Page 1 of 2 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
The first crusade
     The background
     Emotive appeals
     German crusade and the Jews
     Constantinople to Antioch
     Christian recovery of Jerusalem
     Latin kingdom of Jerusalem
     Fall of Edessa

Later crusades

Bookmark and Share
The background: 11th century

Many different factors contribute to one of the strangest threads in western medieval history. The story of the crusades is an exceptional blend of idealism and barbarity, even by the standards of other holy wars.

In the 11th century Europe is growing in confidence and wealth. The destructive raids of Vikings have ended, as the raiders themselves settle - in Normandy, Sicily and the British Isles. But by the same token the secular rulers of the time are confident, boisterous, unruly. Papal Rome is engaged in a long-term attempt to submit them to ecclesiastical authority. Involving them in a war for Christianity, under papal control, seems to offer a neat solution.


The idea of a crusade is already much in the air because of developments in Spain. The Spanish Christians have recently made rapid progress in their long attempt to reconquer their peninsula from the Muslims, and have then suffered equally rapid reverses - in a series of conflicts which have made El Cid something of a paragon as a Christian warrior.

The century also brings a provocation suggesting the need for a crusade to the Middle East. For centuries pilgrims from Europe have plodded slowly but safely through Byzantine Anatolia on their way to Jerusalem. But in 1071 the Turks defeat a Byzantine army at Manzikert and begin to occupy the entire region east of Constantinople. The pilgrim routes are no longer safe.


Emotive appeals: 1095-1096

In March 1095 the pope, Urban II, is holding a council of his bishops at Piacenza. It is attended by ambassadors from Constantinople. When the pope allows them to address the assembly, they make a passionate appeal for Christian soldiers to come and help the Byzantine emperor, Alexios I, in his struggles against the Turks. Everyone is impressed.

This seems to have been a seminal moment in inspiring the pope with an ambitious new idea. In November of the same year, at another council (this time at Clermont), Urban takes the issue a crucial step further. Word is spread that on November 27 he will make a great announcement. A platform is set up in a field outside the city gate. A large crowd assembles. The pope rises to address them.


He describes a pitiful state of affairs in the holiest places of Christendom, now in the hands of the Turks. Pilgrims are persecuted and even prevented from reaching the shrines. He urges Christians, rich and poor alike, to march east to recover Jerusalem. He contrasts the poverty and squabbling of life in Europe with an image of a promised land of prosperity and peace. He even offers a new inducement - a plenary indulgence to all who take part. (An indulgence saves the sinner some of the pain of Purgatory, with a plenary one promising greater remission.)

Crusaders should be ready, says the pope, to leave their homes in the late summer of 1096 (after the harvest is in). They should make their way to Constantinople, where a Christian army will assemble.


The pope's appeal meets with a more enthusiastic response than he can have expected. During 1096 several great feudal lords of France, Normandy, Flanders and Italy assemble armies and march east with them. At the same time disorganized bands of the underprivileged, inspired by popular preachers, set off up the Rhine and along the Danube in the hope of a better life.

The largest of these groups, following Peter the Hermit (a scruffy but charismatic old monk on a donkey), amounts to some 20,000 people. They leave Cologne in May and reach Constantinople in July. Meanwhile, at home in Germany, the excuse of crusading is being used to perpetrate a massacre of the local Jews.


The German crusade and the Jews: 1096

No great feudal lord in Germany answers the pope's call to go on crusade. Instead three lesser figures gather large bands of simple German pilgrims and then inflame them with hatred of the Jews in their own communities - using the argument that before going to punish the Muslims who have seized Christ's sepulchre in Jerusalem, it makes sense to punish the Jews, closer to hand, whose ancestors are held responsible for his actual death.

In Spier in early May, in Worms and Mainz later in the month, and in Cologne, Trier and Metz in June, communities of Jews are seized and massacred by crusaders on their way east.


Prague is reached at the end of June and the city's Jews are killed. In most of these places the local bishops make efforts to protect the Jewish population, but they prove unable to do so. The king of Hungary, Kálmán, shows greater resolve.

Each of the three German crusading rabbles tries to makes its way onwards through Hungary. Kálmán at first attempts to give them peaceful passage, but they soon provoke violence - after which the Hungarian army annihilates all three groups. Many thousands of Jews and Christians die in Europe in this first summer of the first crusade. It is an ominous setback to the crusading ideal.


From Constantinople to Antioch: 1097-1099

By April 1097 the various crusading groups are ready to advance together from Constantinople. They are accompanied at this stage by a Byzantine army, for the first task is to clear a route through Anatolia - recently seized from the Byzantines by the Seljuk Turks.

The immediate target, close to hand, is the Seljuk capital in the heavily fortified Byzantine town of Nicaea. After a siege it is taken, in June, and restored to the Byzantine emperor. The army moves on. Four months later, after several battles with the Turks and frequent quarrels among the crusaders themselves, the crossing of Anatolia is accomplished. By October 20 the army is outside Antioch.


Antioch delays the crusaders' advance on Jerusalem by more than a year. For seven months the strongly fortified city (taken by the Turks from the Byzantines as recently as 1085) holds out against the crusaders' siege. They eventually take it, in June 1098, thanks to an act of treachery. An Armenian Muslim in the city is bribed to open a window high in a tower. Crusaders climb in just before dawn and open the gates. Christians in the city join the crusaders in massacring every Turk, not excluding the women and children. But this assistance does not save the local Christians from having their own houses looted, along with those of all the Muslims of Antioch.

Then six months are spent in discussing what to do next.


The crusaders' agreement with the Byzantine emperor specifies that Antioch will be returned to Byzantine rule. This is quickly discounted. It will remain in crusader hands. The six-month delay is caused by jockeying for position between the leaders of the crusade, each of them aware that the time has arrived when territories may be acquired for themselves and their heirs. In the event Bohemund, a member of the Norman dynasty of southern Italy, stays with his followers in Antioch. His descendants remain the princes of Antioch for nearly two centuries, until 1268.

The rest of the crusaders continue southwards in January 1099. By June they are outside the walls of Jerusalem.


The Christian recovery of Jerusalem: 1099

Although Palestine and Syria have been in Muslim hands since the 7th century, many of the inhabitants are still Christian. Moreover the region has in recent years been fought over by two rival Muslim powers, the Seljuk Turks and the Fatimid dynasty of Egypt. In these circumstances there is an element of welcome for the crusaders.

On June 7 they reach their destination, arriving outside the mighty walls of Jerusalem. The city is at present held by the Fatimids. In the heat of the summer the crusaders toil for five weeks building two huge siege towers. Finally, in mid-July, they push them into place. On July 15 they breach the walls.


The resulting massacre of the Muslims and the Jews of Jerusalem shocks even medieval public opionion. The only Muslims to escape are the garrison of the main keep of the city, the tower of David. For a large quantity of treasure they are allowed to leave unharmed.

All other Muslims are slaughtered wherever they may be, in streets or houses or holy places. Many lock themselves in one of their holiest shrines, the al-Aqsa mosque. Crusaders force the door and slay them. The Jews suffer a similar fate when they take refuge in their chief synagogue. It is burnt with them all inside. One of the crusaders describes these scenes in Jerusalem as a 'just and wonderful Judgement of God'.


The Latin kingdom of Jerusalem: 12th century

With the official purpose of the crusade achieved, in the recovery of Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre, attention turns to a problem of at least equal concern to many of the crusaders - how to establish feudal kingdoms in the captured territories, with fiefs of land distributed to nobles and their followers in due degree.

The administration of Palestine and Syria evolves over the next ten years, as more areas are annexed. By 1109 the region consists of four feudal states. Jerusalem is a kingdom, whose king is owed allegiance by the other three rulers. Antioch is a principality. Tripoli and Edessa are counties, the fiefs of hereditary counts.


These regions form a continuous strip along the east Mediterranean. The coastal towns benefit from increased trade as ships from Venice, Genoa and Barcelona arrive with supplies, reinforcements and pilgrims. They return home with the pilgrims and a cargo of eastern goods for the markets of the west.

Enabling pilgrims to reach the holy places of Palestine has been one of the main purposes of the crusade. Protecting pilgrims from illness or attack is seen as an important task for the crusaders once they are in Palestine (where they become known as the Franks, since the majority are French or Norman and their language is French). These duties prompt the founding of two famous orders of knighthood, the Knights of St John and the Templars.


The years before the fall of Edessa: 1099-1144

In the early years of the Latin kingdom the crusaders establish themselves in Palestine more securely than might have been expected. The Fatimids of Egypt attack Jerusalem in 1105 but are repelled. Thereafter the Latin kingdom seems to settle down as one power among many in an unsettled region, taking part in the endemic local warfare but not in any fanatically sectarian mood. Nor are the neighbouring states particularly inflamed against the Christians, in spite of the crusaders' appalling treatment of Muslim Jerusalem.

One exception to this surprising mood of tolerance is the Turkish governor of Mosul.


Zangi, the governor of Mosul, is a Mameluke appointed to his position in 1127 by the Seljuk Turks. He immediately begins to extend his power westwards, taking Aleppo in 1128. Recognizing that the presence of the crusaders can be used to unify the Muslims of this fragmented region under his own leadership, he urges a jihad against the intruders. The Arabic word means any struggle on behalf of Islam, the extreme form of which is a holy war.

From Aleppo, Zangi is well placed to threaten the elongated line of crusader states at a vulnerable point between Antioch and Edessa. But first he tries to make a more direct advance on Jerusalem, through Damascus.


Zangi fails to take Damascus, which is held by an independent Muslim dynasty, but eventually he strikes, in 1144, against Edessa. After a four-week siege the city falls to him, soon followed by the rest of this northern crusader territory. Zangi's campaign breaks the Christian barrier which for half a century has separated the Turks of Iran from the Turks of Anatolia.

The Muslims of the Middle East discover a new sense of purpose, while the loss of Edessa causes consternation in western Christendom. The pope preaches a second crusade, urging the kings and princes of Europe to go to the defence of their colleagues in the east.


  Page 1 of 2 Next page
Up to top of page THE CRUSADES