Of all the Crusades’ many failures, I think the Third Crusade stands out in terms of how close it actually came to succeeding. The First Crusade did actually succeed, as did the Sixth, at least on paper. The Second Crusade was doomed pretty much from the start, the Fourth Crusade wound up taking Constantinople instead of Jerusalem, the Fifth and Seventh Crusades both fell apart in Egypt, the Eighth Crusade broke down outside Tunis, and the Ninth Crusade…well, there’s a reason I’ve never really written about it here.
But the Third Crusade, that one almost made it. The collective Western memory of the Crusades implicitly acknowledges this. The Third Crusade’s leader, Richard the Lionhart, lagged behind only Godfrey of Bouillon, the first “king” of Jerusalem (though he didn’t take that title), and maybe (Saint) Louis IX of France in terms of Crusading fame in medieval Europe. Nowadays, thanks party to Robin Hood, his fame eclipses any other European Crusading figure. Part of his enduring popularity is that his Third Crusade doesn’t get counted among the abject Crusading failures, and that’s both because it did result in a positive outcome for the Crusader kingdoms–ending the existential threat posed by Saladin–and because it very well might have taken Jerusalem if not for circumstances that were at least partially out of Richard’s control. And the reason we can say it might well have taken Jerusalem is because of what happened at the Battle of Arsuf.
Although Richard’s Crusader legacy is inextricably bound up with Saladin, the Muslim leader against whom he was matched, the two men never actually met one another. Richard offered to parlay with Saladin soon after his arrival in the Holy Land but Saladin demurred, arguing that it was indecorous for two kings to continue warring against one another after they’d met, and so he and Richard needed to have their war first and then talk. Well, it was either that or the fact that Richard fell seriously ill not long after he got off the boat. Sometimes history can be poetry, other times it’s basic prose. Either way, Richard’s abrupt departure for home in 1192 meant that they never had a chance to chat. But they did meet in battle three times, and Richard came away victorious on each occasion. Arsuf was the second of these.
Richard’s first order of business after he arrived in the region was to secure the city of Acre, which the Crusaders were already besieging when he got there in early June 1191. Saladin had led a relief army to Acre that was besieging the besiegers. The arrival of Richard’s English army and Philip II’s French army turned the tide and the city fell in mid-July. Richard then attempted to negotiate a ransom out of Saladin for the Muslim soldiers the Crusaders had captured in taking the city. When Saladin missed his first payment, Richard ordered the very public execution of some 2700 of those prisoners in what’s known as the Massacre at Ayyadieh. Part of Saladin’s army attacked the Crusaders, was defeated, and Saladin had to withdraw.
It’s around this time that Philip–who was sick, tired of being overshadowed by Richard, and realized that with Richard gone he could feast upon English-controlled territories in France–took most of his army and went home. Richard marched his army south, still intending at this point to attack Jerusalem. Because he was a competent general, Richard did not do what his vassal, the “King of Jerusalem” Guy of Lusignon, had done prior to the disastrous Battle of Hattin in 1187–he moved methodically, always stayed close to fresh water sources, and kept part of his army ready to fight at any time in case they were ambushed. He also kept his army to the coast, which both protected one of its flanks and ensured that he could be continually resupplied by his fleet. Muslim skirmishers tried but were unable to disrupt the march.
Finally Saladin determined to stop harassing the Crusaders and meet them in a pitched battle. He chose Arsuf, which was a point at which the Crusaders would have to march a bit inland through a wooded area that could help cover Saladin’s approach. Saladin hoped to use the terrain to isolate Richard’s rearguard and concentrate his attack there before moving against the rest of the Crusader army. Richard’s mostly infantry force numbered somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 men while Saladin’s mostly cavalry army was probably in the neighborhood of 25,000 to 30,000. Saladin’s army attacked on the morning of September 7, 1191.
Richard’s success at Arsuf came mostly from holding his army together. He wanted to let the Muslim army punch itself out before ordering a counterattack. He was aware that Saladin might try to concentrate on either the vanguard or rearguard of his marching force and so he’d put some of his most experienced soldiers at the front and rear of the column. This paid off when Saladin’s efforts to isolate and break off those parts of the army failed. Repeated hit and run attacks by Saladin’s light cavalry, which were intended to cause the wings of Richard’s army to either rout or break off and chase after their attackers, simply had no effect. The Crusader army remained cohesive, in a defensive position, continuing to move south as one unit.
At least it did until later in the day, when the Knights Hospitaller in Richard’s vanguard decided they’d had enough and charged into the Muslim army. They were followed by the remaining French forces in the army. They’d attacked before Richard had wanted, but he realized that the horse was now out of the barn and quickly ordered a full counterattack. Saladin’s army routed and Richard led his knights in pursuit. As his final trick of the day, he managed to keep most of his cavalry from falling prey to the feigned retreat tactic used by Saladin’s Turkic mounted archers.
Saladin likely lost thousands of men at Arsuf against hundreds lost by Richard, and more importantly he lost a good deal of his reputation as a battlefield commander. He would avoid pitched battles against Richard’s Crusaders for the rest of this campaign. And that’s after having his grand plan upended by those impatient Knights Hospitaller. Shortly after the battle the Crusaders took the city of Jaffa, which Saladin abandoned, and then used that as a base for their march on Jerusalem. It was on that march when Richard, pretty sure his army couldn’t take and certain that it couldn’t hold Jerusalem, is said to have told his soldiers that while he would march with them against the city, he wouldn’t lead them there and take responsibility for their deaths. The Third Crusade fizzled out, though not before Richard defeated Saladin one more time at Jaffa and leveraged his successes into a three year peace treaty that ensured the Crusader kingdoms would survive at least a little while longer.
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