Story of the Crusades - E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

The Story of the Emperor Frederick and the Sixth Crusade

Pride in their port, defiance in their eye,

I see the lords of human kind pass by.

GOLDSMITH: The Traveller.

The story of the Sixth Crusade may be told in two parts, one dealing with failure, the other with success. It was the tardy fruit of Pope Innocent's urgent appeal for another Holy War, a war which he himself would have led, had not death cut short his career.

Curiously enough, the actual leader of the first part of the Sixth Crusade was the king of a country whose people had done their utmost to hinder and prevent the First Crusaders on their march to the Holy Land. Andrew, King of Hungary, sailed in 1216 with a large army to Asia; and with him were the Dukes of Austria and Bavaria. At Acre they were joined by other bands of Crusaders, so that in the next year four kings, of Hungary, Armenia, Cyprus, and John of Brienne, "King of Jerusalem," in name alone, were met together within the city walls.

But these later Crusaders, for the most part, were made of sorry stuff. If Andrew had been a second Geoffrey of Bouillon, he might well have restored the kingdom of Jerusalem. He was, however, half-hearted in the work, and would perhaps never have undertaken it had not his dying father laid upon him a solemn obligation to fulfil his own vow. Famine, too, proved a worse enemy than the Saracens, and the latter, knowing this too well, did not attempt to bring about an engagement.

So the Crusaders at first contented themselves with an advance to the river Jordan, in the waters of which they bathed, and then made a peaceful expedition across the plains of Jericho and by the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

Then the soldiers began to get restive, and to ask for what reason they had come so far from their western homes; so it was suddenly decided to attack the Saracen castle on Mount Tabor.

The story of this attempt only serves to emphasise the weakness and inefficiency of the leaders. The castle was guarded by rocky passes and steep heights, which the Saracens defended with their usual skill and courage. But the Crusaders had actually succeeded in driving them from their posts and in forcing their way to the very gates, when panic, inexplicable but complete, seized hold upon them. They retreated in confusion and shame, undeterred by the reproaches of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who had accompanied the expedition, bearing with him a fragment of the true Cross. Realising, perhaps, that he was not destined to be a hero, Andrew of Hungary returned home, and his example was followed by many of his fellow-pilgrims.

The hopes of John of Brienne, however, were not quite dashed to the ground, for fresh troops of Crusaders from France, Italy and Germany, arrived at Acre during the spring of 1218, and to these was soon added a little English army under William Longsword, Earl of Salisbury.

The combined forces now determined to strike at the Sultan first through Egypt, and urged thereto by John of Brienne, sailed up the Nile to attack Damietta, one of the strong fortresses which guarded that land. The city seemed impregnable, for it was not only surrounded by three thick walls, but was also protected by a double wall on the side facing the Nile, and by a tower built in the middle of the river, from which was stretched to the ramparts an enormously strong iron chain.

The story of this siege is intermingled with strange legends. A high wooden tower had been built upon two of the Crusaders' ships, from which they hoped to attack the river fortress, but this was quickly set on fire by the Saracens, while the banner of the Holy Cross was seen to drift helplessly down the stream. The terrified onlookers from the banks flung themselves on their knees and implored the help of God at this crisis; upon which it is said that the flames died down, while before the astonished eyes of the Crusaders the banner was seen to wave from the top of the tower in the river.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Crusades by E. M. Wilmot-Buxton


Much encouraged, they made a fresh attack with such vigour that the enemy threw down their arms and the tower was won.

The legend says that when the chief prisoners were brought into the Christian camp, they asked to be shown the troop of white clothed men bearing shining white swords, the brilliance of whose appearance they declared to have so dazzled their eyes that they could not see to fight longer; and so, says the chronicler of these things, "the Crusaders knew that the Lord Christ had sent His Angels to attack that tower."

While the siege of Damietta itself was still in progress, news arrived of the death of Saphadim, the Sultan, and of the accession of his two sons. The "Sword of Religion," as his Moslem followers called Saphadim, had been a wise as well as a valiant ruler; his successors were weak and incapable. Aghast at the thought of losing their famous seaport, and alarmed at the arrival of many new pilgrims, some hailing from France, others from England, the two young men at length sent messengers with an offer wrung from them, they said, "because the power of God was against them."

They promised, in fact, to give up Jerusalem and the whole of Palestine to the Crusaders if the latter would agree to depart at once from Egypt.

Considering that the freeing of the Holy Land from infidel rule was the only true aim of the Crusaders, we can only be amazed at finding that the offer was rejected.

John of Brienne, "the King of Jerusalem," was eager enough to accept it; so too were the Knights Templars and Hospitallers mindful of their vows. But there was present in the camp a certain Cardinal Pelagius, the papal legate, who claimed, as representative of the Pope, to have the final decision in the matter; and he, fearing probably that the supreme power would fall into the hands of John of Brienne, supported by the French Crusaders and afterwards by the Knights of the Temple and Hospital, carried the day against the Sultan, and caused the siege of Damietta to be resumed.

Plague had already done its work within the walls, and there remained little for the Crusaders to do. Damietta was theirs, and a sorry triumph it proved.

In spite of the frank opposition of John of Brienne, Pelagius now determined to lead the host to the further conquest of Egypt, and a march on Cairo began. Once more the terrified Sultan offered them the same terms, and once more, being, as Philip of France contemptuously said, "so daft as to prefer a town to a kingdom," they refused to give up Damietta, and pursued their way.

Too late repentance came; for the Nile rose with its usual rapidity, the sluices were opened by the Egyptians, the camp was surrounded by water, and baggage and tents were washed away. The unfortunate Crusaders, caught in a trap, were at the mercy of their foes, and were thankful when the Sultan, in pity, offered to let them go free if they would surrender Damietta. They could but agree, since they knew that it required all the little authority that the young Sultan had at his command to prevent his chieftains condemning the whole host to destruction. As it was, the latter were perishing of famine, and tears flowed down the cheeks of John of Brienne, when led as hostage to the Sultan's tent, as he remembered their distress. With that generosity which marks the whole family of Saladin, the Sultan, when he discovered the cause of his grief, at once sent the starving multitude a large store of food.

Thus in darkness and disgrace ended the first part of the Sixth Crusade, which so far had gained nothing but an ill reputation for the Crusaders who had taken part in it.

The leader of the second part of the Sixth Crusade was made of very different stuff from Andrew of Hungary or John of Brienne. When Frederick H., grandson of the great Barbarossa, had been summoned, some eight years before this time, from the leafy groves of his kingdom of Sicily, to be emperor in place of the rebellious Otho, he had taken the cross and promised to lead an army to the Holy Land at the earliest opportunity.

But Otho did not take his deposition quietly, and during the next few years Frederick had his hands too full in his own dominions to fulfil his vow. After Otho's death, two years later than that of the ambitious and energetic Pope Innocent, the new Pope, Honorius, besought the young Emperor to listen to the bitter cry for help which once more came from across the sea. At that time, however, Frederick was completely absorbed in ambitious schemes for himself and his family.

The Pope's influence was strong, however, and it seemed clear that his friendship was absolutely necessary to Frederick's schemes. The position of the Emperor had never been universally acknowledged in past years, and it was now proposed that Honorius should publicly crown Frederick at St Peter's at Rome. This was done in all good faith and fellowship. "Never did Pope love Emperor as he loved his son Frederick," said Honorius as he parted from him after the coronation, with the promise ringing in his ears that the German army should be ready to start on the Crusade during the following year.

But Frederick still delayed, for he saw little chance of winning the glory he coveted under present conditions in the East. He was not going to send an army thither merely to put John of Brienne back on the throne of Jerusalem. Even the news of the loss of Damietta only served to point the moral that without a huge army, for which time and money were absolutely necessary, supreme success could not be achieved.

Then John of Brienne himself landed in Europe to ask in person for the help that was so long in coming. He brought with him his beautiful daughter, Yolande, and her presence inspired the Pope with new hopes. He now proposed that the Emperor Frederick should marry the maiden and go forth to the Holy War as the heir of John of Brienne. The marriage took place in 1225, more than eleven years after Frederick's vow as a Crusader had first been taken. Almost immediately the Emperor showed his real motive in the marriage by declaring that as John held his royal rights only through his wife, they passed on her death to her daughter, through whom they were now held by her husband, and the Emperor therefore at once proclaimed himself "King of Jerusalem."

Not even then, after the unavailing opposition of John had died away, did Frederick start upon the Crusade. In his beautiful Sicilian kingdom, surrounded by learned Jews, cultivated Saracens, Norman troubadours and Italian poets, he had become too easy-going, too tolerant of all forms of faith or of none, to have any real religious motive to stimulate his actions. He was, indeed, inclined to meet even the Sultan of Egypt himself on terms of the friendliest equality.

But Honorius had been succeeded as Pope by the proud and domineering Gregory IX., to whom this spirit of dallying was loathsome. An imperative letter summoning the Emperor to fulfil his broken vow seemed at first to have some real effect, and in the August of 1227 a large army assembled at Brindisi. There the men were seized by fever, and though Frederick actually set sail with the fleet, it was only to return after three days to the harbour of Otranto, while the host dispersed. The Pope was furious, and, paying no heed to the Emperor's plea of sickness, proceeded to excommunicate, "with bell, book and candle," one whom he said had been nursed, tended, and aided by the Church, only to cheat her with false hopes and trickery.

A pretty quarrel now arose. Frederick appealed to the sovereigns of Europe, declaring that his illness had been real and that "the Christian charity which should hold all things together is dried at its very source."

Meantime he treated the ban of excommunication with contempt.

The Pope replied, in the ensuing Holy Week, by putting every place where Frederick happened to visit under an interdict, and threatening to absolve his subjects from their allegiance if this were disregarded. The Emperor took no notice, but, as though to emphasise the injustice with which he had been treated, pushed on his preparations for the Crusade. Setting out to Brindisi, he was met by papal envoys who forbade him to leave Italy until he had done penance for his offences against the Church. His only answer was to send his own messengers to Rome demanding that the interdict be removed, and meantime he set sail for Acre.

All other Crusaders had gone forth with the blessing of the Pope and the Church; this, the most recent of them all, came as an outcast, with the ban of the Church upon him; and his position was bound to be affected thereby. The greater part of his army feared to serve under him, and he landed with only six hundred knights, "more like a pirate than a great king."

The military orders, the Knights of the Hospital and the Temple also refused to acknowledge him, but the scattered pilgrims, eager for a leader at any price, looked upon him with favour and rallied to his standard.

But upon these broken reeds Frederick had little intention of leaning. From the bigoted narrowness of Templars and Hospitallers he gladly turned to the polished and cultivated Sultan, Malek-Camhel, who was quite prepared to renew friendly terms with one whom he held in much respect. For some time they dealt with trifles, comparing their respective skill in verse-making and in music. Then the Emperor sent Camhel his sword and cuirass, and the latter responded by a present of an elephant, some camels, and a quantity of the rich spices and stuffs of the East.

Becoming aware, at length, that these signs of friendship were the cause of mutterings of discontent in the camps both of Islam and of the Crusaders, they at length agreed upon a truce of ten years on the following conditions. The towns of Joppa, Bethlehem and Nazareth were to be given up to the Christians and the city of Jerusalem, with one important exception.

This was the site of the Temple, where now stood the Mosque of Omar, which was to be left to the Saracens. So Frederick, with his knights, went up to the Holy City, about the season of Mid-Lent, 1229, and entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, took the crown from the High Altar and placed it upon his own head; "but there was no prelate, nor priest, nor clerk, to sing or speak."

He next visited the Mosque of Omar, and showed clearly how little he was moved in all this by love for his own faith. For when the Saracens, respecting his supposed feelings, refrained from sounding the muezzin, or bell that calls to prayer, Frederick stopped the order, saying, "You are wrong to fail in your duty to your religion for my sake. God knows, if you were to come to my country, your feelings would not be treated with such respect."

The terms of this treaty enraged both the Moslems against their Sultan and the Church against the Emperor. At his entrance into the city, the priests and people fled from the presence of Frederick as though from a leper. The very images of the saints in the churches were draped in black; and the triumphant message of Frederick to Gregory, claiming the gratitude of the Church for the restoration of the Holy City, was received with chilling silence.

Then came the startling news that the Pope had put a large army under the leadership of John of Brienne, now the Emperor's greatest enemy, who was about to capture several of his Italian cities.

Hastening to Acre, and well aware of the hostility of those who considered themselves defrauded of the chance of killing the Saracens, Frederick called a great meeting of pilgrims in the plain outside the city. To them he spoke strongly against the mischief caused by the clergy and the Templars in trying to stir up strife, and ordered all the pilgrims, who had now fulfilled their vows, to sail at once for Europe.

Frederick returned to his western lands in 1229, and though he lived till 1250, he never again saw his kingdom of Jerusalem. He had never been a true Crusader at heart, and had not stayed long enough to establish his eastern domain on any firm foundation; but he had, nevertheless, accomplished within a few months what others had failed to do in as many years, and that without any attempt at bloodshed.