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Monday, February 13, 2023

Defense of the Realm : Strategic Overview

With the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy to dismiss the crusader states as inherently ‘indefensible’. Yet, in the nearly 200 years of their existence, the crusader states were more often on the offensive than the defense. Even the most catastrophic defeats — Hattin and La Forbie — were not militarily inevitable. The demise of the crusader states had complex geopolitical causes, while the Latin East’s military institutions were more remarkable for their effectiveness than the reverse. What follows is a strategic overview only.


Very early on, the Franks developed and employed a remarkably simple but effective strategy to counter the ‘jihadist’ and numerical superiority of the forces arrayed against them. This strategy was built on three components: (1) static defences capable of withstanding assault and siege, (2) mobile forces capable of relieving and attacking, and (3) naval forces capable of breaking blockades and resupplying by sea. In practice, the civilian population took refuge behind the walls of the nearest defensible structure — whether city or castle, where a citizen garrison (in cities) or professional garrison (in castles) fended off assaults until the feudal field army could lift the siege.   In coastal cities, command of the sea offered an additional line of defence: relief by sea from the West.

The destruction of the field army at the Battle of Hattin made resistance in the castles and cities hopeless. Most garrisons opted to surrender on terms rather than face slaughter and slavery. Those cities that chose defiance, with the exception of Jerusalem itself, were coastal cities that could hope for relief by sea. Without this naval support, Tyre and Tripoli would also have fallen to Saladin in 1187-1188. Finally, once the coast of the Levant was lost, it was the absence of a fortified city to act as a bridgehead for new conquests that discouraged new crusades. Critical to an understanding of this defensive strategy is remembering that borders were meaningless. The Franks never attempted to defend specific territorial borders. Instead, the strategy focused on defending the population and, with it, the ability to re-establish control over the economic resources from which they thrived once the enemy had been defeated. 

In the next two weeks I will look at the components of this strategy separately, namely at static and mobile defence. With regards to naval warfare, however, despite the critical importance of sea power to the survival of the crusader states, there has not to date been a naval history of the crusades.

This is astonishing when one considers that reinforcements and supplies brought by sea were instrumental in enabling the crusaders to take Antioch in 1098 and that all the early conquests along the coast of the Levant were won with massive naval support. It was the timely arrival of the Sicilian fleet that saved Tripoli from Saladin in 1188, and without maritime supremacy, it would have been impossible for Tyre to survive between 1187 and 1191. It was the arrival of the French and English fleets that doomed Saladin’s hold on Acre at the start of the Third Crusade. Throughout the thirteenth century, control of the Eastern Mediterranean was vital to trade with Europe and was the economic lifeline of the crusader states. In short, the crusader states would not have been sustainable without maritime power. 

Yet, Frankish kingdoms did not maintain naval forces. Instead, control of the sea lanes, so critical to their prosperity and survival, was delegated to the Italian maritime powers. Above all, the fleets of Venice, Genoa and Pisa contained Saracen naval forces and protected Western shipping. These bitter rivals collectively maintained maritime supremacy in the Eastern Mediterranean throughout the crusading era while occasionally engaging in bitter naval battles among themselves. After the fall of Acre, the Knights Hospitaller transformed itself into a naval organization and continued the war with the Saracens at sea as the Knights of Rhodes and then of Malta. It was not until the rise of the Ottomans in the sixteenth century that Western dominance of the Mediterranean broke down. A detailed history of this maritime chapter in history is sorely missed.



The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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