Today in North African history: the Eighth Crusade ends (1270)

An attempt to capture Jerusalem by besieging Tunis surprisingly ends in failure.

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King Louis IX of France (d. 1270, which is a bit of a spoiler), who would later be known as Saint Louis, would probably go somewhere on a list of the 10 greatest Crusaders of all time. He’d be right up there alongside men like Godfrey of Bouillon, the first Christian ruler of Jerusalem, and Richard the Lionheart. The thing is, though, that those guys would make the list because they were pretty good at Crusading, while Louis...let's say that he'd be on the list more for his enthusiasm than his performance, and for the fact that he had an excellent and very loyal biographer.

By all appearances Louis deeply believed in the Crusades and he wanted to be a successful Crusader, even to the point where he risked his French kingdom by going off on Crusade not once, but twice. He organized and led the Seventh Crusade starting in 1248, which targeted Egypt under the principle that you couldn't capture and hold Jerusalem without first subduing Egypt. The principle was sound, but the execution not so much. Louis sailed an army into the Nile delta in 1249, captured the city of Damietta, and sent a letter to the Ayyubid Sultan al-Salih demanding that he convert to Christianity. Then, over the spring of 1250, he bungled a march on Cairo so badly that his army was decisively defeated once on the way there and again, even more decisively, during a panicked retreat back to Damietta. Louis was taken captive, and had to be ransomed for about a third of his kingdom's annual revenue.

Obviously this whole effort was not what you’d call “successful.” The one thing Louis had going for him was that he’d brought along his aforementioned biographer, Jean de Joinville, as both chronicler and adviser. Jean’s Life of St. Louis does a lot to burnish Louis’ reputation to later audiences, describing in glowing terms his deep commitment to his faith and his great deeds even in the context of telling us about a military campaign that Louis led to total failure.

The failure of the 1248 Crusade apparently gnawed at Louis, and when the Mamluks (who overthrew the Ayyubids in Egypt in 1250) looked like they were about to drive the Crusaders out of the Holy Land altogether in the 1260s, the future saint resolved to come to their rescue. He declared his intention to undertake a new Crusade in 1267. Unfortunately for Louis, very few people were still keen on the whole Crusading thing by this time. Repeated failure and embarrassment will have that effect. Even Jean de Joinville passed on the chance to accompany his patron and do some more chronicling. Undaunted, Louis selected his next target: Tunis, which...wait, what?

At first, Louis intended to sail to Acre, one of the last Christian cities in the Holy Land, and do the typical Crusader thing while trying to regain and rebuild the principalities that the Mamluks had been conquering of late. It was his brother, Charles of Anjou (d. 1285)—who was at the time (as Charles I) the King of Sicily (which he would later lose) and of Naples—who talked him into heading to Tunis instead. Though he must have made a logical enough case to his brother, it should be stressed here that Charles was acting entirely in his own self-interest.

The ruler of Tunis, the Hafsid emir Muhammad al-Mustansir (d. 1277), had been a vassal of Sicily but broke away when Charles seized the crown. Charles managed to convince Louis that Muhammad had some kind of latent Christian sympathies, and that an attack on Tunis would somehow be the nudge the emir needed to convert. Then, he argued, with Tunis in hand, somehow Egypt would become vulnerable—even though there's a lot of land and/or water between Tunis and Egypt—and, as everybody knew by this point, taking Egypt was the key to taking Jerusalem. This is the 13th century version of the Domino Theory, only even less coherent. I have no idea if Charles actually believed any of it, but it seems more likely that he just wanted to make Tunis a Sicilian vassal again, and he knew how to push his brother’s pious buttons to con him into helping.

The Crusade itself was about as close to a complete disaster as anything you’ll find in the copious list of Crusading disasters. Louis decided that the best time to attack Tunis would be in the middle of the hot, dry North African summer, and so his fleet landed outside of Tunis in July of 1270 and much of his army promptly fell ill. Louis himself died in August, probably of dysentery, and Charles took overall command of the Crusade while Louis’ son, Philip III, became the new King of France. Charles spent the next couple of months, apart from a few small military clashes, negotiating trade concessions with Muhammad al-Mustansir, and finally lifted the “siege” (which was more like a giant open-air infirmary sitting outside of Tunis’ walls than a real siege) on October 30, when the Hafsid ruler agreed to allow free trade between Europe and Tunis and to protect Christian clergy living in his territories. I’d say the Eighth Crusade ended with a whimper instead of a bang, but to say that it “ended” at all would erroneously imply that it ever really got started.

Louis IX died on Crusade, not in battle but certainly at the “hands” of the Eighth Crusade’s deadliest foe, disease. Charles later became the King of (just) Naples, after the Sicilian Vespers uprising in 1282 drove him off the island and handed it over to the Kingdom of Aragon. The (Berber) Hafsids ruled Tunis, along with a fairly large tract of Northern Africa, until 1574, so they did quite well for themselves. As for the Crusades, well, the Ninth Crusade got going right after the Eighth collapsed. In fact, it was led by Prince Edward of England (later King Edward I, or Edward “Longshanks”), who had negotiated a deal with Charles to land a joint army at Acre in 1271. Charles, his army still reeling from disease and having difficulty making safe passage across the choppy Mediterranean, never showed up. Edward’s small force raided around the countryside and made an alliance with the Mongols, but ultimately it accomplished nothing, in part because there was really nothing left in the Holy Land for any Crusade to accomplish.

There was little enthusiasm for Crusading in Europe anymore, so it was hard to raise a large enough Crusading army to make any real headway, and the rump Crusader states couldn’t contribute much more than a friendly port to the effort (and even that was lost when Acre fell to the Mamluks in 1291). The Eighth-Ninth Crusade (they’re often grouped together since they happened almost simultaneously and were two parts of what was suppose to be a joint effort) was really the end of the line for the Crusading movement. There was a “Tenth Crusade” in 1365 that briefly captured the Egyptian city of Alexandria, but in reality that was a war between Cyprus and Egypt that got dressed up as a “Crusade” for PR reasons.