War by Other Means:

Diplomacy of the Third Crusade Part I:

Testing the Limits

The German military philosopher, Carl von Clausewitz, famously described war as “the continuation of politics by other means” and as “an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will.” Diplomacy, on the other hand, is the attempt to obtain political objectives without the use of force. They are intimately related because every military leader seeks to obtain his objectives (both military and political) with the minimum casualties. A diplomatic victory that delivers an important military objective bloodlessly ― whether it’s as minor as a bridge or as important as a kingdom ― is always preferred over a bloody battle or all-out war.

Thus, both methods of obtaining political objectives (war and diplomacy) are as old as history itself. The crusades ― despite often being characterized as acts of mindless barbarism today ― were no exception. In addition to the battles familiar to most students of the crusades, there were frequent, complex and often highly successful diplomatic maneuvers as well.

The Third Crusade was the first (but not the last) of the crusades that ended with a truce, and as such was concluded diplomatically rather than militarily. It is, as a result, an interesting case-study in diplomacy at the interface between Christendom and the Dar al-Islam. It is particularly interesting because the principal actors, Richard the Lionheart and Salah al-Din, are more famous as men of war then men of peace. In two entries I wish to examine the diplomacy of the Third Crusade. Today’s entry looks at diplomacy in the first six months of the crusade; a period in which both sides were probing the other more than seeking agreement.

The political objectives of the Third Crusade were crystal clear: the restoration of Christian rule over the Holy Land. The later was defined roughly as the land in which Christ had lived and died, most especially the site of his execution, burial and resurrection: Jerusalem. All the crusaders that embarked upon the Third Crusade understood this as their goal ― and Saladin knew it. His political objective was quite simply to defend the status quo: Muslim control over the territory coveted by the crusaders.

The Christian forces making up the Third Crusade first encountered the forces of Salah al-Din at Acre. The choice of venue was not strategic and had not been chosen by any of the commanders. Rather, it was imposed on both parties by Guy de Lusignan’s questionable decision to lay siege to Acre two years earlier (See
Siege of Acre). (One can’t help but speculate what Richard the Lionheart’s choice venue for an assault would have been if the siege of Acre had not already been in place; I suspect Jaffa or Ascalon.)

After nearly two years of stalemate, the arrival of the fleets commissioned and commanded by the powerful European kings Philip II of France and Richard I of England immediately tipped the scales at the siege of Acre in favor of the crusaders. I say the fleets and not the armies because it was ultimately the now airtight blockade of the city of Acre that forced the Egyptian garrison of Acre to seek terms.

So the first diplomatic move in the Third Crusade was made by the Saracens (the garrison of Acre) seeking very generous terms of surrender. The newly arrived crusaders, still fresh and cocky, rejected the terms. Instead, they continued their assaults and finally pushed the garrison, which was now quite desperate, to surrender on less favorable terms. The terms included the return of the relic captured at the Battle of Hattin and believed to be a piece of the cross on which Christ was crucified (True Cross), a large payment in gold (200,000 gold pieces) and the liberation of 2,500 Christian captives. Two-thousand five hundred hostages (by some accounts more, but a number equal to the captives to be released is logical) from the garrison were surrendered to the crusaders as surety for the fulfillment of the terms of the treaty. In short, the first round of diplomatic maneuvering went to the Christians.

Salah al-Din, however, had either not been involved in the negotiations at all, or only peripherally and at the last moment, when the desperate garrison begged him to sanction the terms they had already obtained. He was almost certainly not pleased with the terms, which may well have placed him in an awkward position. Salah ad-Din’s problem was that he: 1) may not have had the True Cross in his possession (Islam considers reverence for objects idolatry and had little reason to keep the Christian relic intact), 2) may have been short of ready cash, and 3) would have needed to buy back the captive Christians from the men who had captured or purchased them. In short, Salah al-Din may have had difficulty fulfilling the terms of the agreement. Equally or possibly even more important, Salah al-Din had every reason to drag out the fulfillment of the agreement. The campaign season in the Holy Land lasts only the summer and ends with the rains that generally start in November or December. It was already July when Acre surrendered. The longer Salah al-Din dragged out the negotiations, the less time the crusaders would have to make an assault somewhere else.

Salah al-Din chose to play for time, missing at least two deadlines for the delivery of the True Cross, the captives and the gold. This inaction on the part of Salah al-Din now put Richard of England in the awkward position of having to respond. The campaign season was ticking away, his troops were getting fractious, the Saracens hostages were consuming food and required guards. Most important of all: Salah al-Din appeared to be mocking and belittling him. Aside from the fact that Salah al-Din appeared to have made a fool of him in the eyes of many of his own followers, Richard had to calculate what Salah al-Din would think of him if he meekly accepted the excuses and delays. The military objective, the surrender of Acre to the crusaders, had already been achieved. What was now at stake were only secondary, not to say marginal objectives: money, the symbolic True Cross, and captives, who were not his own men but natives of Outremer, men that Richard at this time may have more-or-less looked down on.

Since Salah al-Din had not fulfilled the terms of the agreement, Richard was completely within his rights to execute the hostages according to the law and custom of war at this time. His decision to do so, however, had little to do with what was his “right,” and more to do with what the impact his action would be. The execution of the hostages was of negligible military value; 2,500 men were a drop in the bucket of what Salah al-Din could conscript or recruit. The execution of the hostages served, rather, the diplomatic objective of increasing Salah al-Din’s respect for Richard as a negotiating partner. The diplomatic message was: this English king is not to be trifled with. Whether we like it or not, Richard got his message across.

Significantly, it was Richard that made the next diplomatic move. Shortly after the crusading army had left Acre and before the battle of Arsuf, Richard sought a meeting with Salah al-Din. His apparent objective at this time appears to have been no more than meeting him face-to-face so he could take the measure of him. Richard, remember, had up to this point in time only fought men he knew well ― his father, his brothers, his vassals, his would-be brother-in-law Philip of France. Salah al-Din was known to him only from hear-say and it is understandable that he wanted to meet.

Salah al-Din rebuffed him. He said kings only meet after an agreement has been hammered out. (The same is true today: treaties are negotiated at the working-level, and only signed ― when ready ― at summits.) Richard had lost this round.

After the Battle of Arsuf, Richard made a renewed attempt to open diplomatic channels and Salah al-Din agreed to let his brother al-Adil meet with Richard. Richard had opened with a demand that Salah al-Din turn over all territories that had ever belonged to the Kingdom of Jerusalem (i.e. even territory lost decades earlier) and, furthermore, did homage to the restored Christian King of Jerusalem for Egypt. The fact that al-Adil mildly characterized these demands as “excessive” but indicated a willingness to continue talking is highly significant.

At the same time, Richard was negotiating with Salah al-Din, the Sultan was also negotiating with Conrad de Montferrat. Conrad’s initial proposal was that the Sultan recognize him as Count of Tyre and restore Sidon and Beirut, with their surrounding territory, to him in exchange for him (Montferrat) recognizing the Sultan’s right to everything south of Tyre (i.e. from Acre to Ascalon and including the heartland of the former Kingdom of Jerusalem ― Nazareth, Galilee and Jerusalem.) Salah al-Din called Conrad’s bluff, pointing out that he could not give away what he did not control. This diplomatic exchange is significant because it exposed Conrad the Montferrat’s greed and weakness. Thereafter, the Sultan knew that his only serious opponent was Richard the Lionheart and he focused his attention on driving Richard out of the Holy Land.

But “driving him out” did not have to be by military means and so he pursued the diplomatic contacts established by Richard. What followed were a series of meetings, the exact number and date of which we can no longer reconstruct, between Richard and/or his representatives and al-Adil as Salah ad-Din’s ambassador. At one of these, al-Adil put for the preposterous idea that he marry Joanna Plantagenet, Dowager Queen of Sicily and Richard’s sister (See ...) Both sides, however, treated the proposal as a joke. By the end of November, it was clear that the negotiations with Richard were going nowhere and had yielded nothing concrete. The diplomatic back-and-forth broke down and was replaced by a renewed military offensive directed at Jerusalem.

Yet the diplomatic contacts established in 1191 were not unimportant. They laid the groundwork for successful negotiations the following year. If nothing else, they enabled Richard and al-Adil to establish a degree of trust and rapport that had been singularly lacking at the start of the summer, when Richard had felt he had to execute thousands of prisoners to demonstrate his resolve. While the exchange of gifts should not be exaggerated into “friendship,” they were nevertheless an indication of a degree of “normalization” of relations that kept the door to a diplomatic solution open.

Balian d’Ibelin was directly involved in much of the diplomatic maneuvering, serving in one instance as Conrad de Montferrat’s envoy. The diplomatic game is a major plot factor in
Envoy of Jerusalem.Buy Now!