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  • James Houser

February 18, 1229 - The Sixth Crusade (sort of) retakes Jerusalem

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

February 18, 1229. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II finally reconquers Jerusalem from its Muslim rulers, once more returning the Holy City to Christendom. Well, kind of. As it turned out, he *negotiated* its return - which was just the bizarre anticlimax to an already complicated series of events. Strap in everyone, it's the Sixth (sort of) Crusade!

Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, was by far the most powerful man in Europe. In theory, he ruled a huge area, stretching from Sicily and southern Italy - his power base - all the way north into Germany and Poland. Frederick certainly thought he was awesome. Holding the crowns of Germany, Italy and Sicily, "Emperor of the Romans" and hereditary King of Jerusalem, he considered himself the heir to the whole Roman Empire. Nietzsche would call him "the first European." To many historians he is the first modern ruler.

Frederick spoke six languages, patronized science, literature, and poetry, reformed and modernized the Imperial legal code, and took a skeptical eye to superstition and organized religion. He was a brave and powerful military leader and a true polymath, an incredible individual. He ruled from 1212 to 1250, and was viewed with near awe by his contemporaries. They called him "Stupor Mundi" - the wonder of the world.

Not everyone was a fan of Frederick, particularly not the Papacy - and the Papacy would be Frederick's eternal foe. The Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor had been butting heads for centuries (see my post on January 28 for one famous confrontation), and Frederick proved a particular irritant to the Bishop of Rome. Frederick, see, had promised to go on Crusade in return for Pope Innocent III supporting him for the Imperial throne instead of other candidates.

Frederick, of course, had lots of reasons not to go. Mainly, events in Europe required his attention - particularly consolidation and expansion of his own power, particularly at the expense of the Pope. Frederick constantly stepped on the Pope's toes, trod into disputes the Pope wished to mediate, angered people the Pope was fond of. If there was a way to snub the Pope, Frederick found it.

Gregory IX, however, ascended the Holy See set on making Frederick carry out his Crusader vow. He'd had years, and he was the most powerful ruler in Europe - there was no reason he couldn't launch a massive expedition to retake Jerusalem in the next several years. Frederick always had a reason not to go - but Papal patience was wearing thin. The Christians had lost Jerusalem to Saladin back in 1187, and Richard the Lionheart hadn't been able to get it back; this kid who claimed to be the "greatest king ever" should be able to.

In 1225, Frederick finally married - a Princess of the vanished Crusader State, the Kingdom of Jerusalem. This gave him a claim to that throne and all the land it used to possess. Now Frederick was suddenly *extremely* interested in a Crusade. Things didn't pan out, though. In 1227 he set out with a huge fleet - and came back a month later, mumbling something about a plague that gave him second thoughts. Pope Gregory's patience finally snapped, and he declared Frederick formally excommunicated. This was in response to years of insults and transgressions, and not just because of Frederick's failure.

Route of the Sixth Crusade, in green.

After failed attempts at forgiveness - an excommunicated ruler, after all, couldn't be blessed off on his Crusade - Frederick said "to hell with it" and set off for the Holy Land in 1229 anyway. This unlicensed, "off the grid" Crusade attracted less support than it had before - if you want to go on Crusade so that your sins are forgiven, that hardly works out if you go with a King that God's vicar has thrown out of the Church. Any complaints were probably hushed up by the fact that Frederick paid immense amounts of money for his army - to many soldiers now and then, a dollar now is better than salvation in a couple decades.

When Frederick arrived in the Holy Land, the Christian lords still clinging onto fortresses and castles there had mixed reactions. On the one hand, the handsome young King had brought a pretty big army. On the other, he strutted around like he owned the place, the Church officials had been told to shun him, and everyone knew that Frederick was a centralizing ruler that didn't much care for the rights of nobles.

And after all that effort...Frederick had no interest in fighting a major battle. With less forces than he had hoped for, he had no hope of defeating the Egyptian Sultan Al-Kamil in a major campaign, but Al-Kamil was currently in a bad way. He was facing multiple rebellions and didn't really need a bunch of ballsy Crusaders trying to bang down his door. Sultan Al-Kamil was thinking, "You know, maybe Jerusalem's more trouble than it's worth."

On February 18, Frederick and Al-Jamil met at Jaffa on the coast west of Jerusalem. One has to wonder what they said to each other. Whatever happened, Frederick...somehow walked away with the city of Jerusalem, along with multiple other towns in the Holy Land. There were stipulations, of course. The Muslims would retain their holy sites, including the Dome of the Rock. Free passage for pilgrimage, trade routes, all this was cool, but Frederick had gotten Jerusalem back! The Pope should be happy, right?

Frederick meets al-Jamil, 1229.

Most of the army and nobles considered it a major affront that Frederick hadn't gone in blasting. That was what they signed up for, after all. The Pope wasn't happy either, surprisingly. By going on Crusade without Papal approval, Frederick had undermined the Pope's authority as Christendom's final judge. Didn't matter to Frederick, of course, he was happy as a clam. He waltzed into Jerusalem in March, had a coronation ceremony, then skedaddled back to Europe to take care of home matters.

Home matters meant beating the Pope in battle hard enough that he lifted the excommunication. Still, the damage (?) was done. Frederick had made a permanent enemy of every Pope thereafter, and would spend the next two decades steadily losing ground in Italy to the Roman pontiff. The wonder of the world could not, in the end, triumph over the Vicar of Christ.

Jerusalem would stay peacefully in Christian hands until 1244, when Persian exiles fleeing from the Mongols brutally sacked it; the broken husk of a city was occupied by the Egyptians following this event.

The brief window of the last successful Crusade was over. With the stroke of a pen, Frederick achieved what armies, kings, and great campaigns had not, but it was undone just as easily.

A Christian army would not enter Jerusalem again until 1917.

Book Recommendation: David Abulafia, Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor (New York: Penguin, 1988).

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