The Twelfth Century’s Battle of Montgisard
A sixteen-year-old king with leprosy, the Knights Templar, and a racing camel. True story.
Remember that time that a teenaged king led a Christian army in battle against a Muslim army, and chased it back to Egypt? No? Let’s refresh your memory with the story of the Battle of Montgisard.
Jerusalem was a complicated place in 1177. Sixteen-year-old King Baldwin IV had leprosy and could produce no heirs. The Kingdom was concerned with who would ascend to the throne on his death. The favorite was the child of Baldwin IV’s pregnant, widowed sister, Sibylla. Along came Philip of Alsace on a pilgrimage, proposing that she be married to one of his subjects.
Baldwin IV had other ideas. He wanted to ally with Philip’s Byzantine Empire and proposed to do so by joint military action. Baldwin IV suggested that he and Philip join forces to strike at Egypt.
All the while, the Ayyubids of Egypt led by Saladin had eyes on the conquest of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. On November 18, 1177, Saladin sent 27,000 men from Egypt toward Jerusalem.
Baldwin IV went out from Jerusalem with 375 – yes, 375 – knights to meet Saladin at Ascalon. Now that seems like an impossibly small number to face Saladin’s armies. History has not recorded the size of the various armies with precision, but the consensus seems to be that Baldwin IV was significantly outnumbered.
Baldwin IV wasn’t able to halt Saladin at Ascalon. Saladin left part of his army there to keep Baldwin occupied, sent another part to besiege Gaza, and sent the rest to keep marching northward toward the ultimate prize – Jerusalem.
Saladin must have counted on the fact that Baldwin IV would never set chase with so few men under his command. History recounts that Saladin was busy along the way to Jerusalem. He attacked Ramla, Lydda, and Arsuf. This meant that his army was distributed over a large area, pillaging, and foraging. Saladin must have felt confident that Baldwin IV’s forces behind them were not a threat.
His confidence was misplaced.
As Saladin marched northward up the Palestinian coast, the Knights Templar rallied to the support of Jerusalem. Yes, those Knights Templar. You know it’s a true story when there’s a YouTube video:
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Add some Knights Templar
History.com describes the Knights Templar this way: “a large organization of devout Christians during the medieval era who carried out an important mission: to protect European travelers visiting sites in the Holy Land while also carrying out military operations.”
Master of the Templars, Odo de St Amand, ordered every knight that he could gather to move south to Gaza to fend of Saladin’s army. Baldwin IV redirected those knights from Gaza to head north toward Ascalon, then toward Ibelin, then inland toward Jerusalem with Baldwin IV.
On November 25, 1177, Saladin was crossing a ravine near Montgisard, southeast of Jerusalem. While crossing the ravine, he was beset by Baldwin IV’s Christian army, supported by the Knights Templar, from the north. The Battle of Montgisard ensued.
It’s been said that Baldwin IV asked the Bishop of Bethlehem, who was with the army, to go forward and hoist a relic of the “True Cross” to inspire the army.
“Prostrating himself before the sacred relic, Baldwin asked God for success.”
Baldwin IV and the Knights Templar attacked the Muslim armies, surprised and disorganized. Leprosy-stricken, teenaged Baldwin IV, fought himself with his soldiers. Saladin’s armies were under the command of his nephew, Taqi ad-Din. Taqi ad-Din died early in the battle. Saladin himself escaped capture only by fleeing on – get this – a racing camel.
Baldwin’s army and the Knights chased the Muslim army, ultimately all way back to Egypt. By the time Saladin and his troops arrived back at Egyptian territory, only one-tenth of his army remained. And Jerusalem’s respite was brief. Saladin would lay siege to Jerusalem again, from September to October 1187. Ultimately, Jerusalem would surrender to Saladin. But that’s another story.
A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:
What was life like in the Middle Ages? Here’s a glimpse
There is so much history and mystery crammed into such a small space in the Holy Land