Frederick II’s Crusade to Recapture Jerusalem

From the Lecture Series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, P.h.D., William & Mary University

Frederick II was a peculiar emperor in the High Middle Ages owing to his unique character and curious background. His religious stances were unique and odd, so much so that he was nicknamed as stupor Mundi, which means “wonder of the world.” The broad scope of his interests was surprising for his contemporaries, and they doubted if he was a faithful orthodox or not.

The photo shows the Tower of David, Jerusalem, Israel.
When Frederick II Hohenstaufen became the Holy Roman Emperor, he vowed to go on a crusade to Jerusalem to take it back from Muslims. (Image: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)

Frederick II’s curious personality and unusual background made him one of the most controversial figures of the High Middle Ages. Although he was king of Germany, and Holy Roman Emperor, he didn’t like Germany very much, and in fact, he was more of a Sicilian than a German.

He was raised in the kingdom of Sicily, and the Mediterranean island of Sicily was at the crossroads between Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. A large portion of the Sicilian population included Muslims because the Islamic rulers once governed the island. Frederick II had a lot of encounters with Muslims, which gave him a cosmopolitan view, something that was not so common in the 13th century. The influences of Islam in his life included his ability to speak Arabic fluently and his curiosity about Islam. Also, there were rumors that he had a harem, but it was not true. Also, he was interested in hawking and how to hunt with hawks, about which he wrote several treatises.

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Frederick II Hohenstaufen’s Vow and Crusade

A statue of Frederick II from the Black Tower of Regensburg.
Frederick II Hohenstaufen was influenced by Islam in his younger days. (Image: Wolfgang Rieger / CC BY-SA 3.0/ Public domain)

In 1220, after Frederick II Hohenstaufen became emperor, he promised the papacy to go on a crusade and take back Jerusalem, which had been under the control of Muslims since 1187. Although going on this crusade was one of the conditions under which the pope had agreed to crown him, Frederick II was not willing to go through with it. The church authorities kept reminding him to fulfill his vow, but he did not want to go to Palestine.

In 1225, through marriage, he acquired the title of “king of Jerusalem.” His wife died shortly after their marriage, but it did not take away the title from him. This title sparked an interest in him to retake Jerusalem as its theoretical ruler.

He made another crusading vow in 1227. He vowed that if he broke his promise, the pope could excommunicate him, a vow that he had already made before. After the pope agreed, Frederick II embarked on his crusade with a large army in August of 1227.

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The Excommunication of Frederick II

On the way to Jerusalem, not long after his departure, Frederick II got sick, which made him go back to Italy. He sent his army and promised that after recovery, he would join them.

The pope excommunicated him because he saw it as a violation of his vow. Frederick II objected to this decision by saying it was merely a temporary setback due to his illness, and that he would go on to fulfill his promise, but the pope refused to accept it since he did not trust Frederick II.

The situation became complicated because excommunication meant no Christian was allowed to speak to Frederick II. He was the leader of the crusade, but he could not have contact with anybody until the excommunication was lifted. Besides, Frederick II still wanted to keep his vow and go on the crusade, but the pope told him that he was not allowed to go to the eastern end of the Mediterranean until the end of the excommunication.

The pope had determined certain conditions for lifting the excommunication, which was practically extortion. He wanted Frederick II to give the kingdom of Sicily to the papacy so it could be freed from its encirclement. 

Frederick II’s reaction surprised everyone. He ignored the excommunication and went on the crusade. When he arrived in the Middle East in 1228, instead of fighting, he decided to negotiate with the local Muslim rulers, who he had been in contact with before going to Jerusalem.

Frederick II became the ally for the local Muslim rulers, who had disagreements among themselves. The negotiations were a massive success for Frederick II because he took back Jerusalem in return for promising to assist the Muslim rulers in fighting their enemies. Thus, in 1229, only through diplomacy and negotiation, he managed to solve a problem that had existed since 1187.

After Frederick II returned to Europe, he managed to have the excommunication lifted. His relations with the pope improved slightly, which led to a somewhat stable situation for the Holy Roman Empire for about 10 years.

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Common Questions about Frederick II’s Crusade to Recapture Jerusalem

Q: Why did Frederick II Hohenstaufen go on a crusade?

The papacy had set a condition to crown Frederick II Hohenstaufen as the Holy Roman Emperor. The pope wanted him to go on a crusade to take back Jerusalem from the Muslims. Also, his marriage made him the theoretical king of Jerusalem, which gave him a reason to go to the east.

Q: How did Frederick II recapture Jerusalem?

Frederick II recaptured Jerusalem through negotiations and not through wars. He promised the local Muslim rulers to help them against their enemies, and they agreed to give Jerusalem back to the Holy Roman Empire.

Q: What does excommunication mean?

Excommunication means that no Christian can talk to the person who is excommunicated. This person is shunned until the excommunication is lifted.

Q: Why was Frederick II excommunicated?

Frederick II had vowed to go on a crusade to Jerusalem. But he got sick on the way and went back to Italy. The pope regarded it as a violation of his vow and excommunicated him.

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