The Third Crusade: Three Great Kings

The Era of the Crusades

The Third Crusade is perhaps the most memorable Crusade, even more so than the First Crusade, because it included the three great kings of Europe—the kings of England, France, and Germany—as actual participants.

Three portraits of Richard I, Philip II, and Barbarossa

First there was Richard I the Lion-hearted who is associated with Robin Hood and all sorts of legends that still live today on both the screen and in novels. Second, Philip II Augustus of France, the son of Louis VII, the previous Crusader king of the Second Crusade. And last, but not least, Frederick Barbarossa, the great Holy Roman Emperor, who is still revered as a national hero (all for the wrong reasons, usually) by Germans today.

The Call for a New Crusade

portrait of Saladin, the crusader era Muslim leader
Saladin, the first sultan of Egypt and Syria and the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty

All three of these kings led great armies east to fight Saladin, whose reputation now, by 1190, when this Crusade set out, was that of the greatest conqueror of the Islamic world. For well over a generation, Western Europeans really had very little inkling that there was a crisis brewing in the Near East. The news of Saladin’s victory at Hattin in July 1187 hit them like a thunderbolt. According to some reports, Pope Gregory VIII died instantly of a heart attack. He was ailing, and the news of Jerusalem’s surrender just did him in. The new pope, Clement III, was immediately committed to preaching a new Crusade. It was just absolutely unquestioned. Jerusalem had to be retaken. It had been in Christian hands for nearly 100 years. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the most holy spot in the Christian world, and the King of Jerusalem, Guy, was in captivity—probably the best option of what to do with King Guy. Nonetheless, this humiliation could not be left unavenged.

The English and French Kings Respond to the Call

Portrait of Richard the Lionhearted
Richard I, the Lionheart, King of England

Immediately, Henry II pledged to go on the Third Crusade, but he died in early 1189, and his son Richard the Lionheart took his place. Richard was the successor to a whole Crusader tradition in the family. He was seen as the perfect knight, a brilliant general, a charismatic figure, and a great king. He ruled 60 percent of the French kingdom as his vassals. He was a vassal of King Philip II. He was a bold and powerful warrior, a magnificent figure in battle, a handsome man. He ruled England, which was the source of his revenues. He clearly was a great king.

Portrait of Philip II of France riding on the Third Crusade
Philip II, King of France

At the same time, Philip II, his overlord, the King of France (who ruled essentially just Paris and its environs) had to go on Crusade in part to remove the stigma of his father Louis VII, who had done so poorly. And, in part, he couldn’t afford not to go on Crusade if Richard was on Crusade.

So the two kings agreed to put aside their differences, raise the money, tax their clergy, tax their populations, and equip great armies. These armies may have been on the order of 15,000 men apiece, as far as we can tell. They were very impressive, well-equipped armies that left from Vezelay and made it to the ports of southern France and were going to take passage by ship (through Genoese and Spanish and Italian ships) to get to Palestine and relieve the hard-pressed cities.

The Holy Roman Empire Gathers its Forces

Image showing Barbarossa and his German knights on the Third Crusade
Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa

The other important monarch in Western Europe who was eager to go on Crusade was Frederick Barbarossa, who may have been close to 70 years old at this point. Frederick, the Holy Roman emperor, was regarded as one of the greatest warriors of all time. With him went the armies of Germany and Italy, including many seasoned veterans. This army was dangerous to Saladin. This was probably the best force that was on the road.

So all three of these kings together may have pitted forces of as much as 45,000 men, or three times the army of King Guy, and probably together twice the size of the army of Saladin (or at least Saladin’s field army). The problem was delivering all that force to the Holy Land. These forces had to depart separately. There were the arduous journeys. There was the problem of financing and equipping the fleets. As a result, the Third Crusade wasn’t a single Crusade that arrived, but it came piecemeal.

The Germans Launch their Crusade and Barbarossa Dies

The first Crusade to depart was that of Frederick Barbarossa. He mobilized his armies quickly. This army was extremely disciplined. It was large. It was very large. It departed from Regensburg in 1189, marched down the Danube to the city of Constantinople. Maybe it was 50,000 people, including all the pilgrims and soldiers. There were the usual problems with the Byzantines. The then-reigning emperor, Isaac II, who was one of the most feckless emperors on the throne, had made an alliance with Saladin against the Seljuk Turks. He was also fearful for his throne, because he was a usurper. He didn’t trust the German army.

Image of Barbarossa drowning in a river
The death of Frederick Barbarossa

Frederick came close to taking Constantinople. Frederick decided against it, but he did bully Isaac into providing guides, providing money and supplies, and assisting the transport of the German crusaders to Asia Minor. In the spring and summer of 1190, Frederick’s Crusading army marched through Asia Minor. It swept aside all Turkish resistance, but just before reaching the city of Seleucia, Frederick gets drowned at a rather difficult gorge. The army was reluctant to cross the river, and what Frederick did was to splash across the river and apparently was swept away. Later legend said he was in the Hartz Mountains, where he waited to be reawakened to reunite the German nation.

With the death of Frederick, the German army broke up. Frederick, the younger son of the emperor, led a force into Palestine along with Leopold of Austria. But the majority of the Germans went back, essentially to fight round number whatever it was in the civil war between Welfs and Hohenstaufens. So the great Crusade, the most impressive army from Western Europe, the one that Saladin probably worried about the most, never showed up.

The English and French Forces Depart

The other two Crusading kings, Richard and Philip, departed almost a year later, after Frederick’s army was well on the way. Richard was clearly the greater of the two monarchs. Everyone could see it from the start. Philip Augustus was about as glum as his father, Louis VII. Unlike his father, though, Philip was not a pious man. Philip was a cynic at birth. He had a disability in that he was blind in one eye. He was not particularly impressive to look at. But as a king, as a diplomat, as a politician, as an administrator, he made the French monarchy an effective kingdom by the time he died in 1223. These, of course, were events in the future. But from the start, he saw Richard as a dangerous rival, and he understood that. He did everything in his power to advance the interests of his monarchy, rather than his own reputation. Richard, on the other hand, was having the time of his life. This is what he was made for—to go out on Crusade and win great victories. He was generous. He had the money to spread around.

Image of philip_augustus_arriving_in_palestine by boat
Philip II arrives in the Holy Land

Philip sailed first and arrived in Acre the Spring of 1191. Meanwhile, Richard was stalled. He was too busy having a good time in the Sicilian ports, especially gambling and pursuing other types of events like jousts and festivals. But when his forces sailed it was an impressive fleet. En route, part of his fleet got shipwrecked off the island of Cyprus.

Richard I seizes Cyprus

The island of Cyprus at this point, which was technically a Byzantine possession, was in the hands of a rogue Byzantine governor named Isaac Comnenus. When a couple of Richard’s ships got shipwrecked, he immediately arrested the survivors. He tried to lure Joanna, Richard’s sister, and Berengaria of Navarre, Richard’s wife into his power so that he could capture and extort them for some sort of advantage. It was a very ill-conceived notion. Richard got wind of this. He landed on Cyprus and immediately marched to the main castle. There wasn’t even a contest. The Byzantines were just wiped off the field. Richard and his knights seized the island.

This is an interesting precedent. To be sure, Richard had been provoked. But here’s a case of a Crusader king now seizing a Byzantine possession, just one step in reasoning to the taking of Constantinople itself. Richard has a windfall. Cyprus is a very wealthy and rich island and provides him with the money and resources necessary for a campaign.

Richard then sailed for Acre and showed up in the summer of 1191. Philip had arrived earlier, and immediately there were disputes between the two kings. The result was a political battle and a lack of cooperation.

Richard vs Saladin

medieval image of the city of Acre under siege during the third crusade
The siege of Acre

Through Richard’s audacious generalship, the Crusaders stormed in and took Acre on July 21, 1192. It was an impressive triumph. Richard clearly got credit for it. And it alienated King Philip, who shortly afterward sailed back home to France and conspired with Richard’s dear brother, John, to raise rebellions in England and in Richard’s French domains. This meant that Richard from the start knew that he didn’t have much time in Palestine. Maybe he had another year to go before he was going to have to get back to his Plantagenet realm.

Image of Leopold of Austria
Leopold of Austria

Furthermore, Richard made the serious mistake of offending Leopold of Austria, who claimed to represent what was left of the German Crusade. He tried to style himself as an equal with France and England, and planted his banner next to Richard’s in Acre. Richard showed his contempt for this by taking the banner and throwing it down. Leopold was offended, and eventually he and his Crusaders went home, and it’s actually into Leopold’s dear hands that Richard later falls.

Richard at this point is in charge of the Crusade. He impresses Saladin. From Acre, he marches his army down the coast and begins to recapture the cities. His main objective is to take the port of Jaffa, which is the traditional port that communicates with Jerusalem. His army marches in strict discipline. Saladin is helpless. He can’t draw Richard into ill-conceived battles. At Arsuf, on the route towards Jaffa, Saladin commits himself to a premature battle. Richard’s forces, marching in column, with perfect-timing crossbowmen, archers, and timing the cavalry charges, hands a very humiliating defeat to Saladin.

A Treaty is Signed

Saladin quickly realizes that he has got to negotiate, that this king is too powerful. From the start, by the end of 1191, it’s clear to both Saladin and Richard that the only way out of this war is by negotiation. Each had political interests to do so. In that winter, of 1191–1192, there’s a lot of exchanges. These exchanges are extremely important—Richard and Saladin admired each other, and respected each other as great kings.

Saladin, who had treated many of the Christian prisoners quite magnanimously after the Battle of Hattin and who was a generous man, comes to be regarded in the Christian tradition as the perfect chivalrous knight. And in later literature of the 12th and 13th centuries, Saladin is even extolled over most Christian knights as the embodiment of Christian chivalry. He acquires this reputation in Western literature as an incredibly generous conqueror. Richard himself contributes to this. What better way to magnify Richard’s brilliance than to magnify the opponent he fought? There are various deals that are proposed. One is to marry Joanna to Saladin’s brother. That never comes off. But by early 1192, it’s clear that there must be a treaty.

Image showing King Richard jousting with Saladin during the Third Crusade
Richard and Saladin in combat

What Saladin recognizes is the ceding of all of the old ports back to the Christians. Jerusalem, Bethlehem, these cities are open to Christians. They must come as unarmed pilgrims, but he guarantees the safety of all pilgrims going to Jerusalem. There’s a truce, effective for a number of years.

Richard is Captured and Held for Ransom

Richard has to accept this treaty because he’s got to get back to Europe. And he does. He sails prematurely, gets wrecked on the coast of Italy, near Venice. He tries to make his way across Germany and is captured by Leopold’s people, held for ransom and eventually is sold off to the Holy Roman Emperor, to be ransomed by none other than his brother John.

portrait of John I, King of England
Richard’s brother John, who would later go on to be King of England after Richard’s death.

It’s really very dubious to be languishing in a jail to be ransomed by your relatives in the Middle Ages. John had no incentive to do so. Eventually the ransom is negotiated, and in 1194 Richard goes back to England, and John is exiled. Richard then gets killed storming a castle in France over some silly dispute—typical Richard.

The Third Crusade Remembered

Richard died, remembered as a great Crusader, as a great warrior, as a brilliant general, probably on a par with Bohemond, not, however, a particularly brilliant king. He certainly sacrificed the interests of his kingdom in this quest for Crusader glory and his sense of piety for Jerusalem.

Philip Augustus came out of this Crusade with a tarnished reputation, and he’s still remembered through the generations as yet another Capetian king who ran away. And yet, he capitalized on the dissension between Richard and John, eventually to conquer much of the Plantagenet domains, especially Normandy in 1204, and go on to make the French monarchy. So in that sense, Philip Augustus was by far the greater king.

The Third Crusade in some ways was not only anticlimactic but also disappointing. The three greatest kings of Europe had marched off and what did they get? They get a truce and they get access to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The Italian city-states, however, did very well, especially the Venetians and the Genoese. Those ports were now back under Christian control.

However, there were some important lessons that were learned. One is that sending kings on Crusade may not be such a great idea. It’s clear that strategy was marred, that Richard and Philip could not agree. There were enough difficulties on the Second Crusade. The Third Crusade really showed that now these monarchs were so powerful that their political rivalries, personal motives, and personal clashes would affect any kind of coherent strategy in a Crusading campaign. There were, in effect, too many kings, too many leaders.

From the lecture series The Era of the Crusades
Taught by Professor Kenneth W. Harl, Tulane University

1 Comment

  1. I learned of the Crusades when I was in grade school. The manner in which they were taught was uninteresting and boring, You have given new life to the topic for me. Thank you .

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