Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Lion In The Desert - Part 2: Sicily, Cyprus, and the Rescue of Acre

By September of 1190AD, Richard's great fleet - comprised of an estimated 10,000 volunteer crusaders from all over the Angevin Empire and regions beyond - assembled at the great port city of Marseilles to refit and restock for the long voyage across the Mediterranean.  At the time, Richard was residing in Salerno just south of Rome, having initially travelled overland to Italy in the company of King Philip.  However, Philip and his much smaller force of about 2,000 knights and squires pressed on to Genoa where their hired transport awaited (the difference in size between the two kings' commands reflects the vast difference in political culture between the more centralized Anglo-Angevin realm and the more antiquated feudalism of France where many French barons chose to march their own armies to Outremer).  When word reached Richard of his fleet's arrival, he issued orders for a detachment led by Baldwin, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to depart immediately for Acre.  The other half would meet him in Messina in Sicily, where Richard had some urgent family business to attend to.

Sicily of the 12th Century was an intoxicatingly fascinating landscape.  A true cosmopolitan society, it boasted a population of Byzantine Greeks, descendants of Muslim Saracen raiders, Tunisian Moors, and Neapolitan Italians - all ruled over by the Norman cousins of Richard's ancestors who conquered the island under the famed adventurer, Robert Guiscard, over a century prior.  The old king, William II, had been the first lord in Europe to respond to Jerusalem's fall in 1187AD - sending naval reinforcements to bolster Tyre's defenses in those critical months during Salah ad-Din's mop-up campaign.  However, before he could take up the cross himself, William died in 1189 without an heir, sparking an intense succession crisis between his illegitimate cousin, Tancred of Lecce, and his aunt, Constance, who was married into the Hohenstaufens of the German Empire that now pressed hard to acquire Sicily for the Reich.  Caught in the middle of all this was William's widow - and Richard's sister - Joan, who was being somewhat ungraciously held by Tancred in his own castle in Palermo.  To make matters worse, Tancred refused to return Joan's dowry that not only consisted of a considerable sum of money, but also a hundred war galleys - ships desperately needed to establish the naval supremacy essential to the success of the Crusade.  Of course, Richard would have none of this.  Richard made a grand entrance into Messina at the head of his army, aweing the local populace and sending a clear message to Tancred of the consequences of continuing as he had.  Tancred immediately released Joan, who joined Richard and his army outside of Messina, but the dowry was still a contested issue.  Richard also had to contend with his partner/rival, King Philip, who had arrived in Messina before him and had taken up residence inside the city.  While Richard and Philip were still on friendly terms at this stage, Philip's mere presence was a constant reminder to Richard of the aggravating Continental politics that loomed over his involvement in the Crusade.

The Italian Norman lands of the 12th Century
While tensions simmered between Tancred and Richard, they began to explode between the Crusader army and the native Messinesi - who had very little love for their unexpected guests and the economic impact their arrival had wrought upon their city and its resources.  Ethnic and cultural rifts fanned the flames of this animosity, as many Messinesi were Orthodox Greeks and Muslims who had no love or respect for the crusading cause whatsoever.  Richard's biographer, Ambroise, detailed the native "hospitality" thus:
"For the townsfolk, rabble, and the scum / Of the city - bastard Greeks were some, / And some of them Saracen-born / Did heap upon our pilgrims scorn / Fingers to eyes, they mocked at us, / Calling us dogs malodorous. / They did us foulness every day / Sometimes our pilgrims they did slay, / And their corpses in the privies threw. / And this was proven to be true."
Whether or not the reports were indeed "proven to be true," the violence displayed by the local populace became too much too ignore for Richard in conjunction with Tancred's waffling over his sister's dowry.  In a surprise attack against some Messinesi who had set out to ambush his forces, Richard and his army seized Messina, looted it, and hung his banners over the walls.  Philip's forces suspiciously provided no assistance whatsoever - a fact that angered many of Richard's lords and foreshadowed bad things to come from their French counterparts.  With the loss of Messina and a German army en route to the island, Tancred realized the game was up for him and immediately capitulated to Richard in return for his support against the German claimants.  With Joan's considerable dowry in hand, Richard could now make the final preparations needed for his army in peace.  He even used many of the funds he gained from Tancred to help fix food prices in Messina at reasonable levels, ending much of the local hostility just as winter set in.  As soon as the sea lanes opened in the Spring (all sea traffic shut down in the Western Mediterranean during the winter months), Richard would be ready to push east.

Tancred of Lecce from a Siculo-Norman chronicle - the real Tancred
suffered from some sort of physical deformity that left him hideously ugly.
His own subjects derisively referred to him as "the Monkey."
However, in February 1191AD, another complication arose (or, rather arrived) that would create an irrevocable rift between Richard and Philip.  That month, Richard's famous mother arrived in Sicily to see her son off one last time and brought with her Princess Berengaria of Navarre ... who was Richard's new betrothed!  Negotiated in complete secrecy from Philip, Richard sought the marriage as a means to secure the southern Angevin flank with King Sancho of Navarre.  Now, the bride-to-be had arrived for all the world to see.  To say that Philip was furious and humiliated would be a gross understatement.  However, due to Richard's new political relationship with Tancred and the vastly greater size of the Anglo-Angevin army, Philip had no real choice but to acquiesce to the new arrangement and release Richard from his vow to his sister in return for 10,000 marks.  However, Philip displayed his open displeasure with Richard by storming off to Acre on his own that next month.  From this moment on, in the words of a German historian, Philip's crusade would not be so much against Salah ad-Din as it would be against Richard.  After placing Berengaria in Joan's care, Richard and his restless army finally departed Sicily in April of 1191 in a fleet that awed in both size and strategic capabilities.  Gillingham described it as such:
"The fleet carried not merely men, horses, and arms, but treasure, heavy siege equipment, and victuals.  It included war galleys and skiffs, vessels designed for combat, reconnaissance and assaults on beaches.  Richard of Devizes, who liked precise figures, said it comprised 156 ships, 24 busses, and 39 galleys, in all 219.  On the basis of his figures for 'men per ship' Richard would have been in command of 17,000 soldiers and seamen - an immense force for the period."
Never before had such a naval task force been assembled in the Medieval world - especially one whose primary function would be the projection of military power from ship to shore like what Richard obviously envisioned.  This focus on amphibious capabilities would become one of the primary factors of Richard's overall strategy in Outremer.  The other would be the establishment of a permanent supply route across the Mediterranean - which was where Richard's interest in the island of Cyprus originated.

Much like Sicily, 12th Century Cyprus was an exotic locale with a rich and diverse past.  Originally a province of the Byzantine Empire, the island had come under the control of a certain Isaac Ducas Comnenos whose family had long been rivals of the Angelos Dynasty that currently held the Imperial throne in Constantinople.  By 1191AD, Isaac had turned Cyprus into his personal de facto kingdom - the possession of which he was prepared to jealously defend against any outsider.  It was even rumored amongst the Crusader leadership that Isaac had entered into a secret pact with Salah ad-Din to provide no aid to the Franks in Outremer in exchange for his island's independence.  Regardless of how the native Cypriots felt towards the cause, Richard immediately recognized the critical importance of the island as a staging point and supply depot for the Frankish Kingdoms.  If Cyprus were to be in friendly hands, then the Kingdom of Jerusalem would have an offshore lifeline through which men and supplies could securely flow from the West.  However, the answer to the question of exactly how Cyprus could be brought under Crusader control was not immediately apparent to Richard.

As often happened, the perfect opportunity soon arose.  When Richard's fleet assembled at Crete for a brief stop and roll-call, a few ships were found missing - to include the ship carrying Joan and Berengaria.  In actuality, those ships had been pushed ahead of the main fleet during a storm and already made it to the south-western coast of Cyprus near Limassol.  There, three supply ships ran aground and were immediately stripped and looted by the Cypriots.  The crews of the ships were taken prisoner, but managed to fight their way out and return to the other ships offshore by the time Richard arrived in May.  Isaac hastily fortified Limassol and rudely rebuffed an emissary from Richard sent to ask for the return of the stolen supplies.  He then deployed troops to the shore to ensure the Crusaders didn't attempt to take the city.  By the time Isaac realized his grievous mistake, it would be far too late for him.  Richard executed an ambitious maneuver - a full strength amphibious landing against the Cypriot forces on the shore.  Using archers and crossbowmen in the landing craft to open fire from the water as soon as they came within range, Richard personally led his knights in storming the beach under the supporting fire.  Isaac and his forces were totally unprepared for such a bold move, abandoned Limassol, and retreated to the surrounding countryside.  The next day, Richard's mounted knights caught the Cypriot forces unprepared out in the open plains beyond the city and easily scattered them with a massed charge.  The local Cypriot leaders decided that two stunning defeats in 24 hours was too many and immediately bent the knee to Richard while Isaac fled to one of his fortresses in the mountains.

Modern Cyprus with many of the key Medieval cities depicted
Isaac Comnenos had never been popular with the Cypriots and now, Richard and his Crusaders gave them a chance to cast off his yoke.  Isaac would continue to lose territory and support in the next few weeks, but would not surrender himself until Richard captured his only daughter and held her for ransom.  By June 1191, Isaac finally descended from his mountains a broken man.  Richard quickly assumed control of the rest of the island and even appointed two of his nobles as provisional governors.  However, contrary to many historians who portrayed the conquest of Cyprus as pure territorial ambition on Richard's part, his next visitors soon proved that his acquisition had a much more vital purpose.  In May, King Guy of Jerusalem and his retinue left the siege lines of Acre and met Richard face-to-face.  While the main point of the visit was to appeal to Richard for support against the political machinations of King Philip (who was pushing to have the crown of Jerusalem taken from Guy and passed to Conrad of Montferrat - the hero of Tyre), Richard handed over custody of Cyprus to the Knights Templar.  For Richard, it was of far greater importance to have Cyprus in the hands of those entrusted with the defense of the Frankish Kingdom than to keep it for his own empire.  This action proved he had a far deeper strategic reasoning behind his actions, as Gillingham summarized:
"In terms of military strategy in the service of the Holy Land the conquest of Cyprus turned out to be a master stroke.  Though reasonably safe from attack, (not until 1571 did Cyprus fall to the Turks), it lay so close to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean that a man standing on the hills around Stavrovouni could see on the horizon the cedar-covered mountains of Lebanon."
However, the time had come to begin what they had all started out to accomplish - to win back the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and that hung on rescuing the besieging (and besieged) Crusaders at Acre.

When the unfortunate Guy of Lusignan initially besieged Acre with what meager forces he could gather in the aftermath of the fall of the Kingdom, it seemed to both Christian and Muslim as an act of desperate folly.  Not even strong enough to take the city by storm, Guy's forces could only set up a blockade around it.  Soon, Salah ad-Din casually made his way there with a large relief army, only to find that Guy had actually positioned his forces on terrain that made him virtually impossible to dislodge.  What ultimately transpired was a very rare scenario in Medieval warfare - a double siege, with the Saracen garrison at Acre besieged by the Franks who, in turn, were surrounded by Salah ad-Din's relief forces.  While the double blockade continued, the Frankish forces began to receive a steady stream of support in the form of Crusader reinforcements from Europe, including vital naval power courtesy of the Italian city-states.  Between the aggressive Christian naval maneuvers in the waters and the constant pressure exerted on Acre's landward walls, Salah ad-Din's prized fleet was trapped in the harbor and unable to prevent any Crusader support coming from the sea.  This first brought King Philip of France, whose siege engines proved a major blow to the Saracen defenders.  However, Philip's forces were still not large enough to truly threaten Salah ad-Din and Philip made a colossally divisive political move by immediately recognizing Guy of Lusignan's rival, Conrad of Montferrat, as the new King of Jerusalem.  This conflict would sadly sour the entire rest of the Crusade as will be seen in a later post.  Also, word had assuredly reached Salah ad-Din of the disintegration of the greatest contingent of the Crusade: the Imperial Germans led by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa - who, in a bizarre twist of tragic (and ironic) fate, accidentally drowned in the Saleph River the year prior in the Taurus Mountains after falling from his horse.  Now, the Sultan's only remaining concern was Richard's army coming from Cyprus.

True to his style, Richard's entrance into the scene at Acre was nothing short of dramatic and would give Salah ad-Din a disturbing idea of who he would be matched against.  As Richard's fleet approached Acre in June 1191, his war-galleys intercepted a massive Egyptian flagship (known as a dromond) attempting to carry vital supplies and reinforcements past the Crusader blockade.  In no way could this ship be allowed to make it to harbor and Richard personally sprung his warships into action.  William of Tyre, typically not very friendly to Richard, described the event in riveting detail:
"Just as he arrived at the city of Acre, Saladin had a great ship called a dromond come to Egypt.  It was full of men, arms, Greek fire, and supplies intended to sustain the Saracens and afflict the Christians ... When King Richard learnt that this ship was approaching the city of Acre and was bringing help to the Saracen port, he immediately sent orders for his galleys to be got ready and armed to go out and engage it in battle.  The galleys were prepared with all speed with Raymond of Bonne Done in command.  They mounted the attack bravely, and the people in the ship defended themselves vigorously as best they could.  But Jesus Christ, Who does not forsake His own, gave victory to the King of England, and his galleys overwhelmed the ship and sank it on the high seas.  So everything on board was lost, and the hearts and wills of the Saracens who were inside the city of Acre were weakened as a result."
Baha al-Din, a close observer in the Sultan's personal staff, remarked at how the morale in the Sultan's encamped army sank at beholding the vast amount of men and supplies that disembarked with Richard's arrival.

The Siege of Acre from a contemporary manuscript.  Note the Frankish siege engine.
While the Anglo-Angevin forces settled into the siege, Richard himself began to initiate contact with the man who would become his epic nemesis for the next year.  Over the next several weeks, Richard and Salah ad-Din exchanged messages and diplomatic overtures through multiple embassies carried out by envoys.  Although on opposing sides in an epic clash of civilizations, the two rulers would continue to stay in close contact with one another throughout the conduct of the war - proving that neither was a stranger to diplomacy and, at times, even courtesy.  However, despite the diplomatic discourse, a war was still at hand and Acre was it's first major objective.  With Richard's siege engines being added to Philip's, Acre's walls were steadily crumbling and the sleep-deprived defending garrison was becoming increasingly desperate and exhausted with the constant bombardment.  Crusader attempts to assault the city were not as yet successful, however - not for any military reason, but because of the ever-expanding political rift between Richard and Philip.  Due to their growing conflict over who wore the crown for Jerusalem - Philip for Conrad and Richard backing his Aquitainian vassals, the Lusignans - neither king's forces were willing to support the other in any assaults on the walls, leading to a frustrating lack of coordination.  Fortunately for the Crusader cause, though, the initiative was clearly in their favor and, after a particularly intense assault by Richard's forces backed by Pisan naval support, the defending garrison finally gave up on Salah ad-Din coming to rescue them.

On 12 July, the defenders surrendered themselves and the city to Richard and Philip, including massive amounts of supplies, money, and an entire Saracen fleet in the harbor.  Richard sent a message to the Sultan offering the lives of the garrison in exchange for 200,000 dinars, the release of 1,500 Christian captives, and (perhaps most importantly) the return of the relic of the True Cross.  When Salah ad-Din heard the news and the terms, he was utterly dismayed, but the Crusader banners hanging from the walls of a newly liberated Acre told him it was far too late to do anything.  He withdrew his demoralized army further inland and began to negotiate over Richard's terms.  Salah ad-Din's dallying over Acre turned out to be one of his most costly mistakes and greatly damaged his reputation as an effective military leader - something Richard would continue to dent significantly for the rest of the war.  However, with the liberation of Acre, Richard's adventures in Outremer had only just begun, as will be covered in the next installment.

To be continued ...

Sources used:

Ambroise, L'Estoire de la guerre sainte, 1195AD.
Bahā' al-Dīn, The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin, 1229AD.
John Gillingham, Richard I, Yale University Press, 1999AD.
Ulrich Kessler, Richard I Lowenherz, Konig, Kreuzritter, Abenteurer, Graz, 1995AD.
Richard de Templo, Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, 1192AD.
William of Tyre, La Continuation, 1197AD.