The Battle of Al Mansurah was fought from February 8 to February 11, 1250, between Crusaders led by Louis IX, King of France, and Ayyubid forces led by Emir Fakhr-ad-Din Yusuf, Faris ad-Din Aktai and Baibars al-Bunduqdari.

The Mamluks under Baibars (yellow) fought off the Franks and the Mongols during the Ninth Crusade.

The Sultan Baibars al-Bundukdari was a tall, heavy-set Circassian with ruddy cheeks, brown hair, and blue eyes, and he was born on the shores of the Black Sea. Sold into slavery, he was taken to Damascus where, because he was handsome and powerfully built, he was bought for eight hundred copper coins. As a Circassian, he had no loyalty to the sultans; he carved his way to power by the simple expedient of murdering everyone in his path. He killed Sultan Turanshah and went on to kill Sultan Qutuz, who had refused to make Baibars governor of Aleppo. Qutuz was stabbed in the back. It was an especially unpleasant murder. Immediately afterward, there was a great deal of confusion, with people milling about and not knowing what to do. At last a court attendant pointed to the throne and said, “The power is yours.”

Baibars sat on the throne like a man who had been expecting it all his life. Sultans usually gave themselves titles intended to describe their own characters and the future accomplishments of their reigns. Baibars’s first thought was to call himself “the terrible” or “the one who inspires terror.” He thought better of that, and chose “the victorious” instead. Both titles suited him.

He had a curious white spot in one of his eyes, and a penetrating gaze, both of which inspired fear. He condemned people to death with equanimity. He forbade prostitution—on pain of death. He forbade the drinking of alcoholic beverages—also on pain of death, for the Circassian sultan embraced fundamentalist Islam with fervor. In the camp and in the palace his loud voice could be heard denouncing the evils of his time. His secretary complained that he was always on the move. “Today he is in Egypt, tomorrow in Arabia, the day after in Syria, and in four days in Aleppo.”

Baibars provided Islam with something it had not possessed since the time of Saladin: a core of iron, a relentless determination. But they were men of totally different characters: Saladin was a rapier compared with Baibars’s exuberant battle-ax. Saladin had a conscience; Baibars had none. Saladin could murder in hot blood; Baibars could murder at any time of the day and for any reason or for no reason at all. Baibars did not destroy the last crumbling vestiges of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but he opened the way.

In the summer of 1266, Baibars appeared outside the walls of Acre with a large and well-armed army. He had spies in the city from whom he learned a good deal of disappointing news. He learned, for example, that the garrison had recently been reinforced from France and was not likely to surrender on any terms. He learned, too, that the double walls with their great towers had been strengthened and that a much greater army than he had, with a vast quantity of powerful siege enginees, would be needed to destroy them. He therefore withdrew from Acre and marched on the Galilee. Here, by a ruse, he captured the castle of Safed, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Having promised the garrison that it would be allowed to go free, he then reneged on his promise and had them all beheaded as they marched out. His chief weapons were treachery and terror. He gave orders to his army to murder any Christians they came upon; and he marched through the Galilee like a red-hot rake.

Meanwhile Qalawun, the best of his emirs, was fighting in Cilicia. King Hethum of Armenia knew that Baibars’s Mameluke army was advancing, and he hurried to the court of the Ilkhan in Tabriz to seek reinforcements for his army. In his absence, in a series of lightning raids, the Mamelukes captured Adana and Tarsus and sacked Sis, the capital of the Armenian kingdom. The palace was plundered, the cathedral was burned to the ground, and the inhabitants were slaughtered or taken prisoner. King Hethum returned from Tabriz to find his capital in ruins, his son Leo, the heir to the throne, a captive, and another son, Thoros, slain. It is significant that Hethum had with him a small company of Mongols. For the first time the Mongols and the Christians were acting in unison.

Baibars may have thought that his campaign against the Armenian cities of Cilicia had put an end to Hethum’s kingdom. If so, he was mistaken. The Armenians continued to fight and to maintain an alliance with the Mongols, who were now well established in Persia up to the Euphrates and could draw on immense reserves of troops throughout central Asia.

In the autumn of 1266, Baibars sent an army to attack Antioch but failed to penetrate the city’s defenses. He was not present; his generals had gathered so much booty that they felt no need to gather more; and it is possible that the Antiochenes were able to bribe the generals to lift a siege which had lasted only a few days. Baibars was incensed by the failure of the army at Antioch.

In May 1267, he led his army right up to the walls of Acre. He used a ruse that always pleased him. Possessing so many captured uniforms, lances, and banners of the Crusaders, he could outfit thousands of troops to resemble a Crusader army. In this disguise, his troops rode through the orchards around Acre, killing Christians in the nearby villages, and destroying everything in their path. But they could not destroy Acre because the guards in the watchtowers had seen them coming and, realizing that they were Muslims in disguise by the way they rode and by their darker features, had sounded the alarm. The attack was repulsed, and Baibars withdrew to his castle at Safed. When envoys came to Safed to sue for a truce, they found the castle encircled by Christian skulls.

When, occasionally, Baibars’s deceptions failed him, he resorted to terror. Massacre appealed to him, and whenever he attacked a city he always threatened to massacre the inhabitants unless they surrendered immediately. In February 1268, he attacked Jaffa, which resisted heroically for twelve long days. He massacred the inhabitants but allowed the garrison to go free. This unusual event may be explained by the fact that the fortress was well defended and the siege of the stronghold would have cost many Egyptian lives if it had been permitted to continue.

From Jaffa, Baibars marched to the castle of Beaufort, which had passed into the hands of the Templars. After ten days of violent bombardment, the castle was forced to surrender. With unaccustomed mercy, Baibars offered to let the women go free, but the Templars were sold into slavery.

Then it was the turn of Antioch, which had been in Christian hands for more than 170 years. Bohemond VI, Prince of Antioch and Count of Tripoli, had left the city in the care of the Constable, Simon Mansel, who was quickly captured when he led a column of troops against the advancing Mamelukes. Simon Mansel was ordered to command the garrison to surrender. The garrison refused. There was heavy fighting, and on May 18, 1268, Baibars ordered a general assault. The Mamelukes succeeded in breaching the walls, the garrison troops fought bravely, and the inhabitants surrendered. Baibars was encouraged by their surrender to order another general massacre, after closing the gates so that none could escape. Those who survived the massacre were given out as slaves to his soldiers. Christian Antioch vanished, never to be reborn.

Because he despised Bohemond VI, Baibars wrote him a strange, taunting letter, which is a masterpiece of venom and invective.


THE GLORIOUS COUNT BOHEMOND, magnificent and magnanimous, having the courage of a lion, being the glory of the nation of Jesus, the head of the Christian church and the leader of the people of the Messiah, who no longer bears the title of Prince of Antioch, since Antioch has been lost to him, but is reduced to a mere count, may God show him the way and give him a good death and help him to remember my words.

. . . We took Antioch by the sword on the fourth hour of Saturday on the fourth day of Ramadan, and we destroyed all those you had chosen to guard the city. All these men had possessions, and all their possessions have passed into our hands.

Oh, if only you had seen your knights trampled by our horses, your houses looted and at the mercy of everyone who passed by, your treasure weighed by the quintal, your women sold in the market-place four for a gold dinar. If only you had seen your churches utterly destroyed, the crucifixes torn apart, the pages of the Gospels scattered, the tombs of the patriarchs trodden underfoot. If only you had seen your Muslim enemy trampling down your altars and holy of holies, cutting the throats of deacons, priests and bishops, the patriarchate irremediably abolished, the powerful reduced to powerlessness! If only you had seen your palaces given over to the flames, the dead devoured by the flames of this world before being devoured by the flames of the next world, your castles and all their attendant buildings wiped off the face of the earth, the Church of St. Paul totally destroyed so that nothing is left of it, and seeing all this you would have said: “Would to God that I were dust! Would to God! Would to God that I had never received the letter with these melancholy tidings!”

If you had seen these things, your soul would have expired with sighs, and the multitude of your tears would have quenched the devouring flame. If you had seen those places which were once opulent reduced to misery, and your ships captured by your own ships in the port of Seleucia—your ships at war with your ships—then you would have realized without the least doubt that God, who once gave Antioch to you, had now taken it away from you, that the Lord who gave you this fortress had withdrawn it from you and wiped it off the face of the earth. You must know that by God’s grace we have regained the castles formerly lost to Islam. Know that we have removed all your people from the country; we took them, as it were, by their hair and dispersed them hither and thither. The only rebel now is the river that flows through Antioch. it would change its name, if it could; its waters are tears, once pure and limpid, now stained with the blood we have shed.

This letter is sent to congratulate you that God has seen fit to preserve you and to prolong your days. All this you owe to the fact that you were not in Antioch when we captured it. If you had taken part in the battle, then you would either be dead, or a prisoner, or riddled with wounds. You must take great joy in being alive, for there is nothing so joy f ul as escaping from a great calamity. Perhaps God gave you this respite so that you could make amends for your former disobedience toward Him. And since no one from your city survived to tell you the news, it has fallen upon us to give you these tidings; and since also no one from your city is in any position to congratulate you on your own survival, this too has been left to us. Nor can you accuse us of saying anything false, nor do you need to go elsewhere to learn the truth.

The spectacle of the victor crowing over his victory is not a pleasant one. What is chiefly remarkable about the letter is Baibars’s enduring rage, his almost incoherent vituperation. Yet there is something in his screaming that suggests that he is the victim, not the perpetrator, of the crime.

The reason for his rage is not hard to discover. To enjoy the vengeance he desired, it was necessary to have physical possession of the prince, to kill him or to torture him, to see him suffering, to see him dead; but the prince of Antioch had escaped his net.

Baibars thought of himself as the man destined to sweep the Christians out of the Holy Land. He had conquered Antioch and Jaffa, he had succeeded in weakening Armenia, he had made a near-desert of the Galilee, and he had wrested the castle of Beaufort from the Templars. But these were small things compared with what he wanted. The once-proud edifice known as the Kingdom of Jerusalem resembled a palace riddled with mortar fire and without a roof, with its cornices blown off and large areas reduced to rubble. He wanted the palace destroyed utterly.

The strange kingdom actually possessed a king. He was Hugh III, King of Cyprus and Jerusalem, who had been crowned in Nicosia on Christmas day, 1267. There were other contenders for the throne, including Maria of Antioch, the daughter of Melisende of Lusignan. Later she would sell her claim to the throne to Charles of Anjou. The following year, Charles executed Conradin, the grandson of Frederick II, who claimed the titles of King of Jerusalem and of Sicily, and Duke of Swabia, and whose crime was that he had attempted to regain his Italian inheritance.

Like Conradin, Hugh III was young, vigorous, and sweet-tempered. He was the grand conciliator, the one man who could ensure that the little princedoms would live at peace with one another. He arranged truces, mollified the more quarrelsome of the vassals, and continually appealed for help from the West. The Templars and the Hospitallers distrusted him, and so did the Commune of Acre, which had no patience with kings. He relied often on the advice of Philip of Montfort, the most accomplished of the barons, and he was devastated when Philip was murdered by the Assassins at the instigation of Baibars.

By his ferocious cruelty Baibars had at first outraged the Crusaders, but soon he inspired a fear that threatened to overwhelm them. They remembered the circle of skulls around the fortress at Safed. The blue-eyed sultan, without a trace of Egyptian blood in him, in love with murder, was more like a destructive force of nature than a man. Having no ultimate loyalties, he destroyed as he pleased.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem was now reduced to a handful of cities clinging to the seacoast. And for the first time we hear a note of total despair in the voices of the Crusaders. We hear it in the letter written by Hugh of Revel, the Master of the Hospital, to his friend, the prior of Saint-Gilles in Provence.


BROTHER HUGH OF REVEL, by the Grace of God humble master of the Holy House of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, and guardian of the poor of Jesus Christ, sends greetings and sincere love to his dearly beloved in Christ Brother Faraud of Borrassio, Prior of St. Gilles, and to all the brethren attached to that priory.

We know not to whom we should complain and show the wounds of our heart, so pierced and so anguished, if not to those who to our knowledge are moved by deep compassion for our sufferings. Nor do we need to describe the hardships we have endured in the Holy Land for such a long period of time nor the magnitude of our losses in property and lives. We believe that almost all of this must be known to you. These sufferings, these losses, do not appear to be coming to an end; instead, they increase and multiply daily. . . .

. . . [Y]ou know very well what comes to us from overseas. We have received nothing from Spain except for a few animals. From Italy and especially from Apulia we expected aid, but our hopes have been shattered by the behavior of Brother Philip of Glis, who used up everything we had for his own purposes as he pleased, and because of this same Brother Philip of Glis everything we possessed in Sicily has been ruined and devastated just because he led the brothers of our Order in armed conflict with those who were fighting Charles of Anjou. The houses we possessed in Sicily were therefore razed to the ground, our fruit trees were cut down, our vines were uprooted, the contents of our houses were stolen. I am sure you are aware of our war in Tuscia and how everything we possessed in that region has been destroyed, and therefore little or nothing is sent overseas to us from Italy. From the priory in France it is impossible to obtain anything useful by reason of the debts contracted by the aforesaid Brother Philip—debts that he promised to settle but failed to do so. The priory of England, which formerly provided considerable aid and assistance, has greatly reduced the sending of revenues by reason of the wars going on there

Consider therefore how we can meet our expenses from the small revenues we receive from your priory and from the priory in Auvergne, which is all that remains to us except for the revenues from England, and there is nothing from Germany. We are not bringing these matters to the attention of the brotherhood for any other reason except to warn you not to be surprised if we inconvenience you by asking for your help. Yet there is another reason: Whatever fate is reserved for our fortresses—let us hope that they are spared the worst fate—or whatever fate befalls our land—and much is spoken about this—you must excuse us for having assumed these responsibilities, we and our house, since only a small number of Christians remain here and we lack the strength to resist the unspeakable power of the Saracens. We are quite certain that the city of Acre could not be properly defended even if all the Christians beyond the seas were here to defend it.

Because of the losses sustained by the Christians and the losses they continue to sustain daily, they are so distressed that they lack confidence in themselves to resist the enemy. This year the city and fortress of Joppa were captured in an hour. The fortress at Caesarea, a great stronghold, held out for only two days when attacked by the Sultan. Safed, the pride of the Templars, gave up after sixteen days. They said the fortress of Belfort was so strong that it would hold out for a year, yet it fell in less than four days. The noble city of Antioch was captured. . . .

Such is the condition of our land, and such is the peril that overwhelms us! God will declare what shall become of us. But for God’s sake be moved to pity us with all your heart. Pray God to grant us as much aid as possible. . . .

Hugh of Revel’s letter is a classic of its kind, at once a desperate plea for help and an acknowledgment that help was beyond hoping for—and that if it came, it would probably come too late.

When Hugh of Revel complained that the West had lost interest in the affairs of the Holy Land, he was speaking in relative terms. In the autumn of 1269, there came the Crusade of King James I of Aragon, who sailed out of Barcelona with a powerful fleet. It had scarcely left the harbor when it was scattered in a storm. The king abandoned the enterprise but sent his two sons with a much smaller fleet. The two sons reached Acre at a time when Baibars was once more attacking the city. The small Spanish army, thirsting to attack the Mamelukes, was prevented from fighting because it was felt the soldiers were untrained and less useful in the field than in the garrison. In a few weeks the Spaniards returned to Spain in disgust.

The English also sent their Crusaders under the command of Prince Edward, son of Henry III and heir to the throne. He left England in the summer of 1271, with only a thousand men. Like the Spaniards he wanted action, and he took part in a daring raid into the Plain of Sharon. He was the first Englishman to send an embassy to the Mongols: Reginald Russell, Godfrey Welles, and John Parker went to the court of the Ilkhan to seek aid, which was promptly forthcoming. A Mongol army swept out of Anatolia and captured Aleppo. Baibars, with a huge army, set out from Damascus to give battle to the Mongols, who withdrew wisely. But the Mongol alliance had been strengthened and there was hope that they would return at a suitable time.

Prince Edward was handsome, restless, fond of jousting, capable of compromise, yet utterly merciless against declared enemies. When he became King Edward I, he attacked Scotland so implacably that he became known as the “Hammer of the Scots.” But in Palestine he was kindly and efficient, and like King Hugh III he attempted to unite the Crusaders, who were so often at each other’s throats. Baibars, who saw him as another Philip of Montfort, a man with the power to dominate and unite, ordered his assassination. An Assassin, disguised as a Christian pilgrim, stabbed him with a poisoned dagger. He had a strong constitution and recovered from the wound; but at about this time he heard that his father, King Henry III, was dying. He returned to England to be crowned. In England, he continued to give long-range support to the Christian alliance with the Mongols.

Baibars continued his depradations. He conquered the Templar fortress called Safita and went on to conquer Krak des Chevaliers, which even Saladin had found impregnable. He invaded Anatolia, brushed against the forces of the Ilkhan, and retired to Syria. Fortunately, and to the satisfaction of the Christians, he died of poison in the summer of 1277, having accidentally drunk from a poison cup he had prepared for someone else. But he was succeeded by his chief general, Qalawun, who was equally determined to sweep the Christians out of the Holy Land. It would be easier, now that Baibars had conquered so many places.

In the last days of the kingdom a madness descended on the Crusaders. Knowing that they must unite against the overwhelming force of the Mamelukes, they fought each other instead, and contrived to weaken each other with conspiracies and treacheries, thus playing into the hands of their enemies. The kingdom was being destroyed from within long before it was destroyed by the enemy. Blindly and voluptuously, the little princes who retained title to the seaports on the Palestinian coast hurled themselves on one another without any purpose except private vengeance.

In January 1282, Guy II Embriaco, Lord of Jebail, outfitted three ships to transport a small army consisting of twenty-five knights and four hundred foot soldiers to Tripoli. He hoped to take Tripoli by surprise and to capture Bohemond VII, who had succeeded his father Bohemond VI in 1274, and put him to death. He left Jebail at night and reached Tripoli before dawn, anchoring his ships near the house of the Templars and coming ashore in the darkness. With all his men, who were mostly Genoese, he entered the house of the Templars. He had his agents there, including the Templar commander Reddecoeur, but for some reason the commander was absent. Perhaps Reddecoeur no longer wanted to take part in the plot, or perhaps there was a simple misunderstanding about the time they would meet. Guy II Embriaco panicked, hastily left the house of the Templars, and took refuge with his knights in the house of the Hospitallers.

Dawn came up. The alarm bells were rung. Bohemond VII was informed about the strange behavior of these visitors from Jebail, who had taken possession of one of the towers of the house of the Hospitallers and threatened to sell their lives dearly. All of Tripoli now gathered at the foot of the tower, clamoring for the death of the invaders. The commander of the Hospitallers offered to act as mediator. Before the tower could be stormed, an agreement was reached that Guy’s life and the lives of all his knights would be spared if they surrendered. Guy would serve a five-year sentence of imprisonment, and at the end of that period all his possessions would be restored to him.

Guy might have known that this was only a ruse to make him descend from the tower, for Bohemond VII had given orders that the Genoese should have their eyes put out. Guy and his brothers John and Baldwin, and his cousin William, were kept in prison for six weeks while Bohemond considered the various forms of punishment suitable for such an occasion. Then they were taken to Nephin, where they were set down in a ditch. A wall was constructed around them, the ditch was filled with earth, and they were left to die of hunger.

John of Montfort, Lord of Tyre, an ally of the lord of Jebail, marched with all his knights to Jebail, hoping to protect the city from the vengeance of Bohemond. He found that the city had already been captured and the fires of victory were burning on the battlemented walls. He returned to Tyre in disgust, realizing that his city might fall to Bohemond before it fell to the Mamelukes.

The Pisans in Acre were overjoyed when they learned the fate of the Genoese expedition to Tripoli. They celebrated with music, dancing, and fireworks. It pleased them especially that Guy II Embriaco had been buried alive; and their pleasure was a sign of the corruption of spirit that affected all these coastal princedoms. None was immune. The Hospitallers hated the Templars, who were also hated by Bohemond VII and by the king of Cyprus and Jerusalem.

Vast triumphs and absolute disaster were close companions in those times. To the north and east, a new power was entering the scene. A huge Mongol army, numbering a hundred thousand men, was preparing, in alliance with King Leo of Armenia and the Hospitallers, to do battle with the Mamelukes. Qalawun commanded the Mamelukes, Mangu Timur commanded the Mongols, and Leo commanded the Armenians. The battle of Hims, which took place on October 30, 1281, was one of the bloodiest ever known. A quarter of a million men took part in it. When the advantage seemed to be going in the direction of the Christian-Mongol forces, Mangu Timur was wounded. He panicked, and gave orders for a retreat. Qalawun’s army had suffered too much to be able to follow the Mongols beyond the Euphrates, so there was neither victory nor defeat. Leo distinguished himself during the long and difficult retreat to Armenia. The Mongols could fight another time and choose their own battlefield.

On the night of March 30, 1282, Charles of Anjou received the greatest shock of his life. The Sicilians, exasperated by the behavior of the French army of occupation, rose up and massacred every Frenchman they could lay their hands on. The Sicilian Vespers came as an inevitable result of Charles’s depradations, arrogance, and incompetence. With this uprising, his dreams of a Mediterranean empire, with himself as emperor of Byzantium and king of Jerusalem, crumbled. Charles would no longer play any role in Crusader affairs.

Meanwhile, Qalawun continued to ravage the Christian outposts in the Holy Land, capturing the great Hospitaller castle at Marqab, but was not yet ready for the final assault on Acre. He watched from a distance while the kings of Jerusalem succeeded one another. King Hugh III died. His eldest son, John, a graceful and delicate boy of seventeen, followed him. John died a year later, and his younger brother Henry was crowned at Tyre on August 15, 1286. His coronation was attended by elaborate festivities. Henry was fourteen, handsome, gracious, very brave, and an epileptic. In less than five years he would see the downfall of his kingdom in the ruins of Acre.



The Crusader States have sometimes been thought culturally barren, ruled by military men with limited horizons. This does them an injustice. They included both men of true piety, anxious to adorn sacred sites captured in early years at great sacrifice, and the secular-minded, aware of the value of pageantry and display for attracting pilgrims and impressing both allies and enemies. The states lay at a crossroads between the Byzantine Empire and Eastern Churches, long divided but brought into contact and sometimes reconciliation through the needs of settlers and the interests of queens. Queens had great patronage and the marriage policies of kings of Jerusalem and the Byzantine emperor Manuel Comnenus (1143–1180), intent on developing friendship with the settlers to establish ancient Byzantine claims, issued in the arrival in the kingdom of an Armenian as queen and a Byzantine princess, who attracted craftsmen from far and wide, ready to exercise their skills on sites of international renown. Their work reflected a pot-pourri of interests and traditions. Sculpture, mosaics, working of copper and illustrated manuscripts all flourished and a significant number of fine buildings were erected and embellished, especially in and near Jerusalem.

Jerusalem had pride of place as the object of pilgrimage, overflowing in the season and quiet in the winter. Pilgrims brought income to the burgesses and to the ports. At times of political and economic crisis, during famines and outbreaks of plague, refugees sought help, and not in vain. Kings and patriarchs had a well-deserved reputation for feeding and succouring them. In the 1070s, when Jerusalem was still in Muslim hands, men from Amalfi obtained permission to open a hospital, a place of refuge where pilgrims could recover from the hardships of their journey and those expecting to die in the Holy City could be looked after and given the sacraments. After the crusaders’ conquest it began to expand on a site south of the church of the Holy Sepulchre. Capable of holding a thousand patients, it tended Christians and Muslims alike: pregnant women, for example were cared for and temporary arrangements made for looking after their children. Only lepers were denied entry. There were individual beds, coverlets and slippers. The diet was of a standard normally available only to the rich, with meat three times a week, pork and mutton for the stronger, chicken for the weaker and white bread.

The most important centre of all was the Sepulchre, transformed into a pilgrimage church designed to carry visitors through ambulatories and chapels to the Sepulchre itself under a Byzantine rotunda; a splendid Byzantine representation of the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ was moved, then reassembled on the ceiling of the choir. This rescued and refurbished church was re-consecrated by the patriarch at dawn on the morning of 15 July 1149, the fiftieth anniversary of the capture of the city. In the entrance to the Dome of the Rock, thought to be Solomon’s Temple, an iron grille was set up by the crusaders; a beautiful creation of an original delicate fleurde-lys design, it would have captivated the eye when the rows of candles lit up the interior of the building.

Inside the city Queen Melisende built a beautiful Gothic church dedicated to St Anne; outside, she created an abbey at Bethany for her sister Iveta to be abbess, reworking an ancient building and adding a church over Lazarus’s tomb. Around the city, shrines were created or repaired to provide a full experience of visits, prayers and memories. At Hebron a happy discovery of the remains of the Old Testament patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob made possible the conversion of a mosque into a basilica visited by Jews and Muslims as well as Christians.

The scriptorium of the Church of the Sepulchre had a distinguished history. According to tradition, the Melisende Psalter was the fruit of reconciliation between Fulk and his queen after a serious political and matrimonial conflict, taking the form of a presentation to the queen for her private devotional use. Ivory covers of Byzantine workmanship illustrated two aspects of kingship: David, warrior and psalmist, on the front with medallions of virtues and vices in conflict; and on the back a Byzantine-costumed figure performing the classic works of mercy, also shown on medallions. The warrior defends his city; the ruler on the back uses his power to look after the weak and helpless. The inclusion of English saints in a calendar within suggests the influence of the English prior of the Sepulchre, William, and its colouring reveals Armenian influence. There were other beautiful manuscripts: a sacramentary for use at Mass and illustrated gospel books.

Bethlehem had a Byzantine church where Baldwin I was crowned on Christmas Day 1100. Here a tomb was created for Joseph of Arimathea and a series of mosaics initiated to commemorate the marriage of King Amalric with the Byzantine princess Maria of Antioch, carrying forward Manuel’s project of drawing together Christian churches against the Muslim menace while disregarding points of difference and, in the case of the Western Church, not standing pat on the vexed question of the Procession of the Holy Spirit. Manuel and Amalric were recorded together as sponsors and the work was carried out by both a Byzantine churchman and a Melkite. At Nazareth there was a church of the Annunciation and a grotto dedicated to the visitation of the Archangel Gabriel. Sculptured capitals were prepared to adorn its walls. The Mamluk Sultan Baybars destroyed the building but capitals were buried, presumably in hopes of better times and, discovered in 1908, were revealed as attractive and graceful work in the style of the French Romanesque.

One scholar of note gave his life to the kingdom. William of Tyre was born in Jerusalem about 1130, most probably a son of one of the city’s burgesses. He studied at the school attached to the Sepulchre, then went for some twenty years to immerse himself in the best schools of the day, following liberal arts and theology at Paris and Orléans and civil and canon law at Bologna. Unlike others of non-aristocratic origins who broke the glass ceiling of the time and went on to make careers in the West, William chose to come home to the Holy Land to serve king and Church until his death, probably in 1184. He wrote his History of Jerusalem to stimulate Western churchmen of his own stamp to much greater efforts to exhort the faithful to preserve Jerusalem. He started with eight books on the First Crusade, then others, turn by turn, on the kings. No reader can fail to be gripped by the memorable passages on, for example, his discovery that King Amalric did not believe in the resurrection of the body or the moment when, as tutor to Baldwin the Leper, he realised that his pupil had a fatal disease. He also shows an awareness of just acts carried out by Muslims – not a common feature of Western writing. It is one of the finest chronicles of the twelfth century. Not only that, but William also wrote an account, tragically lost, of the Muslim princes from the time of Muhammad. What is most significant is his patriotism. The kingdom he served had its fair share of adventurers and opportunists and squalid disputes. It was loosely multicultural, a very imperfect unity. And yet it could make this very able man into a true patriot. Given more time, William might have had more successors with the same emotions, providing a vital glue for this fighting society.

The multicultural aspect worked tolerably. In his utilitarian fashion Baldwin I invited into Jerusalem Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christians from beyond the Jordan to make up for those lost in the massacre of 1099. A Latin episcopate ruled, but it did not matter much for relations with other Churches, since the Orthodox episcopate was accustomed to the position of dhimmis under the Muslims. They kept their own courts, albeit always subordinate to the Franks, and were free to worship in Jerusalem at their own churches. Monasteries were undisturbed and Armenians and Jacobites (Nestorians), condemned by the Byzantine Church, had greater freedom under the Franks. Trade helped. In market courts at Acre witnesses swore on their own sacred books: the Quran for Muslims, the Torah for Jews, the Gospel for Christians. There were always Bedouin, ever unmanageable, and there were resentful Muslims and Muslim slaves. But by and large the divisions, ethical and ecclesiastical, of a crossroads kingdom did not work against kings’ interests; some actually helped them.


Superiority in naval power was crucial for the Crusader States. It was the one point where the Muslims of Egypt were at a disadvantage because of their lack of timber for shipbuilding. They could and did win naval battles at times, but could never commit their ships without inhibition. The climate made it imperative to have the opportunity for crews to obtain fresh water at frequent intervals, and in consequence they were perennially in an awkward, even dangerous, situation because of their lack of secure sources for water supply.

The obtaining of ports, ships and watering-sources along the littoral had been seen as an imperative need by the kings of Jerusalem and it is in this light that one should look at the treaties which they made with Italian cities. The Genoese made a critical contribution via the timber supplies they made available in 1099. They, and their rivals from Italy, were vital for securing the littoral of the Holy Land and its ports.

The treaties Baldwin I made with the cities to secure Arsuf, Caesarea and Acre in his early years were rents in the unity of jurisdiction of the kingdom but the concessions thus made cemented its security, giving a general maritime domination to the Crusader States and ensuring the passage of warriors and pilgrims from the West as the land route was given up. In the 1170s during the sailing season there might be as many as seventy pilgrim vessels at anchor in the harbour at Acre – and pilgrims were a source of reward to kings as well as to the Italians, because of the profits from royal markets and the taxes which kings could levy at the ports. Baldwin I bequeathed to his successors demesne in Judaea and Samaria and drew rewards from his domination of the great caravan route from Egypt to Damascus. He built at speed a castle by the route at Shawbak on a ridge near the plateau of Edom, acting as a focus for Christian settlement with its productive hinterland and water cisterns. In the following year he built two more fortresses, creating a line stretching down to Aqaba; only Shawbak remained for his successors. In 1142 Pagan the Butler, who had become lord of Transjordan, refortified Kerak in Moab, farther north of Shawbak and 10 miles to the east of the end of the Dead Sea, continuing the menace to Muslim caravans.

The military orders were of great importance to the kings with their perennial shortage of money. The West’s passion for sustaining Jerusalem issued in the foundation of these orders, combining, not without some controversy, the role of monk and warrior. Pilgrims travelling along the vulnerable road from Jaffa needed protection from banditry; the Hospitallers seem to have started hiring fighters to escort them. The notion of the monk-knight evolved from this and was so valuable and so popular that it came to be more important than the care of the sick – still not neglected, but given second place. In chivalric style, patients were referred to as ‘our lords, the sick’, but the Knights took the spotlight. They took vows, as monks did, and sustained a modified Benedictine liturgy while devoting their lives to fighting, castle guard and castle-building, giving kings the immense value of a standing army, a dedicated, highly trained body, fine horsemen with a musculature and control of weapons to match anything the Muslims could offer. In the West they received many donations, legacies and endowments, providing the resources to sustain the Knights and sergeants indefinitely, and they took on the distinctive uniform for the Knights in action: a white cross on a red surcoat and the Maltese cross on capes. Their takeover in 1142 of an Arab castle in Syria, which became Krak des Chevaliers, was crucial as it protected the north-east flank of the County of Tripoli and blocked access of Muslim forces to the coast.

The Templars grew out of an initiative of a knight who was a vassal of the count of Champagne; like the Hospitallers, they were charged to protect pilgrims and developed from what was a very small initiative to a substantial enterprise through the eloquence of St Bernard of Clairvaux, his personal contacts and the encouragement of Baldwin II. To the patriarch’s anger, both orders were exempt from his jurisdiction. On the Second Crusade the Templars helped save the day in an ill-conceived land expedition, showing their calibre in war, in knowledge of the terrain and in the ready availability of their treasure. The elite Knights and the sergeants who served them were never numerous: they worked with auxiliaries and mercenaries. In medieval style, Templars and Hospitallers were great rivals. Yet this drawback was far outweighed by the professional quality they brought to castle and battlefield.

At an early stage kings established an unusual degree of control. A dispute over succession to the County of Tripoli after the death of Raymond of Toulouse in 1109 was used by Baldwin I to establish the king’s authority in a territory where he was not, strictly, overlord. He had become the arbiter of Outremer. Temperamentally out of kilter with the Gregorian reformers, the bishops who served in the Crusader States were of a kind well adapted to serve kings and barons and looked back to an earlier style of episcopal action, working closely with secular authority. Baldwin II had his residence at the southern end of the Haram. He was impressed by the activities of the Templars, saw a vital need for more trained manpower and so gave them space. The al-Aqsa mosque became their headquarters and they constructed great stables in vaults below. The belief that they were on the Temple site gave the Templars their title. The earliest bishops were chaplains of the crusaders; subsequently, recruitment generally came from clergy who had originally come from the West and might well have family connections with the settlers, rather than from the younger sons of aristocrats in the Holy Land, who were needed for military service. William of Tyre himself, although he became archbishop of Tyre in 1175, served as chancellor from 1174 to 1183. It was the proper business of the episcopate, it was felt, to aid leaders with their charters and their records. Frederick, William’s predecessor as archbishop, came from Liège, was an Augustinian canon at the Temple of the Lord who became bishop of Acre and had a career as a secular administrator, a peacemaker and a diplomat, representing in Rome both the patriarch and the king of Jerusalem. William described him as ‘a nobleman from Lorraine. He was extremely tall and although he was not very well educated, he took great pleasure in warfare.’

Another duty of the episcopate was to carry the True Cross to battlefields. This was above all the duty of the patriarch of Jerusalem but it could be carried by bishops. The kingdom also attracted men with a strong sense of liturgy, seeing a prime duty in ensuring that rites were performed to a high standard in the multitude of shrines welcoming pilgrims, and those who had a practical, outgoing piety, looking after the sick and poor and organising their care.

The assembly of Nablus, summoned in 1120 by Baldwin II, an avaricious but devout king known for the hard skin on his knees created by hours of prayer, was designed to avert the wrath of God on his kingdom by a series of decrees repressing immoral behaviour and to ensure that tithes were not sequestrated by barons but paid to the Church. It included a blunt clause permitting clergy to engage in warfare – a decision that went beyond anything officially permitted hitherto in the Western Church but characteristic of the general role of clergy in the kingdom.


Between 1115 and the mid-1160s the armies of the Christians, not the Muslims, were the aggressors. Once Baldwin I had secured the position of the Crusader States, the armies of the settlers, sometimes reinforced by crusaders from the west, sometimes not, generally ruled battlefields and maintained military superiority with their cavalry charges and their insistence on seizing the initiative. Of course, there were set-backs. Antioch soon became a worry. It lay as far away from Jerusalem as Edinburgh lies from London, and it was subject to pressures both from Byzantium and from Muslims. Normans ruled in Antioch but in one catastrophic episode in 1119, known as the Field of Blood, in an act of impetuous folly Roger of Salerno, regent for Bohemond’s young son, did not wait for settler reinforcements from Tripoli and Jerusalem, and, with his own limited resources, took on a Muslim attacker, Il-Ghazi the Artuqid, once co-governor of Jerusalem. Roger and all his knights were lost. Baldwin II rose to the occasion, used all the powers of decision which the kings had acquired, distributed the widows and saw that Antioch stayed a Christian bulwark. But he had to spend time in the north and so did his successor, Fulk, causing resentment among Jerusalem barons.

In the south the initiative remained with the Christians until the rise of a counter-force on the Muslim side based on Mosul and Aleppo later in the century. The Israeli historian Ronnie Ellenblum argues that Frankish rule achieved a level of security in its key lands which the Levant had not had for generations and permitted a hitherto unsuspected peaceful agricultural settlement on certain sites. This attracted fresh craftsmen who enjoyed friendly working arrangements with local Christians, probably underpinned by intermarriage between Franks and Eastern Christians, echoing at a lower level the marital arrangements of kings.*

It is clear that historians have underestimated the peaceful survival in parts of the Holy Land of Christians who lived on as dhimmis, did not succumb to the long-term pressure to convert to Islam and thus avoid the tax imposed on them. The work of Ellenblum has fleshed out this hypothesis. He has looked more closely at the nature of fortification in these areas and concludes that the so-called ‘castles’ were often simply fortified manor houses, widespread in western Europe as the vogue grew for these structures, designed to assert a lord’s power and give focus to a settlement, rather than guarding against some armed threat. Records of boundary disputes imply that Franks in these settlements took a close personal interest and were not distant absentees dependent on a dragoman, in the manner of the absentee lairds in the Highlands of Scotland or the Protestant Ascendancy in southern Ireland with their harsh local representatives.

Where records allow, they reveal another surprising fact – that the economic migrants who made the long journey from the West to work in these small settlements came not from northern France but from central and southern France, Catalonia and Italy. The truly enterprising in the Middle Ages, as Marc Bloch long ago taught us, were willing to travel great distances to earn well and improve status. Magna Mahumeria, north of Jerusalem, gives us a picture of the pattern of skills within that settlement. Here were construction workers, carpenters, gardeners, vineyard workers, metalworkers, butchers and bakers, clearly freemen with skills, willing to travel and make new lives where local shortages had forced better pay for their talents.

Significantly, the settlements had adapted to the conditions of Near Eastern agriculture, such as thinner soils, locusts and much greater aridity. They had developed the technology needed to cope with problems of climate and pests and were practising terracing, making irrigation canals and using oil presses. This is likely to have involved co-operation with Muslims and small farmers. Ibn Jubayr, who travelled through the Holy Land in 1184 as Saladin threatened the Crusader States, noted Christians and Muslims working the land in co-operation and he concluded that some Muslims, badly treated by their co-religionists elsewhere, had come to prefer Christian-occupied territory. On Ellenblum’s map various indicators – the burgus, the manor house, the church or the monastery – guide the reader towards the sites of these settlements while a set of numerals act as keys to the detailed information on which Ellenblum’s reconstruction is based. At a glance one can see a conglomeration of settlements clustering north of Jerusalem, another cluster farther north round Neapolis (Nablus) and a line of others by the coast and near Acre. There are a few west of Galilee,† and Ellenblum reminds us that Christians there were at peace and not exposed to Muslim attack until as late as 1169.

In and around Jerusalem churchmen carried on the quiet work of consolidation and improvement of rents and holdings, characteristic of many a monastic house in western Europe. So, for example, the canons of the Holy Sepulchre contracted in 1132 with a widow in Jerusalem to provide her with an annuity and food from their kitchen for life, specified as a loaf of bread per day, half a litre of wine and a cooked meal, a meat meal or whatever the canons ate on Sundays and great feast days. They also made immediate repairs to her property and in return gained possession of her orchard and the reversion of her house on her death. The cartulary of the Sepulchre is a full one in good preservation; no doubt similar quiet economic advances, less well recorded, took place elsewhere.

The Fatal Flaw

The Crusader States were not weak and artificial entities, fragments of western Europe in an alien world doomed to a short life, as has been commonly believed. Step by step, building a case within his narrative of events, Malcolm Barber in 2012 destroyed this view.‡ The Crusader States were viable and their weaknesses surmountable. They could have lasted a lot longer, Jerusalem remaining Christian, but for one major flaw: the lack, generation after generation, of a male heir of full, fighting age. ‘Woe to the kingdom when the king is a child!’ In the medieval world that could easily be disastrous.

The genealogy of the kings shows their misfortune. Baldwin I left no child at all. His cousin Baldwin II was happily married to the Armenian Morphia but had only four daughters. A suitable husband was found for Melisende in Fulk V Count of Anjou, a warrior and a pilgrim who knew the kingdom well. They were married in 1129 and had two sons, Baldwin and Amalric. After Fulk’s early death Melisende was crowned together with her thirteen-year-old son Baldwin III. They ruled together until Baldwin, after some struggle with his mother, insisted on ruling alone. He married Theodora, niece of the Emperor Manuel, who gave a handsome dowry. But she was only twelve years old and after over four years of marriage there were no children. She and Baldwin died young and the crown descended to Melisende’s second son, Amalric, albeit not without controversy. Amalric’s first marriage to Agnes of Courtenay was annulled. With Agnes he had a son, Baldwin, and a daughter, Sibylla; by his second marriage to Maria Comnena, great-niece of the Emperor Manuel, he had a daughter, Isabella. Amalric, in the tradition of both Baldwin I the Conqueror and Baldwin III, aimed at extracting tribute or land from Egypt or even achieving outright conquest with the aid of Byzantium. He worked hard at the project but failed to break through and in 1174 died of dysentery.

There followed a succession disaster. Baldwin IV, the eldest son, was a leper who led in battle and in council as best he could, winning one important victory, but he was doomed to an early death and could never sire a son. Which of the daughters would succeed? Sibylla or Isabella? It turned out to be Sibylla. In a bad case of romantic love triumphing over duty, she insisted on marrying as her second husband Guy of Lusignan, an aggressive, insecure adventurer, outwitting opposition in the kingdom. Unhappily aware that hereditary right could bring in as heir the leading baron Raymond of Tripoli, a descendant of Baldwin II’s daughter Hodierna, Guy succumbed to the slanderous suggestion that Raymond was seeking to discredit him, made a fatal decision to fight and in three days lost the kingdom’s field army. The kingdom never recovered. Its promise of future prosperity and vitality was snuffed out.

The Expeditions into Palestine, 1101-5: Second and Third Battles of Ramla

The Second Battle of Ramla, 17 May, and Jaffa, 27 May 1102

The second battle of Ramla, only a few months later (17 May 1102), showed just how differently things could have gone. The primary problem seems to have been one of poor intelligence on the crusaders’ part, combined with an unsustainable level of overconfidence on the part of the king. Whereas the previous two Fatimid campaigns into southern Palestine had been well monitored by the Franks, and their movements contested by aggressive scouting, the invasion of 1102 seems to have come as a complete surprise.

Seemingly unaware of the size or location of the enemy forces, King Baldwin foolishly advanced too close to the Fatimid army with a force of just 200 Frankish knights and little or no infantry support. They were surrounded and almost totally destroyed. Thankfully for the crusaders, however, Baldwin escaped the debacle and the Egyptian military paused for several days to argue about what to do next. This allowed the Franks to muster a small army at Jaffa, and march out to confront them.

The battle was over quickly, and Christian losses were light. Frankish sources claimed that there were 3,000 Egyptian casualties which, allowing for natural exaggeration, hardly sounds like a massacre. The Fatimid cavalry had fled relatively early on, and thus left the battlefield more or less intact as they did at Ascalon three years before, while their infantry, stationed in the centre where the Frankish cavalry charges were focused, and far more vulnerable to pursuing cavalry during a rout, bore the brunt of the casualties.

The battle of Jaffa did not reflect well on the Fatimid army. They had displayed indecisiveness at the highest levels of command. This was commented on even by Muslim sources, and it allowed the crusader armies to regroup and recover. Incoherent strategy in the face of the newly gathered Frankish forces at Jaffa, neither enforcing a close siege, nor retiring to Ascalon, was also unimpressive from a command perspective.

Tactical performance was similarly weak. Despite outnumbering and outflanking the Frankish army, the Fatimids found themselves once more unable to hold the line against an aggressive crusader cavalry charge. That casualties were not higher is attributable more to the early flight of the Egyptian mounted arm and the relatively small numbers of crusader cavalry than to any great tactical skill.

Ultimately, despite the disaster at Ramla a few weeks earlier, the crusaders did not even pay the Egyptians the compliment of trying to develop a new tactical response: they just fought the battle in the same way as before, but this time with the infantry support that should have been there in the first place.

The Third Battle of Ramla, 27 August 1105

In the aftermath of their defeat outside Jaffa, the garrison at Ascalon were reduced to carrying out raids and patrols. These were useful in maintaining morale, but they could only delay the inevitable. By 1105 it was increasingly clear that if the Fatimids were not to abandon Palestine altogether, they would need to act decisively.

The Egyptians certainly knew that they needed to make changes if they wanted to break the pattern of tactical weakness that was apparent whenever they faced the Franks on the battlefield. The basic issue was that, despite numerical superiority, under most circumstances regular Fatimid troops could not withstand a charge from Frankish knights. Their cavalry on the flanks could not destroy the crusader infantry or baggage train quickly enough to stop the main body of the Egyptian army being routed, and the battle lost.

Their answer to this tactical problem was probably the correct one: try to recruit Turkic mounted archers to envelop the flanks of crusader armies more quickly and aggressively, and to destroy them before the Fatimid centre caved in. But this was easier said than done. The supply of Turkic mercenaries getting down to Egypt had largely dried up since the Egyptians first started fighting the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century. The results on the battlefield reflected this lack.

Once attempts to establish direct recruitment of Turkic mercenaries had failed, the Fatimid government had to swallow its pride. They approached Turkic-run Damascus to provide mercenary or allied troops for their invasion of southern Palestine in 1102. Although these requests were rejected, by 1105 even the Damascenes were becoming more aware that the crusader states might pose a long- term problem to everyone. Putting their distaste of the Shi’ite regime in Egypt to one side, they were persuaded to provide mounted archers for an invasion of the kingdom of Jerusalem in 1105.

Preparations for the campaign began early in 1105, starting with negotiations with Damascus and the provisioning of the regular army. The mustering process took place in June-July 1105, with the Fatimid regulars and a large force of Bedouin gathering at Ascalon in August, and the Egyptian navy present in support.

This force, numbering about 5,000-10,000 regular cavalry and infantry, plus a similar number of irregular troops, were joined by 1,300 Turkic horse archers under the command of the Damascene general Sabura. The Egyptian infantry are described by the Franks as `Ethiopians’, suggesting, as in previous battles, that they were drawn predominantly from the Black regiments, while the regular cavalry were mainly Armenian or Arab. The crusaders thought they were facing an army approximately 15,000 strong which, including Turkic cavalry and irregulars, may not be too much of an exaggeration.

The first warning of a major attack came when the Fatimid navy began to blockade Jaffa. Realising that this presaged a full-scale invasion by land, Baldwin began to muster his forces at Jaffa, leaving only small garrisons in the other cities. By coincidence, the Franks also had their own Turkic horse archer contingent, showing how local politics and personal interests could cut across seemingly intractable religious lines. These light cavalry were provided by a disgruntled son of the previous Damascene ruler, eager to get Frankish support so that he could retake what he saw as his inheritance. Though his Turkic contingent was smaller than that provided by the Damascenes for the Egyptian army, it may at least have gone some way towards counteracting the impact of the Fatimids’ new Turkic allies.

Baldwin was not going to repeat the secular or spiritual mistakes he had made at Ramla three years earlier: this time he gathered all his resources carefully. Leaving behind a garrison of 300 men, he marched his army out of Jaffa on Friday, 25 August, and moved down to Ramla. He arrived there on Saturday, 26 August, and waited for the arrival of the patriarch of Jerusalem, who was en route with temporal help in the form of 150 extra infantry and the crusaders’ spiritual weapon of last resort, the True Cross.

In the meantime, the Fatimid army had moved up from Ascalon, and camped at Ibelin, just a few miles from Ramla. Battle was deferred by the Christians until the following day, to maximise the spiritual benefits of fighting on the Lord’s day. On the morning of Sunday, 27 August, the army of the Latin Kingdom received the blessing of the patriarch and celebrated mass with the True Cross. The Franks then advanced towards Ibelin. The Fatimid army, warned by scouts of their approach, likewise set off to meet them halfway.

Baldwin organised the army into five divisions. He himself gathered a force of 160 cavalry and kept them with him as a mounted reserve. Fulcher of Chartres, who may have been with the army and certainly had the chance to discuss the battle with many participants, describes the size of the Frankish forces as being about 500 knights and 2,000 infantry. He also mentions an unspecified number of other mounted troops, which may be a reference to the small contingent of Turkic mounted archers and to the early use of Turcopoles.

After the battle, the Franks came to believe, presumably on the basis of discussions with high- ranking prisoners, that the original Egyptian battle plan had been to move towards Ramla with the smaller part of their forces, thereby pinning the crusader field army. The main Egyptian army, meanwhile, was to proceed towards Jaffa, where it would link up with the Fatimid navy, cut the crusaders’ supply lines, and put the city under siege. This was an ambitious plan, probably far too ambitious in light of the recent track record of the Fatimid army, but not entirely irrational given their superiority in numbers. The advance of the crusader army on the morning of 27 August pre-empted any ideas of such strategic sophistication, however, and the two armies met between their respective camps at Ibelin and Ramla.

The sequence of events in the battle itself is confused, though a couple of features seem clear. The Franks charged into the centre of the Egyptian line in the usual manner, smashing into its leaders, capturing several senior emirs and causing severe casualties to the `Ethiopian’ infantry posted there. The Turkic light cavalry, although only a relatively small part of the Egyptian army, seem to have been disproportionately effective, outflanking and surrounding parts of the crusader army. Tellingly, not only were the Turkic troops described as excellent archers but, once they had finished softening up their Frankish adversaries with missile weapons, they were not afraid to move in with swords and take the fighting to close quarters. It was only the vigorous actions of the reserve cavalry division commanded by King Baldwin himself that kept them at bay long enough for the main body of the Egyptian army to be routed, ensuring that the Turkic cavalry had no option but to break off the engagement.

Casualties on the Egyptian side were heavy, and included the commander of the garrison at Ascalon, Jamal al- Mulk. Although one of al- Afdal’s sons was in at least nominal command of the expedition, Jamal al- Mulk and other regular army commanders had a very significant role to play in the leadership of the army. The emirs of Arsuf and Acre were also captured, suggesting that the Egyptian centre had been hit hardest, and had broken.

The religious, ethnic and political factionalism that was rife within the Egyptian army always degraded its cohesion and effectiveness. This was played out to the extreme at the point where decisions were being made as to whether to rally or to rout, whether to opt for fight or flight. Interests quickly diverged. The Sunni Turkic horse archers left the rest of the army and rushed back towards Damascene territory. The Bedouin irregulars, ethnically and culturally distinct from the other groups, were fighting for booty and cash payments: they had little motivation to stay. The Armenian cavalry seem to have fled back to Ascalon. The Black infantry regiments were on their own: slow and isolated, they took the brunt of the casualties.

On the Christian side, losses were significant but not heavy: Albert of Aachen claimed that there were 100 fatalities, with only one eminent knight, Reinard of Verdun, among them. Fulcher of Chartres wrote that there were only 60 killed in the entire Frankish army. Muslim sources, on the other hand, suggested that Christian casualties were of the same order as their own. Given the disproportionate number of casualties that are sustained in the rout phase of a battle, this does not seem likely, though there is no reason to doubt that the battle was intense and bloody for both armies.

The battle was a hard- fought but conclusive defeat for the Egyptian army. Once again, the Fatimid forces seemed to have had everything in place. They had a large naval contingent to support them and to blockade Jaffa. A significant number of high- quality Turkic horse archers had joined the ranks. They outnumbered their enemy. And they were a well-provisioned regular army, supported by numerous irregular cavalry and volunteers, fighting on a battlefield they knew well. It must have felt as though, despite their every effort, it was still never enough. Morale plummeted. Significantly, this was the last Fatimid field army to enter Palestine for almost two decades.

What went wrong? As always, one gets the impression of an army which lacked energy and coordination at a strategic level, and which did not have the élan to compensate for this on the battlefield. The crusaders, in this as in most of their encounters with the Egyptian army, seem to have held the initiative at the critical points of the battle: disrupting the Egyptian plans to move the majority of their army towards Jaffa, and pinning the centre of their army with repeated and devastating heavy cavalry charges to which they seem to have had little response.

The Turkic mounted archers were a very welcome addition for the Fatimids, but they were merely temporary allies and, given their limited numbers and the presence in the crusader army of other Turkic archers and possibly Turcopoles, they could not make a battle- winning difference. The Fatimids never solved the issue of how to deal with a Frankish heavy cavalry charge. The lack of a solution to this fundamental problem was militarily debilitating.

The Expeditions into Palestine, 1101-5: First Battle of Ramla

In 1099 the systemic problems within the Fatimid military had been compounded by complacency and diplomatic failure: Frankish intentions had been consistently misread, with catastrophic consequences. As a result, the disaster at Ascalon could be explained away as the result of a very particular situation: an event rather than a trend, triggered by a combination of bad luck and poor intelligence. Whilst clearly not the best start to the task of recovering Palestine from the crusaders, this initial failure could be attributed to unique circumstances.

The Fatimid army and navy therefore embarked upon a series of campaigns into the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in the first decade of the twelfth century, with major invasions taking place in 1101, 1102 and 1105, alongside a series of increasingly large- scale raids. The first of these invasions, in the summer of 1101, looked particularly promising.

The First Battle of Ramla, 7 September 1101

Within a few months of the victory at Ascalon, the situation facing the Christians had deteriorated very significantly. One of the members of the army later wrote that they were mystified as to why the Muslims even permitted their state to exist. Baldwin I, who became king after the death of Godfrey in July 1100, faced an almost ridiculously bleak future. There was no army to speak of. A few small and scattered garrisons tried to hold on to Jerusalem, Jaffa and a couple of other settlements. But the field army, the troops available for mobile defence, was little more than a retinue. In total, including garrisons and policing contingents, the kingdom of Jerusalem could at one point muster only 300 cavalry and 300 infantry.

By the summer of 1101 it was clear to the Fatimid military that circumstances were now far more favourable. The spring and autumn sea passages back to Europe had been full of crusaders returning home. The poor performance of the Egyptian cavalry at Ascalon was being addressed by a programme of reforms, and the infantry regiments lost in battle were being replaced.

Once again, the Fatimid army seems to have taken about two months to muster and deploy in southern Palestine. Troops began to gather in late March or early April. By the end of May the main body of the army had arrived in Ascalon and began sending patrols north towards Jaffa, and eastwards towards Jerusalem. King Baldwin rapidly gathered whatever troops he could and moved down towards Ramla to block any potential Egyptian advance further north. Neither side marched straight to battle. The Frankish force was too small to confront the Egyptian army directly and they feared being drawn into battle close to Ascalon, where they might be surrounded by the enemy’s superior numbers.

The main body of the Fatimid army, perhaps awaiting further reinforcements or, as the crusaders optimistically thought, too nervous to advance, remained in the vicinity of Ascalon. For almost a month (24 May-17 June 1101), the stand- off continued. Some of the Egyptian irregular troops, perhaps disappointed at the lack of plunder, started to drift off. In the case of the Bedouin, it may even be that some of them offered their services to the crusaders. Certainly, Fulcher of Chartres, a participant in many of these events, was well aware of desertions from the Egyptian army, and ascribed at least some of these to supply problems on their side.

The crusader forces were not a regular army, however, and, like many of the Muslim forces, could not be kept in the field indefinitely. Manpower in the kingdom was stretched so thinly that many of the men needed to return to their lands, if only to carry out repairs to the fortifications of the newly captured towns such as Arsuf and Caesarea. For the important Galilean contingent of knights from Tiberias, the need to return to protect the eastern frontiers from the army of Damascus was also pressing. So on 17 June the Frankish army was forced to disperse, first retiring back to Jaffa to resupply and make contingency plans for how best to proceed, and then going their separate ways.

The long- distance stand- off between the Fatimids and the embryonic Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem continued for another two months (roughly from 17 June to 25 August 1101). By the end of the summer Baldwin was back in the capital, when news arrived that the Egyptian army was finally on the move. He mustered his troops around 25 August in Jerusalem, and they then marched down to Jaffa. He garrisoned the port as best he could, trying to create a refuge in the event that things did not go well on the battlefield. Tellingly, the royal family were moved there too. This was certainly prudent, but it was also the action of a commander whose limited forces gave an acute sense of the consequences and likelihood of failure.

As always, it is impossible to be definitive about the size of the opposing armies. On the crusaders’ part, it is clear that manpower was short. Short to the point of desperation. Fulcher, who was with the army when it mustered, said that the urgency of the situation was such that Baldwin required every man who had a squire to make him into a knight, and to arm him accordingly. Even once this was done, however, the numbers were pitiful. It was estimated that the Frankish army consisted of no more than 260 knights and 900 infantry. Contingents from the coastal towns of Caesarea and Haifa were gathered. In the event of disaster all hope clearly rested on the ability of Jaffa to hold out. Duke Godfrey had improved its fortifications shortly before his death and reserves were concentrated there as a final fallback position. It was never fully articulated, but the focus on the ports meant that there was an implicit understanding that a full- scale evacuation back to Europe, or to the northern crusader states, might become necessary. Planning was in place to abandon the entire kingdom.

The size of the Egyptian army is more problematic. Fulcher, who saw the army arrayed, and later experienced it at far closer quarters than he wanted to, estimated that it consisted of 11,000 cavalry and 21,000 infantry. This seems somewhat on the high side, but other Christian sources give even more implausible estimates, ranging from between 40,000 to 200,000 men. The Muslim sources are silent on the size of the Fatimid army, possibly because of embarrassment, given the outcome of the battle. Fulcher’s estimate of cavalry numbers is perhaps broadly realistic, as they seem to have taken relatively few casualties at Ascalon. The army was certainly large given that this was their big opportunity to avenge that defeat and retake Palestine before reinforcements for the crusaders could arrive from Europe. Whatever the exact numbers, the Franks were very significantly outnumbered, probably even more than when they faced the Egyptians in 1099.

We are not entirely sure who commanded the Egyptian force. One Muslim chronicler calls him al- Qawwasi, `the archer’, while two others call him al- Tawasi, `the eunuch’ (hardly inspiring but not quite as depressing as it sounds to modern ears: it could also mean `first class cavalryman’ at the time). As we have seen, with an unusual sense of gallows humour, the Damascus chronicle implausibly refers to him as al- Qawamisi (`General Disastrous’). Whatever his name, the Egyptian commander eventually realised that the crusaders were not going to be enticed into attacking him near Ascalon. He blinked first. He realised that he had to do something with the large force he had been given, and was acutely aware that feeding such an army into the autumn and winter was going to pose significant logistical problems, given the limited naval facilities offered by the port of Ascalon. Perhaps the earlier desertions had continued or even worsened.

Either way, the Egyptian army started to move slowly out onto the plains around Ramla at the end of August. On 6 September the crusader army left Jaffa and marched out towards them. The Fatimids were a substantial force and were not manoeuvring at speed. Maybe they thought that the tiny Frankish army would not want to meet them in the field. Or perhaps, given that their two most likely eventual targets were the cities of Jaffa and Jerusalem, they had heavy siege equipment in the baggage train, slowing down the army as a whole.

Before battle was joined, King Baldwin gave a speech to the troops. Normally, surviving pre- battle speeches from the classical or medieval periods are little more than homilies: the kinds of thing that appeal more to the clerics who write them, or make them up, than to the scared and adrenaline- filled soldiers they are supposed to be aimed at. In this case, however, there is a faint echo of reality in our record of the speech, an attempt to show genuine camaraderie with the men he was leading into battle, and a roughness of style that might ring true. The usual religious exhortations are relatively brief but focused on the things uppermost in men’s minds at that moment: if you die, you will be blessed and the Kingdom of Heaven awaits; if you live, you will have everlasting glory. His short speech ended with an all too plausible message from one soldier to another, tinged with a stiff dose of sardonic humour. `And remember, if you feel like running,’ he is reported to have said, `France is a very long way away.’ Fulcher, who was there at the time, dryly commented that after he had finished, `we all agreed with him’.

The three divisions of cavalry which constituted the front line of the crusader forces charged the centre of the Fatimid army in waves, or at least in echelon. Their impact was hindered by two factors. The Egyptians’ superior numbers in the centre enabled them to absorb the initial shock and also meant that they were deployed on a wider frontage, allowing a natural outflanking process to take place once the first impetus of the charge was over. Fulcher describes his dismay at the sheer weight of numbers on the Muslim side and the way in which they `swarmed’ over the Christian cavalry like `a mass of birds’.

This was the moment when the knights had to justify all their privileges and social status. The first unit of Frankish cavalry was led by a nobleman called Bervold. He and his men crashed into the Fatimid lines but the initial impact was held. Bervold was killed. His contingent was almost wiped out. One knight escaped but even he had lost a hand in the fracas. The second wave charged in, led by Geldemar Carpinel, who had recently been given Haifa and so was presumably leading his retinue and the local contingent. They too were quickly overwhelmed, however, and almost completely destroyed. Geldemar was killed, together with most of his men. Only two knights, named William and Erkengold, managed to escape.

The Galilean contingent was next in, led by their young lord, Hugh of Tiberias. They charged again into the centre of the Egyptian line. Hugh seemed to be making some headway but eventually he and his troops were also ground down. The attack stalled. Unlike the first two waves, Hugh and a few survivors of his division were in a fit state to withdraw as a unit, but they had been severely mauled.

This was the critical point of the battle. The Fatimid centre had been temporarily weakened, but their flanks were still strong and two of the three vanguard units of the Frankish army had been all but wiped out. Baldwin’s choice was to either try to gather the remnants of the army together for a fighting retreat back to Jaffa; or to gamble all on a final charge on the centre of the Egyptian line, hoping that it would break and take the rest of the army with it. Baldwin decided on the latter. Higher risk but high reward. And a fighting retreat against an enemy with superior numbers was certainly full of risk too.

The True Cross was in the rear division of the army, carried by a certain Bishop Gerard and an elite guard of ten armoured soldiers. Baldwin paused to make a (presumably extremely brief) confession to the bishop and to take what he probably thought would be his last Holy Communion in front of the True Cross.

He had kept the two last cavalry units with him in reserve. The first of these, the contingent from Jerusalem, were ordered to charge once more into the centre of the Fatimid line, presumably through the wreckage of the three previous Frankish cavalry units. As the Jerusalem contingent began to falter, Baldwin personally led his last remaining cavalry reserve into the fray, a final throw of the dice. In a scene of suspiciously high drama, he rode on his famous charger, Gazelle, towards the leaders of the Egyptian army, hoping, as Alexander the Great had done at Gaugamela and as Robert of Normandy had done at Ascalon, that their death or flight would cause the entire enemy army to collapse.

Baldwin charged at one of the Egyptian commanders and ran him and his horse through with his lance. The blow was so severe, we are told, that the white pennant at the tip of Baldwin’s lance lodged in the dying emir’s stomach. This all sounds far too choreographed and dramatic to be realistic. And yet, bizarrely, there seems to be an element of truth to all this. Several Muslim accounts mention that al- Qawwasi (or al- Qawamisi, `General Disastrous’) died in the centre of the Egyptian army towards the end of the battle, as he fell from his horse. The death of its commander, coming after the intense fighting between the Egyptian centre and the successive Frankish cavalry charges, was enough to push the core of the Fatimid forces into rout.

There was some pursuit of the defeated Egyptians, even as far as the outskirts of Ascalon. Given the scale of the Frankish casualties, however, particularly among the knights, much of this pursuit must have been undertaken by the mounted sergeants and other light cavalry while the infantry moved to pick off enemy stragglers on foot, and the walking wounded.

Some apologists for the Fatimid army have tried, unconvincingly, to claim the battle as a draw. The Muslim sources which they use to support this thesis are confused and vague, but even they admit that the Frankish forces crashed into the centre of the Muslim army and killed its commander. After two years’ preparation, on ground of their own choosing and with vastly superior numbers, the Fatimid army still failed to beat the Franks.

From a Frankish perspective, it was clearly a strategic success, albeit a hard-won battle on the day. Manpower in the crusader states would never be at such a low point again. Settlers and pilgrims were starting to arrive, and relationships with the local Christian communities were being strengthened. If the Fatimids were ever going to recapture Palestine, this was arguably their best opportunity.

It was also a tactical victory for the crusaders, at least in the technical sense of the term. They had killed the enemy general, routed the main Fatimid army and remained in possession of the field. On the ground, however, it can hardly have felt like that. Of the 260 knights who had started the battle, 80 were dead by its end and few of the survivors were still in a fit state to fight. If wounded are also included (and these are usually more numerous than fatalities in a victorious army, as the wounded are less likely to be killed in the aftermath of battle), the majority of the crusader heavy cavalry must have been casualties.

So, if this was victory, it was clear that the crusaders could not afford too many more like that. On the day itself, as Fulcher said, `no one knew the outcome of the battle’. But Baldwin would never have been able to disperse his troops for two or three months in the face of a Turkic army: they were far more aggressive and effective than the Fatimid cavalry. With an Egyptian army he felt able to do so. The Franks had eventually prevailed, they had survived, and their military resources would continue to grow.

The Armed Might of the Crusaders

We shall not understand the Crusaders until we realize that they were different from us. They were closer to the earth, and the smells of the earth. They were closer to the brute facts of the earth; very often they were near starvation. For the most part they were peasants with a peasant’s knowledge of the seasons and the rituals of the Church. They believed with a firm and intimate faith, with a medieval directness, and a rough-hewn stubbornness, that it was in their power to safeguard forever the Holy Sepulchre, which they regarded as the place of the Resurrection, offering the promise of eternal life. They knew that Christ died and rose again in the flesh; that they belonged to the kingdom of Christ; to him, they owed their ultimate allegiance.

The most enviable Crusaders were the knights, who were often only two generations removed from the peasantry. With their grooms and esquires, and their pompous trappings, they were the elite of the army, always on parade. Their horses were much heavier than those of the Saracens. Well-trained and strictly disciplined, the Crusaders were armored front-line troops with sufficient weight and power to punch holes in the enemy lines and then to wheel back and punch more holes. Their weapons were lances, which sometimes reached the length of ten feet, and a heavy double-edged sword, which they carried in a scabbard on the left side. The sword was used for hand-to-hand fighting; the lance possessed a wider range and flexibility.

From neck to waist, and from thighs to feet, knights were enclosed in chain mail made of iron links on a foundation of leather. They wore very sharp spurs and round shields with iron rims and iron bosses. Their helmets were round, flat-topped boxes of steel covering the whole head, with slits in front of the eyes and perforations in front of the mouth and nose. They were intended to look terrifying.

Once established in the Holy Land, the Crusaders had three main armies. There was the army in the service of the king, and there were the auxiliary armies of the Templars and the Hospitallers. These auxiliary armies, which became enormously powerful, grew up haphazardly, yet there were times when they became the real rulers of the kingdom.

The Order of the Knights of the Temple was a military order founded by Hugh of Payens, a knight from Champagne. He appears to have been sweet-tempered, totally dedicated, and ruthless on behalf of the Faith. The Knights of the Temple were soldiers of Christ, ascetic almost to fanaticism, single-minded to the exclusion of all ideas except the worship of God and the annihilation of the Saracens. In 1118, Hugh of Payens with nine other knights sought the permission of Baldwin I to found the order. The king of Jerusalem was so delighted with the idea that he gave them part of the royal palace believed to be the Temple of Solomon. This became their headquarters and from then on they were known as Templars.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the Templars was to safeguard the lives of the pilgrims who flocked to Jerusalem and other holy places. But from the beginning, Hugh of Payens appears to have had a larger aim. The Templars quickly became an independent fighting arm of the Church, having allegiance only to the pope and the grand master. They were armed monks, priestly swordbearers, chivalrous only on behalf of God, shock troops to be thrown into every righteous battle. Their courage became legendary.

Safeguarding the comings and goings of pilgrims was difficult. How difficult we learn from the Anglo-Saxon traveler Saewulf who came to Jerusalem in 1102 and left this account of the tortuous road that leads up from the coast to Jerusalem:

. . . the Saracens . . . lie in wait in mountain caves to surprise the Christians, watching both day and night to pounce on those who came in small numbers and were therefore less capable of resistance or those who were worn out with fatigue and therefore lagged behind their companions. At one moment you can see them everywhere, at another moment they are invisible, and everyone who travels in this region has observed this. . . .

Saewulf, with his Anglo-Saxon companions, arrived at a time when the Kingdom of Jerusalem had only just come into existence, when the government was still disorderly and inefficient, and when it was impossible to spare soldiers to police the road. Because the government could not guarantee the safety of the pilgrims, hundreds died even before they saw Jerusalem’s golden gates.

At first, the Templars enjoyed a modest organization. Over the course of two centuries a vast body of rules and regulations would come into existence, legislating for every possible eventuality, but at the beginning they were merely monks on horseback, armed with swords and lances, sometimes so poor that two would ride on a single horse.

Hugh of Payens infused the Templars with the energy of chastity and obedience. No women might enter the Temple; they were not permitted to embrace any woman, not even their sisters or their mothers. A lamp burned in their dormitories all night; their breeches were tightly laced; they were never permitted to see each other naked. They were permitted no privacy, and letters addressed to individual Templars had to be read aloud in the presence of the grand master or a chaplain. They never shaved their beards. Their spartan lives were directed toward the single end of protecting the pilgrims and the Kingdom of Jerusalem by killing the enemy.

Since they were obedient only to the pope, who was far away, they often acted independently of the king of Jerusalem. They became sophisticated soldiers, administrators, builders of castles, and owners of vast estates, not only in the Holy Land but all over Europe, for kings and princes and common people soon recognized that they possessed to an extraordinary degree the military power to secure the safety of the kingdom. They possessed, too, a vast intelligence system, sometimes working in close association with the royal government, but sometimes against it. Their own spies reported regularly from Cairo, Baghdad, Aleppo, and the other Arab capitals of the Middle East.

The headquarters of the Templars still stands in Jerusalem, for the building then known as the Temple was in fact the al-Aqsa Mosque, believed by Christians to be on the site of the Temple of Solomon. In these spacious quarters with their underground stables lived the grand master, the marshal, and the high command. Reverence was paid to the grand master as the representative of the pope. The master of the Templars was often a man who had entered the order as a youth and had spent his whole life in it. He knew no other world and was interested only in the advancement of the Templars at all costs, and if it was necessary for him to form a temporary alliance with the Saracens, he would do so without a qualm. The Templars always had the best intelligence system in the Holy Land, and very often the Saracens learned what they wanted to know through the Templars. Those hard and silent men, wearing voluminous white cloaks derived from the Cistercian robe, adorned with a large blood-red cross, played dangerous games. They brought the Crusaders some of their greatest triumphs and some of their greatest defeats.

The second army belonged to the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John. They were known as Hospitallers and wore a red eight-pointed cross on their black mantles. They, too, arose from humble beginnings and learned to exercise kingly powers. About the year 1070, some citizens of Amalfi established a hostel for poor pilgrims in Jerusalem, with the permission of the Egyptian governor of the city. When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem, the master was a certain Gerard, a Benedictine priest, who escaped or was expelled from the city before its conquest. He provided the Crusaders with valuable information and was soon in the good graces of the new rulers, who endowed his hostel and encouraged his work in every way. The Church assumed control of the hostel. Like the Templars, the Hospitallers owed obedience to the pope.

When Raymond of Le Puy became the new master, around 1118, the order changed direction. In Raymond’s view it was not enough that the order should care for pilgrims; it must also defend them. The rule of the Hospitallers was less strict than the rule of the Templars. The Hospitallers were steadier, less adventurous, more somber. The Templars had a glitter about them while the Hospitallers seemed almost colorless. The Hospitaller army was much smaller than the Templar army and never attained the popularity of the Templars; it was also much poorer. These two rival orders vied for honor and renown. They often clashed, but when they moved in unison they performed marvelously.

Soon the orders became proud and imperious, and since the king was also likely to be proud and imperious, there were continual disputes and quarrels. In theory, they were independent of the king, owing allegiance only to Rome. In fact, the masters of the two orders had their places in the royal council chamber, and no important act was decided upon without their agreement. More and more, as the wars continued, it appeared that the kingdom was ruled by a triumvirate: the king, and the masters of the Temple and the Hospital.

Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part I

Fort St. Elmo.


Map of Grand Harbor

Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Sultan, had ordered that no action be taken without consulting Turgut Reis. Turgut still had not arrived. Some thought that he was not coming at all—he was old, and strange things happen at sea. There was no reason to hold up all operations on his account. Spain was a formidable power, more so now that they were not distracted by wars in the Lowlands and against France. They were quite capable of launching a relief force to trouble this siege, and intelligence suggested that, under the guidance of the new and capable viceroy, they were in the process of doing so. Best then to get on with the operation and hope that Turgut would show up sooner rather than later.

The leading commanders gathered in Mustapha’s tent to decide what to do next.

In theory there should have been little to discuss. The strategy had been laid out months earlier in Constantinople, aided by a scale model of Grand Harbor built on the report of two Muslim spies posing as fishermen. The plan was to take out Fort St. Elmo and so control the eastern-facing deep waters and the secure bay of the Grand Harbor, better protected than Marsaxlokk from the spring’s strong gregale winds that could sweep down from the northeast. In so doing, the Ottomans could maintain a supply base close to the army’s center of operations, thus simplifying the demands of logistics. All future matériel arriving from Constantinople or North Africa would not have to be hauled the eight miles overland from Marsaxlokk, a wearisome task at best, and a dangerous task so long as there were Christian marauders about—as, in fact, there were until the very end.

Mustapha had his own ideas. A veteran of wars in Hungary and Persia, Mustapha was accustomed to long marches over rough terrain—what was an eight-mile trek to him? Concede Grand Harbor to the knights, he thought, and St. Elmo becomes a Christian liability, a place they would have to defend while the bulk of Muslim soldiers were wearing down the main objectives elsewhere. His proposed order of operations was for Piali Pasha to take ten thousand men and ten guns and seize the lightly defended capital of Mdina at the center of the island. This would be both a psychological blow to the Maltese and a boost for his own men, and it would serve to protect the army’s rear from Mdina’s cavalry raiders and any possible Spanish relief forces. Once Mdina was taken, he could then attack the bulk of the enemy’s forces at Birgu and Senglea, and finally, almost as an afterthought, seize the island of Gozo. His vision went further, offshore and into Piali’s area of authority. He suggested a new disposition for the fleet, that it be divided into three parts: one to blockade Grand Harbor, one to remain in Marsaxlokk, and one to patrol the channel between Malta and Sicily.

It did not go down well. Piali Pasha reminded the council that his responsibility was to meet the needs of the sultan’s “powerful and invincible armada” and to guard the island from any Christian warships. (After his attempt to swindle Suleiman out of some ransom after Djerba, he was also on his best behavior.) Piali wanted the eastern-facing deep waters and secure bay of the Grand Harbor. To get this, they would need to take out the defensive Fort St. Elmo. The council, many of them navy men, concurred with Piali.

Compelled against his better judgment to target Fort St. Elmo, Mustapha wanted to know how long it would take to capture the place, and he sent out engineers skilled in this kind of calculation to make an estimate. They got as close as they dared, and came back with a mixture of good news and bad. The good news was that the shortcomings Don Garcia had criticized were all in place. The bad news was that the stony ground, while suitable for trenches, was useless for digging mines. As to siege artillery, that was simply a matter of getting cannon down the steep length of Mount Sciberras and into position opposite the fort. The engineers were confident that the Ottoman army, fresh from their voyage and ready for a fight, would be able to bring down the walls and take the fort in under five days. With luck, they might be able to present the first victory of the campaign to Turgut when he eventually arrived.

Mustapha gave in. His May 23 report to Suleiman notes the divided opinions and the final proposed course of action; it does not, interestingly, indicate what he thought.

Balbi describes this squabble in some detail, based on the gossip of two more renegades who had, they claimed, stood guard outside the tent. (In camps famed for their silence, shouting commanders were presumably easy to hear.) Gossip or not, an overjoyed Valette reacted swiftly. His spies in Constantinople had reported that St. Elmo was to be the first target, but he could not be sure. Initially he had entrusted its defense to the aging and unwell Fr. Broglio and a small contingent of Spanish foot. From his command center in Fort St. Angelo, he now ordered the French knight Pierre de Massuez-Vercoirin (aka Colonel Mas) and two hundred of his men, as well as sixty-five volunteers from the knights, dispatched to bolster the three hundred and thirty-five soldiers already in Fort St. Elmo. He cautioned them, however, to make self-preservation their priority, to not engage the enemy in any unnecessary skirmishes.


Now certain that the first target was to be Fort St. Elmo, Valette had all the civilians who had taken refuge there brought over to Birgu. The boats that carried this last group out of harm’s way returned with powder, lead, rope, incendiaries, hardtack, wine, cheese, lard, oil, and vinegar for the five hundred men inside. He also ordered Colonel Mas and 150 of his men to swell the ranks.

If Valette expected caution from the men at St. Elmo, he had sadly misjudged them. Inspired by the knowledge that Ottoman siege guns were being towed down the peninsula, Colonel Mas and Captain La Cerda led a number of their men out of the fort and headed for the enemy. The ensuing fight, the last direct fighting they were to enjoy for some time, was a short and spirited affair, but the handful of men killed on both sides did not materially slow Mustapha’s progress.

It appears, however, to have prompted him to position sharpshooters within range of Fort St. Elmo. Janissaries were notorious for the efficiency of their snipers, “most excellent marksmen.” These men could lie in wait for hours at a time in the hope of blowing the head off anyone who, from curiosity, might peek over the top of the parapet, however briefly. From that time on, the Christian defenders were trapped inside the fort, with only the sound of Muslim sappers digging trenches outside the fort and enemy gun carriages moving closer and closer.

The defenders, however, were able to fire cannon from seaward facing cavalier cannon fire that was supplemented by Valette’s men across the water at Fort St. Angelo. The footsoldiers might feel superfluous in such circumstances. These were experienced warriors who knew what went into a proper fort, and Fort St. Elmo was not the best example of the military architect’s art. Personal bravery notwithstanding, the men of Fort St. Elmo could calculate odds as well as any Ottoman engineer, and they knew the power of the wall-smashing guns that in a day or so would be brought to bear.

On May 24, Mustapha was ready. His guns were set in three ranks facing the landward side of St. Elmo. Defensive gabions, boxes filled with cotton, now created a wall through which ten guns capable of firing eight-pound balls poked out toward the fort. A second tranche that boasted two culverins, guns capable of lobbing sixty-pound shot, backed them up. Finally, on the rise overlooking the fort was one of the so-called basilisks, its vast cyclopean eye staring down on St. Elmo, a huge weapon capable of throwing a stone ball of a hundred and sixty pounds. More guns would follow, and from different emplacements, but these would do for now. Sacks of powder were shoved down the bronze gullets, with stone balls lifted in as a chaser. Engineers sighted targets and adjusted angles of fire. Each gunner prepared his slow match and blew the tip into a bright orange glow, loose sparks flying off and crackling as they expired. Mustapha himself stood behind them, waited until all was ready, and then gave the order to fire. The artillerymen lowered the linstocks to the touchholes, and in a storm of sound, fire, and smoke, the first volleys slammed into the walls of Fort St. Elmo.

The effect was devastating, so powerful that even in Birgu the houses shook. The infantry huddled inside the fort, unable even to watch the enemy. Throughout the day, Turkish artillery smashed against the walls, pulverizing and knocking off chunks of stonework and beginning to fill the ditch. Of necessity, trained soldiers became journeyman masons of the crudest sort, reduced to reinforcing the walls as the ground shook and stonework crumbled, their swords and guns and all thoughts of fighting now shelved. Men such as La Cerda could only seethe at this misuse of their talents.

The Christians of St. Elmo were not, however, fighting completely alone. Valette had ordered the guns on Fort St. Angelo to fire on the Ottoman sappers and cannon, and they did so with good effect. One of these shots dislodged a stone that struck Piali Pasha’s head and knocked him senseless. He was unconscious for about an hour, prompting rumors about his death—premature, as it happened. He had, they said afterward, his turban to thank for his life. Mustapha’s reaction to this news is unrecorded.

The entire day passed in ponderous rolling thunder of cannon fire, smoke, and dust quivering in midair. The very ground trembled in response to this pummeling. Finally, night fell, the cannon ceased, and the men at St. Elmo considered the situation. It was clear to them that the fort could not hold up under this kind of abuse, and since the defenders could not even fight back, the best option, the only option, was to abandon the fort entirely, return to Fort St. Angelo, and bolster the fighting force there.

If someone was to suggest this course of action to as stern a man as Valette, best that it be a reputable commander who was not a member of the Order of St. John. The job went to Captain La Cerda.

On the night of May 24–25, La Cerda slipped into a small boat and under a moonless sky was rowed across to Fort St. Angelo. Valette was there to greet him and in a public square asked him how matters stood at St. Elmo. The grand master presumably expected a bluff-and-hearty answer to the effect that they were holding their own and eager to fight. He got the opposite. La Cerda answered that matters were exceedingly bad.

It was a straightforward, honest, and heartfelt answer, but as the chronicler put it, one that “he should have kept secret and in chambers, so as not to frighten the populace.” He was quickly hustled into the council room before he could blurt out anything more. The grand council sat in tall back benches on either side of the room, unsteady candlelight wavered over the stones and wood, and the commanders asked him to explain himself. La Cerda didn’t hesitate. Fort St. Elmo was, he said, “a sick man in need of medicine.” Its walls could not hold, and the soldiers, his soldiers, were being condemned to die without hope of fighting back. Let the place be mined and abandoned so that Turks could enter and be blown up in the process. Let the Christians rejoin their fellows at Senglea and Birgu, and let the real fight begin.

The council might not have expected good news, but this kind of talk, this early on in the campaign, was a shock, the more so given the source. La Cerda was no raw recruit who flinched at the first sound of gunfire. He was a veteran of the 1543 siege of Tlemcen, on the Barbary coast, in which battle he had been wounded in his shoulder. His actions on Malta so far had been aggressive, even rash, but undeniably brave. Given his position and experience, his word must carry some weight, both with the council and with his own men.

How did Valette react? Accounts differ. However displeased the grand master might have been, the chroniclers Balbi and Cirni record a relatively temperate response. The encyclopedic Bosio, however, writes that Valette was scathing. He thanked La Cerda for his report. Did the men in the fort truly have no confidence in their abilities? Very well, they were free to go. Valette did not wish to have anyone in whom he could have no confidence, and clearly he could have no confidence in them. He would replace the men now in the fort with better men, braver men, men headed by Valette himself.

It may have been stage anger or the real thing, but regardless, the threat had its intended effect. The council protested that as grand master he must not leave. If more soldiers were required at St. Elmo, they could be found. Valette agreed in the end and called up Lieutenant Medrano, a subordinate to Captain Miranda (who was recovering from an illness at Messina) and ordered him to take his company of two hundred men across to Fort St. Elmo. Proving that good things come to those in whom Valette did have confidence, the grand master also promoted him to captain.

Not to be outdone by the Spanish volunteers, a French knight, Captain Gaspard de La Motte, stepped forward and offered to take a number of his own men to bolster the defenders of Fort St. Elmo. Would Valette agree?

He would. Ardent men, he said, were exactly what was needed. To top off the rebuke to La Cerda and any others at Fort St. Elmo who thought the place not worth defending, Valette also offered some sixty pressed convicts (forzati) their freedom if they would agree to act as ferrymen for the soldiers.

The sky was still dark. Captain Medrano, La Motte, and two hundred fresh troops (along with the humiliated La Cerda) embarked stealthily into the small crafts and under the last sliver of the old moon crossed the waters back to the crumbling fort. Valette wrote to Don Garcia that the fort’s complement was eight hundred men, though perhaps he was exaggerating a bit when he said “all were resolved to do their duty.”

If nothing else the incident demonstrates the degree to which auxiliaries, especially the Spanish soldiers like La Cerda, considered themselves to be the equals of the Order in terms of authority. Vertot, a seventeenth-century French historian for whom Valette could do no wrong, derides the Spaniard as someone “whom fear made eloquent.” The charge is ludicrous and ignores La Cerda’s logic, which in this instance was both simple and direct. He was on Malta to kill Muslims. In St. Elmo he was not killing Muslims. Better, therefore, to abandon a slaughter pen and take the fight to the enemy elsewhere. This was perhaps an admirable view, but impractical for Valette. The grand master’s was not a split command, much less command by consensus. Dissent was already a problem in the enemy camp, and Valette would not have it in his own.

And he did not let the matter drop. He quickly informed Don Garcia, who raised the matter with the king: “Juan de la Cerda and his lieutenant . . . have shown great baseness (vildad), and attempted to persuade the Grand Master to abandon the fort and mine it, because it was no longer possible to defend the place.” Don Garcia suggested that beheading would be suitable punishment, and the king, who took a minute interest in all details of his empire, did not object: “If what you say is true, that Juan de la Cerda and his lieutenant wanted to abandon Sant Telmo, you are to give orders that they be punished according to what is just.” Philip’s letter is dated July 7—it is a little touching that the king could imagine that he was addressing a situation static enough that his advice would be meaningful. Nothing further seems to have come of the matter, and as we shall see, La Cerda’s fate would be more complex than a simple execution.


The fight for St. Elmo, projected to take five days, was now on day nine, with no end in sight. Worse, it turned out that Turgut agreed with Mustapha’s abandoned strategy completely, and said so: “‘Of what use is it to take Saint Elmo?’ he asked. ‘Even if you had ten Saint Elmos, until you take Malta [i.e., the rest of the island], you cannot be conquerors.’ Thus having spoken, he immediately wept.” They should, he thought, have gone for Mdina and Gozo, the easy targets, the mother to the child St. Elmo.

It was too late now, though the endorsement of Mustapha’s plan, added to the soldiers killed by Piali Pasha’s guns, cannot have helped relations between Mustapha and Piali. It was best to look forward. Having received a full rundown of how matters stood, the aging Turgut immediately went out to the end of the peninsula to see firsthand what steps had been taken and what things could be improved. Turgut’s first concern was for the safety of his troops. He noted that the southward part of Sciberras was clearly visible from the walls of Fort St. Angelo. Given the expectations of a quick victory, Mustapha had had no reason to spend too much time in masking their actions. By now, however, Christian gunners from across the water had been able to calibrate their fire on sappers and artillerists, making the Muslims’ work both difficult and short. This interference had to be stopped. Turgut ordered a makeshift screen to be erected between Fort St. Angelo and the Turkish part of Sciberras. Blind the gunners to specific targets and they would be wasting shot and powder on empty space.

The men now relatively safe, Turgut turned his attention to the fort itself. A devastating bombardment was in order, and from as many directions as possible. Turgut ordered new artillery emplacements on Tigné point, the north tip of the harbor mouth. This would allow the Turks to fire on St. Elmo from three sides and force the defenders within to spread out their repairs. He was particularly interested in neutralizing the raised cavalier whose cannons faced back on the Ottoman lines at Mount Sciberras. Finally, he considered the matter of the Christians’ nocturnal relief boats. These vessels, all but invisible under the nearly moonless sky, had until now been largely unmolested. The moon, however, was waxing, and with each passing day, the Christians lost another sliver of advantage. Turgut was determined to end the fort’s cycle of slow bleeding and regular infusions, and just finish the fort off once and for all. The guns—thirty of various caliber—were to begin firing that night.

Fort St. Elmo 1565 Part II

Fort St. Elmo after the loss of the ravelin on the left.

Aleccio, Matteo Perez d’; The Siege of Malta: Siege and Bombardment of Saint Elmo, 27 May 1565; National Maritime Museum;

The chroniclers considered it something of a miracle that the fort was still standing at all. One reason for its survival was distance. Large, wall-smashing guns work best at close range, a fact the Ottomans were happy to exploit. More than that and they lost significant power. Whether from reluctance to bring out the heavy guns against this smaller target, or as Hughes suggests, because the geography prevented their pulling anything up to point-blank range, Mustapha kept his largest cannon a full 180 yards from the fort. The discharges were inevitably both dramatic and loud, but they did less damage than they might have done had the guns been closer. Large cannon, moreover, took a long time to prepare. Smaller bored pieces, if not as destructive, could at least be fired and reloaded in fairly quick order. The knight Fra Girolamo Pepe Napolitano, with little else to do, lay back and counted the shots and “calculated that a day did not pass in which six or seven hundred cannonades were not fired against it.” Anthoine de Cressy claims that on one day, no less than fourteen hundred coups de canon struck the fort, and that by the end it would endure nineteen thousand. The numbers should not be too surprising. The chief object of the cannonade was to chip away a wall faster than the defenders could repair it. Strictly speaking, proper rebuilding was impractical if not impossible. The best that could be done was to buffer the edges with earth or cotton-filled gabions, crude barrels made of rush, that would absorb the blow of the next day’s cannonballs. It was a job best done at night when the sharpshooters were sleeping. Come the morning, the artilleryman’s first order of business was to sweep this padding away as quickly as possible and get back to chipping away at the stone structure itself. In addition, and depending on available material, the defenders could build a secondary wall inside the fort that would come as a surprise to anyone rushing through the breach.

However necessary all this preliminary work might be, in the end taking the fort would depend on sheer grit. Any given breach favors the defender insofar as it concentrates the attacking force. It took outstanding bravery to rush the small opening and become an easy target for prepared men. A single cannon of scattershot would cut a wide swath through the attackers. Where a few dozen men might charge, none might survive. The Muslims made these attacks over and over, and each time to no end other than filling the ditch with their dead and dying.

It is the mark of a good leader that his men want to go out of their way to impress him. Turgut had this quality. When the Janissaries demanded that they be allowed to take the breach, the corsair forbade it, commending their zeal but noting that the opening was still too small, and that if they gathered to make a charge, they would present Christian gunners and the fast-loading arquebusiers a single, concentrated, easy-to-hit target. He wanted better odds.

Not to be deterred, a squadron of Ottoman engineers set out in the predawn hours to see if there were any new weaknesses they might exploit. One place they explored was the north-facing ravelin, the heightened defensive spur that had so concerned Don Garcia de Toledo. Under the pale light of the first-quarter moon, these men scurried down to get a closer look. The ravelin loomed in the dark ahead of them. They approached, ready for the sudden pop of gunfire that would send them back into the shadows, but they heard nothing.

The reasons for this are obscure. Some have suggested that the designated sentry had nodded off or been killed by sniper fire, or that the complement of soldiers was unexpectedly small, only forty men, none of them Knights of St. John. Whatever the case, the Janissaries soon realized that this was a target ripe for the taking and wasted no time in getting word back down the line. They consulted (or not) Mustapha for instructions and were ordered (or not) to hurry up and take advantage of this rare opportunity.

Accounts of what followed are somewhat confused. What is nearly certain is that before dawn a number of Janissaries trotted back to the ravelin, threw up scaling ladders, then flowed over the sides of the ravelin and through its embrasures (low enough that a man standing on the shoulders of another man could easily get in), and started to butcher the Italian and Spanish soldiers inside. The luckier defenders awoke in the early half-light of dawn only to see their commanding officer lying dead and an ever-increasing number of highly agressive, brightly gowned, scimitar-wielding Janissaries looming above them. In a panic they scrambled up, abandoned their arms, and ran back onto the causeway toward the fort. Fortunately, the ravelin’s defenders were backed up by fifty men under the command of a Neapolitan knight Francesco di Guevara. Guevara’s men were stationed in a trench that blocked the passage between the ravelin and cavalier; and now alerted by the shrill cries of the Janissaries and the shouting of their comrades, they climbed over their barricade down the causeway toward the plank bridge (wood, easy to destroy in an emergency) to take up the fight. Arquebusiers fired on the Ottoman ranks, helping to slow the sudden incursion until more help could arrive.

Which it did in short order—the knight Vercoiran, along with his brother Colonel Mas, Captain Medrano, and the Spanish knight and bailo of Negroponte Juan d’Eguaras came out of the fort, across the drawbridge that spanned the ditch, and on through the causeway with the aim of repelling the Turks from the ravelin.

Despite their best efforts, it was too late to repel the Turks; word of the impromptu battle had quickly flowed back to the Ottoman camp, and fresh waves of exultant soldiers had rushed to join their comrades. As Guevara and his men hacked away on the narrow confines of the causeway and the wooden plank bridge that connected it to the ravelin, more and more Ottomans had been climbing into the ravelin itself. Soon an excess of Muslim troops was spilling over into the ditch, bringing their force up to the face of the ramparts themselves. Curione, writing in 1565, mentions ladders too short to top the ramparts, but even with that disappointment, the taking of the ditch, even at the cost of five hundred men, was worth it. Because of the fort’s wide angle and the lack of embrasures or crenellations, it was impossible for the Christians to cover all approaches in the ditch except from the tower, and even that had dead zones where the Ottomans could crouch next to the fort’s wall in near total safety. From here, they could both fire on the causeway and work on destroying the foundations of the fort itself. Along the causeway, the battle grew and the sun came up to illuminate the brawl, and for five hours men fought hand-to-hand, chiefly with blades.

The Christians had one advantage in the person of Fra Francesco Lanfreducci, who commanded two artillery pieces on the heights of the cavalier. By repeatedly sending scattershot into the mass of Ottoman troops, he was able to clear Ottoman soldiers from the traverse and even, temporarily at least, within the ravelin itself. A great multitude of flags had marked the Ottoman’s taking of the ravelin, but all were blown away in an instant by Lanfreducci’s guns. The attackers, however, were not to be deterred, and Lanfreducci could fire his guns only so often before they overheated to the point where they might themselves explode. Moreover, where the fighting was hand to hand, any shot the gunners let loose risked killing as many Christians as Muslims. As a final problem, early on Lanfreducci was short one of his key cannoneers, lost to a well-aimed arquebus shot.

The battle lines wavered over the morning hours, and from time to time, there was some hope that the ravelin itself might be recovered. The Ottomans, however, were already putting their own defense works—wooden fasces, earth-filled gabions, bales of wool—in place against any such attempt. Force of numbers eventually told, and the mass of Ottomans was able to push the defenders across the traverse and back toward the drawbridge that gave access to the fort itself. Guevara, wounded in his arm, and Louis Vercoirin, the brother of Colonel Mas, commanded the retreat, which was so closely engaged that the defenders were unable to raise the bridge. The Turks were on the verge of breaking through, those in front being pushed forward by the men in back, when the defenders on the parapets began to bombard them with a storm of rocks and burning pitch. The defenders also likely used trumps.

Trumps were an unpleasant weapon consisting of a metal tube strapped onto long wooden poles. The tubes were filled with a mixture of bitumen, tar, sulfur, and other incendiary material, the stuff the ancients called Greek fire, and all too similar to modern-day napalm. Once the material was ignited, the tubes became flamethrowers, particularly useful for defending narrow spaces, such as the entrance to Fort St. Elmo. Defenders would wave these against the men pressing the entrance. The weapons, once given a chance to warm up, spat out sticky gobs of burning naphtha, which clung to everything it touched. From the changed quality of the screaming, it took only a short time before the men at the back realized what was happening and fled backward, allowing their less fortunate comrades to run from the bridge and throw themselves into the dust or farther off into the water. Dust might have extinguished the matter, but water would not—according to contemporary sources, only vinegar or urine was proof against the stuff.

The attacks stopped entirely at about half past noon. The ravelin was now firmly in Ottoman hands, as was the greater part of the ditch. The cost to the Ottomans had been high—five hundred men killed on this day, and as many as two thousand killed since the assaults on St. Elmo had begun (a figure received from runaways). The defenders had lost about twenty knights, and sixty soldiers were killed and many more wounded.

Valette ordered boats to bring the dead and wounded back to Fort St. Angelo, and it is a testimony to Turgut’s effectiveness that not one of these vessels escaped unhit. Valette sent Coppier over to determine if the ravelin could be retaken. The answer was immediate and negative. Worse, Coppier had to inform Valette that the Turks were already hoisting goatskin sandbags onto the ravelin in order to raise its heights above the walls of St. Elmo. Balbi, in describing the action, laments the failure of Fort St. Elmo’s design, even going so far as to defend La Cerda’s objections.

Mustapha was happy to report this success back to Constantinople and put it down as a matter of careful preparation rather than luck. For Valette, the day’s failure had to be particularly bad news, and not something he would wish to report to Don Garcia, the ravelin’s chief proponent. The situation was all the more galling since the ravelin’s commander was a corporal in La Cerda’s company—the same La Cerda who had suggested the entire structure be mined, handed over to the Ottomans, and then detonated. Cirni suggests that his men, “having lost heart,” simply and dishonorably (vilmente) abandoned the ravelin as more trouble than it was worth—in effect, a strategic retreat decided on the ground without waiting for possibly inconvenient orders from on high.

If so, they paid a high price. Among the day’s wounded was a lieutenant (alferez) to La Cerda. Valette, conscientious about greeting all casualties from the fort, saw this man with the others, judged his wound insufficiently grave, and ordered him thrown into prison. The offence cannot have been too egregious, and the man’s presence must have been too valuable for him to stay in jail for long—he was released within days. But Valette had made his point about who was in charge on Malta. (Curiously, La Cerda’s own whereabouts at this time are not recorded.)


The end was coming, but there remained the question of how it would play out. The ravelin continued to rise as the Ottoman workmen topped it with sandbags made of goatskin, and it would in due course command the parade ground. Meanwhile, Ottoman engineers were at work on a bridge to span the ditch between themselves and Fort St. Elmo. Excess galleys, superfluous as the invasion force died off, were being dismantled and reconfigured to this end. Spars were planted in the ground, supports tied in crisscross patterns to give them stability, flat planks laid horizontally on top, and dirt thrown on the whole to prevent the Christians from tossing incendiary grenades and setting the structure on fire. The passage was wide enough for eight men to advance abreast, and it looked as if it would be ready by June 5.

The night before, however, a squad of Christians stole out of the fort with buckets of pitch and began to paint the bridge’s supports. Noise, or the perhaps the smell, alerted the Ottomans still awake, and although the defenders were able to torch three of the five supports, they left the job half finished. Discovered in their task, the Christians scuttled back to the safety of the fort while Mustapha’s men did their best to put out the blaze. By daylight, the fire was out and the bridge was still standing, but sufficiently weakened so that the Ottomans did not wish to risk using it in a general assault. If the Christians had not stopped the Ottomans cold, they had at least bought themselves some more time.

By now, Broglio had lost confidence in his ability to command. Seventy years old and fat, he did not carry his age as lightly as Turgut, or Valette, or Mustapha. During his tenure at Fort St. Elmo, according to Curione, he had repeatedly told Valette that the fort was in fine shape, its men superhuman in their energy and faith. His own, however, had fallen short. He offered his resignation to the grand master, which was accepted. D’Eguaras was also in bad shape, suffering from an arrow wound to his hand. His request was to remain with his men, even if that required his taking a lesser role. Overall command of Fort St. Elmo, something of a hot potato, was ceded to Colonel Mas.


The guns kept chipping away at the fort, the defenders kept patching it, the tally of dead and wounded on both sides increased, and the bridge lately damaged was soon almost whole again. A renegade managed to cross the lines and bring Valette welcome news from the Ottoman camp. Turgut had been ill and confined to bed for a few days. The seventy to eighty galleys that patrolled the approaches to the island were beginning to put a strain on manpower.6 Valette countered by redeploying Giovanni Vagnone and a hundred of his men from Mdina to St. Elmo, proof of his determination to hold onto the fort and keep faith with the men inside it.

By contrast, the men inside the fort were losing confidence. The dead and, worse, the scattered parts of the dead—the arms, legs, and shredded viscera—lay stinking in the hot sun, blackened and fly-covered for lack of opportunity to retrieve and bury them. Detritus from the smashed walls flowed into the ditch, lessening its usefulness as a defensive structure and setting up a pathway for the inevitable assaults. And the guns kept firing.

Miranda, Broglio, and d’Eguaras all now agreed that remaining on the peninsula was a pointless gesture, even a strategic error, a poor trade-off of brave men for an inevitable defeat. The case for holding on might have made sense earlier, but no longer. One more time Medrano crossed the night water, past gunfire that was now taking a considerable toll on Christian boats, and one more time clattered through the narrow streets to the council chambers at Fort St. Angelo. He found Valette alert—the grand master didn’t sleep a lot these days—and ready to discuss the situation. The two spoke together first in private, and Medrano was persuasive enough to get a hearing with the entire council. He gave an affecting account of the men’s gallantry and endurance.

The spirit was willing, but facts were facts. Medrano reported on the quick work of the Turkish sappers, of the ditches they were filling in, the bridge they had constructed. He described walls scarcely worthy of the name, crumbling faster than could be repaired, the heavy casualties among those making the repairs. He spoke of the wounded and exhausted men, of the frightening accuracy of the Janissary sharpshooters, of the ravelin now mounted by two cannon capable of firing into the fort, of the sudden necessity of digging trenches within the fort because there was no other place of safety. He told of the cavalier that swayed under the constant force of cannon fire, of the two remaining guns on the eastern spur (they would be knocked out and their crews killed the next day). The fort, he said, was doomed, and the men with it unless the council permitted them to return to Fort St. Angelo.

The report was all very compelling, but except in the details, it was not news; and ultimately, it was not as compelling as Valette’s need for more time. Malta was the last bastion before Sicily, the last outpost of the Order, which in his own lifetime had lost both Rhodes and Tripoli. Malta was the last chance for an international force of Christian men to show that they could come together against the expansive embrace of Islam. Just as Malta was the shield for all Europe and as such for all Christendom, Fort St. Elmo was the shield of Malta. The longer Valette could tie the Ottoman forces down on this small piece of real estate, the longer he would be able to bolster Senglea and Birgu, the longer Mdina might survive as the main supply route for information and reinforcements, and the longer Don Garcia would have to gather and launch a relief force. Valette believed that he had no choice. The job of the men at St. Elmo was to make the taking of it long, expensive, and painful to the Ottomans. He urged Medrano to go back and convince his colleagues to hold on just a little bit longer, with the cold promise that Don Garcia had promised relief soon—as indeed he had.

Valette understood what the wretches on St. Elmo were going through. As a veteran of Rhodes, who better? But however much he sympathized, he wanted these men to realize that they, and everyone else under his command, were dedicated to Malta’s preservation. The soldiers at St. Elmo might die in its blasted ruins—and in fact probably would die there. But all men must die, and few are given the chance to do so for the sake of such a greater good. Valette was firm. Fort St. Elmo must be defended to the last man.

Medrano left Fort St. Angelo in the predawn half-light and made the trip back across the bay. As he appeared on the parade ground of Fort St. Elmo, all those who could get away from their posts gathered around him, eager to hear what the council had decided. The message did not go down well. While the older officers and men accepted obedience and blood, the younger saw nothing but pigheadedness in Valette’s decision. The latter argued that the grand master was not here on the ground, facing incessant cannon fire and arquebus bullets, he had not grappled hand to hand with Janissaries and corsairs, only barely keeping the fort under a Christian flag—how could the grand master possibly appreciate what they were going through?

What they were going through was about to get a good deal worse. At daybreak, the Muslim cannons started up their usual gunpowder symphony, slowly chipping away at the walls and almost incidentally taking Christian lives. This was routine. What was not routine was the sudden crescendo of both artillery and small arms fire just as the sun hit midday, followed by the shrill ululating voices of a thousand Muslim soldiers preparing to overrun the fort en masse. The defenders could not risk a glance over the wall to see what was coming, but they could hear the enemy approach. A wave of intense loose-robed men passed over the bridge and scrambled up the unsteady slope of collapsed masonry, shouting at and cursing the men of St. Elmo; Christian arquebusiers rose just enough to lay down a heavy cross fire into the enemy’s flanks, killing those at the van and leaving a low wall of dead and dying soldiers to slow those coming behind. Christian arquebusiers worked in teams, one man at the ridge firing, a second reloading and passing up fresh guns, and so increased the rate of fire. Those Muslims who managed to stumble over their fallen comrades and loose rubble, who dodged bullets and ignored the minor scrapes or punctures, and who got to the breaches were met with a sharp, agitated hedge of steel pikes and battle-axes. One after another the Ottomans saw the expert, almost balletic, moves of grim Spanish professionals, the swift flick and twist that propelled the razor-sharp edges and hooks of those elegant weapons. An unfortunate Muslim soldier, dressed for mobility and heat rather than for personal safety, might find a hand or a foot sliced off, his face or torso flensed, maimed for life rather than launched to paradise.

And yet they pressed on. Charge followed upon charge; no Iayalar or Janissary was willing to admit defeat against such a weak defense. Each assault failed in its turn, and the slopes that led down to the ditch were painted in blood and littered with scores of dead Muslims, and a lesser number of dead Christians. Those still alive breathed in a rank mixture of burnt sulfur, sweat, blood, viscera, and human waste. The ebb and flow of repeated assaults went on for a full seven hours, a showcase of unspeakable cruelty and astonishing bravery. Balbi praises the supreme valor of the defenders, and then adds that it was equaled by that of the enemy. He singles out Juan de La Cerda, noting that the Spanish captain had received a gunshot wound, attended to it once the enemy had fallen back, and then “with great courage removed his bandage and returned to his post as soon as the alarm was sounded again.”

By the end of the day, the defenders had lost forty men; the Ottomans, five hundred.8 As exhausted soldiers on both sides prepared to settle in for the night, a Spanish renegade called out from the Turkish lines: “You have done well today, knights. But tomorrow you will have the general assault you’ve been yearning for.”