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POD Cast: 16 June, 1272. Part 1

By Tim Venning.

Edward I at Burgh by Sands, Cumbria. If one is wielding a sword with intent to use it, wearing your helmet rather than carrying it is a good idea. I suspect artistic interpretation is involved here.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


What if Edward I was successfully assassinated in a ‘near miss’ attack in Acre in June 1272?


It is a little known fact that Edward I (born 1239, ruled November 1272 – July 1307) might never have come to the English throne at all. He was nearly murdered a few months before his accession, while on Crusade in the Holy Land.


The expedition had been set up for 1270 by his mother’s devout and highly ‘moral’ brother-in-law King Louis IX of France, in order to complete his aborted Crusade expedition of 1249-50 when he had attempted to overrun Egypt to exchange it for Palestine but had been captured by the Moslem Sultan of Egypt’s army and held to ransom.


No luckier in 1270, the ageing Louis had allowed his ambitious brother King Charles of Sicily, also Count of Anjou and Provence, to divert him to overrun Tunisia instead, but he died of the plague in his camp while besieging Tunis.


Edward arrived to find Louis dead and instead of going home like the French, he went on to Palestine to fulfil his vow to liberate Jerusalem. Instead, his army was too small to make any impact on the enlarged and well-prepared Sultanate, now ruled by the brutal but brilliant Sultan Baibars.


Edward had a narrow escape from assassins – which was turned into a chivalric romance with stories of how a fanatic from the Moslem sect of the ‘Hashishin’ (‘hashish-eaters’), the original ‘Assassins’ as Westerners garbled the word, had got into his apartments as an ambassador and stabbed him. His blow had missed Edward’s vital organs by inches, but his knife had been poisoned – and Edward had had to have the wound cleaned out to save his life, allegedly by his wife Eleanor of Castile sucking the poison out.

The Prince and the Assassin. The story would make a great film...

Picture courtesy

The truth was slightly less glamorous, but it was still a near miss. So, had the tall, forceful, and often violent Edward been killed and his more commonplace brother Edmund succeeded their father Henry III, how would British history have turned out? Would Scotland have been saved years of ruinous warfare when Edward tried to conquer it? Would Gwynedd, the last independent part of (North) Wales, have also survived the attentions of the Plantagenet dynasty?

Eleanor of Castile, as imagined by Cassell's History of England (pub 1902). It seems unlikely, but there were a lot of myths going around.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Edward I not becoming king would mean that his son Edward II, who was overthrown for favouritism and incompetence in 1327 as well as being the loser of the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, would never be king either.


Unlike his father Henry III and his baronial rival Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, Prince Edward took his Crusading vows seriously and so decided to take part in the French King’s planned expedition to the Holy Land after suppressing Simon de Montfort’s rebel regime in England in 1265.


England was still a land wracked by the aftermath of years of political feuding and civil war, along with brigandage by opportunistic bandits and disgraced and outlawed ex-followers of Simon (the ‘Disinherited’), and Edward would have had every reason to excuse his not going on Crusade as his presence was needed at home.


There were political and military risks in the heir to the throne leaving a country that was still insecure after a devastating civil war. Edward had travelled around England putting down local brigandage in person, and he supposedly took the formidable bandit captain Adam Gurdon into his service after admiring his mettle as they fought in hand-to-hand combat near Alton in Hampshire – an act of personal chivalry to a foe reminiscent of the legendary Robin Hood, whose stories seem to be emerging at this time.


Edward’s father Henry III was already over sixty and apparently in political eclipse and/or declining health; and Earl Gilbert failed to go on the Crusade with Edward as promised – apparently due to local Welsh resistance to his harsh governance of his lordship in South Wales.


Edward’s departure in spring 1270 was delayed by the death of his mother’s uncle Archbishop Boniface of Canterbury and the need to go to the city and arrange the election of his successor. When Edward set out for southern France in summer 1270 to join Louis, he arrived at the port of Aigue-Mortes to find that the King had already sailed – and that Louis’ brother Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily (and Naples), had persuaded him to attack the Moslem emirate of what is now Tunisia rather than go straight to Palestine. Any Moslem ruler could be counted a legitimate target for ‘Holy War’, and attacking and seizing Tunis or requiring the Emir to ‘sign-up’ as a Christian vassal would carry the Christian cause into North Africa, stop African ships raiding Sicily, and hopefully aid full Christian control of the straits between Sicily and Tunis.


But Louis, aged 56, fell ill and died in his camp outside Tunis in August. The remaining French contingent was now led by the new King Philip III, an inexperienced young man without his father’s passion for the Crusade who had been ill himself and decided to return to France.


When Edward arrived in Africa, he found that Philip had come to terms with the ‘infidel’, at which he expressed his pious horror, and that the Crusade to Palestine would be postponed for three years. He had every reason to call off his own expedition and wait for the 1273/74 campaign, but he maintained that he would fulfil his vow unless the soon-to-be-elected new Pope forbade it, his father died, or a civil war broke out again in England.


None of this happened, though he did receive a letter from home saying that Henry had been seriously ill and advising him to return. Henry’s brother and chief aide Earl Richard of Cornwall was to die early in 1272, so was possibly also in poor health, and there was no vigorous adult royal male in England to take command. Edward’s cosuin and close friend Henry ‘of Almain’, son of Richard, did set out for home at Edward’s request, but was murdered in a church at Viterbo in Italy en route by his cousins, the exiled sons of Simon de Montfort, now in Papal service there, in an act of premeditated personal revenge for Simon’s killing in 1265. This would have given Edward honourable grounds not to go East, as he needed to hunt down the killers. However, he delegated this to his subordinates and sailed on to Palestine.


Edward arrived at Acre, the capital of the shrunken Kingdom of Jerusalem, on 9 May, 1271, the only senior leader of the late French King’s Crusade to do so. The situation he found was desperate, as the Kingdom was under immense pressure from the aggressive new ‘Mameluke’ regime of Egypt, the names (“slaves”) given to an elite corps of Turkish ex-slave guards officers which had taken over that country in a coup during Louis IX’s previous Crusade in 1250.


The Kingdom of Jerusalem had never recovered from its loss of the Holy City to Saladin in 1187 and had finally lost it to a marauding army of ‘Khwarizmian’ (Central Asian) Turk refugees from the Mongols in 1244, but was now reduced still further to just a string of coastal towns and fortresses under imminent threat of conquest. The combined Moslem state of Egypt, inland Palestine, and Syria which the Mameluke officers had taken over from the Ayyubids had vowed to reconquer all of the Crusader states and had provided the leadership, military expertise, and determination to exploit its latent resources.


A series of talented military leaders had held power (and overthrown each other in more coups) since 1250, and the current ruler was the most capable and cunning of them – Rukn-al-Din Baybars, a subtle and ruthless operator who had led the murder of his predecessor Qutuz shortly after that Sultan had defeated the Mongol invasion of Palestine at Ain Jalut (‘Goliath’s Springs’) in Galilee in 1260.


Had the Mongols won that battle, the weight of Mongol military power could have saved their putative Christian allies from the Mamelukes – albeit with the risk of them falling out later – and crushed the threat that Egypt posed to the Kingdom of Jerusalem as Louis had failed to do in 1250. Then Edward’s small Crusade could have stood a chance of regaining some inland castles from a defeated and embattled Egyptian state, at least with Mongol help from an occupied Damascus.


Instead, after 1260 the Kingdom of Jerusalem was left facing a triumphant and determined Mameluke state, and in the 1260s Baybars proceeded to overrun the isolated castles and ports one by one while the Christians had no chance of putting an adequate army into the field against him. He overran Galilee in 1266, and he took the great port of Antioch (Antakya, now on the Turkish-Syrian border), the former Byzantine capital of the eponymous principality which the Crusaders had held since 1098.


Shortly before Edward arrived, in March 1271 Baybars successfully besieged the greatest of the castles of the Order of the Knights of St John (‘Hospitallers’), the still-surviving Krak des Chevaliers in the mountains above Tripoli. Safe from all but the tallest siege towers, but short of supplies and men, the Crusaders soon had to surrender and evacuation was soon negotiated. However, if Louis had arrived on time instead of going to Tunis, he might have saved them. With the Crusaders’ inland castles now lost, only Edward’s appearance – with the small size of his contingent probably unclear to his enemies at first – saved ex-ruler Bohemund of Antioch from an attack on Tripoli, his last stronghold, and instead Baybars called a truce and awaited developments.

The Krak des Chevaliers; fell due to starvation rather than assault.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Edward had to make do with aid from the titular sovereign of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, King Hugh III of Cyprus, whose Lusignan dynasty had been installed in Cyprus by Richard I in 1192. His capital, the port of Acre, was a merchant city under the titular authority of the King, but in practice it was semi-autonomous like an Italian city-state and the loss of most of the inland fiefs had ruined the power of the King’s local feudal nobility. The Venetian merchants in the city refused to abandon their trade with Egypt as Edward demanded, and he and High could not force the restive Cypriot nobles to commit themselves to the mainland.


All he could do was to follow the main military tactic of the Papacy and call for help from the Mongols in Iran and Iraq, as they were non-Moslem and the foes of the Mamelukes; they had huge armies of ferocious steppe horsemen and they had some high-ranking Christian subjects.


Edward sent ambassadors to the Mongols’ ‘Ilkhanate’, to ask their well-disposed young ruler Abagha to help. The latter had been tied up in a major war with his Mongol rivals in Central Asia until defeating their invasion at Herat in 1270, and was still too wary of them to do more than send a relatively small (by Mongol standards) force to raid Syria and distract Baybars. This was duly done and a column of Mongol horsemen rode south into the Orontes valley, causing the Mamelukes to evacuate their troops from Aleppo and fall back south.


But the Mongols were more interested in loot than battle and were wary of the latter after Ain Jalut; as Baybars advanced north from Damascus, they retreated, leaving Edward on his own to face the Sultan’s much larger army.


The distraction of the Sultan by the Mongol raid enabled Edward to march his troops safely across Mount Carmel into Galilee, but he achieved little. He only had a few hundred men, and this was inadequate to take even a minor local Mameluke fortress. His force, now joined by his brother Earl Edmund of Lancaster and a second contingent from England, did succeed in ambushing some local Turcoman tribesmen, Mameluke ‘irregulars’, killing up to 1500 of them and seizing their animals. However, these were nomads rather than ‘crack troops’. Edward did not have a siege train, so any siege would require starving out the defenders, and would run the risk of a much larger Mameluke army arriving to relieve it. He had to withdraw again as as Moslem relief force approached, and would have needed a far larger army to risk anything more significant.


Baybars then advanced with a large army on Acre, but heavy rain prevented either side risking a battle and he retreated.


The Acre merchants, backed by the naval “super-power” Venice, were chary of a war ruining their trade with Egypt and King Hugh lacked the legal authority to coerce the city’s governing commune. The government at Acre put commerce first and proceeded to negotiate a truce with Baybars with Charles of Anjou (who had hopes of adding Cyprus to his Mediterranean empire and was not well-disposed to King Hugh) mediating. Edward did not have the troops or the local influence to counter this, and his best hope was to return home to reinvigorate the sovereigns of Europe for another expedition with himself taking over King Louis’ role as the champion of Christendom in the East. The truce was duly signed on 22 May 1272, for ten years and ten months. One later letter claims that Edward induced Hugh to agree to it, but if he did it was only to ensure peace until a new Crusade could be arranged. Edmund of Cornwall and part of the English army now left for home, though Edward stayed on. Usefully, one of the accompanying clerics to the English contingent, Archbishop Visconti of Liege, had recently been elected Pope (Gregory X) so he could act as “cheerleader” for another Crusade in a few years. The new Pope’s interest in obtaining Mongol help involved an embassy to the Illkhan’s overlord, Kubilai Khan, in China, by the recently returned Polo brothers – which was to include their young relative Marco Polo.


It was at this juncture that Edward was nearly murdered by an assassin, on 16 June in his chamber at the royal palace at Acre. The would-be killer apparently sought an audience by claiming to be a native Christian, and suddenly lunged out at Edward with a poisoned dagger. Edward was apparently alone, and the attacker may have been already a palace servant or had allies among the servants in order to get access so easily. Edward had quick reflexes and kicked him away, but was stabbed in the shoulder.


A famous story had it that his wife Eleanor sucked out the poison, but this was first suggested a century later; an earlier source says that Edward’s officer Otto de Grandison, a Savoyard officer from NW Italy who served him loyally for decades, did it. Some poison must have remained, or else the medical attention from the skilled Templar Order was clumsy, as an infection set in. One source says that the wound putrified and an English doctor had to cut away some flesh. However, this is unreliable; this account has Edmund present at the attack whereas in reality he had already sailed for home.


The sources are unclear about the attacker’s identity and motives, but some claim the man was a member of the fanatical ‘heretic’ Moslem sect of the so-called ‘Hashishin’, the original ‘Assassins’ (so-called from their taking hashish to embolden themselves for their suicidal attacks).


The main bases of the sect in Iran, around their headquarters at Alamut near the Caspian Sea, had been cleared out by the Mongols but a branch of the sect had long lived in the isolated Syrian coastal mountains northeast of Tripoli. Their leader Shaikh Sinan, the so-called “Old Man of the Mountains”, and his predecessors had been occasional allies of the Crusaders and frequent foes of mainstream Sunni Moslem rulers in Syria in the 12th Century. Their victims had included some Christian rulers deemed to be a threat, but were more often Moslem.

The Assassin fortress at Alamut, taken from a Persian miniature.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As the attacker was able to gain admittance to Edward’s chamber unsearched and the King’s attendants were not expecting trouble, he may have been a local employed at the palace; Edward was not naïve and was not usually careless.


The question of who sent the attacker is unresolvable, though the finger of suspicion must point at Baybars (probably using a careful “second-hand” involvement). Baybars had had time to assess Edward as a threat to him, and the current truce was only a temporary halt to hostilities; the English King might well return with a larger expedition in a few years, and in any case he was clearly capable and committed to the war. The Sultan had also recently tried to hire the ‘Assassins’ in the mountains to intercept and liquidate one of the last lords of coastal Tripoli to defy his army, by attacking him on his way back from a mission to the Mongols. He was also reputedly involved in the notorious stabbing of Sultan Qutuz by his officers in 1260, in the aftermath of the victory at Ain Jalut.


Baybars was quite capable of trying to remove Edward in a similar way, though when the attempt failed he hurried to congratulate Edward and deny all responsibility. The Prince recovered after some weeks of danger – but what if he had not? I’ll be looking into that in Part 2 of this article series.



Discuss this article Here.


Tim Venning has written a series of books for SLP on Ancient Rome, starting with Caesars of the Bosphorus.



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