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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.

Monday, March 15, 2021

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 SecondThirdFourth 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:

Monday, March 8, 2021

The Sixth Crusade - Pledges and Promises

 The so-called Sixth Crusade was one of the most confusing of all the numbered crusades. It was explicitly condemned by the Pope and was led by a man who had been excommunicated, yet it temporarily restored Jerusalem to Christian control. It was a bloodless campaign that ended with the leader of the crusade laying siege to the Templar headquarters in Acre -- and being pelted by ofal by the furious residents of Outremer. In short, while historians generally praise this bloodless crusade, contemporaries -- from the Pope to the common people -- were critical of it.  Furthermore, while the crusade itself was bloodless, it was the spark that set off a bloody civil war in the crusader states. In two essays, I examine the Sixth Crusade starting today with the events leading up to it.

Friedrich II Hohenstaufen first “took the cross” and vowed to lead a new crusade to regain Christian control of Jerusalem at his coronation as “King of the Romans” in Aachen on July 25, 1215.  He renewed his crusading vow at his coronation as “Holy Roman Emperor” by the Pope in Rome on November 22, 1220―by which time 5th Crusade had already bogged down at Damietta and was in clear need of reinforcements and stronger leadership.  Although unable to depart immediately due to the need to restore order in his Kingdom of Sicily, Friedrich II sent financial and material aid to the beleaguered crusaders and promised to set out himself in 1221. Unfortunately, the Muslim insurrection on Sicily turned out to be more tenacious than anticipated, and Friedrich got bogged down in the fighting until 1223; the Pope was understanding and agreed he could postpone his crusade until 1225.

In mid-1225 Friedrich II married the heiress to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Yolanda (also sometimes referred to as Isabella II). Yolanda was the grand-daughter of Isabella I, sole child of Maria de Montferrat and her husband John de Brienne. Maria had died giving birth to Yolanda, and John ruled as regent for his daughter, taking the title King John. The marriage of the Queen of Jerusalem to the Holy Roman Emperor was considered a master-stroke because it gave Friedrich II a material incentive for recapturing Jerusalem.  In addition to the spiritual motive of restoring Christian rule over Christendom’s most sacred site, Friedrich now had a personal and dynastic interest in making his Kingdom of Jerusalem as large, strong and prosperous as possible, and securing for any children by Yolanda an inheritance worthy of him. From the point of view of the High Court of Jerusalem, the marriage ensured the military and financial support for the kingdom from the most powerful Christian monarch in the world.

The marriage was celebrated by proxy in Acre followed by Yolanda’s coronation as Queen of Jerusalem in Tyre and then Yolanda sailed to Brindisi to marry Friedrich in person in November. Meanwhile, however, the crusade had been postponed yet again, this time until August 1227. Furthermore, this time the Pope added the warning that if Friedrich failed to depart by August 1227 he faced excommunication. Friedrich accepted these terms and then proceeded in very short order to alienate his father-in-law (by dismissing him as superfluous) and was accused (at least by his father-in-law) of humiliating his bride with neglect and a preference for his harem of concubines. 

Nevertheless, a large crusading army with strong German contingents gathered in Apulia in the summer of 1227 ― only to be struck down by some epidemic disease that started killing the crusaders before they even embarked. Under threat of excommunication, if he did not depart, Friedrich doggedly set sail despite being ill. While at sea, the most important of Friedrich’s subordinate commanders, the Landgraf of Thuringia, died of the disease. Friedrich decided that he too was too ill to command a crusade. While ordering the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights and other galleys under the Duke of Limburg to proceed, he returned to Brindisi. 

The Pope, the vigorous and uncompromising Gregory IX, promptly excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor. Under the circumstances, the excommunication was hardly justified. Rather, the excommunication was Pope Gregory’s opening volley in an all-out attack on what he viewed as the unacceptable infringement of papal authority by the Holy Roman Emperor. It was the opening act of a power-struggle that would last for decades and pitted conflicting philosophies about the respective role of sacred and secular leadership. That struggle is not the subject of this essay, but the impact of the excommunication on Friedrich’s authority is.  Effectively, with the excommunication, Friedrich’s campaign to the Holy Land lost papal blessing (whether fairly or not), and his campaign could not officially be viewed as a “crusade.”

The situation was further complicated by the fact that in April 1228, Queen Yolanda of Jerusalem died of the complications of childbirth. She left an infant son Conrad as heir to the throne of Jerusalem. With Yolanda’s death, Friedrich II lost his legal right to call himself King of Jerusalem; that title now belonged to his infant son Conrad. The most that Frederick could claim was the right to serve as regent for his son until the boy came of age at 15.

It was now 13 years since he had taken his crusader oath, and his open confrontation with the Pope had a profound effect upon his authority in his vast and complex domains. The excommunication above all gave his many internal opponents and rivals an excuse for insubordination and rebellion.

Friedrich would, therefore, have been well justified in abandoning the campaign to the Holy Land altogether and focusing on defending his birthright. Then again, when fighting an intransigent pope, what better way to undermine papal authority than to liberate the Holy City? The liberation of Jerusalem was bound to appear in the eyes of many (or so Friedrich appears to have reasoned) as divine favor and vindication. Furthermore, Friedrich had good reason to believe he would liberate Jerusalem because he had already been approached by the Sultan of Egypt, al-Kamil, who offered to deliver Jerusalem to him in exchange for the Emperor’s support in his war against his brother al-Mu’azzam. 

What actually happened when Frederick II set sail for the Holy Land is the subject of next week's entry. Meanwhile:

The Sixth Crusade is the backdrop and subject of:

Monday, March 1, 2021

Tragic Tale of a Child Queen

  Although the Holy Roman Emperors were staunch supporters of the crusades and the crusader states, it was not until Frederick II Hohenstaufen married the heiress to the crown of Jerusalem that the Holy Roman Emperors attempted to exert sustained control over the Kingdom of Jerusalem ― leading to a bitter civil war between the Imperial faction and rebellious barons.

The dynastic link that gave the Hohenstaufens a claim to rule in Jerusalem is, therefore, an important historical figure. Yet there are few figures in history that so completely exemplify the tragedy of being born to power ― particularly for women ― as Yolanda of Jerusalem

Yolanda became Queen of Jerusalem within days of her birth in November 1212. Her mother, Maria de Montferrat, through whom she derived her titled, died of complications of giving birth of Yolanda, her first and only child. Maria was just 20 years old at her death.

Yolanda was thus a half-orphan almost from birth, and her father, John de Brienne, was a parvenu new-comer to her kingdom. Immediately voices were raised that questioned her father’s right remain king. Based on the precedent set twenty years earlier, when Queen Sibylla had died, it was argued that the kingdom passed to the infant Yolanda, and the regency during her minority should be exercised by her closest adult relative on her mother’s side. John de Brienne was able to rally sufficient support for his claim to be regent for his infant daughter to retain his crown, but his position was clearly undermined.

Less than two years after the death of Yolanda’s mother, John de Brienne married a second time, the Armenian princess Stephanie. Yolanda would still have been a toddler, largely in the care of nannies, and Stephanie might well have become a mother to her.  Perhaps, for the next six years, Yolanda had what we could consider a degree of security and happiness surrounded by her father, step-mother and, soon, a baby half-brother, as well.

That idyll, if it ever existed, was shattered when both Stephanie and her son died in early 1220. Furthermore, they died in a period when the Kingdom of Jerusalem was under attack from the Sultan of Damascus. The city of Caesarea was captured and sacked, and justifiable fears that other crusader cities might suffer the same fate induced John de Brienne, other Syrian barons, and the Knights Templars to abandon the Fifth Crusade in order to defend the Kingdom of Jerusalem directly. Yolanda would have been seven years old ― old enough to feel the pain of losing the only mother she had ever known and her little brother and old enough to sense the fear and alarm that had brought her father back.

Any joy she felt at seeing her father again, however, was short-lived. John returned to Egypt and the Fifth Crusade, where his advice to trade Damietta (held by the crusaders) for Jerusalem (held by the Ayyubids) was ignored. Instead, the crusade made the fatal mistake of trying to march on Cairo and ended in a debacle. John himself had to stand hostage for the implementation of the negotiated settlement.

John returned home to his now eight-year-old daughter, but not for long. In early 1221, he set off on a grand tour of West intended to raise money and troops for a new crusade. He would never again set foot in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Instead, for the next years, he traversed Europe, getting as far to the north as England and Cologne, but spending more time in Italy and Spain. During these travels, he secured a third wife, Berengaria of Castile, for himself and also negotiated the fateful marriage of Yolanda with the Holy Roman Emperor.

And Yolanda? Just nine-years-old when her father departed, she was not yet thirteen, when she married Frederick II by proxy in Acre. The historical record tells us nothing about her activities in this period, and we can only assume that she was undergoing the kind of education thought suitable for queens in this period. Most probably that education was entrusted to one of the convents that traditionally took daughters of the higher nobility into their ranks as pupils, nuns, and abbesses.

The quality of such an education should not be underestimated. Convents had a long tradition of being centers of learning, and in the early 13th century were still home to intellectual inquiry and debate. At a minimum, Yolanda learned to read and write in French and Latin, but she may well also have learned Greek, given how widespread the language was in the Holy Land and the existence of many religious texts still available in the original Greek.  She would have been expected to know Christian dogma and theology, which entailed reading not only the Bible but other religious texts as well. (This was before the age of fundamentalism that reduced everything to the Bible.) She would have been expected to command arithmetic, though not necessarily geometry or algebra, and to know the history of her own kingdom and that of its most important supporters such as the Holy Roman Empire, the Kings of France and England. She would probably have been educated about the kingdom’s enemies as well, possibly including some knowledge of Arabic; many of the nobles in the kingdom were fluent in the language. Some knowledge of the natural sciences, particularly human biology and fundamental recipes for treating common illnesses and injuries, might also have been included in the curricula.  Mandatory would have been manners, protocol, spinning, and needlework.

Yolanda’s education would hardly have been considered “complete,” however, when envoys from the Holy Roman Emperor arrived in Acre with the news that her father had negotiated her marriage to the most powerful monarch on earth, the man already calling himself “the Wonder of the World.” The wedding followed almost immediately. Still only twelve years old, she was married by proxy to Frederick in Acre and crowned Queen in Tyre, before setting sail with a large escort of prelates and noblemen for Apulia. She arrived at Brindisi and married Frederick II on November 9, 1225; it was literally just days before or after her thirteenth birthday.  Her bridegroom was a thirty-year-old widower, who already maintained a harem in the Sicilian tradition.

The marriage got off to a terrible start. John de Brienne had negotiated for the marriage with either implicit or explicit assurances from the Emperor that John would remain King of Jerusalem until his death.  He saw the marriage of his daughter to the Holy Roman Emperor as a means of securing aid in the form of loans and troops, as well as a means to secure the viability of the kingdom after his death. Frederick Hohenstaufen, however, declared himself King of Jerusalem the day after the wedding ― and made the barons who had escorted Yolanda to Italy swear fealty him at once.

John de Brienne was outraged, and so was the Master of the Teutonic Knights, Herman von Salza, who had been instrumental in the negotiations.  The latter fact strongly suggests that Brienne had not simply been deluding himself.  It appears that Frederick had been intentionally misleading about his intentions, or had lied outright. In any case, Frederick instantly made an enemy of his father-in-law, and the breach ensured that Yolanda never saw her father again before she died.

Perhaps, given how often he had been away during her short life, she did not miss him, but she certainly found no comfort or companionship from her husband. Although it is hard to distinguish facts from propaganda, the tales of Yolanda’s marriage are unremittingly negative. The horror stories start with one contemporary chronicle that claims Frederick scorned his little bride on the wedding night itself, preferring to seduce one of her ladies instead. Several sources agree that “soon after the marriage, Frederick imprisoned, or otherwise maltreated, his wife.” (Perry, Guy. John of Brienne: King of Jerusalem, Emperor of Constantinople, c. 1175 – 1237. Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 135.)

Within a six-month, Yolanda’s father was openly at war with her husband by supporting the ever rebellious Lombard League.  Allegedly, the frustrated Emperor took out his rage on his thirteen-year-old bride, beating her so brutally, according to the Chronicle of Ernoul, that she miscarried the child she was carrying. Whether her husband’s abuse was the cause or not, Yolanda certainly miscarried a child at about this time, still only thirteen or at most fourteen-years-old.

Meanwhile, Frederick was under increasing pressure to fulfill his repeated promises to go to the aid of the Holy Land. He had first taken crusading vows in 1215, and eleven years later he had nothing but excuses to show for it. During the negotiations for his marriage to Yolanda, he had promised to set out on crusade no-later-than August 1227, or face excommunication.  In the summer of 1227, a great army was assembled in Apulia with the goal of a campaign in defense of Christian Syria, but before the crusaders could embark they were devastated by a contagious disease that killed thousands.  Frederick boarded a vessel but was so ill that his companions urged him to return.  Frederick put about and landed not in the Holy Land but in his own Sicily. He was promptly excommunicated by the Pope.

And Yolanda? She was still imprisoned in Frederick’s harem. He had not even thought to take her with him when he set out for her kingdom. She was also soon pregnant again.

On May 5, 1228, ten days after being delivered of a son, Yolanda of Jerusalem died. She was not yet sixteen years old. Although she had been a queen almost from the day of her birth, not once had she exercised the authority to which she had been born.

Frederick hardly took any notice of the fact. He continued to claim her kingdom as his right ― despite having denied his father-in-law the exact same dignity. Frederick II consistently ignored legal principles that got in the way of his own power.  Because of this disregard for the laws and customs of Yolanda’s kingdom, he soon found himself at loggerheads with the barons of Jerusalem. In the end, Yolanda’s subjects defeated her husband, but only decades after she had been sacrificed on the altar of her father and husband’s ambitions.

Striking is the extent to which Yolanda was a helpless pawn in this game of kings, popes, and barons. It is particularly striking when one considers how powerful her predecessors had been. Queen Melusinde commanded the support of barons and bishops to such an extent that her husband was forced to submit to her will. Sibylla refused to cave in to pressure from her brother King Baldwin IV and foisted her (utterly unsuitable) candidate for king upon the entire kingdom. Isabella I divorced one husband and married three others for the benefit of her kingdom, but she was never pushed off the stage, never imprisoned, neglected or ignored. She was Queen of Jerusalem still, after her fourth husband’s death. Was it just circumstances, particularly Yolanda’s youth, that condemned her to a life little better than a slave? Or was it the play of personalities? Emperor Frederick was certainly full of overweening pride and arrogance, but would a different girl have been better at confronting him and defending her undeniable rights?  We will never know.

Yolanda plays a minor role in Rebels against Tyranny
and the tragic consequences of her marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor form the main plot of this novel, the first in a new series set in the crusader states. Although Yolanda's early death meant she could not play a role in the rebellion against her husband’s autocratic policies, I wanted nevertheless to give her a voice and face. Watch for an excerpt from Rebels against

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of a total of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades. Find out more at: