When Saladin seized the key Crusader-held port in the Holy Land, Richard I clawed his way back and forced the sultan to the negotiating table.
By the summer of 1192 the Third Crusade had ground to a bitter halt. After a string of early successes King Richard I of England, popularly known as “the Lionheart,” had twice led the Christian army to within sight of Jerusalem only to be turned back by bad weather, strategic concerns and dissension among the Crusaders. The French contingent—long resentful of Richard’s leadership— openly refused to follow him any longer, and even his own men were dissatisfied at how their king had shirked his sacred vow to take the city. Worse yet, disturbing reports from England warned Richard of his brother John’s schemes to seize the throne for himself. With his authority waning on all fronts, the Crusade seemed on the verge of collapse.
In the Muslim camp Saladin, founding sultan of the Ayy¯ubid dynasty, watched events unfold with a mixture of relief and consternation. Though his army still held Jerusalem, the Crusaders controlled a swath of the Holy Land coastline stretching from Acre in the north to Ascalon in the south. The latter foothold was particularly troubling, as it provided a launching point for Crusader operations against Egypt, the sultan’s power base. Seizing the initiative, Saladin formulated a bold plan to split the Crusader territory in two, sever their lines of communication and defeat the Crusaders in detail. To accomplish this he would strike where Richard least expected it—at Jaffa.
The town of Jaffa, famous for its biblical association with Solomon, Jonah and the apostle Peter, lay only 40 miles northwest of Jerusalem along the centuries- old Roman road and served as the holy city’s primary port of entry. Because Saladin had shrewdly demolished the town’s defenses in 1187, Richard was forced to spend considerable time, effort and supplies refortifying it when he arrived with his army in 1191. By the following summer the walls and towers were still only partially rebuilt, leaving the Crusaders to rely on their strongest fortification, a large citadel overlooking the harbor. Its garrison, too, had been largely neglected and comprised only 5,000 sick and wounded men Richard had left behind during his second retreat north from Jerusalem. On the morning of July 26, 1192, the forsaken soldiers awoke to find Saladin’s army arrayed below their walls.
Amid the blaring of trumpets and banging of gongs, cymbals and drums the sultan threw his army into the assault. His force was so large that it enveloped the landward side of the town with both flanks reaching the shoreline. The focus of the attack was the eastward-facing Jerusalem gate. While sappers dug beneath the walls, the Muslim arsenal of siege weapons pelted the parapets with a ceaseless stream of deadly stone projectiles freshly cut from the surrounding ravines. Saladin knew it was imperative to take the town quickly before Richard could mount a relief effort.
Despite the overwhelming odds and the fury of the attackers’ onslaught, the defenders managed to hold their ground for a time. The garrison was initially under the command of French baron Alberi of Reims, who early on tried to flee the city only to be dragged back and thrown in irons by his own disgusted troops. The remaining men of the garrison had more discipline than their cowardly commander and organized a spirited defense. Christian sappers dug countermines to collapse the Muslim tunnels, and in the areas where attackers had already breached the walls, the defenders lit huge bonfires, raising an impenetrable curtain of flame. Hand-to-hand combat was fierce, and the attackers could not help but grudgingly admire the tenacious courage of the defenders, whom they had believed to be a rabble of invalids. In his record of the battle Saladin’s biographer Baha¯’ ad-Di ¯n Ibn Shadda¯d recalls watching an isolated pair of Crusaders repel a force of Muslims rushing one particular gap in the wall. When a well-aimed siege stone dispatched one of the men, his comrade unhesitatingly stepped into the breach and kept fighting.
Despite the defenders’ resolve, Saladin’s numbers proved too great to contain. By July 30 his troops had breached the wall in several places, and the Jerusalem gate lay in ruins. As the fighting spilled into Jaffa’s narrow streets, a last stand of determined defenders barricaded themselves in the citadel and prepared for martyrdom. Fortunately for the survivors, the newly elected patriarch of Jerusalem proved a more skillful diplomat than his woeful predecessor. He immediately began a series of deliberately protracted negotiations with Saladin for the lives of the Christians in Jaffa. The sultan ultimately agreed that every Christian man, woman and child could leave the town unharmed, provided they pay a modest ransom. To ensure good faith the patriarch offered a group of important hostages that he made sure included the disgraced Alberi of Reims. The defenders in the citadel, however, remained defiant, hoping against all hope for relief to arrive.
Richard was in Acre, overseeing preparations for an assault on Beirut, when word reached him on July 28 that Jaffa was under attack. “God yet lives,” the Lionheart exclaimed, “and with his guidance I will do what I can!” Saladin’s assault had, as intended, caught Richard completely off guard. The Crusader king had already sent north seven galleys loaded with men, supplies and siege equipment, and the French—busy sampling Acre’s famous taverns and pleasure houses—remained as intransigent as ever. Undaunted, Richard cobbled together a fleet of 35 galleys into which he crammed a motley force comprising his best troops, a contingent of Genoese and Pisan sailors and members of the Templar and Hospitaller orders. While the fleet, led by his own red-hulled flagship Trenchmere, sailed south to relieve the town, he dispatched the rest of his army on a parallel course by land. At first his audacious undertaking seemed doomed, as the contrary winds of the eastern Mediterranean forced the fleet to travel at a frustratingly slow pace, and the overland force bogged down in the face of a much larger Muslim contingent that included members of the deadly Assassin cult from the mountains of southern Syria. Not until late in the evening of July 31 did the king’s flagship arrive off Jaffa.
August 1 happened to mark the Catholic liturgical feast of St. Peter in Chains, commemorating the apostle’s liberation from prison by an angel. For the exhausted defenders holed up in Jaffa’s citadel that morning it must have seemed God had heard their own prayers for deliverance. Saladin was in his tent negotiating with the patriarch of Jerusalem when one of his officers strode in and discreetly whispered in his ear that Richard’s fleet had arrived. In disbelief the sultan immediately mounted his horse and rode down to the shoreline where he saw for himself the Christian fleet, including the menacing red hull and scarlet sails of Trenchmere. Although shocked by Richard’s sudden appearance, Saladin recognized his 35-ship fleet as a modest force, and he ordered his men to the beach in anticipation of the Crusader landing.
Standing offshore, Richard and his commanders considered their next course of action. The horde of Muslim troops lining the beach, shouting war cries and waving their weapons in defiance, seemed to confirm the Crusader king’s fears that Jaffa was firmly in Saladin’s hands. Just then the relief force spotted a lone figure dropping from the citadel tower to the beach, where, miraculously unhurt, he ran into the surf and began swimming out to the ships. When pulled aboard Richard’s flagship, the exhausted man, a priest, announced between gasps the Crusaders still held the citadel. It was all Richard needed to hear. “God sent us here to die if need be!” he shouted as his men prepared to disembark. “Shame on anyone who holds back now!”
In the tradition of his Norman ancestors, Richard did not wait for his boat to strike shore before leaping into waist-high water with a sword in one hand and a crossbow in the other. Baha¯’ ad-Di ¯n wrote that the sight of the dreaded Melech Ric (King Richard) wading through the surf, heaving with rage, his long red hair blowing wildly in the breeze, was enough to send many of Saladin’s troops fleeing in terror. Showing little concern for the arrows whistling overhead, Richard hurled himself at the enemy, alternately hacking with his heavy blade and firing his crossbow. Behind him his men poured ashore to establish a beachhead. Using planks, barrels and whatever else they could strip from the boats, they erected a crude barricade, behind which archers took position to cover the king’s attack.
Wasting no time, Richard pursued Saladin’s retreating men into Jaffa, raising his banner from the roof of the Templars’ house to alert defenders in the citadel of his arrival. The moment the besieged men spotted the English king’s distinctive trio of stacked gold lions on a red field, they opened the citadel gates and burst into the streets to reap brutal vengeance on their former attackers. So sudden was Richard’s assault, it caught the majority of Saladin’s troops, most of whom were still focused on looting, wholly unprepared. Trapped between the converging Crusader forces, many simply dropped their spoils and fled town as fast as they could, leaving their hard-won prize to Richard the Lionheart.
Outside Jaffa, Saladin was mortified to learn of the Muslim rout and made no effort to hide his disdain for his troops’ shameful lack of discipline. “How can this be?” he asked his cowering commanders. “By what superior disposition have they been able to accomplish this? In infantry and cavalry our army is far superior!” Though he tried to rally his retreating men, by day’s end the sultan was forced to concede defeat and withdraw his army roughly 4 miles east to the village of Yazur. As Richard’s men set about repairing Jaffa’s defenses as best they could, the sultan sent envoys to begin yet another tiresome round of negotiations.
Of all the Crusades, the third stands out for the relationship that developed between Richard and Saladin. Indeed, the campaign was much more than just a clash of faiths—it was a personal duel between two titans of the medieval era. As the opposing armies planned their next moves, the great commanders, once again locked in a military stalemate, engaged instead in a curious battle of wits. “Your sultan is mighty,” Richard jeeringly remarked to one of the envoys racing back and forth between the two camps. “Why then did he make off at my first appearance? By God, I was not even ready to fight! I was still wearing my sea boots.” Not one to lose composure over petty insults, Saladin calmly reminded Richard that with each passing year in the Holy Land the Crusaders grew weaker, while he, on his home turf, could call up innumerable reinforcements. In truth, both sides were exhausted, and each desperately sought a decisive final engagement to end the campaign.
With typical unconcern for his own well being, and perhaps as a further jibe at his rival, Richard camped his army east of Jaffa on the very spot Saladin’s tent had occupied just days earlier. The overland Crusader force still had not arrived, leaving Lionheart just 2,000 men in all, including only about 80 knights and still fewer horses and mules. Saladin and his commanders recognized the vulnerability of this paltry force, and in the predawn hours of August 5 they launched a surprise attack on the Crusader camp. Fortunately for Richard, as Saladin’s scouts crept toward the sleeping Crusaders, a Genoese sentry spotted the silhouettes of their helmets against the night sky and hurriedly sounded the alarm. The king sprang from his tent, pulled his chainmail hauberk over his nightshirt, jumped barelegged onto his horse and roused his men to meet the 7,000 enemy horsemen charging out of the darkness.
Once again Saladin had caught Richard napping, and once again the king would demonstrate his tactical brilliance and unflagging courage. Badly outnumbered, he deployed his small army in a meticulous hedgehog formation, in which his infantrymen knelt shoulder to shoulder behind their shields, their spears anchored firmly in the ground with points bristling outward. Behind them he positioned his crossbowmen, whom he grouped in shooter-and-loader pairs to ensure a continual shower of deadly bolts. Behind the crossbowmen and infantry waited Richard and his mounted knights, ready to charge at a moment’s notice. “There is no chance of flight!” he yelled to his scrambling men. “Hold out then stubbornly, for it is the duty of men to triumph bravely or to die gloriously! Even if martyrdom threatens, we ought to receive it with a thankful mind. But before we die, while life remains, let us take vengeance, yielding God thanks for granting us the martyr’s death we have longed for.”
As his troops steeled themselves, a messenger arrived with word that some of Saladin’s men had forced their way into Jaffa, and that all was lost. After threatening the shaken man with beheading should he repeat the message to anyone, Richard set out for town with a party of knights and crossbowmen to assess the situation. As the king had assumed, the messenger had greatly exaggerated the enemy infiltration, and the knights quickly cleared the streets. Richard then rode down to the beach to round up as many stragglers as he could find before returning to receive the first attack.
Saladin’s horsemen, though “swift as swallows” on their nimble Arabian horses, found the bristling wall of Crusader steel frustratingly difficult to penetrate. And while the Crusader infantry-men’s spears kept Saladin’s cavalry at bay, the Christian cross-bowmen’s rapid, accurate fire wreaked havoc on the Muslims’ lightly armored mounts. As the first wave galloped back to their lines, Richard laughed aloud. “There—what did I tell you?” he jeered to his men. “Now they have done their utmost. We have only to stand firm against every fresh attempt, till by God’s help the victory is ours.” Five times Saladin’s horsemen charged the Crusaders only to be repulsed at each attempt. Finally, sensing the enemy beginning to tire and lose spirit, Richard’s front ranks parted, and he and his knights burst forth in a furious charge.
The ferocity of this small force’s sudden attack caught Saladin’s troops by surprise, and they began to reel. “The king was a very giant in the battle and was everywhere in the field—now here, now there, wherever the attack of the Turks raged the hottest,” wrote one Christian chronicler. At one point Richard led his knights in a furious charge straight through Saladin’s right flank and into the rearguard. Twice he risked his life, first to cover an unhorsed Earl of Leicester, and then to rescue a knight named Ralph de Mauléon, whose lion standard the enemy had mistaken for the king’s. Watching from a distance, Saladin was so impressed by his rival’s prowess that when Richard himself was unhorsed, the sultan, in an unparalleled gesture of battlefield chivalry, sent him two fine Arabian stallions.
Richard graciously accepted Saladin’s generous gift, then threw himself once more into the fray. By midday both he and one of the stallions were splattered in blood, and it appeared as though an entire quiver of arrows was lodged in his armor and shield. As the battle wore on, fewer and fewer of Saladin’s men dared challenge the seemingly invincible Melech Ric. For one emir, however, the prospect of felling the English king proved too tempting, and he spurred his battle horse forward. With one mighty swing of his sword Richard sliced the foolish man in two, taking off not only his head but also his right shoulder and arm. At this horrific sight Saladin’s troops began to retreat, even as Richard rode up and down their lines, goading any man to face him. When Saladin’s son motioned to answer the challenge, his father abruptly ordered him to stay put, clearly not wishing to add a dead heir to the day’s woes. When no one else stepped forward, some sources claim Richard called for food and, in full view of the enemy, sat down to eat. Seeing that his men would not budge, a despondent Saladin once again withdrew to Yazur.
The epic week-long struggle for Jaffa fittingly proved to be the final battle of the Third Crusade, as both sides were now utterly exhausted. Saladin’s army had lost 700 men and 1,500 horses. Morale in the Muslim camp plummeted to such depths that for three days Saladin himself refused to leave his tent. While Richard had lost just 200 men, he and his army were wracked with disease. At one point, sick with fever, the English king wrote his rival asking for fresh fruit, and the chivalrous sultan generously obliged. On Sept. 2, 1192, left with no other recourse, the arch-rivals finally agreed to the Treaty of Jaffa, a three-year truce that left much of the coastline in Crusader hands but Jerusalem firmly in Saladin’s. One month later Richard the Lionheart left the Holy Land, never to return.
Alex Zakrzewski is a Toronto-based writer, editor and frequent contributor to a number of international publications. For further reading he recommends The Life and Times of Richard I, by John Gillingham; The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, by Amin Maalouf; and Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade, by James Reston Jr.
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.