In 1176, Baldwin came of age and took charge of the kingdom at the tender age of 15. During the two years since his coronation, his condition had worsened, and was now clearly discernable as leprosy. Nevertheless, he possessed the strength and character necessary to rule. As historian Stephen Howarth aptly put it: “Baldwin assumed full power, and soon showed that he made up for any disability with sheer nerve…”3Share
One of Baldwin’s first actions as king was to reject the peace made with Saladin and raid the lands surrounding Damascus. This forced Saladin to quit his attack in Aleppo and adopt a defensive posture. Later that year, the young king led another raid in the Beka’a valley in Lebanon and Syria, and defeated an attack led by Saladin’s nephew. In the first months of his reign, Baldwin proved his capacity to rule. By countering Saladin with an attack on Damascus rather than a frontal assault at Aleppo, Baldwin demonstrated maturity and wisdom beyond his years.
This wisdom would guide Baldwin throughout his short life. His insistence on invading Egypt in autumn of 1176 was another example of it. From the beginning of his reign, Baldwin planned to hit Saladin in his Egyptian power base. Lacking sufficient naval strength, he forged an alliance with the Byzantine Empire.
The stage was set for invasion. However, the king’s brother-in-law, William of Montferrat, a key element to the raid, fell sick and died. Then Baldwin fell ill and the entire operation was jeopardized.
Meanwhile, Baldwin’s kinsman, Philip of Flanders, arrived from Europe on crusade, supported by Saint Hildegard’s mandate: “if the time shall come when the infidels seek to destroy the fountain of faith, then fight them as hard as, with God’s help, you may be able to do.”4 Hoping that Philip would salvage the doomed mission, Baldwin offered him regency until he could recover. Philip did not like the terms of the deal and refused. Raymond of Tripoli opposed the attack and the new Grand Master of the Knights of Saint John, young and inexperienced, hesitated.
When Byzantine ambassadors became skeptical of the mission and withdrew their support, the assault the king so desired was cancelled. Never again would the Crusaders have such an opportunity to wound Saladin in his power base. Only Baldwin had been wise enough to recognize the mission’s importance.
More than wisdom and courage, what made Baldwin IV a great king was his indomitable faith – a virtue he demonstrated at the famous battle of Montgisard. After the attack on Egypt was cancelled, Philip of Flanders took his army to campaign in the northern territories of the kingdom, where Raymond of Tripoli joined him. The move left Jerusalem in a precarious situation. Very few troops had stayed behind to defend the capital and the king’s condition had worsened.
Saladin was quick to seize the opportunity and directed his main army of 26,000 elite troops toward Jerusalem. From his sick bed, Baldwin summoned what little strength he had and rode out to meet his adversary with less than 600 knights and a few thousand infantrymen.5 By this point Baldwin’s strength was so deteriorated many thought he would die. Bernard Hamilton quotes a contemporary Christian writer who described the king’s condition as “already half dead.”6 Realizing the impotence of the king’s force, Saladin ignored him and continued his march to Jerusalem until Baldwin intercepted him near the hill of Montgisard, only 45 miles from Jerusalem. Seeing the overwhelming Muslim army, the Christians became petrified. However, such desperate situations afford great men an opportunity to show their mettle, and Baldwin rose to the challenge. Dismounting his horse, he called for the Bishop of Bethlehem, to raise up the relic of the True Cross he carried. The king then prostrated before the sacred relic, beseeching God for success. Rising from prayer, he exhorted his men to press the attack and charged. (Read more.)