Reflections on the So-Called “Sixth Crusade”

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THE CRUSADER KINGDOMS

Although the campaign of the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II Hohenstaufen is usually included in the list of numbered crusades, it was an anomaly among the crusades in that it was not sanctioned by the Pope and was led by a monarch under excommunication. Furthermore, despite modern historians’ persistent attempts to portray Friedrich as an “enlightened” monarch, unappreciated in his age, who obtained by diplomacy what the “blood-thirsty” barons of Jerusalem wanted to gain with violence, the reality is he did not secure Jerusalem at all. Below is short analysis of the crusade and its impact.

Friedrich II Hohenstaufen (see above) first “took the cross” and vowed to lead a new crusade to regain Christian control of Jerusalem at his coronation as “King of the Romans” in Aachen on July 25, 1215. At this time, I’m willing to assume that he was entirely sincere and motivated by a genuine desire to lead Christendom to the liberation of the Holy City of Jerusalem. He was probably still a devout crusader when he renewed his crusading vow at his coronation as “Holy Roman Emperor” in Rome on November 22, 1220―by which time 5th Crusade had already bogged down at Damietta and was in clear need of reinforcements and stronger leadership. However, Friedrich was unable to depart immediately due to the need to restore order in his Kingdom of Sicily. Nevertheless, Friedrich sent financial and material aid to the beleaguered crusaders and promised to set out himself in 1221. Unfortunately, the Muslim insurrection on Sicily turned out to be more tenacious than anticipated, and Friedrich got bogged down in the fighting until 1223; the Pope was understanding and agreed he could postpone his crusade until 1225.

In mid-1225 Friedrich II married the heiress to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Yolanda (also sometimes referred to as Isabella II). Yolanda was the grand-daughter of Isabella I, sole child of Maria de Montferrat and her husband John de Brienne. Maria had died giving birth to Yolanda, and John ruled as regent for his daughter, taking the title King John. The marriage of the Queen of Jerusalem to the Holy Roman Emperor was considered a master-stroke because it gave Friedrich II a material incentive for recapturing Jerusalem. Thus, in addition to the spiritual motive of restoring Christian rule over Christendom’s most sacred site, Friedrich now had a personal and dynastic interest in a crusade that would extend the territory, security and prosperity of his new Kingdom of Jerusalem. From the point of view of the High Court of Jerusalem, the marriage ensured the military and financial support for the kingdom from the most powerful Christian monarch in the world. Yet the fact that contemporaries felt Friedrich needed material incentives to convince him to undertake a crusade is highly significant. Clearly many no longer believed he was sincerely interested in crusading — or at least not for spiritual and religious reasons.

The marriage was celebrated by proxy in Acre followed by Yolanda’s coronation as Queen of Jerusalem in Tyre and then Yolanda sailed to Brindisi to marry Friedrich in person in November. Meanwhile, however, the crusade had been postponed yet again, this time until August 1227. Furthermore, this time the Pope added the warning that if Friedrich failed to depart by August 1227 he faced excommunication. (Another indication that contemporaries doubted Friedrich’s commitment to the crusade.)

Friedrich accepted these terms and a large crusading army with strong German contingents gathered in Apulia in the summer of 1227 ― only to be struck down by some epidemic disease that started killing the crusaders before they even embarked. Under threat of excommunication, if he did not depart, Friedrich doggedly set sail despite being ill. While at sea, the most important of Friedrich’s subordinate commanders, the Landgraf of Thuringia, died of the disease. Friedrich decided that he too was too ill to command a crusade. While ordering the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights and other galleys under the Duke of Limburg to proceed, he returned to Brindisi. All this suggests that contemporary doubts about Frederick’s commitment to the crusade were misplaced, and he was indeed sincere in his desire to regain Jerusalem.

Unfortunately for Frederick and Christendom generally, the the vigorous and uncompromising Pope Gregory IX promptly excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor. Under the circumstances, the excommunication was hardly justified. Rather, the excommunication was Pope Gregory’s opening volley in an all-out attack on the Holy Roman Emperor. It was the opening act of a power-struggle that would last for decades and pitted conflicting philosophies about the respective role of sacred and secular leadership. That struggle is not the subject of this essay, but the impact of the excommunication on Frederick’s crusade is. Effectively, any campaign to the Holy Land undertaken by Frederick had lost papal blessing (whether fairly or not), and his campaign could not officially be viewed as a “crusade.”

The situation was further complicated by the fact that in April 1228, Queen Yolanda of Jerusalem died of the complications of childbirth. She left an infant son Conrad as heir to the throne of Jerusalem. With Yolanda’s death, Friedrich II lost his legal right to call himself King of Jerusalem; that title now belonged to his infant son Conrad. The most that Frederick could claim was the right to serve as regent for his son until the boy came of age at 15. (Note: this legal fine point is almost universally overlooked by biographers of Friedrich, who are generally experts in the law of the Holy Roman Empire and Sicily but not familiar with the Constitution of Jerusalem.)

It was now 13 years since Friedrich had taken his crusader oath, and his open confrontation with the Pope had a profound effect upon his authority in his vast and complex domains. The excommunication above all gave his many internal opponents and rivals an excuse for insubordination and rebellion.

Friedrich would, therefore, have been well justified in abandoning the campaign to the Holy Land altogether and focusing on defending his birthright. Then again, when fighting an intransigent pope, what better way to undermine papal authority than to liberate the Holy City? The liberation of Jerusalem was bound to appear in the eyes of many (or so Friedrich appears to have reasoned) as divine favor and vindication. Furthermore, Friedrich had good reason to believe he would liberate Jerusalem because he had already been approached by the Sultan of Egypt, al-Kamil, who offered to deliver Jerusalem to him in exchange for the Emperor’s support in his war against his brother al-Mu’azzam.

Thus, despite being excommunicate, in June 1228 Friedrich II set sail for the Holy Land, arriving at Limassol on Cyprus on July 21. There, after some difficulties establishing his authority, he continued to Tyre, arriving September 3.

His arrival was by no means as welcome as he had expected. On the one hand, he had made powerful enemies already by asserting his absolute rights as monarch (although he was only regent) (For more on this see: Frederick II & His Barons). His claims to absolute authority were in sharp violation of the laws and customs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, in which the High Court exercised powers over appointments, fiefs and more. (See: High Court). On the other hand, and more significantly, al-Mu’azzam was dead. Al-Kamil no longer needed the assistance of any Christian ruler. To top it all off, Friedrich had hardly arrived in the Holy Land before he learned that the pope had raised an army (commanded by his late wife's father among others), and was preparing to invade the Kingdom of Sicily with the declared intent of deposing him.

Like Richard the Lionheart before him, Friedrich needed to return home as rapidly as possible. Not being the strategist or commander Richard had been, Friedrich II put his faith in negotiations. On February 18, 1229, after five months of secret negotiations, a treaty was signed with al-Kamil.

Modern historians like to call Friedrich’s preference for diplomacy over warfare “enlightened,” or attribute it to greater "subtlety" and even genius. The modern German historian Heiko Suhr, for example, claims in his essay “Friedrich II von Hohenstaufen: Seine politischen and kulturellen Verbindungen zu Islam” (Friedrich II von Hohenstaufen: His Political and Cultural Ties to Islam, GRIN Verlag, 2008, p. 17), that the treaty demonstrated his “willingness to compromise and his diplomatic skills.” Historian David Abulafia, in his biography of Friedrich II, claims that Friedrich “performed magnificently.” (Friedrich II: A Medieval Emperor, Oxford University Press, 1988, p.184) Friedrich’s success is usually contrasted to the failures of all other crusades (except the First). A popular website, for example, claims Friedrich “accomplished what four previous crusades failed to do: recover the Holy Land. Even though he was excommunicated, he accomplished more than the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth crusades combined.” (Medieval Times and Castles)

The fact that Friedrich failed to win contemporary praise ― indeed was pelted with offal by the common people of Acre when he made his way to his ship to depart and was widely criticized by princes of the church and the local barons ― is put down to the “bigotry” of the church and “blood-thirsty” character of his contemporaries. Friedrich, it is argued, was simply “ahead of his time.” Or, as the German historian Jacob Burckhardt Recht claims: “a modern man.” In short, Friedrich was an enlightened man of peace and his unpopularity in the Holy Land (and elsewhere) was entirely attributable to the backward, unenlightened, implicitly barbaric nature of his contemporaries. Thomas Curtis Van Cleve in his The Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen: Immutator Mundi (Oxford University Press, 1972) goes so far as to claim that the nobles of Outremer only opposed Friedrich’s peace because they opposed any form of compromise and negotiation with the Muslims.

There are two major problems with this interpretation of events. First, the very barons so blissfully dismissed as “blood-thirsty,” bigoted and unenlightened had repeatedly negotiated and concluded treaties with the Muslims in the past. They had been doing so for more than a hundred years before Friedrich II arrived on the scene Even Richard the Lionheart had engaged in extensive negotiations with his Muslim opponents. The second and equally important problem with the conventional portrayal of Friedrich’s dramatic “success” is that Friedrich II did not secure Jerusalem.

All that Friedrich II gained with his treaty was nominal Christian control of Jerusalem and a couple other cities, such as Bethlehem, for a limited period of time because the treaty was only valid for ten years. Furthermore, treaty explicitly prohibited Christians from setting foot on the Temple Mount and prohibited the Franks from building walls around Jerusalem.

In other words, the truce Friedrich signed ensured that the Franks could not defend Jerusalem or its environs. It ensured that the Muslims retained control over all the strategic castles such as Kerak and Montreal. As Muslim sources stress, all the truce did was give the Christians “some churches and ruins” for a decade (Ibn Wasil.) Indeed, the Arab sources stress that al-Kamil quite openly bragged that “when he had achieved his aim and had the situation in hand he could purify Jerusalem of the Franks and chase them out.” (See Arab Historians of the Crusades, translation by Francesco Gabrieli, University of California Press, 1957, p. 271)

In short, Friedrich II’s “crusade” gave Christians only a precarious hold on Jerusalem for just over ten years. It is no wonder that contemporaries, concerned about securing Christian control of Jerusalem were bitterly disappointed. Furthermore, the residents of Outremer, the people living surrounded by the Saracen threat, recognized the truce as worthless to their immediate security. It is easy to sympathize with those who threw offal at the Emperor who -- despite all his wealth, power and troops -- left them with nothing substantial or material.

The terms of Friedrich’s deal with al-Kamil reveal the degree to which Friedrich’s entire “crusade” was about his power struggle with the Pope rather than Jerusalem or the Holy Land. While leaving the residents of Outremer to deal with the consequences of his worthless truce, he made a great show of wearing the Imperial crown in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This was clearly a way of thumbing his nose at the Pope. It was his way of demonstrating his belief that he was God’s representative on earth and did not need papal approval. Having had his day in Jerusalem (and ostentatiously telling the Muslims they should continue their call to prayers even in his presence), he departed the Holy Land never to return.

Neither his son nor his grandson, despite being titular kings of Jerusalem, ever set foot in the kingdom. It was left to other kings, such as Louis IX, to try to reclaim Christian control of the Holy City and secure the Holy Land.

For those of you who enjoy seeing history “brought to life” through fiction, the Sixth Crusade is the subject of my most recent release, Rebels against Tyranny.

For more reviews and more details on this novel see: Rebels against Tyranny