Richard I once offered to sell London to the highest bidder in order to finance his role in the Third Crusade. Folklore remembers him as Richard the Lionheart rather than Richard I making him relatively unusual amongst English monarchs in that he is remembered by a name rather than a number. Countless Hollywood productions have presented him as the chap who saves the day when he returns to England in the nick of time whilst his brother John appears as the villain of the piece. I can’t think of any film about Robin Hood where King Richard doesn’t turn up to set matters right – what’s not to like? Richard was even a popular king in his own time – probably because he wasn’t in his country terribly often. He did what medieval kings were supposed to do – he was victorious in war…and he had good press in the form of his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine and one of his justicar’s William Marshal.
Like many a warrior king before and after him, Richard was responsible for changing England’s financial status from reasonable to disastrous. He spent most of his father’s treasury, increased taxes, sold jobs (how exactly do you think the Sheriff of Nottingham got the title in the first place) and even released William of Scotland from his oath of fealty for the sum of 10,000 marks – which raises the question of exactly what Edward I was doing thinking when he stated his right to choose a Scottish king as Scotland’s feudal overlord and kicked off the Scottish wars of Independence.
In 1190, having more or less sold off the family silver, Richard set off to the Holy Land via Sicily. His sister Joan who was the dowager queen of Sicily had been denied her dower rights so Richard got a bit of early practice in terms of storming cities before progressing to Cyprus and then on to Acre, which was under siege.
Acre eventually fell to the Crusaders. On August 20 1191 Richard responded to Saladin’s failure to comply with the terms of negotiation over the citizens and defenders of Acre. Saladin had been stalling over a prisoner swap and failed to make an interim payment of gold coin. Richard killed all his captives.
Basically it was normal after a battle or a prolonged siege to swap prisoners. Richard asked for a list of Christian prisoners but none was forthcoming. Even worse a piece of the True Cross and the first instalment of 200,000 gold coins was not handed over on a pre-arranged date as part of the terms agreed after the fall of Acre. Richard believed that Saladin was stalling for time in order to bring in fresh troops and recapture Acre and that he had gone back on his word – whereas in reality it is not totally clear that Saladin had agreed to the terms that Richard demanded. Time may well have conspired against him with the walls of Acre falling before his instructions could be relayed to its defenders.
Richard, who had the full measure of Plantagenet temper, ordered that all the prisoners from Acre should be taken to a hill called Ayyadieh. There in full view of the Muslim army and Saladin’s headquarters, approximately 3000 soldiers, men, women and children from the city were killed. Even Richard’s estimates are similar.
Saladin’s army was so incensed that they attempted to charge Richard’s army but were beaten back. The Crusaders were able to make their retreat unscathed after the slaughter.
Killing unarmed women and children is not heroic, no matter which way it’s dressed up – change the century and the uniform and it looks very unpleasant indeed. The massacre at Ayyadieh is a blot on Richard’s reputation, to modern eyes, although it is never usually referred to in popular histories – as it doesn’t fit with the legend of the heroic king. Richard and his chroniclers justify events by noting that the negotiations fell apart because of Saladin’s failure to meet the required standards. Further justification, if any is given, is offered in the form that these were bloodthirsty times. In 1187, the Battle Hattin, which saw the biggest defeat of the period in the Holy Land, was followed by the mass killing and imprisonment of Knights Hospitaller and Templar.
Richard wanted the piece of the True Cross because he genuinely believed it was part of the cross on which Christ was crucified and he was deeply religious (don’t lets even go down the avenue of faith and a life spent at war.) There was also the political statement that it made. Saladin had acquired the piece of cross after the Battle of Hattin. In part its return to the Crusaders would have gone some way to reverse their defeat in 1187. It’s about honour as much as anything else.
Strategically speaking the massacre demonstrated that Richard was not a man to mess with. It also dealt with the problem of a large number of prisoners. Richard did not have the men to care for them and he could not leave them behind him whilst he continued his campaign. He could not afford to deplete his army or risk an enemy behind him. There was not so much food that he could really take them with him and there would still have been the need for guards and the problem of a hostile force. The only other alternative would have been to sell the prisoners into slavery and that would have taken time that Richard did not have. Beha ad-Din, Saladin’s biographer, was an eyewitness to events and whilst he was hostile to Richard’s actions it is also apparent that he understand them militarily. This, is of course, something that a modern reader may well struggle to do – the words war crime spring to mind. No wonder there are so many texts about how History should be studied and the difficulties of looking objectively at the past.
Extremely hostile chroniclers write that Richard always intended the massacre but there is no evidence of him behaving in this manner at other times during the Crusade or indeed in his intermittent wars at home. Not that it really matters – if, generally speaking we look at the facts of Richard I’s reign- he would not turn up quite so often in films as a hero. He was never in England. He raised taxes to go to war, then more taxes had to be raised to pay his ransom when he was captured by his enemies on his way home. He did not sit around feeling concerned about the financial plight of his Saxon citizens. Sometimes it really doesn’t matter what actually happened, even at the time, it’s about perceptions and the story that people want to hear.
For a timeline of the Third Crusade: