Frederick II Hohenstaufen 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. Five years later at his coronation in Rome as “Holy Roman Emperor” he renewed his crusading vows. However, a Muslim insurrection on Sicily turned out to be more difficult to supress than anticipated, and Frederick got bogged down in the fighting until 1223 ― by which time the Fifth Crusade, which he had promised to support was irretrievably lost. The Pope showed understanding, however, and agreed he could postpone his crusade until 1225.
When 1225 came, Frederick still did not set off on crusade, but he did marry the heiress to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Yolanda (also sometimes referred to as Isabella II). This marriage meant that in addition to the spiritual motive of restoring Christian rule over Christendom’s most sacred site, Frederick now had a personal and dynastic interest in Jerusalem: he wanted to make his new kingdom as large, strong and prosperous as possible ― or that was what people presumed.
In the summer of 1227, Frederick at last assembled a large army ― only to see this decimated by an epidemic disease that started killing the crusaders before they even embarked. Under threat of excommunication if he did not depart, Frederick doggedly set sail despite being ill. While at sea, the most important of Frederick’s subordinate commanders, the Landgraf of Thuringia, died of the disease. Frederick 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. The Pope, the vigorous and uncompromising 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 what he viewed as the unacceptable infringement of papal authority by 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 communication on Frederick’s authority is. Effectively, with the excommunication, Frederick’s campaign to the Holy Land lost papal blessing (whether fairly or not), and his campaign could not officially be viewed as a “crusade.” Furthermore, the excommunication gave his many internal opponents and rivals an excuse for insubordination and rebellion, and meant that Fredrick’s Italian domains were soon being stolen from him by troops with papal support. Most important from the Templar point of view: as Christians and vassals of the pope, they were now prohibited, at the risk of the souls, from having contact with the Holy Roman Emperor. It was, to say the least, a very awkward situation!
The situation was further complicated by the fact that in May 1228, Queen Yolanda of Jerusalem died of the complications of childbirth. She left an infant son Conrad as heir to the throne of Jerusalem. As a result, Frederick could no longer call himself “King of Jerusalem;” at best he could claim the regency for his infant son.
Under the circumstances, Frederick would have been 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 Frederick appears to have reasoned) as divine favor and vindication. Furthermore, Frederick 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 the Sultan of Damascus al-Mu’azzam.
So Frederick II went ahead with his plans for a crusade and in June 1228 set sail with his army, arriving in Tyre on September 3 and Acre later the same month. Here he was welcomed ― at least according to some accounts ― as a savior by both the Knights Templar and Hospitaller. (Roger of Wendover, Vol II, p. 351) If so, his relations with the military orders, particularly the Templars, soon soured.
The tensions either started or surfaced when the Holy Roman Emperor laid claim to the Templar castle on Athlit, just south of Haifa, called “Castle Pilgrim.” This castle had been built at great expense by the Templars just ten years earlier. It was the Templar equivalent of Krak de Chevalier ― a massive castle that proved completely invincible and never fell to siege or assault. (It was abandoned when the Christian cause became hopeless.) It could accommodate 4,000 defenders and its walls enclosed not just fighting platforms, accommodation, chapels and storerooms, but pastures and fishponds, orchards and gardens, salt-mines, a shipyard, and freshwater springs.
By what right the Holy Roman Emperor believed he could lay claim to this castle remains mysterious. He was not King of Jerusalem (his infant son was) and even had he been recognized as regent, the Kings of Jerusalem did not have any legal authority over the Knights Templar. Barber notes that Frederick had a policy of “monopolizing castles in the Kingdom of Sicily.” (Barber, p. 133) Which is all very well and good, but still does not justify confiscation of a castle held by an independent order in a Kingdom with completely different laws (as Frederick was soon learn).
The Templar response to the Emperor’s arrogant attempt to lay claim to something that was not his was predictable: they closed the gates and manned the walls. Frederick II was forced to recognize he could not possibly take the castle by force and resumed his “crusade” instead. Meaning, he unimaginatively followed the same plan as Richard the Lionheart by taking his army down the coast to Jaffa. The difference was that while Richard the Lionheart had to fight his way forward every mile of the way against the aggressive and well-led armies of Saladin, Frederick II faced no Muslim opposition at all. The Sultan of Egypt al-Kamil was too busy besieging his nephew (his brother had since died) in Damascus.
Furthermore, while the Templars and Hospitallers had willingly submitted to the leadership of Richard the Lionheart, acting as his vanguard and rearguard respectively, the militant orders could not submit to Frederick II, who was excommunicate. Yet they could not allow Frederick (and the Teutonic Knights) to march without them either. Robinson puts it like this: “Could the Templars live with themselves if they allowed Christians to be butchered while they simply stood by? And what if Frederick, either through battle or bargaining, could actually regain the Holy City?” (Robinson, p. 262) The Templars and Hospitallers (commanded, incidentally, by two brothers Pedro and Guerin de Montaigu) elected to “follow” the Emperors army a day’s march behind. By the time the armies reached Arsuf a compromise was devised: the Holy Roman Emperor issued orders in the name God or Jesus Christ rather than his own.
The fragile rapprochement was shattered, however, when on February 18, 1229 Frederick announced a truce negotiated in secret with the Sultan al-Kamil. This truce, hailed by many modern commentators as a work of genius, a master-stroke, and more, was condemned soundly by Frederick’s contemporaries ― and for good reasons. First, it did not (as most accounts today claim) restore Christian control of Jerusalem ― rather it loaned them control of the city for a set period of just ten years and ten months. Second, it prohibited the fortification of Jerusalem ― to ensure that control would return to the Muslims at the end of the ten year truce (loan). Third, it forbade the military orders from reinforcing or improving their great castles in the county of Tripoli, e.g. Krak de Chevaliers, al-Marquab, Chastel-Blanc and Tortosa. Fourth, it prohibited the Christians from attacking al-Kamil in his home base of Egypt. Finally, most infuriating for the Knights Templar, it denied them access to their traditional headquarters in the “Temple of Solomon” because the entire Temple Mount was reserved for the Muslims.
The Christian world was shocked by the Emperor’s duplicity in negotiating away their interests without so much as consulting them, and when the Holy Roman Emperor announced his intention to wear his crown in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher the Patriarch of Jerusalem put his own city, the Holy City of Jerusalem, under interdict.
That did not interest Frederick Hohenstaufen in the least. After all, he’d already be excommunicated. He went ahead and placed his crown on his own head while the loyal Master of the Teutonic Knights eulogized him in a speech. The other militant orders, however, respected the interdict and were not present any more than the local barons and citizens were.
The Holy Roman Emperor’s mentality is further revealed by the following incident recorded by the Muslim contemporary historian ibn Wasil and related in Abulafia’s biography of Fredrick as follows:
…after Frederick’s first night in Jerusalem the emperor is said to have complained to [his host] Shams ad-Din saying “O qadi, why did the muezzins not give the call to prayer in the normal way last night?” To which Shams ad-Din replied: “This humble slave prevented them, out of regard and respect for your Majesty.” But Frederick is supposed to have said: “My chief aim in passing the night in Jerusalem was to hear the call to prayer given by the Muezzin, and their cries of praise to God in the night.” (Abulafia, p. 185)
If that weren’t enough, Friedrich next reproofed a priest for carrying a Bible while visiting the Temple Mount and threatened with death anyone who followed this priest’s example. This behavior gave credence to the Pope’s hostility, making more and more people believe that Frederick’s “crusade” had been a sham from the start and that Frederick was indeed a godless atheist.
His behavior did not even win him friends in Muslim circles. As Abulafia puts it:
…the Muslim sources, greatly confused by Frederick’s behavior, saw him as an emperor whose interest in the recovery of Jerusalem was rather meager, and whose sympathy for his own religion was surprisingly ― indeed scandalously ― slight… For the Muslims, ‘it was clear that he was a materialist and that his Christianity was simply a game to him.’ This they found offensive, on the Islamic principle that adherents of each Religion of the Book must observe its prescribed principles correctly. (Abulafia, p. 185-186)
After just two nights in Jerusalem, the Holy Roman Emperor returned to Acre ― only to find the Templars and the Patriarch of Jerusalem trying to gather troops for a new crusade on the grounds that Frederick’s truce was a personal one between himself and al-Kamil (as indeed it was!) and that they were not bound by it ― any more than the supporters of the Sultan of Damascus were. (Who, incidentally, saw the truce in the same light as an insult that they did not have to respect.)
Fredrick at once went on the offensive against the Templars. In addition to railing against them publically, he started a slander campaign that echoed down the ages to this day. He may also have ordered the kidnapping of the Master of the Temple with the intent of taking him back to Sicily in chains. This, at any rate, is the allegation of the contemporary historian Philip of Novare, who was an eye-witness of this curious crusade, albeit a staunch partisan of the Ibelins, who had fallen fowl of the Holy Roman Emperor and were to lead a successful revolt against his rule in Outremer. Novare writes the following:
The emperor was by now unpopular with all the people of Acre, especially was he disliked by the Templars; and at this time there were many valiant brothers of the Temple, and the master was Brother Peter de Montaigu… The emperor did much that seemed evil, and he always kept galleys under arms, with their oars in the locks, even in winter. Many men said that he wished to capture the lord of Beirut, his children…[and]the master of the Temple … and that he wished to send them to Apulia. On one occasion they said that he wished to kill them at a council to which he had called and summoned them, but they became aware of it and came in such strength that he did not dare do it. (Novare, pp. 89-90)
Through his own propaganda machine, Frederick made counter claims that the Templars and Hospitallers wanted to assassinate him. It is impossible at this distance of space and time to know the truth. Undisputable, however, is the fact that Frederick laid siege to the Templar castle in Acre at the end of April 1229. He also allegedly posted cross-bowmen at strategic places to cut off the Templar’s communication with the outside world. The emperor’s action against the Temple at Acre was as unsuccessful as his attempt to seize Castle Pilgrim.
On May 1, Frederick Hohenstaufen left Acre to sail back to his homeland, which was under attack by papal forces led by father-in-law, the former King of Jerusalem John de Brienne. To reach his galley in the harbor, he chose to pass down the Street of the Butchers. It was a mistake. As the Holy Roman Emperor passed, the common people of Acre pelted him with refuse and offal.
Back in his Kingdom of Sicily he took his revenge by confiscating all the properties of the Templars and Hospitallers within his domains. Although the Pope negotiated the return of these properties to the respective orders in the Treaty of San Germano, July 1230, the properties had still not been returned by 1239, and this was one of the reasons given for a second ex-communication of Frederick in that year. Meanwhile, in the Holy Land, the Templars supported the baronial opposition to Frederick’s authoritarian government throughout the next fifteen years.
Abulafia, David. Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor. Oxford University Press, 1988.
Barber, Malcolm. The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple. Cambridge University Press. 1994.
Howarth, Stephen. The Knights Templar. Barnes & Noble Books, 1993.
Novare, Philip. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus. Translated by John Le Monte. Cambridge University Press, 1936.
Pernoud, Regine. The Templars: Knights of Christ. Translated by Henry Taylor. Ignatius Press, 2009.