Philip II depicted arriving in Palestine.

The Siege of Acre was the first major confrontation of the Third Crusade.

Even before leaving Jaffa, Richard entered into an intensive period of communication with al-Adil between 18 and 23 October. Initially, the king set out to gauge the enemy’s attitude towards Jerusalem. He wanted to explore the possibility that Saladin might relinquish possession of a city that Richard bluntly stated ‘is the centre of our worship which we shall never renounce, even if there were only one of us left’. But al-Adil conveyed an unequivocal response from the sultan, emphasising Islam’s own reverence for the Holy City and urging the Lionheart ‘not to imagine that we shall give it up, for we are unable to breathe a word of that amongst the Muslims’.

Richard then made an audacious change of tack – one that surprised his adversaries at the time and still confounds modern historians to this day. The king had already made a point of cultivating an amicable relationship with al-Adil, apparently describing him as ‘my brother and my friend’ in conversation. He now took the far grander step of proposing an extraordinary marriage alliance between Latin Christendom and Islam, in which al-Adil would be wed to Richard’s own sister, Joanne. This union would form the basis of a peace agreement in which ‘the sultan should give to al-Adil all the coastal lands that he held and make him king of [Palestine]’, with Jerusalem to serve ‘as the seat of [the royal couple’s] realm’. This new polity would remain part of Saladin’s empire, but Christians would be given free access to the Holy City. Al-Adil and Joanne would command the region’s castles, while the Christian Military Orders would take control of its villages. The pact would be sealed by an exchange of prisoners and the return of the True Cross. With a flourish of seeming magnanimity, the Lionheart proclaimed that the acceptance of this deal would bring the crusade to an immediate end and prompt his return to the West.

Because this offer was not recorded in any surviving contemporary Christian source (being mentioned only in Arabic texts) it is difficult accurately to assess how such an apparently outrageous arrangement might have been greeted by Richard’s Frankish compatriots. The Lionheart seems to have kept the entire affair a closely guarded secret, even initially from his sister, but whether he took the whole idea seriously, or whether it was merely intended as a ruse, remains uncertain. What is clear is that al-Adil viewed it as a genuine proposal. In diplomatic terms, Richard’s proposition possessed a masterful subtlety. Alive to the potential tensions between Saladin and al-Adil – the latter’s position as trusted brother being balanced by the threat he posed to the sultan’s son and heir – the English king made an offer that al-Adil could not ignore, but one that could also make him appear to be harbouring personal ambitions. Acutely aware of this implication, al-Adil refused to convey the news of Richard’s scheme to Saladin in person, instead deputising Baha al-Din, instructing him to speak with strict caution.

Saladin actually agreed to the terms, although he may have believed that Richard would never go through with the plan and was merely trying to ‘mock and deceive him’. Certainly, within a few days the Lionheart sent news that his sister would be unable to marry a Muslim and now suggested that al-Adil should convert to Christianity, leaving ‘the door open for negotiations’.

A few weeks later, with the Third Crusade now grinding out its advance on Judea, Richard once again requested a parley. He and al-Adil met in an opulently appointed tent, pitched just beyond the Muslim front line at Ramla, on 8 November 1191. The atmosphere was almost convivial. The pair exchanged ‘foods, luxuries and presents’, tasting delicacies from their respective cultures; Richard asked to hear some Arabic music and a female musician was duly ushered in to entertain him with singing and the playing of a harp. Having talked through the day, ‘they parted’, in the words of one Muslim witness, ‘in amity and good spirits as firm friends’, even though the Lionheart’s repeated requests for a direct meeting with Saladin were declined.

Now, for the first time, the king’s negotiations with the enemy became public knowledge in the crusader camp, prompting considerable criticism. One Christian eyewitness noted that Richard and al-Adil ‘seemed to develop a sort of mutual friendship’, exchanging gifts including seven camels and an excellent tent. The general feeling among the Franks appears to have been that this diplomacy was ill advised. The Lionheart was said to have been fooled by the façade of generosity and goodwill into delaying the advance on Jerusalem – an error ‘for which he was much blamed and much criticised’ – and outmanoeuvred by Saladin’s brother, who ‘trapped the overly credulous king with his shrewdness’. This notion of Richard as a befuddled pawn, manipulated by the devious political operator al-Adil, does not match up with the depiction of the Lionheart as a diplomat by Muslim sources. Indeed, the Mosuli chronicler Ibn al-Athir openly praised Richard, noting that ‘the king [met with al-Adil] as a skilful stratagem’.

In fact, the English king seems to have been a wily negotiator. A different man might have felt stymied by Saladin’s continued refusal of direct dialogue, but Richard sought to turn this factor to his advantage. On 9 November he sent the sultan an artful message, capitalising on the concessions made weeks earlier: ‘You have said that you granted these coastal lands to your brother. I want you to be an arbitrator between him and me and to divide these lands between [us].’ The Christians would need ‘some hold on Jerusalem’, but he wanted there to ‘be no blame on [al-Adil] from the Muslims and none on me from the Franks’. Richard’s rather devious underlying intention was to shift the whole basis of the negotiations, encouraging Saladin to think of himself as a magnanimous arbitrator and not an arch-opponent. At least some of the sultan’s advisers ‘were greatly impressed by this approach.

In the field of diplomatic machination, however, Saladin was, at the very least, Richard’s equal. Throughout the autumn, the sultan had been in contact with Conrad of Montferrat, a fact he made no effort to hide from the Lionheart – indeed, Conrad’s envoy even occasionally ‘went riding with al-Adil, observing the Franks as the Muslims engaged them in battle’, a spectacle which, it was believed, prompted the English king to redouble his own efforts at negotiation. Looking to exploit the rift between Richard and the marquis, Saladin pushed for a ‘show of open hostility to the Franks from overseas’, promising that if Conrad attacked crusader-held Acre he would be rewarded with an independent principality including Beirut and Sidon. The sultan juggled the negotiations with Richard and Conrad with panache, even lodging their respective envoys in different parts of his camp on the same day, all the while aiming, in the words of one of his advisers, ‘to cause dissension amongst them’.

By 11 November, however, with the crusaders now threatening Ramla, Saladin was willing to deal in earnest. He assembled his counsellors to debate the relative merits of forging a truce with Conrad or Richard. The marquis’ strength was certainly growing – he now had the backing of much of the nobility of the former Latin kingdom – but, ultimately, he was deemed less reliable than the Lionheart. Instead, the council backed an agreement with the English king based on an equitable division of Palestine that would see al-Adil and Joanne married and Christian ‘priests in the shrines and churches of Jerusalem’. In the end, perhaps believing that he had Saladin backed into a corner, Richard responded to this significant offer with prevarication. For the union to be permissible, he argued, the pope would have to give his blessing and this would take three months. Even as the message was being delivered the Lionheart was readying his troops to advance on Ramla and beyond.

To take the HOLY CITY

By early November 1191 the work to refortify the region around Yasur had been completed. Richard took the next step towards Jerusalem on 15 November, moving the crusader army forward to a position between Lydda and Ramla. Saladin retreated before him, leaving the two settlements – their defences shattered – to the Franks and, in the weeks that followed, he moved back first to Latrun and then, around 12 December, took refuge in Jerusalem itself. Although Muslim forces continued to harry the Latins throughout this period, in some sense at least the path to the gates of the Holy City was now open.

But even as his men hurriedly sought to rebuild Ramla, the Lionheart had to confront a new enemy: winter. On the open plain, its onset brought a ferocious change in the weather. Lashed by driving rain, freezing in plummeting temperatures, the crusaders spent six miserable weeks stockpiling food and weapons at Ramla, securing the supply line back to Jaffa, before inching their way forward first to Latrun, and then on to reach the small dismantled fortress near Beit Nuba, at the foot of the Judean hills, soon after Christmas. They were now just twelve miles from Jerusalem.

Conditions within the army that December were appalling. One eyewitness wrote:

It was cold and overcast . . . Rain and hail battered us, bringing down our tents. We lost so many horses at Christmas and both before and after, so many biscuits were wasted, soggy with water, so much salt pork went bad in the storms; hauberks rusted so that they could hardly be cleaned; clothes rotted; people suffered from malnourishment so that they were in great distress.

And yet, by all accounts, morale among the ordinary soldiers was high. After long months, and in some cases years, of struggle, they were now practically within sight of their goal. ‘They had an indescribable yearning to see the city of Jerusalem and complete their pilgrimage’, noted one Latin contemporary, while a crusader in the army recalled, ‘no one was angry or sad . . . everywhere was joy and happiness and [everyone] said together “God, now we are going on the right way, guided by Your grace.”’ Enduring commitment to the cause of the holy war seems to have inspired them, even amidst the anguish of a winter campaign. Like their crusading forefathers back in 1099, they were now ready, desperate even, to besiege the Holy City, regardless of the risk and privation involved.

The question was whether King Richard shared their fervour. As the new year of 1192 began, he had a crucial decision to make. The crusade had taken almost two months to advance just thirty miles towards Jerusalem. The line of communication with the coast still held but was subject to near-daily Muslim raids. Mounting a siege of the city in these conditions, in the bitter heart of winter, would be a mammoth undertaking and a huge gamble. And yet, the bulk of the Latin army clearly expected that an assault would be made.

Around 10 January, the Lionheart convened a council to debate the best course of action. Its shocking conclusion was that the Third Crusade should retreat from Beit Nuba, turning its back on Jerusalem. Officially it was said that a powerful lobby of Templars, Hospitallers and Latin barons native to the Levant persuaded Richard. The dangers of undertaking a siege while Saladin still possessed a field army were too severe, they argued, and anyway, the Franks lacked the manpower adequately to garrison the Holy City even if it did, by some miracle, fall. ‘[These] wiser men were not of the opinion that they should acquiesce in the common people’s rash desires [to besiege Jerusalem]’, recalled one contemporary, and instead they advised that the expedition ‘should return and fortify Ascalon’, cutting Saladin’s supply line between Palestine and Egypt. In truth, the king probably packed the council with those sympathetic to his own views and knew only too well what its recommendations would be. For now, at least, Richard was not willing to stake the fate of the entire holy war on the outcome of so hazardous a campaign. On 13 January he broadcast the order to retire from Beit Nuba.

This was an earth-shattering pronouncement, but in recent scholarship Richard’s decision has been viewed in a positive light. Championed by the likes of John Gillingham as an astute general whose decision making was governed by martial reality and not pious fantasy, the Lionheart has been widely praised for his cautious strategy. Hans Mayer, for example, concluded that ‘in view of Saladin’s tactics, [Richard’s decision] was the right one’.

In fact, the truth of the matter will never be known. One crusader eyewitness later concluded that the Franks missed an enormous opportunity to capture Jerusalem because they did not appreciate ‘the distress, the suffering and the weakness’ of the Muslim forces garrisoning the city, and to an extent he was right. Struggling to maintain his exhausted troops in the field, Saladin had been forced to disband the majority of his army after 12 December, leaving the Holy City dangerously undermanned. Ten days passed before Abu’l Haija the Fat arrived with Egyptian reinforcements. Throughout this period a decisive and determined move to assault Jerusalem might have broken Saladin’s will, fracturing his already fragile hold over the Muslim alliance and plunging Near Eastern Islam into disarray. On balance, however, Richard was probably right to forgo such a massive gamble.

Even so, the Lionheart should not escape reproach for his conduct in this phase of the crusade. To date, historians have ignored a fundamental feature of his decision making. If, in January 1192, it was so obvious to Richard’s military advisers and probably to the king himself that the Holy City was unconquerable and untenable, why had that same reality not been apparent months earlier, before the crusade ever left Jaffa? The king – the supposed master of military science – should surely have recognised in October 1191 that Jerusalem was a near-impossible military target and one that could never be retained. Writing in the early thirteenth century, Ibn al-Athir tried to reconstruct the Lionheart’s thinking at Beit Nuba. He conjured up a scene in which Richard asked to see a map of the Holy City; once aware of its topography, the king supposedly concluded that Jerusalem could not be taken while Saladin still commanded a field army. But this is little more than an imaginative reconstruction. Richard’s character and experience suggest that he would carefully have assembled the fullest possible picture of strategic intelligence before mounting the advance from Jaffa.

The Lionheart probably set foot on the road to Jerusalem in late October 1191 with little or no intention of actually prosecuting an attack on the city. This means that his advance was effectively a feint – the military component of a combined offensive in which a show of martial aggression augmented intensive diplomatic contact. Richard sought that autumn and winter to test Saladin’s resolve and resources, but was ever ready to step back from the brink if a clear opportunity for victory failed to materialise. In all this, the king acted according to the best precepts of medieval generalship, but he failed to account for the distinct nature of crusading warfare.

The impact of the retreat upon Christian morale and the overall prospects of the crusade were catastrophic. Even Ambroise, the Lionheart’s vocal supporter, acknowledged that:

[When] it was realised that the army was to turn back (let it not be called retreat), then was the army, which had been so eager in its advance, so discouraged, that not since God created time was there ever seen an army so dejected and so depressed . . . Nothing remained of the joy they had had before when they were to go to the [Holy] Sepulchre . . . Everyone cursed the day he was born.

Now a stunned and bedraggled rabble, the army limped back to Ramla. From there, depression and disillusionment ripped the expedition apart. Hugh of Burgundy and many of the French decamped. Some returned to Jaffa, others went off to Acre, where food and earthly comforts were plentiful. Richard was left to lead a severely weakened force south-west to Ascalon.

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