The Crusades (Part 6 of 6)
1. Deus Vult: Pope Urban II Calls for the First Crusaders (AD 1095)
2. The First Crusade and Reclaiming the Holy City (AD 1096-1099)
3. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Second Crusade (AD 1144-1153)
4. Lionheart and the Third Crusade (AD 1187-1193)
5. The Fourth Crusade & Children’s Crusade: Perhaps Christendom’s Lowest Point (AD 1198-1212)
6. Final Crusades and Final Results (AD 1215-1291)
As I wrap up this several month series of articles on the Crusades, I am reminded that it is always easy to practice what I will call “ethnocentric anachronism.” I use those big words simply to describe our tendency to look back with judgment on history from only our own contemporary point of view. With that being said, clearly the Crusades do not represent the true mission of the Church to bring the good news of Jesus to the ends of the Earth. How could the crusaders have imparted the gospel while bringing such an enormous degree of bad news along with them?
THE FIFTH CRUSADE (AD 1213-1221)
The Fifth Crusade was inaugurated by Pope Innocent III in AD 1213, but it was not until AD 1217-18 that an army was assembled. Innocent III died in 1216, never having seen the expedition begin. It was John of Brienne who put the crusading army together, calling himself the “King of Jerusalem.” This title made little sense, however, since Jerusalem currently lay in the hands of the Muslims. Nevertheless, a new crusading army indeed answered the call and was sent to Damietta in Egypt in order to battle the Islamic Ayyubids in the name of Christ. The campaign began to disintegrate quickly as the Christian armies fell prey to a surprise attack by the Egyptians who better knew their home soil (and river).
Impending defeat caused the crusaders to call for aid from King Frederick II of Sicily. When the king failed to respond, an appeal was made on behalf of the crusaders by a somewhat unlikely source. It is here that legend has it St. Francis of Assisi himself went personally before Sultan Malik al-Kamil, a nephew of Saladin, to seek peace between Egypt and the crusaders. As with most legends, it is hard to know how much truth is included in accounts of Francis’ encounter with the sultan. What seems clear, however, is that a temporary peace was achieved. For more on the encounter, see the near end of my previous article on St. Francis here:
THE SIXTH CRUSADE (AD 1228-43)
Since the Fifth Crusade had also been unsuccessful in suppressing Islam and recapturing the Holy Lands, King Frederick II took up his own crusade and wisely decided on new tactics and leadership. Since Frederick had long since been excommunicated by the Pope, he had no allegiance to any previous papal-initiated crusades.
The Sixth Crusade, therefore, represented the people of Europe more than the papacy or the Church. This Crusade, therefore, was less a military campaign and more a political and personal agreement. In AD 1229, Frederick was able to strike a treaty with the aforementioned sultan Malik al-Kamil, which effectively gave Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem, and all the roads to and from Acre back to Christians. Soon after, Frederick took up residence in Jerusalem and crowned himself the new “King of Jerusalem,” to the joy of most of Europe and to the chagrin of the Pope.
THE SEVENTH AND EIGHTH CRUSADES (AD 1244-70)
Peace and success in the Holy Lands were short-lived, however. On October 14, 1244, the Christians in Palestine fought against a strong group of Persians who not only defeated the Christians, but also removed them from the Jerusalem. The Holy City, therefore, stood lost to Christians once again. Calls for another crusade rang forth, and one final legendary crusader would soon emerge.
King Louis IX of France (AD 1226-70), better known to us as St. Louis, had already been renowned for his devout lifestyle. Louis is remembered as one who “combined the piety of the monk with the chivalry of the knight” (Schaff). He was loyal to France, the Church, and his subjects. He displayed a perpetual concern for the plight of the poor and fair treatment of his people. His fame as a leader of the nation had grown to such an extent that it was just assumed he would be a magnificent mobilizer of a new military movement.
Unfortunately, this did not prove to be the case. St. Louis, along with his three brothers, Robert, count of Artois, Alphonso, count of Poitiers, and Charles of Anjou, led the Seventh Crusade against Egypt from 1248-50. Despite their initial success at Damietta, this crusade too ended in disaster. As Louis and his army marched towards Cairo, which they called the Babylon of Egypt, many became sick and died. A slaughter of the Christian troops seemed inevitable, leading St. Louis to bargain with Muslim leaders. In order to spare the lives of his troops, Louis offered a large sum of money (500,000 livres), the return of Damietta, and a promise that Christian troops would retreat from Egypt. When this proved to be insufficient, Louis offered himself as a prisoner of ransom. An agreement was reached, and the remaining Christian troops were sent home without Louis. Louis’ charisma soon earned him a friendship with the sultan, however, and he was afforded a rather privileged state of captivity.
In 1254, Louis was released from captivity and sailed back to Acre. Over the next decade-and-a-half, the crusading spirit was kept alive by the Church and its leaders such as Urban IV and Clement III. In 1267, Louis announced his desire to embark on one more crusade to take back the Holy City. Thus began the last major crusade, the Eighth Crusade. In 1268, the city of Antioch was lost to the Muslims. Louis and his forces launched a counterattack towards Tunis in 1270. Despite the strength of an army comprising some 60,000 troops, another tragic ending was forthcoming. A severe plague broke out among the crusading army, claiming the lives of Louis and his son, John Tristan.
According to Schaff,
The night of August 24 his mind was upon Jerusalem, and starting up from his fevered sleep, he exclaimed, ‘Jerusalem! Jerusalem! we will go.’ His last words, according to the report of an attendant, were, ‘I will enter into thy house, O Lord, I will worship in thy holy sanctuary, I will glorify Thy name, O Lord.’
Despite several smaller, unorganized attempts at crusading, most historians agree that the major Crusades concluded with the death of St. Louis in 1270. The final blow dealt to Christians came in AD 1291, with the loss of the last significant Christian foothold in the Holy Land, the city of Acre, back to Islam.
THE FINAL RESULTS OF THE CRUSADES
The crusading mentality seemed to officially cease in 1396, with a brutal defeat of Christians at the Bulgarian city of Nicopolis as part of the Ottoman conflicts in Europe at the time. From that point forward, Christians and Muslims continued to fight one another, but much more in the form of war between West and East. The final major victory for Islam came at Constantinople in AD 1453. The last Christian stronghold in the East was lost.
The great Hagia Sophia (Santa Sophia) in Istanbul, which was reminiscent of the days of Constantine the Great, is no longer a Christian basilica but rather a mosque turned museum.
The Crusades significantly altered the flow of European culture and history in the late Middle Ages. From a positive standpoint, commerce throughout the continent and across the Mediterranean grew exponentially. Interest in Eastern culture grew which gave rise to the intellectual awakening known as Scholasticism and the birth of the world’s first major universities. The Renaissance was not far behind these events. The bonds of feudalism were effectively broken and the great nations of Europe were born. The Crusades were quickly followed by some of the strongest monastic movements to ever have existed, and the papacy was stronger than ever. I would be remiss to not mention the beautiful medieval Christian architecture that developed during this era, many of which are still standing today in one form or another.
On the other hand, the Crusades cost many lives and resulted in the loss of many relics and other valuable pieces of Christian history. The papacy established itself as a worldwide authority that was often fraught with corruption. The spirit of the Crusades was utilized to condone several future endeavors of violence, including the Inquisition of the 14th Century, holy wars against both non-Christians and Christians, and even bloodshed that occurred during the Protestant Reformation. Above anything else, however, is the fact that the Christian mission to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to those who had yet to receive it was replaced for more than two centuries with a military mindset. Much harm was done between the Christian movement and the rest of the world that may never be undone. And on top of it all, the Crusades were unsuccessful in achieving their goal. The Christian West never permanently reclaimed the Holy Lands.
To this day, significant rifts exist between Christians and Muslims, and also between Eastern and Western Christian traditions. The advent of modern leadership and the progress of civilization has allowed for some healing between leaders of each religious tradition and both Christian groups, but many followers on all sides still hold deeply rooted disdain for their counterparts.
The Crusades were launched, supported, and executed by popes and preachers, kings and knights, barons and regular-folk, and even children. Some were well-funded, others were not. Initially, spiritual motivations seemed to provide the impetus for the crusading mentality. In the end, however, most of the crusades ended up being more about politics, power, and human glory. As Ralph Winter points out, many of the Crusades were initiated by Christians of viking descent whose ancestors were quite keen on invasion and destruction.
Most modern and post-modern Christians reject the Crusades for good reason. As my final word, I would echo Latourette’s assessment of the Crusades:
Here was an effort to achieve the Kingdom of God on earth by the methods of that world which the New Testament declares to be at enmity with the Gospel . . . To put it in Augustinian terms, it was the employment of the instruments of the earthly city to further the City of God.
- Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land (2010)
- Evangelisches Kirchenlexikon (1999) vol. 1
- Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity (1953) vol. 1
- Robertson, J.C. Sketches of Church History: From AD 33 to the Reformation. (1904)
- Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, vol. 5.
- Williston Walker. A History of the Christian Church (1914)
- Winter, Ralph. “The Kingdom Strikes Back: Ten Epochs of Redemptive History.” In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement (2009)