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The Fifth Crusade

A New Crusade

Pope Innocent III spent most of his papacy preaching a Crusade. When he began, he was trying to mobilize one to recover Jerusalem in the wake of the failure of the Third Crusade. Henry VI's crusade had died with him. The Fourth Crusade had gone woefully wrong. After that, Innocent was preoccupied with the Albigensians and preached a Crusade against them. He also preached a Crusade in Spain. He called for yet another one at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, but by then he was at the end of his years and he died in 1216 without seeing the results.

Three days after Innocent's death, a new pope was elected as Honorius III. He immediately took up where Innocent had left off, writing letters to the monarchs of Europe. Few answered the call, and those who did sent only very small armies. Response was better among the French and German barons, and the Frisians agreed to provide a fleet.   The Crusaders were to assemble in Italy in 1217 and set out from there, but the Frisians were late arriving, and the army had to wait out the winter.

A portion of the army sailed in April, 1218 and arrived in Acre with most of the leaders. There they decided that the best course of action would be to attack Egypt. King John of Jerusalem knew perfectly well that there was no point in attacking Jerusalem as long as Egypt was strong, whereas with Egypt under Latin control, then the Muslims could not hold Jerusalem for very long. The great wealth of Egypt must also have been an attraction.

The Crusaders left Acre on May 24, 1218, bound for Egypt.

First Victory

The immediate objective was Damietta, a town in the Nile delta that guarded the main route up river to Cairo, the ultimate objective. Alexandria was the other great city of Egypt, but it would bend to whatever wind blew strongest. Cairo was where the Sultan lived; capture his capital and the rest of Egypt would fall. Damietta was the first, crucial step.

The town was two miles up river, protected on west and east by water. A chain blocked the navigable channel, secured on one side by the city walls and on the other by a tower on an island close to the shore. It took the Crusaders nearly a month to capture that little fortress, but it fell on August 17, 1218. With the tower in their hands, the Christians were now able to cut the chain and move up river to attack the city itself.

During this time, the Egyptian vizier, al-Kamil, had raised an army and marched it close by, to al-Adiliya, but he was not strong enough to risk a direct attack. He was forced to  content himself with occasional harassment and discouraging extensive raiding. Neither were the Crusaders very strong. They now decided to wait for reinforcements--those armies still in Italy--before risking a siege of Damietta itself. Most of the Frisians now went home, greatly angering the others.

But the Christians were cheered to learn that the Sultan had died. Al-Adil was in his seventies and evidently the news of Damietta's peril was more than he could bear. He died on August 31, succeeded by the commander in the field, al-Kamil.

The expected reinforcements arrived in early September. A number of counts and other lords came with their forces, but the most significant and influential arrival was Cardinal Pelagius, a papal legate. Honorius agreed fully with Innocent's opinion that a Crusade would succeed only when it was led by the Church rather than by lay lords, and he had sent a strong and forceful representative in Pelagius. Despite grumbling from the barons, Pelagius quickly established himself in the councils of war.

With their numbers now greatly increased, the Crusaders advanced to the walls of Damietta and dug in. It was September, 1218.

Maneuvers and Skirmishes

In October, al-Kamil tried twice to break the Christian camp. He was on the west side of the Nile, the Crusaders were on the east side, the side where Damietta stood. Twice the Egyptians were able to cross the Nile and launch an attack, but both times they were driven off with heavy losses. After the second battle, al-Kamil concentrated more on defending his position (and so protecting Damietta) than with trying to oust the Christians. He built barricades and defense works. He sank ships in the river to keep Christian ships from sailing past the city.

He succeeded. By November  it was clear that the Crusaders were not going to be able to work their way up the Nile, so they tried to re-open a canal that had long been abandoned. Their plan was to sail their ships up this canal to a point well above Damietta and thus attack the city from two sides. They succeeded in their dredging, but a terrible storm in late November flooded the Christian camp causing great destruction, followed by disease.

The weather through that winter was miserable, and conditions in the camps on both sides deteriorated. With progress seemingly at a standstill, Cardinal Pelagius now emerged as the leader of the Christians. This was not well received by all the Crusaders, but some sort of new leadership seemed called for, and soon enough Pelagius had a great victory to support his position.

Retreat of the Egyptians

At the beginning of February, al-Kamil received disturbing news: one of his most powerful emirs was plotting against him. The emir was Imad-ad-Din, a Kurdish chieftain who commanded the loyalty of the Kurdish troops, which constituted the bulk of al-Kamil's forces. While the Sultan was able to capture the conspirators, walking into their tent at the very moment they were taking an oath on the Koran to implement their plot, he did not know how far the plot extended. That very night, al-Kamil rode for Cairo.

At dawn, on February 5, 1219, the Egyptian army discovered that their Kurdish captain was in chains and that the Sultan himself had fled for Cairo. Confusion and panic broke out at once, with the troops scattering in every direction. A spy came over to the Christian camp to tell them what was happening. John of Brienne, King of Jerusalem, sent out scouts. When they confirmed the reports, the Christians joyfully occupied the Egyptian camp.

Egyptian officers were able to re-form the army a few miles upstream, but they had lost their protective position around Damietta. The great prize of the Egyptian camp lent much credit to Pelagius, not only because the victory came at a time when he was being acknowledged as a leader in military matters, but also because a few weeks previous a book had surfaced that seemed to predict a Christian victory. This book, written in Arabic, said that Damietta would fall and at least seemed to have predicted a number of events up to that point. Since this was in the nature of prophesy, the papal legate was able to insist that this showed clearly that the Church should be leading the Crusade. Many among the common soldiers were inclined to agree. The capture of the Christian camp further bolstered this claim. Still, the King of Jerusalem held great prestige, so John and Pelagius together were the leaders. And they were rivals.

An Offer Refused

There now arrived, some time in February, emissaries from the Sultan with a request that they send ambassadors to the Egyptian camp to discuss terms. The Sultan offered to return all of the Kingdom of Jerusalem to the Christians, with the exception of two castles, plus a thirty year truce. In return for this, the Christians should evacuate Egypt immediately and agree not to attack it again for the same period of time. It was a generous offer, but it shows also how anxious was al-Kamil for his position. He greatly feared the loss of Damietta and perhaps was unsure of his ability to defend Egypt. Better the Crusaders should all go home. Besides, his brother, al-Mu'azzam, had in January destroyed all the fortifications of Jerusalem (and several other towns). The city could not possibly be defended.

King John wanted to accept the offer on the spot. He was supported in his position by the barons of Outremer and by the French. Cardinal Pelagius wanted to reject the offer and was supported by the Italians and by the Grand Masters of both the Temple and the Hospital. The army was deeply split; Pelagius used his legatine powers to overrule John. The offer was rejected. Al-Kamil sent back a second time, adding 30,000 bezants cash to compensate for the two castles, but again the offer was rejected by Pelagius.

The moment passed. Al-Kamil received reinforcements in March and military operations resumed. The Crusaders tried repeatedly to take Damietta by storm, without success, and some among them began to go home. The most significant loss was Leopold of Austria, who had been in the East for a year and a half and whose forces would be sorely missed. In the same month of May, however, Christian reinforcements began to arrive. Pelagius was encouraged enough to order fresh assaults, even though many of the barons opposed this.

Defeat, and Another Offer

Despite the dangers, a Crusader force went around the city to attack it from the south, where they were exposed to being attacked themselves by the Egyptians. Three times Pelagius tried this tactic in July, and three times it failed, not least because of the courageous defense put up by the citizens of Damietta. The Egyptians did indeed attack, but they were unable to pry the Christians out of their defense works. The worst attack came on July 31, when the Egyptians penetrated right into the Templar camp before they were driven back with heavy losses.

Despite the dangers and the losses, and despite the opposition of many of the barons, Pelagius continued to order attacks, and had support of enough of the army to do so. In the middle of August, though, the Nile had sunk so low that the ships could not approach the city walls close enough for the scaling ladders to reach. They were stymied now. They were hot, and they had been in Egypt for over a year. Grumbling broke out all around, until the leaders agreed to a general assault on the Egyptian camp at al-Fariskur.

The Crusader army advanced on August 29. Upon their approach, the Egyptians struck camp and retreated. The Crusaders paused, uncertain as to what to do. When al-Kamil saw this, he quickly ordered an attack. The Christians were unprepared and were soon routed. Only the strong leadership of John and the military orders saved the army at all; even so, thousands died that day

Thinking the Christians had lost enough to see reason, al-Kamil renewed his February offer, sweetening the deal by offering also to return the True Cross, to help finance the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, and to return the many prisoners he had captured. Again John and others strongly urged acceptance of the offer, and again Pelagius (along with the military orders, the Italians, and most of the clergy) refused. The Cardinal was counting on the arrival of another large army, promised by the Emperor Frederick.

Capture of Damietta

Conditions within Damietta were growing desperate. The city had been cut off since February and the food was nearly gone. Moreover, the Nile had not flooded that season, so all of Egypt was facing famine. Even so, al-Kamil made several attempts to break through in order to get supplies inside, but the Christians were able to thwart him.  These attempts lasted through October.

On the night of November 4, four Christian sentries noticed that one of the towers of Damietta seemed to be abandoned. They climbed a ladder and found it empty. They returned to camp and reported what they had found, and a full force was dispatched immediately. A whole section of wall was occupied, then a gate was opened, and the Christian army rushed into the city.

Al-Kamil withdrew in the morning, for there was nothing left for him to do. There was no massacre of the defenders, largely because there was scarcely anyone left to massacre. Oliver of Paderborn, our main Christian source, says that out of 80,000 inhabitants, only 3,000 were left alive when the city fell, and of this only 100 were not sick. Bodies lay everywhere, fed upon by dogs. There was plenty of loot to be found in the empty houses, and much of this was taken away despite strict orders from the commanders.

The city itself was largely undamaged, so the Christians were secure behind its walls. They could keep supplied by ship, for the Italians ruled the sea. They began to conquer the surround lands almost immediately, capturing Tannis on November 23.

Victory managed to divide the army as defeat never had done. John of Brienne expected that Damietta would be his, belonging to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but Pelagius declared that the city belonged to the West in general. It's not clear to whom he would have given it, but he adamantly opposed John.  This managed to drive the Templars and Hospitallers into John's camp, so Pelagius was now supported mainly by the Italians. Tussles broke out in the streets between the factions, then the tussles degenerated into serious fighting. The Italians forced the French completely from the city, then the Templars and Hospitallers did the same to the Italians. The spoils of the city were redistributed and this managed to return some peace to the army by February 1220.

Peace came only with John's departure, however.  He had some distant claim to the throne of Armenia and in February received papal permission to leave the Crusade and to see to his interests in the north. He was bitterly criticized for some, especially later, but even though John had played a key role in the capture of Damietta, he was the ultimate loser in the contest for he had been unable to win control of the Crusade away from Pelagius. Leaving for Armenia to tend to pressing family business was the best way to save face in an impossible situation.

These squabbles probably saved Cairo. Al-Kamil's army was demoralized after the loss of the city, and much of Egypt was starving. The Sultan spent the winter only a few miles up river, waiting for the Christians to advance, prepared for a final battle. But the Christians did not come, and slowly he was able to strengthen his hand.

Pelagius in Command

At last, a Crusade was being led by the Church. Cardinal Pelagius was not the most tactful man, but he was a determined champion. He certainly took a firm hand now, enforcing strict discipline and enjoining severe punishments for those who shirked their duties or who tried to go home again.

Despite his determination, however, Pelagius was unable to lead the army on any meaningful activity. This was partly due to the fact that he was a cleric, not a baron, and so had no direct authority to command. Moreover, he had lost the support of many in the army, including those who despised him merely because the Italians supported him. In council, one baron after another pleading one excuse after another, and nothing was done. Perhaps most significant of all was that everyone was waiting for the Emperor.

Frederick II had again taken a crusading vow and his army was supposed to have set out in 1221. It did not do so, but the expectation of the arrival of the great Frederick and his legions of soldiers gave ample reason for the army at Damietta to decide to wait and be cautious.

Besides, they all knew that al-Kamil was encamped at Mansourah, only about twenty miles up river. Any sort of significant expedition meant risking defeat in the field, or a sudden descent on Damietta and loss of the city. Better to stay put. Better to wait for Frederick, a real commander. And so they waited. And al-Kamil built what had been a winter camp built in desperation into a full-fledged military city.

The Army Moves Out

Frederick never arrived. But in May 1221 he sent much of his army, including Louis of Bavaria as his representative. Louis argued for an immediate offensive, and those present assumed he spoke for the Emperor, so it was agreed. Pelagius didn't have the Emperor, but he had an army and he at last had agreement. The Crusaders formed their army in their old camp on June 29. King John arrived on July 7, still urging caution, but he was ignored. Everyone now was enthusiastic for a new enterprise. They were running low on funds, the prophetic book had predicted the fall of the Sultan, and the newcomers wanted battle.

The army began preparations on July 4 and set out on July 17. It was one of the largest Crusader armies, with an estimated five thousand knights and forty thousand foot soldiers, plus arches and a large number of unarmed pilgrims. The Egyptians had advanced to meet the Christians, but retreated from their forward position at Sharimshah when they saw the size of the army. Pelagius moved out in pursuit.

The Egyptians took up a position behind the river Bahr as-Saghir, which runs from Lake Manzalah to the Nile. The Christians marched in right after them and set up camp. With much of the Muslim strength in the field, it was here that the battle for Egypt would be decided.


The Christians were in a death trap.  When they marched up into the angle formed by the Nile and the Bahr as-Saghir, the army had crossed a dry canal. No one thought to consider it a danger. Worse, Pelagius had neglected to bring adequate supplies, thinking to capture the enemy supplies quickly. A Christian fleet of about six hundred ships was in the Nile--enough to keep the army re-supplied at to support its advance. Once it was clear that Mansourah could not be taken quickly, fortifications were built on the other two sides of the triangle.

There were plenty of locals to tell the Crusaders how easily the Muslims could trap them, but Pelagius would not listen.  King John again urged acceptance of al-Kamil's terms, but rejecting his advice had become almost automatic by this time. A couple of weeks passed in this manner.

It was August, and the Nile was rising a little every day. Soon, the waters were high enough and water flowed into the canal. Within a few days, the levels were high enough to send ships down it, cutting the Christians off from retreat and from being re-supplied from Damietta. The fleet was trapped, the army was trapped, and there was food enough for only twenty days.

Many in the army urged immediate retreat, before their situation grew worse. At last awakening to the peril, Pelagius agreed. On the night of August 26, without ever having fought a battle, the great army began its retreat.


The first thing many of the common soldiers did was to get drunk. They evidently could not bear to leave behind them all of their wine, and since they could not bring it with them, they drank it. Consequently, many of them were in various stages of intoxication when the order came to move out.  Falling under the heading of "seemed like a good idea at the time", the Teutonic Knights set fire to the supplies in order to deny them to the enemy.

Having been alerted by the flames to the fact that the Christians were retreating, al-Kamil ordered the banks of the canal cut. Water flooded the very ground into which the Christians were retreating and the soldiers quickly found themselves wading through mud or falling into gullies now filled with water. Under these conditions, the Egyptians attacked.

The military orders, and the knights under King John put up a valiant defense and saved what they could of the army. Many of the infantry perished, however, it being unusually difficult to fight at night in the mud when you're drunk. The remnant of the army withdrew to the camp, which now had no supplies thanks to the prompt action of the Teutonic Knights earlier in the evening.

The fleet tried to escape, too. The Nile was running in flood now, so some ships managed to make it through the Egyptian blockade, including one which bore Cardinal Pelagius. From the safety of Damietta he now concluded that all was lost. He opened negotiations with al-Kamil two days later, on August 28. By the 30th, the terms were settled.


The Sultan no longer needed to offer the return of Jerusalem, for he had the Crusader army, including King John, at his mercy. On the other hand, the Christians still held Damietta, which they had recently fortified, and another Christian fleet was on its way. Al-Kamil therefore asked only that the Christians leave Egypt.

Damietta would be returned to the Muslims, and the Christians would observe a truce of eight years with Egypt. Both sides would return their prisoners, and al-Kamil would return the True Cross.

There was some inital fervent resistance to handing back Damietta. But with many of the leaders trapped at Sharimshah, there was little point in holding out. After a few days, the garrison agreed. The Sultan generously fed the army and entertained King John and the others. On September 8, the Crusaders boarded their ships and al-Kamil took possession of Damietta.

The Fifth Crusade was over.

Results of the Fifth Crusade

The Fifth Crusade accomplished almost nothing. It did not even manage the recovery of the True Cross, for when al-Kamil was ready to return it, no one could find it. Somehow, in the forty years since the fall of Jerusalem, it had been lost, nor was it ever found again.

Perhaps because the Crusade had come so close to succeeded, there was plenty of blame spread about.  King John was blamed for not working more closely with Cardinal Pelagius. Pelagius, in turn, was blamed for the disaster at Sharimshah. Back in Europe, many blamed Emperor Frederick, who had promised to come but had not. Even though he sent troops, there was a general feeling that the Emperor was the natural leader of a Crusade and that he had shirked his duty to Christendom in order to watch out for his own narrow political interests.

The Fifth Crusade was the last general crusade Europe mounted (not counting the 14th century effort that ended at Nicopolis). Plenty of crusades followed, but they were led by individual princes, financed out of national treasuries. Frederick went in 1228, King Louis IX went in 1250 and again in 1271, and just before he became king, Prince Edward of England went in 1270. The papacy might (or might not) bless these undertakings, but never again was there a general movement for a passagium to the East.

It was not so much that the Fifth Crusade had ended dismally so much as it appears that Europeans had finally worn themselves out with crusading. Ever since Saladin had captured Jerusalem, there had been call after call to liberate the Holy Land. The memory of the First Crusade laid a heavy burden on the conscience, and the leaders of Europe struggled mightily to equal that early victory. After forty years of trying, the papal letters and the fiery sermons no longer carried the same appeal.

Still, there was one champion left. Frederick of Hohenstaufen was the greatest monarch of the day. He still proclaimed his determination to go. His empire was vast enough that even unaided he might succeeded where everyone else had failed. Although the other nations did little to help, they watched as he made his preparations even as the dejected crusaders returned from Damietta.

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