The fall of Acre and the withdrawal of Philip II of France brought the Third Crusade to a new stage -- one dominated by the English King Richard I. Below is a summary of the second half of the Third Crusade.
On August 22, 1192 a crusader army composed of roughly 20,000 fighting men of which 1,200 were knights set out from Acre along the coastal road heading for Jerusalem via Jaffa under the overall command of Richard of England. Although the crusaders were marching through what had been the heart of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the region had been overrun by Saladin’s forces four years earlier and the inhabitants had been slaughtered, enslaved or driven off. No Saracen settlers had been sent to replace them. The fields lay fallow, the gardens left to go to seed, and the vineyards had been broken down. In short, the army was dependent on provisioning by sea. On the other hand, the horses had ample pasturage and water was plentiful since wells and aqueducts were still functioning. Furthermore, the fleet sailed down the coast keeping pace with the army, carrying food, fodder, supplies, munitions and also offering medical facilities for the wounded.
The latter was important because the Sultan’s forces controlled the interior and could move and deploy at will. This meant that the crusaders had to advance in battle formation, prepared to fight every foot of the way. Richard adopted the standard tactic of the Franks, the ‘fighting box,’ anchoring his formation on the sea, placing his baggage immediately beside the coast, the knights east/left of the baggage and the infantry on the landward flank of the formation, where they could protect the vulnerable horses. The entire formation advanced at the pace of the infantry.
Richard’s objective was to reach Jaffa, where he hoped to establish a defensible stronghold for the assault on Jerusalem. He had no interest in a full-scale battle with Saladin. Saladin, on the other hand, needed to avenge the slain of Acre and prevent the Franks from gaining control of another coastal city where they could entrench themselves. He wanted to engage the Franks while they were in the open so he could bring his superior numbers to bear. His reputation was at stake.
Richard maintained rigid discipline throughout the march, and despite daily provocation and harassment by Turkish mounted archers, the army made slow but steady progress down the coast. Arab sources report that the Franks kept marching despite having as many as ten arrows embedded in their shields or armor. The Franks, furthermore, had enough troops to regularly rotate between the exposed Eastern flank and the protected Western flank. They passed through the ruins of Caesarea 1 September 1191 and were a day’s march from Arsuf six days later.
On September 7, however, Saracen forces massed in such numbers that the crusaders knew they were about to face the onslaught. Richard gave strict orders for the knights not to charge the enemy unless he had personally given the order; his order was to be communicated by trumpet signals. The Sultan, commanding an army roughly twice that of the crusaders, ordered the attack at 9 am, after the Franks had been marching for several hours in the summer heat. He ordered massed infantry attacks for the first time, which pressed in to engage the crusader infantry, inflicting significant casualties. However, these failed to halt the advance.
By noon, the leading crusader units had reached the well-watered orchards north of Arsuf. The Saracens began focusing their attacks on the rearguard formed by the Hospitallers. Casualties among the horses mounted dangerously, and the Master of the Hospital rode forward to Richard requesting permission to attack before all his horses were slaughtered. Richard refused. Returning to the rear, the Master found that his men were pressed so hard that they were marching backwards. Again, the Master rode forward to beg Richard for permission to launch a counterattack. Richard again said ‘no’.
Before the Hospitaller Master could return to the rearguard, the Marshal of the Hospital broke out of the line with the cry of ‘St. George’, lead a Hospitaller charge. This was rapidly reinforced by the knights of Champagne, marching immediately beside the Hospitallers. Richard sounded the trumpet signal, and along the entire line the infantry stepped aside to allow the knights through the infantry screen.
The pro-Richard Itinerarium (and many modern commentators) make much of the fact that the attack was not initiated by Richard and suggest that it was somehow ‘mistimed’ as a result. The eye-witness account of Baha al-Din, on the other hand, describes the Frankish charge as ‘simultaneous’ — showing just how rapidly the Hospitallers had been reinforced — and also calling it superbly timed and well-coordinated. Certainly, claims that Richard might have won a decisive victory here are misleading. With the Saracens in control of the interior of the country, there was no way to pin them down and annihilate them. The only army that might have been annihilated in this engagement was Richard’s since he had his back to the sea.
Significantly, at the moment of the Hospitaller attack many mounted Turkish archers had dismounted to improve their aim. Apparently, after two weeks of failing to provoke a charge, they assumed the Franks would not charge. Equally important, Richard was with the van. In any battle, there are moments with a junior commander close to the action senses opportunity that a distant senior commander cannot. The fact that the charge was initiated by the experienced and disciplined Hospitaller marshal, not some rash young crusader, suggests a rational decision based on calculated risks. The marshal didn’t have time to send to Richard for permission — and did not want to risk another ‘no’ either. He made a command decision, hoping and expecting to be reinforced. His instincts proved correct.
The Hospitaller charge, rapidly reinforced by the rest of the cavalry, achieved the maximum results possible in the situation. While Frankish/crusader casualties were light, the knights inflicted bruising casualties on the enemy that seriously wounded Saracen morale. Ibn Shaddad, who personally fought in the battle, speaks of a ‘complete rout’, while Ibn al-Athir says the Sultan’s forces came close to being destroyed. Most important, Saladin’s aura of invincibility acquired at Hattin was shattered. Respect for Frankish military potency was restored. Although Saladin successfully rallied his troops, the crusaders were able to complete the rest of their march to Jaffa without significant opposition. Thereafter, Saladin avoided all direct military confrontation with Richard the Lionhearted.
At Jaffa, Richard focused on rebuilding the broken defensive infrastructure of the city and along the route to Jerusalem. While this made strategic sense and testifies to Richard’s grasp of the essential requirements of a successful campaign, it was slow work. Unsurprisingly, Richard made his first diplomatic overtures to Saladin during this time. Like any good general, Richard recognized that it would be madness to fight, if he could obtain his objectives through negotiations.
The political objectives of the Third Crusade were crystal clear: the restoration of Christian rule over the Holy Land. The later was defined roughly as the land in which Christ had lived and died, most especially the site of his execution, burial and resurrection: Jerusalem. Saladin’s political objective was to defend the status quo: Muslim control over the territory coveted by the crusaders. There was no common ground between these two positions. As long as both sides believed they could win, the pressure for compromise was insufficient to allow for a diplomatic solution.
Richard’s problem was that time was running out. The autumn rains had started, and since Saladin burned and destroyed as he retreated toward Jerusalem, the crusaders were camping out in the open. More important, Saladin was known to have garrisoned Jerusalem strongly, yet still had the resources to maintain a substantial field army. Any attempt to besiege Jerusalem exposed the crusaders to the risk of between trapped between these two forces. Furthermore, victory was nearly as dangerous as defeat because the crusaders did not have enough men to prevent Saladin’s army from severing their lines of communication and supply to the sea. Such circumstances induced the Templars, Hospitallers and local barons to advise against an assault or siege. In an assembly of all crusaders, their reasoning persuaded a majority to vote for withdrawal to the coast. Yet this decision shattered the morale and cohesion of the army.
The crusade had been called and men had taken the cross in order to recapture Jerusalem. If that goal was unobtainable, why stay? From this point on, the bickering between factions became pronounced. Large numbers of men drifted back to ‘the flesh pots’ of Acre, while the French increasingly refused to recognize Richard’s leadership.
With what troops he had, Richard re-occupied Ascalon and rebuilt the defences there. By summer, however, popular pressure forced Richard to make a second approach on Jerusalem — with the same result. Meanwhile, Richard had learned that his brother was trying to usurp the English crown with the help of Philip II. Richard realized he must return home. His objective in the Holy Land switched to leaving the Kingdom of Jerusalem in a defensible state. Richard identified the recapture Sidon and Beirut to establish continuous Frankish control of the coast from Jaffa to Latakia as the most strategic use of available resources.
Before he could carry out his plan, however, Saladin struck. At the end of July 1192, word reached Richard that Jaffa was under attack. With his household of just fifty-five knights and roughly 2,000 Italian archers, Richard sailed in a half-dozen ships in an attempt to stiffen garrison morale long enough for a larger force under the command of the King of Jerusalem to advance down the coastal road to Jaffa’s relief. On arrival, Saracen banners flew from the towers of the town, and Richard thought he’d come too late — until a swimmer flung himself from the citadel into the water and swam out to inform Richard that the citadel was still in Frankish hands. Richard immediately ordered his ships to beach themselves on the shore and, despite thousands of Saracen troops camped at the base of the city walls, Richard led an amphibious assault. The King of England was the first to go ashore with a weapon in each hand. He fought his way through the Saracens on the beach to an unlocked (!) postern gate and led his small force into the city. Within hours, his men had control of the city; the enemy had been too busy celebrating their victory and sleeping off their excesses to realize what hit them.
The ease of this victory is best explained by the fact that Saladin with most of his cavalry was elsewhere. On learning of Richard’s arrival in Jaffa, Saladin returned and at dawn on 5 August attacked Richard’s meager troops. These were camping in front of the city because no one had yet had the time to clear away the corpses (of both sides) rotting inside. Nearly caught off-guard, Richard’s men defended themselves, some of them half-naked, kneeling behind their shields, while the crossbowmen took turns firing. Eventually a dozen nags were rounded up, and Richard led a ‘charge’ of twelve knights against the thousands of horsemen in Saladin’s surrounding army. This astonishing feat is described by the Arab chronicler Baha al-Din based on eye-witness reports. He writes: ‘It was reported to me that the King of England took his lance that day and galloped from the far right wing to the far left and nobody challenged him. The Sultan was enraged, turned his back on the fighting and went to Yazur in high dudgeon.’[i]
Saladin’s abortive attempt to retake Jaffa proved to be the diplomatic turning point. Within less than a month, on 2 September, Richard and Saladin signed a three-year and eight-month truce. Neither side was content with the results. Both remained committed to continuing the fight. Yet both sides had reached the end of their resources for the moment. Imad al-Din, eloquent as always, puts the following words into the mouth of Saladin’s advisors: ‘Look too at the state of the country, ruined and trampled underfoot, at your subjects, beaten down and confused, at your armies, exhausted and sick, at your horses, neglected and ruined. … If they fail to get their truce they will devote all their energies to strengthening and consolidating their position; they will face death with high courage … and for love of their Faith will refuse to submit to humiliation.… During peacetime we shall prepare for war and shall renew the means of striking a blow with point and blade.’[ii] Baha al-Din notes that when the Frankish lords Humphrey of Toron and Balian d’Ibelin went to the Sultan’s camp to conclude the truce they were ‘received with great honor and respect’ adding ‘Both sides were overwhelmed with such joy and delight as only God can measure.’[iii]
As pilgrims had always done, the men of the Third Crusade returned to the West. Richard of Lionheart was one of the last to depart, taking ship on 10 October. He left behind a fragile and vulnerable kingdom that hardly seemed likely to survive beyond the end of the truce. In fact, it lasted ninety-nine years.
[i] Baha al-Din Ibn Shaddad. The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin translated by D.S. Richards. [Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002] 225-226.
[ii] Imad ad-Din. The Conquest of the Holy City. Translated by Francesco Gabrieli in Arab Historians of the Crusades. [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957] 234.
[iii] Baha al-Din Ibn Shaddad. The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin translated by D.S. Richards. [Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002] 28.
The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.