar and the duke of Burgundy crossed into Egyptian territory near Gaza. They rode through the night and then paused to rest, planning to wait until dawn when the locals brought out their livestock. Foolishly the crusaders had camped in a narrow, sandy valley, factors that would ruin their horses’ ability to maneuver. They settled down to what seems like a picnic: “rich men had cloths spread and sat down to eat, for they had brought plenty of bread, poultry and capons, cooked meat, cheese and fruit, as well as wine in casks and barrels.” This showed fatal disrespect for their enemies. A Christian writer noted in a rather ominous tone: “Then they learned that Our Lord will not be served in this way.”41 Muslim scouts had observed their presence and the Egyptian commander used watch fires to assemble his troops. By first light on November 13 he had placed a large force of crossbowmen, archers, and slingers on the hills around the valley while he stationed cavalry at the exit. A huge crash of drums and a blast of horns announced his intention to attack. The crusaders tried to resist but soon exhausted their supplies of arrows and crossbow bolts; the enemy closed in and in spite of fierce resistance the Christians succumbed to fatigue and their opponents’ sheer weight of numbers. Many of the knights were taken captive and sent to the major cities of Egypt where they were paraded through the streets and pelted with animal excrement. A victory mosque at Beit-Hanun still marks this Ayyubid triumph. A few months later the garrison of the Tower of David in Jerusalem was ejected too.42

In the spring of 1240, fearful of the strength of his coreligionists in Egypt, the ruler of Damascus sought an alliance with the Franks. Thibaud decided to turn to diplomacy and made a treaty whereby he recovered control of the castles of Beaufort and Sidon and secured recognition of Christian rights to the lands west of the River Jordan, although in reality this territory was still in the hands of the Muslim ruler of Transjordan. Many crusaders were angered by this policy—they could not understand why such a powerful group of knights did not fight. Papal legate Friar William of Cordelle concluded a sermon with the words: “For God’s sake, good people, pray to our Lord, beg him to give the commanders of this host their hearts back, for you can be sure they have lost them through their sins! Such a huge force of Christians ought to be able to attack the unbelievers in any place at all if they had God on their side.”43 Some fighting took place when Thibaud’s men seized Jerusalem to enable the count to make a pilgrimage to the holy city. Another positive development was the recognition of Christian claims to Transjordan by its governor. The count’s moves toward the Damascene axis had, potentially, one flaw: the fate of the prisoners from the Battle of Gaza who remained in Egyptian hands. Thibaud tried to secure their release through a truce with Sultan Ayyub of Egypt, but this was angrily opposed by the Military Orders, who disliked dealing with him. Other western crusaders wanted revenge on the Muslims, regardless of the danger to their captive colleagues. Thibaud realized that he had lost the support of the majority of the army and even, it was said, feared that he would be physically attacked. In September 1240 he slipped away back to France.44

Within weeks the prisoners were freed; in the meantime Richard of Cornwall’s force reached the Holy Land. Perhaps six hundred knights strong, this contingent could have formed the basis for a more aggressive action, but like Thibaud he took a diplomatic approach. Thibaud’s truce was confirmed and Richard also refortified the strategically important castle of Ascalon before he returned to the West in May 1241.45

Even though the Barons’ Crusade saw little in the way of military success, it had managed to exploit the endemic divisions within the Muslim Near East to build upon Frederick II’s achievements and push the kingdom of Jerusalem to its greatest extent since before the Battle of Hattin, over fifty years earlier. Its leaders were frustrated further by factional disunity among the Christians themselves. The poor discipline at Gaza and the issue of the prisoners severely restricted the crusaders’ ability to launch a major assault on Egypt. In any case, the Military Orders were bickering with one another and ongoing troubles between representatives of the Italian city-states, imperial officers, and the local nobility also drained the Christians’ ability to strike against their enemies. This rather weary poem conveys the sense of wasted potential:

How great and glorious a throng
Set off from France, the flower
Or so it seemed, of chivalry,
Best in the world, all said.

With the Barons’ Crusade over, other sources of help would need to take their turn. The chances of Frederick II visiting the Holy Land again seemed remote. His conflict with Rome, in essence over papal claims of superiority in the secular, as well as the religious, sphere continued to ferment during the 1230s. At the end of the decade he was excommunicated again, and in 1245 Pope Innocent IV declared him deposed from the imperial throne.47 Frederick ignored both the decree and an attempt to launch a crusade against him. The emperor seemed to be in a strong position when, in December 1250, he died, just short of his fifty-sixth birthday. Frederick had continued to enjoy, and to advertise, his good relations with Muslim powers. The elephant given to him by al-Kamil carried a wooden tower that flew the imperial standard in European campaigns (the beast lived until 1248), while in 1232 he entertained embassies from Damascus, Cairo, and the Assassins at his court. The Egyptians sent him a marvelous jeweled astronomical tent in which images of the sun and moon were moved by clockwork to tell the time both by day and by night; so valuable was the machine that it had to be kept in the royal treasury. Diplomacy continued at formal banquets where Sicilian bishops shared tables with Egyptian emirs and envoys from the Assassins—a truly remarkable guest list and, again, a testament to Frederick’s open-minded approach.48 Truces and trade deals with Egypt showed his continued good relationship with al-Kamil, although such arrangements provided easy ammunition for papal attacks on him. Some in the West believed the emperor a man of immorality. One writer placed him in a most rarefied category of villain: “worse than Herod, Judas and Nero,” yet none of the major secular rulers were ever persuaded to oppose him openly. His vilification by the Church helps to explain why, unlike his contemporaries Louis IX of France and Fernando III of Castile and León, he was never canonized. Undeniably, however, he had experienced one of the most tumultuous reigns of the medieval period and his crusade, however unconventional in form, offered a glimpse of a different, and potentially more fruitful, way forward for the Holy Land. As his officials prepared to lay their master to rest they wrapped Frederick in a silk garment embroidered with Arabic texts. He was buried in Palermo Cathedral in a fine porphyry tomb, still to be seen today. His epitaph, secular in tone, reads: “If honesty, intelligence, the grace of manly virtues, wealth and noble birth, could death resist, Frederick who lies within, would not be dead.”49

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