The Fifth Crusade 1213–21 Part IV


The outcome of the Egyptian campaign surprised and appalled in almost equal measure. The canny Iraqi pundit Ibn al-Athir called it ‘unexpected’. Western observers were less charitable, attaching blame variously to Pelagius, the pope, the dilatory Frederick II, the clergy, the crusade leaders, sin, pride, materialism and avarice. Many remained confused, by the decisions taken on the ground and the judgement of God on his followers. ‘What mass of evil caused it?’ Reaction on all sides was sharpened by the appreciation of how near to success the crusaders had come. A major Egyptian port had been secured in the face of fierce opposition, an undefeated land army and hostile terrain, in its way an achievement to rank with the taking of Acre in 1191. The Ayyubid empire had been severely shaken, especially in the aftermath of the death of al-Adil in 1218. The perceived seriousness of the threat to Egypt had briefly united the rival Ayyubid factions across the Near East. For two years Sultan al-Kamil had been prepared to offer superficially generous terms simply to get the crusaders out of his territory. The prospect of the crusaders’ assault on Cairo in 1221 had caused widespread alarm. Yet that final foray into the heart of the Nile Delta in the summer of 1221 exposed the westerners’ consistent weaknesses of leadership, control and manpower. The army in 1221, as for the previous three years, was too hesitant, too divided and too small. Traditionally these problems have been seen in terms of a personal conflict between Pelagius and John of Brienne. The reality was more complex.

The lack of a settled army of itself need not have undermined the crusade. Regional or national divisions were never submerged during the Third or even the First Crusade. However, in Egypt in 1218–21 these divisions were not balanced by a decisive command structure, which went some way to explaining the lethargy that gripped the expedition between November 1219 and July 1221. When Damietta fell, the high command failed to distribute the booty and plunder in ways regarded as equitable by the mass of their troops, reminiscent of events following the fall of Constantinople fifteen years earlier. The conflict was triangular. Pelagius, as controller of the central fund, bore responsibility for dispersing the plunder and incurred the anger of the common crusader for perceived meanness. He was also opposed by John of Brienne, who insisted on his right to rule the city and, supported by his barons, resorted to arms to press his case. While Pelagius received the support of the imperialists, eager to preserve any future rights of Frederick II, John could play on Pelagius’s unpopularity to secure a favourable compromise. He was granted the city until the arrival of Frederick and the division of spoils was increased. This represented a hollow victory, as the city’s property and mosques were assigned to separate western national groups whose distinct identities were preserved by the constant arrival of fellow countrymen. Neither Pelagius nor John was in control of events, these national groups pursuing their own policies with an inconsistency that meant that neither could rely on their support. As the legate discovered with some of the French and Germans, not even cash guaranteed loyalty. Elaborate military operations were often conducted as separate private enterprises by one contingent or another. For once, corporate leadership did not work.

This serial dislocation of command and control not only frustrated Pelagius’s policies but encouraged King John to leave the army around Easter 1220 for more than a year. His departure drew criticism from the legate’s adherents and weakened the king’s standing among the veterans at Damietta, who remembered the promises of unwavering support before the campaign had begun in 1218. John’s withdrawal prompted many others to leave, further emasculating its offensive capacity. John was attempting to secure a claim to the Armenian throne though his wife, Stephanie, eldest daughter of Leo II of Armenia, and their infant son. Leo II died in the summer of 1219, leading to a damaging succession dispute between his great nephew, Raymond Roupen, a recently failed prince of Antioch, and Leo’s daughters Stephanie and his preferred heir Isabella. While John may have despatched troops to support his cause in Armenia, his claim was negated by the deaths of his wife and son in Acre shortly after he arrived from Egypt. John’s failure to return to Damietta for another year after the collapse of his Armenian hopes further eroded his position. By the time he reappeared, seemingly reluctantly, in July 1221, while the familiar divisions between the aggressive and defensive parties remained, the army had been joined by influential newcomers, especially imperialists led by Louis of Bavaria and the count of Lesina, who owed no allegiance or respect to John’s rights or authority. In his absence, faute de mieux, Pelagius had assumed a more dominant role. Thus, when John sensibly advised caution in the face of the risks of a Delta campaign, he lacked the political credit to impose his will, a weakness not entirely of his enemies’ making. However, John’s absence may have served the crusade’s interests in ways not recognized by his opponents at Damietta. By remaining in his kingdom in 1220–21, John was on hand to blunt al Mu ‘azzam’s and al-Ashraf’s continued probing of the Franks’ Syrian and Palestinian defences, including attacks on Château Pèlerin and Acre.

One of the most remarkable features of the Egypt campaign was its tenacity, first in the face of the desperate warfare of 1218–19 and then during the long period of defence and inactivity 1219–21. By the summer of 1221 the Christian host remained intact. But action now appeared an absolute necessity if the army were to remain in Egypt. Certainly the clerical elite around Pelagius believed the whole enterprise was becoming mired in corruption, indolence and sin by the enforced inaction. Only activity would raise morale, morals and the integrity of the army. Nonetheless, with hindsight, the decisions reached by the crusade high command in July and August 1221 seem to defy reason. The first was to launch an attack on Cairo in early July perilously close to the annual flood season with a force, perhaps a minority of the troops available, far smaller than the combined Egyptian and Syrian Ayyubid armies facing them and comprising too few to take the Egyptian capital by siege or even protracted assault. The plan to march on Cairo was unlikely to have been made suddenly. In Louis of Bavaria, who reached Damietta in May, the legate found an ally for his strategy and a commander for his troops. The arrival of King John and a large force on 7 July precisely coincided with the Damietta troops reaching battle readiness. However, the final muster at Fariskur, on 17 July, came with only a month left before the Nile flooded. The leadership also knew of the Syrian reinforcements coming to aid al-Kamil. Yet such had been the effort in preparing the expeditionary force that further delay or even acceptance of the sultan’s renewed peace terms would not only have split the leadership but risked the complete disintegration of the Christian army. This, in turn, would have encouraged the sultan and his allies to renege on any offer made while the crusader army was strong and threatening. Once embarked upon, the advance could scarcely be cancelled. Although he expressed his doubts, at no stage did King John withdraw his troops. Indeed, he had timed his return to Egypt precisely to coincide with the advance.

The second fateful decision was to continue the march southwards from Sharamsah, a town twenty miles south of Damietta on the Cairo road, at the end of July. To that point, progress had been relatively unopposed. The prevailing insistence of the mass of the crusaders to press on came as a direct consequence of the effort to mobilize the force in the first place. It also provided testimony to the fragile hold over public opinion within the army. Once again, although vociferously unhappy with the outcome, King John loyally remained with the army as it picked its way towards Mansourah. He had declined to break up the army when he had a final chance at Sharamsah to remove his own contingent. The details and motives behind the leaders’ debate are irrecoverable. However, it was not be the first or last occasion when contested military judgement was proved wrong. It should be remembered that up to its departure from Sharamshah, the army had only made contact with the enemy’s Turkish light cavalry. The Christian failure to see the trap being prepared for them suggests a collapse in intelligence rather than cussed obstinacy or myopic amateurism.

The third decision was less finely balanced. The crusaders had marched, open-eyed, into a position opposite Mansourah between the Nile and the al-Bahr-as-Saghir, a canal that linked the river to Lake Manzalah to the north-east. From one aspect, they were protected from attack by these waterways. From another they were cornered. During their march south, the crusaders ignored a side channel that flowed into the Nile north of Baramun. Now the Muslims used it to blockade the river downstream from the Christian camp opposite Mansourah. At the same time the Syrian levies moved to positions on land north-east of the crusaders, obstructing access to their base at Damietta. The Christians were trapped. Once this became apparent, a debate began on whether to withdraw or to dig in, hoping for relief from Damietta or from the promised arrival of Frederick II. With provisions for only twenty days, trying to hold such an advanced, exposed position made little sense. On 26 August, the crusaders began a ragged but not entirely disorderly retreat. Beset by constant enemy attack and the rising waters of the Nile, the Christian army struggled northwards. Many common crusaders decided to drink the wine supplies they could not take with them, reducing their military effectiveness still further. As a final throw, the sultan opened the sluices, flooding the Christians’ camp near Baramun, catching them, in the words of the Master of the Temple, ‘like a fish in a net’. Pelagius bowed to the inevitable and asked John of Brienne to sue for peace.

Despite appearances, the crusaders still held some bargaining chips. The large garrison at Damietta remained unconquered. The substantial field army, although badly mauled and carrying heavy casualties, remained intact, largely thanks to the organization imposed by the Templars. Reinforcements from Europe were expected to arrive any day. Al-Kamil’s priority remained the same as before: the removal of foreign troops from Egyptian soil. He had no desire to press for a definitive military solution, not least because the continued presence of his Syrian brothers and their armies in his kingdom presented a potential threat to his authority. A siege of Damietta could take months. After some ineffectual sabre rattling by both sides, terms were agreed on 29 August that struck Oliver of Paderborn as ‘excellent’. This stretched a point. In return for the surrender of Damietta, the Christians were to be allowed to evacuate Egypt freely, without ransom. All prisoners were to be exchanged and a truce of eight years established that was not to be binding on Frederick II if he chose to campaign in the east. As a fig leaf to conceal Christian disappointment, the return of the True Cross was promised, by now a formal, not realistic, part of such treaties. After some trouble when the news of the treaty reached Damietta, the evacuation was conducted in orderly fashion, even though a new imperial force under the count of Malta had just arrived in port. The crusaders dispersed, some travelling to Acre, others sailing directly for the west.

However brave a face apologists presented, the failure of the Egyptian campaign stood in barren contrast to the hopes raised in 1219 and, more widely, to the prodigious efforts made across Christendom after 1213. While the fundraising and recruiting continued, the political appetite for a renewed general crusade ceased. Increasingly, the relationship between the pope and the new emperor, upon which the success of whole enterprise had come to be predicated, became marred by recrimination and mutual suspicion, leading to Gregory IX’s excommunication of Frederick in 1227 following his failure to embark on crusade that year. Other contingents journeyed east, including a substantial army with the English bishops Peter des Roches of Winchester and William Brewer of Exeter in 1227. This was intended as part of Frederick II’s crusade, and some of its members stayed to join the emperor when he finally arrived in the Holy Land in 1228. However, the sight of an excommunicated crusade leader, shunned by large sections of the Frankish political and clerical hierarchy, eagerly securing a deal with al-Kamil that had eluded the crusaders on the Nile was hardly the result envisaged by Innocent III and his army of preachers and recruiting agents a decade and a half earlier.

Perhaps the surprise of the Fifth Crusade lies less in its failure than in how nearly it succeeded, at least in destabilizing the Ayyubid empire at a critical moment of insecurity on the death of al-Adil in 1218. This is the more remarkable as it appears unlikely that the expedition ever contained enough troops to attempt a serious conquest, still less occupation of Egypt. Its disturbing impact on the region testified to the fragility of Ayyubid power structures. However, lasting achievements in the east were few. The fortification of Château Pèlerin stood the test of time. It was never captured by the Muslims, only being evacuated in August 1291 after the fall of Acre had rendered further resistance impractical. The experience of regular traffic of seaborne armies across the Mediterranean set a trend for the rest of the thirteenth century which sustained the mainland outposts of Outremer as its Muslim neighbours became increasingly united and bellicose. The financial, propagandist and penitential systems that were perfected during the crusade’s preparations formed the basis for the conduct of future expeditions. Ironically, even the strategy of an assault on a Nile port was deemed to retain the promise of success. It was rehearsed, with even more disastrous results, in 1249–50 by Louis IX of France and remained a staple of crusade planning for another century. Although many blamed the defeat in Egypt in 1221 on excessive church control, the integration of ecclesiastical wealth into the ‘holy business’ transformed the nature of the exercise for succeeding generations, as did the availability of cash vow redemptions and donations. The crusade failed to secure a lasting papal–imperial alliance, but did not necessarily point to mortal combat between the two. More generally, the reaction to the Fifth Crusade was not, as it could have been, the abandonment of the ideal or practices of crusading. Instead, contemporaries took the lesson that their efforts needed to be more sharply focused in terms of logistic preparations, military organization and religious commitment. The Fifth Crusade met military defeat for itself while securing institutional success for its cause.