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Sunday, May 21, 2023

Life in the Crusader States: Military Architecture

One of the most impressive and visible legacies of the crusader kingdoms are the castles erected by Latin rulers, Frankish nobleman, and in particular, the military orders. T.E. Lawrence, better known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, famously disparaged the crusader castles as irrelevant and ineffective because these fortifications ultimately proved incapable of preventing the fall of the crusader kingdoms. Such a judgement is facile.

Christian defeats in the first 150 years of the crusader kingdoms occurred almost exclusively in the open field, where Muslim leaders could bring their larger forces to bear, e.g., the Field of Blood (1119), Hattin, (1187) and La Forbie (1244). By contrast, when the crusaders retreated into their fortified cities or castles, forcing the Saracens to besiege them, they usually survived to fight another day. Outremer was not lost because its castles were irrelevant or ineffective, but due to a variety of causes discussed elsewhere.

In his excellent work ‘Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East’, Adrian Boas identified no less than five basic types of crusader castles. The simplest was the tower castle. Similar castles were already known in the West and became popular in, for example, Scotland. In the crusader kingdoms, such castles were usually square with a windowless cellar/undercroft used for storage, wells and kitchens, over which were built two floors topped by a crenellated fighting platform on the roof. Access from the outside was usually only at the first-floor level by means of an exterior stair that ended several yards away from the door; the gap was bridged by a wooden drawbridge that could be closed from the interior to cover and reinforce the door. Each floor had two or more barrel or cross-vaulted chambers, which might have been further partitioned by wooden walls or roofs and floors. Outbuildings containing workshops, storerooms, stables and the like were located around the foot of the tower but were not themselves defensible. A splendid, although late, example of a tower castle is the Hospitaller castle at Kolossi on Cyprus.

The second type of crusader castle, the castrum or enclosure castle, had its roots in Roman military architecture and evolved from Roman forts via Byzantium into crusader castles consisting of a defensible perimeter with reinforcing towers at the corners. The Muslims had also adapted this type of defensive structure, and on their arrival in the Holy Land, the Franks took over several existing castles of this type. They also built new castles following this fundamental design, notably Coliath in the County of Tripoli and Blanchegarde and Gaza in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. These castles had large, vaulted chambers with walls roughly 3 metres thick running between the corner towers. These chambers housed the various activities necessary to castle life, from kitchens and stables to forges, bakeries and bathhouses. The upper story of the enclosing buildings generally provided accommodations, eating halls and chapels for the garrison. The roofs of the buildings served as fighting platforms facing out in all directions. They were reinforced by the higher corner towers that provided covering fire.

The third type of crusader castle was a combination of the aforementioned types: a strong, roughly rectangular complex built around a tower or keep. The enclosing walls, with vaulted chambers and corner towers, formed the first line of defence, and the keep, the second. A surviving example of this kind of castle is Gibelet (Jubayl) in the County of Tripoli and, based on William of Tyre’s descriptions, the royal castle at Darum in the Kingdom of Jerusalem was also of this type.

Towards the end of the twelfth century, the Franks started building outer works to provide a line of defence before the castrum itself. These outer works may have originally been intended to provide a modicum of protection to the towns that often grew up around castles, but they soon evolved into what became one of the most distinctive, indeed iconic, type of crusader castles: the concentric castle. These were generally the castles of the military orders, built with the vast resources available to them. They were purely devoted to military dominance as opposed to the castles of secular lords or royal castles. These were the castles that inspired Edward I’s castles in Wales. In addition to Crak de Chevaliers, undoubtedly the most famous of the crusader castles, a famous example of this type of castle is Belvoir, overlooking the Jordan Valley.

Boas distinguishes between hilltop and spur castles, but both of these castles were essentially castles that took advantage of natural geographic features to strengthen their overall defensibility. The hilltop and mountain spur castles were built atop steep slopes, occupying an entire hilltop or the tip of a longer corniche. Built on bedrock, they were hard to undermine, and built on steep slopes they were almost impossible to assault. Kerak, the castle of Reynald de Ch√Ętillon, was a spur castle, which withstood two unsuccessful sieges by Saladin. Other crusader castles of this type were Montfort (or, as the Teutonic Knights called it, Starkenburg), Beaufort/Belfort, Margat and Saone.

A variation on the theme of the spur castle was using the sea rather than sheer mountainsides to provide protection. The Templar Atlit Castle (Castle Pilgrim) and the castle at Tyre were built on peninsulas extending into the sea and only accessible on one side by land. These castles proved almost impossible to capture. Mining was impossible from three sides due to the sea, and assaults from boats were precarious and challenging to implement. As a result, only the landward side was vulnerable to attack, enabling a smaller garrison to mount a successful defence. Tyre became the only city in the Kingdom of Jerusalem that successfully resisted Saladin after the Battle of Hattin and became the base from which the coastal plain was reconquered.

 While it is comparatively easy to identify and describe crusader castles, the motivation and inspiration for them are hotly debated. It was long assumed that castles were built primarily as defensive structures forming a protective wall around a kingdom’s perimeter to prevent or inhibit invasion. As logical as this sounds, it does not square with reality. Rather than on the borders, Frankish castles were more likely to be constructed close to monasteries or concentrations of the native Christian population, regions which were, coincidentally, the areas of the most intensive agricultural production.

 It is also worth noting that contemporary sources, such as William of Tyre, stress the offensive character of castles. Thus, for example, the castles at Ibelin and Beth Gibelin were intended as bases for assaulting Fatimid-held Ascalon. The current consensus among scholars is that crusader castles first and foremost projected power. Equally important, they served to facilitate the collection of rents and the distribution of farm produce from areas of production to those of consumption. Based on the archaeological evidence, Ronnie Ellenblum concluded: ‘In the final tally, the fortresses brought economic prosperity to some of the regions in which they were built and encouraged settlement in previously unpopulated areas’.[i]

Controversy has also long raged over the traditions and inspirations expressed by the crusader castles, i.e., the degree to which the castles were more Eastern or Western. Frankish castle construction techniques and design underwent significant changes over time. Neither tower nor enclosure castles were particularly unique or innovative. Only from the late-twelfth century onwards did the Franks introduce genuine innovations. These included vaulted chambers behind and reinforcing walls at ground level, moats before walls, towers with overlapping ranges of fire, firing apertures, posterns, massively increased storage capacity for dried goods and water, and finally, the construction of multiple layers of defence.

Together, these features amounted to ‘not an improvement of certain components of older castles, but a totally new, all-inclusive approach to castle defence, involving radical alterations to earlier methods of military architecture’.[ii] The leading modern crusader archaeologist, Adrian Boas, concludes: ‘Frankish castles advanced within a very short period from the most basic, one might say primitive, types to highly complex and remarkably inventive buildings displaying the highest understanding of military architecture. The Franks exhibited a proficiency at borrowing and adapting from others, and a genius at inventing entirely new types’.[iii]

Unsurprisingly, these innovations inspired imitation in East and West. Within a century or more, most of the attributes listed above had found their way into castles built in Wales, Spain, Germany and elsewhere. The Mamluks, however, paid the highest compliment by imitating the crusaders so perfectly that, to the eye of the uninitiated, many of their castles are indistinguishable from crusader castles.

Ultimately, however, the most striking characteristic of crusader castles is their diversity. The castles ranged from simple to complex and employed both comparatively primitive and highly sophisticated features. In short, as in Western Europe, crusader castles came in different shapes and sizes, and each was custom-built to exploit natural elements in the landscape. They were also an expression of the wealth and power of their respective patrons, as well as reflecting the evolving purposes of each castle.

 [i] Ronnie Ellenblum, Crusader Castles and Modern Histories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 112.

[ii] See note 2, Ellenblum, Crusader Castles and Modern Histories, 299.

[iii] Adrian Boas, Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East (London: Routledge, 1999), 92.


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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1 comment:

  1. Thank you! The willingness of so many to write about things they know only a very little about or have not adequately researched is a source of much discouragement and sadness in my life.


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