Were the Crusades Wars of Aggression Upon Peaceful Muslims?

As conventionally reckoned, the Crusades were a set of eight expeditions to the East that occurred in just under a two-century period, from 1095 to 1270. The term crusade has since expanded to be applied to a wide variety of wars—especially ones involving religion—and even to things that are not wars at all (e.g., Billy Graham’s evangelistic events). Here we will focus on the eight traditional Crusades.

Historical Background

Understanding the Crusades requires an appreciation of the events that led to them. Since the legalization of Christianity in the early 300s, European Christians had been conducting pilgrimages to Palestine in order to visit the holy sites associated with the life of our Lord. These pilgrimages were major exercises of piety, for in that age travel to the Holy Land was difficult, time-consuming, expensive, and dangerous. Some pilgrimages took years to complete.

Christians also went to Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in order to live ascetic lives. This was the age in which Christian monasticism blossomed, and numerous Christians were anxious to go to the Holy Land and Egypt in order to lead lives consecrated to God by asceticism. They also undertook the hardships of the journey. For both pilgrims and ascetics there was one factor ameliorating the journey: the path to Palestine went through Christian lands.

In A.D. 612, the Arabian Muhammad, son of Abdallah, reported receiving a prophetic call from God through the angel Gabriel. At first, he made few converts. However, after being driven from his native Mecca in 622, he found refuge in the city of Medina, where his followers increased. Mounting a military campaign, Muhammad conquered several pagan, Jewish, and Christian tribes and was able to seize control of his native Mecca, as well as all of Arabia. He died in 632.

Following his death, Muhammad’s successors—the caliphs—continued an aggressive campaign of expansion. In less than a century they had seized control—among other lands—of Syria, Palestine, and North Africa. Though today we are used to thinking of these lands as Muslim, at the time they were Christian. It has been said that the expanding Muslim empire consumed half of Christian civilization. Even Europe itself was threatened. Muslims seized control of southern Spain, invaded France, and were threatening to invade Rome itself when their advance was defeated by Charles Martel at the battle of Poitiers in 732.

It had been a hard century.

After Muslim expansion in Western Europe had been checked for the moment, their attention for a time turned elsewhere, and within two more centuries they had conquered Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of India. They also later advanced against Christian nations, conquering the Byzantine Empire in 1453 and encroaching as far as Vienna, Austria in 1683.

The Crusades occurred in the middle of this struggle. The immediate preparation for them took place in the eleventh century, with increases in long-standing tensions between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.

Palestine had been under Muslim control for some time, though with concessions to the Christians who visited and lived in it. However, in 1009 the Fatimite caliph of Egypt ordered the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre—the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem—which was a principal focus of Christian pilgrimages. It was later rebuilt.

The heightened danger to Christians making pilgrimages to the Holy Land only served to increase enthusiasm for such journeys, as they were now more difficult and thus greater acts of piety. During the eleventh century, thousands of Christians braved the dangers, often traveling with armed Christian escorts, who sometimes protected as many as twelve thousand pilgrims at a time.

The Seljuq Turks, who had embraced Islam in the tenth century, began conquering parts of the Muslim world, which made pilgrimages more dangerous, if not impossible. The Seljuqs took Jerusalem in 1070 and began threatening the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine emperor Romanus IV Diogenes was captured by the Seljuqs at the battle of Manzikert in 1071. His successor, Michael VII Ducas, sought the aid of Pope Gregory VII, who considered leading a military expedition to drive back the Turks, recover the Holy Sepulchre, and restore Christian unity following the de facto breach that had occurred with Eastern Christendom in 1054. However, the Investiture Controversy frustrated these plans.

The Seljuqs continued to expand, in 1084 capturing the city of Antioch and in 1092 the city of Nicaea, where two famous ecumenical councils had been held centuries before. By the 1090s, the historic metropolitan sees of Asia were in the hands of Muslims, who were now dangerously close to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. The emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, appealed to Pope Urban II for aid.

The First Crusade (1095-1101)

Unlike Gregory VII, Urban II was in a position to respond to the Eastern pleas for help. In November 1095, he convened the Council of Clermont in southern France, where he exhorted the attendees—who included not only bishops and abbots but also nobility, knights, and common men—concerning the plight of Eastern Christendom.

There had been much in-fighting among Europeans, and at the outdoor assembly the Pope urged them to make peace with each other and to turn their military efforts toward a constructive cause—defending Christendom against Muslim advances, assisting the Eastern Christians, and reclaiming the Holy Sepulchre. He also stressed the need for penance and spiritual motives in undertaking the campaign, offering a plenary indulgence for those vowing to undertake it in this spirit. The response was extremely enthusiastic, with attendees crying Deus vult!—“God wills it!”

It was also decided at the Council of Clermont that those undertaking the campaign would wear a red cross (Latin, crux), leading later to the name crusade.

Preparations began across Europe. These were not always well-organized, nor did they always live up to the spiritual mandate of the pope. Some would-be crusaders were so ill-equipped that as they journeyed toward the Holy Land they turned to looting to find sustenance. Some Germans massacred Jewish individuals. Some never made it as far as Constantinople. Other participants in the disorganized “People’s Crusade,” after arriving there, were so unruly that in August 1096 the Emperor sent them across the Bosphorus ahead of the main crusade force in order to protect the peace of the city. The Turks quickly annihilated this poorly organized group.

The main crusading force consisted of four armies, composed of French, Germans, and Normans, under the leadership of Godfrey of Boullion, the Normans Bohemond and Tancred, Raymond of Saint-Gilles, and Robert of Flanders. The Byzantine Emperor, Alexius, however, did not want so large a force of crusaders massed around Constantinople and so sent them over to Asia Minor in the order of their arrival. He also required the heads of the armies to swear that they would restore to him any lands they recovered from the Muslims that had previously been under Byzantine overlordship.

In June 1097 Nicaea was surrendered to the Byzantines accompanying the crusaders, and the next month the crusaders and Byzantines won a major victory against the Turks when they were attacked at Dorylaeum. Further progress was hard going, however, and some became dispirited. Among them was Alexius, who had promised to assist in the siege of Antioch. When the Emperor balked at this, the crusaders considered themselves relieved of any obligation to turn the city over to him since he could not be counted upon to fight for it. Thus when it was taken in June 1099, it passed into Norman hands.

The following month the Fatimid Muslims of Egypt retook Jerusalem from the Seljuqs, so it was in non-Turkish hands when the crusaders mounted their assault. This took place in July 1099. For a month the crusader force, which had been reduced to about half its original size, had encamped around Jerusalem while the Fatimid governor of the city awaited relief troops from Egypt. The crusaders, however, received supplies from the port of Jaffa and made their move.

On July 8 they fasted and processed barefoot around the city to the Mount of Olives, then on the 13th they besieged the walls. On the 15th, some men got over the wall and opened one of the city gates, allowing the main force inside. In the Tower of David, the Fatimid governor surrendered and was escorted from the city. In the al-Aqsa Mosque by the Temple Mount, Tacred promised protection to the city’s Muslim and Jewish inhabitants, but despite his efforts a general slaughter started.

The following month the crusaders surprised and repelled the Egyptian relief troops that the Fatimid governor had been counting on, securing Christian control of Jerusalem, though many of the coastal cities remained under Muslim control. Most crusaders departed for home, the objectives of the crusade having been achieved and their vows having been fulfilled.

In the wake of the First Crusade there developed four Christian states from the territory the crusaders had recovered: the later Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Principality of Antioch, the Countship of Edessa, and the Countship of Tripoli. These states, which applied the feudal system in a context detached from the vivid local rivalries that applied in Europe, have been considered models of Medieval administration. Still, relations between them, the Byzantine Empire, and the surrounding Muslim domains were often complex.

To defend the new states, a new kind of fighting force developed—the religious orders of knighthood, such as the Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem and the Templars. These were groups of knights who took religious vows and accepted a religious rule.

For a time the crusader states flourished. Over time they expanded to include coastal cities originally left unreclaimed. However, the states remained vulnerable, and in 1144 the northern state of Edessa was captured by Muslim forces.

The Second Crusade (1146-48)

In response, Pope Eugenius III called a new crusade, which was preached both in France and Germany by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The French King, Louis VII, and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, promptly responded, though the German Emperor, Conrad III, took more persuading. The current Byzantine Emperor, Manuel Comnenus, was also favorably disposed toward the crusaders, though he did not contribute troops to the cause.

Though at one point it involved the largest crusader army to date, the Second Crusade was met with less enthusiasm than the First, no doubt in part because Jerusalem was still in Christian hands. The course of the campaign was marred by competing interests of the parties involved, hampering progress. The hardships of the journey had also taken their toll. Unable to reach Edessa, the crusaders concentrated on taking Damascus, but inner turmoil and treachery forced them to retreat.

The failure of the Second Crusade was severely discouraging, and many in Europe became convinced that the Byzantine Empire was an obstacle to the success of the venture. The failure was also a significant morale boost for Muslim forces, who had partially redeemed the defeats they had suffered in the First Crusade.

The position of the crusader states was weakened, and in the coming years they became virtually encircled by a consolidated Muslim power, following the collapse of the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt.

Though for a time there was a truce with the Muslim commander, Saladin, the truce was broken in 1187. During a succession crisis in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, a Muslim caravan was attacked, and Saladin responded by declaring a jihad.

The Latin forces suffered a humiliating defeat at the Horns of Hattin (a geological formation resembling two horns on the crest of a ridge), and Saladin then proceeded to take Tiberias and the port city of Acre before turning to Jerusalem, which fell on October 2. By 1189, few cities in the crusader states were left in Christian hands.

The Third Crusade (1188-92)

Following the fall of Jerusalem, Pope Gregory VIII called for the Third Crusade. It was unfortunately beset by the untimely deaths of the kings who first stepped forward to lead it.

The first king to respond, William II of Sicily, sent a fleet East but died in late 1189. Henry II of England agreed to participate, but also died in that year. The German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, having reconciled with the Church, also participated and led a large army that defeated a Seljuq force in May 1190, but the next month the elderly Emperor drowned trying to swim across a stream while scouting.

The two kings who finally led the crusade were the valiant but flamboyant Richard I (“the Lion-Hearted”) of England—Henry II’s son and successor—and the calculating Philip II Augustus of France.

En route to the Holy Land, Richard I stopped on the island of Cyprus, where he was attacked by the Byzantine prince Isaac Comnenus. Richard defeated the prince and took control of the island before sailing for the port city of Acre, which was under attack by crusader forces.

Reinforced by the arriving crusaders, Acre held out and the Muslim forces finally surrendered. Philip II then considered his cursader vow fulfilled and departed for France.

Saladin agreed to an exchange of prisoners and the return of the relic of the True Cross. This arrangement fell apart when Richard disputed the selection of returning prisoners and eventually ordered the execution of the Muslim captives and their families.

Richard was desirous of pressing forward to Jerusalem and was able to reclaim several cities, including Jaffa, but ultimately was unable to reach the Holy City. His relations with Saladin were unusually friendly, and the two seemed to enjoy a high degree of mutual respect. In late 1192 they signed a five-year peace treaty that allowed Christians to have continued access to the holy places. The Christian holdings in the Holy Land now were reduced to a small kingdom composed largely of port cities.

The Fourth Crusade (1204)

The Fourth Crusade was an unmitigated disaster. It was an appalling fiasco that did nothing but cause internal damage to Christendom.

In 1198, Pope Innocent III proposed a new crusade. As usual, the French responded to the call. The new target was to be Egypt, a formerly Christian land that was now a Muslim stronghold.

The crusaders turned to the Venetians for transportation, but when they proved to have insufficient funds to pay, the Venetians suggested that they instead attack and capture Zara, a Hungarian and Christian city. Many objected strenuously—including the Pope, but his orders were ignored and the crusaders took Zara at the behest of the Venetians.

Matters went from bad to worse when Alexius, the son of deposed Byzantine Emperor Isaac Angelus, sought the aid of the crusaders in recovering his father’s throne. Promising rewards, Alexius convinced them to try. The Pope’s letter forbidding the expedition arrived too late, and the crusaders took Constantinople, reinstalled Isaac as Emperor, and proclaimed his son co-Emperor.

Innocent III reprimanded the leaders and ordered them to proceed to the Holy Land, but only a few did so. Most awaited the rewards that Alexius had promised.

Displeased by these promises to the Latin forces, the Byzantines promptly assassinated Alexius, following which the Venetians and the crusaders took control of the city and the empire. Constantinople fell to them on April 13, 1204, initiating a three-day chaos of looting and murder. Afterwards, a Latin Emperor of Constantinople was elected by a council composed of Venetians and crusaders. The Byzantine government relocated to Nicaea, where it remained, ruling only a portion of its previous territory until 1261, when Constantinople was reconquered by Michael VIII Paleologous.

This crusade was a fool’s journey. Not only did it fail to even engage the Muslim forces occupying the Holy Land, it further divided Eastern and Western Christendom, as well as permanently damaged the Byzantine empire, which had served as a buffer between Muslim aggression and the Christian heartland.

In the years following the Fourth Crusade, there were a number of minor crusades—wars whose participants took a vow—against heretics and others. Of particular interest was the so-called “Children’s Crusade” (1212), in which thousands of children set forth to conquer the Muslims forces with love instead of arms. A visionary child in France led one arm of the movement, while a German child led the other. Many children made it to Italy. However, the movement never reached the Holy Land, and the overwhelming majority of the children either died of hunger or exhaustion or were sold by unscrupulous Italians into Muslim slavery. The movement did, however, serve to incite feeling for the coming Fifth Crusade.

The Fifth Crusade (1217-1221)

The final crusade in which the Church played a major role was the fifth. It was called for by the pope of the previous crusade, Innocent III, as well as by the 12th ecumenical council, Lateran IV. As in the prior effort, the target was not Palestine itself, but Egypt, the basis of Muslim power, which the crusaders hoped to use as a bargaining piece to secure the release of Jerusalem.

Unlike the prior effort, which spun out of control in the hands of laymen, this effort was placed under the authority of a particularly forceful papal legate, Cardinal Pelagius. He had a regal disposition and regularly meddled in military decisions.

The effort met with initial success, and alarmed Muslim forces offered generous terms of peace, including the surrender of Jerusalem. However, the crusaders, spurred by Cardinal Pelagius, refused these. A military blunder cost the crusaders Damietta, which they had captured in the early stages of the campaign. In 1221, the Christian forces accepted a truce far less favorable than what had been offered initially. Many blamed Pelagius. Others blamed the pope. Some blamed the German emperor, Frederick II, who failed to show up for this crusade but who was to play a prominent role in the next.

The Sixth Crusade (1228-29)

Innocent III had granted Frederick II several delays in the fulfillment of his crusade vow so that he could take care of matters in Germany. Innocent’s successor, Gregory IX, tired of Frederick’s dallying and insisted that he fulfill his vow. When the emperor stalled again, citing illness, the pope had had enough and excommunicated him. When Frederick finally embarked, he was crusading as an excommunicate.

This odd situation led to an odd crusade. In part because of Frederick’s excommunication, few were willing to support him and he was unable to mount a major military campaign. As a result, he turned to diplomacy and, taking advantage of divisions among Muslims, worked out a treaty in 1229 with Sultan al-Kamil of Egypt, according to the terms of which Jerusalem (less the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque), Bethlehem, Nazareth, and additional territory were returned to the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Frederick II, still excommunicated, was then crowned king of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in a non-religious ceremony (since Jerusalem had been placed under interdict as a result of Frederick’s presence). The following year he was reconciled to the Church. He was unable, however, to successfully rule the Kingdom of Jerusalem from a distance, for the local barons refused to cooperate with his representatives.

The years 1239 and 1241 saw two minor crusades, respectively by Count Thibaud IV of Champagne and Roger of Cornwall. These two efforts, in Syria and against Ascalon, were unsuccessful and minor enough that they are not numbered among the standard eight crusades.

The Seventh Crusade (1249-52)

The initiative for the penultimate crusade was taken by Louis IX of France. Again, the strategy was pursued of attacking Egypt to gain concessions in Palestine. The crusaders quickly captured Damietta again but had to pay a heavy price in taking Cairo. A Muslim counter-attack succeeded in taking Louis prisoner. He was later released after agreeing to turn over Damietta and to pay a ransom. Afterward, he remained in the East for several years to negotiate the release of prisoners and fortify the Christian foothold in the region.

The Eighth Crusade (1270)

The last of the eight crusades was also led by Louis IX. In the ensuing years, changes in the Muslim world led to a renewed series of attacks on Christian territory in the Holy Land. The locals made appeals to the West for military aid, but few Europeans were interested in mounting a major campaign. One who was willing to again take the crusader’s cross was Louis IX, who wished to make good his previous failure. However, the campaign he now mounted achieved less for the Kingdom of Jerusalem than had the former.

It is not certain why, but Tunis in North Africa was picked for an initial target. Once there, plague claimed the lives of many, including the pious Louis. His brother, Charles of Anjou, arrived with Sicilian ships and was able to evacuate the remainder of the army.

Though this was the last of the eight enumerated crusades, it was not the last military expedition to be considered a crusade. Campaigns continued to be waged, against a variety of targets, not just Muslim ones, by crusaders—men who had taken a vow to undertake the fight.

For their part, the Christians of Palestine were left without further aid. Despite continuing losses, the Kingdom of Jerusalem managed to hang on in some form until 1291, when it finally ceased to exist. Christians continued to live in the area even after its fall.

An Appraisal

Many today in the self-reflective West view the Crusades as acts of unjustified aggression toward the peaceful inhabitants of the East and the Holy Land. However, even a cursory familiarity with the centuries in question makes this assessment difficult to sustain.

This may be seen clearly, for example, by transposing the roles of the forces. If the Crusades had occurred in the middle of a multi-century campaign in which Christians consumed half of what historically had been Muslim territory, few would regard Muslims as completely unjustified in striking back, in an attempt to reclaim lands lost to Christians, especially if these lands contained many of their co-religionists.

Few would expect Muslims to sit idly by if Christians seized control of and denied Muslims access to the Kaaba in Mecca and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. It would be fully expected that Muslims would retaliate and seek to reclaim control of or access to their holy sites.

Common sense makes it difficult not to see among the chief lessons of the Crusades “Don’t conquer half of another group’s civilization without expecting reprisals” and “Don’t touch a people’s holy sites without expecting retaliation.”

Far from being embarrassed by what the crusaders did, contemporary Christians should be proud that—despite their own internecine struggles in the Middle Ages—prior generations of Christians found the wherewithal to do precisely what Muslims would do in the same situation.

Christians today certainly should deplore evil acts committed during the Crusades, such as the massacres of innocent Muslims and Jews that periodically occurred, as well as the entire debacle of the Fourth Crusade. However, the enterprise of the Crusades themselves had two important goals at its core: the defense of Christian civilization against outside aggression (making the Crusades as a whole wars of self-defense) and securing access to the holy sites that commemorate to the most important events in world history.

It is also difficult to review the Crusades without thinking of them in light of recent events. In particular, one wonders whether future generations of Muslims will look back on the present time. Will they see the recent Islamic terrorist campaigns as what they were: attacks on innocent, non-combatants that, like all such attacks, are intrinsically unjustifiable? Will they regard the turn-of-the-millennium jihads as unrighteous “crusades”? And will the Muslim world ever gain the degree of self-reflection needed to recognize the Crusades as the entirely predictable responses to medieval Muslim aggression?