Cormac Fitzgeoffrey’s Kin in the Crusades – Part Two

Geoffrey the Bastard, who in future would be the father of REH’s rage-filled adventurer Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, was in trouble. He was just fourteen, and his prospects for growing old enough to father anybody didn’t look sanguine. His father, William, who had been among the King of Sicily’s greatest war-captains, was dead in battle with the Pope’s soldiers. His mother, William’s long-time mistress, was savagely hated by William’s widow Mildred and his legitimate sons, Rainulf, Guy and Humphrey. Mildred’s name means “strong yet gentle.” Few women can ever have been less appropriately christened.

Chiefly Norman, she had a bit of native Sicilian in her ancestry, a strain she hated and fiercely denied. One of her creatures, a distant cousin, was an apothecary of rare talent but evil reputation. He created a beautiful linen shift so imbrued with poison that Aveline would never have survived putting it on. Mildred contrived for her rival to obtain it from a source that seemed innocuous.

Aveline was lucky. Her maid couldn’t resist the garment’s beauty and tried it on her naked body in secret. Soon she was screaming and ripping her own flesh in torment. She perished by nightfall. That scheme having failed, Mildred accused Aveline of plotting to kill her by witch’s poison, and of testing the devilish toxin on her unsuspecting maid. Many believed it.

Fourteen-year-old Geoffrey offered to prove his mother’s innocence in trial by combat. A good fighter for his age, he still would have had no chance against the paid champion Mildred produced to contest her case. Maybe his bastard status had given him bitter wisdom beyond his youth, because he decided not to rely on the justice of his cause and God’s concern. He resorted to means strictly forbidden. Using his mother’s jewels, he paid a nefarious but potent wizard of Syracuse to enchant his shield. (The jewels had originally come from his father. Geoffrey must have found that a satisfying thought. Let the gems Mildred’s own husband had given his leman now protect that leman from Mildred’s malice.)

With a steady voice he perjured himself before fighting, taking the oath that he had no spell or charm about him on which he relied, but trusted only in the justice of his quarrel. Then he put on his helm and drew steel. His adversary’s sword broke on Geoffrey’s shield after several grueling minutes, and Geoffrey cut him down. This was the first man he’d killed. He regarded it as the most valuable lesson he’d ever learned, as well; a just quarrel is fine, but an advantage is better.

Mildred was furious. Outfoxed by a boy of fourteen! She told him and his mother she would see them both dead before the year was out. Her sons would spit on their graves. Geoffrey replied that he would be a greater knight than all her sons, and do worse than kill them; he would humble them.

Still, he and Aveline didn’t wait for Mildred to try again. They traveled to Venice, where no-one from Sicily was likely to be able to harm them easily. Venice and the conquering Normans weren’t over-friendly. Geoffrey became a squire in the household of a noble, ancient family. I believe it was one of the families that supplied Venice with a doge. But Geoffrey found it difficult to rise to knighthood. He lacked funds. In theory money meant nothing to a man of knightly blood, but try telling that to a lad who craved the station and couldn’t afford the costly war-horses it required. (Knightly armor wasn’t as expensive in the twelfth century as it later became, being largely mail, but a highly-bred destrier with battle training cost a fortune.)

This was 1140, though, and the Second Crusade loomed like a dark cloud on the horizon. The man who would light the fire was Zenghi, the moving force in REH’s story “The Lion of Tiberias.”  Howard describes him as “Zenghi … whom men called the Lion of Tiberias, because of his exploits at the siege of Tiberias … the wide lips smiled, but it was the merciless grin of the hunting panther.”

Well, the best-known siege of Tiberias is the one that took place in 1187, when the crusader fortress was besieged by Saladin. Either REH made a mistake or there was an earlier siege of the same castle, because Zenghi certainly died before 1187. There may have been. The “Heritage Conservation in Israel” website says that the “earliest evidence for the fortress’s existence dates back to 1099 CE.”

In “The Lion of Tiberias”, Zenghi routs the forces of the emir “Doubeys ibn-Sadaka of Hilla” on behalf of the Caliph al-Mustarshid. Then he brutally knouts to death Doubeys’ young son and sends the boy’s English friend, John Norwald, to the galleys. Later he became atabeg of Mosul and Aleppo. In 1138, Zenghi met the combined armies of the crusader princes and the Byzantine emperor, and hurled them back from Shaizar. He married, in that year, a fitting mate for him – Zumurrud, a woman who had murdered her own son Ismail, Emir of Damascus, just three years earlier, to prevent his surrendering the city to Zenghi.

While Zenghi “rides on the wind with the stars in his hair”, the red-haired grim giant John Norwald heaves on his oar in the galleys and never speaks – but also never forgets his promise to Zenghi that he will come to him again if it takes twenty years.

Then, in 1144, Zenghi besieges the crusader County of Edessa, first of the crusader states to be founded, and now the first to fall again to the Muslims. Queen Melisende of Jerusalem sent an army to help Edessa, but Count Raymond of Antioch had his hands full – fighting other Christians, the Byzantines. Zenghi took Edessa in late December with terrible slaughter.

Pope Eugenius proclaimed a crusade. He appointed the remarkable Bernard of Clairvaux to preach it for him and inspire zeal. Among his first converts was King Louis VII of France, who badly needed some credit with God. Charles Mackay describes him as “both superstitious and tyrannical.”  He’d been guilty of an infamous massacre at Vitry, in his own kingdom. During an armed quarrel with the Pope, he besieged and took Vitry, whereupon “Upwards of thirteen hundred of the inhabitants, fully one-half of whom were women and children, took refuge in the church; and when the gates of the city were opened, and all resistance had ceased, Louis inhumanly gave orders to set fire to the sacred edifice, and a thousand persons perished in the flames.”

King Louis decided that if he came to the defense of the crusader states he might have a chance to escape hell. Large numbers of knights took the cross in Germany, too. Conrad III, the German Emperor, joined the crusade along with his nephew, Frederick III, Duke of Swabia (later to become emperor himself, and better known as Frederick Barbarossa).

REH records that a knight named Miles du Courcey was serving the Prince of Antioch when Edessa fell. He was actually in Edessa and barely got out alive; thus he hated Zenghi. Also abroad in the region was a spy for the Byzantine ruler, using the name Roger d’Ibelin. His real name is Wulfgar Edric’s son, and he’s actually a captain in the Byzantine emperor’s Varangian Guard. (For details see REH’s story, “The Lion of Tiberias.”)

History tells that Zenghi was assassinated in 1146. The chronicler al-Qalanesi wrote that a Frankish slave named Yarankash assassinated him in his sleep by stabbing him. The Christian William of Tyre, on the other hand, records that a eunuch of his retinue strangled Zhengi while the atabeg lay drunken. REH clarifies the matter in “Lion” by telling us that Zenghi had indeed been drinking hard, but stirred in his tent to find his eunuch “Yaruktash” stealing his wine. He promises to punish him in the morning and orders him out. “Punish” from Zenghi means impaling on a stake, so the eunuch decides to flee, and cons the guards outside Zenghi’s tent into running away with him.

A couple of hours later Zenghi wakes again, and finds the deformed twisted giant that once was John Norwald looming over him, three years after a shipwreck freed him from the galleys at last. Zenghi dies stabbed by his own dagger in Norwald’s terrible hands. In the morning Zenghi’s army disperses, leaving the castle, looting and then scattering from “a silent and abandoned camp, where the torn deserted tent flapped idly in the morning breeze above the bloodstained body that had been the Lion of Tiberias.”  The murder occurs in the nick of time to save Miles du Courcey and his lady-love, Ellen de Tremont.

A Muslim who appears in another REH story of the crusades, “Gates of Empire”, is Shirkuh – in full Asad ad-Din Shirkuh bin Shahdi. Shirkuh was exiled with his brother Ayyub over a murder. He served in Zenghi’s army in the 1140s. It happened long before “Gates of Empire”, a story set in 1167, and while Shirkuh doesn’t appear or get a mention in “Lion of Tiberias”, he was definitely around. Besides being an important military commander and the eventual bane of the untrustworthy vizier of Egypt, Shawar, Shirkuh was Saladin’s uncle. Saladin, or Yusef ibn Ayyub as he then was, appears in “Lion” as a nine-year-old boy de Courcey seizes as a hostage. Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, of course, encounters the adult Saladin in “Hawks of Outremer” during the Third Crusade.

 

Someone else very definitely present in the Second Crusade was a strong-willed lady named Eleanor of Aquitaine. She had married King Louis VII when a girl of fifteen. Before long she was heard to complain, “I thought I was marrying a king, and it turns out I’ve married a monk!”  When Louis went on crusade she accompanied him, taking three hundred vassals and her ladies-in-waiting. In the play (and movie) The Lion in Winter, she reminisces about the Second Crusade many years later, as King Henry II of England’s wife. “My ladies and I dressed as Amazons and rode bare-breasted all the way to Marseilles,” she sighs. “Louis had a seizure, and I damned near died of windburn – but the troops were dazzled!”

She had reached her twenties then. Raymond, Prince of Antioch, was her uncle, though only seven years older than Eleanor, a handsome blonde fellow, and a much stronger character than Louis. Eleanor found herself in trouble more than once in Antioch, for her outspoken support of Raymond against her husband’s poor military decisions. Louis VII      was evidently no more of a general than he was a lover – or a humanitarian.

There were inevitable rumors that Eleanor and her uncle had been lovers. People never need much encouragement to believe scandal. The gossip may well have been groundless. Still, Eleanor was a pistol of a girl with an unsatisfactory husband, and she was close to Raymond – who was only 32 years old to Eleanor’s 25 while she was in Antioch. Raymond is supposed to have been flamboyant and good-looking. Just her type. Besides, Eleanor was royal. Half the royal marriages made in medieval times verged on incest anyhow – including Eleanor’s with Louis. It was finally dissolved on the grounds of “consanguinity,” which for medieval royals who wanted a new mate was the standard exit clause within the Church’s rules.

Whether she committed adultery with her uncle or not, I rather think she had affairs with one or two brave knights while on the crusade. And one young squire by the name of Geoffrey FitzWilliam, the Bastard. Geoffrey had left Venice and joined the crusader armies of Savoy and Montferrat, since their line of march was handiest for him — the land route through Italy to join Louis of France in Constantinople. His motives were knighthood and plunder – a couple of fine war-horses at the least – and he hoped very much to meet his hated half-brothers on crusade. He felt more animosity for them than he did for any Saracen.

The Germans under Conrad III reached Constantinople well before the French crusading host. They’d set out first, after all. They hadn’t found the Byzantine Empire congenial. The Greeks considered the Germans barbarous and brutal, the Germans thought the Greeks double-faced and treacherous. Manuel Comnenus, the Greek emperor, to quote Mackay, “looked with alarm on the new levies,” and “gave offense at the very outset.”  (Extraordinary Popular Delusion and the Madness of Crowds, 1841.)

Mackay goes on to relate, “ … the Germans broke into the magnificent pleasure-garden of the emperor, where he had a valuable collection of tame animals,” and “laid waste this pleasant retreat, and killed or let loose the valuable animals it contained.”  The Emperor Manuel “sent a message to Conrad respectfully desiring an interview, but the German refused to trust himself within the walls of Constantinople … several days were spent in insincere negotiations.”

Finally Manuel rid himself of the Germans by agreeing to give them guides and supplies when they went ahead into Asia Minor. The guides had their instructions. They led the German crusaders into waterless regions, contrived to bring them too far ahead of their supply train, and then led them into an ambush “by the sultan of the Seljukian Turks, at the head of an immense force.”  The fast-riding, agile Turkish horse archers slaughtered the Germans, driving shafts through their mail at will, and harassed them all the way to Nicea, hungry and thirsty for lack of provisions.  Seventy thousand riders and a hundred thousand foot had left Constantinople. Fifty or sixty thousand men arrived at Nicea.

The French entered the Byzantine Empire, unaware of Manuel Comnenus’s treachery towards the Germans. In Constantinople, the double-tongued bastard assured them that the Germans under Conrad had won a great victory against Turkish forces. Manuel, who’d contrived it, knew better than anybody that they’d been massacred. Still, the French, having suaver manners, got along better with the Byzantines than Conrad III had, until they discovered “a treaty entered into between Manuel and the Turkish sultan.”  This “changed their dissatisfaction into fury, and the leaders demanded to be led against Constantinople, swearing they would raze the treacherous city to the ground. Louis did not feel inclined to accede to this proposal …”

Well, Louis found the German army in its woeful state outside the walls of Nicea, and also heard the full story of the Greek betrayal. They marched together for a while, but French numbers were now much greater than German, and Conrad III began to feel inferior. In an egotistical tantrum he turned around and went back to Constantinople. “Manuel was all smiles and courtesy,” says Mackay.

Louis continued marching towards Jerusalem, but he met such fierce Turkish opposition that he had to settle for Antioch instead. His army suffered from disease and hunger, more dangerous to every soldier in all ages than the enemy’s weapons. As for Conrad, the German emperor had reached Jerusalem at last, with what remained of his forces, but the lords of the other crusader realms wanted to secure and extend their own states, not rescue Jerusalem. “The princes of Antioch and Tripoli were jealous of each other, and of the king in Jerusalem. The Emperor Conrad was jealous of the King of France, and the King of France was disgusted with them all.”

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France, strong-willed and intelligent, was there in the midst of this volatile situation. She didn’t think much of the way things were turning out. She believed with her uncle, Raymond, that it made better strategic sense to capture Aleppo, the Muslim city that was the key to Edessa, and proceed to retake that state for Christendom. Zenghi the Lion of Tiberias might be dead, but his son Nur ad-Din had replaced him, and proved just as formidable. Eleanor expressed her opinions forcibly, and in public, which didn’t go down well with most medieval men.

Geoffrey the Bastard had ridden with the knights of France through all this. Twenty-two by 1147, he had become a good fighter. Like Prince Raymond of Antioch, too, he was blonde and fine-looking. He could have caught Eleanor’s eye. An affair would never have been possible in France, where her husband was king, but this was Antioch. There were stories about a cunning secret door in the wall of Prince Raymond’s private chapel, a gilded, magnificent suite, a place where more than confession and prayer occurred. It was whispered that Eleanor knew the secret thereof. If Geoffrey the Bastard had been her lover, which no-one can say at this late date, for Eleanor it would merely have been practice. Her next husband, Henry II of England, would also be younger than she.

One pleasure Geoffrey certainly did have on crusade; that of meeting his half-brothers from Sicily, Rainulf, Guy and Humphrey. Rainulf picked a quarrel with him, and they fought on foot with sword and shield at a tournament. Geoffrey kept the promise he had made to Mildred as a boy; he didn’t kill Rainulf, but he humiliated him by beating him decisively and delivering a stroke across his buttocks that, even through mail, kept Rainulf bedridden on his stomach for a month. The rage and mortification he felt at being bested by his illegitimate half-brother hurt more.

The bickering, disunited crusaders at last settled on laying siege to Damascus. They couldn’t agree on Jerusalem, they couldn’t agree on Aleppo, and they had to take action somewhere. Damascus needed to be brought into line; it had been allied with the kingdom of Jerusalem, but then it had changed its allegiance and gone over to Nur ad-Din. The crusaders assembled at the citadel of Tiberias in July 1148. They attacked Damascus from the west, because the bountiful orchards on that side guaranteed them food, and they pressed the siege for weeks without respite, until it seemed certain Damascus had to fall. The walls were all but shattered and the resistance of the defenders was flagging.

The leaders of that ill-conceived crusade had things going their way at last. Damascus was almost in their hands; they only had to hold together with a common purpose and grasp it. Instead, they yielded to what Mackay rightly calls their “insane jealousy.”  They quarreled over who should be prince of Damascus once it was taken. Count Robert of Flanders was nominated, but the score of other claimants wouldn’t have it, and withdrew from the siege, sulking. Their idiocy gave the Saracens time and an opening to supply the city with plenty of provisions and repair its broken walls!

Zenghi’s son Nur ad-Din and the Emir of Mosul, Saif ad-Din, then arrived to relieve Damascus. The siege had to be abandoned. Nothing had been achieved. (That was becoming the whole story of the Second Crusade.)  A further plan, to attack Ascalon, also came to nothing.

Geoffrey the Bastard was wholly disillusioned with crusading and its prospects by now. He wasn’t the only one. After the fiasco at Damascus, and then the failure to do anything real at Ascalon, King Louis and Queen Eleanor sailed for home – in separate ships. Even before the disastrous crusade they had been growing ever further apart.

Geoffrey stayed, for the present. He still admired Raymond of Antioch. In June of 1149, he was required to prove it. Nur ad-Din, the son of Zenghi, invaded Antioch and laid siege to the castle of Inab, with help from Mu’in Unur, the ruler of Damascus. His forces numbered 6,000, mostly horsemen. Raymond of Antioch came to meet him, allied with Ali ibn-Wafa, a leader of the Syrian branch of the Assassins’ sect, based at Masyaf – which had been one of their fortresses since 1141. The Assassins were an Ismaili sect, generally opposed to the Seljuks, who adhered to the Sunni creed. In Syria they paid tribute to the powerful Templar order, and in exchange the Templars left them alone.

The Prince of Antioch may have had the Assassins on his side in 1149. It wasn’t enough. He was still confronting Nur ad-Din with only 400 knights and a thousand foot soldiers. Geoffrey the Bastard was one of the four hundred.

Nur ad-Din couldn’t believe that Prince Raymond’s force constituted anything but an advance guard, with the rest of his army somewhere behind. He retreated from the siege. When his scouts informed him that this astonishingly small force was the whole host of Antioch, Nur ad-Din and Unur came back to surround Raymond’s camp by night. The attack next day overwhelmed them. Raymond fought to the end, refusing a chance to escape when it was offered. He appears to have died in single combat with Shirkuh, “the mountain lion”, uncle of Saladin, who decapitated Raymond and sent his head to the Caliph of Baghdad in a silver box. (Shirkuh appears, eighteen years older, as a major and not unlikeable character in REH’s “Gates of Empire.”)

Eleanor of Aquitaine heard the news of her uncle’s death while pausing in Sicily on her voyage home.

Very few Franks escaped the disaster. Geoffrey the Bastard was among those who cut their way out and survived. He’d gained nothing on the crusade, and left Antioch as poor as he’d arrived.

The record shows that Ali ibn-Wafa, the Assassin chief, also died at Inab. The record is mistaken. Seeing the day was lost, he ordered a dedicated aide to wear his clothes and disguised himself as a Frank, taking his chances on getting clear in Geoffrey’s company. His gamble paid off. They and a few others won free.

Ibn-Wafa’s decoy fought until he was almost cut to pieces. Only his clothes were recognizable. It isn’t surprising that Nur ad-Din’s forces believed they had killed the Assassin master. Ibn-Wafa decided it would be advantageous to stay “dead” and work from behind the scenes. He and Geoffrey remained friends, but Geoffrey was thoroughly sick of losing, and of crusades. He remembered again the lesson he’d learned when he was fourteen. Cheating and perjury had saved his mother’s life when she appeared certain to die. Very well. Now he’d enrich himself, and her, by turning bandit, since loyalty and honor had repaid him in such a scurvy fashion.

Within a few months he was leading a robber band two hundred strong. His biggest coup came in 1150, when he captured the former (and last) Count of Edessa, Joscelin.  Joscelin had been Raymond of Antioch’s enemy before Raymond died in battle, and he was still trying to regain Edessa. Geoffrey settled an old score, and made a profit, by selling Joscelin to Nur ad-Din for a substantial reward. Joscelin was blinded in public in Aleppo. He spent the rest of his life in a dungeon.

The Assassins were a distinct power in Aleppo. They all but controlled it, and from that city Ali ibn-Wafa supplied Geoffrey with information about a robber lord who had become obnoxious to him, making it possible to defeat him and sack his stronghold. It contained great wealth in its treasure room, and Geoffrey’s fortune was made. Then he received news that his mother had died of a fever in Venice; his new wealth came too late to ensure her comfort. He disbanded his robbers and took ship for the Serene Republic, carrying his riches with him, as men did in those days – but in the Adriatic his ship was attacked by pirates. He lost everything, barely escaped alive, and crawled out of the sea in Illyria a pauper again.

Returning to Venice, he discovered the news about his mother had been correct. She was dead. Turning to crime in earnest, he became a Venetian merchant’s bodyguard, then robbed and murdered him. On the proceeds, he travelled north through the German Empire, equipping himself with mail, weapons and two good war-horses. The first he purchased, the second he took from a Bavarian knight he left dead by the roadside. After that he turned west through France and lingered a little while in his forebears’ home of Normandy. The duchy had been united with the crown of England until 1144, but then Geoffrey the Handsome, Count of Anjou, had become the Norman duke by right of conquest. His son Henry inherited Anjou and Normandy late in 1151 (he would become Henry II, King of England). Geoffrey arrived in Normandy in the spring of 1152.

Oh, yes. Geoffrey the Bastard had become quite a bastard in other ways than circumstance of birth. And although he had no inkling of it, he was in for a series of misadventures that would lead him to Ireland. At that time he had barely heard of the place. He certainly had no plans to go there. Fate or chance would make his plans for him, though.

Read: Part One / Part Three / Part Four