OPPOSITE Knights Templar in the Holy Land. Feudal blunderers or calculating strategists?

Crusader strategy: a contradiction in terms?

Medieval warfare was not just a matter of crude feudal violence, argues Steve Tibble.


It is easy to see medieval warfare as long on activity, but short on reflection. To misquote the 1970s feminist rallying cry, it seems pretty obvious that hairy, unwashed medieval warriors needed strategy like fish need bicycles.

We often assume that the past – and notably the medieval past – was populated by people who, because they did not have the resources we take for granted, were somehow less intelligent than us. The image of medieval societies in general, and perhaps the Crusaders in particular, remains resolutely unreconstructed.

The contemporary chronicles do not help – they usually read more like soap opera than a strategic planning document. Kings are crowned and die. Armies invade and fight. The warrior elite have their moments of glory or disappointment, a stream of celebrities wandering across the stage of history, with chroniclers as their paparazzi.

OPPOSITE Knights Templar in the Holy Land. Feudal blunderers or calculating strategists?
Knights Templar in the Holy Land. Feudal blunderers or calculating strategists? Image: Angus McBride/WIPL.

The narrative flow in the chronicles is a succession of events. Human nature and the will of God, luck, opportunity, and reaction – these are the unspoken drivers of politics and warfare in most histories of the period. Not entirely aimless perhaps, but implicitly lacking in what we would now describe as any form of strategic direction.

The current caricature of the Crusaders is arguably even worse. Given unhelpful fresh impetus by the rhetoric of both Western politicians and their Islamic opponents, they are often viewed as backward, inherently bigoted social groups and as alien armies of occupation. How could they ever have developed ‘strategy’ in any meaningful sense?

The idea of ‘Crusader strategy’ seems a contradiction in terms.

A past populated by idiots?

The opposite was generally true. The Crusader states had extraordinarily limited resources, and every decision they made carried with it potentially catastrophic consequences. For these colonial societies on the very fringes of Christendom, there was very little room for manoeuvre and almost no scope for failure – every plan, every decision, had to count. Although they did not have the vocabulary to describe it as such, ‘strategic thinking’ was an essential part of their day-to-day survival.

We believe we are good at strategy because we use the word a lot. But talk is cheap. Actions are always far more telling. In the Crusader states, where the resources and structures for planning and communication were in short supply, there was far less talk of strategy. If we care to look for it, however, it is surprisingly evident in the activities of most of the major players.

First, we need to accept that the major participants were not all idiots: and why should they have been? Some were, of course, but most were reasonable, highly motivated people, surrounded by well-informed advisers. They were intelligent men and women, trying to do the right thing for their families, their cause, and their God.

The corollary is that, while not all their ideas or plans were good ones, we should give them the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.

Second, by analysing the action on the ground, we can arrive at a far more realistic assessment of what was actually intended. What people do is always a better indicator of intent than what people say.

Last, working back from that, we can examine the patterns of real behaviour as they played out over time, and deduce, with appropriate caveats, the broad lines of strategic thinking that underpinned military and political activity.

ABOVE Map of the four Crusader states set up after the First Crusade (1096-1099). The challenge was to maintain and defend them over the following two centuries.
Map of the four Crusader states set up after the First Crusade (1096-1099). The challenge was to maintain and defend them over the following two centuries.


We need to be clear about the language we use. The word ‘strategy’ has come to mean so much that it now means almost nothing.

Definitions of strategy are surprisingly vague. The word is also desperately misused. ‘Strategic’ in modern usage often means little more specific than ‘important’. Or even just ‘big’. Or something you would like to achieve (for which a better word is ‘objective’).

For the sake of clarity, therefore, we shall define certain phrases as follows:

• ‘Strategy’ (and ‘strategic activity’) is designing and implementing the forms and structures of warfare needed to pursue the policy goals of a given society. If our goal is to conquer Egypt, for instance, how can that can best be achieved? Strategy is the direction of warfare above the level of the battlefield, as the military expression of statesmanship, policy, and the objectives of the state.

• ‘Operational activity’ is the conduct of campaigns, where the strategy plays out on the ground (mustering troops, organising logistical back-up, long-distance manoeuvring, and so on).

• ‘Tactical activity’ is manoeuvring and fighting on the battlefield or in a siege – the sharp end of the military interface.

Possibilities and limitations

In defining what strategy is, we also need to understand what it is not. It is not, for instance, the objectives; it is about how to achieve things once we have decided what those things should be.

Neither can all military activity be viewed as solely directed towards the solution of a bigger problem. We should never exaggerate what was possible. There was certainly no ‘grand strategy’ in the sense that the Roman Empire might have used such a term. Pragmatism and opportunism ruled under most circumstances. If the enemy was weak, you took advantage. If you could capture an enemy city and hold it, you probably would.

Opportunism was sometimes a positive alternative to ‘strategy’ – and a legitimate reason for ignoring strategic direction in the short term.

But there were plenty of less positive reasons why planning and strategic implementation were hideously difficult. Everywhere one looked, there were limitations. Strategy was inevitably defined more by what was not possible, rather than what was. The difficulties that faced the Crusader states, continually constraining their choices, were profound.

Most fundamentally, there was a chronic lack of manpower. As communities operating on or beyond the extreme fringes of Europe, Frankish manpower was always at a premium. Continual efforts were made to attract more settlers from the West, but the lack of land and the ever-present dangers of a frontier society made the task extremely difficult.

Lack of money made the situation even worse. Finance was a constraint in any medieval state. For the Franks, European settlers in the Holy Land, this was even more the case. Their defence expenditure was always vast relative to the productivity of the communities they sought to dominate and protect.

LEFT The Battle of Arsuf (1191). An indecisive Crusader victory, for tactical success was followed by strategic check, as Richard I of England, leader of the Third Crusade, failed to recover Jerusalem.
The Battle of Arsuf (1191). An indecisive Crusader victory, for tactical success was followed by strategic check, as Richard I of England, leader of the Third Crusade, failed to recover Jerusalem.

Mercenaries were needed to fill the gaps in the army. The militia, however ineffectual, needed to be equipped. And a huge number of castles needed to be built and upgraded, not just on the frontiers but across the whole of the Crusader states. Even in the absence of organised Muslim armies, bandits and nomads posed perennial threats to villagers.

Communications were also a long-standing strategic weakness. Europe was a long way away, both in terms of distance and, even more importantly, time: help was never close at hand. And all this on top of the fundamental limitations faced by any feudal society: there was no navy and no standing army.

Frankish manpower was always at a premium.

The nobility generally had their own small armies, but even the most loyal barons were none too keen on extended foreign excursions. Every decision and plan had to be discussed and an attempt made to achieve consensus. The Crusader states were not dictatorships. Everywhere one looked, there were barriers to implementing strategy.

The paper trail?

The military assets of the Crusader states were always limited and inadequate, though their need was great. But, within the confines of the possible, there was certainly strategic thinking, long-term planning, and a tenacious pursuit of strategic goals. The less they had, the more careful the Crusaders needed to be in how they used it.

There are no surviving ‘strategy’ documents, no reports, minutes, or memos, for the Crusader states. Probably, in the modern sense at least, there never were any formal strategy documents. But there is an abundance of evidence to show that planning took place and that the development of long-term strategies was a direct consequence of those plans.

The Crusaders did not need to understand or articulate the formal logic of strategic planning. They enacted strategy in an intuitive but often surprisingly subtle way. How that subtlety played out in practice became evident as four distinct phases of strategic thinking unfolded.

The coastal strategy 1099-1124

The coastal strategy was the first manifestation. The unlikely success of the First Crusade had left the survivors with a set of decisions that they probably thought they would never have to make.

Fundamentally, if the crusade was to be anything more than just a one-off violent act of pilgrimage, the first phase of Frankish strategy needed to focus on quickly taking control of the entire coastline of Syria and Palestine. Dominating the coast and reducing the threat from the ‘interior’ frontiers posed by enemy control of coastal cities was an urgent priority.

The logic behind the coastal strategy was clear, but for embryonic states, with no fleets of their own and only tiny armies, this was not easy. The Crusaders focused their meagre resources, however, and used diplomatic missions to entice allies to come to their aid.

The strategy was eventually successful. The Crusaders displayed extraordinary military focus and carried out a series of difficult coastal sieges – combined land and sea operations – over a 25-year period, eventually capturing the entire coastlines of Palestine and Syria.

The hinterland strategy 1125-1153

The success of the coastal strategy meant that the Crusaders had secured their all-important links back to Europe. Creating a substantial hinterland was the next objective, designed to acquire resources and enable defence in depth. If they were able to gain control of the interior, the Christian states of Palestine and the Syrian littoral would be able to put down roots and mature.

ABOVE An Islamic city under siege. The inability of the Crusaders to bring sieges to a swift and successful conclusion was a major weakness.
An Islamic city under siege. The inability of the Crusaders to bring sieges to a swift and successful conclusion was a major weakness.

This was a huge challenge. Could the old Christian cities of the hinterland, such as Damascus, Aleppo, Shaizar, and Homs, ever be captured? And, if so, could they then be held against the inevitable Muslim counter-offensives?

Each of the major Muslim cities was attacked in earnest on several occasions, in increasingly desperate attempts to open up the interior. Aleppo was the objective in two serious campaigns (1124-1125 and 1138); Shaizar was besieged twice (1138 and 1157); and Damascus was the target of concerted assaults (1129 and 1148).

Regardless of their efforts, however, and despite the fact that Crusader field armies were generally highly feared, almost all major Christian sieges in this period ended in failure, and the hinterland strategy stalled.

The tactical reality was that Frankish armies, once inland, were outnumbered, surrounded, and isolated in enemy territory. Beyond the coast, it was unusual for any Crusader siege to gain sufficient purchase around a heavily populated Muslim city. Even when it did, far from a Christian fleet or port, lacking a cadre of experienced siege engineers, and without sufficient logistical support to transport timber, the Crusaders could not bring sieges to a swift and successful conclusion.

The Franks tried hard to square this circle. Their strategic objectives and intent were generally sound. But they were ultimately too few in number to take a major Muslim population centre.

The Egyptian strategy 1154-1169

With the Muslim enemy in Syria becoming ever more consolidated, the Crusader states were faced with the prospect of being destroyed piecemeal. The status quo was unacceptable: the Crusader states had only a very precarious and limited future if confined to a string of coastal cities. Once again, their response was genuinely strategic in scope.

Invading Egypt seems, on the surface, to be a strange way of defending the Holy Land. But the Crusaders correctly identified its capture as the only viable strategic option left open to them; and they committed to it with an indomitable focus.

Egypt was the key to providing them with a resource-base potentially able to sustain the Crusader states in coastal Palestine and Syria. Despite their acute manpower shortages and the huge logistical problems involved, they launched no fewer than seven invasions of Egypt in the period 1154-1174.

The Crusaders were too few in number to take a major Muslim population centre.

Strategic planning for the Egyptian campaigns was helped by a substantial intelligence-gathering effort. Information was continually being sourced by a structured network of patrols, Bedouin auxiliaries, and spies along the southern borders and in the desert.

Extraordinarily, we even have evidence of genuine strategic research, carried out within the chancellery of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, focused on the Egyptian campaigns. King Amalric personally commissioned the historian William of Tyre to compile background information on Egypt and Syria, using multiple Arabic sources. This database was then used as an extended briefing paper to inform different aspects of military and diplomatic decision-making. Within the limitations of the available resources, nothing was being left to chance.

The Frankish strategy of trying to gain control of Egypt was sound, but the military lacked the manpower to succeed, even with allied help – they might win battles, but they could not hold the country.

The frontier strategy 1170-1187

Under-resourced and surrounded by Saladin’s armies on all sides, the Crusader states were faced with increasingly limited strategic options. The answer, if it can be called that, was the frontier strategy – bolstering the border marches, preparing civilian communities as best as possible, and desperately trying to build an army with the critical mass to meet the Muslim invaders in the field.

Because of manpower shortages, the Crusaders were compelled to invest in massive fortifications to defend the Crusader states. Kerak in Jordan.

It could hardly pretend to be a long-term solution. Rather, it was an extended delaying action, deferring what looked like an inevitably disastrous outcome.

With the political situation worsening and no obvious solution to the manpower problem, the Crusaders’ strategic options were, effectively, reduced to maximising the returns on their existing resources. They were left with no choice but to make castles a central part of their broader frontier strategy.

Throughout the 1170s and 1180s, we find the Franks making huge efforts to upgrade their fortifications, transforming simple defensive structures into complex bastions, better equipped to present a sustainable in-depth defence against even the strongest Muslim armies.

Two things imply more than a mere ad hoc response. First, the new castles were revolutionary – rather than evolutionary – in terms of design. They were not just better versions of old castles; in many cases, they represented an entirely new type of castle.

Second, these changes were not isolated advances. If one or two lords, separated by large distances, had developed new kinds of stronghold, one might describe the development as coincidental. In this case, however, across different social and economic conditions, across different regions in different geographies, we see the whole map of Crusader fortifications changing in a similar way.

The new castles were innovative in many ways. They were ‘concentric’ and their multiple layers of walls took the chance of a ‘quick win’ for the enemy firmly off the table. And there were not just more walls. They were wider and higher. In front of the walls were massive new moats and ditches. And inside were bigger vaults and storage facilities. 

The sophistication of these new castles was impressive, but so too was their sheer size, up to four times that of their predecessors, and this was reflected in their garrisons.

There was no formal memo headed ‘Revamping Castle Design’. But structured conversations were clearly taking place about the kinds of changes that were needed, and how quickly they should be implemented, because we see all the Crusader states, in a relatively short space of time, making concerted efforts to transform their frontier castles.

Krak des Chevaliers in Syria.

The frontier strategy was the correct approach, given the limited resources the Franks had to hand, and the scale of the threat they faced. But it was a frustrating and debilitating approach that did not sit well with the proud and aggressive men called on to implement it. It was defensive. It was largely passive. Perhaps most importantly, it was extremely limited in its scope for success – survival was the best it had to offer, and achieving even that required monumental powers of self-discipline.

The disaster at Hattin in 1187, when a weak king and poor leadership led to the crushing defeat of the Frankish field army, was the consequence of that discipline momentarily breaking down. But the underlying strategy that preceded it had been sound, and had been adhered to under increasingly difficult circumstances for over a decade.

Intuition and action, not theory and talk

So, thought-out strategy was happening, if we care to seek the evidence. The Crusaders often behaved in a way that was audacious – but rarely unthinkingly so.

When they arrived in the East in 1099, the smart money would have been on their destruction within a few months. Instead, their tiny states survived for almost 200 years. The deck was always stacked against them. Regardless of strategy, the Franks needed to win every time. Overwhelming numbers and geopolitical resilience meant that the Muslims only needed to win once.

They may have been hairy. They may have been unwashed. But we cannot lightly dismiss the Crusaders’ intuitive strategic capabilities. The potential for catastrophe, the destruction of entire communities, lay at the end of every badly executed campaign. And with the limited resources at their disposal, they worked hard to make everything count. •

Steve Tibble is the author of The Crusader Armies (Yale, 2018) and The Crusader Strategy (Yale, 2020).