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Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Curious Course of the So-Called Sixth Crusade

After delaying for more than a decade, Frederick finally embarked on his crusade only after he had been excommunicated. Thus, although the campaign in the Holy Land led by Frederick II Hohenstaufen is usually included in the list of numbered crusades, it was not sanctioned by the Pope and was not technically a crusade at all. Furthermore, despite modern historians’ adulation for a "victory" allegedly obtained by diplomacy rather than violence, in reality, Frederick II's victory was pyrrhic at best and at worst little more than a hoax. 
Below is a short analysis of the crusade and its impact.

Despite being excommunicate, in June 1228 Friedrich II set sail for the Holy Land, arriving at Limassol on Cyprus on July 21. There, after some difficulties establishing his authority (the subject of separate entries), he continued to Tyre, arriving September 3.   

His arrival was by no means as welcome as he had expected. On the one hand, he had made powerful enemies already by asserting his absolute rights as monarch (although he was only regent).  His claims to absolute authority were in sharp violation of the laws and customs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, in which the High Court exercised powers over appointments, fiefs and more. (See High Court).  On the other hand, and more significantly, al-Mu’azzam was dead. Al-Kamil no longer needed the assistance of any Christian ruler. To top it all off, Friedrich had hardly arrived in the Holy Land before he learned that the pope had raised an army (commanded by his late wife's father among others), and was preparing to invade the Kingdom of Sicily with the declared intent of deposing him. 

Like Richard the Lionheart before him, Friedrich needed to return home as rapidly as possible. Not being the strategist or commander Richard had been, Friedrich II put his faith in negotiations. On February 18, 1229, after five months of secret negotiations, a treaty was signed with al-Kamil.

Modern historians like to call Friedrich’s preference for diplomacy over warfare “enlightened,” or attribute it to greater "subtlety" and even genius. The modern German historian Heiko Suhr, for example, claims in his essay “Friedrich II von Hohenstaufen: Seine politischen and kulturellen Verbindungen zu Islam” (Friedrich II von Hohenstaufen: His Political and Cultural Ties to Islam, GRIN Verlag, 2008, p. 17), that the treaty demonstrated his “willingness to compromise and his diplomatic skills.” Historian David Abulafia, in his biography of Friedrich II, claims that Friedrich “performed magnificently.” (Friedrich II: A Medieval Emperor, Oxford University Press, 1988, p.184)  Friedrich’s success is usually contrasted to the failures of all other crusades (except the First). A popular website, for example, claims Friedrich “accomplished what four previous crusades failed to do: recover the Holy Land. Even though he was excommunicated, he accomplished more than the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth crusades combined.” (Medieval Times and Castles)

The fact that Friedrich failed to win contemporary praise ― indeed was pelted with offal by the common people of Acre when he made his way to his ship to depart and was widely criticized by princes of the church and the local barons ― is put down to the “bigotry” of the church and “blood-thirsty” character of his contemporaries. Friedrich, it is argued, was simply “ahead of his time.”  Or, as the German historian Jacob Burckhardt Recht claims: “a modern man.” In short, Friedrich was an enlightened man of peace and his unpopularity in the Holy Land (and elsewhere) was entirely attributable to the backward, unenlightened, implicitly barbaric nature of his contemporaries. 

There is a problem with this viewpoint (aside from the obvious arrogance of those “modern” people who look down on their medieval predecessors): Friedrich II did NOT secure Jerusalem, and he did NOT accomplish more than the Third or Fourth Crusades (both of which saw territorial expansion by the crusaders). His diplomatic skills appear meager when contrasted with those of Richard the Lionheart. 

All that Friedrich II secured with his treaty was Christian access to some of Jerusalem and a couple other cities, such as Bethlehem, for a limited period of time. The treaty explicitly prohibited Christians from setting foot on the Temple Mount and prohibited the Franks from building walls around Jerusalem. The truce Friedrich signed ensured that the Franks could not defend Jerusalem or its environs. It retained Muslim control over all the strategic castles such as Kerak and Montreal. As Muslim sources stress, all the truce did was give the Christians “some churches and ruins” for a decade (Ibn Wasil.) Indeed, the Arab sources stress that al-Kamil quite openly bragged that “when he had achieved his aim and had the situation in hand he could purify Jerusalem of the Franks and chase them out.” (Ibn Wasil, Arab Historians of the Crusades. Translated by Francesco Gabrieli [Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1957] 271)

In short, Friedrich II’s “crusade” did NOT restore Jerusalem to Christian control.  It gave Christians a precarious access to Jerusalem for just over ten years. It is no wonder that contemporaries, concerned about Christian control of Jerusalem (not mere access) were bitterly disappointed. Furthermore, the residents of Outremer, the people living surrounded by the Saracen threat, recognized the truce as worthless to their security.  It is easy to sympathize with those who threw offal at the Emperor who -- despite all his wealth, power and troops -- left them with nothing substantial or material.

The truce reveals the degree to which Friedrich’s entire “crusade” was about his power struggle with the Pope rather than Jerusalem or the Holy Land. While leaving the residents of Outremer to deal with the consequences of his worthless truce, he made a great show of wearing the Imperial crown in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This was clearly a way of thumbing his nose at the Pope. It was his way of demonstrating his belief that he was God’s representative on earth and did not need papal approval. Having had his day in Jerusalem (and ostentatiously telling the Muslims they should continue their call to prayers even in his presence), he departed the Holy Land never to return.

Neither his son nor his grandson, despite being titular kings of Jerusalem, ever set foot in the kingdom. It was left to other kings, such as Louis IX, to try to reclaim Christian control of the Holy City and secure the Holy Land.

The Sixth Crusade is the backdrop and subject of:

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:


  1. The Emperor gave Al-Kamil a White Peacock and the Polar Bear he had received from King Haakon of Norway. I can't help but think all concerned saw the humor in the presentation of these two white animals...
    The Emperor received in turn an Elephant and a Giraffe, and later, from Al-Kamil's cousin, the Sultan of Babylon, a White Cockat from the Spice Islands....


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