Saturday, August 20, 2016

War Crime or a Strategic Military Decision? The massacre at Acre, August 20, 1191

by Charlene Newcomb

Surely one of the saddest, most horrible, and notorious events of the Third Crusade occurred on August 20, 1191. When Acre surrendered to Christian forces in July 1191 after a two-year siege, negotiators from within the city agreed to terms that included the return of Christian hostages and a fragment of the True Cross - captured by Saladin at the Battle of Hattin in 1187 - and payment to secure the release of Muslim hostages. Saladin was not involved in the negotiations, and contemporary accounts provide no evidence that the Muslin leader actually agreed to the conditions set on his behalf. There is no doubt Saladin knew the terms and used delay tactics whether to better position his troops or to stall the Christians' march to Jerusalem. In the words of chronicler Geoffrey de Vinsauf, Saladin “sent constant presents and messengers to King Richard to gain delay by artful and deceptive words.” The deadline was extended in hopes Saladin would come through.

What is clear: the terms of the surrender were not met. Twenty-seven hundred hostages were executed under orders issued by Richard the Lionheart.

Richard’s decision has been a cause for debate for centuries. In today’s world, this would be a war crime of huge magnitude. In 12th century warfare, the execution of hostages was not uncommon, though in many situations, hostages were kept under house arrest – sometimes for years –  or sold as slaves.

Richard’s dilemma: where do you house 2,700 hostages? How do you keep them fed when you must feed your own army? How many guards would it take to ensure the captives would not escape? With the departure of King Philip of France, Duke Leopold of Austria, and many of their supporters that summer, Richard needed nearly every able-bodied soldier on the coming pilgrimage to secure Jerusalem.

Why didn’t Richard sell his hostages? That would take time. It was already mid-August. The army needed to begin the march to Jerusalem or else run the risk of being caught by winter storms.

Based on morals and the conduct of war in the 12th century, are these excuses or valid reasons to execute close to 3,000 prisoners?

I was surprised that contemporary observers had very little to say about the executions. It is incredible to read the accounts of wholesale slaughter generally described in such nonchalant terms.

Roger de Hoveden writes:
On the seventeenth day of the month of August, being the third day of the week and the thirteenth day before the calends of September, the king of England caused all the pagans who belonged to him from the capture of Acre to be led out before the army of Saladin, and their heads to be struck off in the presence of all . . .

De Hoveden does provide more detail than most chroniclers and further along that passage he describes what the Christians did to the bodies. It is horrific, and I won't repeat it here. He then continues:

On the twenty-first day of the month of August, after the slaughter of the pagans, the king of England delivered into the charge of Bertram de Verdun the city of Acre. . . On the twenty-second day . . . the king of England crossed the river of Acre with his army, and pitching his tents between that river and the sea, on the sea-shore between Acre and Cayphas, remained there four days.

The chronicler Geoffrey de Vinsauf writes:
. . . 2700 of the Turkish hostages [were] led forth from the city and hanged ; [King Richard's] soldiers marched forward with delight to fulfill his commands, and to retaliate, with the assent of the Divine Grace, by taking revenge upon those who had destroyed so many of the Christians with missiles and arbalests.
Ambroise writes:
Two thousand seven hundred, all

In chains, were led outside the wall,
Where they were slaughtered every one;
And thus on them was vengeance done.
For blows and bolts of arbalest.
Even Muslim contemporary writers have not provided us more than a few sentences about the event. Ibn al-Athir writes that Saladin and his emirs did not trust the Franks (the term used to denote the European Christians). Al-Athir felt that the crusaders intended 'treachery' and would not free the hostages even if Saladin met the demands. Al-Athir then notes:
On Tuesday 27 Rajab [20 August 1191] the Franks mounted up and came outside the city with horse and foot. The Muslims rode out to meet them, charged them and drove them from their position. Most of the Muslims they had been holding were found slain. They had put them to the sword and massacred them but preserved the emirs and captains and those with money. All the others, the general multitude, the rank and file and those with no money they slew.
The chronicler Baha' Al-Din writes:
Then they brought the Muslim prisoners whose martyrdom God had ordained, more than three thousand men in chains. They fell on them as one man and slaughtered them in cold blood, with sword and lance . . .
He is one of few contemporaries who comments on Richard's motives:
Many reasons were given to explain the slaughter. One was that they had killed as reprisal for their own prisoners killed before then by the Muslims. Another was that the King of England had decided to march on Ascalon and take it, and he did not want to leave behind him in the city a large number (of enemy soldiers). God knows best.
Richard justified his actions in a letter to the abbot of Clairvaux. This was war, and Saladin had not met his end of the agreement. Many of Richard's contemporaries and numerous scholars over the years have condemned the Lionheart for his decision. It was a brutal and unchivalrous act. Would Richard's reputation have suffered less if the besieged had chosen to fight to the bitter end? Those sieges did not end well for the losers: pillaging, burning, and killing. But the garrison at Acre had surrendered. Richard sought advice from his council, and seeing no alternatives if he intended to be at Jerusalem's gate before winter set in, he issued the orders.


Ambroise. The history of the holy war : Ambroise’s estoire de la guerre sainte. (Trans. by Ailes, M., & Barber, M.) Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2003.

De Hoveden, R. (1853). The annals of Roger de Hoveden, comprising the history of England and of other countries of Europe from A. D. 732 to A. D. 1201. (Henry T. Riley, Trans.). London: H. G. Bohn. (Original work published 1201?)

"Geoffrey de Vinsauf's itinerary of Richard I and Others, to the Holy Land" in Chronicles of the Crusades: contemporary narratives, compiled and edited by Henry G. Bohm. London: Kegan Paul, 2004.

Gillingham, J. (1978). Richard the Lionheart. New York: Times Books.

Ibn al-Athīr, ʻIzz al-Din. (2007). The chronicle of ibn al-athīr for the crusading period from al-kāmil fi’l-ta’rīkh. (Trans by Richards, D. S.) Aldershot ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Ibn Shaddād, Bahāʼ al-Dīn. (2001) . The rare and excellent history of Saladin, or, al-Nawādir al-Sultaniyya wa’l-Mahasin al-Yusufiyya. (Trans by Richards, D. S.) Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate.

Siege of Acre By Blofeld of SPECTRE at en.wikipedia (Transfered from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons,

Richard the Lionheart Merry-Joseph Blondel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

"SaracensBeheaded" by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville - François Guizot (1787-1874), The History of France from the Earliest Times to the Year 1789, London : S. Low, Marston, Searle &

Rivington, 1883, p. 447. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

This post was originally posted on English Historical Fiction Authors on Wednesday, August 19, 2015.


Charlene Newcomb is the author of Men of the Cross and For King and Country, two historical adventures set during the reign of King Richard I, the Lionheart. For King and Country is an HNS Editors Choice, long listed for the 2017 HNS Indie Award. Men of the Cross was selected as an indieBRAG Medallion honoree in 2014..

Charlene is a member of the Historical Novel Society and a contributor and blog editor for English Historical Fiction Authors. She lives, works, and writes in Kansas. She is an academic librarian by trade, a former U.S. Navy veteran, and has three grown children.

Connect with Char: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Amazon


  1. I have a similar incident in my time period--Charlemagne's mass execution of pagan Saxons at Verdun. The number (4,500 if memory serves) might be an exaggeration. This was retaliation for a defeat at Saxon hands. In 21st century eyes, it's awful. In the eyes of 8th century Franks, it was justice and a message: Defeats will be avenged.

  2. Char,
    The Old French Continuation of William of Tyre, which is believed to be most closely based on the lost Chronicle of Ernoul, has this -- very significant -- commentary:
    "When King Richard saw the people weeping and lamenting because Saladin had deceived them, he had great pity and wanted to calm those who were in great distress."
    What as behind this distress? That the terms of the surrender of Acre wasn't just about the True Cross!! It was also about the return of either all or an equal number of CHristian captives as Muslim captives at Acre. When Saladin failed to keep his word, it meant that at a minimum 2,700 -- and possibly more -- Christians -- the relatives of many men fighting at Acre -- would remain in captivity. This, consistently overlooked fact, I think is key to Richard's behavior!
    Furthermore, no discussion of the "massacre of Acre" should take place without considering the fact that Saladin ordered the execution of 230 captive Hospitallers and Templars after Hattin -- and had them executed publicly at the hands of scholars who often took 4 or 5 hacks of their swords to decapitate their bound and helpless prisoners. "Chivalrous" Saladin was the first to execute helpless prisoners, who had surrendered in good faith, and Richard was very likely responding (like a good commander) to popular feeling among his troops.

  3. Welcome to the realities of warfare.

  4. Char, I like the way you dealt with this event in Men of the Cross. You made it the most traumatic of the experiences your hero Henry faced. Chroniclers wrote down the wars, but warriors did the bloody work, and they are the ones who obviously engaged directly with the violence, physical and emotional. I just liked the fact that your storytelling acknowledged this.

    1. Thanks, Chris. It was a pivotal moment for Henry so it is wonderful to hear that both the physical and emotional impacts came through vividly for you.


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