Post-classical history


Richard the Lionheart, Saladin, and the Third Crusade

Richard the Lionheart and Saladin are, above all others, the two figures from crusading history who have captured the popular imagination. Through deed and legend the confrontation between these two colossi of the medieval world has shaped the public perception of the crusading age over the centuries. In the West, a blend of romance and pride in the actions of the mighty warrior Richard are coupled with a whiff of disapproval for his supposed neglect of England during exotic escapades in the Orient; Saladin, meanwhile, is seen as a man of integrity, sophistication, and good grace. In the Islamic world, Richard has been pilloried as the man responsible for the cold-blooded slaughter of thousands of Muslims at the siege of Acre—a personification of Christian hatred of Islam; Saladin has emerged as the hero who recovered Jerusalem and then fought off the formidable Third Crusade (1189–92).

It is beyond dispute that eyewitnesses on both sides recognized that the two main players in the Third Crusade were exceptionally charismatic men. They never met face-to-face because Saladin thought it improper “to fight after meeting and eating together. If he [Richard] wants to talk, an agreement must be settled before it can happen.”1 In the course of peace negotiations at the end of the crusade the bishop of Salisbury had a personal audience with the sultan. While previous (and future) accounts of crusades often caricatured and demonized Muslims, the image of Saladin was usually the opposite, a legacy of his behavior after the siege of Jerusalem and during the Third Crusade. The bishop told Saladin that “if one were to take your qualities and his [Richard’s] together then nowhere in the world would ever two such princes be found, so valiant and so experienced,” a neat testimony to both men.2 Events in the course of the expedition formed Richard’s reputation for bravery in battle, a matter of paramount importance to contemporaries: “He bore himself with indescribable vigour and superhuman courage into the mass of Turks not turning tail for anyone, scattering and crushing all he met; he mows the enemy with a sword as if he were harvesting them with a sickle. It could justly be said of his memorable blows that whoever encountered one of them had no need of a second.”3 He was compared to the pantheon of ancient, biblical, and legendary heroes, Judas Maccabaeus, Achilles, Alexander, and Roland. Saladin himself was said to have regarded Richard as too reckless, although perhaps the most interesting assessment of the king was by the sultan’s close associate, Beha ad-Din, who noted that he possessed judgment, experience, audacity, and astuteness. He wrote: “Just look at this guile in eliciting what one wants by soft words at this moment and by harsh ones the next! We pray to God to keep the Muslims safe from his evil, for they had never been tried by anyone more devious or more bold.”4 The recognition of his bravery, combined with political and tactical acuity, offers a pertinent starting point to relate the events of the crusade.


Saladin’s victory at the Battle of Hattin and his subsequent capture of Jerusalem were heavy blows to the people of Europe. Given the dire warnings of previous years, the Franks’ defeat was hardly a total surprise but the loss of the True Cross and the holy city itself were hugely traumatic for Latin Christendom: the aged Pope Urban III was reported to have died of shock. As details of events in the Levant filtered back through merchants and refugees, his successor began to formulate a response. Pope Gregory VIII issued the bull Audita tremendi, a dramatic and emotional appeal to Christians to help recover Christ’s patrimony:

On hearing with what severe and terrible judgement the land of Jerusalem has been smitten by the divine hand . . . the psalmist laments, “Oh God, the heathens are come into thy inheritance.” . . . Anyone who does not weep at such a cause for weeping, if not in body, at least in his heart, would seem to have forgotten not only his Christian faith . . . but even his very humanity. From the very magnitude of the peril with those savage barbarians thirsting after Christian blood and using all their force to profane the holy places and banish the worship of God from the land. What a cause for mourning this ought to be for us and for the whole Christian people!5

In contrast to the studied indifference shown to earlier appeals for assistance, now, at this time of unprecedented crisis, a sense of honor and Christian duty impelled all the major royal houses of Europe to act. The first to take the cross (in the late autumn of 1187) was Richard, count of Poitou and duke of Aquitaine, the eldest son of King Henry II of England. Contemporaries were impressed: a Limousin troubadour wrote: “He who is count and duke and will be king has stepped forward and by that his worth has doubled.”6In January 1188 King Philip II of France and Henry II met to discuss the ongoing differences between them, but when the archbishop of Tyre arrived to report on the disastrous situation in the East, his impassioned sermon prompted the two kings to take the cross as well. In March 1188, the most powerful ruler in Europe, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, took the cross at a huge assembly of nobles and churchmen at Mainz. Meanwhile, notwithstanding their promise to crusade, Henry and Philip continued their perennial squabbling until the former’s death in July and this brought Richard to the throne.

He was crowned at Westminster Abbey on September 13, aged thirty-two, a man of mercurial character and a far more complex individual than the compulsive warmonger he is so often perceived to be.7 Few details are known of his appearance: some writers say he was tall, long-limbed, and with red-golden hair—a suitably heroic combination. Around the time of his death, however, he was described by an eyewitness as overweight and pale. Richard was certainly highly literate and he was fluent in Latin, as well as the Occitan tongue of his upbringing. He also enjoyed music and wrote highly competent troubadour songs—his mother was, after all, Eleanor of Aquitaine, patroness of the greatest writers of the day who included Chrétien de Troyes, the author of The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot) and The Story of the Grail (Perceval), the latter being the basis of the entire Holy Grail myth.8 In terms of personality, Richard could have the most volcanic temper. In Sicily, for example, he could not defeat an old rival in a tournament and completely lost his cool, commanding the man never to show his face in his presence again. On the other hand, he was very generous to his followers and to favored religious foundations. He was said to be conventionally pious, attending Mass daily and, unsurprisingly, enjoyed church music. By the time of the crusade he was also a hugely experienced military man who had fought and trained for many years. Two particular forms of warfare dominated his life: most typical was the raid, or chevauchée, a rapid incursion into enemy lands designed to destroy crops, seize booty, and break morale. Richard had also besieged numerous towns and castles during his struggles with both his father and Philip in southwestern France. The most obvious gap in his military curriculum vitae was battles; in fact he had fought in only one prior to the Third Crusade, in southern France in 1176. The reason for this was, as a writer earlier in the century had noted: “the rewards of victory could be won by other means which did not involve the penalties of defeat.”9 Without wishing to state the obvious, the hand of fate could deliver a calamitous blow. The fate of King Harold of England in 1066 showed that the loss of a ruler might mean immediate disaster for his people and it is striking how rare pitched battles were in western Europe during the twelfth century. Copies of the late-fourth-century military manual of Vegetius, De re militari, were in existence at the time and this advised that a battle should only be fought with a four-to-one manpower advantage. On this basis, caution was the guiding principle behind much of Richard’s strategy during the crusade—although such an approach did not extend to situations where the king acted in response to the initiatives of others, as we will see at Jaffa, for example. Contemporary ideas of chivalry and honor were other aspects of the king’s upbringing that are visible in actions in the Holy Land. A highly developed—perhaps oversensitive—appreciation of prestige and standing were further, very prominent, features of the king’s personality.

Once his coronation was over Richard began to organize the affairs of his realm and to plan his crusade. Under Henry II, England had evolved the most sophisticated royal administration of the day and this meant the crown could collect substantial revenues, much of which could be spent on the new campaign. Records survive to show some of the preparations Richard made.10 He clearly appreciated the need for proper reserves of money, food, and weaponry—all matters that the monarchs on the Second Crusade had conspicuously failed to address. Thus, he gathered fourteen thousand cured pig carcasses from Essex and Lincolnshire, fifty thousand horseshoes from the Forest of Dean, as well as immense stores of cheese, beans, and wine.

The Second Crusade had struggled to cross Asia Minor and with the Byzantines now hostile to the West and, as we shall see, the army of Frederick Barbarossa likely to consume most of the available supplies en route, the English and French kings resolved to sail to the Levant. This decision enabled Richard to eliminate the poor and unarmed pilgrims who had so hampered the previous crusade because places on ships were limited and had to be paid for. In total a force of around seventeen thousand set out from England and Wales. At Vézelay in June 1190 Richard and Philip agreed to share the profits of conquest evenly, although even this apparently simple arrangement proved a fertile source of controversy.


While these preparations got underway, several smaller expeditions had already reached the eastern Mediterranean hoping to bring relief to the beleaguered defenders of the Holy Land. Their initial target was the port of Tyre, held by Conrad of Montferrat. With King Guy still in captivity, the marquis had assumed de facto control of the remaining settlement in the kingdom of Jerusalem. He issued charters to the Genoese (long-standing allies of his) and granted them commercial rights in the city in perpetuity.11 In late 1187 Saladin made a second attempt to take the port when he sent in forces by land and sea. The sultan tried to exert emotional pressure on Conrad by offering to exchange Conrad’s father, William the Elder, taken captive at Hattin, in return for the city. The Muslims paraded William in front of the walls only for Conrad to shoot at him with a crossbow. When Saladin threatened to kill the prisoner the marquis is said to have retorted that this would be a good thing because a wicked man would have a good end and he would have a martyr as a father. A few days later the Christians broke the naval blockade and the Frankish knights drove the land-based Muslims from the walls; on January 1, 1188, Saladin retreated.

King William II of Sicily dispatched a fleet of fifty galleys and five hundred knights and these forces helped to keep Tripoli and Antioch in Christian hands, as well as reinforcing Tyre. In May 1188 Saladin decided to release King Guy. He was liberated near Tortosa, in northern Syria, on condition that he swore to give up his kingdom and go overseas. Guy chose to interpret the latter clause in a rather confrontational fashion and sailed the few hundred meters to the island of Ruad, just offshore from Tortosa, claiming this fulfilled the letter of the agreement. He then waited for his beloved Queen Sibylla. They had been allowed to meet once, at Nablus, when the king was a prisoner. Within a few days the queen arrived and “they exchanged kisses, they intertwined embraces, their joy elicited tears, and they rejoiced that they had escaped the disasters which had befallen them.”12 Guy, however, remained a king without a kingdom. Conrad refused to let him enter Tyre and continued to exercise full power himself. Guy’s supporters gathered at Tripoli and after failing to gain entry to Tyre, marched on southward to Acre, the best port on the coast.

To lay siege to Acre was an audacious ploy: at first the Muslim defenders could not even understand why the Christians had appeared, and when they realized the king’s plan they started to jeer him. Guy’s forces numbered about nine thousand, of whom seven hundred were knights; he was also joined by a Pisan fleet that swiftly blockaded the city by sea. The Christian land army pitched camp on nearby Mount Turon and started to dig in. Saladin had not expected that Guy, the man most believed responsible for the defeat at Hattin, would take the battle to the Muslims in such an outrageous fashion. Within three days the sultan’s army arrived and he quickly established his own forces, therefore “those who had come to besiege were themselves besieged.”13 Thus began the siege of Acre, a visceral, grueling struggle that would last for over two years.

The Christians were soon reinforced by a substantial fleet from northern Europe, as well as more Sicilians and Italians. The Templars and the Hospitallers sent in contingents, and even Conrad joined the battle—he could hardly let his rival take all the glory for himself. By early 1190 the two men were, in theory at least, reconciled when the marquis recognized Guy’s title, although he kept Tyre for himself. In spite of repeated Muslim attacks the Christians were now, literally, entrenched. They constructed palisades, fortifications, and all the necessary support networks to live and fight. The Germans set up a horse-driven milling machine; people planted herbs and crops and markets began to operate. Similarly, the Muslim camps acquired the attributes of a permanent settlement such as marketplaces, cookhouses, and, so it was reported, one thousand baths, created by digging holes in the ground, lining them with clay, and filling them with hot water.14

With the stream of newcomers helping to cushion any Frankish losses, conditions for the Muslims inside Acre began to deteriorate substantially. All the time the siege dragged on, Saladin had to maintain a credible army in the field. Naturally, he still retained a considerable residue of prestige from his achievements at Hattin and Jerusalem, but he continued to face an immense challenge in trying to control a diverse group of forces, some of whom were less than devoted to his leadership. Ibn Jubayr wrote of the sectarian tensions he witnessed within the Muslim Middle East in the mid-1180s as Saladin struggled to hold together his fragile coalition.15 The majority were not professional soldiers and needed to return home at harvest time and to be paid. The victories of 1187 had provided large sums of money, but now Saladin was on the defensive, his sources of income in decline. Most worrying of all was the response of the West. The smaller waves of crusaders were troublesome enough: still to come were the forces of the three greatest Catholic monarchs of the day. The sultan knew the western armies were gathering strength and, eventually—inevitably—a potentially devastating response would descend upon him.


The first, and potentially the most powerful, of these campaigns was the crusade of Emperor Frederick. Frederick had thirty-six years’ experience as the ruler of the largest and wealthiest lands in Christendom. Known as Barbarossa on account of his close-cropped red beard, he was a veteran of the Second Crusade’s troubled march over Asia Minor and the failed siege of Damascus. Strangely, however, he chose to repeat a landward march. He could have commissioned a fleet from the Venetians (with whom he was on good terms) but decided to lead his forces of perhaps thirty thousand through Byzantium and across the Seljuk Empire. One source claimed Frederick feared a prophecy that he would die in water—something that would prove uncannily accurate, regardless of the route he selected.16 The march through Hungary went according to plan but the Byzantine emperor, Isaac Angelos, had an alliance with Saladin and tried to hinder the German advance. Frederick knew that he was militarily stronger than the Greeks and bullied the Byzantines into submission; thus he entered Seljuk lands in good order. By the late spring of 1190, however, he was finding the crossing of Asia Minor far harder. Arrangements for food supplies collapsed and the Turks constantly harassed the German crusaders. The Anatolian plateau was almost waterless and many of the knights’ horses died in this barren landscape; troop losses started to mount dramatically too. In mid-May the army reached the Seljuk capital of Iconium where, in spite of their weakened condition, the Germans took the city. The emperor negotiated proper supplies and then continued southward toward Christian Armenia. By this point, Saladin was feeling enormous trepidation.17 The siege of Acre continued to soak up large numbers of his men, yet he needed to send troops northward to confront the imminent arrival of the Germans. The sultan tried hard to reinvigorate his people with the spirit of jihad and he looked to the caliph of Baghdad for further backing; on this occasion he was successful and the nobles of northern Syria and Iraq dispatched contingents to help resist the infidel.

Good fortune soon gave the sultan a vital boost: on June 10, 1190, Frederick tried to cross the River Saleph in southern Cilicia. He slipped and drowned; thus he died in water, as foretold. More seriously, this was a calamitous blow to the Christian cause. His death extinguished morale in the German crusade and many knights returned home. Some carried on to Acre but they had been grievously weakened by their ordeal in Asia Minor. The arrival of a figure possessing Frederick’s authority had the potential to end the siege of Acre and his unparalleled status would probably have prevented the political tensions that hampered relations between the French and English crusaders. As the sultan’s administrator, al-Fadil, perspicaciously observed: “if [Frederick] is broken, as it is said, then after him the unbelievers will be building on a shattered foundation.”18 Saladin himself was hugely relieved to avoid a confrontation with the mighty Barbarossa.


For a short while at least, the sultan could breathe a little easier—it would be another year before the next wave of crusaders arrived. In the meantime the siege of Acre dragged on; conditions over the winter of 1189–90 became so bad that the armies could not fight. Such close engagements inevitably saw long periods of inactivity and rather like the famous football match across the trenches between German and English troops in World War I, the adversaries in this holy war began to interact. Beha ad-Din wrote: “They got to know one another, in that both sides would converse and leave off fighting. At times people would sing and others dance, so familiar had they become over time, and then after a while they would revert to fighting.”19

Starvation and disease were inevitable bedfellows of such grim conditions. People began to hoard food and the cost of the most basic provisions rocketed. The poor ate grass and herbs, horses were worth more dead than alive, and no part of the dead animal was left to waste; people who fell in battle were reckoned more fortunate than those who perished slowly by famine and illness. The only thing available in any reasonable quantity was wine, but those who overindulged were weakened even further. The wealthy organized collections for the less fortunate but it was the arrival of a grain ship that saved the day for the crusaders. In the winter of 1190 excessive rains prompted an epidemic of a tortured form: the soldiers’ limbs swelled up, people’s teeth fell out, and then they succumbed to an agonizing death. Large numbers of crusaders perished and among the most significant fatalities were Queen Sibylla and her young daughters. This tragedy reignited the succession issue because Guy was king only by right of marriage and the bloodline of the royal house now passed to Sibylla’s younger sister, Isabella. Conrad’s ambition to become king was ever more manifest—aside that is, from the inconvenient matters of his own earlier marriages to an Italian woman and Theodora Angelos of Byzantium, as well as the existence of Isabella’s husband, Humphrey lord of Toron. Humphrey had turned down a chance to become king in 1185 and his opponents taunted him for a stammer and his alleged effeminacy:

As nature doubts whether to make a man or girl,
You are born, O lovely, a boy who’s almost a girl.

Conrad exploited the fact that Isabella and Humphrey had been betrothed when she was only eight and married at eleven; this was under the age of consent, which meant the union was therefore void. Conrad is said to have abducted Isabella—described as a beautiful young woman with a pale face and black hair, devoted to her husband—and then bribed various churchmen to annul the marriage to Humphrey and to preside over the new union. Many of the ecclesiastical hierarchy were outraged—aside from the alleged abduction, Conrad was an adulterer, a bigamist; furthermore, the marriage was technically incestuous in canon law because Isabella’s sister had been wedded to Conrad’s brother, William Longsword. Guy, of course, continued to claim that he was the crowned king of Jerusalem: all of this meant that when Richard and Philip arrived in the Holy Land they would need to decide who was the rightful monarch.

Saladin, meanwhile, tried ever harder to dislodge the Christian army, aware that Acre was by far the best bridgehead for the crusaders. He repeatedly appealed for the support of his coreligionists and he urged the caliph of Baghdad to encourage people to help him: “In the presence of a clear danger, Muslims remain indifferent in giving aid to their comrades, yet those around us [the crusaders] are inflamed by zeal. The times are hard and demand tough, merciless men: this war is unlike other wars, it needs seasoned and brave troops . . . where are the Muslims? God forbid that they are abandoning Islam.”21 The sultan certainly led by example, sharing in the privations of his troops and doing much to create his reputation for justice and generosity. While we must beware of the tendency of Saladin’s biographers to exaggerate their subject’s qualities, the basic principles of his behavior can be clearly recognized in the reports of Christian contemporaries too. In early April 1191 his men captured a group of Franks, including an extremely old man without a tooth left in his head. Saladin asked, through his interpreter, why he had come to the Levant at such an age: “to go on pilgrimage to the Sepulchre” came the reply. The sultan was so impressed with the man’s devotion that he gave him gifts, a horse, and freed him.22 Two months later—with the siege of Acre about to reach its denouement—a Christian woman was brought before him by the Muslim guards. Raiders had taken her three-month-old infant from the Frankish camp to sell at a slave market. The mother was understandably grief-stricken but the crusader princes mentioned Saladin’s mercy and advised her to ask for help. She explained the situation to the sultan, who ordered that the infant be found. He learned that it had been sold and so instructed the buyer to be refunded the purchase price and then handed the baby over to its mother. Beha ad-Din watched as mother and baby were reunited—the whole of the sultan’s retinue wept for joy; mother and baby were then escorted back to the Christian camp.23


Back in the West, the main crusader armies were almost ready to set out. Philip had made a contract with the Genoese to transport his force of 650 knights to the Levant and he reached Sicily in September 1190. Part of Richard’s forces sailed directly to the Levant but the king and most of his troops went to Messina in Sicily where he would stay from September 1190 until April 1191. Appeals from the Holy Land begged Richard to get going but, in spite of the desperate situation at Acre, his thorough and cautious approach meant that he resolved other issues before continuing eastward. The time spent in Sicily allowed the king to gather even more money and resources and to organize his own marriage—although not in a way many had anticipated.

The contrast in the arrival of the two kings reveals much about their respective characters and the amount of money each had. Philip sailed in with no fanfare at all, but Richard arrived “with great ships and galleys, in such magnificence and to such a noise of trumpets and clarions that a tremor ran through all who were in the city. The king of France and his men and all the chief men, clergy and people of Messina stood on the shore, wondering at what they had seen and heard about the king of England and his power.”24In theory, Philip was Richard’s overlord but reality seemed to demonstrate that the junior partner had a much greater profile and far more money—something that Muslim writers would also notice as the crusade wore on.25 It was, however, the issue of the English king’s marriage that created the greatest tension. Richard had been betrothed to Philip’s sister Alice since they were children. Now, however, Richard wished to secure the southern borders of Aquitaine and through the work of his mother, Eleanor, arranged to marry Berengaria of Navarre. Eleanor, by now in her late sixties, had a particularly close relationship with Richard. Aside from her son’s strategic aims, she also wished him to spurn Alice because she was the daughter, by a later marriage, of her first husband, Louis VII. Eleanor duly traveled to Navarre to collect the bride and then escorted her to southern Italy to present her to the king. Once this was done, Eleanor returned to England to share the regency of the land with a senior churchman. Not content with rejecting Alice, Richard chose—rather crassly—to compound the insult to the French princess’s honor by claiming, almost certainly unfairly, that she had slept with his father, Henry II. So offensive was this rumor that, from this time onward, it practically crippled the Anglo–French relationship. In fact, it was deemed necessary to wait until Philip had departed from Sicily before it was safe to bring Berengaria over to Messina.

Richard had another specific aim during his stay in Sicily. Tancred of Lecce, who ruled the island, owed him a considerable sum of money from the dowry of Richard’s sister, Joan, wife of Tancred’s predecessor, William II (d. 1189). The Sicilian was unwilling to repay this and in response Richard stormed the capital city of Messina and flew his banners above the walls until Tancred complied. The two men then exchanged gifts to seal their goodwill. In the course of this diplomacy the king mentioned that he had with him Excalibur, the sword of King Arthur, the hero of medieval romances and celebrated king of Britain. It had been “found” by monks of Glastonbury Abbey and presumably Richard had brought it with him as a symbol of his own standing and self-image. Tancred admired the sword and asked if he could have it—Richard agreed and in return accepted four large transport ships and fifteen galleys.26 Such an unsentimental exchange of this talismanic item shows the Lionheart’s calculating, organizational streak and his determination to achieve victory.

Practical matters notwithstanding, in the course of his stay at Messina the king was moved by the spiritual purpose of his campaign as well. For all Richard’s macho politicking, he remained a pious Christian, and the contemporary writer Roger of Howden recorded a moment when the king was overcome by his own sinfulness. He called all the clergy with him to assemble and then, naked, he threw himself to the floor and, holding three scourges, confessed his sins to them.27 In this context, we can see the power and attraction of the papal indulgence that offered a crusader the remission of all his sins.

Winter weather meant it was impossible to leave Sicily until the spring of 1191. Philip of France was the first to depart, setting sail on March 30 and reaching Acre four weeks later. This provided the major injection of men, food, and equipment the Christians so desperately needed. Philip’s status meant that he was accorded a magnificent reception and the presence of figures such as Count Philip of Flanders (who had been to the Holy Land in 1177–78) and Duke Hugh of Burgundy added to the sense of anticipation among the Franks of the Levant.

The French constructed screens covered in polished iron to protect their crossbowmen and they launched a fierce bombardment toward the walls of Acre. Philip ordered specialist miners to dig under a section of the battlements. They shored up the passage, set it on fire, and brought the wall down; a contingent of knights scrambled through the breach but were forced back. It became clear to the defenders that they were near breaking point and they communicated this to Saladin in the main camp. Some writers indicate that Philip could have taken the city without Richard’s presence but the French king decided to wait in order for them to share in the conquest, as agreed at Vézelay. The meaning of this arrangement became sorely tested in the aftermath of Richard’s journey from Sicily to Acre. As the fleet passed Cyprus a storm blew up and drove ashore the ships of Joan and Berengaria where they were seized by Isaac Comnenus, the ruler of the island. Isaac was a renegade member of the Byzantine imperial family and another ally of Saladin; foolishly he started to threaten his prisoners. “Not unnaturally we were spurred to revenge,” wrote Richard, who landed his own forces and quickly took Limassol.28 Isaac fled but Richard soon captured his opponent, bound him in silver chains in recognition of his status, and packed him off to the Hospitaller castle of Marqab in the principality of Antioch.29

By chance, therefore, the king had acquired a rich, fertile land that was a perfect springboard for future crusades. Cyprus later became a place of refuge for those driven from the mainland and acted as a prominent and long-standing part of the Catholic presence in the eastern Mediterranean. It may seem contradictory that Richard had taken the lands of a fellow Christian, but Isaac was in alliance with the Muslims and had reputedly maltreated his prestigious female prisoners because of their allegedly heretical, that is non-Orthodox, beliefs. In the short term, Richard saw Cyprus as a source of money and he imposed a punitive levy of 50 percent on all possessions. When his own administration ran into trouble, the king promptly sold the island to the Templars for 100,000 bezants, thus raising the prospect of an independent territory owned by the warrior-monks. What this sale also meant was that Richard had refused to share the profits of his conquest with Philip. This seemed contrary to their agreement at Vézelay but Richard claimed that it only applied to gains made in the Holy Land and not en route, a provocative reading of the terms that only served to increase Philip’s animosity toward his rival.

Richard married Berengaria at Limassol on May 12, 1191. Soon after the festivities he was visited by King Guy, himself a Poitevin. Guy’s opponent, Conrad, had already secured the support of his relative, King Philip, and now the nominal ruler of Jerusalem pledged homage to the English monarch. Thus the two rivals in the Holy Land had each linked up with one of the antagonistic crusading kings to add a further dimension to the intrigues of this campaign.


On June 8, 1191, Richard received a rapturous reception as he landed at Acre. “The most valiant of kings has arrived, the best warrior in all of Christendom. . . . Their trust was in King Richard,” as one writer commented.30 With barely a hint of irony, the writer Richard of Devizes suggested that “the king was greeted with as much joy as if he had been Christ himself returning to earth to restore the kingdom of Israel.”31 The Christians had bragged about his strength and when he appeared amid great pomp and ceremony with twenty-five galleys full of men, stores, and weapons, “his coming,” reported Beha ad-Din, “had a dread and frightening effect on the hearts of the Muslims.”32 King Philip paid his men three gold bezants a month: Richard immediately showed his wealth and his competitive nature by offering four to anyone who would join his troops.33 Further supply ships followed, this time containing his siege equipment. The Christians were greatly encouraged and launched a fierce assault on the walls of Acre, but Muslim resistance remained strong. Catapults named “Bad Neighbour” and “The Catapult of God” launched a relentless barrage of stones (some brought especially from Messina) into the city. Within Acre, a catapult known to the crusaders as “Evil Cousin” inflicted much damage to the Frankish machines and other weapons discharged Greek fire. Sometimes they caught the Christians off guard and managed to destroy a ram or catapult. The crusaders faced not simply the defenders of Acre, but Saladin’s troops as well. When those in the city were under attack they would sound a drum to signal their coreligionists behind the Christians to launch an assault of their own. As the three armies pounded away at each other, the defenders of Acre grew ever more desperate; the Christians continued to exert maximum pressure on the walls, but still had to defend themselves from fierce attacks by Saladin’s men. The sultan sent in a huge supply ship with 650 fighting men to try to break into the harbor at Acre and to bolster the defenders. It was met by an English fleet and in spite of destroying some of these vessels it was forced to scuttle itself rather than have its cargo fall into Christian hands.

Briefly, in late June, the Christians lost momentum. Both Richard and Philip fell ill with “arnaldia,” possibly scurvy, and had to take to their beds. Richard was determined not to let this deflect him and he ordered himself carried to the walls in a great silken quilt and there, protected by a screen, fired his crossbow at the city. Needless to say, such resolution was inspirational to his troops. A fortification in the northeast of the city known as the “Accursed Tower” became the focus of Richard’s efforts and he offered two, then three, and then four gold bezants to anyone who could remove a block of stone from it. Meanwhile his engineers dug a mine underneath, only to find a Muslim countermine blocking their path. The defenders burst through into the Christian tunnel: in such a cramped, dark space, with the tunnel held up by temporary pit props, it must have been a confusing and especially terrifying fighting environment; the two forces agreed on a mutual truce and the crusaders had to withdraw.

Finally the “Accursed Tower” was brought down, but still the Muslims resisted: “had they not been infidels no better people could have been seen,” marveled the eyewitness Ambroise.34 By now, however, the walls of Acre had been pounded, pierced, and shattered so many times that the situation had become truly untenable. The defenders sent another envoy to Saladin to ask that he make peace with the Christians to save them from even greater distress. The sultan’s own forces were losing heart and his secretary reported that it was getting ever harder for him to persuade them to fight. Negotiations began but Saladin could not agree to the crusaders’ demands. Matters were to be taken out of his hands, however. The garrison became so desperate that they unilaterally struck a deal with Conrad of Montferrat to surrender. The terms included: their own freedom in return for the city; the handover of all its siege engines, equipment, and ships; 200,000 dinars; 100 specified prisoners and 1,500 unnamed captives from Saladin’s jails; and, most prized of all, the return of the True Cross. Certain hostages would also be given by the Muslims and the obligations were to be fulfilled within a month.35 A swimmer escaped from Acre to bring this unwelcome news to the sultan on the morning of July 12, 1191. He was devastated by this turn of events—his authority had been ignored and he was to be bound by a treaty that he had not consented to. He was about to send a message telling those in Acre to wait, but at that very moment “the banners of Unbelief, its crosses, emblem and beacon were raised over the walls of the city.”36

At last the crusaders had achieved their goal: the defenders marched out, although their resolute bearing surprised and impressed the Christians because in spite of their terrible ordeal they made no outward sign of sorrow or humiliation. The crusaders then entered the devastated port, crying out with joy and giving thanks to God for their success. Richard’s and Philip’s banners were raised over the walls and towers and the city’s contents and property divided equally. The only note of discord was an incident that concerned Duke Leopold V of Austria—a veteran of Frederick Barbarossa’s crusade—who, by this point, had been fighting at Acre for almost two years. As a noble of considerable standing he felt entitled to fly his banner from the walls as well—King Richard disagreed because he did not want a mere duke to share any part of the triumph and the Austrian standard was “cast into the dirt and trampled upon as an insult.”37

As we saw earlier, the simmering rivalry between King Guy and Conrad of Montferrat over the throne of Jerusalem was paralleled in the tension between Richard and Philip. As a partisan of Conrad, the French ruler proposed to hand over all his acquisitions to the marquis—Richard felt this was wrong and that Guy, as the king, was the appropriate beneficiary. The need to settle the crown became even more pressing with the news that Philip intended to return home forthwith. Rigord, one of the few near-contemporary French sources to comment on the crusade, explained this by reference to the king’s continued ill health and irritation at the arrogance of Richard; however, some writers note that he wished to assert his rights to Flanders, a land without a ruler since the death of Count Philip at Acre on June 1.38 None of these ideas are mutually exclusive and in the absence of an eyewitness account taking Philip’s part it seems reasonable to assume a combination of all three reasons. This was a propaganda gift to the English chroniclers and they scorned the move: “What an extraordinary way of discharging a vow, when he had hardly entered the country and had such brief triumphs against the Turks!”39 While Philip spent a considerable amount of money on the siege of Acre and his efforts there proved highly important in the capture of the city, some commentators argued that as the most prestigious monarch present he had a particular responsibility to lead the recovery of the Holy Land. In spite of many efforts to make him change his mind, Philip resolved to leave on August 1. Four days prior to then, a compromise was arranged over the succession to Jerusalem. It was agreed that Guy should hold the throne for his lifetime but because Conrad had married Isabella, the legitimate heiress to the kingdom, on Guy’s death the crown would go to his rival. This arrangement preserved Guy’s status as the crowned and anointed monarch but recognized the legitimacy of Conrad and Isabella’s wedding, endorsed the royal bloodline and, de facto, noted Conrad’s popularity and military strength.

Just before he embarked for home Philip swore that he would not attack Richard’s lands or people while he was away—as a crusader, in theory, the king of England’s territory was under the protection of the Church. As time would show this was not a promise that Philip kept, and the threat of his interference in Angevin lands proved a constant distraction for Richard over the next couple of years. The bulk of the French crusaders remained in the East, now under the command of Duke Hugh of Burgundy.

As Richard oversaw the reconstruction of Acre’s defenses the Muslims dragged out fulfilling the terms of surrender. Saladin seemed in no hurry to gather the Frankish prisoners together or to locate and hand over the True Cross. Several weeks passed by and after repeated requests for information, Richard believed that Saladin was simply playing for time. The longer Richard remained at Acre, the better the sultan could prepare his defenses elsewhere and gather more men to attack the crusaders on their march south. Around August 19 Richard called a council to debate the matter and the meeting resolved to kill all the Muslim prisoners, excepting the most important who could be ransomed. The following day 2,700 men were marched out in front of Saladin’s camp and beheaded in cold blood. The stark, straightforward brutality of this act is one of the most controversial incidents of the entire crusading period. One hundred years later, in June 1291, the slaughter of Christians at Acre was justified by the Muslims as revenge for Richard’s actions; modern commentators also cite it as a landmark of western savagery.40 Why, then, did the king and his council order such an act? Some writers state that it was done to avenge the thousands of Christians who died at the siege of Acre between 1189 and 1191, although this seems rather a long delay between the capture of the city and the executions for such an emotional response. Practical strategic reasons were probably more prominent—even Beha ad-Din mentioned both Saladin’s hesitation and the fact that the Christians would not want to guard and feed so many prisoners with the main army absent to the south.41 With every passing day the king could see the impetus from his victory ebbing away. The chance to capitalize on this hammer blow to Saladin’s prestige was fading and the Muslims were obviously steeling themselves to make his next task even harder. Seen in these terms, Saladin’s delaying tactics gave the crusaders little choice. While one could indicate that the sultan had butchered knights of the Military Orders after the Battle of Hattin, his eventual decision to show mercy to the inhabitants of Jerusalem was some form of counterbalance. Some westerners condemned the episode; for example, Ansbert, the author of an account of Frederick Barbarossa’s crusade, and Sicard of Cremona argued that they should have been made slaves.42

To the watching Muslims the slaughter of their friends and coreligionists was an appalling and horrific experience. While the struggle at Acre had been extraordinarily hard there is no doubt that the massacre of so many prisoners in such a terrible fashion ratcheted up the religious intensity of the conflict considerably. Over the next few months, any crusaders—men or women—unfortunate enough to fall into Muslim hands were summarily executed—this need for vengeance demanded an outlet.43

Within Acre itself, boredom had taken hold of the crusaders. Churchmen complained that the men became consumed by lust: prostitutes were readily available and this, combined with heavy drinking, had brought on a collapse in morality. The authorities acted and when the orders to march south were given the only women permitted to travel were elderly laundresses and flea-pickers.44


On August 22 the host set out along the coast in immaculate formation. King Richard was in the vanguard, King Guy and the Military Orders were in the center with the French contingent at the rear. A baggage train marched between the fighting men and the sea, and those who carried the equipment often swapped duties with colleagues in the main force to share the burden. Alongside the army a fleet provided essential supplies; this in itself was a feat worthy of praise because the prevailing wind in the eastern Mediterranean runs from south to north, requiring the ships to tack into the breeze.

The conditions on the march were terrible—the heat was oppressive and there was constant harassment from the Muslims. Ambroise vividly described the Muslim way of fighting, praising their horses: “there are no better anywhere in the world; they seem to fly like swallows,” and cursing their tactics: “When the Turk is followed he cannot be reached. Then he is like a venomous fly; when chased he flees; turn back and he follows.”45 Beha ad-Din admired the Christians’ stoicism as they endured a relentless series of forays and suffered constant bombardment with arrows and missiles, a scene played out to a constant throbbing drumbeat and the braying of bugles. Losses of horses were particularly grim and the crusaders themselves began to resemble pincushions with as many as ten arrows or crossbow bolts protruding from their chain mail. Ambroise claimed that “never did rain or snow or hail falling in the heart of winter fall so densely as did the bolts which flew and killed our horses—many would know if I was lying; there you could have gathered the bolts in armfuls like the gleaners gathering the corn in cut fields.”46 The need to remain fully armed caused sunstroke to become commonplace and more and more men were evacuated to the ships. Yet the crusaders trudged onward and as the army moved past Haifa, Mount Carmel, and Caesarea, Saladin realized that he needed to halt its progress sooner rather than later.

Just through the forest north of Arsuf lies a plain and there Saladin massed his forces, gathered from Egypt (the crusaders marveled at the black-skinned Nubians), the Jazira, and all across Syria. With the drums, cymbals, and trumpets at full volume, thousands of Muslims hammered through the dust toward the crusader army. Again and again they charged up, poured their arrows into the Christian host, and wheeled away. Saladin’s holy men roused the jihad spirit in his troops and for a while the sultan believed that he had his enemy cornered.47 This was certainly the most intense bombardment faced by the crusaders and the discipline required not to react tested the knights’ patience to its absolute limits. Their sense of honor screamed at them to cast aside strict military protocol. The Hospitaller master shouted: “St George, will you let us be defeated like this?” He rode up to Richard and complained about the shame of the situation, as well as marking the huge losses of horses. “Put up with it, Master,” was the curt response. Richard recalled the need for caution instilled into him as a youth, and he did not want to respond to the Muslims because a shapeless pursuit would break his ranks and present Saladin with an opportunity to obliterate the crusader forces. The king wanted to charge on his terms and had prepared a prearranged signal—yet he did not get to use it: a Hospitaller and an English knight charged of their own accord. So tense were the nearby units that they followed suit and hurled themselves after the enemy. Richard reacted immediately: even though his plan was in ruins he was sharp enough to realize that a charge from only one section of the Christian army would likely be defeated and he too thundered into the Muslims “faster than the bolt from a crossbow,” as Ambroise eulogized.48 The massive impetus of the crusader charge, so potent in theory, but so rarely unleashed in the Levant, smashed into Saladin’s troops and its impact was devastating. Richard himself “did such deeds at that time that all around him, behind and beside were the bodies of Saracens who fell dead.”49 The center of the Muslim army was punched back and the survivors took to wholesale flight leaving a trail of slain soldiers and horses. Some rallied, however, most notably Saladin’s own elite Mamluk units, marked out by their yellow banners, and these men offered fierce resistance and killed a number of knights. Another push by the crusaders inflicted further losses on the Muslims and by then the Christians had the field of battle to themselves. While the Muslim casualties were nowhere near enough to break Saladin’s strength, once again the sultan’s aura of success had been breached and his despondency and frustration were manifest to all in his entourage.

The crusaders reached Jaffa (just south of modern Tel Aviv) where they had to make an important strategic decision—should they carry on south and take the mighty fortress of Ascalon, thus threatening Saladin’s communications with Egypt, or should they go directly to Jerusalem? Richard, ever the strategist, opted for the former, but the French forces and the majority of the army wanted to aim for the holy city itself. Jaffa was refortified—although in the course of this work boatloads of prostitutes arrived from Acre to bring “an increase in the army of sin and filth, ugly deeds and lust . . . what bad shields and defences with which to reconquer the land and heritage of God,” complained Ambroise.50


Over the next few weeks, Richard’s caution was again manifest. To ensure the advance on Jerusalem could be properly sustained he carefully rebuilt several fortresses along the route. As he inched toward the holy city an intense diplomatic exchange began to take place; in tandem with the bloodshed of holy war a dialogue proposed a peaceful settlement. Admittedly, the agendas of the various parties were wildly different. Beha ad-Din reported that Saladin really favored the continuation of the jihad because he feared that if he died the Franks would ignore any deal and carry on fighting. The Christians were deeply divided: Conrad of Montferrat negotiated with Saladin to try to enhance his power and he even raised the prospect of attacking the crusaders left in Acre. For his part, Richard was probably most concerned to discover any weaknesses in the Muslim camp. At times his proposals for the division of Jerusalem—such as shared custody of the city and a corridor of land to the coast—have a surprisingly modern ring to them. He was certainly in close contact with Saladin’s brother, Saphadin. The two men met on several occasions, exchanging gifts and learning of their mutual love of music. They were described as parting “in amity and in good spirits as firm friends,” and at one event Richard knighted some of Saphadin’s Mamluks, bestowing the ultimate honor for a western knight on his opponent’s finest troops.51

Probably Richard’s most outlandish scheme involved the marriage of his sister, Joan, to Saphadin. The couple would rule the coast, the castles of the land, and Jerusalem, but the Military Orders were to hold all the villages and Richard was to return home. Saladin himself was skeptical as to the seriousness of the idea but agreed to it anyway; the one person not consulted was Joan and she, predictably, was furious. She demanded that Saphadin convert to Christianity before they were wed—how else could she allow him to have carnal knowledge of her? The plan never progressed far but the principle of shared ownership of the land and Richard’s insistence on a Christian presence in Jerusalem while the Muslims kept the Dome of the Rock would be endlessly revisited over the next few months. Both sides were feeling the pressure of this sustained conflict; physically, financially, and politically (in terms of keeping their forces together) this was a struggle of epic proportions.

Between October 30 and December 22, 1191, the crusaders advanced only about forty miles. Torrential rains and cold brought great misery to both sides with more losses of animals and supplies. Just before Christmas they reached Beit Nuba, a day’s ride from Jerusalem. There was a burst of optimism: “God, we thank you! Now we will see your Sepulchre!”52 But the local Franks and the knights of the Military Orders began to express ever deeper reservations about the wisdom of laying siege to the city. The Christians were scared that Saladin would surround them as he had done at Acre; they also feared that their supply lines to the coast would be cut. Furthermore, they suggested that if they gained control of the holy city it would be very hard to hold on to; by definition, crusading was a temporary condition—after fulfilling his vow the crusader returned home, leaving insufficient men to reinforce Jerusalem. One alternative was to refortify Ascalon, thereby damaging Saladin’s contact with Egypt and confirming Frankish control of the seaboard.

On January 13, 1192, the retreat was announced—a calamity to the rank and file. They had struggled so hard to get (literally) within sight of their goal, and to reject what appeared a real chance to regain Christ’s sepulchre for the faithful caused profound melancholy and mutters of discontent. Most of the French left immediately and went to Acre. Richard moved down to Ascalon where his fractious army tried to rebuild the city. The Pisans and the Genoese, allies of Richard and Philip respectively, also came to blows, demonstrating further the frustrations and tensions that permeated throughout the Christian forces.

The spring sailing season brought bad news. Messengers from England announced that Prince John was trying to take control of the land and had removed all the king’s counselors and ransacked the treasuries. Richard’s departure would have brought the campaign in the Holy Land to a grinding halt; without his powerful personality and leadership qualities the will to fight on would disappear. The need to consider a peaceful settlement became even more pressing, therefore. On top of this, the situation among the nobles of Jerusalem had also deteriorated. In spite of the agreement that Guy could remain king for life it was apparent that he enjoyed little confidence from the local nobility. Conrad, for all his double-dealing, was a man who they believed understood war. They pleaded with Richard to change the earlier agreement and to become reconciled with the marquis, who it must also be remembered was a clear partisan of the French. Ever the pragmatist, Richard reluctantly acknowledged the desires of the Frankish nobility and dispatched messengers to tell Conrad of his change of heart. The news was greeted with considerable enthusiasm in the Frankish cities and gave the Christians a renewed sense of purpose for the forthcoming campaigning season—perhaps with greater unity they might achieve some success. Guy was not left entirely empty-handed because Richard managed to sell him Cyprus. The Templars had proven heavy-handed rulers and the locals attempted to massacre the garrison of Nicosia. The master realized his men could not control the island and he turned it over to Richard, who promptly made a deal with Guy, who retained his royal status and began a period of Lusignan rule on the island that would last until the 1470s.53

Conrad himself was understandably delighted but, on the evening of April 28, as he took a stroll along the streets of Tyre following dinner with the bishop of Beauvais, two men set upon him. The marquis was caught entirely unawares and his assailants slashed and stabbed at him. People rushed to help and one of the attackers was killed, but it was too late and Conrad died of his wounds. The other assailant claimed that he worked for the Old Man of the Mountains, the master of the Assassins, who held a longstanding grudge against the marquis for seizing one of their ships at the port of Tyre. Other sources suspected Richard’s involvement, but simply murdering the marquis would have been an extremely foolish way to nullify the recent arrangements. Given the inevitable backlash it was unlikely that the king really was responsible; nonetheless, his well-known animosity toward Conrad and the hatred of Leopold of Austria and Philip of France ensured that “news” of his complicity in the murder soon became commonplace around Europe.

One further consequence of Conrad’s murder was that Isabella—as the surviving member of the ruling house of Jerusalem—was obliged to face a third marriage. Count Henry of Champagne was a prominent crusader and he was a nephew of both King Richard and King Philip. This, combined with his experience and popularity, meant that he was an ideal candidate to rule Jerusalem. Richard consented to the plan, although he was not convinced that Henry should marry Isabella because of the immorality of her marriage to Conrad; presumably the king was worried about the legitimacy of any offspring. The Franks of the Holy Land had no such concerns and they urged Henry to wed the heiress. Isabella was famed for her beauty: “as fair as a gemstone,” avowed Ambroise, and the count stated his desire to marry her. “I would have done the same,” volunteered Ambroise, making his own feelings toward the princess perfectly clear.54 A French bishop performed the marriage and the citizens of Acre gave Henry a rapturous reception. The streets were hung with drapes, censers full of incense dangled from the windows, and the city’s clergy escorted him to the main church, presented him with relics, including a piece of the True Cross, and then led him to his palace.

Throughout the early summer of 1192 messengers continued to arrive from Europe bearing the tidings that John, encouraged by Philip of France, persistently stirred trouble in England and Normandy. Richard was downcast by these stories and feared that if he did not depart soon he would lose his kingdom. The other crusader nobles decided to march on Jerusalem regardless of Richard’s mood, and when they broke this news publicly the Christian forces were suffused with enthusiasm. The king continued in his depression: the prospect that he would leave, for whatever good reason, was highly unpopular and he was the subject of much criticism. Yet a monarch’s primary duty was to his kingdom, and this pressure—when combined with the strategic concerns of the Holy Land—undoubtedly, and understandably, trapped him. Eventually a Poitevin priest talked to Richard, reminded him of his previous achievements, and stressed his duty to those he could help most easily: “now everyone . . . says that you are the father and brother of Christianity and if you leave her without help now, then she is dead and betrayed.”55 Such talk pulled the king out of his lethargy and he called for his crier, who announced his lord would remain in the Holy Land and that all should prepare to march.


On June 7, 1192, the Christians prepared for another assault on Jerusalem. This time progress was rapid and within four days they had reached Beit Nuba. As he led a reconnaissance mission the king caught sight of Jerusalem on the horizon—but this proved the closest he would get to his goal. So near were the Christian forces that Saladin decided to poison all the wells around the city. The sultan was highly anxious and his men feared that after the defeat at Acre, Jerusalem would fall too. The strain of holding an alliance of the Muslim Near East was immense: ever more of the sultan’s time was spent trying to convince his coreligionists to come and help, and their inadequate responses tested his remarkable powers of persuasion to the limit. As Beha ad-Din noted, there were times when he needed “to mend feelings and to enhance his authority.” Yet he could still inspire his troops, as this rousing speech shows: “Know today that you are the army of Islam and its bulwark, as you are aware that the blood of Muslims, their property and their offspring depend on your protection. There are no Muslims who can face the enemy but you. If you turn your reins away, they will roll up these lands as one rolls up a scroll. This is your responsibility.”56

The crusader army had to pause for a month to wait for King Henry to join them and during this time there was another debate as to strategy. In reality, the arguments of the spring had not changed: the French and the main army still wanted to besiege the holy city, but Richard and the local knights did not. The king also expressed another, perhaps more selfish motive, albeit a sentiment that showed his sense of honor and an awareness of a wider political and historical spectrum. When asked why he would not march on Jerusalem he answered: “You will never see me lead a people [in an undertaking] for which I can be criticised and I do not care if I am disliked for it.” He then explained that the defenses of the holy city were said to be formidable and that Saladin could cut his supply lines to the coast: “If I were to lead an army and besiege Jerusalem and such a thing were to happen to their loss, then I would be forever blamed, shamed and less loved.” Richard argued that “we must work through those who live in this land and [also] through the advice of the Templars and the Hospitallers.”57 The fact that it was now the height of summer and water was scarce sealed the decision to turn around. Again the rank and file were despondent as they headed back to Acre.

Buoyed by this news, Saladin seized the initiative for the first time in months, and launched a lightning attack on Jaffa. His sappers quickly undermined the walls and the town fell, which left a small garrison of Franks trapped in the citadel. The sultan’s forces blocked help coming from overland, which meant that relief could only arrive by sea. Richard rushed south as fast as he could and once at Jaffa the Christian ships paused, unsure as to whether the entire town was already in Muslim hands. One defender escaped and swam out to the crusader fleet, where he reported that if the Christians landed immediately there was still a chance for the castle to hold on. Richard urged the boats toward the shore and even before they beached he leaped into the surf, firing his crossbow as he waded to land. Beha ad-Din was present (“all this went on before my eyes”) and he described the king, red-haired, in a red tunic accompanied by a red banner rushing into the fray.58 The Itinerarium peregrinorum conveys the ferocity of his onslaught: “With no armour on his legs he threw himself into the sea first . . . and forced his way powerfully on to dry land. The Turks obstinately opposed them on the shore. . . . The outstanding king shot them indiscriminately with a crossbow he was carrying in his hand and his elite companions pursued the Turks as they fled across the beach, cutting them down. At the sight of the king they had no more spirit in them; they dare not approach him.”59 The Muslims were terrified and fled; Richard reached the citadel and had his banner unfurled on top of the wall.

Saladin’s men were ashamed by their rout and swore revenge. At dawn on August 5, 1192, they mounted a surprise attack on the crusader camp outside the city. Richard’s force was small, but despite being outnumbered the Christians vigorously resisted enemy charges before a signal from the Lion banner triggered the crusader countercharge. Once again, Richard led from the front; his superb fighting ability caused western writers to rhapsodize about his strength and prowess: “His right hand brandished his sword with rapid strokes, slicing through the charging enemy, cutting them in two as he encountered them.”60 Amid this desperate conflict the importance of chivalric etiquette remained apparent. Saphadin so admired the king’s bravery that he sent two fine Arab horses for Richard to use in the battle. Set against the background of a holy war such a gesture seems wholly paradoxical, yet it showed the shared values of the warrior elites and the close bond between these two individuals.

For a while it appeared the Christians would be driven back into Jaffa but again, Richard’s daring—some might say reckless—charges pushed the Muslims back. At one point he was almost swallowed up by their ranks but he slashed his way free, and when he killed an important emir, the other soldiers lost heart and a space appeared around him. For the second time in five days the Lionheart had humiliated Saladin’s troops and shown himself worthy of a place in the pantheon of great warriors.


At this stage the king and the sultan were like two heavyweight boxers, who after fifteen rounds of brutal pounding are so weary they lack the strength to deal the knockout blow. Both suffered from ill health and each had domestic political troubles. News of Philip’s and John’s meddling continued to arrive from the West while, in the face of multiple setbacks, Saladin’s authority was in decline. Beha ad-Din wrote that the army was “weary and showing signs of disaffection,” and mentioned tensions in the east of the sultan’s domains and disputes with the caliph of Baghdad.61

Further negotiations took place through August, gilded by the usual diplomatic courtesies. Richard’s illness left him with, apparently, a yearning for pears and plums. The fruit—properly iced—was duly sent to him; its delivery also provided another opportunity to gather information about Christian morale and resources. For a while the possession of Ascalon was a sticking point but in the end Richard conceded. On September 2, 1192, a three-year truce was agreed whereby the Christians would keep the coastline from Jaffa to Tyre. Pilgrims could enter Jerusalem freely, although the king himself refused to visit the holy city in such circumstances.

Many of the crusaders did, however, make the pilgrimage where they were treated with considerable courtesy by the senior Muslims. In hugely emotional scenes they were able to venerate the Holy Sepulchre, Mount Calvary, and other important sites, weeping and kissing the places where Christ had lived and died; Saladin even showed some of them the True Cross. The bishop of Salisbury had a personal meeting with the sultan. Saladin offered to grant the bishop a wish and after due reflection he answered that he would like two Latin priests and two Latin deacons to worship at the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and in Nazareth, where they would live off gifts made to them by visitors: Saladin graciously agreed.62

On October 9, 1192, Richard set sail for home from Acre, although it is clear that he intended to return. “Ah Syria! I commend you to God. May the Lord God, by his command grant me the time, if it is his will that I may come to your help! For I still expect to save you.”63 Events would prove otherwise: in the course of the crusade Richard had generated a comprehensive network of enemies across Europe, a situation that required him to travel home in disguise.64 By December 1192 he reached Vienna when he was discovered. The king spent the next fifteen months as a prisoner, first in the dungeons of Duke Leopold and then those of Emperor Henry VI of Germany. Finally, on February 4, 1194, after the payment of the colossal sum of 100,000 marks, Eleanor of Aquitaine was able to welcome her son home. It was the payment of this punitive sum, so soon after the expense of the crusade, rather than the cost of the expedition itself, that has done much to create the impression that the expedition almost bankrupted the country. After a ceremonial recoronation at Winchester Cathedral in April 1194 Richard set about restoring order in his lands. With great generosity—or misjudgment—he pardoned John for his serial misdemeanors and then set about recovering the lands in Normandy taken by King Philip. This process would embroil him for years and it was in the course of one of these campaigns that he was wounded by a crossbow bolt at Chalus-Chabrol in the Limousin. The injury became infected and gangrene claimed the most famous warrior-king in English history on April 6, 1199.

His performance during the Third Crusade had gained him an international reputation—across both the Christian and the Muslim worlds—as a leader and as a warrior. Perhaps the testimony from the latter group is most telling; after all, they dismissed the majority of westerners as greedy, unclean barbarians. Ibn al-Athir characterized him thus: “The king was an outstanding man of his time for bravery, cunning, steadfastness and endurance. In him the Muslims were tried by an unprecedented disaster.”65 Richard was not simply a violent lout. Wars were not just won on the battlefield, but by planning and administrative competence as well. Without doubt his military daring inspired his men, but alongside this, his meticulous attention to detail and strategic caution created the circumstances in which his bravery could shine through. He was also a keen diplomat; at times, such as in his dealings with King Philip, he showed no subtlety at all, but his carefully nurtured relationship with Saphadin constituted a vital subplot to the progress of the Third Crusade.

In terms of outcome, the expedition failed to achieve its ultimate aim of the recovery of Jerusalem. It did, however, provide the Franks with a tolerably firm hold on the coastline and an economically viable territory. With Cyprus, Acre, and Tyre in Christian hands there existed a series of genuine bridgeheads for future crusades. Compared to the situation in late 1187 when Tyre survived thanks only to the chance arrival of Conrad of Montferrat, the position had been transformed. With regard to the development of crusading, apart from the raw power of the preaching bull Audita tremendi, the Third Crusade was notable for the dominant role played by the secular monarchs and the low-key involvement of the papacy.


Richard’s departure from the Holy Land was a cause of much fear in the Frankish East, but the existence of a truce and the king’s promise to return offered a breathing space.66 Ironically, had the king remained in the Levant over the winter of 1193—as he intended at one stage—circumstances would have presented him with a tremendous opportunity to reverse the gains made by Saladin. On March 4, 1193, worn out by six years of almost continuous campaigning, the sultan died in Damascus, where his simple wooden tomb can still be seen today. He was the hero of the Islamic world. The capture of Jerusalem was the apogee of his lengthy career and this gave him the credibility to survive the setbacks at Acre, Arsuf, and Jaffa. He could argue that he had seen off the challenge of the three greatest monarchs of the West and that Islam’s third most important city remained in Muslim hands. Had Saladin lived, once the three-year truce expired, he would have been free to renew the jihad against the settlers. Arguably his greatest achievement was to gather and then to hold together—just about—a broad coalition of the Muslim Near East in the face of increasingly poor military results. Saladin was not a great battlefield general and his triumph at Hattin was down more to Frankish foolishness than his own skill. His gifts were more as a man of huge personal charisma and consummate political ability. While he was undoubtedly a pious individual determined to accomplish the obligations of the jihad, he did not shrink from conflict with his fellow Muslims—and not just the heretical Shi’a, but also his political opponents in the Sunni world. His flagrant disregard of Nur ad-Din’s instructions during the early 1170s was redolent of spectacular self-interest, and this aspect of his career must always be borne in mind in the course of any wider discussion. Any final assessment might see him as primarily motivated by religion, yet not blind to political advantage, a man who used all the weapons at his disposal to draw his fellow Muslims together and to achieve Islam’s greatest success against the crusaders to date. The chronicler Abd al-Latif visited him in late 1192 and wrote these words soon after his death: “I found a great king who inspired both respect and affection, far and near, easy-going and willing to grant requests. His companions took him as a model. . . . [When he died] men grieved for him as they grieve for prophets. I have seen no other ruler for whose death the people mourned, for he was loved by good and bad, Muslim and unbeliever alike.”67

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