The Latin East that Frederick II left behind was in many respects better placed than it had been since the shock of Saladin’s victory at Hattin in 1187. The kingdom had re-established its predominant position along the Mediterranean coast – trade was booming through the royal ports of Acre and Tyre – and some of the kingdom’s lost hinterland had been clawed back under Frederick’s treaty.
On the kingdom’s northern border the county of Tripoli had not altered dramatically in terms of size, but was under the control of the Prince of Antioch. His principality, however, had noticeably shrunk and, except for the isolated garrison of Jabala and some land around the Hospitaller castle of Marqab, the Christians held only the area around Antioch itself. By this time Antioch’s relationship with Christian Cilicia was well entrenched because of the Armenian royalty who had acquired the habit of choosing wives from among the ruling families of the Latin states; and the Hospitallers and the Teutonic knights held castles at strategic points in the foothills of the Taurus mountains and along the wide coastal plain. However, the position of the Latin empire of Constantinople was not far short of precarious. After 1204, settlers from the West who, before, might have helped to ease the chronic problems of manpower in Palestine and Syria were tempted to settle in the newly acquired empire. Some knights with land in Palestine actually left the Holy Land for bigger and better offers in newly conquered territories.
But, after an energetic beginning in which mainland and island territories were conquered and distributed as fiefs for the followers of the Fourth Crusade, the Latin empire began to run into trouble. The first emperor, Baldwin, lasted little more than a year, and from then on a succession of rulers was engaged in a constant armed struggle that required the Latins to fight on two fronts for most of the time they were in power. The ‘alternative’ emperor in Nicaea was constantly campaigning to regain Constantinople, and, from the Balkan territories, the Vlacho-Bulgarians took every opportunity to expand into Thrace as a preliminary to seizing the whole empire for themselves. By 1228 the barons of the empire had called in John of Brienne – a well-known troubleshooter – to act as regent for the heir, eleven-year-old Baldwin II. The new regent was not only a famous crusader in his own right – he had been King of Jerusalem during the Fifth Crusade – he was also Emperor Frederick II’s estranged father-in-law and, by leading an invasion of Frederick’s south Italian possessions on behalf of the Pope, had been responsible for Frederick’s hurried departure from Acre in 1229.
It is just as well for the Kingdom of Jerusalem that Frederick’s peace treaty with the Muslims held. The barons of Outremer, while accepting Frederick’s infant son as the legitimate heir, would have nothing to do with the German emperor’s lieutenant, Richard Filangieri, so the Kingdom of Jerusalem staggered along in a state of civil war. Fortunately for the distracted Latins, the Muslim world was also preoccupied with a power struggle that erupted after the death of al-Kamil in 1238, just about the time when his treaty with Frederick was due to expire. Pope Gregory IX had, for several years before, sent preachers and agents around Western Europe to raise support for another crusade. It was well known that the cost of crusading hindered recruitment, and in yet another attempt to solve the problem by providing crusaders with adequate subsidies, the Pope decreed that all Christians who did not take the Cross were to pay a tax of a penny a week which would entitle them to two years’ freedom from Purgatory. This tax, which was unrealistically high, does not seem to have been collected, but some impecunious crusaders, like Amalric of Montfort (the son of Simon of Montfort who had led the Albigensian Crusade), had their accumulated debts paid for them before setting off with Thibald of Champagne, the King of Navarre.
Thibald was a cousin of the kings of England, France and Cyprus and also one of the most important of the French troubadours. Like crusading, writing epic poems was part of his inheritance – his ancestor, William IX of Aquitaine, who had taken part in the third wave of the First Crusade, was one of the best known of the early troubadours – and Thibald has works to his name that range from love poems and rousing songs about crusading to religious songs and poems. Some of Thibald’s music also survives and is still played on replica medieval instruments by groups that specialize in music of the Middle Ages.
The threat to Constantinople had worsened during the 1230s and, while recruiting was going on, the Pope tried to persuade Thibald to switch his destination to Constantinople. Thibald rejected that plea but a separate crusade was launched with French help, which bought a few more years of existence for Latin Constantinople. Frederick, whose cooperation as king-regent of Jerusalem would have been useful, insisted that the crusade must wait until the truce with al-Kamil had expired. The Pope was forced to change the date of departure for Palestine and the crusade eventually reached Acre in September 1239, where it was received not by the king of Jerusalem’s representatives but by the settler barons who had established a commune in defiance of Frederick’s rule.
The newly arrived crusaders found that the divisions among the Franks in Palestine were mirrored by an internecine battle going on in the Muslim world; the rulers of Damascus and Cairo were at war, giving the French crusaders an ideal opportunity to exploit the situation. The Frankish barons were divided about which Muslim state to attack so Thibald decided to engage both Cairo and Damascus – a policy that in retrospect was bound to antagonize the maximum number of people. The Christian army set out from Acre first to fortify the outpost of Ascalon. Local barons were among the 4,000 knights, but on the way south a group of 200 French, led by Peter of Dreux, detached themselves from the army and ambushed a Muslim convoy of animals being herded to Damascus.
His success aroused a spirit of competition in the rest of the army and, as they approached Ascalon, another group, led by Henry of Bar, made a plan to leave the camp at midnight and ride on ahead to engage an Egyptian force which they had heard was near Gaza. In spite of Thibald’s opposition, backed up by warnings from the masters of the Military Orders, the party of 500 knights and a body of infantry set off and reached the outskirts of Gaza just before dawn. They chose an unfortunate campsite – an area of sand dunes near the coast – and failed to make a proper reconnaissance of the area or even post sentries. The Egyptians were not so idle and quietly surrounded the French with crossbowmen who could shoot down into the Christian camp from the top of the dunes. The French were trapped. Only one group of knights on horseback managed to get away and the rest were slaughtered or captured, including Amalric of Montfort who refused to leave the field. When the main army heard of the disaster they decided to turn back and reached Acre without encountering any Muslims. Curiously the French army remained in Acre even when a Muslim force attacked Jerusalem and stormed the Tower of David.
Thibald’s crusade seemed destined to wither away to nothing until the French began negotiations with As-Salih Ismail of Damascus. He was at odds with his nephew, the new ruler of Egypt, and was receptive to the idea of a military alliance with the Christians – a political expedient that the Damascenes had used to their advantage before. This was Thibald’s opportunity to bargain successfully for the return of Beaufort Castle, the hinterlands of Sidon, Tiberias, Safad and all Galilee, together with Jerusalem and Bethlehem and most of southern Palestine. The transfers of territory were to come about after the combined forces of Acre and Damascus had successfully attacked Egypt.
Muslim public opinion did not favour the arrangement and when the joint army made a rendezvous at Jaffa to begin their assault on Egypt, the demoralized contingent from Damascus melted away. Thibald then began negotiations with the Egyptians and won from them a promise to return the parts of southern Palestine already included in the Damascus peace package! He left the Holy Land without having fought a full-scale battle but having negotiated truces that secured more land for the Christians than they had controlled since 1187.
As he sailed away Thibald must have passed the eastward-bound vessels of another European prince, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, who was the thirty-one-year-old brother of King Henry III of England. The Pope had also wanted Richard to abandon his crusade and instead put the money towards Constantinople. But this prince of the English royal family, whose sister was now the wife of Emperor Frederick, had his brother-in-law’s blessing for the crusade, if not the whole-hearted encouragement of the Pope. He arrived in Acre in October 1240 with a small army of 800 knights and with the emperor’s authority to make whatever arrangements for the kingdom he thought best. He confirmed the treaty with Egypt, and won Muslim agreement for the return of the remainder of Galilee, including Mount Tabor, and the castle and town of Tiberias. Richard also negotiated the release of the knights taken captive at Gaza – Amalric of Montfort was among them – and, after completing the rebuilding of the citadel at Ascalon, left for home in May 1241.
The benefits for the Holy Land, so easily won by Thibald and Richard’s low-key crusades, were all lost three years later when the barons of Outremer formed another alliance with Damascus. Again Egypt was the common enemy but this time Egypt’s allies, the Khorezmian Turks, swept down from the north and broke through the walls of Jerusalem. The city was unprepared for such an attack and on 23 August 1244 Frederick’s garrison in the citadel surrendered. This time the Franks had lost Jerusalem for good – it would be over six and a half centuries before General Allenby would lead another Christian army to occupy the city. The Christian and Damascene armies were disastrously beaten at the village of La Forbie a few miles north-east of Gaza, the largest Christian army to be beaten in the field since the one at Hattin was annihilated.
Meanwhile, Jerusalem’s absentee king-regent, Frederick, was faced with another crusade, against himself. It had started in 1239, soon after Frederick had been excommunicated a second time. By early 1240, Frederick’s forces were threatening Rome. The Pope had staged a religious procession in which he displayed to the Romans their most famous relics – the heads of St Peter and St Paul. The Romans then vowed to support the Pope’s crusade against Frederick, and crusaders, as in the Albigensian, Baltic and Spanish campaigns, were persuaded to switch their vows from Palestine to Italy. When Pope Gregory IX died in 1241 his successor continued the struggle and in 1245 summoned a general council of the Church at which Frederick was stripped of all his thrones – empire, Jerusalem and Sicily – and charged with oppression of the clergy, attacks on papal states, suspicion of heresy and undue intimacy with the Saracens.
But while crusaders were certainly recruited, especially at this stage from the German Empire and Italy, there were also protests from France, which was committed to its own crusade in the East, and in England too some people raised their voice against political crusades. Frederick maintained that personal enmity lay behind his struggle with the Pope but there seems little doubt that his territorial ambitions in Italy, and his previous treatment of the Italian Church, terrified the Popes. Also there were precedents for crusades against enemies of the Church in Italy – crusades had already been proclaimed in 1135 against King Roger of Sicily and in 1199 against Markward of Anweiler and his German followers, who tried to seize control of southern Italy after the death of Emperor Henry VI.
Now, half a century later, Frederick was under attack on both sides of the Alps but neither the Pope nor Frederick had the strength to strike a decisive blow. The war in Italy became a series of sieges and counter-attacks that did little more than maintain the status quo. Frederick died in 1250 but his heirs continued to struggle with the papacy – sometimes gaining an advantage, but only to lose it during a later campaign.
Sweeping around Europe to gain support for the Church, the Pope gave the kingdom of Sicily to Edmund of Lancaster, Henry III of England’s son. The Pope had every right to make such a decision as the kingdom was a papal fief, but the negotiations broke down, with King Henry in debt and faced by a baronial revolt which was to lead to his war with Simon of Montfort, Amalric of Montfort’s brother. The papacy then turned to Charles of Anjou, the brother of the King of France, whose forces, after crossing the Alps, arrived in Rome in January 1266. Charles took control of the kingdom of Sicily and the German threat was finally ended when the last Hohenstaufen male was executed in 1268. But the Italian wars, or political crusades, were far from over and were to be a feature of the crusading movement that lasted well into the fourteenth century.
Some historians argue that these were not crusades at all, that they were unpopular and damaging to the papacy, and that Christendom at large, while eager to fight Saracens in Spain and in the Holy Land, did not approve of the Pope’s Italian wars. Critics of crusades against other Europeans are not hard to find in medieval sources; the Albigensian campaigns were bitterly attacked in songs of the troubadours, and it was reported that preachers of the Cross in England were criticized by their audiences for offering the same rewards for killing Christians as for killing Muslims. Naturally, there were Germans who voiced their disapproval of the papal war against Frederick, pointing out that resources for crusading in the East were diverted to Italy to further the Pope’s political objectives.
But Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith, one of the historians who believe that political crusades cannot be hived off from the main crusading movement, questions how widespread those criticisms were. ‘The most striking thing about the movement, wherever it manifested itself, was its continuing popularity. Crusades were preached in all the theatres of war but they could not have been fought without crusaders.’ Certainly, as Dr Norman Housley has shown, by the thirteenth century the spiritual rewards and the protection extended by the Church to crusaders in Italy precisely matched what was on offer to those journeying to the East. In her study, Criticism of Crusading 1095–1274, Dr Elizabeth Siberry reaches the conclusion that much of the criticism stemmed from objections to papal taxes, not to crusading policy. People on the whole appeared to believe that removing heretics, pagans and political enemies like recalcitrant kings was necessary in the interests of the Mother Church.
What cannot be denied is the charge that substantial funds destined for the struggling Kingdom of Jerusalem were diverted to European theatre of war. The Popes, embarrassed by this criticism, went to great lengths to demonstrate why a particular theatre of war had priority, but it could be argued that if the resources had all been channelled to the East, then perhaps the final collapse of the Latin states would have been postponed and an opportunity provided for a continuing crusader presence in Palestine.