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Friday, July 29, 2016

Battle of Jaffa - Part 1

By July 1192, the crusader forces under Richard I of England and the Duke of Burgundy had established Frankish control of the coastal strip from Tyre to Ascalon, but failed, despite two attempts, to take Jerusalem. While Tyre remained a bastion and Acre was rapidly turning into one, most of the cities along the coast such as Haifa, Caesarea, and Arsur, remained ghost towns, vulnerable to attack, and the countryside in between was empty, ravaged and slowly being reclaimed by the sand dunes.  Yet, Richard had also recaptured and fortified the strategically important cities of Jaffa and Ascalon. Jaffa was important as the port closest to Jerusalem, and so inevitably the base for any future attempt to recapture Jerusalem.  Ascalon was critical because it was located on the caravan routes between Egypt and Syria and therefore posed a threat to Saladin’s lines of communication. What the Franks now needed, was to re-establish control of the coastal strip northwards from Tyre to re-establish contact with the County of Tripoli and beyond Tripoli, the Principality of Antioch.  In consequence, Richard I started gathering his forces at Acre for a campaign up the coast of the Levant to retake Sidon and Beirut.

His plans were shattered when on July 29, the Sultan Salah ad-Din (Saladin) launched a surprise attack in the Frankish rear — at Jaffa. It was a brilliant strategic move. If Saladin could take Jaffa, he would cut Ascalon off from the rest of the Frankish-held territory, ensuring his ability to re-establish Saracen rule there as well.  The capture of Jaffa would in addition make future attempts on Jerusalem more difficult and so more unlikely. To achieve these critical objectives (and incidentally refurbish his own tarnished image), Saladin brought to bear a force which the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi[1] describes as 20,000 Saracen horsemen and “countless” infantry.

Although the garrison resisted courageously, Saladin brought up siege engines and sappers, and on July 31 a massive breach in the walls opened up. The garrison sued for terms, including the right to withdraw with their lives, arms, and chattels, but the Sultan’s army had been in the field for over a year without any opportunity for plunder. The Kurds, Turks, Syrians and Egyptians fighting under Saladin were not a cohesive and disciplined force, but a coalition of units more loyal to their own leaders. The orders not to plunder were not popular, and the Sultan soon lost control of his troops. They ran riot in the town. The garrison fled to the citadel, but those who could not make it in time, notably the sick and wounded in the Hospital of St. John along with their care-takers, were killed. Saladin’s troops then engaged in an orgy of pillage that included smashing the wine-casks to pour the forbidden substance in the gutters and slaughtering the entire pig population—another food forbidden by Islam.   

Salah ad-Din, angered that his troops had disobeyed the terms of the surrender, ordered his Mamlukes to stand at the gates of the city and confiscate the plunder from his men as they staggered out of the city laden with loot. While the gesture demonstrates Saladin’s sincerity in treating with the garrison, it was bitterly resented by his own troops, and would have consequences later. Meanwhile, however, the seizure of Jaffa in just three days demonstrated how vulnerable the precarious new conquests of the Third Crusade really were.

The word that Jaffa was under siege reached Richard I in Acre on or about July 29 or 30. He immediately abandoned his plans to recapture Sidon and Beirut and took ship for Jaffa. He took with him only his immediate household, some fifty-five knights, and some two thousand Italian crossbowmen in a half-dozen ships. This was never intended to be anything more than an advance guard that would stiffen the morale of the garrison. The main relief force was the army of Jerusalem made up of the barons of the Kingdom (Ibelin, Sidon, Tiberius etc.) under their new king Henri de Champagne and the Templars and Hospitallers. This army of heavy horse, Turcopoles and infantry set out from Acre heading south on the coastal road to Jaffa. 

Meanwhile, Richard’s squadron of ships was delayed by light wind and arrived off Jaffa after the city had already fallen to Saladin. From off-shore, the relieving force could see both the Saracen camp around the base of the city and the Saracen banners floating over the city walls. It appeared their help had come too late—until a man jumped from the wall of the citadel and started swimming toward the Frankish ships. (Both the Arab chronicler Baha al-Din and the Itinerarium mention this heroic dive from the citadel walls.) One of Richard’s galleys risked going closer to shore to pick up the swimmer, while the Saracen troops from the camp outside the city swarmed the beaches shouting challenges and insults at the little squadron of ships.

The swimmer was able to report that the citadel still held out, and the King of England immediately gave the order to beach the galleys. With the crossbowmen providing covering fire, Richard led the assault, leaping over the side of his galley into hip-deep water, a crossbow in one hand and a Danish battle axe in the other. He fought his way ashore, followed by his companions. That they were not all slaughtered is probably a function of the fact that by this time Saladin’s army was no longer a disciplined force. The bulk of the cavalry had already been redeployed to block the road from Acre and harass the army of Jerusalem coming to relieve Jaffa. Of the troops left behind, an estimated three thousand were still inside the city plundering. Those that rushed to the shore to defend it were apparently leaderless. Furthermore, the distance between the shore and the city walls was maybe no more than 100 to 200 yards. Richard led his landing force to the base of the walls and then inside a postern in the tower of the Templar commandery that the Saracens had incomprehensibly left unlocked — further evidence of a singular lack of discipline, command and control.

According to the Itinerarium, Richard himself was the first man to enter the city, climbing up a spiral staircase of the Templar tower. He then ordered his banner raised on the rooftop, signaling to the garrison that he was inside the city.  The garrison at once sortied out to join forces with him and his landing force. Together, the garrison and Richard’s men cleared the city of (evidently surprised!) Saracens, while Salah ad-Din withdrew with his entire baggage train. 

Salah ad-Din had taken Jaffa in just three days, but it took Richard the Lionheart only that many hours to regain it. His situation, however, remained precarious. The breach in the wall was not repaired, the streets full of corpses, the stores plundered, and Salah ad-Din’s cavalry was still intact and only hours away.

The second stage of the Battle of Jaffa is the subject of next week’s entry. 

The Battle of Jaffa is an important episode in “Envoy of Jerusalem,” which has just been released. Buy now in paperback or kindle!

[1] The Itinerarium is a contemporary chronicle of the Third Crusade, much of it based on eyewitness sources, but heavily biased in favor of King Richard I of England.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Conrad de Montferrat: The Vilest of Villains?

19th Century Depiction of Conrad de Montferrat

Conrad de Montferrat has gone down in history as a despicable and abdominal scoundrel. The character slander began in his own life-time and was immortalized in the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, one of the main accounts of the Third Crusade. Here he is described shooting a cross-bow at his own father, killing his doctors, abducting a princess, bribing bishops, intentionally withholding food from crusaders, undermining all efforts by Richard of England to defeat Saladin, and finally meeting his just end at the hands of an assassin. Almost ever since, Conrad has been cast in the role of villain, for example in Graham Shelby’s The Kings of Vain Intent or Andrew Latham’s The Holy Lance. But the Itinerarium is notoriously biased and the historical Montferrat was considerably more complex.

Conrad de Montferrat was born in about 1145 into the prominent north Italian family of Montferrat. He was the second son of William V, Marquis de Montferrat, and his wife Julitta. Julitta is important; she was a sister of Leopold IV of Austria (the man who took Richard the Lionheart captive on his return from crusade, which begins to explain the hatred of the Itinerarium for Conrad) and a granddaughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, making Conrad a first cousin of Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa. His maternal aunt, Adelaide, was also important; she married Louis VI of France and was the mother of Louis VII and grandmother of Richard the Lionheart’s hated rival, Philip II of France (another strike against Conrad in the Itinerarium.) Conrad’s older brother, William, married Sibylla of Jerusalem and fathered the ill-fated Baldwin V.  Conrad’s younger brother, Rainier married Maria Comnena, the daughter of Emperor Manuel I. In short, Conrad de Monteferrat was closely related to the Holy Roman Emperor, the Emperor of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, the King of France, and the ruling Queen of Jerusalem. Conrad de Montferrat was not — as some modern novelists would have you believe — an “adventurer” or a parvenu.

Furthermore, he was a very well-educated, well-traveled and militarily experienced nobleman. The family had close ties with famous troubadours and maintained a highly cultivated court. His father participated in the Second Crusade, and was initially a staunch supporter of Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa in his decades long struggle with the Lombard League. While Conrad’s older brother left Italy to marry Sibylla of Jerusalem in 1176, Conrad remained behind with his father, who in 1177 switched his allegiance from the Holy Roman Emperor to the Greek Emperor.  The latter secured this valuable ally by giving his daughter Maria in the marriage to the Marquis’ third son, (Conrad’s younger brother) Rainier. In 1179, Conrad defeated the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor taking the Imperial chancellor captive, and then went to Constantinople, where he was well-received and greatly admired for his good looks, charm and military prowess. However, he wisely departed Constantinople after Emperor Manuel I's death, and shortly before his younger brother and sister-in-law were murdered by the usurping Emperor Andronicus. 

Emperor Manuel I Comnenus
In 1186, however, the new Emperor Isaac Angelus sought to re-establish the alliance with the Montferrats by offering Conrad the hand of his sister Theodora.  Conrad returned to Constantinople and was raised to the rank of “Caesar.” He demonstrated his utility to the Emperor by putting down a rebellion led by the popular general Alexios Branas, but his very success led his brother-in-law to look on him with jealousy and suspicion. By mid-1187, the tensions between them were so high that Conrad feared for his life (his brother, after all, had been murdered in Constantinople only five years earlier), and he fled Constantinople. He took ship for the Kingdom of Jerusalem, where his father was established.

Arriving off Acre sometime between July 10 and July 14 aboard a Geonese merchantman, Conrad learned of the catastrophe at Hattin from a pilot boat sent out to inquire the ship’s business. The ship’s captain had become suspicious because the church bells of Acre were not ringing, and had dropped anchor. The news that the city had surrendered to Saladin (probably only the day before) sent the ship scuttling back up the coast to Tyre. 

Here Conrad arrived by sea when the city was already invested by land by the Sultan’s army. Negotiations for the surrender were allegedly already underway, whether as a ruse or in earnest. Conrad immediately and forcefully advocated defiance, and by some accounts threw down the Sultan’s banner that had already been planted on the walls. With so many other cities ripe for surrender, Saladin chose not to fight for Tyre, but withdrew to capture Sidon, Beirut, Caesarea, Jaffa, and eventually Ascalon. His failure to take Tyre was to be strongly criticized by Arab chroniclers with the wisdom of hindsight. Meanwhile, the Baron of Sidon moved out to hold and defend his castle at Belfort, and Montferrat had the people of Tyre, which included not only the usual residents but the survivors of Hattin and refuges from across the north of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, swear allegiance to him.   

When Saladin, having taken Jerusalem, returned to finish off Tyre in November 1187, he brought with him Conrad’s father, the aging Marquis de Montferrat, who had fought and been taken captive at Hattin. Saladin offered to release the Marquis in exchange for the surrender of Tyre. The chronicles tell a dramatic tale in which Conrad pointedly refused the deal, saying his father had “lived long enough already” and fired a crossbow in his direction (probably intended to miss or to kill one of his Saracen escort). Importantly, the chronicles agree that the Marquis either encouraged his son to refuse the offer or called out something to the effect of “well done” when he did refuse. Either way, witnessed apparently agreed that Marquis of Montferrat, who had fought too long and hard for the Holy Land, did not want to see the last remaining bastion of the kingdom surrendered.

In addition to the old Marquis, Saladin had brought another means for reducing the city: the Egyptian fleet. Tyre was now truly besieged and crammed as it was with refugees and cut off from resupply the situation rapidly became precarious. It being winter, no relief or reinforcements could be expected from the West. Shortly after Christmas 1187 Montferrat devised a plan, which even his enemies conceded was clever: he led the enemy to believe that people were rioting and some of the wealthier residents were going to attempt a breakout. Then the chain across the harbor entrance was lowered as if to let the ship or ships escape.  The Saracens took the bait. Lured by the ruse, they shot into the harbor, thinking they were about to take the city by the back door. Instead, they found themselves attacked by the Pisan vessels in the harbor and fired on from the surrounding walls, towers and buildings. Eventually, even those that escaped from the inner harbor were driven ashore. Meanwhile an attack by land was driven off. The very next day, January 1, 1188, Saladin ordered his army to disperse and withdrew.

A year and half later, the situation had not changed substantially when out of the north a small Frankish army appeared led by none other than the architect of the disaster at Hattin, Guy de Lusignan. Guy was accompanied by his wife, through whom he claimed the crown of Jerusalem, and a small force of volunteers from the Principality of Antioch. On his arrival outside Tyre, King Guy naturally ordered the gates opened, so he could enter the only city left of his former kingdom. Conrad de Montferrat, however, felt he had lost his kingdom at Hattin and had no business in Tyre. He refused Guy admission.

Guy chose to continue south and lay siege to Acre, which was now held by a Saracen garrison. Thus, when the crusaders started to arrive in increasing numbers in 1190 and 1191 there were two centers of Frankish opposition: Tyre and Acre. The latter, however, was an offensive operation (an attempt to recapture the most important city of the former kingdom), while Tyre was not directly at risk any more. As a result most of the arriving crusaders, often after a stop in Tyre, continued down to the siege camp at Acre. While this should have increased Guy de Lusignan’s stature, in fact, the arriving contingents of troops tended to recognize their own leaders rather than Guy, and command of the siege devolved more and more to a committee of leading nobles.

Guy’s position was then fatally undermined by the death of his wife and both his daughters by her in November 1190. Guy, always unpopular, widely viewed by the barons of Jerusalem as a usurper, and discredited by Hattin, lost his last vestige of legitimacy with his wife’s death. The High Court of Jerusalem recognized Sibylla’s younger sister Isabella as the rightful ruler of Jerusalem after Sibylla’s death.

Only there was a problem. The Constitution of Jerusalem recognized the rights of women to rule in their own right, but only if they had a male consort capable of leading the army of Jerusalem. Isabella, to be sure, had a husband, Humphrey de Toron, a local baron.  However, he had once before betrayed the High Court at the critical moment when the High Court was trying to oppose Guy’s usurpation of the throne in 1186. The High Court was not prepared to recognize Humphrey as king. That meant that Isabella had to be separated from him and married to a man more acceptable to the barons of Jerusalem. The details of this are described in The Abduction of Isabella. For now suffice it to say that Conrad was the man they chose.

The Itinerarium and most subsequent sources portray Conrad as the driving force behind this marriage to Isabella. He is described as scheming and bribing, as unscrupulous and duplicitous. These portrayal, however, completely ignores the essential fact that it was the High Court of Jerusalem that decided on the marriage of a female heir and the fact that the High Court consistently supported Conrad over Guy. The overblown outrage of the chronicles likewise obscures the plain fact that Isabella was below the age of consent at the time of her marriage to Humphrey (she was 11) and the marriage was without question invalid on basis of contemporary canon law. While it is also highly probable that Conrad was ambitious and coveted the crown, it is absurd to portray his marriage to Isabella as a travesty of justice or an act of moral depravity.

By the time the Kings of France and England arrived in the Holy Land, therefore, there were two rival claimants to the (largely fictional) throne of Jerusalem: 1) Conrad, supported by the High Court and deriving his claim through the legitimate heir, Isabella, and 2) Guy, clinging to the title he had from his now dead wife because he’d been crowned and anointed. Their rivalry immediately became a proxy war between Philip II of France, who backed his kinsman Conrad, and Richard I of England, who backed his vassal Guy. Unfortunately for Conrad, Philip II soon tired of crusading and sailed away, while Richard I remained and recaptured much of the fertile coastal plain although he was unable to regain Jerusalem.

During the critical eleven months from October 1191 to September 1192, Richard I periodically sought a negotiated settlement with Saladin. Not surprisingly, Conrad feared that Richard would negotiate a deal that left him high and dry, and so he tried to cut a deal of his own. This has been portrayed as the height of infamy by the supporters of Richard, but it is hard to see why it was legitimate for Richard to deal with Saladin but not for Conrad. Saladin, meanwhile, had a strong interest in playing Conrad and Richard off against one another and sowing dissension in the Frankish camp.

However, it is significant that while Richard’s admirers despise Conrad, Richard himself did not. On the contrary, when it became clear that he must return in all haste to the West to defend his inheritance against his brother John and Philip II of France, Richard recognized Conrad as King of Jerusalem because he was the choice of the High Court of Jerusalem.

Tragically, Conrad lived only a few days after his election to King. He was stabbed in the streets of Tyre by two men identified as members of the sect of assassins. Although attempts were made to pin the blame on Richard of England, Saladin and even Humphrey of Toron, the most reasonable explanation is that he had offended the Old Man of the Mountain, who -- as so often before -- had bidded his time to take his revenge.

Conrad de Montferrat is an important character in my novel Envoy of Jerusalem. I have sought to do him justice as a complex character full of charm, ambition, talent and opportunism. “Envoy of Jerusalem” has just been released. Buy now in paperback or Kindle!