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Siege of Acre 1291 – Guillaume de Clermont Defending Ptolemais from the Saracen invasion. The fall of Acre signaled the end of the Jerusalem crusades. No effective crusade was raised to recapture the Holy Land afterwards, though talk of further crusades was common enough. By 1291, other ideals had captured the interest and enthusiasm of the monarchs and nobility of Europe and even strenuous papal efforts to raise expeditions to retake the Holy Land met with little response.

Response to the Loss of Acre

The fall of Acre in 1291 moved the West. The reaction was not as strong as that which followed Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187 but it was noteworthy just the same in that it influenced the most committed advocates of mission to Muslims to think again about the need for crusade to rescue the Holy Land. The reason lies in disappointment that God had deserted His people and given victory to the Mamluks. A sense of divine purpose had run through crusading history, and now almost every foothold had been lost in the Holy Land and the associated states. Other strongpoints had already gone, but Acre was the very last of importance, being well known due to its size, its massive walls, its burgeoning population and its commercial and industrial life.

Appeals for money and warriors in the West had largely gone unheeded because of the growth of nation-states, their conflicts and the immense costs of up-to-date warfare. Edward I of England, before he came to the throne, was a notably committed crusader; when he became king, however, he was too preoccupied with problems at home to consider going to the Holy Land.

The New Force: Philip the Fair (1285–1314)

Popes in the late thirteenth century were terrified of a renewal of the Hohenstaufen threat to exert power and to put intolerable pressure on the independence of the papacy in Rome through co-ordinated action from Germany, northern Italy and Sicily. One French pope decided to back a safe ally, Charles of Anjou, brother of King Louis, to take south Italy and Sicily and destroy the last of the Hohenstaufen ‘brood of vipers’. This Charles proceeded to do, killing Frederick II’s bastard son Manfred in battle and ruthlessly executing Frederick’s sixteen-year-old grandson in Naples but his dictatorial attitude angered rebels in Sicily, who called in the maritime power of Aragon against him. Peter III of Aragon, married to Manfred’s daughter, took up the Hohenstaufen claim and was accused of ‘impeding’ the Holy Land crusade, in the phrase once deployed by Innocent III at the start of his pontificate. A French army, equipped with the crusading indulgence under King Philip III of France, embarked on a disastrous venture overland against Aragon, only to find its supplies ruined by Peter’s fleet. Beset by hunger and disease, the French were forced into a humiliating retreat over the Pyrenees. Philip III, who had to be carried in a litter, succumbed to illness at Perpignan in 1285. His son Philip, called the Fair because of his good looks, had accompanied him in his humiliation and in consequence bore a deep hostility towards the political crusading of the popes. Despite being the grandson of St Louis, he only played with the notion of a Holy Land crusade and his reign damaged both the papacy and the traditional crusading ideal.

The pontificate of the eccentric Celestine V, who resigned after nine months, was followed by that of a highly capable administrator and canonist, Boniface VIII (1294–1303). He brought about a workable solution to the long Sicilian crisis and called a Jubilee in Rome with attached indulgences and improved papal finances; but he had his dark side, manipulating a land deal for his family, the Caetani, and calling an expedition against their traditional enemies, the Colonna, a crusade. Coarse and self-willed, Boniface’s casual remarks were damaging to the papacy’s reputation and were ruthlessly exploited by Philip the Fair’s ministers to discredit him and put pressure on his successors. A jurisdictional and financial conflict in France escalated dramatically as Boniface used papal powers to excommunicate one of Philip’s ministers, William of Nogaret, and issued the Bull Unam Sanctam, with the most extreme claims for papal powers ever made. William, with Sciarra Colonna, personally attacked Boniface, bursting into his private family palace in the hill town of Anagni, intending to arrest the pope and transport him by force to France to answer trumped up charges of corruption, simony, blasphemy and heresy. The pope met them with dignity and was liberated by his faithful townspeople but he had been profoundly humiliated and died within a month, probably from a stroke.

This was far from the end of Philip’s campaign to subject the papacy to his will. He and his servants knew inquisition procedures well and were ready, it was clear, to exhume Boniface, put him on trial, convict him and burn his body as a heretic. The potential damage to the reputation of the papacy was one no pope could ignore.

Events split the cardinals. Some wanted to see a settlement with Philip; others supported the papacy and were unwilling to make a deal. After the short pontificate of a Dominican friar, an eleven-month interregnum followed with such deadlock that the only way to resolve the long crisis appeared to be to elect an outsider and so the Sacred College found a candidate in a Gascon, technically the subject of Edward I of England, Bertrand of Got, Archbishop of Bordeaux. Suffering from cancer, he was unable to work continuously, being overwhelmed repeatedly with incapacitating pains. He had intended to be crowned in Rome as Clement V but was not well enough to go there and instead was crowned at Lyon; thereafter he and his curia moved restlessly between Lyon, Poitiers and Bordeaux before finally settling in the small town of Avignon in 1309. Allegiances within the Sacred College were finally settled as he appointed Gascons as cardinals. The papacy came to be seen as French and every pope after Clement was French until the Great Schism in 1378. The papacy in consequence lost its international calibre.

Jacques de Molay sentenced to the stake in 1314, from the Chronicle of France or of St Denis (fourteenth century). Note the shape of the island, representing the Île de la Cité (Island of the City) in the Seine, where the executions took place.

James of Molay and the Fate of the Templars

James of Molay, last Grand Master of the Templars, a shrewd, straightforward military man and a good organiser, was elected after the death of his predecessor in Acre. He stemmed losses in finance and personnel, took up residence in Cyprus and combined with the Grand Master of the Hospitallers and the brother of King Henry of Cyprus to launch the last of the true Holy Land crusades, bringing into play the Christian enclave of Cilician Armenia and the Islamic convert and enemy of the Mamluks, Ghazan, Mongol Ilkahn of Persia. The deal was to recover Jerusalem and split territory between Christian settlers and the Mongol power using Armenia and the Mongols to expel the Mamluk garrisons. In an initial action in the winter of 1300–01, Cypriots, Templars and Hospitallers landed on the mainland at Tortosa from the island of Ruad and for some twenty-five days ravaged and took Muslims to be sold into slavery. The crusade project failed only when Ghazan, although he had taken Aleppo and all of Damascus bar the citadel, called off his attack, having grown uneasy about Mamluk strength and the lack of fodder for his horses. Templars retired to Ruad, holding themselves ready for another assault, but were overwhelmed by a Mamluk counterattack in 1302–3. It was the last Holy Land crusade to set foot on the mainland. Although Peter I of Cyprus contrived to take a substantial force in 1365 to capture Alexandria, he could not hold it and never got to Jerusalem.

Summoned by Pope Clement V to join with the Hospitaller Grand Master to discuss reform, economies and the merger of the two Orders, James left Cyprus in 1306. As a traditionalist, he feared that the Hospitallers would dominate the Templars and was wary of the potentially deadly hostile force of Philip the Fair. Clement had to put off seeing him for many months. It was at Poitiers that James of Molay approached Philip with his unease about rumours of accusations against his order and it was there that he spoke with Clement, who in September launched an inquiry of his own. Trapped in France by Clement’s illness, James was lured to Paris by Philip on 12 October 1307 to act as pall-bearer at the funeral of Philip’s sister-in-law. But all was swept aside in Philip’s next, catastrophic move on Friday 13 October – a date it was said, so inscribed in folk memory as to make Friday the 13th in any month ill omened – when James and all the French Templars were arrested simultaneously in the early hours.

Philip made use of the inquisitor of France who had authority to investigate heresy and sorcery, while deploying his own men, often civil lawyers, propagandising against the Templars and using torture. A farrago of accusations emerged, corresponding to all the fears and tensions unleashed by the fall of Acre and lurking in a society under strain. Renegades, men with grievances, rogues set the ball rolling, and what followed was illogical and incongruous as well as gross exaggeration by scheming interrogators probing the suggestion that the Templars had betrayed Christendom to the Muslims.

Nonplussed by events, old by medieval standards, perhaps promised release if he confessed, James of Molay made a fatal mistake on 24 October, when he admitted sinful behaviour – probably no more than masculine horseplay – at an initiation ritual which got out of hand at his reception into the Order forty-two years earlier, and urged others to confess as he had.

The Chinon Parchment, recently discovered in the Vatican Archives, shows Clement’s efforts over three days in August 1308 to rescue the reputation of James of Molay and leading Templars imprisoned in the castle of Chinon and thus free them from Philip’s clutches. Contriving to infiltrate three of his cardinals into the prison to carry out a secret interrogation, he established the true nature of the initiation ceremony and acquitted James and the others of heresy. But Clement was too alarmed at the prospect of the exhumation of Boniface and the danger of the schism in the Church to make known the acquittal and absolution of James and the others. It stayed secret and the victims were left to their fate.

There followed a long wrestling match between Philip and Clement, who attempted to preserve his own control over proceedings and prevent Philip from exhuming and burning Boniface. Philip’s motive was plain. He needed money: Templars were rich bankers, and Philip had engaged in expensive warfare compelling him to debase the coinage. Kings outside France where torture was not used, found the accusations unconvincing but did not feel able to intervene.

In the midst of the struggles Clement, a sincere crusader, attempted to maintain the call to rescue the Holy Land and summoned a General Council at Vienne, in Dauphiné, which sat between 1311 and 1312 in order to bring about church reform and launch a full-scale expedition. Popes before him had engaged too often in political crusading and the Council did not believe in Clement’s motives, thinking his intentions mercenary. Some new thinking about crusades for Jerusalem emerged in Clement’s time. Marino Sanudo Torsello, a member of the Venetian aristocracy, wrote the most thorough and expert analysis of the means required to destroy Egypt’s economic power in preparation for a general crusade but it fell foul both of the unwillingness to cut off trade and of the preoccupations of Clement’s successor, John XXII, who was devoted to restoring papal power in Italy.

Some Templars made a last heroic stand for their Order. In May 1310 fifty-four Templars in France withdrew their confessions and were promptly burned alive as relapsed heretics outside Paris by the Archbishop of Sens, an associate of Philip. That led the surviving Knights to accept guilt and receive pensions. Finally in 1314, James of Molay and Geoffrey of Charnay, former Preceptor of Normandy, also withdrew their confessions. In a rage and without authority Philip had them publicly burned alive for relapse on an island in the Seine. Their courage moved onlookers. But by that time Philip had won. In his attack on the Templars he was targeting rich bankers, smearing them and forcing Clement to suppress them, which the pope did at Vienne on the grounds that their reputation had been destroyed. Their possessions were transferred to the Hospitallers, from whom Philip extracted the money by charging massive ‘expenses’.

Philip’s actions caused major damage. By destroying the Templars he took away devoted manpower committed to the crusade and his ruthless propaganda discredited the papacy and created an atmosphere of fear of the Muslim world and of the inroads of Satan into Christendom. Political crusading was a morass which undermined popes and Philip made everything worse. The effects of his reign lasted long after his death in 1314. The public still cared about crusade and had a long tradition of popular agitation going back to the Pastoureaux working to rescue St Louis but a society lacking means of interpretation of natural disasters looked to conspiracy explanations and the general bête noire of the Muslims.

In 1321 in the south of France another alleged conspiracy was uncovered between Jews, lepers and Muslims said to be bent on poisoning water supplies used by Christians. Secret meetings had been held, it was alleged, and letters and magic powder sent by the Muslim kings of Granada and Tunis. The new king of France, Philip V, susceptible to such rumours, listened and Bernard Gui the inquisitor investigated. There were pogroms and burnings of lepers.

Damage to the papacy was also long-lasting. Popes had been the leaders and initiators of the crusade for Jerusalem, but now their reputation was gone. The papal residence at Avignon after 1309 was described as the Babylonish Captivity and there were long campaigns fought to bring order to Italy and a return to Rome. In the Great Schism (1378–1414) popes and antipopes were busy attacking and condemning one another and were distracted from crusading.

A painting showing Maltese galleys capturing an Ottoman vessel in the Malta Channel in 1652.

Crusade at Sea: The Naval Role of the Hospitallers

While the Templars underwent their long Passion, their sister Order secured a new role. An invitation to the Hospitallers from a landholder on the island of Rhodes to move there and help defend his interests against marauding Genoese corsairs secured the support of Clement V for its conquest, the nominal ruler being the Byzantine emperor. Relations between the West and Byzantium were poor and Clement authorised the Grand Master to make war, treating the Byzantines as schismatics and allowing him crusade subsidies. The Grand Master, Fulk of Villaret, nephew of the Grand Master who had collaborated with James of Molay, finally conquered Rhodes in 1309–10.

A rich, manageable territory with a deep-water port and old Byzantine fortifications, Rhodes had good agricultural land and ample food and water and lay 250 miles from Cyprus, within sight of the new, growing Muslim power in Anatolia. The Order adapted to a maritime function, harassing Muslim shipping and raiding the Anatolian coastline, combining naval warfare with their traditional land fighting. An indigenous population worked the land and valued the Order’s success in bringing peace and treating the sick in their hospital. Knights, sergeants, mercenaries and slaves, together with the indigenous population forming a militia in emergencies, created a fighting garrison of some 7,500, strong enough to withstand a siege. Under the Hospitallers Rhodes distinguished itself as it fought off the fleet and army of the Ottoman sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, victor over Constantinople in 1453, when he attempted to end the Knights’ raids and assaulted the island for eighty-nine days in 1480. Grievously outnumbered and subject to the monster cannon of the time, a last stand by the Grand Master, Peter d’Aubusson, on a walkway of the fortification called the Tower of Italy as it was on the verge of being taken, turned the battle. An early printed book with engravings by one of the Knights, Pierre Caoursin, recorded events of the siege and its aftermath, increasing the prestige of the order and boosting recruitment.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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