The new Crusade began in disjointed fashion. The English and the French had first to settle several bitter disputes. Then Henry II died and his son Richard (already known as the Lionhearted) was crowned king of England. Richard had also taken the cross, so the English commitment to the Crusade remained. But because the English crown still had huge holdings in France (the entire Atlantic coast was theirs), he and Philip II had much to negotiate before they could head east. Meanwhile, Frederick Barbarossa began marching to the Holy Land.


On May 11, 1189—twenty-three months after the Battle of Hattin—the emperor Frederick led his army out of Regensburg (Ratisbon) into Hungary and then through Serbia and on toward Constantinople. As always, it is very difficult to say how many troops Frederick had enlisted, but all sources agree that it was a large number. Many historians have settled on one hundred thousand, but that seems rather high. More likely is the estimate that Frederick had assembled three thousand knights, and it was usual for there to be about five or six times as many infantry as knights, which would have amounted to around twenty thousand first-line fighting men. Of course, there must have been the usual contingents of camp followers and commoners, so there might have been one hundred thousand people on the march. Whatever the actual number, it was sufficient so that news of the Germans marching toward him caused Saladin considerable worry, and he exerted himself in trying to raise an army able to meet them. In addition, Saladin had a Byzantine card to play.

After several years of negotiations and the exchange of piles of expensive gifts, in 1189 the Byzantine emperor Isaac entered into a mutual defense treaty with Saladin, committing the Byzantine army against all Western forces attempting to reach the Holy Land. Consequently, when in advance of his march to the Holy Land Emperor Frederick sent the bishop of Münster and other distinguished Germans to the Byzantine court to arrange passage, Isaac imprisoned them and gave their horses and equipment to Saladin’s representatives. Then, contrary to the usual failure of the Byzantines to live up to their agreements when it might prove costly to do so, when Frederick’s army crossed into Byzantine territory, Isaac caused irregular forces to harass him along the way and then dispatched his main army to stop the Germans at Philippopolis. But Frederick’s crusaders simply swept the Byzantines aside, inflicting immense casualties. Then, in order to force the release of the bishop and his retinue, Frederick devastated a substantial area in Thrace as he moved toward Constantinople.

At this point, Isaac wrote an astonishing letter to Saladin claiming to have rendered Frederick’s forces harmless: “[T]hey have lost a great number of soldiers, and it was with great difficulty that they escaped my brave troops. They were so exhausted that they cannot reach your dominions; and even if they should succeed in reaching them, they could be of no assistance to their fellows, nor could they inflict any injury on your excellency.” Nevertheless, Isaac wished Saladin to send him troops. None came.

Meanwhile, Frederick’s powerful forces marched onward, seized Adrianople, and “even planned a siege of Constantinople.” So, in February 1190, Emperor Isaac surrendered and signed the Treaty of Adrianople, which ceded Frederick free passage and supplies, and gave him distinguished hostages to ensure that the treaty was fulfilled.

During this time, several Greek Orthodox bishops “who favored Saladin out of hatred for [Latin Christians]” kept him abreast of what really was going on—of Frederick’s easy passage through Byzantium and of his successful storming of the Muslim-held fortress city of Iconium (Konya) with only slight losses. Moving on toward Antioch with no substantial forces in his way, Frederick fell from his horse while fording the Saleph River and drowned. Frederick’s death ended the German Crusade. He had been adored and trusted by all his subordinates, and although he was replaced by his son Frederick, the Duke of Swabia, the army was devastated by the emperor’s death. Over the next several days huge numbers simply turned around and went home. Ten days later, when young Frederick reached Antioch, his army may have shrunk to five thousand effectives, and when he reached the coastal area of the kingdom of Jerusalem he had only about three hundred knights. Saladin breathed a great sigh of relief.


Meanwhile, Richard the Lionhearted and Philip Augustus of France were gathering their forces, raising huge sums to meet the costs of crusading, and getting ready to set out. But they had no intentions of following the overland route through Byzantium. They planned to sail to the Holy Land, taking full advantage of Saladin’s failure to capture all of the Christian ports.

But long before Richard and Philip Augustus embarked, the Christian cause was greatly strengthened by the arrival of “a series of crusading fleets [from] the ports of northwestern Europe. They bore Danes, Frisians, North Germans, Flemings, English, Bretons, and men of Northern France.” It is impossible to know how many new crusaders were involved, but “there is no doubt that by New Year 1190 hundreds of Christian ships of all types were either beached or anchored around [Acre].” These newcomers joined King Guy of Jerusalem in laying siege to the city. Saladin met this threat by bringing up his army, and, by surrounding the area, he placed the Christian siege under siege.

A stalemate ensued because Saladin could not persuade his troops to attack the crusader ranks. In the restricted ground on which the city of Acre stood, the Muslims could not use their hit-and-run tactics and scatter to safety if charged by heavy cavalry. Nor were they willing to attack the ranks of solid infantry, for “the crossbows of the crusaders outranged their bows, and the solid line of spears formed an almost impossible obstacle.” With the Christians being resupplied by sea, a standoff began. In an effort to perfect his siege, Saladin placed a fleet of fifty galleys in the harbor at Acre to prevent resupplies from coming in. This seems not to have been adequate, and so in June 1190 he sent the remainder of his new Egyptian navy to fight its way into the harbor at Acre. It is not clear that the Christians resisted this move since it was greatly to their benefit. For one thing, this allowed the Christian fleets uncontested passage up and down the coast. More important, powerful crusader fleets soon blockaded the Acre harbor, trapping Saladin’s entire navy.

In March 1191, Philip Augustus and his French flotilla arrived at Tyre and from there went south and joined the siege of Acre. Meanwhile, Richard stopped in Cyprus, where his treasure ship had gone aground during a storm. This island was under the control of a Byzantine rebel, Isaac Comnenus, who had seized the English treasure and held the crew and troops aboard, although he released the civilian passengers, including Richard’s new fiancée, Berengaria of Navarre. Initially, Isaac also agreed to return both treasure and troops. Then, thinking he was secure in his great fortress at Famagusta, he broke his word and issued orders for Richard to leave the island. Enraged, Richard and his English forces quickly overran the island, much to the pleasure of the local population; apparently Isaac was a tyrant, given to raping virgins and torturing rich citizens. He surrendered without a fight when Richard promised not to put him into irons; Richard “kept” his word by locking him up in silver chains. After his release in 1194, Isaac returned to Constantinople, where he was poisoned in 1195.

The conquest of Cyprus gave the crusaders an extremely important naval base from which they could support and supply the kingdoms so long as they held any port cities. From Cyprus, Richard sailed his army to join the siege at Acre, arriving in June. Soon after the English landed, the crusaders were further reinforced by a fleet from Genoa. These new forces quickly swept aside the encircling outer Muslim lines and advanced to the gates of the city. The Muslim garrison surrendered—without Saladin’s permission. Saladin’s entire navy surrendered as well; many crews simply jumped overboard and swam ashore.

With Acre secure, it was time to begin the recovery of the kingdoms, but without the king of France. At this moment Philip Augustus withdrew and went home. He had long been very ill with dysentery, but the main reason he left was to settle urgent political disputes that had arisen back in France. However, Philip did leave behind several thousand troops, and the funds to pay them.

Now the Third Crusade came down to a match between Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin.


Richard was a complex character: “As a soldier he was little short of mad, incredibly reckless and foolhardy, but as a commander he was intelligent, cautious, and calculating. He would risk his own life with complete nonchalance, but nothing could persuade him to endanger his troops more than was absolutely necessary.” Troops adore such a commander.

In August 1191, Richard organized his crusader army and began to march south from Acre along the coast in the direction of Jerusalem. His force consisted of about four thousand knights, fourteen thousand infantry, and two thousand Turcopoles—light infantry, most of them hired locally. The infantry included a substantial number of crossbow teams. Because of the summer heat, the crusaders marched only during the mornings, and Richard was careful to situate his camps where there was adequate water; he was not about to be forced to fight at a disadvantage simply because of thirst. The fleet followed the army down the coast, resupplying them so they were independent of local sources. The fleet also took aboard those wounded by Saladin’s hit-and-run mounted archers, who lurked wherever there was cover.

Unfortunately for the Muslims, their constant harassment failed to goad the crusaders into breaking their solid formation—the heavy cavalry on the ocean side shielded by an impregnable column of infantry and crossbow teams. So, reluctantly, and at the urging of his emirs who still basked in the glow of Hattin, Saladin decided to risk a pitched battle. He chose a spot where his army’s northern flank was protected by the forest of Arsuf (or Arsur), with wooded hills to the south. On September 7, 1191, the Muslims attacked, using their standard tactic of rush in and then retreat, hoping to get the crusaders to break ranks and pursue them. But with Richard riding up and down the formation, the crusaders stood firm while their “crossbowmen took a heavy toll.” At this point, the Muslims launched a more determined attack. Once they were committed, the crusader heavy cavalry passed through the ranks of the infantry and launched a massive charge against Saladin’s forces. They not only inflicted heavy losses but did not scatter in pursuit of the enemy—as Christian heavy cavalry had so often done in the past. Instead, Richard was able to keep the knights under control and lead them back to form up again. When the Muslims attacked again, they were slammed by another cavalry charge. And then another. Having suffered huge losses—including more than thirty emirs—Saladin’s forces fled the field.

“But more important…Saladin’s troops became convinced that they could not win in the open field, and lost all interest in attempting pitched battles. The battle of Arsuf was the last [Muslim] attempt to destroy king Richard’s host.” In fact Saladin’s army became increasingly reluctant to face crusaders under any circumstances. A year after their defeat at Arsuf, a substantial army sent by Saladin to recapture Jaffa confronted Richard and a tiny force of fifty knights (only six of them mounted) and several hundred crossbowmen. Although they very greatly outnumbered Richard’s force, the Muslims did not prevail—partly from unwillingness to press their attack. Even so, they suffered terrible losses. This was the last significant engagement of the Third Crusade; both sides were more than ready for diplomacy.

It often is suggested that because Richard failed to reconquer Jerusalem, Saladin prevailed in denying the West that most important measure of the success of the Third Crusade. In truth, Richard made no attempt to retake the Holy City, and Saladin held it only by default. Richard knew that Jerusalem was of immense symbolic importance in Europe but recognized that it was a military liability—that to protect Jerusalem from Muslim attacks would require a large garrison and a safe corridor to the sea. But once his army went home, the kingdom of Jerusalem would lack the resources needed to meet either requirement. Better that the kingdom have secure borders that maximized the effectiveness of its armed forces than that Jerusalem itself be returned briefly to Christian control. Instead, Richard included a clause in the Treaty of Ramla he signed with Saladin in 1192 that allowed unarmed Christian pilgrims access to the city.

Saladin may have signed that agreement in good faith, but he died a year later, at age fifty-five. Only six years after Saladin’s death, Richard died from a crossbow wound suffered while putting down a revolt in part of his French territory. He was forty-one.

Unfortunately, few back in Europe saw the inevitability and the wisdom in Richard’s unwillingness to retake Jerusalem. Thus, a year before Richard died, Pope Innocent III had begun to call for a new Crusade.

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