Richard the Lion-Heart in the Holy Land, 1191-2

The weakness of the Crusades was always that its armies did not represent any immigration wave that actually wanted to come live in Palestine or Syria. Turkish migration was real, so its pressure on Anatolia and Syria never let up for long. But Europeans rarely wanted to leave Europe; they came with an eye on fame and fortune and there were always ties drawing them back. So it was with the Third Crusade, even more than with the First and Second ones.

The French king went home as soon as Acre had surrendered, but this set up problems for King Richard. The two kings had agreed both to go on Crusade because that way neither would invade behind the other’s back. It wasn’t long after Philip arrived in Paris that Richard began to receive reports that the French king and his younger brother John were plotting against him. His next year as the highest-ranking Crusader must be seen with this fear always in the background, pressuring him to go home.

Richard seems to have had a very good head for military operations, not just for single combats or tournaments. It was this skill that kept the Third Crusade going at all. Having captured Acre, the Crusaders needed to move on to a new target, probably Jerusalem. But before they could approach Jerusalem, they would need to go many miles south along the coast. Saladin’s forces had systematically demolished all fortresses along that route, as well as all of the forts on the inland road from Jaffa to Jerusalem. His army also intended to attack Crusaders on the march. Even a short trip under these conditions was terribly hazardous.

Richard’s plan was to combine his two strengths into one unusual travel itinerary. He had a large force of fighting men (many French knights stayed on after their king went home), and he had a large navy. The navy was not large enough to move the army in one quick (safe) trip, but it was large enough to carry most of their provisions. The army began to march as close to the coast as physically possible, sometimes along beaches. The navy moved reserve forces, supplies, and support staff within sight of the army, with planned stops every few days to resupply the marchers. Wounded or sick men were transferred to ships at those points, while others could catch up and join them.

Richard then marched with a steady pace that never wore his army out, stopping at good camping places. It was traditional military strategy to move very fast in a situation like this, and Saladin had prepared his own supply train for a rapid campaign. Saladin was also up against some time limits, as he still had not really unified support behind his leadership in Syria. The slower Richard’s pace, the more likely that some of Saladin’s Syrians would desert. They fought many skirmishes and one major pitched battle near Haifa, but ultimately, the Crusaders were too many and too well-supplied to be stopped.

Richard’s army finally occupied the torn-down Jaffa, no longer a fortress, and the Crusaders generally set about rebuilding all of the walled towns and forts in the region. It took many months to achieve this goal, but gradually they had a defensible strip between Jaffa and Tyre. In this way, the Kingdom of Jerusalem could technically claim that it still existed.

But who was its King? In the early days of Acre’s capture, a council of the European kings had chosen Conrad Lord of Tyre, who was now married to little Isabella, as king. Guy of Lusignan bought Cyprus from the Templars, who had bought it from Richard, and set up lordship there. Conrad’s life was very short, as it turned out. Assassins killed him in an alley; they were probably Nizaris who were now taking the Latins seriously and also loosely working with Saladin. The European leaders met again and selected the Count of Champagne, who was a widower, to marry Isabella this time. Isabella was actually pregnant with Conrad’s baby, so it was all kind of weird even for the Crusaders.

Ultimately (spoiler alert) the kingdom never really got back on its feet as such. Isabella’s baby was a girl named Maria, starting off a chain of young female heiresses who were married off as young as possible to try to produce a new heir, until finally they blended into an existing European royal house that had bigger fish to fry. It’s not really worth keeping track of them from this point on, although Europe did continue to call them royalty.

Now the Crusaders had a serious problem: their forces were energized for one task alone: to recapture Jerusalem. And yet Richard was absolutely certain that they could never succeed. He argued that with the difficulty of re-supply over the land route, the easy availability of military observations to Saladin, and the generally difficult terrain of the city, it was nothing but a futile, expensive suicide mission. Instead, Richard believed they must march south to take Ascalon and then continue attacking northern Egyptian cities, as the Baldwins had been doing. He did lead them to Ascalon, where they rebuilt the walls.

The Crusade hit a leadership crisis then. It was Richard’s to lead; his march to Jaffa had been highly praised, and his personal courage was renowned all over the region. But he kept thinking perhaps he should go home, so he did not argue stridently in favor of assaulting Egypt. Other leaders moved to head to Jerusalem, twice. Both times, they turned back. The last feint at Jerusalem that suddenly turned back really just ended the Crusade.

What we know now shows just how important spy intelligence always is. That is, Saladin was on the point of abandoning the defense of Jerusalem to fall back to some surer stronghold like Damascus. Had the Crusaders kept marching, they would never have quit talking about the miracle of arriving in Jerusalem to find its troops gone and its gates barely defended. But in spite of their just having captured a baggage caravan from Egypt, Richard finally stopped halfway to Jerusalem and headed back to Ascalon. Perhaps the baggage capture was part of his reason: it had contained not only wheat but gold and silk, and this loot would fund a dignified exit and perhaps some profit.

Richard and Saladin both became very sick at the end of this campaign. Richard’s illness was acute and made him hardly able to settle truce terms with Saladin. Perhaps that’s why his terms were so easy. They gave back the newly rebuilt Ascalon! In the end, the only gain of the Third Crusade was that the Latins held a few coastal cities from Tyre to Jaffa, and pilgrims were permitted to see Jerusalem for a fee. Saladin’s illness came on more seriously as weeks passed, so that he died in Damascus the following year.

Richard recovered and headed to Europe—-where, famously, he was arrested by the Germans and held prisoner for a hefty ransom. The story about his minstrel, Blondel, seeking him from castle to castle is as factual as the tale of Frosty the Snowman, and in about the same way. Both were popular song-stories that took on a life of their own (so to speak!). Actually his location was well known, but it wasn’t practicable to rescue him apart from paying the ransom.

Richard remained popular in English eyes because he did gain fame as a knight and war leader, which they valued. But his reign cost England very badly, between his military taxation and the raising of his ransom. The drains this dashing king put on his nation were part of the background of the Magna Carta that barons forced his brother to sign. Special taxes were limited to two occasions: the marriage of one daughter, the knighting of one son. They didn’t say “…and no Crusades,” but it looks that way to me. He left his mark.

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