Friday, November 17, 2017

Saladin's Armies

The crusader kingdoms consistently faced an enemy that significantly outnumbered them, and it is often this sense of "massive hordes" that dominates descriptions of Saracen armies. Yet while the size of Saracen armies was certainly a factor in their success, it was by no means their only significant feature. On the contrary, Saracen armies were extremely complex and understanding them better helps explain Frankish tactics.

Saladin's Army as depicted in "The Kingdom of Heaven"
Perhaps the most important yet often forgotten characteristic of Saracen armies was their ethnic diversity. The term "Saracen" simply means "Easterner" and referred collectively to the Muslim opponents of the crusaders.  Yet while the use of this term is convenient, it plasters over and so disguises the ethnic differences within the "Saracen" armies. The "Saracen" armies included not only Arabs and Turks, the two largest ethnic groups engaged in warfare against the crusaders. They also included Kurds (Saladin himself was a Kurd), Nubians, and Berbers. Furthermore, the Arab elements need to be sub-divided into Syrians, Bedouins and Egyptians, and the term "Turk" actually covers a variety of Turkmenish tribes. 


Each of these ethnic groups had their own more or less distinct ways of fighting along with their own language, dress, and preferred weapons. In broad terms, the Nubians were famous infantry archers, who fought with large powerful bows but without shields of any kind, making them very vulnerable in close engagements.  The Arabs, Kurds and Berbers generally fought on horseback with lance, javelin and sword, but Bedouins fought more often as infantry archers. The Turks were the masters of mounted archery. 

It was the Turks with their highly mobile cavalry and mounted archers that most impressed the crusaders. Based on Christian descriptions, the crusaders found the infantry and even the heavy cavalry of their opponents unremarkable. The mounted archers on the other hand, with their tactics of pressing in close for a volley of arrows only to flee when challenged, frustrated and won grudging respect from the Franks. The Turkish tactic of pretending flight to lure Frankish cavalry into an ambush was well-recorded and highly effective--over and over again. The comparison to a pesky fly is colorful but somewhat deceptive since these "flies" could kill. 



The diversity of tradition in Saracen armies had advantages and disadvantages. Good commanders could exploit the strengths of their various troops and use them to complement one another. Less effective commanders found their armies disintegrating or the units operating independently of one another. It was easy for the infantry to get left behind, forgotten and slaughtered. Cavalry without infantry support was vulnerable when they stopped to rest and water their horses, and utterly useless in siege warfare--which was the dominant form of engagement in the crusader period.

In addition to the ethnic differences within the Saracen armies, there were different kinds of service as well. At the one extreme and completely unknown in the West, Saracen commanders always had a contingent of slave-soldiers completely devoted to them. These slave-soldiers or Mamlukes (also Mamelukes and Mamluks) formed the personal body-guard of commanders and lords. They were composed of men who had been acquired as children (carefully selected, one presumes, for their physical appearance and health) and trained meticulously and rigorously for years to make them crack troops. Although technically "freed" on completion of training, they remained emotionally and financially bound to their master. They were professionals, with no other interests or purpose other than to serving their master in war.


In contrast, the bulk of the troops in a Saracen army were similar to feudal levees in the West. They were men with land and families, who served in the army when called-up, or as volunteers, but who were not professional soldiers. The quality of such troops obviously varied widely. Some of them, young, virile and ambitious were undoubtedly very good. Others, aging, ailing or just disinterested, were not so good. 

One element that was of mixed value were the jihadists. These men joined Saracen armies engaged in warfare against the crusader states for religious purification. While often untrained and poorly armed, they were fanatical and often keen for a martyr's death in battle against the "polytheists."  In consequence, these troops could be used for particularly dangerous tasks such as storming a breech in a wall or scaling a siege ladder.

As in the West, most of Saracen troops (like the Mamlukes) owed service to a lord or emir, not to the Sultan directly. Thus, as in the West, a Saracen army was composed of small, close-knit clusters of troops bound to a land-owner, who himself owed service to a larger land-owner, who owed service to an even larger land-owner etc. until one came to the top, the Sultan himself. Yet while all theoretically served the Sultan directly or indirectly, the reality was that men served the men they personally knew. If their immediate lord changed sides or just decided to go home, then they did so too. As a result, the only troops the Sultan could rely on 100% were his Mamlukes (until they too revolted, cut the Sultan to pieces and took control for themselves, but that wasn't until the mid-13th Century.)

In short, the Sultan, like a medieval King, was dependent upon the loyalty and support of his most powerful emirs, and the emirs had power similar to barons in medieval Europe, with one important difference: the emirs did not hold territory on a hereditary basis. They served as administrators of territory or other sources of revenue (such as customs, or markets) for the Sultan. In theory at least, the Sultans could dismiss them and replace them at whim.

While one might expect this made them more loyal, the evidence suggests the opposite.  Lack of tenure created a sense of insecurity and tended to make emirs more mercenary. Without a vested interest in a specific territory, they were always open to alternative opportunities -- from a different Sultan, or a brother, cousin or son willing to challenge the reigning Sultan. With no long-term perspectives, there was also a strong bias toward plundering one's current position, whether it was territorial or purely administrative.



Furthermore, the fact that emirs came and went (squeezing as much revenue as possible from their subjects) undermined loyalty. Tenants farmers and peasants had little reason to identify with the ever changing cast of landlords sent to exploit them. This fact is reflected in the tendency of Saracen forces to dissolve comparatively rapidly. Saladin had consistent difficulty keeping his troops in the field for more than a  month or so. Even after his great victory at Hattin and the plundering of an entire kingdom, his troops faded away when the rains started. 

To compensate for the generally low levels of loyalty and morale among the conscripts, Saracen leaders depended increasingly upon mercenaries. These were predominantly drawn from the nomadic tribes of the Asian steppes, but included Armenians, further adding to the overall diversity of the Saracen force. 

Warfare in the crusader states at the end of the 12th century is an integral part of Dr. Schrader's award-winning biographical novels about Balian d'Ibelin.

 

       Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                         Buy now!

 Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: http://crusaderkingdoms.com



Friday, November 10, 2017

Crusader Art

The scarcity of artwork dating from the crusader period found in the Holy Land today does not reflect — as some commentators suggest — a lack of artistic accomplishment or interest in the arts on the part of the elites in the crusader kingdoms. Rather is it the result of the the ravages of war and time, combined with systematic destruction and theft of crusader art by the Muslim conquerors of the Christian kingdoms. Today I provide a very quick overview of some of the artistic achievements of the crusader era.

A medieval window seat with delicate tracery; crusader castle of St. Hilarion on Cyprus

We know from the written record and from the few fragments of art that survive that the Kings of Jerusalem and other Christian rulers invested huge sums in the construction/re-construction and decoration of churches first and foremost. We also know the luxury in which the elites in the crusader states lived attracted censure as well as awe from Western pilgrims, suggesting that secular buildings were likewise beautifully decorated.

The crusader cloisers at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
The best surviving evidence of crusader art is in the architecture and above all sculpture from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Church of the Annunciation at Nazareth.  Fragments of crusader sculpture have also been found at Sebaste, Montfort and St. Mary Major in Jerusalem. However, except where Christian motifs or location make the dating of sculpture unassailable, many works of crusader sculpture is hard to identify because it was incorporated into buildings that were subsequently modified and overlaid with work of later centuries. The covered markets of Jerusalem are largely crusader in origin, but have been used continuously and added to and modified by successive generations. 


One of Jerusalem's covered markets; some of which date back to the reign of Queen Melisende
From the few pieces of art that have been identified unequivocally as crusader sculpture, a clear mix of Byzantine and Romanesque influences has been identified, suggesting either Byzantine artists working for Latin patrons, or Frankish craftsmen under Byzantine masters or combinations of the above.


The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem houses magnificent mosaics from the crusader period. Very extensive wall mosaics depict the life of Christ, the Ecumenical Councils and the ancestors of Christ. These mosaics are carried out in the Byzantine style and were probably executed by Byzantine artists, but they were commissioned by the Kings of Jerusalem, probably Baldwin III or Amalric I, who were both married to Byzantine princesses and maintained close ties to the Byzantine Empire. The choice of Greek artists may also have been guided by the fact that the Church of the Nativity was one of the best preserved churches in the Holy Land, having survived destruction at the hands of the Persians and Muslims. The floor tiles date from the reign of Constantine and were allegedly commissioned by St. Helena. They are still in place today.

Mosaics in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, dating to the reign of Baldwin III
 (apologies for the poor quality of the picture, I took it myself in March 2014)
Wall painting was almost certainly popular in the crusader states as it was in the South of France, whence so many of the early crusaders came, but it is particularly vulnerable to obliteration as it is easily painted over — a method of eliminating unwanted decoration that also inadvertently preserves it for the archaeologist. At least four important frescos from the crusader period have been found in the last half century, including at Crac de Chevaliers.  The style of most wall-painting from the crusader period found to date suggests that Byzantine artists, or craftsmen trained in the Byzantine school, were used for such painting, although the choice of subject was dictated by Western traditions.

Two examples of Byzantine Art; St. George was a particularly popular subject in the Crusader Kingdoms
In contrast, manuscript illustration appears to have been dominated by Western craftsmen. We know from written sources that a Scriptorium was established by the canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This workshop is said to have produced a large number of works of very high quality, very little of which has survived. One exception is a psalter made for Queen Melisende of Jerusalem. 


The ivory cover of Queen Melisende's Psalter

A Medieval Manuscript Illustration Depicting the First Crusade
After the fall of Jerusalem, there appears to have been an attempt to re-establish a Scriptorium in the Holy Land, this time in Accre, but the quality of the work is notably inferior to that from the Holy Sepulcher. Furthermore, whereas the illustrations of the Melisdende psalter and other works from the 12th century demonstrate strong Byzantine influence, the works from the Acre scriptorium are French and Italian in style.

The fragments of crusader art that survive are pitiably little, a mere whisper of what must have been a rich and distinct artistic heritage formed by the cross-fertilization of various cultures and artistic traditions at the ancient cross-roads of civilization on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: http://crusaderkingdoms.com

Recommended further reading:

Boas, Adrian J., Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East, Routledge, London & New York, 1999.


The award-winning biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the last quarter of the 12th Century.




Buy now!                                         Buy now!                                        Buy now!

Learn more about crusader society at: Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Red Sea Raids Revisited

In December of 1182, during a truce between Salah ad-Din and the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, pirate ships manned by an estimated 3,000 cut-throats suddenly started terrorizing trade and pilgrims in the Red Sea. It soon became clear that, to the astonishment of all, they were manned by “Franks” — that is Latin Christians. As such, they became the first Christian ships — lawful or otherwise — to be seen in the Red Sea in over 500 years. These became known as "The Red Sea Raids" and have long been used as examples of Christian perfidy -- or rather as evidence of the complete degenerate nature of one particular Christian baron: Reynald de Châtillon. Today I take a closer look at these "Red Sea Raids" and argues they were not mere piracy but intelligent strategy.


Because there had been no hostile ships in the Red Sea for five centuries, the Muslim rulers of Egypt and Arabia had no warships in the Red Sea to deal with the pirate threat. As a result, within a very short space of time these ships had completely disrupted the rich and vital trade between Egypt and India. Politically more dangerous: they had also disrupted the pilgrim traffic that converged on Jedda from all over North Africa for the final leg of the haj to Mecca.

The Frankish pirates first seized the town of Aidhab on the Egyptian coast, a major embarkation port for pilgrims from North Africa. Here they sacked the unwalled town, captured large stores intended to provision pilgrims, and sent raiders inland to seize a caravan. The fleet next crossed the Red Sea and sent a raiding party ashore between Medina and Mecca, apparently looking for rich and undefended caravans, before for heading for al-Haura, north of Jedda. During a sojourn in the Red Sea lasting about three months, they succeeded in capturing roughly 20 merchant or pilgrim ships. They plundered their prizes, then burned the slower ones, while converting the faster vessels into auxiliaries for their own raiding activities. The number of unarmed merchants and pilgrims, men, women and children, abused, slaughtered or enslaved in the process went unrecorded but was undoubtedly significant. By early February 1183, however, their luck had run out.


The governor of Egypt, Salah ad-Din’s brother al-Adil, responded to the threat rapidly and vigorously. He ordered a portion of the Egyptian fleet dragged across Sinai and launched in the Red Sea. This Egyptian squadron began operating in mid-January 1183, and roughly two weeks later caught up with and trapped the Frankish pirates in the harbor of the Arabian port of al-Haura, north of Jedda. Unable to break out of the harbor, the Franks abandoned their ships, captives and treasure to flee inland. Five days later they were tracked down and caught in a narrow ravine.  There most of them were slaughtered, but 170 surrendered and were taken prisoner. 


Not unsurprisingly, Salah ad-Din took a very dim view of the activities of these raiders. Although Sharia Law prohibits the execution of prisoners who voluntarily surrender, Salah ad-Din nevertheless ordered the execution of the men involved in the Red Sea raids. Arab sources site the need to eliminate enemies who had gained valuable knowledge of how to navigate in the Red Sea, but the desire to make an example of these men and satisfy public outrage probably also played a role in the Sultan’s decision. In any case, the prisoners were dispersed across Salah ad-Din’s empire for public execution in as many towns and cities as possible in order to “publicize [Saladin's] victory and exemplify his justice,” according to Bernard Hamilton in The Leper King and his Heirs (Cambridge University Press: 2000, p. 183). Two of the prisoners were singled out for a special punishment: they were taken to Mecca, where they were slaughtered like sacrificial animals in front of the thousands of pilgrims come for the haj.

No account of the raids spares a word of sympathy for the pirates. They preyed upon unarmed pilgrims and merchants evidently only for their own enrichment. Arab accounts stress the terror struck in the hearts of pilgrims accustomed to safe travel, and the psychological impact of these raids must have been similar to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2000. An entire region, long viewed as a safe — indeed invulnerable — Muslim homeland, was suddenly the scene of appalling and “unprecedented” acts of terror. Furthermore, this sudden sense of insecurity was compounded by the fact that the raid between Medina and Mecca led many Muslims to believe that the objective of the attack had been not so much plunder as the destruction of the tomb of the Prophet Mohammad. Thus, in addition to the very real threat to innocent people came the added threat to a sacred site of incalculable religious significance.

The unsavory character of these raids has led most historians and commentators to condemn them in the harshest terms. They are described as acts of perfidy and piracy, and usually depicted as the brainchild of the notoriously avaricious, unscrupulous and brutal Reynald de Châtillon, the lord of the crusader barony of Oultrejourdain.  Châtillon was infamous for attacking and sacking the Christian island of Cyprus, for torturing the Patriarch of Antioch to extract treasure from him, and later for breaking truces to attack caravans.  He would eventually meet his just end at Salah ad-Din’s own hand following the Battle of Hattin, when the Sultan personally executed him.


While there is little doubt that Châtillon was the mastermind behind these raids, Hamilton points out that the launch of five warships manned by three thousand men was beyond the resources of Châtillon alone. The ships could not have been built in Châtillon’s desert lordship, crouching as it did along the Dead Sea. Instead, the ships had almost certainly been constructed in a port with a shipbuilding industry and tradition such as Sidon.  They have to have been disassembled and transported on the backs of camels to the Gulf of Aqaba. Here they could only have been reassembled into seaworthy craft by highly trained shipwrights, who again could not have come from Oultrejourdain. And they would have needed pilots familiar with the Red Sea, almost certainly men from the Sultan’s own territories. In short, Châtillon may have been the instigator of the raids or the man immediately responsible for them (although he was personally involved in a land siege of Aqaba and did not personally participate in the raids), but almost certainly he was not acting alone.

If he was not acting alone, then these raids were not just another act of banditry and lawless aggression on the part of a “rogue” baron. Rather, they served another purpose for a wider constituency, and that purpose cannot have been plunder alone. After all, only the pirates themselves enjoyed the fruits of their "labor" — both the three months of plunder, rape and pillage, and slaughter or execution when their luck ran out. Since the pirates themselves were even less in a position to finance and organize the operation, someone else had to be behind it — behind Châtillon. So who might that have been and what was their real purpose?

Hamilton argues that the raids served a clear strategic purpose: namely discrediting Salah ad-Din as the “defender of Islam.” Furthermore, he notes, the timing of these raids underlines this purpose. The Red Sea Raids occurred during one of Salah ad-Din’s campaigns against the Sunni Muslim city of Mosul.  In short, while Salah ad-Din was killing his fellow Muslims in a war whose sole purpose was the expansion of his personal empire, innocent Muslim pilgrims and merchants were left unprotected at the mercy of murderous Frankish (Christian) marauders.  

The instigators of the Red Sea raids may even have hoped that the raids would force Salah ad-Din to break-off his operations against Mosul and return to Egypt to deal with the raiders himself. This would have helped Mosul retain its independence and delayed (if not prevented) Salah ad-Din from further expanding his empire, wealth and power. In short, the most obvious immediate beneficiary of these raids was the ruler of Mosul. Given Châtillon’s mercenary bent and his willingness to attack even fellow Christians on Cyprus, it is not entirely inconceivable that he might have been willing to take gold from Muslim paymasters. Furthermore, a Mosul connection would help explain where the pilots for the ships came from. 


However, northern Syria is not famous for its shipwrights and sailors, and this fact suggests another architect for the raids, namely the King of Jerusalem. King Baldwin IV may have hoped the raids would both preserve the independence of Mosul and discredit Salah ad-din in the Muslim world. He almost certainly hoped the raids would undermine the Sultan's authority in Egypt, which was most directly affected by the “terrorists” in their “backyard.” These seem to be perfectly legitimate policy objectives for an embattled kingdom, particularly since the king found (in the shape of Reynald de Châtillon) a man with no reputation to lose and no scruples about carrying out the attacks. The Christian king’s conscience about attacks on unarmed pilgrims and traders was undoubtedly eased by the knowledge that nothing Châtillon’s pirates did was truly unprecedented; Muslim pirates had preyed upon Christian merchantmen and pilgrims in the Mediterranean for centuries.

Whether the Kingdom of Jerusalem ultimately profited or lost as a result of the raids is more debatable. Hamilton argues that Salah ad-Din lost credibility, while most historians argue that the raids only “hardened” Muslim attitudes towards the crusaders, and united Islam against the crusader states. (See, for example, W.B. Bartlett in Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom or Andrew Jotischky in Crusading and the Crusader States.) It is, however, hard to see how much more “hardened” Islam could be than it was already under Salah ad-Din. He had, after all, already declared his intention to push the crusaders into the sea and obliterate their states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: http://crusaderkingdoms.com

The Red Sea Raids and the political and military environment that led up to them is described in award-winning:


A divided kingdom, a united enemy, and the struggle for Jerusalem. 


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Review: "The Leper King and his Heirs" by Bernard Hamilton

At the start of each month bring a review of a book relevant to the crusades.  Today I recommend an important work by renowned crusades historian Professor Bernard Hamilton.

Baldwin IV as depicted in "The Kingdom of Heaven" 

Bernard Hamilton's The Leper King and his Heirs: Baldwin IV and the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem is an excellent, detailed and well-documented account of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem in the late 12th century. It focuses on the quarter century of Baldwin IV's life span, 1161 to 1186. This was a particularly critical period in the history of the crusader kingdom, and Hamilton's book provides details too often skipped over or even blurred together in accounts that try to cover the whole two hundred years of crusader history. Furthermore, Hamilton provides an excellent summary of his sources up front and impresses with his familiarity with not only Latin and Arab, but Greek, Jewish and Armenian sources.

Particularly impressive is Hamilton's treatment of Reynald de Chatillon. Chatillon is usually depicted as a rogue adventurer, more robber than baron, and often blamed for the war with Saladin. Hamilton, in contrast, effectively defends many of Chatillon's most controversial actions. While not denying his violent and ambitious character, Hamilton convincingly argues that Chatillon followed sound strategic principles when launching his raids into Sinai, putting Christian warships in the Red Sea, and even when breaking the truce with Saladin to attack a heavily armed caravan.



Reynald de Chatillon as depicted in the film "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Hamilton's treatment of Raymond of Tripoli is less convincing. He tries to paint Tripoli as a treasonous threat to the throne, and even suggests that Sibylla's marriage to Guy de Lusignan was arranged by King Baldwin in an attempt to prevent a coup by Tripoli. The evidence is very weak for this and contradicted by other accounts, notably the Chronicles of Ernoul, that other historians have followed. Furthermore, Baldwin soon withdrew his favor from Lusignan, while Sibylla remained remarkably loyal to her ineffective husband -- two historical facts that give credence to the more common intepretation of a love-affair between Lusignan and Sibylla forcing the king's hand. But even here, where Hamilton's arguments are weak, he presents them cogently and names his sources, leaving the reader in a good position to judge for himself which interpretation of history he finds more compelling. 


Where this book falls short of the mark is in the essential biographical function of making the subject come to life. For all his meticulous reporting on what happend during "the Leper King's" reign, Hamilton singularly fails to get inside the leprous skin of his subject and help us understand him. We are given no inkling of what he was thinking and feeling, why he behaved in certain ways, how he succeeded in winning the undoubted loyalty of his subjects despite his illness or what motivated him at critical junctions. We are not even told until the epilogue that he was chaste but not particularly devout. 






Baldwin IV - another image from "The Kingdom of Heaven" -- that brought him more to life than this biography.

Baldwin IV of Jerusalem deserves a better biography precisely because despite his severe handicap he successfully held his kingdom together in a very difficult period, and despite his severe physical handicap he repeatedly defeated Saladin on the battlefield. He also pursued a highly sophisticated foreign policy, which showed profound understanding of the geopolitical position of his kingdom. I would like to read a book that explores the character and psyche of such a man; Hamilton's history unfortunately does not.


Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: http://crusaderkingdoms.com 
King Baldwin is a major character in the first two books of the award-winning Jerusalem Trilogy:

 

Buy now!                                         Buy now!                                        Buy now!

Friday, October 27, 2017

Madman or Hero? A Closer Look at Reynald de Châtillon


Reynald de Châtillon is often portrayed in history and historical fiction as a “rogue baron” — a violent, self-interested man who broke a truce with Salah-ad-Din triggering the campaign that ended in disaster for Christian forces at Hattin in 1187.  In the Ridley Scott film “The Kingdom of Heaven” he is depicted even more negatively: as a madman intent on making war. Yet the noted historian Bernard Hamilton has worked hard to rehabilitate Châtillon, arguing he was an intelligent strategist, who did much to save the Kingdom of Jerusalem rather than the reverse.  What follows is a short summary of Châtillon’s life in the Holy Land.






Châtillon was born in 1125, the younger son of a comparatively obscure French nobleman, the Sire of Donzy. William, Archbishop of Tyre, went so far as to describe his as “almost a common soldier,” but was undoubtedly going too far.  It is fair, however, to call him an adventurer, who came to the Holy Land during the Second Crusade. Apparently, while Louis VII was worrying (probably unnecessarily) about his wife committing adultery with her uncle Raymond of Poitiers, Châtillon was busy seducing Raymond’s wife, the heiress of the Principality of Antioch, Constance. No sooner had Raymond been killed in an ambush in 1153, than Constance took the obscure and still young (he was 28) Châtillon for her second husband. It worth noting that according to Tyre the King of Jerusalem had suggested a variety of other “suitable” bachelors — men of stature and proven ability in the crusader states — to Constance, but the lady chose the patently unsuitable Châtillon.  It was clearly a case of a widow exercising her right to choose her second husband, and so a “love” match — at least on Constance’s part.



It is hard for us, however, to imagine what she saw in him. Within a very short period of time his avarice and violence had scandalized even his contemporaries. Tyre claims that out of sheer animosity to the Patriarch of Antioch, who opposed his marriage and didn’t hesitate to say so publicly, Châtillon had him seized, bound and exposed to the blazing summer sun with his head covered with honey. The honey attracted the flies and the old man, the highest church official in Châtillon’s lordship, was thus tormented with heat and flies until — according to Tyre — the King of Jerusalem intervened. Another version suggests (more plausibly I would think) that he was released when he agreed to pay Châtillon a large sum of money. Regardless of how he secured his release, the Patriarch understandably did not feel safe in Châtillon’s territory and fled to Jerusalem.



Châtillon next attacked the Island of Cyprus, a Christian country under the authority of the Byzantine Emperor. As Tyre points out Cyprus “had always been useful and friendly to our realm.” Châtillon’s justification for the raid was that he had not been paid by the Emperor for his service in subduing the rebellious Armenian Lord Thoros of Cilicia. But as Tyre also points out, the Emperor’s tardy payment of mercenary wages hardly justified over-running an unsuspecting and friendly island destroying cities, wrecking fortresses, plundering monasteries and raping “nuns and tender maidens.” The ravaging lasted for days, showing “no mercy to age or sex.” The violence of Châtillon’s raid, by the way, is confirmed by Syrian sources and so not simply a function of some alleged “bias” on the part of Tyre. Furthermore, his actions so outraged his contemporaries that the King of Jerusalem, Baldwin III, offered to deliver him to the Byzantine Emperor.



Manuel I opted instead to invade Antioch and force Châtillon to submit himself. As the army of the Emperor approached, Châtillon recognized he didn’t stand a chance of defying the Emperor (and probably realized he was in the wrong with no allies) so he threw himself on the Emperor’s mercy in a dramatic gesture. He went barefoot to the Emperor with a noose around his neck and presented his naked sword hilt-first to the Emperor. As if that weren’t enough, he then threw himself face-down at the Emperor’s feet until (according to Tyre) “all were disgusted and the glory of the Latins was turned to shame; for he was a man of violent impulses, both in sinning and in repenting.” Roughly three years had elapsed between the sack of Cyprus and Châtillon’s submission to the Emperor in 1159.



Two years later in 1161 he was captured by the Seljuk leader Nur ad-Din and imprisoned in allegedly brutal conditions because his reputation for brutality was not confined to the treatment of Latin clerics and Orthodox civilians but to his enemies as well.  He was not released for 15 years, by which time his wife, Constance of Antioch had died and her son by her first marriage, Bohemond had come of age.  In short, when Châtillon was released from prison in a political exchange (no ransom was high enough for Châtillon’s captor), he was 52 years old and Prince of nothing. Indeed, he was landless and penniless.



A situation he rapidly remedied by marrying the widow (and heiress) of the vast and important frontier barony of Oultrejourdain, Stephanie de Milly. It is hard to imagine that a man recently released from a Saracen prison after 15 years and well past his prime was particularly seductive to the widow Stephanie de Milly, and he certainly offered her neither wealth nor high connections, but — in retrospect — he offered her something even more important and maybe we should give her credit for having perceived his value at the time: Châtillon was a brilliant tactician, who proved capable of defending her vulnerable inheritance as long as he lived.



Châtillon’s release and remarriage also coincided with the start of the personal reign of Baldwin IV, who came of age in 1176. He appears to have favored Châtillon. He certainly would have had to approve of his marriage to the Stephanie de Milly and Châtillon’s assumption of the title of Baron of Oultrejourdain. In any case, just a year after his release he was entrusted with a mission to Constantinople in which Baldwin IV renewed his father’s “homage” to the Byzantine Emperor (no doubt Reynald’s earlier dramatic submission to the Emperor made him an ideal candidate to do this, combined with the fact that his step-daughter by his deceased wife Constance was now the Byzantine Empress.) In addition, he was to negotiate details of a joint operation against Egypt that Baldwin IV and Manuel I wanted to pursue. While it is hard to see the Châtillon of film and fiction as an ambassador, it must be conceded that he apparently fulfilled his commission in this case well. The Byzantine Emperor sent a fleet of 70 ships to support and land invasion by troops supplied by the crusader states and armed pilgrims.



Unfortunately, the ambitions of Philip Count of Flanders combined with Baldwin IV’s leprosy foiled the joint campaign and while the Counts of Flanders and Tripoli with the young prince of Antioch attacked targets on the border of Antioch, Salah-ad-Din invaded the Kingdom of Jerusalem from Egypt. It was late 1177, and King Baldwin had less than 400 knights left for the defense of the realm. Still he rushed to Ascalon and raised the commons in defense of the realm eventually delivering a crushing defeat of Salah-ad-Din at the field of Montgisard on November 25, 1177. 

Bernard Hamilton claims that Châtillon was the “real” commander at Montgisard, siting Arab sources. However, the Archbishop of Tyre and the Chronicle of Ernoul, the two contemporary Christian sources both of which were in far better position to position to assess who was commanding on the Christian side, singularly fail to mention his role. He is just one of several prominent men in the King’s forces including Baldwin of Ramla “and his brother Balian, Renaud of Sidon and Count Joscelin, the King’s uncle and seneschal.” The fact that the Arabs attribute the command to Châtillon may have for to do with the fact that they knew him (and hated him) so well than any real role; Châtillon is not the kind of man to be easily overlooked and the Arab sources may have confused prominence on the battlefield with command. Tyre, however, was at this time chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and made a meticulous attempt to interview the survivors of the battle. It is hardly likely that he would have omitted Châtillon’s role had Châtillon really been the mastermind of the victory of Mongisard. In the absence of credible testimony to the contrary, therefore, the assumption should be that the most senior official at the battle was the commander — and that was none other than King Baldwin himself!



Châtillon’s next important contribution to history was his raid deep into Sinai in November 1181. This raid definitely contributed to his reputation as a war-monger because it occurred in the middle of a truce with Salah-ad-Din. However, as Hamilton points out, far from being an opportunistic act of a self-adventurer with no regard for treaties the raid was a highly effective tactical move in defense of the crusader kingdoms. The raid occurred immediately after the death of Nur-ad-Din’s legitimate heir Prince as-Salih in Aleppo. The prince had designated his cousin, a Seljuk prince and lord of Mosul, as his successor with the explicit intention of preventing the Kurdish usurper Salah-ad-Din from taking any more of his father’s inheritance. Salah-ad-Din immediately recognized that the powerful Lord of Mosul was likely to be a far greater obstacle to his ambitions than the weak as-Salih and so immediately ordered his nephews to prevent any forces from Mosul reaching Aleppo. From the Christian point of view, it was critical to prevent Salah-ad-Din from expanding his power to Aleppo, and the Lord of Mosul was to be preferred to the jihadist Salah-ad-Din.  Châtillon’s raid into Sinai effectively 1) prevented Salah-ad-Din from taking his forces from Egypt north to Aleppo and 2) prevented his nephews from doing his work for him either. Farrukh-Shah had to divert his forces from interdicting the Lord of Mosul to protecting his uncle’s possesses in Sinai. Aleppo therefore did not fall to Salah-ad-Din at this time — a small price to pay for a truce that was due to expire less than six months later.



To be sure, Châtillon also enriched himself by seizing a very lucrative caravan and refusing to ransom the survivors or pay compensation for the dead, but this should be seen as Châtillon’s usual avarice and does not detract from his rapid and effective response to critical threat to the very existence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.



A year latter, Châtillon expanded on his probably ad-hoc raid into Sinai but launching a fleet of ships in the Red Sea. These raids have generally drawn approbation from historians, who portray them as cruel piracy against innocent pilgrims — largely because the Arabs had no fighting ships in the Red Sea at this time and Châtillon’s ship sacked towns and burned ships initially at will. Against this portrayal is the fact that Arab warships and slavers had preyed upon Christian pilgrims for centuries before the First Crusade, and the fact that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was by this time in a life-or-death struggle with a man who had promised to drive it into the sea and, indeed, wipe out Christianity everywhere in the world. No, Châtillon’s raids were not pretty. Medieval Warfare rarely was. Yes, his ships attacked “unarmed” pilgrims (though it’s hard to imagine Arab men travelling anywhere unarmed at this time). They certainly caused havoc and spread terror across the Arabian Peninsula. And far from being acts of piracy by a “rogue” baron, they served a clear strategic purpose.



Hamilton makes the argument that the costs and complexities of launching these ships far exceeded he resources of Châtillon alone and argues convincingly that he must have had the support of the King of Jerusalem himself. He certainly needed the skills of Italian shipwrights and sailors — scarce commodities in his land-locked, desert lordship. More important, by threatening the trade and pilgrim routes of the Red Sea, Châtillon was challenging Salah-ad-Din’s claim to be the Defender of Islam. As Hamilton words it: “[Salah-ad-Din’s] credibility would have been severely damaged in the eyes of the entire Islamic community if the Franks had succeeded in preventing pilgrims from reaching the holy cities [of Islam] of which he was protector while he and his arms were fighting Sunnite princes in Iraq.” (Hamilton, The Leper King and His Heirs, p. 181.) Hamilton goes on to point out that the campaign had the added advantage of aiding the Frank’s allies in Syria while restraining Salah-ad-Din’s growing power.



Salah-ad-Din had no choice but to respond to the raids. He had warships dragged across Sinai and launched in the Red Sea. These eventually tracked the Christian raiders down, bottled them up in the harbor of al-Haura, and when the Frankish crews abandoned their ships, to track down the survivors. The Sultan than dealt with the survivors in a notably non-chivalry fashion: he ordered them distributed about his kingdom and publicly executed (against the laws of Islam that dictate that prisoners who voluntarily surrender should be shown mercy).  Two of the raiders, presumably the men identified as the leaders, were taken to Mecca and slaughtered like sacrificial animals to the wild jubilation of the crowds of pilgrims on the haj.



Châtillon’s role in these raids (and he took full credit/blame for them despite the probability that he was aided by King Baldwin) made him more hated than ever in the Islamic world. Salah-ad-Din clearly felt personally insulted, and in the years that followed he twice laid siege to Châtillon’s main fortress at Kerak.   

The first of these sieges occurred while on the one hand the Queen Mother, Dowager Queen and Princess of Jerusalem had gathered in Kerak for the wedding of Princess Isabella (aged 11) to Humphrey de Toron (aged 15 or 16), and on the other hand when the High Court of Jerusalem was meeting in Jerusalem to discuss Guy de Lusignan’s deplorable performance as Regent of the Kingdom during an invasion of the Kingdom by Salah-ad-Din in October 1183. This meant that Châtillon found himself with only his own fighting men but hundreds if not thousands of non-combatants on his hands. Tyre claims he “rashly” tried to defend the town outside the castle, but was nearly overwhelmed by the suddenness of Salah-ad-Din’s attack, and barely managed to pull back into the castle, his villagers losing everything. Although Tyre tries to make this sound like poor leadership on the part of Châtillon, it sounds far more like a successful surprise attack to Salah-
ad-Din’s credit. Châtillon was lucky not to lose his castle under the circumstances and despite the overcrowding and lack of combatants he held his castle for more than a month before the royal army came to his relief.



A year later the scene repeated itself, but this time there was no wedding and no constitutional crisis going on. Both sides were better prepared, but the outcome remained the same. The royal army came to the relief of Kerak and Salah-ad-Din was forced to break off his siege. He would not succeed until more than a year after the destruction of the Christian army at Hattin and the execution — at Salah-ad-Din’s own hand — of Châtillon himself.



But that is getting ahead of the story. Châtillon still had two other contributions to history to make. During the succession crisis after the death of Baldwin V, Châtillon threw his weight behind Sibylla — but it is unclear if he supported Guy de Lusignan or not. He is said to have urged the people of Jerusalem to accept Sibylla without naming Guy as her consort. He may have been one of her supporters who urged her to set Guy aside and take a new husband (maybe he even imagined himself as his consort given his past successes!). Or he may have known she intended to keep Guy as her consort. In any case, he can be counted in her faction.



There is no evidence that I have seen, however, that he was particularly hostile to Raymond of Tripoli and there is no reason to believe he particularly agitated for war in 1187. On the contrary, Salah-ad-Din needed no particular provocation. He’d been launching invasions almost yearly from more than a decade and he knew as well as anyone that Guy de Lusignan was neither popular nor powerful. He recognized that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was weaker than it had been at any time in his own lifetime and he gathered his forces and struck again. Châtillon followed the royal summons to muster — as did all the other barons and fighting men of the kingdom. And, as an experienced battle commander with a large contingent of troops he inevitably played a role in the Battle — but nothing suggests he was the one whispering idiocy in King Guy’s hear: that distinction belongs to the Grand Master of the Knights Templar Gerard de Rideford.  



At the Battle of Hattin, Châtillon fought bravely beside the King and was taken captive with him along with many other nobles including Aimery de Lusignan and Humphrey de Toron. The only thing that made him different from the others is that Salah-ad-Din was not willing to forgive the Red Sea Raids and — again in violation of Islamic practice — did not show mercy, although Châtillon surrendered no less than the other lords did. Salah-ad-Din allegedly killed Châtillon with his own hand — or wounded him and let his men finish him off. It was a violent end for a violent man; he may well have preferred it to the thought of languishing in a Saracen prison again or a life in slavery. He would have been 62 years of age at the time of his execution.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: http://crusaderkingdoms.com

I have tried to do justice to Châtillon's complexity in my portrayal of him in "Defender of Jerusalem" (winner of five literary awards):