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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

True Tales of the Knights Templar 5: Jacob's Ford 1178-1179

+Real Crusades History+ is dedicated to remembering the real contribution of the Knights Templar to the history of the crusades. 
Dr. Schrader continues our fifteen-part series on the Knights Templar with the fifth of our "Ten True Tales of the Knights Templar."  Today's essay looks at the role of the Knights Templar in the Struggle for Jacob's Ford 1178-1179.

On the Upper Jordan River, between Lake Huleh and the Sea of Galilee, one of the three fords across the Jordan was located at a place known to the Arabs as Bait al-Ahzan and to the Christians as Jacob’s Ford. The ford gave access to the fertile valley of Upper Galilee in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Here, by the mid-12th century, the Franks had built or occupied what contemporary Arab chronicler al-Fadil described as “celebrated cities, encircled by flourishing villages, shady gardens, navigable rivers, high fortresses, and powerful walls in the enceinte of which their palaces were built.” (Quoted in: Barber, p. 19.) 

Jacob’s Ford was also, according to Salah ad-Din’s secretary Imad ad-Din, only a day’s ride from Damascus. Saracen forces could rapidly muster on the eastern shore, and strike across the ford to raid in the fertile lands of northern Galilee or penetrate deeper into the Kingdom, threatening the coastal cities of Acre and Tyre. Jacob’s Ford was, in short, a location of extreme strategic importance to the defense of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Yet for the first three quarters of the 12th century the ford was not fortified for reasons that remain obscure to us. Possibly there had been agreements with the Saracens that neither side would establish castles in the region. At a minimum, according to the so-called Chronicle of Ernoul, Baldwin IV had agreed not to fortify the ford. Yet, at the urging of the Knights Templar, King Baldwin reversed his decision and construction of a castle began at Jacob’s Ford in October 1178. 

The Templar role was significant.  Malcolm Barber argues in his essay “Frontier Warfare in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem” (France, John and William Zajac. The Crusades and their Sources, pp.14-15.) that the military orders were at this time trying to impose a more coherent defensive strategy on a kingdom which up until then had been defended too haphazardly by local lords. Certainly, it was the Templars who agreed to man the castle on completion.

Because of the proximity to Damascus, the construction of the castle itself was extremely dangerous ― another factor that might have mitigated against its construction in the first place. In the event, the Franks invested enormous resources to build a powerful castle in just six months, while (as they well knew) Salah ad-Din was pinned down by one of his  many campaign against his domestic rivals. The result was that by March 1179 a castle, called Chastellet, was largely complete. It consisted of a square composed of massive walls with towers at each corner and a keep on the western wall.  Muslim chroniclers claim the walls were more than five meters (ten cubits/fifteen feet) wide. 

What wasn’t finished were the outer works. These were still under construction by a veritable army of masons and other workmen such as blacksmiths, carpenters, and laborers, including 100 Muslim slaves. With each day the castle was on its way to becoming more formidable. Salah ad-Din was suitably alarmed.

The Sultan sent to the King of Jerusalem and offered to pay him 60,000 dinars if he would dismantle his new castle. Baldwin IV said no. The Sultan upped his offer to 100,000 dinars, clearly dreading the cost of reducing the castle by force. Again Baldwin IV said nos. No sooner had his second offer been rejected than Salah ad-Din began raiding the surrounding countryside from which the castle obtained supplies. The garrison of 80 Knights Templar and their squires was inadequate to stop this raiding. Emboldened, the Sultan ordered an assault on Chastellet ― only to have his forces beaten back with heavy losses including one of his most important emirs.

The Sultan turned to raiding deeper inland, eventually becoming embroiled in the battle on the Litani (Marj Ayun), but by August 1179 he was back. And this time he brought his siege equipment.

The siege began on August 24, 1179 and the outer compound fell by the evening of that first day.  However, the outer compound was not properly fortified. It did not yet have serious walls and was probably protected only earthworks and/or wooden defenses. It is unlikely to have been very fiercely defended under the circumstances. Most of the workers would have fallen back and taken refuge in the castle proper.

Salah ad-Din did not waste time with more assaults, however. He immediately set to undermining the castle and within days he had dug deep enough to believe the walls could be breeched. Fire was set to the wooden props holding up the tunnel. It had no impact on the castle.  Salah ad-Din had to offer a dinar to anyone willing to risk his life to put out the fire and eventually the fire was brought under control. The digging continued. Meanwhile, news reached the Sultan that Baldwin IV was again mustering the army of Jerusalem to come to the castle’s relief. His sappers were urged to greater effort.

Four days later, at daybreak on August 29, a large segment of the wall collapsed. The fire used to destroy the tunnel supports blew into the castle itself, setting fire to the tents and many wooden structures within the walls. This was the height of a Palestinian summer ― and the third year of drought.  Everything was dry as a bone. The entire castle was rapidly an inferno. According to a firsthand account by one of the Saracen assailants, the Templar commander, realizing all was lost, threw himself into the flames. (Barber, p. 13.)

When the fire finally died out, the Saracens rushed in. They killed or captured anyone still alive, and seized important booty, namely weapons, armor and horses. According to the Arab sources, the Christian corpses were thrown into the well putrefying it ― to their own regret as soon “as a consequence of the extreme heat and the stench of the cadavers” no less than ten emirs and hundreds (if not thousands) of common Saracen soldiers died of disease (Barber, p. 15). Of the 700 Christians who had been at Chastellet when the siege began some slaughtered immediately, but “the greater part were massacred en route by the volunteer troops.” (Barber. P. 13).  The survivors ended in the slave markets of Damascus. 

Given the Templar ethos of preferring martyrdom to surrender, it is highly unlikely that any of those survivors were Templars. 

Principle Sources:

  • Barber, Malcolm. “Frontier Warfare in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.” The Crusades and their Sources, edited by John France and William G. Zajac, Ashgate, 1998.
  • Howarth, Stephen. The Knights Templar. Barnes and Noble, 1982.
  • Smail, R.C.. Crusading Warfare 1097-1193. Barnes and Noble, 1956.
The deteriorating defensive position of the crusader kingdoms in the last decade of King Baldwin's reign and the various attempts to counter the increasing threat from Saladin are an important theme in award-winning:

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

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

True Tales of the Knights Templar 4: The Battle on the Litani, June 10, 1179

+Real Crusades History+ is dedicated to remembering the real contribution of the Knights Templar to the history of the crusades. 
Dr. Schrader continues our fifteen-part series on the Knights Templar with the fourth of our "Ten True Tales of the Knights Templar."  Today's essay looks at the role of the Knights Templar in the Battle on the Litani 1179

In the winter of 1178/79 the rains failed. By the summer of 1179 a severe drought gripped the Levant, ignoring the political divide and destroying crops and livestock in Muslim and Christian communities alike.  Against this backdrop, a large Saracen force crossed the River Jordan and started raiding deep in Frankish territory in May 1179.  This force laid waste to Frankish towns and villages and captured livestock that could be driven back to Saracen territory to replenish herds that had died in the drought.  Significantly, the Saracen forces consisted entirely of cavalry and were commanded by Farukh Shah, a nephew of Salah ad-Din and one of his most effective subordinate commanders, and the Sultan himself. Thus, despite the economic component of capturing livestock, the raid was more like a “reconnaissance in force” (similar to the raid of 1187 that led to the disaster at the Springs of Cresson) than a simple “cattle rustling” operation.

The Frankish response was decisive. King Baldwin IV, now aged 18, rapidly mustered a powerful cavalry force of his own. This included not only his most important baron, Raymond, Count of Tripoli, as well as Baldwin, Lord of Ramla and Mirabel, but also the Templars under their Grand Master, Odo de St. Amand.  The King led in person, riding -- as he had at Montgisard -- despite being handicapped in the use of his hands by leprosy.

On June 10, the Frankish army surprised Farukh Shah’s division while it was herding captured livestock through the valley between the Litani River and the Upper Jordan. While the Templars, who were in the vanguard, continued toward the Jordan, the King attacked with the secular forces of Tripoli and other barons of the Kingdom.  The Frankish surprised the Saracens, driving them back across the Litani and possibly taking Farukh Shah himself captive temporarily. 

However, the Templars pressing ahead toward the Jordan spotted Salah ad-Din’s much the larger, main force.  Rather than falling back to regroup with the rest of the Frankish army or sending word and summoning the King to bring up reinforcements, the Templar Grand Master, Odo de St. Amand, ordered an attack against the numerically superior Saracen forces. 

While it is unclear what effect the initial Templar charge had on the enemy, the Saracens soon turned the tables. The surviving Templars broke and fled back toward the main feudal army around the King.

At this point in time, however, the feudal army was already scattered across the valley floor “mopping up” after their successful action against Farukh Shah. They were in no position to form a cohesive force. Salah ad-Din’s cavalry, hot on the heels of the Templars, fell upon the dispersed Christian forces, killing and capturing large numbers of Christian knights and nobles, including Baron Baldwin of Ramla and Mirabel, Hugh of Tiberius, and, according to Arab sources, some 270 knights and nobles altogether.

The King’s household managed to rally around Baldwin IV. They extricated him from the field with help of reinforcements from Reginald of Sidon. This was, of course, vital, as his capture would have had even more serious consequences than the other losses incurred.

But his escape was a very near thing. Baldwin was unhorsed during the — evidently heated — engagement, but because his leprosy had lamed his arms he was unable to remount. The King had to be carried off the field on the back of a Frankish knight. The eighteen-year-old king, who just two years earlier had led his chivalry to a stunning victory over Salah ad-Din at Montgisard, was now forced to face the fact that he could no longer command his armies from horseback. In a society in which the mounted warrior, the knight, was the incarnation of manly virtue and prowess, it must have broken Baldwin’s heart.  Not that he surrendered to his disability entirely: in the future he would lead his armies from a litter.

Meanwhile, among the captives was the Templar Grand Master, Odo St. Amand.  Unlike his successor Gerard de Rideford, St. Amand had the courage and honor to refuse ransom in accordance with the Templar Rule. He died miserably in a Saracen dungeon. Yet honorable and correct as his stance was, it tragically paved the way, indirectly, for the election of the disastrous and unscrupulous Gerard de Rideford.

Meanwhile, the Templars had increased their reputation as fearless fighters willing to take on any odds.  This reputation may have enhanced their prestige among potential young recruits from the feudal class, particularly in the West.  Yet it also cost them credibility among more prudent leaders.

William of Tyre undoubtedly expressed the opinion of a wide segment of the elite in Outremer in blaming the Templars for the defeat on the Litani. The reasoning was simple: if the Templars had not attacked independently, the Frankish forces might well have finished off Farukh-Shah and then, as a combined force, put Salah ad-Din to flight too. The criticism would be particularly valid if the Templars had been ordered to provide the attacking main force with reconnaissance of Salah ad-Din’s whereabouts and/or serve as a shield to prevent him from falling on the King’s flank or rear while he engaged Farukh-Shah. However, we don’t know what orders, if any, were given to St. Amand, and so should reserve judgement. Ultimately, the battle was not decisive, and the secular captives were ransomed to live and fight another day.

This battle, also know as Marj Ayun, is an episode in:

 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

Monday, January 1, 2018

Review: "The Templars – Knights of Christ" by Régine Pernoud

"Knightfall," a TV series aired by the History Channel, is fictional drama filled with inaccuracies and misinformation. + Real Crusades History + is running a "counter series" in the form of ten blog posts -- Ten True Tales of the Knights Templar -- which appear the day after each episode of "Knightfall."
Today, however, Rand Brown II highlights one of the best books about the Knights Templar available.

Trans. by Henry Taylor
Ignatius Press, 2009

“History is a novel that has been lived” the French literary aficionado Edmond de Goncourt once wrote.  For sure, the historical narrative offers a staggeringly rich selection of the very best drama, tragedy, intrigue, and even horror to be found – provided one bothers to look for it.  However, there are not a few stories in which fiction has thoroughly eclipsed the truth – so much so that it is nearly impossible to encounter those stories without being overwhelmed by centuries-worth of misconception and outright fantasy.  So it is with the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, more widely known in both their day and our own as the Knights Templar. 

Founded in 1118AD by a poor knight-pilgrim from Champagne for the sole purpose of defending the pilgrim routes in and out of the Holy Land freshly claimed by the Latin crusaders, the Order would experience a swift rise and fall in fortunes rarely seen in human history.  Attracting thousands of knights to its cause, the Templars would become one of the most elite military forces in Latin Outremer due to the potent combination of a strict rule of discipline often not seen in standard medieval armies, a tightly-knit organizational structure, and an operational independence from any other party’s command other than the Pope himself.  In addition, their counterparts back in Europe established a financial support network that quickly became the first supranational banking system in the West.  At the height of their operations, the Templar Order served as the custodians of entire royal treasuries deposited within their commanderies. 

However, after not even two centuries of existence, the Order was beset upon from all sides by both secular rulers (one in particular) and the very Church it had so faithfully served.  In 1312, the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake in Paris on spurious charges of heresy and the Knights Templar vanished almost as quickly as they appeared.
Human nature has an inherent attraction to the mysterious and the fantastical and the embers of de Molay’s pyre had not even gone cold before all sorts of conspiracy theories and esoteric myths about the doomed Templars began to circulate.  This phenomenon only gained momentum as the centuries went on – by the time of the so-called Enlightenment, the Templars were the at the center of all sorts of bizarre and ahistorical mythologies, all bent on uncovering gnostic “secrets” and treasures wholly fabricated by the very cultists peddling them.  In our own times, the grotesque esoteric nonsense surrounding the Knights Templar continues seemingly unabated as seen in various Masonic pseudo-occultism, best-selling fiction novels, the film industry, and even popular video game series.  In all this pathetic fiction, the serious student of history may be tempted to despair that there is anyone who can push aside the fantasy so that the real Knights Templar can indeed stand up.  Fortunately, such a person did exist.
Régine Pernoud (d. 1998) was perhaps one the foremost medievalists both in her native France and far beyond.  She wrote on a wide variety of medieval topics, including St. Jeanne d’Arc, the role of women in medieval society, and the Crusades - usually with the stated goal of clearing up modern misconceptions regarding them.  In 1974, she sought to confront head-on the gross misconceptions surrounding the Templar Order and to historically rehabilitate them as the impactful organization that they truly were. 

In doing so, Pernoud sticks strictly to the historical facts drawn from primary source materials, of which she was a master of in her life.  She covers in detail the origins, rule, and daily operations of the Order – shedding light on the dually religious and military life these knightly monks led, unique even in their own time.  In recounting their service in Frankish Outremer, Pernoud helps the reader see the Templar through the eyes of both their fellow Latin Christians and their Islamic foes – both of whom simultaneously feared and admired the Order’s impressive reputation on and off the field of battle.  She also uncovers the fascinating details of the Templar’s banking activities back in Europe and the how various powers in Christendom, both secular and clerical, became financially beholden to the Order in one way or another – something that would play a major role in their downfall.

Pernoud ends her richly detailed, but concisely worded work with a masterful analysis of the Order’s sudden collapse at the dawn of the 14th Century.  In a narrative that reads almost like a crime thriller, Pernoud reveals the deliberate coup against the Templars orchestrated by King Philip IV of France and his even more dispicable apparatchiks.  These were the devious Keeper of the Seals, Guillaume de Nogaret, who harbored an obvious hatred for the Order and possibly the Church as a whole,  and the Machiavellian chamberlain, Enguerrand de Marigny, who shared his king’s neo-statist desire for consolidated royal power.  The independent and powerful Templars were viewed a sincere threat.  There was the additional allure of the Order’s vast financial holdings – a tempting acquisition King Philip, mired in several costly and indecisive wars with England and Flanders, simply couldn’t resist. 

Throughout the ordeal, the Church was outmaneuvered and outright dominated by French royal power-politics. Ultimately, the Pope shamefully abandoned the very knight-brothers who had so faithfully served the Church for nearly two hundred years. 

Pernoud’s excellent assessment of the Templar’s fate and the injustice behind it was later vindicated by the discovery and translation of the Chinon Parchment in 2007 that prompted Pope Benedict XVI to formally absolve the Templar Order of the charges levied against it exactly eight hundred years prior.  No matter how long the truth is obscured by obscene myth and misconception, eventually, the truth will pierce the veil.  Régine Pernoud accomplishes just that and her work is a must-read for anyone who wishes to speak with authority on the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple.