History of the European crusades

Paul Lines By Paul Lines, 10th Feb 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
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The crusades of Europe in many ways moulded the regions culture and religious structure that exists today


The crusades were a sequence of religious wars, battles mainly fought between the opposing forces from the Christian nations of Europe and the Saracens (a historical definition applied to any person Arab, Turk or other who professed the religion of Islam). The actual term "crusade" came from the French word "Croiserie." The reason for its use was that those taking part on the Christian were given a tunic emblazoned with a cross on it. Similarly, they were required to take a vow before taking part in the fight. It was therefore considered that these wars were "Holy" and just. Furthermore, it is universally recognized that Pope Urban II's preaching in 1095 was the major event that provoked the start of the crusades. This serves as another indicator of their religious foundation.


The initial cause of the crusades predates the commencement of battle by around three decades. It was rooted in 1065 when the Turks captured Jerusalem, a bloody battle that cost the lives of several thousand Christian Pilgrims. Jerusalem is a city that has always been of special significance to Christians. For centuries, thousands would partake in peaceful pilgrimage to worship at the famous Churches within the city walls. The majority of the pilgrim traveller’s were vulnerable, being unarmed, and therefore would not be able to defend themselves.

Following the events of 1065, leaders of the European Churches became increasingly angry. At services everywhere, the call rang out to release the Holy Land, and particularly Jerusalem, from tyranny and seek revenge for the death of their Christian brothers. Roman Church leaders, convinced themselves that war was the only option, called on their congregations to take action. In fact, had they heeded the call of Pope Gregory VII, the crusades could well have begun two decades prior to the actual events. Although Peter the Hermit, a preacher who led one of the crusading armies, has also been credited with helping to arouse Christians to action, most historians still consider that Pope Urban II was the instigator, with his call to fight on God's behalf against the heathen and Saracens.

The Crusaders

Christian's from numerous European countries, including France, Germany and the UK, became part of the crusading armies. Men women and children alike, responded to the calls of religious leaders like the Pope, Peter the Hermit and others, and vowed to follow them to the Middle East and other areas of Europe to fight in the wars. Proof of the response can be found in the numbers that took part in the first crusade, where in excess of eighty thousand ordinary citizens, journeyed nearly a thousand miles to fight the "Holy war."

The crusaders were from all social classes, whether rich and poor. In the main, they were motivated by their religion, although other motives may have played their part in the minds of some. The numbers were swollen by the fact that religious leaders had promised that participating in the crusades would grant absolution from sins and release those who had been excommunicated. This meant that warriors and citizens would be considered to have the same path to heaven as the clergy enjoyed. As Felipe Fernndez-Armesto recently put it, "War, as well as prayerful chastity and poverty, could be a means of penance." Warriors could enjoy their vocation of violence, knowing they would still be saved. "The blood of Muslims," declared one French poet in the early 12th Century "washes out sins."

Major crusades

In total, amongst the numerous wars, there were eight major crusades, plus the "Children's Crusades." The most renowned of these was the first, commonly called the "People's Crusade," the subsequent fall of Jerusalem, which occurred with the "Third Crusade," as well as the "Children's Crusades."

The First "People's" Crusade
The years 1096 to 1099 saw the events of the Peoples Crusade take place. Two small vanguards, which consisted of ordinary citizens, preceded the main event. These were led by Peter the Hermit and Walter "without-worldly-goods." These vanguards met in Constantinople in late 1099. As they were not well equipped compared with the Middle East Islamic armies of the Middle East, many of the people in these vanguards perished, either before they reached the Holy Land, or be the swords of the enemy.

However, right across Europe, with significant French contribution, seven hundred thousand people were gathering in a vast army. Godfrey of Bouillon, a leader of one of the main forces, was later to be elected the head of Jerusalem. These armies, as the vanguards before them, joined forces in Constantinople. Nicaea, the Turkish capital, was the first stop on their journey. They lay siege to the city, bombarding it with stones and arrows. Resistance waned and the city was captured. From there, the crusaders continued their journey, through Syria, towards Jerusalem, their ultimate goal. As they left, a commander commented that within five weeks "we shall reach Jerusalem from Nicaea ... unless Antioch stands in our way." Little did he realise how prophetic these words were. Antioch did prove an obstacle for the crusaders. Although the siege of Antioch commenced in October 1097, it did not finally fall until June 1098.

It was a further thirteen months before the crusaders reached the Holy city. When they did, as an act of celebration, the entire Crusader army commenced a walk around Jerusalem in a "FATIMID FORCES religious procession." This was followed by sermons on the Mount of Olives." Their initial assault on the city was repelled by the inhabitants. However, a final assault in July 1099 saw the city fall to the crusaders. Jerusalem was finally again, in what the crusaders considered its rightful hands, the Christians.

The fall of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade
However, Jerusalem was destined to stay in Christian hands for less than ninety years. In the intervening period the Christians had launched increasing numbers of attacks on Muslim pilgrims and convoys, one which led to the capture of the sister of Saladin, the Muslim leader. In response to this, in 1185 Saladin declared war on the Christian strongholds, a campaign that saw many of the cities previously captured by the Christians fall again. His armies reached Jerusalem in 1187 and commenced a continuous assault, which lasted for some time. Finally, the city leaders negotiated a surrender; one that assured their safe evacuation from the city. The Holy city was once again in the hand of Islamic forces. Naturally, this prompted calls by the Christian Churches, for another holy war, particularly as Christians were again denied access to the city.

These calls instigated the third crusade, which was to be led by Richard I of England (known as Richard the Lion Heart) who, with French and German leaders, led armies to the Middle East. The three forces succeeded in recapturing a number of the cities that the Muslims had taken, the most significant of which was Acre in 1191. However, despite the Christian successes in the area and the constant battles against the forces of Saladin, the recapture of Jerusalem proved illusive. Nevertheless, Richard was able to eventually able to negotiate a truce with the Muslim leader, which included terms to allow Christians the freedom to pass into City for pilgrim and other religious purposes. Following this truce, the third crusade ended, and Richard returned to the UK.

The children's Crusade
Support for crusades began to wane between the fourth and fifth Crusades. However, in one particular quarter there was a resurgence of fervour and religious passion for the preservation of the Holy land. However, the children of Europe led this resurgence. As a result, the commonly known "Children's Crusades" was born. These crusades consisted of separate groups. The first originating in France was led by a boy called Stephen. The second was led by a boy called Nicholas from Germany. Despite the fact that most considered these crusades mistaken and ill founded, Pope Innocent III took a different view. He applauded the children's efforts.

Both of two crusades failed. The French one led by Stephen, with 30,000 participants, did not reach further than the port of Marseilles. The German led crusade advanced further, succeeding in crossing Alps. However, few of the children returned home and there is no record that shows any of them every reached the Holy land.

Although there were a number of other crusades that preceded and followed the Children's crusade, the campaigns in Europe had all but ceased by the end of the thirteenth century. The last Christian outpost, Acre, fell into the hands of the Muslims in 1291, and this virtually brought to an end a conflict that had lasted two centuries.

The effects of the crusades

Millions of people perished from both sides of the divide during the crusades. Furthermore, they were instrumental in destroying the property and infrastructure of many European and Middle East cities. Nevertheless, there were some positive aspects, as with all warfare.

Politically, the crusades significantly influenced the European and Middle East demographic structure. Had it not been for the crusades, the global advancement of the Turkish Empire, Islam and the Muslim faith across would have remained unchecked, resulting in a different political environment than the one we witness currently. It is possible that this would have had an adverse affect on the way Europe's democratic structure developed.

Socially, the crusades had a lasting effect. They were responsible for the creation of a unique sense of community and identity. It was shown that this could achieve a cross-border cooperation, with members from different nations working in unison for the common good. It is not unreasonable to consider that these examples have had and influence on the way in which the present European Community has been built.

The crusades also encouraged the increase of trade between nations and, therefore created a foundation for the increase in international commercialization. As the armies marched thought countries, they required replenishment of supplies. This meant they needed to create an efficient supply chain or, alternatively, set up local suppliers. The latter route obvious assisted in the spreading of skills and trade throughout the region.

The crusades influenced international travel, opening frontiers as far away as Asia and the Mediterranean. They proved that it was possible to journey through numerous countries, using a variety of transportation including foot, horseback and sea travel, and that this could be executed even when carrying supplies. It is possible this acted as an example and encouraged early travellers such as Marco Polo.

The crusade also influenced religious thinking in three main ways. Firstly, they proved that if the sovereignty of God was threatened, Christians are prepared to unite and commit themselves to the defence of their beliefs. Second, it resulted in the strengthening of the Catholic Church's position in the region, both financially and as a credible alternative to Islam. Lastly, it reaffirmed the importance that Jerusalem holds within Christian faith.


It is not doubted that the crusades were a classic example of the savagery of war. Nevertheless, their historical importance in European history should not be underestimated, irrespective of ones views. To Christians they bear witness to the commitment and dedication needed to protect and fight for a just cause. As Christopher Tyerman observes in the conclusion of his book (God's war: A New History of the crusades, Allan Lane, UK), "the crusades encouraged European inquiry and experience beyond traditional horizons."


Books on the subject:

Thomas F. Madden 2004. The Crusades: The essential readings
John Riley Smith, 2002. What were the Crusades
Stanley Lane-Poole - Saladin and the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem
David Nicolle. The First Crusades 1096-1099, Conquest of the Holy Land

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Crusades, Europe, History, Religious Crises, Religious Studies

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author avatar Paul Lines
Having spent a large part of my working life as a business consultant, I am now a full time freelance writer offering content for on-line and print publishers, as well as focusing on creative writing

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author avatar Uma Shankari
10th Feb 2011 (#)

Interesting piece of history.

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author avatar Paul Lines
10th Feb 2011 (#)

Thanks Uma

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author avatar Jerry Walch
10th Feb 2011 (#)

One of my favorite subjects and historical periods.

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author avatar James R. Coffey
10th Feb 2011 (#)

Very nice presentation. An interesting point is that for the Christian crusaders, their mind-set was very much like that of those of Islamic jihad. The physical, spiritual, and afterlife rewards.

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author avatar Denise O
10th Feb 2011 (#)

Well written, well researched and just a entertaining read.
As always, thank you for sharing.:)

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author avatar Paul Lines
10th Feb 2011 (#)

Thanks Jerry, James and Denise. It was challenging to research a subject that I had little knowledge about but interesting to delve that far back into history. As always, your comments are much appreciated

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author avatar Angelique Newman
17th Feb 2011 (#)

You did a wonderful job in writing on such an important piece of history. In depth and easy to read--just the way I like it. Thanks for sharing :)

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author avatar Paul Lines
17th Feb 2011 (#)

Thanks Angelique. It was really kind of you to say so

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author avatar JohnH
23rd Feb 2011 (#)

thanks so much for this. I think it should have been a star page.

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author avatar Paul Lines
23rd Feb 2011 (#)

Thanks John

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