Thursday, January 10, 2019

Crusader Castles

One of the most impressive and visible legacies of the crusader kingdoms are the castles erected by Latin rulers in their territories.  Yet, T.E. Lawrence, famous as “Lawrence of Arabia,” disparaged the crusader castles as irrelevant and ineffective because these fortifications ultimately proved incapable of preventing the fall of the crusader kingdoms. 

This is too facile a judgment. In fact, the crusader castles enabled numerically small fighting forces to withstand repeated invasions by numerically vastly superior armies. Christian defeats in the first hundred years of the crusader kingdoms occurred almost exclusively in the open field, where Muslim leaders could bring their larger forces to bear, e.g. the Field of Blood (1119), Hattin, (1187). By contrast, when the crusaders retreated into their fortified cities or castles, forcing the Saracens to besiege them, they usually survived to fight another day. Yet even the strongest walls require defenders and when a castle like Krak de Cheveliers, built to be defended by 2,000 knights, has a garrison of only a few hundred, it becomes indefensible. Outremer was not lost because its castles were irrelevant or ineffective, but because its castles could not be used as intended due to inadequate and dwindling manpower.

It is also important to remember, that crusader castles were not merely border fortresses designed for the defense of the realm against external enemies. They were also administrative and economic centers, symbols of royal/baronial power, residences, and places of refuge.  As in Western Europe, castles came in different sizes and designs, each reflective of the original and evolving purposes of the castle and the wealth and power of respective patrons.

Adrian Boas, in his excellent work Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East, identified no less than five basic types of crusader castles. The simplest form of castle was a simple tower. Similar castles were already known in the West and became popular in, for example, Scotland. In the crusader kingdoms, such castles were usually square with a windowless cellar/undercroft used for storage, wells and or kitchens, over which were built two floors topped by a crenolated fighting platform on the roof.  Access from the outside was usually only at first floor level by means of an exterior stair that ended several yards away from the door; the gap was bridged by a wooden draw-bridge that could be closed from the interior to cover and so reinforce the door. Each floor had two or more barrel or cross-vaulted chambers, which might have been further partitioned by wooden walls or roofs/floors. Out-buildings containing workshops, storerooms, stables and the like were located around the foot of the tower but were not themselves defensible. A splendid, although late, example of a crusader tower castle is the Hospitaller castle at Kolossi on Cyprus.

A second type of crusader castle, the castrum or enclosure castle, had their roots in Roman military architecture and evolved from Roman forts via Byzantium into crusader castles consisting of a defensible perimeter with reinforcing towers at the corners. The concept was similar to creating a ring of wagons behind which pioneers in the “wild west” defended themselves from attack by Indians or outlaws. The Muslims had also adapted this type of defensive structure, and on their arrival in the Holy Land the Franks took over a number of existing castles of this type. In addition, they built a number of castles following this design for themselves, notably Coliath in the County of Tripoli, Blanchegarde, and Gaza in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. These castles had large vaulted chambers with massive walls roughly three meters thick running between the corner towers. These housed the various activities necessary to castle life from kitchens and stables to forges, bakeries and bath-houses. The upper story of the enclosing buildings generally held accommodations, eating halls and chapels for the garrison. The roofs of the buildings were the fighting platform facing out in all directions and reinforced by the corner towers that provided covering fire.

The third type of crusader castle was a combination of the previous types: a strong roughly rectangular complex built around a tower or keep.  The enclosing walls (with their vaulted chambers) and corner towers formed the first line of defense and the keep the second. A surviving example of this kind of castle is Gibelet (Jubayl) in the County of Tripoli, and based on William of Tyre’s descriptions the royal castle at Darum in the Kingdom of Jerusalem was of this time.

As the Franks became wealthier or the threat became more intense the Franks started building outer works to provide a line of defense in beyond (i.e. before) the castrum containing so many vital parts of the castle’s inner life. These outer works may have originally been intended to provide a modicum of protection to the towns that often grew up around castles, but they soon evolved into what became one of the most distinctive, indeed iconic, type of crusader castle: the concentric castle. These were generally the castles of the military orders, built with the huge resources available to them and were more purely devoted to military dominance rather than the castles of securlar lords or royal castles. These were the castles that inspired Edward I’s castles in Wales. In addition to Krak de Cheveliers, a famous example of this type of castle was Belvoir, overlooking the Jordan valley. Belvoir held out against Saladin a year and a half after the Battle of Hattin; Krak he never even tried to assault, deeming it too strong.

Boas distinguishes between hill top and spur castles, but both of these castles were essentially castles that took advantage of natural geographic features to strengthen the overall defensibility of the castle. The hill-top castles and mountain spur castles were built on the top of steep slopes either occupying an entire hill-top of the tip of a longer corniche. They were undoubtedly the most difficult to take by storm since, built on bedrock, they were hard to undermine, and built on steep escarpments they were almost impossible to assault. Kerak, the castle of Reynald de Chatillon, was a spur castle and it withstood two unsuccessful sieges by Saladin, falling only to disease or demoralization more than a year after the Battle of Hattin.

Other crusader castles of this type were Montfort (or as the Teutonic Knights called it, Starkenburg), Beaufort/Belfort, Margat, and Saone.

A variation on the theme of the spur castle was the use of the sea rather than sheer mountain sides to provide protection. The Templar castle of Atlit Castle (Castle Pilgrim) and the castle at Tyre were both built on peninsulas extending into the sea and only accessible on one side from the land.  These castles proved almost impossible to capture as again, mining was impossible from three sides and assaults from boats were very precarious and difficult to carry out. As a result, a much smaller defensive force could hold such castles since only one side was vulnerable to attack and only a light watch was needed on the other three sides. Tyre became the only city in the Kingdom of Jerusalem that successfully resisted Saladin after the Battle of Hattin and became the base from which the coastal plain was reconquered.

I will be introducing four key crusader castles, Kerak, St. Hilarion, Kantara and Crak de Chevaliers in the coming months.

Castles play an important part in all my novels set in the crusader states. 

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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 most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:


Thursday, January 3, 2019

"The Old Lord of Beirut" - John d'Ibelin Part III

Contemporaries praised his wisdom and restraint, churchmen called him "exceedingly Christian and energetic,"(1) and modern historians have drawn parallels between him and St. Louis.(2)
Significantly, despite his rebellion, John d'Ibelin was never viewed as a rebel, much less a hothead, and while he won the decisive battles of his war against the Holy Roman Emperor, he was admired not as a military man, but rather as a statesman.

Today I conclude my three part biography of John d'Ibelin.

When the Emperor sailed away from the Holy Land in May 1228, he evidently believed he had succeeded in his objectives. He had obtained the nominal return of Jerusalem to Christian hands (and others would have to worry about the details of defending it), and he had worn the Imperial crown in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, gaining a great propaganda victory in his struggle with the papacy. That he left behind outraged subjects (who expressed their feelings by throwing offal at him) apparently did not bother him in the least. He never once returned to Jerusalem, nor did he send any of his sons to rule the kingdom in his name. Although he claimed the title and the revenues, he left the business of ruling to the lieutenants he appointed. In doing so, he made a major miscalculation: he treated John d'Ibelin as an irritant to be exterminated with the wave of the imperial hand.

On Cyprus, Frederick appointed five men joint "baillies" and ordered them to dispossess the Ibelins and their partisans of their lands and to further ensure that the neither the Lord of Beirut nor any of his sons, kinsmen or supporters ever set foot on the Island of Cyprus again. Note, there had never been a trial before the High Court of Cyprus to establish any wrong-doing on the part of Beirut. The latter had not been given a chance to defend himself before his peers. His sons and supporters were even more innocent of any crime, being guilty only of the "crime" of kinship or loyalty. The emperor's actions were not only arbitrary, they were petty and vindictive.

The five baillies, furthermore, had been appointed in exchange for payment of 10,000 marks. They needed to raise that revenue. Evidently, expropriating the properties of the Ibelins and their supporters did not promise sufficient revenue to pay that debt in full, because they set about raising taxes.  The actions against the House of Ibelin and their supporters resulted in hundreds of women and children seeking refuge with the militant orders, particularly the Hospitallers, while the new taxes simply served to make the baillies unpopular with the rest of the Cypriot population. 

From the Lord of Beirut's perspective the Emperor had now gone back on his word three times. First, at the banquet when he promised to honor his "beloved cousins" and "honored uncle." Second, during the crusade when, despite swearing to forgive all that had gone before, he attacked the women and children of Ibelin and his supporters while their men served in the Emperor's army, and third, by ordering the baillies to dispossess him and his followers without a judgement of the court, a condition that the Emperor had accepted in his signed agreement with Beirut in September 1228.

Beirut had had enough. He raised an army in Syria which included his brother-in-law the Lord of Caesarea. With this small force, he forced a landing at Gastria, and then rode inland toward Nicosia. During this advance, he announced his intention only of securing the safety and control of the properties that had been illegally confiscated.  He stated that he did not seek to secure restoration of his position as baillie of Cyprus.  In short, he attempted to build a bridge to the Imperial baillies, offering them a compromise that would enable them to retain power, as long as they recognized that no confiscations could take place without a judgement of the High Court.  The baillies chose not to accept this compromise.  They called up the Cypriot army and marched out to meet the Ibelins in battle. 

On July 14, 1229 in a plowed field outside of Nicosia, the Ibelins routed the army of the five baillies. However, all five of the emperor's deputies escaped the field and took refuge in the royal castles at Kantara, Kyrenia, and St. Hilarion. The Ibelins successfully besieged these castles, and one by one they fell to the Ibelins, the last being St. Hilarion shortly after Easter 1230. 

Significantly, Beirut -- against the advice of his closest advisorers -- granted amnesty to the five baillies. Equally significantly, the young King of Cyprus, who had been in the custody of the Emperor and, after his departure, the baillies, welcomed the Ibelins. Indeed, for the rest of his life, Henry of Lusignan favored the Ibelins. It is King Henry's staunch support for the Ibelins even after he was king, combined with the fact that he sought independence from the Holy Roman Emperor, that belie the suggestions Beirut was disloyal to his king. 

In 1232, Emperor Frederick sent an army to Outremer under a Sicilian admiral, Richard  Filangieri.  The latter had the explicit mandate to re-establish Imperial authority -- and to confiscate all lands and titles from the Ibelins and expel them from both Cyprus and Syria. As before, no charges were brought against Beirut, certainly not with regards to his right to hold Beirut for which he held clear royal charters. Curiously, roughly a dozen other Syrian lords were also summarily dismissed by the Holy Roman Emperor at this time.  As before, the Emperor felt entitled to act without a hearing or judgement by their peers. Again Beirut, and now a dozen other Syrian barons, was denied the right to defend themselves before a court. This was a blatant and crude violation of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It was tyranny.

Beirut got wind of Filangieri's approach and rushed to Cyprus with all his men. On finding Ibelin troops in possession of the ports of Cyprus, however, Filangieri did not attempt a landing but rather sent envoys ashore to King Henry of Cyprus demanding that he banish from his kingdom the Lord of Beirut "and all his relatives." The King replied, he could do neither. First, he could not banish Beirut because he was his vassal and deserving of his support, and, second, he could not banish Beirut's relatives since he too was a kinsman of Beirut. (His mother was Beirut's niece.) 

So Filangieri sailed away and laid siege to John d'Ibelin's power base: Beirut itself. Although the city surrendered quickly, the citadel held out. Beirut mustered all the support he had, including King Henry of Cyprus, and made a dangerous winter crossing to Syria. His initial efforts to lift the siege of Beirut failed, but he managed to slip some reinforcements into the citadel.  He next tried to attract the support of the Prince of Antioch, but this also ended in failure.  Next the Templars, who had initially supported him, turned against him on instructions from the pope, who was temporarily reconciled with the Hohenstaufen.  Meanwhile, his sons suffered a major defeat at the hands of Imperial forces at Casal Imbert.  Nevertheless, Beirut persisted and dramatically won over the commons at Acre and the Genoese to his cause. Imperial forces were at last forced to lift the siege of Beirut.

Meanwhile, King Henry had come of age, and he remained by Beirut's side. Together, they returned to Cyprus where, in their absence, Imperial forces had seized control of the capital, the ports and were laying siege to the Ibelin women and King Henry's sisters in the fortress of St. Hilarion.

 The castle of St. Hilarion

In a full-scale battle, the Lord of Beirut routed the Imperialist army a second time, forcing it to retreat to Kyrenia. The same day he lifted the imperial siege of St. Hilarion. The re-capture of Cyprus took only days, and the population welcomed the return of their King and the Ibelins as liberators. 

Although the siege of Kyrenia dragged on, the surrender was inevitable and the Emperor never again attempted impose his governors or will on Cyprus. Instead, in 1248 the Pope formally absolved Henry I of all oaths he had made to the Holy Roman Emperor, and Cyprus became a completely independent kingdom, no longer a part of the Empire.

The conflict meanwhile shifted entirely to Syria, where Filangieri as the Emperor's representative created increasing hostility to the Imperial cause. Hisautocratic behavior, not least his repeated attempts to expel Beirut from his fief without cause or trial, had turned the majority of the barons and knights against the Emperor.  As a result, over the next several years a series of legal arguments were developed to deny the Emperor and his heirs any basis of power in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. 

This did not preclude repeated attempts to mediate between the parties. The Teutonic Knights and the pope himself, among others, attempted to reconcile the barons of Outremer to Hohenstaufen rule. At one point, the Pope threatened the Lord of Beirut and the citizens of Acre, who were loyal to Beirut, with excommunication and interdict respectively -- only to rapidly back down when he learned the citizens of Acre were simply turning to Orthodox Christianity! One of the more creative suggestions that appears to have originated with the Emperor's brother-in-law and brother of the English King, Earl Richard of Cornwall, was that the Emperor should recall Filangieri and replace him instead with his kinsman Simon de Montfort. (Frederick had married the English princess Isabella Plantagenet, whose sister Eleanor was married to Montfort.) Notably, the Lord of Beirut, his sons and two of his nephews were consistently excluded from all the Emperor's promises of pardon, but the barons of Outremer just as steadfastly refused to make a peace without him. 

In 1236, the Lord of Beirut took part in a Hospitaller campaign from Crac de Chevaliers against the ruler of Hamah with 100 Cypriot knights. Beirut, who was now about 57 years old, was involved in some kind of riding accident, in which his horse fell on him. He was so badly injured that he took to his bed, ordered his affairs, and then joined the Knights Templar in preparation for death.

According to the account left by Beirut's loyal vassal Philip de Novare, Beirut "died well." Novare writes: "For his sins he made amends, and for many things he made amends which most men would not hold as sins; his debts he paid for he had at that day great belongings and property besides his fiefs, and all he gave for God and for his soul, by his own hand with good memory; many fiefs he gave his children, and commanded that they should be vassals of and hold from their oldest brother."(3) In short, his protracted struggle with the most powerful monarch on earth had been won so completely that he was not even impoverished at his death!

Looking back on his rebellion, what is most striking is that he could defy the Holy Roman Emperor -- and at times the Pope -- without seriously undermining his own popularity and the support and devotion of his sons, his brothers-in-law, nephews, vassals, the commons of Acre, and the majority of peers. Yes, Barlais and his co-regents on Cyprus fought Beirut bitterly. Yes, Balian de Sidon (one of his nephews) long tried to remain neutral in the conflict and mediate. Likewise, Eudes de Montbeliard was an Imperial baillie and clearly not in Beirut's camp -- to begin with. Yet, it would have been far more normal for the bulk of the knights and barons to side with the "stronger" in any fight, and by any objective measure the Holy Roman Emperor was "the stronger. " 

Frederick Hohenstaufen had destroyed his Welf rival in Germany. He had eradicated the Saracen threat on Sicily and obliterated the last traces of independence among his Sicilian barons. He scattered the forces of the pope simply by landing in Sicily. He had crushed his son's rebellion with ease. He had smashed the army of Milan at Cortenuova. How was it possible he was defeated by an obscure Syrian baron? Was it simply that he never devoted enough force and attention to a problem he considered an irritant rather than a threat to his grand vision of Emperor of Christendom?  Or was the fundamental injustice of his cause the real reason for his defeat?

Frederick II's war was a vindictive personal war against a vassal without a trace of evidence or an attempt to rely on rational argument -- worse even in some ways than his vicious persecution of his decades long "spokesman" della Vigna. For an monarch usually held up by historians as the embodiment of reason in a age of alleged "bigotry" and "fanaticism," Frederick II's war against the Ibelins was a ugly and distasteful vendetta that historians prefer to sweep under the carpet.

1) Wilbrand, Bishop of Oldenburg, quoted in Peter Edbury, John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Boydell, 1997.
2) La Monte, John. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus by Philip de Novare, Colombia University Press, 1936, p. 49.
3) Novare, Philip. Translated by La Monte, The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus by Philip de Novare, Colombia University Press, 1936, p. 169.

The struggle between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Ibelins is the subject of my next series starting with:

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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 most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: