Damascus and the Early Campaigns of the Templars, 1129–47

The strategic importance of Damascus cannot be overstated. Nestled in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains in south-western Syria, this famous ancient fortified city found itself in the crusader period hovering menacingly over the narrowest part of the Outremer states. Based just 50 miles from the Mediterranean Sea, a well-organised Damascene army could conceivably cut supply and communication links between the Kingdom of Jerusalem to the south and the County of Tripoli to the north. Baldwin II and the Templars must have been aware of the threat.

Fulk and his party of crusaders arrived in Acre in May 1129. The Muslim commentator Ibn al-Qalanisi noted that the Franks at this time had been ‘reinforced also from the sea by the King Count . . . having with him a vast host’. Fulk’s arrival coincided with two recent strokes of fortune. In February 1128 Tughtigin, Atabeg of Damascus had passed away and was replaced by his less competent son Buri. Buri had decided to rid himself of a thorn in his side, the Assassins. The Assassins were an Ismaili sect whose arrival some years earlier in Damascus did not sit well with the Sunni Muslim population of the town. In 1126 Tughtigin had handed the Assassin leader Bahram of Asterabad control of Banyas, the frontier fortress from where the Assassins intimidated the people of the region. Bahram was succeeded by a Persian named Ismail. Buri, following up on Tughtigin’s growing impatience with the Assassins orchestrated a purge of the Assassins in September 1129 starting in Damascus with the murder of the Assassins’ nominal protector and supporter, the vizier al Mazdaghani. Riots ensued around the city and Ismail, nervously observing events from Banyas, went straight to the Franks with an offer. They could have Banyas if they would provide Ismail with protection.

Baldwin arrived with his reinforced army at Banyas in November 1129. The site provided the perfect springboard for the planned campaign against Damascus. He marched to a place called the Wooden Bridge just 6 miles to the south-west of Damascus. With him were the Count of Tripoli, the Count of Edessa, the Prince of Antioch and almost certainly a contingent of Templars. Buri placed his army between the crusaders and the city and waited. The standoff lasted several days until on the crusader side, William of Bures’s forces were caught whilst foraging. They had gone 20 miles south of the Frankish camp to a place called Mergisafar. They were initially large in number but split their forces into smaller and smaller detachments. Command and control seems to have been lost as William of Tyre recounts how the Franks of lesser ranks simply pleased themselves in an ill-disciplined search for booty. They were overwhelmed by Turcomen cavalry, who took advantage of a superior knowledge of the landscape. With no chance of regaining cohesion, even the well-disciplined knights who had been sent out with the foragers to guard them were slain. The defeat was ignominious. William and forty-five of his comrades survived to bring the unfortunate news to the king. The king however, wanted quick revenge and wished to catch Buri whilst his forces were preoccupied celebrating. The order was given to advance against the Muslims. Ibn al-Qalanisi says that there was terror in the hearts of the Muslim forces at this development which was followed by feelings of great relief when a huge rain storm began to turn the plain into a sea of mud with huge rivers cutting through the trackways. ‘Against the will of divine power, the purposes of man can make no progress’, commented William of Tyre. With a heavy heart the crusaders turned back to Banyas and from there to Palestine before dispersing. Opportunities to move against Damascus were rare. In 1126 even after his victory at A’zaz the king had only managed to raid the vicinity of the city. Now, in 1129 with a large force, the elements had conspired against him. In the long term, this failure of the crusaders to take Damascus would have dramatic consequences.

We cannot be sure if Hugh of Payns’ men were amongst those appointed to guard the foragers at Mergisafar, but given Hugh’s purpose and mission at this time and his close links to the king, it seems likely that his forces were involved in the Damascus campaign. It is perhaps worth noting an English source, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in the entry for 1129, which has something more to say after it records Hugh’s visit to Britain that year. ‘Little came of it’ says the chronicler, referring to Hugh’s enticement of western warriors from Britain: ‘He [Hugh of Payns] said that a great battle was set between the Christians and the heathen; then when they came there, it was nothing but lies; thus all the people became wretchedly afflicted.’ If the Templars’ role in the Damascus campaign is enigmatic, then the lack of a mention of the Templars for the next six or seven years is more so. We are on surer ground, however, with evidence of papal support for the order at the Council of Pisa in 1135. This council was called by Pope Innocent II in the face of a challenge against his authority from Anacletus II of Rome. The result of Innocent’s gratitude for the support of Bernard of Clairvaux (and by association that of the Templars) during this schism was clear. Although not able to return to Rome until 1138 on his rival’s death, Innocent, with the wide support of the Frankish clergy, was able to reward the Templars with a mark of gold each year. His chancellor Aimeric provided 2 ounces of gold and each of the archbishops, bishops and ‘other good men’ a mark of silver.

Hugh died in around 1136, presumably content that his order was in the ascendancy. His successor as Grand Master was Robert of Craon, a courageous military man and great organiser. Whether the recent financial injection had anything to do with an increasing military profile for the order is not clear. However, the Templars are to be found performing a new strategic role in the Amanus Mountains between 1136 and 1137. The armies of the First Crusade had marched into Syria from south-eastern Cilicia via the Belen Pass about 16 miles north of Antioch. This was a well-trodden path used for centuries by many great commanders. At some stage in the middle of the 1130s the defence of the pass, also known as the ‘Syrian Gates’, was entrusted to the Templars in the form of the fortified site at Gaston (also known as Baghras. But this was not the only pass into Syria. Also entrusted to the Templars was the defence of the Hajar Shuglan Pass situated north of Alexandretta (Iskenderun). The key castles in this more northerly Hajar Shuglan Pass were La Roche Roussel (Chilvan), which dominated its surroundings from an impressive height of 1,200m above sea level, and the unlocated La Roche Guillaume (which may be identical with the site postulated as that of Roche Roussel. Situated between the eastern approaches of both passes sat another Templar castle at Darbsak. Also, in around 1137 the Templars took possession of Port Bonnel on the Gulf of Ayas. The practical consequence of controlling these fortified sites must have been a further boost in the income of the order, for a castle economically as well as militarily dominates its landscape and the advantages of controlling a sea port are obvious to all.

Hundreds of miles to the south at the other end of Outremer, in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the recently militarised Hospitallers were the first order to be granted an important strategic castle at Bethgibelin. Here, the intention of the new King Fulk (who had succeeded Baldwin II and ruled along with his new wife Melisende from 1131) was to threaten Fatimid Egyptian Ascalon. Bethgibelin would soon work alongside the castles of Blanchegarde and Ibelin in the 1140s to both protect the kingdom from Fatimid raids from Ascalon and to provide springboards for offensive operations. The Templars would later be awarded the castle at Gaza as part of the same strategic plan between 1149 and 1150. However, before this they had been awarded the castle of Latrun, otherwise known as Toron des Chevaliers, guarding the road to Jerusalem from Jaffa between 1137 and 1141. This huge castle had been expanded into a larger keep and outer works from an earlier small tower by Count Rodrigo Gonzalez of Toledo whilst he was in the Holy Land on crusade according to the Chronica Aldefonsi imperatoris, a Castilian chronicle. When he had completed it Gonzalez garrisoned and equipped it and gave it to the Templars. It was again expanded later in its history. As for the reasons behind its early establishment we might surmise that the protection of pilgrims had a part to play, but the threat from Ascalon would appear to have dominated the thinking of Rodrigo Gonzalez and his successors.

As the Templars began to occupy these strategic strongholds and continued to perform their role of escorting and protecting pilgrims, there is further evidence of military activity. This time, the action centres on the County of Tripoli and the Templars’ earliest recorded contact with Zengi, Atabeg of Mosul (to which he ascended in 1127) and of Aleppo. Zengi was a much celebrated leader in the Muslim accounts. He represented a new breed of Muslim ruler whose military and political expertise would overcome the disunity of the first few decades of the twelfth century and provide a formidable foe for the leaders of the Outremer states. Early in 1137 Count Pons of Tripoli was killed after being betrayed by Christian villagers to the forces of an aggressive new ruler called Basawash at Damascus. Zengi distrusted the new regime in Damascus and set about besieging Homs which was under Damascene control. For two weeks he camped before the fortification, but on hearing that Pons’s son, the new Count Raymond II of Tripoli, was heading towards him, Zengi raised the siege of Homs and turned his attention to the newly arrived Franks. The result was that Raymond retired in the face of the threat and Zengi headed to the castle at Montferrand (Bar’in) on the eastern side of the Nosairi hills. Originally captured by the Franks in 1115, lost and again retaken in 1126, this castle had great strategic value. Zengi knew that if he could take it he could prevent the Franks of Tripoli from penetrating up the Orontes Valley and thereby allow for Zengi to increase his hold upon Homs and Hama.

Raymond II appealed to King Fulk for help. Fulk headed north with all he could gather which was less than he might have wanted, but which included a force of Templars. Their march was troubled. Many were in a poor state as they weaved their way through the Nosairi foothills. Zengi, who had distanced himself from the king’s forces, on hearing the news about their condition, closed in on them. The Christians were heavily defeated. The Anglo-Norman historian Orderic Vitalis was moved to record it like this:

Countless thousands of the Pagans fell, but by the will of God, whose judgments are just and right, almost the whole Christian force crumbled and all except thirty knights were slain. Only the king himself escaped with ten of his household knights and eighteen knights of the Temple, and fled to a castle . . . called Montferrand where they stoutly resisted, although besieged for some time . . . Zengi, although he had lost thousands of his men by the swords of the Christians, was nevertheless elated at winning the victory he had hoped for.

The Count of Tripoli had been taken prisoner according to William of Tyre. The king, holed up in Montferrand with the Templars, sent out for help from the Patriarch, the Count of Edessa and the Prince of Antioch. They each began to prepare to relieve the siege of Montferrand. By July 1137 these forces were in the region, but the king, acting out of desperation and on the advice of unknown persons, sent out a messenger to Zengi to ask for terms. To his surprise Zengi just wanted Montferrand. The king could have back his prisoners including Count Raymond. In a great ceremony the exchange took place and Zengi took his prize whilst the king’s men marched away and came across the relieving Frankish forces in the fertile Buqaia (the Beqaa Valley) much closer than any of them had expected. It may have seemed to some that a rash deal had been made with Zengi given the proximity of the relieving force, but to others and just possibly to the Templars, the negotiations had meant the king had got off lightly and lived to fight another day.

By 1139 the Templars must have gained for themselves some sort of renown, for William of Tyre’s record of a military defeat near Hebron includes the recording of the death in battle of an individual he describes as a well-known Templar. In these days he says, a certain Burgundian had come to Jerusalem. This was the new Templar Grand Master Robert of Craon. He had brought some of his brothers from Antioch. However, whilst the king’s forces were away besieging a fortress beyond the Jordan ‘certain Turks’ seized the opportunity to cross the Jordan and take possession of Tekoah, south of Jerusalem. Robert, his brothers and a member of the king’s household Bernard Vacher, who bore the royal standard of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, set out from Jerusalem for Tekoah. On hearing of the Christians’ approach the enemy turned towards Hebron further south, with the intention of continuing to friendly Ascalon. In what would appear to be a repeat of the debacle at Mergisafar ten years before, the Frankish forces scattered in different directions to obtain plunder and were overconfident that their enemy had fled before them. But the Turks turned and rallied. They fell upon the unsuspecting Franks. A core of Christian warriors managed to form a defensive line amidst a cacophony of trumpet blasts and a cloud of dust created by their horses’ hooves. But it was not enough. The Turks came on in their swirling masses before the foraging Franks could answer their comrades’ trumpets. Valiant and defiant though the defence was, the Western knights in the remaining line were caught and defeated by their enemies. The casualty count greatly increased in the subsequent rout. There was nowhere for the fleeing Franks to go. A lack of pathways and steep rocky slopes meant that some men were hurled from precipices in the chase. For many miles around the Turks massacred their enemy. In what has sometimes been passed over as a minor skirmish by later observers, ‘many noble and famous men’ fell. These included Odo of Mountfaucon whose death caused ‘universal sorrow and mourning’. William of Tyre tells us that the king’s assault on the fortress beyond the Jordan was a success and that the forces of the king returned home in triumph, but nothing is said of what Robert of Craon may have learned from this dangerous practice of scattering one’s forces in search of plunder, or whether Robert had any decision-making role in such a disaster.

In the same year of the Hebron incident the Templars received their first papal bull of privileges. Pope Innocent II, who had already provided his support at the Council of Pisa found himself in a position to return to Rome after the death of a rival Pope. On 29 March 1139 the bull Omne datum optimum was promulgated. Its title was taken from the Epistle of James which begins ‘Every best gift and every perfect gift descends from above . . .’. It gave the Templars official papal backing in their role as defenders of the Church and attackers of the enemies of Christ. The bull mentioned that the Templars were already wearing a cross on their chest at this time, but does not specify its colour. It also quotes the Gospel of John (15:13):

just as true Israelites and warriors most skilled in holy war, are indeed fired up by the flame of charity and fulfil by your deeds the words of the Gospel that says: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his souls [friends]’, whence, in accordance with the words of the great Shepard, you are not afraid to lay down your souls for your brothers and defend them from attacks of the pagans.

Omne datum optimum conferred significant privileges upon the order. One of these will have had an impact on the approach to warfare. The Templars were permitted to keep the spoils of war. It said ‘you can confidently put them [the spoils] to your own use, and we prohibit that you be coerced against your will to give anyone a portion of these’. The appetite for plunder, already in evidence, would now have official backing. All donations were to be placed under the protection of the Holy See. The order as a whole was answerable to the Pope alone, marking a significant (although not total) shift away from the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The Grand Master could be chosen from the ranks of the Templar knights without outside interference. The order was also given its own priesthood for the first time and these priests answered to the Grand Master despite the fact that he himself was not ordained. The Chaplains were full members of the order and could hear confessions and absolve the brothers. All this made the order independent of the diocesan bishops of Outremer. The Templars were also granted their own oratories where divine offices could be heard and were also granted exemption from tithes but were in turn free to collect tithes on their own properties.

Unsurprisingly, the Templars’ privileges did not meet with universal approval. Criticism of the order was still very strong as late as the Third Lateran Council of 1179. There were some, such as John of Salisbury, writing in the 1150s who saw the privileges as at best confusing. He could not understand why those whose job it was to ‘shed human blood in a certain way presume to administer the blood of Christ’. This sense of distance created by Omne datum optimum was soon compounded by two other papal bulls promulgated in relatively quick succession. On 9 January 1144 a new Pope, Celestine II (1143–4), issued Milites Templi, a bull which was addressed to the prelates of Christendom. It carried a strong message. The Knights of the Temple at Jerusalem were the new Maccabees. Here, the comparison was with the Jewish warriors who had risen in revolt against the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes (175–164 BC) after Antiochus had brought in a pagan cult at the Temple in order to eradicate Judaism. Through the Templars the bull said, God had ‘freed the Eastern Church from the filth of the pagans and defeated the enemies of the Christian faith’. The Templars’ successes to date were thus lauded by the Pope. As the Templars laid down their lives for their brothers and for the protection of pilgrims, the Pope called for the order to be given practical help from the prelates of Christendom. A carrot was waved in front of the readership:

Indeed, whoever helps them out from his own resources, accumulated through God, and becomes a member of this most holy brotherhood, granting it benefices annually . . . we will grant him an indulgence of the seventh part of any penance imposed upon him. If he dies and has not been excommunicated, ecclesiastical burial with other Christians will not be denied him.

The bull went on to say that when Templars went to any city, castle or village on the business of collection, and if that place had been placed under interdict (a papal prohibition on Christians practising certain rites within a specified region), then churches should be opened once a year to receive the knights. Divine offices could be heard in such churches, provided no excommunicates were present. Furthermore, the Templars’ persons and goods were to be protected with no damage or injury to be inflicted on them.

Pope Celestine’s short pontificate ended in March 1144. He was succeeded by Pope Lucius II who died in February 1145 and was himself succeeded as Pope by Eugenius III (1145–53). On 7 April 1145 another papal bull entitled Militia Dei further strengthened the Templars’ position. The order was given the right to take tithes and burial fees and to bury their own brothers or sergeants in places where they had their own oratories. The prelates to whom the bull was addressed must consecrate these oratories and bless the cemeteries.

It may seem that the continuing granting of privileges to the Templars was being met with some consternation in certain clerical circles. It is unlikely however, that successive popes through three different papal bulls were trying to prop up a failing organisation. They were building on success. From the military point of view, we cannot know how many skirmishes or minor battles have gone without mention, but by 1145 when Pope Eugenius’s Militia Dei was promulgated, the order had already seen numerous military actions fighting alongside the secular nobility of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The three papal bulls reflect a continuing and growing need to promote and fund the Templars. Eugenius knew that the need was most pressing indeed, for in December 1144 a disaster had befallen Outremer.

Zengi, Atabeg of Mosul and Aleppo, had surrounded and besieged Edessa, the capital of the important crusader buffer state in the north-east. For a month from the end of November his siege engines and engineers battered and undermined the walls of the city with no apparent counter-mining repost. On 24 December 1144 part of the walls near the Gate of Hours collapsed and Zengi’s men rushed through the breach. Many citizens were caught in the stampede and trampled underfoot or slaughtered where they stood, with some managing to retreat to the citadel, but there was no hope of defence. One of Zengi’s commanders, Zayn ad-Din Ali Kutchuk, was appointed governor of Edessa, and whilst its remaining Christian population were spared, the news of the disaster began to travel back to the West. Outremer had been founded on the crusading zeal of dukes, princes and other European nobility during the First Crusade. Now, with the earliest established of those crusader states being the first to fall, Pope Eugenius would soon call upon none less than kings to help. The Templars would play no small part in what happened next.



Militant Clerics

The fighting in Louis IX’s second crusade in Egypt shows that the prowess which secures honor is so admired that even clerics are praised for acting as men of valor, whatever the ecclesiastical prohibitions against their shedding blood. Did the knights have the famous Archbishop Turpin of the chansons in mind? As the crusaders retreated toward Damietta, the bishop of Soissons realized that he felt no desire to return home, but only a great desire to be with God. Th e story could come from a sermon exemplum or an epic. “So he made haste to be with God, by spurring on his horse and rushing to at- tack the Turks single-handed. They . . . cut him down with their swords, and thus sent him to be in God’s company among the number of the martyrs.” Earlier, a priest in Joinville’s service had won his secular lord’s fulsome praise by arming himself and single-handedly driving off eight Saracens, piercing one through the body with his lance. As Joinville reports with pride, “From that time onwards my priest was very well known throughout the army, and one man or another would point him out and say: `Look, that’s my Lord of Joinville’s priest, who got the better of eight Saracens.’ ”

If they did not fight with their own hands, those clerics closely in tune with knightly standards could at least clear the way for the lay warriors. At a critical moment in the expedition to Jaff a, knowing that Gautier, Comte de Brienne and Comte de Jaffa, was under sentence of excommunication by the Patriarch of Jerusalem (the issue being ownership of a tower in Jaffa), the bishop of Ramleh took charge, declaring, in a scene that, again, could have been lifted from a chanson de geste:

Don’t let your conscience worry you because the patriarch won’t absolve you, for he’s in the wrong, and you’re in the right. I myself absolve you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And now let’s at them!

The result was that “they dug their spurs into their horses (ferirent des esperons)” and attacked.

In an even more tense moment, as Joinville and his knights realize that they will be captured by their enemies and are only debating to which party of Saracens to yield, a cellarer in his employ suggests that they not surrender at all. “We should all,” he counsels, with words that, once again, could have been drawn from a sermon or miracle story, “let ourselves be slain, for thus we shall go to paradise (Je suis d’avis que nous nous laissions nous tuer; ainsi nous irons tous en paradis).” Tersely, Joinville comments, “But we none of us heeded his advice (Mais nous ne le creumes pas).”

The value of this evidence from the Lisbon and Egyptian crusades is heightened by its congruence with evidence from chansons de geste. As pictured in the Couronnement de Louis, the Chanson de Guillaume, the Chanson de Roland, the Charroi de Nimes, knights showed a remarkable independence of spirit. Th ey interpreted the hard campaigning and warfare of their profession, even when carried out against non-Christian enemies, in terms more compatible with lay aristocratic social norms than with clerical treatises and sermons. Th ey thought of themselves as serving their lords or the lord king as guarantor of the order of their world rather than the pope. Th ey defended a region, a realm, a homeland, more than a religion or moral ideal. If fighting the enemies of the faith was laudable, they insisted on the worth of chivalric combat per se.

Other knights on the stage of history and their fellows on the pages of imaginative literature directly assert the rectitude of their own order against clerics who would play the warrior. Th is was trespassing on the preserve of the sacred labor of the knightly ordo. Just before the Battle of the Standard, fought between the English and the Scots in 1138, Archbishop Thurstan of York boldly announced that he and his parish priests bearing crucifixes would join the English fighters. In a scene that parallels contemporary chanson, the archbishop solemnly gave the English forces, gathered before him in arms, God’s blessing and forgiveness after they had accepted private penitence and a general three-day fast with alms. Although the archbishop again declared his determination to join the army in battle, English barons firmly informed him that he should return to his prayers and religious duties and leave the fighting to them “as their order required.” A century and a half later, when on another northern field of battle the English and Scots again fought, another bishop was told to act within his ordo, by knights confident of their own. At Falkirk in 1298, Anthony Bek, bishop of Durham, actually commanded one division of the English army. Yet when he tried to restrain his fighters who were eager to advance, these proud warriors told him plainly, “It is not for you, bishop, to teach us about knightly matters, when you should be saying mass. Go and celebrate mass and leave us to get on with our military affairs.” The word ordo is missing, but the knights assert a strong sense of the proper function for clerics and for knights.

Some clerics were clearly sensitive to the basic knightly argument. Caesarius of Heisterbach tells of a fearful priest who carried a sword on a night journey. Encountering a hideous man whose figure suddenly grew to the height of the trees, he fled in terror, only to be told by lay brothers in a monastery what he should have known: the devil fears a psalm, not a sword. In other words, he was acting outside the principles of his ordo. Richard de Templo, an Augustinian who incorporated the Estoire of Ambroise into his chronicle, at one point exclaims, “How distant, how different is the life of contemplation and meditation among the columns of the cloister from that dreadful exercise of war.”

That such conversations can likewise be found in romance shows their widespread dissemination. In the Middle English Sultan of Babylon, the warrior Ferumbras makes the point. While still a pagan (before his defeat by the hero Oliver converts him to Christianity), he unhorses a fighter leading a contingent out from Rome and is surprised to find the man is tonsured. The unhorsed man is, in fact, the pope.

Philippe de Dreux (or Philip of Dreux, 1158-1217) was the epitome of the warrior bishop. Ally and cousin of King Philippe II of France, the Bishop of Beauvais was an active opponent of Richard the Lionheart in north-west Europe, both before and after their participation in the Third Crusade. He first campaigned in the Holy Land as part of Henri de Champagne’s expedition in 1180, but also joined his brother, Count Robert II de Dreux, for the Albigensian Crusade in 1200. Fighting at his brother’s side again at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214, Philippe captured William Longespée, Earl of Salisbury.

ADHEMAR OF MONTEIL, bishop of Le Puy

A mitred Adhémar de Monteil carrying the Holy Lance in one of the battles of the First Crusade. Papal legate on crusade; close associate of Urban II 1095–6; travelled in Raymond of Toulouse’s Provençal army; as adept at military command as at prayer, diplomacy and reconciling the factious crusade leaders. Died 1 August 1098 at Antioch.

On 1 August 1098, the quarrels in the city were made worse when the pope’s legate, Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy, died, most likely from typhoid. As the pope’s representative in a religious cause, Adhemar was the one leader in the army with uncontested authority. Without personal ambition, he had shown himself to be a man of excellent character, intelligent, shrewd, tactful, kindly and brave. A good tactician and unafraid in battle, he had carried the Holy Lance, for the army to keep in sight and remember. In his life and conduct, Bishop Adhemar tried hard to embody whatever Christian idealism existed on the crusade, advancing the claims of Christian charity and lessening the evils of Christian warfare. He was much loved by the poor pilgrims and the ordinary soldiers and they mourned for him:

By God’s will, the bishop of Le Puy departed from this world and, resting in peace, fell asleep in the Lord on the Feast of St Peter Ad Vincula. Then there was grief and sorrow and great mourning in the whole army of Christ, for the bishop was a helper of the poor and a counsellor of the rich. He used to keep the clergy in order and preach to the knights, warning them, ‘None of you can be saved unless you respect the poor and give them aid. They will not survive without you, but you cannot be saved without them. They ought every day to pray God to show mercy to you for your manifest sins, with which you daily offend Him. And therefore I beseech you, for love of the Lord, be kind to the poor and help them.’

In the past, historians have suggested that when Urban II preached the First Crusade at Clermont he actually expected only a few hundred knights to answer his call – that, in effect, the pope was caught entirely off guard by the tidal wave of enthusiasm that swept across Europe and, as a consequence, rapidly lost control of the shape and format of the expedition. In fact, a significant corpus of evidence suggests that he harboured fairly grand ambitions for this project and had a real sense of its potential scale and scope. Certainly in the months following the council of Piacenza (1-7 March 1095), where Urban first received the Byzantine appeal for aid, and perhaps even earlier, he developed the idea of a penitential armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem that might simultaneously bring military reinforcement to eastern Christendom and expand the sphere of papal influence. This is not to suggest that the crusade was the only thing on the pope’s mind, but it was a significant feature of his evolving reform agenda. At the same time, Urban began making preparations to ensure that his proposed expedition would meet with a positive response, tapping into the surviving network of fideles beati Petri established under Pope Gregory VII, including Matilda of Tuscany. It is striking how many of the prominent nobles who took the cross after Clermont were themselves fideles, or were connected to this group through marriage or family. Between his arrival in France in July 1095 and the start of the council of Clermont on 18 November, Urban visited a series of prominent monasteries, including his former house of Cluny. He also met and primed the two men whom he hoped would champion the crusading cause.

The first of these was Adhemar of Le Puy, a figure who would become the spiritual shepherd of the First Crusade. Born into a noble family, possibly that of the counts of Valentinois, Adhemar was appointed bishop of Le Puy, in the Auvergne region of south-eastern France, at some point between 1080 and 1087. He had also probably completed a pilgrimage to Jerusalem before 1087. As a prominent Provencal bishop, Adhemar soon became an ally and associate of the region’s most powerful secular ruler, Raymond of Toulouse. The bishop, evidently a firm supporter of the Gregorian papacy, was chosen by Urban II to play a pivotal role in the forthcoming expedition. In August 1095, soon after his arrival in France, the pope journeyed to Le Puy, where he must have met Adhemar. Here, and perhaps on other occasions over the coming months, the two discussed Urban s crusading project, agreeing a plan to orchestrate its reception and prosecution. Unfortunately, no record of these conversations survives, but we can be virtually certain that they took place because the events that followed were clearly stage-managed. Adhemar of Le Puy duly attended the council of Clermont and listened intently to Urban s crusading sermon on 27 November. Then, as soon as the pope fell silent, Adhemar stepped forward to take the cross, becoming the first ever crusader. According to one eyewitness, after Urban had preached the campaign to the East:

The eyes of some were filled with tears, some were frightened and others argued about this matter. But among all at the council -and we all saw him – the bishop of Le Puy, a man of great repute and the highest nobility, went up to the lord pope with a smiling face and on bended knee begged and beseeched his permission and blessing to make the journey.

Bishop Adhemar had effectively been planted in the audience to ensure that the pope’s words met with a warm reaction. On the following day, it was announced that Adhemar would be the official papal representative, or legate, on the coming crusade. Urban himself later wrote that:

We appointed in our place as leader of this journey and labour our dearest son Adhemar, bishop of Le Puy. It follows that anyone who decides to go on this journey should obey his orders as though they were our own and should be entirely subject to his power to loose and bind’ in any decisions that appear to concern this business.

The pope had chosen Adhemar to lead the expedition to Jerusalem, endowing him with absolute spiritual authority over the crusaders. In this position, the bishop of Le Puy proved to be a skilled and patient conciliator, a valuable voice for reason and a staunch advocate of Urban’s policy of detente with the Greek Church of Byzantium. But, although the pope may have envisaged the crusade as a pious armed pilgrimage, he must have known that to succeed the expedition would still require practical military direction and inspirational generalship. Adhemar possessed some talent as a strategist, he may even have had a degree of skill as a military leader, but, with Church law technically forbidding him from actually fighting in battle, the bishop could never truly fulfil the role of overall commander-in-chief of the crusade.




“Brother-Knight and servant of the Teutonic Order, approx. 1520”, Marek Szyszko

Warmia (Ermeland) surrounded by the Duchy of Prussia founded in 1525

The Order had little reason to be dissatisfied with what had happened either, since the Council had showed itself in general to be in favour of crusades, and, in part, friendly towards the Teutonic Knights. It had avoided being tarred with the same brush as Falkenberg, whose doctrines were not formally condemned until 1424, and appeared to have won the war of words. Or so the continuator of Posilge’s Prussian Chronicle wrote in 1418: ‘the king’s envoys had cast reproaches at the Order with many great lies against the pope and the whole council before the Romish king and the electors, and in every plea they made they were overcome by the truth since they persisted in their lies’. The Knights would obviously be justified in continuing to uphold the rights guaranteed them by the treaty of Torun.

But the fact was that they were no longer strong enough to do so. From 1418 to 1422, Kuchmeister confronted Wladyslaw’s demands for his western territories with a perfectly respectable series of charters, and answers that satisfied the imperial tribunal at Breslau (Wroclaw); but, when Wladyslaw lost patience with the negotiations and invaded Prussia once more, the Order was compelled to come to terms after a campaign that lasted less than two months. By the treaty of Lake Melno (Meldensee) Kuchmeister’s successor, Paul von Russdorf, surrendered various scraps of frontier territory to Poland, and resigned the Order’s residual claim to Samogitia for ever. Von Russdorf had appealed to the Empire for help, but the Polish advance had been so rapid that the war was over before any crusaders arrived. A month after the treaty, on 27 October 1422, Count-Palatine Lewis of the Rhine, and Archbishop Dietrich von Moers of Cologne led their men into Prussia. They spent the winter there, and then went home. They were the last crusaders to Prussia, even from Germany; in future the Order had to rely on its own members, or on mercenaries (whom it could ill afford), or on Prussian levies (who no longer wanted to serve).

Even when Poland and Lithuania drifted apart, as in the period 1422 to 1447, the Order was unable to gain any lasting advantage from the division. Grand-Master von Russdorf – a pious intriguer, with a smile and a winning word for every occasion, who was known in Poland as the Holy Ghost – grew friendly with the ancient Witold, and with his successor Svitrigal (Svitrigaila, Swidrigel, etc.), but his intervention in the Lithuanian succession dispute of 1431–5 was not a success. The king of Poland struck back by sending an army of Hussites to the mouth of the Vistula; the Hussites devastated western Prussia for four months, and by December 1435 von Russdorf was compelled to make peace. His country was demoralized and discontented, his Catholic army had been trounced by a gang of heretics; his conqueror had incurred excommunication for using them, and the Order’s privileges had been confirmed by the Council of Bâle: but in vain.

The plight of Prussia was bemoaned to Europe by a friend of the Order, the accomplished Latinist Conrad Bitschin. In his Epistola ecclesie deplanctoria187 he heaped abuse on the enemy – ‘O execrable Poland, O dullard nation, O nation crazed! How could you be so forgetful of your own salvation that you chose so nefarious an ally?’ – and drew attention to the wanton spoliation of his country: ‘Lament, O delicate Prussia, thou who until of late wast opulent in fruit and fish and all manner of delightful food…’ He then appealed for military assistance: ‘Take heed, you Catholic knights and soldiers who have hitherto come from the frontiers of distant lands to receive generous wages; take heed, I implore you, of your calling, for in this affair you are summoned not merely to receive wages, but to do battle, and the wages of battle are paid in Grace.’ Not enough, it seemed; nobody came. The estates grudged their military service and their taxes, and the knights of Catholic Europe stayed at home. Only the Livonians fought on, and they were defeated.

After the peace of Lake Melno, therefore, it was only a matter of time before the Order was compelled to surrender all that the Poles wanted. It took over forty years, and the struggle involved repeated arbitration, polemic, litigation, and warfare, culminating in a thirteen years’ civil war that tore Prussia in half; but in the end the superior resources of the Polish-Lithuanian monarchy were bound to prevail. By the second treaty of Torun (19 October 1466) Grand-Master Lewis von Erlichshausen was compelled to disgorge all he held on either side of the Lower Vistula – the lands taken from Poland since 1309, and the Prussian Oberland conquered before 1250, including Marienburg castle itself. The east Prussian rump, which he continued to rule from Königsberg, remained an independent principality, but the grand-masters were expected to take personal oaths of loyalty to the kings of Poland to guarantee their good conduct.

These wars were in no sense a continuation of the Northern crusade, despite the efforts of the Order and its publicists to attract crusading assistance. The only ‘heathen’ left to fight were the Russians, and the struggle with Poland prevented the Prussians from undertaking such action. If they had combined, such a crusade might well have taken place; but, as long as they remained bitterly hostile, the Holy War was suspended.

The idea survived the reality, however, because it was the official raison d’être of the Prussian government, which remained in the hands of professed monks until 1525. As long as the rest of Europe paid lip-service to this idea, there was some hope that it might be manipulated to the advantage of the lords of Prussia. Until 1411, belief in the crusade had been a powerful cohesive force, joining the Order, its subjects and ‘guests’ in pursuit of a common political goal, however mistaken or indefensible; afterwards, it became a private obsession of the Order, nerving its members to hold untenable positions as long as possible – not only against the Poles, but also against their own burghers and junkers and bishops. This dedication to a mission that could never again be carried out, at least in Prussia, helped to keep the old system of government going, but did not prevent the brothers becoming odious to their subjects, quarrelsome among themselves, and disobedient both to their Rule and to their grand-master. They were now recruited exclusively from the impecunious lesser nobility of western Germany; no burghers or mere knights need apply, and in Germany their numbers fell by a third between 1400 and 1450. Those who went out to Prussia were seen as ‘Outlanders’ by the rest of Prussian society, and treated the ‘Inlanders’ with resolute lordliness, enforcing their powers as gebittiger (officials) with slights and mockery. When their subjects complained to a knight in office, he would strike his head and say, ‘Look you here, this is the Hocbmeister sitting here! I will be all the Hocbmeister you need, so get down, you sons of bitches!’ Their vassals looked back to the good old days of Dusmer and von Kniprode, when settlers were treated with respect. As the junkers of the Kulmerland and Torun pointed out to the Order in 1438, ‘Although it was your predecessors who brought a part of the country to the Christian faith, how did that come about, other than by the strength and might of our forefathers?’ ‘We won you with the sword’ was the answer to all such questions, until in 1454 the burghers and vassals took the sword into their own hands and turned to the king of Poland for assistance.

This attitude was not the result of the impatience of unworldly with worldly men. The system of administration and business which had developed in the fourteenth century absorbed more of the Order’s energy in the fifteenth, when they were brought into fierce competition with other Prussian interests; and there was much less written evidence of spiritual or intellectual exercise, at least among the Prussian brothers. There was now no need for the sumptuous entertainment which had made Marienburg attractive to crusaders in the past, but the remorseless conviviality of these snobbish bachelors served to pass the time and remind the colonials who was boss. They did not even bother to recite the Hours, and they scarcely even knew the Paternoster, complained the Carthusians in their ‘Admonition’ of 1428: ‘while men sing in church, the lords sit in the cellar and take their ease and make merry… Thus there is no more delight in the Offices, and there is no spirituality in the convents, neither in their lives nor in their dress.’ In peace they domineered, made money, feasted and philandered; in war they fought as vigorously as ever, but the outcome now depended on their ability to pay their mercenaries, rather than on knightly prowess. Nor could they bring themselves to agree with each other: from 1410 there were continual quarrels between the various ‘tongues’ into which they were divided. Grand-Master Henry von Plauen tried to advance Low Germans, and met with hatred and conspiracy among the High Germans, who had come to regard Prussia as their preserve; von Russdorf patronized Rhinelanders, but met with bitter opposition from the Swabians, Bavarians, and Franconians, who claimed a monopoly of offices. Yet, while the brothers grew more incorrigible and less manageable, political power slipped from their hands, as a corporation, into those of the grand-master: at first, by the connivance of the Prussian estates, who paid their homage to Conrad von Erlichshausen personally on his election in 1441; and later, when dread of Poland led the brothers to appoint ‘outside candidates’ from reigning German dynasties: Frederick of Saxony in 1498, Albert of Brandenburg-Ansbach in 1511 – princes who made use of the Order to promote their family interests.

After 1466, all the grand-masters tried to reform the Order, but none succeeded in convoking the general-chapter which was seen as a necessary preliminary. The problem of the Prussian knight-brothers was never considered in isolation; it was approached as an aspect of the decay of the whole Order, and, since the masters of Livonia and Germany could not be brought to co-operate in a general reform, it was never successfully tackled.

A far-sighted reformer might have considered two radical solutions to this dilemma. One was to remain true to the crusading tradition, face the fact that the Northern crusade was over, and pull out of Prussia; the Order would then have been able to fight against the real menace confronting Catholic Europe, the Ottoman Turks, and could have reformed itself into a true fraternity of military celibates, unhampered by the cares of government and politics. The other was for the Prussian brothers to cut their ties with the Order, renounce their vows, marry, and settle down as members of a secular Prussian ruling class.

In the fifteenth century the first of these courses had its advocates. The Emperor Sigismund – still king of Hungary – was anxious to halt the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, and at the conference of Lutsk (1429) proposed that knight-brothers be placed in charge of military operations on this front; a section from Prussia, under Commander Claus von Redewitz, reoccupied the lands in Transylvania which the Order had held from 1211 to 1225, and stayed there until half were wiped out by a Turkish invasion in 1432. By 1437 Sigismund was suggesting that the whole Order be resettled in this area by the joint authority of himself, the pope and the Council of Bâle. After the grand-master had submitted to Poland in 1466, it was the Poles who favoured the idea. In 1497 Grand-Master von Tiefen marched from Königsberg to Halicz on the Dniester to assist King John Albert against his rebellious vassal, the voivot of Wallachia; but he fell sick with dysentery as soon as he got there, and died at Lwow. His army of 4000 men went home immediately, and the ensuing election of Frederick of Saxony was a victory for those brothers who disliked co-operation with Poland and wished to strengthen their ties with Germany. Saving Europe from the Turks was one thing; leaving Prussia was another. It was not until Prussia had left the Order that the knight-brothers could think of seriously devoting themselves to the Eastern Front, and it was not until 1595, with the first Habsburg grand-master, the Archduke Maximilian, that they actually did so.

By contrast, holding on to Prussia remained a popular and practical policy within the Order, even after 1466 – half was better than none. In the relatively peaceful days that followed the submission to Poland, the province flourished; in the time of Grand-Master von Tiefen, wrote Paul Pole in his sixteenth-century Prussian Chronicle, ‘Prussia appeared no less than a pleasure-garden of the Lord’, and the equable von Tiefen prided himself on the fine clothes and rich diet of his burghers and peasants, whom he refused to vex with taxes and wars. It was a country worth keeping, even if the task made the knight-brothers bad monks. Until the Reformation, when the whole idea of monasticism came under attack, nobody suggested that they should cease to be monks altogether; for this apparently simple solution raised insuperable difficulties. In the first place, only the pope could dissolve a religious Order, and successive popes and grand-masters persisted in believing that the Teutonic Knights could reform. Secondly, the social function of Prussia and Livonia as ‘asylums’ for the indigent nobility of Germany could only be preserved if the ruling elites of these provinces needed constant replenishment. The rule of celibacy guaranteed this. And, finally, secularization was by no means a certain method of keeping Prussia. How would renegades be able to renounce their Rule without renouncing their lands and privileges?

In the end, secularization was imposed on the Prussian brothers by the grand-master. They had elected Albert, son of the margrave of Brandenburg, as a promising young soldier whose powerful connections would deter the King of Poland from increasing his influence over Prussia. Albert took the monastic vow, and with the support of the Emperor Maximilian refused to do homage to Poland. When Maximilian deserted him, he prepared for war. Master von Plettenberg of Livonia refused to co-operate, but Albert placed his hopes in the hiring of German mercenaries and alliances with Denmark or Muscovy – or the Tartars. When the Poles declared war, he went through with the traditional invocation of the Virgin, making a barefoot pilgrimage to her shrine near Rastenburg and holding solemn processions at Königsberg. But the fighting went badly for Prussia; cannon were floated down the Vistula from Cracow, and one by one the Order’s castles were besieged and captured. The Emperor Charles V arranged a truce in 1521, and, although the question of homage was referred to arbitration, there was little chance that Albert would be able to avoid making his submission.

To make matters worse, the internal peace of Prussia was threatened by the spread of Lutheran opinions among the laity and some of the secular clergy. This meant riot and confusion in most German principalities, but in ecclesiastical lordships it threatened the very existence of the state. Albert lacked the resources to wage civil war for the maintenance of the old order, especially as several of his commanders and his own bishop, Polenz of Samland, favoured the heresy; he met Luther at Wittenberg in 1522, and found a way out. In Luther’s view, it was the duty of all Teutonic Knights to renounce their vows and marry, and it was Albert’s duty to establish a secular duchy for himself in Prussia. These measures would reconcile Albert to his anti-monastic Lutheran subjects, and preserve his standing as a territorial ruler. After he had secured peace with Poland, by persuading King Sigismund to enfeoff him as hereditary duke of Prussia, and his own Estates and bishops had ratified the agreement, those knight-brothers who objected to the change had no means of stopping it. Albert had allowed all the great offices to fall vacant and had run down the total strength of knight-brothers in Prussia to fifty-five. He summoned only a minority of these to Königsberg in May 1525 to approve his decision. Most of them were intimidated by the hostility of the burghers and egged on by Albert’s entourage. Only seven stood by their vows. After a few days’ hesitation even these gave their consent, and cut the crosses from their habits for fear of being lynched.

It was not the spiritual decadence of the Order, or the decline of the crusading ideal, that put an end to the rule of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia. The subsequent reform of the German bailiwicks under Grand-Master Kronberg, and the part played by the Knights in the Habsburg offensives against the Protestants and the Turks indicate that armed monks still had a place in European politics long after 1525, and the survival of the Order in Livonia until 1562 proves that the Baltic convents still had life in them. It was the failure of the Prussian knight-brothers to come to a satisfactory political settlement with the Polish kingdom that put an end to the old Prussian system. By putting their trust in German princes, the Knights lost the power to preserve a monastic affiliation that was no longer essential to the military defence of the country and had become a contentious issue in the religious ferment of the 1520s. ‘It happened with us lords of Prussia, as it happened with the frogs who took a stork as their king’ – thus Brother Philip von Kreutz wrote a Relation of the whole ‘dirty deal’, as he called it. ‘Now all the estates had done their homage, and I saw that there was no means by which the dirty deal could be changed, I did homage too, in order to save my property thereby, for I had a large sum of money in my employment [he was commander of Insterburg], more than any other Teutonic lord.’ It is interesting that, in the debate that accompanied the dissolution of the Prussian houses, the question of the morality of the crusade played little part: both the Teutonic Knights and their enemies preferred to argue about the morality of monasticism.

The only Prussian brother who declared against the new duke was the commander of Memel, Eric of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, who was also the scion of a German territorial dynasty. The other Prussian convents accepted the change. The majority of those inside Germany remained deaf to Luther’s ‘Exhortation to the Lords of the Teutonic Order’ (March 1523), but many of their estates were devastated in the Peasants’ War, and subsequently confiscated by Protestant princes. In 1527 Master Kronberg of Germany became grand-master, and the Order embarked on a new career as an ally of the Habsburgs in the Wars of Religion.

The Fall of Acre

Siege of Acre 1291. Version 3 by Lacedemon

The Battle of La Forbie, by Zvonimir Grbasic

The Battle of La Forbie, also known as the Battle of Harbiyah, was fought in 1244 between the allied armies (drawn from the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the crusading orders, the breakaway Ayyubids of Damascus, Homs and Kerak) and the Egyptian army of the Ayyubid Sultan as-Salih Ayyub, reinforced with Khwarezmian mercenaries. the Egyptians was victorious over their enemies.

La Forbie was a disaster almost on par with Hattin. The West was shocked, and the possibility of a new crusade was considered. The only monarch who actually arrived in the East was Louis IX, the saintly French king, who had nearly died of fever around the same time that the Franks were being cut down on the field of La Forbie. His recovery, and the news that the East was once again in dire peril, decided the matter for him. After extensive preparations, he sailed from Aigues-Mortes in the Camargue on 25 August 1248, arriving on Cyprus on 17 September. Among the welcoming party was the new Templar Grand Master, Guillame de Sonnac, who had been elected after the Order’s failure to secure the release of Armand de Périgord from captivity in Egypt.

The crusaders landed in Egypt on 5 June 1249, and found to their surprise that Damietta had been evacuated. They managed to take the city the following day, with the loss of only one life. Louis decided to march south towards Cairo, using the Templars to form the vanguard. Things seemed to be going the way of the Franks, a feeling reinforced when, on 23 November, the Egyptian Sultan, al-Salih Aiyub, died. However, they then spent a month trying to cross a branch of the Nile, but could not find a suitable place until a local Bedouin showed them the ford. On 8 February 1250, they began to cross, with the Templars and Richard, Count of Artois, Louis’ brother, and William Longespée, the Earl of Salisbury, heading the column. It was at this point that things began to go badly wrong. On arriving on the opposite bank of the river, Richard decided to attack the Muslims rather than wait for the rest of the crusaders to finish crossing the river, and forced the Muslims to retreat to the nearby town of Mansurah. The Templars were angry at what they saw as Richard’s arrogation of their role, and passed a message to the Count to that effect. However, Foucaud du Merle, the knight who was holding the bridle of Richard’s horse, was deaf, and failed to pass the message on. Richard charged off in pursuit of the Muslim forces and the Templars, now concerned at saving face, chased after him, determined to regain their position in the van. The Christian forces poured into Mansurah and found themselves trapped by wooden beams and other debris that had been used to close off the narrow streets. In the ensuing chaos, 300 knights died and 280 Templars; the instigator of the ill-fated attack, Richard of Artois, drowned under the weight of his armour while trying to swim to safety, while the Templar Grand Master Guillame de Sonnac lost an eye. On 11 February, there was a second onslaught in which Guillame lost his other eye and died later the same day. Although the Muslim forces were driven back, it became clear that taking Mansurah would not be easy.

Louis decided to sit it out, and waited. While the army was entrenched outside the walls of Mansurah, the Muslims had managed to cut the crusaders’ supply lines from Damietta, depriving them of fresh food. To make matters worse, disease was spreading rapidly through the Frankish army. Louis suffered from acute dysentery and was continually visiting the latrine; indeed, so frequent were the king’s visits that, according to the chronicler Joinville, his servants aided matters by cutting away the lower part of his drawers. Louis realised that he would have to negotiate, but the offer was rejected. On 5 April, the Franks began to retreat. The Muslims came after them and the casualties on the Christian side ran to several thousand. Only 14 survived from the military orders, including three Templars. As a final humiliation, most of the army – including Louis himself – was captured. Damietta was to be handed over in return for the king’s life; the rest of the captives were to be ransomed for half a million livres.

Damietta was returned to Muslim control and, on 6 May, Louis was released. Before he left Egypt, there was still the matter of paying the rest of the ransom, and counting began on 7 May. By the end of the following day, it was apparent that they were still 30,000 livres short. Joinville suggested to the king that the amount be borrowed from the Templars, and Louis agreed. Joinville went to the Templars to ask for the money, but the Order’s commander, Stephen of Otricourt, refused to hand the sum over on the grounds that he could only release the money to the people who had deposited it in the first place. Tempers began to fray and ‘there were many hard and abusive words’ between Joinville and the Commander until the Templar Marshal, Reginald de Vichiers, suggested that, although they had sworn vows to protect their clients’ money, there was nothing stopping Joinville from taking the money by force. Therefore, with the king’s permission, Joinville went on board the Templar galley where the money was kept in the hold. However, the Templar treasurer refused to open the strongbox, perhaps owing to Joinville’s somewhat haggard appearance after the deprivations of the retreat from Mansurah and also to the fact that he was wielding an axe. At this point, Reginald de Vichiers, clearly concerned that Joinville was about to commit an act of violence, intervened and ordered the treasurer to open the strongbox and hand the money over.

Louis arrived back in Acre on 13 May, and, with his support, Reginald de Vichiers was elected Grand Master of the Temple. This was partially to repay Reginald for his role in the king’s release, but also for his involvement with the Crusade from its inception: as early as 1246, Reginald was acting on behalf of Louis in arranging shipping to carry the crusaders to the East. Louis stayed in Outremer for an other four years, and he initially remained on close terms with the Templars. Indeed, when a son was born to Louis, the baby was delivered in the castle of ‘Atlit, and Reginald acted as his godfather. Relations were soon strained, however, when Reginald attempted to form a new alliance with Damascus without consulting Louis. The king was furious, and made the Grand Master perform public penance for his insubordination.

Louis left the East in April 1254. Despite the failure in Egypt, the Crusade had achieved a number of things: fortifications were improved in key cities such as Caesarea, Jaffa, Sidon and Acre itself, and Louis pledged to assist in maintaining them by supplying a constant garrison of French troops. The inland castles – such as Safad – were all in the hands of the military orders, as they had proved too expensive for the secular baronage to run. Additionally, Louis had shown that Outremer could still be governed well provided that it had a single, strong leader behind whom the Frankish barons could unite. And in his six years in the East, he had injected a vast amount of money into the economy – 1.3 million livres tournois, about 11 or 12 times the annual income of his kingdom.

When Louis left, he took his leadership and financial support with him. Unfortunately for the Franks, this coincided almost exactly with the rise of two new powers that would both threaten Outremer – the Mongols and the Mamluks. Of the two, the Mongols proved the most immediate threat. Indeed, such was the Frankish fear of them that it brought all three of the main military orders together. The Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights all agreed to put their habitual squabbles to one side in the name of defending Outremer (an achievement all the more impressive when one considers that civil war had broken out in the East shortly after Louis’ departure, with the Templars and Teutonic Knights on one side, and the Hospitallers on the other). Letters were written and frantically dispatched to the West. One Templar courier managed to make it to London in just 13 weeks, bearing a doom-laden account of the situation in the East, reminiscent of the letters of Brother Terence after the disasters of 1187:

‘… when they had read these letters, both the king [Henry III] and the Templars … gave way to lamentation and sadness, on a scale no one had ever seen before. For the news was that the Tartars [Mongols], advancing with an innumerable force, had already occupied and devastated the Holy Land almost up to Acre … unless help is quickly brought, a horrible annihilation will swiftly be visited upon the world.’

On 3 September 1260, a horrible annihilation was indeed visited upon Outremer, but it was not the Franks who bore the brunt of it: it was the Mongols themselves. At ‘Ain Julat, south of Nazareth, a Mongol army was crushed by Mamluk forces under the sultan Saif-ad-Din Kutuz. The Mamluks, a caste of elite slave warriors who had been a permanent component of the Egyptian military for a century, had recently seized power in Egypt, bringing to an end the rule of Saladin’s descendants. Kutuz himself was soon ousted, being assassinated the month following the victory at ‘Ain Julat. He was replaced as sultan by Baybars, who had fought in the Egyptian army at La Forbie and against Louis at Mansurah; he would do more damage to the Franks than any other Muslim leader since Saladin.

Baybars immediately set about destroying Frankish possessions in Outremer. The 1260s are a litany of Christian defeats, with even such great Templar castles as Safad and the Hospitaller stronghold of Krak des Chevaliers falling. The Pope, Clement IV, decided that a new crusade was called for, once the immediate problem of Sicily and Frederick’s descendants had been dealt with. King Louis sent more money to the East via the Templars. No sooner had the funds been transferred, than further letters came from the East requesting more money to pay soldiers; appeals for help were unending. On 18 May 1268, Antioch fell and Thomas Bérard, the Templar Grand Master, decided that the Order’s possessions in the Amanus March could no longer be successfully defended, and they were reluctantly abandoned. The seemingly unstoppable force of Baybars was only halted by the last crusade, that of Prince Edward of England, who persuaded the Mamluk sultan in April 1272 to agree to a ten-year truce. It was fortuitously timed. The Franks were in no position to hold out much longer, and Edward was forced to return to England upon the death of his father, Henry III, to assume the crown as Edward I.

At the Council of Lyons in May 1274, a new crusade was once again considered. Although the Templars played a prominent role in the talks – the Grand Master sat beside the Pope – an agreement could not be reached. Outremer was once again rent asunder by factional disputes, mainly centring around claims to the throne, with the Templars supporting Charles of Anjou, who had finally succeeded in wresting Sicily from the control of Frederick’s son Conradin, whom he had had executed in Naples in 1268. Angry at what he saw as the Templars’ adherence to no law save their own, the King of Jerusalem, Hugh III, simply upped and left for Cyprus, leaving no one in overall command. He tried to regain control of Outremer twice, in 1279 and 1283, but was unsuccessful on both occasions.

The Templars found themselves bogged down amid the various factions. They became involved in a civil war in the County of Tripoli between 1277 and 1282, an involvement that did nothing to enhance their reputation, and seems to have led to the Grand Master of the time, Guillame de Beaujeu, as being widely regarded as untrustworthy. Guillame did, however, get the Mamluks to agree to a new ten-year truce in 1282. In 1285, they broke it.

Baybars had died in July 1277, and his successor, Kalavun, was intent upon finishing the work that his predecessor had started. In April 1285, the coastal city of Latakia fell, followed by the Hospitaller fortress of al Marqab the following month. The Templars were kept in formed of Kalavun’s plans by means of a double agent in the Mamluk hierarchy, and they were warned that Tripoli was in danger. Guillame sent a messenger to warn the Tripolitans, but, perhaps because of the Grand Master’s apparent political duplicity, the message was not believed. In desperation, a second messenger was despatched, also to no avail. Once the Tripolitans finally realised they were in danger, it was too late for reinforcements to reach them, and the city fell to Kalavun in April 1289.

Letters to the West continued at a frantic pace. Finally, in August 1290, a fresh wave of crusaders landed at Acre. Unfortunately, they were the sort of crusader who would not have looked out of place on the First Crusade – they were by and large buccaneers, criminals and drunkards who wasted no time in causing a riot in which many Muslim traders were killed. This was the pretext that Kalavun needed for an attack upon the city. Once more, the Templars had advance warning courtesy of their well-placed source close to Kalavun, but again, like the boy who cried wolf, Guillame’s warning was not believed.

On 5 April 1291, the Mamluks began their siege of Acre. Kalavun had died in November, but that had not stopped plans for an attack. His son, al-Ashraf Khalil, assumed command. Ten days later, Guillame de Beaujeu led a daring night attack on al-Ashraf’s forces, but the Templars were forced to retreat after becoming entangled in Mamluk tent ropes. On 15 May, a joint force of Templars and Hospitallers repelled a Mamluk assault on St Anthony’s Gate, but were not able to keep the Muslim forces out indefinitely, and on 18 May, they broke into Acre at the so called ‘Accursed Tower’. Guillame de Beaujeu was apparently taking a well-deserved rest at the time, but, when he was told that the Mamluks were now inside the walls of the city, he rushed out into the mêlée without first stopping to put on all his armour. He was wounded in street fighting and died that evening. Within hours, the entire city apart from the Temple area was in Muslim hands and the harbour was full of ships taking refugees to Cyprus. On 25 May, the Templar Marshal, Peter de Sevrey, agreed to surrender if the Mamluks would guarantee the safety of all those who were taking refuge in the Temple compound. The Mamluks broke their word, but were beaten back by the Templars. There could now be no surrender. That night, the Templar Commander, Theobald Gaudin, sailed from Acre with the Templar treasure aboard his galley. Three days later, the Temple fell; everyone remaining inside fought to the death.

Theobald was elected Grand Master at Sidon by the remaining Templars there. A large Mamluk force appeared, and the Templars retreated to their stronghold. It was decided that Theobald would sail for Cyprus and bring back reinforcements. However, no reinforcements were forthcoming from Cyprus, only a message that it would be wise to leave the Holy Land; the Templars abandoned Sidon on 14 July. Haifa fell on the 30th, leaving only Tortosa and ‘Atlit in Templar hands. They were effectively cut off, and had no choice but to evacuate: Tortosa was abandoned on 3 August, and the impregnable ‘Atlit on 14 August. When the Mamluks reached ‘Atlit, they dismantled it for fear that the Templars should return and reoccupy the one castle that had defeated even Baybars. But their fears proved un founded. When Acre fell, Outremer had fallen with it. The Templars would never return to the Holy Land.

The Temple and the Empire

The Siege of Damietta by VladMRK

Innocent’s plans for a new crusade in the East finally materialised in 1218, although he himself did not live to see it. After Innocent’s death in July 1216, he was succeeded by Honorius III (1216–27), who was determined to get the crusading machinery in motion. Although the Templars had played little or no role in the Fourth Crusade (1202–04) – mainly due to the crusade’s failure to actually make it to Palestine after sacking Constantinople – they were heavily involved in the Fifth from the outset.

A crusade fund was established at the Paris Temple, where the Templar treasurer, Brother Haimard, oversaw donations. Honorius wrote to the Templar Grand Master, Guillame de Chartres, and also to his opposite number in the Hospital, Garin de Montaigu, ordering them to meet the crusade’s leaders, King Andrew of Hungary and Leopold, Duke of Austria, on Cyprus. As things turned out, the two men and their respective armies arrived separately in the East in the autumn of 1217. Initial plans to attack Damascus were shelved after the somewhat lacklustre campaign of November 1217 in favour of mounting a campaign in Egypt, with the intention of capturing the key city of Damietta. With reinforcements under the King of Jerusalem, John of Brienne (1210–25), the crusaders – including contingents of Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights – landed at Damietta in June 1218. It was here that the Templar Grand Master, who had been unwell since the previous autumn, died, and was succeeded by Garin de Montaigu’s brother, Peter. For the first and only time, the Orders of the Temple and the Hospital were under the control of the same family. (A third brother, Eustorge, was Archbishop of Nicosia.)

Damietta was swiftly captured. Oliver of Paderborn, the master of Cologne’s cathedral school, who went on the Fifth Crusade, wrote in admiration of the Templars’ ability to fight in the waterlogged terrain of the Nile Delta, using both a fleet of ships and pontoons, and being able to negotiate the swamps on horseback. Warfare of this sort would not normally be waged in the sun-baked hills and valleys of Palestine, and that the Templars were so effective in the capture of Damietta proved that they were military strategists and engineers of genius.

The crusaders’ initial success moved the Egyptian Sultan, al-Kamil, Saladin’s brother, to offer them Jerusalem in return for Damietta. Pelagius, the Papal legate and self appointed leader of the Crusade, rejected the offer. As with Richard and the question of Jerusalem on the Third Crusade, the Montaigu brothers had argued that Jerusalem could not be held unless the lands beyond the Jordan were also ceded to the crusaders, and this was something that was not part of al-Kamil’s offer. They decided to wait for further reinforcements before continuing with the Crusade, believing that the cause would be greatly aided by the arrival of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. When it became apparent that an Imperial army was not going to materialise, Pelagius ordered an advance up the Nile. The Templars were reluctant, believing that the Crusade’s resources were overstretched. Their misgivings proved to be correct. When the Frankish army reached the town of Mansurah, al-Kamil’s forces cut off the crusaders’ rear and blocked their path ahead by opening the sluice gates; the Crusade was literally flooded into submission. Pelagius had no choice but to accept al-Kamil’s terms and surrender Damietta. A truce of eight years was also agreed.

Despite Frederick’s failure to appear, the general feeling remained that he would fulfil his vow to go on crusade, a vow he had taken at his coronation in Frankfurt in 1212. The grandson of Frederick Barbarossa, who had died while on the Third Crusade in 1190, Frederick II was one of the most extraordinary characters of his age. He was raised in Sicily and was elected king at the age of three. He had a naturally enquiring mind, and became fluent in not just Italian, French and German, but also Greek, Latin and Arabic. In choosing to rule from Sicily, Frederick created a political and cultural gap that was far wider than the straits of Messina, which separated the island from the Italian mainland, might suggest: he had a pronounced interest in Arabic culture, and his bodyguard was made up entirely of Saracens. He was rumoured to be an atheist, and certainly had what might be termed a scientific outlook on nature, which led to a number of bizarre and sometimes cruel experiments: children were raised in complete silence in order to observe what language they would utter when they were old enough to talk (this would therefore prove what language Adam and Eve had spoken in the Garden of Eden); a man was imprisoned in a wine barrel to see if his soul could be seen departing from his body at the moment of death; two men – one indolent, the other active – were killed and then dissected in order to find out how their lifestyles had affected their internal organs. Rumours abounded about Frederick’s private life, and he certainly seems to have had somewhat liberal attitudes to sex. He defended the Jews of Germany against charges of the ritual murder of Christian children, and, at one point, is said to have seriously considered converting to Islam, which would have made him, as Holy Roman Emperor, neither holy, Roman nor emperor.

Frederick and his army finally landed at Acre on 7 September 1228. It had been a difficult passage: Frederick’s forces had to put in at Otranto because of illness; and this delay had enraged the new pope, Gregory IX, so much that he excommunicated the Emperor. When he finally set sail again the following spring, Frederick was excommunicated again for attempting to go on crusade while excommunicated. Frederick was not unduly bothered by this, but, by the time he reached Acre that autumn, word of his excommunications had spread among the clergy and baronage of Outremer. This officially meant that Frederick could no longer command the Crusade, and the Latins were split along Papal–Imperial lines. Most of the Frankish barons, the Templars and the Hospitallers sided with the Pope – the Templars, after all, were answerable to none save the pontiff himself – while the Teutonic Knights sided with Frederick. Furthermore, Frederick’s wife, Isabel, had died giving birth to their son Conrad that May, and, as his claim to the crown of Jerusalem was through his marriage to her, he was technically no longer king either, merely the regent for the infant Conrad.

Perhaps because of his dubious status as both leader of the Sixth Crusade and as King of Jerusalem, Frederick began to assert his authority by marching to ‘Atlit and demanding that the Templars hand the castle over to a German garrison (presumably to be placed under the control of the Teutonic Knights). The Templars refused to let Frederick in and he returned to Acre. His next move was to march on Jaffa. The Templars and the Hospitallers would not accept Frederick’s command, and followed the Imperial forces a day’s journey behind. By the time they had reached Arsuf, Frederick delegated his command to his generals, therefore making it possible for the two main military orders to rejoin the Crusade. Now expecting to engage the enemy, the Templars were to be frustrated by a coup of staggering proportions – Frederick regained Jerusalem through diplomacy.

The recovery of the Holy City came as a complete surprise to the military orders and to the barons of Outremer; to Frederick, however, it was something he had possibly been expecting. Even before he left Sicily, Frederick had received the Emir Fakhr ad-Din ibn as-Shaikh, al-Kamil’s ambassador, at court in Palermo; the Emir brought the Emperor news that al-Kamil would return Jerusalem to Christian control if Frederick promised to help the Sultan in his campaign to recapture Damascus. Frederick had not given al-Kamil a definite answer, and, during the negotiations conducted while on crusade, the subject had naturally come up again. By this time, however, Frederick had received news that the situation back home had taken a severe turn for the worse, with war breaking out between an Imperial army under Reginald of Spoleto, and a papal army under the former King of Jerusalem, John of Brienne, and he was anxious to return to Palermo. Although the thought of a successful Christian–Muslim alliance against al-Kamil’s enemies in Damascus might have appealed to Frederick’s ego, it would have been the greatest outrage of all time in the eyes of the Pope and Western leaders; quite what would have happened is difficult to imagine. A compromise was therefore reached in which Frederick and al-Kamil saved face – Jerusalem was returned to the Franks, but the Temple Mount was to remain in Muslim control. The city itself was to remain undefended, being connected to the coastal cities by a thin corridor of land. The military orders were forbidden from carrying out reinforcements on their castles, and a ten-year truce between the two leaders was agreed.

Despite this historic achievement, the recovery of Jerusalem led to the pious on both sides of accusing their respective leaders of treachery, and it very nearly led to a civil war among the Franks. Frederick was crowned King of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on 17 March 1229, despite the fact that the city had been placed under interdict by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Gerold of Lausanne, should the Emperor arrive. The interdict for bade any church ceremonies from taking place whilst Frederick was within the walls of the city, but it made no difference – with no priests to crown him, Frederick simply crowned himself. The Templars and the Hospitallers stayed away, leaving only the loyal Teutonic Knights to guard the Emperor and King. Their great Grand Master, Herman von Salza, delivered an oration in which Frederick forgave the Pope for opposing him (a none too subtle reference to Frederick’s double excommunication), and promised to do everything he could to defend the Church and the Empire. Frederick signed himself God’s ‘Vicar on Earth’, a title which was normally reserved for the pontiff, thus throwing down the gauntlet. For Frederick, the enemy was not al-Kamil, but the Papacy.

After the ceremony, Frederick made a tour of Jerusalem. With typical Muslim diplomacy, al-Kamil had ordered the muezzins not to call the faithful to prayer while Frederick was in the city. Frederick, however, apparently wanted to hear the prayer-call – citing it as his reason for coming to Jerusalem – and when he entered the Dome of the Rock, he threw out a priest who had attempted to enter with the Imperial entourage, threatening to pluck out the man’s eyes if he attempted it again. Frederick then noticed a wooden lattice that had been placed over a window inside the Dome. It was explained to him that it had been placed there to keep the sparrows out, and Frederick, using the disparaging Muslim term for the Franks, replied, ‘God has now sent you pigs.’

It was when Frederick returned to Acre that the ‘pigs’ nearly rose against him. He found Gerold and the Templars assembling forces to wrest Jerusalem from his control and attack Damascus. A tense stand-off ensued outside the city walls. It descended into a slanging match, with Frederick hurling insults at both the Patriarch and the Templars, in particular the Grand Master, Peter de Montaigu. Things had reached a spectacular all-time low in Templar–Imperial relations, so much so that both the Grand Master and the Emperor were each concerned for their physical safety. According to the chronicler Philip of Novara, Frederick was planning to kidnap a number of Frankish barons – and Peter de Montaigu – and have them tried at a kangaroo court before having them executed. Counter-propaganda circulated that the Templars were planning to assassinate Frederick whilst he was in Jerusalem, and the Emperor, possibly aware of the plot, only spent two nights in the city. Before Frederick left the Holy Land, he attempted to storm the Temple compound in Acre without success. When he finally did leave, at dawn on 1 May 1229, the jeering crowds pelted him with dung.

Frederick’s return to the West did not mark the end of his involvement in the affairs of Outremer. In 1231, his bailli, or representative, Richard Filangieri, arrived with an Imperial force and tried to seize Acre. Although unsuccessful, he did manage to establish a base at Tyre, where he remained a thorn in the side of the Templars and the anti-Frederick camp. In 1232, the new Templar Grand Master, Armand de Périgord, was one of those who attempted to mediate between Filangieri and aggrieved Frankish barons, but the attempt at reconciliation failed.

For the remainder of the 1230s, the Templars found themselves mainly concerned with local disputes, such as mounting campaigns against local warlords like the Sultan of Hamah when he failed to pay his annual tribute (protection money, in modern parlance), or Muslim foragers who came too close to the Templar stronghold of ‘Atlit. It was only the imminent ending of the ten-year truce between Frederick and al-Kamil that brought the Templars back into the wider sphere and saw them once again adopt an anti-Imperial stance.

As 1239 approached, Pope Gregory preached a new crusade, knowing how vulnerable Jerusalem was and fearful that Latin possessions could be wiped off the map altogether. Only one minor French noble, Theobald, Count of Champagne, took the Cross. He arrived in the East on 1 September 1239 and, like the participants of the Second Crusade before him, immediately failed to grasp the complexities of the political situation in Outremer. He found that the Franks, encouraged by the Templars, had made an alliance with the ruler of Damascus – in return for helping the Damascene forces against the Egyptians, various lands seized by the Muslims would be returned to Christian control. (This included the great Templar fortress of Safad, which had been lost at Hattin, and the Order immediately began restoring it to its former strength.) Theobald was evidently unaware that al-Kamil had died in March of the previous year, resulting in anarchy in the Muslim world as his heirs and claimants fought amongst themselves for al Kamil’s title. A breakaway force under Henry, Count of Bar, decided to take advantage of the situation by attacking Egypt; they were decimated at Gaza. The blame fell not on Henry for underestimating the size of the Egyptian army, but on the Templars and Hospitallers – who had correctly assessed the danger posed by the Egyptian forces – for refusing to support him.

Another crusade arrived the following year, under the leadership of Richard, Duke of Cornwall. Richard, nephew of the Lionheart, brother of Henry III of England and brother-in-law of the Emperor, clearly hoped to make an impact, and immediately set to work trying to free Christian prisoners from both Damascus and Cairo and to get the lands recently ceded to the Franks officially recognised by all parties. Richard’s success was not to last. As soon as he had sailed for England, the Templars – unimpressed by Richard’s efforts and suspicious of Egyptian duplicity – attacked the city of Hebron, then under Egyptian control, followed by the recapture of Nablus.

With Richard gone, the Templars found themselves in open conflict, not just with Imperial forces under Frederick’s bailli, Richard Filangieri, but also with the Hospitallers. Although rivalry between the two Orders had always existed, settlements were usually found before any serious damage could be mutually inflicted. This time, however, the Hospital had opposed the Templars’ attack on Hebron and Nablus, favouring, like Richard of Cornwall, diplomacy with the Egyptians. With the Duke of Cornwall safely bound for home, Filangieri tried to capture Acre, using the Hospital compound there as his base. The Templars, once more adopting the militant anti-Imperialist stance they had taken under Peter de Montaigu, responded by participating in the subsequent attack on the Hospitaller headquarters, besieging it for six months. The situation came to a head with the arrival in the East of Thomas of Aquino, the Count of Acerra, to accept the crown of Jerusalem on behalf of Frederick’s son Conrad, who had now come of age. The Templar Grand Master, Armand de Périgord, was one of those who strongly opposed Conrad’s accession, and instead lent support to Alice, Dowager Queen of Cyprus, on the grounds that she was the nearest heir and was therefore the only legitimate candidate for the Regency of Jerusalem. Genoese and Venetian forces arrived and, in the summer of 1243, they helped the Franks in evicting Filangieri, Count Thomas and all the rest of the Imperial party from Tyre, claiming – with dubious legality – that Conrad’s claim to the throne of Jerusalem was invalid as he had not appeared in person to claim the crown.

The Franks had no time to put their house in order before a new crisis loomed, when, in early 1244, war broke out once again between Egypt and Damascus. This time, Egyptian forces were bolstered by the Khorezmian Turks, a tribe of ferocious nomads of mercenary persuasion. They flooded south from their base in Edessa and, on 11 July, attacked Jerusalem. The city finally fell a month later, on 23 August. The bones of Godfroi de Bouillon and other Kings of Jerusalem were disinterred and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was set alight. Jerusalem would never again be under Christian control. But worse was to follow.

The Khorezmians headed south, joining forces with the Egyptian army at Gaza. On 17 October at La Forbie, the Frankish forces attacked the combined Muslim forces. It was a disaster; the Damascenes deserted and the remaining Christian forces were slaughtered, with at least 800 being taken prisoner and sold into slavery in Egypt. Among them was the Templar Grand Master, Armand de Périgord, who disappeared into the bowels of an Egyptian jail and was never seen again. The Order also lost somewhere between 260 and 300 knights; only 33 Templars, 26 Hospitallers and three Teutonic Knights returned from the field. The following year, Damascus fell to the Egyptians, and it seemed that Outremer’s final hour had come.


Territory of the State of the Teutonic Order between 1260 and 1410; the locations and dates of major battles, including the Battle of Grunwald, are indicated by crossed red swords.

In military history the Poles celebrate their spectacular victory at Tannenberg, or Grünwald, over the Teutonic Order with special reverence, this is because the victory ensured that the newly created Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania survived and could put a halt to the advance of the German order.

The Teutonic Order had been founded as a Crusader order of knights at Acre in 1190 but transferred its seat of war in the name of Holy Christ to the Baltic, fighting Prussian, Latvian, Livonian and Estonian pagans. The pagan Prusy raided across the frontier into the Polish Duchy of Masovia and in order to put a stop to these attacks Duke Conrad invited the Teutonic Order to counter this menace. The knights arrived in 1230 and had crushed the Prusy within a decade of fierce fighting. But once their mission had been accomplished these increasingly unwelcome alien intruders refused to return to Germany. The Teutonic Order continued to expand and by 1283 controlled both western and eastern Pruthenia (Prussia) stretching from the Vistida River in the west to the port of Memel in the east. Later on, by merging with the Order of the Sword, the Teutonic Order gained control over the great trading port of Riga and the lands of Estonia, Livonia, Latvia and Courland. The order now controlled the entire eastern coastline of the Baltic and was a regional great power backed by a superlative army. Military might made the Teutonic Order unpleasant neighbours for Poland and Lithuania and for the Russian principality of Novgorod. Conquest by the Teutons was followed by colonization by German peasants and in 40 short years (1310-50) some 1400 German villages were established in Prussia.

The Teutonic Order’s inexorable Drang nach Osten (March to the East) was greatly facilitated by the state of political chaos and division that reigned in Poland during the 1200s – the country was divided into a series of squabbling duchies and lacked a united front against the German menace to the west and north. In 1320 Poland was united under King Wladislaw I (1260-1333; reigned 1320-33), and then in 1386 Wladislaw Jagiello (c. 1350-1434), the Grand Duke of Lithuania, married Queen Jadwiga of Poland. Two sworn enemies had united against the Teutonic Order, and the Lithuanians, by turning to Catholicism, deprived the order of a propaganda weapon – they were no longer fighting `pagans’. The Poles wanted a corridor to the sea and coveted above all the port city of Danzig but their overriding ambition – in the long term – was no doubt to crush the order once and for all. The order for its part saw its role as continuing the expansion ever southwards and eastwards at the expense of the Poles and Lithuanians. An uneasy period of `peace’ came to an end when the order and Poland-Lithuania clashed over the fate of the province of Samogitia.

Of the two sides, the order was militarily the stronger and more experienced. They had known almost constant success during the previous century and a half against Slav and pagan enemies. The core of their army consisted of the 2-3000-strong Teutonic Knights themselves. They were superbly mounted, armoured, armed and disciplined. In conventional cavalry battles between armoured knights they had few equals. But during the previous decades they had had to supplement their cavalry arm with a numerous German and European mercenary infantry force and specialist troops such as English archers, Genoese crossbowmen and Italian artillery. All in all the order was a formidable war machine compared with its enemies.

The united Royal, or Commonwealth, army under King Jagiello was in fact composed of two entirely different armies that had almost nothing in common in tactics, strategy, combat experience or equipment. The striking arm of the Polish army was its cavalry, which was composed of proud, aggressive and bold armoured knights on some of the finest mounts in Europe. These knights were, man for man, more than a match for their Teutonic enemy. But as for the infantry, it was as poorly equipped and disciplined as the cavalry were not. The Polish infantry was made up of peasant levies with only the most rudimentary weaponry, armour, training and discipline. They were no match for the Teutonic Knights in open battle except in terms of their customary almost suicidal Polish bravery. The Lithuanian army was more Asiatic than European in training, equipment and tactics since it had spent the last centuries fighting and defeating the formidable Mongols across western Russia. As a consequence they relied upon lightly armed and armoured cavalry that was highly mobile and fought the enemy with lightning raids, skirmishes and ambushes. It also contained a large contingent of `Tartar’ (Mongol) cavalry who served as mercenaries and were armed with bows and lassos and mounted on small shaggy steppe ponies. Although these Asian warriors and the Lithuanians were superb light cavalry they were of dubious value in a pitched battle against Teutonic Knights.


In December 1409 Jagiello and his cousin. Grand Duke Witold, Viceroy of Lithuania, met at Brest-Litovsk to discuss the forthcoming campaign. They agreed their armies would combine at Czerwinsk on the Vistula – it was not only equidistant between them but provided a safe and well-protected point to cross the mighty river. Meanwhile Jagiello secured a diplomatic triumph when he got the Landmeister (Master) of the Livonian Knights to agree to a truce. The Lithuanians thus would not face a diversionary attack in the rear from Livonia. The King of Hungary assured Jagiello that his alliance with the order, signed in March 1410, was not worth the paper it was written on: he would not take to the field with a large army. Thus Poland’s rear was also secured.

To keep the order guessing as to what their enemy’s intention was Witold sent Lithuanian forces against Memel while Jagiello’s forces raided the Pomeranian frontier. Jagiello wanted the order to believe that this was where he would attack. But the first ordeal was simply getting his Polish army across the Vistula. A pontoon bridge spanned the 601m (550-yard) wide river at Czerwinsk and it took the Poles three days to get across. By 30 June Jagiello’s Poles and Witold’s Lithuanians had combined. As they set off on 2 July the Bishop of Plock gave the troops a stirring sermon to fight the enemy to the death. His words would no doubt resound on the battlefield.

Meanwhile the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Ulrich von Jungingen, had failed to concentrate his army, as he was still in the dark about the intentions of his enemy. But he was quite sure the Poles and Lithuanians were easy prey – he could not believe the Poles (whom he looked upon as Slav `barbarians’) were technically advanced enough to construct pontoon bridges. As Jagiello’s army moved north from Gzerwinsk Ulrich was forced to move his army from Pomerania to Kurzetnik on the Drweya River. On 9 July the allied army crossed into Prussia singing Bogurodzica (Mother of God) having covered 90kni (82 miles) in a mere eight days. The following day the Polish-Lithuanian army camped at Lake Ruhkowo, opposite Kurzetnik where the order had erected a strong line of fixed defences. Jagiello was now commander-in¬ chief of the combined Royal army while Pan Zyndram of Maszkowice (a Cracow nobleman) was appointed commander-in¬ chief of the Polish army. Witold remained commander of the Lithuanians.


The Grand Master built a series of bridges across the Drwega and his army crossed over to the eastern bank where the battle was to be fought. Here in a rough triangle between the villages of Grünwald, Tannenberg and Ludwigsdorf (Lodwigowo) was the battlefield. It was far from ideal, as the visibility was poor due to the wooded and uneven terrain in this shallow depression that measured 3km (1.9 miles) across. Jagiello’s Polish-Lithuanian army numbered 40,000 cavalry and 10-20,000 infantry. The order’s army, reflecting its origins, numbered a mere 6000 foot soldiers, but was strong in cavalry – some 21,000. The Royal army’s camp was situated near Lake Lubien some 7.2km (4.5 miles) east of Grünwald. Early in the morning of 15 July a Polish knight, by the name of Hanko, rode into camp with news that the enemy was already drawn up for battle. The allies had only begun to get into formation and if Ulrich had attacked immediately he might have won a decisive victory. As it was, the Teutonic army had arrived earlier and dug ditches facing the enemy with two lines ready for battle. Here was open ground with a few woods and isolated copses of trees sloping for 6562m (6000 yards) at a gentle gradient down towards Tannenberg. There was a sharper gradient towards the thicker forests that flanked Lake Lubien. Towards the northern shore of the lake the terrain was highly unsuited to the order’s style of warfare. Lithuanians but the Grand Master wanted them to attack him first. Not wanting to displease Almighty God, whose support was ardently invoked by both sides, Jagiello had spent all morning in fervent prayer in his own private chapel in the camp. He finally bestirred himself and rode out with his bodyguard to the Weissberg – a small hill that gave a good view of the battlefield. If Ulrich thought the enemy would rush into battle in their usual impetuous manner then he was sadly mistaken. Three hours passed with the scorching sun rising ever higher without a single Pole or Lithuanian stirring. Ulrich called one of his aides, telling him if Jagiello could not be enticed into attacking


As stated above, had Ulrich attacked with his ready troops straightaway he might have crushed the disorganized Poles and Lithuanians but the Grand Master wanted them to attack him first. Not wanting to displease Almighty God, whose support was ardently invoked by both sides, Jagiello had spent all morning in fervent prayer in his own private chapel in the camp. He finally bestirred himself and rode out with his bodyguard to the Weissberg – a small hill that gave a good view of the battlefield. If Ulrich thought the enemy would rush into battle in their usual impetuous manner then he was sadly mistaken. Three hours passed with the scorching sun rising ever higher without a single Pole or Lithuanian stirring. Ulrich called one of his aides, telling him if Jagiello could not be enticed into attacking then he would have to be goaded by an appropriately insulting gesture.

The Grand Master sent out his two highest-ranking knights to provoke the `slow-witted’ Jagiello into attacking. One was the Imperial German herald, whose shield displayed the Black Eagle (symbol of the emperor) on a gold background, and the other – with a red griffon on a white background – was Duke Kasimir of Stettin. They rode forth across the fields under a white flag of truce and were politely received by Jagiello – who had hoped the Teutons might be willing to negotiate instead of fighting.

Instead the two knights, rudely and arrogantly, rebuked Jagiello and the Polish-Lithuanian army for `cowardice’. They should come out, said the knights, on the open field and fight like real men. Not surprisingly Jagiello lost his monumental patience, told the Teutonic Knights that they would regret their insolence, told them to return and gave Witold, the actual commander of the army, the signal to commence battle.

The Poles advanced in good order with lances and spears at the ready. On their right the Lithuanians, with their Russian and Tartar auxiliaries, could not be restrained any longer. With an almighty battle cry they crashed into the Teutonic lines, sweeping all before them until the Grand Master committed his knights. These heavily armoured troops fought the Lithuanians to a standstill. The Tartars tried to spring their trap of the controlled retreat to lure the Teutonic Knights into a trap but the plan backfired. Their own troops thought the Tartars were fleeing and began to flee themselves. The knights moved forward methodically, coldly butchering the fleeing Tartars, Lithuanians and Russians. Only three squadrons of Lithuanians and Russians held the line as Witold cut his way through the confusion to beg Jagiello to swing the Poles around and save the right flank from total collapse.

Jagiello could not have made out what was going as the whole battlefield was enveloped in thick dust stirred up by the hooves and feet of thousands of horses and men. A sudden downpour settled the dust and finally the two sides could make out what was going on and who was fighting whom. Witold called up his last remaining reserves to stem the Teutonic attack that had seemed unstoppable only half an hour before. But the enemy had clear visibility. Jagiello was only protected by a small guard and Grand Master Ulrich ordered an attack upon the Weissberg by some of his best knights. One of these, clad in white, rushed forward but was stopped by the king’s secretary. Count Zbigniew of Olesnica, who thrust a broken lance into the German’s side. The white knight fell to the ground where he was bludgeoned and stabbed to death by Polish infantrymen.


Meanwhile the fleeing Lithuanians, Tartars and Russians had been prevailed upon to halt and now streamed back as fast as they had fled before. They rode at the enemy with their customary courage and élan. A rain of arrows fell on the Teutonic troops as the Tartars, riding at full gallop, shot a them with their bows, while the Lithuanians and Russians used their swords and battleaxes to good effect.

The Poles had in the meantime held more than half of the order’s army at bay and had forced them back in close combat. As the Lithuanian army streamed back to the fight the Teutonic army began to give way, some even fled while others died where they stood. As the Teutons began to give way they were surrounded on all sides by the enemy. To their credit the Order did not capitulate or flee in wild disorder – most of them, including the Grand Master himself, fought to the death. Others who had been able to disengage from the advancing enemy continued to fight on the road that led to Grünwald. It was in this village that the Teutonic army made its last stand and fought to the death with the Poles and Lithuanians. By 7.00 p. m. the battle was finally won.

The Teutonic Order had ceased to exist as a proper military force. The number of Teutonic dead was 18,000 and 14,000 had been taken prisoner. The Grand Master, his deputies and most of his district commanders {komturs) lay dead on the battlefield. Only two senior knights had survived: Prince Conrad the White of Silesia and Duke Kasimir of Stettin – the same man, presumably, who had taunted Jagiello for his `cowardice’ at the outset of the battle.


Instead of marching on the Teutonic Order’s capital of Marienburg to the west the Polish-Lithuanian army – utterly exhausted – remained on the battlefield to divide the loot, rest and recuperate. When it was ready to march on Marienburg – held by Count Heinrich von Plauen and 3000 troops – it was too late. This immense fortress complex with stone walls 8.2m (27ft) high and 2.1m (7ft) thick and ample supplies of food and water proved impregnable. Jagiello’s victorious army arrived on 25 July but failed to make any headway during the two-month-long siege. The war would continue for years and the Order would recover. For the Prussians this defeat left a permanent, humiliating scar that never healed, and in 1914, General Paul von Hindenburg – a Prussian – named his epic World War I victory over the Imperial Russian army in the same region after the village of Tannenberg.