How to defeat Crusader Knights

By Nicholas Morton

Despite their strength, Crusader knights in the Medieval Middle East had vulnerabilities that could result in their defeat in battle.

Crusader Knights receive a strong write-up from military historians and other commentators who frequently expend considerable ink discussing their battle-winning abilities. Some have compared these armoured warriors’ impact to twentieth-century battle tanks; occasionally I’ve even heard them described as a kind of superweapon, reflecting a new level of technological advancement which their opponents lacked.


Many of these notions can be dispelled very quickly. There was nothing especially remarkable about crusader knights’ weapons and equipment. Like many of their opponents, they generally wore a chainmail hauberk and a chainmail coif over layers of padding and leather armour. Their typical weapons were a lance, shield and sword, later also a mace (an additional armament seemingly inspired by Turkish cavalry). They rode sturdy horses, but these horses were generally unarmoured. The first references to horse armour only really occur in sources from the late twelfth century onwards whilst, even in the thirteenth century, armoured horses in the Crusader States (the territories first established during the First Crusade and in its immediate aftermath) were still unusual enough to attract special comment.

By contrast many other Middle Eastern societies, including the Fatimid Empire in Egypt, the Byzantine Empire, and possibly the Seljuk Turks, deployed cavalrymen riding armoured mounts long before the crusaders. For this reason, crusader cavalry was not ‘heavier’ than opposing cavalry and their knights possessed no real technological advantage.


The reason that crusader knights proved so effective on the battlefield depended far more on their training and tactics. Many of their most notable victories took place when they charged at first light directly into an opponent’s encampment, routing them before they had a chance to deploy for battle. These charges frequently took place following a night march, which enabled them to catch their adversary off guard. In such scenarios it was the element of surprise, coupled with their speed and striking power, that enabled them to overcome opposing armies, even when substantially outnumbered. This stratagem won many battles from the late eleventh century through to the late thirteenth.

In more ‘set piece’ battles, with both armies fully deployed, crusader knights tended to perform best when working in concert with blocks of infantry armed with shields, spears and crossbows. These units provided an outer carapace protecting Crusader or Frankish knights from arrows and javelins (“Frankish” refers to people originally from Western Christendom who settled in the Middle East but who had not necessarily taken a crusading vow).

Defeating Crusader/Frankish knights was difficult, but they did have several exploitable weaknesses. The Franks’ most common adversaries during the period from 1097-1291 were Turkish commanders linked either to the Seljuk Sultanate or its successor dynasties, or in the late thirteenth century to the Mamluk sultanate. In addition, Saladin’s family (a Kurdish dynasty known as the “Ayyubids”) famously fought many wars against the Franks, again relying heavily on Turkish troops in their armies. All these commanders depended for the most part on light cavalry archers and so the challenge facing these leaders was to use these troops to unlock the Franks’ weaknesses. This article will explore some of the stratagems they developed for this purpose.

The main priority was naturally to address the substantial threat posed by the Franks’ formidable charge. Some of the most important countermeasures used by these generals were fairly straightforward, perhaps most significantly to fortify field encampments or to site them on terrain unsuited for Frankish knights. This would prevent the crusader cavalry from staging a surprise dawn assault.


Another approach, appearing in sources from many different cultures, was to instruct archers to ignore the Frankish riders and to concentrate their attention instead on shooting down their horses.  As one thirteenth-century author, commonly known as the “Templar of Tyre” noted, a dismounted Frankish knight was extremely vulnerable, so his unarmoured mount was an obvious target. As mentioned above, Frankish commanders did attempt to address this issue by surrounding their knights with defensive infantry, yet when their cavalry broke into the open they immediately became susceptible to archers.

Other Turkish and Ayyubid commanders used ‘feigned flight’ tactics, hoping: first to provoke a Frankish charge at a time of their choosing, then second to withdraw before it and lead the oncoming knights into a trap. Turkish forces led by Ilghazi of Mardin used this strategy to great effect at the battle of the Field of Blood in 1119. Likewise, Saladin played an instrumental role in implementing this kind of strategy in one of his earliest military encounters. On this occasion, in April 1167, he was part of an army commanded by his uncle Shirkuh, who was seeking to conquer Egypt from the Fatimid Empire, which in turn was supported by the Kingdom of Jerusalem (the most powerful of the Crusader States). The encounter took place in the desert to the south of Cairo and Shirkuh ordered that when the Franks charged Saladin’s contingent at his army’s centre, he should offer limited resistance and then fall back, leading the Frankish cavalry into a pursuit. This then gave Shirkuh sufficient time to destroy the remainder of the Frankish-Fatimid army.

On some occasions, the local terrain could also be used against the Franks. On one occasion in 1122 the Turkish commander Balak confronted a group of Frankish knights from the county of Edessa (the northernmost of the Crusader States) across an area of marshy ground. Then, when the knights charged across the intervening terrain, many of them sank in the mud and became immobilised.


Many of the above techniques depended on the avoidance of hand-to-hand combat (the Franks’ traditional strength) and the skilful exploitation of archery and mobility (the Turks’ traditional strengths), yet other approaches could also prove effective. Over time, many Turkish and Ayyubid leaders developed large formations of their own heavy cavalry, established seemingly with the ambition of meeting the Franks on equal terms. Likewise, the Franks made similar adaptations, recruiting large numbers of ‘Turcopole’ light cavalry so as to mitigate the Turks’ advantages.

Saladin in particular recruited increasing numbers of heavily armoured troops in the 1170s and 1180s and these may well have played a critical role in his most famous victory at the Battle of Hattin in July 1187. This was a complex encounter spread over two days and including many different phases and tactical scenarios. Nevertheless, in essence it consisted of a large Frankish army seeking to lift Saladin’s siege against the town of Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. A major challenge for the Frankish army in this endeavour was the lack of water sources in the 26 kilometres separating their initial encampment at a place called Safurriya and their objective - Tiberias.

The most critical point in the battle took place in the morning of the second day (4 July) when a dehydrated Frankish army sought to complete its advance on Tiberias and thereby both lift the siege and reach the Sea of Galilee (and therefore freshwater). Crucially at this point, Saladin moved his forces to block the Frankish advance, an endeavour that required him to meet the oncoming Frankish forces head-on and presumably in close combat. Remarkably, surviving accounts of the battle provide few details on this vital phase yet Saladin’s subsequent success in barring the Franks’ road implies the presence of large numbers of elite troops capable of meeting Frankish knights hand-to-hand. This in turn raises the suggestion that Saladin had adapted successfully, thereby diminishing the Franks’ combat effectiveness.

Much of this article hinges on the word ‘adaptation’; it is no secret that the outcome of war often depends on rival commanders’ abilities to adjust their warcraft so as to enhance their own strengths, whilst exploiting their opponents’ weakspots. During the period from the First Crusade to the fall of the Crusader States in 1291, every society engaged in the various conflicts fought over the Middle East (of which the Crusades were merely one among many) adapted their practices.


Examples abound: in Iraq in 1108 an Arab commander called Sadaqa confronted Turkish cavalry hoping that high winds would render his opponents’ archery ineffective. Frankish commanders often preferred fighting at night when archery was more difficult. Several writers observed that Turkish bowstrings tended to suffer badly in heavy rain; a useful piece of information for opposing commanders.

During the thirteenth century, Mongol leaders engaged in the conquest of the Middle East made a point of picking up new tactics and technologies from their defeated foes. Castle designers adjusted their designs to counter siegecraft of their anticipated opponents. Eventually the arrival of gunpowder made its own contribution to these ongoing attempts by generals from many cultures to achieve the upper hand. At the end of the day, the most important consideration was also the simplest – who could adapt first?

Nicholas Morton is an Associate Professor of History at Nottingham Trent University in the UK. He is the author or editor of several books covering different aspects of Medieval Near Eastern history, including The Mongol Storm: Making and Breaking Empires in the Medieval Near East.

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Nicholas' online course, Mongol Invasion: Mamluks, Crusaders, and Mongols and the Struggle for the Middle East (1218- 1323), begins April 18th. Click here to sign up

Top Image: Crusaders in battle - British Library Yates Thompson 12 fol.132