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Thursday, October 10, 2019

Forgotten Heroes of the Middle Ages

When I bestride him, I soar,
I am a hawk;
he trots the air; 
the earth sings when he touches it...
He is pure air and fire
 (Henry V, Act III, Scene 7)

If any one image is associated in the popular mind with the Middle Ages then it is the knight in shining armor on a (usually) white horse. 


Nor is the image entirely misleading.  Throughout the age of chivalry, the mounted knight dominated both the battlefield and popular culture. Yet, as I will explain, it was not the warhorse (destrier) alone that made the horse the true hero of the Middle Ages.

A 13th-century encyclopedia of animals written by the Dominican scholar and bishop Albertus Magnus lists four kinds of horses: warhorses (destriers), riding horses (palfreys), racehorses, and workhorses. Of these, riding horses and racehorses can be said to vary little from the horses of today, at least in terms of function, with the caveat that "riding horses" of the Middle Ages had to travel long distances in often difficult terrain and all weathers. Their role in medieval society and economy were not exceptional, however, being the same as it had been for thousands of years before and hundreds yet to come. Warhorses and draft horses, on the other hand, were fundamental in shaping medieval society in unique ways.

Starting with the more obvious, a knight could not fulfill his military function without a warhorse.  From Hastings to Bannockburn, the charge of heavy cavalry (knights) was the dominant offensive tactic of the age. Although a cavalry charge could rarely lift a siege and never secure a castle, when enemies confronted one another across a battlefield, knights clashed on horseback. Furthermore, a  well-timed, well-led charge was almost invincible.

In order to be able to deliver such a knock-out blow, however, knights trained for years to master horsemanship, mounted combat, and fighting in teams/units. So did their horses.

Not every horse could cope with the noise, the sudden movements, the flash of sunlight on metal, the blows, the crush of bodies, and the smell of blood. Not every horse had the strength or stamina to carry an armored knight for hours, or the agility to respond to sudden changes of direction, the need to spin about or sidestep. This meant that warhorses had to be carefully selected -- and trained. Ultimately, man and horse had to respond as one being if they were to be an effective fighting machine with a chance of survival. 
It was to train for mounted combat -- particularly in small units as teams -- that tournaments developed. Historian Andrea Hopkins in her excellent work Knights [London: Collins & Brown, 1990] notes: “it is hardly possible to overestimate the importance of the tournament to the culture of medieval knights.” She notes that in addition to being “a crucial training ground in which young knights could practice the handling of their horses and weapons, tactics of attack and defence, and of co-ordinating their actions with a team of companions," the tournament also: 
  ...provided an arena for the display of all important knightly virtues: prouesse in combat, courtoisie to the watching and judging ladies, largesse to crowds of minstrels, heralds, armourers, sqires and other assorted hangers on, and qualities such as the franchise and debonairete with which a knight should conduct himself in triumph and disaster (the qualities which later developed into the European gentleman's sense of fair play), and the pite which he should exercise to his defeated opponents. (p. 108) 

Indeed, over the centuries, tournaments were transformed from training events very similar to genuine combat into sporting and social events quite divorced from the reality of war. By the 16th and 17th century they were little more than pageants  -- but that was after the end of the Middle Ages. In the High Middle Ages, they retained their value as training while also providing entertainment.

In the world of the tournament, a knight's destrier was not only a tool of war in training with him but a part of his persona. Like his armor, his coat of arms, and his crest, his horse formed a component part of his image and identity. A beautiful horse made a good impression on the ladies, but an exceptionally responsive, fast or determined horse might make the difference between victory and defeat. The death or injury of a good mount, on the other hand, could destroy a knight's prospects -- and his financial position as well because warhorses were extremely expensive. 

It was a measure of just how important good warhorses were that a knight forfeit his destrier along with his armor in a tournament defeat. Successful tournament champions could opt to retain a captured mount -- or sell it back to the owner at a handsome fee. (Or, if inclined, show pity and largess by restoring it without charge or for only a nominal fee.) Likewise, inadequate reserves of good warhorses could have an impact on the outcome of battles. The lack of horses impaired the fighting ability of the crusaders in teh First Crusade, and one can only imagine what might have happened at Jaffa, if Richard the Lionheart had disembarked with his warhorses!

While the warhorse was not a specific breed as we know today, it was the product of centuries of horse breeding in the Early Middle Ages that had systematically produced larger horses than those of previous centuries and other regions, i.e. the horses of the Greeks and Romans or contemporary Mongols and the Arabs. Significantly, medieval horses were strong enough to carry a fully armored knight, but that does not mean that they were similar to draft horses in other ways. 

Furthermore, what defined them was not size and strength alone, but rather temperament and character. For a start,  in order to keep them aggressive and spirited, they were not castrated. Albertus Magnus further claims: "It is a trait of these [war]horses to delight in musical sounds, to be excited by the sounds of arms, and to gather together with other chargers. They also leap and burst into battle lines by biting and striking with their hooves." (On Animals: A Medieval Summa Zoologica, translated by Kenneth F. Kitchell Jr. and Irven Michael Resnick [Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999]) Shakespeare captured this aspect of warhorse character in the opening of Henry V, Act IV, when he writes: "Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs."

It is hardly surprising given how much time a knight spent training with his destrier -- and how dependent he was on the horse for his success and survival -- that strong bonds often developed between a knight and his charger. There is one recorded incident of a horse defending his unseated knight during judicial combat, preventing the opposing knight from delivering the coup de grace by imposing his equine body repeatedly. Albertus Magnus also writes:  "They sometimes care so much about their masters and grooms that, if [the latter] are killed, they grow sad and pine away, event to the point of death." The grief of knights for a good horse was also recorded in various texts. The images below of knights sleeping beside their grazing horses seem a lovely tribute to this close and trustful relationship.


Yet it was arguably the medieval workhorse that made the greater contribution to medieval society. The evolution of larger, stronger horses was critical to the agricultural revolution that greatly increased production and improved the nutritional intake of the common people dramatically. The stronger horses and tack designed to harness them to advanced plows enabled medieval peasants to not only scratch the soil but to turn it over, turning up more nutrients. The horses were faster too, plowing roughly twice as much in a day as the alternative draft animal, oxen -- not to mention human-drawn plows. With more land under cultivation and greater productivity per acre, peasants could afford to leave one-third of their land fallow -- rotating crops and leaving land fallow to regenerate every third year. This further increased productivity and so diet as well. It has been argued that this agricultural revolution enabled human beings to reach their full genetic potential for size and strength for the first time in human history. Certainly, it resulted in human beings who were on average taller and stronger than people in other parts of the world in the same period.

Nor was it the plowhorse alone who made such a dramatic contribution to the medieval economy. More powerful draft horses could also be employed in transport. The ability to transport heavy materials such as timber and stone was crucial to construction and ship-building. The more powerful draft horses could also be used to transport other commodities and finished products in larger quantities, thereby contributing to commercial exchange and overall economic growth particularly inland, away from the waterways that had been the lifelines of trade in the past. Unfortunately, the mundane, if essential work, of transport horses rarely captured the imagination or attention of medieval artists. The best I can do is a medieval "carriage."

Last but not least, draft horses also played a role in war, transporting heavy siege equipment, baggage and the wounded.  The ability to transport heavy equipment was cited by crusades historian John France as one of the West's significant advantages vis-a-vis their Saracen opponents.

 Horses play a role -- with names and personalities -- in all my crusades era novels:

                                                                                                         Best Biography 2017

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                                                    Best Christian Historical Fiction 2019
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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.

She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick and the barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at:

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Ibelins on Cyprus - A New Theory

In the past, I've challenged the common myth about the peaceful reception of Guy de Lusignan on Cyprus. There is, however, another “myth” which needs re-examination: namely the late arrival of the Ibelins on Cyprus.  Throughout the 13th Century, the Ibelins were the dominant family in Outremer, challenging the Holy Roman Emperor on both the mainland and on Cyprus. Significantly, they consistently enjoyed the favor of the Lusignan kings. I believe there is a reason for that, albeit one which cannot be proven given the scanty documentary evidence. Below is a summary.

Historians such as Edbury posit that the Ibelins were inveterate opponents of the Lusignans until the early 13th century. They note that there is no record of Ibelins setting foot on the island of Cyprus before 1210 and insist that it is “certain” they were not among the early settlers―while admitting that it is impossible to draw up a complete list of the early settlers. Edbury, furthermore, admits that “it is not possible to trace [the Ibelin’s] rise in detail” yet argues it was based on close ties to King Hugh I. 

Hugh, however, was only the son of a cousin. In a medieval society where almost everyone in the ruling class was related in some way or another, that tie does not seem compelling.

Even more difficult to understand in the conventional version of events is that the Ibelins became so powerful and entrenched that within just seven years (1217) of their supposed “first appearance” on Cyprus.  It was in that year that an Ibelin was elected regent of Cyprus by the Cypriot High Court--that is the barons and bishops of the island who had supposedly been on the island "far" longer. The appointment furthermore jumped over closer relatives. This hardly seems credible if the Ibelins were not recognized as a "leading" family on Cyprus.

My thesis and the basis of my novel The Last Crusader Kingdom is that while the second generation of Ibelins (that is, Baldwin and Balian d’Ibelin) were inveterate opponents of Guy de Lusignan, they were on friendly terms with Aimery de Lusignan.  Aimery was, for a start, married to Baldwin’s daughter, Eschiva.  We have references, furthermore, to them “supporting” Aimery as late as Saladin’s invasion of 1183. I think the Ibelins were very capable of distinguishing between the two Lusignan brothers, and judging Aimery for his own strengths rather than condemning him for his brother’s weaknesses.

Furthermore, the conventional argument that Balian d’Ibelin died in late 1193 because he disappears from the charters of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at that date is reasonable -- but not definitive. The fact that Balian d’Ibelin disappears from the records of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1193 may mean that he died, but it could just as easily mean that he was occupied elsewhere. The Ibelin brothers of the next generation, John and Philip, for example, "disappear" from the records of Jerusalem from 1210 to 1217 too, but they were very much alive, active and powerful -- one in Beirut and the other apparently on Cyprus.

In short, Balian's disappearance from the records of Jerusalem could also have been because he busy on Cyprus. The lack of documentary proof for his presence on Cyprus is not grounds for dismissing the possibility of his presence because 1) the Kingdom of Cyprus did not yet exist so there was no chancery and no elaborate system for keeping records, writs and charters etc., and 2) those who would soon make Cyprus a kingdom were probably busy fighting 100,000 outraged Orthodox Greeks on the island!

But why would Balian d’Ibelin go to Cyprus at this time?

Because his wife, Maria Comnena, was a Byzantine princess. Not just that, she was related to the last Greek “emperor” of the island, Isaac Comnenus.  She spoke Greek, understood the mentality of the population, and probably had good ties (or could forge them) to the Greek/Orthodox elites, secular and ecclesiastical, on the island. She had the means to help Aimery pacify his unruly realm, and Balian was a proven diplomat par excellence, who would also have been a great asset to Aimery.

If one accepts that Guy de Lusignan failed to pacify the island in his short time as lord, then what would have been more natural than for his successor, Aimery, to appeal to his wife’s kin for help in getting a grip on his unruly inheritance?

If Balian d’Ibelin and Maria Comnena played a role in helping Aimery establish his authority on Cyprus, it is nearly certain they would have been richly rewarded with  lands/fiefs on the island once the situation settled down. Such feudal holdings would have given the Ibelins a seat on the High Court of Cyprus, which explains their influence on it. Furthermore, these Cypriot estates would most likely have fallen to their younger son, Philip, because their first born son, John, was heir to their holdings in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  John was first Constable of Jerusalem, then Lord of the hugely important and wealthy lordship of Beirut, and finally, after King Aimery’s death, regent of the Kingdom of Jerusalem for his niece.  Philip, on the other hand, was constable of Cyprus and later regent of Cyprus for Henry I ― notably despite the fact that his elder brother was still alive at the time.

The role of the Ibelins -- particularly Maria Comnena -- needs to be re-thought and re-analyzed. In the absence of hard evidence, however, Dr. Schrader has done so in the form of a novel.

Read the story in:

Buy Now!

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.

She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.

She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick andthe barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at:

Thursday, September 26, 2019

A Forgotten Invasion - September 1183

On September 29, 1183, Salah al-Din crossed the River Jordan in his third invasion of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Five years earlier, his invasion had ended in a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Montgisard. Now he came with more troops than ever and fresh from his successful conquest of Aleppo in June. In response, the Franks called up the largest army that they had ever fielded — and then did nothing. 
While most historians view the Frankish strategy as prudent in the face of the inexorable shift in the balance of power, contemporaries were shocked and outraged. The Chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, William Archbishop of Tyre, complained bitterly that “so splendid an opportunity to combat the enemy” had been squandered through “neglect” of the leadership. Today I look more closely at this critical episode that sheds a light on the crisis that would lead to Hattin.

Critical to understanding the significance of the “battle that didn’t happen” is the degree to which this was the exception. It is often forgotten that between 1100 and 1115, the Christians were on the offensive, steadily increasing the territory under their control. While the Muslims fought back during this early period, from 1120 the Franks had established such military superiority that Muslim attacks became infrequent. Indeed, one historian has calculated that they occurred at a frequency only one-twelfth of what they had been in the previous two decades.[1] The Franks, on the other hand, continued to raid into Muslim territory and to besiege Muslim strongholds such as Ascalon.  Most of the major battles that occurred between 1120 and 1170 took place near Muslim cities and ended in a decisive Frankish victory. A leading crusades historian summarized it like this:

For many decades the Franks’ army maintained absolute superiority in the battlefield. In most campaigns, it was the Franks who took the initiative, attacking their enemy’s centres of power... In the few cases in which the Muslims did besiege a Frankish castle, its minimal fortifications were enough to enable the besieged to withstand the attach until the arrival of reinforcements. Even the news of the rescue forces’ impending approach was enough, in most cases, to cause the Muslims to withdraw, fearing a formal engagement with the Franks land forces and preferring to wait for another, more convenient opportunity. [2]

By 1183, however, Salah al-Din felt strong enough and confident enough to face the Franks in battle yet again. He had been routed in 1177 (Montgisard) and he had been defeated soundly in 1179 (le Forbelet). Yet he was back again and prepared to face the Frankish land army.

Yet for the first time in the history of the crusader states, the Franks avoided battle. They mustered an allegedly huge force. Sources talk of 1,300 knights and 1,500 turcopoles, and perhaps 15,000 infantry. These numbers are comparable to the forces that were brought together for the Battle of Hattin four years later. 

To be sure, a relief force under the command of Humphrey de Toron sent to stop the Muslim assault on the city and castle of Bethsan was annihilated, but Toron was a young and allegedly effeminate man. His defeat was hardly indicative of overall weakness. Furthermore, in a critical skirmish over control of the springs at Turbaniya, the Constable of Jerusalem, (Aimery de Lusignan), reinforced by the Barons of Ramla and Ibelin (Baldwin and Balian d’Ibelin), routed the Saracen forces. That was a clear 1-1 exchange that did not leave the Franks crippled or threatened. 

Yet rather than taking the initiative as they had at Montgisard or even facing-off as they had at le Forbelet, the Franks built a moat around their army and stood by while the city of Bethsan was sacked and burned without interference. Monasteries and nunneries were the next victims and the ravaging of the surrounding countryside went on for eight days before Salah al-Din was forced to pull back for want of provisions.

Why? What explained the astonishing passivity of a powerful army that for the previous half a century had been renowned for its offensive character and capabilities?

There is a clear answer: leadership.

At Montgisard and le Forbelet, the Frankish army was led by the king, Baldwin IV. The King had long been suffering from leprosy, contracted when he was still a child, but at Montgisard (1177) Baldwin was still fit enough to command from horseback. At le Forbelet (1179), he was no longer well enough to ride but commanded nevertheless in person from a litter. However, in the summer of 1183, the health of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem took a dramatic turn for the worse.  The chancellor of the kingdom and chronicler William Archbishop of Tyre reported that by this time King Baldwin “had lost his sight and the extremities of his body became completely diseased and damaged, so that he was unable to use his hands and feet.” 

Hollywood's Baldwin IV from "The Kingdom of Heaven"
Nevertheless, when news of Salah al-Din’s impending invasion reached King Baldwin in September 1183, he ordered the feudal host to muster at the springs of Suffuriya (Sephoria). He only got as far as Nazareth, however, before he was taken by fever and his death appeared imminent. The High Court, most of whom had already mustered with the feudal host, hastened to the King’s bedside. Baldwin IV named his sister Sibylla’s husband Guy de Lusignan regent while retaining for himself (for as long as he should live) the title of King, the city of Jerusalem and an annual income of 10,000 pieces of gold. 

The arrangement suggests that Baldwin was not so sure he was on death’s door but was feeling too ill to bear the burden of ruling — particularly of leading the army. The arrangement was essentially about allowing the King to retire from public life and die in peace. Notably, however, the King first required Guy de Lusignan to swear he would not try to seize the throne while he (Baldwin) yet lived — a clear indication that Baldwin was highly suspicious of Guy de Lusignan and his motives already. 

Hollywood's Guy de Lusignan from "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Guy swore as requested and became both regent and commander-in-chief of the army. It is Guy, therefore, who bears the blame for the completely novel and unexpected “strategy” of doing nothing. The fact that he did so without following the advice and consent of the assembled baronage of Jerusalem is evident by what happened next. 

Shortly afterward the end of this pathetic non-battle, word reached Jerusalem that the strategically pivotal castle of Kerak was under siege with half the ladies of Jerusalem trapped inside (they had collected for a wedding). Clearly, the feudal army needed to muster again and go to the relief of Kerak — but the Barons of Jerusalem unanimously refused to go to the rescue of their ladies until Guy de Lusignan was dismissed as regent. 

Apologists for Lusignan like to portray this refusal to accept Guy as mere “jealously” on the part of all the other barons. Such an interpretation of events ignores the bald facts that these barons had followed Guy in September and would again — tragically — follow him to catastrophe at Hattin four years later. The barons of Jerusalem in this generation were not inherently rebellious men. They recognized the need to fight together, and throughout Baldwin IV’s reign, they repeatedly overcame their internal rivalries to face the common enemy. The fact that, at this critical juncture, they flatly refused Lusignan’s leadership underlines the extent to which his inaction in October 1183 was unanimously seen as “cowardice” — or a squandered opportunity, as Tyre describes it. The disaster at Hattin proved that these men, the barons of the High Court of Jerusalem, were tragically correct in their assessment of Guy de Lusignan’s military capabilities. 

In November 1183, King Baldwin IV was facing a peaceful but near-unanimous (Oultrejourdain, Toron, and Edessa were trapped in Kerak with the ladies) revolt by the barons of Jerusalem against the man he had appointed regent. Baldwin’s immediate response was to dismiss Guy de Lusignan and take the reins of government back into his own hands, but this solution was clearly not satisfactory. Baldwin had recovered from the fever that had threatened his life in August/September, but he was still slowly dying of leprosy. He knew he could not live much longer, but he also recognized that he could not leave Guy de Lusignan as his heir. He had to find an alternative to Lusignan.

Baldwin V carried by Balian d'Ibelin at his Crown Wearing
The solution Baldwin IV found was to designate his nephew and namesake, Sibylla’s son by her first husband, his heir and to crown the boy king immediately. By crowning his nephew king in his own lifetime, he attempted to avert a crisis at his death. So, on November 20, 1183, Baldwin’s six-year-old nephew was crowned and anointed in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Only after his coronaton did the barons muster their feudal levies and follow King Baldwin IV, commanding from a litter, to the relief of Kerak. The siege was successfully lifted without bloodshed — and Baldwin IV spent the rest of his life trying to annul his sister’s marriage to Lusignan.

The invasion of 1183 and its consequences are described in Defender of Jerusalem. 

[1] Ellenblum, Ronnie, Crusader Castles and Modern Histories, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007) 160.

[2] Ellenblum, 297-298.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Founding of a Dynasty -- The Lusignans take Cyprus

The history of Outremer in the 13th century was materially altered by the establishment of a stable Latin Kingdom on the island of Cyprus.  Today I look at how the Lusignan dynasty became established.  Unfortunately, the sources for the founding of the Kingdom of Cyprus are not only scanty but dubious, leading me to develop two theses that challenge existing historiography. The first of these is presented below.

We know that Richard I of England, having conquered Cyprus in May 1191, sold it to the Knights Templar for 100,000 bezants in July of the same year. According to Peter Edbury, the leading modern historian of medieval Cyprus, their rule was “rapacious and unpopular,” resulting in a revolt in April 1192. Although a Templar sortie temporarily scattered the rebels, the causes of the revolt were hardly addressed and the latent threat of continued/renewed violence was clear. In the circumstances, the Grand Master of the Templars recognized that his Order would have to invest considerable manpower to regain control of the island.  He also recognized that he did not have the resources to fight in both Cyprus and Syria. In consequence, he gave precedence (as he must) to the struggle on the mainland, the Holy Land itself, against the Saracens. The Templars duly returned the island to Richard of England.

Richard promptly sold the island a second time, this time to Guy de Lusignan. Guy de Lusignan had been crowned and anointed King of Jerusalem in 1186 in a coup d’etat engineered by his wife, Sibylla. Although widely viewed as a usurper, the bulk of the barons submitted to his rule in order to fight united against the much superior forces of Saladin that threatened the Kingdom. Guy, however, proceeded to prove the low-opinion of his barons correct by promptly leading the entire Christian army to an avoidable defeat on the Horns of Hattin on July 4, 1187. He spent roughly a year in Saracen captivity, while his Kingdom fell city by city and castle by the castle to Saladin until only the city of Tyre remained. Needless to say, this further discredited him with the surviving barons, prelates, and burghers of his kingdom. His claim to the crown of Jerusalem was undermined fatally when his wife, through whom he had gained it, died in November 1190. Although Guy continued to style himself “King of Jerusalem,” a fiction at first bolstered by King Richard of England’s support, by April 1192 King Richard had also given up on him. Bowing to the High Court of Jerusalem, Richard acknowledged Conrad de Montferrat as King of Jerusalem. The sale of Cyprus to Guy was evidently a means of compensating him for the loss of his kingdom of Jerusalem.

Guy may have left for Cyprus at once, in which case he would have arrived in April 1192.  However, this is far from certain because the Third Crusade was still being conducted.  It is unlikely that Guy would have been able to recruit many knights to accompany him as long as Richard the Lionheart was still fighting for Jerusalem and Jaffa. A more likely date for Guy’s arrival on Cyprus is, therefore, October 1192, after Richard’s departure for the West. 

Guy was apparently accompanied by a small group of Frankish lords and knights whose lands had been lost to Saladin in 1187/1188 and not been recaptured in the course of the Third Crusade. The names of only a few are known. These include Humphrey de Toron, Renier de Jubail, Reynald Barlais, Walter de Bethsan, and Galganus de Chenech√©. (Guy's older brother Aimery is notably absent.) 

Guy would have arrived on an island that was either still in a state of open rebellion or completely lawless. Admittedly, historian George Hill (who was actually an expert in ancient history, coins and iconography rather than a medievalist), tries to explain how Guy arrived on an island eagerly awaiting him by inventing (that is the only word one can use since he sites no source) the story that the Templars “slew the Greeks indiscriminately like sheep; a number of Greeks who sought asylum in a church were massacred; the mounted Templars rode through [Nicosia] spitting on their lances everyone they could reach; the streets ran with blood…The Templars rode through the land, sacking villages and spreading desolation, for the population of both cities and villages fled to the mountains.” (George Hill, A History of Cyprus, Volume 2: The Frankish Period 1192 – 1432,” Cambridge University Press, 1948, p. 37.)

There’s a serious problem with this lurid tale. (Quite aside from the technical one of lances being unsuitable for spitting multiple victims.) As Hill himself admits, the Templars had just fourteen knights on Cyprus and 29 sergeants; the Greek population of the island at this time was roughly 100,000. Yes, in a surprise sortie to fight their way out of Nicosia and flee to Acre (as we know they did), the Templars would surely have killed many civilians, including innocent ones. It is unlikely, however, that the fleeing Templars would have taken the time to stop and slaughter people collected in a church; that would have given the far more numerous armed insurgents (who had forced them to seek refuge in their commandery in the first place) to rally, attack and kill them. They certainly did not have the time and resources to slaughter people in other cities and towns scattered over nearly 10,000 square kilometers. In short, we can be sure the Templars slaughtered enough people to be remembered with hatred, but not enough to break the resistance to Latin rule, much less to denude the island of its population. If nothing else, if they had broken the resistance, they would not have fled to Acre, admitted defeat and urged the Grand Chapter to return Cyprus to Richard of England!

Despite the absurdity of the notion that Guy arrived on a peaceful island willing to receive him without resistance, most histories today repeat a charming story. Namely: as soon as Guy arrived on Cyprus he sent to his arch-enemy Saladin for advice on how to rule it. What is more, the ever chivalrous and wise Sultan graciously responded that “if he wants the island to be secure he must give it all away.” (See Edbury, The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades, 1191 – 1374, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 16.) Allegedly, based on this advice, Guy invited settlers from all the Christian countries of the eastern Mediterranean to settle on Cyprus, offering everyone rich rewards and making them marry the local women. According to this fairy tale, the dispossessed peoples of Syria, both high and low, flooded to Cyprus and were rewarded with rich fiefs, until Guy had only enough land to support just 20 household knights, but after that everyone lived happily ever after.

History isn’t like that, although―often―there is a kernel of truth in such legends. I think it is fair to assume that very many of the men and women who had lost their lands and livelihoods to the Saracens after Hattin did eventually come to settle on Cyprus, but I question that they arrived in the first two years after Guy acquired the island. The reason I doubt this is simple. The Knights Templar had just abandoned the island because it would be too costly, time-consuming and difficult to pacify.  In short, whoever came to Cyprus with Guy in early or late 1192 would not have found an empty island―much less one full of happy natives waiting to welcome them with song and flowers. On the contrary, they would have faced a population which had successfully expelled the Templars and ready to resist further attempts by the Latins to control and dominate them. Perhaps the one sentence about making the settlers marry local women is a hint to a more chilling reality: that, after years of resistance to Latin rule, when the settlers finally came, they found a local population with few young men but many young widows.

Furthermore, we know that at no time in his life did Guy de Lusignan distinguish himself by wisdom or common sense. He had alienated his brother-in-law King Baldwin IV and nearly the entire High Court of Jerusalem within just three years of his marriage to Sibylla.  He lost his entire kingdom in a disastrous and unnecessary campaign less than a year after he was crowned king. He started a strategically nonsensical siege of Acre that consumed crusader lives and resources for three years. He did nothing of note the entire time Richard the Lionheart was in the Holy Land. Is it really credible that he then took control of a rebellious island (that the Templars thought beyond their capacity to pacify) and set everything right in less than two years?

I think not. 

And Guy had only two years because he died in 1194, either in April/May or toward the end of the year depending on which source one consults. That is too little time even for a more competent leader to be the architect of Cyprus’ success. That honor belongs, I believe, to his older brother, the ever competent Aimery de Lusignan, who was lord of Cyprus not just two years but eleven. 

It was certainly Aimery, who obtained a crown by submitting the island to the Holy Roman Emperor, and it was Aimery who established a Latin church hierarchy on the island. Indeed, there is ample evidence of Aimery’s able administration of both Cyprus and, from 1197 to 1205, the Kingdom of Jerusalem as well.  It was Aimery de Lusignan who collected the oral tradition for the laws of Jerusalem (that had worked so well) and had them written down in a legal codex known as The Book of the King.  Thus, it was Aimery, who founded not only the dynasty that would last three hundred years but also laid the legal and institutional foundations that would serve Cyprus so well into the 15th century. 

In short, in my opinion, it is far more likely that Aimery, not Guy, brought settlers in―after first pacifying the native population and institutionalizing tolerance for the Orthodox church that mirrored the customs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It is this thesis that forms the basis of: The Last Crusader Kingdom: Founding of a Dynasty in 12th Century Cyprus.

My second revisionist thesis concerning the Ibelins will be the subject of my next entry. Meanwhile, The Last Crusader Kingdom, is available in both ebook and trade paperback formats. You can buy it now on amazon. Remember, books make great Christmas presents!

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.

She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick andthe barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at:

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Seljuks - The Crusaders' Prime Enemy

When the Crusaders invaded the Near East at the end of the 11th century, they entered a complex world already fragmented by political rivalries, ethnic divisions, and religious conflict. Far from breaking in upon a peaceful Arab society enjoying a golden age of scientific progress and artistic creativity, they confronted a cauldron of unrest which had seen Jerusalem change hands four times in the thirty years before the Crusaders arrived. The Golden Age of Arab Enlightenment was already a distant memory, and the Levant had become a battleground between the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo and the protectors of the Abbasid Caliphate in Damascus. At the heart of those tensions were the Seljuks whose arrival in the Near East in the first half of the 11th century disrupted previous power structures. 
Today I take a closer look at the Seljuks and their impact on the Levant.  

Central Asia was the home to a large number of nomadic tribes characterized by a warlike nature, which made them excellent fighters and mercenaries, and a mobile lifestyle suited to both following the grass for their herds -- and invading other territories. Historians believe, for example, that the "Huns" were simply one of many Turkic tribes that migrated to the west with devastating effect. The Bulgars were another. There were also Peshenegs, Uzes and Kumans.  Most of these tribes stayed north of the Black Sea, but one tribe led by a certain Seljuk chose to move south through what is now Iran to establish an empire that stretched across the Near East down to the Persian Gulf and to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. 

This tribe had been converted to Sunni Islam in the second half of the tenth century and in 1055 the Sunni Caliph in Baghdad summoned the (Sunni) Seljuks to liberate him from his Shia protectors, the Buyids. This they successfully did, making their leader at the time, Tugrul Beg, the "Sultan" -- i.e. the secular protector of the religious leader, the Caliph. Tugrul Beg died in 1063 and was succeeded by his nephew Alp Arslan, who delivered a crippling defeat to the Byzantine army under Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes at Manzikert in 1071. 

Although Alp Arslan died not long afterward in 1073, his victory over the Byzantines had the effect of opening all of Anatolia to Seljuk conquest and settlement. Furthermore, the Seljuk victory sparked the appeal to the West for aid that culminated in the First Crusade.  Meanwhile, Alp Arslan's successor Malik-Shah moved deeper into Western Syria (Aleppo) and also seized Antioch. However, on the death of Malik-Shah in 1092 the Seljuk empire fragmented among competing rivals and feuding between various warlords.  

Furthermore, the move to the Mediterranean, occupying roughly what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, also brought the Seljuks into direct conflict with the Fatimids based in Cairo. The importance of this confrontation cannot be overstated. 

As Niall Christie explains in his excellent history Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity's Wars in the Middle East, 1095-1382, From the Islamic Sources:

"...this conflict had religious as well as political dimensions. This was not merely a conflict over territory fought between two Muslim powers. The Seljuks, as Sunnis, sought to present themselves as the defenders and promoters of the true faith against dangerous heretics who had taken control of a disturbingly large amount of territory and posed a real threat to the Abbasid caliphate... The Fatimids, in the meantime, saw themselves as the representatives of the true line of caliphs, and saw the Seljuks as supporting a heretical pretender whose ancestors had usurped power in the eighth century. Thus the Levant was the site of struggle between two powers, each of which regarded the other as a legitimate target of holy war fought on behalf of Islam. [1]

In short, jihad was already on the agenda of these powers, but to fight one another. 

Leading crusades scholar Christopher Tyerman points out that: "It was precisely because the Near East was already a scene of violence, competition, disruption and dislocation that [the Crusaders] prevailed at all."[2] 

Obviously, this means that the popular notion that the First Crusade shattered the "irenic peace of a stable, sophisticated and tolerant Arab Muslim world"[3] is wrong -- a fact underlined by the response of contemporary Muslim observers, who "by the 1090s [were] only too familiar with alien foreign conquerors and overlords." [4]

The latter is a vitally important point. Christie summarizes the situation as follows: 
" is important to remember that the region was one in which populations were ruled by people who were in the minority, and often ethnically or religiously different from them. In Egypt, the Fatimids, who were Isma'ili Shi'ites, ruled over a population that was mostly Sunni Muslim, Christian and Jewish. The Fatimid armies in the meantime, consisted of a mix of Nubians, Berbers, Turks and Armenians, all of whom had been imported at one point or another and thus were foreigners in the eyes of the Egyptian population. The Sunni Muslim Turkish Seljuks, in the meantime, based their power above all on Turkish mamluks and Turkomen troops, using them to maintain power over a population that in the Levant consisted largely of Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, Christians and Jews from a wide range of ethnicities incuding Turks, Kurds and Arabs.[5]
Christie is actually understating the situation. To the inhabitants of the Levant, the Seljuks -- like the Arabs before them -- represented an alien occupation. Historians from Ellenblum to Jotischky and MacEvitt now believe that more than 50% of the population of the territories later incorporated into the crusader states was Christian. Professor Tyerman points out that "Surviving crusaders' letters and early narratives suggest [the Crusaders] quickly grasped the divided circumstances of the Seljuk princes and how they had terrorised the indigenous peoples of the region."[6]

Thus, while the Seljuks proved formidable foes, whom the Crusaders came to respect as one does a difficult opponent, their oppressive and divided rule also provided the opportunity for Crusader success. It was a situation that the Crusaders effectively exploited for three generations before the Kurdish leader Saladin forged new unity across the Near East. 

Throughout my Award-winning "Jerusalem" trilogy and my newer books, the Islamic enemy is depicted as realistically as possible.

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.

She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick and the barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at:

[1] Niall Christie.  Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity's Wars in the Middle East, 1095-1382, From the Islamic Sources. [London: Routledge, 2014], 15.
[2] Christopher Tyerman. The World of the Crusades. [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019], 31.
[3] Tyerman, 31.
[4] Tyerman, 41.
[5] Christie, 16.
[6] Tyerman, 56.