Conrad was the second son of Marquis William V of Montferrat, "the Elder", and his wife Judith of Babenberg. He was a first cousin of Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor, as well as Louis VII of France and Leopold V of Austria.
Conrad was born in Montferrat, which is now a region of Piedmont, in northwest Italy. The exact place and year are unknown. He is first mentioned in a charter in 1160, when serving at the court of his maternal uncle, Conrad, Bishop of Passau, later Archbishop of Salzburg. (He may have been named after him, or after his mother's half-brother, Conrad III of Germany.)
A handsome man, with great personal courage and intelligence, he was described in the Brevis Historia Occupationis et Amissionis Terræ Sanctæ ("A Short History of the Occupation and Loss of the Holy Land"):
Conrad was vigorous in arms, extremely clever both in natural mental ability and by learning, amiable in character and deed, endowed with all the human virtues, supreme in every council, the fair hope of his own side and a blazing lightning-bolt to the foe, capable of pretence and dissimulation in politics, educated in every language, in respect of which he was regarded by the less articulate to be extremely fluent. In one thing alone was he regarded as blameworthy: that he had seduced another's wife away from her living husband, and made her separate from him, and married her himself.
(The last sentence refers to his third marriage to Isabella of Jerusalem in 1190, for which see below.)
He was active in diplomacy from his twenties, and became an effective military commander, campaigning alongside other members of his family in the struggles with the Lombard League. He first married an unidentified lady before 1179, but she was dead by the end of 1186, without leaving any surviving issue.
In 1179, following the family's alliance with Manuel I Comnenos, Conrad led an army against Frederick Barbarossa's forces, then commanded by the imperial Chancellor, Archbishop Christian of Mainz. He defeated them at Camerino in September, taking the Chancellor hostage. (He had previously been a hostage of the Chancellor.) He left the captive in his brother Boniface's care and went to Constantinople to be rewarded by the Emperor, returning to Italy shortly after Manuel's death in 1180. Now in his mid-thirties, his personality and good looks made a striking impression at the Byzantine court: Niketas Choniates describes him as "of beautiful appearance, comely in life's springtime, exceptional and peerless in manly courage and intelligence, and in the flower of his body's strength".
In the winter of 1186–1187, Isaac II Angelus offered his sister Theodora, as a bride to Conrad's younger brother Boniface, to renew the Byzantine alliance with Montferrat, but Boniface was married. Conrad, recently widowed, had taken the cross, intending to join his father in the Kingdom of Jerusalem; instead, he accepted Isaac's offer and returned to Constantinople in spring 1187. On his marriage, he was awarded the rank of Caesar. However, almost immediately, he had to help the Emperor defend his throne against a revolt, led by General Alexios Branas. According to Choniates, Conrad inspired the weak Emperor to take the initiative. He fought heroically, without shield or helmet and wearing a linen cuirass instead of mail, in the battle in which Branas was killed. He was slightly wounded in the shoulder, but unhorsed Branas, who was then killed and beheaded by his bodyguards.
However, feeling that his service had been insufficiently rewarded, wary of Byzantine anti-Latin sentiment (his youngest brother Renier had been murdered in 1182) and of possible vengeance-seeking by Branas's family, Conrad set off for the Kingdom of Jerusalem in July 1187 aboard a Genoese merchant vessel. Some popular modern histories have claimed that he was fleeing vengeance after committing a private murder: this is due to a failure to recognise Branas's name, garbled into "Lyvernas" in the Old French Continuation of William of Tyre (sometimes known as The Chronicle of Ernoul), and Roger of Howden's abridgement of his own Gesta regis Henrici Secundi (formerly attributed to Benedict of Peterborough). Roger had initially referred to Conrad "having slain a prominent nobleman in a rebellion" — meaning Branas; in his Chronica, he condensed this to "having committed homicide", omitting the context.
Conrad evidently intended to join his father, who held the castle of St Elias. He arrived first off Acre, which had recently fallen to Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb), and so sailed north to Tyre, where he found the remnants of the Crusader army. After his victory at the Battle of Hattin over the army of Jerusalem, Saladin was on the march north, and had already captured Acre, Sidon, and Beirut. Raymond III of Tripoli and his stepsons, Reginald of Sidon and several other leading nobles who had escaped the battle had fled to Tyre, but most were anxious to return to their own territories to defend them. Raymond of Tripoli was in failing health, and died soon after he went home.
According to the Old French Continuation of William of Tyre, Reginald of Sidon had taken charge in Tyre and was in the process of negotiating its surrender with Saladin. Conrad allegedly threw Saladin's banners into the ditch, and made the Tyrians swear total loyalty to him. His rise to power seems to have been less dramatic in reality. Reginald went to refortify his own castle of Belfort on the Litani River. With the support of the established Italian merchant communities in the city, Conrad re-organised the defence of Tyre, setting up a commune, similar to those he had so often fought against in Italy.
When Saladin's army arrived they found the city well-defended and defiant. As the chronicler Ibn al-Athir wrote of the man the Arabs came to respect and fear as al-Markis: "He was a devil incarnate in his ability to govern and defend a town, and a man of extraordinary courage". Tyre successfully withstood the siege, and desiring more profitable conquest, Saladin's army moved on south to Caesarea, Arsuf, and Jaffa. Meanwhile, Conrad sent Joscius, Archbishop of Tyre, to the West in a black-sailed ship, bearing appeals for aid. Arabic writers claimed that he also carried propaganda pictures to use in his preaching, including one of the horses of Saladin's army stabled (and urinating) in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and another of a Saracen slapping Christ's face.
In November 1187, Saladin returned for a second siege of Tyre. Conrad was still in command of the city, which was now heavily fortified and filled with Christian refugees from across the north of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. This time Saladin opted for a combined ground and naval assault, setting up a blockade of the harbour. In an incident described by the Itinerarium Peregrinorum (which is generally hostile to Conrad), the Old French Continuation and Sicardus of Cremona's second chronicle (now known through quotations by Salimbene di Adam and Alberto Millioli), Saladin presented Conrad's aged father, William V of Montferrat, who had been captured at Hattin, before the walls of the city. He offered to release William and bestow great gifts upon Conrad if he surrendered Tyre. The old man told his son to stand firm, even when the Egyptians threatened to kill him. Conrad declared that William had lived a long life already, and aimed at him with a crossbow himself. Saladin allegedly said, "This man is an unbeliever and very cruel". But he had succeeded in calling Saladin's bluff: the old Marquis William was released, unharmed, at Tortosa in 1188, and returned to his son.
On December 30, Conrad's forces launched a dawn raid on the weary Egyptian sailors, capturing many of their galleys. The remaining Egyptian ships tried to escape to Beirut, but the Tyrian ships gave chase, and the Egyptians were forced to beach their ships and flee. Saladin then launched an assault on the landward walls, thinking that the defenders were still distracted by the sea battle. However, Conrad led his men in a charge out of the gates and broke the enemy: Hugh of Tiberias distinguished himself in the battle. Saladin was forced to pull back yet again, burning his siege engines and ships to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.
In summer 1188, Saladin released King Guy, the husband of Queen Sibylla, from captivity. A year later, in 1189, Guy, accompanied by his brother Geoffrey, appeared at Tyre and demanded that Conrad hand over the keys to the city to him. Conrad refused this demand, and declared that Guy had forfeited his rights to be king of Jerusalem at the Battle of Hattin. He said that he was holding the city until the arrival of the kings from Europe. By this, he was invoking the terms of Baldwin IV's will, terms already broken by Guy and Sibylla: in the event of the death of his nephew Baldwin V it had been Baldwin's will that Baldwin V's "most rightful heirs" were to hold the regency until the succession could be settled by the King of England, the King of France, and the Holy Roman Emperor. Conrad would not allow Guy and Sibylla to enter the city, but did allow them to camp outside Tyre's walls with their retainers.
Conrad was persuaded by his cousin once-removed, Louis III, Landgrave of Thuringia, to join Guy in the Siege of Acre in 1189. The siege lasted for over two years. In summer 1190, Conrad travelled north to Antioch to lead another young kinsman, Frederick of Swabia, safely back to Acre with the remnants of his cousin Frederick Barbarossa's imperial army.
When Queen Sibylla and their daughters died of disease later that year, King Guy no longer had a legal claim to the throne — but refused to step aside. The heiress of Jerusalem was Queen Sibylla's half-sister Isabella, who was married to Humphrey IV of Toron, of whom she was fond. However, Conrad had the support of her mother Maria Comnena and stepfather Balian of Ibelin, as well as Reginald of Sidon and other major nobles of Outremer. They obtained an annulment on the grounds that Isabella had been under-age at the time of the marriage and had not been able to give consent. Conrad then married Isabella himself, despite rumours of bigamy because of his marriage to Theodora, who was still alive. However, Choniates, who usually expresses strong disapproval of marital/sexual irregularities, makes no mention of this. This may imply that a divorce had been effected from the Byzantine side before 1190, by which time it was obvious that Conrad would not be returning. There were also objections on grounds of canonical incest, since Conrad's brother had previously been married to Isabella's half-sister, and Church law regarded this kind of affinity as equal to a blood-relationship. However, the papal legate Ubaldo Lanfranchi, Archbishop of Pisa, gave his approval. Opponents claimed he had been bribed. The marriage, on 24 November 1190, was conducted by Philip of Dreux, Bishop of Beauvais — son of Conrad's cousin Robert I of Dreux. Conrad was now de jure King of Jerusalem. However, he had been wounded in battle only nine days previously, and returned with his bride to Tyre to recover. He came back to the siege in spring, making an unsuccessful sea-attack against the Tower of Flies at the harbour entrance.
As Guy was a vassal of Richard I, King of England for his lands in Poitou, Richard supported him in this political struggle, while Conrad was supported by his cousin Leopold V of Austria and cousin once-removed Philip II, King of France. Conrad acted as chief negotiator in the surrender of Acre, and raised the kings' banners in the city. Afterwards, the parties attempted to come to an agreement. Guy was confirmed as king of Jerusalem, and Conrad was made his heir. Conrad would retain the cities of Tyre, Beirut, and Sidon, and his heirs would inherit Jerusalem on Guy's death. In July 1191 Conrad's kinsman, King Philip, decided to return to France, but before he left he turned over half the treasure plundered from Acre to Conrad, along with all his prominent Muslim hostages. King Richard asked Conrad to hand over the hostages, but Conrad refused as long as he could. After he finally relented (since Richard was now leader of the Crusade), Richard had all the hostages killed. Conrad did not join Richard on campaign to the south, preferring to remain with his wife Isabella in Tyre — believing his life to be in danger. It was probably around this time that Conrad's father died.
During that winter, Conrad opened direct negotiations with Saladin, suspecting that Richard's next move would be to attempt to wrest Tyre from him and restore it to the royal domain for Guy. His primary aim was to be recognised as ruler in the north, while Saladin (who was simultaneously negotiating with Richard for a possible marriage between his brother Al-Adil and Richard's widowed sister Joan, Dowager Queen of Sicily) hoped to separate him from the Crusaders. The situation took a farcical turn when Richard's envoy, Isabella's ex-husband Humphrey of Toron, spotted Conrad's envoy, Reginald of Sidon, out hawking with Al-Adil. There seems to have been no conclusive agreement with Conrad, and Joan refused marriage to a Muslim.
In April 1192, the kingship was put to the vote. To Richard's consternation, the barons of the Kingdom of Jerusalem unanimously elected Conrad as King. Richard sold Guy the lordship of Cyprus (where he continued to use a king's title) to compensate him and deter him from returning to Poitou, where his family had long had a reputation for rebelliousness. Richard's nephew Henry II of Champagne brought the news of the election result to Tyre on 24 April, then returned to Acre.
But Conrad was never crowned. Around late morning or noon on 28 April, Isabella, who was pregnant, was late in returning from the hammam to dine with him, so he went to eat at the house of his kinsman and friend, Philip, Bishop of Beauvais. The bishop had already eaten, so Conrad returned home. On his way, he was attacked by two Hashshashin, who stabbed him at least twice in the side and back. His guards killed one of his attackers and captured the other. It is not certain how long Conrad survived. Some sources claimed he died at the scene of the attack, or in a nearby church, within a very short time. Richard's chroniclers claimed that he was taken home, received the last rites, and urged Isabella to give the city over only to Richard or his representative: this death-bed scene is open to doubt. He was buried in Tyre, in the Church of the Hospitallers. "[T]he Frankish marquis, the ruler of Tyre, and the greatest devil of all the Franks, Conrad of Montferrat — God damn him! — was killed," wrote Ibn al-Athir. Certainly, the loss of a potentially formidable king was a blow to the kingdom.
The murder remains unsolved. Under torture, the surviving Hashshashin claimed that Richard was behind the killing, though this is impossible to prove. A less likely suspect was Humphrey IV of Toron, Isabella's first husband. Saladin's involvement has also been alleged, but as Conrad was in the middle of negotiations with him, but this also seems unlikely as Saladin himself apparently had no love for the Hashshashin. In 1970, Patrick A. Williams argued a plausible case for Henry of Champagne's guilt, but if so, it is difficult to imagine him taking such a bold step without his uncle Richard's approval.
Later, while returning from the crusade in disguise, King Richard was first recognized by Meinhard II of Görz and then imprisoned by Conrad's cousin, Leopold V of Austria. Conrad's murder was one of the charges against him. Richard requested that the Hashshashin vindicate him, and in a letter allegedly from their leader, Rashid al-Din Sinan, they appeared to do so. The letter claimed that in 1191, Conrad had captured a Hashshashin ship that had sought refuge in Tyre during a storm. He killed the captain, imprisoned the crew, and stripped the ship of its treasure. When Rashid al-Din Sinan requested that the ship's crew and treasure be returned, he was rebuffed, and so a death sentence was issued for Conrad of Montferrat. However, this letter is believed to have been forged: Sinan was already dead, and apart from this letter and the chronicle entries based upon it, there is no other evidence for the Hashashin being involved in shipping. The timing of the murder, and its consequences — the pregnant Isabella was married off to Henry of Champagne only seven days later, much to the disgust of Muslim commentators — suggest that the chief motive may be sought in Frankish politics.
Conrad's brother Boniface was the leader of the Fourth Crusade and a notable patron of troubadours, as was their sister Azalaïs, Marchioness of Saluzzo. Their youngest brother Renier was a son-in-law of Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus, and the eldest, William, had been the first husband of Sibylla and father of Baldwin V of Jerusalem. Conrad was also briefly Marquis of Montferrat, following his father's death in 1191. In Montferrat he was succeeded by Boniface, but his own heiress was born posthumously: a daughter Maria of Montferrat, 'La Marquise', who in 1205 became Queen of Jerusalem on Isabella's death, but died young in childbirth. Conrad's ex-wife, Theodora, was still living in the mid-late 1190s, when she was having the monastery of Dalmatios converted into a convent, possibly for her own residence.
The Monferrine court was Occitan in its literary culture, and provided patronage to numerous troubadors. Bertran de Born and Peirol mention Conrad in songs composed at the time of the Third Crusade (see external links below). He was seen as a heroic figure, the noble defender of Tyre — the "Marqués valens e pros" ("the valiant and worthy Marquis") as Peirol called him. In Carmina Burana 50: Heu, voce flebili cogor enarrare, he is described as "marchio clarissimus, vere palatinus" ("the most famous Marquis, truly a paladin"). However, subsequently, the long-term prejudice of popular English-language writing towards Richard I and his "Lionheart" myth has adversely affected portrayals of Conrad in English-language fiction and film. Because Richard (and his chroniclers) opposed his claim to the throne, he is generally depicted negatively, even when Richard himself is treated with some scepticism. A rare exception to this is the epic poem Cœur de Lion (1822), by Eleanor Anne Porden, in which he is depicted as a tragic Byronic hero.
An entirely fictionalised, unambiguously wicked version of Conrad appears in Walter Scott's The Talisman, misspelled as 'Conrade of Montserrat' (the novelist apparently misreading 'f' as a long 's' in his sources) and described as a "marmoset" and "popinjay". He is also a villain in Maurice Hewlett's fanciful The Life and Death of Richard Yea-and-Nay (1900). He appears briefly, again in a negative light, in Ronald Welch's Knight Crusader (1954): the description owes much to his portrayal in Cecil B. de Mille's The Crusades, mentioned below. The nadir of his fictional appearances is in Graham Shelby's 1970 novel The Kings of Vain Intent. In this, he is thoroughly demonised — depicted as a sinister figure, physically resembling a vampire; in a chapter added by the author to the U.S. edition, he beats and rapes Isabella. These works reflect the later Renaissance and Gothic novel cultural/ethnic stereotype of the 'Machiavellian' Italian: corrupt, scheming, dandified, not averse to poisoning, even (as in Shelby's novel) sexually sadistic. In contrast, the Russian-born French novelist Zoé Oldenbourg gives him a more positive but fleeting cameo-role — proud, strong, and as handsome as Choniates described him — in her 1946 novel Argile et Cendres (Clay and Ashes, published in English as The World Is Not Enough in 1948). He is the hero of Luigi Gabotto's 1968 novel Corrado di Monferrato, which covers his whole career. Another sympathetic portrayal is in Alan Gordon's mystery novel, The Widow of Jerusalem (2003), which investigates his murder.
In film, he has been consistently depicted as a villain, and with scant regard for accuracy. In Cecil B. de Mille's 1935 film The Crusades, he is played by Joseph Schildkraut as a scheming traitor, plotting King Richard's death with Prince John in England at a time when he was actually already defending Tyre. The 1954 film King Richard and the Crusaders, loosely based on The Talisman, similarly depicts him as a villain, played by Michael Pate. Egyptian director Youssef Chahine's 1963 film Al Nasser Salah Ad-Din also shows Scott's influence in its hostility towards Conrad (played by Mahmoud El-Meliguy) and Philip, while depicting Richard more favourably.
On television, he was played by Michael Peake in the 1962 British television series Richard the Lionheart, which derived some of its plotlines loosely from Scott's The Talisman. In the more faithful 1980–1981 BBC serialisation of The Talisman, he was played by Richard Morant.
In painting and drawing, Conrad figures in a small contemporary manuscript sketch of his ship sailing to Tyre in the Annals of Genoa, and various illustrations to Scott's The Talisman. There is an imaginary portrait of him, c. 1843, by François-Édouard Picot for the Salles des Croisades at Versailles: it depicts him as a handsome, rather pensive man in his forties, wearing a coronet and fanciful pseudo-medieval costume. He is shown with dark hair and beard; it is more likely that, like his father and at least two of his brothers, he was blond.
In the game Assassin's Creed, set in 1191 during the height of the Crusades, William V of Montferrat, father of Conrad of Montferrat, is one of nine Templars the main character must assassinate. This is based on the real life death of Conrad, who was assassinated by the real life Hashashin.