The Final Stand – Acre, 1291

Siege of Acre 1291 – Guillaume de Clermont defending Acre from the Saracen invasion. The fall of Acre signaled the end of the Jerusalem crusades. No effective crusade was raised to recapture the Holy Land afterwards, though talk of further crusades was common enough. By 1291, other ideals had captured the interest and enthusiasm of the monarchs and nobility of Europe and even strenuous papal efforts to raise expeditions to retake the Holy Land met with little response.

William of Beaujeu came to Acre late in 1275. King Hugh would feel the effects of the Templar alliance with the Angevin lobby as he was more or less ignored by the order when they bought a small village outside of Acre without referring to him in 1276. Hugh’s distrust of the Templars was quite open and he even wrote about it, blaming both them and the Hospitallers for the state of the kingdom. But Hugh wrote from Cyprus, to which he returned on numerous occasions. When he heard that the only other rival claimant to the throne, Maria of Antioch, had sold her stake to Charles of Anjou, he must have been mortified but not surprised. Roger of San Severino, Charles’s representative, soon headed out to Acre and to the Templars’ house. He began a cosy relationship of mutual cooperation with the Templars and Hugh’s subsequent attempts to wrest control away from the Angevin camp met with failure. Hugh did, however, retaliate against the Templars in Cyprus by attacking the castle at Gastria and other Templar houses on the island.

Baibars had died in July 1277. It was a year of change in Outremer. The Muslims descended for a short while into a familiar pattern of power struggles but Baibars had left an inherently strong platform, and within a few years the Mameluke threat was once again great. But in those years the Templars became embroiled in a damaging civil war in Tripoli. Whilst they were probably only doing what they had always done by backing a strong strategy to best protect the Holy Land, their partisan involvement at a time when there was much else to worry about brought some distrust upon the order.

The Civil War in Tripoli lasted from 1277 to 1282. Bartholomew, the Bishop of Tortosa, had run Tripoli on behalf of the young Bohemond VII for a few years up to 1277, when Bohemond came of age. However, Paul of Segni, the Bishop of Tripoli, who had been at the Council of Lyons and was on good terms with William of Beaujeu, was opposed to Bartholomew. Bohemond soon fell out with his cousin and former friend Guy of Embriaco over a marriage proposal. The girl at the heart of it was a local heiress who was soon kidnapped by Guy and handed to his brother John for a bride. Bartholomew, however, had wanted her for his own nephew. Guy knew what he had done would incur the wrath of Bohemond so he ran off to the Templars and joined them. In retaliation Bohemond attacked the Templar house at Tripoli and cut down a valuable forest of theirs at Montroque. The Templar Grand Master was incensed by this action and led a protest at the walls of Tripoli and then went on to torch the castle at Botrun and besiege Nephin, which did not go to plan and cost him twelve men killed or captured by Bohemond’s men. The Templars moved back to Acre whilst Bohemond went looking for Guy. But Guy had thirty Templars with him and there was a battle between himself and Bohemond in which those Templars seem to have played a decisive part. Bohemond’s forces were badly mauled and he sued for a year’s truce. But in 1278 he was set upon again by Guy and the Templars. It was another defeat, but this time with a naval element. Bohemond’s galleys attacked the Templar castle at Sidon, the order’s own galleys having been dispersed by bad weather. Hospitaller help came to the Templars and prevented a defeat.

Guy was determined to get the upper hand over Bohemond and had designs on Tripoli itself. In 1282 Guy and his men stole into the Templar house there in a bid to take the town by surprise. But the Spanish Templar preceptor called Reddecouer was not there when they arrived. Suspecting intrigue, the men fled to the Hospitaller house but were spotted. Bohemond promised them safe conduct if they surrendered but then broke his word and had Guy and his immediate company killed and the others blinded.

Outside of Tripoli’s internal disputes events moved swiftly and ominously. Charles of Anjou was hampered in his Eastern designs by the wars of the Sicilian Vespers in 1282. The Mameluke power struggles in the wake of Baibars’s death resulted in the rise of one very capable commander called Qalawun. At around the same time as Qalawun’s star rose, Charles of Anjou died in January 1285. King Hugh’s oldest surviving son, John, reigned only very briefly and another son, Henry, succeeded as Henry II (1285–1324), coming to the East in 1286. The situation was perilous for the Franks, but the Templars had played a part in negotiating peace treaties, including one in 1282 which was to last for ten years and ten months and was to feature a ban on re-fortifications in the Tortosa region.

Qalawun, however, seems to have scented blood before these truces could expire. The Hospitaller castle at Marqab fell in 1285 and the important port at Latakia fell in 1287, the same year that Bohemond VII died. By 1289 Qalawun was at the gates of Tripoli where the Grand Master’s reputation built up during the Civil War caught up with him. The Genoese lobby had risen to prominence in the town during the turmoil following the Civil War and some envoys had left Tripoli to tell the sultan that should Genoa prevail, the trade of Alexandria might be affected. Qalawun therefore had a pretext for intervention. On hearing through informants that the Mamelukes were closing in on Tripoli, William of Beaujeu sent a message into Tripoli to warn the townsfolk, but his messenger was not believed. Another message was sent to Acre where the Templar Reddecouer’s message was this time accepted. The Templars sent a force under Geoffrey of Vendac, the Marshal. Also, the Hospitallers committed a force along with the secular troops of John of Grailly. But it was too late. On 26 April 1289 the sultan’s men stormed the walls of Tripoli and amongst the slaughtered citizens was Peter of Moncade, the Templar Commander.

King Henry had managed to organise a truce with the sultan, but when a rabble of Lombard peasants and merchants arrived at Acre in response to panicked appeals for help, they embarked on a rampage around the city slaughtering everyone they thought was Muslim and embarrassing the Frankish authorities and military orders as a result. Qalawun was angry. He insisted that the government of Acre make reparation to him for the slaughter. Nobody quite knew the identity of any of the culprits except the obvious ring leaders. William of Beaujeu suggested emptying all the city’s prisons of their Christian prisoners to give to the sultan in recompense. But the Grand Master was overruled. Qalawun had decided that Acre’s days as the capital of a shrunken Christian kingdom were numbered.

Whilst the armies of Damascus and Egypt prepared their siege engines once again, William of Beaujeu’s Muslim informant, an emir called al-Fakhri, told him that the Muslim plan was to direct an assault against Acre and not, as had been widely reported, to undertake an African expedition. Once again, as he had done at Tripoli, the Grand Master sent a warning into the city and once again he was not believed. William even sent his own envoy to Cairo to negotiate with the sultan who offered Acre respite in return for one Venetian penny per head of population. So William put this proposal before the High Court at Acre amidst apparent scenes of howling derision. The offer was rejected outright and William was hounded by the citizens as he left the hall. Once again they thought the Templars had gone to the Muslims with some underhand dealings about which they knew very little.

The Muslim preparations were slow but thorough. The sultan was no longer making Acre a secret target. He had vowed to rid the city of all Christians. But in November 1290 he died just a few miles outside the city. His son, al-Ashraf Khalil, however, had promised his dying father he would finish the job. Still, he put the assault off to the next spring. Acre’s leaders tried to make the most of the respite and sent a delegation to Cairo which included a Templar named Bartholomew Pizan, a Hospitaller and a leading figure of the town who spoke fluent Arabic. Not one of them survived. They were incarcerated by the new sultan and soon perished. Meanwhile, the sultan’s preparations continued. Siege engines large and small made their way to Acre, and tens of thousands of troops accompanied them. By 5 April 1291 they were beneath the walls. Any complacency the Templars or the townsfolk might have had was now gone. Within the walls, looking out on the vast array of the armed Muslim regiments were the Templars, Hospitallers (both stationed in the northern suburb of Montmusard), Teutonic Knights and some troops sent by King Henry along with his brother, Amalric. Edward I had also sent some men from England who had accompanied the Swiss Otto of Grandson. The Venetians and Pisans were there too. Mixed in with these were the townsfolk now called to arms, and the Italians who had so rudely precipitated the earlier riots.

King Henry had recently strengthened the walls of the city. There was a double line of outer walls and a single wall separating the main part of the town from Montmusard. The city’s castle was on this single wall near to where it met with the outer walls. Here, the double walls jut out forming a vulnerable and obvious bulge in the defensive line. The Templars found themselves facing out to the north of Montmusard looking down on the Muslim army of Hama encamped by the sea, whilst the Hospitallers faced the army of Damascus. Al-Ashraf Khalil was camped to the south opposite the Tower of the Legate.

The siege was set to last for a good while. The Christians, having control of the sea were able to bring food over from Cyprus, but they could never have enough fighting men. On 6 April the bombardment started from the sultan’s engines. Also, his engineers began preparations to undermine sections of the walls, whilst thousands of archers fired their missiles into the battlements. The defenders, however, certainly put up a fight. One Christian ship which had a catapult on board did damage to the sultan’s camp, and on 15 April William of Beaujeu conducted a daring night-time raid along with Otto of Grandson on the army of Hama’s camp. However, the tactic was not a success. In the murky darkness the Templars’ horses got their feet caught in the enemy tent’s guy ropes and were thus stricken and their riders captured. Eighteen men were lost. With a similarly disastrous night sortie made by the Hospitallers a few nights later came a decision not to repeat the tactic.

And so the siege dragged on. On 4 May King Henry came to Acre with forty ship loads of troops from Cyprus, mainly infantrymen. They numbered a little over 2,000. But even this was not enough to fully man the vast walls of Acre. Henry decided to send two knights as envoys to speak with the sultan. One was William of Cafran, a Templar, and the other was William of Villiers. They had not come with the keys to the city, they told the sultan. Al-Ashraf Khalil said he would spare the Christians if they surrendered. However, just as the envoys were about to refuse such a demand a huge stone from one of the city’s catapults landed near to where they all stood and the sultan immediately took the view that the Christians had no intention of negotiating. In fact, it was only the intervention of a level-headed emir which prevented the sultan from killing the two knights himself. The two men returned to the city empty handed.

By 8 May the Tower of King Hugh, at the tip of the bulge in the defences, was standing precariously. The Christians torched it and began to retreat. The Towers and walls from here to St Anthony’s Gate were all beginning to crumble due to the work of the Muslim engineers. A new tower built by Henry II lasted until 15 May but also began to collapse. On the morning of 16 May the Muslims poured into the breach and the defenders fell back onto the inner walls. A concerted attack against St Anthony’s Gate, situated on the inner angle of the walls near to the castle, then took place. The Templars and the Hospitallers rushed to its defence and fought bravely. But on the morning of 18 May a general assault was ordered on the entire southern stretch of the defences from St Anthony’s Gate to the shore. The Accursed Tower, at the apex of the bulge, was penetrated and the defenders fell back towards St Anthony’s Gate. Now, amidst the noise and flames, there was fighting on the streets. William of Beaujeu rushed to the defence. His Templars were joined by the Hospitallers, but the enemy were everywhere. The Templar Grand Master had not had time to properly fix his armour plates (The Templar of Tyre says he had picked up another’s armour in haste) and just as he raised his left arm he was struck in the armpit by an enemy spear. He had no shield and the weapon went through him to a ‘palm’s length’. It came through a gap where his armour plates were not joined. The Master turned towards some Italian crusaders and said ‘My Lords, I can do no more, for I am killed: see the wound here!’

The Grand Master was carried back by his men to the Templar quarter, but later died of his wounds. Now the situation was beyond hope. King Henry fled to the ships. Even the wounded Grand Master of the Hospital John of Villiers was dragged onto a ship against his better judgement. At the quayside there were scenes of chaos as people crowded to get onto small craft and sail out to the larger vessels and to safety. Amongst those who capitalised on the desperation of the women and children was a Templar sea captain, Roger of Flor.

There was murder everywhere on the streets of Acre. Women and children were either killed or enslaved. Many people fled to the only remaining part of the city in Christian hands. It was now 25 May. The Temple quarter sticks out into the sea at the south-west tip of Acre. Inside this vast complex of Templar fortifications and buildings, Peter of Sevrey, the order’s Marshal, and the remaining citizens held on for nearly a week until the sultan offered Peter safety if he and the other citizens were to sail away to Cyprus and leave him with the city. Peter agreed, and a hundred Mamelukes were allowed into the Templar quarter whilst their sultan’s banner was hoisted on high. However, these Mamelukes took to molesting the women and mistreating the boys within the area. This provoked a retaliatory attack from the Templars who could hardly allow such open abuse. The enemy banner was ripped down and the Templars slaughtered the offenders. At night Peter sent Theobald Gaudin and a few others away in their ships to Sidon. Theobald had been both a Commander and Turcopolier in the order and had a long history of around three decades in the East. Myths have formed regarding what exactly the man who would soon become the Templars’ penultimate Grand Master took with him in the hold of his ship. Legends soon arose that Theobald took the order’s treasure, but nothing is known for sure.

Al-Ashraf Khalil knew how determined the Templars were and he knew how difficult their defences were to overcome. So, he once again offered the same deal as before. Peter came out under the promise of safety but when he and his party reached the sultan’s tent they were seized and beheaded. The remaining defenders stayed resolute behind the walls. However, these walls were gradually being undermined by the industrious Muslim engineers. By 28 May they were in a state of near collapse. When they did finally disintegrate, the sultan poured men over the rubble. But there were so many of them bearing down upon the shaky structures that a whole section of the fortification came crashing down on everyone, Christian and Muslim alike. Now the sultan’s men were inside the complex, the dreadful slaughter began once again. The roof had finally caved in on Outremer. For those Templars who somehow managed to escape, things would never quite be the same again.

Sidon, Tortosa and the castle at ‘Atlit (Château Pèlerin) were all that remained in Templar control. Theobald Gaudin was elected as Grand Master at Sidon where the Templars remained for a few weeks. Then a large Mameluke army appeared at the door of the city and the Templars withdrew to the castle on the sea to the north of the harbour which is linked to the mainland by a causeway. Theobald set sail for Cyprus apparently intending to return with reinforcements. Messages soon came to the remaining Templar defenders of Sidon from Cyprus urging them to give in. When the Mamelukes began to build their own crossing towards the castle, the Templars abandoned it and sailed along the coast to Tortosa. Two great centres of Templar power remained. Here, at Tortosa, where for so long the order’s knights had held sway in the region and had struck fear into the hearts of enemies, the brothers now prepared to leave. They were gone by 3 August. Their impregnable fortress at ‘Atlit (Château Pèlerin) was never taken. It was abandoned on 14 August and subsequently the Mamelukes destroyed it. With the cities of Tyre and Beirut having already fallen, there were no Christian territories left on the mainland. There was just one tiny little island, that of Arwad (Ru’ad) off the coast from Tortosa, where the Templars would play out a final desperate scene in the great drama of the crusades in 1302 (see p. 217). Despite sending out for help to Europe from his base in Cyprus, Theobald Gaudin did not come to the Holy Land again, although he may well have managed to secure a gathering of 400 brothers at a chapter meeting in Cyprus in 1291. He died on 16 April 1292 or 1293. His successor was the last Grand Master of the order, James of Molay, about whom more has been written than any other. Molay would have a long and troubled stewardship but would show that there was still some fighting to be done. Molay’s preoccupations would eventually turn to the struggle to defend himself against King Philip IV of France, but at the beginning of his time as Grand Master, and for some years afterwards, he will have been thinking of how the Templars could once again reclaim the Holy Land for Christianity.

Entry of Roger de Flor in Constantinople by José Moreno Carbonero

Roger of Flor

Roger was the son of a German Falconer and was an enthusiastic sailor from an early age. He found service on a ship of a Templar sergeant from Marseille who had put in at Brindisi. He later joined the Templars as a sergeant himself and took the captaincy of a vessel called The Falcon, formerly a fine Genoese ship. The vessel was involved in a mixture of trade and ‘piracy’ and the order did well from it. At the fall of Acre The Falcon was in the harbour and Roger used it to rescue rich women and sailed them away with their treasure to ‘Atlit (Château Pèlerin). Although Roger gave a large amount of his proceeds to the order, there was suspicion that he pocketed much himself. His subsequent behaviour, taking The Falcon to Marseille and abandoning it, thus escaping the Grand Master’s attentions, might implicate him further, as does his new found life as a mercenary leader of the Catalan Company. Roger died serving the Byzantines in 1305.