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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Crusader Castles

One of the most impressive and visible legacies of the crusader kingdoms were the castles erected by Latin rulers in their territories.

One of the best preserved crusader castles: Krak de Chevaliers

T.E. Lawrence, famous as “Lawrence of Arabia,” disparaged the crusader castles as irrelevant and ineffective because these fortifications ultimately proved incapable of preventing the fall of the crusader kingdoms. Yet this is too facile a judgment. In fact, the crusader castles enabled numerically small fighting forces to withstand repeated invasions by numerically vastly superior armies. Christian defeats in the first hundred 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). 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. 

The Crusader Castle of Kantara, Cyprus
Yet even the strongest walls require defenders and when a castle like Krak de Cheveliers, built to be defended by 2,000 men, has a garrison of only a few hundred, it becomes indefensible. Outremer was not lost because its castles were irrelevant or ineffective, but because its castles could not be used as intended due to inadequate and dwindling manpower.

It is also important to remember, that crusader castles were not merely border fortresses designed for the defense of the realm against external enemies. They were also administrative and economic centers, symbols of royal/baronial power, residences, and places of refuge.  As in Western Europe, castles came in different shapes and sizes, each reflective of the original and evolving purposes of the castle and the wealth and power of respective patrons.

Interior of Hospitaller HQ at Acre
Adrian Boas, in his excellent work Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East, identified no less than five basic types of crusader castles. The simplest form of castle was a simple tower. Similar castles were already known in the West and became popular, for example, in Scotland. In the crusader kingdoms, such castles were usually square with a windowless cellar/undercroft used for storage, wells and or kitchens, over which were built two floors topped by a crenolated fighting platform on the roof.  Access from the outside was usually only at first floor level by means of an exterior stair that ended several yards away from the door; the gap was bridged by a wooden draw-bridge that could be closed from the interior to cover and so reinforce the door. Each floor had two or more barrel or cross-vaulted chambers, which might have been further partitioned by wooden walls an/or floors. Out-buildings 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 crusader tower castle is the Hospitaller castle at Kolossi on Cyprus.

Hospitaller Tower Castle at Kolossi, Cyprus

A second type of crusader castle, the castrum or enclosure castle, had their 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 concept was similar to creating a ring of wagons behind which pioneers in the “wild west” defended themselves from attack by Indians or outlaws. The Muslims had also adopted this type of defensive structure, and on their arrival in the Holy Land the Franks took over a number of existing castles of this type. In addition, they built a number of castles following this design for themselves, notably Coliath in the County of Tripoli, Blanchegarde, and Gaza in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. These castles had large vaulted chambers with massive walls roughly three meters thick running between the corner towers. These housed the various activities necessary to castle life from kitchens and stables to forges, bakeries and bath-houses. The upper story of the enclosing buildings generally held accommodations, eating halls and chapels for the garrison. The roofs of the buildings were the fighting platform facing out in all directions and reinforced by the corner towers that provided covering fire.

Vaulted Chambers at Kolossi
The third type of crusader castle was a combination of the previous types: a strong roughly rectangular complex built around a tower or keep.  The enclosing walls (with their vaulted chambers) and corner towers formed the first line of defense 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 of this type as well.

As the Franks became wealthier or the threat became more intense the Franks started building outer works to provide a line of defense beyond (i.e. before) the castrum containing so many vital parts of the castle’s inner life. 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 castle: the concentric castle. These were generally the castles of the military orders, built with the huge resources available to them and were more purely devoted to military dominance rather than the castles of secular lords or royal castles. These were the castles that inspired Edward I’s castles in Wales. In addition to Krak de Cheveliers, a famous example of this type of castle was Belvoir, overlooking the Jordan valley. Belvoir held out against Saladin a year and a half after the Battle of Hattin; Krak de Cheveliers, however, he never even tried to assault, deeming it too strong.

Another view of Krak de Cheveliers
Boas distinguishes between hill top and spur castles, but both of these castles were essentially castles that took advantage of natural geographic features to strengthen the defenses of the castle. The hill-top castles and mountain spur castles were built on the top of steep slopes either occupying an entire hill-top of the tip of a longer corniche or ridge. They were undoubtedly the most difficult to take by storm since, built on bedrock, they were hard to undermine, and built on steep escarpments they were almost impossible to assault. Kerak, the castle of Reynald de Chatillon, was a spur castle and it withstood two sieges by Saladin before falling to starvation more than a year after the Battle of Hattin.


Other crusader castles of this type were Montfort (or as the Teutonic Knights called it, Starkenburg), Beaufort/Belfort, Margat, and Saone.

The fosse at Margat, showing the pillar that supported the drawbridge.

A variation on the theme of the spur castle was the use of the sea rather than sheer mountain sides to provide protection. The Templar castle of Atlit Castle (Castle Pilgrim) and the castle at Tyre were both built on peninsulas extending into the sea and only accessible on one side from the land.  These castles proved almost impossible to capture as again, mining was impossible from three sides and assaults from boats were very precarious and difficult to carry out. As a result, a much smaller defensive force could hold such castles since only one side was vulnerable to attack and only a light watch was needed on the other three sides. 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.

Which seems a fitting place to end this brief description of crusader castles.

Crusader castles play a role in my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Liberation or Oppression? Native Christians and the Crusades

It is commonplace for people to portray the crusaders not only as barbarians vis-à-vis their Islamic enemies, but as “oppressors” of the native Christian populations that lived under crusader rule.  These popular views have their roots in books by scholars such as Runciman, Smail and Prawer, all of whom have argued to varying degrees that the crusader elites, like colonists, lived segregated lives from the natives of the Holy Land, and (as Prawer put it) practiced a form of “apartheid.” Yet, other historians have argued quite the opposite, claiming those crusaders who settled in Outremer soon “went native” and became “more oriental than European.” Based on the most recent research and archaeological evidence, the picture of crusader-native relations is undergoing a revision again.

Starting with the basics, the “native” population of Outremer that confronted the crusaders on arrival in 1099 was anything but a homogeneous mass. First and foremost, it was not ― repeat, not ― predominantly Muslim. Historians are continuing to revise downwards the proportion of the population that had, in fact, converted to Islam during the less than four hundred years of Muslim domination.

Certainly, there were still Jewish communities, concentrated in Jerusalem, Tyre and Tiberius when the crusaders arrived. In sharp contrast to Western Europe that saw significant attacks on Jewish communities in association with the crusades, there was no systematic persecution of the Jews in the crusader states. On the contrary, although Jews were prohibited from living in the city Jerusalem, other cities, particularly Acre and Tyre, hosted large Jewish communities. There were rabbinical courts in both Acre and Tyre, and Palestine in the crusader period was one of only three contemporary centers for Talmudic studies. There is also anecdotal evidence that Jews continued to pursue respected professions such as medicine, and took part in commercial activities. There is no evidence that they were required to wear distinctive clothing or live in segregated communities, although it is almost certain that like the remaining Muslim population they were subject to additional taxes.

In addition, there was still a large Samaritan population. (Note: Samaritans believe that only the first five books of the Hebrew bible were divinely inspired.) Although many Samaritans had been driven into exile across the Middle East, the center of Samaritan worship and scholarship was located in Nablus, and this was where the largest Samaritan population was concentrated in the crusader era. The Samaritans appear to have flourished under crusader rule and a large number of Torah scrolls produced by the Samaritans have survived, suggesting a flourishing of activities rather than the reverse. 


Turning to the Christian population of the crusader states, this was divided theologically into three main groups: Melkites (more commonly but confusingly called Greek Orthodox although many of them did not speak Greek), Jacobites, and Armenians. In addition, there were small pockets of Maronite, Nestorian, Coptic and Ethiopian Christians resident in the Holy Land. The Armenian and Jacobite Christians indisputably made up the vast majority of the population in what was to become the County of Edessa and the Principality of Antioch. In what was to become the County of Tripoli, on the other hand, Maronite Christians were more numerous, but it is no longer clear if they made up an overall majority of the population or not. The Kingdom of Jerusalem appears to have had the most fragmented population with all of the above Christian and Jewish communities present, as well as some Muslims.

The situation is complicated by the fact liturgical and linguistic differences were not conform. While as a rule, Armenian Christians spoke and heard Mass in Armenian, the same cannot be said for Melkite Christians, who might still speak and hear Mass in Greek, but were just as likely to speak and worship in Syriac or Arabic.  Jacobites, Copts and Nestorians appear to have spoken and worshiped predominantly in Syriac and Arabic, but this adds to confusion when dealing with contemporary records since neither the use of Arabic in documents nor Arab-sounding names necessarily denoted Muslims ― a factor that has undoubtedly contributed to earlier exaggerations of the size of the Muslim population under crusader rule.

All these forms of “Orthodox” Christians were viewed with various degrees of skepticism by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Theologians were very concerned about the ― to layman’s eyes ― microscopic differences in doctrinal interpretation. Some of these Christian sects were considered “heretics,” but most were viewed merely as “schismatics” ― by the Church. That said, the crusader states were not theocracies run by religious scholars, but secular states run by educated but fundamentally hard-nosed, practical, fighting men.

The feudal elites of the crusader states might have been pious enough to take the cross, but that did not make them masters of theological fine points. They had answered the Pope’s call to “liberate” the native Christians from Muslim oppression, and the evidence is quite overwhelming that they did exactly that. Nor did they suddenly start oppressing those Christians themselves. On the contrary, all local Christians, regardless of liturgical rite, were immediately freed of the taxes, humiliations, and indignities imposed on them by Muslim rule.

The rule the crusaders “imposed” on the liberated territories, furthermore, borrowed far more from the traditions of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) than Western Europe. Recent scholarship demonstrates that, contrary to earlier assumptions, the crusader states did not introduce any form of serfdom on the native peasants ― Christian or Muslim.  On the contrary, although agricultural workers were effectively “tied” to the land, they did not owe any of the other feudal dues. Thus they were not required to work the lord’s land, did not have to pay to marry, retained ownership of their homes and moveable goods, and paid sometimes as little as one quarter of the corps to their lord.

Furthermore, for members of the native elites, the situation under crusader rule was full of opportunities for advancement and enrichment. The new rulers needed the support of local elites in order to govern. The native elites had opportunities in a wide range of fields from collecting taxes and administering rural communities as “scribes” and “ra’is,” to serving as tax-collectors, harbor-masters, and accountants in the cities. Christopher MacEvitt in his excellent work The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance has provided examples of native Christians being land-owners in their own right, and being wealthy enough to make charitable bequests of significant value.  In addition, he claims to have identified native Christians serving as knights and, in one case, even as Marshal of Jerusalem. While earlier historians have assumed that these native Christians “must have” first converted to Latin Christianity, MacEvitt argues that there is no evidence of this whatsoever.

On the contrary, MacEvitt notes that there is ample evidence of the Frankish and native Christian communities intermingling not just in the bazaars and taverns, but by undertaking the same pilgrimages, by sharing churches, by taking part in the same processions, and by using each other’s priests as confessors ― a clear indication that for the average Frank the common belief in Christ outweighed the theological differences that animated church scholars. Riley-Smith notes that native Christian clergy enjoyed the privilege of being exempt from the jurisdiction of secular courts just as much as Latin clergy did. MacEvitt notes that the reason almost all Greek Orthodox patriarchs were replaced by Latin patriarchs is that they had already fled the Holy Land in the face of Muslim persecution before the arrival of the crusades. He notes further that on their arrival in Antioch “the crusaders enthroned the Greek patriarch...recognizing his authority over Latins and Melkites alike." (MacEvitt, p. 111.) Adding, “more Melkite bishops could be found throughout Palestine after the crusader conquest than had been there in the previous fifty years.” (MacEvitt, p. 112). The only instance of a Melkite bishop being ousted had to do with power politics (an attempt by the Greek Emperor to impose his authority) not church politics.

When we remember that “turcopoles,” native horseman, made up a significant portion of the feudal army of Jerusalem, we see further evidence of the fact that native Christians were far from oppressed. The fact that they were financially in a position to provide mounted troops underlines the fact that they were affluent and empowered. (Muslim laws prohibited Christians from riding and owning horses.) Perhaps more important, the fact that that native Christian communities consistently provided large numbers of these mounted troops to both offensive and defensive armies led by Frankish kings and barons shows that native Christians did far more than just intermingle much less "co-exist." The local Christian population came to identify strongly with the crusader states. Far from longing for a return to Muslim rule ― as so many superficial modern commentators suggest ― many native Christians of Outremer were willing to fight and die for the crusader states. 

 Native Christians play a role in all three books of the Jerusalem trilogy.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

The Battle of Le Forbelet

In much popular literature, the Sultan Salah ad-Din, more commonly known as Saladin, is portrayed not only as chivalrous but also invincible.  Even his critical biographer, Andrew Ehrenkreutz, attributes Saladin’s failure to defeat the forces of Christianity sooner than 1187 to Saladin’s obsession with crushing his Muslim rivals rather than to any capability on the part of his Christian foes.  While it is undoubtedly true that Saladin spent more time and resources defeating his Muslim rivals, the theory glosses over the fact that Saladin led three full scale invasions of the Kingdom of Jerusalem before his successful campaign of 1187 — and he was defeated each time. Furthermore, in all three instances he commanded significantly more numerous forces and was forced to withdraw by smaller forces of Christians.

Saladin’s first invasion ended in a crushing defeat in the Battle of Montgisard. His second invasion was not launched until five years later in the summer of 1182.  Significantly, this invasion occurred after the death of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I, who had been a staunch supporter of the crusader kingdoms. Under Manuel I, the Christian Kingdoms in Constantinople and Jerusalem had undertaken a number of joint military operations, notably against Egypt, and the Byzantine Empire provided the crusader kingdoms with a degree of protection. However, with Manuel I’s death and the assassination of his wife, daughter and son-in-law, the minor Emperor Alexius II was controlled by a clique completely hostile to the Latin kingdoms.  It was furthermore launched after Saladin had concluded a truce with the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. In short, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was isolated and could expect no short-term support.

Manuel I Comnenus, Emperor of the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire
Saladin’s forces crossed into the Kingdom of Jerusalem on July 13 and immediately laid siege to the castle of Bethsan in southern Galilee on the River Jordan. Due to the nature of medieval warfare, i.e. the slow speed at which large forces can be mustered, Saladin’s intentions had not remained concealed. Far from surprising the King of Jerusalem, Saladin’s invasion was anticipated and the King had already called up his feudal levies and mustered them at the Springs of Sephorie (also written Saffuriya). While the Christians had shorter lines of communication and could probably muster more rapidly than Saladin’s diverse forces drawn from as far away as Cairo, the fact that the Christians had already mustered before Saladin’s army crossed the Jordan nevertheless speaks of considerable competence on two levels. 

On the one hand, the Kingdom of Jerusalem evidently enjoyed excellent intelligence of enemy movements, and on the other the King’s subjects were capable of a rapid response. The extent to which the Christians had reliable intelligence networks inside Saladin’s empire is something almost completely overlooked or neglected in most studies of the crusader kingdoms. Good intelligence is, of course, by its very nature almost invisible. Furthermore, it was only in the second half of the last century that spy thrillers became popular and the importance of intelligence widely recognized. For most of human history, spies have been despised as somewhat unsavory (not to say dishonorable) creatures, whose services were used but not valued. This may explain why no Christian chronicle highlights or even acknowledges the fact that the Christian kingdoms did have access to intelligence from inside the Muslim world. There were two important sources of this intelligence. First and foremost, traders who, we know, did travel across the cultural and religious borders of the age almost irrespective of the state of hostilities. Second, and perhaps even more important, the large Christians communities who lived in both Egypt and Syria at this time.

Medieval Caravan on the Silk Road
The second fact, that Baldwin IV could muster his forces rapidly when he summoned them, has also received far too little acknowledgement. For a Kingdom that so many describe as divided by factions and intrigue (see Ehrenkreutz, Bartlett, and others) that is quite remarkable. In fact, the ease and speed with which the feudal levies of Jerusalem mustered undermines the thesis of internal divisions — at least at this point in time.

Just two days after Saladin laid siege to Bethsan, the Christian army under King Baldwin IV confronted Saladin’s army in a bitter, full-scale battle. William of Tyre, who was Chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at this time and could rely on first-hand accounts of the battle, reports that the older, more experienced Frankish commanders claimed never to have seen a Saracen force of this magnitude before, but there are no reliable estimates of just how large that force actually was. Five years later, however, Saladin mustered roughly 45,000 troops for the campaign that led to his victory at Hattin, including 12,000 cavalry. It is probable that Saladin’s army in 1182 was somewhat less numerous than at Hattin, simply because Saladin had not yet subdued his rivals in Mosul and so could not call on their contingents.  An educated guess might therefore put his army at as little as 35,000 of which 9,000 were horse.  On the Christian side were just 700 knights (compared to 1,600 at Hattin) and unknown numbers of Turcopoles and infantry. Again, using Hattin as a yardstick, and paring the numbers down proportionally, the Christian infantry probably did not number more than 10,000, probably less.

The battle was fought in such intense heat that a monk died of sunstroke while carrying the reliquary containing what was believed to be a fragment of the cross on which Christ was crucified. The battle was, furthermore, an all-day affair, and the dust churned up on a battlefield in the midst of the summer dry season must have been nearly as unbearable and killing as the heat. What fighting in metal armor under these conditions was like is literally unimaginable to modern man. It is probable that heat stroke and thirst contributed nearly as much as enemy action to the casualties.  

Hollywood's Portrayal of a Frankish Army carrying the True Cross into Battle; "The Kingdom of Heaven"
Unfortunately, there is no detailed account of the sequence of events; Tyre was a churchman, not a soldier, and the Arabs had nothing to write home about.  As Professor Bernard Hamilton words it: “Le Forbelet was a Frankish victory: a far larger Muslim army had been forced to retreat with heavy losses by a determined Frankish cavalry force.”

The few facts we do have, however, suggest that Hamilton may be slighting the Christian infantry in his above assessment. While there were practically no casualties among the Christian knights, the losses among the infantry were reportedly much greater. This suggests that the Frankish cavalry remained behind their infantry protection long enough to wear-down their enemy and then — still comparatively fresh — they launched an effective counter attack. These are the tactics that worked so well for Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade, and they weren’t new. These were the tactics the Franks had used again and again. It all came down to three factors: 1) disciplined infantry that held the line without cracking, 2) timing the cavalry charge correctly, and 3) carrying it out with verve and discipline. From the outcome, it is clear that the Christian forces at Le Forbelet did all three.

That would not have been possible without effective command, and clearly that still lay with Baldwin IV at this time. He was present at the battle, but after being unhorsed at the Battle on the Litani three years earlier, and given the ravages of leprosy over that space of time, it is almost certain he did not lead his army from horseback at the front. Rather, as in the following year, he was probably reduced to commanding from a liter at the back of his army. That despite this he could still defeat an army likely three times the size of his and commanded by the tactically astute Saladin is remarkable. It suggests that he still commanded the respect of his barons and troops, and that he could depend upon some very competent field commanders.

The small number of Frankish knights involved is attributable to the fact that the forces of neither Tripoli nor Antioch took part in this battle, both being pinned down elsewhere. So the most probable commanders at Le Forbelet were all from the Kingdom of Jerusalem, first and foremost, the Constable of the Kingdom, Aimery de Lusignan, followed by Reynald de Châtillon, Lord of Oultrejourdain, and Baldwin d’Ibelin, Lord of Ramla and Mirabel. Both of the latter had very strong reputations as battle commanders and fielded large contingents of troops.

Whoever deserves the credit, the victory proved fleeting. Baldwin’s successor, Aimery’s younger brother Guy, failed to follow the tactics that had worked so well at Le Forbelet. He led the Christian army to a devastating defeat just five years later — almost to the day — at Hattin. That was a defeat from which the crusader states never recovered, and so it obscured and turned to insignificance the crusader success at Le Forbelet.

The Battle of Le Forbelet is described in detail in Book II of my three-part biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin:

A divided kingdom,

                             a united enemy,

                                                       and the struggle for Jerusalem.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The "Leper King" - Baldwin IV of Jerusalem

Baldwin IV was arguably one of the Kingdom of Jerusalem's most able kings, effectively beating back no less than three invasions led by Saladin. Tragically, he has gone down in history as the "Leper King" simply because he suffered from leprosy throughout his reign and succumbed to the disease before he reached his 24th birthday.

Baldwin IV as depicted in Ridley Scott's film "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Baldwin was born in 1161, the second child of Amalric of Jerusalem and Amalric's first wife, Agnes de Courtney. At the time of his birth, his father was the younger brother and heir apparent to the childless King Baldwin III of Jerusalem. 

Just two years later, Baldwin III died and Amalric ascended the throne -- but only on the condition that he set aside his wife (Baldwin's mother) Agnes de Courtney. Agnes was duly disposed of, but Amalric's children of his marriage, two-year-old Baldwin and his year-older sister Sibylla, were explicitly recognized as legitimate. They remained at court with their father. In 1167, Amalric remarried, this time to the Byzantine Princess Maria Comnena.

At about this same time, Baldwin was diagnosed with leprosy by his tutor William, later Archbishop of Tyre. According to Tyre, the leprosy first manifested itself as a lack of feeling in Baldwin’s right hand. However, Baldwin retained the use of his other limbs and did not suffer from noticeable disfigurement. His illness was initially kept quiet.

In 1174, Baldwin's father died unexpectedly. Baldwin was elected King by the High Court of Jerusalem despite the fact that other crown vassals afflicted with leprosy were required to join the Knights of St. Lazarus. Being still a minor (13) at the time of his father's death, the Kingdom was placed in the care of a regent, Raymond of Tripoli, himself a descendant of Baldwin II and one of the most powerful barons in the crusader states. Notably, at this time Baldwin could still move and above all ride without apparent impediment — indeed contemporary accounts stress that he was an exceptional horseman able to control his horse perfectly at a full gallop. 

In the summer of 1176, Baldwin turned 15 and so attained his majority. He took the reins of government for himself and immediately undertook raids into Damascene territory — probably to signal to both his subjects and his enemies that he was not a invalid. He also brought his mother back to court and placed his maternal uncle, Joscelyn of Edessa, into the powerful position of Seneschal of Jerusalem. Tripoli appears to have been sidelined, but not in anyway humiliated.

Baldwin IV in "Kingdom of Jerusalem"

Given his illness, however, and the certainty that he would not sire a successor, the most pressing business of the Kingdom was the marriage of Baldwin's heir, his older sister Sibylla. In fact, Tripoli had already arranged a marriage for her with William de Montferrat, a man from a powerful north Italian family. Unfortunately, William died in the summer of 1177, leaving Sibylla pregnant at 17. (For a biography of Sibylla see: Sibylla)

Meanwhile, the enemies of the Kingdom of Jerusalem were getting stronger. The Kurdish general Salah al-Din had first murdered the Vizier in Cairo and then, on the death of the Fatimid Caliph, declared Egypt Sunni. The death of the Sultan of Damascus in1174 opened the way for Salah al-Din to seize control of Damascus as well. Nur ad-Din's legal heir fled to Aleppo. Although Salah-ad-Din would need almost ten more years to consolidate his position and eliminate all his rivals, he had effectively united Shiia Egypt and Sunni Syria under his rule by 1177. In part to bolster his own legitimacy, he declared jihad against the Christian states in the Holy Land. 

Baldwin IV sought to counter the rise of Salah-ad-Din by following his father's policy of alliance with the Byzantine Empire and attacking Cairo. He hoped to capitalize on disaffection among Salah al-Din's Shiia and Arab subjects, particularly their resentment of a Kurdish/Sunni usurper. Unfortunately, Baldwin fell ill — with a fever not related to his leprosy — shortly before the arrival of the Count of Flanders, who came from the West with a large contingent of knights. With Baldwin ill, Flanders was offered the command of the Frankish army, but he wanted to be made King of Egypt, if he helped conquer it, something the Byzantines would not sanction. The coalition fell apart, the Byzantine fleet withdrew and Flanders went off to Antioch to campaign in the north, taking not only his knights but many of the barons and knights of Jerusalem with him. 

Salah al-Din had assembled his forces to meet the expected invasion and recognized that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was practically defenseless before him. He invaded, sacking and plundering as he advanced north, leaving well defended positions like the Templar castle at Gaza untouched until he came to Ascalon. Ascalon had been in Egyptian hands until 1153 and was considered a key strategic position for the defense of Egypt -- or the attack on Jerusalem. Saladin prepared to besiege the city.

In a dramatic move Baldwin IV, who had been bed-ridden for months, rode to the rescue of Ascalon with just 367 knight, reaching the city shortly before the Sultan's army enveloped it. But Baldwin soon found himself trapped inside while the road to Jerusalem lay open and Jerusalem itself was practically defenseless. 

Salah al-Din predictably decided to make an attack on Jerusalem. Given his overwhelming superiority of force and the apparent weakness of a 16-year-old suffering from leprosy, Salah al-Din left only a small force to keep Baldwin trapped in Ascalon, and continued north, allowing his troops to continue plundering along the way rather than concentrating on his goal.

He had miscalculated. Baldwin sallied out of Ascalon, joined forces with the Templars and called up the feudal levies. He then lured Salah al-Din into a trap to win a stunning and complete victory at Montgisard on November 25, 1177. Note, Baldwin fought on horseback at Montgisard in command of his troops. In accordance with the customs of the kingdom, the vanguard was commanded by the Baron in whose territory the battle was fought, in this case the Baron of Ramla. (For more on the issue of command at Montgisard see: Battle of Montgisard 1177)

A modern depiction of the Battle of Montgisard (copyright Talento)

Although a military and political triumph, the Battle of Montgisard had devastating consequences for Baldwin personally. Based on the historical descriptions of Baldwin’s initial illness, which state he had lost the feeling in his arm but that there were no other symptoms such as discoloration or ulcers, modern experts in the disease believe that Baldwin IV initially had primary polyneuritic tuberculoid leprosy, which deteriorated into lepromatous leprosy during puberty. 

There was, according to Piers D. Mitchell ("An Evaluation of the Leprosy of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem in the Context of the Medieval World," in Bernard Hamilton's The Leper King and His Heirs, Cambridge University Press, 2000), nothing inevitable about this deterioration. However, puberty itself can induce the deterioration as can untended wounds (that go unnoticed due to loss of feeling) which cause ulcers to break out. 

When Baldwin led his daring campaign against Salah al-Din that led to the surprise victory at Montgisard he was in puberty, just 16 years old. It is probable that it was in part because of this campaign — which required camping out in the field and going without the usual bathing of his feet and hands — that caused Baldwin's leprosy to take a turn for the worse. According to Mitchell, children who develop lepromatous leprosy are likely to die prematurely, and so once Baldwin’s leprosy had become lepromatous it inevitably took its course through the gruesome stages of increasing incapacitation to a an early death.

But Baldwin wasn't dead yet. In 1180, he allowed his sister Sibylla to marry a young adventurer from the West, Guy de Lusignan. According to one contemporary chronicler (Ernoul), Sibylla was seduced by Guy (and she would not have been the first princess in Outremer to be seduced by a young adventurer!), and Baldwin first threatened to hang Guy for "debauching" a princess, but then gave in to his sister and mother's pleadings to let his sister marry "the man she loved." Other sources (William of Tyre) suggest that Baldwin feared the Count of Tripoli was planning to depose him by arranging a marriage between Sibylla and Baldwin d'Ibelin, the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel. Whatever the reason, with Sibylla's marriage to Guy the succession appeared secure again.

A Royal Marriage

The succession might have been secure, but the Kingdom was not. Salah al-Din had invaded a second time in 1179 and Baldwin had been unhorsed in the engagement, an indication of his deteriorating condition. When Salah al-Din invaded a third time in 1182, Baldwin could no longer ride and commanded his army from a litter -- but still fought the Saracens to a stand-still, forcing them to withdraw. 

The following year, however, he was again seized with fever and believing he was on his death-bed made his brother-in-law Guy de Lusignan regent. Thus when Salah al-Din invaded a fourth time in 1183, it was Guy de Lusignan who led the Christian armies to face him.

The results were not good. While the Saracens eventually withdrew, they had managed to do considerable damage and the barons of Jerusalem returned in a rebellious mood. The news that the key castle of Kerak was under siege (with both Princess of Jerusalem, the Queen Mother and the Dowager Queen all trapped inside for a wedding) should have triggered the immediate dispatch of a major relief force. Instead, the High Court (allegedly unanimously) refused to follow Guy de Lusignan anywhere. 

Baldwin IV responded by dismissing Guy, and dragging is disintegrating body halfway across the kingdom at the head of his army. The mere approach of the Leper King, however, was enough to convince Salah al-Din to withdraw. 

The Castle of Kerak, now in Jordan

By now Baldwin IV knew he did not have much time left to him. He had his nephew, Sibylla's son by her first husband crowned as a co-monarch, and asked his bishops to find a way to dissolve Sibylla's marriage to Guy in the hope that another husband, more congenial to his barons, could be found for her. In the latter, he failed, and hence when he died just short of his 24th birthday in the spring of 1185, he was succeeded by his nephew Baldwin V, and -- at the latter's death a year later -- by Guy de Lusignan.

Baldwin IV ruled for less than ten years and throughout his reign he was handicapped by a progressively debilitating and disfiguring disease. Yet he retained the loyalty of his subjects to the very end and on no less than five occasions prevented Salah al-Din's vastly superior forces from over-running his fragile kingdom. For that he should be revered and respected.
Baldwin IV plays a major role in the first two volumes of my three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

First Among Equals: The King of Jerusalem and the High Court

Arguably the most remarkable thing about the Kings of Jerusalem in the first 125 years of the history of the kingdom is that they were elected rather than born. The law of primogeniture did not automatically apply, but rather the High Court of Jerusalem, composed of all the nobility of the realm, formally elected the monarch. This was not just a formality, at least not in the first century of the Kingdom. The High Court could impose conditions on candidates, and also force its candidates for a consort upon female heirs. Without its consent, a king or queen, even if crowned and anointed, was just a usurper.

The tradition started, of course, with the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. The First Crusade had never had a single leader and there was considerable (often destructive) rivalry between the leading lords that took the cross. By the time the crusaders reached Jerusalem, Stephan of Blois had abandoned the crusade altogether, Baldwin of Bouillon had struck off on his own and captured Edessa, and Bohemond of Taranto had remained in Antioch to re-establish a Christian state there.  The remaining lords, however, chose Godfrey of Bouillon to rule over Jerusalem.  Godfrey reputedly refused to wear “a crown of gold where Christ had worn a crown of thorns” and took the title of “Defender” or “Protector” or possibly just “Ruler” of Jerusalem.

Just one year later, however, he was dead without an heir. The nascent kingdom was in a more precarious state than ever, since the majority of the surviving crusaders felt they had fulfilled their vow and returned home. Those noblemen remaining in the Holy Land again (not without controversy) selected a successor from among themselves, in this case, Godfrey’s brother Baldwin.  Very significantly, he was not the heir entitled by the rules of primogeniture, as he had an elder brother in the West, Eustace. Baldwin did not share his brother’s qualms about calling himself king, and took the title of King Baldwin I. But in 1118 Baldwin I also died without an heir of his body, and the barons of the crusader kingdoms chose for a third time a leader from among their ranks, this time, Baldwin of Bourcq, who thereby became Baldwin II of Jerusalem.

Three such “elections” (with admittedly limited franchise!) set a legal precedent and the Kings of Jerusalem were henceforth always “elected” by the High Court of Jerusalem. The later was initially composed of the leading lords of the realm (which made the election process the equivalent of the English House of Lords electing the Kings of England.) By the mid-12th century, however, the High Court had been expanded to include the “rear-vassals,” that is men who held a fief from another lord. Thus, in addition to the tenants-in-chief of the king (the barons), the tenants of barons, and their tenants (as long as they were knights) also had a seat on the High Court. Here each man had (at least in theory) an equal voice. As Professor Riley-Smith puts it in his seminal work The Feudal Nobility and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, (Macmillan, 1973), “the voice of the lowliest knight could be raised in the highest court in the land.”

The High Court of Jerusalem had many functions, judicial, legislative and executive. John La Monte writes in Feudal Monarchy in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Medieval Academy of America, 1932): “Its word was law…and the king who endeavored to act without the advice of, or contrary to the decision of, his High Court found himself confronted with a legalized rebellion on the part of his subjects.” In Jerusalem, the elected king remained “first among equals” vis-à-vis his barons and bishops rather than a sovereign.

Which does not mean that the election of kings was an open, democratic affair. As the products of European feudalism with strong ties to the ruling houses of England and France, the members of the High Court favored the blood relatives of the last monarch. Disputes arose primarily over which of several close relatives had the better claim to the throne. These were legal issues (mixed, of course, with practical considerations, personalities and politics.) Nevertheless, the fact remained that the approval of the High Court was a pre-requisite for legitimate rule, and thus every time a king died there was effectively an interregnum (if not outright crisis), while factions positioned themselves and consensus was established.

It also meant that the High Court had the ability to impose conditions on candidates even where there was consensus on who that candidate was. An important example of this is the accession of Amalric after the death of Baldwin III. Amalric was Baldwin’s younger brother. He was a mature man with an overall positive reputation and a track record of fighting effectively (a critical criteria in the ever-beleaguered Kingdom of Jerusalem). However, for whatever reason (and these are highly controversial) the High Court did not like his wife, Agnes de Courtney. The High Court forced Amalric to set her aside, by making this a condition of their consent to his coronation.

Amalric’s daughter Sibylla was also married to someone the High Court detested, Guy de Lusignan. However, unlike her father, she was not willing to set-aside her husband. With the support of only a couple of powerful barons (her uncle of Edessa and the Lord of Oultrejourdan) and the Templar Grand Master (who did not sit in the High Court, but controlled some pretty effective troops), she carried out a coup d’etat in which she was crowned without the consent of the High Court. To add insult to injury, she then crowned her husband king with her own hand because the Patriarch would not do it.
Far from side-lining the High Court, this led to a constitutional crisis that was to last six years. First, the majority of the barons and bishops prepared to crown a (legitimate) rival king and queen: Amalric’s younger daughter, Isabella, and her husband Humphrey de Toron. The plan was foiled by Toron, who apparently in public agreed to it but then in  the dark of night fled the baronial camp to do homage to Sibylla. Without an alternative to Guy, the baronial opposition temporarily collapsed, but that did not make Sibylla and Guy’s coronation any more legal. Notably, the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel was so outraged that he preferred to renounce his entire estate and leave the realm. The Count of Tripoli went even farther and made a separate peace with Saladin.

With the loss of the kingdom in the aftermath of Hattin, the High Court temporarily vanished as well, but its spirit lived on in the actions of the leading barons and bishops. At the death of Sibylla in 1190, Isabella was unquestionably the rightful queen, but after Toron's betrayal four years earlier these men were no longer willing to even consider Toron as king. They effectively forced Isabella to separate from Toron and marry a man they believed better suited to rule. When Richard of England asked for a judgment on who should be king, his own candidate Guy de Lusignan, or Isabella’s (new) husband Conrad de Montferrat, the fighting men of Jerusalem (i.e. the same men who would have made up the High Court had the Kingdom still been intact) voted (allegedly unanimously) for Conrad the Montferrat ― and Richard the Lionheart backed-down, conceded defeat, and recognized Montferrat.

When Montferrat was assassinated a few days later, it was again the barons and bishops of Jerusalem, the de-facto High Court, that selected her next husband, Henri de Champagne. By the time Champagne died five years later, the High Court had been re-constituted, and officially selected Isabella’s last husband, Aimery de Lusignan.

Thereafter, the High Court selected the husband for the next two queens, which is the same thing as saying they selected the next two kings. Unfortunately, in the second instance they chose Friedrich II Hohenstaufen, the Holy Roman Emperor, and he had neither understanding nor respect for an institution like the High Court. He tried to impose his brand of absolutism on Jerusalem, thereby provoking a full-scale rebellion by the barons that led to a humiliating defeat of the imperial faction and a validation of Jerusalem's unique laws -- but that is material for a separate entry.
The High Court plays a key role particularly in the last two books of the Jerusalem Trilogy:

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