The Fifth Crusade




There were many lessons learned from the disaster of the Fourth Crusade, but the most important one, for Pope Innocent III, was the need for the Church to administer and centrally manage future expeditions to the Holy Land. Six months after the Children’s Crusade, Innocent preached a new Crusade wherein he hoped “to accomplish what he had failed to achieve in 1202–1204, the destruction of Ayyubid Egypt, the recovery of Jerusalem, and the spiritual renewal of Christendom.” Innocent’s Crusade bull, Quia Maior, promulgated in April 1213, along with the conciliar decree, Ad Liberandum, from the Fourth Lateran Council in November 1215, established the “rhetorical, legal, fiscal, liturgical, and administrative norms of official Crusading for the next century and a half.”

Innocent believed that participation in the Crusade should be extended to all Christendom, and he granted plenary indulgences to those who fought, as well as to those who sent proxies in their stead (and to the proxies themselves). Those who could not fight were exhorted to pray and fast for the success of the expedition and, if they had the financial means, they could finance a Crusader and through this “substitution payment” also receive the indulgence. Those without the financial means to pay the full expenses of a warrior on Crusade could donate a smaller amount to the Church for general Crusade expenses and through this “redemption payment” also receive the indulgence.

Innocent marshaled all of Christendom to participate in the Crusade in order to maximize the chance of success and to bring about a general spiritual awakening. In order to focus on the Holy Land campaign, Innocent suspended the indulgence for those fighting against Muslims in Spain and the Albigensian heretics in the south of France. Although the Fifth Crusade was designed by Innocent to be centrally administered by the Church and involved a huge recruiting effort throughout Christendom, there was no effort to appoint central secular leadership. This lack of central leadership and the ambitious size of the project constituted serious deficiencies that eventually hampered the success of the expedition.

The Siege of Damietta

At first glance, the city of Damietta—two miles inland from the mouth of the main branch of the Nile River—did not seem to warrant the attention it received from the Crusaders. Regardless, the town of 60,000 inhabitants happened to lie on the most direct approach to Cairo, and so “for the next three and a half years, this narrow waterlogged region of flats, marsh, canals, and rivers remained the focal point for the thousands who joined the Crusade from the west, the longest static campaign in the history of the eastern Crusades.”

The Crusaders arrived in May of 1218 and quickly assessed the task before them. Damietta was a heavily fortified town with triple land and sea walls whose harbor defense consisted of the seventy-foot Chain Tower. A 300-man garrison was charged with defending the harbor and ensuring that the massive chain that stretched from the tower to the city did not collapse, allowing enemy ships to get close to the city.

The Crusaders began the siege of Damietta by using their fleet to blockade the city in order to cut off supplies with the hope that the city would surrender. Although this maritime maneuver was necessary for the successful prosecution of the siege, it alone would not guarantee success. The Crusaders knew they needed to besiege the city on land, but to do so required control of the harbor, which in turn required the conquest of the Chain Tower that guarded the harbor entrance.

Several attempts to take the tower failed. The Crusaders were frustrated and getting desperate when Oliver of Paderborn had an idea. He suggested the Crusaders take one ship and build a siege engine on the deck with a rotating scaling ladder. The modified ship would sail to the Chain Tower and soldiers in the siege engine could use the ladder to scale the tower. The contraption was similar to what the Venetians had built and used successfully at the siege of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. Oliver’s idea worked, and they finally captured the Chain Tower in August of 1218, three months after their arrival at Damietta.

The siege of the city could now begin in earnest. Unfortunately, large groups of Crusaders left the army and returned home after the Chain Tower fell. During the height of the campaign the army consisted of 30,000 troops, but by the time the army marched to Cairo it contained only 1,200 knights, 4,000 archers and several thousand infantry.462 Indeed, “the history of the Fifth Crusade is one of a fluid army defined by the constant arrivals and departures of soldiers. In part, this was the logical outcome of the new formulation of a Crusade as a papally sanctioned war against the enemies of the faith, rather than an armed pilgrimage to the land of Christ.” Soldiers leaving the campaign while it was still ongoing became a significant issue and prevented the troops from pressing their advantage and securing victory. “The transient fluidity of tours of service between 1217 and 1221 ensured that the best funded, most widely preached and professionally recruited Crusade to date failed to convert numerical popularity into lasting achievement.”

Diplomatic Negotiations

Desiring to rid himself of the Crusaders, the Muslim ruler al-Kamil offered a diplomatic solution. In return for the Crusader withdrawal from Egypt, al-Kamil offered to restore the previous territory of the Kingdom of Jerusalem except for a few important castles in the Transjordan. The offer was stunning; in effect, “al-Kamil offered to wipe away all of Saladin’s conquests in Palestine for the Crusaders’ lifting of one siege in Egypt.”

King John of Brienne urged acceptance of al-Kamil’s offer, but the Templars and Hospitallers cautioned against it since it would be extremely difficult to defend Jerusalem without the Transjordan castles. Cardinal Pelagius weighed the opinions and ruled against accepting al-Kamil’s generous offer. He earnestly believed the Crusaders were in a position of strength and would emerge victorious. In the mind of the cardinal, acceptance of a negotiated settlement while occupying a superior military position was foolish. Additionally, the German Crusaders were reticent to accept any offers of peace before the arrival of Frederick II.

The specter of the emperor’s anticipated arrival would continue to influence decisions during the Crusade. Ultimately, the failure of the Fifth Crusade did not hinge on the rejection of this (and subsequent) diplomatic overtures from al-Kamil, but on poor military decisions.

The Saint Arrives

As the siege wore on, Crusaders continued to arrive and depart while the army awaited the arrival of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Those remaining in the Crusader camp were greeted with a strange sight in the late summer of 1219, when a group of twelve men in tattered clothing arrived instead. These twelve companions had come to the Crusade to witness to Christ among the Muslims even to the point of martyrdom. Their leader was a man destined to be declared a saint by the Church: Francis of Assisi. He and his eleven friars had reached Damietta to convert al-Kamil and end the Crusade.

Despite modernity’s sentimental view of St. Francis as a proponent of tolerant diversity, he “sought no accommodation with Islam, [but] rather its eradication through reasoned evangelism.” Francis discussed his desire to proclaim the gospel to al-Kamil with Cardinal Pelagius, who urged him to abandon such plans. St. Francis and Brother Illuminato left anyway.

Francis was confident of the Lord’s protection, but Brother Illuminato was concerned about their reception among the Muslims. As they walked, Francis noticed two grazing ewes and said, “‘Courage, Brother! Put your trust in him who sends us forth like sheep in the midst of wolves.’”

When they reached the Muslim sentries they were taken into custody, beaten, and chained. Francis cried out to his captors, “I am a Christian. Take me to your master.” Brought before al-Kamil, Francis preached to him through an interpreter for several days. The sultan listened attentively and responded personally and warmly to Francis before telling him, “I am going to go counter to what my religious advisors demand and will not cut off your heads . . . You have risked your own lives in order to save my soul.” Although moved by Francis’s words and holy life, al-Kamil told the saint he could not convert to the Catholic Faith without deeply alienating his people who would see the conversion as apostasy, which brings punishment by death in Islam. The sultan asked the saint to “remember me in your prayers, and may God, by your intercession, reveal to me which belief is more pleasing to him.”

The dramatic interaction between the Catholic saint and the Muslim sultan did not produce the hoped-for fruit of conversion, nor did it end the Fifth Crusade, but it was an episode that illustrated the spiritual purpose of Crusading. It was a bold and daring move worthy of remembrance, and it almost worked. St. Francis, although not a vowed Crusader, was nonetheless an authentic Crusader for he “embodied both the poor man and the knight, the two forces that had set out together in olden times along the road to the Holy Land and had retaken Jerusalem.”

After his return to Italy, St. Francis revised the Rule of the Order of Friars Minor to reflect his experience. An entire chapter of the Rule was now dedicated to relations with Islam, and how the friars could spread the gospel among the Muslims. In the Rule of 1221, Francis stressed the need for friars working in Muslim lands to live an authentic Christian witness, to proclaim the Word of God, and to be prepared for martyrdom, which occurred even during the lifetime of the saint. Francis’s mission to convert al-Kamil proved unsuccessful, but its potential success constitutes another one of the great “what ifs” of the history of the Crusades

The Fall of Damietta

Eighteen months after the first Crusaders arrived at Damietta, the city fell. A group of Crusaders noticed one of the defensive towers on the wall was not manned, and they stormed it. From this foothold they were able to gain control of the wall and open the gate for the main body. The city was taken without a fight—an unexpected development—but the Crusaders soon discovered why the final assault was so easy.

Once inside the city, the Western warriors were appalled to discover corpses everywhere. Eighteen months of blockade and siege had dwindled the food supplies within Damietta to dangerous levels, resulting in the starvation of 50,000 people. Oliver Paderborn described the macabre scene that greeted the Crusaders: “As we were entering [Damietta], there met us an intolerable odor, a wretched sight. The dead killed the living.”

News of the fall of Damietta reached al-Kamil who once again reached out to the Crusaders in an attempt to find a diplomatic solution. He offered the same terms as before, but this time sweetened the deal by promising restoral of the True Cross, captured by Saladin at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. Cardinal Pelagius once again refused.

The hindsight of history produces the analysis that “four years of Crusade had been wasted through the arrogant folly of a prince of the Church.” However, the situation at the time gives legitimacy to the decision of Pelagius to reject al-Kamil’s second diplomatic advance. The Crusaders had just captured Damietta, without significant loss of combat strength, and the Muslim army was not threatening offensive action. Pelagius had every reason to believe the situation was favorable to the Crusaders, dictating a militant rather than diplomatic posture.

As summer approached, the troops were idle and restless and in need of a campaign, so Pelagius ordered the army to move out in a combat operation to capture al-Kamil’s stronghold of Mansourah, which was halfway between Damietta and Cairo. The army approached Mansourah and halted its advance in a precarious defensive position opposite the city and between the Nile and the al-Bahr-as-Saghir canal that linked the Nile to Lake Manzalah. The choice of encampment placed the army in a position that was surrounded by three waterways and provided a prime opportunity for an astute enemy to cut off their supply line, which is exactly the plan followed by the Muslim army. The Crusaders were faced with the dilemma of attempting a difficult advance on Mansourah separated from their line of supplies, digging in and waiting for reinforcements, or a tactical withdrawal. Since the army only had provisions for twenty days, Pelagius made the decision to withdraw to Damietta. The retreat from Mansourah placed the Crusade in jeopardy as the campaigning season came to a close, and the army’s strength was not enough to launch another operation against Cairo.

The failed expedition to Mansourah had dangerously drained the effective fighting force of the Crusaders. This situation, coupled with the prospect of a long stalemate and uncertainty about when or if Frederick II’s German army would arrive, forced Cardinal Pelagius to realize the only viable solution was diplomacy, so he sued for peace. Terms were reached on August 29, 1221: If the Crusaders would surrender Damietta and leave Egypt, al-Kamil offered an eight-year truce, a prisoner exchange, and a promise to return the True Cross. Pelagius agreed to the terms and the army left in September.

The failure of the Fifth Crusade was especially disheartening since it had been so close to succeeding. Unlike the failure of previous Crusades, however, which demoralized Christendom and negatively impacted the Crusading movement, the disappointment of the Fifth Crusade provided a learning experience that the Church and secular rulers took to heart. They learned “the lesson that their efforts needed to be more sharply focused in terms of logistic preparations, military organization, and religious commitments. The Fifth Crusade met military defeat for itself while securing institutional success for its cause.”


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