Post-classical history


Louis IX and the Fall of Mainland Outremer 1244–91

In the eyes of western Christendom, Louis IX’s crusade of 1248–50 was one of the great events of the thirteenth century. This unsuccessful attempt by a major western European power to conquer Egypt hastened the collapse of Ayyubid rule, triggering the elevation of a military elite of professional Turkish slave warriors, the mamluks, to political power in their place. The defeat of the most professionally organized and carefully funded of all the eastern crusades reduced Christian strategy in the Near East to piecemeal treaties amid increasingly desperate attempts to shore up the rump of the Frankish kingdom in Palestine. Fresh political configurations in the region were recognized by attempts to establish contacts with the advancing Mongols that opened further the west’s window on previously fabulous lands beyond the Caspian Sea. The knowing self-importance of Louis and his crusaders contrasted cruelly with their insignificance in the scheme of Asian affairs. Louis’s attack on Egypt promised a wholesale reversal of generations of Christian failure. Its fate exposed the remains of mainland Outremer to new forces over which the Franks held no influence. Ironically, precisely from the total defeat of such high ambitions flowed the luminous reputation that Louis and his crusade earned in a sorrowful but admiring west.


In 1244, the uneasy and confused Palestinian settlement left by the 1239–41 crusades was rudely swept away. Previously, prospects for the Franks had appeared brighter than at any time since the 1170s.1 In 1243, a new treaty with Damascus promised to entrench Frankish security in Syria. Yet a year later, the Franks were unexpectedly faced by the irruption into Palestine of the Khwarazmians, allies of Sultan al-Salih Ayyub of Egypt. Turkish freebooters originally from the steppes of central Asia, they had been driven west by the Mongol advance in the 1220s. Surviving as a mercenary band in northern Iraq, they had formed an alliance with al-Salih Ayyub when he was ruling the Jazira in the 1230s. In his efforts to control Syria, the sultan called on their assistance with offers of pay and land. In 1244, a large Khwarazmian force launched a destructive raid from Iraq through Syria to Palestine before joining al-Salih Ayyub’s Egyptian army coming up from the Nile. On the way they attacked Jerusalem on 23 August, easily overcoming the feeble defences, killing any Franks they found and desecrating the Christian Holy Places. Christian rule in the Holy City was ended, not to be revived until the ending of Ottoman rule in December 1917 by a British army. The Franks in Acre summoned their full military forces and elicited the help of their allies the rulers of Damascus and Homs. Together they marched south to confront the combined Egyptian-Khwarazmian force near Gaza. On 17 October, the Egyptians and Khwarazmians annihilated the substantial Franco-Syrian Ayyubid army at La Forbie (Harbiya) near Gaza. Although a military disaster for the Franks from which Outremer never entirely recovered, the battle of La Forbie was as much a contest, as one observer put, of ‘Saracen against Saracen’,2 exposing just how peripheral the Franks could appear in the wider regional conflicts. The last thing at stake was religion. The Khwarazmians proved unruly allies and violent employees. After helping al-Salih Ayyub conquer Syria, Damascus falling in 1245, they were dispensable. For some years, the sultan had been building up his personal askar or regiment of trained mamluks, known as the Bahriyya (from their base on the Nile, Bahr al-Nil) or Salihiyya. They provided more efficient military support for the regime. In 1246, the Khwarazmians were destroyed by the Ayyubid emirs of Homs and Aleppo without any Frankish involvement. Meanwhile, most of the Frankish gains of 1240–41 in southern Palestine were lost, Ascalon falling in 1247.3

The disaster in the east threw the survival of the Frankish kingdom into doubt. Pleas for help were despatched to the west. Yet the concerted memory in western Europe attributed the inspiration for a new general relief expedition to a domestic event. In December 1244, Louis IX of France took the cross after surviving a near-fatal illness. It is unclear whether he received the cross for its mystical healing properties, a belief widely held by contemporaries, or as a token of gratitude after hovering between life and death. He may have known of the loss of Jerusalem in August. Pope Innocent IV, in exile at Lyons, had certainly heard of it by the end of December.4 However, the driving motive behind the French king’s commitment lay in Louis’s own personality, piety and ambition. Despite apparently strong initial opposition from his domineering mother, Blanche of Castile, and possibly other members of his entourage, Louis stuck to his decision, repeating his vow when in sounder body if not mind and persuading his brothers and court to follow suit.5

The public support of the royal family revealed how carefully Louis laid his plans. By the mid-1240s, the conquests of 1203–26 within France by Philip II and Louis VIII had not only extended the royal demesne massively but had left much of provincial France in the hands of cadet members of the dynasty, Louis’s brothers Robert in Artois, Charles in Anjou and Alphonse in Poitou and heir to Toulouse. The kingdom became a family firm. The adherence of his brothers to the crusade scheme was a political prerequisite for the policy to work, not just a sign of cosy family harmony. Louis had taken the cross, possibly from the bishop of Paris, the scholarly academic William of Auvergne, without any apparent prior papal authorization. Beside his ecclesiastical role, Bishop William was an unusually dispassionate expert on branches of Arabic philosophy and had become something of an expert on eastern affairs. If the well-informed gossip Matthew Paris can be credited, this may have lent weight to the doubts Paris claimed William expressed about the wisdom of Louis’s decision.6 Yet in the teeth of maternal, episcopal and probably political opposition, Louis pressed ahead in such a determined fashion that it is hard not to subscribe to the idea that his crusade marked a personal and political as well as spiritual rite of passage, an occasion and process of individual emancipation.

The legend of Louis may distort the picture. The near-death experience, the almost miraculous return to health and the assumption of the ‘life-giving’ cross, as the phrase went, may appear too dramatically neat to be credited. Within weeks, Innocent IV was sending out summonses to a new church council, to be held at Lyons, at which the plight of the Holy Land was to be discussed, although the council’s agenda was dominated by the struggle with Frederick II, the eastern crisis being cited alongside possible campaigns to defend Latin Constantinople and resist the Mongols.7Louis’s decision to hazard life, treasure and reputation on an eastern adventure may not have been as spontaneous as admiring or wondering observers suggested. Buoyed by a strong domestic political position won by victories in 1242–4 over disaffected magnates, including the count of Toulouse, as well as over the king of England (in 1242), such a grand gesture might have seemed timely even without the stimulus of grave illness. The crusade provided an excuse and opportunity to tighten and reform royal administration, extend the king’s judicial and fiscal grasp and increase revenues. As a decade earlier, it could serve as a mechanism to consolidate or impose reconciliation of dissident regional and baronial factions. Command of a new eastern expedition placed a convenient distance between Louis and the embattled emperor without his having to take sides against the Hohenstaufen as the pope’s poodle. The whole scheme enhanced Louis’s moral authority, his particular brand of political puritanism signalled by the use of friars as agents in the reform of government and the collection of clerical taxes. With control of the holy business, Louis could fashion more directly and strongly than in any other way a new cult of holy monarchy with the elevation of France itself as a cradle of holy warriors, conscious of its special, divinely inspired mission, itself a holy land. The single-mindedness with which Louis pursued all these ends might indicate that the decision made in his sick room at Pontoise in December 1244 came at the end of a lengthy process of deliberation. As with most crusaders, while in no way diminishing its sincerity, it is too crudely simple to explain Louis IX’s devotion to the cause in terms of piety alone.

Within two months of Louis taking the cross, the pope had issued a crusade bull and preaching had been authorized, led in France by the legate Odo of Chaâ teauroux, cardinal bishop of Tusculum (1244–73), who additionally legitimized regional preachers and collectors of funds.8 As before, preaching combined the practical with the persuasive to create an atmosphere or mood to encourage the faithful to take the cross, purchase vow redemptions or provide the more disengaged assistance of donations and prayers. All of these featured in Cardinal Odo’s sermons. While never far from the church’s rhetorical lexicon, the plight of the Holy Land needed to be placed in a suitably moving emotional and cultural frame to attract the sort of active involvement the king sought. So beside the reminders of the spiritual rewards, the religious duty and the Christian obligation of the cross, in one sermon Odo reminded his audience of those ‘nobles of former times who left the kingdom of France, captured Antioch and the land of Jerusalem’.9 The enticement of nostalgia may have been easier to effect in lay aristocratic circles because of the popularity and circulation of vernacular adventure poems known today as Crusade Cycles, which had transmuted the events of the First and Third Crusades into epics of chivalry. Nostalgia only works if the images being refurbished retain contemporary resonance. However, stimulating a warm glow of religious, cultural and, in the case of Odo’s preaching, French national pride was insufficient. Odo and other preachers had also to spell out how the faithful could contribute, in person, with money or through prayer.

The preaching campaign of 1245–8 did not run entirely smoothly, hampered less by public indifference or hostility than by official contradictions and institutional bickering. Outside France, preaching was organized in the British Isles, Scandinavia, Germany and the Low Countries. Henry III of England, licking his wounds after his defeat by Louis IX in 1242 in Poitou, was suspicious of getting involved in what from the outset appeared to be a French project, prompting him to bar entry to the bishop of Beirut, who had hoped to visit England to drum up support.10 In Languedoc, the French government deliberately associated the Holy Land crusade with the suppression of the rebellion of 1242–4 and the eradication of heresy. Rebels, such as Raymond VII of Toulouse or Oliver of Termes, were induced to take the cross as a symbol and shackle of loyalty to the Capetians, while reformed heretics received sentences that insisted on taking the cross for Palestine, although many chose exile instead.11 Elsewhere, the claims of other papal holy wars were simultaneously being pressed on the faithful. After the Council of Lyons (June–July 1245) deposed Frederick II, a crusade against him began to be preached in large parts of Germany. This led directly to conflicts of interest and effort. In July 1246, Cardinal Odo was instructed by Innocent IV to tell Holy Land preachers in Germany to preach the war against Frederick II. Innocent recognized the sensitivity of this order by commanding Odo to keep the instructions secret.12 This hardly assisted administrative clarity. In Frisia, as in other places, the two preaching campaigns tripped each other up. One preacher began by preaching against Frederick II before being transferred to the Holy Land war. Holy Land recruits in the dioceses of Cambrai, Louvain, Metz, Toul and Verdun were forbidden to swap their vows to fight Frederick, even though the anti-Hohenstaufen crusade was being preached there. Unsurprisingly, this competition for recruits carried over to the raising of vow redemptions, offering unscrupulous operators the chance of illicit profits as control and audit broke down.13 In places, the crusade to defend the Latin Empire of Constantinople was promoted. In Provence, while the Holy Land crusade was being preached with mixed success in neighbouring Languedoc, the Dominicans of Provence were bombarded with papal bulls concerning the crusade against the Greeks.14 Whereas the Holy Land crusade could be preached successfully throughout Christendom, recruitment for other crusading enterprises, in Frankish Greece (or Romania), Germany, Italy or the Baltic, suited geographically more limited, targeted constituencies.

Recruitment away from the French court was regionally vigorous, but in places slow to develop. Louis’s youngest brother Alphonse of Poitiers’ army was only ready in the spring of 1249. Even in northern France, men were still joining up into 1250.15 Holy Land recruitment was concentrated in the kingdom of France, Burgundy, Lorraine and the Low Countries between the Meuse and the Rhine. Small contingents were raised or promised elsewhere, such as England and Norway. However, the evangelizing demonstrated this was a French expedition, as did the way King Louis used it to consolidate and extend his domestic authority. Apart from the king and his brothers, there were loyalists such as the crusade veteran Duke Hugh IV of Burgundy and Count William of Flanders, whose close adherence to the king was secured by Louis’s favouring him in the disputed Flemish succession. Old reprobates such as Peter Maulcerc, the now retired count of Brittany, another veteran of the 1239–40 crusade, were enlisted alongside a range of former or recent rebels including Raymond of Toulouse and Hugh of Lusignan. Recruits came from across the kingdom, from Flanders and Brittany to Poitou, the Bourbonnais and Languedoc. From Brittany it appears that practically all the major landowners participated, a pattern that may have been repeated elsewhere. Although Theobald of Champagne rather pointedly declined to join, the Champenois provided a substantial contingent of perhaps as many as 175 knights in a total of about 1,000 men.16 A significant number of clergy, including bishops, took the cross. There is evidence of members of rural and urban elites, artisans, even some prosperous peasants signing up. Not being necessarily associated with a lord, they seemed to have been mobilized rather more slowly. Others identified local ways to implement commitment. By the spring of 1247, crusaders at Châteaudun, with the approval of the legate, Odo of Châteauroux, had formed a confraternity (confratria) to ease the purchase of war materials, hiring of ships and funding for those who went to ‘fight for the Lord’, as well as a focus for further donations by non-crucesignati. The establishment of such a confraternity served as a reminder of the material costs of the enterprise and the increasingly diverse responses to both the vow and its implementation. To ensure acceptance for this exercise in business sense reminiscent of earlier crusading communal action, members obtained papal approval.17 The motives of other recruits caused some alarm. The crusader’s temporal privileges granting certain legal immunities had always run the risk of attracting those wishing to avoid answering law suits and the downright criminal. In 1246, at Rouen, it was pronounced that crucesignati were not permitted to avoid law suits involving fiefs and pledges. The same year, Louis IX complained to Innocent IV that many crusaders, instead of abstaining from excess as befitted their privileged status, were enthusiastically indulging in theft, murder and rape. The pope ordered bishops not to protect such miscreants, crusade privileges notwithstanding.18

While the social aspects of crusade recruitment were largely out of the king’s hands, the political dimension of the recruiting process was manifest, not just in signing up rebels. In October 1245, Louis gathered a national assembly of barons to receive their agreement and support for the crusade. In the spring of 1248, Louis summoned another baronial gathering in Paris to swear fealty to his children in the event of his not returning from the crusade. One of those summoned was John lord of Joinville-sur-Marne and seneschal of Champagne, whose extraordinary account of Louis’s crusade remains the most detailed and vivid personal description of any crusade.19 Although as a vassal of the count of Champagne John refused to give his oath, the king’s intention in summoning him was plain enough, to extend the network of direct loyalty to the monarch into previously autonomous regions of the kingdom.

This political dimension embraced administrative reform.20 All thirteenth-century western European regimes faced the problem of reconciling what they regarded as effective rule with what their subjects perceived as good government. Rights and liberties cut two ways, especially as writing laws down and recording legal decisions and precedents were increasingly fashionable. In France, as in England at the time, the government was potentially in a double bind. Inefficient or archaic administrative practice denied the king revenues and subjects effective justice. At the same time, suspicion of royal officials was encouraged by the abiding difficulty of arbitration in administrative disagreements. Who could provide impartial justice if the complaints were levelled at the agents of the supreme judicial authority, the crown? Reform of royal administration in the provinces could threaten vested interests and arouse popular suspicion. However, with preparations for the crusade, the practical need to maximize royal revenues combined with the opportunity presented by an almost universally admired public policy to drive change.

Reform operated through two mechanisms. From 1245 the salaried local royal fiscal and administrative agents (baillis in the king’s lands in the north, sénéschaux in the south) began to replaced, often by what one modern scholar has called troubleshooters.21 This reduced the agents’ independence, improved their sensitivity to royal interests and demands, emphasized their accountability and increased revenues reaching the king’s coffers. From some areas of the royal demesne, income rose dramatically, the crusade acting as a convenient and not wholly mendacious justification. Besides the tightening of local administration, in the early months of 1247 Louis appointed investigators (enquêteurs réformateurs) to inquire into complaints against royal officials. Traditionally, departing crusaders sought to settle outstanding grievances of their subjects. By relying heavily on friars to conduct these inquiries, Louis underlined the link between governmental reform and religious mission. They also lent the exercise a possibly spurious but politically necessary gloss of impartiality. These investigations, covering the royal demesne and the lands held by his brothers (known as apanages), contributed to the changes in methods and personel of the baillis and sénéschaux in 1247–9.

With the advantages of such reforms creating a consensus of support for the monarchy came fiscal pickings. It was later calculated that between the Ascension audit of 1247 and that of 1257, Louis’s expenses on the crusade (‘pro passagio ultramarino’ in the accounts) came to 1,537,570 livres tournois 13 sous 5 deniers tournois, perhaps six times the king’s annual revenues.22 The king’s bill for troops alone may have run at 1,000 l.t. a day. Although Louis was largely able to cover this from sources other than his ordinary revenues, the hidden costs of administration and government for and during the crusade needed to be covered and the regency administration adequately funded. The increase in royal revenues and income from the administrative reforms supplied an important part of Louis’s general fundraising. Certain specific measures were clearly related to the expedition. In 1248–9, Jewish moneylenders were expelled from the kingdom, their property confiscated, a hardening of the king’s habitual and notorious anti-Jewish policies and prejudices. More income for vacant church benefices was sought. Most striking of all, ‘gifts’ from towns, sometimes explicitly ‘pro auxilio viae transmarinae’ (‘to help the overseas journey’) were collected on a massive scale. At least eighty-two towns from across northern and central France raised over 70,000 l.t. in 1248, a figure that excluded contributions from Normandy likely to have almost matched this sum. It appears that the total figure of the urban ‘gifts’, including widely levied supplementary grants from towns that had already paid up, may have reached almost 275,000 l.t.23 Louis’s taxation of towns was not unprecedented; royal towns may have helped pay for Louis VII’s crusade. However, the extent and thoroughness mark it out as a symbol of the new authority wielded by the French king in his realm. Although not entirely transparent, the accounting system appeared able to identify crusade income so that Louis could either arrange with his agents how to spend it or could convey the surplus to the Templars, the usual royal bankers, for transmission to the east, where it could stay on deposit or be used to purchase supplies to await the arrival of the king’s army.

The bulk of Louis’s funding, and the largest single resource for other crusaders, was money derived from or through the church. This came in two forms; private sources – vow redemptions, legacies and alms – collected by the clergy; and clerical taxation. The Council of Lyons in 1245 had encouraged crusade legacies, as had Odo of Châteauroux. Vow redemptions now operated as a central accompaniment to the preaching campaign. By 1247, redemptions were systematically being offered and collected by diocesan agents, usually friars.24 In Normandy in 1248, two groups of papal agents quarrelled over the right to collect the crusade redemptions.25 In the same year, Innocent IV expressed concerns lest the conditions for redemption were too lax and the rates accepted too low.26The potential for peculation and fraud was evident. Early in the preaching campaign, a Franciscan in Frisia took advantage of feeble supervision to pass himself off as an authorized collector of redemptions and legacies which in fact went straight into his own pocket.27 Aware the system could degenerate into a vast racket, in 1247 Innocent IV imposed a form of audit. The process of scrutinizing redemptions appeared meticulous. A knight’s redemption, for instance, may have been around 200 l.t., a year’s wages.28However, secular policy actually may have encouraged corners to be cut by preachers, collectors and the descroisieés alike. Louis, in seeking appropriate fighting men and support units, apparently left many behind when he embarked in August 1248. These presumably had little option but to redeem their vows for cash on the best, i.e. cheapest, terms available in order to enjoy the anticipated spiritual privileges.

While it is impossible to calculate how much was raised for Louis’s expedition by redemptions, legacies and alms, of clerical taxation there is little doubt. The Council of Lyons authorized a general clerical tax of a twentieth. The French clergy offered a tenth over five years. The distraction of the anti-Hohenstaufen crusade and the clear identification of the Holy Land venture with the French reduced international contributions, the English and German churches staying largely aloof. However, along the eastern frontiers of France, in Burgundy and Lorraine, the tax was levied, a sign of the growing assimilation of the regions beyond the Rhône and Meuse into French politics and culture. The combined proceeds from the clerical tenth, over five years, may have come to as much as 950,000 l.t.29 As in 1239–41, individual crusade commanders received subventions, notably the king’s brothers. They, and other property owners, also raised funds from their own lands. However, the bulk of crusade funds and clerical taxes probably found their way into the royal coffers. With the increased income for the king’s own demesne, this centralized system of financing the expedition gave Louis unprecedented control over his main followers.

The experience of John of Joinville was typical. Refusing to swear fealty to Louis in 1248, he embarked with his cousin in a ship they hired together at Marseilles with a company of twenty knights. John recorded that despite mortgaging most of his lands, by the time he reached Cyprus in the autumn of 1248, after paying for his passage, he had in hand only 240 l.t., or, at best, about enough for only a couple of knights’ annual expenses. His retinue became mutinous, forcing John to enter the king’s service, in return for which he received an immediate grant of 800 l.t.30 This pattern of debt rescued by royal aid was widespread, involving even substantial lords such as the counts of Flanders and Forez. Alphonse of Poitiers enjoyed substantial clerical grants and income from his vast estates (Auvergne alone contributing 7,500 l.t.). Yet he was forced to seek his brother’s financial help.31 The success of Louis’ financing of the operation found extraordinary testimony in his ability, even in the extremes of defeat, to find over 200,000 l.t. to pay his army’s ransom in 1250 and then still be able to finance his subsequent stay in the Holy Land, even though expenditure there reached over one million l.t. over 1250–53. Only in 1252–3 does it appear the money ran out, which may reflect the difficulties experienced in France after the death of the regent Blanche of Castile.32 Even with his improvement of royal finances and administration, it is hard to imagine that Louis’s solvency could have been achieved without the church’s money, a precedent that possessed wide and controversial future implications for clerical funding of the state.

Translating funds into crusading required similarly strenuous royal organization. The core of the expedition lay in the king’s fleet, based around the ships he hired, sixteen from Genoa and twenty from Marseilles. The contracts drawn up in 1246 specified delivery at Aigues Mortes, an unpromising little port with a small, shallow harbour in an obscure corner of the Rhône Delta.33 Although prone to silting and with an awkward channel to the Mediterranean, Aigues Mortes possessed one advantage. It had recently become part of the royal demesne. This allowed Louis to avoid negotiating with the patriciates of other, more obvious and better-equipped ports, some of which resented the growing royal power in the region. Other convenient ports were controlled by foreign powers, for example Montpellier by the king of Aragon. The ports of Apulia and Sicily were effectively closed by Frederick II’s excommunication. Nonetheless, the choice of Aigues Mortes showed Louis’s determination to preside directly over his crusade. It was not his best decision. Political expedience prevailed over practical efficiency. A new port, with sufficient access by land as well as sea, had to be built from scratch. It speaks for the energy and resolve of Louis’s government that the king was able to gather his army and navy there just three and an half years after deciding to go east.

Other problems concerned the nature and equipment of the fleet. Alongside the hired vessels, both Genoa and Marseilles agreed to supply additional shipping initially at their own expense which would later, once in the Levant, be available for the king’s hire. Some at least of the ships were horse-carriers, tarridae. But the fleet lacked landing craft, which had to be constructed once Louis had reached Cyprus in the winter of 1248–9. Although the contracts of 1246 contained details of each ship’s equipment, royal agents in 1248, as well as gathering food and wine, spent at least 5,926 l.t. on basic naval supplies, including canvas, rope, yard arms and rudders.34 There may also be a possibility that the shippers had driven an excessively hard bargain, knowing that, as at Venice in 1201–2, this was a very strong seller’s market. When returning from the Holy Land in 1254, Louis was told by his Genoese master mariners that his flagship, which had just run aground off Cyprus, was worth 4,000 l.t. when fully loaded with cargo. In 1246, Louis had paid up to 7,000 l.t. for the largest ship.35 However, in general Louis’s alliance with Genoa proved mutually highly beneficial. Crusade business was spread widely through the city. In return Genoese not only crewed ships and supplied significant military assistance in Egypt, but also provided important banking facilities for the king throughout his stay in the east.

The force that sailed with Louis from Aigues Mortes in late August 1248 may have been of comparable size with Richard I’s army when he left Sicily in April 1191, well over 10,000 strong. With Louis and separately went troops not directly in his pay or service. Not all followed the king to Aigues Mortes. The count of Toulouse, who died before he could depart, arranged a contract with shippers at Marseilles, as did John of Joinville and his cousin. Some vessels seem to have come a long way. The count of St Pol, another who died before setting out, apparently if improbably hired a ship from Inverness, while one of the transports for Raymond of Toulouse’s force had to come to Marseilles from the Atlantic coast via the Straits of Gibralter, a delay that kept the count in port for the winter 1248–9.36 Even the best-funded commanders, such as Alphonse of Poitiers, ran out of their own money and found raising an army more time-consuming than originally intended. Alphonse only sailed east in 1249. If the logistics of his followers ran less smoothly than his own, Louis also recognized the limits of what could be prepared in France. By the time he reached Cyprus, the designated muster point, his agents had spent two years stockpiling vast quantities of food. Joinville described the stacked barrels of wine as resembling great wooden barns while the heaps of wheat and barley looked like hills: ‘the rain had made it sprout on the outside so all you could see was green grass’.37 Salt pork, another staple of western military diet consumed in great quantities, was either purchased in Cyprus or shipped with the army from France. By hiring, paying, buying or manufacturing, Louis appeared determined to leave as little as possible to fate or chance.


Crusading was never a matter of logistics alone. The personal and domestic were no less central than the public and material. Joinville, his memory gilded by sixty years’ nostalgia, left a vivid picture of the rituals of a propertied crusader’s departure.38 Joinville’s crusading pedigree was impeccable. His grandfather had died on the Third Crusade. Two uncles had joined the Fourth Crusade, one of them travelling to Palestine, where he was killed. His father, Simon, had fought in the Albigensian wars and in Egypt during the Fifth Crusade. To prepare for his departure in 1248, Joinville raised money through mortgaging most of his lands, possibly to bankers in Metz, and entered into a joint venture with his cousin to hire a ship at Marseilles to carry their combined retinue of twenty knights, which possibly implied a total force of over 100. Complying with the tradition of the crusade providing a context for justice, at Easter 1248, Joinville held an assembly of his fief-holders where, amidst an enthusiastic round of feasting, he settled all outstanding law suits and grievances held against him. The need to put affairs in order found repeated confirmation in the records of disputes that clogged the courts after every crusade, especially, Joinville admitted to his tenants, as it was quite likely the crusader would not return. Such general settlements went some way to ensure the continued integrity of the crusader’s lands. In Joinville’s case, his tenants and relatives at the same time probably recognized his recently born son as his heir. Western Europe was littered with examples of battered or murdered crusaders’ wives and deprived heirs. The jollifications and judgements at Joinville thus shared a common purpose.

After sending his luggage on ahead, Joinville received the scrip and staff of a pilgrim from the Cistercian abbot of Cheminon. So armed, and dressed as a penitent, barefoot, in only a shirt, Joinville toured local shrines to emphasize the religious character of his enterprise and to equip his soul as well as he had his soldiers. He recalled how, as he conducted these pilgrimages, ‘I never once let my eyes turn back towards Joinville, for fear my heart might be filled with longing at the thought of my lovely castle and the two children I had left behind’,39 one of them only a few weeks old. Reunited with his luggage at Auxonne on the Saoêne, Joinville travelled south by river, with his war-horses being led along the riverbank. Once at Marseilles, with men, horses and baggage stored on board, the ship weighed anchor and set sail with the whole ship’s company, led by priests, singing Veni Creator Spiritus as the vessel began its journey. Joinville, like many reluctant medieval mariners, was frightened of drowning and fearfully seasick on the three-week voyage to Cyprus.

Joinville’s experience, even if tidied by six decades of retelling, displayed the characteristic crusading mixture of pragmatism and ritual. Few understood the importance of this more than Louis IX himself. His carefully orchestrated departure displayed striking parallels with Joinville’s. He had invited his subjects to demand redress of grievances through his enquêteurs. As preparations neared completion, Louis stagemanaged his progress towards Aigues Mortes to resemble a religious procession as much as a royal progress. The climax of the ceremonies marking his departure from his capital saw him participate in April 1248 at the dedication of the new Sainte Chapelle in the royal palace on the Ile de la Cité in Paris. This had been built as a giant reliquary to house the relic of the Crown of Thorns which Louis had redeemed in 1239 from the Venetians, to whom it had been pawned by Baldwin II of Constantinople. With the Crown of Thorns were other major relics of the Passion acquired, at great expense, from the Latins in Constantinople, including a piece of the True Cross. Louis was signalling that France was now the heir of Israel, the protector of the holiest relics in Christendom, almost a second Jerusalem, a new Holy Land. The ‘Most Christian’ king of France (an honorific title dating from the twelfth century) was assuming the leadership of Christendom vacated by the excommunicated emperor. Before leaving Paris for the south in June, Louis received the insignia of a pilgrim and, following ancestral precedent, the oriflamme at St Denis. Louis was conducting his crusade as a penitent but also as a king of France; the two were inseparable in propaganda and policy. From St Denis, Louis, dressed as a penitent, walked to Notre Dame to hear mass before continuing to the abbey of St Antoine, still just like Joinville on his local pilgrimages, barefoot. On his slow journey south, Louis was careful to be seen in the garb of a pilgrim in a series of civic festivals and public appearances. After meeting Innocent IV at Lyons, he travelled towards the Mediterranean, dispensing justice as he went, the first French king to visit the region since his father in 1226. On 25 August, Louis sailed from Aigues Mortes, reaching Limassol in Cyprus on 17 September.40


Later Louis allegedly claimed he would have been happy to sail directly to Egypt.41 With hindsight this may have appeared an attractive option. In 1248 Sultan al-Salih Ayyub was out of the country, fully engaged in Syria trying to conquer Homs during another round of Ayyubid feuding. By June 1249, when the crusaders finally landed, he and his army were back home. There was little doubt that Egypt was the destination; otherwise there would have been no need to stockpile supplies in Cyprus. Long before Louis’s attack began, the sultan had strengthened Damietta, as if he knew where to expect the Christian assault, which, given the prevalence of espionage, he probably did. The delay in Cyprus from September 1248 to May 1249 devoured supplies, sapped morale and gave the Egyptians time to prepare their defences. However, Louis was not to know that Damietta, once again the chosen target, would fall such easy prey as it did. Wintering in Cyprus allowed Louis to wait for the stragglers, such as Alphonse of Poitiers who had yet to leave France, or the duke of Burgundy, who spent the winter in Sparta, the guest of William of Villehardouin, the Frankish ruler of that part of the Peloponnese. Contingents who had found harbour at Acre, Tripoli or Antioch were also given time to rejoin the main armada. Holding court at Nicosia, Louis managed to attract gifts and reinforcements from Christians of the eastern Mediterranean, including William of Villehardouin with a fleet of twenty-four ships, and large sections of the local Jerusalem-Cypriot baronage, led by John of Jaffa. Louis appears to have played on his status as king of the local Franks’ ancestral lands; the king of Cyprus declared he would take Louis ‘as his friend and lord’. Although prolonged by a characteristically messy and violent dispute between the Genoese and Pisans, Louis’s stay in Cyprus allowed him to consolidate his control over his followers by bailing out many of them as their private funds ran out, plan his Egyptian strategy and construct the necessary landing craft and subsidiary vessels required for warfare in the Nile Delta.42

While in Cyprus, Louis received direct intimations of how his providential understanding of his mission failed to grasp the realities of Eurasian politics. For many in eastern Europe and the Near East, the most significant and alarming recent development lay not in the ownership of a Judean hill town, however numinous, but in the advance of the Mongols on a front from Russia to Iraq.43 In the wake of the Mongol invasion of central Europe in 1241–2, the prospect of a crusade to the Holy Land that denuded Christendom of warriors astonished and alarmed Bela IV of Hungary, who lived in annual fear of a new attack. In the autumn of 1244, Bohemund V of Antioch-Tripoli had made a well-publicized appeal to Frederick II for help against a Mongol army menacing Syria. Innocent IV was well aware of the Mongol threat. In 1245, before the Council of Lyons had discussed the problem, the pope had sent at least three separate missions to the east with the dual purpose of contacting the various Mongol armies but at the same time building up a broad coalition of eastern Christian, even Muslim allies against them. While the response of many Orthodox and other eastern Christian rulers and communities appeared positive, or desperate, the Dominican Andrew of Longjumeau made no headway with the Ayyubids, while the Franciscan John of Plano Carpini, who penetrated all the way to Mongolia to see a new khan, Guyuk, enthroned in 1246, returned with news of the khan’s outright rejection of anything other than Christian submission to the world-conquering Mongols.44 John’s accounts of the Mongol court and customs, while making him a minor celebrity, also conveyed the extent of Mongol power and future ambitions of seemingly limitless western conquest. Evidently, one of Friar John’s tasks had been to spy. The idea that Innocent IV and his envoys sought an alliance with the Mongols against the Muslims appears unlikely. The actions of his envoys suggested a policy of resistance and containment; their reports indicated that neither was liable to succeed.

Mongol disdain did not exclude Mongol diplomacy. In December 1248 at Nicosia, Louis received ambassadors from the Mongol general in Persia, Elijigidei.45 Ostensibly, the Mongol embassy sought Louis’s help in alleviating the plight of eastern Christians living under Frankish rule in Outremer. Under Mongol rule they enjoyed, it was alleged, freedom from the poll tax and forced labour. There were suggestions that Elijigidei was himself a Christian and that Khan Guyuk was sympathetic, a view that had been peddled only a few months earlier in a letter from Samarkand by an Armenian prince, Sempad, which Louis had seen on arrival at Cyprus. Some witnesses even remembered talk of Mongol help in recovering Jerusalem and the rest of Holy Land. After grilling Elijigidei’s ambassadors, Nestorian Christians from the Mosul region, Louis was sufficiently impressed to send an embassy in reply, led by the old Mongol hand, Andrew of Longjumeau, who had recently arrived in Cyprus. In retrospect, Louis’s involvement appears naive. He himself was said later to have regretted it.46 While some Mongols were converts to Christianity and the Olympian Mongol cultural superiority complex accommodated tolerance of other religions and the employment of their adherents, their policy was uncompromising. To them, Muslims and Christians came alike, potential subjects, not allies. Elijigidei’s initiative probably had more to do with countering the papal approaches to the Ayyubids and neutralizing Louis’s impact on Syrian politics where Mongol influence was already securing clients. A crusader attack on Egypt would nicely distract the Ayyubids, allowing further Mongol advances in the region. That Louis had been willing to go along with Elijigidei’s advances suggests a lack of strategic grasp, or one badly discoloured by excessively pious wishful thinking.

It was not as if Louis or his advisors were ignorant of the Mongol threat or their past history. Papal correspondence and appeals from rulers of eastern and central Europe had been full of both for much of the previous decade. Possibly only the death in 1249 of Khan Guyuk prevented immediate exploitation of the chaos that engulfed the Ayyubid empire during Louis’s invasion of Egypt. Andrew of Longjumeau’s mission achieved nothing except confirmation that the Mongols refused to regard others as equals and that they were not about to become a new Christian power. This diplomatic interlude says as much for Mongol skill in exploiting the mentality of their opponents as it does for the myopia of a future saint. It also added to the awareness of the world beyond the customary horizons of western thought witnessed by the popularity of news, or, rather, stories of the exotic new power that had intruded into western consciousness.47 While crusading interest in the Near East may have accelerated contacts between western Europe and Asia before the Mongols appeared on Christendom’s frontiers in the 1240s, in this context, as in many others, it is hard to see Louis’s adventure as much more than a sideshow.

In the middle of May 1249, the allied Christian fleet began to set out for Cyprus. It carried perhaps upwards of 15,000 troops, impressive for battle, rather modest for a conquest.48 Louis’s French army had been joined by recruits and allies from Frankish Outremer and Greece. More were yet to reach eastern waters, including Alphonse of Poitiers’s large force, perhaps of some thousands, and a select English regiment of perhaps as many as 200 knights, including a number retained for pay by its leader, Henry III’s cousin William Longspee.49 These only joined the main army in Egypt in the late autumn. According to the royal chamberlain, John Sarasin, one of Louis’s finance ministers who accompanied the crusade, apart from 2,500 knights and the heavy cavalry, backed by mounted sergeants and infantry, a striking feature of the forces Louis led towards Egypt lay in the 5,000 crossbowmen.50 They played a crucial role throughout the campaign in the Nile Delta, laying down devastating barrages of bolts in support of attacks or to cover retreats. The acquisition of crossbow bolts had been of especial concern during the crusade preparations, contracts to supply them being given to the Genoese admirals employed to command the royal fleet. The necessary landing craft had been assembled, some built or hired in Cyprus, others, such as John of Jaffa’s galley, which could be driven up the beach, belonging to the Outremer barons.51

As with most military enterprises, despite meticulous preparation, things went wrong. A storm dispersed the fleet, many ships seeking refuge in the Syrian ports, only later joining the crusade after the landings in Egypt. Those remaining arrived off Damietta on 4 June 1249 only to discover their plan had been anticipated. Sultan al-Salih Ayyub had left a strong garrison in Damietta under the veteran commander Fakhr al-Din, Frederick II’s old sparring partner who, according to Joinville’s memory, still displayed the emperor’s arms on his war banner in honour of their friendship.52However, a bold massed attack on the shore opposite Damietta on the morning of 5 June managed to secure a bridgehead on the beach, even though some of the troops, including Louis himself, had to wade ashore with water up to their armpits. The superior firepower of the crossbowmen probably clinched success for this ambitious amphibious operation. By nightfall, while the crusaders were establishing a camp, the Muslim defenders panicked. Many of those routed on the beach fled southwards. There the sultan waited with his main army upstream from Damietta, mindful of the need not to repeat the events of 1218–19 by becoming engaged in a sterile and costly conflict around the port itself. This left the garrison in the city badly exposed. Rather than risk death by assault or starvation, the defenders evacuated the city without a fight, leaving the stockpiles of food and war materials intact behind them. To the astonishment, incredulity and delight of the invaders, Damietta had fallen in hours instead of the seventeen months it had taken in 1218–19. It was symbolic, as Sarasin recorded, that the victors found fifty-three Christian captives in the city who claimed they had had been incarcerated there since the Fifth Crusade.53 As welcome, the fleeing garrison had left the well-stocked city intact. News of the abandonment of Damietta brought widespread opprobrium on Fakhr al-Din and panic to Cairo.54

Unfortunately for Louis, the fall of Damietta after only a day’s fighting marked the high point of his whole campaign. It has been argued that if he had seized the moment, a great triumph was there to be won. Cairo was in a turmoil of fear. In his new forward camp, established as his father’s had been in 1219–21 at Mansourah, the sultan was dying, probably from tuberculosis; his heir was out of the country; and jealous rival factions within the Egyptian high command and the sultan’s own military entourage were greedily or anxiously circling the throne. Yet the problems that delayed the embarkation from Cyprus had left the crusaders little time to organize a march south before the Nile flooded. The precedents of the Fifth Crusade were vivid on both sides. To the surprise and horror of Louis when they met after the king’s capture, at least one veteran of John of Brienne’s army, from Provins in France, had stayed behind, converted to Islam and married an Egyptian, rising to a position of some importance at court.55 Staying safe in Damietta must have appealed to many in the army, including the clergy who busied themselves with reclaiming mosques as churches, and Italian merchants securing quays and quarters. Louis may also have reckoned that, before attempting any hostile action, he needed to wait for the arrival of his brother Alphonse’s army, other contingents from the west, such as the English, and those scattered by the storm off Cyprus. Alphonse only reached Damietta on 24 October.

However, if the annual Nile flood precluded immediate action, plans could be laid. A seemingly sensible scheme to attack Alexandria rather than risk the Delta streams in marching on Cairo was discussed, provoking, according to Joinville, the impetuous Robert of Artois to exclaim, ‘If you wish to kill the serpent, you must first crush its head.’56 Robert urged an advance on Cairo, as did the king. Hindsight blamed Count Robert for the decision to attack Cairo taken, Joinville alleged, against the near-unanimous opposition of the rest of the French barons. It seems that Louis’s support was sufficient to win the day for Robert’s minority view. This may say much for Louis’s personal authority, or for his deep pockets, which were now supporting many, perhaps most of the crusade leaders. The ultimate defeat of the Cairo strategy as well as the death of Robert of Artois has clouded later perspectives. Robert became the scapegoat for the defeat of the crusade, his strategic advice at Damietta compounded by his reckless and suicidal behaviour at Mansourah in February 1250. Yet staying cooped up in Damietta or acquiring another Nile port only made sense if the plan had been to use any conquests as bargaining chips for the return of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. However, if, as is possible, Louis planned to conquer Egypt, even to convert the local Muslims, there were excellent tactical and strategic reasons for pressing home the Christian advantage in an attack on Cairo, especially in the light of deepening Ayyubid disarray.

Al-Salih Ayyub, alarmed at how the invasion was developing and now in the final stages of his fatal illness, remained at Mansourah. Protected by the Nile and its side channels, the site afforded level dry ground for his camp outside a defensible town. It barred the direct route to Cairo but was close enough to Damietta to maintain some pressure on the Christians. The sultan’s immediate problems were the internal tensions in his high command produced by his failing health and exacerbated by the French invasion. Although he had executed members of the spineless Damietta garrison, pour encourager les autres, he felt unable to dismiss Fakhr al-Din. Any sudden interregnum would need the support of such veteran loyalists to hold the line against both the crusaders and internal challenges to the Ayyubid succession. Yet the sultan’s impending demise disturbed his increasingly powerful and assertive mamluks, the Bahriyya, who feared a loss in status or worse under his heir, al-Mu ‘azzam Turan Shah. Rivalries were further complicated by the ambitions of al-Salih Ayyub’s Turkish wife, Shajar al-Durr, who as eagerly embraced the prospect of being a power broker as, according to legend and some fact, she did the bodies of some of the powerful.57 Politically, therefore, the crusaders’ delay at Damietta from June to November did not obviously improve the unity of their opponents, who, militarily, were as hampered as the invaders by the annual flood.

On 20 November 1249, with his army now at its strongest, Louis IX led his troops out of Damietta, leaving behind his wife, five months pregnant, and a well-equipped garrison, supported by Genoese and Pisans. The months since June had been employed in strengthening Damietta’s defences, some thought excessively.58 But Louis’s meticulous planning, which extended to his allocation of palaces and churches in the city, was a feature of his whole enterprise. It also confirmed his general intention to conquer, not bargain. His chief problem lay in whether, even with his careful organization and massive reserves of treasure, he possessed adequate forces and the right equipment to force a path through the Delta and mount a successful assault on Cairo. He may have been relying on the implosion of Egyptian resistance following the death of the sultan, the seriousness of whose illness was likely to have been reported to the Christians. Not only was he disappointed in this, he underestimated the stake the sultan’s mamluks held in the survival of some version of the existing Egyptian regime.

More immediately damaging, the crusaders’ march south proved painfully slow, covering an average of less than two miles a day. While the bulk of the army marched along the river banks, it was shadowed by a large fleet mainly, it seems, of heavy transport vessels, as well as some lighter, shallow draft galleys, more appropriate for Nile warfare. Progress was hindered by a strong southerly wind, slowing the preponderant sailing ships, which lacked manoeuvrability. Yet in spite of the measured pace, Louis appears not to have placed a series of supply dumps or protective garrisons along his route, the same mistake as 1221. Unlike his predecessors, Louis had not even secured Tinnis or other local strongholds. Perhaps he recognized he lacked sufficient manpower and preferred to confront the enemy in a decisive engagement with the maximum force at his disposal. It took the army thirty-two days to arrive at the same point between the Nile and the Bahr al-Saghir opposite Mansourah as the Fifth Crusade had reached in only seven in July 1221. One difference lay in the large amount of food supplies and war materials, especially timber, that Louis carried with him. These allowed him to establish a camp opposite Mansourah without fear of starvation and to build protective vehicles for his engineers and large throwing machines.59 The Fifth Crusade had travelled lighter, with fatal results.

As the crusader army and navy gingerly picked their way southwards through the canals and streams of the Delta, in late November al-Salih Ayyub finally died in the camp at Mansourah. His death was hushed up while his widow, Shajar al-Durr, engineered the effective transfer of power to the military commander-in-chief, Fakhr al-Din, while al-Salih Ayyub’s son and heir, al-Mu ‘azzam Turan Shah, was summoned from Hisn Kayfa, his base in the upper Tigris valley in northern Iraq. It took him three months to reach Mansourah, during which time authority inevitably devolved increasingly on the sultana, on Fakhr al-Din and on the late sultan’s Bahriyya Mamluks. The urgency in managing a smooth transition of power was evident in the gathering crisis on the Nile. While the Muslim camp flanking the river shore outside Mansourah was strengthened and a battery of throwing machines prepared, Egyptian skirmishers harried the Christians, a sharp encounter with the Templarled vanguard on 7 December failing to halt the advance. A fortnight later, Louis’s army and flotilla of support ships reached the bank opposite the Egyptian camp, separated only by the Bahr al-Saghir branch of the Nile. There they dug in, against attacks from the land, and constructed eighteen wooden ballista, throwing machines, which they used to pepper their enemies on the far shore, who returned fire in kind.


For the next six weeks, under an unrelenting mutual barrage across the Nile and Bahr al-Saghir, the Christians attempted to construct some sort of causeway across the Bahr al-Saghir, presumably to allow for passage of their war engines as well as cavalry.60 The efforts failed. So too did Egyptian attacks by land on the Christian camp and by water, using fireships to try to disrupt or destroy the Christian fleet. Stalemate beckoned until Egyptian defectors informed the crusaders of a deep ford downstream across the Bahr al-Saghir. This offered Louis a risky but excellent chance to outflank and surprise the enemy. He had little choice. The longer he remained stuck opposite Mansourah, the nearer the new sultan, the shorter his supplies and the fewer his tactical options. His perimeter defences could not hold indefinitely, nor could his fleet hope to remain unscathed. Louis presumably had planned on a war of movement, punctuated by battles in open terrain, not frittering away weeks and provisions in futile, if skilful, engineering works. Unless he could engage and destroy the enemy, his campaign was doomed. Unlike Richard I in Palestine in 1191–2, Pelagius and John of Brienne in Egypt in 1221 or even the crusaders of 1228–9 and 1239–41, Louis had no alternative strategy. He held no jurisdiction over the actual or hoped-for kingdom of Jerusalem, and so could hardly negotiate for it, although powerful Frankish lords, such as John of Jaffa, were in his army. His dispositions at Damietta had made it clear he regarded Damietta definitively as his, not part of Jerusalem, and so hardly negotiable for territory there. Louis was an intensely pious man. He seems to have believed that God would reward that conspicuous piety, even where temporal preparation proved insufficient to guarantee victory. Otherwise, his strategy in Egypt made little sense, a quixotic gesture of optimism rather than a sober exercise of Christian generalship.

The attack across the ford, so deep that only the cavalry could cross with their horses having to swim, began at dawn on 8 February. The infantry and engineers were left in the camp under the duke of Burgundy and the Outremer barons to wait for a chance to cross once the opposite bank had been secured by the knights’ bold outflanking move. The choice of only the French regiments indicated an understanding of the need for discipline. The tricky manoeuvre worked and almost paid off. The advance guard under Robert of Artois, stiffened by Templars and Hospitallers and afforced by the English squadron under William Longspee, successfully crossed the river. But instead of staying at the bridgehead to wait for the king and the rest of the cavalry, the count’s force immediately charged the enemy camp outside Mansourah, catching the defenders completely off guard. The Muslim commander and effective ruler of Egypt, Fakhr al-Din, was killed in the attack; unarmed, he had been interrupted during his morning ablutions.61The terrified Egyptians fled towards the refuge of the town. Flushed with sudden victory, Robert and his division flouted clear previous orders. Instead of pausing while the whole army could gather, they pressed on in pursuit of the fleeing enemy into Mansourah itself. A fortified town where the bulk of the Egyptian forces were billeted, Mansourah’s narrow streets rendered the Christian cavalry ineffective. Count Robert’s triumphant foray turned into a massacre, as his knights became separated, hemmed in and trapped. The morale of the Muslims held, buoyed by the leadership of the Bahriyya Mamluks stationed in the town. The crusader advance-guard was soon wiped out. Louis and the main cavalry force, now safely across the Bahr al-Saghir, were left with their backs to the Nile to face the brunt of a newly confident Egyptian counter-attack.

The battle lasted all day, with desperate fighting along the whole front. The king’s tactics were to force a path towards a position directly opposite the Christian camp from where he could expect reinforcements, especially of infantry and crossbowmen. In places, the line broke into splintered skirmishes. Elsewhere, the cavalry were sorely harried by enemy arrows. Joinville claimed to have been hit by five, his horse by fifteen.62 Protected by armour and padded quilts, they must have resembled monstrous pin cushions. The weight of constantly reinforced enemy troops prevented the deployment of the usual Frankish cavalry charge, much of the fighting reduced to hand-to-hand combat, ‘maces against swords’ in Joinville’s phrase, adding, rather sententiously, ‘it was a truly noble passage of arms, for no one there drew either bow or crossbow’, weapons regarded by knights like Joinville as plebeian.63 However gilded by memory, composition and the subsequent need to explain, justify and glorify his saintly hero, Joinville’s account of the battle of Mansourah provides one of the most vivid pictures of the experience of medieval fighting, the chaos, cameraderie, improvisation, horror and sheer bravery of the battlefield. In the heat and stress of combat, even the chivalric patina cracked. In a rather Wellingtonian moment, Count Peter of Brittany, veteran crusader and political intriguer, wounded and fearful of the press of his own men as they scrambled to the safety of the main formation around the king, spitting blood from his mouth, swore at them, ‘Good Lord, did you ever see such scum!’64 As the day ended, the Christians held the field. Reinforcements had arrived from their camp opposite, giving them covering fire and access to supplies. The Egyptians withdrew into Mansourah. But their army had not been destroyed. The road to Cairo remained blocked.

The bitter-sweet victory outside Mansourah was the prelude to catastrophe. Apart from showing Louis’s personal courage, in his gilded helmet and sword of German steel,65 the battle exposed the weakness of his strategy. He had driven his army into a cul-de-sac that could easily become a trap. The consequences of the failure to annihilate the Egyptian army were so dire that blame needed to be directed away from the future saint. Robert of Artois’s rashness supplied the ideal excuse for chroniclers attempting to deflect responsibility from the king. Louis himself declined to condemn Robert and characteristically blamed himself for defeat. While commended for his bravery, and praised in memorial sermons devised and delivered at Louis’s court in the Holy Land over the next few years, Robert’s reputation fared far worse than some of his colleagues whom he led to slaughter.66 Robert may have been placed among the martyrs, but no heroic secular cult of crusading sainthood attached itself to him as it did to the ‘manifest martyr’, William Longspee, in England.67Within a few years, an elaborate Anglo-French vernacular romance was circulating alongside legends of how he died. The uneasiness about Robert of Artois was to a degree mitigated, at least in official circles, by regarding his sacrifice as another demonstration of how the French had become the new tribe of Judah, leading the faith and providing examples of Christian behaviour, agents of divine providence.

No amount of subsequent interpretation of events could alter the problem confronting Louis’s army. As the days passed, the tactical balance tipped increasingly against the crusaders. By the end of February, the new sultan, Turan Shah, had arrived at Mansourah. Although unable to dislodge the Christians from their entrenched position on the site of Fakhr al-Din’s camp on the right bank of the Nile, the Egyptians’ strength grew. Reinforcements and war materials, especially shipping, joined the Muslim army while the crusaders had to rely on what they already had with them. Louis lacked adequate physical resources to batter his way past the enemy ranged against him, even though reports of his victory incited renewed panic in Cairo.68 His only realistic hope lay in the internecine rivalries that were emerging between the military households of the former and new sultan breaking out into open civil war. Yet Louis’s very presence acted to postpone any Muslim bloodletting until after his defeat. As the weeks of stalemate dragged by, the Christians were hit by food shortages and disease, including scurvy and dysentery. The traumatic details were etched on Joinville’s memory. When surgeon-barbers cut away putrefying flesh around the gums of the sick, ‘it was pitiful to hear the screams: it was just like the cry of a woman in labour’.69

No less serious, the Egyptians had managed to drag overland on carts a number of boats, some sources say fifty galleys, and launch them on the Nile downstream of the crusader camp.70 This established an effective blockade between the crusaders at Mansourah and their supply base at Damietta. Twice large convoys from Damietta carrying bread, wine, salt meat and other provisions were intercepted and failed to get through. Towards the end of March, worsening conditions, and concerted Muslim attacks throughout Holy Week (20–27 March) forced Louis to abandon his position before Mansourah and return to the old camp across the Bahr al-Saghir. By then, morale had sunk as low as food reserves. It was reported that some openly voiced doubts about the whole enterprise as ‘they could see God did not approve of it’.71 Desultory negotiations over a possible exchange of Damietta for Jerusalem led nowhere as the sultan, seeing his growing advantage, offered unacceptable conditions to a deal. In any case, Louis had little tangible with which to bargain. Finally, on the evening of 5 April, Louis ordered the retreat. The logic of remaining for so long in such an exposed position remains obscure unless Louis recognized his strategy had failed yet still hoped for the implosion of Egyptian unity – or a miracle.

Hampered by enemy forces, illness, hunger, fatigue, difficult terrain and collapsing morale, the shattered army on land, shadowed by a rag-bag navy increasingly vulnerable to enemy shipping on the Nile, effectively disintegrated. Charles of Anjou later claimed, perhaps with some exaggeration, that the army had already lost 80 per cent of its knights.72 A handful of ships managed to break through to Damietta by river. Louis himself, his dysentery so acute that his trousers had to be cut off, refused escape despite the seriousness of his condition, which brought him close to death. He had entered a fatalistic mood of acceptance of God’s will that clung to him for the rest of his life. Others were less impressed by such pietist passivity. One of Joinville’s cellarers (whose presence suggests the style in which aristocratic crusaders customarily campaigned) disagreed with the decision to surrender, preferring that they ‘should all let ourselves be slain, for thus we shall go to paradise’. His advice was ignored.73 On crusade as elsewhere, religious enthusiasm did not dispel pragmatic self-preservation. As the Christian forces struggled northwards, unsurprisingly at a considerably faster rate than they had marched south four and a half months earlier, the Egyptians took no chances. Fearful lest some of the Christians reach the safety of Damietta, the sultan saturated the landscape with troops, who skirmished, looted and killed more or less at will. Within two days the crusade army ceased to exist. Even if he had not been so physically helpless, Louis would have been unable to assert even the sort of discipline John of Brienne maintained in 1221. The enemy forces proved irresistible, led by the Bahriyya Mamluks, described by one Egyptian observer, in a telling backhanded compliment, as ‘Islam’s Templars’.74 The cohesion of the Christian army disappeared as it struggled north. By the time the king surrendered on 6 April, he had barely reached Sharamsah, less than half way back to Damietta, while the advance guard managed to make it to Fariskur, perhaps only a couple of days’ march from safety, before they were overwhelmed by the Egyptian forces. Left to his own devices on his galley and witnessing repeated atrocities suffered by the crusaders on shore, Joinville consulted his knights and the rest of his entourage on the only decision left to them, whether to surrender to the sultan’s fleet or his killers on shore. In a collective decision typical of how crusade armies operated, Joinville’s company opted for the galley commanders, as those on land, they thought, would sell them as slaves, as indeed many crusaders were. Everywhere similar surrenders by individual companies were occurring. King Louis’s surrender on 6 April was negotiated directly with the sultan by the Outremer baron Philip of Montfort. The king and his entourage were taken in chains to Mansourah, where they were joined over the next days by other prominent captives mopped up by the exultant Egyptians. Their victory was total.75

Across the Muslim Near East, the response to this astonishing reversal was immediate and celebratory. Turan Shah milked the occasion. King Louis’s cloak was sent to Damascus, where, on 20 April, the contemporary scholar and historian Abu Shama saw the governor put it on in public: ‘It was of red woollen material lined with ermine, and it had a gold buckle.’76 However, the negotiations between the captors and captured were not wholly one-sided, despite, as Joinville remembered, the crusaders living in constant fear of their lives from their guards’ tactics of intimidation and threats of instant death. On hearing of the king’s surrender, the Genoese, Pisans and others in Damietta were only dissuaded from leaving the city by the queen’s promise to pay for their living expenses, including food, at a cost, allegedly, of 360,000 l.t.77 This was to find an even more decisive role. With Damietta secure in Christian hands, Turan Shah was faced with the choice of his grandfather in 1221, a potentially costly siege or a profitable and peaceful agreement. Despite Egyptian attempts to include territorial concessions in the Holy Land, negotiations came down to an exchange of Damietta for the lives and freedom of the captives. This came at a high price. After lengthy bargaining, by the end of April it was agreed that the entire Christian army was to be ransomed for 800,000 bezants (400,000 l.t.), half payable before Louis left Egypt, as well as the surrender of Damietta. These stood as a form of war reparations. Christian supplies there were to be retained intact for collection later and prisoners on both sides, dating back to the Fifth Crusade, were to be returned. The territorial integrity of mainland Frankish Outremer was not questioned. Once agreement had been reached, Turan Shah moved his camp north near to Damietta to receive the city’s surrender, taking his captives with him, still hostages for the first instalment of the ransom.78

The comparative civility with which the negotiations were conducted and the absence of punitive clauses in the treaty may have reflected, as western sources try to suggest, Egyptian respect for King Louis. More realistically, Turan Shah needed a quick, peaceful and neat resolution to the war. Further conflict would merely serve to emphasize his military dependence on the Bahriyya Mamluks, servants of his estranged father and no friends to his new regime, at the very time he was trying to insert his own mamluks and servants into positions of authority at court and in the army. Unfortunately for him, the peace itself removed the curb on these growing tensions. The Bahriyya Mamluks had largely been responsible for the defeat of the crusaders and for holding Egyptian morale together after the death of al-Salih Ayyub and the early setbacks at the battle of Mansourah. Now they faced exclusion rather than reward, as Turan Shah promoted his own mamluks and, perhaps shocking to the racism of white mamluk regiments, black eunuchs to head the royal household and royal guard. The Bahriyya forged an alliance with the former sultana, Shajar al-Durr, who saw her power disappear and status disparaged. On 2 May, the Bahriyya struck in a counter-coup against Turan Shah and his mamluks. After a botched initial assassination attempt, Turan Shah, in full view of terrified Christian prisoners, was hacked to pieces by the Bahriyya, among whom stood an ambitious young officer, Baibars al-Bunduqdari, the future nemesis of Frankish Palestine. The Bahriyya commander, Faris al-Din Aqtay al-Jamdar, cut out the young sultan’s heart to show to King Louis while the rest of the body was dumped unceremoniously in the Nile. Authority was transferred to Shajar al-Durr, who for three months reigned as a sovereign queen,malikat al-Muslimin (queen of the Muslims), ‘an event without precedent throughout the Muslim world’.79 This proved controversial. In July 1250, she abdicated but retained influence by marrying her successor, a Turkish emir, Aybeg al-Turkumani. However, the military power of the regime and increasingly Egypt’s political direction, despite the restoration of an Ayyubid sultan fainéant (1250–52), lay in the hands of competing mamluk regiments. Although it had failed to conquer Egypt, take Cairo or restore Jerusalem, Louis IX’s crusade had played a significant part in ending the Ayyubid empire.

The new regime confirmed Turan Shah’s treaty with the shocked and extremely nervous Frankish leaders. On 6 May Damietta was surrendered and King Louis released. Over the following two days, the ransom money was paid over, the only problem being not the king’s credit but the availability of cash, solved by expedients such as raiding the coffers of the Templars (with their tacit complicity) for 30,000 l.t.80 Both sides seemed eager to complete the business quickly and honestly, although Joinville complained that the Egyptians failed to honour their side of the bargain when they burnt the Franks’ siege machines and stores of salt pork on pyres that lasted for three days.81 With half the ransom paid and all the important prisoners released, Louis sailed directly to Acre, where he arrived on 12 or 13 May. Although most of his magnates, including his brothers, decided not to stay beyond the autumn passage, Louis, perhaps out of shame or embarrassment mingled with, or concealed by, piety and concern for the plight of the Holy Land, decided to remain in the east, intent on salvaging something from the Egyptian debacle.

Despite the enormous cost of the ransom, and the high price of maintaining his small army in Palestine (later estimated at over one million l.t.), Louis could clearly afford it. Helped by the subsequent agreement of the Egyptian government to cancel the second instalment of the ransom, Louis’s line of credit with Italian bankers remained in excellent condition at least until 1252–3, possibly reflecting the sums still coming from France.82 In the absence of the legitimate king of Jerusalem, Conrad II (i.e. Conrad IV of Germany), Louis could behave as de facto ruler. During his four-year stay, and supported by fewer than 1,500 troops of his own, he spent large sums on refortifications at Jaffa, Caesarea, Sidon and Acre. In 1252, he even agreed an alliance with Egypt that promised the return of Jerusalem and the lands west of the Jordan once, with French help, the sultan had subdued Damascus. This projected diplomatic revolution immediately foundered on a rare moment of pan-Islamic unity partly inspired by the advance of the Mongols further east. Louis’s embassy under Andrew of Longjumeau had returned in 1251 carrying a demand from the Mongol regent, Oghul Qaimush, for annual tribute, not at all what the king had anticipated. On news of the conversion of a Mongol prince to Christianity, Louis despatched William of Rubruck on another embassy to the new Great Khan, Mongke.83 Although primarily a missionary expedition, and despite Louis’s care in not giving William accreditation to negotiate, the mission was regarded by some on all sides as another attempt to capture the chimera of a Franco-Mongol anti-Islamic alliance. This pursuit, as of the Christianization of the Mongols, proved an entirely false hope for Outremer as for the rest of Christendom. When Louis departed for home in 1254, he left a small garrison and committed himself to continued financial and military aid for the Holy Land. However, his vast expenditure of life and treasure had failed in almost every respect except, as contemporaries tried to see it, spiritual. Souls had been saved, but in death and defeat not triumph. Louis IX’s crusade had proved the most spectacular of failures.

Both immediate and structural causes could be advanced to explain the disaster. Repeated tactical decisions reached during 1248–50 proved wrong. While there were good reasons for the delays in Cyprus in the winter of 1248–9 and again at Damietta between July and November 1249, they resulted in a lethal combination when tested by the campaign in the Nile Delta. While it is too simple to blame the unsatisfactory outcome of the battle of Mansourah on Robert of Artois, his actions point to a fatal mix of indiscipline and high morale. The subsequent stalemate from February to April 1250 exposed the weakness of Louis’s strategic grasp as much as the torpor of his field tactics. He appeared to have no solution to the problem of his inability to dislodge the Muslims from Mansourah and lacked the flexibility to stage a tactical withdrawal. The shadow of 1221 lay heavy across his actions. Yet the failure to secure his rear defences and supply route to Damietta proved the most damaging omission of all, leading directly to the collapse of the expedition. Here, ignorance of local conditions and bad planning may have contributed to defeat. The Egyptians, in outmanoeuvring the crusader ships, relied on galleys, while the crusaders seemed to have depended more on larger transport vessels, including cumbersome cogs, excellent for transporting heavy cargoes at sea but vulnerable in the shallow narrows of the Delta. The Christians’ lack of mastery in the waterways of the lower Nile sealed their fate. Despite the shipbuilding programme at Cyprus in 1249–50, the landings at Damietta indicated only a modest proportion of the fleet of the shallow-bottomed galley or landing craft variety. The numbers were inadequate for the task.84

However, plans and preparations should be seen not just in relation to execution but also purpose. Here the scale of Louis’s defeat and responsibility for it was matched only by the size of his ambition. Louis saw Egypt as more than a gateway to Jerusalem. He intended it as a new Christian Frankish colony in Outremer. His concept of the political and colonial needs of the crusade were consequently precise and radical. During the Fifth Crusade, there had been much debilitating debate as to whether to exchange conquests in Egypt for territory in Palestine. Something of this resurfaced in the discussions at Damietta in 1249 on whether to capture Alexandria or advance on Cairo. However, Louis was not interested in using Damietta as a bargaining pawn. Within days of the crusaders’ occupation he had converted the mosques into churches. Before leaving in November 1249, he had established an archbishop and a permanent chapter of cathedral canons. Throughout, Louis treated Damietta as his and administered it as part of his domain. In the end he exchanged it for his own release from captivity. Louis saw himself as ruler of Damietta by right of conquest, the beginning of the far greater conquest of Egypt itself. Arabic sources refer to Louis’s formal defiance to the Sultan in 1249: God will decide whether you or I ought to be master of Egypt.85

Understanding, if disapproval, of Louis’s intentions may be reflected in Matthew Paris’s implied criticism of the whole Egyptian strategy, which he characterized as a magnates’ plot to subvert the proper concentration of the crusade on the recovery of Jerusalem and the Holy Land.86 The English commentator was not unbiased, being hostile to the taxation necessary to fund such expeditions and suspicious of the motives of some crucesignati, not least Henry III, who took the cross in 1250 but tried his best to prevent many Englishmen from actually joining the expedition. However, Paris appears to have picked up Louis’s desire to complement his conquest of Egypt with the conversion of the Egyptians.87 In a good position to reflect attitudes as well as gossip at the French and English courts, Paris also repeated a claim of a monk of Pontigny, where the pope spent some time during these years, that Louis took with him to Egypt hoes, harrows, ploughs, ploughshares and other agricultural equipment, adding that Louis was distressed ‘that he had not enough people to guard and inhabit the territory in Egypt which he had already occupied and was about to seize’.88 Conquest, conversion and settlement appeared to be Louis’s ultimate aims: the creation of a new Frankish state in Outremer, under Capetian rule, perhaps one of his brothers. Such a startling policy would fit the widely observed financial arrangements that supplied Louis with regular funds from the west. Such a scheme would explain the rejection of any compromise or the plan to take Alexandria rather than attack Cairo. The responsibility for the conduct and tactics of the Nile campaign were not the fault of Robert of Artois but the policy of Louis IX.

Here lay the fatal paradox. Louis’s crusade was possibly the most clearly planned, best organized and most coherently mounted of all the larger expeditions to the east. This is not simply an impression created by the greater bulk of surviving archival evidence due to more efficient bureaucratic systems of written record keeping. Although their power should not be exaggerated, thirteenth-century governments possessed stronger tools of fiscal, political and administrative organization and control than their immediate predecessors. Louis himself possessed all the administrative vigour, personal bravery and studied piety associated with the ideal crusader. Yet he failed as dismally as the most unsuccessful of his predecessors. His crusade lacked adequate appropriate shipping or enough manpower to cope with Nile Delta warfare, still less lengthy sieges or lasting conquest and occupation. Less tangible but no less damaging, the ideology and conduct of the enterprise elevated precisely the barriers of culture and religion that directly militated against dissident political elements in Egypt (or elsewhere in the region) making any lasting common cause with the invaders. Joinville’s later story of how some elements in the Egyptian elite after the murder of Tutan Shah wished to make Louis sultan represented the overheated imagination of an old warrior and storyteller. Yet it precisely touched a central weakness of the whole practice of thirteenth-century crusading in the Near East. Local Muslim rulers, dependent on their military, administrative, legal and religious elites, might, in certain circumstance, tolerate Franks as allies, even co-rulers, but never as masters.

Yet again, a crusade had shown itself ineffective against even the most limited of strategic targets. The impact of Louis’s expedition on the wider conflicts of the Near East was marginal. The Ayyubid regime in Egypt had long relied on fractious mercenary groups. Louis’s diplomacy, war or stay in Palestine exerted no influence on the Mongol advance or the prospects for Muslim resistance, still less Frankish survival. Yet, in contrast with the disillusion after the equally ignominious fate of the Second Crusade, Louis’s expedition did not lead to an abandonment of enthusiasm for his cause. With crusading incorporated more into the devotional mentality of western Christendom than a century earlier, the reaction was shock at God’s apparent disfavour and a desire to redeem sin, not apportion blame. As after 1221, instead of arguing that an Egyptian strategy was impossible, the legacy of Louis’s campaign stirred planners, strategists and propagandists to examine how exactly Egypt could be conquered. The detailed advice composed over the following seventy-five years ostensibly tried to learn the lessons of 1248–50. This was most clearly seen in the work of Marino Sanudo Torsello, who based his plan (devised c.1306–21) on a long historical study of the eastern campaigns, including Louis IX’s. His solution was a maritime trade blockade to weaken Egypt’s economy; a small expeditionary force to secure Nile strongpoints followed by a professional army, fully equipped with appropriate shipping, to conquer the country. Only then would a large, mass army ofcrucesignati be launched to reshape the religious and political map of the Near East.89 Sanudo, like Louis IX, identified the problems. But neither he nor the French king nor the long succession of other politicians and self-appointed experts could escape the reality that the freakish legend and myth of 1099 and its subsequent vigorous promotion had bequeathed an unwarranted optimism for an ideal that, pointless or not, was increasingly unattainable.


Louis’s crusade was the last great western campaign to reach the shores of the eastern Mediterranean until the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt in 1798. Its failure caused a sensation in the west, as it had in the Near East. Bad news travels fast. On 1 August 1250, Richard of Cornwall was sitting in the Exchequer at Westminster when he was brought the story of the death of William Longspee at Mansourah.90 When the full extent of the disaster reached the west, unrest in Venice and other Italian cities was reported. France plunged into a sort of public mourning. For many, the grief was immediate and personal; for lost sons, brothers, husbands and fathers–and some mothers and daughters too. As he lay awaiting captivity in a hut near Sharamsah on 6 April 1250, Louis’s head was cradled by a woman from Paris.91 But in France reactions took a more aggressive turn, which revealed the extent of popular engagement in public affairs, the fragility of social and political control by the authorities and the existence of a wider civil society whose voice was usually drowned out by the deeds of their social, educational and economic superiors.

In the spring of 1251 a popular movement began to be organized in Brabant, Flanders, Hainault and Picardy, all areas of active, if in places confused, crusade preaching and fundraising. Rural bands of what clerical observers slightingly referred to as ‘shepherds and simple people’ gathered with the declared purpose of joining Louis in the Holy Land.92 Critical of the failure of the nobility to achieve success in the crusade and hostile to those who had not even gone east, these ‘pastoureaux’ (literally shepherds) adopted the guise of religious processions, reminiscent of 1212. Marching on Paris, they carried holy banners, proclaimed their direct inspiration from the Virgin Mary and offered crosses and absolution of sins as they went. The influence of crusade preaching and Louis’s religious propaganda that surrounded the raising of men, money and provisions were obvious from the symbols of the passion they carried on their flags, the cross and the lamb. The latter may even have helped provide them with their name.93 The marchers were not inarticulate rabbles. Their mission spoke of ordered response to the crisis of Louis’s defeat. Coming from liminal regions of France may have heightened their desire to occupy the centre of the political debate without the traditional networks of contact and exchange with that central authority. Their social critique matched the official line on collective sin, their increasing anti-clericalism a reflection on the prominent part in crusade preparations played by the clergy, especially the friars, for financial and administrative purposes.

Initially, the ‘pastoureaux’ appeared a credible force of active support for the beleaguered French king. The regency government under his mother, Blanche of Castile, welcomed them in Paris and provided them with supplies. Some, at least, apparently found the means to join the king in the Holy Land.94 However, the implied social radicalism of their message soon drove elements of the movement beyond the pale of political respectability. Although characterized by observers as a single large army of protestors, it is likely that, as well as the main contingents from the north-east of the kingdom, there were separate and simultaneous outbreaks of popular enthusiasm across northern France, from Normandy to the Loire and into Berry. After the government decided to reject their call, some of these groups turned to violence and crime. There was trouble at Rouen in June. At Orléans, scholars were attacked. Everywhere, priests and friars were threatened. The ‘pastoureaux’ now appeared as armed criminal gangs, living off the land and terrorizingthe population. At Bourges, a large body ran riot under a leader called ‘the Master of Hungary’, allegedly fluent in French, German and Latin, possibly a renegade monk, a characterization that served the purposes of disapproving observers by locating authority in traditional but perverted hands. This band assaulted Jews and looted the local synagogue before the city authorities and townspeople turned on them. ‘The Master’ himself was hacked to death and his followers dispersed, although some managed to continue their rampage as far south as Bordeaux.

Many aspects of these uprisings showed a clear and precise understanding and knowledge of the public policy of the French crown, witnessed by the symbols of the Passion, the request for validation and support from Blanche of Castile, the hostility to the venality of the clergy, the criticism of the nobility, and the appropriation of the mechanics of giving the cross and remitting sins. The attacks on Jews was entirely in keeping with Louis IX’s own persecution, as was the general call to press political action into the service of God, who was presented as the chief instigator of policy. Although disapproving clerical commentators branded them as sexually hedonistic and criminal, out of social order and so out of moral control, the marchers seemed to possess discipline. The Master of Hungary claimed education. His targets could have been convincingly characterized to a far wider audience than the rioters as privileged spongers: Jews, scholars and clergy who appeared in cahoots with a political system whose venality ostentatiously conflicted with its stated goals. Yet this was no random proletarian revolt or social rebellion. The ‘pastoureaux’ declared their devotion to their king and his cause, claiming that they, instead of the traditional elites, were expressing and pursuing the best interests of royal policy. The uprisings’ organization, cohesion and behaviour suggests the involvement of the politically rather than the economically marginalized, but not of the politically ignorant or innocent. The disturbances in 1251 revealed further evidence of the penetration of crusading practice into the mentalities of an increasingly diverse and sophisticated civil society, one educated by evangelism and taxation, energized by the circulation of detailed news of atrocities and disasters that, in the perspective of collective religious imagination, seemed not distant, but immediate and urgent. Just as such emotions underpinned and explained Louis IX’s preparations from 1244 to 1248, so they produced the unrest and violence of 1251.


Louis IX’s unofficial protectorate over Frankish Palestine survived his departure in April 1254, embodied in the resident French garrison and the annual material and financial subsidies channelled east, some years thousands of livres, mainly derived from church funds and loans, although underwritten by the French government. Despite Joinville’s prediction on the day they sailed away from Acre, that Louis ‘had that day been reborn’, entering a ‘new life when he escaped from that perilous land’, the king never forgot Jerusalem.95 Instead, he cultivated the impression of a monarch whose gaze rested on the world of the spirit, a focus given physical expression in his and his court’s continued declarations of devotion to the plight of the Holy Land. Added to his material power, this stance lent Louis enormous prestige and effectiveness as an international arbiter, especially as successive popes between 1254 and 1268 became locked into the destruction of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, a cause not seen by all Christians as of transcendent importance. Louis established a moral authority rare for a medieval layman. He became in some respects, mutatis mutandis, the Nelson Mandela of his day, a man of suffering, acquainted with grief, of seemingly unimpeachable integrity yet active in the temporal affairs of nations. Like many politicians, Louis fashioned his life to suit his public needs in a creation of art and piety.96 This image acted as more than a pose; it framed practical politics, not least in a willingness to return to the east to reverse the decision of 1250.

Yet of far greater importance than Louis’s personal enthusiasm for prospects for a new general crusade or the survival of Frankish Outremer were events in Italy and Syria. International attention and the resources of the western church were increasingly directed at exterminating the Hohenstaufen. The issues of control over the Sicilian church and the territorial integrity and security of the papal states in central Italy loomed larger in the policies of successive popes than did the Holy Land, for all the lip service paid to beleaguered Outremer. Alongside grants of crusading privileges to those who fought for the papacy against their Italian enemies, the priority was to find a papal champion. After a number of false starts, in 1265 agreement was reached with Louis IX’s youngest brother, Charles of Anjou. He then proceeded to destroy first Manfred, Frederick’s illegitimate son and ruler of Sicily, in 1266 and then, in 1268, Conradin, Frederick’s grandson and titular king of Jerusalem. Until then, especially as England was only just emerging from a protracted and latterly vicious period of internecine conflict and civil war (1258–65), chances of a large eastern campaign were remote.

However, by the mid-1260s the outlook for mainland Outremer looked bleak. The structure of the kingdom of Jerusalem was slowly disintegrating. While John of Jaffa was composing his great lawbook commemorating a part historical, part imaginary world of legal niceties and juridical precedents, some institutions faced physical and legal annihilation. In 1255, Pope Alexander IV afforded diplomas of the abbey of Our Lady of Josaphat outside Jerusalem, renewing privileges with the same validity as the original grants because part of the abbey’s archives had been destroyed by ‘Saracens’, thus endangering the very legal identity of the corporation.97 Similar threats to the existence of the Latin settlement soon transferred to the level of high politics and diplomacy. The appearance of the Mongols in Syria radically altered the structure of power in the region, to the Franks’ serious disadvantage. In February 1258, Hulegu (d. 1265), brother of the Great Khan Mongke (1251–9), captured Baghdad, killing the last Abbasid caliph, al-Musta ‘sim. Moving on to Syria, the Mongols took Aleppo (January 1260) and Damascus (March 1260), ousting the Ayyubid ruler, al-Nasir Yusuf. Palestine was exposed. Mongols raids reached Ascalon, Jerusalem and the gates of Egypt. A Mongol garrison was placed at Gaza. Sidon was attacked and briefly occupied in August 1260. By then, most of the remaining Ayyubid and other princes left between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean had capitulated.98 The Franks were divided how to respond. Bohemund VI of Antioch-Tripoli, briefly one of Outremer’s most important power brokers, had already accepted Mongol over-lordship, with a Mongol resident and battalion stationed in Antioch itself, where they stayed until the fall of the city to the Mamluks in 1268. The Frankish Antiochenes assisted in the Mongols’ capture of Aleppo, thus in part achieving a very traditional Frankish target, and had received additional lands in reward. By contrast, the Franks of Acre saw no advantage in submission to the Mongols. Equally, they held aloof from outright military alliance with the new Mamluk sultan of Egypt, Qutuz, who was preparing an army to contest the Mongol conquest of Syria. Although many wanted to enlist in the Egyptian counterattack, the Franks contented themselves with granting Qutuz safe conduct through their lands and supplying him with provisions.99 Given the uncertainty of the outcome, the untrustworthiness of any alliance with Egypt and the universal contempt shown by the Mongols for any other group, such cautious neutrality was probably the least worst decision, far from the catastrophic strategic diplomatic blunder some have thought. This was no great missed opportunity. As Louis IX had discovered, and Bohemund VI was experiencing, there was nothing on their own terms for the Franks in a Mongol alliance. With Hulegu and the bulk of his forces having withdrawn eastwards, at Ain Jalut in southern Galilee on 3 September 1260, the Egyptians routed a smaller Mongol army under Kitbugha Nayan, who was killed. This victory, and Hulegu’s preoccupation with consolidating his hold on Iraq and Iran, allowed the Mamluks to occupy Syria, ejecting the surviving Ayyubid princes. By the end of October, Qutuz had been assassinated by Baibars and the Bahriyya, who feared being passed over in the disposal of the Syrian spoils. Baibars was now installed as ruler of Egypt and Syria, more united than at any time since the death of Saladin in 1193.

Baibars saw in the eradication of the Frankish kingdom a means to consolidate his power as well as establish his credentials as a worthy Islamic ruler. A veteran of the drama of 1249–50, he rejected the accommodating policies of his Ayyubid and Mamluk predecessors. He rebuffed Frankish attempts at alliance in the early years of his sultanate (1260–77) and from 1265 began the systematic destruction of the kingdom, capturing in short order Caesarea, Arsuf, Toron and Haifa (1265); Saphet, Galilee, Ramla and Lydda (1266).100 The complete loss of the kingdom looked an immediate possibility. Alarm revived half-dormant plans in the west for a new general crusade. The end of the English civil war in 1265 and Charles of Anjou’s victory in Sicily in 1266 encouraged Pope Clement IV to revive plans for an eastern crusade begun under his predecessor Urban IV in 1263. Long-distance financial aid and sponsorship for garrisons, such as Henry III of England’s promised 2,000 marks in 1264 to maintain a company of knights at Acre, were evidently insufficient to stem the Mamluk advance, which proceeded by sophisticated siege technology matched by military brutality. By September 1266, Louis IX had decided to take the cross once more, to lead what he and the pope, a former legal advisor to the French king, hoped would be an international league of recovery. On 25 March 1267, the Feast of the Annunciation, before the relics housed in the Sainte Chapelle, Louis, his three sons, his close family and most of the great nobles of France once more took the cross.101

Louis IX’s second crusade was notable for its sophisticated methods of recruitment and its almost wholly nugatory results. Much of the process closely followed the precedents of the 1240s. Louis obtained a clerical tenth in France for three years. The collected deposits from legacies and redemptions were placed at the crusaders’ disposal. Normal expenditure was trimmed. Enquêteurs investigated local grievances against royal agents. Towns were tallaged. In some regions, Jewish moneylenders were harried. As before, Genoa and Marseilles supplied ships, although at less exorbitant rates than in 1248.102 However, the rising power of the Catalan ports was recognized in the arrangements of other crusade leaders. More significant, the king’s fleet was commanded not, as in 1248, by Genoese admirals but by a Picard nobleman – with no previous maritime experience – Florent of Varennes. The king again acted as the expedition’s central banker. He subsidized the veteran crusader Hugh IV of Burgundy, now contemplating his third eastern campaign. Clerical funds granted the king were diverted to Alphonse of Poitiers and the counts of Champagne, Brittany and Flanders. In 1269, Louis lent Edward of England 70,000 l.t. with a view to securing substantial English and Gascon involvement: 25,000 l.t.was earmarked for Gaston of Béarn.103 On both sides of the English Channel, crusade leaders assembled their companies by means of formal contracts. In return for a fixed sum from his lord or commander, the contracting crusader was bound to provide a stated number of knights. Occasionally, the crusader would receive additional subsidies in the form of monetary gifts or free food. The contracts were backed by less formal ties of clientage, family and political ties and regional association. In such ways Louis engaged 325 knights and Edward of England 225, yet these only represented the core of, in the French case at least, a much more substantial army.104 Alphonse of Poitiers alone raised perhaps as much as 100,000 l.t. towards his contingent of knights, crossbowmen, provisions and ships, raising the funds from the clerical taxes assigned him by the king, selling assets such as timber and levying a hearth tax on his subjects of the Midi. Judging from the level of noble commitment in France, Louis’s second crusade army cannot, in expectation at least, have been much smaller than that of 1248, perhaps between 10,000 and 15,000 strong. Louis’s second crusade witnessed another striking demonstration of the increasing power of the French state over nobles and regions. To drum up support, the king’s itinerary in 1269 included areas of the kingdom previously free of royal visits.105 In backhanded recognition of this royal authority, Joinville, who had this time refused to sign up, recorded that some French crucesignati felt they only took the cross to keep the king’s favour rather than God’s.106 If so, the near unanimity of the higher nobility in following the king’s lead speaks much for the strength of patronage over pious scruples or the purity of motives.

To the French levies were added contributions from Frisia, the Low Countries, Scotland, Aragon, England and Charles of Anjou, now installed as king of Sicily. The participation of James I of Aragon and Edward of England, especially the latter, owed much to the personal diplomacy and moral dynamism of Louis IX himself. Despite the opposition of his father, the ageing Henry III, and Pope Clement IV, Edward took the cross at Northampton in 1268.107 He and his brother Edmund raised a significant force centred on the royal court with which well over half of those known to have been recruited in England possessed close formal links. However much the crusade may have helped unite the English baronage after the trauma of civil war, the enterprise was conceived and remained essentially as a royal and curial affair, as in France. Further sign of the commitment of the English government to the crusade lay in the strenuous and ultimately successful attempts by the court to obtain parliamentary approval for a tax on movables of a twentieth, only finally agreed in 1270. Whatever the tax supplied for the crusade – perhaps £30,000 – this represented a significant development in the newly restored consensual politics after the English civil war and confirmation of the fiscal role of the commons in Parliament, the first lay subsidy granted the English crown since 1237.108

If central funding and a network of contracts that embraced the English as well as French contingents gave Louis a uniquely influential position in ordering the expedition, this did not translate into control over the coordination of the campaign. In February 1268, Louis fixed his departure for May 1270. Yet, at one end of the scale, the king of Aragon embarked in June 1269, for his fleet to be wrecked by a storm, only a remnant of it actually reaching the Holy Land without the king.109At the other, Charles of Anjou only took the cross in February 1270 and began to prepare his war fleet the following July. Even Edward of England missed the agreed muster by some months, only embarking in August 1270, while his brother, Edmund, set out in the winter of 1270–71. Numbers who actually participated, as opposed to the contractual estimates, appeared lower than the original rush of crucesignati in 1267–8 may have indicated. The driving force of the whole expedition remained the will and enthusiasm of King Louis. This was emphasized by the long papal interregnum after the death of Clement IV in November 1268. A successor was not elected until September 1271, so through-out its final preparations and the crusade itself, there was no pope. However guilty Louis may have felt over the disasters of 1250, his confessor claimed that the king’s motives were more positive and altruistic, to achieve an act of such penitential severity that God would show mercy on the Holy Land.110 In addition to the administrative and financial direction he gave, despite the extensive national and international response, Louis’s personal decision on the strategy of the campaign, perhaps more than anything, lent the enterprise its particular character, some would say its especial futility.

While preaching began in 1267–8, led by cardinals who, appropriate to the character of the operation, had formerly been French royal councillors, the situation in the Holy Land deteriorated further, culminating in the fall of Jaffa, Beaufort, and, in a blood bath, Antioch to Baibars in May 1268. Initially Louis seems to have envisaged a repeat of the strategy of 1248–50, with a descent on Egypt as the likely destination of the new campaign. However, at some point in 1268 or 1269, Louis’s attention turned in an entirely different direction, an attack on Tunis. This possessed a number of apparent advantages. All large crusade fleets, embarking from different places at different times, required a muster port. As all large fleets and armies had to await the harvest, embarkation for the east was usually deferred until the late summer or autumn sailing seasons. This in turn demanded a port to be found in which to collect the fleet and spend the winter: Lisbon 1147–8; Messina 1190–91; Zara 1202–3; Acre 1217–18; Limassol 1248–9. Tunis was within easier and safer sailing distance than Cyprus. Conquest of the city and region might assist the political ambitions of the new Sicilian king, Charles of Anjou, as the Hafsid emir Muhammed was harbouring renegade supporters of the ousted Sicilian Hohenstaufen. The emir was also an ally of the king of Aragon, a potential rival to Charles in the western Mediterranean. The possibility of an invasion of Tunisia may have persuaded James of Aragon to avoid integrating his army and fleet with Louis’s. However, Charles’s ambitions were focused eastwards, towards the Balkans and Byzantium. Despite later conjecture, the choice of Tunis as a target rested with Louis, not his brother. In Louis’s eyes, the conquest of Tunis would deprive Egypt of an ally and act as a convenient base for an attack on the Nile in 1271, a geographic myopia of scale common enough in western European circles at the time. More specifically, Louis’s close contacts with the friars may have led him to believe from the Dominicans that Tunis was ripe for conversion, a perception based on perennial missionary optimism and the largely friendly diplomatic contacts between Tunisia and western Christendom.111 Such fantasies of conversion led to a series of ill-fated missions to north Africa in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the willingness to believe that Muslims could be brought to Christ acting as a form of cultural totem similar to modern enthusiasm for exporting western democracy. Friars seemed incapable of separating commercial from religious openness. Perhaps having got wind of Louis’s thinking, the Tunisians sent an embassy to Louis in 1269, which may have furthered encouraged the king’s thinking. While not of itself contradicting the nature of the crusade, the Tunis gambit was sufficiently sensitive to be concealed from followers until after his fleet had embarked. But with muster ports in Sardinia and western Sicily, a north African destination could hardly have come as a surprise. While hindsight condemned the whole idea, Louis’s motives may have been quixotic but they were not without reason.

The rituals of departure in 1270 exactly copied those of 1248. On 14 March 1270, Louis received the oriflamme and the pilgrim’s scrip and staff at St Denis. The following day, he entered Notre Dame in Paris as a barefoot penitent before walking to Vincennes, where he bade farewell to his wife. The first setback came at Aigues Mortes, where Louis found the promised ships were late, only arriving in late June, by which time sickness had already been incubated in the army. Leaving Aigues Mortes on 2 July, the French fleet reached Cagliari in Sardinia on 4 July, where they waited for other squadrons to assemble. There on 13 July Louis formally announced the destination of Tunis, where the fleet arrived on 17 July, effecting a landing the following day. On 24 July, the army moved its operations a few miles along the coast to Carthage in search of better terrain for the camp and adequate water. Further advance was delayed while Louis waited for the arrival of his brother Charles, who had only begun to equip his fleet in Sicily a few days earlier. High summer, poor diet and water contaminated by the immobile army soon stoked the outbreak of virulent disease, probably typhus or dysentery. The leadership was hit as well as the ordinary ranks. Louis’s son John Tristan, born at Damietta in the dark spring days of 1250, died. The king and his eldest son, Philip, both fell ill. Lingering bedridden for a month, Louis died on 25 August 1270, just as the first detachments of Charles of Anjou’s fleet were making land. Some said his last words were ‘Jerusalem! Jerusalem!’, although his confessor, who administered the dying king Extreme Unction, signally failed to mention such a neat end.112

With the new Philip III still convalescent, Charles of Anjou assumed command. Evacuation appeared the only option. By 1 November, after a debilitating period of negotiation and desultory skirmishing, Charles and Emir Muhammed agreed terms. In return for the handing over of prisoners, the emir’s agreement to permit Christian worship and proselytizing, and a war indemnity of 210,000 gold ounces (c.500,000 l.t.), Charles agreed to withdraw, appropriating a third of the money. This angered some sections of the Christian army, not least Edward of England, who arrived off Tunis on 10 November, just as the crusaders were packing up to depart. The Christian fleet sailed for Sicily to decide on their next course of action, reaching Trapani on 14 November. Any decision on further campaigning was pre-empted by a storm on 15/16 November, which destroyed large numbers of ships and damaged many more. Perhaps as many as forty vessels were lost, including eighteen large transports, with over 1,000 lives. That effectively ended the crusade, only Edward of England insisting on proceeding to the Holy Land. By the time Philip III returned to his new kingdom, his train resembled a funeral cortège, bearing the bodies of his father, brother, brother-in-law, wife and stillborn son.113

The failure of the 1270 crusade, though dramatic and spectacular, did not mean the end of the crusade as a focus for monarchical aspirations. Some, like Alphonse of Poitiers before his death the following year, kept the flame burning. In 1271, the cardinals elected as pope Tedaldo Visconti, patriarch of Jerusalem, who was actually in Acre when he was elected as Pope Gregory X. Much of his reign, and those of his immediate successors, was occupied with prospects for a new general crusade to the east and galvanizing the kings of the west to join. Edward of England had done more. Reinforced by a few French nobles, Edward set off for Acre in the spring of 1271, despite attempts to persuade him to return to England, where his father Henry III was gravely ill. Characteristically, he refused, allegedly insisting that he would travel to Acre if necessary only with his groom Fowin for company.114 As it was, his army was small, perhaps only 1,000 strong, carried in a small flotilla of just thirteen ships. Reaching Acre via Cyprus on 9 May 1271, Edward remained in the Holy Land for a year, joined by his brother Edmund in September 1271. He lacked the manpower to achieve any lasting or significant change in the Franks’ position, arriving too late to prevent Baibars’s capture of Crac des Chevaliers in April. Edward contented himself with pursuing the will of the wisps of a Mongol alliance with the il-khan of Persia and internal harmony within Frankish Outremer. He saw some action in defending Acre from Baibars’s attack in December 1271 and launched a couple of military promenades into the surrounding countryside. The truce agreed by Hugh III and Baibars in May 1272 failed to persuade Edward of the futility of continued stay, an obstinacy that may have provoked the famous attempt on his life. Even before his departure in October 1272, some of his followers had begun to leave, including his brother, in May. While achieving almost nothing for Outremer, beyond the establishment of a small English garrison in Acre, Edward’s crusade had proved massively expensive, perhaps over £100,000. During the crusade, he ran up debts of tens of thousands of livres.115 However, in reputation and image, the crusade paid very handsome dividends which he and his eulogists were not slow in exploiting. Amid the increasingly fevered discussion around the courts of western Europe about how to save the Holy Land, Edward stood out as the only crowned head in the west to have actually gone there. In 1287, he even took the cross for a second time and began apparently serious preparations for a new expedition. Even so, as the only tangible assistance to reach Palestine from the great French crusade planned by Louis IX, Edward’s crusade of 1271–2 represented very meagre pickings. In its way, far more potent, for the French monarchy although not for Palestine, was Louis IX’s canonization in 1297. But even that was tinged with disappointment for one of those whose evidence had helped secure the king’s elevation to sanctity. Joinville regretted Louis had only been gazetted as a confessor and not, as he thought only proper in the light of the king’s acute sufferings on crusade, a martyr.116


For the rest of his life Edward I of England (d. 1307) protested his eagerness to return to the east, usually coupled with his insistence that he was too busy with vital affairs of state at home to leave just yet. While occasionally disingenuous, this excuse expressed the reality of late thirteenth- and fourteenth-century crusading. Louis IX had shown how the full resources of a kingdom allied to ecclesiastical funding could be directed very effectively towards the crusade. However, precisely these newly powerful central governments militated against the fulfilment of another such policy, as regimes became enmeshed in hardening intractable international conflicts and domestic administration. The experience of Louis’s crusade alerted officials to the almost limitless expense of such enterprises, the accounts of Louis’s campaigns being copied and studied by interested but anxious bureaucrats for more than half a century after his death.117 The increasing bulk of works of theoretical planning or practical advice written from the 1270s began to expose very clearly the material difficulties facing any eastern expedition. This greater openness to the difficulties of crusading was summed up by a French diplomat, the crusade veteran Erard of Valéry, at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274, called by Gregory X to attempt to launch a new offensive. It would be like a small puppy yelping at a great mastiff.118 The advice Gregory received before the council exposed how different theatres of the crusade, such as the Baltic, diverted interest and commitment. Even promoters of crusades in Europe against the Hohentaufen, such as the great Dominican preacher and canonist Humbert of Romans, noted how they engendered cynicism if not overt hostility among a wide if not necessarily deep coalition of observers from across western Europe. The Lyons Council authorized more church taxation and preaching of the cross, but the silence of the royal representatives and spokesmen for the military orders at the council when asked to advise on the best course of action spoke loudest.119 Concern with the plight of the Holy Land had not declined, but action became harder to organize and, in consequence, undermined future commitment, a vicious cycle never thereafter escaped.

Attempts to organize a new crusade did not end in 1270. Preaching and clerical taxes were authorized in 1274 and 1291. Serious strategic thought was pursued, including suggestions (in 1274 and 1291) that the military orders should be amalgamated to exploit military and fiscal economies of scale and unity of purpose. In particular, the Second Council of Lyons appeared to promise a new beginning to efforts to restore Frankish rule in the Holy Land. Gregory X placed the eastern crusade at the heart of his diplomacy. Before leaving Acre after hearing of his election as pope in 1271, Gregory pointedly preached on the text ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning’ (Psalm 137 v.5). On reaching Europe, he summoned a general council to discuss church reform and plans for a new crusade, which he proposed to lead in person. Before the council convened in May 1274 at Lyons, Gregory sought advice from politicians and churchmen professionally involved. A number of treatises were submitted containing advice that varied from a catalogue of ecclesiastical, including crusading, shortcomings by a Franciscan, Gilbert of Tournai, a self-interested call by the bishop of Olmütz on behalf of the king of Bohemia to concentrate on the Baltic and eastern European crusading front to a plea by an Acre Dominican, William of Tripoli, for the conversion, not destruction, of the Muslims.120 The council itself exposed the gap between intent and action. The decree Constitutiones pro zeli fidei (18 May 1274) expanded on its exemplar, Innocent III’s Ad Liberandam of 1215, by instituting a clearer administrative structure for the collection of the proposed sexennial clerical tithe, establishing twenty-six specified collectories.121A voluntary lay poll tax was suggested. To provide the most favourable diplomatic context, union between the Roman and Greek Orthodox churches was negotiated, in part a response of the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus to his fears of isolation in the face of the aggressive ambitions of the previous papal favourite, Charles of Anjou, who was eyeing the Balkans with unconcealed purpose. Ambassadors from the Mongol khan were received by the council, its leader even undergoing a symbolic form of public Christian baptism.

However, only one western monarch bothered to attend, the ageing James I of Aragon. Despite his offer of a preliminary garrison force of 500 knights and 2,000 infantry to prepare for a subsequent large expedition, the political will was hardly overwhelming, despite strenuous efforts to excite general support.122 Preaching was authorized by a papal bull of September 1274.123 The clerical tax raised massive amounts in some areas such as Tuscany, testimony to new bureaucratic efficiency rather than overt enthusiasm.124 As in 1215, money-boxes were set up in parish churches. Pope Gregory persuaded Philip III of France, Charles of Anjou and his preferred candidate for the imperial throne, Rudolf of Habsburg, to take the cross in 1275. A departure date was set for April 1277 when the pope and the new emperor would together embark for the east. Plans for a papal flotilla of about twenty ships were put in train. Yet the tepid reaction of delegates at Lyons proved a surer indication of the prospects for the crusade than the administrative, fiscal and diplomatic activity. Bureaucratic neatness was not enough. The lack of vocal support for the proposed expedition from the military orders and the French envoys at Lyons gave its own testimony. Gregory X’s crusade simultaneously revealed how administratively effective papal leadership had become in the later thirteenth century and how politically and emotionally incapable it was to move the hearts of politicians and people. On Gregory’s death in January 1276, the crusade plans were shelved and then abandoned. While the church taxes continued to be raised in places, the proceeds were diverted to papal wars, fought as crusades, in Italy. The Mongol alliance, despite six further embassies to the west between 1276 and 1291, led nowhere.125 The prospect of an anti-Mamluk coalition faded as the westerners’ inaction rendered them useless as allies for the Mongols, who, in turn, would only seriously be considered by western rulers as potential partners in the event of a new crusade which never happened. The union of the Roman and Greek churches was repudiated by the Orthodox faithful. It had in any case failed to curb Angevin aspirations for Balkan conquest at Greek expense. The activity of the 1270s set a pattern for the future, copied with an increasingly predictable monotony of frustration after the council of Vienne (1311–12), in the 1330s and the 1360s: papal or royal enthusiasm, commitment, taxation, distraction and abortion. The disintegration of Gregory’s schemes confirmed the fears of even sympathetic onlookers, such as the well-informed networking Italian Franciscan Salimbene of Adam, that ‘it does not seem to be the Divine Will that the Holy Sepulchre should be recovered’.126

Baibars’s campaigns of 1265–71 had reduced the Frankish holdings in Palestine to a barely sustainable rump of a few castles and coastal cities clinging on to the shore of the Mediterranean with almost no hinterland. Not even Frankish superiority at sea could reverse the tide. By demolishing the places he captured, Baibars denied the prospect of reconquest. There would be no repeat of 1189–92, even though Christians retained bases in Cilicia and Cyprus. Of the campaigns of Baibars and his immediate heirs it has been said that they achieved what their predecessors, Persian, Arab, Turk or Frank, had not, ‘the destruction of the ancient Syro-Palestinian city civilisation’.127 The final act was postponed not by Frankish resolve or a new crusade, but by the tangled internal politics of the Mamluk empire and the Mongol threat to Syria, which continued into the early fourteenth century. A Mongol invasion was defeated at Homs in 1281, a new assault the next year only averted by the death of the aggressive il-Khan Abaqa from delirium tremens. His successor, Teguder, was a Muslim convert.128 This freed Sultan Kalavun (1279–90) to resume his attack on the Franks. The great northern fortress of Margat fell in 1285; Lattakiah in 1287. Tripoli followed in 1289, after 180 years of uninterrupted Christian rule, the longest of any of the major Frankish conquests. It had been under Genoese control since the death of the last count, Bohemund VII, in 1287, and it was rumoured that the sultan’s attack had been encouraged either by the Venetians or Pisans. Those who failed to escape – mainly non-nobles – were massacred; the city was demolished, a portent for the fate of Acre.129

Throughout the 1270s and 1280s, men and money were sent to the Holy Land by popes and western rulers. As the Frankish position in Palestine disintegrated, small companies led by well-connected crusaders appeared at Acre temporarily to stiffen local resistance and the permanent western garrisons funded by concerned, perhaps guilty kings in Europe: Countess Alice of Blois and Count Florent of Holland in 1287; John of Grailly in 1288; the Savoyard intimate of Edward I Othon of Grandson in 1290. None of these did anything to reverse the decline. The politics of western Europe militated against a new crusade just as firmly as the politics of the Near East. The intervention of Charles of Anjou’s attempt to annexe the kingdom of Jerusalem in 1277 briefly seemed to offer a remedy.130 Yet his ambition only served to challenge the unity of Outremer and provoke a damaging war in the west, known as the War of the Sicilian Vespers, after Sicily rebelled against Angevin rule in 1282. This pitted Aragon against Charles of Anjou and his French allies, smashing precisely the coalition assembled by Louis IX and sought by Gregory X. In 1285, Philip III of France died on crusade, like his father, but it had been against the Aragonese not the Mamluks. Edward I’s priorities lay in the conquest of Wales (to 1284) shortly to be followed by his involvement in the Scottish succession, which increasingly dominated the last years of his reign (1290–1307). His alliance with France had become a distant memory as relations deteriorated into war over the status of Edward’s French duchy of Gascony (1294). The legacy of the imperial interregnum (1250–73) prevented any unified German contribution. Although the last great Mongol attack on eastern Europe had ended in 1260, because of civil war breaking out in the Far East over the succession to the khanate, attempts to arrange an anti-Muslim alliance proved as elusive as before, while the rulers of eastern Europe occupied themselves with consolidating their own borders. Just as the power of kings promised more effective crusading, it largely precluded any alternative initiatives from their nobles. The gulf between capacity and policy came to match that between idealism and will.

The divisions of the west disrupted Outremer during Charles of Anjou’s attempt to wrest the kingship of Jerusalem from the kings of Cyprus (1277–85). Yet even after Charles’s death in 1285 and the restoration of a single nominal authority under Henry II of Cyprus and I of Jerusalem, no prospect of permanent defence on the mainland was possible without impractically massive outside assistance. As Sultan Kalawun tightened the noose, each Frankish lordship faced its own demise in autonomous desperation, some accepting Mamluk over-lordship or condominium, others, like Tripoli, suffering conquest and butchery. The last act, begun by Kalavun in 1290 against Acre, continued after his death under his successor al-Ashraf Khalil. The siege of Acre lasted from 6 April 1291 until 18 May, when the city fell. The frenzied defence and countless acts of bravery – on both sides – ring in the memory.

Khalil’s assault on Acre was designed to be final. The sultan, following preparations already put in train by his father, gathered troops, engineers and siege machines from across northern Syria, Damascus and Egypt. The well-maintained double walls of Acre presented a formidable obstacle, so the siege was to be a contest of throwing machines. One of


23. Acre in 1291

them, a great mangonel brought by the army of Hamah on the middle Orontes from Hisn al-Akrad, the magnificent fortress of Crac des Chevaliers captured by Baibars in 1271, was transported in a hundred carts and took a month to be hauled the 125 miles or so to Acre. As the Franks by this stage had no field army, Khalil’s passage and investment of the city were unopposed. His combined forces were large enough to surround Acre completely on the landward side. His strategy was simple: pound the walls to rubble, create breaches and then use his superiority of numbers to overwhelm the defenders. The Muslim army probably numbered more than the total civilian population of Acre, which may have stood at around 30–40,000. Some wild estimates claimed the attackers had over 200,000 troops. However large, numbers were the key.

Facing the sultan, the Franks in Acre were not without some advantages. Although the military establishment was comparatively modest, it was still substantial, perhaps 1,000 knights and sergeants with another 14,000 infantry. Reinforced by a few western crusaders, such as Othon of Grandson and his English regiment and a division from Cyprus, the Acre garrison was led and dominated by the military orders, whose discipline, resourcefulness and courage prevented the defence from descending into chaos or panic. Able-bodied civilians were enlisted, and the Venetians and Pisans played a full part, the Venetians manning an especially effective catapult. Accurately assessing the odds, many women, children and the elderly had been evacuated before the siege began, reducing the drain on food and emotion, but many, not least the poorest, remained. The one great advantage the Franks possessed was control of the sea. This allowed supplies to reach the beleaguered city, and King Henry of Cyprus-Jerusalem to arrive with last-minute, if limited, reinforcement on 4 May. The sea also provided a means of attacking the Muslim camps on land, as armoured ships carrying archers, crossbowmen and, in at least one case, a large mangonel, bombarded the flanks of the besiegers’ positions where they came down to the shore. However, these attacks inflicted bloody but only superficial damage on the enemy; the mangonel soon broke up in heavy seas.

While the Franks could resist in reasonable security using the twelve towers that studded the outer walls of the city, without a massive infusion of new troops and in the absence of a land force they were doomed to wait for a seemingly inevitable end. Their only realistic chance of survival lay in disrupting the Muslims by inflicting unexpected or unacceptable casualties, thereby opening up the very real fissures in the political high command around the sultan (who was to be assassinated by members of his own government in Egypt only two years later). The spy network run by William of Beaujeu, Master of the Temple, was almost certainly well apprised of such tensions. The only military means to expose any Muslim rivalries was stubborn defence and repeated forays, sometimes at night, into the Muslim camps. These were vividly remembered by veterans such as Ismai ‘il Abu’l-Fida, an Ayyubid princeling from Hamah, even if his sharpest memory concerned a botched night attack in which Frankish soldiers tripped over guy-ropes and one fell into an emir’s latrine, where he was finished off.131

In reality, only a large western fleet (which did not exist) or a miracle could save Acre. As casualties grew, anxieties over the defenders’ ability to man the whole length of the walls put a stop to the attacks on the Muslim camp. In desperation, soon after King Henry’s arrival an attempt was made to negotiate with the sultan that only served to clarify that Khalil was determined on conquest not accommodation. As the weary days of May passed, Muslim sappers began to have increasing success in undermining the bastions and towers of the outer wall, all the time supported by a hail of missiles, including jars of explosive material, and arrows. By 16 May, the outer enceinte between the walls was abandoned.

The final Muslim assault on the now depleted, hungry and exhausted Frankish defenders came on 18 May, to the accompaniment of a blizzard of arrows and missiles and the encouragement of the usual military drums, cymbals and trumpets. The defences were soon penetrated and fierce street-by-street, hand-to-hand fighting ensued. Few escaped wounds; hundreds if not thousands were killed before the Christians broke for the port. There, ghastly scenes of mayhem, panic, confusion and despair marked the ragged evacuation of survivors. Too few boats caused overcrowding, capsizing and a nasty trade in selling places on the larger vessels. A Catalan Templar captain, Roger Flor, later famous as a freebooter across the Near East, allegedly made a fortune on money extorted from fleeing Frankish noblewomen. Western accounts are lit by stories of heroism and stoicism, none more moving than that displayed by the mortally wounded William of Beaujeu, and tales of rape and violent atrocities. Many of the leaders, including King Henry, managed to escape. Those that stayed were either slaughtered or captured to spend the rest of their lives as slaves or prisoners, the usual sequel to such military disasters. By the evening of 18 May, most of Acre was in Khalil’s hands. The fortified Templar quarter, jutting out into the sea at the south-west angle of the city, managed to hold out for another ten days. An attempted parley ended in bloodshed, as Egyptian troops attempted to seize the women and boys sheltering in the Temple complex, and the Templars who had agreed terms with the sultan were summarily executed. Only the halt and the lame remained in the Templar buildings when the final moments came on 28 May. The only consolation afforded the last defenders of Frankish Acre – or perhaps the admiring but absent chronicler who described it – may have been that, as the sultan’s troops advanced into the compound, its walls, which had been sapped for over a week, finally collapsed, burying victors and vanquished, perhaps appropriately, in a shared grave.

Once the final resistance had been cleared by the end of May, it became apparent that no immediate counter-attack or succour were possible. The sultan, according to one of his officers, after massacring all surviving defenders, commanded that the city of Acre be ‘demolished and razed to the ground’.132 There was to be no possibility of a repeat of the Third Crusade. By August all the remaining mainland bases had been surrendered or evacuated: Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, Tortosa and Athlit. One eyewitness of the final siege escaped the fall of Acre, an Arabic-speaking Frankish Cypriot who had served on the mainland for over twenty years, ending as the Master of the Temple’s secretary and occasional secret agent. He recounted with hammer-blow clarity the heroic death of his employer and the last days of Frankish Acre. This man, whose only home was Outremer, put the events of 1291 in perspective: ‘Thus was all of Syria lost… This time everything was lost so that altogether the Christians held not so much as a palm’s breadth of land in Syria.’133

Lamenting western contemporaries did not know it. They and their successors for many generations refused to accept it. A century later, Cypriot noblewomen were still seen going about in public in deep mourning for the loss of Acre.134 Yet, on its own terms, the attempt by western Europeans to establish and secure rule over the Holy Land and the Holy Places of their religion in the name of Christ had ended in failure.

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