Battle of Arsuf: Richard the Lionheart's Crusaders Defeat Saladin's Army
Today in Military History: September 7, 1191
I return to my comfort zone of medieval military history for today's "little lecture." It involves one of the best-known battles of the Third Crusade, and two of the most famous battlefield commanders of the time period: Richard Coeur de Lion and Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, otherwise known as Richard the Lionheart and King of England and Saladin.
After the disastrous battle of the Horns of Hattin in July of 1187, much of the Holy Land – including the city of Jerusalem – captured during the First Crusade was lost. All that remained of the Christian holdings were the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli, and the city of Tyre. Soon after news of the disaster at Hattin reached Europe, the cry went up for another crusade to re-capture the lost lands. By 1188, three European monarchs had agreed to take the Cross to lead military forces to conquer the Holy Land. They were:
Frederick I Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor
(Illustration courtesy of www.nltaylor.net)
Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I aka Barbarossa: He was 66 years old in 1188, and had ruled the Holy Roman Empire for 33 years. He assembled an army of 100,000 men, including 20,000 knights (though some historians believe the figures are closer to 15,000 and 3000, respectively). Frederick's army marched overland through Hungary, Serbia, and Bulgaria, reaching Constantinople in the autumn of 1189.
The German army set out through Asia Minor, beating a Turkish field army at Iconium on May 18, 1190. The city – which was the capital of a Turkish sultanate – was sacked by the victorious army, and after resting for five days continued its march. Turkish raiders continually harassed the Germans, but they continued on. However, disaster struck on August 10, 1190. As the army was crossing a river in Asia Minor, Frederick tried to walk his horse across, eschewing a bridge that was packed with his troops. The swift current took the emperor's feet out from under him, and his heavy armor pulled him beneath the surface. After the death of its leader, much of the army returned home. A mere 5000 men continued on to the Holy Land under the command of Frederick's son, the Duke of Swabia.
Frederick's body was place in a barrel of vinegar, under the impression it would be preserved to make the trip to Jerusalem once the Holy City was re-captured. Unfortunately, the vinegar did not work, so when the army reached Antioch, Frederick's body was boiled to remove the flesh. His internal organs were buried in a cathedral in Antioch, and his bones were eventually interred in Tyre.
King Philip II of France: Philip became sole king of France in 1180, at the age of 15. At one point in about 1186 Philip went to war with King Henry II of England. The French king even allied himself with Henry's sons against their father. Then in 1189, shortly after signing a treaty ending the Anglo-French conflict, Henry died. His son Richard (more on him below) came to the English throne. Both men then agreed to form crusading armies and jointly travel to the Holy Land.
At first the French and English crusaders travelled together, but the armies split, as Richard decided to go by sea, and Philip took the overland route through the Alps to Genoa. On March 30, 1191 – after the armies had reunited and wintered together – the French set sail for the Holy Land and Philip arrived on May 20. He then marched to the city of Acre, which was already besieged by a lesser contingent of crusaders and started to construct large siege equipments before Richard arrived on June 8. By the time Acre surrendered on July 12, Philip was severely ill with dysentery which greatly reduced his crusading zeal. Ties with Richard were further strained after the latter acted in a haughty manner after Acre had fallen.
"Ptolemais [Acre] Given to Philip Augustus and Richard the Lionheart"
Painting by Merry-Joseph Blondel (date unknown, prior to 1853)
On July 31, Philip left the Holy Land to sail back to France. His health had suffered, but he also came to the realization that, if Richard remained in the Holy Land, then English holdings in northern France were open to French attacks. A portion of the French army (about 10,000 soldiers) remained behind under the command of Duke Hugh III of Burgundy. With Philip's departure, one major figure was left in charge of offensive operations in the Holy Land…
King Richard I of England:
When Acre surrendered, Richard was 34 years old and had been King of England (and Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine, and Gascony) for about 2 years. He had commanded an army when he was 16, eventually earning the nom de guerre that has come down to us 800 years later: Coeur de Lion, or "Lionheart." In fact, an incident earlier in 1191 proves Richard's bellicose nature.
As Richard's fleet was sailing to the Holy Land, several of his ships were separated during a storm and were wrecked on the coast of Cyprus. One of those vessels carried Richard's sister and his fiancée, Berengaria of Navarre, as well as the royal treasury. [Prior to his departure on crusade, Richard had declared a special tax, named the "Saladin tithe," to finance his expedition. This heavy tax nearly beggared the country.] Isaac Komnenos, the Byzantine governor of Cyprus, seized the treasury and imprisoned the women. When the Lionheart arrived at Cyprus on May 1, 1191 he demanded that the women and his treasury be returned to him. When Komnenos refused, Richard landed his army and began conquering the entire island, which was completed in a month's time. Komnenos agreed to surrender to the English monarch, with the proviso that he not be placed in chain (or "irons"). Richard fixed that, placing Komnenos in silver chains.
"Richard I the Lionheart, King of England"
Oil on canvas by Merry-Joseph Blondel (1841)
With Richard in charge of the crusading forces, plans were drawn up to re-capture Jerusalem, which had been lost to the armies of Saladin in 1187. The Lionheart knew that it would be suicidal to simply march from Acre to the Holy City. Therefore, he began the Crusader offensive by first moving down the Mediterranean coast to capture the cities of Caesarea and Jaffa. These towns would function as bases for his eventual thrust toward Jerusalem.
Coat of Arms of Richard I of England
Royal Arms of England, 1198-1340
Gules, three lions passant guardant in pale or
King Richard was a shrewd, successful battlefield commander. Between the surrender of Acre and the beginning of his march down the coast, the Lionheart studied reports and histories of battles between the Crusaders and the Saracens. He probably also closely questioned anyone who was a veteran of those battles, learning the battle tactics of the enemy. Richard made careful plans for organizing his line of march. These preparations would be critical to the outcome of the upcoming battle against the forces of Saladin.
Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, aka Saladin
"Saladin" by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)
Wood or steel engraving ca. 1880-1883
Saladin was born in 1137 in Tikrit, Iraq. His Kurdish family was originally from Armenia. He was a reluctant soldier, finally being employed as an officer by his uncle, Asad al-Din Shirkuh, in 1163. After this, it was only 20 years later that Saladin established his own ruling dynasty – the Ayyubid – and was ruler of Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia. [Unfortunately, after his death in 1193, his empire broke up over the succession.]
Contrary to many of his fellow Muslim rulers, Saladin usually treated captured Crusaders with kindness and respect, almost like a European knight following the chivalric ideal. King Richard once praised Saladin as a great prince, saying that he was without doubt the greatest and most powerful leader in the Islamic world. Saladin in turn stated that there was not a more honorable Christian lord than Richard of England. After signing the treaty ending the Third Crusade, Saladin and Richard sent each other many gifts as tokens of respect, but never met face to face. Nonetheless, Saladin could be just as ruthless as the next man, considering the time period.
Ayubbid Dynasty at its greatest extent under Saladin (1188)
Richard's Army Takes the Field
The Christian force began marching south from Acre in mid- to late-August of 1191. King Richard set up a strict line of march, which he insisted all his men adhere to without question. The Crusader army consisted of some 12,000 men – 9000 infantry, 2000 knights, and about 1000 turcopoles – and an extensive baggage train. Realizing that traversing the area in summer was senseless, the Lionheart commanded that the baggage train travel closest to the sea, with front and rear infantry screens. Next to them, on the landward side, would be the knights, divided into 12 units of 150 men each. Most of these men were French, English, and Norman followers of Richard; there were also some knights of the Kingdom of Jerusalem – now using Tyre as their capital city with the fall of the Holy City three years previously.
Finally, screening the knights and to their left were the infantrymen. These foot soldiers consisted of spearmen and crossbowmen. Finally, two units of turcopoles were given the task of scouting the hills to the east, hoping to give warning whenever the Saracens sought to attack. In addition, providing supplies of food and fresh water for the army, a fleet of ships – probably from Pisa and Genoa – shadowed the Crusader force as it marched south. The fleet also picked up and tended to any of the army's sick or wounded.
The Christians rose early each morning, getting underway shortly after dawn. The army would follow the major highways south – many of them old Roman roads – with the march halted by noon near a source of fresh water. In that way, the Crusaders would avoid marching in the hottest part of the day and suffering from thirst or heatstroke. While on the march, the knights of the two major military orders – the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers – provided the front and rear protection for the column of march. They would switch places each day.
Soon after leaving Caesarea, Saladin began launching probing attacks against the Crusaders. These consisted of attacks by Arab and Turkish horsemen, using bows and javelins against the front and rear of the Christian army. Their objectives were two-fold: the Muslims sought to separate the front or rear from the rest of the army, so the Christian army could be divided and defeated in detail; and, it was hoped that with so many pinprick attacks against the army, that the western knights would be goaded into charging the Saracens and become separated, surrounded and killed. However, the Lionheart had given all the knights – particularly the men of the two military orders – that they were not to charge and engage the Muslims unless he gave them specific instructions to do so.
As Richard's army approached the town of Caesarea on August 30, Saladin ordered his mounted archers to step up the pressure on the marching Christian force. At one point in the battle, the Muslim horsemen were pressing the rear guard infantry quite closely. This resulted in the rear guard opening a gap between themselves and the rest of the marching army. Saladin's cavalry swarmed in and began pressing the Christian troops. Fortunately, the Lionheart rallied his men, and saved them from annihilation.
Tactical Situation Battle of Arsuf, app. 9:00-11:00 am, Sept. 7, 1191
(Map courtesy of www.lookandlearn.com)
Seeing now that his usual tactics were being thwarted by King Richard's careful planning and the execution of his orders, Saladin decided to take a desperate gamble. He felt it was now necessary to try to force the Crusaders into a pitched battle, and attempt to drive them into the sea. Examining the Christians' line of march, Saladin decided to attack the enemy outside of the ruined town of Arsuf. He would place his army on the eastern edge of a two-mile wide plain, facing the sea. His northern flank would be protected by the Forest of Arsuf, as well as a marshy area along the Rochetaillée River, while the southern flank would be covered by a series of wooded hills that led down to the town of Arsuf and the sea. The plan was to draw the Crusaders out by a series of advances followed by feigned retreats, and destroy them by sustained attacks once their ranks were broken. Richard's army would have little room to maneuver, and the possibility of a concentrated charge by the armored knights would be reduced.
It was a good plan; however, King Richard was one step ahead of the Ayubbid sultan. Christian scouts had reported to Lionheart about the upcoming terrain. Richard realized this was the most likely place were the Muslims would make a major attack on his army. He would not be ambushed and destroyed like the Christian army at the Horns of Hattin in 1187.
Battle of Arsuf
At dawn on September 7, the army began to rise to prepare for the march. King Richard sent messengers throughout the camp, telling the men to prepare for battle. The Knights Templar under Robert de Sablé were ordered to the fore, along with the Angevins and the Bretons, , followed by the Poitevins under Guy of Lusignan, King of Jerusalem. [Guy had been captured as Hattin and held for ransom, being released finally a year later.] Next came the Anglo-Normans with Richard's personal standard, and then the Flemings under James of Avesnes. After the Flemings came the French, and finally the Knights Hospitaller, headed by their 9th Grand Master Frá Garnier de Nablus. Under the leadership of Henry II of Champagne and King Richard himself, a small troop was detached to scout the hills, and a squadron of knights under Hugh of Burgundy was detached to ride up and down the ranks ensuring that they were kept in order.
The first Saracen attack came at about 9:00 am. In an attempt to destroy the cohesion of the enemy and unsettle their resolve, the onslaught was accompanied by the clashing of cymbals and gongs, trumpets blowing and men screaming. When this failed to have the desired effect, the attack was switched to the left flank (rear) of the Crusader army, with the Hospitallers coming under the greatest pressure. Bit by bit the onslaught extended across the rest of Richard's line. These incursions followed the same pattern: Bedouins and Nubians launched arrows and javelins into the Crusader lines, before parting to allow the mounted Turkish archers to advance, attack and wheel off, a well-practiced technique.
Bedouin cavalry (Illustration courtesy of Perry Miniatures (www.perry-miniatures.com)
Crusader crossbowmen responded, when this was possible, although the chief task among the Crusaders was simply to preserve their ranks in the face of sustained provocation. King Richard had trained his footmen to work in pairs, with two spearmen assigned to protect a pair of bowmen or crossbowmen. One crossbowman loaded as the other shot at the Saracens. At several points along the line, the two armies were engaged in close hand-to-hand combat.
All Saladin's best efforts could not dislocate the Crusader column, or halt its advance in the direction of Arsuf. Richard was determined to hold his army together, forcing the enemy to exhaust themselves in repeated charges, with the intention of holding his knights for a concentrated counter-attack at just the right moment. There were risks in this, because the army was not only marching under severe enemy provocation, but the troops began to suffer from heat and thirst as the battle continued beyond the Christians' normal time to halt and make camp. Just as seriously, the Saracens were killing so many of the knights' horses that some of Richard's own knights began to wonder if a counterattack would be possible.
Just as the Crusader vanguard approached Arsuf in the middle of the afternoon, the Hospitaller crossbowmen to the rear were having to load and fire walking backwards. Inevitably they lost cohesion, and the enemy was quick to take advantage of this opportunity, moving into the gap. For the Crusaders, the battle had now entered a critical stage. Hospitaller Grand Master de Nablus rode to the front of the column to personally plead with Richard to be allowed to attack. According to the 13th century chronicle Itinerarium Regis Ricardi (Itinerary of Richard the King), the Master addresses Richard thus:
"My lord the king, we are violently pressed by the enemy, and are in danger of eternal infamy, as if we did not dare to return their blows; we are each of us losing our horses one after another, and why should we bear with them any further?"
Lionheart refused the request, ordering the Master to maintain position. This was more than the Hospitallers could endure. Accompanied by another Hospitaller knight, Master de Nablus charged into the Saracen ranks with a cry of "St. George!" followed quickly by the rest of his knights. Moved by this example, the nearby French knights followed suit.
Knights Hospitaller attacking with couched (under-the-arm) lances
(Illustration courtesy of Perry Miniatures (www.perry-miniatures.com)
In the rear of the Christian line of march, some of the Turkish horsemen had dismounted, trying to get better bowshots at their enemy. The sudden onslaught of the Hospitallers and French took the Turkish bowmen by surprise. On less surprised was King Richard. The Saracens were pressing closer, trying to overrun the infantry to get at the knights and the baggage train. Seeing the Hospitallers disobeying his direct command, the Lionheart decided he must support them. Consequently, he gave the command to the Templar, Angevin, and Poitevin horsemen in the front of the column to charge the left wing Turkish cavalry. These cavalry squadrons struck the Saracen cavalry like a bolt of lightning. Then, to insure that all of Saladin's horsemen were occupied, Richard ordered the remaining English, Norman, and French knights to charge the Saracen cavalry. Richard himself then joined the Hospitaller knights in the rear of his column, as the crisis was worst at that point. According to the writer of the Itinerarium:
"King Richard pursued the Turks with singular ferocity, fell upon them and scattered them across the ground. No one escaped when his sword made contact with them; wherever he went his brandished sword cleared a wide path on all sides. Continuing his advance with untiring sword strokes, he cut down that unspeakable race as if he were reaping the harvest with a sickle, so that the corpses of Turks he had killed covered the ground everywhere for the space of half a mile."
"Richard I the Lionheart and Saladin at the Battle of Arsuf"
Wood or steel engraving by Gustave Doré, ca. 1880-1883
The Saracen right flank began to crumble under the hammer blows of the Hospitaller and French knights. As the battle began to turn against the Saracens, Saladin's nephew Taqi al-Din, lead 700 members of his uncle's heavy cavalry bodyguard against the Crusader left flank. Reforming his horsemen, the Lionheart led a final charge which finally broke the Saracens. The enemy scattered eastward into the hills, closely pursued by Richard's knights. Saladin's camp was located and looted. Then, as night was approaching, Richard ordered a halt any further pursuit. The battle of Arsuf was over.
Saracen losses were stated to include about 7000 men, including 32 amirs. Christian losses were pegged at a mere 700 men. Saladin's defeat was a great moral victory for the Crusaders, putting a large dent in his reputation of battlefield invincibility. After reorganizing his men, Richard's army continued its march southward, receiving the surrender of the city of Jaffa three days after the battle. Despite this signal victory, King Richard never made any attempt to re-capture Jerusalem. Richard and Saladin eventually signed a treaty in 1192, ending the Third Crusade well short of its intended objective. Jerusalem remained in Muslim hands, but unarmed Christian pilgrims and merchants were allowed to visit the city.
Footnote #1: Saladin died in March of 1193 of yellow fever. King Richard the Lionheart died in April of 1199, while besieging the castle of a rebellious vassal. He was shot by a crossbowman, and died 11 days later. During his 10 year reign as English monarch, he spent less than six months in England, and was totally absent for the last five years. Richard left no legitimate heirs, resulting in his brother John Lackland coming to the English throne.
Footnote #2: In Volume III of his "History of the Crusades" (1954), British historian Steven Runciman said of Richard, "He was a bad son, a bad husband, and a bad king, but a gallant and splendid soldier."