The Crusades: A Succinct History

The Crusades: A Response to Islamic Jihad

richard_and_saladin_at_arsuf_Gustave Dore

Following 9/11, there was renewed interest in the Crusades as explanations were sought for the brutal attacks. As terrorist attacks have continued throughout the years, and now with the rise of the Islamic State, this interest in the Crusades has not abated. Unfortunately, increased interest has not necessarily translated into increased knowledge. Prof. Thomas F. Madden has lamented: “An interested person who simply strolls into a bookstore looking for a history of the crusades is much more likely to walk out with a book written by a novelist, journalist, or ex-nun than one written by a professional historian and based on the best research available. The heightened public interest in the crusades since 9/11 has created a market for popular histories, many of which simply retell myths long ago dispelled by historians.”

One particularly persistent myth is that the Crusades were the catalyst for conflict between Christianity and Islam. From President Clinton’s speech at Georgetown University less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, to President Obama’s speech at last year’s National Prayer Breakfast, and in pieces of popular culture like Ridley Scott’s film Kingdom of Heaven, the theme is consistent—the confrontation between Christianity and Islam began at the end of the eleventh century when a band of Christian savages invaded the peaceful lands of Islam. History tells a very different story.

In the seventh century a new faith stormed out of Arabia and sought to engulf the world. The Arab armies seeking to spread the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed in the East destroyed Sassanid Persia and drove the Byzantine Empire back into Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Included among the early conquests of the soldiers of Islam was the city of Jerusalem, which fell to them in 638. In the West, Muslim armies surged across North Africa and in 711 engulfed Spain.

The Islamic march towards Europe from the East was halted in 718 when the Byzantines, led by Emperor Leo III, annihilated the Muslim army that had besieged Constantinople for over a year. Muslim expansion in the West was halted by Charles Martel and the Franks in 732 at the battle of Tours, in what is now central France. However, the blocking of the land routes into Europe did not end the Muslim conquests. The Muslims, who became known in Europe as “Saracens,” took to the seas in a campaign of conquest and pillage that terrorized the western Mediterranean for three hundred years.

Early in the ninth century, both Corsica and Sardinia came under Muslim control. In 827, the Saracens began a 50-year conquest of Sicily and over the next several decades established bases in Italy and southern France. From these bases, Saracen raiders struck with impunity throughout Italy, into France, and even into Germany. The most symbolically horrifying of these raids took place in 846, when the suburbs of Rome were burned and the basilicas of Saint Peter and Saint Paul were desecrated.

War raged in Sicily for 50 years, ravaging the land and people. Finally in 878, Syracuse, the preeminent city of Sicily, fell. Its citizens were slaughtered and the fabulous wealth of the city was looted. That victory effectively completed the Saracen conquest of Sicily, although the fortified town of Taormina held out until 902, when its walls were finally breached and its inhabitants massacred.

Throughout the tenth century the raiding continued, sometimes on a massive scale. Genoa was devastated in 935, its people killed or enslaved, by a fleet from Africa. In 950–952, Calabria was sacked and Naples besieged. However, the tenth century also marked the first stirring of the counter-attack of Western Christendom—a counter-attack spearheaded by the Catholic Church. In 915, the main Muslim base in Italy, located on the River Garigliano, was destroyed by a force organized and partially led by the warrior Pope, John X. That initial success was merely a precursor of the response that would later be generated by a call to arms by the Church.

The eleventh century marked the turning point in the clash between Islam and Western Christendom. At the end of its first decade, the Egyptian Caliph al-Hakim destroyed the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem—the Church built on the location of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection—and no military response was possible. Before the close of the century’s final decade, Christian warriors were storming the walls of the city.

In 1016, Pope Benedict VIII forged an alliance between Genoa and Pisa, and the combined fleets of the trading cities destroyed a Saracen force from Spain that had occupied Sardinia. The Muslims were permanently ejected from Sardinia and the Pisans occupied the island. This military success by two of the leading commercial cities in Europe demonstrated the growing economic vitality of the West; a vitality that would translate into the ability to launch a major offensive aimed at recapturing territory conquered by the Muslims.

The Christian reconquest of Europe began in earnest in the second half of the eleventh century. At the forefront of that reconquest were the ubiquitous Normans. The Normans were descended from Vikings who had settled in northern France at the start of the tenth century. They took the land as a bribe from the king of France so that they would stop their raiding of French territory. They converted to Christianity and established an energetic and adventurous kingdom.

The most famous Norman Conquest took place in 1066. However, a few years earlier, a group of Normans led by Robert of Hauteville, who would become known to history as Robert Guiscard (“Robert the Wary”), and his younger brother Roger, had landed in Sicily and embarked on a conquest of their own. The Hautevilles and their men arrived in Sicily in 1061. They soon conquered Messina and by 1072 the city of Palermo, which under Muslim rule had replaced Syracuse as the leading city of Sicily, had fallen. During this campaign, Roger and his men marched under a papal banner, which signified the Church’s approval of their mission.

During the same time period that the Normans were prosecuting their conquest of Sicily, the Christian kingdoms in the north of Spain, aided by Norman and French knights, embarked on a second offensive in the counter—attack of Western Christendom. Just as in Sicily, papal approval was granted to the campaign. This effort culminated in 1085 with the capture of Toledo, the city in Spain with the greatest religious significance for Muslims, by the forces of Alfonso VI, king of Leon and Castile.

A dramatic change in the character of the West’s counter-attack took place in 1087, when the Genoese and Pisans allied once again pursuant to papal requests; this time they carried the war home to the Saracens in north Africa. The city of Mahdiya on the north-African coast was the chief port used by Muslim raiders and pirates.  The Genoese and Pisan force, serving under the command of a bishop acting as a papal representative, plundered the city and burnt the Saracen fleet in the harbor.

While the power of Muslim forces waned in the West, Muslim expansion in the East was reinvigorated with the conversion of the Seljuk Turks to Islam in the second half of the tenth century.  These ferocious horse-archers from Central Asia conquered both Iran and Iraq by 1055. In 1055, a Seljuk chieftain, Tughrul-Beg, entered Baghdad and in 1058 was proclaimed “Sultan,” the secular leader of the Sunni branch of Islam.

By 1059, the Seljuks controlled an empire that stretched from Iran to the Byzantine border in Asia Minor and the border in Syria of an Islamic kingdom, the Fatimid Caliphate, whose power emanated from Egypt.  In 1071, the Turks struck a blow against the Byzantine Empire that sent shock waves throughout Christendom. In that year the Byzantine Emperor, Romanus Diogenes, gathered a large—but poorly integrated—army and marched into Armenia to face the Turks. The Seljuk Sultan, Alp Arslan, hearing of the Byzantine advance, galloped with his army to confront the emperor. The two armies met at the Armenian city of Manzikert, located near Lake Van.

At the Battle of Manzikert, the Seljuks destroyed the Byzantine army and captured the emperor. The Byzantine Empire was thrown into disarray. Emperor Alexius I, who seized the imperial throne in 1081, managed to stabilize the situation during the 1080s through a combination of military force and diplomatic skill. However, a series of disastrous reversals between 1091 and 1095 in Asia Minor brought the Turks within 50 miles of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Alexius, fearing the encroaching Seljuks, sent a delegation to Pope Urban II begging for military help against the Turks. Fortunately for Alexius, Urban and the knighthood of Western Europe were ready to hear and respond to this call for help.

On November 27, 1095, Urban appeared at Clermont in southern France and called on the knighthood of France to liberate the Christians of the East and the Holy City of Jerusalem from the scourge of the Turks.  This liberation would be accomplished through the use of a new form of pilgrimage: the armed pilgrimage. Urban’s pilgrims would not be the simple penitents dressed in plain garments who had been traveling to Jerusalem in the past; they would be warriors clad in iron, with the goal of wresting Jerusalem from the Turks by force. This pilgrimage appeared so difficult and dangerous that Urban decreed that all past sins of those who shouldered this burden would be forgiven.

Although Urban’s appeal had been specifically aimed at the French, knights from all over Europe pledged to fight their way to Jerusalem. The only knights who were turned away were the Spanish: Urban reasoned that the efforts of Spanish knights in the Holy Land would be futile because their absence endangered Christians in Spain. Urban intended that the crusade in the East would be the opening of a second front in the war of Christian liberation that was already being fought in Spain.

Contrary to popular belief, the primary motivation for the majority of the crusaders was not the acquisition of wealth or land in the East. Nor was the crusade seen as an easy way to ship off younger sons who, by the laws of inheritance, would be denied a share of their father’s lands.

A crusader and his family endured crushing hardships and incurred enormous expenses to obtain the resources to support the crusader’s dangerous journey to Jerusalem. These costs were only magnified when, as was often the case, several members of a family joined the crusade. It is unlikely that many of those who joined the crusade were foolish enough to believe that they would recover their costs and would go on to amass great wealth. The vast majority of West European knighthood either did not consider answering the pope’s appeal or considered the obstacles to responding to Urban’s call too daunting.

In the minds of the knights who actually took the cross, the primary benefits of joining the crusade were of a more intangible nature. The forgiveness of sins was certainly a powerful inducement: most crusaders had spent their lives immersed in a culture of violence and that violence had been directed at other Christians. Many had probably committed acts they were ashamed of and achieving forgiveness for those transgressions would be a powerful motivation.

Joining the crusade also appealed to a spirit of adventure. Heading out into the unknown on a divinely ordained mission represented a union of the secular and the sacred that must have been difficult for an idealistic member of the knighthood to resist. The crusade offered not only an opportunity for heroic acts, but heroic acts performed in the service of the Church.

The great army that responded to Urban’s call had gathered at Constantinople by the spring of 1097. The Age of Crusading was about to begin—a chapter in, not the beginning of, the history of conflict between Christianity and Islam.

Editor’s note: The illustration above, titled “Richard and Saladin at Arsuf” was drawn by Gustave Doré. 

Brian M. English


Brian M. English is a litigation attorney from New Jersey, where he lives with his wife and three children. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and Notre Dame Law School.

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