An Introduction to Crusader Castles – Part 2

Expansion and Retreat

It becomes clear that the Crusader-ruled states passed through two distinct phases, an initial period of expansion and a long period of retreat. Both the Franks and Armenians built relatively simple castles designed primarily for offensive purposes, but later retired behind ever-increasing complex fortifications.

There were two options available to the first crusaders. Take over the existing fortified towns and castles (and later modified), or plan and build new castles specific for their purpose. The Frankish armies inherited large numbers of existing fortifications and did little but maintain and repair where damaged, adding curtain walls to places such as Gibelet, south-west of Tripoli. Consequently, new castles were rarely necessary. In stark contrast, the County of Edessa was under almost continuous Muslim pressure from the beginning and the Latin occupation here was kept busy repairing and reconstructing the existing fortifications and walls. The defence of these strong points eventually gained time to raise feudal levies, allowing walls of considerable strength to be built.

Venturing outside the larger towns, the Crusader armies were able to use a number of existing fortresses and were located mainly to the North of the Holy Land, a legacy from the 9th and 10th century frontier war between Byzantium and the Arabs. They were ‘patched’ with later Frankish work. Many of what we know as the masterpieces of Crusader architecture were fashioned around smaller castles from an earlier date, and in some cases the original fortification has since been lost. For example, only minor evidence of the original Byzantine castle at Saone can be traced and the original castles at Krak de Chevalier and Margat have long since gone.

When the first crusader armies marched from Antioch to Jerusalem, a journey of some 400 miles, they did not take a single castle or fortified town of major importance. They found themselves masters of no more than the immediate neighbourhood of Antioch and Jerusalem and this reflects the limitation and value of fortification, for whilst a castle cannot prevent an army marching where it pleases, it must be taken if conquest is to be permanent. The crusader armies built their earliest fortifications after the fall of Jerusalem in an attempt to take the well-defended Muslim towns they had bypassed en route. The Franks built fortifications in an area they called ‘Le Terre oultre le Jourdain’, near Mount Hermon. Subeibe castle overlooked the main route between Damascus and Tyre and the castle here was able to hold down the Muslim population. Whilst Subeibe fell to Nur ed-Din in 1164, the remaining castles held the area for a generation longer and marked the greatest expansion of Frankish territory since the initial conquest of the Kingdom.

The Muslims knew of the power a castle could hold too. Saladin’s brother built an offensive fortification at Mount Thabor in 1211 and was considered so serious a threat to the Crusader-held territory that it was said to be among the causes of the Fifth Crusade.

The County of Edessa was lost in 1144, only half a century or so after the Franks reached the Holy Land. The period of retreat didn’t finish until some 40 years or so after this, and the erosion of the Frankish territories began by Zengi and Nur ed-Din was almost completed with Saladin’s victory at Hattin in 1187. The destruction or capture of the majority of the crusader army was comparable in terms of disaster to the undermining of the defences of the kingdom. Many castles were swelled with garrisons of defeated troops and the reduction of the crusader castles played a decisive part in the severe lack of manpower and the defensive strategy the crusaders were forced to adopt. Montreal, Kerak and Beaufort sustained monumental sieges despite this lack of manpower, and only succumbed due to famine within the walls. Whilst Richard Lionheart recaptured Jaffa and Acre in 1191-1192, including some key sea ports, Muslim pressure grew and it became evident that the need for defensive fortification was critical to the success of the crusader armies. The desperate shortage of manpower encouraged every device by which stones might do the work of men.

The Franks, from their restricted lands, built Chastel Pelerin, which the Templars raised on a peninsula near Mount Carmel. Its fortifications were huge, and never taken, yet this clearly marked a retreat as it was solely defensive. Montfort was built further inland by the Teutonic Knights as their headquarters between 1227 and 1229. Interestingly, this castle developed outside the contemporary crusader idea and betrayed the defensive temper of its builders. Margat and Saphet castles followed, although they were built on old sites. Margat was concentric in design and became the largest of all the crusader fortifications. It would have been almost ideal to use as a base of power for re-conquest, if sufficient manpower were available. Beaufort was weak and attempts were made to remedy this. A small moat to the south of the castle had separated it from a flat plateau, ideal for the mangonels of the besiegers. Outworks were built to defend this section of the castle walls but proved inadequate. The huge rock-cut moat at Saone solved a similar problem, however the Crusaders now lacked the energy and resources to put into effect such a huge project.

Krak de Chevaliers had small weaknesses too, but it withstood all previous attempts to take it, and led the Crusaders to believe that this was acceptable. They opted to raise a huge curtain wall to surround the original castle and a triangular outwork with rock moat was projected southwards. Towards the end of the period of retreat, when the maze-like entrance was further elaborated, work was still being carried out on Krak. Muslim incursions left falling revenues though, and Krak became isolated and reduced garrison numbers reaffirmed the castle as a purely defensive work.

It became evident that the Crusaders would find it hard to assume the offensive again.

Researched and written by Sulis

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