General plan of Tell al-Khadra, Ascalon. Having been a port and trade center since the II millennium B.C., the city became famous during the classical era for its temples (Dagon, Apollo, the Heavenly Aphrodite, Atargatis) and many gardens. 1. Cananaean Gate 2. Basilica 3. Bouleuterion 4. Ancient tell 5. Remains of the sea wall 6. “Peace Well” 7. Church of St. Mary the Green.
Ascalon fell to the Franks only in 1153. Its strong walls and outworks, still visible today, were able to repel the Frankish army long after all the other towns in the Holy Land had fallen. Even in 1153 it took two months of siege and the construction of siege towers and battering-rams, constructed as in the siege of Jerusalem from dismantled ships, before the city fell. The Frankish siege tower used at Ascalon was so impressive that it was known about as far away as Damascus, where it was called the ‘cursed tower’. According to William of Tyre, the other trials the citizens had endured were light in comparison to the ills that assailed them from this tower. They tried to set it alight, but the flames spread to the walls which burned all night and finally collapsed. Since the breach of the walls was only partial the siege nearly failed, but the citizens of Ascalon decided to surrender, and fled the city. In 1187, after a two-week siege, the city fell again to the Muslims. However, on the approach of Richard I in 1191, Saladin decided to destroy the city to prevent his regaining it. The walls and towers were filled with wood and burned down. The city burned for twelve days, but the defences were so strong that the principal fortification, the Tower of Blood or Tower of the Hospital, fell only after repeated onslaughts. During a four-month period in 1192 the Crusaders restored the city but, after an agreement with the Muslims the walls were again demolished. In 1240 the Franks built a castle over the ruins, apparently on the north-west hill, but it too was destroyed by Baybars in 1270.
Ascalon is estimated to have had about 10,000 inhabitants. Its walls formed a semicircle surrounding an area of fifty hectares. This was a large area by medieval standards. Jerusalem covered seventy-two hectares and Akko sixty, while Sidon, the next largest town, covered an area of only fourteen hectares. The walls were the continuation of the Roman/Byzantine walls which were rebuilt by the Umayyad Caliph Abd’al Malik in the seventh century and probably restored by the Fatimids in the eleventh. Frankish work consisted largely of repairs and embellishments. The high and very thick walls were built on an artificial mound 7–10 m high, stone-lined to form a glacis, and were constructed of solid sandstone masonry with lateral columns and extremely hard cement. There were also outworks 2 m thick with occasional casemates. There were four gates with indirect access and with high, solid, round and square towers. Sources mention fifty-three towers around the walls, and Benvenisti estimates a distance of about 30 m between them. To the east was the Great Gate (Porta Major) or Jerusalem Gate. It was the best defended of the gates and in the barbican before it were three or four smaller gates with indirect entrances. There was a southern gate facing Gaza (Gaza Gate), a northern gate (Jaffa Gate) and a Sea Gate (Porta Maris). According to Benvenisti the citadel was by the Gaza Gate, where two large towers, the Tower of the Maidens (Turris Puellarum) and the Tower of the Hospital, were located (Benvenisti 1970:124). This area was called the Hill of Towers and is at the highest point of the defences. As mentioned above, however, it would seem that the castle built in 1240 was in the north-west (Pringle 1984a: 144). Frankish remains inside the walls consist of only two of the town’s five churches. The position of the cathedral church of St John is unknown; it was probably located near the centre of the town.
The preaching of Fulk of Neuilly, Peter Capuano, and others bore fruit when Counts Thibaud III of Champagne and Louis I of Blois took the cross at a tournament at Ecry-surAisne on 28 November 1199. Other lords and knights followed suit, including Baldwin IX of Flanders, Hugh of Saint Pol, Geoffrey III of Perche, and Simon of Montfort. The great lords dispatched six plenipotentiaries to secure sea transport and supplies; they included Geoffrey of Villehardouin, marshal of Champagne, the future historian and apologist of the crusade. In late winter 1201, the envoys concluded a treaty with the republic of Venice for the transport and provisioning of 33,500 men and 4,500 horses for a payment of 85,000 marks of silver on the standard of Cologne. A fleet of ships sufficient to carry all of these men and their animals, as well as fifty war galleys to be provided at Venice’s own expense, was to be ready to sail on 29 June 1202, along with provisions for nine months. The objective, Egypt, made strategic sense, as it was the center of Ayyūbid power and potentially the first step on a triumphal march to Jerusalem, but this destination was kept secret from the rank and file. Venice became a full partner in the crusade and was to receive a half-share of spoils. The city suspended commerce and turned to full-time ship refitting and construction, drafting half its able-bodied men as sailors and marines.
The Venetians upheld their contractual obligations, but the leaders of the crusades had far less control over circumstances surrounding their half of the compact. Thibaud of Champagne died on 24 May 1201. The nominal leadership of the crusade was then offered to, and accepted by, Boniface I, marquis of Montferrat in Lombardy. Boniface duly assumed the crusader’s cross at Soissons in late summer 1201 and probably added a substantial number of followers to the crusade. They were not, however, enough to swell the army’s forces to anything approaching the number that the French envoys had estimated would sail from Venice. What is more, the contracted embarkation date of 29 June 1202 arrived and passed with crusaders still straggling into Venice. Even Boniface did not leave home until early August. Many crusaders chose not to rendezvous at Venice but sailed to Outremer from other ports. The cost of passage also dissuaded many. In the end, no more than 12,000-13,000 warriors assembled at Venice. After their money was collected and after the great lords had contributed everything they had or could borrow, the army could only raise 51,000 marks, a shortfall of 40 percent. Venice needed to recoup its investment in time, lost commerce, and materials. To make matters worse, the army’s campsite on the sands of the Lido became increasingly oppressive as the hot summer wore on, and the rate of deaths and defections rose alarmingly.
The Diversion to Zara (1202)
In the midst of this crisis, a compromise was proposed by Enrico Dandolo, doge of Venice: the republic would defer payment of the 34,000-mark balance until the army enriched itself with plunder in Egypt, if the army would assist Venice in regaining control over the rebellious city of Zara on the coast of Dalmatia. This proposal was consonant with contemporary mores, inasmuch as every lord or city had the right to secure the loyalty of subject territories before setting off on crusade. Yet it was dangerous, in that Zara, a Latin Christian city, had pledged its loyalty to King Imre of Hungary, himself a sworn crusader, which meant that his lands were under papal protection.
Faced with the choice of accepting the doge’s offer or allowing the crusade to disintegrate, the lords agreed to go to Zara. The aged and blind doge requested permission from the Venetians to take up the crusader’s cross himself, which he received on 8 September. In response to Dandolo’s display of piety, many Venetians who had escaped being drafted for the crusade fleet now flocked to the cause. Venetian draftees and the new volunteers, as well as conscripts later enrolled from Adriatic port cities under Venetian hegemony, combined to raise the number of crusaders to probably over 44,000. This meant that 70 percent or more of the crusaders who sailed with the fleet were Venetians or citizens of cities subject to Venice.
Some of the non-Venetian crusaders from northern Europe who heard of the decision to go to Zara were troubled. These included Abbot Martin of Pairis and Bishop Conrad of Halberstadt, who were commanded by the legate Peter Capuano to stay with the army and work to reduce the level of violence at Zara. However, the Venetians, fearing Peter would forbid the attack once the fleet was under way, refused to accept him as a papal legate, and he returned to Rome, where he informed the pope of this turn of events. Innocent III forbade any attack on Zara under threat of excommunication and dispatched a letter to the army to that effect. It was a canonical yet ultimately impractical response to the crusaders’ predicament.
The fleet, consisting of 50 war galleys, about 150 horse transports, and an unknown number of other transport vessels, set sail at the beginning of October 1202, reaching Zara in two divisions on 10 and 11 November. Initially the Zarans were ready to capitulate, but they were dissuaded by some dissidents within the army who believed the pope’s warning would forestall any attack. It was bad advice. Despite hearing the pope’s words forbidding any violence to the Zarans, most soldiers joined the Venetians in bombarding the city and undermining its walls. On 24 November the Zarans capitulated, and their city was sacked.
The Venetian and Frankish crusaders settled down in winter quarters in the captured city. During the winter, a number of dissident crusaders left the army, some for home and others to the Holy Land. Those who remained behind were eager to have the ban of excommunication lifted from their shoulders. They prevailed upon the clergy traveling with the army to absolve them and sent a legation to Rome to beg papal forgiveness.
Despite his anger, Innocent accepted the Frankish crusaders’ profession of contrition and plea that they had acted out of necessity. In February 1203 he provisionally lifted the ban, provided that the crusade leaders bound themselves and their heirs to make full restitution to the king of Hungary. He also ordered them to swear formally never again to attack Christians, save in the most exceptional circumstances, and then only with the approval of the pope or his legate. The Venetians, who admitted no wrongdoing, did not at first seek papal absolution and remained excommunicated. Although Christians normally had to shun excommunicated persons, this extraordinary situation called for extraordinary measures, and Innocent allowed the army to continue to sail with the Venetians.
The Treaty of Zara (1203) and the Diversion to Constantinople
In Zara the crusaders’ provisions were dwindling, and their funds were exhausted. While their legates were on their way to Rome, they received emissaries from Philip of Swabia, claimant to the throne of Germany, begging the army to help his brother-in-law, Alexios Angelos. Alexios’s father, the Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos, had been deposed, blinded, and incarcerated by his brother, also named Alexios, who now reigned as Alexios III. Prince Alexios had fled to the West in 1201. Although rebuffed by the pope, Alexios the Younger continued to court Western help, including meeting Boniface of Montferrat at Philip of Swabia’s court at Christmas 1201 and sending representatives from his base in Verona to the crusade leaders assembled in Venice, probably in September 1202. Young Alexios’s plight and ambitions were already well known to the Frankish leaders, and Boniface clearly supported his cause. In return for the crusaders’ help in ousting his uncle, Prince Alexios promised through Philip’s emissaries to submit the Greek Orthodox Church to obedience to Rome, to subvent the crusade with 200,000 marks and provisions for a full year, to supply 10,000 mounted soldiers for the crusade, and to maintain 500 soldiers in the Holy Land for the rest of his life.
The army’s leaders were deeply divided on this proposal. After spirited debate, Boniface of Montferrat, Baldwin of Flanders, Louis of Blois, Hugh of Saint-Pol, and Dandolo decided they could not refuse this offer, even though they were in the minority. Several influential clerics, such as Conrad of Halberstadt and Abbot Peter of Lucedio, also supported the baronial leaders. One factor in their decision was the belief that Alexios III was unpopular and would be deposed when the rightful heir appeared before the city. Thus, a small but decisively powerful faction of the army’s baronage entered into a treaty with the Byzantine prince whereby he would join the army at Zara before 20 April 1203. When the legation to the pope returned, the army’s leaders conspired to suppress news of Innocent’s prohibition of the Constantinopolitan adventure (rumors of which had reached him in Rome) and the Venetians’ continued excommunication. As a result, all of the rank-and-file crusaders believed that they had received full absolution for the attack on Zara.
On 7 April the crusaders evacuated Zara. Unable to hold the city with their fleet on crusade, the Venetians reduced it to rubble. On 20 April the army set sail, with Boniface and Dandolo remaining to wait for Prince Alexios, who arrived on 25 April. A month later they joined the army at Corfu, where the plan to sail to Constantinople met its severest test. Most members of the Frankish army still did not favor the diversion and were only persuaded when the leaders gave a solemn promise that the army would remain in Constantinople no more than a month, unless it freely consented to an extension of that limit.
The First Capture of Constantinople (1203)
The fleet reached the Bosporus on 24 June. On 26 June the army encamped about a mile upstream from Constantinople and awaited the palace coup they believed was imminent. On 2 July a legation from Alexios III arrived offering the crusaders provisions and money if they promised to leave, and threatening resistance if they remained. The crusade barons countered by calling for Alexios III’s immediate abdication. Believing that the people of Constantinople were still ignorant of Prince Alexios’s presence, the crusaders sailed up to the city’s walls and displayed the young man, while calling on the Byzantines to take action. They were met with missiles and insults.
On 4 July the leaders held a war council and decided their first objective had to be control of the Golden Horn (Turk. Haliç), the natural harbor to the north of the city. The following day, the army, which now numbered about 10,000 (not counting the fleet’s sailors and marines), landed at the suburb of Pera (Galata) across the harbor from the city. Byzantine resistance was weak and ineffective. On 6 July the crusaders captured the Tower of Galata, which was located at the harbor’s entrance, enabling them to break the chain that ran across the harbor from the tower to the city. The Venetian fleet was now able to sail into the Golden Horn, the only enemy fleet ever to do so.
On 17 July the army attacked the land walls at the Blachernae Palace and was repulsed. The Venetians attacked a nearby portion of the inner harbor wall and took twenty-five or thirty towers, about one-quarter of the harbor fortifications. Fierce resistance by the Byzantines prevented any meaningful advance into the city. To protect their perimeter, the Venetians set fire to nearby houses. The wind whipped the fires into a conflagration that consumed about 125 acres of the city. Emperor Alexios sallied out with a massive force in a feigned attack against the Frankish crusaders, inducing the Venetians to abandon their hard-won towers in order to assist their comrades.
By day’s end, the crusaders had suffered numerous casualties and apparently gained nothing, but the fire and the emperor’s retreat in the face of the smaller crusade army so enraged the citizens of Constantinople that Alexios III fled the city that night. The nobles in the city now reinstalled Isaac II Angelos, who summoned his son to join him in the city. The crusaders, however, refused to allow Prince Alexios to leave camp until Isaac agreed to confirm the Treaty of Zara and to accept Alexios as co-emperor. Isaac acceded, possibly in return for the crusaders’ camping across the Golden Horn in Pera and not in the city. The coronation of Alexios IV took place on 1 August.
Alexios IV and Isaac II made an initial payment sufficient to allow the army to pay off its debt to the Venetians; after imperial funds dried up, they had to resort to confiscating church treasures, but even that was insufficient. A more difficult task was delivering on the promise to submit the Byzantine church to papal authority, and there is no evidence that the co-emperors even tried. Isaac and his son had a precarious hold on the throne and faced the grim prospect of not being able to fulfill all of Alexios’s promises to the crusaders. On their part, the army’s leaders were burdened with their vow to the soldiers to quit Byzantium within a month of their arrival. The most generous computation of the due date was one month from 18 July, when they entered the city. Alexios IV therefore proposed that the army remain in his service until March 1204 and campaign with him so that he could capture his uncle, secure control over the provinces, and gain the riches of empire. The plan made sense to the crusade leaders, who won over the soldiery to their point of view. With most of the crusaders remaining behind as a security force, Alexios and some of the crusaders marched into Thrace, where they won over some cities but failed to capture Alexios III.
Meanwhile two disasters struck in Constantinople. On or around 18 August, a riot broke out in which Greeks slaughtered a number of Latin resident aliens and looted their quarters. Many survivors fled to the crusader camp across the harbor. On 19 August a group of armed westerners (probably largely refugees from the riot) crossed the Golden Horn and attacked a mosque built by Isaac II as a token of friendship with Saladin. The Latins set the mosque on fire and set additional fires in the abandoned Latin quarters. These grew into one of history’s greatest urban conflagrations. By the time the flames were under control two days later, about 450 acres of the city had been consumed and approximately 100,000 inhabitants were homeless, although few, if any, had died in the flames. The city’s remaining Latins fled across the harbor to the crusader encampment.
The Constantinopolitans blamed Alexios IV for having brought the destructive Westerners to their city. He now tried to distance himself from the crusaders following his return from the Thracian expedition in November, although he continued to use them to support his hold on the crown. Alexios IV suspended payments to the crusaders, and on 1 December armed conflict on both land and water broke out, with deaths on both sides. After a formal warning to Alexios IV was rebuffed, hostilities now began in earnest, although there is no reason to conclude that the crusaders intended at this time to conquer the city. They wanted to either force Alexios to honor his contract or plunder wealth equal to what the emperor owed them. Alexios’s antipathy toward the crusaders appears to have been largely feigned, for he seems to have harbored hopes of reestablishing friendly relations with them.
The Second Capture of Constantinople (1204)
Following two unsuccessful Byzantine attempts to destroy the Venetian fleet with fire ships and the inglorious defeat of an imperial land force, Alexios IV’s tenuous popularity plummeted. On 25 January 1204, an urban mob declared him deposed, and two days later they forced the imperial purple on a young nobleman, Nicholas Kanabos. In desperation, Alexios IV turned to the crusaders for assistance, but he was seized and imprisoned by the imperial chamberlain, Alexios Doukas (nicknamed Mourzouphlos), the leader of the faction opposed to the westerners, who declared himself emperor. With the execution of Kanabos and the death of Isaac II, who died from natural causes shortly before or after Alexios IV’s deposition, Doukas had an uncontested hold on the throne.
Alexios V Doukas was crowned emperor on 5 February, and on 7 February he tried to negotiate a peaceful crusader withdrawal from Constantinople. The crusaders refused, neither trusting him nor wishing to abrogate their treaty with Alexios IV. The next night, Alexios V had the young emperor strangled. With no reason to hope for any accommodation with the Byzantines, the crusaders decided on a full-scale war against Alexios V and the imperial city. The clergy traveling with the army provided justification by assuring the crusaders that their cause was righteous, and even the moral equivalent of an assault on Muslim-held Jerusalem.
In March the crusade barons and the Venetians entered into a new treaty that arranged a division of the empire to follow the capture of the city. On 9 April all their forces concentrated an assault on the same area of harbor walls that the Venetians had held for a while in July 1203. They were repulsed with substantial losses but made another amphibious assault on 12 April. Thanks to gallantry, foolhardiness, and luck (largely by forcing an entry through a poorly defended postern gate along the harbor strand), the crusaders established a precarious forward position within the city. With the situation still in doubt, the crusaders set a defensive fire during the night. This-the third conflagration in nine months-brought the overall destruction by fire to about one-sixth of the total area of the city. During the night, Alexios V fled the city, and on the morning of 13 April the crusaders unexpectedly found themselves in uncontested possession of Constantinople. They then subjected the city to three days of pillage.
During the second week of May, the crusaders elected Count Baldwin IX of Flanders as the new emperor. His coronation on 16 May inaugurated the Latin Empire of Constantinople, which lasted to 1261. The crusading clergy had convinced the rank and file that their attack on Christian Constantinople, a city supposedly bathed in sin, schism, and heresy, was consonant with their crusade vow. Cardinal Peter Capuano even confirmed that their capture and defense of the city fulfilled that vow. He and Cardinal Soffredo released the Venetians from their ban of excommunication incurred at Zara, even though they still admitted no wrongdoing, and Peter dispensed from their crusade obligation all crusaders who stayed on in the Latin Empire for an additional year. Despite the consternation of Pope Innocent III, there was great hope in the West that the conquest of Constantinople would unify Christendom under Roman obedience and lay the foundation for the reconquest of Jerusalem. The reality was the opposite. The Latin Empire, teetering continually on the brink of disaster, soaked up crusade energy that could otherwise have been directed to the Holy Land. As for Christian unity, arguably the events of 1204 closed an iron door between the Orthodox East and Roman Catholic West that has not been reopened.
Andrea, Alfred J., “Adam of Perseigne and the Fourth Crusade,” Citeaux 36 (1985), 21-37.
—, “Cistercian Accounts of the Fourth Crusade: Were They Anti-Venetian?” Analecta Cisterciensia 41 (1985), 3-41. Andrea, Alfred J., and John C. Moore, “A Question of Character: Two Views on Innocent III and the Fourth Crusade,” in Innocenzo III: Urbs et Orbis: Atti del Congresso Internazionale Roma, 9-15 settembre 1998, ed. Andrea Sommerlechner, 2 vols. (Roma: Presso La Societa alla Biblioteca Vallicelliana, 2003), 1: 525-585. Angold, Michael, “The Road to 1204: The Byzantine Background to the Fourth Crusade,” Journal of Medieval History 25 (1999), 257-278.
—, The Fourth Crusade: Event and Context (London: Longman, 2003). Brand, Charles M., Byzantium Confronts the West, 1180-1204(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968). Contemporary Sources for the Fourth Crusade, ed. and trans. Alfred J. Andrea (Leiden: Brill, 2000). Longnon, Jean, Les Compagnons de Villehardouin: Recherches sur les croisés de la quatrieme croisade (Geneve: Droz, 1978). Madden, Thomas F., “Vows and Contracts in the Fourth Crusade: The Treaty of Zara and the Attack on Constantinople in 1204,” International History Review 15(1993), 441-468.
—, “Outside and Inside the Fourth Crusade,” International History Review 17 (1995), 726-743.
—, Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). Meschini, Marco, 1204: L’incompiuta. La Quarta crociate e le conquiste de Costantinopoli (Milano: Ancora, 2004). Phillips, Jonathan, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople (New York: Viking, 2004).
Pryor, John H., “The Venetian Fleet for the Fourth Crusade and the Diversion of the Crusade to Constantinople,” The Experience of Crusading, vol. 1: Western Approaches, ed. Marcus Bull and Norman Housley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 103-123.
Queller, Donald E., Thomas K. Compton, and Donald A. Campbell, “The Fourth Crusade: The Neglected Majority,” Speculum 49 (1974), 441-465.
Queller, Donald E., and Gerald W. Day, “Some Arguments in Defense of the Venetians on the Fourth Crusade,” American Historical Review 81 (1976), 717-737.
Queller, Donald E., and Thomas F. Madden, “Some Further Arguments in Defense of the Venetians on the Fourth Crusade,” Byzantion 62 (1992), 433-473.
—, The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).
Godfrey of Bouillon leads the siege of a city from a 14th-century French manuscript. The crusaders are deploying a wheeled tower that could be rolled right up to the defensive walls-a similar structure was used during the siege of Nicaea.
The crusader knights clash with Muslim troops during the First Crusade’s second siege of Antioch from a French manuscript of ca. 1200. The regional struggle for religious dominance had affected the fortunes of Antioch for centuries. As far back as 638 the Syrian city which was where the new faith of Christianity was given its name was captured from the Byzantines by the Arabs. In 969 the Byzantines recaptured the city by treachery after a long blockade. In 1097 the Byzantine general on the crusade urged a similar blockade but the crusaders preferred to invest the city. However; they were unable to assault its strong fortifications and in the end it was betrayed to them by a discontented officer commanding three of its towers.
A mitred Adhémar de Monteil carrying one of the instances of the Holy Lance in one of the battles of the First Crusade.
The crusaders arrived at Antioch to find that an English fleet had already seized its port, St. Symeon. The Roman walls of Antioch were strong, and half their circuit of 10 miles (I6km) lay inaccessible in the mountains. The crusaders dared not attack because of the city’s size; similarly, they could not surround it and so chose to strangle it by blockade. This strategy took time and involved constant fighting with the garrison and its supporters in outlying forts such as Harim.
By Christmas 1097 hunger within crusader ranks had forced them to send a foraging expedition led by Bohemond of Otranto into Syria. On 31st January he fought a force under Duqaq of Damascus near al-Bara: a drawn affair, Duqaq retreated but the crusaders returned without food. With the army starving and its horses dying, the Byzantine General Tatikios returned to Constantinople to seek more aid. Ridwan of Aleppo, freed from the threat of Duqaq, his brother and rival, now chose to strike. But Bohemond managed to gather a small mounted force with which he ambushed Ridwan’s army, scattering it and seizing Harim. Relieved of Turkish pressure, the army could forage again.
On 4th March 1098 more English ships put into St. Symeon, and the crusaders used the equipment and skills of the new arrivals to build a fort outside Antioch’s vital Bridge Gate. Despite savage resistance they succeeded and soon had closed off all the main gates. Spring meant more food became available and the crusaders were further encouraged by news of Baldwin of Boulogne’s seizure of Edessa.
At this time the crusaders made an alliance, against the Seljuks, with the Fatimid rulers of Egypt. Antioch’s ruler, Yaghi-Siyan, appealed for help to Kerbogah of Mosul, who was subject to the Seljuk sultan at Baghdad. Kerbogah raised a huge army and from 4th to 25th May besieged Edessa, giving ample warning to the crusaders at Antioch. There, a tower-commander offered to betray the city to Bohemond, who demanded to be made ruler of the city. The other crusade leaders refused this as a breach of the oath to the emperor Alexius, but the threat from Kerbogah was a very pressing one and in the end they agreed, but only on the condition that control of the city be ceded to Alexius if he came to claim it.
On the night of 2nd June an elite crusader force entered Antioch and the next day the city fell amid scenes of massacre. But the citadel on the walls held out. On 4th June Kerbogah laid siege to the heavily outnumbered crusaders in a city that was short of food. To make matters worse, his men could enter Antioch through the citadel and were only halted by desperate fighting. Stephen of Blois, who was absent when Antioch had fallen, fled when he saw the situation. He met Alexius at Philomelium on 20th June and told him that all was lost, whereupon the emperor returned to Constantinople.
In Antioch itself, sheer despair and pious zeal had rallied the crusaders. Fired with enthusiasm, they appointed Bohemond as commander and on 28th June marched out of the city to defeat Kerbogah, who had unwisely let his army become dispersed.
The way south to Jerusalem now lay open, but the crusaders needed to rest and may even have hoped that the Egyptian alliance would deliver Jerusalem without a fight. Taking seriously the condition of their promise to Bohemond, the leaders sent a delegation to Alexius and postponed their advance to Jerusalem until 1st November- ample time for Alexius to claim Antioch. In the meantime, Bohemond behaved as a ruler and there was tension between him and Raymond of Toulouse, the champion of the imperial alliance.
By September, news of Alexius’s “desertion” at Philomelium had hardened opinion against the Byzantines and at a council in early November the quarrel between Raymond and Bohemond paralyzed the army. Ultimately, Bohemond refused to go on to Jerusalem and when the other leaders had departed he ejected Raymond’s men from Antioch, thus breaking up the unity of the crusade.
THE HOLY LANCE
In their desperation, besieged in Antioch by the enormous forces of Kerbogah, the basic religious motivation of the crusaders emerged to inspire them. On 10th June a poor pilgrim announced that St. Andrew had revealed to him that the Holy Lance, which had pierced the side of Christ, was buried in the ancient church of St. Peter at Antioch. The papal legate was skeptical, but the next day a respectable priest declared that Christ had confirmed to him in a vision that a token of victory would be revealed to the army.
Amid great religious fervor digging began in St Peter’s church and on 14th June a lancehead was indeed discovered. This coincided with a startling event-a meteorite fell into Kerbogah’s camp and he withdrew his forces from within the city. The clergy then fanned the fires of pious fervor with a series of celebrations. Thus incited, on 28th June the army marched out with the Holy Lance borne before them. Their victory owed much to Kerbogah’s unwise dispersal of his army, and to Bohemond’s tactical acumen. But without the inspiration of the lance and its “miracles” it seems unlikely that the starving army would have challenged Kerbogah. Little wonder that after the battle the relic enjoyed enormous prestige.
No naval league materialized during the pontificate of Benedict XII, but his successor, Clement VI, oversaw the formation of two naval leagues, the first in 1343, which formed the preliminary wave of the Crusade of Smyrna, and the second in 1350. The first operation was officially proclaimed as a crusade by Clement VI in the summer of 1343, although negotiations between the Hospitallers, Cypriots and Venetians had been ongoing since 1341. In total it was decided that twenty galleys were to be fitted out for this league: six from Venice, six from the Hospitallers, four from the papacy, and four from Cyprus, a number slightly lower than the league of 1333-4 and with the absence of the French. The fleet was to gather at Negroponte on the Feast of All Saints (1 November) 1343.
Once the captains of the galleys were appointed and other logistical considerations taken care of, the fleet assembled in the Aegean in the winter of 1343-4. In the following spring naval operations were undertaken against the Turks, which initially achieved a similar level of success to those in 1333-4. In one encounter in May, the crusader galleys won a notable victory against the Turks at Longos, a harbour on Pallena (the western promontory of the Chalkidike peninsula), where they ambushed and burned a fleet of some sixty vessels and captured a close relative of a Turkish emir. In October this was followed by an even more impressive feat when the crusaders launched a surprise attack on Smyrna, where they managed to capture the harbour and harbour fortress of the city from Umur Pasha, but not the acropolis overlooking the city which remained in his hands. Thereafter, it is likely that some of the combatants on the galleys remained to garrison the fortress at Smyrna, but the league, presumably now somewhat depleted in strength, still managed to repel an assault from the Turks led by a high-ranking naval officer, Mustafa, who was captured.
These initial successes, however, proved to be short-lived, as on 17 January 1345 the crusade leaders, including the papal legate Henry of Asti, and the captains of the papal and Venetian galleys, Martino Zaccaria and Petro Zeno, were killed outside the walls of the city. The Venetians and the Hospitallers diverted reinforcements to Smyrna in the spring, but soon after the Aydin-oglus began launching new raids in the Aegean from their other ports, especially Ephesos. In the wake of this setback and the ensuing stalemate, Clement VI looked to the West for a suitable commander to lead a relief army to Smyrna and revive the fortunes of the failing crusade. The most enthusiastic and possibly only response to Clement’s call came from Humbert II, the young and wealthy Dauphin of Viennois. He took the cross and was officially named as captain-general of the Christian army in May 1345. After marching through northern Italy, where chronicles report many people taking the cross, Humbert, accompanied by an army of around one hundred knights and eight hundred footsoldiers, sailed from Venice for the Aegean, reaching Negroponte in December 1345, where he joined up with six galleys from the league; the four papal galleys and one each from the Hospitaller and Venetian contingents. When in the Aegean, Humbert made several unsuccessful attempts to recruit allies to bolster his force before he was attacked by a Genoese fleet commanded by Simone Vignoso who went on to capture the island of Chios, which Humbert had been considering as a potential base for the crusaders. After this setback, the dauphin sailed to Smyrna, arriving in July 1346. Despite Humbert’s arrival, however, after this point the unity of the league began to crumble as the Venetians sought peace with the Turks and the Hospitallers sided with the Genoese, even preventing Venetian ships from entering the port at Smyrna. This infighting, plus the outbreak of disease amongst the crusader camp, forced Humbert to withdraw to Rhodes, whence he soon after departed for western Europe. Fortunately for the crusaders, by 1347 the Hospitallers and the Venetians had managed to settle their differences and in the following spring the galleys of the league, combined with Hospitaller reinforcements, won a notable victory against the Turks of Aydin and Sarukhan off the island of Imbros. In the spring of 1348 the Latins were given another boost when Umur was killed at Smyrna, apparently shot by an arrow when assaulting the walls of the harbour fortress.
However, the progress of the crusaders was quickly put on hold by the arrival of the Black Death. The great pandemic had been contracted by the Genoese during the siege of Caffa by the Mongols of the Golden Horde in 1346, after which it was carried to Constantinople the following May and then to the western coast of Asia Minor and the European side of the Straits in autumn. By 1348 it had spread to most parts of Anatolia and the Aegean, where it reportedly killed more than in any other area. The disease also reached Italy and southern France, where it is estimated that up to half the population of Avignon died during a seven-month period. The Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani, who is one of the most reliable informants on both western European and Aegean affairs, leaves a vivid testimony of the progress of the plague from the eastern Mediterranean:
Having grown in strength and vigour in Turkey and Greece and having spread thence over the whole Levant and Mesopotamia and Syria and Chaldea and Cyprus and Rhodes and all the islands of the Greek archipelago, the said pestilence leaped to Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica and Elba, and from there soon reached all the shores of the mainland [.] And many lands and cities were made desolate. And the plague lasted till -.
Here Villani deliberately left a blank space after the word `till’ to be filled in once the disease had been lifted from Florence – a task that was never fulfilled: Villani too fell victim to the Black Death before completing his work. Considering the virulence of this pandemic, it comes as no surprise to learn that crusading operations were severely hampered by this outbreak. To add to this, Romania was suffering a severe shortage of grain caused by the closure of the Black Sea markets. The crusaders were thus forced to seek a truce with Aydin, the negotiations for which dragged on for some years. By the time the leaders of the league met at Avignon in 1350 to discuss its future, the Turks had begun launching new raids into the Aegean, which led to the renewal of the league and not the agreement of a truce. This new league was officially confirmed in August 1350, when it was decided that a small flotilla of eight galleys was to be assembled in the Aegean; three each provided by Venice and the Hospitallers, and two more from Cyprus. However, only a few weeks later war broke out between Venice and Genoa, thus ending any hopes of a Venetian contribution to this league. Due to the Venetian-Genoese war, the lack of funds and the ravages of the Black Death, less than a year after it was re-formed, this second naval league was officially dissolved by Clement VI in the summer of 1351. A year later the pope, who had done so much to facilitate the formation of two naval leagues, died.
The campaign that ended in the battle of Ager Sanguinis was born out of Frankish strength rather than weakness. It was the complacency and overconfidence of that strength which caused the Antiochene army to behave in a way which broke with the established norms of crusader campaigning. The protocols were clear: muster locally to restrict the enemy’s movements, call for reinforcements from the other Christian states and behave cautiously until help arrived. In the meantime, wait for the Muslim forces to make a mistake or hope that they would be forced to retire as their irregular troops lost heart in the absence of easy plunder.
The strength of the initial position arose from the pressure Prince Roger of Antioch and his frontier barons had been exerting on Aleppo. There was always a struggle between Aleppo and Antioch to control the crucial frontier zone which separated them. Aleppo is approximately 90km to the east of Antioch. The two cities were linked by an ancient Roman road but the ‘natural’ mid-way frontier point between the two is characterised by a series of difficult hills, the Jabal Talat: the major settlements and fortifications in the region had naturally formed to the east and west of this difficult terrain.
To the west of the Jabal Talat lay the settlements of Artah, ‘Imm and Harim, all under Frankish control. The other potential ‘natural’ border was only 30km from Aleppo itself. By 1119 this eastern frontier zone was largely in Christian hands too. Frankish forces were based in Sarmada and were in control of other key points, having taken al-Atharib and Zardana in 1111. Disturbingly for the local Muslim states, Prince Roger and his frontier lords were using this position of strength to try to encircle Aleppo. In 1118 even the important town of ‘Azaz, to the north of Aleppo, was surrendered to them.
In subsequent negotiations the Aleppans were forced to hand over lands to the north and east to the Antiochenes, and to reinstate the protection money they paid, in the form of a monthly tribute, to the Franks. But even that was not enough. Early in 1119 the Franks managed to capture the town of Buza’a, to the north-east of Aleppo. The Franks were leaving the Aleppans with very few options. Their city was almost surrounded. It was increasingly clear that Frankish intentions to capture Aleppo could no longer be contained by conventional means.
The Aleppans were facing a dilemma with two possible solutions, neither of which was very attractive to their ruling class. On the one hand, as the Franks were clearly looking for more than a mere tributary relationship with Aleppo, the city could accept the inevitable and surrender to Antioch. There was still a large Christian minority in Aleppo itself, and in the surrounding countryside, so this outcome would not have been universally unpalatable to many of the ordinary people. On the other hand, to avoid surrender to the Christians, Aleppo could give up its independence in return for massive military aid from a Muslim power with access to bigger and better Turkic armies. This solution was not ideal. For most of the Aleppan population, Turkic rulers and their troops were just as foreign as the Franks.
But they were largely Muslim, as were the ruling class of Aleppo and the majority of the townsfolk. Faced with no better choice, the Aleppans called for help from the Turkic warlord, Il-Ghazi. Unstable, unpredictable, sadistic and borderline alcoholic, Il-Ghazi was never going to be an ideal candidate for the role of ‘white knight’. But the Aleppans were desperate and he was the least bad option under the circumstances.
Il-Ghazi raised an army that was spectacular in its size and ferocity. Sources talk of 20,000–80,000 steppe warriors, supplemented by the local ‘askars, mercenaries and volunteers.68 This was an extremely powerful force, fast, numerous and very dangerous: hard men inured to a hard and often violent life. All nomadic armies were fragile and volatile too, however, and here Il-Ghazi’s numbers counted against him. This vast force needed booty and fodder, and in huge quantities. If they did not get these, and if they were not led to towns they could plunder, his army would quickly begin to disperse. They were formidable fighters, but their lack of discipline and the fact that most were fighting a long way from home meant that they needed to be used quickly.
To face them, Prince Roger had a good solid core of veteran troops, spearheaded by his superb heavy cavalry. Efforts had been made to increase the number of available troops but there were still far too few men. Walter the Chancellor, who was not only with the army but also had a hand in organising it, estimated that the Antiochene army consisted of 700 knights, and 3,000 foot soldiers, together with ‘many others who had gone to battle for the sake of pay or on account of greed for enemy wealth’.
We know from later events that there was a substantial body of Turcopoles with the army, and in other battles these could constitute as much as 50 per cent of the total cavalry force. A local Syrian chronicler suggested that the Antiochene cavalry force consisted of ‘six hundred Frankish cavalry [and] five hundred Armenian cavalry’, which gives an interesting sense of the proportions.
Whatever the exact details, it is clear that Roger had the field army of the principality with him and that his main striking force was a good-quality cadre of some 3,000–4,000 men, drawn broadly equally from Frankish feudal troops and local Christians. To boost the size of the army without totally denuding his castles, he had had to scrape the barrel, and had recruited possibly the same number again of untrained volunteers and scavengers. This was a substantial force by crusader standards, but the numbers were deceptive.
They were still hugely outnumbered by Il-Ghazi’s force, probably by about three to one, or more, although they almost certainly did not fully understand this at the time: crusader estimates of the size of the Muslim army were only written after the enormity of the defeat became apparent. The large number of ‘volunteers’ that Roger had brought with him would make the army look more intimidating from a distance, and might be useful for activities such as foraging, but their value in a pitched battle was highly questionable, and could even be counter-productive if they panicked and fled through the more experienced units of the army.
At first, things went well for the Franks. Roger mustered his army and moved across the Orontes at the Iron Bridge. They then moved down to Balat, near Sarmada, and made camp. Up to this point everything was going according to the normal Frankish defensive protocols. Messengers were sent to ask the other crusader states for help. A suitable forward camp was established, close enough to Il-Ghazi to inhibit the movement of his army, and to intimidate his foraging parties. The camp was not perfect from the point of view of provisions, but it was good enough, and preparations were immediately made to ensure that its natural defences were improved. Walter the Chancellor, who was with the army at the time, explicitly says that ‘some of our men were sent to fortify the camp outside’. Roger and his men could sit out the Turkic onslaught, prepare for the arrival of reinforcements and wait, perhaps for a few weeks or a couple of months, until the Muslim army dispersed.
This situation was not ideal. It never was. The invaders would have time to lay waste the frontier, destroying crops, killing and capturing peasants. But it was just as problematic for Il-Ghazi. If he could not give his troops access to plentiful booty (and that meant destroying armies and towns, rather than just local villages that were already operating barely above subsistence level) he would lose his men. And it could be several years before he might gather such a host again.
He knew that he needed to provoke the Franks into action. On 26 June, Il-Ghazi moved his men to besiege the important castle of al-Atharib. The Franks believed this was primarily a feint to draw them away from their relatively well-defended position at Balat, and this was to some extent echoed in the accounts of the Muslim chroniclers. An attack on al-Atharib was a predictable but powerful incentive for the Christian forces to leave camp. The Muslim attack was made in force, however, and it may be that what the Christians thought to be a diversion was in fact a real attempt to capture it.
From Il-Ghazi’s perspective it was probably a bit of both. If the Franks refused to take the bait, he stood to capture one of the main fortifications threatening Aleppo: a major victory for his campaign and a significant setback to the Frankish frontiers. If they came to the town’s aid, he might have an opportunity to attack them on the difficult approaches to the town, outnumbered and off-guard.
Roger was still responding cautiously at this stage. Rather than break camp and send his whole army off to al-Atharib, he sent a detachment to its relief. The troops set off on the night of 26–27 June and, as they needed to move fast, it was primarily a cavalry force. They presumably had orders to liaise with the garrison, move in to help with the defence if the siege looked serious or, if circumstances permitted, to try to coordinate an attack on Il-Ghazi’s forces.
Arriving at first light, the young commanders of the crusading forces decided that a coordinated attack on the besieging army from two sides might drive them off or, at the very least, delay preparations for the siege. The Muslim army ‘suddenly saw the knights of al-Atharib and a band of infantry of that castle and certain of our men, who had come there by night, arriving close by in the manner of defenders as if to challenge them to battle’.
Walter the Chancellor was present when the leader of the reinforcements and his household knights returned to the camp, and told the waiting leaders of the action at al-Atharib. He was able to give us a uniquely detailed account of how the fighting had developed.
The infantry from the garrison came out first and formed a defensive line.74 An initial charge by the Frankish knights started well and the shock of impact inflicted heavy casualties on the more lightly armed Turkic troops: ‘Our men . . . drew their shields close to their sides, brandished their lances, sank in their spurs . . . and charged into the middle of the enemy. Dealing violent blows in knightly fashion they cast some down to the ground, some again, with blood pouring forth, they drove down . . . with fatal wounds.’
A knight called Robert of Vieux-Pont seems to have led the attack by the reinforcements from the field army. We know that he was already a seasoned fighter, having campaigned against Mawdud in previous invasions, and was a member of a renowned Sicilian Norman family whose ancestors had fought alongside William the Conqueror. He was famous, even in the west, as an ‘indefatigable soldier who often raided the gentiles’ lands with his military following’.
Although the initial impact caused the Turkic troops to recoil, their greater numbers and mobility meant that the shock was eventually absorbed. Lances, used to best effect in the opening seconds of a charge, were dropped as the fighting came to closer quarters, degenerating into a mêlée where swords were more useful. The Frankish troops quickly got bogged down, and Robert himself was wounded and unhorsed. As Walter wrote, during ‘these skirmishes Robert of Vieux-Pont . . . charged many of them as they rode in troops and struck them, and at once, after he had broken his lance on one of them he drew his sword and struck others of them again, and only when he himself had been struck in return by many, and his horse pierced by many different weapons, did he fall, brought down by irresistible force’. His men managed to get to him before he was completely overwhelmed, however, and got him another horse.
While Robert’s knights retreated and regrouped behind the infantry, the Muslim cavalry likewise recovered and formed up again. Some of the Turkic cavalry, presumably those more heavily armoured, prepared to charge the Christian ranks before they could regroup, no doubt helped in this by their lighter cavalry moving in to outflank and potentially surround the small Christian force. The Frankish cavalry did not want to be caught stationary by an enemy attack, as the initial shock of their momentum was the major advantage of a knightly charge. Robert managed to reform his men just in time and launched a counter-charge.
Casualties were heavy on both sides and, once again, the fighting quickly deteriorated into a series of small mêlées, with knots of soldiers fighting around their comrades. Robert, as ever, was leading from the front. He was once again unhorsed and ‘he hit the ground protected by his shield, and . . . escaped death’.79 The Frankish garrison troops also charged and counter-charged, led by their young lord, Alan of al-Atharib. Described as a ‘youth’ in 1115, he was probably still in his late teens at this point, but was keen to lead his men into battle.
The fighting outside al-Atharib was eventually called off. The Frankish infantry remained on the defensive, creating a line behind which the knights could be protected from enemy archery prior to a charge, and behind which they could regroup if the charge failed to break the enemy. The essentially passive but vital nature of their role was widely recognised, despite their social inferiority. Ironically, although their actions were less glamorous than those of the knights, and certainly largely ignored as they made their ‘after-battle reports’, the infantry component of the garrison seems to have suffered the most casualties, particularly from the archery of the Turkic horse archers as they became separated from the knights in the course of the two charges: ‘the poor are believed to have been hurt by the least more than the rich by the greatest’.81 That is, the infantry suffered more casualties from the ‘least’ of the Muslim army, the lighter armed horse archers, while the relatively well-protected knights took fewer casualties from the heavier cavalry that they contacted in their charges.
The garrison and the wounded eventually withdrew back into al-Atharib while others ‘returned to the army’ to report on the action and to give Roger more information about the enemy’s movements and likely intentions. In fact, the battle reports of Robert of Vieux-Pont and his seemingly successful attacks on Il-Ghazi’s troops outside al-Atharib may have been at the root of the disaster that lay ahead. The fighters were almost all young. The garrison commander was probably a teenager. And they were keen for glory and the opportunity to demonstrate their prowess.
Until Robert and his troops returned on the evening of 27 June, the Frankish army had been safely encamped in the traditional way, in a semi-fortified position with good access to water. It was not entirely comfortable: the ravages of the invaders were galling for the frontier lords and their men, and food supplies were not over-abundant. But the army was safe, its presence was restricting the enemy’s ability to manoeuvre and substantial reinforcements were on the way from the other crusader states. Il-Ghazi could not keep such a huge army in the field for long. All Roger and his men had to do was to be patient and the crisis would pass.
But patience is not a young man’s virtue, and particularly not a young knight’s. Walter the Chancellor was there when Robert’s men returned to camp and began to tell their stories of the action to the prince and his courtiers. The drinking and bragging inevitably began. The knights could not contain their snobbish exuberance, and stressed that it was the hereditary knights, rather than the paid soldiers of the garrison, who had performed best. Their ‘post-match’ analysis emphasised that ‘it was not the hangers-on, but the true-born knights [‘naturales milites’] who by dealing blows and overthrowing the enemy were all of them kept busy . . .’
They ‘reported to the courtiers that the deeds of the past day had brought honour to their knighthood; as a consequence, as is the fixed habit of knights, everyone lamented who had not been there’. This was an army of confident, probably overconfident, young men, looking for a fight. Everyone was elated to see how easily a small Frankish force had been able to ‘defeat’ a Turkic army. They all wanted a piece of the glory that was to be had by doing so again the next day. The frontier lords naturally argued to protect their own lands, but they were pushing at an open door. Only the clerics, led by the patriarch, advocated caution. Roger and the army were having none of it.
Although the reports from Robert of Vieux-Pont and his knights spoke of victory and an easily intimidated enemy, Il-Ghazi’s withdrawal from al-Atharib was probably a calculated move on his part. Hoping that the Frankish army would march to al-Atharib the following day, he used the opportunity to disengage his troops and send them on wide outflanking manoeuvres to the east and west of the likely Frankish line of march. Robert’s troops and the garrison of al-Atharib would be unable to follow such movements as they regrouped after the fighting. Il-Ghazi’s massive light cavalry forces were easily able to mask the manoeuvre. If Il-Ghazi was correct, the Christian army would be walking into a trap.
The Franks were almost certainly still unaware of the sheer scale of the forces they were facing and the most optimistic view of the day’s events was that the pressure was now off. The Muslim troops were behaving like a raiding party, albeit an exceptionally large one, rather than an army of conquest. The withdrawal from al-Atharib may have convinced Roger that Il-Ghazi and his men were more interested in easy plunder than a full-scale battle.
The fighting at al-Atharib had been fierce but it had at least demonstrated an appropriately aggressive spirit and, so Roger thought, kept the besiegers off balance. He was keen to keep the pressure up. Walter records that at the planning meeting of the Antiochene leadership on the night of 27 June, the prince said that they should ‘march to al-Atharib tomorrow, and approach nearby, for if they should come, the knights . . . will not fear the host of the heathen . . . and if they don’t come, we may take counsel on the following day [i.e. 29 June] and turn our march against their tents’. It is clear that, although he was heavily outnumbered, Roger thought he had the upper hand and held the strategic initiative. He was keen to move towards al-Atharib to meet the Muslim troops in battle on Thursday, 28 June or, if they fell back, to pursue them and attack them as they retreated.
Walter took a note of Roger’s orders. He was probably involved in writing them down in full, and conveying them to the different divisional commanders. The main army was to move quickly to al-Atharib at first light the next day and camp there for the night. At that point, depending on information about the enemy’s movements, further decisions could be made about how to proceed. Preparations for the march were quickly put in place, ‘and they chose that same night to send both cavalry and infantry to [al-Atharib], and decided that first thing in the morning [of 28 June] Mauger of Hauteville was to sortie with forty knights beyond the district and to direct ten knights as scouts to the tower situated on the top of the hill so that if the enemy should approach al-Atharib once more, it might be announced to the prince by way of a swift horse and a shrewd knight’.
These orders look sensible, at least on the surface. But there were serious problems. The core of the problem was a lack of intelligence about the enemy. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the very large numbers of light cavalry which Il-Ghazi could deploy, Frankish long-range scouting was extremely limited.
The Turcopoles were the first units roused in the morning, so there could be some scouting ahead of the army, but only in its immediate vicinity and along the route of march as the Frankish light cavalry were still based in the camp at this stage. Similarly, Mauger of Hauteville’s mission was sensible as far as it went but was also limited in its nature. Mauger came with a good fighting heritage from the eminent de Hauteville family in Italy. With a force of forty knights, perhaps accompanied by a number of auxiliary cavalry, maybe some eighty men in total, this was essentially a small advance force of medium and heavy troops, rather than a swarm of skirmishers gathering intelligence about the enemy’s numbers and movements. Mauger’s main role was probably to trigger prematurely any ambushes that might be set along the Franks’ proposed line of march. With a force of that size, the expectation must have been that he had enough men to fight his way out and withdraw in good order to warn the army.
Similarly, the small force of knights which Roger despatched to a tower in order to watch out for hostile activity was a prudent step but, given the scale of the enemy he was facing, entirely insufficient. We know that the tower itself was not far forward, because Roger stopped in there while he was still out hunting at first light. The Franks had some tactical and operational sense of the enemy’s movements, but on a more strategic level they were almost completely blind-sided.
Before Roger and Walter finally went to bed there were other arrangements to be made, and more orders to be issued. In an interesting insight into the way in which medieval marches were planned and orders transmitted, Walter and some of Roger’s other men stayed up long into the night to organise the following day’s order of march and dispositions. After the nobles and their men had been sent back to get what sleep they could, ‘the prince called the household [his equivalent of staff officers] and ordered that what had been decided should be brought to its intended conclusion speedily, and he showed them what and where and how it should be done’. Even after the household had finished their tasks, Roger and Walter worked on through the night, trying to finalise plans. As Walter dryly put it, Roger ‘secretly called his chancellor and settled with him what should properly be done for the business in hand about those things which seemed burdensome to the warriors’.
But there was a sense of foreboding in the air. Roger ordered that all ‘the precious vessels and all burdensome goods should be taken away by night to the tower of Artah’. He tried to appear confident to his men, but in private he knew that there could be trouble ahead. By sending the valuables and most of the baggage train back to Artah, rather than bringing them with the army to the stronghold of al-Atharib, Roger showed he was marching in full expectation that he could be facing a fight. He wanted to move fast and he knew the terrain could be difficult in places. He did not want to have to worry about a slow-moving baggage train, while at the same time trying to prepare for a pitched battle or avoid springing an ambush.
Walter may have got almost no sleep, but the rest of the army was also up before dawn. While the Turcopoles mounted and set out, the others gathered for communion and blessing. Word had been sent the previous night ‘to all the army that they should all come together to the chapel [i.e. the portable shrine that accompanied the army]’, where they could hear mass and receive Holy Communion to prepare them spiritually before they entered into combat.
Roger himself made confession with Archbishop Peter of Apamea and gave alms to the poor, purifying himself for the fight ahead. While the army adjusted its equipment and gradually set off, Roger and his household knights found time for a little hunting, taking out his ‘small hounds’ and falcons, ostentatiously relaxed in front of his men, to calm their pre-battle nerves, but also taking the opportunity to get a sense of the terrain along the line of march.
The route they took, and the battlefield itself, echoed the same limitations of intelligence gathering within the Frankish army. Roger was prudent enough to ensure that he maintained a good sense of his army’s immediate environment. There were no local or tactical surprises. But the mass of enemy light cavalry masking Il-Ghazi’s movement ensured that the Franks remained unclear about the scale of the army they faced, or its strategic deployment. This was no narrow or wooded valley, where the Franks could be beguiled into an ambush. Such terrain would hinder the largely cavalry-based Muslim army almost as much as the Antiochenes. On the contrary, the Frankish line of march to al-Atharib was through an open plain, surrounded by hills.
The element of strategic surprise lay in the way in which Il-Ghazi had been able to deploy his forces. These were split into three main bodies, any one of which was probably equal in size to the entire Christian army. But it was not just about numbers. Each of these divisions had been able to scout and advance down routes through the hills that the Christians thought impassable to cavalry. When the trap was sprung, there was little tactical surprise but the Antiochene army found itself outnumbered, surrounded and outmanoeuvred, in an open space with no immediate reinforcements to hand and no castle or fortified camp close by where they could take refuge.
Roger’s preparations the night before showed just how uneasy he was. He had to hide his feelings from the men, but Walter noticed how anxious he was. Afterwards he wrote that Roger’s ‘future appeared before him’. Filled with foreboding, Roger brought his hunting to an abrupt close, and decided to visit the hilltop tower where he had sent the ten knights to act as a scouting party the previous night. As he was leaving it, however, ‘a messenger came up to him who had ridden at great speed’. Roger’s uneasiness was not helped by the messenger’s panic. The Frankish scout reported that he had seen ‘enemy hordes all over the mountain slopes and inaccessible valleys’. There were Muslim cavalry in places ‘not even accessible to the tracks of wild beasts’.
The sense of danger was palpable. Roger was told that the Muslims were ‘approaching us quickly from three directions . . . and . . . that innumerable columns, distinguished both by standards and by other displays of cyphers, are following the first ones’. The scout was entirely correct. The Aleppan chronicle of Kamal al-Din gives an uncannily similar account of what was happening, writing that ‘as dawn broke they saw the Muslim standards advancing to surround them completely’.
Roger and his men had believed the sides of the plain could not be negotiated by large groups of cavalry and ‘were convinced that no one could get to them because the access was so difficult’.98 They thought the Muslim army, whose size they probably underestimated significantly, would continue to withdraw from al-Atharib in search of easier plunder elsewhere. Or that, if they did want a fight, they would move towards the Franks, and meet them headlong on their line of march.
They were wrong on every count. Instead they found themselves surrounded on three sides, with the vanguard of the highly mobile Muslim forces advancing on them at speed. Il-Ghazi had ‘set out towards them and his men entered [the area] by the three routes [through the mountains, and] . . . before they were aware of it, the Muslim advance guard was upon them’. The speed of the Muslim approach meant that orders for deployment needed to be transmitted quickly. Everyone was uneasy. The tension of the decision-making made it difficult to keep the army confident and calm. Everyone knew something was wrong. Things were moving far too fast.
Two bugle sounds were established as the initial commands: the first for the final fitting of arms and equipment, the second for forming up into battle lines. At the sound of a third bugle, the main lines, vanguard, centre and rear, were told to advance, with each unit marching behind its standard bearer. They were ordered to form up in battle formation using the portable shrine, which seems to have been with Roger in the central battle line, as their main point of alignment.
But the situation was so fluid that Roger had difficulty in keeping up with changing circumstances. Another jittery messenger arrived while the first scout was still being debriefed. The news was getting worse. The nervous and excited soldier said that ‘they are on this side of the Sarmadan district, very close’. The Turkic cavalry had already wheeled round their flanks and they were increasingly surrounded.
Roger realised that he had much less time to deploy his troops than he had thought. He immediately ‘ordered everyone to be warned by the sound of the bugle. There was no delay: at the first signal they were alerted, at the second they were made ready, at the third they assembled; they assembled and presented themselves to the prince in front of the chapel, where the Cross was.’ In most battles, such as at Tell Danith, this would have been the moment for a rousing speech and for the last-minute briefing of unit commanders. But events were spiralling out of control. There was no time.
Some of Mauger of Hauteville’s troops were beginning to filter back and ‘Alberic, the deputy-steward . . . appeared as the third messenger, to forewarn our men’. The news they brought with them was deeply troubling and, perhaps for the first time, Roger became aware of the size of the enemy force he was facing. Alberic was extremely agitated and the men were beginning to smell panic in the air. Walter, who was there when he galloped into camp, described him as being so distressed by what he had seen that he looked like ‘a person . . . who had been struck by a lance in his face and pierced by an arrow almost in his eye’. He had been with the advance party sent to scout out Il-Ghazi’s intentions. They had encountered large groups of enemy cavalry and most had been killed. Two of their most eminent knights, Jordan of Jordan, one of whose descendants later became constable of Antioch, and Eudes of Forestmoutiers, from Picardy, had been captured and beheaded. Most of the rest had died in fierce fighting.
The commander of the detachment, Mauger of Hauteville, was another of the survivors. He rode into camp soon afterwards, accompanied by just one other knight. They were in a bad way. As was often the case when fighting nomadic cavalry, their horses were severely wounded, ‘struck with arrows, overpowered by . . . missiles’. The animals were so weakened by their ordeal that they died before their riders could finish reporting their news to Prince Roger. The news was not good. Muslim troops were close, much closer than they had expected. As feared, they were approaching ahead and on both flanks, ‘divided into three parts’. The battle had not yet started, but the Antiochenes were already almost surrounded.
In stark contrast to the Franks’ efforts, Il-Ghazi’s reconnaissance and intelligence activity had been extremely effective. Muslim scouts were prominent in the campaign, and had been present in increasing numbers around the Frankish camp at Balat. Il-Ghazi knew that he needed to entice the Franks out from behind their defences. He had to provoke Roger into action quickly, before reinforcements arrived from the other crusader states. The greater mobility of his forces allowed him to take greater risks, and his men, mainly light cavalry, could extricate themselves relatively easily from contact with slower-moving troops. The siege of al-Atharib, a desirable objective in its own right, had the additional benefit of baiting a trap for the Antiochene army. He knew the route by which they were likely to march to try to relieve the siege and he made sure that his men were well positioned to surround them.
This was not without dangers of its own. He was dividing his army in the face of the enemy. But he had numbers on his side. The risks were further mitigated by the way in which he could flood the area with light cavalry scouts and use them to make detailed arrangements for troop movement along little-known tracks. After the event, it was all too obvious that as well as trying to identify the plans and dispositions of the Franks, there was also a particular emphasis on investigating minor routes ‘by which they could attack the prince with greater safety for themselves and greater damage to our men [i.e. the Franks]’.
Il-Ghazi’s plan worked perfectly. The Franks quickly became aware that they were surrounded. Prince Roger, even before the beginning of the battle, realised that things were not going as planned and described the Muslim attack as ‘many-sided’. At this point he made his last major mistake, and sealed the fate of the army. He had moved away from his defensive camp, and he was still miles away from al-Atharib. His best chance of reaching safety lay in carrying out a slow but disciplined ‘fighting march’ forward to the relative safety of al-Atharib castle. But this would have been difficult to conduct and, given the large number of ill-disciplined ‘volunteers’ in the army, Roger may not have thought it was feasible.
Instead, he seems to have decided to charge into the centre of the increasingly dense Muslim lines and push his way through to al-Atharib before the enemy could regroup. Roger knew that the first charge would be decisive. To give it the greatest chance of success, he sent Rainald Mazoir, founder of one of Antioch’s most famous noble families, with a detachment of troops over towards Sarmada, perhaps as a feint to divert attention away from the main army, or perhaps to try to halt the continuing numbers of Muslim troops entering from that direction.
The Antiochene army was still in good order and uncommitted at this stage, split into three main battle lines, van, centre and rear, and divided further into separate units within those lines. Last-minute adjustments and checks were made, and adjutants rode quickly up and down the lines to ensure that everything was as well ordered as possible. Final prayers were made in front of the fragment of the True Cross and the army’s shrine and then each of the units started to march forward. Messengers were continually sent from Roger in the centre to the other battle lines and units, conveying orders and receiving information, trying to keep the formations as well ordered as possible. He ‘venerated the symbol of the Holy Cross . . . then one by one the ranks raised their standards and set off in the assigned order, with bugles, flutes and trumpets blaring, and started their march eagerly’.
There were five units in the vanguard, the spearhead of the Frankish army. From right to left, these were the ‘battle line of St Peter’ (an elite military confraternity), the ‘battle line of Geoffrey the Monk’, the ‘battle line of Guy Fresnel’, and the unit commanded by Robert of St Lo. On the far left were the Turcopoles, tasked with protecting the flank of the charge as it connected with the enemy.
The attack was to go in from right to left, probably echeloned across the line. The ‘battle line of St Peter’ had performed well at Tell Danith, and was given the position of honour: the right of the line and the first into combat. The confraternity crashed into the Muslim lines to their front and, ‘giving their horses their heads, brandishing their lances as they made haste to strike the cohort in their path violently and quickly’, succeeded in putting them to flight.
The success of their charge triggered an onslaught from the next Frankish unit in the line, Geoffrey the Monk’s contingent, drawn mainly from his lands around Marash. This too was successful, routing not just the Turkic troops to his immediate front, but also other Muslim units on their flank. Il-Ghazi’s vanguard was looking increasingly shaky.
The unit next along the line, Guy Fresnel and his knights, also thundered into the Muslim ranks, and ‘attacked and assaulted the enemy with all its might’. The initial attacks of the Christian vanguard were causing significant damage. Even Muslim chroniclers admitted that the Franks ‘gave a redoubtable charge and the Muslims turned their backs in flight’. The Frankish charge on the right and centre was looking successful. The battle hung in the balance.
But Muslim reinforcements were immediately able to step in to fill the gaps. The routed Turkic vanguard regrouped behind the waves of horsemen that were coming up behind them. And there were vast numbers of nomadic cavalry still entering the sides of the battlefield, infiltrating around the flanks of the Christian army, and moving back towards the baggage train and rear.
The other problem was that, although the Frankish charge on the right and centre was successful, the assault on the left faltered and failed to connect. The Turcopoles were fighting a losing battle. Tasked with shielding the left flank of the vanguard for long enough to allow them to charge in, they were gradually pushed back by their opponents and, by the time Robert of St Lo’s contingent was ready to charge, the Turcopoles were beginning to intermingle and block their line of attack. We are told that ‘Robert of St Lo’s cohort, advancing with the Turcopoles from the left, when they should have struck, were unable to . . . as the Turcopoles were first to flee, and, driven by their own side’s charge and the shouts of the heathen, they got in the way of the prince’s battle-line as it rode against the strength of the [Muslims]’. The Turcopoles soon broke altogether and, to make matters even worse, their panic-stricken rout was infectious and ‘they carried along with them part of the prince’s cohort as they scattered’.
While the vanguard units were being pushed back and Roger’s central line was holding its ground, the rearguard division was beginning to falter. They could see things were not going well. Turkic light cavalry were beginning to filter round the flanks. Turcopoles and some of the vanguard were running back past them.
The decision facing the individuals in the rearguard was a brutal example of game theory in the raw: was the battle lost or not? If it was not yet lost, they could help themselves, and their comrades, by reinforcing the centre division and standing their ground. If they decided the battle was already lost, they knew that their best chance of survival lay in an early departure, back down the line of march before the few remaining exit routes were closed altogether by the nomadic horsemen. In the event, they decided the battle was over. The rearguard ran, even before they made contact with the enemy.
Walter the Chancellor, stationed in the central division near the prince and the Holy Cross, and writing soon after his release from an horrific period of captivity, was understandably bitter. He and his comrades were, he felt, betrayed by ‘some of the nobles, who had seemed estimable for their vigour and abilities and their noble blood, who also did not sustain the first assault, abandoned their prince alive on the battlefield, deserted their kin and friends, and set out at some speed, before the field of battle and the approach to the mountains could be closed to them by the enemy’s ferocity’. Although the fugitives had made it back to Antioch, he said ‘they would have preferred the port’, so they could keep running all the way back to Europe. As he commented bitterly, ‘as usual, last into battle, first through the gates’. The early flight of the rearguard was deplored by those who were left behind. But it was not entirely irrational. The battle was almost certainly lost by that point, and at least it meant that a cadre of Antiochene cavalry escaped to help defend the principality from the consequences of defeat.
Meanwhile, Il-Ghazi’s troops were softening up the Frankish centre and vanguard with archery prior to moving in for close-quarters fighting. The arrow storm created by thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of Turkic cavalry was immense. Witnesses reported that they saw ‘some of the horses stretched out on the ground like hedgehogs because of the quantity of arrows sticking into them’. The Frankish troops were subjected to a ‘hail of arrows which fell like a cloud of grasshoppers’.
The disintegration of the rearguard left Roger’s battle line vulnerable to being surrounded. The Turkic cavalry were able to wheel round and attack the centre, starting to overrun parts of the baggage train and tents.119 The Antiochene vanguard, aware that they were now encircled, began to fall back in disorder towards Prince Roger and his household knights, still defending the portable shrine.
Roger and some of his men made a last stand by the fragment of the True Cross, but it was all far too late. A sword thrust into his brain killed the prince instantly, and his household knights were cut down around him.120 The sources make it clear that soon after the charge of the vanguard, the Frankish army were almost totally surrounded. As an Armenian chronicle succinctly put it, the Muslim army ‘engulfed the Christians, who found themselves surrounded on all sides, with no way out. All were put to the sword and the count of the Franks, Roger, died with his men.’
The mounted members of the rearguard had unheroically but correctly decided that the only people who were going to leave the battlefield were those who were prepared to leave early. As the centre collapsed, thousands of Il-Ghazi’s cavalry were freed up to surge across the plain, cutting off the few remaining escape routes. Fugitives were killed in large numbers as ‘the battlefield was so hemmed in and access and paths to the mountains and valleys so observed, that not a single person trying to escape was able to get through unscathed’.
The last few knots of the men from the vanguard were still formed in some kind of order and were prepared to fall back on the centre to try to make a fighting retreat. By the time they got there, however, the Muslim cavalry had already been through the baggage train. Events had moved so quickly that the centre had already been largely overrun and Prince Roger killed in hand-to-hand fighting. The army had been surrounded on both flanks, even before the vanguard had fully regrouped from its initial frontal charges.
The troops from the centre division realised the main exit routes from the battlefield had been blocked. The survivors made their way to a nearby hill where they tried to establish a defensive position. They were gradually joined by refugees from the vanguard, falling back onto what they had hoped would be the fixed point of the army. But it was a vain hope. The troops were quickly surrounded (‘blockaded by infidels’) and subjected to ‘a barrage of spears and arrows from all sides’. A small number escaped but most were soon overwhelmed and killed or forced to surrender. By the end of the day the Christians were either in chains or dead. The ‘Franks were on the ground, one prostrate mass, horsemen and footmen alike, with their horses and their weapons, so that not one man of them escaped to tell the tale, and their leader Roger was found stretched out among the dead’.
Meanwhile, on the approaches from Sarmada, Rainald Mazoir with his ‘three-fold company’ had been conducting a battle of his own, and had succeeded up to a point, if only by diverting significant numbers of Il-Ghazi’s troops from the main battlefield. It played out remarkably similarly to the battle experienced by Roger and his men, however, and with the same results.
Rainald and his troops charged into the oncoming Turkic cavalry, routing the units to their front, and pushing back the enemy vanguard. As with the main battle raging nearby, it seemed at first as if the Christian troops were winning, and would be able to punch their way through. But the sheer volume of the Turkic forces they were facing meant that this was not possible. The impetus of the attack slowed down and eventually ground to a halt. Il-Ghazi’s units to their front may have been broken, but there were plenty of others coming up behind them. As the momentum of the charge was lost, the outnumbered Christian forces were overwhelmed. Rainald himself was wounded in the fighting, but his household men managed to get him out of the mêlée and fought their way through to Sarmada. There they took refuge in a small tower overlooking the town. Their hope was that they could stay there until reinforcements arrived.
That was no longer a realistic prospect, however. Although they did not know it, the main Antiochene army had already been destroyed and the army of Jerusalem was still several days away. The ‘tower of Sarmada’ was useful protection for villagers against marauding nomads or small raiding parties, but it was not designed to withstand a siege. Later the following morning, Il-Ghazi brought his entire army to Sarmada, together with the few hundred naked and shackled prisoners who were all that remained of the Antiochene army. Rainald had no choice but to surrender, as with ‘the weakness of the tower and the lack of food and, most of all, Il-Ghazi’s arrival there were good reasons why he could not remain there’.
Robert of Vieux-Pont and his men, who had played such a prominent part in the preliminary fighting outside al-Atharib, survived the battle. Perhaps because of their wounds or exertions on the previous day, they were lagging behind the main army when it was overwhelmed. They ‘saw the sudden attack and sped . . . to the city [of Antioch] where with their dreadful reports they brought out the citizens and roused them to the defence of their native land. Some hundred and forty escaped by being outside the camp.’
Luckily for the Franks, Il-Ghazi, as we have seen, took the opportunity of victory to treat himself to an extended bout of binge-drinking and torture. The arrival of King Baldwin with reinforcements from the south, combined with Il-Ghazi’s physical condition, meant that a rescue programme for the principality could be put into place. But the Muslims were able to roll up many of the Frankish frontier fortresses, including Artah, ‘Imm, al-Atharib and Zardana, pushing the Christian frontiers significantly westwards, back towards the Orontes. This was an important success for the Aleppans, who now had a far less threatening border to contend with. And as well as destroying much of the Christian frontier, Turcoman raiding parties were set loose across the whole Principality of Antioch. In the absence of any appreciable field army, bands of nomads were able to destroy much of the rural infrastructure, with raiders even getting as far as the Mediterranean coast.
That was the high-water mark. King Baldwin put an army into the field and met Il-Ghazi and his Turkic troops for another battle at Tell Danith on 14 August. The result seems to have been a fairly confusing draw, but it was Il-Ghazi who withdrew his men from the battlefield, and the ever restless nomads began to disperse. As Ibn al-Athir put it, ‘Il-Ghazi could not remain long in Frankish territory because it was through their desire for booty that he had brought the Turcomans together. Each one of them would arrive with a bag of wheat and a sheep and would count the hours until he could take some quick booty and then go home. If their stay was extended, they would disperse. Il-Ghazi did not have money that he could distribute to them.’
Even the most stable and focused leader, which Il-Ghazi could hardly be accused of being, would find it hard to wield such an army for extended periods of time. With the prospects of early booty disappearing, the campaign of 1119 ground to a close. It had been a major success for the Muslim powers, but they had not been able to convert that success into a cataclysm for the Franks.
Roger of Antioch
Roger of Antioch (d. 1119) Ruler of the principality of Antioch (1113-1119) in succession to Tancred. Roger of Salerno, as he was originally known, was a son of Richard of the Principate and a sister of Tancred. He succeeded Tancred as ruler of Antioch on the latter’s death in 1113. It is disputed whether Roger ruled in his own right or as regent for the young Bohemund II (born 1108), who was in Italy. However, Roger was accused of usurpation only by Fulcher of Chartres; other chroniclers treat him as the rightful ruler and refer to him as “prince.”
The first crisis of Roger’s reign was a massive series of earthquakes in 1114-1115. He demonstrated admirable qualities of leadership in his organization of the repairs to the city of Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey) and surrounding towns. In 1115, after careful reconnaissance and after making an alliance with the Turkish leaders Tughtekin of Damascus and Il-Ghazi, Roger campaigned against Bursuq of Hamadan. He did not wait for support from King Baldwin I of Jerusalem or Count Pons of Tripoli, his Christian allies, but launched a surprise attack on Bursuq’s camp on 14 September 1115. The ensuing battle of Tell Danith was an overwhelming victory for Roger and the high point of his reign. Bursuq died a few months later, and Antioch was established as a formidable political and military force in northern Syria. However, Roger tried to repeat his success in June 1119, by attacking a Turkish army led by Il-Ghazi, without waiting for Baldwin II of Jerusalem and Pons of Tripoli. The defeat that followed wiped out the Antiochene army and is known evocatively as the battle of Ager Sanguinis (the Field of Blood). Roger himself was killed in the fighting.
The principality of Antioch now lay wide open to conquest, but the Turks failed to follow up their victory, and the city held out until King Baldwin II arrived to take charge. He assumed the regency of the principality until Bohemund II achieved his majority in 1126.
Asbridge, Thomas S., “The Significance and Causes of the Battle of the Field of Blood,” Journal of Medieval History 23 (1997), 301-316.
—, The Creation of the Principality of Antioch, 1098-1130 (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2000).
Cahen, Claude, La Syrie du Nord a l’époque des croisades et la principauté franque d’Antioche (Paris: Geuthner, 1940).
Stevenson, W. B., The Crusaders in the East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1907).
The initial invasion of 1210 took Raymond, count of Toulouse, off guard. Simon de Montfort proved an able commander. He pursued sieges to their conclusion, and his heavy cavalry won victories at Castelnaudary (1211) and Muret (1213). Although crusader numbers fluctuated wildly, their determination in difficulty and constant reinforcement from all over Europe guaranteed their triumph. De Montfort’s death in 1219 enabled a Toulousain recovery, but this lasted only until 1226.
While leading a crusade against the heretical Cathars in southwestern France in September 1213, the French knight and nobleman Simon de Montfort found himself outnumbered at the fortified town of Muret by a large force from Aragon and Toulouse. His daring sortie unexpectedly routed the Aragonese, killed their king, and dealt a blow to the Cathar cause.
The Languedoc region of France had shared the experiences of its neighbours: first the Romans who brought Christianity; then the Visigoths; the passage of the Vandals going south, followed by conquering Arabs going north; then liberation by Charlemagne going south with his Franks; and finally the arrival of feudalism. Through all this change the region retained some important characteristics. The language Oc survived, though it is barely spoken nowadays. A different interpretation of Christianity evolved – Catharism. Cathar society treated women as the equals of men and embraced the pleasures of song and dance (it is from this region that troubadours spread across Europe). The Cathars had no churches, only domestic meeting places where Good Men and Women preached to the faithful. Above them were deacons and bishops. The Good Men and Women rejected all materialism as unspiritual and therefore evil. They also condemned the established Catholic form of priesthood as being licentious, rapacious and materialistic.
For hundreds of years Catholic and Cathar tolerated each other, living in the same towns and villages. That tolerance started to crumble and dissent turned to criticism, then to dispute and, ultimately, intolerance. The Catholic archbishop wrote to the Pope about the situation. The Pope appointed a legate, who reported back to Rome that he had found an entrenched heresy. Next the Pope wrote to the local lord, Raymond IV; count of Toulouse, instructing him to act against the dissenters. He prevaricated and the Pope was exasperated. Catharism continued to spread. Eventually the Pope played his strongest card and declared a crusade against the heretics. An army assembled at Lyons on 24 June 1209, commanded by Arnaud Amaury, abbot of Citeaux, who was advised by Eudes III of Burgundy and Herve de Donzy of Nevers. They advanced to Valence, Montelimar fell, Beziers fell. Catholic and Cathar were slaughtered together. ‘God will know his own’, the abbot said.
Other towns fell to different columns. At Carcassone the heretics were allowed to go free, but the city was pillaged. When the 40 days were up the crusaders went home, almost. One minor lord was persuaded to stay. Simon de Montfort IV, father of the famous English rebel, agreed to remain and continue the fight.
Although, in the beginning, hundreds of Cathars were burnt as heretics, that persecution began to take second place to de Montfort’s carving out his own fiefdom among the gorges and peaks of the Pyrenees. As the seasons turned he found he could keep conquering because although Raymond IV was in the field against him, with a much larger army, he continued to prevaricate and would not be brought to battle. The town of Muret was taken in September 1212 with the aid of another batch of 40-day men. At about the same time the fiefdoms of Lords Comminges and de Bearn were also attacked and absorbed into de Montfort’s domain. This was a mistake – they were vassals of Pedro II, king of Aragon. To him they appealed for redress, after all Simon de Montfort was also a fellow vassal of the king, but he was setting himself up to be more powerful than his lord. Both sides, the abbot with Simon and the king of Aragon, lobbied the Pope in their cause. At an ecclesiastical council at Lavaur, Pedro was not allowed to speak, only to submit written argument and eventually the Pope sided with his own abbot. A showdown was inevitable. Pedro gave his protection to the people of Toulouse, revoked it for de Montfort and summoned his own host.
In September 1213 Pedro’s forces arrived at Muret. Inside were 30 French knights and 700 infantry holding the town for de Montfort. Pedro’s host included the men of Raymond IV; Lords Comminges and de Bearn. It was made up of between 2000 and 3000 mounted knights and sergeants plus an unknown but larger number of infantrymen. They camped to the north of the town above the small River Louge. The position was protected to the east by the Garonne and to the south by the Louge. It was, however, open to the west and north, and here Pedro’s troops erected the stone throwing engines with which they started to batter the walls on 11 September.
Meanwhile news of the attack had reached de Montfort at Fanjeaux 64km (40 miles) to the east. He had summoned his, much smaller, forces. Time being of the essence, they were cavalry only, consisting of 240 knights and 500 sergeants.
The resident defenders of Muret were too few to hold the walls of the town and the attackers swarmed in, just as de Montfort was seen arriving from the west. Whether by order or in panic the assaulting troops withdrew in haste. Better that than being caught in the rear by newly arrived knights. De Montfort entered the town unopposed. The next day negotiations were opened between de Montfort’s bishops and the king of Aragon. During this brief lull, the northern Toulouse gate, nearest to the Aragonese army, was left open (some say by design, some by mistake). Either way Pedro could not ignore such a gift and ordered it rushed by the count of Foix’s men who formed the Spanish vanguard, aided by some of Raymond IV’s foot soldiers from the rearguard.
The Spanish attempted to force their way in over the narrow Louge bridge, foot soldiers and cavalry together. A few got into the town, but were there outnumbered, surrounded and those few that couldn’t escape were killed. The count ordered them to withdraw and eat before trying again. Meanwhile Simon had led his entire mounted force out of the Sales gate on the southern/western wall. He then organized them into three battles. The first two were to charge the front of the enemy, the third under his own command would sweep wide to the east and plunge onto the already engaged flank of the enemy. It was a bold plan. Each of his battles were but 250 strong. The Spanish vanguard easily matched that number on its own. But they had been distracted and at least some were taking lunch. Yet consider the time required to catch, saddle and bridle nearly 800 horses and arm the knights to ride them. This was surely no fortuitous series of coincidences. De Montfort’s men must have been standing by ready to move on command.
The first battle exited the gate heading south on the Avenue des Pyrenees. De Montfort, echoing a stratagem from the Chinese Sun Tzu, placed all the banners of his host in this first division. The head of the column wheeled off the road to their right and moved out beyond the concealing walls. Time was of the essence. They executed a right turn, forming one deep line, and crossed the Louge to advance rapidly on the enemy. The second column followed, passing the rear of the first before performing its own right turn. So the two lines were then advancing on the first Spanish division in echelon. The Spaniards were mesmerized by the advancing knights with all their banners. Chaos reigned with dismounted lords calling for their squires and horses, those mounted struggling to find their position in the line. The impact of the advancing crusaders scattered the count of Foix’s division like ‘dust before the wind’. The infantry ran for the camp while the king’s division struggled to maintain the line and was hit in turn by the pursuing horsemen. Simon, meanwhile, had stuck to his plan and now came in on the flank of the hapless men of Aragon. The king was killed in the melee and the rest fled, closely pursued by the desperate crusaders. Such was the disparity in numbers that de Montfort’s men could not afford to deplete their own strength by taking prisoners for ransom and a great number were killed.
Co-ordinating the manoeuvres of Simon’s two leading columns deserves some examination. Each would have been more than 500m (1640ft) long, assuming two abreast and allowing 4m (13ft) for each horse and space between it and the next. Turned into a line each would be only 307m (1007ft) long, 1.2m (4ft) for the frontage of each horse. The commander at the front would indicate the moment for the turn to be executed, but there was great potential for him to get it wrong. Turn the first column too early and the last man could still be in the city gate. Turn the second column early and it would overlap the rear of the first and some men would be ineffective. Turn it too late and the gap between lines would be too large, risking each being swamped by the enemy’s superior numbers.
There are two ways an efficient turn could have been achieved (although we don’t know which was used). Either the order to turn was given by the last man in the column as he reached the critical position or the commander used some mental calculation to register the distance covered. With modern infantry you can rely on counting a regular pace to judge these distances. Either way we must give credit to both de Montfort for his excellent plan and his subordinate commanders, Bouchard of Marly leading the first column and William d’Encontre leading the second, for its execution.
The Crusader armies tended to be an ill-assorted mix of troop types and fairly undisciplined. The backbone was provided by mounted men-at-arms and nobles from the Christian kingdoms of Europe. Armoured in chain mail and an open-faced metal helm, the man-at-arms was trained to war all his life. His sidearm was the long sword, but he might also carry an axe or mace as well as his shield and lance. Knights, noblemen and men-at-arms came to the Crusades from all across Europe. The most famous groups were the Knights Templar and the Order of St John (the Hospitallers).
The Knights ‘Templar, otherwise known as the Poor Fellows of Christ, were formed after the First Crusade (1096-99) in response to a need for fighting men to defend the conquered lands. Chaining papal approval in 1120, they were an order of warrior monks who took vows of poverty and chastity and lived according to a very strict code. They wore the white surcoat of their order over a plain and unadorned chain mail shirt called a hauberk, along with a mail coif (hood) and leggings. Their helm was plain and open-faced, similar to that worn by Norman knights at the Battle of Hastings. Under the mail hauberk was a padded jerkin to absorb the impact of blows.
The Templars have become the symbol of Christian knights. They were fearsome and unrelenting in combat against their Muslim foes, believing that death in battle against the enemies of Christendom was a direct route to heaven. The Templars had a fierce rivalry with the Hospitallers that did at times turn violent. Each order had an agreement not to accept men from their rival order.
The Knights of St John began as a charitable order sometime in the 1070s. Their goal was to care for pilgrims to the Holy Land. Booty from the First Crusade, donated to the order, paid for a chain of hospices across the region. Eventually the order took on the duties of protecting the pilgrims and the city of Jerusalem, and became a militant order. Using mercenaries and knights friendly to the order, the Hospitallers garrisoned several fortresses on the route to Jerusalem. After the Crusader army was destroyed at Hattin in 1187, the pope decided to support the various military orders and gave his blessing to the Hospitallers’ military role.
THE CAVALRY CHARGE
There is much debate about exactly when the mounted warrior began to charge with the couched lance, i. e. with his weapon held under the arm and braced for a head-on impact. At the time of the Battle of Hastings (1066), some Norman knights were using the lance this way while others thrust downwards with it overarm or rode past and speared enemies out to the side from beyond the reach of their weapons. Some men are known to have hurled their weapons into the mass of their enemies. By 1191 the lance was fairly commonly, though not exclusively, couched.
The impact of a charge of armoured cavalry was a tremendous thing, and many enemy forces broke before contact. This allowed the men-at-arms to ride down their foes with relative impunity, protected from random blows by their armour. Even if the enemy stood and fought, few could withstand the onslaught of the heavily armoured Western knights.
This was one of the problems the Crusaders faced in the Holy Land. There they met a foe who knew how dangerous the knightly charge could be, and was quite prepared to fall back or even run away from it. The result was that many times Crusader knights hurled themselves at the foe and hit only empty air. As their horses tired and their numbers were whittled down by the fire of horse archers, the men-at-arms would become exhausted and often found themselves dangerously far from their supporting forces.
The Crusader armies of the time included considerable numbers of foot soldiers and crossbowmen. Most foot soldiers were spearmen with armour of leather or quilted cloth and often a light `helmet’ (i. e. a lesser helm) of leather reinforced with metal bands. Their large shields were their main protection. The crossbowmen were provided with quilted jerkins that offered protection against the relatively weak bows of the Saracen horse archers. Their powerful weapons were slow-firing hut outranged the Saracen bows.
Saladin’s forces at Arsuf were completely different to those of the Crusaders. The backbone of the force was mounted: a mix of light cavalry equipped with short bows and heavier horsemen able to produce a shock effect with their charge, though not so effectively as the European heavy cavalry. The horse archers of Saladin’s force were mainly of Turkish origin. They could attack at close quarters with their light, curved scimitars but these were ineffective against all but the lightest armour. The horse archers were mainly assigned to harass and skirmish with the enemy, though they would swoop down on isolated or broken enemy units to massacre them. The heavy cavalry were mainly of Arab origin. They were equipped with light mail armour and armed with lances, swords and maces. Usually known as Mamluks, these heavy Arab cavalry made up Saladin’s personal bodyguard and more of the army besides. Their function was to deliver the fatal blow to an enemy force shaken by endless horse archery. To back up the cavalry, Saladin had pike- and javelin-armed Arab or Sudanese foot soldiers and Nubian archers. Ideally the pikemen could protect the archers from an enemy attack while they shot down their opponents, then complete the victory by charging with their pikes. In practice this was hard to coordinate, hut the Muslim armies tended to have good discipline and training, and managed combined-arms cooperation better than many European forces of the time.
Arsuf was part of the Third Crusade (1189-92), an attempt by a coalition of Christian forces to capture the holy city of Jerusalem from its Muslim rulers. The city had been lost to the Muslims under Saladin (Salah ad-Din Yusuf) after the disastrous battle of Hattin in 1187. Pope Gregory VIII ordered an immediate Crusade to recapture it. The call was answered by Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart), King Philip II of France (1165-1223) and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (c. 1123-90). The 70- year-old Emperor Frederick was drowned during the march across Europe and most of his army turned for home, leaving Richard and Philip to continue.
Capturing Cyprus as a forward base, the Crusaders landed at Acre and besieged the port, capturing it soon after. King Philip returned home at this point but Richard, now in control of a port through which to supply his army, decided to press on to Jerusalem. With him went much of King Philip’s force.
Richard’s next objective was the port of Jaffa. Marching down the coast, he imposed strict discipline on his force. The army stayed close to the shore to protect its flank and to benefit from the slightly cooler conditions there. The force was arrayed in three columns plus a rearguard. The knights, suffering terribly from the heat, rode in the column closest to the sea. The two outer columns were of infantry. They suffered from the archery of enemy light cavalry who could ride up, shoot, and escape quickly, but the infantry maintained their discipline and stayed in formation, some men marching with several arrows sticking out of their quilted jerkins. The crossbowmen exacted a steady toll among the horse archers, who could not venture too close to the columns.
Marching under fire in this manner is one of the most difficult of all manoeuvres to carry out. Progress is slow and painstaking, since if the formation breaks up at all the enemy will sweep in and attack. Iron discipline is the key, since the galling fire of the enemy makes individuals want to hurry and opens gaps in the formation for the enemy to exploit. It was particularly impressive that the Crusader army maintained its formation, since discipline in the European armies of the time was very poor. Not only did the knights’ warrior instincts tell them to rush out at the enemy but their very way of life had conditioned them to charge at threats regardless rather than plod along hiding behind a screen of common infantry.
For the infantry themselves, the feat is quite remarkable. Often despised by the flower of chivalry they now sheltered, the infantry were forced to bear the brunt of the enemy’s fire for hour after baking hour, and all to protect the precious horses of the knights. They, the infantry, were soaking up arrows to protect animals!
There were plenty of reasons for the formation to fall apart – internal divisions, pressure from the enemy, heat and exhaustion should by all the odds have combined to wear down the Christians’ resolve. And yet the Crusaders’ discipline held. The formation plodded slowly onward, where possible transferring wounded to the ships that followed it down the coast and receiving supplies in return.
On 6 September the Crusader army passed through a wood north of Arsuf, a town north of Jaffa. Had the Saracens fired the wood, it might have become a death-trap, but they did not, perhaps because Saladin had other plans. Thus far the main Saracen force had shadowed Richard’s army but made no serious attempt to engage. Now the time was ripe.
On 7 September the Crusaders had to cover about 10km (6.2 miles) to reach Arsuf, a long day’s march in those conditions. Saladin had no intention of letting them reach the town, however. His forces prepared themselves for an attack that would pin the Crusaders against the sea and crush them.
The Saracen formation was typically fluid, with horse archers darting in to shoot in small groups then withdrawing quickly. There was no idea of forming up for battle, just another day of marching and skirmishing. This went on until about 11.00 a. m., at which point the Saracen force attacked in earnest.
The Crusader army was in effect marching in battle formation, organized in a defensive box around its precious supply wagons and the irreplaceable heavy cavalry. In truth the battle had already been going on for days as the defensive formation held off the horse archers and their supporting forces. There had been no serious attack up until that point but now the Saracens were ready to strike.
The forces of Saladin were kept at bay by a fine piece of combined-arms work. Spearmen protected the crossbowmen from direct attack, while the heavy bolts of the crossbowmen exacted a steady toll on the enemy. And in reserve, the threat of the heavy armoured cavalry prevented the Muslim army from making an all-out assault. For the infantry deployed at the hack of the formation, this was in effect a fighting retreat. Most of the time the infantry marched backwards, keeping their shields and weapons facing the enemy. The Crusader army was a `roving pocket’ cut off in enemy territory yet able to continue its march, albeit slowly. The Muslim forces swirled around the human bulwark; ahead, behind and to the left there was nothing but enemies. On the right flank was the sea. ‘The only hope was to march on – and fight on – so the battle became a contest between the pressure exerted by the Muslims and the discipline of the Crusaders.
The pressure steadily mounted as the Saracen horse archers came in ever closer and more boldly to shoot. Sometimes the crossbowmen were able to keep the enemy at a distance, but increasingly groups of cavalry were able to race in and attack with lance and sword. Then the spearmen of the Crusader rearguard were forced to engage. Their spears were long enough to be effective against the attacking horsemen and their shields offered good protection, but they were desperately tired from day after day of marching.
The rearguard could not afford to become embroiled in a melee with the attackers. If a group of cavalry broke off and was pursued, even for only a few steps, the spearmen would be quickly surrounded and cut down. So the Crusader infantry was forced to fight a defensive battle. Short rushes to drive off attackers were possible, hut it was vital for soldiers to quickly regain the safety of the main force. Dangerous gaps opened up but were sealed by troops who were supposed to be resting inside the defensive formation.
Hoping to draw one of the famously impetuous charges of the Crusader knights, Saladin’s forces concentrated mostly on the rear of the column where the Hospitallers and French Royal Guards rode. If the infantry ever lost control of the situation, the knights would have no choice but to engage. ‘They were already itching for a fight; it would not take much more to provoke them into action. Yet somehow, amid the chaos and constant archery, the rearguard held to its task. It is highly unlikely that there was much order to the formation, not with enemy attacks coming in at various points. The scene would he fluid – chaotic even – changing from moment to moment.
Here a band of spearmen is driving a few paces forward, chasing off yet another attack. There a handfull of crossbowmen are exchanging fire with horse archers; others load and shoot as fast as they can, covering the retirement of the spearmen back to the column. gap in the formation is plugged by a handful of infantry just as Muslim cavalry spur at it, hoping to enter the `box’ and cause mayhem. Finally the spearmen regain the main body and struggle to catch their breath. Things are calm for a moment, with only the constant archery taking its toll. But along the line the scene is being repeated as another attack sweeps in …
For the entire morning the rearguard battled on in this manner, holding off attacks at the end of the column while the force as a whole inched forwards. Despite extreme provocation the knights resisted the urge to charge, and the column continued its march towards Arsuf and safety.
As the day wore on, casualties mounted. The whole force was now under fire, and men were falling dead and wounded. Confined within the formation the knights chafed, forced to take casualties and unable to reply in any way. The crossbowmen did their best and the outer column of foot soldiers heat off a series of minor attacks, hut the strain was becoming intolerable.
As the army neared Arsuf, the pressure became too much for Richard’s knights, The Hospitallers, accompanied by three squadrons of about 100 knights each, burst out of the formation in a reckless charge. Their sudden attack drove back the right wing of the Saracen force, which had been trying to draw such an attack but had ceased to expect it. If Richard did not support the impetuous knights, they would soon he cut off and slaughtered. Yet if he did send more forces after them, he might throw away his whole force. Richard was known for his valour, hut he was also a shrewd tactician. His infantry were near to the shelter of the town. Covered by a cavalry charge they could enter and secure the town as a defensive position, protecting the baggage train and giving the army a safe place to retreat to if necessary.
Richard also knew the temperament of his men. They might attack anway if he did not order it, and without direction their force might he spent for nothing.
Ordering the Templars out, supported by Breton and Angevin knights, Richard launched them at Saladin’s left wing. At last given a chance to release their pent-up rage, the knights threw the Saracens back and repulsed a counter-attack by Saladin’s personal guard. Now the baggage and its accompanying infantry were entering Arsuf. Richard placed himself at the head of his remaining cavalry, Norman and English knights, and led them at the enemy.
Reeling from heavy blows on both flanks, the Saracen army was shattered by the third charge. Saladin’s men scrambled hack into the wooded hills above Arsuf leaving behind about 7000 casualties. No less than 32 amirs had been killed, almost all of them in the three great charges that broke the army.
The Muslim army returned to the field the following day, resuming its harassing tactics as the Crusaders prepared to push on to their next objective. There was no attempt to launch another full assault, however. Saladin had learned that he could not penetrate the Crusaders’ defensive `box’ formation and concluded that he could not draw the impetuous knights out of it either. Richard the Lionheart did not benefit from his victory at Arsuf Although he performed a great feat of arms and won a tactical success, his army was not able to take Jerusalem, though a grudging truce was agreed between Saladin and the Crusaders, allowing Christian pilgrims access to the city. Against almost any other Crusader commander, Arsuf would have been another great victory for Saladin. Although defeated in battle he held his army together. Its existence prevented an attack on Jerusalem and brought Saladin an honourable, if less than ideal, outcome to the war.
Tactically, and taken in isolation, Arsuf was a victory for the Crusaders. However, if Arsuf is seen as part of a gradual wearing down of the European army to make it incapable of capturing Jerusalem, it may be that Saladin came out the strategic victor.