Today in Middle Eastern history: the Siege of Acre ends (1191)

The Second Crusade begins, and begins to come apart, in the course of one very lengthy siege.

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The Siege of Acre marks both the end of Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Third Crusade, which was supposed to undo that conquest. When it concluded in 1191, after Philip II of France and Richard I of England had arrived and assumed command, it also marked the beginning of the end of that Crusade. It was a pretty significant siege, in other words.

At its start, in 1189, the Crusaders’ Siege of Acre was led by Guy of Lusignan (d. 1194), AKA King Guy of Jerusalem, who needed both to retaliate for the loss of Jerusalem and to capture himself a new city in which to hold court. Theoretically it was possible to be the “king of Jerusalem” without necessarily holding Jerusalem, but physically it was impossible be a king if you didn’t have a kingdom of some description, and after losing Jerusalem—as well as all the cities Saladin had captured previously—Guy was short one kingdom.

As Guy laid siege to Acre he was assaulting a city that not that long ago had been a Crusader stronghold and the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s main seaport. It surrendered to Saladin without a fight in the wake of the disastrous Battle 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 successfully withstood Saladin’s siege, but Tyre was ruled by Conrad of Montferrat (d. 1192), and he wasn’t especially convinced of Guy’s claim to the throne. Guy’s position as king 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 legitimacy as ruler was more or less unassailable, but now that the throne was more hypothetical than real he was confronted with the possibility that the Crusader nobility 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 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. It seems that Saladin, unaware of the internal dissent to Guy’s rule, figured that Conrad would give up Tyre in exchange for the freedom of his king. Conrad not only didn’t budge on giving up Tyre, he wouldn’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 IV (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.

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 besieged outnumbered the besiegers by a factor of two or more to one. This was not exactly the recipe for success in medieval siege warfare. After an initial attack on the city failed, Guy, in a rare moment of tactical competence, decided simply 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 ruler 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 army and, with the help of Acre’s garrison, attacked 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.

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 of them. The situation inside Acre became so dire at one point that Saladin launched an attack on the Crusaders whose objective was to break through the line and 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 meant, at least in theory, that Guy could no longer claim to be the 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. Normally a marriage like this would have been scandalous and possible risked Church sanction. But the nobles really wanted Guy gone. Many of them had gone to some lengths to keep him from ever becoming king in the first place, and he’d done nothing since taking the throne to change their minds. 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 Holy 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 Philip Augustus and 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 for the Christians Saladin was holding captive.

The Third Crusade began to break down almost immediately after taking the city. Leopold packed up and headed home, angry at constantly being treated like a mere duke—which he was, but whatever—by Richard and Philip. In late July Philip, himself tired of being overshadowed by Richard and facing some political issues back in France—and perhaps intending to take some of Richard’s French holdings while his rival 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. He 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.