Against the Odds

The Battle of the Springs of Cresson marked the beginning of the end for the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Miniature of the Battle of Cresson from Les Passages d’outremer by Sébastien Mamerot, c.1474. Wikimedia Commons
Miniature of the Battle of Cresson from Les Passages d’outremer by Sébastien Mamerot, c.1474. Wikimedia Commons

The Battle of the Springs of Cresson was a devastating and perplexing battle in the history of the Crusader States. Its proximity to the Battle of Hattin, which occurred a month later with consequences that were more keenly felt both within the Holy Land and Europe more generally, has resulted in Cresson being overlooked. Nevertheless, the events of 1 May 1187 were born from the political challenges faced by the Kingdom of Jerusalem and served as a portent for the events that came to define the Crusader States in the late 12th century.

By the end of April 1187 the Kingdom of Jerusalem was in a state of turmoil. It was deeply divided over Guy of Lusignan’s ascension to the throne, which in turn resulted in the political isolation of Raymond, Count of Tripoli, Guy’s vocal opponent. Jerusalem also faced an existential crisis as Saladin had unified both Egypt and Syria, effectively encircling the kingdom; his was a threat that could not be ignored. 

Raymond was one of the most powerful barons in the kingdom and was consequently an enemy Guy could ill afford. It was therefore decided that a delegation consisting of Gerard de Ridefort, master of the Templars, Roger des Moulins, master of the Hospitallers, Joscelin, the archbishop of Tyre, Balian of Ibelin and Raynald of Sidon would be sent north to Tiberias, where Raymond was staying, with the aim of retrieving him from the political wilderness.

Meanwhile, Saladin had been seeking to exploit the politically fragmented kingdom and Reynald of Chatillon, lord of Kerak and vassal of the king of Jerusalem, provided him with the pretext to do so. Reynald, in direct violation of a truce between Saladin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, had raided a Muslim caravan passing through his territory. In response, Saladin sent a force of approximately 7,000 men to raid his lands, but, in order to reach Kerak, south-east of Jerusalem, they had to cross Raymond’s domain. In the face of such a substantial force, Raymond had no choice but to grant the army passage. 

Unaware of these events, the delegation left for Tiberias on 29 April. It was only when they arrived at the Templar castle of La Fève that they received word of Saladin’s force in the area. 

Incensed by the news, Gerard de Ridefort quickly mobilised all the support he could. Despite his best efforts, though, the total strength of the Christian force numbered only 110-140 knights and 300-400 infantrymen. Needless to say, this was wholly insufficient to take on 7,000 Muslim troops. 

It is possible that Gerard was unaware of the size of the force they faced. According to the anonymous author of the Libellus de Expugnatione Terrae Sanctae per Saladinum, the Muslim force had set up a decoy, which meant Gerard believed he was only attacking 3,000 soldiers, while the remaining 4,000 laid in wait to ambush the unsuspecting Christians. Even if Gerard were under the misapprehension that this smaller contingent was the sum total of the Muslim army, this was still a substantial force, which vastly outnumbered his own modest company. 

Upon seeing the 3,000-strong enemy, Gerard was determined to charge and, according to the Continuation of William of Tyre, dismissed the more pragmatic advice of those around him, all of whom advised restraint. He accused the Templar brother Jakelin de Mailly of loving his blond head too much and suggested that he was ‘speaking like someone who wanted to flee’. Gerard gave an impassioned speech, imploring his men not to fear death and to remember their duty to defend Christ’s patrimony.

The heavy cavalry charge was a ferocious weapon in the arsenal of the crusader armies although, if mistimed, it could prove fatal. Against such a sizeable force, a charge would have required expert levels of precision and a large degree of luck. Despite their numerical inferiority and the risks, it was decided that Gerard’s hundred knights would charge the Muslim ranks. However, once the charge was underway the 3,000 Muslim soldiers performed a staple manoeuvre of Middle Eastern warfare, the fabled feigned retreat. The Christians, believing that their opponents were fleeing for fear of the oncoming charge, continued with a determination to ride them down, but they were in fact taking the bait and being lured further into the jaws of the trap. Once they were sufficiently separated from their infantry, the additional 4,000 Muslim soldiers sprang forth and encircled the Christian knights. The Templar brother Jakelin de Mailly and the Hospitaller master Roger des Moulins, faced with a ferocious enemy, put up gallant efforts at resistance. They ultimately fell in battle, the latter being decapitated for his efforts, but both were hailed as martyrs by the chroniclers of the age. 

The result was a massacre. The Christian army was completely annihilated with the exception of three Templar brothers and Gerard de Ridefort, who managed to escape the battle but not completely unscathed. Balian of Ibelin arrived at La Fève later than the rest of the delegation and found it practically deserted but for two sick patients who had been left in the castle. He eventually found Gerard at Nazareth badly wounded and unable to continue on to Tiberias with the remaining members of the delegation. Ultimately, however, he was proud of the way in which he and his men conducted themselves in battle. 

Discounting the ambush, the reasons why Gerard insisted on attacking at Cresson despite the overwhelming odds remain unclear. It may have been from frustration with Raymond of Tripoli – with whom he had a personal grudge – for allowing the Muslims to enter the kingdom. Alternatively, he may have felt compelled to charge for fear of reputational damage to the Templars, who prided themselves on their ferocity in battle. Perhaps he was already committed to battle by the time he realised how outnumbered he really was and decided instead to punch his way through the enemy ranks. Whatever compelled him to undertake such a foolhardy charge, the events at Cresson provided Saladin with the confidence to pursue his goal of eliminating the Crusader States more fervently and signalled the beginning of the fall of Jerusalem in October of that year.

Ronan O’Reilly is studying for a PhD in Medieval History at Royal Holloway, University of London.