Guy, A Knight:
Letter from the Sixth Crusade, 1249
[TR] This letter, although not " written from the Holy
Land, and the composition of an humble pilgrim, gives such valuable
and in some cases otherwise unknown details, concerning
the capture of Damietta in Louis' first crusade, that it has seemed
wise to include. The king's speech is very characteristic.
GUY, A KNIGHT, TO B. OF CHARTRES.
Rolls Series, M. Paris. Chron. maj. VI, pp 155 ff. Latin.
[Another translation of this letter can be found in Matthew Paris
(Bohn edition), III, 411 ff]
From Damietta, 1249.
To his dear halfbrother and wellbeloved friend, master
B. of Chartres, student at Paris, Guy, a knight of the household
of the viscount of Melun, greeting and a ready will to do his
Because we know that you are uneasy about the state of the Holy
Land and our lord, the king of France, and that you are interested
in the general welfare of the church as well as the fate of many
relatives and friends who are fighting for Christ under the king's
orders, therefore, we think we ought to give you exact information
as to the events of which a report has doubtless already reached
After a council held for that purpose, we departed from Cyprus
for the East. The plan was to attack Alexandria, but after a few
days a sudden tempest drove us over a wide expanse of the sea.
Many of our vessels were driven apart and scattered. The sultan
of Cairo and other Saracen princes, informed by spies that we
intended to attack Alexandria, bad assembled an infinite multitude
of armed men from Cairo, Babylon, Damietta and Alexandria, and
awaited us in order to put us, while exhausted, to the sword.
One night we were borne over the waves by a violent tempest. Toward
morning the sky cleared, the storm abated, and our scattered vessels
came together safely. An experienced pilot who knew all the coast
in this part of the sea and many idioms, and who was a faithful
guide, was sent to the masthead, in order that he might tell us
if he saw land and knew where we were. After he had carefully
and sorrowfully examined all the surrounding country, he cried
out terrified, " God help us, God help us, who alone is able;
we are before Damietta."
Indeed all of us could see the land. Other pilots on other vessels
had already made the same observation, and they began to approach
each other. Our lord, the king, assured of our position, with
undaunted spirit, endeavored to reanimate and console his men.
"My friends and faithful soldiers," said he to them,
"we shall be invincible if we are inseparable in our love
of one another. It is not without the divine permission that we
have been brought here so quickly. I am neither the king of France
nor the holy church, you are both. I am only a man whose life
will end like other men's when it shall please God. Everything
is in our favor, whatever may happen to us. If we are conquered,
we shall be martyrs; if we triumph, the glory of God will be exalted
thereby that of all France, yea, even of Christianity,
will be exalted thereby. Certainly it would be foolish to believe
that God, who foresees all, has incited me in vain. This is His
cause, we shall conquer for Christ, He will triumph in us, He
will give the glory, the honor and the blessing not unto us,
but unto name.
In the meantime our assembled vessels approached the land .The
inhabitants of Damietta and of the neighboring shores could view
our fleet of 1500 vessels, without counting those still at a distance
and which numbered 150. In our times no one, we believe, had ever
seen such a numerous fleet of vessels. The inhabitants of Damietta,
astonished and frightened beyond expression, sent four good galleys,
with well-skilled sailors, to examine and ascertain who we were
and what we wanted. The latter having approached near enough to
distinguish our vessels, hesitated, stopped, and, as if certain
of what they had to report, made ready to return to their own
party; but our galleys with the fast boats got behind them and
hemmed them in, so that they were compelled, in spite of
their unwillingness, to approach our ships.
Our men, seeing the firmness of the king and his immovable resolution,
prepared, according to his orders, for a naval combat. The king
commanded to seize these mariners and all whom they met, and ordered
us afterward to land and take possession of the country. We then,
by means of our mangonels which hurled from a distance five or
six stones at once, began to discharge at them firedarts,
stones, and bottles filled with lime, made to be shot from a bow,
or small sticks like arrows. The darts pierced the mariners and
their vessels, the stones crushed them, the lime flying out of
the broken bottles blinded them. Accordingly, three hostile galleys
were soon sunk. We saved, however, a few enemies. The fourth galley
got away very much damaged. By exquisite tortures we extracted
the truth from the sailors who fell alive into our hands, and
learned that the citizens of Damietta had left the city and awaited
us at Alexandria. The enemies who succeeded in escaping and whose
galley was put to flight, some mortally wounded, uttering frightful
cries, went to tell the multitude of Saracens who were waiting
on the shore, that the sea was covered with a fleet which was
drawing near, that the king of France was coming in hostile guise
with an infinite number of barons, that the Christians were 10,000
to one, and that they caused fire, stones, and clouds of dust
to rain down. "However," they added "while they
are still fatigued from the labor of the sea, if your lives and
your homes are dear to you, hasten to kill them, or at least to
repulse them vigorously until our soldiers return. We alone have
escaped with difficulty to warn you. We have recognized the ensigns
of the enemy. See how furiously they rush upon us, equally ready
to fight on land or sea."
In consequence of this speech, fear and distrust seized the enemy.
All of our men, assured of the truth, conceived the greatest hopes.
In emulation of one another they leaped from their vessels into
the barks; the water was too shallow along the shore, the barks
and the small vessels could not reach the land. Several warriors,
by the express order of the king, cast themselves into the sea.
The water was up to their waists. Immediately began a very cruel
combat. The first crusaders were promptly followed by others and
the whole force of infidels was scattered. We lost only a single
man by the enemy's fire. Two or three others, too eager for the
combat, threw themselves into the water too quickly and owed their
deaths to themselves rather than to others. The Saracens giving
way, retired into their city, fleeing shamefully and with great
loss. Great numbers of them were mutilated or mortally wounded.
We would have followed them closely, but our chiefs, fearing an
ambuscade, held us back. While we were fighting some slaves and
captives broke their chains, for the gaolers had also gone out
to fight us. Only the women, children and the sick had remained
in the city. These slaves and captives, full of joy' rushed to
meet us, applauding our king and his army, and crying "Blessed
is he Who cometh in the name of the Lord." These events happened
on Friday the day of our Lord's Passion; we drew from it a favorable
augury. The king disembarked joyfully and safely, as well as the
rest of the Christian army. We rested until the next day, When,
with the aid and under the guidance of slaves who knew the country
and the roads, we got possession of what remained to be captured
of the land and shore. But during the night the Saracens, who
had discovered that the captives had escaped, had killed those
who remained. They thus made of them glorious martyrs in of Christ,
to their own damnation.
In the darkness of the following night and on Sunday morning,
as they lacked weapons and troops, the Saracens seeing the multitude
of the Christians who were landing, their courage and firmness,
and the sudden desolation of their own city, lacking leaders,
superiors and persons to incite them, as well as destitute of
strength and weapons for fighting, departed, taking their women
and children and carrying off everything movable. They fled from
the other side of the city by little gates which they had made
long before. Some escaped by land, others by sea, abandoning their
city filled with supplies of all kinds. That same day at nine
o'clock, two captives who escaped by chance from the hands of
the Saracens, came to tell us what had happened. The king, no
longer fearing an ambuscade, entered the city before three o'clock
without hindrance and without shedding blood. Of all who entered
only Hugo Brun, earl of March, was severely wounded. He lost too
much blood from his wounds to survive for he was careless of his
life, because of the reproaches which had been inflicted upon
him, and rashly rushed into the midst of the enemy. He had been
stationed in the front rank, at his own request, because he knew
that he was an object of suspicion.
I must not forget to say that the Saracens, after having determined
to flee, hurled at us a great quantity of Greek fire, which was
very injurious to us, because it was carried by a wind which blew
from the city. But this wind, suddenly changing, carried the fire
back upon Damietta, where it burned several persons and fortresses.
It would have consumed more property, if the slaves who had been
left had not extinguished it by a process which they knew, and
by the will of God, who did not wish that we should take possession
of a city which had been burnt to the ground.
The king, having then entered the city in the midst of cries of
joy, went immediately into the temple of the Saracens to pray
and thank God, whom he regarded as the author of what had taken
place. Before eating, all the Christians, weeping sweet and sacred
tears of joy, and led by the legate, solemnly sang that hymn of
the angels, the Te Deum Laudamus. Then the mass of the
blessed Virgin was celebrated in the place where the Christians
in ancient times had been wont to celebrate mass and to ring the
bells, and which they had now cleansed and sprinkled with holy
water. In this place, four days before, as the captives told us,
the foul Mohammed had been worshiped with abominable sacrifices,
loud shouts and the noise of trumpets. We found in the city an
infinite quantity of food, arms, engines, precious clothing, vases,
golden and silver utensils and other things. In addition we had
our provisions, of which we had plenty, and other dear and necessary
objects brought from our vessels.
By the divine goodness, the Christian army, like a pond which
is greatly swollen by the torrents pouring in, was added to each
day by some soldiers from the lands of lord Villehardouin and
some Templars and Hospitalers, besides pilgrims newly arrived,
so that we were, by God's grace, largely reinforced. The Templars
and Hospitalers did not want to believe in such a triumph. In
fact, nothing that had happened was credible. All seemed miraculous,
especially the Greek fire which the wind carried back onto the
heads of those who hurled it against us. A similar miracle formerly
took place at Antioch. A few infidels were converted to Jesus
Christ and up to the present time have remained with us.
We, instructed by the past, will in the future exercise much prudence
and circumspection in our actions. We have with us faithful Orientals
upon whom we can count. They know all the country and the dangers
which it offers; they have been baptized with true devotion. While
we write, our chiefs are considering What it is necessary to do.
The question is whether to proceed to Alexandria or Babylon and
Cairo. We do not know what will be decided. We shall inform you
of the result, if our lives are spared. The sultan of Babylon,
having learned what has taken place, has proposed to us a general
engagement for the morrow of St. John the Baptist's day, and in
a place which the two armies shall choose, in order, as he says,
that fortune may decide for the men of the East or the men of
the West, that is between the Christians and themselves, and that
the party to whom. fate shall give the victory, may glory in it,
and the conquered may humbly yield. The king replied that he did
not fear the enemy of Christ one day more than another and that
he Offered no time for rest, but that he defied him tomorrow and
every day of his life, until he should take pity on his own soul
and should turn to the Lord who wishes the whole world to be saved,
and who opens the bosom of His mercy to all those who turn to
We tell you these things in this letter through our kinsmen Guiscard.
He seeks nothing else than that he may, at our expense prepare
himself for a professorship and have a fit lodging for at least
We have learned nothing certain worth reporting about the Tartars.
We can expect neither good faith from the perfidious, nor humanity
from the inhuman, nor charity from dogs, unless God, to whom nothing
is impossible, works this miracle. It is He who has purged the
Holy Land from the wicked Charismians. He has destroyed them and
caused them to disappear entirely from under heaven. When we learn
anything certain or remarkable of the Tartars, or others, we will
send you word either by letter or by Roger de Montefagi, who is
to return to France in the spring, to the lands of our lord the
viscount, to collect money us.
Trans in Dana C. Munro, "Letters of the Crusaders", Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European
History, Vol 1:4, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania,
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© Paul Halsall December 1997