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Friday, November 27, 2015

Montgisard Revisited -- The Consequences of the Christian Victory

A modern portrayal of the Battle of Montgisard by Mariusz Kozik, copyright Marius Kozik

As described last year, Baldwin IV of Jerusalem crushed and humiliated Saladin at the Battle of Montgisard on Nov. 25, 1177. Although Saladin had invaded with a force estimated at 26,000 light horse and an unspecified number of infantry, he was decisively defeated by a force under the command of Baldwin IV numbering something less than 500 knights, also supported by unquantified numbers of foot soldiers.  Baldwin IV was at this time an untried youth of 16, already suffering from leprosy. Saladin, in contrast, was a highly successful leader already 41, who had proved himself repeatedly in both defensive and offensive warfare. 

Just ten years later, however, on July 4, 1187 the entire Christian army with an estimated 1,600 knights, thousands of Turcopoles and tens of thousands of infantry was obliterated by Saladin at the Battle of Hattin. The garrisons of the cities and towns of the kingdom had been denuded to bring together this record force, and after the battle there were insufficient fighting men left alive in freedom to defend the rest of the kingdom. City after city and castle after castle surrendered to Saladin. Within a year, the once proud Kingdom of Jerusalem that had stretched from modern-day Turkey to the Red Sea, encompassing much of modern-day Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, had been reduced to a single city: Tyre. 

Despite the Third Crusade that recovered the coast of the Levant for Christendom, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was never again self-sustainable, much less a threat to the Muslim states surrounding it. It survived almost a hundred years longer, but from 1187 onwards it was living on borrowed time. The defeat at Hattin has so over-shadowed the victory at Montgisard, that Montgisard is treated as little more than a footnote in history, a curiosity rather than a event of historical significance. 

This is somewhat oversimplified because it ignores two important consequences of Montgisard. First, that Saladin learned his lesson and never again showed contempt for his Christian opponents. He was, as a result of Montgisard, a far more cautious commander when engaging the Franks in the decade that followed. He was careful to retain control of his troops (for the most part), and avoided pitched battles with the Franks unless he had chosen the position and believed himself at a clear advantage. 

Second, the victory at Montgisard (and subsequent victories of King Baldwin, especially at Le Forbelet and Kerak) lulled Western rulers into a sense of complacency. Baldwin's frantic appeals for sustainable assistance in the form of a king ready to take up his burden fell on deaf ears. No monarch in Western Europe understood just how precarious the situation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem was -- until Jerusalem fell.

Had Baldwin IV been defeated at Montgisard, it is highly unlikely that this would have led to the loss of the Kingdom. The bulk of the Christian army was not even at Montgisard; it was engaged in an offensive campaign in the north. Thus even the complete obliteration of Baldwin's force at Montgisard would not have denuded the kingdom of fighting men as did the defeat at Hattin did ten years later. The defeat would have created a highly dangerous situation in which Saladin might well have seized control of key assets from Ascalon to Jerusalem itself. However, an intact fighting force and the kingdom's most experienced commanders such as Humphrey de Toron II and Raymond de Tripoli, would still have been in a position to come to the relief of any city taken by Saladin.  In short, the Christian kingdom would have been in a difficult, but not hopeless, situation, and the West might have been alerted to the danger facing the crusader states before it was too late.

Even the death of Baldwin IV at Montgisard would not have had disastrous consequences. It would have shortened his own life by less than a decade, and it would have made Sibylla queen before her marriage to Guy de Lusignan. As a reigning queen, she would probably have been a more attractive bride to a Western ruler. At a minimum, her marriage would have been negotiated by the High Court of Jerusalem with a mind to what was best for the kingdom, not Sibylla's personal inclinations. 

Satisfying as the victory at Montgisard seemed at the time -- and it was widely seen as a sign of Divine favor for Baldwin and his kingdom -- in retrospect it contributed to the disaster at Hattin. Montgisard did not make Hattin inevitable. Many other developments (e.g. William of Montferrat's survival, Sibylla's marriage to the Baron of Ramla, the successful coronation of Isabella instead of Sibylla etc.) could also have averted the catastrophe at Hattin. Nevertheless, with the wisdom of hindsight, Montgisard was perhaps too successful for the long term good of the Christianity in the Holy Land.

The Battles of Montgisard and Hattin are key events in my novels Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem respectively.

A landless knight, 
a leper king,
and the struggle for Jerusalem.

 A divided kingdom,
a united enemy,
and the struggle for Jerusalem

Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!                                                 Buy now!

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