The Kingdom of Acre

On his return to Italy, Frederick met with greater success in confounding the plans of the Pope than he had in overcoming the opposition of the Pope’s allies in Outremer. The papal army besieging Capua under the two old-timers, John of Brienne and Cardinal Pelagius, retreated and then disintegrated as Frederick marched to relieve the city. John of Brienne was obliged to flee to his native Champagne. The Templars paid a price for their defiance: their houses in Sicily were seized by imperial forces and a hundred Muslim slaves belonging to the Templars and Hospitallers were returned to the Saracens without any compensation being paid to the orders.

Frederick’s bequest to the Holy Land was a liberated Jerusalem, but a Jerusalem so strategically vulnerable that ‘it remained an open city’; and an imperial administration under the Marshal, Richard Filangieri, that was constantly at war with the native barons under John of Ibelin both in Palestine and on Cyprus. The titular King of Jerusalem was Conrad, Queen Yolanda’s son by Frederick II, but even when of age, Conrad did not come east to claim his crown which led the barons to declare it forfeit and oust Filangieri from Tyre. Alice of Cyprus was chosen as regent by the High Court of Jerusalem but the kingdom was in fact ruled by an oligarchy of the Frankish nobility which developed ‘a passionate and even fanatic interest in law and legality. In no contemporary Christian nobility was knowledge of customary law and procedure, and mastery over the intricacies of constitutional law, so cultivated and cherished as in the Latin kingdom.’ There was no university in Outremer and there were no scholars or men of letters apart from William of Tyre. ‘All its intellectual energies appear to have been concentrated in the study of law.’

In this state of pedantic anarchy, the military orders acted with the autonomy of sovereign states. In the north, in the 1220s and 1230s, the Templars tried to expand into the territory of Aleppo from their base at Gaston in the Amanus Mountains, making it ‘a semi-independent territory in which the Templars went their own way, with little reference to their nominal lords in Cilicia’. In Syria and Palestine, too, the Templars’ wealth and power increased because the nobility of Outremer, whose fiefs were now confined to the enclaves around the coastal cities, could not afford to garrison their castles and so handed them over to the military orders: in 1186, for example, Marqab, one of the largest and most powerful fortresses in Syria, was sold to the Hospital because its lord could no longer afford to run it.

Some members of the indigenous nobility flourished, notably the Ibelins, whose luxurious palace in Beirut amazed an envoy from the imperial German court; but the resources that afforded such luxury now came less from the land than from the profits that could be siphoned off from trade. Acre had become a commercial centre on a par with Constantinople and Alexandria: the annual revenue of the kings of Jerusalem from Acre was estimated at 50,000 pounds of silver which was more than that of the King of England at the time. Merchants flocked there from Damascus to deal in sugar, dyes and spices. Much of the sugar consumed in Europe was exported from Acre together with a multiplicity of exotic products which not only supplied but created a market for luxuries in the West. In turn, the 250,000 inhabitants of Outremer provided a market for European exports such as capes and berets from Champagne, and the Muslim hinterland for iron, timber, textiles and fur.

There was also an active market in slaves, either Muslim captives or Greeks, Bulgarians, Ruthenians and Wlachs imported by merchants of the Italian republics. These were sold as Muslims because by law no Christian could be enslaved; but slave traders would disregard this statute and the owners forbid their slaves’ conversion. In the early thirteenth century, a Latin bishop complained that ‘the Christians continually refused their Muslim slaves baptism, although these sought it earnestly and tearfully’; and in 1237 Pope Gregory IX complained of the same abuse to the bishops of Syria and the Grand Masters of the military orders.

Individual conversion of free Muslims did take place, leading to assimilation into the Syrian Christian population. There was a wide choice of Christian churches – Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Armenian, Jacobite and Nestorian – but the occasional attempts in Rome and Constantinople to unite them met with success only with the Maronites in Lebanon. Whatever the intentions of the popes, the Latin clergy were only interested in a union with other churches that would ensure their preeminence. Not only did the churches fail to unite, but there was no integration of the different Christian communities. The Latins’ treatment of native Christians was little better than that of Muslims, Jews or Samaritans.

Given the great missionary endeavour of the Catholic Church in the ninth and tenth centuries, it seems puzzling that almost no effort was made by the victorious crusaders to convert the Muslims under their rule. Certainly, conversion was never a crusading objective as such. Although Pope Urban II no doubt wanted to aid the Byzantine Emperor, and perhaps divert the destructive aggression of the Frankish warriors to a noble cause, his principle intentions were, like those of Bernard of Clairvaux, Christian recovery of the Holy Places and the salvation of the crusader’s soul.

It was only at the beginning of the thirteenth century that we find the genesis of a missionary endeavour, not surprisingly in Spain where the success of the Reconquista had brought large numbers of Muslims under Christian control. Significantly, the Spanish Bishop Diego of Osma, and his companion Dominic Guzman, asked Pope Innocent III to let them preach the Gospel not to the Saracens but to the pagans on the Vistula. However, by 1255, Humbert of Romans, the Master General of the Dominicans, called on the friars to study Arabic and commit themselves to the conversion of the Saracens.

Francis of Assisi, in crossing the lines between Christian and Muslim forces at the siege of Damietta to preach to the Sultan al-Kamil in Cairo, set an example which his mendicant friars were to follow, their pacific bearing earning them the privilege of acting as the guardian of the Holy Places when these returned to Muslim control. However, Francis did not disapprove of crusading. He admired the heroes of Roncesvalles as depicted in the Song of Roland, regarded as martyrs those who died fighting the infidel, accepted the Christians’ right to the Holy Land, and felt that it could be deduced from the Gospel that the crusade was a legitimate act of retribution for the Saracens’ forcible conquest of Christian territory and their blasphemies against Christ.

Almost the only Latin bishop to make any attempt to convert the Muslims in the Holy Land was the French prelate, James of Vitry, who was appointed Bishop of Acre. He had a low opinion of his co-religionists in the Holy Land: he wrote to the Pope that the indigenous Christians so loathed the Latins that they would rather be ruled by the Muslims; and that the Latins had gone native, leading indolent, luxurious and immoral lives. The local clergy were greedy and corrupt while the Italian merchants were always at one another’s throats. The only institutions he felt he could respect were the military orders.

Although James of Vitry was unusual in preaching the Catholic faith to the Muslims in Outremer, he did not see this as an alternative to extending the Christian domain by force. He was an enthusiastic crusader, accompanying Cardinal Pelagius to the Nile Delta. He also defended the military orders, in particular the Templars, from the charge that they were disobeying Jesus’s injunction to Peter in the Gospel of Matthew to put up his sword – an argument advanced in Europe not just by heretical Cathars and Waldensians, but also by churchmen like the monk of Saint Alban’s, Walter Map: in one of his extant sermons preached to the Knights of the Temple, James of Vitry tells them not to listen to such reasoning of ‘false Christians, Saracens and Bedouins’.

The very fact that James of Vitry felt it necessary to reassure the Templars in this way suggests that they still felt they were following a religious calling. Although they chiefly appear in the historical records through their role in warfare, or through the political stance taken by their leaders, the ordinary knight seems to have kept to the severe Rule laid down by the Council of Troyes. At a time when the monastic orders are frequently accused of laxity and corruption, no such charge appears to have been made against the individual knights. Living with the odour not of incense, but of horse dung, leather and sweat, they must have been aware of the rate of attrition among those who served in Palestine and have acknowledged that sooner or later they would suffer death at the hands of the enemies of their faith.

If we look once again at the Rule and the penitentiary that came to be written in the mid-twelfth century, we get the impression of an austere life with strict discipline and severe punishment for any breach of the regulations. Their principal human consolation was probably the companionship of the other knights who came from a similar background. Friendship, as we have seen, was highly esteemed in the Cistercian Order and it would appear from the Rule that, despite the rivalry of the two orders that on occasion broke out into open conflict, the camaraderie of the Templar knights and sergeants was felt for the brothers of the Hospital too. Templars had to get permission from their superiors to eat, drink or visit the lodgings of other religious unless they were Hospitallers: in battle, it was to the Hospital’s banner that a Templar was to rally if he lost sight of his order’s piebald standard; and in 1260, when a Templar contingent were ordered to withdraw from Jerusalem by their superior, their commander would not do so without the Hospitallers who had joined them.

Homosexual relations between knights were regarded as a major breach of the Rule, a crime ‘against nature and against the law of Our Lord’. It is placed in the penitentiary between losing faith in Christ and desertion on the field of battle, all punished by expulsion from the Order. A case study given in clause 573 of the penitentiary describes how, when a case of three brothers at Castle Pilgrim ‘who practised wicked sin and caressed each other in their chambers at night’ was brought to the attention of the Grand Master, he wanted to avoid bringing it before the Temple chapter ‘because the deed was so offensive’. Instead, they were summoned to Acre, made to remove their habits, and put in irons. One of them, called Lucas, escaped and defected to the Muslims; the second tried to escape but died in the attempt; while the third ‘remained in prison for a long time’.

Among the principal vices ascribed to the Templars was their avarice. The wealth generated by the Temple’s holdings where the munificence of pious donors had been exploited by efficient administration, inspired envy and resentment by those in Europe who were unaware of the enormous costs borne by the Order, not just in the Holy Land but throughout Christendom. The Temple, like the Hospital, was a multinational force funded by a multinational corporation fighting the enemies of the Church on a number of fronts. Six Templar knights died fighting the Mongols at the Battle of Legnica in eastern Europe in 1241. The Temple remained a considerable power in Portugal and Spain, though its relative contribution to the Reconquista had declined: when the Christians attacked Mallorca in 1229, the Templars contributed only about four per cent of the force. Even in Aragon it was accepted that the Templars’ principal mission was in the Holy Land: recruits to the Order, horses and between one-third and one-tenth of their revenue, were sent to the East.

In the same way that modern charities build up investments, the Templars used their funds not just to pursue the war against the Saracens but also to expand their estates in the East: when John of Ibelin was desperate to raise funds to fight Frederick II, he did so by selling lands to both the Temple and the Hospital. This reinvestment of the Templars’ income attracted criticism from Pope Gregory IX: ‘many people have been forced to the conclusion’, he wrote to the Grand Master, ‘that your chief aim is to increase your holdings in the lands of the faithful, when it should be to prise from the hands of the infidel the lands consecrated to the blood of Christ’. They were also accused of being soft on the Muslims, entertaining them in their houses and allowing them to pray to Allah in Templar houses: ironically, this charge was made by Frederick II in a letter to Richard, Earl of Cornwall, in 1245.

The Order also spent lavishly on their corporate headquarters in the city of Acre which, repudiating the administration of Frederick’s governor, Richard Filangieri, was ruled by a commune. The different quarters of the city were ‘miniature republics surrounded by walls and towers’, its streets, as described by the Muslim writer Ibn Jubayr, ‘choked by the press of men, so that it is hard to put foot to the ground. It stinks and it is filthy, being full of refuse and excrement.’ The Temple compound was on the seaward spur of the city and formed a pivotal stretch of the city’s defences. ‘At its entrance’, wrote the Templar of Tyre,

was a stronghold very high and strong and its walls were very thick, a block of 28 feet. On each side of the fortress was a small tower and on each a lion passant as big as a fattened oxen, all covered with gold. The price of the four lions, in material and work, was 1,500 Saracen besants. It was marvellous to behold. On the other side, towards the Pisan quarter, was a tower. Nearby, above the monastery of the nuns of Saint Anne, was another huge tower with bells and a marvellous and very high church. In addition there was a tower on the beach. This was an ancient tower, a hundred years old, built by command of Saladin. Here the Templars guarded their treasury. This tower was so near the beach that the sea waves washed it. And many other beautiful abodes were in the Temple, which I will forgo mentioning.

However, many of the charges made against the Templars were contradicted by others. When King James I of Aragon, at the Second Council of Lyons, accused the Templars of dragging their feet over a new crusade against the Moors, the charge was not supported by the other members of the Spanish delegation; and the English Franciscan, Roger Bacon, attacked not the pusillanimity but the aggressiveness of the Templars which he thought prevented the conversion of Muslims to Christianity. Moreover, all the religious orders in this period with the exception of the Carthusians were criticised for their extravagance, and the betrayal of their original charism – the Temple, on the whole, less than the orders of monks and friars. The golden lions were no doubt unnecessary, and Hugh of Payns cannot have envisaged the Master of his Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Jesus Christ living in a palace; but the proportion of resources devoted by the Temple to the purposes of their original foundation would have compared favourably to that of other religious foundations, and even to some charities today. Certainly the popes, though they occasionally chided the Temple, were fulsome in their praise of the military orders in their bulls and continued to defend them by the granting of privileges and exemptions.

It was also clear that the finances of the military orders suffered as a result of inexorably rising costs. The land required to equip and maintain a Burgundian knight in 1180 amounted to around 750 acres; by the mid-thirteenth century this had risen fivefold to almost 4,000 acres: the cost, as well as the military value, made a fully armed knight with his entourage of squires and sergeants the equivalent of today’s heavy tank. Despite the evidence that the Temple often had cash in hand, their running costs were considerable: in the Latin states of Outremer they garrisoned and maintained at least fifty-three castles or fortified staging posts ranging from great fortresses like Castle Pilgrim to small watch-towers on pilgrim routes. At the height of the Order’s fortunes, there were almost a thousand Templar houses in Europe and in the East, and around 7,000 members. The number of non-professed auxiliaries and dependants is estimated to have been seven or eight times that number. The ratio of support personnel to combatants was around 3:2. By the mid-twelfth century the Order had built its own fleet of galleys which transported horses, grain, arms, pilgrims and military personnel. The traditional carriers suffered from this competition for the lucrative pilgrim traffic and in 1234 the city of Marseilles limited the Templars to one shipment of pilgrims per year.

Despite their involvement with the financial, logistical and military aspects of war, the Templars do not appear to have lost sight of their commitment to the defence of the Holy Land and recovery of Jerusalem. One of the earliest translations of scripture from Latin into the vernacular was that of the Book of Judges commissioned by the Temple so that, in the words of its introduction, they could learn of the ‘chivalry’ of the period and see ‘what honour it is thus to serve God and how He rewards his own’. Since most of the knights, squires and sergeants were illiterate, such readings were not just for their enlightenment but to sustain their morale. The Book of Judges was well chosen. While the Book of Joshua describes the Jews’ conquest of the Promised Land in a series of efficient military campaigns, ‘the book of Judges sees it as a more complex and gradual phenomenon, punctuated by partial success and failure’. There was a close and unquestioning identification by the Christians in Palestine with the Israelites of old. The narratives of the Old Testament, unlike the sayings of Jesus in the New, accept that systematic pillage of the enemy is part of war and indeed that it is not only permitted but actually ordered by God.


In 1239, Frederick II’s treaty with the Egyptian Sultan, al-Kamil, was due to expire. Aware of this, Pope Gregory IX preached yet another crusade. This was encouraged by the kings of France and England but neither took the Cross. Instead, as in the days of the First Crusade, lesser Frankish nobles set out for the Holy Land, led by Theobold, Count of Champagne. He was a cousin of the kings of England, France and Cyprus, and saw the crusade as the apogee of chivalrous knighthood: ‘blind is he’, he said, ‘who has not once in his life crossed the sea to succour God’.

The complexity of the political situation in the Holy Land baffled the new crusaders, and the advice they received was contradictory. The Ayyubids were at war with one another and Ismail, the Sultan of Damascus, proposed a pact with the Franks against his nephew, al-Kamil’s son Ayyub, now Sultan in Cairo. In exchange for defending the frontier facing the Sinai Desert, he would give them the fortresses of Beaufort and Safed. Before Hattin, Safed had belonged to the Templars and they were now eager for its return.

The deal was done and as a result the Latin possessions in Palestine were now greater than at any time since Hattin; but the cost was considerable to both parties. Many zealous Muslims among the Damascenes defected to the Egyptians, while in the Christian camp it led to outright enmity between the Templars and Hospitallers who until then had formed a common front against the minions of Frederick II. Ignoring the agreement made with Ismail in Damascus, the Hospitallers signed a treaty with Ayyub in Cairo.

This was the confused situation found upon his arrival in the Holy Land by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the nephew of Richard the Lionheart, brother of King Henry III and brother-in-law of the Emperor Frederick II. Aged only thirty-one, he had already established a reputation for courage and competence. He came with considerable resources and also the full authority of the Emperor who, after the death of the wretched Queen Yolanda of Jerusalem, had married Princess Isabella of England.

Richard found the Kingdom of Jerusalem in a state of chaos, but with tact and energy reached an agreement with both Damascus and Egypt which resulted in the release of all the Christian prisoners held in Cairo and confirmation of the Latin possession of the recently ceded lands. But no sooner had he set sail for England than this settlement fell apart. The Templar Grand Master, Armand of Périgord, ignored the treaty with Egypt and in 1242 attacked the city of Hebron which had remained in Muslim hands. Subsequently, after a feeble response by the Egyptians, the Templars took Nablus, burned its mosque and killed many of its inhabitants, Muslim and Christian alike.

At around the same time, the imperial bailli, Richard Filangieri, attempted to reimpose Frederick II’s authority on Acre with the help of the Hospitallers. The coup failed, leading to a six-month siege of the Hospital compound by the forces of the leader of Latin barons, Balian of Ibelin, assisted by the Templars. This open conflict between the two military orders scandalised public opinion in Europe, and was blamed on the Templars by chroniclers who favoured the imperial party such as the monk of Saint Alban’s Abbey, Matthew Paris. The Templars, he wrote, would not permit food to be sent into the Hospital compound, or the Hospitallers to bring out their dead. They also ejected the Teutonic knights from some of their holdings: how scandalous that ‘those who had stuffed themselves with so many revenues in order to be able powerfully to attack the Saracens, were impiously turning violence and venom against the Christians, indeed against their own brothers, thus most gravely bringing God’s anger down upon them’.

There can be no doubt that the Temple, under Armand of Périgord, was in the anti-imperial camp, supporting Alice, the Queen of Cyprus, as regent of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and accepting the legality of excluding Conrad, Queen Yolanda’s son by Frederick II, when he came of age in April 1243, on the grounds that he had not visited the Holy Land to claim his crown. In this, they were not alone. The Venetians and the Genoese were of a like mind and in the summer of 1243 joined the barons of Outremer in ejecting Filangieri and the imperialists from Tyre. But this was not necessarily an expression of envy, or of the Order’s pursuit of its own interests. In a letter to Robert of Sandford written in 1243, Armand of Périgord explained the basis of his policy. Templar envoys that had been sent to Cairo were being kept in virtual captivity. The Egyptians could not be trusted and were only buying time. By contrast, the alliance with Damascus had secured not only the return of a number of fortresses and extensive territory, but the eviction of the remaining Muslims in Jerusalem.

To cement the Damascene alliance, the Muslim Prince of Homs, al-Mansur Ibrahim, was invited to Acre and there lavishly entertained in the Temple. The celebrations were premature. To counter the forces ranged against him, the Egyptian Sultan Ayyub called on a wild tribe of mercenary nomads who had settled near Edessa, the Khorezmian Turks. In June 1244, a force of ten thousand Khorezmian cavalry invaded Damascene territory and, bypassing Damascus itself, rode on into Galilee and captured Tiberias. On 11 July, the Khorezmians reached Jerusalem and breached its feeble defences. For a time its garrison held out but on 23 August, on a safe-conduct secured by the Muslim Lord of Kerak, the garrison and the entire Christian population left the city for Jaffa and then, seeing Frankish flags on the ramparts of Jerusalem and imagining that the city had been relieved, turned back, only to be massacred by the waiting Khorezmians. Only three hundred of their number reached Jaffa.

The Khorezmians now sacked the city, disinterring the bones of Godfrey of Bouillon and the other kings of Jerusalem buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and killing the few priests who had remained there before setting the church on fire. Then, evacuating the empty city, they rode down to the coast, joining the Egyptian army of the Sultan Ayyub at Gaza under the command of a young Mameluk officer, Rukn ad-Din Baybars.

On 17 October 1244, on a sandy plain by the village of Herbiya known to the Franks as La Forbie, this Egyptian host was confronted by the joint armies of Damascus and Acre. The Damescene forces were led by the Prince of Homs, al-Mansur Ibrahim, and included a contingent of Bedouin cavalry under the Lord of Kerak, an-Nasir. The Christian army was the most considerable that had been assembled since Hattin. There were six hundred secular knights under Philip of Montfort and Walter of Brienne, and six hundred from the Temple and Hospital led by their Grand Masters, Armand of Périgord and William of Châteauneuf. There were also a number of Teutonic Knights and a contingent from Antioch.

As at Hattin, there was a debate among the allies about whether to attack or remain on the defensive: al-Mansur Ibrahim favoured the latter, Walter of Brienne the former, and it was the view of Walter of Brienne that prevailed. The superior allied army advanced on the Egyptians but the Egyptians held them and the Khorezmian cavalry attacked their flank. The Damascene troops took flight and with them went an-Nasir, the Lord of Kerak. In a matter of hours, the Latin army was destroyed. At least 5,000 were killed and 800 prisoners taken to Egypt, among them the Grand Master of the Temple, Armand of Périgord. The total loss to the Temple was between 260 and 300 knights. Of the knights of the military orders, only thirty-three Templars, twenty-six Hospitallers and three Teutonic Knights survived.