After almost a thousand years, the crusades continue to fascinate us and make us discuss them. They are often used as an example of Christianity's eagerness to conquer and its inability to accept anything different, or as a defensive war against the Muslims who were threatening Europe. In reality, as always in history, there is not just one reason behind an event and many interests push for war. The first step for us will be to understand the context in which the idea of a Holy War was born and whether this definition makes sense or not.
War against the Muslim infidels did not start with the first crusade, the idea took root more and more in the second half of the 11th century due to the wars in Spain and Sicily to reconquer Muslim territories. Although Christianity could not justify war (let alone call it holy) Pope Alexander II was the first to somehow give the church's 'blessing' to Christian fighters by entrusting them with the flag of St Peter. He also defined a discipline in the fight against the infidel during the Spanish Reconquista and the Barbastro War of 1063.
In this climate of increasing aversion to Islam, Pope Urban II in Clermont appealed to the French nobility to come to the aid of the empire of Constantinople threatened by the Seljuks. However, Urban II's desire was not only to defend Christianity. In fact, France had been going through a period of feudal wars with a consequent impoverishment, uniting the warmongering nobles under one banner and sending them to the Holy Land would calm the situation, and the spoils of war would give the economy some breathing space.
1096Following this call, several European nobles among them left with their armies for Constantinople. On the way, many pilgrims joined their armies, who were often part of improvised 'crusades' led by preachers, expeditions which always ended disastrously. The Turks had probably underestimated the danger as the Christians crossed Anatolia easily defeating the Muslim troops and conquering Antioch in 1098.
The nobles who met in Constantinople came from all over Europe, among them: Gottfried of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine, Raymond of Saint-Gilles, Count of Toulouse, Hugh of Vermandois, Stephen of Blois, Robert, Count of Flanders, Robert II, Duke of Normandy, Bohemond of Taranto and the Bishop of Le Puy, Ademar of Monteil.
The conquest of Jerusalem
1099 The Turks were accustomed to the constant attacks of the Byzantines, but found themselves unprepared for such a large and motivated army, so, thanks mainly to the surprise effect, the 'Franks' conquered Jerusalem in 1099, slaughtering Muslims and Jews. After the conquest of the holy city, the Muslims reorganised themselves and the Franks had to worry about expanding their power in the surrounding areas by organising expeditions to conquer neighbouring towns.
With such a heterogeneous army, it was not easy to organise the newly conquered territory politically. They opted for a feudal system consisting of several independent principalities which were, however, under the power of the sovereign of Jerusalem. The choice of sovereign, as you can imagine, was not easy: Christianity was divided between the Pope and the Basileus, so it was not possible to entrust sovereignty to one without displeasing the other. There was too much rivalry among the leading nobles and so a man not too prominent was chosen: Goffredo di Buglione. Goffredo, however, tormented by his faith, did not accept to be king and preferred to be called Advocatus, or defender of the holy sepulchre. His reign was short, however, and after only one year he died and was succeeded by his brother Baldwin, who showed no reluctance to be crowned king.
The society of the newly established kingdom was made up of the first crusaders, but also of Eastern Christians, who were not opposed by the newcomers, but rather the two churches (papal and Byzantine) lived side by side. On the coast, maritime colonies were founded by Pisa, Genoa and Venice, which built colonies similar to their home towns.
With the reign of Jerusalem, two religious orders came into being: on the esplanade of the Temple, the Templars gathered, and around the hospital of St John, the order of the Hospitallers arose.
1147 The Frankish kingdom continued to be threatened by the surrounding Muslims, who were pushing the borders. Therefore Pope Eugene III decided to organise a new great crusade in defence of the kingdom of Jerusalem. So it was that in 1147 an expedition led by Louis VII, King of France, set out for the Holy Land. This great expedition, known as the Second Crusade, was disastrous. Louis VII failed to involve the Basileus Manuel Comnenus or King Roger II of Sicily and, more seriously, decided to besiege the wealthy Syrian capital Damascus. The siege failed and the European troops returned home.
The failure of the Second Crusade was a signal to the Muslims that the time had come to take back Jerusalem, and so it was. The kingdom of Jerusalem was divided and poorly organised, with factions and orders fighting each other for power. These rivalries weakened the kingdom, but it was able to hold out given the equally poor organisation of its Muslim adversaries, but when Saladin decided to organise the Muslim world to regain Jerusalem, the Frankish kingdom was defeated soundly.
1187 In 1187 Saladin invaded Syria and clashed with the Franks at the Battle of Hattin in Galilee. In the battle the Franks were defeated and the Sultan personally beheaded Reynald de Châtillon after he brutally massacred a caravan of Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca. At this point Saladin led his army towards Jerusalem, which capitulated without resistance on 2 October of the same year.
After the fall of the kingdom, a new European expedition became necessary. Pope Gregory VII issued the bull Audita tremendi inviting the rulers of Europe to leave for Jerusalem. Frederick I Barbarossa, King Philip II Augustus of France and King Richard I the Lionheart of England accepted the request. This expedition was also a failure with only the English king conquering Acre (1191).
The initial reluctance of the church towards armed pilgrims, as we have seen, increasingly turned into a desire to control the expeditions. So it was that with Pope Innocent III, the crusades became exclusive to the church, which was the only one allowed to officially call them and granted spiritual benefits to those who took part.
Organising a new expedition was not easy after the defeats of the previous ones, but Pope Innocent managed to recruit enough knights and find the necessary funds by taxing the clergy. This fourth expedition was not aimed directly at Jerusalem, but at conquering Egypt to cause a trade blockade and negotiate the liberation of Jerusalem.
1202 In 1202 twelve thousand crusaders gathered in Venice to leave for Egypt. The Venetians demanded 85,000 marks of silver for the transport, but the Crusaders had no way of paying such a high amount. So an agreement was reached: the Crusaders would stop with the Venetians in Zadar to besiege and conquer it. The Venetians' plan was successful, but a religious problem arose. Zadar was in the possession of King Emeric of Hungary who had joined the crusade. The pope had granted protection to anyone who joined the crusade and was therefore forced to excommunicate all those who had taken part in the siege of Zadar. However, the pope later withdrew the excommunication for the crusaders, leaving it only for the Venetians.
In order to avoid excommunication, Marquis Boniface had refused an agreement with the Venetians and opted for another route. While visiting his cousin Philip of Swabia, he met Alexis IV Angelo, who had sought refuge at court after fleeing Constantinople. Alexis IV made a pact with Boniface and the Venetians, promising them a large sum of money in exchange for their help in retaking Constantinople. So it was that the Crusader Knights and the Venetians laid siege to Constantinople and put Alexis IV on the throne. However, despite his promises, he was unable to repay the debt, which led to discontent, his assassination and the seizure of power by Alexios Doukas, whom the Europeans demanded to repay the debt. Faced with his refusal, the Venetians besieged the city and on 12 April 1204 conquered it for good.
As the Fourth Crusade had met with an unexpected outcome, a new expedition (1217) was attempted with the original plan of conquering Egypt. However, this and subsequent expeditions failed to rebuild the kingdom. The last strongholds of the kingdom were gradually reconquered by the Muslims, until the last Acre fell in 1291, putting an end to the reign of Jerusalem.