The Fate of the Latin Empire, 1204–61

In a letter to Emperor Baldwin of 7 November 1204, Pope Innocent expressed his joy at the capture of Constantinople and described it as ‘a magnificent miracle’. In this letter, and one addressed to the clerics with the crusading army (13 November), he portrayed the campaign as God transferring the Byzantine Empire from ‘the proud to the humble, from the disobedient to the obedient, from schismatics to Catholics . . .’; this, he concluded, ‘was done by the Lord and is wondrous in our eyes’. Innocent was delighted and placed the Latin Empire under papal protection – a mark of special favour – and decreed that the task of preserving the newly conquered lands should be rewarded with the remission of sins (the same as for a crusader to the Holy Land). In other words, he harnessed a fundamental element of the crusading concept – the defence of Christian lands – to the immediate priorities of Emperor Baldwin. At this point, perhaps rather naively underestimating the work needed to consolidate the new conquests, the pope still imagined that the crusade would be able to continue onwards to the Levant.

A swathe of letters from early 1205 shows Innocent’s euphoria continuing unabated. He seems to have been totally caught up in this mighty step forward for the Catholic Church. For him, the momentous scale of God’s judgement heralded a Golden Age that would see the liberation of the Holy Land, the return of all schismatic Christians to St Peter’s see, the conversion of many heathens and the salvation of Israel – the last of which would signify the Second Coming and the End of Time. This was a remarkable agenda, but one evidently conceivable within contemporaneous currents in papal thought. The pope continued to profess his pleasure at the events in Constantinople: ‘I am enveloped by great wonder, along with those who are with me, at the novelty of such a miracle that has come to pass in these days.’

So content was Innocent that, for the moment, he overlooked yet another arrogation of papal authority by the Venetians. The March Pact of 1204 had stated that the losing party in the imperial election should have the right to provide a patriarch. Thus it fell to the doge’s churchmen to choose a candidate and they elected Thomas Morosini as their head. Unsurprisingly, as a Byzantine, Niketas Choniates found the presence of this man loathsome and he offered a savage pen-portrait of the Venetian: ‘He was of middle-age and fatter than a hog raised in a pit; his face was clean-shaven, as is the case with the rest of his race, and his chest was plucked smoother than pitchplaster; he wore a ring on his hand, and sometimes he wore leather coverings which were fitted to his fingers.’ Innocent was more concerned with Thomas’s spiritual attributes and acknowledged that he was of good character – notwithstanding the fact that the process outlined in the March Pact was a serious transgression of papal prerogatives. The agreement was, after all, a deal concluded between secular parties (the Venetians and the other crusaders), but the relevant clause here concerned election to one of the five patriarchal seats of the Christian Church, something that those enjoined to the contract had no right to decide. For this reason, Innocent had no hesitation in declaring the election void. Yet such was the pope’s positive mood at this time that he listened to representations from Baldwin, Boniface and the other crusade leaders that emphasised the huge Venetian contribution to the campaign and argued that this merited a proper reward. In response, Innocent conceded that Thomas was indeed a suitable candidate for patriarch, regardless of his improper election. Then, most realistically of all, ‘wishing to show favour to the Venetians in the hope that they might be tied more strongly to the service of the Cross of Christ’, he informed the churchmen in Constantinople that he now properly elected and confirmed Thomas as the first Latin patriarch of Constantinople.

By the middle of 1205, however, events in the Holy Land and Constantinople conspired to darken Pope Innocent’s mood considerably. The situation in the Levant plunged into a new crisis with the death (from a surfeit of fish) of King Aimery of Jerusalem, followed quickly by the demise of his infant son. War between the Christian states of Antioch and Armenia, along with a fear that the Muslims of Egypt and Damascus were poised to break a treaty made with Aimery, created huge anxieties for the papacy. The Franks were vulnerable enough anyway and these calamities threatened their fragile hold on the Syrian coastline.

To compound these troubles Peter Capuano, the papal legate, had left the Holy Land – against Innocent’s wishes – and travelled to Constantinople. There, incredibly, he had released all the westerners from their crusading vows. In other words, they were no longer obligated to go to the eastern Mediterranean, the area that Innocent continued to see as the final destination of the expedition and a region now in urgent need of help. Capuano had, in effect, terminated the Fourth Crusade. His reasoning for this is not explicit, although in the way that he had allowed the expedition to attack Zara in order to preserve its unity, pragmatism was probably at the root of his thoughts. He may have taken the view that the best way to sustain the fledgling Latin Empire was to concentrate the crusaders’ efforts in and around Constantinople and that this, rather than an exodus of men to the Holy Land, was in the best interests of the Church. Whatever Capuano’s intentions were, Pope Innocent was livid. On 12 July 1205 he wrote a stinging rebuke to the legate: ‘We leave it to your judgement as to whether or not it was permissible for you to transform – no, rather to pervert – such a solemn and pious vow.’ Ironically, therefore, an agent of the papacy brought the Fourth Crusade to a close. Innocent’s grand design had been grounded on the shores of the Bosphorus and, in the short term, his hopes of reclaiming Christ’s patrimony were ended.

In conjunction with this disastrous development, the pope’s perception of the capture of Constantinople was changing. Stories concerning the evils perpetrated by the crusaders during the sack of the city were growing ever more unpleasant and troubling. As we saw earlier, the letters sent to Rome by the expedition’s leadership had chosen to pass over the westerners’ brutality. But as the months went by, rumours carried by traders and travellers were supplemented by information from returning crusaders, such as Bishop Conrad of Halberstadt or Bishop Martin of Pairis, and exposed the full horrors of the episode. Innocent was sickened by what he learned – what had seemed a glorious success was in reality a sordid exercise in greed and violence. His letters lamented: ‘By that from which we appeared to have profited up to now we are impoverished, and by that from which we believed we were, above all else, made greater, we are reduced.’ Innocent questioned why the Greek Church might wish to express its devotion to the papacy – as the crusaders so proudly claimed that it would – when it saw in the Latins ‘nothing except an example of affliction and the works of Hell, so that now it rightly detests them more than dogs’. He recounted the crusaders’ merciless slaughter of Christians of all ages, men and women alike, ‘staining with blood Christian swords that should have been used on pagans’. He grimly recited some of the other atrocities: the rape of matrons, virgins, nuns; the sack of the churches and the violation of sacristies and crosses. Initially Innocent seems to have believed that only the imperial treasuries had been looted, but he was horrified to learn of the plunder of churches across the city.

Innocent had also become aware of the Latins’ terrible defeat at Adrianople, yet instead of lamenting the death of so many great knights he described the episode as one of Divine Retribution for the crusaders’ deeds – an uncompromisingly harsh judgement on the loss of many genuinely pious warriors. The pope felt that events of April 1204 damaged future calls for a crusade because those who had been on the campaign would be returning home, dispensed from their vows and laden with spoils.

The details of the sack caused Innocent to express doubts as to the true motives of some of the crusaders. He had already been deeply sceptical of the Venetians’ aims, but now, in a letter to Boniface of Montferrat, he suggested that the marquis had ‘turned away from the purity of your vow when [you] took up arms not against Saracens, but Christians . . . preferring earthly wealth to celestial treasures’. Innocent indicated that ‘it is reputed far and wide’ that the crusaders had behaved disgracefully towards the people and churches of Constantinople.

Yet alongside this anger there was also a sense of puzzlement. As the contemporary churchman and writer Gerald of Wales stated: ‘The judgement of God is never unjust even if it is sometimes hard to understand.’36 The pope struggled to reconcile the divinely approved outcome of the expedition with news of the crusaders’ behaviour during the conquest. In the final analysis Innocent had too much of a pragmatic streak to condemn the crusaders wholeheartedly. He did not, for example, raise the question of excommunicating the army for their deeds, let alone suggest a withdrawal from Byzantium. The pope accepted God’s judgement against ‘an evil people’ (the Greeks) and retreated behind rumination on ‘the incomprehensible ways of God’. He concluded: ‘For who can know the mind of the Lord?’ He also urged Boniface to hold, defend and even extend the lands he now ruled, which shows that Innocent saw the new Latin Empire as a permanent feature of the political and religious landscape. The pope instructed the marquis to do proper penance for his sinful acts and to exert himself for the relief of the Holy Land because ‘through this [Byzantine] land, that [the Holy Land] can be easily recovered’.

If Innocent’s feelings towards the sack of Constantinople now reflected a more accurate sense of what had really taken place, he could not step back from the fact that the Catholic Church had, through its capture of the patriarchal city of Constantinople, derived an enormous (if unforeseen) benefit from the Fourth Crusade. There now remained the need to reinforce and defend this land – yet another onerous responsibility for the head of the Latin Church and one of the most far-reaching consequences of the campaign.


On 15 August 1261 – fifty-seven years after the Fourth Crusade had sacked the Queen of Cities – Michael Palaeologus, the ruler of Nicaea, processed into the Hagia Sophia where he was crowned emperor of Byzantium. The Greeks had reclaimed Constantinople. Other spoils of the Latin victories in 1204 – such as the principality of Achaea and the island of Crete – remained in western hands but the heart of the conquest had been torn out.

As the first generations of Frankish settlers in the Holy Land had discovered, large-scale backing from the West was needed to consolidate their new territories. As early as 1211 Emperor Henry of Constantinople (1206–16) wrote: ‘nothing is lacking for the achievement of complete victory and for the possession of the empire, except an abundance of Latins, since . . . there is little use in acquiring [land] unless there are those who can conserve it’. Yet ultimately, the support of a second Catholic satellite in the eastern Mediterranean proved too great a demand on the physical and emotional resources of Europe.

In the course of the thirteenth century the scope of crusading extended considerably. In 1208 Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heretics of southern France. There was also, as before, continuous activity in the Baltic region and periodic campaigns against the Muslims of the Iberian peninsula. Crusading proved a highly flexible concept and in the middle of the thirteenth century, as relations between the papacy and Emperor Frederick II of Germany became hostile, a holy war was preached against the most powerful secular figure in the West. From the late 1230s a new and terrifying force began to appear on the borders of eastern Europe and soon threatened the Levant as well. The fearsome Mongol hordes were in the process of creating the largest land empire in the history of the world, stretching from Hungary to the China Sea, and in 1241 the papacy called for a crusade to combat this deadly menace. Given this extraordinary level of crusading activity – not all of which was met with approval or enthusiasm by the knightly classes of Europe – the chances of a new and comparatively distant sphere of holy war attracting widespread support were slim.

Probably the greatest obstacle to the flowering of the Latin Empire was the situation in the Holy Land. By the mid-thirteenth century, after decades of relative stability, the settlers’ position had deteriorated sharply. In August 1244 at the Battle of La Forbie, 1,034 out of 1,099 knights from the Military Orders were slain. This prompted the Seventh Crusade (1248–54), a substantial expedition consisting of more than 2,500 knights, properly financed by the French crown and the French Church, and led by the saintly King Louis IX. The resources and motivation demanded by an undertaking of this scale could not be summoned repeatedly, particularly if, as with Louis’s crusade, the campaign failed.

The fundamental problem for the Latin Empire was that it lacked the unparalleled cachet of the Holy Places. It could not boast of a biblical past and it had not been seized from the hands of the infidel, but rather from Christians, albeit heretics. Baldwin’s lands were in competition with the allure of the Holy Sepulchre, quite apart from the existing regional holy wars in Spain, the Baltic and the new campaigns in southern France, and those against the Mongols and Frederick II of Germany. For this reason the conquests of the Fourth Crusade were always destined to struggle for attention except from those parties directly interested in the area, such as the Montferrat dynasty or the Venetians. The fact that the Latin emperors were not from a royal house of the West, coupled with a decline in the standing of the counts of Flanders, reduced the obvious sources of help even further.

As early as 1204, the Latin Empire and the Holy Land competed with each other for the attention of the Christian world. A letter from the archbishop of Nazareth pleaded for assistance ‘for the recovery of the patrimony of the Crucified One’; yet around the same time the papal legate, Peter Capuano, released crusaders at Constantinople from their obligation to go to the Levant so that they could stay to defend the new empire. The appeal sent to the papacy in the aftermath of the Battle of Adrianople was another request for help that reached the West just as the pleas from the archbishop of Nazareth were being considered.

In the early years, the Latin conquerors and the papacy had clung to the belief that their conquests might help the holy war against Islam, but this optimism was utterly misplaced. Even Pope Innocent came to recognise the conflict between consolidating the Latin Empire and liberating the Levant. In 1211 he wrote to Emperor Henry and grumbled, ‘since you and other crusaders have striven to capture and keep the empire . . . principally in order that by this means you may bring help more easily to the Holy Land, you have not only failed to provide any assistance in this, but have also brought trouble and damage . . .’ to those trying to resist the infidel.

In the aftermath of the conquest, the prospect of land and money had attracted people from – of all places – the Levant. In 1202–3 the Crusader States had experienced a plague, a colossal earthquake and were confronted with a numerically overwhelming enemy. Thus, in the aftermath of the conquest of Byzantium, many inhabitants of the Levant – unwilling to pass up new opportunities to win land and money – eagerly decamped to Constantinople. As we have seen, men such as Stephen of Perche, Reynald of Montmirail and Geoffrey of Villehardouin’s nephew (as well as some recent settlers in the kingdom of Jerusalem, such as Stephen of Tenremonde, a Fleming who had remained after the Third Crusade) were quick to abandon the defence of the Frankish East. Defections such as these caused Pope Innocent to complain that the exodus of pilgrims from the Holy Land left it weakened. Of course, given their overall vulnerability, the papacy was obliged to call for support for the Christians in the new empire. Yet every time a crusade set out, or money was sent to Constantinople, it meant less assistance for the Holy Land. Thus, far from preparing a way to liberate Christ’s patrimony, the conquests of the Fourth Crusade actually weakened it.

It was not, however, until 1224 that the first crusade preached for the defence of the Latin Empire prepared to set out. This was a northern Italian (Montferrese) expedition focused on the relief of Thessalonica, but the leadership was delayed by illness and lack of funds and by the time the crusade reached the area, the city had already surrendered to the Greeks of Epirus.

Notwithstanding the adverse effects on campaigns to the Holy Land, the papacy tried hard to persuade some potential crusaders that they should fight for the Latin Empire instead of going to the Levant. In 1239 Richard of Cornwall, brother of King Henry III of England, and his companions were asked to commute their vows to Jerusalem in return for a money payment to help Constantinople or to go there in person, but they refused to be diverted and to shed Christian blood. The popes raised direct clerical taxation in Greece for the defence of the empire but the large-scale crusade that was required to defeat the Byzantines never looked like materialising. In fact, by 1262 Pope Urban IV was so desperate to encourage a new expedition to regain Constantinople that he offered free passage to participants (in contrast to the payments to the Venetians required in 1204) and – astonishingly – an indulgence of 40–100 days’ penance for simply listening to the crusade sermon in the first instance.

The Latin emperors worked hard to gather men and money and Baldwin II (1228–61) resorted to long tours around the courts of western Europe (1236–9 and 1244–8) in the hope of securing support, but all he received were polite displays of interest, small gifts and open-ended promises. Baldwin himself cut an unimpressive figure and contemporaries described him as ‘young and childish’ and not the ‘wise and vigorous’ figure needed.

In 1237 he had to pawn the Crown of Thorns, worn by Christ on the Cross, to a Venetian merchant for 13,134 gold pieces. When he could not redeem the debt, the relic was taken by agents acting for the pious King Louis IX of France, who was so delighted with this treasure that he constructed the magnificent Sainte-Chapelle in Paris especially for it.9 A year later Louis was involved in a more secular transaction when Baldwin mortgaged him the title to the county of Namur (a region of northern France – a link back to the emperor’s Flemish forefathers) for 50,000 livres. By 1257 so impoverished was the empire that Venetian creditors required Baldwin’s son Philip as surety for a loan, and even the lead from the palace roof was being sold to generate cash.

In spite of this generally sorry tale on the mainland, the fertility and relative security of the principality of Achaea (in the Peloponnese peninsula), and the Venetian-controlled island of Crete, formed two regions of economic strength. The export of bulk products, including wheat, olive oil, wine and wool, as well as luxury items such as silk, created real wealth for the Italians and the Villehardouin dynasty who ruled Achaea. The latter fostered a flourishing court life and the chivalric traditions of the West blossomed. On one occasion Geoffrey II (1229–46) rode through his lands accompanied by 80 knights wearing golden spurs and the French spoken in Achaea was said to be as good as that in Paris. Frescos depicting chivalric deeds decorated palace walls, and tournaments and hunting were popular pastimes. The capture of Prince William (1246–78) at the Battle of Pelagonia (1259) marked the end of Achaean ascendancy, although the principality did survive through the female line. Crete remained under Venetian rule until 1669 and was by far the most durable manifestation of the Fourth Crusade.

Elsewhere the Latins were less successful. Boniface of Montferrat did not enjoy his hard-won prize of the kingdom of Thessalonica for long. In September 1207 he was killed in battle, and years of pressure from the Greek rulers of Epirus led to their winning Thessalonica in 1224. It was, however, the empire of Nicaea, based in Asia Minor, which posed the most potent threat to the Latins. John III Vatatzes (1222–54), later canonised by the Orthodox Church, pushed the westerners out of Asia Minor, established a bridgehead at Gallipoli on the European side of the Bosphorus and later took over Thessalonica to tighten the noose around Constantinople. John’s death meant that the final push to eject the Latins came from his general, Michael Palaeologus, who became regent for John’s young son and then seized the imperial title for himself. The boy was, inevitably, imprisoned and blinded.

In July 1261, as the Greeks gathered for a full assault on Constantinople, a sympathiser opened one of the gates and the Byzantine advance party took the city with barely a struggle. Most of the Latin garrison was engaged on a campaign elsewhere and the citizenry were generally pleased to see the return of their natural lords. So unexpected was this turn of events that Michael Palaeologus had yet to cross the Bosphorus. His sister, Eulogia, heard the news early one morning and, as her brother lay sleeping in his tent, is said to have crept in and tickled his feet with a feather. When he awoke she told him that he was now the ruler of Constantinople. Playing along with her lighthearted mood, Michael laughed, but refused to accept what he heard. Only when a messenger entered with the imperial crown and sceptre did he believe it; God had indeed delivered Constantinople back to the Greeks. The principal achievement of the Fourth Crusade was thus wiped out.

In reality then, the Latin Empire proved to be an unwanted burden that only hindered the cause of the Holy Land. It expired 30 years before the fierce Mamluk dynasty prised the westerners from the city of Acre (1291) to mark the end of Christian power in the Levant until the British general, Edmund Allenby, entered Jerusalem in 1917. By one of history’s neater ironies, in later centuries, as the reconstituted Byzantine Empire struggled against the mighty Ottoman Turks, the papacy tried to rouse western Europe for another crusade to help defend the Greeks. The effort failed and, when the Ottomans took the city of Constantinople in 1453, it was finally lost to Byzantium for ever.


Thunder out of Arabia

The Battle of Manzikert was fought between the Byzantine Empire and the Seljuq Turks on August 26, 1071 near Manzikert (modern Malazgirt in Muş Province, Turkey). The decisive defeat of the Byzantine army and the capture of the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes played an important role in undermining Byzantine authority in Anatolia and Armenia, and allowed for the gradual Turkification of Anatolia.

Alexius I Comnenus in Eastern Greece Then he was surrounded by nine Normans who stuck him with spears. But his heavy cataphract armor stopped all six spears and his horse bolted and he managed to escape.

In Mecca, eight hundred miles south of Jerusalem, in a landscape as bleak and parched as the Judaean wilderness, there existed another empty tomb. This was the kaaba, or “cube,” where according to Islamic tradition Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, Abraham’s Egyptian concubine, were buried. Originally built by Abraham, it was later used as a temple for the worship of Hubal, the red-faced god of power, and al-Uzza, the goddess of the morning star, together with three hundred other gods and goddesses who formed the pantheon of the Arabs before Muhammad destroyed them. Then the kaaba was dedicated to Allah, the One God, lord of all universes. There was nothing in it except silver lamps, brooms for sweeping the floor, and the three teakwood columns that supported the roof. Fragments of a black meteorite were inserted in the southeastern wall, and these are kissed by the faithful who walk, and run, around the kaaba in obedience to Muhammad’s command.

The kaaba is a statement of religious belief—four-square, sharp-edged, emblematic of the power believed to reside in the Arab people. Those qualities were already present in these people before the coming of Muhammad. It was their sharpness of intellect and solidness of purpose that were to make them a world power, and Muhammad was therefore justified in retaining that strange unornamented box, which had once housed so many gods, as the symbol of his own powerful faith in Allah, the One God.

The faith of Muhammad was unlike any other that existed at that time. It was compounded out of visions and dreams, the apocrypha learned along the camel routes from Mecca to Damascus, stray bits of learning and tradition, and a vast understanding of the human need for peace and salvation. The Koran, meaning “the Recitations,” reads strangely to Western ears. It is a work of fierce intensity and trembling urgency. God speaks, and what he has to say is recorded in tones of absolute authority by a mind singularly equipped to reflect the utmost subtleties of the Arabic language. The message Muhammad delivers is that God is all-powerful, his hand is everywhere, and there is no escape from him. Just as he is everywhere, so is his mercy. Into this mercy fall all men’s accidents and purposes. It is not that God is benevolent–the idea of a benevolent and helping God is foreign to Muhammad’s vision–but his mercy is inevitable, uncompromising, absolute. In this assurance Muhammad’s followers find their peace.

Muhammad ibn-Abdullah, of the tribe of Quraysh, was born in Mecca about the year A.D. 570. His father died before he was born and his mother, Amina, died when he was a child. As a youth he traveled with the caravans that traded between Mecca and Syria, and he was twenty-five when he married Khadija, a rich widow fifteen years his senior. He was about forty when he first saw visions and heard the voice of the Angel. Out of these visions and voices came the revelations he attributed directly to God.

According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad commanded that the human figure must never be depicted, so he himself is very rarely depicted in Islamic art. On the rare occasions when he is seen, he wears a veil over his face. But his friends remembered him and described him. They spoke of a thickset man with burly shoulders, a rosy skin “like a woman’s,” a thick, black, curling beard. Most of all they remembered his eyes, which were very large, dark, and melting. The clue to his personality lies perhaps in his rosy skin, for he was no sun-bitten Bedouin of the desert, but a townsman with a townsman’s peculiar sensibilities and perplexities.

In a cave on Mount Hira, not far from Mecca, he would spend time meditating. There he became aware one day of the presence of the Angel standing “two bow shots away,” watching him. “O Muhammad, you are God’s messenger and I am Gabriel,” the voice thundered. From the Angel he learned that man was created from a clot of blood and lay under the protection of Allah, the Only God, the All-Merciful, whose mysteries would be revealed to him. Thereafter, day after day, in waking visions, Muhammad was visited by the Angel who expounded mysteries testifying to God’s mercy and absolute power in verses that crackle and roar like a brushfire.

Half-learned in the religions of his time, impatient with all of them, Muhammad struck out into unexplored territories with a new style, a new rhythm, speaking urgently in a voice of great power:

That which striketh!

What is that which striketh?

Ah, who will convey to thee what the Striking is?

The day mankind shall become like scattered moths,

And the mountains like tufts of carded wool.

Then those whose scales weigh heavy shall enter Paradise,

And those whose scales are light shall enter the Abyss.

And who shall convey to thee what the Abyss is?

A raging fire!

(Sura ci)

Like Jesus, Muhammad was haunted by the Last Day. The end seemed very near, but instead of simply submitting to the dissolution of the universe, there must be in this waiting time a change of heart, a total submission to God. Muhammad felt that the laws of submission must be discovered, and that men should find the way in which to hold themselves in the light of the coming flames. In these visions, dictated over a long period, Muhammad presented a cosmology of breathtaking simplicity, rounded, complete, and eminently satisfying to the Arab mind.

His torrent of visionary poetry convinced Muhammad’s friends that he was indeed a prophet and a messenger of God. Soon he acquired followers and an army. Medina fell, and then Mecca, but these were only the beginnings. The furious pent-up poetry, so memorable and so naked, had the effect of inspiring the Arabs to challenge all their neighbors on behalf of the messenger of God. The Jews must be converted; so must the Christians; all the world must acknowledge the truth of the Koran. Muhammad also proved to be a gifted military commander. His successors were even more gifted. They came like thunder out of Arabia. Within a generation after Muhammad’s death in A.D. 632, long-established empires fell like ninepins, and half the known world, from Spain to Persia, fell to the armies he had set in motion.

Out of the blaze of Muhammad’s visionary eyes there came a force that shook the world to its foundations.

In July A.D. 640, eight years after Muhammad’s death, an Arab army under Amr ibn-al-As stood outside the walls of the great university city of On, the modern Heliopolis, where the Phoenix was born and where Plato had once studied. On was the most sacred of Egyptian cities, and one of the oldest. Egypt was then a province of the Byzantine empire, and the viceroy was Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria. The Arabs attacked, Cyrus fled to the north, and soon the Arabs pursued him to Alexandria, where there were huge battlements and siege works and a harbor that included within its ample seawalls the largest naval base in the world. For a thousand years the Greeks and the Romans had been quietly building a city so powerful and so sumptuous that no other city could rival it. Gleaming between the sea and a lake, illuminated by the great lighthouse called the Pharos in the harbor, with powerful ships riding at anchor, and guarded by an army believed to be the best in the world. Alexandria was a bastion of Byzantine power in Africa. The scholarly and ambitious Cyrus looked upon the guerrilla army lodged outside the walls of Alexandria with cunning and distaste. He thought he could bargain with Amr ibn-al-As, while the citizens continued to receive supplies by sea, to attend the racetrack and to worship in the great cathedral of St. Mark overlooking the two harbors. Cyrus was overconfident.

In time, Alexandria fell and the Arabs rode in triumph through the Gate of the Sun and along the Canopic Way, past Alexander the Great’s crystal tomb. What they did to Alexandria is described very aptly by E. M. Forster: “Though they had no intention of destroying her, they destroyed her, as a child might a watch.”

The Arab army also raged through Palestine and Syria, swung eastward toward Persia, and defeated the army of the Sassanian emperor in the same year that Cyrus surrendered Alexandria. Two years later the Arabs were in command of all of Persia. The Umayyad dynasty, ruling from Damascus, derived from the Persians the habits of splendor. Luxury and corruption set in: the grandsons of the followers of Muhammad preferred to be city dwellers. The same corruption soon became evident in North Africa and Spain, which the Arabs conquered with incredible speed. In A.D. 732, a hundred years after the death of Muhammad, the Arabs poured into France, where they were defeated by the ragged army of Charles of Heristal and the bitterly cold weather.

The Arab tide was turned back, but the Arab empire now extended halfway across the known world from the Pyrenees to Persia. It had made inroads into India, and Arab armies were breaking through the Asiatic outposts of the Byzantine empire, which would endure for another seven hundred years. The Muslims regarded Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire, as the eastern gateway to Europe: it must be captured and all Europe must fall under their sway.

The Christians saw in the religion of Muhammad a mortal enemy to be opposed at all costs. The name of the religion was Islam, which means “submission,” “submission to God’s purposes.” The Christians were not prepared to submit. They regarded Islam as a heresy, a diabolic and dangerous perversion of the truths handed down by Moses, the prophets, Jesus and St. Paul. Islam was monotheism stripped bare, unclouded by ambiguities, without mysteries, without vestments, without panoply, without hierarchies of priests, democratic in its organization, abrupt and simple in its protestations of faith. There are no complex ceremonies in Islam, no Nicene Creed, no Mass, no tinkling of bells. A mosque is usually a walled space open to the sky with a pulpit, a prayer niche, and a tower from which the faithful are called to prayer; the religion, too, is open, spacious, clear-cut, without shadows. God is conceived as an abstraction of infinite power and infinite glory, the source and end of all things. That God should in some mysterious way be divided into the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost was incomprehensible to the Muslims, who conceived of him as one and indivisible.

Although Islam reserved a special place for Jesus, the Islamic Jesus is almost unrecognizable to Christians. Muhammad tells the story of the Virgin Birth three times and is deeply moved by it, and he is aware of something supernatural in Jesus, but he has no patience with those who proclaim his divinity. Jesus is a sign, a word, a spirit, an angel; he is also a messenger and a prophet. He could raise the dead, heal the sick, and breathe life into clay birds. He was not crucified in the flesh, for someone else was crucified in his stead. He ascended to heaven when God summoned him, and he will return in the Last Day.

No one knows where Muhammad learned about Jesus. Most likely it was from some lost Gnostic scriptures, or he may have listened to a Christian preacher during his travels. Mary and Jesus “abide in a high place full of quiet and watered with springs”; and there, very largely, they remain. They are peripheral to his main argument, which is concerned with the nature of man, the clot of blood, confronted with the stupendous presence of God, who is both far away and as close to man as his neck artery. Man is naked and defenseless; he has nothing to give God except his utter and total devotion. God, to the Muslims, has no history, while to the Christians the history of God is bound up with the history of Christ.

The two religions had no common ground, or so little that it could scarcely be perceived. It was as though Christianity and Islam were meant to engage in a death struggle, which would end only when one submitted to the other. Yet there were long periods when there was a kind of peace between them. Jerusalem, captured very early by the Arabs, was permitted to retain a Christian community, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre remained untouched. Charlemagne conducted a long correspondence with Harun al-Rashid, Caliph of Baghdad, who acknowledged the right of the Christians to maintain their church. Harun gave the church over to Charlemagne, who was addressed as “Protector of Jerusalem.” Although Charlemagne never visited Jerusalem, he sent a stream of envoys, founded a hospital and library in the Holy City, and paid for their upkeep. Throughout the ninth century, relations between Christians and Muslims were fairly amicable. The Christians demanded only that Jerusalem should be accessible to them, and that pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre should be treated reasonably. And so it continued for another century. Even after the destruction of the church by the mad Caliph Hakim, there was peace, for the church was quickly restored. The pilgrims continued to come to Jerusalem, worshipping at the altars in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, passing freely in and out of the city. It was as though the two religions had reached an accommodation, as though nothing would interrupt the continual flow of pilgrims.

In the middle years of the eleventh century there occurred an event that would cause a drastic change in the military posture of the Muslims in the Near East. The Seljuk Turks, advancing from Central Asia, conquered Persia. Converted to Islam, they moved with the zeal of converts, prosetyliz-ingall the tribes they came upon in their lust for conquest. They had been herdsmen; they became raiders, cavalrymen, living off the earth, setting up their tents wherever they pleased, taking pleasure in sacking cities and leaving only ashes. The once all-powerful Caliph of Baghdad became the servant of the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan. In August 1071, the Seljuk army under Alp Arslan confronted the much larger army of the Byzantine Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes near Manzikert north of Lake Van in Armenia. Romanus was an emperor with vast military experience, brave to excess, commanding a hundred thousand well-trained troops, including many Frankish and German mercenaries. There was, however, treachery among his officers; orders were not obeyed. The lightly armed Seljuk cavalry poured thousands of arrows into the tight formations of the Byzantine army, and when the emperor ordered a retreat at the end of the day, his flanks were exposed, his army began to disintegrate, and the Turks rushed in to fill the vacuum created by his retreating troops. Romanus fought bravely; he was seriously wounded in the arm and his horse was killed under him. Captured, he was led to the tent of Alp Arslan in chains. There he was thrown to the ground, and Alp Arslan placed his foot ceremonially on the emperor’s neck. The Seljuk sultan half-admired the broad-shouldered Byzantine emperor, and two weeks later the emperor was allowed to go free. Still the defeat was so decisive, so shattering, that the emperor fell from grace in the eyes of the Byzantines, who had no difficulty deposing him. When he returned to Constantinople, he was blinded, and in the following year he died either from the injuries caused by the blinding or of a broken heart.

Although Alp Arslan himself, and his son Malek Shah, had no thought of conquering the Byzantine empire, the chieftains who served under them had different ideas. They poured into the undefended provinces of Anatolia. While the Christians remained in the towns, the invading Turks ravaged the countryside. Gone were the days when the Byzantine empire stretched from Egypt to the Danube and from the borders of Persia to southern Italy. The Turks advanced to Nicaea, less than a hundred miles from Constantinople, and occupied the city, making it the capital of the sultanate that ruled over Asia Minor. The Turks were spreading out in all directions. In the same year that saw the Byzantine defeat at Manzikert, they captured Jerusalem from the Arabs of Egypt on behalf of the Caliph of Baghdad. In 1085 Malek Shah captured Antioch from the Byzantines. Malek Shah himself came to the Palestinian shore and dipped his sword in the waters of the Mediterranean, a ceremony by which he asserted that the Mediterranean itself belonged to him.

The grandson of nomads from Central Asia, Malek Shah had the temperament of an emperor. He was more relentless, more determined, than his more famous father. He ruled in great state and saw himself as the sovereign of all the Near East. His Turks were rougher than the Egyptians; they had come like thunder from the regions north of the Caspian and they possessed to the highest degree what the historian Ibn Khaldun called assabiya, the determination based on a communion of interests that characterized the early Arab conquerors. The Arabs had made accommodations with the Christians; the Turks were more sure of themselves.

Christendom was reeling from the Turkish invasions. In a single generation Asia Minor had fallen into their hands. The Byzantine empire had lost the sources of its greatest wealth. Christians could no longer be assured that they could journey to Jerusalem without being arrested or sold into slavery or ill-treated in other ways. The Turks were fanatical Muslims, determined to exact the last ounce of power from their victories. But their survival as a united people depended on their leader, and when Malek Shah died in 1091, the empire was divided up among his sons and nephews, whose hatred for one another contributed to the early success of the Crusaders when at last they made their way across Asia Minor in order to recover Jerusalem.

In 1081, Alexius Comnenus, who had served in the army of Romanus IV Diogenes as a general fighting against the inroads of the Turks, came to the throne at the age of thirty-three. He was an able commander in the field and uncompromising in his determination to regain the lost provinces of his empire. His daughter, Anna Comnena, wrote a history of his reign that is among the acknowledged masterpieces of Byzantine literature. Through her eyes he appears as a superb diplomat, a man who moved surefootedly amid treacheries, who knew his own value and was both forceful and humble in dealing with his friends and enemies. He reigned for thirty-seven years, recaptured some of the lost provinces, and there were few Byzantine emperors who reigned so long or fought so well.

When Alexius Comnenus came to the throne, the empire was in disarray. Although the Balkan provinces had been recaptured from Robert Guiscard, the Norman-Sicilian adventurer who founded his own kingdom in southern Italy and Sicily, he was confronted with dangers along the long Danube border from the Oghuz, Kuman, and Pecheneg Turks, half-brothers to the Turks in Asia Minor, and from Slavs and Bulgars. Only a few coastal cities in Asia Minor remained in his hands. It was necessary at all costs to push back the frontiers of the sultanate of Roum. He appealed for military assistance to the pope and to the Western princes who might be sympathetic to his cause. They were asked to raise armies, to march to Constantinople and to join forces under the banner of Christendom against the infidels. He recounted the atrocities committed by the enemy and pointed to the peculiar sanctity of Constantinople as the guardian of so many relics of Christ. Constantinople and the Byzantine empire must be saved, Jerusalem must be reconquered, and the pax Christiana must be established in the Near East. A copy of his letter to Robert, Count of Flanders, a cousin of William the Conqueror, has been preserved. The emperor speaks with mingled anguish and pride, despair and humility, and from time to time there appears a faint note of humor.


TO THE LORD AND GLORIOUS COUNT, Robert of Flanders, and to the generality of princes of the kingdom, whether lay or ecclesiastical, from Alexius Comnenus, Emperor of Byzantium.

O illustrious count and great consoler of the faith, I am writing in order to inform Your Prudence that the very saintly empire of Greek Christians is daily being persecuted by the Pechenegs and the Turks. . . . The blood of Christians flows in unheard-of scenes of carnage, amidst the most shameful insults. . . . I shall merely describe a very few of them. . . .

The enemy has the habit of circumcising young Christians and Christian babies above the baptismal font. In derision of Christ they let the blood flow into the font. Then they are forced to urinate in the font. . . . Those who refuse to do so are tortured and put to death. They carry off noble matrons and their daughters and abuse them like animals. . . .

Then, too, the Turks shamelessly commit the sin of sodomy on our men of all ages and all ranks . . . and, O misery, something that has never been seen or heard before, on bishops. . . .

Furthermore they have destroyed or fouled the holy places in all manner of ways, and they threaten to do worse. Who does not groan? Who is not filled with compassion? Who does not reel back with horror? Who does not offer his prayers to heaven? For almost the entire land has been invaded by the enemy from Jerusalem to Greece . . . right up to Thrace. Already there is almost nothing left for them to conquer except Constantinople, which they threaten to conquer any day now, unless God and the Christians of the Latin rite come quickly to our aid. They have also invaded the Propontis . . . passing below the walls of Constantinople with a fleet of two hundred ships . . . stolen from us. They forced the rowers against their will to follow the sea-roads chosen by them, and with threats and menaces, as we have said, they hoped to take possession of Constantinople either by land or by sea.

Therefore in the name of God and because of the true piety of the generality of Greek Christians, we implore you to bring to this city all the faithful soldiers of Christ . . . to bring me aid and to bring aid to the Greek Christians. . . . Before Constantinople falls into their power, you should do everything you can to be worthy of receiving heaven’s benediction, an ineffable and glorious reward for your aid. It would be better that Constantinople falls into your hands than into the hands of the pagans. This city possesses the most holy relics of the Saviour [including] . . . part of the True Cross on which he was crucified. . . .

And if it should happen that these holy relics should offer no temptation to the pagans, and if they wanted only gold, then they would find in this city more gold than exists in all the rest of the world. The churches of Constantinople are loaded with a vast treasure of gold and silver, gems and precious stones, mantles and cloths of silk, sufficient to decorate all the churches of the world. . . . And then, too, there are the treasuries in the possession of our noblemen, not to speak of the treasure belonging to the merchants who are not noblemen. And what of the treasure belonging to the emperors, our predecessors? No words can describe this wealth of treasure, for it includes not only the treasuries of the emperors but also those of the ancient Roman emperors brought here and concealed in the palace. What more can I say? What can be seen by human eyes is nothing in comparison with the treasure that remains concealed.

Come, then, with all your people and give battle with all your strength, so that all this treasure shall not fall into the hands of the Turks and Pechenegs. . . . Therefore act while there is still time lest the kingdom of the Christians shall vanish from your sight and, what is more important, the Holy Sepulchre shall vanish. And in your coming you will find your reward in heaven, and if you do not come, God will condemn you.

If all this glory is not sufficient for you, remember that you will find all those treasures and also the most beautiful women of the Orient. The incomparable beauty of Greek women would seem to be a sufficient reason to attract the armies of the Franks to the plains of Thrace.

In this way, mingling allurements and enticements with intimations of the final disaster that would overwhelm the community of Christians if the Turks and Pechenegs succeeded in conquering what was left of the Byzantine empire, Alexius Comnenus appealed to Robert of Flanders to come to his aid. The letter contained admissions of terrible defeats and was sustained by a vast pride, but it also provided a picture of the world as he saw it, with its pressing dangers and wildest hopes. Two images prevailed: the atrocities committed by the enemy, and the spiritual and material wealth of Constantinople, last bastion against the Turks.

The letter was addressed not only to Robert of Flanders but to Western Christendom. Pope Urban II read it and was deeply moved. Robert of Flanders would eventually take part in the Crusade. And now very slowly and with immense difficulty there came into existence the machinery that would bring the armies of the West to Constantinople and later to Jerusalem.

The Templars and the Defence of the Holy Land

From the moment that the First Crusade arrived in the Middle East, the Crusaders started building castles. As in Europe, they served as residences and administrative centres, as well as having a military function. But after the Second Crusade the Franks in Outremer found themselves on the defensive and the military nature of castles became more important. Often large and elaborate, and continuously improved by the latest innovations in military science, the Franks built over fifty castles in Outremer. Geography, manpower and the feudal system all explain this considerable investment in stone.

The Crusader states were long and narrow, lacking defence in depth. The Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli and the Kingdom of Jerusalem stretched 450 miles from north to south, yet rarely were they more than 50 to 75 miles broad, the County of Tripoli perilously constricting to the width of the coastal plain, only a few miles broad, between Tortosa (present-day Tartus) and Jeble. The inland cities of Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus all remained in Muslim hands, while Mesopotamia and Egypt were recruiting grounds for any Muslim counterthrust, as the campaigns of Saladin and the Mamelukes would show. For the Crusaders the natural defensive line was the mountains, and they built castles to secure the passes.

Stones more than soldiers were pressed to this purpose as Outremer was chronically short of men. After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 most of the Crusaders returned to Europe; the Kingdom of Jerusalem was thereafter defended by 300 mounted knights. Despite successive crusades, at no time during the entire history of the Crusader states were they able to put more than 2600 horse in the field. Moreover, though there was still a large local Christian population, these were Orthodox while the Crusaders were a Latin minority.

Outnumbered and insecure, the Franks of necessity housed themselves in fortified towns or in castles. Nevertheless, if the Crusader states were to survive they had to be a going concern, and the Franks set about organising their possessions along familiar European feudal lines. Castles were as much centres of production and administration as they were military outposts–battlemented country houses, containing corn mills and olive presses, and surrounded by gardens, vineyards, orchards and fields. Their lands in some cases encompassed hundreds of villages and a peasantry numbering tens of thousands. Wood to Egypt, herbs, spices and sugar to Europe, were important exports; indeed throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Europe’s entire supply of sugar came from the Latin East.

But in times of war, agriculture was always the first victim. Were it not for Western subvention and the taxes imposed on trade between the Muslim East and Europe as it passed through the Crusader states, they would have collapsed sooner than they did. The Latin rulers were always strapped for cash, the bulk of their revenues going towards the upkeep of mercenaries, knights and castles. It was a vicious circle; insufficient land and manpower making castles a necessity; the cost of knights and castles greater than the productivity of the land could justify.

In this situation the military orders came into their own. They had the resources, the independence, the dedication–the elements of their growing power.

Structure of the Templars

THE TOP FIVE OFFICIALS of the Knights Templar were the Grand Master, the Seneschal, the Marshal, the Commander of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the Draper. Ultimately, the Order owed its allegiance to the Pope–and to no other authority, spiritual or temporal.

 THE GRAND MASTER Ruler of the order, the Grand Master was elected by twelve senior Templar members, the number representing the twelve apostles, plus a chaplain who took the place of Jesus Christ. The master had considerable but not autocratic powers.

GRAND CHAPTER Comprised of senior officials. All major decisions by the Grand Master–such as whether to go to war, agree a truce, alienate lands, or acquire a castle–required that he consult with the chapter.

 SENESCHAL Deputy and advisor to the Grand Master.

 MARSHAL Responsible for military decisions such as purchase of equipment and horses; he also exercised authority over the regional commanders.

 DRAPER The keeper of the robes, the Draper issued clothes and bedlinen, removed items from knights who were thought to have too much, and distributed gifts made to the order.

 REGIONAL COMMANDERS These were the COMMANDER OF THE KINGDOM OF JERUSALEM, who acted as the order’s treasurer and within the Kingdom had the same powers as the Grand Master; the COMMANDER OF JERUSALEM, who within the city had the same powers as the Grand Master; and the COMMANDERS OF ACRE, TRIPOLI AND ANTIOCH, each with the powers of the Grand Master within their domains.

 PROVINCIAL MASTERS France, England, Aragon, Poitou, Portugal, Apulia and Hungary each had a provincial master who was responsible to the Grand Master.

 THE KNIGHTS, SERGEANTS and other MEN AT ARMS were subject to these various officers and their deputies.

A Power Unto Themselves

After the Second Crusade both the Hospitallers and the Templars came to provide the backbone of resistance to the Muslims, but the military impetus came from the Templars. The Hospitallers were still an entirely pacific order when the armed order of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ came into being. But sometime in the 1120s the Hospitallers extended their role from caring for pilgrims to protecting them by force of arms if need be, becoming known as the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John, or Knights Hospitaller, with Saint John no longer the Almsgiver but replaced by the more imposing figure of Saint John the Baptist. The first recorded instance of Hospitallers in combat dates from 1128, eight years or so after the founding of the Templars; it was the example of the Templars that helped turn the Hospitallers into a military order.

In due course the military orders were put in possession of the great castles, a task for which they were perfectly suited. The frontier castles were remote, isolated and lonely places; they did not appeal to the secular knighthood of Outremer. But the monastic vows of the military orders suited them to the dour life of castles where the innermost fortifications served as monasteries for the brothers. Their members were celibate, which made them easy to control, and they had no outside private interests. Superbly trained and highly disciplined, the Hospitallers and the Templars were led by commanders of considerable military ability; the capabilities of the orders generally stood in marked contrast to those of the lay institutions of Outremer.

The orders owed direct responsibility to the Papacy, placing them above not only local feudal quarrels but the antagonisms of nations and their kings. As corporate bodies, the orders were everlasting, their numbers undiminished by disease or death, and they were able to draw on an inexhaustible supply of young men of noble families in Europe seeking to fulfil the moral and religious obligations of knighthood. Also the Templars and the Hospitallers received donations of property in Europe which soon made them wealthy. Each order levied its own taxes, had its own diplomatic service and possessed its own fleet of ships. In effect the Hospitallers and the Templars were states within the state. Very quickly the under-manned and under-financed Crusader states were selling or giving frontier fortresses to the orders, and by 1166 there were only three castles in the Kingdom of Jerusalem which the military orders did not control.

Costing the Templars

Every Templar was a highly trained and expensive mounted knight. Such a knight in the second half of twelfth-century France required 750 acres to equip and maintain himself as a mounted warrior, and a century later that cost had quintupled to 3750 acres.

For a Templar knight operating overseas in the Holy Land the costs were even greater, as much had to be imported, not least horses. Each Templar knight had three horses, and because they fell victim to warfare and disease, and had a lifespan of only twenty years, they needed to be renewed at a rate greater than local breeding allowed. The cost of horses rose six fold from the twelfth to the thirteenth centuries. Moreover, horses consumed five or six times as much as a man, and required feeding whether or not they were in use. A bad harvest in the East, and urgent food supplies had to be shipped in for men and horses alike.

Each Templar also had a squire to help look after the horses. And in addition there were sergeants, more lightly armed than knights, who each had a horse but acted as their own squires. Sergeants were often locally recruited and wore a brown or black tunic instead of white. In fact for every Templar knight there were about nine others serving in support, whether as squires, sergeants or other forms of help. This is not much different from modern warfare in which every frontline soldier is backed up by four or five who never see combat, not to mention the many thousands of civilians producing weapons and equipment and providing clothing, food and transport.

Growing responsibilities increased Templar costs immensely. As secular lords found themselves unable to maintain and defend their castles and their fiefs, they handed these responsibilities over to the military orders. According to Benedict of Alignan, a Benedictine abbot visiting the Holy Land in the 1240s, the Templars spent 1,100,000 Saracen besants in two and a half years on rebuilding their castle of Saphet (Safad)–this at a time when a knight in Acre could live well on 500 Saracen besants a year–and continued to spend 40,000 Saracen besants in each following year on the day-to-day running of the castle. Saphet had a complement of 50 Templar knights, 30 mounted sergeants, as well as 50 mounted archers, 300 crossbowmen, 820 engineers and other serving men, plus 400 slaves–1650 people, which in wartime increased to 2200, all of whom had to be housed, fed, armed and kept supplied in various ways.

Only their vast holdings in Outremer and more especially in the West permitted the Templars to operate on such a scale and recover after losses and setbacks to continue the defence of the Holy Land.

Ruins of the castle of Baghras – a.k.a. Gastim – built in 1153 by the Templar Knights to control the Syrian [Belen] Gates, the mountain pass between Alexandretta and Antioch. It was forced to capitulate to Saladin in 1189. Retaken and restored in 1191 by the Armenians, the castle was returned to the Templars in 1216. In 1268, before having to surrender to the attack of Sultan Baibars, the Templars dismantled Gastim and set it on fire.

Templar Castles

When the First Crusade marched into the Middle East it came over the Belen Pass, about sixteen miles north of Antioch, that same crossing over the Amanus mountains that Alexander the Great had taken 1400 years before, after crushing the Persian army of Darius III at the battle of Issus. Known also as the Syrian Gates, the Belen Pass was the doorway into Syria and it was also the northern frontier of Outremer. Sometime in the 1130s the task of defending the pass was given to the Templars. Their key fortress was Baghras, built high above the pass itself, and the Templars built several others in the Amanus mountains. These castles formed a screen across the northern frontier where the Templars ruled as virtually autonomous border lords, effectively independent of the Principality of Antioch.

The Templars also took charge of the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s southern frontier with Egypt when they were made responsible for Gaza during the winter of 1149–50. Gaza was uninhabited and ruinous at this time, but the Templars rebuilt a fortress atop a low hill and slowly the Franks revived the city around it. This was the first major castle in the Kingdom of Jerusalem that the Templars are recorded as receiving, and its purpose was to complete the blockade of Ascalon ten miles to the north, a small patch of territory on the Mediterranean coast still held by the Fatimids. Ascalon had long been the base for Muslim attacks on pilgrims coming up the road from Jaffa to Jerusalem or descending to the river Jordan, and in 1153 the city finally fell to Baldwin III, the king of Jerusalem. The Templars played a prominent part in this triumph, for they were first into the breach when a section of the walls came down, yet William of Tyre was predictable in turning this against them when he claimed in his chronicle that their eagerness was due to their greed for spoils. In fact the Templars lost forty or so knights in the attack, and their Grand Master lost his life.

Another vital strategic site as well as an important spot for pilgrims was Tortosa (present-day Tartus) on the Syrian coast. Said to be the place where the apostle Paul gave his first mass, a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary was built there in the third century, long before Christianity was officially tolerated within the Roman Empire, and it contained an icon of the Virgin said to have been painted by Saint Luke. To help the pilgrims who came to pray, the Crusaders built upon this history with the construction of Our Lady of Tortosa in 1123, an elegant cathedral which architecturally marks the transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic. But in 1152 Nur al-Din captured and burnt the city, leaving it deserted and destroyed; and as the County of Tripoli lacked the means for its restoration, Tortosa was placed in the care of the Templars, who greatly improved its defences, building a massive keep and halls within a triple circuit of tower-studded walls, and with a postern in the seawall enabling the city to be supplied from sea.

The strategic significance of Tortosa was that it stood at the seaward end of an opening in the range of coastal mountains which runs back into the interior towards the Muslim city of Homs. Towards the eastern end of this Homs Gap, as it is called, and towering high above the route between the interior and the sea, is the great castle of Krak des Chevaliers gained by the Hospitallers in 1144, while in the mountains between Krak and Tortosa is the castle of Chastel Blanc, now known as Safita, already in the hands of the Templars some time before 1152. From the roof of the massive keep at Chastel Blanc can be seen both Krak des Chevaliers to the east and the Templar castle of al-Arimah to the west on the Mediterranean coast just south of Tortosa. In short the Templars, together with the Hospitallers, entirely controlled the one important route between the interior of Syria and the sea. Moreover, they did so with sovereign rights within their territories, having been granted full lordship over the population of their estates, the right to share in the spoils of battle, and the freedom to have independent dealings with neighbouring Muslim powers.

In the 1160s the Templars took over further castles, this time across the Jordan river at Ahamant (present-day Amman) and in Galilee at Saphet (also called Safad) to which was added Chastellet in 1178. Gaza, Ahamant, Saphet and Chastellet were all within the Kingdom of Jerusalem but close to its borders where they served defensive purposes. Chastellet covered Jacob’s Ford, the northernmost crossing point of the river Jordan, previously a weak point where Saladin came down out of Damascus and made easy raids against the Christians. So alarmed was Saladin when the Templars installed themselves at Chastellet that he immediately attacked, failing in his first attempt in June 1179 but two months later storming the castle and taking seven hundred prisoners whom he then slaughtered, although the Templar commander threw himself to his death to avoid capture.

More centrally placed was La Feve at the crossroads of the route between Jerusalem and Acre via Galilee. Acquired by the Templars in about 1170, it served as a major depot for arms, tools and food, and it housed a large garrison. It was later the launching point for the expedition that led to the disastrous defeat at the Springs of Cresson on 1 May 1187, a foreboding of the catastrophe at Hattin.

As well as fighting in the defence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Templars continued to fulfil their original role of protecting pilgrims coming up to the holy sites at Jerusalem from the ports of Acre, Haifa and Jaffa, or going down from Jerusalem to the Jordan river. One of the duties of the Templar commander in Jerusalem was to keep ten knights in reserve to accompany pilgrims to the Jordan and to provide a string of pack animals to carry food and exhausted travellers. The Templars had a castle overlooking the site at the Jordan river where Jesus had been baptised, to protect not only pilgrims but also the local monks after six of them were gratuitously murdered by Zengi.

The acquisition of castles was accompanied by lands which helped to support them, especially around Baghras, Tortosa and Saphet. In these areas the Templars held many villages, mills and much agricultural land. The details are lacking because of the destruction of the Templar archives on Cyprus by the Ottoman Turks in the sixteenth century. But from what can be pieced together it seems that the orders between them, the Hospitallers and the Templars, may have held nearly a fifth of the lands in Outremer by the middle of the century, and by 1188, the year of the Battle of Hattin, something like a third.

The Medieval Art of War I

“What is the function of orderly knighthood?” wrote the twelfth-century English philosopher John of Salisbury. “To protect the Church, to fight against treachery, to reverence the priesthood, to fend off injustice from the poor, to make peace in your own province, to shed blood for your brethren, and if needs must, to lay down your life.” This was a splendid ideal, often put into practice during the Middle Ages. It lingers still in the army-officer tradition of France and Germany, in the public-school tradition of England. To medieval men, knighthood was more than a career; it was a spiritual and emotional substructure for an entire way of life.

The knight, the chevalier, was a man who owned a cheval, who served in the cavalry, and who guided his life by chivalry. His duty was to fight the enemies of his feudal lord. Said the fourteenth-century French chronicler Jean Froissart: “Gentle knights were born to fight, and war ennobles all who engage in it without fear or cowardice.

Fighting was the gentleman’s trade. He had been bred to it from babyhood, with all his education directed toward toughening his body and spirit. His school was a guardroom in a military post; his home a castle, perpetually prepared against assault. As a vassal he was frequently summoned to wars of lord against lord, to be paid for his services with booty taken in the capture of an enemy castle or with goods plundered from merchants on the roads. Or he might receive a summons from his king, who found profit in making war. “Only a successful war could temporarily fill royal coffers and re-endow the king with fresh territory,” writes the scholar Denys Hay. “Every spring an efficient king tried to lead his warriors on aggressive expeditions. With peace came poverty.”

War was also the gentleman’s joy. Peacetime life in a grim castle could be very dull, for the typical noble had almost no cultural resources and few diversions besides hunting. Battle was the climax of his career as it was often the end. The noble troubadour Bertrand de Born speaks for his class: “I tell you that I have no such joy in eating, drinking, or sleeping as when I hear the cry from both sides: ‘Up and at ‘em!’, or as when I hear riderless horses whinny under the trees, and groans of ‘Help me! Help me!’, and when I see both great and small fall in the ditches and on the grass, and see the dead transfixed by spear-shafts! Barons, mortgage your castles, domains, cities, but never give up war!” (It is true that Dante, in the Inferno, saw the bellicose Bertrand de Born in hell, carrying his severed head before him as a lantern.)

As Europe became more stable, central governments more efficient, and the interests of commerce more powerful, the warlike ideal faded. The military organization of society yielded to a civil structure based on legality. In the late Middle Ages, knights found themselves out-of-date; war fell more and more into the hands of base ruffian mercenaries, sappers and miners, and artillerymen. The military traditions of the noble knight remained, but were transformed into the pageantry of which we read in Froissart. Commercialism altered the noble caste; around 1300, Philip the Fair of France openly sold knighthoods to rich burghers, who thereby gained exemption from taxes as well as social elevation. In our time, the chevalier has become a Knight of Pythias, or Columbus, or the Temple, who solemnly girds on sword and armor to march past his own drugstore.

The knight was originally the companion of his lord or king, formally admitted to fellowship with him. Around the year 1200, the church took over the dubbing of the knight and imposed its ritual and obligations on the ceremony, making it almost a sacrament. The candidate took a symbolic bath, donned clean white clothes and a red robe, and stood or knelt for ten hours in nightlong silence before the altar, on which his weapons and armor lay. At dawn, mass was said in front of an audience of knights and ladies. His sponsors presented him to his feudal lord and gave him his arms, with a prayer and a blessing said over each piece of equipment. An essential part of the ceremony was the fastening of the spurs; our phrase “he has won his spurs” preserves a memory of the moment. An elder knight struck the candidate’s neck or cheek a hard blow with the flat of the hand or the side of his sword. This was the only blow a knight must always endure and never return. The initiate took an oath to devote his sword to good causes, to defend the church against its enemies, to protect widows, orphans, and the poor, and to pursue evildoers. The ceremony ended with a display of horsemanship, martial games, and mock duels. It was all very impressive; the more earnest knights never forgot their vigils or belied their vows. It was also a very expensive undertaking, so much so that by the fourteenth century, many eligible gentlemen preferred to remain squires.

The knight was bound to serve his master in his wars, though in the early period of feudalism for only forty days a year. Wars were, then, necessarily brief – raids rather than actual wars. Few pitched battles occurred unless one party sent a challenge to fight at a set time and place. The commander’s purpose was not to defeat the enemy but rather to harm him by burning his villages, massacring his peasants, destroying his source of income, while he raged impotently but securely in his castle. “When two nobles quarrel,” wrote a contemporary, “the poor man’s thatch goes up in flames.” A chanson de geste of the period happily describes such an invasion: “They start to march. The scouts and the incendiaries lead; after them come the foragers who are to gather the spoils and carry them in the great baggage train. The tumult begins. The peasants, having just come out to the fields, turn back, uttering loud cries; the shepherds gather their flocks and drive them toward the neighboring woods in the hope of saving them. The incendiaries set the villages on fire, and the foragers visit and sack them. The distracted inhabitants are burnt or led apart with their hands tied to be held for ransom. Everywhere alarm bells ring, fear spreads from side to side and becomes general. On all sides one sees helmets shining, pennons floating, and horsemen covering the plain. Here hands are laid on money; there cattle, donkeys, and flocks are seized. The smoke spreads, the flames rise, the peasants and the shepherds in consternation flee in all directions . . . In the cities, in the towns, and on the small farms, wind-mills no longer turn, chimneys no longer smoke, the cocks have ceased their crowing and the dogs their barking. Grass grows in the houses and between the flag-stones of the churches, for the priests have abandoned the services of God, and the crucifixes lie broken on the ground. The pilgrim might go six days without finding anyone to give him a loaf of bread or a drop of wine. Freemen have no more business with their neighbors; briars and thorns grow where villages stood of old.”

With the coming of large-scale wars, such as William’s conquest of England, and with the crusades, the rudiments of strategy began. Military thinkers reflected on the role of cavalry and infantry, the choice of terrain, the use of archers, and the handling of reserve units.

The supreme cavalry tactic was the charge at full gallop against a defensive position. Terrified peasants would break and run before the oncoming menace of iron men on wild beasts. Nevertheless, the charge had its dangers for the attackers; in broken or swampy terrain it was ineffective, and a concealed ditch could bring it to naught. Stouthearted defenders could protect their position with rows of sharpened stakes planted at an angle between them and the enemy. In the face of such an obstacle, the most intrepid steed will refuse. If the defense possessed a well-drilled corps of bowmen, these would greet the charging knights with a hail of arrows or bolts. But they had only a few moments. The effective limit of an arrow was only about 150 yards, and good armor would deflect all but direct hits. A sensible archer aimed at the horse, for a knight once dismounted was at a serious disadvantage.

Once the cavalry charge was over, the battle became a series of hand-to-hand engagements. As the armies engaged, the archers retired, leaving the battle to the knights. The issue was decided by the number killed and wounded on either side; the side with fewer casualties held the field. The number of knights killed in battle was remarkably small, however; prisoners of distinction were held for ransom. There was even a curious traffic in captives, who were bought and sold by merchants on speculation. Non-ransomable prisoners were stripped of their precious armor, and then they were often finished off with a dagger to save the cost of maintaining them.

The medieval army, until the thirteenth century, consisted almost entirely of combatants, with very few of its men concerned with the auxiliary services and supplies. Medical services hardly existed, and soldiers had to forage for themselves, for the army was expected to live off the country. Usually about a third of the troops were mounted knights, although the proportion varied greatly with circumstances. Some of the infantry were professional soldiers, but most were peasants impressed for the campaign. They wore whatever armor they could provide, usually heavy leather jerkins reinforced with iron rings, and they carried shields, bows and arrows, swords, spears, axes, or clubs.

The knight’s equipment represented a compromise between offensive and defensive demands, or between the need for mobility and the need for self-protection. For offensive purposes, the queen of weapons was the sword. The knight, who had received it from the altar after a night of prayer, could regard it with holy awe as the symbol of his own life and honor. Certain swords are celebrated in legend, Arthur’s Excalibur, Roland’s Durendal. The pommel of the sword was often hollowed, to contain relics; to take an oath one clasped one’s hand on the sword hilt, and heaven took note. To suit individual tastes, there was much variation in the sword blade, grip, and guard. The most popular model had a tapering blade three inches wide at the hilt and thirty-two or thirty-three inches long. It was equally effective for cutting or thrusting. The steel blades were made of layered strips of iron, laboriously forged and tempered. Much learned discussion dealt with the relative merits of blades from Toledo, Saragossa, Damascus, Solingen, and Milan. Two-handed swords had their vogue, but the soldier who used one had to be very strong. Since neither arm was free to carry a shield, he was likely to be undone by an agile adversary while he was preparing his blow. These swords were best used for judicial beheading.

The lance or spear was the traditional weapon of the horseman, and it lingers to our own times as a symbol of the mounted knight. In 1939, the Polish cavalry, with ridiculous gallantry, carried lances into battle against German tanks. With a ten-foot steel-pointed spear, a charging knight could overthrow a mounted enemy or reach over a shield wall and pin his victim. But his spear was nearly useless after the first clash; the knight had to throw it away and take to the sword or battle-axe, which could deal cruel blows even through armor, often driving the links of chain mail into the wound, where they would fester and cause gangrene. Some knights carried a mace, or club, the most primitive of weapons, made all the more fearsome by the addition of deadly spikes. The mace was the badge in battle of William the Conqueror and Richard the Lion-Hearted, and it was also, as the scholar William Stearns Davis points out, “the favorite of martial bishops, abbots, and other churchmen, who thus evaded the letter of the canon forbidding clerics to ‘smite with the edge of the sword,’ or to ‘shed blood.’ The mace merely smote your foe senseless or dashed out his brains, without piercing his lungs or breast!” By one of history’s pretty ironies, the mace survives as a sanctified relic, borne before the president at college commencements by the most ornate member of the faculty.

Arming a knight was a slow process. In time, as the weight and complexity of armor increased, the chevalier was unable to prepare himself for conflict unaided. He had to sit down while a squire or squires pulled on his steel-mailed hose, and stand while they fitted the various pieces, fastening them with a multitude of straps and buckles. First came an undershirt, made of felted hair or quilted cotton, to bear the coat of mail, or hauberk. This was an actual shirt, usually extending to mid-thigh or even below the knee and composed of steel links riveted together. If well made, it could be very pliable and springy and could even be cut and tailored like cloth. A superb hauberk in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is composed of over 200,000 links and weighs only about nineteen pounds. Cruder coats of mail could weigh two or three times as much. Despite its strength, the hauberk did not fully protect the wearer against a mighty blow. It was also subject to rust; as a result very few early hauberks have survived to our own time. One method of derusting was to put the coat of mail with sand and vinegar into a leather bag and then toss it about. Our museums have adapted this technique for cleaning hauberks by making powered tumbling boxes.

Defensive armor steadily became more elaborate, with coifs to cover the neck and head, elbow pieces, knee guards, and greaves. Because the face remained vulnerable, helmets increased in weight and covered more and more of the face until they came to resemble cylindrical pots with slits for the eyes. As usual, security was gained at a cost. The knight had to bandage his head, for if he took a fall, he might easily sustain a brain concussion. William Marshal, a famous English champion who lived at the end of the twelfth century, won a tournament, and afterward could not be found to receive the prize. He was finally discovered at a blacksmith’s, with his head on the anvil and the smith hammering his battered helmet in an effort to remove it without killing the wearer. In a hot fight on a hot day, the sun beat down on the helmet; perspiration could not be wiped away, one could not hear orders or messages or utter comprehensible commands, and if the helmet was knocked askew, one was blind. There are many examples of death from heat stroke or from drowning after a fall into even a little stream. At Agincourt, many French knights fell into the deep trampled mud and suffocated. Moreover, the pot helmet concealed one’s identity; hence knights painted bearings on their helmets and shields. Thus, heraldry began.

In the fourteenth century, the hauberk yielded to plate armor, which was fitted to the figure and often magnificently decorated. A full suit of plate armor weighs sixty pounds or more. Just the helmet and cuirass of one French knight at Agincourt weighed ninety pounds. If properly articulated and well oiled, plate armor permitted much freedom of movement. A famous fifteenth-century French athlete could turn a somersault wearing all his armor but his helmet and could climb the under side of a scaling ladder using only his hands. But no matter how well equipped, the armored knight was still vulnerable. A base villein could stab his horse, a pikeman could hook him in the armpit and bring him down, and once dismounted, he was in a sorry state. He moved clumsily. His buttocks and crotch were unprotected to permit him to hold his seat in the saddle. If he fell on his back, he had to struggle like a turtle to right himself. A light-footed adversary could readily lift his visor, stab him in the eyes, and finish him off.

The shield was generally made of stout wooden boards, nailed together, bound by casein glue, and covered with heavy hide surrounded by a metal rim. Often it had a metal boss in the center to deflect the opponent’s sword blade. Foot soldiers carried round shields, but knights usually bore kite-shaped shields, which protected the legs.

To carry the steel-clad knight into battle or tourney, a heavy, powerful horse was needed. Such chargers were rare and costly in days when fodder was scarce and animals usually thin and small. Horse farmers bred them deliberately for size and strength. The Arabian strain was popular, and a white stallion was the most prized of all. Riding a mare was considered unknightly. To sustain the clash of battle, the horse needed long and careful training. His rider, cumbered with sword, shield, and spear, usually dropped the reins and guided his mount by spurring, leg pressures, and weight shifting.

The great weapon of infantry – and of Mongol and Turkish cavalry – was the bow and arrow. The short bow is very ancient, the property of most primitive peoples the world over. As we see in the Bayeux tapestry, it was drawn to the breast, not the ear; at short range it could be lethal. The six-foot longbow, shooting a three-foot “clothyard” shaft, was apparently a Welsh invention of the twelfth century; it became the favorite weapon of the English. Only a tall, strong man with long training could use it effectively. There is a knack: The bow-string is kept steady with the right hand and the body’s weight is pressed against the bow, held in the left hand one pushes instead of pulling, using the strength of the body more than that of the arm. At short range, the steel-headed arrow could penetrate any ordinary armor. A good archer could aim and deliver five shots a minute.

At the end of the twelfth century, with the general adoption of the crossbow as a weapon, the age of mechanized warfare began. The crossbow is a short instrument of steel or laminated wood, mounted on a stock. One draws it usually by setting its head upon the ground and turning a crank against a ratchet. A catch holds the drawn bow until one is ready to trigger the short, thick arrow, called the bolt or quarrel, which has great penetration at short range. The church deplored the use of this inhuman weapon, and many considered it to be unknightly. While a good longbowman could beat a crossbowman in range and rapidity of fire, with the new weapon the half-trained weakling could be almost the equal of the mighty archer.

The medieval art of war was centered upon the castle or stronghold, the nucleus for the control and administration of surrounding territory as well as the base for offensive operation. Within its walls, a little army could assemble and prepare for a little war. It was designed to repel the attacks of any enemy and to shelter the neighboring peasants fleeing with their flocks and herds before a marauder. The earliest castles of medieval times – such as those William the Conqueror built in England – were of the motte-and-bailey type. They were mere wooden structures with a watchtower, set on a mound, or motte, and surrounded by a ditch and palisade. Below the mound was a court, or bailey, within its own ditch and stockade, spacious enough to provide shelter for the domain’s staff of smiths, bakers, and other workers, and refuge for peasants in time of alarm. The motte-and-bailey castles were replaced by stone structures, many of which we still visit. The first datable stone donjon, or keep, was built in France at Langeais, overlooking the Loire, in 994. Stone construction had to await the progress of technology, effective stonecutting tools, hoisting devices, and winches. Once the techniques were mastered, castle building spread fast and far. A census taken in 1904 lists more than 10,000 castles still visible in France.

One could see the castle from afar on its commanding hill, or if it was in flat country, perched on an artificial mound. Sometimes the building gleamed with whitewash. The visitor passed a cleared space to the barbican, or gatehouse, which protected the entrance. Receiving permission to enter, he surrendered his weapon to the porter and crossed the drawbridge over the dank, scummy moat, the home of frogs and mosquitoes. Beyond the drawbridge hung the portcullis, a massive iron grating that could be dropped in a flash. Such a portcullis was discovered at Angers. Although it had not been used for 500 years, its chains and pulleys, when cleaned and oiled, still functioned. The castle’s entrance passages were angled to slow attackers and were commanded by arrow slits, or “murder holes,” in the walls above. At Caernarvon Castle in Wales the visitor has to cross a first drawbridge, then pass five doors and six portcullises, make a right-angled turn and cross a second drawbridge.

One traversed the enormous walls, sometimes fifteen or twenty feet thick, to reach the inner bailey. The walls were topped by runways, with crenelated battlements to protect defending archers and with machicolations, or projections with open bottoms through which missiles or boiling liquids could be dropped. At intervals, the wall swelled out into bastions, which commanded the castle’s whole exterior. If by some unlikely chance an attacker succeeded in penetrating the interior, he could not be sure of victory. The different sections of the parapets were separated by wooden bridges, which could be destroyed in a moment to isolate the enemy. In the winding stairways within the walls, there were occasional wooden stairs instead of stone ones; these could be removed, so that an unwary assailant, hurrying in the gloom, would drop suddenly into a dungeon.

The heart of the defensive system was the keep, a tower sometimes 200 feet high and with walls twelve feet thick. Underground, beneath the keep, were the oubliettes, dungeons opening only at the top and used for prisons or for storing siege provisions, and enclosing, if possible, a well. Above were living quarters for the noble and his guardsmen, and at the top, a watchtower with a heraldic banner flying from it.

The stoutness of the castles is made evident by their survival on many hilltops of Europe and Syria. During World War II, some sustained direct hits by high-explosive and incendiary bombs, with little effect. At Norwich and Southampton, the medieval walls were hardly harmed by bombardment, whereas most of the houses built against them were destroyed.

But the castles were not impregnable. Remarkable siege engines were invented, especially by the Byzantines – battering rams, catapults that hurled stone balls weighing as much as 150 pounds, arbalests, or gigantic crossbows. Miners would patiently and dangerously dig a tunnel under the moat, under the very walls. The tunnel was propped with heavy timbers and filled with combustibles. These were ignited, the props were consumed, and with luck, a section of the wall would fall into the moat. At the same time, archers drove the defenders from the battlements. Soldiers ran forward with bales of hay, baskets of earth, or other material, to fill the moat. Others followed them across this causeway and hung scaling ladders against the walls, with shields held over their heads to deflect missiles. To climb a ladder holding the shield on one arm and keeping a hand ready to grasp the dangling sword is no small achievement. An alternative method of attack was to construct a wheeled wooden siege tower as high as the wall, with a commando party concealed on the top story. The tower was pushed up to the wall, and a drawbridge dropped, on which the gallant band of assailants crossed to the battlements. It was in this manner that the crusaders took Jerusalem.

The casualties in storming a castle were usually enormous, but lives were regarded as expendable. There are many examples of successful attacks on supposedly impregnable castles and towns. Richard the Lion-Hearted captured Acre with his siege machines in 1191. Edward, Prince of Wales, “the Black Prince,” took Limoges in 1370 by mining and direct assault. Irritated by the resistance, he commanded that more than 300 men, women, and children be beheaded. “It was great pity to see them kneeling before the prince, begging for mercy; but he took no heed of them,” says Froissart, with hardly a hint of reprobation. In general, however, the defense of castles and walled towns was stronger than the offense. By far the best way to reduce a stronghold was to find a traitor within the walls, and if one could not be discovered, then to starve out the garrison. But a prudent castellan kept his fort well stocked with a year’s supply of food, drink, and fuel. Hence, sieges could often be very long, lasting as much as two years, and were almost as exhausting to the besiegers as to the besieged.

The dwindling of feudalism and of the nobles’ independence and the introduction of gunpowder and siege cannons in the fourteenth century made the castle obsolete. Gentlemen abandoned the discomforts of life in an isolated stone prison without regret. They much preferred a spacious manor house or a residence in town among their own kind.

War was waged on the high seas as well as on land. In time of need, the monarch would simply commandeer his nation’s merchant vessels. These might displace 200 tons or more; by the fifteenth century, we find even 1,000-tonners. A crusader’s ship could transport 1,000 soldiers with their horses and equipment. The ingenious Frederick II built for his crusade fifty vessels, similar to modern landing craft, with doors at the waterline, so that knights could disembark on horseback. In the Mediterranean, the Byzantines, Venetians, and Genoese favored long, narrow galleys, very maneuverable and with formidable beaks for ramming the enemy.

The admiral built on his merchant ships a forecastle and a sterncastle, from which his archers could fire down on the enemy’s decks. His purpose was to sink his opponent by ramming, or if that did not work, to grapple and disable him by cutting his rigging and then boarding. For hand-to-hand combat, he was likely to carry quicklime to blind the defenders, and soft soap mixed with sharp bits of iron to render their footing precarious. The Byzantines mounted catapults on their ships; they also introduced the West to Greek Fire, apparently a mixture of petroleum, quicklime, and sulphur. The quicklime in contact with water ignited the bomb, a primitive napalm.

The medieval art of war found its great exemplification in the crusades. The organization of an expeditionary force calls into question familiar logistics; the prosecution of a distant war demands new strategies and tactics; out of battles with strange foes in far lands emerge new weapons, new techniques of warfare. The crusaders learned much from the Byzantines’ well-drilled, professional infantry, from their advanced weaponry and engineering. The crusaders’ vast castles in the Levant were constructed according to traditional Byzantine principles of fortification.

The crusades were a great historical novelty; they were the first wars fought for an ideal. Naturally the ideal was promptly corrupted and falsified. But the fact remains that the crusades were conceived as a service to the Christian God, and the crusaders thought themselves, at least intermittently, the consecrated servants of holy purpose. The crusades were many things, but originally they were a beautiful, noble idea.

The idea of a crusade owes something to the Old Testament, something to the Muslim example of a jihad, or holy war. It owes something, too, to the inflammatory preaching of illuminate monks, and a great deal to the beginning of the Christian reconquest of Spain from the Moors; this combined the triumph of the faith with the acquisition of rich properties. But the chief stimulation of the idea came in news from the East.

By the end of the first millennium, the Near East had attained a kind of stability, with the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs holding each other at a standstill. The pilgrim route to Jerusalem was kept open and secure, and the Holy City, itself in Muslim hands, was operated as a sanctified tourist attraction for both Muslims and Christians. The comfortable balance was upset by the Seljuk Turks, who captured Jerusalem, defeated the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor in 1071, and harassed the Christian pilgrims. Hard pressed by the Turks, the Eastern emperor, Alexius Comnenus, at length appealed to the pope and to the West for military aid against the pagan foe. He asked for a mercenary army that would recapture his territories in Asia Minor and pay itself from the proceeds. He was not much interested in the Holy Land.

The pope who launched the crusade was Urban II, a French noble who had humbled himself to become a Cluniac monk and then had been exalted to the papal throne. He was a vessel of holy zeal, wise in men’s ways. Emperor Alexius’s appeal stirred in him a vision of a gigantic effort by Western Christendom to regain the Holy Sepulcher. The union of military resources under the pope’s control would end the wars of Europe’s princes, would bring peace in the West, and in the East, Christian unity in spiritual purpose; it might even link – under papal leadership – Eastern and Western churches, long painfully at odds. The times were propitious for the realization of such a dream. Faith was ardent and uncritical. Europe’s population was increasing, men were restless, looking for new lands, new outlets of energy. They seemed to be begging for a worthy use for their idle swords.

At the Council of Clermont in south central France in November 1095, Pope Urban, tall, handsome, bearded, made one of the most potent speeches in all history. He summoned the French people to wrest the Holy Sepulcher from the foul hands of the Turks. France, he said, was already overcrowded. It could barely support its sons, whereas Canaan was, in God’s own words, a land flowing with milk and honey. Hark to Jerusalem’s pitiful appeal! Frenchmen, cease your abject quarrels and turn your swords to God’s own service! Be sure that you will have a rich reward on earth and everlasting glory in heaven! The pope bowed his head, and the whole assembly resounded with acclaim: “Dieu le veult!” – “God wills it!” Snippets of red cloth were crossed and pinned on the breasts of the many who on the spot fervently vowed to “take the cross.” It was a spectacle to rejoice the heart of any revivalist. Astutely, Pope Urban had roused men’s emotional ardor for the faith, and as if unaware, had tickled their cupidity. All his hearers had been bred on Bible stories of the rich fields and flocks and blooming meadows of Canaan; they confused the actual city of Jerusalem with the Heavenly City, walled in pearl, lighted by God’s effulgence, with living water flowing down its silver streets. A poor crusader might find himself tempted by a fief of holy land; and if he should fall, he was assured, by papal promise, of a seat in heaven. The pope also offered every crusader an indulgence, or remission of many years in purgatory after death. Urban appealed, finally, to the strong sporting sense of the nobles. Here was a new war game against monstrous foes, giants and dragons; it was “a tournament of heaven and hell.” In short, says the historian Friedrich Heer, the crusades were promoted with all the devices of the propagandist – atrocity stories, oversimplification, lies, inflammatory speeches.

The Medieval Art of War II

The pope was taken aback by the success of his proposal. No plans had been made for the prosecution of the crusade. Several important kings of Christendom happened to be excommunicated at the time. Urban placed the bishop of Le Puy in charge of the undertaking, and French nobles assumed military control. The church’s entire organization was set to the task of obtaining recruits, money, supplies, and transportation. In some regions, under the spell of compelling voices, enthusiasm was extreme. Reports the chronicler William of Malmesbury: “The Welshman left his hunting, the Scot his fellowship with vermin, the Dane his drinking party, the Norwegian his raw fish. Lands were deserted of their husbandmen, houses of their inhabitants; even whole cities migrated.” Proudly the dedicated wore their red crosses or exhibited scars in the form of the cross on their breasts.

The crusades began with grotesqueries, comic and horrible. A band of Germans followed a goose they held to be God-inspired. Peter the Hermit, a fanatic, filthy, barefoot French monk, short and swarthy, with a long, lean face that strangely resembled that of his own donkey, preached a private crusade – known as the Peasants’ Crusade – and promised his followers that God would guide them to the Holy City. In Germany, Walter the Penniless emulated Peter. Motley hordes of enthusiasts – having plucked Peter’s poor donkey totally hairless in their quest for souvenirs – marched through Germany and the Balkan lands, killing Jews by the thousands on their way, plundering and destroying. The Byzantine Emperor Alexius sent them with all haste into Asia Minor, where they supported themselves briefly by robbing Christian villagers. They were caught in two batches by the Turks, who gave the first group the choice of conversion to Islam or death and massacred the second group. Peter the Hermit, who was in Constantinople on business, was one of the few to escape the general doom.

The first proper crusade got under way in the autumn of 1096. Its armies followed several courses, by sea and land, to a rendezvous in Constantinople. The crusaders’ numbers are very uncertain; the total may have been as low as 30,000 or as high as 100,000. At any rate, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius was surprised by the multitude and was hard put to find food for them. He was also displeased by their character. He had asked for trained soldiers, but he received a vast and miscellaneous throng of undisciplined enthusiasts that included clergy, women, and children. Only the mounted knights made a good military show, and even they behaved with Frankish arrogance. One sat down comically on the emperor’s own throne. Alexius, swallowing his anger, offered money, food, and troops to escort the expedition across Asia Minor. In return, he asked an oath of allegiance for Byzantine territories the crusaders might recapture. This was given more than grudgingly. Mutual ill will and scorn were rife. Many high-hearted Franks vowed that the Byzantine allies were as much their enemies as were the Turks.

In the spring of 1097, Alexius hustled his troublesome guests out of the capital on their way through Asia Minor toward the Promised Land. It was a dreadful journey. The Asian uplands were dry and barren; the few local peasants fled before the invader, carrying with them their goats and sheep and tiny stocks of grain. Hunger and thirst assailed the marchers. Accustomed to the abundant water supply of their homelands, many had not even provided themselves with water canteens. Knights marched on foot, discarding armor; horses died of thirst, lack of forage, and disease; sheep, goats, and dogs were collected to pull the baggage train. A part of the army crossed the Anti-Taurus range in a flood of rain on a muddy path skirting precipices. Horses and pack animals, roped together, fell into the abyss. Continually the Turks attacked the column. Their bowmen, mounted on fast little horses, discharged a hail of arrows at a gallop and fled before a counterattack could be organized. Their devices were ambush, feigned retreat, and the annihilation of the enemy’s foraging parties. Such hit-and-run tactics, new to the Westerners, shocked their sense of military propriety.

The survivors came down to the Mediterranean at its northeastern corner and found some reinforcements that had come by ship. The fainthearts and the greedy revealed themselves. Stephen of Blois, brother-in-law of one English king and father of another, deserted; but when he got home, he was sent back, reportedly by his high-spirited wife. Peter the Hermit, who had joined up, fled for good. Baldwin of Boulogne managed to establish himself as ruler of the county of Edessa and was lost for a time to the great enterprise.

The main body camped before the enormous stronghold of Antioch, which barred all progress south toward Jerusalem. An epic eight-month-long siege ensued, enlivened by such bizarre interludes as the appearance of the Byzantine patriarch hanging from the battlements in a cage. Because of treachery within the walls, Antioch was finally taken in June 1098. The Christian army then moved cautiously toward Jerusalem. By any modern standards, it was a tiny force, numbering by then perhaps 12,000, including 1,200 or 1,300 cavalry. The invaders were shocked to find Canaan a stony, barren land. There is an old Eastern story that at the Creation the angels were transporting the entire world’s supply of stones in a sack, which burst as they flew over Palestine. No milk and honey flowed in the gray gullies, not even water. The blazing summer sun on the treeless plain came as a surprise. Men and horses suffered grievously from the lack of shade. The sun smote down on steel helmets, seeming to roast the soldiers’ dancing brains. Coats of mail blistered incautious fingers until the crusaders learned to cover them with a linen surcoat. Within the armor, complaining bodies longed to sweat, but in vain, for there was no water to produce sweat. The soldiers were afflicted with inaccessible itchings, with the abrasions of armor, with greedy flies and intimate insects.

By the best of luck or by divine direction, the Turks were at odds with the Arab caliphate in Baghdad, and the country was ill defended. The crusaders made their way south by valor and by threat and bribes to the Muslim garrisons. Finally on June 7, 1099, the army camped before the beetling walls of Jerusalem.

Eyewitness, Foucher de Chartres tells the story of the assault. “Engineers were ordered to build machines that could be moved up to the walls and, with God’s help, thus achieve the result of their hopes. . . . Once the engines were ready, that is the battering rams and the mining devices, they prepared for the assault. Among other contrivances, they fastened together a tower made of small pieces of wood, because large timber was lacking. At night, at a given order, they carried it piece by piece to the most favorable point of the city. And so, in the morning, after preparing the catapults and other contraptions, they very quickly set it up, fitted together, not far from the wall. Then a few daring soldiers at the sound of the trumpet mounted it, and from that position they immediately began to launch stones and arrows. In retaliation against them the Saracens proceeded to defend themselves similarly and with their slings hurled flaming brands soaked in oil and fat and fitted with small torches on the previously mentioned tower and the soldiers on it. Many therefore fighting in this manner on either side met ever-present death. . . . [The next day] the Franks entered the city at midday, on the day dedicated to Venus, with bugles blowing and all in an uproar and manfully attacking and crying ‘Help us, God!’ . . .”

Once the crusaders had taken control of the city, they began to massacre the inhabitants. “Some of our men,” wrote the twelfth-century chronicler Raymond of Agiles, “cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much at least, that in the temple and portico of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God, that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, when it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.

“Now that the city was taken it was worth all our previous labors and hardships to see the devotion of the pilgrims at the Holy Sepulcher. How they rejoiced and exulted and sang the ninth chant to the Lord. It was the ninth day . . . The ninth sermon, the ninth chant was demanded by all. This day, I say, will be famous in all future ages, for it turned our labors and sorrows into joy and exultation; this day, I say, marks the justification of all Christianity and the humiliation of paganism; our faith was renewed. The Lord made this day, and we rejoiced and exulted in it, for on this day the Lord revealed Himself to His people and blessed them.”

Soon after the capture, most of the army went home, having fulfilled their vows. Godfrey of Bouillon, who had been chosen ruler of Jerusalem, was left with only 1,000 or 2,000 infantrymen and a few hundred knights to control a hostile land populated by Arabs, Jews, heretical Christians, and members of the Eastern Orthodox Church. According to the great historian of the crusades Stephen Runciman, the massacre at Jerusalem is unforgotten. “It was this bloodthirsty proof of Christian fanaticism that re-created the fanaticism of Islam.”

The crusaders set about strengthening their hold on the country, constructing those gigantic, practically impregnable castles that still fill us with awe. Little by little they acclimated themselves, learning Arabic, adopting the sensible Oriental dress – burnoose and turban – and such congenial local institutions as the harem. They married Armenian and other local Christian women. Their children were brought up by Arab nurses and tutors. In Jerusalem and the coastal cities nobles and merchants lived in fine houses, with carpets, damask hangings, carved inlaid tables, dinner services of gold and silver. Their ladies were veiled against the enemy sun; they painted their faces and walked with a mincing gait. Before long a social class developed of the native-born, the Old Settlers, at home in the East. They had their good friends among the native gentry and would hunt, joust, and feast with them. They took their religion easily, with a tolerant smile for the excessive devotions of other Christians newly arrived in the East. They set aside chapels in their churches for Muslim worship, and the Muslims reciprocated by installing Christian chapels in their mosques. After all, when one can see the Holy Places any day, one gets used to them.

To swell the ranks of the crusaders, mostly pious fighting men of gentle birth, newcomers kept arriving from Europe. A young gentleman, inspired for whatever motive to take the cross, had first to raise his passage money, often by mortgaging his land or by ceding some feudal rights. He heard a farewell sermon in his village church and kissed his friends and kinsmen good-by, very likely for ever. Since the road across Asia Minor had become increasingly unsafe, he rode to Marseilles or Genoa and took passage with a shipmaster. He was assigned a space fixed at two feet by five in the ‘tween decks; his head was to lie between the feet of another pilgrim. He bargained for some of his food with the cargador, or chief steward, but he was advised to carry provisions of his own – salt meat, cheese, biscuit, dried fruits, and syrup of roses to check diarrhea.

For the devout young warrior willing to accept celibacy, a career opened in the military orders, which were the kingdom’s main defenders against the Saracens. The Knights Hospitalers had already been established before the conquest as an order of volunteers caring for sick pilgrims in Jerusalem. They took monastic vows and followed the Benedictine Rule, adopting as their symbol the white Maltese cross. After the conquest, they became the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, owing obedience to the pope alone. Their hostel in Jerusalem could lodge 1,000 pilgrims. Because they policed the pilgrim routes, their interests became more and more military. In later centuries, they transferred the site of their operation and were known as the Knights of Rhodes and the Knights of Malta. Today their successors constitute a powerful Roman Catholic order of distinguished key men, and in England, a Protestant offshoot, which still maintains a hospital in Jerusalem.

The Knights Templars, the valiant red-cross knights, were established in 1118, with their headquarters in the Dome of the Rock, which the crusaders believed to be Solomon’s Temple. Their first duty was to protect the road to Jerusalem. Soon both Hospitalers and Templars were involved in almost every fray between the crusaders and the Saracens, acting as a kind of volunteer police. The rulers of the Christian states had no control over them; they had their own castles, made their own policy, even signed their own treaties. Often they were as much at odds with other Christians as with the Muslims. Some went over to Islam, and others were influenced by Muslim mystical practices. The order in France was all but destroyed in the fourteenth century by Philip IV, eager to confiscate the Templars’ wealth. Today the Freemasons have inherited their name and ancient mysteries.

Another fighting monastic order was the Teutonic Knights, whose membership was restricted to Germans of noble birth. They abandoned the Holy Land in 1291 and transferred their activities to the lands of the eastern Baltic. There they spread the Gospel largely by exterminating the heathen Slavs and by replacing them with God-fearing Germans.

The active period of Christian conquest ended in 1144 with the recapture by the Turks of the Christian county of Edessa. Thereafter, the Westerners were generally on the defensive. The news of the fall of Edessa shocked Europe. The great Saint Bernard of Clairvaux quickly promoted a new crusade – the second. At Easter in 1146, a host of pilgrims gathered at Vézelay to hear Bernard preach. Half the crowd took the crusader’s vow; as material for making crosses gave out, the saint offered up his own gown and cowl to be cut to provide more material.

Inspired by Bernard, the French King Louis VII decided to lead his army to the Holy Land, and Louis’s mettlesome queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, determined to go along. Bernard went to Germany to recruit King Conrad III for the expedition. On their way to Constantinople, both the French and the German expeditions found themselves as welcome as a plague of locusts. The cities along the route closed their gates and would supply food only by letting it down from the walls in baskets, after cash payment. Therefore the crusaders – especially the Germans – burned and pillaged defenseless farms and villages, and even attacked a monastery. In Constantinople, the Germans were received more than coolly by the emperor, who had come to the conclusion that the crusades were a mere trick of Western imperialism.

Somehow the crusaders made their way across Asia Minor, suffering heavy losses on the way. Although the armies and their monarchs were bitterly hostile to each other, they united to attack Damascus; but the attack was unsuccessful, and in their retreat, the crusading armies were largely destroyed. The kings left the Holy Land in disgust, acknowledging that the crusade was a total fiasco. Only Queen Eleanor had made the best of things during the journey, carrying on a notorious affair with her youthful uncle, Raymond II, prince of Antioch.

The Muslims continued nibbling at the Christian holdings, and in 1187, they captured Jerusalem. Their great general, Saladin, refused to follow the Christian precedent of massacring the city’s inhabitants. He offered his captives for ransom, guaranteeing them safe passage to their own lines. The news of Jerusalem’s fall inspired yet a third crusade, led by Philip Augustus of France, Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, and Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, who was drowned on his way to the East.

Warring nations often have a pet enemy – in the First World War, Count von Luckner, in the second, General Rommel. To the crusaders, Saladin was such a gallant foe. When he attacked the castle of Kerak during the wedding feast of the heir to Transjordania, the groom’s mother sent out to him some dainties from the feast, with the reminder that he had carried her, as a child, in his arms. Saladin inquired in which tower the happy couple would lodge, and this he graciously spared while attacking the rest of the castle. He was fond of a joke. He planted a piece of the True Cross at the threshold of his tent, where everyone who came to see him must tread on it. He got some pilgrim monks drunk and put them to bed with wanton Muslim women, thus robbing them of all spiritual reward for their lifetime toils and trials. In a battle with Richard the Lion-Hearted, Saladin saw Richard’s horse fall, generously sent him a groom with two fresh horses – and lost the battle. And when Richard came down with fever, Saladin sent him peaches, pears, and snow from Mt. Hermon. Richard, not to be outdone in courtesy, proposed that his sister should marry Saladin’s brother, and that the pair should receive the city of Jerusalem as a wedding present. It would have been a happy solution.

Though Richard captured Acre in 1191 (with the aid of a great catapult known as Bad Neighbor, a stone thrower, God’s Own Sling, and a grappling ladder, The Cat), he could not regain Jerusalem. He had to be content with negotiating an agreement that opened the way to the Holy City to Christian pilgrims. The third crusade marked, on the whole, a moral failure. It ended in compromise with the Muslims and in dissension among the Christians. The popes lost control of their enterprise; they could not even save their champion, Richard the Lion-Hearted, from imprisonment when he was taken captive by the duke of Austria, who resented an insult he had received from Richard during the crusade. Idealism and self-sacrifice for a holy cause became less common, and most recruits who went to the Holy Land were primarily looking for quick returns. People accused the men collecting taxes to pay for a new crusade and even the pope himself of diverting the money to other purposes.

In 1198, the great Innocent III acceded to the papacy and promoted another expedition, the lamentable fourth crusade. Its agents made a contract with the Venetians for the transport to the Holy Land of about 30,000 men and 4,500 horses. However, by embarkation day, the expeditionaries had raised only about half the passage money. The Venetians, always businessmen, offered the crusaders an arrangement: If they would capture for Venice the rival commercial city of Zara in Dalmatia, which the Venetians described as a nest of pirates, they would be transported at a cheaper rate. Zara was efficiently taken, to the horror of Pope Innocent, for Zara was a Catholic city, and its Hungarian overlord was a vassal of the Apostolic See. Now that the precedent of a crusade against Christians was set, the leaders, at Venetian urging, espoused the cause of a deposed, imprisoned, blinded Byzantine emperor, Isaac Angelus. By restoring him to his throne, they would right a great wrong, return the East to communion with the Roman church, and receive from their Byzantine protégé men and money for a later conquest of Egypt. The pope was persuaded to look on the project with favor, and the ships of the fourth crusade set sail for Constantinople.

The noble city was taken by storm on April 12, 1204. The three-day spree that followed is memorable in the history of looting. The French and Flemish crusaders, drunk with powerful Greek wines, destroyed more than they carried off. They did not spare monasteries, churches, libraries. In Santa Sophia, they drank from the altar vessels while a prostitute sat on the patriarch’s throne and sang ribald French soldiers’ songs. The emperor, regarded as a wicked usurper, was taken to the top of a high marble column and pushed off, “because it was fitting that such a signal act of justice should be seen by everyone.”

Then the real booty, the Eastern Empire, was divided. Venice somehow received all the best morsels: certain islands of the Aegean and seaports on the Greek and

Asian mainlands. The Franks became dukes and princes of wide lands in Greece and in Macedonia, where one still sees the massive stumps of their castles. The papal legate accompanying the troops absolved all who had taken the cross from continuing on to the Holy Land to fulfill their vows. The fourth crusade brought no succor to Christian Palestine. On the contrary, a good many knights left the Holy Land for Constantinople, to share in the distribution of land and honors.

“There was never a greater crime against humanity than the fourth crusade,” says Stephen Runciman. It destroyed the treasures of the past and broke down the most advanced culture of Europe. Far from uniting Eastern and Western Christendom, it implanted in the Greeks a hostility toward the West that has never entirely disappeared, and it weakened the Byzantine defenses against the rising power of the Ottoman Turks, to whom they eventually succumbed.

A few years later, the crusading spirit staged a travesty upon itself. Two twelve-year-old boys, Stephen in France and Nicholas in Germany, preached a children’s crusade, promising their followers that angels would guide them and that the seas would divide before them. Thousands of boy and girls joined the crusade, along with clerics, vagabonds, and prostitutes. Miracle stories allege that flocks of birds and swarms of butterflies accompanied the group as it headed southward over the mountains to the sea, which, however, did not divide to let them pass. Innocent III told a delegation to go home and grow up. A few of the Germans managed to reach Palestine, where they disappeared. The French party fell into the hands not of angels but of two of the worst scoundrels in history, Hugh the Iron and William of Posquères, Marseilles shipowners, who offered the young crusaders free transport to the Holy Land, but carried them instead to Bougie in North Africa and sold them as slaves to Arab dealers.

The melancholy tale of the later crusades can be briefly told. Unable to recapture Jerusalem, the strategists tried to seize Egypt, one of the great bases of Muslim power. In 1219, after a siege of a year and a half, an expedition took Damietta, on one of the mouths of the Nile. But the Christians were able to hold on to the city for only a few years. Again in 1249, Saint Louis invaded Egypt, hoping to retake it, but he was unsuccessful.

There were numerous attempts to recapture Jerusalem after it had fallen to the Saracens. The Emperor Frederick II’s rather comic expedition of 1228 resembled a goodwill tour rather than a crusade. The mood of the times had changed. It now suited almost everybody to maintain the status quo. The Muslims were threatened from the east by the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his equally formidable successors; they wanted no little wars in Palestine. The Christian Old Settlers had developed a thriving import-export trade in Oriental goods, with merchandise brought by camel caravan to the coastal cities to be shipped to Europe. They had enough of visiting zealots, who were eager to plunge into furious battle, commit a few atrocities, break the precarious peace, and then go home, leaving the Old Settlers holding the bag.

With want of enthusiasm, want of new recruits, want, indeed, of stout purpose, the remaining Christian principalities gradually crumbled. Antioch fell in 1268, the Hospitaler fortress of Krak des Chevaliers in 1271. In 1291, with the capture of the last great stronghold, Acre, the Muslims had regained all their possessions, and the great crusades ended, in failure.

Why? What went wrong? There was a failure of morale, clearly; there was also a failure in military organization and direction. The popes were no commanders in chief; the various allied armies were riven by dissension; there was no unity of command or strategy in the rival principalities of Palestine and Syria. The military means available were insufficient to maintain the conquest; with the distance from European bases so great, supply problems were insuperable. The armies were over-officered , for the crusades were regarded as a gentleman’s game, and poor men soon ceased to volunteer. And always there was the wastage caused by malaria, dysentery, and mysterious Oriental diseases.

As the historian Henri Pirenne has pointed out, the crusades did not correspond to any temporal aim. Europe had no need for Jerusalem and Syria. It needed, rather, a strong Eastern Empire to be a bulwark against the agressive Turks and Mongols; and this empire the crusaders destroyed with their own swords. In Spain, on the other hand, the crusading spirit was successful because it matched a political need.

It is easy enough for us to see that the early enthusiasm of the crusaders was based on illusion. Long before the forms and phraseology of the crusades were abandoned, disillusionment had set in. The character of the later recruits changed. Many went out to the East to escape paying their debts; judges gave criminals their choice of jail or taking the cross. After the defeat of Saint Louis in 1250, preachers of a crusade were publicly insulted. When mendicant monks asked alms, people would summon a beggar and give him a coin, not in the name of Christ, who did not protect his own, but in that of Mohammed, who had proved to be stronger. Around 1270, a former master general of the Dominican order wrote that few still believed in the spiritual merit promised by the crusades. A French monk addressed God directly: “He is a fool who follows you into battle.” The troubadours and the minnesingers mocked the church, and Walther von der Vogelweide called the pope the new Judas. There were counter-crusades in France and Germany. The dean and chapter of the cathedral at Passau preached a crusade against the papal legate; in Regensburg, anyone found wearing a crusader’s cross was condemned to death. A pacifist party arose, led by the Spiritual Franciscans. “Don’t kill the heathen; convert them!” was their cry. At first the crusades had strengthened the church, but eventually the papacy’s sponsorship of warfare came to undermine its spiritual authority.

The effects of the crusades on the lay world were mixed. Troublesome younger sons were packed off to the Holy Land so they could not disturb the peace at home. The rising middle class benefited by lending money to the crusaders and selling them supplies. Many a peasant and serf bought his freedom from his master, who needed cash for travel expenses, and discovered a new trade in the swelling cities.

The crusades coincided more or less with the West’s rediscovery of the East. Traders, of whom the best known is Marco Polo, found their way to the Mongol Empire in the Far East and organized a great international business, both overland and seaborne. Eastern products became common in the West – rice, sugar, sesame, lemons, melons, apricots, spinach, and artichokes. The spice trade boomed; the West learned to appreciate cloves and ginger and to delight in exotic perfumes. Eastern materials had a mighty vogue – muslins, cottons, satins, damasks, rugs, and tapestries; and new colors and dyes – indigo, carmine, and lilac. The West adopted Arabic numerals in place of the impossible Roman system. Even the rosary is said to have come to Christian Europe by way of Syria.

The crusades stimulated Europe’s economy. Trade became big business as the new devices of banking and credit, developed during the period, came into common use. Europe’s imagination was also stimulated, for the crusaders gave rise to a rich vernacular literature, epic poems, histories, memoirs. And the heroic ideal, however abused, possessed the Western imagination and still lives there as the great example of self-sacrifice for a holy cause.


“Richard the Lionheart, Battle of Arsuf, 1191” Justo Jimeno Bazaga

In late summer 1191 King Richard I of England prosecuted a remarkably controlled, ruthlessly efficient march south from Acre to Jaffa, subjecting Saladin to a humiliating, if not crushing, defeat along the way. Since his arrival in the Holy Land, the Lionheart had galvanised the Third Crusade; no longer mired and inert in the northern reaches of Palestine, the expedition now seemed poised on the threshold of victory. Success depended on momentum – only immediate and resolute action would preserve the brittle Frankish coalition and maintain pressure on a faltering enemy. But just when focused commitment to a clear military goal was needed, Richard hesitated.

Around 12 September 1191, just a few days after reaching Jaffa, worrying reports from the south began filtering into the crusader camp. Saladin, it was said, had moved on Ascalon and even now was razing the Muslim-held port to the ground. With these rumours stirring up a mixture of incredulity, horror and suspicion, the king dispatched Geoffrey of Lusignan (who had now been appointed titular count of the region) and the trusted knight William of L’Estang to investigate. Sailing south, they soon caught sight of the city, and, as they drew closer, a scene of appalling devastation revealed itself. Ascalon was awash with flame and smoke, its terrified populace streaming away in forced evacuation while the sultan’s men swarmed over the port’s mighty defences, ripping wall and tower asunder.

This grave spectacle was the product of Saladin’s newly resolute approach to the war. Still smarting from his humiliating defeat at Arsuf, the sultan had assembled his counsellors at Ramla on 10 September to re-evaluate Ayyubid strategy. Having tried and failed to confront the crusaders head-on during their march south from Acre, Saladin decided to adopt a more defensive approach. If Richard could not be crushed in open battle, then drastic steps would be taken to halt his advance – a scorched-earth policy to hamper Frankish movement, involving the destruction of key fortresses. The critical target was Ascalon, southern Palestine’s main port and the stepping stone to Egypt. If the Franks captured the city intact then the Lionheart would have the perfect bridgehead from which to threaten Jerusalem and the Nile region. Saladin realised that he lacked the resources to fight a war on two fronts and, prioritising the protection of the Holy City, ordered that Ascalon’s walls be razed to the ground. This cannot have been an easy decision – the sultan was said to have remarked, ‘by God I would prefer to lose all my sons rather than demolish a single stone’ – but it was necessary. Time was pressing, for if Richard marched on he might yet seize the port. Saladin therefore sent al-Adil to watch over the crusaders at Jaffa, and then raced south with al-Afdal to oversee the dreadful labour, driving his soldiers to work at a furious pace, day and night, fearful of the Lionheart’s arrival.

When Geoffrey and William brought news of what they had seen to Jaffa, King Richard still had a chance to act. Throughout the late summer he had been deliberately evasive about his objectives, but now a definite decision had to be made. To the Lionheart, the choice seemed clear: the seizure of Ascalon was the logical next step for the crusade. As a general he recognised that, to date, the expedition’s achievements had been dependent upon naval superiority. While the crusade continued to hug the coastline, Latin domination of the Mediterranean could stave off isolation and annihilation by offering a lifeline of supply and reinforcement. So far, the Christians had not truly fought the Third Crusade in enemy territory; once they marched inland, the real battle would begin. Ascalon’s seizure and refortification promised to destabilise further Saladin’s hold over Palestine, creating a secure coastal enclave, while keeping Richard’s options open for an eventual assault on Jerusalem or Egypt.

Richard arrived in Jaffa apparently expecting that, as king and commander, his will would be obeyed; that the march south could continue, almost without pause. But he had made a serious miscalculation. As a species of war, the crusade was governed not merely by the dictates of military science, nor by notions of politics, diplomacy or economy. This was a mode of conflict underpinned by religious ideology – one that relied upon the overwhelming and imperative devotional allure of a target like Jerusalem to create unity of purpose within a disparate army. And for the vast majority of those within Richard’s amalgamated crusading host, marching south from Jaffa was tantamount to walking past the doorway to the Holy City.

At a council held outside Jaffa in mid-September 1191, the Lionheart was confronted by this reality. Despite his best efforts to press for an attack on Ascalon, a large number of Latin nobles resisted – among them Hugh of Burgundy and the French – arguing instead for the refortification of Jaffa and a more direct strike inland towards Jerusalem. In the end, as one crusader put it, ‘the loud voice of the people prevailed’ and a decision was made to stay put. Richard seems not to have recognised it at the time, but he had failed a critical test. The events at Jaffa exposed an ominous deficiency in his skills as a leader. The Lionheart had been well schooled in the affairs of war since childhood; since 1189 his skills and authority as a king had blossomed. But, as yet, he had not grasped the reality of crusading.

With the decision to halt at Jaffa, the crusade lost impetus. Work began to rebuild the port and its defences, even as Saladin completed Ascalon’s destruction. Crusaders, shattered by the horrors of the march from Acre, now basked in the sudden break in hostilities. Among the constant flow of supply ships, vessels packed with prostitutes soon began to appear. With their arrival, bemoaned one Christian eyewitness, the army was again polluted by ‘sin and filth, ugly deeds and lust’. As days turned to weeks, even the will to press on to the Holy City faltered and the expedition started to fragment. Some Franks actually sailed to Acre to enjoy more luxurious comforts, and eventually Richard had to travel north in person to goad these absentees back into action.

On the road to Jerusalem

In the end, the Third Crusade remained stalled around Jaffa and its environs for the best part of seven weeks. This delay gave Saladin time to extend his scorched-earth strategy, demolishing the network of fortifications running from the coast inland to Jerusalem. Richard spent much of October 1191 reassembling his army and, only in the last days of that month, with the normal fighting season drawing to a close, did the expedition begin to advance on Jerusalem. It now faced a challenge unlike any encountered by previous crusades. Back in 1099, the First Crusaders had marched on the Holy City largely unopposed, and in their subsequent siege, arduous though it was, the Franks had encountered a relatively small, isolated enemy force. Now, almost a century later, the Latins could expect to meet far sterner resistance.

Saladin’s power may have weakened in the years since 1187, but he still possessed formidable military resources with which to harass and oppose every step of a Christian approach on the Holy City. And should the crusaders reach Jerusalem, its actual conquest presented manifold difficulties. Protected by a full garrison and stout physical fortifications, the city’s defences would be all but insurmountable, while any besieging army would undoubtedly face fierce counter-attacks from additional Muslim forces in the field. More troubling still was the issue of supply and reinforcement: once the Third Crusade left the coast behind, it would have to rely upon a fragile line of communication back to Jaffa; if broken, Richard and his men would face isolation and probably defeat.

The Lionheart’s primary aim in the autumn of 1191 was the forging of a reliable chain of logistical support running inland. The main road to Jerusalem crossed the coastal plain east of Jaffa, through Ramla to Latrun, before arcing north-east to Beit Nuba in the Judean foothills and then winding east up to the Holy City (although there were alternatives, such as the more northerly route via Lydda). In the course of the twelfth century, the Franks had built a string of fortresses to defend the approaches to Jerusalem. Many of these had been controlled by the Military Orders, but all had fallen to Islam after Hattin.

Saladin’s recent shift in strategy had left the road ahead of the crusaders in a state of desolation. Every major fortified site – including Lydda, Ramla and Latrun – had been dismantled. On 29 October Richard marched on to the plains east of Jaffa and began the painstakingly slow work of rebuilding a string of sites running inland, starting with two forts near Yasur. In military terms, the war now devolved into a series of skirmishes. Marshalling his forces at Ramla, Saladin sought to hound the Franks, impeding their construction efforts while avoiding full-scale confrontation. Once the advance on Jerusalem began, the Lionheart frequently threw himself into the thick of these running battles. In early November 1192, a routine foraging expedition went awry when a group of Templars were attacked and outnumbered. When the news reached him, the king rode to their aid without hesitation, accompanied by Andrew of Chauvigny and Robert, earl of Leicester. The Lionheart arrived ‘roaring’ with bloodlust, striking like a ‘thunderbolt’, and soon forced the Muslims to retreat.

Latin eyewitnesses suggest that some of the king’s companions actually questioned the wisdom of his actions that day. Chiding him for risking his life so readily, they protested that ‘if harm comes to you Christianity will be killed’. Richard was said to have been enraged: ‘The king’s colour changed. Then he said “I sent [these soldiers] here and asked them to go [and] if they die there without me then would [that] I never again bear the title of king.”’ This episode reveals the Lionheart’s determination to operate as a warrior-king in the front line of conflict, but it also suggests that, by this stage, he was taking risks that worried even his closest supporters. It is certainly true that there were real dangers involved in these skirmishes. Just a few weeks later, Andrew of Chauvigny broke his arm while skewering a Muslim opponent during a scuffle near Lydda.

Talking to the enemy

Bold as Richard’s involvement might have been in these inland incursions, his martial offensive was just one facet of a combined strategy. Throughout the autumn and early winter of 1191 the king sought to use diplomacy alongside military threat, perhaps hoping that, when jointly wielded, these two weapons might bring Saladin to the point of submission, forestalling the need for a direct assault on Jerusalem.

In fact, the Lionheart had reopened channels of communication with the enemy just days after the Battle of Arsuf. Around 12 September he sent Humphrey of Toron, the disenfranchised former husband of Isabella, to request a renewal of discussions with al-Adil. Saladin acceded, giving his brother ‘permission to hold talks and the power to negotiate on his own initiative’. One of the sultan’s confidants explained that ‘[Saladin] thought the meetings were in our interest because he saw in the hearts of men that they were tired and disillusioned with the fighting, the hardship and the burden of debts that was on their backs’. In all probability, Saladin was also playing for time and seeking to garner information about the enemy.

In the months to come, reliable intelligence proved to be a precious commodity, and spies seem to have infiltrated both camps. In late September 1191 Saladin narrowly averted a potentially disastrous leak when a group of eastern Christians travelling through the Judean hills were seized and searched. They were found to be carrying extremely sensitive documents – letters from the Ayyubid governor of Jerusalem to the sultan, detailing worrying shortages of grain, equipment and men within the Holy City – which they had intended to present to King Richard. Meanwhile, to furnish a regular supply of Frankish captives for interrogation, Saladin engaged 300 rather disreputable Bedouin thieves to carry out night-time prisoner snatches. For Latin and Muslim alike, however, knowledge of the enemy’s movements and intentions was always fallible. Saladin, for example, was apparently informed that Philip Augustus had died in October 1191. Perhaps more significantly, the Lionheart persistently overestimated Saladin’s military strength for much of the remainder of the crusade.

Throughout autumn and early winter 1191, Richard eagerly maintained a regular dialogue with al-Adil, and, to begin with at least, this contact seems to have been hidden from the Frankish armies. In part, the king must have been driven to negotiation by the rumour that Conrad of Montferrat had opened his own, independent, channel of diplomacy with Saladin. As always, the Lionheart’s willingness to discuss avenues to peace with the enemy did not indicate some pacifistic preference for the avoidance of conflict. Negotiation was a weapon of war: one that might beget a settlement when combined with a military offensive; one that would certainly bring vital intelligence; and, crucially in this phase of the crusade, one that offered an opportunity to sow dissension among the ranks of Islam.


Philip II depicted arriving in Palestine.

The Siege of Acre was the first major confrontation of the Third Crusade.

Even before leaving Jaffa, Richard entered into an intensive period of communication with al-Adil between 18 and 23 October. Initially, the king set out to gauge the enemy’s attitude towards Jerusalem. He wanted to explore the possibility that Saladin might relinquish possession of a city that Richard bluntly stated ‘is the centre of our worship which we shall never renounce, even if there were only one of us left’. But al-Adil conveyed an unequivocal response from the sultan, emphasising Islam’s own reverence for the Holy City and urging the Lionheart ‘not to imagine that we shall give it up, for we are unable to breathe a word of that amongst the Muslims’.

Richard then made an audacious change of tack – one that surprised his adversaries at the time and still confounds modern historians to this day. The king had already made a point of cultivating an amicable relationship with al-Adil, apparently describing him as ‘my brother and my friend’ in conversation. He now took the far grander step of proposing an extraordinary marriage alliance between Latin Christendom and Islam, in which al-Adil would be wed to Richard’s own sister, Joanne. This union would form the basis of a peace agreement in which ‘the sultan should give to al-Adil all the coastal lands that he held and make him king of [Palestine]’, with Jerusalem to serve ‘as the seat of [the royal couple’s] realm’. This new polity would remain part of Saladin’s empire, but Christians would be given free access to the Holy City. Al-Adil and Joanne would command the region’s castles, while the Christian Military Orders would take control of its villages. The pact would be sealed by an exchange of prisoners and the return of the True Cross. With a flourish of seeming magnanimity, the Lionheart proclaimed that the acceptance of this deal would bring the crusade to an immediate end and prompt his return to the West.

Because this offer was not recorded in any surviving contemporary Christian source (being mentioned only in Arabic texts) it is difficult accurately to assess how such an apparently outrageous arrangement might have been greeted by Richard’s Frankish compatriots. The Lionheart seems to have kept the entire affair a closely guarded secret, even initially from his sister, but whether he took the whole idea seriously, or whether it was merely intended as a ruse, remains uncertain. What is clear is that al-Adil viewed it as a genuine proposal. In diplomatic terms, Richard’s proposition possessed a masterful subtlety. Alive to the potential tensions between Saladin and al-Adil – the latter’s position as trusted brother being balanced by the threat he posed to the sultan’s son and heir – the English king made an offer that al-Adil could not ignore, but one that could also make him appear to be harbouring personal ambitions. Acutely aware of this implication, al-Adil refused to convey the news of Richard’s scheme to Saladin in person, instead deputising Baha al-Din, instructing him to speak with strict caution.

Saladin actually agreed to the terms, although he may have believed that Richard would never go through with the plan and was merely trying to ‘mock and deceive him’. Certainly, within a few days the Lionheart sent news that his sister would be unable to marry a Muslim and now suggested that al-Adil should convert to Christianity, leaving ‘the door open for negotiations’.

A few weeks later, with the Third Crusade now grinding out its advance on Judea, Richard once again requested a parley. He and al-Adil met in an opulently appointed tent, pitched just beyond the Muslim front line at Ramla, on 8 November 1191. The atmosphere was almost convivial. The pair exchanged ‘foods, luxuries and presents’, tasting delicacies from their respective cultures; Richard asked to hear some Arabic music and a female musician was duly ushered in to entertain him with singing and the playing of a harp. Having talked through the day, ‘they parted’, in the words of one Muslim witness, ‘in amity and good spirits as firm friends’, even though the Lionheart’s repeated requests for a direct meeting with Saladin were declined.

Now, for the first time, the king’s negotiations with the enemy became public knowledge in the crusader camp, prompting considerable criticism. One Christian eyewitness noted that Richard and al-Adil ‘seemed to develop a sort of mutual friendship’, exchanging gifts including seven camels and an excellent tent. The general feeling among the Franks appears to have been that this diplomacy was ill advised. The Lionheart was said to have been fooled by the façade of generosity and goodwill into delaying the advance on Jerusalem – an error ‘for which he was much blamed and much criticised’ – and outmanoeuvred by Saladin’s brother, who ‘trapped the overly credulous king with his shrewdness’. This notion of Richard as a befuddled pawn, manipulated by the devious political operator al-Adil, does not match up with the depiction of the Lionheart as a diplomat by Muslim sources. Indeed, the Mosuli chronicler Ibn al-Athir openly praised Richard, noting that ‘the king [met with al-Adil] as a skilful stratagem’.

In fact, the English king seems to have been a wily negotiator. A different man might have felt stymied by Saladin’s continued refusal of direct dialogue, but Richard sought to turn this factor to his advantage. On 9 November he sent the sultan an artful message, capitalising on the concessions made weeks earlier: ‘You have said that you granted these coastal lands to your brother. I want you to be an arbitrator between him and me and to divide these lands between [us].’ The Christians would need ‘some hold on Jerusalem’, but he wanted there to ‘be no blame on [al-Adil] from the Muslims and none on me from the Franks’. Richard’s rather devious underlying intention was to shift the whole basis of the negotiations, encouraging Saladin to think of himself as a magnanimous arbitrator and not an arch-opponent. At least some of the sultan’s advisers ‘were greatly impressed by this approach.

In the field of diplomatic machination, however, Saladin was, at the very least, Richard’s equal. Throughout the autumn, the sultan had been in contact with Conrad of Montferrat, a fact he made no effort to hide from the Lionheart – indeed, Conrad’s envoy even occasionally ‘went riding with al-Adil, observing the Franks as the Muslims engaged them in battle’, a spectacle which, it was believed, prompted the English king to redouble his own efforts at negotiation. Looking to exploit the rift between Richard and the marquis, Saladin pushed for a ‘show of open hostility to the Franks from overseas’, promising that if Conrad attacked crusader-held Acre he would be rewarded with an independent principality including Beirut and Sidon. The sultan juggled the negotiations with Richard and Conrad with panache, even lodging their respective envoys in different parts of his camp on the same day, all the while aiming, in the words of one of his advisers, ‘to cause dissension amongst them’.

By 11 November, however, with the crusaders now threatening Ramla, Saladin was willing to deal in earnest. He assembled his counsellors to debate the relative merits of forging a truce with Conrad or Richard. The marquis’ strength was certainly growing – he now had the backing of much of the nobility of the former Latin kingdom – but, ultimately, he was deemed less reliable than the Lionheart. Instead, the council backed an agreement with the English king based on an equitable division of Palestine that would see al-Adil and Joanne married and Christian ‘priests in the shrines and churches of Jerusalem’. In the end, perhaps believing that he had Saladin backed into a corner, Richard responded to this significant offer with prevarication. For the union to be permissible, he argued, the pope would have to give his blessing and this would take three months. Even as the message was being delivered the Lionheart was readying his troops to advance on Ramla and beyond.

To take the HOLY CITY

By early November 1191 the work to refortify the region around Yasur had been completed. Richard took the next step towards Jerusalem on 15 November, moving the crusader army forward to a position between Lydda and Ramla. Saladin retreated before him, leaving the two settlements – their defences shattered – to the Franks and, in the weeks that followed, he moved back first to Latrun and then, around 12 December, took refuge in Jerusalem itself. Although Muslim forces continued to harry the Latins throughout this period, in some sense at least the path to the gates of the Holy City was now open.

But even as his men hurriedly sought to rebuild Ramla, the Lionheart had to confront a new enemy: winter. On the open plain, its onset brought a ferocious change in the weather. Lashed by driving rain, freezing in plummeting temperatures, the crusaders spent six miserable weeks stockpiling food and weapons at Ramla, securing the supply line back to Jaffa, before inching their way forward first to Latrun, and then on to reach the small dismantled fortress near Beit Nuba, at the foot of the Judean hills, soon after Christmas. They were now just twelve miles from Jerusalem.

Conditions within the army that December were appalling. One eyewitness wrote:

It was cold and overcast . . . Rain and hail battered us, bringing down our tents. We lost so many horses at Christmas and both before and after, so many biscuits were wasted, soggy with water, so much salt pork went bad in the storms; hauberks rusted so that they could hardly be cleaned; clothes rotted; people suffered from malnourishment so that they were in great distress.

And yet, by all accounts, morale among the ordinary soldiers was high. After long months, and in some cases years, of struggle, they were now practically within sight of their goal. ‘They had an indescribable yearning to see the city of Jerusalem and complete their pilgrimage’, noted one Latin contemporary, while a crusader in the army recalled, ‘no one was angry or sad . . . everywhere was joy and happiness and [everyone] said together “God, now we are going on the right way, guided by Your grace.”’ Enduring commitment to the cause of the holy war seems to have inspired them, even amidst the anguish of a winter campaign. Like their crusading forefathers back in 1099, they were now ready, desperate even, to besiege the Holy City, regardless of the risk and privation involved.

The question was whether King Richard shared their fervour. As the new year of 1192 began, he had a crucial decision to make. The crusade had taken almost two months to advance just thirty miles towards Jerusalem. The line of communication with the coast still held but was subject to near-daily Muslim raids. Mounting a siege of the city in these conditions, in the bitter heart of winter, would be a mammoth undertaking and a huge gamble. And yet, the bulk of the Latin army clearly expected that an assault would be made.

Around 10 January, the Lionheart convened a council to debate the best course of action. Its shocking conclusion was that the Third Crusade should retreat from Beit Nuba, turning its back on Jerusalem. Officially it was said that a powerful lobby of Templars, Hospitallers and Latin barons native to the Levant persuaded Richard. The dangers of undertaking a siege while Saladin still possessed a field army were too severe, they argued, and anyway, the Franks lacked the manpower adequately to garrison the Holy City even if it did, by some miracle, fall. ‘[These] wiser men were not of the opinion that they should acquiesce in the common people’s rash desires [to besiege Jerusalem]’, recalled one contemporary, and instead they advised that the expedition ‘should return and fortify Ascalon’, cutting Saladin’s supply line between Palestine and Egypt. In truth, the king probably packed the council with those sympathetic to his own views and knew only too well what its recommendations would be. For now, at least, Richard was not willing to stake the fate of the entire holy war on the outcome of so hazardous a campaign. On 13 January he broadcast the order to retire from Beit Nuba.

This was an earth-shattering pronouncement, but in recent scholarship Richard’s decision has been viewed in a positive light. Championed by the likes of John Gillingham as an astute general whose decision making was governed by martial reality and not pious fantasy, the Lionheart has been widely praised for his cautious strategy. Hans Mayer, for example, concluded that ‘in view of Saladin’s tactics, [Richard’s decision] was the right one’.

In fact, the truth of the matter will never be known. One crusader eyewitness later concluded that the Franks missed an enormous opportunity to capture Jerusalem because they did not appreciate ‘the distress, the suffering and the weakness’ of the Muslim forces garrisoning the city, and to an extent he was right. Struggling to maintain his exhausted troops in the field, Saladin had been forced to disband the majority of his army after 12 December, leaving the Holy City dangerously undermanned. Ten days passed before Abu’l Haija the Fat arrived with Egyptian reinforcements. Throughout this period a decisive and determined move to assault Jerusalem might have broken Saladin’s will, fracturing his already fragile hold over the Muslim alliance and plunging Near Eastern Islam into disarray. On balance, however, Richard was probably right to forgo such a massive gamble.

Even so, the Lionheart should not escape reproach for his conduct in this phase of the crusade. To date, historians have ignored a fundamental feature of his decision making. If, in January 1192, it was so obvious to Richard’s military advisers and probably to the king himself that the Holy City was unconquerable and untenable, why had that same reality not been apparent months earlier, before the crusade ever left Jaffa? The king – the supposed master of military science – should surely have recognised in October 1191 that Jerusalem was a near-impossible military target and one that could never be retained. Writing in the early thirteenth century, Ibn al-Athir tried to reconstruct the Lionheart’s thinking at Beit Nuba. He conjured up a scene in which Richard asked to see a map of the Holy City; once aware of its topography, the king supposedly concluded that Jerusalem could not be taken while Saladin still commanded a field army. But this is little more than an imaginative reconstruction. Richard’s character and experience suggest that he would carefully have assembled the fullest possible picture of strategic intelligence before mounting the advance from Jaffa.

The Lionheart probably set foot on the road to Jerusalem in late October 1191 with little or no intention of actually prosecuting an attack on the city. This means that his advance was effectively a feint – the military component of a combined offensive in which a show of martial aggression augmented intensive diplomatic contact. Richard sought that autumn and winter to test Saladin’s resolve and resources, but was ever ready to step back from the brink if a clear opportunity for victory failed to materialise. In all this, the king acted according to the best precepts of medieval generalship, but he failed to account for the distinct nature of crusading warfare.

The impact of the retreat upon Christian morale and the overall prospects of the crusade were catastrophic. Even Ambroise, the Lionheart’s vocal supporter, acknowledged that:

[When] it was realised that the army was to turn back (let it not be called retreat), then was the army, which had been so eager in its advance, so discouraged, that not since God created time was there ever seen an army so dejected and so depressed . . . Nothing remained of the joy they had had before when they were to go to the [Holy] Sepulchre . . . Everyone cursed the day he was born.

Now a stunned and bedraggled rabble, the army limped back to Ramla. From there, depression and disillusionment ripped the expedition apart. Hugh of Burgundy and many of the French decamped. Some returned to Jaffa, others went off to Acre, where food and earthly comforts were plentiful. Richard was left to lead a severely weakened force south-west to Ascalon.

The First Crusade

There was curiously little pacifism in the High Middle Ages. St Augustine, already by the fourth century, had formulated a theory of just war (bellum justum), and subsequent clerics interwove his theory into a wider ideology of Christian kingship. The ideal Christian king tried to avoid war or, if war was unavoidable, tried to find honourable ways to re-establish peace (‘Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God’, Matthew 5:9). The Christian prince whose lands were invaded without legitimate reason or whose subjects were imperilled by the forces of a rival prince or by rebellion would necessarily use war as an instrument of policy and could do so legitimately.

War had rules – in time this elaborate set of rules became known as chivalry. In the late eleventh century, it was widely accepted in elite circles that non-combatants were not licit targets, unless they were spies or harboured or supplied the enemy. Under special protection were those considered as the most vulnerable non-combatants: women and children in general, but especially widows and orphans, as well as priests, monks, nuns, the aged and the infirm.

The just wars of the biblical past, for which the book of Joshua provided textual proof, openly received the blessing of God. Had He not made the sun stand still so that Joshua’s victory might be assured? (Joshua 10:12). In the most extreme statement of the case, it was said that wars against non-believers who had attacked the people of God were waged by the direct will of God. Apart from direct illumination from the Almighty, how better to determine the will of God than to have a priest, preferably the high priest, sanctify the war?

Jesus’s rebuke to Peter, who tried to defend him when he was being taken prisoner in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion, was the proof here: ‘Put up thy sword into the sheath’ (Matthew 26:52). The sword of physical retribution was not to be wielded by the spiritual descendants of St Peter – the clergy – but lordship over the sword still remained with the clergy: ‘Put up thy sword.’ It therefore rested with the Church, according to some ecclesiastical theorists, to determine how and under what conditions secular rulers could legitimately unsheathe and wield the sword of physical retribution. This was not in conflict with the older ‘doctrine of the two swords’ – one, spiritual (humiliation, malediction, excommunication, interdict), to be employed by the Church to coerce open but recalcitrant sinners; the other, temporal (physical force), to be employed by secular rulers. Rather, it clarified the traditional doctrine of the two swords by explaining the Church’s superintendence of temporal authority.

There was a centuries-old liturgy of war that emphasized certain other aspects of the intimate relationship between the clergy and righteous military violence. Ideally there was general fasting before battles were waged, and the clergy present in the entourage of the army celebrated votive masses, asking for victory and promising eternal devotion to God. The priests blessed the commanders and their troops and gave sermons of exhortation, the spiritual equivalent of the secular commanders’ harangues. They led the faithful in hymns and responsive readings like Psalm 20 (Vulgate 19), with the famous verse, ‘Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God. They are brought down and fallen: but we are risen, and stand upright.’

Also drawing on the stories in the biblical Book of Joshua of the conquest of the Promised Land, the clergy and the commanders commemorated victory, suggestive if not self-evident testimony, when and if it came, of the justness of their cause. They did so in part by following the example of the ancient Hebrews, who, at God’s command, despoiled their beaten enemies during the conquest of the Promised Land (e.g., Joshua 8: 26–27). They also obliged the army to hear mass, to rededicate itself to the vows of devotion with which the soldiers had prepared for battle, and to honour the weapons of war in the cult of military relics.

So, already in the eleventh century elite thinkers and other high-born people knew what a just war was and how it should be fought, even if they did not live up to their ideals. The Peace and Truce of God had done much to disseminate and popularize some of these ideals, but a particular set of events in the late eleventh century helped to create a more remarkable type of just and holy war – the crusade.

There was, it has been argued, a significant strain of millenarian feeling in eleventh-century western European society. This was perhaps slightly more characteristic of the earlier part of the century, but it may be that millennial and apocalyptic movements of a more or less popular character were in train throughout the century. The idea of a decisive colossal confrontation between the forces of good and the servants of evil was at the prophetic centre of several of these movements.

Jerusalem and its liberation, and more particularly the deliverance of the Holy Sepulchre, the Tomb of Christ, from pagan domination, loomed large in apocalyptic discourse. (In the eleventh and into the twelfth century Christians in northern Europe tended to regard Muslims as pagans.) Jerusalem was being used as a first name for girls in the West (Riley-Smith, 1997, p. 33), evidence of the penetration of its image into popular consciousness; and pilgrimages to Jerusalem from the West, relatively uncommon from the seventh to the tenth century, began to increase in frequency in the tenth. They became fairly common in the eleventh and also on occasion enormously large. In 1054, one band of such pilgrims numbered 3,000. Seven thousand Germans are said to have joined together to make the Jerusalem pilgrimage in 1064–5.

Reports of various Muslim victories over Near Eastern and Spanish Christians and of the gestures that sometimes followed fuelled the smouldering hatred and desire for vengeance by western Catholics. In October 1086, the Muslim victors at the battle of Sagrajas in Spain had the heads of the Christian victims gathered up into wagons and in a gruesome procession the wagons made their way down the peninsula and thence through North Africa with their rotting trophies. Pope Gregory VII himself, a decade or so before, seems to have envisaged the papacy’s retainers, the fideles of St Peter, as a possible army, to be accompanied by him, for delivering eastern Christians from the onslaught of their Muslim enemies and also for redeeming Jerusalem. Because of the Investiture Controversy and perhaps lingering doubts about the appropriateness of direct papal involvement in fighting, the fantasy never became reality, and important features of genuine crusade ideology, such as the penitential vow of the troops, were lacking in his vision, but Gregory’s musings helped inspire and sustain other images of a just war of liberation in reform circles.

After his election in 1088, and being obliged to vie with the imperial anti-pope Clement III for backing, Pope Urban II cast about for support in numerous ways. In part owing to the Peace Movement a close relationship had emerged between local aristocracies and a number of powerful monasteries, especially in France. Focusing on prayer – the prayers of the monks for the ancestors and living members of these aristocratic lineages – the relationship implicitly and sometimes explicitly raised the hope of these aristocrats’ salvation because of the good work they did in protecting the monastic life, the highest form of the Christian life and, by extension, Christendom in general. In practice, protection was ordinarily achieved by persuasion or the threat of force rather than by the actual use of force against would-be malefactors. But when persuasion and threats failed, the application of force against those who attacked monks and other vulnerable Christians was believed to be righteous in itself.

Force in the service of retributive justice (the bellum justum) was carefully distinguished from the fury and chaos attending ‘petty’ disputes among lords, the acts of internecine violence (guerrae, the origin of our modern word ‘war’) that had plagued the Central Middle Ages and helped excite the Peace Movement in the first place and which were still thickly woven into the fabric of social life in the late eleventh century. But Urban II or one of his advisers, drawing on the legacy of Gregory VII and inspired by pleas for help from eastern Christians, took another decisive step in the development of the idea of the crusade. The same lords who protected monks could protect Christendom east and west by directing their violence against the Muslim invaders and conquerors of the eastern Mediterranean, including the Holy Land.

There is some uncertainty as to the rewards the pope promised these would-be soldiers in his famous sermon at the Council of Clermont in southern France on 27 November 1095. But there is no doubt that the idea of fighting to regain the Holy Sepulchre or to help fellow Christians in the east was in the air and met a genuinely enthusiastic response. Although the mutual excommunications of pope and patriarch of Constantinople in 1054, emphasized so much in traditional interpretations, had exacerbated tensions between the western and eastern churches, they had not set them in malignant combat or reduced all mutual feelings of respect to nothing.

At the Council of Clermont shouts went up of ‘God wills it! God wills it!’ in response to the pope’s words. He appealed to lords and lordlings to put aside their petty strife, which would lead them to hell, and instead to take up the Cross, to offer their lives to save threatened Christians. Would there be sin in killing their enemies in what was clearly conceived of as a just and holy war? No. Would there be remission of sins in some wider sense, a wiping clean of the slate or immediate entrance into paradise if one died in the effort? The pope might have been carried away and uttered ambiguous words on this occasion or on any of the many subsequent occasions on which he gave similar speeches in favour of an expedition to the east. Certainly some of his audience that first day and many others later on believed that faithfully fighting in such an expedition would be rewarded with full forgiveness of all past sins and that death in such fighting was equivalent to martyrdom. Although learned churchmen understood and stressed the penitential nature of crusading, they were far more insistent on the limited nature of the forgiveness that joining or dying on a crusade might entail.

The pope recognized from the moment he addressed the crowds in Clermont that he had touched a well-spring of militant devotion. He continued in future sermons to make the same plea and to urge those lords who responded to make firm plans for an expedition in the spring of 1096. It may well be that some of the enthusiasm at subsequent councils and rallies in late 1095 and early 1096 was scripted, with supporters of the pope’s plan strategically planted in the crowds to get the chanting of ‘God wills it!’ started. It may also be the case that the genuine enthusiasm of the moment sometimes ebbed in the weeks that followed, as lords came to recognize the dangers and expense of the long and otherwise unpredictable journey they were going on. Fear of dying in a far-off place when one’s expectation had been to be buried in the choir of the family church, or at least in Christian soil, troubled their souls. It would later be stipulated that the flesh could be buried but the bones of dead crusaders had to be brought back for separate burial in their native lands.

All these apprehensions notwithstanding, the crusading movement, once started, grew exponentially in territories like France, the southern Low Countries, and those parts of Italy where the legitimacy of Urban’s pontificate was recognized. And, given its later successes, attributed to the intervention of God (He simply worked through the Franks), it raised disturbing questions about the evident lack of imperial sponsorship for the project. Emperor Henry IV was well aware of this, for at one point he offered to join the crusade himself. But as he would not yield on the point of lay investiture, his offer came to nothing.

Pope Urban II encouraged those who took the vow to prepare conscientiously, and the principal leaders, including many Flemish, Rhine-land, northern French and Provençal barons – though in the end no king – ultimately settled on 15 August 1096, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, as the date of departure. However, it was difficult to co-ordinate and control efforts that were taking place all over northwestern Europe, and what is sometimes known as the Peasants’ Crusade or Popular Crusade – the expeditions of several dispersed groups under the leadership of various itinerant preachers and knights – set off in the late spring. A small group at Rouen in Normandy helped set the violent and almost anarchic tone of these early expeditions by massacring several Jews in the city. Another of these groups, somewhat better commanded by a knight known as Walter the Penniless (Sansavoir), left France and travelled through Germany and Hungary, making it to the outskirts of Constantinople by July. A third group, led by the charismatic preacher, Peter the Hermit, arrived there by the end of July, but on their way these poorly disciplined troops provoked any number of bloody and, for them, humbling skirmishes with Hungarian and Byzantine soldiers.

Many of the earliest crusaders never made it, even to Constantinople. The disorder and depredations of one group, whose leader was a priest by the name of Gottschalk, provoked the Hungarians, through whose lands they were marching, to destroy them. An otherwise unknown preacher named Volkmar led his followers to a similar fate in Nitra on the Hungarian border with Bohemia, but only after they had violently attacked the Jews of Prague. The most notorious of the bands was led by the Swabian Count Emich of Flonheim. He and his followers, inspired in part by the desire to loot but mainly, it seems, to force the Jews’ conversion, carried out a series of violent attacks in the Rhineland, repercussions from which would reach down the centuries.

Before they left Germany on their way to the east and were themselves cut down by Hungarian forces, Emich’s men and other bands ravaged the Jewish communities of Speyer, Worms, Mainz, Cologne, Trier, Metz and Regensburg. In some cases, like Mainz, the entire Jewish population of these towns was annihilated; at others (Regensburg is an example) nearly every Jew was forced to convert to Christianity. Even where Christian authorities, especially bishops, intervened to protect the Jews, the situation continued to be ferociously dangerous. Occasionally, for example, Jews were dispersed into the countryside to prevent the crusaders from besieging them en masse, but search parties hunted down the refugees in villages and hamlets. On other occasions, churchmen promised protection at the price of conversion. Most arresting, perhaps, was that in several places Jewish resistance to the crusaders’ demands for conversion assumed the form of voluntary suicide. Many Jewish women led the way, urging the men of their communities to take their own lives rather than convert. Parents also slaughtered their children as a supreme act of devotion.

There had been rare instances of mass suicide earlier in the history of Judaism, but in 1096 and later years rabbis were troubled as to the moral legitimacy of the suicides. In the end, they came to accept them and subsequent ones as legitimate responses to the threat of forced conversion, and generations of poets would celebrate the heroism of the martyr suicides and the martyred children. Many of their names would be inscribed in memorial lists. The poetry celebrating their sacrifice entered the liturgy of the synagogue, so that the memory of the events of 1096 and of the martyrs and victims in later crusades and at other crises would never be forgotten.

Oh, how the children cried aloud!

Trembling, they see their brothers slaughtered;

the mother binding her son, lest he profane the sacrifice by shuddering;

the father making the ritual blessing to sanctify the slaughter.

Compassionate women strangle their own children;

pure virgins shriek bitterly;

brides kiss their bridegrooms farewell –

and all rush eagerly to be slaughtered.

Almighty Lord, dwelling on high,

in days of old the angels cried out to You to put a halt to one sacrifice.

And now, so many are bound and slaughtered –

why do they not clamour over my infants?

(Carmi, 1981, pp. 372–3)

Relations between Christians and Jews were affected in at least one other way by the horrendous incidents of 1096. A fissure developed in the Jewish community between those who seem to have developed a more restricted understanding of proper Jewish life and those who went back to the way of life they knew before. It is probably unfair to see the movement or sect attributed to these hasidim or pietists of the Rhineland only as a reaction to the crusade massacres, but that slaughter must have had an enormous impact in sustaining the rigorous beliefs of those survivors who insisted on a more pious way of living and an even greater avoidance of social and religious contamination by contact with non-pious Jews, let alone Christians. The sect disappeared in time; its ideas, embedded in an important body of texts, especially the Sefer Hasidim (‘Book of the Pious’), have repeatedly inspired revival movements among European Jews.


Although most of the contingents of the Peasants’ Crusade never reached Constantinople, those commanded by Walter the Penniless and Peter the Hermit did. The Byzantine emperor, Alexius, and his commanders were suspicious of these rag-tag troops and, rather than have them bivouac for a protracted length of time on the outskirts of the imperial capital, they transported them across the straits to Asia Minor on 6 August. There the crusaders split into several groups, largely along linguistic lines. A few early raids were successful, but a large band of German crusaders was isolated and defeated near Nicea and forced to convert to Islam and be deported eastwards or, if they refused, to die. By 21 October, the main body of crusaders, chastened by the slaughter of their comrades but still not coordinating their operations competently, and with relatively ineffective military intelligence, came face to face with overwhelming Turkish forces and were annihilated.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, the Princely Crusade was in the final stages of preparation. Powerful aristocrats commanded the various units, and in each case the commander knew that his retinue had honed their skills in battles at home. Long-standing and strong personal loyalties bound many of the units as well. It is a myth that the crusaders were composed of landless young knights; they tended to be mature and experienced men who left considerable properties behind. The prominence of loyalty among these warriors did not mean that there was always harmony within the units or that the various units themselves coordinated their efforts effectively. Nevertheless, there was a military ethos that informed the Princely Crusade in a way that it did not the Peasants’ Crusade. Moreover, the new units were relatively better supplied than their predecessors. Partly this was because the great aristocrats had much more cash and credit at their disposal to buy equipment and other supplies. Partly, however, it was a matter of timing: having departed at a later date, the new crusaders had more liberty to plan, while also having the opportunity to benefit from the harvests of 1096.

The chief princes and their crusader retinues began to arrive in Constantinople in November and continued to arrive until May 1097, and were steadily ferried across the Bosporus in anticipation of engagement. Most of the commanders promised that, if they were successful, those lands they conquered which had once been part of the Byzantine Empire would revert to the Empire, a necessary concession if Byzantine troops were to complement their efforts, as in fact they did for a time. According to the best estimates, the crusade could count on more than 40,000 troops.

This enormous army appeared at Nicea on 19 June and overawed the Turkish garrison, which surrendered to the Byzantines. A week later, the crusaders set out for the interior and on 1 July defeated additional Turkish forces at Dorylaeum. Forty-eight hours later they resumed their march, traversing city after city of interior Asia Minor in the weeks that followed, but eventually encountering another major Turkish force at Ereghli in early September. Here, too, the crusading army crushed their enemies and sent the remnants packing.

Two of the leading commanders, Baldwin of Boulogne and a mercurial baron, Tancred, the son of Robert Guiscard, then took contingents eastwards and south-eastwards, where they accomplished the reconquest of the coastal cities of Anatolia, including Tarsus, which they knew as St Paul’s birthplace. Baldwin followed up this success with the conquest of Edessa and, after supplanting its Armenian prince, he set up the first crusader principality there. Pressure was then put on the temperamental Tancred to rejoin the main crusader army, which was engaged in the long siege of Antioch from 21 October 1097 until June 1098.

The successful conclusion of the siege, with only the Muslim garrison of the citadel still holding out, led to the occupation of Antioch, but a few days later a large number of Turkish reinforcements arrived and surrounded the occupied city. At this point, a Byzantine army in reserve a few miles from Antioch and under the direct command of Emperor Alexius might have saved the situation, but the emperor’s military intelligence overstated the size of the Turkish forces and the significance of their early successes. The Byzantines therefore withdrew.

Out of this desperate situation arose the first great sequence of events that would mark the crusade – in the crusaders’ minds at least – as undeniably God’s work. Visionaries among the besieged claimed to have received comfort and inspiration personally from Jesus. The Blessed Virgin’s appearance was reported, as were the appearances of St Andrew and St Peter. And, miracle of miracles, thanks to a poor peasant, a lance was found under the floor of the Cathedral of Antioch which was said to be, though not everyone at first credited the tale, the lance with which the centurion had stabbed the dead Christ on the Cross (John 19:34). The Holy Lance, regarded as a relic, was interpreted as a sign for the crusaders to abandon the relative safety of Antioch’s defences and confront the Turks directly. On 28 June, they did just that. Completely surprised and unnerved by the crusaders’ daring, the Turks fled. Equally surprised by the failure of the Muslim army, the citadel garrison, which until that moment had courageously held out, also surrendered to the crusaders. Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians, was now entirely in crusader hands.

The crusaders believed that such success, like finding the Holy Lance itself, was a sign from God, but success also bred strife. The treachery of the Byzantine emperor, as some of the crusaders conceived it, relieved them of the necessity of honouring their promise to return all conquered lands to his authority. Other commanders demurred at forswearing their solemn oaths. Presently disease afflicted the army, felling some of its most gifted commanders and decimating the ranks. But despite this, the bickering persisted: as they continued to debate future plans, what was and was not pleasing to God became painfully and dangerously uncertain.

By January 1099 many of the rank and file were rallying around lesser lords, who intended to bring order to the army by compelling dissident commanders, by force if necessary, to put aside their disagreements and resume the march. Force was necessary, it turned out (in the guise of an attack on the fortifications of Raymond of Saint-Gilles, who favoured holding to the agreement with the Byzantines), but it was followed by a sobering rededication to the expedition. By February most of what was left of the army was on the move, traversing Lebanon and reaching Palestine in May. On 6 June Tancred conquered Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, and on 7 June the bulk of the army began the siege of Jerusalem. There were now approximately 15,000 troops left to do so.

They moved more quickly than they had at Antioch to end the siege, storming the city on 15 July. The frenzy of the assault and the slaughter were of epic proportions, as the crusaders took control.

Many of the Saracens [Muslims] who had climbed to the top of the Temple of Solomon in their flights were shot to death with arrows and fell headlong from the roof. Nearly ten thousand were beheaded in this Temple. If you had been there your feet would have been stained to the ankles in the blood of the slain. What shall I say? None of them were left alive. Neither women nor children were spared. (Fulcher of Chartres, 1969, pp. 121–2).

A week later the victors elected Godfrey of Bouillon as ruler – not king – of Jerusalem: Jesus was king. But they had learned something from the experience at Antioch. The Muslims would undoubtedly send another force to try to retake Jerusalem, and indeed an enormous Egyptian force invaded Palestine in August. But on the twelfth of the month, crusader forces surprised the Egyptians near Ascalon, on the Mediterranean coast about fifty miles west of the Holy City, and utterly destroyed them.

The First Crusade had reached its emotional high point, and it is customary to claim that the crusade more or less ended at this moment. The setting up of principalities and the evolution of political and religious life proceeded apace, but these hardly appeared to be aspects of the crusade itself. In fact, the crusade was far from over. For the next twenty years, men streamed into the Holy Land and fought any number of actions in the extraordinary attempt to stabilize, expand and territorially consolidate the Crusader States. These actions were the necessary coda of the more spectacular conquest of Jerusalem and are properly considered part of the First Crusade. What this almost continuous warfare ensured was that the political institutions and social arrangements of the Crusader States would be skewed. What has sometimes been said of Spain in the era of the Reconquest can be said even more accurately of the Crusader States: they constituted a society organized almost solely according to the exigencies of war.

One of the more distinctive features of this society was the presence of military orders, well-organized associations of devout Christians who cared for and provided protection for pilgrims, nursed the sick, and ultimately took an active part in the military defence of the Crusader States. Groups of people dedicated to the nursing of pilgrims probably existed before 1099, but there were dramatic increases in the numbers of Christian pilgrims to the Holy City from the time of the Christian reconquest onwards. Pilgrims to Jerusalem characteristically, if not exclusively, were aged or sick; they came to the city not for miraculous cures but in order to die where Christ had died. It was in part due to the pressure of such numbers that the people ministering to them organized themselves into formal orders. The earliest of these seems to have been the Order of St John of Jerusalem, known more familiarly as the Hospitallers. The Order of the Temple of Solomon or Knights Templars came into being in 1119–20, originally to guard the pilgrimage routes.

The Hospitallers ran the great pilgrim hospital in the Holy City, sometimes employing Jewish and Muslim physicians to help minister to the sick. The hospital accepted both Muslims and Jews who needed care. Orphans of war and abandoned children were taken in and put in the charge of female nurses; when they came of age they were invited to join the Order. But, as was typical of the military orders, the Hospitallers, while never losing their original function, came more and more to be identified as a fighting force. The Order’s great hospital, perhaps 1,000 beds or more, was often filled with the wounded from its own battles.

The military orders, in their mature form, came to be composed of knights who took monastic vows and vowed celibacy, priests who carried out the spiritual functions of the order, sergeants from lesser social backgrounds, and nuns who helped nurse women and children and who prayed for the success of the Christian mission. They were international orders who owed direct obedience to the pope and were supported by houses established throughout Europe which both sent funds to the orders in the Holy Land and provided venues for the retirement of older members of the orders. Their work, in the heroic age following the conquest of Jerusalem, was deeply admired. To St Bernard, who wrote in praise of the Templars, they represented a new order of Christian knighthood. King Alfonso I of Navarre and Aragon (d. 1131) wanted to give one-third of his kingdom to the Hospitallers to carry on their work.


The news in Christendom of the fall of Jerusalem and the good work of devoted Christians confirmed, more than almost anything else could, the spirit of renewal that had been articulated in the efforts at papal and popular reform. Of the crusaders who lived and returned home to Europe, few came back rich, and the difficult local conditions that had arisen on their estates during their absence often demanded extraordinary efforts at peacekeeping and restoration on their part. All of these men had lost kinsmen and good friends in great numbers in the deserts and plains of the Near East. Nonetheless, those who returned relished recalling their adventures – stories of their suffering and courage that grew in the retelling into wondrous tales of inspiration for generations to come.

Those who had failed to go on the expedition felt all the more need to prove themselves as time went by. But the specialness of having gone on the First Crusade was never lost. Families assiduously preserved the memory of the participation of their ancestors. Other families who could not count an ancestor on the expedition found it difficult to explain why this was so, since nobility and the defence of Christendom were so closely related in the aristocratic imagination. As time passed, some of these lineages ‘invented’ ancestral participants in the First Crusade by clever misreadings, whether deliberate or inadvertent, of original chronicle reports (Murray, 1998, pp. 38–54). Surely, it might be said, if the family of so-and-so had gone off to war in the East with a great entourage, and this family was closely connected to one’s own, then it was only natural and right to suppose that in that entourage one’s own kinfolk could be numbered. To have served Christendom in this, allegedly the most righteous of its wars, was the crowning achievement of nobility.