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Medieval Geopolitics: Could King Richard have captured Jerusalem during the Third Crusade?

By Andrew Latham

In my last column, I discussed the strategic rationale behind King Richard’s decision to abandon the drive on Jerusalem in January 1192. The conventional explanation, I argued, was that a combination of tactical/operational factors converged in late December/early January to persuade the Lionheart that he simply could not advance further toward the Holy City. My alternative explanation was that Richard had decided as long ago as September 1191 that Jerusalem could not be taken by force and only agreed to advance on the City in the Fall of 1191 as a result of political pressures brought to bear on him from within the crusade leadership – his preference being an indirect strategy that would have involved threatening Egypt and then negotiating for Jerusalem from a position of strength.

While these two explanations differ in all sorts of ways, they share one crucially important assumption: that – given its location, the weather and the limitations of the Christian host – Jerusalem simply could not be taken by force of arms.  But is this a valid assumption? What if Richard had pressed his attack in December 1191? Would the city have fallen to the crusaders? Or would the Christian host have smashed itself to pieces on the walls of the Holy City? While we can never know for certain, in this column I argue that had Richard pressed his attack, Jerusalem might well have fallen to him in January 1192.  In a subsequent column, I will discuss the broader strategic implications of such a development.

Jerusalem: “A Bridge Too Far”

Why did Richard believe that Jerusalem could not be taken by force of arms?  Two types of argument can be identified. First, at the strategic level, there is the argument that although Richard was effectively unbeatable as long as he operated near the coast, were he to venture too far inland he risked a Hattin-like defeat at the hands of Saladin’s numerically superior forces (some estimates give the Sultan an approximately 2:1 superiority).  One of the great advantages enjoyed by the crusaders, of course, was that they enjoyed complete naval dominance of the eastern Mediterranean after the fall of Acre (Saladin’s relatively small navy was all but destroyed in the course of that siege). This not only afforded them strategic mobility but ensured that no matter how effective Saladin’s scorched earth strategy (and it was very effective) the crusaders would always have access to ship-borne supplies of food, water, manpower and equipment.  These forces also protected the crusaders seaward flank, effectively preventing Saladin from employing the kind of envelopment tactics that he used to such great effect at the Battle of Hattin.

13th century chronicler Matthew Paris illustrated itinerary to Jerusalem, showing the ending of the journey in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

On this view, the strategic problem Richard faced was that, inconveniently, Jerusalem was not on the coast, but rather nestled in the Judean hills, a little over 50 kilometres (30 miles) inland from Jaffa (the nearest port).  If he were to besiege the Holy City, Richard would have to lead his forces inland from Jaffa over some very difficult terrain (once he left the coastal plain). His supply lines would be vulnerable to attack and, indeed, the host vulnerable to encirclement and annihilation.  His main strategic advantage, naval supremacy, would have been nullified and Saladin’s main advantage, strategic depth, amplified. The bottom line: in strategic terms, Jerusalem was simply “a bridge too far” (to use an anachronism) for Richard and the Christian host. Attacking it was always going to be strategic folly.

In addition to this strategic situation, there were also tactical and operational factors that made the odds of a successful attack on Jerusalem vanishingly small (at least in the eyes of certain people).  First, there were the city’s defences. These were so extensive that Richard doubted that he had sufficient forces to mount a proper siege. Moreover, Saladin had managed to reinforce them during Richard’s slow advance from the coast, using 2000 Christian slaves to strengthen the walls and deepen the fosse.  By December 1191, then, the extent and state of the city’s defenses suggest that any siege would have had to have been a lengthy one. As such a siege would have been difficult to sustain logistically (supply shortages), politically (many crusade leaders lacked strategic patience and/or needed to attend to business back home), and militarily (the garrison would eventually be relieved by Saladin’s allies, effectively trapping the crusader host) it is possible to conclude that the city simply could not be attacked with the forces (and time) available.

Second, there was the weather.  By late December 1191, the crusader host had been subject to heavy rains, snow, sleet, hail and powerful winds.  Armour and weapons were rusting; clothes and food rotting; horses dying (of disease and even from drowning in mud); and men dying, deserting or departing.  Many, including Saladin, believed that attacking Jerusalem in these conditions was simply impossible. Third, there were the logistical difficulties: it was proving difficult to move sufficient food and other supplies up from Jaffa – a situation made worse by frequent raids on the crusaders’ supply caravans by Saladin’s cavalry.  Finally, there was the topography. Jerusalem was not Acre and mounting a successful siege on the former was made much more difficult by the valley that surrounded the city on all sides except for a small section in the north.

Taken together, these strategic, operational and tactical factors combine to suggest that Richard was correct in his judgment that Jerusalem was impregnable and should not therefore be attacked.  But what if his judgment was wrong?

Jerusalem: “A House of Cards”

The case that Jerusalem was far from impregnable rests on two arguments.  The first has to do with the military situation. Simply put, by January 1192 Saladin’s strategic position had grown dire indeed.  Like Richard’s, Saladin’s host was made up of two elements: on the one hand, his household troops and direct vassals; on the other those over whom he exercised little direct authority, and whom he could only persuade (not order).  By the end of 1191, many of the latter group were pressing to be released from Saladin’s service in order to return home. The reasons for this are varied, of course, but for the most part this reluctance to continue campaigning can be attributed to exhaustion (they and their men had been fighting continuously for a long time), politics (they needed to attend to business at home), and disaffection (many were alienated from Saladin due to his failure to prevent the massacre of the Acre hostages; many others were disaffected by his personal and dynastic ambitions, his ruthlessness, and his failure to inflict a serious defeat on the crusaders).

Whatever the reason, on December 12 Saladin agreed to release his allies and retreated with a relatively small force to Jerusalem (leaving another small but dangerous striking force outside the walls to harass the crusader supply lines).  Despite the fact that some reinforcements arrived from Egypt in late December, there is some question as to whether this much-diminished force was numerically sufficient to garrison Jerusalem, even given its improved defences. And, qualitatively, there are real questions as to whether the garrison was up to resisting a crusader attack.  The Acre garrison (elite troops) had fought well, under much more favourable circumstances, but had eventually been defeated (despite Saladin throwing everything he had into a spectacularly unsuccessful effort to relieve it). And on almost every other occasion when Richard and Saladin’s forces engaged one another – whether in siege, skirmish, fighting march or open battle – the latter had been defeated or forced to retreat.

13th century floor tile showing a knight on horseback representing Richard I in combat. Image courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum

Moreover, the supply situation was also precarious for Saladin.  In addition to a general shortage of provisions – Richard’s strategy of attrition had had its intended effect – the ghastly weather had taken its toll on the Muslim forces, killing off many of the Jerusalem garrison’s horses and other animals.  Rather than an impregnable fortress, Jerusalem was in fact an inadequately garrisoned, poorly supplied and weakly fortified city that had little real chance of resisting even a moderately earnest attack.

The second argument against the impregnability thesis has to do with morale – that is, the willingness of the garrison to stand and fight.  Here we have no direct evidence of the state of the defenders’ fighting spirit, but we do know more generally from the Muslim chroniclers that defeatism was rife in Saladin’s army in the aftermath of the fall of Acre. Perhaps more tellingly, we also have contemporary accounts of the morale among Saladin’s troops during Richard’s second march on Jerusalem in the summer of 1192. These accounts provide insights into conditions that could also reasonably be assumed to have prevailed among the Jerusalem garrison in late 1191/early 1192.  What were these conditions? To put it bluntly, fear and defeatism. According to the Muslim chronicler Ibn Shaddad, the garrison in summer of 1192 (as, surely, in the winter of 1191/2) was concerned that the fate of the Acre garrison awaited them if they failed to surrender the city without a fight: defeat and massacre.  They did not want to fight (in fact, mutiny was in the air) and were not particularly roused by Saladin’s efforts to invoke jihad. Nor, according to Ibn Shaddad, did Saladin’s leading emirs show much more fighting spirit than the dispirited rank and file. Again harkening back to Acre, they were frightened and ready to run.

In the event, of course, they didn’t have to as Richard decided to turn back. But there can be no doubt that morale within the Jerusalem garrison was abysmally low on both occasions that Richard advanced on the city. As anyone who has studied military history knows, morale is often the deciding factor in any engagement. All things being equal (which in this case they were not), morale or fighting spirit is typically the decisive factor (although luck also plays a role).  In the winter of 1191/2 the morale of Saladin’s Jerusalem garrison was probably at its nadir. On the other hand, despite the weather and everything else, the closer the Christian host got to Jerusalem the more its fighting spirit improved. Absent divine intervention (or blind luck/fate), there seems little doubt that the Jerusalem garrison that winter had either the means or the will to resist a Christian attack.

In sum, the picture that comes into focus in Jerusalem in winter 1191/2 is not one of “impregnable fortress”.  Rather, it is one of a “house of cards” just waiting for someone to come along and knock it down. Richard, it seems, for all his drive and ability, simply wasn’t the one to do it.

Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of The Idea of Sovereignty At the Turn of the 14th Century. You can visit Andrew’s website at www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham 

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Top Image: 15th century image depicting a Biblical siege of Jerusalem – British Library MS Royal 1 E IX   f. 222



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