Medieval Geopolitics: The Crusades to the Holy Land, Phase Two

By Andrew Latham

As Jonathan Riley-Smith argued in his book The Crusades: A History, following the “birth” of the crusading movement and the First Crusade, the history of the crusades to the Holy Land can be organized into several discrete phases.  A few columns back, I explored the first phase – the years 1102 to 1187.  In this column, I will explore the second phase, that of their “coming of age”.

Above all else, this phase, which began with the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187 and ended with its restoration to Latin Christendom in 1229, was characterized by a profound change in geopolitical purpose: during this period, the crusades were no longer prosecuted in defence of Jerusalem, but for its recovery.  After the failure of the Second Crusade, the jihad against the Christian principalities provided both a common goal and a unifying religious focal point for the Muslim states in the region.  Building on this, Zengi’s son and successor, Nur al-Din, first created a unified Syrian emirate and then entered into an alliance with Egypt for the purpose of putting pressure on the Christians. On his death, the vizier of Egypt, Saladin, invaded Syria and established the Ayyubid Sultanate, creating for the first time a truly unified Muslim polity surrounding Outremer.  Once he had consolidated his hold over this “empire,” Saladin resumed the jihad against the crusader principalities.


After a somewhat chequered period marked by a few notable victories and several serious defeats, and at a point when “the Christians were exceptionally weak and divided,” Saladin’s army attacked Tiberias. When the Christian army marched to relieve the besieged citadel, Saladin caught them in a highly unfavourable position and inflicted a devastating defeat upon them at the Battle of Hattin. The majority of the massive Christian host was killed or captured, including the King of Jerusalem, the Master of the Temple and many other important leaders. A piece of the True Cross, apparently recovered during the First Crusade and typically carried into battle by the King of Jerusalem, was captured and paraded upside down through the streets of Damascus by the victorious Muslims. With the principalities denuded of their best fighting men, Jerusalem fell to Saladin’s forces on October  2, 1187. By the time Saladin was finished his campaign, Outremer had been reduced to little more than the coastal enclaves of Tripoli, Antioch and Tyre.

Saladin’s Conquests. Image by ExploretheMed / Wikimedia Commons

On October 29, 1187 Pope Gregory VIII responded to these catastrophic developments by issuing an encyclical – Audita tremendi – that called upon the princes, nobles and knights of Latin Christendom to launch an expedition to liberate Jerusalem once again from the Muslims. The encyclical began by characterizing the disastrous fall of Jerusalem as punishment for the collective sinfulness of all Christendom; the city had been lost, so the pope argued, because of the sins of Christians everywhere.  This being the case, the encyclical continued, the redemption and liberation of the Holy Sites necessarily required penitential sacrifice by Christians everywhere.


In effect, the pope called on Latin Christendom to redeem itself through acts of contrition, piety and purification, including participation in an expedition to liberate Jerusalem. In practical terms, the encyclical also sought to facilitate such an expedition by imposing a seven-year truce throughout Latin Christendom and by mobilizing the princes and nobles of Latin Christendom by offering them the now-usual indulgences, privileges and protections in exchange for their penitent participation in an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The response to Gregory’s call was perhaps the largest military enterprise in the Middle Ages. Richard I (Lionheart) of England, Phillip II (Augustus) of France and Frederick I (Barbarossa) of the Holy Roman Empire all led vast armies to the Holy Land.  Once again, however, the campaign was to prove ill-fated. Frederick accidentally drowned en route, leaving only a rump force under the command of Duke Leopold IV of Austria to press on to Palestine. Divisions among the three temporal crusade leaders subsequently led to the departure of Leopold and Phillip from the Holy Land in 1191.  This left only Richard to continue the campaign, which he did ably and with some notable military successes against Saladin. When he began his campaign, the Latin kingdom comprised little more than a handful of coastal cities and a few isolated inland fortresses; when he was finished, it consisted of the whole coast from Tyre to Jaffa.

However, while Richard had effectively reversed most of Saladin’s gains since the Battle of Hattin, he was able neither to break the sultan’s army nor force him to abandon Jerusalem. The best he could manage was a negotiated settlement that guaranteed unarmed Christian pilgrims access to the holy sites, but that left the Holy City in Ayyubid hands. Having achieved this – and the creation the geopolitical conditions necessary for the Kingdom of Jerusalem to survive for another century – Richard quit the Holy Land for good in 1192.

The Crusader States in 1200. Image by ExploretheMed / Wikimedia Commons

While Richard’s campaign against Saladin was in some ways remarkably successful, from the Church’s perspective it manifestly failed to achieve the goals articulated in Audita tremendi.  To be certain, the crusader principalities had been restored and their strategic position greatly enhanced. But, as Madden puts it, “the purpose of these states was the protection of the holy sites; they were not an end in themselves.” To the Papacy and many of Latin Christendom’s temporal leaders, Richard’s inability to liberate Jerusalem from Saladin’s grip was a crushing setback – one that needed to be reversed at the earliest possible opportunity.


The failure to realize this crucial objective thus set the stage for three more major crusades, all intended to restore the holy sites to Latin Christendom. In 1198, Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) issued the encyclical Post miserable, launching the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204).  The avowed objective of this campaign was “the liberation of Jerusalem by an attack on Egypt”. It was, however, soon diverted into an attack on the Byzantine capital, largely as a result of the strategic calculation that “a Constantinople in reliable western hands might be deemed as much of an asset for the liberation of Jerusalem as the conquest of Alexandria”. While it succeeded in establishing the Latin Kingdom of Constantinople, this crusade too manifestly failed to realize its declared goal of liberating Jerusalem.

The Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), also launched by Innocent III, was similarly intended to harness the “full economic, military and spiritual might” of Latin Christendom to the task of liberating Jerusalem, this time under even tighter Church leadership. The proximate objective of the crusade was again Egypt – the Nile port of Damietta was to be captured and used as a base for an attack on Cairo which was in turn to be used as a base for the liberation of Jerusalem. Following extensive preparations, Damietta was attacked and captured in 1219.  In August 1221, however, the crusader army found itself surrounded by Ayyubid forces near El Mansura and was forced to withdraw from Egypt. For all its efforts, this crusade achieved little more than an eight-year truce and a (never fulfilled) promise that the relic of the True Cross – lost to Christendom at the Battle of Hattin – would be returned.

14th century depiction of Frederick II meeting with Sultan al-Kamil. Giovanni Villani, Chronica, 14. Jahrhundert, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rom Cod. Chigi L VIII 296, fol. 75r.

The Sixth Crusade (1228-1229) was to prove considerably more successful, though more due to skilful diplomacy than marital prowess.  Under pressure first from Pope Honorius III and later from Gregory IX, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Jerusalem, Frederick II, finally embarked on his long-promised crusade in 1228.  He launched his expedition, however, without papal approval because, having failed for so long to fulfill his crusader vow, he was under sanction of excommunication. While his status as an excommunicate caused him considerable political difficulty – he was not afforded crusader protections and privileges; he was opposed by the military orders – Frederick was nevertheless able to force the Sultan of Egypt, al-Kamil, to the bargaining table.  Against the backdrop of al-Kamil’s efforts to consolidate control over his own newly acquired Syrian territories, Frederick was then able to pressure him into signing a treaty that effectively surrendered Jerusalem to the Christians.


While the treaty itself no longer survives, its terms were widely reported in contemporary accounts. On the one hand, in return for a much-needed ten-year truce, al-Kamil agreed that the Kingdom of Jerusalem would extend from Beirut to Jaffa and would include Bethlehem, Nazareth, Belfort and Montfort and the city of Jerusalem (which would be demilitarized).  On the other, Frederick agreed that the Muslim inhabitants would retain control over their holy sites (the Dome of the Rock and the Temple of Solomon), remain in possession of their property, and administer their own system of justice. He also agreed that the Kingdom of Jerusalem would stay neutral in any future conflict between the sultanate and the Christian principalities of Tripoli and Antioch. While condemned by many at the time for the “humiliating” nature of its outcome, in geopolitical terms the crusade was clearly a success: the city of Jerusalem was restored to Latin Christendom and the Kingdom of Jerusalem rebuilt as its defensive glacis.

Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of The Idea of Sovereignty At the Turn of the 14th Century. You can visit Andrew’s website at or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham 

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Top Image:15th century map of the Mediterranean – British Library Additional MS 15760, ff.72v-73r