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Monday, July 25, 2022

Survival and Defiance

 Jerusalem had fallen. The king and the bulk of his barons were in captivity. Tens of thousands of Christians had been enslaved and only one city in the former Kingdom of Jerusalem, Tyre, remained in Frankish hands. The County of Tripoli and the Principality of Antioch also still held out. But for how long? The loss of Jerusalem had killed a pope and already set in motion a new crusade, but it would take a year or more for the armies of the West to reach the Levant. In the meantime, the surviving Franks and their native allies had to contrive to survive. And they did.


Saladin’s focus turned to the last city in the former Kingdom of Jerusalem still in Frankish hands: Tyre. The survivors of Hattin, as well as Ibelin with what knights had survived the siege of Jerusalem, were concentrated here under the command of the dynamic Conrad de Montferrat. Montferrat, a brother of Queen Sibylla’s first husband, had arrived off Acre shortly after it surrendered to Saladin. Although totally oblivious of the catastrophe that had befallen the kingdom, he learned of it from the pilot that met his ship. Rather than landing in Arab-held Acre, he sailed for Tyre. Here he found the garrison demoralized and contemplating surrender. He rallied the citizens and defied Saladin, who moved on to easier pickings, but after the surrender of Jerusalem in October 1187, Saladin returned and laid siege to Tyre.

The city was located on an island connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway on which were three, successively higher walls. It was unassailable by sea due to the rocks in the surrounding waters. Despite a number of attempts to force surrender, Tyre held. By the end of December, Saladin’s army had been in the field eight months. Sated with conquests and loot but cold, wet and homesick, it started to disintegrate. After a ruse resulted in the loss of several Saracen ships, Saladin withdrew, leaving Tyre in Frankish hands at the start of 1188.

At the start of the next campaign season, Saladin turned his attention to the two remaining crusader states: Tripoli and Antioch. Tripoli was saved by the timely arrival a fleet of sixty Sicilian ships loaded with crusaders. Saladin had no desire to tangle with such a large, fresh and motivated force and continued up the coast. He destroyed Tortosa 3 July 1188, and subsequently took Valania, Jabala, Latakia, and the castles of Saone, Darbsak and Baghras. Panicked, Prince Bohemond offered Saladin an eight-month truce including a clause to surrender Antioch if no assistance arrived within that time. Saladin, who had no desire to waste time and troops on besieging a city as formidable as Antioch, agreed.

If Saladin thought the Franks were beaten, however, he was wrong. On 3 June 1189, Frankish troops from Tyre took to the field in an attempt to re-take Sidon. If successful, the operation would have extended Frankish control in the direction of the County of Tripoli and enabled Sidon to be used as a base for the re-capture of the more important port of Beirut. Regaining control of Sidon and Beirut would have re-established continuous Frankish control of the coastline of the northern Levant. In addition, firm Frankish control of the region between Tyre and Sidon would have enabled cultivation of the coastal plain. This was important in order to support the population of Tyre, which was flooded with refugees from the rest of the kingdom. Within ten days, however, it was evident that the balance of forces still overwhelmingly favored the Saracens, and the Franks withdrew to Tyre. Although not a success, the incident is poignant evidence of the fighting spirit of the men of Outremer.

Meanwhile, Saladin had released Guy de Lusignan after the latter swore never to take up arms against Muslims again and promised to go ‘across the sea.’ Instead of keeping his word, Lusignan went to Antioch and in the summer of 1189 returned to his lost kingdom with a force of perhaps seven hundred knights and nine thousand foot-soldiers. After being refused admittance to Tyre by Conrad de Montferrat, who argued Guy had lost his crown when he lost his kingdom, Guy’s small army continued down the coast to lay siege to Acre.

This important port had once been the economic heart of the kingdom, but the Christian population had been expelled after surrendering to Saladin in July 1187. It was now heavily garrisoned with Egyptian troops fiercely loyal to Saladin. Because Acre was located deep inside Saracen held territory, a Frankish siege of Acre required continuous re-provisioning and reinforcements by sea. Furthermore, Saladin quickly brought up troops to besiege the besiegers.

The ensuing siege lasted two full years and cost tens of thousands of Christian lives. According to the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, one of the most important contemporary accounts, the siege cost Christendom the Patriarch of Jerusalem, six archbishops, twelve bishops, forty counts, and five hundred barons. While there are no reliable sources for the number of commoners lost, one contemporary observer claimed 75% of the participants died, another that ‘more than half’ never went home. In either case, tens of thousands of ordinary people -- fighting men, clergy and camp followers -- were lost in the siege of Acre.

Furthermore, although both sides repeatedly launched assaults against the other, all were ultimately defeated at high cost. Between these major battles, small scale skirmishing occurred on an almost daily basis, causing continuous attrition. Ultimately, however, disease, deprivation, and unsanitary conditions accounted for the lion’s share of the casualties. In short, the history of the Siege of Acre is a grim tale of stalemate reminiscent of the horrible trench warfare of WWI and ultimately just as senseless. Except for possibly distracting Saladin from renewed assaults on Tyre, Tripoli and Antioch, it served no military purpose.

The siege also ended the reign and life of Queen Sibylla. She died of an unnamed illness along with her two surviving children. Since Guy de Lusignan ruled only by right of his wife, Sibylla’s death destroyed the last shreds of Guy’s legitimacy. The barons of Jerusalem promptly recognized Sibylla’s sister Isabella as the rightful heir to the throne. Isabella, however, was still married to the man who had betrayed them in 1186: Humphrey de Toron. Under no circumstances were the surviving barons prepared to do homage to Humphrey de Toron. Furthermore, having been tricked once by Sibylla’s promises to divorce and remarry, the lords of Outremer insisted on Isabella divorcing Humphrey and marrying their candidate, Conrad de Montferrat, before they would do homage.

Despite the outraged polemics and histrionic language of some of the chronicles, which insist on speaking of an ‘abduction’ worse than that of Helen of Troy, the facts are remarkably straight forward and undisputed. In mid-November 1190, Isabella was removed from the tent she shared with Humphrey de Toron at the siege camp of Acre against her will. She was not, however, taken and raped by Conrad. Instead, she was sequestered and protected by the senior French cleric, the Bishop of Beauvais, while a church court was convened to rule on the validity of her marriage to Humphrey. The case hinged on the important theological principle of consent. Humphrey claimed that Isabella had consented to the marriage, but when challenged by a witness to the wedding he ‘said nothing’ and backed down. It was further proved that Isabella was only eleven at the time of her marriage to Humphrey, making her below the legal age for consent. This meant whether she had consented as a child or not, the marriage was invalid. The court ruled exactly this and the marriage was dissolved. Isabella agreed to marry Conrad de Montferrat and following the wedding ceremony the barons of Jerusalem did homage to her as their queen.

Chronicles hostile to Montferrat allege rampant corruption, vile motives on the part of the barons and Isabella’s mother, and dismiss eighteen-year-old Isabella because ‘a woman’s opinion changes very easily’ and girls are ‘easily taught to do what is morally wrong.’[i] Modern historians and novelists are apt to focus on the melodrama of a young woman dragged from the bed of ‘the man she loved’ in order to marry a man picked by others. Either way, the allegations of base motives are unfounded in fact and the portrayal of Isabella is one of a helpless pawn. In fact, Isabella was given a clear and simple choice: she could re-marry Humphrey or she could have the crown of Jerusalem. Isabella chose the crown — despite the fact that her kingdom consisted of exactly one city and a miserable and beleaguered siege camp on the day she made her choice.


[i] Itinerarium, chpt. 63, 124.

The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades. The situation in the Holy Land after the fall of Jerusalem is the subject of Envoy of Jerusalem, which also describes the Third Crusade.


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