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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Templars and Edward II of England

As an epilogue to this series on the Knights Templar, Dr. Schrader provides the story of the surprising stand of Edward II of England at the time of Philip IV's brutal attack on the Knights Templars.
The Effigy of Edward II on his Tomb in Gloucester Cathedral

Edward II has not gone down in history as one of Britain’s greater monarchs.  He lacked the military effectiveness of his brutal father and suffered the humiliating defeat at Bannockburn. He was openly homosexual in an age when this was widely despised, illegal and a cardinal sin. He indulged his favorites and lavished favors on them – to the outrage of the magnates of the realm, who expected to be the recipients of royal favor. And, of course, he ended his reign ignominiously, abandoned by the bulk of his vassals and subjects, and forced to flee before the invading forces of his estranged queen, her lover, and his fourteen-year-old son.  But, for all his weaknesses and errors of judgment, he was not entirely unscrupulous or heartless, and he should be remembered with respect for his stance concerning the Knights Templar.

On the night of Friday, October 13, 1307, King Philip IV of France’s men broke into the commandaries of the Knights Templar throughout France and arrested everyone they found, whether knights, sergeants or lay-brothers.  The Templars were accused of a catalog of heinous crimes from idolatry to sodomy. They were alleged to have cremated the bodies of their comrades (a sin in the medieval church) and then consumed their ashes. They were said to have roasted infants alive and eaten them as well.  Compared to these charges, the accusations of devil worship, blasphemy, corruption and deflowering virgins were almost child’s play.

Modern historians agree that the charges were trumped up and motivated by Philip IV’s empty coffers. Philip IV used similar charges to justify confiscation of the property of the Jews and to remove Pope Benedict the XI.  Further evidence that he did not believe the vile charges against the Templars was Philip IV’s close association with them prior to their arrest.  Indeed, the day before the mass arrests, the Grand Marshal of the Templars was given a place of honor as pallbearer to the deceased wife of Charles of Valois, the king’s brother -- hardly the place for a man sincerely suspected of devil worship, cannibalism, and sodomy, but Philip IV was nothing if not cold-blooded.

All those arrested, including the very men King Philip had treated as friends and advisors only months, days and even hours before, were subjected to brutal torture until they confessed to the catalog of crimes the French King had concocted. The tortures employed included tearing out men’s teeth, burning the soles off their feet (crippling many), suspending men by their wrists after tying their hands behind their backs, tearing off fingernails etc. etc. Between torture sessions, the arrested monks were held in dungeons with little (if any) light or air, given poor rations, and no access to sanitary facilities, so that many became ill, weakening their ability to withstand the torture further. The treatment was so brutal that no less than 36 Templars died under torture in the first week after the arrests. Most of those that did not die, however, eventually confessed to one or more of the charges against them. Only a few held out, while fifty-four Templars, who had the courage to retract the confessions torn from them under torture, were burned at the stake as “relapsed heretics.”

While this was all going on in France, the rest of Christendom was dumbstruck and amazed. Since the Templars were an international organization owing allegiance only to the pope, it was important for Philip IV to gain papal support for his actions, and to convince his fellow monarchs to follow his lead. Tragically, the Pope at the time lived in terror of King Philip IV, who had deposed his predecessor with accusations almost identical to those leveled against the Templars. He preferred to sacrifice the Templars rather than risk confrontation with King Philip. (The pope resided in Avignon at this time and was widely viewed as a prisoner or puppet of the French king.)

Enter Edward II of England, the son-in-law of Philip IV. A month after the arrests in France, Edward’s “dear” father-in-law sent a special envoy to him laden with documents that purported to prove the guilt of the Templars.  Edward’s reaction was to write to the Kings of Portugal, Castile, Aragon, and Sicily, denouncing the King of France. Edward rejected the charges against the Templars as monstrous lies, and reminded his fellow monarchs of the Templars service in the Holy Land and their “becoming devotion to God.” He urged the recipients of his letter to turn a deaf ear “to the slanders of ill-natured men.”

Edward also wrote to the pope urging him to open an independent inquiry, but the pope responded by ordering the arrest of the Templars.  Edward II received these papal instructions on December 15, 1307, but he delayed arresting the Templars until January 7.  This three-week delay enabled many English Templars to “disappear,” – and possibly some of their portable wealth with them. But most “wealth” in medieval England was, of course, land and Edward II now made a virtue out of necessity and seized all Templar properties for the crown. One can hardly blame him. 

What I find remarkable and noteworthy is that even now he did not entirely abandon the Templars. When the pope insisted that the arrested Templars (those like the Master of England William de la More, who was determined to defend his Order, or those too old and feeble to escape) be tortured to force confessions, Edward of England blandly replied that torture was not part of English jurisprudence, adding that he didn’t have anyone in the kingdom experienced in such skills. (The English crown had resolutely refused to allow the Dominicans to introduce the Inquisition into England.)

For three years (!), Edward continued to resist demands that the Templars be tortured until the pope threatened him with excommunication – and sent ten of his best torturers to help the backward English crown. (Today we call it "capacity building.")  Edward caved in, but in a last gesture of loyalty, he told the torture team they were not to mutilate their victims, leave permanent injuries or cause violent effusions of blood. 

Edward of England enriched himself from the Templars, but, to the extent that he was able, he spared them from cruel and inhuman treatment. It is perhaps only a footnote in an otherwise sad and unlucky reign, but I think Edward still deserves to be honored for his stance on this issue. 

The last Grand Master and Marshal of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay, and Geoffrey de Charney respectively, were burned at the stake for retracting their confessions, in the presence of King Philip, on March 18, 1314. 

In 2007 the Vatican officially declared the Templars’ innocent based on the evidence still in the Papal archives.


Barber, Malcolm. The New Knighthood. Cambridge, 1994.
Howarth, Stephen. The Knights Templar. New York, 1984.
Robinson. John. The Knights Templar in the Crusades. London, 1991.
Sanello, Frank. The Knights Templar: God’s Warriors, The Devil’s Bankers. New York, 2003.

Dr. Schrader's novel The English Templar is set against the background of the destruction of the Knights Templar.


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:

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

True Tales of the Knights Templar 10: The Fall of Acre 1291

Continuing with the series on the Knights Templar, Dr. Schrader today looks at the Fall of Acre in 1291.

With the gruesome murder of the Ayyubid Sultan Turan-Shah before the eyes of the crusaders in 1250, a new regime came to power in Egypt: the Mamlukes. These slave-soldiers, long known for their fanatical loyalty to their masters, introduced a brutal regime (still remembered with hatred in Egypt today). Soldiers by profession, they lacked the education and appreciation for science, scholarship, theology and literature that had characterized earlier dynasties. To keep their own slave-soldiers from repeating their example, the Mamluke sultans sought to buy the loyalty of their subjects with plunder and slaves. 

Meanwhile, the Mongols first eliminated the Assassins in 1256 and then, in 1258, took Bagdhad, instituting an unprecedented slaughter of all the inhabitants. By 1260, the Mongols had destroyed the remaining Ayyibids in Syria, but the Mamlukes managed to decisively defeat the Mongols at the Battle of Ayn Jalut in 1260. This victory gave the Mamlukes control of all of Saladin's former empire, although power remained centralized in Egypt. With the Mongol threat banished, the Mamlukes turned their attention to the elimination of the Frankish states -- less out of religious devotion (jihad) than greed. 

Under the Mamluke Sultan Baibars the onslaught began. In 1265, Baibars captured Caesarea and Haifa. The following year, the first assault on Acre was defeated, but at very high cost. In 1268 Jaffa and then the mighty Christian city of Antioch fell to the Mamlukes. In 1271, the Hospitallers lost their mightiest fortress, Krak de Chevaliers, and the Templars lost Safita. Each time, the defeated, whether they had offered terms or not, were slaughtered (if an adult male) or enslaved (if female or underage). The brutality of the conquering troops appalled the contemporary world.

Krak de Chevaliers today. Copyright H.Schrader

St. Louis' last crusade, although it stalled in Tunis due to the King's death of dysentery, temporarily diverted Baibar's attention, and the arrival of Edward of England with a strong force in Acre induced Baibars to sign a ten year truce.  Edward provided funds to help fortify the defenses of Acre before returning to England to take up the English crown as Edward I. 

Baibars died during the truce in 1277, and by now the Mongol threat was so great that his successor Kalaun (also spelled Qalawun and Kalavun) renewed the truce for another ten years. After defeating the Mongols, however Kalaun felt strong enough to turn his attention back to the Franks. In 1289, despite the truce, he attacked and took the city of Tripoli, instituting slaughter and destruction on a scale comparable to the Mongols. Tragically, the Templar Master William de Beaujeu, had received a message from a Muslim friend, Emir al-Fakhri, warning that Tripoli was about to be attacked. He had sent the warning onto Tripoli -- but had not been believed. 

 Remnants of the Citadel in Tripoli today. Copyright Michelle Foltz

The next year, with the truce still allegedly in effect,  newly arrived crusaders killed some Muslims in Acre in a general fight. Kalaun immediately demanded "reparations."  Beaujeu proposed that the city empty its jails of men already condemned to death and send them to the Sultan; the city rejected his proposal indignantly.  Kalaun responded by mobilizing his army while assuring the Franks it was being raised to attack enemies in Africa. Again, Beaujeu heard from al-Fakhri that the real target was Acre and he again warned the citizens, and, according to some sources, suggested the citizens pay a ransom to buy off Kalaun. Again, they refused.

In November 1290 Kalaun died, but his son al-Ashraf was only more determined to destroy the Christian footholds in the Levant. He was not even prepared to talk, throwing all emissaries, including Templars, in prison. In March 1291, al-Ashraf announced his intention to "avenge all wrongs done" in a letter to Master de Beaujeu, and on April 5 his army took up its position around Acre.

Acre had long been the economic heart of the crusader states. It had a natural harbor that had been improved upon with break-waters and it was a busy port for all goods transiting from the Europe to the Orient. It was home to all the Italian merchant communities and the three militant orders. 

Modern Tourist Map depicting Medieval Acre

The Mamluke army has been estimated at 60,000 horse and 160,000 infantry (Howarth, p. 226.) While the numbers seem incredible, the reality was that the force was more than sufficient to doom the city. That much was obvious.  Particularly since the Mamlukes also brought up numerous siege engines and, of course, had engineers capable of undermining the walls. 

The Genoese, who had negotiated a separate peace with the Sultan, evacuated the city at once and with them went the women, children and infirm of those who could afford to pay the passage to Cyprus; the poor, of course, remained.  And so did the fighting men of this last remaining remnant of the once proud Kingdom of Jerusalem remained. So did the the Venetians and Pisans, and, of course, the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller, both under the command of their respective Masters. The total forces available to the Franks have been estimated at 600-700 knights and 13,000 infantry including crusaders still in the city. (Edbury, p. 99)

The Knights Templar and Hospitaller took over the defense of the most vulnerable salient of the city: the northern walls around the suburb of Montmusard, the Hospitallers beside them. The assaults began at once, supported by the siege engines that both hammered the walls to shake them to their foundations and sent death and fire over them into the city. 

On the night of April 14-15, Masater William de Beaujeu personally led a Templar sortie against the Mamluke camp by moonlight.  Although initially successful, the horses were tripped-up by the tent-ropes and 18 knights were killed. The Hospitallers attempted a similar sortie days later when there was no moon, but with no better results. Thereafter, the defenders made not further sorties and conducted a purely defensive battle. 

On May 4, Henry II, King of Cyprus and Jersualem, arrived from Cyprus with between 100 and 200 knights (probably the entire chivalry of Cyprus) and at most 500 infantry (Edbury, p. 99.) Clearly these forces were insufficient to alter the balance of forces. Furthermore, by now the walls were beginning to crack, while mines were being driven under them. King Henry wisely tried to negotiate, and sent two envoys to the Sultan. They were sent back with a negative reply. 

On May 18, the "Accursed Tower" located at an angle of the wall collapsed from being undermined. The defenders had to abandon the large outer suburb of Montmusard and retreat behind the walls of the old city. Soon, however, the Muslims had forced their way into the streets of the city and now the fighting was hand-to-hand. Pisans and Venetians, Templars and Hospitallers, bitter rivals in both cases, fought side-by-side "centuries of rivalry suddenly effaced." (Howarth, p. 227)

It was not until this phase of the fighting that the Master of the Hospital was wounded and -- protesting that he could still fight -- was carried to a Hospitaller ship in the harbor.  King Henry II likewise retreated to his ships with the bulk of his nobles, and withdrew to his other (stronger and more prosperous) kingdom: Cyprus. The English crusaders commanded by Otto de Grandson also broke at this point and fled. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, who had remained with the defenders until this point, likewise tried to depart but as he was rowed out to a galley, he allowed so many swimmers to climb aboard his boat that it capsized and sank. 

William de Beaujeu, Master of the Temple, was wounded in the armpit while trying to defend a breach in the walls. As he fell back, defenders still fighting begged him: "For God's sake, Lord, do not abandon us or the city is lost!" To which Beaujeu replied: "I am not fleeing, I am hurt to death -- see the wound." (Pernoud, p. 83). Two of his brothers carried him on a shield to the Temple, where he died. 

Meanwhile, with so many men fleeing, the defense collapsed completely, and the Muslims flooded into the city. They slaughtered anyone they could lay hands on, including many still on quays desperately trying to escape.  Others, civilians and fighting men both, fled behind the walls of the Temple itself.  The mighty Templar headquarters was located in the southwest corner of the city wall, backed up against the sea on the south and west.

We have no estimate of how many people were trapped inside the Templar fortress at Acre by nightfall of May 18, but it must have been hundreds and more likely more than a thousand. For five days they remained there while around them the Muslims looted, burned and slaughtered. 

On May 25, Peter de Sevrey, Marshal of the Temple and the senior officer in Acre, negotiated the surrender of the Temple at Acre on honorable terms. All those within, women and children as well as fighting men, were to be allowed to depart in exchange for the surrender of the fortress without resistance. The gates were opened and an emir with roughly 100  men entered to take control of the fortress and raise the Sultan's banner. However, either the emir did not have control of his troops or the Muslims believed the surrender terms had only applied to the fighting men. In any case, they began to sexually molest the women and children. The Templars, still armed, reacted with outrage -- killing all the Saracens within their headquarters. Knowing they now had no hope of surrender, they again raised the black-and-white Beacent defiantly over the ramparts. 

That same night, Peter de Sevrey ordered the Commander of the Temple, Tibald Gaudin to sail for Sidon from the sea gate with the "treasure" and as many civilians as could be bordered on the available boats. As the Templar headquarters had a water gate but no harbor as such, this could not have been more than a few score of people crammed in long-boats that could be pulled up inside the building itself. As for the "treasure," this may have included any cash on hand, but was far more likely Templar archives and records, and above all any holy relics from the chapel. 

At dawn the next day, the Sultan sent for Peter de Sevrey, allegedly to renew the offer.  The Templar Marshal, foolishly or defiantly, went out to meet his fate. He was beheaded within sight of those still behind the walls of the Temple. On May 28, the eastern wall of the Temple collapsed after being undermined. Thousands of Saracens rushed into the breech to slaughter the remaining Franks -- Templars, other fighting men and civilians -- but the "timbers supporting the mine could not take their weight -- and with a thundrous roar, the entire Temple of Acre collapsed, and crushed all within it." (Howarth, p. 229.)

The last Frankish city in the Holy Land, Beirut, surrendered without a fight on May 31. The remaining Templar properties in the Holy Land, Sidon, Tortosa and Castle Pilgrim (Athlit) , were evacuated on July 14, August 3 and 14th respectively. Unlike 1187, the Mamluke victory of 1291 was complete and absolute. There was not a foothold to which crusaders from the West might have returned, and, unlike the defeat of 1187, the loss of the Holy Land did not awaken a new crusade. The crusading spirit had died. 

And the Templars had just lost their very reason for existence.

  • Barber, Malcolm. The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Edbury, Peter. The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades, 1191-1374. Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Howarth, Stephen. The Knights Templar. Barnes and Noble, 1982.
  • Pernoud, Regine. The Templars: Knights of Christ. Ignatius, 2009.
  • Robinson, John J. Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades. Michael O'Mara Books, 1991.
Novels set in the crusader states bring these fascinating times back to life. See for example:

       Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                         Buy now!

  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:


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

True Tales of the Knights Templars 9: The Templars and the Saint.

Continuing with the series on the Knights Templar, Dr. Schrader today looks at the complex relationship between the Knights Templar and King Louis IX of France -- Saint Louis.

Unlike Frederick II Hohenstaufen, who made his crusader vow at both is coronations, King Louis IX of France took his crusader vow at a moment of profound desperation rather than triumph.  When sick with fever so severe that he expected to die, he promised God he would free Jerusalem, if his life would be spared a little longer. After the King’s seemingly miraculous recovery, the King held to his vow despite resistance from many of his closest advisors, including his mother. They argued he had taken the vow when his mind was clouded and warned him he should not leave his kingdom for an extended period.  King Louis responded by taking the vow again ― when he was obviously in full position of his senses.

Despite the opposition of his court, Louis found strong support for his endeavor from the Knights Templar in France. These were led by the Preceptor (Commander) for France, Renaud de Vichiers. The latter promised not only that he would accompany the crusade with a large contingent of French Knights Templar, he undertook to negotiate the transportation of Louis’ crusading force. Whereas in the time of King Richard 100 ships had been needed to transport a crusading army, by now just 38 ships were sufficient ― not because the King Louis took fewer knights, men and horses with him than Richard I, but because ship-building had advanced so much that the “modern” vessels of the mid-13th century were capable of carrying roughly 700 men and 100 horses each. 

13th Century Galley

On August 25, 1248 Louis’ large crusading army set sail from the newly constructed port of Aigues Mortes. He was accompanied by his three younger brothers, the Counts of Artois, Poitou and Anjou, as well as many other powerful noblemen such as the Duke of Burgundy, the Counts of Flanders and St. Pol and de la Marche (the head of the French Lusignan family, with so many ties to the Holy Land.) He was also accompanied by his queen, Marguarite of Provence, and an English contingent of knights under the Earl of Salisbury.

The French/English fleet reached the port of Limassol on Cyprus without mishap on September 17, 1248.  Here the crusaders, particularly King Louis, were welcomed by the King of Cyprus, Henry I. The Cypriot King was a grandson of Aimery de Lusignan.  He had inherited the throne as an infant and been treated like a pawn by the Holy Roman Emperor during his brief sojourn in the Holy Land, but after coming of age at 15 in 1232, Henry had shown great spirit and independence. Notably, he had attained a papal decree ending Cypriot vassalage to the Holy Roman Emperor a year before the arrival of King Louis. He was at the start of the 7th Crusade 31 years old, a man in his prime, and he, naturally, supported King Louis wholeheartedly.

In consequence, Louis’ army was strengthened by large contingents of troops commanded by the local barons, who generally held fiefs in both Cyprus and the remnants of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Louis was also joined by a large contingent of Knights Templar commanded by the Master of the Temple, William de Sonnac. These Templars were drawn from the Templar fortresses and commanderies in the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus.
The Hospitaller Commandery at Kolossi, Cyprus

For this larger army, a new fleet had to be found, something that took most of the winter, so that it was mid-May of 1249 before the crusading army set sail to assault Damietta in Egypt, the opening volley of the 7th Crusade. This army was estimated at 2,800 knights and “countless” infantry. It took, according to the participant and chronicler Jean de Joinville, 1,800 vessels (both large and small) to transport it.

A storm partially dispersed this great fleet, but St. Louis went ahead undeterred and with what ships he had established a beachhead. Interestingly, the first ships to land were not those of the Templars, but some of the crusaders such as Joinville and the local barons, notably the Count of Jaffa and Ascalon, John d’Ibelin. Joinville describes the arrival of Jaffa’ galley as follows:

As the galley approached, it seemed as if it flew, so quickly did the rowers urge it onwards with the powerful sweep of their oars; and what with the flapping of the pennons, the booming of the drums, and the screech of Saracen horns on board this vessel, you would have thought a thunderbolt was falling from the skies. As soon as this galley had been driven into the sand as far as it would go, the count and his knights leapt on the shore, well-armed, well-equipped, and came to take their stand beside us. (Joinville, p. 204)

As for King Louis,

When the King heard that the standard of Saint Denis was on shore he strode quickly across the deck of his ship, and in spite of all the legate, who was with him, could say, refused to be parted from the emblem of his sovereignty, and leapt into the sea, where the water came up to his armpits. He went on, with his shield hung from his neck, his helmet on his head, and lance in hand, till he had joined his people on the shore. When he reached land and scanned the enemy, he asked who they were, and was told they were Saracens. He put his lance under his armpit, and holding his shield before him, would have charged right in among them if certain sagacious men who were standing around him had allowed it.

Instead of charging on foot, the Frankish knights did as Richard the Lionheart had done before Jaffa: they thrust the points of their shields and the butts of the lances into the sand, with the tips of the latter pointed outwards. Behind this improvised wall, they withstood multiple charges by Saracen cavalry until crossbowmen and finally the horses could be off loaded from the ships. Eventually, enough horses were on hand for the Franks to launch a charge of their own.

To their astonishment, the enemy broke and fled behind the powerful walls of Damietta. In fact, as it turned out, they didn’t just take refuge in the walled city of Damietta but continued fleeing out the other side. What had happened was that the Sultan, who was dangerous ill in Cairo, had failed to respond to carrier pigeons requesting instructions and reinforcements. Thinking the Sultan was already dead, the defenders lost heart and fled in disarray. The crusaders, not knowing this, initially camped outside the walls expecting a long siege, but Coptic Christians came out of the city the following morning to report the city had been abandoned by the Saracens.  The crusaders moved into Damietta the same day.

This rapid victory took the crusaders by surprise. They had expected a long siege. Their unexpectedly rapid victory meant that they had control of the city while the Nile was still in flood. To attempt an assault on Cairo at this time would have been foolish, so the army settled in to await the ebbing of the waters. Louis sent for his Queen to join him, and the dying Sultan offered to exchange Jerusalem for Damietta. 

Unfortunately the Sultan made the suggestion via the Knights Templar. When King Louis learned that the Master de Sonnac had received secret communications from the Sultan of Cairo he was incensed.  He both rejected the offer (because he was determined to take Cairo and dictate a more ambitious settlement) and sharply rebuked the Templar Master, ordering him not to receive any further envoys from the Sultan without “permission” ever again.

This was the first but not the last instance in which King Louis asserted his authority over the Templars without legal basis. The Templars were independent, subordinate only to the pope, and certainly did not have to take orders from the French King. Yet, King Louis with his vast army was also the best (and arguably the only) hope for liberating Holy sites from Muslim occupation. So Master de Sonnac made no protest.

Finally, on or about November 20, 1149, with the flooding over, King Louis’ crusading army set out along the east bank of the Nile heading south for Cairo. Up to this point, except for Vichiers’ role in securing the Genoese transport fleet, the Templars had not played a conspicuous military role. Now, however, they claimed and won their traditional position in the van of the army. At once the Templars, showed their spirit ― this time in direct and open violation of King Louis’ orders. Joinville describes the incident as follows:

It happened, however, that when the army began to move forward, and the Turks realized that no attack on them was contemplated ― for their spies had told them that the king had forbidden it ― they grew bolder and flung themselves on the Templars, who formed the van. One of the Turks bore a Knight Templar to the ground, right in front of the hoofs of the horse on which Brother Renaud de Vichiers, at that time Marshal of the Temple, was mounted. On seeing this, the Marshal cried to is brother Templars: ‘For God’s sake, let’s get at them! I can’t stand it any longer!’ He struck his spurs into his  horse, and all the army followed. Now our men’s horses were fresh, and those of the Turks already weary; and so, as I have heard, not one of the enemy escaped, but all perished.

Although this charge was also in flagrant disobedience of King Louis’ orders, the Templar success apparently mollified Louis’ disapproval and no action was taken against the Templars. The next time they disobeyed similar orders proved catastrophic ― but the blame does not lie with them.

The crusaders had advanced up the Nile until they reached a wide and well-defended canal north of the Egyptian city of Mansourah. To reach Cairo they had to pass his last bastion and after bloody losses and a long stalemate, Bedouins showed the Franks a ford far to the east and out of sight of the defenders of Mansourah. The ford was deep and treacherous. The horses had to swim part of the way and the landfall was very slippery, causing some horses to fall and crush their riders. Nevertheless, the vanguard of the army consisting of the Templars, the English and the King of France’s brother, the Count of Artois, succeeded in making the crossing.

King Louis’ orders had been very explicit: the vanguard was to secure the beachhead for the rest of the army. But the Count of Artois, thinking that they had surprise on their side, charged forward. The Templars, according to all accounts, tried to stop him, urging caution. They were insulted for being cowards, and ― either goaded by this slander or simply unwilling to stand-by and watch the slaughter of a Prince of France with his knights ― joined the charge. 

This charge was initially successful, over-running a Saracen camp that was indeed taken by surprise and so in disarray. However, the Mamluke commander rapidly turned his disadvantage into a trap. He pulled his troops back inside the walled city of Mansourah and intentionally left the doors open inviting. Apparently, at least according to one chronicle, at this point the Franks regrouped and consulted again. Allegedly, Artois wanted to pursue, and both the Earl of Salisbury and the Master of the Temple, William de Sonnac, urged caution. It was perhaps at this point that the accusations of cowardice were brandished. Perhaps more seriously, Artois allegedly claimed the whole of the Holy Land would long have been liberated if the military orders had not hindered the crusaders for the sake of their own profit. (Barber, p. 150.) If such a charge was leveled, it would certainly have forced Sonnac’s hand.

The result was a catastrophe. The Frankish knights were lured deep into the city by a lack of resistance, and then once they were already divided up and slowed down by the narrow, winding streets, they were pounced upon from all sides, particularly the rooftops.  Beams were thrown down to block their retreat. Boiling oil and missiles rained down on them. Their horses were stabbed in the belly and otherwise cut down by men darting out from the houses. The entire vanguard was slaughtered in the streets of Mansourah, including the Earl of Salisbury and the Count of Artois. Master de Sonnac escaped with a handful of Templars and a wound to his head that robbed him of sight in his right eye. Louis had no need to reproach him; the defeat was both reproach and punishment enough. 

Meanwhile the main body of the army had set up camp in front of Mansourah ― where they could see the body of the Count of Artois swinging from the ramparts. Saracen attempts to dislodge them by force failed, but in one of these Master de Sonnac was again wounded in the head, losing his other eye and dying in camp shortly afterwards. Having failed with assaults, the Saracens resorted to cunning. They sent ships down the Nile that intercepted all the Frankish ships taking the wounded back to Damietta and bringing food, supplies and reinforcements back to the crusader camp. The crews and wounded were slaughtered, the supplies stolen. Soon the crusader army was starving and suffering from scurvy.

As the health of the army seeped away, King Louis had to concede defeat and tried to retreat back towards Damietta. Halfway there, the pursuing Saracens launched an attack that, although resisted by the military orders (now mostly Hospitallers) forming the rearguard, was successful. After killing the bulk of the rearguard, King Louis of France, suffering from such severe dysentery that he could not ride, was captured in his tent. What was left of the entire crusading army surrendered.

Despite the losses already incurred, thousands of men were now at the mercy of the Saracens. These were no commanded mostly by Mamlukes, who had no scruples about killing any prisoner to sick to walk; all the sick were slaughtered except King Louis. The negotiations began at once, and Louis agreed to the return of Damietta as his own ransom, and a payment of 500,000 livres (or 1 million bezants) for the rest of his army, both great men and small. That is a highly significant gesture: he did not leave the commoners too poor to pay a ransom to slavery, nor did he leave his nobles to negotiate their own ransoms and beggar themselves in the process. He bore the financial burden for his entire army without quibbling.

There was only one small problem. After the Mamlukes had murdered the new Sultan (before Louis’ eyes), they renegotiated the deal. While reducing the overall ransom by 100,000 livres, they insisted on an up-front payment of 200,000 livres. When the king’s officers tried to find this enormous sum, they came up 30,000 livres short. Eyes turned toward the Knights Templar, who had sent reinforcements by ship to Damietta ― including considerable cash.  The French demanded a loan of 30,000 livres, and the Templar Treasurer refused on the grounds that the bulk of the money was not Templar funds, but deposits placed with the Temple by other people; i.e. these were deposits which could only be released at the request of the depositor. At this point, Joinville grabbed an ax and threatened to take the treasure by force, and Renaud de Vichiers (who had somehow survived the slaughter) stopped him, with the words that since he was prepared to use force the Temple would yield. The 30,000 livres were paid toward King Louis’ ransom.
It was perhaps for this service, that King Louis used his influence to ensure that Renaud de Vichiers was elected the next Master of the Temple. At first their relationship was excellent. The Queen of France lived in the Templar castle of Athlit and gave birth there to a son, Peter. When the Assassins attempted to blackmail Louis into paying them tribute, he let the Masters of the Temple and Hospital deal with them; the result was a non-aggression pact between King Louis and the Assassins that secured his northern flank.

Unfortunately, the following year, the Templar Master made a grave mistake. Like Sonnac before him he attempted to negotiate an independent peace, this time with the Sultan of Damascus, who was still an Ayyubid. Louis, however, still owed money to the Sultan of Cairo. As a result, thousands of crusaders were still in Mamluke hands. Almost certainly it was fear of what would happen to these men, for whom Louis felt profound responsibility, that led to the draconian character of his response on learning of these separate negotiations.  Instead of a mere rebuke as had sufficed for Sonnac, Louis insisted on humiliating the Templars for their “insubordination.” The Knights Templar were required to assemble barefoot before the King and publicly renounce the treaty, then knelt before him and begged his forgiveness. Furthermore, Vichiers offered to Louis all the wealth of the Temple, so that he could choose what he wanted as retribution. Although Louis took nothing, he ordered the knight who had done the negotiating banished ― and Vichiers complied.

That was a long step down from the days when the Templars had not allowed the Kings of Jerusalem to arrest a member of the Order even when the latter had committed murder. Robinson suggests in his history of the Templars that this humiliation “shattered” Templar morale (Robinson, p. 318.) Howarth suggests in contrast that it reflects the exceptional status of King Louis IX ― a man considered saintly even in his own lifetime.  


Barber, Malcolm. The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Joinville, Jean de. The Life of Saint Louis. Translated by M.R.B. Shaw, Penguin Books, 1963.
Howarth, Stephen. The Knights Templar. Barnes and Noble, 1982.
Pernoud, Regina. The Templars: Knights of Christ. Ignatius, 2009.
Robinson, John J. Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusade. Michael O’Mora Books, 1991.

Next week I look at the last great battle of the Templars: the defense of Acre in 1291. Meanwhile, King Louis is a major character and a Templar squire is the protagonist of my novel:

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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: