(Richard Warren Field is the author of the award-winning novel, The Swords of Faith. Read here why The Swords of Faith will make a great movie.)
“Kingdom of Heaven” is the first big-budget, period movie of 2005. Ridley Scott is undeniably one of today’s best film directors at delivering spectacular, riveting entertainment. But how much of the story of “Kingdom of Heaven” is actual historical fact? Even when we are entertained, we’re always curious—“Did that really happen?” As the author of the upcoming novel, The Swords of Faith, my research has given me an intimate familiarity with this period. As I sort out fact from fiction, I am not trying to be derogatory about the film. I agree with Liam Neeson, one of the stars of the movie, who observed that sometimes a greater truth emerges from artistic license. My aim here is simply to answer the question—“Did that really happen?”—without making any other judgments.
The greatest deviations from the historical record revolve around three characters. These are their actual stories:
Balian of Ibelin: Balian of Ibelin did oversee the defense of Jerusalem, and was the Christian leader who surrendered Jerusalem to Saladin in October of 1187. But he did not come from Europe in 1184. He was older than the character depicted in the movie. His family had lived in “Outremer” (the French term for the areas “outside of Europe” in the Holy Land) for multiple generations, and was part of a Christian faction favoring peaceful relations with Muslims.
Balian’s presence in Jerusalem at the time of Saladin’s siege was a convergence of circumstances, not a calculated choice. As Saladin consolidated his capture of the coastal city of Ascalon, and prepared to turn inland toward Jerusalem, Balian contacted Saladin asking for safe conduct to Jerusalem. He wanted to take his wife and children out of the city to Tyre. Saladin knew Jerusalem was devoid of competent military leadership. His advisers warned him not to grant Balian’s request as Balian was a knight, competent to lead the defense of Jerusalem. Saladin allowed Balian safe passage to Jerusalem, but only after Balian swore an oath to stay in Jerusalem for no more than one night. By Balian’s account, when he arrived, the people demanded he command the defense of the city, and refused to let him leave. He asked Saladin for permission to violate his oath. Not only did Saladin release Balian from his oath, but sent a squad of soldiers to escort Balian’s wife and children out of Jerusalem to Tyre.
It is true that in the course of Balian’s defense of the city he conferred knighthood on every possible Christian male resident, out of desperation. Saladin enjoyed overwhelming military superiority because of the destruction of most of the Christian army about three months before at the Battle of Hattin. Before leaving Ascalon, Saladin offered the Christian leaders in Jerusalem a generous proposition. They would be allowed to hunt and forage in the area until the following Pentecost, unmolested by Saladin’s troops. In exchange, the Christians would agree to surrender peacefully if by that time no rescue was coming. The Christians refused any terms. So Saladin vowed to take Jerusalem by storm, as Christians had in 1099.
Saladin was on the verge of keeping that vow when Balian asked for terms. Balian told Saladin that Christians were prepared to massacre all their Muslim prisoners and destroy the Muslim holy places in the city if Saladin insisted on storming Jerusalem. Saladin chose to save lives, Muslim and Christian, rather than keep his vow. The people were to ransom themselves to avoid slavery. When wealthy Christians left the city without offering ransom money to help poor refugees who could not pay, Saladin released many of the poor Christians without collecting their ransoms. So though Balian’s role in the peaceful surrender of Jerusalem was laudable, achievable by Balian’s skilled diplomacy and reputation with Saladin as an honorable Christian, it was not as achieved as the result of a stalemate.
Queen Sibylla: Queen Sibylla married Guy of Lusignan in 1180. Nobles of that time considered that as a probable future Queen of Jerusalem, she had married beneath her. She stayed married to Guy until her death during the siege of Acre, a few years after the events in “Kingdom of Heaven.” There is no record of any romance between Sibylla and Balian.
Guy of Lusignan: Guy of Lusignan became King of Jerusalem, but not in the way depicted in the film. “Kingdom of Heaven” begins in 1184. Baldwin IV (the leper king), depicted as king almost up to the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin, actually died in 1185. He was succeeded by Baldwin V, Baldwin IV’s young nephew. The regent appointed was Raymond of Tripoli, another one of the peaceful faction of Christians in Outremer. Raymond negotiated a four-year truce with Saladin. In 1186, after Baldwin V died at the age of nine, Guy took the throne, through some complicated and duplicitous maneuvering. Guy’s claim to the throne was asserted through his wife.
The chronicles from the period show Guy to be a weak-willed, vacillating leader, not competent to handle the challenges of his position. Just before the Battle of Hattin (portrayed in “Kingdom of Heaven,” though not named specifically), Guy was at first persuaded not to move out from the Christian fortresses to contest Saladin’s siege of Tiberias. But Reynald of Chatillon and the Master of the Templar Knights persuaded Guy that he must meet the provocation or be considered an ineffectual coward. So Guy ordered the march to Tiberias, without adequate water sources, and the Christian army was utterly destroyed in the trap Saladin set at the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187.
Guy was taken into custody, and held by Saladin for a year. He eventually began a siege at Acre which culminated when Richard the Lionheart arrived from England to finalize the capture of the coastal fortress by Christians in 1191. But the Christians of Outremer never accepted Guy as a desirable king after the Christian disaster at Hattin. Even though Guy of Lusignan was a vassal of Richard, and Richard initially supported him, Richard realized the Kingdom of Jerusalem needed a stronger king. Richard agreed not to contest Conrad of Montferrat as King of Jerusalem, and Guy and his family were given Cyprus, where they ruled for another 300 years.
There are four other characters who merit some commentary:
Saladin: Saladin’s appearance in “Kingdom of Heaven” is true to the tradition of Saladin as a warrior for Islam, but also as an extraordinarily compassionate man for his times. Within the time constraints of a modern motion picture, it was probably not possible to elaborate on Saladin’s extraordinary qualities, qualities that make him a revered figure even today. Saladin was honored as a model of “chivalry,” even by Christians of his era. His generosity with the western Christians in Jerusalem, described previously, is only one of the many stories from the period describing his magnanimous, yes, even chivalrous nature. In addition to that, Saladin was a Kurd. Not an Arab, or a Turk, but a Kurd—the same Kurds Sadaam Hussein tried to wipe off the face of the earth, who are an integral part of the new Iraqi government today.
Reynald of Chatillon: Reynald of Chatillon may have been even more of a rogue than depicted in “Kingdom of Heaven.” As the movie dramatizes, he raided Muslim caravans during the truce with Saladin. He taunted Muslim prisoners—“let Allah save you now”—as he slaughtered them. Guy could not control him, and refused to act against him when he violated the truce with Saladin. Reynald was undoubtedly conditioned by his long years as a prisoner in Syrian captivity, from 1160-1175.
Chronicles differ on the exact details, but Saladin did personally execute Reynald after the Battle of Hattin. It is a Muslim tradition that a prisoner is safe from harm if a Muslim offers the prisoner hospitality. The chronicles confirm the story of Saladin giving water to Guy, then angrily clarifying that even though Guy had shared the water with Reynald, Saladin was not offering hospitality to the doomed scoundrel.
Also, it is implied in the movie that Reynald was a Templar knight. He was, as portrayed, Lord of Kerak, but not a Templar knight.
“Tiberius”: “Tiberius” is a completely fictional character. No one named Tiberius is recorded as playing any substantive role in these events. I have seen it suggested that “Tiberius” is Raymond of Tripoli, mentioned earlier in this article as the regent of Baldwin V. But the “Tiberius” character simply does not do what Raymond of Tripoli did historically.
Raymond of Tripoli was Lord of Tiberius. (This may be where the idea comes from, that the “Tiberius” character is Raymond of Tripoli.) As indicated previously, the city of Tiberius was besieged by Saladin as the bait to lure the Christians out to the Battle of Hattin. Ironically, Raymond was part of the faction that originally talked Guy out of trying to relieve the siege, even though his wife was in Tiberius. But Raymond knew Saladin was not serious about the siege, and knew it was a trap.
When Guy changed his decision, and Raymond could not get Guy to rechange his decision, Raymond dejectedly proclaimed that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was doomed. The “Tiberius” character makes a similar statement, but in a totally different context, as he tells Balian he will leave the Holy Land and go to Cyprus. (The real Raymond would have gone back to Tripoli. Cyprus at this time was in the hands of Isaac Ducas Commenus, a member of the Byzantine Empire’s royal family and nominal ally of Saladin. Cyprus was taken from Isaac by Richard the Lionheart in 1191.)
The Raymond of Tripoli of history fought at the Battle of Hattin. Raymond's contingent of knights, at the vanguard of the Christian formation, mounted a desperate charge. They escaped when Saladin's nephew, Taqi al-Din, simply opened the line and let Raymond's group of knights escape.
Richard the Lionheart: The episode at the end of “Kingdom of Heaven” involving Richard the Lionheart is entirely invented. Richard first landed at Acre. Ibelin was well south of Richard’s arrival, down near Ascalon, an area Richard did not visit until he had been in Outremer for many months. It is correct that Balian did not participate with Richard in his military actions (now called the “Third Crusade.”). But that is because Balian was aligned with Conrad of Montferrat, a rival to Richard’s vassal Guy of Lusignan for the throne of Jerusalem. In fact, Balian conducted separate negotiations with Saladin on Conrad’s behalf before Conrad was designated as King of Jerusalem.
This scene may take place back in France, at Balian’s original European homeland in the film. That location also makes this very much an invented scene. Richard and the French King Phillip left Vezelay (in France) for Outremer on July 4, 1190 with a huge English and French army (about two-thirds English) amidst fanfare and ceremony. The idea of Richard tromping along a narrow path with a small group of men asking for directions does not match the real circumstances of his departure for his attempted rescue of Jerusalem from Saladin.
Also, Richard was in Outremer from only June 8, 1191 to October 9, 1192, not the three years indicated at the end of the movie. His “crusade” kept him away from his European territories for about four years.
“Kingdom of Heaven” captured some of the historical details magnificently. The flurries of arrows (the ones without flames), with the speed and impact so vivid, was undoubtedly realistic as to what it might have felt like to be under attack by skilled archers. It is also true, however, that heavily armored knights would have had less trouble with them. Some chronicles described knights as riding with arrows harmlessly stuck in their armor, looking like overgrown pincushions.
The depiction of Sicily as a starting place for departures to Outremer, and as a location filled with Muslim subjects under a Christian ruler, is absolutely accurate. In fact, the Latin Christians were a minority there, ruling over Muslims and eastern Orthodox Christians. And King William of Sicily sent ship after ship to Tyre after the Christian defeat at Hattin, supplying the struggling Christian forces by sea while the call went out to Europe for a rescue.
The hazards of sea travel across the Mediterranean are also true to the era. Richard the Lionheart dealt with stormy seas and shipwrecks both going to and coming from the eastern Mediterranean coast. The geography of Balian’s landing on the coast is, however, difficult to follow.
The depiction of Lord Balian’s subjects at Ibelin as being Jews and Muslims is also well- supported by history. Western Europeans were overlords in their territories, but they were a definite minority. From the time of the “First Crusade” to the end of the last “crusader states,” there was a constant concern about a shortage of Western manpower to control and govern these conquered territories.
For that reason, second and third generation western Europeans understood the need for peaceful relations with Muslims. It was newer arrivals, sworn to fight Muslims whether hostilities were declared or not, who brought fanaticism to the region, sometimes dragging the more experienced Christians from the area along. The conflict between these two Christian factions is one of the most accurately portrayed elements of “Kingdom of Heaven.”
Saladin’s offer of his physicians to King Baldwin at Kerak is a true-to-character depiction of Saladin’s generous nature. This also demonstrates Saladin’s correct view that at this time in history, the Muslims were the more advanced civilization in medicine and in other science and technology.
There are some scenes in the movie that simply aren’t true to history:
Much of the depiction of the sequence events at Reynald of Chatillon’s stronghold of Kerak is not true to history. Saladin did besiege Kerak unsuccessfully, but in 1183, well before the time frame of the movie. This siege was the setting of one of the most famous stories about Saladin. There was a wedding going on during the Muslim bombardment of the walls. Saladin found out which tower the newlyweds were in, and instructed his soldiers not to bombard it. When King Baldwin IV brought his army down from Jerusalem to contest the siege, Saladin withdrew before they arrived. The huge line-to-line charge depicted in the movie never occurred during the siege of Kerak and was an extremely rare event between these armies. Muslim commanders avoided line-to-line clashes as the European armored cavalry were feared for their devastating charges. And as the Kerak scenes in “Kingdom of Heaven” are out of the true historical chronology, they are also geographically misplaced. Kerak was well southeast of Jerusalem, on the opposite side of the Dead Sea from the city, removed by some distance from most of these events.
Templar Knights would not have been publicly hanged in Jerusalem for “killing Arabs.” With the power the Templars had, militarily and economically, no King of Jerusalem would have considered such executions.
Balian did not stay in Jerusalem to organize its defense as King Guy led the Christian army out to face Saladin, eventually resulting in the Christian defeat at the Battle of Hattin. Balian was at Hattin. He escaped before the trap closed entirely.
Saladin did not go directly to Jerusalem after winning at Hattin. He tried to consolidate his victory by taking all western Christian coastal cities. He took all the important ones except Tyre. He would come to regret not taking Tyre before turning inland to Jerusalem.
The flaming arrows and flaming stones are Hollywood fiction. They do look fantastic on the screen!
There’s a statement made that “Saladin will show no mercy.” This may have referred to Saladin’s oath to storm Jerusalem. But Saladin was known for mercy. He allowed refugees from cities he captured after the Battle of Hattin to flow unmolested to Christian coastal cities where Saladin hoped they would begin their returns to Europe. In the end, Christians counted on Saladin’s mercy, even when by the customs of the period, they had no right to expect it.
Finally, there are a number of 21st Century perspectives that sneak into the story-telling, that just don’t ring true for the 12th Century. One of my favorite lines of the movie is from Balian’s father on his deathbed—“I regret all my sins, except one”—referring to the sin of conceiving Balian. This is a fun line, but considering the 12th Century Christian fear of hell, it is doubtful a Christian man from that era, believing he was about to greet God, would say he didn’t regret all his sins.
The Christian knight telling Balian that he didn’t have much confidence in religion, and deriding fanatics, is a definite 21st Century perspective from a 12th Century character. It is unlikely this character from that period would express such a view, though it is a view to embrace for our times.
Balian’s father states that peace between Muslims and Christians lies at “the end of crusade.” (Actually, the word “crusade” was also unknown to that period.) The “end of crusade” was either the capture or protection of Jerusalem. Peace was achieved at various times, but was never acceptable to Christians or Muslims without complete control of Jerusalem.
When Balian arrives at his land-holdings in Ibelin, he helps bring water to the area, implying some sort of technological sophistication superior to the natives. This is purely a modern perspective, like Americans and Europeans helping Arabs develop oil fields. Back then, the Arabs, the Muslim culture, was the most advanced on the planet. Far more innovations flowed to western Europe from Outremer as a result of the “Crusades” than the other way around.
There is a statement that Christians were “fighting for wealth and land.” That is very much a modern suspicion, that American and European interests in the Middle East pertain to oil, or some sort of colonial domination. Few got wealthy going to the eastern Mediterranean to fight for Christianity. The “Silk Road” trading routes referred to in the movie were ironically opened up by the brutal Mongol conquests a few decades later. Though some Christians benefited economically, mainly the younger sons of nobility without prospects in Europe, many others spent fortunes, including Richard the Lionheart and other European sovereigns. Most really did travel to the Holy Land to fight for their religion, however deluded and misguided that might seem today.
The cheers at Balian’s surrender of Jerusalem are a 21st Century cheer for peace over what is depicted as pointless carnage. We all share those cheers. But 12th Century westerners were devastated by Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem. The reigning Pope died of grief when he heard the news. This was no cause for celebration for western Europeans of the 12th Century, in Jerusalem or Europe.
I’ve dissected this movie with the sole intent of answering the question—“Did that really happen?” This may seem as if I am attacking “Kingdom of Heaven.” In fact, I admire the sentiments expressed in the film, and hope the film’s message of mutual tolerance, respect and even love for our fellow religions, inspires all who see it. I also applaud the attention this film will bring to a period of history that is often referred to but little understood by Christians and Muslims today. All I want to do here is provide information on the true history. As I stated before, critics and moviegoers will decide the film’s merits, and certainly not solely on how factually accurate it is.
Copyright © 2005 by Richard Warren Field
Richard Warren Field is the author of the upcoming novel, The Swords of Faith. For more information, go to RichardWarrenField.com.
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