The Crusades 1096-1260

ON A COLD NOVEMBER DAY IN 1096, a great crowd of people gathered in a field at the town of Clermont in France. They had come from miles around and near them were pitched the tents they had put up for shelter. For some days, Pope Urban II had been holding a great council of cardinals, bishops and princes. Today he was to speak to the people and so many wanted to hear that no building was large enough to hold them all. A platform had been built in the center of the field and as Pope Urban stepped up on it a hush fell over the crowd.

Pope Urban was a Frenchman and he spoke to the people around him as fellow Frenchmen. “Oh, race of Franks,” he said, “race beloved and chosen by God . . . set apart from all other nations by the situation of your country as well as by your Catholic faith and the honour which you render to the holy Church: to you our discourse is addressed. . . .”

“From the confines of Jerusalem and from Constantinople a grievous report has gone forth that an accursed race, wholly alienated from God, has violently invaded the lands of these Christians and has depopulated them by pillage and fire. They have led away a part of the captives into their own country and a part they have killed by cruel tortures. . .”

The people knew what he meant. He was speaking of the Holy Land, that lay on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Here were the cities of Jerusalem, Nazareth, Gaza and Damascus. Here Jesus Christ had lived and preached and had been crucified; here Christianity had begun. Here were many sacred shrines and during the Middle Ages thousands of Europeans had made pilgrimages to see them.


The Holy Land had been part of the Byzantine Empire, after the fall of the Roman Empire. Then, in 638, Arab troops led by the Caliph Omar had defeated a Byzantine army and had gone on to conquer all of Asia Minor, including the Holy Land. The Arabs, or Saracens, as they were called in Europe, were Moslems. They did not interfere with the Christians living in the Holy Land, nor did they interfere with the bands of pilgrims who came from western Europe during the next four centuries to visit the sacred places. In 1070, however, Jerusalem fell into the hands of the Turks. They, too, were Moslems and stories of the persecution of Christians began to reach Europe.

The people who stood on the field at Clermont had heard such stories and they listened closely as Pope Urban went on with his speech.


“On whom, then,” he said, “rests the labour of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory, if not upon you — you upon whom, above all others, God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great bravery and strength to humble the heads of those who resist you? . . . Let none of your possessions keep you back, nor anxiety for your family affairs. For this land which you now inhabit, shut in on all sides by the sea and the mountain peaks, is too narrow for your large population; it scarcely furnishes food enough for its cultivators. Here it is that you murder and devour one another, that you wage wars, and that many among you perish in civil strife.”

“Let hatred, therefore, depart from among you; let your quarrels end. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest that land from a wicked race and subject it to yourselves. . . . This royal city . . . is now held captive by the enemies of Christ and is subjected by those who do not know God, to the worship of the heathen. . . . Undertake this journey eagerly for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the reward of imperishable glory in the kingdom of heaven.”

A murmur ran through the crowd. The pope was calling for war — a holy war against the Turks, against the Moslems, to win back Jerusalem and put it once more under Christian rule. What true Christian would not fight such a war, for the glory of God?

“It is the will of God!” the people shouted. “It is the will of God! It is the will of God!”

Lifting his eyes to heaven, Pope Urban raised a hand for silence and gave thanks to God. Let that be their war cry: “It is the will of God!” Let everyone who joined in this holy war wear the sign of the cross of the Lord on his forehead or on his breast. He ended his speech — perhaps the most important speech made during the Middle Ages– by saying: “Thus shall ye . . . fulfill the precept of the Lord, as he commands in the Gospel, ‘He that taketh not his cross and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.’ ”

Again the shout went up: “It is the will of God! It is the Will of God!” At the same time, some of the nobles in the crowd, as a chronicler later wrote, “falling down at the knees of the pope, consecrated themselves and their property to the service of God.”

After he had roused up the people, Pope Urban did not linger long in Clermont. For nine months he traveled from city to city preaching the holy war, the Crusade. A former Cluniac monk, he deeply believed it was the responsibility of the Church to free the Holy Land from Moslem rule and spread the doctrine of Catholicism. He had other reasons as well to want this war. For one thing, the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius Comnenus of Constantinople, had asked for help in his long struggle to recapture lands that had been taken from him by the Moslems. Pope Urban saw that this was an opportunity to re-unite the Greek Church and the Roman Catholic Church and place all of Christendom under the authority of the pope. Then Urban was involved in a struggle of his own, a struggle for power against the monarchs of Europe. He would have a better chance of winning that struggle if the kings and nobles were off on a crusade.

Wherever he went, Pope Urban found enthusiasm for the crusade. People were growing more and more angry at the thought that the land of Christ’s birth was under the rule of infidels; like Urban, they believed it was their duty as Christians to win back the Holy Land. Also like Urban, many had other reasons, too, for supporting this holy war. The nobles hoped to win new lands and territories for themselves in the East. Knights-at-arms hoped for plunder and loot. Serfs and peasants hoped to escape from the land to which they were bound and to leave behind a life of harsh restrictions and terrible poverty.


So nobles and knights, serfs and freemen flocked to the crusader’s standard — a red cross on a white banner. Knights had the same design put on their shields and foot soldiers sewed a red cross to their white tunics.

In all, there were eight different crusades, extending over a period of several hundred years. The first army of crusaders, made up almost entirely of serfs and peasants, was to leave in August of 1096. Excited by the promise of adventure and the hope of breaking out of their miserable existence, they could not wait. In March about 12,000 persons, led by Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless, left from France, while two other groups set out from Germany and the Rhineland. As they marched through the valleys of the Rhine and Danube, they looted farms and homes and attacked Jews.


At last, ragged and penniless, they reached Constantinople. They swarmed through the city, looting and pillaging and the Emperor Alexius Comnenus Was horrified. He had expected Europe to send him disciplined fighting men, not this mob of unruly peasants. As quickly as he could, he furnished them with ships and supplies and sent them across the Bosporus to Asia Minor. He told them to wait for better equipped reinforcements, but again they were impatient. They marched against the Turkish capital of Nicaea, where they were almost completed wiped out by a force of Turkish bowmen.

The following year, four main armies of Crusaders arrived in Constantinople, most of them knights. Many had brought their wives and children, as well as squires, clerks, cooks, armourers and blacksmiths. The Byzantine emperor and his courtiers were shocked at their crude manners; the knights, in turn, looked down on the Byzantines, with their elegance and luxury. Some of the knights wanted to seize Constantinople and its riches for themselves. The frightened and suspicious emperor demanded that the nobles swear an oath of allegiance to him. They agreed, after he furnished them with supplies and military aid and bribed their leaders.

The Crusaders’ force numbered about 30,000 persons when it advanced into Asia Minor. Fortunately for them, the Turks were having trouble with their own rebels and Nicaea surrendered after a siege. The Crusaders then pushed on through the fierce heat of Syria. They lacked sufficient food and water, many died of thirst. They met little resistance from the Turks until they reached the trading centre of Antioch, which fell only after a siege of seven months.

No more than 12,000 Crusaders, led by Raymond of Toulouse, reached Jerusalem in 1099. On July 15 they captured the city from its Egyptian garrison, falling on the defenders without mercy. An eyewitness wrote that “one of our knights, named Lethold, clambered up the wall of the city. . . . Our men followed, killing and slaying even to the Temple of Solomon, where the slaughter was so great that our men waded in blood up to their ankles. . . . When the pagans had been overcome, our men seized great numbers, either killing them or keeping them captive, as they wished. . . . Afterward the army scattered throughout the city and took possession of the gold and silver, the horses and mules and the houses filled with goods of all kinds. Later all our people went to the Sepulchre of the Lord, rejoicing and weeping for joy. . . .” Another eyewitness wrote that “the amount of blood that they shed on that day is incredible. . . . Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. . . . The city was filled with corpses and blood.”


The capture of Jerusalem was the Crusaders’ greatest success in Syria and Palestine, a success they would never be able to repeat. They organized the territory they won into four units — the counties of Edessa and Tripoli, the principality of Antioch and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. They established feudal courts throughout Syria and Palestine, certain coastal towns were put under the control of the Italian city-states of Genoa, Pisa and Venice, in return for their military aid.


During this period, two military orders were formed. They were the Knights Templars and the Knights Hospitallers. The members of these orders combined chivalry with monasticism, taking monastic vows, though not necessarily for life. The Knights Templars dedicated themselves to a life of fighting, but they became known as the bankers and traders of the Crusades. The Knights Hospitallers cared for the sick, the wounded and assisted pilgrims.

In 1144, a force of Seljuk Turks captured the County of Edessa and destroyed the city of Edessa. This brought about a new Crusade, led by King Louis VII of France and it was a complete failure. A German army was destroyed in Asia Minor and the French army received no cooperation from the Christian leaders they had come to rescue. The Flemish and English armies never reached the Holy Land at all. Instead, they went to Portugal, where they set up a Christian kingdom with Lisbon as the capital.

Then, in 1174, a remarkable man named Saladin became the ruler of Egypt. A brilliant military leader, he set about uniting the Moslem world. After Moslems from Cairo to Baghdad had rallied around him, he planned a jehad, or holy war, against the Christians in the East. He wiped out an army of the Crusaders near Nazareth, swept down through Palestine and in 1187 took Jerusalem. This time there was no slaughter of the conquered by the conquerors, for Saladin was generous to his defeated enemies and he won the admiration of many of the Crusaders.


The fall of Jerusalem aroused western Europe and set off the Third Crusade. This Crusade has been called “the Crusade of kings.” Its vast armies were led by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, King Philip Augustus of France and Richard the Lion-Hearted of England — the monarchs of the three most powerful states in Europe.

Nevertheless, the Third Crusade was as dismal a failure as the one before it. Frederick Barbarossa marched his well-equipped army over the land route, through Hungary and the Balkans. In Asia Minor he drowned while bathing in a river and many of his troops turned back without striking a blow. Richard and Philip Augustus, who were life-long enemies, quarreled constantly. A courtier noted that “the two kings did less together than they would have done apart and each set very light store by the other.” Somehow they managed to take the cities of Acre, Joppa and Ascalon — and then Philip Augustus found an excuse to go home.


Although Richard’s bravery on the battlefield made him the hero of many legends, he was no match for Saladin. He won many battles, but he could not take Jerusalem. After three years he finally gave up and arranged a truce with Saladin. As his weary men moved away from the city they could not capture, a young knight rode up to Richard, pointed toward a rocky hill, and said, “If you will ride up there, my lord‚ you will be able to see Jerusalem in the distance.” Richard answered, “Those who are not worthy to win the Holy City are not worthy to behold it!” It was while on the way home after this failure that Richard was shipwrecked, captured by Henry VI of Germany, and held for ransom. Saladin died in 1195, before he could succeed in driving all the Christians out of the Moslem domain, but he did keep them out of Jerusalem.

Ten years later, the powerful Pope Innocent III called for a fourth crusade. This time the armies were led mainly by French nobles and knights, although they had troops from a number of countries, including England, Germany, Sicily and Flanders. To avoid the land route, they arranged to set sail from Venice. That city was also to furnish them with ships and supplies. The shrewd Venetians drove a hard bargain. The Crusaders were to pay them the sum of 85,000 marks. Besides, as the Doge of Venice — the head of the Venetian government — put it, “For the love of God we will add to the fleet fifty armed galleys, on condition that, so long as we act in company of all conquests in land or money, whether at sea or on dry ground, we shall have the half and you the other half.”

So, the Crusaders were partners with the city-state of Venice but, as they would learn, it was Venice that would get the profit. When they were ready to set sail, they still owed 34,000 marks; to wipe out the debt, the Venetians insisted that they conquer the Hungarian island of Zara. Against the wishes of the pope — for Zara was a Christian city — the Crusaders took Zara for the Venetians. Then, when they reached Constantinople, they became involved with the complicated politics of the Byzantine Empire. Urged on by the Venetians, they took Constantinople.

For three days, beginning on April 13, 1204, the Crusaders and the Venetians sacked the city, burning, plundering, robbing, slaughtering, in one of the worst riots of destruction in history. Nothing escaped looting — palaces, churches, libraries, homes, shops. A knight who was one of the Crusaders wrote: “The booty gained was so great that none could tell you of it. Gold and silver and vessels and precious stones and samite and cloth of Silk and robes, vair and grey and ermine and every choicest thing found upon the earth. . . . never, since the world was created, had so much booty been won in any city. . . . These defenders of Christ, who should have turned their swords only against infidels, have bathed in Christian blood. They have respected neither religion nor age nor sex. . . . Greatly did they rejoice and give thanks because of the victory God had vouchsafed to them — for those who before had been poor were now in wealth and luxury.”


What the nobles and soldiers could not steal, they destroyed and many precious manuscripts and works of art were lost. The Venetians, who were well acquainted with Constantinople and its treasures, made off with sculpture, paintings, jewelry and slaves. Among their prizes were the four bronze horses that would stand on Venice’s Basilica of San Marco for centuries to come. Nor was that all the Venetians gained. They divided the Byzantine Empire with the Crusaders and Venice became the greatest trade centre in Europe.

The results of the Fourth Crusade shocked many people in Europe, but crusading went on. The most tragic of all the crusades, the Children’s Crusade, took place in 1212, when thousands of children from France and Germany marched southward to the Mediterranean Sea. They believed it would part for them, as the Red Sea had parted for Moses and the tribes of Israel and that they could then cross to the Holy Land. Most of the children were stopped and sent home before they reached Genoa, but many of those who went on were sold into slavery.

The Fifth Crusade, in 1218, was another of the failures. The Sixth Crusade was led by Frederick II of Germany. Curiously, by the time he set off in 1228, he had been excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX, with whom he had political differences. Frederick was not too disturbed; he was interested in power rather than religion. A man of learning and sharp intelligence, he relied on negotiations instead of force. He signed a treaty with the Sultan of Egypt, who had his own troubles and preferred to avoid a war with the Christians. The treaty called for a truce of ten years and allowed Frederick the right to be crowned as the king of Jerusalem.

In 1244, St. Louis of France led the Seventh Crusade, in which he was captured by the Turks and forced to pay a heavy ransom. Sixteen years later, while on still another crusade, he died at Carthage. By the end of the thirteenth century, all the territory in the Holy Land which the Crusaders had fought to conquer was again in Moslem hands. While the Crusaders failed in the end to accomplish what they had set out to do, the Crusades had some important effects on western Europe. They helped to break the power of feudalism; when the feudal lords were away fighting‚ the monarchs were able to strengthen their authority. The Crusades introduced the West to the highly developed culture of the Byzantines and Moslems and the luxuries of the East. It opened up new trade routes and Europe began to import spices, sugar, camphor, musk, lemons, melons, ivory, rugs, tapestries, brocades and cotton and damask materials.

Europe was no longer cut off from the rest of the world; through the Crusades it had discovered the East.

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