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The Templar Catastrophe at Cresson

#The Templar Catastrophe at Cresson

By Steve Tibble

It was May 1, 1187. A searingly hot day in Galilee.

The small column of crusader knights slowly left the track, horses picking their way across the uneven ground and occasional rocks. They spread out and moved into line. Men divided into their squadrons and jostled their way into position. Horses made the occasional complaint but the riders were unusually silent. Preoccupied. A ragged battle line took shape.

Most of the men had fought together over many years, and slipped easily into place. They were elite warriors, Templar knights from the order’s castles at nearby La Fève and Caco. In an age of pre-industrial individuality, their uniformity of appearance emphasised the unusual consistency of their training and dogma. The rest of the men, 10 knights from the other main military order, the Hospitallers, and a few royal knights from the garrison at Nazareth, formed up into small, impromptu squadrons of their own.

Calm Before the Storm

The men stopped. Some looked to their front, to the yellow-grey landscape that stretched out before them. A harsh, metallic heat soaked the very moisture from their bodies. The more experienced knights tried to identify the areas of scrub, and the small dry gullies, that lay directly ahead of them, and which they would need to avoid when the order to charge was given.

The younger men found distraction in making some final adjustments to their equipment: tightening up the straps on a shield, or testing the heft of a sword grip, making sure it did not slip or turn too much in their hands.

Armour was always uncomfortable. But the dust and heat of a desert summer made it almost unbearable. The iron helmets lay heavily, painfully, over their heads. A claustrophobic tunnel vision added to their already severely limited view of the hazy plain. Sweat trickled relentlessly. It ran down into the men’s eyes, and from their armpits ran down inside their heavy hauberks. There was nothing to be done. With helmets in place and mail gloves strapped on to protect the hands, everyone just had to bear it.

A Looming Disaster

The knights paused to compose themselves, to find a way to hide or channel their fears. Most tried to breathe deeply, to catch what little air was there to be had. The brutal dust-hazed sky blended effortlessly with the dirty yellow of the rocks and sand beneath their horses. The vivid colours seemed to mock them, emphasising how alien they were to this landscape, and just how fragile was their presence in it.

Horses moved nervously, thirsty and edgy. They were skittish under the weight of their armoured riders, uncertain about what was in store. But mostly they were unnerved by the infectious smell of fear in the air. Gradually even the twitching of the mounts, the jangling of the bits and the harsh sounds of iron on iron died away. An eerie silence lay over the field, as heavy and suffocating as the iron helmets the men wore.

Every face was concentrated. Getting a sense of enemy numbers at this distance and in the shimmering haze was always difficult. But even so, the men sensed something very different. They were used to being outnumbered, but never like this. The Muslim cavalry to their front were massed in thick blocks, line after line. They seemed to fill the horizon, with flags and standards moving lazily, fluttering slowly from side to side. This was not just going to be a tough encounter: it was going to be a catastrophe.

Rearranging the Deckchairs

But, strangely, the knights were not concentrating on the enemy. Instead, they were nervously looking at their own commanders. Something was dreadfully wrong. Their leaders were engaged in what was clearly an agitated and ill-tempered conference. Those closest strained to hear what was being said. Occasionally they did not even have to strain too hard: the voices were emotional, increasingly harsh. Those further away had to content themselves with reading the body language, punctuated by the sound of an occasional expletive.

The discussion grew louder and louder. James of Mailly, a senior Templar commander, was arguing that their position was untenable. He kept saying, eventually shouting it with increasing desperation, that they needed to fall back towards the infantry they had left far behind, on the road out of Nazareth. Or back towards the relative safety of one of the local castles. They still had a chance of doing either. Reinforcements were mustering just a few hours’ march away. All they had to do was hold out for their arrival.

But Gerard of Ridefort, master of the entire Templar Order, was at the centre of the knot of mounted leaders. He dominated the chain of command and would brook no opposition. He was able to outrank and outshout every other knight on the field. Experience and common sense counted for nothing.

Gerard de Ridefort in the centre of this 14th-century illustration – BNF MS Francais 22495 fol.230v

Gerard had a well-deserved reputation for arrogance. His overweening sense of entitlement and colossal self-belief was exceptional, even by the standards of an organisation already famous across Europe for its pride and fanaticism. He brushed aside all advice that conflicted with his own views. Moreover, he did so in a manner that was calculated to insult his fellow knights in the most fundamental way. When James of Mailly counselled caution, he taunted him by saying ‘that he was speaking like someone who wanted to flee ’. There was no rational response to such an emotional insult. James could only spit out ‘that he would remain on the field like a man’. As a man of his word, he did just that.

All opposition was quashed. The other leaders angrily rejoined their men and the order to prepare for a charge was given. Ranks were tightened up. No one was permitted to leave the line under any circumstances. The last messengers returned to their squadrons, squeezing their way back in alongside their comrades.

The Backstory of a Trainwreck

The Frankish column, about 130 cavalry in total, had set off in pursuit of Turkic raiders earlier in the day. The knights had been desperate to catch the intruders, eventually intercepting them near the Spring of the Cresson, one of the traditional watering holes and muster points for the kingdom of Jerusalem.6 They should have been more careful about what they wished for.

Having found them, the Templars realised that the ‘raiding party’ they were chasing was in fact a group of some 6,000 to 7,000 cavalry, commanded by Muzaffar al-Din, the Lord of Harran and Edessa. There were several Muslim armies operating in the Holy Land in May 1187, and this was just a flying column that had broken away from one of them. The numbers involved were huge, dwarfing their Frankish opponents. Despite its size, a force like this did not even qualify as an ‘army’ in the Muslim sources: Ibn al-Athir merely described it as ‘a good-sized detachment’. But if this was a ‘detachment’, it was one which significantly outnumbered the entire mounted arm of all three crusader states put together.

The Charge With No Hope

The squadron leaders’ banners were unfurled. The royal knights, and the squires of Nazareth, let loose their flags, with evocative emblems echoed on their shields and surcoats. The bright colours, their pride of family, pride of individualism, sang out down the line. The blues, the reds, the garish yellows, each colour shouted ‘Look at me, look at what I will do. Remember me ’.

The Templars’ flags, their famous ‘piebald banners’, could not have been more different. And deliberately so. Their stark black and white panels were a metaphor for all the clarity and conviction of the Templar order. No room for compromise and no place for uncertainty: corporatist rather than individual. Binary colours – black and white in every sense. Right or wrong, bravery or cowardice, death or glory. God’s will, or his disfavour.

With an air of grim inevitability, the lines moved forward at a walking pace. Standards languished half-heartedly on the airless plain, a pitiable flap here and there. A thin string of men and horseflesh. They were aimed squarely at the centre of the huge force in front of them. The vast numbers of Muslim cavalry outflanked the knights on all sides. The crusaders’ only chance, and a tiny chance at that, lay in killing the commander at the heart of the enemy army, and hoping that their opponents would all rout as a result. Or, less conclusively, perhaps hoping that they could punch their way through the enemy lines, and reach a nearby castle before the Turkic cavalry could regroup. But neither option was remotely realistic.

As the crusaders speeded up into a trot, arrows started to rain down, doing little to damage the men, but inflicting cumulative carnage on their unprotected horses. The Turkic cavalry to their front flinched as they continued onwards, edging nervously backwards. No one wanted to be on the receiving end of the first fury of a Frankish charge.

The fragile Templar line charged into the Muslim centre, smashing like a wave into the slowest of the ’askar (standing army) cavalry to their front. Turkic horsemen were thrust off their mounts, lances shattering on impact with their horses and armour. Swords were drawn as splintered lances were discarded.

But the vast majority of Muzaffar’s men had simply advanced around and behind the tiny Templar squadron. As they did so, they loosed wave after wave of arrows, bringing down the vulnerable crusader horses. Close quarters fighting continued across what remained of the chaotic line of knights, but the energy of the Frankish charge had been sustained and absorbed. The horses were out of breath or wounded and starting to fall. The knights were exhausted and surrounded. Line after line of fresh Muslim cavalry crashed into the Templar survivors from all sides.

Horror and Blood

The outcome was inevitable. But the crusaders fought on as best they could. Survivors’ accounts suggest that two men battled particularly ferociously and, in the best traditions of their class, were recognised for their prowess and sacrifice. One was a ‘brother of the Hospital’ called Henry, ‘a very brave knight and fighter’. The other was the humiliated Templar leader, James of Mailly. Having failed to stop the madness of the charge, and having been goaded with accusations of cowardice for trying to do so, the fury of this ‘most renowned warrior’ was unrestrained. The two men charged and pushed through those who were in front of them. Eventually, however, even they were brought down by Turkic archers who ‘stood at a distance, hurling spears, missiles, and arrows’ at them.

The end came with shocking speed. Within minutes the entire crusader force was either dead or taken prisoner, awaiting death or captivity. The devil protects his own, or so some whispered after the event. Like Lord Cardigan at the charge of the Light Brigade, Gerard of Ridefort (a man similarly untroubled by self-doubt) led his men to certain defeat and, leaving them to their destruction, rode out of the battle with just three men by his side.

Roger of Moulins, the master of the Hospitallers, who had also protested against the foolishness of the charge, was killed in the fighting. None of his men left the battlefield alive. Many of the Templar knights, the cream of the order’s manpower, were killed in the charge. The survivors were bound, lined up in rows and forced to kneel. They were then beheaded by their captors. The Muslims remounted, and rode back past the town of Tiberias and east across the River Jordan. The heads of those crusaders killed in the battle, together with those of the executed prisoners, were stuck on lances and paraded on the way back.

The Battle of Cresson, miniature by Jean Colombe, in Passages d’outremer ca. 1474

Disaster as a Signpost

The battle of the Spring of the Cresson was an astonishing act of bravery, but one which also verged on the suicidal: as General Bosquet said of the British cavalry in the Crimean war, ‘C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie’.

There are many other, even less flattering, ways to describe it: an extraordinary testament to the arrogance of a crusader general, an arrogance which ventured so far beyond self-confidence that it entered into the realms of fantasy; a clumsy display of the inability to manoeuvre or conduct oneself with any subtlety; a coarse and brutish army, ill at ease with any sense of flexibility or sophistication, capable only of a headlong rush towards the enemy. Or as an astonishing case study in religious fanaticism which pushed faith way beyond the boundaries of the rational. With God on our side, their behaviour seemed to suggest, anything and everything is possible.

At Cresson, Gerard lost the battle and some of the kingdom’s best warriors. That was only the beginning, however. Within a few weeks he was able to repeat his appalling performance, but this time on a far larger scale. Counselling King Guy during the Hattin campaign, Gerard persuaded him to lead the entire army of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem into a trap they could not escape from.

The heartlands of the Christian Middle East were lost forever.

Dr Steve Tibble is a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge and London University. He is a leading authority on warfare and violence in the crusading era.

His recent book The Crusader Strategy (Yale 2020) was received to critical acclaim and short-listed for the Duke of Wellington’s Military History Award.

Steve is the author of  Templars: The Knights Who Made Britain (Yale, 2023) and The Crusader Armies, Yale 2018. He is a contributor to ‘The Cambridge History of the Crusades’ and ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades’, both forthcoming in 2024. You can learn more about Steve on his personal website, or follow him on X/Twitter or Instagram.

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