Power in Adversity
Defeat at Hattin and the loss of Jerusalem did not diminish the crusading cause; indeed, crusading thrived on disaster and was fuelled by a new enthusiasm. After capturing the Christian coastal ports and Jerusalem in 1187, Saladin turned his attention to northern Syria where during his campaign of 1188 he stormed one castle after another and took the city of Latakia. But he baulked at the key Hospitaller castles of Margat and Krak des Chevaliers and at the Templars’ fortified city of Tortosa and their castle at Safita called Chastel Blanc. More than ever Outremer relied on castles and on the military orders who manned them, and the power of the orders grew. In fact at no point in their history would the Templars be more powerful than in the century after nearly everything in the Holy Land was lost to Saladin.
The West reacted with shock to the loss of Jerusalem and responded by launching the Third Crusade in 1190. In a remarkable series of victories first Philip II of France and Richard I of England, known as ‘the Lionheart’, recovered Acre in July 1191, and then Richard went on to take Jaffa and Ascalon as well, after defeating Saladin in a great battle at Arsuf in September 1191 in which the military orders played a leading role. Richard the Lionheart marched to within sight of Jerusalem but was advised by both the Templar and the Hospitaller grand masters that even if he took the city it could not be held without also controlling the hinterland, especially once his army had left Outremer. Richard took their advice and instead came to an agreement with Saladin. The Franks would demolish the walls of Ascalon while Saladin would recognise the Christian positions along the coast; free movement would be allowed to Christians and Muslims across each other’s territory; and Christian pilgrims would be permitted to visit Jerusalem and the other holy places.
In name and number the revived Crusader states were as before, but their outlines were diminished. There was the Kingdom of Jerusalem, though its capital was at Acre, which the Templars made their new headquarters. To the north was the County of Tripoli. But the Muslims retained control of the Syrian coast around Latakia for some time, and so the Principality of Antioch further to the north was now no longer contiguous to the other Crusader states. Nevertheless the Third Crusade, in which Richard relied heavily on the Templars, had saved the Holy Land for the Christians and went a long way towards restoring Frankish fortunes. Accompanied by a Templar escort, Richard left the Holy Land in 1192, and in the following year Saladin died. Peace settled over Outremer and its immediate future looked secure.
Richard the Lionheart and the Templars
The Templar Grand Master Gerard of Ridefort, who had been captured by Saladin and then released in 1187, received a last acclaim from the anonymous English knight on whose lost journal the Itinerarium Regis Ricardi was based. The chronicle records Gerard’s death in 1189, during an abortive attempt to retake Acre, and says that the Grand Master was crowned with the laurel of martyrdom ‘which he had merited in so many wars’. The lost journal may well have been written by a Templar serving with Richard I of England during the Third Crusade. In any case the new crusade certainly marked the close association of the Templars with the English king.
Robert of Sablé became Grand Master of the Templars in 1191, almost certainly through the influence of King Richard, whose vassal he had been. On his way to the Holy Land, Richard paused to capture Cyprus from the Byzantines, but lacking the means to control the island he sold it to the Templars, a transaction that probably owed something to the already close link between Robert of Sablé and the king. The entire future of the Templars might have been different had they devoted more resources to the island, but they placed only twenty knights on Cyprus and another hundred men at arms, insufficient to secure it, and so they gave it back to Richard. Possessing a territory of their own, the Templars would have anticipated the achievement of the Knights Hospitaller, who established their own independent state on Rhodes in 1309. Instead Templar fortunes remained tied to the Holy Land, and when it fell the Templars fell soon after.
Meanwhile, the Templars were invaluable to Richard the Lionheart, never more so than when he relied on their steadiness and discipline to help him win his great victory over Saladin in the battle of Arsuf on 7 September 1191. As Richard marched south along the coast from Acre his army was vulnerable to flank attacks by Saladin’s Turkish cavalry, and it was thanks to the Templars and the Hospitallers that the Turks were beaten off and the coherence of the Christian column was maintained–much as the Templars had done for Louis VII during his march across Asia Minor during the Second Crusade.
On the battlefield itself Richard placed the Templars at the front rank of his army, the Hospitallers at the rear. Richard’s plan was for his army to stand firm while Saladin’s forces wore themselves out in attack. And so it went, beginning with wave after wave of lightly armed black and Bedouin infantry rushing against the Christian lines, followed by charging Turkish horsemen swinging their scimitars and axes. And still the knights held their ground, Richard waiting for the moment when the Muslim charges showed signs of weakening. The Templars withstood everything thrown at them. The Hospitallers broke ranks first; unwilling to endure the assaults any longer, they rode out against the enemy, and then the whole army followed suit. Saladin’s secretary Imad al-Din, who watched the battle from a nearby hill, gasped at the splendour of the spectacle as Richard’s cavalry thundered forwards, with the king himself at the centre restoring order and taking command of the battle. Arsuf was a tremendous moral victory for the Franks and a public humiliation of Saladin, a small repayment for the Templars he slaughtered after the battle of Hattin. The victory also partly resurrected the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
After the death of Saladin his empire fell apart; rival factions of his dynasty, the Ayyubids (Ayyub being Saladin’s father’s name), ruled in Cairo and Damascus but all the rest was lost. Occasional skirmishes followed between Outremer and the Muslim powers but more often relations were regulated by repeated truces, while in the West enthusiasm for crusading against the Muslim East momentarily declined. The Fourth Crusade, launched against Egypt with the aim of ultimately recovering Jerusalem, was diverted by the Venetians, who supplied the ships, to Constantinople, which in 1204 was sacked, with Latin Christians replacing the rule of the Orthodox Christian Emperors until the Byzantines reconquered their city in 1261. As discussed earlier, France and the Papacy looked to the enemy within when the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars was launched in 1209. Neither of these crusades improved the position of Outremer.
Returning to the object of regaining Jerusalem, in 1217 the Papacy launched the Fifth Crusade, though the means of doing so was to attack Egypt. The Templars were involved in this new crusade from the start, with the Templar treasurer at Paris overseeing the donations that were to fund the expedition. Forces under King Andrew of Hungary and Leopold, Duke of Austria, were joined by men under John of Brienne, the King of Jerusalem, which included Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights–the last being a new military order founded along Templar lines by Germans who had been on the Third Crusade.
With no single outstanding leader among this mixed force, the Fifth Crusade was placed under the authority of the Papal legate Pelagius, a man of no military experience. Nevertheless, early in 1219 the Crusaders captured the port of Damietta in the Nile Delta, thanks largely to the Templars, who not only fought admirably on horseback but demonstrated a remarkable talent for innovation, adapting their engineering and tactical skills from the arid conditions of Outremer to the watery landscape of the Delta where they commanded ships and built floating pontoons to win the victory.
The loss of Damietta so unnerved the Sultan of Egypt, Saladin’s nephew al-Kamil, that he offered to trade it for Jerusalem. But the Templar Grand Master argued that Jerusalem could not be held without controlling the lands beyond the Jordan, and so the Crusaders rejected the offer and continued their campaign in Egypt. Meanwhile they were awaiting the arrival at Damietta of another army led by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Despite its failure to appear, the Papal legate Pelagius impatiently urged the Crusaders to advance up the Nile towards Cairo. United under the command of an experienced leader, the Fifth Crusade might have been a success. But at Mansurah, al-Kamil cut off the Crusaders’ rear, opened the sluice gates of the irrigation canals and flooded the army into submission. In 1221 Pelagius agreed to give up Damietta, not in exchange for Jerusalem, but to save the lives of the Crusaders, who immediately evacuated Egypt and returned to Acre.
Frederick II did eventually appear in the East, but only eight years later, by when he was openly at loggerheads with the Church. Crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1212 at Frankfurt, Frederick was also king of both Germany and Sicily. He preferred to rule from Palermo, where he had been raised amid the Norman, Byzantine, Jewish and Arab influences at the Sicilian court. He learnt German, Italian, French, Latin, Greek and Arabic, and was a student of mathematics, philosophy, natural history, medicine and architecture, as well as being a talented poet. These accomplishments contributed to his broadness of outlook, his exceptionally cultivated mind and his rather idiosyncratic character, which earned him the title of Stupor Mundi, Wonder of the World. But they also engendered suspicion. It was rumoured that Frederick did not believe in God, and it was put about that he scoffed at the virgin birth of Jesus and described Mohammed, Jesus and Moses as ‘the three impostors or deceivers of the world’.
This might have been the black propaganda of the Papacy at Rome, which was worried at being encircled by his domains and was also agitated by Frederick’s claim to supreme authority and his boast that he would revive the Roman Empire, to which the Papacy countered by saying the Church had a higher authority in God.
Frederick had been twenty-one when he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor and vowed to take the cross, but he failed to appear in Egypt during the Fifth Crusade and time and again put off his departure for the East. But in 1225, when John of Brienne, the aged King of Jerusalem, came West seeking a husband for his fourteen-year-old daughter Yolanda, whom he had crowned queen at Acre, Frederick saw his opportunity. Marrying her at Brindisi, Frederick broke his promise that John of Brienne could continue as regent; instead Frederick claimed the right as Yolanda’s husband to become king, a move that would confirm him, he imagined, as the supreme sovereign in the Christian world.
Now in 1228 at the age of thirty-six Frederick finally set out for the Holy Land, but he fell ill en route and rested in Italy for a while before continuing his journey. Pope Gregory IX, who distrusted Frederick’s imperial intentions in Italy, excommunicated him at once, using the excuse that this was yet one more instance of the Emperor’s failure to fulfil his crusading vow. Then when Frederick eventually arrived at Acre in September, the Pope again asserted his authority, excommunicating him again, this time for attempting to go crusading without having first obtained Papal absolution for his earlier excommunication. Frederick was not impressed, but the barons and clergy in Outremer were, as were the Templars and the Hospitallers who owed their allegiance to the Pope, only the Teutonic Knights braving Papal wrath to support their fellow German.
However, even before Frederick had left Sicily, he and al-Kamil had been in secret negotiations over the objects of this Sixth Crusade. Frederick wanted Jerusalem if only because it would be useful in promoting himself as the supreme power in the West. Al-Kamil was prepared to oblige provided Frederick helped him capture Damascus. But by the time Frederick arrived in Outremer, al-Kamil had changed his mind. Determined to gain Jerusalem, Frederick now made a feint towards Egypt, in November leading his army from Acre towards Jaffa. The Templars and Hospitallers followed a day behind, not wanting to seem part of a crusade led by an excommunicant, but when Frederick placed the expedition under the nominal authority of his generals, the orders abandoned their scruples altogether and joined up with the main force. The show of unity did not last long.
Frederick’s advance was enough to make al-Kamil fear that he would have to abandon his siege of Damascus, and he quickly agreed a deal with Frederick: a ten-year truce and the surrender of Jerusalem to the Christians. It was a sudden and sensational result and gave Frederick what he wanted, but it outraged the Patriarch and the military orders. The walls of Jerusalem had been torn down during the Fifth Crusade; if it was going to be given to them then, the intention was that it should not be defensible, and that remained the idea now, for part of the agreement was that the city should remain unfortified, and its only connection to the coast should be a narrow corridor of land. Moreover the orders were forbidden to make any improvements to their great castles of Marqab and Krak des Chevaliers of the Hospitallers and Tortosa and Chastel Blanc of the Templars. And then there was the galling provision–a necessary face-saver for al-Kamil–that the Temple Mount should remain under Muslim control and that the Templars were absolutely forbidden to return to their former headquarters at the al-Aqsa mosque.
On 29 March 1229 Frederick was crowned King of Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Patriarch had placed an interdict on the city, forbidding church ceremonies while Frederick was in Jerusalem, and so with no priests to crown him, and with the Templars and the Hospitallers keeping away, it was left to Frederick to place the crown of Jerusalem on his own head. Calling himself God’s Vicar on Earth, the title usually reserved for the Pope, Frederick swore in the presence of the Teutonic Knights to defend the kingdom, the Church and his empire. He afterwards toured the city, and going to the Temple Mount he entered the Dome of the Rock through a wooden lattice door, put there he was told to keep the sparrows out. Venting his feelings about his Papal enemies to whom he had restored the holy city, Frederick pronounced, ‘Now God has sent you pigs.’
Frederick stayed in Jerusalem for only two days. He had achieved what he wanted and was eager to get back to Europe and the serious business of expanding his powers there. But he also feared that the Templars might make an attempt upon his life while he was in the city. Chroniclers as far apart as Sicily, Damascus and England reported this story, which if nothing else reflected the intensity of ill-feeling and suspicion between the Emperor and the Pope, an enmity in which the Templars had become involved. When Frederick returned to Sicily he seized the property of the military orders there, released their Muslim slaves without paying compensation and imprisoned the Templar brothers. Yet again the Pope excommunicated him, and again Frederick ignored the Pope. It was a foreboding of what could happen when the Templars stood in the way of the needs and ambitions of a secular prince.
The Rise of the Mamelukes
In 1239 the ten-year truce had run out, but there was no immediate threat to Outremer. Al-Kamil had died the year before and Egypt was riven by factions, while the bitterness between the Cairo and Damascus branches of the Ayyubid family had increased. Nevertheless the Templars remained opposed to the rapprochement between Outremer and Egypt brought about by Frederick II, and with good reason: Templar emissaries sent to Cairo in 1243 were held as virtual prisoners for six months, and the Egyptians would still not return Gaza, Hebron and Nablus in accordance with the truce.
The Templars saw this as a delaying tactic by the new Egyptian Sultan al-Salih Ayyub, giving him time to overcome Damascus and other Muslim rulers, and then to overwhelm Outremer. Templar policy was to favour Damascus, and this showed some results: the Christian kingdom gained by negotiation all the land west of the Jordan except Hebron and Nablus, and the Franks were given a free hand to celebrate Christian services in every former church throughout Jerusalem, and to expel the Muslims from the Temple Mount and to reconvert to Christian use the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
When war broke out again between Cairo and Damascus in spring 1244 the Templars persuaded the barons of Outremer to intervene on the side of the Damascene ruler Ismail. The alliance was sealed by the visit to Acre of al-Mansur Ibrahim, a Muslim prince of Homs, who on behalf of Ismail offered the Franks a share of Egypt when al-Salih Ayyub was defeated. The continuing factionalism in Cairo meant that al-Salih could not rely on the regular army, but he had taken steps to counter that by purchasing Mamelukes in large numbers.
These military slaves were mostly Kipchak Turks from the steppes of southern Russia; bought, trained and converted to Islam, they became al-Salih’s powerful private army. Also al-Salih had bought the help of the Khorezmian Turks, ferocious mercenaries then based in Edessa, who had been displaced from Transoxiana and parts of Iran and Afghanistan by the expansion of the Mongols. In June the Khorezmian horsemen, twelve thousand strong, swept southwards into Syria, but deterred by the formidable walls of Damascus they rode on into Galilee, captured Tiberias, and on 11 July broke through the feeble defences of Jerusalem and brutally massacred everyone who could not retreat into the citadel. Six weeks later the defenders emerged, having been promised safe passage to the coast. The garrison together with the entire Christian population, six thousand men, women and children, left the city but were cut down by Khorezmian swords, only three hundred making it to Jaffa. For good measure the Khorezmians ransacked the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, tore up the bones of the Kings of Jerusalem from their tombs, set the place alight and burnt all the other churches of the city, pillaged its homes and shops, then left the smoking wreckage of Jerusalem to join al-Salih’s Mameluke army at Gaza.
The Mamelukes as seen through the eyes of Ibn Khaldun, fourteenth-century North African historian:
It was God’s benevolence that he rescued the faith by reviving its dying breath and restoring the unity of the Muslims in the Egyptian realms, preserving the order and defending the walls of Islam. He did this by sending to the Muslims, from this Turkish nation and from among its great and numerous tribes, rulers to defend them and utterly loyal helpers, who were brought from the House of War to the House of Islam under the rule of slavery, which hides in itself a divine blessing. By means of slavery they learn glory and blessing and are exposed to divine providence; cured by slavery, they enter the Muslim religion with the firm resolve of true believers and yet with nomadic virtues unsullied by debased nature, unadulterated with the filth of pleasure, undefiled by the ways of civilised living, and with their ardour unbroken by the profusion of luxury. The slave merchants bring them to Egypt in batches, like sandgrouse to the watering places, and government buyers have them displayed for inspection and bid for them…Thus, one intake comes after another and generation follows generation, and Islam rejoices in the benefit which it gains through them, and the branches of the kingdom flourish with the freshness of youth.
From Bernard Lewis, Islam from the Prophet Muhammed to the Capture of Constantinople, Oxford University Press, 1987
Catastrophe at La Forbie and the Seventh Crusade
The Frankish forces which had been scattered throughout the castles of Outremer gathered at Acre. Not since Hattin had such a considerable Christian army been put into the field, its numbers including over 300 knights from the Templars, at least another 300 from the Hospitallers, also some Teutonic Knights, and a further 600 secular knights, as well as a proportionate number of sergeants and foot soldiers. To these were added the yet more numerous if lighter-armed forces of their Damascene ally under the command of al-Mansur Ibrahim and a contingent of Bedouin cavalry.
On 17 October 1244 this Christian-Muslim army drew up before the smaller Egyptian army with its elite core of Mamelukes and the Khorezmians outside Gaza on a sandy plain at a place called La Forbie. The Franks and their allies attacked, but the Egyptians stood firm under the command of the Mameluke general Baybars, and while the Franks were pinned in place, the Khorezmians tore into the flank of al-Mansur Ibrahim’s forces. The Damascene forces turned and fled; the Franks fought on bravely but after a few hours their entire army was destroyed. At least 5000 Franks died in the battle, among them 260 to 300 Templars, while over 800 Christians were captured and sold into slavery in Egypt, including the Templar Grand Master, who was never seen again. The catastrophe was comparable to Hattin, and when Damascus fell to al-Salih the following year it looked as though time had run out for Outremer.
Relief to Outremer came in the form of the Seventh Crusade, led by King Louis IX of France, Saint Louis as he afterwards became thanks to his incessant warfare against enemies of the true faith, be they Muslims or Cathars–it was during Louis’ reign that the Cathars were finally beaten and incinerated at the stake. Now in the summer of 1249 he landed with his French army at the Delta port of Damietta with the familiar idea of overturning the Ayyubid regime in Cairo. Al-Salih Ayyub was suffering from cancer and when he died in November his wife, Shagarat al-Durr, hid his corpse and kept morale alive by pretending to transmit the Sultan’s orders to his army of Mameluke slave troops led by Baybars.
In February 1250 the French advanced through the Delta towards Cairo but owing to the impetuosity of the king’s brother, the Count of Artois, suffered heavy losses at Mansurah. He had urged the Crusader knights to charge into the town, where they were trapped within the narrow streets, the Templars alone losing 280 mounted knights, a massive blow so soon after La Forbie. A stalemate followed and the Crusaders were weakened by scurvy and plague. In April they retreated but were captured by the Mamelukes, along with King Louis himself, who was released only after a huge ransom was paid to which the Templars, who as bankers to members of the crusade had a treasure ship offshore, refused to contribute.
That same year Shagarat al-Durr openly declared herself sultan, basing her claim to the succession on having borne al-Salih a son, though the child had predeceased the father. The Abbasid caliph refused to recognise her, so she married Aybek, one of her Mameluke slave warriors, and ruled through him instead, then murdered him in 1257 when she suspected him of turning his attentions to another woman. Purchased as a slave by al-Salih, then made one of his concubines, Shagarat al-Durr had eventually become his wife, and then became the first and last female ruler of Egypt since Cleopatra. Owing to her courage and resourcefulness she had saved Egypt from the Seventh Crusade, but she proved to be the last of the Ayyubid line. Aybek’s supporters killed her and threw her naked body over the wall of the Citadel at Cairo to be devoured by the dogs. The Mamelukes then made themselves the masters of Egypt in the person of their first sultan, Qutuz.
But it was the shock of the Mongol invasion of the Middle East that established the Mamelukes as the legitimate defenders of Islam against the infidels of East and West. In February 1258 the Mongols, led by Hulagu, a grandson of Genghis Khan, captured Baghdad, put the Abbasid caliph to death, then plundered and destroyed the city. In January 1260 they took Aleppo, and in March Damascus fell. The Mongols appeared to be unstoppable. The Franks sent urgent letters westwards pleading for help; ‘a horrible annihilation will swiftly be visited upon the world,’ went a message carried by a Templar to London. But it was the Mamelukes who responded to the threat. That summer when Mongol ambassadors arrived in Cairo demanding Egypt’s submission, they encountered an adversary more ferocious than themselves; Qutuz had them killed on the spot. And in September, after being allowed free passage through Christian lands, a Mameluke army under Qutuz inflicted a stunning defeat upon the Mongols in the battle of Ain Jalut southeast of Nazareth.
But among the jealous Mamelukes victory was no guarantee of success, and a month later Qutuz was murdered by a group of fellow Mamelukes, among them Baybars, al-Salih’s general at La Forbie, who then became sultan. With Syria and Egypt under Baybars’ control, Outremer was encircled, and the Franks were confronted by one of the most formidable fighting machines in the world.
Abandoned by God
Medieval Christians believed that God’s judgement was revealed through history, and that he often declared his will by determining the outcome of a battle. As Saint Bernard had written in his panegyric In Praise of the New Knighthood, a Templar was a knight of Christ and ‘the instrument of God for the punishment of malefactors and for the defence of the just’. A defeat in battle could mean that the Christians were paying the price for some sin. Confession, prayers and penance would cleanse their souls and lead to ultimate victory. But what were Christians now to make of the repeated defeats in the Holy Land? After Baybars captured Caesarea and Haifa in 1265, a Provençal troubadour called Bonomel, who may have been a Templar, sang that given this, ‘Then it is really foolish to fight the Turks, now that Jesus Christ no longer opposes them…Daily they impose new defeats on us: for God, who used to watch on our behalf, is now asleep, and Bafometz [Mohammed] puts forth his power to support the sultan.’ Another Provençal poet wrote that because God and Our Lady wanted Christian troops to be killed, he would become a Muslim. As defeats continued it became impossible to attribute Muslim victories to the sins of the generality of Christians, and increasingly the military orders and especially the Templars attracted the suspicion and resentment of a disillusioned Christian world.
Templar Plans for Defending the Holy Land
In a series of devastating campaigns Baybars captured Caesarea and Haifa in 1265, the Templar castle of Saphet in 1266, Jaffa and the Templar castle of Beaufort both in 1268, and then struck at Antioch in the north, which he captured that same year, treating its inhabitants with a murderous brutality that shocked even Muslim chroniclers. The Templar castle at Baghras in the Amanus mountains was now utterly isolated. Baghras had been their first castle, but now the Templars had no choice but to abandon it. Chastel Blanc of the Templars was surrendered in 1271 together with the Hospitallers’ great castle of Krak des Chevaliers. Baybars then marched on Montfort between Acre and the Sea of Galilee and that too was soon handed over to the Muslims by its garrison of Teutonic Knights.
With all their great inland fortresses taken, the Franks were pinned to their remaining coastal defences, crucially Acre and Tripoli, both powerfully fortified cities, and the Templars’ stronghold of Tortosa, which had held out against Saladin, and their castle of Athlit, south of Haifa. But meanwhile the Franks gained some relief when Prince Edward, the future Edward I of England, led a fresh crusade to the East and in 1272 persuaded Baybars to agree to a ten-year truce.
Acre, capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and headquarters of the military orders, was the most powerfully defended city in Outremer. And according to the Templar of Tyre, who knew it well, ‘The Temple was the strongest place of the city, largely situated along the seashore, like a castle. At its entrance it had a high and strong tower, the wall of which was twenty-eight feet thick. On each side of the tower was a smaller tower, and on each of these was a gilded lion passant, as large as an ox…On the other side, near the street of the Pisans, there was another tower, and near this tower on the Street of St Anne, was a large and noble palace, which was the Master’s…There was another ancient tower on the seashore, which Saladin had built one hundred years before, in which the Temple kept its treasure, and it was so close to the sea that the waves washed against it. Within the Temple area there were other beautiful and noble houses, which I will not describe here.’
In 1273 the Templars elected a new Grand Master, William of Beaujeu, a man with considerable experience of fighting in the East and administering the order. One of his first missions was to attend the Church Council of Lyons, which was convened by the Pope in 1274 for the principal purpose of launching a new crusade. At the council William spoke against a proposal to send 500 knights and 2000 infantry to the Holy Land as the vanguard of a mass levy like that of the First Crusade, arguing that unruly hordes of enthusiasts would not serve the needs of Outremer. Instead a permanent garrison was required which would be reinforced from time to time by small contingents of professional soldiers. And he also argued for an economic blockade of Egypt, the Mamelukes’ power base.
Such a blockade would not be possible, however, as long as Outremer depended on the ships of the Italian maritime republics, for these were the very same merchant marines who traded so profitably with Egypt. The Venetians, for example, supplied Baybars with the metal and timber that he needed for his arms and siege engines, and the Genoese even provided him with Mameluke slaves. Instead the Christians needed to gain the naval ascendancy in the Eastern Mediterranean. William’s advice was accepted and the council ordered the Templars and the Hospitallers to build their own fleets of warships.
William of Beaujeu had arrived at this plan not least because he recognised the contribution that was already being made by the French monarchy to sustaining the existence of Outremer. William’s own uncle had fought with Louis IX in Egypt, and through his paternal grandmother he was related to the Capets, the French royal family. The kings of France were already paying for a permanent force of knights and crossbowmen at Acre, and the ambitious Charles of Anjou, who was king of Sicily and the younger brother of Louis IX, was helping to extend French power throughout the Mediterranean. But William’s plans were overthrown by a popular uprising in 1282 known as the Sicilian Vespers, which sent Charles fleeing from the island to Naples.
Pope Martin IV, who was himself French, now declared a crusade against the Sicilian rebels and their supporters, the house of Aragon in Spain. Worse, he ordered funds held at the Paris Temple and intended for Outremer to be diverted to the house of Anjou in support of their war against fellow Christians to regain control over Sicily. Christians throughout Europe and in particular the Templars were outraged, and a few years later, after the fall of Tripoli, one Templar told Martin’s successor Pope Nicholas IV, ‘You could have relieved the Holy Land with the power of kings and the strength of the other faithful of Christ…but you preferred to attack a Christian king and the Christian Sicilians, arming kings against a king to recover the island of Sicily’–another example of the growing trend to put secular interests over religious ideals.
Charles of Anjou’s ambitions to build a Mediterranean empire and to combine his Kingdom of Sicily with the Kingdom of Jerusalem had kept Baybar’s own ambitions somewhat in check. But in 1277 Baybars had died, and after a brief power struggle the most capable among the Mamelukes was elevated to the sultanate, Baybar’s brilliant commander Qalaun. The Sicilian Vespers, followed by Charles’ death in 1285, removed any Mameluke hesitation in pursuing the destruction of the Christian states in the East.
The fall of the Crusader castles to the Mamelukes needs some explanation. How could such magnificent structures, built at such vast cost and effort, incorporating the latest military design of the age, and defended by men of undoubted courage, have so rapidly capitulated or been captured? There is no single answer. Several factors worked in combination.
The Templar castle of Beaufort, overlooking the southern end of the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, fell to Baybars in 1268 with the help of first-class military engineers. They assembled something like twenty-six siege engines, that is battering rams and siege towers as well as catapults, the wooden frames and metal parts bought from Venetian merchants sailing into Egyptian ports. In this case the Templars were overwhelmed by technology. But two years earlier when the Templar castle of Saphet (Safad) fell to Baybars it had been down to treason.
Saphet was the castle in northern Galilee which the Templars had spent a fortune rebuilding less than thirty years before, a worthwhile expense as it guarded against raids of Bedouins and Turks who would formerly cross over the Jordan with impunity. Traders could safely conduct their pack animals and wagons between Acre and Galilee, farmers could cultivate their fields in security, and pilgrims could freely visit many sites associated with the ministry of Jesus. Muslim sources acknowledged its efficacy by describing Saphet as ‘an obstruction in the throat of Syria and a blockage in the chest of Islam’–that is until Baybars brought about its downfall in 1266. He did so not by attack–he tried three times that year and failed–but by sowing dissent between the small garrison of Templars and the much larger numbers of Syrian Christian servants and native troops inside. He promised the latter free passage and so many wanted to defect that the defence of the castle was called into question. The Templars agreed to negotiate and a safe conduct was arranged, for Templar knights and locals alike. But when the gates were opened, Baybars grabbed all the women and children and sold them into slavery and decapitated all the knights and other men.
The willingness of the Templars garrison at Saphet to negotiate points to another factor at work: a sense of isolation and feeling overwhelmed, which seems to have played an important part in the fall of the Templar castle of Chastel Blanc (Safita) and the Hospitallers’ Krak des Chevaliers to Baybars within two months of one another in 1271. Both castles stood in the Jebel al-Sariya, that mountain range separating the interior from the sea; but both became increasingly isolated amidst the Muslim advance. Perhaps also the Templar master at Tortosa thought it wiser to concentrate his forces on the coast, but whatever the reason he ordered the evacuation of Chastel Blanc.
Likewise Krak des Chevaliers was not taken but given away. The Hospitallers could no longer raise sufficient manpower to garrison the castle and for its diminished complement of Hospitaller knights the waiting became a terrible immurement. After a month’s siege, Baybars delivered a forged note purportedly from their master at Tripoli, urging them to surrender. Their defences and supplies might have allowed them to hold out for years, but it must have seemed to them that Krak was drifting anchorless and rudderless upon an irresistible Muslim tide. Weary, dejected and demoralised, on 8 April 1271 the Hospitallers accepted Baybars’ offer of safe conduct to the sea.
Within twenty years the few Crusader possessions along the coast would also fall and the 200-year adventure in the Holy Land would end.
The Fall of Acre
The truce with the Franks had allowed the Mamelukes to direct their energy towards renewed Mongol threats, but once that had been accomplished, and even before the truce had ended, Sultan Qalaun renewed Mameluke aggression against the Franks. Now the coastal cities and castles began to go the way of the inland defences; in 1285 Qalaun took the Hospitaller castle of Margat, perched on a salient of the Jebel al-Sariya overlooking the sea, and in 1287 he easily took the port city of Latakia after its walls were damaged in an earthquake.
Yet in 1286, in the midst of these campaigns and with extraordinary insouciance, the Franks celebrated the visit of King Henry II of Cyprus, who had come to assume the crown of Jerusalem. The Templar of Tyre recorded the festivities at Acre, when the king ‘held a feast lasting fifteen days at the Auberge of the Hospital of Saint John. And it was the most splendid feast they had seen for a hundred years…They enacted the tales of the Round Table and the Queen of Femenie, which consisted of knights dressed as women jousting together. Then those who should have been dressed as monks dressed up as nuns, and they jousted together.’
Beyond the walls of Acre, however, the outlook was grim. In 1289 Qalaun overwhelmed Tripoli: ‘The population fell back to the port where some escaped on ships’, recorded the historian Abu al-Feda. ‘Of the rest, the men were all put to death and the women and children taken as slaves, and the Muslims amassed an immense booty. Just off the headland there was a small island with a church, and when the city was taken many Franks took refuge there with their families. But the Muslim troops swam across to the island, massacring the men and carrying off the women and children. I myself went out to the island on a boat after the carnage, but I was unable to stay, so strong was the stench of corpses.’ When the killing and looting were finished, Qalaun razed the city to the ground.
Vowing not to leave a single Christian alive in the city, Qalaun set out from Cairo for Acre in November 1290, but he fell ill and died along the way. His son al-Ashraf Khalil pledged to continue the war against the Franks, and in early spring 1291 his armies from Syria and Egypt converged on Acre, together with over a hundred siege engines, including various kinds of catapults. On 5 April Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil himself arrived and the siege began. At most the Franks were able to muster about 1000 knights and 14,000 foot soldiers; the population of Acre was 40,000, and every able-bodied man took his place on the ramparts. On 15 April William of Beaujeu, the Templar Grand Master, led a night attack on a section of the Muslim lines. At first, surprise won them the advantage, but the Christians got caught up in the enemy’s tent ropes and were eventually beaten back. Under a hail of arrows and a bombardment of stones by the catapults, Mameluke engineers were able to advance close against the walls and mine the defences, bringing down tower after tower over the following weeks.
On 15 May, after six weeks of constant battering, the Accursed Tower commanding the vital northeast salient of the city’s walls was taken by the Mamelukes. William of Beaujeu was fatally wounded trying to force the enemy back. He was placed on a shield and carried to the Temple enclave where he was buried before the high altar while the desperate fighting continued outside. By now townspeople were pressing onto the quays to board whatever ships they could to escape from the doomed city. Merchant captains made fortunes extorting money from the rich desperate to escape, as did also, it is thought, Roger of Flor, captain of a Templar galley called The Falcon, who used his profits to found his later career as a pirate. As the Mamelukes stormed through the streets they killed everyone in sight, including women and children; those who hid indoors were taken captive and sold on the slave market of Damascus, where the glut of women and girls reduced their price to a single drachma.
By the evening of 18 May all Acre was in the hands of the Mamelukes except for the Templar fortress at the seaward extremity of the city. There they held out, commanded by their marshal, together with civilians who had sought protection within their walls, and were kept supplied by sea from Cyprus. On 25 May the Templar marshal agreed to surrender provided those inside were granted safe passage out of Acre, but as the Muslims entered they began to molest the women and boys, provoking the Templars to fight back. That night the Templar commander Theobald Gaudin was sent out of the fortress with the order’s treasure and sailed up the coast to Château de Mer, the Templars’ sea-castle just off the coast at Sidon. The Templar fortress in Acre fell three days later and at Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil’s command all those left alive were led outside the walls where their heads were cut off, and the city was smashed to pieces until almost nothing was left standing. Forty years later a German traveller came upon the spot and found only a few peasants living amidst the desolation of what had once been the splendid capital of Outremer.
The Last Templars in the East
From Sidon, Theobald Gaudin sailed to Cyprus with the Templar treasure. His intention was to bring back reinforcements. But Gaudin never returned. Instead a message came from the Templars in Cyprus urging their brethren in Sidon to abandon their castle there, and on the night of 14 July they put to sea. Cyprus had long been a Frankish kingdom. A century earlier Richard the Lionheart had seized it from the Byzantines, and after a brief period in Templar hands, Richard sold it on again to Guy of Lusignan, the former King of Jerusalem, whose dynasty would continue to rule Cyprus for nearly three hundred years. Meanwhile the Templars and the Hospitallers had built castles on Cyprus, and now as the Franks were being driven from the coast of Outremer the island became a refuge for both military orders.
In the Holy Land, after the fall of Acre and Sidon, only Tortosa and Athlit remained in Christian hands. Both were Templar strongholds, but as the Mamelukes gathered for the kill, the knights slipped away to Cyprus from Tortosa on 3 August 1291 and eleven days later from Athlit. ‘This time’, wrote the Templar of Tyre, ‘everything was lost, so that the Christians no longer held a palm of land in Syria.’ As the Templars looked back along the receding mainland, the devastation was already beginning. For some months after the fall of Tortosa in 1291, Mameluke troops laid waste to the coastal plain. Orchards were cut down and irrigation systems wrecked, while native Christians fled into the Jebel al-Sariya. The only castles left standing were those far back from the sea, and Margat, high upon its mountain. Anything that might be of value to the Crusaders should they ever attempt another landing was destroyed.
Even four centuries after the Franks were driven from this coast, the devastation wrought by the Mamelukes was still apparent, in 1697 the English traveller Henry Maundrell recording the ‘many ruins of castles and houses, which testify that this country, however it be neglected at present, was once in the hands of a people that knew how to value it, and thought it worth the defending’.