Richard the Lionheart’s crusader army marched south from Acre on the 22nd day of August. Estimated to be 15,000-20,000 strong, they advanced slowly at first, marching 2 or 3 miles a day.
Saladin wasted no time: his cavalry harassed King Richard’s troops every step of the way.
As the men became acclimatized to the heat, their marches began before sunrise to cover 10-13 miles a day. The troops would halt by midday, and they’d often rest a day. Between August 25 – August 30, they covered 36 miles. By the 5th day of September, they’d advanced another 23 miles. The Muslim chronicler Baha al-Din wrote that Saracen drummers and trumpeters played as their troops charged the Franks – a term they used for all European Christians. The Muslims would cry out ‘Allah huwa Akbar’ and fall on the crusaders in one cavalry charge after another. King Richard was wounded slightly during a skirmish on September 3rd, but he fought all the more fiercely. The author of the Itinerarium writes:
“the wound was only a touch and actually incited him to attack the enemy as he was greedy to seek revenge for the pain of the wound.”
Fears ran high as the army marched through the Forest of Arsuf on 5 September. Rumors spread that the Saracens would set fire to the forest whilst the crusaders passed. Per Ambroise:
The unbelieving black-faced brood,
Had hid themselves in Arsur wood,
Which that day they would set on fire,
Kindling it to a blaze so dire
And fearsome that ‘twould burn and roast
Much to their relief the army marched through the forest without incident. The way was narrow and Saladin’s troops could not shadow them and had skirted further to the east. The crusaders emerged from the forest near the banks of the River Rochetaillie. Saladin’s army was camped on the south side of the river. And there they rested two nights within sight of each other, each watching the other’s campfires burn throughout the night.
At sunrise on 7 September, King Richard ordered his men to move out. He had given the troops strict orders not to break rank no matter what the Saracens did. The crusaders’ baggage train rumbled along the western flank nearest the sea. The infantry lined the eastern flank armed with shields, crossbows, and lances to ward off attacks and to protect the knights’ horses. They had marched three hours when the Saracens attacked the rearguard in what began the fiercest battle of the Third Crusade. An estimated 20,000 Saracens met the crusader army on a 1-2 mile wide plateau that skirted the Mediterranean Sea.
Saladin’s strategy aimed to draw the crusaders out of their tight formation, but King Richard knew that with each attack, Saladin’s men and their horses would grow weaker. Had Saladin been successful and forced a gap between the crusaders’ van- and rearguards, the battle would have played out much differently. The Hospitaller commander Fra’ Garnier de Nablus urged King Richard to order a charge – the infantry had to march backwards to stave off the Saracen attacks. Casualties were mounting. So many horses had succumbed to enemy arrows, de Nablus said they’d not be able to charge when the order did come down. By mid afternoon, Saladin broadened his assaults along the length of the army’s eastern flank. King Richard still would not bend, but men in the rearguard grew desperate. They broke rank and began the charge. There was no turning back. The trumpets blared the signal and the Templars, Poitevins, French, and Bretons joined the Hospitaller charge. The Anglo-Normans held back to guard the royal standard, and as a second line of attack.
Muslim chronicler Bahāʼ al-Dīn writes:
“. . . the sultan [Saladin] was moving between the left wing and the right, urging the men on . . . Several times I encountered him, when he was attended by only two pages with two spare mounts and that was all . . . while the arrow were flying past them both.
The enemy’s situation worsened still more . . . They took their lances and gave a shout as one man. The infantry opened gaps for them and they charged in unison along their whole line . . . Our men gave way before them.”
Surprised by the all-out assault, Saladin’s troops pulled back to avoid being encircled by the crusaders. Regrouping, the Saracens charged a second time. Attack, counter-attack. Several of the contemporary writers note that many of the Muslim cavalry ‘purposely’ dismounted in order to take better aim at the crusaders. King Richard’s order for the full charge thus came as a surprise. Geoffrey de Vinsauf writes:
“In truth, the Turks were furious in the assault, and greatly distressed our men, whose blood poured forth in a stream beneath their blows . . . For all that, the king, mounted on a bay Cyprian steed, which had not its match, bounded forward in the direction of the mountains, and scattered those he met on all sides ; for the enemy fled from his sword and gave way. . .”
By nightfall the fighting had ended. Seven thousand Saracens had died. The Christian losses were a tenth of that number. A deadly day. A major victory for the crusaders.
Ambroise. (1976). The crusade of Richard Lion-Heart. (Trans. by M.J. Hubert.) New York: Octagon.
Bohm, H., ed. (2004). Chronicles of the Crusades: contemporary narratives. London: Kegan Paul.
Evans, Mark L. (2001). “Battle of Arsuf: climatic clash of cross and crescent,” in Military History, 18:3.
Ibn al-Athīr, ʻIzz al-Din. (2007). The chronicle of ibn al-athīr for the crusading period from al-kāmil fi’l-ta’rīkh. (Trans by Richards, D. S.) Aldershot ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
Ibn Shaddād, Bahāʼ al-Dīn. (2001) . The rare and excellent history of Saladin, or, al-Nawādir al-Sultaniyya wa’l-Mahasin al-Yusufiyya. (Trans by Richards, D. S.) Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate.
Miller, David. (2003). Richard the Lionheart: the mighty crusader. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Nicholson, H. & Stubbs, W., trans. (1997). Chronicle of the third crusade : A translation of the itinerarium peregrinorum et gesta regis ricardi [Itinerarium peregrinorum et gesta Regis Ricardi.]. Aldershot, Hants, England ; Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate.
Map of the Holy Land, c2014 Dennis Lukowski, commissioned by the author and used with his permission.
“Schlacht von Arsuf” via Wikimedia Commons.