Post-classical history

Chapter Twenty-Four


Kings’ Crusade

Between 1188 and 1199, three kings go on the Third Crusade, and Richard Lionheart comes to an unexpected end

EASTER OF 1189 was the appointed time. On that date, the kings of England, France, and Germany would depart for the Holy Land, prepared to drive Saladin out. “Let your hearts be strengthened in the Lord,” Henry II of England wrote to the beleaguered bishops in Jerusalem and Antioch. “Sooner than you could believe . . . vast multitudes of the faithful will by land and sea come to your rescue.”1

He was a skilled king, but a poor prophet.

The peace with Philip lasted barely six months; in July of 1188, Henry was forced to abandon his preparations in England and return to France to protect his lands there. And an unexpected development was complicating his relations with Philip. Richard, Henry’s oldest surviving son, had struck up a friendship with the enemy. “Richard remained with the king of France,” says the English chronicler Roger of Hoveden, “though much against the will of his father, and the king of France held him in such high esteem, that every day they ate at the same table, and from the same dish, and at night their beds were not separate.”2

As the historian John Gillingham points out, this phrase doesn’t necessarily suggest sex; Ralph of Diceto uses the same wording to describe Henry the Younger’s amicable relationship with his father in 1175. Rather, Richard and Philip had identified with each other. Their cause was the same: both of them wanted Richard to inherit the throne of England.

After Henry the Younger’s death, Henry II had not settled on one of his surviving sons as heir. Geoffrey had died in 1186, accidentally killed at a jousting tournament. Richard, the natural choice, was still fiercely loyal to Eleanor and hostile to his father; Henry had not forgotten Richard’s long holdout in Poitiers, back in 1174. John, on the other hand, had been young enough during that earlier rebellion to escape full blame and seemed to be rising in Henry’s estimation. Henry had already named him Lord of Ireland, intending to give him the kingship of the Irish lands.

Richard, watching his father shower John with favors, could see his throne slipping away. So could Philip II, who wanted the Western Frankish lands bordering his own governed by a sympathetic king of England, not a mere duke subject to a younger brother’s decrees.

In the fall of 1188, Philip and Richard together summoned Henry to a conference at Bonsmoulins, on the eastern edge of Normandy. There they demanded that the king name Richard his heir and require the barons of England to swear loyalty to him at once.

Henry II refused. Now aged fifty-six, he had spent thirty-five years ruling both England and his family, rejecting all attempts to block his will, demolishing opposition, ignoring threats. He would not be bullied by his own son and Louis’s stripling successor.

According to onlookers, the conversation began to degenerate into shouts; and then, to drawn swords. No one struck, though. Instead, Richard turned his back on his father and went on his knees to Philip II, swearing homage to the king of France in place of his father.

That night, Henry sent the English knight William Marshal after Richard, hoping to persuade his son to return to England. But Richard had already left his quarters and could not be found. Marshal did make a new discovery: The night before, Richard had sent out perhaps two hundred letters. He was already raising his supporters to fight; he had never intended to make peace with his father.3

Henry returned to England and, entirely abandoning his plans for crusade, began to prepare for all-out war instead. But over Christmas he began to grow ill. Contemporary chroniclers mention a fever, arthritis, and a fistula: most likely an abscessed anal gland, in itself miserable but not fatal, which eventually escalated into a septic infection and attacked the king’s joints. Over the next seven months, Henry became progressively sicker, even while he tried to prosecute the war against his son. Philip and Richard, aggressively pushing forward against the English-held lands, scored victory after victory. In July of 1189, so ill that he had to be supported by two of his knights in order to stay on his horse, Henry II agreed to meet the two rebels and yield to their demands. These had expanded: Henry was now required to give up any claim to the allegiance of all English knights who had gone over to Richard’s side.*

Almost unable to stand, Henry took the required oaths and then came forward to give Richard the customary kiss of peace. Gerald de Barri, Henry’s royal clerk and chaplain, records that as the king kissed the air beside Richard’s ear, he whispered, “God grant that I may not die until I have had my revenge on you.”4

Back at his headquarters in the castle of Chinon, Henry received the list of knights who had deserted his cause for Richard’s. At the head of the list was his son John. Until that moment, says Roger of Hoveden, Henry had not known that his favored son had crossed over to the enemy. “Surprised at this beyond measure,” Roger of Hoveden concludes, “[he] cursed the day on which he was born.” He had already lost the ability to stand. On his deathbed, he made his last confession; and on July 6, 1189, Henry II died in the thirty-fifth year of his reign.5

Richard claimed the English throne. He was now thirty-one, an experienced soldier and politician, dazzling in person: nicknamed “Lionheart” by his soldiers, tall, golden-haired, “of a shapely build” with “straight and flexible limbs,” possessing the valor of Hector, the greatness of Alexander, and the manhood of Roland (at least according to the anonymous starstruck author of the Itinerarium Regis Ricardi). He released his mother Eleanor from her long house arrest and then, immediately after, announced that he would fulfill his father’s undone vows by going on crusade.6

Crusades were expensive. Richard ransacked the treasury, sold state offices to the highest bidder, and collected 10 percent of the kingdom’s goods and cash as a “tithe Saladin” (a “violent extortion,” says Roger of Wendover, “which veiled the vice of rapacity under the name of charity”). On August 16, 1190, Richard and Philip—having sworn an oath to divide all proceeds from their conquests equally between them—departed from Marseille, bound for Jerusalem.7

BY THEN, Frederick Barbarossa was dead.

He had left Germany in April 1189, sailing along the Danube to Vienna, and then traveling along the long difficult land route through the kingdom of Hungary (where he was joined by the king of Hungary’s brother with some two thousand troops) and then over the rough terrain of Serbia and Bosnia.* When he reached the border of the Byzantine empire, he found himself facing an unexpected enemy. Isaac Angelus, who had now been on the throne of Constantinople for four years, had originally guaranteed the Crusaders safe passage through his lands, but the approach of a huge German force supplemented with Hungarian, Bosnian, and Serbian soldiers was giving him pause. Byzantium and the Holy Roman Empire had been jostling each other for decades; he might well be giving a conquering army an open door into his empire.


24.1 The World of the Third Crusade

So he sent guerrilla bands to harass the Crusaders. “As soon as we reached the borders of our imperial brother, the emperor of Constantinople,” Frederick himself wrote, “we suffered no small loss by robbery of goods and killing of our men; and this is known without doubt to have been instigated by the emperor himself.” Vexed, he sent envoys to Constantinople to object; Angelus threw them in jail. Tensions escalated until Frederick sent a message back to his son and regent in Germany, Henry VI, asking him to get from the pope permission to declare a crusade against Byzantium so that he could attack Constantinople.8

At this threat, Isaac Angelus offered to let the crusading army pass, as long as it stayed south, far away from Constantinople. In the spring of 1190, Frederick Barbarossa’s army finally crossed over into Asia Minor, at the far end of the Sea of Marmara, and began a wearying march through Turkish-held lands towards the Christian kingdom of Armenia, where the men could gather themselves for the assault on Saladin.

They arrived at the Armenian border in June of 1190. Hearing that the king of Armenia himself had come to greet him and was waiting on the other side of the shallow Saleph river, Frederick Barbarossa began to ford the river on horseback. Somehow, he fell; and in waist-deep water, surrounded by his own men, the emperor drowned.9

Without their leader, the German army divided. Some of the men headed back home to swear loyalty to the new emperor, Henry VI. Others pushed on, but plague and heat began to diminish their number. “Disease and death fell upon them,” writes the Arab chronicler Ibn al-Athir, “and they reached Antioch, looking as though they had been exhumed from their graves.” The king of Antioch, Bohemund III, was not particularly pleased to see them: “He encouraged them to join the Franks at Acre,” Ibn al-Athir says, “. . . but mortality was high among them, and only about a thousand of them were left.”10

The few who straggled on found the former King Guy of Jerusalem camped outside Acre’s walls. Guy had been freed by Saladin the previous winter after taking an oath not to fight against the Muslims, which he promptly broke by laying siege to Saladin’s stronghold at Acre. The siege had begun in August of 1189, and the pathetic German reinforcements did nothing to tip the balance towards the besiegers; Acre was still under siege when Philip II of France finally arrived, in April of 1191. “Considering how many noblemen have been at this siege,” Philip is said to have remarked, “it is extraordinary how slow they have been to take it.” But the Frankish reinforcements—six ships, rather than the huge numbers of men Guy had hoped for—also proved inadequate to bring Acre down.11


24.2 The Kingdom of Jerusalem

Meanwhile Richard, who (like Philip) had traveled by sea, had been shipwrecked on Cyprus. He had paused to capture the island from its Greek governor and did not arrive at Acre until early June.

His fleet—twenty-five ships, laden with men and provisions—heaved to on the horizon like the Second Coming, and the Crusaders welcomed him as the savior of the Crusade. “All the people were in transports,” the Itinerarium Regis Ricardi tells us, “shouting out congratulations and blowing trumpets . . . and there was great joy because the desire of all nations had come. . . . Nor was it easy to find any one who did not share in the general joy and welcome.”12

Philip was one. The hero’s welcome put him into an extremely poor temper, not sweetened by Richard’s refusal to hand over half of Cyprus. (The Crusade, in Richard’s eyes, hadn’t started until he got to the Holy Land, so Cyprus was his personal conquest.)* Philip had also been suffering from various fevers, rashes, and stomach ailments ever since his arrival. He was sick of crusade, sick of Richard, sick of Acre. Communication between the two kings broke down so thoroughly that, at one point, Philip was negotiating Acre’s surrender on one side of the city while Richard was attacking it on the other.13

Finally, the garrison at Acre—with Saladin’s approval—agreed to a truce. The soldiers would surrender the city, their lives would be spared, and in return Saladin would release all of the prisoners he still held, pay a substantial sum over to the Crusader war effort, and also return the fragment of the True Cross that had been taken from Jerusalem during the conquest.

The city duly surrendered. But on either Saladin’s side or Richard’s (depending on whose chronicles you read), the deal broke down. On August 20, Richard marched out nearly three thousand prisoners and slaughtered them within sight of Saladin’s headquarters.*

This ended the possibility of any more negotiations, and Saladin prepared his army for an all-out war. Richard took command of the Crusader army; Philip had decided to go home.

Roger of Hoveden, who traveled back with the French king (and recorded his every move in excruciating geographical detail), writes that Philip stopped in Rome, on the way, and “said many evil things of the king of England” to Pope Celestine III. He wanted the pope to release him from his treaty of friendship with Richard, so that he could attack Richard’s lands in the English king’s absence. Celestine refused. Still bound by the oath, Philip made a deal with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI instead: “to lay hands upon the king of England, in case he should pass through his territory.”14

Unaware of the Christian hostiles arraying against him, Richard was marching south towards the port city of Jaffa, which he hoped to capture in order to assure a steady stream of supplies for his army. Saladin attempted to block him, and the two generals met north of Arsuf, on September 7, 1191.

Possibly Saladin had underestimated his enemy; Richard planned the battle carefully, breaking the opposing line in three places with his cavalry so that his foot soldiers could rush through into the body of the Muslim army. Ibn Shaddad, who himself fought in the battle, says that the Muslim front was “broken utterly . . . the Muslims were, in fact, in a complete rout.” It was a devastating defeat for Saladin, and a turning point in the war; Saladin would never face Richard in pitched battle again.15

Over the next year, the two men sparred, raided, and negotiated, always through intermediaries; when Richard suggested a face-to-face meeting, Saladin refused, explaining that kings could not fight properly against each other once they had met. It was becoming clear to both that victory would go to neither. Richard was too strong to be driven away; Saladin was too powerful to relinquish Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Richard was hearing alarming reports from home: Philip II was trying to persuade Richard’s younger brother John to seize Richard’s English territories and was planning on taking the lands in Western Francia for himself.16

After lengthy negotiations, representatives from both sides agreed to a treaty at the city of Ramla. The terms, finalized and sworn to on September 3, 1192, imposed a three-year peace. Richard would hand over captured territories to Saladin; Christian-held land on the coast would be left alone; Christian pilgrims would be allowed to visit Jerusalem and other holy sites unmolested. Richard arranged for Guy, the ousted king of Jerusalem, to rule in Cyprus instead; Acre was declared the new capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which survived as a tiny Crusader territory on the coast that no longer included the city of Jerusalem itself.17

Richard, heading home, found himself in greater danger from his fellow Christians than he had been from the Muslim army. He was captured on his way back through the Holy Roman Emperor’s territory, and imprisoned (as per Henry VI’s agreement with Philip) until February 1194. Instead of handing him over to Philip, Henry VI used the opportunity to raise cash: he ordered that Richard buy his freedom, a ransom demand recorded (delicately) in Richard’s own letter to his mother and the English barons who owed him allegiance:

We are prolonging our stay with the emperor, until his business and our own shall be brought to an end, and until we shall have paid him seventy thousand marks of silver.* Wherefore we do beg of you . . . that you will use all earnestness in raising the said sum of money.

The royal treasury was empty; Eleanor and the English barons (who hoped for royal favor in return for their efforts) raised the money by collecting gold and silver from the churches, confiscating the year’s crop of wool, and charging a 25 percent tax on the income of all Englishmen.18

While they were engaged in this effort, Saladin himself died in Damascus of a fever; his sons fought between themselves for his kingdom. Richard, finally ransomed and set free in early February of 1194, returned to mount his own war against Philip and his brother John, who had fled England and taken refuge at the French court. (“Take heed to yourself,” Philip had famously written to John, as soon as he heard of Richard’s release, “for the devil is let loose.”)19

The Third Crusade, beginning with yet another burst of religious fervor, had ended with political compromise between the Crusaders and their enemies, and with bloodshed between men of the same faith. Crusade had become simply another name for war; and its participants were more likely than not to die at the hands of their fellow believers.

Richard himself died in 1199, right after he and Philip agreed to a five-year truce in their ongoing war. One of the noblemen in Aquitaine, the Viscount of Limoges, had discovered a buried stash of gold and silver on his estate, put there for safekeeping by some earlier tenant and never retrieved. He sent Richard, as his liege lord, a portion of it, but Richard demanded the whole thing. The viscount refused to hand it over. Richard reacted with the same savagery he had displayed at Acre; he laid siege to the viscount’s castle, and when the knights defending it offered to surrender it in exchange for safety, Richard announced that he would storm the castle and hang them all.

He was riding around the castle on a reconnoiter when an archer on the walls loosed an arrow at him. It struck him in the arm; a wound, says Roger of Wendover, of which “he thought nothing.” But the doctor who extracted the arrowhead made a mess of the job, and the wound turned gangrenous. Twelve days later, the forty-two-year-old king died in his campaign quarters.

England and Western Francia he left to his brother John, the last surviving son of Henry II. He had ordered most of his body buried at the feet of his father, “whose destroyer he confessed himself to be.” But his heart was buried at Rouen and his intestines were buried at the Viscount of Limoges’s castle. “He left his entrails [to them],” Roger of Wendover concludes, “not considering them worthy of any other part of him.”20


*Another sticking point was the finalization of Richard’s betrothal to Philip’s half sister Alys. The marriage had been contracted in 1169, when Alys was eight and Richard eleven, as part of a peace deal with Louis VII. As was often done, Alys had been sent to live at the English court until she came of age. Henry had not yet approved the finalization of the marriage; rumors had spread that he himself had seduced Alys once she grew older (although there is no proof of this), and Richard himself was not enthusiastic about the match. But Philip II insisted that the wedding take place, and Richard had reluctantly agreed. As part of the 1189 treaty, Henry gave consent for the ceremony. It was never performed, however, and eventually Alys went home. She married a French nobleman in 1195.

*Bosnia was now under the ruler Ban Kulin; he had been appointed by Manuel I as a Byzantine vassal ruler, but had then pushed the Byzantine armies out of Bosnia and begun to rule independently. King Béla III of Hungary had claimed domination of Croatia and Serbia around 1180, just after the death of Manuel I; Byzantium, in no shape to send troops, had yielded the lands. As the historian John Fine points out, it was better for the empire if the contested territories belonged to Hungary, which was friendly to Constantinople, rather than to Venice, which wasn’t. See John Van Antwerp Fine, The Late Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest (University of Michigan Press, 1987), pp. 5–7.

*Richard had also just broken his betrothal to Philip’s half sister Alys.

*According to Ibn al-Athir and ibn Shaddad, Richard killed the prisoners before Saladin had a chance to fulfill his side of the bargain; William of Tyre’s Continuation insists that Saladin reneged multiple times first, and Roger of Hoveden accuses him of killing some of his prisoners before Richard killed any of the Acre garrison.

*Athough there is no good way of finding an exact equivalent in modern currency, this amount was worth about three times the king’s annual revenue from his own kingdom; roughly twelve million U.S. dollars. Henry would also demand an additional 30,000 marks.

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