King Baldwin III and the Heroic Age

Baldwin III was one of the key Christian leaders who were involved in the Second Crusade, although one of its first acts was a failure in front of the walls of Damascus.

Of all the kings of Jerusalem Baldwin III is the one we know best. Contemporary historians were awed by the young king who seemed to have no vices, to be at once intelligent, deeply religious, and gentle to all people. Moreover, he possessed the gift of command. He was born at exactly the right time, for his kingdom was in danger of dissolution, and only by superb ability and great gifts of mind could it be maintained. Even so, before he died he may have known that the end was in sight.

William of Tyre, who described him minutely, remembered that in his youth he was an inveterate gambler and that throughout his life he was astonishingly frank, abruptly rebuking high officers of state in public rather than in private, making enemies unnecessarily. These were dangerous elements in his character, and they were to have dangerous consequences.

One of his major gambles took place in 1152, when he quarreled violently with his mother, who had held the regency for seven years which was past the time when Baldwin should, by law, be the single sovereign. Baldwin at twenty-two performed all the military offices demanded of him, presided over the court, and acted in public as though he possessed the real power. Yet he remained under the tutelage of his formidable mother. It was an absurd situation, and the king at long last decided to assert himself.

Queen Melisende was at that time under the influence of a certain Manasses of Hierges, a clever nobleman from the region of Liege, whom she had appointed Constable of the kingdom. Manasses was rich, powerful, and insolent, determined to retain his privileged place at all costs.

Baldwin set about his assumption of real power in two stages. First, he had himself crowned secretly in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the presence of only a handful of his knights, thus preventing his mother from being crowned with him. Secondly, the king decided on war. Manasses was closely besieged in his castle at Mirabel near Jaffa. He was captured, brought into the king’s presence, and spared on condition that he leave the kingdom and never return. Queen Melisende fortified Jerusalem against the king’s army and barricaded herself in the citadel, appealing to the people, the nobles, and the clergy for their assistance in her righteous war against her son. The people and the nobles had grown weary of her; the clergy were deeply indebted to her. After a few days of token resistance, she surrendered and was allowed to leave for Nablus on condition that she, too, never return to Jerusalem. Baldwin had been perfectly prepared to take the citadel by force; he had mounted siege engines and hurled rocks against the walls, and, if necessary, would have killed his mother. This was a gamble that had to be taken to save the kingdom.

In Antioch, the Princess Constance still ruled, headstrong, improvident, pleasure-loving, and without any skill in government. A new Prince of Antioch had to be found for her, and Baldwin presented her with a list of three noblemen who possessed the requisite qualities of courage and resourcefulness. She wanted none of them. In her own good time she would choose a husband suitable to her needs. She found such a husband in Reynald of Châtillon, the feckless younger son of the count of Gien, who had accompanied Louis VII during the Second Crusade. Reynald was young, handsome, possessed of great courage, and to all outward appearances he would have made an excellent Prince of Antioch. Constance was in love with him and appears to have married him secretly even before securing the permission of the king, who was her suzerain. Baldwin appears to have permitted the marriage reluctantly. He had hoped she would marry someone closer to her own rank.

Reynald of Châtillon was one of those men who rise from obscure origins and somehow change the course of history. He, more than anyone else, was responsible for the fall of the kingdom. He endangered everything and everyone who came near him and seemed oblivious to the damage he caused. He could be counted upon to do improbable, absurd, and terrible things with a kind of casual grace, never realizing the cost.

He proved very early that he could be extremely vicious. As Prince of Antioch he regarded himself as the sole ruler whose judgments must never be questioned. The Patriarch Aimery of Limoges sometimes did question them in private, and unhappily these private conversations were reported to the prince. Reynald had the patriarch stripped and scourged till the blood came, then had him placed on the roof of the citadel and smeared all over with honey so that flies settled all over him while the sun burned him. The patriarch was in ill-health but remarkably resilient. Somehow he survived the punishment. News of Reynald’s act of revenge reached Baldwin III in Jerusalem. The king was outraged and at once sent two of his councillors posthaste to Antioch with orders that Aimery should be released from captivity and permitted to resume his patriarchal functions. Reynald obeyed. Aimery left Antioch, and it was many years before he returned.

Reynald was the prince of the second most important city in the Holy Land. Left to itself. Antioch could have added to its great wealth and stability. Reynald, however, possessed the instincts of a bandit chieftain. The Byzantines were warring against the Armenians in Cilicia; Reynald joined the Byzantines, hoping to add Cilicia to his princedom. When it became clear that the Byzantines regarded Cilicia as their own, he turned against them and sent an expedition to Cyprus, which belonged to Byzantium. The expedition was well organized and had one purpose: to obtain booty. The Cypriot army quickly collapsed; monasteries and nunneries were seized; nuns were raped; costly vestments, gold and silver vessels, and jewels were heaped up and carted away to the waiting ships. The raiders remained on the island for only a few days, but the damage was incalculable. Manuel Comnenus, the Byzantine emperor, then busy in Europe, quietly decided to take revenge upon an insolent and treacherous prince.

Meantime, Nur ed-Din continued to attempt to forge a united Muslim army against the Christians. Like his father, Zengi, he could be cruel and implacable; unlike him, he possessed a deeply contemplative temperament. He lived like an ascetic, fasted, and sometimes found himself in a state of religious exaltation. He was a man who lived on many levels: administrator, warrior, mystic. His mysticism was perhaps given strength by his chronic ill-health, while his intense religious feeling gave strength to the holy war he conducted against the Christians.

Baldwin III had a profound understanding of his most implacable enemy. His spies gave him accurate reports, and he sometimes took advantage of the periods when Nur ed-Din was bedridden. In theory the prince of Antioch was charged with defending the northeast, while the king defended Samaria, Judaea, and the Negev. In fact Baldwin III was in overall command of Christian territory in the Holy Land.

From the beginning of his reign Baldwin III meant to conquer Ascalon, which was heavily defended by the Egyptians because it was their northernmost outpost along the Palestinian coast. The people of Ascalon were all trained in arms. High walls, barbicans, and towers protected thecity on the landward side, and it was not easily approachable by sea because there were low shelving sands, the winds whipped up high waves, and there was no proper harbor. Nevertheless supplies could be brought into the city on small boats.

Baldwin proceeded with great care and intelligence. The navy of the kingdom patrolled the sea approaches; the royal fleet was under the command of Gerard of Sidon, and consisted of fifteen ships. Other ships were bought, stripped of their masts, and disassembled: from the wooden strakes they made siege engines and moving towers, covered with hides to prevent them from catching fire. On January 25, 1153, the king with his entire army, together with the grand masters of the Hospital and the Temple, the archbishops of Tyre, Caesarea, and Nazareth, and the patriarch holding high the True Cross, appeared outside the walls of Ascalon. With this formidable army it was hoped that Ascalon would yield within a month.

It took much longer, for the people of Ascalon were far better prepared than the Christians had expected. They could not be starved out, they had plentiful supplies of fresh water, and no surprise night attacks were possible because they had ingeniously lit up the walls with oil-lamps which were shielded against the wind by glass containers. But more important than anything was the fact that the defenders were in high spirits and believed their walls were impregnable. They had excellent sources of information, and they knew that the army outside their gates were outnumbered two to one by their own army. One day an Egyptian fleet of seventy vessels appeared, and the small Christian fleet made no effort to attack them. The Egyptians landed supplies and provisions, and Ascalon was stronger than ever.

After two months, Baldwin III realized to his dismay that he had not even made a dent in the walls of Ascalon. That Easter, the influx of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land was much larger than usual. The king ordered that the pilgrims and sailors must all assist in the siege of Ascalon; they would be paid from the royal treasury. All ships coming to the Holy Land must join the fleet of Gerard of Sidon. In this way, the army and the fleet increased in numbers. But three more months passed before there was any significant change.

One day toward the end of July, the defenders crept out of the city and set fire to the great wooden tower which topped the walls of Ascalon. But as the Christians watched in amazement, the wind changed and the flames began licking the walls. The Christians decided that if the walls could be burned by fires the enemy set, how much more would they burn if set by them. They heaped faggots and cord wood and wood from the surrounding orchards in the space between the burnt-out tower and the wall, poured pitch and oil on them, and then set fire to them. About dawn, as they had hoped and expected, part of the wall fell with a thunderous roar that awakened the army.

Through this breach in the wall some forty Templar knights rushed into the city, some of them standing guard to prevent any other Christians from entering. In their madness, a handful of Templars believed they could conquer the entire city. At first, the people of Ascalon took fright; then they formed ranks, and it was a simple matter to round up these proud Templars and butcher them. That night, they mended the breach in the wall with huge balks of timber from their own ships, while the bodies of the dead Templars were dangled over the walls in the full sight of the Christian army; the bodies were left there for the birds to peck at.

Ascalon seemed to be lost. A vast despair seized the Christians, who debated whether it was worth their while to continue battering a city that seemed impregnable. The army of Ascalon, thinking the Crusaders would reel back, made sorties on the third day after the Templars were hung on the walls. The Crusaders counterattacked with fury and desperation, as though all their pent-up strength and all their frustration were released in the counterattack. From their walls, the people of Ascalon, who had been so sure of themselves, so certain of ultimate victory, witnessed a massacre. The attack was so devastating that there was scarcely anyone in the city who was not bereaved. The elders of Ascalon asked for a truce to give them time to bury their dead. Having counted the dead, they sent envoys to sue for peace. Baldwin III, sitting in council, agreed that if they left the city within three days, they could take their movable belongings with them: what he required was total evacuation. On the third day they poured out of the city in the thousands, while the king’s standard flew from the highest tower. He gave them guides as far as al-Arish. Beyond this town, a Turkish chieftain promised to lead them into Egypt. They followed him willingly and lived to regret it, for once the king’s guides had returned to Ascalon, the chieftain attacked them and despoiled them of their possessions. When we last see them they are wandering helplessly in the desert.

The lordship of Ascalon was given to the king’s younger brother Amaury, Count of Jaffa. Since Gaza had already been captured by Baldwin III, the entire coast of Syria and Palestine was in the possession of the Crusaders. Ascalon was a kingpin, and its capture spread alarm and terror in the camps of the Muslims.

The capture of Ascalon, however, was offset by the loss of Damascus to the Christians’ most deadly enemy, Nur ed-Din. For many months, Nur ed-Din had been at work attempting to undermine the authority of the reigning sultan. He saw Damascus as the launching ground of an expedition that would sweep the Crusaders out of Syria. The logic of his argument appealed to the Damascenes, who were disturbed by the fall of Ascalon; and when Nur ed-Din entered Damascus, he was greeted like a conqueror who was also a friend. There were no exactions; and everything went on as before except that there was no longer any sultan. Nur ed-Din appointed one of his most trusted generals to be governor of the city.

In May 1157, Nur ed-Din attacked the Crusader castle at Banyas in the Upper Galilee. The castle occupied an important position at the foot of Mount Hermon. Nur ed-Din twice captured it, and was twice repulsed. So much blood was spilt in and around the castle, that it became a symbol of the intransigence on both sides. There were sudden surprise attacks carried out faultlessly by the king’s army, and there were equally sudden surprise attacks by Nur ed-Din’s army.

The massive skirmishes for Banyas showed that the Crusaders and the Muslims were evenly balanced. The logic of the situation demanded a truce. Instead they went on fighting. One small advantage was given to Baldwin III. Nur ed-Din fell ill. It was not an advantage that could be relied upon, however, for Nur ed-Din was perfectly capable of directing battles from his sickbed. On the frontiers of Antioch and in the Galilee, there were continual raids and excursions, but no real advantages were gained. The war in the Holy Land seemed to have reached a stalemate.

Baldwin, searching for new allies, had long contemplated an alliance with Byzantium. From the beginning of the Crusades, such an alliance had been discussed and for various reasons abandoned. The Emperor Manuel Comnenus was known to have a high opinion of Baldwin III and the worst possible opinion of the present prince of Antioch. It would be necessary to tread cautiously, in the Greek manner, but it was also necessary to break the stalemate. Baldwin III sent an embassy to Constantinople, asking for the hand of a Byzantine princess. Discussions went on for many weeks; at last a suitable princess was found in the person of Theodora, the daughter of Isaac Comnenus, who was Manuel’s elder brother. Thirteen years old, radiantly beautiful, very tall, with thick fair hair, she possessed a natural elegance of manner. Her dowry, her bridal outfit, her wedding gown, her ropes of pearls, the coffers full of jewelry, tapestries and silken stuffs, carpets and gold vessels, were worth a fortune.

Thus equipped, and accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting and the envoys of the king of Jerusalem, she reached Tyre in September 1158. In great state she traveled to Jerusalem, where she was married to the twenty-seven-year-old Baldwin, who delighted in his bride and is said to have remained faithful to her as long as he lived.

That same autumn, the emperor set out from Constantinople at the head of an immense army, and about the beginning of December he marched into Cilicia, which the Armenians called Lesser Armenia. The emperor regarded Cilicia as a province of his empire and he was determined to take possession of it. The Armenian Prince Thoros had seized Cilicia and his army commanded strongly fortified castles. The emperor’s army approached so quietly that Thoros, who was staying at Tarsus, barely had time to flee to the neighboring mountains. Reynald, Prince of Antioch, realized that he had nowhere to go. The emperor was determined to punish him for his savagery in Cyprus, and he knew that the only way to escape punishment was by making a public and humiliating submission. He therefore hurried to the emperor’s camp at Mamistra in Cilicia, where he appeared, barefoot, wearing a woolen tunic cut short at the elbows, with a rope around his neck, and a sword with the point resting on his breast and the hilt turned outward in his hand. The emperor took the sword by the hilt, whereupon Reynald flung himself violently to the ground, where he lay prostrate for a long time. The emperor was pleased by this self-indulgent theatrical display because he believed in the sincerity of the prince’s submission. He did not know that Reynald submitted to no authority except his own.

Baldwin III arrived in Mamistra a few days later with a large retinue. The emperor gave the king the kiss of peace. They spent ten days together. Among the subjects they discussed was the Armenian Prince Thoros, who was brave and had fought many battles against the Turks. The king acted as mediator; Thoros was permitted to retain Cilicia after swearing fealty to the emperor, who saw himself in those days as the kindly, all-forgiving father of an empire so powerful that he could afford to be kindly and all-forgiving.

The king returned to Antioch, while the emperor spent Easter in Cilicia. In April 1159, the emperor descended upon Antioch accompanied by his army, wearing the imperial jeweled cap with pendants and an embroidered robe so weighted with jewels he could hardly move. Trumpets blared; drums boomed; flags waved; and all the dignitaries of Antioch came out to meet the emperor, riding stiffly on horseback, with Reynald of Châtillon, Prince of Antioch, walking by his side and holding the bridle in token of complete submission. Behind the emperor rode the king of Jerusalem and his brother Amaury. The day of the emperor’s triumphal entry into Antioch was one of intense celebration and festivity, with gifts showered on the people and everyone vying for the honor of being able to set eyes on the man who possessed such vast power and an empire so ancient that it seemed to be a permanent fixture on earth. All favor and honor flowed from the emperor. During those days he was lord of Antioch, suzerain of the king of Jerusalem and all the Christian principalities of the Holy Land.

The emperor enjoyed the baths of Antioch, which were among the most luxurious of their time; he also enjoyed hunting. One day, when he was hunting with King Baldwin, there was an accident. The king’s horse, racing over rough ground covered with low-growing shrubs, stumbled and threw Baldwin headlong to the ground. His arm was broken; suddenly the emperor hurried up, knelt beside him, and began to tend the broken arm like a doctor. The emperor prided himself on his knowledge of medicine and he liked to put his knowledge to use.

These hunting parties, processions, feasts, and visits to the bathhouses emphasized the bonds between Byzantium and the Holy Land. It was felt that the eight days spent by the emperor in Antioch implied the promise of immediate military assistance. Yet it was not so. He had not the least intention of throwing his army against the Turks; he had come to demonstrate the imperial power of Byzantium to Christian and Turk alike. He made the motions of beginning an advance on Aleppo, leading the combined forces of Antioch, Jerusalem, and the Byzantine empire, and then halted abruptly. Through envoys, he arranged a truce with Nur ed-Din, who promised an exchange of prisoners, and then, hearing of a plot against him in Constantinople, he began the homeward march across Asia Minor.

That he had shown himself without engaging in battle was entirely in the Byzantine character. The Byzantines were skilled diplomats, masters of many ruses, and they knew that a show of force was sometimes more effective than force itself. The emperor’s tactic offered little consolation to the king of Jerusalem and the prince of Antioch.


The wild and daring Reynald decided to take matters in his own hands and march at the head of a column into the territory of Nur ed-Din’s brother in the Marash region. Someone told him that there were immense herds of sheep and goats, many Christians, and almost no Turks. This was true, but his progress had been watched and reported to Aleppo. Their lightly armed cavalry was sent against him. The Turks found him in camp, laden with booty. He could have abandoned the treasure, fled, and saved himself. Instead he elected to fight, and he had the bad luck to be captured. Slung on the back of a camel, he was carried off to a dungeon in Aleppo where he spent the next sixteen years of his life. They did not kill him only because they believed he might prove useful in future bargaining. Neither the king nor the emperor made any effort to ransom him, knowing perhaps that the ransom would be so large that they could not afford to pay it. The king became regent of Antioch, and little more was heard of Constance, Reynald’s wife.

The chessboard was being swept clean. Queen Melisende died of a lingering illness; the king was inconsolable. A few months later the king fell ill while on a journey through Tripoli, and died, possibly poisoned by a doctor sent by the count of Tripoli to attend him. His body was borne to Jerusalem with the appropriate pomp and ceremony, to be buried beside the other kings of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. His subjects stood beside the road in silence; and Muslims came down from the hills to wail and lament his passing. For eight days the cortege made its way to Jerusalem amid sighs and lamentations. It was reported that Nur ed-Din was advised by his captains to attack the kingdom during these prolonged ceremonies. William of Tyre tells us that Nur ed-Din refused, saying, “We should pity them, for they have lost such a prince as the world no longer possesses.” It is possible that he said these words; it is also possible that it was he who paid to have the king poisoned.

With Baldwin Ill’s death in January 1162, the heroic age of the Crusades came to an end. He became a legend. In him, there had been combined a youthful gentleness and a youthful cruelty, reasoned audacity, a kingly beauty. He was soldier and statesman, student and philosopher, and William of Tyre was only exaggerating a little when he wrote, “There is no record in any history, nor does any man now living recall, that such deep and poignant sorrow was ever felt over the death of any other prince of our own or other nations.”

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