“A Vicious Man”: Understanding the Massacre at Acre

From August 1189 until the 12th July 1191, the port city of Acre, located on its peninsula in the Gulf of Haifa, had been besieged. First by a somewhat ragtag band of approximately 3000 men led by the technically still king of Jerusalem Guy de Lusignan, then from April and June, Philip II Augustus of France and Richard I respectively. Guy needed a suitable base from which to launch a counterattack against Saladin and, since Conrad of Montferrat had refused him entry in an effort to become king himself, that left one suitable location: Acre. Considering his band of possibly not so merry men numbered potentially half the number of defenders, on this surface this appears to be utterly suicidal, or at the very least the last roll of the dice from an increasingly desperate man. However Guy’s hand was forced: if he wished to remain king, he would have to reimpose his leadership in the field. The incoming German crusaders would hardly choose a disgraced Poitevin over Conrad, an imperial vassal.

However the purpose of this is not to give a blow by blow retelling of the siege itself, that would warrant an entire post of its own. Instead I want to focus on one of the more infamous moments not just from Richard’s life, but from the history of the crusading movement itself. When the city was surrendered terms were reached: in return for sparing the lives of the defenders, their wives and children, a ransom of 200,000 dinars would be paid to the crusaders, along with the release of 1,500 Christian prisoners, and the return of the relic of the True Cross taken at Hattin. Conrad managed to secure a tidy sum of 10,000 dinars as a negotiating fee. The Gesta Regis Ricardi describes what happened nearly 6 weeks after the city’s surrender.

“On the Friday immediately after the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary [16 August] he (Richard) ordered 2,700 Turkish hostages to be led bound out of the city to be beheaded. Men-at-arms leapt forward readily and fulfilled his orders without delay. They did this with glad mind and with the assent of divine grace, to take revenge for the deaths of the Christians whom the Turks had killed with shots from their bows and crossbows.”

So it was that, on the plain outside the newly taken city, nearly 3000 defenceless hostages were decapitated in full view of Saladin and his army nearby. Muslim sources claim that number was made up of women and children, whereas the Christian writers make no mention of any non-combatants. Regardless, part of Saladin’s army became so enraged they threw themselves at the Crusader lines but were repeatedly beaten back, allowing Richard and his men to retire in good order with minimal losses. Now I intend to argue that this was not an act of mindless barbarism on Richard’s part, or an act of revenge for the losses suffered during a protracted siege, inflicted both by Muslim weaponry or sicknesses which festered and thrived in siege camps. Instead, this was the only option left to Richard and he took it. Let me explain

On 31 July Philip Augustus, Richard’s rival and co-leader in the Crusade, left Acre with a small entourage to Tyre, where he sailed for home on 3 August. Richard was quick to assert his influence over the remaining French army by lending their commander, Hugh of Burgundy, 5,000 marks presumably until the French share of the Acre prisoners’ ransom was paid. Meanwhile Conrad of Montferrat was proving to be a source of constant discontent within the crusades ranks. Add to this the situation of supplies post-siege, particularly food and the number of fighting men left, and you may start to get an understanding of Richard’s actions. For Richard and the Crusade, the next step was to march south and capture Jaffa, another port city: to do this in any confidence, he needed shot of those prisoners. If we take the number executed (roughly 3,000) as all the prisoners in Christian hands at Acre itself, then those are 3,000 extra mouths to feed, as well as 3,000 members of the city’s garrison that you would have to both leave behind and simultaneously guard. Imagine then that you are Saladin: you need time to gather your forces and organise your defences. You are most certainly no fool: you know Richard plans to march south to Jaffa and time is of the essence, the longer he is kept at Acre, the more discontent and fractured the various ‘national’ contingents that make up his army become. With time Richard’s position gets ever weaker, while yours get’s stronger. So what do you do? You delay, delay and delay some more, of course.

Saladin himself was beset with financial pressures of his own after years of campaigning and struggled to swiftly meet the conditions stipulated. However, he offered to pay a first instalment of all the prisoners, the Holy Cross and half the money to be delivered by 11 August. When the agreed upon day arrived, Saladin started to prevaricate, insisting on new terms: all the Muslim prisoners should be released and Richard should accept hostages until payment was made in full; failing that, Richard should offer hostages to Saladin until the rest of the money was forthcoming. Unsurprisingly this was rejected and Saladin then repudiated the initial agreement. He had deliberately placed Richard in a difficult position (to say otherwise is to do Saladin a disservice), exploiting the situation to hamper the progression of the crusade. Richard had no doubt heard from the Templars of groups of prisoners overpowering their captors during the Second Crusade, and such was the concern of the English in Wexford, and was one of Hervey of Montmorency’s arguments for killing the prisoners there. Even Arab historians gave this as one of the reasons for the executions. Importantly these considerations were substantial enough for Richard to forego the enormous ransom, the value of which was decreasing daily with the financial cost of feeding and guarding the prisoners. To release the prisoners in return for half the payment was an option, but would have shown Richard to have been outmanoeuvred by Saladin.

So, as opposed to what claim in the rush to condemn him, Richard weighed everything up: his decision was not made rashly, vindictively or in the heat of a temper. He convened a meeting where the matter was, as Ambroise tells us, “examined at a council where the great men gathered and decided that they would kill most of the Saracens and keep the others, those of high birth, in order to redeem some of their own hostages.”

Whatever you think of Richard, he was no fool. So it was that in August that the prisoners were executed in full view of the Saracens, a demonstration designed to both terrify the enemy and undermine his will to resist. It had the desired effect. Both Latin and Arab chroniclers record how, fearing another Acre, Saladin vacated and destroyed Ascalon, another city on the crusaders path south. He knew all too well it would be asking a considerable amount of any garrison to stand against Richard and the crusaders. Town after town capitulated without a fight. If Saladin had failed to save Acre and the prisoners there, nobody seemed willing to risk him managing to save them.

That all said, was Richard acting in accordance with the times? Was he, at the risk of simplifying everything, “in the right”?

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