Kingship in medieval times was a thing apart, remote from ordinary human preoccupations, touched with divinity. A king did not walk or talk like ordinary mortals; still less did he make decisions like them, for he saw himself walking with God at his side. While the emperors of Byzantium were most keenly aware of their divine power, even the kings of small states like Cyprus believed they were especially blessed. As a consequence, the king stood at the greatest possible distance from his subjects. He rarely knew what they were thinking, and rarely cared.
From the very beginning the pope had hoped that kings would lead the Crusade. Their splendor, their majesty, their semi-divine powers were needed as much as their armies were for the final conquest of the Holy Land. Their mystical armor preserved them from the arrows of the Saracens. In the imagination of the Vatican, the kings always rode ahead of their knights and infantrymen, and there was always a papal legate beside the king to warn, to console, to bless, and to guide.
In 1234, at the midpoint of the truce arranged between the Emperor Frederick and Sultan al-Kamil, Pope Gregory IX found himself once more putting his trust in a Crusade of kings. He appealed to the kings of France, England, Aragon, Castile, and Portugal. He wanted all of them to assemble their armies in Italy and then to sail off to the Holy Land in order to secure the Kingdom of Jerusalem finally and unalterably. The appeal was urgent, for the principalities in Palestine were dangerously unstable, capable of drowning each other in a sudden bloodbath. Bohemond V ruled over Antioch and Tripoli, but without his father’s flair for vigorous government and legal scholarship. Various members of the Ibelin family ruled over Beirut, Arsuf and Jaffa. In Acre, the merchant colonies of Genoa, Pisa, and Venice elected consuls whose administration extended over the greater part of the city, which was nominally the capital of Richard Filanghieri, whom Frederick had appointed as his viceroy. Tyre was in the hands of Philip of Montfort. The Templars and Hospitallers also had their independent principalities, which consisted of vast chains of fortresses dotted across the length and breadth of Palestine. The Holy Land was fragmented, and its two kings, Conrad and John of Brienne, were both in Italy.
The pope’s call for a Crusade of kings produced only one king. This was Thibault IV, Count of Champagne, who became, in 1234, king of Navarre. He was a faithful servant of the Church, (he burned heretics). He was witty and improvident, generous to a fault, but without much talent as a war leader. He had one virtue as a military commander: he was cautious not out of cowardice, but because he wanted to save as many lives as possible.
Before taking part in the Crusade, the king of Navarre wrote to the barons of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and asked some sensible questions. He wanted to know whether they regarded the truce to be valid; whether the new Crusaders would be welcomed; which were the best ports of departure; and whether he would be able to find supplies in Cyprus. They answered that the truce was invalid, for the Saracens attacked whenever they pleased; the best ports were Genoa and Marseilles; there were plentiful supplies in Cyprus. Moreover, once they reached Cyprus, they were in a position to strike at Syria or Egypt according to the opportunities at the time of their arrival. He would be warmly welcomed, and they hoped he would come soon.
The army reached Lyons in the summer of 1239. The muster roll included some of the most prominent names of French chivalry, Hugh IV, Duke of Burgundy, among them. The king of Navarre had planned to lead his army across Italy and to set sail from Brindisi, but the pope and Frederick were still quarreling bitterly and he had no desire to be caught in the middle. The army, numbering about twelve hundred knights and eight or nine thousand foot soldiers, marched down the Rhone Valley, some taking ship at Marseilles and others at Aigues-Mortes.
All went well at the beginning. However, as they approached the Holy Land, the ships were scattered by a sudden storm; some were blown onto the shores of Cyprus, while others drifted all the way to Sicily. But the portly figure of the king was seen stepping off his flagship at Acre on September 1, 1239, with the walls streaming with banners and the crowds cheering.
The Sultan al-Kamil had died in March, 1238. He had led his army against Damascus in January, captured it, and then set about organizing his empire, which stretched from southern Egypt almost to the Euphrates. But the effort was too much for him. His death at the age of sixty precipitated another civil war. A nephew, al-Jawad, seized power in Damascus, while his elder son, as-Salih Ayub, marched against Damascus with the help of Khwarismian tribesmen and quickly put an end to the rule of al-Jawad. As-Salih Ayub’s younger brother, al-Adil II, formerly viceroy of Egypt, appointed himself Sultan at the time of his father’s (al-Kamil’s) death. Enamored of a handsome young Negro, al-Adil II surrendered most of his powers to the youth, which would later bring about the enmity of the emirs and most of the population. In May 1240 the tent of the sultan and the youth would be surrounded, and they would both be killed. As-Salih Ayub, who would lose Damascus to his uncle, as-Salih Ismail, would then become sultan of Egypt. With one as-Salih in Cairo and another in Damascus, the civil war between the two branches of the family would begin in earnest, complicated by the presence of marauding Khwarismian tribesmen.
By dying, al-Kamil had made civil war inevitable; and by inviting Khwarismians to enter his army, his elder son had made it inevitable for those hordes of tribesmen to sweep across the country.
On the surface it might have seemed that the war between Damascus and Cairo was favorable to the Christians. But the Christians were themselves engaged in smoldering, haphazard civil wars, which flared up at intervals and subsided quietly: between the followers of Frederick and the Frankish barons who detested him, between the Temple and the Hospital, and between the local principalities. The king of Navarre was not the powerful charismatic leader capable of welding the kingdom into a single fighting force. The kingdom resembled an animal with too many heads and too many legs. The Arabs could survive their civil wars; it was becoming increasingly doubtful whether the Christians could survive theirs.
In an unhappy time, the king of Navarre did his best. His coming coincided with two events of considerable significance. Jerusalem fell to al-Nasir Daud, King of Transjordania. This was believed to be the fault of Richard Filanghieri, Frederick’s viceroy, who had neglected to fortify the city or had done so only halfheartedly in the belief that the truce of Jaffa would be maintained. That the siege lasted as long as twenty-seven days testified to the determination of the garrison troops. That it took place at all testified to the lack of leadership at Acre. No attempt was made to send a relief force. No arms or provisions were sent. Al-Nasir allowed the Christians to go free but none were allowed to remain in Jerusalem; and he dismantled the Tower of David. The fall of Jerusalem seemed to take place in a strange silence, without anyone being aware of it.
The second event which took place at this time was the fall of Damascus to as-Salih Ismail. This was not an event that could possibly pass unnoticed. As long as al-Kamil’s elder son remained alive, he could be depended upon to stir up civil war. At this time, al-Adil II, degenerate and luxury-loving, was still ruling Egypt. In these circumstances, the King of Navarre, with his small council of advisers, had to decide whether to attack Egypt or Damascus. The council consisted of the master of the Temple, the patriarch of Jerusalem, the bishop of Acre, the master of the Teutonic Order, and Gauthier IV of Brienne, Count of Jaffa, the nephew of John of Brienne, King of Jerusalem. Gauthier, who was married to the daughter of Hugh I of Lusignan, King of Cyprus, was coming into prominence as one of the leading barons of the kingdom.
The decision of the council was to attack Egypt first and Damascus second. An attack on Jerusalem was discussed briefly, and there was even some talk of a foray against Safed, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. But the general opinion was that an attack on Alexandria or Damietta would be most profitable, since it was known that al-Adil II was unpopular with his people. The former empire of al-Kamil was in ruins, but the various pieces of it were still formidable. The king of Navarre was aware that an attack on Egypt presented grave problems, and his most important task was to keep his army intact. He would not, if he could possibly avoid it, permit any of his officers to engage in reckless adventures. The lesson of Hattin had finally been learned.
On November 2, the king’s army marched out of Acre with the intention of attacking the Egyptian outposts of Ascalon and Gaza. The army numbered about four thousand knights and about twelve thousand foot soldiers; and although the foot soldiers were comparatively few, this was one of the largest armies that had ever set out against the Saracens. Some of the local barons took part; the Templars and the Hospitallers were also represented; the army was well armed, but there were not enough horses, and many of the knights were forced to walk; provisions were low, but spirits were high. To ride against the enemy under a king was an experience the Crusaders had not enjoyed for many years.
While they were marching on Jaffa, Peter of Dreux, Count of Brittany, learned from a spy that a rich caravan was moving up the Jordan Valley toward Damascus. Included in the caravan was a great herd of cattle and sheep intended to provision Damascus in the event of a Crusader attack, which as-Salih Ismail had been expecting for some time. The count of Brittany decided that the herd could be put to better use by the Crusaders. Without asking permission of the king of Navarre, he detached about two hundred knights from the main army to form a raiding party. He rode off into the hills the same evening, and at dawn found himself close to the castle where the caravan, which was well guarded by bowmen and cavalry, had camped for the night. The spy had given the count of Brittany an accurate report of the castle and the approach roads, and it was therefore possible to set up an ambush. One of the approach roads entered a narrow defile, and the count hoped that the caravan would pass through the defile. He divided his troops, posted himself in the defile, and gave Ralph of Nesles command of the alternate road. What was certain was that the caravan would have to pass along one of those roads.
The caravan came along the road that led to the defile, and here the count of Brittany pounced upon it. There was some savage hand-to-hand fighting, during which the count of Brittany was nearly killed. The bowmen were too close to the Crusading knights to be able to discharge their arrows, and the knights were always at their best in close combat. There were probably fewer than three hundred men in the raiding party, and only half of these were attacking in the defile. The horn was sounded. Ralph of Nesles brought up his troops in time to decide the battle. The enemy fled to the castle, pursued by the knights, who seized the herds of cattle and sheep, killed many of the defenders, and made others captive. For the rest of the day, and for two more days, the Crusaders guarded the herds on the way to Jaffa.
Meanwhile the king of Navarre learned that the sultan of Egypt had sent an army to Gaza. Al-Adil II was not witless; he had large armies and was prepared to use them; and he was well aware of the threat posed by the king’s arrival in the Holy Land. Some of the knights, dazzled by the success of the count of Brittany’s raiding party, began to think of a raid on Gaza. Hugh IV, Duke of Burgundy, was one of those who favored the raid, and his standing among the knights was almost as high as that of the king of Navarre. When the ever-cautious king of Navarre discovered this plan, he objected strongly. So did the Templars and Hospitallers. But it appeared that there were only a thousand enemy troops at Gaza and, according to the conspirators, it would be easy to overwhelm them. Let them go forward, attack Gaza, and if the signs were propitous, march into Egypt. The king of Navarre insisted that the army should move forward as a single unit. The count of Brittany and the heads of the military orders protested just as strenuously. The king reminded them that they had all taken an oath to obey him as their military leader. They were rebellious and refused to listen.