By Benjamin Z. Kedar and Stephen Bennett
Papers given at session Studies in Medieval Military History in Honor of Bernard S. Bachrach, during the 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies (2013)
Benjamin Z. Kedar asks what was Richard I’s plan at Arsuf, one of the key battles of the Third Crusade? The battle took place at the end of a march led by Richard the Lionheart, where he took his force from Acre south to Jaffa, a coastal town that could be used to spearhead an attack against Jerusalem.
This was the first major battle between Crusaders and Saladin’s forces since the latter’s victory at Hattin in 1187. While both battles involved a Crusader army coming under attack while on the march, Kedar notes several differences in how Richard approached the battle. First, it is important to note that in 1187 the Crusader army tried to cover 19 miles in a single day, whereas in 1191 they took 17 days to travel 69 miles, with the army resting on several days.
Moreover, during the Battle of Hattin, the Ayyubid forces were able to surround the Crusaders, this could not happen in 1191 because Richard had his men stay very close to the seashore and in tight formation. Saladin’s men made regular attacks against the flank of the Crusader force, in hopes of drawing them into battle, but Richard’s men proved disciplined enough not to engage their enemies.
Turning to the day of the battle, Ambroise, one of the most important chroniclers of the Third Crusade, explains that as Richard neared the town of Arsuf (also known as Arsur) he had a plan to attack but it misfired – two knights charged out against the Ayyubid forces before the trumpets were sounded to indicate a general attack. This leads to a premature attack that drags in the rear guard and eventually Richard himself.
Kedar looks at geographic studies to understand more of Richard’s plan – he finds that forests along the coast north of Arsuf were very dense during this period, and Richard would have feared that if the Crusaders were lured into it by Saladin’s forces they could be easily ambushed or even caught in a forest fire. On the other hand, around Arsuf itself the distance between the coast and the forest becomes considerably greater, giving Richard an opportunity to draw the Ayyubid army out from under the protection of the trees and into the plain where they could be attacked by a Crusader charge.
Kedar concludes by saying he believed that Richard allowed his rear guard to be attacked and hoped that it would draw out Saladin’s forces, but the premature attack changed the situation.
Stephen Bennett then began his part of the talk focusing on the two Crusader commanders who led the premature attack. One was the Marshal of the Hospitallers, likely William Borell. The Marshal would have been one of the top three military commanders among the Templars, and the person who led the knights into battle.
The other person who led the attack was Baldwin de Carron, himself a formidable knight and a companion of Richard. Bennett notes that within a year Baldwin was named a sub-commander for part of the campaign in the Holy Land, which makes him ask “was he a reckless knight who got responsibility less than a year later?”
Bennett believes that Richard had placed experienced knights at the rear of his force who knew of his plan to draw out Saladin’s forces. But since he trusted these individuals he also allowed them some leeway to act independently and if they saw an opportunity to make a premature attack, they were allowed to do so.