The history of medieval times is overflowing with epic tales of skirmishes, battles, and sieges; one could say, medieval history is simply rampant with violence. The seemingly obvious response to this for the kings, lords, and nobles in medieval times, was the construction of fortified sites; towers, castles, palaces, and even so far as entirely walled cities. Although the nature of fortifications may appear inherently defensive, they were commonly constructed as a means of supporting an invading force. Survival in hostile territory required a foundation within which an attacking force could convalesce. In addition, fortifications were secure bases from which to mount attacks on nearby enemies. The reality of the necessity for fortified support was arguably no more evident in medieval history than for the Christians in their exploits in the Holy Lands.
A little background on Acre…
The city of Acre is situated on a small peninsula, extending in a southerly direction into the Gulf of Haifa. Its geographical location affording it natural protection to both the south and west from the ocean, whilst its northern and eastern landward boundaries were extremely well fortified during the medieval period. Acre’s vital double port was situated to the city’s south and was defended by a broken mole jutting out into the bay in an easterly direction, the breakwater culminating in a fort known as the Tower of Flies. In most major Christian sites of the Crusader Kingdom, fortifications were constructed either as additions to already impressive works, or on the foundations and remnants of pre-existing sites. Acre was a prime example of the first of these cases. Throughout the Crusades, the fortifications of Acre received regular upgrades and expansions, to the extent that, by the end of the thirteenth century Acre had the most complex system of fortifications of any Christian controlled city in the East.
At the height of the Crusades, the port city of Acre was the Christians’ second largest township in the Kingdom. It was considered the richest of the Crusader cities and is even alleged to have been the preferred residence of the Frankish kings. Upon the arrival to the Holy Lands of Pope Urban II’s crusading army in 1099, Acre was in Muslim hands. Although not the target for the pilgrims, control of the city would be crucial to their survival. Despite a campaign successful in capturing Jerusalem, the Franks were unable to seize control of the vital port for a further five years, finally capturing the fortified city in 1104. Acre would remain under the control of the Christians for the better part of a century, providing vital economic and military support to the survival of the Crusader Kingdom. Its coastal location, large port, geographical significance, diverse inhabitants, and most importantly its robust military fortifications, combined to make the city of Acre arguably the most important Christian stronghold of the Crusades.
The situation in the East…
After the capture of Tyre in the early twelfth century, the lands of the Crusaders in the Holy Lands had grown to their peak. The area controlled by the Christians at this time was not only extensive, but was becoming immensely prosperous. Three decades earlier, a crusade to the Holy Lands was a brutal and unforgiving experience for a western Christian. With the new-found prosperity of the Crusader Kingdom this was being replaced by a tremendously alluring and thoroughly comfortable reality. One prominent chronicler, Fulcher of Chartres, noted that ‘he who was poor there (in Europe) finds now that God has made him rich here…[h]e who had little money now has countless gold coins’. As a result of this new-found prosperity, it wasn’t just devout pilgrims making the journey East, but their entire families were packing up for a chance at a new life.
By the middle of the twelfth century, the fortified port city of Acre had become the principal landing point for not only Frankish seafaring trade, but significantly the flow of western pilgrims to the Holy Land. After Pope Eugenius III proclaimed a new crusade, the city’s importance bourgeoned. Unlike the prolonged and grueling journey of the warriors on the First Crusade, most fighting men in the second and subsequent crusades made their journey to the East by sea. Not only was this a safer option, but it shortened the voyage considerably. As the events of the Christian capture of Jerusalem remained fresh in the minds of Europeans, the First Crusade was used as a motivator in the renewed call to arms and received an impassioned and committed response from the West. Specifically, the Second Crusade was launched as an immediate reaction to the loss of Edessa. Edessa had been the first Crusader state established and subsequently became the first to fall. As the chief port of the Crusader Kingdom, Acre was the point of arrival for the vast majority of the military contingents of the Second Crusade.
The initial purpose of the new crusade was, rather appropriately, to reclaim the lands of Edessa. However, it was eventually decided that the Christians would instead attempt to capture the arguably more valuable lands of Damascus. Attempt being the key word here… The series of events that followed were utterly disastrous for both, the crusader forces, and the Frankish people in general. The Second Crusade was abandoned after the failed siege of Damascus; a decision which, although entirely necessary, caused a rapid decline in regard for crusading in the West. This spreading ill-feeling brought with it further devastation for the Crusader Kingdom, and significantly, the city of Acre. The diminished the importance of the eastern lands in the eyes of Europeans meant the halting of supplies and aid being sent from the West; the impact of which heavily affected the financial and military support of the Kingdom. The resultant financial drain would all but cripple the city of Acre.
The rise of Saladin and the slaughter of the Franks…
As the strength and prosperity of the Crusader Kingdom was in rapid decline, the potency and strategic position of the city of Acre began to erode. Simultaneously, there was a substantial rise in the power of the Christians’ enduring enemy. The Muslim lands of Syria had been unified by Nur al-Din; Egypt had been conquered by al-Din’s Kurdish mercenary commander, Shirkuh; and Saladin was able to forge an Egyptian-Syrian empire, effectively surrounding the remaining lands of the Crusader Kingdom by 1186. The Christian conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 awoke a long dormant concept of jihad in the hearts of the Muslims. The principal inference of jihad is an intrinsic notion. The modern understanding of a battle against evil is involved, however evil to be confronted exists within ones’ own heart. The pain inflicted on the Muslim world with the loss of the Holy City stirred the supplementary connotation of defending the Islamic faith by fighting the unbeliever. It was through his promotion of this additional interpretation that Saladin was able to unite the previously fractured Muslim people. The influence of Saladin himself is said to have been so powerful that upon his death, the unity of the Muslim’s died with him.
By 1186, Saladin was fully prepared to redeem Islam from the horrors of the First Crusade. In a display of great leadership, Saladin had unified the Muslim people and surrounded the Crusader Kingdom. Subsequently, through a display of great military strategy, Saladin was able to unleash an immense onslaught against the Crusader forces. In 1187, through careful positioning, impeccable planning, and superior knowledge of the land, Saladin pressed the Frankish forces into an encounter near Lake Tiberias in Galilee. The Muslims made camp on June 27 with the largest single force Saladin had ever assembled. The location of the encounter was not one of chance, but of careful planning and consideration on the behalf of Saladin; displaying an understanding that disrupting the Frank’s access to water would be detrimental to their chances of success in battle. For a number of days Saladin’s forces attempted to lure the Christian army into battle. On July 4, out of sheer desperation for water, the Crusader forces made an attempt at capturing the Muslim controlled town of Hattin in order to gain access to the town’s natural springs. Once again the term attempt is key… The ensuing conflict was a brief as it was brutal, one eyewitness to the battle notes that, ‘the Lord’s people were left bewildered in the moment of crisis…[s]o many were slaughtered there, so many wounded, so many thrown into chains that they were completely destroyed’.
The slaughter of the Frankish forces at the Battle of Hattin is arguably the single best illustration of the military and strategic nous of Saladin. It was the culmination of a time of utter domination over the Crusader forces. Within nearly a year, Saladin had wrestled back control of nearly every Frankish port and castle across the once expansive Crusader Kingdom. On July 10 1187, after Saladin had marched his impressive force to the gates of Acre, the city conceded to the Muslim leader without contest. The remnants of the Kingdom were now left all but defenceless, and on October 2, less than a month after his obliteration of the Crusader forces at Hattin, Saladin took back control of the Holy City of Jerusalem, thus fulfilling the jihad on behalf of all Muslims.
Saladin, the Lionheart, and the Siege of Acre…
Further emphasising the significance of the port city of Acre, it was utilised as a stronghold for Muslim power in the region, and a base of administration during Saladin’s brief reign over the site. In addition, the Muslim leader oversaw the strengthening of the city’s fortifications for the specific purpose of being capable of withstanding a prolonged siege. It is worth noting that Saladin’s emirs directly opposed such plans, believing the site was too important to be allowed to stand; they held the view that the fortifications should be destroyed as to ensure against use of the city by the Christians, should it recaptured. Shortly after receiving word of Saladin’s successes in the Holy Lands, and after the sudden death of his predecessor, Pope Gregory VIII informed all Christendom of the devastation in the East, and in turn, issued a renewed appeal for crusade. Although the events of 1186-7 along with the papal bull, the Audita tremendi, had reinvigorated the crusading fervour of European Christians, it would be nearly four years until the leaders of the Third Crusade would depart for the Holy Land. The events that followed were arguably worth the wait for historians, as the ensuing battle would pitch two of the most iconic, charismatic, and memorable leaders of the entire crusading era, against one another in a struggle for control of Jerusalem.
The Siege of Acre began long before the main forces of the Third Crusade, the armies of the French and English kings, arrived in the East. After being captured at the Battle of Hattin, King Guy of Jerusalem (Guy de Lusignan) was released in 1188 on the agreement that he never again bear arms against Saladin. In August 1189, in what is obviously the least shocking move ever, Guy would break his oath and march from Tyre in an attempt to recapture the vital port city for the Franks. For once, the word attempt does not come back to haunt the Crusaders. It is worth noting that the clergy dismissed Guy’s oath as untenable, as it was made both through coercion, and to an infidel. Saladin initially believed that the march was purely intended to draw the Muslim army away from the ongoing siege of Beaufort. As a result, guy was able to pass by Saladin’s immense force, peacefully. One of the key reasons behind Saladin’s decision was the belief that the alternative, a march to lay siege to Acre, where the garrison more than doubled the size of Guy’s force, was utterly irrational. Crusades historian Steven Runciman goes as far as to state that it was a ‘move of desperate foolhardiness, the decision of a brave but very unwise man’ and that ‘[n]o one could have foreseen that the adventure would succeed’. Shortly after the arrival of Guy and his force, a continual supply of reinforcements began to arrive in aid of the besiegers, kicking off one of the longest and most punishing battles of the Crusading era.
Within a month, in addition to being outnumbered by the garrison of Acre despite continual reinforcements, the Christian besiegers had themselves become the besieged. Saladin left a small force in Beaufort to complete his task and marched the majority of his army to Acre. Upon hearing news of the impending arrival of crusaders under the command of German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, Saladin once again conveyed the importance of the city of Acre and issued his own version of the Audita tremendi and renewed the call to jihad. Not of particular note to this article, bit significant to history, is that the fact that Barbarossa never arrived at Acre; drowning en route whilst attempting to cross the river Selef in Armenia. With the Christians in an utterly desperate state, Richard I and the bulk of the English army finally arrived at Acre on June 8 1191. The Italian contribution at Acre did not come close to the imposing size of the English and French forces, however they possessed the most advanced siege machines of all the Christian nations. The fortifications of Acre were given their greatest test to date, facing the might of the Crusaders who employed ladders, towers, battering rams, stone throwers, mangonels, and trebuchets. Although the city was strong, its defence was supported by the fact that the Christians were continuously harassed from the rear by the bulk of Saladin’s forces.
As discussed earlier, the city of Acre was bordered on two sides by water. In a failed attack on Acre in 1103 by Baldwin I, the Crusader forces’ inability to control the sea resulted in the constant resupply to the besieged garrison through the port. The siege of 1191 would not repeat this mistake; the arrival of the kings’ fleets ensured command of the water belonged to the Christians and as such the Muslim garrison rarely received supplies from the water. As a result of the immensity and longevity of the siege, and the dwindling supplies within the city, there was talk of surrender from the Muslims within. Despite rumours of such talk infuriating Saladin, the reality was such that, the city was rife with disease, the inhabitants were pushed to starvation, and the walls of the city in sections verged on collapse. After almost two years of brutal besiegement, the Muslim garrison of Acre, with no hope of relief in sight, capitulated and surrendered to the Christian forces lead by Richard the Lionhearted.
Shortly after the fall of Acre, the leader of the French forces, King Phillip, departed the Holy Lands to return home to France; a move that was met with widespread disapproval. In complete contrast, King Richard went on to famously lead the crusader forces; defeating Saladin and the Muslims in open battle, capturing a number of fortified towns, and marching toward the Holy City of Jerusalem. The warriors of the Third Crusade ultimately failed to achieve the final goal of avenging the 1187 loss of Jerusalem, and as a result, the city of Acre became the headquarters for the Crusaders in the Holy Land, and the capital of the remnants of the Kingdom of Jerusalem for the remainder of the Christians’ presence in the East.
A closing thought…
Due to the lack of an 1191 battle for Jerusalem, the hostility between Saladin and the Lionheart never produced the ending that it arguably deserved. Although Richard was successful at the Siege of Acre, and again in open battle with Saladin’s forces, the Third Crusade was unable to provide a clear winner, and debate as to the superiority of either leader rages on to this day. It is worth noting, and in doing so demonstrating to a point this chroniclers’ opinion, that Saladin is often portrayed as a graceful and merciful leader of medieval history, and in contrast the Lionheart is oft noted as arrogant and brutish – his massacre of the garrison of Acre after their surrender enduring as an unforgettable stain on the history of the English King.
– Jamie Gatehouse
- Feature image: Saladin attacks a Crusader city, BL MS Yates Thomson 12, f. 161 r.
- Denys Pringle ‘Town Defences in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem’, in The Medieval City Under Siege, ed. Ivy A. Corfis and Michael Wolfe, Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1995.
- Steven Runciman, The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades, vol. 3, A History of the Crusades, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955.
- Amin Maalouf, The Crusades through Arab Eyes, trans., Jon Rothschild. London: Saqi, 2012.
- Elizabeth Hallam, ed., Chronicles of the Crusades: Eye-witness accounts of the wars between Christianity and Islam, Surrey: Bramley Books, 1996.
- Jean Richard, The Crusades: c. 1071-c. 1291, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- Michael Barber, The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
- Jean de Joinville and Geoffroy Villehardouin, Chronicles of the Crusades, translated by Caroline Smith, London, Penguin, 2008.
See our bibliography on the Crusades.