Great leaders are largely forgiven their sins, but even the greatest among them are exposed to criticism in their lifetimes, and by historians in retrospect. It is generally hard to find an uncritical account of a ruler (and harder still to believe that such an account is credible), and this in itself is not remarkable. Leaders are as much prone to error as any of us, and all the more accountable for the vastly greater influence they have on the fate of the countries they rule and the lives of their citizens. But criticism is often less than equitable. Biographers, chroniclers, the media, are inevitably influenced by their personal predilections and antipathies, sometimes deifying leaders, but more often deprecating them. Neither of these attitudes is justified. Just as there is no mediocre or even despicable leader who entirely lacks positive qualities, there is no great leader, however admirable his or her achievements, who has not failed in some respect. And not every failure is avoidable. As the saying goes, you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.
William of Tyre gives a remarkably intimate portrait of the fifth crusader king, Amaury, who ruled the kingdom of Jerusalem between 1163 and 1174.* Amaury is perhaps chiefly remembered for his invasions of Fatimid Egypt between 1163 and 1169. He aimed at conquering Egypt, or at least creating a protectorate that would foil the intentions of the Syrian atabeg Nuradin to unite the two great threats to the crusader states - Syria and Egypt. In actuality, his failed efforts resulted in the conquest of Egypt by Shirkuh, a Kurdish military commander sent by Nuradin, and ultimately precipitated the rise to power of Shirkuh's nephew and the Franks' greatest enemy, Saladin. Amaury's other main contribution to Crusader history is his more successful attempt to overcome the main obstruction to the authority of the Crown, what Jonathan Riley-Smith referred to as "the impenetrable thickets of privilege" that empowered the great fiefdoms to the detriment of royal power.** He issued a law, the assize sur la ligece that prevented the illegal seizure of fiefs. Anyone doing so would have his own land confiscated or would be exiled. This gave the king power to legally confiscate the fief of any vassal who refused to pay homage to him. It also made all nobles, rear vassals and their lords alike, direct vassals of the king, at least technically eliminating the distinction between higher and lesser nobles and giving them all an equal voice in the Haute Cour, the judicial and legislative council of government of the kingdom.
Despite the dire effects of his failed invasions of Egypt, William described Amaury's character in a generally positive light. He was "a man of prudence and discretion", and though the chronicler refers to him only as "fairly well educated" he also records that the king was intelligent and accomplished, "surpassing all the nobles of the realm." He was "well versed in secular affairs" and second to none in his knowledge of the law.
Of Amaury's defects there are minor ones that are hardly his fault at all, such as a slight speech impediment: "sufficient to render him incapable of eloquence". He "lacked a genial temperament and was far too taciturn." But there are more serious faults as well. While on the one hand he was devout, attending mass daily, and he had tithes given to the Church, on the other hand he burdened the churches with debt. According to William the king possessed a degree of avarice that he could not condone, and while he praises Amaury's moderation in eating and drinking, he notes also his reprehensible sexual appetite and his love of wealth. On the latter fault William makes the following statement:
His greed for money was greater than was seemly or honourable in a king. By the free use of gifts, he often acquired it and still more often retained it quite contrary to the demands of strict justice and right.
And like so many other people in power Amaury was blind to any conflict in this regard. He told William:
Every prince, and above all a king, should ever see to it that he is never in straitened circumstances, and that for two reasons: first, because the wealth of the subject is always safe when the ruler is not in need; secondly, that he may have the resources at his disposal to provide for the necessities of his realm whenever an unexpected emergency arises. In such a case, the provident king should be most munificent and should spare no expense. Thus it will be plain that whatever he has he possesses not for his own benefit but for the good of the realm.
This, it would seem, is a common view among rulers today as well. I recently came across a listing of the net worth of some of the world leaders. I cannot vouch for the reliability of the statistics, so I will not repeat them here, but what was clearly apparent from this list, however accurate or inaccurate it might be, is that the personal wealth of the leaders of many countries, whether democratically elected presidents and prime ministers, royalty or dictators, is often staggering. The numbers ranged between 1.5 million to an obscene 200 billion US dollars. And what is no less remarkable is the fact that the degree of wealth of these individual leaders is in little accord with, or perhaps more accurately, in no accord with the wealth of the countries they rule or with the per capita income of the residents of those countries.
* William of Tyre, Chronicon, English trans. Emily A. Babcock and A.C. Krey, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, New York, 1943, vol. 2, pp. 296-98.
** Jonathan Riley Smith, The Crusades. A Short History, London, 1987, p. 75.