Stories from the Crusades - Janet Kelman

How Frederick Came to His Kingdom

The kingdom of Jerusalem was in dire need of help. But all the powerful people in Europe were busy fighting with each other. Once the thought of the Crusades had been enough to stir every heart, now the great wars had become the games of children. In the villages, children played at sieges and battles. The priests still longed to see the Holy City the centre of a strong kingdom. They spoke to kings and nobles, and pled with them to go forth bravely as others had done to win renown in wars of the Cross. But no one heeded them. They watched the children playing at war, and the thought came that if the men would not go, the children might. It was many years since Richard and Philip had set forth, and men had a little forgotten how hard the way was. Besides, some people thought that if children left their homes and all the ease of life to fight in a holy war, God would give them the strength of men, and would make everything easy before them. So when the warriors would not listen, the priests preached to the children. They told them that a dry pathway would be made through the great sea, and that the children would have the strength of heaven in their arms. And the children listened and followed the preachers. Here and there a lad knew what the priest meant and believed what he said, and caught sight of the grand dream that had made Tancred and Godfrey leave all for Jerusalem so long before. But most of the children knew but little of what they wished or of what a Crusade meant. They had played at battles till they liked nothing else so much, and now they ran and danced along through the villages of Europe as merrily as if they had only been going to see a fair in the nearest town. Mothers and fathers pled with them to stay. They tried to keep them back by force. But they had only one answer:

'To Jerusalem.'

When they reached the shore, the waves on the beach broke against their feet quietly and steadily. No path opened before them. Those who tried to wade in soon scrambled back to land. They had neither money nor food. They were a sorrowful band, and kind people in Italy drew those who would come into their homes, and allowed them to grow up amongst their own children. But there were many who would neither go back to their own lands nor stay in Italy. They wandered by the shore and dreamed of the Holy City. Then they heard of ships that were to sail to the south. The captains offered to take the little Crusaders to the Holy Land without payment. The children crowded on to the vessels, and thought that now at last they were on the way to save Jerusalem. But ere many days had gone by they looked at each other with sad and frightened faces. The captains were wicked, cruel men, and the little children were sold as slaves.

Though the children fought no battle, the story of their sorrows roused Europe to a new Crusade. This time the armies tried to reach Jerusalem from the South. They landed in Egypt at the mouth of the Nile, and took the town of Damietta. But they were not strong enough to drive the enemy away from their camp beside the city. Every day the two forces fought with each other. Besides those who fell in battle, hundreds of warriors were drowned in the Nile. In each camp envy and spite were dividing those who ought to have thought only of the cause for which they fought. Into the midst of all this hatred a strange figure came. It was the figure of St. Francis. He was very unlike all others in the crusading camp, for he did not come to fight, but only to help and to love. He nursed the sick and wounded by day and by night, and as he went from tent to tent the rough soldiers looked at him with awe. His body was worn and spent, yet he never showed that he was tired. It seemed as if he could make himself do whatever he willed to do, even when it was something that men thought impossible.

As he went through the camp, he often looked across to the Saracen tents.

'If they only knew,' he thought.

He wished to tell them about Jesus Christ. He did not think that any one who knew about Him could do anything but love and serve Him. The longing to tell them grew so strong that he could not stay. He went alone to the enemies' camp and entered the sultan's tent. He told him of Jesus Christ and of the Christian faith, but the sultan listened carelessly. He was not moved by the passionate words of St. Francis, who grew more and more eager.

'Test what I say by fire,' he said. 'Choose the most faithful follower of your prophet, and he and I will walk through fire together. Then you will know that the one whom the flames do not hurt is the one that God owns.'

The sultan looked at him. He thought that the Christian monk was mad. He would not hear of sending one of his men to walk through fire. But Francis tried once more to win his Church's enemy.

'I will pass alone through the fire,' he said, 'if you will promise to worship Christ if I am not burned.'

The sultan would not promise, and the Saracen soldiers shouted, 'Behead him, behead him!'

But the sultan was not angry with him. He liked him because of his courage, and though he would not do what Francis wished, he offered him many costly gifts. Francis would not take one. They had no charm for him. He had vowed to be poor all his life.

He was very sad as he left the camp. He had been so eager to win the Saracens by love, to believe in Christ, and they would not even think of what he said to them.

All who joined this Crusade were not like Francis in their thoughts and wishes. Frederick, Emperor of Germany and King of Italy, was very unlike the gentle monk. He had married the daughter of the Queen of Jerusalem, and called himself King of Jerusalem, although his father-in-law was still alive. He wished to reign over the Holy Land, but he liked the ease of his court too well to be in haste to fight. He had friends, too, amongst the Saracens, so though the Pope bade him set forth on the Crusade, he always found an excuse for delay. At last he did sail, but he became ill and landed again in three days.

The Pope was so angry that he preached against him. He said that the illness was not real.

The clergy and the Pope stood round the altar in the great cathedral at Rome. The bells clanged above. Each man except the Pope carried a lighted torch. After the Pope had spoken of all the wrong things the emperor had done he paused. Then in the dim light he prayed that God would curse Frederick. As he prayed, the clergy lowered the torches and dashed out their flames against the stone floor to show the darkness in which they wished that Frederick's soul might be.

All this was told to Frederick. He was terribly angry. He had not cared much about the Crusade before, but now that the Pope had cursed him, he made up his mind that come what might he would reign in Jerusalem.

He set sail once more, but while he went slowly with his heavy war ships towards Acre, a swift ship passed his fleet. It reached the Holy Land long before he did, and two monks who had sailed in it, and who had been sent by the Pope, raised the Christians against him. When he landed, no welcome waited him, though he had come to fight for the kingdom of Jerusalem against the Saracens. Although the knights would not serve under him, yet nothing could daunt him. He had learned the language of the Saracens, so when the Christians would not own him he planned a treaty with their foes. The sultan promised to give up Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the whole of the city of Jerusalem except the part where the mosque of the prophet had stood for ten years. But though this pleased the sultan and Frederick, it did not please any one else. The Saracens were angry that the Holy City had been given to the Crusaders. The Pope and the Christians were angry that the worship of the prophet should have any place within Jerusalem. The Pope was still more enraged to think that the man that he had cursed would be king in Jerusalem.

For years the Pope had been urging his people to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Many had hastened to the Holy Land, and thought gladly now that they could do as they had vowed, but the Pope sent messages from Rome that no one who cared for his wishes was even to pray at the Holy Sepulchre.

Frederick entered Jerusalem. He passed through empty streets, for priests and men and women fled from him.

He marched to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre followed by a small band of his warriors. He entered the empty church. He saw that the images of the apostles were veiled, and that no priest stood by the altar. No sound of music or of song rose on the air. Only the armour of the soldiers clanked on the pavement, and the step of Frederick rang hard and sharp as he strode to the altar.

He lifted the crown that lay there and placed it on his head, but none save the handful of knights who followed him owned him King of Jerusalem.

Frederick did not long enjoy even this empty title of king. He went back to Europe, and ere long Jerusalem was taken by other victors than either sultan or emperor.