Does Richard I deserve his reputation as a martial genius?
He's perhaps the most famous crusader of the Middle Ages, even though he failed to take Jerusalem. But should that matter to his reputation? Medieval historian Thomas Asbridge considers whether Richard the Lionheart deserves his reputation as a martial genius
Lauded by scholars as a peerless military commander and recalled in popular imagination as a fearsome Christian champion, Richard the Lionheart is perhaps the most famous crusader of the Middle Ages. But when his epic confrontation with the Muslim leader Saladin during the Third Crusade is subjected to detailed scrutiny, the Lionheart’s achievements begin to lose some of their lustre. In fact, if we strip away modern preconceptions and medieval propaganda, it becomes clear that Richard never fully mastered the art of crusading warfare.
Richard, the tall, reddish-golden-haired son of King Henry II of England, was one of the first western potentates to answer the call to arms issued by the papacy in autumn 1187, after Saladin stunned Christendom by crushing the forces of ‘crusader’ Palestine and recapturing the sacred city of Jerusalem for Islam. In the years that followed, the Lionheart ascended to the English throne, but dynastic squabbles and a heated rivalry with his fellow crusader, King Phillip II of France, meant that Richard did not reach the Near East until early summer 1191. He arrived there, aged 33, as a wealthy but relatively untested monarch, possessed of a burgeoning reputation for bravery and martial genius. For the next 16 months he waged a bloody and gruelling war for dominion of the Holy Land.
Few could argue that Richard won the Third Crusade outright, because Jerusalem remained unconquered by the campaign’s end. Nonetheless, an overwhelmingly positive view of the Lionheart’s crusading career has taken hold among modern historians.
According to this prevailing interpretation, Richard was an expert practitioner of ‘the science of war’, and as such brought an unrivalled flair for military leadership to the struggle against Saladin, achieving a startling victory over the Muslim sultan at the battle of Arsuf, their only set-piece confrontation. The English king also has been widely praised for the cool-headed pragmatism of his generalship. Twice he marched to within a day of Jerusalem and, on both occasions, turned back without launching an attack on the Holy City. Far from eliciting criticism, these retreats have been presented as proof that the Lionheart’s decision-making was governed by strategic reality and not pious fantasy, because Jerusalem was supposedly unconquerable with the resources at his disposal and certainly untenable in the longer term.
These views have been repeated by numerous scholars in recent decades, but this consensus has bred something akin to complacency, stifling any discussion or reassessment of Richard’s conduct. So often, when we debate the past, the pendulum swings from one extreme to another, but it is not the intention here to bluntly overturn the Lionheart’s reputation.
Without a doubt, Richard did bring a vital boost to the Third Crusade in terms of martial vigour and human resources, but this should not blind us to his failings and the limited nature of his achievements. In fact, the best evidence suggests that the battle of Arsuf was actually a relatively insignificant, opportunistic encounter, and it could also be argued that the Lionheart’s strategy in relation to Jerusalem was reflective of an elemental failure to grasp the nuances and unique demands of crusade leadership.
- Read more: The rise and fall of the Knights Templar
The battle of Arsuf
In late August 1191, Richard I’s crusading strategy was focused upon one primary objective. After arriving in the Levant he had enjoyed early success, helping to re-energise the Christian siege of Muslim-held Acre – Palestine’s pre-eminent port – and securing possession of this important bridgehead on 12 July. When Phillip II made a rather sudden return to France a few weeks later, the Lionheart found himself in sole command of the Third Crusade, but he now needed urgently to march south, along the coast towards the smaller port of Jaffa, if he was to have any hope of threatening Jerusalem before the onset of winter. Richard led his army, totalling around 15,000 men, away from the relative safety of Acre on 22 August, closely shadowed by Saladin’s troops. After some initial problems with discipline, the Lionheart managed to organise the crusaders into tightly ordered ranks and, in the face of near-constant, scouring Muslim attacks, the Christians began to make measured progress southwards.
More like this
When reconstructing this grinding fighting march from Acre, historians have usually turned to the detailed and colourful eyewitness testimony of Ambroise (probably a Norman cleric), who followed Richard east on crusade and later composed an epic Old French verse history of the expedition. According to Ambroise, his hero the Lionheart made a conscious, proactive decision to challenge Saladin head-on 17 days into this inexorable advance, setting out to fight a decisive pitched battle against the sultan upon the wide, sandy plain just north of the small settlement of Arsuf.
In Ambroise’s account, 7 September 1191 was a day of deliberate confrontation and of glory on an almost Homeric scale. It began with King Richard carefully arranging the disposition of his troops “side by side and so close that any apple [thrown in their midst] could not have failed to strike man or beast”.
Planning to deploy the Christians’ most powerful weapon – a heavy cavalry charge of some 2,000 mounted knights – the moment Saladin overcommitted his own forces, the Lionheart supposedly placed “six trumpets… in three different places in the army, which would sound when they were to turn against the Turks” and initiate their headlong assault. The resplendent crusader army thus began its march, primed, practically straining for the fight. Soon after dawn, they were greeted by a menacing vision: there, where wooded hills ran down to the left edge of the plain of Arsuf, Saladin had arrayed the full strength of his army, “piled up, like a thick hedge” – some 30,000 Muslim warriors, many of them mounted.
Throughout that morning the Christians marched south, pummelled by an incessant frontal onslaught and an aerial bombardment of appalling intensity. According to Ambroise, Richard never managed to unleash his meticulously prepared charge because two knights in the rearguard unexpectedly “burst out of the line [and] charged the Turks”. As a ripple of realisation spread through the army, thousands of crusaders turned to follow their lead and the king was forced to commit the rest of his troops. Even so, the Lionheart was said to have saved the day. Riding “faster than a bolt from a crossbow” into the midst of the fray, cutting down the enemy “as if he were reaping the harvest with a sickle”, he eventually managed to drive Saladin’s army from the field – scoring a victory in spite of the precipitous attack.
Ambroise’s account of Arsuf has been hugely influential: widely copied by contemporaries; often uncritically regurgitated by modern historians. The battle is traditionally presented as an encounter that King Richard actively sought, and one in which he achieved resounding success. Scholars have variously described this as “the last great triumph of the Christians in the Near East”, a confrontation “fought on Richard’s terms” and marked by the Lionheart’s “masterful” generalship. The problem is that Ambroise wrote some time after the end of the Third Crusade, in full knowledge of the fact that Jerusalem had not been recovered. Setting out to construct an image of Richard I as the hero of the holy war, Ambroise presented Arsuf as a critical set-piece encounter that could have brought overall victory for Christendom had the king’s original plan been realised.
Alluring as Ambroise’s vision is, other eyewitness reports challenge his narrative, most notably a letter composed by King Richard I himself – a dispatch from the front lines to Europe – written just three weeks after the battle of Arsuf, on 1 October 1191. In this missive, Richard noted that: "Our vanguard was proceeding and was already setting up camp at Arsuf, when Saladin and his Saracens made a violent attack on our rearguard, but by the grace of God's favourable mercy they were forced into flight just by four squadrons that were facing them."
A grand strategy?
This brief, almost passing description of events on 7 September indicates that the front ranks of the crusader host reached the outskirts of Arsuf and had begun “setting up camp” before the unexpected charge began (a fact confirmed by eyewitness Arabic testimony). This gives lie to the notion that Richard was harbouring some grander strategy at Arsuf; holding his forces in check only so that they could be unleashed in a hugely unpredictable open battle against a numerically superior foe. Just as it had been throughout the march from Acre, his priority was reaching Jaffa with as much of his army intact as possible. When the crusader rearguard broke ranks to launch an attack, the Lionheart’s swift response did avert disaster, ultimately securing an opportunistic, but morale-boosting, victory. Crucially, his generalship was reactive, not proactive.
The real impact of Arsuf upon Christian fortunes in the Third Crusade also was quite limited. Arabic sources acknowledged that Saladin suffered a damaging defeat on 7 September, with one eyewitness recording that many “met a martyr’s death”, but these losses were soon recouped by reinforcements from across the Near East. The telling damage was psychological. Saladin’s “heart” was said, by one of his closet confidantes, to be “full of feelings that God alone could know”. He had tried and failed to stop the Third Crusade in its tracks. Evidently humiliated, the sultan now revised his approach to the war for the Holy Land, adopting a determinedly defensive strategy – a shift that, somewhat ironically, stymied Richard I’s chances of achieving overall victory in Palestine.
In the months that followed, Saladin avoided direct confrontation and fell back behind Jerusalem’s formidable defences, hoping there to wait out the Lionheart, sure in the knowledge that the English king’s European interests would eventually force him to give up his crusade and return to the west. In the end, Saladin’s judgement proved sound and the Third Crusade concluded with a three-year truce agreed on 2 September 1192 that left the Holy City in Muslim hands.
- Read more: Did the crusaders fight for god or gold?
How does Richard compare to other crusaders?
King Richard I twice marched inland from the Palestinian coast towards Jerusalem, reaching the small dismantled fortress at Beit Nuba, just 12 miles from the Holy City – in December 1191 and again in June 1192.
On both occasions the Lionheart probably had little or no intention of actually prosecuting an attack on the city – instead these were feints, designed to test Saladin’s resolve and to augment diplomatic negotiations. In all this, the king followed the best precepts of medieval generalship, but he failed to account for the distinct nature of crusading warfare – a species of conflict underpinned by religious ideology and dependent upon the overwhelming devotional allure of Jerusalem. By twice retreating from the Holy City, he shattered the morale and resolve of his troops, effectively ending any hope of future success.
By contrast, the First Crusaders risked everything to besiege Jerusalem nearly a century earlier. Driven on by a seemingly unbreakable sense of spiritual self belief, they threw caution to the wind and, despite the threat of impending annihilation at the hands of a massive Egyptian relief army, conquered the Holy City on 15 July 1099.
Jerusalem was not recovered for Christendom until the crusade of Emperor Frederick II of Germany in 1229 (and even then it was only held for 15 years). Much has been made of the fact that Frederick used diplomacy rather than military force to secure possession of the Holy City. In fact, Frederick’s methods and objectives bear close comparison to those employed by Richard I during the Third Crusade.
Like Frederick II, the Lionheart was a remarkably adept and guileful negotiator who actively pursued diplomatic contact with his Muslim enemies throughout his campaign. Richard came close to brokering his own deal for Jerusalem’s repatriation and even considered marrying his sister Joanne to Saladin’s brother to create a jointly ruled realm.
Thomas Asbridge is senior lecturer in medieval history at Queen Mary University of London, and the author of The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99