True Crusader Crime: What Bloody Man is That? Murder, Government and Power

By Steve Tibble

Violence in the crusading period was endemic – and even at the top of society, tragic accidents were suspiciously commonplace.

This violence could sometimes emerge as a bloodthirsty form of conflict resolution – ironically, a brutal but effective way of changing government whilst minimising further bloodshed. Sometimes it could be a way of attempting to gain popularity – as with the murder of Thomas Becket, killing the enemy of someone important might, in theory at least, be ingratiating enough to generate a reward. Or, more likely, it could just be an action taken with an eye for the main chance – regime change at its most raw.


Modern statesmen live in the expectation of a metaphorical knife in the back from their political enemies or, perhaps to an even greater extent, from their friends. In the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, however, the knives were far less metaphorical.

Miles of Plancy, for instance, a rich and powerful nobleman, was not popular with his peers. He had personal qualities that many found unattractive. He could be rude. He could be arrogant. But his main failing, in the eyes of his peers at least, was that he was far too successful.


Miles was a relative newcomer in the Latin East, an unwelcome arriviste in the most literal sense of the word. He had left France in 1169 and quickly gained the trust of the notoriously difficult King Amalric. This in itself was enough for the old-established Frankish ruling classes to close ranks and treat him with suspicion.

But worse was to come. Amalric made Miles seneschal of the entire kingdom, giving him many castles and control of much of the royal finances. Critically for the famously litigious local barons, this also made him, after the king himself, the chief judicial officer of the land.

As well as power, Miles was also given riches. Amalric allowed him to marry the daughter of the baron Philip of Nablus, and through her he became lord of the Transjordan – the all-too-proud possessor of some of the strongest castles in the Middle East, with a substantial private income derived from the tolls taken from passing caravans. Miles had quickly accumulated power, lands, castles and a rich widow – all of which, the local nobility felt, were rightfully theirs.

King Amalric and his entourage riding – BnF MS Français 2630 f.185

Miles’ behaviour did not make things easier. Far from placating his rivals, he flaunted his success. According to William of Tyre, who knew him and all the main players in this story, Miles was ‘far from discreet, a proud and even arrogant man, lavish of high-sounding phrases and filled with the spirit of excessive presumption’.


Successful or not, being pompous and arrogant is never a popular combination.

Matters came to a head in 1174. On 11 July King Amalric, a wily operator who was still in his thirties and described even by his Muslim enemies as ‘bravest of their kings, the most outstanding for policy, cunning and intrigue’, died unexpectedly. The kingdom was thrown into turmoil. Amalric had only kept the faction-fighting in check by his authority – and by the force of his irritable and dour personality. On his death things quickly began to unravel.

Miles stepped in as regent to take over the running of the country, but his appointment was unwelcome to the older families. Within weeks, opposition to Miles was coalescing. Rumours circulated that the new regent was going to be assassinated – and ‘matters came to such a pass that certain men were secretly incited to plot against his life’. Perhaps gossip about the plots was deliberately leaked to intimidate Miles and persuade him to back off. If so, it did not have the desired effect.

Death of Amalric – BnF MS Francais 9084 f.290v

Miles knew that conspiracies were in train. But instead of taking a more conciliatory stance, ‘he made light of it’. Events moved far more quickly than he imagined, however. One day ‘while staying at the city of Acre, he was stabbed on the public street just at dusk and died after suffering ignominious and shameful treatment’.


The plot was ruthlessly carried out, probably with some degree of inside knowledge – Miles seems to have been attacked when his guards and attendants were elsewhere, and the murderer was never caught. The murder was well planned and timed to take place in a port during the autumn sailing season to the west – the assassin could have been on a ship back to France or Italy within the hour. According to William of Tyre, ‘some said that he had been murdered because of the devoted loyalty which he had showed towards the king. Others, on the contrary, claimed that he was secretly taking steps to seize the royal power. It was said that he had sent messengers to his friends…in France…It is well known that Balian of Jaffa [one of his supporters] had been sent to the lands across the sea with royal dispatches and that his return was daily awaited’.

But by the time Balian got back, the dispatches were academic – his master, a man with many enemies and a disinclination to compromise, had been disposed of. The rough political landscape of the time had already moved on.

A Secret Attack

Such disputes, and their bloody forms of resolution, started early in the history of the Latin East – and, given the continual jockeying for power that was played out amongst the highly competitive knightly classes, it is perhaps not surprising that this was so.

In the summer of 1109 the siege of Tripoli, the last remaining Muslim-held city on the coast of what we now call Lebanon (but which the crusaders called the county of Tripoli), was grinding to a close. After seven long years of fighting, which had been hugely debilitating for both sides, the Muslim defences were beginning to crack. By June the Franks were sufficiently confident of their forthcoming success to begin bickering about how the spoils were to be divided.


The county had been established by Raymond, Count of Toulouse, shortly after the end of the First Crusade. Annoyingly, particularly for Raymond, he died in 1105, before the putative capital city of his new lands could be captured.

Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles in Tripoli, Lebanon – photo by Peripitus / Wikimedia Commons

Two of his sons (half-brothers) argued bitterly over their inheritance. One of them, William-Jordan, count of Cerdagne, lived in the east and had been working hard to secure the new county, fighting both in the siege and on the inland frontiers. He felt that he had earned possession of the county the hard way.

His half-brother Bertrand, who had inherited Raymond’s French lands, had other ideas. He raised an army of some 4,000 troops, supplemented by sailors and marines, and a navy of 40 galleys. He and his army sailed from the Toulousain port of Saint-Gilles, and joined up with a Genoese fleet of another 80 galleys and several thousand more troops. In March 1109 he arrived in the crusader port of Tortosa. This was a formidable force by the standards of the time. Bertrand’s ships dominated the eastern Mediterranean, temporarily at least, and his army far outnumbered William-Jordan’s exhausted feudal veterans. Backed up by this level of military muscle, Bertrand felt that he was well-positioned to take over his father’s eastern inheritance.

Relations between the two brothers deteriorated quickly. Eventually, in order to stop open fighting breaking out between the two factions, a Council of the leaders of the Latin states was convened outside Tripoli in June 1109.

Practical considerations ensured that Bertrand emerged as the winner. After lengthy negotiations between all four of the crusader states, the Council decided that he should be given the lion’s share of the county. There was little room for sentimentality in the beleaguered Latin East – military resources for the future counted for more than hard work and heroic efforts in the past. A disgruntled William-Jordan had to be content with the two fiefs of Tortosa and Arqa, north of Tripoli.

The dispute was ostensibly over but it had failed to fully satisfy anyone. Resolution of the issue had merely been delayed. William-Jordan felt short-changed, as he had been given only the rump of the land, despite his tenacious military efforts. And Bertrand was clearly not happy to have a hostile half-brother occupying two of his most important ports and potentially causing trouble in the future.

In the event, it seems likely (though impossible to prove conclusively) that Bertrand took matters into his own hands. When the Council was over, and once William-Jordan was away from the prying eyes of a busy siege camp, a suspiciously violent dispute arose between him and some of Bertrand’s men. The details are not entirely clear, and the whole affair was, probably not coincidentally, mysterious.


Tripoli and the Syrian coast depicted in a manuscript from the 16th century – BnF MS Francais 2794 f.52

The Genoese had a lot at stake in the dispute, both as supporters of Bertrand and as suppliers of his naval contingent. Even more importantly from their perspective, Genoa was a maritime city-state which was eager to increase its commercial presence on the coast of Palestine and Syria. Their historian, Caffaro, who one would expect to have been relatively well-informed, later wrote that William-Jordan had been killed by Bertrand’s men, in a dispute that was, ostensibly at least, about forage.

William-Jordan, he wrote, owned most of the agricultural land around the nearby castle of Pilgrim’s Mount. ‘One day’, wrote Caffaro, ‘very early in the morning, Bertrand’s squires were among William-Jordan’s crops. Instantly William mounted his horse to ride among against the squires; one of them drew an arrow and shot him through the throat, and he laid dead on the cultivated plain’.

This looks very much like a premeditated provocation – and, if so, it was one which produced the desired results.

The chronicler Albert of Aachen, reporting the views of crusaders returning to Germany, broadly agreed with this account. He wrote that ‘after a brief space of time, William of Cerdagne, on account of a vile injury and dispute which annoyed his squire, was shot through the heart by him with an arrow in a secret attack and died’.

Even the contemporary Damascene historian, Ibn al-Qalanisi, was surprisingly well informed about the incident. He wrote that ‘[William-Jordan] de Cerdagne returned to ‘Arqa, and finding a certain Frank in the fields there, he desired to strike him, but the Frank struck him and killed him’.

The contemporary Frankish historian, Fulcher of Chartres, who may well have attended the Council of Tripoli in person, was rather more coy. He wrote merely that the attack took place after dark, and that ‘by some mischance which I do not understand William-Jordan was killed. He was shot from ambush by a small arrow while riding one night’. Everyone, wrote Fulcher, ‘asked who had done it, but they were not able to find out’.

William of Tyre, writing much later in the twelfth century, summarised the debate – he also added his own thoughtful and worldly slant to the affair. He conjectured about the killing, and expressed what many must have suspected at the time. ‘A quarrel chanced to spring up from some trivial cause between the squires of the two families’, he wrote. ‘William-Jordan immediately mounted his horse and rode swiftly thither in the hope of settling it but he was struck by a chance arrow, from the effects of which he died. Some claimed that Count William perished by the crafty machinations of Bertrand, but even to the present day the author of the fatal wound is not definitely known’.

In a possibly ironic aside, William finished his comments by noting that ‘his rival and competitor for the possession of Tripoli having been removed in this way, Bertrand was left in sole command of the campaign’.

As with the murder of Miles of Plancy, the circumstances of the attack were suspiciously convenient. The incident took place out of sight of the assembled Frankish dignitaries and their armies. It was clearly started by Bertrand’s men though it was, of course, hard to prove his involvement. And, as it was away from Muslim-held lands, William-Jordan would not have been wearing any armour – hence his vulnerability to an arrow or crossbow bolt in the throat.

Whether Bertrand’s squires had been instructed to provoke a fracas, and to use it as a pretext to launch a personal attack upon William-Jordan, was never discovered – but the strong suspicion, then and now, was that that had indeed been the case. This was rough justice – a bitter family dispute being resolved by violence.

But, once it was a fait accompli, everybody was inclined to just carry on as normal.

Crusading politics could be rough.

Dr Steve Tibble is a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge and London University. He is an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Steve is a leading authority on warfare and violence in the crusading era.

His history of ‘Templars  The Knights of Britain’ (Yale) is due out in 2023, and his two most recent books (‘The Crusader Armies’, Yale 2018, and ‘The Crusader Strategy’, Yale 2020) were received to critical acclaim. The latter was short-listed for the Duke of Wellington’s military history award, 2021.

He is a contributor to ‘The Cambridge History of the Crusades’ and ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades’, both forthcoming in 2023.

Further Reading:

Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095–1127, tr. F. Ryan, ed. H. Fink, Knoxville, 1969.

Lewis, K.J., The Counts of Tripoli and Lebanon in the Twelfth Century: Sons of Saint-Gilles, London, 2017.

William of Tyre, A History of Deeds done beyond the Sea, tr. E.A. Babcock and A.C. Krey, 2 vols, Records of Civilization, Sources and Studies 35, New York, 1943, vol II pp. 401-2.

More True Crusader Crime:

Murder in an Age of Crusading – A Surfeit of Blood?

The Mysterious ‘Lord S’

The Murder of the Bishop of Acre

Murdering Monks

Murder Below Stairs