The papacy, crusading and the Holy Land, c.1274–91



It is tempting to assume that because no major expedition landed in the East between 1249 and the fall of Acre, the West lost interest in crusading. This is entirely mistaken. Particularly from 1274 onward, papal attention on the fate of the Crusader States in the second half of the thirteenth century was intensive, and major expeditions were either planned or launched in 1269–70, 1276 and 1290. That none of them had the intended result was due to a combination of bad luck and divided strategic interests, but above all to the much greater complexity of European politics in the second half of the thirteenth century. Paradoxically, the period from 1274 onward was also one of increased clarity and articulacy in the planning and theorising about crusades, both in the development of a canonical underpinning for crusading and in the wide-ranging practical measures designed to enable crusades to become more effective.

One outcome of the failed crusade of 1270 was the election of a pope who would once more put the Holy Land, rather than either national interest or the problems of Italy, at the heart of his policy. The installation of the papalist Charles of Anjou, brother of Louis IX, in Sicily, and his execution of the last Hohenstaufen heir, Conradin, in 1268, had offered the hope of a Mediterranean unity that might make a joint crusade possible. But Charles’ self-interested diversion of Louis’ army to Tunis, his own failure to rescue his brother, and the inability to coordinate Aragonese and English forces with Louis’ army, meant that the opportunity was lost. Tedaldo Visconti was in the Holy Land with the Lord Edward’s forces when he was elected pope as Gregory X in 1271. The Second Council of Lyons, summoned by Gregory in 1274, was self-consciously modelled on Fourth Lateran. Like Innocent III, Gregory saw the crusade as the pinnacle of papal policy, to be supported by a substructure of institutional reform within Christendom. But the very breadth of his vision, which included the reunion of Latin and Orthodox Churches, may have distracted the energies of Christendom from the single-minded pursuit of the crusade to the East. Gregory saw no merit in hurrying into a crusade; instead he sent out requests for discussion papers to be tabled at the council so that the wise heads of Christendom could tackle the underlying organisational problems that had so beset the 1270 expedition. This approach was to signal the arrival of a new literary genre – the ‘recovery treatises’, or proposals for the best way to recover the Holy Land.

Some of these treatises were couched as complaints, like that of an anonymous Franciscan who wrote a Compilation of the Scandals of the Church (Throop 1940: 69–104). Others were more balanced. The Dominican Master-General, Humbert of Romans, introduced his proposal (The Three-Part Work) by reviewing current criticism of crusading (Throop 1940: 147–83; Schein 1991: 28–36). Such documents give us insights into why contemporaries thought crusading was failing – for example, poor leadership, abuses of the taxation of clerical income, and God’s disfavour towards the use of violence – but they do not tell us how widespread or representative such views were. Scepticism about crusading is certainly more widespread in the sources in the later thirteenth century: there is evidence of criticism of some kind against most thirteenth and fourteenth century crusades (Tyerman 1985: 105–6). But, as Humbert’s memorandum shows, fundamental doubts about the merits of crusading were mixed with displeasure at the policies that had led to defeat and to general despair that God had abandoned the crusading ideal. A good deal of the thirteenth-century criticism of crusading really consisted of complaints about how they were financed, which is not the same thing as scepticism about the project itself (Siberry 1985: 111–49).

One of the problems that had dogged crusades since the early thirteenth century, and that the Second Council of Lyons was designed to address, was the diffusion of targets. According to Matthew Paris, Richard of Cornwall’s crusaders took a public oath to set out for the Holy Land, ‘[L]est they be prevented from fulfilling their vows by the delaying tactics of the Roman Church, or turned aside from their vows to shed the blood of Christians in Greece or Italy’ (Luard 1876: 620). Gregory IX had in 1239 authorised a crusade against the Byzantine ‘empire of Nicaea’, in order to protect the failing Latin Empire of Constantinople. In 1245, Innocent IV tried to persuade Louis IX to fulfil his crusading vow in the papal crusade against Frederick II rather than going to Egypt. To popes, there was no conflict of interest here. For one thing, the war against the Hohenstaufen could be rationalised as a necessary action to bring about the unified conditions in the west in which a crusade to the East could succeed. Besides, it was a matter of the logical application of the principle of a justifiable war for the defence of the Church. But to the English crusaders in 1239 – or perhaps to Matthew Paris – it looked as though their sense of priorities – in which the Holy Land represented the height of crusading – was not shared by the papacy.

Some of the doubters, such as William of Tripoli, the Dominican provincial in the Holy Land, whose State of the Holy Land advocated peaceful conversion instead of war, represented a minority view among friars. Roger Bacon, the English Franciscan natural philosopher, had as early as 1250 argued that war would never succeed in recovering the Holy Land because each crusade simply instilled greater resentment among a new generation of Muslims, and thus contributed to an endless spiral of violence (Siberry 1985: 207–8). This was itself a reflection of the fundamental critique of crusading in Ralph Niger’s Military Affairs (1187), but by the mid-thirteenth century Ralph’s gloominess had been succeeded by a more positive alternative approach to crusading through conversion. If Roger’s views seem hauntingly prescient today, they did not command sufficient respect in 1274. Humbert’s response was that, desirable though the peaceful conversion of Muslims would be, it was impossible without securing territory first. The thirteenth-century kingdom of Jerusalem, lacking the rural hinterland as far east as the Jordan, where the Muslims had largely lived before 1187, had a much higher proportion of Christians to Muslims. Conversion, therefore, could only take place through missionary work in hostile territory, and the experience of Franciscans and Dominicans was that this led to the martyrdom of the missionaries (Siberry 1983: 103–10).

Against this general background of conflicting priorities and mixed signals about the purpose and efficacy of military expeditions to the East, Gregory X attempted to place Jerusalem once more at the forefront of crusading policy (Schein 1991: 20–50). The crusade was preached and revenues collected throughout Christendom, from Frankish Greece to Greenland. But familiar problems arose: Philip III of France was still fighting the king of Castile in 1275, while the new German emperor-elect, Rudolph, did not succeed in defeating the rival claim of the king of Bohemia until 1278. The novel feature of Gregory’s crusade was to have been an alliance with the Mongols in the Near East, cemented in an embassy sent to the Council of Lyons. One of the Mongols’ ambassadors was a Dominican missionary, David of Ashby, who had first-hand knowledge of their military tactics. From the surviving portions of a treatise he wrote for the pope, it is probable that the alliance was premised – from the Mongols’ perspective – on western forces fighting under Mongol command and following Mongol strategy (Richard 1949: 291–7).

Gregory X’s crusade had every chance of success in inflicting a military defeat on Baibars, but this alone would not have saved the Crusader States. A more permanent commitment to the Frankish remnant in the East was needed. Some strategists, including the heads of the Military Orders, recommended abandoning the traditional ‘massed crusade’ in favour of smaller, more focused and short-term strategic expeditions that would accomplish specific aims. This kind of crusade, which in the fourteenth century would come to be called the passagium particulare as opposed to the passagium generale, has of course always been part of the history of the Crusader States. In 1110, the capture of Sidon had been made possible by the armed pilgrimage of the king of Denmark; in 1122, the Venetians had rendered similar service in the siege of Tyre, and the expeditions of Henry the Lion in 1170 and Philip of Flanders in 1177 also fall into this category. St Louis’ policy of funding a small permanent force of knights in the Holy Land from 1254 onward (Jordan 1979: 79) provided a model for William, patriarch of Jerusalem, to demand in 1267 the commitment of European rulers to a standing army in the east (Schein 1991: 18). The experience of trying to coordinate different national forces, all leaving at different times, which had proved unmanageable in 1270, doubtless added weight to such opinion. There is evidence that the policy was tried, but although small contingents were sent east in 1272, 1273 and 1275, Gregory regarded these as holding forces to prepare the way for his ‘passagium generale’.

Gregory’s death in 1276, and the succession of a series of short-lived popes over the next ten years, put paid to his passagium generale. The collection of tithes for Gregory’s crusade continued, but papal policy, whether by design or accident, once again subordinated the needs of the Franks in the East to the Church in the West. Nicholas III (1277–80) was accused of spending the Lyons tithes on rebuilding the Vatican (Schein 1991: 57), while Martin IV (1281–5), himself a Frenchman, openly colluded with the French king Philip III’s war against first Castile and then Aragon, which both king and pope were disposed to view as itself a crusade. But the major obstacle to the realisation of Gregory’s crusade was the posturing of Charles of Anjou, king of Sicily. The revolt against his rule in Sicily in 1282, known as the ‘Sicilian Vespers’, resulted in a flurry of crusading activity, but all directed against Christians – the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Paleologus, who had fomented trouble among the Greek-speaking population of Sicily, and Peter III of Aragon, who took advantage of the revolt to invade the island.

The Vespers themselves were the consequence of Charles’ own ambitions. Determined to create a Mediterranean empire on the axis of Sicily and Constantinople, he persuaded Martin IV to authorise a crusade in 1281 against the ‘schismatics and usurpers’ of the Byzantine Empire. Martin’s nationalist chauvinism thus overturned the policy espoused at Second Lyons of pursuing union between Latin and Orthodox Churches. If we look at the complicated situation from Martin’s perspective, it is possible to credit him with believing that Charles really would use his imperial ambitions for the good of the Crusader States – why else, after all, had he bought the title of king of Jerusalem in 1277? Perhaps Martin was in fact far-sighted enough to realise that the only hope for the kingdom of Jerusalem was the protection that could be offered by a single Christian ruler holding sway throughout the Mediterranean. This, in effect, was what Honorius III had hoped for back in 1225 when he sanctioned the marriage of Frederick II to Yolanda. But in the 1280s it all went spectacularly wrong. Michael VIII responded to the threat of the crusade against him by precipitating the Sicilian revolt, and in January 1283 the crusade was preached against the Sicilian rebels. In 1285 Philip III died leading a disastrous French crusade against Aragon.

Even after the fall of Tripoli in 1289, the new pope Nicholas IV (1288–92) was still issuing indulgences for the Sicilian crusade while making plans for the defence of Acre. Anti-papal sentiment at the diffusion of crusading policy showed its disgust in the speech put into the mouth of a Templar ambassador to the West by the Sicilian chronicler Bartholomew of Neocastro: ‘You could have saved the holy land [by using] the might of kings … but instead you chose to attack a Christian king and the Christians of Sicily, arming kings against a king to recover the island’ (Housley 1982b: 77). It would be unjust, however, to blame Capetian interests or papal policy alone for delaying a crusade to the East. Edward I of England, asked by Martin IV in 1284 to lead a crusade, frustrated papal attempts to levy a tithe until 1288, and then became embroiled in wars in Wales and Scotland. As Housley has observed, crusading could not take place, either in the minds of planners or in reality, in a political vacuum (1995: 262). Kings always had other commitments, and part of the responsibility of popes had always been, since the 1170s if not earlier, to help to sort out dynastic and territorial conflicts so that the business of crusading could continue.

In fact Nicholas IV was to prove more effective than any pope since Gregory X in organising a passagium generale for the Holy Land. In summer of 1290 he sent a small force of Italians to assist in defending Acre; the following spring, the crusade itself was proclaimed for 1293. As in 1270 and 1274–6, this was to be an international enterprise, involving Edward I, Alfonso III of Aragon and his brother James of Sicily, and Charles II of Anjou. Plans for the crusade continued to proceed after the fall of Acre in May 1291. As far as western Christendom was concerned, all that had changed was the need for a new military strategy, since no bridgehead remained from which an attack on Qalawun could be launched. Promised participation widened even further, with the expectation of an end to the Venetian–Genoese war. Of the major western powers, only Philip IV of France refused to become involved. But his stance had a knock-on effect on the crusade, for the threat he posed to English Gascony meant that Edward could not afford to leave the West. Coincidental deaths also spoiled the pope’s plans. Rudolph of Habsburg, Alfonso III and the Mongol il-khan Arghun all died in 1291: there would be no single successor in Germany until 1298, while the accession of James of Sicily to the throne of Aragon meant the eruption of the Sicilian–Angevin war once again, and Arghun’s death meant that the opportunity to use Mongol military power in the East, so tantalising a possibility since 1264, had disappeared. In 1292, Nicholas IV himself died. Although he achieved nothing, he was widely recognised at the time, and has been by modern historians, as a crucial figure in the history of crusading (Atiya 1938a: 45–6; Schein 1991: 90–1). The policy he pursued during his pontificate – notably the economic blockade of Egypt and the attempt to reform the Military Orders – not only stemmed directly from the recovery treatises, but were to form the basis for crusade planning in the fourteenth century.


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