Above a 19th-century watercolor of Beirut harbor by Charles Pierron -- before the destruction of the castle. Copyright Christie's Images
In the fall of 1231, an army under the command of the Imperial Marshal Riccardo Filangieri seized control of the port city of Beirut. Beirut, the seat of the Lordship of Beirut, had fallen to Saladin in 1187 but been recaptured by German crusaders a decade later and granted in fief to John d'Ibelinby King Aimery sometime between 1200 and 1205. At the time he received the honor, Beirut was in a ruinous state, and Ibelin had to rebuild it almost entirely. This he did, establishing a prosperous city famed for its glass manufacturing, silk industry, pottery production and more. He also built a magnificent palace in the castle which inspired the awe of visitors for its marble floors, painted ceilings, fountains and dramatic views.
On his arrival in the Holy Land in 1228, Emperor Frederick II demanded that he surrender Beirut to the crown -- without providing any legal basis for this expropriation or allowing Beirut to defend his claim before the High Court of the kingdom. Beirut refused to comply without his day in court. Now, four years later, the Emperor had taken Beirut by force of arms while Beirut and the bulk of his vassals and men were on Cyprus. Beirut had just been disseized without a judgment of the court. That should have been the end of the story -- but it wasn't.
Beirut knew that his citadel was well-stocked to withstand a siege, but the garrison was too small to withstand a determined assault. If he were to avoid complete defeat, he knew he had to raise a military force capable of breaking the siege of the citadel. The challenges were threefold: 1) he didn't himself command enough knights and men-at-arms to take on the Imperial army; 2) he didn't have any ships to transport his men and horses from Cyprus to the mainland, and 3) it was now late fall, the winter storms had started and the Mediterranean was largely closed to shipping.
Beirut addressed the first two issues by making a dramatic appeal to King Henry of Cyprus for aid. This appeal is notable in that Beirut was Henry's acting regent since the defeat of the Imperial baillies the previous summer. Presumably, Beirut could have simply commanded the resources of Cyprus. Instead, we are told that he went on his knees before the 14-year-old king and begged him for assistance. Pure theater? Probably, but at least the forms of legality were respected, in contrast to the Emperor's actions.
The High Court of Cyprus was summoned and knights and barons came in unprecedented number, "friends and enemies" both. The Lord of Beirut rose and reminded the king that he and his family (meaning his father and brother) had on more than one occasion defeated attempts to depose the Lusignans, a fact for which he had many witnesses and was not in doubt. Then, according to the chronicler Philip de Novare, who was personally present, Beirut appealed to the king as follows:
"Now it has happened that the Langobards have taken my city and besieged my castle so closely that it is in danger of being lost, and ourselves and all our Syrian men disinherited. Wherefore I pray you, by God and by your honor, for our great services and because we are of one blood and nourished by a common motherland...that you come in person in all your power with me to succor my castle."At this the lord of Beirut was silent and knelt as if to kiss the foot of the king. The king arose to his feet and all the others knelt, and the king and all the others said that they agreed willingly.... [Novare, LXXXIV]
Not everyone came willingly, as events soon showed, but what Beirut had achieved with his show of requesting aid where he could have commanded it was to leave the youthful king his dignity. The importance of that would become evident within six months.
First, however, the entire Cypriot host had to muster and cross to the mainland in the dead of winter. The army collected at Famagusta shortly after Christmas, there to await favorable weather for a crossing. They waited a long time in weather that Novare describes as terrible. One source claims they did not risk a crossing until after the spring equinox, another that they departed on the first day of lent, that was roughly a month earlier on Feb. 25, 1232. Fatefully, Beirut refused to leave any of his bannerets or sons behind on Cyprus. According to Novare, Beirut argued that everything hinged upon the recovery of Beirut and that they needed every single fighting man they had, adding that many battles had been lost for the lack of a single nobleman. He concluded:
"If we conquer, Cyprus will not need any captains; if we lose, it will be ended with us and the captain who would be in Cyprus could only hold out for a little time and after he would perish... For this I do not wish that any one of my family who bears the name of Ibelin should remain. If we conquer, each will have his part in the honor and profits; if we lose, we will all die together and for God in our rightful heritage, there where most of my relatives have been born and died." [Novare, LXXXVI]
Fine as these sentiments were (and Shakespeare appears to have liked them well enough to include them in Henry V's speech at Agincourt), they ignored a dangerous reality: the five former Imperial baillies might have yielded to peer pressure at the session of the High Court but they remained discontented and opposed to action against the Emperor. Throughout the winter they sought both to absent themselves from the host and to induce other knights and barons to abandon the Ibelin cause.
At last, the order was given to embark apparently on Cypriot ships as there is no mention of assistance from one of the Italian cities at this point. The fleet sailed at night, according to Novare, in "very bad weather and heavy rain" -- but presumably in better weather than had gone before. The wind drove them to Puy du Constable in the County of Tripoli, where the army safely disembarked. Here, however, the five former baillies with their retinues and followers numbering roughly 80 knights or 20% of the Cypriot feudal "fled." These men later turned up in Beirut fighting alongside Filangieri, so one presumes they made it to Tripoli and took ship from there to reinforce the Imperial besiegers.
Meanwhile, the main force of the Cypriot/Ibelin army headed south to the relief of Beirut. The desertion of such a large contingent of men right at the start of the campaign we naturally demoralizing. Beirut, however, countered the dismay by making a show of relief and declaring that he was relieved to have the traitors gone. He reasoned, "as long as they were following him he momentarily waited for them to strike him between the shoulders. Now since they had broken their faith to their lord...had deserted him in the field and were perjured toward him...they were not people whom it was necessary to fear...." [Novare, LXXXVIII]
King Henry's army advanced south along the coastal road, flanked -- as Richard the Lionheart's troops had been during the Third Crusade -- by their fleet. Unfortunately, the winter storms were far from over and almost immediately a violent storm drove their ships ashore at Botron. Nearly all the vessels were wrecked and with them their siege engines and most of their tents. The advance continued overland "through rain and bad weather, through great torrents, deep and overflowing their banks, and through the Pass of the Pagans and the Pass of the Dog, which was most perilous to cross" until the came to the River of Beirut. [Novare, LXXXIX] Here they could be seen from the castle, inspiring great joy and hope of relief.
The castle, meanwhile, had been badly battered by the besiegers. The fosse (dry ditch surrounding the castle), "one of the finest in the world," had been turned into a covered street from which the enemy was digging tunnels under the walls of the castle. A large siege engine had also been set up on a hill outside the city, which caused great damage to the battlements.
News of the arrival of the Cypriot army under the command of the Lord of Beirut also spread through the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and Beirut's allies started to collect around him. Most important, his nephew the Lord of Caesarea brought up reinforcements. It appeared that a confrontation was at last going to take place. The Imperial army issued forth from Beirut to draw up in battle array on the opposite side of the River of Beirut, but it did not risk crossing the river -- and nor did the Ibelins and their allies. Instead, they faced each other all day, and then both returned to their camps. On another occassion, the Cypriot army crossed the river and got as far as the fosse of the citadel hoping to lure the Imperial forces out for a confrontation. Instead, Filagniere answered with only a feeble sally that was easily chased back into the city, but left the Ibelins and their allies outside and no closer to their goal.
At some point, during this standoff, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Masters of the Temple and Hospital, and Beirut's other nephew, Balian of Sidon, came to Beirut. They attempted to pursuade the parties to negotiate a peaceful settlement. Yet, neither side was ready to compromise. The clergy and Sidon withdrew.
The Imperial Marshal retained the upper hand. He was in firm possession of the town of Beirut, and for obvious reasons, the Lord of Beirut and his allies could not assault him there. Furthermore, the Sicilians had established a blockade of the citadel by sea as well as land by tying their gallies bow and stern on a great chain of iron that cut off the castle on the seaward side. Beirut's army could not penetrate to the citadel either through the enemy-held city or through the sea blockade. They had no choice but to remain on the far side of the River of Beirut, where supplies soon started to run low. Despite his dramatic appeal to King Henry, despite bringing the entire host of the Kingdom of Cyprus (minus 80 "traitors"), despite a hazardous crossing in winter storms, despite bringing his army down the coast in bad weather, and despite support from local supporters, Beirut was unable to muster sufficient force to break the Imperial stranglehold on his citadel, much less force the Imperial forces out of his city.
Still, Beirut did not concede defeat. Instead, he asked for volunteers willing to risk taking an open boat through the blockade by night and attempting to scramble up the steep embankment to reach the postern of the castle. At once his heir Sir Balian, and his other adult sons Sir Baldwin and Sir Hugh, as well as roughly 100 other armed men -- knights, sergeants, and squires -- volunteered to make the attempt. Novare writes: "...no man was ever so loved by his people, for the vessel was so full of men that the water came up to the bulwarks." [Novare, XCIII] Yet Beirut chose his fourth son Sir John to lead the attempt, ignoring the vehement protests of his elder sons. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that he gave the operation so little chance of success that he did not want to risk his firstborn and heir!
Sure enough, the boat was seen by the Sicilians and there was a great deal of shouting and shooting. Worse, when they landed and started up toward the castle, the garrison thought they were being assaulted by the enemy and started to hurl boulders, lances and other missiles at them. Eventually, someone (presumably Sir John) managed to convince the garrison that this was a relief effort and the reinforcements were welcomed "with great joy."
From the shore, of course, it wasn't entirely clear what was happening out in the dark, and Beirut, thinking all was lost, threw himself face down on the earth with his arms outstretched like a cross praying to God. Finally, lights and faint cheering from the castle reached him. He could give thanks rather than begging for assistance.
Nor was this merely a gallant gesture. According to Novare, the reinforced garrison thereafter "defended themselves more vigorously, made a countermine against the miners, killed the miners without and within the mine, recaptured the fosse by force and fired the covered street...made many brave sallies and ... burned several engines." [Novare, XCIV] Beirut, meanwhile, confident that his castle could hold out for months more, moved his army to Acre where it could be better provisioned and began a diplomatic offensive to gain more allies.
The story of the Lord of Beirut's confrontation with the Holy Roman Emperor is depicted in more detail in The Emperor Strikes Back: