The Fifth Crusade: Looking a gift horse in the mouth

The early 13th century was a mess of crusading efforts, with the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) attacking and capturing Christian held Zara and Constantinople, and attacks on Cathar heretics in Southern France. Both showed just how far the crusades had strayed from Papal vision. During the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229), Pope Innocent III called for all efforts to be once again focused on the Levant and his successor. Honorius III took up the mantel after Innocent’s death in 1216.


Causes and the Children’s Crusade

The idea to attack the Ayyubid heartlands in Egypt was an idea that was first discussed after the failure to recapture Jerusalem during the Third Crusade. Egypt was the ‘breadbasket’ of the Ayyubid empire and any attacks there would surely warrant a considerable response. The overall desire to recapture the Holy Land had not gone away but, probably due to the sheer amount of ‘Crusades’ being called, the enthusiasm had taken a bit of a dip. But in 1212, a group of children (take that with a pinch of salt, I'll soon explain) were able to reignite the dwindling crusader flame.

In the summer of 1212, thousands of young people decided to stop being grumpy teenagers and turn their efforts to Jerusalem, unofficially taking the cross and heading out for the Holy land. The so called ‘Children’s Crusade’ never received papal sanction and thus doesn’t really count as an official crusade but, the mass pilgrimage of thousands of pueri (Latin for ‘boy’ or ‘child’), even though they never actually made it out of Europe, made there rest of the Catholic west look east again. It is unclear whether the pilgrims were actually children as the word ‘pueri’ was used sometimes to simply describe peasants and serfs so, it may have simply been similar to the People’s Crusade led by Peter the Hermit. Regardless of whether it was a ‘Rugrats in Paris’ type venture or, a peasant’s pilgrimage, the desire to attack the heart of Muslim power was back.

The children’s crusade on its way to the Holy Land, 1212. (Credit: Bildagentur-Online/UIG via Getty Images)

The once great Ayyubid empire was in some turmoil. After the death of Saladin in 1193, his brother, Al-Adil had successfully forced his way past Saladin’s sons, making his own son, Al-Kamil Sultan of Egypt. This provided perhaps the best chance at reclaiming lost lands in the east, as Al-Adil faced near constant bickering and internal rebellions in and around Egypt.


The Fifth Crusade begins

By 1217, all efforts had been shifted from Southern France, with Honorius calling, once again, on the Kings and Princes of Europe to switch their focus to the near east. First to take the cross was King Andrew II of Hungary, who became the military leader of the Fifth Crusade alongside other Christian lords and barons from across Europe. The men set out for Italy to be ferried over to the east.

By October of 1217, Andrew II, who had been joined by the Austrian Duke, Leopold VI landed in Cyprus, where they met up with Bohemond IV of Antioch and John, King of Acre. The combined force set out to raid and pillage the parts of the Levantine coast that were under Ayyubid control. The large crusader force moved down the coast, recapturing Caesarea and skirmishing with Al-Adil’s forces in the region. At this point, Andrew of Hungary had decided that he had 'done his bit, and it was time to go home’ leaving Oliver of Paderborn to lead the rest of the army into Egypt. Oliver brought with him many Germans who would have likely travelled over with Frederick II, heir to the Holy Roman Empire but, Frederick had to postpone his crossing until he had secured his own position back home, this infuriated the Pope who would eventually have Frederick excommunicated for his lack of faith.


The siege of Damietta

Damietta was a port town at the edge of the Nile and controlling it, gave the holder control over the north of Egypt and would allow for further attacks into Cairo. In order to gain access to the port, a massive tower with chains blocking the entrance, similar to that at Constantinople, would need to be ether destroyed or captured and on 24th August 1218, the tower was captured by Oliver of Paderborn’s men.

‘The Capture of Damietta' by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen (1625) SOURCE: Public domain

The capture of the chain tower gave the crusader fleet full control over the port and the town of Damietta. The town was all but lost to the attacking Christians, with the city finally falling to the Crusaders in November of 1219. To make things worse for the Ayyubids, it was at this time that Al-Adil died, leaving the fractured realm without its leader. Al-Kamil retained control of Egypt but, a lack of strong central leadership would hamper the Muslim counter attack.


The Art of the Deal

At this point, things weren’t looking great for Al-Kamil and his forces, loosing Damietta and his father at the same time made him consider peace negotiations with the invaders. The religious and legal leader of the crusade was the Papal Legate, Pelagio Galvani of Portugal, and it was his job to both lead and, discuss with Al-Kamil about a possible treaty. The terms at this point were favourable to say the least, Al-Kamil offered the city of Jerusalem for a complete withdrawal of crusader force and, Damietta. Most people in the 13th century would have seen this as a golden opportunity to recapture the famous city without any more bloodshed, Legate Pelagio did not.

Refusing any and all offers from Al-Kamil, the crusader army continued their push through Egypt, as the Pope and his conduit in the east saw the key to success in the Nile basin. It wasn’t until 1221 that the Christian army decided to move out of Damietta, the army of some 30,000 had been waiting for reinforcements from the now Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, who had finally secured his position but still required more time to mobilise an army. Sick of waiting for the wayward Emperor, Pelagio ordered his army march south down the Nile to Mansoura, where Al-Kamil had built a fortress and gathered a large army to protect the important city of Cairo.

A map showing the Nile Delta with Damietta in the north and Cairo in the south SOURCE: Google Earth


Battle on the Nile

Over 15,000 men left Damietta leaving almost as many behind, the plan was to rush down towards Al-Kamil’s stronghold at Mansoura, capture it and then move on the Cairo, but the Europeans failed to listen to their local guides and John of Acre, who all informed Pelagio that the Nile River is not to be messed with, and the arid areas of desert would quickly flood in the autumn months. Even with this knowledge, the crusader army pushed further into Ayyubid lands, all the while being hounded by Al-Kamil’s light and agile forces. Fighting throughout July and August meant the crusader supplies were stretched thin and to make things worse, the Nile had begun to flood, with the route to Cairo cut off completely.

With no choice but the turn back, Pelagio turned the army around only to find the full Ayyubid field army led by Al-Kamil and his brothers waiting for them. Some of Al-Kamil’s advisors wished to annihilate the stranded Christians but, ever the wise tactician, Al-Kamil offered them their lives in return for Damietta, an offer that was quickly accepted.

Back in Damietta, Frederick II’s forces were finally arriving, disgusted at the Papal Legate’s decision to both decline the Jerusalem offer and then, march south without perhaps its largest contingent. Al-Kamil soon took back control of Damietta, and waved of the massive army that could have quite easily captured the whole of Egypt, if it wasn’t for poor leadership and, the late arrival of Frederick II. The Fifth Crusade ended just as it was started to pick up, with Legate Pelagio returning to Europe to almost universal hate. He had first refused the greatest prize of all and then, foolishly marched out down the Nile just as it started to flood. The Crusade could have been a resounding success but instead, it failed due in part, to the reluctancy of the Holy Roman Emperor to commit troops until his political position back home was secure, but mainly due to Christian ignorance in the face of the Ayyubid forces, able to rely on their ‘home field advantage’ that had saved them during the Third Crusade.

Following the Fifth Crusade were several more attempts into the Holy Land but never again, did Christian forces come close to ‘recapturing’ their lost lands.


Written by Chris Riley.

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