When we look back on the Third Crusade (1189-1192) it is all but impossible not to be struck by how close King Richard and the Christian host came to decisively defeating Saladin and re-taking Jerusalem. Twice during the campaign—in January 1192 and again in July 1192—the crusaders advanced to within a dozen or so miles of the Holy City, only to withdraw without making a serious effort to besiege it. In this brief essay, I will attempt to explain the strategic decision to abandon the first advance on Jerusalem in 1191/2.
From Acre to Bayt Nuba
During the summer and autumn of 1191, the crusaders enjoyed a series of operational successes that appeared to set the stage for a decisive thrust toward Jerusalem. First, in early July they had taken the port city of Acre—despite concerted efforts on the part of Saladin to break the Christian siege and relieve the garrison—thus not only securing a strategically and politically important city, but also shattering the myth of Saladin’s invincibility. Under King Richard’s leadership (Philip of France having departed the Holy Land shortly after the fall of Acre) they had then marched south along the coast, besting Saladin once again at the battle of Arsuf (September 7), and taking Jaffa (September 10), the port that offered the best jumping-off point for an advance on Jerusalem. From there, the crusaders had begun moving cautiously inland, taking Casal des Plains and Casal Moyen (October 31), the nearest of the fortifications that had been built to protect the road to Jerusalem. As these had been destroyed by Saladin as a delaying tactic, and the crusaders had been forced to spend the following two weeks rebuilding them.
Once these fortifications were restored, Richard had advanced once again, this time taking Ramla (17 November) and forcing Saladin to withdraw to Latrun. Then the weather had broken, and Richard had halted his advance in the hope that Saladin would be forced to disband his field army (as the Sultan’s emirs were demanding, given the difficulties of maintaining forces and campaigning in the winter weather). Saladin had managed to keep his field army together until 12 December, but then had been forced to disperse the bulk of his host and withdraw with a much-diminished force to Jerusalem. After Christmas, Richard had then renewed his advance, taking Bayt Nuba, a mere 12 miles from the Holy City, on January 3 1192.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
The stage now seemed set for a decisive push against Jerusalem. A large and well-provisioned crusader force, experienced in siege craft, had advanced within striking distance of the Holy City. Saladin’s field army, which had been a source of great concern to Richard on the march inland, had scattered to the four corners of his empire. Despite the weather and the appalling conditions, morale was high amongst the crusaders. Everything seemed to point in the direction of an inevitable—and inevitably successful—attack on Jerusalem sometime before the resumption of campaigning season in the Spring.
And then, on January 8 Richard ordered a retreat to Ramla, the first stage in a more general withdrawal all the way back to the coast. How can we account for this stunning reversal? How can we explain the fateful retreat when the central goal and object of the crusade seemed within Richard’s grasp?
The Conventional Wisdom Regarding the Decision to Withdraw
The conventional view is that King Richard’s decision to abandon the advance on Jerusalem in January 1192 was a more or less rational strategic response to objective military circumstances. The weather was appalling—strong winds; bitterly cold temperatures; rain, hail, sleet and snow—and getting worse. Armor and swords were rusting, food decaying and clothing rotting. And attrition due to disease, desertion and departure was accelerating. On January 6, a meeting of the crusade leadership was held to discuss next steps. At this meeting, two arguments were advanced. On the one hand, those crusaders from Europe who had “taken the cross” (a vow to complete a pilgrimage to the Holy Sites) advocated strongly for an attack. They were eager to fulfill their vows and believed that they were on the cusp of doing so. They argued that, given the fate of the Acre garrison (which had been slaughtered after a prolonged siege), the Jerusalem garrison would likely surrender at the first sign of an attack.
On the other hand, those with deeper roots in the Holy Land—especially the Templars and the Hospitallers—argued against attacking Jerusalem. Their logic was simple: if the crusaders laid siege to the Holy City, they would eventually be trapped between the garrison and a relieving army that would inevitably arrive once campaigning season resumed. Added to this, they argued, there was the ongoing threat posed by residual-but-powerful Saracen forces that were harassing the Christian hosts supply lines. Finally, they argued that, even if Jerusalem were taken, it could not be held. For the vast majority of pilgrims, their vows fulfilled, would depart the Holy Land for good, leaving a rump force insufficient for the defense of the Holy City.
The now-conventional account has Richard carefully weighing these contending arguments, trying to decide the future course of the crusade on the basis of military-operational considerations. At one point in the deliberations he is said to have asked for someone with local knowledge to draw a map of Jerusalem. Once he saw the extent of the city’s fortifications, or so this account would have us believe, he immediately realized that his forces could neither envelop the city in adequate depth nor (if they did envelop it thinly) prevent its garrison from successfully sallying forth to break the siege. This realization is said to have tipped the balance in favor of those who had advocated abandoning the advance on Jerusalem. The King and council then decided that, rather than press the attack, they would withdraw to the coast and rebuild the fortifications at Ascalon.
What are we to make of this explanation? Well, in my opinion at least, it simply beggars belief. Are we really to accept that Christendom’s sharpest military mind and most accomplished crusader would not have asked for a map of Jerusalem’s defenses until he was only a few miles away? Are we to believe that, had he been earnest about attacking Jerusalem, Richard would have led the crusader host to within striking distance of the Holy City and then declined to attack it because of bad weather or the prospect that a relieving Saracen army would arrive several months in the future? Given what we know of Richard’s temperament, this seems unlikely. No, if we want to understand the Lionheart’s decision to abandon the drive on Jerusalem, we need to look beyond the conventional military-strategic narrative that has become the conventional wisdom to look at Richard’s overall or grand strategic approach to the crusade.
An Alternative Explanation
In my opinion, the hermeneutical or interpretive key that unlocks this puzzle is simply not to be found in the narrow logic of operational-level military calculations. Rather, it is to be discovered in the broader logic of Richard’s strategic thought. What do I mean by this? Simply put, I mean that Richard did not decide to abandon the march on Jerusalem because at a meeting on January 6 he was persuaded that the weather, deteriorating morale, the threat of a relieving Saracen army, the extent of the city’s fortifications or any other strictly military consideration dictated a change of policy. Rather, he abandoned the advance because he had never intended to attack Jerusalem in the first place.
Widening the frame a bit, the argument I am putting forward here is that Richard never envisaged using brute military force to recapture Jerusalem and reestablish the crusader principalities. In other words, he never envisioned a straightforward war of conquest in which the Saracens were driven from the Holy Land by force of arms alone. Instead, Richard viewed the use of military force as a means of pressuring Saladin into a negotiated settlement that would allow him to realize his core strategic goals (a viable Christian presence in the Holy Land; Christian access to the Holy Sites) in the shortest possible time (Richard was well aware that both King Philip and Prince John were making good use of his absence to undermine his position in France and England).
What proof can be adduced to support this argument? Well, if we look closely at Richard’s record in the Holy Land through this lens, two (closely related) patterns become visible. First, we see a consistent pattern of attempts to arrive at a negotiated settlement with Saladin. From October 1191 onward, Richard was in regular contact with the sultan’s brother al-Adil, seeking a negotiated settlement that achieved Richard’s core strategic objective whilst freeing him to return home to deal with Philip and John. Some of Richard’s proposals—such as offering to marry his sister Joan off to al-Adil as part of condominium arrangement—may have been a bit far-fetched, but there can be no denying the fact that Richard was earnestly pursuing a diplomatic strategy intended to culminate in a negotiated settlement that both Christians and Muslims could live with.
Second, we see a consistent pattern of military operations that make little sense if Richard’s strategy were one of conquest, but a great deal of sense if his strategy were one of maximizing negotiating leverage. As early as August 1191 Richard appears to have decided that a direct assault on Jerusalem—the military conquest strategy—was impractical: as the Templars and Hospitallers would counsel him endlessly, the march inland would expose him to the possibility of a Hattin-like massacre; the city would be exceedingly difficult to take without a difficult and lengthy siege; and even if Jerusalem did fall to the crusaders, it would be very difficult to hold. In my view, it was at this very early point in the crusade that Richard opted for an indirect, diplomatic approach. Following the fall of Acre, the Lionheart’s initial plan was to march down the coast to Ascalon, which dominated the route between Syria and Egypt (the latter being the source of Saladin’s wealth). Richard’s reasoning was that once he controlled Ascalon he could threaten Egypt, much more important to Saladin than Jerusalem, and thus create a favorable context for negotiations (which he initiated almost immediately after arriving in the Holy Land).
Bowing to the pressures of the crusade leadership, however, in September Richard grudgingly acceded to the majority’s demand that he lead an attack on Jerusalem. By October, though, even as the crusaders were beginning their advance on the Holy City, Richard had begun making preparations for a full-blown invasion of Egypt—though, again, it appears his goal was more to convince Saladin of his earnestness than to actually set in motion a major offensive. And, of course, following the decision to abandon the advance on Jerusalem in January 1192, when Richard could have led the host against any objective, he immediately led it to Ascalon. Indeed, the record indicates that each and every time Richard was able to get his way, he led the crusaders toward what can only be considered his primary strategic objective: Ascalon, the linchpin in Saladin’s empire and a bargaining chip of such enormous value that Saladin himself at one point destroyed the fortifications there lest they fall into Richard’s hands. Richard only ever led the crusader host against Jerusalem when forced to, and even then only half-heartedly and to intensify the pressure on Saladin.
Viewed in this way, the decision to “abandon” the advance on Jerusalem in January 1192 is perfectly explicable. For Richard, taking Jerusalem by force of arms was never a primary strategic objective. To be sure, he agreed to lead the advance under pressure, and probably hoped that such an advance would add to the pressure on Saladin to negotiate a settlement favorable to the crusaders. But my reading is that he never seriously intended to lay siege to the Holy City. When it became possible for him to call off the advance, he seized the opportunity, renewing both negotiations and his indirect strategy of pressuring Saladin by taking, refortifying and holding Ascalon.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Mighty King of Chivalry Richard the Lionheart” painted by Fortunino Matania (1881-1961).