The Battle of Mansourah

Before first light on Tuesday 8 February 1250, the king’s plan was put into action. The Templars led the way, closely followed by a party of knights commanded by Louis’ brother Count Robert of Artois, which included the Englishman William Longsword, earl of Salisbury. It soon became clear that the ford was deeper than expected, requiring horses to swim midstream, and the steep, muddy banks on either side caused some crusaders to fall from their mounts and drown. Nonetheless, hundreds of Franks began to emerge on the far shore.

Then, just as the sun was rising, Robert of Artois made a sudden and unexpected decision to launch an assault, charging at the head of his men towards the Ayyubids’ riverside base. In the confusion, the Templars followed close behind, leaving Louis and the bulk of the strike force stranded in the ford. In this one instant, all hope of an ordered offensive evaporated. It is impossible to know what caused Robert to act so precipitously: perhaps he saw the chance for a surprise attack slipping away; or the promise of glory and renown may have spurred him on. As he rode off, those left behind–the king included–must have felt a mixture of shock, puzzlement and anger.

Even so, at first it looked as though Robert’s audacity might win the day. Ploughing into the unsuspecting Muslim camp, where many were still asleep, the count’s combined force of around 600 crusaders and Templars encountered only token resistance. Racing in among the enemy tents, they began the work of butchery. Fakhr al-Din, who was carrying out his morning ablutions, quickly threw on some clothes, mounted a horse and rode out, unarmed, into the tumult. Set upon by a party of Templars, he was cut down and slain by two mighty sword blows. Elsewhere the slaughter was indiscriminate. One Frankish account described how the Latins were ‘killing all and sparing none’, observing that ‘it was sad indeed to see so many dead bodies and so much blood spilt, except that they were enemies of the Christian faith’.

This brutal riot overran the Ayyubid encampment and, had Robert now elected to hold the field, reorder his forces and await Louis’ arrival, a stunning victory might well have been at hand. But this was not to be. With Muslim stragglers streaming towards Mansourah, the count of Artois made a woefully hot-headed decision to pursue them. As he moved to initiate a second charge, the Templar commander urged caution, but Robert chided him for his cowardice. According to one Christian account, the Templar replied: ‘Neither I nor my brothers are afraid…but let me tell you that none of us expect to come back, neither you, nor ourselves.’

Together they and their men rode the short distance south to Mansourah and raced into the town. There the folly of their courageous but suicidal decision immediately became apparent. On the open plain, even in the Ayyubid camp, the Christians had been afforded the freedom to manoeuvre and fight in close-knit groups. But once in among the town’s cramped streets and alleyways, that style of warfare proved impossible. Worse still, upon entering Mansourah, the Franks came face to face with the elite Bahriyya regiment quartered in the town. This was to be the Latins’ first deadly encounter with these ‘lions of battle’. A Muslim chronicler described how the mamluks fought with utter ruthlessness and resolve. Surrounding the crusaders ‘on every side’, attacking with spear, sword and bow, they ‘turned their crosses upside down’. Of the 600 or so who rode into Mansourah barely a handful escaped, and both Robert of Artois and William Longsword were killed.

Back on the banks of the Tanis, as yet unaware of the dreadful slaughter then just beginning in Mansourah, Louis was making a valiant attempt to retain control of his remaining troops, even as squadrons of mounted mamluks began racing forward to counter-attack. One crusader described how ‘a tremendous noise of horns, bugles and drums broke out’ as they drew near; ‘men shouted, horses neighed; it was horrible to see or hear’. But in the thick of the throng, the king held his nerve and slowly fought his way forward to establish a position on the southern edge of the river, opposite the crusader camp. Here the Franks rallied to the Oriflame and made a desperate attempt to hold their ground, while the mamluks loosed ‘dense clouds of bolts and arrows’ and rushed in to engage in hand-to-hand combat. The damage sustained on that day was appalling. One of Joinville’s knights took ‘a lance-thrust between his shoulders, which made so large a wound that the blood poured from his body as if from a bung-hole in a barrel’. Another received a blow from a Muslim sword in the middle of his face that cut ‘through his nose so that it was left dangling over his lips’. He carried on fighting, only to die later of his injuries. As for himself, John wrote: ‘I was only wounded by the enemy’s arrows in five places, though my horse was wounded in fifteen.’

The crusaders came close to routing–some tried to swim across the Tanis, and one eyewitness ‘saw the river strewn with lances and shields, and full of men and horses drowning in the water’. For those fighting alongside the king it seemed as if there was an endless stream of enemies to face, and ‘for every [Muslim] killed, another at once appeared, fresh and vigorous’. But through it all, Louis remained steadfast, refusing to be broken. Inspired by his resilience, the Christians endured wave upon wave of attack, until at last, at around three o’clock in the afternoon, the Muslim offensive slackened. As night fell, the battered Franks retained possession of the field.

Latin sources described this, the Battle of Mansourah, as a great crusader victory, and in one sense it was a triumph. Holding out against horrendous odds, the Franks had established a bridgehead south of the Tanis. But the cost of this achievement was immense. The deaths of Robert of Artois and his contingent, alongside a large proportion of the Templar host, deprived the expedition of many of its fiercest warriors. In any battles still to come, their loss would be keenly felt. And though the crusaders had crossed the river, the town of Mansourah stood before them still, barring their advance.

BETWEEN VICTORY AND DEFEAT

In the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Mansourah, Louis IX was confronted by a pressing strategic dilemma. In theory the king had two options: to cut his losses and fall back across the Tanis; or to dig in on the south bank, in the hope of somehow overcoming the Ayyubid enemy. Choosing the former would have been tantamount to conceding defeat, for though this cautious tactic might have permitted the crusade to regroup, the chances of mounting a second cross-river offensive, with a now weakened army, were limited. Louis must also have recognised that the shame and frustration of forsaking a bridgehead won through the sacrifice of so many Christian lives would crush Frankish spirits, probably beyond repair. That night, or at dawn the following morning, the king could have ordered a withdrawal, but this act would have signalled the failure of his Egyptian strategy, effectively marking the crusade’s end.

Given Louis’ earnest belief that his endeavour enjoyed divine sanction and support, and the constant pressure placed upon him to uphold the tenets of chivalry and honour the achievements of his crusading ancestors, it is hardly surprising that he rejected any thought of retreat. Instead, he immediately began to consolidate his position south of the river, scavenging materials from the overrun Muslim camp–including wood from the fourteen remaining engines–to improvise a stockade, while also digging a shallow defensive trench. At the same time, a number of small boats were lashed together to create a makeshift bridge across the Tanis, linking the old northern camp and the crusaders’ new outpost. By these measures, the Franks sought to prepare themselves for the storm of war that would surely come. And for now, Louis seems to have clung to the memory of the sudden victory at Damietta, convinced that Ayyubid resistance was about to collapse.

Three days later, the king’s hopes suffered a first blow. On Friday 11 February, the mamluks initiated a massive onslaught, spearheaded by the Bahriyya, which lasted from dawn till dusk. Thousands of Muslims surrounded the crusader camp, intent upon dislodging the Franks through aerial bombardment and bloody close-quarter combat. Christians later declared that they attacked ‘so persistently, horribly and dreadfully’ that many Latins from Outremer ‘said that they had never seen such a bold and violent assault’. The mamluks’ unbridled ferocity terrified the crusaders, one of whom wrote that they ‘hardly seemed human, but like wild beasts, frantic with rage’, adding that ‘they clearly thought nothing of dying’. Many Franks were carrying injuries from the Battle of Mansourah–Joinville, for example, was no longer able to don armour because of his wounds–but, nonetheless, they fought back manfully, aided by raking showers of crossbow bolts unleashed from the old camp across the river. Once again Louis kept his nerve and the Christians held their ground, but only through the sacrifice of hundreds more dead and injured, among them the master of the Templars, who had lost one eye on 8 February and now lost another and soon died from his wounds.

The Latins demonstrated immense fortitude in the two dreadful mêlèes endured that week. They also claimed to have killed some 4,000 Muslims in this second encounter. There are no figures in Arabic chronicles with which to confirm this count, but, even if accurate, these losses seem to have done little to dent the Ayyubids’ overwhelming numerical superiority. The crusader army had survived, albeit in a terribly weakened state. From this point onwards, it must have been obvious that they were in no position to mount an offensive of their own. At absolute best, they could hope to retain their precarious foothold on the south bank. And if Mansourah was not to be attacked, then how could the war be won?

In the days and weeks that followed, this question became ever more imperative. The Egyptians carried out regular probing attacks, but otherwise were content to confine the Christians within their stockade. By late February, with no possible hint of progress in the campaign, the atmosphere in the camp began to darken, and the crusaders’ predicament was only exacerbated by the outbreak of illness. This was partly linked to the enormous number of dead piled upon the plain and floating in the water. Joinville described seeing scores of bodies dragged down the Tanis by the current, until they piled up against the Franks’ bridge of boats, so that ‘all the river was full of corpses, from one bank to another, and as far upstream as one could cast a small stone’. Food shortages were also starting to take hold, and this led to scurvy.

In this situation, the supply chain down the Nile to Damietta became an essential lifeline. So far, the Christian fleet had been free to ferry goods to the camps at Mansourah, but this was about to change. On 25 February 1250, after long months of travel from Iraq, the Ayyubid heir to Egypt, al-Mu‘azzam Turanshah, arrived at the Nile Delta. He immediately brought new impetus to the Muslim cause. With the Nile flood long abated, the Mahalla Canal contained too little water to be entered to the south, but Turanshah had some fifty ships portaged across land to the canal’s northern reaches. From there, these vessels were able to sail down to the Nile, bypassing the Frankish fleet at Mansourah. Joinville admitted that this dramatic move ‘came as a great shock to our people’. Turanshah’s ploy was virtually identical to the trap sprung against the Fifth Crusade, and for Louis’ expedition it spelled disaster.

Over the next few weeks Ayyubid ships intercepted two Christian supply convoys heading south from Damietta. Cut off by this blockade, the crusaders soon found themselves in a hopeless position. A Latin contemporary described the awful sense of desperation that now gripped the army: ‘Everyone expected to die, no one supposed he could escape. It would have been hard to find one man in all that great host who was not mourning a dead friend, or a single tent or shelter without its sick or dead.’ By this stage, Joinville’s wounds had become infected. He later recalled lying in his tent in a feverish state; outside, ‘barber-surgeons’ were cutting away the rotting gums of those afflicted with scurvy, so they might eat. Joinville could hear the cries of those enduring this gruesome surgery resounding through the camp, and likened them to those ‘of a woman in labour’. Starvation also began to take a heavy toll among men and horses. Many Franks happily consumed carrion from dead horses, donkeys and mules, and later resorted to eating cats and dogs.46

The price of indecision

By early March 1250, conditions in the main Christian camp on the south bank of the Tanis were unbearable. One eyewitness admitted that ‘men said openly that all was lost’. Louis was largely responsible for this ruinous state of affairs. In mid-February, he had failed to make a realistic strategic assessment of the risks and possible rewards involved in maintaining the crusaders’ southern camp, holding on to the forlorn hope of Ayyubid disintegration. He also grossly underestimated the vulnerability of his Nile supply line and the number of troops needed to overcome the Egyptian army at Mansourah.

Some of these errors might have been mitigated had the king now acted with decisive resolution–recognising that his position was utterly untenable. The only logical choices remaining were immediate retreat or negotiation, but throughout the month of March Louis embraced neither. Instead, as his troops weakened and died all around him, the French monarch seems to have been paralysed by indecision–unable to face the fact that his grand Egyptian strategy had been thwarted. It was not until early April that Louis finally took action, but by this stage he was too late. Seeking to secure terms of truce with the Ayyubids, he seems to have offered to exchange Damietta for Jerusalem (raising yet another parallel with the Fifth Crusade). A deal of this sort might have been acceptable in February 1250, perhaps even in March, but by April the Muslim stranglehold was clear to all. Turanshah knew that he held a telling advantage and, sensing that victory was close at hand, rebutted Louis’ proposal. All that remained now to the Christians was to attempt a retreat north, across the forty miles of open ground to Damietta.

On 4 April orders were passed through the lines of the exhausted Latin host. The hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of sick and wounded were to be loaded on to boats and ferried down the Nile in the vain hope that some craft might evade the Muslim cordon. The remaining able-bodied crusaders were to march overland to the coast.

By this stage Louis himself was suffering with dysentery. Many leading Franks urged him to flee, either by ship or on horseback, so as to avoid capture. But in a valiant, if somewhat foolhardy, show of solidarity, the king refused to abandon his men. He had led them into Egypt; now he hoped to guide them back out to safety. An ill-conceived plan was hatched to escape under cover of darkness, leaving the tents standing in the southern camp so as not to warn the Muslims that an exodus was under way. Louis also ordered his engineer, Joscelin of Cornaut, to cut the ropes holding the bridge of boats in place once the Tanis had been crossed.

Unfortunately the whole scheme quickly fell apart. Most of the crusaders made it back to the north shore at dusk, but a group of Ayyubid scouts realised what was happening and raised the alarm. With enemy troops bearing down on his position, Joscelin seems to have lost his nerve and fled–certainly the bridge remained in place, and packs of Muslim soldiers crossed over to give chase. In the failing light, panic spread and a chaotic rout began. One Muslim eyewitness described how ‘we followed on their tracks in pursuit; nor did the sword cease its work among their backsides throughout the night. Shame and catastrophe were their lot.’

Earlier that same evening, John of Joinville and two of his surviving knights had boarded a boat and were waiting to push off. He now watched as wounded men, left in the confusion to fend for themselves in the old northern camp, started to crawl to the banks of the Nile, desperately trying to get on to any ship. He wrote: ‘As I was urging the sailors to let us get away, the Saracens entered the [northern] camp, and I saw by the light of the fires that they were slaughtering the poor fellows on the bank.’ Joinville’s vessel made it out into the river and, as the current took the craft downstream, he made good his escape.

By daybreak on 5 April 1250, the full extent of the disaster was apparent. On land, disordered groups of Franks were being keenly pursued by mamluk troops who had no interest in showing clemency. Over the next few days, many hundreds of retreating Christians were slain. One band got to within a day of Damietta, but were then surrounded and capitulated. Throughout the host, the great symbols of Frankish pride and indomitability fell: the Oriflame ‘was torn to pieces’ the Templar standard ‘trampled under foot’.

Riding north, the aged Patriarch Robert and Odo of Châteauroux somehow managed to elude capture, but, after the first twenty-four hours, shattered by their exertions, they were unable to go on. Robert later described in a letter how, by chance, they stumbled across a small boat tied up on the shore and eventually reached Damietta. Few were so fortunate. Most of the ships carrying the sick and injured were ransacked or burned in the water. John of Joinville’s boat made slow progress downstream, even as he beheld terrible scenes of carnage on the banks, but his craft was finally spotted. With four Muslim vessels bearing down on them, Joinville turned to his men, asking if they should land and try to fight their way to safety, or stay on the water and be captured. With disarming honesty, he described how one of his servants declared: ‘We should all let ourselves be slain, for thus we shall go to paradise’, but admitted that ‘none of us heeded his advice’. In fact, when his boat was boarded, Joinville lied to prevent his execution on the spot, saying that he was the king’s cousin. As a result he was taken into captivity.

In the midst of all this mayhem, King Louis became separated from most of his troops. He was now so stricken with dysentery that he had to have a hole cut in his breeches. A small group of his most loyal retainers made a brave attempt to lead him to safety, and eventually they took refuge in a small village. There, cowering, half dead, in a squalid hut, the mighty sovereign of France was captured. His daring attempt to conquer Egypt was at an end.

THE PENITENT KING

Louis IX’s errors of judgement at Mansourah–perhaps most notably his failure to learn fully from the mistakes of the Fifth Crusade–were now compounded by his own imprisonment. Never before had a king of the Latin West been taken captive during a crusade. This unparalleled disaster placed Louis and the bedraggled remnants of his army in an enormously vulnerable position. Seized by the enemy outright, with no chance to secure terms of surrender, the Franks found themselves at the mercy of Islam. Relishing the triumph, one Muslim witness wrote:

A tally was made of the number of captives, and there were more than 20,000; those who had drowned or been killed numbered 7,000. I saw the dead, and they covered the face of the earth in their profusion…. It was a day of the kind the Muslims had never seen; nor had they heard of its like.

Prisoners were herded into holding camps across the Delta and sorted by rank. According to Arabic testimony, Turanshah ‘ordered the ordinary mass to be beheaded’, and instructed one of his lieutenants from Iraq to oversee the executions–the grisly work apparently proceeded at the rate of 300 a night. Other Franks were offered the choice of conversion or death, while higher-ranking nobles, like John of Joinville, were held aside because of their economic value as hostages. Joinville suggested that King Louis was threatened with torture, being shown a gruesome wooden vice, ‘notched with interlocking teeth’, that was used to crush a victim’s legs, but this is not hinted at elsewhere. Despite his illness and the ignominious circumstances of his capture, the monarch seems to have held his dignity.

In fact, Louis’ circumstances were markedly improved by Turanshah’s own increasingly uncertain position at this time. Since his arrival at Mansourah, the Ayyubid heir had favoured his own soldiers and officials, thereby alienating many within the existing Egyptian army hierarchy–including the mamluk commander Aqtay and the Bahriyya. Keen to secure a deal that would consolidate his hold over the Nile region, Turanshah agreed to negotiate and, in mid-to late April, terms were settled. A ten-year truce was declared. The French king would be released in return for Damietta’s immediate surrender. A massive ransom of 800,000 gold bezants (or 400,000 livres tournois) was set for the 12,000 other Christians in Ayyubid custody.

In early May, however, it suddenly seemed that even the fulfilment of these punitive conditions might not bring the Christians to liberty, because the Ayyubid coup–so long awaited by Louis at Mansourah–finally took place. On 2 May Turanshah was murdered by Aqtay and a vicious young mamluk in the Bahriyya regiment, named Baybars. The ensuing power struggle initially saw Shajar al-Durr appointed as figurehead of Ayyubid Egypt. In reality, though, a seismic shift was now under way–one that would lead to the gradual but inexorable rise of the mamluks.

In spite of these dynastic upheavals, the Muslim repossession of Damietta went ahead as planned and Louis was released on 6 May 1250. He then set about collecting the funds with which to make an initial payment of half the ransom–200,000 livres tournois–177,000 of which was raised from the king’s war chest and the remainder taken from the Templars. This massive sum took two days to be weighed and counted. On 8 May Louis took ship to Palestine with his leading nobles, among them his two surviving brothers, Alphonse of Poitiers and Charles of Anjou, and John of Joinville. As yet, the vast majority of the crusaders remained in captivity.

In adversity’s wake

All Louis IX’s hopes of subjugating Egypt and winning the war for the Holy Land had ended in failure. But in many ways the true and remarkable depth of the French king’s crusading idealism only became apparent after this humiliating defeat. In similar circumstances, shamed by such an unmitigated debacle, many a Christian monarch would have sloped off back to Europe, turning his back on the Near East. Louis did the opposite. Realising that his men would likely remain rotting in Muslim captivity unless he continued to pressure the Egyptian regime for their release, the king chose to remain in Palestine for the next four years.

In this time, Louis served as overlord of Outremer and, by 1252, had secured the liberation of his troops. Working tirelessly, he set about the unglamorous task of bolstering the kingdom of Jerusalem’s coastal defences–overseeing the extensive refortification of Acre, Jaffa, Caesarea and Sidon. He also established a permanent garrison of one hundred Frankish knights in Acre, paid for by the French crown at an annual cost of around 4,000 livres tournois.

Given the ardent self-promotion typical of other crusade leaders–from Richard the Lionheart to Frederick II of Germany–Louis also showed an extraordinary willingness to accept responsibility for the dreadful setbacks experienced in Egypt. The king’s supporters tried their best to transfer the blame to Robert of Artois, emphasising that it had been his advice that led to the march on Mansourah in autumn 1249 and criticising the count’s reckless behaviour on 8 February 1250. But in a letter written in August 1250, Louis himself praised Robert’s bravery, describing him as ‘our very dear and illustrious brother of honoured memory’, and expressing the hope and belief that he had been ‘crowned as a martyr’. In the same document, the king explained the crusade’s failure and his own incarceration as divine punishments, meted out ‘as our sins required’.

Eventually, in April 1254, Louis travelled home to France. His mother Blanche had died two years earlier, and the Capetian realm had become increasingly unstable. The king returned from the Holy Land a changed man, and his later life was marked by extreme piety and austerity–wearing a hair shirt, he ate only meagre rations of the blandest food and engaged in seemingly constant prayer. At one point Louis even considered renouncing his crown and entering a monastery. He also harboured a heartfelt, lingering desire to launch another crusade, thereby, perhaps, to win redemption.

The Egyptian expedition reshaped King Louis’ life, but the events on the Nile also had a wider effect upon Latin Europe. The crusade of 1250 had been carefully planned, financed and supplied; its armies led by a paragon of Christian kingship. And still it had been subjected to an excoriating defeat. After one and a half centuries of almost unbroken failure in the war for the Holy Land, this latest reversal prompted an outpouring of doubt and despair in the West. Some even turned their backs on the Christian faith. In the second half of the thirteenth century–as Outremer’s strength continued to fade and new, seemingly invincible, enemies emerged on to the Levantine stage–the chances of mounting another crusade to the East seemed bleak indeed.

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