7 September 1191

Among the great battles of the Christian crusades in Palestine, the Holy Land, one of the most remarkable was the sharp defeat inflicted on the Muslim Kurdish leader, Salah ad-Din (better known as Saladin), by the combined might of a European army led by the king of England, Richard I, the ‘Lionheart’.

This romantic illustration of Richard the Lionheart at the Battle of Arsuf in September 1191 was published by the French engraver Gustave Doré in 1884. Richard, according to Arab chroniclers, displayed a ‘burning passion for war’.

The Arab chroniclers respected Richard (never, one wrote, was there ‘a subtler or a bolder opponent’). The conflict at Arsuf, near the Mediterranean coast of present-day Israel, was a model of medieval crusading warfare. It involved extraordinary courage and patience under constant harassing attack from Saladin’s mounted archers, who had triumphed at Hattin, four years earlier. The outcome at Arsuf resolved little, but Richard showed that Saladin and his army were not invincible if heavy European cavalry was used in the right way, combined with supporting infantry.

The Third Crusade was going nowhere when Richard arrived in 1191. The crusaders were laying siege to the port of Acre and were themselves besieged by Saladin’s army at their rear. The crusaders had solid defences, but Acre had equally solid walls and did not easily give way. It had taken almost two years to starve the city into submission when Richard arrived in time to march in and plant his standard.

Saladin reached an armistice with the crusader leaders, biding his time to raise more fighters from across the Middle East, but he failed to honour his pledge to pay ransom for the prisoners taken at Acre, and on 20 August 1191, Richard ordered 3,000 of them slaughtered in cold blood in sight of Saladin’s men. Richard was a cautious strategist, however, and determined to march on Jerusalem, the key prize for any crusader, only after first securing the ports of Jaffa and Ascalon as supply bases for his march on the Holy City.

The soldiers allegedly left Acre with some reluctance, detained by prostitutes, according to the Arab account, ‘tinted and painted…with nasal voices and fleshy thighs’. But Richard was adamant. The women were ordered to remain behind while he deployed the army in a way that made strategic sense, but which required him to impose a tough discipline on all those under his command. For the march south, he divided his forces into three divisions of heavy cavalry with a strong rearguard composed of the Knights Hospitaller and the Templars.

He had the sea on one side as a natural protection and as a source of regular supply by merchant vessels plying down the coast. His numerous infantry and archers were divided into two – one force marching on the seaward side, one on the other flank protecting the horsemen, as was usual in Frankish warfare. They crossed over and exchanged roles as the landward troops became tired from the constant skirmishing with Saladin’s archers, a system of rotation that worked well as the long column wound its way through the hilly and wooded country running down to Jaffa.

The strategy was designed to conserve the force and prevent a second Hattin. Richard knew, just as the Arab strategists knew, that his knights were vulnerable as soon as they were isolated from their main body. Once their horses were killed, they were easy prey. Richard ordered the heavy cavalry to stay in column and on no account to rise to provocation from the enemy or charge them without his order. This meant keeping tight formation for days while Saladin’s shadowing force rode up close, showering the crusaders with missiles. At a distance, their arrows had limited penetration and infantry could be seen still fighting with arrows stuck in their thick leather tunics, like so many walking pin-cushions. The danger of not keeping formation was shown when the rearguard fell back too far and enemy horsemen rode in to attack the baggage train, but Richard hurried back from the front of the column to restore order.

The marching army had to show extraordinary perseverance under constant attack, and exceptional patience. For horsemen in armour, in conditions of exhausting heat and dust, the forbearance must have seemed a laborious penance. Heat exhaustion claimed victims as did the spears and arrows of the circling enemy. Somehow Richard stamped his authority on the men toiling through the heat. Saladin decided they could only be halted by a pitched battle and he chose the plain north of Arsuf to mass his army.

Richard kept going, commanding an even tighter formation and insisting that no charge should be made by his knights until the right moment, signalled by six trumpet blasts, two each at the rear, in the centre and in the van. The object, if it came to it, was to hit the enemy with a massed charge of concentrated power to destroy his capacity to revive and retaliate. By mid-morning Saladin had seen enough and he ordered his cavalry to attack. Enveloped in a cloud of dust a menacing wave of horsemen bore down on Richard’s column, accompanied by the sound of braying trumpets and pounding drums. This was the critical point for the heavily armoured crusaders, who had to stay in formation, taking casualties but unable to fight back, while their infantry fought off the cavalry as best they could.

The final charge by Richard’s cavalry began by chance. Provoked beyond endurance, the Hospitallers at the rear, without waiting for the agreed signal, suddenly charged at the encroaching enemy, riding unexpectedly through the ranks of their own infantry. Richard saw at once what had happened and ordered the rest of his knights to charge as well, making a powerful battering ram of horsemen aimed at Saladin’s tiring forces. The impact was exactly what Richard had hoped for. Saladin’s forces retreated, then tried to rally for a counter-blow.

Richard and William des Barres then led the Norman and English knights, who had been held back in reserve, for a final hammer blow against the enemy. Richard did not earn his sobriquet ‘Lionheart’ for nothing. The Arab chroniclers described a man with a ‘burning passion for war’. Christian writers praised the ‘force of his arm’, reaping enemy soldiers like corn. But if Richard’s leadership was necessary, victory rested above all on the willingness of the whole crusader army to take remorseless punishment, day after day, and still hold together. Yet for all its bravery, the army never occupied Jerusalem. Richard abandoned the attempt in appalling weather just 19 kilometres (12 miles) from his goal, his reputation tarnished in the eyes of Christian pilgrims for failing to capitalize on his victory.


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