The Knights Templar and the Battle of Hattin 1187

The devastating defeat of the combined Christian army at the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187, was one of the most significant disasters in medieval military history.  Christian casualties at the battle were so enormous, that the defense of the rest of the Kingdom of Jerusalem became impossible, and so the defeat at Hattin led directly to the loss of the entire kingdom including Jerusalem itself. 

However, there was nothing inevitable about this defeat. Saladin had invaded the Kingdom of Jerusalem four times previously ― and each time the feudal army of Jerusalem, commanded by King Baldwin IV, sent him back across the Jordan with a (figurative) bloody nose. Indeed, his first invasion in 1177 had resulted in a devastating and humiliating defeat (See: Ten True Tales of the Knights Templar 3: The Battle of Montgisard). To be sure, subsequent encounters had been less decisive and throughout the decade between 1177 and 1187 Saladin had consolidated his own power over Syria while retaining his hold on Egypt. In consequence, the invading army of 1187 was the largest Saladin had yet assembled, numbering an estimated 40,000 troops (France, p.82), but still it was not invincible. The Christians could field slightly over 20,000 men (France, p.81), and had often won battles with much more disadvantageous odds more than once in the past.

The primary difference between 1177 and 1187 was not the composition of the armies nor their numbers, but the leadership. On the Saracen side, Saladin remained but he had learned many lessons over ten years of conflict with the crusaders; he was wily and determined, but not inherently unbeatable.  On the Christian side, however, Baldwin IV had passed away to be replaced by a usurper and parvenu, Guy de Lusignan.

Lusignan had demonstrated fatal indecisiveness four years earlier during the 1183 invasion by Saladin, when he had commanded the feudal army as King Baldwin’s regent during the latter’s illness.  Lusignan’s poor leadership had resulted in a revolt by the barons of Jerusalem, who flatly refused to submit to his military leadership again. King Baldwin IV had been forced to take up the reins of government, crown his nephew Baldwin as his co-king, and lay down a complicated procedure for electing the next king ― to prevent the unpopular husband of his sister (Guy de Lusignan) from becoming king in the event his nephew died without heirs.

In 1185 King Baldwin IV died and was succeeded by his eight-year-old nephew Baldwin V. But on the boy king’s death a year later, the Grand Master of the Knights Templar played a decisive role in helping the detested Guy de Lusignan and his wife Sibylla to usurp the crown of Jerusalem without the consent of the High Court ― a constitutional necessity.

The Grand Master at this time was a certain Gerard de Ridefort. Ridefort was a knight of Flemish or Anglo-Norman ancestry, who in 1179 had risen to the position of Marshal of the Kingdom of Jerusalem ― a secular title ― allegedly due to the influence of Count Raymond of Tripoli.  A year later, however, he fell out with Tripoli, because the Count reneged on a promise to give him an heiress to wife. According to contemporary accounts, Ridefort was particularly insulted because the heiress in question went instead to a Pisan merchant, i.e. a  man of inferior social status, a class of men that Ridefort “despised as usurers and merchants.” (Barber, p. 110)  Whatever the reason, it was only now that Ridefort joined the Knights Templar yet by 1183 he was already seneschal of the order. He was elected Grand Master in early 1185, and just over a year later, when Baldwin V died, Ridefort threw his weight behind Sibylla and Guy de Lusignan.  He allegedly sealed off Jerusalem with Templar troops to prevent the majority of the barons (who opposed Lusignan) from entering the Holy City with their men. He then bullied the Master of the Hospital into giving up the key to the royal treasury to enable a coronation to take place.

So Sibylla and Guy were crowned and anointed without the consent of the High Court of Jerusalem, making them usurpers.  Although the majority of the barons caved-in and were prepared to accept the fait accompli, two important barons refused. Baldwin, Baron of Ramla and Mirabel, preferred to abdicate his titles in favor of his small son and leave the kingdom rather than pay homage to Lusignan. Raymond of Tripoli likewise refused to do homage to Guy and withdrew to his wife’s lands of Galilee.  

According to Barber, Ridefort urged Lusignan to take up arms to force Tripoli to do homage.  Tripoli responded by concluding a defensive pact with Saladin.  This, of course, was outright treason, and Ridefort was more vocal than ever in urging Lusignan to attack Tripoli ― even though this meant civil war and would have invited a Saracen invasion (Barber, p. 111). It is hard to fathom from this distance in time how irritation over a broken promise could lead the Grand Master of the Knights Templar to be willing to put the Holy Land at risk for the sake of attacking his old mentor.

Fortunately, due to the intervention of Balian d’Ibelin (Barber, p.111), it was agreed that instead of confrontation reconciliation between Lusignan and Tripoli should be attempted. The Grand Masters of the Hospital and the Templars along with the Archbishop of Tyre and Ibelin himself set out for Tripoli on a mission of peace.  Unfortunately, Tripoli had already given a safe-conduct to a reconnaissance patrol commanded by Saladin’s son al-Afdal. Although Tripoli warned the emissaries about the patrol and urged them to avoid it, Ridefort did the opposite.

Why? Was it a knee-jerk reaction to do the opposite of anything Tripoli suggested? Or did the Grand Master of the Knights Templar feel it was against his vows to allow a Saracen reconnaissance patrol unchallenged access to the Kingdom of Jerusalem? I find it easy to sympathize with the latter sentiment.

In any case, Ridefort called up nearby Templar garrisons who joined with the royal garrison from Nazareth to form a force of 140 knights, 90 of which were Templars. Just north of the Springs of Cresson, this small body of Franks made contact with the al-Afdal’s reconnaissance patrol. It is unclear just how large the Saracen force was. Some sources suggest it was 7,000 riders. Even if it was one tenth that, the Franks were hopelessly outnumbered.  The Hospitaller Grand Master Roger des Moulins and the Templar Marshal James de Mailly recognized that discretion was the better part of valor and advised against engagement. Ridefort responded with insults ― calling his fellow knights cowards. This had the “desired” effect of forcing the charge ― with the result that the entire Christian force was massacred. There were allegedly only three survivors. Unfortunately, indeed tragically, Ridefort was one of them.

Given the extreme shortage of knights in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. (At no time could it muster more than 1,200 knights), the loss of 137 knights was a disaster. If Ridefort had at least paid the price of his folly, the Templars would have been able to elect a new Grand Master, but Ridefort’s survival ensured that this embittered, hot-head remained in his position, commanding the unquestionable obedience of all Knights Templar.

Before the Templars could receive reinforcements to replace the men so callously sacrificed at the Spring of Cresson, Saladin invaded the Kingdom with an army roughly 40,000 strong and seized control of the city of Tiberias ― Tripoli’s city ― trapping the Countess of Tripoli in the citadel. King Guy dutifully called up the feudal army of Jerusalem. Significantly, the Count of Tripoli had reconciled with Guy and brought the largest contingent of secular troops to that muster. But the Kingdom remained desperately short of troops. Ridefort, in blatant violation of the Templar obligation to treat money deposited with them by third parties as inviolate, handed over money deposited with the Templars by King Henry II of England to Guy de Lusignan so he could hire mercenaries.

On July 2, 1187 the Christian army mustered at Sephoria and a council of war was held to determine the strategy for the campaign.  Sephoria was only some 15 miles to the west of Tiberius, and pleas for help from the Countess naturally elicited a response from the Christian army, most notably the Countess’ four grown sons, Tripoli’s step-sons.  But the Count of Tripoli himself warned that it was a trap and opposed the decision to go to the aid of Tiberius. Tripoli’s reasoning convinced the majority of his peers and the council of war composed of the leading barons agreed to stay where they were and force Saladin to come to them. 

Ridefort, however, went separately and secretly to King Guy after the council dispersed and convinced Guy de Lusignan to order the advance for the following day. There were no surviving witnesses to that fateful conversation. We do not know what arguments Ridefort used ― or indeed why he was so set upon the advance, although various chroniclers have imagined what might have been said. One account suggests that Ridefort called Tripoli a traitor and suggested he wanted Lusignan to be “shamed” and so “lose the kingdom.” (Barber, p. 112) But other accounts suggest instead that Ridefort blackmailed Lusignan, threatening him if he did not act as Ridefort wanted. According to Barber, one of these underlines the fact that: “The King dared not contradict him, ‘for he [the king] loved and feared him [Ridefort] because he had made him king, and handed over to him the treasure of the King of England.” (Barber, p. 113.)

Lusignan’s motives seem clear. He feared to contradict Ridefort, feared that he would be shamed if he didn’t act (as he had failed to act in 1184 and been roundly condemned by his peers), and didn’t trust the Count of Tripoli. But why did Ridefort want to attack when prudence suggested staying near water and forcing Saladin to operate at the end of his lines of supply?

Was this the same bravado that had inspired Ridefort to attack 700 (or 7,000) Saracens with a tiny force of 120 just two months earlier? Had he learned nothing from the slaughter of his brothers at the Springs of Cresson? Was this just fanatical determination to do the opposite of anything Tripoli suggested, even if it was madness? Was this a misconceived notion of “Templar” duty to attack, attack, attack ― regardless of the consequences or cost? Or did Gerard de Ridefort fear that if he failed to attack and win a great victory the mighty King of England would have his hide for stealing his money? Did he need action (victory or death) to justify that theft?

We will never know.

What happened was a disaster. (For details see: Hattin) Of the roughly 20,000 Christian soldiers who had set out from Sephoria, only an estimated 3,000 infantry managed somehow to escape into the surrounding countryside and eventually take refuge in the castles and walled towns then still in Christian hands. Of the 1,200 knights and barons that mustered for the battle, only four barons, Tripoli, Sidon, Edessa and Ibelin, escaped capture along with maybe 100 - 200 knights. The remainder including the King of Jerusalem, the Masters of the Temple and Hospital, the Constable Aimery de Lusignan, the Lords of Oultrajourdain, Toron, Gibelet, and others — effectively the entire nobility of the Kingdom of Jerusalem ― were taken captive.

Yet the highest price was paid by Ridefort’s brothers. The men he was supposed to love and care for. Of the estimated 600 knights of the militant orders, 230 survived the two-day battle to be taken prisoner.  These men were then publicly executed at Saladin’s orders in a spectacle that has earned revulsion. Imad ad-Din writes:

…[T]he Sultan sought out the Templars and Hospitallers who had been captured and said: ‘I will purify the land of these two impure races.’ He assigned fifty dinar to every man who had taken one of them prisoner, and immediately the army brought forward at least a hundred of them. He ordered that they should be beheaded…With him was a whole band of scholars and Sufis and a certain number of devout men and ascetics; each begged to be allowed to kill one of them….There were some who slashed and cut cleanly…some who made fools of themselves.” (Gabrieli, p. 138.)

Thus the only Templar to survive Hattin was Ridefort himself.  And he, rather than honor the Templar Rule as his predecessor Odo de St. Amand had done, allowed himself to be ransomed! He would not die until he made yet another foolish and ill-advised charge (that again cost the lives of many of his brothers) during the siege of Acre.

No one, note even Guy de Lusignan, bears the blame for the catastrophe of Hattin more than Gerard de Ridefort, but that should not obliterate the memory of the roughly 400 Templars who died for their faith and the Holy Land under his disastrous leadership.

France, John. Hattin. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Barber, Malcolm. The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Gabrieli, Francesco. Arab Historians of the Crusades. University of California Press, 1969.

The events leading up to and following the Battle of Hattin are described in detail in:

Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem