History of the British Monarchy, Part IV: Richard the Lionheart & the Third Crusade

Richard the Lionheart in battle in the Holy Land.

In Part III, we discussed Richard’s strained relationship with his father. As the King’s health is failing, Richard secures his inheritance of the throne by force, fearful that the King will name Richard’s younger brother, John, heir. Henry II dies on July 6, 1189 and Richard is officially crowned September 3.

Richard has a natural proclivity for military affairs. Like his father, King Henry II, he is born into war, a soldier since birth. Also like his father, and all the Norman kings to come before him, Richard is French-speaking, even ethnically French.

Keep in mind that travel during this time was incredibly slow. Traveling from Chinon in central France all the way to London back in 1189 took a long time — especially with a royal court in tow. It’s a trip of some 350 miles, and Richard makes many stops along the way, most notably a visit to King Philip of France, a childhood friend and on-and-off ally.

Philip agrees to return all the Angevin lands he had conquered during his and Richard’s war with King Henry II — for the price of 24,000 marks, which was about a quarter of the late King’s estimated 100,000 mark fortune.

Richard the Lionheart

Richard has, to date, spent very little of his life in England, and becoming King of England does not change this.

After his coronation, Richard and Philip begin making arrangements to jointly lead the Third Crusade to retake Jerusalem from Muslims. The real reason, of course, that Richard and Philip agree to go off to the Holy Land together is because each King fears the other will conquer his territories during his absence.

As a brief background, the First Crusade of 1096–1099 saw Christian forces succeed in retaking Jerusalem from the Muslims, who had held the Levant and the Holy Land since the time of the Prophet Muhammed in the mid-7th century. The Crusaders occupied Jerusalem for 88 years until Saladin the Great led the Ayyubid Dynasty’s (known in the West as the Saracens) conquest of it in 1187.

This is all happening as Richard is wrapping up his struggle against his father and solidifying the English throne. The decision to go off to the Holy Land was made well before Richard took the throne, as all throughout Europe men are “taking the cross” in response to Saracen advances in the Levant.

Saladin the Great

Richard begins raising both a large army and vast sums of money. He raises taxes and even resorts to selling lands and titles to the highest bidders to fund the enormously expensive Crusade. He famously says he will sell London in order to raise money for the Crusade if he could find a buyer. In fact, he is said to detest England and wants nothing to do with the whole island. He and his men set off by sea for the Holy Land in the summer of 1190.

Richard and Philip leave from France on land. They head southeast through the Alps and down the Italian peninsula, along its Western coast. Upon reaching Sicily, they set out for the Holy Land by ship.

Their forces manage to conquer the strategically-critical Eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus from the Byzantines in early April 1191. Cyprus is situated about 80 miles from the Lebanese coast. From Cyprus, Richard and Philip conquer Acre in June, retaking the city from Saladin’s forces. One account of the battle claims that Richard, ill with scurvy, had his men carry him around on a stretcher while he picked off Muslim soldiers with a crossbow. Legend has it that, due to their great mutual respect for one another, Saladin sends his best doctor to tend to the ailing Richard.

During his conquest of Cyprus, Richard marries Berengaria of Navarre, the heiress of a Spanish king. However, he was unable to spend much time with her given his involvement in the Third Crusade, subsequent capture and then campaign in Normandy before ultimately dying in 1199. The marriage was childless.

Richard and his forces advance down the eastern Mediterranean coast:

During the summer and autumn of 1191, the crusaders enjoy a series of operational successes that appear to set the stage for a decisive thrust toward Jerusalem. First, in early July they take the port city of Acre — despite concerted efforts on the part of Saladin to break the Christian siege and relieve the garrison — thus not only securing a strategically and politically important city, but also shattering the myth of Saladin’s invincibility.

Under King Richard’s leadership (Philip of France having departed the Holy Land shortly after the fall of Acre) they then marched south along the coast, besting Saladin once again at the battle of Arsuf (September 7), and taking Jaffa (September 10), the port that offers the best jumping-off point for an advance on Jerusalem.

The Battle of Arsuf is arguably Richard’s greatest victory, and due in large part to his troops’ remarkable discipline in refusing to break ranks amid constant harassment from Saladin’s cavalry. The victory highlights Richard’s military and strategic brilliance, as well as his soldiers’ discipline and loyalty to him. After enduring hours of harassment, the Crusaders launch their counterattack on the exhausted Saracen forces and the battle turns into a rout, which essentially means the Saracens broke ranks and scattered. Saladin loses as many as 7,000 of his nearly 20,000 men, while the Crusaders lose only around 700 of their 11,000 men.

From Arsuf, the crusaders begin moving cautiously inland, taking Casal des Plains and Casal Moyen (October 31), the nearest of the fortifications that had been built to protect the road to Jerusalem. As these have been destroyed by Saladin as a delaying tactic [scorched earth], the crusaders are forced to spend the following two weeks rebuilding them.

A 13th century illustration of King Richard and Saladin in battle

Once these fortifications are restored, Richard advances once again, this time taking Ramla (17 November) and forcing Saladin to withdraw to Latrun. Then the weather turns for the worse, and Richard halts his advance in the hope that Saladin will be forced to disband his field army (as the Sultan’s emirs were demanding, given the difficulties of maintaining forces and campaigning in the winter weather). Saladin manages to keep his field army together until 12 December, but then is forced to disperse the bulk of his host and withdraw with a much-diminished force to Jerusalem. After Christmas, Richard renews his advance, taking Bayt Nuba, a mere 12 miles from the Holy City, on January 3 1192.

One of the great debates of the Third Crusade is why, after his smashing victories at Acre and Arsuf that brought him within 12 miles of Jerusalem and facing a scattered and weak enemy, did King Richard did not lay siege to Jerusalem? Muslim morale was said to be so low that the city would have fallen to Richard in no time at all had he simply marched on it. Yet he chose not to.

Conventional wisdom says it was the poor weather, and difficulty holding the city in the future that caused him to turn away, but perhaps there’s a better explanation:

. . . Richard did not decide to abandon the march on Jerusalem because he was persuaded that the weather, deteriorating morale, the threat of a relieving Saracen army, the extent of the city’s fortifications or any other strictly military consideration dictated a change of policy. Rather, he abandoned the advance because he had never intended to attack Jerusalem in the first place.

Richard never envisaged using brute military force to recapture Jerusalem and reestablish the crusader principalities. In other words, he never envisioned a straightforward war of conquest in which the Saracens were driven from the Holy Land by force of arms alone. Instead, Richard viewed the use of military force as a means of pressuring Saladin into a negotiated settlement that would allow him to realize his core strategic goals (a viable Christian presence in the Holy Land; Christian access to the Holy Sites) in the shortest possible time (Richard was well aware that both King Philip and Prince John were making good use of his absence to undermine his position in France and England).

By the fall of 1192, Richard becomes aware that his younger brother John is scheming against him with France’s King Philip, who had left the Holy Land after the conquest of Acre. John is slowly but surely asserting control in England, ignoring the men Richard had appointed to administer the kingdom in his absence.

Additionally, morale among the Crusaders is low given that they have been in the Holy Land for over a year-and-a-half now. Disease and desertion have taken their toll and it is time to leave. Richard reaches an agreement with Saladin allowing Christian pilgrims and merchants access to Jerusalem, but the city will remain in Muslim hands. By October 1192, Richard is on his way back to his kingdom.

While sailing back home, Richard is shipwrecked in the northern Adriatic sea and lands near Aquileia in northeastern Italy, near Venice, on December 10, 1192. He now has no choice but to travel back to England by land across Europe, some 880 miles.

Richard, of course, is traveling in disguise as he is going through hostile lands. Just before Christmas, he is found in a tavern in Vienna, posing as a kitchen hand. Why he goes to Vienna, seemingly in the opposite direction of his end destination of England, is unclear. Perhaps he wants to avoid the Alps, or perhaps he feels it was the safest route in terms of allied and enemy territory. At any rate, his cover is blown because his party continually refers to him as “Sire,” as well as his insistence on roast chicken for dinner, a meal only enjoyed by the nobility. Richard is taken prisoner by Duke Leopold V of Austria, and imprisoned at Durnstein Castle on the Danube.

Leopold had fought alongside Richard and Philip at Acre, but the two sides had a falling out after the battle. When Crusader forces — those of Richard, Philip and Leopold — captured Acre in June 1191, Leopold, who was only a Duke, raised his banners over the town alongside England and France’s. The two Kings saw this as arrogant and presumptuous and had their men rip the Austrian banners down and throw them in a moat. After that, Leopold immediately left the Holy Land. Additionally, Leopold was a relative of Cyprus’ ruler, Isaac Komnenos, and Leopold was upset at the fact that Richard had locked Isaac in chains upon deposing him.

Leopold turns Richard over to Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who in turn notifies King Philip of France, who has been conspiring to usurp Richard’s lands with Richard’s younger brother, John.

Pope Celestine III, however, springs to Richard’s defense. The Pope had previously decreed that Crusaders were not to be bothered or attacked while traveling to and from the Holy Land, and excommunicates both Duke Leopold and Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI.

Richard remains in captivity for a year until his mother, Eleanor, raises enough money to pay his ransom. The sum is 100,000 marks, which represents almost twice the gross national product at the time. Richard is released in February 1194.

By this point, however, his brother, John, is in open revolt against him and in alliance with King Philip of France. Philip controls Normandy, and so Richard at once begins raising an army to retake his family’s ancestral lands.

John, ever the double-crosser, apologizes to Richard and is forgiven. King Richard spends the remainder of his reign regaining the territories lost in Europe to Philip, and he is largely successful. He builds the revolutionary-for-its-time Chateau Gaillard castle in France, and is said to have designed it himself personally.

Chateau Gaillard today.

However, King Richard the Lionheart would not live much longer.

The story of his death is an interesting one:

In the early evening of 25 March 1199, Richard was walking around the castle perimeter without his chainmail, investigating the progress of sappers on the castle walls. Missiles were occasionally shot from the castle walls, but these were given little attention.

One defender in particular amused the king greatly — a man standing on the walls, crossbow in one hand, the other clutching a frying pan he had been using all day as a shield to beat off missiles. He deliberately aimed at the king, which the king applauded; however, another crossbowman then struck the king in the left shoulder near the neck. He tried to pull this out in the privacy of his tent but failed; a surgeon, called a “butcher” by Howden, removed it, “carelessly mangling” the King’s arm in the process.

The wound swiftly became gangrenous. Richard asked to have the crossbowman brought before him; called Pierre by chroniclers, the man turned out to be a boy. He said Richard had killed his father and two brothers, and that he had killed Richard in revenge. He expected to be executed, but as a final act of mercy Richard forgave him, saying “Live on, and by my bounty behold the light of day”, before he ordered the boy to be freed and sent away with 100 shillings.

According to one chronicler, Richard’s last act of chivalry proved fruitless when the infamous mercenary captain Mercadier had the crossbowman flayed alive and hanged as soon as Richard died.

On April 6, 1199, King Richard the Lionheart dies at the age of 41. With no legitimate heirs, Richard agrees to name John his heir.

Richard is buried at Fontevraud Abbey in France next to the body of his father, King Henry II.


Why King Richard Did Not March on Jerusalem

King Richard I: The Lionheart (1157–1199)

Battle of Arsuf


King Richard’s Return, Imprisonment and Ransom

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