The Sixth Crusade: The (Holy Roman) Empire Strikes Back

Written by Chris Riley.

By the 1220’s the Catholic Church was in a strange place. In the last 20 years it had attacked Greek Orthodox Christians in Constantinople, Cathars in Southern France and then back to fighting the Ayyubids in the near east and Egypt. None of these are what you could call successes but, Pope Honorius III and later Gregory IX saw one man as the reason for all of their hardships, the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II.

An image from his book ‘De arte venandi cum avibus' (The art of hunting with birds) showing Frederick with a hawk or eagle SOURCE: Public domain

You might be thinking ‘why on earth would a Pope blame the Holy Roman Emperor for all of their failures? And it's a very good question. The answer is very simple. He was the Antichrist.


The Antichrist

So, it is very unlikely that Frederick II was the actual Antichrist but, this didn’t stop the papacy from claiming so. This resulted in eventually having (arguably one of) the most powerful Christian rulers excommunicated. Tensions were running high since Frederick was unable (or refused if you’re the Pope) to help out with the Fifth Crusade, never actually joining in with the fighting in person. Yes, German soldiers were sent on behalf of the Emperor but, Frederick, due to political issues back in Europe was unable to leave for fears of war at home.

Frederick was married to Isabella of Jerusalem, daughter of King John in 1225, furthering Frederick’s stake to the Holy Land. It was at this time that Frederick finally set out on the holiest of holy missions, a decade after he took the cross. Now with a dynastic element added to his need to attack the Ayyubids (Frederick could now potentially add ‘King of Jerusalem’ to his long list of titles) and in 1227, he gathered an army and set out towards Acre (the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem since the actual city had been under Ayyubid hands since 1187). Before the Sixth Crusade could even get started, Frederick retuned to his lands in Italy to the dismay of the Pope.

The choice to return was not through any lack of faith, but an outbreak of disease, forcing the Emperor to save his men to fight another day, but this made no difference to the pope who saw this as an opportunity to have Frederick excommunicated. It is important to remember at this point the Papacy and the Roman Emperor were in disputes over Holy Roman lands in Italy, and this latest ‘infraction’ served as a perfect opportunity to remove a political and military rival.

A map showing the rough borders of the Holy Roman Empire at the end of the 12th century, Frederick was also the king of Sicily and thus controlled all of the lands around the Papal controlled region around Rome. SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons

Frederick was by no means a ‘bad Christian’, and it’s likely that he was as religious and God Fearing as the next medieval monarch. It’s clear that the decision to have him excommunicated was purely political; with the papacy, hoping to reduce his control over northern Italy, and putting this young emperor ‘back in his place’. The excommunication and continued poor treatment of Frederick didn’t stop him from once again, attempting to do his duty and reclaim the city of Jerusalem.


The Sixth Crusade

In September of 1228, Frederick and an army of some 12,000 men (including at least 2,000 highly proficient and well trained German Ritter, or knights) set out for the Levant, boasting perhaps one of the finest, if not one of the smallest crusader forces ever assembled. Arriving in Acre in on 7th September to a lacklustre response, Frederick was on the hunt for allies. The leaders of the Crusader Kingdoms and the holy orders such as the Knights Templar and Hospitaller, were less than happy to be helping an excommunicate leaving the emperor and his new army all alone.

The stunning stained glass windows at St. Andrew’s at Temple Grafton SOURCE: Pintrest

With a Christian victory already looking bleak, things got worse for Fredrick when his new wife, Isabella died in childbirth. Frederick had his infant son Conrad installed as the King of Jerusalem, ousting his father-in-law, John of Brienne who had been a part of the failed Fifth Crusade, further alienating himself from the leading lords of the Levant.


Mightier than the sword

Frederick marched his small force out of acre in the early months of 1229, looking for the much weakened Al-Kamil, leader of the Ayyubid forces in Egypt and Syria, who was in the midst of dealing with internal strife and civil war. Since the end of the Fifth Crusade, Al-Kamil had spent more effort beating back former allies and family members than on consolidating his dynasty’s power in the region. His own brother, Al-Mu’azzam, Emir of Damascus had joined forces with the Khwarizmians, a Sunni Muslim empire that had been destroyed by the Mongol invasions, now looking for mercenary work.

The complete lack of unity in the Ayuubid camp gave Frederick a wonderful opportunity to win the war without fighting, as nether side were capable of fighting a drawn out conflict. The two leaders sat down to talks and found much in common. Frederick was a cultured man and took great interests in the Arabic world, learning to speak the language certainly helped get the two powerful leaders on the same level. Both sides agreed that war was not good for ether side and any attacks on enemy held land would simply damage both sides power in the region.

By February of 1229, the treaty of Jaffa saw a ten year truce agreed and, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth all given over the Frederick and by default, the Pope. Unlike in the 5th Crusade, the offer of Jerusalem was gladly taken, as Frederick knew the city’s importance and, that his army was far too small to contend with a long drawn out siege for the city.

An image of the meeting between Frederick II and Al-Kamil SOURCE: Public domain

You’d think at this point, that Frederick had more than delivered on his crusader promise, very few if any Christian lives had been lost and, the holiest city in the world had been returned to Christian control but, nether the Latin inhabitants of the Levant, nor the pesky Pope was happy. After an impromptu crowning ceremony in Jerusalem was carried out, Frederick returned to his Italian lands where he found a Papal army led by his Father-in-law, John of Brienne attacking his lands.

Frederick was able to beat back the Papal forces and was eventually welcomed back into the Church but not as a victor. The leaders of the Crusader Kingdoms could never set their personal differences apart, allowing Muslim forces time to reset and rearm, eventually taking back the city in 1244, with yet more crusaders called to reclaim it.

Its plausible to suggest that the Sixth Crusade is actually just an offshoot of the Fifth crusade (1217-1221) but, I think it deserves more credit as a surprisingly peaceful and successful Christian excursion into the Levant. Objectively, the Holy Roman Emperor completely achieved not just his goals but, the goals of every crusade leader since Richard the Lionheart back in the 1190’s. The response from the papacy was yet another example of how one’s political position, even for the Pope, was far more important than one’s faith.


Written by Chris Riley.

I hope you enjoyed this and would love to hear what you think, please leave me a comment and follow me on Instagram @chrisriley_ for more medieval history!

Thanks for Reading.

16 views0 comments