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Thursday, November 23, 2017

A Royal Abduction?

In November 1190, Princess Isabella of Jerusalem, then 18 years old, was forcibly removed from the tent she was sharing with her husband Humphrey of Toron in the Christian camp besieging the city of Acre.  Just days earlier, her elder sister, Queen Sibylla, had died, making Isabella the hereditary queen of the all-but-non-existent -- yet symbolically important-- Kingdom of Jerusalem.  A short time after her abduction, she married Conrad Marquis de Montferrat, making him, through her, the de facto King of Jerusalem.  This high-profile abduction and marriage scandalized the church chroniclers and is often sited to this day as evidence of the perfidy of Conrad de Montferrat and his accomplices.  But is the outrage justified?

The anonymous author of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi (Itinerarium), for example, describes with blistering outrage how Conrad de Montferrat had long schemed to “steal” the throne of Jerusalem, and at last struck upon the idea of abducting Isabella—a crime he compares to the abduction of Helen of Sparta by Paris of Troy “only worse.”  To achieve his plan, the Itinerarium claims, Conrad “surpassed the deceits of Sinon, the eloquence of Ulysses and the forked tongue of Mithridates.” Conrad, according to this English cleric writing after the fact, set about bribing, flattering and corrupting bishops and barons alike as never before in recorded history. Throughout, the chronicler says, Conrad was aided and abetted by three barons of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (Sidon, Haifa and Ibelin) who combined (according to our chronicler) “the treachery of Judas, the cruelty of Nero, and the wickedness of Herod, and everything the present age abhors and ancient times condemned.” Really? The author certainly brings no evidence of a single act of treachery, cruelty, or wickedness — beyond this one alleged abduction, which (as we shall see) was hardly a case of rape as we shall see.

Indeed, this chronicler himself admits that Isabella was not removed from Humphrey’s tent by Conrad himself, nor was she handed over to him. On the contrary, she was put into the care of clerical “sequesters,” with a mandate to assure her safety and prevent a further abduction, “while a clerical court debated the case for a divorce.” Furthermore, in the very next paragraph our anonymous slanderer of some of the most courageous and pious lords of Jerusalem, declares that although Isabella at first resisted the idea of divorcing her husband Humphrey, she was soon persuaded to consent to divorce because “a woman’s opinion changes very easily” and “a girl is easily taught to do what is morally wrong.” 

While the Itinerarium admits that Isabella’s marriage to Humphrey was reviewed by a church court, it hides this fact under the abuse it heaps upon the clerics involved. Another contemporary chronicle, the Lyon continuation of William of Tyre, explains in far more neutral and objective language that the case hinged on the important principle of consent. By the 12th century, marriage could only be valid in canonical law if both parties (i.e. including Isabella) consented. The issue at hand was whether Isabella had consented to her marriage to Humphrey at the time it was contracted.  

The Lyon Continuation further notes that Isabella and Humphrey testified before the church tribunal separately. In her testimony, Isabella asserted she had not consented to her marriage to Humphrey, while Humphrey claimed she had. The Lyon Continuation also provides the colorful detail that another witness, who had been present at Isabella and Humphrey's wedding, at once called Humphrey a liar, and challenged him to prove he spoke the truth in combat. Humphrey, the chronicler says, refused to “take up the gage.” At this point, the chronicler states that Humphrey was “cowardly and effeminate.” 

Both accounts (the Itinerarium and the Lyon Continuation) agree that following the testimony and deliberations the Church council ruled that Isabella’s marriage to Humphrey was invalid. There was only one dissenting voice, that of the Archbishop of Canterbury. However, both chroniclers insist that this decision was reached because Conrad corrupted all the other clerics, particularly the Papal legate, the Archbishop of Pisa. The Lyon Continuation claims that the Archbishop of Pisa ruled the marriage invalid and allowed Isabella to marry Conrad only because Conrad promised commercial advantages for Pisa if he married Isabella and became king. The Itinerarium, on the other hand, claims Conrad “poured out enormous generosity to corrupt judicial integrity with the enchantment of gold.”

There are a lot of problems with the clerical outrage over Isabella’s “abduction” — not to mention the dismissal of Isabella’s change of heart as the inherent moral frailty of females. There are also problems with the slander heaped on the barons and bishops, who dared to support Conrad de Montferrat's suit for Isabella.

Let’s go back to the basic facts of the case as laid out by the chroniclers themselves but stripped of moral judgments and slander:

  • Isabella was removed from Humphrey de Toron’s tent against her will.
  • She was not, however, taken by Conrad or raped by him.
  • Rather she was turned over to neutral third parties, sequestered and protected by them.
  • Meanwhile, a church court was convened to rule on the validity of her marriage to Humphrey.
  • The case hinged on the important theological principle of consent. (Note: In the 12th Century, both parties to a marriage had to consent. To consent, they had be of age. The legal age of consent for girls was 12.)
  • Humphrey claimed that Isabella had consented to the marriage (which was technically irrelevant since an 11-year-old was not considered legally competent to consent), but when challenged by a witness to the wedding he “said nothing” and backed down.
  • Isabella, meanwhile, had “changed her mind” and consented to the divorce.
  • The court ruled that Isabella's marriage to Humphrey had not been valid.
  • On Nov. 25, with either the French Bishop of Beauvais or the Papal Legate himself presiding, Isabella married Conrad.  Since a clerical court had just ruled that no marriage was valid without the consent of the bride, we can be confident that she consented to this marriage. In fact, as the Itinerarium so vituperously reports, “she was not ashamed to say…she went with the Marquis of her own accord.”

To understand what really happened in the siege camp of Acre in November 1190, we need to look beyond what the church chronicles write about the abduction itself.  The story really begins in 1180 when Isabella was just eight years old. Until this time, Isabella had lived in the care and custody of her mother, the Byzantine Princess and Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, Maria Commena. In 1180, King Baldwin IV (Isabella’s half-brother) arranged the betrothal of Isabella to Humphrey de Toron. Having promised this marriage without the consent of Isabella’s mother or step-father, the king ordered the physical removal of Isabella from her mother and step-father’s care and sent her to live with her future husband, his mother and his step-father. The latter was the infamous Reynald de Chatillon, notorious for having seduced the Princess of Antioch, tortured the Archbishop of Antioch, and sacked the Christian island of Cyprus. Isabella was effectively imprisoned in his border fortress at Kerak and Toron's mother, Stephanie de Milly, explicitly prohibited Isabella from even visiting her mother for three years.

In December 1183, when Isabella was just eleven years old, Reynald and his wife held a marriage feast to celebrate the wedding of Isabella and Humphrey. They invited all the nobles of the kingdom to witness the feast. Unfortunately, before most of the wedding guests could arrive, Saladin's army surrounded the castle and laid siege to it. The wedding took place nevertheless, and a few weeks later the army of Jerusalem relieved the castle, chasing Saladin’s forces away. 

Note, at the time the wedding took place, Isabella was not only a prisoner of her in-laws, she was also only eleven years old. Canonical law in the 12th century, however, established the “age of consent” for girls at 12. Isabella could not legally consent to her wedding, even if she wanted to. The marriage had been planned by the King, however, and carried out by one of the most powerful barons during a crisis. No one seems to have dared challenge it at the time.

At the death of Baldwin V three years later, Isabella’s older sister, Queen Sibylla, was first in line to the throne but found herself opposed by almost the entire High Court of Jerusalem (that constitutionally was required to consent to each new monarch). The opposition sprang not from objections to Sibylla herself, but from the fact that the bishops and barons of the kingdom almost unanimously detested her husband, Guy de Lusignan. Although she could not gain the consent of the High Court necessary to make her coronation legal, she managed to convince a minority of the lords secular and ecclesiastical to crown her queen by promising to divorce Guy and choose a new husband. Once anointed, Sibylla promptly betrayed her supporters by declaring that her “new” husband was the same as her old husband: Guy de Lusignan. She then crowned him herself (at least according to some accounts). 

This struck many people at the time as duplicitous, to say the least, and the majority of the barons and bishops decided that since she had not had their consent in the first place, she and her husband were usurpers. They agreed to crown her younger sister Isabella (now 14 years old) instead.  The assumption was that since they commanded far larger numbers of troops than did Sibylla’s supporters (many of whom now felt duped and were dissatisfied anyway, no doubt), they would be able to quickly depose of Sibylla and Guy. 

The plan, however, came to nothing because Isabella’s husband, Humphrey de Toron, had no stomach for a civil war (or a crown, it seems), and chose to sneak away in the dark of night to do homage to Sibylla and Guy. The baronial revolt collapsed. Almost everyone eventually did homage to Guy, and he promptly led them all to an avoidable defeat at the Battle of Hattin. With the field army annihilated, the complete occupation of the Kingdom by the forces of Saladin followed – with the important exception of Tyre. Tyre only avoided the fate of the rest of the kingdom because of the timely arrival of a certain Italian nobleman, Conrad de Montferrat, who rallied the defenders and defied Saladin.

Montferrat came from a very good and very well connected family. He was first cousin to both the Holy Roman Emperor and King Louis VII of France. Furthermore, his elder brother had been Sibylla of Jerusalem’s first husband (before Guy), and his younger brother had been married to the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I. Furthermore, he defended Tyre twice against the vastly superior armies of Saladin, and by holding Tyre he enabled the Christians to retain a bridgehead by which troops, weapons, and supplies could be funneled back into the Holy Land for a new crusade to retake Jerusalem. While Conrad was preforming this heroic function, Guy de Lusignan was an (admittedly unwilling) “guest” of Saladin, a prisoner of war following his self-engineered defeat at Hattin.  

So at the time of the infamous abduction, Guy was an anointed king, but one who derived his right to the throne from his now-deceased wife (Sibylla had died in early November 1190), and furthermore a king viewed by most of his subjects as a usurper—even before he’d lost the entire kingdom through his incompetence. It is fair to say that in November 1190 Guy was not popular among the surviving barons and bishops of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and they were eager to see the kingdom pass into the hands of someone they respected and trusted. The death of Sibylla provided the perfect opportunity to crown a new king because with her death the crown legally passed to her sister Isabella, and, according to the Constitution of the Kingdom, the husband of the queen ruled with her as her consort.

The problem faced by the barons and bishops of Jerusalem in 1190, however, was that Isabella was still married to the same man who had betrayed them in 1186: Humphrey de Toron. He was clearly not interested in a crown, and it didn’t help matters that he’d been in a Saracen prison for two years. Perhaps more damning still, he was allegedly “more like a woman than a man: he had a gentle manner and a stammer.”(According to the Itinerarium.)

Whatever the reason, we know that the barons and bishops of Jerusalem were not prepared to make the same mistake they had made four years earlier when they had done homage to a man they knew was incompetent (Guy de Lusignan). They absolutely refused to acknowledge Isabella’s right to the throne, unless she first set aside her unsuitable husband and took a man acceptable to them. We know this because the Lyon Continuation is based on a lost chronicle written by a certain Ernoul, who as an intimate of the Ibelin family and so of Isabella and her mother, and provides the following insight: Having admitted that Isabella “did not want to [divorce Humphrey], because she loved [him],” the Lyon Continuation explains that her mother Maria persuasively argued that so long as she (Isabella) was Humphrey’s wife “she could have neither honor nor her father’s kingdom.” Moreover, Queen Maria reminded her daughter that “when she had married she was still underage and for that reason, the validity of the marriage could be challenged.” At which point, the continuation of Tyre reports, “Isabella consented to her mother’s wishes.” 

In short, Isabella had a change of heart during the church trial not because “woman’s opinion changes very easily,” but because she was a realist—who wanted a crown. Far from being a victim, manipulated by others, or a fickle, immoral girl, she was an intelligent young woman with an understanding of politics. 

As for the church court, it was not “corrupted” by Conrad or anyone else. It was simply faced by the unalterable fact that Isabella had very publicly wed Humphrey before she reached the legal age of consent. In short, whether she had voiced consent or not, indeed whether she loved, adored and positively desired Humphrey or not, she was not legally capable of consenting. 

No violent abduction and no travesty of justice took place in Acre in 1190. Rather a mature young woman recognized that it was in her best interests -- and the best interests of her kingdom -- to divorce an unpopular and ineffective husband and marry a man respected by the peers of the realm. To do so, she allowed the marriage she had contracted as an eleven-year-old to be recognized for what it was -- a mockery. Isabella's marriage in 1183 as a child prisoner of a notoriously brutal man not her marriage in 1190 as an 18-year-old queen was the real "abduction" of Isabella.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

Isabella, Humphrey, her mother Maria and her step-father are major characters in my award-winning three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin.

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Friday, November 17, 2017

Saladin's Armies

The crusader kingdoms consistently faced an enemy that significantly outnumbered them, and it is often this sense of "massive hordes" that dominates descriptions of Saracen armies. Yet while the size of Saracen armies was certainly a factor in their success, it was by no means their only significant feature. On the contrary, Saracen armies were extremely complex and understanding them better helps explain Frankish tactics.

Saladin's Army as depicted in "The Kingdom of Heaven"
Perhaps the most important yet often forgotten characteristic of Saracen armies was their ethnic diversity. The term "Saracen" simply means "Easterner" and referred collectively to the Muslim opponents of the crusaders.  Yet while the use of this term is convenient, it plasters over and so disguises the ethnic differences within the "Saracen" armies. The "Saracen" armies included not only Arabs and Turks, the two largest ethnic groups engaged in warfare against the crusaders. They also included Kurds (Saladin himself was a Kurd), Nubians, and Berbers. Furthermore, the Arab elements need to be sub-divided into Syrians, Bedouins and Egyptians, and the term "Turk" actually covers a variety of Turkmenish tribes. 

Each of these ethnic groups had their own more or less distinct ways of fighting along with their own language, dress, and preferred weapons. In broad terms, the Nubians were famous infantry archers, who fought with large powerful bows but without shields of any kind, making them very vulnerable in close engagements.  The Arabs, Kurds and Berbers generally fought on horseback with lance, javelin and sword, but Bedouins fought more often as infantry archers. The Turks were the masters of mounted archery. 

It was the Turks with their highly mobile cavalry and mounted archers that most impressed the crusaders. Based on Christian descriptions, the crusaders found the infantry and even the heavy cavalry of their opponents unremarkable. The mounted archers on the other hand, with their tactics of pressing in close for a volley of arrows only to flee when challenged, frustrated and won grudging respect from the Franks. The Turkish tactic of pretending flight to lure Frankish cavalry into an ambush was well-recorded and highly effective--over and over again. The comparison to a pesky fly is colorful but somewhat deceptive since these "flies" could kill. 

The diversity of tradition in Saracen armies had advantages and disadvantages. Good commanders could exploit the strengths of their various troops and use them to complement one another. Less effective commanders found their armies disintegrating or the units operating independently of one another. It was easy for the infantry to get left behind, forgotten and slaughtered. Cavalry without infantry support was vulnerable when they stopped to rest and water their horses, and utterly useless in siege warfare--which was the dominant form of engagement in the crusader period.

In addition to the ethnic differences within the Saracen armies, there were different kinds of service as well. At the one extreme and completely unknown in the West, Saracen commanders always had a contingent of slave-soldiers completely devoted to them. These slave-soldiers or Mamlukes (also Mamelukes and Mamluks) formed the personal body-guard of commanders and lords. They were composed of men who had been acquired as children (carefully selected, one presumes, for their physical appearance and health) and trained meticulously and rigorously for years to make them crack troops. Although technically "freed" on completion of training, they remained emotionally and financially bound to their master. They were professionals, with no other interests or purpose other than to serving their master in war.

In contrast, the bulk of the troops in a Saracen army were similar to feudal levees in the West. They were men with land and families, who served in the army when called-up, or as volunteers, but who were not professional soldiers. The quality of such troops obviously varied widely. Some of them, young, virile and ambitious were undoubtedly very good. Others, aging, ailing or just disinterested, were not so good. 

One element that was of mixed value were the jihadists. These men joined Saracen armies engaged in warfare against the crusader states for religious purification. While often untrained and poorly armed, they were fanatical and often keen for a martyr's death in battle against the "polytheists."  In consequence, these troops could be used for particularly dangerous tasks such as storming a breech in a wall or scaling a siege ladder.

As in the West, most of Saracen troops (like the Mamlukes) owed service to a lord or emir, not to the Sultan directly. Thus, as in the West, a Saracen army was composed of small, close-knit clusters of troops bound to a land-owner, who himself owed service to a larger land-owner, who owed service to an even larger land-owner etc. until one came to the top, the Sultan himself. Yet while all theoretically served the Sultan directly or indirectly, the reality was that men served the men they personally knew. If their immediate lord changed sides or just decided to go home, then they did so too. As a result, the only troops the Sultan could rely on 100% were his Mamlukes (until they too revolted, cut the Sultan to pieces and took control for themselves, but that wasn't until the mid-13th Century.)

In short, the Sultan, like a medieval King, was dependent upon the loyalty and support of his most powerful emirs, and the emirs had power similar to barons in medieval Europe, with one important difference: the emirs did not hold territory on a hereditary basis. They served as administrators of territory or other sources of revenue (such as customs, or markets) for the Sultan. In theory at least, the Sultans could dismiss them and replace them at whim.

While one might expect this made them more loyal, the evidence suggests the opposite.  Lack of tenure created a sense of insecurity and tended to make emirs more mercenary. Without a vested interest in a specific territory, they were always open to alternative opportunities -- from a different Sultan, or a brother, cousin or son willing to challenge the reigning Sultan. With no long-term perspectives, there was also a strong bias toward plundering one's current position, whether it was territorial or purely administrative.

Furthermore, the fact that emirs came and went (squeezing as much revenue as possible from their subjects) undermined loyalty. Tenants farmers and peasants had little reason to identify with the ever changing cast of landlords sent to exploit them. This fact is reflected in the tendency of Saracen forces to dissolve comparatively rapidly. Saladin had consistent difficulty keeping his troops in the field for more than a  month or so. Even after his great victory at Hattin and the plundering of an entire kingdom, his troops faded away when the rains started. 

To compensate for the generally low levels of loyalty and morale among the conscripts, Saracen leaders depended increasingly upon mercenaries. These were predominantly drawn from the nomadic tribes of the Asian steppes, but included Armenians, further adding to the overall diversity of the Saracen force. 

Warfare in the crusader states at the end of the 12th century is an integral part of Dr. Schrader's award-winning biographical novels about Balian d'Ibelin.


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 Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

Friday, November 10, 2017

Crusader Art

The scarcity of artwork dating from the crusader period found in the Holy Land today does not reflect — as some commentators suggest — a lack of artistic accomplishment or interest in the arts on the part of the elites in the crusader kingdoms. Rather is it the result of the the ravages of war and time, combined with systematic destruction and theft of crusader art by the Muslim conquerors of the Christian kingdoms. Today I provide a very quick overview of some of the artistic achievements of the crusader era.

A medieval window seat with delicate tracery; crusader castle of St. Hilarion on Cyprus

We know from the written record and from the few fragments of art that survive that the Kings of Jerusalem and other Christian rulers invested huge sums in the construction/re-construction and decoration of churches first and foremost. We also know the luxury in which the elites in the crusader states lived attracted censure as well as awe from Western pilgrims, suggesting that secular buildings were likewise beautifully decorated.

The crusader cloisers at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
The best surviving evidence of crusader art is in the architecture and above all sculpture from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Church of the Annunciation at Nazareth.  Fragments of crusader sculpture have also been found at Sebaste, Montfort and St. Mary Major in Jerusalem. However, except where Christian motifs or location make the dating of sculpture unassailable, many works of crusader sculpture is hard to identify because it was incorporated into buildings that were subsequently modified and overlaid with work of later centuries. The covered markets of Jerusalem are largely crusader in origin, but have been used continuously and added to and modified by successive generations. 

One of Jerusalem's covered markets; some of which date back to the reign of Queen Melisende
From the few pieces of art that have been identified unequivocally as crusader sculpture, a clear mix of Byzantine and Romanesque influences has been identified, suggesting either Byzantine artists working for Latin patrons, or Frankish craftsmen under Byzantine masters or combinations of the above.

The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem houses magnificent mosaics from the crusader period. Very extensive wall mosaics depict the life of Christ, the Ecumenical Councils and the ancestors of Christ. These mosaics are carried out in the Byzantine style and were probably executed by Byzantine artists, but they were commissioned by the Kings of Jerusalem, probably Baldwin III or Amalric I, who were both married to Byzantine princesses and maintained close ties to the Byzantine Empire. The choice of Greek artists may also have been guided by the fact that the Church of the Nativity was one of the best preserved churches in the Holy Land, having survived destruction at the hands of the Persians and Muslims. The floor tiles date from the reign of Constantine and were allegedly commissioned by St. Helena. They are still in place today.

Mosaics in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, dating to the reign of Baldwin III
 (apologies for the poor quality of the picture, I took it myself in March 2014)
Wall painting was almost certainly popular in the crusader states as it was in the South of France, whence so many of the early crusaders came, but it is particularly vulnerable to obliteration as it is easily painted over — a method of eliminating unwanted decoration that also inadvertently preserves it for the archaeologist. At least four important frescos from the crusader period have been found in the last half century, including at Crac de Chevaliers.  The style of most wall-painting from the crusader period found to date suggests that Byzantine artists, or craftsmen trained in the Byzantine school, were used for such painting, although the choice of subject was dictated by Western traditions.

Two examples of Byzantine Art; St. George was a particularly popular subject in the Crusader Kingdoms
In contrast, manuscript illustration appears to have been dominated by Western craftsmen. We know from written sources that a Scriptorium was established by the canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This workshop is said to have produced a large number of works of very high quality, very little of which has survived. One exception is a psalter made for Queen Melisende of Jerusalem. 

The ivory cover of Queen Melisende's Psalter

A Medieval Manuscript Illustration Depicting the First Crusade
After the fall of Jerusalem, there appears to have been an attempt to re-establish a Scriptorium in the Holy Land, this time in Accre, but the quality of the work is notably inferior to that from the Holy Sepulcher. Furthermore, whereas the illustrations of the Melisdende psalter and other works from the 12th century demonstrate strong Byzantine influence, the works from the Acre scriptorium are French and Italian in style.

The fragments of crusader art that survive are pitiably little, a mere whisper of what must have been a rich and distinct artistic heritage formed by the cross-fertilization of various cultures and artistic traditions at the ancient cross-roads of civilization on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

Recommended further reading:

Boas, Adrian J., Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East, Routledge, London & New York, 1999.

The award-winning biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the last quarter of the 12th Century.

Buy now!                                         Buy now!                                        Buy now!

Learn more about crusader society at: Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Red Sea Raids Revisited

In December of 1182, during a truce between Salah ad-Din and the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, pirate ships manned by an estimated 3,000 cut-throats suddenly started terrorizing trade and pilgrims in the Red Sea. It soon became clear that, to the astonishment of all, they were manned by “Franks” — that is Latin Christians. As such, they became the first Christian ships — lawful or otherwise — to be seen in the Red Sea in over 500 years. These became known as "The Red Sea Raids" and have long been used as examples of Christian perfidy -- or rather as evidence of the complete degenerate nature of one particular Christian baron: Reynald de Châtillon. Today I take a closer look at these "Red Sea Raids" and argue they were not mere piracy but intelligent strategy.

Because there had been no hostile ships in the Red Sea for five centuries, the Muslim rulers of Egypt and Arabia had no warships in the Red Sea to deal with the pirate threat. As a result, within a very short space of time these ships had completely disrupted the rich and vital trade between Egypt and India. Politically more dangerous: they had also disrupted the pilgrim traffic that converged on Jedda from all over North Africa for the final leg of the haj to Mecca.

The Frankish pirates first seized the town of Aidhab on the Egyptian coast, a major embarkation port for pilgrims from North Africa. Here they sacked the unwalled town, captured large stores intended to provision pilgrims, and sent raiders inland to seize a caravan. The fleet next crossed the Red Sea and sent a raiding party ashore between Medina and Mecca, apparently looking for rich and undefended caravans, before for heading for al-Haura, north of Jedda. During a sojourn in the Red Sea lasting about three months, they succeeded in capturing roughly 20 merchant or pilgrim ships. They plundered their prizes, then burned the slower ones, while converting the faster vessels into auxiliaries for their own raiding activities. The number of unarmed merchants and pilgrims, men, women and children, abused, slaughtered or enslaved in the process went unrecorded but was undoubtedly significant. By early February 1183, however, their luck had run out.

The governor of Egypt, Salah ad-Din’s brother al-Adil, responded to the threat rapidly and vigorously. He ordered a portion of the Egyptian fleet dragged across Sinai and launched in the Red Sea. This Egyptian squadron began operating in mid-January 1183, and roughly two weeks later caught up with and trapped the Frankish pirates in the harbor of the Arabian port of al-Haura, north of Jedda. Unable to break out of the harbor, the Franks abandoned their ships, captives and treasure to flee inland. Five days later they were tracked down and caught in a narrow ravine.  There most of them were slaughtered, but 170 surrendered and were taken prisoner. 

Not unsurprisingly, Salah ad-Din took a very dim view of the activities of these raiders. Although Sharia Law prohibits the execution of prisoners who voluntarily surrender, Salah ad-Din nevertheless ordered the execution of the men involved in the Red Sea raids. Arab sources site the need to eliminate enemies who had gained valuable knowledge of how to navigate in the Red Sea, but the desire to make an example of these men and satisfy public outrage probably also played a role in the Sultan’s decision. In any case, the prisoners were dispersed across Salah ad-Din’s empire for public execution in as many towns and cities as possible in order to “publicize [Saladin's] victory and exemplify his justice,” according to Bernard Hamilton in The Leper King and his Heirs (Cambridge University Press: 2000, p. 183). Two of the prisoners were singled out for a special punishment: they were taken to Mecca, where they were slaughtered like sacrificial animals in front of the thousands of pilgrims come for the haj.

No account of the raids spares a word of sympathy for the pirates. They preyed upon unarmed pilgrims and merchants evidently only for their own enrichment. Arab accounts stress the terror struck in the hearts of pilgrims accustomed to safe travel, and the psychological impact of these raids must have been similar to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2000. An entire region, long viewed as a safe — indeed invulnerable — Muslim homeland, was suddenly the scene of appalling and “unprecedented” acts of terror. Furthermore, this sudden sense of insecurity was compounded by the fact that the raid between Medina and Mecca led many Muslims to believe that the objective of the attack had been not so much plunder as the destruction of the tomb of the Prophet Mohammad. Thus, in addition to the very real threat to innocent people came the added threat to a sacred site of incalculable religious significance.

The unsavory character of these raids has led most historians and commentators to condemn them in the harshest terms. They are described as acts of perfidy and piracy, and usually depicted as the brainchild of the notoriously avaricious, unscrupulous and brutal Reynald de Châtillon, the lord of the crusader barony of Oultrejourdain.  Châtillon was infamous for attacking and sacking the Christian island of Cyprus, for torturing the Patriarch of Antioch to extract treasure from him, and later for breaking truces to attack caravans.  He would eventually meet his just end at Salah ad-Din’s own hand following the Battle of Hattin, when the Sultan personally executed him.

While there is little doubt that Châtillon was the mastermind behind these raids, Hamilton points out that the launch of five warships manned by three thousand men was beyond the resources of Châtillon alone. The ships could not have been built in Châtillon’s desert lordship, crouching as it did along the Dead Sea. Instead, the ships had almost certainly been constructed in a port with a shipbuilding industry and tradition such as Sidon.  They have to have been disassembled and transported on the backs of camels to the Gulf of Aqaba. Here they could only have been reassembled into seaworthy craft by highly trained shipwrights, who again could not have come from Oultrejourdain. And they would have needed pilots familiar with the Red Sea, almost certainly men from the Sultan’s own territories. In short, Châtillon may have been the instigator of the raids or the man immediately responsible for them (although he was personally involved in a land siege of Aqaba and did not personally participate in the raids), but almost certainly he was not acting alone.

If he was not acting alone, then these raids were not just another act of banditry and lawless aggression on the part of a “rogue” baron. Rather, they served another purpose for a wider constituency, and that purpose cannot have been plunder alone. After all, only the pirates themselves enjoyed the fruits of their "labor" — both the three months of plunder, rape and pillage, and slaughter or execution when their luck ran out. Since the pirates themselves were even less in a position to finance and organize the operation, someone else had to be behind it — behind Châtillon. So who might that have been and what was their real purpose?

Hamilton argues that the raids served a clear strategic purpose: namely discrediting Salah ad-Din as the “defender of Islam.” Furthermore, he notes, the timing of these raids underlines this purpose. The Red Sea Raids occurred during one of Salah ad-Din’s campaigns against the Sunni Muslim city of Mosul.  In short, while Salah ad-Din was killing his fellow Muslims in a war whose sole purpose was the expansion of his personal empire, innocent Muslim pilgrims and merchants were left unprotected at the mercy of murderous Frankish (Christian) marauders.  

The instigators of the Red Sea raids may even have hoped that the raids would force Salah ad-Din to break-off his operations against Mosul and return to Egypt to deal with the raiders himself. This would have helped Mosul retain its independence and delayed (if not prevented) Salah ad-Din from further expanding his empire, wealth and power. In short, the most obvious immediate beneficiary of these raids was the ruler of Mosul. Given Châtillon’s mercenary bent and his willingness to attack even fellow Christians on Cyprus, it is not entirely inconceivable that he might have been willing to take gold from Muslim paymasters. Furthermore, a Mosul connection would help explain where the pilots for the ships came from. 

However, northern Syria is not famous for its shipwrights and sailors, and this fact suggests another architect for the raids, namely the King of Jerusalem. King Baldwin IV may have hoped the raids would both preserve the independence of Mosul and discredit Salah ad-din in the Muslim world. He almost certainly hoped the raids would undermine the Sultan's authority in Egypt, which was most directly affected by the “terrorists” in their “backyard.” These seem to be perfectly legitimate policy objectives for an embattled kingdom, particularly since the king found (in the shape of Reynald de Châtillon) a man with no reputation to lose and no scruples about carrying out the attacks. The Christian king’s conscience about attacks on unarmed pilgrims and traders was undoubtedly eased by the knowledge that nothing Châtillon’s pirates did was truly unprecedented; Muslim pirates had preyed upon Christian merchantmen and pilgrims in the Mediterranean for centuries.

Whether the Kingdom of Jerusalem ultimately profited or lost as a result of the raids is more debatable. Hamilton argues that Salah ad-Din lost credibility, while most historians argue that the raids only “hardened” Muslim attitudes towards the crusaders, and united Islam against the crusader states. (See, for example, W.B. Bartlett in Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom or Andrew Jotischky in Crusading and the Crusader States.) It is, however, hard to see how much more “hardened” Islam could be than it was already under Salah ad-Din. He had, after all, already declared his intention to push the crusaders into the sea and obliterate their states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

The Red Sea Raids and the political and military environment that led up to them is described in award-winning:

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