Beware Christians Bearing Arms.

Who Started What?

One of the interesting features about the Crusades was that they weren’t organised very well in some respects. Some of them weren’t really organised at all, they just kind of happened. There were plans and schemes and such but they were not orchestrated by one single authority. All that bound them together was Jerusalem, or the idea of Jerusalem as most of the participants had never before left their own villages let alone their own kingdoms. Who came up with the idea of ‘Crusade’? Well, in reality that notion did not appear until much later, almost 200 years after they had begun. The first crusaders referred to themselves as armed pilgrims, which doesn’t really sound much less intimidating. They were going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land as people had been doing for centuries, they just took swords, shields, spears, bows, arrows, plate-mail, chain-mail, war-horses, catapults and siege towers instead of the usual nothing-but-food-and-water ethos that other pilgrims adhered to. And also, unlike normal pilgrims who ran away when faced with unhappy foreigners, these new-age pilgrims met them with a considerable amount of aggression. This notion of armed pilgrimage came about before Pope Urban II,Pope Urban II but he was the one who got it going. Important people had been thinking that the Holy Land should be freed from Islam for quite some time. Urban, and several of his successors, reckoned the Muslims didn’t really need it (or Spain, or Sicily), and besides, the long walk would do the pilgrims a world of good and then they could get their sins remitted and go to heaven. That was actually one of the reasons for crusading, overwhelming guilt. Everyone in Western Europe lived under the burden of crushing, heart-attack inducing, oppressive guilt, especially knights and the like whose job it was to kill, and endemic warfare, mostly due to the massive amount of killings perpetrated by those same knights. The popes came up with a great solution, export the problem somewhere else and let someone else deal with these armour-clad sociopaths. And wouldn’t it be handy if they did something useful, like, I dunno, conquer a holy city or something…?


The Seljuk Turks had recently seized Anatolia, modern Turkey, from the Byzantine Empire, the greatest empire in the West at that time, which really wasn’t saying much. There were some other places that were far more enlightened, like Muslim Spain, but Byzantium was the richest. The emperor’s robes dripped with precious stones and gold and weighed more than he did. The Byzantine army however wasn’t really up to the same level. The Emperor relied on foreign mercenaries to defend his walls, including men from all over Western Europe. When the Seljuks invaded Anatolia the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes led an army out to fight them. The two forces met near the town of Manzikert. The army of the empire was defeated, thrown into confusion, chased from the field of battle, and the emperor was captured and blinded. You could imagine that the Seljuks were pretty happy with themselves having won new lands for themselves and thought themselves pretty safe now that they had beat the socks off the Byzantines. Safe and secure with loads of land to graze their horses on, practice their archery skills, play in the meadows, smoke pipes and figure out what to do next. Maybe raise a family, buy a dog, get some rugs of the Persians next door… And then all of a sudden thirty thousand Europeans appear and start barging their way through your land. Dirty, smelly, unruly, armour-clad men wandering around Seljuk land like a drunk looking for chips. They smashed their way through Anatolia, gained an amazing victory at Antioch by defeating a much larger army, and then seized Jerusalem. In the space of roughly two years these so-called pilgrims had clobbered their way through the lands the Seljuks had only themselves recently conquered. This army came from out of nowhere and brought two hundred years of war with them. Why? Because, in part, of Manzikert. The leaders of the West were very suddenly made to realise that those Seljuks meant business and Byzantium wasn’t up to the task anymore. Alexios I Komnenos, Emperor of what was left of Rome, had asked for help from Christian kings and the Pope for any troops they could spare as he and his predecessors had done many times before. Knights from every kingdom had fought under his banner. Something was different this time though. This time the Pope had notions of his own and the knights of Europe were hungry for land. This time Alexios didn’t get the usual handful of knights, this time he got a Crusade.

Don’t Trust Hermits Called Peter

Before the French went looking for a fight the Germans, not to be out-done, decided to have a go at it first.Peter the Hermit Preaching First CrusadeLed by Peter the Hermit, a man who had whipped the German peasantry and lower nobility into a religious frenzy, this first of the First Crusades was undisciplined and very un-German as armies go. Most of the army was illiterate and probably had no idea where Jerusalem was, let alone how far away it was. They started fighting and plundering before they had even left their own lands, attacking the Jews of Germany. They fought with the Christian Hungarians for food on the way to Constantinople and then fought with the Byzantine army which was commanded by the man who was essentially their employer. This would be like getting up for work, beating up a housemate for cereal, starting a fight with someone on the street for a Twix, and then once you get to work attacking other members of staff for muffins. Alexios managed to get his unruly employees across the Bosporus and pointed them in the direction of the enemy, like a drunken guided missile. This did not go very well. The ‘army’, such as it was, broke up and started to pillage and plunder, ignoring the fact that they were in the lands of people who really did not want them there. Sure the Hungarians and Byzantines didn’t want them either, but at least they were somewhat friendly. The army of the hermit was like that annoying family member you tolerate even though they drink all your wine and eat all your food and entrench themselves in front of your tv because you know they have to go home sometime and they are family after all. What if that relative went into a complete stranger’s house, what would happen then? They probably would not be forced to drink their own urine or the blood of animals when cut off from water and later to be absolutely annihilated by the Turks. Which is what happened to Peter’s army. Of the 40,000 who left Germany only a few thousand survived, saved by the Byzantines. Including Peter. Lucky him.

Once More, With Feeling…

The second First Crusade was organised by men of war, not a man who lived in a cave, and as such was substantially better organised. It was led by men like Stephen Count of Blois, Godfrey of Boullion, and Raymond Count of Toulouse. These were seriously powerful men who ruled vast swathes of France and Germany. These were men of faith and courage who commanded lords and knights, not a peasant rabble. They marched their massive armies across Europe to Byzantium where the met the Emperor Alexios. They were joined there by a Norman army led by Bohemund. This was probably the most professional of the crusading armies, battle-hardened from Sicilian campaigns against the Moors, and its leader was seeking to carve out a kingdom for himself. Many of the leaders swore an oath of fealty to Alexios and promised that everything they fought for would be his, except for Raymond of Toulouse, who dared to negotiate with the Emperor on equal terms. You have to remember, Constantinople was the most important city in the Western World at the time, and Byzantium the greatest empire. It was Rome, or rather all that was left of Rome, and that gave it a certain air of awesome. That and the fact that it was one of the richest cities in the world. In any event, the Crusaders left Constantinople full of hope and courage. They too marched into Anatolia and were harried and harassed by Turkish armies and eventually found their way to Jerusalem after an amazing victory at Antioch which had confirmed in their minds that God was on their side.

Man on Fire

While at Antioch a certain monk called Peter found the Holy Lance which had pierced Christ at the Crucifixion. Except that while at Constantinople the crusaders had all gone on tours of the holy shrines and seen something very similar… How very odd it must have been to find another exact same unique relic. They hadn’t learned the lesson of hermits called Peter. Maybe the fact that he was a monk confused them. To prove his piety and honesty he decided to undergo trial by fire. A long narrow corridor of wood, as wide and tall as a man, was constructed and set alight. Peter then walked down the corridor of flame. Which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. At the end of it he was met by his adoring fans who nearly trampled him to death. Imagine that, surviving a slice of hell only to be congratulated to near-death. As he survived some people said that he was protected by God and had spoken the truth. Others said that he had been burned and trampled and died a few days later so how could you argue that God really liked this guy? Ah but he was kept alive for a short time, maybe God did protect him but then punished Peter for making him save him. One of the leaders of the Crusade took the Lance, rode out with the whole army and beat the Seljuk army and the Lance and poor Peter were largely forgotten to history. And conspiracy novels. So, don’t trust religious Peters and keep them away from naked flames, they may be flammable…

The Mislaid Crusade

The Fourth Crusade was announced not long after the Third, which had ended in a tie and Jerusalem in Muslim hands. The Pope, Innocent III, wanted Jerusalem back in Christian hands. An army was called to meet a Venice. For a change the Crusade would not go overland, through Byzantium and then through Anatolia; it had taken them a while to notice that plan usually ended in armies being torn apart before getting to their destination. This time they would take the direct route. So the armies would arrive at Venice, hop on some ships that were being built there in advance and then sail to the Holy Land in style. On getting to Venice, the Venetians asked the crusaders to pay for all the new fancy ships, but the crusaders didn’t have enough money. So the Venetians said ‘If you help us capture Zara we can split the spoils and then we’ll see about the payment.’ The crusaders said ‘fair enough’ and off they went and captured the city. The city wasn’t as rich as it was supposed to be, so they were hungry, in debt, and were excommunicated by the Pope for attacking Christians, which really wasn’t what crusading was supposed to be about. The leaders of the crusade didn’t stop there. It appears that they lied to the troops, told them that they were un-ex-communicated, and now the Emperor of Byzantium would help them. But first they would have to make him emperor. The wrong Alexios was in power. Alexios III had deposed Issac whose son, Alexios IV, was now with the crusaders and looking to get back in power. The crusaders went and captured Constantinople, a Christian city, installed Alexios IV as emperor. Alexios IV was deposed and killed a few months later by Alexios V. When the crusaders went looking to get paid Alexios V told them he wouldn’t pay because he wasn’t the one who made the deal, but they didn’t care, one Alexios was as good as another. Again they attacked the city, appointed one of their own as Emperor and sacked the city for three days, promptly forgetting about the crusade. This new Latin Empire of Constantinople lasted 60 years. If you lived as long as the Latin Empire you wouldn’t see retirement, so it wasn’t terribly successful as empires go, just as the Fourth Crusade wasn’t the most successful of crusades…


Comments are welcome, nay, encouraged!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s