Siege of Acre (1189–91)
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The Siege of Acre was one of the first confrontations of the Third Crusade, lasting from August 28, 1189 until July 12, 1191, and the first time in history that the King of Jerusalem was compelled to personally see to the defence of the Holy Land. It was also the deadliest event of the whole period of the Crusades for the Christian ruling class of the east. Nevertheless, it was a key victory for the Crusaders and a serious defeat for Saladin, who had hoped to destroy the whole of the Crusader kingdom.
After Saladin had decisively defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187, he was able to conquer a great part of the Kingdom of Jerusalem with little opposition, among them the cities of Acre and (on October 2) Jerusalem itself. The Crusaders afterwards controlled only Tyre, Tripoli, and Antioch, which Saladin likewise attacked in 1188, although unsuccessfully. News of the loss of Jerusalem and Palestine was shocking to Europe, and there was soon demand for a new Crusade, called by Pope Gregory VIII in October 1187 and continued by his successor Pope Clement III.
In Tyre, Conrad of Montferrat had entrenched himself and had successfully resisted Saladin’s assault at the end of 1187. The sultan then turned his attention to other tasks, but then tried to negotiate the surrender of the city by treaty, as in mid-1188 the first reinforcements from Europe arrived at Tyre by sea. Under the terms of the treaty, Saladin would, among other things, release King Guy, whom he had captured at Hattin. This would have escalated the conflict between Guy, who was blamed for the catastrophe of Hattin, and Conrad, who had successfully defended Tyre from the subsequent invasion. Guy was released and appeared before Tyre, but Conrad would not let him in, claiming that he was administering it until the kings should arrive from across the sea to settle the succession. This was in accordance with Baldwin IV's will: he was the nearest paternal kinsman of Baldwin V. Guy left before appearing once again outside Tyre with his wife Queen Sibylla, who held the legal title to the kingdom, but he was again rejected by Conrad, and he set up his camp outside the gates of the city.
In late spring 1188, William II of Sicily sent a fleet with 200 knights; on April 6, 1189, Ubaldo Lanfranchi, Archbishop of Pisa, arrived with 52 ships. Guy succeeded in bringing both contingents over to his side. In August, Conrad again refused him entry to the city, so he broke camp and made his way south to attack Acre; he and his troops travelled along the coast, while the Pisans and Sicilians went by sea. Guy urgently needed a firm base from which he could organize a counterattack on Saladin, and since he could not have Tyre, he directed his plans to Acre, 50 km (31 miles) to the south. Thus Guy and Conrad were allies against Saladin.
The port of Acre lay on a peninsula in the Gulf of Haifa. East of the old part of the city was the port, protected against the open sea, while to the west and south the coast was protected by a strong dyke wall. The peninsula was guarded on the mainland side by double barrier reinforced with towers. The Muslim garrison of the city might have been twice as large as the army led by Guy, who arrived on August 28, 1189. He tried to surprise the garrison with an assault on the walls, but this failed and Guy thus established his camp outside the city, to wait for reinforcements, which began to arrive by sea a few days later. A Danish and Frisian fleet replaced that of the Sicilians, who withdrew when they heard news of the death of William II. French and Flemish soldiers also arrived under James of Avesnes, Henry I of Bar, Andrew of Brienne, Robert II of Dreux, and his brother Philip of Dreux, the Bishop of Beauvais. Germans under Margrave Louis III of Thuringia and Otto I of Guelders, and Italians under Archbishop Gerhard of Ravenna and the Bishop of Verona, also arrived. Louis of Thuringia was able to convince Conrad, his mother's cousin, to send troops from Tyre as well. Armenian troops under Leo II of Cilicia also took part in the siege. When Saladin was informed about this development, he gathered his troops and marched to Acre, where he unsuccessfully attacked Guy’s camp on September 15.
Battle of Acre
On October 4, 1189, Saladin moved to the east of the city to confront Guy’s camp to attack his enemies. The Crusader army (which consisted of 7,000 infantry and 400 cavalry) under Guy stood its ground in front of Saladin’s forces. The Christian army consisted of the feudal lords of the kingdom, many smaller contingents of European Crusaders, and members of the military orders; the Muslim army consisted of troops from Egypt, Turkestan, Syria, and Mesopotamia.
The Muslims lay in a semicircle east of the city facing inwards towards Acre. The Crusader army lay in between, with lightly armed crossbowmen in the first line and the heavy cavalry in second. At the later Battle of Arsuf the Christians fought coherently; here the battle began with a disjointed combat between the Templars and Saladin's right wing. The Crusaders were so successful that the enemy had to send reinforcements from other parts of the field. Thus the steady advance of the Christian center against Saladin's own corps, in which the crossbows prepared the way for the charge of the men-at-arms, met with no great resistance. Saladin’s center and right flanks were put to flight.
But the victors scattered to plunder. Saladin rallied his men, and, when the Christians began to retire with their booty, let loose his light cavalry upon them. No connected resistance was offered, and the Turks slaughtered the fugitives until checked by the fresh troops of the Christian right flank. Into this fight, Guy's reserves, charged with holding back the Saracens in Acre, were also drawn, and, thus freed, 5,000 men sallied out from the town to the northward; uniting with the Saracen right wing, they fell upon the Templars, who suffered severely in their retreat. Gerard de Ridefort, Grand Master of the Templars, was killed. Andrew of Brienne was also killed and Conrad had to be rescued by Guy. In the end, the Crusaders repulsed the relieving army. Christian casualties ranged from 4,000 or 5,000 to 10,000 men. Saladin could not push them back without another pitched battle, and his victory remained incomplete.
The double siege
During the autumn, more European Crusaders arrived, allowing Guy to blockade Acre by land. News of the imminent arrival of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa reached the Crusaders, which not only raised the morale of the Christian soldiers, but also compelled Saladin to bring in so many more troops that he was able to surround both the city and the Crusade camp in two separate sieges.
The next fifteen months passed with no major actions on either side. On October 30, 50 Muslim galleys broke through the Christian sea blockade and supplied the city with food and weapons. On December 17, an Egyptian fleet arrived to reestablish control over the port and the road leading to it. In March 1190, when the weather was better, Conrad traveled to Tyre on his own ship and soon returned with supplies for the Crusaders, which helped the resistance against the Egyptian fleet on the shore. The building materials brought by Conrad were constructed into siege machinery, although these machines were lost when the Crusaders tried to assault the city on May 6.
On May 20, Saladin, who had continued to strengthen his army over the previous months, began an attack on the Christian camp, which lasted eight days before it could be repelled. On July 25, against the orders of their commanders, the Christian soldiers attacked Saladin’s right flank and were defeated. Further reinforcements from France arrived in the Crusader camp over the summer, led by Henry II of Champagne, Theobald V of Blois, Stephen I of Sancerre, Raoul I of Clermont, John of Fontigny, Alain of Saint-Valéry, the Archbishop of Besançon, the Bishop of Blois, and the Bishop of Toul. Duke Frederick VI of Swabia arrived at the beginning of October with the rest of his father’s army, after the emperor had drowned in the Saleph River on June 10, and shortly afterwards English Crusaders arrived under Baldwin of Exeter, Archbishop of Canterbury. In October, the Count of Bar also arrived, and the Christians had a breakthrough in Haifa, which allowed more food to be brought to the camp at Acre.
Life in the city and the Christian camp quickly became difficult after their containment by Saladin. Food remained limited, the water supply became contaminated with human and animal corpses, and epidemics soon began to spread. Louis of Thuringia, sick with malaria, made plans to return home when the French arrived, and died in Cyprus on the way back on October 16. At some point between late July and October, Guy’s wife Queen Sibylla died, a few days after both of their daughters, Alais and Marie. With her death, Guy lost his claim to the throne of Jerusalem, as Sibylla was the legal heiress. Her rightful heir was her younger half-sister, Isabella of Jerusalem. Guy, however, refused to step aside for her.
The barons of the kingdom used this opportunity to rid themselves of Guy, and arranged the marriage of Conrad to Isabella. However, Isabella was already married to Humphrey IV of Toron, and Conrad's marital status was uncertain (he had married a Byzantine princess in 1187, a few months before arriving at Tyre, and it was unclear whether she had had him annulled in his absence). Also, Sibylla's first husband had been Conrad's older brother William Longsword, which made a marriage between Isabella and Conrad canonically 'incestuous'. Patriarch Eraclius was sick, and his appointed representative Baldwin of Exeter died suddenly on November 19. Therefore it was Archbishop Ubaldo Lanfranchi of Pisa and papal legate, as well as Philip, Bishop of Beauvais, who gave their consent to divorce Isabella from Humphrey on November 24. Conrad withdrew with Isabella to Tyre, but Guy still insisted that he was king: the succession would not be settled finally until an election in 1192.
Saladin’s army was now so large that it was impossible for any more Crusaders to arrive by land, and winter meant that no more supplies or reinforcements could arrive by sea. In the Christian camp, the leaders began to succumb to the epidemics. Theobald of Blois and Stephen of Sancerre died, and Frederick of Swabia also died, on January 20, 1191. Henry of Champagne struggled with sickness for many weeks before recovering. Patriarch Eraclius also died during the siege, but the date is unknown.
On December 31, another attempt to breach the walls failed, and on January 6, 1191, the partial collapse of the walls led to many Christian attempts at overrunning the Muslim garrisons. On February 13, Saladin succeeded in breaking through the Christian lines and reaching the city, so that he could replace the exhausted defenders with a new garrison; otherwise, the old garrison would have all died of disease. Conrad of Montferrat attempted an attack by sea on the Tower of Flies, but adverse winds and rocks below the surface prevented his ship getting close enough to do significant damage. In March, however, when the weather was better and ships could once again unload supplies on the coast, the danger of failure was again averted for the Christians. Duke Leopold V of Austria arrived and took control of the Christian forces. Ships also brought devastating news for Saladin. He had missed his chance to crush the remaining Christians and now King Richard the Lionheart and King Philip Augustus were on their way to the Holy Land, each accompanied by an army. Saladin’s chance for victory had slipped away.
The kings at Acre
King Philip arrived on April 20, 1191, and King Richard on June 8, after he had used the opportunity to conquer Cyprus along the way. Richard I arrived with an English fleet of 100 ships (which carried 8,000 men) while Philip II arrived with a Genoese fleet under Simone Doria. Philip had used the time before Richard’s arrival to build siege engines like the trebuchet, and now that stronger leadership from Europe had arrived, it was the city and not the Christian camp that was besieged. When Richard arrived, he sought a meeting with Saladin, and an armistice of three days was agreed upon so that the meeting could take place. However, both Richard and Philip fell ill, and the meeting did not take place.
The siege machines broke holes into the walls of Acre, but every new breach led to an attack from Saladin’s army, giving the garrison of Acre an opportunity to repair the damage while the Christians were distracted. On July 1, Philip of Alsace died in the camp, which was a major crisis for the French king, since Philip, the Count of Flanders and Vermandois and one of the most important men in the king’s retinue, had no heirs and settling his inheritance was an urgent matter, yet a very difficult one so far away from France.
On July 3, a sufficiently large breach was again created in the walls, but the Christian attack was repelled. On July 4, the city offered its surrender, but Richard rejected the conditions. This time Saladin did not make a large-scale attack on the Christian camp. On July 7, the city sent an embassy to Saladin asking for assistance one last time, and threatened to surrender if he did not help. On July 11, there was one final battle, and on July 12, the city once more offered terms of surrender to the Crusaders, who found their offer acceptable this time. Conrad of Montferrat, who had returned to Tyre because of Richard's support for Guy of Lusignan as king of Jerusalem, was recalled to act as negotiator, at Saladin's request. Saladin was not personally involved in the negotiations, but accepted the surrender. The Christians entered the city and the Muslim garrison was taken into captivity. Conrad raised the banners of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and of France, England and the Duchy of Austria over the city.
Leopold of Austria left shortly after the capture of the city, after quarrelling with Richard: as the surviving leader of the German Imperial contingent, he had demanded the same position as Philip and Richard, but had been rejected and his flag torn down from the ramparts of Acre. On July 31, Philip also returned home, to settle the succession in Vermandois and Flanders, and Richard was left solely in charge of the Christian expeditionary forces.
Execution of the prisoners
It was now up to Richard and Saladin to finalize the surrender of the city. The Christians began to rebuild Acre’s defenses, and Saladin collected money to pay for the ransom of the imprisoned garrison. On August 11, Saladin delivered the first of the three planned payments and prisoner exchanges, but Richard rejected this because certain Christian nobles were not included. The exchange was broken off and further negotiations were unsuccessful. Richard had also insisted on the handover of Philip's share of the prisoners, whom the French king had entrusted to his kinsman Conrad of Montferrat. Conrad reluctantly agreed, under pressure. On August 20, Richard thought that Saladin had delayed too much, and had 2,700 of the Muslim prisoners from the garrison of Acre decapitated. Saladin responded in kind, killing all of the Christian prisoners he had captured. On August 22, Richard and his army left the city, given in custody to the crusaders Bertram de Verdun and Stephen Longchamp.
The Crusader army marched south, with the sea to their right and Saladin’s army following them to their left. On September 7, they met at the Battle of Arsuf, north of Jaffa, in which Saladin was defeated. Richard captured Jaffa on September 10, but throughout the remainder of 1191 and into the summer of 1192, he was unable to realize his ultimate goal of recapturing Jerusalem. The dispute over the kingship of Jerusalem was resolved in April 1192, with the election of Conrad of Montferrat, but he was assassinated only days after his victory. The pregnant Queen Isabella was hastily married off to Richard and Philip's nephew, Henry of Champagne.
Meanwhile, Richard was informed that his brother, John Lackland, was attempting to usurp the throne in England. He arranged for a treaty with Saladin, and the Third Crusade came to an end when Richard rashly left for England in late October. However, Philip of France meanwhile had come to terms with John and had closed the French harbours; Richard was forced to make his way across the Adriatic Sea and went ashore near Aquileia. Due to the coming winter, crossing the Alps proved to be impossible, and the king incognito passed through the Austrian capital Vienna shortly before Christmas, where he was recognized, captured and imprisoned by Duke Leopold at Dürnstein.
Leopold did not hesitate to gain the support of Emperor Henry VI. In March 1193 he delivered Richard to the emperor, who had him arrested at Trifels Castle. The king was charged with the murder of Conrad, who was Leopold's cousin, and also with insulting the Austrian duke by throwing down his banner at Acre. Richard refused the accusations and was backed by Pope Celestine III, who threatened Henry with excommunication, nevertheless his imminent extradition to Philip of France made him strike a ransom deal. He was released for an enormous price, and did not return to his own territories until 1194.
The Kingdom of Jerusalem was now relatively secure, with its new capital at Acre, from which a narrow strip along the Mediterranean coast was ruled. This second incarnation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem would endure for another century.
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- Rickard, J (12 November 2001). "Siege of Acre, August 1189-12 July 1191", Accessed October 12, 2007.
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- Christopher Tyerman, God's War A New History of the Crusades, p.416. Belknap Press, 2008.
- Ibn Al-Athir, XII, 20-6; Chapter four in Arab Historians of the Crusades, ed. and trans. by Francesco Gabrieli
- James Jr Reston (2001). Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade. Random House, New York. ISBN 0-385-49561-7.
- Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, ed. William Stubbs, Rolls Series, (London: Longmans, 1864) III, 1, 5, 13, 17–18 (pp. 210–11, 214–17, 224–26, 231–34), translated by James Brundage, The Crusades: A Documentary History, (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1962), 175–81 fordham.edu
- Lane-Poole, Stanley. Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem Williams & Norgate, London (1903). (Archived here)
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