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Friday, August 21, 2015

English Contributions to the Crusades

English Contributions to the Crusades

Helena Schrader, PhD

When we look back on the Crusades, we are more likely to think of the French, who dominated the Christian crusader kingdoms in “Outremer,” than the English. Alternatively, we might think of the Germans, who contributed huge contingents of troops to the First, Second, Third, and Children’s Crusades, not to mention that the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II was supposed to lead the Firth Crusade and, having failed to show up for that, finally launched his own crusade, the Sixth Crusade. Meanwhile, the Spaniards were perpetually “on crusade” at home on the Iberian Peninsula, pushing back the “Moors.” By comparison, the English appear to have been conspicuously absent from crusading. Yet such an assessment is superficial and misleading. In fact, Plantagenet kings and vassals and English knights and nobles played key roles in the history of the crusades. What follows is a brief summary of the English contribution.

Henry II, Hattin and the Saladin Tithe
The most famous of all English crusaders was, of course, Richard I, the “Lionhearted,” but we should not forget that his father too had taken a strong interest in the fate of the crusader kingdoms. Two years before the fateful Battle of Hattin in 1187, Henry promised to support 200 knights annually in the Holy Land as part of his penance for the murder of Thomas of Becket. In consequence, 200 “English” knights fought at Hattin, although sources are unclear as to whether these knights were Englishmen, subjects of Henry Plantagenet, or simply knights financed by Henry II. Regardless of their exact nationality, two hundred knights out of a total of 1200 to 1500 is significant. Furthermore, Henry II personally took crusading vows after the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin. Although many question Henry II’s sincerity – and he certainly had good reasons for thinking he should not leave his vast domains unprotected or his unruly vassals without royal oversight for too long – there can be no doubt that he did introduce a “Saladin Tithe.” These revenues were collected directly by the Knights Templar and were certainly employed to help finance the Third Crusade. Thus, while Henry II did not personally take part in a crusade, he provided something arguably more important at this juncture in time – the means to outfit, transport and sustain many other fighting men.

The Third Crusade: 1189 – 1192
Significant as Henry II’s contributions were, they pale beside those of his son. Although the Third Crusade was jointly led by the Holy Roman Emperor, Philip II of France and Richard of England, its achievements can be attributed to Richard alone. The Holy Roman Emperor, Friedrich Barbarossa, drowned before reaching Jerusalem and most of his army turned back. Philip II, conscious (and jealous) of being in Richard’s shadow, returned to France after the first victory of the campaign, the re-capture of Acre. The fact that the Third Crusade failed in the stated objective of re-capturing Jerusalem has misled many to see the crusade as a failure. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
In 1191, when Richard I arrived in Outremer, the Kingdom of Jerusalem had virtually ceased to exist. The Kingdom, which had once reached beyond the Jordan and stretched along the Mediterranean coast from Beirut to Ascalon, had been reduced to the city of Tyre – and Tyre was beleaguered. Not only had Jerusalem been lost, the important pilgrimage sites of Bethlehem and Nazareth were also in Saracen hands. Tiberius, Nablus, and Toron had fallen within days of the victory at Hattin, after which Saladin had rolled up the coast taking Ascalon, Jaffa, Caesarea, Haifa, Acre, Sidon, and Beirut, while his subordinate commanders subdued all resistance further inland both on the West Bank and beyond the Jordan. The great crusader castles had surrendered one after another until practically only the Templar stronghold of Tortosa and the Hospitaller’s great fortress Krak de Cheveliers still held out. An estimated 100,000 Latin Christians had been taken captive during this campaign, and the captives included the King of Jerusalem and the Grand Master of the Knights Templar. Although there was still a Christian County of Tripoli, and a Christian Principality of Antioch, the Kingdom of Jerusalem had effectively been wiped off the map.

When Richard I left the Holy Land roughly a year after his arrival, the entire coastline of Palestine had been restored to Christian control and a viable Kingdom had been re-established that was to endure another 100 years. Although the new borders were drawn just short of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, they did include sufficient hinterland to create a continuous if narrow territory that stretched along the coast. Furthermore, that narrow kingdom had been made sustainable by another of Richard’s deeds: the capture of the Island of Cyprus.

The creation of a Latin Kingdom on Cyprus ensured that the Kingdom of Jerusalem had a secure source of food, particularly grain. Furthermore, the Latin Kingdom of Cyprus also kept the sea lanes opened, since no Arab fleet could blockade the cities of Palestine as long as Cyprus was controlled by Christians. In short, Richard I of England ensured that the Kingdom of Jerusalem existed 100 years longer than would have been the case without his Third Crusade. In so doing, he ensured that there would be another six crusades to Outremer, not counting the “Children’s Crusade.” Not exactly an insignificant accomplishment in the history of the crusades!

The Last Crusade: Edward of England’s Crusade of 1271-1272
Richard I’s deeds in Outremer were clearly a hard act to follow, nevertheless it was not the end of English involvement in the crusades. Richard’s nephew and namesake, Richard of Cornwall, the able younger brother of Henry III, took the cross, and Richard’s great nephew, a man who would prove his military capabilities against the Welsh and the Scots, also led a crusade. Because the latter was not yet king at the time and had too few resources to affect much, the crusade of Edward I of England tends to get overlooked in crusader history. Nevertheless, it demonstrates that the Plantagenet kings had not lost interest in the Holy Land. Furthermore, despite the overwhelming strength of his opponent, Baibars – a highly successful, ruthless and treacherous Mamluke sultan — Edward obtained a ten year truce. He also reinforced the walls of Acre with an additional tower (and Edward was to prove a master castle builder as his castles in Wales demonstrate), the “King Edward Tower.”

English Noblemen and Knights
But kings alone do not make a crusade, and therefore when considering the English contribution to the crusades, it is important to look at the contribution of noblemen and knights as well as kings. For example, the most famous of all English knights in the 12 Century, William Marshal, is known to gone to the Holy Land and fought with the Knights Templar. His fame was such that his example doubtless inspired countless others to follow in his footsteps and take the cross as well. We know too that William Earl of Salisbury led a contingent of English knights on the Seventh Crusade, and died at the Battle of Mansourah. Likewise, a contingent of English knights under Otto de Grandson took part in the final, futile defense of Acre in 1291. In between, hundreds if not thousands of Englishmen took part in the defense of the crusader kingdoms as Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller. At least one Templar Grand Master was English, Thomas Berard (1256 – 1273).

Learn more about crusader society at: Balian d’Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
  • Peter W. Edbury, The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades, 1191 – 1374, Cambridge, 1991.
  • John J. Robinson, Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades, London, 1991.
  • Kenneth Harl, The Era of the Crusades, The Great Courses, Chantilly, 2003.
  • David Nicolle, Hattin 1187: Saladin’s Greatest Victory, London, 1993.
  • Richard Barber, The Knight and Chivalry, Woodbridge, 1995.
  • Andrea Hopkins, Knights, London, 1990

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