Fifth Crusade

The Fifth Crusade attempted to regain control of the Holy Land through military action against resident Muslims, but it ended as a dismal failure despite careful planning.

Summary of Event

One of several Crusades that failed to drive Muslims out of what the Christians considered their Holy Land, the Fifth Crusade was nevertheless one of the most carefully planned. Pope Innocent III Innocent III had been disappointed by the Fourth Crusade; although Crusaders had seized Constantinople, victory had not led to conquest of the Holy Land. Seeing the popular religious fervor that had led to the Children’s Crusade in 1212, Innocent began to prepare for another Crusade in 1213. He believed that the prevailing enthusiasm for the cause would ensure a victory. [kw]Fifth Crusade (1217-1221)
[kw]Crusade, Fifth (1217-1221)
Byzantine Empire;1217-1221: Fifth Crusade[2280]
Egypt;1217-1221: Fifth Crusade[2280]
Israel/Palestine;1217-1221: Fifth Crusade[2280]
Europe (general);1217-1221: Fifth Crusade[2280]
Religion;1217-1221: Fifth Crusade[2280]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1217-1221: Fifth Crusade[2280]
Innocent III
Honorius III
Andrew II
John of Brienne
Pelagius of Albano

In 1213, Innocent sent a papal encyclical to Christian leaders, summoning them to a council to be held in November, 1215. The most important topic for discussion would be the formation of another Crusade, and all bishops and clergymen were instructed to begin plans to send fighting troops, arms, and supplies when the time came. Innocent also ordered all Christian churches to commence public prayers for the restoration of the Holy Land; monthly processions and daily prayers were called for in an attempt to gather spiritual support from those who would not fight. Handbooks of sermons and prayers were distributed throughout Europe. Innocent’s letters and subsequent sermons by local clergymen painted dramatic pictures of devout Christians suffering under Muslim oppression and of Jesus’s own sepulcher defiled by disdainful Muslims. The common folk responded enthusiastically.

Pope Innocent III.

(Library of Congress)

Inflaming his followers was one thing, but Innocent also needed the support of kings, princes, and barons. Innocent believed that because the spirit is superior to the flesh, the pope should have authority over earthly rulers. Not surprisingly, earthly rulers disagreed. The pope dispatched carefully chosen emissaries throughout Christendom to request—or demand—support.

At the Fourth Lateran Council Lateran Council, Fourth (1215)[Lateran Council 04] , which opened on November 11, 1215, the final details were arranged. Those who had taken vows as Crusaders in previous engagements would be compelled to fulfill them now. Spanish fighting against the Moors was demoted from Crusade status, and Spanish soldiers would now join this Crusade. The rules of conduct for Crusaders were spelled out, and Innocent promised indulgences and redemption for those who fulfilled their vows faithfully. The Crusaders would set off from Sicily on June 1, 1217, after the expiration of the truce between Jerusalem and the Muslims, and Innocent himself would be there to bless them.

In spite of Innocent’s strong organizational skills, his carefully laid plans were not followed. He won the full support of many common people, but men of power were less willing to submit to him. No previous pope had demanded taxes to pay for a Crusade or promised redemption as repayment, and these new programs were received with great skepticism. Without the leadership of the nobles, ordinary citizens could not be drawn together into an effective force. Before he was able to press his will on secular rulers who had their own, different, agendas, Innocent III died on July 16, 1216, almost a year before the Fifth Crusade was to begin.

Pope Honorius III Honorius III tried to carry out Innocent’s plans, believing God’s destiny for him was that he should free the Holy Land, but the difficulties were beyond him. Although Hungary and the Netherlands could be counted on, French noblemen refused to join the Fifth Crusade. Sicilian king Frederick II Frederick II (r. 1212; Holy Roman Emperor from 1220-1250 and leader of the Sixth Crusade) had taken up the cross, but his right to the throne was under challenge and he could not risk a long absence. The English nobility were locked in intense internal struggles, and the Spanish were unhappy at being taxed for this Crusade after they had already funded the fighting against the Moors.

King Andrew II Andrew II of Hungary took the first action. In July of 1217, he set out with a large army for Spalato, where they would meet a fleet of ships. As it turned out, the number of Crusaders was larger than expected, and there were not enough ships to carry them all, resulting in a delay of several weeks. During the delay, many found their zeal weakening and returned home.

By the fall, more than one hundred thousand Crusaders from Hungary, Austria, Merano, Cyprus, and Germany gathered in Acre, Palestine. Unfortunately, Syria was experiencing a severe famine, and there was little food. Again, many Crusaders deserted the group; others starved to death or fell victim to crime and unrest. John of Brienne John of Brienne , the king of Jerusalem, decided to abandon his earlier plans for two massive campaigns and called instead for a series of small attacks to buy time until more Crusaders could arrive. Three times the Crusaders attacked Muslim strongholds, and three times they were defeated.

Andrew II of Hungary returned home with his army, and replacements from Germany, Italy, and Frisia arrived. The new, larger force attacked Damietta, Egypt, on May 27, 1218. Over the next eighteen months, more Crusaders gathered from Italy, France, Cyprus, and England. King John of Jerusalem was chosen as leader of the troops; he expected that with victory, Egypt would fall under his rule. The papal legate Pelagius of Albano Pelagius of Albano had also arrived, however, bringing the message that the pope intended Egypt to be his own, since his authority superseded the king’. Pelagius was the stronger—and more ruthless—personality, and he gradually gained ascendancy over John.

The Crusaders camped outside Damietta. In August of 1218, they captured the Chain Tower in the middle of the Nile, and were able then to control the river. The Muslims sank several ships in the river, preventing Christian ships from passing, and the Crusaders turned to an abandoned canal. Both sides were determined, and for months neither side seemed to be winning. In February of 1219, however, internal conflict and the deposition of the new sultan led to disorder in Egypt, and the Christians were able to move in.

The Egyptians decided to negotiate. Sultan al-Malik al-Kāmil Malik al-Kāmil, al- offered to surrender nearly all his territory in the kingdom of Jerusalem, and to hold to a thirty-year truce, if the Crusaders would leave Egypt. King John and others favored accepting these terms, but Pelagius did not, and he had his way. By the time the Crusaders finally conquered Damietta in November of 1219, Muslim forces outside the city were more determined than ever to resist the Christian intruders. The Crusaders themselves were disorganized and disgruntled, torn apart by the arguments of their leaders. As for Damietta, it was by this time inhabited by only a small number of starving soldiers who put up no further defense.

With Damietta taken, the conflict between John and Pelagius intensified, further dividing the Crusaders. The plan had been for Damietta to become a base from which to launch further attacks; instead, the Crusaders remained inactive and disorganized. King John departed in disgust, leaving Pelagius as an unpopular and ineffective leader. As the Muslims’s strength grew, Pelagius ordered attacks, but the Crusaders were not willing to follow him. Finally, in July of 1221, ordered by the pope to rejoin the Fifth Crusade, John led the Crusaders on a march down the Nile. By then, even John had lost the popular support of the men.

Taking a route he advised against, the army was cut off and defeated by the Muslims. The Crusaders had no choice but to surrender, agreeing on August 30, 1221, to retreat from Egypt.


The Crusade that had been so carefully planned, and which had at times seemed so near to success in part because of the large numbers who joined the fight, had ended in complete failure. Once again, Crusaders failed to secure the Holy Land from Muslims.

Further Reading

  • Donovan, J. P. Pelagius and the Fifth Crusade. 1950. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1978. One of the most accessible of the book-length studies of the controversial papal legate and one of the most favorable to Pelagius. Acknowledges Pelagius’s blunders but argues against those who blame those errors for the Fifth Crusade’s failure. Bibliography.
  • Hillenbrand, Carole. The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2000. Chapters explore ethnic and religious stereotyping, daily life, the conduct of war, and more. Bibliography, index.
  • Irwin, Robert. “Muslim Responses to the Crusades.” History Today 47, no. 4 (April, 1997). Presents a rich overview of the Muslim perspective on the Crusades. Provides photographs and a short list of further readings.
  • Madden, Thomas F., ed. The Crusades: The Essential Readings. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. A collection of previously published articles about the Crusades, including medieval sources, lay enthusiasm, patronage, Byzantium, and the subjection of Muslims. Bibliography, index.
  • Powell, James M. Anatomy of a Crusade, 1213-1221. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986. Unlike most other studies, this book praises Innocent III’s extensive preparations and attributes the Fifth Crusade’s failure to implementation weaknesses on the part of secular leaders. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • Powell, James M, ed. Innocent III: Vicar of Christ or Lord of the World? 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1994. A balanced biography, with insightful discussion of Innocent’s theology and his extensive theological writings. Bibliography, index.
  • Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The Crusades: A Short History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. A history for the general reader, with helpful apparatus for the nonspecialist, including nine historical maps, a unique system of transliteration, and an extensive annotated bibliography.
  • Riley-Smith, Jonathan, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Places the Fifth Crusade within the context of the medieval crusading movement, arguing its significance in the history of late medieval culture in the West. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • Van Cleve, Thomas C. “The Fifth Crusade.” In The Later Crusades, 1189-1311, edited by Robert Lee Woolf and Harry W. Hazard. Vol. 2 in A History of the Crusades, edited by Kenneth M. Setton. 2d ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969-1989. An exceptionally clear and detailed accounting of the events of the Fifth Crusade, drawn from Western and Arabic sources. Includes a map of the region. Bibliography, index.