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

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Indecisive Victory - The Battle of Nicosia

 In 1229, the rapaciousness of the Emperor’s baillies provoked a response they apparently had not anticipated. In less than three months, they were facing not resistance or insurgency but a full-scale challenge to their authority in the shape of an invasion. Whereas, with their mercenaries, they had held a monopoly on force of arms up to this point, in early July 1229 they were confronted by an army led by two barons with hundreds of knights.


In the most comprehensive modern history of the Kingdom of Cyprus, Prof. Peter Edbury writes that “spurred on by the news of the sequestration of their fiefs and plight of their womenfolk,”[i] a force of men raised by the Lord of Beirut set sail from Acre and landed at the Templar fort of Gastria to the north of Famagusta. The size of that force is unrecorded, but it must have included several hundred knights. The Five Ballies Frederich II had left in control of Cyprus (See: The Emperor’s Men) controlled not only the feudal resources of the Kingdom of Cyprus, of which they were the effective regents, they had also been supplied with a large force of mercenaries by Emperor Frederick. Although the exact size of this force is likewise unrecorded, all sources agree that it heavily outnumbered the men brought to Cyprus by the Lord of Beirut and his brother-in-law the Lord of Caesarea.

The Ibelins chose to land at a Templar port, possibly in the hope of landing unopposed. The Templars were at this point bitter enemies of Emperor Frederick, who had tried to seize from them their castle at Athlit and then laid siege to their headquarters at Acre. While the Templars had effectively repelled both of these attacks, the Emperor had the last laugh by confiscating their properties across the Holy Roman Empire and in his Kingdom of Sicily as soon as he arrived back in the West. Meanwhile, however, the Templars chose to remain scrupulously neutral in the secular conflict on Cyprus.

According to Novare, “the five baillies strongly resisted the capture of the port; nonetheless, it was taken by force.”[ii] Given the fact that the return of the Ibelins was hardly expected, it seems unlikely that all five baillies got down to Gastria to defend the port. More probable is simply that they had mercenaries stationed at all the ports of the kingdom, and these forces, representing the five baillies put up a fight but were overwhelmed.

The Imperial forces (whoever they were) withdrew from the coast all the way to the capital of the kingdom, Nicosia, and King Henry was sent under guard to the most luxurious yet still unassailable mountain fortresses of St. Hilarion. Meanwhile, the Lord of Beirut advanced “warily” toward Nicosia, sending “friendly words to the king and even the five baillies, saying that they came from the service to God, that they desired to return to their homes and their fiefs, and that they were prepared both to do right and to exact their rights.”[iii] The baillies, according to Novare, “never deigned to answer.”[iv] 

Instead, they called up the feudal army including the commons. This included all the tenants-in-chief of the king, their rear-vassals and knights, the turcopoles or light cavalry supplied by the local elites, and the foot-soldiers and archers of the commons. They also pulled together the mercenaries left behind by Frederick II, who Novare identifies as German, Flemish, and Langobard (south Italian), in short forces from the Holy Roman Empire. They were presumably cross-bowmen for the most part, as that was the preferred weapon of mercenaries in this era. They may also have engaged local mercenaries. Their total force would have numbered in the thousands, with several hundred knights.

When the Ibelin force approached Nicosia, the five baillies took their army and marched out to meet them on the outskirts of the city. Despite efforts by the clergy to broker a reconciliation between the parties, there was really no readiness for compromise nor interest in peace by the point. The baillies had taken oaths to prevent the Ibelins from returning and knew that the Emperor would not look favorably upon them if they failed to expel Beirut. Since they held their positions at the Emperor’s pleasure, they really had no choice but to attempt to defeat Beirut so soundly that he never dare return.

Indeed, the sources claim that the baillies took the precaution of detailing 25 of their best knights with the task of killing Beirut. This was hardly chivalrous, to say the least, but the reasoning was undoubtedly that the elimination of Beirut would end their troubles. Whether they also tasked knights to kill his brother-in-law the former Constable of Cyprus is not recorded, but in light of the outcome, this is not impossible.

It was Saturday, July 14, 1229. The two armies drew up across a plowed field. “The captains of the squadrons surveyed each other and reconnoitered on the one hand and on the other; each placed himself opposite to him whom he most hated…”[v] When the sides clashed, it was (as in all civil wars) with a fury and passion unknown between strangers. Soon the dust of the field had been churned up by the hundreds of hooves and was blown about by a strong west wind. Vision was severely impaired. 

Beirut soon found himself cut off from his sons and squires. He was confronted by an attacker without a visor and with a sword-thrust to his mouth cut his head in two, but the collision of the horses forced his own horse into a ditch. Unhorsed, he found himself surrounded by some fifteen enemy knights and none of his own. Fortunately, he had an unnamed number of loyal “sergeants” with him. They took refuge together in the called enclosure of a church and here defended themselves against the attempts of the fifteen imperial knights to break in and slay them. His situation was apparently desperate, when Sir Anseau de Brie, a loyal supporter of the Ibelins, rode to the rescue, taking on all fifteen knights so vigorously that he broke his lance, his sword, and even his dagger. Novare records that “he received so many blows that he could hardly use his hands.”[vi] 

Meanwhile, the Lord of Beirut's’ eldest son and heir, a young man only about 22-years-old at this time, had succeeded in setting a portion of the enemy army under Sir Hugh de Gibelet to flight.  Having chased them off the field, he turned back and re-entered the fray with his still large and intact contingent of knights. This charge appears to have been decisive. Novara describes it like this:

“…as soon as his enemies saw and recognized his standards they were afraid and fled towards the city of Nicosia. Sir Balian, who came in advance of all the others, encountered them most eagerly and struck their standard bearer so hard that he himself fell to the ground, he and his horse falling together; there were many taken and killed, but many escaped due to the fall of Sir Balian.”[vii]

When the dust finally cleared, a bloody field revealed an exceptionally large number of human and equine corpses. The dead included two prominent noblemen: Walter, Lord of Caesarea and former Constable of Cyprus, and Sir Gerard de Montaigu, who had the distinction of being the nephew of both the Master of both the Temple and the Hospital, as well as a nephew of the Archbishop of Nicosia. It was not recorded how Caesarea died, but Montaigu was pinned beneath his horse and evidently crushed. 

The dead did not include any of the baillies. All had managed to escape the field. Sir Gauvain de Cheneché took refuge in Kantara, Sir Hugh de Gibelet and the two Amaurys (Barlais and Bethsan) all made it to St. Hilarion where they held the king captive. Sir William Rivet appears to have made it to the port of Kyrenia and from there to have taken ship for Armenia to try to get word to and help from the Emperor. He failed in both as he died in Armenia, possibly of wounds incurred at the battle.

The Ibelins had won a great victory and in so doing had re-established themselves on Cyprus, rewarded their followers with the return of their fiefs, and also rescued the women and children who had been frightened into seeking sanctuary with the Knights of Saint John. But they had by no means won the war. Their first task was to drive the four remaining baillies out of their impregnable fortresses — and free King Henry of Cyprus.

The sieges of St. Hilarion and Kantara will be the subject of a separate entry. Meanwhile, the Battle of Nicosia is a major episode in:

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:

[i] Edbury, Peter. The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades, 1191-1374. Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 60.

[ii] Novare, Philip. The Wars of Frederick II against the Ibelins in Syria and Cyprus. Columbia University Press, 1936, p. 100.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid, p. 102.
[vii] Ibid.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Sack of Jerusalem - Revisited

On July 15, 1099, after a month long siege, the forces of the first crusade successfully broke through the defenses of the Egyptian garrison, crossed over the walls of Jerusalem and entered the Holy City. What followed has gone down in history as an atrocity of biblical proportions.  It is used to this day as a shorthand for all things vile and unjustified, and was cited an excuse for centuries of jihad, including the attacks of 9/11. It is even trotted out as evidence that Christianity itself is not a religion of peace.
Let's look at what happened -- and put it in context.

After two years of marching and fighting across 2,000 miles, only one in five of the men who had set out on a great armed pilgrimage to liberate Jerusalem from Saracen occupation reached Jerusalem. That is, four out of five crusaders had already given their lives through disease, starvation, cold, wounds or in combat. These roughly 10,000 survivors, of whom roughly 1,200 were knights, were insufficient to surround the city and cut it off from reinforcement and supply. In short, a siege which forced the city to surrender on terms, was virtually impossible.

Furthermore, a large Egyptian relief army was already on the way -- and the Egyptian garrison in Jerusalem knew about it. They had, therefore, no incentive to negotiate terms. They were not short of water, food or other supplies. Reinforcements were already on the way. All they had to do was wait two or three months, and then they could help obliterate the pathetic force camped outside the walls.

The only option available to the crusaders was to assault the city and hope to take it before the Egyptian field army fell on them. A first attempt on June 13 failed miserably with high casualties due to lack of ladders and siege engines. By a stroke of luck, shortly afterwards six Genoese and English vessels arrived in Jaffa carrying building materials. These and the ships themselves were used to construct siege engines outside Jerusalem. With great difficulty and in the face of fierce opposition, the siege engines were rolled into position against the walls of Jerusalem on July 14, 1099, but it was not until the following morning that troops under the leadership of Godfrey de Bouillon gained a foothold on the northern wall. His men then fought their way into the city and opened one of the gates from the inside, allowing the rest of the crusaders to flood in.

According to exultant Christian accounts, a massacre followed. The Gesta Francorum speaks, for example, of a slaughter so great that "our men waded in blood up to their ankles." Raymond of Aguilers is even more over the top writing: "men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins."

Yet the very absurdity of such a claim -- a claim ludicrous in its impossibility -- ought to alert even the most gullible reader that the account is not factual. Medieval readers, unlike modern readers, recognized that the image is taken directly from the biblical account of the apocalypse and was not intended to be taken literally. In short, the Christian accounts of the sack of Jerusalem do not even attempt to be factual.

On the one hand, these accounts, mostly written by clerics who had accompanied the crusaders, were written to make their patrons (the crusade's leaders) the heroes of the decisive conflict of their age. They were consciously reinforcing the self-image of men who saw themselves as the soldiers of God delivering victory over the forces of evil. In short, they eulogies of the victors -- a medieval literary form that had little relationship to reality in any context. On the other hand, the Christian accounts of the capture of Jerusalem were also intended to be symbolic. Their purpose was to conjure up images of Armageddon and suggest that the Saracens had met their Armageddon at Jerusalem on July 15, 1099.

In other words, the Christian sources are next to worthless in attempting to discover what really happened in Jerusalem on July 15, 1099. So let's turn to the Muslim sources. The most striking thing about these is that none of these are contemporaneous, or even nearly contemporaneous, with the event. That is, an assault and sack was was allegedly exceptionally, horrifically, unfathomably dreadful, unusual and unprecedented, didn't even rate a mention. There were appeals to the Caliph and other Muslim leaders to assist in reconquering Jerusalem, but these stressed the fact that Jerusalem had changed hands, that it was now controlled by "infidels" and "non-believers." The fact that Jerusalem was lost excited outrage, but not the manner in which it fell. Not a word was wasted on that.

The first Muslim accounts devoted to any kind of comprehensive treatment of the crusades were not written until half a century later and, like their Christian counterparts, are more religious tracts than histories. Nial Christie in his excellent study Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity's Wars in the Middle East 1095-1382, From the Islamic Sources concludes: "...later writers, many of whom were religious scholars, used their works as a means by which to teach moral lessons....[I]t is difficult to tell to what extent facts have been skewed to fit the writer's agenda...." (1)

In consequence, modern scholars of the crusades have looked beyond the chronicles of both the crusaders and their enemies to find other clues to what happened. For example, Jewish records from Alexandria provide proof that Jews from Jerusalem were ransomed. Dead men are not ransomed, so all allegations that the entire Jewish population of Jerusalem was massacred by the crusaders are false. There are also records of ransom negotiations for Muslim prisoners. So ends the legend that "all Muslims" were slaughtered by the crusaders. As for native Christians, these were expelled from Jerusalem before the crusaders even invested the city because the Fatimid garrison feared the native Christians might aid the crusaders. Based on the fragmentary evidence of these other sources, serious crusades scholars nowadays estimate that between 3,000 and 5,000 people (including the Egyptian garrison, i.e. troops) were slaughtered by the crusaders in their initial assault.(2)

The slaughter of three to five thousand people certainly qualifies as a massacre and an atrocity in the twenty-first century. Yet before we let our outrage carry us away, it is useful to put things into perspective. First, the right of a victorious army to put the inhabitants of a city taken by storm "to the sword" is as old as the Iliad -- if not older. Second, this was hardly the first time the Holy City of Jerusalem had been subjected to such a fate. In 614, for example, the Persians captured Jerusalem from the Byzantines after a 21 day siege and then massacred 26,500 men and enslaved 35,000 women and children.  In 1077, the emir Atsiz ibn Uvaq slaughtered "the entire population" of Jerusalem as punishment for an insurrection. Furthermore, in the thirty years before the crusaders' arrival, Jerusalem changed hands violently four times between Seljuks and Fatimids.

Other points of comparison are the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258. This was characterized not only by slaughter and plunder, but by the wanton destruction of priceless cultural monuments and treasures including mosques, palaces, hospitals and no less than thirty-six libraries. The Mongols are said to have turned books into shoes. The number of civilians slaughtered is estimated at 100,000 -- and possibly twice that -- leaving the city shattered and depopulated for generations.

Likewise, the savage sack of Antioch by Baybars provides perspective on the crusader assault on Jerusalem in 1099. In 1268, the Mamluk general ordered the gates of the city closed while his troops slaughtered every living thing inside -- and then he sent a letter bragging about his brutality to the Prince of Antioch, who had not been present. Below an excerpt:

The churches themselves were razed from the face of the earth, every house met with disaster, the dead were piled up on the seashore like islands of corpses…You would have seen your knights prostrate beneath the horses’ hooves…your women sold four at a time and bought for a dinar of your own money… your Muslim enemy trampling on the place where you celebrate mass, cutting the throats of monks, priests and deacons upon the altars…your palace lying unrecognizable…. (3)

The scale of destruction shocked the world, including the Muslim world, and was recognized at the time as the worst massacre in crusading history. It too destroyed the economic prosperity of the city, turning it into a ghost-town for generations to come. To this day it has not recovered its prominence as a cultural, intellectual, political and economic center. 

The slaughter of the garrison and civilians during the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 besmirches the reputation of crusaders, but it was not unprecedented, exceptional or extraordinary either in its scale or violence.

(1) Niall Christie, Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity's Wars in the Middle East, 1095-1382, From the Isalmic Sources [New York: Routledge, 2014] 21.

(2) Thomas F. Madden, The Concise History of the Crusades [New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014] 32. Also Andrew Jotischky, Crusading and the Crusader States [New York: Pearson Longman, 2004] 60.

(3) Baybars letter translated by Francesco Gabrieli in Arab Historians of the Crusades [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957] 311.