Baldwin IV had a leprosy at a time when it was considered a death sentence as well as a ticket to social ostracism. Instead, he became the King of Jerusalem and a hero to his people.
Before the (relatively recent) discovery of the cure for leprosy, being diagnosed with the disease was as good as a death sentence. Victims of leprosy were not only condemned to a slow and painful demise, they were shunned by their communities as “unclean” and driven out to live in colonies of the sick and dying, lest they spread their contamination to others.
In the 12th century, a young leprosy-stricken king named Baldwin IV defied the odds.
Born to King Amalric I of Jerusalem in 1161, the young prince Baldwin first showed signs of the dreaded disease at age nine. His tutor, the historian and future archbishop William of Tyre, noted how the leprosy was detected when, playing with his friends, Baldwin reported he had no feeling in his right arm and felt no pain “if pinched or even bitten.” The boy was protected by his royal position; at a time when kings were viewed as appointed by God, the Frankish court did not force him to live in solitude, much to the astonishment of local Muslims.
Despite his affliction, the young prince demonstrated a sharp mind and was a skilled rider. Baldwin was catapulted into a position of tremendous power after his father’s untimely death in 1174, which turned the sickly 13-year old into the King of Jerusalem.
The French had only taken control of Jerusalem 75 years earlier when the First Kingdom of Jerusalem was established in 1099 after the First Crusade. Larger than any contemporary European city and of enormous religious importance to both Christians and Muslims, Jerusalem was threatened by the powerful Sultan Saladin nearly as soon as Baldwin IV began his reign.
In an age when kings were expected to fight on the front lines, Baldwin did not let his horrific disease get in the way of his royal duties.
Although he could only hold the reins of a horse with one hand, Baldwin rode at the head of the Frankish army and led his men against the Muslim forces in the Battle of Montgisard in Egypt, where they dealt the sultan a surprising blow. Baldwin’s victory made him a hero in the eyes of his people: their king had managed to overcome his crippling illness to crush one of the most powerful armies in the world and drive back the Muslim threat.
Although the “leper king” has often been popularly depicted as wearing a mask at all times in public to hide his disfigurement, there are no contemporary accounts of Baldwin attempting to cover his face. In fact, during the early years of his reign, he showed no outward signs of the disease at all, although toward the end of his life he had developed multiple ulcers and gone blind because of the bacteria from the disease.
Far from being shunned and despised because of his affliction, Baldwin IV was only endeared to his people because of it.
He had led his armies to triumph against a foe with superior numbers through a combination of courage, wit, and tremendous willpower, refusing to let a debilitating disease prevent him from defending his country himself.
Although his wits were still perfectly intact, Baldwin realized his body was finally succumbing to the disease at the age of 24 and offered to abdicate. His offer was refused, a mark of the tremendous esteem his people had for him. Baldwin IV would remain King of Jerusalem until his death 1185, ending a reign more successful than anyone ever expected.
In 2005, the film Kingdom of Heaven depicted the Crusades of the 12th century, with Edward Norton starring as King Baldwin IV.