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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.

1 comment:

  1. Guy de Lusignan . . . one of the greatest tragedies to ever befall the west. Tragic.

    If only someone had thought to murder him in his cradle.


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