The Battle of La Forbie, also known as the Battle of Harbiyah, was fought in 1244 between the allied armies (drawn from the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the crusading orders, the breakaway Ayyubids of Damascus, Homs and Kerak) and the Egyptian army of the Ayyubid Sultan as-Salih Ayyub, reinforced with Khwarezmian mercenaries. the Egyptians was victorious over their enemies. Art by Zvonimir Grbasic for Medieval Warfare VI.5
The rebels rode off with Count Henry of Bar in command. The
king held a council of war, where it was decided that at first light the main
army would march south in the hope that they would be able to protect these
From Jaffa the rebels rode all night, swept past Ascalon,
reached the brook that formed the frontier of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, crossed
it, and continued along the coast in the direction of Gaza. It was a bright
moonlit night, very beautiful, and every shrub or tree stood out clearly among
the shimmering sand dunes. They took no precautions at all. They spread cloths
on the sand and sat down for supper, while others slept and still others groomed
their horses. They had sent out no patrols and they were totally unaware that
they were being watched at every moment. Suddenly there was an uproar. The
Egyptian army came out above the dunes, bowmen and slingers shouting at the top
of their voices.
Even then it was possible to make decisions. Gauthier of
Brienne and the duke of Burgundy believed they could still fight their way back
to Ascalon. Count Henry of Bar and Amaury of Montfort argued that they must
stand firm, because only the cavalry could escape and they had no intention of
abandoning the foot soldiers. Gauthier of Brienne and the duke of Burgundy and
a small handful of knights slipped away. The rest fought under appalling
conditions. There were wild skirmishes in the sand. Count Henry used his bowmen
well, but they were no match for the enemy. Amaury of Montfort saw a steep
passage between two dunes where he thought he could take shelter from the enemy
bowmen. He threw his cavalry into the passage defended by Egyptian infantry.
The cavalry cut down most of the infantry, but at the other end of the passage
the Egyptian cavalry was waiting for them. The Egyptian cavalry then performed
a classic maneuver. They fled, with the Frankish knights in full pursuit. Then
the Egyptians blocked the passage with their infantry, and their cavalry swung
around and charged the knights.
This was the end of the battle of the dunes. For miles
around the sands were strewn with the dead. Count Henry of Bar was killed,
Amaury of Montfort was taken prisoner, and eighty knights were captured.
Altogether twelve hundred Crusaders were killed and half as many were taken
There was madness in the moonlit battle, and when the king
of Navarre reached Ascalon and met Gauthier of Brienne and the duke of
Burgundy, he quickly became aware that everything had happened as he thought it
might—a disaster that was totally senseless and totally explicable.
At Ascalon he held a council of war which ended in tentative
decisions: to advance, to retreat, to wait for more information? What happened,
perhaps inevitably, was that they did all these things. Finally the king
decided to advance across the brook in order to help the scattered fugitives.
Then he advanced deeper to see the battlefield and to make contact with the
enemy, and when the enemy pulled back, the king’s forces withdrew all the way
back to Acre. The king himself was inclined to attack Gaza, but the Templars
and Hospitallers pointed out sensibly that the enemy would probably cut the
throats of all the prisoners if they did so. The prisoners had become hostages
for the good behavior of the king’s army.
It has been suggested that the king of Navarre had no reason
to retreat to Acre, and it might have been better if he had strengthened the
fortifications of Ascalon, or captured Gaza, or made one last effort to take
possession of Jerusalem. The Rothelin manuscript, a document that details these
events, describes the misery of the people as they watched the great cavalcade
on its way back to Acre. “In all the places they passed through there was great
weeping and great crying out because so many great Christians were returning
after having accomplished nothing at all.” It was precisely because of this
sense of futility that they returned to Acre, the largest and most powerful city
belonging to the Crusaders.
There was also another reason for returning to Acre. The
interminable wars between Damascus and Cairo were about to begin again with
undiminished fury. As-Salih Ayub had taken refuge in Kerak with al-Nasir Daud,
King of Transjordania. His uncle, as-Salih Ismail, had Damascus completely
under his control. Suddenly in May 1240, with the assassination of al-Adil II
and the return of as-Salih Ayub to the Egyptian throne with the help of the
king of Transjordania, it was clear that there would be a fight to the death
between uncle and nephew. By moving back to Acre, the king of Navarre was
placing himself at an equal psychological distance from Cairo and Damascus so
that he could bargain with both of them, extract concessions from them, and
perhaps arbitrate between them.
The political map of the Saracenic Near East at this time
showed remarkable fragmentation. Between Damascus and Cairo there were about a
dozen principalities. Some were at war with one another; others were searching
for allies; still others were quite capable of abandoning their alliances at a
moment’s notice. In this way it happened that Muzaffar, Prince of Hama, having
fought a border war with the prince of Aleppo, sent an ambassador to Acre,
promising that, in exchange for help against Aleppo, he would give the use of
his castles to the Christians and all his people would become Christians. The
prince of Hama wanted the King of Navarre to send troops to his aid, or at
least to make a show of force. The King of Navarre led his troops northward
along the coastal road to Tripoli, and he seems to have intimidated the prince
of Aleppo. Although the prince of Hama reneged on his promise to let the
Crusaders use his castles and convert his subjects, there were indications that
more useful alliances would soon be formed.
A few weeks later, when the king of Navarre’s army was
encamped at Sephoria in the Galilee, an ambassador arrived from as-Salih Ismail
of Damascus with an offer to surrender the castles of Belfort, Tiberias, and
Safed, and large areas of the Galilee and the hinterland of Sidon, in exchange
for an agreement that the Christians would make no truce with Egypt and that
they would defend Jaffa and Ascalon against the Egyptian forces. The king of
Navarre agreed to these terms, and marched to Jaffa, where, strangely enough,
his army was met by a large detachment of the army of Damascus.
What happened at Jaffa has never been satisfactorily
explained. The army of Damascus seems to have melted away after some desultory
fighting with the Crusaders, who had meanwhile occupied most of the Galilee and
its powerful fortresses. Then as-Salih Ayub, now sultan of Egypt, sent an
embassy to win the Franks over to him, with an offer to release all the
prisoners taken in the moonlit battle at Gaza and to confirm that the Crusaders
had possession of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Like Frederick II, the king of Navarre had accomplished by
diplomacy what he had failed to accomplish by force of arms. The Kingdom of
Jerusalem had been restored to its historical limits, except for the regions
around Nablus and Hebron. The king had accomplished his purpose. He rode to
Jerusalem to pay his respects to the tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,
and then returned to Acre for a last meeting with the barons before sailing
back to Spain. Somewhere in the Mediterranean, his small fleet would pass the
much larger fleet of Richard, Earl of Cornwall and brother of King Henry III of
England, who would take the king of Navarre’s place as the acknowledged leader
of the continuous Crusade.
Richard, Earl of Cornwall, was one of those curious men who
go through life wearing great titles they can never live up to. His uncle was
Richard the Lion Heart; his father the lackluster King John; his mother
Isabelle of Angoulême, who after her husband’s death married Hugh of Lusignan,
Prince of the Galilee; his sister, another Isabelle, was married to the Emperor
Frederick. He therefore had wide family connections with the Holy Land, and
since he came as a kind of royal legate on behalf of his brother, King Henry
III of England, he seemed to be invested with kingly power and the barons of
Jerusalem accepted him as they had accepted the king of Navarre.
He was intelligent and affable, and he had very few
illusions about the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In one of his letters home he wrote,
“In the Holy Land peace has been replaced by discord, unity by division,
concord by civic loathing. The two fraternal orders, although they were brought
into being in defence of their common mother, are swollen with pride because
they have an excess of wealth, and they quarrel mercilessly in her breast.”
Apparently the relations between the Hospitallers and the Templars were
strained to the breaking point. The Hospitallers were concentrated at Acre, the
Templars at Jaffa. The Hospitallers favored Egypt, while the Templars were in
alliance with Damascus. Richard, who had brought eight hundred knights with
him, represented a third force, which held the balance of power.
November saw a turning point. Richard threw in his lot with
the Hospitallers and came to an understanding with Sultan as-Salih Ayub of
Egypt, who confirmed the agreements reached with the king of Navarre. There was
a brief period of euphoria. It seemed that the kingdom was secure and that all
the disruptive forces might be held in check. Richard was the balance wheel.
For a few months he represented the power and might of the Crusader army, the
more powerful because it was in alliance with Egypt.
Actually it was Frederick II who was acting behind the
scenes, although Richard became the beneficiary. During that winter, Frederick
sent two ambassadors to as-Salih Ayub. They came with a retinue of a hundred
men, laden with expensive gifts for the sultan. This embassy was greeted as no
other embassy had ever been greeted before. The sultan ordered that everyone in
Cairo should welcome the ambassadors and their retinue, who were given Nubian
horses from the sultan’s own stables. The streets and the public buildings were
illuminated. There were parades and audiences and celebrations, and the sultan
spoke kindly to the ambassadors and their retinue, lodged them in his palaces,
and gave them mountains of gifts. The members of the embassy were invited to go
on hunting expeditions, to practice with their crossbows, to amuse themselves
as they pleased. Winter is always the best time of the year in Cairo, and
as-Salih Ayub seemed determined to impress Frederick with his liberality and
generosity in a good season.
Richard, well aware of the success of the embassy, seems to
have felt that his services were no longer needed. He fortified Ascalon, did
his best to resolve the quarrels of the barons, and in May 1241 he returned to
England, taking his knights with him.
With the balance wheel gone, the barons of Jerusalem leaped
at each other’s throats: The Templars fought the Hospitallers, there were
murderous raids by the Templars into the territory of al-Nasir Daud, and by the
Hospitallers against Aleppo; Richard Filanghieri, the imperial viceroy, was
thrown out of Tyre by a consortium of barons, who were incensed when he
attempted to organize a coup d’état in Acre. Balian of Ibelin was emerging as
the chief of the barons. Neither King Conrad, who reached the age of fifteen in
1243, nor the aging John of Brienne were able to exercise kingship in the Holy
Land, and the barons decided that the title Queen of Jerusalem should be granted
to Queen Alix of Cyprus, who became regent. The barons were in the ascendant,
with no king of Navarre or earl of Cornwall to curb their recklessness, their
stupidity, or their avarice. Each was prepared to defend his own property
against all comers. The Kingdom of Jerusalem scarcely existed, there was only
the sum of its parts.
If the barons had been united under a war leader of proven
excellence—another Godfrey, another Leper King, another Richard the Lion
Heart—it would have made very little difference during the days that followed
the departure of the earl of Cornwall. The forces confronting the kingdom were
vast and incalculable, and even the Templars, with their network of spies and
secret agents in Damascus and Cairo, could not measure the extent of the
horrors about to be visited on them.
In June 1244, the Khwarismian horsemen swept out of the
Hauran, invaded the Galilee, captured Tiberias, put all the Christians to the
sword, and then swung toward Nablus and Jerusalem. This long column, more than
ten thousand strong, had crossed the Euphrates in boats made of animal skins
earlier in the year. They had been summoned by Syltan as-Salih Ayub, who wanted
them to create havoc in their southward march, join the Egyptian army at Gaza,
and then march north against the Christians along the seacoast and east against
Damascus. With the help of the Khwarismians, he hoped to destroy both the
Christians and the armies of his uncle, as-Salih Ismail.
The Khwarismians were mercenaries, out for plunder, living
off the land. They wore wolfskins and sheepskins; they survived on boiled
herbs, water, milk, and a little meat. They were admirable bowmen, skilled
lancers; they were quick, with their short hunting knives, at cutting throats.
They brought their women and children with them, and the women fought beside
the men. They sacked Tiberias and Nablus, but these were small towns. Jerusalem
was not so easily sacked by wild tribesmen.
The Christians had been slow to realize the danger. Robert,
Patriarch of Jerusalem, now hurried to the holy city with the masters of the
Temple and the Hospital, hoping there was time to put the defenses in order.
Part of the Christian population was evacuated. Then, on July 11, 1244, the
Khwarismians broke into the city, murdering and plundering as they raced
through the narrow streets. They reached the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,
desecrated the tombs of the kings of Jerusalem, and cut the throats of the
priests who were celebrating mass at the high altar. They opened the graves of
the kings, searching for treasure; they found only bones, which they threw into
a fire. But the garrison held out for a few weeks. The Crusaders made a
surprisingly vigorous defense, and they did not surrender until August 23. The
Khwarismians then offered to let the Christians go free. About eight thousand
survivors of six weeks of murder and pillage took the road to Jaffa.
They had gone only a little way down the road when they
looked back and saw Frankish flags waving on the walls. Thinking that Jerusalem
had somehow been recaptured by the knights, they turned back, only to fall into
an ambush carefully laid by the Khwarismians, who had had second thoughts about
letting the Christians go free. They amused themselves with another massacre.
The Arab tribesmen in the neighborhood smelled blood. The Christians who
survived the massacre were hunted down by the tribesmen and killed. Only three
hundred survivors, out of the eight thousand, reached Jaffa.
In this way Jerusalem fell finally and completely into the
hands of the Muslims. Except for an anomalous six-month period in 1300, 673
years would pass before a Christian army would enter the city again. On
December 9, 1917, the Turks surrendered the city to General Sir Edmund Allenby.
The Khwarismian invasion brought about changes in the
fragile system of alliances. The barons threw in their lot with Damascus; the
king of Transjordania and the prince of Hims joined the Christians; the
Templars and the Hospitallers seemed to bury their quarrels. When the prince of
Hims arrived in Acre, he was welcomed with enthusiasm and jubilation; cloths of
gold, silks, and carpets were spread out before him wherever he walked or rode
through the city. He was known to be an excellent soldier and a master of
diplomacy; and he liked and understood the Christians.
Gauthier of Brienne, Count of Jaffa, and Philip of Montfort,
Lord of Tyre, commanded the expedition, which consisted of about a thousand
knights and six thousand foot soldiers; the prince of Hims brought two thousand
cavalry, and the king of Transjordania about an equal number of Bedouin. A real
alliance had been forged: the Christians and Muslims marched together in good
spirits; there was no bickering as the three columns drove toward Gaza, where
the Egyptians and the Khwarismians were waiting for them.
The armies met near the village of La Forbie on the sandy
plains northeast of Gaza. Gauthier of Brienne became commander in chief of the
allied forces. A young Mameluke officer, Baibars, formerly a slave, commanded
the combined Egyptian-Khwarismian army. The opposing armies were about equal in
numbers and equipment. The best military strategists on the field were Baibars
and the prince of Hims.
At a war council before the battle, the prince of Hims
insisted that they should take up defensive positions and transform the camp
into an armed fortress. The Khwarismians generally avoided fortified
strongpoints. Confronted by an unyielding wall of knights and foot soldiers,
they could be expected to melt away, and the Egyptian army was too small to
attack without them. But Gauthier of Brienne, always quick to act, decided upon
an immediate attack.
The Franks were massed on the right wing, near the sea; the
prince of Hims with his detachment of Damascenes occupied the center, and the
king of Transjordania with his mounted Bedouin were on the left. The battle
lasted two days, from the morning of October 17, 1244, to the afternoon of the
next day. During the first day, the knights made repeated charges against the
army of Baibars, which held its ground. There were skirmishes with the
Khwarismians, thrusts and sallies all along the line. On the following day the
Khwarismians attacked the Damascenes in the center, and this concentrated
attack of extraordinary ferocity punched a hole in the allied line which could
never be filled up. The Damascenes fled. Then the Khwarismians wheeled around
against the Bedouin and cut them to pieces. The army of the prince of Hims
fought well, almost to the last man. Seventeen hundred of them fell to the
Khwarismians, and the prince of Hims rode off the field with only 280 men.
Having disposed of the Damascenes, the cavalry of the prince of Hims, and the
Bedouin, the Khwarismians turned on the Christians with the relish of men who,
having feasted well, look forward to the sweetmeats at the end of dinner.
Sandwiched between the Khwarismians and the Egyptians, the
Franks were torn to shreds. They charged and were thrown back, and every charge
produced a mountain of dead horses and dead riders. Over five thousand
Christians died in the sands. The losses at La Forbie were even greater than
the losses on the Horns of Hattin. Only thirty-three Templars, twenty-seven
Hospitallers, and three Teutonic Knights survived the battle. Eight hundred
prisoners were taken, including Gauthier of Brienne. The Khwarismians tortured
him and then surrendered him to the Egyptians in the hope of a large ransom. He
died in a dungeon in Cairo, murdered by some merchants who felt that he had
raided too many caravans moving between Cairo and Damascus.
The losses among the great officers of the kingdom were
staggering. The Master of the Temple, the archbishop of Tyre, the bishops of
Lydda and Ramleh, and the two cousins of Bohemond of Antioch, John and William
of Botrun, perished; their heads were cut off to decorate the gates of Cairo.
Philip of Montfort and the patriarch of Jerusalem, who had carried the True
Cross into battle, escaped to Ascalon. The Egyptians celebrated in Cairo with a
triumphal procession, fireworks, illuminations, and a grand parade in which the
captured emirs of Damascus were seen roped together with their heads bent low
and their faces grey with despair. Cairo went wild with joy.
The disaster at La Forbie signified the end of the
Crusaders’ offensive military power. They would continue to hold castles and
fortified cities for a little while longer, but never again were they able to
put a large army in the field. They had been bled white at La Forbie; the body
politic had suffered so many shocks that it seemed to be dazed, exhausted, without
One more king, arrayed in the mysterious panoply of majesty,
would come to the Holy Land and attempt after more terrible defeats to put its
affairs in order. Meanwhile the Crusaders, crouched behind their fortress
walls, murdered each other, sent occasional raiding parties into the
hinterland, and sometimes they managed to believe that the kingdom was in the
care of the Holy Trinity and would endure for eternity.