Crusaders - Alfred J. Church

How the King's Purpose was Baulked

When a whole moon had been wasted in parleying and the sending of messengers to and fro, the King, seeing that he must accomplish his purpose by force of arms or not at all, led his army towards the Holy City. It would serve no profitable end to tell of the places where he pitched his camp, or of the days which he tarried in this or that. Let it suffice to say that in a month's time he traversed so much space only as an army well equipped might pass over in a single day's march; and that about twenty-one days after the winter solstice the army of the Christians came to a certain place which is named the Casal of Beitenoble, and which in ancient times was, if I err not, a city of the priests. There it tarried some twelve days, being much troubled by storms and rains, for the winds blew and the rains fell during the whole of this time, and, indeed, both before and after, in such a fashion as I have never seen. As for the tents, only such as were appointed with ropes and so forth could be kept in their place, so violent were the blasts, so that the greater part of the army lay under the open sky, not a little to the damage of their health. The horses also were in evil case. These creatures, all men know, suffer from much sickness, and multitudes of them perished. Also there was a great scarcity of victuals; for the corn and even the biscuit, for so they call the bread that is twice baked, were spoilt by the rain, and the hogs' flesh, of which these people eat amazing quantities, grew corrupt.

Nevertheless, there was a great fire of zeal in the army such as I had never seen before, for now it seemed as if the desire of their hearts would be accomplished. And though not a few died of sickness, yet did the host daily grow greater. Many who had stayed behind in various cities, their zeal having grown stale, now came back to the camp, judging that they would do well to take part in an enterprise that was now near to success. Also many that had tarried on the march for the cause of sickness now made shift to come to the camp. Some I saw carried in litters, and others that could scarce set one foot before the other crawled painfully along the road. Many of these were slain by the Turks, but not the less did the rest brave the dangers of the journey. And in the camp there was a great furbishing of arms and armour, and trimming of the plumes of helmets, for it was counted an unseemly thing that any man should enter such a place as the Holy City save in his best array.

And now all things were ready for the march when there befell as great a discouragement as ever, I take it, any army ever endured in this world. On a certain evening, some eleven days after the coming of the army to Beitenoble, there was a council held in the tent of King Richard, at which were present the Master of the Templars and the Master of the Hospitallers, and other chief men in the army. These sat debating for the space of three hours or thereabouts. Meanwhile there had gathered about the King's tent a great multitude of common folk waiting till the great men should come forth. Nor did any one doubt but that when the council should be ended there would be given forthwith orders for the march. I myself was there, and I heard men laying wagers with each other about the time when they should enter the Holy City. (These men from the West, I should say, are mightily fond of wagering; they are wont to do this in all kinds of things, and there were laws set forth in the camp that no man should wager more than befitted his degree.) Some, I heard, made sure that this entering would be on the morrow; some were for two days, and others for three; but none, so far at least as I heard, held that there would be longer delay than of seven.

About an hour after sunset the council came to an end; darkness had long since fallen, but it chanced to be a full moon, and the faces of them that had been present at the council were plain to be seen. And then, before ever a word was said, it was manifest to all that a great misfortune had befallen them. For the faces of these men were gloomy and clouded with doubts and discouragement. And straightway all the multitude that had been gathered together departed every man to his own place. There needed no proclaiming that neither on the morrow nor on any other day would there be a marching to the Holy City. On the morrow it was commonly known how this thing had come about. It was chiefly the doing of the two Masters, that is, of the Templars and of the Hospitallers. The King, indeed, had held by his purpose to go forward to the very last, but they were men skilled in warfare, nor was there any gainsaying of their counsel. And what they said was this in effect: "If we persist in this enterprise, then we shall have enemies on either side of us, for while we are fighting with the Sultan Saladin and his host within the city, then will the army of the Turks that is on the mountain assail us from behind. And if we take the city, which we shall not do without much slaughter, how shall we keep it?" To these things no answer could be made, so that the King himself, for all that he was most unwilling, could not but yield.

But when it was certainly known in the army that it must go back, what grief was there, yea, what despair! There were some to whom the news was as a sentence of death; the sick, to wit, who with no small toil and suffering had made their way to the place, and many also who, being held up by hope, had endured with patience many evils—the hard lodging, the scanty food, the cold—now seemed altogether to give way. And so, whereas on the forward march scarcely a man had fallen out of the ranks, now there was scarce an hour but many were left behind. Some also, whose strength failed not, left their place in the army, making their way to Ptolemais and other towns where they might live in greater ease.

On the 8th day of January the army departed from Beitenoble, and on the 10th it came, after much toil and suffering, for the rain and tempest scarcely abated for a single hour through the twelve days, to the city of Ascalon, and lo! this place where the Christians hoped to find shelter was but a heap of ruins, for the Caliph had caused that this should be done. And there was also another grievous trouble, the lack of victuals, for by this time all the food that had been made for the army was spent, and the ships that should have brought them provisions could not enter the harbour by reason of the storm. So it was for eight days, and the army was well-nigh brought to destruction, for these westerners, especially such as come from the more northern parts, are great eaters, and lacking food lack, as it seems to me, all strength and courage. After a while, indeed, their troubles abated. Many of the houses in the city were set up again, so far at least as to give shelter for a time, and good store of provision was brought in from Cyprus and other regions. So the Christians had rest, for the Sultan had given leave to his chiefs to return to their homes for a while.