Crusader Whodunnit: The Curious Case of Conrad of Montferrat

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 9 August 2020

Conrad of Montferrat … imagined. Picture is from the Paris of the 1840s, by François-Édouard Picot.

Conrad of Montferrat, the monarch of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, one of the four Crusader principalities, was assassinated in Acre on 28 April 1192 by the Nizari Ismailis, the legendary Assassins. The event received a lot of interest in its own time and since in the Christian world—and fuelled the various myths about the Nizaris either being focused on the Crusaders (the Nizaris’ war was always with the Sunni order) or operating in Europe (which they never did). There has also long been speculation about a third party having sponsored the Nizaris, and a paper by Patrick A. Williams examines this issue.

THE ASSASSINATION

There is little agreement on who the two Nizari killers were; the evidence compiled by Williams points to one or both of them having been in Conrad’s employ as a servant, or perhaps in his entourage as monks, for several months before the assassination.

The long-term, elaborate planning that went into Conrad’s murder is in marked contrast to Raymond II (d. 1152), the Count of Tripoli, the only other Crusader leader the Nizaris cut down, who was stabbed to death at the gates of his city in a hasty assault, probably because he was encroaching on the independence of the Nizari statelet on the Syrian coast.

As an aside: Raymond’s assassination did not occasion the interest that Conrad’s did in Christendom; it is unclear why. One reason might be that the Nizaris were effectively underground at that stage, shielding themselves and their doctrines, and they had been that way since their eviction from Damascus in 1129. The Nizaris had emerged very briefly a few years before Raymond was killed—fighting alongside the Crusaders, against Nuradeen al-Zangi (d. 1174), the great Sunni unifier before Saladin (d. 1193)—and then dropped out of history again, emerging in the 1160s. In short, nobody knew who the Nizaris were in 1152, especially not the Crusaders. This was in marked contrast to the situation by the time of Conrad.

The Persian founder of the Nizaris, Hassan-i-Sabbah, had died in 1162 and in Syria the Nizari mission passed into the hands of Sinan ibn Salman ibn Muhammad, better known as Rashid al-Din Sinan or the Old Man of the Mountain (Shaykh al-Jabal). In 1164, the Nizaris proclaimed the Resurrection that ended the Holy Law and involved the behaviours that caused such outrage among (and fed the legends from) the Sunnis. These goings-on also attracted the attention of the Christians in the Latin States, who had the most contact with the Nizaris during this period, whether in alliance or tension, and this same period corresponded with the fastest pace of assassinations.

At all events, the two Nizaris killed Conrad in the usual way, with daggers, and—again as usual—made little attempt to escape. There is evidence the Nizaris regarded it as shameful to survive an assassination mission, but the Islamic prohibition on suicide remained. One of the Nizaris was killed on the spot; the other took refuge in a nearby church before being captured, briefly interrogated, then executed by being dragged through the streets.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS

Conrad had been formally elected as King four days before his assassination after complicated political wrangling, and against the wishes of England’s King Richard I (Lionheart), who was in the Latin States at this time and preferred Guy of Lusignan, who had briefly served as King of Jerusalem from 1186 to 1187. Guy had essentially no other supporters: it was one of his allies, the avaricious Raynald of Chatillon, who had, by threatening the Islamic Holy Land in Arabia, provoked Saladin’s jihad that pushed the Christians out of their Holy Land. Guy had been carried off to a dungeon in Damascus for a year and Raynald had been beheaded by Saladin personally—a mark of the cold fury Raynald had incited in Islamdom with his brigandage near Mecca and Medina, given Saladin’s famous magnanimity and gentle treatment of defeated foes. Only Conrad’s skill had prevented a total collapse, retaining a foothold in Tyre that the Third Crusade (1189-92) was able to expand on, re-establishing the Jerusalem Kingdom, albeit without Jerusalem; the new capital was in Acre, where Conrad was struck down. Richard’s nephew, Henry of Champagne, became the King of Jerusalem.

It should noted at the outset that the accusation that a third party sponsored a Nizari assassination is itself not an implausible accusation; there are cases in their record where the evidence suggests the Nizaris acted at the behest of others. Indeed, this was how they ended their existence, as an instrument in the hands of the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt, Baybars. For example, the Nizari assassination attempt against England’s Edward II in Acre in June 1272 was ordered by Baybars.

Traditionally, says Williams, there are five suspects given. The obvious candidate is Guy of Lusignan. The problem is that all available evidence says Guy was resigned to having lost the throne in Jerusalem, aware he had no confidence among the barons, and King Richard had arranged for him to rule Cyprus as a pleasant consolation. Guy had left by May 1192 and showed no signs of trying to re-enter the running once Conrad was out of the way.

King Richard is the next most obvious candidate. Indeed, under torture, the captured Nizari named Richard as the party responsible. This has some weight, Williams explains, since Conrad had been conspiring with Saladin to work against Richard until the news had come through that Richard had accepted Conrad as King of Jerusalem. Had Richard found out about this conspiracy, the reasoning goes, he could have acted to kill Conrad, and the fact Richard’s nephew replaced Conrad as King of Jerusalem, would seem to add to this case.

Williams adumbrates the counter-arguments about Richard’s upfront nature and desire to return to England that are sometimes invoked against this; one can take or leave them. The most clear-cut evidence against the idea Richard had Conrad killed, Williams notes, is that he had just surrendered to the barons’ demand for Conrad to be made ruler and sent his own candidate to Cyprus; if he was going to kill Conrad, the moment was before ratifying his claims to the throne. One can add, relatedly, that the Nizaris were in place for months: whoever killed Conrad was able to pick the timing with some precision—and if Richard had wanted to eliminate Conrad, the timing would have been considerably earlier than April 1192.

This fact that Conrad was in warm contact with Saladin seems to rule him out since he had every reason to expect reasonable terms with Conrad going forward, though Williams is less convincing in invoking the Nizari assassination attempts against Saladin from fifteen years earlier. There is every indication that after the second of those attempts, in 1176, and after the Nizari fida’i meeting in Saladin’s tent that revealed to him that his two closest bodyguards were Nizari agents, that a modus vivendi was reached that at times included coordination.

The final suspect is another Crusader leader, Humphrey of Toron, though he seems fairly self-evidently innocent; his “issue” with Conrad was finished years earlier, and there were many simpler ways he could have avenged himself rather than this months-long set-up and the specifically-timed murder.

Williams does not contest that Sinan gave the order that sent the Nizaris to infiltrate Conrad’s court, but his reasoning in asking that Occam’s razor be set aside—that Sinan’s agents acting on Sinan’s orders killed Conrad be disregarded as the explanation—is much weaker, relying on a later forged letter ascribing a fictitious motive to Sinan. The letter proves nothing one way or the other; it certainly doesn’t by itself exculpate Sinan.

NEW SUSPECT

Williams suggests that Henry of Champagne, the new King of Jerusalem, might have been the culprit who had Conrad murdered, and it must be conceded that the evidence he marshals is intriguing.

First is the obvious: the cui bono question points squarely at Henry.

Next, Henry acted in a deeply suspicious manner in the run-up to the assassination and just afterwards. Henry had been dispatched by Richard as emissary to tell Conrad he had been elected King, but he delayed at least a week in delivering this message. Conrad was murdered immediately after Henry conveyed this message in Tyre and left for Acre. Henry was then back in Tyre, married to Conrad’s widow Queen Isabella (a necessary condition for the throne), and had been unanimously selected by the barons by 30 April. Henry told the barons he had married Isabella at Richard’s insistence, and sent a letter to Richard asking permission to wed Isabella. Of course this could suggest no more than opportunism, but it does highlight deception and draws attention to how well-placed Henry was, at just the right time, to control the situation after Conrad’s murder.

Possibly the most interesting fact Williams points to is the 1194 visit by Henry the Nizari stronghold in the mountains of the Syrian coast where he met the new Nizari leader after Sinan died. It is from this meeting that the legend derives that the Nizari chief simply had to wave his hand and two devotees jumped down a mountain to their deaths. Traditionally, this meeting is interpreted as Henry restoring relations between Christians and the Nizari sect in the face of Sunni pressure, but if it is assumed he conspired with the Nizaris to eliminate Conrad then it looks very different. It could also be interpreted as a meeting renewing Henry’s supplication, a reminder for Henry that he was in his position thanks to the Nizaris—and that if they could remove one King, they could remove another.

Finally, Williams points to Henry never having once, in five years in power, signed a document as “King”. Was it guilt? A mark of his subordination to the Nizaris? A possibility that Williams does not note is theological. The first Crusader ruler of Jerusalem after the city was restored to Christendom in 1099, Godfrey of Bouillon, is said to have refused the title of “King”, leaving that to Jesus Christ alone, and styled himself the Advocate of the Holy Sepulchre. That said, the evidence on this is contested—though it does seem Godfrey refused to wear “a crown of gold in the place where Christ had worn a crown of thorns”—and by the time Henry was in power the title “King” was uncontroversial; had he wished to make a statement by refusing the title, it seems likely some record would have been left of it. Nonetheless, it is curious and something beyond coincidence that needs an explanation why Henry never used his title on official documents.

AFTERMATH

During Henry’s rule and for several decades after his death in 1197, the Crusader States went through a period of recovery. In 1229, Jerusalem, a city Muslims paid little attention to after its recapture, was given back to the Crusaders as part of the diplomatic settlement between Saladin’s successors and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II that ended the Sixth Crusade. The Crusaders were ejected in 1244 after they tried to purge the city of Muslims.

The Mongol invasion of the region began just over a decade after the Crusaders lost Jerusalem for the last time, and upended regional politics. The Nizari headquarters were destroyed as the Mongols swept through Iran and Baghdad was sacked in 1258 destroying the Abbasid Caliphate, which would be nominally restored in Cairo three years later under the guard of the Mamelukes. It was the Mamelukes who took the lead in this new situation, halting the Mongol tide with some help from the remaining Nizaris in Syria, who were subsequently liquidated, and then dealing the final blows to the Latin States, taking Acre in 1291.

This was the end of the attempts to retake the Holy Land. The efforts to rekindle the Crusades died out quickly as Christendom was pre-occupied at the dawn of the fourteenth century with the more immediate problem of the second Islamic advance into Europe, this time from the Ottoman Turks.

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