Armies of the Crusaders

Armies of the Crusaders

The army of the Crusades describes the armies of the Crusaders from the 11th to the 13th centuries. Though the Crusades into the Holy Land were thought of as a pilgrimages more than conquests, the quality of the army was very important, as many crusaders captured land and evicted their enemies at sword point. It varied in quality and quantity.

The Crusaders were often heavily outnumbered and in a foreign land with little or no guidance, where in the deserts of the Levant, they fell to the thirst that their enemies (most notably Muslims) would have avoided.

The Crusader armies were typical of the European armies of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, consisting of heavy cavalry, Foot archers and crossbowmen with mixed infantry. The long journey to the Middle East ensured that the army of Crusaders that arrived was small in number, but strong in heart to have survived the constant harassment as they made the pilgrimage through unknown enemy territory.


Crusader army tactics varied depending on the commander, from the more disciplined Richard the Lionheart, to the slightly reckless Guy de Lusignan. The primary tactic of choice was a combination of infantry and cavalry with an emphasis placed on the elite arm of the medieval army, the heavily armoured knight who would usually fight on horseback to charge an enemy line repeatedly until it broke. However the mainstay of every army was the infantry, which would have to do the bulk of the fighting with some support from archers.

Their enemies choice of tactic reflected their own strengths mainly their mobility. They realised that man for man they could not match the Crusader armies, especially the armoured knights, but their impetuous nature was well known. Thus by feigning retreats could pull of the more eager parts of an army and either surround and destroy them quickly, or drag them out in a prolonged retreat from the main bulk of there army so the enemy's battle line is straggled and discordant and quickly resume formation and counter attack as a cohesive force against a disorganised foe.

The two famous crusader orders the Knights of Saint John and Knights Templar fought similarly and a lot like most other Knights, except the Templars would tend to more active a force (even outside the crusader kingdom such as in the Reconquista) and as a result suffer more casualties, so many so that the order was almost destroyed several times throughout the crusader period such as at the Horns of Hattin. They would also take part in many defences in the crusader kingdom such as Antioch and finally Acre committing to many sallies in last ditch efforts to deny the cities to the enemy and were even in charge of some of the castles in the kingdom, for example Krak des Chevaliers was primarily controlled by the Knights of Saint John.

The Crusaders also took up a defensive stance. Building many fortifications, which were well supplied with water and food, they could hold out almost indefinitely, unless either supply was cut, the enemy infiltrated the fort such as Krak des Chevaliers or a big enough force was marshaled against them in a siege such as Saladin and post crusader period, Constantinople itself. Pitched battles were avoided as often as possible, unless the political situation called for it due to problems with manpower, logistics and the impracticability of marching armoured soldiers in such a hot climate.

Impact of the Crusader armies

After the Battle of Manzikert, the Byzantines suffered a crushing defeat against the Turks, seeing much land lost. The Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos called for mercenaries from the West for help in combatting the Turks. In response, Pope Urban II at the council of Clermont declared an armed pilgrimage to the Holy land. The resulting Crusaders aided Byzantium so greatly that by 1143, the death of John II Komnenos, the Byzantine empire was once more a superpower and the Crusaders had control of a sizable piece of the Levant along with Jerusalem, which did not fall until 1187.

Large numbers of Crusader States were formed, most of them independent of the European powers, though the Byzantine Empire did claim the Crusader states as 'Protectorates', and they were able, briefly.

By the late 13th century, crusades were no longer of benefit, weakening the Byzantines more than the Turks and Saracens. Naval expansion by the Venetians and the Latins at the expense of the Byzantine empire strained relations.


The Crusader armies were not dominated by Heavy Cavalry but more so by infantry of various quality. Troops were raised from several different nationalities and most crusades would have contained a wide variety of troops from different parts of Europe. For example, during the Third Crusade, Richard the Lionheart had 2,000 Genoese Crossbowmen.


Contrary to popular belief, crusading soldiers wore armour far heavier than their Saracen and Turk counter parts. This was also a matter of life and death. The only effective defensive method of defeating the hit and run tactics launched by the Saracens was to form a shield wall and hope that the armour one wore was thick enough. Crossbow men and or archers could then fire their own missiles from the safety of the shield wall. To counter the heat, many knights wore a surcoat underneath their armour to insulate against the metal which under the heat of the Sun, would have literally burned their skin. Later, the Saracens and Turks employed heavier troops, but since most soldiers came from the local population of the Arabs, these would not have naturally worn much armour. As such, the Crusaders were often of a heavier type than their enemies and few of their enemies could withstand a Heavy Cavalry charge unless the cavalry were seriously outnumbered.

The crusaders were also a very determined band of soldiers. After all, they had to bear the heat of a foreign land, had to survive on minimal amounts of water and in the case of the First Crusade, minimal amounts of food. Many would have had to have travelled either by land which was exhausting at best, or else by sea, where by many of their comrades would have died from storms or else lost. Those few that arrived were the best, and crusader soldiers were at least as determined as their opponents were. A classical example is the Siege of Antioch where the crusaders, though outnumbered, were inspired and eventually drove of a larger army of Seljuk Turks. Many have argued that the cause of victory was due to factional infighting between the various Turkish tribes within the army, as opposed to the Holy Lance that was supposedly found in the city.

At times the Crusaders could be a large force. Under Richard the Lionheart, there were some 40,000 men under his command at the height of the Third Crusade. There may well have been many more, but the Holy Roman Emperor's enormous army broke apart after his death.

Strong fortifications were built by the crusaders and these proved very resilient for the most part against besiegers as long as their walls were manned with decent strength. Such an example can be found with Saladin whom only succeeded in re-capturing Jerusalem after annihalating their army at Hattin.


The Crusaders were at times poorly united and their tactics were not flexible. The Crusading soldiers were also not very disciplined. The hot-headedness of the Frankish knights resulted in killings of innocent civilians and consequently, a peace treaty between the Baibars and the Crusaders was revoked by the Baibars in 1290s resulting in the Siege of Acre.

Often, the actions of Crusader armies were not beneficial. The Byzantines, one of the crusaders most powerful yet uneasy allies in the region went even so far as to make a deal with Saladin. When Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa marched his enormous army towards Jerusalem, the Byzantine emperor promised to delay the crusaders in return for Saladin not attack the Byzantine empire.The sacking of the Hungarian city of Zara, and the capture of Constantinople in 1204 is one of the main factors behind the fall of Byzantium.

The key to surviving against their outnumbering opponents was to divide and rule them. The Crusaders were able to make a few alliances with various Arabic factions. However, the over-confidence of the Crusaders meant that after a little initial success, they would attack their former allies in lust. It was all about maintaining the balance of power. Since the crusaders were not strong enough to defeat the combined enemy forces, even when they combined forces, open war was not wise. In Spain, the initially powerful Moors were greatly weakened by civil war and various city states with little or no allegiance to each other. The few Christian kingdoms in Northern Spain were able to stay a few in number (and hence mainly united), even as they conquered more land.

Reinforcing a Crusader army was difficult at best. Troops were brought from Europe but these would often have their own orders led by their own leaders, often with conflicting interests. The second crusade demonstrates this, when a large Crusading army failed to capture Damascus after a row broke out between the commanders (whom wore of different origin) as to who should rule the city, even though the city had not even fallen at the time (and consequently did not). Since troops were being brought over from such a long distance, European leaders feared that one would plot against the other back in the main continent, something that their Arabian counter parts had little worry considering that their lands were already occupied. Their fears were not unfounded, as in Richard the Lionheart, whose half brother plotted against him, and the Austrian emperor Leopold, whom had Richard captured and ransomed.

At the Battle of Hattin, a large crusader army was annihilated when it was ambushed searching for a source of water. The lack of local knowledge meant that intelligence was poor.

Conscription was limited at best. The mainly Muslim local population that survived any initial massacres would not be permitted to join the army, and almost certainly none would have wished to. At the time of the Siege of Jerusalem, there were some 60,000 refugees wishing to flee that Saladin gave a paid passage to. So whilst some people from Europe, or local Christians may have swelled the city and hence had the potential to raise a militia force, it was not enough. At the siege of Acre, the crusaders amounted to 15,000 men, a seemingly large number, but small when compared to the typical army of 40,000 to 80,000 deployed by the Saracens. As a result, the Arabs had a seemingly unlimited supply of men, whilst the crusaders struggled to man their walls during the latter periods in the late thirteenth centuries.

After the first Crusade, many of the veteran soldiers who won the Battle of Ascalon left, believing that their mission was accomplished. Often, some crusades were nothing more than poorly led raids, like the fourth crusade. This only aggravated the local Arabs, uniting them in their desire to fling the Crusaders from their holdings.

Heavy cavalry and infantry

Crusader heavy cavalry initially did not consist of any military orders like the Templars. These were created after the successes of the first crusade. Most of the heavy cavalry were knights. However, these knights would often find themselves un-horsed throughout their mission, due to starvation and lack of fodder for their mounts. Consequently, many Heavy Cavalry may have found themselves as infantry towards the end of their crusade.

Some military orders may have fought on foot as dismounted knights. This would have been favorable in circumstances were the ground was difficult or else too narrow for large numbers of cavalry. However, in the open dessert plains of the Middle East, it would have been foolish to travel by foot.

Templar Knights

The Templar Knights were created in 1119 when King Baldwin II gave permission for eight knights to start a new military order to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy land. They never retreated from battle and over time grew to an impressive order of thousands of members, though not all would have been Heavy Cavalry - most would have been squires or servants accompanying the Knights. Nonetheless, their spirit was within all of them. The Templars were destroyed by the French Monarchy and Papacy in the mid 14th century, due to charges of Heresy.

Knights of St. John

The Knights of St. John were founded as a military order in 1113. Their aim was to protect pilgrims and more importantly, to set up Hospices and other charitable services to the pilgrims. In 1005, a Christian hospital was destroyed by the Caliph Al Hakim. This was rebuilt later in 1023. The Knights of St. John were forced to evacuate from the Holy Land, then from the Island of Rhodes due to an Ottoman siege and then finally, after braving another such siege at Malta, were disbanded by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Knights of Santiago

Although many historians see the Reconquista in Spain itself as a long Crusade, the Knights of Santiago did not take part in any campaigns in the Levant. Their mission, like many of the other military orders, was to protect pilgrims heading from Northern Spain, which in the twelfth century was Christian, into the Islamic south and then to the Holy land.

Teutonic Knights

The Teutonic Knightly order was founded in the late 12th century after the crusades in the middle east, most likely the third crusade. Of German origin, Germany initially contributed a large army of heavy infantry and cavalry under Frederick Barbarossa. After the ageing emperor's mysterious death (and supposed pickling), a few of these knights made it to the Holy Land and established themselves, where they controlled the polls of the ports in the parts of the Levant controlled by the Crusaders. Most of the action seen by these Knights were directed against Prussia and the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. The Teutonic Knights declined in importance after a crushing defeat by the Polish-Lithuanian forces in the battle of Tannenberg. The Teutons were finally dissolved by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1809. However, the descendants of these Knights formed the elite Prussian officers and such the legacy of the order's martial skill can be examined in the Napoleonic and the Franco-Prussian War.

Livonian Order

The Livonian Order was very similar to the Teutonic Knightly Order. However, they saw no action in the Holy Land, and their crusades were more or less primarily against the Pagans inhabiting the lands of Lithuania and Prussia, along with the Teutons.After suffering a crushing defeat in the 13th century, the Livonian Order was incorporated into the Teutonic Knightly Order.


Typical medieval military doctrine dictated that Infantry would be the main composition of any army, but that cavalry would dominate the battlefield. This was certainly true of the Crusaders. It required great horsemanship and archery skills to be a cavalry archer. Horsemen could conserve their strength for battle but infantry had to march to battle. This daunting task across the dessert is made all the more uncomfortable when considering the arms, armour, baggage and threat of getting lost, surrounded by the enemy. Both sides used their cavalry to strike the deepest blow and the infantry would then be useful in supporting roles, such as providing cover for cavalry, covering flanks or using sheer weight and numbers in attrition and pursuit.

Army strategy

Despite their small size, the Crusader Knights were a very effective force. Many leaders who led their own national crusades like Richard the Lionheart, used the Knights under his banner. When it came to Crusader armies, there was no choice but to unite, since the surrounding hostile Arab and Turkish forces could easily outnumber the Crusaders, if only they united. When that was the case with Baibars, the Crusader states fell one by one.

One of the Crusaders long term goals was the conquest of Egypt. A rich and fertile province, any cost in its invasion would have been easily paid of from its retinue, even if the spoils were to be shared with the Byzantine empire.

Crusaders emphasized speed. This was done despite the lack of mounts for their knights. Battles such as Ascalon and Hattin, ended in the way they did because it was the Crusaders that made the first speedy move before their enemies had finished theirs. At Ascalon, the Crusaders were able to launch a speedy assault leading to a great victory. At Hattin, they quickly fell into a deadly trap and were annihilated for it. Having said that, the distance covered by an army a day was small.

The Crusaders generally speaking however, did not seem to have much of a plan other than divide and rule, or else strike at the chain which has the weakest point, as with Egypt. These strategies were pursued as best as they could do so.

iege warfare

The Crusaders were not renowned for their siege warfare. During the first siege of Antioch, the Crusaders managed to take the city initially through treachery. However, siege equipment was used, although a favourite tactic of all Medieval European armies was a simple blockade and then wait for a few months or so for the defenders to run out of water, or food, or both. This tactic was suicidal whenever the crusaders faced larger numbers, such as at Antioch. During the Portuguese Reconquista, a fleet of English, German and French crusaders assisted in the Siege of Lisbon, using their siege towers to successfully assault the city.

However, Crusaders were renowned for their castle building. Some of the strongest fortresses such as Krak des Chevaliers was built and ensured their supremacy in a land surrounded by hostiles, until their under-manned walls were taken, as with Acre which, though possessed a double wall, was under-manned and overwhelmed.


* [ De Re Militari: The Society for Medieval Military History]
* R.G. Grant, "Battle"

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