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The Crusader siege of Acre is generally considered the first major engagement of the Third Crusade because of the circumstances of its end, but if we look instead at its beginnings in 1189 then it’s less the start of the Third Crusade than the end of the campaign that saw Saladin (d. 1193) take Jerusalem in 1187. The siege was initially led by Guy of Lusignan (d. 1194), AKA King Guy of Jerusalem, and was intended both as retaliation for Jerusalem’s loss and as a way for Guy to extend his now-questionable claim to the throne.
Prior to the Battle of Hattin in 1187, Acre had been a Crusader city and the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s main seaport. It surrendered to Saladin without a fight in the wake of Hattin, as did Beirut and Sidon. With Jerusalem’s army decimated this must have seemed like the prudent thing to do. The city of Tyre, however, held out even after Saladin besieged it. Tyre was ruled by Conrad of Montferrat (d. 1192), who wasn’t especially convinced of Guy’s claim to the Jerusalem throne, seeing as how it only stemmed from his marriage to Sybilla (d. 1190), daughter of former Jerusalem King Amalric I (d. 1174). While he held the actual throne Guy’s position was unassailable, but now that the throne was more hypothetical than real he was confronted with the possibility that the nobles of the kingdom might decide to dump him in favor of somebody else. That “somebody else” might have even been Conrad himself. After all, Conrad had faced Saladin down and won, while Guy had, you know, not.
Guy’s position was further weakened after Hattin by virtue of the fact that he was Saladin’s prisoner. But ironically it was Conrad’s resistance at Tyre that prompted Saladin to release Guy from captivity, to entice Conrad to surrender the city. Naturally Conrad didn’t budge on giving up Tyre and, hilariously, didn’t even open the city gates to allow the newly freed Guy to enter. Conrad knew there was another Crusade brewing in Europe and resolved to take a hard line against Guy until the leaders of that expedition could arrive and adjudicate the question of legitimacy, as he claimed had been the wish of former King Baldwin I (d. 1185), Sybilla’s brother. Denied access to Tyre and in desperate need of a city, any city, in which to plant his proverbial flag, Guy instead took whatever army he could scrounge up and, along with newly arriving reinforcements from Sicily and Pisa, turned his attention toward Acre.
The Crusader situation c. 1190, during the siege (MapMaster via Wikimedia Commons)
When he besieged Acre in late August 1189, Guy had maybe 10,000 men, and likely less than that. Acre’s garrison was likely around 20,000 men strong, so the besiegers were outnumbered by the besieged by a factor of two or more to one. Not exactly the recipe for a successful siege. After an initial attack on the city failed Guy, in a rare moment of intelligence, decided to park outside the city walls and wait for more help from Europe. Which came, in fits and starts, from all over—Denmark, Flanders, France, Frisia, and parts of Germany and Italy. Even Conrad eventually led a contingent of men to join the siege, as did Leo II, the king of Armenian Cilicia. By late September Guy had a more respectable 30,000 or so men under his command. But then Saladin arrived at the head of a relief army.
The Crusader-era city of Acre lay on a peninsula jutting out into what is now known as the Bay of Haifa, so Guy’s forces were all massed on its eastern (land-bound) end while over 100 Crusader ships attempted to blockade the city by sea. In early October, Saladin brought his force in behind Guy’s so that the Crusaders were trapped between the city walls and the relief army. The ensuing Battle of Acre was a disaster for Guy (what a shock), as his undisciplined army pushed Saladin’s force back but then quit fighting to do some plundering, at which point Saladin rallied his men and, along with a few thousand men from inside Acre, hit Guy’s line from both sides. But Saladin’s victory wasn’t decisive—he’d cost Guy thousands of men but hadn’t dislodged the siege. So the two armies settled in for a double siege, with Guy constantly being reinforced from Europe and Saladin constantly bringing more of his own forces to bolster his position.
A 13th century miniature depicting the siege (Wikimedia Commons)
Things settled into a stalemate, with Guy unable to take the city and Saladin unable to break the siege, and as so often happened in these situations in medieval times, various diseases began to break out and lots of people died. The situation inside the city became so dire at one point that Saladin launched an attack on the Crusaders whose main objective was to get a new garrison into the city before all the soldiers in the old one completely succumbed to their various ailments. Easily the most significant person to die amid all this pestilence was Sybilla, because her death also meant in theory that Guy could no longer claim to be king of Jerusalem.
The nobles, unwilling to waste the opportunity, quickly arranged Conrad’s marriage to Isabella (d. 1205), another daughter of Amalric I and Sybilla’s half-sister. In order to make this happen they had to annul Isabella’s marriage to Humphrey IV of Toron and ignore the pesky detail that Conrad had married a Byzantine princess in Constantinople a couple of years earlier. They also had to ignore the fact that, according to church law, a marriage between Conrad and Isabella was incestuous because Sybilla had previously been married to Conrad’s older brother. But they really wanted Guy gone—many of them had gone to some lengths to keep him from ever becoming king in the first place. Regardless of the complications, the marriage went forward and Conrad suddenly had a stronger legal claim on the hypothetical kingship of Jerusalem than did Guy.
The winter of 1190-1191 was, as it turned out, Saladin’s last chance to break the Crusader siege, and he failed. When the seas became safe to travel again ships carrying a German army under the command of Duke Leopold V of Austria (Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, or Frederick Barbarossa, had drowned in a river on his way to the Hold Land, leaving Leopold in command of the Germans) arrived, and they were only the vanguard. Philip II of France and Richard I of England, better known to us as Richard the Lionheart, were right behind him. Philip’s fleet arrived on April 20 and Richard’s on June 8.
The arrival of the European monarchs didn’t actually settle the Jerusalem succession argument, and may have actually exacerbated it since Philip supported the claim of his cousin Conrad while Richard supported the claim of Guy, who had been an English vassal back in Europe and had already pledged his fealty to Richard provided Richard made sure he stayed king. But that’s a story for another time. As far as Acre was concerned, for the next month or so things settled into a pattern whereby Philip’s siege engines would repeatedly make breaches in Acre’s walls only for Saladin to attack from the Crusader rear and distract them long enough for the city garrison to repair the damage. But by early July the garrison was exhausted and Saladin’s relief force had demonstrated that it could only distract the Crusaders, not dislodge them. On July 12 Acre surrendered to Philip, and the Crusaders took the garrison captive in order to exchange them for ransom and the Christians Saladin was holding captive.
The Third Crusade began to break down almost immediately after taking the city. Leopold, angry at being treated like a mere duke by Richard and Philip even though that’s what he was, packed up and headed home. In late July Philip, already sick of being overshadowed by Richard and facing some political issues back in France—and perhaps thinking that he could take some of Richard’s French holdings while the Lionheart was stuck in the Holy Land—also shoved off for home. That left Richard in unquestioned command of the Crusade, but with too few soldiers to successfully besiege Jerusalem. Richard haggled over the terms of the prisoner exchange and, when Saladin didn’t respond to his liking, carried out a mass execution of somewhere around 2700 prisoners (sources differ as to whether he executed only combatants or also included women and children) on August 20. Saladin responded by executing some 2300 prisoners he held back in Damascus. A couple of days later Richard led his army south in the direction of Jerusalem, with Saladin shadowing it. They met again at the Battle of Arsuf in early September.