Post-classical history


The Crusade of Louis IX and the Rise of the Sultan Baibars

Saladin’s triumph at the Battle of Hattin is the most famous Muslim victory over the Franks, yet it was not—by a considerable margin—the most crushing. Fifty-seven years after Hattin, on October 17, 1244, the devastation inflicted upon the Christian army at the Battle of La Forbie marked a far heavier blow to the Frankish cause. In its bloody aftermath came the expedition of King (later Saint) Louis IX of France, the most zealous crusader king in history. His opponents included Baibars, a young Mamluk warrior who, in later decades, pushed the Christian presence in the Holy Land to the brink of extinction.

Events outside the Levant created the circumstances of La Forbie. The Khwarazmians were a group of nomadic Turkish tribesmen driven westward by the Mongol invasion of Persia.1 These Muslim warriors made contact with the sultan of Cairo, who, in the early 1240s, promised them support for an invasion of the Holy Land. In the summer of 1244 the Khwarazmians tore through the Frankish Levant and slaughtered thousands of Christians; as one observer wrote: “these people took no prisoners, all they wanted to do was kill.”2 As they closed in on Jerusalem most of the inhabitants fled in the face of such a terrible danger; no one anticipated that this panic-stricken exodus signaled the end of Christian control over the holy city for more than six centuries. The priests of the Holy Sepulchre refused to abandon their church, a brave decision but one that would precipitate their martyrdom. As the clergy celebrated Mass the Khwarazmians broke into the building and began to butcher them; some were disemboweled while others were beheaded at the altars. Next, the invaders ripped open the tombs of the kings of Jerusalem and cast out the bones of crusading heroes such as Godfrey of Bouillon and King Baldwin I in their search for treasure. A northern French writer grimly summarized their deeds: “they committed far more acts of shame, filth and destruction against Jesus Christ and the holy places and Christendom than all the unbelievers who had been in the land had ever done in peace or war.”3

The Khwarazmians’ power prompted the Muslims of Damascus and Homs to join forces with the remaining Franks. The Levantine coalition met their enemy, who were reinforced by Egyptian troops, at La Forbie near Gaza. Faced by far superior forces, the Christians’ allies were soon driven from the field and in spite of fighting bravely the Franks were doomed. The level of slaughter was stupefying: the Military Orders fared especially badly—of 348 Templars, 36 escaped; from 351 Hospitallers, 21 survived; and of 400 Teutonic Knights, only 3 lived. Thousands of crossbowmen and foot soldiers perished and many of the Frankish nobility died too; the fighting strength of the kingdom of Jerusalem was all but erased.

Faced by this unprecedented crisis, Patriarch Robert of Jerusalem dispatched an embassy to Europe to plead for help. So grave was the situation that envoys risked a midwinter sea voyage to convey their calamitous news and to urge a response. The interminable tension between the papacy and Frederick II ruled out German involvement, Henry III of England was too fearful of the French to cooperate, and the Spanish were preoccupied with their own reconquest. Fortunately for the settlers, one monarch was prepared to act—Louis IX of France declared himself ready to lead the greatest crusade of the century as he tried to preserve and strengthen the Christian hold on the Holy Land.


Louis was an intriguing character, a man of immense piety for whom the crusade was the defining event of his reign; he would feel the most profound sense of personal responsibility for the failure of the 1248–54 campaign and died in a second attempt to capture Jerusalem in 1270.4 Unlike men such as Richard the Lionheart or Frederick II, his desire to advance the Christian cause above all other considerations was conspicuously the dominant aspect of his life. Louis took the cross in late 1244, in part as a reaction to the news from the Levant, and in part to fulfill a vow made during his recovery from a near-fatal illness. Family honor also influenced him: Louis was from a long line of crusaders—his father, Louis VIII, had died returning from the Albigensian Crusade in 1226; his grandfather, Philip, had fought on the Third Crusade; his great-grandfather, Louis VII, took part in the Second Crusade; and his great-great-uncle, Hugh of Vermandois, was a senior figure on the First Crusade. It was inevitable that Louis responded to the weight of this immense crusading tradition.

Louis knew that it would cost a fortune to recover Jerusalem, and to gather the requisite funding he drew upon his kingdom’s increasingly advanced administration. For the first time in crusading history we have a reasonably full set of accounts for an expedition, and we learn that it cost a total of 1.5 million livres.5 The crown had an income of 250,000 livres per annum, with most of that taken up by ongoing expenses such as warfare, building projects, and subsistence; some economies could be made but clearly extra funding would be needed. Louis turned to the towns and cities of his realm to raise 250,000 livres; the sums extracted varied: Paris gave 10,000 livres, the tiny settlement of Bonnevaux four livres, yet the point is clear—everyone, no matter how great or small, contributed. The king also pressured the French Church into providing a tenth of the revenue from its benefices, although the monastic orders claimed exemption. In spite of their grumbling the clergy eventually yielded 1 million livres over the course of the expedition, two-thirds of the total cost.

Louis was concerned to gain God’s favor and he endeavored to create an appropriate moral climate for his crusade; thus he sent out enquêteurs to resolve complaints against baillis (royal officials). The results were startling: between 1247 and 1249 the eighteen bailliages changed hands twenty times to mark a thorough purge of the corrupt. Aside from ending possible causes of disquiet, such a process demonstrated the king’s interest in his people’s welfare and also increased the efficiency of his administration.

Louis and his advisers tried to learn from the failure of previous crusading expeditions and noted that a breakdown in food provision had been a recurrent problem. While there were practical limits as to what was possible, some useful measures were feasible. With the capture of Cyprus in 1191 a safe forward base was available for westerners who planned to campaign in the East. The French sent huge supplies of grain and wine ahead: “along the shore his people had laid out large stacks of wine barrels that had been bought two years before his [Louis’s] arrival. They had been placed one on top of another so that when they were seen from the front they had the appearance of barns. The wheat and grain had been heaped in piles . . . rain that had fallen on the grain . . . made the outermost layer sprout so that all that could be seen was green grass . . . [but underneath] the wheat and barley were as fresh as if they had just been threshed.”6

The French monarch had to set his affairs in order; most importantly, he made peace with Henry III of England to prevent an invasion during his absence. Louis’s choice of regent was easy; the natural candidate was his formidable mother, Blanche of Castile. Blanche had already managed to overcome the perceived handicaps of being both foreign and female to govern on Louis’s behalf during his minority. So controlling was Blanche that she conceded little authority to her son until he was twenty-one, even though the age of majority was more usually fifteen. She is said to have disapproved of the king’s affection for his young wife, Queen Margaret. At the royal castle of Pontoise the couple’s bedrooms were in a tower, one above the other, but connected by a narrow staircase as well as the main flight of steps. If Blanche appeared unannounced, servants were to knock on the door and the couple could separate quickly and use the back staircase to avoid a scene. Once the coast was clear they might rejoin one another with ease.7 The arrival of eleven royal offspring indicates that their strategy succeeded. It has been suggested, perhaps a touch mischievously, that Louis went on crusade to escape from his mother. When, many years later, Blanche died, the news was broken to the queen thus: “The woman who hated you most is dead.”8

As usual with the launch of a crusade, special spiritual preparations took place as well. Probably the most tangible manifestation of Louis’s piety was (and remains) the beautiful, if restored, Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Constructed between 1242 and 1247, it displays a dazzling combination of architectural brilliance and religious devotion.9 It was built on two levels, the lower floor for servants, the upper, a nonpareil reliquary for the religious and political hierarchy of France. In 1238 Louis had acquired the Crown of Thorns, worn by Christ during the crucifixion, pieces of the True Cross, the holy sponge and fragments of the Holy Lance, all purchased from the penniless Latin emperor of Constantinople. Given the momentous significance of such items Louis deemed it proper to create a monument of appropriate splendor to house them, and he commissioned a building that blended beautiful colored glass, dizzying vertical lines, frescoes, sculpture, and metalwork. Sainte-Chapelle also emphasized Louis’s role as a king in the biblical tradition, the legitimate heir to David and Solomon in the Holy Land. The relics themselves were placed within a structure of precious metals and gems. A fourteenth-century poet wrote:

The refined colours of its paintings, the precious gilding of its images, the pure transparency of its windows which shimmer from all sides, the mystical power of its altars, the marvellous adornment of its shrines studded with precious stones, give to this house of prayer such a degree of beauty that on entering one would think oneself transported to heaven and one might, with reason, imagine oneself taken into one of the most beautiful rooms of paradise.10

We have a superb insight into Louis’s personality through the account of John of Joinville, who, as he never tires from telling his reader, was a reasonably close companion of the king. He was also a man saturated in the chivalric and literary ideals of the age and his lively, gossipy style and acute observations constitute probably the most readable crusader narrative of all.11 His writing was a product of the highly literate courtly culture of the county of Champagne, and there are moments when it takes very little effort to imagine an aging Joinville (he lived to be ninety-two) sitting in front of a roaring fire, surrounded by young knights and squires, telling them (again and again) of his heroic deeds on the Nile. In Joinville we can see a vivid blend of the pilgrim and the holy warrior along with the status-conscious, honor-bound, secular knight.

Joinville offered his own version of the heartbreaking moment shared by all crusaders when, aged twenty-one, he had to set out for the Holy Land. In the period prior to his departure he had called together his household and, on a smaller scale than Louis’senquête, resolved any outstanding disputes. He went to Metz and mortgaged the greater part of his lands, perhaps to one of the Jewish moneylenders in the city. Then, before the hardships of the voyage began, he organized several days of feasting. Finally came the day to leave; Joinville neatly captured the gnawing emotions of departure: “I did not want to cast my eyes backwards towards Joinville at all, fearful that my heart would melt for the fine castle and the two children I was leaving behind.”12 The startling omission of his wife may (just about) be explained by the fact that by the time he wrote this section of the work in the 1270s there was a second Madame Joinville (the first had died in 1260) and the author may have felt it inappropriate to include too emotional a tribute to the previous incumbent. On his way out of Champagne he also made a short pilgrimage—on foot, in his shirt and with legs bare—to local family shrines where he prayed for divine aid and was given relics and precious objects to help him on his journey. For Joinville at least, a pilgrim’s devotion, so important to the First Crusaders over 150 years previously, formed a significant aspect of his own motivation as a crusader.

Louis’s army numbered 2,500 knights, 5,000 squires and sergeants, 5,000 crossbowmen, 10,000 foot soldiers, and 7,000 to 8,000 horses. Special vessels were constructed to transport the horses and Joinville was impressed when his animals were led through a door on the side of the boat and down into the hold; the entrance was then carefully sealed because when the ship was fully loaded and underway it would be below the waterline.13


The king reached Cyprus in September 1248 although he needed to wait for the myriad of other French contingents to arrive. The stay over the winter was not a happy one; 250 knights died of illness; thus one-tenth of the prime fighting force was eliminated before it had seen action. Egypt was, again, to be the target for the crusade. The familiar strategic arguments remained valid—as Ibn Wasil, a contemporary Muslim writer, commented, Louis “was a devoted adherent to the Christian faith and so his spirit told him that he should recover Jerusalem for the Franks . . . but he knew that he would achieve this only by conquering Egypt.”14 A document said to be the last testament of Sultan Ayyub confirmed this point even more plainly: “Know, my son, that Egypt is the seat of the empire and from it you can defy all other monarchs: if you hold it, you hold the entire East and they will mint coins and recite the khutba in your name.”15

The Seventh Crusade already had one stroke of good fortune: Sultan Ayyub was suffering from a debilitating illness and the political situation in Cairo became increasingly tense as people positioned themselves for the succession. Among the most important of the factions to emerge were the Bahri Mamluks, a group created by Ayyub to be his fighting elite. The Muslim rulers had long purchased slaves from central Asia or the Crimea for their armies, and Ayyub decided to separate the most promising of them and sent them to the island of al-Rawda in the Nile (Bahr al-Nil may explain their name Bahri) where they converted to Islam, lived in barracks, and trained exceptionally hard. Conversion aside, in these other respects they bore some similarities to the Christian Military Orders. After completing their training they were emancipated and came to form the sultan’s military household.

Bad weather and the need to fabricate special landing craft meant the French ships could not set sail from Cyprus until May 1249. Just like the Fifth Crusade they headed for the northern Egyptian port of Damietta. A terrible storm scattered the boats and it took a while to regroup; it was only on June 5 that Louis prepared to land. As the vessels grounded, a detachment of Muslims charged the Christians but a volley of crossbow fire forced them back. The crusaders poured onto the beach, headed by the standard of Saint Denis, the patron saint of France. The king saw the flag ahead of him and leaped into the water up to his armpits, determined to follow the emblem of his sovereignty; truly this was a French, royal crusade. The invaders pursued the fleeing Muslims and their commander, Fakhr al-Din (whom we met as an ambassador to Frederick II), simply fled. Ayyub was furious because some Muslim writers judged the city to have been so well provisioned that it could have held out for two years if properly defended. Thus the crusaders walked into Damietta—something they could scarcely believe was possible given that their predecessors on the Fifth Crusade (who included men such as Joinville’s father) had spent eighteen months outside it. The Muslim world was appalled: “It was a disaster without precedent . . . there was great grief and amazement, and despair fell on the whole of Egypt, the more so because the sultan was ill, too weak to move, and without the strength to control his army, which was trying to impose its will on him instead.”16

In one sense this unexpected turn of events completely baffled the crusaders; nowhere in their plans had they catered for the prospect of an immediate victory—what should they do next? A council of the French nobles gathered; the options were either Alexandria or Cairo. The former was the preeminent commercial port of the Mediterranean and could act as an assembly point for crusader forces before they headed up the Nile. The alternative was to go straight to Cairo (or Babylon as it was often known) via Mansourah, just as the Fifth Crusaders had tried. The arguments swung to and fro with most favoring Alexandria; finally, however, one of Louis’s brothers, Count Robert of Artois, pressed the case for Cairo: “to kill the serpent, first you must crush the head.”17 This pithy strategic metaphor won the day and the assembly resolved to head southward. First, however, they decided to wait for the arrival of another royal brother, Alphonse of Poitiers. More seriously, they were worried by the annual Nile flood because it was only a month before the river would begin to rise. It is possible that had the crusaders simply pressed on after taking Damietta they could have gotten ahead of the flood, crossed the sections of the Nile that caused them such problems later on, and exploited Ayyub’s frailty to devastating effect, yet—fatally—they were much more cautious.

An intriguing document survives to illuminate the French stay in Damietta: the foundation charter of the Church of the Blessed Mary, formerly the main mosque.18 This was an official French government charter, produced by Louis’s chancery and confirmed by the royal seal. It began with effusive thanks to God for his divine blessing in giving the crusaders victory at Damietta and it stated that the city was now “utterly purged of the pagans’ filth.” It delineated the landholdings of the church and exempted the clergy from tax. Numerous other rights relating to mills, ovens, fisheries, salt springs, the bazaar, and the harbor were outlined too, all granted “in perpetuity;” furthermore, “when this land is liberated from the hand of the unbelievers” the archbishop was to receive the fiefs of ten knights who would do homage to him and serve appropriately on his behalf. What all this really meant was that Louis regarded Damietta as a permanent acquisition by the Capetian monarchy. Unlike the Fifth Crusade when Damietta was taken under the control of the kingdom of Jerusalem, the presence of a dominant western ruler gave the Christian conquest a different feel—that of the beginnings of a new empire.

Another writer, known as Rothelin, indicated that Louis handed out property and revenues to the three great Military Orders, to the Franciscans and the Dominicans, and to the nobles of the Latin East. Rothelin, a contemporary source, stated that the churches were endowed with “chalices, censers, candelabras, seals, crosses, crucifixes, books, chasubles, albs, stoles, banners, altar cloths, silk hangings, images of Our Lady, choir surplices, tunics, dalmatics, reliquaries in gold, silver and crystal”;19 priests, chaplains, and clerks were installed too. The completeness of this list is astonishing—all of these objects must have been brought over from France in clear anticipation of conquest and settlement. To travel with such a certainty of success offers a fascinating insight into the mentality of Louis and his army as they set out on the crusade.

Meanwhile, Ayyub’s illness continued its debilitating course. Fearful of the effect an announcement of his death might have on an already demoralized populace, those closest to the sultan conspired to hide his decline. Under the orders of his wife, Shajar al-Durr, and the emir, Fakhr al-Din, doctors enacted a freakish daily charade whereby they continued to enter his tent, take in food, and issue pronouncements in his name. Given Ayyub’s anger at Fakhr al-Din after the fiasco at Damietta, some officials doubted that the sultan would have given him any authority at all, but it seems that—as intended—the majority of people remained ignorant of the true condition of their ruler. Ayyub died on November 22, 1249, and his entourage needed to get a message to his surviving son, Turanshah, who was based far away in Mesopotamia, to come south because by now the Frankish advance was poised to begin. Ayyub’s coffin was spirited away until it could be properly housed in Cairo where, tucked away next to his madrasa, it still remains. The shadow leadership dispatched letters to be read from the pulpit of the Great Mosque in Cairo that urged everyone to fulfill their duty, to come and join the jihad, and to drive out the Franks.


By late November, once the Nile floods had subsided, the crusaders set out; they progressed in good formation with the fleet sailing close by the troops to provide supplies. The march to Cairo was said to take only a few days but Louis’s progress was agonizingly slow. Fierce headwinds meant the crusader fleet could barely make any ground at all; in addition, the crusaders had to cross countless small canals and to resist harassment from the Egyptians. By mid-December the Christians faced their first major obstacle when they had to traverse the Bahr as-Saghir, a branch of the Nile near the town of Mansourah, only about one-third of the way to their target. The Egyptian troops, led by Fakhr al-Din, barred their path as well; finding a place to ford an entire army proved extremely troublesome for the crusaders. The Muslims bombarded the Christian camp with Greek fire, a terrifying experience as Joinville described: “These were the characteristics of Greek fire: the part that came foremost had the bulk of a vinegar barrel, while the flaming tail that shot from it extended as far as a long lance. It made such a noise as it came that it was as if the heavens thundered; it seemed as if a dragon was flying through the air. The great mass of the fire cast such a great light that one could see as clearly across the camp as if it were day.”20 Louis’s reaction to this fearsome episode reveals much about his religiosity; Joinville again provides the evidence: “Each time our saintly king heard that they had launched Greek fire at us, he sat up in his bed, reached out his hands to Our Lord and said as he wept, ‘Sweet Lord God, protect my people for me!’ And I truly believe his prayers served us well in our time of need.”21

In early 1250 the crusaders tried to build a series of pontoon bridges, yet, in an almost farcical response, as quickly as the Christians’ jetty extended into the river the Muslims dug away the opposite bank! The offer of a healthy reward eventually prompted a local peasant to indicate a suitable ford. As dawn broke on the morning of February 8, 1250, Robert of Artois and the master of the Templars led the vanguard over a narrow, treacherous causeway. A few men slipped off the side and drowned, but most made it across. Muslim resistance was minimal and the crusaders charged on toward the main camp. Their opponents were caught unawares—Fakhr al-Din was slaughtered in his bath—and many Muslims, including numerous women and children, were killed. Caught up in the adrenaline rush of victory, Robert of Artois made a cataclysmic misjudgment. In direct contradiction of Louis’s orders, he did not stop and wait for the main army to cross the Nile and consolidate the victory; instead, he led the cavalry onward. This was a matter of great offense to the Templars, who should have been at the head of the army, and they asked Robert to let them past. Accounts differ as to what happened next; dubiously, Joinville blamed the deaf knight holding Robert’s horse for his failure to hear and pass on the Templars’ request. Thus, the count continued forward and so, fearing dishonor, the Templars followed him into the town of Mansourah. Another report suggested the French crusaders taunted the Templars and accused them of cowardice for appearing hesitant: “If the Templars and Hospitallers and the men who live here [the Levant] had really wanted it, the land would have been conquered long ago.” Another crusader allegedly asked Robert: “Won’t it be wicked and cowardly if we do not pursue our enemies?” Robert ignored further cautionary advice from the Templars, as well as a repeated command from the king; suffused with martial valor and a destructive sense of competitive honor, he urged his men to continue.22

Recklessly, the crusader knights hurtled inside Mansourah, thus sealing their own fate and perhaps that of the entire expedition. The Muslims began to regroup and, led by the Bahri Mamluks, they realized the gravity of Robert’s mistake; the town gates were closed and the crusaders were, de facto, entombed alive in the town. While the dense warren of streets prevented them from charging at their enemy, the Muslims were able to kill the Christians’ mounts and then pick off the stranded knights. By this stage of the struggle it was around midday and the Christians must have been thirsty and exhausted after hours of fighting. Sources tell of men pinned in houses, running up stairways and barricading themselves in rooms. One can imagine blows raining down on a door, the shouts and cries of attackers sensing victory—and revenge; the murmured prayers of crusaders expecting martyrdom, yet still fighting desperately in the vain hope that a relief force might arrive. Yet as time passed they must have realized that there was no prospect of escape and their fate was to be ripped apart by a hail of knife blows. Robert himself perished, along with 1,500 of the finest crusader knights, including 280 Templars, the men with most experience of war in the East. For the Bahri, this was a famous victory and one from which they made considerable political capital in later years.

Louis and part of the main army had also crossed the Nile and as the day wore on it became clear that the Muslims had recovered from the loss of their camp. Joinville himself was now in the thick of the fighting. He brilliantly conveys the confusion and noise of a battlefield, as well as the esprit de corps among his companions. He proudly related the bravery of particular individuals—and noted the cowardice of others, although out of courtesy to the dead, he refrained from mentioning names. At one stage Joinville and four of his friends were cornered. Erart of Sivry took a terrible blow to the face that left his nose hanging over his lips, while Frederic of Louppy “had a lance thrust between his shoulders which made a wound so large that the blood came from his body as if from the bung-hole of a barrel.”23 In this desperate situation memories of homelands and loved ones came to mind. As the struggle continued, the count of Soissons called out to Joinville, “Let this pack of hounds howl! By God’s coif [a neck protector]—this was the oath he most often swore—we’ll talk of this day again, you and I, in the ladies’ chamber.”24 Yet the Muslim archers took their toll. Joinville, was relieved to have found a padded tunic, which he used as a shield: “It served me very well, since I was only wounded by their arrows in five places, and my horse in fifteen.”25

Louis himself was an inspirational leader who shared in the danger with his troops and did much to keep morale up: “I never saw a man so finely armed; he could be seen from the shoulders up, set above the rest of his men, with a gilded helmet on his head and a German sword in his hand,” eulogized Joinville.26 This epic battle ended at nightfall and the two sides paused to regroup. Someone had to tell the king that his brother was dead. An officer of the Hospitallers volunteered that he was certain that Robert was in Paradise and, in any case, he urged the king to be proud of his army’s achievements that day. “God should be praised for all that He has given me,” replied the king; only then, Joinville reports, did great tears begin to fall from his eyes.27 Both armies pitched camp and began to dig in. For the crusaders this was disastrous; they had lost momentum in their march southward and they still needed to get past Mansourah. The Muslims were jubilant after killing Count Robert and so many of the finest Christian knights; as Ibn Wasil wrote, “This was the first battle in which the Turkish lions [the Mamluks] defeated the infidel dogs.”28


In late February 1250 Turanshah arrived at Mansourah; Ayyub’s death was formally announced and prayers were no longer said in his name. Turanshah was a controversial young man, destined to rule for only ninety-one days and to be the last of the Ayyubid sultans of Egypt. All accounts of his career were written under the subsequent regime and generally cast him in a hostile light. He was said to have been loathed by his father: while some sources report that he had an interest in adab and science, others claimed he was of low intelligence with a nervous twitch that affected his face and his left arm. Yet all this is with the benefit of hindsight—at the time, his presence provided a considerable boost to Muslim morale.

The two forces were now camped opposite each other; both sides made sporadic forays, but an epidemic in the Christian camp and the Muslims’ successful blockade of the river caused the balance to tip decisively against the crusaders. The Egyptians had exploited their local knowledge to send camels carrying prefabricated boats overland to a canal. Once launched, this enabled them to bar the way to Christian shipping. In one engagement fifty-two ships were taken, in another, thirty-two; “the Muslims had the upper hand and now nourished plans to attack,” as Ibn Wasil commented.29 Meanwhile, the physical and mental condition of the crusaders, ignorant of the blockade, plummeted. Joinville himself was afflicted with a tertian fever brought on by his wounds and was bedridden. Many of the army were struck by scurvy. Joinville provides another memorable description: “people had so much dead flesh on their gums that the barbers had to remove it before they could chew their food and swallow it down. It was most pitiful to hear people throughout the camp howling as their dead flesh was cut away because they screamed like women in childbirth.”30

The crusaders began to worry that God no longer favored their enterprise. When one small vessel eluded the blockade to bring news of what was happening it was obvious that there was little chance of escape and Turanshah swiftly rejected a halfhearted attempt to strike a bargain and exchange Damietta for Jerusalem. The crusaders decided to march back to Damietta. If they succeeded, the expedition would at least have a secure base in Egypt where they could regroup.

Slowly the French army started the retreat northward, some moving by land, the others on the remaining boats. Louis himself suffered alongside his men—so bad was his dysentery that he frequently fainted and it was reported that the lower part of his drawers had to be cut away from the royal personage.31 Constant harassment by the Egyptians hampered the Christians’ progress, with the Mamluks—“Islam’s Templars,” as Ibn Wasil proudly called them—the main source of danger.32

In the end, only about fifteen miles short of their target, the Christians were forced to surrender. Some of the king’s advisers, such as his brother Charles of Anjou, had urged Louis to flee, believing that he could escape by taking ship, but their leader had no intention of deserting his men: “Count of Anjou, if you think I am a burden to you, get rid of me; but I will never leave my people.”33

Joinville was one of those who traveled by water. Most of the men were suffering terribly from their wounds and sickness and could offer no resistance. Joinville’s vessel was boarded and it seemed that the passengers would be butchered. Some crusaders prepared themselves for martyrdom, but Joinville, for all his piety, was more practical. He had managed to keep with him a box of personal possessions—relics and jewels—and, realizing that he was going to be taken, he threw them into the Nile. On the advice of one of the sailors he then pretended to be a cousin of the king, in other words, even though wounded, he would be of value to ransom. Louis himself was captured and almost the entire Christian force fell into Muslim hands. The treatment of prisoners varied: Joinville’s priest fainted and was duly killed and cast into the river, yet Joinville himself was allowed to keep a scarlet cloak lined with miniver (given to him by his mother), and was offered a remedy to cure a throat ailment. These small mercies aside, this proud crusade was in utter ruins; Ibn Wasil gloated:

You came to Egypt, thirsting to conquer it and reckoning the drumbeat but a gust of wind;
And so Time has carried you to a disaster which has made narrow what was broad in your eyes;
While through your fine strategy you have brought all your men to the inside of the tomb;
Of fifty thousand not one is to be seen who is not dead or a wounded prisoner.
God grant you [more] triumphs of this ilk, that Jesus may perhaps find relief from you.
If the pope was satisfied with this, perchance fraud has emanated from the counsellor!


Turanshah and Louis agreed on a ransom of 800,000 Saracen bezants and the release of all Christian prisoners, including the wounded, as well as the surrender of Damietta. Before the terms of the treaty could be implemented, however, the young sultan was murdered. It seems that he made the outsider’s classic mistake—on his arrival in Egypt he had replaced many of his father’s trusted advisers with his own men from the Jazira. This removed any sense of continuity and created a deep well of resentment among a powerful local hierarchy. It was rumored he planned to eradicate the Bahri Mamluks, the stalwarts of Ayyub’s regime. He was also criticized for being a drunkard; one writer claimed that when inebriated he would gather candles and slash at their heads with his sword, shouting “thus I shall do with the Bahri.” Unsurprisingly, the Bahri decided to preempt any such action and kill the sultan. After dinner on April 30, 1250, one of them—possibly Baibars himself—attacked him; the blow was parried but the blade wounded his hand. “Having wounded the snake there is no alternative to killing it,” one of the Bahri shouted. Turanshah fled to his compound and its wooden tower. The Bahri set fire to it; the young man staggered to the door, desperate and begging for his life; he implored them, in God’s name, to stop, but to no avail. He managed to flee to the river where, up to his neck in the water, he was finally dispatched; some writers claim that Baibars dealt him the fatal blow, others that it was Aqtay, the leader of the Bahri. His body was thrown into a pit on the riverbank, but after three days the water uncovered him and the corpse was taken over to the other bank where it was buried more securely; a truly ignominious end to the glorious Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt.

Ayyub’s widow, Shajar al-Durr, became the head of government and coins were struck in her name. For a woman to rule a Muslim land was incredibly rare; she needed the close support of Aybek, another former slave who had once been Ayyub’s chief food-taster (testing for poison), but who was now head of the army. Her position was unacceptable to the caliph of Baghdad (among others) and she soon married Aybek and formally handed over power to him.35

For the crusaders, of course, such instability was a cause of great concern; their treaty was with Turanshah and it needed to be reconfirmed by the new regime. For a time things looked very bad indeed. Louis was threatened with the barnacle, a fiendish torture device that crushed a man’s bones between two wooden levers. The king was, on the surface at least, unperturbed; he said that he was a prisoner and the Mamluks could do with him as they wished.36 Here Joinville shows a serenity about Louis’s bearing, almost as if he was a martyr-in-waiting. This was probably reflected in the later canonization process, an issue toward which Joinville’s writings contributed. Some, including Joinville himself, felt the king should have been rewarded with the elevated status of martyr-saint because he died during a crusade, but the fact that he perished from dysentery in 1270, rather than in battle, meant that he was not honored in this way.

Fortunately for the crusaders the Mamluks reconfirmed the treaty and the crusaders handed over Damietta, along with the first half of the ransom. Queen Margaret, who had traveled to the East with Louis and had become pregnant, maintained command of the city. The crusade collapsed just after the birth of her son, known as John-Tristram, and such was her fear that the Muslims might arrive during her confinement that she had instructed a faithful old household knight to kill her if the city fell. “Rest assured that I will do it readily, for I had already decided that I would kill you before they took us,” was his reassuring response.37

By mid-May 1250 the king and most of his nobles were back at Acre. They had to decide whether to return home or to remain in the Levant. At this point, we see Joinville at his most self-important and perhaps introducing more poetic license than usual into his story. He claimed that the entire nobility favored leaving for France; they were ill, exhausted, and penniless, yet only Joinville himself spoke up in favor of staying and it was this personal appeal, his lone voice, that carried the day with the king.38

Regardless of the accuracy of Joinville’s report, the basic principles he expressed are echoed in a contemporary letter written by the king himself, an altogether more reliable source. This was a difficult piece for Louis to write—he had to explain the failure of the expedition and the losses he had suffered. He admitted to “the folly” of the attack on Mansourah, but he also had to justify remaining away from France, and to call for reinforcements. The chief reason for staying in the East was to ensure the return of the Christian prisoners, probably around twelve thousand in number. Louis felt deeply culpable for the fact that many had already been killed by the Muslims, or else forced to convert to Islam. He wrote that the emirs were “openly violating the truce” and he also realized that the condition of the kingdom of Jerusalem had been drastically weakened by events on the Nile:

our departure would simply leave it [the kingdom] exposed to the Saracens, particularly since at this time it was, alas, in such a weakened and wretched condition. In the wake of our departure the Christian prisoners . . . could be regarded as dead men, since all hope of release would have been removed. . . . But if we stayed, some good, it was hoped, may come of our presence . . . although many urged us not to remain overseas, nevertheless in our pity on the miseries and adversities of the Holy Land, to whose aid we had come, and in our sympathy for the incarceration and sufferings of our prisoners, we have chosen to postpone our passage . . . rather than leave the Business of Christ in a state of such utter hopelessness.39

The tone of Louis’s appeal for help was striking, a truly incendiary piece of polemic against the Muslims (the “children of perdition” as he called them). A reading of even the most desperate of papal appeals yields nothing that transmits such real anger: “For in addition to the blasphemies they uttered in the sight of Christian people, that most wicked race has offended the Creator by whipping the Cross, spitting upon it, and finally trampling it vilely underfoot, to the dishonour of the Christian faith. Come then, knights of Christ . . . make ready and prove yourselves mighty men in avenging these injuries and insults.”40 The venom of his language is extreme; clearly the loss of so many Christian soldiers had struck the king hard.

While his surviving brothers and most of the nobility sailed home, Louis settled down to his work in the Levant; Joinville too had resolved to stay. The king would remain in the East for four years; in late 1252, his mother Blanche, died, but he still refused to leave. Louis continued to use the money sent by the French Church to finance a series of major building projects in the Holy Land. He spent over 100,000 livres on strengthening the castles at Caesarea, Jaffa, and Sidon, and some of this work remains visible today. At Acre he fortified the suburb of Montmusard to indicate that Christian presence there had a future. Louis also set up an institution that had been needed for many decades: a permanent regiment of French soldiers, financed by the crown and paid to help defend the Holy Land.41 Finally, in April 1254 he set sail from Acre.

Overall his crusade was, of course, a failure. Given the superlative level of planning and resources, the feeble condition of the Muslim world, and the scarcely believable victory at Damietta, it should have achieved so much more. The combination of Robert of Artois’s foolishness, coupled with clever Muslim resistance, unpicked the king’s best efforts. For Louis this represented God’s judgment on the sins of the Christians and himself. To rectify this apparent moral failing he issued legislation that banned swearing, he renounced luxurious clothes and wore only a gray woolen cloak.42

He discarded his feather bed in favor of a thin cotton mattress and a board, and simplified his diet; he even considered abdicating and becoming a monk. Queen Margaret had no wish to become a nun and managed to convince him that their son was too young to succeed; the king eventually concurred. Most pronounced of all was an obsessive performance of penitential acts. Louis was frequently flagellated (his flagellum is on display in Notre Dame, Paris) and he repeatedly touched the diseased and the dirty, beginning with burying the rotting corpses of crusaders in the Levant with his own hands.43 In short, a profound moral crisis had overcome the king: he felt that “the whole of Christendom has been covered in confusion through me.”44 It would take another crusade to begin to assuage such feelings.


Over the next few decades—the final period of Frankish rule in the Levant—the settlers faced two particular threats: the Mongols and the Mamluks. The first of these dangers remained largely theoretical, although the Mongol presence undoubtedly influenced Christian policies. The Mamluks, however, emerged as an unrelentingly powerful military force that eventually pulverized the Franks into submission and defeat. The years immediately after the murder of Turanshah were, inevitably, a period of turbulence. Aybek and Shajar al-Durr remained in the center of affairs but when, in April 1257, rumors reached the sultana that her husband was looking for a new chief wife, she had him slain by the bathhouse slaves. She appealed to the Bahri for support but they saw a chance to assert their own position and, in turn, had Shajar murdered. Later writers give graphic accounts of her demise: under threat, Shajar had fled to the citadel of Cairo and immured herself in the Red Tower where she spent several days grinding her jewels into dust so no other woman could wear them. Finally, on the verge of starving to death, she was forced to leave the tower but Aybek’s concubines pounced on her, beat her to death with their clogs, and left her body to be eaten by the dogs. Further political turmoil followed, but within a couple of years a Mamluk named Qutuz became the dominant man in the land and it was he who confronted the Mongols as they continued to push toward the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.45

By the late 1250s these nomadic tribesmen had constructed the largest land empire the world has ever known, stretching from China to the borders of Hungary. With a military operation of unprecedented efficiency they had ripped into the heartlands of Islam. Their rationale was simple: they had a divine mandate to rule the world; if people surrendered, they were spared, they paid tribute and were incorporated into the Mongol dominions. If someone resisted then, as an opponent of the word of God, they deserved annihilation. In February 1258 the Mongol armies entered Baghdad and in a sack of the most gargantuan proportions they obliterated centuries of culture and learning; the Mongols claimed 200,000 died, some Persian historians put the figure at 800,000. The caliph was trampled to death in a carpet, a fate that was regarded as an honorable end because it avoided the shedding of noble blood. This marked the end of five centuries of the caliphate in Baghdad—a severe blow to the Sunni community, although, as we will see, it presented an opportunity for others.46

In the face of the Mongol advance, the Seljuk Turks submitted, as did the Christian kingdoms of Armenia and Georgia. A Mongol army of 120,000 crossed the Euphrates in September 1259 and moved toward the Levant. Prince Bohemond VI of Antioch and Tripoli offered terms, the first of the crusader states to become a client of the invaders. The pope excommunicated him but, from Bohemond’s perspective, he had no option. In January 1260, Aleppo fell to the Mongols and was heavily damaged; two months later, the horsemen took Damascus. As a point of comparison, neither of these cities—the most powerful in Muslim Syria—had ever been taken by the Franks in over 150 years.

The cumulative effect of their victories at Baghdad, Aleppo, and Damascus meant that the Mongols appeared unstoppable. News of their brutal progress provoked panic in the kingdom of Jerusalem. Desperate appeals for help were dispatched to the West; the bishop of Bethlehem wrote that terrified Muslims had rushed to the Frankish coastal cities and surrendered to the Christians “like birds fleeing a hawk.”47 Yet the expected onslaught did not come. In August 1259 the Great Khan Mongke died and Mongol custom demanded the ruling clan return to their homelands in central Asia to choose a new leader. Thus, when Hulegu, Mongke’s brother, learned of these events in March 1260 he departed eastward, accompanied by large numbers of troops, intent upon the preservation of his own position in Persia and the Caucasus during the inevitable succession conflict. Another reason why he took so many men away with him may have been a lack of pasturage—the colossal size of his army had simply stripped the lands bare of grass and the Levant could not, unlike central Asia, sustain such a force. His general, Kitbuqa, was left with twenty thousand men to hold on to the Mongol conquests.48

For this reason alone, the Mamluks may have felt they had a chance of victory. Unlike many other peoples or nations, Qutuz decided to respond aggressively to the Mongol threat. Given the latter’s track record this may have seemed foolish, but Qutuz wanted to hold on to power and to justify his seizure of the throne. There was also a religious dimension to the conflict—a wish to defend the remaining independent Muslim lands in the Near East. In the summer of 1260 a Mongol embassy reached Cairo. It mocked the Mamluks for their origins as slaves and demanded immediate submission; the text shows the nomads’ chilling self-belief, based upon their divine mandate:

We are the army of God on His earth. He created us from His wrath and urged us against those who incurred His anger. . . . Be warned by the fate of others . . . we do not pity those who weep, nor are we tender to those who complain. You have heard that we have conquered the lands and cleansed the earth of corruption and killed most of the people. Yours to flee; ours to pursue. And what land will shelter you, what road save you; what country protect you? You have no deliverance from our swords, no escape from the terror of our arms. Our horses are swift in pursuit, our arrows piercing, our swords like thunderbolts, our hearts like rocks, our numbers like sand. Fortresses cannot withstand us; armies are of no avail in fighting us. Your prayers against us will not be heard. . . . If you resist you will be destroyed.49

Qutuz responded by cutting the four envoys in half and displaying their heads in public, one at each of the main gates of Cairo; an act of blatant provocation that made war inevitable. The Egyptians were joined by the Bahri Mamluks, now led by Baibars, who had based himself in Syria, far from the turmoil of Cairo. The kingdom of Jerusalem also needed to formulate a policy, and while the Franks openly assured Mongol envoys of their neutrality, in reality a council had decided to allow the Mamluks through their lands and to give them supplies. Because the Mamluks would later destroy the Latin settlements and, on account of sporadic hints of Mongol interest in Christianity (one of Hulegu’s wives, for example, was an Eastern Christian), it might seem that the decision to favor the Egyptians rather than the Mongols meant the Franks missed a unique chance to destroy Islam in the Near East. In reality, the decade since the murder of Turanshah had offered little indication that the Mamluks would evolve into such a lethal military state. Likewise, the Mongols had done nothing serious to convince the Christians to work with them, and in 1260 it was the steppe warriors that seemed to pose the greater threat.

Qutuz took the initiative when he led his men out of Egypt and chose to fight in Palestine; this gave the Mamluks the opportunity to fall back to their homelands in case of defeat. The sultan urged his warriors to fight bravely to protect their families, their property and, more importantly, to defend Islam: his troops vowed to resist. The two armies, probably numbering about twelve thousand each, met at Ayn Jalut—the Springs of Goliath, an appropriate place for a supposedly weaker party to take on an allegedly invincible opponent.50 Unlike a battle between Christians and Muslims, the forces here were very similar in makeup with both sides formed largely of mounted archers, rather than the heavy cavalry intrinsic to Frankish strategy. The battle took place on September 25. At first the Mongols looked the stronger and they broke through the Mamluks’ left wing. With a cry of “Oh Islam! Help your servant Qutuz against his enemies,” the Muslim general gathered his troops and pushed the Mongols back toward a marshy area; Baibars too was prominent; some of the enemy had climbed a slope and “he stood facing the enemy all day long . . . people everywhere heard about his stand on the mountain . . . and he fought like one who staked his very life . . . the victory was due to [him].”51 Some of the Mongols’ Syrian Muslim allies deserted and when Kitbuqa was killed the Egyptians had won the day. The Mongols fled but they were pursued and soon driven out of Syria.

This was a magnificent achievement for Qutuz, but he did not get to enjoy the fruits of victory. Baibars had long been his rival and on the journey back to Egypt he murdered Qutuz near Gaza on October 23, 1260. Given his heroism during the battle, Baibars was able to claim much of the responsibility for the Mamluk victory; more importantly, Ayn Jalut allowed him to stand as the true defender of Islam, the savior of the faith. Notwithstanding the Mongols’ diminished resources, the battle also showed that the nomads could be defeated, something that had previously seemed unthinkable. With hindsight, Ayn Jalut marked the end of their advance westward, although they threatened several further invasions.

While the Franks had favored the winning side, in 1260 they were in no position to benefit. Their own affairs were in chaos. A detailed account of their troubles would be complex; in essence, however, conflicts such as the War of Saint Sabas (1256–58), a struggle that started between the Genoese and Venetian merchant communities of Acre and subsequently drew in the Levantine nobility, showed the settlers to be deeply riven by political troubles, aside from the threat of outside forces.52 A series of absentee and minor kings of Jerusalem had opened the doors to faction and manipulation, and a lack of strong leadership was a feature of the final decades of Latin rule. By contrast, the dynamism and focus of Baibars and his successors gave the Mamluks the impetus to destroy the Christians.53


Baibars himself was originally a Kipchak Turk, born on the southern Russian steppes c. 1229. In the face of Mongol invasions his tribe fled to the Crimea where he was enslaved at age fourteen. A white mark in the iris of one of his eyes meant he fetched a low price when sold in the slave markets of Aleppo; after his master fell into political disfavor and lost his possessions, Baibars was sent to Ayyub’s court in Cairo and then dispatched to join the Bahri. It was in the service of the revered Ayyub that Baibars claimed to acquire the nobility and the virtue necessary to rule. Given the brutal way that he took power there was an obvious need to justify himself; his biographer and head of chancery, Ibn Abd al-Zahir, claimed that it was a decree of fate: “fortune made him king.” Baibars moved fast to capitalize on the victory at Ayn Jalut and began a clever propaganda push. Ibn Abd al-Zahir wrote: “When God had granted him victory over the Tartars at Ayn Jalut, the sultan ordered the erection of the Mashhad al-Nasr to make plain the importance of this gift of God and the spilled blood of the enemy. He did this, furthermore, because the place was ennobled since God had mentioned it in the story of Talut and Jalut in his exalted book and the sultan acknowledged the rank of this site for which God had had this extraordinary victory in store.”54

Baibars brought a religious edge to the conflicts with both the Christians and the Mongols. Jihad sentiments had been notably low-key during the later decades of Ayyubid rule but, as we saw in the Mamluk approach at Ayn Jalut, this changed. Under Baibars the desire to rid the Levant of unbelievers formed a significant part of his approach and these lines from a letter to Prince Bohemond VI of Antioch after the capture of his city in 1268 give a flavor of his attitude: “you should have seen your [Christian] knights prostrate beneath the horses’ hooves . . . your women sold four at a time . . . the crosses in your churches smashed, the pages of false testaments scattered . . . fire running through your palaces, your dead burned in this world before going down to the fires of the next.”55Qutuz had discovered someone who claimed to be an uncle of the last caliph but when this individual proved too independent-minded for Baibars’s taste he was disposed of. The sultan soon found another “relative” of the caliph who was invested with the title in 1262. With the appropriate guidance this man provided Baibars with a source of supreme spiritual legitimacy, something that enabled him to tap into the traditions of Zengi, Nur ad-Din, and Saladin as the leader of the jihad.

Perhaps Baibars’s two most important personal characteristics were his energy and his uncompromising harshness. His reign was distinguished by an iron-fisted discipline—exemplary crucifixions or bisections were a familiar tactic. He made great use of spies and often turned up unannounced at government offices to check up on things; he would also venture out in disguise to reconnoiter enemy positions or to find out what his own people were thinking about him; deception was routine. There was a cruel edge to Baibars’s career that marks him out as a particularly brutal—if effective—exponent of holy war. His personal physician described him as a short, barrel-chested man who slept only fitfully and was troubled by nightmares and frequent stomach upsets; given the number of enemies he had made such obvious manifestations of stress are hardly a surprise.56


Once Baibars was established in Egypt and southern Syria, he turned his attention to the Franks. To confront the continued Mongol threat to Muslim Syria the sultan relied upon the support of Egyptian armies. To move quickly between his territories he needed to eradicate the Christians, and he also coveted the settlers’ fertile lands on the coastal plain. Between 1261 and 1271 he mounted campaign after campaign against the Franks, who by this stage controlled little more than the coast from Jaffa northward. Their authority was based upon fortified cities such as Caesarea and Acre, or massive castles such as the Templar fortress of Safad. Yet even these gigantic defenses could not resist Baibars, whose ingenuity proved almost impossible to counter.57 He approached Safad in June 1266 and, as usual, offered the defenders presents to try to induce them to surrender; much to his fury, however, the gifts were adopted as ammunition and hurled back by mangonels. The sultan brought up his own siege engines and soon took the barbican, although in doing so he suffered heavy losses. Worried by this he offered the Syrian Christians—but not the Templars—safe conduct; he then renewed the attack. Because the castle seemed about to fall, a Templar official went to negotiate with the sultan. Baibars still nursed a grievance over the diplomatic insult, and to revenge the slight to his honor he substituted a doppelgänger of himself. This person was to offer safe conduct to everyone, while in reality the sultan intended to slay them all. Baibars told the Templar envoy his plan and gave him a simple set of alternatives—if he wanted to live and be rewarded, he was to go along with this stratagem, otherwise he would be killed most cruelly. The man picked the former option. The defenders duly made their agreement with the false sultan and surrendered on July 22. The following night, as they made their way toward Acre, the Christians were seized and executed, and their bones and heads placed inside a small circular wall to be seen by travelers.

Baibars conducted annual raids, repeatedly ravaging crops and orchards near Acre to exert an unbearable pressure on the Franks. Again he employed various tricks: on one occasion his men carried captured Templar and Hospitaller banners so as not to alarm agricultural workers close to the city; only when it was too late did the defenseless peasants realize the deceit and five hundred of them were killed and then scalped. The trophies were strung onto a cord and hung around a tower on the castle of Safad.

In 1268 he took Jaffa, although this time he allowed most of the defenders free passage to Acre. Once inside Jaffa he seized and burned relics from the churches as a mark of his hatred for Christianity. The same year, the Templar castle of Beaufort fell, as did Antioch, the latter accompanied by a huge massacre with up to seventeen thousand dead and tens of thousands taken captive. Around the same time, Baibars also brought the Assassins under his subjection. Like Saladin he claimed to defend Sunni orthodoxy against the heretical Shi’ite sect and thus justified his conflict with other Muslims.

The most celebrated castle of all, the mighty and majestic Krak des Chevaliers, fell in 1271.58 While many crusader fortresses have been damaged or destroyed, Krak remains remarkably intact, still perched proudly on the edge of a ridge looking over a broad fertile valley toward the hills of the Lebanon. Krak was built to protect the towns and farms of the coastal region from Muslim raids. The Hospitallers acquired the castle in 1144, and over the years they developed it into one of the most sophisticated defensive sites of all time. In the early thirteenth century they erected the huge concentric walls and multiple towers that characterize castles of this period. The seemingly endless entry tunnel, complete with a 180-degree hairpin, ascends gently into the gloom, pierced only by shafts of dusty light from the murder holes. The high-quality, neatly finished stonework shows the expense and care lavished upon this most sophisticated of defensive systems. At the core of Krak lies a surprisingly small courtyard—not the wide-open areas familiar from contemporary Welsh castles, such as Caernarfon or Harlech, but a much more intimate space. Along the western side remains a facade of delicate Gothic tracery; looking at this, one could be in a western European monastery—which is exactly the point. It reminds us that the Military Orders were warrior-monks; both soldiers and religious men. Here was something akin to a cloister with a chapel also built on to the enclosure. Elsewhere, other features include immense stables and storerooms, vital to allow Krak to accommodate a garrison of two thousand. Yet in spite of this the castle could not hold out against Baibars—and once again, the sultan is suspected of using treachery. After the capture of the forward defenses and the outer barbicans, he faced the muscular immensity of the main castle. To breach this structure would surely have cost him an intolerable number of men, and he therefore resorted to a trick. He sent the defenders a forged letter that claimed to be from the Hospitaller commander in Tripoli instructing them to surrender. Some historians believe the garrison was duped by this, others suggest that after two months of siege they had little chance of survival and saw this as a way to end their confinement; either way, this mighty stronghold capitulated for the first time in its history and Baibars had struck another weighty psychological blow for Islam.


The Franks suffered a further setback in 1270. Louis IX had been determined to atone for the defeat of his first crusade.59 In 1267 he began to organize another expedition, although this time he proposed to march through North Africa and approach Egypt from the west. By this time the king’s health was poor and Joinville judged those who advised Louis to set out as having committed a mortal sin against the king and his people.60 Another sizable French army sailed for Africa on July 2, 1270. The king’s profound religiosity meant the mendicant orders exerted a strong influence on this campaign; the idea of conversion had become an increasingly powerful theme during the thirteenth century and the desire to convince the Mongols, Muslims, and the Eastern Christians to become Catholic was a highly prominent aspect of relations between Europe and the wider world. The main focus of Louis’s attention was the ruler of Tunisia who had recently set up a rival claim to the caliphate in Cairo. In the event the French only reached Carthage. The Muslims showed little interest in conversion and, by contrast, harassed the Christian camp with arrows and projectiles. It was the height of summer and conditions for the crusaders quickly became deleterious. Louis’s son, John-Tristram, born at the siege of Damietta in 1249, soon expired; after two weeks the king himself was struck down with dysentery and forced to his bed. By August 24 his death was imminent. As he lay in terminal decline the king called out “O Jerusalem! O Jerusalem!” and prayed for his people; he died the following day. His bones were kept in a casket and brought to Saint-Denis but his entrails and flesh were taken to the cathedral of Monreale on Sicily by his brother, Charles.

Louis had been determined to live as a true Christian monarch and crusading lay at the very heart of his thinking. The seven years he spent overseas between 1248 and 1254 represent an unmatched level of devotion to the Holy Land. Yet for all his prayers, suffering, and financial outlay, he had, as he knew all too well, failed to turn around Christian fortunes in the Levant. His personal devotion in both France and Outremer was recognized in 1292 when he was canonized—the first crusader king to become a saint.

After Louis’s death the French army soon broke up and returned home, although an important latecomer was to land in the Levant rather than North Africa. Louis had induced Lord Edward (soon to be King Edward I of England), eldest son of King Henry III, to join the crusade, and after wintering in Sicily the prince set sail for the Holy Land in the spring of 1271.61 The arrival of a powerful westerner was a cause for excitement and King Hugh I of Jerusalem and Cyprus (the two crowns were united at this time) came over to Acre. Edward, Hugh, and the Military Orders executed several large raids into Muslim territory but their forces were nowhere near big enough to engage Baibars. At Acre, Edward survived an assassination attempt. His entourage contained a convert from Islam whom the crusaders were using as a spy; he had given good information to the Christians and seemed to prove his loyalty during an earlier foray. One night he came to the royal chambers where Edward and his wife were sleeping and claimed to have urgent news for him. Dressed only in his undershirt and drawers, Edward opened the door and the traitor stabbed him deep in the hip; the prince was not felled, however; in one mighty punch, he knocked out his assailant, then grabbed a dagger and killed him. The prince’s wound was sutured and luckily for him it remained free of infection; he recovered to leave the Levant in October 1272.

Baibars continued to squeeze the Christians closer to extinction—while at the same time he was also at war with the Seljuk Turks of Asia Minor and the Mongols of Persia. On occasion he made truces with the Franks to enable him to pursue these other opponents individually, although he tended to break these agreements when it suited him.62 In 1277 he embarked upon a major campaign in Asia Minor and seemed poised to take control of the region only to return to Damascus to face a threatened Mongol invasion. There, on June 20, 1277, he fell ill while watching a polo match. He had consumed some qumiz, a highly alcoholic brew made from fermented mare’s milk (not the wine so frowned upon by the sultan himself), a drink that can be lethal if it goes bad; given Baibars’s atrocious record of murder and deceit, rumors of poisoning abounded but no one was identified as responsible for his death. He was buried in Damascus, where his modified tomb remains in its original setting, the Zahiriyya madrasa, a couple of hundred meters from the resting place of Saladin. Few grieved the death of such a harsh ruler, yet he had maintained power for seventeen years and proved the most gifted and imaginative commander of the age. A carefully developed administration meant that by the time of his death his lands were immeasurably better organized for war than before. He had been a remorseless foe of the Franks and did much to break their hold on the Levantine coast. As his biographer wrote: “The sultan stood among his comrades like a sun among the bright stars and like a lion amongst the cubs it protects. He trained to fight the unbelievers and continued to fight the holy war day and night.”63

Baibars’s death did not mean the end of the Mamluk threat. In contrast to many previous successions in the Muslim world there was no civil war. After a brief reign by Baibars’s son, the former sultan’s chief emir, Qalawun, emerged in power. He was another former slave, nicknamed “al-Alfi,” the thousander, on account of the high price that he had fetched at auction. He served his master well and his daughter had married into the sultan’s family; he was also a highly experienced soldier. Soon he had to confront the Mongols because in 1280 they plundered Aleppo. A year later, at the Battle of Homs, two huge armies met and practically obliterated each other; the carnage was immense but Qalawun held the field and so the victory went to him.

By the late 1280s the pattern familiar from Baibars’s reign was repeating itself. Major Christian castles and cities fell with alarming regularity: Marqab in 1285, Latakia in 1287, and Tripoli in 1289. The Mamluks genuinely intended to erase the Frankish presence. Qalawun began to focus on Acre, the settlers’ capital city; it would be a huge challenge to breach its massive defenses, but if the sultan succeeded it would definitively break Christian power in the Holy Land. A truce was in operation but when a group of newly arrived crusaders killed Muslim farmers in Acre, the sultan had a casus belli. Since his success at Tripoli he had employed military inspectors to ensure that the castles near Acre were ready for war and he ordered the construction of special siege engines from Lebanese cedar wood. Before he could act, however, Qalawun was fatally poisoned. On his deathbed he was said to have urged his son, al-Ashraf, to take Acre and to avenge the blood of the Saracens slain by the crusaders.64


In March 1291 al-Ashraf gathered a huge army, assembled from Egypt, Palestine, and Syria; meanwhile any Franks who lived in the countryside fled behind the walls of Acre. The city was crammed with refugees; perhaps thirty to forty thousand men, women, and children defended by around eight hundred knights and thirteen thousand footmen. Al-Ashraf sent a letter to the master of the Templars that conveyed unyielding menace:

The Sultan of Sultans, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, al-Malik al-Ashraf, the Powerful, the Dreadful, the Scourge of Rebels, Hunter of Franks and Tartars and Armenians, Snatcher of Castles from the Hands of Miscreants, Lord of the Two Seas, Guardian of the Two Pilgrim Sites. . . . We send you advance notice of our intentions, and give you to understand that we are coming into your parts to right the wrongs that have been done. We do not want the community of Acre to send us any letters or gifts for we will by no means receive them.65

On April 5, 1291, the siege began when al-Ashraf pitched his red tent with its entrance facing the city of Acre. Soon the Muslims brought forward enormous siege engines, mighty machines that could fire stones weighing about fifty kilograms each. One was called “Furious;” another, “the Victorious,” took one hundred wagons to transport it (in kit form) from its home at Krak des Chevaliers; two other huge machines are also known to have been used.

Boldly, the Franks took the initiative and charged out of the city gates to harass the Muslim camp. They also sent out ships from the harbor and landed troops near the enemy lines to fire bows and portable ballistas. One particularly heavy raid penetrated the Muslim camp and caused panic—an emir fell into the latrine pit and drowned—but a swift counterattack drove back the Christians with heavy casualties. Over the weeks, however, the pressure on the Franks increased; the Muslims hid behind huge padded wicker screens that deflected artillery fire and, protected by these devices, they moved up to the ditch outside the city. Such was their numerical superiority that they could work four shifts a day and still remain fresh.

The Christians gained some relief from the arrival of King Henry II of Cyprus and a cease-fire was declared. The king tried to negotiate but al-Ashraf was not prepared to leave without taking the city and would only offer free passage to the defenders and its inhabitants. Henry could never agree to this “because the people overseas would hold us to be traitors;” he did not want to be the man who had surrendered the capital of the Christian presence in the Holy Land.66 Under the cover of a heavy bombardment the Muslims mined the outer wall and the Tower of the King and created a breach of such dimensions that the defenders panicked. More and more women and children were evacuated to Cyprus—the dismal Mamluk navy meant that Christian shipping was fairly safe.

The beating of a huge drum “which had a horrible and mighty voice,” as one eyewitness characterized it, signaled a general onslaught. The Muslims advanced on foot; first came shield-bearers, behind them men hurled Greek fire, and next came javelin-throwers and archers. They spread out between Acre’s inner and outer walls and concentrated on two gates that barred the city. William of Beaujeu, the master of the Templars, left his own tower and rushed toward the Gate of Saint Anthony. The Muslims continued their terrible bombardment of Greek fire, arrows, and spears; when the knights charged at them “it seemed as if they hurled themselves against a stone wall.”67 In the middle of the engagement William was grievously wounded when a javelin hit him under the armpit. When the standard-bearer saw him turn his horse away he followed, assuming that William was leading a retreat, but others called out for the master not to leave or else the city would fall. William revealed his wound and collapsed forward, almost falling from his mount. Men rushed to hold him in the saddle and then eased him onto a shield and carried him to the Templar headquarters inside the citadel. He lived one day longer, asking only to be left to die in peace.

The Muslims poured into the city and took tower after tower. The French regiment founded by Louis IX fought bravely but nothing could withstand the onslaught. King Henry and the master of the hospital saw that all was lost, boarded boats, and fled to Cyprus; May 18, 1291, was an inauspicious day for the Latin hierarchy. Not everyone was so fortunate; women and children remained and many were soon slaughtered. The Templar compound was the last place of refuge, the strongest location of all. At last an agreement of safe conduct was made. A group of Muslim horsemen came in and, according to Muslim and Christian sources, started to molest the female prisoners. Furious, the Franks attacked and killed them. Al-Ashraf claimed to accept responsibility for this incident and he asked to talk to the senior Templars. Once they were in his possession, however, he beheaded them all; in response, five Muslim prisoners were precipitated from the walls. For the surviving knights and citizens in the Templar tower there was no hope of escape. After ten days a corner in the complex was mined, and as the defenders surrendered it collapsed, killing Muslims and Christians alike. More carnage ensued—Franciscan and Dominican friars, female mendicants (the Poor Clares) were slain, while long lines of women and children were led off into slavery. Thus the city of Acre fell. The Christian capture of Jerusalem in 1099 and the Muslim victory at Acre in 1291 bookended the crusader presence in the Holy Land with massacres of exceptional savagery. Within a short time Sidon, Beirut, Athlit, Jubail, and Tyre capitulated as well. On August 3, 1291, when the last group of knights left Tortosa for the tiny isle of Ruad, just over a mile off the Syrian shore, it marked the end of Christian rule on the mainland. Almost two hundred years after the First Crusaders had achieved an improbable victory at Jerusalem, their successors fled for their lives, or died. The Franks had fought hard but their penchant for ruinous political infighting, the failure of Louis’s crusades, and the lack of further meaningful help from the West, coupled with the focus and strength of their Mamluk opponents, meant the end of an era. Al-Ashraf had fulfilled Saladin’s ambition at last. As the Muslim writer Ibn al-Furat wrote in a panegyric to his successful sultan:

Because of you no town is left in which unbelief can repair, no hope for the Christian religion! Through al-Ashraf the lord sultan, we are delivered from the Trinity, and Unity rejoices in the struggle! Praise be to God, the nation of the Cross has fallen; through the Turks the religion of the chosen Arab has triumphed!68

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