During the period of the Crusades, turcopoles (also "turcoples", "turcopoli" or "turcopoliers"; from the Greek: τουρκόπουλοι, "sons of Turks") were locally recruited mounted archers employed by the Christian states of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The crusaders first encountered turcopoles in the Byzantine army during the First Crusade. These auxiliaries were the children of mixed Greek and Turkish parentage and were at least nominally Christian, although some may have been practising Muslims. Some Byzantine turcopole units accompanied the First Crusade and may have provided a model for the subsequent employment of indigenous auxiliary light horse in the crusader states.
The turcopoles employed by the crusader states were not necessarily Turkish or mixed-race mercenaries, but many were probably recruited from Christianized Seljuqs, or from Syrian Eastern Orthodox Christians under crusader rule. In the Holy Land, turcopoles were more lightly armoured than the knights and sergeants (mounted men at arms), being armed with lances and bows to help combat the more mobile Muslim forces. The turcopoles served as light cavalry providing skirmishers, scouts, and mounted archers, and sometimes rode as a second line in a charge, to back up the Frankish knights and sergeants. Turcopoles had lighter and faster horses than the western mounted troops and wore much lighter armour. Usually this comprised only a quilted aketon or jerkin and a conical steel helmet.
Turcopoles served in both the secular armies of Outremer and the ranks of the military orders. In the latter, turcopoles had lower status than the Frankish sergeants and were subject to various restrictions. These included having to eat at a separate table from the other mounted soldiers of the Templers or Hospitalers.
A perennial problem for the Christian states of Outremer was the limited quantities of Frankish manpower, horses and weapons available. To a certain extent this weakness was redressed through the employment of locally recruited turcoples, riding indigenous horses and using the same equipment as their opponents. The cost of paying the mercenary element amongst the turcopoles was one of the specific reasons for repeated cash donations being sent to the crusader states from Europe.
At the decisive Battle of Hattin in 1187 the Historia Regni Hierosolymitani records 4,000 turcopoles as being part of the defeated Christian army. However the historian Steven Runciman considers this number exaggerated, and notes that the Moslem light cavalry present were probably better armed than the turcopoles.
The Mamluks considered turcopoles to be traitors and apostates, killing all those whom they captured. The turcopoles who survived the Fall of Acre followed the military orders out of the Holy Land and were established on Cyprus with the Knights Templar and Rhodes and Malta with the Knights Hospitaller. The Teutonic Order also called its own native light cavalry the "Turkopolen".
Turcopoliers and attendants
The turcopoles had their own leaders called turcopoliers who outranked ordinary sergeants, at least in battle. The senior office-holders of the Knights Templar included a turcopolier who commanded both the mercenary cavalry recruited by the Order in the East and the sergeant-brothers. The personal attendants of the Grand Master of the Temple included a turcopole - possibly as an interpreter or orderly. Francesco Balbi (1568) reports that the leader of the English 'Langue' of the Knights of St John was the order's turcopolier.
As a modern survival, there is always an appointed turcopolier in a present-day priory of the Masonic Knights of Malta.
- Terrence Wise: The Knights of Christ, p. 34, ISBN 0-85045-604-5
- Jonathan Riley-Smith, page 79 "The Crusades", ISBN 0-300-04700-2
- Steven Runciman: A History of the Crusades - The Kingdom of Jerusalem, pages 489-490, Standard Book Number 521 06162 8
- Helen Nicholson: The Knights Templar - a New History, p. 118, ISBN 0-7509-3839-0
- Piers Paul Reads: The Templars, p. 133, ISBN 1-84212-142-1
- Francesco Balbi: The Siege of Malta
Michael Haag, "The Templars: History and Myth", p. 158, Profile Books, London 2009. ISBN 978-1-84668-153-0
Jean Richard, "Les turcoples au service des royaumes de Jérusalem et de Chypre: musulmans convertis ou chrétiens orientaux?", in idem, Croisades et Etats latins d’Orient Points de vue et Documents (Aldershot, Ashgate, 1992) (Variorum Collected Studies Series: CS383),