20 august 1191 – the massacre at Acre

Surely one of the saddest, most horrible, and notorious events of the Third Crusade occurred on August 20, 1191. The city of Acre, in what is now modern-day Israel, had fallen to the Christian armies in mid July. Saladin failed to meet the terms of the surrender. Twenty-seven hundred hostages – maybe more – were executed under orders issued by Richard the Lionheart.

Richard’s decision has been a cause for debate for centuries. In today’s world, this would be a war crime of huge magnitude. In 12th century warfare, the execution of hostages did occur, though in many situations, hostages were kept under house arrest – sometimes for years –  or sold as slaves.

Richard’s problem: where do you house 2,700 hostages? How do you keep them fed when you must feed your own army? How many guards would it take to ensure the captives wouldn’t escape – he needed nearly every able-bodied soldier on the coming march to secure Jerusalem.

Why didn’t Richard sell his hostages? That would take time. It was already August. The army needed to begin the march to Jerusalem or else run the risk of being caught by winter storms. (Did you know that it snows in Jerusalem? I didn’t until I read the chroniclers mention that the winter of 1191/1192 was one for the record books – though I don’t think they kept those back then!)

Are these excuses or valid reasons based on morals and the conduct of war in the 12th century?

Henry de Grey struggles with the king’s decision as this scene in Battle Scars opens, and Stephan has ordered his young squire to leave the pavilion…

The king’s advisors’ somber words heated the air like Acre’s summer winds. Their faces looked adamant but bleak, the joy of their recent victory buried beneath the burdens of war. The king sat stone-faced, listening intently. Behind him, Robin intercepted messengers coming and going, read their communiqués. Some he ignored; others were whispered to the king. He offered his ear when beckoned.

Henry’s stomach twisted. He knew what was coming. The deadline negotiated for the ransom of prisoners had passed. The king refused to wait a moment longer. The army would face harsh winter conditions if the march to Jerusalem did not get underway. The hostages could not be released. What message would that send to Saladin?

Henry gripped his cross. He brought it to his lips as the king issued the order. The hostages must die. Voices washed across the room, a discordant chorus from despair to joy. The song, or to some, the lamentation, swept into the courtyard and to the streets beyond. There were whispered prayers, thanks-be-to-God-praises, and shouts for revenge and justice.

Stephan rested a hand on Henry’s arm. “Are you well?”

Henry felt numb. “All those people. We will just execute them?”

“What is the king to do, Henry? Saladin has given him no choice.”

“Have we truly waited as long as—”

“You heard the testimony.” Stephan clapped his back. “Come. We must saddle up. The Turk may rush down from the hills when this blood bath begins.”

Stephan and Henry followed the parade of knights from the room. Men-at-arms rushed to round up the hostages. A festive mood seemed to grip the city. Troubadours played and young girls danced in the streets. Henry had never seen such glee on the soldiers’ faces, their bound prisoners prodded toward the open plain.

King Richard took his place with the knights on the line. Henry wondered what went through his mind. Could he order this mass execution and not feel something? Regret? Remorse? These infidels were not Christian. Did that make any difference? Am I the only one sickened by what is about to happen?

Archers stood three deep in front of the knights and crossbowmen ahead of them. Men-at-arms knelt, forming a fence of steel, their lances stabbing the ground and angled toward the hills.

Saladin’s armies stirred like ants scurrying madly when their colonies are disturbed. Riders took to the saddle and headed further into the hills. Were they scrambling to notify Saladin?

A horn blared. Sombre pawed the ground nervously. Henry turned to see Richard signal the commander of his men-at-arms. The first sword was swung.

You’ll see how this horrific event affects crusader knights Henry & Stephan in Battle Scars: Men of the Cross.

  1. […] the hostages, sell them as slaves, keep them under guard, or – execute them. As I wrote in last year’s post commemorating this horrible […]

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