About The Crusades

Films such as the Kingdom of Heaven and the Da Vinci Code have brought the plight of the Crusades into popular consciousness. Find out all about these religious wars

The Crusades

The Crusades were a series of wars undertaken by European Christians between the 11th and 14th centuries to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims. Arguably there were nine crusades, some peaceful, some intensely bloody and each of varying success. The most widely documented was The First Crusade, which was considered a success from the Christian point of view, whereas the second that followed was a disaster. Below are a few key elements about the several hundreds of years when divine right in the Middle East was decided by the might of the sword.

The origin of the word 'crusade' may be traced to the cross made of cloth and worn as a badge on the outer garment of those who took part in these enterprises, described by medieval writers as a 'crux', 'croisement', and 'croiserie'. Since the Middle Ages the meaning of the word crusade has been extended to include all wars undertaken in pursuance of a vow and directed against pagans or heretics. For example, the wars waged by the Spaniards against the Moors constituted a continual crusade from the eleventh to the sixteenth century; in the north of Europe crusades were organised against the Prussians and Lithuanians and in the thirteenth century the popes preached crusades against John Lackland and Frederick II. Although nowadays the term is bandied about in general terms, it actually refers to an exclusively Christian war.

To understand the Crusades, it is important to look at current affairs in the late Medieval period. In the year 1095 CE (Christian Era), William the Conqueror had united England under one crown 30 years earlier.

Dr Thomas Asbridge analyses the 200-year war between Christians and Muslims for control of the Holy Land

Dr Thomas Asbridge analyses the 200-year war between Christians and Muslims for control of the Holy Land

The French however had been dividing properties amongst their sons for generations, causing bloodshed between brothers over small pieces of real estate. Italy too was fractured - it was a collection of city-states, constantly being overrun by invading hordes. The road to Holy War was paved when the ruler of the Byzantine empire in Constantinople, wrote to his friend Robert, the Count of Flanders telling him about supposed atrocities committed by the Turks on the Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. Robert passed this letter on to Pope Urban II, who saw this as a perfect way to solve some of his local problems and unite Christendom under a common enemy. He personally promoted a Holy Crusade to reclaim the Holy Lands from the heathens and so The First Crusade was launched in 1096.

LAND OF MILK AND HONEY So divisive is the god of Abraham that although he is a deity shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims, many of his followers have never been able to reconcile their differences and the three religious groups have been locked in intermittent conflict with each other over the same piece of land - a conflict that still exists today. But where exactly did the fighting take place? In geographical terms the Medieval Christians were fighting against the Turkish Muslims for possession of what was known as 'The Levant', the land over the ocean, the Latin Orient. The area in question is now called Israel, but it also included parts of Lebanon and a small stretch of Syria and southeastern Turkey. It was divided into the four Crusader States of Antioch, Edessa, Tripoli and Jerusalem. Much like it is today, The Lavant was a small stretch of land that was steeped in religious heritage and held the promise of bestowing riches upon those who could control it.

RICHARD THE LION HEART When it comes to the part England played in the plundering of the Holy Land, the most famous figure that springs to mind is Richard I, who ruled for a decade from 1189 to 99. Known as 'The Lion Heart', Richard is remembered in legend as a great English king, yet he was born of French parents, spoke no English and spent a mere six months in England following his accession. King Richard reached Levant in 1187 for the third crusade, where his army defeated the Turks at Acre, and though they failed to take Jerusalem, peace was made with the Turkish leader Saladin over Christian access to the Holy City. Broadly speaking, English participation in the crusades was minimal and Richard I was the only King of England to participate personally. However, crusading retained a symbolic importance into the sixteenth century and now, nearly a thousand years later, The Lion Heart stands alone in our memory.

Dr Thomas Asbridge at Kerak Castle in Jordan

Dr Thomas Asbridge at Kerak Castle in Jordan

A KNIGHT'S TALE Anyone who's read The Da Vinci Code will recognize The Order of The Knights Templar. They were members of the military and religious order of the Poor Knights of Christ, called the Knights of the Temple of Solomon from their house in Jerusalem. Founded when Hugh de Payens and eight other knights joined together around 1118 to protect pilgrims, the order grew rapidly, receiving gifts of estates and money, and the organization soon became one of the most powerful in Europe. Directly responsible only to the pope the order was free from the control of the secular crusading leaders. When Jerusalem fell to the Muslims in 1187, the Templars operated from Acre and after its fall in 1291 the order retreated to Cyprus. By that time the Templars had ceased to be primarily a fighting organization and had become the leading money handlers of Europe. As their banking role increased, they aroused the hostility, fear, and jealousy of secular rulers and of the secular clergy as well. By 1308 the persecutions were in full process and the order was effectively destroyed by 1314.

LASTING HERITAGE After the fall of Acre in 1291 no further Crusades were undertaken in the Holy Land, although several were preached. War against the Turks remained the chief problem of Eastern Europe for centuries. Although the Crusades in the Holy Land failed in their chief purpose, they exercised an incalculable influence on Western civilization by bringing the West into closer contact with new modes of living and thinking, by stimulating commerce, by giving fresh impetus to literature and invention, and by increasing geographical knowledge. In the Levant the Crusades left a lasting imprint, not least on the Byzantine Empire, which was disastrously weakened, while physical reminders of the Crusades remain in the monumental castles built by the Crusaders, such as that of Al Karak. Sadly, securing peace in this war-torn area now seems just as elusive as it was a thousand years ago.