The Franks were helpless in the face of the Mamluk onslaught. They simply did not have the resources or the defensible borders necessary to win a military confrontation with armies drawn from the entire region and subject to centralised, professional control. Nor could they win a diplomatic game with a power uninterested in coexistence or even economic self-interest.
It did not help that, except for Cyprus, the crusader states had started to rot away from the inside. The problem was twofold. On the one hand, the increasingly urban character of the state and the growth in commercial activities had resulted in the Italian merchant states with their poisonous rivalries playing a more dominant role. On the other hand, ever since Frederick II had sailed away, the ruling dynasty had been absent from the kingdom and disinterested in its fate.
The unity of the kingdom was shaken when the bitter rivalry between the Venetians and the Genoese erupted into open warfare. Not only did the parties engage in bloodshed on the streets of Acre, but the militant orders took opposite sides, and the barons of the kingdom were divided. Since there was no king present in the country, there was no forceful central authority to enforce a settlement. The war ended with a sea battle between the fleets of the respective rivals in which the Genoese lost half their ships and an estimated 1,700 men. That hardly strengthened the kingdom, even if it ended the immediate bloodshed.
The issue of absentee kings was arguably the single most important factor that undermined the internal viability of the crusader states in the thirteenth century. Even the long drawn out civil war is only imaginable in the absence of the king. Had Frederick II been prepared to stay in the Holy Land or to send his son Conrad to grow up and live there, the rebel barons would not have stood a chance of effectively defying his authority.
After the capture of Tyre, the barons recognised as regent the closest relative of the absent Hohenstaufen monarch living in the Holy Land. This is usually portrayed as a cynical attempt to retain control of affairs, but instead should be seen as an effort to find a ruler with a stake in the kingdom. The first of these regents had been the Dowager Queen of Cyprus, Alice of Champagne. Alice was followed by her son King Henry I of Cyprus until his death in 1253 and then by his son King Hugh II. The latter two kings appointed regents of the Kingdom of Jerusalem who resided there and could exercise a modicum of weak power, but they were not comparable to a resident king such as those Jerusalem had throughout most of the twelfth century. Yet worse was still to come.
In 1268, Conradin of Hohenstaufen died without heirs, and a succession dispute broke out between King Hugh III of Cyprus and Maria of Antioch. With a mercenary disregard for the well-being of the kingdom, Maria of Antioch sold her claim to Charles d’Anjou, the younger brother of King Louis of France. Charles, like the latter Hohenstaufens, never set foot in the kingdom. He merely sent a baillie who successfully exploited self-interest and personal vanity to undermine King Hugh’s authority. As a result, the latter abandoned the Kingdom of Jerusalem in disgust and returned to Cyprus. By the time Charles d’Anjou died in 1284, enabling Henry II of Cyprus to be recognised and crowned as undisputed King of Jerusalem, the kingdom existed in name only.
Baybars and Qalawun had been systematically chipping away at the substance of the kingdom, not only by open assault but by cutting deals with individual lords and cities in a classic example of ‘divide and conquer’. All these separate treaties were short-sighted as it must have been obvious to all that no one city could withstand the Mamluks on their own. Yet fear and weakness misled individual lords to cling to illusions even as the world unraveled around them. Other lords gave up altogether, selling out to the military orders, which were the only institutions that appeared to have the necessary resources – based on their vast networks in the west – to stand up to the Mamluks.
By 1282 the kingdom had been reduced to nothing but a collection of isolated cities and castles with little connection between them, let alone a common government and policy. It was no longer possible to travel overland between the various cities without a sizeable, armed escort. While the cities became larger with walls enclosing larger urban areas, the countryside became first depopulated and then hostile.
In 1285 the Mamluks captured the renowned Hospitaller castle at Marqab. In 1287 the port of Latakia was taken. In 1289, despite a truce then in effect, Qalawun attacked and captured Tripoli. As usual, he slaughtered the men, enslaved the women and children, and then destroyed the harbor, castle and fortifications, as well as the churches and other structures. In 1290 Qalawun died, but he was succeeded by a son as ruthless as himself, al-Ashraf Khalil, who quashed several rebellions among his own emirs. The assault on the Franks continued.
In April 1291, the siege of Acre began. At this time, Acre had a population of roughly 20,000, and the walls had been reinforced both by King Louis following his first crusade and by Edward of England, who had briefly campaigned indecisively in the Holy Land in 1271-1272. The Mamluks held an 11 to 1 manpower advantage and had brought numerous siege engines and engineers to undermine the walls. The outcome was never in doubt. All that was left to the Franks was what Balian d’Ibelin had promised Saladin at Jerusalem in 1187: to die fighting and take as many of the enemy with them as possible.
The Genoese didn’t feel like martyrs and withdrew by ship at once. With them went those women, children and other non-combatants who could afford passage. Left behind were predominantly fighting men — the reverse of the 1187 situation in Jerusalem. Those willing to fight and die for the honour of their already dead kingdom were the Venetians, Pisans, Templars, Hospitaller and Teutonic Knights. The Templars and Hospitallers were both commanded by their respective masters. Total forces are estimated at roughly 14,000 fighting men, of which 700 were knights.
The Mamluks opened the siege with their engines and conducted repeated assaults. On the night of 14-15 April, the Templars attempted a night sortie against the Mamluks led by the Master William de Beaujeu; the Hospitallers did likewise a few days later. Neither had any significant impact on the enemy. Thereafter, the knights resigned themselves to a defensive battle.
On 4 May, King Henry arrived from Cyprus with several hundred knights and 500 infantry, but these forces were insufficient to alter the balance of forces. Furthermore, the walls had been undermined, and the hammering of the siege engines was taking its toll. King Henry tried to negotiate and received a brusque rejection.
On 18 May, one of the towers collapsed after being mined, forcing the defenders to abandon the large suburb of Montmusard. They retreated to the old city but were unable to hold the onslaught that swept in after them. Fighting became hand-to-hand and street-to-street. The Templar Master took a mortal wound in the armpit, and two of his brothers carried him on their shields to the Templar headquarters where he died. The Hospitaller Master was also wounded, but not mortally. He was carried to a Hospitaller ship in the harbor, which then put to sea. King Henry likewise took ship and returned to Cyprus with as many of his men as he could collect. The Patriarch of Jerusalem tried to depart, but he allowed so many swimmers into his longboat while rowing out to a waiting galley that it capsized and sank.
With so many fleeing for the port, the defence of the city collapsed altogether, and a bloodbath ensued. Those who could sought refuge behind the walls of the Templar citadel, located in the southwest corner of the city, backed up against the sea to the west and the harbor to the south. It is unknown how many people ultimately found refuge here, but it must have been hundreds, if not thousands. For five days, they remained inside while Acre was looted and burned around them.
On 25 May, the Templar marshal negotiated a surrender that would allow those inside to depart unharmed. When the gates were opened, and the Mamluks entered, however, they began molesting the women and children. This was either a misunderstanding, i.e., the Mamluks believed the safe conduct applied only to fighting men, or the emir accepting the surrender did not have control over his troops. The Templars, who were still armed, responded by killing all the Saracens within their headquarters and then defiantly raising the black-and-white Baucent over the ramparts again. As they did so, they must have known that they thereby sealed all hopes of surrender.
The sultan sent for the Templar marshal the next day, allegedly to renegotiate. The marshal, either foolish or seeking martyrdom, went to meet his fate and was beheaded within sight of those in the Templar citadel. The Mamluks undermined the walls of the citadel, causing a breach on 28 May. As thousands of Saracens rushed in triumphantly, the entire Temple crashed down, killing defenders and attackers alike.
Meanwhile, Tyre — which had withstood two sieges by Saladin and provided the beachhead for the Third Crusade — was evacuated May 19. This meant that all that remained of the Kingdom of Jerusalem were Sidon, Beirut and the Templar castles of Tortosa and Athlit (Castle Pilgrim). Sidon fell to assault in June. Beirut surrendered July 31, and the Templar castles were evacuated August 3 and 14, respectively.
Unlike 1187, there was no foothold left from which to launch a new crusade, and the loss of Acre did not trigger one. The crusading spirit had become too diffused and weakened over the previous century. Meanwhile, the Mamluk policy of economic destruction ensured that the trading routes that had once passed through the Levant had shifted north across what is now Turkey or south to Egypt. The once great cities were left in ruins, plundered for stone by the peasants and reclaimed by the dunes, or partially rebuilt as provincial towns. Once a flourishing crossroads of goods, technology and culture, the entire region became a forgotten backwater for centuries to come.
Of the crusader states, Cyprus alone remained in Frankish hands. It took in the refugees of all religions and ethnic groups, and for roughly a century, Famagusta became the commercial heir to Acre. But that is another story.
The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.