Even the spiritual obligations were more complicated and onerous than might have been wished. Some four years prior to taking the cross, Edward had made another solemn promise before God. The occasion had been one of his several sea crossings in the winter of 1263–64, a voyage that apparently became so perilous that the passengers had feared for their lives. There was a strong tradition among medieval aristocrats, when faced with such circumstances, of swearing to found a religious house in the event of their deliverance, and at the time Edward had shown no hesitation in upholding it. As a consequence, he had not one but two vows to honour, and he could hardly consider embarking on a crusade (which would entail, among manifold other dangers, more sea voyages) until the earlier one had been fulfilled. It was probably for this reason that he left Westminster at the end of 1269 and travelled to his own lordship of Chester. He had already determined that his religious house, a Cistercian abbey, should be situated at Darnhall, near Winsford, but he may have wished to inspect the sight for himself and perhaps also, in view of his financial straits, to moderate the scale of its endowment.
Edward thus spent both Christmas and New Year in the north-west, but he had few other reasons to celebrate. If he was to join the crusade he would have to leave England in six months’ time, yet the obstacles in his path still seemed insurmountable. In February, at which point he returned south, there was hope that his breach with Gilbert de Clare could be healed by the intervention of Louis IX. This plan, however, came to nothing. According to a Kentish chronicler, the earl crossed the Channel to Paris, but paid no heed to the French king’s counsels.
When parliament reassembled after Easter, therefore, it represented Edward’s last chance both to settle with Clare and to obtain the crucial tax. Fortunately, in the case of the former, matters got off to an encouraging start. The earl soon agreed to the suggestion that his quarrel with Edward should be put to arbitration, and Richard of Cornwall, that seasoned settler of disputes, was drafted in to devise a suitable compromise. Meanwhile, Edward and the other crusaders must have set about persuading the knights of the shire to vote in favour of a subsidy. Records of parliament at this date are virtually non-existent, so one can only imagine how much hard bargaining, arm twisting and bribery took place between the session’s opening and the crucial vote a fortnight later. One of the chief demands of the shire knights must have been a confirmation of Magna Carta (on which more later), for Henry in due course obliged them on just this score. The key concession, however, is likely to have been a firm commitment to enforce the restrictions on Jewish moneylending, introduced but seemingly stifled the previous year. When, on 14 May, the king instructed the exchequer to enforce the legislation with immediate effect, thereby relieving a large section of the local landowners in parliament of the burden of the Jewish debts, it was a clear quid pro quo. Two days earlier, the crusade tax had finally been approved.
Suddenly everything was possible. Henry III was so thrilled by this last-minute breakthrough that a week later he announced his intention of joining the expedition (a fit of enthusiasm that was mercifully short lived). Another week on and Richard of Cornwall succeeded in resolving Edward’s dispute with Gilbert de Clare. It took a further month to hammer out the precise terms, but on 27 May it was agreed that neither man would wage war on the lands of the other, and that Gilbert would set out for the East a year after Edward’s departure.
That departure now had to follow very fast if the English were to make the French deadline; the weeks of waiting while the first fruits of the tax were gathered must have been hugely frustrating. During this time Edward drew up formal contracts with the men who would be serving under him, which reveal that his force numbered 225 knights. Every crusader, however, would have travelled with a number of attendants: Eleanor of Castile, for example, was taking her steward, her valet, her tailor and two of her clerks. In total, therefore, the English army probably numbered around a thousand people.
At last, all was ready, and the court moved to Winchester for a final round of preparations. On 2 August Edward appointed a committee of five men, headed by Richard of Cornwall, to supervise his lands and affairs during his absence. The earl was also nominated as the guardian of his godson’s three children – John, now four, and Henry, two, had recently been joined by baby Eleanor. The same day, Edward issued the foundation charter for his abbey at Darnhall, and two days later he was formally made his father’s proxy when Henry III at last resigned his twenty-year-old vow. The crusaders then moved to Portsmouth, where the fleet that would convey them across the Channel was waiting, but contrary winds and the death of the archbishop of Canterbury meant they had to wait a further fortnight. It was not until 20 August, having first been diverted to Dover, that Edward, Eleanor and their companions finally set sail for France.
They had already been cutting it fine; now they were officially late. Louis IX and the other crusaders had resolved to set out from southern France no later than 18 August. Edward’s original intention had been to travel via Gascony, in order to provide for the duchy’s security and to collect more men and supplies. This plan now had to be abandoned. In an attempt to make up lost time, the English army passed directly through France, covering more than 600 miles in the space of a month. By the end of September they had reached the appointed rendezvous, Aigues Mortes, a port on the Mediterranean coast, developed by Louis at the time of his first crusading adventure.
It must have been disappointing, if not altogether surprising, to discover that the French king and his companions were already long gone. Perhaps aware of Edward’s delay, and no doubt unwilling to watch an idle army consume his carefully stockpiled supplies, Louis had peremptorily set out at the beginning of July. The surprise lay not in his premature departure but in his direction of travel. The French fleet had not sailed east, as expected, but south. Astonishingly, in spite of the years of planning and the pressing needs of the Holy Land, Louis had made a last-minute alteration to his itinerary, and decided to lead his army to North Africa.
The instigator of this unexpected and seemingly perverse decision was the king’s youngest brother, Charles of Anjou. An adventurous and fiercely ambitious man, Charles had recently succeeded where Henry III had so conspicuously failed, and established himself as king of Sicily. Invested by the pope in 1266, he had subsequently cemented his rule by conquering the island and beheading his German rival. Now he wished to carve out a wider Mediterranean empire and was targeting Tunis on the African coast. Of old the emirs there had paid a gold tribute to Sicily’s kings, but latterly this custom had lapsed, and Tunis had become a refuge for Charles’s enemies. The new king was determined to reverse the situation, and saw in his elder brother’s crusade the perfect instrument. Somehow he persuaded Louis that the Holy Land’s interests would be best served by a strike on Tunis; a rumour that the emir was ready to convert to Christianity may have helped him argue his case.
One can only wonder at the reaction of Edward and his companions on being told that the crusade for which they had saved and struggled for so long had been redirected in such an apparently whimsical fashion. (And, one is bound to wonder, had they arrived sooner, would they have been able to prevent its redirection?) As it was, they saw little option but to follow where the main French army had led. In early October they set out from Aigues Mortes in Louis’s wake, clearly unaware that any hope of uniting with the French king were already in vain.
For Louis was already dead. He had died on 25 August, just days after Edward had left England, carried off by a plague that had struck the French army soon after its arrival in Africa. Several hundred other Frenchmen had also succumbed, and the survivors had concluded that the best way forward was a negotiated retreat. Charles of Anjou, whom providence had deigned to spare, had succeeded in obtaining the promises he needed from the Tunisian emir, and saw no reason to prolong hostilities. Thus, by the time the English arrived on 9 November, the African adventure was over. Edward was reportedly appalled to discover that a peace deal had already been reached and that the French had already begun their withdrawal. Faced for a second time with a fait accompli, and perhaps wondering whether they would get to do any fighting at all, the English crusaders agreed to Charles’s suggestion that they should sail to Sicily before deciding how to proceed.
In the event the decision was made for them. On reaching Sicily, the French fleet put in at Trapani, a town on the island’s western tip, only to be smashed to pieces by a great storm. More men and horses were lost, as well as a great deal of treasure and supplies. It was enough to persuade Louis’s son and successor, Philip III, who was no doubt still reeling from the loss of his father and a younger brother, that the crusade was a doomed enterprise. In January 1271 he departed back in the direction of France, taking the overland route through Italy, leading what had essentially become a great funeral procession.
The storm was no less decisive for the English, but pointed them in a different direction. Edward’s ships had found an alternative anchorage – possibly Palermo – and had been spared destruction. This was taken as a sign of divine approval: God had protected them and clearly intended them to continue. There were evidently some voices in the English camp urging caution, perhaps fearful that France, after Louis’s death, would prove an unstable neighbour. Edward, in response, detached Henry of Almain from his side and sent him north with the retreating French army, intending that his cousin should bolster the governments of England and Gascony. But beyond this, the thoughts of the English that winter were focused on completing the mission to which they were sworn. Fresh ships were hired and fresh supplies gathered, and when Edward put to sea once more in the spring, his course was set firmly for the East.
More specifically, it was set for Outremer – the Christian lands ‘beyond the sea’. Some 170 years earlier, in their quest to capture Jerusalem, the first crusaders had conquered a broad swathe of territory along the eastern Mediterranean coast. At Antioch, Tripoli and Edessa, these pioneers had established themselves as counts and princes, while in the Holy City itself they had set themselves up as kings.
And, for a time, their dominions had flourished. Settlers came from the West, building castles, cathedrals, towns and villages. Pious knights vowed to defend the new colonies, banding together in brotherhood to form revolutionary new organisations – the military orders of the Hospital and the Temple. At its greatest extent, Outremer stretched over a hundred miles inland, and as far south as the shores of the Red Sea.
This age of expansion, however, had not lasted for long. In the generations that followed, the Muslim world recovered its composure and retaliated. By the end of the twelfth century the kingdom of Jerusalem had been reduced to a narrow coastal strip, and its kings, having lost the Holy City itself in 1187, were reduced to ruling from the port of Acre (modern-day Akko).
After these upheavals came half a century of comparative stability. In spite of fresh crusades and Muslim counteroffensives, the territorial status quo was preserved. Such significant alterations as did take place – the brief Christian reoccupation of Jerusalem, for example, negotiated by Richard of Cornwall – owed more to a prevailing spirit of practical accommodation that to the periodic outbursts of militancy.
But in the interval between Cornwall’s crusade and the coming of his nephew the political landscape of the Holy Land had again been radically transformed, and militancy was once more in the ascendant. The obliging Islamic rulers with whom the earl had treated were gone, swept away by revolution; the Mamluks, their former soldier-slaves, were now the masters of the Muslim state, and they were altogether less inclined to do deals with the infidel. From 1260, under the leadership of the short but ferocious Sultan al-Zahir Baybars, they had switched to the offensive, and soon the castles and cities of Outremer had begun to fall like ripe fruit. Caeserea, fortified at great expense by Louis IX, was taken in 1265; Antioch, the city of song and legend, fell just three years later. When, in the spring of 1271, Crac des Chevaliers, the greatest of all the crusader castles, surrendered after a prolonged siege, it seemed as if these were the end days for Christian rule in the East.
Thus, for the citizens of Acre, the sight of an English fleet sailing into their harbour just a few weeks later could hardly have been more timely or more welcome. Prior to that point, as one chronicler credibly reported, they had been completely demoralised, and contemplating the unhappy prospect of having to surrender to the sultan’s forces. But, the same writer continued, the coming of Edward and his companions in the second week of May gave them fresh hope, and encouraged them to believe that they might weather the impending storm.
Baybars, when he heard of Edward’s arrival, also experienced a change of heart. At that moment he was over a hundred miles to the north, still engaged in his military campaign, and advancing with what a Muslim chronicler called ‘resolute determination’ towards the Christian city of Tripoli. On hearing the news from Acre, however, ‘his resolution weakened somewhat’. Tripoli was granted a ten-year truce, and the sultan moved south to deal with the source of his distraction.
He came, no doubt, partly to size up his new foe, but mostly to demonstrate the extent of his own might. In early June he arrived in the vicinity of Acre, but made no immediate move against the city itself. Instead, he attacked the nearby castle of Montfort, which succumbed after a short siege. Only then did Baybars complete his advance, taking with him the castle’s captured garrison, which he proceeded to release right in front of Acre’s walls.
For those inside the city, especially the newcomers, this calculated display of magnanimity was a deeply dispiriting sight. The English, as we have seen, numbered no more than a few hundred knights, plus their lesser attendants. Mamluk armies, by contrast, were typically reckoned in thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands. The disparity in this instance was not lost on the leader of the new crusade as he looked out from Acre’s battlements. ‘When Edward saw the sultan’s host, and his great power,’ said one local chronicler, ‘he knew well that he did not have enough men to fight him.’ Baybars’ message was clear: the English, like Outremer’s other Christian inhabitants, were there at his sufferance. The following morning, once it was evident that no one was going to contest this assertion, he withdrew his forces.
Unfortunately for the English, this was not to be their only lesson in the harsh realities of life in the Holy Land. The following month, ignoring the sultan’s warning, Edward led a retributive raid into Muslim territory. His target was the castle at St Georges Lebeyne (modern al-Bi’na), some twelve miles east of Acre, and by all accounts his troops did plenty of damage, seizing some crops, destroying others, and killing many unfortunate Muslims. But, as the same accounts attest, there were also numerous casualties among the crusaders; July, the English discovered, is not the best time to don a mail shirt in the Middle East. So great was the heat that many of them died of thirst, their departure apparently hastened by an unfamiliar diet of fruit, raisins and honey.
It thus became evident to Edward that if he was to have any hope of beating Baybars he must do two things. First, he must wait for it to cool down a bit. Second, he must find himself some allies. The men of Acre, including the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller, could clearly be counted on, for they had participated in the raid on St Georges. So too could the titular king of Jerusalem, Hugh de Lusignan. He had already aided the English once before, inasmuch as he was also the king of Cyprus, and the crusaders had briefly stopped on the island during the last stage of the voyage. The hope now became that he could help them again in the same capacity. His Cypriot subjects took some convincing – it is 150 miles from Cyprus to Acre – but at length (and after Edward’s personal intervention) they also agreed to provide military service. And so, as the summer days grew shorter, the list of allies lengthened. In September it received a further boost when Edward’s brother Edmund belatedly arrived, bringing more reinforcements from England.
By themselves, such efforts might seem a futile waste of time – mere wishful thinking on the part of a man who been told too many stories about his Lionhearted ancestor. Trying to defend a beleaguered city was one thing; dreaming of defeating Baybars was quite another. The first might be construed as a noble cause; the second seemed more like suicide. It did not matter how many men came out of the West: no amount of co-operation among Christians was going to produce a force capable of beating the Mamluks in battle.
The fact was, however, that the Christians were not by themselves, for the revolution that had brought Baybars and his brethren to power was not the only shock wave to have rocked the Middle East in recent times. It was not to the West, but to the North, that the crusaders now looked in the hope of the greatest aid. As soon as Edward had arrived in Acre, he had dispatched three members of his household on a dangerous mission. They had gone to seek an alliance with Abagha Khan, ruler of the Mongols.
The rise of the Mongols had been, without question, the single most astonishing event of Edward’s age; it still remains one of the most remarkable occurrences in the whole of human history. Around the start of the thirteenth century, the horsemen of the Central Asian steppes had ceased fighting each other, begun fighting their neighbours and, in the space of just seven decades, carved out the second most extensive empire the world has ever seen (only the British Empire exceeded it and then by only a narrow margin). From China in the east, across southern Russia and even unto the fringes of Europe itself, the Mongols, led at first by the mighty Ghengis Khan and later by his sons, had conquered and slaughtered everything in their path.
Accordingly, there had been much initial consternation among the princes and peoples of Christendom about the speed of their advance. But in the 1250s the threat to Europe had receded as the Mongols had begun to invade the Middle East, and suddenly the ferocious heathens of yesteryear had started to look like potential partners in the struggle against the Mamluks. In 1265 Abagha, great-grandson of Ghengis and ruler of the il-Khanate (the Persian province of the Mongol Empire) was married to a daughter of the Christian emperor of Constantinople; there was even talk in some quarters (quite inaccurate, as it turned out) that he himself might convert. Regardless of his religious orientation, however, the il-khan was united with the Christians in regarding Baybars and the Mamluks as his enemies, and that was reason enough to hope for an alliance.
It evidently took Edward’s ambassadors several months to deliver his message, and one can only imagine the perils and hardships they must have endured in order to do so: Abagha’s reply, when it arrived, was dated at Margheh, a city over 700 miles from Acre (not far from Tabriz in modern Iran). Nevertheless, the reply was highly encouraging. While the il-khan could not come himself – he was at that instant dealing with other enemies – he indicated that lieutenants would shortly be invading the Holy Land in order to engage with Baybars. A combined offensive, it seemed, was on.
And with immediate effect. Abagha’s letter can hardly have reached Acre before the news that thousands of Mongol horsemen were indeed pouring southwards. By October they were just 200 miles away and had already driven the Mamluks out of the ancient city of Aleppo. Baybars rose to the bait. He and his men did not fear the il-khan’s forces. They had beaten them once already, eleven years earlier, at the celebrated battle of Ain Julat (a rare setback in the otherwise relentless Mongol advance). This new invasion would be similarly repulsed. In November the sultan and his army rode north.
Now was the moment for the Christian coalition to strike. On 23 November Edward, his brother and the English crusaders, King Hugh and the barons of Cyprus, the Templars, the Hospitallers and the knights of Acre all rode out. Their target this time was Qaqun, a castle some forty miles to the south. Recently redeveloped by Baybars as a centre for governing the surrounding lordships, Qaqun represented a valuable prize in its own right. More important for the crusaders, however, was the castle’s strategic significance, for it lay halfway between Acre and Jerusalem, and guarded the road that ran between them. If the English were to have any chance of retaking the Holy City, they would have to take Qaqun first.
It must therefore have been a bitter disappointment to Edward and his friends that in this last respect their mission failed. As before, they succeeded in slaughtering many local herdsmen and seizing large numbers of animals; indeed, to read the enthusiastic reports of local Christian chroniclers, one might almost imagine that cattle-rustling had been the principal objective. The castle at Qaqun, however, held out. It was, as one writer explained, ‘very strong, surrounded by ditches full of water’. The crusaders would undoubtedly have taken it, he continued, had not a Muslim relief force approached (and, added a Muslim writer, chased them back in the direction of Acre).
Nor was this the only disappointment. On their return the Christians discovered that the clash they had been counting on in the north had not taken place. On learning of Baybars’ advance, the Mongols had withdrawn from their positions and retreated. By early December the sultan had reoccupied the city of Aleppo, where he was in due course informed of the unsuccessful attack on Qaqun. ‘If so many men cannot take a house,’ he observed witheringly, ‘it seems unlikely that they will conquer the kingdom of Jerusalem.’
It was Baybars’ initial intention to punish the crusaders for their presumption; he was already halfway to Acre with his army before foul weather forced him to abandon his plans. Just how serious his assault would have been remains an open question. Retaliation was no doubt on the sultan’s mind, but it is highly unlikely that he would have wished to reduce the city to rubble. The fact of the matter was that Acre was a great mercantile hub, and Baybars needed it to continue functioning as such. His recent conquests against the Christians had given him control of the north–south routes through the Holy Land, and these would be crucial in countering the more serious threat presented by the Mongols. But Acre also had a role to play in this greater struggle, for the prosperity of the Mamluk Empire was to some extent dependent on trade with the Christian capital. Moreover, as this implies, there were also many Christians living in Acre who were equally dependent on the same commercial links. The merchants of Venice, masters of the Mediterranean market, had an especially large stake in the city. Such considerations and vested interests provided a powerful argument for mutual toleration, and the preservation of the status quo.
As such, of course, they were anathema to a committed crusader who had been conditioned from birth to see this part of the world in black-and-white terms. When he arrived in Acre Edward had been appalled to find Christians trading with Muslims, and had endeavoured to implement a ban (without success: the Venetians had simply responded by waving the royal charter that guaranteed their commercial privileges). If his refusal to engage with such practical politics seems lamentable, one can well understand his frustration. He and his companions had travelled thousands of miles and spent impossible sums to reach the Holy Land. They were tantalisingly close to their goal – Jerusalem lies just seventy miles from Acre – and could not lightly abandon the hope of attaining it. At some point during their stay, Eleanor of Castile presented her husband with a specially commissioned copy of De re militari (Concerning Matters Military), a celebrated tract on warfare by the Roman writer Vegetius; it is tempting to imagine Edward leafing through its pages in search of inspiration. He certainly remained focused on military matters. It was probably during the winter of 1271-72, confined within Acre, that he began to build a new tower in the city walls. His hope was clearly that the struggle with Baybars would continue, and it must therefore have been a galling blow when, in April 1272, a ten-year truce was agreed with the sultan. ‘He was not pleased when the peace was made,’ wrote one Muslim commentator, ‘and did not become a party to it.’
Being the only significant non-signatory to a ceasefire made Edward a dangerous loose cannon. Even some of those who had cheered his arrival the previous year would now no doubt have happily waved him back onto a boat. It was Baybars, however, who took active steps to hasten the Englishman’s departure. Accounts of what happened are almost hopelessly confused in their detail. According to Muslim sources, who would seem best placed to know the background, the sultan instructed one of his lieutenants to pretend to be ready to betray his own side. It was a simple ruse, but it was also the first positive news that the English had received in months, so Edward (no stranger to employing deception in his own dealings) allowed himself to be taken in. When Muslim messengers arrived at his court – bearing gifts, in the best enemy-tricking tradition – they were welcomed and allowed to stay for some time. It was not until 17 June (which happened to be Edward’s birthday) that they put their plan into action. With the promise of news concerning Baybars, one of their number secured a private audience and, finding himself alone with Edward and his interpreter, revealed his true purpose by drawing a dagger. According to English sources – better placed to know the details of the attack – Edward succeeded in killing his would-be assassin but not before sustaining a serious injury himself. He had been stabbed, with a blade that was feared to be poisoned.
It as at this point, famously, that legend has Eleanor of Castile intervening to save her stricken husband; in one version of events she proves her love (and mettle) by sucking the poison from his wound. Sadly, this is almost certainly a retrospective romanticisation. It was first reported half a century later by an Italian writer, and even he was careful to preface his account with the medieval chronicler’s time-honoured disclaimer ‘they say that …’. Other accounts of the scene have Eleanor being led away weeping by John de Vescy, and suggest that it was another of Edward’s close friends, Otto de Grandson, who attempted the sucking operation.
Whatever the case, there was nothing at all fanciful about the degree to which Edward’s life had been placed in peril. The day after the assault he drew up his will in anticipation of the worst, and for a time it seemed that the worst would happen. The greatest danger from such injuries was that they would turn gangrenous, and infection would spread to the rest of the body, slowly killing the victim. This apparently started to happen to Edward’s wound, and it seems he was saved only by having the blackened flesh around it cut away. Such a procedure was in itself highly risky – the patient in this instance would have been well aware that, in similar circumstances, a careless surgeon had hastened the demise of his great-uncle Richard. It is arresting to think that, had he not had ready access to the skilled doctors of Acre, Edward would have quite likely died there and then, and the future history of the British Isles, if not of the Middle East, might have been profoundly different.
Although his enemy refused to die, Baybars had otherwise achieved his objective. Edward’s injury meant that the English crusade had now definitely reached its end. In truth this was a conclusion that had been apparent ever since the sealing of the truce. Edmund had left for home the following month, and later in the summer other English commanders began to follow suit. Their leader delayed a little while longer. Prevailing headwinds in the eastern Mediterranean meant that the journey home usually took twice as long as the outward voyage – anything up to eight weeks – and Edward would have needed to convalesce for as long as possible before subjecting himself to such an ordeal. Eleanor, too, having recently given birth to a baby daughter, Joan, would have been in no immediate hurry to leave.
As a summer turned to autumn, however, and a seasonal easterly wind began to blow, the couple finally bade farewell to the Holy Land. In late September they sailed from Acre, and by the start of November they were back in Sicily, where they were again welcomed by Charles of Anjou. Unable to travel quickly because of his wound, and doubtless already starting to enjoy the celebrity status conferred by his miraculous survival, Edward spent Christmas in Charles’s company on the Italian mainland. He was still there early in the new year when messengers arrived from England, and hailed him as their king.