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Historical Notes: The coin of greatness has two sides

BY THE end of the Third Crusade neither Christians nor Muslims had entirely achieved their objective, though neither had failed by so much that they were eager to restart the struggle. Al-Quds was still a Muslim city, though the holy places of Jerusalem had Christian priests, and Latin ones at that. The coastal cities of Outremer were Christian once again, but the inland castles and fortresses were all held by the Muslims. The "iron men" of Western Europe had returned home to their damp homelands, while the warriors of Islam rode their ponies across the plains armed only with polo sticks.

"Coeur de Lion", mightiest of the Western Franks, had buried his collection of Muslim heads and was travelling to fresh battlefields; the Islamic "Lionheart", Saladin, cerebral and generous of spirit, was facing death, not from the weapons of his foes but from the excessive demands of his friends. The holy war known as the Third Crusade to Western historians but as the third barbarian invasion to the Muslims was now consigned to the chronicles.

Yet as the legends replaced the history one fact remained incontestible. The Third Crusade, however one viewed it, had seen a contest between two of the greatest figures of the 12th century and, perhaps, even of the entire Middle Ages. Two men had risen to the challenge of holy war and, for all their inherent human failings, had triumphed over the intrinsic horror and cruelty of the struggle and inspired their followers to acts of sublime sacrifice.

Today we can challenge their motives. Historians always do. Richard's enjoyment of war, his love of conquest, his territorial greed should all have consigned him to the category of a conventional medieval warrior-king, a man of little learning and less understanding, but grim and strong and ruthless. This description fits Richard, the man who blinded or drowned the garrison of Taillebourg and massacred the Muslim prisoners at Acre.

But the cognomen of "Lionheart" that he brought with him to the crusade surely described the man more accurately than that. In the context of the kind of war Richard was conducting, an amphibious operation two thousand miles from home, his decision to massacre his prisoners was a military one, requiring the greatest moral courage. The crusade could have ended at Acre, a victim of its own success, if Richard had employed a large part of his army to guard the Muslim garrison. It took a Lionheart's courage to risk the opprobrium even of his own side.

Likewise, Saladin's killing of his Templar and Hospitaller prisoners after his victory at Hattin had revealed that, for all his famed generosity of spirit, he possessed the same kind of moral courage as his Frankish adversary. It was Saladin who arranged the murder of the Egyptian vizier Shawar, crucified a heretical poet and, several times, arranged virtual autos-da-fe in which Christian prisoners were ritually slaughtered by Islamic men of religion. Yet this was the same man who on countless occasions showed such kindness to the poor and the helpless that he earned the admiration of both friend and foe alike. A man can only be judged, "warts and all", by the standards of the age in which he lived. In the context of the 12th century and the crusades as a whole both men rose above the limitations of their age; Richard as the military genius, Saladin as the noble "saint- king" of Islam.

The coin of greatness had two sides and the cognomen "Lionheart" two interpretations: courage and nobility, pride and generosity, greatness of spirit and humility. Saladin and Richard of England shared these qualities to a greater or lesser extent. Different though they were in personality, in their capacity to inspire their followers in the cause above all others that inspired mankind in the 12th century they were equals without peer.

Geoffrey Regan is the author of `Lionhearts: Saladin and Richard I' (Constable, pounds 20)