Crusading Criminals – The Other Sport of Kings

THE HIDDEN VICES OF KINGS DURING THE CRUSADES

Introduction

Life was short in the Crusades, and gambling, along with all the other things associated with it, was rife.

Even kings were not immune – on the contrary, with plentiful resources to (literally) play with, they could indulge themselves far more easily than most. If a prince or young king was lucky, it was a habit he grew out of – an edgy memory of a dissolute youth that could be quietly put behind him.

Baldwin III, for instance, became an excellent leader for his people. In the early years of his reign, however, because of his youth and because of the normal predisposition of men of his class and rank, he had a couple of bad habits too. In ‘pernicious games of chance and dice’, one otherwise admiring chronicler wrote, ‘he indulged more than befitted royal majesty. In pursuit of the desires of the flesh, also, he is said to have dishonoured the marriage ties of others. This was in his youth, however, for…after he took a wife, he is said to have been entirely faithful to her’. Gaming, whoring and drinking were all of a piece – and the sooner a man with responsibilities left them behind, the better.

Imaginary Portrait of Louis IX, known as Saint Louis, by Rex Franciae

Imaginary Portrait of Louis IX, known as Saint Louis, by Rex Franciae – Rexfranciae, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Saintly Sulking

As they got older, some people became increasingly less tolerant of gambling and everything that went with it. When King Louis IX sailed back to the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1250 he was suffering from the post-traumatic stress of captivity and the very real threats of torture which he had experienced while being held as a prisoner of war in Egypt. He was also still mourning the death of his brother, Robert of Artois. Entirely understandably, Louis was not in a good mood.

In mid-voyage, ‘weak as he was through illness’, Louis found his other brother, Charles of Anjou, gambling over a game of backgammon with lord Walter of Nemours. The king had a massive sense of humour failure. Louis staggered towards the players and threw their gaming board over the side. The quick-witted Walter anticipated what was about to happen and scooped all the money into his gown (‘there was a lot of it’, wrote John of Joinville, approvingly) before the game reached its sudden and watery conclusion.

Disapproval and Disappointment

This was an experience which stayed with Louis long after he had returned to the

West in 1254. Once he got back to France he introduced a series of legal reforms which included specific anti-gaming legislation. Instructions were issued ‘that all our prêvots and baillis…should avoid games of dice and taverns’. Even more ambitiously (and just as forlornly), he also tried to stop gaming equipment being made, declaring that ‘we desire the manufacture of dice to be banned throughout our kingdom’.

Not surprisingly, there is little evidence that any of these bans were effective – but, from Louis’s perspective at least, it showed that he was acting against something which he felt was an affront to honour and general perceptions of decency.

Louis was generally a well-meaning king, but he was prone to being rather ‘holier than thou’ – he was, after all, soon to become a saint. But he and his family had not always been so sanctimonious. Stories of gambling in the royal household were rife.

Noblesse Oblige
Master Jean de Mauléon - Playing Dice

Master Jean de Mauléon – Playing Dice – Walters Art Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Certainly, his far less saintly brothers were not above such temptations – the rudely interrupted game on the ship was no isolated incident. In 1250-1251, while the French army was still in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, John of Joinville saw the royal family hard at play. ‘While the king was in Acre’, John later wrote, ‘his brothers resolved to play dice. The count of Poitiers was such a courteous player that when he won he opened up the room and had all the gentlemen and gentlewomen summoned, if there were any about, and handed over fistfuls of money, his own as well as what he had won. When he lost money he guessed its value and bought it back from those he had been playing, whether the count of Anjou or others, and gave everything away, both his own money and others’.

The debts that gambling accumulated could be huge, but such reckless, flamboyant largesse was important – Louis’s brothers believed that generosity and the visible display of wealth was a central feature of leadership and monarchy. If one were to look for the roots of the extravagant gaming gestures of Versailles and the court of the Sun King, the camp of Louis’s army on the coast of Palestine would be a good starting point.

Gambling, Assassins and Influence

The predilection for gaming amongst the royal family was so famous that it even became known amongst the local Muslim states, and began, in its small way, to have an impact on foreign policy. When envoys from the Assassins brought tribute to King Louis from their leader, the Old Man of the Mountain, in 1250-1, they clearly knew how much the French nobility in general, and the royal family in particular, enjoyed gambling. Louis was given ‘backgammon and chess sets’, each of which was ‘decorated with ambergris, which was fixed to the crystal with fine gold settings’.

Joinville does not mention whether the king himself enjoyed gaming at that time, just that his brothers did. Perhaps he was being discreet on behalf of his patron. But it was odd, perhaps even suspicious, that the Old Man of the Mountain, usually very informed about such things, seemed to think that he did.

A Quiet Game of Chess

Much the same was true of the Muslim world – sometimes, in that violent age, even playing a game of chess could be dangerous. One noble chess player, Count Walter IV of Brienne, had been captured by the Mamluks at the battle of La Forbie in 1244. Six years later he was still languishing in prison, but seems to have struck up a rapport with the emir who was his captor. The two men began playing together.

Despite the absolute clarity of the rules, they began to squabble. During one game, matters deteriorated so badly that the emir punched Walter in the face. The count, who was also the brother-in-law of King Henry of Cyprus, was outraged. He grabbed the chess board, hit the emir round the head with it, and killed him. There could be no ultimate winner in this contest, however – the prison guards rushed in ‘and instantly strangled the count’.

Gambling as Metaphor

Gambling was also frequently associated with defeat, disaster and lethargy – there were moral as well as physical dangers. Just before the battle of Antioch in 1098, Kerbogha, the Turkic commander, was said to have been frittering away his time playing chess. With such dissolute activities at the top of his mind, it was no wonder, thought the judgmental chroniclers, that the catastrophic defeat of his armies followed soon afterwards.

The only existing drawing of the righteous sultan egypt As-Salih Ayyub

The only existing drawing of the righteous sultan Egypt As-Salih Ayyub – Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But sometimes the association of gambling with a more general weakness of disposition could be all too literal. The sultan of Egypt in 1249, for instance, was a ruler named as-Salih Ayyub, who had a habit of playing chess barefoot on a mat. One day, according to John of Joinville, his enemies were planning to poison him and decided to get to him by exploiting this habit.

While the sultan was besieging the Muslim lordship of Hama, one of his servants was bribed to kill him. The servant was aware ‘that the sultan would come and play chess on the mats at the end of his bed each afternoon, and so he placed poison on the mat on which he knew the sultan sat. It so happened that the sultan, who was bare-legged, shifted his weight onto an open sore on his leg, and straightaway the poison entered his exposed flesh and took all power of movement from the side of his body into which it had entered. Each time the venom surged to his heart the sultan was unable to eat, drink or speak for two days.’ In Joinville’s account, he became severely ill, declined into semi-paralysis, and died soon afterwards.

The story may well be apocryphal – Joinville is confusing ‘Hama’ with the town of Hims, for instance, and we know that as-Salih Ayyub was already seriously ill before the alleged poisoning incident even took place. But the message Joinville was trying to convey is clear – gambling, like alcoholism or promiscuity, is dissolute behaviour. It will not end well.

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Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land by Dr. Steve Tibble
Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land by Dr. Steve Tibble

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SOURCES

  • Tibble, S. (2023). Crusader criminals: How knights went rogue. Yale University Press.

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