"And I beheld, and heard the voice of one eagle flying through the midst of heaven,
saying with a loud voice: Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth....
[Apocalypse (Revelation) 8:13]

Sunday, May 17, 2015

How far were the Military Orders responsible for the results of the Third Crusade?

How far were the Military Orders responsible for the results of the Third Crusade?

By Jacob Deacon

Although failing in its ultimate aim to recapture Jerusalem the Third Crusade still met with several successes. With Cyprus, Acre, and Tyre under Christian control there existed `a series of genuine bridgeheads` with the potential to greatly benefit future Crusades.[1] Furthermore, when one also considers the death of Saladin shortly after the expedition, it is likely that the Third Crusade made a tremendous contribution to the immediate survival of the Crusader States.[2] In order to assess how responsible the Military Orders were for the results of the Third Crusade this article will be structured by the analysis of three key areas in which they played a part; the siege of Acre, the march to Jaffa and their other military contributions, and their role as councillors to King Richard I of England.


This article will further argue that despite facing criticism in the West for convincing Richard to abandon the campaign to capture Jerusalem, this was perhaps the strongest contribution made by the Military Orders to the Crusade; without their advice it is probable that thousands of men would have perished in a lost cause.[3] What they should be criticised for, however, is their martial conduct, a factor which placed the crusading army in jeopardy at the battle of Arsuf. Furthermore, whereas historians have traditionally seen the Military Orders as vital to the results of the Crusade, this article will argue that although undeniably contributing to the Crusade’s success, historians have placed too much emphasis on the strengths of the crusaders as a whole and not the weaknesses of Saladin.[4]

The siege of Acre provides historians with a fantastic chance to assess what the Military Orders contributed to the Third Crusade, due to the lengthy period of the engagement and the coverage from both Christian and Muslim chroniclers. However there are certain problems when it comes to using Muslim chroniclers to evaluate the actions of the Templars, as they very rarely make the distinction between secular and religious knights, usually relying solely on the term Franks when describing the Christian forces. For example, in an attack on Saladin’s camp Ibn al-Athīr refers only to Frankish knights being there, despite later detailing the death of Gerard de Ridefort.[5] One aspect in which the Military Orders contributed towards the capture of Acre was the engines which both the Templars and Hospitallers constructed. The Gesta Regis Ricardi records how the Templars had a trebuchet which wreaked impressive levels of destruction, whilst the Hospitallers’ never ceased hurling, `much to the terror of the Turks`.[6] Despite the damage which their engines must have caused to the city, it is important to remember that these two trebuchets made up only a small part of the arsenal; Philip Augustus built seven after his arrival, contributing to an already impressive artillery battery partly the responsibility of Count Henry of Champagne.[7] Furthermore, after Richard’s arrival the damage the crusaders did to the Muslims was an `unparalleled disaster` according to Ibn al-Athīr, and the fact that the crusaders then limited their activity to a trebuchet barrage would imply that there were a large number of siege engines.[8] Additionally, it is only in conjunction with Philip’s artillery that the Templars’ weapons are described as causing great damage to the city’s defences, further lessening their individual contribution.[9] It also seems odd that despite their extraordinary wealth the Templars and Hospitallers only contributed one trebuchet a piece, but it is equally possible that they built several yet only individual engines were deemed worth recording by the author of the Gesta Regis Ricardi. Ultimately in this regard, although the Military Orders can be seen as contributing towards the success of the Third Crusade in the capture of Acre, by no means were they responsible for the city’s capitulation.

However the Military Orders, the Templars in particular, also met with several setbacks during the siege. In one attack on Saladin’s camp the Templars `went on too far in their pursuit of fortune`, quickly becoming isolated from the rest of the army.[10] The attack quickly went downhill and after Gerard de Ridefort, the master of the Templars, was captured he was summarily executed by Saladin’s supporters.[11] This action characterises the stereotypically rash tactics the Templars were known for; one cannot help but think the attack on Saladin’s camp would have been much more successful if the Templars had not become separated from the rest of the army, and a united attack on the camp may have driven off the relief force entirely and helped bring the siege to a swifter conclusion. But perhaps the Templars should be given more praise for this action, as the author of the Gesta Regis Ricardi claims that `if the rest of the Christians had pressed on after them…that day they would have won a happy victory`.[12] Nonetheless, evaluation of the above evidence ultimately reveals that despite the Military Orders undoubtedly providing valuable men and munitions, this was a small part of an enormous military operation that only began to bear the fruits of its labour after the `Christ-like` arrival of Richard; the most sustained period of artillery attacks on the city came after his arrival, with the influx of European reinforcements proving vital to the concentration and protection of the siege engines.[13]

Another opportunity to assess how responsible the Military Orders were for the results of the Third Crusade can be found in the subsequent campaigns after the capture of Acre. One area in which the Military Orders have attracted praise, for example is in their efforts to instil discipline on the march from Acre to Jaffa. Unfortunately this ability to instil discipline disappeared on the day of the battle of Arsuf. After hours of repelling wave after wave of Saracen attacks, and twice being denied permission by Richard to charge until a prearranged signal had been given, Brother Garnier of Nablus, Master of the Hospitallers `began a foolish attack` by charging the Turkish line alongside one of Richard’s knights.[14] This charge `threw the army into confusion` as other knights followed and, according to Ambroise, `all was lost`; that is, until Richard `spurred his horse faster than the bolt from a crossbow` as he led his knights in a charge against the now committed Saracen cavalry. [15]

Although it cannot be denied that the battle of Arsuf was a successful engagement for the Christian forces, the crusaders’ victory does not seem to have given Richard a strategic advantage. Indeed, it can been argued that Arsuf was a battle Richard would rather have not fought as he sought to preserve his army’s strength on the march to Jaffa; Richard himself described how the battle only begun as his vanguard were setting up camp.[16] As such, the Hospitallers’ rash decision to charge the Muslim army ultimately achieved little apart from threatening the army’s chances of survival. If Richard had not been so decisive in reacting to the Hospitaller’ charge, it seems likely that Arsuf would have become another Hattin with crusaders naively and routinely pursuing the faster Saracen cavalry whilst being shot at.[17] Furthermore, both Richard’s contemporaries and modern historians have been eager to praise the vital role played by the infantry and archers in repelling the Saracen army throughout the march, and it is possible that they and not the Military Orders’ knights should be praised for maintaining discipline.[18] Nonetheless, the fact that Richard trusted the Military Orders to form his vanguard and rearguard should not be overlooked; if he thought they were likely to break ranks he would never have given them such vital positions. Furthermore, despite the Hospitallers causing the army to break ranks and risk everything, they and the Templars deserve praise for keeping order for the rest of the march.

The Military Orders were also given several other responsibilities during Richard’s campaigns. The Templars, given their local knowledge, were appointed to protect the squires as they went to forage, and it is likely that their assistance in this matter greatly helped with keeping the army fed whilst on the march.[19] Furthermore, with the Military Orders as an omnipresent force in the vanguard, it is probable that they would also have been utilised as scouts, ensuring that the crusaders avoided any potential ambushes and securing the best possible route for the soldiers behind. With this all taken in to consideration, it is arguable that the Military Orders provided a vital service on the march from Acre to Jaffa, but it is still important to remember that their actions nearly proved very costly to the expedition’s chances of success.[20]

However, despite their reputation as elite warriors, it is also important to consider the responsibilities of the Military Orders which were not linked to warfare. Even before 1191 the Templars and Hospitallers had a part to play in financing the Crusade in assisting with the collection of the Saladin Tithe which was supposed to fund England’s contribution to the expedition, yet Guy de Lusignan later complained that the Templars had carried off the alms provided by the English crown.[21] On the Crusade itself, the largest non-military contribution made by the Military Orders was through their role as councillors, advisors, and arbitrators to the Western European generals. Nowhere is this more prominent than in their advice to Richard to abandon any campaign which led immediately to Jerusalem in favour of an attack on Egypt, the source of Saladin’s power, or their earlier advice to do the same in order to capture Ascalon.[22] The primary reasoning for this was the potential for the army to become isolated from their supply bases and surrounded by Saladin’s forces, not to mention the inevitable lack of soldiers once Jerusalem fell, but it is hard to imagine a seasoned siege commander such as Richard not being aware of these problems before any council meetings.[23] Yet perhaps the Military Orders’ role in this decision has also been exaggerated. John Gillingham asserts that Richard may have been considering Egypt and Ascalon as targets as opposed to Jerusalem as early as August in 1191, shortly after the capitulation of Acre.[24] This would imply that the Military Orders were not as instrumental in persuading Richard to abandon his ideas of investing Jerusalem, as has been traditionally argued. Furthermore it is also important to consider that it was not just the Military Orders pushing for this strategy but also the Poulains, members of the local aristocracy who were part of the Crusading army.[25]

However there are factors at play which mean that the importance of the Military Orders to the Crusade’s success have been exaggerated. Although the crusaders were successful in their besiegement of Acre, one must also consider whether Saladin’s military decisions were the primary cause for the loss of the city as opposed to any brilliance on behalf of the Christian armies. Bahā’ al-Dīn attests that upon arriving at Acre, Saladin chose to hold his army back and await further reinforcements, and arguably this surprising lack of initiative is what allowed the siege to drag on until Acre’s capitulation.[26] If Saladin had acted decisively upon his arrival it seems possible that the Latin soldiers would have been defeated, a fact inferred from Ibn al-Athīr’s decision to blame Saladin’s emirs and not his friend for the army’s failure to displace the Christian encampment.[27] Saladin’s disbandment of his army just a few weeks before the end of the Third Crusade also proved to be vital. If he had kept his soldiers at hand for just a short while more as Richard was forced to return to Europe because of his diminishing funds, personal health, and the mounting pressures on his domains, Saladin would have been able to renew his attacks on Tyre and Acre free from European intervention, with a very real possibility of capturing both cities before his death in 1193.[28] When one bears this in mind, it becomes entirely plausible that the siege of Acre and the continued survival of the Crusader States only succeeded due to Saladin’s mistakes, not the tactical brilliance of the Christian commanders; further evidence that the Military Orders, or indeed the rest of the Christian army, were not responsible for the results of the Third Crusade.

Ultimately, with the evidence presented above, it becomes apparent that although the Military Orders contributed towards the Third Crusade in a variety of ways, they cannot be seen as responsible for the successes which the campaign met with; these can be primarily accredited to Richard and the mistakes made by Saladin between 1189 and 1192. The siege of Acre would have been an utter failure if Saladin had seized the initiative; the battle or Arsuf, whilst successful, contributed little to the Crusade, whilst Garnier de Nablus’ premature charge would have spelt disaster if not for Richard’s quick thinking; and the decision to ultimately avoid Jerusalem is likely to have been one already made by Richard which the Military Orders and Poulains simply confirmed with their backing rather than contributed originally.

The Third Crusade: A Concise Overview for Students

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