Crusaders - Alfred J. Church

The Battle of Arsuf

Let it be known by those who are curious to note such things, that from the day when the Christian army first came to the town of Acre, to that on which it marched forth by command of King Richard, was the space of two years, short of three days; and from their marching forth down to the making of peace was the space of one year and thirteen days. Of this latter time I am now about to write, not relating all things that came to pass, but such as came within my own knowledge or were told to me by others that had seen them, and of these such only as were of special moment.

It was soon made plain to all that the spirit of the Caliph and his Turks was not broken by the losing of the town. Rather were they stirred up by it to more earnestness and courage; nor did they forget how their countrymen had been cruelly slaughtered. For a time they were content to watch the King's army as it went on its way, taking such occasion as offered itself of plundering or slaying. If any lagged behind, falling out of the line of march by reason of weariness, or seeking refreshment on the way, as when there was a spring of water near to the road, or a vineyard with grapes—'twas just the time of the ripening of grapes—then the Turkish horsemen would be upon him. Such loiterers escaped but seldom. And for this business the Turks had a particular fitness, so quickly did they come and depart. The Christian knights were clad in armour, a great defence, indeed, against arrows and stones, but a great hindrance if a man would move quickly; the horses also had armour on them. There must be good reason for this custom, seeing that 'tis commonly followed by those who, I may say, are men of war from their youth, but it brings loss as well as gain. A man is defended, 'tis true, against many perils of battle, save that he is like to be strangled if he falls from his horse, but he is also put to no small disadvantage. Why do they set men on horses but that they may go speedily to and fro as occasion may call? but these knights are like to fortresses rather than to riders. A man on foot can easily outrun them; as for the Turks who rode on horses from the desert—than which there is no creature on earth lighter and speedier—they flew from the Christian who would pursue them, as a bird flies from a child who would catch it.

Richard Coeur de Lion


That there was no standing against these heavy-armed knights in the field is true. I have seen a company of them, when the place favoured them, as charging down a hill, lay their adversaries in the dust as a tree is laid by a blast of wind. But such chances were rare, even when there was a set battle; in such conflicts as were fought on the march, they were of little avail. There was another way in which the Turks did great hurt to the Christian army. Some of them would creep into the camp at night (the watch being but ill kept), enter the tent and slay the men the whiles they slept. I do remember how, some seven days after the departure from Acre, that there was found an English knight, with his two squires and two yeomen all slain, and that on the dagger by which the knight perished was a scroll with the word aparché  written thereon, by which word is signified "first-fruits," the dead man being the first-fruits of the harvest of vengeance for the hostages that had been slain.

On the twelfth day after the departure from the town there was a very fierce onslaught of the Turks, who had by this time gathered much confidence. In this the Templars, who were the rear-guard of the army, endured much suffering and loss. Sundry knights were slain or grievously wounded, and of the horses so many were damaged or killed that their chief, a certain Hugh, Count of St. Pol, was well-nigh driven to despair. Nevertheless there were some in the army to whom the slaying of the horses was not altogether unwelcome, for they were thus supplied with what they had otherwise lacked—that is to say, flesh meat. These men of the West are wont to eat this meat in abundance, not keeping it, as is commonly the custom in these regions, for high days and festivals, but using it daily, yea and twice in the day. Now I verily believe that if the whole store of sheep and oxen in the land of Palestine had been gathered together it had not long sufficed for this multitude of men. The want therefore of flesh was very great. Such horses as were worn out with their labours, yea, even such as perished of disease, were greedily devoured. When, therefore, the horse of a knight was killed, being in good health and keeping, it was sought for with much eagerness. I have seen men come to blows over the matter when there chanced to arise some dispute as to the buying. When this came to the ears of the King, he sent a herald throughout the host who made this proclamation: "Seeing that it is an unseemly thing that a knight should play the part of a huckster in the market, Richard, King of England, hereby promises that he will give a war-horse of the worth of three marks to any knight who shall freely bestow the flesh of a horse that shall come by its death in battle to soldiers that are in need." Truly King Richard had an open hand. He took what he needed without scruple, as none know better than my own countrymen, but he gave without stinting. He was himself wounded on this day whereon the Templars suffered such loss, a Turk thrusting him in the side as he fought in front of the army, or, rather, to speak more truly, in the rear. The wound did not stay his hunger for battle; nay, rather, it whetted it; he was ever a fierce fighter, but on that day when the smart of the wound was on him, he was almost as a madman that has broken loose from his chain. I take it that the Turk who dealt him that blow did but an ill service to his countrymen.

That same night a peasant came into the camp—'twas said that he came from the village of Bethlehem where there have been Christians from the beginning—bringing news that the Turks would fall upon the army as it was passing through a certain forest that is called Arsuf, and would also set the trees on fire, on either side of the road, a thing much to be dreaded, because there is no season of the year when a wood will burn more fiercely than when the summer is now beginning to wane. Neither the one thing nor the other came to pass; haply the Turks were aware that their plan had been betrayed; haply the peasant was a spy. Certain it is that all this while the Turks were close at hand, and ready to assault the King's army so soon as a convenient occasion should arise. But they did not take King Richard unaware, for indeed he was as watchful as he was brave.

I will now set forth as briefly as may be the order of the army as it was set out for battle on this day. On the right hand of the army was the sea, its front being set towards the south. In the van were the Templars, and next to these the Frenchmen in two divisions, the second being led by that Guy who called himself King of Jerusalem, and after the Frenchmen King Richard with his Englishmen; last of all, holding the rear-guard, were the Hospitallers. These are ever rivals of the Templars, and it was the King's custom so to order his disposition that this rivalry should work for the common good. On one day the Templars would lead, and the Hospitallers bring up the rear; on another each would take the other's place; and there was ever a mighty contention between the two companies which would bear itself the better. These two posts, it should be said, were the most full of peril; nor was any part of the army save only these two companies suffered to hold either the one or the other. Between the divisions there was a small space, not more than sufficient to mark one from the other: otherwise the soldiers stood and marched in as close array as might be. Also they moved very slowly, travelling less than a league in the space of two hours. And ever the King with some chosen knights rode up and down the lines, watching at the same time the Turks, so that whenever they might make an assault the army might be ready to meet them.

It was midway between sunrise and noon when the first assault was made. I noted among the enemy three sorts of soldiers, distinguished one from the other by the diverse colour of their skin. Some were well-nigh as black as ebony, having flat faces and hair like to wool. These came from the lands that lie to the south of Egypt; others, named the Bedaween, came from the desert, not black indeed, but looking as though the sun had burnt them almost to that hue, and the Turks themselves who were not darker in complexion than some of the Christians. It was to be noted that the nobles were fairer to look at than the common men. 'Twas but seldom, indeed, that a black rider was to be seen. The negroes and the men from the desert fought mostly on foot, though the chief men of the latter had horses. Of such then was the host that fell upon the rear of the Christians, and as they came on there was such a confused noise of trumpets and clarions, of timbrels and drums and gongs, as I never have heard at any time or place; and the greater the uproar the more fiercely, as it seemed to me, did the enemy come on.

Now King Richard's commandment had been that the Christians should on no account break their lines to attack the enemy, but should only defend themselves as best they could. Now there is nothing harder in the whole duty of a soldier than so to stand; even they who have been men of war from their youth up grow greatly impatient; as for the younger sort they often fail to endure altogether. Many a man will sooner throw himself upon almost sure death than abide danger less by far standing still. And so it could be seen that day in the Christian army. The first to fail were the men that carried the cross-bows; nor, indeed, is it to be wondered at that when they had spent their store of bolts, they, having but short swords wherewith to defend themselves, should be ill content to hold their place. Many I did see throw away their bows and fly, thrusting themselves by main force into the ranks of the men-at-arms, who liked not to beat them back, nor yet to suffer them to pass. And they themselves had much ado to hold their ground, for it was a very fierce assault that they had to endure. In the first place there was such a shower of darts and stones and arrows that the very light of the sun itself was darkened, a thing which I had always before judged to be a fable, but saw that day to be possible. The greater part of them, it is true, fell without effect to the ground, for of twenty missiles scarce one serves its purpose, but some were not cast in vain. As for the number, they lay so thick upon the ground that a man might gather twenty into his hand without moving from his place.

About noon the Knights Hospitallers themselves, than whom, as I have said, there were no braver men in the whole army, sent word to the King that they could bear up no longer, unless they should be suffered to charge the enemy. But they got small comfort from the King. "Close up your lines," he said to the messenger, "and be patient. Be sure that you shall not miss your reward." A second time did they send to him, the Master of the Company himself going on the errand, but he also came back with nothing done. Now the King's plan was this, that when the Turks should have spent their strength, and should also, through over-confidence and contempt of their adversaries, have fallen into disorder, then the trumpets should sound, and the whole army with one consent and moving all together, so that the whole of its strength should be put, as it were, into one blow, should fall upon the enemy. 'Twas a wisely conceived plan, save in this that there was needed for the full carrying out more than the King was like to find. He laid upon his soldiers a greater burden of patience than they could bear. So it came to pass that he missed somewhat of his purpose.

What chanced was this. About two hours afternoon, when the fight was at its hottest, the army suffering also no little from the heat of the sun and being worn out with the heat, a certain Frankish knight was slain by an arrow that smote him where the helmet and corslet meet, ever the deadliest spot in a man's armour. He was a Hospitaller, a young man and of a good presence—there was none fairer in the whole army—and much beloved by his fellows. They that were near and saw the mischance were greatly troubled, and among these was the Marshal of the Hospitallers, a Frenchman, and another, an Englishman, a close friend and companion of the King himself. I heard this same Englishman cry with a loud voice, "Now, by Saint George!"—the English call on Saint George as the French call on Saint Denys—"this deed shall not go unpunished. I will have at these Turks if I die for it." And, as he spake, he set spurs to his horse, and charged, the Marshal riding close at his side, for they were friends and wont to fight in com- pany. It was as the letting out of water. There was nothing that could have kept the army from following. First of all rode the Hospitallers, who burnt to avenge themselves for all that they had borne that day; after these came the main body of the Englishmen, nor were the French knights far behind, for in a very short space of time the divisions of the army were mingled together, and a man's place in the battle was not so much where his own company might be, as where the swiftness of his horse might carry him. Not the least notable of the Frenchmen was a certain priest, whom they called Bishop of Beauvais, a famous fighter, who had come on the same errand some twelve years before. 'Tis a fancy of these Churchmen, when they join in battle, to use a club rather than a sword, for they would not shed blood. For myself I had sooner be pierced with a sword than battered to the death with a club. He wielded his club right valiantly, laying his adversaries low on the right hand and on the left, though he was now verging on old age, having, I take, nearly three-score of years.

But there is no need to mention one or another where all fought valiantly; valiantly, do I say? It were better to write furiously, for these men had been wrought to madness by long constraint. They had endured, not blows only, but reproaches also and scoffs, for the Turks threw many foul and bitter words at them, as though they stood still and endured for want of courage. As for the King, he was, I can scarce doubt, glad at heart that the season of waiting was over. Certain it is that not only did he not seek to call back his men from the charge—doubtless he knew full well that to do this was beyond the power of mortal man—but he himself joined in it with the greatest vehemence; none that saw him but must have believed that the affair was altogether to his liking. If others were before him at the first, but a short time had passed when he was to be seen in the front rank, aye, and before it. Where he rode, it was as if Azrael had passed, for the dead lay upon the ground on either side.

But the victory was not speedily won. Again and again did multitudes of Turks come to the help of their army; one had thought that the Caliph Saladin had an inexhaustible store of men from which he might draw thousands of warriors so often as he had need. First there fell upon the army of the Christians a force of ten thousand men, and then another of twenty thousand—such were the numbers according to report, but in this matter men are wont to magnify. 'Tis certain, in any case, that there was a great multitude of men both at one time and at the other; and that the Christians suffered much at their hands; nevertheless they were beaten back, and not without suffering more damage than they did.

After King Richard, the bravest champion in the host was a certain knight of the name of William de Barres. Him I mention more particularly because of the quarrel that the English king had against him, and this for a cause which scarcely accorded with his generous temper. It fell out on this wise. When the two kings were in the island of Sicily, they and their followers were wont to divert themselves with a show of fighting, for these westerns, when they are not waging war in earnest, cannot pass the time without waging it in sport. This they call a tournament, and carry it on in some such fashion as this. There are chosen two parties, six or, it may be, twelve, on one side, and as many on the other. These knights contend with each other in pairs, seeking each to thrust his adversary to the ground. He who can do this, driving the other man out of the saddle, is counted to have done exceedingly well; 'tis something to break his helmet or cause him to drop his shield. And other laws of the game there are which it is needless to rehearse in this place. It chanced, then, that King Richard and the knight, William de Barres, were matched together. First they tilted, using headless spears, made from very stout reeds that grow in those parts—'twas the passing of a peasant's cart that was laden with these said reeds that gave occasion to the sport. Each broke his spear upon the other; but Sir William had so far the better of the encounter that he broke off the King's helmet. Now the King had no small conceit of his skill in this sport, and the mishap vexed him much. Thereupon, leaning from his saddle, he caught the knight by the body, whereupon a worse thing happened to him, for the girths of the saddle were broken under him, and he fell to the ground with no little violence. Then they brought him a fresh horse, and the two strove together for a long while, not without many angry words; but by no means, whether of craft or of strength, could the King drag his adversary from the saddle. He would not suffer it indeed when a certain noble would have laid hold of the knight and dragged him down. "Hold thou off," he cried in a loud voice, "and leave us two alone; "but he was nevertheless transported with rage, so greatly vexed was he that he could not have his wish. Nor would he listen when King Philip would have made peace, nor even to an embassy of nobles and bishops that came to him on the day following and fell at his feet, praying that he would take again Sir William into his favour. So much indeed did he yield that he promised not to harm the knight so long as they both should be serving the same cause. Nevertheless he kept his anger even to the day of this battle. But now he could not for very shame refuse his grace to so valiant a warrior.

As for the number of the slain this may be said, that seven thousand Turks were found dead on the field. About them that died of their wounds nothing is certainly known, for they were either carried off by their own people, or, being less grievously hurt, fled away on their feet. But that the Caliph's army endured a very great loss is manifest from this, that after this day he never again set the battle in array in the open field against the Christians. The most grievous loss that these latter suffered was the slaying of a very valiant knight, Sir James of Avernes. And he, it was commonly said, had not perished but for the cowardice of some whom it were better maybe not to mention by name. His horse fell under him, and he was overpowered by a multitude of enemies. They found his body on the morrow, having sent out some to search for him because he had not come back to the camp. There lay about him and three of his kinsmen who perished with him, fifteen Turks. There was made a great mourning for him as if he had been the King himself.