The End of the Fourth Crusade and the Early Years of the Latin Empire, 1204–5 Part I

The story of the Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204-61) is a convoluted and frustrating tale. The crusade had culminated in Baldwin’s coronation, but the attempt to consolidate this achievement meant years of warfare, brief periods of progress and peace and, for many of the main actors, a violent death. Yet the impact of the events of April 1204 went far beyond the walls of Constantinople. A change of such magnitude in the landscape of the Christian world had enormous consequences for many different peoples, not just those in and around the Byzantine Empire. The papacy, the Crusader States in the Levant, the families and countrymen of the crusaders back in western Europe, the Italian trading cities and the Muslim world: each had to calibrate and assess a political and religious topography that had never previously been conceived of. A full consideration of these issues would, however, fill another book and the main concern here is with the early years of the nascent Latin Empire.

In the first months of his reign Baldwin experienced two unexpected and agonising difficulties: the challenge of an internal rebellion and the tragedy of personal bereavement. After his coronation the new emperor started to allocate Byzantine lands to his followers, although many of these areas remained under hostile control. Baldwin had to defeat several challengers who included: Murtzuphlus, Alexius III, Theodore Lascaris (leader of a group of the Byzantine exiles and brother of Constantine Lascaris, the man elected emperor on the eve of the crusader conquest) and, most seriously of all, the powerful King Johanitza of Bulgaria. Given this formidable array of contenders there was every likelihood of a protracted and bloody fight to extend and sustain Latin rule in Greece, but before beginning this, the emperor had to confront an issue closer to home.

The March Pact of 1204 had stated that the unsuccessful candidate for the imperial throne would receive the Peloponnese peninsula and lands in Asia Minor. Following Baldwin’s coronation, Marquis Boniface wanted to renegotiate this: he wished to exchange the territories originally stipulated for the kingdom of Thessalonica, because the latter lay near the kingdom of Hungary – the royal house of his new wife. Boniface had a further interest in Thessalonica through his deceased brother Renier, who had been granted overlordship of the city by Manuel Comnenus as a part of his marriage gift in 1180. Villehardouin mentioned a ‘serious discussion of the pros and cons’ of the situation before Baldwin agreed to this proposal. Some of the emperor’s men opposed the idea, presumably because they had earmarked it for themselves and viewed it as a better prospect than territory in Asia Minor – land that was under threat from Theodore Lascaris and the Seljuk Turks. Boniface, however, had been the nominal leader of the crusade and, if Baldwin turned him down, he could simply leave for home, thereby depriving the Latins of one of their most powerful nobles. This fear of losing manpower had shaped the crusaders’ pre-election discussions and this same concern now surfaced again. The emperor granted Boniface the kingdom of Thessalonica, and amidst much rejoicing the marquis paid homage for the land.

The Latins’ first aims were to extinguish the threat of Murtzuphlus and to bring western Thrace under their authority. As Baldwin led a large army out from Constantinople, the aged doge and the infirm Louis of Blois, along with Conon of Béthune and Villehardouin, remained to preserve authority on the Bosphorus. The Latins’ initial target was Adrianople, a major city about 100 miles north-west of Constantinople, which soon submitted to an advance force led by Henry of Flanders. Murtzuphlus was known to be in the vicinity, but managed to stay ahead of the Latins to reach the settlement of Mosynopolis, around 160 miles west of Constantinople.

The ruler of this town was Alexius III, who had fled from the crusaders in July 1203. Might the two deposed emperors join forces to confront their mutual enemy? Initial contacts were extremely cordial. Alexius offered to give his daughter in marriage to Murtzuphlus (with whom she was already romantically involved) and suggested a formal alliance.

One day Murtzuphlus and a few companions came into Mosynopolis to dine and bathe. As soon as his principal guest arrived, Alexius took him aside into a private room where his men were waiting. They flung Murtzuphlus to the ground, held him down and tore his eyes out. The gestures of friendship had been a façade because Alexius III had no shred of trust for a man who had so callously murdered a rival, and he now showed similar ruthlessness in eliminating a challenger to his own position. Alexius III had signalled his determination to lead the opposition to the Latins alone. To Villehardouin this brutality was yet more evidence of the inherent duplicity of the Greeks: ‘Judge for yourselves, after hearing of this treachery, whether people who could treat each other with such savage cruelty would be fit to hold lands or would deserve to lose them?’ Once Baldwin heard of this gruesome act he marched towards Mosynopolis as fast as he could, but Alexius III departed and all the people of the region submitted to Latin rule.

At this moment, after years of close and effective co-operation, a serious rift developed between Baldwin and Boniface. Despite the emperor’s promise to give Thessalonica to the marquis, when Boniface asked permission to take control of the region and, at the request of its people, to fight off an incursion from the Bulgarians, Baldwin rejected the idea. The emperor decided to march there and take possession of the lands himself. Boniface was understandably enraged: ‘If you do, I shall not feel you are acting for my good. I must tell you clearly that I shall not go with you, but break with you and your army.’

Villehardouin was perplexed by these developments and wrote how ill-advised this breach was. One senses that his sympathies lay with Boniface and that he felt the emperor had taken bad counsel, perhaps from men who wanted parts of Thessalonica for themselves or who felt that the new emperor should assert his authority over the marquis. Baldwin would achieve the latter goal by going to the lands in person and then publicly bestowing them upon Boniface, rather than letting the marquis assume power by himself.

Furious at such shabby treatment, Boniface stormed away towards Demotika, south-west of Adrianople. Many nobles followed him, including the German contingent and warriors of the standing of Jacques of Avesnes and William of Champlitte. As Baldwin took possession of Thessalonica, Boniface made his displeasure clear: he seized the castle of Demotika from the emperor’s men and laid siege to Adrianople. Messengers rushed to Constantinople to tell Count Louis and Doge Dandolo of these troubling events. The senior crusaders cursed the people who had fomented this rupture, because they feared such divisions might expose them to the loss of all their hard-fought gains. Diplomacy was called for and once again Villehardouin came forward. He approached the marquis ‘as a privileged friend’ and reproached him for acting so rashly. Boniface countered by saying that his behaviour was entirely justified and that he had been grievously wronged. Eventually, Villehardouin persuaded him to place the matter in the hands of the doge, Count Louis, Conon of Béthune and himself. This core of men had been at the heart of the crusade throughout, and it is a mark of the respect in which they were held that Boniface agreed to this idea.

When Baldwin heard that the marquis had besieged Adrianople, his first reaction was one of anger and he wanted to rush to the city and confront him. The situation seemed to be spiralling out of control. Alas! What mischief might have resulted from this discord! If God had not intervened to put things right, it would have meant the ruin of Christendom,’ lamented Villehardouin.6 During the emperor’s stay outside Thessalonica a serious illness had hit the Latin camp. Amongst those who perished were the imperial chancellor, John of Noyon; Peter of Amiens, one of the heroes of the capture of Constantinople; and around 40 other knights. These losses were a grievous blow to the westerners and revealed how easily their numbers could be depleted. Perhaps such sad events brought Baldwin to his senses. When envoys from the crusaders in Constantinople arrived to mediate, some of his nobles decried this as impertinence. Baldwin, however, disagreed and came to see that, in the longer run, he could not alienate the quartet of senior men, as well as Marquis Boniface, and he consented to submit to the judgement of the four nobles.

Back in Constantinople the wise old heads quickly convinced the emperor of his mistake and of the need for reconciliation. Boniface was summoned to the city and many of his friends and allies came to greet him warmly. They organised a conference and decided that Thessalonica and its environs would be given to the marquis as soon as he handed over the castle of Demotika. When this was done, Boniface rode west to take hold of his rightful lands and most people in the region quickly came to recognise his authority.

It was at this point, in September 1204, after the resolution of this wasteful bout of in-fighting, that Villehardouin was able – for the only time in his history – to write of calm in Latin Greece. He said that ‘the land of Constantinople to Salonika [Thessalonica] was at peace. The road from one city to the other was so safe that although it took twelve days to cover the distance between them people were able to come and go as they pleased.’

The westerners began to extend their operations into the Greek islands and across the Bosphorus into Asia Minor. The Venetians took the islands of Corfu and Crete, two valuable and fertile areas in their own right, but also vital staging posts on the sea routes to and from the eastern Mediterranean. Louis of Blois planned the annexation of the duchy of Nicaea, although the count’s health remained poor and he sent the mighty Peter of Bracieux to make war on the Greeks there.

Around this same time the Latins achieved a genuine coup. The blinded Murtzuphlus had managed to escape from Alexius III and was trying to flee into Asia Minor, but informers betrayed his movements and he was captured and brought to Constantinople. The Latins were elated because at last they held the man who had murdered their candidate for the imperial throne, who had directed the fire-ships against them, and whose virulent anti-western invective had caused them so much suffering.

Murtzuphlus knew that he was going to pay a terrible price for his deeds and he could only hope that the westerners would be marginally less cruel than some of his own predecessors had been. In September 1185 Emperor Andronicus had met a particularly grisly fate. At the end of the coup that removed him from power he was seized by the supporters of Isaac Angelos, cast into prison and grotesquely tortured. One eye was gouged out, his teeth torn out, his beard pulled out and his right hand severed. He was paraded through the streets of Constantinople on the back of a mangy camel to face the spiteful savagery of the mob. Some poured human and animal excrement onto him, others pelted him with stones and a prostitute emptied a pot of her urine over his face. In the forum Andronicus was hung upside down and had his genitals hacked off. A few of the crowd thrust swords into his mouth, others between his buttocks, before finally, mercifully, Andronicus expired – surely one of the most public and hideous deaths of the medieval age.8 Could Murtzuphlus hope for greater mercy from the Latin ‘barbarians’?

Some form of hearing or show-trial was held and Murtzuphlus tried to justify the killing of Alexius IV. He claimed that the young emperor was a traitor to his people and that many others had supported his (Murtzuphlus’s) actions. There was, of course, some truth to these arguments, but no heed was paid to the Greek’s desperate pleas and he was sentenced to death. The question remained: how should the captive die?

Baldwin consulted with his nobles. Some recommended that Murtzuphlus should be dragged through the streets, others simply wanted him hanged. It was the doge of Venice who came forward with the solution. He argued that Murtzuphlus was too important a man to be hanged. ‘For a high man, high justice!’ he exclaimed. ‘In this city there are two columns . . . let us make him mount to the top of one of them and then have him thrown to the ground.’ The match of this play on words and the unpleasantness of the proposal pleased everyone and they agreed on death by precipitation. The form of punishment may also have been known to Baldwin and Henry of Flanders because similar executions had taken place earlier in the twelfth century in the city of Bruges.

In November 1204 Murtzuphlus was taken to the column of Theodosius in the Forum of the Bull. As he was led up the narrow steps inside, the baying of the crowd must have been temporarily muffled by the interior of the pillar. He had, of course, seen the column many times and knew where he stood, although now his lack of sight added a further element of hopelessness to his doomed situation.

Emerging from the narrow, cylindrical stairwell into the clear air on the top of the pillar, the defeated emperor must have sensed the space below him. There is no record of any prayers or speeches; one sharp push and he was propelled into the void, where his body fell feet first, accelerating and plummeting headlong, before twisting sideways to thump violently onto the stone ground, a ruptured and shattered sack of flesh and bone. Villehardouin claimed that the decoration of the column included a representation of a falling emperor and marvelled at the coincidence of this with Murtzuphlus’s death.

Within a few weeks the Latins would remove another challenger to their power when Alexius III was captured by Boniface near Thessalonica. The emperor’s scarlet stockings and imperial robes were dispatched to Constantinople to show what had happened and he was imprisoned. Alexius was not a figure so reviled as Murtzuphlus and he was sent to the marquis’s homelands in northern Italy.

Towards the end of 1204 the brief period of calm mentioned by Villehardouin was about to come to a close. Serious opposition to Latin rule began to appear: the Byzantine noble Theodore Lascaris led uprisings in Asia Minor, and in northern Thrace King Johanitza stirred tensions near Philoppopolis. The westerners faced the prospect of having to fight a war on two fronts – a task compounded by the failing health of their leaders. The doge found it difficult to leave Constantinople; Louis of Blois remained ill; and Hugh of Saint-Pol became crippled by gout that meant he could not walk. Fortunately, a large group of crusaders led by Stephen of Perche and Reynald of Montmirail, both cousins of Louis of Blois, arrived from Syria.

Stephen had left the main body of crusaders back in the autumn of 1202 when illness prevented him from embarking at Venice with the main fleet, although he had then chosen to sail to the Holy Land rather than Constantinople. Reynald had taken part in a diplomatic mission to the Levant following the capture of Zara but, contrary to his promise, he had failed to return to attack Byzantium. By late 1204, however, both men wished to assist their fellow-crusaders and perhaps hoped for a share in the spoils of victory.

The coming of Reynald and Stephen was not, however, wholly a cause for celebration: they carried the terrible news that Emperor Baldwin’s wife, Marie, had died of plague in the Holy Land. Her connections with the crusade were tragic and complex. Her brother, Thibaut of Champagne, had been the original choice to lead the expedition before his death. Marie had taken the cross with Baldwin, but could not accompany him because she was pregnant with their second child (they already had an infant daughter, Joan, born in 1199 or early 1200). Once she had given birth to another girl, Marie set off for Marseille, leaving her babies in the care of one of Baldwin’s younger brothers. Sadly, the two girls never laid eyes on either of their parents again. In the spring of 1204 Marie sailed towards Acre, ignorant of her husband’s second attack on Constantinople. Almost immediately after she landed, however, messengers told of his success and summoned her to Constantinople as the empress. Marie was delighted, but before she could begin her journey she fell victim to an outbreak of plague that ravaged the Crusader States at that time. She died in August 1204 and her husband’s envoys brought only a corpse to Constantinople, rather than the emperor’s adored and admired wife. Baldwin’s fidelity and devotion, so praised by Niketas Choniates, were cruelly unrewarded and he was crushed by these mournful tidings.

The End of the Fourth Crusade and the Early Years of the Latin Empire, 1204–5 Part II

The last few months of 1204 and the early months of 1205 saw an exhausting round of conflicts in Asia Minor, the Peloponnese (where Villehardouin’s young nephew fought with distinction) and the lands near Thessalonica. The Greeks realised that the Latins were severely stretched and they proposed an alliance with King Johanitza. They promised to make him emperor, to obey him and to slay all the French and Venetians in the empire. Given the history of serious enmity between the Bulgarians and the Byzantines, this was a strange combination, but it clearly showed Theodore Lascaris’s determination to remove the Latins.

In January 1205 the westerners lost Count Hugh of Saint-Pol who succumbed to gout. He was buried in the church of St George of Mangana in the tomb of Sclerene, an eleventh-century imperial mistress, although soon afterwards his remains were transferred back to northern France and laid to rest in the abbey of Cercamp in his home county.

Around the same time the most serious revolt yet broke out when the key city of Adrianople rose in rebellion. The emperor called his principal advisers together. The doge, Louis of Blois and Baldwin agreed to pull in as many men as possible and to concentrate on this deepening crisis.

As the first contingents arrived from Asia Minor, Baldwin was eager to head towards Adrianople with all possible speed. For the first time in months, Louis of Blois was fit to take his place in the army and together they prepared to set out. Henry of Flanders and many other men were still to come, but Baldwin decided to press on with just 140 knights. On 29 March they reached Adrianople to see banners proclaiming allegiance to King Johanitza fluttering from well-defended walls and towers. Despite their lack of numbers the Latins mounted two attacks on the gates. As Baldwin and Louis directed operations they were joined by another familiar figure from the senior hierarchy of the crusaders. To demonstrate the importance of this campaign a force of Venetian knights had joined the northern Europeans, and at their head was Dandolo himself. The doge had ignored his age and apparent infirmity – he had asked the pope for absolution from his vow to allow him to return home – and insisted on commanding his men on this rare, and crucial, inland expedition.

Johanitza learned of the Latins’ weakness and hurried south to Adrianople with as large a force as he could muster. Alongside his own knights he had a huge group (numbering 14,000, according to Villehardouin) of mounted Cumans, fierce pagan nomads whose endurance and brutality made them formidable opponents.

The Latins struggled to find supplies and spent Easter 1205 desperately foraging for food and trying to build siege engines and dig mines so that they could break into the city. All the while Johanitza moved closer, until on 13 April an advance force of Cumans raided the westerners’ camp. The call to arms was raised and the knights rushed to confront the enemy. The Cumans soon wheeled away and, for once, the Latins’ customary discipline eluded them and they carried on the chase, quickly becoming spread out. The Cumans swiftly turned and unleashed volleys of arrows at their opponents, wounding many of the Latins’ horses, but killing few. The westerners faced about and retreated – it had been a close escape.

The leadership was furious. A meeting was called to demand much tighter control and orders were issued proclaiming that no one should do more than form up in proper order outside the camp. Nobody was to move unless explicitly ordered. The whole army knew that there would be a major battle the following day and the next morning the men said mass and confessed their sins.

In the early afternoon the Cumans charged forward once more. First out of the camp was Count Louis of Blois. Disastrously, he completely ignored the previous night’s agreement and set off in hot pursuit of the enemy, urging Baldwin to follow suit. Perhaps Louis was trying to compensate for his sickness-induced failure to take part in the conquest of Constantinople. If so, his need to perform glorious deeds overcame any sense of discipline at a terrible cost. As the excitement of the pursuit invigorated Louis’s men, they harried the pagan warriors for miles before, inevitably, beginning to lose formation and tire – exactly what their opponents hoped for. As the Cumans had shown only the previous day, their tough nomadic ponies and expert riders were skilled in the art of turning on the retreat. Many, many times crusader armies had been defeated by Turkish or Syrian troops performing just such a manoeuvre and the impetuosity of the count of Blois meant that another force of men was doomed to join that sad list. With the strength of the Latin onslaught hopelessly diluted across a broad front, the Cumans swung around and hurtled back towards the westerners, screaming and firing their arrows.

Shocked by this, some of the less experienced men in the Latin army – probably recruits from Constantinople – began to panic and the line rapidly started to disintegrate. Baldwin had been forced to follow the initial charge; he caught up with the fighting and found himself close to Louis. The count had been badly wounded and was soon knocked from his horse. Amidst the churning frenzy of the conflict the Latin knights plunged towards the stricken noble. They drove the Cumans away from Count Louis and, in the vortex of battle, created a small space sufficient to raise him to his feet and examine his wounds. They begged him to go back to camp because of the severity of his injuries, but he refused: ‘God forbid that I should ever be reproached for flying from the field and abandoning my emperor.’ Regardless of the Latins’ bravery, sheer weight of numbers started to tell and one by one they began to fall. Still, however, Baldwin urged his men on. He swore to fight to the last and defended himself with even greater vigour, but on this occasion chivalric loyalty and knightly prowess were not enough. The Cumans closed in on their prey. Inevitably, perhaps, given the number of battles they had fought, the Latins’ good fortune had finally run out. ‘In the end, since God permits such disasters to occur, the French were defeated,’ mourned Villehardouin. Louis was killed and Baldwin was overcome and taken prisoner. The Cumans slaughtered many other veteran knights and, in one devastating engagement, a large part of the crusader elite was ripped away.

Those who escaped rushed back to the camp where Villehardouin was in charge. By now it was mid-afternoon and he gathered together a force of men to try to halt the Cumans’ pursuit of his ailing colleagues. Their efforts succeeded and the pagans started to drop back in the early evening. Villehardouin found himself the senior surviving French noble. He sent word of the disaster to the Venetians, whose men had not been involved in the day’s conflict. The doge and Geoffrey must have been shattered – their emperor was in captivity and many close friends and brave knights were dead. The only option was to retreat. The canny Dandolo suggested the best way to get a head-start on Johanitza. Even as night fell, he advised Villehardouin to keep his own troops lined up outside the camp and, at last, the Cumans returned to their base on the far side of Adrianople. The doge himself went around the tents, encouraging the Latins to take heart and telling them to put on their armour and wait for orders. When it was completely dark they marched away as quietly as possible. The fact that the Cumans had withdrawn from the field helped the westerners to leave undetected.

Their target was Rodosto, a three-day march away on the coast, but the wounded hampered any quick progress. One group of Lombards split away and managed to reach Constantinople within two days (16 April), where they broke the awful news to Peter Capuano, the papal legate, and Conon of Béthune, who was in charge of the city.

As the defeated troops struggled back towards Rodosto they met some comrades who had come over from Asia Minor and were heading to join the main force. Many of these men, such as Peter of Bracieux, were vassals of Count Louis and were grief-stricken at the loss of their lord. There was little time for mourning, however: Johanitza had marched up to Adrianople, discovered that the Latins had fled and was now in hot pursuit. Villehardouin urged the new arrivals to take over as the rearguard while the wounded and the weary carried on to Rodosto as swiftly as they could. They managed to reach the town in safety, where they encountered Henry of Flanders and more reinforcements. Had the whole force assembled before riding to Adrianople, the outcome of the campaign – assuming greater discipline – might well have been very different. The Latins were now in a deeply perilous position and they made Henry of Flanders regent of the empire, pending his brother’s possible release from captivity. In the meantime, as Johanitza’s men ravaged across the region, almost the entire mainland territory of the Latins went over to the Bulgarian king.

Back at Constantinople the remaining leaders resolved to ask for help from Pope Innocent, from Flanders, France and other countries in the West. In doing so they were following a practice long established by the Christian settlers in the Holy Land. Throughout the twelfth century the settlers in the Levant had turned to their fellow-Catholics in Europe seeking military and financial support. Sometimes they had been rewarded with a new crusade; more usually, however, only small groups of knights responded to these appeals because – excepting the most urgent of occasions, such as the fall of Jerusalem in 1187 – the remainder were too occupied in their own affairs to help. In 1205 the Latins chose the bishop of Soissons and two senior French knights to convey these requests while their colleagues remained at Constantinople in fear of their lives.

Around the same time, Doge Dandolo sent a letter to Pope Innocent asking to be absolved from his pilgrim’s vow to relieve him of the need to journey to Jerusalem. Perhaps the news of the plague that was affecting Acre, coupled with his age and the prospect of another long voyage to the Levant, caused the Venetian to fear for his survival in the next part of the expedition. He may also have wanted to return home to die and to better assure the succession of his son as doge. Dandolo assured the pope that his departure would not affect the presence of the Venetian fleet and insisted that it would continue to serve the crusade as arranged.

The case for recognising Dandolo’s increasing frailty was obvious, yet Innocent politely, but firmly, rejected it. He had abhorred the doge since the siege of Zara and here – gently and, one suspects, with some degree of satisfaction – he turned the other crusader leaders’ praise of the old man back against Dandolo. Surely, Innocent argued, on account of the importance that Emperor Baldwin and his colleagues attached to the doge’s advice, it would not be prudent to approve the request, lest it caused the army going to the Holy Land to fail. Furthermore, he continued, ‘someone or other could fault you’ for having been a crusader who had avenged the injuries done to the Venetians at Zara, but who had not avenged the injuries done to Christ by the enemies of the faith. Innocent intimated, therefore, that he was acting in Dandolo’s own best interests by protecting him from accusations of wrongful motivation and insisting that he stayed on the crusade.

Innocent’s response was, in fact, almost irrelevant because in June 1205 there was yet another heavy – if by now hardly unexpected – blow to the Latin presence in Byzantium when, aged over 90, Dandolo died. He was buried with due honour in the church of Hagia Sophia, where a small memorial to him still stands. The doge was probably the most remarkable of all the crusaders: neither his age nor his blindness prevented his agile mind and unparalleled grasp of strategy from exerting the most powerful influence over the expedition. If his insistence on the campaign at Zara brought him criticism from some quarters, it is noticeable that his standing amongst his fellow-leaders on the crusade remained extremely high; and on many occasions his were the ideas and plans employed by the westerners. His loss meant that only Marquis Boniface (based at Thessalonica), Conon of Béthune, Villehardouin and Henry of Flanders remained alive, and at liberty, from amongst the senior nobility who had set out on the original expedition.

While some knights and nobles from the Fourth Crusade settled in Greece and began to set up flourishing dynasties, many of the other crusaders returned home. A number travelled via the Holy Land where they completed their pilgrimage vows; the others sailed directly back to the West. They had been away for more than three years. Children had grown up, parents and relatives may have died, lordships and abbacies changed hands. The crusaders themselves had endured the most appalling hardships, had seen horrors and wonders beyond imagination, and now they came home, relieved and thankful to have lived through the great ordeal. They carried news of fine deeds, of the forging of new friendships, the loss of companions, the splendour of Constantinople and the perfidy of the Greeks. Many brought back treasure and valuable reliquaries that did much to repay the money they had needed to set out in 1202.

Robert of Clari probably departed for France in the late spring of 1205. The death of his lords, Peter of Amiens (summer 1204) and Hugh of Saint-Pol (March 1205), may well have prompted him to leave shortly before the defeat at Adrianople. Robert brought back various relics, including a part of the True Cross, one of several treasures he gave to his local abbey of Corvey. Aside from this and the writing of his narrative we know nothing more of his fate, other than that he was alive in 1216, the last event mentioned in his work.

For prominent men, such as Bishop Conrad of Halberstadt, there is a record of their journey. Conrad sailed to the Holy Land in August 1204 and his voyage from Constantinople to Tyre took almost seven weeks. Soon after he arrived, the archbishop of Tyre prepared to set sail for Greece, and in the light of Conrad’s status as a bishop, he asked the German to look after his flock during his absence. Conrad gladly agreed and took up residence in the archiepiscopal palace where he consecrated various churchmen and conscientiously oversaw the repair of the city walls after an earthquake. He also toured pilgrimage sites, including the church of Our Lady in Tortosa (a beautiful building that still exists today in southern Syria) where the saint cured him of a bout of fever. The following spring Conrad took leave of the people of the Holy Land and, after a two-month voyage, reached Venice on 28 May 1205. News of his return had been sent ahead and the dean of Halberstadt and others from the church travelled down to Venice to meet their superior. The Venetians also paid Conrad great respect and on the day of Pentecost (29 May) he was led by Renier Dandolo, the vice-doge, and the clergy of Venice to St Mark’s church where they celebrated mass.

Before travelling north to Germany, Conrad visited the pope. He carried with him a letter from King Aimery of Jerusalem (1197–1205) and the churchmen of the Holy Land, which recommended him as a person worthy of apostolic favour. Innocent duly acknowledged this and, fortified by a papal benediction, Conrad began the last leg of his journey. As he approached Halberstadt, Duke Bernhard of Saxony, his nobles and churchmen came out to meet the bishop and celebrate his homecoming. Conrad obviously had a good eye for public display and he arranged for a bier to be carried before him upon which were shown the relics he had taken from Constantinople. The entire local population flocked to see such a great spectacle and all cried out blessings on the man who had brought such valuable articles back to their land.

On 16 August 1205 Conrad was escorted to the doors of the church of St Stephen where the clerics happily sang the antiphon Iustum deduxit Dominus (‘The Lord has led forth the just man). Then Conrad delivered a sermon identifying all of the relics that he had gathered – objects that would now reside in the church. He also proclaimed an annual festival throughout the diocese to honour the day of the relics’ arrival and, in one sense, to commemorate his own achievement. These joyful events offer a glimpse of what some returning crusaders could expect. Not all could boast the reception arranged at Halberstadt, but the process of celebration, reception of relics and then storytelling was, in outline at least, repeated widely across western Europe.

The End of the Fourth Crusade and the Early Years of the Latin Empire, 1204–5 Part III

If the final destiny of some of the crusaders is relatively clear, the fate of the first Latin ruler of Constantinople was not. As we saw above, Emperor Baldwin had been captured by King Johanitza at the Battle of Adrianople in April 1205. Niketas Choniates reported that the prisoner was taken to Tirnovo, Johanitza’s capital, deep in the Balkan mountains, where he was cast into a dungeon with metal bands clamped around his neck. Pope Innocent III wrote to Johanitza to try to convince him to release the emperor, but in vain. By the summer of 1206 it was generally believed that Baldwin was dead, and on 20 August Henry of Flanders was crowned emperor in the Hagia Sophia.

The precise details of his brother’s death are elusive and for that reason generated an intense amount of speculation. Niketas reported that when, in the summer of 1205, one of Johanitza’s Greek allies, Alexander Aspietes, defected to the Latins, the king was thrown into an uncontrollable rage. He ordered Baldwin to be brought before him and commanded that his legs be chopped off at the knees and his arms be severed at the elbows. In this horrifying, crippled condition, the mutilated emperor was cast into a ravine where he lived for three days before expiring. A sanitised confirmation of Baldwin’s fate was to come from Johanitza himself, who replied to Innocent III’s request to free the emperor by writing that this was not possible because the prisoner had died. Unsurprisingly perhaps, he did not provide any further details.

Two further accounts offer even more imaginative versions of the Fleming’s fate. The Greek writer George Akropolites claimed that Johanitza cut off the emperor’s head, hollowed out the skull and used it as a drinking cup. As we saw earlier, Gervaise of Bazoches had claimed the dubious precedent for a crusader’s head becoming a posthumous drinking vessel, a fate also shared by the Antiochene noble, Robert fitz-Fulk the Leper, after he died at the hands of Tughtegin of Damascus in 1119. It is also possible that Johanitza was copying one of his own ancestors who had treated enemies in this way; in any case, Akropolites confirms that Baldwin died in captivity.

Alberic of Trois-Fontaines supplies a different story and one that he himself voiced doubts about, although he still chose to include it in his chronicle. He described how a Flemish priest journeying through Tirnovo had heard that Johanitza’s wife tried to seduce Baldwin and get him to promise to take her away if she would free him. Given Baldwin’s impeccable behaviour thus far, even as a widower, he was unlikely to be tempted by his captor’s wife. When he spurned her, the angry queen told Johanitza that Baldwin had promised to marry her if she helped him to escape. The king was furious and started drinking heavily; then, in his drunken rage, he ordered that Baldwin should be executed and had his corpse thrown to the dogs. The truth of this version may be tenuous, but again the end result was the emperor’s death in captivity.

Baldwin’s disappearance did not just cause problems in Constantinople, but also raised considerable difficulties back in his native Flanders. It seems that some did not believe – or did not choose to believe – that he was dead. The ambiguous status of a prisoner meant that it was hard for families to move on with their lives: some captives died in jail, a few were incarcerated for decades and then returned home, while others simply disappeared. The fact that Count Baldwin had left two infant daughters, and that he ruled over one of the most wealthy and important areas of northern Europe, created conditions tipe for controversy, and various political players tried to exploit the situation for their own ends. The detailed ramifications of this episode are not relevant here, but an historian has drawn attention to a bizarre episode that stemmed from the turmoil in Flanders and the mysterious fate of its crusading emperor.

After Baldwin’s death, his daughter Joan steered the county into a closer relationship with the French crown – a policy opposed by some within Flanders. In 1224 a hermit in the village of Mortaigne, near Tournai, was identified as a crusading companion of Baldwin, but this he denied. Within a year, however, as various nobles and clerics came to see him and talk to him, the man eventually stated that he was the count himself. In Holy Week 1225 he showed scars that the real Baldwin had allegedly possessed. Inconveniently, however, he was about a foot shorter than the count, his local geography was hazy and his French was rather more erratic than people remembered. One writer put these factors down to advancing age and time spent in Greek ptisons. With this flexible approach to memory and physical likeness, the town of Valenciennes received the individual they called ‘emperor’ and he took a ceremonial bath and had a shave. Such was their delight at his ‘reappearance’ that the monks of St John’s abbey kept his whiskers and drank his bathwater.

The man now began to tell of his escape from Johanitza, the tortures that he had endured (which included the loss of some toes), his suffering during several periods of captivity at the hands of Muslims, and his final journey back to the West. Joan of Flanders sent her lover to interview the hermit and he was convinced that the man was her long-lost father. More and more towns came out in support of the returned hero – and thereby created a vehicle to assert Flemish independence from France and to turn against Joan’s rule. She tried to have him discredited: Baldwin’s former chancellor could not recognise him, and the hermit could not remember the old court official. In spite of testimonials by men claiming to have seen Baldwin killed on the battlefield (another error because, as we have seen, all the sources indicated that he was captured), the imposter rallied massive popular support and Joan was forced to flee to Paris. The hermit was taken so seriously that King Henry III of England wrote to him to ask for a renewal of earlier alliances between Flanders and England.

Joan turned to her ally, King Louis VIII of France (1223–6), for help. The king sent his aunt Sibylla, who was also Baldwin’s younger sister, to meet the claimant. She did not recognise the man, but hid this from the hermit and convinced him to meet King Louis. Before this, with his confidence now at a peak, the impostor processed through Flanders dressed as an emperor and with his adherents walking ahead, bearing a cross and banners. He even issued charters, knighted ten men and confirmed documents with a seal that described him as the count of Flanders and Hainault and the emperor of Constantinople. The cities of Lille, Courtrai, Ghent and Bruges all welcomed him as he went on to an audience with the king at Péronne.

Louis received the ‘emperor’ with due courtesy and started to question him. Perhaps the man was by now so assured that he did not anticipate such an interrogation: in any case he was ill-prepared. He could not recall where, and how, he had done homage for Flanders to Louis’s father, King Philip; nor was he able to recollect being knighted, or his marriage to Marie of Champagne. His supporters argued that he refused to respond to such questions out of pride; soon, however, he asked for a rest and a chance to eat. Once he had left, several churchmen rushed forward to claim they recognised the man as a jongleur who had once tried to impersonate Count Louis of Blois, another noble killed on the Fourth Crusade. The bishop of Beauvais claimed to have had the man in his prison; he was a professional hoaxer and a charlatan who had lost his toes to frostbite, rather than torture.

Even as he left the interview chamber the impostor realised that he was in trouble and escaped back to Valenciennes, where many of his baronial supporters abandoned him, although the poor continued to proclaim their loyalty and prepared to resist Joan by force. Next, the hermit fled first towards Germany and then southwards into Burgundy where he was captured and sent to Louis. The French king had found the whole affair at Péronne highly entertaining and passed the prisoner on to Joan with a recommendation that she spare his life. Joan was far less amused and had the hermit tried and condemned to death at Lille. He was made to confess his true identity as a jongleur and put in the pillory between two dogs. He was then tortured, hanged and his body impaled upon a pole surrounded by armed guards. The mob, it seems, still refused to accept that he was not Baldwin and accused Joan of parricide. In modern times, DNA testing means that such a hoax could not hope to succeed for so long. In the thirteenth century the fact that no one had seen Baldwin die, coupled with a strong desire by many nobles and lesser people to find a way to oppose Joan’s pro-French policies, led to the impostor having such a lengthy career. In reality, Baldwin of Constantinople had died thousands of miles from his homeland at the hands of a violent and unforgiving king of Bulgaria.

While the strange tale of the impersonator of Baldwin of Flanders is one legacy of the Fourth Crusade, perhaps the most intriguing and dramatic reactions to the capture of Constantinople belong to Innocent III. Over the course of the campaign he had watched with growing alarm as his great project – for which, as head of the Catholic Church, he bore full spiritual responsibility – had veered from Zara to Corfu and thence to Constantinople. He had seen how his bull of excommunication, the supreme papal sanction, had been cynically suppressed. Yet still he held firm to the hope that the core of the crusaders could extricate themselves from their paralysing debt to the Venetians and somehow get help to the Holy Land. He had tried to create a balance between his role as leader of the Catholic Church and the need to make allowances for the practical demands of the expedition. There had been times, particularly in the case of the Venetians, when he felt that the proper boundaries had been overstepped, yet he recognised the requirement for a degree of flexibility to prevent the whole enterprise from grinding to a halt. Coupled with these competing tensions were the problems of distance and poor communications. At times, therefore, the pope was only the passive recipient of news and, if the crusaders had acted of their own accord, he could only react to, rather than direct, events.

From the start, Innocent had made plain his opposition to any attacks on Christian lands, yet to the modern reader the inclusion of clauses allowing this in conditions of necessity always leaves a slightly ambiguous feel to his pronouncements. He tried to include safeguards concerning the need to secure the permission of his legate before making such moves, but the churchmen on the expedition did, at times, perform in ways that their master found frustrating. Given this fact, as well as the Venetians’ apparent willingness to ignore his threats of excommunication at Zara, it might be thought that creating any potential loophole in the ban on attacking Christian territories left a hostage to fortune.

Such was Innocent’s overpowering obsession with regaining the Holy Land that there is no doubt where his ultimate priorities lay, yet one wonders what conflicting emotions he felt on hearing of the capture of Constantinople. He had castigated the Greeks for their failure to support the crusade back in 1198; he knew that they had broken their promises to the westerners and had murdered their emperor (whose case he had earlier declined to support). He was also a pope who, above all others in the medieval period, had a staggeringly high conception of papal authority that stretched across the ecclesiastical and secular worlds and undoubtedly encompassed Rome’s supremacy over the schismatic Greek Orthodox Church. With the crusaders achieving victory, surely God had ruled on whose cause was right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fate of the Latin Empire, 1206–61

The Latin Empire, Empire of Nicaea, Empire of Trebizond, and the Despotate of Epirus-the borders are very uncertain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Soldiers of Christ I

In 1147 a Frankish attempt to take the town of Bosra ended in complete failure. The army retreated under the most difficult circumstances but, at a time when morale was at its lowest, spirits were raised by the exploits of one particularly brash cavalryman. William of Tyre tells us that ‘a certain knight’ broke ranks (contrary to their instructions) and charged towards the enemy. He struck a Muslim emir with a spear and then followed this up by running him through with his sword. He came back to the crusaders’ lines accompanied by loud cheers, but facing disciplinary action for having disobeyed orders.

The moral of the story, from William’s point of view, was to explain how the knight’s success was sufficient for him to get away with infringing army discipline, and how he avoided punishment ‘rather because of the result, than because it was right’. Far more surprising for a modern reader, however, is the line of defence with which the soldier escaped censure: he was Turkic, and could not understand Frankish commands.

Just as most aspects of Frankish warfare, from grand strategy down to the minutiae of tactical manoeuvres, were deceptively different from European practice, so too were the troops with whom that warfare was conducted. What we perhaps think of as archetypically ‘European’ armies were actually very different on the ground.

When looking at different kinds of troops, it is important to resist the temptation to be overly rigid or definitive. These were desperate times, with manpower in short supply. There have been lengthy debates, for example, about whether a ‘sergeant’ was a mounted soldier or an infantryman. In practice, we can find instances of both, as both were needed. The way men were used was largely dictated by need, availability and skills, rather than by a manual. If cavalry were in short supply, or if the army was expected to be on campaign for a long period and over extended distances, any sergeant who had a horse, or who could be provided with one, would doubtless have gone mounted. If fighting nearer home, on the other hand, a sergeant with a crossbow and expertise in how to use it would have been deployed on foot.

Mercenaries had begun to specialise depending on their preferences and expertise, and the availability of equipment. Some, for instance, were equipped and trained to ride in the second rank of the charge, supporting the knights. Others would have specialised in the use of bow or spear. Similarly, there has been a lot of discussion about the ethnicity of the Turcopole recruits in Frankish armies, but it is hard to imagine the circumstances in which a man with the skills to make a good mounted archer would be turned away, regardless of his ethnic origins or denominational preferences.

The kinds of troops involved would also inevitably depend on the type of actions envisaged and the men available at the time. There was no uniform, ‘one size fits all’, Frankish army. A long-range patrol in the desert areas south of Kerak or Darum, for instance, would have had a higher than usual proportion of cavalry, particularly lighter cavalry, and would have included local Bedouin guides and auxiliaries, some of whom would probably have been riding on camels. Any infantry on the patrol would perhaps have been mounted on mules or other lower-value baggage animals. A frontier garrison might have been a small but relatively professional group, probably with a disproportionate number of crossbowmen. Similarly, a force that had to move fast to relieve a castle or go to the aid of another crusader state would have had more mounted men and a high proportion of ‘regular’ and ‘professional’ troops in it (though both terms need to be used in a less demanding, medieval way, rather than in a modern context).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, in the case of a local incursion all able-bodied men might be called up for emergency defence, at least until non-combatants could be taken to a place of safety. This scratch defence force would be reinforced or relieved as soon as possible by regional troops led by the local nobility or the nearest troops from the garrisons of the military orders. And if a full-scale invasion was under way, as was increasingly the case in the 1170s and 1180s, the size of the army would increase, but with inevitable compromises with regard to the expertise and training of those who were mobilised.

It is important to look at different categories of troops within the armies of the crusader states, but we need to be continually aware that any definitions we might try to impose would have been far more flexible in practice, and subject to major variation.


Knights were the celebrities of Frankish society and the main battle tanks of the army. They shared some of the characteristics of both. Small in number and extremely high profile, they could win a battle in minutes, even when facing seemingly overwhelming odds. But there were other similarities too. Like celebrities, they could be fragile and fractious. And like main battle tanks, they were few in number and strangely brittle: vulnerable if they were not carefully supported or if their attack was launched under adverse conditions.

The knight was an expensive but highly trained and adaptable weapons system. They could be deployed on horseback or on foot, using a lance in the charge, a sword or mace in close combat, or perhaps, less commonly, wielding a crossbow or bow during a siege. The knight was versatile and an excellent all-round warrior but he could deliver most value for money in the shock of impact. When dismounted as an armoured infantryman, they became a solid and reliable fixed point for an army. But there were many other infantrymen who were almost as good in that role, and far less expensive. Where the knight excelled, where he was unique, was in the charge. It was in the charge that he could, if everything went well, win the battle.

Luckily for Saladin and the others who faced them, there were never many knights available at any given time. They were formidable but expensive. A primarily rural economy with limited economic surplus could never support as many knights as were needed to defend the Holy Land. Every effort was made to force fief-holders to fulfil military obligations even when they were personally unable to do so. Widows had to pay for mercenaries. The disabled and the elderly had to hand over their horses and armour to someone who could do the job for them.

Over time, the strain started to show. In 1150, for instance, when Baldwin III needed to go to the aid of Edessa, many of his noblemen in the south of the kingdom refused a series of personal summonses from the king to join the muster. This was partly because of tensions between the king and his mother, Queen Melisende, but also a reflection of the resentment engendered by the remorseless personal demands of chronic warfare across the entire region. The unremitting nature of crusading warfare had a disproportionate impact on the knights, whose small numbers and vital battlefield role meant that they were called upon to campaign and fight with appalling frequency.

We have a fascinating list of knightly service owed to the king of Jerusalem by the leading fief-holders. The ‘servitia debita’ lists of John of Ibelin were written around 1265 but internal details suggest that they set out the state of affairs in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem at some time between 1183 and 1186. The lists are beguiling. On one level they seem to be a full review of the knights available to the king, divided into each of their feudal contingents. They also seem to be relatively accurate, and on one level they are. But that is misleading: they are perhaps better viewed as a legal document, setting out the rights and obligations of the nobility, rather than as a muster sheet for the military.

The list shows that the range of knightly service due to the king varied enormously, depending on the size and economic value of the fief. At the top end of the scale the largest of the lordships, the major baronies, such as Sidon, Galilee and the County of Jaffa and Ascalon, each owed the service of 100 knights. At the opposite end were the fifty-eight fief-holders who owed the service of just one knight: unless they were too old or too sick, they would probably have served in person.

If everyone fulfilled their obligations the total number of knights was around 675. We do not have comparable lists for the other crusader states, but the Principality of Antioch seems to have had a broadly similar level of knightly service. When Roger of Antioch went into battle at Ager Sanguinis in 1119, without waiting for help from the other Frankish armies, his knightly contingent was said to be some 700 strong. The County of Tripoli was always smaller and had a more limited number of knights. The County of Edessa was similarly smaller in scale, and even this contingent was dramatically reduced after the loss of much of its lands in 1144 (with the county being completely lost by 1150).

On the basis of these legal obligations, the combined total of the feudal knightly contingents available across all four of the crusader states amounted to just 2,000 men: approximately 700 each from Jerusalem and Antioch, with Edessa and Tripoli perhaps having access to another 300 men each. These figures are not necessarily a minimum: there were always bound to be some knights who were too ill to attend a muster, some who were too old, or who were prisoners of war.

In practice, however, the lists almost certainly underestimate the number of knights available. On the few occasions when we come across details about the composition of feudal contingents in the field, the numbers are invariably different. In 1158, for instance, the future King Amalric arranged for fifteen men to act as witnesses for a legal document. Ten of these were described as vassals, who would naturally have been included on a list such as that compiled by John of Ibelin. A further five knights, however, were described as retainers (‘stipendarii’) who would not have been. Similarly, in 1232 Balian, son of John of Beirut, was reported as riding into battle with a unit of five knights. Of these, only two knights (Philip of Novara and Raymond of Fiace) were his vassals. The others were household retainers who had been knighted by Balian (Robert of Maumeni and Eudes of La Fierte) and a highly regarded mercenary (Peter of Montolif). In both instances, where we have a list of knights, there are significant numbers present who were not direct vassals (and who therefore would not appear on any traditional service lists). Additional knights were clearly being used to bolster the size of feudal contingents by those who could afford to do so.

The requirements of feudal service were extremely demanding. A knight could be asked to fight for a full year if the homeland had been invaded, in what was effectively full-time conscription, or for four months if required to serve beyond its borders or when going to the aid of other crusader states. Feudal service meant that a knight was expected to serve until he was 60, though over the age of 40 he could provide another knight to deputise in his place. In an age of low life expectancy, in which warfare was brutal and dependent on muscle and endurance, the military elite were continually expected to justify their status. Being a knight in the Frankish east was never a sinecure. This unprecedented level of commitment, with all the hardships and danger that went with it, was inevitably unpopular from time to time. There were occasional undercurrents of unrest, normally after several consecutive years of distant campaigning. Yet outright refusals to serve were surprisingly rare. Ultimately, the interests of the men defending the Holy Land were aligned: their continued survival always depended on effective military action, and there was little point complaining about it.

Although, as we shall see, Frankish ‘crusader’ armies were different from their European counterparts in terms of how they functioned, they were very similar in terms of equipment. Indeed, as far as we know, much of the armaments used in the crusader states continued to be manufactured in Europe and, for most practical purposes, knightly armour was largely unchanged during most of the twelfth century.

The effectiveness of their armour and equipment was reflected in the sheer difficulty of trying to stop them. Anna Comnena, the Byzantine historian and princess, reflected the views of her father and the Byzantine military establishment when she wrote that the Franks’ ‘cuirasses and coats of mail made them almost, if not entirely invulnerable . . . [Frankish] armour consists of a tunic interwoven with iron rings linked one with another; the iron is of good quality, capable of resisting an arrow and giving good protection to the soldier’s body. This armour is supplemented by a shield . . .’ The quality of their protection meant that even in battle against very heavily armed opponents, casualties among the men could be surprisingly light. Writing of the battle of Brémule in 1119, Orderic Vitalis tells us that ‘in the battle of the two kings, in which about 900 knights were engaged, only three were killed. They were all clad in mail and spared each other on both sides, out of fear of God and fellowship in arms.’

The Rule of the Templars (the twelfth-century ‘best practice’ guide to life in the order) makes it clear that knights of the period were extremely well equipped. The brothers had several layers of protection, a range of weapons for contact with the enemy and good horses to carry them. Each was a medieval armoury in microcosm. Rule 138 shows that their knights were equipped almost to the point of overkill, stating that:

[each] knight brother of the convent should have three horses and one squire and a fourth horse and a second squire, if he has them, are at the discretion of the Master [of the Templars], and they should have . . . a hauberk [i.e. a coat of mail], iron hose, a helmet or chapeau de fer, a sword, a shield, a lance, a Turkish mace, a surcoat, arming jacket [a padded jerkin worn under the hauberk], mail shoes, and three knives.

The head and face were always particularly vulnerable and received a great deal of attention. At the beginning of our period the helmets worn by the knights and many of the better armed infantry would be very familiar to us from the Bayeux tapestry and from a mass of other artistic representations. These conical helmets generally had a distinctive nasal bar to give some facial protection without detracting too much from visibility. They protected the head from enemy archery and most horizontal and downward sword thrusts. That very familiarity is a function of the universality of the design among heavily armoured European troops of the time, giving a deceptive sense of uniformity in a world without mass production techniques. These helmets were worn over a mail coif, looking rather like an open-faced ski mask, which gave additional protection to the neck, face and throat. The coif could either be attached to the hauberk or worn as a separate item. A leather cap was worn underneath the coif and helmet, for comfort and as yet another layer of protection.

This traditional conical helmet and nasal guard remained in use throughout the period but by the middle of the twelfth century we find other types emerging alongside it, as a number of round-topped or cylindrical helmet designs were gradually introduced. Most significantly, increasing efforts were made to protect the face, particularly important in light of the high volume of projectiles that were inevitably directed at the front ranks of any charge. Over time we find that the nasal guards became bigger, covering parts of the face as well as the nose. By 1170 we also see a more radical approach to this same problem. Face guards began to appear on helmets, sometimes as an integral feature, and sometimes added on.

The other core element of defensive equipment was the hauberk, the main body armour worn by a knight. It was an essential piece of equipment but it did not come cheap. A full suit of mail took a minimum of 140 hours of highly skilled labour to construct, in addition to the cost of the metal, itself hugely expensive in a pre-industrial society. The mail shirt was built up by adding row after row of rings, with the rivet heads facing outwards to avoid damage to the padded leather jerkin worn underneath. A mail hauberk and jerkin may not have made the wearer invulnerable, but they did provide excellent protection.

The main objective was, of course, to prevent penetration by enemy projectiles or weapons, and it did so by trying to distribute the impact of any blow across as wide an area as possible. The larger the number of rings (and hence the higher the cost of the hauberk), the greater the extent to which the force could be dissipated. The other key variable was the weight and flexibility of the armour. Mail was a good way of ensuring that its wearer retained mobility, but if the rivets were made stronger and thicker, there would be an inevitable decrease in flexibility. The hauberk would reach down towards the knight’s knees and would be split front and back to allow more comfortable riding. Most would have weighed around 25lbs and, with the weight distributed evenly across the shoulders, would not have presented too much of a problem for a fit soldier. But there was always a trade-off between cost, protection and mobility.

At the upper end of the social scale, and for those with bigger budgets, there were additional refinements. By the time of the First Crusade, knightly hauberks commonly extended down to the wrists, but by the end of the century they often also included mailed gloves or mittens (also known as ‘mufflers’) for the hands. Mail leggings (‘chausses’) also seem to have become increasingly common among knights in the second half of the twelfth century. This was not just a fashion statement. There were very practical reasons why one would want to cover any exposed limbs. The bodies of the doomed garrison at Jacob’s Ford, destroyed by Saladin’s forces in 1179, show a range of extremely unpleasant wounds, many of which were associated, not surprisingly, with the parts of the anatomy that were traditionally less well protected by armour. The surviving skeletal remains were found in the back of a burnt-out building within the castle, where some of the Templar soldiers gathered to make a final stand. As well as the usual arrow wounds that one would expect to find when facing Turcoman nomads, the bodies showed signs of traumatic wounds to the limbs. One sword cut was so devastating that the Frankish soldier on the receiving end of it had his arm completely severed at the elbow. Another soldier had his lower jaw split into two, again, at a point where a nasal helmet would have offered less protection to its wearer. Defensive armour was always a wise investment if you could afford it.

The large kite shield provided yet another layer of protection, particularly along the front and left side of the charging knight. It gave a good degree of cover for the left leg and the effectiveness of the shield may go at least part of the way towards explaining why mail leggings were not universally worn in the early part of our period. The shields were made of a leather covering on top of a wooden backing, reinforced by a metal boss in the middle and metal strips around the edges of the shield. The kite shield was also curved along its primary axis and partially wrapped around the soldier carrying it, giving him even greater protection. This remained the dominant knightly shield design throughout the twelfth century, although the curved top of the shield became less pronounced as the century progressed.

Ironically, the most striking difference between a knight arriving at Jerusalem in 1099 and a knight fighting at Hattin in 1187 is the one we know least about. From the mid-twelfth century onwards we find knights wearing long, often sleeveless, fabric garments over their hauberks. This fashion was so popular that it must have brought benefits to those who adopted it. But there is still some speculation about what those benefits might have been. A partial explanation is the weather. A mail hauberk is never easy to wear but is significantly less comfortable under the desert sun or in a rainstorm. The surcoat may have originated in the Frankish armies of the Holy Land, as they copied the example of their Muslim opponents and adopted a loose-fitting and light-coloured covering for their body armour. This would have had the effect of simultaneously deflecting the sun’s rays and creating a breeze between the surcoat and their body armour. Similarly, for knights based in western Europe, a surcoat treated with animal fats may have provided a welcome element of waterproofing.

There were other, less tangible but nonetheless helpful benefits as well, however. The introduction of visors and full-faced helmets in the second half of the twelfth century led to greater protection for the face, particularly against enemy archery, but there was always a compromise between facial protection and visibility. In a mêlée a visor slit could easily be knocked to one side, making an already impaired visibility even worse and, with both hands fully occupied, it was very difficult to make adjustments. The surcoat allowed individualised patterns and bold colours to be incorporated in a knight’s appearance, creating a unique ‘branding’ and heightening visibility. This, combined with distinctive shield designs, aided visibility and unit cohesion, perhaps by increasing recognition of where one needed to form up or, in conjunction with standards, where one needed to regroup. It saved lives by encouraging opponents to pause and consider the possibility of ransom, rather than just cutting the throat of a fallen knight. Perhaps even more importantly for this ever competitive social elite, the surcoat increased visibility among one’s peer group: the point of great deeds of valour was having someone to see them and talk about them. Reputation among the knights was everything.

As we have seen, the knights were equipped with a range of weapons. The lance was the preferred weapon for the initial charge, approximately 4m long and ideally made of ash wood. These would often shatter on impact with the enemy, and as the mêlée slowed, lances would be dropped and weapons such as swords or maces drawn instead. Sword design was not subject to meteoric change in this period. Most were generally straight, double-edged weapons, broadswords which were very similar to those used by the Vikings hundreds of years earlier. They weighed about 3lbs or a little less, and were well suited for the slashing or hacking actions of a cavalry mêlée.

The lance typified the style of fighting for which the knightly class were best known. They also trained with a variety of other weapons, however, and the skills of the hunt were often transferable to military activity. Knights, competitive in all things, could also have a reputation for archery as well as the more traditional jousting skills that we usually associate with them. On the Third Crusade, for instance, we are told that ‘the Norman William du Bois, who was a very skilled archer, untiringly fired arrows and darts, this way and that, routing . . . [the enemy]’.

Similarly, while on campaign in the north against Nur al-Din in 1150, one of the most senior crusader knights, Humphrey of Toron, the constable of Jerusalem, had a bow to hand, with which he and presumably some of his men chased off a unit of Turkic light cavalry. According to William of Tyre, ‘Humphrey, the constable, armed with his bow, was pursuing the retreating infidels a little apart from the army when a soldier from the enemy’s ranks approached him’. Humphrey, who had linguistic as well as archery skills, could speak Turkic. He engaged in some banter with the enemy cavalryman and the encounter ended peacefully. Clearly even some of the more senior Frankish knights were capable of operating as mounted archers and, given that they were living in a part of the world where mounted archery was a central part of enemy military practice, it is perhaps not surprising that this should be so. It is also interesting that William of Tyre mentions this purely in passing, as an anecdote that speaks well of Humphrey’s bravery and skills but with no obvious expectation that his readers would find the idea of a Turkic-speaking horse archer Frankish lord outlandish or entirely unexpected.

Archery skills would also have been useful on garrison duty, one of the less glamorous but entirely typical roles which a knight would have been called on to fulfil. Evidence is slight but there is an interesting detail in the summary of court-martial proceedings taken against a Templar brother knight. He was found guilty of ‘losing’ two weapons that he had been entrusted with, while travelling from the castle of Blanchegarde down to Kerak, to the east of the Dead Sea. The suspicion must have been that he had sold the weapons, and he was eventually expelled from the order. It is interesting to see, however, that although one of his weapons was a sword (predictably enough), the other was a longbow. It seems likely that many knights, with little else to occupy them for lengthy periods of time, would have wanted to be able to pick up a longbow or crossbow in the event of a siege, helping the rest of the garrison to keep enemy miners and engineers at bay for as long as possible.

The most important piece of equipment used by a knight, however, as well as the most vulnerable, was his horse. Training was important, both on an individual level and as military units. On a personal basis, it started very young and it was thought to be vital that good riding skills were already in place before puberty. Ongoing training was important, for the horse as much as the rider, and the knightly pursuit of the hunt as a form of relaxation was a very practical way of ensuring that riding skills were continually honed by both.

The knight’s horse was a stallion, but smaller than one might imagine, perhaps no more than 15 hands high (i.e. some 5ft high at the shoulder). Horse armour later became more prevalent but during the twelfth century almost all Frankish horses were unarmoured and the vulnerability of their horses dictated much of the battle tactics of the period. For a nomadic light cavalryman, kept at a distance by the threat of Frankish infantry archers or crossbowmen, it was hard to kill or wound a Frankish knight. Only a very lucky shot could bring him down and, while under fire oneself, this was never an attractive option. The knight’s horse was a different matter, however. This was a much bigger target and much less well protected. Without his horse, the Frankish knight was transformed into a slow-moving and easily tired heavy infantryman, almost entirely incapable of offensive action against light cavalry. An altogether easier prospect.

So, while the strength of a Frankish knight was well known to their opponents, whether Byzantine Christians, Turkic warlords or Egyptian viziers, their vulnerability was also widely recognised: an obvious tactic was to try to wound or kill as many of their horses as possible, before they could even form up to launch one of their renowned charges. Anna Comnena, writing of a confrontation between Bohemond and her father’s troops, shows the explicit emphasis the Byzantines placed on aiming at mounts rather than riders. Her father ensured that the Byzantine cavalry:

were issued with a plentiful supply of arrows and told not to hold back in their use; but they were to shoot at the horses rather than the [Franks] . . . Shooting the riders, therefore, would in his opinion be pointless and quite crazy . . . the emperor, who had plenty of experience of [Frankish] armour and our arrows, ordered them not to worry about the men but rather to attack the horses.

If the Byzantines were aware of the need to focus on the crusaders’ horses, the Turkic light cavalry that formed the backbone of most of the Muslim armies operating in Syria in this period were even better motivated to do so. They had large numbers of archers and the capacity to lay down dense showers of arrows. Although their arrows did not have the penetrative power to inflict grievous casualties on the Frankish heavy troops, whether infantry or knights, the horses were extremely vulnerable. A Muslim source, Abu Shama, analysed the situation in a way which was uncannily similar to Anna Comnena’s. Writing about the battle of Hattin, he commented that a ‘Frankish knight, as long as his horse was in good condition, could not be knocked down. Covered with mail from head to foot, which made him look like a block of iron, the most violent blows make no impression on him. But once his horse was killed, the knight was thrown and taken prisoner. Consequently, though we counted them by the thousand, there were no horses amongst the spoils, whereas the knights were unhurt.’ It is significant that although there were huge numbers of horses in the Frankish army (perhaps some 10,000 animals), none had emerged unscathed from the arrow storms unleashed by the Muslim archers.

Archery was a great leveller. In a matter of seconds, a couple of cheap arrows, fired by a poorly armed man on a pony, could turn the Frankish knight, the most expensive piece of military kit on the battlefield, into a slow-moving and disorientated infantryman. The knights, and their unstoppable charge, were at the core of how a crusader army needed to perform. Until the moment was right, however, a delicate balancing act was always required to simultaneously protect the horses and stop the enemy overrunning the flanks and rear.

The Soldiers of Christ II


There was a large number of squires in the army, certainly more than the number of knights, as each had one or more squires to assist him. The exact role and status of the squires, variously known as ‘armigeri’ or ‘ecuyers’, seemed to vary according to individual circumstances. And the term ‘squire’ covered a range of different social positions. Some, for instance, were trainee knights and therefore of high social status, while others were servants, acting as grooms, cooks and so on. This inevitably affected the military roles they were given on campaign.

The trainee knights would have had a programme of weapon training and were gradually given tasks which more actively supported their masters in battle. The grooms, on the other hand, were more likely to get the less glamorous but nonetheless essential tasks, such as foraging and mucking out the stables. Some of the duties ascribed to the squires were so humble that many commentators have been led to believe that they played no role in battlefield fighting. No doubt some, particularly the younger boys, were indeed non-combatants, or were left to guard the baggage train. But the majority could perform as lightly armed cavalry and the evidence is overwhelming that they did fight when required, albeit in roles that reflected their lighter equipment and more junior status. Given the perennial need for manpower, no one was left standing around.

Large numbers of squires were sometimes grouped together when the army went on campaign, and sent out as foraging parties. This was clearly not high-status work, but it was far more suited to these lightly armed horsemen than to heavier troops. The act of foraging required a relatively high degree of dispersal, however, and there was always a danger that foraging parties would be surprised by enemy cavalry patrols. For this reason, it was generally best practice for an escort of more heavily armed soldiers to be assigned to them. These guards would be better prepared for close combat and their main duty was to be on the watch for enemy troops, rather than focusing on finding supplies.

During the Third Crusade, for instance, we are told that ‘the esquires went out from the army foraging for fodder. The noble lords of the Temple were guarding them at that time. The foragers, who left the army, spread out across the land looking for good grass.’ A few months later another Frankish foraging party, again consisting largely of squires, was badly cut up in a Muslim ambush: ‘Not long after, our squires and servants went out to look for fodder for the pack animals and unwarily went too far. Saracens leapt out from ambush, killed some of them and led others away prisoner, along with a great many horses.’ Incidents such as these, suggesting that the squires needed armed protection to be provided by other men, have been interpreted as meaning that the squires themselves were not armed. In fact, of course, all it really suggests is that they were vulnerable to attack because they were lightly armed, moving through enemy territory and, due to the nature of the task, operating in a highly dispersed formation.

It is certainly true that squires were not generally expected to fight in the front rank of the charge: that dangerous privilege was given to the knights. Even then, however, when circumstances were sufficiently desperate, exceptions could be made. In 1101, for instance, there were so few knights that attempts were made to upgrade some of the older and better trained squires (‘armigeri’) socially and, as far as possible, in terms of weapons and equipment. Baldwin I, faced with a lack of knights and another imminent Egyptian invasion, brought the squires into the front ranks of the army: ‘Because it was urgent that we should have knights, the king ordered each one who could to make a knight of his squire [‘quicumque potuit de armigero suo militem fecit’]. In this way our knights numbered about two hundred and sixty and our footmen about nine hundred.’ As so often with the armies of the crusader states, there was a theoretical delineation of roles, but practice on the day depended on how desperate the situation was.

In the military orders at least, the squires were expected to play an active role in combat. When battle seemed imminent, they were formed into a squadron of their own, under the command of the standard bearer. Section 179 of The Rule of the Templars tells us that ‘when the brothers go in squadrons, a turcopole should carry the banner, and the Standard Bearer should form the squires into a squadron’.34 The squadron of squires was then divided into two different groups, presumably determined by their status, age and military experience. Those leading warhorses (‘destriers’) would hand them over to their brother knight and then, riding their own mount, they would fall in behind the brother knights and form part of the back ranks of the charge. As the Rule said, ‘if the Marshal and the brothers charge, the squires who lead the destriers should charge behind their lords’.

The other squires, the less able remnant, were instructed to retire with the mules from which the brother knights had dismounted, and regroup around the standard bearer. As the charge was launched, the standard bearer had to decide how best to deploy this far from elite force, some of whom were presumably mounted only on mules or other baggage animals. Even this relatively motley crew were expected to be deployed as actively as possible, however, plugging gaps and perhaps gathering prisoners or despatching enemy wounded. The Rule said that at this point the standard bearer ‘should have a banner furled round his lance; and when the Marshal charges he should have the squires formed into squadrons and should unfurl his banner; and he should go after those who are attacking as best, as soon and in as orderly a fashion as he can, at a walk or amble, or what ever seems best to him’. The standard bearer was clearly left with the least effective troops, and the tone of the Templars’ military manual is one of ‘just do the best you can’. But even the most junior squires were expected to fight if circumstances required it.

Acting in such close support of the knights was often undertaken at the cost of their own lives. During a running fight with Turkic troops on 17 June 1192, we find mounted squires in the thick of the fighting. A Frankish supply train had set out from Jaffa to try to get to the main army, then camped at Bait Nuba, about 12 miles from Jerusalem. The column was ambushed, however, and in the fighting the Frankish cavalry guarding the wagon train, both knights and squires, ended up in a confused mêlée with the Turkic troopers. Baldwin Carron, one of the commanders of the escort, was later heavily criticised because he and the column were felt to have ‘wandered along incautiously’. Baldwin lost his horse early on in the fighting and another horse was found for him. Later, this second horse was also killed under him. He decided to pull rank and ‘he ordered one of his squires to get off the horse he was riding and give it to him. The squire had displayed great prowess while he was mounted on horseback, but as soon as Baldwin mounted he saw his squire’s head cut off.’ The context makes clear that the squires were playing an active role in the fighting, as lighter cavalry acting in support of the knights.

Their relative lack of armour also meant that they were better suited than the knights for certain other tasks. At the siege of Acre in 1191, a group of squires even came together to form an elite unit who were tasked with the assault on one of the key towers. As the assault parties formed up ‘our squires [armigeri] took up their arms. They were greedy for glory and victory and fit and ready for battle . . . At around the third hour [i.e. 9.00 am] . . . the men of valour and the outstanding squires set out to attack the aforesaid tower. They boldly climbed up it immediately. When the Turks saw them they began to shout, and the whole city was aroused!’ The squires were eventually repulsed, but it was only the weight of enemy numbers and naphtha hand grenades that forced them off the battlements.

The squires did not have the necessary training or equipment to allow them to serve in the front rank. Some of the younger boys were probably too physically underdeveloped to allow them to do so, even if they had been fully equipped. But in a highly militarised society with a permanently undermanned army, they were expected to do their part on the battlefield in support of their lords.

Mounted Sergeants

If the knights were the fine tip of the army, the mounted sergeants were, in theory at least, the solid backbone of heavy cavalry that rode in behind them. Together with the squires and the Turcopoles, they provided the numbers required to exploit a successful charge, and turn a breakthrough into a rout.

We find sergeants in a wide variety of roles, and the term ‘sergeant’ denoted a basic social status that inevitably encompassed a large group of men with widely differing skills and levels of professionalism. As ever in the Latin East, the temptation is to read too much into relatively limited evidence and to use hindsight to impose rules and firm boundaries that may never have existed. Men did whatever was required on the day, subject to the limitations of their skills and equipment.

In parallel with the records of knights’ service owed to the king of Jerusalem, however, we also have some hard data points about the service owed by sergeants. As we have seen, John of Ibelin’s list of military obligations recorded the situation which existed in the 1180s, just before the collapse in the aftermath of the battle of Hattin. Section 15 of the list sets out what ‘the churches and the burgesses [i.e. the townsfolk] owe when there is a great need in the land of the kingdom of Jerusalem’. It is not entirely clear how ‘great need’ was defined, but what the towns and ecclesiastical institutions ‘owe’ is expressed entirely in terms of the numbers of sergeants they could supply. The total number of sergeants they were obliged to maintain, in theory at least, was just in excess of 5,000 men.

The scale of the obligation was substantial and could only have been offered on a temporary and emergency basis. The contributions seem to have been determined partly by how much land each institution owned (and hence their access to feudal vassals) and partly by their commercial wealth (and hence their ability to recruit mercenaries or train and equip a local militia to an acceptable standard).

At the top end of the scale we find the major ecclesiastical and secular institutions. The patriarch of Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre each owed the service of 500 men, as did the cities of Acre and Tyre. The city of Nablus had to provide 300 sergeants, while the bishop of Bethlehem and the town of Tiberias provided 200 men each. Other institutions were expected to provide proportionately fewer, according to their capabilities.

The kinds of men represented by these figures would be similarly diverse, encompassing major differences in quality and capability. At one end of the spectrum would be professional soldiers, perhaps mercenaries attracted from the west or drawn from other parts of the Middle East. Some would be Armenian veterans with years of experience. Others might be yeoman farmers from the various settlements, or prosperous burgesses from the towns, well motivated and independent but not necessarily highly skilled at arms. Or, at the other end of the scale, some might be taken from the urban poor, pulled together at the last moment to make up numbers and meet legal obligations.

We know from slightly later evidence that the Christian towns of the crusader states operated confraternities (brotherhoods) that performed military functions and which could provide a natural semi-trained urban militia in time of need. The leading ecclesiastical institutions also had their own lay confratres to call on, together with their settlers and feudal vassals, alongside any core mercenary contingents they may have employed to protect their estates.

It is unclear whether these men were expected to serve as cavalry or infantry. There was certainly a continual need for additional cavalry to support the kingdom’s cadre of knights: this would argue that pressure was applied to ensure as many sergeants as possible were mounted. Equally, given the fast-moving Muslim armies that they would be responding to, and the need to gather at specified muster points, sometimes at the opposite end of the kingdom, there would be a need for the sergeants to move as quickly as possible even if they were insufficiently skilled to operate as cavalry on the battlefield. It is likely that some of them were equipped as impromptu ‘mounted infantry’, perhaps using nags or mules to move more quickly towards muster points.

On the other hand, it is not entirely plausible to envisage that these large numbers of cavalry existed in the towns and ecclesiastical estates, and yet could only be called upon in emergencies. It is hard to believe that such a force was available on tap, well equipped and with adequate horses, and yet was not part of the kingdom’s normal fighting capabilities.

Examples of what the kingdom’s muster of sergeants would look like in practice are extremely rare. The men called up are generally subsumed by chroniclers into the army as a whole. As we have seen in the case of Magna Mahomeria, a colonial settlement of the Holy Sepulchre, no fewer than sixty-five of the younger Franks from the settlement joined the royal muster in 1170 and were almost wiped out when Saladin’s men temporarily overran their position in the suburbs of Gaza. As they are described as lightly armed youths and arrived late at the muster point, it seems that they were an inexperienced infantry unit, the scrapings of the local rural militia, called up as part of the ‘arrière-ban’. Being the younger, more lightly armed of the local Frankish troops, they are also probably not representative of the muster as a whole. It is entirely possible that the better-armed elements of the contingent from Magna Mahomeria were mounted, and were already with the Frankish field army: the only reason the youths were trapped in Gaza was because they were on foot and arrived too late.

Some sergeants were certainly mounted. The mounted arm generally had a higher status than the infantry, and would have had a greater chance of survival in the event of a major defeat. Horses also made it easier to move on campaign and quicker to get to appointed muster points. Prosperous burgesses with access to horses would have been unlikely to want to operate as infantry from choice.

But regardless of how many of the sergeants on John of Ibelin’s lists were equipped as cavalry, we know that mounted sergeants were an important element in the Frankish army from the earliest days. Indeed, given the perennial shortage of knights and the appalling mortality rates suffered by the knightly class in the first two decades of the twelfth century, that would inevitably be the case.46 The knights were always the centre of attention, the prestigious ‘miles’ or armoured knights (‘miles loricatus’). But we also hear of other cavalry, less glamorous and often mentioned only as an accidental aside, the more ‘lightly armoured cavalry’ (the ‘equites levis armaturae’) or, just to reaffirm their social as well as military inferiority, the ‘second-class cavalry’ (‘equites classes secundae’).

In 1102, for instance, King Baldwin I tried to rebuild an army in the aftermath of his disastrous defeat at Ramla, and sent a native Christian messenger to Jerusalem to mobilise what few reinforcements might be available. Fulcher of Chartres, who was with Baldwin at the time, wrote that ‘they immediately got ready as many knights as they could find in Jerusalem. There were ninety as I recall, knights as well as those who were able to obtain horses and set out without delay.’ Some of the able-bodied men among the Frankish settlers in Jerusalem were clearly able to operate as cavalry alongside the knights at short notice.

Similarly, in writing of events following another Egyptian invasion just three years later, Fulcher makes it clear that the knights were only part of the Frankish mounted arm, though other sources often airbrush these non-noble cavalrymen out of the narrative. At the muster of the Christian army, for instance, Fulcher wrote that the ‘knights numbered about five hundred, excepting those who were not counted as knights although they are mounted’. Interestingly, William of Tyre, using Fulcher as his only source and writing of exactly the same events, bows to social conventions and turns this sentence into something subtly different: ‘our forces were numbered and found to consist of five hundred knights’. Similarly, in a description of the German army of the Second Crusade, we are told that ‘there were in the army of the emperor alone about seventy thousand mailed knights (‘loricatorum’), besides the people on foot, women and children, and light armed cavalry (‘equitibus levis armaturae’)’. Socially inferior cavalry were at least mentioned, albeit only after the ‘women and children’.

The Soldiers of Christ III

The military orders naturally became large-scale employers of mounted sergeants as the twelfth century progressed, either as ‘brother sergeants’ or as paid troops to support the knights. There were also volunteers from Europe who served as mounted sergeants with the Templars or Hospitallers for a set period of time, as an act of piety in observance of vows. Sergeants feature heavily in The Rule of the Templars and it is clear from context that many of these were serving as mounted soldiers. With the brothers often undertaking long-distance patrols or raids into enemy territory, the emphasis on mounted support troops or auxiliaries is not surprising. The implication that sergeants, and perhaps squires, would have been given lighter weaponry and equipment to act as mounted support for the brother knights is supported by references to the discretion that local Templar commanders had to buy ‘Turkish arms’ (presumably bows and other items of lighter equipment) to give to the brother sergeants.

The Templars’ manual shows how the mounted sergeants were equipped and deployed and, although the military orders were more formally structured than other units, there is no reason to think that this was anything other than the articulation of normal best practice across the army as a whole. Templar sergeants were required to wear cheaper and lighter armour than the brother knights and this too was probably a reflection of more general practice. By the standards of most contemporary armies, however, the sergeants still had extremely impressive defensive equipment. They would have worn a padded leather tunic or jerkin, and over that a hauberk, like the knights’ but sleeveless, to perhaps help in using weapons such as crossbows. They also had mail leggings but again somewhat lighter than the knights’: theirs had no foot coverings, making it easier for them to operate as infantry if necessary. The preferred helmet, at least for a Templar sergeant, was the more open kettle-helmet (a ‘chapeau de fer’) which traded off less protection for the face against better visibility: particularly helpful in firing missile weapons such as bows or crossbows. They were mounted but had less elaborate horse equipment than the brother knights, and, unlike the knights, only a few very senior sergeants were allowed to have more than one horse.

There were different grades of sergeant brothers, but the distinctions between them are not entirely clear. A few of the senior sergeant brothers, commanders of the houses, were of sufficient wealth and status to have their own squires. Some were more heavily armoured than others, and they were expected to be fighting towards the front of the line with the Templar knights. There were also less heavily armoured mounted sergeant brothers, but even they seem to have been expected to participate in the charge, albeit in the back ranks, as we find that they were given permission to go to the back if wounded (i.e. an explicit recognition that their normal position was towards the front): ‘The sergeant brothers who are armed in mail should conduct themselves under arms as is given for the knight brothers; and the other sergeant brothers who are not armed [i.e. those without mail armour], if they act well, will receive thanks from God and the brothers. And if they see that they cannot resist or that they are wounded, they may go to the back, if they wish, without permission.’

The mounted sergeants, along with the squires, were an important element in the follow-up phase of any Frankish cavalry charge. Often invisible and always overshadowed by their social superiors, the sergeants and squires could provide the critical mass to turn the initial impact of a charge into an irreversible breakthrough.


Outnumbered, surrounded and often operating in unfavourable terrain, the cumbersome crusader armies should have been wiped out soon after they had arrived. The extraordinary success of the Frankish military in the Middle East during much of the twelfth century is almost inexplicable without an appreciation of the role of the Turcopoles. Their availability as a group of native auxiliaries has always been seen as one of the more exotic components of crusading warfare. But it has also generally been the case that their numbers have been grossly underestimated and the value of their contribution underplayed.

By the time the armies of the First Crusade reached Asia Minor, Turcopoles were already a well-established part of the Byzantine army. Their origins are relatively obscure, but the name itself means ‘son of a Turk’, so there is clearly a combined meaning derived from both ethnic background and military function: the troops were notable for their Turkic ethnicity, at least in part, with the implication that they operated in the Turkic fashion as light cavalry archers. The Byzantines had access to ‘Tourkopoulai’ recruits because they had been employing nomadic mercenaries, Seljuk Turks or Turcomans, from the late eleventh century onwards. The Christianised offspring of these mercenaries, perhaps supplemented by further recruits filtering down from the steppes in search of employment, meant that these units could continue to be employed into the twelfth century. In the Byzantine army at least, with its light cavalry contingents from many different ethnic origins, the use of the term ‘Turcopole’ was clearly synonymous with a light cavalry archer from a specific ethnic background.

The Franks adapted quickly to the imperatives of warfare in the Middle East and were soon aware that they needed such troops. They copied the Byzantines by adopting the term ‘Turcopole’ for the light cavalry archers that they started to recruit. In the northern crusader states of Antioch and Edessa there were more opportunities to recruit individuals or small groups of nomads. It is probably no coincidence that the main occasions in which we see Turcopoles operating on the battlefield in a high-profile and semi-independent role were when they were operating within the Antiochene field army.

Unlike the Byzantines, however, the Franks, and particularly those in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and the County of Tripoli, had no consistent or reliable source of Turkic ethnic manpower upon which to call. Over time therefore, and very quickly in the case of the southern crusader states, the term ‘Turcopole’ lost its ethnic specificity. That is not to suggest that there were no individuals of Turkic origin amongst the Frankish light cavalry. On the contrary, any suitable Turkic recruits would have been extremely welcome. But there were not many of them to choose from.

Although Turcopoles are often assumed to be of Turkic mixed race in terms of their ethnic origins, the only surviving references to mixed-race Turcopoles relate to those employed in the Byzantine army, generally recruited and deployed in the northern lands of Asia Minor. There is no specific evidence of any Frankish Turcopoles having been of mixed race. Even if there were some, there were never enough to supply the very substantial numbers of light cavalry that we find the Franks employing.

The Franks certainly used the word ‘Turcopole’ as a label but, given the far more restricted access they had to men of genuinely Turkic origin, they tended to use the term far more loosely and in a less strictly technical sense than the Byzantines. In most cases it merely meant ‘Christian horse archer, usually operating as light cavalry’. In practice, it seems that the Franks recruited for this troop type from among anybody who was suitable, regardless of origin. The local Christian communities were demilitarised when they were under Muslim control, and although this was somewhat reversed under Frankish rule, they did not have an extensive heritage as mounted archers. Similarly, the Franks themselves had no such tradition though, as we have seen, there are individual examples of mounted archers and crossbowmen. One is left with the impression that local Christians, and perhaps Frankish settlers or mercenaries from Europe, would be recruited to serve as Turcopoles. As the years passed, the calibre and skills of the Turcopoles seem to have improved, and they began to take a more prominent role in the military affairs of the crusader states. As purely mounted archers, however, operating on a semi-independent basis, they were generally outnumbered and outclassed by genuine Turkic cavalry.

The relative looseness of the Frankish definition is reflected in the fact that Turcopoles and mounted sergeants (the ‘sergens a cheval’) were sometimes jointly described as ‘equites levis armaturae’, that is, lightly armed cavalry. It is possible that in some instances the terms ‘Turcopole’ and ‘mounted sergeant’ were used interchangeably, suggesting a greater degree of interest in a more primary distinction between the heavily armoured cavalry (the knights) and those who were less heavily armoured. Some documents from crusader Cyprus certainly seem to use the terms interchangeably, as if their readers would understand that there was sometimes little or no difference between the two. It seems likely that at least some contemporary writers saw ‘Turcopoles’ as a sub-set of the category of the less heavily armed cavalry known as mounted sergeants or ‘sergens a cheval’.

The Turcopoles also seemed to have gradually gained a higher status than some modern references to them as ‘native auxiliaries’ might imply. The Rule of the Templars certainly suggests that the professionalism of a good Turcopole had a high value placed upon it. The role of their commander in the order, the Turcopolier, was a very high-status one, and the rations given to Turcopoles were generous, implying that in at least some cases they were of a higher status than sergeants.

But the most important thing about the Turcopoles, far more important than their ethnic origins or the descriptive labels attached to them, is their sheer volume. There were a lot of them in Frankish armies. They are often invisible in the chronicles, but when we do come across them, generally as an accidental aside, it is clear that they formed a very large part of the Frankish mounted arm, and sometimes even the majority.

A cavalry detachment from Tripoli in 1109, for example, commanded by the count himself, became lost and was intercepted by the ‘askar of Shaizar. We are told by Usama that even at this early stage, fully 40 per cent of the Frankish troops were Turcopoles: ‘my father and my two uncles departed at the head of a body of troops to confront that lost detachment, and who should it be but the Cerdagnais [i.e. William-Jordan II], the lord of Tripoli, at the head of three hundred horsemen and two hundred Turcopoles (these are archers for the Franks)’.

Similarly, in an account of a Frankish cavalry force in Egypt in 1167, fully two-thirds of the men are described as Turcopoles. A legal document survives which set out an agreement made only a few months later, in October 1168, between the Hospitallers and Amalric, king of Jerusalem, detailing the assistance which the order promised to give for the forthcoming invasion of Egypt. In it the Hospitallers committed themselves to provide no fewer than 500 Turcopoles, alongside 500 knights (i.e. with the Turcopoles constituting 50 per cent of their cavalry contingent). Likewise, the Frankish army which was fielded against Saladin’s forces in 1183 had a cavalry contingent of whom 50 per cent were Turcopoles and they also appear to have constituted a large part (perhaps even the majority) of the Frankish mounted arm at Hattin four years later.

The way in which Turcopoles were used changed significantly over time. There seems to have been some early experimentation in terms of how to use them most effectively on the battlefield. As we have seen, the northern Franks had access to larger numbers of militarised local Christians and to Turkic mercenaries (Christian or otherwise), and in the first two decades of the twelfth century seem to have deployed them as a separate arm. The Principality of Antioch also had most contact with the Byzantine army, and may initially have tried to emulate their example by giving the Turcopoles a more prominent and independent role.

The experiment entailed using the Turcopoles as semi-independent units which could be deployed at the forefront of the Frankish battle line, protecting the flanks of the knights to ensure that their assault could take place with minimal disruption. This sounds very reasonable in theory but in practice it was an absolute disaster. At the battle of Tell Danith in 1115 the Turcopoles were deployed as a separate unit on the far left of the Frankish army in an attempt to allow the knights to deliver their charge without interference. In the event, however, the Turcopoles broke when confronted by the Turkic cavalry and fled into the advancing Antiochene troops, disrupting their charge rather than helping it.

Four years later, at Ager Sanguinis, the Franks, still overly optimistic, tried again, presumably having made efforts to strengthen their Turcopole units in the meantime. The results were remarkably similar. The Turcopoles were stationed on the left to try to protect the flank of Robert of St Lo’s division as they charged the enemy lines. As at Tell Danith, however, the Turcopoles were overwhelmed by their opponents and routed. To make matters worse, rather than just failing to protect the flank, they fled back into the nearest body of Frankish troops, disrupted the charge they were tasked to support and carried away friendly troops with them as they ran.

The battle was a disaster. The Franks were so heavily outnumbered that they had little chance of success, but the poor performance of the Turcopoles certainly contributed to their failure. It is probably no coincidence that this is the last time we see them deployed in an independent battlefield role. As we have seen, the Turcopoles were a numerically important part of the Frankish mounted arm, far more so than has been generally appreciated. The Franks did not have the luxury of not using them on the battlefield. But they needed to find a role in which they could perform more effectively.

The debate about the role of the Turcopoles has tended to focus on ‘what did they do?’, with the implicit criticism being that one rarely sees them in a charge after 1119. In fact, probably a better question is ‘what didn’t they do?’ Apart from not appearing in the front rank of the knightly charges, the answer seems to be that they did pretty much everything.

The best way to use Turcopoles was eventually felt to be to split their main contribution into two: first, on the battlefield, to deploy them in the charge, but in the rear ranks, rather than to give them an independent role and, second, on campaign, to give them the full range of tactical and operational tasks normally associated with light cavalry.

Knights were expensive and were always in short supply. The Franks in the Holy Land were faced with the issue of how to deal with large groups of Turkic horse archers, not just in pitched battles, but also (and far more frequently) in raids and skirmishes. Turcopole recruits were an obvious way of making up for the lack of knightly numbers. Their lighter equipment and ability to operate in a more fluid and flexible manner also helped them to fulfil tasks that were less well suited to heavier cavalry.

The Turcopoles were thus employed as the ‘workhorse’ of the Frankish armies, and the flexibility they provided allowed the slower crusader armies to operate and survive in an environment where the majority of their enemies had a far greater degree of manoeuvrability. We tend to focus on the knights, but it is easy to forget that the majority of troops in most Frankish armies were the even more ponderous infantry.

Turcopoles helped to create the necessary operational flexibility and manoeuvrability that a heavy Frankish army would otherwise have lacked. They undertook long-range reconnaissance and spying missions. They scouted in front of the enemy on campaign and shadowed any forces on the move. They harassed Muslim supply lines and isolated columns. In short, while they could not entirely ‘solve’ the issue of how to deal with large numbers of Turkic light cavalry on the battlefield, they could act as a bridge between European and eastern modes of fighting, giving sufficient flexibility to a Frankish army to allow it to either deter enemy cavalry armies, or to arrive on the battlefield in a condition that would maximise their chances of success.

The issue of how best to protect the flanks of charging knights still remained, however. This was partly addressed by charging in echelon; by improving the timing and discipline of the charge (and hence reducing the elapsed time between launch and impact); and by operating for as long as possible under the protection of Frankish infantry archers and crossbowmen. It was also partly solved by putting large numbers of Turcopoles and mounted sergeants in successive ranks behind the charging knights, offering the knights at least some protection from flanks and rear.

There were tactical, social and administrative differences between mounted sergeants and Turcopoles, but there were large areas of overlap between them in terms of functionality, particularly on the battlefield. In Templar contingents both groups of soldiers were placed under the command of the office of the Turcopolier as battle approached because, at the critical moment of the charge, they were all expected to support the brother knights, and would form the rear ranks in the attack.

The Turcopoles had a particular role in terms of reconnaissance and scouting, however, and also seem to have become more closely associated with the military orders as the twelfth century progressed.68 We know that the Templar Turcopoles would often go out on scouting missions ahead of the main body of knights, but also had small groups of knights attached to them in case the fighting intensified.

This longer-range scouting could also mean that Turcopoles might operate independently, between the main armies, in small groups. In July 1182 Saladin invaded the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, and his brother launched a diversionary attack from Egypt in support. William of Tyre wrote that a Christian courier ‘came from the south with trustworthy information that Saladin’s brother with an immense force had invaded our land in the vicinity of [Darum]. Thirty-six of the light armed knights [‘levis armaturae milites’] who are called Turcopoles had been slain and some of the outlying villages burned.’ This seems to imply that the Turcopoles were operating as a separate unit at this point, as there were no casualties mentioned among other troops. We know that the Templars operated a series of garrisons and outposts along the southern border of the kingdom and, together with the Hospitallers, deployed large numbers of Turcopoles. What we see here was perhaps a Templar border patrol that was overwhelmed by Turkic cavalry during the incursion.

A good example of how the Turcopoles operated on a day-to-day basis is given in the surviving details of a somewhat later Templar court-martial, when brother knights were (rather harshly) being disciplined for having charged without orders. The Templar Turcopolier officer and his Turcopole scouts were part of a small force which had left Jaffa and triggered an ambush by Turkic cavalry operating in the environs of Fontaine Barbie. The Turcopolier and his men were accompanied by ten Templar knights and a commander, the regulation covering force detailed to accompany them.

The Muslim force seems to have let the crusader vanguard pass through, but before they could spring their trap they were spotted by the Templar knights moving up from the rear of the column. Rather than wait to be attacked, four of the Templar knights charged their ambushers, followed shortly afterwards by the other six. The Turcopolier and his men then turned around and joined in the fighting, and the ambushers were routed. The Templar knights were subsequently disciplined for engaging the enemy without permission but their defence, which seems to have been a strong one, was that they were justified in doing so because of the danger posed to the Turcopolier and his men. As always, the knights take centre stage in the telling of this incident, but it is interesting to see evidence of Turcopoles scouting at the head of a column, and engaging successfully with the enemy once contact had been made.

In an ironic reversal of traditional roles, Turcopoles were also at the forefront of the only detailed example we have of Christian horse archers harassing a Muslim convoy. In June 1192, King Richard received news of a rich Muslim caravan at the ‘Round Cistern’, south of Bethgibelin. He had with him a cavalry force of some 1,500 men, of whom about 1,000 were Turcopoles, together with an unspecified number of infantry. Richard sent the Turcopoles and light infantry forward to delay the Muslim column with their archery while he readied his heavier troops and tried to catch up. The Turcopoles seem to have been successful, despite the presence in the column of large numbers of elite Turkic cavalry which Saladin had sent to reinforce the column.

It is often forgotten that the majority of casualties tend to be inflicted once an army has been broken, rather than in the initial impact. The charge is the glamorous, high-profile event, but the task of fully destroying an enemy force takes place when opponents are on the run, when weapons and armour have been discarded, and when cohesive battle formations have broken down into small knots of fugitives. It was here that the Turcopoles could come into their own, chasing down the fleeing enemy, despatching the wounded or disorientated, and taking prisoners.

The Turcopoles were never able to fully neutralise the Turkic threat: the nomadic cavalry were far too good an opponent for that. But they were able to help in a lot of other tactical and operational roles which greatly improved the flexibility and manoeuvrability of Frankish armies.

The Soldiers of Christ IV


Back in the west, infantry of this period tended to be poorly armoured and equipped. They were treated as social and military inferiors by the mounted elite. Most were taken from the servants of the knights and the retinues, and occasionally from the city militias. Even the better equipped would only have had a padded or quilted jacket as their main body protection, and a very basic iron cap as a helmet. Their weapons might have been a spear, or possibly a bow. Only the better armed men would have had swords.

There were exceptions, of course. The growth of the middle classes in certain parts of Europe was accompanied by a shift in the balance of social and military power, and an increase in the role played by infantry. In the developing urban communities of what are now Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, for instance, foot soldiers had greater prominence, and infantry naturally had a role to play in siege warfare. Similarly, mercenaries could be hired for specific campaigns, to increase numbers, skills and flexibility, but they were always a luxury item in a largely non-monetary economy and the piecemeal nature of their recruitment militated against their use as cohesive units. Crossbowmen were still seen as expensive specialists, rarely employed in sufficient numbers to make a battle-winning difference.

But infantry in Europe generally had the lower-status roles. Their weapons remained broadly the same. Their armour remained rudimentary. And the amateurish way that they were recruited and deployed meant that medieval infantry remained a low-priority adjunct to those higher up the social hierarchy. Perhaps most importantly, there is little evidence that they were able to perform cohesively as units. Their ability to manoeuvre was even more limited than that of the knightly cavalry.

In the crusader states, however, their role gradually assumed greater prominence. The inconvenient truth of warfare in the east was that any European-style army without large numbers of missile-armed infantry, archers or crossbowmen was a sitting target for enemy light cavalry archers. There were always areas where the deployment of infantry was difficult. Large parts of the frontier lands of eastern Galilee, or the Oultrejourdain, for instance, were characterised by open spaces with few defensible positions or other terrain suitable for infantry to make a stand. Unprotected infantry, particularly when at the end of an inevitably rudimentary supply line, were vulnerable to armies with a high proportion of light horse. But the need for crusader armies to include significant numbers of effective infantry was recognised at an early stage, as were the penalties for failing to do so.

The learning curve for forces arriving from Europe was steep and extremely painful. The armies of the Second Crusade, for instance, had brought infantry with them who were neither well armed nor skilled, and the lack of archers was to prove a particular problem. Many of the devout but poorer volunteer infantry in the German army were just a liability. The knights and their cavalry retinues were relatively well prepared but, as Odo of Deuil wrote, it would have been better if they ‘had instructed the infantry [‘pedites’] in the same way and, keeping the weak at home, had equipped all the strong with the sword instead of the wallet and the bow instead of the staff; for the weak and helpless are always a burden to their comrades and a source of prey to their enemies’. Even lightly equipped pilgrims could make a useful contribution if they were armed with bows but beyond this the pious poor were merely another set of mouths to feed.

As so often, demand helped drive progress. The need for good infantry meant that they had a higher status than their counterparts back in Europe. Difficulties in encouraging new settlers meant that the lower orders of the Frankish population were always in a far stronger negotiating position than their peers in the west. Conditions had to be attractive enough to persuade large numbers of people to come, and to stay. To offset the dangers of their new lives, more freedoms were part of the inevitable trade-off. Recruits from the rural settlements tended to be tenant farmers rather than serfs. The militia from the towns and cities were likely to be burgesses, home-owning tradesmen. And the capture of the coastal cities enabled a resurgence of commerce that generated money to sustain cadres of standing ‘semi-professional’ infantry and to hire in mercenaries. Under these circumstances, the infantry of the Latin East were increasingly likely to be more effective and better motivated than their European equivalents.

The process of producing upgraded infantry had begun at an early stage. The infantry survivors of the First Crusade were true veterans. The nature of the march, with its inevitable battles and hardships, meant that the survivors were the most experienced and hardened of their peers, equipped with the best armour and weapons available from those who had fallen around them.

The increasing professionalism of the crusading infantry was reflected in the quality and sophistication of their defensive armour. Towards the end of the century we find examples where infantrymen were still fighting and manoeuvring in formation despite having many arrows sticking out of their armour and, as chroniclers always enjoyed pointing out, looking more like hedgehogs than men.

A detailed description of the kind of equipment a well-armed infantryman might be wearing survives from the siege of Acre in 1190, and shows just how effective it could be, even in the most difficult of circumstances. A Frankish infantryman:

was in the ditch outside the city walls. He wandered back and forth, searching for weak spots in the walls, and firing the crossbow which he was carrying in his hand at the enemy. His armour was quite adequate for an infantryman: his head was protected by an iron covering; he also had a mailshirt and a tunic made of quilted linen, popularly called a ‘doublet’. Its skilful cross-seaming makes it difficult for a weapon to pierce it. While he was standing, looking up, suddenly a Turk fired a crossbow bolt at him with great force from the top of the wall and struck him in the chest, piercing all the armour, i.e. the iron headpiece, and the mail shirt and doublet.

And yet the bolt did not kill or even seriously wound him. Contemporaries attributed this lucky escape to a holy amulet which he was carrying, and, who knows, it may have helped. But it is clear that the different layers of armour so reduced the penetrative impact of the force that it was possible to survive even a crossbow bolt fired at relatively close range.

Muslim commentators were also impressed by the level of protection enjoyed by the Frankish heavy infantry. Baha’ al-Din describes the way in which Saladin sent his troops to harass Frankish infantry marching in column, only to find that their armour made them extremely hard to stop:

He sent the skirmishers forward and the arrows on both sides were like rain. The enemy army was already in formation with the infantry surrounding it like a wall, wearing solid iron corslets and full length well-made chain-mail, so that arrows were falling on them with no effect. They were shooting with crossbows and wounding the Muslims’ horses, their cavalry and infantry. I saw various individuals among the Franks with ten arrows fixed in their backs, pressing on in this fashion quite unconcerned.

The crossbow was one of the key weapons of the Frankish army. Although the social status of the lance ensured that it got much more attention in the chronicles, the crossbow was arguably just as important. As we shall see, the relationship between crossbow and lance encapsulated the interdependency of infantry and cavalry in the army.

The crossbow had many of the positive characteristics of an early musket and many of the same drawbacks too. Like the musket, it was more effective than a simple bow, with a good range and excellent penetrative power. Most importantly, unlike a bow, it was easy to operate and required far less training. To be a good archer took years, but an adequate crossbowman could be fielded in a matter of days. It was the ideal weapon for, say, an urban militia or the more prosperous yeoman farmers called up as part of the arrière-ban. There were improvements in crossbow design over the course of the twelfth century, with the heavier and simpler wooden bows being gradually superseded by lighter and more expensive composite horn bows. The more sophisticated newer models would be more likely to be used by professional mercenaries or the military orders. But the simpler versions would be found over a longer period of time among the poorer or less professional elements of the army, and were still capable of good service.

The drawbacks were also similar to those of the early musket. ‘Spanning’ the crossbow, the process of pulling the bow string back, locking it in place and getting a bolt ready for firing, took far longer than the time an expert archer would need to load and fire an arrow. Slow loading times meant that they needed to be deployed en masse, so that at least some of the crossbows would be ready to fire at any given time.

They also needed the protection of spearmen, to deter enemy cavalry from coming to close quarters. Correctly used, however, this was an extremely effective combination. The tactical crossbow ‘teams’ that we hear of on the Third Crusade (two crossbowmen alternately loading and firing behind spearmen providing close protection) are not mentioned as being a tactical innovation, so they had presumably been in use, perhaps less formally, for many years before. The availability of ready-loaded crossbows, combined with the protection offered by spearman with their shields, makes it feasible that the Frankish crossbowmen, or the more professional ones at least, were able to use volley fire to keep Muslim horse archers at bay.

There was always a clear recognition that the effectiveness of infantry was largely dependent on the way they interacted with the cavalry, however. The knights needed infantry support but the reverse was also true. From the earliest days of the Latin kingdom commentators were aware that the Frankish army operated best as a ‘combined arms’ force, and that disaster was more likely to strike if either arm was left to fight on its own.

In May 1102 at the battle of Ramla, for instance, King Baldwin I of Jerusalem was widely criticised for his impetuosity in pressing on into battle without waiting for his infantry to join him: ‘It was indeed very rash for the king to neglect to wait for his men and to proceed into battle in disorderly fashion because he should have known better. Without foot-soldiers and hardly waiting for his knights, he hurried to meet the enemy until at length he foolishly threw himself into a multitude of Arabs.’

Conversely, infantry could be severely cut up by enemy cavalry when isolated, even for relatively short periods of time. As Fulcher of Chartres commented about the battle of Jaffa in 1102, the infantry needed support just as much as the knights did: ‘When our [knights] by vigorous fighting penetrated the hostile ranks in one place, it was immediately necessary to come back somewhere else. This was because our enemies, when they saw our footmen without the protection of knights, would rush at once to that place and slay those in the rear’.

The Frankish infantry were capable of performing disciplined manoeuvres in the face of the enemy, even when closely engaged. Fresh units were able to relieve tired ones, and take their place in the battle line. Baha’ al-Din noted that during an attack on a Frankish column some ‘of their infantry rested while marching beside the sea, not being engaged in the fight. When those engaged in the battle became tired or were debilitated by wounds, the company that had been resting would take their place and the previously active company would take a rest.’

The Itinerarium Peregrinorum, commenting on a march in September 1191, made clear how vital, and how professional, the infantry could be. They:

struggled with great resolve and contended with untiring valour, turning to face the Turkish assault which threatened them from behind. So they walked backwards as if they were retreating because otherwise they could not protect their backs adequately. In fact, because of the Turkish threat from behind they advanced with their faces turned towards them all that day, travelling back-to-front, fighting every step of the way.

The noble author, in a statement that would have been unthinkable in contemporary Europe, summarised their performance: ‘How essential those valiant crossbowmen and archers were that day!’

The professionalism of the Frankish infantry should not be overstated. The quality of the infantry available to crusader armies was inevitably variable and every force would encompass men with widely differing abilities and skills. Unlike western Europe, however, the key difference in the crusader states was the urgency of the need. Infantry in the east had to become better equipped, better deployed and far better integrated into military practice because no Frankish army could survive without them. Desperation, as ever, turbo-charged military evolution and trumped the conservatism of social conventions.


Mercenaries were an increasingly important part of Frankish armies, particularly in the second half of the twelfth century as the momentum of ‘total war’ increased, and the succession of campaigns into Egypt were followed by the Ayyubid counter-offensives of the 1170s and 1180s.

The word ‘mercenary’ has rather pejorative connotations to a modern ear but in the context of the time it was far more neutral and pragmatic. These were often merely men, local or otherwise, fighting for pay and subsistence rather than because of feudal obligations. As with modern soldiers, needing to earn a salary while on campaign was not necessarily at odds with motivations of piety or patriotism. The Italian city states, for example, fought in the east for very sound commercial reasons, but the desire to make money could also be accompanied by genuine religious sentiment, and a sincere wish to help defend the Holy Land.

The range of men classed as ‘mercenaries’ also covers a wide spectrum. Some might be highly professional soldiers from western Europe who had made the trip east looking for steady work. These might have specialist skills, for instance with crossbows or with particular aspects of siege warfare. At the other end of the spectrum might be relatively poor urban workers, armed with a spear: not a full-time professional perhaps but someone who was available for pay when replacements were needed.

The most ambitious mercenaries came from the very highest ranks of society, and these tended to cause most social friction. Such newcomers were a valuable source of talent, but the fact that they were ultimately looking for fiefs rather than just a salary meant that they provoked much jealousy among their peers. They were generally treated as ‘parvenus’ by the local nobility, furious at the extra competition for the best available heiresses. Reynald of Châtillon came east in search of an heiress and struck it rich, becoming prince of Antioch by marrying Princess Constance, and later becoming lord of the strategically vital Transjordan. He must have had extraordinary charisma and personal qualities, but despite this even the normally even-handed William of Tyre could not help describing him disdainfully as a mere ‘mercenary knight’ [‘stipendarius miles’].

Gerard of Ridefort, who eventually became master of the Templars, was similarly much reviled by his contemporaries, who enjoyed reminding anyone who would listen that his origins were as a mercenary. They also liked to suggest that the only reason he turned to the celibacy of the Templars was because he had been left at the altar by the Tripolitan heiress he had hoped to marry. The bitterness of rejection and the sexual frustration of celibacy, they implied, were at the root of this ‘parvenu’s’ reckless behaviour on the battlefield.

The existence of mercenary knights and other heavy cavalry was apparent from the first days of the crusader states. Referring to the situation in the kingdom of Jerusalem in August 1113, William of Tyre commented that King Baldwin ‘was poor and needy, so that his means barely sufficed for his daily needs and the payment of his knights [‘equitum stipendia’]’.

At the siege of Tyre in 1124, when military resources were stretched to the limit by the length and difficulties of the blockade, substantial numbers of mercenaries were involved, and this was doubtless repeated in many other major campaigns as the century progressed. Fulcher of Chartres wrote that ‘because a lack of money at that time hindered us all, a large sum was collected man by man to pay knights and hired footmen [‘militiae et clientelae’]. Such a project as the proposed siege [of Tyre] could not be completed without payments to the men.’ Later in the siege, when a Damascene relief army arrived, the ‘entire cavalry forces and the mercenary infantry [‘equites omnes et stipendiarii pedites’] were to issue forth from the camp under command of the count of Tripoli and William [of Bures], the king’s constable and administrator of the realm’. It is interesting to see that the mercenary infantry were felt to be the best quality foot available, and most suited to manoeuvre in the field. The other, less manoeuvrable, infantry were left behind with the more static role of guarding the siege engines and preventing sorties by the garrison of Tyre.

Ironically, the successful siege of Tyre, itself only made possible by the use of mercenaries, was a turning point. From 1124 onwards, all of the Palestinian and Syrian coastal cities north of Ascalon were back in Christian hands. Trade routes to Europe could be opened up more freely, exploiting the rich opportunities offered by access to the western end of the Silk Roads. On the back of such trade, a monetary economy could flourish again. And with money flowing between Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, the crusader states could establish themselves as the destination of choice for mercenaries looking for steady employment.

Large parts of the defence of the crusader states were given over to mercenary units. In 1132 we find Renier Brus, the lord of the key frontier castle of Banyas, present with the king and the feudal army of the Latin Kingdom at Jaffa, trying to settle a relatively rare dispute between the nobility before it could degenerate into civil war. Renier seems to have taken all his feudal troops with him when he went to the king, but his castles still needed to be guarded. William of Tyre, in discussing the capture of Banyas by the Damascene forces in December of that year, makes it clear that the entire Frankish garrison were mercenaries: ‘The citizens were taken prisoners, and all the mercenary soldiers in the city, both knights and foot soldiers [‘qui in ea erant stipendiariis utriusque, tam equitum quam peditum’], were seized.’

As the ‘arms race’ with the new Ayyubid super-state hotted up later in the twelfth century, mercenaries were in increasing demand. The principle of taxation, arrived at by the General Council of the Latin Kingdom in 1183, had a primary purpose of allowing greater numbers of mercenaries to be hired. William of Tyre, who was present at the assembly, wrote that ‘it was resolved by common consent that a census of all the lands of the realm be taken. If such a report were available, it would be possible in an emergency to obtain foot and cavalry forces [‘equitum peditumque copias’] so that the enemy, if he returned, would find us prepared for resistance.’ By medieval standards, this was an extraordinary step. With the feudal contingents operating at maximum capacity, and with colonial settlement already highly intensive, the only course of action left was to try to squeeze the economy to provide access to more troops. The entire direction of the economy was geared towards its ability to support large mercenary contingents, non-feudal paid soldiers. This was now a society on a permanent war footing.