A Comprehensive History of the First Crusade | Church History

The Crusades were a set of wars or military campaigns especially between Christians and Muslims in the Eastern Mediterranean world in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries AD. The First Crusade laid the foundation for later Crusades by setting the rationale, method of recruitment, and means by which the military campaigns were carried out.

The root cause of the First Crusade was the invasion and capture of Palestine and formerly Christian lands in Eastern Europe by Muslim armies. At first, the Fatimids of Egypt ruled over Palestine and allowed Jews and Christians to worship freely as long as they did not try to convert people to their religion, build new places of worship, or refuse to pay taxes. However, when the Seljuq Turks swept down, expanding southward into Muslim territories, they were converted to Islam—much like the Germanic invaders were converted to Christianity by the Western Europeans. The Seljuq Turks took Palestine in 1070-1071, including Jerusalem. Afterwards, Christian pilgrims reported persecution and attributed it to the harsher administration of Jerusalem. 

Byzantine Emperor Alexius I was concerned about access to Jerusalem and other Eastern Christian cities like Alexandria and Antioch. Alexius I even feared that the Byzantine capital of Constantinople might fall to the encroaching Muslims and since  he was faced with internal struggles of his own, he reached out to Pope Urban II for help. Now, the Pope had no control over any military in Western Europe and was involved in disputes of his own with Western kings regarding the relationship between church and state. However, Urban II recognized this as an opportunity to improve three situations: (1) improve his influence in Western Europe, (2) help reunite Eastern and Western Christians following the Great Schism of 1054—the subject of another video, and (3) improve access for pilgrims to Jerusalem and other holy sites in Palestine.

Pope Urban II addressed his concerns regarding Jerusalem and the spread of Islam to the Council of Piacenza in March 1095 and later in November at the Council of Clermont. Although the church had not taken up the sword to fight physical battles, Urban claimed it was no longer safe to go to Jerusalem without weapons. To encourage commoners to enlist, Urban II freed serfs from their responsibilities to their lords during their participation in the Crusade and promised them the same level of pardon for sins as was granted to pilgrims who visited Jerusalem. Urban II also encouraged volunteers to put the sign of the cross on their foreheads and breastplates. Though he  did the initial recruiting,  Urban II exercised no oversight of the troops or actual fighting. Yet, the response to his speeches and actions was far more successful than he had imagined.

The Crusaders left Europe in two waves. The first wave was led by Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless and consisted mostly of untrained or undertrained peasants. They did not bring enough food for the whole trip, so they pillaged their way across Central Europe, inciting a severe persecution of the Jews living in the region. When the first wave of malnourished Crusaders finally arrived in Constantinople, they wandered into the suburbs and pillaged churches, houses, and palaces. Emperor Alexius I decided to send them across the Bosphorus, also known as the Strait of Istanbul, and told them to wait for reinforcements. The Crusaders ignored these instructions and marched forward to Nicea, where they were slaughtered by a well-trained army of Turks. Walter the Penniless died in battle, and Peter the Hermit returned to Constantinople defeated.

The second wave of Crusaders consisted of better-trained soldiers led mostly by French knights and noblemen. In 1096, they traveled to Constantinople, where they were requested to give an oath of allegiance to the Byzantine Emperor, despite their loyalty to their lords and kingdoms. The troops, numbering about 30,000, met with much more success than the first wave of Crusaders. In 1097-98, they defeated the Turks in Nicea, Antioch, Dorylaeum, and Edessa. Finally, in 1099, the 12,000 remaining Crusaders were successful in recapturing Jerusalem from the Turks. 

Eyewitnesses reported that about 70,000 Muslims and many Jews remaining in the city were killed by the Crusaders. “Numbers of the Saracens were beheaded . . . others were shot with arrows, or forced to jump from the towers; others were tortured for several days and then burned in flames.” Women were stabbed to death, babies were flung over the city walls, or had their necks broken by being smashed against posts. The surviving Jews were herded into a synagogue and burned alive. While “some scholars today tend to think that there is a measure of exaggeration in” such reports, the brutal treatment of those captured remains a source of enmity between Jews, Muslims, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics even today.

The Crusaders set up Western European-style governments in each city they captured from the Muslims. These Crusader States were each ruled by a military leader, whose remaining soldiers protected the cities from future Muslim invasions. Many of these states, and fiefs within them, were led by French nobility, so the French language became common along the Eastern Mediterranean coast as a trade language. Conflict, however, would develop over the rights and rituals of each church and whether it should be led by Western or Eastern clergy. While one of the main purposes of the Crusades was to unify Western and Eastern Christians, the poor behavior and violence of the Crusaders further drove a wedge between the two regions of the church and set the tone for Muslim conflict with the Western world that continues to this day. 

  1.  John L. Esposito, editor. The Oxford History of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 312.
  2.  Everett Ferguson, Church History: Volume One—From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, second edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 417-418.
  3.  Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Volume IV—The Age of Faith (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), 585.
  4.  Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Volume IV—The Age of Faith (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), 586.
  5.  Everett Ferguson, Church History: Volume One—From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, second edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 419.
  6.  Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Volume IV—The Age of Faith (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), 588.
  7.  Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Volume IV—The Age of Faith (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), 587.
  8.  Dennis Sherman and Joyce Salisbury, The West in the World, second edition (New York: McGraw Hill, 2004), 288.
  9.  Everett Ferguson, Church History: Volume One—From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, second edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 420.
  10.  Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Volume IV—The Age of Faith (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), 589.
  11.  Among the principle leaders were Duke Godfrey of Belgium, Baldwin of Boulogne, his brother, Bishop Adhemar of LePuy, Count Bohemund of Taranto, Tancred of Hauteville, and Count Raymond of Toulouse.
  12.  Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Volume IV—The Age of Faith (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), 592.
  13.  Justo González, The Story of Christianity: Volume One—The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, revised and updated edition (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 349.
  14.  Ross William Collins, A History of Medieval Civilization in Europe (New York: Ginn and Company, 1936), 412.