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Friday, July 22, 2016
Conrad de Montferrat: The Vilest of Villains?
19th Century Depiction of Conrad de Montferrat
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
TheHoly Lance. But the Itinerarium
is notoriously biased and the historical Montferrat was considerably more
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.
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
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.
Acre sometime between July 10 and July 14 aboard a Geonese merchantman, Conrad learned
of the catastrophe at Hattin from a pilot boat sent outto 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!