The English king’s Crusaders battled Saladin’s Muslim warriors in Palestine.
Richard I, king of England and known as “Richard the Lionheart,” had fought his way into legend as leader of the Third Crusade (1189- 92). So had his Muslim opponent, the Sultan of Egypt, Saladin(0000ooooooooooooooooooo). Seldom in history had two commanders been so well matched in skill, and their high regard for each other added nobility to their contest.However, there was one major difference between the two: Saladin himself did not engage in combat, while Richard lived for it and was a ferocious fighter. Not since Alexander the Great had an army been led by a king who was without doubt the deadliest man in his entire host.
In July 1192, Richard realized that his goal of recapturing Jerusalem simply was not attainable, despite inflicting a severe defeat upon Saladin at the Battle of Arsuf the previous September. Richard also had received disturbing reports that his throne in England was in danger from his treacherous brother John and the king of France. Thus,Richard prepared to return to his homeland.
At this critical point, Saladin shrewdly identified the port of Jaffa in southern Palestine – which had served as the base for Richard’s unsuccessful drive to Jerusalem– as a target to be easily taken. Striking on July 25, Saladin’s troops fought their way into the city, despite the garrison’s desperate resistance. Once it became clear that Jaffa had fallen, many members of the garrison surrendered. Yet others found refuge inside the citadel and were able to hold onto that strong point.
The Muslim troops broke into a frenzy,slaughtering the pigs in the city and throwing the bodies of the dead Crusaders among those of the killed swine. In the confusion,one of the garrison’s defenders had the presence of mind to send word to Richard, who was up the coast at Acre.
Richard acted immediately,despite his French and German allies refusing to help. Loading 55knights, several hundred men-at-arms and 2,000 Pisan and Genoese crossbowmen onto seven ships, he sailed to Jaffa. When he arrived on August 1, at first sight it indeed appeared the city had fallen. Muslim banners floated from Jaffa’s walls and Saladin’s troops thronged the shore outside them.
Just then, however, a priest leapt from the citadel and swam toward Richard’s ship to tell the king that all was not lost. This was all the encouragement Richard needed. He jumped into the surf with battle-ax in hand and shield slung over his shoulder. The power of his example was awe-inspiring, and the rest of the outnumbered Crusader force followed instantly.
Richard hacked his way to the city gates as the Muslim troops panicked at the onslaught. The Crusaders burst into Jaffa,aided by the garrison’s survivors, who roseup and seized weapons. The Muslims were soon overwhelmed, and those who survived fled and kept running for five miles. Now their dead were thrown among the slaughtered swine while the Crusaders received decent burials.
Saladin called for reinforcements to concentrate at Jaffa, and by August 5 his host totaled 20,000 light and heavy cavalry. But rather than endure a siege, Richard led his small force out from behind Jaffa’s walls.He placed his knights and men-at-arms in a single line, with each man kneeling on one knee and thrusting the butt of his spear or lance into the sand to present a hedge of steel.Between and behind these men he placed his crossbowmen in pairs, one to fire and one to reload, so as to achieve the highest rate of fire.
The Muslims attacked in waves, but the Crusaders’ storm of crossbow bolts easily penetrated the Muslims’ light armor, slaying both man and beast. Saladin’s troops turned away, unwilling to charge into the Crusaders’ hedge of steel.
Richard counter charged with 15 mounted knights. No enemy was safe within his reach, and twice he rescued knights who had become overwhelmed. The battle then paused, but Richard was now on foot after his only warhorse had been killed. Saladin, seeing his enemy’s predicament, exclaimed that such a man should not fight without a mount and sent Richard two splendid warhorses.
During the pause, Muslim soldiers had slipped back into the city, and the troops Richard had left inside frantically retreated to their ships. The king rushed back through Jaffa’s gates with a small party, killing enemy soldiers left and right. He then rode to the ships and shamed the men whohad fled and sent them back into the fight before rejoining his battle line for the next wave of attacks.
Again Richard charged into the mass of Muslim cavalry, leaving a circle of dead around him. He penetrated so deeply that those in his battle line lost sight of him. At this point, a richly armored Muslim champion rode out to fight Richard one-on-one as both sides stopped to look on. With single blow of his sword, Richard cleaved his opponent through the neck and downward so that the head and right shoulder went flying as the horse and the rest of the blood-spurting body rode on.
Upon witnessing this horror, the members of the Muslim host lost heart and retreated. Saladin, too, had seen enough. He withdrew, leaving 700 dead men and 1,500 slain horses on the battlefield.
Richard, meanwhile, reported losing only two men and an unknown number of wounded. His brilliant victory was a supreme instance of leadership and personal example that triumphed over 10-to-1 odds. Yet after the win at Jaffa, Richard was forced to settle for a three-year truce (Treaty of Jaffa) with Saladin before sailing home in October 1192.
Peter Tsouras is the author of 26 books on military history. He served in the Army and Army Reserve and worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency until retiring in 2010 to devote himself to writing, his roses and his grandchildren.
Further Reading: For more about “Richard the Lionheart,” see Battlefield Leader in the January 2012 issue of Armchair General
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Armchair General.