Today in Middle Eastern history: the Sixth Crusade ends (1229)

If the Fourth Crusade’s sacking of Constantinople was the point at which the Crusading enterprise was largely discredited, the Sixth Crusade could be considered the point at which the whole thing lost its last vestiges of seriousness. It was, ironically, the only crusade apart from the First and Second Crusades to end with the Crusaders actually in control of Jerusalem–and the Second Crusade doesn’t really count, since Jerusalem was already in Crusader hands when it began and stayed that way despite that campaign’s complete failure. I say “ironically,” because the Sixth Crusade involved barely any actual fighting. It was, instead, a long negotiation between an excommunicated Crusader king who didn’t really want to be on Crusade, didn’t really have much of an army with him, and had no support from the Church, and an Ayyubid sultanate that was by this point so decrepit that it didn’t dare risk going to war even with a guy who didn’t have much of an army.

Map - Crusades, Later
The later Crusades, with the Sixth Crusade (“Frederick II’s Crusade”) marked in green

The Sixth Crusade was, if you want to be crude about it (and why not?), Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II’s (d. 1250) middle finger to Pope Gregory IX (d. 1241). Frederick was undeniably the most powerful European monarch of the period, but he also had this habit of talking about going on Crusade without actually ever going on Crusade. Frederick had promised to take up the cause of the Holy Land at his coronation as King of Germany in 1215, and dramatically renewed his pledge when he was crowned emperor in 1220, but he nevertheless waffled on joining the 1213-1221 Fifth Crusade, which attacked the Ayyubids in Egypt. Throughout that campaign’s siege of Damietta and the army’s deleterious year of inactivity after finally capturing the city, Frederick kept sending messengers to the Crusaders promising that he was on his way. Some German forces did eventually arrive at Damietta, just in time to join the army’s disastrous march south, but Frederick himself, and the vast army he supposedly led, never arrived.

As you might expect, some people took a dim view of Frederick after the Fifth Crusade went bust. Among them was Pope Honorius III (d. 1227), who rebuked Frederick for his inaction by letter in 1221. Relations between Frederick and the Vatican weren’t great anyway–they really never were between popes and Holy Roman Emperors, because each invariably believed that he should be preeminent over the other. The emperor assured that pope that he had wanted to go on Crusade but just hadn’t been able to leave Germany, and in his defense he really had been occupied with consolidating his rule over the empire. He promised to lead a great new Crusade that would leave in 1225, ten years after he’d first promised to take up the cross. Then in 1224, he told Honorius that he was going to need more time to put an army together. To fend off a possible excommunication, Frederick assured Honorius that his Crusade would leave in August 1227, and signed a document to that made it clear he would be excommunicated if he failed to leave at that time.

In the meantime, Frederick had been widowed, and his search for a new bride landed on Isabella, the daughter of the King of Jerusalem*, John of Brienne (* since Jerusalem was back in Muslim hands by this point, the “King of Jerusalem” actually ruled from the city of Acre). John was reluctant to consent to this marriage, fearing that the much more powerful Frederick would claim the throne of Jerusalem by marriage, though Honorius loved this idea because he assumed it would commit Frederick to going on Crusade, finally. Frederick denied that he had any interest in claiming the throne of Jerusalem, and so John consented, and Frederick and Isabella were married in 1225. Frederick then, and you knew this was coming, claimed the throne of Jerusalem.

So by 1227 Frederick was motivated both by his pledge to Honorius and his newly claimed kingship to go on Crusade. The Ayyubids were a political wreck, in the midst of a civil war between the sons of the previous sultan, al-Adil (d. 1218), and Frederick was in talks with one of those sons, al-Kamil, about turning Jerusalem over to Frederick in exchange for Frederick’s help fighting al-Kamil’s brother and rival, al-Muʾazzam. The time to head to Jerusalem would never be better. And indeed, Frederick’s army set sail in August 1227 as promised. It’s just that Frederick, uh, wasn’t with it. He’d been stricken by plague and headed to Naples to recuperate, and despite his promises that he was definitely going to head east just as soon as he could to meet up with his army and do that whole Crusade thing, don’t you worry, he seemed pretty comfortable staying there (of course, in his defense, he had been quite ill). The new Pope, Gregory IX, was uninterested in Frederick’s excuses/promises, and excommunicated him in late September.

Frederick finally sailed for Acre in May 1228. The Crusade was now, in technical religious terms, a shitshow, led by an excommunicate. Gregory actually urged Frederick not to go (talk about doing a 180) and then sent letters to Acre warning everyone there that Frederick was not to be obeyed as he was not a legitimate Crusader (nor, at that point, a legitimate Christian). But Frederick went anyway. Hence the whole exercise from this point on became that middle finger to the pope I mentioned above. Isabella died shortly before Frederick left, which technically severed Frederick’s claim to be King of Jerusalem, but he doesn’t seem to have cared about this either.

The one development that did affect his plans was that al-Muʾazzam had by this point died, and so al-Kamil was no longer inclined to trade Jerusalem in return for Frederick’s military aid. So after arriving in Acre (after yet another lengthy delay in Cyprus hashing out Jerusalem’s political situation) and spending some time wrangling with al-Kamil’s negotiators, Frederick marched his army to Jaffa to rebuild that city’s fortifications, which was intended as a threat to al-Kamil. Frederick’s army wasn’t nearly the size it had been when it set out–for some reason, when the army got to Acre and he wasn’t with it, most of his men figured that he’d backed out of yet another promise to Crusade, and they decided to go back home. But this march to Jaffa was enough, apparently, to convince al-Kamil to make a deal.

Frederick (left) meets al-Kamil in this 14th century miniature (Wikimedia)

The deal, which was signed on February 18, 1229, let Frederick claim a technical victory and get the hell out of Dodge, but its terms were laughable. Al-Kamil gave Jerusalem to Frederick, but the city had to be kept unfortified, all Muslims living there had to be allowed to remain, and the city’s Muslim holy places would still remain in Muslim hands. In other words, Frederick was given possession of the city in name only. When he heard the terms of the deal, the Patriarch of Jerusalem refused to formally crown Frederick King of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and Frederick’s army, largely made up of Templars and Hospitallers, rejected the deal as a paper victory.

Frederick made a brief entry into Jerusalem, where he may have crowned himself (it’s not entirely clear), before returning to Acre, where the Patriarch was actually raising his own army to march to Jerusalem and garrison the city properly. This, of course, would have completely wrecked the deal Frederick had cut with al-Kamil, and he therefore put a stop to it. Meanwhile, word reached him that Gregory and John of Brienne were campaigning against his possessions in Italy, so he had to leave. As a final F.U. to the Crusaders he was leaving behind, Frederick made sure to destroy all their siege engines, so they wouldn’t get any funny ideas about marching on Jerusalem once he’d left. As Frederick rode to the harbor to board his ship home, angry townspeople threw garbage at him.

Frederick recovered his Italian holdings, made peace with John and Gregory, and was restored to the Church in the Treaty of Ceprano in 1230, but Gregory excommunicated him again in 1239 when Frederick attacked and defeated the Vatican-allied Lombard League in northern Italy. He spent most of the rest of his life in a literal state of war with the papacy. Jerusalem, meanwhile, came back into Muslim hands in 1244, following a siege by a Khwarazmian (Central Asian) army that had been recruited for the task by al-Kamil.

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One thought on “Today in Middle Eastern history: the Sixth Crusade ends (1229)

  1. additional wrinkle: the Frederick / Gregory dispute went beyond the usual Popes vs. Emperor thing. it had a huge strategic dimension, because Fred was Emperor *and* King of the Two Sicilies. This mean that he literally held the Papal States between his possessions like a nutcracker. It was every Pope’s strategic nightmare, and it meant they all started from a point of being hostile and paranoid towards this guy who had them in a very unnerving strategic encirclement.

    it’s true that by the 1220s Imperial domination over Lombardy / northern Italy was pretty nominal. but (1) it wasn’t *completely* nominal — you had Ghibellines (pro-Imperial partisans) in pretty much every city, even if they weren’t actually running things in most of them, and (2) the threat was all too real in Naples / Sicily, where Fred was a pretty dominant centralizing ruler, and Naples / Sicily was all too close to Rome. so Papal strategic concerns may have been exaggerated but they weren’t groundless.

    also, let’s note that Gregory IX was a vicious bastard. medieval Popes generally weren’t models of Enlightenment values, but G9 was a full-blast fanatic who rejuvenated the Inquisition, proclaimed the perpetual suppression of the Jews while making literal bonfires of Torahs, aggressively supported the brutal and bloody Northern Crusades, and cracked down hard on dissent of any sort. it would have been hard for any King in Fred’s position to get along with the Papacy, but Gregory was openly hostile pretty much from day one, and was delighted at the chance to excommunicate him.

    finally, while the solution was indeed ridiculous, let’s note that it was also one of the very few transfers of power over Jerusalem that was accomplished without any blood being shed or anyone being forced out of the city at sword- or gunpoint. power was shared peacefully and peace was maintained. yeah, it only lasted 15 years. but it’s a rare example of everyone being sensible and choosing a peaceful settlement instead of rolling the dice on war. of course Fred got lambasted for it because it was the fucking 13th century. and, of course,he didn’t go for the peaceful settlement because he was kindly or enlightened. he chose it as the path of least resistance because he was an intelligent man who recognized the whole Crusade business was nonsense on stilts (and insanely expensive nonsense at that), and he wanted to go home. But still!

    Doug M.

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