May 18: a bad date for the Crusades

You know how we know that May 18 was a terrible date for the Crusades? Because I can say “May 18 was a terrible date for the Crusades” and not even include the Crusades-related massacre that happened in the German city of Worms on this date in 1096. That’s pretty bad.

But we should include the Worms Massacre, because it illustrates how the Crusading movement’s most consistent victims were really European Jews. We’ve already covered the failure of the “People’s Crusade” to achieve anything apart from the deaths of most of the people who joined it, so you’ll recall that the whole affair started as a result of Peter of Amiens, or Peter the Hermit, the charismatic preacher who delivered Pope Urban II’s call for Crusade throughout Europe. While Peter’s targets were important nobles who could deliver companies of well-armed, well-trained knights to the cause, he also wound up attracting a very large following among Europe’s poor and its minor nobility, many of whom joined him on what became the People’s Crusade despite having few weapons and generally little training in military matters.

Not all of Peter’s followers immediately joined him, however. Some groups of would-be Crusaders sprang up in Peter’s wake and set out later, intending to catch up to the preacher and join his ragtag “army.” For the most part, though, without Peter’s immediate presence there to organize and channel their zeal, these groups decided to skip the journey to the Holy Land and just do Jesus a solid by killing some Jews there at home instead (over, it must be said, the disapproval of the Catholic Church and absent any statement–at least any that we know of–from Peter authorizing such actions). One of the most infamous of these groups formed around a minor Rhineland noble named Count Emicho of Leiningen. Emicho took Peter’s message and built upon it, telling people that he’d been visited by Christ, who commanded him to assemble an army and bring about the End of Days by first capturing Constantinople, which would make him the apocalyptic Last Emperor, and then uniting eastern and western Christian armies in the conquest of Jerusalem.

Emicho assembled an army of maybe 10,000 men in April 1096 and then sent groups of it throughout Germany to forcibly convert or kill every Jew they found. Why? Probably because he needed money to pull off his insane end of the world scheme, and Jewish communities in Germany were famed, rightly or wrongly, for their wealth. Plus they were a convenient target, since they denied Christ’s divinity just as the far-off Muslims did. The upshot for today’s purposes is that on May 18, 1096, a group of Emicho’s men arrived in Worms and began to spread rumors that the Jews living there were poisoning the city’s water supply. They whipped the city’s Christians into a frenzy and over the next several days wound up killing around 800 Jews (including many who took refuge in the residence of the local bishop) who refused baptism. Emicho personally led a larger massacre at Mainz about a week later, but his “crusade” finally fizzled out when the King of Hungary outright refused him permission to march across Hungarian territory. Struggling to get to Constantinople under Hungarian harassment and running out of food, his mob finally scattered and Emicho returned home.

Now, when I say that May 18 was bad for the Crusaders, not just for the people who wound up being the Crusaders’ victims, what I’m talking about are two sieges that ended on the same date but 23 years apart: the Siege of Antioch (1268) and the Siege of Acre (1291). The loss of Antioch was a blow to the Crusading movement, but the loss of Acre meant the end of Crusader presence in the Holy Land. The fall of both cities, really, but particularly of Antioch, can be traced to a decision made by Bohemond VI (d. 1275), the very young (in his early 20s) prince of Antioch, to follow the lead of his father in-law Hethum I (d. 1270), the king of Cilician Armenia, and ally with the invading Mongols in the 1250s. After the Egyptian Mamluks defeated the Mongols at Ayn Jalut in 1260, new Mamluk Sultan Baybars (d. 1277) targeted Antioch both to punish it for allying with the Mongols and out of what appears to have been a genuine desire to rid the region of all these Christian principalities.

Map - Crusader fortresses
This map ought to give you an idea where all the various cities, kingdoms, and principalities in this story were located

After capturing a number of Crusader-held cities (including Arsuf, Caesarea, and Haifa) and attacking Cilician Armenia in the mid-1260s, Baybars laid siege to Antioch in May 1268 and took it after only about four days. Antioch, which had been the first Crusader state, was a shell of what it had once been, weakened by conflicts with the Armenians and by internal political disputes. Bohemond VI didn’t even live there; he opted to make his court in his other major holding, the County of Tripoli to the south. Baybars ordered the destruction of Christian holy sites in the city and had every Christian denizen either killed or sold into slavery, then boasted of what he’d done in a letter to Boehmond. Antioch didn’t depopulate entirely overnight, but it didn’t recover its stature as a major city until a few centuries later under the Ottomans; today it’s the city of Antakya, Turkey.

The fall of Antioch helped prompt Louis IX of France to launch the Eighth Crusade in 1270, which sought to solidify the Crusader foothold in the Holy Land by capturing…Tunis (needless to say it didn’t work). The Ninth Crusade in 1271-1272, led by the future Edward I of England (that’s Edward “Longshanks” if you’ve seen Braveheart), sought to make up for the Eighth’s failure and aid the Crusaders by actually, you know, sailing to the right place. Edward, who had an excellent military mind, won a number of small raiding victories against the Mamluks (and also managed to get the Mongols to engage in several raids against Mamluk cities in Syria) but lacked the numbers and the base of support within the Holy Land to attempt any large operation that might materially improve the Crusaders’ lot. His army’s presence at Acre, however, did cause Baybars to rethink a planned siege of that city and probably bought the Crusaders there another nearly two decades.

Acre’s fall in 1291 was the culmination of Baybars’ mission to drive the Crusaders (the “Franks” as Muslims of that period called them) out of the Holy Land altogether. Though Baybars had died in 1277, his successor al-Mansur Qalawun (d. 1290)–in truth, two of Baybars’ sons initially succeeded him and ruled for a couple of years, but Qalawun, one of Baybars’ top commanders, was the real power in the sultanate and officially took the throne for himself in 1279–continued his predecessor’s Crusader Eradication Program. It was Qalawun who finally defeated the County of Tripoli in 1289, though Bohemond VI wasn’t alive to see it–his daughter, Lucia, has the distinction of being the last Count(ess) of Tripoli.

Acre was still nominally the seat of the “Kingdom of Jerusalem,” though the king, Henry II (d. 1324), was also king of Cyprus and had left Acre in the 1270s to locate his court on the (much safer) island. It was also, literally, the last Crusader state left standing. The Mamluks had destroyed the others. Qalawun made peace with Acre in the 1280s in order to focus his attention on other Crusader cities, but a massacre of Muslims inside the city, followed by a massacre of Muslim merchants near the city by a group of Venetian knights, gave Qalawun the pretext he needed to declare the treaty void. He led his army toward the city and…died in November 1290, before it was fully besieged. He was succeeded by his son, al-Ashraf Khalil (d. 1293), who brought men and siege machinery from all over the Mamluk sultanate in order to ensure the success of what promised to be the final battle to drive the “Franks” out of the region.

The siege began in earnest on April 5, 1291. Appeals from Acre back to Europe for reinforcements fell mostly on deaf ears; the zeal for Crusading had been superseded by inter-European affairs (Edward I, for example, was busy trying to impose English sovereignty over Scotland and couldn’t send more than a token force to relieve Acre). Henry II arrived with reinforcements from Cyprus, but they weren’t nearly enough to counter the army that Khalil had amassed. The Crusaders offered to make restitution for the massacres that had caused Qalawun to void their treaty–Khalil said “OK” and then demanded Acre itself as said restitution, which was obviously too high a price for the Crusaders to accept. Finally on May 18, a heavy assault by the Mamluks on one of Acre’s towers proved successful, and the city fell as its inhabitants fled for the docks in panic to try to board ships heading to Europe. The last holdout proved to be the city’s Templar headquarters, which took in refugees and was defended ferociously by the remaining Templar knights. On May 28, during an assault by a company of Mamluks, the structure collapsed, killing the refugees, the Templars, and many of the attackers.

After Acre fell, Cyprus continued to serve as the seat of the now entirely farcical “Kingdom of Jerusalem.” That pretense was all but put to rest when the Venetians took control of the island in 1473, and certainly when the Ottomans took control from Venice in 1570. A new crusade to restore the Christian presence in the Holy Land was sometimes talked about, but never actually came to fruition. A small Templar fortress on the Isle of Ruad (modern Arwad, Syria) fell in 1303, which meant that the Crusaders didn’t even have a presence off the coast of the Holy Land anymore to use as a staging area for a new invasion. European rulers were simply too entangled in affairs in Europe to be persuaded to abandon them and focus on invading the Holy Land again. Among these European affairs was the rise of the Ottomans in the late 14th century, which put Europe decisively back on the defensive when it came to Islam. From then on, for several centuries to come, any talk of “crusade” would involve operations to defend Europe from the Ottomans rather than offensive actions to take territory from Muslims.

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