A History of the Crusades

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Podcast Transcript

Starting in the year 1096, the Christian kingdoms of the Latin Church united to retake religious sites in the Holy Land. This war was known as a crusade.

This was just the first in a series of nine official and several other unofficial crusades over a span of 200 years. 

These crusades impacted the kingdoms that took park, the Eastern and Western Christian churches, and relations between Christians, Muslims, and Jews in some ways that can still be felt today.

Learn more about the Crusades, the reason for them, and how they affected the world on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The Crusades weren’t a singular event. Multiple crusades took place over roughly two centuries, and even more if you expand the definition of a crusade. 

My goal for this episode is to provide an overview of the motivations and reasons for the Crusades as well as a brief description of all nine of the formal crusades that were launched, as well as some of the non-sanctioned crusades. 

The crusades tend to be thought of in very simplistic terms today, but there were a host of reasons why crusades were called and why all the various kingdoms in Western Europe bothered to take part. 

While I want to describe each of the individual crusades at least briefly, I have to give the most attention to the crusade that started it all, the first crusade. 

By the 11th century, Islam was on a roll. It conquered and converted large parts of the Middle East and North Africa, which had been Christian for centuries. 

Almost all of this had been at the expense of the Byzantine Empire, which was the center of Eastern Christianity, although there had been Islamic conquests in the Iberian Peninsula as well, which I’ve talked about in previous episodes. 

During the rise of Islam, Christians were mostly tolerated in Muslim lands. In particular, for the purpose of this episode, Christian holy sites in Jerusalem were allowed to remain in Christian control. In particular, the most important Christian site in Jerusalem, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the church that houses the site where it is believed Jesus died and was buried, and I previously did an episode on the subject.

Several major things happened in the 11th century which upset the status quo.

In 1009, the caliph of the Fatimid Caliphate, Al-Hakim, ordered the destruction of all churches and synagogues in the empire, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Al-Hakim is a very interesting historical character who the subject of a future episode.

In 1042, the church was rebuilt and paid for by the Byzantine Emperor. 

In 1054, the Eastern and Western Christian churches split in what became known as the Great Schism. 

In 1072, a Turkic warlord named Atsiz ibn Uwaq took Jerusalem and later massacred the population there after a revolt before the city was taken over by Seljuk Turks, who fought over it for several years. This was also the year the Seljuk Dynasty defeated the Byzantine Empire at the Battle of Manzikert, taking much of Anatolia, or what is modern-day Turkey.

I should briefly mention that the Seljuks were a dynasty of Turkic Muslims who came from Central Asia, as opposed to the Caliphs, who had ruled the region for the past 400 years, which were Arab, Berber, or Persian. 

This was the environment when, in March 1095, the Byzantine Emperor, Alexios I Komnenos, asked officials from the Latin Church for help, who were convened at the Council of Piacenza.

On November 27, 1095, while speaking at the Council of Clermont, France, Pope Urban II called for a crusade to take back the holy sites. Moreover, he promised an indulgence to anyone who took part in the crusade, which meant that anyone who took part would have their sins forgiven. 

After the council, Urban went on a tour of France, preaching to crowds to encourage participation in the crusade. 

There are two big questions surrounding Urban’s call for a crusade. Why did he do it, and why did he do it when he did it? 

The reason why he called it wasn’t as simple as most people make it out to be.

Obviously, there were religious reasons for it. Christianity had been taking it on the chin from Islam for several centuries now, and the Pope wanted to highlight the threat posed by Islam, not just in the Holy Land but also in Sicily and in Spain. 

Second, he was also possibly angling to repair the schism with the eastern church, which had taken place a few decades earlier. If the Latin church could establish a foothold in the Middle East, the former heartland of Eastern Christianity, then perhaps the churches could unify with the Bishop of Rome at its head, above even the Patriarch of Constantinople. 

A third reason might have been to try to stop the constant fighting between kingdoms in Western Europe. One reason the Latin Church responded so poorly to Islamic incursions into Europe was that everyone was so worried about fighting their own petty wars that they couldn’t focus on the big picture. 

The reason as to why a crusade was called when it was had more to do with opportunism than some great emergency. The holy land had been under Islamic control for centuries. This wasn’t anything new. Even the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepluchure took place almost a century earlier and didn’t evoke this response. 

The first crusade was extremely popular. The people who the crusade attracted was not what the popular perception of a crusader is. 

There were really two crusades in the first crusade. The first of them was known as the People’s Crusade. The People’s Crusade was literally a mass movement of mostly poor civilians who were led by a charismatic religious leader known as Peter the Hermit. 

I will go more in-depth on this in a future episode, but the People’s Crusade was a disaster. Tens of thousands of people joined, and about 20,000 of them were massacred in a battle with Seljuks in Turkey. 

The other crusade was the Prince’s Crusade, which was aimed at knights and nobility. This was the crusade that most people think of as the crusade. 

Just as there were multiple motivations for the Pope to call for a crusade, so too were there multiple reasons for people to respond to the call. 

The first obviously was religious, which was a big motivation for many of those in the people’s crusade. 

The knights were motivated by religion, but also much more. Some were simply looking for glory and adventure, which were prized in the chivalric code.

Some were looking for land, especially younger sons of nobles who were not in line to inherit property. 

Not surprisingly, one of the biggest motivators was money. War meant spoils, and given the region, the possibility of lucrative trade routes they could control.

The first crusade did capture Jerusalem in 1099 after a long siege and a massacre of the city’s Muslim and Jewish inhabitants.

In 1147, the Second Crusade was initiated in response to the Muslim recapture of the strategically crucial County of Edessa, one of the first Crusader states established during the First Crusade. 

Pope Eugene III, with preaching from the influential Bernard of Clairvaux, called for a new crusade to reinforce the Christian states in the Holy Land. Led by King Louis VII of France and Emperor Conrad III of Germany, the crusade faced organizational and logistical challenges from the start. 

Both monarchs chose different routes to the Holy Land, and their forces suffered significant losses through Anatolia due to harsh terrain, poor planning, and Turkish attacks. 

The crusade culminated in a disjointed and unsuccessful siege of Damascus in 1148, which not only failed but also weakened Christian-Muslim alliances and ultimately led to increased Muslim unity under leaders like Nur ad-Din and later Saladin, setting the stage for further conflicts in the region.

The Third Crusade, also known as the King’s Crusade, was launched in 1189 and was a response to the capture of Jerusalem in 1187 by the Muslim leader Saladin. 

It was led by three of Europe’s most powerful monarchs: Frederick I Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire, Philip II Augustus of France, and Richard I the Lionheart of England. The crusade saw varied success: Frederick drowned en route, causing a significant portion of his army to disband. At the same time, Philip and Richard managed to capture the important city of Acre after a prolonged siege. 

Despite their success at Acre, the crusade failed to recapture Jerusalem. However, Richard negotiated a treaty with the great Muslim general Saladin that allowed unarmed Christian pilgrims to visit the city, maintaining a fragile peace in the Holy Land. 

The Fourth Crusade, launched in 1202, completely deviated from its religious objectives, culminating in the sacking of Constantinople, a Christian city, rather than targeting the Muslim-held Holy Land. 

Initiated by Pope Innocent III to reclaim Jerusalem, the crusade was diverted due to a complex series of financial and political entanglements with the Venetians, who provided naval transport. Under the leadership of Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice, the Crusaders became involved in local Byzantine conflicts, leading to the siege and eventual sack of Constantinople in 1204. 

This event drastically weakened the Byzantine Empire, leading to the establishment of the Latin Empire in its place, and significantly altered the course of Christian and Byzantine history, deepening the rift between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.

The Fifth Crusade, launched in 1217, primarily focused on Egypt as the new strategic target to secure the Holy Land and was marked by some initial success but ultimate failure. 

Pope Honorius III orchestrated this crusade, emphasizing that controlling Egypt would be a pivotal step towards regaining Jerusalem. The Crusaders, under the leadership of figures like King Andrew II of Hungary and Duke Leopold VI of Austria, managed to capture the well-fortified city of Damietta in 1219 with little resistance, owing to the Nile’s flooding, which hindered Muslim defenses. 

However, internal disagreements and delays compromised their position, allowing the Muslim forces under the command of Al-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt, to regroup. In 1221, the Crusaders advanced towards Cairo but were trapped by the Nile’s receding floodwaters, leading to their ultimate surrender.

The Sixth Crusade which began in1228, led by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, stands out for its diplomatic rather than military approach to securing control over Jerusalem. Frederick embarked on the crusade despite excommunication by Pope Gregory IX due to disputes over his failure to participate in previous crusades. 

Using his political acumen and negotiations rather than outright conflict, Frederick brokered a landmark treaty with the previously mentioned Muslim ruler al-Kamil, Sultan of Egypt. This treaty resulted in the peaceful handover of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth to Christian control, while Muslims retained control over the sacred Islamic sites within the city. 

This diplomatic success was unusual for the era and for the Crusades. However, the lack of military action and Frederick’s ex-communication diminished his prestige among many Crusaders and Christian leaders, making his achievements controversial despite the fact that they worked extremely well

The Seventh Crusade, launched in 1248 and led by King Louis IX of France, also known as Saint Louis, was an ambitious attempt to conquer Egypt as a strategic approach to securing the Holy Land. 

Motivated by deep religious fervor, Louis IX launched the crusade with a well-equipped army, landing in Egypt and successfully capturing the port city of Damietta in 1249. However, the subsequent advance towards Cairo was disastrous. 

The Crusaders were bogged down by the Nile’s floods and eventually defeated at the Battle of Al Mansurah. Captured by forces of the Ayyubid Dynasty, Louis and his remaining forces were ransomed for a large sum of money and had to return Damietta. 

This defeat not only led to significant losses but also highlighted the growing difficulties and diminishing returns of Crusader efforts in the region.

The Eighth Crusade, launched in 1270, was also led by Louis IX of France. His second crusade targeted the city of Tunis in North Africa. 

The choice of Tunis was influenced by Louis’s brother Charles of Anjou, who saw an opportunity to expand his influence in the region and possibly convert the Tunisian ruler to Christianity. 

However, the campaign was ill-fated from the start. Shortly after their arrival, the crusading army was devastated by an outbreak of dysentery and other diseases. Louis IX himself succumbed to the illness and died in Tunis, effectively ending the crusade. 

The Ninth Crusade, which began in 1271 and is often considered the last major medieval Crusade to the Holy Land, was led by Prince Edward, later King Edward I of England. 

This crusade occurred in the broader context of the failing Crusader states and aimed to reinforce the remaining Christian territories in the face of the rising Mamluk power under Sultan Baybars. Edward’s campaign, which began in Acre, saw limited military engagements, including skirmishes around the area and a significant but inconclusive battle at Nazareth. Despite these efforts, the crusade achieved little in the way of territorial gains or lasting impact. It ended when Edward returned to England following news of his father’s ill health and subsequent death.

These are only the crusades that are considered major formal crusades by historians. There were several other lesser or informal crusades, and some actions that used the term crusade, but otherwise were nothing like these.

You might have noticed that many of the Crusades had nothing directly to do with the holy land; many were wildly unsuccessful, and some weren’t even military campaigns. 

Nonetheless, these campaigns we call the crusades had a lasting impact on the world that in many places can still be felt today.