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Thursday, September 26, 2019

A Forgotten Invasion - September 1183

On September 29, 1183, Salah al-Din crossed the River Jordan in his third invasion of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Five years earlier, his invasion had ended in a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Montgisard. Now he came with more troops than ever and fresh from his successful conquest of Aleppo in June. In response, the Franks called up the largest army that they had ever fielded — and then did nothing. 
While most historians view the Frankish strategy as prudent in the face of the inexorable shift in the balance of power, contemporaries were shocked and outraged. The Chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, William Archbishop of Tyre, complained bitterly that “so splendid an opportunity to combat the enemy” had been squandered through “neglect” of the leadership. Today I look more closely at this critical episode that sheds a light on the crisis that would lead to Hattin.

Critical to understanding the significance of the “battle that didn’t happen” is the degree to which this was the exception. It is often forgotten that between 1100 and 1115, the Christians were on the offensive, steadily increasing the territory under their control. While the Muslims fought back during this early period, from 1120 the Franks had established such military superiority that Muslim attacks became infrequent. Indeed, one historian has calculated that they occurred at a frequency only one-twelfth of what they had been in the previous two decades.[1] The Franks, on the other hand, continued to raid into Muslim territory and to besiege Muslim strongholds such as Ascalon.  Most of the major battles that occurred between 1120 and 1170 took place near Muslim cities and ended in a decisive Frankish victory. A leading crusades historian summarized it like this:

For many decades the Franks’ army maintained absolute superiority in the battlefield. In most campaigns, it was the Franks who took the initiative, attacking their enemy’s centres of power... In the few cases in which the Muslims did besiege a Frankish castle, its minimal fortifications were enough to enable the besieged to withstand the attach until the arrival of reinforcements. Even the news of the rescue forces’ impending approach was enough, in most cases, to cause the Muslims to withdraw, fearing a formal engagement with the Franks land forces and preferring to wait for another, more convenient opportunity. [2]

By 1183, however, Salah al-Din felt strong enough and confident enough to face the Franks in battle yet again. He had been routed in 1177 (Montgisard) and he had been defeated soundly in 1179 (le Forbelet). Yet he was back again and prepared to face the Frankish land army.

Yet for the first time in the history of the crusader states, the Franks avoided battle. They mustered an allegedly huge force. Sources talk of 1,300 knights and 1,500 turcopoles, and perhaps 15,000 infantry. These numbers are comparable to the forces that were brought together for the Battle of Hattin four years later. 

To be sure, a relief force under the command of Humphrey de Toron sent to stop the Muslim assault on the city and castle of Bethsan was annihilated, but Toron was a young and allegedly effeminate man. His defeat was hardly indicative of overall weakness. Furthermore, in a critical skirmish over control of the springs at Turbaniya, the Constable of Jerusalem, (Aimery de Lusignan), reinforced by the Barons of Ramla and Ibelin (Baldwin and Balian d’Ibelin), routed the Saracen forces. That was a clear 1-1 exchange that did not leave the Franks crippled or threatened. 

Yet rather than taking the initiative as they had at Montgisard or even facing-off as they had at le Forbelet, the Franks built a moat around their army and stood by while the city of Bethsan was sacked and burned without interference. Monasteries and nunneries were the next victims and the ravaging of the surrounding countryside went on for eight days before Salah al-Din was forced to pull back for want of provisions.

Why? What explained the astonishing passivity of a powerful army that for the previous half a century had been renowned for its offensive character and capabilities?

There is a clear answer: leadership.

At Montgisard and le Forbelet, the Frankish army was led by the king, Baldwin IV. The King had long been suffering from leprosy, contracted when he was still a child, but at Montgisard (1177) Baldwin was still fit enough to command from horseback. At le Forbelet (1179), he was no longer well enough to ride but commanded nevertheless in person from a litter. However, in the summer of 1183, the health of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem took a dramatic turn for the worse.  The chancellor of the kingdom and chronicler William Archbishop of Tyre reported that by this time King Baldwin “had lost his sight and the extremities of his body became completely diseased and damaged, so that he was unable to use his hands and feet.” 

Hollywood's Baldwin IV from "The Kingdom of Heaven"
Nevertheless, when news of Salah al-Din’s impending invasion reached King Baldwin in September 1183, he ordered the feudal host to muster at the springs of Suffuriya (Sephoria). He only got as far as Nazareth, however, before he was taken by fever and his death appeared imminent. The High Court, most of whom had already mustered with the feudal host, hastened to the King’s bedside. Baldwin IV named his sister Sibylla’s husband Guy de Lusignan regent while retaining for himself (for as long as he should live) the title of King, the city of Jerusalem and an annual income of 10,000 pieces of gold. 

The arrangement suggests that Baldwin was not so sure he was on death’s door but was feeling too ill to bear the burden of ruling — particularly of leading the army. The arrangement was essentially about allowing the King to retire from public life and die in peace. Notably, however, the King first required Guy de Lusignan to swear he would not try to seize the throne while he (Baldwin) yet lived — a clear indication that Baldwin was highly suspicious of Guy de Lusignan and his motives already. 

Hollywood's Guy de Lusignan from "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Guy swore as requested and became both regent and commander-in-chief of the army. It is Guy, therefore, who bears the blame for the completely novel and unexpected “strategy” of doing nothing. The fact that he did so without following the advice and consent of the assembled baronage of Jerusalem is evident by what happened next. 

Shortly afterward the end of this pathetic non-battle, word reached Jerusalem that the strategically pivotal castle of Kerak was under siege with half the ladies of Jerusalem trapped inside (they had collected for a wedding). Clearly, the feudal army needed to muster again and go to the relief of Kerak — but the Barons of Jerusalem unanimously refused to go to the rescue of their ladies until Guy de Lusignan was dismissed as regent. 

Apologists for Lusignan like to portray this refusal to accept Guy as mere “jealously” on the part of all the other barons. Such an interpretation of events ignores the bald facts that these barons had followed Guy in September and would again — tragically — follow him to catastrophe at Hattin four years later. The barons of Jerusalem in this generation were not inherently rebellious men. They recognized the need to fight together, and throughout Baldwin IV’s reign, they repeatedly overcame their internal rivalries to face the common enemy. The fact that, at this critical juncture, they flatly refused Lusignan’s leadership underlines the extent to which his inaction in October 1183 was unanimously seen as “cowardice” — or a squandered opportunity, as Tyre describes it. The disaster at Hattin proved that these men, the barons of the High Court of Jerusalem, were tragically correct in their assessment of Guy de Lusignan’s military capabilities. 

In November 1183, King Baldwin IV was facing a peaceful but near-unanimous (Oultrejourdain, Toron, and Edessa were trapped in Kerak with the ladies) revolt by the barons of Jerusalem against the man he had appointed regent. Baldwin’s immediate response was to dismiss Guy de Lusignan and take the reins of government back into his own hands, but this solution was clearly not satisfactory. Baldwin had recovered from the fever that had threatened his life in August/September, but he was still slowly dying of leprosy. He knew he could not live much longer, but he also recognized that he could not leave Guy de Lusignan as his heir. He had to find an alternative to Lusignan.

Baldwin V carried by Balian d'Ibelin at his Crown Wearing
The solution Baldwin IV found was to designate his nephew and namesake, Sibylla’s son by her first husband, his heir and to crown the boy king immediately. By crowning his nephew king in his own lifetime, he attempted to avert a crisis at his death. So, on November 20, 1183, Baldwin’s six-year-old nephew was crowned and anointed in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Only after his coronaton did the barons muster their feudal levies and follow King Baldwin IV, commanding from a litter, to the relief of Kerak. The siege was successfully lifted without bloodshed — and Baldwin IV spent the rest of his life trying to annul his sister’s marriage to Lusignan.

The invasion of 1183 and its consequences are described in Defender of Jerusalem. 

[1] Ellenblum, Ronnie, Crusader Castles and Modern Histories, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007) 160.

[2] Ellenblum, 297-298.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Founding of a Dynasty -- The Lusignans take Cyprus

The history of Outremer in the 13th century was materially altered by the establishment of a stable Latin Kingdom on the island of Cyprus.  Today I look at how the Lusignan dynasty became established.  Unfortunately, the sources for the founding of the Kingdom of Cyprus are not only scanty but dubious, leading me to develop two theses that challenge existing historiography. The first of these is presented below.

We know that Richard I of England, having conquered Cyprus in May 1191, sold it to the Knights Templar for 100,000 bezants in July of the same year. According to Peter Edbury, the leading modern historian of medieval Cyprus, their rule was “rapacious and unpopular,” resulting in a revolt in April 1192. Although a Templar sortie temporarily scattered the rebels, the causes of the revolt were hardly addressed and the latent threat of continued/renewed violence was clear. In the circumstances, the Grand Master of the Templars recognized that his Order would have to invest considerable manpower to regain control of the island.  He also recognized that he did not have the resources to fight in both Cyprus and Syria. In consequence, he gave precedence (as he must) to the struggle on the mainland, the Holy Land itself, against the Saracens. The Templars duly returned the island to Richard of England.

Richard promptly sold the island a second time, this time to Guy de Lusignan. Guy de Lusignan had been crowned and anointed King of Jerusalem in 1186 in a coup d’etat engineered by his wife, Sibylla. Although widely viewed as a usurper, the bulk of the barons submitted to his rule in order to fight united against the much superior forces of Saladin that threatened the Kingdom. Guy, however, proceeded to prove the low-opinion of his barons correct by promptly leading the entire Christian army to an avoidable defeat on the Horns of Hattin on July 4, 1187. He spent roughly a year in Saracen captivity, while his Kingdom fell city by city and castle by the castle to Saladin until only the city of Tyre remained. Needless to say, this further discredited him with the surviving barons, prelates, and burghers of his kingdom. His claim to the crown of Jerusalem was undermined fatally when his wife, through whom he had gained it, died in November 1190. Although Guy continued to style himself “King of Jerusalem,” a fiction at first bolstered by King Richard of England’s support, by April 1192 King Richard had also given up on him. Bowing to the High Court of Jerusalem, Richard acknowledged Conrad de Montferrat as King of Jerusalem. The sale of Cyprus to Guy was evidently a means of compensating him for the loss of his kingdom of Jerusalem.

Guy may have left for Cyprus at once, in which case he would have arrived in April 1192.  However, this is far from certain because the Third Crusade was still being conducted.  It is unlikely that Guy would have been able to recruit many knights to accompany him as long as Richard the Lionheart was still fighting for Jerusalem and Jaffa. A more likely date for Guy’s arrival on Cyprus is, therefore, October 1192, after Richard’s departure for the West. 

Guy was apparently accompanied by a small group of Frankish lords and knights whose lands had been lost to Saladin in 1187/1188 and not been recaptured in the course of the Third Crusade. The names of only a few are known. These include Humphrey de Toron, Renier de Jubail, Reynald Barlais, Walter de Bethsan, and Galganus de Chenech√©. (Guy's older brother Aimery is notably absent.) 

Guy would have arrived on an island that was either still in a state of open rebellion or completely lawless. Admittedly, historian George Hill (who was actually an expert in ancient history, coins and iconography rather than a medievalist), tries to explain how Guy arrived on an island eagerly awaiting him by inventing (that is the only word one can use since he sites no source) the story that the Templars “slew the Greeks indiscriminately like sheep; a number of Greeks who sought asylum in a church were massacred; the mounted Templars rode through [Nicosia] spitting on their lances everyone they could reach; the streets ran with blood…The Templars rode through the land, sacking villages and spreading desolation, for the population of both cities and villages fled to the mountains.” (George Hill, A History of Cyprus, Volume 2: The Frankish Period 1192 – 1432,” Cambridge University Press, 1948, p. 37.)

There’s a serious problem with this lurid tale. (Quite aside from the technical one of lances being unsuitable for spitting multiple victims.) As Hill himself admits, the Templars had just fourteen knights on Cyprus and 29 sergeants; the Greek population of the island at this time was roughly 100,000. Yes, in a surprise sortie to fight their way out of Nicosia and flee to Acre (as we know they did), the Templars would surely have killed many civilians, including innocent ones. It is unlikely, however, that the fleeing Templars would have taken the time to stop and slaughter people collected in a church; that would have given the far more numerous armed insurgents (who had forced them to seek refuge in their commandery in the first place) to rally, attack and kill them. They certainly did not have the time and resources to slaughter people in other cities and towns scattered over nearly 10,000 square kilometers. In short, we can be sure the Templars slaughtered enough people to be remembered with hatred, but not enough to break the resistance to Latin rule, much less to denude the island of its population. If nothing else, if they had broken the resistance, they would not have fled to Acre, admitted defeat and urged the Grand Chapter to return Cyprus to Richard of England!

Despite the absurdity of the notion that Guy arrived on a peaceful island willing to receive him without resistance, most histories today repeat a charming story. Namely: as soon as Guy arrived on Cyprus he sent to his arch-enemy Saladin for advice on how to rule it. What is more, the ever chivalrous and wise Sultan graciously responded that “if he wants the island to be secure he must give it all away.” (See Edbury, The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades, 1191 – 1374, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 16.) Allegedly, based on this advice, Guy invited settlers from all the Christian countries of the eastern Mediterranean to settle on Cyprus, offering everyone rich rewards and making them marry the local women. According to this fairy tale, the dispossessed peoples of Syria, both high and low, flooded to Cyprus and were rewarded with rich fiefs, until Guy had only enough land to support just 20 household knights, but after that everyone lived happily ever after.

History isn’t like that, although―often―there is a kernel of truth in such legends. I think it is fair to assume that very many of the men and women who had lost their lands and livelihoods to the Saracens after Hattin did eventually come to settle on Cyprus, but I question that they arrived in the first two years after Guy acquired the island. The reason I doubt this is simple. The Knights Templar had just abandoned the island because it would be too costly, time-consuming and difficult to pacify.  In short, whoever came to Cyprus with Guy in early or late 1192 would not have found an empty island―much less one full of happy natives waiting to welcome them with song and flowers. On the contrary, they would have faced a population which had successfully expelled the Templars and ready to resist further attempts by the Latins to control and dominate them. Perhaps the one sentence about making the settlers marry local women is a hint to a more chilling reality: that, after years of resistance to Latin rule, when the settlers finally came, they found a local population with few young men but many young widows.

Furthermore, we know that at no time in his life did Guy de Lusignan distinguish himself by wisdom or common sense. He had alienated his brother-in-law King Baldwin IV and nearly the entire High Court of Jerusalem within just three years of his marriage to Sibylla.  He lost his entire kingdom in a disastrous and unnecessary campaign less than a year after he was crowned king. He started a strategically nonsensical siege of Acre that consumed crusader lives and resources for three years. He did nothing of note the entire time Richard the Lionheart was in the Holy Land. Is it really credible that he then took control of a rebellious island (that the Templars thought beyond their capacity to pacify) and set everything right in less than two years?

I think not. 

And Guy had only two years because he died in 1194, either in April/May or toward the end of the year depending on which source one consults. That is too little time even for a more competent leader to be the architect of Cyprus’ success. That honor belongs, I believe, to his older brother, the ever competent Aimery de Lusignan, who was lord of Cyprus not just two years but eleven. 

It was certainly Aimery, who obtained a crown by submitting the island to the Holy Roman Emperor, and it was Aimery who established a Latin church hierarchy on the island. Indeed, there is ample evidence of Aimery’s able administration of both Cyprus and, from 1197 to 1205, the Kingdom of Jerusalem as well.  It was Aimery de Lusignan who collected the oral tradition for the laws of Jerusalem (that had worked so well) and had them written down in a legal codex known as The Book of the King.  Thus, it was Aimery, who founded not only the dynasty that would last three hundred years but also laid the legal and institutional foundations that would serve Cyprus so well into the 15th century. 

In short, in my opinion, it is far more likely that Aimery, not Guy, brought settlers in―after first pacifying the native population and institutionalizing tolerance for the Orthodox church that mirrored the customs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It is this thesis that forms the basis of: The Last Crusader Kingdom: Founding of a Dynasty in 12th Century Cyprus.

My second revisionist thesis concerning the Ibelins will be the subject of my next entry. Meanwhile, The Last Crusader Kingdom, is available in both ebook and trade paperback formats. You can buy it now on amazon. Remember, books make great Christmas presents!

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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 current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick andthe barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at:

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Seljuks - The Crusaders' Prime Enemy

When the Crusaders invaded the Near East at the end of the 11th century, they entered a complex world already fragmented by political rivalries, ethnic divisions, and religious conflict. Far from breaking in upon a peaceful Arab society enjoying a golden age of scientific progress and artistic creativity, they confronted a cauldron of unrest which had seen Jerusalem change hands four times in the thirty years before the Crusaders arrived. The Golden Age of Arab Enlightenment was already a distant memory, and the Levant had become a battleground between the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo and the protectors of the Abbasid Caliphate in Damascus. At the heart of those tensions were the Seljuks whose arrival in the Near East in the first half of the 11th century disrupted previous power structures. 
Today I take a closer look at the Seljuks and their impact on the Levant.  

Central Asia was the home to a large number of nomadic tribes characterized by a warlike nature, which made them excellent fighters and mercenaries, and a mobile lifestyle suited to both following the grass for their herds -- and invading other territories. Historians believe, for example, that the "Huns" were simply one of many Turkic tribes that migrated to the west with devastating effect. The Bulgars were another. There were also Peshenegs, Uzes and Kumans.  Most of these tribes stayed north of the Black Sea, but one tribe led by a certain Seljuk chose to move south through what is now Iran to establish an empire that stretched across the Near East down to the Persian Gulf and to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. 

This tribe had been converted to Sunni Islam in the second half of the tenth century and in 1055 the Sunni Caliph in Baghdad summoned the (Sunni) Seljuks to liberate him from his Shia protectors, the Buyids. This they successfully did, making their leader at the time, Tugrul Beg, the "Sultan" -- i.e. the secular protector of the religious leader, the Caliph. Tugrul Beg died in 1063 and was succeeded by his nephew Alp Arslan, who delivered a crippling defeat to the Byzantine army under Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes at Manzikert in 1071. 

Although Alp Arslan died not long afterward in 1073, his victory over the Byzantines had the effect of opening all of Anatolia to Seljuk conquest and settlement. Furthermore, the Seljuk victory sparked the appeal to the West for aid that culminated in the First Crusade.  Meanwhile, Alp Arslan's successor Malik-Shah moved deeper into Western Syria (Aleppo) and also seized Antioch. However, on the death of Malik-Shah in 1092 the Seljuk empire fragmented among competing rivals and feuding between various warlords.  

Furthermore, the move to the Mediterranean, occupying roughly what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, also brought the Seljuks into direct conflict with the Fatimids based in Cairo. The importance of this confrontation cannot be overstated. 

As Niall Christie explains in his excellent history Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity's Wars in the Middle East, 1095-1382, From the Islamic Sources:

"...this conflict had religious as well as political dimensions. This was not merely a conflict over territory fought between two Muslim powers. The Seljuks, as Sunnis, sought to present themselves as the defenders and promoters of the true faith against dangerous heretics who had taken control of a disturbingly large amount of territory and posed a real threat to the Abbasid caliphate... The Fatimids, in the meantime, saw themselves as the representatives of the true line of caliphs, and saw the Seljuks as supporting a heretical pretender whose ancestors had usurped power in the eighth century. Thus the Levant was the site of struggle between two powers, each of which regarded the other as a legitimate target of holy war fought on behalf of Islam. [1]

In short, jihad was already on the agenda of these powers, but to fight one another. 

Leading crusades scholar Christopher Tyerman points out that: "It was precisely because the Near East was already a scene of violence, competition, disruption and dislocation that [the Crusaders] prevailed at all."[2] 

Obviously, this means that the popular notion that the First Crusade shattered the "irenic peace of a stable, sophisticated and tolerant Arab Muslim world"[3] is wrong -- a fact underlined by the response of contemporary Muslim observers, who "by the 1090s [were] only too familiar with alien foreign conquerors and overlords." [4]

The latter is a vitally important point. Christie summarizes the situation as follows: 
" is important to remember that the region was one in which populations were ruled by people who were in the minority, and often ethnically or religiously different from them. In Egypt, the Fatimids, who were Isma'ili Shi'ites, ruled over a population that was mostly Sunni Muslim, Christian and Jewish. The Fatimid armies in the meantime, consisted of a mix of Nubians, Berbers, Turks and Armenians, all of whom had been imported at one point or another and thus were foreigners in the eyes of the Egyptian population. The Sunni Muslim Turkish Seljuks, in the meantime, based their power above all on Turkish mamluks and Turkomen troops, using them to maintain power over a population that in the Levant consisted largely of Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, Christians and Jews from a wide range of ethnicities incuding Turks, Kurds and Arabs.[5]
Christie is actually understating the situation. To the inhabitants of the Levant, the Seljuks -- like the Arabs before them -- represented an alien occupation. Historians from Ellenblum to Jotischky and MacEvitt now believe that more than 50% of the population of the territories later incorporated into the crusader states was Christian. Professor Tyerman points out that "Surviving crusaders' letters and early narratives suggest [the Crusaders] quickly grasped the divided circumstances of the Seljuk princes and how they had terrorised the indigenous peoples of the region."[6]

Thus, while the Seljuks proved formidable foes, whom the Crusaders came to respect as one does a difficult opponent, their oppressive and divided rule also provided the opportunity for Crusader success. It was a situation that the Crusaders effectively exploited for three generations before the Kurdish leader Saladin forged new unity across the Near East. 

Throughout my Award-winning "Jerusalem" trilogy and my newer books, the Islamic enemy is depicted as realistically as possible.

                                                                                                                               Best Biography 2017

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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 current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick and the barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at:

[1] Niall Christie.  Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity's Wars in the Middle East, 1095-1382, From the Islamic Sources. [London: Routledge, 2014], 15.
[2] Christopher Tyerman. The World of the Crusades. [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019], 31.
[3] Tyerman, 31.
[4] Tyerman, 41.
[5] Christie, 16.
[6] Tyerman, 56.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

A Lost Opportunity - The Knights Templar on Cyprus

Richard the Lionheart had conquered Cyprus not for his own gain nor for England or his dynasty. Rather, he recognized the strategic importance of Cyprus to the crusader states of the Levant and he had seized an opportunity to secure this vitally important island that controlled the sea lanes and could serve as a base for operations and a source of supplies. The Plantagenet king, therefore, made no attempt to hold on to Cyprus but rather sold it to an institution that appeared most suited and capable of securing Cyprus for the strategic purpose of supporting the established crusader states: the Knights Templar. Ironically, had the Templars managed the situation intelligently, they would have had their own independent base, similar to what the Hospitallers later established on Rhodes and then Malta -- and would have survived Philip IV's attacks and might still be in existence today. But the Templars completely fumbled their opportunity with tragic consequences. 

The Cypriot Coast from the Byzantine Castle of Kantara

In the summer of 1191 Richard I of England, cognizant of his inability to govern Cyprus, made the strategic decision to sell the island to the Knights Templar. It was a wise decision because he was fully engaged in a struggle to regain the Holy Land itself and also had a vast empire back in Europe that would inevitably require his attention sooner or later. By selling Cyprus to the Knights Templar for 100,000 gold bezants, Richard not only replenished his war-chest to ensure adequate resources for the task at hand (the war against Saladin for the Holy Land), he also ensured that the strategically critical island of Cyprus was in the hands of Christians fanatically devoted to the cause of securing and defending Christian control of Holy Land in the long run. It seemed like a perfect solution.

Professor Malcolm Barber in one of the best books on the Knights Templar ever written (The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple, Cambridge University Press, 1994), notes that this was an opportunity for the Order to “establish their own independent state,” something later achieved by the Teutonic Knights in Prussia and the Hospitallers on Rhodes/Malta. It goes without saying, that had the Knights Templar controlled Cyprus from this date onward, they would have concentrated their treasure and forces there and so have been better positioned to withstand Philip IV’s attack on them in 1307. Cyprus is an island encompassing nearly 10,000 square kilometers of mostly fertile land including extensive forests. It has ample water resources, significant mineral deposits, notably copper, and a mild Mediterranean climate. It is located 65 km south of modern Turkey and 95 kilometers from the Syrian coast. Given its wealth and location, it the Templars had established themselves here in a sustainable manner the Order might still exist today. 

However, far from establishing a strong, independent state, the Knights Templar returned the island to Richard of England less than a year after they had purchased it. Barber explains their failure with the fact that “the project proved too ambitious,” (p. 119) while another historian of the Templars, John Robinson (Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades, Michael O’Mara Books, 1991) noted that the Templars “totally committed to an active military campaign [on the mainland], could spare only a few men….” (p. 187). All sources agree based on common primary sources that the Templars committed only 14 knights, while George Hill (A History of Cyprus, Volume 2: The Frankish Period 1192 – 1432, Cambridge University Press, 1948) adds that the knights were supported by 29 sergeants and 74 infantry. But the Templars didn’t just give up; they were driven from the island by a rebellion.

Given the fact that Richard of England had taken the island so rapidly in May 1191 (see Conquest of Cyprus I and II) largely because of widespread support from the population, an uprising against Templar rule was anything but inevitable.  Although he’d expropriated for himself half the royal revenues of the island, along with all the personal treasure taken from the self-styled “Emperor” Isaac Comnenus (who was widely viewed as a “tyrant” if not also a “usurper”), the English King's regime was not viewed as “oppressive” ― at least not in the very brief period he spent on the island. This may have been because he had promised a restoration of the laws as they had been under the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus.

It is possible that after the euphoria of defeating “the tyrant” had worn off, the inhabitants of Cyprus began to resent foreign domination. The population was overwhelmingly Greek Orthodox by faith and had been part of the Byzantine Empire for since 330 AD, with only sporadic periods of Muslim rule. An indication of possible popular disaffection is the fact that, at least according Hill, there was one uprising against Richard’s administration by a Greek monk, related to the deposed tyrant.

However, it appears that Richard’s men (and only two knights are ever listed as being left on the island by him, Richard de Camville and Robert de Thornham) were able to put this rebellion down very easily, hanging the pretender, without any losses or apparent bloodshed. This rather suggests that the pretender had virtually no support. This is hardly surprising when we consider that Richard’s two knightly administrators would not have been in a position to institute any widespread changes in the laws and taxes of the island, but rather had been tasked to restore the laws of widely respected Manuel I.  Since Camville and Thornham could hardly have known what these Byzantine laws entailed, they would have been compelled to depend upon the existing bureaucracy to collect traditional taxes owed the monarch. In short, from the point of view of the population of Cyprus, Richard the Lionheart’s rule was a restoration to the period of good governance that had preceded the usurpation of power by the tyrant Isaac Comnenus and there was truly little to rebel against.
Cypriot Coast - "The Birthplace of Aphrodite" - on a calm day.

That was not the case under the Templars. On the contrary, when rebellion broke out on April 5, 1192 it was apparently supported by such a large number of people that the most effective fighting force in the Holy Land, famous for their discipline in attack and retreat and for overwhelming the best professional soldiers of Islam, took refuge from the angry mob in their commandery in the city of Nicosia. Furthermore, an offer to surrender the entire island in exchange for a safe-conduct to a port was rejected by the mob. This strongly indicates that the Templars were not just unwelcome ― they were hated.

Clearly, something had changed. So what exactly had they done?

Barber suggests the Templars “alienat[ed] the population with their heavy taxation and arbitrary rule.” (p.119). Robinson is more colorful (as usual) saying: “Their arrogance in taking whatever they wanted, and their insulting treatment of the local barons and people had generated increasing animosity….” (p. 191.) Hill argues that the Templars imposed fresh dues on the markets, in addition to the existing taxes, in order to pay the balance of the 100,000 bezants still owed to Richard of England. But people have a tendency to find ways to evade taxes, especially when the tax-collectors are in cahoots with the taxpayers as would have been the case here, given the small size of the Templar garrison and the continued need to rely on the existing bureaucracy.

Turning to one of the most credible primary sources, one based in part on the contemporary chronicle by a resident in Outremer, The Old French Continuation of William of Tyre, (Peter Edbury’s translation published by Ashgate as The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade), we find a far more graphic and compelling reason for a revolt. Namely: “[The Templars] thought they could govern the people of the island in the same way they treated the rural population in the land of Jerusalem. They thought they could ill-treat, beat and misuse them….” In short, the Templars attempted to impose new taxes not traditional to the period of Manuel I (and so representing a breach of Richard’s promise), and more important treated the Greek Orthodox population (and one suspects their priests) as if they were Muslim peasants. 

What happened next has unfortunately become very distorted in some modern accounts. While sober accounts like that of Barber refer only to a “desperate charge” to free the Templars trapped in Nicosia, Robinson adds that they engaged in a “fierce attack on the local population.” Hill, an otherwise serious historian, indulges in a dramatic account, claiming:

On Easter Sunday morning, therefore, having heard mass, they sallied forth, completely surprising the Greeks, who had never suspected so small a force of so audacious an enterprise. The Latins slew the Greeks indiscriminately like sheep; the mounted Templars rode through the town spitting on their lances everyone they could reach; the streets ran with blood….The Templars rode through the land, sacking the villages and spreading desolation, for the population of both cities and villages fled to the mountains. (Hill, p. 37)

Really? With 14 knights and 29 sergeants? Against a population that had successfully hemmed them into their commandery in the first place? And then, despite this complete and utter victory they gave the island up? Obviously not. This is sheer hyperbole, and significantly Hill does not provide a single source for his dramatic and exaggerated account. It appears more a device to set up the island as ripe for the arrival of Guy de Lusignan.

Turning instead to The French Continuation of William of Tyre we find an account that without whitewashing or minimizing the violence of the Templars nevertheless keeps things in perspective. Namely:

When Brother Reynald Bochard who was their commander and the brothers realized that the Greeks would have no mercy, they commended themselves to God and were confessed and absolved. Then they armed themselves and went out against the Greeks and fought them. God by His providence gave the victory to the Templars, and many Greeks were killed or taken. They immediately came to Acre and explained what had happened to the master and convent. They took counsel among themselves and agreed that they could no longer hold island as their property, but…would return it to King Richard in exchange for the security that they had given him. (Edbury, Peter. Crusades Texts in Translation: The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade. Ashgate, 1998. p. 112)

This account makes clear that the Templar sortie was a hard-fought battle (not a slaughter of “sheep”), and while the Templars managed to cut their way out at considerable cost to the Greeks, they headed straight for the coast to take ship for Acre and wash their hands of the entire island! The Templars did not leave behind a “desolated” and depopulated island, with the inhabitants cowering in the mountains. They left behind an island in the hands of the local elites. This is a very significant point and one to keep in mind when examining the establishment of Frankish rule on Cyprus under the Lusignans. 

However, there is also an element of tragedy in this short episode in the history of the Knights Templar. Had they handled the situation in Cyprus better, the Knights Templar would not have been vulnerable to King Philip IV's machinations just over a century later.  Although Templars might have been arrested and properties confiscated in France, the Order itself would have survived -- just as the Hospitallers did from their independent bases of Rhodes and then Malta -- to decay at its own pace. The nonsensical conspiracy stories and allegations of heresy etc. would never have taken root, and, who knows, perhaps the Templars would have proved a stronger bastion against the Ottomans. 

Barber, Malcolm. The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple.University of Cambridge Press, 1994.

Edbury, Peter. Crusades Texts in Translation: The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade. Ashgate, 1998.

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

Robinson, John J.. Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades. Michael O'Mara Books, 1994.

Cyprus is the setting of Dr. Schrader's most recent release: The Emperor Strikes Back

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 current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick andthe barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at: