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Monday, April 19, 2021

The Treachery of an Emperor

 Emperor Frederick vowed to liberate Jerusalem at his coronation as "King of the Romans" (Germans) in December 1212, and renewed that vow many times afterwards. Yet when he finally arrived in Outremer on July 21, 1228, the first thing he did was to alienate one of his most powerful vassals by a trick more worthy of a pirate than an emperor followed by a crude attempt at extortion.  His actions were so astonishing  that not even his admirers attempt to justify them; they prefer to simply ignore them altogether. It all started with a sinister banquet...

In July 1228, when the Emperor Frederick finally arrived on his long-awaited crusade, his first port of call was Limassol in the Kingdom of Cyprus.  This King of Cyprus was at this time an eleven-year-old boy, Henry, not yet old enough to rule for himself. In accordance with the laws of Cyprus, the High Court of Jerusalem had recognized Henry's mother Alice as his regent, but because she chose not to exercise that office, the High Court had elected a "baillie" to act in her stead. In July 1228 this was John d'Ibelin, the Lord of Beirut, who held large fiefs in both the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Cyprus. 

On his arrival in Limassol, Frederick sent a very pleasant letter to the Lord of Beirut, the text of which was recorded in contemporary accounts. This letter addressed Beirut as "my lord and honored uncle," explained that: "we desire to have the satisfaction of seeing you with the king and your children, all our dear and well-beloved cousins, that we may have the pleasure of embracing you and knowing you personally."(1) The Emperor closed the letter with "Your very affectionate nephew, Frederick Emperor."(2) (Beirut was an uncle of the Emperor's late Empress, Yolanda of Jerusalem.)

Despite the outward tone of the letter, Beirut's friends and council smelled a rat. Whether they had intelligence from other sources or simply mistrusted the Emperor generally, Beirut's council unanimously advised him not to attend upon the emperor. Beirut insisted on going, saying explicitly that he would rather be arrested or killed than have it said that he -- by his refusal to work with the emperor -- had ruined a chance of recovering Jerusalem. This underlines the fact that despite the emperor's words, Beirut knew that he was out of favor. He was not taken in by the emperors words of friendship, but rather determined to do all in his power to patch over their differences in order to increase the prospects of a successful crusade. Ibelin pointedly and consciously put the liberation of Jerusalem ahead of his personal security and status.

So Beirut took King Henry to Limassol, accompanied by the entire Cypriot army, both knights and sergeants, and also his three adult sons, Balian, Baldwin and Hugh. On arrival in Limassol, the Emperor welcomed them with the appearance of joy, and they dutifully submitted to the Emperor's leadership, pledging their bodies and worldly goods in his service in the impending crusade. The Emperor further begged that they set aside the mourning they were wearing for Beirut's brother Philip, and instead accept robes of scarlet from him. He also personally invited them to attend a great banquet he would hold for them the next day. Beirut, his sons and vassals readily agreed.

Yet, on the same night as the invitation, "the Emperor caused to enter secretly by night three thousand men-at-arms or more, sergeants, arbelesters, and sailors, so that nearly all the fighting men of his fleet were there; and they were disposed throughout the stables and rooms."(3)

On the next day, the guests came unarmed in the lavish robes the Emperor had given them and insisted that they wear. The Emperor sat at a high table flanked only by the Lord of Beirut and Beirut's brother-in-law the Lord of Caesarea. Furthermore, as a mark of "favor," Beirut's eldest sons were designated to serve the Emperor, "one with the cup , the other with the bowl, while the young lord of Caesarea and Sir Anceau de Brie should carve before him."(4)

When the last course was brought in, "armed men came out from those places where they had been posted and they took possession of the palace...some holding the hilts of swords and others daggers."(5) Only after his armed men had surrounded the unarmed Cypriots did the Emperor show his true colors. Now he turned to the Lord of Beirut and demanded that he 1) surrender the revenues he had stolen from Cyprus during his own and his deceased brother's terms as baillie of Cyprus, and 2) that he surrender his title and lordship of Beirut.

Beirut first tried to dismiss the claims as a "poor joke" and suggest the Emperor had been listening to evil gossip, but the Emperor insisted that he would have Beirut's lordship and allegedly ill-gotten gains or he would arrest him. Despite being unarmed and surrounded by the Emperor's troops, Beirut replied that he has received his lordship legally from his half-sister Queen Isabella and had made a full accounting for the revenues of Cyprus. Nevertheless, he asserted he would be happy to put his case before the respective High Courts. He would not surrender either lordship or revenue, however, without a judgement of the appropriate court. The Emperor grew more enraged, declaring: "I shall show you that your wit and subtlety and your words will avail naught against my force." (6)

Apologists for Frederich Hohenstaufen are quick to point out that the Lord of Beirut and his brother before him had been tenacious and used dubious legal tricks to remain in the position of "baillie" of Cyprus after their falling-out with Queen Alice. They suggest that Beirut very probably did have something to hide. Possibly.  Yet no one has ever been able to come up with even a shadow of a justification of why he should not have been entitled to the Lordship of Beirut, a lordship he built up at great expense after it had been devastated by years of Saracen occupation and a violent re-capture by German crusaders.

Furthermore, even if Beirut was guilty of one of the "crimes" -- which is far from proven simply because historians think it possible -- that hardly justifies the Emperor's action. The Emperor, allegedly the protector of law and justice, baldly stated that he didn't give a damn about the law and courts; he declared bluntly that "might was right." He did not offer counter-arguments, nor agree to put the case before a court of law, but simply threatened the use of force like the most illiterate and rapacious robber baron. 

Undoubtedly, the Hohenstaufen's defenders would argue that as Emperor he could not subject himself to any court. But he didn't have to -- he only had to allow Beirut to defend himself before his peers in accordance with the laws of the kingdoms in which the crimes had allegedly been committed. By refusing to allow Beirut to defend himself in accordance with the laws of the kingdoms, the Emperor -- allegedly the source of all justice --- was denying justice to one of his most important, and up to this point completely loyal, vassals. 

Beirut refused to be intimidated by the Emperor's threats. He said he would accept the fate Christ decreed, but he would surrender nothing without due process and a judgement of the High Court. 

At this point the many lords of the Church tried to mediate. The best they could negotiate, however, was that Beirut would surrender 20 hostages as surety that he would submit himself to the judgement of the respective High Courts. The Emperor demanded that Beirut's eldest sons be among the hostages. The Emperor noted to Beirut as he made the demand, "I well know that Balian is your very heart and that so long as I have him I shall have you."(7)

It is hardly surprising that an Emperor who felt he had the right to simply take away fiefs and demand bribes (for demanding the "repayment" of revenues that have not been stolen in the first place is extortion) at the point of a sword did not keep his word about "honoring" his hostages either. Although not even Emperor had accused the hostages of wrong-doing, Beirut's sons were "put in pillories, large and exceedingly cruel; there was a cross iron to which they were bound so that they were able to move neither their arms nor their legs, and at night the other men were put in irons with them."(8)

The actions of an "enlightened," "modern" and "tolerant" monarch? Not in my opinion!

1) Novare, Philip De. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus. Trans. John La Mont, Columbia University Press,1936, p. 74f.
2) Ibid. 
3) Ibid, pp. 76-77.
4) Ibid, p. 77.
5) Ibid. 
6) Ibid, p. 79
7) Ibid, p. 81
8) Ibid. 

This incident is an important episode and its consequences are an important thematic element in:

Monday, April 12, 2021

Seeds of Civil War

 Despite being absent,  the Hohenstaufen Emperors attempted to impose their will upon the crusader states for a total of 43 years.  They did so largely through proxies and without reference to the constitutions of the kingdoms involved. This sparked tenacious resistance from the local barons which ultimately resulted in civil war.  

Throughout those 43 years, a minority faction among the local barons supported the Imperial cause. Indeed, it could be argued that while Frederick II used the disaffection of some individuals for his purposes, they used his hubris and arrogance for theirs. Today  I look at the tensions and factions within the ruling elite of Outremer that presaged the conflict that was to follow.

The opposition to the Holy Roman Emperor was led by John d’Ibelin, Lord of Beirut, supported his large kinship network, the majority of the local barons and knights, the Templars, Genoese and the common people of Acre. The imperial faction was led most forcefully by Sicilian nobles appointed by the Emperor, notably his admiral Richard Filangieri, and supported by the Pisans, Hospitallers, and a minority faction in Outremer. 

While local support for the Emperor in the Kingdom of Jerusalem was fluid and declined over time as Filangieri alienated more and more of the Franks, on Cyprus the Emperor enjoyed strong support from a minority faction of local lords and knights led by Sir Amaury Barlais, Gauvain de Cheneche, Amaury de Bethsan, William de Rivet, and Hugh de Gibelet. These five men were briefly appointed joint regents (baillies) of Cyprus by Frederick II and are widely referred to as “the five baillies.” They commanded the loyalty of 80 knights, or effectively 20% of the Cypriot feudal elite. 

What explains the difference between Jerusalem and Cyprus? Where did the local opposition on Cyprus come from and why?

Philip de Novare explains the bitter divide in Cypriot society entirely in terms of personal jealousies and resentment. He tells a colorful tale of Sir Amaury Barlais trying to murder a knight he accused of cheating in a joust.  According to Novare, although he failed and was pardoned for the attempt, the hostility and mutual suspicions between Barlais and the Ibelins started with this incident and festered thereafter.

Certainly Amaury Barlais’ attempted to oust Philip d’Ibelin as “baillie” of Cyprus sometime after 1224 and before 1227. (The exact date is unknown.) The sequence of events is as follows. In 1218, King Hugh I died, leaving as his heir a nine-month-old son, Henry, and a widow, Alice de Champagne, who was a niece of the Ibelin brothers John and Philip. According to the constitution of the kingdom, Alice, as the king’s closest blood relative, was recognized as the regent of the kingdom. However, Alice (for whatever reason) chose not to take up the reins of government. Instead, she contented herself with the bulk of the revenues while turning the business of ruling over to her uncle Philip d’Ibelin. Significantly, this choice of actual (as opposed to nominal) regent was agreed to in the High Court of Cyprus, and the members of the High Court (i.e. the knights and nobles of Cyprus) took an oath to support Philip until King Henry came of age at 15.

Sometime in 1224, Alice had a falling out with Philip d’Ibelin (probably over money) and decided to marry a second time (she was roughly 30 years old at this time). She chose as her second husband Prince Bohemond of Antioch, and moved to Antioch, leaving her children by her first marriage behind. Sometime thereafter she appointed Amaury Barlais as her “baillie,” presumably on the expectation that he would be more amenable to her demands.

Her appointment of Barlais, however, lacked the consent and approval of the High Court. This was unconstitutional (even if the members had not sworn allegiance to Philip “until Henry came of age”) and so the High Court rejected Barlais’ claim to be regent for Alice of Champagne. This probably had less to do with preferring Philip d’Ibelin over Amaury Barlais than with preserving the privileges of the High Court itself; the members could not accept Barlais without surrendering their own prerogative to designate regents/baillies.

However, at this point, one of the knights in the High Court and a relative of the Ibelins, a certain Anseau de Brie, took things a step farther and accused Barlais of treason for accepting and attempting to claim the appointment. Brie challenged Barlais to judicial combat. Brie was a large and powerful man; Barlais was slight of stature. The latter fled back to Syria.

This is where the rivalries of Cyprus became entwined with the policies of the Holy Roman Emperor. This accusation of treason apparently occurred near to the time when Yolanda of Jerusalem married Frederick II. Barlais recognized that the Emperor Frederick could be a very powerful ally in his struggle with the Ibelins, and he set about winning the Emperor’s favor.  

It may also have been at this point that Barlais became allied with Sir Gauvain de Cheneche, who had already gone to the Emperor’s court from Cyprus after a judicial combat that went poorly for him. Cheneche was reputedly very good with falconry, a passion of Frederick II, and had thereby won the Emperor’s favor. Together Cheneche and Barlais complained about the Ibelins to the Emperor.

The Ibelins, although uncles of the Emperor’s new wife Yolanda, had already earned Frederick II’s disfavor by crowning Henry king of Cyprus, while the latter was still a child of seven. Based on German law (not the law of Outremer), Frederick II claimed that he (not Alice de Champagne) was the rightful regent of Cyprus and viewed the crowning of the young king as an attempt to pre-empt him. The coronation very probably was an attempt to check-mate the Emperor, but it was at least based on the law of the land rather than the law of the Holy Roman Empire. Nevertheless, it meant that Barlais’ complaints about the abuse of power by the Ibelins fell on open ears. It did not help the Ibelin cause that Frederick II apparently had no respect or affection for his wife, their niece, Yolanda. 

Again according to Novare, in anticipation of the Emperor’s immanent arrival Barlais returned to Cyprus and accepted judicial combat with Brie. What he thought to achieve by this is unclear, but the resulting trial by combat is described in detail by Novare. Barlais won an early advantage when he succeeded in prying Brie’s visor open. He stabbed Brie three times in the face before Brie managed to wrest the lance from Barlais’ hand and fling him to the ground, injuring him. Brie, who was still mounted, should have been able to dispatch Barlais, but when the latter ran to the perimeter barriers, his loyal horse again and again put himself between Brie and his master so Brie could not deliver the coup de grace. Eventually, the judges – the Lord of Beirut and his brother-in-law the Lord of Caesarea, who was also Constable of Cyprus -- intervened to prevent Barlais’ death. Yet Barlais felt he had been humiliated a second time and returned to the Emperor’s court full of yet more bitterness against the Ibelins.

Historians, notably Peter Edbury, are reluctant to accept Novare’s account and explanation of the conflict. Edbury points to the fact that the five baillies all came from the second generation of families that had helped establish Lusignan control over Cyprus. He argues that these men opposed the Ibelins because the latter were perceived as “parvenus” in Cyprus. (See Edbury’s The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades 1191 – 1374 and his John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.) He suggests they legitimately resented Ibelin prominence in the reign of Henry I because the Ibelins had not set foot on Cyprus before 1210 and been inveterate opponents of Guy de Lusignan in the previous century.

While there are legitimate grounds for doubting the Ibelins were “late-comers” to Cyprus (see: and, resentment of Ibelin prominence remains the most reasonable explanation of the hostility of this minority.   

This does not mean that Novare’s detailed descriptions of duels and violent arguments were fabricated. Rather, he has described events that reflected more than caused the tensions. Yet while Edbury is right to point out that the Ibelins were not universally popular, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Ibelins retained the support of the overwhelming majority (80%) of Cypriot knights and nobles. Perhaps even more telling, they retained the affection and favor of their young lord, King Henry I of Cyprus right until his death decades later.

Philip de Novare's account of the Emperor's crusade and the civil war in the crusader states is the primary source for the events described in a new series of novels set in Outremer in the early 13th century.

Monday, April 5, 2021

A Man for All Seasons: Philip de Novare

 Among his contemporaries, Novare was most famous for his legal handbook on the laws of the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus full of practical tips for how to “plea,” i.e. argue a case.  Today he is remembered as the author of the only comprehensive narrative describing the baronial resistance to Emperor Frederick II’s rule in Outremer. Novare was present at many of the events described and knew all the important actors personally. Given his importance to our understanding of this period in the history of Outremer, I thought this 13th Century "Renaissance man" who was not just a knight but a poet, troubadour, philosopher, historian, and lawyer, deserved a short biography.

This is NOT a portrait. None exists. I selected an image that was evocative of a man of learning.
By the time Novare died, he was so well-respected that he served as the executor of King Henry I of Cyprus’ will in 1254, yet his origins are obscure, his parents unnamed and probably insignificant. Historians believe he derived his name from the town of Novara in Lombardy, where he was presumably born sometime between 1205 and 1208.  The date is interpolated from his autobiography in which Novare describes himself as a “page” to a certain Cypriot knight, Peter Chappe, taking part in the first siege of Damietta in 1218. Were he older than 13, he would almost certainly have been a squire, and if he were younger than ten it seems unlikely he would have been taking part in a crusade so far from home.

Apparently, Novare was already orphaned at this time but sufficiently educated that he could read to his master.  One day, Chappe invited the famous lord and lawyer, Ralph of Tiberias, to dinner in his tent, and Novare was asked to read aloud as entertainment.  Tiberias was so pleased with his reading that, when he fell ill, he asked Chappe to send Novare to him. In his memoirs, Novare admits that he was not pleased with this assignment, but he was an obedient boy and for the next three months found himself spending hours with the dying Tiberias.

It was a fateful meeting. Ralph of Tiberias has been called the “Socrates” of the baronial movement. He was, according to Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith, “an inspiration to succeeding generations…the sovereign of cleverness in court cases and in speaking beautifully and highly.”[i] At this man’s knee Novare learned the laws of Jerusalem and made Novare’s fortune.

But his future was not clear, much less bright, in 1218 when Tiberias died. Fortunately, the orphaned and still very young Novare was given an undefined place in the household of John d’Ibelin, the Lord of Beirut.  Beirut and Tiberias had been friends, so one assumes that Tiberias commended Novare to Beirut’s keeping on his deathbed. As Novare grew up, he evidently moved from page to squire and was, eventually knighted. At some point before 1228 Novare was granted a fief on Cyprus by Beirut, and later one on the mainland as well, but they could not have been very large or very lucrative because Novare remained “poor.” Indeed, he makes multiple albeit vague references to his debts which were evidently so infamous that his enemies used them to try to manipulate him.  His financial embarrassment did not end until Queen Alice paid all his accumulated debts and granted him a money fief worth 1,000 marks of silver for convincing the High Court of Jerusalem to recognize her claim to be Queen in 1243.

This royal grant and the peace that came with the fall of the last Imperial stronghold, Tyre, paved the way for Novare to devote more of his time to legal activities and writing. His “History,” the account of the civil war 1228-1243 which is the basis of most of our knowledge of this conflict, was written shortly after the end of the war. His book on the laws and legal norms of the Kingdoms of Cyprus and Jerusalem, the Livre de forme de plait, appeared sometime around 1250. His last book, a philosophical reflection on the four ages of man (Les Quatre Ages de l’homme) was written shortly before his death in 1265. In addition to these major works, Novare tells us that he wrote poems on love, politics, and religion. Only a few of these have survived, but enough to testify to his wit, humor, and talent, even if he does not rank among the great poets of his age.

What is striking about Philip de Novare’s life is that a man of obscure origins and limited financial resources could gain so much stature by his scholarship in the mid-thirteenth century crusader states. Novare was viewed by contemporaries as “the best pleader [i.e. lawyer] this side of the sea.”[ii] He was admired for this. His services were in demand, and he was influential as a result. That says a great deal about the society in which he lived: that it valued intellectual as well as military prowess, and that it was less bigoted and class-conscious than many assume.

Equally striking is that Novare was a man of action as well as letters. While so many chronicles were drafted in the peace and isolation of monasteries by men who had no familiarity with the clash of weapons much less the events described, Novare’s “history” was conceived as an autobiography. Novare knows his subject ― too well, some modern historians argue. Writing an autobiography, Novare makes no attempt at objectivity.  Novare is telling his story as he saw it. His friends and patrons are the heroes; their enemies are his enemies.

Novare was a close friend of Balian the younger, the eldest son of Beirut. They were much the same age, and the fact that Novare often refers to the younger Ibelin as his “compeer,” suggests they may have served together as squires and so earned their spurs together. Certainly, the first personal action Novare describes entails him refusing to take an oath of homage to the imperial baillies on Cyprus in order to remain true to “his lord,” the Old Lord of Beirut, John d’Ibelin.  Yet, after being pilloried for his “treason” and narrowly escaping an assassination attempt, Philip sends a plea for help to his “compeer” Balian d’Ibelin, a youth without the resources to actually help. It is as if Novare, at this point just 23-years-old, is too in awe of Beirut to write him directly. He trusts that his “compeer” Balian will persuade his powerful father to come to his rescue.

Having so publicly cast his lot with the Ibelins, Novare had no choice but to stand by them through all that was to come. He took part in the sieges of Kantara and St. Hilarion in 1229, receiving a wound at the latter.  He also composed satirical songs about the plight of the Imperial garrisons, and poems predicting the treachery of the enemy after Beirut pardoned his enemies. Novare took part in the attempt to relieve Beirut in 1232, accompanied Balian of Beirut to Tripoli on his diplomatic mission to gain the support of the Prince of Antioch, and he negotiated the surrender of the citadel at Kyrenia and Famagusta. Significantly, when in early 1233, the Lord of Beirut had a falling out with his heir Balian because of the latter’s marriage, Novare was one of just five knights who stood by the younger Ibelin. He took part in Balian’s daring and dangerous charge up the slope at the Battle of Agridi.

We know very little about Novare’s marriage. His wife has not been positively identified but was probably Stephanie, the daughter of a Cypriot knight Berthelmy du Morf. We know of only one child that came of this marriage, a son baptized Balian after Philip’s “compeer,” Balian of Beirut. The marriage does not appear to have been particularly happy. Novare says nothing about it or his wife in any of his (surviving) writings, yet he exhibited clearly misogynous tendencies. For example, he argued against the right of daughters to inherit except when there was no male heir, an extreme position in Outremer, where women were recognized as heiress, regents, and guardians. Many of Novare’s contemporaries argued the contrary, underlining the fact that his hostility to female inheritance was not “the norm.” Novare also expressed doubts about the value of education for girls; again an extreme position in a society in which most noblewomen were highly educated. 

Novare’s final work, The Four Ages of Man, provides us with his own reflections on his rich life.  In retrospect, Novare divided life into four phases of twenty years each. The first phase of life, he says, is “childhood,” a period of learning from one’s elders. The second phase “youth,” is a period characterized (for both men and women) by “love, sin and folly, and of impetuous acts of violence and revolt.”[iii] Middle age, by contrast, is when a man develops his greatest virtues and accomplishes his greatest achievements. It is characterized in men by prudence, loyalty, and moderation, but, tellingly, Novare claims that in women “middle age” is a period of even greater folly than youth. Novare claims that women between 40 and 60 seek to regain their youth by affairs with younger men. (This sounds remarkably like a man speaking from bitter experience and then generalizing to an entire sex!) Finally, the last twenty years of life, “old age,” is a period granted by a benevolent God to give man time to “recall adequately God’s kindness and the debts he owes to his Creator.”[iv]

If we apply this measuring rod to Novare’s own life we see it matches remarkably well with the phases he lived through. From ca. 1205 to 1225 he was still learning at the knee of Tiberias and then Beirut. The two decades from 1225 to 1245 encompass all the deeds described in his history of the baronial revolt ― from his impetuous declaration of loyalty to the Ibelins when surrounded by Imperial loyalists and his taunting of his enemies with song, to his various, sometimes daring, deeds at arms.  The next twenty years, however, witness his rise to prominence as a lawyer and scholar. It is in these years that Novare is an advisor to kings. As he settles down to write his final work, however, his attention has turned to the hereafter.  He is clearly reflecting on his own feelings when he says the years after age sixty are a blessing. Most of his contemporaries, after all, including the Old Lord of Beirut and his “compeer” Balian, died before they reached that age. Nor did Novare live much beyond this marker. His name no longer appears as a witness after 1264 and his eldest son appears on the witness lists in 1269. Sometime between those two dates, Philip de Novare died.

[i] Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The Feudal Nobility and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1174 – 1277. MacMillan, 1973, p. 122.
[ii] La Monte, John. The Wars of Frederick II Against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus by Philip de Novare. Columbia University Press, 1936, p. 12.
[iii] La Monte, p. 14.
[iv] Ibid.

Philip de Novare is a character in the Rebels of Outremer Series starting with:

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Monday, March 29, 2021

The Holy Roman Emperor and the Crusader States

 When the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II married the heiress of Jerusalem in November 1225, Christendom expected that he, the most powerful Christian monarch, would restore Jerusalem to its former glory. Instead, Frederick II spent less than eight months in the Holy Land and departed draped in the offal and intestines pelted at him by his furious subjects. 

Furthermore, he never returned, although he sent lieutenants to fight for him in a civil war that lasted two decades. That struggle ended in a complete and utter defeat for the Imperialist faction. Although Frederick’s son and grandson were nominally “kings” of Jerusalem, they were powerless and absent throughout their “reigns.” 

The Hohenstaufens failed so miserably in the crusader states because of a fundamental clash of ideology and culture that was only plastered over with legal arguments. Today I analyze the ideological conflict underlying that confrontation.

Biographers of Frederick II are understandably apt to ignore the Hohenstaufen’s utter and complete humiliation in the Holy Land. His life was so packed with dramatic events, colorful characters, and significant victories that there hardly seems any room or reason to discuss, much less analyze, his poor showing in the crusader kingdoms. Frederick’s admirers prefer to focus on the bloodless return of Jerusalem to Christian control, and to dismiss his critics as “blood-thirsty” and “bigoted.”[i] 

Even a comparatively balanced observer such as David Abulafia,[ii] who concedes that the baronial opposition was “ideological,” deals with the consequences of Frederick’s policies in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in just one page of his 440-page biography.  Abulafia notes that “the emperor began by assuming that it would be sufficient to proclaim his rights as he interpreted them.” (Emphasis added by H.P. Schrader) Yet the fact that the Emperor’s “rights” could legitimately be interpreted otherwise is glossed over. Abulafia then explains how hard the Emperor found it to “envisage the degree to which the Latin states of the East, despite the bitter threat from the Islamic world, were divided by family rivalries and constitutional conflicts,”[iii] but fails to acknowledge that the Emperor had created both those rivalries and the constitutional crisis in Jerusalem. Finally, he clearly sympathizes with his subject when he notes that Frederick was “amazed by the lack of response to what he clearly saw as his own tremendous achievement.”[iv] Abulafia too cannot comprehend why the residents of Outremer saw nothing valuable in the Emperor thumbing his nose at the pope and then leaving them to face the consequences. According to Abulafia, Frederick II “returned to Italy more than ever conscious of his imperial rights,” ― and that was exactly the problem.

Frederick II viewed the Kingdom of Jerusalem as just one of his many possessions without recognizing it as an independent kingdom with its own traditions, customs, and laws. He believed he could dispose of it as he liked, rule it as he liked, and that the inhabitants held their lands and titles not by heredity right or royal charter but simply at his personal whim. In short, he treated fiefs as iqtas, thereby violating the fundamental principles of feudalism that recognized that not even a serf could be expelled from his land without due process and just cause. He also, and even more significantly, rejected the feudal principle of ruling with the advice and consent of the barons of the realm.

These attitudes were the root cause of the conflict between Frederick and the baronial faction in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Emperor’s absolutist view of monarchy clashed with the barons’ insistence on constitutional government based on the laws and customs of the kingdom. Frederick viewed himself as Emperor and King by the Grace of God. He recognized no fetters on his rights to rule ― neither laws nor institutions nor counsels.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem, on the other hand, was a feudal state par excellance, frequently held up by scholars as the "ideal" feudal kingdom. (See for example John La Monte's work Feudal Monarchy in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1100 to 1291, or John Riley Smith's The Feudal Nobility and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1174 - 1277.) The nobility of Outrmer in the age of Frederick II had developed highly sophisticated constitutional views, and based on the history of Jerusalem saw kings as no more than the “first among equals.” Furthermore, they upheld the concept that government was a contract between the king and his subjects, requiring the consent of the ruled in the form of the High Court.

Historians have rightly pointed out that, as the struggle between the Hohenstaufen and the barons dragged on, the baronial faction became ever more inventive in finding “laws” and customs that undermined Hohenstaufen rule. This ignores the fact that the Emperor had by then long-since squandered all credibility by repeatedly breaking his word and behaving like a despot. The baronial opposition was indeed desperately trying to keep a proven tyrant from gaining greater control of the kingdom, and they were indeed very creative in finding (or inventing) legal pretexts for achieving that aim. That does not negate the fundamental belief in the rule-of-law as opposed to the rule-by-imperial whim that lay at the core of the baronial opposition to Frederick.

Frederick proved his contempt for the laws and constitution of Jerusalem within the first four years of his reign by the following actions: 1) refusing to recognize that his title to Jerusalem derived through his wife rather than being a divine right; 2) by demanding the surrender of Beirut and nearly a dozen other lordships without due process; and 3) by ignoring the High Court of Jerusalem and its functions ― which included approving treaties.

Of these actions, the second has received the most attention because Frederick’s attempt to disseize the Lord of Beirut without due process was the spark that ignited the civil war. Because the Lord of Beirut was a highly respected, powerful and learned nobleman, the Emperor’s arrogant, arbitrary and unconstitutional attempt to disseize Beirut met with widespread outrage and finally armed opposition.  Beirut was able to rally a majority of the kingdom ― and not just the nobility, but the Genoese, the Templars and the commons of Acre ― to his cause. After each bitter defeat when Frederick tried to find a means of placating the opposition, he refused to budge on the principle of his right to arbitrarily disseize lords without due process.  Like a spoiled brat having a temper tantrum, he kicked, screamed, lied and cheated, but he would not take his case against the Lord of Beirut to court. To the end, he insisted that Beirut abdicate his lordship without due process. To the end, Beirut refused.

Unfortunately, because the clash between Beirut and the Emperor is the focus of a lively, colorful and detailed contemporary account by the jurist and philosopher Philip de Novare, most historians (if they bother to look at the conflict at all) reduce the baronial resistance to a struggle over land and titles. This greatly oversimplifies the concerns of the opposition and overlooks the other two constitutional principles that Frederick II violated blatantly.

The issue of whence he derived his right to rule in Jerusalem actually surfaced first. The very day after his wedding to Queen Yolanda of Jerusalem, Frederick demanded that the lords of Jerusalem do homage to him as king. This was in direct violation of the marriage agreement he had negotiated with his wife’s father, John de Brienne. John took the position that because he had been crowned and anointed, he remained king until his death, but Frederick dismissed this argument because John had only held the crown by right of 1) his wife (the late Marie de Montferrat) and 2) his daughter Yolanda, so long as the latter was a minor. Just three years later, however, at the death of his own wife, Frederick abruptly ― and without a trace of shame or embarrassment ― adopted Brienne’s position. He refused to recognize his son by Yolanda as King of Jerusalem and continued to call himself by that title until the day he died.

Indeed, on his deathbed in December 1250, Frederick II bequeathed Italy, Germany, and Sicily to his son Conrad, his son by Yolanda, but suggested that Conrad give the Kingdom of Jerusalem to his half-brother Henrythe son of his third wife, Isabella of England. This proves that Frederick utterly failed to recognize or accept that the crown of Jerusalem was not his to give away. It had derived from his wife, and could only pass to her heirs ― not to whomsoever he pleased. This attempt to give Jerusalem away to someone with no right to it is like a final insult to the bride he neglected and possibly abused. It also demonstrates that to his last breath he remained either ignorant of or indifferent to the constitution of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Since the First Crusade, the Kings of Jerusalem had been elected.  The election of the next monarch was one of the most important prerogatives of the High Court. In short, by trying to dispose over the kingdom without consulting the High Court, Frederick was breaking the constitution. Yet this is hardly a surprise since he had ignored the High Court when trying to disseize Beirut  ― and in signing the truce with al-Kamil.

In the general enthusiasm for Frederick bloodless crusade and the truce that followed it, historians and novelists overlook the fact that the constitution of Jerusalem gave to the High Court the right to make treaties. Just like the Senate in the United States, the executive (in this case the King) might negotiate and sign treaties, but the consent and approval of the High Court was required.  Frederick II Hohenstaufen blissfully ignored this constitutional nicety. He negotiated in secret and presented the barons of Jerusalem with a fait accompli. This, as much as the seriously flawed terms of the treaty, outraged the local nobility. Modern writers like Boulle take the attitude that no one should let something as insignificant as the law of the land get in the way of the “genius,” who could “retake” Jerusalem without any loss of life. Their contempt for the rule of law ought to give us pause, and they also conveniently forget the 40,000 Christians slaughtered in Jerusalem because they had no defenses and no arms in 1244.

Arguably, Frederick’s contempt for the High Court was the single most important factor that doomed his rule in Outremer. He flaunted the High Court by not seeking its advice on who should rule for his infant son. He flaunted it again by not bringing his charges against Beirut before it. He flaunted it by not obtaining the advice and consent of the High Court for his treaty with al-Kamil. He would continue to ignore the High Court to his very death. Yet the High Court was composed not of families or factions, but rather the entire knightly class of Jerusalem. That some men nevertheless sided with the Hohenstaufen had more to do with toadyism than principle since in supporting the Imperial faction they were acting against their constitutional interests purely for personal gain.

Ultimately, it was because he was attacking the collective rights of the ruling class that Frederick failed so miserably in Outremer. As he lay dying, he was engaging in self-deception to think he could bequeath Jerusalem to anyone. He had never controlled it, and he had already lost the loyalty of his subjects just four years into his 25-year-reign ― as they articulated by pelting him with offal.

I couldn't find a picture of a king wearing offal, so I chose this image that also suggests contempt for a king.

The consequences of Frederick II's policies in the crusader states are the subject of Rebels of Outremer Series starting with:

Find out more and buy at: Crusades (

[i] An excellent example of this kind of polemics is Pierre Boulle’s L’etrange Croisade de l’Empereur Frédéric II. Flammarion, 1968.
[ii] Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor. Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 193
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid, pp.193-194.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Emperor Frederick II and Islam

 Frederick II Hohenstaufen has attracted many modern admirers, in large part because he is perceived as an example of religious tolerance, allegedly far ahead of his time. The fact that he was twice excommunicated by the Pope, made him the darling of Reformation and Enlightenment historians, who equated the papacy with everything backward and corrupt. Twentieth Century atheists delight in the fact that Frederick allegedly claimed the Moses, Jesus and Mohammed were all shysters, who made fools of their followers.[i]  The fact that the Sicily he ruled still had large Jewish and Muslim populations, some of whom found employment at his court, qualified him in the eyes of more recent commentators as an early example of “multi-culturalism.” Some admirers go so far as to suggest that Frederick converted to Islam.  Today I look a more closely at Frederick and his relationship with Islam.


Heiko Suhr in a short paper on this topic published in 1968[ii] identified four factors that contributed to Frederick’s image as pro-Islamic: 1) his childhood in a Palermo allegedly dominated by Muslims, 2) the city of Lucera in Southern Italy populated by Sicilian Muslims who enjoyed complete religious freedom, 3) his culturally and religiously diverse court and his amicable correspondence with Muslim scholars and scientists, and finally 4) his diplomatic relations with al-Kamil culminating in the return of Jerusalem to nominal Christian control without bloodshed.

Unfortunately, for Frederick’s admirers, the legend that he grew up wandering freely through the streets of Palermo, learning fluent Arabic by chatting with the people in the markets and on the streets, has been exposed as fiction. Not only did Frederick enjoy (or suffer, depending on your perspective) a conventional education for a future king at the hands of predominantly clerical tutors, but Palermo in the decades of Frederick’s youth no longer had a largely Muslim population. The Muslim population of Sicily had already been pushed into the mountainous interior (where they were to offer armed resistance to Frederick on more than one occasion). The educated Arab elites had withdrawn even farther -- to Muslim-held Spain or North Africa rather than submit to Christian subjugation.

The city of Lucera, established in 1246 toward the end of Frederick's reign, did indeed provoke the outrage of the Pope because it was full of mosques, and the entirely Muslim population lived openly according to their faith.  Even more problematic for the Pope, as Muslims, they couldn’t have care less about being excommunicated or put under interdict.  In short, the Pope had no weapons with which to threaten or intimidate them, and they were utterly loyal to Frederick.  The fact that Lucera sat in a vital geo-strategic position that blocked the access of papal forces to Foggia and Trani undoubtedly made him livid.  

Yet, it is important to remember that the creation of Lucera followed the expulsion of the entire Muslim population from Sicily proper.  This expulsion was Frederick’s response to a renewed Muslim revolt. Historians estimate that between 15,000 and 60,000 Muslims were forced to leave their homes and re-settle in Lucera.  In short, Frederick was not exhibiting humanitarian tolerance towards his Muslim subjects, but rather pursuing the strategic goal of removing rebellious subjects from the heartland of his kingdom. To his credit, he did not massacre them, but with what was truly ingenious foresight recognized that he could use them in his struggle with the pope because they were his only subjects that could not be bullied by papal threats.

Turning to Frederick’s famed erudition which included correspondence with a wide range of scholars from Spain to Syria, there is little question that his fascination with scientific, philosophical, and intellectual problems was exceptional. Frederick II conducted experiments (apparently without the slightest concern for the welfare of the participants), and he took part in public, mathematical debates. This is impressive, but by no means as exceptional as Frederick’s admirers suggest. The education of princes was very rigorous and included languages, theology (not just dogma), mathematics and natural sciences. Frederick’s contemporary Louis IX of France was also highly educated, for example, including a sound grounding in ancient Greek and Roman texts.

The fact that Frederick II corresponded with Arab scholars and he spoke Arabic is also far less exceptional that historians (particularly German historians) make it appear. The biographies of Frederick II which I have read (an admittedly limited sample) reveal an astonishing ignorance of the history and society of the crusader states. The fact that most knights and nobles in Outremer also spoke Arabic, that they too corresponded with Saracen leaders, and that some could translate Arab poetry into French has escaped the notice of the admirers of Frederick. Frederick was neither the first nor only Western monarch to recognize the humanity and intellectual qualities of individual Muslim leaders. Richard the Lionheart developed a degree of rapport with al-Adil before Frederick II was even born. The bottom line is that a command of Arabic had nothing to do with an admiration for Islam.

Far more indicative of a cultural attraction to Islam than correspondence with Arab intellectuals is the fact that Frederick maintained a harem full of sex-slaves.  This was in clear violation of Church law, and not comparable to a succession of mistresses as, say, Henry II of England had. 

Frederick’s campaign to the Holy Land likewise presents hints of a more tolerant attitude toward Islam than was common among the Hohenstaufen’s contemporaries.  This has nothing to do with the fact that Frederick preferred negotiations to bloodshed. Any and every general prefers to win without risking battle. Richard the Lionheart, the ultimate soldier’s soldier so often portrayed as a mindless killing machine, likewise sought to negotiate with Saladin almost from the moment he set foot in the Holy Land. (See Diplomacy of the Third Crusade Part I and Part II.)

Far more damning are the terms of the treaty Frederick concluded.  By accepting a “demilitarized” Jerusalem surrounded by Muslim-controlled territory, he revealed that he cared only about a temporary victory ― the medieval equivalent of a “photo op” in the shape of him wearing his crown in the Holy Sepulcher. The truce (it was never a treaty because it had a limited duration of ten years, five months and forty days) served not the interests of Christendom, but rather the Emperors desire to thumb his nose at the Pope. The truce was about show rather than substance. The fact that the truce prohibited Christians from setting foot on the Temple Mount effectively added insult to injury, and it is not surprising that the Patriarch of Jerusalem characterized the terms of the Treaty as “unchristian.” 

Added to this is an incident recorded in Arab sources of Frederick rebuking the Qadi of Nablus for silencing the muezzins during his short visit to Jerusalem. According to al-Gauzi, Frederick went so far as to claim that his “chief aim in passing the night in Jerusalem was to hear the call to prayer given by the muezzins, and their cries of praise to God in the night.”[iii]

Despite such apparently pro-Islamic sentiments (assuming they are correct), the rest of Frederick’s life does not square with a man who had a genuine affinity for Islam. Within a few months he had sailed away from the Holy Land to return to Sicily ― where he proceeded, as noted earlier, to expel every last single Muslim from the island.

Frederick II was not pro-Islam, rather he appears to have been profoundly cynical about religion. The legend about him saying Moses, Jesus and Mohammed hoodwinked the gullible, while not a genuine quote, may nevertheless capture his skepticism about faith generally.  The Arab chroniclers certainly saw him as a materialist. A man who played with religion and theology, rather than respecting God. Devout themselves, they had more admiration for genuine Christians (like St. Louis) than for Frederick Hohenstaufen.

While it is impossible to know a man’s soul ― particularly after nearly 1,000 years ― it is fair to say that Frederick consistently put “raison d’état” ― not to say self-interest ― before religious considerations. His sexual gratification was more important than respecting church law. Returning to Sicily with the appearance of regaining Jerusalem, was more important than securing a sustainable solution for the Holy City. Retaining his temporal power was more important than finding a compromise with the Pope. Having soldiers impervious to papal influence was worth allowing Muslims to publicly exercise their religion (under the nose of the Pope, so to speak.) And so on. While this may arouse admiration in many, it is hardly something particularly modern. Nor, in my opinion, does it qualify Frederick to be viewed as particularly “enlightened" or “tolerant” either.

[i] Boulle, Pierre. L’etrange Croisade de l’Empereur Frédéric II. Flammarion, 1968.
[ii] Suhr, Heiko. Friedrich II von Hohenstaufen: Seine politischen and kulturellen Verbindungen zum Islam. GRIN Verlag, 2008.
[iii] Abulafia, David. Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor. Oxford University Press, 1988, p.185.

Frederick II is an important character in "Rebels against Tyranny" and his curious "crusade" an important part of the plot of this novel, the first in a new series set in the crusader states.