Lionheart and the Third Crusade (The Crusades part 4)

The Crusades (Part 4 of 6)

1. Deus Vult: Pope Urban II Calls for the First Crusaders (AD 1095)
2. The First Crusade and Reclaiming the Holy City (AD 1096-1099)
3. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Second Crusade (AD 1144-1153)
4. Lionheart and the Third Crusade (AD 1187-1193)
5. The Fourth Crusade & Children’s Crusades: Perhaps Christendom’s Lowest Point (AD 1198-1212)
6. Final Crusades and Final Results (AD 1215-1291)
Statue of Richard I “Lionheart” outside of Parliament in Westminster, London

In AD 1189, King Richard of England (reigned AD 1189-1199), also known as Lionheart, assembled his army along with those of the Christians from France and Germany in an effort to retake the city of Jerusalem.  Christians had held Jerusalem for nearly one hundred years since the final victory of the First Crusade in AD 1099. However, the decision to launch a Third Crusade was not made overnight…


The leaders of the First Crusade had become legends and heroes among European Christians. The new Kingdom of Jerusalem was the result of their victories; and Christians had held the Holy City for nearly a century, which included the period of the Second Crusade.

Saladin on a 25 Pound piece of banknote from Syria dated 1991.

As the twelfth century came to a close, however, the tide was turning. The newly united armies of Islam began to control the Mediterranean. The powerful Kurdish general Saladin (AD 1138-1193) conquered Egypt in AD 1171 and Damascus in 1174. By 1183 Muslims controlled nearly all of the lands surrounding Jerusalem. Saladin was an intelligent tactician who used several different means to bolster the growing power of his kingdom in the Middle East. This included a two-year peace treaty with Latin Christians so that he might establish a stronger foothold of leadership among his Muslim counterparts. Even trade between Muslims and Christians was allowed to continue by both sides. According to Asbridge, what ultimately established Saladin in his place above other Muslim caliphs was neither his lineage nor the strength of his armies, but rather his commitment to jihad against both Christians, Jews, and even other Muslims (p. 319-20).

The two years of peace between Saladin’s Ayyudids and Latin Christians was broken in the Fall of 1183 when Saladin launched another campaign towards Jerusalem. This particular attack was thwarted, however, by a counter-attack from the Christian side at the castle of Kerak, which was led by Baldwin IV the Leper (the fifth successor of Baldwin I as King of Jerusalem, reigned 1174-1185). A similar attack was turned back once again in the late Summer of 1184.

In late 1185-1186, Saladin became gravely ill and nearly died. He was not even fifty years old at this point. It was said that, as a result of having to face his own mortality, Saladin began to realize what he believed to be a higher purpose for his life as he regained his health. According to Asbridge,

[Saladin] emerged a changed man, having paused to consider his life, his faith and his achievements in the many wars fought against the Franks and his fellow Muslims. Certainly some contemporaries represented this as a moment of profound transformation in the sultan’s career, after which he dedicated himself to the cause of jihad and the pursuit of Jerusalem’s recovery. At the height of his illness, he apparently vowed to commit all his energy to this end, regardless of the human and financial sacrifice enacted.

Early in 1187, Saladin embarked on his most determined campaign yet – a mission to retake Jerusalem from the Christian infidels once and for all. At the same time a battle raged among Christians within Jerusalem for the throne of Baldwin IV who finally succumbed to leprosy. He had been replaced for a time by Baldwin V, who died when he was only nine years old. The throne eventually passed to Sibylla, the sister of Baldwin IV, and her husband Guy of Lusignan; though not without strong attempts to usurp the throne by their opponents. As a result, Christians were in the midst of significant internal turmoil when Saladin and his empire arrived at the walls of Jerusalem.

In the Spring of 1187, Saladin had compiled an army of united Muslim forces which contained over 10,000 trained cavalry and some 30,000 volunteers (Asbridge). As news of the invasion spread to Jerusalem, Guy began to call and assemble Christian forces by the thousands himself. The stage was set for the largest battle between Christians and Muslims since the retaking of Jerusalem during the First Crusade nearly 100 years before.

On July 4, 1187, the Christian armies of Jerusalem fought Saladin and his Ayyubid armies at the famous Battle of Hattin, near modern-day Tiberias in Israel. Saladin’s strategic maneuvers proved to be more than the Christians within the Holy City could handle. When all was said and done, Saladin’s army took Jerusalem and took King Guy of Lusignan, members of his royal party, and other prisoners to the Muslim-held Damascus. Despite the deaths incurred during the battle, Saldadin’s annex of Jerusalem ended up having a much lower death toll than the battles of decades before. Rather than slaughtering their Christian enemies, Saladin commanded his soldiers to let all who surrendered live.  For a historical account of the Battle of Hattin which claims to have been written within two decade of the event, click here.

Guy of Lusignan before Saladin after the battle of Hattin

Jerusalem was lost. Latin Christians were devastated. After hearing the grave reports from Jerusalem, Pope Urban III died within weeks. In his final days on earth, however, he began to call for a rebirth of the crusader spirit. For many Christians in the West, it seemed like a new adventure was on the horizon.


According to Schaff, the Third Crusade “has been more widely celebrated in romance than any of the other Crusades” (257). Of all the crusades, the Third was perhaps the best planned, funded, equipped.

This crusade was all about the tertiary. It was the third major crusade, comprised of three major armies, led by the three most powerful princes of Western Europe. They were Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa of Germany (reigned AD 1152-1190), King Philip Augustus of France (reigned AD 1179-1223), and Lionheart. Richard earned the nickname “Coeur de Lion” after supposedly fighting with a lion and ripping its beating heart out to earn the victory.

The three princes began to raise funds as they armed their forces in preparation to launch sieges. Lionheart put all of his inherited wealth, along with proceeds from his sale of land, castles, and churches, into the Crusade. In both England and France, a tax was levied on all citizens who refused to join the crusade. These payments became known as the “Saladin tax.” (Schaff)

In AD 1189-1190, the armies began to amass in several locations as they prepared to head towards the Holy Lands. Frederick, who was nearly seventy years old at the time, never made it to his first battle. Instead, he drowned accidentally while attempting to cool himself off in the Kalycadnus river near Cilicia in Asia Minor.

Philip and Lionheart sailed and marched on, finally meeting up in Sicily in the spring of1190. They were anything but amicable allies, however. Despite having made pacts to protect and look out for one another, the each nation’s leaders were constantly striving against each other for power and control.

By June of 1190, the armies had reached the powerful city of Acre, just north of Jerusalem. Acre was, in many ways, the gateway city to Jerusalem. (For those of you who are Lord of the Rings nerds like me; think Osgiliath to Minas Tirith.)

Battles between Christians and Muslims ensued for over a year until, on July 12, 1191, Muslim forces within Acre surrendered to the crusaders. A treaty of sorts was struck with Saladin, and the Christians planned to renew their efforts to continue into the Holy City. The spoils of Acre were quickly divide among Christian leaders and many Frankish prisoners of Acre were released. The crusaders were now poised to press on.

Yet the ultimate goal to move forward with the campaign towards Jerusalem was delayed. A growing tension between the leaders and armies of France and England had come to a head. These rivalries, as Schaff called them, eventually sent Philip Augustus back to France (although Philip seemed more than happy to return to his throne). The French and Germans also began to have disagreements, which eventually led to longer delays in the crusade. Much of the disagreements had nothing to do with the crusade towards Jerusalem but rather concerned the resettlement and appropriation of the Christian lands to the West.

Lionheart emerged as the sole leader of the final phase of the Third Crusade. He was a distracted leader, however, with growing concerns that Philip might try to conquer the English lands in his absence. For this and perhaps other reasons, Lionheart appeared to become hasty in his decision-making process. The most glaring and detestable example of this was his decision to slaughter some 2,700 Muslim prisoners in front of Saladin and his army on account of Saladin’s failure to meet the terms of their peace treaty in what Lionheart considered to be a fair amount of time. This mass execution remains one of the darkest moments of Lionheat’s personal history.

Lionheart took his army of between 10,000 and 15,000 men in a brilliant move of stealth towards the city of Jaffa, a port city on the way to Jerusalem. (Jaffa, also known as Joppa, was the port from which the OT Prophet Jonah [Jonah 1:3] left to flee to Tarshish).  On September 7, 1191, Lionheart and his crusading army defeated Saladin’s forces at the Battle of Arsuf, just outside of Jaffa. The brutality of this battle is recorded in several sources. Saladin’s army, without a doubt, took the brunt of the damage, and Lionheart appeared to be the greatest of warriors. Legends spread about Richard cutting down his enemies “as reapers mow corn with sickles.” He even supposedly severed the neck and shoulder of a Turkish admiral with one strike of his sword (Schaff).

For all intents and purposes, however, Arsuf/Jaffa would be the last battle won by the Third Crusaders. Having exhausted nearly all of the crusade’s resources in the previous months, Richard decided not to attempt an advance on the gates of Jerusalem. Instead, a treaty was formed with Saladin that ensured three years of safety for all Christians who sought travel to the Holy City, and along the coasts from Jaffa all the way to the northern city of Tyre. According to ancient sources, Richard and Saladin even exchanged gifts with one another for a few years (Schaff).

Things took a strange turn for Richard and a tragic one for Saladin. While on his return journey to England, Richard was kidnapped and held for ransom in Austria until he paid a large sum to be released. Saladin, on the other hand, died in 1193. The major players of the Third Crusade had finished the game.

In the end, the major victories for Latin Christians of the Third Crusade were Acre and Jaffa, and no more. And even these victories were short-lived, as both locations would prove to be volatile in the decades to come. But the legend of Lionheart lived on . . . as Schaff records:

One who accompanied the Third Crusade ascribes to him the valor of Hector, the magnanimity of Achilles, the prudence of Odysseus, the eloquence of Nestor, and equality with Alexander. French writers of the thirteenth century tell how Saracen mothers, long after Richard had returned to England, used to frighten their children into obedience or silence by the spell of his name, so great was the dread he had inspired. Destitute of the pious traits of Godfrey and Louis IX., Richard nevertheless stands, by his valor, muscular strength, and generous mind, in the very front rank of conspicuous Crusaders.

The Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou, France still claims to contain the tomb of Richard the Lionheart, however his remains were probably taken from there long ago.


  • Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land (2010)
  • Evangelisches Kirchenlexikon (1999) vol. 1
  • Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity (1953) vol. 1
  • Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, vol. 5.
  • Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (1914)

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