The Barons’ Crusade, 1239-1241

Historians who later numbered the Crusades did something very odd at this point. Emperor Frederick II’s peaceful negotiation for a ten-year control of Jerusalem was the Sixth Crusade, but when that time ran out and a new army came to actually do some serious fighting, it was not the Seventh Crusade. It was merely the Barons’ Crusade, or the Crusade of 1239. It was actually the most successful militarily in years, but it merited no number. It’s obvious that it should have been the Sixth Crusade, with Frederick as a footnote. But no. Go figure.

The Count of Champagne/King of Navarre started the Crusade off. His grandmother was Marie of Champagne, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s French daughter who was also close friends with Richard Lion-Heart. Like his elders, young Theobald IV was a troubadour, that is, a singer-songwriter. He was the heir for his uncle the King of Navarre, whose sister had been for a short time Richard Lion-Heart’s queen (another sister was Queen of Poland). The King of Navarre (same one that helped defeat the Almohads) had become too ill to rule, so a third sister, married off to the Count of Champagne, came home to be Regent. Her son Theobald was visiting her in Pamplona when the King died, so Theobald just took charge, ruling both Navarre and Champagne. When we see his name in a note that “Count Theobald of Champagne led a Crusade in 1239,” we don’t realize that this guy we’ve never heard of was actually tightly connected to all of the big Crusade stars.

Count Theobald did pretty well for himself. After a stay at Acre, he decided to fortify Ascalon by overseeing a new castle. He rescued another group of barons and knights from defeat in Gaza, and then negotiated with Sultan al-Kamil for continued control of Jerusalem. In his truce agreement, he was handed control of most of the significant towns and castles the Crusaders cared about, including some Templar castles that had been captured. Legend says that Theobald wrote some poems there and also brought home two plants: a special breed of rose, and perhaps the first grape slip that became Chardonnay. So Theobald came, saw, wrote, built, and transplanted—and went home. It was time for the next shift of barons to arrive.

Here we see the seeds of disaster laid for the next Crusades. “Next shift” to arrive? It was that easy? Yes, it really looked like Crusading had gotten easy. Take a sabbatical year, get on a ship at Marseilles with your friends. Stop at Acre, attend some feasts. Make a show of force, find a nice building project you can put your name to. Fight a few skirmishes, lose a few red shirts. Send the Sultan a threatening letter. Compare his reply to your wishlist of towns, and in a few exchanges, you’re done. Go home and spend the rest of your life dusting the pretty souvenirs.

During these few decades of easy success, the Crusader states grew and prospered, though not to the size they had been in the Baldwins’ time. I wonder if the Europeans fully realized that this second round proved that they could only succeed in the Holy Land when the Muslim forces were too disunified to oppose them. The Ayyubids were wise enough to realize it and accept truces that gave away some power. They stayed busy, but they could focus on tugs of war with each other, not with Europe. If that situation changed, crusading was going to change dramatically. Some shift of Crusaders would show up with bags full of sun screen and beach reads and find out that there would be no souvenirs this time.


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