The Size of the Teutonic Order’s Field Army in the Levant

Arms and armour of the Teutonic Order , the late 13th century. Dariusz Bufnal

Historians have tended to be rather dismissive of the size of the Teutonic Order in the Levant. Prawer, comparing them to the Templars and Hospitallers, wrote, `smaller and poorer than their comrades-in-arms, the Teutonic Knights never played as important a part in the history of the kingdom. Riley-Smith, when discussing the 1258 agreement between the three major orders, wrote `The Teutonic Knights were, of course, the poorest of the orders in Syria. It is not the purpose of this work to fully contradict these statements about the size and importance of the Teutonic Knights. They were indeed less wealthy and less powerful than the Templars and Hospitallers in the Latin East. Even so, when reading statements of this kind, it is too easy to interpret them as implying that the Order was a negligible force. The difficulty when assessing the size of the Teutonic Knights’ field force in the Latin East, relative to the Templars and Hospitallers, is the lack of quantitative evidence – there are only two references which supply figures for the total force which the Order could deploy during any single engagement. The first of these can be found in the chronicle of Peter von Dusburg, which mentioned that in c. 1210 the Order could deploy only ten brother knights. 69 Naturally, the Order was at an early stage in its development at this time and this figure tallies well with other circumstantial evidence.

The second piece of evidence, which can be found in Salimbene of Adam’s chronicle, is a transcription of a letter written by Robert, patriarch of Jerusalem, which details the Christian defeat at La Forbie in 1244 and gives specific figures for the battlefield losses of the military orders. The size of the Teutonic Order’s force is described as follows: `From the house of the Germans none survived except for three brothers, all the others were killed, some 400 from the same house. This figure has been accepted by several historians, such as Richard and Jotischky, who have interpreted it to mean 400 brother knights. This has been rejected by Riley-Smith who claims that `it is very unlikely that the Teutonic Knights could raise 300 [400] brethren-at-arms’. Riley-Smith’s argument seems to be sensible because 400 knights would have given the Order a greater field force than that of either the Templars or Hospitallers, who could generally muster around 300 knights apiece. These older orders had both the military power to conduct independent campaigns in the Levant and a wider support network in Western Christendom, which concentrated its efforts almost solely upon the Latin East. Given that the Teutonic Order had neither such power nor such focused support this conclusion is accepted.

A different interpretation has been offered by Forey who suggests that the figure of 400 did not refer solely to brother knights but also to secular troops affiliated to the Order. This idea opens a new approach to this piece of evidence. Notably, within this letter, the patriarch gave two figures for each of the contingents of the Templars and Hospitallers. The Templars are said to have deployed 312 fratres milites and 324 turcopoles, whilst the Hospitallers supplied 325 fratres milites and 200 turcopoles. For the Teutonic Knights, the patriarch gives only one number for their total field force. It may be the case, therefore, that this figure referred collectively to knights, turcopoles, confratres and mercenaries. This interpretation feels more realistic because it suggests that the Teutonic Order possessed a total force of 400 troops compared to a total Hospitaller contingent of 525 and a Templar force of 626.

Certainly the evidence of this letter should not be lightly laid aside; Patriarch Robert of Jerusalem was an influential man who played a leading role in the events of 1244. He was present in Jerusalem when it fell and he is reported to have proclaimed the decision to march out against the Khwarazmians. He was also present at the battle. As such it is likely that he was aware of the size of the military orders’ contingents. Nevertheless, Riley- Smith has made further criticisms of the figures given in this letter, including the stated losses incurred by the Cypriot and Antiochene contingents (300 knights apiece) which he claimed were `obviously exaggerated’. These statistics certainly do seem to be unduly high and this naturally casts doubt on the other data in this letter. Despite this, some of the other numbers can be verified from other sources. For instance, the claim that there were three survivors from the Teutonic House is replicated in a separate contemporary letter written by the patriarch, and also in two further accounts. Admittedly these separate accounts do not state the size of the Teutonic Order’s main host, although the fact that some of the letter’s statistics can be found else- where speaks in favour of its general reliability.

To test further the veracity of the claim that the Order deployed 400 horsemen, a piece of qualitative evidence will now be reviewed. During the Barons’ Crusade, five years before La Forbie, a contingent of the army decided to advance towards Egypt. At Gaza, a column led by a number of French lords detached itself to embark upon a raiding expedition. This force of around 600 knights was eventually trapped and forced to flee by the Egyptian army. The main body of the Christian army then became aware of this disaster and hurried to support the refugees who were fleeing from the Muslim onslaught. The first to arrive at the battlefield were the Teutonic Knights who advanced unaided against the oncoming Egyptian army. This `powerful contingent’ (grant route) alone is said to have been sufficient to deter the advancing Muslim army and even to have cut down a number of the Muslim vanguard. Given that the Egyptian army had already destroyed a force of 600 knights, it is implausible that the Teutonic Order could have acted in this way without a sizeable field force. They must have possessed sufficient cavalry to face down the oncoming Muslim forces. In these circumstances a force of around 400 horsemen would probably have been the minimum necessary to achieve this feat. To conclude, although it is impossible to state with any degree of certainty the precise size of the force which the Teutonic Knights were able to commit to the defence of the East, the figure of 400 horsemen at La Forbie chimes well with the available evidence.


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