Post-classical history

The Defence of Outremer


Survival and Decline: the Frankish Holy Land in the Thirteenth Century

The century after the Treaty of Jaffa in 1192 and Saladin’s death the following year established a wholly new political configuration in the Near East. The twelfth century had been dominated by warring emirs, atabegs, seigneurs and mercenary captains from competing city states in shifting coalitions and alliances that cut across region, race and religion. A hundred years later, the area had become dominated by an empire based on the Nile, incorporating Palestine and Syria, which faced a Mongol successor state of the il-khanate of Persia, which included Iraq, a division of the Fertile Crescent that survived into the sixteenth century.1 To this process, the Christian enclaves on the rim of western Asia were far from passive bystanders.2 The century of renewed Christian occupation of Acre saw the golden age of crusading in terms of the number of significant military expeditions east, as well as the integration of crusading institutions into the lives of the Christian faithful. The so-called second kingdom of Jerusalem lasted longer than the first. Control of the ports of the Syrian and Palestinian littoral allowed the Christian authorities, an often messy and volatile alliance of local nobles, foreign adventurers and competitive Italian businessmen, to exploit international trade routes that found access to the Mediterranean in their territories. Only with the shifting of these trade routes in the wake of the Mongol invasion of the late 1250s, and the consequent economic decline of Syria, did mainland Outremer’s commercial function as well profits decline. This coincided with the emergence of the aggressive Mamluk sultanate of Egypt, which found the Christians of the Levant coast useful whipping boys to establish internal authority and international éclat. Yet this outcome was hardly inevitable.


The structure of Christian Outremer in the thirteenth century differed significantly from that of the twelfth. Jerusalem or, more properly, Acre, constituted the sentimental and commercial heart of mainland Outremer. However, Cyprus became an independent principality (1192) and then a kingdom (1197), while retaining a semi-detached relationship, through family and tenurial ties and the recognition of a common judicial inheritance, the laws, customs and precedents from Jerusalem being accepted in Frankish Cypriot courts. Ruled by a cadet branch of Isabella I’s heirs until the crowns were united in 1269, Cyprus remained heavily engaged with the mainland while asserting its own integrity as a kingdom. The fate of the island did not depend on that of the mainland, or, as it proved, vice versa. Latin rule in Cyprus outlasted Christian Acre by nearly three centuries.3To the north, although Antioch relinquished formal claims of overlordship of Cilician Armenia in 1194, close dynastic and political relations threw the two Christian principalities into a long struggle that only ended in 1219 when the count of Tripoli succeeded in securing his rule in Antioch as Bohemund IV against the Armenian claimant. As has been seen, the opportunity presented by the death of Leo II in 1219 of Armenia being ruled by his son-in-law, John of Brienne, king of Jerusalem, faded when John’s wife, Leo’s daughter Stephanie, and their child died in 1220.4 The Hohenstaufen imperial project briefly offered a prospect of a united Outremer. Cyprus and Armenia had received crowns under the auspices of Henry VI in 1197–8. His son, Frederick II, who married the heiress of Jerusalem in 1225, tried to assert his overlordship in Cyprus in 1228–9. His and later his agents’ failure ensured Outremer’s fissiparous status quo.

One of the most striking features of post-1192 Outremer was the manner in which in legal terms the caesura in ownership in most parts of the restored lands was ignored or sidestepped. Where possible, old lordships or the rights of landowning corporations, such as the church or military orders, were revived. Nobles retained titles even of lands long lost. Many land deeds and charters seemed to have survived the catastrophe of 1187, at least in the archives of ecclesiastical landlords. Lawbooks of the thirteenth century lovingly, if possibly imaginatively, cherished twelfth-century precedents and traditions, not least in fostering the kingdom’s creation myth of Godfrey of Bouillon and his pious knightly companions.5 While modern observers tend to divide the history of the kingdom sharply in 1187, thirteenth-century residents, pullani, preferred to emphasize continuity. In some ways, the rulers at Acre created a virtual kingdom, moving the institutional capital and the headquarters of the great ecclesiastical corporations, such as the military orders and the canons of the Holy Sepulchre, to the new capital while retaining the fiction of a kingdom based around the Holy City. Even when Jerusalem was in Christian hands between 1229 and 1244, the capital remained at Acre.6

The real difference with the pre-1187 kingdom lay in the lack of secure, settled rural territory. The countryside was to an even greater extent than previously a place from which to extract rents and resources rather than to settle immigrants, although there is some evidence of attempts to encourage new settlement after 1191/2. Whether or not any Frankish peasants survived the Ayyubid conquest of 1187–91/2 in situ, some estates, at least near Acre, were recreated as if nothing had happened.7 Further from the Frankish ports and cities such continuities were not possible. Yet the lack of land may not have been a source of disastrous weakness. New settlers in the thirteenth century tended to congregate in the cities, along with internal refugees. An increase in population at Acre was witnessed by the urbanization of the substantial northern suburb of Montmusard, enclosed by walls between 1198 and 1212.8 Acre gave its rulers a source of incalculable benefit. The well-informed, if in this case possibly optimistic, English observer Matthew Paris learnt from Richard of Cornwall after his crusade in 1240–41 that Acre brought in annually £50,000 (sterling), a huge sum comparable with entire royal incomes in western Europe.9 By law, the crown retained a monopoly on profits of international trade. Acre occupied a pivotal position on the lucrative east–west trade routes. In addition with the exchange of foodstuffs with other Levantine markets, eastern spices, metalware, porcelain, glass, sugar, perfume, wine, jewels and slaves were traded with western textiles, base metals, wood and pilgrims. Niche markets included the Christian taste for salt pork and the Near Eastern demand for Tuscan saffron. Acre’s wealth allowed its thirteenth-century rulers to maintain a military establishment numerically similar to that of the territorially much larger pre-1187 kingdom at least into the 1240s.10 It also threw the city of Acre itself into prominence as a forum in which wider political issues were rehearsed and disputed. In 1231, a group of barons, knights and burgesses established a sworn Commune at Acre that lasted for more than a decade, its members claiming, wishfully and partisanly, to represent the community of the whole realm.11

Acre’s wealth reflected in its political clout was also on display in its architecture and the new building to accommodate the needs of a capital. This opulence, mirrored in descriptions of the lavish marbled halls of John of Ibelin’s palace at Beirut, adorned by mosaics and elaborate fountains, built between 1197 and 1212, underpinned the survival of the Christian enclaves.12 As part of a wider commercial system involving the Muslim hinterland and trade routes that reached from far Asia to the Atlantic, this economic prosperity reflected and guaranteed generally pacific relations with the Franks’ neighbours until the irruption of the Mongols in the Near East from the 1250s diverted caravans northwards and southwards, away from the Syrian ports. Thereafter, the economic and financial decline mirrored an increasingly bleak outlook for Christian Outremer. This was not lost on alert contemporaries. In the early fourteenth century, the Venetian writer, merchant, diplomat and crusade propagandist Marino Sanudo Torsello (c.1270–c.1343), who visited Acre in the 1280s, insisted that a successful Christian counter-attack to recover the kingdom of Jerusalem had to be preceded by an economic war against Egypt.13 Trade gave power.

The dependence of the kingdom of Acre-Jerusalem from 1192 on the contrasting supports of defence and commerce propelled into prominence the military orders and the Italian communes, each bent on pursuing their sectional and corporate interests. Increasingly, the few inland and coastal fortresses that remained or came into Christian hands were assigned to the military orders. They had the international resources from their estates in the west to build and maintain them and a constant if modest supply of men to command the garrisons. Even small fortified sites gravitated to the orders.14 The orders’ headquarters were among the most impressive and best-fortified buildings in Acre, as their central role in the defence in May 1291 showed. Of the representatives from the Italian communes, initially Venice was dominant in Tyre and Genoa and Pisa in Acre, until from the 1260s Venice asserted its power in Acre too.15 The Italians provided both the merchant marine, carrying pilgrims as well as goods, and the navy for the kingdom of Jerusalem. Their trading stations attracted significant home investment. Their local commercial and legal privileges, most of which dated back to the twelfth century, posed awkward problems of politics, customs tax, finance and justice for the local authorities. Yet without their presence and support, Acre, Tyre and the rest would have become untenable. In the absence of strong central government, these powerful military and commercial corporations became the arbiters of state affairs.

Whatever the lurid propaganda circulated in the west, thirteenthcentury mainland Outremer did not experience the perpetual threat of annihilation. An account of the rebuilding of the fortress of Saphet in northern Galilee in 1240 leaves a flavour of the delicate mix of competition, aggression, accommodation and frailty on both sides of the Christian – Muslim frontier. A Christian fortress before its capture by Saladin in 1188, Saphet was returned under the treaty agreed between the visiting crusader Theobald IV of Champagne and the Sultan of Damascus. During the truce, Benedict d’Alignan bishop of Marseilles (1229–67) visited the shrine of St Mary at Saidnaya, an unusual Greek Orthodox pilgrim site north of Damascus venerated by Muslims as well as Latin Christians. The Templars displayed particular interest in the cult. While in Damascus, where he received very civil treatment, the bishop was asked by locals whether the Christians were intending to rebuild Saphet, which, they insisted, would threaten their city’s security. On his return journey to Acre, Bishop Benedict conducted a careful survey of Saphet and its surroundings, unimpeded even though he was in part scouting lands still under Muslim control. He learnt that with a rebuilt Saphet would come control of the whole district. At Acre he bullied a reluctant Master of the Temple to organize the reconstruction of the castle, even though the promise by Count Theobald’s now departed crusaders to pay for it came to nothing. In December 1240, the teams of builders, which included Muslim slaves, began the work, the bishop laying the foundation stone after a suitably exhortatory sermon. More immediately useful, perhaps, he also left a ‘silver gilt jar of money to support subsequent work’.16 The cost of rebuilding Saphet was enormous, 1,100,000 bezants over two and a half years. The garrison’s daily complement included mercenaries and as many (fifty) Turcopoles, probably local Christians, and Templar Knights. The reliance on slave labour, local levies and mercenaries indicates how the shrunken Frankish elite had become adept at manipulating the widest social resources from its subject communities. When Bishop Benedict revisited the site twenty years later, still in Christian hands the castle presented an impressive picture of strength and power; through it the Templars wielded control of the rich surrounding area and its resources, apparently up to 260 villages. Six years later it fell to the Egyptians.

This story reveals contact, exploitation and understanding by each side of the other’s interests and opportunities, as well as of the narrow terrain in contention. Residents of Outremer remained dependent and closely linked to their neighbours and opponents. Occasionally, fraternization turned sour. The assassin who attacked Edward of England during his stay at Acre in 1271–2 was a recent local convert from Islam retained by Edward as a spy.17 While Edward, not being a pullanus, needed an interpreter, many locals were more linguistically adept. The knowledge of Arabic by some Outremer nobles proved useful during the crusade on the Nile in 1250.18 The author of the fullest eyewitness account of the last days of Christian Acre, known misleadingly as ‘The Templar of Tyre’ (in fact probably a Cypriot by birth and certainly not a Templar) read and spoke Arabic, being closely involved in the network of espionage run by the Master of the Temple, William of Beaujeu (1273–91) linking the Frankish ports of Syria to the Mamluk court in Egypt.19


By then, of course, prospects for the Franks were grim. Yet this had not always been the case. Neighbouring Muslim rulers were repeatedly willing to enter into agreements to avoid conflict, some of them including the return of territory lost in 1187. Truces with Jerusalem-Acre covered seventy of the ninety-nine years between Richard I’s Treaty of Jaffa in 1192 and the final loss of Acre in 1291. The later Ayyubids seemed to accept the Christian enclaves, their extinction desirable but not a determining political necessity. Only with the advent of the new rulers of Egypt, the Mamluks, in 1250 did a harder Muslim ideology emphasizing the commitment to jihad return to the rhetoric and politics of Outremer’s enemies.20 In thirteenth-century Syria, the aggressive, more militant Mamluks overrode the undemanding convivencia of the later Ayyubids in a manner reminiscent of, but more successful than, the Moroccan fundamentalist Almoravids and Almohads in Spain challenging Christian power by displacing the accommodating indigenous Muslim rulers of al-Andalus.

Western awareness of events in the Holy Land existed on many levels. Innocent III had requested information from the patriarch of Jerusalem before the Fourth Crusade.21 In the century that followed, newsletters and diplomatic correspondence were circulated to courts and through the networks of the preaching mendicants and monastic orders. Such material found its way into the works of chroniclers such as Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris in the English abbey of St Alban’s. Matthew Paris also tapped returning crusaders and passing travellers for his information.22Personal appeals for aid, for example from the bishop of Beirut in 1245, provided a focus for renewed commitment.23 Gregory X, in planning a new crusade in the 1270s, asked for memoranda on the whole range of crusade issues including the state of the Holy Land and the ways it could be defended.24 Beyond this elite circulation, repeated preaching disseminated news of the successive crises to a wider audience primed by the new crusading liturgies and the embrace of crusade taxation. The engagement of alert and critical public opinion was confirmed by the French popular movement known as the Shepherds’ Crusade of 1251.25

The image of Outremer presented in the west was largely one of challenge, crisis and threat. The reality in the Holy Land was somewhat different. Exploiting Ayyubid divisions, through a mixture of local action, alert diplomacy, superior sea-power and western military assistance, by the early 1240s the Franks had re-established control of sorts over the coastal plain from Tortosa to Ascalon; Jerusalem and Bethlehem had been restored by treaty in 1229. After further agreements in 1240 and 1241, while Samaria, Hebron and Transjordan remained in Muslim hands, the coastal plain and Galilee were reabsorbed and a number of key inland fortresses reoccupied, such as Saphet and Beaufort, or refortified, such as Crac des Chevaliers.26 In the north Antioch remained apparently secure within a rump of a principality based on the lower Orontes valley, since 1219 united dynastically, if separate geographically, with Tripoli.

One key to the Frankish revival had been a deliberate policy of tactical rebuilding of castles and the refortification of important coastal sites. This became a particular role for visiting crusades: in 1217–18 at Athlit and Caesarea; Caesarea, Sidon and Jaffa in 1227–9; Ascalon in 1240–41; Caesarea in 1250–54; Acre in 1271–2. Even the rebuilding of Saphet in 1240 was stimulated by western visitors and an unfulfilled promise of crusader money. Control of territory meant ownership of strongholds and lordship, not physical occupation and settlement of the countryside. In this respect, even more than in the twelfth century, the Franks were falling into line with successive Muslim overlords in Syria at least from the Seljuks onwards. This strategy only unravelled in the face of Sultan Baibars’s systematic destruction of Frankish strongholds in the 1260s. Before this, parts of the coastal plain, western and northern Galilee and many castles in the interior remained in Christian hands.27

The collapse of the Ayyubid sultanate in Egypt in 1250, the eradication of the Ayyubids of Syria by the Mongols in 1260 and their subsequent defeat by the Mamluks and withdrawal from the region presented the Franks with a more tenacious and aggressive threat. The Mongol challenge to Mamluk control of Syria persisted for the next four decades, punctuated by border warfare and occasional invasions.28 The eradication of any potential allies of the Mongols became a Mamluk priority as it had not been for the Ayyubids. The Franks were thrown on to constant defence, the truces with the Mamluks increasingly desperate and disadvantageous. After the crusade of Louis IX of France (1248–54), western assistance comprised small crusades and the despatch of professional armed contingents. The French were especially wedded to this form of support. Louis IX had left the commander of his bodyguard, Geoffrey of Sergines, as commander of a garrison of 100 knights in 1254. In 1259, Geoffrey rose to become bailli, effectively regent. On his death in 1269, the French regiment was led by Oliver of Termes, the former Cathar sympathizer and veteran of Louis’s first crusade.29 It was later estimated that between 1254 and 1270 the French crown had spent an average of 4,000 livres tournois a year on men and subsidies for the Holy Land.30 Others contributed, notably Pope Gregory X, who had learnt of his election as pope when visiting Acre in the winter of 1271–2. One of his first acts was to send a contingent of 500 troops.31 Edward of England left a paid garrison at Acre in 1272; in 1278 he made over the defence of a tower he had built at Acre to an otherwise ephemeral Order of St Edward.32 The funds of the three great international military orders still flowed east, where, at Acre, each still maintained its headquarters. Such cross-Mediterranean assistance, puny as it was, provided a sketch for what could have been effective military and material support. However, no substantial military assistance was forthcoming. The anguished west largely consigned Outremer to its own fate.


The internal politics of the kingdom of Jerusalem in the thirteenth century presents the observer with an almost impenetrably dense pointillist picture of confusion, competition and conflict. The military vulnerability of mainland Outremer was compounded by perennial political and dynastic bickering. While hardly responsible for the collapse of Outremer, the enervating effect of the labyrinthine rivalries scarcely encouraged consistent planning or political direction. Occasionally, as in the late 1220s and 1230s, it prevented full advantage being taken of favourable opportunities to consolidate gains. Not all the dissension was home grown. To customary jealousies within a nobility jostling for preferment in a very small pool of patronage were added the attempted annexation of Jerusalem by Frederick II and the Hohenstaufen as well as the clashing interests of the Italian communities and the three great military orders. The absence of a significant rural dimension to Frankish settlement in the thirteenth century and the insistence in the regular truces of free passage and intercommunal tolerance limited inter-faith tensions in Jerusalem-Acre. However, in Antioch during the succession struggle 1201–19 Frankish supporters of Bohemund IV were pitted against the Frankish and Armenian adherents of his nephew Raymond Roupen, son of Bohemund IV’s elder brother, with the large Greek community in the middle, by turns flattered and bullied for their favour.33

No medieval monarchy could have flourished under the genetic handicaps and physical accidents of the house of Jerusalem. Queen Isabella I, daughter and sole surviving heir of King Amalric, married four times between 1183 and 1197, her last three husbands meeting extravagantly unlikely deaths. Conrad of Montferrat was assassinated walking home after dinner (1192). Henry of Champagne walked backwards out of a high window (1197). Aimery was said to have died of a surfeit of fish, white mullet (1205).34 Perhaps perplexed at the workings of providence, Isabella herself followed soon after, still only thirty-three, before other husbands could be put at risk. Her heir, Maria, was a teenager. Maria’s daughter, Isabella II, succeeded in 1212 as a tiny infant. She, in turn, after marrying Frederick II of Germany in 1225, died in 1228 aged sixteen, only a few days after giving birth to her successor, Conrad II of Jerusalem (IV of Germany). Although Conrad reached manhood (dying in 1254), he never visited his eastern kingdom. Nor did his son Conradin, who nominally succeeded aged two as Conrad III of Jerusalem, and was executed in 1268, aged only sixteen, by Charles of Anjou, his rival for the Sicilian throne.35 It says much for the reverence for the form of law, the respect for the blood of the old house of Jerusalem, or merely the convenient habit of an absentee lord that this extraordinary sequence was accepted, continuing a run of unsurpassed dynastic calamities reaching back to the 1170s. Yet the kingdom endured, supplied by its fleets, protected by the walls of its cities and castles and for more than six decades tolerated by neighbours who saw no easy way either to capture Acre or avoid it as an entrepôt for commerce.

Following the death of Saladin, holding little more than Acre, Jaffa (lost 1197–1204) and a strip of the coastal plain, Henry of Champagne established a pattern that characterized the new kingdom: peaceful diplomacy with Muslim neighbours where possible; dependence for defence on the military orders; alliance with the Italian maritime communes; and a wary acknowledgement that, without a large royal landed fisc, his powers of independent action and patronage and hence authority over his barons were circumscribed. Henry’s main asset was Acre. After Henry’s death in 1197, the succession was passed to Aimery of Lusignan, brother of Guy and since 1194 ruler and, on receiving a crown from Henry VI of Germany in 1197, king of Cyprus.36 To gain the Jerusalem crown he married Henry’s widow, Isabella I. However, he failed to unite the crowns of Cyprus and Jerusalem.37 Although keen for an alliance, the prospect of a dual monarchy may have proved too much for the Jerusalem barons who had offered Aimery the crown. Only in 1269 was Isabella I’s and Henry of Champagne’s great-grandson, Hugh III of Cyprus, accepted as legitimate king of Jerusalem.

Throughout Aimery’s reign the balance between Frankish – or rather Italian – naval power and Muslim land advantage encouraged compromise. The renewed six-year truce of 1204 restored Jaffa and Ramla to the kingdom, as well as confirming Frankish control of Sidon and improving pilgrim access to Nazareth in Galilee, a business convenience for both sides. The deaths in quick succession in 1205 of Aimery and Isabella I proved the wisdom of the diplomatic approach. The heiress, Maria of Montferrat, was under-age and unmarried. The regent of Jerusalem, Maria’s uncle, Isabella’s half-brother, John of Ibelin (1177–1236), so-called ‘Old Lord of Beirut’, son of Balian of Ibelin and Maria Comnena, could plan what to do when the 1204 treaty expired in 1210. His regency signalled the arrival of a baronial dynasty that came to dominate the politics of Cyprus and Jerusalem for the next century.38 The solution to the succession was unexpected. In a revival of twelfth-century tradition, a husband for Maria had been sought in the west, the choice falling on an energetic, dogged but strangely unsuccessful adventurer from a noble house in Champagne, John of Brienne. Armed with French royal approval, a large subsidy and a small army, he married Maria in 1210, becoming king of Jerusalem, a title he retained after his wife’s death in 1212 as regent for their daughter Isabella II.39 A new six-year treaty was agreed with al-Adil in 1211. On the expiry of the truce, the Fifth Crusade of 1217–21 led to the construction of fortifications at Athlit and Caesarea; the further fragmentation of the Ayyubid empire after the death of al-Adil in 1218; the collapse of John of Brienne’s Armenian ambitions; and another truce.40 More ominous, for John of Brienne personally and the kingdom as a whole, the crusade revealed the interest and influence of Frederick II.

The beginning of the Hohenstaufen period in 1225 saw Isabella II married to Frederick II, who became king in her right, immediately depriving John of Brienne of his position. John was left without a kingdom (he later went to Greece in search of another one) and the kingdom without a king, as Isabella and her husband stayed in the west 1225–8. By the time Frederick finally arrived to claim his realm in 1228–9, Isabella was dead and he no longer king. As discussed in the next chapter, his rights as king were challenged at every step by elements of both church and state. Thereafter Frederick attempted to assert by proxy power as regent for his infant son Conrad IV/II. This provoked an extended and bitter civil war, known as the War of the Lombards (1228–43), largely conducted between Frederick’s representative, Richard Filangieri, and local barons led by John of Ibelin, the former regent, and, after his death in 1236, by his son Barisan, and then, from 1239, Philip of Montfort, lord of Toron and Tyre, a nephew of John and relative of the Albigensian crusader Simon of Montfort. The war involved Cyprus, where Frederick claimed overlordship, as well as the mainland.41 Filangieri, even when recognized as Frederick’s legal representative, was denied authority under the cloak of traditional Jerusalem law. Filangieri was based at Tyre and supported by the Teutonic Knights, Hospitallers, Bohemund V, the new prince of Tripoli-Antioch, the Pisans, and a few Cypriot and Jerusalemite enemies of the Ibelins. His only symbolic trump was his control of Frankish Jerusalem. Most of the rest of the mainland and Cypriot nobility, Acre, the Templars and the Genoese were behind the Ibelins, whose family lands included Beirut, Caesarea and Arsur. In 1231, a commune was established based on the church of St Andrew at Acre to give some corporate cohesion to opposition to Filangieri beyond the legalisms of the High Court; John of Ibelin was its mayor in 1232.42

In May 1232, the imperialists defeated the Ibelins at Casal Imbert but, taking the fight to Cyprus, Filangieri was badly beaten at Agridi the following month; within a year, his supporters had been driven out of Cyprus altogether. The conflict spluttered on acrimoniously until 1242.43 The year before, Simon of Montfort, younger son of the Albigensian crusader, earl of Leicester, and later famous as the leader of the baronial rebellion against Henry III of England in 1258–65, had been offered the post of bailli of Acre by the barons and commune. Married to the sister-in-law of Frederick II, brother-in-law to the king of England and, through his cousin, Philip of Montfort, related to the Ibelins, Simon looked an ideal candidate to reconcile the warring parties. But nothing came of it.44 The Lombard War ended the following year, when Conrad IV/II’s majority was declared. Frederick’s claim to the regency was rejected by the High Court in favour of Alice of Cyprus, wife of Hugh I and daughter of Isabella I and Henry of Champagne. She promptly announced the rejection of any authority wielded by Conrad IV/II or his agents. Tyre was seized by the Ibelins and Filangieri arrested. For the next twenty-five years, Jerusalem was an established regency, rather than monarchy.

The main winner from this disorder was the local baronage, especially the Ibelins, who remained the dominant dynastic affinity in both Jerusalem-Acre and Cyprus. Whatever rights of the crown persisted amidst the incessant round of legal and constitutional wrangling were further undermined by the loss to the royal demesne of Tyre. After its capture by the Ibelins in 1242 it quietly slipped into the firm grip of Philip of Montfort, a leader of the Ibelin faction until his assassination in 1270. At the same time, Philip’s cousin John of Ibelin received the exposed county of Jaffa, again with dubious legality. The regencies of Alice of Cyprus (1242–6) and Henry I of Cyprus (1246–53) were almost as ineffectual as the absent Conrad IV/II. From 1253 to 1258 the regency devolved on to rival members of the dominant Ibelin clan while, for selfish rather than prudent reasons, on the death of Conrad IV/II in 1254, the barons accepted as king his two-year-old son Conradin (Conrad III of Jerusalem). However, during his stay in the Holy Land in 1250–54, Louis IX of France exercised effective authority through a sort of parallel administration based on his royal household, military establishment and money. The appointment of Geoffrey of Sergines, commander of the regiment Louis left behind, as marshal, seneschal and, after 1259, lieutenant of the kingdom, finally regent (1261–3, 1264–7), exposed the serial inadequacy and failure of the indigenous politicians.45


By no means did the Jerusalem baronage hold a monopoly on power or selfishness. From 1256, Genoa and Venice conducted a vicious war, known as the War of St Sabas, that sucked in the Holy Land nobility. The balance of power between the Italian communities had shifted since 1200. In the twelfth century the most committed Italian city had been Pisa, but from the early thirteenth century the Venetians’ interest had grown steadily both in and beyond their headquarters at Tyre.46 By the 1250s, the Genoese, long commercial rivals of Venice, were challenging for dominance throughout the eastern Mediterranean from the Black Sea to Egypt. Violence over disputed property in Acre within a year developed into full-scale war involving and dividing the whole political elite. Venice received the support of the Pisans, the Templars, the Teutonic Knights, most of the Ibelins and the Provençals, while the Genoese could depend on the Hospitallers, the increasingly important Catalan merchant community and two leading Ibelins, John of Arsuf and Philip of Montfort, who took the opportunity to try to expel the Venetians from Tyre. The Genoese Embriaco family, who ruled Jubail, rebelled against their overlord Bohemund VI of Tripoli-Antioch, who was trying to force his vassals to support the Venetians, causing a civil war that guttered until 1282. The War of St Sabas lasted intensely until 1258, then sporadically until almost the end of the kingdom, the Italian rivalry played out on the seas and in the ports of the Levant, spreading in the 1260s to the restored Byzantine empire. A peace of sorts between Venice and Genoa was brokered by Louis IX in 1270, but the Venetians returned to Tyre only in 1277 and a treaty between Genoa and Pisa waited until 1288. The waste of resources, the weakening of Acre as a market and commercial centre, the damage to the cities fought over and the consequent impossibility of planning a united western crusade armada further undermined the chances of the kingdom’s survival.

To add legal absurdity to political tragedy, in 1258 the Jerusalem baronage was persuaded to recognize a child, Hugh II of Cyprus, as regent for the absent child king Conradin/Conrad III. The remaining authority was exercised by Hugh’s mother, Queen Plaisance (d. 1261). The arrangement reflected less constitutional propriety than an elaborate tussle for power involving the Cypriot and Antiochene interest (Plaisance was the daughter of Bohemund V of Antioch as well as the widow of Henry I of Cyprus) and two competing Ibelins, John of Arsuf and his cousin John of Jaffa, whose mistress Plaisance shortly became.47 During the 1260s, the complexities of legal and actual authority spun even further from clarity while Sultan Baibars began his systematic destruction of the kingdom. As a sign of the kingdom’s disintegration, individual lords made their own truces with their hostile neighbours: John of Jaffa with the sultan of Damascus in 1255 and 1256, and with Baibars of Egypt in 1261; Philip of Montfort for Tyre in 1266 and 1267; and Isabella of Ibelin, heiress of Beirut, with Baibars in 1269. This had happened before – famously as early as Raymond III of Tripoli’s treaty with Saladin in 1186–7 – but it began a trend that only ended with the kingdom itself in 1291.48

The experience of Isabella lady of Beirut showed how far the kingdom had sunk into disarray and become in practical terms a Mamluk dependency. Inheriting Beirut in 1264 from her father, who had also engineered an agreement with Baibars, Isabella had been betrothed to Hugh II of Cyprus when he died in 1267. After securing her own truce with Baibars, in 1271–2, Isabella, after an affair with Julian of Sidon, married Hamo L’Estrange, a wealthy lord from the Welsh Marches. When he died a few years later, to prevent Isabella, clearly a lady of independence, having to accept a new husband chosen for her by King Hugh I, Hamo committed his widow to the protection of Baibars. Extraordinarily, supported of all people by the Templars, Baibars’s protection was upheld in the Jerusalem High Court against King Hugh’s claim of lordship. To ensure compliance with her freedom, Isabella installed a Mamluk guard in Beirut. On Baibars’s death in 1277, Isabella sought and found the protection of two further husbands before her own death in 1282.49

Yet while this bizarre and sordid pantomime of self-interest and desperation whirled towards oblivion, one of its major players, John of Jaffa (c.1216–66), was putting the finishing touches to his great codification of the laws of the kingdom of Jerusalem, Le Livre des Assises (completed between 1264 and 1266).50 This gave no hint of the chaos and weakness around him. Son of John, ‘the Old Lord Beirut’ (d. 1236), John, since 1246 count of Jaffa, cut a grand figure in Frankish Outremer. Joinville was deeply impressed by his large war galley at Damietta, propelled by 300 oarsmen and decorated all over with his heraldic device. In the French crusader’s account of Louis IX’s stay in the Holy Land, John was portrayed as a man of practical but notable piety, of energy and generosity to his followers, whose advice was sought and heeded.51 His Livre des Assises, part original, part a compilation from older materials, purports to describe a legal system of harmony, clarity and efficiency. The taste for legal theory and practice appeared strong in certain quarters of Outremer. John’s great work followed the precedents of the Livre au Roi (c.1200), the early thirteenth-century Assises d’Antioche and the more nearly contemporary Acre Livre des Assises de la cour des Bourgeois, the work of Geoffrey Le Tor, and Philip of Novara’s Livre de forme de plaint (1250–c.1260). The interest in compiling lawbooks was one shared across Latin Christendom in the thirteenth century. Law was not yet everywhere the preserve of professional lawyers (as it had precociously become in England); intellectual nobles who spent their time pleading their rights or sitting as judges unsurprisingly developed an interest in legal codification, if only as an outlet for academic enthusiasm otherwise denied. Most aristocratic laymen had no access to the higher education of the new universities, especially in Outremer, where there were none. Just as tales of chivalry acted as a form of escapism for those conducting unpleasant real warfare, so John’s evocation of a perfect legal system that had descended and developed intact and unimpaired from the legendary foundation of the kingdom stood in similar distorted relation with the actual world in which he wrote and defended his fief on the fraying edge of Christendom. Although most if not all medieval (and modern) law codes express ideals as much as current or even past reality, John’s lawbook was not a work of romance, even if in tone one of some fiction. It dealt with hard law and difficult cases, with principles and precedents. As with that other great legal text of the period, once known as Bracton’s Laws of England, the construction of a lawbook creates law. John’s was still in active use in Cyprus as late as the 1530s.52

The career of John of Jaffa reveals another side to Outremer. His father had built the cool, shaded halls of his grand palace in Beirut. An associate, Philip of Novara, was a chronicler as well as legist. Acre housed an exceptional set of ateliers from which luxury illuminated manuscripts were produced, which bear witness to a distinctive artistic style, synthetical but not derivative of local, Greek and western forms.53 The great buildings of Acre or the massive fortifications of castles and city walls compare with the most impressive in Christendom.54 The particularly intense local eremitic spiritual tradition gave rise to a new religious order, the Carmelites, which soon established itself in the west in a rare example of reverse colonization.55 Frankish Syria was not a society creeping in material and aesthetic penury to a predestined annihilation. Yet, as the political turmoil continued, and the territorial base withered, the finances upon which the culture of Outremer rested began to evaporate. John of Jaffa had been able to reward his knights lavishly from preying on caravans crossing between Egypt and Syria, carrying, for instance, luxury textiles.56 Yet Jaffa fell to Baibars in 1268, just two years after John’s death. With the loss of such bases, profits and income dried. Yet even before this, John himself had been in debt. Increasingly, lay lords were forced to sell out to the military orders for reason of finance not protection. No amount of shuffling of the rapidly diminishing property could mitigate the damage of chronic political dysfunction.

A semblance of constitutional if not political order was restored with the acceptance of Hugh of Antioch-Jerusalem, since 1267 Hugh III of Cyprus, as regent for Conradin/Conrad III in 1268 and his ascent to the throne of Jerusalem as Hugh I the following year after Conradin’s execution in Italy, the first monarch resident in the east since 1225. From his base in Cyprus, Hugh could do little to direct affairs on the mainland. Brief help came with the crusade of Edward of England, the truce of 1272 and the death of Baibars in 1277. Yet, as the case of Isabella of Beirut’s marriage showed, Hugh’s authority was circumscribed, contingent on barons whose jealous guarding of what they perceived as their rights outweighed any sense of impending disaster. Some may have believed their own national myths of the providential status of Outremer. Others, more prosaically, could not imagine the annihilation of their patria. It is misleading to view the last years of Frankish Syria solely through the lens of hindsight or from the perspective of western Europe. The Ibelin family may stand for many. They were probably descended from an Italian immigrant, perhaps from Sardinia or Pisa, who became castellan of Jaffa in the second decade of the twelfth century. Perhaps because of their relatively humble place in the Jerusalem aristocracy, in the twelfth century the Ibelins married within the kingdom, rather than seeking spouses from the west. The family waxed rich and grand in the years around and after 1200, not least by their association and marriage with members of the royal family such as Maria Comnena, although they rarely, even in the thirteenth century, married directly into the royal house of Cyprus or Jerusalem. Men such as John of Jaffa were not colonists, even if they saw themselves as manning an outer bastion of Christendom. They were indigenous Jerusalemites and Cypriots, part of Latin Christendom but as autonomous in law, custom, tradition, history and expectation as any other. From the early twelfth to the late fourteenth centuries, when the male line in Cyprus died out, for the Ibelins Outremer was home, the only one they knew.57 Lacking the hawk-like vision of western observers or modern historians, their political in-fighting may not have seemed myopic, merely business as usual.

This tendency of the Jerusalem baronage to compete and disagree was tested once more before the end. The political mess had thickened still further in 1277, when Maria of Antioch, a granddaughter of Isabella I who had contested the succession in 1268, sold her rights in Jerusalem to Charles of Anjou, brother of Louis IX of France, papal champion in the Italian war against the Hohenstaufen, executioner of Conradin/Conrad III and acquisitive new king of Naples and Sicily. While the Mamluks battered their gates, the Franks contented themselves with recognizing two kings. Acre, Sidon and the Templars opted for Charles of Anjou and his bailli, Roger of San Severino (1277–82); Tyre and Beirut for Hugh I.58 The schism only ended with Charles’s death in 1285. The following year Acre submitted to the new king of Cyprus (since 1285) and Jerusalem, Henry I, Hugh I’s son. The discord at the centre was matched elsewhere as the rump of mainland Outremer confronted internal divisions as dangerous as external attack. In Tripoli, Bohemund VII only concluded a civil war with the Templars and Guy II Embriaco of Jubail (1277–82) by having Guy’s followers blinded and Guy himself, with his brothers and cousins buried in the moat of the castle at Nephin and left to starve to death. Little wonder the surviving Embriacos sought the suzerainty of the Mamluk sultan.59

Ironically, the apparent unity achieved by Henry I, witnessed by his lavish and misleadingly optimistic coronation at Tyre in 1286, coincided with a new Mamluk offensive that negated all shows of solidarity. The series of piecemeal truces agreed by harassed local rulers, such as a condominium deal arranged for Tyre in 1285, availed little. Since the 1260s, such partitions of land or revenues had failed to assuage the Mamluk appetite for conquest. By now the kingdom was beyond repair. Sultan Kalavun of Egypt’s treaty with Acre in 1283 excluded Tyre and Beirut as if they no longer belonged to the same kingdom.60 One by one the last Frankish strongholds succumbed, including Tripoli in 1289. As will be described in Chapter 24, the final crisis came in May 1291 with the fall of Acre itself to Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil (1290–93) after a grisly six-week siege.61Further resistance evaporated. No great western fleets hovered just over the horizon. There was no relief. By mid-August 1291 Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, Tortosa and Athlit had capitulated or been evacuated. Peter Embriaco of Jubail negotiated submission to the sultan and held his city as a dependency for a few more years. The Templars clung on to the waterless island of Ruad until 1303. A few individual Franks, released captives, freed or abandoned slaves, lingered in Outremer for more than a generation, stranded, impoverished and debased relics of a lost dominion.

Almost half a century later, two old men encountered by a German pilgrim by the Dead Sea turned out to be French Templars captured at Acre in 1291. They had worked for the sultan, married and had children, living in the southern Judean hills, entirely isolated and ignorant of events in the west. They now became minor celebrities. They and their families were shipped back to Europe and received with honour at the papal court at Avignon before retiring on pensions to end their days in peace. What they, their wives, children or new neighbours made of this turn of fortune is unknown. Yet their fate stood as a suitably confusing epitaph for Frankish Outremer: glamour, courage, strain, wishful thinking, strenuous endeavour, the international stage and unmistakable domesticity.62


21. Syria in the Thirteenth Century


22. Palestine and Egypt in the Thirteenth Century

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