The Fifth Crusade 1213–21 Part I

Pope Honorius III by Giotto di Bondone

Writing in an optimistic mood in 1208 to the crusade enthusiast Duke Leopold VI of Austria, Innocent III characterized holy war as an imitation of Christ, an act of unconditional devotion. In recognition of this he sent Leopold a cloth cross and letters conveying the plenary indulgence. This innocuous exchange encapsulated the distinctive elements of Innocent III’s crusade policy: theological precept, moral conviction, papal authority, pastoral care, administrative control and bureaucratic precision. The developments set in train by the Third Crusade reached new levels of thoroughness as Innocent sought to accomplish what he had failed to achieve in 1202–4, the destruction of Ayyubid Egypt, the recovery of Jerusalem and the spiritual renewal of Christendom. To this end, the so-called Fifth Crusade, planned in 1213, launched in 1215 and fought in a series of running expeditions between 1217 and 1229, marked the climax in papal cooperation with secular power. Innocent is often depicted as the most successful promoter of papal monarchism, wishing to control, even exclude, lay domination in his crusading policy after the debacle of 1202–4. It is frequently asserted that the Fifth Crusade represented the church’s greatest and last serious attempt to run a holy war though its own leadership. Yet although the last acts of the Fifth Crusade were conducted in a hail of mutual recrimination and mistrust between popes and the emperor, Frederick II, leading to the bizarre, but not entirely unprecedented, scene in 1228 of a Holy Land crusade under an excommunicated leader, as with the Albigensian wars, Innocent III and his successor Honorius III based their policy on trying to obtain the cooperation and support of lay monarchs. The Fifth Crusade was intended to marry the universal ambitions of the papacy with the imperialism of the Hohenstaufen rulers of Germany and southern Italy. Innocent’s involvement of the young Frederick II opened the prospect of a new order in Christendom. A mutually advantageous acceptance of the respective authority of pope and emperor would be signalled by the fulfilment of the eastern aspirations of Conrad III, Frederick I and Henry VI no less than those of Urban II, Eugenius III or Gregory VIII. The failure of the enterprise, and the reciprocal demonization that dominated papal-Hohenstaufen relations for the subsequent fifty years, obscured this central feature of Innocent’s conception. If historical turning points exist, the Fifth Crusade was one; the direction of international high politics could have been set on a very different course.

The organization and conduct of the Fifth Crusade witnessed growing bureaucracy. In concert with developments in secular government and law, increasingly the crusade was becoming a written phenomenon. Preachers received licences and based their sermons on circulated papal bulls. Recruitment and finance was sustained by central and local record keeping, lists of crucesignati, accounts of moneys raised and expended, and written authorization for individuals’ legal and fiscal privileges. While the creation of new technologies of record may not coincide with changes in what is being recorded, the weight of writing indicated the growing institutionalization of crusading as a social and religious activity.


Crusade preaching, taxation and liturgical propaganda reached an extended audience beyond the ranks of those who were able to join up: the poor, the old, the landless, the rootless and the young, all in their ways disenfranchised from direct involvement in the increasingly highly structured armies of the cross. The broader social and religious demands of crusading stimulated engagement in what would later be described as civil society, as observers, commentators, critics and participants, by sections of the community not necessarily included in the ruling hierarchies. The Albigensian crusades were attended by so-called ribaldi, low-born camp followers, as well as local peasants. The organization of some contingents, such as the fleets from northern European waters, revolved around sworn communes, wide consultation across social groups and a measure of general debate, even occasionally, as at fraught moments during the Fourth Crusade, public consent. The collective commitment to the crusade evinced in communal ceremonies of dedication, in cities from London to Cologne to Venice, was matched by the development of regular parochial rituals of devotion and support. Taking the cross, like sermons, assumed the witness of congregations. Innocent III’s offer of the indulgence to those not themselves soldiers of the cross and the spread of crusade taxation further lent the negotium sanctum a genuinely popular, public dimension. Political and social anxieties could be articulated through support for the transcendent cause of the Holy Land by groups habitually excluded, ignored, marginalized or simply disorganized by virtue of low material status. An extraordinary demonstration of this penetration of the crusade into wider political consciousness and communal action came with the phenomenon known as the Children’s Crusade.

In the winter and spring of 1211–12, Innocent III’s habitual concerns at the sinfulness of the faithful, the heretics in Languedoc, the Moors in Spain and the precarious plight of Outremer were focused by papal decree and battalions of preachers on just two: the Albigensian crusades and the advances of the Almohads of north Africa in the Iberian peninsula. An intensive recruiting campaign for the Languedoc war in the Rhineland and northern France was led by James of Vitry and Archdeacon William of Paris, Simon of Montfort’s siege expert. At the same time, Almohad victories in the autumn of 1211 prompted Innocent III to appeal for aid for the Christians in Spain, instituting a series of special penitential processions to be held in mid-May. The impression of heightened crisis, reinforced by repeated calls for Apostolic simplicity and active penance, through taking the cross or collective liturgical contrition, stimulated unlicensed popular response. In at least two regions this coalesced into demonstrations of public support for the defence of Christendom from those not normally associated with leadership of formal crusading.

In the spring and summer of 1212, crowds of penitents assembled in the Low Countries, the Rhineland and northern France, areas heavily evangelized for the crusade. They called for an amendment of life and, in places, the liberation of the Holy Land. Some contingents apparently crossed the Alps into Italy in search of transport to the Levant. Details of intentions varied locally, but all these marches were seen to have been inspired in part by the rumours of the threats to Christendom, the dissemination of a redemptive theology emphasizing the crusade as a collective penitential act and the failure of the leaders of society to perform their obligations on either count. The most striking feature of these marches lay in that they were conducted by ‘pueri’, literally children. In fact, these ‘pueri’ may have been less juvenile than the name implied. To a Cologne chronicler, who may be reporting eyewitness memories, the pueri ‘ranged in age from six years to full maturity’. Norman and Alpine monks recorded that the marchers were adolescents and old people. Accounts indicated that participants came from outside the usual hierarchies of social power – youths, girls, the unmarried, sometimes excluding even widows – or economic status: shepherds, ploughmen, carters, agricultural workers and rural artisans without a settled stake in land or community, rootless and mobile. Signs of anti-clericalism and the absence of clerical leadership accentuated this sense of social exclusion. Yet despite the absence of ecclesiastical authority, there was little church condemnation. The popular movements of 1212 demonstrated the success of Innocent’s evangelism. The marches sprang from communal anxiety, not specific social or economic hardship. Dissatisfaction with the inability of the leaders of the social hierarchy to secure victory in Spain, Languedoc or Palestine may have coincided with a more diffuse trend whereby rural populations were attracted to towns, especially at a time of increasing demographic pressure in the countryside. Yet the immediate impulse appeared to be religious.

The recorded chronology of events is confusing. There were two distinct areas of enthusiasm, one in northern France, south-west of Paris, the other in the Low Countries and the Rhineland. From chronicle accounts it is possible to argue that the Ile de France marchers combined with those from the Rhineland, or, less likely, that the Rhinelanders joined the French uprising or that the two movements remained separate, coinciding only in timing. According to the Cologne chronicler, around Easter (25 March) and Whitsun (13 May) 1212 large processions of youths from the traditional crusade recruiting grounds of the Rhineland, the Netherlands, north-eastern France and western Germany, defying family and friends, began to move in the general direction of Italy. Although some groups assembled in Lorraine, a number being stopped at Metz, the main body gathered at Cologne, where a leader emerged called Nicholas, a youth from the surrounding countryside. As reported, their declared purpose was the relief of the Holy Land. A contingent of crusaders from Cologne under the provost of the cathedral had joined Simon of Montfort in Languedoc in April that year, but this commitment had been too restricted in scope to satisfy the spiritual expectations aroused by the attendant evangelizing. Instead, the failure of the experienced, rich and proud (an apparent reference to the Fourth Crusade) was to be redeemed by the innocent, pure and humble. Some of the German marchers adopted the pilgrim’s scrip and staff as well as the cross. Their leader, Nicholas, was remembered as carrying a tau cross, a symbol elsewhere associated with Francis of Assisi and his dynamic brand of poverty and humility.

The German processions were reported to have assembled at Speyer on 25 July 1212 before heading south through Alsace to the Alpine passes, probably the St Gotthard or the Simplon, before arriving at Piacenza on 20 August. This sequence of events fits badly with the Cologne chronicle’s dating of the beginning of the movement to March, April and May. Other accounts trace marchers at Liège and Trier earlier in July, which might find confirmation in the Cologne writer’s mention of trouble at Metz. Some modern historians have tried to combine the Lorraine, Netherlands and Rhineland crusaders as mustering together at Speyer, while others have explained the Lorraine marchers as coming from further west, from the uprising in northern France. There, the link between the official programme of special penitential processions appeared even more specific. Here the leader who emerged from the crowd, Stephen from Cloyes, near Vendôme, was a shepherd, a highly symbolic occupation in the context of Christian populist fundamentalism. The area of enthusiasm, the Dunois, Chartrain and Ile de France, like the Rhineland, had recently witnessed recruitment for the Albigensian war. In June 1212, Stephen led groups of penitents – boys, girls, youths, old men – to St Denis near Paris, coinciding with the annual Lendit Fair, the high point of the abbey’s pilgrim and commercial calendar. Stephen’s followers carried crosses and banners, the trappings of liturgy, while chanting ‘Lord God, exalt Christianity! Lord God, restore to us the True Cross!’ echoing papal preaching. Some of Stephen’s companions may have been recruited for the Albigensian war, but there is no exactly contemporary evidence linking his march with the recovery of the Holy Land or the simultaneous German enterprise. If the Cologne chronicle’s dating is accepted, then it is possible that rumours of the marches in the Rhineland provoked emulation in northern France. If the Lorraine and Speyer July dates reflect the chronology of the eastern expedition, then the inspiration, and even reinforcements, may have travelled in the opposite direction.

The fate of those penitents and crusaders who reached the Mediterranean is similarly clouded, not least by later lurid romantic fantasies. The German bands, once in Italy, dispersed. Some may have reached Genoa, or even Brindisi and Marseilles. Others – a handful of the many thousands who set out – returned home. Stories circulated that some embarked for the east while others had been sold into slavery or worse. There is no convincing evidence of the French marchers making a separate journey to the Mediterranean ports. All soon vanish from the record, leaving only startled memories or eccentric morality tales. Unlike similar subsequent popular uprisings associated with crusading, these outbursts left no trace in the surviving papal registers. However, whatever its fate, the so-called Children’s Crusade reveals a popular and ordered reaction by sections of the usually silent public, in this case it seems predominantly rural, to the propagandizing of the church authorities. This was no outpouring of inchoate mass hysteria. The zeal may have been untempered by official direction. Ecclesiastical unease was evident. Yet few demonstrations of the effectiveness of the thirteenth-century church’s redemptive message could have been more potent. The events of 1212 reveal the success of Innocent’s policy of using crusade preaching and ceremonial to promote reformist as well as militant messages. The depiction of those involved as shepherds or pueri captured the preachers’ insistence on a return to apostolic simplicity, free from the snares and obligations of materialism. Like the friars who were soon to become the shock troops of church evangelism, the marchers in 1212 were mendicants. Initially at least, some clerical observers were distinctly sympathetic to the marchers’ aspirations. The extent and potential of spiritual excitement throughout the wider Christian public exposed in 1212 may have encouraged Innocent to launch a new general crusade to the Holy Land the following year. One Alpine monastery preserved an apt, if possibly ben trovato, tradition that Nicholas of Cologne himself joined this new expedition and found himself a few years later facing the infidel at Damietta on the Nile.


The papal encyclical Quia Maior of April 1213, the conciliar decree Ad Liberandam of November 1215 and the attendant papal instructions to preachers, legates and tax collectors set in motion a vast new enterprise to recover Jerusalem while establishing rhetorical, legal, fiscal, liturgical and administrative norms of official crusading for the next century and a half. The circumstances seemed propitious; the planning meticulous. In July 1212, the Almohads had been destroyed at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. Simon of Montfort, after successfully completing his annexation of the Trencavel lands in Languedoc in 1211, had secured control of most of the Toulousain. With the political objectives of the anti-heresy war seemingly achieved or even exceeded, Innocent III suspended that crusade in January 1213. By contrast, in Outremer, the truce between the Franks and Sultan al-Adil of Egypt, renewed in 1211 and due to expire in 1217, barely concealed the Christians’ weakness, penned up in a few northern Syrian enclaves. John of Brienne, king of Jerusalem, regent for his infant daughter Queen Isabella, doubted that the truce would hold and urged a new crusade. While al-Adil showed no willingness to provoke a western challenge, the recent fortification of Mt Tabor in western Galilee by his son, al Mu ‘azzam of Damascus, posed a potential threat to Acre and the Franks’ precarious presence on its surrounding plain. Given western sensitivities, it took little to arouse a Holy Land scare. Mt Tabor, ‘where Christ revealed to his disciples a vision of his future glory’, supplied the pope with a casus belli.

The secular politics of western Christendom provided an equal, if riskier, opportunity. The German succession remained in dispute between the fading former papal protégé Otto IV and the then pope’s new favourite, Frederick of Hohenstaufen, son of Henry VI. Their struggle reverberated across Germany and Italy, subsuming and focusing myriad local rivalries and political contests. The consequences of Simon of Montfort’s conquests in Languedoc had created a whole class of dispossessed nobles as well as a legion of angry, suspicious or fearful neighbours, beginning with Peter of Aragon. England had been under a papal interdict since 1208 over King John’s refusal to accept Innocent’s nominee Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury. Now, faced by an assassination plot in 1212, hints of a papal deposition and French preparations for invasion, John was eager to reacha settlement that would allow him to take the offensive to recover his lost French lands. Modern historians have commonly assumed that the distractions of these warring monarchs allowed Innocent III to fashion the crusade to his own design. Yet, so far from regarding these divisions as a hindrance, Innocent exploited them as an opportunity. He began Quia Maior by insisting that the transcendent cause of the Holy Land demanded the active support of all Christian faithful on pain of damnation. This required a decisive turning away from material concerns to follow Christ. To assist such a commitment, the goods and property of crucesignati would receive the protection of the church, thus reinforcing the moral imperative to resolve temporal conflicts with practical security. Innocent placed the resolution of civil conflict at the heart of the preaching of the new crusade. Crusading had traditionally been associated with management of disputes, witnessed by the persistent links with the Peace and Truce of God throughout the twelfth century. It provided a context within which disputing parties could resolve their differences without loss of face or advantage, as, notoriously, between the Angevins and Philip II. Innocent, with characteristic intellectual clarity, administrative verve, and the experience of fifteen years as pope, now used this passive tool as a weapon to impose ecclesiastical arbitration on material as well as spiritual problems. This was no accident, rather a recognized property of crusading in the academic circle around the pope. One of the leading preachers of the Fifth Crusade, the Englishman Robert of Courçon, legate to France from 1213, explained in an academic treatise how ‘recently’ a number of barons had used the crusade to remove themselves from an awkward choice of rebellion or disinheritance, probably a reference to the counts of Flanders, Blois and Perche after the collapse of their alliance with Richard I against their lord Philip II in 1199.

Quia Maior established a comprehensive practical as well as religious framework for a new crusade. After presenting the universal moral obligation, the continuing scandal of Christians in Muslim captivity and the immediate crisis threatening the Holy Land, the pope announced an unequivocal plenary indulgence for all who took the cross and served or sent proxies at their own expense and to the proxies themselves: ‘full forgiveness of their sins of which they make truthful oral confession with contrite hearts truly repented of’. Familiar temporal privileges were rehearsed: ecclesiastical protection of crusaders’ property; moratorium on debts to Christians and their cancellation if owed to Jews. Citing his authority to ‘speak as Vicar of Christ for Christ’, Innocent instructed the clergy, civil communities and non-crusading lay magnates to supply troops for three years out of their resources and demanded naval help from maritime cities. The pope promised that he would also contribute. Income from clerical benefices could be pledged for three years. Trade with Muslims was banned, as was consorting with pirates. The efficacy of the practical rested on the penitential. Special monthly processions were to be accompanied by the preaching of the cross. Prayers for the Holy Land were to be supported by fasting and almsgiving with special chests placed in churches to receive pious donations. A new intercession was to be inserted in the mass. More controversial, but no less pragmatic, was Innocent’s invitation ‘that anyone who wishes, except those bound by religious profession, may take the cross in such a way that his vow may be commuted [i.e. replaced by another penance], redeemed [i.e. dispensed in return for a cash payment equivalent to the cost of crusading] or deferred by apostolic mandate when urgent or evident expediency demands it’. Poverty, incapacity, illness, age, gender or legitimate prior calls no longer prevented the enjoyment of crusade indulgence, a measure at once reducing the delays in checking suitability of putative crucesignati and increasing their numbers and social range. To focus attention and resources on the Holy Land expedition, Innocent cancelled the crusade indulgences for those fighting the Moors in Spain or the heretics in Languedoc who came from outside those regions. Knowing from the experience of the previous quarter of a century how long recruitment could take, Innocent preferred to wait until recruits had taken the cross before setting a deadline for the crusade muster.

Quia Maior operated within a wider policy. Simultaneously, Innocent summoned a general council of the church to meet in 1215 to discuss church reform and the crusade, and instituted elaborate systems to preach the cross. Papal control was central. The pope himself took the lead in Italy. Legates were appointed for France and Scandinavia. In Hungary, each bishop was authorized to preach the cross. Elsewhere, panels with legatine powers were established in every province to delegate the work of recruiting to deputies. Preachers were instructed to use the details of Quia Maior as the basis of their message. To avoid the controversy that swamped Fulk of Neuilly before the Fourth Crusade, they were to refuse money for themselves and, reminiscent of the bishop of Osma and Dominic Guzman in Languedoc, to travel modestly and set a good example by sober behaviour. On the ground, preachers kept written records of those they recruited and were ordered by the pope to deposit any crusade donations with local religious houses before rendering annual returns to the papal Curia so Innocent could assess the progress of the vast operation. The pope maintained close scrutiny over his agents across Europe. To the dean of Speyer’s request for clarification, Innocent reiterated the need to deflect Languedoc crusaders to the Holy Land, to allow recruits to take the cross despite their wives’ opposition, and to follow the encyclical’s radical extension of vow redemption and commutation, which was clearly arousing some concern. At his request, Bishop Conrad of Regensberg was allowed a grander entourage than Innocent had proposed. He was also permitted to absolve certain categories of criminals provided they took the cross. The abbot of Rommersdorf in Austria compiled a collection of Quia Maior and other papal letters as a reference tool while other preachers, such as James of Vitry, descanted on Innocent’s themes.

While the preaching campaign began, Innocent prepared the diplomatic ground, once more aided by events. John of England’s submission to the pope in 1213, the defeat of his allies by Philip II of France at Bouvines in 1214 and the subsequent English civil war prompted the king to take the cross on Ash Wednesday (4 March) 1215, using his new status in Magna Carta three months later to postpone settling disputed judgements from his predecessors’ reigns. John’s intentions probably owed more to politics than penance, adopting the cross may have been an attempt to facilitate a settlement with his enemies, many of whom were or were about to become crucesignati. The commitment to the crusade among the English propertied classes reached levels similar to the Third Crusade. The context of civil war also influenced Frederick II of Germany and Sicily’s decision to take the cross in the same year, a move encouraged by papal agents now actively supporting his cause. Further east, Leopold VI of Austria and King Andrew of Hungary were already crucesignati. Such was his determination to involve the whole of Christendom, Innocent even called on the Venetians to honour their still unfulfilled and unabsolved crusade vow of 1202.

The array of monarchs, princes and cities added to a sense of united purpose when the 1,300 ecclesiastical delegates from all parts of Latin Christendom from the Atlantic to Syria met at the Lateran Palace in Rome in November 1215. These included most of those appointed to preach the cross, the Latin Patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem, and representatives from the Maronite church in Lebanon (in communion with Rome since 1181) and of the Melkite (i.e. Syrian and Egyptian Greek Orthodox) archbishop of Alexandria, with whom the pope had maintained a regular correspondence over the conditions of Frankish prisoners in Egypt. The business of the council was Christian renewal, reform and the crusade, regarded by Innocent as different aspects of the same religious enterprise. The decisions concerning the crusade suggest some hard bargaining, with the pope not necessarily getting his way. Innocent’s defence of Raymond VI of Toulouse failed to convince the council, who condemned the count in favour of Simon of Montfort, whose activities had long since given the pope pause. More general papal anxieties over the legal proprieties of the war against heretics were seemingly brushed aside in the council’s third decree, which established their canonical legitimacy as attracting the equivalent indulgences and privileges ‘as is granted to those who go to the aid of the Holy Land’. This may mark a victory for the bellicose French hierarchy, which had consistently been more robust in prosecuting the Languedoc campaigns than the more legally fastidious pope. The reverse may have been true regarding the plans for the Holy Land crusade, with the implementation of the provisions in Quia Maior regarding vow redemptions, debt and tax exemption causing disquiet in French official circles as being too radical.

The council’s final decree (no. 71), Ad Liberandam, largely endorsed Quia Maior but with additions, modifications and omissions. It established the ‘sanctum propositum’, the ‘negotium Jesu Christi’ in canon law. After two years of active preaching and recruitment, the tone was urgent. The muster was fixed for June 1217, significantly in the ports of the Sicilian regno, the lands of the new papal protégé and imperial candidate Frederick II. For those intending to take a land route, a legate would be appointed. Clerics were encouraged to participate and allowed to fund themselves from their benefices. The pope contributed 30,000 pounds and a ship for the contingent from the city of Rome. Tax exemption was clarified, although behind the scenes concessions may have been made to Philip II, who already in March 1215 had published an ordinance restricting crusaders’ legal immunities in accordance with French customs. The direct encouragement to indiscriminate adoption of the cross and vow redemption, another bone of contention, was dropped, although not explicitly contradicted, a convenient obfuscation. Proportionate indulgences for ‘aid’ remained. Tournaments were banned for three years and a general Peace, backed by the threat of excommunication, was instituted for four years.

By far the most important innovation involved the imposition of a tax of a twentieth on ecclesiastical incomes or three years. Perhaps as a quid pro quo, the pope and cardinals agreed to pay a tenth. Innocent’s earlier attempt to tax the church on papal authority in 1199 had failed. Now, to ensure compliance, the explicit approval of the general council, ‘sacro concilio approbante’, was invoked, in the conciliar decree and in every letter sent out concerning the tax’s collection. Both Roman law and political custom across Europe, as, famously, in Clauses 12 and 14 of Magna Carta five months earlier, indicated the importance of representative consent for extraordinary fiscal burdens. To effect his financial and legal arrangements, Innocent was simply bowing to contemporary constitutionalism to bind all parties more absolutely than any unilateral recourse to papal absolutism. Clerical crusade taxation combined with the extension of full and proportionate indulgences redeemable by material and cash contributions, the detailed provision for alms and donations, and the beginnings of an international ecclesiastical network of collection and audit, to transform the way crusades operated. All subsequent major crusading enterprises sought similar financial provision, especially ecclesiastical taxes, often to the consternation of local churchmen. The translation of the ideology of inclusive obligation to the cause of the Lord’s War into cash deposits, while arousing the cynicism of some, allowed for more central control of operations by crusade commanders with access to these funds. This made crusading attractive to magnates and kings while encouraging greater professionalism in recruitment, funding and military organization. Immediately after the Lateran Council, the fiscal scheme lent a new coherence to fundraising and papal control. In law, finance and management, Innocent left an indelible imprint on the business of the cross.