Battle of Ager Sanguinis, (1119) Part I

The campaign that ended in the battle of Ager Sanguinis was born out of Frankish strength rather than weakness. It was the complacency and overconfidence of that strength which caused the Antiochene army to behave in a way which broke with the established norms of crusader campaigning. The protocols were clear: muster locally to restrict the enemy’s movements, call for reinforcements from the other Christian states and behave cautiously until help arrived. In the meantime, wait for the Muslim forces to make a mistake or hope that they would be forced to retire as their irregular troops lost heart in the absence of easy plunder.

The strength of the initial position arose from the pressure Prince Roger of Antioch and his frontier barons had been exerting on Aleppo. There was always a struggle between Aleppo and Antioch to control the crucial frontier zone which separated them. Aleppo is approximately 90km to the east of Antioch. The two cities were linked by an ancient Roman road but the ‘natural’ mid-way frontier point between the two is characterised by a series of difficult hills, the Jabal Talat: the major settlements and fortifications in the region had naturally formed to the east and west of this difficult terrain.

To the west of the Jabal Talat lay the settlements of Artah, ‘Imm and Harim, all under Frankish control. The other potential ‘natural’ border was only 30km from Aleppo itself. By 1119 this eastern frontier zone was largely in Christian hands too. Frankish forces were based in Sarmada and were in control of other key points, having taken al-Atharib and Zardana in 1111. Disturbingly for the local Muslim states, Prince Roger and his frontier lords were using this position of strength to try to encircle Aleppo. In 1118 even the important town of ‘Azaz, to the north of Aleppo, was surrendered to them.

In subsequent negotiations the Aleppans were forced to hand over lands to the north and east to the Antiochenes, and to reinstate the protection money they paid, in the form of a monthly tribute, to the Franks. But even that was not enough. Early in 1119 the Franks managed to capture the town of Buza’a, to the north-east of Aleppo. The Franks were leaving the Aleppans with very few options. Their city was almost surrounded. It was increasingly clear that Frankish intentions to capture Aleppo could no longer be contained by conventional means.

The Aleppans were facing a dilemma with two possible solutions, neither of which was very attractive to their ruling class. On the one hand, as the Franks were clearly looking for more than a mere tributary relationship with Aleppo, the city could accept the inevitable and surrender to Antioch. There was still a large Christian minority in Aleppo itself, and in the surrounding countryside, so this outcome would not have been universally unpalatable to many of the ordinary people. On the other hand, to avoid surrender to the Christians, Aleppo could give up its independence in return for massive military aid from a Muslim power with access to bigger and better Turkic armies. This solution was not ideal. For most of the Aleppan population, Turkic rulers and their troops were just as foreign as the Franks.

But they were largely Muslim, as were the ruling class of Aleppo and the majority of the townsfolk. Faced with no better choice, the Aleppans called for help from the Turkic warlord, Il-Ghazi. Unstable, unpredictable, sadistic and borderline alcoholic, Il-Ghazi was never going to be an ideal candidate for the role of ‘white knight’. But the Aleppans were desperate and he was the least bad option under the circumstances.

Il-Ghazi raised an army that was spectacular in its size and ferocity. Sources talk of 20,000–80,000 steppe warriors, supplemented by the local ‘askars, mercenaries and volunteers.68 This was an extremely powerful force, fast, numerous and very dangerous: hard men inured to a hard and often violent life. All nomadic armies were fragile and volatile too, however, and here Il-Ghazi’s numbers counted against him. This vast force needed booty and fodder, and in huge quantities. If they did not get these, and if they were not led to towns they could plunder, his army would quickly begin to disperse. They were formidable fighters, but their lack of discipline and the fact that most were fighting a long way from home meant that they needed to be used quickly.

To face them, Prince Roger had a good solid core of veteran troops, spearheaded by his superb heavy cavalry. Efforts had been made to increase the number of available troops but there were still far too few men. Walter the Chancellor, who was not only with the army but also had a hand in organising it, estimated that the Antiochene army consisted of 700 knights, and 3,000 foot soldiers, together with ‘many others who had gone to battle for the sake of pay or on account of greed for enemy wealth’.

We know from later events that there was a substantial body of Turcopoles with the army, and in other battles these could constitute as much as 50 per cent of the total cavalry force. A local Syrian chronicler suggested that the Antiochene cavalry force consisted of ‘six hundred Frankish cavalry [and] five hundred Armenian cavalry’, which gives an interesting sense of the proportions.

Whatever the exact details, it is clear that Roger had the field army of the principality with him and that his main striking force was a good-quality cadre of some 3,000–4,000 men, drawn broadly equally from Frankish feudal troops and local Christians. To boost the size of the army without totally denuding his castles, he had had to scrape the barrel, and had recruited possibly the same number again of untrained volunteers and scavengers. This was a substantial force by crusader standards, but the numbers were deceptive.

They were still hugely outnumbered by Il-Ghazi’s force, probably by about three to one, or more, although they almost certainly did not fully understand this at the time: crusader estimates of the size of the Muslim army were only written after the enormity of the defeat became apparent. The large number of ‘volunteers’ that Roger had brought with him would make the army look more intimidating from a distance, and might be useful for activities such as foraging, but their value in a pitched battle was highly questionable, and could even be counter-productive if they panicked and fled through the more experienced units of the army.

At first, things went well for the Franks. Roger mustered his army and moved across the Orontes at the Iron Bridge. They then moved down to Balat, near Sarmada, and made camp. Up to this point everything was going according to the normal Frankish defensive protocols. Messengers were sent to ask the other crusader states for help. A suitable forward camp was established, close enough to Il-Ghazi to inhibit the movement of his army, and to intimidate his foraging parties. The camp was not perfect from the point of view of provisions, but it was good enough, and preparations were immediately made to ensure that its natural defences were improved. Walter the Chancellor, who was with the army at the time, explicitly says that ‘some of our men were sent to fortify the camp outside’. Roger and his men could sit out the Turkic onslaught, prepare for the arrival of reinforcements and wait, perhaps for a few weeks or a couple of months, until the Muslim army dispersed.

This situation was not ideal. It never was. The invaders would have time to lay waste the frontier, destroying crops, killing and capturing peasants. But it was just as problematic for Il-Ghazi. If he could not give his troops access to plentiful booty (and that meant destroying armies and towns, rather than just local villages that were already operating barely above subsistence level) he would lose his men. And it could be several years before he might gather such a host again.

He knew that he needed to provoke the Franks into action. On 26 June, Il-Ghazi moved his men to besiege the important castle of al-Atharib. The Franks believed this was primarily a feint to draw them away from their relatively well-defended position at Balat, and this was to some extent echoed in the accounts of the Muslim chroniclers. An attack on al-Atharib was a predictable but powerful incentive for the Christian forces to leave camp. The Muslim attack was made in force, however, and it may be that what the Christians thought to be a diversion was in fact a real attempt to capture it.

From Il-Ghazi’s perspective it was probably a bit of both. If the Franks refused to take the bait, he stood to capture one of the main fortifications threatening Aleppo: a major victory for his campaign and a significant setback to the Frankish frontiers. If they came to the town’s aid, he might have an opportunity to attack them on the difficult approaches to the town, outnumbered and off-guard.

Roger was still responding cautiously at this stage. Rather than break camp and send his whole army off to al-Atharib, he sent a detachment to its relief. The troops set off on the night of 26–27 June and, as they needed to move fast, it was primarily a cavalry force. They presumably had orders to liaise with the garrison, move in to help with the defence if the siege looked serious or, if circumstances permitted, to try to coordinate an attack on Il-Ghazi’s forces.

Arriving at first light, the young commanders of the crusading forces decided that a coordinated attack on the besieging army from two sides might drive them off or, at the very least, delay preparations for the siege. The Muslim army ‘suddenly saw the knights of al-Atharib and a band of infantry of that castle and certain of our men, who had come there by night, arriving close by in the manner of defenders as if to challenge them to battle’.

Walter the Chancellor was present when the leader of the reinforcements and his household knights returned to the camp, and told the waiting leaders of the action at al-Atharib. He was able to give us a uniquely detailed account of how the fighting had developed.

The infantry from the garrison came out first and formed a defensive line.74 An initial charge by the Frankish knights started well and the shock of impact inflicted heavy casualties on the more lightly armed Turkic troops: ‘Our men . . . drew their shields close to their sides, brandished their lances, sank in their spurs . . . and charged into the middle of the enemy. Dealing violent blows in knightly fashion they cast some down to the ground, some again, with blood pouring forth, they drove down . . . with fatal wounds.’

A knight called Robert of Vieux-Pont seems to have led the attack by the reinforcements from the field army. We know that he was already a seasoned fighter, having campaigned against Mawdud in previous invasions, and was a member of a renowned Sicilian Norman family whose ancestors had fought alongside William the Conqueror. He was famous, even in the west, as an ‘indefatigable soldier who often raided the gentiles’ lands with his military following’.

Although the initial impact caused the Turkic troops to recoil, their greater numbers and mobility meant that the shock was eventually absorbed. Lances, used to best effect in the opening seconds of a charge, were dropped as the fighting came to closer quarters, degenerating into a mêlée where swords were more useful. The Frankish troops quickly got bogged down, and Robert himself was wounded and unhorsed. As Walter wrote, during ‘these skirmishes Robert of Vieux-Pont . . . charged many of them as they rode in troops and struck them, and at once, after he had broken his lance on one of them he drew his sword and struck others of them again, and only when he himself had been struck in return by many, and his horse pierced by many different weapons, did he fall, brought down by irresistible force’. His men managed to get to him before he was completely overwhelmed, however, and got him another horse.

While Robert’s knights retreated and regrouped behind the infantry, the Muslim cavalry likewise recovered and formed up again. Some of the Turkic cavalry, presumably those more heavily armoured, prepared to charge the Christian ranks before they could regroup, no doubt helped in this by their lighter cavalry moving in to outflank and potentially surround the small Christian force. The Frankish cavalry did not want to be caught stationary by an enemy attack, as the initial shock of their momentum was the major advantage of a knightly charge. Robert managed to reform his men just in time and launched a counter-charge.

Casualties were heavy on both sides and, once again, the fighting quickly deteriorated into a series of small mêlées, with knots of soldiers fighting around their comrades. Robert, as ever, was leading from the front. He was once again unhorsed and ‘he hit the ground protected by his shield, and . . . escaped death’.79 The Frankish garrison troops also charged and counter-charged, led by their young lord, Alan of al-Atharib. Described as a ‘youth’ in 1115, he was probably still in his late teens at this point, but was keen to lead his men into battle.

The fighting outside al-Atharib was eventually called off. The Frankish infantry remained on the defensive, creating a line behind which the knights could be protected from enemy archery prior to a charge, and behind which they could regroup if the charge failed to break the enemy. The essentially passive but vital nature of their role was widely recognised, despite their social inferiority. Ironically, although their actions were less glamorous than those of the knights, and certainly largely ignored as they made their ‘after-battle reports’, the infantry component of the garrison seems to have suffered the most casualties, particularly from the archery of the Turkic horse archers as they became separated from the knights in the course of the two charges: ‘the poor are believed to have been hurt by the least more than the rich by the greatest’.81 That is, the infantry suffered more casualties from the ‘least’ of the Muslim army, the lighter armed horse archers, while the relatively well-protected knights took fewer casualties from the heavier cavalry that they contacted in their charges.

The garrison and the wounded eventually withdrew back into al-Atharib while others ‘returned to the army’ to report on the action and to give Roger more information about the enemy’s movements and likely intentions. In fact, the battle reports of Robert of Vieux-Pont and his seemingly successful attacks on Il-Ghazi’s troops outside al-Atharib may have been at the root of the disaster that lay ahead. The fighters were almost all young. The garrison commander was probably a teenager. And they were keen for glory and the opportunity to demonstrate their prowess.

Until Robert and his troops returned on the evening of 27 June, the Frankish army had been safely encamped in the traditional way, in a semi-fortified position with good access to water. It was not entirely comfortable: the ravages of the invaders were galling for the frontier lords and their men, and food supplies were not over-abundant. But the army was safe, its presence was restricting the enemy’s ability to manoeuvre and substantial reinforcements were on the way from the other crusader states. Il-Ghazi could not keep such a huge army in the field for long. All Roger and his men had to do was to be patient and the crisis would pass.

But patience is not a young man’s virtue, and particularly not a young knight’s. Walter the Chancellor was there when Robert’s men returned to camp and began to tell their stories of the action to the prince and his courtiers. The drinking and bragging inevitably began. The knights could not contain their snobbish exuberance, and stressed that it was the hereditary knights, rather than the paid soldiers of the garrison, who had performed best. Their ‘post-match’ analysis emphasised that ‘it was not the hangers-on, but the true-born knights [‘naturales milites’] who by dealing blows and overthrowing the enemy were all of them kept busy . . .’

They ‘reported to the courtiers that the deeds of the past day had brought honour to their knighthood; as a consequence, as is the fixed habit of knights, everyone lamented who had not been there’. This was an army of confident, probably overconfident, young men, looking for a fight. Everyone was elated to see how easily a small Frankish force had been able to ‘defeat’ a Turkic army. They all wanted a piece of the glory that was to be had by doing so again the next day. The frontier lords naturally argued to protect their own lands, but they were pushing at an open door. Only the clerics, led by the patriarch, advocated caution. Roger and the army were having none of it.

Although the reports from Robert of Vieux-Pont and his knights spoke of victory and an easily intimidated enemy, Il-Ghazi’s withdrawal from al-Atharib was probably a calculated move on his part. Hoping that the Frankish army would march to al-Atharib the following day, he used the opportunity to disengage his troops and send them on wide outflanking manoeuvres to the east and west of the likely Frankish line of march. Robert’s troops and the garrison of al-Atharib would be unable to follow such movements as they regrouped after the fighting. Il-Ghazi’s massive light cavalry forces were easily able to mask the manoeuvre. If Il-Ghazi was correct, the Christian army would be walking into a trap.

The Franks were almost certainly still unaware of the sheer scale of the forces they were facing and the most optimistic view of the day’s events was that the pressure was now off. The Muslim troops were behaving like a raiding party, albeit an exceptionally large one, rather than an army of conquest. The withdrawal from al-Atharib may have convinced Roger that Il-Ghazi and his men were more interested in easy plunder than a full-scale battle.

The fighting at al-Atharib had been fierce but it had at least demonstrated an appropriately aggressive spirit and, so Roger thought, kept the besiegers off balance. He was keen to keep the pressure up. Walter records that at the planning meeting of the Antiochene leadership on the night of 27 June, the prince said that they should ‘march to al-Atharib tomorrow, and approach nearby, for if they should come, the knights . . . will not fear the host of the heathen . . . and if they don’t come, we may take counsel on the following day [i.e. 29 June] and turn our march against their tents’. It is clear that, although he was heavily outnumbered, Roger thought he had the upper hand and held the strategic initiative. He was keen to move towards al-Atharib to meet the Muslim troops in battle on Thursday, 28 June or, if they fell back, to pursue them and attack them as they retreated.

Walter took a note of Roger’s orders. He was probably involved in writing them down in full, and conveying them to the different divisional commanders. The main army was to move quickly to al-Atharib at first light the next day and camp there for the night. At that point, depending on information about the enemy’s movements, further decisions could be made about how to proceed. Preparations for the march were quickly put in place, ‘and they chose that same night to send both cavalry and infantry to [al-Atharib], and decided that first thing in the morning [of 28 June] Mauger of Hauteville was to sortie with forty knights beyond the district and to direct ten knights as scouts to the tower situated on the top of the hill so that if the enemy should approach al-Atharib once more, it might be announced to the prince by way of a swift horse and a shrewd knight’.

These orders look sensible, at least on the surface. But there were serious problems. The core of the problem was a lack of intelligence about the enemy. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the very large numbers of light cavalry which Il-Ghazi could deploy, Frankish long-range scouting was extremely limited.

The Turcopoles were the first units roused in the morning, so there could be some scouting ahead of the army, but only in its immediate vicinity and along the route of march as the Frankish light cavalry were still based in the camp at this stage. Similarly, Mauger of Hauteville’s mission was sensible as far as it went but was also limited in its nature. Mauger came with a good fighting heritage from the eminent de Hauteville family in Italy. With a force of forty knights, perhaps accompanied by a number of auxiliary cavalry, maybe some eighty men in total, this was essentially a small advance force of medium and heavy troops, rather than a swarm of skirmishers gathering intelligence about the enemy’s numbers and movements. Mauger’s main role was probably to trigger prematurely any ambushes that might be set along the Franks’ proposed line of march. With a force of that size, the expectation must have been that he had enough men to fight his way out and withdraw in good order to warn the army.

Similarly, the small force of knights which Roger despatched to a tower in order to watch out for hostile activity was a prudent step but, given the scale of the enemy he was facing, entirely insufficient. We know that the tower itself was not far forward, because Roger stopped in there while he was still out hunting at first light. The Franks had some tactical and operational sense of the enemy’s movements, but on a more strategic level they were almost completely blind-sided.

Before Roger and Walter finally went to bed there were other arrangements to be made, and more orders to be issued. In an interesting insight into the way in which medieval marches were planned and orders transmitted, Walter and some of Roger’s other men stayed up long into the night to organise the following day’s order of march and dispositions. After the nobles and their men had been sent back to get what sleep they could, ‘the prince called the household [his equivalent of staff officers] and ordered that what had been decided should be brought to its intended conclusion speedily, and he showed them what and where and how it should be done’. Even after the household had finished their tasks, Roger and Walter worked on through the night, trying to finalise plans. As Walter dryly put it, Roger ‘secretly called his chancellor and settled with him what should properly be done for the business in hand about those things which seemed burdensome to the warriors’.

But there was a sense of foreboding in the air. Roger ordered that all ‘the precious vessels and all burdensome goods should be taken away by night to the tower of Artah’. He tried to appear confident to his men, but in private he knew that there could be trouble ahead. By sending the valuables and most of the baggage train back to Artah, rather than bringing them with the army to the stronghold of al-Atharib, Roger showed he was marching in full expectation that he could be facing a fight. He wanted to move fast and he knew the terrain could be difficult in places. He did not want to have to worry about a slow-moving baggage train, while at the same time trying to prepare for a pitched battle or avoid springing an ambush.

Walter may have got almost no sleep, but the rest of the army was also up before dawn. While the Turcopoles mounted and set out, the others gathered for communion and blessing. Word had been sent the previous night ‘to all the army that they should all come together to the chapel [i.e. the portable shrine that accompanied the army]’, where they could hear mass and receive Holy Communion to prepare them spiritually before they entered into combat.

Roger himself made confession with Archbishop Peter of Apamea and gave alms to the poor, purifying himself for the fight ahead. While the army adjusted its equipment and gradually set off, Roger and his household knights found time for a little hunting, taking out his ‘small hounds’ and falcons, ostentatiously relaxed in front of his men, to calm their pre-battle nerves, but also taking the opportunity to get a sense of the terrain along the line of march.

The route they took, and the battlefield itself, echoed the same limitations of intelligence gathering within the Frankish army. Roger was prudent enough to ensure that he maintained a good sense of his army’s immediate environment. There were no local or tactical surprises. But the mass of enemy light cavalry masking Il-Ghazi’s movement ensured that the Franks remained unclear about the scale of the army they faced, or its strategic deployment. This was no narrow or wooded valley, where the Franks could be beguiled into an ambush. Such terrain would hinder the largely cavalry-based Muslim army almost as much as the Antiochenes. On the contrary, the Frankish line of march to al-Atharib was through an open plain, surrounded by hills.

The element of strategic surprise lay in the way in which Il-Ghazi had been able to deploy his forces. These were split into three main bodies, any one of which was probably equal in size to the entire Christian army. But it was not just about numbers. Each of these divisions had been able to scout and advance down routes through the hills that the Christians thought impassable to cavalry. When the trap was sprung, there was little tactical surprise but the Antiochene army found itself outnumbered, surrounded and outmanoeuvred, in an open space with no immediate reinforcements to hand and no castle or fortified camp close by where they could take refuge.

Roger’s preparations the night before showed just how uneasy he was. He had to hide his feelings from the men, but Walter noticed how anxious he was. Afterwards he wrote that Roger’s ‘future appeared before him’. Filled with foreboding, Roger brought his hunting to an abrupt close, and decided to visit the hilltop tower where he had sent the ten knights to act as a scouting party the previous night. As he was leaving it, however, ‘a messenger came up to him who had ridden at great speed’. Roger’s uneasiness was not helped by the messenger’s panic. The Frankish scout reported that he had seen ‘enemy hordes all over the mountain slopes and inaccessible valleys’. There were Muslim cavalry in places ‘not even accessible to the tracks of wild beasts’.

The sense of danger was palpable. Roger was told that the Muslims were ‘approaching us quickly from three directions . . . and . . . that innumerable columns, distinguished both by standards and by other displays of cyphers, are following the first ones’. The scout was entirely correct. The Aleppan chronicle of Kamal al-Din gives an uncannily similar account of what was happening, writing that ‘as dawn broke they saw the Muslim standards advancing to surround them completely’.

Roger and his men had believed the sides of the plain could not be negotiated by large groups of cavalry and ‘were convinced that no one could get to them because the access was so difficult’.98 They thought the Muslim army, whose size they probably underestimated significantly, would continue to withdraw from al-Atharib in search of easier plunder elsewhere. Or that, if they did want a fight, they would move towards the Franks, and meet them headlong on their line of march.

They were wrong on every count. Instead they found themselves surrounded on three sides, with the vanguard of the highly mobile Muslim forces advancing on them at speed. Il-Ghazi had ‘set out towards them and his men entered [the area] by the three routes [through the mountains, and] . . . before they were aware of it, the Muslim advance guard was upon them’. The speed of the Muslim approach meant that orders for deployment needed to be transmitted quickly. Everyone was uneasy. The tension of the decision-making made it difficult to keep the army confident and calm. Everyone knew something was wrong. Things were moving far too fast.

Two bugle sounds were established as the initial commands: the first for the final fitting of arms and equipment, the second for forming up into battle lines. At the sound of a third bugle, the main lines, vanguard, centre and rear, were told to advance, with each unit marching behind its standard bearer. They were ordered to form up in battle formation using the portable shrine, which seems to have been with Roger in the central battle line, as their main point of alignment.

But the situation was so fluid that Roger had difficulty in keeping up with changing circumstances. Another jittery messenger arrived while the first scout was still being debriefed. The news was getting worse. The nervous and excited soldier said that ‘they are on this side of the Sarmadan district, very close’. The Turkic cavalry had already wheeled round their flanks and they were increasingly surrounded.

Roger realised that he had much less time to deploy his troops than he had thought. He immediately ‘ordered everyone to be warned by the sound of the bugle. There was no delay: at the first signal they were alerted, at the second they were made ready, at the third they assembled; they assembled and presented themselves to the prince in front of the chapel, where the Cross was.’ In most battles, such as at Tell Danith, this would have been the moment for a rousing speech and for the last-minute briefing of unit commanders. But events were spiralling out of control. There was no time.

Some of Mauger of Hauteville’s troops were beginning to filter back and ‘Alberic, the deputy-steward . . . appeared as the third messenger, to forewarn our men’. The news they brought with them was deeply troubling and, perhaps for the first time, Roger became aware of the size of the enemy force he was facing. Alberic was extremely agitated and the men were beginning to smell panic in the air. Walter, who was there when he galloped into camp, described him as being so distressed by what he had seen that he looked like ‘a person . . . who had been struck by a lance in his face and pierced by an arrow almost in his eye’. He had been with the advance party sent to scout out Il-Ghazi’s intentions. They had encountered large groups of enemy cavalry and most had been killed. Two of their most eminent knights, Jordan of Jordan, one of whose descendants later became constable of Antioch, and Eudes of Forestmoutiers, from Picardy, had been captured and beheaded. Most of the rest had died in fierce fighting.

The commander of the detachment, Mauger of Hauteville, was another of the survivors. He rode into camp soon afterwards, accompanied by just one other knight. They were in a bad way. As was often the case when fighting nomadic cavalry, their horses were severely wounded, ‘struck with arrows, overpowered by . . . missiles’. The animals were so weakened by their ordeal that they died before their riders could finish reporting their news to Prince Roger. The news was not good. Muslim troops were close, much closer than they had expected. As feared, they were approaching ahead and on both flanks, ‘divided into three parts’. The battle had not yet started, but the Antiochenes were already almost surrounded.

In stark contrast to the Franks’ efforts, Il-Ghazi’s reconnaissance and intelligence activity had been extremely effective. Muslim scouts were prominent in the campaign, and had been present in increasing numbers around the Frankish camp at Balat. Il-Ghazi knew that he needed to entice the Franks out from behind their defences. He had to provoke Roger into action quickly, before reinforcements arrived from the other crusader states. The greater mobility of his forces allowed him to take greater risks, and his men, mainly light cavalry, could extricate themselves relatively easily from contact with slower-moving troops. The siege of al-Atharib, a desirable objective in its own right, had the additional benefit of baiting a trap for the Antiochene army. He knew the route by which they were likely to march to try to relieve the siege and he made sure that his men were well positioned to surround them.

This was not without dangers of its own. He was dividing his army in the face of the enemy. But he had numbers on his side. The risks were further mitigated by the way in which he could flood the area with light cavalry scouts and use them to make detailed arrangements for troop movement along little-known tracks. After the event, it was all too obvious that as well as trying to identify the plans and dispositions of the Franks, there was also a particular emphasis on investigating minor routes ‘by which they could attack the prince with greater safety for themselves and greater damage to our men [i.e. the Franks]’.

Battle of Ager Sanguinis, (1119) Part II

The Battle of Ager Sanguinis, 1119

Il-Ghazi’s plan worked perfectly. The Franks quickly became aware that they were surrounded. Prince Roger, even before the beginning of the battle, realised that things were not going as planned and described the Muslim attack as ‘many-sided’. At this point he made his last major mistake, and sealed the fate of the army. He had moved away from his defensive camp, and he was still miles away from al-Atharib. His best chance of reaching safety lay in carrying out a slow but disciplined ‘fighting march’ forward to the relative safety of al-Atharib castle. But this would have been difficult to conduct and, given the large number of ill-disciplined ‘volunteers’ in the army, Roger may not have thought it was feasible.

Instead, he seems to have decided to charge into the centre of the increasingly dense Muslim lines and push his way through to al-Atharib before the enemy could regroup. Roger knew that the first charge would be decisive. To give it the greatest chance of success, he sent Rainald Mazoir, founder of one of Antioch’s most famous noble families, with a detachment of troops over towards Sarmada, perhaps as a feint to divert attention away from the main army, or perhaps to try to halt the continuing numbers of Muslim troops entering from that direction.

The Antiochene army was still in good order and uncommitted at this stage, split into three main battle lines, van, centre and rear, and divided further into separate units within those lines. Last-minute adjustments and checks were made, and adjutants rode quickly up and down the lines to ensure that everything was as well ordered as possible. Final prayers were made in front of the fragment of the True Cross and the army’s shrine and then each of the units started to march forward. Messengers were continually sent from Roger in the centre to the other battle lines and units, conveying orders and receiving information, trying to keep the formations as well ordered as possible. He ‘venerated the symbol of the Holy Cross . . . then one by one the ranks raised their standards and set off in the assigned order, with bugles, flutes and trumpets blaring, and started their march eagerly’.

There were five units in the vanguard, the spearhead of the Frankish army. From right to left, these were the ‘battle line of St Peter’ (an elite military confraternity), the ‘battle line of Geoffrey the Monk’, the ‘battle line of Guy Fresnel’, and the unit commanded by Robert of St Lo. On the far left were the Turcopoles, tasked with protecting the flank of the charge as it connected with the enemy.

The attack was to go in from right to left, probably echeloned across the line. The ‘battle line of St Peter’ had performed well at Tell Danith, and was given the position of honour: the right of the line and the first into combat. The confraternity crashed into the Muslim lines to their front and, ‘giving their horses their heads, brandishing their lances as they made haste to strike the cohort in their path violently and quickly’, succeeded in putting them to flight.

The success of their charge triggered an onslaught from the next Frankish unit in the line, Geoffrey the Monk’s contingent, drawn mainly from his lands around Marash. This too was successful, routing not just the Turkic troops to his immediate front, but also other Muslim units on their flank. Il-Ghazi’s vanguard was looking increasingly shaky.

The unit next along the line, Guy Fresnel and his knights, also thundered into the Muslim ranks, and ‘attacked and assaulted the enemy with all its might’. The initial attacks of the Christian vanguard were causing significant damage. Even Muslim chroniclers admitted that the Franks ‘gave a redoubtable charge and the Muslims turned their backs in flight’. The Frankish charge on the right and centre was looking successful. The battle hung in the balance.

But Muslim reinforcements were immediately able to step in to fill the gaps. The routed Turkic vanguard regrouped behind the waves of horsemen that were coming up behind them. And there were vast numbers of nomadic cavalry still entering the sides of the battlefield, infiltrating around the flanks of the Christian army, and moving back towards the baggage train and rear.

The other problem was that, although the Frankish charge on the right and centre was successful, the assault on the left faltered and failed to connect. The Turcopoles were fighting a losing battle. Tasked with shielding the left flank of the vanguard for long enough to allow them to charge in, they were gradually pushed back by their opponents and, by the time Robert of St Lo’s contingent was ready to charge, the Turcopoles were beginning to intermingle and block their line of attack. We are told that ‘Robert of St Lo’s cohort, advancing with the Turcopoles from the left, when they should have struck, were unable to . . . as the Turcopoles were first to flee, and, driven by their own side’s charge and the shouts of the heathen, they got in the way of the prince’s battle-line as it rode against the strength of the [Muslims]’. The Turcopoles soon broke altogether and, to make matters even worse, their panic-stricken rout was infectious and ‘they carried along with them part of the prince’s cohort as they scattered’.

While the vanguard units were being pushed back and Roger’s central line was holding its ground, the rearguard division was beginning to falter. They could see things were not going well. Turkic light cavalry were beginning to filter round the flanks. Turcopoles and some of the vanguard were running back past them.

The decision facing the individuals in the rearguard was a brutal example of game theory in the raw: was the battle lost or not? If it was not yet lost, they could help themselves, and their comrades, by reinforcing the centre division and standing their ground. If they decided the battle was already lost, they knew that their best chance of survival lay in an early departure, back down the line of march before the few remaining exit routes were closed altogether by the nomadic horsemen. In the event, they decided the battle was over. The rearguard ran, even before they made contact with the enemy.

Walter the Chancellor, stationed in the central division near the prince and the Holy Cross, and writing soon after his release from an horrific period of captivity, was understandably bitter. He and his comrades were, he felt, betrayed by ‘some of the nobles, who had seemed estimable for their vigour and abilities and their noble blood, who also did not sustain the first assault, abandoned their prince alive on the battlefield, deserted their kin and friends, and set out at some speed, before the field of battle and the approach to the mountains could be closed to them by the enemy’s ferocity’. Although the fugitives had made it back to Antioch, he said ‘they would have preferred the port’, so they could keep running all the way back to Europe. As he commented bitterly, ‘as usual, last into battle, first through the gates’. The early flight of the rearguard was deplored by those who were left behind. But it was not entirely irrational. The battle was almost certainly lost by that point, and at least it meant that a cadre of Antiochene cavalry escaped to help defend the principality from the consequences of defeat.

Meanwhile, Il-Ghazi’s troops were softening up the Frankish centre and vanguard with archery prior to moving in for close-quarters fighting. The arrow storm created by thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of Turkic cavalry was immense. Witnesses reported that they saw ‘some of the horses stretched out on the ground like hedgehogs because of the quantity of arrows sticking into them’. The Frankish troops were subjected to a ‘hail of arrows which fell like a cloud of grasshoppers’.

The disintegration of the rearguard left Roger’s battle line vulnerable to being surrounded. The Turkic cavalry were able to wheel round and attack the centre, starting to overrun parts of the baggage train and tents.119 The Antiochene vanguard, aware that they were now encircled, began to fall back in disorder towards Prince Roger and his household knights, still defending the portable shrine.

Roger and some of his men made a last stand by the fragment of the True Cross, but it was all far too late. A sword thrust into his brain killed the prince instantly, and his household knights were cut down around him.120 The sources make it clear that soon after the charge of the vanguard, the Frankish army were almost totally surrounded. As an Armenian chronicle succinctly put it, the Muslim army ‘engulfed the Christians, who found themselves surrounded on all sides, with no way out. All were put to the sword and the count of the Franks, Roger, died with his men.’

The mounted members of the rearguard had unheroically but correctly decided that the only people who were going to leave the battlefield were those who were prepared to leave early. As the centre collapsed, thousands of Il-Ghazi’s cavalry were freed up to surge across the plain, cutting off the few remaining escape routes. Fugitives were killed in large numbers as ‘the battlefield was so hemmed in and access and paths to the mountains and valleys so observed, that not a single person trying to escape was able to get through unscathed’.

The last few knots of the men from the vanguard were still formed in some kind of order and were prepared to fall back on the centre to try to make a fighting retreat. By the time they got there, however, the Muslim cavalry had already been through the baggage train. Events had moved so quickly that the centre had already been largely overrun and Prince Roger killed in hand-to-hand fighting. The army had been surrounded on both flanks, even before the vanguard had fully regrouped from its initial frontal charges.

The troops from the centre division realised the main exit routes from the battlefield had been blocked. The survivors made their way to a nearby hill where they tried to establish a defensive position. They were gradually joined by refugees from the vanguard, falling back onto what they had hoped would be the fixed point of the army. But it was a vain hope. The troops were quickly surrounded (‘blockaded by infidels’) and subjected to ‘a barrage of spears and arrows from all sides’. A small number escaped but most were soon overwhelmed and killed or forced to surrender. By the end of the day the Christians were either in chains or dead. The ‘Franks were on the ground, one prostrate mass, horsemen and footmen alike, with their horses and their weapons, so that not one man of them escaped to tell the tale, and their leader Roger was found stretched out among the dead’.

Meanwhile, on the approaches from Sarmada, Rainald Mazoir with his ‘three-fold company’ had been conducting a battle of his own, and had succeeded up to a point, if only by diverting significant numbers of Il-Ghazi’s troops from the main battlefield. It played out remarkably similarly to the battle experienced by Roger and his men, however, and with the same results.

Rainald and his troops charged into the oncoming Turkic cavalry, routing the units to their front, and pushing back the enemy vanguard. As with the main battle raging nearby, it seemed at first as if the Christian troops were winning, and would be able to punch their way through. But the sheer volume of the Turkic forces they were facing meant that this was not possible. The impetus of the attack slowed down and eventually ground to a halt. Il-Ghazi’s units to their front may have been broken, but there were plenty of others coming up behind them. As the momentum of the charge was lost, the outnumbered Christian forces were overwhelmed. Rainald himself was wounded in the fighting, but his household men managed to get him out of the mêlée and fought their way through to Sarmada. There they took refuge in a small tower overlooking the town. Their hope was that they could stay there until reinforcements arrived.

That was no longer a realistic prospect, however. Although they did not know it, the main Antiochene army had already been destroyed and the army of Jerusalem was still several days away. The ‘tower of Sarmada’ was useful protection for villagers against marauding nomads or small raiding parties, but it was not designed to withstand a siege. Later the following morning, Il-Ghazi brought his entire army to Sarmada, together with the few hundred naked and shackled prisoners who were all that remained of the Antiochene army. Rainald had no choice but to surrender, as with ‘the weakness of the tower and the lack of food and, most of all, Il-Ghazi’s arrival there were good reasons why he could not remain there’.

Robert of Vieux-Pont and his men, who had played such a prominent part in the preliminary fighting outside al-Atharib, survived the battle. Perhaps because of their wounds or exertions on the previous day, they were lagging behind the main army when it was overwhelmed. They ‘saw the sudden attack and sped . . . to the city [of Antioch] where with their dreadful reports they brought out the citizens and roused them to the defence of their native land. Some hundred and forty escaped by being outside the camp.’

Luckily for the Franks, Il-Ghazi, as we have seen, took the opportunity of victory to treat himself to an extended bout of binge-drinking and torture. The arrival of King Baldwin with reinforcements from the south, combined with Il-Ghazi’s physical condition, meant that a rescue programme for the principality could be put into place. But the Muslims were able to roll up many of the Frankish frontier fortresses, including Artah, ‘Imm, al-Atharib and Zardana, pushing the Christian frontiers significantly westwards, back towards the Orontes. This was an important success for the Aleppans, who now had a far less threatening border to contend with. And as well as destroying much of the Christian frontier, Turcoman raiding parties were set loose across the whole Principality of Antioch. In the absence of any appreciable field army, bands of nomads were able to destroy much of the rural infrastructure, with raiders even getting as far as the Mediterranean coast.

That was the high-water mark. King Baldwin put an army into the field and met Il-Ghazi and his Turkic troops for another battle at Tell Danith on 14 August. The result seems to have been a fairly confusing draw, but it was Il-Ghazi who withdrew his men from the battlefield, and the ever restless nomads began to disperse. As Ibn al-Athir put it, ‘Il-Ghazi could not remain long in Frankish territory because it was through their desire for booty that he had brought the Turcomans together. Each one of them would arrive with a bag of wheat and a sheep and would count the hours until he could take some quick booty and then go home. If their stay was extended, they would disperse. Il-Ghazi did not have money that he could distribute to them.’

Even the most stable and focused leader, which Il-Ghazi could hardly be accused of being, would find it hard to wield such an army for extended periods of time. With the prospects of early booty disappearing, the campaign of 1119 ground to a close. It had been a major success for the Muslim powers, but they had not been able to convert that success into a cataclysm for the Franks.

Roger of Antioch

Roger of Antioch (d. 1119) Ruler of the principality of Antioch (1113-1119) in succession to Tancred. Roger of Salerno, as he was originally known, was a son of Richard of the Principate and a sister of Tancred. He succeeded Tancred as ruler of Antioch on the latter’s death in 1113. It is disputed whether Roger ruled in his own right or as regent for the young Bohemund II (born 1108), who was in Italy. However, Roger was accused of usurpation only by Fulcher of Chartres; other chroniclers treat him as the rightful ruler and refer to him as “prince.”

The first crisis of Roger’s reign was a massive series of earthquakes in 1114-1115. He demonstrated admirable qualities of leadership in his organization of the repairs to the city of Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey) and surrounding towns. In 1115, after careful reconnaissance and after making an alliance with the Turkish leaders Tughtekin of Damascus and Il-Ghazi, Roger campaigned against Bursuq of Hamadan. He did not wait for support from King Baldwin I of Jerusalem or Count Pons of Tripoli, his Christian allies, but launched a surprise attack on Bursuq’s camp on 14 September 1115. The ensuing battle of Tell Danith was an overwhelming victory for Roger and the high point of his reign. Bursuq died a few months later, and Antioch was established as a formidable political and military force in northern Syria. However, Roger tried to repeat his success in June 1119, by attacking a Turkish army led by Il-Ghazi, without waiting for Baldwin II of Jerusalem and Pons of Tripoli. The defeat that followed wiped out the Antiochene army and is known evocatively as the battle of Ager Sanguinis (the Field of Blood). Roger himself was killed in the fighting.

The principality of Antioch now lay wide open to conquest, but the Turks failed to follow up their victory, and the city held out until King Baldwin II arrived to take charge. He assumed the regency of the principality until Bohemund II achieved his majority in 1126.


Asbridge, Thomas S., “The Significance and Causes of the Battle of the Field of Blood,” Journal of Medieval History 23 (1997), 301-316.

—, The Creation of the Principality of Antioch, 1098-1130 (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2000).

Cahen, Claude, La Syrie du Nord a l’époque des croisades et la principauté franque d’Antioche (Paris: Geuthner, 1940).

Stevenson, W. B., The Crusaders in the East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1907).

Battle of Muret 1213

The initial invasion of 1210 took Raymond, count of Toulouse, off guard. Simon de Montfort proved an able commander. He pursued sieges to their conclusion, and his heavy cavalry won victories at Castelnaudary (1211) and Muret (1213). Although crusader numbers fluctuated wildly, their determination in difficulty and constant reinforcement from all over Europe guaranteed their triumph. De Montfort’s death in 1219 enabled a Toulousain recovery, but this lasted only until 1226.

While leading a crusade against the heretical Cathars in southwestern France in September 1213, the French knight and nobleman Simon de Montfort found himself outnumbered at the fortified town of Muret by a large force from Aragon and Toulouse. His daring sortie unexpectedly routed the Aragonese, killed their king, and dealt a blow to the Cathar cause.

The Languedoc region of France had shared the experiences of its neighbours: first the Romans who brought Christianity; then the Visigoths; the passage of the Vandals going south, followed by conquering Arabs going north; then liberation by Charlemagne going south with his Franks; and finally the arrival of feudalism. Through all this change the region retained some important characteristics. The language Oc survived, though it is barely spoken nowadays. A different interpretation of Christianity evolved – Catharism. Cathar society treated women as the equals of men and embraced the pleasures of song and dance (it is from this region that troubadours spread across Europe). The Cathars had no churches, only domestic meeting places where Good Men and Women preached to the faithful. Above them were deacons and bishops. The Good Men and Women rejected all materialism as unspiritual and therefore evil. They also condemned the established Catholic form of priesthood as being licentious, rapacious and materialistic.

For hundreds of years Catholic and Cathar tolerated each other, living in the same towns and villages. That tolerance started to crumble and dissent turned to criticism, then to dispute and, ultimately, intolerance. The Catholic archbishop wrote to the Pope about the situation. The Pope appointed a legate, who reported back to Rome that he had found an entrenched heresy. Next the Pope wrote to the local lord, Raymond IV; count of Toulouse, instructing him to act against the dissenters. He prevaricated and the Pope was exasperated. Catharism continued to spread. Eventually the Pope played his strongest card and declared a crusade against the heretics. An army assembled at Lyons on 24 June 1209, commanded by Arnaud Amaury, abbot of Citeaux, who was advised by Eudes III of Burgundy and Herve de Donzy of Nevers. They advanced to Valence, Montelimar fell, Beziers fell. Catholic and Cathar were slaughtered together. ‘God will know his own’, the abbot said.

Other towns fell to different columns. At Carcassone the heretics were allowed to go free, but the city was pillaged. When the 40 days were up the crusaders went home, almost. One minor lord was persuaded to stay. Simon de Montfort IV, father of the famous English rebel, agreed to remain and continue the fight.

Although, in the beginning, hundreds of Cathars were burnt as heretics, that persecution began to take second place to de Montfort’s carving out his own fiefdom among the gorges and peaks of the Pyrenees. As the seasons turned he found he could keep conquering because although Raymond IV was in the field against him, with a much larger army, he continued to prevaricate and would not be brought to battle. The town of Muret was taken in September 1212 with the aid of another batch of 40-day men. At about the same time the fiefdoms of Lords Comminges and de Bearn were also attacked and absorbed into de Montfort’s domain. This was a mistake – they were vassals of Pedro II, king of Aragon. To him they appealed for redress, after all Simon de Montfort was also a fellow vassal of the king, but he was setting himself up to be more powerful than his lord. Both sides, the abbot with Simon and the king of Aragon, lobbied the Pope in their cause. At an ecclesiastical council at Lavaur, Pedro was not allowed to speak, only to submit written argument and eventually the Pope sided with his own abbot. A showdown was inevitable. Pedro gave his protection to the people of Toulouse, revoked it for de Montfort and summoned his own host.

In September 1213 Pedro’s forces arrived at Muret. Inside were 30 French knights and 700 infantry holding the town for de Montfort. Pedro’s host included the men of Raymond IV; Lords Comminges and de Bearn. It was made up of between 2000 and 3000 mounted knights and sergeants plus an unknown but larger number of infantrymen. They camped to the north of the town above the small River Louge. The position was protected to the east by the Garonne and to the south by the Louge. It was, however, open to the west and north, and here Pedro’s troops erected the stone throwing engines with which they started to batter the walls on 11 September.

Meanwhile news of the attack had reached de Montfort at Fanjeaux 64km (40 miles) to the east. He had summoned his, much smaller, forces. Time being of the essence, they were cavalry only, consisting of 240 knights and 500 sergeants.

The resident defenders of Muret were too few to hold the walls of the town and the attackers swarmed in, just as de Montfort was seen arriving from the west. Whether by order or in panic the assaulting troops withdrew in haste. Better that than being caught in the rear by newly arrived knights. De Montfort entered the town unopposed. The next day negotiations were opened between de Montfort’s bishops and the king of Aragon. During this brief lull, the northern Toulouse gate, nearest to the Aragonese army, was left open (some say by design, some by mistake). Either way Pedro could not ignore such a gift and ordered it rushed by the count of Foix’s men who formed the Spanish vanguard, aided by some of Raymond IV’s foot soldiers from the rearguard.

The Spanish attempted to force their way in over the narrow Louge bridge, foot soldiers and cavalry together. A few got into the town, but were there outnumbered, surrounded and those few that couldn’t escape were killed. The count ordered them to withdraw and eat before trying again. Meanwhile Simon had led his entire mounted force out of the Sales gate on the southern/western wall. He then organized them into three battles. The first two were to charge the front of the enemy, the third under his own command would sweep wide to the east and plunge onto the already engaged flank of the enemy. It was a bold plan. Each of his battles were but 250 strong. The Spanish vanguard easily matched that number on its own. But they had been distracted and at least some were taking lunch. Yet consider the time required to catch, saddle and bridle nearly 800 horses and arm the knights to ride them. This was surely no fortuitous series of coincidences. De Montfort’s men must have been standing by ready to move on command.

The first battle exited the gate heading south on the Avenue des Pyrenees. De Montfort, echoing a stratagem from the Chinese Sun Tzu, placed all the banners of his host in this first division. The head of the column wheeled off the road to their right and moved out beyond the concealing walls. Time was of the essence. They executed a right turn, forming one deep line, and crossed the Louge to advance rapidly on the enemy. The second column followed, passing the rear of the first before performing its own right turn. So the two lines were then advancing on the first Spanish division in echelon. The Spaniards were mesmerized by the advancing knights with all their banners. Chaos reigned with dismounted lords calling for their squires and horses, those mounted struggling to find their position in the line. The impact of the advancing crusaders scattered the count of Foix’s division like ‘dust before the wind’. The infantry ran for the camp while the king’s division struggled to maintain the line and was hit in turn by the pursuing horsemen. Simon, meanwhile, had stuck to his plan and now came in on the flank of the hapless men of Aragon. The king was killed in the melee and the rest fled, closely pursued by the desperate crusaders. Such was the disparity in numbers that de Montfort’s men could not afford to deplete their own strength by taking prisoners for ransom and a great number were killed.

Co-ordinating the manoeuvres of Simon’s two leading columns deserves some examination. Each would have been more than 500m (1640ft) long, assuming two abreast and allowing 4m (13ft) for each horse and space between it and the next. Turned into a line each would be only 307m (1007ft) long, 1.2m (4ft) for the frontage of each horse. The commander at the front would indicate the moment for the turn to be executed, but there was great potential for him to get it wrong. Turn the first column too early and the last man could still be in the city gate. Turn the second column early and it would overlap the rear of the first and some men would be ineffective. Turn it too late and the gap between lines would be too large, risking each being swamped by the enemy’s superior numbers.

There are two ways an efficient turn could have been achieved (although we don’t know which was used). Either the order to turn was given by the last man in the column as he reached the critical position or the commander used some mental calculation to register the distance covered. With modern infantry you can rely on counting a regular pace to judge these distances. Either way we must give credit to both de Montfort for his excellent plan and his subordinate commanders, Bouchard of Marly leading the first column and William d’Encontre leading the second, for its execution.

Battle of Arsuf 1191

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

The Crusader armies tended to be an ill-assorted mix of troop types and fairly undisciplined. The backbone was provided by mounted men-at-arms and nobles from the Christian kingdoms of Europe. Armoured in chain mail and an open-faced metal helm, the man-at-arms was trained to war all his life. His sidearm was the long sword, but he might also carry an axe or mace as well as his shield and lance. Knights, noblemen and men-at-arms came to the Crusades from all across Europe. The most famous groups were the Knights Templar and the Order of St John (the Hospitallers).


The Knights ‘Templar, otherwise known as the Poor Fellows of Christ, were formed after the First Crusade (1096-99) in response to a need for fighting men to defend the conquered lands. Chaining papal approval in 1120, they were an order of warrior monks who took vows of poverty and chastity and lived according to a very strict code. They wore the white surcoat of their order over a plain and unadorned chain mail shirt called a hauberk, along with a mail coif (hood) and leggings. Their helm was plain and open-faced, similar to that worn by Norman knights at the Battle of Hastings. Under the mail hauberk was a padded jerkin to absorb the impact of blows.

The Templars have become the symbol of Christian knights. They were fearsome and unrelenting in combat against their Muslim foes, believing that death in battle against the enemies of Christendom was a direct route to heaven. The Templars had a fierce rivalry with the Hospitallers that did at times turn violent. Each order had an agreement not to accept men from their rival order.

The Knights of St John began as a charitable order sometime in the 1070s. Their goal was to care for pilgrims to the Holy Land. Booty from the First Crusade, donated to the order, paid for a chain of hospices across the region. Eventually the order took on the duties of protecting the pilgrims and the city of Jerusalem, and became a militant order. Using mercenaries and knights friendly to the order, the Hospitallers garrisoned several fortresses on the route to Jerusalem. After the Crusader army was destroyed at Hattin in 1187, the pope decided to support the various military orders and gave his blessing to the Hospitallers’ military role.


There is much debate about exactly when the mounted warrior began to charge with the couched lance, i. e. with his weapon held under the arm and braced for a head-on impact. At the time of the Battle of Hastings (1066), some Norman knights were using the lance this way while others thrust downwards with it overarm or rode past and speared enemies out to the side from beyond the reach of their weapons. Some men are known to have hurled their weapons into the mass of their enemies. By 1191 the lance was fairly commonly, though not exclusively, couched.

The impact of a charge of armoured cavalry was a tremendous thing, and many enemy forces broke before contact. This allowed the men-at-arms to ride down their foes with relative impunity, protected from random blows by their armour. Even if the enemy stood and fought, few could withstand the onslaught of the heavily armoured Western knights.

This was one of the problems the Crusaders faced in the Holy Land. There they met a foe who knew how dangerous the knightly charge could be, and was quite prepared to fall back or even run away from it. The result was that many times Crusader knights hurled themselves at the foe and hit only empty air. As their horses tired and their numbers were whittled down by the fire of horse archers, the men-at-arms would become exhausted and often found themselves dangerously far from their supporting forces.

The Crusader armies of the time included considerable numbers of foot soldiers and crossbowmen. Most foot soldiers were spearmen with armour of leather or quilted cloth and often a light `helmet’ (i. e. a lesser helm) of leather reinforced with metal bands. Their large shields were their main protection. The crossbowmen were provided with quilted jerkins that offered protection against the relatively weak bows of the Saracen horse archers. Their powerful weapons were slow-firing hut outranged the Saracen bows.

Saladin’s forces at Arsuf were completely different to those of the Crusaders. The backbone of the force was mounted: a mix of light cavalry equipped with short bows and heavier horsemen able to produce a shock effect with their charge, though not so effectively as the European heavy cavalry. The horse archers of Saladin’s force were mainly of Turkish origin. They could attack at close quarters with their light, curved scimitars but these were ineffective against all but the lightest armour. The horse archers were mainly assigned to harass and skirmish with the enemy, though they would swoop down on isolated or broken enemy units to massacre them. The heavy cavalry were mainly of Arab origin. They were equipped with light mail armour and armed with lances, swords and maces. Usually known as Mamluks, these heavy Arab cavalry made up Saladin’s personal bodyguard and more of the army besides. Their function was to deliver the fatal blow to an enemy force shaken by endless horse archery. To back up the cavalry, Saladin had pike- and javelin-armed Arab or Sudanese foot soldiers and Nubian archers. Ideally the pikemen could protect the archers from an enemy attack while they shot down their opponents, then complete the victory by charging with their pikes. In practice this was hard to coordinate, hut the Muslim armies tended to have good discipline and training, and managed combined-arms cooperation better than many European forces of the time.


Arsuf was part of the Third Crusade (1189-92), an attempt by a coalition of Christian forces to capture the holy city of Jerusalem from its Muslim rulers. The city had been lost to the Muslims under Saladin (Salah ad-Din Yusuf) after the disastrous battle of Hattin in 1187. Pope Gregory VIII ordered an immediate Crusade to recapture it. The call was answered by Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart), King Philip II of France (1165-1223) and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (c. 1123-90). The 70- year-old Emperor Frederick was drowned during the march across Europe and most of his army turned for home, leaving Richard and Philip to continue.

Capturing Cyprus as a forward base, the Crusaders landed at Acre and besieged the port, capturing it soon after. King Philip returned home at this point but Richard, now in control of a port through which to supply his army, decided to press on to Jerusalem. With him went much of King Philip’s force.

Richard’s next objective was the port of Jaffa. Marching down the coast, he imposed strict discipline on his force. The army stayed close to the shore to protect its flank and to benefit from the slightly cooler conditions there. The force was arrayed in three columns plus a rearguard. The knights, suffering terribly from the heat, rode in the column closest to the sea. The two outer columns were of infantry. They suffered from the archery of enemy light cavalry who could ride up, shoot, and escape quickly, but the infantry maintained their discipline and stayed in formation, some men marching with several arrows sticking out of their quilted jerkins. The crossbowmen exacted a steady toll among the horse archers, who could not venture too close to the columns.

Marching under fire in this manner is one of the most difficult of all manoeuvres to carry out. Progress is slow and painstaking, since if the formation breaks up at all the enemy will sweep in and attack. Iron discipline is the key, since the galling fire of the enemy makes individuals want to hurry and opens gaps in the formation for the enemy to exploit. It was particularly impressive that the Crusader army maintained its formation, since discipline in the European armies of the time was very poor. Not only did the knights’ warrior instincts tell them to rush out at the enemy but their very way of life had conditioned them to charge at threats regardless rather than plod along hiding behind a screen of common infantry.

For the infantry themselves, the feat is quite remarkable. Often despised by the flower of chivalry they now sheltered, the infantry were forced to bear the brunt of the enemy’s fire for hour after baking hour, and all to protect the precious horses of the knights. They, the infantry, were soaking up arrows to protect animals!

There were plenty of reasons for the formation to fall apart – internal divisions, pressure from the enemy, heat and exhaustion should by all the odds have combined to wear down the Christians’ resolve. And yet the Crusaders’ discipline held. The formation plodded slowly onward, where possible transferring wounded to the ships that followed it down the coast and receiving supplies in return.

On 6 September the Crusader army passed through a wood north of Arsuf, a town north of Jaffa. Had the Saracens fired the wood, it might have become a death-trap, but they did not, perhaps because Saladin had other plans. Thus far the main Saracen force had shadowed Richard’s army but made no serious attempt to engage. Now the time was ripe.


On 7 September the Crusaders had to cover about 10km (6.2 miles) to reach Arsuf, a long day’s march in those conditions. Saladin had no intention of letting them reach the town, however. His forces prepared themselves for an attack that would pin the Crusaders against the sea and crush them.

The Saracen formation was typically fluid, with horse archers darting in to shoot in small groups then withdrawing quickly. There was no idea of forming up for battle, just another day of marching and skirmishing. This went on until about 11.00 a. m., at which point the Saracen force attacked in earnest.

The Crusader army was in effect marching in battle formation, organized in a defensive box around its precious supply wagons and the irreplaceable heavy cavalry. In truth the battle had already been going on for days as the defensive formation held off the horse archers and their supporting forces. There had been no serious attack up until that point but now the Saracens were ready to strike.

The forces of Saladin were kept at bay by a fine piece of combined-arms work. Spearmen protected the crossbowmen from direct attack, while the heavy bolts of the crossbowmen exacted a steady toll on the enemy. And in reserve, the threat of the heavy armoured cavalry prevented the Muslim army from making an all-out assault. For the infantry deployed at the hack of the formation, this was in effect a fighting retreat. Most of the time the infantry marched backwards, keeping their shields and weapons facing the enemy. The Crusader army was a `roving pocket’ cut off in enemy territory yet able to continue its march, albeit slowly. The Muslim forces swirled around the human bulwark; ahead, behind and to the left there was nothing but enemies. On the right flank was the sea. ‘The only hope was to march on – and fight on – so the battle became a contest between the pressure exerted by the Muslims and the discipline of the Crusaders.


The pressure steadily mounted as the Saracen horse archers came in ever closer and more boldly to shoot. Sometimes the crossbowmen were able to keep the enemy at a distance, but increasingly groups of cavalry were able to race in and attack with lance and sword. Then the spearmen of the Crusader rearguard were forced to engage. Their spears were long enough to be effective against the attacking horsemen and their shields offered good protection, but they were desperately tired from day after day of marching.

The rearguard could not afford to become embroiled in a melee with the attackers. If a group of cavalry broke off and was pursued, even for only a few steps, the spearmen would be quickly surrounded and cut down. So the Crusader infantry was forced to fight a defensive battle. Short rushes to drive off attackers were possible, hut it was vital for soldiers to quickly regain the safety of the main force. Dangerous gaps opened up but were sealed by troops who were supposed to be resting inside the defensive formation.

Hoping to draw one of the famously impetuous charges of the Crusader knights, Saladin’s forces concentrated mostly on the rear of the column where the Hospitallers and French Royal Guards rode. If the infantry ever lost control of the situation, the knights would have no choice but to engage. ‘They were already itching for a fight; it would not take much more to provoke them into action. Yet somehow, amid the chaos and constant archery, the rearguard held to its task. It is highly unlikely that there was much order to the formation, not with enemy attacks coming in at various points. The scene would he fluid – chaotic even – changing from moment to moment.

Here a band of spearmen is driving a few paces forward, chasing off yet another attack. There a handfull of crossbowmen are exchanging fire with horse archers; others load and shoot as fast as they can, covering the retirement of the spearmen back to the column. gap in the formation is plugged by a handful of infantry just as Muslim cavalry spur at it, hoping to enter the `box’ and cause mayhem. Finally the spearmen regain the main body and struggle to catch their breath. Things are calm for a moment, with only the constant archery taking its toll. But along the line the scene is being repeated as another attack sweeps in …

For the entire morning the rearguard battled on in this manner, holding off attacks at the end of the column while the force as a whole inched forwards. Despite extreme provocation the knights resisted the urge to charge, and the column continued its march towards Arsuf and safety.

As the day wore on, casualties mounted. The whole force was now under fire, and men were falling dead and wounded. Confined within the formation the knights chafed, forced to take casualties and unable to reply in any way. The crossbowmen did their best and the outer column of foot soldiers heat off a series of minor attacks, hut the strain was becoming intolerable.


As the army neared Arsuf, the pressure became too much for Richard’s knights, The Hospitallers, accompanied by three squadrons of about 100 knights each, burst out of the formation in a reckless charge. Their sudden attack drove back the right wing of the Saracen force, which had been trying to draw such an attack but had ceased to expect it. If Richard did not support the impetuous knights, they would soon he cut off and slaughtered. Yet if he did send more forces after them, he might throw away his whole force. Richard was known for his valour, hut he was also a shrewd tactician. His infantry were near to the shelter of the town. Covered by a cavalry charge they could enter and secure the town as a defensive position, protecting the baggage train and giving the army a safe place to retreat to if necessary.

Richard also knew the temperament of his men. They might attack anway if he did not order it, and without direction their force might he spent for nothing.

Ordering the Templars out, supported by Breton and Angevin knights, Richard launched them at Saladin’s left wing. At last given a chance to release their pent-up rage, the knights threw the Saracens back and repulsed a counter-attack by Saladin’s personal guard. Now the baggage and its accompanying infantry were entering Arsuf. Richard placed himself at the head of his remaining cavalry, Norman and English knights, and led them at the enemy.

Reeling from heavy blows on both flanks, the Saracen army was shattered by the third charge. Saladin’s men scrambled hack into the wooded hills above Arsuf leaving behind about 7000 casualties. No less than 32 amirs had been killed, almost all of them in the three great charges that broke the army.


The Muslim army returned to the field the following day, resuming its harassing tactics as the Crusaders prepared to push on to their next objective. There was no attempt to launch another full assault, however. Saladin had learned that he could not penetrate the Crusaders’ defensive `box’ formation and concluded that he could not draw the impetuous knights out of it either. Richard the Lionheart did not benefit from his victory at Arsuf Although he performed a great feat of arms and won a tactical success, his army was not able to take Jerusalem, though a grudging truce was agreed between Saladin and the Crusaders, allowing Christian pilgrims access to the city. Against almost any other Crusader commander, Arsuf would have been another great victory for Saladin. Although defeated in battle he held his army together. Its existence prevented an attack on Jerusalem and brought Saladin an honourable, if less than ideal, outcome to the war.

Tactically, and taken in isolation, Arsuf was a victory for the Crusaders. However, if Arsuf is seen as part of a gradual wearing down of the European army to make it incapable of capturing Jerusalem, it may be that Saladin came out the strategic victor.


Chastel Blanc: The fortified church and town of Safita (Castel Blanc) in the mid 13th century

The great tower or keep (1) of Castel Blanc in the Syrian coastal mountains was a massively fortified church rather than simply a castle. The lower chamber (2) formed the church with a semi-domed apse at its eastern end (3); a function which continues to this day. The upper chamber (4) consists of a two-aisled hall supported by three columns. Access to this upper chamber from the church was within the south-western corner (5) and was not particularly convenient for military purposes, while access to the roof was by stairs against the western wall of the upper chamber. A rock-cut cistern lay beneath the church (6). An extensive platform surrounds the church, and appears to have had a defensive wall which formed an inner enceinte (7). Apart from the platform, the only substantial surviving element of these inner defences is the small south-western tower (8). Even less remains of the outer fortifications of Castel Blanc, recreated in the lower illustration, with the notable exception of part of a great entrance tower on the eastern side of the hill (9). Photographs taken before the modern village of Safita expanded into a small but thriving town, indicate that this formed only part of a complex of fortifications around the entrance to the Crusader town.

An important development in medieval castle construction came with the Crusades to the Holy Land beginning at the end of the eleventh century. Called initially at the Council of Clermont on November 27, 1095, by Pope Urban II, the First Crusade attempted to regain the lands where Jesus Christ was born, lived, and died, which they called the Holy Land and which then, and for the previous five centuries, had been under Muslim control. The response to Urban’s call was enthusiastic, and a large army gathered to set out on Assumption Day, 1096. After a difficult journey to the Holy Land, which saw the Crusaders fighting more against the harsh conditions of the Middle East than against the Muslims, the Crusade was successful. The first prize, Antioch, fell on June 28, 1098, followed a year later, on July 13, 1099, by the fall of Jerusalem.

By 1101 the Crusaders had secured their presence in the Holy Land. Their initial success resulted to a large extent from a war that was being fought in the Middle East between the Seljuk Turks and other Muslim peoples, most notably the Egyptian Fatamids. This extended war had both depleted the fighting strength of the Muslims and brought disunity in the defense of their territories. For a while the Crusaders met little military reaction to their conquests. However, they soon realized that they would eventually be forced to defend their newly won territories. They would also have to do it with fewer soldiers than they had in the initial conquests, as many, perhaps as much as one-half to two-thirds of the initial force, returned to Europe following the fall of Jerusalem.

Eventually four Crusader kingdoms were carved out of the captured Middle Eastern territory: Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem. Kings were elected and a European socio-political structure created. In order to ensure the security of the kingdoms against both Muslim attacks from outside and Muslim/Jewish uprisings from inside these kingdoms, two practices were instituted. First, the Crusaders negotiated with the Muslims and Jews for peace. Treaties were made, bribes paid, and alliances formed; some Muslims and Jews were even used as tax collectors and policemen. Second, numerous castles were built throughout the four kingdoms. The Crusaders realized the need for building castles, and for building them quickly, and within three decades after the fall of Jerusalem most of their castles were completed. Of the two practices, the building of castles was the most effective. Treaties, alliances, and even bribes all failed to keep the peace during the century following the First Crusade. But the castles seldom failed, especially in the first hundred years of occupation, and when they did, it took a long time and necessitated a large number of men.

Of initial concern to these castle builders was the security of the Crusader kingdoms’ frontiers. Three were especially vulnerable, and the Crusaders concentrated their initial castle construction in these areas. The first, and perhaps most important, was the sea coast. At the end of the First Crusade the Christians had conquered almost all of the coast from Antioch to the Sinai Desert, with the exceptions only of Tyre (not captured until 1124) and Ascalon (not captured until 1153), and it needed to be protected. The second was the frontier facing Damascus. The third was to the south and protected the kingdom of Jerusalem against incursions from Egypt. Numerous castles were built along all these frontiers. A fourth frontier, west of Antioch and facing Aleppo, would also have been filled with castles, except that negotiations between the Crusaders and the Seljuk Turks led to a “demilitarized zone” without either Muslim or Crusader fortifications.

Castles were built along all major routes and in every major mountain pass, along the deserts, the mountains, the rivers, the lakes, and the sea. But protecting the frontiers was only one obligation undertaken by the Crusaders, and it was a responsibility that they could not completely fulfill. There was simply a limitation to the defensibility of the kingdoms’ frontiers, especially when so few soldiers were available as reinforcements should a border or a castle be attacked.

The function of many other castles built by the Crusaders was not the protection of the kingdoms’ boundaries, for they were built deep inside the Crusaders’ lands. These served as garrisons for soldiers who could be used to besiege nearby Muslim towns, such as Tyre and Ascalon, or to raid neighboring, unfriendly Muslim lands. Defensively they served as refuges against the attacks of strong Muslim leaders, like Saladin, until relief could come from elsewhere in the Crusaders’ kingdoms or from Europe. They served as centers of authority and police posts for the governance and security of the kingdoms against domestic insurrections. Finally, these castles were administrative centers and hubs of economic development and colonization.

With the exception of a few castles built to defend the larger towns of the Holy Land, at Tripoli, Tortosa, Tyre, Beirut, Acre, and Jerusalem, most Crusader castles were built in the countryside. It was here that the Crusaders could use the harshness and inaccessibility of the Middle Eastern terrain to add to the defensibility of their structures. Castles were built on the summits of precipitous rocks or next to steep ravines. At two places, Tyron and Habis, the Crusaders even fortified caves. Most castles had thick walls faced with stone. Because their inhabitants anticipated long sieges that might last until reinforcements could arrive from Europe, the castles were provided with reservoirs for water supply and large cellars for food storage. For example, at the castle of Margat it is estimated that there were sufficient food and water supplies to feed a garrison of 1,000 men for 5 years.

In general, two types of castles were built by the Crusaders. The first followed the style that began to be common in Europe at the end of the eleventh century: large rectangular keeps encircled by a stone wall. They were built with the same simple utilitarian character and the same solid construction as those in Europe. They were often also as large in area, but usually only two stories instead of three.

Two of the best examples of this type of Crusader castle were built at Safita and Jebail and were known to the Crusaders as Chastel Blanc and Giblet. Lying in the southern coastal region of Syria, the castle at Safita was built on a rocky knoll nearly 1,000 feet above sea level. At this height and with the precipitousness of its slope, defense was secured. The keep measured 30.5 by 18.3 meters and stood more than 25 meters high. It had two stories: in the upper story was a large, vaulted room, presumably the living quarters, which filled the entire extent of the keep and was lit by only a few arrow-slits; below it was a hall, also filling the extent of the keep, which was used as chapel. The flat roof was enclosed by a crenellated parapet. Around the keep was an oval wall with a large polygonal tower at its southwest end. There may also have been a gatehouse near this tower, although it has now disappeared. On the lower slopes of the knoll was another polygonal wall with a fortified gateway, adding to the defense of the castle above. It is not certain when the castle at Safita was originally built, although it must have been before 1166–67 when the Muslim leader Nur ad-Din is said to have captured it. It was also known to have been a Templar castle, although whether that Order initiated its construction is uncertain.

The castle at Jebail is a good example of a rectangular keep castle, but it is different from Safita in many ways. It was built not on a precipitous location, but at the southeast corner of a wall surrounding a town and a small harbor, the site of the ancient Phoenician seaport of Byblos. It was also much smaller, measuring only 17.7 by 22 meters, with only two stories. One of the strongest Crusader castles, the keep of Jebail Castle was built by reusing large blocks of ancient stone masonry, with old marble columns cut up and used for bonding. Enclosing this keep was a rectangular curtain wall reinforced with small corner towers. An extra tower in the center of the north face guarded the gate. Jebail Castle was constructed as early as the first decade of the twelfth century and served as a part of the fortifications of the kingdom of Tripoli.

Most of the Crusaders’ castles were not rectangular keeps, however. Such castles, too small in both keep size and overall size, simply could not sufficiently meet the military needs of the Christian force occupying the Holy Land. They could not house enough troops to stand in the way of an attacking force, nor could they store enough food and water for a prolonged siege. Rectangular keeps often took a long time to construct, and, as they were the focal point of a castle’s defense, there was little protection until they were completed. The Crusaders needed a fortification that was larger, more quickly built, and more defensible as it was being built. Therefore, they built most of their castles in the style of older Byzantine fortresses already prominent in the Holy Land.

On their journey to Jerusalem the Crusaders had seen and been impressed by the majestic walls of Constantinople. They then besieged the Muslim-held Byzantine fortresses at Nicaea and Antioch. Throughout the Holy Land they confronted other Byzantine defensive structures, so strongly built that they had been repaired by the Muslims who had inhabited them since the seventh century. These clearly influenced the Crusaders, and they began to imitate them.

This style of fortification can most easily be described as castle complexes, although they are most often called concentric castles. They did not rely on a single rectangular keep for their defense; instead, they imitated urban fortifications with large and powerful outside walls strengthened on the sides and in the corners with towers. The buildings inside the complex, none of which were like the rectangular keep castles, became less important in the defense of the castle. They were meant simply to provide housing and storage. These castles were also larger, their size determined by the extent of their outside walls, and could be more quickly constructed than rectangular keep castles.

The Crusaders built many of these castle complexes, most of which were impressive in their size and structure. Walls, sometimes double walls, surrounding a large bailey dominated each castle. As they were the primary means of defense, the walls were very tall and made of the strongest masonry. They were also protected at intervals by a number of crenellated towers. Entrance into the castle was through a single large gatehouse equipped with heavy wooden doors, portcullises, and occasionally a drawbridge. Buildings in the bailey varied in size, shape, and purpose. There were halls, barracks, kitchens, magazines, stables, baths, latrines, storehouses, and, especially in the cases of castles held by the monastic military orders, chapels and chapter houses. Most also contained large, deep wells and/or rainwater reservoirs that were meant to sustain their inhabitants if besieged for long periods until reinforcements could arrive, perhaps from Europe. In some castles there were also keeps, built as residences or barracks and meant to stand as a final line of defense should the outer walls fail.

The shape of these castles was determined by the terrain on which they were built: the harsher the terrain, the more defensible the castle. Many Crusader castle complexes were on high, precipitous hill tops or ridges. Often a deep and steep ravine or ditch, sometimes natural and sometimes hewn out of solid rock, was added. The terrain also determined that some castles, among them Saône, Beaufort, and Toprakkale, were divided into two separate baileys or fortresses accessible to each other only by means of a small drawbridge. In spite of the harshness of terrain on which most of these castles were located, though, most covered quite large areas. For example, the castles at Saône and Subeibe covered an area of 5 and 6.5 hectares respectively.

Krak des Chevaliers

Perhaps the most impressive of these castles, and certainly the one most studied by modern historians and architects, was Krak des Chevaliers. It remains to this day one of the best preserved and most awe-inspiring medieval castles in the world. No less a historical figure than T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was struck by its beauty and endeavored to make a study of it. He described it as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world, [a castle which] forms a fitting commentary on any account of the Crusading buildings of Syria.” Built in the mountainous regions of southern Syria not far from the castle at Safita, Krak des Chevaliers was constructed using the terrain to improve its defensibility. It was erected on a hilltop over 640 meters high and surrounded on three sides by steep slopes. Yet its area measured nearly 140 by 210 meters, making it one of the largest of the Crusaders’ castles.

The outer defenses consisted of a polygonal wall, which contained several defensive galleries and semicircular towers. A small gate in the northern face of this wall was guarded by two adjacent towers. Between the outer and inner defenses was a forecourt, 16 to 23 meters wide, with a deep rock-hewn ditch in the southern section serving as a reservoir. The stables, magazine, baths, and latrines were also located in the forecourt.

The inner stronghold of the castle lay on top of a steep revetment rising from the forecourt. It was large and spacious and contained a range of buildings serving different functions, including more water tanks and food storehouses. The inner stronghold also included a chapel, although whether this originated with the construction or was added later when the castle came under the control of the Knights Hospitaller cannot be determined.

The entrance to the castle was protected by three fortified gateways, between which are sharp-turning narrow corridors. For even more defense, on the walls were five massive towers, one on the northern, one on the western, and three more on the southern perimeters. All five towers contained many chambers in their several stories and were probably the living quarters of the knights. They were separated from each other and from the main fortress by a series of stepped bridges. All the buildings in the complex, like the outer walls, were built using the most proficient of architectural and masonic skill. The stone was solid—pierced only by arrow slits—and smoothly cut with some, albeit minor, ornamentation.

Krak des Chevaliers was built in the early twelfth century on the site of a Muslim fortress, which for the most part was dismantled, and it remained a formidable defensive stronghold during the entire Crusader occupation of the Holy Land. It also housed a large number of combatants. In 1212 Wilbrand of Oldenburg estimated that the castle held more than 2,000 soldiers, although most of these were probably Maronite or Syrian soldiers rather than Knights Hospitaller. Its location and garrison meant that it became a target of many Muslim sieges and attacks. The castle survived sieges by Alp Arslan, the Sultan of Aleppo, in 1125 and by Saladin in 1188, and withstood further Muslim attacks in 1163, 1167, 1207, 1218, 1229, 1252, 1267, and 1270. It also survived two major earthquakes during this time. Finally, after being almost completely evacuated by its inhabitants, and after an extensive siege, Mamluk Sultan Baibars captured the castle in 1271.

After their initial conquests, the Crusaders had limited military success. In time, the nearby Muslim rulers began to unite and threaten the Crusader kingdoms. The first major setback for the Crusaders came in 1144, when the poorly protected kingdom of Edessa fell to Nur ad-Din, leaving the other kingdoms open to conquest. In response, the Second Crusade was immediately called by Pope Eugene III. However, it proved to be a miserable failure. Arriving in the Holy Land in late 1147, the Second Crusaders began to quarrel with the resident Crusaders, primarily over the latter’s willingness to make alliances and treaties with the Muslims, and this divisiveness brought a lack of offensive military unity that ultimately led to failure at Damascus against the more unified Muslim forces.

With the failure of the Second Crusade, Nur ad-Din began to extend his power to the south: Damascus was taken in 1154 and Egypt fell in 1168. Nur ad-Din died in 1174, but he was succeeded by Saladin, the nephew of Shirkuh, Nur ad-Din’s lieutenant who had conquered Egypt. Saladin proved to be an even more capable general than both his uncle and Nur ad-Din. When he succeeded to the throne he controlled almost all of the land surrounding the remaining Crusader kingdoms, and it was only a short time before he began to think about extending his power there as well. By 1187 he began to move into the Crusader lands, and on July 4, 1187, he met and defeated a large Crusader army at the battle of Hattin. The road to Jerusalem lay open to him, and the city fell on October 2, 1147. Only Tyre, the kingdom of Antioch, and the kingdom of Tripoli remained in Crusader hands.

This again brought an immediate response from the papacy. Jerusalem, the gem of the Holy Land, captured by the First Crusaders, had fallen to the Muslims, and it was the responsibility of the kings and princes of Europe to retake it. The Third Crusade brought large armies from the three most powerful kingdoms of Europe: Germany, France, and England. All three armies were led by their kings. However, despite the royal and papal influence in this Crusade, it also met with failure. The German army, choosing to travel overland to the Holy Land, never reached its target. Its emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, 68 years old, drowned in the Saleph (now Göksu) River between Armenia and Antioch, and shortly thereafter much of his army, deprived of their royal leader and decimated by disease and Muslim attacks, returned to Europe. The French and English armies, traveling overseas rather than by land, did arrive at the Holy Land, but once there, the two kings, Philip Augustus of France and Richard I “the Lionheart” of England, could never agree on any military action. No major campaign was ever launched by the two together, and no battle ever fought. Acre fell in July 1191 to the Crusaders after a lengthy and uneventful siege, but then, in October 1191, Philip went back to France and began attacking Richard’s territory there. Richard campaigned further up the coast toward Jerusalem, but Saladin kept him from the city and, late in 1192, Richard also returned home.

With the failure of the Third Crusade came the end of defensible borders in the Holy Land; now there were only defensible areas, all of which were protected by castles. One by one they too fell to Muslim armies. Further Crusades had no better success. The Fourth Crusade became diverted to Constantinople, which was conquered in 1204, but did not proceed to the Holy Land from there. Crusades also failed in 1212, 1221, 1229, 1254, 1270, and 1272. One famous Crusader, King Louis IX (St. Louis) of France, saw not only a large part of his army captured in Egypt in 1250, but his own death in Tunisia in 1270. Only King Frederick II of Germany eventually retook some of the lost Holy Land, including Jerusalem, in 1228, but by this time Muslim power had shifted with the Mamluks to Egypt, and Frederick had no better success there than any other thirteenth-century Christian general. By the middle of the thirteenth century the remaining Crusader territory and castles in the Holy Land began to fall. In 1268 the kingdom of Antioch surrendered; in 1289, Tripoli capitulated; and finally, in 1291, when Acre fell, the last vestiges of the Crusaders’ conquest returned to Muslim control.

During this time, until finally forced out of the Holy Land, the Crusaders continued to build castles. But these fortifications, most of them erected in urban areas, were not nearly as elaborate or sophisticated as those constructed during the first half of the twelfth century. Indeed, there seems to have been an air of desperation in much of their construction. But one feature prominent in these later fortifications is important to note. The Crusaders had discovered during their attacks on Muslim fortifications and then later in the defense of their own castles that there were many disadvantages to rectangular keeps and towers. For one thing, the straight walls of a rectangular keep were relatively easy to destroy by a battering ram or siege machine. They also presented virtually unprotected corners to attackers, with almost no potential for flanking fire. A circular or multi-angular keep or tower was more easily defended than a rectangular structure. It presented no unseen or shielded cover to the enemy and often offered no straight walls to his battering machines. It would soon become an important option for European castle builders as well.

A parallel history of Crusader castle construction, both in chronology and style, is to be found in Spain. Muslim soldiers had crossed into Spain from Morocco in 711, and by 720, due both to the strength of their armies and to the disunity of the Visigothic kingdoms, had conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula. Only the kingdom of Asturias in the north successfully resisted their conquests, securing this success at the Battle of Covadonga in 722. This victory may have come because Muslim leaders had split their forces between those responsible for taking northern Iberia and those that had crossed the Pyrenees Mountains and entered France. The latter army’s defeat by Charles Martel in 732 at the Battle of Tours further secured the independence of the Asturias kingdom.

An uneasy peace settled on the Iberian Peninsula for the next few centuries. Neither Christian nor Muslim Spaniards lost their religious animosity toward the other, but both the lack of funds and the lack of unity seem to have kept them away from major military incursions into the other’s realms, although border clashes and raids were frequent. The disunity in the Christian lands would eventually see a division of Asturias into several separate kingdoms: Galicia and León in 910, Navarre in 987, Castille in 1035, and Aragon in 1035. Initially, this weakened Christian political and military power, prompting fears of Muslim invasion among those in kingdoms neighboring Al-Andalus, or Islamic Iberia.

To calm these fears, Christian kings built a large number of fortifications. One good example was Loarre Castle, built near the large Muslim town of Huesca. Constructed by King Sancho III Garcés “the Great” in c.1020 as one of a line of fortifications he built in the lower Pyrenees, Loarre consisted initially of three tall towers tied together and able to be defended on their own if needed. In 1073 the king of Aragon, Sancho I Ramírez, grandson of Sancho III Garcés, significantly added to this castle, while at the same time exhibiting his piety, by attaching an Augustinian priory to the front of the towers, which also served as an extended defense of the castle as a whole. Should it have been attacked, enemy soldiers would have had to fight through the crypt and nave of the church before they could even reach the central fortifications, which remained the three initial towers.

Loarre Castle

Another of these strongholds was a Muslim fortress that stood 10 kilometers from Loarre Castle and was easily seen from the walls of the Aragonese fortification. Although this fortress does not survive and has not been excavated, and thus its strength is unknown, it represents a similar castle-building policy held among the Al-Andalusian leaders. They also saw the need to protect their borders from invasions and raids wherever they faced a Christian threat. But slowly the Christian kings’ Reconquista, as it would be called later, began to cut into the Muslim realm. Coimbra was captured in 1064 by Ferdinand I of León and Toledo by Alfonso VI of Castille in 1085. Between 1073 and his death in 1094, Sancho Ramírez, using Loarre Castle as a base, captured the lands around Huesca, with the city itself falling to his successor, Peter I, in 1096. Afonso I Henriques, King of Portugal, with the help of Second Crusaders from England, Flanders, and the Rhineland, took Lisbon in 1147, with these same Crusaders and others from Catalonia, Genoa, and Pisa capturing Almeria later that year.

But the Reconquista was interspersed with warfare between and within Christian kingdoms, as evidenced in the military adventures of the famous El Cid (Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar), who fought both for and against the Castilian king Alfonso VI in the late eleventh century. Only with the Christian victory in the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 were significant inroads into Al-Andalus made, and by 1249 all but the emirate of Granada had fallen—although it would hold out until its conquest in 1492 by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile.

At each phase of the Reconquista, as their borders moved, Christian kings constructed new fortifications, almost always answered by new Muslim fortifications. Often these were built in sight of each other. Soon the country was covered by castles, the largest number of any medieval land. On both sides some of these fortresses were controlled by kings, some by nobles, and some also by ecclesiastics, as elsewhere throughout Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean, but, uniquely, some were also built and controlled by the common people.

Perhaps no other event in medieval history had the impact on military technology, especially European fortifications, as did the Crusades. Because most Crusader and Reconquista castles were larger and more capable of a sustained defense than European ones, they tended to impress everyone who saw them. This, added to the fact that so many soldiers of different European kingdoms and principalities served in the Holy Land and Iberia, many of whom would authorize and control the construction of castles when they returned home, meant that the Crusader and Iberian castles greatly influenced late-twelfth- and thirteenth-century castle building throughout Europe. This would create a “golden age” of castle construction that produced perhaps the finest examples of what modern students see as the archetypical medieval castle.

Feudalism in England

The Norman conquest of England introduced feudalism to these islands with several modifications, some apparently intended to improve on the system operating in Normandy, others as the result of the adoption of existing Saxon instruments of government. Of the 5,000 or so knights who formed the expeditionary force, only about half were Normans and the remainder were Frenchmen, Bretons, Aquitanians, and Flemings serving as mercenaries or seeking their fortunes. William’s own tenants refused to follow him as such, since feudal service was not obligatory outside the realm, and only the promise of conquered lands induced them to set out. As no prior feudal obligation to his own men existed, and as eventually all the important English landowners were dispossessed, William was able to make a fresh start and introduce a more or less uniform system over the whole country, and to modify such Continental customs as he found dangerous. Since the loyalty of his men was at first assured because their future depended on his holding his new kingdom successfully, he could impose on them any conditions he thought necessary. Private wars between his barons, limited in Normandy, were forbidden in England, and quarrels between them had to be brought to his courts. Private warfare was not successfully suppressed in France until the reign of St Louis (1226–70). William partitioned out the land to something under 200 great lords, many of them his tenants-in-chief in Normandy, in return for the services of a stipulated number of knights, often apparently in fives or multiples of five. The Church was granted land in return for the service of some 780 knights, allocated to abbeys, cathedrals, monasteries, and churches, exactly as if they were lay land-holders. The quotas were larger than the equivalent ones in Normandy and were entirely at the disposal of the king, unlike the custom of the Duchy, where only a fraction of the knights enfeofed on an estate was due to the duke and even fewer to the over-lord, the king of France. The Bayeux Inquest of 1133 shows that of the knights owing military service to the Bishop of Bayeux only one-sixth owed service to the duke and only one-twelfth to the king of France. Varying periods of service by half-armed knights, common in Normandy and elsewhere, were apparently unknown in England. The King himself kept the largest single group of estates in his own hands, and he placed his most trusted lieutenants in the key positions; his half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux, for example, at Dover, the main Channel port, and William fitz-Osbern at Hereford to guard the Welsh Marches.

The tenants-in-chief each received many manors scattered up and down the land. There seem to have been three reasons for this; firstly, because the country was only conquered piecemeal; secondly, because the only estates confiscated at first were those of Saxons who had fought at Hastings or been slow to submit, and it was only after the great revolt of 1069 that wholesale confiscation of Saxon lands took place; thirdly, because in some cases one Norman might be given the lands held by a single Saxon before the Conquest, and these might not necessarily have been all in one shire. Geoffrey Alselin held the entire lands of the thegn Toki, son of Outi, scattered all over the Danelaw. These lands were held by Geoffrey for the same dues paid by Toki to King Edward, as well as for military service. In a very few cases Saxon land-holders were allowed to buy back their land, in others they became sub-tenants under a Norman lord. In the case of some of the most important baronial castles the bulk of the estates of its lord were grouped round it to form a castellaria for its support, although other estates belonging to its lord might be scattered all over England. An example of this is the ‘honour’ of Henry de Ferrars for the maintenance of Tutbury Castle on the border of Derbyshire and Staffordshire, with 114 estates in Derbyshire and eight in Staffordshire, and lands more scattered and less numerous in twelve other shires. The fiefs of great continental barons were also scattered, though in this case by the accidents of their acquisition over a very long period rather than by any plan imposed by their sovereigns. The estate of a Norman was usually called his ‘fee’, that is, the land with which he was enfeofed, and if an important one held by a tenant-in-chief it was called his ‘honour.’ Although normally referred to as ‘Normans’ many of the new settlers of all ranks were French, Flemish, or Breton.

Apparently no system was laid down as to how the tenantsin- chief were to produce their servicium debitum. Some hired knights, when the king required them, from the many landless younger sons seeking their fortunes and hoping to win a knight’s fee of their own in return for services. Others kept knights permanently in their households to escort them from manor to manor in their travels between England and Normandy and to guard their castles. As the land settled down and the danger of an English rising receded, the necessity for keeping large numbers of household knights grew less, and the great majority of lords granted parts of their estates to lesser barons or to individual knights in return for their military service. Even as late as 1166, the Cartae Baronum shows some honours with insufficient enfeofed knights to complete their quotas, indicating that household knights or pure mercenaries must have been employed to make up the required numbers. Church magnates must have found it particularly irksome to have rough knights permanently quartered in their halls, but equally they were unwilling to lose control of land by enfeofment. Originally these grants of land were apparently not hereditary; the earliest three charters confirming enfeofment of this sort, all of the reign of William I, stipulate that the grant is for one life only, although one is to the son of the previous holder and this particular holding is known to have become hereditary in this family at a later date. By the reign of Henry I the knight’s fee normally descended to the heir without question.

The sub-vassal holding several knight’s fees in the honour of a great tenant-in-chief stood in a similar relation to his lord as the lord did to the king. He helped to administer the honour, filling the baron’s subordinate offices as steward, marshal, butler, or constable, as the great barons did at the royal court, advising in the honour-court, and leading his own servicium debitum to join that of his lord when summoned to do so. It was probably from this class, as well as from minor tenants-in-chief, that the officer known in the fourteenth century as the ‘banneret’ was originally drawn.

The annual period of military service for knights in France, Normandy, and northern Italy, recorded in many documents, was 40 days in peace or war. In England, however, only one document mentions the length of service for knights, and this is a grant made about 1140 by none other than the King’s Marshal, John fitz-Gilbert, of a fief in return for knight’s service for two months in time of war and 40 days in time of peace, and the wording suggests that this was customary. Since it is not normally stated, the period of service may have been so well known as not to need stating and this particular grant may therefore refer to an exceptional period. However, the period served by the pre-Conquest fyrd was certainly also two months, and if this was continued after the Conquest the period of service by knights could very well have been made to conform with it. Castle guard, another knightly service, at Richmond Castle, Yorkshire, is also recorded as being for two months. Later in the twelfth century the period was probably reduced to the 40 days customary elsewhere, as sergeants and infantry of the shire are both recorded as serving for this period by the end of the century. In France, but apparently not in England, the tenant of a fraction of a knight’s fee sometimes served for the same fraction of 40 days; the holder of half a fee would serve for 20 days.

In 1086, late in his reign, William 1 ordered an oath of personal fealty to himself to be taken at Salisbury, by, or on behalf of, all landholders of any account, regardless of who their overlord might be. He realised that the normal oath of fealty of a sub-vassal to his lord, which excluded his duty to the king, was insufficient to prevent the sub-vassal from following his lord if the latter revolted. It is unlikely that a knight of that period, still a fairly insignificant person socially, would have been considered of sufficient importance to be called to the oath taking, and probably only the larger sub-vassals were summoned.

This personal oath to the king was repeated on a number of later occasions, most important of which was the oath of 1166 when Henry II ordered a survey to be made of the state of the knighthood of the kingdom, so that all those knights who had not yet done homage to him might do so before a certain date. He asked his tenants-in-chief how many knights each had enfeofed on his estates at the time of the death of Henry I, how many were enfeofed at the time of writing, and how many more had to be provided to fulfil their servicium debitum. The answers to this survey were recorded in the Cartae Baronum. One result of this was an increased assessment of the quotas in 1168. In fact, in many cases many more knights had been enfeofed than were due. As early as 1135 the Bishop of Durham had enfeofed 64 knights although his servicium debitum was only ten; however, this may have been because of the need to defend the frontier from Scottish raids.

Alongside knight’s tenure was also tenure by sergeanty (insergentaria): tenure by some specified service less than knight’s service and very often rendered personally to the lord. It might be a purely civilian service such as keeping a hawk or hound for the king, providing the table-cloths for a specific animal feast, or providing the king with a meal of roast pork when he hunted in Wychwood; on the other hand it might be military service such as carrying the king’s banner on campaign in Wales, or leading the forces of the hundred in which the man lived. Some tenants in sergeanty did actually owe the service of a knight to the army but this was exceptional. The characteristic of the service is that it differs from sergeant to sergeant and, therefore, unlike knight’s service, must be fully described in any grant. Where the service was military it was normally for 40 days at the expense of the sergeant, although shorter periods are also recorded. One sergeant was to provide an infantryman for service in Wales supplied with a side of bacon; when this was eaten he was free to go home. Some sergeants had to provide horsemen, others footmen, and the supplying of bowmen and crossbowmen is also recorded. In 1213 John’s summons of the army to Dover included the servientes and implied that they were to serve mounted, but the sergeants of the French demesne recorded in the Prisia Servientum of 1202–3 were infantry. Sergeants from fairly early times were able to serve by proxy and by the thirteenth century they had very often commuted their service for a money payment.

The medieval chronicler frequently described the lower ranks of the army as sergeants (servientes) but this includes many more than the tenants in sergeanty. These would be present in the army without doubt; the military sergeants fulfilling their tenurial obligations, the others serving because of the personal obligation of all freemen to do so. The towns and ecclesiastical tenants of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem are described by John of Ibelin as owing the service of 5,025 sergeants in time of great need and within the realm. In some cases these may have been lightly armed horsemen and horsebowmen. William of Tyre, writing about 1170–80. refers to lightly armed horse.

As far as mounted sergeants are concerned, it is normally assumed that they were less well armed than the knights, and it is true that they are occasionally encountered on campaign carrying out reconnaissances, a traditional light cavalry role, and in later documents the service of two sergeants is frequently equated with that of one knight. Fees in sergeanty were occasionally changed to half a knight’s fee, and knight’s fees were sometimes commuted for the service of two sergeants. For instance, the muster rolls for the campaign in Wales in 1245 show that the services of two sergeants might be accepted in place of those of a knight. Nevertheless, chroniclers describe sergeants as taking part with the knights in cavalry actions, and they must therefore have been similarly equipped.

The servientes armorum (sergeants-at-arms) were raised, apparently by Philip Augustus, to act as a body-guard against the Assassins on the Third Crusade. They were later copied by most European kings and can normally be identified in medieval paintings by the maces they carry. Although originally a guard, their constant presence around the king meant that he inevitably used them as messengers to deliver his orders, and also to carry them out. At a time when few people could read, the royal arms on their mace was their means of identification and thus the weapon itself became the sign of their royal authority. By the fourteenth century the French royal sergeants’ maces were silver mounted and had the royal arms enamelled on them.

As well as these Norman innovations, William I also used Saxon institutions of government which were more highly developed than those on the Continent; the writ – the king’s formal letter of instructions – the shire- and hundred-courts, and the excellent Saxon coinage, as well as the annual tax, the Danegeld. Norman barons were given office as sheriffs, and until the revolt of 1069 many Englishmen were employed in high office; like Earl Morcar of Northumbria. The most important English institution William used was the prefeudal military organization, comprising the right to call upon the service of every freeman in time of war, the selective service by which those who stayed at home equipped and paid the man who served on their behalf, and the summons of the force by a writ to the sheriff. This force, later known as the shire levy, together with similar levies from the towns, augmented the feudal army and could be used against over-powerful tenants-in-chief even if they had called out their sub-vassals against the king.

Although William had forbidden his barons to fight each other, they were violent men unused to such restraint, and his own reign and those of his sons were disturbed by numerous baronial wars and revolts. Saxon thegns and freemen fought for the king alongside his loyal feudatories in the baronial revolts, such as that of Eustace of Boulogne in 1067 and of the Earls of Hereford and East Anglia in 1075. As early as 1068 Englishmen were fighting against the forces of Harold’s sons, and the commander of the forces of Somerset on that occasion was Eadnoth, who had been one of King Edward’s household officers. In the following year the men of London, Salisbury, and Winchester were employed in putting down a revolt in Somerset and Dorset. The chronicler Ordericus Vitalis again and again describes Englishmen fighting for the king against rebels. The continuation of pre-Conquest military institutions is shown for instance by the Domesday Book, which in several places refers to military service owed by ordinary sub-tenants at the time of King Edward’s death and still owed at the time of the survey. There are a number of references to the duty of serving by land and sea which suggests a survival of the Saxon ship-fyrd obligation. The right to collect fyrdwite, the fine for failure to serve in the fyrd, is mentioned in post-Conquest documents. A number of small land-holders holding by sergeanty are recorded as doing so in return for leading the local forces or carrying the banner of their hundred. The large numbers of Englishmen summoned for service in 1094 were infantry and were almost certainly representatives of the select fyrd, since they each had 10 s. which the king took from them and which, it has been suggested, was their subsistence money mentioned in the Berkshire passage in Domesday. Englishmen, as distinct from Anglo-Normans, certainly served in France in the campaign of 1078 against Fulk of Anjou, when Ordericus speaks of ‘Normannos et Anglos’ and also records the name of one, Toki, son of Wigot of Wallingford, present at the siege of Gerberoi. The presence of men of the fyrd in France is explained by the early twelfth-century Leis Willelmi which lay down that freemen are obliged to serve beyond the seas. The disappearance of select service is unrecorded but the basis of fyrd service, the obligation of all freemen to serve the king in time of war, remained to be incorporated in the Assize of Arms of 1186. The development of the Anglo-Norman feudal army of later periods was greatly influenced by the incorporation of the Saxon military system.

Although a somewhat similar organization existed on the Continent, the arrière-ban, which could be summoned in time of war, William cannot have failed to have been impressed by the quality of the Saxon select fyrd at Hastings. In France the arrière-ban seems to have been called out only very occasionally, and, untrained and probably poorly armed, seems to have been of little use against cavalry. The king of France was forced to rely on the men of his own demesne lands and such vassals as remained loyal when a revolt broke out.

What evidence there is shows that the English continued to fight as infantrymen and, in fact, their methods influenced the Normans, since at Tinchebrai (1106) the Normans dismounted to fight, and at the Standard (1138) the north countrymen and the Norman knights stood shoulder to shoulder on foot, almost like Harold’s army at Hastings.



For 150 years, with the rare exception of Saladin’s reign, the Islamic Middle East had been too divided to unite in common cause in the face of the inexplicable irruption of the Franks onto the shores of Palestine. The Ayyubids may have talked of jihad, but it was theoretical rather than practical, and the material benefits of long-distance trade with Europe had overridden any unified call to holy war. Rather, the crusader kingdoms had been largely absorbed into the pattern of alliances and conciliations that operated throughout Palestine and Syria. With Baybars and the ascendancy of Turkish peoples from the Asian steppes, everything changed.

Baybars was a first-generation convert to Islam. He had fought at Mansurah to protect Egypt from catastrophe, and on his return in October 1260 he brought back a harder ideology: a commitment to an orthodox Sunni caliphate and the unification of Egypt and Syria under the banner of war. With the threat of the Mongols, the Islamic world had been on the edge of collapse. He now set about unifying the people against their enemies east and west: the Mongols and the Franks. He was single-minded, tyrannical, and puritanical in forging a new Islamic empire.

His arrival in Cairo was met with consternation. The city’s people were expecting to see Qutuz enter in triumphant procession. Instead, they were confronted with yet another cycle of bloody turmoil, a further quick change of sultan within the space of a year. The Turks were outsiders to the orthodox world—potentially usurpers—and Baybars had come to power through murder and a fixed election. The people were horrified and frightened by the prospect of a return to the 1250s, when the Mamluks had brought disorder, violence, and fear to Cairo’s streets. Baybars worked swiftly to alleviate their apprehension. He lowered taxes and set about creating for himself the image of a legitimate Sunni ruler, heir to Saladin and the Ayyubids. Pious works were undertaken—the construction of mosques, the provision of work, and charitable food supplies in time of famine. He repaired the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, as well as Cairo’s dilapidated great al-Azhar mosque, and assiduously cultivated the religious class. He was both farsighted and ruthless. He sidelined his fellow conspirators in the assassination of Qutuz and demolished the grave to prevent it becoming a pilgrimage site. The cult of his personality was projected through both word and image. His heraldic symbol, that of a lion, appeared on coins and the facades of public buildings—gates, fortresses, and bridges. The lion held its right paw raised mid-pounce and ready to strike or in the act of crushing in its claws a trapped rat: the enemies of Islam.

Baybars, in the role of a pious Muslim, revived the office of the Sunni caliphate; a descendant of the last caliph murdered at Baghdad was conveniently discovered, to whom Baybars swore allegiance. The caliph, in turn, invested Baybars as universal sultan in a solemn ceremony. Wearing the black turban of the Abbasid caliphate and a violet robe, and presented with banners, swords, and a shield, he pledged to levy just taxes, restore the caliphate to its ancient glory, and wage holy war. Legitimacy was conferred on what Arab historians of the time called the State of the Turks. Shortly after, the caliph was encouraged to embark on a suicide mission to retake Baghdad with a small force, which was swiftly and conveniently annihilated by the Mongols. A second caliph was effectively a puppet, and the office of caliphate would gradually become merged with that of the Mamluk sultans.

Building a military state was Baybars’s first priority, which he undertook with rigor and efficiency. First, the defense of Egypt. Remembering Louis’s crusade, coastal fortifications, watch towers, and dredging schemes were undertaken to ensure adequate defense of the Nile; then, the rebuilding of the walls of Damascus and other cities that had been razed by the Mongols. The supply of military slaves to bolster the Mamluk regiments required regular shipments from the Black Sea; from the 1260s, it would be the Christian Genoese who would provide the manpower that was destined to confront their co-religionists in the years ahead.

At the same time, Baybars made structural reforms to the army. The enslaved Mamluks were native Turkish speakers and mainly operated under their officers in their own language. Baybars built a core group of about 4,000 Mamluks. Some were his own elite troops, others were owned by his emirs. There was also a corps of freeborn cavalry. Alongside these were infantry, mainly from Syria, and less-trained volunteers. Although his enemies routinely overestimated the total size of Mamluk armies, Baybars could muster perhaps as many as 40,000 men for particular campaigns.

In addition, he fostered military training regimes. He built two new maydans, hippodrome training grounds for the practice and development of military skills and physical fitness. Here the Mamluks would practice the disciplines of archery and fencing, and the use of the mace and the cavalry spear. There would be wrestling and mock combat—particularly the use of the short, whippy composite bow—on foot and on horseback. A skilled archer should be able to loose three arrows in one and a half seconds, and hit a target one yard wide at eighty yards. The Mamluks also employed a wide variety of incendiary weapons and trained their cavalry in fire games. Horseback maneuvers involving these weapons were performed to develop the skill of their riders and the temperament of their mounts against startling at the noise and flames.

To unify Egypt and Syria, Baybars set about systematically undermining or destroying autonomous Ayyubid princelings and linked the furthest reaches with a remarkable communications network. He established an efficient postal system of swift riders, relay stations, pigeon messenger services, and fire signal towers, and built bridges to speed troop movements and couriers. Intelligence gathering lay at the heart of his state building; he consistently surprised opponents with his ability to respond rapidly. His postal riders, who reported directly to him, were well rewarded. They could bring a message the six hundred miles from Damascus to Cairo in four days. He alone could open and read the correspondence, which he responded to immediately by day and night. On one occasion it was observed that “while he was taking a bath in his tent, the post arrived from Damascus. Without waiting an instant, without giving himself time to cover his nakedness, the prince had the letter read.” The reply was back in Damascus four days later.

Baybars was the sultan commander who slept little and never relaxed. Over the seventeen years of his reign, he ruled from the saddle, rode 70,000 miles, and fought thirty-eight campaigns, twenty-one of these against the Franks. He waged war even in harsh winter weather. He acted secretly, unnerved even his most loyal emirs by his unpredictable appearances, walked the streets of his city incognito, never divulged in advance the objective of a military expedition. Surprise and deception were weapons of war. If, as usurper of Turkish origin, he kept himself aloof from the indigenous population, his emirs also felt themselves continuously watched, and his enemies were kept guessing. A truce was only ever provisional, to be abrogated as the situation demanded. This restlessly energetic, controlling figure both rewarded the loyal, the brave, and the pious and carried out exemplary acts of cruelty—blindings, crucifixions, and bisections—to terrify and command obedience.

External threats were the justification for tyranny; Baybars’s policies were all framed with the eventuality of warfare with the Mongols and the Franks. The help given to the Mongols by Antioch and Armenia led him to consider the activities of the two as linked. Both were enemies and he was wary of the possibility of fresh crusades from the West. The threat of Mongol incursions loomed large after 1260, but a major invasion by Hülegü never happened. The Mongol Empire, stretched to its geographical limits, was starting to fragment. Hülegü, as khan of Mesopotamia, was at loggerheads with Berke, ruler of the neighboring Mongol khanate of the Golden Horde. Berke, a convert to Islam, was outraged by the Mongol destruction of Baghdad. By 1263, the two were at open war. Baybars was able to establish cordial diplomatic relations with Berke, thus neutralizing a larger threat to the Islamic Middle East. Looking west and aware that the papacy was making diplomatic overtures to the Mongols, Baybars also established cordial relations with its rivals, the Hohenstaufens, rulers of Sicily, and then with the Hohenstaufens’ own enemies, the Byzantine emperors, through whose waters the cargoes of military slaves from the Black Sea had to pass.

By 1263, Baybars had stabilized his position as the sultan of Egypt and Syria and was readying his army to move against the Franks. Training, morale, and discipline were critical. He commanded the men to ensure that they were properly equipped: each was personally responsible for providing his own armor. The arms market in Damascus boomed. To ensure compliance, Baybars staged reviews in which the sections of his army filed past one at a time to prevent the men from exchanging equipment. The spirit of jihad was prominent in these mobilizations and the language uncompromising: the troops were enjoined “to remove all excuse for abstaining from the Holy War.” He forbade the brewing and drinking of beer and threatened to hang miscreants for drinking wine.

Baybars then embarked on a series of stop-start campaigns to intimidate and undermine the crusaders’ fragmentary possessions that had survived Saladin’s reign—Jaffa, Caesarea, Acre, and Tripoli—but his particular anger was directed against Bohemond VI, ruler of Antioch and Tripoli, and the Armenian king Hethoum I for their support of the Mongols. Baybars waged asymmetrical warfare—a bewildering combination of sieges and raids. His armies would appear quite suddenly, ravage the countryside, show their flags outside the walls of castles, and vanish again. These tactics were used to apply political pressure, to intimidate into favorable treaties and concessions, and to inflict economic damage. Objectives were always hidden, motives undeclared. The Mongols provided a convenient justification. Almost every year there would be scares of their incursions from across the Euphrates; few materialized, but for additional security the pastureland of northern Syria was routinely burned to deny grazing to Mongol horsemen. The Mongols were to be given nothing. Their threat both justified and required attacks on the crusader states.

Baybars had little regard for the advantages of Levantine trade that had seduced the Ayyubids to cooperate with the Franks. He worked to encourage the rerouting of commerce to Egypt. In the interim, though the Muslims held no harbors on the coast north of Gaza, he found ways to turn some of the Frankish ports to his advantage. When Jaffa, the most southern of the Frankish coastal cities, submitted, he used it to import grain for famine relief. When it was no longer useful, Jaffa was destroyed. Where the Ayyubids had recognized local Christians as a clearly protected minority, a greater intolerance now prevailed. Baybars had not forgotten their celebrations at the fall of Damascus to the Mongols. His actions were punitive, barring pilgrimage to Jerusalem and ordering his troops to raze to the ground the hugely significant church of St. Mary in Nazareth, the supposed site of the Annunciation.

The pressure he brought to bear on the crusader states became increasingly alarming. Acre, which he had secretly reconnoitered on his way to Ayn Jalut, was subjected to continuous visitations. In April 1263, his army suddenly appeared outside the city and attacked some of its outer defenses. There was fierce fighting that forced the defenders back. An Arabic chronicler left a vivid, if partisan, account:

The Franks retired, routed, to Acre, while the Muslims burned the surrounding towers and walls, cut down trees and burned the fruits. There was nothing to be seen but smoke, clouds of dust, flashing swords and cutting, gleaming spear points. The Muslim army rode up to the gates of Acre, killing and taking prisoners… the remaining Franks then rushed to the gates of the city walls and came down to defend them. They were all shouting together: “The Gate! The Gate!,” in fear that an attack was going to be made on them. Meanwhile the sultan was standing on the Acre side of the summit of the Tell [a nearby hill], making gifts and promises.

Then, just as suddenly, Baybars withdrew. It was not a concerted attempt to take the city, rather a policy of softening up, disrupting agriculture, keeping opponents on edge. Every time his army moved, anxiety rippled throughout Outremer. Acre was raided in this way on an almost annual basis, its orchards uprooted and its crops burned. Baybars was back in 1265, again in the vicinity in 1266. In May 1267, he got up to the city gates by deception, flying the banners of the Templars and Hospitallers. He surprised the peasants working in the fields and captured and killed five hundred of them. He came again in 1269.

Often these attacks were diversionary episodes designed to distract from more major operations against crusader castles. The 1266 raid on Acre was only one of a number that year. Baybars had the military resources to send simultaneous raiding parties against Tyre, Sidon, and the Teutonic Knights’ castle at Montfort, throwing dust in the eyes of Christian defenders, while his main army besieged the Templar castle at Safad. Tripoli and Antioch each experienced three such assaults during the 1260s. In 1270, the Hospitallers’ stronghold of Krak des Chevaliers, the most formidable fortress ever constructed in the crusader era, was softened up with a devastation of its hinterland. He was scorching away the economic foundations of the last crusader states. The damage to Acre’s agricultural lands was so severe that Muslim writers felt compelled to find religious justifications for malicious destruction. In the area around Tripoli, he destroyed irrigation channels and aqueducts dating back to the Roman Empire. This devastation of fertile land to inhibit, demoralize, and economically weaken was to scar the coastal strip of Palestine and Lebanon for hundreds of years.

The Franks did not help themselves. Unable to put out enough men to risk open battle, they resorted to tit-for-tat counterattacks that lacked strategic forethought or coherent effort. After the raids of 1263, the two sides patched up a truce. This did not prevent the Templars and Hospitallers, acting as autonomous bodies, from mounting further sorties two months later. This was followed shortly after by the arrival in Acre of a small contingent of French troops, eager for action. They promptly attacked nearby Muslim villages, snatched people and animals, and set fire to houses. Whereas Baybars engaged in such tactics with strategic intent, these uncoordinated Christian initiatives, with no clear purpose beyond releasing pent-up frustration, served only to alienate local Muslim people and to infuriate Baybars.

At no point were the crusader states capable of combined action. Each made its own piecemeal truces with the Mamluks in the hope of temporary respite and usually on disadvantageous terms. When Acre tried to arrange a prisoner exchange with Baybars, both the Hospitallers and the Templars refused to participate because the Muslims they were holding were skilled craftsmen and too expensive to replace. Such actions earned them growing criticism from fellow Christians for selfishness and self-interest: “They ought to have made the exchange, for the sake of God and the deliverance of the poor Christian slaves,” was one critical verdict.4 They not infrequently made their own agreements with Baybars regarding territory they controlled around their inland castles, while the Frankish barons were capable of reckless bouts of destruction. All this served to broaden support for the State of the Turks, and further legitimize Baybars’s claim as Sunni sultan and liberator.

But the language of power spoke louder than the language of diplomacy. Baybars could pick and choose his terms. In 1267, he refused a truce with Acre while the grand master of the Hospitallers signed a humiliating ten-year agreement in return for nonaggression against their castles in Lebanon, with the sultan’s right to abrogate it whenever he wished. Truces with the Frankish states were frequently canceled by Baybars on grounds of minor technical infringements or simply uncorroborated assertions.


Atlit castle or Château Pèlerin. The Knights Templar began building the fortress in 1218 during the Fifth Crusade. One of the major Crusader fortresses, it could support up to 4,000 troops in siege conditions. It was abandoned by its garrison and taken over by the Mamluks in August 1291, shortly after the Fall of Acre. It remained intact for several hundred years, until suffering damage in the Galilee earthquake of 1837. In modern times, the castle is part of a training zone for Israeli Naval commandos. It has been described as the “crowning example of Crusader military architecture”, although T. E. Lawrence found it lacking in elegance and imagination in terms of military architecture, setting on massiveness instead.

For Baybars, the Frankish settlements along the coasts of Palestine, Lebanon, and northern Syria were strategically significant. They threatened the direct route from Cairo to Damascus, and they occupied the best agricultural land. Dominance over the landscape was maintained by a chain of castles commanding the hills of Palestine, Lebanon, and northern Syria. From there, they controlled territory, though at no point did they constitute a coherent defensive system; rather, the territory was a patchwork of independent local fiefdoms owned by the military orders and Frankish barons. As crusader control of territory shrank with the campaigns of Saladin, so the importance of these castles grew. The disaster at Hattin had quenched any Frankish enthusiasm to take on the armies of Islam in extensive, open-field warfare. The thirteenth century saw the military orders, increasingly the only bodies with the resources, construct or remodel castles on a massive scale. They spent money and energy on sophisticated concentric fortifications and defensive features that exposed attackers to heavy counter-bombardment and slowed down the operations of their miners and siege engines. South of Acre, the Templars erected the near-impregnable redoubt of Chateau Pèlerin on a headland above the sea; the Teutonic Knights built their headquarters castle of Montfort, six hundred feet above a valley on an inaccessible bluff; in northern Syria, the Hospitallers remodeled Krak des Chevaliers after an earthquake into the most formidable bastion in all of Outremer. Such fortresses compensated for lack of manpower and allowed small garrisons to dominate landscapes and intimidate local populations and would-be attackers.

The castles’ weakness was that Baybars’s campaigns of attrition were rendering them increasingly isolated. Now, with the reunification of Egypt and Syria and Baybars’s army in a high state of readiness, the sultan felt himself in a position to take on these discrete fiefdoms and their castles in earnest. The Mamluks’ traditional fighting skills were as mounted cavalry, but 1265 saw them deploy the techniques of siege warfare that were ultimately to drive the Franks out of the Holy Land. They had inherited siege craft from earlier Islamic dynasties, but under Baybars they established a competency in the complex technical and logistical requirements of besieging and taking fortified places that surpassed those of their forebears. The siege campaigns begun in the spring of 1265 would last until 1271 and destroy much of the military strength of the crusader states.

The pretext was a threatened Mongol attack of northern Syria. As Baybars scrambled forces to intercept and harry the Mongol invaders—a process hastened by his network of fast couriers—he believed that the Franks had now shifted from the position of neutrality that had marked the march to Ayn Jalut and had tipped the Mongols off that Mamluk cavalry had scattered for the season. Rapid mobilization dissuaded the Mongols from a major assault, but it alerted the ever-watching Baybars to the dangers of the alliance. He wrote to the constable of Jaffa complaining that the Frankish leaders “have committed many wrongs against me, such as their writing to the Mongols to attack my territories.”

Baybars’s first targets were two cities on the coast of southern Palestine, Caesarea and Arsuf, and demonstrated the techniques and resources that the Mamluks brought to the crusader wars: deception, disregard for treaties, technical expertise, deep planning, propaganda for holy war, and overwhelming resources of manpower. Under cover of conducting a lion hunt in the area, Baybars reconnoitered the fortifications of the two cities. At the same time, he began cutting wood for siege machines on site, ordering up a skilled work force of stonemasons, tunnelers, and engineers. Stone balls were prepared, and the troops already gathered were put to work constructing ladders. Prefabricated siege engines that could be disassembled and transported by camels or carried by men were being constructed in Damascus.

On February 27, Baybars showed up without warning at the gates of Caesarea, encircled it, and attacked. Laudatory accounts depicted Baybars himself participating in the fighting: the morale of the men demanded that the sultan should be seen. Taken completely by surprise, the outer walls were apparently overcome by ingenious improvisation without the use of ladders. Like climbers hammering pitons into a rock face, “using iron horse pegs, tethers and halters onto which they clung, they climbed up from all sides and set their banners there. The city gates were burnt and its defences torn away.” Caesarea surrendered in a week, and the survivors sailed off to Acre. In the immediate aftermath, Baybars embarked on the complete destruction of the city. Meanwhile, he sent raiding parties off to harry Acre (and various other locations) to distract and pin down potential relief. A Christian delegation that arrived to question the reasons for this attack was warmly and disarmingly received while the sultan quietly prepared his next move.

On March 19, Baybars left Caesarea. Two days later, his army appeared, equally unexpectedly, at the fortified stronghold of Arsuf on the coast twenty-five miles south. For Baybars, a treaty was only a treaty as long as he wanted it to be. In 1263, he had complained to the Hospitallers that they had reinforced the fortifications of Arsuf in breach of an agreement. At the time, gifts had been sent to mollify his anger, and the ambassadors were assured that the city would not come under attack. Now it did.

Arsuf was well fortified and stoutly defended, but the ensuing siege reflected both the asymmetry of numbers and the increasingly sophisticated techniques, and the resources that the Mamluks were able to employ. Substantial tunneling and trench-digging work was undertaken by skilled men, and despite equally professional countermeasures by the Hospitallers who used barrels of grease and fat, ignited and fanned by bellows, to destroy the tunnels, the scale of the siege works allowed the attackers eventually to undermine the outer walls. The Mamluks had brought a range of projectile-throwing artillery to Arsuf, and the catapult bombardment was considerable. Baybars himself was said to have participated in hauling the ropes that launched the stone missiles. Religious enthusiasm was another ingredient that was to become a hallmark of Mamluk mobilization and commitment. Prayers were said in the open, while Baybars himself traveled with a personal tent mosque. A visible religious contingent—“pious people, ascetics, legal scholars and indigent Sufis”—came at Baybars’s behest to inspire the men to fight and die for jihad. Baybars himself was continuously present, close to the fighting: “Now… in the ditch, now at the openings which were being made, and now by the sea shore shooting at the Frankish ships and pulling on the mangonels… he would climb to the top of palisades so as to shoot from there, showing everyone his part to play, ordering them to exert themselves, thanking those who deserved it and giving robes of honour to those who had distinguished themselves by some act of merit.” The presence of the sultan at Arsuf, his energy and his personal bravery, provided inspiration and motivation during the campaigns that followed.

It took five weeks to ready a final attack: rushing the walls, taking the outer city, then subjecting the inner citadel to furious assault with catapults and arrows. On April 29, the outer barbican of the citadel collapsed from mining and bombardment. Baybars offered surrender with a guarantee that lives would be spared. The defenders accepted. They were unable to escape by sea: the harbor was too small and was within range of Baybars’s artillery. As with Caesarea, Arsuf, a city since ancient times, was demolished and never inhabited again.

On May 29, Baybars made a ceremonial entry into Cairo. In his train walked the captured Franks from Arsuf with broken crosses round their necks and their banners reversed. In the aftermath, Baybars lost no time exploiting the propaganda value of the conquest. To Jean d’Ibelin, lord of Jaffa, the bombastic threats would soon become familiar to crusader lords:

We brook no oppression: if anyone takes a field [of ours], in its place we capture a lofty citadel, and for any peasant of ours captured we seize a thousand armed warriors. If they destroy a house wall, we destroy the walls of cities. The sword is in the hand of one who strikes and the horse’s reins are in the grasp of the rider. We have a hand which cuts necks and another which reaches the porticos [of palaces]. Whoever wishes to pick a quarrel [with us] must know what he is about; and whoever wishes [to take] something [from us] will find [disasters such as] those ordained for him.

The numbers on each side at Arsuf had been mismatched. Whereas the defenders could muster just 270 skilled Hospitaller knights, a few auxiliaries, and the efforts of the townspeople, Baybars could draw on thousands of troops. As well as those with specialist skills in the construction and operation of catapults, there were engineers, masons, tunnelers, carpenters, and all the logistical support. Yet Arsuf was a stoutly fortified stronghold, access to which was limited by its position on the sea, and defended by men who also knew what they were doing. The Franks had compensated for a shortage of manpower by placing their faith in their highly sophisticated fortified defenses. These had proved insufficient.

What Arsuf demonstrated was that the Mamluks had rapidly grasped and refined the elements of siege craft. This siege was the prototype of successive blows about to fall on Outremer. Its strategies would be repeated again and again: dissimulation, careful planning and logistical arrangements, religious motivation, inspirational—and intimidating—leadership, large numbers of troops, the combined skills of mining and artillery bombardment, and a frenetic pace to deliver quick knock-out blows. Sieges usually ended in surrender in the face of the inevitable, less frequently with a full-front assault and a massacre. It became standard practice to demolish coastal installations that might provide beachheads for counter-crusades. Disorienting raiding and economic warfare were one arm of Baybars’s campaigns. Isolating and picking off stoutly fortified castles one after another was the other. In the next few years, Baybars would come close to decapitating the Frankish states, and these twin techniques would be in play right up to the walls of Acre in 1291.

At about this time, Baybars added to his list of honorific titles that of “annihilator of Mongols and Franks.” Inscriptions praised him as the Alexander of the Age, “the victorious prince, the pillar of the world and religion, the sultan of Islam and the Muslims, the killer of infidels and polytheists, the tamer of rebels and heretics, the reviver of justice in the two worlds.”

The following spring, in 1266, Baybars opened his campaign by ravaging the area around Tripoli and showing up outside the walls of Acre, Tyre, and Sidon, but these were just sideshows to intimidate and confuse. His real target was the Templar castle of Safad. It was the last Christian fort in inland Palestine, strategically placed to threaten traffic to Damascus. In a trope often applied to Christian fortifications and cities, it was “an obstruction in the throat of Syria and a blockage in the chest of Islam.” At the same time, Baybars was busy improving communications within the kingdom with bridges across the Jordan river. While the pattern of raids distracted and alarmed—and even his commanders, equipped with sealed orders, were kept in ignorance of his objectives until the last moment—siege equipment was being prepared in Damascus. When he arrived suddenly outside the walls of Safad, a host of embassies from other pillaged places quickly showed up and sought treaties and offered gifts. They were all dismissed. The ruler of Tyre’s representative was reproached for alleged treaty breaking: “If you want me to grant you security, then drive out my Frankish enemies from your midst. For it was part of our oath that my enemies should be yours.”

The siege was timed to open on the feast day that ended the Ramadan fast. Pious religious practice was rigorously enforced on his troops: any who celebrated by drinking wine would be hanged. Full-hearted zeal was nonnegotiable; when a first direct assault failed in the face of resolute resistance, Baybars temporarily imprisoned forty of his emirs for insufficient effort. The siege skills that had reduced Arsuf gradually prevailed and when his army had broken through the outer wall, the defenders withdrew to their inner citadel and attempted to negotiate surrender. The end was played out in disputed versions—either Baybars was again using his dominant position to break an agreement or the Christians had breached the sworn terms.

The defenders thought they had brokered a safe conduct. Instead they were detained: Baybars declared they had breached the agreement by trying to depart with concealed weapons. It was clear, though, that throughout the crusader period Islam particularly detested the military orders. The Templars were marched to the top of a nearby hill where they had executed their own Muslim prisoners, and all 1,500 were beheaded. According to the Christian chroniclers, the remnants were left there as a grim warning: “He had a circular wall erected around them, and their bones and heads may still be seen.” Only two survived: an Arabic-speaking Armenian who had negotiated the deal (and who may have been complicit in the Templars’ fate), and one other who was sent back to Acre to bear witness to what had happened and what would come. Baybars was waging war to the knife. There would be no quarter without unconditional surrender. Unlike the coastal fortifications, which were all demolished, Safad was occupied and rebuilt to guard the way into Syria.

In 1268, Baybars was on campaign again: the same tactics and mobilizations. In March, he attacked Jaffa, vulnerable after its lord’s death in 1266, and reduced the city to ashes. In April, it was the turn of the Templars’ castle at Beaufort, which surmounted a crag in southern Lebanon. In between, there were raids to Tripoli and Acre. Each of these campaigns not only removed substantial defensive structures; they also induced the voluntary surrender of other small forts, along with concessions, placatory gifts, and new treaties on terms increasingly disadvantageous to their residents or defenders.

But it was Antioch on which Baybars’s fiercest anger was turned. The alliance of its ruler, Bohemond VI, with the Mongols still rankled. The sultan surrounded this large and populous city, whose extensive perimeter was stoutly walled. He demanded an annual tribute of a dinar a head of the whole population—a large sum, but no more than they had been paying the Mongols. Antioch’s refusal was unwise, given its expanse and an insufficient number of defenders. Baybars issued a final ultimatum. No response. On May 15, 1268, his army stormed it, breaching the walls. The sultan ordered the city gates closed so that no one could escape, then gave it over to slaughter and sack. Tens of thousands were trapped inside. Those who were not killed were enslaved, and the city’s wealth produced huge booty. Each soldier in the army was granted a slave; so many slaves were taken that there was a glut on the market and a huge drop in prices. Then much of the city was torched.

Antioch, a city of Biblical significance, was iconic in crusader memory. It had been the gateway to the Holy Land for the First Crusade. Its almost miraculous capture after eight months of perilous endeavor and retention against overwhelming odds had paved the way for the taking of Jerusalem. It fell to Baybars in a single day.

After this sack, Antioch never recovered its former prominence. With its loss, the last Templar outposts were abandoned and only the tiny coastal port at Latakia remained. Frankish Syria had collapsed.

Bohemond, absent from his capital at the time, received a taunting letter from Baybars congratulating him on his survival. Written with threat and flourish, it conjured images of apocalypse and hell to be visited on the infidel:

We took the city by the sword on the fourth hour of Saturday, the 4th of the month of Ramadan (19 May). We killed all those whom you had chosen to guard and protect it.… You could have seen your horsemen thrown down between the legs of the horses, houses in the power of the plunderers… your goods being weighed by the qintar, your ladies being sold in fours and being bought with a dinar of your own money.

If you had seen your churches with their crosses broken and rent, the pages of the false Testaments scattered, the graves of the patriarchs rifled, your Muslim enemy trampling down the sanctuary; had you seen the altar on which had been sacrificed the monk, the priest and the deacon… if you had seen the fires burning in your castles and the slain being consumed in the fire of this world, the state of your palaces altered,… the churches… tottering to their final ruin—had you seen these things, you would have said: “Would that I were dust”…

This letter then gives you good news of the safety and prolongation of life that God has granted to you because you were not staying at Antioch at this time.… The living rejoice in the preservation of their own lives when they see the dead. Perhaps God has granted a delay only that you may make up for your past lack of obedience and service.… Since no one escaped to tell you what has happened, we have told you ourselves.

By the end of the 1260s, Baybars could draw a pause to his campaigns. The yellow flag of the Mamluks had been hoisted on one captured citadel after another, but they had been hard-won victories. The sultan had pushed forward campaigns through rain and cold, and in the height of summer. Crossing the mountains of Lebanon in the spring snow in 1268, it was recorded that his army “could find nothing [to eat] except snow, which they ate themselves and fed to their horses.” Baybars later boasted to the hated Bohemond that there was no crusader fastness to which he could not haul his siege artillery and no season in which he would not campaign. He described how, in order to attack the crusader-held fort of Akkar in northern Lebanon in 1271, we transported the mangonels there through mountains where the birds think it too difficult to nest; how patiently we hauled them, troubled by mud and struggling against rain; how we erected them in places where ants would slip were they to walk there; how we went down into valleys so deep that were the sun to shine through the clouds there it would show no way out except the precipitous mountains.

Despite the exaggerations, siege warfare was a terrible slog. And the Lion of Egypt had been cautious; he had never yet attempted to drag a siege train to the walls of Acre. After the near collapse of Islam, his campaigns were, in large measure, defensive. It was necessary to pick off enemies one at a time, above all to avoid provoking a working alliance between the Mongols and the Christians or inciting a major new crusade from Europe.

In July 1269, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca in strictest secrecy to ensure no insurrection among dissident emirs. Elaborate arrangements concealed his departure. It was given out that he had gone hunting. His confidential messengers continued to bring him the mail; replies were dispatched as if he had never gone. When he returned from Mecca at the end of August, he arrived without warning in Damascus, and then in Aleppo. His aim was to keep his provincial governors in uneasy obedience, aware that he was always watching and could unexpectedly call them to account at any moment.