The Murder of the Bishop of Acre in 1172

By Steve Tibble

It was early in the afternoon, but the shutters and hangings had been tightly drawn to keep the harshness of the Anatolian sun at bay. The murderer moved quietly across the darkened room. An older man lay stretched out on the bed in front of him, coverlet pulled back off his pale legs because of the suffocating heat. His heavy breathing indicated that he was deeply asleep, immersed in whatever images and memories possessed him that day – rehearsing, repeating and reimagining vivid highlights of his experience. His vulnerability was complete.

The heavy torpor of the room was suddenly pierced by the flash of sharpened metal, raised above the head of his assassin. The blade was brought down, its shocking parabola penetrating the quiet, the bedclothes, and the helpless flesh beneath. Time in the room stood still for the briefest of moments.


Then the sword swept down for a second blow, and then a third, and the animal screams of the wounded victim broke the silence with an appalling finality. Retainers burst through the doorway, one carrying a dagger and the other a cudgel. They threw themselves upon the assailant, beating his strangely passive and unresponsive body to the ground. Within a matter of a few seconds, the raw violence of the incident was over.

But the consequences reverberated throughout the crusader states. The murderer was no Assassin, not even an armed robber. He was a Frankish priest. And his victim was the Bishop of Acre, a diplomat and one of the senior prelates of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. This was a murder which was close to home, and inexplicable in its brutality.


Murder with an obvious motive – such as theft or jealousy – was relatively commonplace in the crusader period. And it was certainly explicable. The murder of the bishop of Acre, however, which took place on the night of 29 June 1172, was something altogether more disturbing. This was an era before psychiatry, and a society in which the will of God was the default explanation for difficult areas of judgement.

A random killing was very hard to comprehend.

The Diplomat

Not surprisingly, there are no surviving eyewitness accounts of what happened. Luckily, however, the chronicler William of Tyre, himself a local archbishop, investigated the incident and wrote a relatively detailed account of what had happened. Given the social standing of the individuals concerned, William probably knew all the parties involved – he also had an opportunity to interview those who were present at the scene of the crime.

The story William uncovered was unusual, but also strangely modern.

The early 1170s were a time of frenetic diplomatic activity in the Latin East. The Crusader States needed an alliance with Byzantium. A charm offensive was unleashed to make it happen. The ensuing campaign of shuttle diplomacy reached a climax at the beginning of 1171.

The most immediate source of potential help was felt to be Byzantium, ‘as the emperor was much nearer to us and was besides far richer than the others, and he could more easily furnish the desired aid’. The leadership of this delegation was crucial – the fate of the entire Latin East might depend on it.

The coronation of King Amalric in a 15th-century manuscript – British Library Royal 15 E I fol. 330v

Much to the horror of the royal court, who were all too aware of the dangers involved in international travel, King Amalric declared ‘that a mission of such importance could be undertaken by no one but himself and added that he was prepared to undergo all perils and hardships to relieve the desperate necessity of the kingdom. The great nobles of the realm were almost overcome by this proposal and protested that the task was too arduous’. Amalric was not to be dissuaded, however.

What passed for the Frankish ‘diplomatic corps’ (far too grand a phrase for the rudimentary bureaucracies of these fledgling states) was put into motion. But who were the diplomats? The Frankish nobility were hardened soldiers who could relate well to their equivalents in other parts of Christendom. These men were the obvious choice. But they were often also barely literate, and on permanent military duty, thinly spread along the borders of the crusader settlements. They could not easily be taken out of the front line, or at least not in the numbers required by such an intensive diplomatic offensive.

Instead, much of the burden of conducting King Amalric’s diplomacy fell instead on the shoulders of the bishops and other clerics of the kingdom – men who were educated, articulate and trustworthy. William, Bishop of Acre, was one of these trusted, chosen men, and he and his retinue accompanied the king on his mission to Constantinople.


But the task was no sinecure. It was a world away from the pampered modern norms of statesmanship, with conferences punctuated by champagne receptions in luxury hotels. This was a time when travel was slow and dangerous. Communications were painstaking and primitive. Some men could cope with these rigours. Others could not. There were casualties, both physically and mentally.

Amalric and his delegation, clearly supplicants but proud men and keen to impress, set out for Constantinople on 10 March 1172. Following the age-old principle that banks are more likely to lend to people who do not need to borrow, they were keen to show that they had strength – they were accompanied by an armed escort of ten galleys. But even this was largely for show. As Jerusalem did not have the luxury of a standing navy these ships were probably leased for the journey, cobbled together as best they could for the occasion – an attempt to make an impoverished monarchy and a beleaguered kingdom look like an attractive, going concern.

Amalric eventually arrived safely at his destination. The trip had not been easy. William of Tyre, a man who was himself no stranger to the perils of the sea, wrote that it had only been possible ‘because the favour of the Lord was with him’. Somewhere on these same ships, tired, frightened and seasick, was William, bishop of Acre, and his retinue.

King Amalric and his entourage arrive in Constantinople – British Library Royal 15 E I fol. 368v

The mission was a great success. Amalric and Emperor Manuel got on well. The Franks, who knew that their very survival was at stake, were prepared to offer their fealty to Manuel. The Byzantines were, for their part, gracious and supportive. They seem to have agreed to renew their joint commitment to capture Egypt and to help the Frankish Holy Land by taking the fight to the enemy.


Amalric and his delegation left Constantinople in the early summer and reached the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem on 15 June 1171. The men got off their ships as soon as possible, disembarking at the kingdom’s northern port of Sidon, rather than sailing on down to Acre. They were relieved to be able to put their feet on firm soil once more.

But the journey was not over for everyone. At some point during the discussions with Emperor Manuel, Bishop William had been sent abroad with yet another delegation, this time to Italy.

William’s new mission took many months. It was presumably a success, as it was arranged that instead of heading straight back to the crusader states, he would return by way of Constantinople in order to give Emperor Manuel a first-hand progress report. Accordingly, he headed back to the east the following year, journeying through the ‘European’ lands of Byzantium. At the end of June 1172, William and his party reached the city of Adrianople, near Turkey’s modern-day border with Bulgaria, and stopped for a well-earned break.

The entire group were shattered after their travels, ending an exhausting year which had been punctuated by frustration and danger. Everyone was in need of rest. But for one of the men it was already too late.

‘Not responsible for his wicked act’

Brother Robert, one of the bishop’s party, had fallen sick. He had become over-stressed during their long journeys. As his companion was afflicted with such crippling anxiety, the bishop had been loath to leave him behind. The relationship between the two men was a close and affectionate one. We are told that Robert was ‘one whom he himself had raised to the priesthood and received among his personal retinue’. But Robert had not coped well with the rigours of their mission. By the time they arrived at Adrianople, ‘he was recovering from a long illness during which he had suffered greatly.’

The group breathed a collective sigh of relief as they settled in at their lodgings. William took the chance to relax and, ‘much fatigued by his long journey, the bishop partook of food at the noon hour, and then lay down to rest his weary limbs.’ With the worst of their journey over, at least in the short-term, everyone must have hoped that brother Robert would make a quick recovery.

It was not to be. Robert was ostensibly unconscious in the darkened room which he shared with the bishop that afternoon but seems to have been seized by what today we might call a psychotic episode. As William drifted off to sleep, Robert became deeply disturbed and ‘suddenly a madness came upon him; he seized his sword and stabbed the sleeping bishop, inflicting fatal wounds.’

Help was quickly at hand. But the damage had been done in a few seconds – ‘the bishop’s people outside heard his cries and recognised by his groans and outcries that their master was in the throes of death. When the door was finally broken down by force, they found their lord almost lifeless although his heart was still faintly beating’.

Bishop William was clearly dying. Impressive to the end, he was extraordinarily charitable and measured in his response to his attacker. His retainers wanted ‘to seize the murderer and deliver him over in chains to the punishment due to him according to the laws against homicide. But the bishop forbade them and most earnestly implored them that for the good of his soul full indulgence should be granted the murderer’.

William died having ensured that his deeply disturbed friend did not suffer any more torments than his illness was already inflicting on him – as he passed away the bishop ‘was still begging that the present deed should not be held against the young man’.

The murder was shocking and puzzling in equal measure. ‘As yet we have been unable to determine the reason for this deed’, wrote William of Tyre in his rather plaintive summary of an event which clearly saddened him. ‘It is said by some,’ William opined after much consideration, ‘that Robert…had been suffering from a long illness; that, although convalescent, he was attacked by a sudden violent frenzy and therefore was not responsible for his wicked act’.

Despite the vagaries of medieval justice, it is heartening to see that ‘diminished responsibility’ was a legitimate and recognised defence, even in the twelfth century.

And that the victim of such butchery might have the good grace and nobility to forgive his attacker.

Want to learn more about crime during the Crusades? Check out Steve Tibble’s new book Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land.

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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.

You can check out Steve’s other books: Templars: The Knights Who Made Britain, The Crusader Armies and The Crusader Strategy