By Frank Lanza, M.D.
At the time just prior to the first crusade
in 1095, there were three great powers in the European and Middle
Eastern World; the Holy Roman Empire consisting of most of Western
Europe; Byzantium, which included the Western part of the Asian Minor,
Greece, and the Balkans, and Islam, which controlled Eastern Asian
Minor, Persia, Syria, Palestine, Arabia, North Africa, and Southern
The Holy Roman Empire had its origin in the Carolingian empire of the
Franks whose first mayor (“King”) was Charles Martel.
This included what is now Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, and
France. When Martel died in 741, he was succeeded by his son,
Pepin (The Short), whose major contribution to history was his invasion
of Italy in 756 leading to the defeat of the Lombards who occupied
Central Italy. Pepin subsequently gave that land to Pope Stephen,
II. This became known as the “Donation of Pepin” and
in return the Pope consecrated Pepin as king of the Franks. Pepin
died in 768 and his son, Charles, better known as Charlemagne, became
king. Charlemagne and Pepin expanded their empire by pushing the
Muslims out of Southern France and Northern Spain during the latter
part of the eighth century. Charlemagne again invaded Italy in
773 in order to recover the papal territories donated by his
father. He also fought prolonged wars against the Saxons in the
northeast. Both he and Pepin cultivated good relations with the
Pope and Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo, III in
Charlemagne died in 814 and his son, Louis (the Pious), became
emperor. He continued the wars of attrition against the Muslims
and Spain and repelled invasions by the Vikings in the north and the
Magyars in the east. Unfortunately, at the time of his death in
840, he had three adult sons and the empire was divided into three
parts. By that time the Holy Roman Empire consisted of a
collection of Kingdoms with semi-independent rulers and could hardly be
called an empire. Ultimately, the emperor became a figurehead,
elected by the various kings. This situation inevitably led to
civil wars and also strife with the papacy over the right of investure
i.e. whether the pope or the secular rulers had the power to appoint
bishops and archbishops. This controversy continued for over 200
years. This was important to the nobility because of the power
wielded by these clerics. The Vatican held that Ecclesiastic
appointments should be made by the church. The matter was not
finally resolved until 1122 by the Concordat of Worms which provided
for a distinction between the temporal and the spiritual powers of the
Islam, on the other hand, after the defeat at Tours in 732, was slowly
driven out of Southern France and Spain by the Christian emperors and
kings of the west. However, it was not until 1492 they were
finally expelled from Spain.
In the Middle East, there was ongoing war between Byzantium and
Islam. In the 8th and 9th century, Arabs conquered Egypt,
Morocco, Tunisia, and Persia and established the Abbasid caliphate and
moved the capital from Damascus to Bagdad. In the 10th and 11th
centuries, the Seljuk Turks came out of Asia and captured most of the
Middle East, including Palestine, Syria, and western Asia Minor.
Most of these conquests were at the expense of the Byzantines.
The Battle of Manzikert in 1071 was a major defeat for Byzantium.
However, a few years later, the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus
regained some of the lost territories and revived the Byzantine Empire.
In 1095, the Byzantine emperor Alexius appealed to Pope Urban, II for
help against the Muslims who were threatening Constantinople.
Urban felt strongly that the Holy Land should be controlled by
Christians rather than Muslims. He called for a council of the
church at a town in France called Cleremont where he preached a sermon
calling for a grand crusade to retake the Holy Land. He was a
gifted orator and his message was received enthusiastically which led
to the first great crusade. It should also be noted that those
who “took up the cross” did not do so for altruistic
reasons, but rather for the opportunity to plunder and establish new
kingdoms for themselves. The Pope also had ulterior
motives. In 1054, a schism had occurred in Christianity.
For years, the archbishop of Constantinople had opposed the authority
of the Roman Pope over the Eastern Church which he led. This came
to a head in 1054 when Pope Leo IX and archbishop Cerularius
excommunicated each other over the Pope’s efforts to control the
Eastern Church. This led to a separation of the Western or Roman
church from The Eastern Orthodox rite of Christianity. When the
Eastern Emperor Alexius asked for help in 1095, Urban agreed to promote
the crusade in return for Alexius’ help in reuniting the two
branches of Christianity. The Pope also benefitted from the
crusade because it distracted the European nobility from the
controversy over investure. This was the setting for the
beginning of the first crusade which began in 1096. It was led by
Raymond Count of Toulouse, Godfrey, Duke of Lorraine, and his brother
Baldwin, Behemond of Taranto, and the papal legate, bishop
Adhemar. Their march across southern Europe to Constantinople was
characterized by the usual plunder, rape and murder.
However, the so called People’s Crusade led by Peter the Hermit
was far worst by comparison. Impoverished people living in miserable
conditions looking for a better life in the Holy Land joined the
movement. Their progress eastward across Europe preceded that of
the first crusade and there was great slaughter of European Jews, along
with rape and pillage. Alexius was horrified when that motley
band arrived at his city and he shifted them across the Dardanelles to
fight the infidels. They were defeated and massacred in short
order by the Muslims. A few survived to reach the Holy Land and
these were called “tafers”. These survivors of the
People’s Crusade were feared by everyone because of their
religious fervor, which made them fierce fighters and their habit of
killing everyone in any town or village they captured.
The main body of the crusaders arrived at Constantinople in 1097.
They took Nicea from the Muslims and returned it to Byzantium.
Baldwin and his troops then attacked and besieged Edessa, which fell
later that year. By that time, the Crusaders were quarreling
among themselves and refusing to cooperate with Alexius. They
were more concerned about empire building for themselves than the
crusades. The remainder of the crusaders then attacked Antioch,
which after a long siege fell in 1098. Both Bohemond and Raymond
vied to rule there, but Bohemond was finally selected to reign over
The crusaders, led by Godfrey then went on to Jerusalem in 1099 and the
city fell to them in June of that year. This was followed by a
massacre of almost the entire population. The carnage included
men, women, and children, both Jew and Muslim. Godfrey was very
pious and probably was the only leader of the crusades who was sincere
in his religious motivation to reclaim the Holy Land for
Christianity. He declined the title of “King of
Jerusalem” and preferred to be called “Defender of the Holy
Sepulchre”. He refused to wear a crown in the city where
Jesus had worn a crown of thorns. Unfortunately, he died one year
later and his brother, Baldwin of Edessa, had no problem with being
crowned as King of Jerusalem.
There followed almost 50 years of relative peace, during which the
crusaders consolidated and expanded their kingdoms. There was
some fighting with disorganized bands of Muslims and even fighting
amongst themselves. They traded with the Arabs and even used them
as mercenaries when they fought each other. Palestine was then
fairly peaceful and during that time pilgrims traveled safely to the
Holy Land and Jerusalem. This was made possible by two military
orders of knights. The Knights of St. John (Hospitallers) and the
Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon (Knights Templar).
All this came to an end in 1147, when the Muslim leader, Zengi,
reconquered Edessa, which exposed and endangered the Northern flank of
the crusader states. The Pope at that time, Eugenius III, called
for a second crusade which was then led by Louis VII of France and
Conrad III of the Holy Roman Empire. However, the armies of both
of these kings were defeated before they even reached the Holy
Land. The crusader kingdoms in Palestine survived by hiring
Turkish mercenaries to help them hold off Zengi and after his death,
Saladin. On July 4, 1187, a very large crusader army was
decisively defeated at the Battle of Hattin and shortly thereafter
Saladin retook Jerusalem. The defeat at Hattin was due primarily
to Saladin being able to choose a time and place for the battle, which
was very much to his advantage.
The loss of Jerusalem led to the third crusade in 1189. This was
led by Frederick I, Barbarossa who died in route, Philip II, Augustus,
who fell ill early and returned home, and Richard I (The Lion-Hearted)
of England. Richard fought Saladin for two years, conquering Acre
and most of the coastline. This was important because it allowed
the great merchants fleets of Venus, Genoa, and Pisa to supply and
support the crusaders and the Knights (for a price).
Saladin died in 1193 and the infighting among his family members led to
disorganization of the Muslims. Pope Innocent III felt that the
time was right for another crusade. In 1202, the fourth crusade
was launched. It was led by the Barons of Northern France and the
Netherlands. It never accomplished its purpose to reconquer
Jerusalem. The Venetians persuaded the crusaders to take the
Christian Port of Zena for their use, which would be payment to the
Venetians for their help to the crusaders. This infuriated
Innocent III and he excommunicated the whole army. Instead of
taking Jerusalem, they subsequently conquered Constantinople in 1204
and established a Latin Empire in Byzantium, which lasted until 1201,
when Greek Orthodoxy was re-established in a significantly diminished
The fifth crusade (1217-1221) was supposed to be led by the Holy Roman
Emperor, Frederick II. By that time, it had been decided that the
key to winning back Jerusalem and the Holy Land was through Egypt where
most of the Muslim strength and reserve forces were located. They
took the main Egyptian port of Damietta, but were decisively defeated
at the Nile. They only escaped Egypt by giving back the port of
Damietta in exchange for a safe conduct out of Egypt. Later in
1229, Frederick II arrived upon the scene and negotiated a treaty with
the Muslims in which he was given possession of Jerusalem and had
himself crowned king.
In 1244, the Muslims again took Jerusalem and this led to the sixth and
last crusade (1248-54). This was led by Louis IX (St. Louis) and
was a carbon copy of the fifth crusade; an invasion of Egypt, conquest
of Damietta, defeat by the Muslims inland, and surrender of Damietta
plus a huge ransom in order to escape.
There were no longer any large organized crusades. Occasional
small bands of crusaders continued to go to Palestine for several
years, but they were absorbed in the existing crusader
communities. The crusader kingdoms, however, were slowly reduced
by the Arabs until 1291, when the last crusaders were driven out of the
What did the crusades accomplish in almost 200 years of warfare?
Very little; the situation at the end of the crusades was substantially
the same as at the beginning. One beneficiary was the
papacy. Shortly after the end of the crusades in 1291, the issue
of investure was decided (Concordat of Worms 1122).
Unfortunately, the church still had to contend with the powerful rulers
of Western Europe; the Holy Land was not recovered and Eastern and
Western Christianity not reunited.
The biggest loser was Byzantium, which lost a great deal of territory
to the Muslims and was a far weaker empire at the end of the crusades
than at the beginning. In fact, Byzantium only survived another
200 years until the fall of Constantinople in 1458 to the Ottoman Turks.
The Muslims benefitted by discovering that they could defeat Western
armies in battle and this encouraged them to embark on their subsequent
wars of conquest against Byzantium and Southeastern Europe. They
also consolidated their hold on Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, and Egypt.
The crusades, therefore, accomplished very little, most of which was
negative. How could the results fit into God’s plan?
If he really wanted the Holy Land to be in Christian hands, the
crusades would have ended otherwise. The only possible reason for
the actual outcome would have to be God’s intention that the
power of a corrupted, highly politicized Roman church be checked.
This presaged the reformation 200 years later, which occurred for the
same reason. Thus ended the crusades, a noble cause with base