Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt, the Grand Master of the Knights of Saint John, Caravaggio, c. 1607

The Templars are most excellent soldiers. They wear white mantles with a red cross, and when they go to the wars a standard of two colours called balzaus is borne before them. They go in silence. Their first attack is most terrible. In going they are the first, in returning the last …

A description of the Templars by an unknown pilgrim c. 1187.

The military orders were an immense source of strength for the Crusader kingdom for the simple reason that Crusaders came and went, and kings and higher lords were commonly ephemeral warriors and no more than visitors to the shores of the Levant. Once their pilgrim vows were complete and they had ‘stood where Christ had stood’ they left the Holy Land and returned to their European possessions. The Templars, Hospitallers and from 1198 the Teutonic Knights, along with the other ‘minor’ orders such as that of Saint Lazarus for leprous knights, were simply not going home, and in fact drew money and men from Europe to Outremer. The treatment by Muslim war leaders of any member of the military orders who was captured in battle is evidence of the obstinate nature of these knights. Even Saladin, with his enviable reputation for clemency, executed Templar and Hospitaller knights that had the temerity to surrender to him.

Chivalry and heroic geste or deeds were one thing, but the survival of Latin Jerusalem was more dependent on a grinding war of defence, attrition and raids than upon further quixotic conquests. Professional soldiers and the immense bulwarks of defence that the military orders created to house them cost money, and as noted above and as will be seen later in our story, the Italian maritime republics were also stalwart defenders of Outremer but very much expected to reap the rewards of Mammon as well as those of salvation. More and more over the brief period of the Latin states’ survival the military orders began to ally with Venice, Genoa or Pisa.

By the time of the Third Crusade there were distinct and antagonistic factions within the Crusader states with Pisa and Venice aligning with either of the most powerful military orders in order to maintain an advantage over their rival and to pressure weak kings. In his classic three-part history of Outremer Grousset described the slow unravelling of the Crusader Kingdom as L’anarchie Musulmane et la Monarchie Franque, Monarchie Franque et Monarchie Musulman l’equilibre, and La Monarchie Musulmane et L’anarchie Franque.

The military orders made a huge contribution to the initial success and cohesion of the Kingdom, but their machinations and rivalries ultimately added to the anarchy that tore Outremer apart once they were faced by a united and committed foe. The Muslim riposte to the Christian invasion of the Levant was slow to evolve, often halting and contradictory, but it eventually produced the Mamluk Sultanate, an army-state made up of the greatest warriors the world had yet seen.


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