The Crusades to the East in the Thirteenth Century



The implementation of what became known as the Fifth Crusade (1217–1221) fell to Innocent III’s successor, Honorius III. He was an able administrator, mature, somewhat cautious, but deeply dedicated to both the crusade and the reform of the church. Honorius moved quickly to keep the crusade on its schedule. He also made increasingly clear that he was looking to Frederick II to play a leading role in it. But Frederick continued to be preoccupied in Germany, where the supporters of Otto IV remained active. The crusaders from the Rhineland and the Low Countries were ready to leave in 1217, as were some of the English, but Frederick was not. Nor were many of the French crusaders. King Andrew II of Hungary and Duke Leopold VI of Austria moved east- ward in August 1217. Some of the Rhenish contingent delayed in Portugal to assist in the capture of Alcácer do Sal. The crusade armies were to meet at Acre in Palestine.

Andrew of Hungary arrived first and conducted a sweep through the area around Lake Tiberias before returning home. Other crusaders laid siege to the Muslim fortifications on Mount Tabor, southwest of Tiberias. They were not able to vanquish the Muslim forces, but after their withdrawal the Muslims left Mount Tabor and retired to Nablus. The crusaders also strengthened fortifications along the coast in Caesarea and Château Pelerin (‘Athlit). Although these operations have been criticized, they were probably necessary to ensure the security of the Frankish settlements while the crusade moved against its main objective, Egypt. Thus, the Fifth Crusade picked up on the task left undone by the Fourth Crusade.

As the main forces gathered, still without Frederick, the crusaders selected as their leader the king of Jerusalem, John of Brienne. They moved to the Damietta mouth of the Nile to begin the siege of this important port, the gateway to Egypt, as it was known. In September 1218 the papal legate, Cardinal Pelagius of Albano, arrived, followed by a large body of French crusaders. The attack on Damietta was made more difficult by a chain that stretched from the city wall to a tower near the opposite side of the river and blocked passage upriver. The historian Oliver of Paderborn planned and directed the building of siege machinery on two boats that enabled the crusaders to take the tower. The sultan of Egypt, al-Ādil, brother of Saladin, is said to have died of shock at the news. He was succeeded by his son al-Kãmil. The capture of the Chain Tower enabled the crusaders to cross the Nile and lay siege to Damietta, while the new sultan consolidated his position. The Egyptians offered to surrender Jerusalem and other sites in return for the end of the siege. The crusade leadership was divided, but Cardinal Pelagius and the heads of the military orders pointed out that Jerusalem was indefensible without the possession of key fortresses in Transjordan. Damietta fell on 4 November 1219, and by the end of the month, the crusaders con- trolled most of the eastern Nile Delta.

Still Frederick had not arrived. He sought postponements from the pope while negotiations regarding his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor dragged on. He was determined to secure his rights before embarking on the crusade. Pope Honorius granted the postponements in the interest of the crusade, but events began to outrun the pace of the negotiations. After Frederick was crowned in Rome in November 1220, he entered his kingdom of Sicily and began to put matters there back into order. He had been in Germany for almost eight years. Many have criticized Frederick for his failure to go on crusade and Honorius for his laxity in pressing Frederick to fulfill his vow. Yet the problems that detained Frederick were real and weighty from his point of view, and Honorius was anxious to secure full cooperation. Neither could have anticipated what would eventually happen in Egypt. In fact, both tried to forestall just that kind of outcome. But events on the ground in the East could hardly be expected to wait on decisions in the West. King John left the crusader camp to meet what he regarded as a threat to the Latin kingdom from Syria as well as to pursue a personal claim to the Armenian throne. Pelagius was placed in a difficult position as the demand for action by rank-and-file crusaders mounted, which increased with the arrival of substantial reinforcements with Duke Ludwig I of Bavaria, the official representative of Emperor Frederick. In an attempt to placate those who wanted action, Pelagius and the duke decided to order a limited advance. They were joined shortly afterward by King John. But once begun, the advance became victim to its own success and, against the advice of John, moved toward Mansurah (mod. El- Mansûra, Egypt) at the point where a canal entered the Nile from the East. The Egyptians, reinforced by al-Kãmil’s brothers, cut the crusaders’ line of retreat and forced their surrender. In return for the surrender of Damietta, the crusaders were permitted to withdraw from Egypt. The Fifth Crusade had failed.

The blame for this defeat was shared by Frederick and the pope. Cardinal Pelagius has come under fire as well. But the failure of the Fifth Crusade chiefly illustrates the problem of conducting large-scale land operations far removed from western Europe. The immediate result of this defeat, however, was the determination by the pope to persuade Frederick to fulfill his vow. A marriage was arranged between Frederick and the young heiress to the Latin kingdom, Isabella II, the daughter of John of Brienne and Maria la Marquise. Frederick renewed his pledge to go on crusade, but before he was able to depart, Honorius died, in March 1227. The new pope was Cardinal Hugolino of Ostia, who took the name Gregory IX. When Frederick finally set out from Brindisi for the East in August 1227, there was an expectation that things would be different. But illness forced the emperor to turn back almost immediately. Gregory imposed the sentence of excommunication that had been agreed to by Frederick as part of the Treaty of San Germano in 1225.

Frederick, however, was determined to go on crusade. He now had a vital stake in the East from the fact that he was, through marriage, king of Jerusalem. Moreover, he had hopes of securing a treaty from al-Kãmil that would return Jerusalem and other holy sites to the Christians. It was, in fact, very close to the agreement that had been offered and rejected during the Fifth Crusade. But al-Kãmil had his eye on Syria, ruled by his brother, al-Mu‘azzam. Even after al-Mu‘azzam’s death, Frederick continued to push for an agreement.

When Frederick crossed to the East in June 1228, he once again demonstrated his strong determination to ensure what he regarded as his rights. Despite having few men and little money, he was able to secure the treaty, and on 17 March he entered Jerusalem. The treaty was denounced by Gerold of Lausanne, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, on the grounds that it provided no security for the city and left the lands of the patriarch and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on which they depended for income, in Muslim hands. Frederick’s calculations were further upset by events in Italy, where Pope Gregory IX ordered an attack on the kingdom of Sicily, apparently in reprisal for the seizure of the March of Ancona by Rainald of Urslingen, duke of Spoleto, who had been a source of friction between the papacy and the emperor for some time. Frederick returned to Italy, where he defeated the papal forces. By the Treaty of Ceprano (1230), Frederick and the pope resolved their immediate differences. Frederick’s achievement by his crusade was accepted, even if not welcomed.

There followed almost a decade of cooperation between pope and emperor. During this period, Frederick’s representatives in the Latin kingdom attempted to dominate the politics that swirled around the various noble factions. Frederick himself was occupied with affairs in Sicily and Germany. In the East, Cypriot nobles led by John of Ibelin, the lord of Beirut, carried on a struggle against the imperial lieutenants that ended in the lieutenants’ defeat in 1233. Likewise, on the mainland imperial administrators acting for Frederick as guardian of his son Conrad IV fared no better, though they held out until 1243 (the War of the Lombards). The only significant crusade in this period was led by Count Thibaud IV of Champagne in 1240, but it ended with only minor gains. With the expiration of Frederick’s treaty with al-Kãmil, the Ayyûbids moved to occupy Jerusalem. With the loss of the city, the crusades entered a new phase.

Hopes for the recovery of Jerusalem were now vested in the king of France, Louis IX. The Capetian kings of France had a tradition of crusading, but they were also known as hardheaded and practical men of affairs. The leading French historian of Louis IX, Jean Richard, has argued that he did not make a decision to go on crusade without overcoming a certain reluctance on his own part as well as the opposition of his mother, Blanche of Castile. What decided him was a serious illness that nearly cost him his life. Once determined, he set himself to the task with great energy. He entrusted the government of the kingdom to his mother and devoted himself to raising the required funds and making the necessary preparations. Although he worked with the pope, Innocent IV, the entire initiative was in his hands. The thoroughness of his preparations is demonstrated by the fact that he improved the Mediterranean port of Aigues-Mortes to serve as a point of departure and made arrangements for supplies to be stored in Cyprus. His objective was Egypt, and specifically the same port of Damietta that had been attacked by the Fifth Crusade.

Although Louis’s crusade was preached in various countries, it remained a French enterprise. Louis’s army was not large, but it was quite respectable in medieval terms. Louis spent about six times his annual income on the crusade, but most of the money came from non-royal sources. He left for the East on 25 August and landed near Damietta on 5 October, meeting almost no opposition. The garrison of the city fled, leaving it open to him. He immediately took over the city and made preparations to move inland. Some thought was given to the capture of Alexandria, but this was rejected in favor of an attack aimed at Cairo. On 20 November Louis moved south along the east bank of the Nile toward Mansurah. There the army stalled, unable to cross the canal that lay in its path, until a secret crossing place was made known to them. The king’s brother Robert of Artois led an advance guard across the canal but rashly attacked the Muslim camp. Louis, who crossed to aid his brother with the bulk of the army, was stymied by the arrival of the Ayyûbid sultan with reinforcements. Forced to retreat, he suffered heavy losses and had to surrender. Louis was ransomed, but Damietta was once more returned to the Egyptians. Louis left for Acre, where he devoted himself to improving the coastal fortifications of the Latin kingdom.

Perhaps more than any previous crusade, Louis’s expedition showed the magnitude of the task confronting those who desired to liberate the Holy Land. When the king returned home in 1254, he had accomplished little more than repairing some of the damage resultant from his failure at Damietta. He had not, however, lost his sense of commitment to the crusade, which, if anything, had been reinforced by the increasing depth of his personal piety.

The second half of the thirteenth century continued the story of military decline in the Latin states of Outremer. There were various efforts to provide support. Among the most important efforts was King Louis IX’s second crusade, launched on 2 July 1270. It was an impressive force. Lord Edward—the future King Edward I and son of Henry III of England—was due to join Louis. Although the goal of the crusade was to aid the Latin East, Louis had decided first of all to land at Tunis in North Africa. This landing was not, as some have thought, part of a plot against Tunis by Charles I of Anjou, the king’s brother, but the result of Louis’s belief that the ruler of Tunis was prepared to accept the Christian faith. But soon after the landing, dysentery swept through the camp. The king was one of its prominent victims and died from its effects. Edward, who arrived just as the crusaders were preparing to leave, continued to the East, where he conducted a limited campaign.

The second crusade of Louis IX was the last major crusade of the thirteenth century. Pope Gregory X, who had been elected pope while in Acre, worked zealously to promote the crusade to the East. On his instructions, the Dominican master general Humbert of Romans conducted an extensive survey to determine the depth of support for the crusade. At the Second Council of Lyons in 1274, Gregory issued a crusade document that not only codified previous experience but drew on the materials gathered by Humbert and others. His efforts bore fruit when the leading rulers of Europe took the cross, but the projected crusade did not get off the ground before the pope died in 1276. Thereafter, despite a growing awareness of the perils facing Outremer, no major crusade was mounted prior to the fall of Acre in 1291 to the Mamlûks of Egypt. The Mamlûk victory at Acre was the culmination of a Muslim resurgence that had begun shortly after the First Crusade of King Louis IX, when the Mamlûks, military slaves who formed an elite guard in Egypt, overthrew the Ayyûbid sultan and took control of the government. The military state that they created directed its external energies against the Franks as part of its effort to prove its legitimacy. By August 1291 the Franks no longer had a toehold on the Palestinian mainland. Still, they were a power in the region by reason of their possession of the kingdom of Cyprus and the naval power of the Western maritime cities, as well as by virtue of the military and financial support afforded by the military orders.


The Recapture of Constantinople




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

Between 1254 and 1261, the Latin Empire comes to an end, and the Byzantine Empire is restored

Half a century before, Byzantium had splintered into four mini-kingdoms and faded from sight. For a little less than a millennium, Constantinople had been a pivot point of international politics; now, like Kiev, or Braga, or Krakow, it was of vast importance to its immediate neighbors, but little more.

Constantinople now stood as the capital of the “Latin Empire,” a tiny and penniless realm. Immediately after the conquest of the city by the Fourth Crusade, the Latin Empire, under the Count of Flanders turned Emperor, had stretched from Constantinople into the south of Greece, across the Black Sea to encompass the coast of Asia Minor. But under the count’s nephew Baldwin II, who inherited the throne in 1228 at the age of eleven, the Latin Empire had shrunk. The Bulgarian empire, under the ambitious Ivan Asen, mounted constant attacks on its western border; the Empire of Nicaea, under the ruthless John Vatatzes, assaulted it from the east. Baldwin had few troops, and no money to hire mercenaries. A delegation of Franciscan and Dominican friars who visited the city in 1234 reported that city was “deprived of all protection,” the emperor a pauper: “All the paid knights departed. The ships of the Venetians, Pisans . . . and other nations were ready to leave, and some indeed had already left. When we saw that the land was abandoned, we feared danger because it was surrounded by enemies.”

Baldwin spent much of his reign out of Constantinople, traveling from court to court in Europe and begging each Christian king to help him protect the city that had once been Christianity’s crown jewel in the east. Both Louis IX of France and Henry III of England made small contributions to the Latin treasury, but in its king’s absence Constantinople itself grew shabbier and hungrier. By 1254, Baldwin could claim to rule only the land right around Constantinople’s walls. He had already sold most of the city’s treasures and sacred relics: a fragment of the True Cross, the napkin that Saint Veronica had used to wash the face of Christ as he walked towards Golgotha, the lance that pierced Christ’s side on the cross, the Crown of Thorns itself. (Louis IX bought most of them and built a special chapel in Paris to house the collection.) He had borrowed so much money from the Venetian merchants that he had been forced to send his son Philip to Venice as a hostage pending repayment; he had torn the copper roofs from Constantinople’s domes and melted them down into coins.

While the Latin Empire withered, the Empire of Nicaea grew. John Vatatzes, claiming to be the Byzantine emperor in exile, spent most of his thirty-three-year reign fighting: swallowing most of Constantinople’s land, seizing Thrace from Bulgaria and Thessalonica from the third of the mini-kingdoms, the Despotate of Epirus. (The fourth mini-kingdom, the Empire of Trebizond, never expanded very far away from the shoreline of the Black Sea.) By 1254, the Empire of Nicaea stretched from Asia Minor across to Greece and up north of the Aegean.

In February of that year, the sixty-year-old John Vatatzes suffered a massive epileptic seizure in his bedchamber. He slowly recovered, but seizures continued to plague him. “The attacks began to occur altogether more frequently,” writes the historian George Akropolites, who lived at the Nicaean court. “He had a wasting away of the flesh and . . . no respite from the affliction.” In November, the emperor died; his son Theodore, aged thirty-three, became emperor.

But Theodore II soon sickened with the same illness that had killed his father: “His entire body was reduced to a skeleton,” Akropolites says. He died before the end of his fourth year on the throne, leaving as heir his eight-year-old son John.

John’s rule was promptly co-opted by the ambitious Michael Palaeologus, a well-regarded soldier and aristocrat who was also the great-grandson of the Byzantine emperor Alexius III. With the support of most of the Nicaeans (“They did not think it proper,” says Akropolites, “for the . . . empire, being so great, to be governed by a fruit-picking and dice-playing infant”), Michael first declared himself to be regent and then, in 1259, promoted himself to co-emperor as Michael VIII.

From the moment he took the throne, Michael VIII intended to recover his great-grandfather’s city: “His every effort and whole aim was to rescue it from the hands of the Latins,” writes Akropolites. In the first two years of his reign, he prepared for the attack on Constantinople by making peace on his other borders; he concluded treaties with both Bulgaria and the nearby Il-khanate Mongols.

He also equipped himself with a new alliance. The merchants of Genoa had just suffered a commercial catastrophe. In 1256, they had quarreled sharply with the Venetians over the ownership of a waterfront parcel of land in Acre, the last surviving fragment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Whoever controlled it could block rival ships from the harbor of Acre, and both of the maritime republics wanted this advantage. “The Christians began to make shameful and wretched war on each other,” says the contemporary chronicle known as the Rothelin Continuation, “both sides being equally aggressive.” The first major sea battle in the war, between a thirty-nine-ship Venetian fleet (reinforced by ships from friendly Pisa) and a fifty-galley Genoan navy, had ended with an embarrassing Genoan loss. Between 1257 and 1258, the conflict ballooned until all of Acre was at war:

And all that year there were at least sixty engines, every one of them throwing down onto the city of Acre, onto houses, towers and turrets, and they smashed and laid level with the ground every building they touched, for ten of these engines could deliver rocks weighing as much as 1500 pounds. . . . [N]early all the towers and strong houses in Acre were destroyed . . . [and] twenty thousand men died in this war on one side or the other. . . . The city of Acre was as utterly devastated by this war as if it had been destroyed in warfare between Christians and Saracens.

The Genoans were the losers. By the end of 1258, they had been forced out of Acre completely; the old Genoese quarter in Acre was entirely pulled apart, and the Venetians and Pisans used the stones to rebuild their own trading posts.

Now Genoa needed another trading base in the eastern Mediterranean. Carefully guarded negotiations between the Genoese statesman Guglielmo Boccanegra and the emperor Michael VIII went on during the winter of 1260, and ended in July of 1261 with the signing of a major treaty: the Treaty of Nymphaion, which promised the Genoese their own tax-free trading quarters in Constantinople, should they help the ambitious emperor to conquer it.

The conquest itself was an anticlimax; Baldwin II was in no shape to resist, and the city was almost defenseless. As soon as the Treaty of Nymphaion was ratified, Michael sent a small detachment to Constantinople to issue a series of threats. The detachment discovered, to its surprise, that most of the remaining Latin army had been sent off to attack a Nicaean-held harbor island near the Bosphorus Strait. Under cover of thick dark, they climbed into the city, quickly overwhelmed the tiny remaining guard, and opened the gates. Baldwin himself, sleeping at the royal palace, woke up at the sounds of their shouts and managed to flee the city, leaving his crown behind him. The Latin Empire was no more.

Michael VIII himself was camped to the north of Thyateira at the time. When news of the capture arrived at his camp, his sister woke him up by shaking him and saying, “Rise up, emperor, for Christ has conferred Constantinople upon you!” According to Akropolites, he answered, “How? I did not even send a worthy army against it.”

Three weeks later, he arrived at the gates of Constantinople himself. He entered the city on August 14 as the first emperor of a restored Byzantium, and found a disastrous mess: “a plain of destruction, full of ruins and mounds.” The royal palace was so filthy and smoke-stained that it had to be scrubbed from top to bottom before he could take up residence in it.

The Genoese, claiming their reward, now had a trade monopoly in Byzantium and held the premier position in the Mediterranean Sea. Baldwin II ended up in Italy, still claiming to be the emperor of the Latins.

Michael’s co-emperor, young John, remained behind in Nicaea. Michael VIII intended to rule the restored Byzantium on his own, founder of a new royal dynasty, without challenge. Four months later, he ordered the boy blinded and imprisoned in a castle on an island in the Sea of Marmara. The sentence was carried out on Christmas Day, 1261, the boy’s eleventh birthday.

Martial Women of Medieval Europe and the Crusades


Eleanor of Aquitaine: (A.D. 1122?–1204) Romancers have placed her in the Second Crusade, clad in polished armor, plume dancing in the sun, dashing over the hillsides and killing Moors. The reality is hardly less impressive. On Easter Day, A.D. 1146, she offered the Abbé Bernard of Clairvaux, at Vézelay, her thousands of vassals, who formed the core of the Second Crusade. She intended to lead her legion personally and opinions vary as to how far she actually succeeded, although contemporary legend assumes the most. On the day of her army’s departure, Eleanor appeared in Vezelay riding a white horse, clad in armor, “with gilded buskins on her feet and plumes in her hair,” surrounded by other armored women, including Sybelle, Countess of Flanders, Mamille of Roucy, Florine of Bourgogne, Torqueri of Bouilon, and Faydide of Toulouse, all splendidly appointed. If it was a charade, she kept it up all along the route to the Holy Land. She met the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Komnenos and went from his court, by sea, to Syria, where her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers, one of the most brilliant knights of the age, was ruler. She went thence to Jerusalem, where she was greeted by Queen Melisande, ruler of Christians during the Crusades. Melisande not only fought Moslems, but also her own son, refusing to give up her rule when he came of age.

Independent evidence from the Greek historian Nicetas describes European women in the Crusades, and names especially “the Lady of the Golden Boot,” whom we can reasonably assume to be the same Eleanor with gilded buskins who started out from Vézelay, though some historians believe Nicetas referred to a troop of women in the employ of the German Conrad. The Greek historian describes her elegant and martial bearing, and describes, as well, her armored ladies with spears and axes, mounted on fine chargers.

Eleanor had been inspired by Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered and the character of Clorinda when she had armor specially made for herself and her ladies-in-waiting. Many historians today dismiss this event, and suggest that, at the first sign of trouble, she and her women turned around and headed home. Nicetas’ report strongly suggests otherwise. The Bull of the Third Crusade (1189) expressly forbade women to join the expeditions, although the First Crusade included equal numbers of men, women, and children, and the Second seems to have included numerous noblewomen inspired by Queen Eleanor after her spectacle at Vézelay, where she had ridden about the countryside calling for crusaders. Whether the Bull of the Third Crusade was obeyed seems unlikely, as too many of the warrior-monks were of denominations that included nun auxiliaries, and a great many mendicant-nuns were free to roam at will.


Medieval nuns were often members of wandering sects and traveled armed for self-defensive reasons. Others were adjunct to famous sects of fighting monks and accompanied them on the Crusades. Still others learned to fight for the protection of their lands and convents in a tumultuous age, as was the case with Philothéy Benizélos of Greece and Julienne du Guesdin of Brittainy. At the siege of Seville by Espartero, an anticleric, the nuns of Seville rose against him, so that his siege was repelled. There can be no question but that nuns and abbesses have had a great propensity for violence, as witness the stories of Chrodielde and Leubevére warring in the sixth century for control of an abbey, or Renée de Bourbon in the late 1400s in armed struggle for reforms. In the monk wars of early Christian Ireland, women were reported fighting amidst the clergy, undoubtedly nuns.

An eleventh-century nun’s marginalia in an illuminated manuscript shows a nun jousting with a monk on horseback and defeating him. This piece can be seen reproduced in Karen Peterson and J. J. Wilson’s Women Artists (1976). Some would say the artist was being satiric, but the reality of her age better upholds the conclusion that she was depicting actual military exercises practiced by monks and nuns. The ill-fated First Crusade led by Peter the Hermit was most assuredly made up of men, women, and children. Misson in Voyage d’Italie (1688) reported his personal inspection of an arsenal of the Palazzo-Real, which included cuirasses and helmets for women, which he was told were worn by Genoese ladies who fought Turks in 1301. Searching for confirmation, he uncovered three letters in the archives of Genoa, written by Pope Boniface VIII, discussing in detail the “warlike infatuation” of Genoese ladies who were Crusaders in 1383. As they are referred to as “ladies” rather than courtesans, and known to the pope, it is probable that they took vows before leaving for the East, in the manner of the monk-knights. If these women had not taken such vows, their troop would almost certainly have been referred to in a manner similar to that of the twelve hundred women-at-arms accompanying the duke of Alva in Flanders in the late 1500s, who were considered harlots for not taking vows.

An account survives, written by the sister of a monk (perhaps “sister” is not literal but a reference to her status as a nun), describing her experience during Saladin’s siege of Jerusalem: “I wore a helmet or at any rate walked on the ramparts wearing on my head a metal dish which did as well as a helmet. Woman though I was I had the appearance of a warrior. I slung stones at the enemy. I concealed my fears. It was hot and there was never a moment’s rest. Once a catapulted stone fell near me and I was injured by the fragments.”

Crusading women were romanticized in literature, plays, and songs, so that even Eleanor of Aquitaine was inspired to a women’s crusade and had armor made for her ladies-in-waiting. Among the queens of Europe whose valor in the Crusades is certain, we must count Florine of Denmark, Marguerite de Provence and Berengaria of Navarre. Additional indicators include the “troop of Amazons” that accompanied Emperor Conrad to Syria, and the women Crusaders in the ranks of William, Count of Poitiers, as reported by Guibert de Nogent in Gesta Dei per Francos (God’s Deeds of the Franks), book VII.

Of later periods, there are clear records regarding the unconventional activity of nuns. Le Lusca in Introduzione al Nouvellare was amused by the women of the Alpine convents who on certain days “were permitted to dress up as gentlemen, with velvet caps on their heads, tight-fitting hose, and having sword at side,” and come out of holy seclusion to partake, as gallants, in carnival society. Antonio Francesco Grazzini reports also of nuns who arrived at carnivals clad as cavaliers, swords at side, acting as gallants. Until reforms started by the Council of Trent, Italian convents were places of considerable liberty, with young patricians sporting in the gardens with the nuns, or, even more notoriously, the nuns “converting” maidens and widows by spending nights in their beds and taking them afterward to their convents. Novelists may seem to have exaggerated these propensities, yet the records show that in 1329 the nuns of Montefalco were excommunicated for such behavior; in 1447, several nuns were “reformed” by means of life imprisonment; and, in 1472, a Franciscan commissioner reported on the “irreligious and unbridled lives” of nuns. A 1403 law prohibited citizens of Bologna from any longer hanging about the convents or to converse and play music with the nuns.

Le President de Brosses, in Lettres familière écrites d’Italie, volume 1, was equally amused by Italian nuns, who as a rule carried stilettoes. These Lettres include an account of the abbess of Pomponne who fought a duel with a lady who wished to take over the abbey. Various popes found it necessary to declare the heretical nature of fighting women, in an attempt to minimize their participation. The centuries-old ban on women wearing armor would be the technicality upon which Joan of Arc was condemned to burn.


Florine: Betrothed to the king of Denmark, she accompanied him in A.D. 1097 on the ill-fated First Crusade, and died with him in battle.

Marguerite de Provence, Queen of France: (A.D. 1221–1295) Daughter of Raymond Berenger, she married Louis IX in 1254. She accompanied him on the Crusade and was in Damietta with him during a siege. At the height of the battle, she elicited a vow from an officer to behead her if the Moslems breached the walls. She behaved “with heroic entrepidity” when the king was captured.

There were many such women of the Crusades. They were “animated by the double enthusiasm of religion and valor,” and they “often performed the most incredible exploits on the field of battle, and died with arms in their hands at the side of their lovers.”

Berengaria of Navarre: (A.D. 1172?–1230?) Daughter of Sancho the Wise, King of Naples. She married Richard the Lionheart in 1191 and accompanied him to the Mideast, participating in the Crusade against Saladin. After the death of Richard, she founded an abbey and ruled its vast estates.

Chrodielde: A martial nun of the convent of Poitiers. Her bid to usurp Leubevére, abbess of Cheribert, in A.D. 590, began with political maneuvering and escalated to battle. Repulsed from the convent along with her partisans, Chrodielde withdrew to the fortified cathedral of St. Hilary and there raised an army of criminals and outcasts, who fought against the bishops seeking Chrodielde’s arrest. At the heart of Chrodielde’s popularity with the peasants was the greed of the landholding church authority, who were frankly no better than any other landlords then or now. It seems evident that nuns and midwives commonly filled the void of sympathetic leadership among the peasants of the medieval world, which is but one of the reasons for the massive witch burnings.

Childebert, King of France, sent his troops to put down the war between Chrodielde and Leubevére, “but Chrodielde and her banditti made such a valiant resistance that it was with difficulty the king’s orders were executed.” Chrodielde was ultimately excommunicated for leading peasants to rebellion.

Leubevére: Falsely accused of impious crimes by Chrodielde, Leubevére, abbess of St. Radegunde convent, repulsed her rival and afterward waged war against Chrodielde’s army of thieves, outcasts, and disenfranchised peasants. The convents and monasteries of A.D. 590 tended to be little more than the estates of wealthy landholders with forces to defend their rights and to manage troublesome serfs. The bishops called upon the king of France to quell these warrior-nuns. King Childebert sent forces that were hard put to suppress Chrodielde. Leubevére was later found innocent of Chrodielde’s charges, but was nonetheless dragged in the streets by her hair, then imprisoned, for leading nuns to battle.

The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon


The formation of the Templars arose out of these conditions of insecurity on the roads and the murder, rape, enslavement and robbery of unarmed pilgrims. Only recently a group of nine French knights, most prominently Hugh of Payns, a knight from Champagne who had fought in the First Crusade, and Godfrey of Saint-Omer in Picardy, had proposed to the Patriarch of Jerusalem Warmund of Picquigny and King Baldwin II, who had succeeded his cousin in 1118, that for the salvation of their souls they form a lay community or perhaps even withdraw into the contemplative life of a monastery. Instead Baldwin, alive to the urgent dangers confronting travellers in his kingdom, persuaded Hugh of Payns and his companions to save their souls by protecting pilgrims on the roads, or as one chronicler put it, they were to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but were also ‘to defend pilgrims against brigands and rapists’. The Easter massacre along the road to the river Jordan persuasively drove home the King’s view, and on Christmas Day 1119 Hugh and his companions took their vows before the Patriarch in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, calling themselves in Latin the Pauperes commilitones Christi, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ.

The King and Patriarch probably saw the creation of a permanent guard for travellers as complementary to the work of the Hospitallers who were providing care for pilgrims arriving at Jerusalem. Already in 600 Pope Gregory the Great had commissioned the building of a hospital at Jerusalem to treat and care for pilgrims, and two hundred years later Charlemagne, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, enlarged it to include a hostel and a library, but in 1005 it was destroyed as part of the Fatimid caliph Hakim’s violent anti-Christian persecutions. In 1170 merchants from Amalfi obtained permission from the Fatimids to rebuild the hospital, which was run by Benedictine monks and dedicated to Saint John the Almsgiver, a charitable seventh-century patriarch of Alexandria. But after the First Crusade the hospital was released from Benedictine control and raised an order of its own, the Hospitallers of Saint John, which was recognised by the Pope in 1113 and came under his sole jurisdiction.

Official acceptance of the new order came at Nablus in January 1120 when the nine members of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ were formally introduced to an assembly of lay and spiritual leaders from throughout the lands of Outremer. In this year too they first attracted the attention of a powerful visitor to Outremer, Fulk V, count of Anjou, who on his return home granted them an annual revenue, an example that was soon followed by other French nobles, which added to the allowance they were already receiving from the canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Yet altogether these amounted to only a modest income, and individually the Poor Fellow-Soldiers were genuinely poor and dressed only in donated clothes, meaning they had no distinctive uniform–the white tunic emblazoned with a red cross came later. Their seal alludes to this brotherhood in poverty by depicting two knights, perhaps Hugh of Payns and Godfrey of Saint-Omer, having to share a single horse.

They were also given the use of another hand-me-down. After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, the King had made do with the al-Aqsa mosque for his palace, but now he had built a new palace to the west and he gave what had been the mosque to the Poor Fellow-Soldiers. They made it their headquarters, residing there and using it to store arms, clothing and food, while stabling their horses in a great underground vault at the southeast corner of the Temple Mount. As the vaults were thought to have been Solomon’s stables, and the al-Aqsa mosque was known as the mosque of the Templum Solomonis because it was believed to have been built on the site of Solomon’s Temple, it was not long before the knights had encompassed the association in their name. They became known as the Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici–the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon; or, in a word, the Templars.


In the autumn of 1127 Baldwin II sent emissaries to the West in an effort to solve two fundamental problems facing the Kingdom of Jerusalem: its military weakness and his lack of a male heir. Baldwin had four daughters but no sons, and to secure the succession he and his barons had decided to offer the hand of Melisende, his oldest daughter, to Fulk V, count of Anjou. In the event the mission to Fulk was a complete success; the count agreed to return to Outremer and marry Melisende, securing the succession and strengthening the kingdom’s ties with the West.

Baldwin also sent Hugh of Payns, the Grand Master of the Templars, sailing westwards at the same time, his mission to solicit donations and to raise recruits. The King had prepared the ground for Hugh by writing to Bernard, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux, explaining that the Templars were seeking approval of their order from the Pope, who they hoped would also initiate a subsidy that would help fund the battle against the enemies of the faith who were threatening the very existence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Baldwin knew his man: Bernard had already written to the Pope objecting to a proposal put forward by a fellow abbot to lead a mission of Cistercians to the East, saying that what the Holy Land really needed was ‘fighting knights not singing and wailing monks’.

Bernard of Clairvaux, who was made a saint within twenty-years of his death, was one of the most influential and charismatic figures of the medieval Church. A volatile and passionate young man of an aristocratic family, he deliberately sought out the Cistercian order, known for its austerity, and in 1113 joined its monastery at Citeaux. Three years later, at the age of twenty-six, he founded a new Cistercian house and became its abbot, calling the monastery Clairvaux, meaning the Valley of Light. By the time Pope Honorius II was elected in 1124, Bernard was already regarded as one of the most outstanding churchmen of France; he attended important ecclesiastical assemblies and his opinion was regularly sought by Papal legates.

Significantly Clairvaux was built on land given to Bernard by Hugh, the count of Champagne, whose vassal was Hugh of Payns, the future founding Grand Master of the Templars. By the time Hugh of Payns sailed westwards in 1127, Bernard was already well informed about the East and what was needed there; his mother’s brother was Andre of Montbard, one of the original nine Templars, and Bernard’s early patron the count of Champagne had three times gone on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and on the last occasion, in 1125, he too renounced his worldly possessions and joined the Templars.

Grants of land as well as silver, horses and armour were made to the Templars almost as soon as Hugh of Payns landed in France in the autumn of 1127. The following summer the Grand Master was in England where he was received with great honour by King Henry I, who donated gold and silver to the order. Hugh established the first Templar house in London, at the north end of Chancery Lane, and he was given several other sites around the country. More donations followed when Hugh travelled north to Scotland. In September Hugh of Payns had returned across the Channel where he was met by Godfrey of Saint-Omer and together they received further grants and treasures, all these given for the defence of the Holy Land and for the salvation of their donor’s souls.

The climax of Hugh of Payns’ tour came in January 1129 at Troyes, the capital of the counts of Champagne, where Theobold, Hugh of Champagne’s successor, hosted a convocation of Church leaders dominated by the presence of Bernard of Clairvaux. Hugh addressed the assembly and described the founding of the Templars and presented their Rule, adapted from the precepts followed by the canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This stipulated attendance at services together with the canons, communal meals, plain clothing, simple appearance and no contact with women. Because their duties carried them away from the church, they could replace attendance with the recitation of paternosters, and they were also allowed a horse and a small number of servants, and while the order was under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Jerusalem they owed their individual obedience to the Grand Master. These regulations formed the raw material from which, after considerable discussion and scrutiny by the gathered churchmen, Bernard drew up the Latin Rule of seventy-two clauses.

Bernard’s Latin Rule enjoined the Templars to renounce their wills, to hold worldly matters cheap, and not be afraid to fight but always to be prepared for death and for the crown of salvation and eternal life. The knights were to dress in white, symbolising that they had put the dark life behind them and had entered a state of perpetual chastity. The hair on their heads was to be cut short, but all Templar knights wore beards as they were not permitted to shave. Foul language and displays of anger were forbidden, as were reminiscences about past sexual conquests. Property, casual discussion with outsiders, and letters and gifts given or received were subject to the approval of the master. Discipline was enforced by a system of penances with expulsion the punishment in extreme cases.

In all this the Templars were regulated like monks, but when it came to guidance in military matters Bernard offered few practical injunctions, though he did understand that in creating ‘a new type of Order in the holy places’, one that combined knighthood with religion, the Templars needed to possess land, buildings, serfs and tithes, and was entitled to legal protection against what the Latin Rule called ‘the innumerable persecutors of the holy Church’.


The Knights Templar would in time become one of the wealthiest and most powerful financial and military organisations in the medieval world, yet there are holes in the historical record about their origins, and there are contradictions too. When were they founded? How many were there? What accounts for their meteoric rise? Part of the problem in finding the answers to these questions lies in the nature of the sources themselves.

The earliest chronicler of Templar history was William, archbishop of Tyre. Born into a French or Italian family at Jerusalem in about 1130, he studied Latin and probably Greek and Arabic there before continuing his education from about 1146 to 1165 in France and Italy. After returning to Outremer he wrote, among other works, a twenty-three volume history of the Middle East from the conquest of Jerusalem by Umar. This Historia Rerum in Partibus Transmarinis Gestarum, or History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, was begun around 1175 and remained unfinished at the time of William of Tyre’s death in about 1186. Most of it concentrated on the First Crusade and subsequent political events within the Kingdom of Jerusalem–events from which William was not entirely detached, for he was involved in the highest affairs of both the kingdom and the Church, and as archbishop and contender for the office of Patriarch of Jerusalem he was naturally jealous of any diminution of ecclesiastical authority–and so resentful of the Templars’ independence and their rise to wealth and power.

Two other early chroniclers were Michael the Syrian, Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch, who died in 1199, and Walter Map, archdeacon of Oxford, who died in about 1209. But Michael was weak on matters outside his own experience and times, while Walter preferred a good story to sound historical inquiry, and moreover his prejudice against the Templars was fundamental, for he objected to the entire concept of an order of fighting monks. Despite his own bias against the Templars, William of Tyre is considered the most reliable of the three; he diligently sifted through sources to glean the facts about events that occurred before his time, and he made a point of interviewing surviving first-hand witnesses.

All the same, William of Tyre did not even begin writing his history until the mid-1170s, that is fifty-five years after the founding of the Templars, and there is no earlier source. The chroniclers of the First Crusade, men like Fulcher of Chartres, Baldric of Dol, Robert the Monk and Guibert de Nogent, had all completed their works within a decade of the reconquest of Jerusalem in 1099 and long before the foundation of the Templars in 1119–or was it 1118? According to William of Tyre it was the latter, but he was notoriously poor on dates even if careful in other things, and the balance of scholarly opinion has the Templars established in 1119. In whatever year it was, it does not seem to have occurred to anyone to write a first-hand account of the founding ceremony of the Templars in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Christmas Day–at the time it did not register as a significant event.

We do not even know how many founding members there really were. William of Tyre says that there were nine and names the two most prominent as Hugh of Payns and Godfrey of Saint-Omer. Other sources also name Archambaud of Saint-Aignan, Payen of Montdidier, Andre of Montbard, Geoffrey Bissot, a knight called Rossal or possibly Roland, another called Gondemar, and two more whose names have not survived. Moreover, William of Tyre maintains that even as late as the Council of Troyes in 1129 there were still only nine Knights Templar. But why would only nine men command such attention from the Council and the Pope, and why would Bernard of Clairvaux devote so much effort to praising their worth and propagating their fame? Indeed in this case Michael the Syrian seems to be more reliable, for he says there were thirty founding Templar knights, and most likely there were very many more a decade later.

Just as we owe it to William of Tyre that the Templars comprised only nine members right up to 1129, so we also owe to him the claim that they were a poor and simple order throughout the early decades of their foundation. Certainly the Templars looked back on themselves in this idealistic way, so that in 1167 when they were very rich indeed they adopted as their seal the two knights astride one horse, a self-image perhaps also derived from their ascetic Cistercian promoter in the West, Bernard of Clairvaux. Yet however humble the lives of the individual knights, the order itself was never indigent, not even at the start when already it was receiving an income from the canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as significant donations from powerful French barons.

But to portray the Templars as poor and humble and few in numbers in their early years gave William of Tyre a handy stick with which to beat them in his critical history. By the 1170s, according to William of Tyre, the Templars ‘are said to have immense possessions both here and overseas, so that there is now not a province in the Christian world which has not bestowed upon the aforesaid brothers a portion of its goods. It is said today that their wealth is equal to the treasures of kings.’ William contrasts this state of affairs with the Templars’ earlier simplicity, suggesting they have somehow betrayed themselves. But it seems that his real complaint is that their support in the West made them independent of any power in Outremer, particularly that of the Church as represented by William, the archbishop of Tyre, and would-be Patriarch of Jerusalem:

‘Although they maintained their establishment honourably for a long time and fulfiled their vocation with sufficient prudence, later, because of the neglect of humility, they withdrew from the Patriarch of Jerusalem, by whom their order was founded and from whom they received their first benefices and to whom they denied the obedience which their predecessors rendered. They have also taken away tithes and first fruits from God’s churches, have disturbed their possessions, and have made themselves exceedingly troublesome.’

This was the beginning of the criticism the Templars would receive from sources whose interests they crossed. Some would call them saviours of the East and defenders of all Christendom, others would find them ‘troublesome’ and accuse them of arrogance, greed, secrecy and deceit. Their destruction lay in their beginning; when there was no more East to save, the Templars would be doomed.

The Fifth Crusade




There were many lessons learned from the disaster of the Fourth Crusade, but the most important one, for Pope Innocent III, was the need for the Church to administer and centrally manage future expeditions to the Holy Land. Six months after the Children’s Crusade, Innocent preached a new Crusade wherein he hoped “to accomplish what he had failed to achieve in 1202–1204, the destruction of Ayyubid Egypt, the recovery of Jerusalem, and the spiritual renewal of Christendom.” Innocent’s Crusade bull, Quia Maior, promulgated in April 1213, along with the conciliar decree, Ad Liberandum, from the Fourth Lateran Council in November 1215, established the “rhetorical, legal, fiscal, liturgical, and administrative norms of official Crusading for the next century and a half.”

Innocent believed that participation in the Crusade should be extended to all Christendom, and he granted plenary indulgences to those who fought, as well as to those who sent proxies in their stead (and to the proxies themselves). Those who could not fight were exhorted to pray and fast for the success of the expedition and, if they had the financial means, they could finance a Crusader and through this “substitution payment” also receive the indulgence. Those without the financial means to pay the full expenses of a warrior on Crusade could donate a smaller amount to the Church for general Crusade expenses and through this “redemption payment” also receive the indulgence.

Innocent marshaled all of Christendom to participate in the Crusade in order to maximize the chance of success and to bring about a general spiritual awakening. In order to focus on the Holy Land campaign, Innocent suspended the indulgence for those fighting against Muslims in Spain and the Albigensian heretics in the south of France. Although the Fifth Crusade was designed by Innocent to be centrally administered by the Church and involved a huge recruiting effort throughout Christendom, there was no effort to appoint central secular leadership. This lack of central leadership and the ambitious size of the project constituted serious deficiencies that eventually hampered the success of the expedition.

The Siege of Damietta

At first glance, the city of Damietta—two miles inland from the mouth of the main branch of the Nile River—did not seem to warrant the attention it received from the Crusaders. Regardless, the town of 60,000 inhabitants happened to lie on the most direct approach to Cairo, and so “for the next three and a half years, this narrow waterlogged region of flats, marsh, canals, and rivers remained the focal point for the thousands who joined the Crusade from the west, the longest static campaign in the history of the eastern Crusades.”

The Crusaders arrived in May of 1218 and quickly assessed the task before them. Damietta was a heavily fortified town with triple land and sea walls whose harbor defense consisted of the seventy-foot Chain Tower. A 300-man garrison was charged with defending the harbor and ensuring that the massive chain that stretched from the tower to the city did not collapse, allowing enemy ships to get close to the city.

The Crusaders began the siege of Damietta by using their fleet to blockade the city in order to cut off supplies with the hope that the city would surrender. Although this maritime maneuver was necessary for the successful prosecution of the siege, it alone would not guarantee success. The Crusaders knew they needed to besiege the city on land, but to do so required control of the harbor, which in turn required the conquest of the Chain Tower that guarded the harbor entrance.

Several attempts to take the tower failed. The Crusaders were frustrated and getting desperate when Oliver of Paderborn had an idea. He suggested the Crusaders take one ship and build a siege engine on the deck with a rotating scaling ladder. The modified ship would sail to the Chain Tower and soldiers in the siege engine could use the ladder to scale the tower. The contraption was similar to what the Venetians had built and used successfully at the siege of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. Oliver’s idea worked, and they finally captured the Chain Tower in August of 1218, three months after their arrival at Damietta.

The siege of the city could now begin in earnest. Unfortunately, large groups of Crusaders left the army and returned home after the Chain Tower fell. During the height of the campaign the army consisted of 30,000 troops, but by the time the army marched to Cairo it contained only 1,200 knights, 4,000 archers and several thousand infantry.462 Indeed, “the history of the Fifth Crusade is one of a fluid army defined by the constant arrivals and departures of soldiers. In part, this was the logical outcome of the new formulation of a Crusade as a papally sanctioned war against the enemies of the faith, rather than an armed pilgrimage to the land of Christ.” Soldiers leaving the campaign while it was still ongoing became a significant issue and prevented the troops from pressing their advantage and securing victory. “The transient fluidity of tours of service between 1217 and 1221 ensured that the best funded, most widely preached and professionally recruited Crusade to date failed to convert numerical popularity into lasting achievement.”

Diplomatic Negotiations

Desiring to rid himself of the Crusaders, the Muslim ruler al-Kamil offered a diplomatic solution. In return for the Crusader withdrawal from Egypt, al-Kamil offered to restore the previous territory of the Kingdom of Jerusalem except for a few important castles in the Transjordan. The offer was stunning; in effect, “al-Kamil offered to wipe away all of Saladin’s conquests in Palestine for the Crusaders’ lifting of one siege in Egypt.”

King John of Brienne urged acceptance of al-Kamil’s offer, but the Templars and Hospitallers cautioned against it since it would be extremely difficult to defend Jerusalem without the Transjordan castles. Cardinal Pelagius weighed the opinions and ruled against accepting al-Kamil’s generous offer. He earnestly believed the Crusaders were in a position of strength and would emerge victorious. In the mind of the cardinal, acceptance of a negotiated settlement while occupying a superior military position was foolish. Additionally, the German Crusaders were reticent to accept any offers of peace before the arrival of Frederick II.

The specter of the emperor’s anticipated arrival would continue to influence decisions during the Crusade. Ultimately, the failure of the Fifth Crusade did not hinge on the rejection of this (and subsequent) diplomatic overtures from al-Kamil, but on poor military decisions.

The Saint Arrives

As the siege wore on, Crusaders continued to arrive and depart while the army awaited the arrival of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Those remaining in the Crusader camp were greeted with a strange sight in the late summer of 1219, when a group of twelve men in tattered clothing arrived instead. These twelve companions had come to the Crusade to witness to Christ among the Muslims even to the point of martyrdom. Their leader was a man destined to be declared a saint by the Church: Francis of Assisi. He and his eleven friars had reached Damietta to convert al-Kamil and end the Crusade.

Despite modernity’s sentimental view of St. Francis as a proponent of tolerant diversity, he “sought no accommodation with Islam, [but] rather its eradication through reasoned evangelism.” Francis discussed his desire to proclaim the gospel to al-Kamil with Cardinal Pelagius, who urged him to abandon such plans. St. Francis and Brother Illuminato left anyway.

Francis was confident of the Lord’s protection, but Brother Illuminato was concerned about their reception among the Muslims. As they walked, Francis noticed two grazing ewes and said, “‘Courage, Brother! Put your trust in him who sends us forth like sheep in the midst of wolves.’”

When they reached the Muslim sentries they were taken into custody, beaten, and chained. Francis cried out to his captors, “I am a Christian. Take me to your master.” Brought before al-Kamil, Francis preached to him through an interpreter for several days. The sultan listened attentively and responded personally and warmly to Francis before telling him, “I am going to go counter to what my religious advisors demand and will not cut off your heads . . . You have risked your own lives in order to save my soul.” Although moved by Francis’s words and holy life, al-Kamil told the saint he could not convert to the Catholic Faith without deeply alienating his people who would see the conversion as apostasy, which brings punishment by death in Islam. The sultan asked the saint to “remember me in your prayers, and may God, by your intercession, reveal to me which belief is more pleasing to him.”

The dramatic interaction between the Catholic saint and the Muslim sultan did not produce the hoped-for fruit of conversion, nor did it end the Fifth Crusade, but it was an episode that illustrated the spiritual purpose of Crusading. It was a bold and daring move worthy of remembrance, and it almost worked. St. Francis, although not a vowed Crusader, was nonetheless an authentic Crusader for he “embodied both the poor man and the knight, the two forces that had set out together in olden times along the road to the Holy Land and had retaken Jerusalem.”

After his return to Italy, St. Francis revised the Rule of the Order of Friars Minor to reflect his experience. An entire chapter of the Rule was now dedicated to relations with Islam, and how the friars could spread the gospel among the Muslims. In the Rule of 1221, Francis stressed the need for friars working in Muslim lands to live an authentic Christian witness, to proclaim the Word of God, and to be prepared for martyrdom, which occurred even during the lifetime of the saint. Francis’s mission to convert al-Kamil proved unsuccessful, but its potential success constitutes another one of the great “what ifs” of the history of the Crusades

The Fall of Damietta

Eighteen months after the first Crusaders arrived at Damietta, the city fell. A group of Crusaders noticed one of the defensive towers on the wall was not manned, and they stormed it. From this foothold they were able to gain control of the wall and open the gate for the main body. The city was taken without a fight—an unexpected development—but the Crusaders soon discovered why the final assault was so easy.

Once inside the city, the Western warriors were appalled to discover corpses everywhere. Eighteen months of blockade and siege had dwindled the food supplies within Damietta to dangerous levels, resulting in the starvation of 50,000 people. Oliver Paderborn described the macabre scene that greeted the Crusaders: “As we were entering [Damietta], there met us an intolerable odor, a wretched sight. The dead killed the living.”

News of the fall of Damietta reached al-Kamil who once again reached out to the Crusaders in an attempt to find a diplomatic solution. He offered the same terms as before, but this time sweetened the deal by promising restoral of the True Cross, captured by Saladin at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. Cardinal Pelagius once again refused.

The hindsight of history produces the analysis that “four years of Crusade had been wasted through the arrogant folly of a prince of the Church.” However, the situation at the time gives legitimacy to the decision of Pelagius to reject al-Kamil’s second diplomatic advance. The Crusaders had just captured Damietta, without significant loss of combat strength, and the Muslim army was not threatening offensive action. Pelagius had every reason to believe the situation was favorable to the Crusaders, dictating a militant rather than diplomatic posture.

As summer approached, the troops were idle and restless and in need of a campaign, so Pelagius ordered the army to move out in a combat operation to capture al-Kamil’s stronghold of Mansourah, which was halfway between Damietta and Cairo. The army approached Mansourah and halted its advance in a precarious defensive position opposite the city and between the Nile and the al-Bahr-as-Saghir canal that linked the Nile to Lake Manzalah. The choice of encampment placed the army in a position that was surrounded by three waterways and provided a prime opportunity for an astute enemy to cut off their supply line, which is exactly the plan followed by the Muslim army. The Crusaders were faced with the dilemma of attempting a difficult advance on Mansourah separated from their line of supplies, digging in and waiting for reinforcements, or a tactical withdrawal. Since the army only had provisions for twenty days, Pelagius made the decision to withdraw to Damietta. The retreat from Mansourah placed the Crusade in jeopardy as the campaigning season came to a close, and the army’s strength was not enough to launch another operation against Cairo.

The failed expedition to Mansourah had dangerously drained the effective fighting force of the Crusaders. This situation, coupled with the prospect of a long stalemate and uncertainty about when or if Frederick II’s German army would arrive, forced Cardinal Pelagius to realize the only viable solution was diplomacy, so he sued for peace. Terms were reached on August 29, 1221: If the Crusaders would surrender Damietta and leave Egypt, al-Kamil offered an eight-year truce, a prisoner exchange, and a promise to return the True Cross. Pelagius agreed to the terms and the army left in September.

The failure of the Fifth Crusade was especially disheartening since it had been so close to succeeding. Unlike the failure of previous Crusades, however, which demoralized Christendom and negatively impacted the Crusading movement, the disappointment of the Fifth Crusade provided a learning experience that the Church and secular rulers took to heart. They learned “the lesson that their efforts needed to be more sharply focused in terms of logistic preparations, military organization, and religious commitments. The Fifth Crusade met military defeat for itself while securing institutional success for its cause.”



Within three years the royal marriage of King Fulk and Queen Melisende was in serious trouble and the kingdom of Jerusalem on the verge of its gravest political crisis to date. Two of the most influential men in the land, Count Hugh of Jaffa and Roman of Le Puy, lord of Transjordan, conspired to challenge King Fulk. Their motivation was a combination of the personal and the political, and represented the entwined interests of Queen Melisende and the native nobility.

Hugh was in the prime of life: about twenty-eight years old, he was tall, handsome, and a distinguished warrior. William of Tyre eulogized: “In him the gifts of nature seemed to have met in lavish abundance; without question, in respect to physical beauty and nobility of birth, as well as experience in the art of war, he had no equal in the kingdom.” The count was the son of Hugh II of Le Puiset who had set out on crusade in 1106–7. En route to the Levant his wife had given birth to a son in Apulia. The boy had remained at the Sicilian court until he came of age when he traveled to the Holy Land and sought his inheritance from King Baldwin II around 1120. He was related to the royal house of Jerusalem through his father, and his family ties and career made him a natural associate of Melisende. Soon after 1123 he married Emma of Jaffa, the widow of Eustace Grenier (in his day the most powerful landowner in the kingdom and a royal constable). Emma must have been rather older than Hugh because she already had two sons, Eustace, lord of Sidon, and Walter, lord of Caesarea, both of whom were adults and important nobles in their own right.

During the early 1130s tensions began to simmer between the king and Count Hugh. The count grew arrogant: he refused to obey royal commands and started to drift toward open defiance of his monarch. Hugh was an immensely influential noble in his own right and the county of Jaffa was probably the wealthiest lordship in the kingdom of Jerusalem. Charters indicate that he enjoyed the full trappings of a royal household, including a chancellor and treasurer. His position was unique in the kingdom: no one else possessed the title of count; in fact, the only other men in the entire Levant with such a rank were the count of Tripoli and the count of Edessa.

As the friction between the two men became increasingly overt Hugh began to formulate a strategy. Almost nine centuries later, the details of his conspiracy are elusive, but we are fortunate to have a charter from the principality of Antioch that yields dramatic evidence. A document dated July 1134 places Hugh in the court of Melisende’s sister, Alice of Antioch. The princess had already shown herself to be the most independently minded and rebellious individual in the Latin East by staging two uprisings against the king of Jerusalem. This being so, it is unlikely to have been a coincidence that the count traveled over 280 miles north to see her. He must have gone to sound her out and alert her to the likelihood of open confrontation. As the champion of Melisende’s cause it is logical that he would want to enlist the help of the queen’s sister.

As the political momentum behind Hugh and Melisende increased, another, more personal, aspect to the situation became apparent. Fulk began to suspect the count of being more than simply friendly toward the queen. Perhaps he felt insecure—he was an older, placid man who may have been threatened by the obvious familiarity between Melisende and her dashing contemporary. Some whispered—tantalizingly—that there was proof of a more intimate relationship, yet none of our sources offers details. In such circumstances it is hard to make a genuine assessment of the truth. Sexual innuendo was, and remains, one of the oldest and easiest ways to disparage an opponent’s name, and if the gossip came from the royal camp it could have had a far wider impact. Such rumors obviously impugned the good name of the queen herself and if an open allegation of adultery were proven the legal process would be barbaric. The queen could undergo an ordeal by fire and if found guilty, according to laws laid down in the 1120 Concordat of Nablus, she would be punished by rhinotomy, the slitting or cutting off of her nose; Hugh would be castrated. Melisende might then share the fate of the lady of Banyas, a woman found guilty of adultery, although in this instance at the hands of her Muslim captors, and be sent to a convent. No medieval queen had been treated in such a way, but in the poisonous atmosphere of 1134 such an outcome was a theoretical possibility.

Unsurprisingly, when the matter of his wife’s infidelity was coupled with the simmering political conflict, Fulk conceived “an inexorable hatred” of Count Hugh. Charges of adultery reflected badly on the vitality of a king who seemed unable to preserve the sanctity of his marriage bed. Such an accusation would also damage the standing of the infant Baldwin, although, as we have seen, Elias, Fulk’s grown son from his first marriage, was waiting in the wings. It would be too sensitive to air the accusations of adultery in a formal setting—if Fulk was to flush out the conspirators, then the political route offered the best way forward.

At the suggestion of the king, and perhaps out of loyalty to his mother, Countess Emma of Jaffa, Walter of Caesarea brought the matter to a head. At an assembly of the royal court of Jerusalem Walter made the most sensational and inflammatory claim possible: that Hugh and certain companions had conspired to kill King Fulk. The fact that Walter confronted his own stepfather added an extra sharpness to the situation. Regicide was extraordinarily rare: the sanctity of kingship meant that except in open battle—such as King Harold at Hastings in 1066—slaughtering God’s anointed representative was almost unheard of. The fact that the king’s own wife and her alleged lover were behind such a move made this story even more incredible.

This was a moment of the highest tension: the king and the count faced each other across the royal court. The older man was trying to grasp the power he believed to be rightfully his, the other sought to preserve the status and dignity of the queen of Jerusalem. At the heart of this conflict was Melisende, the pivot around which the entire struggle turned. When he heard the accusation Hugh stood firm; he stated that he was innocent of this heinous charge. Proof may be difficult to provide, however. In the belief that he had allies among the native population the count turned to the court of his peers and said that he would submit to their judgment. The barons and leading churchmen of the land conferred. Could they condemn one of the most important nobles in Outremer, or should they join him, and break with tradition to defy the anointed king? In the early twelfth century an accuser and witnesses spoke to the court and then the nobility debated the outcome. The idea of a prosecution, a defense, and trial by jury were not invented in a form recognizable to us until the reign of King Henry II of England, forty years later. In the medieval mind-set only God could know the truth. The court decreed the matter should be settled by single combat, as was the fashion in contemporary France and Germany, and a date for the trial was set. Hugh and Walter were to face each other, fully armed and mounted on horseback. They would charge at each other until one was unhorsed. The rider might be able to finish off his opponent at that point, or he could dismount and begin hand-to-hand fighting. Sometimes the struggle was so close that the men ended up wrestling unarmed. In one contest the winner secured victory by biting off his enemy’s nose, in another by wrenching his opponent’s testicles. The defeated man was usually slain.

Hugh returned to his lands at Jaffa, but on the day designated for the ordeal he failed to attend. Some interpreted this as an admission of guilt and there was disquiet even among his own supporters. Walter was famous for his strength and perhaps Hugh feared his stepson’s fighting skills. In any case, the High Court condemned Hugh’s absence and he was found guilty of treason and his lands forfeit. Had he fought and won, Fulk’s position would have become untenable.

William of Tyre described Hugh’s reaction to this news as a combination of panic and foolishness: on hearing the court’s verdict Hugh sailed south forty miles from Jaffa to Muslim-held Ascalon. He asked the inhabitants for help against the king—something they readily agreed to. As we have seen, treaties between Christians and Muslims were a fact of life in the Levant; the difference here was the state of division among the Christians, which made Hugh’s presence of particular interest to the Ascalonites. The count argued that he had support within the kingdom and that he could offer—presumably relying on Melisende’s agreement—something to the Muslims in return. We know that they already paid King Baldwin II an annual financial tribute, so a reduction, or even a termination, were the most likely bargaining chips available. An agreement was sealed with an exchange of hostages, again a common custom, and Hugh returned to Jaffa.

The Ascalonites delighted in the dissension between the Christians and mounted raids into the kingdom up to Arsuf. The king was furious; the court proceedings had swung the balance of power in his direction, but this military threat had to be countered. He gathered all the troops he could and besieged Jaffa. The city lies on the coast and has a small port overlooked by a castle perched on a rocky outcrop. At first, Hugh did not act alone. The treaty with Ascalon had not entirely alienated his supporters, but as the king’s troops surrounded Jaffa some began to feel that his chances of success were fading. They tried to reason with him, but Hugh would not submit—he had, after all, been found guilty of a charge of high treason and must have anticipated a severe punishment. As the count persisted in his stance, more men began to slip away and, fearful of the consequences, offered their loyalty to the king.

The Muslim world looked on with pleasure. Ibn al-Qalanisi, a contemporary Damascene writer, gleefully observed: “Reports were received that a dispute had arisen amongst the Franks—though a thing of this kind was not usual with them—and fighting had taken place in which a number of them were killed.” As Fulk sat distracted outside Jaffa, Muslim troops captured the important city of Banyas in the north of the kingdom; the civil war was beginning to exact a severe cost on the Christians.

The deadlock at Jaffa had to be broken. If at all possible, the king needed to avoid a full-scale assault. It was essential to prevent the loss of any Christian knights, or the damage to Fulk’s reputation in the Levant and across the Latin West would only worsen. Churchmen visited the king and cited the book of Matthew (12:25): “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” Patriarch William led a delegation of nobles to mediate between the two sides. After several bitter meetings “for the sake of harmony and the greater honour of the king,” William of Tyre recorded that a compromise was reached.

Hugh and his remaining associates were sentenced to three years’ exile. After this, they could return without reproach, although in the interim the revenues from the count’s estates would be used to pay his ongoing debts and borrowings. In the circumstances this was an astounding result. Hugh had been accused of plotting to murder the king and found guilty by the High Court. He had made a treaty with Muslims, exposed the kingdom of Jerusalem to danger and loss, and openly defied the king at the gates of Jaffa. The death sentence seemed the only logical outcome—yet he had escaped with a ludicrously light punishment and, even more remarkably, he had not even been stripped of his lands. In three years he could come home to Jaffa and resume control of the most powerful lordship in the kingdom. Here—surely—we can discern the influence of Melisende. As Hugh’s most prominent ally and in her theoretical position as coruler, she must have told Fulk that to execute the count would humiliate her and create a deep and permanent division in the kingdom, starting in the royal household. The magnanimous sentence may also show that Hugh’s grievances against Fulk had some substance; such a penalty implicitly acknowledges that his case had merit. Hugh may have regarded himself as innocent, but given the way in which events had played out, he could still feel relieved at the outcome.

The matter was far from over, however. Hugh decided to pass his exile in his childhood home of Sicily. The conflict had ended in late 1134 and he now needed to wait until the New Year for passage to the West. Ships of the time were so primitive that the commercial fleets of Genoa, Pisa, and Venice only sailed the seas between March and October for fear of the treacherous winter storms of the Mediterranean. Hugh was passing time at a shop in the Street of the Furriers in the heart of Jerusalem. The cold winters of the Levant meant the production of such warm clothing was essential and this was one of many small, localized industries in this crowded district of the old city. Hugh was obviously familiar with one of the merchants named Alfanus and he had settled down to play dice—a very common pastime among medieval people. Hugh was enjoying himself and a crowd gathered around to watch and to cheer at the players’ changing fortunes. As he hunched over the table to roll the bones the count had no sense of danger at all. Suddenly, a knight from Brittany drew his sword and launched a frenzied attack, stabbing and slashing at Hugh again and again. The spectators screamed in horror, some drew their own weapons and, as the count fell bleeding to the floor, rushed forward to defend him. They jumped on the would-be assassin and captured him.

News of the assault ran through the city like wildfire; people huddled together to exchange stories and information. Who was the assailant? How badly wounded was Hugh? Gradually a dark and insistent consensus emerged: King Fulk’s hand must lie behind the deed. In his anger against the man who may have sullied his marriage bed, the man who had openly defied him, and whom he had been compelled to treat so easily, people said that the king had commissioned the unnamed Breton to murder his rival. Hugh’s cause attracted a wave of sympathy; no longer was he a treacherous outlaw. To the people of Jerusalem the atrocity showed that he was more sinned against than sinning and that their king was malicious and vindictive.

If he really was behind the plot Fulk cannot have anticipated such a public backlash in favor of the rebel. The king presumably wanted to eliminate the political and personal threat posed by Hugh; his demise would also send a message that in spite of the compromise judgment, Fulk would punish any opponents, if necessary by means outside the due process of law. He knew that Melisende would be furious, but, given the poor state of their relationship at this time, he calculated that he could weather any storm from her and, deprived of her closest ally, that she would submit.

The king needed to act to quell the outcry. Fulk ordered the captive to be brought before the High Court, the body responsible for judging capital offenses. Wisely, however, the monarch stayed away from the meeting. Given the plentiful number of witnesses there was no need for any formal hearing and the assailant did not deny the charge. By unanimous agreement the court sentenced the Breton to the mutilation of his members. Such a harsh punishment was intended to deter others from such foul acts. It meant the hacking off of the hands, the feet, and the tongue. If the guilty party survived the blood loss and the likely infection he would be condemned to a life of utter misery, crawling around, begging outside churches, eating from the floor, and facing almost certain death from exposure or starvation.

The court’s decision was relayed to the king, who asked that the man be permitted to keep his tongue. We shall never know whether Fulk engineered the plot, but if he erred in doing so he was astute enough to realize that if the man’s tongue was severed it might look as though he were trying to silence him. The Breton was tortured to reveal whether he was acting at the king’s behest, but even after the mutilation he maintained that he had been working on his own initiative and only anticipated a reward from Fulk thereafter. This confession did much to mollify the mood of the crowd and open hostility toward the king abated.

Hugh slowly recovered from his injuries. We do not know where he was treated. Given the location of the attack it is probable that he was taken to the leading medical center of the day, the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, just two hundred meters to the west of the Street of the Furriers and directly south of the Holy Sepulchre itself. There had been a hospice in Jerusalem since the days of Muslim rule when a group of Amalfitan merchants ran some form of charitable foundation. After the Christian conquest the kings of Jerusalem eagerly supported the institution and the hospital acquired a Frankish character. In 1113 it secured papal recognition as a religious order and soon grew rapidly. It was open to everyone, regardless of status, race, or religion, although the majority of its patients were the thousands of pilgrims who came to the Holy Land each year.

Hugh must have needed his wounds to be cleaned and stitched, after which he was looked after with a mixture of prayer—a vital component of medieval health provision—and close care. Each patient in the hospital had their own bed, sheets, a cloak, a woolen hat, and boots for going to the latrines. A staff of four doctors did daily ward rounds, took the pulse and examined urine. Much of the treatment centered around good basic nourishment with sugar-based drinks (from sugarcane sent down from the county of Tripoli) and meat three times a week. Some medical practices seem strange to us: for example, the meat of female cows was banned because it was deemed to promote mental instability; some patients were treated by the use of hot stones—known as lapidary—to bring out fevers. As a man of wealth Hugh may have been moved to the house of one of his supporters but the basic principles of health care would have remained the same.

Once he had convalesced the count sailed to Apulia and began to serve out his exile. It seems that a combination of his failed revolt, the legacy of his injuries, and his separation from Melisende broke Hugh’s spirit. He was received with every sympathy by Roger II of Sicily, who generously gave him the county of Gargano, but months later he died without ever returning to the Holy Land.

It was in the royal palace that the effects of the attempted murder were felt most profoundly: the botched assassination tipped the balance of power to the queen. Melisende felt outraged by the entire episode. The combination of her assertive personality and a sense of moral right precipitated a sea change in the running of both the household and the government of the kingdom. Whether the stories of her relationship with Hugh were true or not, she was incandescent at the damage to her integrity. Allies of the king, such as Rohard, lord of Nablus, who had spread rumors about Melisende’s behavior, were forced to remove themselves from the household—it was said, for their own safety. Fear of her anger caused these men to stay away from bigger assemblies, such as feast days or processions. Most pointedly, Fulk himself was completely shunned by Melisende, her kindred, and her supporters. The royal marriage was, for the time being, dead. Melisende knew that her good name had been damaged by the public nature of the dispute and she was furious with the king for giving credence to such stories. Whether Hugh was her lover or not she cared deeply for him and when he was cast into exile she was grief-stricken for her absent companion. Interestingly, the Old French edition of William of Tyre’s chronicle, written later in the twelfth century, stated that Hugh had died “por li” (for her), giving the count’s actions a chivalric aspect. He had sacrificed his life for his lady.



Siege of Acre 1291 – Guillaume de Clermont Defending Ptolemais from the Saracen invasion. The fall of Acre signaled the end of the Jerusalem crusades. No effective crusade was raised to recapture the Holy Land afterwards, though talk of further crusades was common enough. By 1291, other ideals had captured the interest and enthusiasm of the monarchs and nobility of Europe and even strenuous papal efforts to raise expeditions to retake the Holy Land met with little response.

Response to the Loss of Acre

The fall of Acre in 1291 moved the West. The reaction was not as strong as that which followed Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187 but it was noteworthy just the same in that it influenced the most committed advocates of mission to Muslims to think again about the need for crusade to rescue the Holy Land. The reason lies in disappointment that God had deserted His people and given victory to the Mamluks. A sense of divine purpose had run through crusading history, and now almost every foothold had been lost in the Holy Land and the associated states. Other strongpoints had already gone, but Acre was the very last of importance, being well known due to its size, its massive walls, its burgeoning population and its commercial and industrial life.

Appeals for money and warriors in the West had largely gone unheeded because of the growth of nation-states, their conflicts and the immense costs of up-to-date warfare. Edward I of England, before he came to the throne, was a notably committed crusader; when he became king, however, he was too preoccupied with problems at home to consider going to the Holy Land.

The New Force: Philip the Fair (1285–1314)

Popes in the late thirteenth century were terrified of a renewal of the Hohenstaufen threat to exert power and to put intolerable pressure on the independence of the papacy in Rome through co-ordinated action from Germany, northern Italy and Sicily. One French pope decided to back a safe ally, Charles of Anjou, brother of King Louis, to take south Italy and Sicily and destroy the last of the Hohenstaufen ‘brood of vipers’. This Charles proceeded to do, killing Frederick II’s bastard son Manfred in battle and ruthlessly executing Frederick’s sixteen-year-old grandson in Naples but his dictatorial attitude angered rebels in Sicily, who called in the maritime power of Aragon against him. Peter III of Aragon, married to Manfred’s daughter, took up the Hohenstaufen claim and was accused of ‘impeding’ the Holy Land crusade, in the phrase once deployed by Innocent III at the start of his pontificate. A French army, equipped with the crusading indulgence under King Philip III of France, embarked on a disastrous venture overland against Aragon, only to find its supplies ruined by Peter’s fleet. Beset by hunger and disease, the French were forced into a humiliating retreat over the Pyrenees. Philip III, who had to be carried in a litter, succumbed to illness at Perpignan in 1285. His son Philip, called the Fair because of his good looks, had accompanied him in his humiliation and in consequence bore a deep hostility towards the political crusading of the popes. Despite being the grandson of St Louis, he only played with the notion of a Holy Land crusade and his reign damaged both the papacy and the traditional crusading ideal.

The pontificate of the eccentric Celestine V, who resigned after nine months, was followed by that of a highly capable administrator and canonist, Boniface VIII (1294–1303). He brought about a workable solution to the long Sicilian crisis and called a Jubilee in Rome with attached indulgences and improved papal finances; but he had his dark side, manipulating a land deal for his family, the Caetani, and calling an expedition against their traditional enemies, the Colonna, a crusade. Coarse and self-willed, Boniface’s casual remarks were damaging to the papacy’s reputation and were ruthlessly exploited by Philip the Fair’s ministers to discredit him and put pressure on his successors. A jurisdictional and financial conflict in France escalated dramatically as Boniface used papal powers to excommunicate one of Philip’s ministers, William of Nogaret, and issued the Bull Unam Sanctam, with the most extreme claims for papal powers ever made. William, with Sciarra Colonna, personally attacked Boniface, bursting into his private family palace in the hill town of Anagni, intending to arrest the pope and transport him by force to France to answer trumped up charges of corruption, simony, blasphemy and heresy. The pope met them with dignity and was liberated by his faithful townspeople but he had been profoundly humiliated and died within a month, probably from a stroke.

This was far from the end of Philip’s campaign to subject the papacy to his will. He and his servants knew inquisition procedures well and were ready, it was clear, to exhume Boniface, put him on trial, convict him and burn his body as a heretic. The potential damage to the reputation of the papacy was one no pope could ignore.

Events split the cardinals. Some wanted to see a settlement with Philip; others supported the papacy and were unwilling to make a deal. After the short pontificate of a Dominican friar, an eleven-month interregnum followed with such deadlock that the only way to resolve the long crisis appeared to be to elect an outsider and so the Sacred College found a candidate in a Gascon, technically the subject of Edward I of England, Bertrand of Got, Archbishop of Bordeaux. Suffering from cancer, he was unable to work continuously, being overwhelmed repeatedly with incapacitating pains. He had intended to be crowned in Rome as Clement V but was not well enough to go there and instead was crowned at Lyon; thereafter he and his curia moved restlessly between Lyon, Poitiers and Bordeaux before finally settling in the small town of Avignon in 1309. Allegiances within the Sacred College were finally settled as he appointed Gascons as cardinals. The papacy came to be seen as French and every pope after Clement was French until the Great Schism in 1378. The papacy in consequence lost its international calibre.


Jacques de Molay sentenced to the stake in 1314, from the Chronicle of France or of St Denis (fourteenth century). Note the shape of the island, representing the Île de la Cité (Island of the City) in the Seine, where the executions took place.

James of Molay and the Fate of the Templars

James of Molay, last Grand Master of the Templars, a shrewd, straightforward military man and a good organiser, was elected after the death of his predecessor in Acre. He stemmed losses in finance and personnel, took up residence in Cyprus and combined with the Grand Master of the Hospitallers and the brother of King Henry of Cyprus to launch the last of the true Holy Land crusades, bringing into play the Christian enclave of Cilician Armenia and the Islamic convert and enemy of the Mamluks, Ghazan, Mongol Ilkahn of Persia. The deal was to recover Jerusalem and split territory between Christian settlers and the Mongol power using Armenia and the Mongols to expel the Mamluk garrisons. In an initial action in the winter of 1300–01, Cypriots, Templars and Hospitallers landed on the mainland at Tortosa from the island of Ruad and for some twenty-five days ravaged and took Muslims to be sold into slavery. The crusade project failed only when Ghazan, although he had taken Aleppo and all of Damascus bar the citadel, called off his attack, having grown uneasy about Mamluk strength and the lack of fodder for his horses. Templars retired to Ruad, holding themselves ready for another assault, but were overwhelmed by a Mamluk counterattack in 1302–3. It was the last Holy Land crusade to set foot on the mainland. Although Peter I of Cyprus contrived to take a substantial force in 1365 to capture Alexandria, he could not hold it and never got to Jerusalem.

Summoned by Pope Clement V to join with the Hospitaller Grand Master to discuss reform, economies and the merger of the two Orders, James left Cyprus in 1306. As a traditionalist, he feared that the Hospitallers would dominate the Templars and was wary of the potentially deadly hostile force of Philip the Fair. Clement had to put off seeing him for many months. It was at Poitiers that James of Molay approached Philip with his unease about rumours of accusations against his order and it was there that he spoke with Clement, who in September launched an inquiry of his own. Trapped in France by Clement’s illness, James was lured to Paris by Philip on 12 October 1307 to act as pall-bearer at the funeral of Philip’s sister-in-law. But all was swept aside in Philip’s next, catastrophic move on Friday 13 October – a date it was said, so inscribed in folk memory as to make Friday the 13th in any month ill omened – when James and all the French Templars were arrested simultaneously in the early hours.

Philip made use of the inquisitor of France who had authority to investigate heresy and sorcery, while deploying his own men, often civil lawyers, propagandising against the Templars and using torture. A farrago of accusations emerged, corresponding to all the fears and tensions unleashed by the fall of Acre and lurking in a society under strain. Renegades, men with grievances, rogues set the ball rolling, and what followed was illogical and incongruous as well as gross exaggeration by scheming interrogators probing the suggestion that the Templars had betrayed Christendom to the Muslims.

Nonplussed by events, old by medieval standards, perhaps promised release if he confessed, James of Molay made a fatal mistake on 24 October, when he admitted sinful behaviour – probably no more than masculine horseplay – at an initiation ritual which got out of hand at his reception into the Order forty-two years earlier, and urged others to confess as he had.

The Chinon Parchment, recently discovered in the Vatican Archives, shows Clement’s efforts over three days in August 1308 to rescue the reputation of James of Molay and leading Templars imprisoned in the castle of Chinon and thus free them from Philip’s clutches. Contriving to infiltrate three of his cardinals into the prison to carry out a secret interrogation, he established the true nature of the initiation ceremony and acquitted James and the others of heresy. But Clement was too alarmed at the prospect of the exhumation of Boniface and the danger of the schism in the Church to make known the acquittal and absolution of James and the others. It stayed secret and the victims were left to their fate.

There followed a long wrestling match between Philip and Clement, who attempted to preserve his own control over proceedings and prevent Philip from exhuming and burning Boniface. Philip’s motive was plain. He needed money: Templars were rich bankers, and Philip had engaged in expensive warfare compelling him to debase the coinage. Kings outside France where torture was not used, found the accusations unconvincing but did not feel able to intervene.

In the midst of the struggles Clement, a sincere crusader, attempted to maintain the call to rescue the Holy Land and summoned a General Council at Vienne, in Dauphiné, which sat between 1311 and 1312 in order to bring about church reform and launch a full-scale expedition. Popes before him had engaged too often in political crusading and the Council did not believe in Clement’s motives, thinking his intentions mercenary. Some new thinking about crusades for Jerusalem emerged in Clement’s time. Marino Sanudo Torsello, a member of the Venetian aristocracy, wrote the most thorough and expert analysis of the means required to destroy Egypt’s economic power in preparation for a general crusade but it fell foul both of the unwillingness to cut off trade and of the preoccupations of Clement’s successor, John XXII, who was devoted to restoring papal power in Italy.

Some Templars made a last heroic stand for their Order. In May 1310 fifty-four Templars in France withdrew their confessions and were promptly burned alive as relapsed heretics outside Paris by the Archbishop of Sens, an associate of Philip. That led the surviving Knights to accept guilt and receive pensions. Finally in 1314, James of Molay and Geoffrey of Charnay, former Preceptor of Normandy, also withdrew their confessions. In a rage and without authority Philip had them publicly burned alive for relapse on an island in the Seine. Their courage moved onlookers. But by that time Philip had won. In his attack on the Templars he was targeting rich bankers, smearing them and forcing Clement to suppress them, which the pope did at Vienne on the grounds that their reputation had been destroyed. Their possessions were transferred to the Hospitallers, from whom Philip extracted the money by charging massive ‘expenses’.

Philip’s actions caused major damage. By destroying the Templars he took away devoted manpower committed to the crusade and his ruthless propaganda discredited the papacy and created an atmosphere of fear of the Muslim world and of the inroads of Satan into Christendom. Political crusading was a morass which undermined popes and Philip made everything worse. The effects of his reign lasted long after his death in 1314. The public still cared about crusade and had a long tradition of popular agitation going back to the Pastoureaux working to rescue St Louis but a society lacking means of interpretation of natural disasters looked to conspiracy explanations and the general bête noire of the Muslims.

In 1321 in the south of France another alleged conspiracy was uncovered between Jews, lepers and Muslims said to be bent on poisoning water supplies used by Christians. Secret meetings had been held, it was alleged, and letters and magic powder sent by the Muslim kings of Granada and Tunis. The new king of France, Philip V, susceptible to such rumours, listened and Bernard Gui the inquisitor investigated. There were pogroms and burnings of lepers.

Damage to the papacy was also long-lasting. Popes had been the leaders and initiators of the crusade for Jerusalem, but now their reputation was gone. The papal residence at Avignon after 1309 was described as the Babylonish Captivity and there were long campaigns fought to bring order to Italy and a return to Rome. In the Great Schism (1378–1414) popes and antipopes were busy attacking and condemning one another and were distracted from crusading.


A painting showing Maltese galleys capturing an Ottoman vessel in the Malta Channel in 1652.

Crusade at Sea: The Naval Role of the Hospitallers

While the Templars underwent their long Passion, their sister Order secured a new role. An invitation to the Hospitallers from a landholder on the island of Rhodes to move there and help defend his interests against marauding Genoese corsairs secured the support of Clement V for its conquest, the nominal ruler being the Byzantine emperor. Relations between the West and Byzantium were poor and Clement authorised the Grand Master to make war, treating the Byzantines as schismatics and allowing him crusade subsidies. The Grand Master, Fulk of Villaret, nephew of the Grand Master who had collaborated with James of Molay, finally conquered Rhodes in 1309–10.

A rich, manageable territory with a deep-water port and old Byzantine fortifications, Rhodes had good agricultural land and ample food and water and lay 250 miles from Cyprus, within sight of the new, growing Muslim power in Anatolia. The Order adapted to a maritime function, harassing Muslim shipping and raiding the Anatolian coastline, combining naval warfare with their traditional land fighting. An indigenous population worked the land and valued the Order’s success in bringing peace and treating the sick in their hospital. Knights, sergeants, mercenaries and slaves, together with the indigenous population forming a militia in emergencies, created a fighting garrison of some 7,500, strong enough to withstand a siege. Under the Hospitallers Rhodes distinguished itself as it fought off the fleet and army of the Ottoman sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, victor over Constantinople in 1453, when he attempted to end the Knights’ raids and assaulted the island for eighty-nine days in 1480. Grievously outnumbered and subject to the monster cannon of the time, a last stand by the Grand Master, Peter d’Aubusson, on a walkway of the fortification called the Tower of Italy as it was on the verge of being taken, turned the battle. An early printed book with engravings by one of the Knights, Pierre Caoursin, recorded events of the siege and its aftermath, increasing the prestige of the order and boosting recruitment.