A Brief History of the Crusades

Council of Clermont
The main goal of the crusades was to capture Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslims, however, those who took up the cross were also motivated by their own interests which were not necessary religious or spiritual in nature. Many Crusaders were driven by the opportunity to gain land, wealth and power, while the Roman Catholic Church saw an opportunity to establish its dominance in the Holy Land.

Table of Contents

What Were the Crusades

The crusades were a series of military expeditions which were undertaken by the Christian Europe against the Muslims in the Holy Land between the end of the 11th century and the end of the 13th century. The main objective of the crusades was to “free” the Holy Land from the Muslims although the Crusaders were also driven by other motives including economic, social and political. The Christian holy wars, however, were also deployed in Europe against heretics and pagans, and even political enemies.

The Pope’s Call for the Crusade at Council of Clermont

The key event in history of the crusades was the speech of Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1095. The Pope who was asked for military aid against the Seljuk Turks by the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenus urged the Western Christendom to help their fellow Christians in the east. No original transcription of the Pope’s speech at Clermont exists, however, it must have been highly persuasive as his call for the crusade received an enormous response.

People’s Crusade (1096)

Although the Pope and Byzantine Emperor wanted to raise an army of knights, the first Crusaders to reach Constantinople were peasant bands led by the wandering preacher Peter the Hermit and French knight Walter the Penniless. The Byzantine Emperor, confused with the unusual army transported the bands across the Bosporus into Asia Minor and told them to wait for the forces of the European princes. The Crusaders, however, became impatient and clashed with the Seljuk Turks who had no difficulties with unexperienced and poorly equipped peasant bands. The so-called People’s Crusade thus came to an end before the European princes arrived in the Byzantine capital.

First Crusade (1096 - 1099)

The European princes - Godfrey of Boullon and his brother Baldwin, Raymond IV of Toulouse, Robert Guiscard’s son Bohemond of Taranto, Tancred, Hugh of Vermandois and Robert of Normandy were completing their last preparations when the peasant bands in Asia Minor were annihilated by the Seljuk Turks. They were supposed to meet in Constantinople in 1096 and launch a joined military expedition against the Muslims. However, they took different routes and the First Crusade was launched only in spring of 1097.

Before the Crusaders were shipped to Asia Minor, the Byzantine Emperor who feared that the Crusaders will take the captured territories for themselves forced them to take an oath of fealty and promise to return the conquered lands to Constantinople. But the Crusaders latter broke their oath. The First Crusade ended with the conquest of Jerusalem in July 1099 and creation of four crusader states - the Principality of Antioch, Kingdom of Jerusalem, County of Edessa and County of Tripoli which were divided between the leaders of the expedition. Godfrey of Boullon took the Kingdom of Jerusalem, his brother Baldwin became Count of Edessa (and later King of Jerusalem), Bohemond of Taranto gained the Principality of Antioch, while Raymond IV of Toulouse was made Count of Tripoli.

Second Crusade (1147 - 1149)

In 1144, the County of Edessa was captured by Zengi, ruler of Mosul. The fall of Edessa did not particularly upset other crusader states in the Holy Land but when the news of the event reached Europe, a number of preachers started calling for a new crusade including Bernard of Clairvaux. He managed to convince Conrad III of Germany and Louis VII of France who arrived in the Holy Land in 1147 and 1148, respectively. However, after the failed siege of Damascus in 1148 the German King left the Holy Land. Louis VII followed him one year later and the Second Crusade ended as a failure.

Third Crusade (1189 - 1192)

The Third Crusade, also called the Kings’ Crusade was a response to the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria in 1187. Frederick I (Barbarossa) of Germany, Richard I of England and Philip II of France responded to the Pope’s call for the military expedition to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims. However, Frederick I Barbarossa who set out first, died on his way to the Holy Land, while the rivalry between Richard and Philip resulted in the departure of the latter from the Holy Land. The English king managed to capture the city of Acre which was besieged from 1189 shortly after Philip’s departure in 1191 and defeated Saladin in the Battle of Arsuf. By the end of year 1191, he was only a few miles from Jerusalem but he was forced to withdraw. Before he departed from the Holy Land, however, he concluded a truce with Saladin by which he negotiated Jaffa and a narrow strip of coast, and a free access to the Holy Sepulcher for the Christians. With Richard’s withdrawal in 1192, the Third Crusade came to an end without achieving its goal - recapture of Jerusalem.

Fourth Crusade (1202 - 1204)

One decade after the end of the Third Crusade, Pope Innocent III managed to raise another crusader army which, however, was troubled by lack of financial resources. In return for transportation to the Holy Land, the Crusaders agreed to capture the city of Zara on the Adriatic coast for Venice. There, they were contacted by Alexios IV Angelos who asked them for military assistance to depose his uncle Alexios III Angelos and restore his father Isaac II Angelos to the Byzantine throne. In return, they would be payed a large sum of money and provided with supply and troops for the crusade. The Crusaders captured Constantinople and restored Isaac II Angelos as the Byzantine Emperor who, however, failed to keep his son’s promise. The Fourth Crusade ended with the fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders and establishment of crusader states on the territory of the Byzantine Empire. The Crusaders never made it to the Holy Land.

Children’s Crusade (1212)

After the Fourth Crusade, an idea appeared that innocent children can succeed in what their elders failed due to their impiety and impurity. The so-called Children’s Crusade, however, ended tragically. Many children Crusaders were sold into slavery, while many died from starvation and diseases while trying to reach the Italian ports.

Fifth Crusade (1217 - 1221)

The successor of Pope Innocent III, Pope Honorius III pursued his predecessor’s policy and continued to preach the crusade. His call was responded by Andrew II of Hungary and Duke Leopold VI of Austria who, however, did not set out to the Holy Land but Egypt instead.

In 1219, the Crusaders captured Damietta but they refused the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt, Al-Kamil who offered them all holy cities and the western part of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in return for their withdrawal from Egypt. The expedition to Cairo, however, ended as a disaster and forced the Crusaders to return home empty-handed.

Sixth Crusade (1228 - 1229)

The Sixth Crusade was undertaken by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor who was excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX one year earlier for postponing his promise to take up the cross. Frederick’s crusade, however, involved little military action. Almost immediately after his arrival to the Holy Land, he entered negotiations with the Egyptian Sultan Al-Kamil and managed to win Jerusalem, Jaffa, Nazareth and Bethlehem for the Christians, and had himself crowned the King of Jerusalem. His gains, however, were lost in 1244 when the Egyptian Muslims and their Turkish allies recaptured Jerusalem.

Seventh Crusade (1248 - 1254)

The Seventh Crusade was launched by Louis IX of France who made a vow to take up the cross and restore the Muslim controlled Palestine to the Christians if he would recover from an illness. Like Andrew II of Hungary and Duke Leopold VI of Austria, he decided to launch a campaign in Egypt. But just like the leaders of the Fifth Crusade, he failed to capture Cairo and was taken captive during the expedition to the Egyptian capital. He was released after a ransom had been paid and set out to the Holy Land to get support for another campaign. However, he returned to France after he received the news of his mother’s death in 1254 and left the Holy Land in the hands of the Muslims.

Eight Crusade (1270)

After nearly two decades, Louis IX of France launched another crusade but this time he had chosen to start his campaign in Tunis. But just like the previous crusade, the Eight Crusade ended as a failure. Louis died on August 25, 1270, most likely from dysentery, while his brother Charles of Anjou concluded a peace treaty with the Tunisian caliph and returned home.

Ninth Crusade (1271 - 1272)

The Ninth Crusade was undertaken by the future King of England, Edward I who was on the way to Tunis when Louis IX died. Edward overwintered in Sicily and landed in Acre in 1271 hoping to win support for the Christian cause. There was, however, little interest for another crusade and when Edward received the news of his father’s illness, he returned to England and ended the period of the crusades in the Holy Land.

Legacy of the Crusades

The main goal of the crusades - capturing Jerusalem and the Holy Land for the Christendom failed but the military expeditions dramatically influenced both the medieval Europe and the Middle East. They have stimulated exchange of ideas which left a deep imprint in science, literature, medicine, architecture, invention, trade, commerce and transportation, and contributed to weakening of the feudal system and strengthening of the national monarchies in Europe. The Crusades, however, also deepened the breach between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity and increased the tensions between the Christian and the Muslim worlds.