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 frac