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Medieval crusader

The Crusades Beyond the Battlefield

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The Crusades were a series of holy wars between the Christians of Western Europe and the Muslims of the Middle East. Traditionally, there were nine major Crusades, which took place between the 11th and 13th centuries. These military expeditions were aimed primarily at the recapture of Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

The Crusades are remembered chiefly for the military aspect and the battles won and lost by each side. Nevertheless, the impact of the conflict went well beyond that and had an influence on various other aspects of life at that time.

There were also other ‘minor’ crusades apart from the nine ‘major’ ones in the Holy Land. These crusades were fought against various peoples considered to be the enemies of Christendom, including the Muslims of the Iberian Peninsula (the Reconquista), the pagans around the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic Sea (the Northern Crusades), and even Christians labelled as heretics (the Albigensian Crusade, for example).

14th-century miniature from William of Tyre's ‘Histoire d'Outremer’ of a battle during the Second Crusade, National Library of France, Department of Manuscripts

14th-century miniature from William of Tyre's ‘Histoire d'Outremer’ of a battle during the Second Crusade, National Library of France, Department of Manuscripts. (Public Domain)

When Did the Crusades Start?

Traditionally, the Crusades are said to have begun in 1095. The Council of Clermont, which took place in November that year, was summoned in response to the appeal for military aid by the Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus against the threat of a Turkish invasion. The pope, Urban II, saw this as an opportunity to reinforce the temporal power of the papacy, as the whole of Christendom would unite under his leadership to take back Jerusalem from the Muslims.

Towards the end of the council, the pope delivered an impassioned speech, exhorting the Christians of Europe to stop fighting against one another, to take the cross, to aid their fellow Christians in the East, and to reclaim Jerusalem for Christendom. Urban is recorded to have ended his speech with the words ‘Deus vult’ (Latin for ‘God wills it’), which became the battle cry of the Crusaders.

Pope Urban II preaching at the Council of Clermont. Sébastien Mamerot, ‘Les passages d'outremer.’

Pope Urban II preaching at the Council of Clermont. Sébastien Mamerot, Les passages d'outremer.’ (Public Domain)

At that point of time, the areas under Islamic rule not only included the entire Middle East, but also Persia, Egypt, North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, and Sicily. Nevertheless, the Islamic world was not united as it once was during its early years. Although the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad was the titular head of the Islamic community, not all Muslims recognized his authority.

The Fatimids of Egypt, for instance, were adherents of Shia Islam, unlike the Abbasids, who followed Sunni Islam. While the Crusades represent a significant period in the history of Western Europe, it was viewed in a different light by the Muslims. For them, the Crusades was just another wave of Christian aggression against the Islamic world. Indeed, military expeditions by Christians against Muslims long pre-dated the Crusades. For instance, the Reconquista began during the 8th century AD, not long after the Iberian Peninsula was conquered by the Umayyad Caliphate. The Muslims had lost Sicily too in 1091, after it was conquered by the Normans under Roger I.

Who were the First Crusaders?

Returning to Clermont, Urban’s speech had its intended effect and many responded to the pope’s call for a crusade. In total, between 60,000 and 100,000 people pledged to take up a crusade. Interestingly, although Urban envisioned all of Western Europe rallying to his banner, the participants of the First Crusade hailed from the French-speaking parts of the continent. Moreover, the leaders of this crusade were not kings, but noblemen. Thus, the First Crusade is also known as the Princes’ Crusade.

Urban had promised that anyone who died in the service of Christ during the Crusade would receive absolution and remission of sins. This, along with personal piety, were strong incentives for those taking up the cross. Still, not all the Crusaders had such noble intentions in mind.

Some of them were motivated by more worldly factors. Members of the nobility, for instance, saw this expedition as an opportunity to gain land and riches in the East. As an example, Bohemond, the Norman prince of Otranto, used the First Crusade to establish the Principality of Antioch, and did not continue with the rest of the Crusaders as they proceeded to Jerusalem.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem

In spite of the odds against them, the participants of the First Crusade prevailed over their Muslim enemies and Jerusalem fell to them in 1099. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was created and one of the Crusade’s leaders, Godfrey of Bouillon, became its first ruler. Although Godfrey accepted the rulership of the kingdom, he refused the title ‘king,’ reasoning that no man should wear a ‘crown of gold’ in the city where Jesus Christ had worn a ‘crown of thorns.’ He opted for the title Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri (‘Defender of the Holy Sepulchre’) instead.

His successors, however, were less modest. After ruling for a year, Godfrey died in 1100 and was succeeded by his younger brother, Baldwin, who took the title ‘king’. The Kingdom of Jerusalem lasted until 1291, when its capital, Acre, fell to the Mamluks.

Jerusalem itself was lost long before the kingdom’s destruction, in 1187, when it was conquered by Saladin. In response to the loss of Jerusalem that year, the Third Crusade was called to reconquer the holy city. This is arguably the most famous crusade, thanks mainly to the tales of chivalry surrounding Saladin and his arch-rival, Richard the Lionheart. In short, however, the Third Crusade was a failure, as it did not fulfil its objective of reconquering Jerusalem.

Tiles of Richard the Lionheart, left, and Saladin, right

Tiles of Richard the Lionheart, left, and Saladin, right. (Ealdgyth / CC BY SA 3.0)

The Infamous Fourth Crusade

Whereas the Third Crusade is popularly remembered for the chivalry of Richard and Saladin, the Fourth is notorious for the treachery of the Venetians. This crusade was preached in 1189 by Pope Innocent III, who hoped to invade the Holy Land from the south, i.e. via Egypt. Overall command was given to a French nobleman by the name of Thibaut of Champagne, and the Crusaders negotiated with Venice to provide transport for the army.

Thibaut died before the crusade began and was replaced by Boniface of Montferrat, an Italian nobleman whose political connections contributed to the infamous deeds of the Fourth Crusade. His brother, Conrad, for instance, had married the sister of the Byzantine emperor, Isaac II Angelus, and received the title ‘Caesar.’

Additionally, Boniface was a vassal of Philip of Swabia, Isaac’s son-in-law. In 1195, Isaac was blinded and deposed by his brother, who seized the throne as Alexius III. Some years later, Isaac’s son, also names Alexius, escaped from captivity in Constantinople and fled to Philip’s court. In 1201, Philip, Boniface, and Alexius discussed the possibility of using the crusade to topple the usurper and replace one Alexius with another. The pope’s approval for the plan was sought, but Innocent refused to grant it.

Conquest of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204

Conquest of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204. (Public Domain)

In the summer of 1202, the Crusaders arrived in Venice, where they were to be transported to Egypt. Unfortunately for them, the army was only a third of its projected size. This meant that the Crusaders neither needed nor could they afford the transport and provisions that had been prepared.

The Venetians were undoubtedly upset, but its doge, Enrico Dandolo, proposed a compromise. He suggested that the Crusaders help Venice capture Zadar (in present-day Croatia), which was economically under Venice’s dominance, but had rebelled not long before. In return, he would allow the outstanding debt to be suspended until it could be paid in captured booty.

Zadar was a Christian city and had allied itself with the Kingdom of Hungary, whose king had also taken up the cross. Many of the Crusaders were reluctant to attack the city, but they had little choice, and went ahead with Dandolo’s proposal. The pope did not agree with this plan at all, but his views were disregarded. In the end, Innocent gave conditional absolution to the Crusaders, but not to the Venetians, so as to not jeopardize the enterprise.

After capturing Zadar, envoys from Philip came with a proposal from Alexius. In return for deposing the current Byzantine emperor and placing him on the throne, Alexius would place the Byzantine Church under Rome, pay the Crusaders a large sum of money, and join them in Egypt for their crusade. Dandolo, in particular, was highly supportive of the plan, since he held a personal enmity against the Byzantines, and did much to convince the other leaders of the crusade to accept it. Some, however, disapproved of this scheme, and deserted.

In any case, the Crusaders arrived in Constantinople in late June 1203, and began to besiege the city. The emperor’s weak leadership caused the people of Constantinople to turn against him and he fled the city. As a result, Isaac was restored to the throne and his son, Alexius, appointed as his co-emperor. Alexius’ popularity, however, was rapidly declining, and he was eventually deposed in a coup in late January 1204. A nobleman by the name of Alexius Doukas was crowned as Alexius V.

The Crusaders demanded the new emperor keep the pledges of his predecessor. When he refused, they declared war on him. Constantinople fell on April 12, 1204 and the city was sacked. The Crusaders are recorded to have systematically destroyed and defiled the city’s churches and monasteries and emptied them of their valuables. When news of Constantinople’s fall reached the ears of Innocent, he was filled with shame and strongly rebuked the Crusaders, though the damage had already been done.

‘The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople’ (1840) by Eugène Delacroix

‘The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople’ (1840) by Eugène Delacroix. (Public Domain)

Consequences of the Crusades

Between the infamous sack of Constantinople in 1204 and the fall of Acre in 1291, several more crusades were launched. Nevertheless, as the century wore on, enthusiasm for such military expeditions to the Holy Land began was in decline. The last of the nine ‘major’ Crusades was launched in response to the Mamluk threat to the remaining Crusader states.

The Ninth Crusade, also known as Lord Edward’s Crusade, is sometimes considered part of the Eighth Crusade, and was led by Lord Edward, the future Edward I of England. This crusade failed to accomplish much and Edward left the Holy Land in September 1272, just over a year after his arrival in the previous May.

Although the Crusades ultimately failed in their mission to recapture the Holy Land, they had some unforeseen consequences, most notably in the interactions between the Crusaders and the Muslims. For instance, after the Crusader states were established they became part of the local political landscape as well.

While the Crusades are undoubtedly best-known for battles, alliances and peace treaties were also formed between the Crusaders and their Muslim neighbors. An example of this is seen in the letters sent by Saladin to Baldwin III, the king of Jerusalem, in which a sense of friendship can be felt. In another instance, some months before his departure for England, Edward, along with Hugh I, the king of Jerusalem, managed to negotiate a truce with Baibars, the Mamluk sultan.

The truce was to last for a duration of 10 years, 10 months, and 10 days. Crusader-Muslim interaction and co-existence, however, extended beyond politics, and included trade and commerce, cultural exchanges, and the transfer of scientific knowledge from the Muslim world to Europe.

Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor (left) meets al-Kamil Muhammad al-Malik (right), from a manuscript of the Nuova Cronica, between circa 1341 and circa 1348

Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor (left) meets al-Kamil Muhammad al-Malik (right), from a manuscript of the Nuova Cronica, between circa 1341 and circa 1348. (Public Domain)

Crusading Spirit Lived On

Eventually crusading zeal in the Holy Land was extinguished but the crusading spirit itself lived on, which is evident in the ‘minor’ crusades that were launched even after the Crusader states were destroyed. These crusades, however, were directed at different enemies in various parts of the world.

The best-known of these is the Reconquista in the Iberian Peninsula, which once again saw Christians pitted against Muslims. Although the Reconquista began during the 8th century AD, it was only declared a crusade in 1123 by Pope Callixtus II, and ended in 1492 with the fall of Granada.

The Northern Crusades (also known as the Baltic Crusades) are less well-known, and were fought against the pagans of the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. Indirectly, these crusades were ‘missionary wars’ and were meant to create the conditions that were necessary for the conversion of the region to Christianity later on.

The Northern Crusades began in the 12th century and only ended in the 15th century. Finally, crusades were also launched against those deemed heretics by the Roman Catholic Church. These included the Cathars of southern France during the 13th century (the Albigensian Crusade), and Hussites of Central Europe during the 15th century (known variously as the Hussite Wars, the Bohemian Wars, and the Hussite Revolution).

Expulsion of the inhabitants from Carcassone in 1209. Image taken from ‘Grandes Chroniques de France.

Expulsion of the inhabitants from Carcassone in 1209. Image taken fromGrandes Chroniques de France.’ (Public Domain)

Top image: Medieval crusader. Credit: Jaroslaw Grudzinski / Adobe Stock

By Ḏḥwty            


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Did we forget the aggression against Europe centuries before? Spain was conquered and looted. A Mosque was built to celebrate the conquest. Another was attempted with the same name in NYC after 9/11 but was thwarted. In the 800s I believe Charles Martel united the Christian church and European puppet kings to raise an army. He defeated the Muslims and regained some of the loot and pushed them back across the Mediterranean.
Later they laid seige to Vienna twice but were driven back each time from the well fortified city. The Europeans, one account said,Europe hired the Serbs to be the first line of defence for future invasions. Spain gave the Mosque back in 2018 I believe. Do not feel safe as long as the religious fanatics run loose in the world. They, as the Christian church for a thousand years felt the way to save someone who resisted was by his own blood and had no qualms about shedding it.

Paul Davies's picture

So the article talks about Christian aggression against Islam, but then references te “Reconquest” of Spain….? Fails to mention the First Crusade was not just the Byzantine Emperor asking for help but also Christians throughout Turkey who were being murdered by Muslim invaders. Fails to mention that almost ALL of the attacks were in response to Muslim expansion…

At the very least be balanced.

Paul Davies's picture

Basically because the underlying systems are incompatible. The Judeo-Christian world view summed up by Jesus “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your ming and all your strength, and Love your neighbour as yourself. On these two Commandments hang ALL the Law and the Prophets”; has no place in the wordlview of Islam, where forcible conversion, rape, suppression and murder are all permissable to achieve Peace, which equates to “no other options”. The other main worldview is the underlying application of Karmic Philosophy and reincarnation beliefs.

The other obvious answer is human sin, particularly greed and lust for power/wealth.

Mary Madeline's picture

Why can't we all have our own religions and beliefs and accept our own and others, stop the war over religion. Accept all religions of others and keep the peace

Mary Madeline

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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