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The Great Jihadist Confronts the Leper King

Saladin, Islam's most fearsome conqueror, faces Baldwin IV, the sixteen-year-old king of Jerusalem. Who wins?

In the mid-twelfth century, the Kingdom of Jerusalem witnessed a unique event as Baldwin III (r. 1143-1163), the first king of European descent born in the Holy Land, began his royal reign. Despite political troubles during his twenty-year rule, Baldwin’s reign resulted in the complete control of Palestine by the Christians.

When Baldwin died childless, his brother, Amalric, assumed the throne. King Amalric I (r. 1163-1174) was consumed with military campaigns to Egypt throughout his reign and was a tough battlefield commander with a gruff personality but also a pious and devoted man. He fathered three children (a son and two daughters) from marriages to two women (Agnes of Courtenay and Maria Comnena). All three of his children would eventually sit on the throne of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. When Amalric’s son, Baldwin, was young, the king invited the scholarly cleric William of Tyre to court as tutor to the prince. William, a second-generation Latin East settler born from children of the original Crusaders, became the first native-born bishop in the Latin East. William received his early education in Jerusalem and went to France at sixteen to further his studies.

While tutoring Prince Baldwin, William noticed something odd about the child. He did not respond to pain stimuli in a normal manner—he felt little to no pain when the stimuli should have provoked an immediate response. Examined by doctors, the boy was diagnosed with leprosy.

King Amalric I died of fever in 1174 after another failed Egyptian campaign. His leprous son was only thirteen years old, so a regent ruled until Baldwin came of age three years later.

Baldwin IV (r. 1174-1185) was a heroic and tragic figure in the history of the Crusader States. A devoted man of faith wracked by a debilitating disease, the sickly king spent his life in selfless service to the kingdom but was rewarded on earth with political intrigue and selfish courtiers.

The Leper King came to power when the greatest fear of Christians in the Latin East finally materialized. The previously separated Muslim caliphates (the Fatimid in Cairo and Abbasid in Baghdad) were united under the reign of the Kurdish general known as Saladin. Driven by his conviction to jihad, Saladin invaded the Crusader States eight times during a fourteen-year period. He would have needed far fewer than eight tries if not for the actions of the young leper king at the Battle of Montgisard.

In November 1177, Saladin led a large force of warriors across the Egyptian frontier on a large-scale plundering expedition of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Baldwin mustered a force of six hundred knights and pursued the marauding band of Muslims. The sixteen-year-old king discovered Saladin’s force bivouacked and foraging for food at Ramla. The heavily outnumbered Christian force, carrying the relic of the True Cross, surprised Saladin and routed the Muslim army, which tumbled into a rapid and disorganized retreat.

Saladin barely escaped the disaster. If the Leper King had succeeded in killing or capturing Saladin at Montgisard, the sad future of the Kingdom of Jerusalem would have been avoided.

Despite his defeat, Saladin knew that the Christian kingdom was built on sand, and it was only a matter of time before the leprous Baldwin died. The king recognized that his health hindered effective governance. Having no children, he actively sought to relinquish power through a series of regents, but they proved inapt or parochial, so he was forced to continue his reign.

The leprosy consumed Baldwin’s body, and the kingdom’s political scheming consumed his mind and energy—yet he persevered. The brave, morally strong, and faith-filled king found incompetence whenever he attempted to lay down the burden of government. His fate was not to suffer in quiet agony the perils of his debilitating disease; instead, his cross was to deal with the political maneuvering of the factions within his court.

One faction was led by Baldwin’s cousin, Count Raymond III of Tripoli, the great grandson of Raymond of Toulouse, one of the leaders of the First Crusade. Baldwin’s mother, Agnes of Courtenay, led another faction that included Joscelin III, Baldwin’s uncle, and the infamous knight Reynald of Châtillon.

Sybilla, Baldwin’s sister, was another key player in the succession squabbles at court. Sybilla’s brief marriage to William of Montferrat produced a son—of great consequence, as it would turn out. When William died, Sybilla, too young, beautiful, and powerful to remain a widow, married Guy de Lusignan, a dashing minor nobleman from Aquitaine who had left Europe in search of fame and fortune in the Latin East.

Agnes and Sybilla persuaded Baldwin to appoint Guy regent in 1181. The choice proved disastrous, as Guy was a useless ruler and a bungling military commander. His incompetence was on full display in the fall of 1183, when Saladin crossed the Jordan River to besiege the fortress of Kerak, east of the Dead Sea. Guy assembled a large army but failed to engage Saladin in battle, which allowed the invader to slip back over the frontier. Baldwin was so upset at Guy’s actions that he accused him of cowardice and treason in the face of battle.

Baldwin removed Guy as regent and pressured his sister to divorce the buffoon. In need of a new regent, Baldwin sent Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem to Europe in search of a lord to become regent, but the patriarch’s mission ended in failure. Eventually, Baldwin appointed his five-year-old nephew, also named Baldwin—the son of Sybilla and her deceased first husband—as heir, with Count Raymond III of Tripoli as regent.

A disaster was on the horizon, and Baldwin IV sensed its arrival. Saladin was watching and waiting across the frontier for the moment to strike. The Leper King knew that his death would launch Saladin’s quest to reclaim Jerusalem. He knew that the dynastic disputes and court factions drained the kingdom of the unity it desperately needed to withstand Saladin’s eventual assault.

Baldwin did what he could, but it was not enough. His heroic yet tragic earthly life came to an end on May 16, 1185, at the age of twenty-four. King for eleven years, Baldwin tried to buttress Jerusalem from the coming Muslim invasion, but his actions came to naught when his successor, the boy Baldwin V, died at the age of eight in 1186.

In 1187, Saladin would break the peace treaty he had made with Baldwin IV, launching a final military campaign against Jerusalem. The city would fall in October.

Baldwin’s dedication and devotion to his kingdom were without compare, and the grinding sacrifice of his life’s work was valiant. But although this truly saintly leper forestalled the end of Christian control of Jerusalem, he could not forbid it. It is a blessing that he did not live to see Saladin’s triumphant entry into the Holy City.

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