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The Battle Of Arsuf

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The Cross and the Crescent

The Dream and the Tomb

The Battle Of Arsuf
The Battle Of Arsuf
by Dan Fratini


In the history of the Medieval world, perhaps no events have been as mystifying, studied, and complex as the Crusades. Lasting from 1095 to 1291, the traditional Crusades played a major role in the development of Western Europe, the Middle East, and the Byzantine Empire. Among the many figures who played a role in the Crusades, two names have stood out far beyond all others, Richard the Lion-Heart (1157-1199), and Saladin (1137-1193). Though these two men never met face to face, the full might of their respective armies met on the open battlefield on September 7, 1191, at Arsuf.


The Third Crusade (1189-1192) had been a response to the overwhelming victories of Saladin in the previous years. Born Joseph, son of Job, Yusef, son of Ayyub, the title of Salah-al-din, translated as Rightessnous of the Faith or Rectifier of the Faith, had been corrupted by Western Europeans to Saladin. By 1169 Saladin had risen from the ranks and established his power base in Egypt, and following 1175 he had brought the bulk of Syria under his control, giving rise to the Ayyubid Dynasty, which would survive until its overthrow by the Mameluks in 1250.

The year 1187 had been a great turning point for the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the largest of the Crusader States, the others being the Principality of Antioch and the County of Tripoli. His power base fully secure, and in response to crusader raids, Saladin invaded the kingdom, to be met by the assembled royal army at the Horns of Hattin in 1187. King Guy of Lusignan (1150-1194) led his army into a disastrous defeat, leaving the kingdom largely undefended in the face of the Ayyubid host. Throughout 1187 Saladin conquered the remainder of the kingdom, leaving Tyre as the only significant outpost of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Following word of the massive losses in the Levant, the royals of Western Europe answered the call to crusade. Frederick I Barbarossa (1122-1190), Holy Roman Emperor, was the first to journey to the Holy Land, drowning during a river crossing. His army was mostly destroyed by disease and Turkish horse-archers, the remnants of his forces falling under the command of Duke Leopold V (1157-1194) of Austria. Richard, at this time King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou, traveled by sea, stopping at Sicily and conquering the island of Cyprus from the Byzantines before his arrival at Acre in 1191. Here Guy of Lusignan, along with Duke Leopold and Phillip Augustus, King of France (1165-1223) were already laying siege to the Ayyubid held port city. Under Richard's overall command, and by his mastery of siege warfare, the city fell to the crusaders, returning a vital Mediterranean port to the kingdom. Phillip, claiming sickness, departed for France, and the crusader army fell under Richard's sole command. He set his army on the march to Arsuf, traveling along the Mediterranean coast, desiring to secure port cities from which he could launch an inland invasion on the city of Jerusalem itself. It was during this march that Richard would met the forces of Saladin at the battle of Arsuf.

Army Composition

Medieval sources often wildly exaggerate the size of armies, while armies tended to be raised for specific campaigns, lacking standard peacetime numbers. The English and French crusaders of Richard, the remaining crusaders of Phillip, the German stragglers of Barbarossa, and the forces of Guy, along with the Knights Templar and Hospitaller, in all likelihood numbered roughly 20,000-30,000 men. The army would have been infantry heavy, only a few thousand men being knights, along with Turcopole light cavalry, in all a cavalry force not likely to exceed 4-5,000 men.

The knights of the late 1100s were covered head to toe in chainmail armor, a surcoat, to protect against the heat and signal the knight's allegiance, worn outside of the chain, padded cloth worn underneath. Knights mostly wore conical helms or kettle helms with plate visors, precursors to the great helm. Their warhorses were barded with cloth or leather to protect against arrows, though this was a fairly recent practice. The larger kite shield was giving way to the smaller and more triangular heater shield, while offensive armament consisted of longsword, lance, mace, and axe, of which Richard himself was quite fond.

The infantry were protected by larger kite shaped shields, and wore what chainmail they could acquire, leather being a more common substitute. Their arms consisted mainly of spear and crossbow, the spearmen providing the crossbowmen with a base of fire, and also providing a base and follow up charge for the cavalry.

In addition to the knights and spear/crossbow infantry, Richard supplemented his army with siege engineers, Turcopole light cavalry, fighting in Turkish fashion, and a fleet serving in a logistic role.

Saladin had an army even more mixed in composition than his opponent's. In all Saladin most likely fielded an army roughly the same size as Richard's, 20,-30,000 men, divided more evenly between infantry and cavalry.

The Ayyubid cavalry fell into three categories, Arab horse, Turkish horse-archers, and Mameluk slave horse. The Arab horse, recruited mainly from Bedouin tribes, was lightly armed and armored, wearing little to no armor and perhaps carrying a circular shield. They were armed primarily with lance and longsword, and while popular in earlier Fatimid armies they were being supplanted in the newer Ayyubid military. Turkish horse-archers were recruited from the vast pool of Turkish nomads and tribes that had entered the Middle East in the 1000s, and were renowned for their ability as skirmishers, raiders, and harassers. Their armor consisted of leather or iron or leather lamellar. Offensively their main weapon was the Turkish shortbow, which they could shoot at full speed while on horseback, along with the lance, saber, and mace, the latter two weapons the Turks introduced into Middle Eastern warfare. The Mameluks, slave warriors of mainly Turkish descent, were more heavily armored, though less so than the knights, with chainmail and lamellar, along with fluted helm and a circular shield. They too were armed with saber, mace, and lance, though their primary weapon was the shortbow, which they could use not only in Turkish harassment tactics, but also in disciplined lines, based on their Persian and Byzantine predecessors.

The infantry of Saladin was noticeably more mixed than the cavalry, the Ayyubids having inherited the Fatimid infantry heavy system. Saladin's infantry included everything from Armenian mercenary spearmen and archers, to Nubian archers and javelinmen, to Arab militia, skilled in siege warfare. The arms and armor of the infantry varied widely, according to their background, but most were very lightly armored, often having nothing more than a shield, while arms were primarily bows, spears, and javelins.

The Battle

While marching to his ultimate goal of Jerusalem, Richard kept his forces close to the Mediterranean Sea, his fleet logistic being readily available for the army. Closest to the sea marched his baggage train with a screen of infantry, next were the cavalry, the Knights Hospitaller in the rear, the Knights Templar in the vanguard, followed by a line of protective infantry. Though a multinational force marching through the blazing sun, Richard was an experienced military commander, and kept iron discipline among his troops.

Saladin saw the march as a chance to crush the crusaders in the field, push them back into the sea, and thus secure the doom of the Crusader States. He began by sending his light infantry and Turkish horse in skirmishing attacks against the crusader left flank, commanded by the Hospitallers. These attacks began as minor harassment, over the course of the day they intensified to a desperate struggle for the Hospitallers. Saladin's goal was to force the crusader left flank away from the main army, creating a gap he could then exploit by a full charge, destroying the crusader formation and pushing Richard's forces into the Mediterranean. Were it not for the discipline of Richard and the Hospitallers, he may have succeeded.

The attacks on the left flank consisted mainly of archery and javelin fire, the crusaders behind their wall of infantry spearmen and retaliating with crossbows. The Hospitallers suffered few losses, however they were losing horses. Several times they begged Richard to launch a full charge, fearing if they lost any more horses they wouldn't be able to charge at all. Richard refused each request, waiting for Saladin to expose his right flank, when it would be away from the center and left and more vulnerable to a charge.

Saladin continued to commit more men to the crusader left flank, some Turkish horse even dismounting to better shoot into the crusader ranks. More requests were made, and denied, by the Hospitallers to charge. As the knights continued to lose horses they too lost all patience, and without orders charged into the Ayyubid right flank. Richard, seeing no option but to support the charge, ordered the Templars to charge the Ayyubid left. The Ayyubids, having failed to provoke a charge all day, were caught by surprise, and though they attempted to rally, they were slaughtered. The knights, followed by their infantry, killed over 7,000 Ayyubids, including 7 high ranking emirs, at a total loss of at best 1,000 casualties for the crusaders.


The victory of Arsuf allowed Richard to continue unimpeded down the Mediterranean coast. Though Richard believed he could take the city of Jerusalem, he believed once most of the crusaders returned home, those remaining would be unable to hold it. After several more actions, including the amphibious retaking of the port of Jaffa, and a proposed marriage between Richard's sister and Saladin's brother, the King of England concluded a peace with Saladin and left the Holy Land in 1192, bringing an end to the Third Crusade.

Richard would have a tumultuous and years long return home, eventually dying from an infected wound during a minor siege in 1199. Saladin would die peacefully in 1193, the dynasty he established continuing to rule most of the Middle East until its overthrow by the Mameluk slave warriors in 1250.

By his victory at Arsuf and other accomplishments of the Third Crusade, Richard gave the Crusader States another hundred years of life, the last crusader city, Acre, falling to the Mameluk Dynasty in 1291. With the fall of the Crusader States, as well as the collapse of the Mongol Empire and the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the Western European trade routes to East Asia were restricted, leading to a famous voyage in 1492.

Though never having met face to face, Richard and Saladin had a deep mutual respect, tales of their chivalry echoing across Medieval Europe. Both men have attained near legendary status, and both men found their destiny at the Battle of Arsuf, September 7, 1191.


Ambroise, 1196, Crusade Of Richard Lion Heart.

Anonymous, Crusade And Death Of Richard Lion Heart. Translated by R.C. Johnston, 1961.

Billings, Malcolm. The Cross And the Crescent, 1987.

Payne, Robert. The Dream And The Tomb, 1984.

Kohn, George. Dictionary Of Wars, Revised Edition, 1999.

Nicolle, David, McBride, Angus. Saladin And The Saracens. Osprey, 1992.
* * *

Copyright © 2005 by Dan Fratini.

Written by Dan Fratini. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Dan Fratini at:

About the author:
Dan Fratini is a lifelong military history enthusiast, focusing on the Medieval time period, in particular the Crusades, Mongol Empire, and Byzantine Empire. Dan hails from the Northeastern United States, having studied criminal law in college.

Published online: 10/03/2005.
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