A 13th century CE manuscript illustration depicting the attack on Damietta in Egypt in 1218-19 CE during the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221 CE). (From the Chronica Majorca by Matthew Paris, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)
WAR IN THE EAST
A decision to attack Egypt had been taken at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.51 Unlike in 1201–2, there was no need for secrecy, the new strategic orthodoxy being apparently well established and accepted. Preliminary operations in northern Palestine in late autumn and early winter of 1217 by the newly arrived Germans and Hungarians provided employment for restless western troops, badly needed food supplies for Acre and a measure of increased security for the Frankish enclave without provoking any serious counter-attack by al Mu ‘azzam of Damascus. From their camp south of Acre, the crusaders, careful to avoid a pitched battle with local Ayyubid forces, conducted a leisurely promenade across the river Jordan and a circuit of the Sea of Galilee, followed in December by two fruitless assaults on the Muslim fortress on Mt Tabor, Pope Innocent’s casus belli of 1213. A subsequent foray by a splinter group of 500 Hungarians into the Lebanese mountains ended in disaster. However, the success of the earlier foraging excursion was followed in the New Year by the crusaders’ refortification of two vital links on the road south, the Templar castle of Athlit or Château Pèlerin south of Haifa (now the site of an Israeli naval base) and Caesarea. Although this did not foreshadow an immediate march on Jerusalem, reestablishing these strongholds put pressure on Muslim strategists as well as protecting Acre. These manoeuvres may also have played a part in an alliance with Kay Kavus, the Seljuk sultan of Rum, who invaded northern Syria and attacked Aleppo in 1218. Given the westerners’ Egyptian plan, such Syrian diversions were extremely useful in stretching the resources and resolve of Sultan al-Adil’s family and allies who controlled Muslim Syria and Palestine in uneasy cooperation or competition.
The sense of a carefully prepared strategy was reinforced in the early months of 1218. Even Andrew of Hungary’s precipitate departure from Acre with many of his Hungarian followers in January 1218 may have played an incidental role. Unusually, he travelled west overland, giving money to northern Syrian castles, arranging marriages for his sons with Armenian and Greek princesses as well as probably passing through Seljuk territory. There may well have been a subsidiary diplomatic purpose in this unusual itinerary to assist shoring up the crusaders’ distant northern flank. To allow Acre or Antioch to be attacked while the main armies fought in the Nile Delta would have made no sense. That the Egyptian attack was planned by this time cannot be doubted, as immediately the northern fleets arrived in late spring an assault was launched. When the fleets’ commanders assembled with the duke of Austria and the local lay, clerical and military order leadership, their support for the Egyptian campaign was, according to James of Vitry, who was there, unanimous. The only issue in the mind of the king of Jerusalem, John of Brienne, was whether the crusaders should sail for Alexandria or Damietta. Regarded by common consent in Outremer as ‘the key to Egypt’, the choice fell on Damietta. By the end of May, the crusaders had established a bridgehead on the left bank of the Nile opposite Damietta and began to probe the city’s formidable defences. For the next three and a half years, this narrow waterlogged region of flats, marsh, canals and rivers remained the focal point for the thousands who joined the crusade from the west, the longest static campaign in the history of the eastern crusades.
Damietta, set among the silt, lagoons, sandbars, dunes and mud flats at the mouth of the main eastern estuary of the Nile, was, in Near Eastern terms, a relatively minor port, with a population of perhaps 60,000, smaller than Alexandria, much smaller than Cairo. However, because of its strategic importance, guarding one of the main routes of access to Cairo, it was well fortified with walls and protected by canals and river channels. The warfare around Damietta fell into four phases. After the initial landings in late May 1218 and the establishment of a camp opposite Damietta, strenuous assaults led to the taking of the so-called Tower of Chains, which stood in the Nile, midstream between the crusaders’ camp and the city, on 24 August 1218. A series of increasingly desperate efforts to secure a hold on the right bank of the river, as well as some fruitless sallies against the city walls led, in February 1219, to the complete investment of the city when the new Sultan, al-Kamil, withdrew from his camp at al-Adilyah. During the summer of 1219, despite some heavy mauling, the crusaders held their positions. At this moment Francis of Assisi arrived in the crusader camp.54 After accurately predicting the crusaders’ failure to dislodge the Muslims from their camp at Fariskur, he was reluctantly given permission to cross through the lines on a hopeless mission to convert the sultan. Francis barely escaped with his life. The failure of Ayyubid relief, increasingly dire conditions within the city and consequently negligent defence led to the fall of the city in November 1219. The nearby port of Tinnis fell soon after. The third phase witnessed a long, curious twenty-one-month period of edgy diplomacy and phoney war, during which the leadership squabbled as to the best strategy to adopt; whether to accept Muslim peace terms, as preferred by King John of Jerusalem, or to press forward to capture Cairo, a policy supported by the increasingly assertive Cardinal Pelagius. These disagreements were conducted against a backcloth of regular crusader departures for which new arrivals failed to compensate. A growing impatience at inaction was exacerbated by the failure of Frederick II to honour his commitment to join the Egypt campaign. The final act saw a failed march on Cairo in August 1221 and the Christian evacuation of Damietta the following month. While a few crusaders remained to help defend Outremer and a trickle of new recruits continued to travel east, the surrender of Damietta marked the end of the central action of the crusade. The lesser expeditions of 1227 and of Frederick II in 1228 acted as codas for the Damietta enterprise as well as setting a pattern of continual small-scale western military assistance for Outremer that characterized the rest of the thirteenth century, with the exception of the French crusade of 1248–50.
The Damietta campaign of 1218–21 revolved around problems of leadership, reinforcement, technology and diplomacy. The delay in capturing Damietta raised questions over the central thrust of the Egyptian strategy. Were the crusaders there to conquer Egypt or to force a panicked Ayyubid sultan to restore the kingdom of Jerusalem? All the central features of the operation touched on this issue. Who determined the crusade’s objectives? Did the western host possess the technical ability successfully to prosecute a campaign in the Delta and an attack on Cairo? Were there enough troops to achieve and sustain such a conquest? How far could negotiation with Ayyubids or other Near Eastern powers guarantee the security of a restored Jerusalem? In the event none of the answers to these questions proved satisfactory for the crusaders. It said much for the enthusiasm and levels of commitment aroused during the recruitment process that the effort was maintained for so long despite very modest material gains.
The problem of leadership arose as soon as the vanguard of the crusader fleet reached Egyptian waters on 27 May 1218. In the absence of most of the more important leaders, delayed by contrary winds, the crusaders elected Count Simon of Saarbrücken to lead the landing and the establishment of a camp on the west bank of the Nile opposite Damietta. Born of immediate military necessity, this was only a temporary measure, probably reflecting the Rhenish composition of the ships in the vanguard. Once the full army had assembled, ‘with the agreement of all’ (par accort de toz), John of Brienne king of Jerusalem was chosen as leader of the host. Although his partisans later claimed that he had also been promised rule of any conquests made, his position was considerably less dominant than that of Richard I or even Conrad III on earlier campaigns. John’s leadership was of military convenience rather than recognition of political authority. Western lords were unlikely to accept his orders unconditionally, not least because they led their own contingents, many tied to their lords by close regional, tenurial or familial association. The papacy, in the form of the legate Pelagius cardinal bishop of Albano, who arrived in September 1218, demanded influence, supported by the significant amounts of treasure derived from the 1215 clerical tax, redemptions and donations. Control of these funds placed great practical power in the legate’s hands. Oliver of Paderborn recorded at least two occasions when he used the central fund: in May 1219 to help the Pisans, Genoese and Venetians conduct an assault on the walls of Damietta and in 1220, when he hired French and German troops to join his retinue. A papal account of 1220 recorded payments made to Pelagius from the papal Camera (i.e. treasury) and the 1215 tax of well over 35,000 silver marks and more than 25,000 gold ounces. This pivotal role in funding as much as his supposed arrogance and imperious self-confidence propelled Pelagius into playing a key part in tactical decisions in an army whose lay recruits continually found themselves running short of cash.
King John’s own position was less than secure. John of Brienne, a nobleman from Champagne, had carved a career for himself out of his military usefulness in high places. However, despite a number of golden opportunities, through lack of political acumen or luck, he repeatedly failed to translate his skills into a throne of his own. In 1210 he had arrived in Palestine and married Queen Maria, the daughter of Conrad of Montferrat and Isabella I. She had died in 1212, leaving John technically regent for their infant daughter Isabella II. John was remarried, to an Armenian princess, daughter of King Leo II (d. 1219), through whom and on behalf of their son he laid claim to the Armenian throne. These foundered on his wife’s and son’s deaths at Acre in 1220 only shortly after he had withdrawn from the crusade army in Egypt to pursue their Armenian inheritance. Losing even his Jerusalem position when Isabella II married Frederick II in 1225, John campaigned in Italy for the pope and finally served as regent for Baldwin II and co-emperor in the Latin Empire of Constantinople. The political vulnerability of King John was emphasized by the crusade’s collective leadership with its constantly changing membership. This was partly a product of the expedition’s composition, partly of its constitution. The insistence that decisions were reached collectively could involve, as they had during the Fourth Crusade, the wider military community of the host. The crucial debate in the spring of 1220 on whether or not to advance from Damietta to attack Cairo was decided, against the advice of Cardinal Pelagius, the archbishop of Milan and other luminaries, by the opinion of the knights, not the divided leadership. The crusaders stayed put. At Sharamsah in July 1221, the mass of crusaders overruled John of Brienne’s counsel to withdraw. As on every previous large crusade, decisions of the high command had to pass the close and critical scrutiny of their troops’ public opinion in ways unusual in normal contemporary western warfare. The lack of political cohesion, the rhetoric of voluntary service and the reality of sworn communal rules of discipline created a robust and, for the leadership, at times awkward and unpredictable climate of participation.
Overshadowing everything was the promise of the appearance of Frederick II, held out from the arrival of the Germans in 1217–18 and Pelagius in the autumn of 1218 to the appearance of Matthew of Lesina in 1220–21, repeated regularly by the pope and earnestly desired by crusaders. Frederick, although not yet the figure of self-promoted glamour and outrageous ambition he was to become, seemed, in his inheritance of Sicily, Germany and the imperial dignity, to represent a new secular order in Christendom, for the moment allied with the papacy. His arrival was regarded as totemic of optimism and success. As Peter of Montague, Master of the Temple, put it, the emperor was ‘long expected’. As late as 1221, one compelling argument against accepting apparently generous peace terms was that Frederick had forbidden any deal prior to his own arrival. No secular figure could replace him, not even his representatives in 1220–21. Frederick’s absence unsettled tactical considerations and strategic planning. Cardinal Pelagius, representing the other universal power, had the unenviable task of trying to maintain the crusade until the emperor was ready to join it.
This was made considerably more difficult by the rhythm of departures and arrivals. The regularity of the two annual passages, the number of ships and crusaders carried provided remarkable testimony to the development of Mediterranean shipping and trade routes during the twelfth century. It did little to support an effective military campaign. A key element in previous long crusading expeditions had been the emergence of an esprit de corps based on shared expedience rather than shared origins – 1097–9, 1191–2, 1203–4. During the operations around Damietta from May 1218 to September 1221, death or departure deprived the Christian army of consistent command. Not a single great western lord remained in the Nile Delta for the complete duration of the war. Oliver of Paderborn was one of a very few leading clergy who did. In contrast with the Third Crusade, the Outremer barons, clergy and the masters of the military orders, spent significant passages of time away from the front line. Pelagius’s continuous presence from the autumn of 1218 of itself added to his influence. Each newly arrived contingent was balanced by the departure of others. Few seemed reconciled to staying until the Egyptian campaign was completed or Jerusalem recovered. As with the Albigensian wars, crucesignati appeared to believe that seeing only limited active service in the cause of the cross was sufficient to merit the indulgence. Although Quia Maior and Ad Liberandam indicated that Innocent III envisaged a campaign lasting three years or more, in neither was any conditional time limit set for the enjoyment of the plenary indulgence. The temporary quality of the crusaders’ commitment exerted a powerful influence. Even the legate’s threats of excommunication failed to prevent some, such as the count of Katzenellenbogen in 1220, from deserting. In October 1218, the news of crusaders leaving encouraged the Muslims to attack the Christian camp. Later, the pressure to retain as many troops as possible on station prompted Pelagius in 1220–21 to argue for a more aggressive policy. Without fighting and the prospect of booty or success, hanging about in Damietta indefinitely was hardly an attractive or sustainable option. Equally damaging, the incessant merry-go-round of arrivals and departures consolidated the regional, national and social divisions that dominated the public and private debates on the course the campaign should take, a disunity fed by the lack of an accepted single leader.
Technology assumed a central place in the Egyptian campaign. Eyewitnesses noted when new crusaders brought with them siege equipment, as they had during the siege of Acre during the Third Crusade. Apart from the contest of throwing machines on both sides, much of the fighting was determined by the respective merits of the attackers’ and defenders’ engineering and shipping as the struggle was played out across the Nile around Damietta and later, in the summer of 1221, upstream towards Cairo. Water protected and threatened by turns in a landscape where military aggression was fraught with hazard as it almost invariably required crossing rivers or canals. The first great obstacle, the seventy-foot-high Chain Tower, situated in the Nile between Damietta and the crusader camp, was separated from the Christian-held left bank by a narrow channel. From the tower to the city walls ran a chain, restored by Saladin, that was raised to prevent unwelcome river traffic proceeding up the Nile. It was only captured in August 1218 thanks to an elaborate floating fortress designed by Oliver of Paderborn himself.66 Although paid for and built by the Germans and Frisians, the design – a fortified platform equipped with scaling ladders suspended above two large ships lashed together – resembled the devices constructed by the Venetians before the walls of Constantinople in 1204. A number of Venetian maritime experts may have been on hand, left behind to find new clients when Andrew of Hungary decided to return home overland.
Oliver’s engine was needed because the garrison of 300 in the Chain Tower could not be starved out as a bridge of boats supplied the tower from Damietta. Another pontoon bridge further upstream protected the Ayyubid camp at al-Adilyah, south of the city, as well as allowing Muslims to attack crusader positions across the river. This bridge became the focus of operations for both sides, producing one of more remarkable engineering feats of the campaign. To outflank the bridge, the crusaders dredged and enlarged the al-Azraq canal, which ran for some miles, linking the Mediterranean coast to the Nile south of the Christian camp and upstream of Muslim defences, which now included hulks scuttled in the main channel of the river. The enlargement of the canal took a month. Any immediate advantage was dissipated by a devastating storm and flood of seawater in late November that almost engulfed the two hostile camps, followed by an epidemic, possibly of scurvy. Christian fatalities may have been as high as 20 per cent. However, after a grim and unsettled winter, the engineering efforts of the previous autumn contributed to the occupation of the Ayyubid camp on the right bank of the Nile in February 1219 which had been deserted as a consequence of an attempted coup against the new sultan al-Kamil.
Thereafter, the lack of adequate technological capacity first blunted the crusaders’ attempts to take the city during the summer of 1219 and later, on the march south in July and August 1221, placed the western host at a fatal disadvantage. The lack of manpower, exacerbated by the departure in the spring of 1219 of Leopold of Austria and many others the following autumn, proved significant. This left the crusaders outnumbered and unable to press forward attacks. Muscle power, human or animal, provided the energy upon which the army depended, a role taken in much later centuries by gunpowder, petrol and electricity. Among the skills well represented on all crusading expeditions, those of the carpenter stand out. John of Brienne employed one of his, Aubert the Carpenter, to reconnoitre the deserted Ayyubid camp in February 1219. On land or water, wood technology occupied a central place in medieval warfare. The Nile Delta presented peculiar problems, not least its lack of suitable local timber, a point recognized by Innocent III’s attempt to ban western exports of wood or ships to Egypt in 1213 and 1215. From the winter of 1218–19, although able to maintain a blockade of Damietta once the city was encircled in February, the crusaders made no progress and were only barely able to resist counter-attacks by Sultan al-Kamil, now stationed further to the south. In the event, the blockade worked, starving the city so that resistance slackened, an unguarded section of wall leading to its fall in November 1219. The main bulk of the Muslim forces were deliberately never engaged. When, finally, almost two years later, they were, the crusaders’ technological limitations were exposed. They lacked sufficient flat-bottomed barges to carry the bulk of the army and so had to maintain a precarious link between the land army and many of its leaders, including the legate, on board ship. This form of amphibious warfare was beyond the experience of many, the departure of Frisians and Netherlanders over the previous two years being keenly felt. The absence of adequate craft in sufficient numbers allowed the Egyptians to outmanoeuvre the crusaders. By using shallow side canals, the Muslims cut them off from their base at Damietta and imperilled any chance of retreat once the Christians pressed southwards into the heart of the Delta beyond Sharamsah in late July 1221.
Yet these problems of leadership, manpower and technology did not prevent the crusade from threatening the survival of the Ayyubid empire, if only, but especially, in the minds of Egypt’s defenders. From their discomfort came a policy of military containment and appeasing diplomacy, which unlike the Richard–Saladin negotiations over Palestine in 1191–12, nonetheless failed seriously to engage the Christians. On this failure, traditionally blamed on the myopic stubbornness of Cardinal Pelagius, the crusade has been seen by many to have foundered. In fact, the objectives of each side were incompatible. The fragile unity of the Ayyubid empire was severely shaken by the death of Sultan al-Adil in August 1218, just after the fall of the Chain Tower. Thereafter, no claimant to the succession among his sons or nephews could realistically have surrendered control of Palestine, still less the Holy City of Jerusalem, any such offers being so territorially circumscribed as to be unconvincing. The Ayyubid military weakness exposed by the simultaneous attack on Egypt by the crusaders and on Aleppo by the Seljuks in 1218 imposed a temporary unity of self-interest on the rival dynasts. Hard-pressed al-Kamil, al-Adil’s son and successor in Egypt, received vital help from his brother al Mu ‘azzam of Damascus. Al Mu ‘azzam campaigned in Egypt in 1219 and 1221 and launched a series of assaults on Frankish positions in Syria, recapturing Caesarea late in 1219 and in 1220 threatening Acre and Château Pèlerin. Yet it was entirely unclear whether al-Kamil exerted sufficient control over Palestine for any promise to restore Jerusalem to the Christians to be implemented. The Franks may have known this. The hollowness of any negotiated return of Jerusalem was emphasized when al Mu ‘azzam dismantled its walls in 1219 and ordered further demolition in the city in 1220.
The perceived threat from the crusaders was real enough. Taking the fight to Egypt dealt a profound blow to morale and hence was a key element in support for the Ayyubids, whose power had been grounded on their ability to unite and protect Islam against the infidel invaders. Al-Adil had been careful to avoid risking direct confrontation or a pitched battle. Al-Kamil had no option, especially as his own position was challenged at least once by a failed palace coup implicating another brother, al-Faiz, early in 1219. This had caused al-Kamil to abandon his frontline camp at al-Adilyah in February 1219 and regroup further south. Just as the crusaders’ long failure to capitalize on the fall of the Chain Tower sapped their morale in 1218–19, so their opponents’ inability to expel them from Egyptian soil placed great strain on Egyptian logistic, military, defensive and financial resources. The mere presence of the crusaders in the Nile Delta, supported by fleets from a number of Italian trading cities, threatened Egypt’s immensely lucrative commerce far more certainly than the wishful papal bans on trading. Al-Kamil, rebuilding his army early in 1219, had to resort to increased taxes on the Coptic and other Christian communities. The sultan’s anxiety over the military threat in 1219 led him to devote attention to the fortifications of Cairo itself. Two years later, news of the crusaders’ long-awaited push towards Cairo caused panic. Some members of the political elite tried to ingratiate themselves with Christian captives in Cairo as insurance against a crusader victory. The sultan announced a general call-up probably as much to stiffen morale as to provide effective additional military strength. Both the old and new cities of Cairo were evacuated. Ayyubid rule had arisen from Frankish attempts to occupy Egypt, with Frankish troops stationed in Cairo and Alexandria in 1167 and Cairo besieged in 1168. They feared that their rule might end the same way. The total number of combatant crusaders, peaking at perhaps 30,000 fighting men in 1218 and gradually if irregularly decreasing thereafter, with a casualty rate among the leaders of around a third, may never have been adequate to achieve or maintain such a conquest. Yet the threat to political stability and the prospect of a return to the factional chaos of the last days of the Fatimids was a distinct possibility. According to Oliver of Paderborn, whose figures are impressively precise and possibly based on official estimates at the time, the army that set out for Cairo in July 1221 included a modest 1,200 knights and 4,000 archers, with a fleet of 600 boats of various sizes, as well as unspecified, perhaps a few thousand, auxiliary cavalry, such as Turcopoles and infantry. This would have been unlikely to have been able to lay serious siege to Cairo, even if the army had used the timber from its ships to construct siege machines. However, the danger for al-Kamil lay in the loyalty of his emirs and of his and their askars or professional military households. Sustained warfare on home soil denied participants much chance of booty or profit, placing a strain on the military system that supported Ayyubid political authority. As it was, the crusaders received some local support, including, according to Oliver of Paderborn, ‘a great multitude of Bedouin’, resentful of the fiscal exaction of the parvenu Ayyubids. Fears of such internal dissent, exacerbated by the attempted coup of February 1219, prompted al-Kamil at least twice to offer what he thought the crusaders might accept for withdrawing their forces from his territory, the return of Jerusalem.
The first offer came after al-Kamil had successfully repulsed the crusader attack on his camp at Fariskur in late August 1219, when it became clear that a quick military solution was unlikely. The worsening conditions in both camps and in Damietta, the inability of either side to establish a clear military advantage and the strains within both leaderships indicated that a negotiated settlement might find sympathetic hearing. Francis of Assisi’s intervention at this precise moment hinted that a peaceful agreement was being considered by the Christians as well as the Muslims. Francis may have inclined to pacifism, but his mission to Sultan al-Kamil was rather different. He went to convert, not to secure a lasting armistice. He sought no accommodation with Islam, rather its eradication through reasoned evangelism. However, the naive grandeur of his vision failed to conceal that immediately in the crusader camp and more generally among the intellectual elites there existed a Christian alternative to military crusading. The idea of removing Islam’s grip on the Holy Places and as a threat to Christendom by conversion, not conquest, attracted more adherents as the size, racial and religious diversity of the world became more apparent to western Europeans during the thirteenth century at the same time as warfare failed to achieve the desired objectives of crusading. Whatever else, in the circumstances of the depressed, divided and wretched Christian camp on the Nile in the late summer of 1219, Francis’s mission to al-Kamil expressed, however eccentrically, the desire of many to arrange an honourable end to their difficulties.
As reported by western writers, the sultan proposed, in return for the crusaders’ evacuating Egypt, to restore the Holy Cross lost at Hattin as well as Jerusalem with all castles west of the Jordan to Christian rule, with a financial subsidy to help rebuild the walls of the Holy City demolished earlier in the year. Unsurprisingly, John of Brienne urged acceptance, as it would, at a stroke, incontestably provide him with a greatly expanded kingdom. Despite the assumptions of sympathizers, John’s claims to any Egyptian conquests were opposed both by the legate, acting on papal instructions handing him the power to dispose of any territorial gains, and by the representatives of the emperor. Swapping an uncertain acquisition for the traditional goal of the expedition made complete sense to the king, as it did to most of the northern crusaders and the Teutonic Knights. However, the legate, the rest of the clergy and the Italians disagreed. For the Italians this was not necessarily, as has usually been supposed, a simple question of a material desire for control of a commercial centre in Egypt for their own profit. Rather, many of them, like the Venetians in 1203–4, sought compensation for the interruption to business with Egypt. The restoration of the kingdom of Jerusalem hardly offered them this. In the light of the anger from the rank and file at the lack of booty when Damietta was captured two months later, it is likely that many of those advocating acceptance of al-Kamil’s terms might similarly have felt disgruntled in the event of the deal being achieved. Crucially, King John’s essentially self-interested position was contradicted by the Hospitallers and Templars, the military orders which, unlike the Teutonic Knights, had institutional and corporate memories of the problems of the twelfth century. They argued that the absence of Kerak, Montréal, and with them control over the Transjordan region, made Jerusalem untenable. During 1191–2, they had supported Richard I in believing that even if captured Jerusalem could not be held because of the departure of most of the western crusaders. Now they again stood on strategic realities. Al-Kamil’s terms, even in the unlikely event of being acceptable to the Ayyubids of Syria, offered no lasting peace or security to a revived kingdom of Jerusalem, any more than had the treaty of Jaffa in 1192. By insisting on the retention of Transjordan, al-Kamil signalled his intention to retain his hold on the vital sinews of Ayyubid power uniting Egypt and Syria, and that his proposals came from self-interest not generosity. His seriousness was further impugned by the memory that Saladin, when he had promised to return the True Cross, had failed to find it. Any evacuation of Egypt after the struggles of 1218–19 would almost certainly have led the crusade to break up, exposing Outremer to immediate vulnerability. After a debate further damaging the unity of the enterprise, the sultan’s offer was rejected.
Two years later, as the crusaders were preparing to advance on Cairo in August 1221, al-Kamil repeated his peace offer: Damietta for Jerusalem. Seriously alarmed at the potential erosion of his political position any prolonged fighting in the Egyptian hinterland would cause, let alone the prospect of defeat, al-Kamil may have reckoned that this proposal would sow dissension in the crusader ranks and encourage delay. This would allow more time for his Syrian allies to assemble as well as bringing the timing of the Christian advance awkwardly close to the annual Nile flood. It is possible that the deal had been presented to the crusaders more than once; Oliver of Paderborn described the terms as ‘so often proffered by the enemy’. A striking but unsurprising feature of the Egypt war 1218–21 was how much informal contact existed between the two sides as they manoeuvred for advantage in the narrow region around Damietta; spies, renegades, prisoners of war, ambassadors all featured prominently. Each side had a shrewd idea of the circumstances, motives and fears of the other. Once again, as in 1219, al-Kamil’s diplomacy split the army, although this time even some of Pelagius’s admirers seemed, with hindsight, less than enthusiastic at his steadfast refusal to countenance compromise. In Oliver of Paderborn’s case this may reflect the different stages of composition, his earlier support for Pelagius being written before the failure of the crusade had occurred. While it is likely that the arguments of 1219 were still canvassed, by August 1221 both the pope and the emperor had expressly forbidden their representatives in Egypt to agree to a treaty. In those circumstances, negotiations could not succeed. The crusade’s fate would be determined on the battlefield.
In retrospect, this final rejection of al-Kamil’s peace terms appears stupendously perverse or foolish. The prohibition of the pope and emperor hardly seems adequate explanation for the imbalance of chances between a risky campaign in alien territory soon to be inundated with flood water and the peaceful return of the Holy City and most of Palestine. Richard I may have jumped at such terms. Yet Richard’s pragmatism had failed to deliver lasting success. It seems that, just as John of Brienne may have been too openly moved by self-interest, Pelagius had begun to believe his own propaganda, which had been fed in unexpected ways. Resident for these years on the rim of Asia, the crusaders grew familiar with the complexity and, to a westerner, exoticism of regional politics. They acquired news of events further east and north, from Georgia to the great Eurasian steppes. Distorted rumours of the extraordinary conquests of Genghis Khan (d. 1227) filtered through. By 1220, the Mongols seemed to threaten Iraq and the Baghdad caliphate. Even though al-Ashraf of Greater Armenia, another of al-Kamil’s brothers, judged the crusaders a greater menace than the Mongols, the stories of a non-Muslim conqueror to the east of the Islamic world aroused considerable excitement in the crusader camp. Genghis Khan, or rather a garbled version of him, became King David of the Indians commonly called, as James of Vitry wrote to the pope, Prester John. This figure of legend, the Christian priest king who combated Islam from the east as the crusaders did from the west, had haunted western imagination since the mid-twelfth century, when stories of Nestorian Christians in the Far East and great victories over Muslims in the Eurasian steppes first reached western Europeans. To wishful observers shut up in Damietta, keen to clutch at signs of grace for their enterprise, the great events in the east presaged another reordering of temporal affairs in a manner similar to the First Crusade. In this vein James of Vitry described the privations of the camp at Damietta in words taken verbatim from William of Tyre’s account of the First Crusade. History, they hoped, was about to repeat itself. For this they had additional and unusual confirmation in a series of prophecies that very conveniently came to light in the months before and after Damietta fell in November 1219. The prophetic tradition formed a powerful element in preaching and the promotion of the crusade. Now, it appeared, there was more to it than fancy biblical exegesis and intellectual prestidigitation.
Even before the capture of Damietta, an apparently prophetic work in Arabic had been brought to the crusaders’ attention predicting the capture of the city. Rumours circulated of a pan-Christian rising against the power of Islam. Such heady influences formed the emotional context within which the peace diplomacy of 1219–21 was conducted. The atmosphere of cosmic expectation was further heightened after the capture of the city by the supposed discovery of further prophetic works that were widely circulated though the crusader ranks in translation, their content directly informing official propaganda and preaching. One of these, the Prophecy of Hannan, son of Isaac, while purporting to be by a ninth-century Persian Nestorian doctor, was probably composed by local Egyptian Nestorians in 1219–20. Another associated the prophecy of ultimate success with an unimpeachable Christian source, The Revelations of the Blessed Apostle Peter by his Disciple Clement. These rather esoteric works were provided with suitably hoary provenance, complete with references to ancient languages, local custody and old bindings. While evidently feeding directly into the stream of optimism that sustained the clerical propagandists in the crusader camp, these prophecies seemed to gain credence when combined with the contemporary news of the events in the east, of ‘King David’ and of Prester John, even if there was some confusion over the location of the latter’s kingdom, in eastern Asia or east Africa. Pelagius and his high-powered intellectual advisors, such as James of Vitry, seemed to have been convinced of the essential accuracy of these prophecies of triumph. They had them translated, sent to the west and broadcast to the troops, especially in the prelude to the advance south in July 1221. These auguries combined with the instructions from the leaders in the west to incline the clerical leadership against throwing away what all sides agreed was an advantage by agreeing to the sultan’s terms. Imperialist support in 1220–21 stiffened this resolve.
Pelagius did not hope the crusaders would win; he thought he knew they would. While it is impossible to reach into the minds of the protagonists, the acceptance of what struck intelligent witnesses as objective prophetic documents, while anathema to most sane modern observers, fitted well into the mind set that placed crusading within a frame of universal history. To reject the possibility of prophetic truth would have been to deny the crusade mentality itself. To ignore the prophetic message in favour of the naked short-term self-interest of John of Jerusalem would have seemed treason to God’s purpose. The forged Damietta prophecies of 1219–21 exerted such an impact because they operated with, not against, the grain of expectation and understanding of the progress of human history towards Judgement Day. Only in retrospect did the refusal to accept al-Kamil appear foolish. The central failure of the Fifth Crusade was not diplomatic but military.