Post-classical history

Chapter Fifty-Four


The Last Crusades

Between 1270 and 1291, Louis IX dies on crusade, the Principality of Antioch and the Kingdom of Jerusalem fall, and the crusading age comes to an end

LOUIS IX had not yet succeeded at crusade. On July 1, 1270, he once again set sail across the Mediterranean, departing from the southern coast of France and heading for Tunis.

The decay of Almohad power on the Spanish peninsula had been followed by the disintegration of the Almohad empire in North Africa. In Tunis, a former Almohad governor had declared his independence in 1229, establishing a dynasty known as the Hafsid. Other breakaway dynasties claimed chunks of Almohad land as well; the Zayyanids ruled from the city of Tlemcen, the Marinids from Fez. The last Almohad caliph, Idris II, had been able to claim little more than the lands surrounding Marrakesh itself, and even this claim had fallen when the Marinids stormed Marrakesh in 1269 and took it for themselves.


54.1 After the Almohads

Of the three post-Almohad kingdoms, the Hafsid was the most powerful. Tunis, separated from the Mediterranean Sea only by a lake, lay at the end of the central trade route down into Africa; it was already visited by merchants from across the Muslim world, and in Hafsid hands it grew into a mighty political capital as well. Ambassadors came to the Hafsid capital from Egypt, from West Africa, even from distant Norway. The kings of Kanem kept a permanent embassy there; so did James of Aragon, who managed to negotiate an ongoing peace with the Hafsid caliphs. Those caliphs boasted descent from a disciple of the twelfth-century prophet Ibn Tumart, founder of the Almohad movement; they set themselves as the rightful protectors of Islam in North Africa. Abu ‘Abdallah al-Mustansir, who had ruled in Tunis since 1249, styled himself “Commander of the Faithful.” His Tunis boasted both the great theological school of al-Zaytuna, where students of Islam came to work from all over Spain and North Africa, and the Studium Arabicum, a Dominican school intended to train Christian missionaries in their understanding of Muslim beliefs so that they could more effectively argue against them. Al-Mustansir raised no objections to this. Under his rule, both Dominicans and Franciscans preached freely to the Hafsid Muslims, although without great effect.1

Why Louis IX decided to tackle the Hafsids is not entirely clear. They were a mighty Muslim empire, but they held no holy sites. He had originally taken the cross intending to fight against the Bahri mamluk turned sultan Baibars, who had conquered Antioch and was now threatening Acre. Louis’s younger brother Charles of Anjou announced that he would join the Crusade, which might explain the targeting of Tunis; Charles, now king of Sicily and southern Italy, wanted to claim the North African coast for himself as well. But Louis had not been sympathetic to his brother’s ambitions. Perhaps he simply thought that the open-minded al-Mustansir was a likely convert to Christianity.2

Whatever the motivation, enthusiasm for the project among the French knights was nonexistent. “If we take not the cross, we shall lose the King’s favour,” one of them remarked, in the hearing of Jean de Joinville, “and if we take the cross, we shall lose the favour of God, since we take not the cross for Him, but for fear of the King.” James of Aragon refused to have anything to do with the war against his allies, and Joinville himself decided not to accompany his king: “They all did mortal sin that counselled his going,” he wrote, “because . . . all the realm was at good peace with itself and with all its neighbors . . . after he had gone, the state of the realm [did nothing but] worsen.”3

Louis finally managed to raise a certain amount of support. The king of Navarre, Theobald, had married Louis’s daughter Isabella in 1255; he now agreed to accompany his father-in-law. Prince Edward of England had also promised to join the army in North Africa, but had not yet embarked. Along with his three older sons, Louis landed in Carthage on July 18 and marched his army the fifteen miles towards Tunis. He began to besiege the city, but within weeks was suffering from what Joinville calls “a flux of the belly.” Dysentery ravaged the attackers; the Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani tells us that Louis’s second son John died, along with “an innumerable company of the common folk.”4

On August 25, after two weeks of suffering, the king of France died in camp. Charles of Anjou and Edward of England both arrived not long after to find Philip, the king’s oldest son and heir, also ill with dysentery. The conquest of Tunis had never been likely; now Charles negotiated a peace with al-Mustansir, who paid him off in order to get rid of the besieging army, and the demoralized Crusaders returned home. King Theobald of Navarre stopped in Sicily, where he too grew ill and died. This left the throne of Navarre in the hands of his younger brother Henry, who was by all accounts a competent ruler, although so corpulent that he was nicknamed “Henry the Fat” by his contemporaries. (Four years later, Henry the Fat suffocated on his own adipose tissue, leaving his infant daughter Joan as queen of Navarre.)

Philip recovered; he took the coffins of his father and brother back to France and began his rule as Philip III.

Edward of England was unwilling to abandon his crusade. He collected his own men and a few extras (among them, a Milanese priest named Tebaldo Visconti who had been invited to join the journey to Egypt by Louis IX himself) and sailed towards the Holy Land.

Bohemund VI, ruler of the Principality of Antioch, had lost everything but Tripoli to Baibars of Egypt; and Baibars, whose modus operandi included plenty of trash talk, was planning to finish the conquest. “We left you, but only to return,” he wrote to Bohemund. “We have deferred your total destruction, but only for a certain number of days.” Edward intended to prevent that destruction. He had three hundred knights, and recruited more from Cyprus, but his real strength lay in an alliance he negotiated as soon as he arrived in Tripoli: with the ruler of the Il-khanate dynasty, Hulagu’s son and successor Abaqa. Facing the joint Crusader and Il-khanate Mongol defensive front, Baibars agreed to a truce that would protect the plain of Acre and the road to Nazareth for ten years, ten months, ten days, and ten hours.5

Edward did not immediately start home. He was inclined to linger in the east, hoping for the chance to perform a greater deed in service of Christ’s cause; he helped rebuild a few defenses and tried to talk Abaqa into whittling away at the power of the Egyptian front.

In October 1271, the Milanese priest Tebaldo Visconti, who had joined Edward to continue the failed Egyptian Crusade, learned (greatly to his surprise) that he had just been elected to be the next pope. Clement IV had died in 1268, and for three years the cardinals had been in conclave in the Italian city of Viterbo, just north of Rome, quarreling over the succession: half of them wanted a French pope who would support Charles of Anjou, the rest an Italian pope who would resist him. For three years, the Church had been headless.

The citizens of Viterbo, finally fed up with the delay, had banded together and locked the cardinals into a single palace, removed the roof, and threatened them with nothing but bread and water until they chose a new pontiff. “And since they were not able to agree upon any one of those there present,” Villani writes, “they elected [as] Pope Gregory X . . . the cardinal legate of Syria in the Holy Land”: Visconti, a compromise candidate who was Italian but had spent most of his career outside Italy, who had never been involved with papal politics.6

Visconti, an idealist who (like Edward) was thoroughly committed to the recovery of the Holy Land, was not entirely pleased by this. Nevertheless, he started back towards Rome. But Edward still delayed. In June of 1272, an assassin attacked him in his chambers with a poisoned dagger; Edward managed to kick the dagger away and kill the attacker, but he was wounded in the struggle, and the wound festered and weakened him. Not until September was he strong enough to start home.

He was still traveling back towards England when Henry III died, after fifty-six years as king of England, and left the crown to his son.7

THE CRUSADES had ended.

The expedition to Tunis and Edward’s journey to Acre, neither of which had anything to do with Jerusalem—and neither of which involved very much in the way of actual fighting—were later known to some historians as the Eighth and Ninth Crusades. Other chronicles did not even grant them the name.

The crusading age, on its deathbed, had one last gasp before it expired.

Pulled away from his first crusade, the new pope Gregory X had made crusading the focus of his papacy. As part of readying the Christian world for a brand-new wave of crusades, he had opened discussions with Michael VIII, emperor of restored Byzantium, about reunifying the divided eastern and western churches. Michael VIII, a canny politician with no particular theological training, was enthusiastic. A church council had already been planned for the eastern French city of Lyons in 1274; Gregory X invited Michael to send a delegation to this Second Council of Lyons to discuss the possibilities. He also invited Thomas Aquinas, hoping that the great theologian would help out-argue any objections the Byzantines might raise; but Aquinas sickened and died on the journey to Lyons. He had not quite reached his fiftieth birthday.

In the end, his presence was unneeded. The delegation, headed by the chronicler George Akropolites, arrived at Lyons in midsummer, bearing a letter from Michael VIII that conceded almost every theological distinction of the eastern church in favor of the Roman positions.* A celebratory Mass was then carried out, with priests from both east and west taking part, and the council moved on to address other issues. This included the renewal of crusading in the east; also present at Lyons was a delegation of Il-khanate Mongols, sent by Abaqa to demonstrate his willingness to fight on the side of the Crusaders against the Egyptian Muslims.8

On their return, though, the Byzantine delegates found that the citizens of Constantinople were dead set against this politically desirable reunion. Monks and priests in the capital protested; even Michael VIII’s sister Eulogia snapped, “Better that my brother’s empire should perish, than the purity of the Orthodox faith.”9

Michael VIII was trying to still the dissent—imprisoning, flogging, and banishing those who dared speak out against union with Rome—when Gregory X, traveling back towards the papal palace, grew ill. He died on the road, January 10, 1276. The next three popes elected by the cardinals all died within a year, unable to implement any meaningful policies of their own. All of Gregory X’s efforts at unity unraveled.10

So did his plans for crusade.

No Crusader force ever returned to the east. After a triumphant reign of nearly seventeen years, Baibars died. His powerful mamluk colleague Qalawun seized the throne of Egypt, driving Baibars’s sons into exile. In the decade and half after his accession in 1277, Qalawun’s empire crept steadily outwards. Tripoli fell to the armies of the Bahri Sultanate in April of 1289, bringing an end to the Principality of Antioch.

At the fall of Tripoli, Qalawun was nearly seventy; the following year, he died in Cairo, but his son al-Ashraf Khalil picked up both his crown and his sword. In April 1291, al-Ashraf Khalil led the Bahris in a final push against the last remaining fragment of the final Crusader kingdom: Acre, the sole remaining outpost of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Al-Ashraf Khalil’s army, says Villani, was so huge that it “stretched over more than twelve miles.” The Egyptian forces surrounded the city, filled in the moats, and battered at the walls, but for some weeks the inhabitants of Acre, led by the Knights Templar, resisted—stopping up the holes in the walls first with stones, then with wood planks, and finally with sacks stuffed with wool and cotton. In the end, they could hold out no longer. The gates were broken down, and the Egyptians flooded in. “There were of slain, and prisoners, men, women and children, more than 60,000,” Villani writes, “and the loss of goods and booty was infinite. And . . . they broke down the walls and strongholds, and set fire to them, and destroyed all the city, whereby Christendom sustained very great hurt; for . . . there remained in the Holy Land no city pertaining to the Christians.”11


54.2 The Triumph of the Bahri Sultanate


*The thorniest issue was the western church’s insistence that the Holy Spirit “proceeded,” or issued, from both the Father and the Son. The east refused to use this formulation, known as the “Filioque clause.” Eastern believers thought that to speak of the procession of the Holy Spirit “from the Father and the Son” suggested that God the Father and Jesus Christ were separate beings in a way that violated the unity of the Trinity. However, the real quarrel between east and west was one of authority: whether pope or patriarch ultimately had the last word on which Christian beliefs were or were not orthodox. For more on the specific theological problems involved, see Jaroslay Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology (600–1300) (University of Chicago Press, 1978), particularly chapter 5, “The One True Faith.” For the eleventh-century division of the Christian church into east and west, see “Schism,” in Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, pp. 584–595.

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