Crusaders - Alfred J. Church

How the Hostages were Slain

The two kings were no better friends after the taking of the town than they had been before. The enmity between them rather increased, for now there was, or, to speak more truly, there seemed to be a most grave cause of quarrel between them. The town of Acre having been taken, they hoped that they would speedily be possessed of Jerusalem; and it was very hotly debated between them, who should be king of that city. There were some, and I was one of them, who thought that this was but an idle controversy, and that it is time enough to divide the spoils when they have been won. "Kill the bear," says an old proverb, "ere you sell his skin," and the slaying of this bear seemed to many to be yet a long way off. Nor was the thing itself one to be desired. Nevertheless there was, as I have said, high debate concerning it. It matters not to write of the rights and wrongs of the matter; for, as will shortly be seen, it came to nothing. Only it is right to make mention of these things. Surely there never was a war in this world whereof the aim was so noble and the conduct so base.

But if the matter itself was of little moment, being even as if two men should fall out concerning the disposal of the kingdom of the moon, yet the enmity that came therefrom between the two nations was a great evil and hindered in no small degree the common enterprise. To such a height did it rise that it was commonly said, aye and believed among the followers of the French king, that their master, who fell ill at this time, had been poisoned by King Richard. A more foolish accusation was never made. King Richard was a man of wrath, and when the passion was upon him would strike without regard of place or person. But he abhorred all malice and craft, and would not have done another injury by stealth for all the crowns and riches in the world.

The truth is that King Philip sickened, and this not for the first time, of the camp fever—'tis an ailment that finds a man more easy of attack the more often it returns. Nor do I wonder; as I have before written, these strangers from the West lived as freely in the matter of food and drink as if they had been under the colder skies of their homes. And they were most intemperately fond of hunting. Neither heat nor storm would keep them from riding abroad with their falcons. This is the sport they most affect, to wit, the pursuing of herons and such like birds with hawks which they tame and train for this end. The falcon is a female hawk, for in this kind of bird, strange to say, the female is stronger, swifter, and fiercer than the male. King Philip was wholly devoted to this sport, and took great pride in his birds, being, as I believe, not less proud of one that he possessed, a bird of most uncommon size, than he was of his horses. He would ride with it on his wrist in the hottest clays. 'Twas this, and not any poison, that brought him so near to his death, if indeed it was so in truth with him. Some said that he feigned, not the disease itself, but the graver signs of it. This is certain, that he greatly desired to turn homeward, and that he had his wish some twenty days after the taking of the town. What he gained by so departing I know not—not, certainly, that province of Flanders which he was said to covet. These things concern me not; but this I know for certain, that by his departure the whole enterprise was greatly damaged. If it had been possible for the English king to have commanded the whole Christian host and to have used it at his will, the end would, I doubt not, have been other than what it was. So skilful was he in leading, so brave in battle, that nothing could have hindered him from subduing the whole land. But what would have followed thereon, and whether such a subduing would have been for good or for evil, passes my wit to declare.

For one shameful deed the English king must answer, and here at least King Philip was happy in that he had no share in its doing. Of this deed I will now tell the story.

When the army had had sufficient rest—and the King knew well that no army must have more than is sufficient, suffering more from excess than from defect in this matter—and it was now time to advance, there arose a great question touching the agreement made when the town was given up. There was much going to and fro of messengers and embassies between the English king and the Caliph Saladin, much debating, and many accusations bandied to and fro. Even to this day no man can speak certainly of what was done or not done in this matter. What I write, I write according to the best of my knowledge. First, then, it is beyond all doubt that the Caliph did not send either the Holy Cross or the money which had been covenanted, or the prisoners whom he had promised to deliver up; but as to the cause wherefore he did not send them there is no agreement, the Christians affirming one thing, the followers of Mahomet another. As to the Holy Cross, let that be put out of the account. No man that I ever talked with —and I have talked with many—ever saw it. 'Tis much to be doubted whether it was in being. As to the money, that the Caliph had it, or a great portion of it, at hand, is certainly true. It was seen and counted by King Richard's own envoys. As to the prisoners, it is hard to discover the truth. For my own part, I believe that the Caliph was ready to deliver up all that he had in his own hands or could find elsewhere, but that he had promised more in respect of this than he was able to perform. Many of those whom he had covenanted to restore were dead, either of disease or by violence. As for disease, it must be noted that a sick man was likely to fare worse in the hands of Turks, where he lacked the services of women, than among his own people; as for violence, there was not much diversity between the Christians and the followers of Mahomet. But this may be said, that one who invades the land of others is like to suffer worse injury should he come into their power than he would have the disposition to inflict upon them. Whatever, then, the cause, the Caliph had engaged in this matter far more than he was able to perform. But he did not fail from want of good faith. I take it that it was from the matter of the money that there came the breaking of the agreement. To put it very shortly, the Caliph said, "Restore to me the hostages and you shall receive the gold"; King Richard said, "Send on the gold and you shall receive the hostages." And neither was the Caliph willing to trust the good faith of the King, nor the King the good faith of the Caliph.

So there was delay after delay, much talk to no purpose, and the hearts of men, both on one side and on the other, growing more hot with anger from day to day. And there was also the need which increased from day to day, as, indeed, it needs must, for the Christians to be about the business on which they came. They had taken the town of Acre, but that was but the beginning of their enterprise, for they had to conquer the whole land. And how could the army march with a whole multitude of prisoners in their hands? It would need no small number of men to keep watch over them, lest they should escape, or, what was more to be feared, do an injury to the army. What could be worse in a doubtful battle than that there should be these enemies in its very midst? I set these things down because I would not do an injustice to the English king, whom I have always held as one to be greatly admired. Nevertheless I say again, that in the matter of the prisoners he did a shameful deed. For on the 20th day of August he commanded that all the prisoners that were in his hands, whether they had been taken in battle, or delivered up as hostages for the fulfillment of the covenant, should be led out of the city and slain. These were in number between two and three thousand. Some the King kept alive, for whom, as being of high nobility and great wealth, he hoped to receive a ransom; others were saved by private persons, a few for compassion's sake—there were some, as I can testify of my own knowledge, who were much set against the deed, and would willingly have hindered it—and others in the hope of gain. But the greater part were slain without mercy, the soldiers falling upon them, without arms and helpless as they were. I saw the beginning of the thing, but gladly turned away my eyes. If any man ask me this question, What should the King have done? I answer, He should have taken from them the promise that they would not take arms against him or any Christians, for the space of five years, or any other term that might seem sufficient, and then let them go free. And what if they had broken their oath? At the least his conscience had been free; and that, I take it, is no small advantage to a man, not in the sight of God alone, but also in this world. In any case, it had been better to suffer wrong than to do it. But this is, I know, a thing far easier in word than in deed. I have seen not a few good men, brave, and chaste in life, and cheerful givers of their substance, and careful of all duty, but of men that were content to suffer wrong I have not found more than I could count on the fingers of one hand.