Custom Search


The Crusades


The Trip To Jerusalem Inn, Nottingham, where crusaders answering Richard I's summons gathered before heading out to the Holy Land

The Crusades took place a long time ago, but in many ways they are still with us. We still have crusaders, whose approach retains the same attractions that seduced so many people across western Europe between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Crusaders continue to make their appeal through moral certainties, clarity of purpose, and the sense that everything is building towards some point. Many politicians on the more extreme left or right of the political spectrum, irrespective of their religious beliefs, are natural crusaders. But not everyone is like this. There are others who just deal with things as they come up, who accept that sometimes values change with circumstance, and that life continues endlessly and is not building to some point. Perhaps it is not a surprise to find these two basic positions represented during the Crusades. On one side were, of course, the crusaders. But on the other side were people governing the Byzantine empire centred on the city of Constantinople, through which many crusaders passed on their way to the Holy Land. Constantinople had to deal with crusaders, and also continue to live with Muslim neighbours. It's policy in managing this balancing act was ruled by pragmatism. Though an important Christian city, Constantinople was not above working against the crusaders if they were judged to be a threat. So which side came out on top? - the crusaders with all their fiery purpose, or the Byzantines who dealt with matters as they arose? In trying to answer this question it should be pointed out that in many ways this divide between crusaders and Byzantines is perhaps too simple. There were to be people headed for the Holy Land for wholly secular reasons, such as winning land and booty. And when the crusaders got there, it wasn't all about putting local people to the sword. There were examples of pragmatic coexistence and healthy trade. As historian Jonathan Philips says: "the commercial life of the Levant was at its most active with traders from the West meeting those of the Latin East, Muslim Syria, North Africa, Iraq and Byzantium. There must have been an extraordinary buzz of languages and cultures in the crowded souqs of the Holy Land as trade flourished throughout the twelfth century, ignoring all but the most intrusive aspects of the conflict between Christianity and Islam" (The Crusades by Jonathan Phillips Ch 4). And of course, there were cruelly intolerant people amongst the Byzantines. Emperor Andronicus, for example, massacred Italian merchants in Constantinople, before being lynched at the end of his terrifying three year reign 1183 - 1185. But generally speaking, in terms of broad outlook, there was a difference between the Christian west and the Byzantine east. The whole existence of Constantinople was based upon trade between different people, and the tolerance that activity encouraged. Trade taking place in Holy Land souqs was taking place inspite of, rather than because of, the crusaders basic outlook. So, once again we can ask, who came out on top? The answer to this question is very relevant today. There are many crusaders of various kinds who feel they have a clear answer to the world's problems. Does the history of the crusades bear out their claims?


The crusading idea ironically seems to have come about in the minds of officials presiding over the Byzantine empire, a society which had no concept of holy war. This empire was centred on Constantinople on the Bosphorus, founded in 330AD by Emperor Constantine as a forward base on the border between Europe and Asia. When the western Roman Empire fell in the fifth century, Constantinople and its eastern empire continued as a well organised and advanced society, so much so that the emperor in Constantinople came to see himself as the leader of Christendom. By 1050 Constantinople was so massive and successful that it had a population estimated to be greater than that in the whole of England (see Byzantium and the Crusades by Jonathon Harris P5). And all of this success was based on a pragmatic philosophy of dealing with things as they came up. Constantinople was a natural point of trade and business, sitting on a crucial crossing point on the Bosphorus. Toleration and pragmatism came naturally, because these things were good for trade - which by definition involves lots of different people meeting each other. The city even had a mosque for its Muslim inhabitants. As far as foreign policy was concerned, the government did what it had to do, which meant using bribery whenever possible as a cheaper option to warfare. When the unpleasant business of war was unavoidable, plentiful money was used to hire effective foreign mercenaries. Constantinople's success was in stark contrast to the situation of the Papacy in Italy. In 1045 the Church of Rome was racked by infighting and allegations of corruption. Three popes were elected that year as factions struggled. This was the culmination of a long period of trouble in which popes had been murdered by opponents. Clearly it was difficult for the pope to suggest that he was the leader of the Church when the much more powerful Byzantiune emperor was making a similar claim.


Westminster Hall, at the Houses of Parliament - built for William II, a pragmatic king who did not go on crusade.

But then things began to change. With the accession of Pope Leo IV in 1048 the Papacy became less willing to play second fiddle to the Byzantine emperor, and excommunicated his empire from the Catholic Church. This led to the division of Catholic and Orthodox Churches which endures to this day. Byzantium in its typical way tried to heal the breach, and in 1095 Emperor Alexios I thought it would be a good idea to write to the pope and ask for mercenaries to deal with various problems in his empire. Alexios I's letter does not survive, but according to historian Jonathon Harris there is evidence from other sources that Alexios played on the fact that Muslim Turks ruled Jerusalem. This he thought might inflame a few passions, get him some more mercenaries, and perhaps give the sense that Constantinople was on the side of the pope against an external enemy - the Turks. It was a typical pragmatic piece of Byzantine foreign policy. Once in the hands of Pope Urban II, however, the idea in Alexios's letter became something much more dangerous. Urban now saw a way to boost his own position as leader of the Church, at the expense of the Byzantine emperor. Urban did indeed decide to play on the idea that Jerusalem was in Muslim hands. Urban called for a crusade in his famous sermon at Clermont in November 1095. There is no definitive account of what was said, only summaries by four contemporary or near contemporary sources, all giving slightly different versions of events. But they all agreed on two points - that Urban called for men to go to the aid of eastern Christians against invading infidels, and that no mention was made of Constantinople. Urban took Alexios's idea about the Holy Land and used it to his own advantage. Immediately the idea caught the mood in western Europe, where localised warfare was endemic, and where the idea of a grand unifying struggle was very attractive. The Crusades offered the chance for Europe's men to do the fighting they enjoyed, and be praised in the highest terms for doing it. Many in Urban's audience at Clermont committed themselves to his cause there and then. Many others around Europe did the same in the months that followed. Interestingly England had a pragmatic king at this time, William II son of William the Conqueror. William II, who often showed impatience with the Church, had no desire to go on crusade. Following his example, neither did any of the English nobles. William II simply used the Crusades as a way of getting his less sensible brother and rival Robert of Normandy out of his hair. Robert went off to the Holy Land with 10,000 marks of William's money. In return William got Normandy as a guarantee of payment. William must have chuckled at the naivety of his brother, and the thousands like him. Perhaps he viewed them in the same terms as Norman historian Frank Barlow, who described crusaders as typically "the bored and the restless.... the frustrated and the failures" (The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216 by Frank Barlow P146). It seems, however, that there were many thousands of bored and restless men in western Europe for whom muddling along from day to day just wasn't enough. This meant that between 1096 and 1101 the unpleasantly surprised Byzantines, had to deal with the arrival of huge numbers of ill-disciplined men on route to the Holy Land. They came in three waves, the first of which was the Peasant's or People's Crusade, led by Peter the Hermit and Walter Sansavior. The second wave was made up of a number of separate armies led by various French counts, including Bohemond of Toulouse who would play a prominent role in events to come. The third wave from Lombardy, France and Bavaria arrived in the spring and early summer of 1101. Alexios did his best to keep the dangerously numerous crusaders happy, without incurring too much Turkish hostility. He provided supplies to crusading armies, though not as much in reality as was promised. Only as much help was given as was deemed strictly necessary to keep the empire safe. Alexios, for example, refused to send troops to help at the siege of Antioch when the position of Christian leader Bohemond looked hopeless. For the Muslim Turks he arranged for the release of prisoners in 1097. In this way Constantinople managed to muddle its way through the First Crusade.


A modern view of the Land Walls of Constantinople. This photo is by Adam Carr and is copyright free

The First Crusade left four new Christian states in Syria and Palestine - Edessa, Antioch, the County of Tripoli and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Jerusalem had been taken on 15th July 1099, and was followed by a terrible massacre of the city's Muslim and Jewish populations. Disunity amongst the Muslim peoples and the building of a string of lavish castles, ensured the initial survival of the new states. Tensions remained between the crusader states and Constantinople which continued to walk a tightrope between Christian and Muslim worlds. Bohemond, angry at the lack of support he had received at Antioch, spread anti-Byzantine propaganda in the west. Alexios responded by, amongst other things, arranging the release of two Christian knights, and sending them back to western Europe to say nice things about him. The next generation then took up the same struggle. Alexios's successor John II used military force to keep the Christian kingdom of Antioch in check. Then in his turn John's successor Manuel I had to face the prospect of another influx of disorderly westerners when Pope Eugenius III called for a Second Crusade in 1145. This call was made in response to the capture of Edessa by the merciless Turkish warlord Zangi. Two large armies were formed, one led by the French king Louis VII, the other by Conrad III, heir to the throne of Germany. Conrad's army on its way to the Holy Land, started looting almost as soon as it arrived in Byzantine territory. Manuel responded by telling Conrad that he could not approach Constantinople. This led to a major battle outside the walls of the city, won by a professional Byzantine force which humiliated Conrad's men. Conrad promised to behave, as did the next wave of crusaders led by Louis VII. These men all passed through to the Holy Land where they were both badly beaten by the Turks. Naturally Constantinople became the scapegoat for this failure.



Walls of Caernarvon Castle, built on the orders of Edward I to mimic the Land Walls of Constantinople

And so it went on. In 1187 the Muslim leader Saladin took Jerusalem, and in conseqence Pope Gregory VIII called a Third Crusade in late 1187. Three armies were created, led by Philip Augusta of France, Frederick Barbarossa the German Emperor, and Richard I of England. The Byzantine emperor, now Isaac II, used all the old tactics, playing the Christians off against the Muslims, trying to weaken crusader armies with limited attacks as they passed through Byzantine territory, so that they would not be strong enough to attack Constantinople. He also warned Saladin of the crusaders' intentions and movements. Barbarossa died on 10th June 1190 whilst trying to cross a river in Ciliaia. His leaderless army then fell apart. Richard I arriving by sea only fared a little better. He took Cyprus, and then Acre, which surrendered after a siege on 12 July 1191. But though Richard came within a day's march of Jerusalem, he turned back, judging that the city could never be held even if it could be taken. Richard returned home, with Constantinople now being regarded as the enemy by many in the west. The pragmatic strategy which had kept the various dangers surrounding Constantinople at bay for a hundred years was still working, but only just.


By April 1195, with the situation becoming critical, Constantinople suffered internal divisions. Isaac II was deposed and blinded by his elder brother Alexios, who became Alexios III. The embittered son of Isaac II, another Alexios, fled to Italy in 1201 determined to recruit help for the return of his father to the throne. With the Fourth Crusade in full flow, called by Innocent III three years previously, Prince Alexios found it easy to come to an agreement with crusade leaders. He would offer future Byzantine help in return for assistance in overthrowing Alexios III. The Fourth Crusade, desperately short of money, was eventually persuaded by its leaders to make for Constantinople. Alexios III seemed paralysed by the appearance of a crusader fleet outside Constantinople's Sea Walls, and in mid July 1203 he fled the city. Isaac II was returned to the throne, but he was a broken man and died soon after his reinstatement. It was his son, now Alexios IV, who had to decide what to do. He made the fateful decision to turn his back on age old Byzantine pragmatism, end centuries of prevarication and throw in his lot with the crusaders. Unfortunately this was not the answer. The crusaders demanded such a massive payment to support their campaign that Alexios IV simply could not find the money, even after stripping precious metal decoration out of the city churches. Alexios IV also had to deal with Constantinople's rebellious population, who did not like crusaders, or the massive taxation designed to keep them happy. Soon Alexios IV only continued as emperor with the protection of crusader soldiers.


By December 1203 Alexios IV could find no more money. The crusaders issued an ultimatum, answered by angry words. Skirmishes outside Constantinople began. In February 1204 a noble called Alexios Doukas Mourtzouphol led a palace coup, and became Alexios V. He was popular after making a stand against the crusaders in defiance of the orders of Alexios IV. But it soon became apparent that Alexios V could not do any better in defending the great city. A crusader attack on the Sea Walls began on Friday 9th April 1204. By 13th April the walls had been breached, and the city brutally sacked. At the time this must have seemed like the end of Constantinople. But in its great muddling through tradition, the city recovered. By 1261 Constantinople was eventually retaken, by Byzantines who maintained the traditions of Constantinople's government even in their long exile from the city. Meanwhile the fortunes of the crusaders waned. A Fifth Crusade invading Egypt in 1217 was forced to withdraw. A Sixth Crusade in 1228 - 1229 managed to negotiate for Christian control of Jerusalem, but this control was lost In 1244 when Jerusalem was captured by Khwarismian mercenaries. A Seventh Crusade in 1249 to recover Jerusalem ended in disaster. In 1268 the Mamluk sultan Baibars retook Antioch. The Eighth Crusade of 1270 designed to recover Antioch was yet another disaster, with the army of French king Louis IX being decimated by summer heat and disease. A Ninth Crusade involving the future Edward I of England 1271 - 72 could not stop the general collapse. In April 1289 the Mamluks took Tripoli, and in May 1291 Acre fell in similar fashion. The remaining towns under Christian rule were captured or evacuated by the end of that year, bringing to an end the western presence in the east. So it was all over. The crusaders had crashed their chaotic way across Europe, caused a huge amount of trouble, and gone home again. Constantinople which lived by a very different pragmatic tradition was to continue its long history. The empire centred on Constantinople was not to finally disappear until 1453, when the city was captured by the Ottoman sultan Mahmed II. Only now did an empire which had survived since 330 finally expire. This is a remarkable length of time for a human institution to last. Crusaders and Constantinople's smooth ruling class illustrate two contrasting ways of approaching government - one based on shifting values and the endless job of dealing with things as they come up, the other relying on fanatical certainties and the idea of winning through to the promised land. The states created by the Crusaders in the Middle East lasted at most for a couple of hundred years. Some only managed to survive for a few decades. Constantinople and its empire lasted over a thousand years.

Bosham Church

Most crusading history of course lies far from Britain, but the Crusades have left some poignant memorials in Britain. There's the Trip to Jerusalem Inn where men gathered in Nottingham to answer Richard I's call for men for the Third Crusade. Many did not live through the thousands of miles of walking to and from the Holy Land, the disease, and the fighting. But those that did survive often arrived back in England at Bosham in West Sussex, then a busy port. It was traditional for crusaders returning home to blunt the edges of their swords on the stones of the first church they came to, which for those arriving at Bosham was Bosham Church. The marks those swords made can still be seen in the stone work of Bosham Church today. On a much larger scale there's Harlech Castle in North Wales, built for Edward I using experience of the dark tricks of crusader castles. Perhaps most poignant of all there's Edward I's Caernarvon Castle built to mimic the distant walls of Constantinople. The walls of Caernarvon Castle were Edward I's attempt to link the small insignificant country of England with a sophisticated civilisation which at that time could lay claim to being the centre of the world. But impressive as Caernarvon Castle is, this great building really only shows how far England was away from the centre of things in the medieval period. If you go to Caernarvon look at the castle walls and imagine them running on for five miles across country. That would give a sense of the Land Walls of Constantinople.

(Note the main resource for this page is a book called Byzantium and the Crusades by Jonathon Harris. For more, read that book.)