A Brief Overview of the Third Crusade


1) Origins of the Crusade

SaladinThe Third Crusade was born out of a catastrophe for Christendom. On a roasting-hot day in July 1187, the great Kurdish warrior Saladin (Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub), who had spent years unifying the various Muslim factions of the Near East, met a huge Christian army of approximately 20,000 men under the command of Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, near an extinct volcano in northern Israel known as the Horns of Hattin. The Christians were exhausted, demoralized and suffering badly from thirst in the Middle Eastern summer heat; Saladin surrounded their army and destroyed it utterly. King Guy was captured, and the bulk of the military strength of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was annihilated, leaving Saladin, a Muslim, undisputed master of the land where Jesus Christ was born, lived, taught and died.

For nearly a hundred years, since the great success of the First Crusade (1095-99), much of what is today Israel was controlled by heavily armed Christian horsemen, Frankish knights, who built great castles and created giant fiefdoms in the style of the counties of Western Europe. Their territory, known in the West as Outremer, was venerated as the Holy Land, the cradle of Christianity, and a king was chosen to rule it from among the victorious Christian warriors who remained there. But, nine decades later, after the catastrophe of the Battle of the Horns of Hattin, a triumphant Saladin was able to capture Jerusalem, Acre, Jaffa and all the major castles of the region and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, now bereft of enough military manpower to defend itself, was reduced to one tiny enclave at Tyre, a nigh-on impregnable fortress, jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea in what is now south Lebanon.

Pope Urban III is said to have collapsed and died in October 11987 when he heard the news that the Holy Land had fallen to the Muslin “infidels”. But his successors, the short-lived Gregory VIII, and then Clement III called for a new crusade to reclaim the land of Christ’s birth for Christianity. And this call-to-arms was received enthusiastically by many of the great nobles and princes of Europe. In England, France, Germany and the Low Countries crusading fever swept across the land like wildfire, and thousands of knights flocked to “take the cross” as the expression had it: to make a solemn vow that they would make the long and arduous pilgrimage to the Holy Land and forcibly evict the Muslim warriors, known as Saracens, from the sacred city of Jerusalem. Many stories, calculated to inflame public opinion in Christendom, circulated about the savagery and sacrilegious nature of the Saracens; for example, they were accused of allowing their horses to defecate in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s tomb. And crusading fever was further whipped up in many a parish church by passionate sermons against all non-Christians. Tragically, this fervour to fight for Christ resulted in many Jews being persecuted and murdered across Europe – and I have described at length one of the worst atrocities in my book Holy Warrior: the massacre of the Jews of York in March 1190.

2) Barbarossa and the ill-fated German expedition

The first European potentate to set off on the Third Crusade was Frederick Barbarossa (Red Beard), the Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of a vast territory in what is today modern Germany. Frederick was a giant figure, a charismatic soldier, a brilliant horseman and powerful personality: although he was considered a little elderly for war, at 67, by the standards of the time. He mustered a huge force – some historians suggest as large as 100,000 men, although it was more likely to have been about 15,000 strong – and set off in May 1189 on the overland route to the Holy Land.

Barbarossa’s army marched through Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria before coming into the Orthodox Christian lands of the Byzantine Emperor, what is modern day Turkey. In May 1190, plagued by attacks by local forces, he fought a battle at Iconium (modern-day Konya, in southern Turkey), won a victory and his troops then sacked the town. Buoyed by this success, and enriched by much plunder, his army marched on towards the Holy Land – but a month later disaster struck. While crossing the Saleph River, (now called Goksu) south of the Taurus Mountains in Southern Turkey, Barbarossa drowned – or, some historians suggest, caught a chill after bathing in the river and died from that. Either way the great man was dead.

On hearing of Barbarossa’s death, his army became demoralized and soon began to disintegrate. Some knights, believing they had been deserted by God, even committed suicide. Many in despair decided to go home. And, in the event, only a few thousand German troops under the command of Frederick of Swabia, Barbarossa’s son, ever made it to the Holy Land. The younger Frederick was destined to die soon as well and, by the time that the German contingent had reached Acre, they were even further reduced in numbers and morale and under the command of Leopold, Duke of Austria. My fictional character Hanno, who first appears in King’s Man, is one of these long-suffering German soldiers, one of the stubborn ones who marched all the way from Western German to Palestine – a distance of about 3,000 miles.

3) Richard and Philip join the fray

Richard I, the LionheartEven in the 21st century, mobilizing a large army and launching it on a military expedition takes a long time, vast sums of money and much painstaking preparation: it took even longer and cost even more, relatively, in the 12th century. In the days before airplanes, decent roads, motorized transport, and modern methods of preserving food and water, a crusade was an enormous undertaking: a long exhausting journey through potentially hostile, often uncharted territory to the very ends of the Earth. Although Richard the Lionheart had taken the cross in November 1187, as soon as he heard the dreadful news about the Battle of the Horns of Hattin, and while he was extremely enthusiastic about the idea of a campaign to recapture the Holy Land, he did not set off until July 1190.

But he had been far from idle in the intervening three years. He had spent much of it, as Duke of Aquitaine, fighting against his father King Henry II of England, trying to secure his royal inheritance from the old man. When Richard did come to the throne in September 1189, at the age of nearly 32, he was an accomplished and highly respected warrior, having commanded men in battle since the age of 16. Immediately after his coronation, he set about raising a large force to take to the relief of the Holy Land. King Henry had raised a vast sum for this purpose by means of a new “Saladin tax” on all Englishmen, and the country’s money coffers were indeed well stocked when his son inherited the kingdom, but Richard needed more. He auctioned off all the titles, rights and positions that were within his gift. Roger of Howden, a contemporary chronicler, wrote of King Richard: “He put up for sale everything he had – offices, lordships, earldoms, sheriffdoms, castles, lands . . .” Indeed Richard himself said, half-jokingly: “I would sell London, if I could find a buyer.” At the end of Outlaw, I used this great fire-sale of lands and titles as a way for Robin Hood to come back into society, by buying the fictional Earldom of Locksley with stolen silver from a king desperate to fund his crusade.

By July 1190, the kings of France and England had assembled their armies at Vezelay. King Richard had about 10,000 men under his command at that time – and more men were making their way south from England by sea, sailing down the Bay of Biscay and round Portugal into the Mediterranean through the Pillars of Hercules. King Philip had perhaps 2,000 men; fewer soldiers than Richard because, even though he was technically Richard’s overlord, he was much less powerful in terms of territory under his control, and because he had already sent a substantial force to the Holy Land the year before. Richard’s army, which was composed of Welsh, English and Normans, as well as men from his fiefdoms of Poitou, Maine, Anjou and Aquitaine, then headed south for Marseilles, where they planned to meet up with the rest of their troops and sail for Sicily. Philip’s army headed east towards Genoa, where the king had arranged for hired ships to take them onward. Richard and Philip agreed to meet up, with their full strength, in the city of Messina, on the north coast of Sicily and proceed from there to Outremer together in a vast armada of ships.

4) The Siege of Acre

The war in the Holy Land had already begun by the time Richard and Philip left Vezelay. Christian knights from Italy, Sicily, Denmark, Holland and Champagne had been arriving to join the siege of Acre for almost a year by now. In fact, there was a double siege in progress.

Acre, a strongly fortified city on the Mediterranean coast near modern day Haifa, was garrisoned by a large force of Muslims, who were besieged by a force of Christians commanded by King Guy of Jerusalem in August 1189. (Guy had been released by Saladin after the Battle of the Horns of Hattin after payment of ransom and giving a promise that he would not fight against the Kurdish warlord again; it was a promise the King of Jerusalem clearly did not keep.) The Christian besiegers were themselves being besieged by Saladin’s army – sandwiched between the walls of Acre and the Sultan’s men on the heights inland. This uncomfortable situation at Acre remained – with much loss of life on both sides from disease, hunger and battle – until the arrival in June 1191 of massive Christian reinforcements.

5) Things turn sour in Sicily

Philip II, AugustusBy the time both Philip and Richard’s troops had made the sea journey Sicily, in September 1190, it was too late in the year to sail onwards, and the two kings decided to overwinter in Messina. At that time, the Mediterranean was considered too stormy for Medieval ships to navigate it in safety between September and March. However, the presence of such large numbers of foreign soldiers in Messina caused resentment in the local people. The natives, whom the crusaders dismissively referred to as Lombards and Griffons (Italians and Greeks), were somewhat rude to the arriving troops and then, realising they had a captive market in the swarming soldiery for food and wine, began to exploit them mercilessly. There were fights between crusaders and locals, and rioting, too. Richard decided to show the locals and their devious King Tancred, who was now boss in these parts, and rammed home his point by sacking the town of Messina (October 1190), pretty much as described in Holy Warrior. However, his actions alienated King Philip of France, who did not enjoy watching Richard throw his considerable weight about but, nevertheless, demanded half the spoils from the sacked town.

The relationship between kings Richard and Philip deteriorated during the winter of 1190/91 in Sicily, and the final straw came when Richard announced that he was not going to marry Philip’s sister Alice, to whom he had been betrothed for years, but instead he was going to marry Berengaria of Navarre, a Spanish princess. This new alliance, brokered by his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, formed a bond between Richard and the ruler of a territory (King Sancho of Navarre) that bordered his southern Aquitainian lands. The unfortunate Alice, so rumour had it, had been seduced by Richard’s father Henry while staying at the English court, and the Lionheart proclaimed that he would not take soiled goods to his marriage bed. Understandably, Philip was extremely angry and, as soon as winter had passed, he departed for the Holy Land with his troops as early as the sailing season allowed (March 1191). The next day, Richard’s fiancée Berengaria sailed into Messina with his mother Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

6) Victory in Cyprus

In April 1191, Richard left Sicily in a vast fleet of 100 ships and set sail for the Holy Land. The news from Outremer was bad, and many in Richard’s army were keen to bring their relieving force to the aid of the battered knights under the walls of Acre. Unfortunately a great storm scattered the fleet near Crete, and several ships were lost at sea. The fleet re-assembled in Rhodes, but the ship containing Richard’s fiancée Berengaria, and his sister Joanna had become separated during the storm and intelligence reached the King that it was sheltering, badly damaged, near Limassol on Cyprus.

The ruler of Cyprus at the time was Isaac Comnenos, a man claiming the title of Emperor because of his Byzantine lineage. He had usurped control over the Mediterranean island a few years previously and some have suggested that he had made a secret deal with Saladin – a sort of non-aggression pact. He captured some of Richard’s men, who were shipwrecked on Cyprus, ill-treated them and held them in prison. He invited Berengaria and Joanna to come ashore, but, fearing that Isacc meant to imprison them, they refused, and instead asked for water and provisions to be sent out to the ship. Emperor Isaac in turn refused to send them fresh provender, and it was this act, according to some chroniclers, that ignited Richard’s ire (although some say Richard had always planned what he did next). The Lionheart attacked Limassol, which was heavily defended, with only a handful of troops, and won a swift victory against Isaac (as told in Holy Warrior). After a surprise night attack on Isaac’s camp, and a month of chasing him around the island, the Emperor finally surrendered to Richard. Cyprus belonged to the Lionheart.

7) Setting foot in the Holy Land

The Third Crusade (source: Corbin)Finally, Richard was free to sail to the Holy Land and he arrived there in June 1191. A month later, thanks to his huge army and forthright attacking style, Acre had surrendered to his troops, and Saladin had withdrawn into the interior. With Acre in Christian hands there was a mood of general rejoicing in the crusader ranks; King Richard has arrived and all surely was now set for the recapture of Jerusalem. However, all was not well between the leaders of the expedition. After the fall of Acre, Duke Leopold of Austria, head of the German contingent, placed his banner on the walls of the defeated city next to the flags of King Richard and King Philip. Richard took offence at this claim to one third of the spoils of the city and had Leopold’s standard flung off the roof into the ditch below, saying that, as a mere Duke, he was not fit to fly his standard beside those of kings, as if he were their equal. Leopold was deeply insulted and, in a huge sulk, he left Outremer with many of the German knights. As if this weakening of the Christian’s strength was not enough, shortly afterwards, King Philip of France also decided to go home. He had fallen out with Richard very badly over the past year, and when he saw an opportunity to go home early and acquire some new lands in Europe, he grabbed it with both hands. But with both Leopold and Philip off the stage, in August 1191, King Richard was in undisputed command of the Christian army.

8) Massacre of the POWs

As Richard and his men prepared to march south to attack the city of Jaffa (modern day Tel Aviv), the nearest port to Jerusalem, there was one considerable fly in the ointment. When Acre had been captured, nearly three thousand Muslims had been taken captive. Under the terms of the surrender agreement, Saladin was expected to pay a huge sum in gold for their ransoms and hand over a part of the True Cross, a sacred relic that he had captured at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin. Saladin stalled; the huge ransom payment would have put a considerable strain on his exchequer, and the True Cross was a valuable bargaining chip. Moreover, while Richard was forced to guards a multitude of prisoners there was no way he could move from Acre, he was, in effect, pinned down there by his captives. So Saladin played for time and spun out the negotiations for the release of the Acre prisoners of war.

With characteristic ruthlessness, Richard acted. Realizing that Saladin was not going to pay the ransom, and that he was using the prisoners against him, Richard waited until the agreed time had elapsed for the money to be paid and had them all – all 2,700 of them, men, women and children – executed in front of the walls of Acre, in view of the enemy. Richard has been criticized by historians for this act, and indeed it is a black stain on his reputation, but in the context of the war, where prisoners were quite regularly executed by both sides, and given that Saladin had not kept his end of the ransom bargain, it might seem a little more excusable.

9) The road to Arsuf

The Battle of Arsuf, by Gustave DoreFree of the burden of feeding, watering and guarding thousands of prisoners of war, Richard and his army – which was just under 20,000 men strong – marched south from Acre towards Jaffa. On the march, the Christian army was regularly attacked by swarms of Turkish horse archers, whose tactic was to ride in fast, shoot off a cloud of arrows and then ride quickly away. The tactical advantage of the Christian knights lay in the powerful charge of heavy cavalry: large groups of mailed horsemen, armed with long lances, advancing at the charge were almost unstoppable. A Byzantine observer of the heavy cavalry charge said, rather fancifully, that she believed that these Frankish knights could smash through a city’s stone walls, such was their power. But the main weakness of heavily armoured cavalry was that, in the heat of the Middle East, the horses and men soon became exhausted and easy prey to faster lighter opponents. The Turkish cavalry tactic was to sting the heavy cavalry, and provoke them into making the charge. The lighter Turkish horsemen would then evade the charge, galloping away at speed, and then double back swoop down on the exhausted knights once the attack had dispersed them all over the field of battle. A cavalry battle between heavy Christian knights and light Turkish cavalry has been well described as a man punching at a cloud of mosquitoes.

As Richard’s army marched south, down the Mediterranean coast, re-supplied on a daily basis with food and drink by their fleet which sailed along beside them – they were almost constantly attacked by Saladin’s men. But the horsemen had strict orders to stay in close formation and not to charge their enemies. When it became clear to Saladin that Richard’s men could not be provoked in this way, nor prevented from continuing their march, on the 7th of September 1191, the Kurdish warlord drew up his army in battle formation a few miles north of Jaffa near the small town of Arsuf.

It was to prove a disastrous mistake for Saladin. By making his army – roughly the same size, or slightly bigger than Richard’s – a static target, he allowed the heavy knights the opportunity to charge and crush his regiments of lighter troops. (For a fuller account of the battle read the last few chapters of Holy Warrior.) By the end of the day, after much slaughter, Saladin was in full retreat, his army having taken a dreadful mauling from the Christian knights.

10) The aftermath of Arsuf

While Arsuf was a victory for King Richard, it was not a decisive one. Saladin was forced to withdraw but he was not destroyed, and within months the Kurdish soldier had received reinforcements from the surrounding territories that fully made up his losses on the day. But the battle did have one very important impact on the course of the Third Crusade. Saladin realized that he could never beat the heavy knights in open battle, and so he determined never to face them in a set piece action again: this was a war-winning strategy. From that point onwards, Saladin employed only skirmishing, hit-and-run tactics against the knights and these proved to be extremely successful. Saladin knew that time was on his side, although a few more knights came out from Western Europe to join Richard’s forces, as time passed the Lionheart’s army was slowly dwindling, as disease, fatigue, heat, desertion and battle chipped away at his numbers. In contrast, Saladin could call on reinforcements from Egypt and Mesopotamia, Syria and Armenia. The writing was on the wall for the Crusade and yet Richard and his shrinking army struggled on.

However, it soon became clear to Richard that, although he might just manage to take Jerusalem, with a superhuman effort, and a huge cost in the lives of his men, he would not be able to hold the city after its capture. Most of his men, having fulfilled their oaths to recapture Jerusalem, would pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and then return home. Who would protect Jerusalem, once the crusading army had gone? But it was only after a year of skirmishes and minor sieges, small-scale battles and ambushes, and of negotiation and painstaking diplomacy – which included the outlandish suggestion that Richard’s devoutly Christian sister should marry Saladin’s Muslim brother and they should rule Outremer together – that a three-year truce was signed between the warring camps in September 1192. Under its terms, unarmed Christian pilgrims were permitted to visit Jerusalem and pray in its churches. Richard was now free to return home. And with his departure in October 1192, the Third Crusade came to its end.

11) Success or failure of the Third Crusade?

The Third Crusade: Richard vs SaladinWhile the Third Crusade cannot be considered a success – after all they did not achieve their objective of recapturing Jerusalem, and Outremer was still largely in Muslin hands on their departure – there were some gains made. Cyprus remained in Latin hands for next few hundred years, and formed a perfect jumping off point for future crusades. Furthermore, Richard managed to capture and hold a string of fortresses on the western seaboard of Outremer, a ribbon of land from Tyre in the north through Acre and Jaffa to Ascalon in the south, which prolonged the life of the Kingdom of Jerusalem for another hundred years. It was not until 1291, that the last Western knights were forced to leave the Holy Land, and the bloody saga of the medieval Christian military presence in the Levant finally came to an end.

Angus Donald, July 2010