Teutonic Knights in the Holy Land


The Teutonic Knights wore white surcoats with a black cross, granted by Innocent III in 1205. A cross pattée was sometimes used. The motto of the Order was: “Helfen, Wehren, Heilen” (“Help, Defend, Heal”).

We know little about the first decades of the Teutonic Knights’ history. The most important event was a land transaction in 1200, when King Almarich II of Jerusalem sold them a small territory north of Acre. In addition to that and to their hospital in that port city, they had a few scattered holdings along the coast at Jaffa, Ascalon, and Gaza, and a few estates on Cyprus. Only later, after the acquisition of the Joscelin legacy, did the Teutonic Knights have a significant territorial base in the Holy Land; and even that was challenged by a twenty-four year lawsuit. The suspicion and jealousy of the established military orders, combined with their prestige and power, made it difficult for a new organisation to fasten a foot firmly in the soil of Palestine.

So small were the Teutonic Knights’ possessions and so insignificant were their military contributions in the early years that we know nothing more about the first three masters than their names. They must have earned a good reputation among the crusaders and made a number of valuable friends, because the order was able to expand rapidly after Hermann von Salza was elected master in 1210. This man, brilliant as he was, could have done little if his predecessors had not handed on to him an efficient and respected organisation, with strong discipline, and a larger number of knights than were needed to protect their estates around Acre.

Hermann von Salza

Hermann von Salza was an empire-builder of the stamp of a Henry Ford or a John D. Rockefeller, who saw opportunities where others saw only problems, and who knew how to work within an existing system to create a new type of empire, using the ability and capital of other men to achieve goals that no one else had dreamed of trying. Because he did this, the history of the Teutonic Knights really begins not with the Third Crusade, but with Hermann’s election in 1210.

Hermann von Salza was the offspring of a Thuringian ministeriale family – that is, they were considered knights, but were not quite nobles; generations back some commoner ancestor had improved his rank through courage, competence and loyalty, but his red blood had failed to turn sufficiently blue. In an era when worldly success depended upon good marriages and relatives high in the church, Hermann’s parents were neither wealthy nor of high birth. Consequently he could not expect to advance far if he followed his father’s career as a secular knight. For ministeriales the most that could be hoped for was to acquire another office or two and make a slightly better marriage; to choose a religious life and become a prior, or perhaps a minor bishop or abbot; or to emigrate to the east, where Polish dukes welcomed capable warriors and administrators. Hermann von Salza joined these roads to build his order a highway to fame. In joining the Teutonic Knights he combined the military and the religious careers – and later he would send his military order to east-central Europe.

It was fortunate that he chose a small military order, because he could not have attained high office in one of the older or more prestigious orders. Although his amiable personality and diplomatic talents would have made an impression anywhere, they would have been insufficient to overcome the handicap of his ministeriale birth. However, within the Teutonic Order’s small membership his abilities stood out prominently, and he was elected master at an early age, probably while in his thirties. He was one of those rare people who inspire instant trust in their honesty and ability – if he had not had that characteristic he could not have become the confidant of pope and emperor, much less have served as a mediator in bitter disputes between seemingly irreconcilable enemies.

There was little in his early career to suggest his later prominence. He probably attended the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, but certainly did not speak publicly; he accompanied the young emperor, Friedrich II (1194 – 1250), to Nuremberg in December 1216; and he made arrangements to send a small body of knights to defend the frontiers of the kingdom of Hungary against nomadic Cuman raiders. This obscurity evolved into fame during the Fifth Crusade.

Hermann von Salza joined the expedition that set out in 1217 from Cyprus to Damietta, the Egyptian port that protected the rich Nile delta and the route to Cairo. This crusade promised to be that decisive success which had eluded crusaders for so long. This was partly because the target – Egypt – was vulnerable, and partly because so many of the expedition’s knights were furnished by the military orders. As a result there was initial agreement about the strategy and tactics that had been lacking in recent efforts, especially during the ill-fated Fourth Crusade which had been diverted against Constantinople – to the everlasting harm and embarrassment of Christendom. Even so, the lack of a single, dominant leader was a major weakness of the crusader forces. Hermann stood out among the grand masters less because of his ability or the number of knights under his direct command than because the Germans who contributed so much money and so many men to the expedition looked to him for advice and leadership. Hermann used the opportunity wisely to obtain privileges and donations for his order.

Hermann von Salza served personally at Damietta. For two years the Christian and Moslem worlds fought desperately, each side bringing up reinforcements from farther and farther away, until it seemed that there would be no one left to call upon. At last the fortress fell, and the crusaders proceeded up the Nile toward Cairo. That offensive ultimately proved unsuccessful. Though everyone called upon the emperor to come to their aid, Friedrich II found plausible reasons to delay his departure. As negotiations dragged on, one by one the crusaders returned home. Though the Christian leaders could have obtained access to Jerusalem in return for surrendering Damietta, the papal legate stubbornly refused to settle for anything less than total victory. Discovering prophecies of a mythic King David and Prester John, tying them together with rumours of a great king threatening the Moslem rear (perhaps Genghis Khan, whose Mongol hordes were overrunning all his neighbours’ territories), and promising an easy victory over the disorganised Egyptians, he persuaded the grand masters of the Templars, the Hospitallers, and the Teutonic Knights to undertake a final offensive in 1221 that became trapped in the waterways of the Delta. The result was a total defeat, the loss of almost the entire army and the city of Damietta. Hermann was among the prisoners. He was soon ransomed, but he had reason to conclude that his order’s future did not lie solely in the Holy Land.

Although many blamed the disaster on Friedrich II, who had not honoured his vow to bring an army to Egypt, Hermann von Salza was not among their number. Hermann was a Hohenstaufen loyalist, at least as far as his obligations to the Church allowed. He was in Germany in 1223 and 1224 on imperial business, negotiating for the release of the Danish king, Waldemar II, who had been kidnapped by Count Heinrich of Schwerin, an event that was drawing all the northern states toward civil war. Hermann, who undoubtedly knew the count from the Fifth Crusade, arranged for the king’s ransom. Part of this complicated agreement was a promise from the Danish monarch that he would participate in Friedrich II’s forthcoming campaign. Although the emperor had not gone to Damietta when the pope pleaded with him to save the crusaders, now Friedrich II was soliciting volunteers for an expedition that would revenge all previous defeats. As a prominent imperial spokesman Hermann was able to establish the Teutonic Knights in the public mind as the guiding force of the German crusading movement. Although he had earlier sent a few knights to defend the Carpathian passes into Hungary from nomadic raiders, he did not wish to become distracted by intrigues there or by an intriguing proposal from Duke Conrad of Masovia (1187 – 1247) to send troops to protect the northern borders of Poland against attacks by pagan Prussians.

Hermann von Salza felt the new urgency to support the crusade in the Holy Land fully and without hesitation. The Fifth Crusade had barely failed in its attack on Egypt, but it had failed, and he understood that imperial interests would not have been advanced by Friedrich abandoning Italy to his enemies at that critical moment. Now Sicily had been pacified. More importantly, the emperor had arranged to wed the heiress of the kingdom of Jerusalem, whose lands would come into his hands only if he went to the Holy Land and took possession. When the emperor announced that he would fulfil his crusading vow in 1226 or 1227, the membership of the Teutonic Knights realised that if they provided a large contingent of knights for the imperial crusade they stood to benefit from Friedrich’s gratitude. In the matter of crusading no man stood closer to the emperor, either as friend or counsellor, than Hermann von Salza, who knew that Friedrich rewarded his friends as much for what they might do for him in the future as for their past loyalty and service. Therefore Hermann made it clear that the emperor could anticipate full co-operation from the Teutonic Knights. The membership of the order, however, was looking forward to sharing in a great victory over Christendom’s Islamic foes, and they were not interested in diverting significant resources into another Eastern European fiasco.

The Holy Land

The imperial fleet that sailed from Brindisi in 1227 returned to port immediately because an epidemic had claimed the life of Count Louis of Thuringia (Thüringen) and stricken many other crusaders. Although the emperor was excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX for failing to press on to the Holy Land, Friedrich II did not hurry to Rome to seek a reconciliation – he knew the aged pope too well to believe that this could be obtained except at an exorbitant cost. Instead, he re-embarked his troops as soon as they were healthy, apparently not caring that the papal condemnation would give his enemies in the Holy Land the excuse they needed to refuse him aid. Friedrich miscalculated. His failure to resolve the dispute with the pope quickly doomed his crusade to failure. Everywhere he met a sullen reception, and practically every noble and cleric in the Holy Land declined to participate in any campaign led by an excommunicate. Under these circumstances Friedrich was drawn even closer to the Teutonic Order than would have been the case. Because Hermann von Salza’s order remained loyal and assisted him in every way, he gave its members special consideration in Jerusalem after the city was recovered through the ensuing peace treaty, and he gave them the toll receipts from Acre.

As long as he remained in the Holy Land with his army, the emperor could do much as he pleased, but he could not remain there long. Grand Master Hermann, realising this, avoided antagonising the local nobles or the other military orders. In that way he saved his order from the reprisals that followed when Friedrich II left Acre in 1229 under a shower of rotten fruit and vegetables; and he arranged for a speedy removal of the excommunication which had been placed on the order for its support of Friedrich’s crusade. Still, all was not well in the Holy Land – wherever the imperial garrisons were small or isolated, they were attacked by the Christian nobles and prelates who were angry about Friedrich’s failure to help them in the past, about his policies in Sicily, and about his quarrel with the pope, considering him nothing more than an atheistic fortune-hunter.

Hermann von Salza accompanied the unfortunate emperor back to Italy and helped to reconcile him with Pope Gregory IX. He had given up all hope of establishing his order permanently and solely in the Holy Land. Quickly he sent off the first contingent of knights to Prussia. His estimate of the situation in the Holy Land proved correct. By 1231 most of the imperial garrisons were expelled, and it was only a matter of thirteen more years until Jerusalem was recaptured by the Moslems. After that the Christians in the Holy Land stood on the defensive, awaiting the inevitable attack that would deprive them of their last footholds.

The Teutonic Knights did not give up their interest in the Mediterranean – far from it. Their knights were more necessary for providing a garrison for Acre than ever before. But Acre was a port city, hot, humid, and crowded, not a suitable place to live year in and year out. Knights flourished in the countryside, where the climate was healthier and there were opportunities to ride and to hunt, where there were fields and fodder for the horses; in addition knights needed a dependable supply of locally grown food and wine. In 1220 they had purchased a run-down castle in Galilee from the Hennenberg family, and now they began to repair it, using the tolls from Acre to finance the work. They named the huge fortress Montfort, probably deriving both the name and the architecture from a castle their members had built in Transylvania; its German name was Starkenberg (Strong Mountain), and, indeed, it was sited in a location that was very difficult to assault. However, compared to other crusader castles it was not a formidable defensive post, and was probably more valued for its handsome guest house and remarkable view over the wooded hills on one side and the Acre plain on the other than for its contribution to the defence of the Holy Land. The surrounding lands were the richest in northern Galilee, and the order added to them in 1234 and 1249, but the castle was too far away for the garrison to protect the farmers from raiders. Crusaders assisted in enlarging the fortifications in 1227, and Friedrich II contributed money in 1228. A second castle was built three miles to the south, again perched on a rocky ridge. The architecture of both structures was thoroughly German, with little influence from the neighbouring castles: a massive keep dominated, with towers connected by a strong curtain wall.

The real weakness of crusader castles in the Holy Land was the inability to protect the surrounding farming communities that provided food and labour. Once Moslem armies had carried off or killed the local people, and burned their settlements, the castles became isolated islands in a deserted land. Without hay or pastures, the knights could not maintain their horses properly, and without horses they were ineffective as warriors.

Although the Teutonic Knights lost Montfort in 1271, they kept a considerable force in Acre until 1291, when the combined forces of all the military orders were driven from that last stronghold too. The grand master withdrew to Venice, where he could continue to direct the crusade against the Moslems. Only in 1309 did he move to Prussia and abandon the war in the East.

One of the enduring controversies inside the Teutonic Order was whether resources should be concentrated on defending the Holy Land, or used in the Baltic, or nourished to provide services in the Holy Roman Empire. Throughout the thirteenth century the knights in the Holy Land jealously guarded their pre-eminence, denouncing grand masters who spent too much time ‘abroad’ (outside the Holy Land) or who wavered from loyalty to the Hohenstaufen cause; soon enough the German master, Prussian master, and Livonian master were eloquently championing the interests of their regions too. One grand master after another endured criticism and frustration in attempting to reconcile the demands of regional power blocs and to avoid the scandal of schism. This office was not one to be held by the thin-skinned or impatient.

Only slowly, therefore, did the Teutonic Knights shift their attention and resources away from the Holy Land to the new crusades in the Baltic. Jerusalem long remained their primary commitment, both actively and financially, and only the loss of Acre in 1291 caused them to reluctantly and slowly abandon all hope of regaining the holy city. The military order had goals that were more important than either lands or power, but one cannot separate motives easily or neatly. Religious idealism, superstition, ambition and duties combined in complex ways to prevent the knights from seeing clearly that their duties were best performed against the pagans of north-eastern Europe.

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