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Monday, August 29, 2022

Resurgent Frankish Presence in the Levant, 1192-1244

 With the wisdom of hindsight, the “second kingdom” of Jerusalem is usually portrayed as fragile, vulnerable and continuously tottering on the brink of collapse. This is a misleading exaggeration that reduces a century of history to a single snapshot taken at the end of that hundred years. In the half century between the departure of the Third Crusade and the catastrophic defeat of the Frankish army at La Forbie in 1244, the re-constituted kingdom experienced a period of comparative prosperity, peace, and territorial expansion. 


 Without question the most important event enabling this remarkable recovery was the death of Saladin in 1193. His death led to the fragmentation of his empire into bickering principalities based in Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, al-Jazira, Hama, Homs, Ba’albek and the Transjordan. Each of these mini-states was ruled by a different member of the Ayyubid dynasty. Rivalry among the various rulers for dominance over the entire empire was perennial. Although punctuated by periods of comparative calm when one or another of the various princes temporarily came out on top, the competition between the various Ayyubids for dominance frequently sparked open warfare.

Probably to bolster his position vis-à-vis his relatives and rivals, Saladin’s brother al-Adil turned on the crusader states in 1197, attacking Acre in September 1197. Although source material for this campaign is very limited, one contemporary source claims he mustered an army 70,000 strong. Al-Adil was decisively defeated in a day-long battle fought on the plain before Acre by a combined force of Franks and German crusaders.

The Germans had come to the Holy Land as part of a crusade organized by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who had taken the cross in 1195. Historians estimate that the numbers of crusaders involved in this crusade equaled or exceeded participation in the Third Crusade, and the leaders included some of the most powerful nobles of the Holy Roman Empire. Contingents started to arrive in the Holy Land in the spring of 1197, and the main force sailed into Acre harbor on 22 September 1197, albeit without the Emperor himself.

Trouble began almost at once. The Germans crusaders behaved so arrogantly toward the local population that tensions erupted. The German leadership wisely intervened and removed their troops from the city to camp outside. Meanwhile, having failed to seize Acre, al-Adil turned his attention on Jaffa. Henri of Champagne swiftly tried to collect a force to relieve the beleaguered city only to be killed in a bizarre accident. He either accidentally stepped backwards out of a window or the entire balcony collapsed under him. Either way, this sudden tragedy put an end to the relief efforts and Jaffa fell to al-Adil. The barons of Jerusalem were compelled to find a new husband for their widowed queen, who could command the armies of the kingdom. Their choice fell on the man who had transformed Cyprus from a hotbed of rebellion into a stable monarchy under Frankish rule: Aimery de Lusignan. In January 1198, Aimery married Queen Isabella and was crowned King of Jerusalem.

Even before his coronation, however, Lusignan brought Cypriot troops to the mainland and took command of the forces of Jerusalem in order to conduct an offensive campaign in cooperation with the German crusaders. Rather than attempting to confront al-Adil at Jaffa, Aimery led the army north against the poorly garrisoned cities of Sidon, Beirut, Gibelet and Botron, thereby eliminating the Muslim-controlled enclaves that had separated the Kingdom of Jerusalem from the County of Tripoli.

The Germans next laid siege to Toron, but before they achieved their objective, word reached the Holy Land that Emperor Henry VI had died, living behind a three-year-old son. This news led to the disintegration of the German crusade as the leading nobles hurried home to deal with the inevitable power struggles that would ensue. It was left to the King of Jerusalem to negotiate a truce with al-Adil, which was signed 1 July 1198.

By 1200, al-Adil had successfully established his dominance over his brother’s empire, completely sidelining all of his brother’s seventeen sons. Thereafter, he demonstrated a distinct disinclination to tangle with the Franks. This policy of caution vis-à-vis the crusader states proved a trademark of the entire Ayyubid era (1193-1260). On the one hand it reflected the lesson learned during the Third Crusade, namely: no matter how complete a victory appeared, there were limitless numbers of fanatical Christians willing to come East to reverse it. According to a leading historian of the Ayyubids, ‘the Ayyubids were willing to go to extraordinary lengths in making treaties and conceding territory in order to avoid provoking the arrival of fresh waves of crusaders.’[i]

On the other hand, the Ayyubids had an economic interest in peace. The rulers of Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia profited immensely from the export of goods through the ports of the Levant to Western Europe. To foster this profitable trade, the Ayyubids were willing to grant Western, predominantly Italian, merchants trading privileges inside their own territories. Yet they also recognized that many more foreign merchants preferred to operate from the Christian-controlled cities along the coast and therefore had no interest in eliminating these important transshipment points. Nothing was more important to the maintenance of that trade than peace. Thus, for the sake of revenues that supported their lifestyle — and their wars with their brothers, cousins and other Muslim rulers — the Ayyubid princes were willing to come to terms with the Franks. In consequence, throughout the Ayyubid period relations with the Frankish kingdoms were characterized by truces, alliances and counter-alliances. When circumstances favored it, these tactical alliances included active cooperation between Franks and Saracens.

Such policies inevitably drew the censure of the Muslim religious elites who dominated the literate class recording history. It is through their lens that we are shown the princes of Islam abandoning jihad in order to pursue pleasures and sport. Yet trade benefitted the economy at large, not just the princes, and so did peace. It would be wrong, therefore, to infer widespread discontent with Ayyubid policies, despite the disapproval of Islamic clerical chroniclers.  

The Ayyubid’s counterparts in the crusader states were likewise more detached from crusading ideology than ever before.  During the thirteenth century, the popes greatly expanded the concept of crusading to include wars against heretics (Albigensians), pagans (the Baltic crusades), and political rivals (the ‘crusades’ against the Hohenstaufens). In addition, the papacy increasingly stressed the penitential nature of crusading, thereby de-emphasizing the importance of concrete results. The Franks of Outremer, in contrast, were focused on survival and prosperity. For the inhabitants of the crusader kingdoms, recovery of lost territory, including Jerusalem, remained a priority less for emotional and religious reasons than for the material benefits they brought. Regaining control of the fertile agricultural hinterland behind the coastal cities was important to economic autonomy, while re-establishing more defensible, forward borders such as the Jordan and the Dead Sea contributed significantly to security. The Franks wanted results, but the Western crusaders, it became clear, were more interested in their own souls (and benefits) than in the Holy Land.

In 1204, forces initially raised for a campaign to regain Jerusalem were diverted by Venice to attack commercial rivals. After a complicated series of events, the former crusaders (now Venetian mercenaries) seized Constantinople. While the sack that followed outraged contemporaries from Rome to Mosul, it resulted in the establishment of a Latin ‘Empire’ on the Greek peninsula and straddling the Bosporus and stretching along the northern shore of the Mediterranean. It was flanked by territory still held by Greek Orthodox forces in western Greece and what is now Anatolia.

The impact of this new Frankish entity on the existing crusader states is controversial to this day. Many argue that the existence of a Latin Empire based in Constantinople diverted Western resources that might otherwise have flowed to the older crusader states, but such ‘lost opportunities’ are hard to quantify. Ultimately, the losses may not have been significant simply because the different states attracted different kinds of men. Even during the original campaign, as much as one third of the crusaders refused to be diverted to Constantinople and continued to the Holy Land. Here they joined an army under King Aimery that raided into the Galilee, prompting al-Adil to conclude a new six-year truce on terms highly favorable to the Franks. If the Fourth Crusade had gone ahead as planned, on the other hand, these knights would have been engaged in an assault on Egypt with far more dubious benefits for the existing crusader states. Furthermore, the establishment of the Latin Empire of Constantinople gave the Franks near complete mastery of the Eastern Mediterranean, including the creation of a comparatively stable Frankish state in the Peloponnese. Last but not least, a surge in new mercantile activity on the part of the Italian city-states followed the conquest of Constantinople.

Meanwhile, Christian Armenia was also gaining in strength. The Armenian leaders agreed to a (more nominal than substantive) reconciliation with the Church in Rome, and thereby facilitated closer ties with the crusader states. Inter-marriage with the Princes of Antioch led to dynastic conflict, but throughout this period Christian-controlled territory extended from what is now Alanya on the Turkish Mediterranean coast to Antioch, and then again down the coast of the Levant to Jaffa.

However, bad luck continued to plague the Kingdom of Jerusalem with respect to its dynasty. In late March 1205, Aimery de Lusignan died of food-poisoning after a meal of bad fish. He was followed within weeks by Queen Isabella. The Kingdom of Cyprus passed to Aimery’s six-year-old son Hugh, while the Kingdom of Jerusalem was inherited by Isabella’s oldest surviving child, Marie, her daughter by Conrad de Montferrat, then aged twelve or thirteen. For both children, regents were required. In Cyprus the High Court elected the husband of Hugh’s elder sister Burgundia, Walter de Montbéliard. In Jerusalem, the High Court chose Isabella’s maternal half-brother, John d’Ibelin, Lord of Beirut.

While upholding and renewing truces with the Ayyubids to ensure stability, Beirut’s principal task was finding a suitable husband for Queen Marie, who would replace him at the helm of the kingdom. As so often in the past, the High Court turned to the King of France, requesting a suitable candidate. John de Brienne, a minor nobleman from the Champagne, was selected in 1208, but before coming east he sought to raise funds and troops to enable a military offensive upon his arrival. Thus, Brienne did not reach the Holy Land until 1210. Here he immediately married Marie de Montferrat and was crowned king alongside her in Tyre. He was accompanied by just 300 knights, a force insufficient to alter the balance of power in the Holy Land. Despite raids in Galilee and up the Nile, he enjoyed no significant military successes. So, like his predecessors, he sought yet another six-year truce with the Ayyubids.

In November 1212 misfortune struck again: Marie de Montferrat died giving birth to a daughter. She was just twenty years old, and her infant daughter Yolanda (also referred to as Isabella II) became Queen of Jerusalem at birth. Brienne was recognized as his infant daughter’s regent and, because he was already crowned and anointed, retained the title of king.


[i] Humphreys, R. Stephen. ‘Ayyubids, Mamluks and the Latin East in the Thirteenth Century’, Mamluk Studies Review 2, 10. 

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.


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