Friday, November 14, 2014

Richard the Lionheart’s Peacemaker

by Helena P. Schrader

Richard the Lionheart's Tomb at Fontevrault, France

In an earlier entry, I wrote about Richard the Lionheart’s successes in the Holy Land, stressing his exceptional logistical planning, his battlefield bravery and his strategic competence. Not only did he transport an army 10,000 strong across vast distances in fragile wooden ships, he kept that army supplied and fed for nearly three years in the extreme weather conditions of the Holy Land. He may have alienated his fellow commanders, notably Philip II of France and the Duke of Austria, but he won the loyalty of the common soldiers and knights by his exceptional personal bravery and his willingness to build walls or dig ditches beside them. While he led from the front, he took the disheartening decision not to take Jerusalem — despite being in sight of the Holy City — not autocratically or alone but rather in council with representatives from every contingent in his motley army.

But when it was clear that all his bravery and all the sacrifices made by his soldiers was not enough to secure Jerusalem, Richard the Lionheart found himself trapped in a dilemma. News had already reached him that his own kingdom was at risk. His younger brother John was plotting with his arch-enemy, Philip II of France, to take England and the rest of the Angevin empire away from him. He knew he had to return home as soon as possible. But to just pack up and leave as Philip of France had done before him was to risk the loss of all he had achieved in the Holy Land. After all, he had not only re-captured the vital city of Acre, he had established Christian control of the entire coastline from Antioch to Ascalon. This Christian foothold in the Holy Land was vital if there was ever to be a chance of regaining Jerusalem for Christendom. While we may look back with the wisdom of hindsight and say this was a false hope, it was nevertheless a goal that Richard I clung to passionately. He left the Holy Land vowing to return and take up the fight again.

A 19th Century depiction of Richard I Embarking for the Crusades

What Richard the Lionheart needed after the second failed attempt on Jerusalem in January 1192 was a truce — a means to end the fighting while recognizing the status quo. Only this would enable him to return to the West to defend his birthright without endangering the fragile Christian states along the Levant. He had to convince Saladin, who could not defeat Richard on the battlefield but still had the vast preponderance of forces, not to take advantage of Richard’s departure to devour (for a second time) the Christian cities along the coast of the Mediterranean.  

Saladin held all the cards. He could afford to wait until Richard with his army of crusaders departed, and then defeat the remaining Christian forces. He knew both that Richard needed to return to defend his birthright and that his army was demoralized by the failure to take Jerusalem and eager to return home. It was obvious to him that the remaining Christian forces would be in a poor position to resist him. He had little incentive to negotiate at all.

Saladin as depicted in the 20th Century Fox Film "The Kingdom of Heaven"

It was at this moment that Richard turned to a man who had once before negotiated a life-saving agreement with Saladin when in an apparently hopeless situation: Balian d’Ibelin.  Balian was a native of “Outremer” — the land beyond the sea or what we know as the Holy Land. He had been born in the small and relatively insignificant barony of Ibelin around the middle of the 12th century (the date is not recorded), the third son of the First Baron of Ibelin.  His elder brother Hugh inherited the small paternal inheritance and his other elder brother, Baldwin, inherited a much larger maternal inheritance to become Baron of Ramla, Mirabel and (at Hugh's death without children) Ibelin as well. Baldwin, however, was unable to reconcile himself to Guy de Lusignan's usurpation of the throne of Jerusalem in 1186. Baldwin chose to quit the Kingdom of Jerusalem, turning over his titles and lands to his son and naming his younger brother Balian the boy's guardian. Meanwhile, Balian had made a scandalously brilliant match, marrying none other than the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem and Byzantine Princess Maria Comnena. By this marriage he also become step-father to the youngest Princess of Jerusalem, Isabella.

With the departure of his brother, Balian was suddenly one of the most powerful barons in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and he used this power to try to reconcile the usurper, Guy de Lusignan, with the most powerful baron in the Kingdom, Raymond of Tripoli, who at that point was refusing to do homage to Guy despite the clear and present danger posed by Saladin, who had declared jihad against the Christian kingdom. His efforts were successful, and Balian and Raymond both rallied behind Guy de Lusignan when he faced Saladin’s invasion of July 1187. Unfortunately, Guy led them and the entire Christian army to a disastrous defeat on the Horns of Hattin. Balian was one of the few Christian knights to lead a successful charge against the Saracens and effect a break-out.

Thirteenth Century Manuscript Illustration of Warfare

The destruction or capture of the bulk of the Christian army, however, left the Kingdom of Jerusalem undefended and Saladin followed up his victory at Hattin by capturing one city and castle after another until, by the start of September 1187, Saladin controlled the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem except some isolated castles, the city of Tyre and the greatest prize of all: Jerusalem. In Jerusalem were concentrated somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 Christians; roughly 20,000 inhabitants and 40,000 to 80,000 refugees from the territories Saladin had just conquered. But there were no knights in Jersualem and no commander.  Saladin called a delegation from Jerusalem to Ascalon and offered to let those trapped in the city go free in exchange for the surrender of the city. The representatives of Jerusalem refused. According to Arab sources they said that Jerusalem was sacred to their faith and that they could not surrender it; they preferred martyrdom. Infuriated by their intransigence, Saladin vowed to slaughter everyone in the city if it defied him.

Among the refugees in the city of Jerusalem were Balian d’Ibelin’s wife, the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem, and his four young children. Balian had no intention of letting his wife and children be slaughtered, and so he approached Saladin and requested permission and a safe-conduct to ride to Jerusalem and remove his wife and children from harm. Saladin agreed on the condition that he ride to Jerusalem unarmed and stay only one night.

A Medieval Family

Balian had not reckoned with the reaction of the residents and refugees in Jerusalem. The arrival of a battle-tested baron was seen as divine intervention, and the Patriarch of Jerusalem no less than the citizens begged Balian to take command of the defenses. The Patriarch demonstratively absolved him of his oath to Saladin. Balian felt he had no choice. He sent word to Saladin of his predicament and Saladin graciously agreed to send 50 of his own men to escort Balian’s family to the County of Tripoli (still in Christian hands), while Balian remained to defend Jerusalem against overwhelming odds.

And defend Jerusalem he did.  After conducting foraging sorties to collect supplies for the population from the surrounding Saracen-held territory, he held off assaults from Saladin’s army from September 21 – 25 so successfully that Saladin was forced to withdraw and re-deploy his army against a different sector of the wall. On September 29, however, Saladin’s sappers successfully undermined a portion of the wall and brought down a broad segment of it. Jerusalem was no longer defensible.

 The breach occured to the east of this gate, now known as the Damascus Gate, then St. Stephen's Gate.

It was now that Balian proved his talent as a diplomat. With Saracen forces pouring over the breech and into the city, their banners flying from one of the nearest towers, Balian went to Saladin to negotiate. Saladin initially scoffed: one doesn’t negotiate the surrender of a city that has already fallen, he answered dismissively, pointing to his banners on the walls of the city. But at that moment the banners were thrown down and replaced again by the banners of Jerusalem, and Balian played his trump. If the Sultan would not give him terms, he and his men would not only kill the Muslim prisoners they held along with all the inhabitants of the city: they would desecrate and destroy the temples of all religions in the city, including the Dome of the Rock and the Al Asqa Mosque. Saladin gave in.  The Christians were given 40 days to raise ransoms of 10 dinars per man, 5 per woman and 2 per child. Although an estimated 20,000 Christians were still marched off into slavery at the end of the forty days, forty to sixty thousand Christians survived as free men and women thanks to Balian’s skill as a negotiator.

Richard of England needed those skills now, but he had a problem. On his arrival in the Holy Land, Richard had backed the claims of his vassal Guy de Lusignan to the throne of Jerusalem, while Balian staunchly defended the claims of his step-daughter and her husband Conrad de Montferrat. As a result, during the first two years of Richard’s presence in the Holy Land, Balian had been persona non grata in Richard’s court. In fact, he had served as an envoy for Conrad de Montferrat to the Sultan’s court — something Richard’s entourage and chroniclers viewed as nothing short of outright treason to the Christian cause.

Richard the Lionheart, however, was neither a fool nor a bigot. Knowing that only the barons and knights of Outremer could defend the territories he had conquered after he went home, and recognizing that Guy de Lusignan would never be accepted as King by the barons and knights of the Kingdom he had led to disastrous defeat, Richard dropped his support of Lusignan and recognized Isabella and her husband and the rightful rulers of Jerusalem in April 1192. By doing so, he also opened the doors to cooperation with Balian d’Ibelin. Soon thereafter, Richard employed him as a negotiator with Saladin, and in August Balian had successfully talked Saladin into a three year truce (neither side wanted peace for both were unsatisfied with the status quo) that provided for free access to Jerusalem for unarmed Christian pilgrims. Like the surrender of Jerusalem this was not a triumph, but it was also better than what might have otherwise been expected given the weakness of the Christian position. Most of all, it gave Richard what he wanted: an opportunity to return to the West to defend his birthright without the immediate loss of his gains in the Holy Land. And indeed his legacy in the Holy Land was to last not just three but 99 years.


Helena P. Schrader is the author of numerous works of history and historical fiction.  She holds a PhD in History from the University of Hamburg.  The first book of a three-part biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin, who defended Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187 and was later one of Richard I’s envoys to Saladin, is now available for sale.  Read more at: or follow Helena’s blogs: Schrader’s Historical Fiction and Defending the Crusader Kingdoms.

A Biographical Novel of Balian d’Ibelin
Book I

A landless knight,
                A leper King
                                And the struggle for Jerusalem.

 Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!

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