The first crusade

The background: 11th century AD

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: AD 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: AD 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: AD 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: AD 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 AD

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: AD 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.

Later crusades

A new crusade: AD 1147-1148

The second crusade, departing in 1147, has much more distinguished leadership than the first. One army is taken east by the king of France, Louis VII, and another by the German king, Conrad III.

The expedition is on all fronts a disaster. Nine tenths of the German army and half the French are destroyed by Turkish forces while trying to make their way across Anatolia. The two kings eventually arrive in Palestine by sea to join the remnants of their forces. Together, in July 1148, they make an ill-conceived and ill-prepared attack on the rich city of Damascus. After a pathetic effort lasting only four days, the crusaders' siege of the city is abandoned.

After this fiasco Conrad hurries home to Germany. Louis lingers in Jerusalem until the following summer. The loss of face is considerable. But more significant damage has also been done to the crusaders' cause.

The Muslim rulers of Damascus have not been hostile to the crusaders, and for a good reason. They share an enemy in the aggressive Zangi, ruler of a broad sweep of territory from Mosul to Aleppo and Edessa. When Damascus is besieged by the crusaders in 1148, Zangi himself is dead, murdered in his sleep by a eunuch in 1146. But his ambition for a jihad is inherited with equal force by his son, Nur ed-Din. And the people of Damascus (though not their rulers) have now lost patience with the Franks.

Nur ed-Din Ayub and Saladin: AD 1154-1186

When Nur ed-Din arrives in 1154 to besiege Damascus, the inhabitants open the gates to his army. The ruling dynasty is evicted. Nur ed-Din places Ayub, a Kurdish chieftain, in charge of the city.

With Damascus secured to the north of Jerusalem, Nur ed-Din's strategy is to surround the Crusader kingdom by gaining control of Egypt to the south. He sends Syrian armies to support the Fatimid rulers of Egypt against crusader attacks.

Saladin, the son of Ayub (the governor of Damascus), plays a prominent role in these Egyptian campaigns. In 1169 Nur ed-Din appoints him commander of the Syrian forces in Egypt. In 1171 Saladin deposes the Fatimid caliph. Though officially acting on behalf of Nur ed-Din, the young campaigner, aged thirty-three, is now in effect the ruler of Egypt. When Nur ed-Din dies, three years later, he is well placed to assert himself in a wider context.

From his base in Egypt, where he establishes the Ayubid dynasty (named after his father, Ayub, who has died in 1172), Saladin extends his power through Nur ed-Din's extensive territory.

Damascus easily falls to him, thanks to his father's links with the city. Northern Syria and Iraq remain for a while loyal to the family of Nur ed-Din, but by a combination of force and diplomacy (making much of the theme of jihad) Saladin secures control of Aleppo in 1183 and Mosul in 1186.

The entire Muslim world surrounding the Crusader territories, from Egypt to Syria, is now united in a holy cause. Disunity among the Franks soon provides both the opportunity and the pretext for action.

The fall of the kingdom of Jerusalem: AD 1187

In 1185 an 8-year old, Baldwin V, inherits the Kingdom of jerusalem. Rivalries during the regency erupt into virtual civil war when the child dies, only a year later, in 1186. In that same year a Frankish nobleman breaks the terms of a truce with Saladin and plunders a rich caravan making its way from Egypt to Damascus. Travelling with the caravan, as if to aggravate the offence, is Saladin's sister.

In May 1187 Saladin crosses the Jordan into the Kingdom of jerusalem with an army of some 20,000 men. In July he meets a Christian army of about the same size beneath two projecting hills, the Horns of Hattin, west of the sea of Galilee.

The Franks make the mistake of camping overnight on a plateau where the wells are dry. By the morning of the battle, in the July heat, they are desperate with thirst. They are destroyed by Saladin's army. The Kingdom of jerusalem lies open to him. Hattin, in 1187, is the turning point in the story of the crusades.

Saladin spends the next two months securing crusader fortresses in Galilee and on the coast. Acre and Gaza capitulate. Jaffa and Ascalon are besieged and taken. Only Tyre holds out against him. By September he is ready for the final challenge. He besieges Jerusalem. On the last day of the month the city surrenders.

Saladin's lasting reputation among Christians, as a man of chivalry and honour, derives above all from his treatment of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The contrast, eighty-eight years earlier, with the behaviour of the Crusaders in jerusalem could not be greater. Instead of pillage and massacre, there is an orderly handing over of the city. Holy places are respected. A ransom is to be paid for each Christian to depart in freedom, but it is not high. Among those who cannot afford it, many are released by Saladin instead of being sold into slavery.

To the very end, the Christian authorities set an appalling example. The patriarch, after buying his freedom with ten dinars, departs with wagonloads of valuable treasure which could have been used to free fellow Christians.

The third crusade: AD 1189-1192

The disaster in the Holy Land prompts the pope in Rome to preach an immediate new Crusade. Again the stakes are raised. Instead of the two kings who led the previous expedition, this time there are to be three: Richard I of England, Philip II of France, and the German king (who is also the Holy roman emperor) Frederick Barbarossa.

Frederick sets out first, in May 1189, with the largest army ever to march east on a Crusade - about 100,000 in all, comprising both mounted knights and foot soldiers. They represent a serious threat to Saladin. But in June 1190, when they are crossing the river Calycadnus (now the Göksu) in eastern Anatolia, the emperor is drowned. His army drifts aimlessly apart.

The kings of England and France, Richard I and Philip II, arrive by sea at Acre during the early summer of 1191. On July 12 they accept the surrender of the Muslim garrison, agreeing to spare their lives on stipulated terms (payment of large sums and the release of 1500 Christian prisoners). At the end of the month the king of France, with this symbolic task achieved, sets off home to France. In August Richard, impatient that Saladin has not yet been able to keep the Muslim side of the bargain, orders the massacre of the 2700 members of the captured garrison.

He then sets off on a campaign of conquest - the purpose, after all, of his Crusade.

For the next twelve months Richard and Saladin test each other's strength by military and diplomatic means. Richard wins most of the military encounters, often showing outstanding personal courage. But his forces are too few to hold much of Palestine or, the real prize, to take Jerusalem. Time and diplomatic advantage are on Saladin's side.

Eventually a truce is made, in 1192. The Franks are to retain a strip along the coast from Acre down to Jaffa, and Christian pilgrims may freely visit all the holy places of Palestine. With this much accomplished, Richard sets off on a long and disastrous journey (see Richard's journey home).

The fourth crusade: AD 1202-1204

Inspired by the pope's preachers to set off for the east, a new wave of crusaders makes travel arrangements in Venice in 1201. Their immediate target is Egypt, now thought to be the most vulnerable part of Saladin's empire in the eastern Mediterranean.

Venice drives a hard bargain. The city will provide ships for 4500 knights and their horses, 9000 squires to serve them and 20,000 foot soldiers; food for a year for the entire expedition; and fifty galleys as an escort. For this the crusaders will pay 85,000 silver marks and will cede to Venice half of any lands they conquer. This is agreed, with a departure date planned for some time after June 1202.

Venetian diplomats immediately get in touch with the sultan in Egypt, with whom they have excellent trading agreements, to assure him secretly that Venice will not allow the crusading fleet to reach his shores. Behind the scenes the doge is also negotiating with agents of Alexius, son of the deposed emperor in Constantinople. It seems possible that the crusaders might be diverted to this rich and ancient city, where Venice by now has several grudges to settle.

Soon the hard facts of commerce are playing into Venetian hands. The crusading army is assembled in Venice by the summer of 1202. But it has nowhere near assembled the agreed sum of 85,000 silver marks.

The Venetians propose a compromise. They will accept deferred payment and yet honour their side of the bargain, if the crusading army will do them a small favour on the journey out to Egypt. Venice has for a while been disputing control of Dalmatia with the king of Hungary. The Hungarians have recently seized an important coastal city, Zara (now Zadar). It would be a fine thing if the crusaders would recover this city.

The crusaders sail from Venice on November 8 and arrive at Zara on November 10. They besiege the city for five days and pillage it for three. It is then decided that it is too late in the year to continue eastwards. They make a winter camp.

During the winter the Venetians agree terms with Alexius. If placed on the throne in Constantinople, he will pay Venice the sum owed by the crusaders. He will also provide funds and men to help the crusade on its way.

The proposal is put to the crusading army and with some reluctance is accepted. The fleet reaches Constantinople in June 1203. The crusaders break through the great chain protecting the harbour and breach the city walls in July. On August 1, in Santa sophia, Alexius is crowned co-emperor - alongside his blind father. With the immediate purpose achieved, the crusade should be able to continue on its way. But now it is Alexius who cannot deliver his side of the bargain.

The sack of Constantinople: AD 1204

The crusaders camp outside Constantinople while Alexius, as emperor, tries to raise his debt to the Venetians by taxing the citizens and confiscating church property. For nine months growing resentment within the city is matched by increasing impatience outside. In April the Venetians persuade the crusaders to storm Constantinople and place a Latin emperor on the throne. For the second time they succeed in breaching the walls.

The doge of Venice and the leading crusaders instal themselves in the royal palace. The army is granted three days in which to pillage the city.

The Venetians, from their long links with Constantinople, can appreciate the treasures of Byzantium. They loot rather than destroy. St Mark's in Venice is graced today by many rich possessions brought back in 1204 - parts of the Pala d'Oro, the porphyry figures known as the tetrarchs, and above all the four great bronze horses.

The crusaders, mainly French and Flemish, are less refined in their tastes. They tend to smash what they find. They ride their horses into Santa Sophia, tear down its silken hangings, destroy the icons in the silver Iconostasis. A prostitute, placed on the patriarch's throne, obligingly sings a bawdy song in Norman French.

The last crusades and crusaders: AD 1218-1303

When word of the sack of Constantinople reaches the pope, in 1204, he sends a stinging rebuke - outraged that crusaders should have behaved in this way to fellow Christians. His words fall on deaf ears, as the westerners settle down to enjoy new eastern estates.

But the crusading ideal remains vivid throughout the 13th century (even making possible the disaster of the two children's crusades). The intended strategy of the 4th crusade, attacking the Muslims first in Egypt, very nearly brings success to the 5th crusade - launched in 1218. The crusaders, besieging the town of Damietta, cause such irritation to the sultan of Egypt that he makes an astonishing offer.

If the knights of the fifth crusade agree to leave Egypt, the sultan will relinquish to them the entire kingdom of Jerusalem between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Foolishly they reject the offer, for their ambition now extends to the capture of Cairo itself. In the end, trapped by a Nile flood in 1221, they retreat achieving nothing.

The sixth crusade (1228-1229) is led by a free-thinking eccentric among monarchs, the Holy Roman emperor Frederick ii, who shocks Christendom by negotiating with the Muslims rather than fighting them. The sultan of Egypt grants him Jerusalem, where he crowns himself king in 1229 before returning home. But the Franks are evicted from the city again in 1244.

The seventh crusade (1248-1254) is led by the saintly Louis ix of France. Like his predecessors of the fifth crusade, he captures Damietta (in 1249) and is offered Jerusalem in exchange. Again like his predecessors, he turns down the bargain in the hope of conquering Cairo. He returns home with nothing.

During Louis' stay in the Middle East, in 1250, a tougher dynasty - that of the Mamelukes - takes power in Egypt. In 1259 the Mongols capture Damascus. In 1260 Mongols and Mamelukes clash at Ayn jalut, in Galilee, with victory going to the Mamelukes. In this league, there is no room for the few Franks still clinging to their strip of Mediterranean coast.

Between 1265 and 1303 the Egyptians steadily pick off the crusader strongholds. Antioch falls in 1268. Tripoli is occupied in 1289. In 1291 the fortresses of Acre, Tyre, Beirut and Sidon are taken one by one. On the small island of Arwad, two miles off the Syrian coast, the Templars hold out until 1303. With their departure, the Franks are finally swept from the Middle East - leaving only their mighty Castles as silent witnesses to two centuries spent in Palestine and Syria.

The legacy of the crusades, conceived in a fit of aggressive idealism, is to embitter relations not only between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East, but also between western and eastern Christians nearer home.
Arrow Arrow
Page 1 of 2
Arrow Arrow