The Castle of Kerak in the Barony of Oultrejourdain.

The Byzantine castle of Kantara on Cyprus today.

Reynald as portrayed by Hollywood in "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Reynald de Châtillon is often portrayed in history and historical fiction as a “rogue baron” — a violent, self-interested man in large part responsible for breaking the truce with Salah-ad-Din and so triggering the campaign that ended in disaster for Christian forces at Hattin in 1187.  In the Ridley Scott film “The Kingdom of Heaven” he is depicted as little more than a madman intent on making war. Yet the noted historian of the period Bernard Hamilton has worked hard to rehabilitate Châtillon, arguing he was an intelligent strategist, who did much to save the Kingdom of Jerusalem rather than the reverse.  What follows is a short summary of Châtillon’s life in the Holy Land.

Châtillon was born in 1125, the younger son of a comparatively obscure French nobleman, the Sire of Donzy. William, Archbishop of Tyre, went so far as to describe his as “almost a common soldier,” but was undoubtedly going too far.  It is fair, however, to call him an adventurer, who came to the Holy Land during the Second Crusade. Apparently, while Louis VII was worrying (probably unnecessarily) about his wife committing adultery with her uncle Raymond of Poitiers, Châtillon was busy seducing Raymond’s wife, the heiress of the Principality of Antioch, Constance. No sooner had Raymond been killed in an ambush in 1153, than Constance took the obscure and still young (he was 28) Châtillon for her second husband. It worth noting that according to Tyre the King of Jerusalem had suggested a variety of other “suitable” bachelors — men of stature and proven ability in the crusader states — to Constance, but the lady chose the patently unsuitable Châtillon.  It was clearly a case of a widow exercising her right to choose her second husband, and so a “love” match — at least on Constance’s part.

It is hard for us, however, to imagine what she saw in him. Within a very short period of time his avarice and violence had scandalized even his contemporaries. Tyre claims that out of sheer animosity to the Patriarch of Antioch, who opposed his marriage and didn’t hesitate to say so publicly, Châtillon had him seized, bound and exposed to the blazing summer sun with his head covered with honey. The honey attracted the flies and the old man, the highest church official in Châtillon’s lordship, was thus tormented with heat and flies until — according to Tyre — the King of Jerusalem intervened. Another version suggests (more plausibly I would think) that he was released when he agreed to pay Châtillon a large sum of money. Regardless of how he secured his release, the Patriarch understandably did not feel safe in Châtillon’s territory and fled to Jerusalem.

Châtillon next attacked the Island of Cyprus, a Christian country under the authority of the Byzantine Emperor. As Tyre points out Cyprus “had always been useful and friendly to our realm.” Châtillon’s justification for the raid was that he had not been paid by the Emperor for his service in subduing the rebellious Armenian Lord Thoros of Cilicia. But as Tyre also points out, the Emperor’s tardy payment of mercenary wages hardly justified over-running an unsuspecting and friendly island destroying cities, wrecking fortresses, plundering monasteries and raping “nuns and tender maidens.” The ravaging lasted for days, showing “no mercy to age or sex.” The violence of Châtillon’s raid, by the way, is confirmed by Syrian sources and so not simply a function of some alleged “bias” on the part of Tyre. Furthermore, his actions so outraged his contemporaries that the King of Jerusalem, Baldwin III, offered to deliver him to the Byzantine Emperor.

Manuel I opted instead to invade Antioch and force Châtillon to submit himself. As the army of the Emperor approached, Châtillon recognized he didn’t stand a chance of defying the Emperor (and probably realized he was in the wrong with no allies) so he threw himself on the Emperor’s mercy in a dramatic gesture. He went barefoot to the Emperor with a noose around his neck and presented his naked sword hilt-first to the Emperor. As if that weren’t enough, he then threw himself face-down at the Emperor’s feet until (according to Tyre) “all were disgusted and the glory of the Latins was turned to shame; for he was a man of violent impulses, both in sinning and in repenting.” Roughly three years had elapsed between the sack of Cyprus and Châtillon’s submission to the Emperor in 1159.

Two years later in 1161 he was captured by the Seljuk leader Nur ad-Din and imprisoned in allegedly brutal conditions because his reputation for brutality was not confined to the treatment of Latin clerics and Orthodox civilians but to his enemies as well.  He was not released for 15 years, by which time his wife, Constance of Antioch had died and her son by her first marriage, Bohemond had come of age.  In short, when Châtillon was released from prison in a political exchange (no ransom was high enough for Châtillon’s captor), he was 52 years old and Prince of nothing. Indeed, he was landless and penniless.

A situation he rapidly remedied by marrying the widow (and heiress) of the vast and important frontier barony of Oultrejourdain, Stephanie de Milly. It is hard to imagine that a man recently released from a Saracen prison after 15 years and well past his prime was particularly seductive to the widow Stephanie de Milly, and he certainly offered her neither wealth nor high connections, but — in retrospect — he offered her something even more important and maybe we should give her credit for having perceived his value at the time: Châtillon was a brilliant tactician, who proved capable of defending her vulnerable inheritance as long as he lived.

Châtillon’s release and remarriage also coincided with the start of the personal reign of Baldwin IV, who came of age in 1176. He appears to have favored Châtillon. He certainly would have had to approve of his marriage to the Stephanie de Milly and Châtillon’s assumption of the title of Baron of Oultrejourdain. In any case, just a year after his release he was entrusted with a mission to Constantinople in which Baldwin IV renewed his father’s “homage” to the Byzantine Emperor (no doubt Reynald’s earlier dramatic submission to the Emperor made him an ideal candidate to do this, combined with the fact that his step-daughter by his deceased wife Constance was now the Byzantine Empress.) In addition, he was to negotiate details of a joint operation against Egypt that Baldwin IV and Manuel I wanted to pursue. While it is hard to see the Châtillon of film and fiction as an ambassador, it must be conceded that he apparently fulfilled his commission in this case well. The Byzantine Emperor sent a fleet of 70 ships to support and land invasion by troops supplied by the crusader states and armed pilgrims.

Unfortunately, the ambitions of Philip Count of Flanders combined with Baldwin IV’s leprosy foiled the joint campaign and while the Counts of Flanders and Tripoli with the young prince of Antioch attacked targets on the border of Antioch, Salah-ad-Din invaded the Kingdom of Jerusalem from Egypt. It was late 1177, and King Baldwin had less than 400 knights left for the defense of the realm. Still he rushed to Ascalon and raised the commons in defense of the realm eventually delivering a crushing defeat of Salah-ad-Din at the field of Montgisard on November 25, 1177. Bernard Hamilton claims that Châtillon was the “real” commander at Montgisard, siting Arab sources. However, the Archbishop of Tyre and the Chronicle of Ernoul, the two contemporary Christian sources both of which were in far better position to position to assess who was commanding on the Christian side, singularly fail to mention his role. He is just one of several prominent men in the King’s forces including Baldwin of Ramla “and his brother Balian, Renaud of Sidon and Count Joscelin, the King’s uncle and seneschal.” The fact that the Arabs attribute the command to Châtillon may have for to do with the fact that they knew him (and hated him) so well than any real role; Châtillon is not the kind of man to be easily overlooked and the Arab sources may have confused prominence on the battlefield with command. Tyre, however, was at this time chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and made a meticulous attempt to interview the survivors of the battle. It is hardly likely that he would have omitted Châtillon’s role had Châtillon really been the mastermind of the victory of Mongisard. In the absence of credible testimony to the contrary, therefore, the assumption should be that the most senior official at the battle was the commander — and that was none other than King Baldwin himself!

Châtillon’s next important contribution to history was his raid deep into Sinai in November 1181. This raid definitely contributed to his reputation as a war-monger because it occurred in the middle of a truce with Salah-ad-Din. However, as Hamilton points out, far from being an opportunistic act of a self-adventurer with no regard for treaties the raid was a highly effective tactical move in defense of the crusader kingdoms. The raid occurred immediately after the death of Nur-ad-Din’s legitimate heir Prince as-Salih in Aleppo. The prince had designated his cousin, a Seljuk prince and lord of Mosul, as his successor with the explicit intention of preventing the Kurdish usurper Salah-ad-Din from taking any more of his father’s inheritance. Salah-ad-Din immediately recognized that the powerful Lord of Mosul was likely to be a far greater obstacle to his ambitions than the weak as-Salih and so immediately ordered his nephews to prevent any forces from Mosul reaching Aleppo. From the Christian point of view, it was critical to prevent Salah-ad-Din from expanding his power to Aleppo, and the Lord of Mosul was to be preferred to the jihadist Salah-ad-Din.  Châtillon’s raid into Sinai effectively 1) prevented Salah-ad-Din from taking his forces from Egypt north to Aleppo and 2) prevented his nephews from doing his work for him either. Farrukh-Shah had to divert his forces from interdicting the Lord of Mosul to protecting his uncle’s possesses in Sinai. Aleppo therefore did not fall to Salah-ad-Din at this time — a small price to pay for a truce that was due to expire less than six months later.

To be sure, Châtillon also enriched himself by seizing a very lucrative caravan and refusing to ransom the survivors or pay compensation for the dead, but this should be seen as Châtillon’s usual avarice and does not detract from his rapid and effective response to critical threat to the very existence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

A year latter, Châtillon expanded on his probably ad-hoc raid into Sinai but launching a fleet of ships in the Red Sea. These raids have generally drawn approbation from historians, who portray them as cruel piracy against innocent pilgrims — largely because the Arabs had no fighting ships in the Red Sea at this time and Châtillon’s ship sacked towns and burned ships initially at will. Against this portrayal is the fact that Arab warships and slavers had preyed upon Christian pilgrims for centuries before the First Crusade, and the fact that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was by this time in a life-or-death struggle with a man who had promised to drive it into the sea and, indeed, wipe out Christianity everywhere in the world. No, Châtillon’s raids were not pretty. Medieval Warfare rarely was. Yes, his ships attacked “unarmed” pilgrims (though it’s hard to imagine Arab men travelling anywhere unarmed at this time). They certainly caused havoc and spread terror across the Arabian Peninsula. And far from being acts of piracy by a “rogue” baron, they served a clear strategic purpose.

Hamilton makes the argument that the costs and complexities of launching these ships far exceeded he resources of Châtillon alone and argues convincingly that he must have had the support of the King of Jerusalem himself. He certainly needed the skills of Italian shipwrights and sailors — scarce commodities in his land-locked, desert lordship. More important, by threatening the trade and pilgrim routes of the Red Sea, Châtillon was challenging Salah-ad-Din’s claim to be the Defender of Islam. As Hamilton words it: “[Salah-ad-Din’s] credibility would have been severely damaged in the eyes of the entire Islamic community if the Franks had succeeded in preventing pilgrims from reaching the holy cities [of Islam] of which he was protector while he and his arms were fighting Sunnite princes in Iraq.” (Hamilton, The Leper King and His Heirs, p. 181.) Hamilton goes on to point out that the campaign had the added advantage of aiding the Frank’s allies in Syria while restraining Salah-ad-Din’s growing power.

Salah-ad-Din had no choice but to respond to the raids. He had warships dragged across Sinai and launched in the Red Sea. These eventually tracked the Christian raiders down, bottled them up in the harbor of al-Haura, and when the Frankish crews abandoned their ships, to track down the survivors. The Sultan than dealt with the survivors in a notably non-chivalry fashion: he ordered them distributed about his kingdom and publicly executed (against the laws of Islam that dictate that prisoners who voluntarily surrender should be shown mercy).  Two of the raiders, presumably the men identified as the leaders, were taken to Mecca and slaughtered like sacrificial animals to the wild jubilation of the crowds of pilgrims on the haj.

Châtillon’s role in these raids (and he took full credit/blame for them despite the probability that he was aided by King Baldwin) made him more hated than ever in the Islamic world. Salah-ad-Din clearly felt personally insulted, and in the years that followed he twice laid siege to Châtillon’s main fortress at Kerak.  The first of these sieges occurred while on the one hand the Queen Mother, Dowager Queen and Princess of Jerusalem had gathered in Kerak for the wedding of Princess Isabella (aged 11) to Humphrey de Toron (aged 15 or 16), and on the other hand when the High Court of Jerusalem was meeting in Jerusalem to discuss Guy de Lusignan’s deplorable performance as Regent of the Kingdom during an invasion of the Kingdom by Salah-ad-Din in October 1183. This meant that Châtillon found himself with only his own fighting men but hundreds if not thousands of non-combatants on his hands. Tyre claims he “rashly” tried to defend the town outside the castle, but was nearly overwhelmed by the suddenness of Salah-ad-Din’s attack, and barely managed to pull back into the castle, his villagers losing everything. Although Tyre tries to make this sound like poor leadership on the part of Châtillon, it sounds far more like a successful surprise attack to Salah-ad-Din’s credit. Châtillon was lucky not to lose his castle under the circumstances and despite the overcrowding and lack of combatants he held his castle for more than a month before the royal army came to his relief.

A year later the scene repeated itself, but this time there was no wedding and no constitutional crisis going on. Both sides were better prepared, but the outcome remained the same. The royal army came to the relief of Kerak and Salah-ad-Din was forced to break off his siege. He would not succeed until more than a year after the destruction of the Christian army at Hattin and the execution — at Salah-ad-Din’s own hand — of Châtillon himself.

But that is getting ahead of the story. Châtillon still had two other contributions to history to make. During the succession crisis after the death of Baldwin V, Châtillon threw his weight behind Sibylla — but it is unclear if he supported Guy de Lusignan or not. He is said to have urged the people of Jerusalem to accept Sibylla without naming Guy as her consort. He may have been one of her supporters who urged her to set Guy aside and take a new husband (maybe he even imagined himself as his consort given his past successes!). Or he may have known she intended to keep Guy as her consort. In any case, he can be counted in her faction.

There is no evidence that I have seen, however, that he was particularly hostile to Raymond of Tripoli and there is no reason to believe he particularly agitated for war in 1187. On the contrary, Salah-ad-Din needed no particular provocation. He’d been launching invasions almost yearly from more than a decade and he knew as well as anyone that Guy de Lusignan was neither popular nor powerful. He recognized that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was weaker than it had been at any time in his own lifetime and he gathered his forces and struck again. Châtillon followed the royal summons to muster — as did all the other barons and fighting men of the kingdom. And, as an experienced battle commander with a large contingent of troops he inevitably played a role in the Battle — but nothing suggests he was the one whispering idiocy in King Guy’s hear: that distinction belongs to the Grand Master of the Knights Templar Gerard de Rideford.  

At the Battle of Hattin, Châtillon fought bravely beside the King and was taken captive with him along with many other nobles including Aimery de Lusignan and Humphrey de Toron. The only thing that made him different from the others is that Salah-ad-Din was not willing to forgive the Red Sea Raids and — again in violation of Islamic practice — did not show mercy, although Châtillon surrendered no less than the other lords did. Salah-ad-Din allegedly killed Châtillon with his own hand — or wounded him and let his men finish him off. It was a violent end for a violent man; he may well have preferred it to the thought of languishing in a Saracen prison again or a life in slavery. He would have been 62 years of age at the time of his execution.


Reynald de Châtillon: Rogue Baron?

Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem