At the time just prior to the first crusade in 1095, there were three great powers in the European and Middle Eastern World; the Holy Roman Empire consisting of most of Western Europe; Byzantium, which included the Western part of the Asian Minor, Greece, and the Balkans, and Islam, which controlled Eastern Asian Minor, Persia, Syria, Palestine, Arabia, North Africa, and Southern Spain.
The Holy Roman Empire had its origin in the Carolingian empire of the Franks whose first mayor (“King”) was Charles Martel. This included what is now Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, and France. When Martel died in 741, he was succeeded by his son, Pepin (The Short), whose major contribution to history was his invasion of Italy in 756 leading to the defeat of the Lombards who occupied Central Italy. Pepin subsequently gave that land to Pope Stephen, II. This became known as the “Donation of Pepin” and in return the Pope consecrated Pepin as king of the Franks. Pepin died in 768 and his son, Charles, better known as Charlemagne, became king. Charlemagne and Pepin expanded their empire by pushing the Muslims out of Southern France and Northern Spain during the latter part of the eighth century. Charlemagne again invaded Italy in 773 in order to recover the papal territories donated by his father. He also fought prolonged wars against the Saxons in the northeast. Both he and Pepin cultivated good relations with the Pope and Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo, III in 800.
Charlemagne died in 814 and his son, Louis (the Pious), became emperor. He continued the wars of attrition against the Muslims and Spain and repelled invasions by the Vikings in the north and the Magyars in the east. Unfortunately, at the time of his death in 840, he had three adult sons and the empire was divided into three parts. By that time the Holy Roman Empire consisted of a collection of Kingdoms with semi-independent rulers and could hardly be called an empire. Ultimately, the emperor became a figurehead, elected by the various kings. This situation inevitably led to civil wars and also strife with the papacy over the right of investure i.e. whether the pope or the secular rulers had the power to appoint bishops and archbishops. This controversy continued for over 200 years. This was important to the nobility because of the power wielded by these clerics. The Vatican held that Ecclesiastic appointments should be made by the church. The matter was not finally resolved until 1122 by the Concordat of Worms which provided for a distinction between the temporal and the spiritual powers of the Bishops.
Islam, on the other hand, after the defeat at Tours in 732, was slowly driven out of Southern France and Spain by the Christian emperors and kings of the west. However, it was not until 1492 they were finally expelled from Spain.
In the Middle East, there was ongoing war between Byzantium and Islam. In the 8th and 9th century, Arabs conquered Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Persia and established the Abbasid caliphate and moved the capital from Damascus to Bagdad. In the 10th and 11th centuries, the Seljuk Turks came out of Asia and captured most of the Middle East, including Palestine, Syria, and western Asia Minor. Most of these conquests were at the expense of the Byzantines. The Battle of Manzikert in 1071 was a major defeat for Byzantium. However, a few years later, the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus regained some of the lost territories and revived the Byzantine Empire.
In 1095, the Byzantine emperor Alexius appealed to Pope Urban, II for help against the Muslims who were threatening Constantinople. Urban felt strongly that the Holy Land should be controlled by Christians rather than Muslims. He called for a council of the church at a town in France called Cleremont where he preached a sermon calling for a grand crusade to retake the Holy Land. He was a gifted orator and his message was received enthusiastically which led to the first great crusade. It should also be noted that those who “took up the cross” did not do so for altruistic reasons, but rather for the opportunity to plunder and establish new kingdoms for themselves. The Pope also had ulterior motives. In 1054, a schism had occurred in Christianity. For years, the archbishop of Constantinople had opposed the authority of the Roman Pope over the Eastern Church which he led. This came to a head in 1054 when Pope Leo IX and archbishop Cerularius excommunicated each other over the Pope’s efforts to control the Eastern Church. This led to a separation of the Western or Roman church from The Eastern Orthodox rite of Christianity. When the Eastern Emperor Alexius asked for help in 1095, Urban agreed to promote the crusade in return for Alexius’ help in reuniting the two branches of Christianity. The Pope also benefitted from the crusade because it distracted the European nobility from the controversy over investure. This was the setting for the beginning of the first crusade which began in 1096. It was led by Raymond Count of Toulouse, Godfrey, Duke of Lorraine, and his brother Baldwin, Behemond of Taranto, and the papal legate, bishop Adhemar. Their march across southern Europe to Constantinople was characterized by the usual plunder, rape and murder.
However, the so called People’s Crusade led by Peter the Hermit was far worst by comparison. Impoverished people living in miserable conditions looking for a better life in the Holy Land joined the movement. Their progress eastward across Europe preceded that of the first crusade and there was great slaughter of European Jews, along with rape and pillage. Alexius was horrified when that motley band arrived at his city and he shifted them across the Dardanelles to fight the infidels. They were defeated and massacred in short order by the Muslims. A few survived to reach the Holy Land and these were called “tafers”. These survivors of the People’s Crusade were feared by everyone because of their religious fervor, which made them fierce fighters and their habit of killing everyone in any town or village they captured.
The main body of the crusaders arrived at Constantinople in 1097. They took Nicea from the Muslims and returned it to Byzantium. Baldwin and his troops then attacked and besieged Edessa, which fell later that year. By that time, the Crusaders were quarreling among themselves and refusing to cooperate with Alexius. They were more concerned about empire building for themselves than the crusades. The remainder of the crusaders then attacked Antioch, which after a long siege fell in 1098. Both Bohemond and Raymond vied to rule there, but Bohemond was finally selected to reign over that city.
The crusaders, led by Godfrey then went on to Jerusalem in 1099 and the city fell to them in June of that year. This was followed by a massacre of almost the entire population. The carnage included men, women, and children, both Jew and Muslim. Godfrey was very pious and probably was the only leader of the crusades who was sincere in his religious motivation to reclaim the Holy Land for Christianity. He declined the title of “King of Jerusalem” and preferred to be called “Defender of the Holy Sepulchre”. He refused to wear a crown in the city where Jesus had worn a crown of thorns. Unfortunately, he died one year later and his brother, Baldwin of Edessa, had no problem with being crowned as King of Jerusalem.
There followed almost 50 years of relative peace, during which the crusaders consolidated and expanded their kingdoms. There was some fighting with disorganized bands of Muslims and even fighting amongst themselves. They traded with the Arabs and even used them as mercenaries when they fought each other. Palestine was then fairly peaceful and during that time pilgrims traveled safely to the Holy Land and Jerusalem. This was made possible by two military orders of knights. The Knights of St. John (Hospitallers) and the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon (Knights Templar).
All this came to an end in 1147, when the Muslim leader, Zengi, reconquered Edessa, which exposed and endangered the Northern flank of the crusader states. The Pope at that time, Eugenius III, called for a second crusade which was then led by Louis VII of France and Conrad III of the Holy Roman Empire. However, the armies of both of these kings were defeated before they even reached the Holy Land. The crusader kingdoms in Palestine survived by hiring Turkish mercenaries to help them hold off Zengi and after his death, Saladin. On July 4, 1187, a very large crusader army was decisively defeated at the Battle of Hattin and shortly thereafter Saladin retook Jerusalem. The defeat at Hattin was due primarily to Saladin being able to choose a time and place for the battle, which was very much to his advantage.
The loss of Jerusalem led to the third crusade in 1189. This was led by Frederick I, Barbarossa who died in route, Philip II, Augustus, who fell ill early and returned home, and Richard I (The Lion-Hearted) of England. Richard fought Saladin for two years, conquering Acre and most of the coastline. This was important because it allowed the great merchants fleets of Venus, Genoa, and Pisa to supply and support the crusaders and the Knights (for a price).
Saladin died in 1193 and the infighting among his family members led to disorganization of the Muslims. Pope Innocent III felt that the time was right for another crusade. In 1202, the fourth crusade was launched. It was led by the Barons of Northern France and the Netherlands. It never accomplished its purpose to reconquer Jerusalem. The Venetians persuaded the crusaders to take the Christian Port of Zena for their use, which would be payment to the Venetians for their help to the crusaders. This infuriated Innocent III and he excommunicated the whole army. Instead of taking Jerusalem, they subsequently conquered Constantinople in 1204 and established a Latin Empire in Byzantium, which lasted until 1201, when Greek Orthodoxy was re-established in a significantly diminished Byzantine Empire.
The fifth crusade (1217-1221) was supposed to be led by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. By that time, it had been decided that the key to winning back Jerusalem and the Holy Land was through Egypt where most of the Muslim strength and reserve forces were located. They took the main Egyptian port of Damietta, but were decisively defeated at the Nile. They only escaped Egypt by giving back the port of Damietta in exchange for a safe conduct out of Egypt. Later in 1229, Frederick II arrived upon the scene and negotiated a treaty with the Muslims in which he was given possession of Jerusalem and had himself crowned king.
In 1244, the Muslims again took Jerusalem and this led to the sixth and last crusade (1248-54). This was led by Louis IX (St. Louis) and was a carbon copy of the fifth crusade; an invasion of Egypt, conquest of Damietta, defeat by the Muslims inland, and surrender of Damietta plus a huge ransom in order to escape.
There were no longer any large organized crusades. Occasional small bands of crusaders continued to go to Palestine for several years, but they were absorbed in the existing crusader communities. The crusader kingdoms, however, were slowly reduced by the Arabs until 1291, when the last crusaders were driven out of the Holy Land.
What did the crusades accomplish in almost 200 years of warfare? Very little; the situation at the end of the crusades was substantially the same as at the beginning. One beneficiary was the papacy. Shortly after the end of the crusades in 1291, the issue of investure was decided (Concordat of Worms 1122). Unfortunately, the church still had to contend with the powerful rulers of Western Europe; the Holy Land was not recovered and Eastern and Western Christianity not reunited.
The biggest loser was Byzantium, which lost a great deal of territory to the Muslims and was a far weaker empire at the end of the crusades than at the beginning. In fact, Byzantium only survived another 200 years until the fall of Constantinople in 1458 to the Ottoman Turks.
The Muslims benefitted by discovering that they could defeat Western armies in battle and this encouraged them to embark on their subsequent wars of conquest against Byzantium and Southeastern Europe. They also consolidated their hold on Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, and Egypt.
The crusades, therefore, accomplished very little, most of which was negative. How could the results fit into God’s plan? If he really wanted the Holy Land to be in Christian hands, the crusades would have ended otherwise. The only possible reason for the actual outcome would have to be God’s intention that the power of a corrupted, highly politicized Roman church be checked. This presaged the reformation 200 years later, which occurred for the same reason. Thus ended the crusades, a noble cause with base motivations.