Friday, July 10, 2020

The Third Crusade: an Early Mishap at Lyon, 10 July 1190

by Charlene Newcomb

King Richard I
When Richard became King of England in 1189 the pilgrimage to the Holy Land to free Jerusalem became his top priority. After his coronation, Richard set the kingdom in order and raised monies to support the undertaking. Richard’s fleet sailed towards Gibraltar intending to meet him in Marseille. His army of pilgrims – or crusaders, as we refer to them now – gathered in Tours in the spring of 1190. By early July, Richard and King Philip of France concluded discussions at Vézelay setting the conditions of their cooperation.

From Vézelay, the pilgrims marched south towards Lyon. Contemporary chroniclers describe the locals’ reactions and the grandeur of the armies, thousands strong. The discipline of the soldiers impressed them. “Who could stand against their force? What a beautiful company, what handsome youths!” Ambroise and the author of the Itinerarium claim the English and French troops numbered near 100,000 – a huge exaggeration. We can only estimate the actual numbers. Author David Miller suggests that when the army began its coastal march south from Acre in August 1191, the French and English forces numbered approximately 1,600 knights and over 14,000 foot soldiers.

On the 10th of July in 1190, Richard and Philip arrived in Lyon. The mishap here on the River Rhône – early in the crusade timeline – could have proven disastrous. In his Annals, Roger de Hoveden writes,
When they had arrived at the city of Lyons on the Rhone, after they with the greater part of their households had passed over the bridge across that river, the bridge, being thronged with men and women, broke down, not without doing injury to great numbers. Here also the two kings separated…
A second account of the incident comes from Ambroise. He describes the scene as utter chaos. Hundreds of people, animals, and wagons plummeted into the rapidly-raging river:
But those who in the morning passed?
Crowded the bridge so thick and fast?
Misfortune did them overtake.
For one span of the bridge did break
Because of the waters treacherous,
Swollen so high and perilous.
For weight of men more than an hundred
O’ertaxed the pine arch till it sundered;
The arch fell and they tumbled in,
And there were shouting, groans and din…
The Itinerarium mentions that the bridge was extremely high, the drop to the river below far enough that many could have died. Onlookers raced to pull victims from the swift current. Incredibly, the chroniclers report that only two people died. Were the numbers underreported, reflecting only those of noble birth? Many historians suggest only "important" deaths were recorded, and therefore, we will never know the true death toll.

De Hoveden has no further comment on the aftermath of the bridge collapse. None of the accounts reflect whether King Richard witnessed the incident, but the Itinerarium describes those who had not yet crossed the river as “at wit’s end.” None wanted to be left behind. The chronicler claims Richard oversaw the construction of a floating bridge built of boats lashed together. The king would have read of the idea in De Re Militari, a treatise of military principles and practices written by Publius Falvius Vegetius Renatus. Amboise does not mention the bridge of boats, but writes that small skiffs were used to ferry people to the opposite riverbank. Both accounts indicate the incident delayed the march south by three days.

What gives one pause is that one month earlier and two thousand miles away, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa met his fate at the Saleph River in Turkey. His horse slipped and Frederick fell into the river and drowned. It was a devastating blow for his followers, only one-third to one-quarter of whom – perhaps 5,000 men – continued on to the Holy Land. During the siege of Acre, these troops reported to Duke Leopold of Austria, a man who would become King Richard’s bitter enemy.

What if the Lionheart had been on the bridge when it collapsed and had died at Lyon? Would Richard’s forces have been thrown into disarray as Barbarossa’s had? Would Philip of France have forsaken the pilgrimage to pursue his desires to regain French territory and to remove the Angevins from the continent? Christians besieging Acre would have been left without reinforcements. They were in dire straits, having suffered repeated attacks by Saladin’s forces. It is likely the siege of Acre would have failed. Acre, other coastal towns, and Jerusalem would remain in Muslim hands. The Third Crusade might not have been.


Ambroise. (1976). The crusade of Richard Lion-Heart. (Trans. by M.J. Hubert.) New  York: Octagon.

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?)

Miller, D. (2003). Richard the Lionheart: the mighty crusader. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Nicholson, H., & Stubbs, W., trans. (1997). Chronicle of the third crusade : A translation of the itinerarium peregrinorum et gesta regis ricardi. Aldershot, Hants, England ; Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate.

Painting of Richard I by Merry-Joseph Blondel. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

An earlier version of this post was originally published at , and published on EHFA on July 9, 2015.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Charlene Newcomb is the author of the Battle Scars series, 12th century historical fiction filled with war, political intrigue, and a knightly romance of forbidden love set during the reign of Richard the Lionheart. She is currently working on a new medieval tale set during King John’s reign; and in summer 2020 will publish Echoes of the Storm, a sci fi/space opera filled with rebels and traitors and battles and romance in a galaxy far, far away (no, not Star Wars). Sign up for Char’s Newsletter for exclusives, including a free short story, and other special offers. Find her books on Amazon & connect with Char on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.


  1. It might make an interesting alternative universe story, I think. What if...? And back in England, I suppose John would have been king earlier. What would his relations have been with France? Or other countries, for that atter, given that France was a sort of extension of England as far as the English royals were concerned...

    1. John lost his holdings on the continent when he became king, so I wonder if it would have happened earlier if his reign began in 1190. And what of Magna Carta?

  2. Interesting thought, Char! What we need now is a novelist to write about it. Perhaps Harry Turtledove...? ;-)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.