William of Tyre

William of Tyre (ca. 1130-1184) was archbishop of Tyre, chancellor of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, and historian of the last years of the kingdom before its fall to Saladin in 1187.

Born in the crusading Kingdom of Jerusalem, William of Tyre also grew up there. Besides the French language, he acquired a knowledge of Eastern languages: Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, and Persian. These stood him in good stead in his later career. William's parents were probably of humble origin, but William's scholastic aptitude made him a likely candidate for the priesthood. He became a protégé of the archbishop of Tyre, and was sent sometime before 1163 to Europe, probably to study law.

Between 1163 and 1167 William was a canon in the cathedral church of Tyre. In 1167 he was chosen by King Amalric to become the historian of the kingdom and was promoted to archdeacon of Tyre. William traveled to Rome and Constantinople in the next few years before being appointed tutor to Amalric's son Baldwin (later King Baldwin IV) in 1170. Upon Amalric's death William planned to stop writing, but the rise to power of Count Raymond III of Tripoli brought William the appointment of chancellor of the kingdom, and in 1175 he was made archbishop of Tyre.

From 1176 on, William was engaged in diplomacy as well as in his official duties as chancellor and historian. William attended the Third Lateran Council in Italy in 1178, but from then on he became less powerful as the court intrigues which surrounded the dying young king Baldwin IV moved him farther from centers of real power. William now concentrated upon the writing of his history as the chaos of the court of Jerusalem began to reveal that inner weakness which would make it vulnerable to Saladin's attacks a few years later. William's history in this period became more than a royally commissioned work. From 1180 on, William wrote with a skill and tragic insight which few historians have surpassed.

William's use of documents in different languages, his lack of bias toward the men of different religions and races whose actions he described, his intimate knowledge of political and diplomatic events, and his skill as a Latin prose writer contributed to the greatness of his History of Deeds Done beyond the Sea. Toward the end of his life, when he felt the external and internal threats to the survival of the kingdom, William's commentary and narrative rise to eloquent heights of political tragedy. His somber account of the decline of the crusading kingdom is addressed not only to posterity but to all of the Christian world. William's work was continued and translated in his own time, and it has been widely used since and is still of immense interest, not only to professional historians but to students of history as well. It is the primary historical narrative contemporary with the last years of the Latin Kingdom and is an excellent example of the best 12th-century chronicle-writing technique.


Further Reading on William of Tyre

The best account of William's life, along with a complete listing of source materials concerning his works, is in the introduction to his History of Deeds Done beyond the Sea, translated by Emily Atwater Babcock and A. C. Krey (2 vols., 1943).