The Forgotten Crusaders

By Steve Tibble

In the aftermath of the successful First Crusade, a new strategy was formulated on how to keep the Near East under Frankish control. The Siege of Caesarea was one of the first steps.

Early in the morning of 17 May 1101, Christian assault teams with scaling ladders rushed towards the walls of the ancient coastal city of Caesarea. They were keen to see the job done quickly, and their leaders were prepared to lead from the front. Once they had got to the walls, a knight, armed ‘with just his breastplate and helmet and sword, and with many following him, climbed the ladder right up to the top’.


Storming the walls showed the inherent dangers of leading from the front, however, as well as the fragility of hastily prepared equipment in the heat of battle. The knight got to the top of the wall first and, for a moment, was there alone. Just then, as more men rushed onto the ladder to help him, it shattered under their weight. He was isolated in an enemy-held city, with only seconds left to live.

Luckily for the knight, several other assault squads, on other parts of the wall, made it to the top at almost the same time – outflanked, the Egyptian defenders decided to pull back to their inner line of defences. He made his way along the wall to the next tower. In an episode too odd not to be true, and strangely reminiscent of an unnerving scene at the end of Saving Private Ryan, he found himself in a fistfight on the stairs. A ‘Saracen who was coming down the tower flung himself on top of him. He gripped [him] powerfully with his arms, and the [knight] held him. As they came tumbling down, the Saracen said: “Let go of me, and it will be for your own good, as you will be able to get up the tower faster and safer” .’


They decided to call it a draw and ran off in different directions.

Band of Brothers

With this bizarre encounter behind him, the knight was able to turn his attention to getting more of his men into the town as quickly as possible. The Christian troops on the walls were still greatly outnumbered, and vulnerable to counter-attack if the defenders had a chance to regroup: they needed to keep up the momentum. Accordingly, when the knight ‘was at the top of the tower, he gave a signal with his sword . . . [and] at that they all climbed over the wall together, and pursued and killed many of the Saracens who were fleeing to the intermediate wall.’

As so often in the crusades, however, all was not what it seemed. The storming parties consisted entirely of Italian sailors and marines, rather than Franks. The knight leading the charge was the Genoese consul Guglielmo ‘Testadimaglio’ (‘Hammerhead’) Embriaco, and the siege was largely driven by Italian know-how and matériel. He was known as ‘Hammerhead’, not because he was a good man to have by your side in a bar brawl (though his performance suggests that this was indeed the case), but rather because he had been in charge of much of the timber work in building the siege engines at Jerusalem in 1099.

Guglielmo Embriaco Testadimaglio depicted with the Sacro Catino in his hand on the main façade of Palazzo San Giorgio , in Genoa – Wikimedia Commons

Caesarea was a siege with an Italian fleet providing the blockade, using Italian timber for siege engines built by Italian carpenters, and firing artillery manned by Italian crews in support of teams of Italian soldiers.

Even the wrestling match with the ‘Saracen’ on the staircase was subtly counterintuitive: most of the ‘Muslim’ garrison were Christians, either Nubian or Armenian mercenaries. The cultural gap between ‘Hammerhead’ and his ‘Saracen’ opponent was perhaps not as wide as one might suppose, and may partially explain how pragmatism helped trump fanaticism on both sides at that adrenalin-filled moment. The Franks have a reputation for siege warfare, and capturing the Muslim coastal cities was vital, but it was never a straightforward process.


The Coastal Strategy

In the immediate aftermath of the First Crusade, it quickly became apparent that without a constant flow of reinforcements and money, the isolated new Christian states would quickly be wiped out.

So the crusaders developed an urgent ‘coastal strategy’ – a focused attempt to capture all the Muslim cities along the coast and protect the lines of communication back to Europe. This was fine in theory, but if the crusaders were to survive in the East, they also needed to be able to roll out this strategy in practice. For embryonic states, with no fleets of their own and only tiny armies, this would never be easy.

The ruins of Caesarea – photo by Idomeir / Wikimedia Commons

The key to the coastal strategy was the crusaders’ ability to conduct a series of successful sieges against some extraordinarily well-protected cities. The coastal ports of Palestine and Syria were rich, populous and highly fortified. They usually had naval support in their fight against the Franks, either from the Fatimid regime in Egypt or, in the case of the Byzantine ports of northern Syria, from the imperial fleet operating out of Cyprus. And in addition to their own garrisons and urban militia, they also had occasional access to military help from the Muslim armies of Egypt and Syria.


Naval Power and the Defence of the Holy Land

Under these daunting conditions, it was not entirely impossible to capture a coastal city without a fleet, but it was far easier if you did. In the absence of suitable naval resources, sieges became protracted slogging matches, the medieval equivalent of trench warfare, at a time when the crusader states were at their most vulnerable and outnumbered.

Frankish armies adapted as best they could and became skilled at using their numerically small but heavily armoured shock troops to assault enemy fortifications. They used rams and siege artillery, but placed a special emphasis on the intimidating siege towers which could deliver their knights to the enemy’s battlements.

Perhaps even more important, however, was their dependence on allies from Western Europe to provide the naval resources needed to overcome their Fatimid (and occasionally their Byzantine) opponents. These naval assets were able to create a blockade by sea, and also (something which is far less widely recognised) to provide essential timber and siege engineers. The crusaders could bring good quality manpower to a siege, albeit in limited numbers, but they needed the mundane expertise of naval craftsmen and matériel far more than their chronicles would have us believe.

Siege of Tyre depicted in Bibliothèque Nationale France MS Fr 2630

Was it a ‘Strategy’?

With the fall of Tyre in 1124, the ‘coastal strategy’ of which the capture of Caesarea was a part, came to a natural conclusion. The strategy had been successful, as the crusaders capitalised on Muslim disunity to establish control of a series of highly defensible fortified cities on the coastline of the Eastern Mediterranean. By doing so they were able to build a vital bridgehead into the Middle East and maintain the all-important links back to Europe.


It was indeed a ‘strategy’ in many technical senses of the term. It had a clear focus on a series of tightly defined objectives. It marshalled scarce resources in pursuit of those goals. And it involved a series of ‘campaigns’ that were played out over a period of many years in some cases, transcending the ideas or impetus of individual princes or popes.

Great Expectations

That very success masked far more fundamental problems, however, and created a false sense of capabilities. The coastal cities could be taken with very limited manpower, because of the presence of European fleets in the Eastern Mediterranean (with all the logistical advantages they brought with them); because of crippling disunity in the Islamic world; and because the Muslim ports were surrounded by the new Frankish conquerors.

It remained to be seen whether the Muslim population centres of the hinterland, where the Franks were far from Italian support and were themselves surrounded, would succumb so easily.

Dr Steve Tibble is a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge and London University. He is a leading authority on warfare and violence in the crusading era.

His recent book The Crusader Strategy (Yale 2020) was received to critical acclaim and short-listed for the Duke of Wellington’s Military History Award.

Steve is the author of  Templars: The Knights Who Made Britain (Yale, 2023) and The Crusader Armies, Yale 2018. He is a contributor to ‘The Cambridge History of the Crusades’ and ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades’, both forthcoming in 2024. You can learn more about Steve on his personal website, or follow him on X/Twitter or Instagram.