Wednesday, September 18, 2013

England and the Crusades

by Helena P. Schrader

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 Fourth 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, while England, no less than the rest of the Western Europe, was significantly altered by the impact of the crusades.

Henry II, Hattin and the Saladin Tithe

The most famous of all English crusaders was, of course, Richard I, the “Lionheart,” 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 Plantaget, 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 Bethelem 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 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 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

13th Century Cavalry

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.”

Plantagenet Vassels and 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 12th 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).

By far the most important Plantagenet vassals to play a role in Outremer, however, were the Lusignans. Although not English, the Lusignans were Poitevin nobility that owed fealty to the Plantagenet kings in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Lusignans were involved in rebellions against Henry II (which of his vassals wasn’t at one time or another?), but the family was restored to royal favor at the latest when King John married a Lusignan.

In the meantime, however, the cadet branch of the family had established itself in Outremer. Aimery and Guy de Lusignan, the younger sons of the Hugh de Lusignan, were both to be Kings of Jerusalem, in both cases by right of their respective wife. Guy married the elder daughter of King Amalric I and ruled as King of Jerusalem from 1187 until his wife’s death in 1190. Aimery de Lusignan, although older than Guy, ruled after him, when he married the younger daughter of King Amalric I, Isabella of Jerusalem. Aimery was King of Jerusalem from 1198 to 1205. Both brothers also ruled Cyprus, establishing a dynasty there that lasted until 1398.

Guy, furthermore, has the distinction of being widely blamed for the catastrophy at the Battle of Hattin. He was vain, arrogant, militarily incompetent, and completely immune to good advice. Saladin was not invincible; before and after Hattin, Chrisitian kings (Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, a leper, in 1177, and Richard I of England in 1191) defeated Saladin in battle.

Had the crusaders followed the advice and plan put forward by the High Court of Jerusalem, notably Raymond III of Tripoli and Balian d’Ibelin, the Christian army would not have been trapped exhausted on the Horns of Hattin. However, Guy de Lusignan ignored the advice of the local barons and preferred to listen to another interloper, Gerard de Rideford, who happened to be the Grand Master of the Knights Templar – but that is a story for another day (and the subject of my current project, a novel about Balian d’Ibelin.)

Impact of the Crusades on England

Having discussed the English role in the crusades and the crusader kingdoms, I’d like to close this essay with a brief summary of the reverse side of the coin: the impact the crusades and crusader kingdoms had on England. The first obvious effects of the crusades were almost all negative. From Henry II’s “Saladin Tithe” to Richard I’s ransom payments, it is clear that England paid dearly for their kings’ interest in the crusader kingdoms.

Arguably, Richard did more good for the Kingdom of Jerusalem than he did for the Kingdom of England! But such an assessment has the benefit of hindsight and is further colored by modern distaste for the very concept of crusades. In fact, support for the crusades was widespread and intense in Western Europe in the 12th century at least, and Richard’s contemporaries were more critical of him for not doing enough (failing to take Jerusalem) than for going on crusade in the first place.

As with all sustained military operations, the crusades furthered a number of technological developments. European armor, saddles, siege equipment, and weapons developed rapidly in the period of the crusades as the Western Europeans adapted and improved on the weapons employed by the Byzantines and their enemies. Castle and palace building advanced dramatically in this period, as did ship-building. The latter particularly was an area in which the West had a clear superiority over Constantinople and their Arab and Turkish enemies.

Certainly, the entire Western world benefited significantly from the trade that developed throughout the Mediterranean after the establishment of the crusader kingdoms in the Levant. From the capture of Jerusalem by the crusaders in 1099 until the rise of the Ottoman Empire, Christian fleets dominated the Mediterranean, turning it back into the center of trade it had been at the height of the Roman Empire.

That meant that all the products of the East, from as far away as China and India, could be imported into Western Europe, and Western goods and products could be sold to much more extensive markets. Furthermore, Western Europeans now came into regular contact with the Byzantine Empire, a highly advanced civilization, and to a lesser extent with the Armenians, the Seljuk Turks, and the Arabs themselves. All parties benefited from the exchange of goods, technology and ideas.


My current historical fiction project, “Tales of Chivalry,” is a series of ten novels set in the age of chivalry. Six of these involve the crusades or the crusader kingdoms of Outremer (including Cyprus). For more information, visit my website or watch my video teaser on youtube: Tales of Chivalry.

• 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


  1. Fascinating. I love this period in history!

  2. Thank you! I hope you'll take a look at my novels set in the period as well. "A Widow's Crusade" is available on as an ebook already, and "The Disinherited" will be released soon.


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