The Siege of Acre, 1188-91

The Crusader royal line had now devolved into a weak, chaotic state from which it never recovered. The leper king left two sisters, with the direction that European kings should decide between them. Although Jerusalem could no longer actually be ruled by either one, the European lords still all coveted the title. The “kingdom” of Jerusalem could go on.

Saladin granted Sibylla’s request to free her husband Guy of Lusignan. Guy and Sibylla sought refuge in Tyre, but Conrad refused to let them in. They literally camped outside the walls as they could, until an epidemic wiped out Sibylla and her daughters. Guy still claimed to be the King, but the faction against him forced young Isabella to divorce her husband and marry Conrad, the lord who now ruled Tyre. Conrad could now claim the same right to be king! Both were utter newcomers to the region, but in a time of chaos, that doesn’t matter much.

Even before the European kings started to arrive, Guy had already begun a siege of the port of Acre, using all of the refugee forces available. The King of Sicily had sent ships, and so did the Archbishop of Pisa. Other forces arrived, so that during 1189, knights from Flanders, France, Germany, Italy and even Armenia took part. Saladin’s army had tried to lift the siege, leading to a complicated battle in which first one side, then the other, had the upper hand. At one critical point, Frankish knights charged up the hill to where Saladin’s field camp stood. Slaves in the Muslim camp began doing their own looting and escaping, while the Frankish knights also got distracted and joined in. Muslim soldiers chased the slaves, German knights chased an escaping horse, and chaos reigned. In the end, the besieging army hung on, not exactly by winning, but by not budging from their trenches.

Saladin’s army completely encircled them on land, although he could not dislodge them. Reinforcements came from Mosul and Baghdad. But every month, a new contingent of eager Crusaders arrived. Every month, too, many of them died from tropical diseases to which they had little immunity. The two sides were built up at almost an even rate, each army growing to match the other.

Muslim records say that at one point, a fleet of Frankish prostitutes landed and set up camp on the beach. The Muslim historians laughed, but not only did their own men sometimes slip away to visit the French girls, those same girls became part of a beach-based, knife-wielding shore patrol. Muslim frogmen trying to take messages into the harbor of Acre had one more hazard.

The siege of Acre, lasting so long and involving so many men from all over Europe, served as a military training school. Both sides had similar technology, such as Greek fire, and both sides could use mechanical engines like catapults. Both sides had fleets of ships to support them. The advantage was now with one side, now with the other. Inside Acre, a craftsman from Damascus invented a variant of Greek fire, a new chemical formula, and burnt down the first round of Crusader siege engines. On the sea, the Europeans gained the advantage in a ferocious sea battle, allowing them to restrict food ships from arriving in Acre. Saladin snuck a few ships in with a plan of the sailors shaving their beards and dressing like Franks, flying Cross flags, and letting pigs run around on deck! (It worked.) On land, the Europeans dug trenches and heaped up earthworks so that in the next pitched field battle, they could resist a tremendous assault.

If the Europeans had been primitive by comparison with the “developed world” of the Near East during the First Crusade, their engineers and leading knights now had learned all the tricks. (And all of these devilish ways of slaughtering other human beings came straight back to bolster the dynastic wars of Europe.) The siege of Acre was a milestone in European military history.

King Philip of France arrived and his men began to build more siege engines. Then King Richard came from Cyprus with Guy, who had rushed to join him on the nearby island. Richard supported Guy’s right to be king, while Philip supported Conrad’s. The Crusader leadership was more divided than ever.

But meanwhile, the siege went on. Diseases continued to ravage both sides, but especially in the Frankish trenches. Among them, King Richard fell ill with something like scurvy and could only lead the troops from a litter. The mood on both sides grew more desperate and vicious. Corpses were used to fill moats and trenches; more corpses were used to pollute the rivers. More and more siege engines were built, and they included engineering advances. They could throw larger stones longer distances, because they had more leverage and speed. Large stones rained on Acre mercilessly. Towers and walls grew weak, mined from below and smashed from above. There was vicious hand to hand fighting at every point where the walls had begun to fall. It went on, day after day.

At length, the starving city sent word to Saladin that it was ready to negotiate terms of surrender. Surrender was accepted by the Franks, with provisional terms including the return of the True Cross relic. The fighting ended; Saladin’s army moved back a quarter mile. Christian forces occupied the city, and the Muslim garrison became hostages to the negotiation process.

Meanwhile, a disastrous thing happened: the King of France and Duke of Austria both went home, leaving Richard to handle it all. Both had very pressing matters in their kingdoms that they really had to attend. Richard was the supreme commander now, the highest ranking ruler.

Saladin began collecting the ransom money for Acre’s Muslim garrison prisoners, and the terms were negotiated back and forth. A first payment was made, and some Christian prisoners released, when suddenly Richard rejected the terms of the negotiation and asked for a complete list of prisoner names. Saladin didn’t produce a list immediately, and Richard decided that he was stalling for time, hoping a reinforcing army would arrive to restart the battles. This may have been true, but it was not in keeping with Saladin’s personal history for handling terms. It was, however, in keeping with Richard’s personal history for impatience.

King Richard held a mass execution of all Muslim prisoners, the whole garrison. European records state that there were about 2600 men executed. He even marched them up to the same hill where Saladin’s camp had once been pitched. The negotiation was over; there was nothing left to talk about, except for everyone in the region to marvel at the savagery of the English king. His execution order became the most famous event of Richard’s life. And Saladin executed all Christian prisoners in retaliation.


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