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The Crusades 101 | Jimmy Akin | IgnatiusInsight.com
As conventionally reckoned, the Crusades were a set of
eight expeditions to the East that occurred in just under a two-century period,
from 1095 to 1270. The term crusade has
since expanded to be applied to a wide variety of wars--especially ones
involving religion--and even to things that are not wars at all (e.g., Billy
Graham's evangelistic events). Here we will focus on the eight traditional
Understanding the Crusades requires an appreciation of the
events that led to them. Since the legalization of Christianity in the early
300s, European Christians had been conducting pilgrimages to Palestine in order
to visit the holy sites associated with the life of our Lord. These pilgrimages
were major exercises of piety, for in that age travel to the Holy Land was
difficult, time-consuming, expensive, and dangerous. Some pilgrimages took
years to complete.
Christians also went to Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in
order to live ascetic lives. This was the age in which Christian monasticism
blossomed, and numerous Christians were anxious to go to the Holy Land and
Egypt in order to lead lives consecrated to God by asceticism. They also
undertook the hardships of the journey. For both pilgrims and ascetics there
was one factor ameliorating the journey: the path to Palestine went through
In A.D. 612, the Arabian Muhammad, son of Abdallah,
reported receiving a prophetic call from God through the angel Gabriel. At
first, he made few converts. However, after being driven from his native Mecca
in 622, he found refuge in the city of Medina, where his followers increased.
Mounting a military campaign, Muhammad conquered several pagan, Jewish, and
Christian tribes and was able to seize control of his native Mecca, as well as
all of Arabia. He died in 632.
Following his death, Muhammad's successors--the
caliphs--continued an aggressive campaign of expansion. In less than a century
they had seized control--among other lands--of Syria, Palestine, and North
Africa. Though today we are used to thinking of these lands as Muslim, at the
time they were Christian. It has been said that the expanding Muslim empire
consumed half of Christian civilization. Even Europe itself was threatened. Muslims
seized control of southern Spain, invaded France, and were threatening to
invade Rome itself when their advance was defeated by Charles Martel at the
battle of Poitiers in 732.
It had been a hard century.
After Muslim expansion in Western Europe had been checked
for the moment, their attention for a time turned elsewhere, and within two
more centuries they had conquered Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, Pakistan, and
parts of India. They also later advanced against Christian nations, conquering
the Byzantine Empire in 1453 and encroaching as far as Vienna, Austria in 1683.
The Crusades occurred in the middle of this struggle. The
immediate preparation for them took place in the eleventh century, with
increases in long-standing tensions between Christians and Muslims in the Holy
Palestine had been under Muslim control for some time,
though with concessions to the Christians who visited and lived in it. However,
in 1009 the Fatimite caliph of Egypt ordered the destruction of the Holy
Sepulchre--the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem--which was a principal focus of
Christian pilgrimages. It was later rebuilt.
The heightened danger to Christians making pilgrimages to
the Holy Land only served to increase enthusiasm for such journeys, as they
were now more difficult and thus greater acts of piety. During the eleventh
century, thousands of Christians braved the dangers, often traveling with armed
Christian escorts, who sometimes protected as many as twelve thousand pilgrims
at a time.
The Seljuq Turks, who had embraced Islam in the tenth
century, began conquering parts of the Muslim world, which made pilgrimages
more dangerous, if not impossible. The Seljuqs took Jerusalem in 1070 and began
threatening the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine emperor Romanus IV Diogenes was
captured by the Seljuqs at the battle of Manzikert in 1071. His successor,
Michael VII Ducas, sought the aid of Pope Gregory VII, who considered leading a
military expedition to drive back the Turks, recover the Holy Sepulchre, and
restore Christian unity following the de facto
breach that had occurred with Eastern Christendom in 1054. However,
the Investiture Controversy frustrated these plans.
The Seljuqs continued to expand, in 1084 capturing the
city of Antioch and in 1092 the city of Nicaea, where two famous ecumenical
councils had been held centuries before. By the 1090s, the historic
metropolitan sees of Asia were in the hands of Muslims, who were now
dangerously close to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. The emperor,
Alexius I Comnenus, appealed to Pope Urban II for aid.
The First Crusade (1095-1101)
Unlike Gregory VII, Urban II was in a position to respond
to the Eastern pleas for help. In November 1095, he convened the Council of
Clermont in southern France, where he exhorted the attendees--who included not
only bishops and abbots but also nobility, knights, and common men--concerning
the plight of Eastern Christendom.
There had been much in-fighting among Europeans, and at
the outdoor assembly the Pope urged them to make peace with each other and to
turn their military efforts toward a constructive cause--defending Christendom
against Muslim advances, assisting the Eastern Christians, and reclaiming the
Holy Sepulchre. He also stressed the need for penance and spiritual motives in
undertaking the campaign, offering a plenary indulgence for those vowing to
undertake it in this spirit. The response was extremely enthusiastic, with
attendees crying Deus vult!--"God wills it!"
It was also decided at the Council of Clermont that those
undertaking the campaign would wear a red cross (Latin, crux), leading later to the name crusade.
Preparations began across Europe. These were not always
well-organized, nor did they always live up to the spiritual mandate of the
pope. Some would-be crusaders were so ill-equipped that as they journeyed
toward the Holy Land they turned to looting to find sustenance. Some Germans
massacred Jewish individuals. Some never made it as far as Constantinople.
Other participants in the disorganized "People's Crusade," after arriving
there, were so unruly that in August 1096 the Emperor sent them across the
Bosphorus ahead of the main crusade force in order to protect the peace of the
city. The Turks quickly annihilated this poorly organized group.
The main crusading force consisted of four armies,
composed of French, Germans, and Normans, under the leadership of Godfrey of
Boullion, the Normans Bohemond and Tancred, Raymond of Saint-Gilles, and Robert
of Flanders. The Byzantine Emperor, Alexius, however, did not want so large a
force of crusaders massed around Constantinople and so sent them over to Asia
Minor in the order of their arrival. He also required the heads of the armies
to swear that they would restore to him any lands they recovered from the
Muslims that had previously been under Byzantine overlordship.
In June 1097 Nicaea was surrendered to the Byzantines
accompanying the crusaders, and the next month the crusaders and Byzantines won
a major victory against the Turks when they were attacked at Dorylaeum. Further
progress was hard going, however, and some became dispirited. Among them was
Alexius, who had promised to assist in the siege of Antioch. When the Emperor
balked at this, the crusaders considered themselves relieved of any obligation
to turn the city over to him since he could not be counted upon to fight for
it. Thus when it was taken in June 1099, it passed into Norman hands.
The following month the Fatimid Muslims of Egypt retook
Jerusalem from the Seljuqs, so it was in non-Turkish hands when the crusaders
mounted their assault. This took place in July 1099. For a month the crusader
force, which had been reduced to about half its original size, had encamped
around Jerusalem while the Fatimid governor of the city awaited relief troops
from Egypt. The crusaders, however, received supplies from the port of Jaffa
and made their move.
On July 8 they fasted and processed barefoot around the
city to the Mount of Olives, then on the 13th they besieged the walls. On the
15th, some men got over the wall and opened one of the city gates, allowing the
main force inside. In the Tower of David, the Fatimid governor surrendered and
was escorted from the city. In the al-Aqsa Mosque by the Temple Mount, Tacred
promised protection to the city's Muslim and Jewish inhabitants, but despite
his efforts a general slaughter started.
The following month the crusaders surprised and repelled
the Egyptian relief troops that the Fatimid governor had been counting on,
securing Christian control of Jerusalem, though many of the coastal cities
remained under Muslim control. Most crusaders departed for home, the objectives
of the crusade having been achieved and their vows having been fulfilled.
In the wake of the First Crusade there developed four
Christian states from the territory the crusaders had recovered: the later
Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Principality of Antioch, the Countship of Edessa, and
the Countship of Tripoli. These states, which applied the feudal system in a
context detached from the vivid local rivalries that applied in Europe, have
been considered models of Medieval administration. Still, relations between
them, the Byzantine Empire, and the surrounding Muslim domains were often
To defend the new states, a new kind of fighting force
developed--the religious orders of knighthood, such as the Hospitallers of St.
John of Jerusalem and the Templars. These were groups of knights who took
religious vows and accepted a religious rule.
For a time the crusader states flourished. Over time they
expanded to include coastal cities originally left unreclaimed. However, the
states remained vulnerable, and in 1144 the northern state of Edessa was
captured by Muslim forces.
The Second Crusade (1146-48)
In response, Pope Eugenius III called a new crusade, which
was preached both in France and Germany by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The French
King, Louis VII, and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, promptly responded, though
the German Emperor, Conrad III, took more persuading. The current Byzantine
Emperor, Manuel Comnenus, was also favorably disposed toward the crusaders,
though he did not contribute troops to the cause.
Though at one point it involved the largest crusader army
to date, the Second Crusade was met with less enthusiasm than the First, no
doubt in part because Jerusalem was still in Christian hands. The course of the
campaign was marred by competing interests of the parties involved, hampering
progress. The hardships of the journey had also taken their toll. Unable to
reach Edessa, the crusaders concentrated on taking Damascus, but inner turmoil
and treachery forced them to retreat.
The failure of the Second Crusade was severely
discouraging, and many in Europe became convinced that the Byzantine Empire was
an obstacle to the success of the venture. The failure was also a significant
morale boost for Muslim forces, who had partially redeemed the defeats they had
suffered in the First Crusade.
The position of the crusader states was weakened, and in
the coming years they became virtually encircled by a consolidated Muslim
power, following the collapse of the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt.
Though for a time there was a truce with the Muslim
commander, Saladin, the truce was broken in 1187. During a succession crisis in
the Kingdom of Jerusalem, a Muslim caravan was attacked, and Saladin responded
by declaring a jihad.
The Latin forces suffered a humiliating defeat at the
Horns of Hattin (a geological formation resembling two horns on the crest of a
ridge), and Saladin then proceeded to take Tiberias and the port city of Acre
before turning to Jerusalem, which fell on October 2. By 1189, few cities in
the crusader states were left in Christian hands.
The Third Crusade (1188-92)
Following the fall of Jerusalem, Pope Gregory VIII called
for the Third Crusade. It was unfortunately beset by the untimely deaths of the
kings who first stepped forward to lead it.
The first king to respond, William II of Sicily, sent a
fleet East but died in late 1189. Henry II of England agreed to participate,
but also died in that year. The German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, having
reconciled with the Church, also participated and led a large army that
defeated a Seljuq force in May 1190, but the next month the elderly Emperor
drowned trying to swim across a stream while scouting.
The two kings who finally led the crusade were the valiant
but flamboyant Richard I ("the Lion-Hearted") of England--Henry II's son and
successor--and the calculating Philip II Augustus of France.
En route to the Holy Land, Richard I stopped on the island
of Cyprus, where he was attacked by the Byzantine prince Isaac Comnenus.
Richard defeated the prince and took control of the island before sailing for
the port city of Acre, which was under attack by crusader forces.
Reinforced by the arriving crusaders, Acre held out and
the Muslim forces finally surrendered. Philip II then considered his cursader
vow fulfilled and departed for France.
Saladin agreed to an exchange of prisoners and the return
of the relic of the True Cross. This arrangement fell apart when Richard
disputed the selection of returning prisoners and eventually ordered the
execution of the Muslim captives and their families.
Richard was desirous of pressing forward to Jerusalem and
was able to reclaim several cities, including Jaffa, but ultimately was unable
to reach the Holy City. His relations with Saladin were unusually friendly, and
the two seemed to enjoy a high degree of mutual respect. In late 1192 they
signed a five-year peace treaty that allowed Christians to have continued access
to the holy places. The Christian holdings in the Holy Land now were reduced to
a small kingdom composed largely of port cities.
The Fourth Crusade (1204)
The Fourth Crusade was an unmitigated disaster. It was an
appalling fiasco that did nothing but cause internal damage to Christendom.
In 1198, Pope Innocent III proposed a new crusade. As
usual, the French responded to the call. The new target was to be Egypt, a
formerly Christian land that was now a Muslim stronghold.
The crusaders turned to the Venetians for transportation,
but when they proved to have insufficient funds to pay, the Venetians suggested
that they instead attack and capture Zara, a Hungarian and Christian city. Many
objected strenuously--including the Pope, but his orders were ignored and the
crusaders took Zara at the behest of the Venetians.
Matters went from bad to worse when Alexius, the son of
deposed Byzantine Emperor Isaac Angelus, sought the aid of the crusaders in
recovering his father's throne. Promising rewards, Alexius convinced them to
try. The Pope's letter forbidding the expedition arrived too late, and the
crusaders took Constantinople, reinstalled Isaac as Emperor, and proclaimed his
Innocent III reprimanded the leaders and ordered them to
proceed to the Holy Land, but only a few did so. Most awaited the rewards that
Alexius had promised.
Displeased by these promises to the Latin forces, the
Byzantines promptly assassinated Alexius, following which the Venetians and the
crusaders took control of the city and the empire. Constantinople fell to them
on April 13, 1204, initiating a three-day chaos of looting and murder.
Afterwards, a Latin Emperor of Constantinople was elected by a council composed
of Venetians and crusaders. The Byzantine government relocated to Nicaea, where
it remained, ruling only a portion of its previous territory until 1261, when
Constantinople was reconquered by Michael VIII Paleologous.
This crusade was a fool's journey. Not only did it fail to
even engage the Muslim forces occupying the Holy Land, it further divided
Eastern and Western Christendom, as well as permanently damaged the Byzantine
empire, which had served as a buffer between Muslim aggression and the
In the years following the Fourth Crusade, there were a
number of minor crusades--wars whose participants took a vow--against heretics
and others. Of particular interest was the so-called "Children's Crusade"
(1212), in which thousands of children set forth to conquer the Muslims forces
with love instead of arms. A visionary child in France led one arm of the
movement, while a German child led the other. Many children made it to Italy.
However, the movement never reached the Holy Land, and the overwhelming
majority of the children either died of hunger or exhaustion or were sold by
unscrupulous Italians into Muslim slavery. The movement did, however, serve to
incite feeling for the coming Fifth Crusade.
The Fifth Crusade (1217-1221)
The final crusade in which the Church played a major role
was the fifth. It was called for by the pope of the previous crusade, Innocent
III, as well as by the 12th ecumenical council, Lateran IV. As in the prior
effort, the target was not Palestine itself, but Egypt, the basis of Muslim
power, which the crusaders hoped to use as a bargaining piece to secure the
release of Jerusalem.
Unlike the prior effort, which spun out of control in the
hands of laymen, this effort was placed under the authority of a particularly
forceful papal legate, Cardinal Pelagius. He had a regal disposition and
regularly meddled in military decisions.
The effort met with initial success, and alarmed Muslim
forces offered generous terms of peace, including the surrender of Jerusalem.
However, the crusaders, spurred by Cardinal Pelagius, refused these. A military
blunder cost the crusaders Damietta, which they had captured in the early
stages of the campaign. In 1221, the Christian forces accepted a truce far less
favorable than what had been offered initially. Many blamed Pelagius. Others blamed
the pope. Some blamed the German emperor, Frederick II, who failed to show up
for this crusade but who was to play a prominent role in the next.
The Sixth Crusade (1228-29)
Innocent III had granted Frederick II several delays in
the fulfillment of his crusade vow so that he could take care of matters in
Germany. Innocent's successor, Gregory IX, tired of Frederick's dallying and
insisted that he fulfill his vow. When the emperor stalled again, citing
illness, the pope had had enough and excommunicated him. When Frederick finally
embarked, he was crusading as an excommunicate.
This odd situation led to an odd crusade. In part because
of Frederick's excommunication, few were willing to support him and he was
unable to mount a major military campaign. As a result, he turned to diplomacy
and, taking advantage of divisions among Muslims, worked out a treaty in 1229
with Sultan al-Kamil of Egypt, according to the terms of which Jerusalem (less
the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque), Bethlehem, Nazareth, and additional
territory were returned to the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Frederick II, still excommunicated, was then crowned king
of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in a non-religious ceremony
(since Jerusalem had been placed under interdict as a result of Frederick's
presence). The following year he was reconciled to the Church. He was unable,
however, to successfully rule the Kingdom of Jerusalem from a distance, for the
local barons refused to cooperate with his representatives.
The years 1239 and 1241 saw two minor crusades,
respectively by Count Thibaud IV of Champagne and Roger of Cornwall. These two
efforts, in Syria and against Ascalon, were unsuccessful and minor enough that
they are not numbered among the standard eight crusades.
The Seventh Crusade (1249-52)
The initiative for the penultimate crusade was taken by
Louis IX of France. Again, the strategy was pursued of attacking Egypt to gain
concessions in Palestine. The crusaders quickly captured Damietta again but had
to pay a heavy price in taking Cairo. A Muslim counter-attack succeeded in
taking Louis prisoner. He was later released after agreeing to turn over
Damietta and to pay a ransom. Afterward, he remained in the East for several
years to negotiate the release of prisoners and fortify the Christian foothold
in the region.
The Eighth Crusade (1270)
The last of the eight crusades was also led by Louis IX.
In the ensuing years, changes in the Muslim world led to a renewed series of
attacks on Christian territory in the Holy Land. The locals made appeals to the
West for military aid, but few Europeans were interested in mounting a major
campaign. One who was willing to again take the crusader's cross was Louis IX,
who wished to make good his previous failure. However, the campaign he now
mounted achieved less for the Kingdom of Jerusalem than had the former.
It is not certain why, but Tunis in North Africa was
picked for an initial target. Once there, plague claimed the lives of many,
including the pious Louis. His brother, Charles of Anjou, arrived with Sicilian
ships and was able to evacuate the remainder of the army.
Though this was the last of the eight enumerated crusades,
it was not the last military expedition to be considered a crusade. Campaigns
continued to be waged, against a variety of targets, not just Muslim ones, by
crusaders--men who had taken a vow to undertake the fight.
For their part, the Christians of Palestine were left
without further aid. Despite continuing losses, the Kingdom of Jerusalem
managed to hang on in some form until 1291, when it finally ceased to exist.
Christians continued to live in the area even after its fall.
Many today in the self-reflective West view the Crusades
as acts of unjustified aggression toward the peaceful inhabitants of the East
and the Holy Land. However, even a cursory familiarity with the centuries in
question makes this assessment difficult to sustain.
This may be seen clearly, for example, by transposing the
roles of the forces. If the Crusades had occurred in the middle of a
multi-century campaign in which Christians consumed half of what historically
had been Muslim territory, few would regard Muslims as completely unjustified
in striking back, in an attempt to reclaim lands lost to Christians, especially
if these lands contained many of their co-religionists.
Few would expect Muslims to sit idly by if Christians
seized control of and denied Muslims access to the Kaaba in Mecca and the Dome
of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. It would be fully expected that
Muslims would retaliate and seek to reclaim control of or access to their holy
Common sense makes it difficult not to see among the
chief lessons of the Crusades "Don't conquer half of another group's
civilization without expecting reprisals" and "Don't touch a people's holy
sites without expecting retaliation."
Far from being embarrassed by what the crusaders did,
contemporary Christians should be proud that--despite their own internecine
struggles in the Middle Ages--prior generations of Christians found the
wherewithal to do precisely what Muslims would do in the same situation.
Christians today certainly should deplore evil acts
committed during the Crusades, such as the massacres of innocent Muslims and
Jews that periodically occurred, as well as the entire debacle of the Fourth
Crusade. However, the enterprise of the Crusades themselves had two important
goals at its core: the defense of Christian civilization against outside
aggression (making the Crusades as a whole wars of self-defense) and securing
access to the holy sites that commemorate to the most important events in world
It is also difficult to review the Crusades without
thinking of them in light of recent events. In particular, one wonders whether
future generations of Muslims will look back on the present time. Will they see
the recent Islamic terrorist campaigns as what they were: attacks on innocent,
non-combatants that, like all such attacks, are intrinsically unjustifiable?
Will they regard the turn-of-the-millennium jihads as unrighteous "crusades"?
And will the Muslim world ever gain the degree of self-reflection needed to
recognize the Crusades as the entirely predictable responses to medieval Muslim
This article was originally published in the January/February 2002 issue of Catholic Dossier.
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Jimmy Akin is Director of Apologetics and Evangelization at Catholic Answers in
San Diego. He is the author of Mass Confusion and The Salvation Controversy (Catholic Answers), and the booklet,
Islam: A Catholic Perspective. Get a daily dose of Jimmy at his weblog, JimmyAkin.org.
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