Monday, February 9, 2015

April 28, 1192 – Conrad’s Would-be Assassin Names Richard

Conrad of Montferrat, the newly elected King of Jerusalem and not even yet crowned, was attacked in midday as he walked the streets of Tyre with his bodyguard, heading home to have lunch with his wife. The attackers were Assassins (the Hashshashin—“outcasts”), specially trained suicide-soldiers of the order founded by Hassan-I Sabbah during the chaotic days of the early Crusades. They were trained in a mountain fortress in Iran, indoctrinated through drugs and propaganda to give their lives in order to receive Paradise in the afterlife.

One of the crusaders guarding Conrad proved quick enough to throw his own body in front of the king, taking a blow from a knife meant for Conrad’s side to his chest. Another blade struck Conrad’s back, giving him a scar that would last the rest of his life. One assassin was killed, and the other captured and tortured to death, but not before he gave the name of his hirer: Richard of England.

Richard, nicknamed “the Lionhearted” not only for his bravery but also his bravado during the campaign against Castillon-sur-Agen, continued his brashness through the Third Crusade. After the fall of Jerusalem to the forces of Saladin, the new King Richard and his counterpart Phillip II of France launched forces funded by the Saladin Tithe, a special tax of 10% levied on nearly everyone with money to their names. While in Sicily in 1190, locals in Messina balked at their treatment by the visiting crusaders. Richard responded by besieging, conquering, and looting Messina before moving on. On the journey to Acre, a storm separated the ship with his fiancé, Berengaria of Navarre, from the rest of the fleet and drove it to the shores of Cyprus. Richard conquered Cyprus from the Byzantines to win her back. At last the crusaders marched on Acre, and Richard fought despite suffering scurvy, legendarily firing crossbows while soldiers carried him on a stretcher.

Conrad of Montferrat, who had commanded the defense of Tyre against Saladin’s army in the previous years, negotiated the surrender of Acre. He carried a great deal of notoriety with locals and was called “the greatest devil of all the Franks.” During the siege of Tyre, his own aged father, William IV of Montferrat, was brought forward as a prisoner. Saladin promised to release him and shower Conrad with riches if he gave up the city. Conrad replied by aiming his own crossbow at William and saying, “He has lived long already.” Saladin then himself released William, saying that Conrad was “an unbeliever and very cruel.”

Yet Conrad was also handsome and popular among the crusaders. The Third Crusade proved militarily successful, even though Duke Leopold V of Austria marched away after Richard tossed his standard down, saying that it wasn’t worthy of being hung beside those of kings like himself and Phillip II. Phillip II left in 1191 to return to France, leaving his treasure and valuable prisoners with Conrad. Eventually Conrad had to turn the prisoners over to Richard as the king was now sole leader of the crusade. Rather than use them for leverage against Saladin, Richard had them all killed.At last Jerusalem was taken back from Saladin, an election was held on who would be the new king. Richard offered up his own name, but the barons unanimously voted for Conrad.

Richard left immediately and even sold Cyprus, apparently done with the Holy Land if he could not be its king. On his journey toward England, a storm drove his ship to Corfu, held by the Byzantines, who were still upset over losing Cyprus. He sneaked away in a smaller ship, which wrecked and forced him to travel over land disguised as a Knight Templar. Near Vienna in 1192, he was recognized by a fellow crusader, captured, and brought to Duke Leopold. As a vassal of Emperor Henry VI, he was to turn over the prized prisoner, but Leopold sent him back to his cousin, Conrad, King of Jerusalem, to undergo trial for attempted regicide. Pope Celestine III was put in a terrible position since imprisoning a crusader was an excommunicable offense, but so was masterminding such an attack. The matter was resolved when Richard drowned during a storm at sea (suspiciously, it took no other lives).

Although Richard’s death quieted the east, it sent England into civil war. His younger brother John had ousted Richard’s chancellor, William Longchamp, to effectively rule in 1191. He proved very unpopular, and, upon news of Richard’s death, barons in Normandy upheld five-year-old Arthur, son of Richard and John’s brother Geoffrey, as rightful king. John retreated to his holdings in Ireland and re-invaded with aid from Phillip II through the supporting Welsh marcher lords. William the Lion, King of Scotland, agreed to join the alliance in exchange for an earldom in the northern counties. England became war-torn.

After years of campaign and routinely putting down rebellions in his own lands, John won back England only to lose his lands on the continent to France as Philip seized them along with the boy Arthur, whom he kept at court. Deeply indebted and fearful to raise taxes any further, John became a vassal to Philip, who could at any time reject John and establish Arthur. Although John held rule over England, Ireland, and Wales, it was tenuous at best, and he needed French authority to keep down rebellious barons. While John’s son Henry III ruled quietly under France and his grandson Edward I crusaded or warred with Scots and Welsh, later generations would carry out a Hundred Years Rebellion that would eventually wrest England out from under French influence.


In reality, the assassins’ blades struck home, and Conrad of Montferrat died soon after. Richard was held for a ransom of 65,000 pounds of silver, which was raised by his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Upon arriving back in England, Richard made peace with John and named him heir. During his own reign, John would lose his holdings on the continent to France and fight repeated wars with the barons, bringing about the signing of the Magna Carta.

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