Skip to main content

See also:

Richard the Lionheart defeats Saladin: the Battle of Arsuf (1191)

Richard the Lionheart defeats Saladin at Arsuf.
Richard the Lionheart defeats Saladin at Arsuf.

Richard the Lionheart defeated Saladin's Islamic army at Acre. The Christians laid siege to the city for two years before the English king arrived to assume command. His presence led to victory and the first Islamic position on the way to Jerusalem fell. The Crusaders marched toward Jaffa to secure their next target on the road to the Holy City. Saladin decided to strike the Crusaders when he had a chance at victory. However, Richard the Lionheart once again defeated the Muslim warlord. The decisive Christian victory at Arsuf secured Jaffa, but did not destroy Saladin.

Acre fell to the Christians in 1191. After the battle, the Crusaders marched toward Jaffa to secure the port. King Richard knew he had to keep his army provisioned to avoid the mistakes at Hattin. In 1187, a Christian army blundered through the desert, ran out of water, and became an easy target for Saladin. Richard marched along the coast so ships could provision his army. All Saladin could do was launch raids to harass the Christians and probe for weakness. He knew he had to strike the Christians because his hit-and-run strategy did not work.

Saladin decided to strike Richard in the "Wood of Arsuf", which was one of the few forest regions in Palestine. The general chose to hide his army in the wooded area and launch as surprise attack. He waited for the Europeans to march half way through the woods before attacking. Saladin hoped to split the enemy army in half by cutting the supply train off from the front and center of the column. Then, he planned to cut the Crusaders to pieces with his reserves.

Richard awoke on the morning of September 7, 1191 to see enemy units surrounding his camp. He quickly deduced Saladin's location and warned the units most likely to face attack. The Knights Templar guarded the front of the army while the Hospitallers watched the supply train. Saladin waited for the Crusader army to move before sending his army to overwhelm the enemy. The Hospitallers faced the brunt of the assault and fell back under its weight. Richard planned to counterattack, but had to wait for the right moment for maximum effect. Meanwhile, Crusader horses fell in alarming numbers, which could throw the advantage to Saladin.

The Muslims managed to break the Hospitallers, but Richard refused to launch his counterstroke. The Hospitallers decided not to wait and charged. The Crusader army took heart and followed the knights' example. Richard recognized he could not stop the charge and this was the moment to win the battle. The knights needed support or they would be cut down and the entire Crusader army exposed. The Muslim army broke at the onslaught, but Richard halted the Crusaders lest they overextend and open themselves up to a counterattack. The English king was aware that the Turks and others feign retreat to lure an army to its doom. So, the king reorganized his units, rallied his troops, and led another charge. The Muslims broke a second time, Richard regrouped, and then charged a third time. Saladin's forces retreated a final time and dispersed into the woods.

Richard the Lionheart decisively defeated Saladin's Islamic forces. However, Saladin's army survived to fight again. The Crusaders might have had a chance to destroy Saladin completely under the right conditions. Despite this, Saladin's aura of invincibility evaporated, Richard's reputation peaked, and the road to Jerusalem opened. Jaffa fell to the Crusaders, which cut the Muslims off from the coast. The Third Crusade now entered its critical stage with the Crusaders riding the momentum of their twin victories at Acre and Arsuf.