Today in History: The Third Crusade’s Siege of Acre begins (1189)

On (or around) August 28, 1189, an army led by the titular “King of Jerusalem” Guy of Lusignon, who had in point of fact lost Jerusalem to the armies of Saladin almost 2 years earlier, laid siege to the city of Acre. The siege would last almost two years until the forces of the Third Crusade, led by King Richard I of England, King Philip II of France, and Duke Leopold V of Austria, conquered the city in July 1191.

Manuscript depiction of the siege

Guy held the kingship of Jerusalem through his marriage to Sybilla, mother of the previous king Baldwin V and sister of his predecessor Baldwin IV. He’d been captured by Saladin at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, but Saladin craftily released him from captivity in part to destabilize the city of Tyre. The ruler of Tyre, Conrad of Montferrat, was refusing to surrender his city to Saladin, but Saladin figured that freeing Guy would inject chaos into the Crusaders’ political situation that he could then exploit. However, Conrad simply rejected Guy’s continued claim on the throne and Guy, looking for a new capital city in order to begin orchestrating an offensive to retake Jerusalem, settled on Acre instead.

Guy’s army couldn’t take Acre–it was outnumbered by the city’s defenders, and besieging armies generally needed to outnumber the defenders multiple times over to have a chance of success. Nevertheless, his decision to besiege the city was one of the savviest political moves he ever made–which I grant you is not a high bar. The siege allowed him to present himself as an active monarch trying to rebuild his kingdom, and left Conrad isolated. Saladin moved to relieve Acre but wound up essentially besieging the Christians, so by the end of 1189 Acre had become a siege within a siege. So it remained for months, until the arrival of Crusading armies from Europe in the summer of 1191.

The Internet History Sourcebook, at Fordham University, has a primary source account of the situation the European Crusaders encountered upon arrival, a translation of the Latin chronicle Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi:

Acre was hemmed in on all sides, besieged by an infinite multitude of people, people from every Christian nation under heaven, people chosen from all the Christians, people well fitted for war and unremitting labor. The people had now besieged Acre for a very long time and they had been troubled by many afflictions, by constant labors, by shortages of food, and by many adversities, as has in part been pointed out above.

There appeared beyond them, furthermore, an innumerable army of Turks, who covered the mountains and valleys, bills, and plains. Here and there they fixed their tents, made of various patterns of flowing colors.

They also saw the pavilions of Saladin and the tents of his brother, Saif ad­Din, and of Taki ad­Din, the steward of paganism. The latter superintended the sea and the fort, and he frequently set up assaults and serious attacks against the Christians.

King Richard seemed to be sizing up all their armies. When he put into port, the King of France and the magnates, commanders, and great men of the armies there marched out to him. They received him with joy and exultation, for they had very much desired his arrival…

One thing that did happen during the months of stasis outside Acre is that Sibylla died, and with her died Guy’s legal claim on the kingship. Conrad now made his own play for the throne, marrying Sibylla’s sister and rightful heir, Isabella, even though he had to force Isabella to annul her existing marriage and even though Conrad was also probably married to another woman. Also thanks to a previous marriage between Sibylla and Conrad’s older brother their union was technically incestuous, but what’s a little bigamy and/or incest when you’ve got the kingship of Jerusalem on the line?

Disease swept through Acre in the winter of 1190-1191, but it also swept through the Christian besiegers, weakening them enough that Saladin was able to break through their lines and reinforce the city. Even at that, the Crusaders held out until German forces led by Duke Leopold V of Austria arrived in Marh. the English and French armies followed over the next few weeks, bringing additional men and more importantly the materials to construct proper siege engines. Acre’s garrison finally surrendered on July 31. Richard and Saladin negotiated a prisoner exchange and ransom for the captured Muslim soldiers, but when he became convinced that Saladin was stalling he had around 2700 of his Muslim prisoners executed in full view of Saladin’s army in what is known as the Massacre at Ayyadieh. Saladin did likewise with his Christian captives.

Acre was the high water mark of the Third Crusade, since (and nobody could have predicted this) the Christian kings fell to squabbling with each other shortly after. For one thing, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa had drowned crossing a river on the way to the Holy Land, so most of his German troops were either lost in the resulting chaos or simply returned home without ever getting to Acre. Leopold had led whatever was left of Frederick’s army, but they split after Acre because he was tired of the two kings, Richard and Philip, treating him as an inferior just because he was a mere duke. Then Philip and most of the French soldiers left because he was tired of being overshadowed by Richard and because he felt that he could exploit Richard’s absence to capture some English-held territory in France. Also they were at odds over the rightful king of Jerusalem–Philip backed Conrad, who now had the stronger legal claim, but Richard backed Guy in large part because Guy was a vassal to Richard back in France.

This left Richard, who showed himself to be Saladin’s equal as a commander by winning the Battle of Arsuf in September 1191 but lacked the numbers and resources needed to threaten Jerusalem. He (and Guy) eventually had to accept Conrad as King of Jerusalem at the Crusader nobles’ behest in 1192, but Conrad was assassinated shortly after being crowned, probably by Assassins hired by Richard. Then the army couldn’t agree on whether to squeeze Saladin by attacking his base in Egypt (Richard’s preferred plan), or to besiege Jerusalem directly–the army refused to march anywhere but Jerusalem, but Richard refused to lead it there because he was sure it would be destroyed before Jerusalem’s walls. Richard defeated Saladin again at Jaffa in August 1192 and then negotiated a treaty under which Saladin pledged to leave the Crusader kingdoms alone for three years. With nothing left to do in the Levant and his situation back home crumbling fast, Richard headed back to Europe in October 1192.

Despite its failure to retake Jerusalem, the Third Crusade is considered a moderate success in that it rolled back much of Saladin’s conquests stabilized the Latin kingdom in the Holy Land, centered at Acre and protected from Saladin for at least the next three years. Isabella married Henry of Champagne, who became Henry I of Jerusalem (d. 1197), after Conrad’s assassination. Guy of Lusignon either bought or was given the island of Cyprus and became Lord of Cyprus, though he continued to use the title “king” owing to his forfeited claim to Jerusalem. Richard, meanwhile was imprisoned by Leopold when he tried to cross Austria on his way back to England, on suspicion (probably accurate) that he’d had Conrad (who was Leopold’s cousin) murdered. When he finally got home he had to deal with his brother John’s usurpation of the throne, as well as Philip’s aggression in France.

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Author: DWD

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