The Crusades


This history and apologetic for the Crusades is suitable for junior or senior high school social studies or history students.

Pope Blessed Urban II and the first crusade

Urban had been a Cluny monk and an assistant to Pope Gregory. For a time, be had been a prisoner of Henry IV. When Urban was elected, Rome was held by the imperial anti-pope. Urban spent the first three years of his reign in south Italy, but he held councils and improved ecclesiastical discipline. Finally the forces of Countess Matilda of Tuscany, who had supported Gregory against Henry all along, defeated Henry at Canossa. Urban entered Rome, but the anti-pope still held the strong places. Urban didn't sit on the Papal throne until six years after his election.

Urban's main achievement was convoking the Council of Clermont, November 1095, which called the First Crusade. The Byzantine Emperor, Alexius Commenus, had sent a desperate appeal to Urban for armed knights to defend Christianity against the Moslem enemy. When the Pope laid the Emperor's pleas before the knights in Clermont, the main concern of the noblemen there was not so much the defense of Byzantium as the rescue of the Holy land from Moslem domination. Palestine had been under Moslem control since the days of the Caliph Omar, but at least the Arab Moslems had allowed Christian pilgrims to visit the places made sacred by the life of Christ. The SeIjuk Turks, now the dominant Moslem power, had, on the other hand, closed off the Holy Land.

Thus the Pope concluded his speech to the council with these words: “Men of God, men chosen and blessed among all, combine your forces! Take the road to the Holy Sepulcher assured of the imperishable glory that awaits you in God's kingdom. Let each one deny himself and take the Cross!” With a shout — "God wills it” — the Assembly rose. They adopted a red cross as their emblem, and within a few hours no more red material remained in the town because the knights had cut it all up into crosses to be sewn on their sleeves. Because of their emblem (crux is the Latin word for cross) they were given the name Crusaders.

It is important to understand that the Crusades were a just war. The Church is frequently attacked on the question of the Crusades, sometimes on the grounds that the Christian nations of Europe were the aggressors and encouraged to be so by the Popes, sometimes on the grounds that this kind of war was inappropriate for Christians to fight, and sometimes on the grounds that immoral things happened on the Crusades. Each of these objections can be countered, showing that the Crusades were a just war.

First, the Christian nations of Europe were definitely not the aggressors. As we have seen in earlier chapters, the Moslems had been aggressors against the Christians since the seventh century. Their attacks on Christian countries were still going on in the eleventh century. In 1071 the Turks had attacked and virtually annihilated the Byzantine army at Manzikert. It was this defeat that led the Byzantine Emperor to appeal to the Pope for aid against the Moslems. The Christian countries of Europe were clearly justified in defending themselves against Moslem attacks and also in going on the offensive in order to prevent future attacks. At no point did the Crusaders attack the Moslem homeland, Arabia, but only those originally Christian territories that the Moslems had conquered.

Second, it certainly was and is appropriate for Christians to defend themselves and the innocent and helpless against attacks, which is exactly what the Crusaders were doing. It is also appropriate for Christians to try to regain lands which their enemy had conquered, as was the case with the Holy Land. The religious significance of the Holy land makes it even better that Christians try to regain it rather than worse, since Christians had every right to govern the lands where Christ had walked and to protect them from desecration.

Finally, there were certainly abuses during the Crusades, most notably the Sack of Jerusalem and the Sack of Constantinople, both of which are discussed below. But an immoral action during a war does not detract from the justice of the cause of the war. The immoral action should be condemned, as Godfrey de Bouillon condemned the Sack of Jerusalem and Simon de Montfort condemned the Sack of Constantinople, but the war itself remains just.

On to Jerusalem

In the summer of 1096 the various contingents of Crusaders began making their way to the Holy Land. There was no one overall leader. Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, certainly could not be trusted with such a responsibility, nor was any other ruler in Europe in a position to assume leadership. So knights from the different areas followed their own overlords. The Pope appointed Bishop Adhemar as his personal representative, with the responsibility of keeping the lords working in as much harmony as possible to achieve their mission. As the Crusade progressed, the dominant figures would be Bohemond, leader of the Normans of Italy; Godfrey de Bouillon, leading the contingent from Lorraine and the Low Countries; and Raymond of Toulouse, with knights from southern France. The contingent under Raymond was the largest' and of all the leaders he was the one most committed to the crusading ideal: the restoration of Jerusalem to Christian control.

The lack of a unified command was only one of the reasons why, from a purely worldly standpoint, the Crusade seemed unlikely of success. The Crusaders would be fighting far from home, whereas the Moslems would be on familiar ground. The economy of Europe was just beginning to grow so that commerce and trade could flourish and surplus wealth be produced. The Moslems, on the other hand, were living off a long-standing economy. But these Moslem advantages paled beside the devotion and enthusiasm which motivated the majority of those who sewed the red crosses on their sleeves, leaving home and family to fight for Christ against His enemies.

The main Crusader contingents arrived in Constantinople by April 1097, and in June took nearby Nicea from the Moslems. A week later, they began marching east, through arid wastelands under a blistering sun. The local Moslem commander thought these foolish knights could be easily conquered, the more so as they had divided their forces into two columns. On July 1 he attacked at Dorylaeum.

Bohemond and his men bore the first onslaught. He exhorted his men to stand firm and sent messengers for help. The Normans held until Raymond's men arrived and then a contingent led by Bishop Adhemar. The Turks fled, having suffered five times as many casualties as the Christians.

On they went, through the midsummer heat, finally reaching fertile lands in August. After a rest they were on the march again, reaching the important city of Antioch in October. The siege of the city was long and difficult. Some of the less dedicated leaders weakened and returned home. But Raymond, Godfrey and Bohemond held firm, inspiring their men, leading charges, resisting enemy attacks. Finally Bohemond, with the help of a traitor inside Antioch, broke into the city and opened the gates to the rest of the Crusading army. Antioch fell to the Christians, but they soon found themselves in turn besieged by a Moslem relief army. Conditions looked grim but on June 28, Bohemond called forth the entire Christian army. After a final hand-to-hand struggle, the Moslem army was routed, and Antioch was secure.

The leaders let their army rest and recuperate until November 1. In August Bishop Adhemar died, leaving no successor. Without his steadying hand, the leaders quarreled among themselves. Bohemond considered that Antioch was his personal possession and seemed to have lost interest in Jerusalem. Raymond, whose commitment to the conquest of Jerusalem never wavered, insisted that they march on. Reports of their quarrel reached the men. The soldiers had no doubts as to what they wanted to do. They demanded that the army march to Jerusalem at once or they would tear down the walls of Antioch. The leaders promised to go, but there were more delays. Once more the men had to deliver an ultimatum.

Finally, on January 13, 1099 Raymond led the Crusaders on the final march to Jerusalem. They won a series of fairly easy victories and on June 7 arrived within sight of Jerusalem for the first time, viewing it from a mountain which pilgrims had long before named Mountjoy. Said one man writing at the time, “When they heard the name of Jerusalem, they could not restrain their tears. Falling upon their knees, they gave thanks to God for having enabled them to reach the goal of their pilgrimage, the Holy City where our Lord had chosen to save the world.”

But the siege of Jerusalem was even more difficult than the siege of Antioch. The sun shone pitilessly and the wind from the desert drained moisture from the flesh. The Moslems had poisoned the wells near the city, and men would lick dew from the grass or dig into the ground to find moist earth. But then one of the priests with the Crusaders reported that he had seen a vision of Bishop Adhemar, who had asked that the army fast and then walk barefoot around the walls of Jerusalem begging God's help. If they would do so, victory would be theirs.

The men had loved Bishop Adhemar and they all responded to this request. The Crusaders had renewed confidence and courage, and on July 15 the final assault was launched. Godfrey led it, from a wooden siege tower, at one point even holding up a cracked beam with his own back. His men flung open the Gate of St. Stephen. Through it came the Normans and then the main force under Raymond. Jerusalem was taken.

As the men entered the city, all their pent-up frustration erupted. They went wild, looting the city and killing many innocent people. This behavior was totally against the promises these men had made at knight-hood, and marred what would otherwise have been a splendid victory. Neither Godfrey nor Raymond, however, participated in or in any way approved of the Sack of Jerusalem.

The Crusaders now offered the crown of Jerusalem to Raymond. He refused it, declaring that he would not wear a crown of gold where his Savior had worn a crown of thorns. Godfrey was then offered the crown, and he too refused it with the same words. But he agreed to take responsibility for Jerusalem's defense, under the title Defender of the Holy Sepulcher. At last Christians could freely travel in the Holy land and worship at the holy places.

Soon after the conquest of Jerusalem, a new religious community was organized, called the Knights of St John, or the Hospitallers. The Knights of St. John took vows to dedicate their lives to God as did the monks in Europe. They also had a charitable purpose — care of the sick (hence the name Hospitallers) — as did some monks in Europe. But besides all this, the Knights regarded themselves as a military organization, which would fight whenever necessary in the service of the Church or to protect the innocent. They were, for example, entrusted with the protection of the Holy Sepulcher. The Knights provided the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem with a permanent army which represented the best of the spirit of the Crusades.


Carroll, Anne W. “The Crusades.” In Christ the King: Lord of History. (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers Inc., 1994), 163-167.

Reprinted by permission of the author.


Anne W. Carroll was the founder and director of Seton School in Manassas, Virginia for many years where she still lives with her husband, Warren H. Carroll, noted Catholic historian and founder of Christendom College. She has spent the past twenty-five years developing and teaching an authentically Catholic curriculum at the junior and senior high school levels and is the author of Christ the King: Lord of History, and Christ and the Americas. Anne Carroll is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center