Today in Middle Eastern history: the Third Crusade ends (1192)

Richard the Lionheart, successful in battle but unable to besiege Jerusalem, under pressure back home, and suffering from illness, makes peace with Saladin and departs the Holy Land.

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So, the Third Crusade. While the First Crusade was undoubtedly the most successful of the numbered Crusades, this is the one I assume most of us envision when we hear the word “Crusades.” After all, it produced probably the two most famous Crusader figures in history—Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, whose rivalry became legendary in medieval Europe and has maintained much of that stature into modern times. But in terms of outcomes the Third Crusade was kind of a mixed bag, from the Crusaders’ perspective. It failed to achieve its ultimate objective, the recapture of Jerusalem, but it also derailed Saladin’s military momentum and arguably saved the Crusader states from destruction—for the time being, anyway. We’ve talked about the Third Crusade’s beginnings, at Acre, so today let's talk about its conclusion, with the Treaty of Jaffa.

After returning Acre to Crusader control, Richard then defeated Saladin in a pitched battle at Arsuf (in September 1191), and defeated him again in coming to the relief of the Crusader garrison at Jaffa (in August 1192). Saladin’s army was virtually broken after these two engagements, but the Crusaders weren’t in much better shape. The French Crusader army under Philip II had returned to France after Acre, and the Crusader kingdoms were still internally fractured over the power struggle between Guy of Lusignon (Richard’s vassal) and Conrad of Montferrat, both of whom had tenuous claims on the throne of Jerusalem. Conrad had both the (relatively) stronger claim and the support of more of Jerusalem’s nobility, who elected him king in April 1192. The power struggle was then abruptly resolved when a couple of Assassins murdered Conrad before he could be crowned. We’ll be coming back to this later.

Between the loss of the French forces and this internal turmoil, Richard knew that his remaining army simply wasn’t big enough to march on Jerusalem and successfully besiege the city. Jerusalem was a relatively well-fortified place that had almost total control over its nearby water sources. Any attempt to besiege it would have to contend with the scarcity of water outside the city, and the length of time that a siege would take could allow Saladin to reconstitute his army and come after the Crusaders at something approaching full strength.

Richard came to realize, as the leaders of subsequent Crusades would, that Jerusalem couldn’t safely remain in Christian hands for very long anyway unless something was done about the Muslims who controlled Egypt. So suggested that his army invade Egypt instead of marching on Jerusalem, to catch Saladin at his weakest. But it quickly became clear that the Crusader army would mutiny if he marched it anywhere other than Jerusalem. So Richard offered his men a deal. On an aborted attempt to march on Jerusalem in the summer of 1192, he told his subordinates that he would happily march to the city and fight and even die in the siege, but somebody else would have to command the army because he would not lead it to what he was sure would be its destruction. The army turned around and headed back toward the Mediterranean coast.

In this miniature from James Edmund Doyle’s A Chronicle of England (1864), Richard refuses to even look at Jerusalem because he knows he can’t capture it (Wikimedia Commons)

At the same time, Richard was starting to receive troubling reports from France. After abandoning the Crusade, Philip had gone home and started picking off Richard’s territories in France. Even worse, the French king was also supporting Richard’s brother, John, who was trying to usurp the English throne. To make matters even worse, Richard fell gravely ill after the battle of Jaffa. He had to go home, get better, and shore things up in his own kingdom, and since there was literally nothing left for him to do in the Holy Land, he resolved to leave.

The Treaty of Jaffa was, in some respects, the product of a bluff. Saladin was in a very weak position, but so was Richard. The difference is that Richard knew Saladin was in trouble, but Saladin didn’t really know how anxious Richard was to return home. So Richard negotiated from a position of strength that he really didn’t have. The treaty called for a three year cessation in hostilities, during which time Saladin would not attack any of the Crusader kingdoms along the Mediterranean coast and would allow Christian pilgrims to visit any holy sites in his territory, including Jerusalem. Richard agreed to surrender the city of Ascalon to Saladin, but only after destroying its fortifications first so as to leave it (at least temporarily) defenseless. All things considered, it was a good deal for the Crusader kingdoms, which—had Richard never arrived—might all have fallen to Saladin at some point. Richard finally left for home on October 9, and the Third Crusade was finished.

As it turned out, that three year moratorium became a much bigger deal when Saladin died suddenly of a fever in March 1193. He was in his mid-50s, so not exactly young by the standards of the time but not old either. It would be a slight exaggeration to say that the Ayyubid Dynasty he founded went into decline immediately upon his death, but only slight. After a succession of ineffectual rulers, the dynasty was overthrown by its mamluk slave army in 1250, though it took the new Mamluk Sultanate another decade to complete its takeover of all former Ayyubid lands. The Mamluks would eventually bring the Crusader presence in the Levant to an end, but not until 1291.

Richard, meanwhile, sailed for home, but had to land on the northern Adriatic coast and go overland through central Europe. Along the way he was arrested by Leopold V of Austria, who suspected (with good reason) that Richard had hired the Assassins who murdered Conrad of Montferrat, who happened to be Leopold’s cousin. Leopold handed Richard over to Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who then ransomed him back to England for a huge sum of money (literally a king’s ransom, I guess). Richard intended to go back on Crusade and try again to capture Jerusalem, but he was killed in 1199 while still at war in France.