At the time of his imperial coronation in November 1220, Frederick had confirmed to Pope Honorius the promise that he had made after his coronation as King of the Romans: that he would personally lead a new Crusade to Palestine, to recover the Holy Places for Christendom. He could hardly have reneged upon it; yet the confirmation remains surprising, since an expedition gathered by the Pope from various sources had in fact sailed for the east some two years before. It had initially been led by the sixty-eight-year-old John of Brienne, titular King of Jerusalem, but on the arrival – four months late – of the papal contingent under the Spanish Cardinal Pelagius of St Lucia, Pelagius had insisted on assuming the overall command.
This so-called Fifth Crusade had had as its object the capture of the Egyptian city of Damietta, which it was hoped to exchange later for the Holy City itself. The siege of Damietta had been a good deal harder than expected. It lasted in all for seventeen months, and just before its end the Egyptian Sultan al-Kamil in desperation offered the whole Kingdom of Jerusalem west of the Jordan in return for the Crusaders’ departure; idiotically, as it turned out, this offer was refused by Cardinal Pelagius, who was determined to conquer Cairo and the whole of Egypt. Damietta duly fell on 5 November 1219, but the war dragged on for nearly two more years, and would have continued even longer had not the Crusading army been trapped by Nile floods – from which it extricated itself only by surrender. The Crusade, so nearly a success, proved a disaster, thanks entirely to the pigheadedness of its leader.
With its failure, the Emperor found himself under still greater pressure to initiate another – and also to take another wife. The Empress Constance had died in June 1221, and a year later the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, Hermann of Salza, Duke of Swabia, arrived from the Pope with a proposal that Frederick should now marry Yolande de Brienne, the hereditary Queen of Jerusalem, now twelve years old. Her title came from her mother, Maria, the granddaughter of King Amalric I, who at the age of seventeen had married the sexagenarian John of Brienne. John had promptly assumed the title of king. After his wife’s early death a year or two later his claim to it was clearly questionable, but he had continued to govern the country as regent for his little daughter Yolande – and, as we have seen, had led the disastrous Fifth Crusade.
Frederick was not at first enthusiastic. His proposed bride was penniless, and little more than a child; he was more than twice her age. As for her title, few were emptier: Jerusalem had now been in Saracen hands for half a century. There was, on the other hand, at least one strong argument in favour of the idea. The kingship, purely titular as it might be, would greatly strengthen his claim to the city when he eventually left on his long-postponed Crusade. And so, after some deliberation, he agreed to the match. He agreed too, in the course of further discussions with the Pope, that his Crusade – to which the marriage was indissolubly linked – would set out on Ascension Day, 15 August 1227; any further delay, Honorius made clear, would result in his excommunication.
It was in August 1225 that fourteen galleys of the imperial fleet arrived in Acre – the last surviving outpost of Crusader Outremer – to conduct Yolande to Sicily. Even before her departure she was married to the Emperor by proxy; next, at Tyre, being now deemed to have come of age, she received her coronation as Queen of Jerusalem. Only then did she embark on the journey which was to take her to a new life, accompanied by a suite which included a female cousin several years her senior. Frederick, together with her father, was waiting for her at Brindisi, where a second marriage took place in the cathedral on 9 November. It was, alas, ill-fated. On the following day the Emperor left the city with his bride and without previously warning his father-in-law; by the time John caught up with them he was informed by his tearful daughter that her husband had already seduced her cousin. When Frederick and Yolande reached Palermo the poor girl was immediately packed off to his harem. Her father, meanwhile, had been coldly informed that he was no longer regent. Still less did he have any further right to the title of king.
Whether John’s fury was principally due to the Emperor’s treatment of his daughter or to the loss of his titular kingdom is not clear; at any rate, he went at once to Rome, where Pope Honorius predictably took his side and refused to recognise Frederick’s assumption of the royal title. This could hardly have failed to exacerbate the strain in imperial– papal relations, already at an abysmal level owing to Frederick’s continued dilatoriness over the long-delayed Crusade – originally promised eleven years before – and to his refusal to acknowledge the Pope’s authority over north and central Italy. The quarrel took a further downward plunge when Honorius died in 1227 and was succeeded by Cardinal Hugo of Ostia, who took the name of Gregory IX.1 Already an old man, Gregory started as he meant to go on. ‘Take heed,’ he wrote to Frederick soon after his accession, ‘that you do not place your intellect, which you have in common with the angels, below your senses, which you have in common with brutes and plants.’ To the Emperor, whose debauches were rapidly becoming legendary, it was an effective shot across the bows.
By this time the Crusade was gathering its forces. A constant stream of young German knights was crossing the Alps and pouring down the pilgrim roads of Italy to join the Emperor in Apulia, where the army was to take ship for the Holy Land. But then, in the savage heat of an Apulian August, an epidemic broke out. It may have been typhoid; it may have been cholera; but it swept relentlessly through the Crusader camps. Frederick had taken the now pregnant Yolande first to Otranto and then to the little offshore island of Sant’ Andrea for safety, but now he too succumbed to the dread virus. So too did the Landgrave of Thuringia, who had brought with him several hundred cavalry. The two sick men embarked nonetheless and sailed from Brindisi in September, but a day or two later the Landgrave was dead, and Frederick realised that he himself was too ill to continue. He sent the surviving Crusaders ahead, with instructions to make what preparations they could; he himself would follow when sufficiently recovered, at the latest by May 1228. Ambassadors were simultaneously despatched to Rome, to explain the situation to the Pope.
Gregory, however, refused to receive them. Instead, in a blistering encyclical, he accused the Emperor of having blatantly disregarded his Crusading vows. Had he not, after repeated postponements, himself set a new date for his departure? Had he not agreed to his own excommunication if he did not fulfil his pledge? Had he not foreseen that, with thousands of soldiers and pilgrims crowded together in the summer heat, an epidemic was inevitable? Had he not therefore been responsible for that epidemic, and for all the consequent deaths that it had caused, including that of the Landgrave? And who was to say that he himself had really contracted the disease? Was this not just a further attempt to wriggle out of his obligations? On 29 September he declared Frederick excommunicate.
In doing so, however, he created for himself a new problem. It was self-evident that excommunicates could not lead Crusades, and as the weeks passed it became increasingly clear that this was precisely what Frederick intended to do. Another awkward fact, too, was beginning to emerge: the Pope had badly overplayed his hand. Frederick had replied with an open letter addressed to all those who had taken the Cross, explaining his position quietly and reasonably, appealing for understanding and conciliation – setting, in short, an example to the Holy Father of the tone which he would have been well advised to adopt himself. The letter had its effect. When, on Easter Sunday 1228, Pope Gregory launched into a furious sermon against the Emperor, his Roman congregation rioted; hounded from the city, he was obliged to seek refuge in Viterbo. From there he continued his campaign, but whereas only a few months before he had been urgently calling Frederick to leave on the Crusade, he was now in the ludicrous position of preaching equally urgently against it, knowing as he did that were the Emperor to return victorious, papal prestige would sustain a blow from which it would take long indeed to recover.
On Wednesday, 28 June 1228, the Emperor Frederick II sailed from Brindisi with a fleet of about sixty ships, bound for Palestine. He was now fully restored to health, but his relations with Pope Gregory had not sustained a similar improvement; indeed, on discovering that he really was preparing for departure, the Pope had fired off another excommunication on 23 March. (Yet another was to follow on 30 August.) Frederick, meanwhile, had once again become a father. Two months earlier, the sixteen-year-old Yolande had given birth to a boy, Conrad, only to die of puerperal fever a few days later. Poor girl: she had never wanted to be Empress, and had wept copiously when she had had to leave Palestine. Intellectually she had nothing to offer to her dazzling polymath of a husband, and he in turn had shown little enough consideration for her, at least until he knew that she was carrying his child. She seems to have spent the thirty sad months of her marriage pining for Outremer; would Frederick have allowed her to accompany him there, had she lived? Did he grieve for her at all? We shall never know. His mind was probably more occupied with the fact that her death had seriously weakened his claim to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, for he was now in precisely the same position as old John of Brienne: if, as he had so stoutly maintained, John had held the title only as a consort of the rightful queen, then so had he; with her death it should properly pass to her son, the baby Conrad.
Conrad, however, was hardly likely to question his father’s claim in the foreseeable future, and the Emperor had more pressing diplomatic problems to consider. Saladin’s empire was at that time controlled by three brothers of his own tribe, the house of Ayub: al-Kamil, Sultan of Egypt; al-Ashraf, generally known as the Sultan of Babylon, with his seat in Baghdad; and al-Mu’azzam, governor of Damascus, with direct authority over Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Al-Mu’azzam, who suspected (with good reason) that his brothers were planning to unite against him, had recently allied himself with the Khwarazmian Turks and besieged al-Ashraf in his capital; al-Kamil in Cairo, fearing that he might be next on the list, had secretly appealed to Frederick: if the Emperor would drive al-Mu’azzam from Damascus, he himself would be in a position to restore to him the lost territory of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Frederick had replied sympathetically; it was obviously in his interest to encourage as much division as possible in the Muslim east, and as one who had spent his youth in a partially Muslim environment, understanding the Arab mentality and speaking the Arabic language, he was in an excellent position to do so. Just as he was leaving on the Crusade, however, word reached him of al-Mu’azzam’s death; it looked in consequence as though al-Kamil’s enthusiasm for an alliance was likely to fade.
Frederick (left) meets al-Kamil in this 14th century miniature.
A little over three weeks later, on 21 July, the imperial fleet dropped anchor in the harbour of Limassol in Cyprus. Richard Coeur-de-Lion, having captured it in 1191, had subsequently tried to sell it to the Knights Templar, but on finding that they could not pay for it had passed it on to Guy of Lusignan, the dispossessed King of Jerusalem. Guy had founded a feudal monarchy which – surprisingly perhaps – was to last until the end of the Middle Ages. Technically, there can be little doubt that this monarchy was a fief of the Holy Roman Empire: Guy’s brother and successor, Almeric, had done homage for it to Frederick’s father Henry VI. But there were complications, among them the fact that the present king was a minor and that the effective regent, John of Ibelin, was also Lord of Beirut and one of the richest and most powerful magnates of Outremer. Several other members of the Cypriot nobility also possessed considerable estates in Palestine and Syria, and it was important that they should not be antagonised.
Frederick, however, could hardly have handled them worse. At first he was all kindness and consideration, inviting John of Ibelin with the young King and the local lords and barons to a great banquet in the castle of Limassol. It began quietly enough, then suddenly a body of soldiers with drawn swords entered the hall and took up positions round the walls. In the hush that followed, the Emperor rose to his feet and, in a voice of thunder, informed John of Ibelin that he required two things of him. John replied that he would happily comply, so long as he deemed it right. Frederick then demanded, first, the city of Beirut, to which he claimed that John had no title, and second, all the revenues of Cyprus received since the accession of the young King. These demands were unreasonable enough; the arrogance with which they were pronounced, the obvious attempts at intimidation while all concerned were – or should have been – protected by the laws of common hospitality, made the effect far, far worse. John replied, giving as good as he got. He held Beirut from the King of Jerusalem. It had no connection with Cyprus; though he readily acknowledged the Emperor’s authority over the island, he could not admit similar suzerainty over Syria and Palestine. As for the Cyprus revenues, they were regularly and correctly handed over to the King’s mother, Queen Alice, in her capacity as regent.
Frederick was angry, but he did not insist. The legal position where the mainland was concerned was indeed far from clear. The Kingdom of Jerusalem had been seriously truncated – one might almost say decapitated – by Saladin’s conquest of the Holy City, and had been further weakened by a series of disastrous minorities; several of the barons, including the Ibelin family, were now considerably richer and more powerful than their king and very often acted accordingly. He could not afford to get involved too deeply in such matters. Besides, he was in a hurry. He was well aware that the Pope had his eye on the Sicilian Kingdom, and that if he were to prolong his stay in the east an invasion would not be long in coming. His only hope was to move fast, strike his blow and return home as soon as possible. He therefore had no choice but to continue his journey – taking the young King of Cyprus with him.
He landed in Tyre towards the end of 1228. Impressive detachments of Templars and Hospitallers were there to greet him, still further swelling the ranks of what was already a considerable army; but Frederick had no intention of fighting if his purposes could be achieved by peaceful diplomacy. An embassy was despatched to Sultan al-Kamil, who was gradually gaining possession of his dead brother’s lands and deeply regretting his former offer. It pointed out that the Emperor had come only on the Sultan’s invitation, but that the world now knew that he was here; how then could he leave empty-handed? The resulting loss of prestige might well prove fatal, and al-Kamil would never be able to find himself another Christian ally. As for Jerusalem, it was nowadays a relatively insignificant city, defenceless and largely depopulated, even from the religious point of view far less important to Islam than it was to Christendom. Would its surrender not be a small price to pay for peaceful relations between Muslim and Christian – and, incidentally, for his own immediate departure?
There were no threats – none, at least, outwardly expressed. But the imperial army was on the spot, and its strength was considerable. The Sultan was in an impossible position. The Emperor was there on his very doorstep, waiting to collect what had been promised and unlikely to leave until he had got it. Meanwhile, the situation in Syria, where al-Kamil’s continued attempts to capture Damascus were having no effect, was once again causing him increasing alarm. Perhaps an alliance would be no bad thing after all. Finally the Sultan capitulated, agreeing to a ten-year treaty – on certain conditions. First, Jerusalem must remain undefended. The Temple Mount, with the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque opposite it, might be visited by Christians but must remain in Muslim hands, together with Hebron. The Christians could have their other principal shrines of Bethlehem and Nazareth, on the understanding that they would be linked to the Christian cities of the coast only by a narrow corridor running through what would continue to be Muslim territory.
On Saturday, 17 March 1229, Frederick – still under sentence of excommunication – entered Jerusalem and formally took possession of the city. On the following day, in open defiance of the papal ban, he attended Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, deliberately wearing his imperial crown. He had effectively achieved everything he had set out to achieve, and had done so without the shedding of a drop of Christian – or Muslim – blood. Among the Christian community, a degree of rejoicing might have been expected; instead, the reaction was one of fury. Frederick, while still under the ban of the Church, had dared to set foot in the most sacred shrine of Christendom, which he had won with the collusion of the Sultan of Egypt. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, who had studiously ignored the Emperor ever since his arrival, now showed his displeasure by putting the entire city under an interdict. Church services were forbidden; pilgrims visiting the Holy Places could no longer count on the remission of their sins. The local barons were outraged that they had not been consulted, and more furious still when they found that the newly restored lands in Galilee were being mostly bestowed on the Teutonic Knights in the Emperor’s suite, rather than on their traditional family owners. How anyway, they asked themselves, were they expected to retain all these territories that Frederick had so dubiously acquired, once the imperial army had returned to the west?
The last straw, to priests and laymen alike, was the Emperor’s obvious interest in – and admiration for – both the Muslim faith and Islamic civilisation as a whole. He insisted, for example, on visiting the Dome of the Rock – of whose architecture he made a detailed study – and the al-Aqsa Mosque, where he is said to have expressed bitter disappointment at not having heard the call to prayer. (The Sultan had ordered the muezzins to be silent as a sign of respect.) As always, he questioned every educated Muslim he met – about his faith, his calling, his way of life or anything else that occurred to him. To the Christians of Outremer, such an attitude was profoundly shocking; even the Emperor’s fluent Arabic was held against him. With every day that he remained in Jerusalem his unpopularity grew, and when he moved on to Acre – narrowly escaping an ambush by the Templars on the way – he found it on the verge of open rebellion.
By this time he too was in a dangerous mood, shocked by the apparent ingratitude of his fellow Christians and ready to give as good as he got. He ordered his troops to surround Acre, allowing no one to enter or leave. Churchmen who preached sermons against him were bastinadoed. Nor was his temper improved by reports of the invasion of his Italian realm by a papal army under old John of Brienne – yet another reason to leave this ungrateful land as soon as possible. He ordered his fleet to be made ready to sail on 1 May. Soon after dawn on that day, as he passed through the butchers’ quarter to the waiting ships, he was pelted with offal. Only with some difficulty did John of Ibelin, who had come down to the quayside to bid him farewell, manage to restore order.