Philip II depicted arriving in Palestine.
The Siege of Acre was the first major confrontation of the Third Crusade.
Saladin had done his best to prepare for an attack on either Jerusalem or Egypt. In late May and early June 1192 troops from across the Near East began to regroup in the Holy City. The sultan also deployed a number of scouting forces, including one under Abu’l Haija, to monitor the movements of the Franks, who now were based in the region of Ascalon.
On 6 June Saladin received an urgent warning that the crusaders were marching in strength north-east from Ascalon – a move that obviously heralded an advance on Jerusalem. It appeared that Richard and the Latins had resolved to make a second attempt to besiege and capture the Holy City. In fact, Richard had spent the first days of June in a tortured state of indecision. Badly shaken by the prospect of an alliance back in Europe between his acquisitive brother John and Philip Augustus, the Lionheart was torn between returning to the West and remaining in the Levant to fulfil his crusading vow. The English king’s dilemma was compounded further by the thorny question of strategy. The Third Crusade’s primary objective was the recovery of Jerusalem, but Richard still considered the city to be an unrealistic target. In some respects, the Franks were better placed to prosecute an inland campaign than they had been six months earlier. Now united, they could rely on stable summer weather and use the network of rebuilt fortifications established in late 1191. But in all other respects the proposition had not changed – the challenge remained almost insurmountable, the risks immense. Even if, by some miracle, the attack succeeded, Jerusalem would be virtually impossible to hold. Richard, therefore, favoured an attack on Egypt: a strike that would threaten the very foundations of the Ayyubid Empire, and likely force Saladin to agree a truce on terms of the Lionheart’s choosing. In military terms, Richard’s plan made sense, but it largely ignored the driving devotional dimension of crusader warfare. If the king was to press home his strategy – winning over the hearts and minds of the Christian host, persuading the Franks that the path to ultimate victory led through the Nile – he could afford none of the equivocation witnessed in autumn and winter 1191. He would have to offer clear-cut, compelling leadership, commanding with unfaltering vision and force of will.
Instead, after 29 May, Richard vacillated, withdrawing into private contemplation to ruminate on his options and stratagems. And as he did so, events began to overtake him. Popular opinion within the crusader army was crystallising. In the Lionheart’s absence a group of Latin barons, presumably spearheaded by Hugh of Burgundy, held a council on 31 May and decided to march on Jerusalem with or without the Angevin monarch. News of this judgement was leaked, probably quite deliberately, and immediately spread through the army, eliciting a ‘wildly joyful’ reaction that left the troops dancing until after midnight.
Even Richard’s most ardent promoter, Ambroise, admitted that the king became paralysed at this point, reflecting that he ‘was not at all happy, but lay down, very upset about the news that he had heard’, adding that ‘he continually pondered [the tidings from England] in his tent and gave himself up to this pondering’. As the Lionheart wavered and the days passed, a potent surge of enthusiasm swept over the camp, with one thought at its core – the call of Jerusalem. According to Ambroise, Richard experienced a form of spiritual epiphany on 4 June, having wrestled with his conscience. As a result, the king abruptly proclaimed that ‘he would remain in the [Holy Land] until Easter  without turning back and that everyone should be prepared [to lay siege] to Jerusalem’. Perhaps the Lionheart did have a stirring change of heart, but it is far more likely that, in the face of mounting public pressure, he bowed to popular sentiment. He certainly seems to have harboured as yet unexpressed ambitions for an Egyptian campaign and continued to have deep misgivings about the viability of any assault on the Holy City. Nonetheless, he agreed to advance into Judea. This capitulation signalled that, for now at least, Richard had lost control of the Third Crusade. Thus, even as Saladin interpreted the Frankish mobilisation as a sign of new-found intent on 6 June, grievous fissures were starting to appear in the Christian command structure.
The threat posed
Once begun, the crusaders’ march on Jerusalem proceeded with remarkable rapidity. By 9 June the Franks had arrived at Latrun and, on the following day, they pushed on to Beit Nuba. In autumn 1191 it had taken the Christians months to reach this same position. Now, after only five days, they once again were within striking distance of the Holy City, just twelve miles from its hallowed walls. Saladin ordered Muslim raiding parties to harass the near-constant stream of Latin supply convoys coming inland from Jaffa, but other than intermittent skirmishing assaults, he made no serious attempt to threaten the crusaders’ main forward camp at Beit Nuba. Instead, the sultan began positioning his troops within Jerusalem ahead of the impending attack.
After the first flurry of movement, however, the Frankish offensive seemed to stall. In fact, this delay was caused initially by the Latins’ decision to wait for Henry of Champagne to bring further reinforcements from Acre. But as the days passed, the deep-seated divisions within the crusade that had remained submerged at Ascalon began to surface, and the Franks were soon locked in a furious argument over strategy and leadership.
On 20 June, Saladin’s scouts reported that a large contingent of crusaders had moved off from Beit Nuba. This raised the sultan’s suspicions, because at that very moment he was awaiting the imminent arrival of a massive supply caravan from Egypt. Concerned that the Franks might seek to intercept this column and appropriate the vital resources it contained, Saladin immediately dispatched troops to warn the Muslim convoy. The two Ayyubid parties rendezvoused successfully and were making watchful progress inland towards Hebron, when just before dawn on 24 June Richard I launched a searing attack. As Saladin feared, the Lionheart had been alerted to the caravan’s movements by one of his spies and, galvanised by the prospect of rich plunder, immediately rushed south. The Angevin king spent three days tracking the caravan through his network of local informants and then unleashed a well-timed surprise assault. After a vicious fight the Latins prevailed. The bulk of the Muslim escort escaped, but they left behind a veritable hoard of booty: precious goods, including spices, gold, silver and silks; weapons and armour; tents; food supplies, including biscuits, wheat, flour, pepper, sugar and cinnamon; and ‘a great many cordials and medicines’. Perhaps even more significantly, the Christians also took possession of literally thousands of camels, dromedaries, horses, mules and asses.
News of this disaster caused real alarm in Jerusalem. Not only had Saladin lost a plethora of much-needed supplies – all of which would now profit the enemy – he also recognised that the Latins could use the influx of pack animals to ferry further resources inland from Jaffa. When the crusaders’ expeditionary force returned to Beit Nuba on 29 June, the sultan began ‘to prepare the means to withstand a siege’. Baha al-Din, who was then present in the Holy City, recorded that his master ‘started poisoning the water sources outside Jerusalem, destroying the pits and the cisterns, so that around Jerusalem there remained no drinking water at all’, adding that the sultan also ‘sent to muster his troops from all quarters and lands’.
By the first days of July 1192 there seems to have been no question in Saladin’s mind that the Franks were about to initiate their final drive towards Jerusalem. The moment of decisive confrontation – the crisis that he had hoped to avoid – was upon him. On Thursday 2 July the sultan assembled his most trusted emirs to discuss a plan of action. The meeting proved to be a grim-faced, earnest affair, as Saladin sat surrounded by the commanders and counsellors who had served him through long years of war and conquest. Abu’l Haija the Fat was there, although his legendary corpulence had now reached such a stage that he had trouble walking and needed ‘a stool to sit on while in the presence of the sultan’.
Baha al-Din was also in attendance, and according to his account, Saladin set out to instil a sense of steadfast determination among his lieutenants by repeatedly reminding them of their duties and responsibilities: ‘Know today that you are the army of Islam and its bulwark . . . There are no Muslims who can face the enemy but you [and] the Muslims in all lands depend on you.’ In response, the emirs affirmed their willingness to fight to the death for Saladin, their lord and patron, and the sultan’s heart was said to have been ‘greatly cheered’.
Later that same day, however, after the meeting had broken up, Saladin received a private missive from Abu’l Haija warning that beneath the veneer of loyalty and unity insurrection was brewing. Many within the army were opposed to ‘prepar[ing] for a siege’, fearful that the catastrophe at Acre might be repeated. There was also a real danger that the long-standing resentment between the Kurds and Turks in Saladin’s army might spill into open conflict. Abu’l Haija’s advice was that the sultan should lead the bulk of his armies out of the Holy City while he still had the chance, leaving behind only a token garrison.
That evening the sultan summoned Baha al-Din and revealed the contents of Abu’l Haija’s message. Baha al-Din recalled that ‘Saladin felt a concern for Jerusalem that could move mountains and he was distressed by this communication. I remained in attendance upon him that night, a night wholly spent on the concerns of the holy war.’ As dawn drew near, Saladin finally decided, with a heavy heart, to leave Jerusalem – ‘he had been tempted to remain himself, but then his better sense rejected that because of the risk to Islam it involved’. The choice had been made; in the morning, on Friday 3 July, preparations for the exodus began. Saladin took the chance to visit the Haram as-Sharif, and there led a last Friday prayer in the sacred Aqsa mosque, where some four years earlier he had overseen the installation of Nur al-Din’s glorious triumphal pulpit. Baha al-Din wrote: ‘I saw [the sultan] prostrate himself and say some words, while his tears were falling on to his prayer rug.’
But then, as evening drew in, astonishing unforeseen news arrived – news that overturned Saladin’s plans and reshaped the entire war for the Holy Land. Jurdik, the Syrian emir in command of the Ayyubid advance guard, reported that the Franks were in an evident state of confusion. His message described how that day ‘the enemy all mounted up, stood in the field on horseback and then returned to their tents’ and added that ‘we have sent spies to discover what they are up to’. The very next morning, on 4 July 1192, five years to the day since the Battle of Hattin, the armies of the Third Crusade struck camp, turned their backs on Jerusalem and began to retreat towards Ramla. Amid great ‘delight and rejoicing’ it became clear that the Holy City had been saved.98
The crusaders’ departure left the Muslims in a state of gleeful disbelief. What had caused this sudden reversal? Jurdik’s agents were able to piece together only a garbled version of events, reporting a dispute between Richard and the French. In fact, the seeds of the Frankish retreat had already been sown at Ascalon, when Richard lost his grip over the crusade and acceded to popular demands for a second inland advance. Once the expedition reached Beit Nuba on 10 June it rapidly became obvious that the Lionheart had no real intention of besieging Jerusalem, even though the French were determined that an attack should be attempted. On 17 June the crusade leaders met to debate the matter. Even two eyewitness Christian sources that were most biased in Richard I’s favour freely admitted that the king was fiercely opposed to any further advance.
The Lionheart apparently offered three convincing arguments as to why a siege was unrealistic: the vulnerability of the Latin supply line back to the coast; the sheer scale of the Holy City’s defences; and Saladin’s access to detailed intelligence regarding the Christians’ strength and movements. The king also bluntly indicated that he was absolutely unwilling to lead the crusade in such a ‘rash enterprise’ because it would lead to ‘terrible disgrace’ for which he would be ‘forever blamed, shamed and less loved’. This notable admission suggests that Richard was not simply considering the crusade’s best interests, but was moved primarily by concerns about his own reputation. The king had obviously formulated this view while still in Ascalon, because he now lobbied for a switch of strategy, recommending that the Latins immediately commit to an Egyptian campaign – conveniently, he already had a fleet waiting at Acre to portage supplies to the Nile, and he pledged to pay for 700 knights and 2,000 men-at-arms of his own, and to offer financial support to any other participants. This was the scheme that Richard might have promoted at Ascalon had he not been dogged by hesitation and doubt.
However, the Lionheart had now allowed the crusader host to march, for a second time, to within a few hours of Jerusalem. In this position, any attempt to promote military realism over pious dedication would be fraught with difficulty. Even so, he tried to force through his plan, instituting what amounted to a rigged jury, which, unsurprisingly, concluded ‘that the greatest good of the land would be to conquer [Egypt]’. When Hugh of Burgundy and the French rejected this pronouncement, declaring that ‘they would not move on anywhere except to besiege Jerusalem’, an impasse was reached.99
Having allowed the Third Crusade to reach this dreadful deadlock, the Lionheart’s response was shockingly ineffectual. In an act of feeble petulance, he simply resigned as commander-in-chief, stating that he would stay with the expedition but no longer lead. Perhaps this was brinksmanship, designed to stun and silence dissenting voices, but if so it failed. In many respects, by abjuring his responsibilities at this critical juncture, Richard was merely acknowledging a crushing reality – the great Angevin king now possessed neither the power, nor the vision, to control the crusade.
On 20 June, intelligence of the Ayyubid caravan from Egypt sparked action and a brief respite from discord, but once the expeditionary force returned to Beit Nuba on 29 June the wrangling resumed. Latin eyewitnesses described how the ‘people [were] wailing and complaining’, ‘grieving’ because of the continued failure to march on the Holy City. By early July the continued turmoil had effectively immobilised the crusade. The French seem to have made a last-ditch attempt to initiate an advance on 3 July, but without Richard’s support this collapsed. With no way forward, the Christian host finally accepted the inevitable and began a dispirited retreat. According to Ambroise, when news spread through the army that ‘they would not worship at the Holy Sepulchre which was four leagues away, their hearts were filled with sorrow and they turned back so disheartened and miserable that you never saw a chosen people so depressed and dismayed’.
This reversal marked the nadir of Richard’s crusading career. That summer he was guilty of a calamitous failure of leadership. His error was not the decision to step back from besieging Jerusalem – just as in January 1192, he rightly adhered to the dictates of military science and deemed the risks involved in an attack on the Holy City to be unacceptable. The fault lay in not manifesting this knowledge while still at Ascalon, in neglecting to assume firm control of the expedition, and in then allowing the Latin armies once again to be brought to within one day of the Holy City. The Third Crusade’s prospects for success had already been severely impaired by Richard’s mismanagement of the first abortive march on Jerusalem in late 1191. Now, in July 1192, this second reversal had a disastrous effect on Frankish morale and inflicted a lethal blow to Christendom’s fortunes in the war for the Holy Land.