The Final Stand – Acre, 1291

Siege of Acre 1291 – Guillaume de Clermont defending Acre from the Saracen invasion. The fall of Acre signaled the end of the Jerusalem crusades. No effective crusade was raised to recapture the Holy Land afterwards, though talk of further crusades was common enough. By 1291, other ideals had captured the interest and enthusiasm of the monarchs and nobility of Europe and even strenuous papal efforts to raise expeditions to retake the Holy Land met with little response.

William of Beaujeu came to Acre late in 1275. King Hugh would feel the effects of the Templar alliance with the Angevin lobby as he was more or less ignored by the order when they bought a small village outside of Acre without referring to him in 1276. Hugh’s distrust of the Templars was quite open and he even wrote about it, blaming both them and the Hospitallers for the state of the kingdom. But Hugh wrote from Cyprus, to which he returned on numerous occasions. When he heard that the only other rival claimant to the throne, Maria of Antioch, had sold her stake to Charles of Anjou, he must have been mortified but not surprised. Roger of San Severino, Charles’s representative, soon headed out to Acre and to the Templars’ house. He began a cosy relationship of mutual cooperation with the Templars and Hugh’s subsequent attempts to wrest control away from the Angevin camp met with failure. Hugh did, however, retaliate against the Templars in Cyprus by attacking the castle at Gastria and other Templar houses on the island.

Baibars had died in July 1277. It was a year of change in Outremer. The Muslims descended for a short while into a familiar pattern of power struggles but Baibars had left an inherently strong platform, and within a few years the Mameluke threat was once again great. But in those years the Templars became embroiled in a damaging civil war in Tripoli. Whilst they were probably only doing what they had always done by backing a strong strategy to best protect the Holy Land, their partisan involvement at a time when there was much else to worry about brought some distrust upon the order.

The Civil War in Tripoli lasted from 1277 to 1282. Bartholomew, the Bishop of Tortosa, had run Tripoli on behalf of the young Bohemond VII for a few years up to 1277, when Bohemond came of age. However, Paul of Segni, the Bishop of Tripoli, who had been at the Council of Lyons and was on good terms with William of Beaujeu, was opposed to Bartholomew. Bohemond soon fell out with his cousin and former friend Guy of Embriaco over a marriage proposal. The girl at the heart of it was a local heiress who was soon kidnapped by Guy and handed to his brother John for a bride. Bartholomew, however, had wanted her for his own nephew. Guy knew what he had done would incur the wrath of Bohemond so he ran off to the Templars and joined them. In retaliation Bohemond attacked the Templar house at Tripoli and cut down a valuable forest of theirs at Montroque. The Templar Grand Master was incensed by this action and led a protest at the walls of Tripoli and then went on to torch the castle at Botrun and besiege Nephin, which did not go to plan and cost him twelve men killed or captured by Bohemond’s men. The Templars moved back to Acre whilst Bohemond went looking for Guy. But Guy had thirty Templars with him and there was a battle between himself and Bohemond in which those Templars seem to have played a decisive part. Bohemond’s forces were badly mauled and he sued for a year’s truce. But in 1278 he was set upon again by Guy and the Templars. It was another defeat, but this time with a naval element. Bohemond’s galleys attacked the Templar castle at Sidon, the order’s own galleys having been dispersed by bad weather. Hospitaller help came to the Templars and prevented a defeat.

Guy was determined to get the upper hand over Bohemond and had designs on Tripoli itself. In 1282 Guy and his men stole into the Templar house there in a bid to take the town by surprise. But the Spanish Templar preceptor called Reddecouer was not there when they arrived. Suspecting intrigue, the men fled to the Hospitaller house but were spotted. Bohemond promised them safe conduct if they surrendered but then broke his word and had Guy and his immediate company killed and the others blinded.

Outside of Tripoli’s internal disputes events moved swiftly and ominously. Charles of Anjou was hampered in his Eastern designs by the wars of the Sicilian Vespers in 1282. The Mameluke power struggles in the wake of Baibars’s death resulted in the rise of one very capable commander called Qalawun. At around the same time as Qalawun’s star rose, Charles of Anjou died in January 1285. King Hugh’s oldest surviving son, John, reigned only very briefly and another son, Henry, succeeded as Henry II (1285–1324), coming to the East in 1286. The situation was perilous for the Franks, but the Templars had played a part in negotiating peace treaties, including one in 1282 which was to last for ten years and ten months and was to feature a ban on re-fortifications in the Tortosa region.

Qalawun, however, seems to have scented blood before these truces could expire. The Hospitaller castle at Marqab fell in 1285 and the important port at Latakia fell in 1287, the same year that Bohemond VII died. By 1289 Qalawun was at the gates of Tripoli where the Grand Master’s reputation built up during the Civil War caught up with him. The Genoese lobby had risen to prominence in the town during the turmoil following the Civil War and some envoys had left Tripoli to tell the sultan that should Genoa prevail, the trade of Alexandria might be affected. Qalawun therefore had a pretext for intervention. On hearing through informants that the Mamelukes were closing in on Tripoli, William of Beaujeu sent a message into Tripoli to warn the townsfolk, but his messenger was not believed. Another message was sent to Acre where the Templar Reddecouer’s message was this time accepted. The Templars sent a force under Geoffrey of Vendac, the Marshal. Also, the Hospitallers committed a force along with the secular troops of John of Grailly. But it was too late. On 26 April 1289 the sultan’s men stormed the walls of Tripoli and amongst the slaughtered citizens was Peter of Moncade, the Templar Commander.

King Henry had managed to organise a truce with the sultan, but when a rabble of Lombard peasants and merchants arrived at Acre in response to panicked appeals for help, they embarked on a rampage around the city slaughtering everyone they thought was Muslim and embarrassing the Frankish authorities and military orders as a result. Qalawun was angry. He insisted that the government of Acre make reparation to him for the slaughter. Nobody quite knew the identity of any of the culprits except the obvious ring leaders. William of Beaujeu suggested emptying all the city’s prisons of their Christian prisoners to give to the sultan in recompense. But the Grand Master was overruled. Qalawun had decided that Acre’s days as the capital of a shrunken Christian kingdom were numbered.

Whilst the armies of Damascus and Egypt prepared their siege engines once again, William of Beaujeu’s Muslim informant, an emir called al-Fakhri, told him that the Muslim plan was to direct an assault against Acre and not, as had been widely reported, to undertake an African expedition. Once again, as he had done at Tripoli, the Grand Master sent a warning into the city and once again he was not believed. William even sent his own envoy to Cairo to negotiate with the sultan who offered Acre respite in return for one Venetian penny per head of population. So William put this proposal before the High Court at Acre amidst apparent scenes of howling derision. The offer was rejected outright and William was hounded by the citizens as he left the hall. Once again they thought the Templars had gone to the Muslims with some underhand dealings about which they knew very little.

The Muslim preparations were slow but thorough. The sultan was no longer making Acre a secret target. He had vowed to rid the city of all Christians. But in November 1290 he died just a few miles outside the city. His son, al-Ashraf Khalil, however, had promised his dying father he would finish the job. Still, he put the assault off to the next spring. Acre’s leaders tried to make the most of the respite and sent a delegation to Cairo which included a Templar named Bartholomew Pizan, a Hospitaller and a leading figure of the town who spoke fluent Arabic. Not one of them survived. They were incarcerated by the new sultan and soon perished. Meanwhile, the sultan’s preparations continued. Siege engines large and small made their way to Acre, and tens of thousands of troops accompanied them. By 5 April 1291 they were beneath the walls. Any complacency the Templars or the townsfolk might have had was now gone. Within the walls, looking out on the vast array of the armed Muslim regiments were the Templars, Hospitallers (both stationed in the northern suburb of Montmusard), Teutonic Knights and some troops sent by King Henry along with his brother, Amalric. Edward I had also sent some men from England who had accompanied the Swiss Otto of Grandson. The Venetians and Pisans were there too. Mixed in with these were the townsfolk now called to arms, and the Italians who had so rudely precipitated the earlier riots.

King Henry had recently strengthened the walls of the city. There was a double line of outer walls and a single wall separating the main part of the town from Montmusard. The city’s castle was on this single wall near to where it met with the outer walls. Here, the double walls jut out forming a vulnerable and obvious bulge in the defensive line. The Templars found themselves facing out to the north of Montmusard looking down on the Muslim army of Hama encamped by the sea, whilst the Hospitallers faced the army of Damascus. Al-Ashraf Khalil was camped to the south opposite the Tower of the Legate.

The siege was set to last for a good while. The Christians, having control of the sea were able to bring food over from Cyprus, but they could never have enough fighting men. On 6 April the bombardment started from the sultan’s engines. Also, his engineers began preparations to undermine sections of the walls, whilst thousands of archers fired their missiles into the battlements. The defenders, however, certainly put up a fight. One Christian ship which had a catapult on board did damage to the sultan’s camp, and on 15 April William of Beaujeu conducted a daring night-time raid along with Otto of Grandson on the army of Hama’s camp. However, the tactic was not a success. In the murky darkness the Templars’ horses got their feet caught in the enemy tent’s guy ropes and were thus stricken and their riders captured. Eighteen men were lost. With a similarly disastrous night sortie made by the Hospitallers a few nights later came a decision not to repeat the tactic.

And so the siege dragged on. On 4 May King Henry came to Acre with forty ship loads of troops from Cyprus, mainly infantrymen. They numbered a little over 2,000. But even this was not enough to fully man the vast walls of Acre. Henry decided to send two knights as envoys to speak with the sultan. One was William of Cafran, a Templar, and the other was William of Villiers. They had not come with the keys to the city, they told the sultan. Al-Ashraf Khalil said he would spare the Christians if they surrendered. However, just as the envoys were about to refuse such a demand a huge stone from one of the city’s catapults landed near to where they all stood and the sultan immediately took the view that the Christians had no intention of negotiating. In fact, it was only the intervention of a level-headed emir which prevented the sultan from killing the two knights himself. The two men returned to the city empty handed.

By 8 May the Tower of King Hugh, at the tip of the bulge in the defences, was standing precariously. The Christians torched it and began to retreat. The Towers and walls from here to St Anthony’s Gate were all beginning to crumble due to the work of the Muslim engineers. A new tower built by Henry II lasted until 15 May but also began to collapse. On the morning of 16 May the Muslims poured into the breach and the defenders fell back onto the inner walls. A concerted attack against St Anthony’s Gate, situated on the inner angle of the walls near to the castle, then took place. The Templars and the Hospitallers rushed to its defence and fought bravely. But on the morning of 18 May a general assault was ordered on the entire southern stretch of the defences from St Anthony’s Gate to the shore. The Accursed Tower, at the apex of the bulge, was penetrated and the defenders fell back towards St Anthony’s Gate. Now, amidst the noise and flames, there was fighting on the streets. William of Beaujeu rushed to the defence. His Templars were joined by the Hospitallers, but the enemy were everywhere. The Templar Grand Master had not had time to properly fix his armour plates (The Templar of Tyre says he had picked up another’s armour in haste) and just as he raised his left arm he was struck in the armpit by an enemy spear. He had no shield and the weapon went through him to a ‘palm’s length’. It came through a gap where his armour plates were not joined. The Master turned towards some Italian crusaders and said ‘My Lords, I can do no more, for I am killed: see the wound here!’

The Grand Master was carried back by his men to the Templar quarter, but later died of his wounds. Now the situation was beyond hope. King Henry fled to the ships. Even the wounded Grand Master of the Hospital John of Villiers was dragged onto a ship against his better judgement. At the quayside there were scenes of chaos as people crowded to get onto small craft and sail out to the larger vessels and to safety. Amongst those who capitalised on the desperation of the women and children was a Templar sea captain, Roger of Flor.

There was murder everywhere on the streets of Acre. Women and children were either killed or enslaved. Many people fled to the only remaining part of the city in Christian hands. It was now 25 May. The Temple quarter sticks out into the sea at the south-west tip of Acre. Inside this vast complex of Templar fortifications and buildings, Peter of Sevrey, the order’s Marshal, and the remaining citizens held on for nearly a week until the sultan offered Peter safety if he and the other citizens were to sail away to Cyprus and leave him with the city. Peter agreed, and a hundred Mamelukes were allowed into the Templar quarter whilst their sultan’s banner was hoisted on high. However, these Mamelukes took to molesting the women and mistreating the boys within the area. This provoked a retaliatory attack from the Templars who could hardly allow such open abuse. The enemy banner was ripped down and the Templars slaughtered the offenders. At night Peter sent Theobald Gaudin and a few others away in their ships to Sidon. Theobald had been both a Commander and Turcopolier in the order and had a long history of around three decades in the East. Myths have formed regarding what exactly the man who would soon become the Templars’ penultimate Grand Master took with him in the hold of his ship. Legends soon arose that Theobald took the order’s treasure, but nothing is known for sure.

Al-Ashraf Khalil knew how determined the Templars were and he knew how difficult their defences were to overcome. So, he once again offered the same deal as before. Peter came out under the promise of safety but when he and his party reached the sultan’s tent they were seized and beheaded. The remaining defenders stayed resolute behind the walls. However, these walls were gradually being undermined by the industrious Muslim engineers. By 28 May they were in a state of near collapse. When they did finally disintegrate, the sultan poured men over the rubble. But there were so many of them bearing down upon the shaky structures that a whole section of the fortification came crashing down on everyone, Christian and Muslim alike. Now the sultan’s men were inside the complex, the dreadful slaughter began once again. The roof had finally caved in on Outremer. For those Templars who somehow managed to escape, things would never quite be the same again.

Sidon, Tortosa and the castle at ‘Atlit (Château Pèlerin) were all that remained in Templar control. Theobald Gaudin was elected as Grand Master at Sidon where the Templars remained for a few weeks. Then a large Mameluke army appeared at the door of the city and the Templars withdrew to the castle on the sea to the north of the harbour which is linked to the mainland by a causeway. Theobald set sail for Cyprus apparently intending to return with reinforcements. Messages soon came to the remaining Templar defenders of Sidon from Cyprus urging them to give in. When the Mamelukes began to build their own crossing towards the castle, the Templars abandoned it and sailed along the coast to Tortosa. Two great centres of Templar power remained. Here, at Tortosa, where for so long the order’s knights had held sway in the region and had struck fear into the hearts of enemies, the brothers now prepared to leave. They were gone by 3 August. Their impregnable fortress at ‘Atlit (Château Pèlerin) was never taken. It was abandoned on 14 August and subsequently the Mamelukes destroyed it. With the cities of Tyre and Beirut having already fallen, there were no Christian territories left on the mainland. There was just one tiny little island, that of Arwad (Ru’ad) off the coast from Tortosa, where the Templars would play out a final desperate scene in the great drama of the crusades in 1302 (see p. 217). Despite sending out for help to Europe from his base in Cyprus, Theobald Gaudin did not come to the Holy Land again, although he may well have managed to secure a gathering of 400 brothers at a chapter meeting in Cyprus in 1291. He died on 16 April 1292 or 1293. His successor was the last Grand Master of the order, James of Molay, about whom more has been written than any other. Molay would have a long and troubled stewardship but would show that there was still some fighting to be done. Molay’s preoccupations would eventually turn to the struggle to defend himself against King Philip IV of France, but at the beginning of his time as Grand Master, and for some years afterwards, he will have been thinking of how the Templars could once again reclaim the Holy Land for Christianity.

Entry of Roger de Flor in Constantinople by José Moreno Carbonero

Roger of Flor

Roger was the son of a German Falconer and was an enthusiastic sailor from an early age. He found service on a ship of a Templar sergeant from Marseille who had put in at Brindisi. He later joined the Templars as a sergeant himself and took the captaincy of a vessel called The Falcon, formerly a fine Genoese ship. The vessel was involved in a mixture of trade and ‘piracy’ and the order did well from it. At the fall of Acre The Falcon was in the harbour and Roger used it to rescue rich women and sailed them away with their treasure to ‘Atlit (Château Pèlerin). Although Roger gave a large amount of his proceeds to the order, there was suspicion that he pocketed much himself. His subsequent behaviour, taking The Falcon to Marseille and abandoning it, thus escaping the Grand Master’s attentions, might implicate him further, as does his new found life as a mercenary leader of the Catalan Company. Roger died serving the Byzantines in 1305.

The Fifth Crusade 1213–21 Part I

Pope Honorius III by Giotto di Bondone

Writing in an optimistic mood in 1208 to the crusade enthusiast Duke Leopold VI of Austria, Innocent III characterized holy war as an imitation of Christ, an act of unconditional devotion. In recognition of this he sent Leopold a cloth cross and letters conveying the plenary indulgence. This innocuous exchange encapsulated the distinctive elements of Innocent III’s crusade policy: theological precept, moral conviction, papal authority, pastoral care, administrative control and bureaucratic precision. The developments set in train by the Third Crusade reached new levels of thoroughness as Innocent sought to accomplish what he had failed to achieve in 1202–4, the destruction of Ayyubid Egypt, the recovery of Jerusalem and the spiritual renewal of Christendom. To this end, the so-called Fifth Crusade, planned in 1213, launched in 1215 and fought in a series of running expeditions between 1217 and 1229, marked the climax in papal cooperation with secular power. Innocent is often depicted as the most successful promoter of papal monarchism, wishing to control, even exclude, lay domination in his crusading policy after the debacle of 1202–4. It is frequently asserted that the Fifth Crusade represented the church’s greatest and last serious attempt to run a holy war though its own leadership. Yet although the last acts of the Fifth Crusade were conducted in a hail of mutual recrimination and mistrust between popes and the emperor, Frederick II, leading to the bizarre, but not entirely unprecedented, scene in 1228 of a Holy Land crusade under an excommunicated leader, as with the Albigensian wars, Innocent III and his successor Honorius III based their policy on trying to obtain the cooperation and support of lay monarchs. The Fifth Crusade was intended to marry the universal ambitions of the papacy with the imperialism of the Hohenstaufen rulers of Germany and southern Italy. Innocent’s involvement of the young Frederick II opened the prospect of a new order in Christendom. A mutually advantageous acceptance of the respective authority of pope and emperor would be signalled by the fulfilment of the eastern aspirations of Conrad III, Frederick I and Henry VI no less than those of Urban II, Eugenius III or Gregory VIII. The failure of the enterprise, and the reciprocal demonization that dominated papal-Hohenstaufen relations for the subsequent fifty years, obscured this central feature of Innocent’s conception. If historical turning points exist, the Fifth Crusade was one; the direction of international high politics could have been set on a very different course.

The organization and conduct of the Fifth Crusade witnessed growing bureaucracy. In concert with developments in secular government and law, increasingly the crusade was becoming a written phenomenon. Preachers received licences and based their sermons on circulated papal bulls. Recruitment and finance was sustained by central and local record keeping, lists of crucesignati, accounts of moneys raised and expended, and written authorization for individuals’ legal and fiscal privileges. While the creation of new technologies of record may not coincide with changes in what is being recorded, the weight of writing indicated the growing institutionalization of crusading as a social and religious activity.


Crusade preaching, taxation and liturgical propaganda reached an extended audience beyond the ranks of those who were able to join up: the poor, the old, the landless, the rootless and the young, all in their ways disenfranchised from direct involvement in the increasingly highly structured armies of the cross. The broader social and religious demands of crusading stimulated engagement in what would later be described as civil society, as observers, commentators, critics and participants, by sections of the community not necessarily included in the ruling hierarchies. The Albigensian crusades were attended by so-called ribaldi, low-born camp followers, as well as local peasants. The organization of some contingents, such as the fleets from northern European waters, revolved around sworn communes, wide consultation across social groups and a measure of general debate, even occasionally, as at fraught moments during the Fourth Crusade, public consent. The collective commitment to the crusade evinced in communal ceremonies of dedication, in cities from London to Cologne to Venice, was matched by the development of regular parochial rituals of devotion and support. Taking the cross, like sermons, assumed the witness of congregations. Innocent III’s offer of the indulgence to those not themselves soldiers of the cross and the spread of crusade taxation further lent the negotium sanctum a genuinely popular, public dimension. Political and social anxieties could be articulated through support for the transcendent cause of the Holy Land by groups habitually excluded, ignored, marginalized or simply disorganized by virtue of low material status. An extraordinary demonstration of this penetration of the crusade into wider political consciousness and communal action came with the phenomenon known as the Children’s Crusade.

In the winter and spring of 1211–12, Innocent III’s habitual concerns at the sinfulness of the faithful, the heretics in Languedoc, the Moors in Spain and the precarious plight of Outremer were focused by papal decree and battalions of preachers on just two: the Albigensian crusades and the advances of the Almohads of north Africa in the Iberian peninsula. An intensive recruiting campaign for the Languedoc war in the Rhineland and northern France was led by James of Vitry and Archdeacon William of Paris, Simon of Montfort’s siege expert. At the same time, Almohad victories in the autumn of 1211 prompted Innocent III to appeal for aid for the Christians in Spain, instituting a series of special penitential processions to be held in mid-May. The impression of heightened crisis, reinforced by repeated calls for Apostolic simplicity and active penance, through taking the cross or collective liturgical contrition, stimulated unlicensed popular response. In at least two regions this coalesced into demonstrations of public support for the defence of Christendom from those not normally associated with leadership of formal crusading.

In the spring and summer of 1212, crowds of penitents assembled in the Low Countries, the Rhineland and northern France, areas heavily evangelized for the crusade. They called for an amendment of life and, in places, the liberation of the Holy Land. Some contingents apparently crossed the Alps into Italy in search of transport to the Levant. Details of intentions varied locally, but all these marches were seen to have been inspired in part by the rumours of the threats to Christendom, the dissemination of a redemptive theology emphasizing the crusade as a collective penitential act and the failure of the leaders of society to perform their obligations on either count. The most striking feature of these marches lay in that they were conducted by ‘pueri’, literally children. In fact, these ‘pueri’ may have been less juvenile than the name implied. To a Cologne chronicler, who may be reporting eyewitness memories, the pueri ‘ranged in age from six years to full maturity’. Norman and Alpine monks recorded that the marchers were adolescents and old people. Accounts indicated that participants came from outside the usual hierarchies of social power – youths, girls, the unmarried, sometimes excluding even widows – or economic status: shepherds, ploughmen, carters, agricultural workers and rural artisans without a settled stake in land or community, rootless and mobile. Signs of anti-clericalism and the absence of clerical leadership accentuated this sense of social exclusion. Yet despite the absence of ecclesiastical authority, there was little church condemnation. The popular movements of 1212 demonstrated the success of Innocent’s evangelism. The marches sprang from communal anxiety, not specific social or economic hardship. Dissatisfaction with the inability of the leaders of the social hierarchy to secure victory in Spain, Languedoc or Palestine may have coincided with a more diffuse trend whereby rural populations were attracted to towns, especially at a time of increasing demographic pressure in the countryside. Yet the immediate impulse appeared to be religious.

The recorded chronology of events is confusing. There were two distinct areas of enthusiasm, one in northern France, south-west of Paris, the other in the Low Countries and the Rhineland. From chronicle accounts it is possible to argue that the Ile de France marchers combined with those from the Rhineland, or, less likely, that the Rhinelanders joined the French uprising or that the two movements remained separate, coinciding only in timing. According to the Cologne chronicler, around Easter (25 March) and Whitsun (13 May) 1212 large processions of youths from the traditional crusade recruiting grounds of the Rhineland, the Netherlands, north-eastern France and western Germany, defying family and friends, began to move in the general direction of Italy. Although some groups assembled in Lorraine, a number being stopped at Metz, the main body gathered at Cologne, where a leader emerged called Nicholas, a youth from the surrounding countryside. As reported, their declared purpose was the relief of the Holy Land. A contingent of crusaders from Cologne under the provost of the cathedral had joined Simon of Montfort in Languedoc in April that year, but this commitment had been too restricted in scope to satisfy the spiritual expectations aroused by the attendant evangelizing. Instead, the failure of the experienced, rich and proud (an apparent reference to the Fourth Crusade) was to be redeemed by the innocent, pure and humble. Some of the German marchers adopted the pilgrim’s scrip and staff as well as the cross. Their leader, Nicholas, was remembered as carrying a tau cross, a symbol elsewhere associated with Francis of Assisi and his dynamic brand of poverty and humility.

The German processions were reported to have assembled at Speyer on 25 July 1212 before heading south through Alsace to the Alpine passes, probably the St Gotthard or the Simplon, before arriving at Piacenza on 20 August. This sequence of events fits badly with the Cologne chronicle’s dating of the beginning of the movement to March, April and May. Other accounts trace marchers at Liège and Trier earlier in July, which might find confirmation in the Cologne writer’s mention of trouble at Metz. Some modern historians have tried to combine the Lorraine, Netherlands and Rhineland crusaders as mustering together at Speyer, while others have explained the Lorraine marchers as coming from further west, from the uprising in northern France. There, the link between the official programme of special penitential processions appeared even more specific. Here the leader who emerged from the crowd, Stephen from Cloyes, near Vendôme, was a shepherd, a highly symbolic occupation in the context of Christian populist fundamentalism. The area of enthusiasm, the Dunois, Chartrain and Ile de France, like the Rhineland, had recently witnessed recruitment for the Albigensian war. In June 1212, Stephen led groups of penitents – boys, girls, youths, old men – to St Denis near Paris, coinciding with the annual Lendit Fair, the high point of the abbey’s pilgrim and commercial calendar. Stephen’s followers carried crosses and banners, the trappings of liturgy, while chanting ‘Lord God, exalt Christianity! Lord God, restore to us the True Cross!’ echoing papal preaching. Some of Stephen’s companions may have been recruited for the Albigensian war, but there is no exactly contemporary evidence linking his march with the recovery of the Holy Land or the simultaneous German enterprise. If the Cologne chronicle’s dating is accepted, then it is possible that rumours of the marches in the Rhineland provoked emulation in northern France. If the Lorraine and Speyer July dates reflect the chronology of the eastern expedition, then the inspiration, and even reinforcements, may have travelled in the opposite direction.

The fate of those penitents and crusaders who reached the Mediterranean is similarly clouded, not least by later lurid romantic fantasies. The German bands, once in Italy, dispersed. Some may have reached Genoa, or even Brindisi and Marseilles. Others – a handful of the many thousands who set out – returned home. Stories circulated that some embarked for the east while others had been sold into slavery or worse. There is no convincing evidence of the French marchers making a separate journey to the Mediterranean ports. All soon vanish from the record, leaving only startled memories or eccentric morality tales. Unlike similar subsequent popular uprisings associated with crusading, these outbursts left no trace in the surviving papal registers. However, whatever its fate, the so-called Children’s Crusade reveals a popular and ordered reaction by sections of the usually silent public, in this case it seems predominantly rural, to the propagandizing of the church authorities. This was no outpouring of inchoate mass hysteria. The zeal may have been untempered by official direction. Ecclesiastical unease was evident. Yet few demonstrations of the effectiveness of the thirteenth-century church’s redemptive message could have been more potent. The events of 1212 reveal the success of Innocent’s policy of using crusade preaching and ceremonial to promote reformist as well as militant messages. The depiction of those involved as shepherds or pueri captured the preachers’ insistence on a return to apostolic simplicity, free from the snares and obligations of materialism. Like the friars who were soon to become the shock troops of church evangelism, the marchers in 1212 were mendicants. Initially at least, some clerical observers were distinctly sympathetic to the marchers’ aspirations. The extent and potential of spiritual excitement throughout the wider Christian public exposed in 1212 may have encouraged Innocent to launch a new general crusade to the Holy Land the following year. One Alpine monastery preserved an apt, if possibly ben trovato, tradition that Nicholas of Cologne himself joined this new expedition and found himself a few years later facing the infidel at Damietta on the Nile.


The papal encyclical Quia Maior of April 1213, the conciliar decree Ad Liberandam of November 1215 and the attendant papal instructions to preachers, legates and tax collectors set in motion a vast new enterprise to recover Jerusalem while establishing rhetorical, legal, fiscal, liturgical and administrative norms of official crusading for the next century and a half. The circumstances seemed propitious; the planning meticulous. In July 1212, the Almohads had been destroyed at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. Simon of Montfort, after successfully completing his annexation of the Trencavel lands in Languedoc in 1211, had secured control of most of the Toulousain. With the political objectives of the anti-heresy war seemingly achieved or even exceeded, Innocent III suspended that crusade in January 1213. By contrast, in Outremer, the truce between the Franks and Sultan al-Adil of Egypt, renewed in 1211 and due to expire in 1217, barely concealed the Christians’ weakness, penned up in a few northern Syrian enclaves. John of Brienne, king of Jerusalem, regent for his infant daughter Queen Isabella, doubted that the truce would hold and urged a new crusade. While al-Adil showed no willingness to provoke a western challenge, the recent fortification of Mt Tabor in western Galilee by his son, al Mu ‘azzam of Damascus, posed a potential threat to Acre and the Franks’ precarious presence on its surrounding plain. Given western sensitivities, it took little to arouse a Holy Land scare. Mt Tabor, ‘where Christ revealed to his disciples a vision of his future glory’, supplied the pope with a casus belli.

The secular politics of western Christendom provided an equal, if riskier, opportunity. The German succession remained in dispute between the fading former papal protégé Otto IV and the then pope’s new favourite, Frederick of Hohenstaufen, son of Henry VI. Their struggle reverberated across Germany and Italy, subsuming and focusing myriad local rivalries and political contests. The consequences of Simon of Montfort’s conquests in Languedoc had created a whole class of dispossessed nobles as well as a legion of angry, suspicious or fearful neighbours, beginning with Peter of Aragon. England had been under a papal interdict since 1208 over King John’s refusal to accept Innocent’s nominee Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury. Now, faced by an assassination plot in 1212, hints of a papal deposition and French preparations for invasion, John was eager to reacha settlement that would allow him to take the offensive to recover his lost French lands. Modern historians have commonly assumed that the distractions of these warring monarchs allowed Innocent III to fashion the crusade to his own design. Yet, so far from regarding these divisions as a hindrance, Innocent exploited them as an opportunity. He began Quia Maior by insisting that the transcendent cause of the Holy Land demanded the active support of all Christian faithful on pain of damnation. This required a decisive turning away from material concerns to follow Christ. To assist such a commitment, the goods and property of crucesignati would receive the protection of the church, thus reinforcing the moral imperative to resolve temporal conflicts with practical security. Innocent placed the resolution of civil conflict at the heart of the preaching of the new crusade. Crusading had traditionally been associated with management of disputes, witnessed by the persistent links with the Peace and Truce of God throughout the twelfth century. It provided a context within which disputing parties could resolve their differences without loss of face or advantage, as, notoriously, between the Angevins and Philip II. Innocent, with characteristic intellectual clarity, administrative verve, and the experience of fifteen years as pope, now used this passive tool as a weapon to impose ecclesiastical arbitration on material as well as spiritual problems. This was no accident, rather a recognized property of crusading in the academic circle around the pope. One of the leading preachers of the Fifth Crusade, the Englishman Robert of Courçon, legate to France from 1213, explained in an academic treatise how ‘recently’ a number of barons had used the crusade to remove themselves from an awkward choice of rebellion or disinheritance, probably a reference to the counts of Flanders, Blois and Perche after the collapse of their alliance with Richard I against their lord Philip II in 1199.

Quia Maior established a comprehensive practical as well as religious framework for a new crusade. After presenting the universal moral obligation, the continuing scandal of Christians in Muslim captivity and the immediate crisis threatening the Holy Land, the pope announced an unequivocal plenary indulgence for all who took the cross and served or sent proxies at their own expense and to the proxies themselves: ‘full forgiveness of their sins of which they make truthful oral confession with contrite hearts truly repented of’. Familiar temporal privileges were rehearsed: ecclesiastical protection of crusaders’ property; moratorium on debts to Christians and their cancellation if owed to Jews. Citing his authority to ‘speak as Vicar of Christ for Christ’, Innocent instructed the clergy, civil communities and non-crusading lay magnates to supply troops for three years out of their resources and demanded naval help from maritime cities. The pope promised that he would also contribute. Income from clerical benefices could be pledged for three years. Trade with Muslims was banned, as was consorting with pirates. The efficacy of the practical rested on the penitential. Special monthly processions were to be accompanied by the preaching of the cross. Prayers for the Holy Land were to be supported by fasting and almsgiving with special chests placed in churches to receive pious donations. A new intercession was to be inserted in the mass. More controversial, but no less pragmatic, was Innocent’s invitation ‘that anyone who wishes, except those bound by religious profession, may take the cross in such a way that his vow may be commuted [i.e. replaced by another penance], redeemed [i.e. dispensed in return for a cash payment equivalent to the cost of crusading] or deferred by apostolic mandate when urgent or evident expediency demands it’. Poverty, incapacity, illness, age, gender or legitimate prior calls no longer prevented the enjoyment of crusade indulgence, a measure at once reducing the delays in checking suitability of putative crucesignati and increasing their numbers and social range. To focus attention and resources on the Holy Land expedition, Innocent cancelled the crusade indulgences for those fighting the Moors in Spain or the heretics in Languedoc who came from outside those regions. Knowing from the experience of the previous quarter of a century how long recruitment could take, Innocent preferred to wait until recruits had taken the cross before setting a deadline for the crusade muster.

Quia Maior operated within a wider policy. Simultaneously, Innocent summoned a general council of the church to meet in 1215 to discuss church reform and the crusade, and instituted elaborate systems to preach the cross. Papal control was central. The pope himself took the lead in Italy. Legates were appointed for France and Scandinavia. In Hungary, each bishop was authorized to preach the cross. Elsewhere, panels with legatine powers were established in every province to delegate the work of recruiting to deputies. Preachers were instructed to use the details of Quia Maior as the basis of their message. To avoid the controversy that swamped Fulk of Neuilly before the Fourth Crusade, they were to refuse money for themselves and, reminiscent of the bishop of Osma and Dominic Guzman in Languedoc, to travel modestly and set a good example by sober behaviour. On the ground, preachers kept written records of those they recruited and were ordered by the pope to deposit any crusade donations with local religious houses before rendering annual returns to the papal Curia so Innocent could assess the progress of the vast operation. The pope maintained close scrutiny over his agents across Europe. To the dean of Speyer’s request for clarification, Innocent reiterated the need to deflect Languedoc crusaders to the Holy Land, to allow recruits to take the cross despite their wives’ opposition, and to follow the encyclical’s radical extension of vow redemption and commutation, which was clearly arousing some concern. At his request, Bishop Conrad of Regensberg was allowed a grander entourage than Innocent had proposed. He was also permitted to absolve certain categories of criminals provided they took the cross. The abbot of Rommersdorf in Austria compiled a collection of Quia Maior and other papal letters as a reference tool while other preachers, such as James of Vitry, descanted on Innocent’s themes.

While the preaching campaign began, Innocent prepared the diplomatic ground, once more aided by events. John of England’s submission to the pope in 1213, the defeat of his allies by Philip II of France at Bouvines in 1214 and the subsequent English civil war prompted the king to take the cross on Ash Wednesday (4 March) 1215, using his new status in Magna Carta three months later to postpone settling disputed judgements from his predecessors’ reigns. John’s intentions probably owed more to politics than penance, adopting the cross may have been an attempt to facilitate a settlement with his enemies, many of whom were or were about to become crucesignati. The commitment to the crusade among the English propertied classes reached levels similar to the Third Crusade. The context of civil war also influenced Frederick II of Germany and Sicily’s decision to take the cross in the same year, a move encouraged by papal agents now actively supporting his cause. Further east, Leopold VI of Austria and King Andrew of Hungary were already crucesignati. Such was his determination to involve the whole of Christendom, Innocent even called on the Venetians to honour their still unfulfilled and unabsolved crusade vow of 1202.

The array of monarchs, princes and cities added to a sense of united purpose when the 1,300 ecclesiastical delegates from all parts of Latin Christendom from the Atlantic to Syria met at the Lateran Palace in Rome in November 1215. These included most of those appointed to preach the cross, the Latin Patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem, and representatives from the Maronite church in Lebanon (in communion with Rome since 1181) and of the Melkite (i.e. Syrian and Egyptian Greek Orthodox) archbishop of Alexandria, with whom the pope had maintained a regular correspondence over the conditions of Frankish prisoners in Egypt. The business of the council was Christian renewal, reform and the crusade, regarded by Innocent as different aspects of the same religious enterprise. The decisions concerning the crusade suggest some hard bargaining, with the pope not necessarily getting his way. Innocent’s defence of Raymond VI of Toulouse failed to convince the council, who condemned the count in favour of Simon of Montfort, whose activities had long since given the pope pause. More general papal anxieties over the legal proprieties of the war against heretics were seemingly brushed aside in the council’s third decree, which established their canonical legitimacy as attracting the equivalent indulgences and privileges ‘as is granted to those who go to the aid of the Holy Land’. This may mark a victory for the bellicose French hierarchy, which had consistently been more robust in prosecuting the Languedoc campaigns than the more legally fastidious pope. The reverse may have been true regarding the plans for the Holy Land crusade, with the implementation of the provisions in Quia Maior regarding vow redemptions, debt and tax exemption causing disquiet in French official circles as being too radical.

The council’s final decree (no. 71), Ad Liberandam, largely endorsed Quia Maior but with additions, modifications and omissions. It established the ‘sanctum propositum’, the ‘negotium Jesu Christi’ in canon law. After two years of active preaching and recruitment, the tone was urgent. The muster was fixed for June 1217, significantly in the ports of the Sicilian regno, the lands of the new papal protégé and imperial candidate Frederick II. For those intending to take a land route, a legate would be appointed. Clerics were encouraged to participate and allowed to fund themselves from their benefices. The pope contributed 30,000 pounds and a ship for the contingent from the city of Rome. Tax exemption was clarified, although behind the scenes concessions may have been made to Philip II, who already in March 1215 had published an ordinance restricting crusaders’ legal immunities in accordance with French customs. The direct encouragement to indiscriminate adoption of the cross and vow redemption, another bone of contention, was dropped, although not explicitly contradicted, a convenient obfuscation. Proportionate indulgences for ‘aid’ remained. Tournaments were banned for three years and a general Peace, backed by the threat of excommunication, was instituted for four years.

By far the most important innovation involved the imposition of a tax of a twentieth on ecclesiastical incomes or three years. Perhaps as a quid pro quo, the pope and cardinals agreed to pay a tenth. Innocent’s earlier attempt to tax the church on papal authority in 1199 had failed. Now, to ensure compliance, the explicit approval of the general council, ‘sacro concilio approbante’, was invoked, in the conciliar decree and in every letter sent out concerning the tax’s collection. Both Roman law and political custom across Europe, as, famously, in Clauses 12 and 14 of Magna Carta five months earlier, indicated the importance of representative consent for extraordinary fiscal burdens. To effect his financial and legal arrangements, Innocent was simply bowing to contemporary constitutionalism to bind all parties more absolutely than any unilateral recourse to papal absolutism. Clerical crusade taxation combined with the extension of full and proportionate indulgences redeemable by material and cash contributions, the detailed provision for alms and donations, and the beginnings of an international ecclesiastical network of collection and audit, to transform the way crusades operated. All subsequent major crusading enterprises sought similar financial provision, especially ecclesiastical taxes, often to the consternation of local churchmen. The translation of the ideology of inclusive obligation to the cause of the Lord’s War into cash deposits, while arousing the cynicism of some, allowed for more central control of operations by crusade commanders with access to these funds. This made crusading attractive to magnates and kings while encouraging greater professionalism in recruitment, funding and military organization. Immediately after the Lateran Council, the fiscal scheme lent a new coherence to fundraising and papal control. In law, finance and management, Innocent left an indelible imprint on the business of the cross.

The Fifth Crusade 1213–21 Part II


By the time Ad Liberandam received the council’s approval on 14 December 1215, preaching and recruitment had been going for over two years. It was to continue intensively for another six years then, more sporadically, for at least a further six. The undertaking was massive, in every province and diocese from Scotland to France to Sweden to Hungary to the Mediterranean and even Acre itself, whose new bishop James of Vitry was despatched east in 1216 to drum up local support. It is the first such campaign that has left detailed evidence of every stage of its operation: the reception and dissemination of papal letters; chronicle and personal accounts of the preaching and its effect; the contents of sermons; the mechanics of spreading propaganda between preachers; accounts of money raised and spent. All indicates the grandeur of Innocent’s design. However, its success depended on innumerable local encounters and individual responses.

The success of crusade preaching depended on skilful manipulation of listeners’ aural, intellectual, emotional and visual perceptions. Evidence from the preaching tours after 1213 shows few opportunities were missed to provide the most receptive circumstances for the papal message. Oliver, scholasticus (i.e. teacher) at the cathedral school at Cologne, later bishop of Paderborn, recorded his experiences preaching the cross to Netherlanders in 1214. At the village of Bedum in northern Frisia he preached after mass to a crowd that overflowed the church into the fields outside, a familiar literary and possibly actual scene. His text, Galatians 6:14 (‘God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’) exploited the rhetoric of the cross and Christ Crucified in Quia Maior, the language of its special crusade prayer and the liturgy of the Eucharist to emphasize penance, obligation, vocation. On cue, so Oliver reported, a vision of three crosses appeared on the sky, two empty, the one in the centre bearing the image of the crucified Christ. Witnesses, apparently about a hundred drawn from all social and age groups, literally saw the point. One recognized the crosses as predicting the recapture of the Holy Land. Another, who had been following Oliver’s preaching tour for some time, was finally persuaded by this visible evidence to take the cross. Other similar apparitions in Frisia confirmed the message of Bedum. Such celestial manifestations were increasingly common in accounts of crusade preaching and usually credited, as here, with inspiring heavy recruitment. In the Cologne region, the success of John of Xanten was directly attributed to such phenomena. The link between cloud-gazing and the spoken message, in sermon and liturgy, was clear. At Bedum, Oliver recorded, the vision lasted for as long as it took to sing mass. However the effect was contrived during actual sermons, news of such wonders spread by letter to fellow preachers and, from them, to later chronicle descriptions.

Other techniques included prophecy. One circulated after the accession of Honorius III as pope in 1216 told of how in 1187 the future pope had been apprised by a mysterious old man, later presumed to be St Peter, that Jerusalem would be regained during his pontificate. This clutching at straws seemed to provide a necessary adjunct to the official programme of evangelical preaching that the abbot of Rommersdorf kept in his letter book. The use of the supernatural reflected the context of the preaching. In Frisia and the Rhineland in 1214 the emphasis lay on collective, public visions, with reports careful to record details of time and place. A decade later, a mission to Marseilles under the provost of Arles, which claimed to have enlisted 30,000 citizens for the cross, was accompanied by a series of private miracles and personal visions. Women in ecstatic trances saw ‘many secrets of the cross’. Although numerous anecdotes favoured by crusade preachers or poets cast women more often as obstacles to male recruitment, either as wives or lovers, female commitment could be presented as further evidence of universal appeal. At Genoa in the autumn of 1216 James of Vitry managed to attract large numbers of noblewomen to take the cross as a prelude to enlisting their husbands. At Genoa and Marseilles, the preachers were careful to publicize their experiences and to establish that their crusade work formed part of a more general campaign to assert orthodoxy.

The wider political dimensions of the recruitment campaign emphasized the resolution of conflict. Just as in Marseilles, where reception of the crusade acted as a ritual of reconciliation between the church and a city under the ban of excommunication, so Oliver of Paderborn’s tour of western Germany and Netherlands seemed to be aimed at areas supportive of Otto IV, even though the crusade was sponsored by Hohenstaufen partisans such as the Fourth Crusade veteran Bishop Conrad of Halberstadt, as well as by Frederick II himself. James of Vitry’s preaching in Genoa was aimed at securing peace between the city and its enemies. Between 1214 and 1219, disputing factions within Bologna were drawn together to sponsor and join a crusade contingent. Similar procedures characterized the activities of crusade preachers across Tuscany and northern Italy, led, from 1217, by Cardinal Ugolino of Ostia, the future Pope Gregory IX. He helped engineer pacification of disputes at Lucca, Pisa, Padua, Pistoia, Genoa, Bologna and Venice. By 1221, armed with money from the clerical twentieth, Ugolino was easing his diplomatic path with grants of funds to mercenaries for the eastern enterprise as well as crucesignati, a distinction that reflected the changes wrought in crusade recruitment by the relaxation of conditions for taking the cross and the arrangements for central church funding. More prominently, Robert of Courçon, crusade legate in France from 1213, attempted, without success, to resolve the Anglo-French conflict for the sake of the Holy Land. While managing to recruit a few magnates, Robert failed prevent the campaigns in northern France of 1214, which ended in the defeat of King John, or the French invasion of England in 1216–17. John’s adoption of the cross in March 1215 and Prince Louis of France’s crusading jaunt to Languedoc that spring owed nothing to Robert’s efforts.

These different aspects of the function and conduct of crusade preaching and recruitment were reinforced by the sermons’ contents. Playing on the mutually supporting emotions generated by the plight of the Holy Land, personal penitence, corporate guilt and communal anger, preachers’ exempla – uplifting anecdotes – were crafted to match theology and recruitment by encapsulating common assumptions, anxieties and expectations. According to the collection of preaching materials assembled during the raising of the Fifth Crusade in England, known as the Ordinatio de predicatione Sancti Crucis, exempla were designed to attract attention, prevent boredom, inspire contrition and encourage the rejection of earthly vanities. Their form may have been deliberately demotic, punchy vignettes in the French vernacular in contrast to the Latin meditations on the figure of Christ Crucified that comprised the bulk of the Ordinatio. While much of the text explains the significance of the cross and the requirement on the faithful to imitate and follow Christ, a section, ‘The call (or Vocation) of men to the cross’, uses repeated refrains and the exempla to transmit the message to the audience’s memory and arouse immediate engagement through the frisson of almost trance-like emotion, a sort of flexible liturgy. Many exempla involved crusade heroes and heroics, stressing the heavenly reward for those who died. Other anxieties concerning the process of becoming a crucesignatus were addressed: family pressure, difficulty with obstructive spouses, the pain of leaving children, the value of the indulgence. The two strands, heroic and domestic, signified the double battle waged by the crucesignatus, against the enemy within – doubt, luxury, sin, the devil – and the enemy without, the Saracen. While some anecdotes did the rounds of crusade preachers, assuming common currency, others attempted to explain the theology of crusading with more local resonance. The divine guarantee to crucesignati was confirmed ‘as if by charter’, a familiar legal image to the property owners of western Europe.36 One rather charming exemplum, recorded after the Fifth Crusade, was aimed at the sort of Netherlandish audience to whom Oliver of Paderborn preached. Just as people in Flanders pole-vaulted over small canals, so the crusade indulgence allowed crucesignati to pole-vault across purgatory. Elsewhere, gender resistance to crusading was addressed in stories of the consequences – uniformly dire – of women obstructing their spouses from taking the cross, just as later in the century more sympathetic accounts of the involvement of the Virgin Mary and miracles of the Holy Blood were thought to encourage female support. Accounts of local heroes and their martyr’s deaths spoke directly to the practical fears of potential crucesignati as well as to their wider patterns of devotion and belief.

Tapping into popular religious enthusiasm and anxieties at the same time as offering social respectability, the patronage of the church and money appeared to be highly successful. Oliver of Paderborn asserts that his labours among the coastal settlements and islands of the Netherlands netted at least 15,000 fighters, who, with the Rhineland recruits, required a fleet of 300 ships to carry them east. Such a prominent and potentially disruptive church enterprise inevitably did not pass without controversy. In France, the activities of Robert of Courçon ran foul of royal interests and magnates’ rights. Official apologists criticized the whole approach to vow redemption and commutation inaugurated by Quia Maior, a hostility that may have contributed to the toning down of such provisions in the crusade conciliar decree in 1215. Another consequence was possibly less predictable. The wide authority delegated to regional agents allowed for highly devolved recruitment. Despite Innocent III’s conciliar proclamation in November 1215 that the expedition should be prepared to depart on 1 June 1217 from the ports of southern Italy and Sicily, no mechanisms were devised to coordinate the gathering of so many autonomous local, regional or national groups. Innocent knew from his experiences of 1198–1202 and memories of 1187–90 how long a major eastern expedition could take to assemble, so his deliberately long preparation period of four years was prudent. However, the pope’s and the council’s failure to address the issue of unified leadership and planning of the sort seen in 1146–7, 1188–90, 1201–3 and even 1095–6, bequeathed a distinctive character to the Fifth Crusade, at once universal and endemically fissiparous. The scope of papal centralization grated with the complexity of its own devolved operation, producing damaging and potentially fatal political weakness. In the very size and ambition of the project lay the seeds of its failure.

By contrast, too, with previous mass expeditions, the Fifth Crusade was not dominated by recruits from the kingdom of France. Many important French magnates took the cross, including the dukes of Burgundy and Brabant and the counts of Bar, la Marche and Nevers, the last a veteran of the Languedoc wars. Recruitment from eastern France and Champagne, traditional areas of crusade enthusiasm, appeared brisk, even though it was complicated in Champagne by becoming entangled in a protracted succession dispute. Anecdotal evidence indicated large-scale adoption of the cross from all sections of society in town and country. However, the Albigensian adventure and Prince Louis’s invasion of England in 1216–17 offered alternative occupation, even to crucesignati waiting to go east. At the same time, a combination of Robert of Courçon’s wider puritanical agenda and the legal and fiscal implications of the papal arrangements aroused conflicting emotions, including resistance. Philip II and some leading nobles objected to what they regarded as papal interference in French customs and the prohibitions on usury loudly endorsed by Legate Robert. Odo of Burgundy objected to the church’s blanket protection given to crusaders and their property, their immunity for repayment of debts and the ban on Jewish credit. There were stories of tensions between lords and the mass of crucesignati and complaints that French crusaders were still being forced to pay taxes, despite earlier promises to them to the contrary. A formal agreement between Philip II and the French episcopacy in March 1215 sought to limit the impact of the fiscal, credit and legal implications of Quia Maior, for example by removing immunity from those charged with capital crimes and certain civil suits concerning obligations to lords. Crusaders’ protection risked disrupting tenurial as well as financial obligations. Negotiated limitations on privileges became a common feature of thirteenth-century crusading, a seemingly important prerequisite for the harmonious cooperation of church and state over the intrusion of canon law into the habitual conduct of secular life and the rights of governments increasingly conscious of their legal jurisdiction. Yet, whatever the reaction to his controversial mission in France, Robert of Courcon, one of western Europe’s leading intellectuals, was to die in the fetid camp before Damietta in the last days of 1218. The crusade depended for its success on thousands of similar commitments.

In England, recruitment was interrupted by the civil war of 1215–17 to which, with ecclesiastical encouragement, some protagonists as well as observers applied the instruments and rhetoric of holy war. Following King John’s reconciliation with the papacy in 1213, his rule was supported by the presence of a succession of papal legates. Preaching the cross was in the hands of a team of academics, Walter, archdeacon of London, Philip of Oxford, a veteran of organizing the Fourth Crusade, John of Kent and, after 1214, William of London and Dean Leo of Wells. The crusade became an important political gesture with the king’s adoption of the cross in March 1215, a precedent followed, on John’s death, by his nine-year-old son and successor, Henry III, immediately after his coronation in October 1216. Both sides in the civil war were led by crucesignati, some of whom were offered commutation of their vows if they fought for the royalist cause while others may even have been induced to take the cross to fight for the king, an early and rather confused example of a crusade with an essentially secular political purpose. Despite attempts to the contrary, in England the crusade not only failed to achieve a political reconciliation, it may have temporarily exacerbated divisions as one side tried to appropriate a cause common to both. Only once the civil war had ended, when magnates from both sides left for the east, did the reconciling aspects of the Holy Land crusade emerge. Between 1218 and 1221, departing crusaders included rebels, such as the earls of Hereford and Winchester and the rebel leader Robert FitzWalter, and royalists such as the earl of Chester, who may, as John’s executor, have been fulfilling his late master’s crusade vow, and the loyalist captain Savaric of Mauléon. Savaric’s contacts with crusading illustrate the futility of judging crusaders’ motives and perceptions, still less the integrity of the institution itself. He fought against Simon of Montfort’s crusaders at Castelnaudary in 1211 and seems to have temporarily commuted his crusader vow in favour of defending the Angevin cause in England in 1216, before joining the Fifth Crusade in Egypt and, finally, accompanying Louis VIII’s crusade to Languedoc in 1226. A professional fighting man, Poitevin lord and royal servant, Savaric seemed attracted to paymasters and respectability. His actions reveal much about the cosmopolitan reach of the western European aristocracy but little of any inner spiritual life.

The English contingent was not negligible but without royal leadership it lacked cohesion in structure or timing of departure. Groups, based around lordship or regional affinities, reached Egypt on each biannual passage from western ports. The earl of Chester, briefly a strong voice in the crusade’s high command, left soon after the capture of Damietta in November 1219 after two years’ stay, while the earl of Winchester had arrived only shortly before. Some, such as Philip of Aubigny, only appeared in eastern waters after Damietta had been returned to the sultan in 1221, while the bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches, the controversial former justiciar, only took the cross eleven days after the city had, unknown to him, fallen. Repeatedly during the Egyptian campaign, the English presence was noted. The earl of Arundel played a prominent role in acrimonious debates on strategy. It was later recorded that, after the capture of Damietta in 1219, to honour the English presence two converted mosques were dedicated to the national saints Edmund the Martyr and Thomas Becket. The new church of St Edmund was decorated with wall paintings of the martyr’s passion commissioned by an English knight, Richard of Argentan, who during the expedition made himself something of an expert on eastern customs and legends. Whatever their military impact, the English crusaders reignited a habit of involvement in eastern crusading that lasted for generations. Philip of Aubigny, royalist and tutor to the young Henry III, arrived off Damietta in September 1221 to find the Christian evacuation in full swing. His father, Ralph, had died in the Third Crusade. In 1228 Philip again took the cross and, with his nephew Oliver and a significant company of knights, embarked for Palestine in 1235. He died in Jerusalem (which had been restored by treaty in 1229) the following year and was buried outside the church of the Holy Sepulchre in view and under the feet of all who visited. Philip’s tomb slab, bearing his arms, name and inscription ‘May his soul rest in peace’, still survives. In the words of his contemporary, the St Alban’s monk Matthew Paris, it was a grave ‘he had long yearned for in life’.

This process of piecemeal departures, fragmented leadership and almost permanent recruitment stretched across Germany and Italy. From the time he took the cross in 1215 with papal encouragement, Frederick II, king of Sicily as well as Germany, became the putative commander of the crusade. His departure for the east was repeatedly predicted and constantly expected. From his southern Italian ports, Innocent III announced in 1215, the main fleets were supposed to depart. Frederick’s failure to fulfil the vow, which he repeated at his imperial coronation in 1220, deprived his subjects of a focus for engagement. However, given the nature of his kingdoms as well as the role the crusade played in resolving a whole series of local and national disputes, Frederick’s delay, while central to the expedition’s weak leadership, was not crucial to the response, except in the kingdom of Sicily. There, the main contribution came as a direct result of Frederick’s command. When it became obvious he would be unable to travel east in the immediate future, the king despatched Matthew Gentile count of Lesina to Egypt in the summer of 1220 with seventy knights and six galleys and another fleet a year later under Count Henry of Malta. However, these expeditions were sent as tokens of good faith, neither being substitutes for the major Sicilian force that would have accompanied Frederick himself. In his German lands, Frederick’s procrastination inhibited the active involvement of crucesignati among his political partisans. Only in the spring of 1221, after his coronation as emperor at Rome in November 1220, did he send Duke Louis of Bavaria, a crucesignatus since 1215, to represent him on the Egyptian campaign, which was then about to enter its disastrous final phase. Other Italian contingents timed their departures east according to local conditions; Lucca, Genoa and Rome in the summer and autumn of 1218, Bologna a year later, followed by Milan and Venice in spring 1220.

This lack of cohesion was reflected in the time spent in the east. The main campaigns, in the Holy Land 1217–18 and in Egypt 1218–21, lasted four years in total, yet the average length of time lay and clerical aristocrats stayed in the east was about a year, the precedent of Philip II, not Richard I, still less the veterans of the first two great eastern enterprises. Even the expedition of the only western crowned head to embark, King Andrew of Hungary, although oversubscribed when it assembled at Split in August of 1217, fizzled out after its leader left the Holy Land in January 1218, a few weeks after arriving. While such insouciant disregard for the wider interests of the enterprise may have been unusual and Andrew possibly an unwilling crusader, this lack of staying power was typical. Due directly to the fragmented nature of assembly and command, the transient fluidity of tours of service between 1217 and 1221 ensured that the best funded, most widely preached and professionally recruited crusade to date failed to convert numerical popularity into lasting achievement.

This was far from apparent in the summer of 1217, the deadline for departure. Despite the pope’s unexpected death on 16 July 1216 at Perugia, where his corpse, stripped by thieves of its rich vestments, was seen by James of Vitry, the momentum of preparations scarcely slackened. A new pope, Honorious III, the aged papal financial expert Cencius Savelli, was quickly elected, commended by his experience, understanding of the fiscal relationships between the Curia and ecclesiastical provinces and his past association with Frederick II, whose tutor he had been. Arrangements for the crusade became his prime concern. Within a year, two great armies gathered at opposite ends of Christendom, in the Adriatic and the North Sea. In August 1217, the armies of King Andrew of Hungary and Duke Leopold VI of Austria assembled at Split in Dalmatia. A longstanding crucesignatus, Duke Leopold’s contingent included partisans of both sides in the recent German civil war. By contrast, King Andrew appears to have been more reluctant, forced by papal pressure to honour the crusade vow of his father, Bela III (d. 1196), his crusade less of a process of pacification than an exercise in expiation. Andrew had rebelled against his brother King Emeric (d. 1204), another crucesignatus, and was accompanied largely by his own supporters from Slavonia and Dalmatia. Their combined forces were substantial. While Leopold sailed for Acre almost immediately, taking only sixteen days to complete the passage, Andrew found difficulty securing adequate transport for his followers. His shipping contract with Venice, secured by the formal ceding of Zara to the city, provided for at least ten large ships, with an unspecified number of smaller vessels, suggesting an expected military complement of perhaps as many as 1,000 knights and 5,000 infantry. In the event, in ironic and diametric distinction with 1202, the number of troops exceeded the Venetians’ immediate capacity to carry them. Surplus local shipping may have been requisitioned by the Germans, who were not covered by Andrew’s agreement, or by a number of other groups who arrived at Split, including some from France. Entering Split on 23 August, Andrew was not able to reach Acre until late September. If, as is just possible, he had been expecting to find or have news of the impending arrival of the great northern fleet, he would have been disappointed. In a failure of coordination that came to typify the whole enterprise, the Germano-Hungarian crusaders found themselves an isolated vanguard of the larger forces massing rather slowly in the west.

In late May and early June 1217, flotillas from Frisia, the Netherlands and the Rhineland left their home ports to rendezvous, like their predecessors in 1147 and 1189, at Dartmouth. Led by William count of Holland and George count of Weid, and carrying their recruiting officer Oliver of Paderborn, the combined fleet may have comprised between 250 and 300 ships, including numerous cogs capable of shipping upwards of 500 people each, implying a force of many, perhaps tens of thousands. Their leaders appeared to regard their expedition as part of the greater design to be led, in due course, by Frederick II, but there was no indication of any direct imperial direction. During a brief stop at Dartmouth they again followed precedent by forming what amounted to a commune under which ‘new laws’ to secure peace within the army were agreed. Although at the same time they appointed ‘communiter’ the count of Weid as ‘lord of the army’, subsequent decisions and disagreements operated within a communal rather than command structure. New arrivals in the fleet were incorporated into this sworn commune, from those who met the main armada off Brittany later in June 1217 to those from Civitavecchia in Italy in March 1218 who joined the Frisian contingent, which had spent the previous winter there. While the commune may have provided the means of maintaining peace and discipline within the fleet, it failed to impose political unity. Reaching Lisbon in late July after a stormy and costly passage of the Bay of Biscay, the fleet split. The main part, under the counts of Weid and Holland, accepted the proposal of local bishops and commanders of the military orders to attack the troublesome Muslim garrison at al-Qasr (Alcazar do Sal). The Frisians under the abbot of Werde refused to join them, insisting that their duty was to press forward to the Holy Land and that, in any case, Innocent III had refused support for such a campaign at the Lateran Council. Leaving Lisbon on 28 July 1217, the eighty or so Frisian ships entered the Mediterranean and, hugging the northern shore, finally wintered at Civitavecchia, where they enjoyed papal protection. Meanwhile the counts, with possibly up to 160 ships, helped in the costly investment of al-Qasr, which fell on 21 October. As in 1147 and 1189, the effort of this act of vigorous fraternal charity seemed adequate service for some, who managed to obtain absolution from their crusader vows. The rest remained in Lisbon until March 1218 before sailing to Acre. In late April and May, the various surviving elements of the great fleet that had gathered at Dartmouth almost a year earlier arrived in the Holy Land. A year from the North Sea to Palestine repeated patterns established on the Second and Third Crusades. As with those earlier campaigns, this northern fleet found that, by accident or design, they had timed their arrival to coincide with the most significant action of the crusade.

The Fifth Crusade 1213–21 Part III

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)


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.

The Fifth Crusade 1213–21 Part IV


The outcome of the Egyptian campaign surprised and appalled in almost equal measure. The canny Iraqi pundit Ibn al-Athir called it ‘unexpected’. Western observers were less charitable, attaching blame variously to Pelagius, the pope, the dilatory Frederick II, the clergy, the crusade leaders, sin, pride, materialism and avarice. Many remained confused, by the decisions taken on the ground and the judgement of God on his followers. ‘What mass of evil caused it?’ Reaction on all sides was sharpened by the appreciation of how near to success the crusaders had come. A major Egyptian port had been secured in the face of fierce opposition, an undefeated land army and hostile terrain, in its way an achievement to rank with the taking of Acre in 1191. The Ayyubid empire had been severely shaken, especially in the aftermath of the death of al-Adil in 1218. The perceived seriousness of the threat to Egypt had briefly united the rival Ayyubid factions across the Near East. For two years Sultan al-Kamil had been prepared to offer superficially generous terms simply to get the crusaders out of his territory. The prospect of the crusaders’ assault on Cairo in 1221 had caused widespread alarm. Yet that final foray into the heart of the Nile Delta in the summer of 1221 exposed the westerners’ consistent weaknesses of leadership, control and manpower. The army in 1221, as for the previous three years, was too hesitant, too divided and too small. Traditionally these problems have been seen in terms of a personal conflict between Pelagius and John of Brienne. The reality was more complex.

The lack of a settled army of itself need not have undermined the crusade. Regional or national divisions were never submerged during the Third or even the First Crusade. However, in Egypt in 1218–21 these divisions were not balanced by a decisive command structure, which went some way to explaining the lethargy that gripped the expedition between November 1219 and July 1221. When Damietta fell, the high command failed to distribute the booty and plunder in ways regarded as equitable by the mass of their troops, reminiscent of events following the fall of Constantinople fifteen years earlier. The conflict was triangular. Pelagius, as controller of the central fund, bore responsibility for dispersing the plunder and incurred the anger of the common crusader for perceived meanness. He was also opposed by John of Brienne, who insisted on his right to rule the city and, supported by his barons, resorted to arms to press his case. While Pelagius received the support of the imperialists, eager to preserve any future rights of Frederick II, John could play on Pelagius’s unpopularity to secure a favourable compromise. He was granted the city until the arrival of Frederick and the division of spoils was increased. This represented a hollow victory, as the city’s property and mosques were assigned to separate western national groups whose distinct identities were preserved by the constant arrival of fellow countrymen. Neither Pelagius nor John was in control of events, these national groups pursuing their own policies with an inconsistency that meant that neither could rely on their support. As the legate discovered with some of the French and Germans, not even cash guaranteed loyalty. Elaborate military operations were often conducted as separate private enterprises by one contingent or another. For once, corporate leadership did not work.

This serial dislocation of command and control not only frustrated Pelagius’s policies but encouraged King John to leave the army around Easter 1220 for more than a year. His departure drew criticism from the legate’s adherents and weakened the king’s standing among the veterans at Damietta, who remembered the promises of unwavering support before the campaign had begun in 1218. John’s withdrawal prompted many others to leave, further emasculating its offensive capacity. John was attempting to secure a claim to the Armenian throne though his wife, Stephanie, eldest daughter of Leo II of Armenia, and their infant son. Leo II died in the summer of 1219, leading to a damaging succession dispute between his great nephew, Raymond Roupen, a recently failed prince of Antioch, and Leo’s daughters Stephanie and his preferred heir Isabella. While John may have despatched troops to support his cause in Armenia, his claim was negated by the deaths of his wife and son in Acre shortly after he arrived from Egypt. John’s failure to return to Damietta for another year after the collapse of his Armenian hopes further eroded his position. By the time he reappeared, seemingly reluctantly, in July 1221, while the familiar divisions between the aggressive and defensive parties remained, the army had been joined by influential newcomers, especially imperialists led by Louis of Bavaria and the count of Lesina, who owed no allegiance or respect to John’s rights or authority. In his absence, faute de mieux, Pelagius had assumed a more dominant role. Thus, when John sensibly advised caution in the face of the risks of a Delta campaign, he lacked the political credit to impose his will, a weakness not entirely of his enemies’ making. However, John’s absence may have served the crusade’s interests in ways not recognized by his opponents at Damietta. By remaining in his kingdom in 1220–21, John was on hand to blunt al Mu ‘azzam’s and al-Ashraf’s continued probing of the Franks’ Syrian and Palestinian defences, including attacks on Château Pèlerin and Acre.

One of the most remarkable features of the Egypt campaign was its tenacity, first in the face of the desperate warfare of 1218–19 and then during the long period of defence and inactivity 1219–21. By the summer of 1221 the Christian host remained intact. But action now appeared an absolute necessity if the army were to remain in Egypt. Certainly the clerical elite around Pelagius believed the whole enterprise was becoming mired in corruption, indolence and sin by the enforced inaction. Only activity would raise morale, morals and the integrity of the army. Nonetheless, with hindsight, the decisions reached by the crusade high command in July and August 1221 seem to defy reason. The first was to launch an attack on Cairo in early July perilously close to the annual flood season with a force, perhaps a minority of the troops available, far smaller than the combined Egyptian and Syrian Ayyubid armies facing them and comprising too few to take the Egyptian capital by siege or even protracted assault. The plan to march on Cairo was unlikely to have been made suddenly. In Louis of Bavaria, who reached Damietta in May, the legate found an ally for his strategy and a commander for his troops. The arrival of King John and a large force on 7 July precisely coincided with the Damietta troops reaching battle readiness. However, the final muster at Fariskur, on 17 July, came with only a month left before the Nile flooded. The leadership also knew of the Syrian reinforcements coming to aid al-Kamil. Yet such had been the effort in preparing the expeditionary force that further delay or even acceptance of the sultan’s renewed peace terms would not only have split the leadership but risked the complete disintegration of the Christian army. This, in turn, would have encouraged the sultan and his allies to renege on any offer made while the crusader army was strong and threatening. Once embarked upon, the advance could scarcely be cancelled. Although he expressed his doubts, at no stage did King John withdraw his troops. Indeed, he had timed his return to Egypt precisely to coincide with the advance.

The second fateful decision was to continue the march southwards from Sharamsah, a town twenty miles south of Damietta on the Cairo road, at the end of July. To that point, progress had been relatively unopposed. The prevailing insistence of the mass of the crusaders to press on came as a direct consequence of the effort to mobilize the force in the first place. It also provided testimony to the fragile hold over public opinion within the army. Once again, although vociferously unhappy with the outcome, King John loyally remained with the army as it picked its way towards Mansourah. He had declined to break up the army when he had a final chance at Sharamsah to remove his own contingent. The details and motives behind the leaders’ debate are irrecoverable. However, it was not be the first or last occasion when contested military judgement was proved wrong. It should be remembered that up to its departure from Sharamshah, the army had only made contact with the enemy’s Turkish light cavalry. The Christian failure to see the trap being prepared for them suggests a collapse in intelligence rather than cussed obstinacy or myopic amateurism.

The third decision was less finely balanced. The crusaders had marched, open-eyed, into a position opposite Mansourah between the Nile and the al-Bahr-as-Saghir, a canal that linked the river to Lake Manzalah to the north-east. From one aspect, they were protected from attack by these waterways. From another they were cornered. During their march south, the crusaders ignored a side channel that flowed into the Nile north of Baramun. Now the Muslims used it to blockade the river downstream from the Christian camp opposite Mansourah. At the same time the Syrian levies moved to positions on land north-east of the crusaders, obstructing access to their base at Damietta. The Christians were trapped. Once this became apparent, a debate began on whether to withdraw or to dig in, hoping for relief from Damietta or from the promised arrival of Frederick II. With provisions for only twenty days, trying to hold such an advanced, exposed position made little sense. On 26 August, the crusaders began a ragged but not entirely disorderly retreat. Beset by constant enemy attack and the rising waters of the Nile, the Christian army struggled northwards. Many common crusaders decided to drink the wine supplies they could not take with them, reducing their military effectiveness still further. As a final throw, the sultan opened the sluices, flooding the Christians’ camp near Baramun, catching them, in the words of the Master of the Temple, ‘like a fish in a net’. Pelagius bowed to the inevitable and asked John of Brienne to sue for peace.

Despite appearances, the crusaders still held some bargaining chips. The large garrison at Damietta remained unconquered. The substantial field army, although badly mauled and carrying heavy casualties, remained intact, largely thanks to the organization imposed by the Templars. Reinforcements from Europe were expected to arrive any day. Al-Kamil’s priority remained the same as before: the removal of foreign troops from Egyptian soil. He had no desire to press for a definitive military solution, not least because the continued presence of his Syrian brothers and their armies in his kingdom presented a potential threat to his authority. A siege of Damietta could take months. After some ineffectual sabre rattling by both sides, terms were agreed on 29 August that struck Oliver of Paderborn as ‘excellent’. This stretched a point. In return for the surrender of Damietta, the Christians were to be allowed to evacuate Egypt freely, without ransom. All prisoners were to be exchanged and a truce of eight years established that was not to be binding on Frederick II if he chose to campaign in the east. As a fig leaf to conceal Christian disappointment, the return of the True Cross was promised, by now a formal, not realistic, part of such treaties. After some trouble when the news of the treaty reached Damietta, the evacuation was conducted in orderly fashion, even though a new imperial force under the count of Malta had just arrived in port. The crusaders dispersed, some travelling to Acre, others sailing directly for the west.

However brave a face apologists presented, the failure of the Egyptian campaign stood in barren contrast to the hopes raised in 1219 and, more widely, to the prodigious efforts made across Christendom after 1213. While the fundraising and recruiting continued, the political appetite for a renewed general crusade ceased. Increasingly, the relationship between the pope and the new emperor, upon which the success of whole enterprise had come to be predicated, became marred by recrimination and mutual suspicion, leading to Gregory IX’s excommunication of Frederick in 1227 following his failure to embark on crusade that year. Other contingents journeyed east, including a substantial army with the English bishops Peter des Roches of Winchester and William Brewer of Exeter in 1227. This was intended as part of Frederick II’s crusade, and some of its members stayed to join the emperor when he finally arrived in the Holy Land in 1228. However, the sight of an excommunicated crusade leader, shunned by large sections of the Frankish political and clerical hierarchy, eagerly securing a deal with al-Kamil that had eluded the crusaders on the Nile was hardly the result envisaged by Innocent III and his army of preachers and recruiting agents a decade and a half earlier.

Perhaps the surprise of the Fifth Crusade lies less in its failure than in how nearly it succeeded, at least in destabilizing the Ayyubid empire at a critical moment of insecurity on the death of al-Adil in 1218. This is the more remarkable as it appears unlikely that the expedition ever contained enough troops to attempt a serious conquest, still less occupation of Egypt. Its disturbing impact on the region testified to the fragility of Ayyubid power structures. However, lasting achievements in the east were few. The fortification of Château Pèlerin stood the test of time. It was never captured by the Muslims, only being evacuated in August 1291 after the fall of Acre had rendered further resistance impractical. The experience of regular traffic of seaborne armies across the Mediterranean set a trend for the rest of the thirteenth century which sustained the mainland outposts of Outremer as its Muslim neighbours became increasingly united and bellicose. The financial, propagandist and penitential systems that were perfected during the crusade’s preparations formed the basis for the conduct of future expeditions. Ironically, even the strategy of an assault on a Nile port was deemed to retain the promise of success. It was rehearsed, with even more disastrous results, in 1249–50 by Louis IX of France and remained a staple of crusade planning for another century. Although many blamed the defeat in Egypt in 1221 on excessive church control, the integration of ecclesiastical wealth into the ‘holy business’ transformed the nature of the exercise for succeeding generations, as did the availability of cash vow redemptions and donations. The crusade failed to secure a lasting papal–imperial alliance, but did not necessarily point to mortal combat between the two. More generally, the reaction to the Fifth Crusade was not, as it could have been, the abandonment of the ideal or practices of crusading. Instead, contemporaries took the lesson that their efforts needed to be more sharply focused in terms of logistic preparations, military organization and religious commitment. The Fifth Crusade met military defeat for itself while securing institutional success for its cause.

Spain’s African Crusade(s)

Attack on La Goletta, with Tunis in the background.

Imperial troops in the conquest of Tunis, 1535

The dangers of rebellion among the sullen inhabitants of Granada, aided and abetted by their North African kinsmen, inevitably gave fresh impetus to a long-cherished project for the continuation of the Castilian crusade across the straits into Africa. This would be a natural sequel to the conquest of Granada, and one for which the times seemed especially propitious. The North African state system was in an advanced state of dissolution by the later fifteenth century. There were divisions between Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis, between the mountain-dwellers and the plain-dwellers, and between the traditional inhabitants and the recent émigrés from Andalusia. It was true that North Africa was difficult campaigning country, but the inhabitants were unacquainted with the new military techniques of the Castilians, and their internal feuds offered as tempting possibilities for the Spaniards as the faction struggles in the Nasrid kingdom of Granada.

Alexander VI gave his papal blessing to an African crusade in 1494, and, more important, authorized the continuation of the tax known as the cruzada to pay for it. But the crusade across the straits was postponed for a fateful decade. Spanish troops were heavily engaged in Italy during much of this time, and Ferdinand was in no mind to turn his attention elsewhere. Apart from the capture of the port of Melilla by the Duke of Medina-Sidonia in 1497, the new front with Islam was neglected, and it was only with the first revolt of the Alpujarras in 1499 that the Castilians really awoke to the dangers from North Africa. The revolt led to a great resurgence of popular religious enthusiasm and to new demands for a crusade against Islam, ardently supported by Cisneros and the Queen. When Isabella died in 1504, however, nothing had yet been done, and it remained for Cisneros to champion her dying request that her husband should devote himself ‘unremittingly to the conquest of Africa and to the war for the Faith against the Moors’.

Cisneros’s militant fervour was once again to carry all before it. An expedition was fitted out at Málaga, and set sail for North Africa in the autumn of 1505. It succeeded in taking Mers-el-Kebir, an essential base for an attack on Oran, but Cisneros’s attention was at this moment diverted to affairs nearer home, and it was not until 1509 that a new and stronger army was dispatched to Africa and that Oran was captured. But the beginning of the occupation of the North African coast in 1509–10 only served to sharpen the differences between Ferdinand and Cisneros, and to reveal the existence of two irreconcilable African policies. Cisneros, imbued with the spirit of the crusader, seems to have envisaged penetrating to the edges of the Sahara and establishing in North Africa a Spanish-Mauretanian empire. Ferdinand, on the other hand, considered North Africa a much less important theatre of operations than the traditional Aragonese preserve of Italy, and favoured a policy of limited occupation of the African coastline, sufficient to guarantee Spain against a Moorish attack.

Cisneros broke with his sovereign in 1509 and retired to the university of Alcalá. For the rest of the reign it was Ferdinand’s African policy that prevailed: the Spaniards were content to seize and garrison a number of key points, while leaving the hinterland to the Moors. Spain was to pay a heavy price for this policy of limited occupation in later years. The relative inactivity of the Spaniards and their uncertain command of no more than a thin coastal strip allowed the Barbary corsairs to establish bases along the coast. In 1529 the Barbarossas, two pirate brothers who had originally come from the Levant, recaptured the Peñón d‘Argel, the key to Algiers. From this moment the foundations were laid for an Algerian state under Turkish protection, which provided the ideal base for corsair attacks against Spain’s vital Mediterranean routes.

The threat became extremely grave in 1534 when Barbarossa seized Tunis from Spain’s Moorish vassals, and so secured for himself the control of the narrow seas between Sicily and Africa. It was obviously now a matter of extreme urgency for Spain to smoke out the hornets’ nest before irreparable harm was done. In the following year Charles V undertook a great expedition against Tunis and succeeded in recapturing it, but he was unable to follow up his success with an immediate assault on Algiers, and the opportunity for destroying the Barbary pirates was missed. When the Emperor finally led an expedition against Algiers in 1541 it ended in disaster. From now on Charles was fully occupied in Europe, and the Spaniards could do no more than hold their own in Africa. Their policy of limited occupation meant that they failed to secure real influence over the Maghreb, and their two protectorates of Tunisia and Tlemcen came under increasing Moorish pressure. By the time of Philip II’s accession, Spanish North Africa was in a highly precarious state, from which the new King’s efforts were unable to rescue it. Control of the Tunisian coast would have been an invaluable asset to Spain in its great naval war of 1559 to 1577 against the Turk, but although Don John of Austria was able to recover Tunis in 1573, both Tunis and its fortress of La Goletta were lost to the Moors in the following year. The fall of La Goletta was fatal to Spain’s African hopes. Spanish control was gradually reduced to the garrison posts of Melilla, Oran, and Mers-el-Kebir, to which were later added the African remnants of the Portuguese Empire. Sadly, but not surprisingly, Cisneros’s heroic vision of a Spanish North Africa had run to waste in the sands.

The most obvious reason for Spain’s failure to establish itself effectively in North Africa lay in the extent of its commitments elsewhere. Ferdinand, Charles V, and Philip II were all too preoccupied with other pressing problems to devote more than fitful attention to the African front. The cost of failure was very high in terms of the growth of piracy in the western Mediterranean, but it is arguable that the nature of the land and the insufficiency of Spanish troops in any event made effective occupation impossible. It is conceivable, however, that the formidable natural difficulties would not have been insuperable if the Castilians had adopted a different approach to the war in North Africa. In practice they tended to treat the war as a simple continuation of the campaign against Granada. This meant that, as in the Reconquista, they thought principally in terms of marauding expeditions, of the capture of booty and the establishment of presidios or frontier garrisons. There was no plan for total conquest, no project for colonization. The word conquista to the Castilian implied essentially the establishing of the Spanish ‘presence’ – the securing of strongpoints, the staking out of claims, the acquisition of dominion over a defeated population. This style of warfare, tried and proven in medieval Spain, was naturally adopted in North Africa, in spite of local conditions which threatened to limit its effectiveness from the start. Since the country was hard and the booty disappointing, Africa, unlike Andalusia, offered few attractions to the individual warrior, more concerned to obtain material rewards for his hardships than the spiritual recompense promised by Cisneros. Consequently, enthusiasm for service in Africa quickly flagged, with entirely predictable military consequences. North Africa remained throughout the sixteenth century the Cinderella of Spain’s overseas possessions – a land unsuited to the particular characteristics of the conquistador. The inadequacies of the crusading style of warfare of medieval Castile were here exposed; but failure in North Africa was almost immediately eclipsed by the startling success of the traditional style of warfare in an incomparably more spectacular enterprise – the conquest of an empire in America.

Doria and Barbarossa 1536–1541

Portrait of Andrea Doria

Portrait of Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha (1478-1546)

Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha defeats the Holy League of Charles V under the command of Andrea Doria at the Battle of Preveza in 1538

Charles and Doria, Suleiman and Barbarossa. After Tunis it was clear that the two potentates who would contest the Mediterranean had chosen their champions and were gathering their forces. If Barbarossa was the sultan’s grand admiral, Doria was Charles’s captain-general of the sea. Both seamen were the executors of their master’s wars. The sea was no longer an outer frontier to be contested by pirates; it had become a major theatre of imperial conflict to rival the plains of Hungary. Year on year the violence grew. When Barbarossa struck Italy again in 1536, Doria responded by capturing Ottoman galleys off the coast of Greece the following year. And the fleets got bigger: in 1534, Barbarossa had built ninety galleys; in 1535, one hundred twenty. The two commanders had repeatedly sailed past each other, tracked each other’s squadrons around the capes and bays of Italy, but they had never fought. The sea war was a series of uncoordinated punches, like a contest between amnesiac boxers. Many factors conspired to hinder coherent battle: the conditions imposed by the sea, the limits of the campaigning season, the logistical time lapses in preparing campaigns, the blind trawling for opponents before the age of radar, and not least the natural caution of experienced sailors. Both men understood the risks of naval warfare. Fractional disadvantages could aggregate great consequences that could hinge on a slight shift in the wind. A safe raid was always better than a chancy battle. Yet by the mid-1530s, the insistent pressure of imperial ambitions and the race for bigger fleets were shrinking the sea.

The French cannonballs at La Goletta were a disturbing portent for Charles of events about to unfold. In 1536 he embarked on another exhaustive two-year war with Francis, the Valois king of France. It was one of the bitter truths of a fragmented Europe that the Catholic King would spend more time, money, and energy fighting the French and the Protestants than he ever devoted to war with Suleiman. The perceived power of the Hapsburgs frightened rather than united Christendom, and in this climate Suleiman was able skillfully to affect the balance of power in the Mediterranean Sea.

The French had been flirting with an Ottoman alliance for years, either directly through furtive embassies or by means of the Barbarossas. As early as 1520, they sent an ambassador to Tunis to persuade the corsairs “to multiply the difficulties of the Emperor in his kingdom of Naples.” They supplied Hayrettin with military technology—guns, powder, and cannonballs—and intelligence about the emperor. “I cannot deny,” Francis admitted to the Venetian ambassador, “that I wish to see the Turk all-powerful and ready for war, not for himself—for he is an infidel and we are all Christians—but to weaken the power of the emperor, to compel him to make major expenses and to reassure all the other [Christian] governments who are opposed to [Charles].” In early 1536, Francis and Suleiman signed an agreement that granted mutual trading rights; behind it lay an understanding that they would fall on Italy in a pincer movement and destroy Charles. The Mediterranean moved center stage in the sultan’s imperial war. Francis was evidently well informed on his ultimate objective. “The Turk will make some naval expedition,” he told the Venetians, “going perhaps as far as Rome, for Sultan Suleiman always says ‘to Rome! To Rome!’” The sultan ordered Barbarossa, now back in Istanbul, “to build two hundred vessels for an expedition against Apulia, to the completion of which he accordingly applied himself.” It was a further escalation of sea power.

At the top of the Adriatic, the Venetians watched these developments with grave disquiet. An expedition aimed at Rome almost certainly involved encroaching on her home waters in the Adriatic. Venice maintained a queasy balancing act, trying to maintain her independence between two menacing superpowers. Charles had swallowed up all of Italy around her; Suleiman’s navy threatened her maritime possessions. The republic’s sole ambition was to trade profitably on a calm sea. Unable to compete militarily, she had built her security on adroit political maneuvering. No one courted the Grand Turk so assiduously, bribed his ministers so handsomely, spied on him so obsessively. The Venetians sent their top diplomats to Istanbul, where they kept a trained corps of Turkish speakers and cryptographers, who dispatched endless coded reports. It was a policy that had bought them thirty years’ peace. The cornerstone was the special relationship with Ibrahim Pasha, the powerful chief vizier, born a Venetian subject on the shores of the Adriatic. He occupied a uniquely trusted position in the sultan’s favor, but as Suleiman turned his intense gaze on the sea, all this started to unravel.

On the evening of March 5, 1536, Ibrahim came to the royal palace as usual to dine with Suleiman. As he was leaving, he was surprised to meet Ali the executioner and a posse of palace slaves: the ambitious vizier had overreached himself, almost assuming that the authority of the sultan was his own, and winning the particular disfavor of Suleiman’s wife, Hurrem. When the hacked body was discovered the following morning, it was apparent from the bloody walls that Ibrahim had gone down fighting. The spattered room was left untouched for many years as a warning to ambitious viziers that it takes but a single Turkish consonant to fall from makbul (the favored) to maktul (the executed).

The execution marked a pivotal moment in Suleiman’s reign. Henceforth his style would become more austere; an Islamic piety would replace the previous brilliant ceremonial display of the man who would be Caesar. At a stroke, Ibrahim’s death deprived Venice of an influential champion at court. It was clear that Suleiman was growing intolerant of the “Venetian infidels…a people famous for their great wealth, their extensive commerce, and their deceit and perfidy in all their transactions.” Edgy clashes in the Adriatic between Venetian galleys and Turkish corsairs provided a pretext for Ottoman aggression. At the start of 1537, Suleiman prepared a two-pronged assault on Italy, with the support of the French, and eyed the Venetian base at Corfu as a stepping-stone for invasion. The Venetian senate was sent a pointed request to join the alliance. The republic found itself between a rock and a hard place; the unspoken threat was the inevitable choice between Charles and Suleiman. The Venetians squirmed, declared their neutrality, politely declined the sultan’s request, then armed a hundred galleys “as we observe that all the other princes in the world are doing.” They waited to see what would happen next.

The French king’s predictions proved entirely accurate. In May 1537, Suleiman set out with a sizeable army for Valona on the Albanian coast of the Adriatic; at the same time, Barbarossa was dispatched by sea. One hundred seventy galleys pulled out of Istanbul and beat down on the Adriatic coast of Italy; for a month Barbarossa “laid waste the coasts of Apulia like a pestilence,” burning castles, seizing slaves, spreading panic all the way back to Rome. Doria’s fleet was too small to confront this shock force; he withdrew to Sicily and watched. In late August the sultan announced a change of tactic and ordered Barbarossa to take Corfu; twenty-five thousand men landed on the island and besieged the citadel, but to the Venetians’ own surprise the defenses held. The much-anticipated linkup with the French failed to materialize, the siege guns got bogged down in the autumn rain, and the Venetians had prudently strengthened their bastions. After three weeks Suleiman called it off, but Venice was now irrevocably committed to warfare, and the emperor’s cause. Over the winter of 1537, Pope Paul III brokered the terms of a Holy League against “the common enemy, the Tyrant of the Turks.” It was to take the form of a maritime crusade, whose ultimate objective was the capture of Istanbul and the establishment of Charles as emperor of Constantinople. The Venetians, being pragmatists, tacitly preferred the notion of a quick defeat of Barbarossa and a return to peaceful trading with the Islamic world.

It was a crucial moment; Southern Europe felt itself hanging in the balance. A decisive Christian defeat now would lay the whole sea open to the merciless raids of the Ottoman fleet. In the spring of 1538, while the allies were maneuvering and organizing, Barbarossa was already at sea, giving the Venetians a taste of what failure would mean. As well as Cyprus and Crete, Venice held a string of small ports and islands across the Aegean—Naplion and Monemvasia in the Peloponnese, Skiathos, Skopelos, Skyros, Santorini, and a scattering more, each with its neat harbor, Catholic church, and dour bastion, with the lion of Saint Mark carved above the gateway. Hayrettin sacked them one by one, massacring their garrisons and carrying off other able-bodied men for galley service, before sailing on, leaving each one smoking and desolate beneath the hot sky. The Ottoman chroniclers tersely enumerated the extent of the republic’s loss: “This year the Venetians possessed twenty-five islands, each having one, two or three castles; all of which were taken; twelve of the islands being laid under tribute, and the remaining thirteen plundered.” Hayrettin was ravaging the south coast of Crete when a galliot brought news that the Christians were gathering a sizeable fleet in the Adriatic. He turned north to confront it.

It had taken an age for the Holy League to assemble at Corfu. The Venetians and the pope’s galleys were there by June, eager to fight. They then waited nearly three months for Doria, the overall commander, to drag himself tardily around from Genoa. He did not arrive until early September, by which time the weather was on the turn. There was instant bickering among the Italian and Spanish contingents. The Venetians were impatient and fretful at the long delay. The cost of the galleys was hurting the republic badly; they were anxious for a decisive strike before Barbarossa could inflict more damage on their islands. The politics of Christian Europe played heavily in the atmosphere; the parties had quite distinct strategic goals that even the optimistic pope, Paul III, had been unable to paper over. Venice was waging war to protect its possessions in the Eastern Mediterranean. For Charles the maritime frontier stopped at Sicily and he had little concern with Venetian interests farther east. Doria’s tardiness was most likely at the emperor’s behest. As for Doria, there was scarcely veiled distrust, bearing out the ancient grudge match between Genoa and Venice. None of this boded well.

It was early September before the assembled fleet moved out to seek a decisive encounter with Barbarossa. They had the weight of numbers on their side—139 heavy galleys and 70 sailing ships, to the enemy’s 90 galleys and 50 light galliots—but the Ottomans had tucked themselves into an inlet on the west coast of Greece, the gulf of Preveza, and were well protected by shore-based guns. For nearly three weeks the Holy League blockaded Preveza, but it proved impossible to tempt Barbarossa out, and the season was getting late; the possibility of a gale wrecking his fleet concentrated Doria’s mind. On the evening of September 27, he decided to weigh anchor and slip away. At this moment, Barbarossa, watching closely, saw his opportunity. Doria and Barbarossa had been playing cat and mouse in the Mediterranean for years; now the moment had come to try conclusions for control of the sea.

September 28 was a blustery autumn day. As the Ottomans emerged to fight, the Christian fleet to seaward was badly strung out; the combination of the national flotillas and the mixture of galleys and sailing ships was badly coordinated. The Venetians, eager for battle, rowed forward with shouts of “Fight! Fight!” Doria unaccountably kept his squadron back. The lead ships were isolated. The Venetians had brought a heavily armed galleon in their fleet, which held its own against a swarm of Ottoman galleys. Other vessels were captured and sunk. When Doria turned toward the battle, he kept his ships well out to sea and engaged only in long-range cannonading. The great galleon held off the Ottoman fleet all day, but as night fell and the wind shifted, Doria abandoned the fight and withdrew, extinguishing his stern lanterns to foil pursuit. In the words of the Ottoman chroniclers, he “tore his beard and took to flight, all the smaller galleys following him.”

Barbarossa claimed a famous victory and returned triumphant. “Such wonderful battles as those fought between forenoon and sunset of that day were never before seen at sea,” wrote the later chronicler Katip Chelebi. When news was brought to Suleiman, “the proclamation of the victory was read, all present standing, and thanksgiving and praise were offered to the Divine Being. The Kapudan Pasha [Barbarossa] then received orders to make an advance of one hundred thousand pieces of money to the principal officers, to send proclamations of victory to all parts of the country, and to order public proclamations in all the towns.”

In the scale of things the actual fighting had been quite light; the shattering collision of massed galleys had simply not occurred. The Holy League lost perhaps twelve ships, a number dwarfed a few days later when seventy Ottoman ships were destroyed in a storm, but the psychological damage to the Holy League was immense. The Christians had been totally outmaneuvered. Of the Christian losses, most had fallen to the Venetians. Their ships had not been supported by Doria, and the Venetians were furious. They sensed treachery, malice, or cowardice by the Genoese admiral. Either Doria had been less than enthusiastic in the enterprise or he had been outmaneuvered by superior seamanship and had cut and run to limit the damage to his galleys. It seems highly likely that Barbarossa had gained the upper hand; safely tucked into the gulf of Preveza, he could choose the moment to strike when his opponents were at the mercy of the wind, but there were other factors that might have compromised the desire of either man to fight to the death.

What the Venetians did not know was that Charles, having failed to destroy Barbarossa at Tunis, had resorted to underhand methods. In 1537 he entered secret negotiations with the sultan’s admiral to induce him to switch sides, and these talks were still taking place on the very eve of battle. On September 20, 1538, a Spanish messenger from Barbarossa held a meeting with Doria and the viceroy of Sicily. The terms could not be agreed—Barbarossa was said to have demanded the return of Tunis—but the negotiations suggested a certain complicity between the two admirals; both were hired hands whose reputations were at stake; both had reasons to be cautious. They had much more to lose than gain by a rash gamble on the state of the wind. The Spanish knowingly recalled the proverb that one crow does not peck out another’s eyes. For Doria there were other business considerations: many of the galleys were his own property; he was certainly loath to lose them helping the detestable Venetians. It would take less experienced commanders to throw caution to the wind and risk everything in the same stretch of water thirty years later.

It is impossible to determine Barbarossa’s sincerity in these maneuvers. Maybe the downfall of Ibrahim Pasha had illustrated the perils of high office in the sultan’s service, or perhaps Charles had offered Barbarossa the chance to realize his dream of an independent kingdom in the Maghreb. More likely, Barbarossa’s behavior was a way of playing Charles and Doria along, lulling his opponents into doubt and hesitation. Certainly, a French agent in Istanbul by the name of Dr. Romero had no doubts. “I can guarantee that [Barbarossa] is a better Muslim than Mohammed,” he wrote. “The negotiations are a front.”

If at first sight the immediate military consequences of Preveza seemed slight, the political and psychological ones were enormous. Only a unified Christian fleet could match the resources at the disposal of the Ottomans. In 1538 the idea of any coordinated Christian maritime response to the Turks had proved unworkable. The Holy League collapsed: in 1540 the Venetians signed a humiliating peace with the sultan. They paid a hefty ransom and acknowledged the loss of all their possessions taken by Barbarossa. They were virtually reduced to the status of vassals, though no one was using that term. The Venetians, the most experienced mariners in the whole sea, would not launch ships in anger for a quarter of a century, when distrust of the Doria clan would rise again. Preveza opened the door to Ottoman domination of the Mediterranean. All that the Venetians took away from the fight was the performance of their great galleon; they stored for future reference the value of stoutly built floating gun platforms.

Charles made one further personal attempt to break the strangle-hold of Ottoman power in the western sea. Remembering the triumph of Tunis, he determined on a similar operation against Algiers. In the summer of 1541 Suleiman was in Hungary and Barbarossa was conducting naval operations up the Danube. It was an ideal moment to strike.

There was a streak of risk-taking in the emperor. By 1541 his treasury was under extreme pressure. To cut costs, he decided to descend on Algiers late in the year. It reduced the number of troops he had to pay, as he could be sure no fleet from Istanbul would come to oppose him on the wintering sea. Doria warned him about the gamble, but Charles was resolved to ride his luck.

The outcome was catastrophic. His substantial fleet sailed from Genoa in late September. Among the gentleman adventurers who accompanied the expedition was Hernando Cortez, the conqueror of Mexico, trying his fortune in the Old World. It was October 20 before all the units were gathered at Algiers, but the weather was fair. Only after the army had disembarked and was awaiting its supplies did Charles’s luck run out. On the night of October 23 torrential rain started to fall; the men could not keep their powder dry, and suddenly found themselves at a disadvantage. Barbarossa had appointed an Italian renegade, Hasan, as governor of Algiers in his absence. Hasan acted with courage and determination. Sallying out of the city, he put Charles’s army to flight. Only a small detachment of the Knights of Saint John prevented a total rout. Worse followed. Overnight the wind intensified; one by one the sailing ships riding offshore dragged their creaking anchors and rode onto the beach. As the survivors staggered through the pounding surf in the dark, they were massacred by the local population. Charles was forced to beat a ragged retreat twenty miles down the coast to a point where Doria’s galleys could take him off. There were too few ships to re-embark the bulk of the army. With his galley bucking and heaving dangerously offshore, Charles threw his horses overboard and departed the Barbary Coast with the blasphemous screams of his abandoned army reaching him on the tempestuous wind. He had lost one hundred forty sailing ships, fifteen galleys, eight thousand men, and three hundred Spanish aristocrats. The sea had delivered a total humiliation. There was a glut of slaves in Algiers, so many that 1541 was said to be the year when Christians sold at an onion a head.

Charles viewed this catastrophe with a remarkable levelness of spirit. “We must thank God for all,” he wrote to his brother Ferdinand, “and hope that after this disaster He will grant us of His great goodness, some great good fortune,” and he refused to accept the inevitable conclusion that he had sailed too late. As regards the sudden storm, he wrote that “nobody could have guessed that beforehand. It was essential not so much to rise early, as to rise at the right time, and God alone could judge what time that should be.” Any shrewd observer of the Maghreb coast would have begged to differ. Charles never went crusading at sea again. The following year he departed for the Netherlands to confront the intractable problems of the Protestant rebellion and another French war.

Alexius I Comnenus: Byzantine Comeback


Alexius I Comnenus


Then he was surrounded by nine Normans who stuck him with spears. But his heavy cataphract armor stopped all six spears and his horse bolted and he managed to escape.


Alexius I Comnenus was an unlikely savior. A member of the aristocratic ranks that the Macedonian dynasty had struggled so long to suppress, he seemed at first to be just another usurper in a long line of meddlesome nobles that had brought such ruin to imperial fortunes. It was true that Alexius had an unrivaled military reputation—in his early twenties, he had fought at Manzikert, and he hadn’t lost a battle since—but he had risen to power in the usual way by overthrowing his short-lived predecessor instead of by fighting the Turks. The motley army he commanded was so full of foreign mercenaries that the moment he brought them inside the walls of Constantinople they started looting the city, and a full day passed before he could bring them under control. Some of Constantinople’s older citizens might well have shaken their heads and muttered that there was indeed nothing new under the sun.

It was hardly an auspicious start, but worse was yet to come. Within a month of Alexius’s coronation, word reached him that a terrible force of Normans had landed on the Dalmatian coast and was heading toward the port city of Durazzo. If they took the city, they would have direct access to the thousand-year-old Via Egnatia and with it a straight invasion route to Constantinople.

The Normans were no ordinary wandering band of adventurers. The descendants of Vikings, these Northmen were the success story of the eleventh century. While their more famous brothers in Normandy had battered their way into Saxon England under the command of William the Conqueror, the southern Normans had batted aside a papal army, held the pope captive, and managed to expel the last vestiges of the Roman Empire from Italy. Led by the remarkable Robert Guiscard, they had invaded Sicily, capturing Palermo and thoroughly broken Saracen power over the island. Now, having run out of enemies at home, and with his appetite whetted for imperial blood, the irascible Guiscard turned his attention to the far more tempting prize of Byzantium.

Upon arriving before the walls of Durazzo, Guiscard cheerfully put the city under siege, but its citizens were well aware that Alexius was on his way and showed no inclination to surrender. After a few months of ineffectual assaults, Robert withdrew to a more defensible position. On October 18, the emperor arrived with his army. The force Alexius had managed to gather in such a short period of time was impressively large, but it suffered from what was by now the traditional Byzantine weakness. The core of the army as always was the elite Varangian Guard, but the rest was an undisciplined, ragtag collection of mercenaries whose loyalty—and courage—was at best suspect. The only consolation for Alexius was that the Varangians, at least, were eager for battle.

Fifteen years before, a Norman duke had burst into Anglo-Saxon England, killing the rightful king at Hastings and placing his heavy boot on the back of anyone with a drop of Saxon blood. Many of those who found life intolerable as second-class citizens in Norman England had eventually made their way to Constantinople, where they had enlisted with their Viking cousins in the ranks of the Varangian Guard. Now at last they were face-to-face with the foreigners who had despoiled their homes, murdered their families, and stolen their possessions.

Swinging their terrible double-headed axes in wicked arcs, the Varangians waded into the Norman line, sending their blades crunching into any man or horse that got in their way. The Normans fell back in the face of such a ferocious assault, but Alexius’s Turkish mercenaries betrayed him, and he was unable to press the advantage. The moment the Norman cavalry wheeled around, the bulk of the imperial army scattered, and the exposed and hopelessly outnumbered Varangians were surrounded and butchered to a man. Alexius, bleeding from a wound in the forehead, kept fighting, but he knew the day was lost. Soon he fled to Bulgaria to rebuild his shattered forces.

The empire had proven as weak as Guiscard had hoped, and with the cream of the Byzantine army gone, there was seemingly nothing to fear from Alexius. By the spring of 1082, Durazzo had fallen along with most of northern Greece, and Guiscard could confidently boast to his men that by winter they would all be dining in the palaces of Constantinople. Unfortunately for the invader’s culinary plans, however, Alexius was far from finished. The ever-resourceful emperor knew he couldn’t hope to stand toe-to-toe with Norman arms, but there were other ways to wage war, and in his capable hands diplomacy would prove a sharper weapon than steel.

Guiscard had been all-conquering in southern Italy, but his meteoric career had left numerous enemies in its wake. Chief among them was the German emperor Henry IV, who held northern Italy in his grip and nervously watched the growth of Norman power in the south. When Alexius sent along a healthy amount of gold with the rather obvious suggestion that a Norman emperor might not be a good thing for either of them, Henry obligingly invaded Rome, forcing the panicked pope to beg Guiscard to return at once. Robert wavered, but more Byzantine gold had found its way into the pockets of the Italians chafing under Norman rule, and news soon arrived that southern Italy had risen in rebellion. Gnashing his teeth in frustration, Guiscard had no choice but to withdraw, leaving his son Bohemond to carry on the fight in his place.

Alexius immediately attacked, cobbling together no fewer than three mercenary armies, but each one met the same fate, and the emperor accomplished nothing more than further draining his treasury. Even without their charismatic leader, the Normans were clearly more than a match for his imperial forces, so Alexius began a search for allies to do the fighting for him. He found a ready one in Venice—that most Byzantine of sea republics—where the leadership was as alarmed as everyone else about the scope of Guiscard’s ambitions. In return for the help of its navy, Alexius reduced Venetian tariffs to unprecedented (and from native merchants’ perspectives rather dangerous) levels, and gave Venice a full colony in Constantinople with the freedom to trade in imperial waters. The concessions virtually drove Byzantine merchants from the sea, but that spring it must all have seemed worth it as the Venetian navy cut off Bohemond from supplies or reinforcements. By this time, the Normans were thoroughly exhausted. It had been nearly four years since they had landed in Byzantine territory, and though they had spectacularly demolished every army sent against them, they were no closer to conquering Constantinople than the day they arrived. Most of their officers were unimpressed by the son of Guiscard and wanted only to return home. Encouraged by Alexius’s shrewd bribes, they started to grumble, and when Bohemond returned to Italy to raise more money, his officers promptly surrendered.

The next year, in 1085, the seventy-year-old Robert Guiscard tried again, but he got no farther than the island of Cephalonia, where a fever accomplished what innumerable enemy swords couldn’t, and he died without accomplishing his great dream. The empire could breathe a sigh of relief and turn its eyes once more to lesser threats from the East.

The Muslim threat—much like the Norman one—had recently been tremendously diminished by a fortuitous death. At the start of Alexius’s reign, it had seemed that the Seljuk Turks would devour what was left of Asia Minor. In 1085, Antioch had fallen to their irresistible advance, and the next year Edessa and most of Syria as well. In 1087, the greatest shock came when Jerusalem was captured and the pilgrim routes to the Holy City were completely cut off by the rather fanatical new masters. Turning to the coast, the Muslims captured Ephesus in 1090 and spread out to the Greek islands. Chios, Rhodes, and Lesbos fell in quick succession. But just when it appeared as if Asia was lost, the sultan died and his kingdom splintered in the usual power grab.

With the Norman threat blunted and the Muslim enemy fragmented, the empire might never have a better opportunity to push back the Seljuk threat—and Alexius knew it. All the emperor needed was an army, but as the recent struggle with the Normans had shown, his own was woefully inadequate. Alexius would have to turn to allies to find the necessary steel to stiffen his forces, and, in 1095, he did just that. Taking pen in hand, he wrote a letter to the pope.

The decision to appeal to Rome was somewhat surprising in light of the excommunication of forty-one years before, but most of those involved in that unfortunate event were long dead, and tempers had cooled in the ensuing decades. The emperor and the pope might quibble occasionally about theological details, but they were members of the same faith, and it was as a fellow Christian that Alexius wrote Urban. As a gesture of goodwill to get things off on the right foot, the emperor reopened the Latin churches in Constantinople, and when his ambassadors reached Pope Urban II, they found the pontiff to be in a conciliatory mood. The appalling Turkish conquests had profoundly shocked him, and the sad plight of eastern Christians under Muslim rule could no longer be ignored. No record of the conversation that followed has survived, but by the time the pope made his way to France a few months later, a grand new vision had formed in his mind. Islam had declared a jihad to seize the holy places of Christendom and spread its faith into Europe; now it was time for a grand Christian counteroffensive. On November 18, the pope mounted a huge platform just outside the French city of Clermont and delivered one of the most fateful speeches in history.

The Saracens, he proclaimed, had come storming out of the deserts to steal Christian land and defile their churches, murdering Christian pilgrims and oppressing the faith. They had torn down the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and forced innumerable believers to convert to Islam. The West could no longer in good conscience ignore the suffering—it was the sacred duty of every Christian to march to the aid of their eastern brothers. The Saracens had stolen the city of God and now righteous soldiers were needed to drive them out. All those who marched with a pure heart would have their sins absolved.

The moment the pope finished speaking, the crowd erupted. Medieval Europe was filled with violence, and most of those gathered were painfully aware of how much blood stained their hands. Now, suddenly, they were offered a chance to avoid the eternal damnation that in all likelihood awaited them by wielding their swords in God’s name. A bishop knelt down on the spot and pledged to take the cross, and within moments the papal officials had run out of material for those who wanted to sew crosses on their clothing as a sign of their intentions. France, Italy, and Germany were swept up in crusading fever as Urban traveled spreading the message, and peasants and knights alike flocked to his banner. So many responded that the pope had to begin encouraging some to stay home to take in the harvest and avert the danger of a famine. Not even in his wildest dreams had he imagined such a groundswell.

The sheer scale of the response electrified the pope, but it horrified Alexius. The last thing he needed was a shambling horde of western knights descending on his capital. What he really wanted were some mercenaries who recognized his authority, while the pope had given him what was sure to be an undisciplined rabble that listened little and demanded much.

And there were plenty of other reasons to mistrust the crusaders. Not only had the pope cleverly substituted Jerusalem for Constantinople as the object of the holy war, but he had also neglected to mention Alexius in any of his speeches, putting the Crusade firmly under his own control, and reinforcing the idea that the pope—not the emperor—was the supreme authority in Christendom. Furthermore, the whole idea of a “holy” war was an alien concept to the Byzantine mind. Killing, as Saint Basil of Caesarea had taught in the fourth century, was sometimes necessary but never praiseworthy, and certainly not grounds for remission of sins. The Eastern Church had held this line tenaciously throughout the centuries, even rejecting the great warrior-emperor Nicephorus Phocas’s attempt to have soldiers who died fighting Muslims declared martyrs. Wars could, of course, be just, but on the whole diplomacy was infinitely preferable. Above all, eastern clergy were not permitted to take up arms, and the strange sight of Norman clerics armed and even leading soldiers disconcerted the watching hosts.

These strange western knights were obviously not to be trusted, and some Byzantines suspected that the true object of the Crusade was not the liberation of Jerusalem at all, but the capture of Constantinople. Anyone who doubted that only needed to look at the nobles who were already on their way, for foremost among the crusading knights was Bohemond—the hated son of Robert Guiscard.

The first group of crusaders to arrive before the gates of the city didn’t improve Alexius’s opinion of them. After the pope had returned to Italy, other men had taken up the task of preaching the Crusade, fanning out to spread the word. One of them, a rather unpleasant monk named Peter the Hermit, traveled through northern France and Germany, preaching to the poor and offering the destitute peasants a chance to escape their crushing lives. After attracting a following of forty thousand men, women, and children who were too impatient to wait for the official start date, Peter led his shambling horde to Constantinople. When they reached Hungary, it became apparent that many had joined the Crusade for less than noble reasons, and neither Peter nor anyone else could control them. Looting their way through the countryside, they set fire to Belgrade and stormed the citadel of any town that didn’t turn over its supplies. At the city of Nish, the exasperated Byzantine governor sent out his troops to bring them into line, and in the skirmish ten thousand crusaders were killed. By the time Peter and his “People’s Crusade” reached Constantinople, they were looking less like an army than a rabble of hungry, tired brigands. Knowing that they wouldn’t stand a chance against the Turks, Alexius advised them to turn back, but they had come too far by now and were firmly convinced of their invulnerability. They were already becoming a headache—taking whatever they pleased and looting the suburbs of Constantinople—so with a final warning Alexius ferried them across to Asia Minor.

The People’s Crusade came to a predictably bad end. The crusaders spent most of the next three months committing atrocities against the local Greek population—apparently without noticing that they were fellow Christians—before blundering into a Turkish ambush. Peter the Hermit managed to survive and make his miserable way back to Constantinople, but the rest of his “army” wasn’t so lucky. The youngest and best-looking children were saved for the Turkish slave markets and the rest were wiped out.

The main crusading armies that arrived over the next nine months bore no resemblance to the pathetic rabble that Peter had led. Headed by the most powerful knights in western Europe, they were disciplined and strong, easily doubling the size of any army Alexius could muster. The logistics of feeding and handling such an enormous group were a nightmare, made especially difficult by the fact that neither they nor Alexius trusted the other an inch. Obviously, the emperor had to handle the situation with extreme care. Since these westerners valued oaths so highly, they must all be made to swear their allegiance to him, but it had to be done quickly. Arriving separately, they were small enough to be overawed by the majesty of the capital, but if they were allowed to join together, they would undoubtedly get it into their heads to attack the city. Constantinople had been a temptation to generations of would-be conquerors before them; why would crusaders prove any different?

The emperor was right to be alarmed. Constantinople was unlike any other city in the world, more splendid and intoxicating than any the westerners had ever seen. To a poor knight, the city was impossibly strange, dripping in gold and home to a population nearly twenty times that of Paris or London. The churches were filled with mysterious rites that seemed shockingly heretical, and the babble of dozens of exotic languages could be heard on streets choked with merchants and nobles dressed in bright silks and brilliant garments. The public monuments were impossibly large, the palaces unbearably magnificent, and the markets excessively expensive. Inevitably, there was a severe culture clash. The Byzantines the crusaders met treated them like barely civilized barbarians, resenting the swarms of “allies” who had looted their cities and stolen their crops, while the crusaders in response despised the “effeminate” Greeks arrayed in their flowing robes and surrounded by perfumed eunuchs who needed westerners to do their fighting for them. Annoyed by the cloying ceremony of the Byzantine court, most of the crusading princes at first treated the emperor with barely concealed contempt—one knight even went so far as to lounge impudently on the imperial throne when Alexius entered to meet with him. The emperor, however, was quite capable of holding his own. With a shrewd mixture of vague threats and luxurious gifts, he managed to procure an oath from each of them. Few arrived eager to pledge their loyalty, although some were compliant enough (Bohemond in particular was a little too willing to swear), but in the end virtually every leader agreed to return any conquered city to the empire. Only the distinguished Raymond of Toulouse stubbornly refused the exact wording, substituting instead the rather nebulous promise to “respect” the life and property of the emperor.

By the early months of 1097, the ordeal was over and the last of the crusaders had been ferried across the Bosporus and settled on the Asian shore. For Alexius, the feeling was one of extreme relief. The armies that had descended on his empire had been more of a threat than a help, and even if they were successful in Anatolia, they would most likely prove more dangerous than the currently disunited Turks. In any case, all that he could do now was wait and see what developed.

As soon as they landed, the crusaders headed for Nicaea, the ancient city that had witnessed the first great council of the church nearly eight centuries before. The Turkish sultan who had wiped out the People’s Crusade was more annoyed than alarmed, assuming that these recent arrivals were of the same caliber. Instead, he found an army of hardened knights mounted on their powerful horses, encased in thick armor that rendered them completely impervious to arrows. The Turkish army shattered before the first charge of the crusader heavy cavalry, and the stunned sultan hastily retreated.

The only thing that marred the victory for the crusaders was the fact that the garrison of Nicaea chose to surrender to the Byzantine commander—who promptly shut the gates and refused to let them enjoy the customary pillaging. Such behavior by the Byzantines was perfectly understandable since the population of Nicaea was predominantly Byzantine Christian, but to the crusaders it smacked of treachery. They began to wonder if the emperor might not be confused between his allies and his enemies—especially when the captured Turks were offered a choice between service under the imperial standards or safe conduct home. For the moment, the crusaders muted their criticism, but their suspicions didn’t bode well for future relations with Byzantium.

Alexius was more than happy to ignore western knighthood’s injured pride, because he was fairly certain that they stood no chance against the innumerable Muslim enemies arrayed against them. Against all expectations in Constantinople, however, the First Crusade turned out to be a rousing success. The Turkish sultan tried again to stop the crusaders, but after two crushing defeats, he ordered their path stripped of supplies and left them unmolested. After a horrendous march across the arid, burning heart of Asia Minor, the crusaders reached Antioch and managed to batter their way inside. No sooner had they captured the city, however, than a massive army under the Turkisn governor of Mosul appeared, and the crusaders—now desperately short of water—were forced to kill most of their horses for food. Alexius gathered his army to march to their defense but was met halfway by a fleeing crusader, who informed him that all hope was lost and that the city had most likely already fallen. Realizing that there was nothing to gain by sacrificing his army, Alexius turned around and returned to Constantinople.

The crusaders, however, hadn’t surrendered. Inspired by the miraculous discovery of a holy relic, they had flung themselves into a last-ditch offensive and managed to put the huge army to flight. Continuing their advance, they reached Jerusalem in midsummer, and on July 15, 1099, successfully stormed the Holy City. Many crusaders wept upon seeing the city that they had suffered so much to reach, but their entry into it unleashed all the pent-up frustrations of the last four years. Few of the inhabitants were spared—neither Orthodox, nor Muslims, nor Jews—and the hideously un-Christian bloodbath continued until early the next morning.

It was the work of several weeks to cleanse the city of the stench of rotting bodies, and by that time the crusaders had chosen a king. By the oaths they had all taken, they should have returned the city—along with everything else they had conquered—to the Byzantine Empire, but there was no longer any chance of that. As far as they were concerned, when Alexius had failed to relieve them in Antioch, he had revealed himself to be treacherous, releasing them from their vows. Bohemond had already seized Antioch, setting himself up as prince, and the rest of their conquests were now broken up into various crusader kingdoms. If the emperor wanted to press his claims to their lands, then he could do so in person with an army at his back.

Alexius was more than happy to let Palestine go. A few Christian buffer states in lands that had been lost for centuries might even be a good thing. But having his enemy Bohemond installed in Antioch was more than he could swallow. Long regarded as the second city of the empire and site of one of the great patriarchates of the church, Antioch had been lost to the Turks only fifteen years before. Its population was thoroughly Orthodox, its language was Greek, and its culture was Byzantine through and through. But even when Bohemond added insult to injury by tossing out the Greek patriarch and replacing him with a Latin one, there was little Alexius could do. The emperor had used the distraction of the Crusade to recover most of northwestern Asia Minor—including the cities of Ephesus, Sardis, and Philadelphia—but his armies were stretched out, and there was no hope of extending his reach into Syria.