Crusaders - Alfred J. Church

How King Richard took a Great Ship

King Richard, with his chief nobles, disembarked an hour before noon on the 8th day of June. I had the good fortune to see him without difficulty, by the favour of one who has a charge in the ordering of the harbour, to whom I had done some little service. Nor was this a small thing, for there was such a press and crowding of men to see the sight as I have never beheld before. Some were trampled under foot by the multitude, and one old man, a pedlar of merchandise, met his death in this way. He had gone in the hope of selling some of his goods—what will not a man venture for gain?—but fared ill, losing not his wares only, for these were scattered in the dust, but his life also. He was taken up still breathing, but died of his wounds and other damage, made more grievous, maybe, by his losses. The King was as noble a warrior as ever I have seen. Some that I have known were taller of stature, but never one that bore himself more bravely and showed more likelihood of strength and courage. They that are learned in such things said that his arms were over-long for the height of his body; but this is scarce a fault in a swordsman, another inch of length adding I know not how much of strength to a blow. He was of a ruddy complexion, his eyes blue, with a most uncommon fire in them, such as few could dare to look into if his wrath was kindled, his countenance, such as befitted a ruler of men, being of an aspect both generous and commanding.

The King had already obtained an earnest of success, having done great damage to the Caliph Saladin by destroying a ship fully laden with men and stores. This was the story told to me by one that was in the King's own ship.

When the fleet, sailing southward, had passed the city of Sidon by a league or so, they were aware of a great ship that lay about half-a-league to seaward, having all its sails set but scarcely moving, the day being calm. The King commanded that a boat should be lowered and manned, so that this strange vessel, being questioned, might give an account of herself. This was done, and in the space of an hour or so the boat returned, with tidings that the captain of the stranger professed to be in the service of Philip, King of France, to whom, he said, he was carrying stores. "But," said the man-at-arms whom the King had sent on the errand, "'tis somewhat strange that King Philip's servant should be so ill acquainted with the King's own tongue. I scarce could understand the fellow's talk, and, as for his looks, if they were one part French they were nine parts Moorish." By this time the stranger, which when she was first sighted lay end on, now showed her broadside. Thereupon a certain pilot, whom the King had taken on board at Sidon, said that he now perceived what the stranger was. "'Tis not a Frenchman," said he, "but a Turk." And when the King commanded him to tell all that he knew, he went on in this fashion: "See you," he said, "how the ship's side shows here green and there yellow? These colours are not, as might seem, for ornament, but for use. Bull's hides have been stretched upon the ship and painted, so as to defend it against the fire which is much used in these parts for the burning of ships upon the sea. I saw these laid upon the sides in the harbour of Beyrout, chancing to be in that town some few days since. It was the common talk in the place that as the army that was besieging the city of Acre was like to have a great increase of strength through the coming of the English king and his fleet, so the garrison should be made more secure. And I myself saw this ship laden with both men and stores; and, indeed, there was of both such an abundance as can scarcely be imagined. I counted one hundred camel-loads of arms, small and great, among which were bows and arrows, both of the Persian and of the Arabian kind, and swords and spears; engines also for the casting of bullets and stones did I see put on board. It was said also, but of this I have no knowledge, nor do I altogether believe it, that there were sacks full of the most deadly serpents that could be found, which were to be loosed in the camp of the besiegers. But whether these beasts are there or no, 'tis certain, for this I know by the sight of my own eyes, that there are on board of this ship many soldiers, and these for the most part as stout warriors as the Sultan Saladin has in his whole army. You may cut off my head, my lord king, or hang me on the yard-arm if I have not told you the truth."

Thereupon King Richard sent another boat to hail the stranger; and at this, when it came within bowshot, the crew began to shoot with bows, judging that they could no longer keep up the pretence of being other than they were. Now while these things were being done and said the ships had come closer together, as is wont to happen when there is a calm. It must also be borne in mind that the Turks had remitted their rowing, being busied with other things, and perceiving that they must be saved by valour rather than by flight. Then there began as fierce a fight as was ever seen upon these seas. The Turkish ship was, indeed, but one against many, but she was of an extraordinary highness above the water, so that her artillery wrought great execution among the King's ships, the bolts and arrows falling on them from above. At one time it seemed as if the stranger might yet go free; and this would verily have come to pass—so said he that told me of these things, and he was a man used to the sea from his youth—had the wind but begun to blow even a little. As for King Richard, he was like to a man beside himself. 'Twas his helplessness, as he deemed it, that so moved him. Could he but have conveyed himself to the enemy's ship, he had been better content. And, indeed, his knights had much to do to keep him back from adventuring himself in a little boat, so that he might strike a blow with his own hand against these adversaries.

All that he could do was to reproach his men with many and vehement words. 'Tis true that, urged on by these, they performed very prodigies of valour. Some, jumping overboard from our ships, made their way to the great ship. Some of them cut the rudder-bands, so that it was no longer possible to steer the ship, and others with great courage climbed up the sides of the ship and would have made, had it been possible, a footing on the deck. Again and again did these brave men make this, holding their swords in their teeth, and again and again were they thrust back by the Turks. And this went on, so said the teller of the tale, for the space of an hour, the King walking to and fro meanwhile on the deck of his ship in great wrath, gnawing his beard and lips for fury. He was like to a lion in a cage. But for all their valour his men could gain no foothold on the Turkish ship, for its deck was crowded with warriors of high renown, who were not less brave and apt in arms than the Christians, and fought also, as it is easy to perceive, from a great advantage.

Richard Coeur de Lion


When the King saw that nothing could be done in this way he bethought him of another device, for of a truth he was not less expert in the arts that belong to a leader and captain of men than he was full of valour, incomparably expert in the using of weapons, and strong above all measure. He made a signal to the captains of his ships that they should cause them to be rowed at full speed against the Turk, and this was done forthwith. And here it was of no small advantage that the King's ships were smaller and lower in the water, for their bows so struck the sides of the Turk that the water rushed in, and she began to sink. When the crew and the soldiers saw this they leapt into the sea. Many were drowned and many were slain; but some the King caused to be kept alive, judging that they might be found useful in time to come. But of the engines of war and store of provisions nothing was saved.

This was the tale as 'twas told to me; afterwards I heard that had the ship got safe to the town, this latter had never been taken.

A deserter from the Turks that came into the camp affirmed that the Caliph Saladin was beside himself with grief and rage when he heard of the losing of this ship, throwing himself upon the ground and tearing out his beard by handfuls, with loud complaints against his destiny, "For," said he (this was the deserter's report), "I have lost not only men and treasure, but the city itself." This story I do not believe. I have seen the Caliph many times and under diverse circumstances, and he has ever been master of himself. Nor, indeed, is it the way of these men—such, I mean, as hold the like faith with Saladin—to complain of fate. Let the most grievous disaster come upon them and they say, "It is fate," and this seems to content them, so far, at least, that they do not openly complain. Nor must it be forgotten that this Saladin was expert in all the arts of the ruler and the general, and knew well that it behoved him to keep a brave face under even the greatest trouble. At the same time it cannot be doubted that the loss of this ship was a heavy blow to the Turks, hastening the fall of the city by many days.