The First Crusade: A Beginning in 1095
Preceded by a visit from Byzantine officials, Pope Urban II set out to launch a holy expedition into the East. The historiography that surrounds this expedition attests to the reach of its conclusion: the capture of Jerusalem in 1099. But was this Urban’s sole motivation or did he have underlying reasons for launching the crusade? This post will look at the role of Byzantium in the call of the First Crusade and how this intertwined with the liberation of Jerusalem.
Alexios I and His Request for Aid
In the summer of 1095 Urban II made a speech that was to change the face of not only Christendom, but the world. The Byzantine Emperor, Alexios I, after a fairly successful start to his reign started to lose his foothold in Asia Minor. He had briefly enjoyed good relations with the Muslims of the East, the Seljuks, and those of Egypt, the Fatimids. Relations were so good in fact that it was even suggested that the son of Malik Shah, Seljuk Sultan, marry Alexios’ daughter. Peace with the Seljuk Turks meant that Alexios’ reign was safe. But in the early 1090’s, cracks began to appear. The death of Malik Shah in 1092 crumbled any peace agreements between him and Alexios. For Byzantium, peace in Asia Minor was no longer viable. It was not in a position to war with its neighbours after previous battles in Asia minor attempting to regain lost lands had left them financially weak through heavy taxation.
Alexios’ reign began when he and his older brother Isaac, both generals of the armed forces, decided to revolt against Emperor Nikephoros III. It was agreed that once Nikephoros had been deposed it would be Alexios who would take the throne, despite being younger than Isaac. This was due to his marriage to Irene, daughter of the Doukas family, a highly influential and wealthy family in Constantinople. His history as a general is apparent in his reign: he chose to keep tight control over Constantinople and spent vast sums on developing and maintaining his army, which he renewed continually through taxation. He would bestow this same virtue upon the crusade that turned up on his doorstep.
Pope Urban’s Want to Liberate Jerusalem
It is widely accepted that Pope Urban did have a want to liberate Jerusalem. For Urban, Jerusalem’s worth was unquestioned; its importance stemmed from the role it played in Jesus Christ’s life. It was the place he was brought to as a child and the place where he was crucified. So why was Urban requesting the liberation of Jerusalem? The Muslims had inhabited it since the seventh century so why did it gain such prominence for the Roman Church now?
Urban succeeded Victor III, and Gregory VII before him, in 1088. Gregory VII had planned a large scale military expedition to the East to aid the Byzantine Empire but failed to follow through due to a power struggle with the King of Germany, Henry IV. From this arose the antipope Clement III, backed by Henry, who would rival Urban. He needed the support which he found in Alexios I, who saw him as a more favourable option than Clement. It was Urban’s extensive influence in southern Italy, an area which had previously been under Byzantine control, combined with other political and military alignments that appealed to Alexios. This helped flourish a mutual relationship highlighted by Urban dispatching men to Byzantium to counter common invasions. Thus it was envoys from Alexios that preceded the now famous speech at Clermont. They explained that the Byzantine empire was under threat by the Muslims and on the brink of collapse. Urban grasped at this opportunity. It was a chance to unite the Greek and Roman churches and to solidify his position as Pope. He headed to Clermont and prepared a speech that would reverberate throughout history.
Only five accounts of Urban’s speech survive, all of which were recorded after the end of the First Crusade. While these accounts vary they all unequivocally express Urban’s most alluring ingredient: remission of sins. One account by Fulcher of Chartres offers in the opening statement that “…if there is in you any deformity… I will do my best to remove it.” Urban intricately weaved this with the problem of “unjust wars… to your mutual destruction,” by directing the violence towards a common enemy. Through this Urban was leading the expedition towards Jerusalem, the home of the Holy Sepulchre. Urban would have been conscious, however, of the possible outcomes of his speech; the hope of uniting of the churches and creating a Christian Kingdom in the East beyond Byzantine.
Four main armies travelled in the summer of 1096. No king took up Urban’s call, it was instead answered by princes and noblemen with only two of the primary leaders being of royal blood; Robert, the eldest son of William the Conqueror and Hugh of Vermandois, brother to the King Phillip I of France. Hugh was the first to arrive in Constantinople and was the first to acknowledge the oath that Alexios required of the crusaders.
This oath’s importance was twofold, firstly for the empire’s long term survival it required that any lands recovered by the expedition were returned. Secondly, it maintained its survival, and more specifically its emperor, in the short-term; there were whispers consisting of plots to overthrow Alexios and the pledge of fealty strengthened his position. Bohemond of Taranto was the most enthusiastic in taking up the oath while Raymond of Toulouse was the most vocal against it. Raymond was the first to take up the cross for the crusade and had a close relationship with Urban. He set out that his loyalty lied with God and that he was on crusade in service only to Him and was challenged by Bohemond. Peter Frankopan sees this moment as the first make or break moment of the venture. Alexios sought to resolve this issue quickly and did so by showering Raymond with gifts. With the oaths sworn the crusade was on its way towards Jerusalem.
A Divided Islam
The division in Islam is one of the most convincing factors behind the success of the expedition. Islam was experiencing an internal war: the ideological differences between Sunni and Shi’ite muslims were edging towards a military outcome. Sunnis believed that the leadership of Islam should fall to the caliphs, men who had been close companions of the Prophet, while the Shi’ites had chosen his bloodline to succeed him.
Years of disunity followed, a factor proving advantageous for the crusaders. The Seljuk Turkish dynasty was home to the Sunni faith in opposition to the Shi’ite Fatimids in Cairo, Egypt. When the crusaders arrived, the Fatimids saw an ally in their fight against the Seljuk Turks. This came at a cataclysmic cost as the ultimate aim of the crusade was Jerusalem, which was under Fatimid control. The first siege at Nicaea offered the earliest casualty of a disunited Islam. Had Kilij Arslan, Seljuk Sultan of Rum (the area encompassing Nicaea), not been away at the time of the crusaders arrival the path of the crusade may have been altered. The reason why Arslan was away? He was busy furthering his geographical reach fighting the Danishmends, who were fellow Muslims.
It is possible to place much emphasis on the division of Islam as the deciding factor for the success of the expedition. Fast-forwarding to the Third Crusade it is difficult to overlook Saladin’s achievements of uniting the religion. However everything was built on one event and one speech, at Clermont. He may not have expected what occurred but as the leader of Christianity, he would have had faith in its success. And it was that which led the expedition to a victorious conclusion at Jerusalem. A disunited Islam would have meant nothing if it was not for the undying belief and faith that the crusaders held, epitomised by their war cry of ‘Deus Vult’ (God wills it).