Life of Tancred, 1097-1112

Tancred was a young man of about 20 when Pope Urban preached the Crusade. His grandfather had conquered Sicily, so he was looking for a new frontier. The Crusade was perfect for him, since he already spoke some Arabic. He made his name first by rushing to help liberate Armenian towns in Cilicia, but at the same time, part of what made his name even then was his determination to own any town he helped to conquer—with resulting controversy.

Tancred really, really wanted to be King of Jerusalem. He believed he had been the first over the wall, and once he was in the urban fighting melee, he gave his banner to a group of frightened citizens on a rooftop. He believed it would protect them after he left, and they would be grateful to him, but someone slaughtered them anyway. Tancred was furious. “Prince of Galilee” definitely felt like a consolation prize, after that.

As the years went by, Tancred was always at the front of some battle; he was perhaps the hardest worker among them all, assiduously adding even small towns, overlooked ports, and hilltops, in addition to the big city prizes where he assisted. But every time a title was being handed out or territory redivided, he could set his clock by how a tribunal of other Crusaders (led by one of the Boulogne brothers) would put him in the wrong and give him the short straw. He was always the Best Man, never the Groom. Literally, too, he didn’t marry.

When Bohemund left him with an empty treasury, shrinking territory, and the joint regency of Antioch and Edessa, Tancred’s moment seemed to have come, but maybe not in the way he hoped. He was 29 and had vast tactical experience, but the tide seemed to be going out. What could he do? Tancred made a bold decision: he talked Antioch into supporting a deep round of taxation, and he drew in the largest army he could create, leaving Edessa practically defenseless. He used the taxes to hire mercenaries, too.

Tancred picked a soft target: the town of Artah, in Aleppo’s zone. He set up a half-hearted siege of Artah, to provoke Radwan into coming out. When the Aleppans came, Tancred pulled back as if fleeing. He chose his ground carefully, knowing that the Arabs and Turks preferred to fight on horseback with archery. He turned to battle where the ground was too broken and rocky for horses. The Aleppans could get no purchase in this setting and it was Radwan’s turn to flee. Tancred’s men occupied Artah, and now they had momentum. Town by town, hill by hill, they began to win back Antioch’s authority.

In 1106, little Cecilia of France (now about ten) arrived to marry Tancred. His titles had come and gone, so she’s recorded as Lady of Tarsus, not Princess of Galilee or Tiberias. But in practical terms, she was welcomed as the “Princess of Antioch”, without the formal title. Tancred was finally the real ruler of a small principality worth having: Antioch’s thick walls and Edessa’s rich farm fields, with authority expanding into Cilicia again. He refused to honor Bohemund’s humiliating Treaty of Devol, when the Emperor thoughtfully sent him a copy. He worked hard to make Antioch into a functioning small state.

Then, just when he was happy, in 1109 someone ransomed Count Baldwin II from Mosul. Tancred had to welcome Baldwin home, but he made it clear that “finders keepers, losers weepers” was going to be the rule. By the following year, the Edessans (who supported Baldwin II’s return to governance) and the Antiochans were drawing up lines for battle. This was just insane. Even more insane, the ruler of Mosul had released Baldwin II only after insisting on mutual vows of alliance, so Mosul sent archers against Tancred, too! The archbishop and King Baldwin I of Jerusalem used diplomacy to put Tancred back in his place.

Tancred apparently really liked Raymond of Toulouse’s grandson Pons, whose father Bertrand became the Count of Tripoli in 1109. In 1112, Tancred’s bride Cecilia was 15 and was probably deemed old enough to be a wife in fact. Tancred was 36 and ready to be a father, or so he thought. Then a typhoid epidemic came through, and Tancred became sick. He told Pons, who was about Cecilia’s age, to marry the widow, and he set aside land between Antioch and Tripoli to be her dowry. Almost certainly it was land he had recently conquered with his own heritage in mind. And then he died.

Tancred’s life seems more familiar than some of the others’ lives, because while he constantly strove for achievement, the outcome always fell short of expectations. It’s so human. After his death, a “Life of Tancred,” Gesta Tancredi, circulated in Europe. The Italian poet Tasso wrote a romanticized version, which Voltaire made into a play, which Rossini made into an opera, “Tancredi.”

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