Post-classical history

Chapter Thirty-Nine


The Fifth Crusade

Between 1217 and 1221, another crusade to Egypt fails

WHILE THE ALBIGENSIAN CRUSADE was languishing towards its slow end in France, the Crusade authorized by the Fourth Lateran Council was limping towards Egypt.

The conquest of Egypt had been a Crusader goal for over half a century. Now governed by Saladin’s brother al-Adil (who had ended the squabble between Saladin’s sons by taking the Ayyubid throne himself), Egypt still controlled the city of Jerusalem. Al-Adil was seventy-two and in poor health, but still capable of mounting a sharp resistance.

“The army of the Lord assembled in great force at Acre,” writes Roger of Wendover, “under the three kings of Jerusalem,* Hungary, and Cyprus. There were also present the dukes of Austria and Bohemia, with a large knightly array from the kingdom of Germany, and several counts and men of rank.” Missing were all of the greater powers of Europe: the kings of England and France; the king of Germany and hopeful emperor, young Frederick II (although he had promised to arrive just as soon as his German crown was secure); any of the Spanish rulers.1

Andrew II of Hungary, the most powerful sovereign to take the cross, did so reluctantly, and only because he had promised twenty years to go on crusade and had still not fulfilled his vows. Nor did he stay long. He arrived at Acre in the late summer of 1217, realized that there weren’t enough soldiers to do anything effective, made a couple of desultory raids into Muslim territories, and then declared his vow fulfilled and went home.

The meager Crusader force remaining waited until the spring of 1218; Frederick II of Germany had promised, faithfully, to join their cause. In April, the hoped-for German Crusaders finally arrived, although without Frederick. He was still fighting against supporters of the deposed Otto in Germany, and again made his excuses.

The Crusaders, led by King John of Jerusalem (actually regent for his young daughter Yolande, but still the most powerful sovereign present), decided to make for the Egyptian port city of Damietta, which was under the governorship of al-Adil’s oldest son, al-Kamil. Conquering Damietta would give them a good strong base from which to attack the Egyptian capital of Cairo.


39.1 The Fifth Crusade

They sailed for Damietta, arriving in May, and found themselves faced with a triple set of walls. Damietta could not be broken into; it would have to be starved out, and it was supplied with food and water by a branch of the Nile that was protected by a tall, fortified tower; from the tower to the walls of Damietta, says the Arab historian Ibn al-Athir, “massive iron chains [were] slung across the river . . . to prevent ships arriving from the sea from travelling up the Nile into Egypt.”2

All summer, the Crusader forces labored to get past the chains and block the Nile. Late in August, they finally succeeded in scaling the fortress tower and cutting the chains. Immediately, al-Kamil sank cargo ships in the Nile in front of the city, creating a reef too shallow for the Crusaders to sail past.

This meant that the Crusaders had to spend the next winter dredging out a canal that would allow them to sail around the reef. This was unrewarding and bitterly difficult work, and Crusaders began to seep away; few new reinforcements arrived. Meanwhile, says Ibn al-Athir, Damietta was “reinforced and supplied uninterruptedly” and stood “safe and unharmed, its gates open.”3

Then the Crusaders had an unexpected piece of luck. The old sultan suffered a stroke and died, leaving the Ayyubid throne to his son; but a Cairo nobleman mounted a bid to usurp it, rallying his supporters against al-Kamil. Al-Kamil deserted Damietta and headed towards Cairo. Without its governor, the city’s defenses weakened. The Crusaders made their way around the reef, back into the Nile, by February, and blocked Damietta from resupply. The blockade gave them hope that the city might eventually fall, but Damietta still held out, even while its people began to starve.

Sometime in the late summer, a visitor arrived at the Crusader camp on the Nile: Francis of Assisi, founder of the order of the Lesser Brothers. Francis, says his thirteenth-century biographer Bonaventure, was driven in his mission both by the burning desire to preach the Gospel and by an equally fiery desire to suffer martyrdom for the sake of Christ. He had tried twice before to travel to Muslim lands; his first effort had been derailed by storm and shipwreck, his second by illness. Finally, he had managed to make his way to Egypt, where he hoped to bring peace to the Crusade-wracked country by converting the Sultan.

Jacques de Vitry, the same priest who had discovered the rotting body of Innocent III in a deserted Italian chapel, was also at the Crusader camp; three years earlier he had been appointed Bishop of Acre, and had traveled to the siege with the Crusader army. In a letter to his colleagues back at Acre, he described Francis’s visit. “He was so inflamed with zeal for the faith that he did not fear to cross the lines to the army of our enemy,” he wrote. “For several days he preached the Word of God to the Saracens, and made a little progress.”

Francis then set out for Cairo and eventually gained an audience with al-Kamil himself. By this time, al-Kamil had managed to put down the rebellion in the capital with the help of his brother al-Mu’azzam, deputy governor in Syria. He received Francis politely and listened to his sermons. (“In fact,” Jacques de Vitry adds, “the Saracens willingly listen to all these Lesser Brothers when they preach about faith in Christ and the Gospel teaching, but only as long as in their preaching they do not speak against Mohammed as a liar and an evil man.”) The new sultan was ultimately unconvinced, but he dismissed Francis of Assisi with unfailing courtesy, and had him escorted safely back to the camp at Damietta. There, Francis tried to discourage the bored soldiers from visiting brothels and gambling to pass the time, with an equal lack of success.4

By late October no defenders were left to man Damietta’s walls. The Crusaders stormed the city on November 4, expecting riches and glory. They found a graveyard.

Five out of six citizens had died of starvation and plague. “Not only were the streets full of the dead,” writes Oliver of Paderborn, who was in the Crusader army, “but in the houses, in the bedrooms, and on the beds lay the corpses. . . . Little ones asked for bread and there was none to break it for them, infants hanging at the breasts of their mothers opened their mouths in the embrace of one dead.” Appalled by the scene, the Crusaders—Francis of Assisi and Jacques de Vitry still among them—did not indulge in any of the violence that had marked the conquest of Constantinople. Contemporary accounts agree that they allowed the survivors to leave the city, and even tried to feed (and baptize) the starving children.5

The conquest of Damietta turned out to be the high point of the Fifth Crusade. Al-Kamil, now in full control of the sultanate, had beefed up the Ayyubid army with his brother’s men. Meanwhile, no further Crusader reinforcements arrived. The army in Damietta was too weak to attack Cairo. For the next year, it remained in the city, unwilling to leave, unable to push forward. Francis of Assisi, “making no progress” either in converting the Egyptians or in attaining martyrdom, left to visit Bethlehem and then returned home. Jacques de Vitry occupied himself in writing a comprehensive history of the Crusades. Frederick II did not arrive, although he talked Pope Honorius III into crowning him Holy Roman Emperor, in 1220, by promising to embark on crusade immediately afterwards.6

By June of 1221, the Crusader army was fed up with Damietta. Against the advice of the more experienced soldiers, the senior papal legate accompanying the Crusade, Pelagius, talked the bulk of the army into leaving Damietta and marching towards Cairo.

The long uncomfortable advance was slowed by constant attacks from al-Kamil’s front lines. The Crusader army was relying on boats from Damietta, supplying them with food by way of the Nile, but as they drew closer to Cairo, al-Kamil’s own boats cut this supply line off. By the end of August, the Crusaders were hungry, thirsty, and discouraged. They decided to retreat back towards Damietta, but by this point the Nile was in full flood, and al-Kamil ordered the sluice gates that lined the Crusader path back to Damietta opened. Their way was flooded and impassable, except for one narrow road blocked by al-Kamil’s army. The Crusaders were trapped; and that was the end of the Fifth Crusade.7

Al-Kamil could have slaughtered the pinned army, but he accepted their offer to hand over Damietta in exchange for their lives. To guarantee that Damietta would be surrendered, the Crusaders handed over twenty hostages (including the senior papal legate Pelagius, who was not particularly popular at that moment). They went back to Damietta, collected their belongings, and went home.

Blame for the failed campaign was well distributed. Pelagius came in for his share: such catastrophe is to be expected, wrote the French scholar William the Clerk, “when the clergy take the function of leading knights.” The leaders who had allowed themselves to be convinced by Pelagius were roundly condemned; they in turn blamed the pope; Honorius III blamed Frederick, who had never shown up.8

The single bright spot in the entire bleak picture was the rumor, brought back by Jacques de Vitry on his return, that help against the apparently impregnable Muslim front was on the way. He had heard tales from India, de Vitry explained, that a Christian king from deep in the heart of that unknown land was approaching Baghdad, and would sweep the Muslims away in front of him. He was known, variously, as King David or Prester John, and (as de Vitry wrote in a letter to Honorius III) he was “like unto David, the holy king of Israel . . . crowned by the will of Providence.” King David, ruler of a huge Christian realm hitherto undiscovered, had hundreds of thousands of men. He had already defeated Khwarezm and was even now hurrying towards the Holy Land to rescue its sacred sites.9

But there was no King David, no Christian army from India, no help on the horizon. The reports that had reached Jacques de Vitry were garbled tales of the Mongol advance from the east; and when the Great Khan appeared, it would not be as a rescuer of Christendom.


*By “Jerusalem,” Roger of Wendover means the remnants of the Kingdom of Jerusalem centered at Acre; increasingly it was known as the kingdom of Acre.

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