Story of the Crusades - E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

The Story of the Fall of Acre

"Because the chasuble is of red serge," said he, "that signifies that this Crusade shall be of little profit."

LE SIRE DE JOINVILLE: Memoirs of St Louis.

During the interval between the Eighth and Ninth Crusades, affairs in the Holy Land had gone from bad to worse.

The knights of the Hospital and Temple spent all their time in private quarrels and combats, and the merchants of Genoa and Pisa followed their evil example. The Moguls were continually harassing both Saracens and Christians, and when they were driven out by the combined forces of the two latter, the Sultan Bibars took the opportunity to seize the few towns that were left when the Crusade was over.

Nazareth was almost destroyed, Caesarea, Joppa and Antioch fell, Acre was sorely threatened. In vain did Jerusalem call upon the Pope for help; his attention was fixed, not on Palestine but on Constantinople, where the Latin Empire had vanished, and a new Greek dynasty had been set up under Michael Palaeologus. Absorbed in his desire to gain acknowledgment from this quarter, Clement IV. gave only half-hearted encouragement to a Ninth Crusade, yet he did succeed in stirring up enthusiasm in a somewhat unexpected quarter.

To England, still in the turmoil of the Baron's War, came the message of Clement reminding Henry III. of his old promise to take up the Cross; and the answer came, not from Henry, the inert and ineffective king, but from young prince Edward, his eldest son, moved perhaps rather by the expediency of employing his treasonable barons than by a keen desire for the freedom of Jerusalem.

One there was, however, who needed no urging, and had no base motives in his longing to start upon a Ninth Crusade. Saint Louis, as we have seen, had left his heart behind him in the Holy Land, and when he summoned all his barons to Paris in the Lent of 1267, it was not hard to guess the reason.

Among those who responded to the call went the Sire de Joinville, and, seeing how well he knew the mind of the king, it was no wonder that he should dream on the night of his arrival that he saw Louis on his knees, before an altar, whilst many prelates, duly vested, placed upon his shoulders a red chasuble of Rheims serge. Calling his chaplain, a very wise man, Joinville told him of the vision, and the priest at once said

"Lord, you will see that the king will take the Cross to-morrow."

Joinville asked why he thought so; and he answered that it was because of the dream; for the chasuble of red serge signified the Cross; which was red with the blood that Christ shed from His side and His feet and His hands. " And because the chasuble is of Rheims serge," said he, "that signifies that the Crusade shall be of little profit, as you shall see if God gives you life." for Rheims serge was but poor and common material, and worth but very little.

So Joinville went to the king's chapel, and heard two knights talking there, one to the other. Then one said, "Never believe me if the king is not going to take the Cross here!"

And the other made answer, "If the king takes the Cross, this will be one of the most dolorous days that ever were in France. For if we do not take the Cross we shall lose the king's favour; and if we take the Cross we shall lose God's favour, because we shall not take it for His sake but for the sake of the king."

"So," adds Joinville, tersely, "it happens that on the following day the king took the Cross, and his three sons with him; and afterwards it befell that the Crusade was of little profit, according to the prophecy of my priest."

With this second expedition of Louis, Joinville himself had scant sympathy. He refused to join it on the ground that he owed a higher duty to his own poor and ruined people. And he held that those who advised the King to go "seeing how weak he was of body, for he could bear neither to drive nor to ride," were guilty of mortal sin.

"So great was his weakness that he suffered me to carry him in my arms from the mansion of the Count of Auxerre, where I took leave of him, to the abbey of the Franciscans. And yet, weak as he was, if he had remained in France, he might have lived longer and done much good and many good works."

However that might have been, Louis' work as a Crusader was well-nigh over. He left France accompanied by the Kings of Navarre and Aragon, and by many of his barons, and by sixty thousand of his men. Driven by a tempest to Sardinia, the leaders decided to turn aside to Tunis, whose king was suspected of being willing to become a Christian. Landing on the site of the ancient town of Carthage, they had but pitched their tents when a plague of sickness broke out in the camp, and the King and his son were the first to be struck down.

When he knew that his end drew very near, St Louis caused himself to be laid upon a bed of ashes, in token of his penitence, and all through that last night they heard him murmur at intervals, with longing in his voice, "Jerusalem! Jerusalem!"

But resignation to the Will of God was not difficult to a man whose character had been formed by a life of prayer and unselfish devotion.

"I will enter Thy house, O Lord, I will worship in Thy sanctuary," were the words of joy upon his lips, as he breathed his last.

"And it was at the same hour that the Son of God died upon the Cross for the world's salvation," says Joinville, who adds, moreover, the following touching tribute to the good king.

"A piteous thing and worthy of tears is the death of this saintly prince, who kept and guarded his realm so holily and loyally, and gave alms there so largely, and set therein so many fair foundations. And, like as the scribe who, writing his book, illuminates it with gold and azure, so did the said king illuminate his realm with the fair abbeys that he built, and the great number of alms- houses, and the houses for preachers and Franciscans, and other religious orders. And his bones were put in a casket and borne thence, and buried at St Denis, in France, where he bad chosen his place of burial."

With St Louis died the deep religious side of the Crusades. Other kings had vague longings and desires, but none of them were driven to take part in the Holy War by the same fervent wish to lay down their lives for the Cause of God.

The work was now taken up by Edward, eldest son of the English King, Henry III. With him marched the great English nobles who had so lately been involved in the Barons' War; for Edward's main motive was to keep them employed and deprive them of opportunities for further rebellion.

Edward reached Tunis about seven weeks after the death of Louis, and found the camp in much disorder. The French barons were intent upon forcing the King of Tunis to pay tribute to the Sicilian sovereign, son of their late ruler, and were quite averse from proceeding at once on the Crusade. They all decided at length to go to Sicily for the winter, but the French Crusaders said openly that they wished the expedition deferred for at least four years. The death of the king and queen of Navarre and of the young queen of Louis' successor Philip the Bold, threw a gloom over their retreat, and before long all the French host returned to their native land.

Edward alone remained firm to his purpose, and in the following spring, with his little force of seven thousand men, he landed in Palestine. His first act was one of terrible revenge. Marching to Nazareth he took the town and put the Saracen inhabitants to the sword.

He then returned to Acre, only just in time to save the city from a Turkish raid; and there he seems to have had some curious intercourse with the Emir of Joppa, who pretended that he was anxious to become converted to Christianity.

But sickness fell upon Edward, and as he lay upon his bed, an assassin, sent as a bearer of letters from the Emir, gained admittance and struck the prince in the shoulder with a poisoned dagger.

Weak as he was, Edward had enough strength in reserve to grapple with the fellow, wrest the dagger from him and stab him to the heart. Doubtless the skilful nursing of his devoted wife, Eleanor, restored the prince to health, whether or no the story is true that she sucked the poison from the wound at the risk of her own life. The chronicles of the time give the credit to a clever young English doctor who cut away the poisoned flesh, but, however that may be, Edward had seen enough of the Holy Land to realise that his task was both dangerous and hopeless. When, therefore, letters from England urged his return on the score of his father's failing health, he hastened to make a ten years' truce with the Sultan, and to set out upon his homeward journey.

After his departure the old state of things was revived in the Holy Land. None knew who was in truth the rightful king, even in name, of the ill-fated kingdom of Jerusalem. The two great military orders of the Hospital and the Temple spent their time and energies in fighting with one another over their supposed rights; and the commercial rivalry of the Christian settlers from Genoa, Venice and Pisa, kept up a constant state of civil war which left them at the mercy of their enemies. In Acre, the one important town held by Christian rulers, so much fighting went on between the Christian inhabitants that much of the city had been quite destroyed.

Yet Acre was now the one hope, the one centre of Christianity in the Holy Land. To her walls had fled all those who had managed to escape when one town after another fell before the victorious march of the Sultan.

And so it came about that the city was filled with a mixture of nationalities, each of which claimed to be ruled by a separate authority. It was at one time governed by no less than seventeen rulers, "whence there sprang much confusion."

This wretched state of things did nothing more than stir up a feeling of mild uneasiness in Europe. Pope Gregory X., indeed, did his best to encourage a new Crusade, for he had been an eye-witness in Acre of the need of some active measure of reform. But he died before anything practical could be done. Some years later the Grand Master of the Templars made his way to the footstool of Pope Nicholas IV., and pleaded the cause of the hapless Christians.

The Pope, much moved, sent seventeen hundred mercenaries, or hired soldiers, at his own cost, to the relief of Acre; but these men, finding their wages were not paid, took to plundering the Saracen traders during a time of truce, and so earned for the Christians a worse reputation than ever.

These outrages, moreover, excited the indignation of the Egyptian Sultan, who prepared to attack Acre in the following spring, and meantime sent ambassadors to demand the surrender of the truce-breakers "under pain of open war." The Master of the Temple would have yielded to the justice of his demands, but the other political parties in the city were against any such idea, saying that it had always been the custom for the princes of the West to disregard any truce that might be of force in the East.

The views of the latter prevailed, and an embassy was sent to the Sultan, offering compensation, and assuring him that the offenders should be kept in prison till the truce had expired.

The Sultan Khalil listened in grim silence, and after a while replied with much dignity, "Your words are as the honey and sugar used to conceal the presence of a deadly poison. We have ourselves kept the truce with loyal intent, but such an offence cannot be suffered to pass unpunished. You may depart in full assurance that within the time appointed I will come against your city with a mighty host and destroy all, from the least to the greatest, by the sword."

Just before the return of the envoys with this threatening message, the spirits of the citizens had been much revived by the arrival in Palestine of Sir Otho de Grandison, the secretary and confidential friend of Edward I., with a small force and the information that Edward himself would shortly follow him.

The message of the envoys had filled the city with panic that was but slightly leavened with hope. They saw at length that their one chance lay in united action, and they determined to fight together for their city to the last. "And surely the princes oversea will send us timely help when they hear with what peril we are encompassed," was their cry.

Encouraged by their wish for unity the Patriarch sent them to their homes with the charge, "Be ye therefore constant, and ye shall behold the great help of the Lord come upon you."

So at length, when it was too late, all manner of energies were set to work. The city was refortified, a large store of arms was laid in, help was sent from Cyprus and the Islands of the Sea, until a force of nine hundred knights and eighteen thousand foot was within the walls. The care of the walls themselves was divided between Otho de Grandison, Henry, King of Cyprus, and the Master of the Teutonic Knights and the Masters of the Temple and the Hospital, with whom served the Masters of the Knights of the Sword and of the Knights of the Holy Ghost.

"These are the men," says one of the narratives of the survivors, "by whose prudence and counsel the city was to be governed. Had they been of one heart and mind, Heaven is our witness, Acre would still rejoice in the fulness of her strength." For alas, the old discord between the Templars and the Hospitallers had broken out afresh, and there was little hope of united action within the walls.

In the middle of March, the Saracens first appeared before Acre, "while making the earth to tremble at the march of their mailed men and to shake at the noise of their drums and cymbals; while the gilded shields of the soldiers flashed as the rays of the sun across the hills and their spearheads danced in the sunlight like stars in the midnight sky."

The din made before the walls was incessant. "They bellowed like bulls; they barked like dogs; they roared like lions; and ever, as is their wont, they drummed their huge tom-toms with their heavy—knotted sticks."

Then the war-engines were set up "which poured by day and by night a ceaseless hailstorm of stones upon the walls and city."

A partly successful sortie returned with some captives and the news that "the arrows were flying thicker than the flakes of snow in winter"; and on the Good Friday of the year 1291 Otho and the Templars planned a more united attack upon the Saracen camp. But this the Patriarch, acting on the advice of traitors, absolutely forbade, and so the last chance of saving the ill-fated city disappeared.

Many of the citizens and some of the fighting men now fled from Acre whenever they had the opportunity, but a considerable force yet remained, quite enough indeed to hold the city had they been content to work together. This, however, seemed impossible, and Khalil went boldly on to undermine the walls. The first direct assault was aimed at that section which was guarded by Henry of Cyprus, and only the nightfall prevented the Saracens from forcing an entrance. During the hours of darkness the King of Cyprus, with all his followers, crept to the harbour and secretly sailed away to his own island. And this he did, not so much in fear as in despair of ever accomplishing aught, when the petty quarrels and rivalries within the city left him without support.

This fatal policy of disunion was even more apparent during the last four days of that terrible siege. The Templars would not lift a hand to aid the Hospitallers; their bitter hostility made them more eager to fight each other than the infidel.

Meantime the Saracens had bridged the moat, broken through the outer walls, and driven the defenders to the inner part of the city. The captains, who were sitting in council, hastily donned their armour and rode forth into the midst of the panic-stricken crowd.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Crusades by E. M. Wilmot-Buxton


"Shame upon you!" they cried. "Fools! you are not hurt. To the battle with you, by the faith of Christ," and with Matthew de Clermont at their head, they charged upon the invaders and drove them out beyond the breach.

For three days this sort of thing continued, the Crusaders patching up the breach by night that had been broken in by day. But at daybreak of Friday, May 18, Khalil made his final assault. In the midst of the deafening noise made by his drummers mounted on three hundred camels, an attack was made upon all parts of the wall at once. Within a few hours the Masters of the Temple and the Hospital, rivals in life, were united in death. Overwhelmed by their loss, the Christians gave way, and though Otho de Grandison held out for awhile, it was soon clear that further resistance was impossible.

In the midst of the horror and confusion of the onrush of the Saracens through the doomed town, a terrific storm began to rage, while the sea rose to such a height that it became almost impossible to launch a boat or escape from the harbour.

The Patriarch had been carried aboard his own galley against his will, and in his wish to save as many of his people as possible, he allowed the vessel to be so overcrowded that she overturned, and all on board were lost. Many, however, did escape by water, and only a few, who had no desire save for righteousness, "remained behind to sell their lives dearly or to bargain with Saracen prisoners for their own lives."

Others held out in the Temple Tower, and when at length it fell, perished amid the ruins. Otho de Grandison was among those who managed to escape to Sidon, and afterwards to Cyprus.

So fell the last remnant of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, founded with such pride and devotion nearly two hundred years before.