With many French and Anglo-Norman knights already fighting a Crusade in France, and several crowned heads excommunicated, the pickings were slim for a major crusade effort. After Pope Innocent III died, his successor Honorius III inherited the task. Pope Honorius had at least one unique qualification: he had been tutor to the child king Frederick in Sicily. Frederick was King of Sicily from the age of two, and at 18 had become King of the Romans (aka Germany) in 1212. Nobody knew the brilliant, sardonic, strong-willed German king better, and the two Crusades of this period turned out to be all about Frederick.
Frederick did not participate in the Fifth Crusade directly, however. Rome had spent decades, even centuries, trying to stay independent from the French and German crowns, the heirs of Charlemagne, whose power had first made the Roman Pope a real player on the international stage. That’s the downside of French and German military might: they pick you up, raise you up for all to see, then put you on their hands like a puppet. In the last century, Popes had been fighting free, in the most literal sense. So in 1215, the issue was that a marriage of the German king and the Norman Queen of Sicily had created this child, Frederick, who inherited both legacies. This meant that the German crown would now encircle Rome geographically.
Like a US federal regulator, the Pope preferred that Frederick break up his monopoly and rule only Sicily, leaving the German crown to someone else, like his infant son. Frederick, on his side, wanted all of it with the Imperial title added. Only the Pope could agree to crowning a Holy emperor, so both Innocent and Honorius said no. Fine, then, Frederick said no too. No to their Crusade. Negotiations went in circles and nobody ever closed the door decisively, but neither did Frederick raise troops and set out. So the Fifth Crusade was really all about Frederick’s absence.
King Andrew II of Hungary was the highest-ranking monarch to take the Cross this time. His nation had been closer to Constantinople for years, through marriage alliances, but both Andrew and his brother married into Western families. The Latinization of Constantinople was an interesting opportunity: it had no firm royal inheritance pattern, so new kings could be elected, and they needed firm ties with Rome. The Crusade presented an opportunity for Andrew to cement his ties with the Roman Church. He had recently given a huge land grant to the Teutonic Knights, who were certainly involved in this Crusade. Now he gave Venice the rule of one of those rich Adriatic coast towns they’d coveted, to pay for ships. He appointed regents, including his German queen, and joined her brother the Count of Merania (Bavaria) and the Duke of Austria.
In 1217, the German and Hungarian forces landed in Acre. They had 10,000 horses and a much larger number of foot soldiers. All three military orders sent knights to the war council in Acre, as did the Latin ruler of Cyprus. Saladin’s brother Sultan al-Adil took the threat very seriously, fearing another First Crusade event. He ordered the walls of Jerusalem to be torn down, as Saladin had done with Jaffa when Richard was marching to occupy it. Sure, it made Jerusalem easier to capture, but it also made it hard to hold onto.
Sultan al-Adil met the Crusaders in battle at the town of Bethsaida on the Jordan River on November 10. It’s a little hard to understand what happened next. First, the Crusader forces overwhelmed the Muslims at this battle. woohoo! Then the Muslims scattered and withdrew into fortresses. And after that, the Crusaders were supremely ineffective. Their siege machines didn’t arrive when needed, their sieges and assaults didn’t work, and King Andrew II got sick. And that was it.
The situation in the Mediterranean had changed so that it was now pretty easy to go and come from a Crusade. No longer did they have to fight their way through Anatolia; while the situation was not yet like booking tickets for a Crusade cruise, Venice’s ships had made it stable enough to rotate Europeans in and out of Acre by turns. King Andrew and some others went home, while a new wave arrived in 1218. The Counts of Cologne and Holland arrived with their fresh troops, but the new leadership decided to give up on the Holy Land itself.
With the Pope’s encouragement, the new Crusade leadership sailed to the Egyptian port of Damietta. This port is at the mouth of one of the branches of the Nile. It guarded the river with a huge iron chain that stretched from shore to shore, with a tower in the middle. The Crusaders landed on the west bank of the river, while the city was on the east. Sultan al-Kamil marched north to camp on the east side.
The Crusaders had early success, inventing a new ship-borne siege tower raised by pulleys, and cutting the chain. But after that, it began to go wrong. In the winter of 1218, rough seas flooded their camp, leaving fish in the tents. Besieging soldiers came down with scurvy: painful mouth sores and general wasting, some falling into comas and dying. By May 1219, those who could go home, did.
But a new factor had arrived in the Fifth Crusade: a papal legate who basically ate iron nails for breakfast. Cardinal Pelagius was absolutely convinced that any day now, Frederick II would arrive with a massive German-and-Sicilian-funded force and help them sweep Egypt. They just had to hold on. When al-Kamil offered a truce that left them with control over Jerusalem, Pelagius made them turn it down!
Why did al-Kamil offer them such a generous truce? Because summer 1219 was a bad Nile year. Kamil was facing constant internecine battles with his relative in Syria, and food prices shot up in Egypt. Damietta was suffering, the Europeans did not know just how much until later. Kamil was trying to do what Egypt needed. If the Crusaders would just take Jerusalem for ten years and go home, he could help Egypt get through a bad year.
In the summer of 1219, St. Francis of Assisi arrived in Damietta. Apparently we know little of this visit; the Crusade’s main chronicler, the French Archbishop of Acre, tells only a little, while the Muslim records didn’t see fit to even mention it. But in fact, Francis believed he had a divine mission to preach to al-Kamil, and he did. Kamil permitted him to visit and listened patiently. When Francis offered to test the truth of his Gospel by the ordeal of fire, Kamil said no. Francis was dismissed. He traveled a bit more in the Holy Land, but really was not able to make a difference.
In the fall of 1219, Damietta was essentially dying from the siege and lacked manpower to keep all of its walls defended. Some Crusaders noticed the gap in defenses and got a ladder, scaling the wall. They opened the gates for the rest of the Crusader army, who streamed in and began to plunder. But they were shocked to see just how badly Damietta was doing. Streets were strewn with dead and dying. Houses had corpses laid out with other corpses that had dropped dead caring for them. Tens of thousands had died. Still, the Crusaders cheerfully found any valuables and removed them. They also kindly baptized all surviving Muslim children (and probably some Coptic kids into the deal).
Cardinal Pelagius claimed Damietta for the Papacy and tried to govern it. As 1219 ticked by, conditions were still miserable all over. Many Crusaders wanted to give up, but Pelagius showed them a miraculous book that had just surfaced. What are the odds, you know? Just at that time, they find a book written by St. Peter, filled with prophecies that fitted exactly the conditions of the Fifth Crusade! St. Peter prophesied that soon a King from the West would arrive and complete the conquest of Egypt.
Then in the winter of 1220, the Pope finally struck a deal with his old pupil, and Frederick II was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. This was it! Pelagius’ dream come true. In the spring, new Crusaders arrived, and they decided it was time to press forward. In July of 1221, their force marched toward al-Kamil’s camp along the east Nile bank.
Sultan Kamil, we recall, knew Egypt well. He’d lived there all his life, unlike his more famous conquering uncle Saladin. He knew something that the Crusaders must have sort of known, but apparently did not keep in the front of their plans. That is, every August, the Nile flooded. The last year had been a low flood year, but apparently Kamil knew that 1221 would be a normal flood. So he camped at an intersection of a Nile tributary and the great river itself, in a carefully chosen spot. He sent emissaries to talk peace again, hoping to drag things out just a bit longer…August was coming.
I think the Crusaders who’d been in the region a bit longer got it. By July 24, the current “King of Jerusalem” wanted to turn back. But the Papal Legate held steady, and then…it was too late.
Just after the Crusaders crossed a canal that would complicate their retreat, Kamil sent men upstream to open flood-control gates. The canal flooded. The Nile’s tributary flooded. The Nile flooded. Kamil had them open the Nile’s gates wider. The fields that the Crusaders had anticipated to be battlefields were now several feet under, and there was no high ground to retreat to that wasn’t already occupied by al-Kamil.
Defeated, Legate Cardinal Pelagius sued for surrender terms. Kamil let them retreat, but his terms had changed. Jerusalem was off the table. So was Damietta. The terms were simple: go home and we’ll let you. And so they did. It was to be an 8 year truce.
And that was the Fifth Crusade. Frederick II never did show up. But we’ll hear from him again.