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Friday, March 18, 2016

The Reluctant Crusader? Henry II and the Holy Land

Henry II's Effigy on his Tomb at Frontevralt.
Henry II of England is not remembered as a crusader. Afterall, although he took crusader vows, he never actually went to the Holy Land. Indeed, most historians credit Henry II with disdaining crusading in preference to building an empire at home. Yet a focus on Henry’s legacy in the West obscures the fact that his ties to -- and arguably his concerns for -- the Holy Land were much closer than is commonly remembered. 

First of all, his grandfather, Fulk d’Anjou, was King of Jerusalem.  He had turned over French his inheritance to his son Geoffrey in order to go to the Holy Land and marry the heiress to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Melisende. Thus Henry's father, Geoffrey d’Anjou, was half-brother to Kings Baldwin III (reigned 1143 – 1162) and Amalaric I (1162-1174) of Jerusalem. Henry II himself was first cousin to the ill-fated Baldwin IV of Jerusalem (King 1174-1185) and both his sisters, Sibylla (Queen of Jerusalem 1186-1190) and Isabella (Queen of Jerusalem 1190 -1204.)
The Arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem

As early as 1166, Henry levied a crusading tax. Although we know little about this tax it significantly pre-dates the murder of Thomas of Becket or the crises in the Holy Land brought on by the rise of Saladin and the leprosy of Baldwin IV. Rather, it coincides with a period of crusader strength and aggression as Amalric I led multiple invasions of Egypt. As such, this tax tells us significantly that Henry was not responding to clerical pressure to "rescue" Jerusalem. It is far more likely he was responding to a request from his cousin for financial assistance to expand Angevin interests on the other side of the Mediterranean. Henry II in 1166 was at the peak of his power. Neither his wife nor his sons had yet rebelled against him. Louis VII was still King of France. Henry II had nothing to fear at home. He may have been bored and looking for new fields of endeavor. A crusade may have appealed to his sense of adventure and family pride. We will never know. 
After Thomas of Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, however, Henry II publicly took the cross in 1172, and promised to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This obviously was intended as penance and very different in character from helping his cousin on an aggressive campaign. Yet Henry's willingness to take the cross may have reflected an underlying interest in going to the Holy Land anyway. Before he could depart, however, his wife and eldest three sons rose up in revolt against his authority and he was formally excused by the Pope from fulfilling his crusader vow. 
In 1177, however, Henry II again pledged to go on crusade. The context this time was a treaty with France that was intended in part to distract the Kings of England and France from preying upon each other and turn their aggressive instincts and mercenary armies on the foes of Christendom rather than each other. But the hostility between  Plantagenet and Capet could not be patched over with a pledge to go fight in the Holy Land -- certainly not at a time when all seemed well in Jerusalem. After all, it was in November 1177 that Baldwin IV decisively defeated Saladin at the Battle of Montgisard. So nothing came of this crusading vow.

Yet, Henry's failure to actually go on crusade is not proof of indifference to the Holy Land. On the contrary, Henry's concern for his cousin's kingdom was documented by annual contributions to a crusade fund. The money was entrusted in equal amounts to the Templars and Hospitallers. This means that the money could be deposited in London, and paid out in Jerusalem through the networks of the Templars and Hospitallers. This was hard cash that went to the vaults of the Templars and Hospitaller in Jerusalem year after year to ensure that King Henry would have the funds he needed to recruit, equip, pay and feed an appropriate force of troops when he did reach Jerusalem on crusade

In 1182, Henry Plantagenet fell ill. He thought he was on his deathbed and made a will. The largest money bequests were to the Holy Land. He bequeathed 5,000 marks (a mark was a measure of currency equal to 2/3 of a pound sterling) to each the Templars and the Hospitallers for the defense of the Holy Land. He left an additional 5,000 marks to the militant orders to use jointly in the defense of the Holy Land. In short, he left 15,000 marks, or 10,000 pounds sterling -- an enormous sum in the late 12th century -- to the military orders for the defense of the Holy Land.

Since he did not die in 1182, this money never reached the crusader kingdom, but the very next year, after initial resistance, Henry II was persuaded to finance a crusade by his eldest son, Henry the Young King. It is debatable whether the Young King ever intended to go on crusade or not, so perhaps it was an easy promise for his father to make.  

By 1184, the situation in the Holy Land had deteriorated dramatically. Baldwin IV of Jerusalem was dying, and his co-king Baldwin V, the young child of his sister, was also sickly. The next obvious candidate to succeed Baldwin IV was his sister Sibylla, but she was married to a completely unsuitable man, Guy de Lusignan. The King of Jerusalem therefore took the desperate measure of sending the Masters of the Hospital and Temple along with the Patriarch of Jerusalem to the West with an unusual plea. He did not ask for a new crusade, as so often in the past. Instead his emissaries took with them the keys to the Tower of David and the Holy Sepulcher -- the symbols of secular and sacred power in Jerusalem. Their mission was to convince the Western rulers to send not an army but a prince -- someone to step into the dying king's footsteps.  

Henry's reaction is again used as evidence of his reluctance to crusade, and the Patriarch of Jerusalem bitterly accused Henry of duplicity and procrastination. Certainly, he failed to answer the call and forbade his youngest son John from going on crusade as well. Yet Henry himself had put the question to his barons of whether he was to be King of England or Jerusalem because he could not be both. There is nothing inherently deceitful about putting England (Normandy, Anjou and Maine) ahead of distant Jerusalem. Henry was no longer at the peak of power. He was fighting for his survival and that of his "empire." 
Finally, when the news reached him in 1187 of the fall of Jerusalem and the desperate straits of the Kingdom, Henry II again took a crusader vow. While many historians (and even more novelists) disparage this as a ploy, it is just as possible that he was sincere – so long as those who coveted his kingdom and threatened his crown, Philip II of France and his son Richard – went on crusade with him. We will never know how sincere his intentions were because he died before the Third Crusade got underway.

Meanwhile, however, his treasure had already played a crucial role in the history of Jerusalem. There are no figures for just how large King Henry’s treasure was, but money had deposited annually since 1172 and the figure of 30,000 silver marks is often named. Significantly, the money had been entrusted to the militant orders for safe keeping, and distributed equally between them, rather than favoring one over the other. This, unintentionally, resulted in his treasure having two very different uses.
In 1187, as Saladin prepared to launch an all-out offensive against the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem, King Guy had little choice but to call-up a levee en masse to put the largest force possible in the way of the invaders. Against a force of 45,000 including some 12,000 cavalry, King Guy could muster only about 1,000 knights, 4,000 light horse and some 15,000 infantry. In light of this, the Grand Master of the Templars, Gerard de Ridefort, handed over King Henry’s treasure to finance more fighting men. It is unclear from the sources whether these were mercenaries, light troops, or, as some say, the outfitting of 200 additional knights. In any case, Henry II’s money helped contribute to the army that marched out to meet Saladin – and was destroyed on the Horns of Hattin on July 4, 1187.

Hans Eberhard Mayer makes the point that the Grand Master of the Temple made the decision to break into King Henry's treasure without the permission of the English King.  He further suggests that it was fear of the great Angevin's wrath that forced Guy de Lusignan's hand at Hattin. Having effectively stolen King Henry's treasure, Guy de Lusignan (or at any rate the Templar Master, who had violated the Templar's code of trustworthiness) needed a victory to justify such an unprecedented act. Mayer writes:

"The opening of Henry's treasure gave the Templar master a disproportionate influence on the king. But what counted more was the predictable wrath of Henry II when he learnt about the opening. It could be justified, and Henry's wrath cooled, only by a spectacular success ....[A]lready at the time when the army was assembled, precautions had been taken to pacify Henry when the King of Jerusalem ordered that the soldiers hired with English money should fight under the English flag. The hoped for success was to be presented to Henry as being due largely to his money, but first there had to be success at practically all costs."  (Hans Eberhard Mayer, "Henry II of England," Kings and Lords in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Variorum, 1194, p. 737.)

The Grand Master of the Hospitallers, however, did not release King Henry’s treasure in advance of the Battle of Hattin. The money Henry II had deposited with the Hospitallers for the Holy Land was still in Jerusalem when the city surrendered to Saladin in October 1187. The terms of the surrender allowed the residents 40 days to raise a ransom of 10 dinars per man, 5 dinars per woman and 2 dinars per child. Those who failed to pay the ransom, became slaves by right of conquest at the end of the 40 days. 
At the time these terms were negotiated, the Christian defender of Jerusalem, Balian d’Ibelin, knew that there were 40,000 (some sources say 100,000) refugees in the city.  He knew that many of these were destitute, having lost all they owned to Saladin already. They were in no position to pay their ransom. Ibelin therefore negotiated the release of 18,000 poor for a lump sum of 30,000 dinars. 

Sources differ, however, on where this money was to come from. Some suggest that it came from King Henry’s treasure, but others suggest the initial sum was paid from the treasury of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but that it soon became evident that there were many more poor in the city than Ibelin had estimated – or had the resources to ransom. (He’d lost all his lands to Saladin already too.) It was at this juncture, they say, that the Hospitallers handed over King Henry’s treasure to ransom as many of the poor as they could. In the end, even Henry’s treasure was not enough and some 15,000 Christians were sold into slavery. Nevertheless, King Henry of England played an important role in ransoming thousands of Christians trapped in Jerusalem, minimizing the number sold into slavery. His son, of course, played an even greater role in rescuing the Kingdom from complete obliteration, but that is another story….

The Battle of Hattin and the fall of Jerusalem in 1187 are described in the second book of my Balian d'Ibelin series, Defender of Jerusalem.

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  1. Another man wrongly misjudged by history. No matter one's intentions, as King, Politics always plays a role, a much larger role than many can seemingly appreciate. go on Crusade, lose a large portion of your army in the fighting, only to come home and have to fight your own son -- or the King of France -- to get your Kingdom/empire back. that's neither an option, nor an intelligent move.

  2. Thank you for a detailed and interesting post on Henry II.

  3. It is interesting that the annals of history often do not take in the full tapestry of events unfolding and immersing the actors resulting in a less than full and flattering portrait.

    In my case, I have an interest in the Templars and the Hospitalers (who preceded and survived them). My research and intuition tell me that there is more to the Templars than meets the eye. Their rise to power and papal favor allowed them to have a massive influence on trade with the east, banking, insurance, architecture, exploration, etc. In effect, the crusades in general and the Templars in specific brought the knowledge of the east back to Europe in the throws of the "dark ages". In a very real way, the Templars started the renaissance in Europe and their destruction gave birth to the reformation and inquisition. Not many historians make the connections that I sense intuitively must have happened.

    Regardless, in my research, I came across a very interesting character who may be a relative through several lines by the name William Marshall. I am sure that you are aware of him as he was cited as the perfect knight and model for chivalry. He also lived to his 70's and served four kings including Henry II, Richard III and John Lackland. It is said that he promised Henry on his deathbed to take up his promise to go on crusade. However, there is little information on whether he did or did not go to the Holy Land. And, if he did, what he did while there. I have one source that says he went on crusade for two years, grew tired of the infighting and returned to England. Since his time in the Holy Land would roughly overlap Richard's Third Crusade, I wonder if they were there at the same time. Also the story you recount about Baldwin IV's entreaties for a prince to rule the Kingdom of Jurusalem make me wonder if William may have been responding on behalf of Henry. There is little I can find to substantiate William's role or lack thereof. However, he was the most loyal of the English crown's vassals and most certainly would have been looking out for their interests in the Kingdom if he went. Given his skills at keeping the peace in England for John (Magna Charta), I do not believe he was an inconsequential character in so great an undertaking as the Crusades. It is also very interesting that his connection to the Templars in London was very great as one of the meetings of the barons was held at the Templar Church and his effigy resides there as his last wish.

    I cannot help but think the Templars were too smart to be taken unaware by Phillip the Fair in 1307 and believe that most of them along with their treasure and knowledge survived in other places such as Switzerland, Scotland, Spain and Portugal. Yet, there is little historical research on this topic.

    I wonder if you or anyone else in the community of historians interested in the Crusades has ever come across information about the role of William Marshall in the crusades or of the Templars post DeMolay's death and the supposed disbandonment of the Templars.

    1. It was not the Templars alone who played a role in transferring knowledge between East and West. It was the crusades themselves, followed by tens of thousands of pilgrims every single year that made their way to the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem during it's nearly two hundred year existence. The Renaissance sprang above all from the establishment of prosperous states in the Levant, particularly the Italian merchant communities that lived there. The Italians and natives of these states traded in goods, but also brought new ideas to the West. The mixture of cultures at the cross-roads of East and West fostered intellectual and artistic exchange. I've written several essay on that in this blog.

      As for William Marshal, while it is true what he did while in the Holy Land is not recorded, the dates of his stay are very clear, as he returned to England in time to serve Henry II in his last struggle with Richard. During Henry's retreat from Le Mans, Richard pursued his father so hotly that he got ahead of his own troops. Marshal turned and alone blocked his way. Richard called out he was unarmed, and Marshal killed his horse in a single thrust of his lance.

      Marshal was with Henry II when he died. Richard rewarded him for his loyalty to his father by giving him the daughter of the Earl of Pembroke to wife, in short an earldom. All this was after his return from the Holy Land, which he would have visited in roughly 1184-1186, certainly before the Battle of Hattin and long before the Third Crusade. It corresponded to the period in which the Leper King died and was succeed by his sickly nephew, and possibly included the period of Guy de Lusignan's usurpation of the throne.

      If so, this was almost certainly the reason Marshal left the Holy Land. He had already encountered Guy de Lusignan in 1165, when "the Lusignans" attempted to kidnap Eleanor of Aquitaine while she was being escorted by Patrick Earl of Salisbury across Poitou. William was then in Salisbury's (his maternal uncle's) household. Salisbury gave his own, faster horse to Eleanor, and while he was remounting another horse one of the Lusignans ran him through with a lance. Marshal was wounded and taken captive in the ensuing engagement. (See my entry on "The Man Who Made William Marshal.)

      Since Marshal was outraged by this unchivalrous act and also ill-treated by the Lusignans, it is certain that he would not want to stay in a kingdom ruled by one of them -- very possibly his uncle's murderer. He therefore returned to Angevin service taking with him an admiration for the Templars and a white silk shroud for his corpse.

      When Richard left on his crusade, he named Marshal one of his justicars and he remained in England where he supported Eleanor against John's revolt.

      There are a number of good biographies of William Marshal. The oldest was written shortly after his death in verse form (as a song) in French and was based on first-hand accounts by those who had known him personally. The poem/song is 19,914 verses long, and the author was likely one of his own household, possibly a herald in the service of the Marshals. Few medieval lives have been as well recorded as that of William Marshal -- or if others were so well recorded, the written records of their lives have not survived the ravages of time to fall into our hands.

      This remarkable medieval biography is known as "Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal." If you do an internet search you may find a translation. You will certainly find many modern biographies (and biographical novels) about Marshal in English. So, if you are truly interested in his life, you have many, many sources to draw on and can spend a good deal of time reading. Have fun!

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