Friday, January 23, 2015

The Armies of Outremer in the 12th Century

For the nearly ninety years between the founding of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the defeat of the Christian army at Hattin in July 1187, the armies of “Outremer” were substantial, surprisingly effective and nominally feudal. Yet their composition was far more complex than the term “feudal” implies.  They always included “armed pilgrims,” for example, and contingents of militant monks (i.e. Knights Templar and Hospitaller) became increasingly important. Most unusual, however, they were characterized by types of fighting men completely unknown in the West: Sergeants and Turcopoles, and the arriere ban enabled the King of Jerusalem to keep his army in the field up to one year. 

Below is a short description of the key components of the armies of Outremer in the 12th Century.

Barons and Knights

As in the West, the backbone of the Army of Jerusalem was the feudal host composed of the “knights” which the “tenants-in-chief” of the king owed in exchange for their fiefs. Tenants-in-chief might be secular lords (barons) or ecclesiastical lords (bishops and independent abbots).  

The baronies of Outremer could be very substantial or almost insignificant. Jonathan Riley-Smith in his Atlas of the Crusades, for example, lists the baronies of Sidon, Galilee, and Jaffa/Ascalon as all owing 100 knights, while according to the incomplete records of John d’Ibelin, the Bishops of Nazareth and Lydda owed 6 and 10 knights respectively.  (John d’Ibelin, Count of Jaffa and Ascalon, was writing in the mid-13th century but attempting to catalogue military service owed to the King of Jerusalem at the time of his grandfather Balian d’Ibelin.)

It is important to remember that the term “knight” does not refer to a single man but rather to a fighting-unit consisting of a knight and his warhorse (destrier), one or more mounted squires, a riding horse (palfrey) and one more pack-horses.  Knights were expected to be armed and armored, which means that throughout the 12th century they would be expected to provide their own chainmail hauberk, coif and mittens, and chainmail chausses for their legs. In addition, they would need a helmet, a sword, dagger and optionally a mace or axe. Lances, on the other hand, were relatively cheap, “throw away” weapons that the lord would provide.

The knights owed by each baron to the crown based on his fief's obligation would not, however, have been the total extent of fighting power that a baron brought to the battlefield. Barons would have been supported by younger brothers and adult sons, if they had them, and by “household knights,” i.e. men without land holdings of their own who served the baron (were “retained”) in exchange for an annual salary (that would include payments in-kind such as meals, cloaks, and in some cases horses). Peter Edbury’s analysis of the John d’Ibelin’s catalogue suggests that the ratio of “retained” knights to “vassals” (knights who owed their service by right of holding land from the lord) ranged anywhere from 1:2 to 3:2, making it clear that the knights fielded in the feudal army due to feudal obligation made up maybe no more than half of the total host!

So far, all is as it would have been in the West, including the large number of “household” or mercenary knights. However, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was unique in that activities and income sources not usually associated with feudal service were also often subject to military service obligations. Thus, for example, Baldwin d’Ibelin owed four knights service to the crown in exchange for the right to rent out grazing land to the Bedouins.  More common, income from customs duties, tariffs and other royal sources of income could be “enfeoffed” on a nobleman/knight in exchange for feudal service.  In the prosperous coastal towns of Outremer, there were many such “money-fiefs” with a military obligation.

While great lords, like Baldwin d’Ibelin, might hold multiple fiefs, they could only personally fulfill the obligation for one knight, which meant that a lord enjoying the income of a fief — whether from grazing Bedouins or customs duties — had to spend some of his income to hire as many trained and fully equipped “knights” (think fighting unit) as he owed. These knights would be drawn from the younger sons and brothers of fellow barons or from landless armed pilgrims, willing to stay in the Holy Land, but would like his landed knights be viewed as “vassals.”

Armed Pilgrims

The Holy Land, unlike the West, benefitted from the fact that at any one time — and particularly during the “pilgrim season” between roughly April and October — there would be tens of thousands of pilgrims in the kingdom, a portion of whom would have been knights capable of rendering military service in an emergency. Sometimes barons brought small private armies of retainers and volunteers with them to the crusader states explicitly for the purpose of fighting in defense of the Holy Land. A good example of this is Count Philip of Flanders, who arrived at Acre in 1177 at the head of what Bernard Hamilton describes as “a sizeable army.” His army even included the English Earls of Essex and Meath. More common were individual knights and lords who came to the Holy Land as genuine pilgrims, only to be sucked into the fighting by military necessity. One such example is Hugh VIII de Lusignan, Count de la March, who came in 1165 and ended up dying in a Saracen prison. Another example is William Marshal, who came in 1184 to fulfill a crusader vow taken by his liege, Henry the Young King. It is impossible to know how many “armed pilgrims” — and not just knights! — took part in musters and engagements between the forces of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and its enemies at any time.

Fighting Monks

Another anomaly of the armies of Outremer were, of course, the large contingents of fighting monks — most famously Templars and Hospitallers, but also Knights of St. Lazarus and later Teutonic Knights as well. The major “militant” orders of the 12th Century were founded in Jerusalem with the explicit mandate to protect the Holy Land and Christian residents in and pilgrims to it. While the Templars started with just nine knights and the Hospitallers did not officially have “brother knights” until the 13th century, contemporary descriptions suggest that both orders fielded hundreds of knights by the end of the 12th century. David Nicolle in his book on the Battle of Hattin suggests that by 1180 the Templars had 300 knights deployed in the Holy Land and the Hospitallers 500 knights, but many of these knights would have been scattered about the country garrisoning castles. Undisputed, is the fact that 230 Templars and Hospitallers survived the Battle of Hattin to be executed on Saladin’s orders on July 6, 1187. Given the intense, two-day long nature of the Battle of Hattin, it seems reasonable to hypothesize that both militant orders, known for their fanaticism and willingness to die, had suffered significant casualties before the battle ended. It is likely, therefore, that close to 400 Hospitallers and Templars were in the field with royal army and this seems a good “ball-park” figure for the kind of resources the militant orders could contribute to the army of Outremer in the latter part of the 12th century generally.

It is often forgotten in modern depictions of medieval warfare that the knights were the smallest contingent of medieval armies. The infantry made up the bulk of any feudal force and, far from being superfluous, the infantry was vitally important to success. But whereas in the West the infantry in the 12th century was largely composed of peasant levees (plus mercenaries), in the crusader states the infantry consisted of free “burghers” (plus mercenaries).


If prostitution is the oldest profession on earth, than mercenaries must belong to the second oldest profession. (Mercenaries are recorded in ancient Greece and only my own ignorance prevents me from asserting with confidence that they were known in ancient Egypt as well; I feel almost certain that they were there too and in ancient Persia and would welcome comment on this point by those more knowledgeable than myself.) Certainly in the Middle Ages mercenaries were a vital component of warfare precisely because feudal levies in the West were only obligated to serve for 40 days at a stretch, but most kings and nobles needed fighting men who could serve whenever and for as long as needed.  Furthermore, certain military skills such as firing cross-bows, or building and manning siege engines, required a great deal of expertise and practice, making them unsuited to amateur armies composed of farmers. Mercenaries were everywhere on medieval battlefields. They were found in Outremer as well and, given the resources of the kingdom, were probably more prevalent there than in the West. But we have no clear numbers. 


A far more interesting and unusual feature of the armies in the crusader states were the “sergeants.” Because the “peasants” of Outremer were largely Arabic speaking Muslims,  the Kings of Jerusalem were not inclined to rely upon these men to fight their battles. On the other hand, as much as one-fifth of the population (ca 120,000 inhabitants) were Latin Christian settlers. All settlers were freemen and whether they settled in the cities as merchants and tradesmen or in agricultural settlements on royal and ecclesiastical domains, they were classed as “burghers” — not serfs or peasants. These freemen who had voluntarily immigrated to the crusader states were subject to military service, and when they served they were classed as “sergeants.”

The term “sergeant” in the context of Outremer appears to be a term similar to “man-at-arms” during the Hundred Years War. In short, it implies the financial means to outfit oneself with some form of body armor (most commonly padded linen “aketons,” or quilted “gambesons,” in rare-cases leather, or even chainmail) and a helmet of some kind (usually on open-faced “kettle” helm or later a crevelliere), and some kind of infantry weapon such as a spear, short sword, ax or sling.  

With half the settlers living in cities, it is not surprising that sergeants bore the brunt of the burden of providing garrisons for the cities, but according to John d’Ibelin’s records sergeants from the rural settlements in the royal domain and ecclesiastical fiefs were required to muster with the royal army.  We also know that both the Templars and Hospitallers maintained significant forces of “sergeants,” and these were — notably — mounted fighting men. Although not as well equipped as the knights themselves, they were entitled to two horses and one squire! It is not clear, however, whether the “sergeants” of the king and the ecclesiastical lords were also mounted.


Perhaps the most exotic component of the armies of Outremer were the so-called “Turcopoles.” There are frequent references to these troops in contemporary records and they clearly played a significant role in the armed forces of the crusader states, but there is no unambiguous definition of who and what they were. They were clearly “native” troops, but the idea that they were mostly converted Muslims is off the mark.  Roughly half the population in the crusader states were non-Latin Christians, and it is from this segment of society that “native” troops were predominantly drawn.  The Armenians, for example, had a strong history of independent states and military prowess, and Armenians made up a significant portion of the population in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, having their own quarter there and their own cathedral. Syrian Christians were by this time Arabic speakers and would have looked like “Arabs” and “Turks” to visitors from the West, but as Christians they were reliable troops. There were also Greek, Coptic, Maronite and Ethiopian Christians resident in the crusader states, all of whom were, as freemen, theoretically subject to military service and as Christians native to the region probably some of the most willing fighting men. They, after all, had memories or personal experience with the taxes, insults and oppression of Turkish rule.  

Arriere Ban

Last but not least, the Kings of Jerusalem had the right to issue the “arriere ban” which obligated every free man to come to the defense of the kingdom. This was in effect an early form of the “levee en masse” of the French Revolution. Significantly, the King of Jerusalem could command the service of his vassals for a full year, not just 40 days as in the West, but such service was intended for the defense of the realm.  If the king took his army outside the borders on an offensive expedition, he was required to pay for the services of his subjects. 

Balian d'Ibelin served in the feudal armies of Outremer and the defense of the crusader kingdoms during his lifetime is the central theme of the three part biography that starts with:

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  1. A very informative post. I really enjoy reading your blog. I am learning so much. Thank you.

  2. I do not know why you missed out mentioning the archers. The crossbow was primarily an elitist weapon used by knights and heavily armored infantry. This is because the European crossbow took an incredible time to load. Normal archers using complex, composite bows would form the flanks of most medieval armies. John Pryor's brilliant analysis of the logistics of the Crusader armies shows how there were dedicated archers and even infantry who would become archers when required. The only unit of Horse Archers utilised by the Crusaders were the Turcopoles who in most likelihood were Turkic..not Turkish but Turkic mercenaries as they have been recorded to have served Saladin as well. This is very likely as the Pechenegs, the Alanians, Georgians and other Central Asian Turkic tribes were still settling in the Levant. Again, the term knight only refers to the man. The Destriers were very rare and palfreys are a European term used to describe working horses but one must remember that the Crusaders were more used to Arabian horses, the ones with incredible endurance and known to be of light feet. Sources claim that the destriers which require special nutrition to be of 14-15 hands in size and possess the power of a 16-17 hands European draft horse. Considering the fact that Destriers were certainly coldbloods, it is most likely that Chargers were used in the Holy Land. These warmbloods possess incredible stamina and endurance. Destriers were more used in jousts.

  3. I did not treat "archers" as a separate category as I did not categorize by the weapons used. Civilian "sergeants" would have been predominantly archers, although the sergeants of the militant orders were horsemen armed with lances. Turcopoles were almost certainly lightly armed cavalry and many would have been archers -- but they most certainly were NOT all mercenaries as you imply. Many were native CHristians and extremely loyal to the crusader regime..

  4. hello, just found your blog etc - very interesting, I will be a reader :) . Now, back to the post/article/ it is a very decent and knowledgeable introduction to the subject, and I, having done some reading into the Crusader and Medieval war history, find no fault with your 'omission' or archery (both bow and crossbow), or the fact-based assessment of the Turcopoles as Middle East native Christians.


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