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Saladin, King Richard, Emperor Frederick and the Third Crusade


The Third Crusade is by far the most famous of the numerous military expeditions the nobility of Christian Europe conducted to reconquer the Holy Lands from the Muslims. It is not a coincidence of course, as it was during the Third Crusade that famous, if not legendary, European rulers like Frederick Barbarossa and King Richard the Lionheart took the cross to reclaim Jerusalem from the forces of another legendary historical figure, the Ayyubid Sultan Saladin.

The division and infighting of the Muslim world allowed the First Crusaders to recapture the Levantine coast in the First Crusade, but despite their great initial military successes, the Christians always had to struggle to maintain their hold. Most of the Crusaders returned home after the success of the First Crusade, which left the Crusader States with a depleted army, surrounded by hostile neighbours and thousands of miles from reinforcements.

The Crusaders relied on fortified towns and castles to maintain their rule, which served as a counterbalance for their limited number of troops. The presence of the formidable knights of the Crusader Orders also aided their cause. Still, this strategy was always on the edge of collapse, and it finally did, when the Crusaders foolishly fell into the trap of Saladin in 1187.

The overconfident Crusader army marched right into its doom when Saladin besieged Tiberias. Despite the urging of the cautious Count of Tiberias, who advised against facing Saladin on his terms, the King and the Templars overruled him. The Crusaders marched into the desert and were cut right off from water supplies by Saladin’s army. The demoralised and thirsty Crusaders were crushed the next day by the Muslims, and even King Guy of Lusignan was captured.

With most of their field army gone, the Crusader fortresses were sitting ducks for Saladin, who captured them one after the other. Not long after the disastrous Battle of Hattin, even Jerusalem fell to Saladin.

According to a chronicler, when Pope Urban received news of the fall of Jerusalem, he collapsed and died. His successor Gregory VIII announced a new Crusade and urged the leaders of Christian Europe to take up the cross and reconquer Jerusalem.

The Campaign of Frederick Barbarossa

The three greatest rulers of Christian Europe were Henry II, ruler of the Angevin Empire, Philip Augustus of France and Frederick Barbarossa, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Of the three, Frederick was the least troubled by internal conflict, as he succeeded to establish a measure of central control in the Holy Roman Empire after more than three decades of fighting. Henry II and Philip Augustus, on the other hand, were direct rivals, and Philip allied with the son of Henry, Prince Richard, who feared that his father was going to disinherit him.

After initial hesitation, Frederick Barbarossa took the cross in the early months of 1188 and started to organise his expedition. He planned meticoulusly and created a schedule of preparation and a future assembling place for the army. He also sent ahead envoys to the states which he had to cross to arrive to the Holy Land, and tried to arrenge safe passage of his army.

The German army assembled in the spring of 1189, and departed to the Holy Land. Frederick’s expedition was well planned and his army was the largest of all the Crusading armies of the Third Crusade. Estimates vary about the size of Frederick’s army, but modern historians put it around 12-15,000 soldiers, this force was later joined by 2,000 Hungarians, another 1,000 soldiers in Byzantine territory and the late arrival of a contingent from Burgundy and Lorraine. Overall it is probably fair to estimate that Frederick may have had over 20,000 soldiers, this force including around 4,000 heavily armoured knights.

Frederick’s troops passed through Hungary with relatively little trouble, but passage through the territory of the Byzantine Empire was much more difficult. Emperor Isaac showed hostility towards the Crusaders, and his forces clashed with them on numerous occassions.

The Crusaders made their way to Anatolia and initially passed through Greek territory. Once they entered the lands of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, they were constantly harrassed by the mounted archers of the Turks. The Sultan promised safe passage before their arrival, but it was obvious that these were nothing more than false promises.

A larger Turkish force tried to destroy the vanguard of Frederick’s army at the Battle of Philomelion, only to be decisively defeated. Frederick’s troops suffered casualties during the fighting and were running low on supplies also. To ressuply his army, Frederick decided to conquer the capital of the Turks, Iconium.

The Crusaders stormed the city and the rearguard of Frederick’s army under the command of the emperor even defeated the field forces of the Turkish sultan.

Frederick’s army moved on from Iconium, but a few weeks after the capture of the city, the emperor drowned when his horse threw him into the river Saleph. With the death of their leader, most of the German Crusaders returned home, only a smaller contingent of around 5,000 troops remained.

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The Siege of Acre

Simultaneously to Frederick’s march, Saladin released the captured King of Jerusalem, Guy of Lusignan. Despite an oath of not raising arms against Saladin and Muslims, Guy had no intention of honouring his pledge. He tried to take over Tyre, but his rival Conrad of Montferrat refused. Guy was not disheartened by the refusal, and decided to reconquer Acre from Saladin.

Guy’s efforts were helped by the steady arrival of Crusader reinforcements from Europe throughout 1189. Saladin took a cautious strategy and was nearly routed by the combined forces of Guy and Conrad, who decided to aid his efforts, but luckily for Saladin, the Crusader infantry in its greed started to loot Saladin’s camp instead of pursuing their enemies. Saladin used this time to rally his troops and counterattacked, forcing back the Crusaders to their camp.

1189 ended in a stalemate. The Crusaders used the lull in fighting to fortify their positions, which gave them a nearly impenetrable defence and cut away Acre from land supplies. 1190 continued in much the same manner, as neither side was able to gain an upper hand. Lack of supplies weakened both sides, and diseases ravaged both camps. In the Crusader camp Guy’s wife, the sister of the previous king, died also, which left Guy’s political position much weakened. Conrad de Montferrat wanted to use this opportunity to his own advantage and take the crown for himself.

King Richard and his army arrived at Acre in June 1191. His reinforcements were badly needed, and his arrival increased the number of Crusaders to over 20,000. Apart from the army of Richard, the remaining, though much shrunk German contingent arrived under the Duke of Austria, while Philipe Augustus also arrived at Acre two months before Richard. Acre was continuously attacked by the newly reinforced Crusaders, and the port surrendered in early July.

Final year of the Third Crusade

The leaders of the Crusade kept bickering among themselves, however, and the German contingent went home under the leadership of Duke Leopold, who felt that Richard humiliated him. King Philip also returned home to resolve the succession of the county of Flanders.

The departure of the two rulers left the Crusaders somewhat weakened, but at least the question of command was resolved. With the departure of Leopold and Philip, Richard remained the undisputed leader of the Crusade.


Richard entered into negotiations with Saladin, but when he felt that Saladin’s intentions were disingenuous about the prisoners, he decided to send a message to his enemy by executing the captured garrison of Acre in plain sight of Saladin’s army. An outraged Saladin ordered the execution of the Christian prisoners as an answer.

In the following period, the Crusaders departed from Acre and marched down the coastline. Saladin tried to defeat the Crusaders at the Battle of Arsulf, but his army was decisively defeated by Richard.

In the aftermath of his victory at Arsuf, the Crusader took control over the coast by taking Jaffa and rebuilding Ascalon. Richard’s army also marched inland and rebuilt many of the destroyed fortifications between the coast and Jerusalem. The cautious Richard had no intention of trying a costly siege until his supply lines were safe, so rebuilding the forts was crucial as these secured his lines of communications to the coast. By 1192 the forts were rebuilt, but attacking Jerusalem was still a risky proposition.

The defences of Jerusalem were formidable and despite his secured lines of communications, Saladin still had a field army with which he could have attacked the besieging Crusaders.

More worryingly than this, Richard received news from home that his ambitious brother Prince John and Philip Augustus were conspiring, and he was in danger of losing his kingdom. Richard decided he had another season’s time of the campaign in Palestine before he returned home.

He marched on Jerusalem for a second time only to turn back again. He entered negotiations with Saladin at the same time to settle a peace treaty.

Saladin attacked the port of Jaffa to improve his position at the negotiation tables, but a spirited defence from the defenders and the decisive action of the reinforcements led by Richard led to another defeat for Saladin.

In the end, both sides realised that the conflict was in a stalemate and made a compromise. Saladin kept Jerusalem, but agreed to allow Christian pilgrims access to the Holy City. The Crusaders were allowed to hold onto a narrow strip of coastal land around Tyre, Acre and Jaffa, but importantly the rebuilt Ascalon had to be abandoned.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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