“He was a devil incarnate in his ability to govern and defend a town, and a man of extraordinary courage”
This, according to Ibn al-Athir, Arab chronicler of the Crusades, was Conrad of Monferrat.
But then of course Sir Walter Scott got to work and gave the upstart Italian that had defeated Saladin and (more importantly, for Scott) opposed Richard Lionheart his just desserts.
And I, that I am sitting right now smack in the middle of Montferrat, never heard about the guy. Weird, considering this should be part of our History curriculum in school, right?
Looks like it’s time to set the record straight.
This is a story that will feature intrigue, politics, swordfights, courage and a mysterious death, the lot in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade.
Perfect for Karavansara.
Oh, and I will start with a caveat: it is not unusual for contemporary politics and biases to infect the study of history; and indeed I know a pair of self-styled “experts on Medieval history” whose works about the Crusades are endless rants about the “Clash of Civilizations” and an opportunity to paint the Muslims in the worst light possible in order to support present-day racism.
I don’t like it, and I generally steer clear of these goons.
I am no expert on Medieval history, and I don’t have an agenda.
This said, back to Conrad, born in Montferrat (probably) in 1140. He was a diplomat and a soldier, and fought both with and against Frederic Barbarossa, and then moved to Byzantium.
Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates described him as
“of beautiful appearance, comely in life’s springtime, exceptional and peerless in manly courage and intelligence, and in the flower of his body’s strength”
Maybe because he was such a cool guy, emperor Isaac II Angelus offered him his sister Theodora as a bride.
Well, OK, Isaac had actually offered his sister to Boniface, Conrad’s brother, but Boniface was already married, and so Conrad got a wife. Which was good for Isaac, because soon after the marriage a revolt erupted and if the Byzantine emperor saved his seat was also thanks to Conrad’s military prowess.
Conrad actually killed the would-be usurper, and feeling that the Byzantine ground was getting a little too hot under his feet, he boarded a Genoese merchant ship and went to the Holy Land, where his father was serving with the Crusaders.
Conrad arrived in the Holy Land in a moment in which things were not looking good for the Christian forces.
Acre having fallen to Saladin, Conrad landed in Tyre, and found the city ready to surrender. So he seized the power, arranged an agreement with the merchant guilds that had all the interest in keeping the port city open, and re-organized the remains of the Christian forces and prepared to sustain a siege.
And he did, holding the city long enough for Saladin to decide there were easier cities to conquer.
Then Conrad sent an envoy to look for allies – and started using what we’d call propaganda and psychological warfare to scare away his enemies and attract his allies.
Saladin came back for a second round, this time attacking the city to Tyre from both land and sea. When still the city would not fall, Saladin played his trump card: he had captured William, Conrad’s father. He offered to release the old man in exchange for the city; he would kill William otherwise.
Conrad – that was by this time known as al-Markis by his enemies – said his father had lived long enough anyway, and targeted him personally with a crossbow, which led Saladin to comment
“This man is an unbeliever and very cruel”
William was released unarmed.
Later, in two sorties the defenders were able to scare the forces of Saladin away.
Well knowing that the only thing Crusaders liked best than fighting the Muslims was fighting among themselves, Saladi released Guy of Lusignan and his retinue. By way of marriage, this Guy guy was the de facto King of Jerusalem, so the first thing he did was to go to Tyre and command Conrad to get out of his way and hand over the city.
Conrad told him to go stuff himself, and even refused to let him in – Guy, his wife Sibylla and family had to camp outside of the gates of the city.
When his wife died of an illness, Guy lost the claim to the throne of Jerusalem, but refused to move over. Conrad, backed by many nobles, maneuvered to marry Sibylla’s half-sister, Isabella. A brief Henry the VIII sort of situation arose (Conrad was still married to Theodora, Isabella had been the wife of his half-brother) but everything settled and by 1190 Conrad was de jure king of Jerusalem, and still held Tyre.
But international politics got the upper hand, and a settlement was forced on all the contenders by the Chrstian kings (Richard of England, Philip of France and Leopold of Austria) – Guy, who was Richard’s man, remained King of Jerusalem, while Conrad, that was Team Leopold+Philip, was named his sole heir, and master of Tyre, Beirut and Sidon.
When Philip went back to Europe, he left Conrad in charge of his treasure and hostages – but Richard, now the leader of the crusade, pressured him to get the money and the prisoners. Conrad refused, but was finally forced to hand over the hostages, and Richard, being essentially an a-hole, killed them all.
At this point, Conrad opted for a low profile, to remain in Tyre and prepare for the day when Richard would come and try to kick him out. In the meanwhile, he started discussing a treaty with Saladin.
It was now April 1192, and in a surprise development, the barons of the Kingdom of Jerusalem voted Conrad as new king of Jerusalem. Richard was not pleased at all, but still found the time to sell Guy the title of lord of Cyprus.
Because Dick Lionheart had a thing for money – no, really, go ask Robin Hood.
Anyway, Conrad got the news of his new title on the 24th of April 1192.
In the night of the 28th he was killed by two assassins while he came home from a friend’s house where he should have dined, but found nobody home.
On his death bed, Conrad supposedly asked his wife Isabella to hand the throne of Jerusalem to Richard – but the only witnesses were Richard’s men – and seven days after Conrad’s death Isabella married Henry II of Champagne, Richard’s nephew.
While Arab and Southern European sources normally portray Conrad as a ruthless strategist and a cunning politician, a brave fighter and a man of his word, British sources normally paint him in a very bad light.
In 1825, Sir Walter Scott wrote The Talisman in which Conrad of Montferrat becomes Conrad of Montserrat, and the man that had been described by his enemies as “the Frankish marquis, the ruler of Tyre, and the greatest devil of all the Franks” (and yes, that was a compliment) was liquidated as “a marmoset” and “a popinjay”.
I have always hated Scott, and now finally I have a good, historically sound reason.
From there on, it was the pits – even Harold Lamb cast Conrad as the bad guy in the script for The Crusades, a Cecil B. De Mille 1935 movie in which al-Markis is presented as a scheming weasel in league with John Lackland (who else?)
But maybe the blame can be laid on the two other writers that worked at the script, Waldemar Young and Dudley Nichols.
Oh, and incidentally – in the end the Old Man of the Mountain himself, Rashid ad-Din Sinan, leader of the Hashshashin, came out as the instigator of Conrad’s assassination. But he did so only when Richard was imprisoned by Leopold of Austria, and charged with the murder of Conrad.
The Old Man clearly cared for his clients.