Richard and the Third Crusade

The Third Crusade was one of the major events of the life of Richard the Lionheart, and one of his most well known military exploits. It marked the beginning of his reign and made a lasting contribution, like his captivity that followed it, to forging the legend of Richard the Lionheart.

A journey fraught with hazards
Nef de la basilique de Vézelay
Nef de la basilique de Vézelay (photo Office de tourisme des Monts de Châlus)

Jerusalem, which had been in the hands of the crusaders for almost a century, had been re-taken in 1188 by the Muslims under Saladin, a powerful “prince” and military leader. The Third Crusade, whose goal was to re-take the Holy City, was therefore preached throughout Europe. The greatest monarchs of their time, Henry II, then Richard, Philip Augustus and Frederic Barbarossa, the German emperor, all swore to take up the cross.

Richard and Philip left together for the Holy Land from Vézelay on 4 July 1190. The two kings arrived at Messina in Sicily. A dispute broke out between Richard and the King of Sicily, Tancred of Lecce, who had usurped the throne and imprisoned Jeanne, Richard’s sister and widow of the previous king of Sicily. Following the acts of extortion perpetrated by the Crusader troops, the inhabitants of Messina rose up. Richard took advantage of this to take the town on 4th October 1190. This enabled him to impose a treaty on Tancred, which stipulated the liberation of Queen Jeanne. Richard and Philip recognised Tancred as King of Sicily on condition that he named Arthur, duke of Brittany and nephew of Richard, as his heir. As a result, tension mounted between Richard and the king of France. Philip Augustus left Sicily for the Holy land just before the arrival of Eleanor of Aquitaine who brought with her Berengaria of Navarre, promised in marriage to Richard. The friendship between the two kings was then definitively at an end because the engagement between Richard and a sister of Philip was now broken off.

Dispute entre Richard et Philippe à Messine
Dispute entre Richard et Philippe à Messine (Guillaume de Tyr, Historia, XIIIème siècle, BNF).

The Crusader armies continued their slow journey. Philip Augustus led the advance when Richard was forced to stop on Rhodes in April 1191 in order to avoid a storm. In May, he set off again but another storm caused the wreck of several of his ships on the coast of Cyprus. There, Richard came into conflict with Isaac Doukas Comnène who was ruling the island after it had been freed from Byzantine control. Richard took over the island in May 1191. His marriage with Berengaria of Navarre took place at Limassol on 12 May 1191.

Richard’s conquest of Cyprus had several consequences for the Latin States of the East. The island was very useful for supplying the Christian kingdoms of the Holy land. It also served as a refuge for Christian barons when their possessions in the East were finally taken by the Muslims during the 13th century. But the presence of Cyprus had equally driven the Syrian Christian barons to lose interest in their possessions on the Continent and to take refuge on the island; this accelerated the disintegration of the last Latin States of the East.

Richard Cœur de Lion et Guy de Lusignan
Richard Cœur de Lion et Guy de Lusignan ( Boccace, De Casibus , XVème siècle, BNF).


These events had other more immediate consequences. Richard welcomed Guy de Lusignan, the former King of Jerusalem, who had fallen into disgrace and been rejected by the free barons of the Holy Land who preferred Conrad de Montferrat, the heroic defender of Tyre. When Philip gave his support to Conrad, Richard decided to support Guy, both because he was a lord from Aquitaine and to thank him for his help during the conquest of Cyprus. This matter further aggravated the dissent between the king of England and the king of France.


The siege of Acre
Siège d’Acre
Siège d’Acre (Grandes Chroniques du France, XIVème siècle) BNF.


Richard set out again and rejoined Philip Augustus on the Lebanese coast at Acre, which was occupied by Muslim troops and under siege by the Christian barons led by Guy de Lusignan. The siege had already lasted several months but the arrival of the Crusader army enabled the town to be taken. It was an extremely difficult siege. The weakened Crusaders were affected by numerous illnesses which frequently ravaged their armies, as a result of their cramped conditions and lack of hygiene. Sybille, wife of Guy de Lusignan, died during the siege, as did their daughter, along with numerous others, combatants and non-combatants alike. Richard and Philip were themselves affected by an unidentified illness which seriously weakened the French king. Furthermore, Saladin’s army was besieging the Crusader army laying siege to Acre and continued to harass the Christian troops.

In spite of everything, Richard the Lionheart, Philip Augustus and numerous knights distinguished themselves in the assault. Despite the difficulties that they met and the efforts of Saladin to save the town, the Crusaders finally succeeded in taking it. On 12 July 1191 the banners of the Crusaders fluttered over the walls of the citadel. It was then that an event happened which was to have serious consequences. According to the chroniclers of the time, Leopold, duke of Austria, had his banner planted beside those of the two kings. Richard took umbrage and had the duke’s banner thrown over the ramparts. Leopold was furious and returned to Austria. He continued to bear a grudge and was to capture the King of England on his return from the Crusade.

Reddition d’Acre
Reddition d’Acre (Grandes Chroniques de France, XIVème siècle, BNF).

The dispute over the succession to the Kingdom of Jerusalem provoked discord in the Crusader army. The King of Jerusalem was officially Guy de Lusignan, successor to Baldwin IV “The Leper”. But after the disaster of the Battle of Hattin which saw the crushing of the Christian forces of the East and the taking of Jerusalem by Saladin, the Syrian barons no longer wanted him. Having fallen into disgrace, he came with a handful of knights to lay siege to Acre. Guy next rejoined Richard in Cyprus. However, Philip Augustus had taken the side of Conrad of Montferrat, the saviour of Tyre and pretender to the throne of Jerusalem, supported by the Syrian barons. The two men were thus both able to lay a legitimate claim to inheriting the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Richard leads the Crusade alone
Richard Cœur de Lion massacrant les prisonniers d’Acre
Richard Cœur de Lion massacrant les prisonniers d’Acre (Sébastien Mamerot, passages outre mer, XVème siècle, BNF).

The king of France fell ill during the siege of Acre and Richard took all the glory for himself. Furious, Philip decided to return to his own kingdom after the capture of the town, leaving only a small contingent under the command of the Duke of Burgundy. Thus Richard found himself alone at the head of the Crusade, He managed to restore among the quarrelsome knights some discipline, a virtue which the medieval armies of the time did not possess.

Before continuing on his way, Richard tarnished his reputation by ordering the massacre of the defenders of Acre because Saladin was delaying the payment of the ransom and, in particular, the return of the True Cross, a sacred Christian relic captured during the Battle of Hattin. This act broke off all diplomatic contact. It increased the Muslims’ thirst for vengeance and they no longer showed any mercy towards their own prisoners.

Richard moved on to the offensive. He put into practice all his talents as strategist and fighter. He led the Crusader army southwards, accompanied by the military religious orders, the Hospitalers and what remained of the Templars, who had been decimated during the Battle of Hattin four years previously. The Crusaders moved along the coast. They were not encumbered by baggage and the fleet ensured their provisioning. In this way, the, heavily protected knights of his army were able to resist harassment by Saladin’s troops.

The Muslim troops were extremely mobile and knew the terrain better. On the other hand, they were much less heavily armed than the Crusaders who, for the most part, consisted of knights equipped with coats of mail, helmets and shields. However, Saladin’s Turkish cavalry employed a tactic that completely surprised the first Crusaders. This consisted of harassing the Christian troops with arrow-fire then pretending to flee, aiming to draw them into a trap by encouraging them to follow. In a compact mass, disciplined and well protected, the Crusaders suffered few losses and repulsed each attack without ever falling into the traps offered by the Muslim cavalry. The Christians were thus able to pass along the Palestinian coast and threaten the towns of Ascalon and Jaffa.

The Battle of Arsuf
Bataille entre les croisés et les trucs
Bataille entre les croisés et les trucs (Guillaume de Tyr, Historia, XIIIème siècle, BNF).

For a while, Saladin refused a pitched battle. He knew that his army, although superior in numbers, could not resist the charge of the English and French knights. The bulk of the Muslim forces brought together by Saladin was composed of troops who were battle-hardened but lightly equipped. Fearing the power of the Christian knights and their devastating charges, he waited to be in a position of strength, encircling the Crusaders and driving them back to the sea, close to the little town of Arsuf, in order to move on to the attack. The battle took place on 7 September 1191. Saladin’s Turkish cavalry made an attempt to disorganise the Crusaders in their normal way, firing at the column of knights and pretending to flee, hoping to be pursued in order to trap the unwary. But the ruse failed and Richard managed to maintain cohesion in his ranks. He ordered his army to hold its position.

Harassed by the Muslim archers and having suffered some significant losses without being able to reply, a small group of knights and Hospitalers left the column and charged in order to strike back. Richard was thus forced to order the charge too soon. The mass of Crusaders launched into a gallop and crashed into the enemy ranks. The shock of such a charge was terrifying. The Crusaders put to flight the first ranks of Saladin’s army. After some fighting, Saladin’s army fled in disarray and scattered. If Richard had been able to put his strategy into action and get round behind them, the Muslims would have been annihilated. Even here the king still managed to maintain discipline by preventing his knights from pursuing the fleeing Muslims. This would have separated the Crusader army, rendering it vulnerable to the counter-attack. The attack came but was broken on the Crusaders’ solid ranks. After several hours’ fighting, Richard was finally victorious.

Negotiations and departure
Bataille entre les Croisés et les Turcs
Bataille entre les Croisés et les Turcs (Guillaume de Tyr, Historia, XIIIème siècle, BNF).

Even if it the victory at Arsuf was not total, it unsettled Saladin, who had been regarded as invincible until now. But for various reasons, Richard did not follow up his advantage. He could have marched on Jerusalem and taken it without effort because its defences had remained damaged since the last siege in 1188. But instead, he took the town of Jaffa and installed himself there. There began a period of negotiation. Peaceful exchanges even took place, notably between Richard the Lionheart and the brother of Saladin, Al-Adil. Tournaments were even being organised between the two camps.

But Richard then received bad news from Europe. In France, Philip Augustus had tried to lay his hands on his possessions, notably in Normandy. Worse, Prince John, his brother, had allied himself with the king of France and paid him homage. Richard was forced to re-open hostilities. On 24 May 1192 the Crusaders assembled at Ascalon and, still under Richard’s command, marched on Jerusalem without taking it. It is probable that the King, worried about events in Europe, was progressively less interested in the Crusade and did not want to involve himself in a long-term campaign.

Two other attempts were made to re-take the Holy City. They were both abortive, one as a result of sporadic but violent fighting and the other because of the bad weather. Richard was forced to re-open negotiations. After his victorious exploits at Jaffa, where he raised the siege of the town on 1st August 1192 and repulsed a counter-attack by Saladin’s troops being himself involved in the fighting, he forced the Sultan to negotiate. He arrived at an agreement in which he renounced his claim to Jerusalem but ensured the continued existence of the Latin States of the East , guaranteeing them the towns on the coast (including Antioch, Acre, Tyre, Ascalon and Jaffa). He also managed to obtain the free passage of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. The treaty was concluded on 2 September 1192 and Richard left the Holy Land on 9 October to return to the West.


His youth

Saladin, which means “Righteousness of the Faith” was a Muslim political leader and military chief of Kurdish origin. He was known for having fought and driven back the “Franks”, that is to say the Christians of the Latin States of the East. A legendary figure of the medieval period in the East, it was he who managed to unify the different Muslim states which enabled him to re-capture the land conquered by the Christians of the West during the First Crusade. He was the principal adversary of Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade.

Saladin was born in Takrit, on the Tigris, into a Kurdish family that originated in Armenia. Shortly after his birth, his family went to the court of Zengi, “king” of Mosul and ruler of a kingdom comprising a large part of modern day Syria and the West Bank, including the towns of Aleppo, Damascus and Mosul. Zengi, followed by his son Nur-ad-Din, wanted to re-unite the different Muslim states and factions in order to confront the Crusaders. This was the objective that Saladin also pursued.

From the middle of the 12th century, the Franks of the Kingdom of Jerusalem increased their incursions into Egypt, which was at the time under the control of the Shiite caliphs of the Fatimid Dynasty. It was Saladin who was charged with intervening. He literally took control of Egypt, putting an end to the Fatimid Caliphate. He next made use of his position to overthrow Nur-ad-Din and his successors and found himself at the head of a vast collection of states and a considerable army. He had succeeded in bringing about what the Christians of the East dreaded: the unification of the Muslims.

The leader of the Jihad

He led his first expedition against the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1177. But Baldwin IV “the Leper”, king of Jerusalem, showed himself to be a serious adversary and routed his army on 25 November 1177 at the Battle of Montgisard. Saladin took his revenge at the Battle of Marj Ayoun on 10 June 1179. The two kings, who had learned to respect one another, agreed a truce in 1180. Saladin led further campaigns against Tripoli, and agreed another truce with Count Raymond III.

But King Baldwin’s illness grew worse and left him weak. Thus he could not prevent the robber lord, Renaud de Châtillon, from attacking Muslim caravans, which provoked Saladin’s anger. Baldwin IV died on 16 March 1185; his nephew and successor, Baldwin V, died in 1186.

It was Guy de Lusignan who ascended the throne of Jerusalem. With Josselin III of Edessa, Renaud de Châtillon and Gerard de Ridefort, Grand Master of the Templars, he was one of the principal supporters of renewing hostilities with Saladin. It was Renaud de Châtillon who provoked the outbreak of renewed hostilities by attacking a caravan containing Saladin’s sister. Enraged, Saladin called for a jihad. Next, he marched on the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Guy de Lusignan also gathered his army and tried to drive him back. The Christian army, thirsty, exhausted and numerically inferior, was crushed at Hattin on 4 July 1187. The Hospitalers and the Templars were decimated, along with the Frankish knights of the East. Guy de Lusignan was captured. Renaud de Châtillon and Gerard de Ridefort were executed.

The road to Jerusalem was therefore open. Saladin began by taking the ports in order to cut off all possible retreat for the Christians. Only Tyre resisted, under the command of Conrad de Montferrat. At the high point of his reign, Saladin took Jerusalem on 20 September 1187. He spared the population and returned the places of worship to their respective religions: The Al-Aqsa Mosque to the Muslims, the Wall to the Jews and the Holy Sepulchre to the Christians. This generosity contributed to the appearance of the legend of the “Muslim knight” attributed to Saladin by his Christian opponents. He died a little after the departure of Richard from the Holy Land.

Combattants musulmans lors de la prise de Jérusalem
Combattants musulmans lors de la prise de Jérusalem (Guillaume de Tyr, Historia, XIIIème siècle, BNF).