Post-classical history

Chapter Forty-Two


The Sixth Crusade

Between 1223 and 1229, Frederick II recaptures Jerusalem with no bloodshed and has pig intestines hurled at him in thanks

NEITHER ANDREW OF HUNGARY nor the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick had been present for the surrender of Damietta in 1221; Andrew, because he had gone home from the Fifth Crusade early; Frederick, because he had never arrived.

Promising again and again to descend on the Crusade in glory, complete with German reinforcements, Frederick II had always found a reason not to leave Germany. Now the Fifth Crusade was over; but Frederick had vowed that he would go on crusade, and the sacred promise still had to be fulfilled. In 1223, he assured Honorius III that he would be ready to go by 1225. In 1225, he postponed the planned trip east another two years.1

Frederick was newly married to his second wife Yolande, but the delay wasn’t due to wedded bliss. He was thirty-one, Yolande was fourteen, and the wedding had been celebrated by proxy. She was the daughter of King John of Jerusalem (whose kingdom, ruled from Acre, no longer actuallyincluded Jerusalem) and the rightful heir to the crown; John, although claiming the title of king, was merely her regent. And John hadn’t even been in Acre for the last two years. He had been traveling through France, England, Spain, and Germany, trying to whip up some crusading fervor that might help him get Jerusalem back.*

John had agreed to the marriage in hopes that his new son-in-law would provide him with an army. Instead, Frederick added the title “King of Jerusalem” to his own string of honorifics. Yolande’s husband, he argued, was more entitled to the regency than her father.

John was furious but impotent; he was in Italy, without an army, and Frederick had the support of Honorius III, who hoped that the title might finally propel Frederick across the Mediterranean. In this, he was disappointed. Honorius died in March of 1227; and Frederick did not make his first stab at crusading until August of that year. “He went to the Mediterranean Sea,” Roger of Wendover says, “and embarked with a small retinue; but after pretending to make for the Holy Land for three days, he said that he was seized with a sudden illness, . . . therefore he altered his course, and after three days’ sail landed at the port where he had embarked.”2

Frederick’s contemporaries merely rolled their eyes at the emperor’s sudden illness.* But Honorius’s successor, an Italian cardinal who had been elected Pope Gregory IX, promptly excommunicated the emperor for failure to keep his vow. Brand-new to the papacy, Gregory IX was afraid that he would “seem like a dog unable to bark.” He was no paper pope, and he wanted the world to know it; he published news of the excommunication to every ruler in Europe.3

So began two decades of a violent wrestling match between the emperor and the papacy. Hostilities were at their height, as crackling and wire tight as they had been all the way back in the day of Frederick’s great predecessor Henry V. Frederick had every intention of exercising every bit of royal prerogative he could clutch between his fingers. His defiance of the pope was so blatant that he was widely believed to be the Antichrist. The thirteenth-century Franciscan priest Salimbene tells of a “certain abbot of the Order of Fiore, an old and holy man,” who had hidden away all of his books lest Frederick lay waste the countryside: “For he believed that in the Emperor Frederick all the mysteries of iniquity should be fulfilled, because Frederick had such great discord with the Church.”4

Frederick seized every right that had been the subject of negotiation over the past centuries. He “appointed bishops and archbishops and other prelates,” the Italian chronicler Giovanni Villani explains, “driving away those sent by the Pope, and raising imposts and taxes from the clergy.” He claimed the right to rule Italy directly. And instead of negotiating with Gregory IX, he wrote to all the Christian kings and princes in Europe, accusing the Roman church of avarice. The letters, Roger of Wendover says, warned that the pope would continue to disinherit “emperors, kings, and princes” in order to seize their tribute: “And at the conclusion of his letter he advised all the princes of the world to guard against such iniquitous avarice in these words, ‘Give heed when neighbouring houses burn, / For next perhaps may be your turn.’”5

Meanwhile, Yolande had apparently taken up the full duties of a wife. At barely fifteen, she gave birth to her first child, a daughter; the little girl died at the age of nine months. Yolande was already pregnant again. Her son was born at the end of April 1228. The delivery killed her. She was buried, not long after her seventeenth birthday, in the southern Italian cathedral of Andria.

Her death threw Frederick’s claim to be king of Jerusalem into doubt. As the heiress’s widower, he had no more claim to the throne than the heiress’s father. But his newborn son Conrad was clearly the next claimant to the crown; and Frederick, not John, was his guardian.6

Now, at last, Frederick had good reason to go to Jerusalem.

In early September 1228, the emperor landed at Acre with only six hundred knights. This was the beginning of the Sixth Crusade. Unfortunately, as Frederick II was excommunicated, the church could hardly take credit for it, which annoyed Gregory IX so much that he excommunicated Frederick II for a second time. Frederick’s tiny army, he snapped, looked more like a pirate band than a king’s force.7

Unbothered, Frederick commenced his work. He had an unorthodox crusading strategy all planned, and he didn’t need an enormous military force to carry it out.

Al-Kamil, down in Egypt, had fallen out with his brother al-Mu’azzam, governor of his Syrian lands, and the Syrian realms had revolted. Frederick II had already negotiated a plan with al-Kamil. In exchange for Jerusalem, he would commit German and Italian forces to help al-Kamil get Syria back. But by the time he arrived, the situation had shifted. The Arab diplomat and historian Ibn Wasil, who served under al-Kamil, records the dilemma:

When the Emperor reached Acre, al-Malik al-Kamil found him an embarrassment, for his brother al-Malik al-Mu’azzam, who was the reason why he had asked Frederick for help, had died, and al-Kamil had no further need of the Emperor. Nor was it possible to turn him away and attack him because of the terms of the earlier agreement, and because this 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. What followed will be told later, God willing. . . . The Emperor settled at Acre and messengers came and went between him and al-Malik al-Kamil until the end of the year.8

Frederick refused to leave, and al-Kamil had no wish to start a war. Finally, the two men negotiated the surrender of Jerusalem. The city was a waste; its walls had been razed by al-Mu’azzam during the Syrian revolt, and most of the population had fled. It had no garrison, only a scattering of soldiers, a few officials who would rather have been elsewhere, and a handful of die-hard families. Al-Kamil handed it over to Frederick with a slew of conditions: he was not to rebuild the walls, the nearby villages would remain Muslim, the Temple Mount (including the Dome of the Rock) was to stay in Muslim hands, with the Christians only given visiting rights, and Muslim worship was to continue there uninterrupted.9

Without striking a blow, Frederick had attained the goal of all of the Crusades since 1100, and he had done so as an unrepentant excommunicate. It was hard for Rome to rejoice in this. In fact, no one was pleased with the treaty. “This year,” lamented the Arab historian Ibn al-Athir, “the Franks (God curse them) took over Jerusalem by treaty. May God restore it to Islam quickly!” “The news spread swiftly throughout the Muslim world,” writes Ibn Wasil, “which lamented the loss of Jerusalem, and disapproved strongly of . . . al-Kamil’s action as a most dishonorable deed.” The Christian reaction was almost as strong; Frederick II had entered into a binding and sacred agreement with an infidel, and this was no way for a Christian emperor to act. (Gregory IX, who had a talent for one-liners, snapped that a covenant had been arranged “between Christ and Belial.”)10

Ignoring the outcry, Frederick journeyed south to his new possession and entered Jerusalem on March 18 of 1229. Since he was still excommunicated, the patriarch of Jerusalem tried to forbid him to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; but Frederick brushed him aside. “We reverently visited the Tomb of the Living God, like a Catholic Emperor,” he wrote in his own dispatches. “On the next day, Sunday, we wore the Crown there, to the honour of the Most Highest.” He merely meant that he had entered the church as Holy Roman Emperor, but the indignant patriarch accused him of usurping his infant son’s title and crowning himself king of Jerusalem with his own unholy hands, and the rumor spread.

Frederick had never intended to stay in Jerusalem permanently; he appointed two Syrians of Frankish descent, Balian of Sidon and Garnier l’Aleman, as regents in Jerusalem and went back to Acre. On May 1, he headed down towards the harbor, ready to board his ship and set off for home. He had regained the Holy City for Christendom, but he didn’t get a hero’s send-off. The rumors had reached Acre, and its people were so incensed by his supposed self-coronation that they hurled pig guts and offal at him as he made his way out of the city.11


*Yolande’s dead mother had been the granddaughter of Amalric, king of Jerusalem from 1163 to 1174, and the great-granddaughter of Fulk of Jerusalem, former count of Anjou and father of Henry Plantagenet; Yolande’s father, John of Brienne, was a Frenchman, second son of the Count of Brienne (in Champagne).

*The genuineness of Frederick’s complaint continues to be a matter of debate. David Abulafia, one of Frederick’s most accomplished biographers, points out that one of his companions, the Landgrave of Thuringia, also sickened and actually died at sea (Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor, pp. 165–166). However, Gregory IX certainly didn’t believe in Frederick’s illness, and his opinion seems to have been shared by many.

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