The Soldiers of Christ III

The military orders naturally became large-scale employers of mounted sergeants as the twelfth century progressed, either as ‘brother sergeants’ or as paid troops to support the knights. There were also volunteers from Europe who served as mounted sergeants with the Templars or Hospitallers for a set period of time, as an act of piety in observance of vows. Sergeants feature heavily in The Rule of the Templars and it is clear from context that many of these were serving as mounted soldiers. With the brothers often undertaking long-distance patrols or raids into enemy territory, the emphasis on mounted support troops or auxiliaries is not surprising. The implication that sergeants, and perhaps squires, would have been given lighter weaponry and equipment to act as mounted support for the brother knights is supported by references to the discretion that local Templar commanders had to buy ‘Turkish arms’ (presumably bows and other items of lighter equipment) to give to the brother sergeants.

The Templars’ manual shows how the mounted sergeants were equipped and deployed and, although the military orders were more formally structured than other units, there is no reason to think that this was anything other than the articulation of normal best practice across the army as a whole. Templar sergeants were required to wear cheaper and lighter armour than the brother knights and this too was probably a reflection of more general practice. By the standards of most contemporary armies, however, the sergeants still had extremely impressive defensive equipment. They would have worn a padded leather tunic or jerkin, and over that a hauberk, like the knights’ but sleeveless, to perhaps help in using weapons such as crossbows. They also had mail leggings but again somewhat lighter than the knights’: theirs had no foot coverings, making it easier for them to operate as infantry if necessary. The preferred helmet, at least for a Templar sergeant, was the more open kettle-helmet (a ‘chapeau de fer’) which traded off less protection for the face against better visibility: particularly helpful in firing missile weapons such as bows or crossbows. They were mounted but had less elaborate horse equipment than the brother knights, and, unlike the knights, only a few very senior sergeants were allowed to have more than one horse.

There were different grades of sergeant brothers, but the distinctions between them are not entirely clear. A few of the senior sergeant brothers, commanders of the houses, were of sufficient wealth and status to have their own squires. Some were more heavily armoured than others, and they were expected to be fighting towards the front of the line with the Templar knights. There were also less heavily armoured mounted sergeant brothers, but even they seem to have been expected to participate in the charge, albeit in the back ranks, as we find that they were given permission to go to the back if wounded (i.e. an explicit recognition that their normal position was towards the front): ‘The sergeant brothers who are armed in mail should conduct themselves under arms as is given for the knight brothers; and the other sergeant brothers who are not armed [i.e. those without mail armour], if they act well, will receive thanks from God and the brothers. And if they see that they cannot resist or that they are wounded, they may go to the back, if they wish, without permission.’

The mounted sergeants, along with the squires, were an important element in the follow-up phase of any Frankish cavalry charge. Often invisible and always overshadowed by their social superiors, the sergeants and squires could provide the critical mass to turn the initial impact of a charge into an irreversible breakthrough.


Outnumbered, surrounded and often operating in unfavourable terrain, the cumbersome crusader armies should have been wiped out soon after they had arrived. The extraordinary success of the Frankish military in the Middle East during much of the twelfth century is almost inexplicable without an appreciation of the role of the Turcopoles. Their availability as a group of native auxiliaries has always been seen as one of the more exotic components of crusading warfare. But it has also generally been the case that their numbers have been grossly underestimated and the value of their contribution underplayed.

By the time the armies of the First Crusade reached Asia Minor, Turcopoles were already a well-established part of the Byzantine army. Their origins are relatively obscure, but the name itself means ‘son of a Turk’, so there is clearly a combined meaning derived from both ethnic background and military function: the troops were notable for their Turkic ethnicity, at least in part, with the implication that they operated in the Turkic fashion as light cavalry archers. The Byzantines had access to ‘Tourkopoulai’ recruits because they had been employing nomadic mercenaries, Seljuk Turks or Turcomans, from the late eleventh century onwards. The Christianised offspring of these mercenaries, perhaps supplemented by further recruits filtering down from the steppes in search of employment, meant that these units could continue to be employed into the twelfth century. In the Byzantine army at least, with its light cavalry contingents from many different ethnic origins, the use of the term ‘Turcopole’ was clearly synonymous with a light cavalry archer from a specific ethnic background.

The Franks adapted quickly to the imperatives of warfare in the Middle East and were soon aware that they needed such troops. They copied the Byzantines by adopting the term ‘Turcopole’ for the light cavalry archers that they started to recruit. In the northern crusader states of Antioch and Edessa there were more opportunities to recruit individuals or small groups of nomads. It is probably no coincidence that the main occasions in which we see Turcopoles operating on the battlefield in a high-profile and semi-independent role were when they were operating within the Antiochene field army.

Unlike the Byzantines, however, the Franks, and particularly those in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and the County of Tripoli, had no consistent or reliable source of Turkic ethnic manpower upon which to call. Over time therefore, and very quickly in the case of the southern crusader states, the term ‘Turcopole’ lost its ethnic specificity. That is not to suggest that there were no individuals of Turkic origin amongst the Frankish light cavalry. On the contrary, any suitable Turkic recruits would have been extremely welcome. But there were not many of them to choose from.

Although Turcopoles are often assumed to be of Turkic mixed race in terms of their ethnic origins, the only surviving references to mixed-race Turcopoles relate to those employed in the Byzantine army, generally recruited and deployed in the northern lands of Asia Minor. There is no specific evidence of any Frankish Turcopoles having been of mixed race. Even if there were some, there were never enough to supply the very substantial numbers of light cavalry that we find the Franks employing.

The Franks certainly used the word ‘Turcopole’ as a label but, given the far more restricted access they had to men of genuinely Turkic origin, they tended to use the term far more loosely and in a less strictly technical sense than the Byzantines. In most cases it merely meant ‘Christian horse archer, usually operating as light cavalry’. In practice, it seems that the Franks recruited for this troop type from among anybody who was suitable, regardless of origin. The local Christian communities were demilitarised when they were under Muslim control, and although this was somewhat reversed under Frankish rule, they did not have an extensive heritage as mounted archers. Similarly, the Franks themselves had no such tradition though, as we have seen, there are individual examples of mounted archers and crossbowmen. One is left with the impression that local Christians, and perhaps Frankish settlers or mercenaries from Europe, would be recruited to serve as Turcopoles. As the years passed, the calibre and skills of the Turcopoles seem to have improved, and they began to take a more prominent role in the military affairs of the crusader states. As purely mounted archers, however, operating on a semi-independent basis, they were generally outnumbered and outclassed by genuine Turkic cavalry.

The relative looseness of the Frankish definition is reflected in the fact that Turcopoles and mounted sergeants (the ‘sergens a cheval’) were sometimes jointly described as ‘equites levis armaturae’, that is, lightly armed cavalry. It is possible that in some instances the terms ‘Turcopole’ and ‘mounted sergeant’ were used interchangeably, suggesting a greater degree of interest in a more primary distinction between the heavily armoured cavalry (the knights) and those who were less heavily armoured. Some documents from crusader Cyprus certainly seem to use the terms interchangeably, as if their readers would understand that there was sometimes little or no difference between the two. It seems likely that at least some contemporary writers saw ‘Turcopoles’ as a sub-set of the category of the less heavily armed cavalry known as mounted sergeants or ‘sergens a cheval’.

The Turcopoles also seemed to have gradually gained a higher status than some modern references to them as ‘native auxiliaries’ might imply. The Rule of the Templars certainly suggests that the professionalism of a good Turcopole had a high value placed upon it. The role of their commander in the order, the Turcopolier, was a very high-status one, and the rations given to Turcopoles were generous, implying that in at least some cases they were of a higher status than sergeants.

But the most important thing about the Turcopoles, far more important than their ethnic origins or the descriptive labels attached to them, is their sheer volume. There were a lot of them in Frankish armies. They are often invisible in the chronicles, but when we do come across them, generally as an accidental aside, it is clear that they formed a very large part of the Frankish mounted arm, and sometimes even the majority.

A cavalry detachment from Tripoli in 1109, for example, commanded by the count himself, became lost and was intercepted by the ‘askar of Shaizar. We are told by Usama that even at this early stage, fully 40 per cent of the Frankish troops were Turcopoles: ‘my father and my two uncles departed at the head of a body of troops to confront that lost detachment, and who should it be but the Cerdagnais [i.e. William-Jordan II], the lord of Tripoli, at the head of three hundred horsemen and two hundred Turcopoles (these are archers for the Franks)’.

Similarly, in an account of a Frankish cavalry force in Egypt in 1167, fully two-thirds of the men are described as Turcopoles. A legal document survives which set out an agreement made only a few months later, in October 1168, between the Hospitallers and Amalric, king of Jerusalem, detailing the assistance which the order promised to give for the forthcoming invasion of Egypt. In it the Hospitallers committed themselves to provide no fewer than 500 Turcopoles, alongside 500 knights (i.e. with the Turcopoles constituting 50 per cent of their cavalry contingent). Likewise, the Frankish army which was fielded against Saladin’s forces in 1183 had a cavalry contingent of whom 50 per cent were Turcopoles and they also appear to have constituted a large part (perhaps even the majority) of the Frankish mounted arm at Hattin four years later.

The way in which Turcopoles were used changed significantly over time. There seems to have been some early experimentation in terms of how to use them most effectively on the battlefield. As we have seen, the northern Franks had access to larger numbers of militarised local Christians and to Turkic mercenaries (Christian or otherwise), and in the first two decades of the twelfth century seem to have deployed them as a separate arm. The Principality of Antioch also had most contact with the Byzantine army, and may initially have tried to emulate their example by giving the Turcopoles a more prominent and independent role.

The experiment entailed using the Turcopoles as semi-independent units which could be deployed at the forefront of the Frankish battle line, protecting the flanks of the knights to ensure that their assault could take place with minimal disruption. This sounds very reasonable in theory but in practice it was an absolute disaster. At the battle of Tell Danith in 1115 the Turcopoles were deployed as a separate unit on the far left of the Frankish army in an attempt to allow the knights to deliver their charge without interference. In the event, however, the Turcopoles broke when confronted by the Turkic cavalry and fled into the advancing Antiochene troops, disrupting their charge rather than helping it.

Four years later, at Ager Sanguinis, the Franks, still overly optimistic, tried again, presumably having made efforts to strengthen their Turcopole units in the meantime. The results were remarkably similar. The Turcopoles were stationed on the left to try to protect the flank of Robert of St Lo’s division as they charged the enemy lines. As at Tell Danith, however, the Turcopoles were overwhelmed by their opponents and routed. To make matters worse, rather than just failing to protect the flank, they fled back into the nearest body of Frankish troops, disrupted the charge they were tasked to support and carried away friendly troops with them as they ran.

The battle was a disaster. The Franks were so heavily outnumbered that they had little chance of success, but the poor performance of the Turcopoles certainly contributed to their failure. It is probably no coincidence that this is the last time we see them deployed in an independent battlefield role. As we have seen, the Turcopoles were a numerically important part of the Frankish mounted arm, far more so than has been generally appreciated. The Franks did not have the luxury of not using them on the battlefield. But they needed to find a role in which they could perform more effectively.

The debate about the role of the Turcopoles has tended to focus on ‘what did they do?’, with the implicit criticism being that one rarely sees them in a charge after 1119. In fact, probably a better question is ‘what didn’t they do?’ Apart from not appearing in the front rank of the knightly charges, the answer seems to be that they did pretty much everything.

The best way to use Turcopoles was eventually felt to be to split their main contribution into two: first, on the battlefield, to deploy them in the charge, but in the rear ranks, rather than to give them an independent role and, second, on campaign, to give them the full range of tactical and operational tasks normally associated with light cavalry.

Knights were expensive and were always in short supply. The Franks in the Holy Land were faced with the issue of how to deal with large groups of Turkic horse archers, not just in pitched battles, but also (and far more frequently) in raids and skirmishes. Turcopole recruits were an obvious way of making up for the lack of knightly numbers. Their lighter equipment and ability to operate in a more fluid and flexible manner also helped them to fulfil tasks that were less well suited to heavier cavalry.

The Turcopoles were thus employed as the ‘workhorse’ of the Frankish armies, and the flexibility they provided allowed the slower crusader armies to operate and survive in an environment where the majority of their enemies had a far greater degree of manoeuvrability. We tend to focus on the knights, but it is easy to forget that the majority of troops in most Frankish armies were the even more ponderous infantry.

Turcopoles helped to create the necessary operational flexibility and manoeuvrability that a heavy Frankish army would otherwise have lacked. They undertook long-range reconnaissance and spying missions. They scouted in front of the enemy on campaign and shadowed any forces on the move. They harassed Muslim supply lines and isolated columns. In short, while they could not entirely ‘solve’ the issue of how to deal with large numbers of Turkic light cavalry on the battlefield, they could act as a bridge between European and eastern modes of fighting, giving sufficient flexibility to a Frankish army to allow it to either deter enemy cavalry armies, or to arrive on the battlefield in a condition that would maximise their chances of success.

The issue of how best to protect the flanks of charging knights still remained, however. This was partly addressed by charging in echelon; by improving the timing and discipline of the charge (and hence reducing the elapsed time between launch and impact); and by operating for as long as possible under the protection of Frankish infantry archers and crossbowmen. It was also partly solved by putting large numbers of Turcopoles and mounted sergeants in successive ranks behind the charging knights, offering the knights at least some protection from flanks and rear.

There were tactical, social and administrative differences between mounted sergeants and Turcopoles, but there were large areas of overlap between them in terms of functionality, particularly on the battlefield. In Templar contingents both groups of soldiers were placed under the command of the office of the Turcopolier as battle approached because, at the critical moment of the charge, they were all expected to support the brother knights, and would form the rear ranks in the attack.

The Turcopoles had a particular role in terms of reconnaissance and scouting, however, and also seem to have become more closely associated with the military orders as the twelfth century progressed.68 We know that the Templar Turcopoles would often go out on scouting missions ahead of the main body of knights, but also had small groups of knights attached to them in case the fighting intensified.

This longer-range scouting could also mean that Turcopoles might operate independently, between the main armies, in small groups. In July 1182 Saladin invaded the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, and his brother launched a diversionary attack from Egypt in support. William of Tyre wrote that a Christian courier ‘came from the south with trustworthy information that Saladin’s brother with an immense force had invaded our land in the vicinity of [Darum]. Thirty-six of the light armed knights [‘levis armaturae milites’] who are called Turcopoles had been slain and some of the outlying villages burned.’ This seems to imply that the Turcopoles were operating as a separate unit at this point, as there were no casualties mentioned among other troops. We know that the Templars operated a series of garrisons and outposts along the southern border of the kingdom and, together with the Hospitallers, deployed large numbers of Turcopoles. What we see here was perhaps a Templar border patrol that was overwhelmed by Turkic cavalry during the incursion.

A good example of how the Turcopoles operated on a day-to-day basis is given in the surviving details of a somewhat later Templar court-martial, when brother knights were (rather harshly) being disciplined for having charged without orders. The Templar Turcopolier officer and his Turcopole scouts were part of a small force which had left Jaffa and triggered an ambush by Turkic cavalry operating in the environs of Fontaine Barbie. The Turcopolier and his men were accompanied by ten Templar knights and a commander, the regulation covering force detailed to accompany them.

The Muslim force seems to have let the crusader vanguard pass through, but before they could spring their trap they were spotted by the Templar knights moving up from the rear of the column. Rather than wait to be attacked, four of the Templar knights charged their ambushers, followed shortly afterwards by the other six. The Turcopolier and his men then turned around and joined in the fighting, and the ambushers were routed. The Templar knights were subsequently disciplined for engaging the enemy without permission but their defence, which seems to have been a strong one, was that they were justified in doing so because of the danger posed to the Turcopolier and his men. As always, the knights take centre stage in the telling of this incident, but it is interesting to see evidence of Turcopoles scouting at the head of a column, and engaging successfully with the enemy once contact had been made.

In an ironic reversal of traditional roles, Turcopoles were also at the forefront of the only detailed example we have of Christian horse archers harassing a Muslim convoy. In June 1192, King Richard received news of a rich Muslim caravan at the ‘Round Cistern’, south of Bethgibelin. He had with him a cavalry force of some 1,500 men, of whom about 1,000 were Turcopoles, together with an unspecified number of infantry. Richard sent the Turcopoles and light infantry forward to delay the Muslim column with their archery while he readied his heavier troops and tried to catch up. The Turcopoles seem to have been successful, despite the presence in the column of large numbers of elite Turkic cavalry which Saladin had sent to reinforce the column.

It is often forgotten that the majority of casualties tend to be inflicted once an army has been broken, rather than in the initial impact. The charge is the glamorous, high-profile event, but the task of fully destroying an enemy force takes place when opponents are on the run, when weapons and armour have been discarded, and when cohesive battle formations have broken down into small knots of fugitives. It was here that the Turcopoles could come into their own, chasing down the fleeing enemy, despatching the wounded or disorientated, and taking prisoners.

The Turcopoles were never able to fully neutralise the Turkic threat: the nomadic cavalry were far too good an opponent for that. But they were able to help in a lot of other tactical and operational roles which greatly improved the flexibility and manoeuvrability of Frankish armies.

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