Patricia Bernstein

The Darkest Stain on the Memory of Richard the Lionhearted is the Massacre at Ayyadieh

Siege of Acre colorful medieval manuscript
A medieval manuscript (c. 1280 CE) illustration depicting the 1189-91 CE siege of Acre during the Third Crusade. (Bibliotheque Municipale de Lyon, France)

Here we jump from the 18th century and the Jacobites to the Middle Ages. I am currently writing a novel set in 1194 which involves Richard the Lionhearted. This blog entry concerns a great historical massacre that took place during the Third Crusade.

The great stain on the legend of that celebrated paragon of chivalry Richard the Lionhearted is that, on August 20, 1191, Richard authorized the massacre of between 2500 and 3000 Muslim prisoners of war in cold blood.

The victims of the massacre were members of the garrison at the fortress of Acre, who had held out against the Franks for about two years. They were exhausted and aware that no more food, weapons or reinforcement would be forthcoming. They finally surrendered on the promise that their lives would be spared and they would be exchanged for Frankish prisoners. When the garrison surrendered, even the Franks acknowledged admiration for their opponents who had fought well without hope of rescue for so long.

Nevertheless, about a month after the surrender, King Richard ordered his Frankish soldiers to stab to death or behead the Muslim defenders of Acre.  The enormous blood bath took place on the field of Ayyadieh, not far from Acre.


The massacre remains a source of controversy. No one disputes that it happened. The controversy is over whether this episode should be condemned as a horrific war crime. Some historians have accused those who would call the massacre a war crime of the deadly historical sin of presentism. Presentism is an illegitimate judging and interpretation of the past by modern standards. Accusing someone of presentism implies that the person passing judgment has foolishly applied modern views to an earlier time.

Here are the facts and the excuses given for Richard’s behavior. Judge for yourself.


After the surrender of Acre, the Lionheart demanded that Sultan Saladin, leader of the Muslim ( or “Saracen”) armies, pay the Franks 200,000 gold bezants and return a piece of the True Cross which Saladin’s men had captured at the battle of Hattin. In addition, both leaders would exchange their prisoners. Saladin was holding perhaps 1500 Franks.

Richard Coeur de Lion by Carlo Marochetti, an equestrian statue depicting Richard I of England. After its model was displayed in the Great Exhibition of 1851, a bronze casting was installed outside the New Palace of Westminster in 1860. This triumphant bronze statue of Richard the Lionhearted still stands before the Houses of Parliament.

But Saladin did not have 200,000 gold bezants. He had managed to raise about half the sum but continued to try to negotiate better terms.  Richard became convinced that the sultan was delaying on purpose and perhaps had no intention of fulfilling his part of the deal.

Pressure Grows

Richard felt time pressing on him. After the fall of Acre, King Philip Augustus of France deserted the cause and returned home.  Richard was concerned that other members of his unstable alliance would decide to leave as well. He wanted to move his army south along the coast as soon as he could to bring the primary object of the Crusade, Jerusalem, within reach. He did not want to drag along 2500 captives, feeding them and assigning the necessary soldiers to guard them.

When he ordered the massacre of the Acre garrison, Richard must have known that he was also dooming his own men who were held by Saladin. As soon as the infuriated Saladin learned what had happened to the Acre garrison, he killed the Frankish prisoners of war he was holding.

War Crimes?

It is true that Saladin had murdered Frankish captives after the battle of Hattin.  And, of course, it was a spectacularly violent time in European/Mideast history when defeated enemies were often murdered or sold into slavery; defeated cities were sacked and burned and women raped; and whole communities of European Jews were massacred by Franks on the way to the Crusades. Does the general context of violence excuse Richard’s gruesome deed?  Does it simply align this event alongside the many “war crimes” committed during this period of history?

A side issue to the Ayyadieh massacre bubbles up in the 2010 Russell Crowe movie Robin Hood.  Crowe, as Robin, berates King Richard for forcing his men to murder the families of the garrison, the women and children, as well as the fighting men. But there seems to be no primary source that claims women and children were massacred along with the men of the garrison.  If the massacre was mentioned in a 2010 popular movie, 800 years after the event, however, that is evidence that Richard’s deed was never forgotten.  It has been a smear on his name ever since.

Richard himself apparently felt some need to justify his own actions, writing later to the abbot of Clairvaux. He blames Saladin, saying,

“…the stipulation which he had agreed to being utterly disregarded, we put to death about two thousand six hundred of the Saracens whom we held in our hands, as we were bound to do…[bold mine]”

Is it “presentism” to condemn the massacre at Ayyadieh as a war crime? Is the blood spilled at Ayyadieh just more blood poured into the oceans of blood that were shed in war and in other acts of cruelty of the time? Or does it stand out as a particularly stunning act of coldblooded murder, even in the midst of a brutal war? You decide.

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