Emperor Frederick II: Diplomacy by Power

Arab chroniclers converted him to Islam; and his family became related to that of Saladin. Christian history writers made him a philosopher, a consummate diplomat, and an icon of tolerance and multiculturalism. Emperor Frederick II would have been wondering about whom they were writing. He was none of that. If anything, he was the epitome of what Germans mean when talking of Realpolitik.

Emperor Frederick II


Most legends about Emperor Frederick II were contributed by a chronicler who lived half a century after him. A native of Cairo, Ibn al-Furat (1334 to 1405) was the first to say that the Emperor was secretly a Muslim. And as if this would not be eye-popping enough, he claimed that Frederick was a maternal uncle of Sultan Al-Kamil of Egypt. This was the most blatant attempt to incorporate the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and Christian King of Jerusalem into religious affiliation and kinship with Islamic ecumenism. He was made a naturalized citizen of Allah's by hindsight.

The legend that Frederick was at least a friend of the Muslim world was conceived to help the Arab world understand and cope with the loss of Jerusalem. The lame handover of the holy city no longer seemed like a defeat. After all, the new ruler was no enemy, but a comrade in faith and relative of the Sultan of Egypt and by extension of all Muslim rulers. The agreement on Jerusalem could now be shown as just another change of ownership within a family.

The question is as to whether Emperor Frederick II had planned to make Jerusalem his by negotiation. The answer is no. Even before it came to the treaty of 1229, this possibility was offered to him. In 1221, Sultan Al-Kamil of Egypt had offered the return of almost all the conquests of Saladin's; he had been under great duress because of the Crusader army encamped at his borders. In return, he demanded that the Crusaders would return the recently conquered and strategically important city of Damietta in the Nile Delta. The Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller wanted to accept the offer, but the emperor's representatives refused. They were under instruction to await Emperor Frederick II's arrival and a planned and expected military victory.

Emperor Frederick II had hoped for a military triumph when he started his crusade in 1228 to boost his military credentials at home. The contractual agreement with the Sultan was a stop-gap for a crisis. It came into existence only on his learning of an attack by the Pope on his Kingdom of Sicily. The crisis in Europe called for an immediate return home.

There remains one question: Would the diplomatic way have been possible without the emperor’s considerable military might? Probably not. Someone marching his army to Jaffa with the full intention of moving inland to go to Jerusalem meant business. The message was duly received in Cairo. Sultan Al-Kamil knew that any renewed defeat by the Crusaders, whether in Palestine or in the Nile Delta, would have shaken his supremacy in the Middle East considerably. The compromise reached was therefore a beneficial minimum for both parties but by far not what they really wanted.

The Treaty of Jaffa of 1229 was drawn up for pragmatic reasons and represented the minimum consensus for both sides. And both hoped to be able to change the matter later under altered circumstances. To assume that Sultan Al-Kamil made a gift of Jerusalem to Emperor Frederick II because he did so well in mathematics and liked falcons has no basis in reality. Even historians daydream at times.

Ultimately, it was the emperor's power by land and sea that appeared as an incalculable risk and a major threat to the sultan. Traditional stories telling of the emperor arriving with only a small force in the Holy Land are fabrications. They have contributed to the modern image of Emperor Frederick II as an exemplary diplomat. They also disguised what he really was: a ruler negotiating out of necessity where it made sense but who would have drawn the sword without hesitation if the situation would have been more to his advantage.

Historians made a lot of the highly acclaimed peaceful intentions of the emperor. They were nothing more than pragmatism. This sense for Realpolitik is still amazing for a ruler of the Middle Ages. Rational balancing of political realities was not necessarily the forte of the often honour bound princes of the time. Unlike other famous Crusaders like Richard the Lionheart or Saint Louis, (the latter died on his second crusade) Frederick was not traveling the Orient to bash enemy brains and study the interior of their bodies. He also harboured no ambition to sacrifice himself on the altar of Christian martyrdom. All he wanted was reclaiming his (or rather his wife's) Kingdom of Jerusalem which he saw as rightfully belonging to them. Let the Pope do the praying, as long as they could count the taxes.

Anyone citing Frederick II as an example for modern multiculturalism is therefore betting on the wrong horse. The Emperor’s actions were as little guided by modern ideas of tolerance and diplomacy as the Arab chroniclers portraying him as a friend of the Muslims. Both sides pursued in a skillful way their respective interests while looking forward to some more constructive brain bashing.

Further reading
Bulla Aurea: Golden Bull
Imperial Wedding Document for Princess Theophanu of Byzantium
Queen Edith of the Eastern Franks