Crusader, deserter and traitor: the life and legacy of Raymond III of Tripoli

In 1187, a crusader army confronted Saladin in a decisive battle for the Holy Land - but was crushed when one power-hungry count fled the clash. Jeffrey Lee explores the life and legacy of Raymond III of Tripoli, whose treacherous desertion cost the kingdom of Jerusalem

Illustration of the capture of Jerusalem during the third crusade

Around nine o’clock in the morning on 4 July 1187, Count Raymond III of Tripoli took a fateful decision. Around him an apocalyptic battle raged. From his position as commander of the vanguard, Raymond could see that the great army of the kingdom of Jerusalem (the crusader state established after the First Crusade) was crumbling, suffering from heat and thirst. Beset from all sides by arrows and the swirling attacks of Saladin’s cavalry, crusader resolve was wavering. At this crucial moment, after years of scheming, rebellion and treachery, Raymond could have chosen to fight and prove his loyalty to the Christian cause. Instead, he and his faction turned and fled.

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After Raymond deserted the battle at the Horns of Hattin, the Muslim forces inflicted the greatest defeat ever suffered by a crusader army. Knights and infantry were annihilated, the king captured. Saladin, the Muslim leader, then swept through the kingdom of Jerusalem, taking cities and strongholds at will. In October, 88 years after its capture during the First Crusade, the holy city of Jerusalem surrendered to the jihad.

Many other factors contributed to this catastrophic reversal for the crusaders – their endemic shortage of fighting men, the superior wealth and manpower of their Muslim enemies, the loss of Byzantine support in the early 1180s, and the emergence of the ambitious Saladin as a leader in Egypt – but the single most damaging factor for the kingdom of Jerusalem in the decade leading up to 1187 was Raymond’s lust for power.

Raymond could have chosen to fight and prove his loyalty... Instead, he turned and fled

Fiendish ambition

Raymond was born in 1140, and became Count of Tripoli after assassins murdered his father in 1152. He was dark-complexioned, with a hooked nose. Renowned for his intelligence and inquiring mind, friends and enemies alike thought him a shrewd and accomplished leader. He was related to the ruling family in Jerusalem; for a man so fiendishly ambitious, Tripoli, a coastal crusader state spanning what’s now northern Lebanon and western Syria, was to prove too small a pond.

In 1164 Raymond was taken prisoner by Turkish warlord Nur al-Din. During nine years in captivity he broadened his mind, learning to read and write. Ransomed for the huge sum of 80,000 dinars, he showed he had broadened his ambitions, too. Almost immediately, he began interfering in the kingdom of Jerusalem, bordering his county of Tripoli to the south.

In 1174 he demanded to be made regent to his distant cousin, 13-year-old King Baldwin IV. State affairs were under the control of the powerful noble Miles de Plancy, but that did not deter him. Miles was murdered in that same year, possibly assassinated as the result of a feud with a noble family, and Raymond became regent. He enhanced his status by marrying Lady Eschiva of Tiberias, becoming Prince of Galilee and Lord of Tiberias – the greatest feudal magnate in the kingdom.

The barons of the kingdom worked loyally with Raymond, but he proved a weak and selfish leader. He still owed most of his exorbitant ransom, and when the up-and-coming Muslim leader Saladin cleverly forgave the debt, Raymond allowed him a free hand to unite his power base of Egypt with Syria, hemming in the crusader lands. Even staunch partisans of Raymond criticised this short-sighted deal.

Raymond’s next round of machinations almost delivered the entire kingdom to Saladin. Raymond’s regency ended when Baldwin came of age in 1177, but the youthful king suffered from leprosy and periodically needed someone to take charge when he was too ill to rule. Given Raymond’s poor record as regent, the king turned instead to the loyal Reynald de Châtillon. Later that year, still smarting from his demotion, Raymond stymied a joint offensive against Saladin’s Egypt by Baldwin and the Byzantine imperial fleet. This soured relations with Byzantium and snuffed out the last real chance to crush Saladin’s growing power.

Raymond and his ally Bohemond of Antioch then went campaigning in their own territories to the north, allowing Saladin to attack across the unprotected southern frontier. The Muslims pillaged across the coastal plain to Mont Gisard in the very heart of the kingdom. Jerusalem was saved only when Reynald de Châtillon’s generalship, and the inspiration of the brave young leper king, delivered a stunning victory against overwhelming odds.

Raymond’s first attempt to supplant Baldwin came in 1180. It appears he planned to make his ally Baldwin of Ibelin heir to the throne by marrying him to the king’s sister Sybilla. The king neutered the conspiracy by marrying Sybilla to a hand-some knight from Poitou, Guy de Lusignan. The traditional crusading story tells that Guy was resented as a poor leader and bumptious newcomer. But it was frustrated ambition, rather than incompetence or outsider status, that lay behind Raymond’s loathing of Guy.

In 1182 Raymond threatened an armed coup, but Baldwin turned him back at the border with Tripoli. Raymond was not with the royal host when, later that year, Saladin invaded the kingdom with a vast force but was obliged to withdraw after a sharp encounter at Le Forbelet. Tellingly, with Raymond absent, the crusader army acted decisively, without discord and prevarication.

Raymond’s nefarious influence was back at work the following year when Saladin attacked again. The king was too sick to ride so the largest crusader army for years, funded by a dubious innovation – an income tax – was led by the new regent, Guy de Lusignan. While Saladin’s soldiers sacked and burned, Raymond and his cronies arranged for the crusaders’ campaign to fizzle out in an embarrassing fiasco of inactivity. In hindsight, the results were positive – Saladin retired without significant gains – but Guy had failed to exploit a mighty host, and his reputation was ruined. Baldwin relieved Guy of the regency and in November 1183 sought to cut him out of the succession altogether by crowning a co-ruler: five-year-old Baldwin V.

Hunger for power

By now Raymond’s hunger for power was common knowledge. Ibn Jubayr, a Muslim traveller from Andalucia who passed through the crusader lands in 1184, recorded that the most prominent crusader was “the accursed count, the lord of Tripoli and Tiberias. He has authority and position among them. He is qualified to be king and indeed is a candidate for the office.”

By early 1185 Baldwin IV was clearly dying, and he turned again to Raymond as regent. The barons, though, so distrusted Raymond and his regal ambitions that they imposed stringent conditions. First, the boy-king Baldwin V was to be protected from Raymond by placing him in the care of his great-uncle Joscelin. Second, all royal castles were to be put beyond the regent’s control, instead entrusted to the military orders of the Templars and Hospitallers. As regent, Raymond resumed his perniciously passive foreign policy. He made a four-year truce with Saladin, enabling the crusaders’ most dangerous enemy to complete his subjugation of all neighbouring Muslim territories, untroubled by Frankish interference.

Saladin was endeavouring to undermine Christian power by fomenting discord among the parties

Then, in 1186, Baldwin V died (poisoned by Raymond, if you believe William of Newburgh, the 12th-century English historian). Raymond moved to seize power, convoking a council in Nablus, the stronghold of his Ibelin allies. But the supporters of the royal house, led by Reynald de Châtillon, crowned Sybilla and her husband Guy instead. Decisively outmanoeuvred, Raymond refused allegiance to the new king, and retreated to Tiberias in flagrant rebellion. The crusaders’ foes watched this political meltdown with glee. “Thus was their unity disrupted and their cohesion broken,” wrote the great Muslim historian Ibn Al-Athir. “This was one of the most important factors that brought about the conquest of their territories and the liberation of Jerusalem.”

Things soon got even better for the Muslims. Not satisfied with dividing the kingdom, Raymond defected to the enemy. He “solicited and easily obtained the assistance of Saladin, who was endeavouring to undermine the Christian power by craftily fomenting discord among the parties”. Raymond even welcomed Muslim cavalry and archers into Tiberias.

In siding with Saladin, Raymond’s aim was simple: to seize the throne. Ibn Al-Athir confirmed that Saladin accepted Raymond’s allegiance and, in return: “He guaranteed that he would make him independent leader of all the Franks.”

Raymond III’s treason had devastating military consequences for the crusaders. He allowed Saladin to send a powerful raiding party through Galilee, confronted only by a scratch squadron of Templar and Hospitaller knights who were massacred. With another Muslim invasion looming, the kingdom had just lost one-tenth of its elite soldiery. Raymond’s vassals were enraged, and pressured him to renounce his alliance with Saladin.

A grudging reconciliation was arranged with Guy, but it barely papered over the cracks in the crusader leadership. Raymond’s presence added a strong military contingent, but it also introduced his trademark dithering and dissension. As Saladin swept across the Jordan with force large enough to surround much of the Sea of Galilee, Raymond’s arguments for restraint paralysed the army. His more bellicose rivals protested, plausibly, that Raymond was trying to undermine Guy – as he had in 1183 – by ensuring another wasted campaign.

Raymond’s treachery

Historians still believe Guy was wrong to leave his well-watered base at Sephora and take the fight to Saladin, but his real mistake might have been listening to Raymond and waiting too long before attacking. The crusaders delayed until Saladin stormed Tiberias and forced Guy’s hand. Saladin chose the battlefield.

Raymond’s role in the ensuing battle of Hattin is murky, to say the least. The chronicler of the Estoire d’Eracles wrote that it was Raymond’s suggestion to camp halfway to Tiberias on the night of 3 July, adding that: “The king accepted this advice, but it was bad advice. If the Christians had pressed home the attack, they would have defeated the Turks.” That night, both armies were exhausted but Muslim morale was boosted by the defection of five crusader knights. Significantly, they were followers of Raymond of Tripoli. Early next morning, 4 July, battle was rejoined in deadly earnest. Not long into the fight, Raymond performed his destructive disappearing act. “He saw that the signs of defeat were already upon his co-religionists and no notion of aiding his fellows stopped him thinking about himself, so he fled at the beginning of the engagement before it grew fierce.”

The battle of Hattin in context

The First Crusade, launched in 1095 by Pope Urban II, was a campaign by Christian forces from Europe to wrest what they considered the Holy Land, and particularly the sacred city of Jerusalem, from Muslim rule. In 1099 the crusaders achieved that goal, capturing the city in July. Over the following decades a series of crusader states were established across the eastern Mediterranean, but came under attack from surrounding Islamic sultanates – most notably by Saladin (Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub), sultan of Egypt and Syria, who finally reconquered Palestine from the crusaders after the battle of Hattin in 1187.

Most sources say that Raymond and his knights charged at the Muslims, who simply opened their ranks and allowed them through. He “fled from the battle with his accomplices, while the Turks (as it is said) took no care to follow them.” Another source describes how, in their desperation to escape, “The speed of their horses in this confined space trampled down the Christians and made a kind of bridge… In this manner they got out of that narrow place by fleeing over their own men, over the Turks, and over the cross. Thus it was that they escaped with only their lives.”

To many, Raymond’s desertion was rank treachery. According to the Chronicle of the Third Crusade, Raymond “intended to betray his people, as he had agreed with Saladin… right at the moment of engagement, the aforesaid Count of Tripoli fell back and feigned flight. It was rumoured that he did this in order to break up our formation and that he had agreed to abandon his own people, to strike fear into those whom he should have assisted, while arousing the enemy’s courage.”

This desertion of perhaps 300 knights, a quarter of the crusaders’ most potent fighting strength, was the decisive moment. Historian Ibn al-Athir wrote that: “When the count fled, their spirits collapsed and they were near to surrendering.” According to the chronicler Michael the Syrian, “after the departure of the Count the Franks were like unto men who had lost all hope”. The Old French Continuation of William of Tyre agrees that, after Raymond’s troops left, “Saladin vanquished them quickly. Between the hours of terce and nones [9am and 3pm] he won the entire field.”

Astonishingly, despite all the evidence, Raymond is normally perceived as a crusader hero. His divisive quest for power is interpreted as a worthy struggle against villainous warmongers such as Reynald de Châtillon. Even his flight from Hattin is seen as a result of the defeat, rather than a principal cause of it. Seduced by the pro-Raymond chroniclers, William of Tyre and Ernoul, 20th-century historians feted the count as a wise statesman whose dealings with Saladin represented a rapprochement between Christian and Muslims. Recent scholarship has gone some way to re-balancing this view, but not far enough – nor has it penetrated the general consciousness.

Raymond’s reputation

After the battle of Hattin, the only city in the kingdom to resist Saladin’s armies was Tyre, led by the defiant Conrad of Montferrat. Tripoli was not besieged – thanks, some believed, to Raymond’s pact with Saladin. Even as the crusader enterprise disintegrated, the count persisted in his pursuit of power.

According to William of Newburgh, Raymond secretly made his way to Tyre to “corrupt the populace and seize the citadel”. His aim was to oust Conrad, his new rival for supremacy over the last dregs of the crusader polity. Conrad foiled the attempt and Raymond fled, leaving some of his men behind “whom the zealous marquis condemned to be hanged, as manifest traitors to the name of Christ”.

Raymond died soon afterwards – of grief and shame, chroniclers wrote. Count Raymond had ardently wished to rule the crusaders, but, in contrast with common depictions of his life, no man had done more to bring about their defeat.

Jeffrey Lee is the author of God’s Wolf: The Life of the Most Notorious of All Crusaders, Reynald de Châtillon (Atlantic Books, 2016)

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This article was taken from issue 2 of BBC World Histories Magazine, first published in February 2017