The Soldiers of Christ II


There was a large number of squires in the army, certainly more than the number of knights, as each had one or more squires to assist him. The exact role and status of the squires, variously known as ‘armigeri’ or ‘ecuyers’, seemed to vary according to individual circumstances. And the term ‘squire’ covered a range of different social positions. Some, for instance, were trainee knights and therefore of high social status, while others were servants, acting as grooms, cooks and so on. This inevitably affected the military roles they were given on campaign.

The trainee knights would have had a programme of weapon training and were gradually given tasks which more actively supported their masters in battle. The grooms, on the other hand, were more likely to get the less glamorous but nonetheless essential tasks, such as foraging and mucking out the stables. Some of the duties ascribed to the squires were so humble that many commentators have been led to believe that they played no role in battlefield fighting. No doubt some, particularly the younger boys, were indeed non-combatants, or were left to guard the baggage train. But the majority could perform as lightly armed cavalry and the evidence is overwhelming that they did fight when required, albeit in roles that reflected their lighter equipment and more junior status. Given the perennial need for manpower, no one was left standing around.

Large numbers of squires were sometimes grouped together when the army went on campaign, and sent out as foraging parties. This was clearly not high-status work, but it was far more suited to these lightly armed horsemen than to heavier troops. The act of foraging required a relatively high degree of dispersal, however, and there was always a danger that foraging parties would be surprised by enemy cavalry patrols. For this reason, it was generally best practice for an escort of more heavily armed soldiers to be assigned to them. These guards would be better prepared for close combat and their main duty was to be on the watch for enemy troops, rather than focusing on finding supplies.

During the Third Crusade, for instance, we are told that ‘the esquires went out from the army foraging for fodder. The noble lords of the Temple were guarding them at that time. The foragers, who left the army, spread out across the land looking for good grass.’ A few months later another Frankish foraging party, again consisting largely of squires, was badly cut up in a Muslim ambush: ‘Not long after, our squires and servants went out to look for fodder for the pack animals and unwarily went too far. Saracens leapt out from ambush, killed some of them and led others away prisoner, along with a great many horses.’ Incidents such as these, suggesting that the squires needed armed protection to be provided by other men, have been interpreted as meaning that the squires themselves were not armed. In fact, of course, all it really suggests is that they were vulnerable to attack because they were lightly armed, moving through enemy territory and, due to the nature of the task, operating in a highly dispersed formation.

It is certainly true that squires were not generally expected to fight in the front rank of the charge: that dangerous privilege was given to the knights. Even then, however, when circumstances were sufficiently desperate, exceptions could be made. In 1101, for instance, there were so few knights that attempts were made to upgrade some of the older and better trained squires (‘armigeri’) socially and, as far as possible, in terms of weapons and equipment. Baldwin I, faced with a lack of knights and another imminent Egyptian invasion, brought the squires into the front ranks of the army: ‘Because it was urgent that we should have knights, the king ordered each one who could to make a knight of his squire [‘quicumque potuit de armigero suo militem fecit’]. In this way our knights numbered about two hundred and sixty and our footmen about nine hundred.’ As so often with the armies of the crusader states, there was a theoretical delineation of roles, but practice on the day depended on how desperate the situation was.

In the military orders at least, the squires were expected to play an active role in combat. When battle seemed imminent, they were formed into a squadron of their own, under the command of the standard bearer. Section 179 of The Rule of the Templars tells us that ‘when the brothers go in squadrons, a turcopole should carry the banner, and the Standard Bearer should form the squires into a squadron’.34 The squadron of squires was then divided into two different groups, presumably determined by their status, age and military experience. Those leading warhorses (‘destriers’) would hand them over to their brother knight and then, riding their own mount, they would fall in behind the brother knights and form part of the back ranks of the charge. As the Rule said, ‘if the Marshal and the brothers charge, the squires who lead the destriers should charge behind their lords’.

The other squires, the less able remnant, were instructed to retire with the mules from which the brother knights had dismounted, and regroup around the standard bearer. As the charge was launched, the standard bearer had to decide how best to deploy this far from elite force, some of whom were presumably mounted only on mules or other baggage animals. Even this relatively motley crew were expected to be deployed as actively as possible, however, plugging gaps and perhaps gathering prisoners or despatching enemy wounded. The Rule said that at this point the standard bearer ‘should have a banner furled round his lance; and when the Marshal charges he should have the squires formed into squadrons and should unfurl his banner; and he should go after those who are attacking as best, as soon and in as orderly a fashion as he can, at a walk or amble, or what ever seems best to him’. The standard bearer was clearly left with the least effective troops, and the tone of the Templars’ military manual is one of ‘just do the best you can’. But even the most junior squires were expected to fight if circumstances required it.

Acting in such close support of the knights was often undertaken at the cost of their own lives. During a running fight with Turkic troops on 17 June 1192, we find mounted squires in the thick of the fighting. A Frankish supply train had set out from Jaffa to try to get to the main army, then camped at Bait Nuba, about 12 miles from Jerusalem. The column was ambushed, however, and in the fighting the Frankish cavalry guarding the wagon train, both knights and squires, ended up in a confused mêlée with the Turkic troopers. Baldwin Carron, one of the commanders of the escort, was later heavily criticised because he and the column were felt to have ‘wandered along incautiously’. Baldwin lost his horse early on in the fighting and another horse was found for him. Later, this second horse was also killed under him. He decided to pull rank and ‘he ordered one of his squires to get off the horse he was riding and give it to him. The squire had displayed great prowess while he was mounted on horseback, but as soon as Baldwin mounted he saw his squire’s head cut off.’ The context makes clear that the squires were playing an active role in the fighting, as lighter cavalry acting in support of the knights.

Their relative lack of armour also meant that they were better suited than the knights for certain other tasks. At the siege of Acre in 1191, a group of squires even came together to form an elite unit who were tasked with the assault on one of the key towers. As the assault parties formed up ‘our squires [armigeri] took up their arms. They were greedy for glory and victory and fit and ready for battle . . . At around the third hour [i.e. 9.00 am] . . . the men of valour and the outstanding squires set out to attack the aforesaid tower. They boldly climbed up it immediately. When the Turks saw them they began to shout, and the whole city was aroused!’ The squires were eventually repulsed, but it was only the weight of enemy numbers and naphtha hand grenades that forced them off the battlements.

The squires did not have the necessary training or equipment to allow them to serve in the front rank. Some of the younger boys were probably too physically underdeveloped to allow them to do so, even if they had been fully equipped. But in a highly militarised society with a permanently undermanned army, they were expected to do their part on the battlefield in support of their lords.

Mounted Sergeants

If the knights were the fine tip of the army, the mounted sergeants were, in theory at least, the solid backbone of heavy cavalry that rode in behind them. Together with the squires and the Turcopoles, they provided the numbers required to exploit a successful charge, and turn a breakthrough into a rout.

We find sergeants in a wide variety of roles, and the term ‘sergeant’ denoted a basic social status that inevitably encompassed a large group of men with widely differing skills and levels of professionalism. As ever in the Latin East, the temptation is to read too much into relatively limited evidence and to use hindsight to impose rules and firm boundaries that may never have existed. Men did whatever was required on the day, subject to the limitations of their skills and equipment.

In parallel with the records of knights’ service owed to the king of Jerusalem, however, we also have some hard data points about the service owed by sergeants. As we have seen, John of Ibelin’s list of military obligations recorded the situation which existed in the 1180s, just before the collapse in the aftermath of the battle of Hattin. Section 15 of the list sets out what ‘the churches and the burgesses [i.e. the townsfolk] owe when there is a great need in the land of the kingdom of Jerusalem’. It is not entirely clear how ‘great need’ was defined, but what the towns and ecclesiastical institutions ‘owe’ is expressed entirely in terms of the numbers of sergeants they could supply. The total number of sergeants they were obliged to maintain, in theory at least, was just in excess of 5,000 men.

The scale of the obligation was substantial and could only have been offered on a temporary and emergency basis. The contributions seem to have been determined partly by how much land each institution owned (and hence their access to feudal vassals) and partly by their commercial wealth (and hence their ability to recruit mercenaries or train and equip a local militia to an acceptable standard).

At the top end of the scale we find the major ecclesiastical and secular institutions. The patriarch of Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre each owed the service of 500 men, as did the cities of Acre and Tyre. The city of Nablus had to provide 300 sergeants, while the bishop of Bethlehem and the town of Tiberias provided 200 men each. Other institutions were expected to provide proportionately fewer, according to their capabilities.

The kinds of men represented by these figures would be similarly diverse, encompassing major differences in quality and capability. At one end of the spectrum would be professional soldiers, perhaps mercenaries attracted from the west or drawn from other parts of the Middle East. Some would be Armenian veterans with years of experience. Others might be yeoman farmers from the various settlements, or prosperous burgesses from the towns, well motivated and independent but not necessarily highly skilled at arms. Or, at the other end of the scale, some might be taken from the urban poor, pulled together at the last moment to make up numbers and meet legal obligations.

We know from slightly later evidence that the Christian towns of the crusader states operated confraternities (brotherhoods) that performed military functions and which could provide a natural semi-trained urban militia in time of need. The leading ecclesiastical institutions also had their own lay confratres to call on, together with their settlers and feudal vassals, alongside any core mercenary contingents they may have employed to protect their estates.

It is unclear whether these men were expected to serve as cavalry or infantry. There was certainly a continual need for additional cavalry to support the kingdom’s cadre of knights: this would argue that pressure was applied to ensure as many sergeants as possible were mounted. Equally, given the fast-moving Muslim armies that they would be responding to, and the need to gather at specified muster points, sometimes at the opposite end of the kingdom, there would be a need for the sergeants to move as quickly as possible even if they were insufficiently skilled to operate as cavalry on the battlefield. It is likely that some of them were equipped as impromptu ‘mounted infantry’, perhaps using nags or mules to move more quickly towards muster points.

On the other hand, it is not entirely plausible to envisage that these large numbers of cavalry existed in the towns and ecclesiastical estates, and yet could only be called upon in emergencies. It is hard to believe that such a force was available on tap, well equipped and with adequate horses, and yet was not part of the kingdom’s normal fighting capabilities.

Examples of what the kingdom’s muster of sergeants would look like in practice are extremely rare. The men called up are generally subsumed by chroniclers into the army as a whole. As we have seen in the case of Magna Mahomeria, a colonial settlement of the Holy Sepulchre, no fewer than sixty-five of the younger Franks from the settlement joined the royal muster in 1170 and were almost wiped out when Saladin’s men temporarily overran their position in the suburbs of Gaza. As they are described as lightly armed youths and arrived late at the muster point, it seems that they were an inexperienced infantry unit, the scrapings of the local rural militia, called up as part of the ‘arrière-ban’. Being the younger, more lightly armed of the local Frankish troops, they are also probably not representative of the muster as a whole. It is entirely possible that the better-armed elements of the contingent from Magna Mahomeria were mounted, and were already with the Frankish field army: the only reason the youths were trapped in Gaza was because they were on foot and arrived too late.

Some sergeants were certainly mounted. The mounted arm generally had a higher status than the infantry, and would have had a greater chance of survival in the event of a major defeat. Horses also made it easier to move on campaign and quicker to get to appointed muster points. Prosperous burgesses with access to horses would have been unlikely to want to operate as infantry from choice.

But regardless of how many of the sergeants on John of Ibelin’s lists were equipped as cavalry, we know that mounted sergeants were an important element in the Frankish army from the earliest days. Indeed, given the perennial shortage of knights and the appalling mortality rates suffered by the knightly class in the first two decades of the twelfth century, that would inevitably be the case.46 The knights were always the centre of attention, the prestigious ‘miles’ or armoured knights (‘miles loricatus’). But we also hear of other cavalry, less glamorous and often mentioned only as an accidental aside, the more ‘lightly armoured cavalry’ (the ‘equites levis armaturae’) or, just to reaffirm their social as well as military inferiority, the ‘second-class cavalry’ (‘equites classes secundae’).

In 1102, for instance, King Baldwin I tried to rebuild an army in the aftermath of his disastrous defeat at Ramla, and sent a native Christian messenger to Jerusalem to mobilise what few reinforcements might be available. Fulcher of Chartres, who was with Baldwin at the time, wrote that ‘they immediately got ready as many knights as they could find in Jerusalem. There were ninety as I recall, knights as well as those who were able to obtain horses and set out without delay.’ Some of the able-bodied men among the Frankish settlers in Jerusalem were clearly able to operate as cavalry alongside the knights at short notice.

Similarly, in writing of events following another Egyptian invasion just three years later, Fulcher makes it clear that the knights were only part of the Frankish mounted arm, though other sources often airbrush these non-noble cavalrymen out of the narrative. At the muster of the Christian army, for instance, Fulcher wrote that the ‘knights numbered about five hundred, excepting those who were not counted as knights although they are mounted’. Interestingly, William of Tyre, using Fulcher as his only source and writing of exactly the same events, bows to social conventions and turns this sentence into something subtly different: ‘our forces were numbered and found to consist of five hundred knights’. Similarly, in a description of the German army of the Second Crusade, we are told that ‘there were in the army of the emperor alone about seventy thousand mailed knights (‘loricatorum’), besides the people on foot, women and children, and light armed cavalry (‘equitibus levis armaturae’)’. Socially inferior cavalry were at least mentioned, albeit only after the ‘women and children’.