“Give the lie to the Devil”: The Battle of Hattin

By John France

The dead were scattered over the mountains and valleys, lying immobile on their sides … Hattin shrugged off their carcasses, and the perfume of victory was thick with the stench of them. ~ Imad al-Din, an eyewitness to the battle.

On 3-4 July 1187, Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and ruler of Syria and a vast empire extending into Iraq, destroyed the army of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem at Hattin, close to Tiberias in Galilee. He captured King Guy of Jerusalem and personally beheaded Raynald of Chatîllon, lord of Kerak, who had deeply offended Islam by attacking its holy cities in Arabia. Most of the noble and knightly prisoners were subsequently ransomed. Rank-and-file people were enslaved, to such an extent that their price at Damascus collapsed and one is said to have been traded for a pair of shoes. Two days later Saladin ordered that all captured members of the military-religious Orders of the Temple and Hospital should be executed by scholars and ascetics.


Since the cities of the kingdom had been stripped of men to raise the army that had gone down to its defeat, Saladin was soon able to capture the whole kingdom. In accounting for this disaster historians have laid great emphasis on the numeric advantages of Saladin and on the factional divisions within the Latin Kingdom, which must have had some influence. But essentially Hattin, it will be argued here, was the result of faulty military judgement.

Saladin stood as an austere champion of Islam. The Turks and associated peoples who dominated the Islamic states rallied their populations to their cause by proclaiming jihad against the Franks. Saladin’s rise to power coincided with very difficult times in the Latin Kingdom. Baldwin IV (1174-85) was a leper who therefore could never have children. His illness meant that a bailli, or regent, would be needed when he was incapacitated. So the succession would turn on the marriage of his sister Sybil. Her husband died just before her son, Baldwin V, was born. None of the baronage – only about 30 in all – had huge resources, and a bailli could dispense or refuse royal patronage at will. Thus the prospect of regencies extending far into the future was deeply disturbing.


Historians have been impressed by the contrast between tiny Jerusalem and Saladin’s vast empire. But the contrast is too often overstated. Great empire meant many enemies, so that only in exceptional circumstances could force be concentrated. Jerusalem was anchored by fortified cities, but siege would be virtually impossible in the presence of the field army of the kingdom. Moreover, the castles of the countryside could supply the defenders and harass the invader, and European fleets could bring help to the kingdom. The key to any successful attack, therefore, was the destruction of the field army of Jerusalem.

The king and barons of Jerusalem could raise about 1200 armoured knights, of which about 600 were contributed by the fighting monks of the Orders of the Temple and the Hospital. The value of the knights lay in close-quarter fighting when the weight of men and horses and strength of armour mattered. Saladin had hordes of lightly armed Turkish horse-archers who could harass their enemies with archery and kill their horses up to the point where they could charge in to close quarters.

To counter them, the Frankish cavalry formed tight formations screened by archers and footsoldiers who kept the enemy at a range where their arrows were less effective. In a fighting march, their army formed into a column with squadrons of cavalry in the middle surrounded by the infantry. This was not simply defensive – it enabled them to move through the more numerous enemy and to choose their moment to launch the charge. Well timed, this could smash the enemy’s mass decisively. The whole manoeuvre depended on the battle discipline generated in the constant warfare of the kingdom.

In 1177, confident of his power in Egypt and much of Syria, Saladin launched such a massive army into the Latin Kingdom from Egypt that Baldwin IV withdrew into Ascalon. However, Saladin allowed his army to disperse to pillage. On 22 November, Baldwin drew the Ayyubid army into an area of streams and marsh where their tactics of manoeuvre were restricted, and defeated them decisively at the Battle of Montgisard. It was to be the last great success for the Kingdom, which was plunged into a series of internal crises.

Map of the Crusader States, from The Crusades: The Story Of The Latin Kingdom Of Jerusalem (1902)

In 1178-9, Saladin inflicted a series of defeats on Baldwin IV, culminating in the destruction of the newly built castle of Jacob’s Ford that threatened Damascus. The focus of his military efforts was Kerak because the castle dominated the road between Egypt and Syria, and in the hands of the aggressive Raynald of Chatîllon it threatened communications between Egypt and Syria. But he could not sustain a siege because of the arrival of the army of Jerusalem. In 1182 he launched a huge army some 20000 strong across the Jordan, attacking Baisan (Beit She’an), threatening the very heart of the kingdom. The kingdom could muster only 700 mounted men and an unknown number of infantry at Saforie, but they mounted attacks on Saladin based on castles close to Baisan, forcing him to retreat. In February 1183, Baldwin IV levied an extraordinary tax to pay for defence.

In August, Saladin attacked Baisan again with a huge army. The kingdom gathered the largest force yet raised, 1300 cavalry and 15000 infantry, at Saforie. Because the king was ill the bailli commanded, and this was a controversial matter. Guy of Lusignan was a newcomer to the East who had married the widowed Sybil. He had friends; but many, notably the greatest noble of the kingdom, Raymond III of Tripoli, were deeply suspicious of him. Guy’s decision to stay at Saforie permitted the Muslims to disperse their troops safely and do much damage. In response to considerable unrest in the army, Guy undertook a fighting march south to La Fève (modern Afula) and proceeded to encamp at the springs of Ain Jalut and Ain Tuba’un. Saladin tried to provoke the Jerusalemites into a battle, but failed and retreated.

The contrast with the events of 1182, when an aggressive approach had driven Saladin off, was patent. The tide of rancour against Guy was such that Baldwin stripped him of all offices and crowned his five-year-old nephew as Baldwin V. The king made clear that his intent was to bar Sybil from the succession because of her marriage. Provision was made that if the child king did not live, the pope and the kings of England and France were to decide upon the succession. Raymond III was made bailli and promptly made a truce with Saladin.

Marriage of Sybil and Guy – BNF MS Fr. 779

A New King

The death of Baldwin IV in March 1185 was followed by that of Baldwin V in August 1186. Sybil and Guy mounted a coup, supported by Gerard of Ridefort Master of the Temple, the patriarch Joscelin of Courtenay, and Raynald of Chatîllon. Once Guy had actually been consecrated as king, the other barons had little alternative but to accept him. Raymond, however, fled to Tiberias and made a treaty with Saladin, who promised him support. Guy did not attack Raymond, conscious of his support amongst many of the barons. So the deadlock continued.

In late 1186 or early 1187, the crisis deepened. Raynald of Chatîllon, in breach of the truce, seized a rich caravan passing between Cairo and Damascus. Saladin demanded restitution, and Guy, appalled by the likely consequences of this provocation, required Raynald to comply. But Raynald

replied that he would not do so, for he was lord of his land, just as Guy was lord of his, and he had no truces with the Saracens.

And Guy dared not alienate a key supporter by pressing the point. By March 1187 Saladin was massing a great army at Damascus. With war impending, Guy sent a commission of nobles to seek reconciliation with Raymond. In the event the members travelled separately, but by 30 April the Masters of the Temple and the Hospital had reached La Fève (Afula), where they learned that Saladin was sending a raid across Raymond’s land into Galilee. The next day they gathered about 140 knights, Templars in the main, attacked the 7000-strong raiding party at the springs of Cresson, and were massacred, the only survivors being Gerard and two other Templars. Stricken by this, Raymond reconciled with Guy, and arrangements were made for the army of Jerusalem to gather at Saforie.


On 30 June, Saladin, with an army some 30-40000 strong, crossed the Jordan below the Sea of Galilee, but instead of turning south to Baisan he went north and attacked Tiberias, whose small garrison was commanded by Raymond III’s wife. One of his secretaries recorded:

His purpose in besieging Tiberias had only been that the Franks should leave their position so that he could engage them.

So Saladin wanted to draw Guy into a battle on a ground of his own choosing. And Tiberias was 26 almost waterless kilometres away from Saforie. Guy, by great efforts, had raised the biggest army ever fielded by the kingdom – 1200 knights plus light cavalry and infantry, totalling 18000 – but time had gone and the opportunity to strike at Saladin before his army was fully gathered was lost. And on 30 June, Guy and his great men were still debating what to do. It was an angry discussion. Count Raymond urged that the army avoid battle, even if it meant the fall of his own city of Tiberias. Better to allow Saladin to march westwards across waterless terrain where the Jerusalemites could choose the place of battle. But Gerard and Raynald of Chatîllon accused him of bad faith: ‘his counsel was not good and was “mingled with the hair of the wolf”’.

At Saforie the angry debate continued until, on the night of 2 July, the leaders resolved to stand off. But after the meeting had broken up, Gerard of Ridefort persuaded Guy to sally out and seek battle. Gerard had supported Guy’s bid for the throne, and had a case, for many in the army felt that they had an opportunity to destroy Saladin. Moreover, Guy was acutely conscious that in 1183 he had been bitterly criticised for avoiding battle. On the morning of 3 July the army, to its great surprise, was ordered to march towards Tiberias.

Gerard of Ridefort in the centre of the image, as illustrated by Maître de Fauvel in 1337 – BNF MS Fr 22495

“We are dying of thirst”

The sudden decision caught Saladin, at Tiberias, by surprise, and he appeared only as Guy’s army paused at Turan about midday. This movement significantly changed the balance of advantage between the two armies because Guy, having advanced about 12 km, was now only about 14-15 kilometres from Tiberias and only 10 kilometres from Saladin’s main camp at Kafr Sabt. Turan was a strong position with water, and Saladin was unlikely to attack it – which would mean keeping his army on the edge of the Hattin plateau, ready to repel an attack from a rested enemy.

But Guy left Turan, and Saladin later in a letter expressed his relief that although ‘the hawks of the Frankish infantry and the eagles of their cavalry [were] hovering around the water’, happily ‘Satan incited Guy to do what ran counter to his purpose’. For there was no water before Tiberias, except for a minor pool at Maskana on the edge of the plateau, and the Jerusalemite army had already come 12 km in the blazing sun.

They were organized in three boxes. The vanguard was commanded by Raymond of Tripoli. The king, accompanied by the Holy Cross, commanded the central box, while Balian of Ibelin was in charge of the rearguard, which was largely manned by the Templars and Hospitallers. Within each box were about 400 mounted knights, the strike force of the army, and they were surrounded by infantry and archers whose task was to hold off the enemy horse-archers who would try to wound the all-important horses. The road to Tiberias was about ten meters wide, which means that the knights could have advanced along it in a column six wide, so that, allowing three meters for each horse, the heavy cavalry in any one box would have occupied about 200 meters of road.

In addition the army also had a large number of light horse, Turcopoles, who probably kept close to the knights. We know that the army had a substantial amount of baggage because towards the end of the battle they tried to set up tents to block enemy charges. Around this core were the infantry and archers, forming a perimeter at least ten meters outside and all around the knights and the baggage. Each box, therefore, would have extended over some 400 meters or more of road. Since the boxes would have been somewhat separated, the army would have been spread out over 1.5 kilometres of road, rolling like a battering ram towards the enemy. In the heat and dust of this movement, communication between the three commanders would have been enormously difficult.

Saladin sent troops to occupy Turan, and his huge army harassed the Franks as they mounted the long gentle slope to Maskana, but the core of his army was not involved. The threat of their mass on the edge of the plateau meant that the Franks could not risk opening ranks for a charge at their attackers. As they neared this threatening force, Raymond sent to Guy:

We must hurry and pass through this area, so that we and our men may be safe near the water. Otherwise we will be in danger of making camp at a waterless spot.

At first Guy agreed, but then he changed his mind, and the army, severely harassed, encamped at Maskana. They had come only some 4-5 km. The key to the unfolding disaster was lack of water. The army of Jerusalem certainly had a supply train with them, but it was impossible to carry much water because of its weight and that of the necessary containers. Temperatures could have been as high as 90 F / 32 C. Soldiers would have carried a limited amount of water in skins. The most important effect of the heat and lack of water would have been to exhaust the horses, especially the warhorses of the knights and lords who formed their strike-force. A 1000-lb horse needs 45 litres per day and could lose up to 20 litres of water per hour. As they reached Maskana the army was in crisis. A contemporary writer says bluntly:

At this place they were so constrained by enemy attacks and by thirst that they wished to go no further.

The army spent the night surrounded by the enemy, whose infantry infiltrated the rocks along the northern edge of the plateau and lit fires whose smoke increased their thirst. Tired and dispirited, they arose on the morning of 4 July to face the enemy. Saladin held his army back, allowing the rising sun to further weaken his enemy. His anxiety was at all costs to avoid presenting the Franks with an opportunity to launch a concerted charge against the flower of his army, for he knew how dangerous that could be. Still in their marching formation, the Franks drove past the westerly Horn of Hattin, aiming for the gentle gorge between that and the eastern Horn that gave access to the springs of Hattin.

The battle raged ‘between the hours of terce and nones’ (9am to 3pm), when there was a total collapse. The sources present no coherent account of the battle, but a few important events emerge. Close to the foot of the western Horn, the Templars at the rear of the army launched a fierce charge that was driven back and its forces pushed into those of the king’s middle formation. At around the same time, the infantry as a body surrendered to the enemy after refusing orders to support the knights:

We are not coming because we are dying of thirst and we will not fight.

At about this time, in a vivid picture of an army dissolving, Raymond charged towards the gorge:

They saw that there was a multitude of barbarians between themselves and the King, so that they could not get through… They cried out: “Those who can get through may go, since the battle is not going in our favour… A large group of pagans charged on our infantry and pitched them from the top of the steep mountain [the western Horn of Hattin] to whose summit they had previously fled. They destroyed the rest, taking some captive and killing others… Upon seeing this the Count and his men, who had been riding onward, together with Balian of Naples, Reginald of Sidon and other half-castes [polains], turned back. The speed of their horses in this confined space trampled down the Christians and made a kind of bridge, giving the riders a level path. In this manner they got out of that narrow place by fleeing over their own men, over the Turks and over the Cross. Thus it was that they escaped with only their lives.

Count Raymond and a few others escaped. Even this was not the end, for Guy and his men launched a charge directed at the person of Saladin. According to Saladin’s son, al-Afdal:

I was alongside my father during this battle. When the king of the Franks was on the hill with that band, they made a formidable charge against the Muslims facing them, so that they drove them back to my father… I looked towards him and he was overcome with grief and his complexion pale. He took hold of his beard and advanced, crying out ‘Give the lie to the Devil’. The Muslims rallied, returned to the fight and climbed the hill… But the Franks rallied and charged again like the first time and drove the Muslims back to my father. He acted as he had on the first occasion and the Muslims turned upon the Franks and drove them back to the hill.

Guy made a desperate attempt to set up a camp on the western Horn of Hattin, but he and his men were exhausted and overrun.

The complete loss of the army and the capture of King Guy left the kingdom of Jerusalem defenceless and its cities almost all surrendered, Saladin entering Jerusalem on 9 October 1187.


Why had this happened? Saladin certainly had a huge army, and he had created a large and loyal core of heavily armed troops who could fight the western knights. He could count on the support of seasoned and competent subordinates to lead his divisions. When the Christian army advanced, he had enough troops to harass them and to hold back the core of his army so that a mass charge could find no decisive target. This was excellent tactical judgement.

The great unknown is what Guy intended on the morning of 3 July. Tiberias was 26 kilometres away, and no Frankish army had marched that far through enemy forces: about 15-17 kilometres was as far as any had managed. To attempt 26 kilometres when enormously outnumbered seems madness, so presumably he counted on a confrontation with Saladin before that. The Muslims thought he was going to attack their camp and drive them down into the Jordan Valley, but this was never attempted. Guy certainly needed victory to unite the kingdom and he must have been conscious of the criticism of his cautious stand in 1183. And the idea of attacking Saladin had much support in the army. Saladin was caught off guard and appeared only after the Franks had marched 12 kilometres to Turan.

The failure of the enemy to offer real resistance up to that point perhaps suggested to Guy that they were ready, as so often before, to retire having caused destruction and taken booty. Saladin rightly saw the departure from the last water at Turan as the key factor in the battle. The political divisions of the Franks mattered little up to this point, for once the army was on the march all that mattered was victory. But once things started to go wrong, the divisions amongst the barons would have reappeared and helped to shatter morale.

And yet, great as this victory was, it was indecisive. Saladin could not strike at Europe, and he lacked even the strength to take Tyre, Tripoli, and Antioch. By the time of Hattin the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem had lasted 88 years, but it would stand another 104 until the final collapse in 1291.

John France is Professor Emeritus of Swansea University and has been a Visiting Professor at West Point. His latest book is Medieval France at War: A Military History of the French Monarchy, 885-1305.