The Battle of Hattin – from the Saracen point of view

Illustration of the Battle of the Horns of Hat...
Illustration of the Battle of the Horns of Hattin in a medieval manuscript 

For eight centuries, fans of the crusades have rightly held their heads in shame at the memory of the battle known as the Horns of Hattin. It was here that Saladin brilliantly ran rings round the Templar and Christian forces achieving a stunning victory. It’s no exaggeration to say that this was the turning point for the crusader states – where the forward momentum was lost and their future became one of pursuing defensive strategies as opposed to pushing on to Aleppo or Damascus – as had once seemed very viable.

I have seen Hattin with my own eyes and it’s a plain near the Sea of Galilee which I took a boat trip across to get an idea of what it would have been like to approach this battle ground from water as well as land. The crusaders should never have found themselves in this unfavourable terrain but Saladin pushed and prodded them in that direction, taking advantage of the splits he knew had developed among the crusader leaders.

As all of you who have watched the movie Kingdom of Heaven know, Saladin celebrated victory by humiliating King Guy and Reynald of Chatillon – the latter was a particular object of hatred to Saladin because he had tried to attack Mecca and Medina (the plan was to dig up the grave of the Prophet), plundered a caravan train that included Saladin’s sister and broken every treaty he had signed. Saladin beheaded Reynald himself.

The account of the battle by the Saracen Ibn al-Athir makes grim reading from a crusader point of view:

The Muslim archers sent up clouds of arrows like thick swarms of locusts, killing many of the Frankish horses. The Franks, surrounding themselves with their infantry, tried to fight their way towards Tiberias in the hope of reaching water, but Saladin realized their objective and forestalled them by planting himself and his army in the way. He himself rode up and down the Muslim lines encouraging and restraining his troops when necessary. The whole army obeyed his command and respected his prohibitions. One of his young Mamluks led a terrifying charge on the Franks and performed prodigious feats of valour until he was overwhelmed by numbers and killed, when all the Muslims charged the enemy lines and almost broke through, slaying many Franks in the process… One of the volunteers set fire to the dry grass that covered the ground; it took fire and the wind carried the heat and smoke down on the enemy.

It’s worth noting that the crusaders were by no means outnumbered – in fact, the armies were possibly of the same size. But Saladin had learned from previous defeats and had unified his side. After the battle, Saladin offered the Knights of the Temple and of the Hospital the option to convert or die. Two hundred refused to convert and were beheaded.

And of course – here’s the Battle of Hattin as depicted in Kingdom of Heaven (how I wish Orlando Bloom had not been in the film but hey ho)

Advertisements

“Good” King Richard? Re-appraising the Lionheart

Richard the Lionheart, , being anointed during...
Richard the Lionheart being anointed during his coronation 

We all know from the story of Robin Hood that Richard the Lionheart – the first king of England called Richard – was a thoroughly good egg who went off to fight the wicked Saracens in the Holy Land.  The moment he was out of his country, the kingdom of England, his wicked brother John would seize power and begin a reign of tyranny.  Then Richard would have to come back – three lions emblazoned on his tunic – and put everything right again.

Hmmm. Is there any truth in this at all? Let’s go through a little list:

1) Richard was more a Coeur de Lion than a Lionheart – he was thoroughly French in background and outlook.  His ancestry was in the county of Anjou and from his father he inherited the Duchy of Aquitaine and was also Duke of Normandy. Together, these domains were bigger than the kingdom of France – of which they are now a part.  And more often than not, the ‘Angevin’ monarchs of England were more powerful than the kings of France.  For Richard, Aquitaine was arguably more important than England – he certainly spent more time there – even though he was a mere Duke in Aquitaine compared to a King in England.

2) Richard’s coronation in England was marred by a massacre of the Jewish population – hardly an auspicious start to a reign.  The Jews had previously enjoyed the protection of the Norman kings but clearly no longer.  After being crowned king of England, Richard spent about three months in his new kingdom. And it wasn’t for love of the place.  His energies were entirely devoted to raising money by selling as much of the kingdom off as he could.  Richard even boasted that he would sell London if he could find a buyer. The reason for this fire sale of bishoprics and castles was to raise money to go on crusade – which is all he really wanted to do.

3) Richard was a crushing tax gatherer. Poor king John gets roundly blamed for the crisis that led up to Magna Carta but it’s actually Richard who imposed the most eye watering levels of taxation to raise money for his crusading activity.  If he’d lived long enough – he’d have probably faced a baronial revolt and not his hapless brother.

4) Once he got on crusade, was Richard all about chivalry? Certainly not. When it came to the Muslim Saracens, this king was super-bloodthirsty. In one sitting, he watched the execution – beheading to be precise – of an estimated 3,000 Saracen prisoners.

Here is a description of that massacre from the time: “They numbered more than three thousand and were all bound with ropes. The Franks then flung themselves upon them all at once and massacred them with sword and lance in cold blood. Our advanced guard had already told the Sultan of the enemy’s movements and he sent it some reinforcements, but only after the massacre. The Musulmans, seeing what was being done to the prisoners, rushed against the Franks and in the combat, which lasted till nightfall, several were slain and wounded on either side. On the morrow morning our people gathered at the spot and found the Musulmans stretched out upon the ground as martyrs for the faith. They even recognised some of the dead, and the sight was a great affliction to them. The enemy had only spared the prisoners of note and such as were strong enough to work.”

5) On his way back from crusade, Richard got himself captured by a political rival – the Duke of Austria – who demanded the astonishingly enormous sum of 150,000 Marks if anybody wanted to see him free again.  England was squeezed to pay the ransom.

Once free, Richard decided to go and take out his anger against the French – who had tried to keep him imprisoned. He embarked on a murderous five year campaign of town destroying and village burning paid for by…..the English.  So exacting was this new round of taxes that a man called “William the Beard” led the citizens of London in open revolt.  William was caught and hung at Tyburn by a chain.  Clearly William was a popular figure because people in London touched the chain for years after to effect cures for various ailments.

Richard the Lionheart massacres captives

 

4e6718_d1d75f7a3663485da08c9dc90eb26684-mv2According to Beha Ed-Din, a muslim chronicler, Richard the Lionheart pretty much broke the medieval equivalent of the Geneva Convention and slaughtered a huge number of captives during his crusade in outremer.

This was the Third Crusade in response to Saladin‘s successful conquest of all the major cities of the kingdom of Jerusalem including the holy city itself.  A determined Richard appeared on the scene and took Acre back.  In the process, he got hold of just under three thousand captives.

The ransom for sparing their lives was 200,000 gold pieces, 1500 crusaders to be released and the return of the Lignum Crucis – the True Cross.  Various wrangles then ensued between the two days and losing his patience, Richard decided to make his intentions very plain to the Saracens.  He gave the order for, essentially, mass murder.

As the chronicler explained:

The Franks then flung themselves upon them all at once and massacred them with sword and lance in cold blood. Our advanced guard had already told the Sultan of the enemy’s movements and he sent it some reinforcements, but only after the massacre. The Muslims, seeing what was being done to the prisoners, rushed against the Franks and in the combat, which lasted till nightfall, several were slain and wounded on either side. On the morrow morning our people gathered at the spot and found the Muslims stretched out upon the ground as martyrs for the faith. They even recognised some of the dead, and the sight was a great affliction to them. The enemy had only spared the prisoners of note and such as were strong enough to work.