The Last Stands; The Fall of Acre and Loss of the Holy Land

By the end of the thirteenth century the principalities established by the first crusaders were reduced to a few small settlements clinging to the Mediterranean coast and the cities of Tripoli and Acre. The title of king of Jerusalem was almost an afterthought, tacked on as an honorific to more substantial ones, such as king of Cyprus or emperor of Germany. There were still some trade routes that brought in enough revenue to make the land worth putting up a fight for, but not much more.1

Of course, there was always the possibility that the lost territory could be recovered. Jerusalem had been lost and regained before as had Acre. So there was still interest in the title. In 1277 one of the people claiming the right to the throne of Jerusalem was Maria of Antioch. She was convinced to sell it to the younger brother of Saint Louis, Charles of Anjou.2 After his death the title reverted to the Lusignan family, descendants of Baldwin II. They continued to call themselves kings of Jerusalem, but they and many of the noble families of the Latin kingdoms had by then established themselves on Cyprus.3

In 1289 the city of Tripoli fell to the Mamluk sultan Malik al-Mansour. The Templar commander of the city, Peter of Moncada, was killed along with other Templars and Hospitallers.4 The king of Jerusalem at the time, Henry II, arrived in Acre from his home in Cyprus. He didn’t come at the head of an army to take back Tripoli but to arrange a truce with the sultan.5 This truce was signed by Odo, the bailiff of Acre; William of Beaujeu, Grand Master of the Templars; Nicholas Lorgne, Grand Master of the Hospitallers; and Conrad, the representative of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights.6

We have an eyewitness account of what happened next made by the secretary of Templar Grand Master William of Beaujeu. The writer is known as the Templar of Tyre although he wasn’t a Templar and he probably wasn’t from Tyre, but Cyprus. But once a name is attached to someone, it’s hard to change it without confusion. So, here is the story according to the secretary of William of Beaujeu, who wasn’t from Tyre:

It happened that, because of the fall of Tripoli, the pope sent twenty galleys to the aid of the city of Acre. These galleys were armed in Venice; their captain was a great nobleman of Venice named Jacopo Tiepole. . . . A great number of common people of Italy also took the cross and came to Acre.

When these people came to Acre, the truce which the king had made with the sultan was well-maintained between the two parties. Poor Saracen peasants came into Acre carrying goods to sell, as they were accustomed to do. It happened one day, . . . that the crusaders, who had come to do good and to arm themselves for the succor of the city of Acre, brought about its destruction, for one day they rushed through Acre, putting all the poor peasants who had brought goods to sell in Acre to the sword. They also slew a number of bearded Syrians who were of the law of Greece. (They killed them because of their beards, mistaking them for Saracens.)

This was ill-done indeed, for Acre was taken by the Saracens because of it, as you shall hear.7

Word of this outrage was sent at once to the sultan in Cairo, who demanded retribution. William of Beaujeu suggested a pragmatic solution for this. Rather than turn over the misguided crusaders to the sultan, he suggested that the citizens of Acre send condemned men from the local prisons, since they were to die anyway.8

However, William was overruled and the sultan was told the truth, adding that, since the perpetrators of the atrocity were Italians, they weren’t subject to the laws of Acre so they couldn’t be prosecuted.

In hindsight, honesty may not have been the best choice.

“The Sultan took this answer badly, and gathered his forces and his siege engines, and also collected his host of armed men.”9He took his time preparing a massive expedition in order to drive the Franks out of Acre forever.

The Templar of Tyre and the various Arabic Chronicles agree on the basics of the siege and taking of the city. The sultan of Egypt arrived at Acre on the fifth of April, 1291, with a large army and many siege engines.10

By the beginning of May, the sultan had managed to undermine and destroy one of the major towers of the city. Some negotiating went on, but no agreement was made, and so “the two sides began again their labors, firing mangonels at one another, and doing the things that are usually done between enemies.”11

A major assault was made on the city and the master of the Temple, William, took his men and went to the gate that was being attacked. The master of the Hospital and his men joined them.12

They were overwhelmed by the number of soldiers and by the Greek fire that was being thrown at them. The Templar of Tyre must have seen this happen for he gives a gruesome picture of the burning to death of an Englishman who was unlucky enough to be caught in the flames.13

The fate of William of Beaujeu was not so dramatic but equally fatal. He was struck by a javelin and “the shaft sank into his body a palm’s-length; it came through the gap where the plates of the armor were not joined.”14

The master must have stayed upright enough to appear unharmed, for when he turned his horse to go, some of the other defenders panicked and begged him not to leave. He answered, “ ‘My lords, I can do no more for I am killed, see the wound here!’ . . . and as he spoke he dropped the spear on the ground and his head slumped to one side.”15Before he could fall from his horse, his men caught him and carried him to the Templar fortress. He lingered for the rest of the day, dying in the evening. “And God has his soul—but what great harm was caused by his death!”16

It seemed that the city was about to fall, so the king and his men went to their boats and left. The remaining people in the city rushed to the Templar fortress, the strongest in Acre. They held out for ten days but were finally forced to ask for terms of surrender, including safe passage for the women and children inside. However, when the Moslem soldiers came in, they began molesting the women and young boys. At this the Templars went after the soldiers and killed or drove them out of the fortress. They then decided to fight to the end.17

All the defenders of the Temple fortress were killed. The remaining noncombatants were taken prisoner. Abu al-Mahasin notes that the city fell on the same day and hour exactly one hundred years after Richard the Lionheart had first captured Acre. He adds that it was a just revenge for Richard’s slaughter of his prisoners at that time.18

The property of the Templars, Hospitallers, and Teutonic Knights was taken as booty. There is no indication that any treasure was on the ships that left before the city fell. A few Templars, including the next Grand Master, Thibaud Gaudin, managed to escape by boat. They went to the fortress of Sidon and then to Cyprus. But the idea, often stated as fact by pseudohistorians, that they could have brought a hoard of treasure with them is highly unlikely. The entire coastline was full of the sultan’s soldiers and archers. Men burdened with anything more than their clothes and swords would not have been able to get through.19

A unique view of Acre just before the fall comes from an Italian Dominican priest, Ricoldo de Monte Croce. Born near in Florence around 1240, he joined the Dominicans at the age of twenty-five and spent the next few years in study. At sometime around 1288, he decided to embark on a mission of conversion to the East. We find him first in Acre.20

In many ways Ricoldo represents the change in the approach to the non-Christian world that had occurred since the foundation of the


William of Beaujeu defending Acre, as depicted by Dominique Louis Papéty in 1845. William is wearing the red tunic and white Cross of a Hospitaller and he’s standing when he was actually on horseback. Hollywood isn’t the only place where history is adapted to make a better picture. (Art Resource, NY)

Templars. The Dominicans were founded by Dominic of Castile and the order was given papal approval in 1216. The plan of the Dominicans was to take the word of Christianity to people all over the world. To this end, the Dominican monks were among the best educated of the clergy in languages. They dreamed of bringing Christianity to the masses through persuasion, passion, and logic. In this they were the exact opposite of the Templars.

Under the direction of the popes, the Dominicans also became the chief inquisitors in Europe, but this was not the first desire of many of the priests of the order and Ricoldo seems to have preferred converting the heathen to prosecuting heretics.

Ricoldo stayed at the Dominican house in Acre and also befriended the patriarch of Jerusalem, Nicholas, another Dominican. Then he set out into Moslem territory, where his preaching was largely ignored. He was in Baghdad in 1291 when word came of the fall of the city. So his information was gained through Moslem accounts.

His letter about the fall of the city is addressed to the patriarch, who was killed in the taking of the city, and “to all the brothers who died in the capture of Acre.”21 His shock and grief come through in every sentence. This outpouring of emotion reminds the reader of the human face of war. More than once he anguishes over the fate of the nuns who had now become slaves of Moslem men, of children who had been torn from their mothers and sold to be raised as Moslems.

Particularly chilling is Ricoldo’s experience with the sellers of spoils from the city. From a Saracen peddler, he bought a tunic that had been pierced “by a sword or a lance that was partly stained with blood.”22 He wondered if it had belonged to someone he knew. The letter alternates between Ricoldo’s attempts to rejoice that his friends are now martyred and in heaven and his intense misery. “Where is Tripoli?” he cries. “Where is Acre, where are the churches of the Christians that once were here? . . . Where are the multitudes of Christians? . . . I have heard that on the sixth day, in the third hour, you were slaughtered.”23 The words tumble over each other in his deep and personal agony.

In the midst of Ricoldo’s lamentation, he notes that the master of the Temple was pierced in the stomach and lungs, “as was Ahab, king of Israel,” and died around vespers, as is also related by the Templar of Tyre. The next day the city was taken.24One scholar feels that this allusion to King Ahab, who wasn’t one of the better kings of Israel, is a comment on the weakness of the Templars.25 This is not impossible, but I think it more likely that it was because Ahab was shot with an arrow in a battle with the Syrians and died in the evening, as did William of Beaujeu.26

However, throughout Ricoldo’s letter there are the repeated questions: Why did this happen? Why did the bulwark fail? Why did God allow this? Ricoldo assumes that it must be because of the sins of the people. One of these passages is just before the reference to the death of the Grand Master.

This undercurrent of feeling—that someone must be to blame for the fall of Acre—seems to have been shared by many people in both the East and West. The Templars were seen as the invincible warriors, the protectors of the Holy Land. The loss of Acre damaged them more than any of the other military orders.

After the loss of Acre and the death of William of Beaujeu, the heart seemed to go out of the Templars. Some of them tried to hold on to Sidon, but they learned that the Templars on Cyprus considered them a lost cause and so Sidon was abandoned by night. Shortly thereafter, Chateau Pelerin was also abandoned. That was the last of the Templar holdings in what had once been the Latin kingdoms.

The Templars made one more attempt to regain the mainland, at the time of the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay. They built a stockade on the tiny island of Ruad, not far from the town of Tortosa. From there, they planned on invading the town, but they were completely overrun by the Mamluk Sayf al-Din Ensendemür in 1302. The surviving Templars were taken to Egypt and sold into slavery.27

It was with this background of failure that the Templars had to face the increasing belief in Europe that they were at best useless and at worst traitors to the Christian cause.


Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) p. 231.


Ibid., p. 203. For more on Charles please see The Templars and the Saint.


Hans Eberhard Mayer, The Crusades (Oxford University Press, 1972) p. 243.


The Templar of Tyre, tr. Paul Crawford (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2003) p. 101, section 477.


The Templar of Tyre, p. 101, section 479.


Ibn Abd Az-Azhir, “The Treaty with Acre,” in Arab Historians of the Crusades tr. Francesco Gabrieli (New York: Dorset, 1989) p. 326. The chronicler was mistaken in the name of the Hospitaller master. He was John of Villiers. Conrad was Conrad of Feuchtwangen (The Templar of Tyre, p. 104, note 3).


The Templar of Tyre, pp. 101-2, section 480.


The Templar of Tyre, p. 102, section 481.




The Templar of Tyre, p. 105, section 489; Abu al-Fida in Gabrieli, p. 344; Abu al-Mahasin in Gabrieli, p. 349.


The Templar of Tyre, p. 109, section 493.


The Templar of Tyre, p. 110-11, section 498.


Ibid. If you feel the need to know exactly what happened, get a copy of the book.


Ibid., p. 112.




The Templar of Tyre, p. 113.


This is recounted in both Abu al-Mahasin in Gabrieli, p. 348, and the Templar of Tyre, p. 117, section 507, as well as other chronicles.


Gabrieli, p. 149.


All accounts mention the difficulty of getting away by sea and stress the number of people who died trying to get to boats.


Cecilia Manetti, “ ‘Come Achab al Calar del Sole’ un Domenicano Giudica I Templari La Caduta d’Acri nella Testimonianza di Fra Riccoldo da Monte Cruce,” Acri 1291: La fine della presenze degli ordini militari in Terra Santa e i nuovi orientamenti nel XIV secolo (Quattroemme, Perugis, 1996) pp. 171-72.


Ricoldo de Monte-Cruce, “Lettres de Ricoldo de Monte-Cruce,” Archives de l’Orient Latin Tome II (Paris, 1884; rpt. Brussels, 1964) Letter IV p. 289, “et aliis fratribus qui motui sunt in captione Accon.” Ricoldo doesn’t mention, and might not have known, that the patriarch drowned while trying to escape (The Templar of Tyre, p. 115, note 7).


Ibid., p. 289. “Gladio vel lancea perforatuam, que etiam modico sanguine rosea erat.”


Ibid., p. 291. “Ubi est Tempolis, ubi est Accon, ubi sunt ecclesie christianorum, que ibi erant . . . Ubi est multitudo populi chriniani, qui ibi erant? . . . Audivi enim, quod feria exta, hora tertia, occisi fuistis.”


Ibid., p. 292. “Percussit magistrum Templi inter stomachum et pulmonen quasi alterum Achab regem Israel, wt mortuus est eaodem sero vesperi . . . et statim sequenti mane capta est civitas subiter.”


Manetti, p. 174ff.


1 Kings 22, 34-35.


The Templar of Tyre, pp. 160-61, sections 635-38.

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