Third Crusade: Battle of Jaffa

by Jessica Brain

The Battle of Jaffa was to be the final and decisive act of the Third Crusade, solidifying an agreement between King Richard and Saladin ending hostilities and securing safe passage for pilgrims.

Jaffa was not the crowning moment of glory that Richard had originally hoped for; in fact, Jerusalem had been the ultimate goal which Richard believed would guarantee him victory and the riches he sought.

Keen to capitalise on his earlier success at Arsuf, Richard and his Crusader army proceeded from the battle and marched on to Jaffa in September 1191. Having taken Jaffa and turned it into a fortified base, Richard and his men began plotting their next move of retaking Jerusalem.

At the end of November, Richard ordered his army to begin their advance towards the Holy City, which might have proved to be fortuitous timing as simultaneously Saladin found himself under pressure to disband some of his forces. Such knowledge would thus give Richard the impetus to continue pushing his men forwards towards their final destination.

By the time they arrived at Beit Nuba, only around twelve miles away from Jerusalem, Saladin’s forces were vulnerable and might have even buckled under the pressure of an assault from the Crusader army, however the weather disrupted Richard’s plans and bought the Muslim army time to regroup.

Now in the dead of winter, hailstones lashed down on the soldiers and the freezing temperatures made it difficult to make a move.

Furthermore, Richard was acutely aware that even if they besieged the Holy City, now they were further inland there would be no supply forces to draw on for help, unlike at the coast, which instigated Richard’s decision to turn back and retreat.

For the remaining few months of winter, Richard’s army took the coastal city of Ashkelon and fortified it from attack.

After seeing out the rest of the season in this position, the advent of spring saw skirmishes between the two warring forces reignite.

One final attempt was made by the Crusader army to take the Holy City, which resulted in them reaching touching distance of Jerusalem before infighting hindered their progress and forced them into retreat once more.

For Richard, this proved to be a particularly turbulent time, as news of trouble back in England reached him, as well as the burden of rule in Cyprus which began to distract him from the task in hand.

Having amassed a healthy proportion of Christian territory along the coast, the cost of maintaining this rule would be another matter.

Richard believed it would be a burden to maintain the Latin Kingdom, a sentiment which he let be known, much to the delight of Saladin who realised that it was only a matter of time before the English king would return to Europe, letting Saladin restore his Muslim territory.

In due course, Richard began his planned withdrawal of forces away from the Holy Land. Saladin took this as a sign of the Crusader’s weakness as well as an opportunity for revenge.

On 27th July 1192 Saladin and his men laid siege to the town of Jaffa, which had been a critical fortified base for Richard and his forces.

The garrison which had been left in defence of the town bravely resisted however they eventually succumbed to the mighty force of Saladin’s army which successfully broke through the walls after a three day resistance filled with bloodshed.

All that remained of the town for the Crusaders to hold onto was the citadel, where the remaining surviving forces managed to send out a message which just reached Richard in time.

When news reached him about Saladin’s capture of Jaffa, Richard was already aboard his ship.

Upon hearing the dire circumstances, Richard quickly put together a small army, consisting predominantly of Italian soldiers including Genoese and Pisan crossbowmen and around fifty knights supported by a few hundred infantrymen.

Richard had no time to lose; he quickly swam to shore and marched his army southwards.

This offensive took Saladin’s men army by surprise as they believed that Richard’s forces were just the beginning of a much larger contingent of men to retake Jaffa.

Completely outnumbered by Saladin’s men, Richard’s forces benefited from the lack of knowledge that this unit was in fact all they had.

The Crusader army managed to push back Saladin’s men whilst many of the prisoners taken by Saladin overwhelmed their captors and took up arms against their Muslim foes.

Meanwhile, Richard led his men, taking great personal risk in doing so, which was duly noted and earned him great respect amongst those who observed his heroism.

In time, Saladin’s forces began to flee from the town of Jaffa in a haphazard manner, retreating five miles before their leader was able to get them under control.

The battle however was far from over. Saladin was keen to launch a counterattack before Richard’s army could be reinforced by Frank troops.

Not one to go down without a fight, the two formidable leaders were about to engage in one last ditch battle for power.

On 4th August, Saladin organised his men around the walls of the town, careful not to expose their position as they were awaiting instructions to attack the next morning.

Unfortunately their position was given away and noticed by a Genoese soldier who had taken a walk and noticed the army hiding in plain sight.

Immediately the alarm was raised and Richard gathered together his troops for one final showdown.

His military strategy consisted of putting his knights and infantry to good use by creating a defensive formation of kneeling soldiers driving forward with their shields whilst spears were aimed at the enemy. Meanwhile his crossbowmen would be positioned behind, working collaboratively to enable faster firing of arrows.

Out in front was the infantry, whilst the knights were stationed to call on in reserve and with none other than Richard himself at the helm.
Opposing them was a formidable force of Muslim cavalry and Ayyubid soldiers.

Saladin’s cavalry would make repeated charges, however with little effect as due to superior armoury, the Crusaders were able to maintain their formation and withstand attack.

The Ayyubid soldiers and cavalry came under heavy attack from a rain of arrows bearing down on them. The exchange of fire lasted a couple of hours with Saladin’s men bearing the brunt of the attack, leaving them exhausted and demoralised, not able to penetrate the Crusader army line of defence.

Nevertheless, fighting continued and as it did, one group of Ayyubid soldiers were able to outmanoeuvre their opponents, allowing them to enter Jaffa whilst the Genoese marines, whose task it was to defend the gates of the town, put up little opposition.

The Muslim army should have been able to capitalise on this breach of defences, however Richard ensured through his valour and leadership that they would not do any such thing.

The King of England instead rode into the town and gave a rallying cry to all his men, ensuring that his forces would not be beaten.

Such a demonstration of military leadership was rewarded as Saladin’s men realised they were defeated and began to withdraw.

Whilst Saladin’s forces retreated, the number of losses mounted up with considerable numbers of dead and wounded, including a heavy loss of horses.

Richard and the Crusaders had won at Jaffa, a significant and defining moment which ended not only Saladin’s counter-attack but concluded the Third Crusade.

Whilst Richard had amassed considerable victories during his time in the Middle East, he had failed in his ultimate mission of retaking the Holy City. Nevertheless, his valour and leadership skills secured him the sobriquet of Richard the Lionheart.

Saladin meanwhile, was an equally formidable opponent, securing Jerusalem for the Muslims before the Crusader army left Palestine for Europe.

The two leaders would subsequently agree a three year truce, known as the Treaty of Jaffa where Richard could boast of securing Christian territory stretching down the coastline, whilst also ensuring safe passage to the Holy City for Christian pilgrims.

With victory, valour and leadership on display, Richard’s time spent fighting in the Crusades had been the making of him. Whilst his reputation as King of England suffered, his time spent in the Middle East had defined him and allowed him to cultivate an image of medieval chivalry and courage which he still retains to this day.

Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.

Published 16th March 2023

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