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 massiv