The mess that was the Fourth Crusade ended in violence and humiliation, so Pope Innocent was eager to launch a new one. The plans for a Fifth Crusade started in 1213. It was begun in 1215 during the Fourth Council of the Lateran. The first batch of Crusaders landed in the Holy Land two years later, but the war later shifted to the Egyptian city of Damietta. Inadequate preparations and poor leadership led to the massive and embarrassing failure of the Fifth Crusade in 1221. It is recorded on the Biblical Timeline with World History around that time.
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New Players for an Old Goal
When news of Constantinople’s destruction at the hands of the Crusaders reached him in 1204, Pope Innocent III was horrified. More than that, he was angry and embarrassed as the Fourth Crusade was his project. The Crusaders of 1204 never reached Jerusalem which was their original goal. Their only achievement (if it was indeed one) was the establishment of the unstable Latin Empire of Constantinople.
So it was only natural for Pope Innocent III to desire the redemption of the idea of the Crusades after the bloody mess of 1204. As early as 1213 and at the height of the Crusade against the Albigensian heretics, he laid out the plans for the Fifth Crusade. Two years later, he summoned hundreds of bishops, archbishops, and abbots to discuss the Fifth Crusade at the Fourth Council of the Lateran (November 1215). They were also joined by some European noblemen.
Pope Innocent III did his best to prevent the repeat of the Fourth Crusade. In the Council, he insisted that all Crusaders should fulfill their vows and forbade them from leaving the war without a good reason. To ensure the success of the coming war, he commanded them to refrain from trading weapons or materials with Muslims. He also allowed priests to pardon the sins the Crusaders confessed before they left.
Unfortunately, Pope Innocent III was not meant to see the fruits of his labor as he died in 1216. Pope Honorius III succeeded him, and he took over the project by requiring cardinals to give a part of their incomes to fund the Crusade. The Fifth Crusade started officially in 1217 when Rhineland, Frisian, and English knights travelled down to France and Spain. They made their way into Portugal where they helped the locals capture a Muslim fortress and then sailed off to the city of Acre in the Holy Land.
They arrived in Acre in spring of 1218. They joined the troops of King Andrew II of Hungary and Duke Leopold of Austria who arrived in 1217. Together, they besieged the fortress built by the Ayyubid Sultan al-Adil (brother of Saladin), but nothing came of it. King Andrew felt that he had already fulfilled his vow, so he returned to Hungary in 1218. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II also promised to join the Fifth Crusade, but he only sent his soldiers to the Holy Land as his uncles threatened his hold on the German throne.
The Detour in Egypt
In 1218, King John of Jerusalem decided to weaken the Ayyubid rulers first by attacking Egypt. Their target was the city of Damietta on the banks of the Nile River, and it was ruled by Sultan al-Adil’s son, al-Kamil. The choice seemed like a big mistake as Damietta was heavily fortified and protected by a large chain to prevent ships from sailing too near the city. The Crusaders’ only hope was to block the ships that brought food to the people inside it. They later destroyed the chain that protected Damietta and scaled its tower, but they failed to enter the city itself. Many became discouraged with the lack of developments with the siege, and some made plans to go home. But their chances improved when additional Crusaders arrived to swell their ranks. Sultan al-Adil also died in 1218 so that the city was left in chaos.
An Egyptian nobleman took advantage of the Sultan’s death and rebelled against al-Adil’s heir, al-Kamil. The new sultan was forced to leave Damietta because of the rebellion. The Crusaders responded by blocking the ships that brought in the people’s food. The city’s defenders held out, but many of the people starved to death.
Al-Kamil finally put down the rebellion, and he came back to Damietta to lead its defence. Francis of Assisi also arrived to preach to the Crusaders, and he was later invited by al-Kamil to his court to preach. The sultan listened to him and treated him with politeness, but did not convert to Christianity. Disappointed, Francis returned to the Crusaders and remained with them until they finally conquered Damietta in November of 1218. Their victory was an empty one as most of the city’s inhabitants had died of starvation from the blockade. Francis of Assisi was horrified at what he saw, and he persuaded the Crusaders to refrain from more bloodshed.
The Crusaders spent the year 1219 in Damietta, but their situation did not improve. Francis was forced to leave Egypt. He travelled to the Holy Land before he returned to Europe. In 1221, a papal legate named Pelagius rejected the peace Sultan al-Kamil offered. Instead, he convinced the Crusaders to attack Cairo, but this strategy was bound to fail. Al-Kamil knew Egypt, and he decided to cut off the important supply routes of the Crusaders while they travelled to Cairo. The Crusaders were already short on food, water, and other supplies, so this blockade was a big blow to their plans.
He also opened the gates of the dam so that the Nile overflowed. Unable to continue to Cairo because of the flood, the Crusaders were forced to accept the peace al-Kamil offered in 1221. Many of them went home to Europe in the same year. The dismal ending of the Fifth Crusade was blamed largely on the papal legate Pelagius. Pope Honorius took some of the blame as well, but he was also disappointed in Emperor Frederick when he failed to show up and lead the Crusaders.
Picture By Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain, Link
Jacoby, David. The New Cambridge Medieval History C. 1198-1300. Edited by David Abulafia. Vol. V. Cambridge: University Press, 1995.
Madden, Thomas F. Crusades: The Illustrated History. Ann Arbor, MI: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2004.
Moses, Paul. The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace. New York: Doubleday Religion, 2009.
Powell, James M. Anatomy of a Crusade, 1213-1221. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.
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