The True Cross Is Lost in the Crusaders’ Defeat by Saladin at the Horns of Hattin

July 4, 2019

The undetermined conduct that Lusignan had exhibited, communicated itself to the other chiefs, and this want of a fixed purpose spread trouble and confusion throughout the army. The disheartened soldiers quitted the camp of Sephouri with reluctance, and saw nothing around them but presages of an approaching defeat. The Christian army advanced towards Tiberias, and were marching in silence across a plain, which modern travelers call the plain of Batouf, when they perceived the standards of Saladin.

Saladin’s Army

The Mussulman army was encamped on the heights of Loubi, with the Lake of Tiberias in its rear; it covered the tops of the hills, and commanded all the defiles through which the Christians had to pass. The barons and knights then remembered the advice of Raymond, but they had lost the opportunity of following it, and the courage of the Christian soldiers alone could repair the errors of their leaders. The bold and desperate resolution was formed of cutting themselves a passage through the army of the enemy, so as to gain the banks of the Jordan. On the 4th of July, at break of day, the Christians began their march. From the moment they were in motion, the Mussulman archers unceasingly poured upon them showers of arrows. The army of the Franks was bravely enduring, on its march, the attacks of the Saracen archers, when Saladin descended into the plain at the head of his cavalry. Then the Christians were compelled to stop, and fight with the enemy that disputed their passage. The first shock was impetuous and terrible; but as the Franks had for many days been short of both provisions and water, and were suppressed by heat and thirst, they had less strength than courage, and fell more from lassitude than in consequence of their wounds. The bishops passed through the ranks, and endeavored to revive the ardor of the soldiers by the images of religion.

The Horns of Hattin, Israel.

The true cross, placed upon an elevated spot, for a moment reanimated them, and drew around it the most fervent and the most intrepid. Saladin himself said, in a letter, that the Christian soldiers fought around the cross with the greatest bravery, and that they seemed to consider it the strongest tie that bound them together, and as their impenetrable buckler. But the sight of a revered sign, and the passing ardor which it created, only served to increase the disorder of the fight. All the Mussulman forces united in one body to attack the Christians. The cavalry of Saladin poured down upon them several times with irresistible impetuosity, and penetrated through their ranks; victory was evidently about to incline to the side of the Saracens, when night put an end to the conflict. The Franks and Saracens both remained on the plain where they had fought all day, and prepared to renew the battle on the morrow. . . .

Gustave Doré- Battle of Hattin.

The Christian soldiers took advantage of the darkness to rally and close in their ranks; but their powers were exhausted. Sometimes they exhorted each other to brave death; and at others, raising their hands towards heaven, implored the All-Powerful to save them. . . .

At last daylight appeared, and was the signal for the entire ruin of the Christian army. As soon as the Franks beheld the whole of the forces of Saladin, and found themselves surrounded on all sides, they were seized with surprise and terror. . . .  The Christians at first defended themselves valiantly, but Saladin having set fire to the dry grass that covered the plain, the flames surrounded their army, and scorched the feet of both men and horses.

Disorder began to prevail in their ranks, but they fought bravely still. Swords gleamed through the flames, and the Christian knights, rushing from masses of smoke and fire, precipitated themselves, lance in hand, upon their enemies. In their despair, they endeavored to pierce through the battalions of the Saracens, but everywhere met with an invincible resistance. Again and again they returned to the charge, and as often were they repulsed. A prey to hunger and a consuming thirst, they saw nothing around them but burning rocks and the sparkling swords of their enemies. The mountain of Hattin arose on their left, and in it they endeavored to find asylum; but, hotly pursued by the Saracens, they were cast, some down precipices, and others into narrow ravines, where their bravery was of no avail.

The knights of the Temple and St. John performed prodigies of valor, and fought until the close of the day, rallying around the wood of the true cross. This sacred standard was borne by the bishop of Ptolemais, who was killed in the heat of the battle. The bishop of Lidda, who took it up and endeavored to fly, was stopped, and taken prisoner. A cry of despair arose from among the Franks when they saw the sign of their safety in the hands of the conqueror; even the most brave cast away their arms, and without attempting to fly, rushed upon the swords of the infidels. The field of battle became nothing but a scene of desolation; and the Christian warriors who had not been able to save the cross of Christ, no longer feared either death or slavery.

Joseph François Michaud, The History of the Crusades, trans. W. Robson (New York: Redfield, 1853), 1:419-22.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 681


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