The Kingdom of Acre


IN THE EARLY 1190s, in a remarkably short and powerfully effective campaign, Richard the Lionheart, king of England and leader of the Third Crusade, together with his allies the Templars, delivered a series of powerful blows against Saladin and recovered much of Outremer. In name and number the revived crusader states were as before, but their outlines were diminished. There was the kingdom of Jerusalem, although its capital was at Acre, which the Templars made their new headquarters. To the north was the county of Tripoli. But the Muslims retained control of the Syrian coast around Latakia for some time, and so the principality of Antioch further to the north was now no longer contiguous to the other crusader states. Nevertheless the Third Crusade, in which Richard relied heavily on the Templars, had saved the Holy Land for the Christians and went a long way towards restoring Frankish fortunes. In this Richard was abetted by the military orders, whose great castles stood like islands of Frankish power amid the Muslim torrent. More than ever Outremer was relying on the military orders in their castles and on the field of battle, and the power of the orders grew. In fact, at no point in their history would the Templars be more powerful than in the century to come.

Saladin died soon after the Third Crusade, and his dynastic empire dissolved, so that a quarter of a century later Frederick II, Holy Roman emperor, was able to mount an expedition against Egypt that forced Saladin’s heir to cede control over Jerusalem. But the recovery of Jerusalem was brief and no more than symbolic; the life of Outremer had passed to the coast, where Acre, the new capital of the kingdom of Jerusalem, was a thriving cosmopolitan mercantile port that bore comparison to Constantinople.

When the remnants of Saladin’s dynasty, the Ayyubids, were overthrown in Cairo by the militaristic Mameluke Turks in 1260, a foreboding crept across Outremer. A slave warrior elite who soon extended their control from Egypt over the whole of western Asia, the Mamelukes could call upon boundless resources and the vast manpower derived from the continuing westward migration of Turkish tribes to subject Outremer to insistent and unrelenting attack. No amount of fighting excellence by the Templars or others in Outremer was sufficient to withstand the onslaught for long.



CONTROL OF THE COAST had always been essential for the security, the supply and the development of Outremer. But in its eagerness to capture Jerusalem the First Crusade marched past Acre in 1099, making no attempt to occupy the city. The conquest of the coast was left to King Baldwin I, who took the sea ports of Caesarea, Jaffa and Arsuf and in 1104 captured Acre with the help of a Genoese fleet. As other leading ports such as Tyre and Ascalon were still in Fatimid hands, Acre became the chief port of the kingdom of Jerusalem, and it attracted merchants from the great trading cities of Italy and Provence. Genoa, Pisa, Venice and Amalfi, and also Marseille, established themselves there, each community with its own quarter and piazza, with its own church, court house and warehouses, as well as its own mills, bakery and butchers. Also each community enjoyed a high degree of autonomy and was administered by its own representative; the interests and rivalries of these trading colonies would dominate the affairs of Acre throughout the two centuries to come.

Both the Templars and the Hospitallers had bases in the city. As the nearest good harbour to Jerusalem, Acre became the favoured port of disembarkation for pilgrims; the Hospitallers gave them hospitality, and the Templars escorted them on the road. Theoderich, a German pilgrim and author of a guide to the Holy Land, described the busy pilgrim traffic when he passed through Acre in 1172:

        The Templars have built a large house of admirable workmanship by the seashore, and the Hospitallers likewise have founded a stately house there. Wherever the ships of pilgrims may have landed them, they are all obliged to repair to the harbour of this city to take them home again on their return from Jerusalem. Indeed in the year which we were there – on Wednesday in Easter week – we counted eighty ships in the port besides the ship called a ‘buss’, on board which we sailed thither and returned.1

Because of the vital commercial and pilgrim traffic that passed through Acre, not to mention the city’s military importance, it was ruled directly by the king of Jerusalem through a governor, who, notwithstanding the autonomy of the trading colonies, ran the police and the justice systems and collected the port taxes which were a principal part of the royal revenue. The kings themselves often spent time at Acre enjoying the Mediterranean weather, and numbers of the barony of Outremer had properties here; both they and the Latin bishop of the city were bound by the feudal levy to raise knights for the defence of the kingdom and to provide bodies of hired troops at times of great emergency; in the fateful year of 1187 the city’s manpower contribution to the kingdom was second only to that of Jerusalem itself.

Acre was no less important for Muslim trade, and the city possessed two mosques, one inside the walls and one without. Ibn Jubayr, who visited Acre in 1185, was impressed, although that did not stop him from hurling the usual imprecation at anything Frankish.

        In the morning [. . .] we arrived at the city of Acre (may God destroy it!). [. . .] It is the base of the Frankish towns in Syria and the landing place of ‘the ships carrying their sails aloft in the sea like mountains’ [Koran 55:24]. The harbour of every ship, in grandeur it resembles Constantinople; the place of assembly for ships and caravans, the meeting place of Muslim and Christian merchants from all parts, its roads and streets are choked with multitudes having little room to tread.2

After the defeat of the Frankish army at Hattin in July 1187, Acre surrendered to Saladin without resistance. Of all the seaports of the kingdom of Jerusalem only Tyre remained in Frankish hands; it had been overlooked by Saladin in his rush to take Jerusalem, a serious strategic mistake. Terricus, formerly grand preceptor of the Temple at Jerusalem, reported the situation to King Henry II of England in January 1188, saying that Saladin had now returned to Tyre and was besieging it ‘with thirteen petrarii launching stones nonstop, day and night’, from 11 November 1187 to 1 January 1188. Conrad, the lord of Tyre, led the defence by positioning his knights and infantry on the city wall, and then,

        with the help of the house of the Hospital and the brothers of the Temple, he launched seventeen armed galleys and ten smaller boats in a successful attack against the galleys of Saladin, capturing eleven. He also captured the admiral-in-chief of Alexandria and eight other admirals. Many Saracens were killed. Saladin’s remaining galleys escaped from the Christians to rejoin his army. There Saladin had them drawn up on land and burnt, reducing them to dust and ashes. He was so grief-stricken that he cut off the ears and tail of his horse and then rode it for all his army to see.3

The coastal campaign was straining Saladin’s resources. His armies had already plundered the Frankish territories and devoured all their grain. Saladin was having to build ships, repair fortifications and install garrisons, yet instead of being a source of revenue the coast was becoming an expense. And worst of all, he was being beaten.

In 1188 Saladin turned his attention to northern Syria, where he stormed one castle after another and took the city of Latakia. But here too he was checked, this time by the massive castles of the military orders. He baulked at the key Hospitaller castles of Margat and Krak des Chevaliers and at the Templars’ castle at Safita called Chastel Blanc and their fortified city of Tortosa – though vengefully he destroyed the church there, ‘one of the largest of its kind’.4

As soon as the Franks recovered their morale, they made the recapture of Acre their objective, and at the end of August 1189 King Guy advanced from Tyre to besiege the city. His army was small and outnumbered by the Muslim garrison within the walls, but Guy had the benefit of the newly arrived Pisan fleet, which blocked Acre’s harbour. Saladin mustered his forces on the plain of Sephoria in Galilee and marched to relieve his garrison on the coast; fanning out round the city, he encircled the Frankish forces, besieging the besiegers, but the Franks still maintained communication with the Pisan fleet and would not surrender their position. ‘If a ten years’ war made Troy renowned’, wrote the historian Stanley Lane-Poole, ‘surely to Acre belongs eternal fame – the city for which the whole world contended.’5

Perpetual skirmishing went on between the two armies, with moments of brutality and danger, Ibn al-Athir reporting Bedouins falling upon Christian stragglers and bringing their heads to Saladin for a reward, and women in the Frankish camp dragging Turkish prisoners by the hair, abusing them and then hacking off their heads with knives. But then at daybreak on 4 October the Franks went into action, the Templars on the right crashing into a Kurdish contingent from Diyarbakir and scattering it to flight; the Kurds were next heard from, crossing the Jordan below the Sea of Galilee well on their way to Damascus. The Templar Grand Master Gerard of Ridefort, who had been captured by Saladin and then released in 1187, fell in the attack and received a last acclaim from the anonymous English knight on whose lost journal the Itinerarium Regis Ricardi was based, who said that he was crowned with the laurel of martyrdom ‘which he had merited in so many wars’,6 a washing away of any blame he may have incurred for the disasters at the Springs of Cresson and the Horns of Hattin.

Saladin rallied his centre and prevented a general rout, and the battle proved inconclusive but bloody nonetheless, certainly for the Franks. On the Muslim side the loss was more by flight than slaughter; the Franks estimated that fifteen hundred of Saladin’s horsemen were killed while being secretive about their own casualties, but according to Saladin’s friend Ibn Shaddad, who saw their bodies being carried to the river to be thrown in, the total Frankish dead numbered over four thousand. Yet even so, the Franks held on and persisted with their blockade of Acre through the winter and all the following year, driving Saladin to despair as he desperately made appeals as far away as Baghdad and Morocco but received no fresh aid.

In the spring of 1191 the main armies of the Third Crusade arrived. First came the forces led by King Philip II of France, who set up his headquarters outside Acre on 20 April and took command of the besieged and besieging Christians, though to little effect. Meanwhile everyone waited in anticipation for the arrival of King Richard I of England, Coeur de Lion, the Lionheart.

On his way to the Holy Land, Richard was distracted by a series of adventures. His mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had arranged that her son marry Berengaria, daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre, and had now shipped her to Messina in Sicily, where Richard would marry her as he voyaged east and take her with him to the Holy Land. Eleanor herself had joined the Second Crusade as the young bride of Philip’s father, Louis VI, and now she was stirring things up again, for Richard was already engaged to Philip’s sister Alice. Philip, who likewise put in at Messina, demanded that Richard make financial restitution for breaking the engagement, which Richard did, but in contrast to Richard’s large, flamboyant personality, Philip was a small and peevish man whose bitterness remained. On 30 March Philip sailed from Sicily with his fleet bound for Acre; Richard waited for Berengaria, then sailed on 10 April. Richard’s passage proved tempestuous; his fleet was broken up by winds, one of his ships was lost in a storm, and another three, including the ship bearing Berengaria, were blown towards Cyprus. Berengaria’s vessel managed to anchor safely off Limassol, but the other two were wrecked on the south coast of the island. The ruler of Cyprus, Isaac Ducas Comnenus, had rebelled against Byzantium and established himself locally as emperor; unpopular on the island, the appearance of Franks filled him with alarm, and he imprisoned the shipwreck survivors, confiscated their goods and tried to lure Berengaria ashore, quite likely with the intention of holding her for ransom. A week later, on 6 May, Richard sailed into view with the main fleet and was outraged at Isaac’s behaviour. Writing to his chancellor back in England, Richard himself told what happened next.

        We put in at Cyprus where we were hoping that our men who had been shipwrecked had found shelter, but the tyrant who had usurped the title of emperor and who respected neither God nor man, advanced on us with a large armed contingent to prevent us from entering the harbour. How many of our men who had suffered shipwreck he robbed and pillaged and then threw into prison to be left to die of hunger. Thoughts of revenge for this great affront were justifiably kindled, and with divine help we won a rapid victory over the said enemy in the ensuing battle. We put in irons the defeated tyrant and his only daughter, and have conquered the whole of the island’s strongholds. After that we entered the port of Acre in high spirits.7

Richard’s capture of Cyprus opened up possibilities for the Templars. Robert of Sablé became Grand Master of the Templars in 1191, almost certainly through the influence of King Richard, whose vassal he had been, and it was probably this connection that led Richard, who found he lacked the means to hold the island, to sell it to the Templars. The entire future of the Templars might have been different had they devoted more resources to the island, but they placed only twenty knights on Cyprus and another hundred men at arms, insufficient to secure it, and so they gave it back to Richard. Possessing a territory of their own, the Templars would have anticipated the achievement of the Knights Hospitaller, who established their own independent state on Rhodes in 1309. Instead Templar fortunes remained tied to the Holy Land, and when it fell, the Templars fell soon after.

As for Richard’s arrival at Acre ‘in high spirits’ on 8 June, he entered with a bang, ramming a Muslim supply ship and sending it to the bottom of the sea; the loss of reinforcements was another blow to the defenders of the city. A month later the English and Pisans launched a fierce attack, and though failing to break through, they sufficiently terrified the weary and hungry garrison that their commanders asked for surrender terms. In return for their lives they promised Richard that Saladin would return the True Cross, pay 200,000 dinars and release all his Christian hostages, over a thousand men. Richard agreed and the gates of the city were opened, and the English and Pisans entered. But Saladin was informed only later and was faced with honouring an agreement he may never have agreed to. Characteristically Richard wanted to talk with Saladin directly, man to man, but Saladin refused and the talks were conducted through intermediaries. Saladin was evasive, his aim, according to the author of the Itinerarium Regis Ricardi, to gain time: ‘Meanwhile, he sent constant presents and messengers to King Richard to gain delay by artful and deceptive words, though he fulfilled none of his promises, but tried to keep the king’s mind in suspense by crafty and ambiguous messages.’8 Richard was eager to advance along the coast to liberate its ports, and when finally Saladin reneged on the agreement Richard flew into a rage. Showing that he could be as cold-bloodedly murderous as Saladin had been at Hattin and towards the Franks in the fallen cities of Outremer, and in recompense for the thousands of Franks who had been killed in the long attempts to take Acre, he ordered the 2,700 members of the garrison to be marched outside the city, where in full view of Saladin and his army he had them executed.

The object of the crusade was the recovery of Jerusalem, but Saladin controlled the interior; Richard therefore worked first to establish control all along the coast and to create secure lines of supply before pushing inland. As Richard marched south, he was shadowed by Saladin, who hoped to seize on any mischance and drive him into the sea. Richard described events: ‘After the capture of Acre and the departure of the King of France who thus so cravenly abandoned his pilgrimage vow and promises against God’s will – to his eternal shame and that of his kingdom – we set out for Jaffa, but on approaching Arsuf we were met and savagely attacked by Saladin and his Saracens.’9 Richard set out from Acre on 22 August and, as he marched south along the coast, his army was vulnerable to flank attacks by Saladin’s Turkish cavalry. Ibn Shaddad described one of the more serious harassing attacks near Caesarea, remarking that the Muslim archers could do little against the armour of the Franks. ‘Their infantry drawn up in front of the horsemen stood firm as a wall, and every foot-soldier wore a thick gambeson and a hawberk, so dense and strong, that our arrows took no effect, whilst their cross-bows wounded both our horses and their riders. I saw soldiers with from one to ten arrows sticking in them, still marching on.’10 It was thanks to the Templars and the Hospitallers that the Turks were beaten off and the coherence of the Christian column was maintained – much as the Templars had done for Louis VII during his march across Asia Minor during the Second Crusade. Even greater was the debt Richard owed to the Templars when he relied on their steadiness and discipline to help him win his great victory over Saladin in the battle of Arsuf on 7 September 1191.

Arsuf lay just north of Jaffa, and here Saladin decided to abandon his harassing strikes and finally make a stand. By making repeated attacks Saladin intended to break up Richard’s column, the easier to fall on its disjointed parts and destroy them. On the battlefield itself Richard placed the Templars at the front rank of his army, the Hospitallers at the rear. Richard’s plan was for his army to stand firm while Saladin’s forces wore themselves out in attack. And so it went, beginning with wave after wave of lightly armed black and Bedouin infantry rushing against the Christian lines, followed by charging Turkish horsemen swinging their scimitars and axes. And still the knights held their ground, Richard waiting for the moment when the Muslim charges showed signs of weakening. The Templars withstood everything thrown at them. The Hospitallers broke ranks first; unwilling to endure the assaults any longer, they rode out against the enemy, which might have caused havoc, but Richard quickly grabbed control of the situation and sent the whole army in after them. Saladin’s secretary Imad al-Din, who watched the battle from a nearby hill, gasped at the splendour of the spectacle as Richard’s cavalry thundered forwards, with the king himself at the centre restoring order and taking command of the battle. The Muslims broke and fled, and seven thousand died, the Frankish losses no more than a tenth as much. Arsuf was a tremendous moral victory for the Franks and a public humiliation of Saladin, a small repayment for the Templars he slaughtered after the battle of Hattin. Acre had taught Saladin that he could not defeat the Franks when they were entrenched; now Arsuf taught him that it was dangerous to attack the Franks when they were on the move. Saladin would never again dare fight the lion-hearted English king.

Saladin’s immediate response was to rush south to Ascalon, which he methodically demolished to deny Richard the value of its capture; it was the beginning of a policy by Saladin and repeated with greater ferocity by the Mamelukes of destroying everything along the coast, caring nothing for the native inhabitants, only wanting to deny purchase for any possible invasion from the West. As a leading archaeologist has written, ‘It was under Ayyubid rule that the most important and dramatic transformation occurred in the settlement pattern of Palestine. Salah al-Din initiated a hitherto unknown strategy, continued by his successors: destruction of the coastal area and desolation of many of its cities.’11 The effects of this destruction and its consequent depopulation would be felt into modern times.

‘With God’s grace we hope to regain the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Sepulchre of the Lord in less than twenty days after Christmas, and then we will return home.’12 So Richard wrote from Jaffa on 1 October, three weeks after his victory at Arsuf. Richard’s advance towards Jerusalem was slow; to protect his line of supply he insisted on repairing fortifications along the route, and then in January 1192, within 12 miles of the city, the weather turned, hailstones and torrential rains battering the troops. Richard stopped and took counsel with the barons and military orders. Both the Templar and the Hospitaller Grand Masters advised that, even if he took the powerfully garrisoned city, it could not be held without also controlling the hinterland, especially once his army had left Outremer. Richard took their advice and instead came to an agreement with Saladin. The Franks would demolish the walls of Ascalon, which they had only recently rebuilt, while Saladin would recognise the Christian positions along the coast; free movement would be allowed to Christians and Muslims across each other’s territory; Christian pilgrims would be permitted to visit Jerusalem and the other holy places; and the extortion at the Holy Sepulchre would stop.

Accompanied by a Templar escort, Richard left the Holy Land in 1192; the Third Crusade was at an end. It had been a highly successful expedition; most of Saladin’s victories in the wake of Hattin had been overturned; the Franks had regained control of the coastal cities and had secured a peace with their Muslim enemy. They failed to regain Jerusalem, but Richard had resurrected Outremer from the ashes and given it the chance to live another hundred years. Things might have been even better, had Richard stayed a bit longer; he had promised to remain in Outremer until Easter 1193, and, had he done so, he would have been there when the news came through that on 4 March 1193 Saladin had died. That was the moment when a great leader like Richard could have restored Outremer in full and might perhaps have done far more than just that. But even as it was, peace settled over Outremer, and its immediate future looked secure.

After the death of Saladin his empire fell apart; rival factions of his dynasty, the Ayyubids, ruled in Cairo and Damascus, but all the rest was lost. Occasional skirmishes followed between Outremer and the Muslim powers, but more often relations were regulated by repeated truces.

Acre was now the capital of the kingdom of Jerusalem and the chief city of Outremer. The king, the patriarch, the Hospitallers and the Templars all made Acre their headquarters, and various feudal lords and the survivors of monasteries who had lost all they possessed in and around Jerusalem came to Acre too, building new houses and churches. The Italian and Provençal merchants also returned to their old quarters. French and Italian were spoken throughout the town and also Syriac, Arabic and Greek; the population was very mixed and included Christians, Muslims and Jews.

After the siege of Acre, Richard had restored the city’s damaged defences, but the walls were badly damaged by an earthquake in 1202 and had to be rebuilt. Acre was now enclosed within a double wall along the lines of a concentric castle, the inner wall higher than the outer; these were on the landward sides, to the north and east; the sea girded Acre and gave it protection to the south and west. The Hospitallers had their headquarters midway along the northern wall, while the Templars built their massive fortified enclosure on the sea at the south-west point of the city. But these double city walls did not yet enclose the northern suburb of Montmusart, although with the new influx of population this quarter was already growing; the double wall was extended to protect it, thanks to St Louis during his stay in Outremer in 1250–54. Acre then took on a three-cornered plan, like a shield, two sides defended by the sea, while to landward it was defended by an extension of the double wall.

Throughout the thirteenth century every pilgrimage or crusade converged on Acre, which was also a crossroads of trade between East and West. The city prospered and grew. In 1214 the canons of the cathedral of St Cross elected James of Vitry, the most eloquent preacher of the crusade in Europe to be their bishop; and in 1219 St Francis of Assisi began his Eastern mission in Acre, sending out friars to preach; soon both the Franciscans and the Poor Clares were established in the city. The Dominicans followed in about 1228. Towards the end of the thirteenth century there were no fewer than forty churches that pilgrims would visit in the town. But overall Acre was a secular and commercial city, earning predictable imprecations in the writings of the Dominicans and of James of Vitry for being a den of vice and moral depravity; it was a wonder that any fighting or praying got done at all, one crusader happily conceding that Acre ‘was delightful, with good wines and girls, some very beautiful’.13

What has been called the Fourth Crusade, although it was not a crusade at all, was proclaimed against Ayyubid power in Egypt with the intention of recovering Jerusalem. But a complete breakdown in organisation and indebtedness to the Venetians, who built and crewed the ships, allowed the Italians to divert the crusade to Constantinople, which in 1204 was sacked, with Latin Christians replacing the rule of the Orthodox Christian emperors until the Byzantines recovered their city in 1261. The organisational failure lay in the enthusiastic assumption that over thirty-three thousand men would take part in the crusade, requiring a fleet of five hundred major vessels, the largest assembled in Europe since ancient times. A contract was signed between the crusader leaders and Venice, which threw everything into the task, suspending its entire merchant activity to make its ships available for the passage to Egypt, building more ships to make up the full number, and providing the vast stores of provisions. In the event only about eleven thousand men showed up in Venice, and they were able to provide only a third of the payment due. The potential loss to Venice was enormous, possibly ruinous. Doge Dandalo proposed a solution. The city of Zara, across the Adriatic on the Dalmatian coast, had rebelled against Venetian rule; if the crusaders would help take it back, then the Venetians would suspend their demand for payment until it could be met by booty gained in Egypt. The crusaders were uncertain; they had volunteered to fight the infidel, and Zara was a Christian city; but in the end they agreed. On this news members of the entire enterprise were excommunicated by the pope; from now on this was no crusade.

A further twist arose in Zara. Another dynastic conflict had arisen in Constantinople, and one of the rivals, Alexius Angelus, approached the expedition saying that in return for placing him on the imperial throne he would submit the Greek Church to the authority of Rome, join the crusade with an army of ten thousand men, permanently station five hundred knights in the Holy Land and pay the crusaders 200,000 silver marks. The offer was the answer to the crusaders’ prayers and they eagerly accepted. But once on the throne, Alexius Angelus failed to deliver; the Venetians were facing bankruptcy, and also they had memories of the terrible Massacre of the Latins by the Byzantines in 1182, and working the Franks up against the Greeks they stormed the city.

This was the event that most shaped the views of Steven Runciman, the best known twentieth-century historian of the crusades. Runciman felt passionately about Greece and Byzantium, and, with all the prejudice of a lover, 1204 was for him an unforgivable crime. His entire History of the Crusades is coloured by this. He repeatedly emphasised in his writings, notwithstanding all the horrors that had occurred even within his own lifetime, that ‘there never was a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade’.14The sack of 1204 had been against a great storehouse of classical and medieval civilisation, he said, and it had wounded a great Christian power in the East that might still have ensured the survival of Outremer – although as the Byzantine scholar Professor Anthony Bryer has remarked, ‘Some may argue that the Greeks asked for 1204 and got most out of it’,15 while Runciman’s latter claim is doubtful given the tottering and corrupt state of the empire ever since Manzikert in 1071 and especially since its defeat at Myriokephalon in 1176. For a historian of the crusades, Runciman was bluntly hostile to the entire enterprise, saying ‘To me, crusade is a dirty word’.16 And he concluded his History with his famous condemnation, ‘The Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost’, a remark that failed to consider the aggressions to which the crusades were a response, and as Anthony Bryer wryly observed ‘proved welcome in Islamic lands’.17

In 1217 the papacy launched the Fifth Crusade, and again the aim was to preserve Outremer by attacking Egypt. The Templars were involved in this new crusade from the start, with the Templar treasurer at Paris overseeing the donations that were to fund the expedition. Forces under King Andrew of Hungary and Leopold, duke of Austria, were joined by men under John of Brienne, the king of Jerusalem, which included Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights – the last being a new military order founded along Templar lines by Germans who had been on the Third Crusade.

With no single outstanding leader among this mixed force, the Fifth Crusade was placed under the authority of the papal legate Pelagius, a man of no military experience. Nevertheless, early in 1219 the Crusaders captured the port of Damietta in the Nile Delta, thanks largely to the Templars, who not only fought admirably on horseback but also demonstrated a remarkable talent for innovation, adapting their engineering and tactical skills from the arid conditions of Outremer to the watery landscape of the Delta, where they commanded ships and built floating pontoons to win the victory.

The loss of Damietta so unnerved the sultan of Egypt, Saladin’s nephew al-Kamil, that he offered to trade it for Jerusalem. But with similar reasoning as had been offered to Richard the Lionheart, the Templar Grand Master argued that Jerusalem could not be held without controlling the lands beyond the Jordan, and so the crusaders rejected the offer and continued their campaign in Egypt. Meanwhile they were awaiting the arrival at Damietta of another army, led by the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II. Despite its failure to appear, the papal legate Pelagius impatiently urged the crusaders to advance up the Nile towards Cairo. United under the command of an experienced leader, the Fifth Crusade might have been a success. But at Mansoura, al-Kamil cut off the crusaders’ rear, opened the sluice gates of the irrigation canals and flooded the army into submission. In 1221 Pelagius agreed to give up Damietta, not in exchange for Jerusalem but to save the lives of the crusaders, who immediately evacuated Egypt and returned to Acre.

Frederick II did eventually appear in the East, but only eight years later, by when he was openly at loggerheads with the Church. Crowned Holy Roman emperor in 1212 at Frankfurt, Frederick was also king of both Germany and Sicily. He preferred to rule from Palermo, where he had been raised amid the Norman, Byzantine, Jewish and Arab influences at the Sicilian court. He learned German, Italian, French, Latin, Greek and Arabic, and was a student of mathematics, philosophy, natural history, medicine and architecture, as well as being a talented poet. These accomplishments contributed to his broadness of outlook, his exceptionally cultivated mind and his rather idiosyncratic character, which earned him the title of Stupor Mundi, Wonder of the World. But they also engendered suspicion. It was rumoured that Frederick did not believe in God, and it was put about that he scoffed at the virgin birth of Jesus and dismissed Mohammed, Jesus and Moses as impostors and deceivers.

This may have been the black propaganda of the papacy at Rome, which was worried at being encircled by his domains and was also agitated by Frederick’s claim to supreme authority and his boast that he would revive the Roman Empire, to which the papacy countered by saying the Church had a higher authority in God – it was the old dispute between the Church and secular powers that had riven eleventh-century Europe at the time of the Investiture Controversy.

Frederick had been twenty-one when he was crowned Holy Roman emperor and vowed to take the cross, but he failed to appear in Egypt during the Fifth Crusade and time and again put off his departure for the East. But in 1225, when John of Brienne, the aged king of Jerusalem, came West seeking a husband for his fourteen-year-old daughter Yolanda, whom he had crowned queen at Acre, Frederick saw his opportunity. After marrying her at Brindisi, Frederick broke his promise that John of Brienne could continue as regent; instead, Frederick claimed the right as Yolanda’s husband to become king, a move that would confirm him, he imagined, as the supreme sovereign in the Christian world.

Now in 1228, at the age of thirty-six, Frederick finally set out for the Holy Land, but he fell ill en route and rested in Italy for a while before continuing his journey. Pope Gregory IX, who distrusted Frederick’s imperial intentions in Italy, excommunicated him at once, using the excuse that this was yet one more instance of the emperor’s failure to fulfil his crusading vow. Then, when Frederick eventually arrived at Acre in September, the pope again asserted his authority, excommunicating him again, this time for attempting to go crusading without having first obtained papal absolution for his earlier excommunication. Frederick was not impressed, but the barons and clergy in Outremer were, as were the Templars and the Hospitallers who owed their allegiance to the pope, only the Teutonic Knights braving papal wrath to support their fellow German.

But before Frederick had even left Sicily, he and al-Kamil had been in secret negotiations over the objects of this Sixth Crusade. Frederick wanted Jerusalem, if only because it would be useful in promoting himself as the supreme power in the West. Al-Kamil was prepared to oblige, provided Frederick helped him capture Damascus. But by the time Frederick arrived in Outremer, al-Kamil had changed his mind. Determined to gain Jerusalem, Frederick now made a feint towards Egypt, in November leading his army from Acre towards Jaffa. The Templars and Hospitallers followed a day behind, not wanting to seem part of a crusade led by an excommunicant, but when Frederick placed the expedition under the nominal authority of his generals, the orders abandoned their scruples altogether and joined up with the main force. The show of unity did not last long.

Frederick’s advance was enough to make al-Kamil fear that he would have to abandon his siege of Damascus, and he quickly agreed a deal with Frederick: a ten-year truce and the surrender of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron and Nablus to the Christians as well as Gaza. It was a sudden and sensational result and gave Frederick what he wanted, but it outraged the patriarch and the military orders. The walls of Jerusalem had been torn down during the Fifth Crusade; if it was going to be given to them then, the intention was that it should not be defensible, and that remained the idea now, for part of the agreement was that the city should remain unfortified, and its only connection to the coast should be a narrow corridor of land. Moreover, the orders were forbidden to make any improvements to their great castles of Marqab and Krak des Chevaliers of the Hospitallers and Tortosa and Chastel Blanc of the Templars. And then there was the galling provision – a necessary face-saver for al-Kamil – that the Temple Mount should remain under Muslim control and that the Templars were absolutely forbidden to return to their former headquarters at the Aqsa mosque.

On 29 March 1229 Frederick was crowned king of Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The patriarch had placed an interdict on the city, forbidding church ceremonies while Frederick was in Jerusalem, and so with no priests to crown him, and with the Templars and the Hospitallers keeping away, it was left to Frederick to place the crown of Jerusalem on his own head. Calling himself God’s Vicar on Earth, the title usually reserved for the pope, Frederick swore in the presence of the Teutonic Knights to defend the kingdom, the Church and his empire. He afterwards toured the city, and going to the Temple Mount he entered the Dome of the Rock through a wooden lattice door, put there, he was told, to keep the sparrows out. Venting his feelings about his papal enemies to whom he had restored the holy city, and using the vulgar Muslim term for Christians, Frederick pronounced, ‘God has now sent you the pigs’.18

Frederick stayed in Jerusalem for only two days. It was not a prepossessing place. The Franks had turned Jerusalem into a garden of Paradise, Saladin once said, but the city had fallen into disrepair and neglect since then, so that as al-Kamil dismissively described the once beautiful city, it amounted to nothing more than ‘some churches and some ruined houses’.19 According to Al-Qadi al-Fadil, the decay had already begun during Saladin’s lifetime, and al-Fadil feared the impression it would make on Christian pilgrims and how their indignation might lead to a new crusade.20

In any case, Frederick had achieved what he wanted and was eager to get back to Europe and the serious business of expanding his powers there. But he also feared that the Templars might make an attempt on his life while he was in the city. Chroniclers as far apart as Sicily, Damascus and England reported this story, which if nothing else reflected the intensity of ill-feeling and suspicion between the emperor and the pope, an enmity in which the Templars had become involved. When Frederick returned to Sicily, he seized the property of the military orders there, released their Muslim slaves without paying compensation and imprisoned the Templar brothers. Yet again the pope excommunicated him, and again Frederick ignored the pope. It was a foreboding of what could happen when the Templars stood in the way of the needs and ambitions of a secular prince.

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