Templar hero: Gerard de Ridefort

Templar hothead De Ridefort – as depicted in the movie Arn

Any of you who watched the Swedish Templar movie Arn will know all about Gerard de Ridefort – or at least be familiar with the name.

Gerard was a Grand Master of the Templars who was either a crazed, over-zealous hothead leading the crusader project in the Holy Land to bloody defeat or a brave knight undermined by intrigue within the Christian court of Jerusalem. All depending who you want to believe.

It was nearly a hundred years since Jerusalem had been taken from Muslim control to be ruled by a succession of Christian crusader rulers. Their Kingdom of Jerusalem was one of several states carved out by the crusaders in the Levant (modern Lebanon, Syria and Israel basically).

The first half of the twelfth century had been all about expansion, pushing back Muslim opponents who were divided among themselves. But a leader had emerged on the Muslim side bringing both a new unity and a strength of purpose. His name was Saladin. Pragmatic genius or proto-jihadi? Historians differ in their view of the man.

He was the formidable enemy that Gerard had to face in the 1180s as Grand Master. The crusaders had managed to survive thus far through a combination of military organisation but also a degree of diplomacy and finding ways to co-exist with notionally hostile neighbours. But Saladin, having united Syria and Egypt, was in no mood to continue with crusaders sitting on his doorstep. They were going to be driven into the sea – back to the lands from whence they had come.

The Templars had emerged as the elite fighting force in the vanguard of the Christian Middle East. But Gerard had to contend with some very poisonous politics in Jerusalem. On one side of the scheming was Raymond of Tripoli, a local Christian magnate. Gerard is said to have hated him for very personal reasons.

Gerard had arrived in the Holy Land as just an ordinary knight – not a Knight Templar. He had hoped to marry a very eligible heiress called Lucia of Botrun, a daughter of one of Raymond’s vassals.

Raymond had agreed to this match but was then offered Lucia’s weight in gold if he would hand her over to a very wealthy Italian merchant. Well, Raymond wasn’t going to turn that offer down. So, Lucia was given to the merchant and Gerard had to remain a very disgruntled bachelor.

It almost looks like Gerard joined the Templars in a fit of pique. But he took to his new role. Rapidly, he rose to be Seneschal and was then elected Grand Master. His ascension to the top job came as Saladin massed his armies on the crusader borders while Christian kings in Europe had too much trouble at home to spare more resources for the war against Islam in the east.

And then the leper king of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV, died. He was succeeded by the seven year old son of his sister Sybilla – not exactly what the crusaders needed at that moment. Here was a child monarch, crowned as Baldwin V, who couldn’t even raise a sword let alone make any strategic decisions. And over his head, two men – Raymond of Tripoli and Guy de Lusignan – battled for real control.

Gerard backed Guy, the husband of Sybilla. And his support for Guy became even more essential when the child king suddenly died aged only eight. Gerard and Guy raced to crown Sybilla queen before Raymond could intervene. In an almost comical twist, the three keys to the chest containing the crown jewels of Jerusalem were held by the patriarch of the city, the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller.

The master of the Hospitallers, Roger de Moulins, didn’t want to hand over his key but a bit of roughing up by Gerard and others convinced him to play along with the plan. Though he did petulantly throw his key out of the window, which probably earned him another punch in the face. Sybilla was duly crowned and although she had promised to divorce Guy, as a condition of becoming queen, she then stuck a crown on his head too – and dared anybody to dissent. Gerard looked on approvingly.

Down the road in his castle, Raymond was horrified. So full of anger that he made a truce with Saladin. Worse, he then gave permission for one of Saladin’s commanders to march his forces through territory under Raymond’s control, right past the biblical town of Nazareth.

Gerard got wind off this while on his way to Raymond to negotiate peace terms between him and Sybilla. In truth, Gerard would rather have been heading towards Raymond to cut his head off and stick it on a pole. But he was under orders to patch things up between the rival factions. Instead, he ran into a seven thousand strong Muslim army.

Disaster at Cresson

The Templar grand master was accompanied by the leader of the Hospitallers – he of the key thrown out of the window.  Together they were followed by about 140 knights dedicated to fighting for Christ.

So, let’s so the maths. 140 as a percentage of 7,000. My calculator says that’s fifty Muslims on Saladin’s side to every one crusader knight. Everybody agreed it was probably a good idea to retreat – except Gerard. He demanded they honour the Templar code and charge towards the opposing force.

They did and were cut down in a bloody massacre. Gerard narrowly escaped. Roger de Moulins wasn’t so lucky. This was seen by some chroniclers as typical of Gerard’s emotional approach to decision making. Whereas previous Templar masters had been cool and calculating, Gerard de Ridefort just ploughed in and hoped God was smiling on his endeavour. Evidently not at Cresson.

That engagement would be a rehearsal for the even bigger catastrophe at Hattin, which I’ve blogged about before and I’m returning to very shortly – so keep following!

Gerard would be taken prisoner by Saladin after the massive crusader defeat at Hattin but then negotiated his own release – showing he could do diplomacy when he had to. However, he was captured again by Saladin after the siege of Acre and this time, his head was struck off his shoulders.





Battle of Hattin – Templar disaster

HattinSo what exactly happened at the Battle of Hattin in 1187 – aside from Orlando Bloom (my least favourite actor) re-enacting it in the movie Kingdom of Heaven?    The battle is one of those events that it’s difficult not to call a decisive turning point.  In this case, it was the point at which the crusader project in the Middle East started to crumble.

From the end of the 11th century – barely a hundred years before – the crusaders had embarked on taking the places sacred to Christendom away from the control of the muslim caliphate.  These same places were of course sacred to muslims as well as they shared Christianity and Judaism’s Abrahamic roots.  From the 7th century AD, the muslim wave had swept across the Levant and ended eastern Roman rule from Constantinople.  The new rulers were fairly benign until the Seljuk Turks took control of the caliphate – after which, things turned a little nastier for Jews and Christians living in the region.  In truth, toleration of the so-called ‘dhimmi’ faiths of Christianity and Judaism went in waves – under some muslim rulers, things were fine and under others, not so good.

Increased repression in the Holy Land and the disintegration of the Christian empire of Constantinople (called Byzantine today but not back then), led to the crusades.  Jerusalem fell to the crusaders along with most of the shoreline of the Levant.  Rival princes carved out kingdoms like Tripoli, Jerusalem and Edessa.  Divisions within the Islamic body politic and skilful diplomacy as well as warfare by the crusaders kept these new kingdoms in existence for a surprisingly long time.

But by the reign of the muslim leader Saladin, there was a new resolve to push the crusaders out once and for all.  Saladin had managed through force and guile to unite the Islamic east whereas now, in marked contrast, it was the crusaders who were at each other’s throats.  The leper king of Jerusalem Baldwin IV had finally died of his debilitating disorder and been succeeded by Baldwin V – his nephew.  Baldwin V was a child and the regency – real decision making – passed to Raymond of Tripoli.

Unfortunately, Baldwin V died very young and this sparked off a succession crisis.  The agreed plan had been for Raymond to remain regent until the Pope and Europe’s great monarchs expressed their preference.  But Baldwin V’s mother Sybilla had no interest in such formalities and essentially grabbed the crown for herself and her husband Guy.  Raymond, in the foulest of moods, slunk off to Nablus.  He formed a faction that was extremely hostile to Sybilla who was basically viewed as something of an illegal usurper.

Saladin must have viewed these splits within the crusader camp with glee.  What would have also given him an excellent pretext to attack was the activities of medieval headbanger and all round psychopath – Reynald of Chatillon.  The so-called ‘men of Jerusalem’ – long established crusader families in the kingdom – had come to something of a modus vivendi with the Arab and muslim world.  There was no need to antagonise the neighbours – why not just get along and get wealthy?  But Reynald had no intention of getting on with the muslim world.  No, he was spoiling for a fight 24/7.

His favourite activity seems to have been attacking caravan trains trekking through the desert laden with goods.  The story that he attacked one which included Saladin’s sister is possible erroneous and is a confusion of two stories.  the Arab chroniclers do not agree that Reynald took or even killed Saladin’s sister or any other relative.

Attacking caravans was small beer compared to Reynald’s most audacious and lunatic project which was to descend on Mecca with a crusader force and dig up the tomb of the prophet Mohammed.  If Saladin was looking for a reason to push the crusaders in to the sea – then Reynald handed him several on a plate.  Having been a prisoner of the caliphate for 17 years in Aleppo, Reynald just couldn’t contain his hatred of the saracens and further outrages impelled Saladin to march on Jerusalem.

As Saladin prepared for war, the disunity among the crusaders had appalling results.  Turning his back on King Guy in Jerusalem, Raymond of Tripoli made a truce with Saladin.  Bohemond of Antioch also renewed an existing truce.  As a result, Raymond was honourably obliged to allow Saladin’s troops to move through his territory, which duly happened.  Regretablly, this multi-thousand Saracen force met a much smaller Templar army and predictably – wiped it out.   Raymond now seems to have decided that he was probably next on Saladin’s hit list and sank his differences with Guy.

These spats between crusader princes look insane to our eyes but in so many ways were an extension of the turbulent feudal politics of mainland Europe – a continent divided up in to a patchwork of rival duchies, counties, kingdoms, principalities, bishoprics, etc, etc.   Petty warfare just exported itself from Europe to the crusader kingdoms of outremer.

Saladin lured the crusaders to where he wanted them by attacking and taking Tiberias – holed up in the citadel and fighting to the last was Raymond’s wife.  He naturally flew to her aid.  This proved to be a disastrous error and it was on the dry and parched hill of Hattin that the crusaders and Templars camped ahead of fighting Saladin.  The Saracens were in the valley with their supply routes intact.  The crusaders had a dry well and not much to eat and drink.  They were also tired from their marching.

Saladin famously lit fires round the hill where the crusaders were camped to make their thirst that much more unbearable.  He then fired arrows through the smoke and slew the Christians where they stood.  The battle was lost before it was fought.  Here is how Kingdom of Heaven portrayed the carnage.