In 1229, the rapaciousness of the Emperor’s baillies provoked a response they apparently had not anticipated. In less than three months, they were facing not resistance or insurgency but a full-scale challenge to their authority in the shape of an invasion. Whereas, with their mercenaries, they had held a monopoly on force of arms up to this point, in early July 1229 they were confronted by an army led by two barons with hundreds of knights.
The Ibelins chose to land at a Templar port, possibly in the hope of landing unopposed. The Templars were at this point bitter enemies of Emperor Frederick, who had tried to seize from them their castle at Athlit and then laid siege to their headquarters at Acre. While the Templars had effectively repelled both of these attacks, the Emperor had the last laugh by confiscating their properties across the Holy Roman Empire and in his Kingdom of Sicily as soon as he arrived back in the West. Meanwhile, however, the Templars chose to remain scrupulously neutral in the secular conflict on Cyprus.
According to Novare, “the five baillies strongly resisted the capture of the port; nonetheless, it was taken by force.”[ii] Given the fact that the return of the Ibelins was hardly expected, it seems unlikely that all five baillies got down to Gastria to defend the port. More probable is simply that they had mercenaries stationed at all the ports of the kingdom, and these forces, representing the five baillies put up a fight but were overwhelmed.
Instead, they called up the feudal army including the commons. This included all the tenants-in-chief of the king, their rear-vassals and knights, the turcopoles or light cavalry supplied by the local elites, and the foot-soldiers and archers of the commons. They also pulled together the mercenaries left behind by Frederick II, who Novare identifies as German, Flemish, and Langobard (south Italian), in short forces from the Holy Roman Empire. They were presumably cross-bowmen for the most part, as that was the preferred weapon of mercenaries in this era. They may also have engaged local mercenaries. Their total force would have numbered in the thousands, with several hundred knights.
When the Ibelin force approached Nicosia, the five baillies took their army and marched out to meet them on the outskirts of the city. Despite efforts by the clergy to broker a reconciliation between the parties, there was really no readiness for compromise nor interest in peace by the point. The baillies had taken oaths to prevent the Ibelins from returning and knew that the Emperor would not look favorably upon them if they failed to expel Beirut. Since they held their positions at the Emperor’s pleasure, they really had no choice but to attempt to defeat Beirut so soundly that he never dare return.
Indeed, the sources claim that the baillies took the precaution of detailing 25 of their best knights with the task of killing Beirut. This was hardly chivalrous, to say the least, but the reasoning was undoubtedly that the elimination of Beirut would end their troubles. Whether they also tasked knights to kill his brother-in-law the former Constable of Cyprus is not recorded, but in light of the outcome, this is not impossible.
It was Saturday, July 14, 1229. The two armies drew up across a plowed field. “The captains of the squadrons surveyed each other and reconnoitered on the one hand and on the other; each placed himself opposite to him whom he most hated…”[v] When the sides clashed, it was (as in all civil wars) with a fury and passion unknown between strangers. Soon the dust of the field had been churned up by the hundreds of hooves and was blown about by a strong west wind. Vision was severely impaired.
Meanwhile, the Lord of Beirut's’ eldest son and heir, a young man only about 22-years-old at this time, had succeeded in setting a portion of the enemy army under Sir Hugh de Gibelet to flight. Having chased them off the field, he turned back and re-entered the fray with his still large and intact contingent of knights. This charge appears to have been decisive. Novara describes it like this:
“…as soon as his enemies saw and recognized his standards they were afraid and fled towards the city of Nicosia. Sir Balian, who came in advance of all the others, encountered them most eagerly and struck their standard bearer so hard that he himself fell to the ground, he and his horse falling together; there were many taken and killed, but many escaped due to the fall of Sir Balian.”[vii]
The Ibelins had won a great victory and in so doing had re-established themselves on Cyprus, rewarded their followers with the return of their fiefs, and also rescued the women and children who had been frightened into seeking sanctuary with the Knights of Saint John. But they had by no means won the war. Their first task was to drive the four remaining baillies out of their impregnable fortresses — and free King Henry of Cyprus.