The Baron’s Crusade: The Forgotten War

Its 1238, the Ayyubid empire is again in disarray. Al-Kamil is dead and yet another land grab for small regions of Syria and Egypt erupts between the rival sons, grandsons and nephews of Al-Kamil and the legendary Saladin. One good thing for the fractured Ayyubids, was the ten year truce that had been in place since the end of the Sixth Crusade in 1229, allowing the Christians of the east to continue their own internal wars, reducing their abilities to further erode Muslim power after the truce was lifted.

After the successful retaking of Jerusalem during the Sixth Crusade (1228-1229), you would think that the Holy Roman Emperor would be the most popular man in Christendom but he wasn’t, far from it actually. His idea of a powerful monarch conflicted directly with the leading lords and barons of the Holy land, creating a multi-faction ‘cold war’ situation that robbed the Christian kingdoms of there little remaining unity and prestige.

Phase one, Theobald at Acre

With concerns growing over imperial control over the Crusader States, and the end of the truce looming, Pope Gregory IX began preaching and recruiting all over Europe. The usual suspects; France, England and Italy were somewhat keen, with people taking the cross as early as 1234. The Hungarians and Spanish, relatively new to the Crusader movement in the Holy land, were by far the keenest with Theobald of Navarre leading the initial expedition in 1239, made up of thousands of knights and French and Navarrese nobles.

Royal Coat of Arms and Heraldic Shield of Navarre, 1234/1259-1284 SOUCE: Wikimedia commons

Joining then Dukes of Burgundy and Brittany, Theobald was conscious of his long crusader lineage with his relations to the crowns of England, France and that of Jerusalem. It was only natural that he would take up the cross in an effort to not necessarily capture land, but secure the current state of the Christian east. By the autumn of 1239, Theobald’s force of European knights had assembled in the de-facto Crusader capital of Acre, joining the holy orders and men from Cyprus. The first goal of the crusade was to take Ascalon and rebuild the fortifications destroyed by Saladin some yeas before, allowing for easier access to Jerusalem and, furthering the costal control over the Muslims.

On the way down to Ascalon, Peter I, Duke of Brittany fancied a stab at a Muslim caravan, leaving the main army with several hundred knights, Peter was able to ambush and defeat the loot laden caravan on its way to Damascus. A great early victory for Theobald and his men surely filled them with confidence, confidence that would soon be shaken.

The caravan that Peter had attacked had belonged to the Sultan of Damascus, An-Nasir Dawud and in retaliation, An-Nasir launched an attack on the relatively undefended Jerusalem, resulting in a siege of almost a month, with the small garrison centred around the tower of David lasting out until 7th December, when the city was once again retuned to Muslim hands. As this was happening, Hugh, Duke of Burgundy and Henry, Count of Bar heard of another caravan ripe for the picking, heading out in the middle of the night with some 1500 soldiers (including around 500 knights) to ambush another weak target. The issue was that this ‘easy target’ was not so simple and was actually a well armed military unit, able to surround, capture and kill most of the Crusader force near Gaza. Theobald and the leaders of the three holy orders (Templar, Hospitaller and Teutonic) had all warned against straying from the main force at Ascalon and were proved right, when reports of the defeat and death of Henry of Bar reached them, there was nothing they could do, choosing instead to return to the safety of Acre.

The 1239 Beit Hanoun battle showing the defeat of the Duke of Burgundy’s men, by Matthew Paris SOURCE: Public domain

With the main force back in Acre we once again turn our attention to the fractured world of the Ayyubids. Emirs and Sultans were all competing for small squares of land and Theobald was able to seize this opportunity. Coming to an agreement with the Emir of Damascus, As-Salih Ismail, who agreed to return Jerusalem and much of the area around Galilee - none of which was his to give. This furthered the discontent in the Ayyubid world but allowed Theobald and his men to take a victory out of very little actual fighting, returning home in the spring of 1240.

Phase two: Richard of Cornwall, the actual Baron’s Crusade

With Theobald’s crusade finished, yet another contingent of Europeans arrived in October of 1240 this time, under the leadership of Richard, Duke of Cornwall. Richard was the brother of Henry III of England and brought with him that prestige alongside dozens of English barons and knights, but his force would fight even less than that of Theobald! Richard set about finishing the building works at Ascalon and took part in several prisoner exchanges including those who had been captured after the failed attack on the caravan in Gaza. One notable prisoner that was freed was the brother of Simon de Montfort, Amaury, the powerful French noble who’s brother Simon, was married to Richard and the King’s sister Eleanor. Eleanor had joined her husband on the crusade, choosing, for some reason, to travel separately from the main body.

As well as major building works, Richard’s focus was on diplomatic relations with the surrounding Muslim powers. Furthering the work that had been done by Theobald, more land was given over the the crusader states, leaving the Kingdom of Jerusalem the strongest, in terms of geographical control since the end of the First Crusade way back in 1099. As his uncle, Richard the Lionheart had done some 50 years previously, Richard and the crusader forces focused their efforts on the coast of Palestine, securing the ports of Jaffa and Ascalon, allowing for a smooth path to be open up towards Jerusalem.

A political map of the Near East from 1229 until 1241 SOURCE: Wikimedia commons user Ziegelbrenner


Even though the successes of the Baron’s Crusade saw the Christian powers retuned to there so called ‘former glory’, the success was short lived. By 1244, Jerusalem had been once again captured by Muslim forces as the Christians of the city were massacred by an army of Khwarazmians, mercenaries in the pay of the Egyptian Sultanate. The taking of Jerusalem spawned the 7th and 8th crusades but the Baron’s Crusade was perhaps the final time Christian powers in the east stood any chance of survival.

For me, the Baron’s Crusade added little in terms of long-term gains because there was a distinct lack of dread and urgency. The city of Jerusalem, although lost as part of the crusade, was in Christian hands and attacks on friendly territory were unlikely due the distinct lack of unity in the Ayyubid camp. Militarily, the crusade was a failure, only diplomatic urgency of the Emir of Damascus saved yet another complete embarrassment for the Europeans. As time would show, a united Muslim force was more than capable of defeating any European army in the field, something that would be made evident in the 1240’s and beyond.

Richard, Earl of Cornwall had a strange career, made ‘King of the Romans’ in 1257, Richard became one of the wealthiest men in the world. Never crowned by the Pope, Richard never became the Holy Roman emperor (for some reason there was a difference) and died without ever becoming a monarch like his feckless father John and brother, Henry.


Written by Chris Riley.

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