The Third Crusade 1191: Richard the Lionheart, Saladin and the struggle for Jerusalem by David Nicolle
The Third Crusade 1191: Richard the Lionheart, Saladin and the struggle for Jerusalem by David Nicolle

Richard the Lionheart and Saladin


The Battle of Arsuf, a pivotal event in the Third Crusade, unfolded on the 7th of September 1191. This conflict involved a coalition of Crusaders from various nations, commanded by Richard I of England, confronting a formidable Ayyubid Sultanate army under the leadership of Saladin.

Preparation and Maneuvering

After capturing the city of Acre, Saladin swiftly moved to intercept Richard’s advancing army, strategically positioned just outside the city of Arsuf. The Crusader forces were en route from Acre to Jaffa along the coastal route. Saladin’s initial tactic involved launching a series of harassing attacks aimed at disrupting the cohesion of the Crusader army. However, these attempts failed to fracture the Crusaders’ formation.

The Clash on the Plain

As the Crusaders progressed across the northern plain of Arsuf, Saladin committed his entire army to a pitched battle. The Crusader forces maintained a defensive formation during their march, with Richard patiently awaiting the opportune moment to mount a counterattack. Nevertheless, a bold charge by the Knights Hospitaller compelled Richard to engage his entire force in support of this offensive. This courageous Crusader charge eventually shattered the Ayyubid army, with Richard demonstrating restraint by preventing a reckless pursuit and instead regrouping his cavalry to secure victory.

Aftermath and Territorial Gains

Following this decisive engagement, the Crusaders established control over the central coast of Palestine, including the coveted city of Jaffa.

The Battle of Arsuf stands as a testament to the determination and strategic prowess of Richard I and his Crusader forces, marking a turning point in the Third Crusade’s quest to reclaim the Holy Land.

Prelude to the Battle

Map showing the progress of the Third Crusade

Map showing the progress of the Third Crusade

Strategic Moves After Acre Capture

After the successful capture of Acre in 1191, Richard the Lionheart recognized the importance of securing the port of Jaffa before attempting to reclaim Jerusalem.

In August of the same year, Richard initiated a calculated march along the coast from Acre towards Jaffa. His goal was to strategically advance while considering various critical factors. Saladin, whose primary objective was to prevent Jerusalem from falling back into Crusader hands, swiftly mobilized his forces to counter the Crusaders’ progress.

Richard meticulously planned the Crusaders’ advance. The Egyptian fleet’s capture at Acre eliminated a significant threat, allowing him to move south along the coast with the sea as a protective barrier on his right flank. Saladin had previously demolished Jaffa’s fortifications in the summer of 1190 due to its perceived importance to the Crusaders.

Prioritizing Water and Avoiding Heat Exhaustion

Richard, mindful of the lessons learned from the Hattin disaster, recognized that his army’s paramount need was water, and heat exhaustion posed the greatest danger. Despite time constraints, he proceeded at a deliberate pace, marching his troops only in the morning before the day’s heat peaked. During the march, Richard arranged frequent rest stops near water sources, while the fleet sailed in close support, providing supplies and refuge for the wounded.

Protecting Against Enemy Attacks

Acknowledging the threat of enemy raiders and hit-and-run tactics, Richard maintained a tight formation with twelve mounted regiments at its core. Infantry units covered the landward flank, offering protection from missile attacks, with crossbowmen in the outermost ranks. Despite being provoked by Saladin’s archers, Richard’s leadership ensured that order and discipline prevailed even in challenging circumstances.

Baha al-Din ibn Shaddad’s Account

The Muslim chronicler Baha al-Din ibn Shaddad provided a firsthand account of the Crusaders’ march, highlighting their remarkable self-control and endurance against enemy harassment. Baha al-Din also noted the significant power disparity between the Crusader crossbows and the bows used by Saladin’s forces, with crossbows proving deadly to both horse and man.

Saladin's Tactical Approach

19th-century depiction of the battle by French painter Éloi Firmin Féron (1802–1876)

19th-century depiction of the battle by French painter Éloi Firmin Féron (1802–1876)

The Pace of the Crusader Army vs. the Ayyubid Advantage

The Crusader army’s movement was influenced by the infantry and baggage train, while the Ayyubid army, predominantly composed of mounted soldiers, held a distinct mobility advantage. Despite attempts to burn crops and hinder the Frankish army’s access to the countryside, these efforts proved largely ineffective due to the Crusaders’ continuous resupply capability from their accompanying fleet, which moved in parallel to their southern direction.

On August 25th, the Crusader rearguard faced a perilous situation while crossing a narrow passage, nearly finding itself isolated. However, the Crusaders swiftly regrouped, compelling the Muslim forces to retreat.

Tactical Maneuvers 

Between August 26th and 29th, Richard’s army experienced a respite from enemy attacks as it followed the coastal route, bypassing Mount Carmel, while Saladin’s army opted for a more direct path, reaching the vicinity of Caesarea ahead of the Crusaders, who were on a longer route.

In early September, Saladin realized that harassing the Frankish army with a small portion of his forces would not halt their progress. He determined that committing his entire army to a significant assault was necessary.

Saladin’s fortunate circumstance was the Crusaders’ need to traverse the densely wooded “Wood of Arsuf,” a unique geographical feature parallel to the coastline that spanned over 20 kilometers, providing excellent cover for his army’s strategic positioning and enabling a surprise attack.

The Crusaders successfully traversed half of the forest with minimal incidents, and on September 6th, they established a camp protected by a marsh near the mouth of the Nahr-el-Falaik river, referred to as Rochetaillée.

Saladin’s Chosen Battlefield

South of the camp, a 10-kilometer stretch separated the Crusaders from the ruins of Arsuf, marked by the forest receding inland. This created a narrow plain, measuring 1.5 to 3 kilometers in width, bordered by wooded hills and the sea. It was in this location that Saladin planned to launch his decisive attack.

While engaging in skirmishes along the entire length of the Crusader column, Saladin directed his most sustained and direct assault on their rear. His overarching strategy appeared to hinge on allowing the Frankish vanguard and center to advance, with the hope of creating a vulnerable gap between them and the heavily engaged rearmost units. Saladin intended to exploit this gap by deploying his reserves to defeat the Crusaders in detail.

The Battle of Arsuf

Assessing the Size of Opposing Armies

According to the Itinerarium Regis Ricardi, it suggests that the Ayyubid army had a numerical advantage over the Crusaders, estimated at a three-to-one ratio. However, these figures seem greatly exaggerated, with reported numbers of 300,000 and 100,000 respectively, which are considered unrealistic. Modern evaluations of Saladin’s forces put them at approximately 25,000 soldiers, primarily consisting of cavalry, including horse archers, light cavalry, and a smaller contingent of heavy cavalry.

Taking into account the combined forces of the three kings who journeyed to the Holy Land and the troops available to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, McLynn calculates that the total Crusader strength at Arsuf amounted to 20,000 individuals. This comprised 9,000 troops led by Richard from his territories, 7,000 French soldiers under Phillip’s command, 2,000 troops from Outremer, and an additional 2,000 soldiers from various sources, such as Danes, Frisians, Genoese, Pisans, and Turcopoles. It’s important to note that this calculation does not consider losses in previous battles or desertions, making it likely that the Crusader army numbered around 10,000 or possibly more men.

The Cambridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare describes Richard’s army as having 10,000 infantry, including spearmen and crossbowmen, along with 1,200 heavy cavalry. Saladin’s army is believed to have been twice the size of Richard’s, with a predominant focus on cavalry.

A depiction of the battle's layout from an 1898 book by Charles Oman

A depiction of the battle’s layout from an 1898 book by Charles Oman

Deployment and Preparations

On the morning of September 7th, as Richard’s troops began to depart from their camp, enemy scouts were visible in all directions, suggesting that Saladin’s entire army might be concealed within the forest. King Richard paid particular attention to arranging his army. He assigned the most perilous positions, particularly the front and rear of the column, to the military orders. These groups possessed extensive experience in Eastern warfare, displayed remarkable discipline, and were the only units that included Turcopole cavalry, who fought similarly to the Turkish horse archers of the Ayyubid army.

The leading contingent of the Crusader army was comprised of the Knights Templar, led by Robert de Sablé. They were followed by three divisions consisting of Richard’s own subjects, including the Angevins and Bretons, then the Poitevins, which included Guy of Lusignan, the nominal King of Jerusalem, and finally, the English and Normans, responsible for the grand standard mounted on its wagon. The subsequent seven formations consisted of the French, Flemings, Outremer barons, and small groups of crusaders from various regions. The rearguard was composed of the Knights Hospitaller, commanded by Garnier de Nablus. These twelve formations were organized into five larger groups, although the exact arrangement remains unknown. Additionally, a small unit, led by Henry II of Champagne, was assigned to scout the nearby hills. A squadron of elite knights, under the leadership of King Richard and Hugh of Burgundy, who led the French contingent, was tasked with patrolling the column, monitoring Saladin’s movements, and ensuring the Crusader ranks remained orderly.

First Saracen Assault

The first Saracen assault occurred after all the Crusaders had vacated their camp and were en route to Arsuf. The Ayyubid army then emerged from the forest. The forefront of their force consisted of numerous skirmishers, including both mounted and foot soldiers, Bedouins, Sudanese archers, and the lighter Turkish horse archers. Behind them were well-ordered squadrons of heavily armored cavalry, such as Saladin’s mamluks, Kurdish troops, and contingents from the emirs and princes of Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Saladin directed his army from beneath his banners, surrounded by his bodyguards and accompanied by his kettle drummers.

In an effort to disrupt the unity of the Crusader army and undermine their determination, the Ayyubid assault included the clash of cymbals and gongs, trumpets blaring, and warriors shouting battle cries.

The repetitive Ayyubid harassment followed a consistent pattern: Bedouins and Nubians on foot launched arrows and javelins into the enemy ranks, then cleared the way for mounted archers to advance, strike, and withdraw, executing a well-practiced maneuver. Crusader crossbowmen responded when possible, but the primary objective for the Crusaders was to maintain their formations in the face of relentless provocation. When the continuous skirmisher attacks failed to achieve the desired impact, the focus of the assault shifted to the rear of the Crusader column, with the Hospitallers experiencing the most intense pressure. On this front, the right wing of the Ayyubid army launched a desperate assault against the squadron of Hospitaller knights and the accompanying infantry units. The Hospitallers faced attacks from both their rear and flank, forcing many of their infantrymen to march backward to keep their shields and faces toward the enemy. Saladin, eager to inspire his soldiers for closer combat, personally entered the battle, accompanied by two attendants leading spare horses. Sayf al-Din, Saladin’s brother, also actively encouraged the troops, with both brothers thus exposing themselves to significant crossbow fire.

Hospitallers’ Charge 

The Hospitallers disrupted their formation and launched an attack. Despite Saladin’s best efforts, he couldn’t break the Crusader formation or stop their advance towards Arsuf. Richard was resolute in keeping his army intact, making the enemy wear themselves out with repeated charges. His plan was to save his knights from a powerful counter-attack at the perfect moment. However, this strategy carried risks because the army faced intense enemy provocation, scorching heat, and thirst. Additionally, the Saracens were killing so many horses that some of Richard’s knights doubted the feasibility of a counter-strike. Many knights without horses joined the infantry.

As the vanguard entered Arsuf in the afternoon, the Hospitaller crossbowmen at the rear struggled to maintain their formation. They eventually lost cohesion, and the enemy seized the opportunity, attacking through the gaps with swords and maces. The Battle of Arsuf was now at a critical juncture for the Crusaders. Garnier de Nablus repeatedly requested permission from Richard to attack, but he was denied. Instead, he was ordered to hold his position and await the signal for a general assault, which would be six trumpet blasts. Richard understood that the charge of his knights had to be timed when the Ayyubid army was fully engaged and the Saracen horses were tired.

However, whether due to a lack of discipline or acting on Richard’s delegated authority, the Order’s marshal and one of Richard’s household knights, Baldwin le Carron, moved through their infantry and charged into the Saracen ranks, shouting “St. George!” They were soon followed by the rest of the Hospitaller knights. Encouraged by this action, the French knights preceding the Hospitallers also charged.

The commonly accepted version of events suggests that Garnier de Nablus and the Hospitaller cavalry charged out of desperation and directly disobeyed Richard’s orders. However, this account has been questioned. The established viewpoint relies on two related sources that do not align with some other accounts, including Richard’s own letters about the battle. Recently, it has been suggested that Richard may have delegated the authority to trusted subordinates to identify and seize the right moment to order a charge. Furthermore, it’s unclear how a trumpet signal would have been heard amidst the clashing cymbals and gongs of the Ayyubid army or distinguished from Saladin’s regular trumpet blasts.

Crusader Counterattack

Should the conduct of the Hospitallers be deemed a breach of discipline, it possessed the potential to unravel the entire strategic fabric meticulously woven by Richard. Alternatively, one might conjecture that Baldwin le Carron, in a stroke of audacious autonomy, was granted a license to seize a fleeting opportunity. In either scenario, Richard astutely discerned that once the counterattack commenced, it demanded the unwavering support of his entire host. Consequently, he issued the command for a general charge to be trumpeted forth. It became evident that without reinforcement, the Hospitallers and their compatriots, who had initiated the daring breakout, would find themselves overwhelmed by the overwhelming numerical superiority of their adversary.

The Frankish infantry, with deliberate forethought, cleaved openings within their formations to usher the gallant knights through, allowing the assault to naturally evolve from the rear to the vanguard. In the eyes of Saladin’s soldiery, as astutely observed by Baha al-Din, the abrupt transition from passivity to ferocious activity on the part of the Crusaders appeared to be a well-conceived stratagem.

Having been previously embroiled in close-quarter combat with the rearmost echelons of the Crusader procession, the right flank of the Ayyubid forces remained ensconced in compact formation, situated perilously close to their foe, rendering evasion of the full brunt of the impending charge nigh impossible. Indeed, some cavalrymen of this wing had dismounted to more effectively unleash their volleys of arrows. Consequently, the Ayyubids suffered grievous casualties, retribution served cold and brutal for the tribulations endured earlier in the conflict. Baldwin le Carron and the marshal of the Hospitallers, it seemed, had chosen their moment with uncanny precision.

The Rout 

In the words of Baha al-Din, “the rout was complete.” Positioned initially within the center division of Saladin’s army, when it turned in headlong flight, his gaze sought to align with the left wing, only to discover it too was swept up in rapid retreat. Observing the disintegration of the right flank, he ultimately sought out the banner of Saladin himself, yet encountered but a mere seventeen members of the Sultan’s dwindled bodyguard and a solitary drummer as the remnants of their retinue.

Ever cognizant that overzealous pursuit posed the gravest peril when contending with adversaries schooled in the fluid tactics of the Turks, Richard prudently called a halt to the charge after traversing approximately 1.5 kilometers (1 mile). The Crusader units comprising the right flank, notably the English and Normans, had hitherto been spared heavy entanglement in hand-to-hand strife. They now stood as a readily available reserve, upon which the remaining ranks could coalesce. Liberated from the pressures of relentless pursuit, many among the Ayyubid ranks turned their attentions to hewing down those knights who had recklessly surged ahead of their compatriots. James d’Avesnes, commander of one of the Franco-Flemish contingents, emerged as the most conspicuous victim in this harrowing episode. Among the Ayyubid leaders who promptly regrouped and returned to the fray was Taqi al-Din, the nephew of Saladin himself. With 700 stalwart warriors from the Sultan’s own bodyguard at his beck and call, he bore down upon Richard’s left flank. As their squadrons regained their order, Richard, at the helm of his knights, initiated a second charge, whereupon the forces of Saladin buckled once more.

Aware of the perilous threat looming over his disarrayed troops, Richard, ever the judicious commander, promptly ordered a halt and orchestrated the reformation of his forces following yet another relentless pursuit. The Ayyubid cavalry, displaying remarkable resilience, wheeled about once more, demonstrating an unwavering determination to rekindle the fray. Nevertheless, a decisive third and ultimate onslaught compelled them to disperse into the dense forest, dispersing in myriad directions over the rolling hills, their will to engage further waning to naught. With an indomitable resolve, Richard steered his cavalry back towards the encampment at Arsuf, where the infantry had established their bivouac. Under the shroud of night, the lifeless bodies of the Saracen warriors became the subject of plunder and pillage.

The Aftermath

The Near East, 1190, at the outset of the Third Crusade, showing the location of the Battle of Arsuf, Acre, and other strategic sites

The Near East, 1190, at the outset of the Third Crusade, showing the location of the Battle of Arsuf, Acre, and other strategic sites

Ambiguous Figures: The Elusive Toll of Medieval Warfare

In the perennial theater of medieval warfare, the exact toll of losses always eludes our grasp, shrouded in the mists of time. The annals of Christendom bear the assertion that Saladin’s formidable force bore the weight of 32 emirs and a staggering 7,000 men into the abyss of mortality. Yet, the veracity of these figures remains cloaked in uncertainty.

Chronicles of the Fallen: Heroes and Legends

Ambroise, that venerable chronicler of yore, recounts an eerie tableau painted upon the canvas of history, wherein Richard’s stalwart legions encountered a multitude of lifeless Saracen bodies strewn across the battlefield after the tumultuous fray. Baha al-Din, on the other hand, provides a more modest enumeration, documenting a mere trio of fallen titans amongst the Ayyubid echelons: Musek, the Grand-Emir of the Kurds; Kaimaz el Adeli; and Lighush. The ledger of King Richard’s own losses, it is averred, tallied no more than seven hundred valiant souls. Among the Crusader luminaries, only James d’Avesnes met his fateful end in the crucible of battle, a gallant French knight whose legend, Ambroise contends, resided in his slaying of fifteen Saracen cavalrymen before succumbing to the embrace of death.

Arsuf: Triumph Amidst the Chaos

Arsuf, that momentous encounter, stands as a testament to valorous triumph. The Ayyubid host, though battered and bruised, did not face obliteration, yet their precipitous retreat bore the sting of ignominy in the eyes of the faithful. The Crusaders, buoyed by their resounding success, reveled in newfound morale. A prevailing sentiment, voiced by contemporary minds, posited that had Richard been afforded the luxury of selecting the precise juncture for his knights’ charge, rather than reacting to the insubordination of a subordinate commander, the fruits of victory might have borne even sweeter, crippling Saladin’s forces for an extended interlude.

Saladin’s Struggles and Richard’s Ascendancy

Following the rout, Saladin endeavored to regroup, attempting to revive his time-tested skirmishing tactics, but to scant avail. The memory of the Crusaders’ abrupt and devastating counterattack at Arsuf haunted his stratagems. He eschewed the risk of another full-scale assault. Arsuf had indeed scarred Saladin’s image as an indomitable warrior while burnishing Richard’s reputation as both a formidable warrior and a sagacious commander.

Shifting Fortunes: Jaffa and the Coastline

Fortunes favored Richard as he seized, fortified, and firmly grasped Jaffa, a pivotal maneuver in the quest for Jerusalem’s coveted embrace. Meanwhile, Saladin found himself compelled to evacuate and raze the bastions of southern Palestine – Ascalon, Gaza, Blanche-Garde, Lydda, and Ramleh – surrendering them to the implacable sands of time. In a remarkable testament to the erosion of Saracen morale, Richard laid claim to Darum, the lone fortress still graced by Saladin’s garrison. By wresting the coastline from Saladin’s clutches, Richard cast a dark shadow over the Ayyubid ruler’s dominion, threatening his tenuous hold on Jerusalem itself. At Jaffa, Richard diligently set about reconstructing the fortifications, remnants of which Saladin had pre-emptively dismantled in the summer of 1190, perceiving the city’s potential importance to the Crusader cause.

The Treaty of Jaffa: A Fragile Respite

While the Third Crusade ultimately fell short of its objective – the recapture of Jerusalem – it culminated in the negotiation of a pivotal three-year truce with Saladin. The Treaty of Jaffa, as it came to be known, secured the cherished privilege of Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem from the Western realms. Additionally, Saladin acknowledged the Crusaders’ dominion over the Levantine coast as far south as Jaffa. Fatigue and exhaustion had settled upon both warring factions, compelling Richard’s return to Europe to safeguard his own inheritance from the clutches of Philip of France. Meanwhile, Palestine lay in ruinous disarray, a poignant testament to the ravages of protracted conflict.

Featured Image

Imaginary encounter between Richard the Lionheart and a Saracen, 13th-century manuscript

Imaginary encounter between Richard the Lionheart and a Saracen, 13th-century manuscript

In this captivating miniature from the Luttrell Psalter, dating back to 1325-1335 in England’s East Anglia, two valiant knights engage in a spirited joust. The first knight, proudly adorned with the royal arms of England, featuring three lions passant guardant on a crimson field, charges forward with unwavering determination. His lance strikes true, unseating his adversary, a Saracen bearing a Moor’s head as his emblem. This vivid depiction encapsulates the chivalry and pageantry of medieval jousting tournaments, where honor and glory were won through skill and valor.


  • Ii, H., & Stubbs, W. (n.d.). Sources for the Crusade of Richard the Lionhearted.

  • The library of the Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society : Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, London : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive. (2014). Internet Archive.‌

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, September 8). Battle of Arsuf. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation.

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