The Crusades

Derived from the phrase, 'Of the cross', few things in history have stirred up controversy like the Crusades. Since the calling of the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095, these so-called 'Holy Wars' went on to dictate much of European and Middle Eastern history until around 1291. Some would argue that the wars never ended!

In this section, you will find a breakdown of what I consider to be the most important aspects.

The Council of Clermont and the start of the Crusades

The First Crusade was launched by Pope Urban II, acting in a direct response to an appeal from the Byzantium Emperor Alexios I requesting assistance from Christians from the West to expel the Seljuq Turks from Anatolia. Speaking before a massive crowd at the Council of Clermont in France in 1095, the Pope called on fellow Christians to come to the aid of their brethren in the East and embark on a mission to help reclaim the Holy locations from Moslem occupancy.

The answer to the call was enormous. In a bid to entice Christians to ‘take up the cross’, Urban announced that those who went on crusade would be absolved of past sins, as well as be exempt from paying taxes. The influx of people ranged from all backgrounds, including women and children. The majority of the forces comprised peasants and yeoman status, rather than knights. Prior to the launch of the first expedition by the Pope in October 1096, an army consisting mostly of peasants set off to the Holy Land under the guidance of a French monk named Peter the Hermit. Despite its large numbers, the military inefficiency of the 100,000 strong force proved problematic. The so-called ‘People’s Army’ proved challenging to lead, leading to looting in Hungarian territories on crossing the Danube. On reaching the Holy Land, the army faced attack from Hungarian and Bulgarian assailants, depleting their number by around a quarter. The survivors continued to Constantinople, now along with other troops, and were assisted by Alexios into Asia Minor. Once there the disorganised rabble faced further problems, and the Turks massacred many.

By 1099, the official Crusader forces, made up mostly of knights and trained soldiers, descended on Jerusalem and recaptured the city from the Moslems 22 years after its capture. Following their victory, and the end of the First Crusade, the new Christian rulers established the four Latin states of the Middle East: the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Taking up the Cross

Every soldier, irrespective of their rank, who set out to fight in the crusades was first made to swear an oath to fight the infidel. On completion, the recruit was granted a cross of cloth to be sewn to their mantle.

The Second Crusade

On Christmas Eve 1144, the city of Edessa was conquered by the armies of the Governor of Mosul leading to calls from the Pope to reclaim the city. On hearing of the news, at least six months later, the newly elected Pope Eugenius III set about writing to Louis VII of France, seeking his allegiance. At the time Louis was widely unpopular in France, notably as a result of his controversial decision to seize the lands of Theobald of Champagne in 1142. However, he was still close with Bernard of Clairvaux, a man he often sought for advice.

Clairvaux travelled the country throughout 1146 seeking support for the new Crusade, of which tens of thousands agreed to ‘take up the cross’. As the forces continued to grow, the Pope requested Bernard seek out Conrad III of Germany, at the time reluctant to go to war. Conrad proved easily convinced, following which a meeting took place with the King, the Pope, Bernard and over 250 Templars.

Conrad’s army were first to embark, suffering defeat to the Turks at Dorylaeum in October 1147. Conrad took what remained of his army, about 2,000 men, and joined with Louis’s army at Jerusalem. The forces continued with the intention of besieging Damascus, but the siege was abandoned due to a lack of supplies. Dismayed, Conrad returned to Constantinople, while Louis for the time being returned to Jerusalem. The Templars aside, the Crusade was criticised for the lack of togetherness among the crusaders, leading to their defeat. The King of France later wrote that the role of the Templars had been of pivotal importance, for had it not been for their leadership the capitulation could have been greater.

The Third Crusade

The failure of the second crusade proved a defining moment for the people of Europe, whose confidence had been dented by the overwhelming defeat. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose passionate rallying had convinced thousands to leave their homes to fight for the Christian armies, was particularly hurt by the failure and wrote to the Pope apologising for the defeat. Attempts at launching a further crusade failed, the last action of Bernard’s life, dying in 1153.

The situation in the East was becoming darker for the Christians. Despite success in taking Ascalon and further inroads into Egypt, relations with the Byzantium Empire were strained, often leaving the armies lacking the necessary reinforcements. In 1171, the emergence of Saladin, nephew of Nur al-Din Zangli of Aleppo, as Sultan of Egypt, proved decisive in uniting Egypt and Syria. Further problems arose when King Amalric of Jerusalem died in 1174, leaving Jerusalem without an alliance with the Byzantium Empire. His successor was Baldwin IV, who suffered from leprosy. His education was primarily under the guardianship of Guillaume of Tyre, famous for being the Templars’ chronicler.

November 1177 saw the defeat of Saladin at the Battle of Montgisard. For the next eight years, combined efforts from the Templars and the forces of Baldwin IV saw Saladin kept in check, but their fortunes turned following Baldwin’s death in March 1185. Baldwin’s replacement was his nephew, Baldwin V, who had been crowned co-king in 1183, under the regency of Raymond of Tripoli. Baldwin’s death a year later caused tensions, as Sybilla, mother of Baldwin V and sister of Baldwin IV, crowned herself and husband Guy of Lusignan Queen and King. In the aftermath, Raymond’s defiance of the new rulers was illustrated by the taking of a luxurious caravan, and having its Moslem inhabitants jailed. Saladin’s requests for their safety were denied, despite the efforts of Guy, leading to Saladin’s decision to wage war. In 1187 he laid siege to the city of Tiberius, leading to Guy’s desire to reclaim it immediately, a decision he would live to regret. While marching to the Horns of Hattin, near Tiberius, the king was advised by Templar Grand Master Gerard de Ridefort to continue to the city, instead of staying near the water supply. On taking de Ridefort’s advice, the crusader army was annihilated by the Moslems, leaving Saladin free to take Jerusalem, which was surrendered without a fight.

News of the fall of Jerusalem was of great significance throughout Europe, leading to calls for another crusade. As pilgrims from Europe prepared to travel, the Templars remained in the East, protecting what remained, but before the year was out Saladin had taken the coastal port of Acre in Syria. The new Pope, Gregory VIII, proclaimed the loss of Jerusalem was a sign from God that the sins of the wicked were being punished, a statement aimed particularly at Henry II of England for the murder of Thomas Becket. In England and France, a new ‘Saladin Tithe’ was launched, aimed at funding a ‘third crusade’ while Englishmen and Welsh were requested to ‘take up the cross’ leading to over 3,000 volunteers. Following Henry II’s death, his eldest surviving son Richard I, the Lionheart, took up the call and joined Philip II of France and the elderly Barbarossa, The Holy Roman Emperor, in launching the crusade.

The Templar oriented crusader armies defeated Saladin just outside Jerusalem at the Forest of Arsuf, followed by the Templar siege of Acre. The Moslems surrendered on 12 July 1191, following which the majority of the crusaders returned to Europe. Prolonged negotiations between Richard and Saladin’s intermediaries eventually saw a fragile truce between both forces with Richard agreeing to demolish Ascalon, west of Jerusalem. In contrast, Saladin decided to acknowledge Christian possessions in the coastal regions. The negotiations allowed new trade links between the two peoples and Christian pilgrims once again entered Jerusalem.

The Fourth Crusade

Pope Innocent III initiated a fourth crusade in 1198 to retake Jerusalem through a campaign that would begin in Egypt. Following the lack of success in military conquests during the previous half-century, only a small number of cities on the coast remained in the hands of the crusaders. Motivation for further conflict was also lacking in Europe, particularly as France and England were currently at war. By 1202, provisions were in place for a crusade involving 33,500 men, to be transported to Egypt by the Venetians. The majority of the army was French, supplemented by crusaders from Flanders and the Holy Roman Empire. By July the troops were ready to sail on Cairo, with explicit instructions from the Pope that no attacks would occur on Christian cities.

Despite agreement being in place with the Venetians for the transport of the troops, many crusaders sailed from other ports. As a consequence, the contract with the Venetians went mostly unfulfilled. Due to the crusaders’ lack of funds, Doge Enrico Dandalo of Venice conscripted them to restore the Christian city of Zara (Zadar) to obedience. In reality the siege that practically destroyed the city was little more than an attempt by the Venetians to dent the links of one of their rivals. Innocent deplored the attack and excommunicated all involved. The attack was the first Catholic attack on a Catholic city.

Lacking the funds to travel to Egypt, the majority of the leaders continued to Constantinople, where they sought to restore the crown to the exiled Isaac II. On reaching the city, the crusader army, travelling with Isaac’s son, Prince Alexius, expecting a welcome were taunted by the Byzantines, leading to attacks on the cities of Chalcedon and Chrysopolis. After a group of 80 Franks defeated 500 Byzantine horseback riders, the crusaders then laid siege to Constantinople, toppling it in 1204. The crusader victory proved a decisive event in relations between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and also saw the creation of the Latin States, a feudal crusader state established by its new leaders.

The Albigensian Crusade

In addition to the ongoing war with the Moslems, the 13th century also brought escalated conflict with groups within the sphere of Christianity that the Catholic Church viewed heretical. The Fourth Crusade that had already seen the Great Schism between Catholic and Orthodox faith, also saw the beginning of several military crusades against heretics.

Despite a renowned tough stance on branches of Christianity considered heretical, before the 12th-century action by the Catholic Church against heretics was usually limited to individual preachers or small movements in towns or villages. However, throughout the previous century, more significant organised actions of separatist Christian groups had begun to take on a more substantial following. Among these groups were the Cathars, whose progress in Western France was starting to gather momentum.

The Cathari were unlike Christian groups in the traditional sense. The dualist belief of two equal gods was separate from the Catholic doctrine of one all-powerful. The Cathari belief held that the world was the creation of the God’ Rex Mundi’ the King of the World, and bringer of evil, whereas the second God was the bringer of love, though his existence was discarnate. The Catholics found themselves at odds with their views on the divinity of Jesus Christ. The church also harboured concerns that the Cathari shared the doctrine with elements of early Gnosticism.

Following his inauguration in 1198, Innocent III sought a new tough stance on heretics. After attempts at peaceful conversion failed, Innocent suspended some of his bishops in the Languedoc region where the religion was at its most dominant due to their soft stance on the faith. In some areas noblemen and bishops supported the belief due to frustration from Papal interference in their sees. Attempts to entice noblemen and even the King of France to assist in his efforts to wipe out the Cathars brought little progress. The refusal of Count Raymond of Toulouse to offer his support eventually brought conflict with papal legate Pierre de Castelnau, leading to the legate’s murder. In response, Innocent launched a crusade against Languedoc, beginning the Albigensian Crusade – the term Albigensian was frequently used for Cathars in the Languedoc region, allegedly due to their association with the city of Albi.

By 1209 the possibility of action in the crusades was imminent. Over 10,000 men in Lyon were ready to head south. Before the end of the year, Raymond of Toulouse accepted the Pope’s call and was forgiven his excommunication. On the march south, the crusaders captured the small village of Servian and arrived at Béziers on 21 July. On reaching the city, the crusaders called for Cathar surrender and for the Catholics in the city to assist in the endeavour. When both groups refused the entire city was razed to the ground and the population killed. The city of Carcassonne fell soon after, though on this occasion the community was spared – one account suggests they were forced to evacuate the town naked. Several other towns surrendered without a fight, all of which then became part of the northern Kingdom of France. By now the new leader of the crusader army was Simon de Montfort, the 5th Earl, father of the future leader of the barons’ revolt against King Henry III of England.

1210 began with the siege of Lastours, but the crusaders were repelled. In June the crusaders won the city of Minerve. Accounts from the attack tell that the Cathars were allowed to return to Catholicism, and many accepted the terms. One hundred and forty who refused were burned at the stake. The crusaders ended the year by taking the town of Termes, before returning to Lastours. Despite his progress, de Montfort had alienated many important lords, including Raymond of Toulouse who was once more under excommunication from the church. Lastours surrendered in May, leading to the execution of several hundred Cathars. The towns of Cassès and Montferrand were taken in June, following which de Montfort led the crusader army to Toulouse. Despite a strong start, the crusaders withdrew due to a lack of supplies. Following this, Raymond of Toulouse, now fighting against the crusaders, took on de Montfort at Castelnaudary. De Montfort escaped the siege, but the forces under Raymond went on to take over twenty towns, most of which were retaken the following year. By 1213, Peter II of Aragon had come to the aid of Toulouse, but his subsequent death at Muret led to the forces scattering. Following Raymond’s being forced to flee to England de Montfort took advantage of the turmoil and by the end of 1215 Toulouse had surrendered to de Montfort.

Innocent’s death in 1216 coupled with Raymond’s return, marked a change in fortunes for the besieged. After assembling a large travelling force from citizens of the affected towns, the town of Beaucaire fell. By 1217 Toulouse was also back in its original hands. De Montfort’s return to siege the town again failed, and during the conflict he was killed. Without a prominent leader, the crusade came to a halt, until the command was taken by Philip ‘Augustus’ II of France. The next three years saw improved fortunes for the forces of Raymond and his son, Raymond VII of Toulouse, with many towns recaptured from their occupation by de Montfort’s forces. In 1222 Raymond senior died, and was replaced by his son. A year later, when Philip died the crown of France fell to Louis VIII.

Raymond, like his father, was executed for his role in defending the heretics, though both Philip and Louis undoubtedly saw the endeavour for land as greater than putting down heretics. In 1225 a levy was placed on raising funds, following which the momentum swung to the King of France. Avignon surrendered after a three-month siege, before Louis’s death. After being succeeded by Louis IX, the child king, the crusade continued under the permission of Queen Blanche of Castile, and by 1228 many significant towns, including Toulouse, were captured. Raymond was offered a truce by Blanche: his rule of the town in exchange for his assistance fighting the Cathars. The terms also included his sister being married to the King of France with Toulouse being returned. Raymond agreed and was subsequently seized and imprisoned.

With the fall of Raymond and Toulouse complete, Languedoc was now firmly under the control of France for the first time. 1229 saw the beginning of the infamous inquisition in which the Cathars were tortured for their heretical beliefs. Based on the evidence at hand, the proceedings were reasonably civilised compared to the later Templar interrogation and only 11% of Cathars were imprisoned, and only 1% burned at the stake for their steadfast beliefs. Various Cathar strongholds, such as Albi, Narbonne withstood the inquisition while others such as Montségur withstood a siege of over eight months before finally surrendering in 1244.

The Children's Crusade

The so-called Children’s Crusade was a mysterious series of events that occurred in France and Germany in around 1212. Fuelled by the failings of the crusader armies, the story tells that large numbers of teenage peasants, allegedly some even younger, set out on a crusade to the Holy Land to ensure the peaceful conversion of Moslems to Christianity. According to the popular version of events, groups of wandering peasants marched to Italy under the leadership of a German named Nicholas. While most failed to pass the Alps, an influential group made it as far as Genoa or Marseilles, some of whom were captured and sold as slaves.

The Fifth Crusade

The issuing of the Quia Maior by Pope Innocent in 1213 for another military campaign to retake the Holy Land proved the first step for a fifth crusade. In November 1215 a gathering of 71 patriarchs and metropolitan bishops, 412 ordinary bishops, the majority of key monarchs and over 900 priors and abbots at the Fourth Council of the Lateran laid out a formulated plan for another military campaign. Due to the time lag in setting out the council, the turnout was more significant than in previous years, allowing for a more thought out operation.

As usual, the objective was the retaking of Jerusalem, this time involving armies led by Andrew II of Hungary and Duke Leopold VI of Austria. Although attempts to take the Holy City failed, the crusaders successfully conquered Damietta in Egypt in 1219. The papal reaction to the coup was enormous, leading to pressure to take Cairo. Two years later, an ill-advised mission to Cairo failed due to a lack of supplies, followed by the crusader armies being massacred by the ruler of Egypt, Ayyubid Sultan Al-Kamil, leading to their retreat. In the aftermath, the Sultan agreed an eight-year peace with the Europeans.

The Sixth Crusade

Seven years after the failure of the fifth crusade, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II began what is known as the sixth crusade, following his excommunication by Pope Gregory IX for his repeated failure to embark on a crusade. In 1225 Frederick had married Yolande, or Isabella, of Jerusalem, the daughter of the nominal King of Jerusalem, John of Brienne, giving him a claim to the broken up Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Following his excommunication, Frederick sailed to Cyprus on his way to Acre, then capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. After a breakdown of talks with the Ibelin faction in Cyprus, and split support among the crusaders, including the Templars and Hospitallers, Frederick sought discussions with the Sultan of Egypt to seal the peaceful surrender of Jerusalem. Fearing Frederick’s strong force along the coast, the Sultan ceded Jerusalem and various coastal areas to the Franks, but on condition, the Dome of the Rock remained with the Moslems. Frederick also gained control of Nazareth, Jaffa, Sidon and Bethlehem.

The Seventh Crusade

Jerusalem had once again returned to Moslem control in 1244. This occurred following the fall of the city to the wandering Khwarezmians, who had travelled to Egypt to ally themselves with the Mamluks. Calls for the immediate recapture of the city by the Pope were met with a lukewarm reaction compared to that of previous years as European Christians no longer saw the fall of the city, so long in the conscience Moslem-controlled, as an immediate priority.

In 1248, Louis IX (the pious) led a crusade of 15,000 men, including 3,000 knights, from the ports of Marseille and Aigues-Mortes to Cyprus where they spent the winter in preparation. Despite calls from the Templars, the Principality of Antioch and the Latin Empire for assistance against the Syrians and the Byzantines, Louis continued to Egypt intending to take Jerusalem through a well-supplied area. By June 1249 Damietta fell to the crusaders where they remained following flooding of the Nile. In November they marched towards Cairo, around the same time that the Ayyubid sultan of Egypt, as-Salih Ayyub, died. A series of setbacks followed, including defeat to Mamluks and loss of the Templars and a force led by Robert of Artois at the Battle of Al Mansurah. Louis was taken in 1250 and fell ill with dysentery. Though an Arab physician cured him, his ransom cost 800,000 bezants, including the surrender of Damietta.

The Eighth Crusade

Perturbed by the regular attacks on remaining crusader states in Syria by the Mamluk Sultan, Baibars, Louis led calls for another crusade. Despite lacking in support from Europe, Louis set sail for Tunis, capital of the modern day Tunisian Republic, though poor conditions endured by his troops in the hot July weather made progress impossible. The son of the king died in August, followed less than a month later by the king. Under the new leadership of the king’s brother, Charles, the siege of Tunis was abandoned and peace agreed with the Sultan.

The Ninth Crusade

Within a year of the failure of the eighth crusade, Prince Edward of England, soon to be Edward I following the death of Henry III, landed in Acre, accompanied by Charles of Anjou, brother of the late King of France. Due to their lack of numbers, Edward attempted to make an alliance with the Mongul ruler of Persia, Abagha, which was greeted favourably. In an answer dated 4 September the Mongul ruler agreed to assist in withstanding the Mamluk attack. Strengthened by extra men from England and Cyprus, a force of 10,000 Monguls came to Syria, leading to a Mamluk withdrawal south. However, the Mongul withdrawal north soon led to a counter charge. The Sultan, Baibars, became discouraged believing a joint sea and land attack on Egypt was imminent, convincing him not to persevere. After successful defence of Cyprus, Edward agreed a peace treaty of 10 years, 10 months and 10 days with the Sultan and travelled home in 1273 on hearing news of the death of his father.


Despite calls by the new Pope Gregory X for another crusade at the Council of Lyon in 1274, support was largely nonexistent. Shortly after this time, Charles of Anjou took impetus from disagreements between the Venetians, Hugh III of Cyprus and the Templars to make himself King of Jerusalem. He attacked Hugh in Cyprus, and in 1277 he had control of Acre. Calls from Venice began for a crusade against Constantinople and the re-established Byzantine Empire, a view shared by Pope Martin IV in 1282. The disastrous endeavour was the last crusade against Christian or Moslem by the Catholic forces.

In 1289, Sultan Qulawun amassed a large army and conquered what remained of the County of Tripoli. The crusader resurgence was impressive, and the setback cost the Sultan two years. In 1291 pilgrims at Acre came under attack and were besieged. While Qulawun died in the siege the fall of Acre marked the fall of the last remaining crusader state and effectively the end of the crusades in the Middle East.

The End of the Crusades

The loss of Acre proved a decisive moment not only for the future of the Crusades, but also the Templars. Despite the gallantry of the last garrison, and the reluctance of remaining Templar strongholds in Outremer to surrender to the Mamluks, the Templars' role came under the microscope. In certain quarters elements of dissent were escalating. The aim of blame for the loss of the crusades was squarely at the Templars’ failures, arrogance and at times strained relations with other orders. In reality, attempts by the Templars to protect pilgrims while maintaining a stronghold in the coastal regions far surpassed the efforts of the rest of the crusader armies. Yet, in the eyes of the monarchs, they proved a convenient scapegoat. The failures in the Holy Land had proven an expensive exercise for the rulers of Europe. In contrast, the Templars' flair for financial development, coupled with their exclusion from taxes, left them secure. During the last century, the order had thrived on the donations of wealthy crusaders, in particular inheriting estates of those who died in battle.

Following the loss of Acre, the Templars maintained a presence in the East, defending Armenia and Cyprus, still under Christian rule. A small presence also continued in the Holy Land, where they attempted to ensure the survival of Christian refugees while also supporting the Hospitallers.

Back in Rome, Pope Nicholas IV publicly criticised both the Templars and Hospitallers for their escalating rivalry, and declared his belief that the orders should merge. The rising impact of the Hospitallers as a military force was put forward as the main reason, and was partly blamed for the loss of Acre. Neither order took the news with any great enthusiasm. By 1291 the Templar Grand Master died, and his successor was gone within two years. In 1293 Jacques de Molay was elected fourteenth Grand Master of the order, on location at the new headquarters in Cyprus. De Molay was in many ways lacking the personality of some of his predecessors and saw the retaking of Outremer as the crusaders’ principle goal. In 1294 he met with the new Pope, Boniface VIII, who granted the order the same privileges at Cyprus as they had previously held in Outremer. For a time talks turned to that of a tenth crusade but impetus was slow. In 1300, raids on cities in Egypt and Syria were planned. However, by the time allies had arrived from Armenia or Mongolia, the Templars were once more stationed in Cyprus and unprepared for an attack.

In Europe, the possibility of a new crusade seemed unlikely. In France, King Philip IV, often known as ‘le bel’ for his youthful looks, was more concerned with strengthening France’s economic position, depleted after more than a century of ongoing war and crusade. Attempting to raise further money, the king tried to tax the French clergy one half of their income, prompting Pope Boniface VIII to issue the Clericis Laicos in 1296, forbidding the transfer of clergy income to the crown. In a similar vein, Philip recalled all coinage and reissued new ones at a devalued figure.

The aftermath proved a major embarrassment. Following the devaluing of the currency, Philip was forced to flee angry mobs by taking shelter in the Paris Temple. Despite his piety, Philip’s relations with Templars had been strained by his jealousy. He had asked to become an honorary member in his youth, like Richard I, but his request was refused.

Like Pope Nicholas, Philip supported the idea of merging the Templars and the Hospitallers, though most likely his motivation was for self-gain. Without the Crusades, the Templar position in Europe was vulnerable. The original goal of protecting pilgrims in the Holy Land was more remote than ever, and numbers had dwindled in the last fifteen years. Nevertheless, the order’s numbers and wealth was still high. By 1306 the Templars were considering forming their own state, in keeping with the Hospitaller state of Rhodes and the Teutonic Knights state of Prussia. Politically, the idea was threatening to Philip, who was severely in debt to the order.