All content on this blog is protected by copyright.
Content used elsewhere without attribution constitutes theft of intellectual property and will be prosecuted.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Queen Melisende: Redoubtable Mother of Baldwin III

Melisende, born in 1105 and queen from 1131 until her death in 1161, was the first and unquestionably the most forceful of Jerusalem’s queens.  She was not only the hereditary heir to the kingdom, she tenaciously defended her right to rule against both her husband and her son, weathering two attempts to side-line her, albeit successfully only the first time. She was praised for her wisdom and her administrative effectiveness as well as being a patron of the arts and the church. Although largely forgotten, she ought to be remembered alongside her contemporaries Empress Mathilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine as one of the powerful women rulers of the 12th century. Last week I looked at the first half of her life; this week I pick up where I left off, with the death of her husband in 1143. 

When King Fulk died suddenly as the result of a hunting accident in November 1143, there was no interregnum and no need the call together the High Court to elect his successor. Melisende and her son Baldwin III had already been invested, and Melisende (but significantly not Baldwin) had already been crowned and anointed in September 1131. Melisende, therefore, continued to rule without debate or contradiction, but now her son Baldwin III was also crowned and anointed (and Melisende crowned a second time) on Christmas Day 1143. Since Baldwin was only 13 at the time, however, he was still a minor and not entrusted with the reins of government.

During her son’s minority, Melisende moved rapidly and vigorously to fill all important crown appointments with men loyal to herself. She deftly promoted her husband’s chancellor to Bishop, thereby eliminating his influence at the core of the kingdom with a “golden handshake” that could not offend anyone.  To the key position of constable, the effective commander-in-chief in the absence of a king capable of commanding troops, she appointed a relative, and relative newcomer, Manassas of Hierges, a man totally dependent on her favor.

She could not stop the clock, however, and in 1145, Baldwin III, turned 15, the age at which heirs reached their maturity in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  Baldwin and evidently some members of the nobility expected that he would now be allowed to rule. He was wrong, and Melisende had the law (and evidently the Church) on her side. She was an anointed queen, the hereditary heir, and she’d demonstrated her ability over the previous fifteen years. Perhaps precisely because her husband had tried to sideline her, she was not prepared to let her son do the same thing.

Although there is evidence that Baldwin made sporadic attempts to defy his mother, he failed largely because she had surrounded herself with (and evidently obtained the loyalty of0 some of the most powerful men in the country. These included Rohard, Viscount of Jerusalem, Elinard, Lord of Tiberias and Prince of Galilee, Philip of Nablus and, through the latter, the lords of Ramla and Mirabel and of Ibelin. These lords combined with the royal domain in Hebron and around Jerusalem gave her solid control of Samaria and Judea or the heartland of the kingdom.

Because military action remained the one thing Melisende could not undertake, however, it is perhaps not surprising that it was in this field of endeavor that Baldwin again tried to distinguish himself. In 1147, when he was 17 years old, Baldwin blundered into a campaign against Damascus, issuing the arrière ban (which only he could do), which called up all able-bodied men to the defense of the realm. It is unclear to what extent his mother had approved or even advised on the campaign, but when the military operation ended badly, despite the king’s personal courage, Melisende was able to place the blame on her son. 

Significantly, it was after this incident that Melisende started including her young son, Amalric, on royal charters. This suggested that she saw him as a future co-ruler ― or replacement ― to Baldwin. Amalric, who had not been born until 1136, had not known his father well and was to prove consistently loyal to his mother.

But Baldwin soon had another opportunity to shine militarily: the Second Crusade. In 1148, large forces had arrived in the Holy Land from the West, and in a council meeting prior to the public council in Acre, the decision to attack Damascus (long an ally of Jerusalem) was taken by King Conrad III of Germany, the Knights Templar, and Baldwin III ― without his mother being present.  He was also entrusted with the vanguard of the armies. Unfortunately, this campaign was also a miserable failure, damaging the reputation of all participants (though the eighteen-year-old Baldwin suffered less than Conrad and Louis VII). Melisende’s reputation, in contrast, remained intact.  

But Melisende’s inability to take the lead in the defense of the kingdom remained a handicap. In June 1149, the defeat of Raymond of Antioch by Nur ad-Din in the disastrous battle of Inab left the Principality of Antioch virtually defenseless. The surviving lords called on the King of Jerusalem to come to their aid.  Baldwin (now 19 years old) responded immediately and effectively.  Naturally, the lords of Antioch had not called for the help of a woman, but just as significantly Baldwin assumed political control of the principality ― without any concessions to joint rule with his mother. 

Melisende took note and started to reduce her son’s role inside Jerusalem by issuing charters in her own name.  Tensions were clearly rising between Melisende and her firstborn. Indeed, the conflict between them was beginning to impinge upon the functionality of the kingdom. At about this time, Melisende appears to have forced the chancellor out of office without being able to replace him. The appointment of a chancellor required the consent of the High Court in which Melisende and Baldwin jointly presided. They were evidently at loggerheads. Melisende, therefore, tried to replace the chancellery altogether, henceforth issuing charters from her private scriptorium. This forced Baldwin to do the same. There were now effectively two rulers in the kingdom, but they were no-long ruling jointly but rather independently. It was a dangerous situation for a kingdom always so vulnerable to outside attack.

While Melisende was effectively fighting a rear-guard action to hold on to power, Baldwin, now 20, was on the ascent. He continued to increase his following and support in the north and along the coast in the economically vital coastal cities of Acre and Tyre. He won to his party the important and capable Humphrey de Toron II, and Guy of Beirut. More significantly, he rebuilt the castle at Gaza, far to the south, thereby cutting off Ascalon, which was still in Egyptian hands. Rather than installing one of his supporters, however, he wisely handed the castle over to the Knights Templar, evidently a (not entirely successful) attempt at gaining their goodwill.

Baldwin was gaining power, but many lords remained loyal to Melisende. So much so, in fact, that when Count Jocelyn of Edessa was captured in May 1150 and Baldwin wanted to lead a relief expedition, half his barons did not follow his summons. This was a serious ― and dangerous ― breach of a vassal’s feudal obligation, and can only be explained if these barons did not recognize Baldwin’s authority to issue a summons without the consent of his mother. This underlines the degree to which Melisende’s right too joint rule was still viewed as legitimate, and the degree to which men respected her ability to exercise that right.

But with Edessa and, indirectly, Antioch at severe risk, this refusal to engage in a military relief operation did more to discredit Melisende and her supporters than to strengthen it. It was also at this time that the queen made a grave tactical error in advocating the marriage of her loyal constable Manassas to the heiress of Ramla and Mirabel, the widow of Barisan d’Ibelin. The marriage rewarded her loyal and landless relative, but alienated Barisan’s three sons, causing them to change sides in the struggle with her son. To counter this loss, Melisende made a fatal mistake: she unilaterally created the County of Jaffa ― and named her favorite son Amalric Count.

The move was not wise because Amalric was just fifteen and, like her Constable Manassas, already a supporter. In short, it gained her little, but by creating a new lordship and investing a new baron without even consulting her co-regent King Baldwin III, Melisende had thrown down the gauntlet. Baldwin could not allow his mother to continue to ignore him.  Furthermore, the elevation of his brother may have made Baldwin fear that his mother intended to replace him altogether.

Baldwin’s strength had been growing in any case. Not only had those slighted or disillusioned with his mother (such as the Ibelins) turned to him, he had finally and twice demonstrated the most important skill required of a king in the Holy Land: military and diplomatic skill. In 1150, despite having only a small following, he had gone north to Antioch. There, although the County of Edessa was irredeemably lost, he had proved an able diplomat in negotiations with both the Muslim opponents and the Byzantines.  Again in 1151, Baldwin had campaigned successfully against Nur ad-Din in the northeast, and also fought off a naval attack against the coast by the Egyptian fleet. With each military victory, Baldwin III’s reputation and position vis-à-vis his mother increased.  By 1152, when his mother made his brother Count of Jaffa, he was ready for a show-down.

At Easter 1152, Baldwin III demanded a coronation in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher without his mother. In medieval parlance, this was a clear bid for exclusive power.  The Patriarch of Jerusalem, a staunch supporter of Melisende, begged Baldwin to include his mother in the coronation.  Baldwin refused but proceeded to appear in public wearing his crown ― sparking a debate in the High Court in which Baldwin upped the stakes by demanding that the kingdom be divided geographically between himself and his mother. Surprisingly (in my opinion), the High Court agreed, although it was clear that such a division must weaken an already vulnerable kingdom.  Perhaps the decision was the re-cognition of the de-facto situation or was seen as better than an outright civil war that seemed to loom if Melisende and Baldwin refused to work together.  Still, it is hard to understand why there was no concerted effort to reconcile the queen and her son at this point. Unless the bulk of the magnates knew what would come next….

Baldwin immediately appointed Humphrey de Toron his constable and initiated military action against his mother. He captured Mirabel, held by the queen’s loyal constable Manassass, and forced him into exile. He then occupied the unfortified Nablus, his mother’s principal power bases.  With men rapidly going over to Baldwin, Queen Melisende retreated to the Tower of David with just a handful of loyal followers: her younger son Amalric, Philip of Nablus, and Rohard, Viscount of Jerusalem.  Although Patriarch went out to meet Baldwin before the gates of Jerusalem and urge him to respect the terms of the division of the kingdom, which Baldwin himself had proposed, Baldwin, sensing victory, refused.

The Tower of David where Melisende took refuge and was besieged by her son.

The citizens of Jerusalem, long loyal to Melisende, could also smell which way the wind was blowing and opened the gates to Baldwin III. Not satisfied with taking the city, Baldwin set siege to the Tower of David and met with spirited defense.  The unseemly fight continued for several days, but eventually, the spectacle of the King of Jerusalem attacking the Tower of David held by his mother the queen was too much. Negotiations were resumed and Melisende admitted defeat at last. She surrendered the Tower of David and with it Jerusalem and the kingdom in exchange for a dower portion around Nablus.

Surprisingly given the length, tenacity, and vehemence of her fight to retain power, Melisende proved as capable of showing flexibility and conciliation in defeat as in victory.  Indeed, she demonstrated that rather than recriminations, bitterness or futile resistance, she was able to carve out a new role for herself. This she did by coming peaceably to a session of the High Court (as Lady of Nablus) and playing a positive, but decidedly feminine, role in trying to reconcile her sister, the Countess of Tripoli, with her husband, the Count, as well as to persuade her other sister, Constance Princess of Antioch, to finally take a new husband. In coming to this session of the High Court and not trying to exert any kind of royal authority, Melisende publicly displayed her complete submission. It was also a public reconciliation with her son.

Baldwin III also showed restraint and refrained from humiliating his mother in any way. She was accorded due respect and he included her in his charters for the next eight years of his reign, until his mother became too ill for any public role. Early in 1160, Melisende was incapacitated by an unknown illness. She lingered until September 11, 1161, when she died. According to her will, she was buried beside her mother in the shrine of our Lady of Jehoshaphat.

Again, we have the facts but very little insight into the personality behind the actions.  We can say with certainty that Melisende was no pawn. She was not passive, submissive or docile. She was strong-willed, determined and tenacious, particularly when it came to exercising the power that she believed was her hereditary right. While we can assume that she was never overly fond of her much older and domineering husband, it is harder to know what she felt toward her eldest son.

The fact that she so consistently tried to exclude him from the reins of government might suggest that she didn’t entirely trust him -- or for some reason thought him unsuited to government. Had she loved and trusted him the way, say, Eleanor of Aquitaine loved her son Richard, she would surely have worked with him rather than against him.  They might then have ruled together harmoniously, dividing up the duties of kingship between them with Melisende ruling supreme in the chancery and Baldwin leading the kingdom’s armies and handing foreign affairs, perhaps. Obviously, that was not possible for some reason.

Perhaps, Baldwin had been Fulk’s favorite and Melisende feared that his father had turned him against her. Yet it is just as possible that they were simply different in temperament and clashed with one another as parents and children often do. The fact that she was able to concede defeat and then play a subordinate but constructive role in the last decade of her life, however, also suggests that whatever divided them was not fatal. They were, in the end, able to work together, albeit with Melisende in the subordinate role. Perhaps she had grown a little weary of ruling. Perhaps Baldwin had matured and developed new qualities that made it easier for her to accept him. We will never know, but I hope that sometime someone will devote the time and energy to write a proper biography of Melisende, or if sources are lacking for that, a biographical novel that will bring her more fully to life.

Meanwhile, J. Stephen Robert has us a believable and sympathetic portrayal of the young Melisende - before her marriage - in:

Principal sources: Mayer, Hans Eberhard, “Studies in the History of Queen Melisende of Jerusalem,” in Hans Eberhard Mayer, ed. Probleme des lateinische Koenigreichs Jerusalem, Variorum Reprints, 1983, pp 93-182.

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:

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Queen Melisende I: The Formidable Wife of Fulk

Melisende, born in 1105 and queen from 1131 until her death in 1161, was the first and unquestionably the most forceful of Jerusalem’s queens.  She was not only the hereditary heir to the kingdom, she tenaciously defended her right to rule against both her husband and her son, weathering two attempts to side-line her, albeit more successfully the first time. She was praised for her wisdom and her administrative effectiveness as well as being a patron of the arts and the church. Although largely forgotten, she ought to be remembered alongside her contemporaries the Empress Mathilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine as one of the powerful women rulers of the 12th century. Today I look at the first half of her life, ending with the death of her husband in 1143.

Melisende of Jerusalem was born in 1105, the first of four daughters, born to King Baldwin II and his Armenian wife, Morphia of Melitene. At the time of her birth in Edessa, her father was Count of Edessa, but 13 years later in 1118 her father was elected by the High Court of Jerusalem successor to Baldwin I. Some sources claim that her father was urged at this time to set-aside his Armenian wife and seek a new, and better-connected bride who might bear him sons as Morphia had failed to do.  Baldwin refused.  Furthermore, he designated his eldest daughter as his heir, and she was given precedence in the charters of the kingdom ahead of all other lords both sacred and secular. 

In 1128, when Melisende was already 23 years old, her father sent to the King of France, requesting a worthy husband for her. This appeal was sanctioned by the High Court, as all subsequent searches for worthy consorts of Jerusalem’s queens would be in the years to come. The King of France proposed Fulk d’Anjou. 

Although Anjou is small, it was a pivotal and powerful lordship in the heart of France. Fulk’s mother had married Philip I of France, and his daughter had been engaged to Henry I of England’s heir, William. When the latter died in a shipwreck, the agreement was mutated so that Henry’s daughter Mathilda married Fulk’s eldest son and heir Geoffrey. It was from this marriage of Fulk’s son Geoffrey and Henry I’s heir Mathilda that the Angevin kings of England sprang. 

Meanwhile, however, Fulk had traveled to the Holy Land and served with the Knights Templar. He responded positively to the proposal to marry Melisende, although some sources contend that he insisted on being named king, not merely consort. In fact, the terms may have been ambiguous, or at least open to alternative interpretations. Certainly, Fulk had a reputation for centralizing power and ruling unruly vassals with an iron fist. He was seen as militarily able, however, a vital qualification for ruling the ever-vulnerable Kingdom of Jerusalem.

In 1129, Fulk returned to the Kingdom of Jerusalem and married Melisende, now 24 years old. He was at once associated with his father-in-law in the government of the kingdom.  Nevertheless, in 1130 when Melisende gave birth to a son, named Baldwin for his grandfather, the proud grandfather took the precaution publicly investing his Kingdom to his daughter, his son-in-law and his grandson. This was not a partitioning of the kingdom, but a means of binding his vassals to his heirs.  Furthermore, when he fell ill the following year, he reaffirmed on his death-bed the succession of his daughter Melisende, along with her king-consort Fulk and their joint son, Baldwin. Melisende and Fulk were crowned jointly in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on September 14, 1131.

Despite this, Fulk evidently felt that he had become sole ruler of Jerusalem. Melisende was abruptly excluded from the charters of the kingdom, suggesting she was excluded from power, and the important contemporary chronicle of Orderic Vitalis provides this revealing description of what happened next:

To begin with [Fulk] acted without the foresight and shrewdness he should have shown, and changed governors and other dignitaries too quickly and thoughtlessly. As a new ruler he banished from his counsels the leading magnates who from the first had fought resolutely against the Turks and helped Godfrey and the two Baldwins to bring towns and fortresses under their rule, and replaced them by Angevin strangers and other raw newcomers…; turning out the veteran defenders, he gave the chief places in the counsels of the realm and the castellanships of castles to new flatterers.[i]

While this was bad enough, he also appeared to seek the removal of his wife, Melisende. The suspicion was that he wanted to push aside the legitimate heirs of Jerusalem and replace them with his younger son by his first wife, a certain Elias.  His weapon was a not-so-subtle attempt to sully her reputation with an accusation of adultery.  In 1134, Melisende was (conveniently) accused of a liaison with the most powerful of the local barons, a certain Hugh, Count of Jaffa. 

While all chronicles agree that the charges were trumped up, the very fact that King Fulk was presumed to be behind them induced Jaffa to refuse to face a trial by combat, apparently fearing foul play.  The failure to show for a trial by combat, however, gave the king the right to declare him (and with him the queen) guilty, and to attempt to forfeit his fief. (Which some historians suggest may have been Fulk’s main motive in the first place.) What is notable about this incident is that the bulk of the High Court ― and most significantly the Church ― sided with Jaffa rather than Fulk. This underlines the degree to which Melisende was viewed as innocent of wrong-doing, and the degree to which the local nobility resented the Angevin influence described above. 

When the royal army moved against Jaffa, the southern lords, many of them Jaffa’s vassals, held firm for Jaffa. Until Jaffa made a severe tactical error: he sought military support from the Muslim garrison at Ascalon. The later was all too happy to see the Franks fighting among themselves and Jaffa beat off the royal army -- at the price of losing support among his own. Many of his vassals (and his own Constable, Barisan d’Ibelin) deserted his cause and reconciled with the king.

Yet just when Fulk seemed on the brink of complete victory, the Church intervened to end the dangerously self-destructive civil war and forced Fulk to offer astonishingly mild terms to the rebels. Hugh of Jaffa and those men who had remained loyal to him were induced to surrender Jaffa and accept exile for a mere three years, rather than the permanent loss of their fiefs. Although not explicit, subsequent events suggest that Melisende was behind this agreement and Fulk was anything but happy with it. Certainly, before Hugh could leave the kingdom to begin his exile, he was stabbed in the streets of Acre by a knight widely believed to be fulfilling Fulk’s wishes if not his orders. 

Hugh survived the attack and went into exile to die before the terms expired just three years later. Yet sympathy for the injured Hugh was so high that the Angevins found themselves in fear for their lives. Indeed, no one was more outraged than Queen Melisende, and the contemporary historian William of Tyre reports that Fulk feared for his life in the company of the queen’s men. Fulk had won the battle but lost the war. He had discovered he could not rule Jerusalem as he had Anjou. He could not impose his own counselors and ignore the men (and their sons) that had conquered his kingdom for him one bloody mile at a time. Most important, he could not replace his wife at whim, but must recognize her as her father had intended as his co-regent, his equal in power.

William of Tyre reports that after Jaffa’s exile Fulk “did not attempt to take the initiative, even in trivial matters, without [Melisende’s] knowledge.”[ii] This assessment is underlined by the subsequent documentary evidence that shows Melisende again jointly signing charters and otherwise actively engaged in the administration of the kingdom. She made some spectacular grants at this time (one presumes to her supporters), most especially to the Church. The reconciliation was furthermore sufficient to bring forth a second son, Amalric, who was born in 1136. 

In 1138, when Fulk and Melisende’s son Baldwin turned eight, he too was included in the charters of the kingdom, reaffirming his investiture along with his parents as ruler of Jerusalem, restoring the situation as it had been recognized by the High Court at the time of Baldwin II’s death. This troika of rulers continued until 1143, when Fulk died suddenly at the age of 53 in a hunting accident. Significantly, at Fulk’s death there was no need for the High Court to convene and elect a new ruler, because Melisende was already crowned and anointed and recognized, not merely as regent for her 13-year-old son, but as queen in her own right. 

This outline of the events in the first 38 years of Melisende’s life makes a mockery of modern commentary that dismiss medieval women as “chattels” or pawns.  Melisende’s right to inherit the power ― not just the title ― of monarch was not only recognized by the High Court (i.e. her vassals), but defended by both her barons and the Church. Melisende wielded real power, and she won the respect of her contemporaries. William of Tyre, for example, calls her “a very wise woman, fully experienced in almost all spheres of state business,” who took “charge of important affairs.”[iii]

The woman herself, her feelings, her temperament, her motives, fears and dreams, are lost to us.  A few things are clear, however. First, in contrast to her grand-daughter Sibylla, her virtue was considered unimpeachable; no one of importance seriously believed she had committed adultery. Second, her intelligence and abilities as queen were respected sufficiently for people to be willing to fight for her right to rule jointly with her husband. Third, she must have been sufficiently flexible and forgiving to reconcile with her husband despite his attempts to first side-line and then dishonor her. That takes a very wise woman indeed!


Melisende is a major character in J. Stephen Robert's:

[i] Orderic Vitalis, quoted in translation by Hans Eberhard Mayer, “Angevins versus Normans: The New Men of King Fulk of Jerusalem,” Kings and Lords in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Ashgate Publishing, 1994, p. IV-3

[ii] William of Tyre, quoted in translation by Bernard Hamilton, “Women in the Crusader States: The Queens of Jerusalem (1100-1190),” ed. Derek Baker, Medieval Women, Basil Blackwell, 1978, p. 150.

[iii] Ibid, p. 157.

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, May 16, 2018

The Knights and Nobles of Outremer

Whereas most kingdoms in Western Europe emerged organically from the remnants of the Roman empire, the crusader states were abrupt, artificial creations -- and so were their feudal elites. Today I discuss the background and -- until recently misunderstood - characteristics of the knights and nobles in these states.

The leaders of the First Crusade naturally brought their notions of society and government with them.  Although, they made a virtue out of necessity and co-opted institutions and traditions with Arab, Turkish and even Greek roots. (See: Administrative Backbone.) They nevertheless succeeded at imposing a feudal over-structure onto their newly acquired territories.  John de La Monte in his classic study, Feudal Monarchy in Jerusalem 1100-1291, writes:

… in the feudal system of Jerusalem we find an almost ideal system of feudalism….The colonist carried with him from his native land his native ideal of the state and put it into effect as far as he was able in the land of his adoption.

Yet there was a problem: feudalism depends on nobility and a knightly class --  both of which were lacking in the newly conquered territories. To be sure, the leaders of the First Crusade had been French noblemen, and a handful of these leaders remained behind, forming the very summit of the feudal pyramid as kings, counts and princes. But feudalism, in contrast to the absolutism of the renaissance, depended on a much broader base; it depended on a class of barons (tenants-in-chief), and lesser vassals (the tenants of the barons) and “simple” knights as well. 

In Western Europe, barons and knights held land, and drew from the land the income to support their military apparatus. For a knight that had to be enough income to support himself, his squire, four horses and armor and weapons for all. For a baron, it might be enough land to support scores of knights. But in the early years of the crusader kingdoms, there was no land to share out and Joshua Prawer points out:  “...the mass of milites [knights] was no more than a salaried army, composed of knights receiving salaries or assigned fixed revenues.” (p. 129)

In the decades that followed, however, the crusader states expanded from the cities to take control of a broad band of territory along the Eastern Mediterranean occupying roughly what is now Lebanon, Israel and the western half of Jordan. The Kingdom of Jerusalem at its greatest extent touched the tip of the Red Sea at Eilat in the south and reached to Antioch in modern Turkey in the North, as well as stretching across the Jordan River to the East. With this expansion came the establishment of lordships, roughly two-dozen in all. 

So lordships had been created, but who were the lords ― the Prince of Galilee, the Count of Jaffa and Ascalon, the Lords of Beirut, Hebron, Sidon, Oultrejourdain, Ibelin, Ramla, Arsur, Nablus, Caesarea, Haifa, Sabaste, Bethsan, Toron and more?

One thing is clear: they were not counts and lords from Western Europe. They were men who had made their fortune in the Holy Land. The chronicler Fulcher of Chartres, who summarized the opportunities in the Holy Land ― and the social mobility we seldom associate with the Middle Ages. In A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem 1095-1127, written in the early 12th century, he claims: 

“The Italian and the Frenchman of yesterday have been transplanted… Every day relatives and friends…come to join us. They do not hesitate to leave everything they have behind them. Indeed…he who was poor attains riches here. He who had no more than a few pennies finds himself in possession of a fortune.”

Attempts to trace the origins of even some of the most prominent noble families, such as the Ibelins, are rarely fruitful. In charters and deeds, donors, recipients and witnesses are often listed by first names and descriptors (such as “the old”) only. If they are referred to by first name and a place, it is as common for this to be the place of current residence rather than the place of origin. To make things even more difficult, many place names are very vague indeed ― such as “l’Aleman” to mean simply “the German.” 

This is partly due to the period, family names were only just emerging and coming into use in the 12th century. But the situation was compounded in the Holy Land by the fact that so many of the early settlers came from non-noble background and were at best knights. Yet when these men won the favor of the king they were named to important offices (e.g. like constable and marshal) ― or given fiefs. Men of sufficient worth, gained important and wealthy fiefs, which they held directly from the crown. They were now barons.

Barons, however, were only the second strata in feudal society. They derived their power from the ability to field large numbers of fighting men, both knights and sergeants and/or Turcopoles. The larger the barony, the more knights fees it supported, i.e. the larger number of knights it could support. Knights were essential to the defense of the crusader states because they formed the core or elite military force of the kingdom’s army.

For much of the last century, the image of the knights of Outremer was shaped by Joshua Prawer, who argued:

As a rule, the Frankish landowner did not retain demesne lands of any importance, and his income came almost wholly from the tenurae held from him by his peasants. There was, then, little interest in the direct management of rural estates and no incentive to live in a manor house in the village or in the fief. (p. 130)

From this premise, Prawer evolves the theory that the knights of Outremer were urban rather than rural ― and hardly distinguishable from the Frankish bourgeoisie. He also claims that they often intermarried with the Italian and even native merchant-class, and were highly dependent on royal or baronial patronage.  He concludes that in the “second” Kingdom of Jerusalem (after the loss of the interior of the Kingdom to Saladin in 1187-1188), “simple knights, already very much dependent on their lords in the twelfth century, [were] little more than salaried knights, not to say simple mercenaries.” (p. 140) 

More recent research, notably that of Ronnie Ellenblum, has since proved that Prawer's assumptions were utterly incorrect. Archaeological evidence turned up by surveys conducted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Franks had extensive rural settlements, constructed manor houses, villages, mills, irrigation systems and roads -- and that these rural holdings "owed" knights to the feudal lord. In short, this was a feudal society based on rural land-holdings just as in Western Europe. 

And where did these knights come from? We don't know very much beyond the fact that the names associated with the rural holdings reflect immigration from Western Europe especially France and Italy. Likewise, charters indicate that families that in one generation were designated as "sergeants" often produce knights in the next generation. Intriguingly, we also know of isolated instances of native Christians rising to the knightly class through service to the Frankish elite. In short, upward mobility was very much possible in the crusade states.  Last but not least, it was also a common practice to give land to younger brothers, for them to hold from their elder brother, thus providing "cadet lines" of the leading barons with landed property that kept them rooted in society and financially secure, rather than creating a class of "landless younger sons."

Admittedly, not all knights in the crusader states had rural estates. Some did have "money fiefs" based on urban incomes, but to suggest that the majority of knights in the crusader states were "urban knights" is wrong. A thirteen century catalog of feudal service by lordship -- including money fiefs -- lists  only 131 of 677 ― less than 20% ― urban knights.  The rest came from the barons with extensive land holdings. 

Even the loss of the interior of the Kingdom of Jerusalem did not, as Prawer and others argued, lead to the urbanization of the entire knightly class. This is because almost immediately after the loss of the interior came the acquisition of the even larger and richer Kingdom of Cyprus.  We know that nearly all the barons of Jerusalem also held fiefs in Cyprus. They did so because Guy and Aimery de Lusignan, who were both kings of both Cyprus and Jerusalem, rewarded their supporters with fiefs on Cyprus.  George Hill in his A History of Cyprus Volume 2: The Frankish Period 1192-1432, for example, stresses that the Lusignans “let it be known in Palestine, in Syria and in Armenia that he would grant fiefs and lands to all those who were willing to come and settle the island.” (p. 39).

This is certainly an exaggeration, given the fact that Cyprus was hardly an “empty” island in need of settlement. Peter Edbury, the leading historian of medieval Cyprus today, estimates the population was around 100,000.  Nevertheless, it is still indicative of the opportunities available on Cyprus for men of Frankish origin.  It is also undoubtedly true that some of those who went to Cyprus had lost everything to Saladin and only held land on Cyprus. Nevertheless, we know of many noble families, starting with the Ibelins, Montbéliards, and the Princes of Antioch and Tiberias held fiefs in both kingdoms.

The exact location and extent of these holdings, however, is nearly impossible to quantify, however, because the Syrian barons continued to use their Syrian titles. They did so even if the lands from which they derived their titles had been lost irretrievably (e.g. Ibelin and Tiberias), as well as when the territory from which the title derived remained in Frankish hands but had been supplemented by new fiefs on Cyprus such as Caesarea, Beirut and Jaffa.

Especially in cases where lords held a city on the mainland and a rural fief on Cyprus, the rural estates would have been farmed out to vassals so ensure the good governance and economic productivity of the land, while freeing the baron to remain in his principle residence at Beirut, Caesarea, Arsuf etc. This explains how the Syrian lords could still field substantial armies to fight in the Holy Land, despite having very limited land in Syria itself. It was underlined by the fact that the Lord of Beirut could move troops from Cyprus to relieve the Imperial siege of Beirut and take troops back again to expel Imperial troops from Cyprus.

In short, the crusader states did have a higher percentage of “money fiefs” and urban knights than was common in Western Europe in the 12th and 13th century. However, such knights made up only roughly one fifth of the feudal host in the “first” kingdom, and possibly ― but not necessarily ― a larger percentage in the “second” kingdom, without ever representing the majority.

Because of a continuous flow of pilgrims from the West, including a significant number that settled and intermarried with the existing Frankish elites, the knights and nobles of Outremer remained in close contact with the traditions, fashions, thinking, and attitudes of the West. Despite the obscurity of their origins, they shared the same fundamental Weltanschauung or world-view as their contemporaries in France, Flanders and England.  Feudalism, Christianity and Chivalry shaped and guided the lives of nobles and knights in the Holy Land no less than in the West.

Discover the knights and nobles of the crusader kingdoms in Dr. Schrader's award-winning novels set in the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus.

       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:


Hill, George. A History of Cyprus Volume 2: The Frankish Period 1192-1432. Cambridge University Press, 1948.

Jotischky, Andrew. Crusading and the Crusader States. Pearson Longman, 2004.)

La Monte, John. Feudal Monarchy in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem 1100 to 1291. Medieval Academy of America, 1932.

Prawer, Joshua. “Social Classes in the Latin Kingdom: the Franks,” Zacour, Norman P. and Harry W. Hazard. A History of the Crusades Volume Five: The Impact of the Crusades on the Near East. University of Wisconsin Press, 1985

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Teutonic Knights Part III: Twilight in the Holy Land

The Teutonic Knights had been granted the permission to colonize Prussia in 1226, but for decades they had still prioritized the Holy Land. The Mongol threat to Europe, however, had forced the Teutonic Knights to increasingly divert resources to the Baltic frontier. What began as a necessity, however, gradually -- perhaps even unconsciously -- became policy. Today Dr. Schrader looks at the last years of the Teutonic Order in the Holy Land.

In 1254 Pope Innocent IV granted the Teutonic Knights the right to give secular knights willing to fight the Mongols the same spiritual privileges as those who took the cross to fight in the Holy Land. The fight against the Mongols was effectively raised to a “crusade.”  Even recruits to the Teutonic Knights were no longer required to serve first in the Holy Land; they could go into service directly in the Baltic.  Increasingly, German knights and noble families turned their attention to the Baltic, and after 1250 there was never again large contingents of armed pilgrims to the Holy Land.

Not that the Teutonic Order entirely gave up on the Holy Land. It was in the last half of the 13th century that the Order made a number of major acquisitions.  Yet significantly these came primarily through purchases from the secular lords of Outremer. The Baron of Sidon essentially gave up entirely, selling his lands to the Templars and Teutonic Knights. Even John d’Ibelin, Count of Jaffa and Ascalon (son of Philip d’Ibelin the former regent of Cyprus, grandson of Balian d’Ibelin, the defender of Jerusalem in 1187) sold or leased entire lordships and castles to the Teutonic Knights. After the Battle La Forbie (1244) an exodus of ordinary people out of the remaining crusader states had started. Hope of a Christian recovery was waning.

In 1271, the Teutonic Knights first and mightiest castle, Starkenburg (or Montfort), fell to the Mamluks. It was the same year in which the Hospitallers lost Krak de Chevaliers and the Templars lost Castel Blanc. But Starkenburg was also the Teutonic Knight’s headquarters.  Morton writes:

It appears that the fall of Montfort was a turning point in the policy of the Teutonic Knights. It is significant that shortly after the loss of the stronghold, [the Master of the Teutonic knights] Arno [von Sangershausen] created new castle named Montfort in Prussia. (Morton, p. 125)

Thereafter, no master of the Teutonic Knights spent much time in the Holy Land either. The focus had shifted definitively and finally to the Baltic frontier.

In the final two decades of crusader presence in the Levant, the Teutonic Knights cooperated played a cooperative and supportive role, often mediating disputes between other actors, but nothing could stop the juggernaut of Mamluk aggression. When Acre fell in 1291, the Teutonic Knights, like the Templars, died to the last man. The HQ of the Teutonic Knights was moved initially to Venice and a presence was maintained on Cyprus until at least 1300, but before long the HQ moved to Marburg and the Teutonic Knights focus turned exclusively to the Baltic theater.

Principle source: Morton, Nicholas. The Teutonic Knights in the Holy Land, 1190-1291. Boydell Press, 2009.

Discover the crusader states at the end of the 12th century in Dr. Schrader's award-winning novels set in Outremer:

       Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                         Buy now!