The Third Crusade: So close, yet so far

Written by Chris Riley.


The year is 1187, and the holy city of Jerusalem has fallen to the forces of the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, Saladin. The most holy of holy places in both the Christian faiths and, that of the Muslims under Saladin. The loss of the city that had been in Christian hands since the year 1099, sent shock waves through both the eastern and western worlds, with Pope Gregory VIII calling for the princes of Christendom to once again, take up the cross and reclaim the Holy Land.

This print from 1683 CE depicts the recapture of Jerusalem in 1187 CE by Saladin By Jan Luyken SOURCE: Public domain


A Tragic Start

Just as in the doomed Second Crusade of the 1140’s, the Pope looked to the kings of Europe for support, expecting them to jump at the opportunity for both eternal glory and, a clean moral slate, but the response was lack lustre to say the least. The vast amounts of money needed for an expedition such as a Crusade were extortionate, meaning there wasn’t to be a quick turn around or speedy invasion. The first man out of the blocks was the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I Barbarossa, a powerful king and world renowned military mind, leaving Germany as early as 1188.

After gathering a large fighting force of thousands of knights and ordinary soldiers, Barbarossa headed out towards the holy land, choosing to take the land route via Hungary, due to his fear of drowning. After picking up more soldiers in Hungary, Fredrick and his highly professional army crossed into Byzantine lands, soon arriving on the edge of the Christian held world. Taking the advise of the local Arminian guides, Frederick I decided to cross the river Saleph, allowing his men to take the more tiring but arguably safer route over the Taurus Mountains, a decision that would cost him his life, as Frederick drowned as he tried to cross the turbulent waters.

Barbarossa drowns in the Saleph, from the Gotha Manuscript of the Saxon World Chronicle SOURCE: Public Domain

The death of Frederick I Barbarossa robbed the Third Crusade of arguably, its most able military leader and, the large army that he had assembled all but went home after the tragic death of their glorious King.

The Lion and the Lily

With Barbarossa’s army out of the fight, this left just two men to lead the crusade, Richard ‘The Lionheart’ of England and, Philip II ‘Augustus’ of France. Both men left in 1190, just months after Richard’s father, Henry II had died, using the ‘Saladin Tithe’ set up by his father to pay for the vast army he had assembled at Dartmouth. Before arriving on the holy land, Richard had some personal matters to attend to, arriving with Philip in Sicily, where Richard’s own sister had been imprisoned. Capturing Messina and freeing Joan. Richard and Philip soon fell out over Richard’s decision not to marry Philip’s half-sister Alys, choosing instead to marry Berengaria of Navarre, who he married on Cyprus after landing and taking the island from the Ayuubid supporting byzantine, Isaac Komnenos. Richard left Cyprus in June of 1191, eventually selling the island to the Knights Templar.

Whilst Richard was in Cyprus, Philip had landed on the Levantine coast and headed to Acre, an important post city that had already been under siege for two years. Guy of Lusignan, recently released by Saladin had been trying to capture the city with the help from the remnant of the imperial army that had crossed over with Frederick Barbarossa but, were soon surrounded by an Ayuubid relief force, cutting off the Christian’s route for retreat. To make matters worse for Guy, his claim to the crown of Jerusalem was in dispute after Conrad of Montferrat had married the heir to the throne, making the siege of Acre a must win.


A map showing the routes taken by Barbarossa (in red) and of Richard an Philip (in green and blue) By Kandi SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons

Richard arrived in early June, adding much needed leadership and man power to the dwindling siege effort. Adding not just thousands of fresh troops, the English King also brought with him massive siege weapons with names such as ‘Bad Neighbour’ and ‘God’s Stone-thrower’ to smash the massive walls of Acre. After a massive bombardment, the walls and the garrison in the city fell with Richard playing a vital role in the end of the siege, offering to pay his sappers two gold coins for every stone removed from the walls. It was even reported that Richard would fire his crossbow from his stretcher as he was suffering from scurvy, keeping his men’s spirits and morale high.


The siege of Acre was a massive victory for Richard and the Crusader forces now gathered around him, but their successes wouldn’t last forever. After Acre fell, Philip II left the holy land for good, choosing to return back to his native France due to another rebellion at home or, as some rumours go, because Philip believed that his crusading oath had been fulfilled. This decision left Richard as sole commander of the Crusader forces. Streamlining the decision making process allowed for Richard to focus his efforts on the greatest prize of all, Jerusalem.

The March to Jerusalem

Richard and the crusader forces stayed and recuperated in Acre, with multiple attempts made to get Saladin to agree to a winter truce. All attempts failed, forcing the restless Richard out of the safety of Acre’s walls, in pursuit of the Ayuubid leader.

Richard and his army of some 15,000 men, including Templar and Hospitaller Knights marched south towards Jaffa, a place that Richard and the other Crusader leaders hoped would become a forward operations base for further attacks into Muslim held lands. It was at this time that Saladin was able to show his military genius, destroying villages and water sources, reducing Richard and his army’s ability to wage effective war. Saladin and his Ayyubid force followed Richard down the coast, harassing and watching for potential weak spots in the massive Christian army. It wasn’t until the Crusader army reached town of Arsuf that the two forces engaged.

The Battle of Arsuf would be perhaps the greatest of the victories for the Christians during the Third Crusade. Seeing Richard’s outnumbered men beat back a much larger and more mobile force, made up of Saladin’s finest mounted archers. Richard was able to use the sea at his back to protect his weak side, using the Templars and Hospitallers in the van and rearguard to charge out at the oncoming Ayuubids, forcing a route and massacre of some seven thousand Muslims.

A Sad Reality

After the success of Arsuf, Richard marched his men down to Jaffa, capturing Ascalon before in August of 1192, capturing the city of Jaffa after a short siege. Richard showed that he was more than a match militarily for Saladin, a man who he grew to respect massively over the cause of the Crusade. Where the Crusader forces failed was in logistics, with Saladin relying on the local land and populous to replenish his armies, destroying all of the vital villages between Jaffa and Jerusalem, the well defended city where Saladin was waiting for Richard.



An image from 1873 showing Richard at the battle for Jaffa SOURCE: Public domain via British Library.

The sorry state of both exhausted armies forced both sides to reconsider their aims. Richard wanted nothing more than to capture the city of Jerusalem but, it was clear that he lacked both the men and material to launch a successful siege and more importantly, hold it against the counter attack he knew would come. Saladin on the other hand, didn’t want to have to meet the crusaders in the field, likely fearing a repeat of Acre, Arsuf or Jaffa and in late 1192, both sides agreed to a five year truce, allowing Richard to return back to England where his brother John and his old rival, Philip Augustus, were planning on taking his throne and lands. Saladin unfortunately died a year later, potentially due to complications surrounding irritable bowl syndrome or, the decades of near constant war finally caught up with him.

The 3rd Crusade was definitely not the last attempt to reclaim the holy land, and the exact amount of crusades is unknown. After the ninth crusade in the later 13th century it is very easy to lose track of all of the Christian wars to ‘reclaim’ something from someone who didn’t deserve it. The Pope was able to grant pretty much anything ‘crusader status’ if he saw fit, and would use that power to aid Papal allies and grow the wealth and power of the Papacy. Both Richard and Saladin are locked into the hearts and minds of both sides, with both men being heralded as great war leaders with immense respect for each other. The respect both sides had of each leader is illustrated clearly in the potential betrothal of one of Richard’s Sisters and, the bother of Saladin, a wedding that never happened but, a clear indication that both sides appreciated the other. Moreover, even decades after the crusade had ended, Muslim mothers would threaten misbehaving kids with the wrath of King Richard, a sort of Medieval boogie man, used to scare children into behaving.

Written by Chris Riley.


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Thanks for Reading.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.

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