There have been many “crusades” throughout history, some more worthy of the name than others. But in this case, we’re talking about the big four that reshaped European/Middle Eastern relations – not to mention borders – over the course of centuries.
For those who came in late...
Prior to the Crusades, the two major powers in the Middle Eastern region were considered to be the Byzantine Empire – the successor to the Roman Empire, based in Constantinople – and the Arab Caliphate, which had become a formidable force over the past few centuries.
There were internal fights and external wars characterised by treaties and swapping back and forth of territory, as well as loose alliances and/or appeasement of various minor players in the region, including the Seljuq Turks, a fringe group who converted to Islam in the late 10th century. Then, without warning, things changed.
The First Crusade (1096-1099) was a rescue mission
The severely underestimated Seljuq Turks came into their own by the end of the 11th century, taking the Byzantine Empire by surprise when they conquered a significant hunk of territory in Anatolia. In response to entreaties sent by new emperor Alexius I, Pope Urban II sprang into action. At the Council of Clermont, upset by what he saw as a cosmos out of order, he called upon the Christian faithful to mount a fightback on behalf of their Eastern brethren, and retake Jerusalem (which the Arabs had conquered in 638).
There were two main “waves” – the People’s Crusade, which slaughtered Rhineland Jews on its way to being decimated by the Turks, and the Princes’ Crusade, which was far more successful. Not only did they retake those Anatolian territories, they also conquered Jerusalem and set up three other Crusader States in the region: Edessa, Antioch and Tripoli.
The Second Crusade (1147-1150) was about pride
It’s fair to say, half a century on, that the European powers had been resting on their laurels when it came to maintaining the rage in the Holy Land. Which meant it came as a bit of a shock when the County of Edessa fell to heathen forces in 1144. Pope Eugene II wasn’t having this on his watch, so he fired up Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany to sound the call to arms and march eastward for Jesus.
Conrad was smashed by Turks at Dorylaeum, but joined forces with Louis for a massive attack on Damascus. Unfortunately for them, there was a team-up on the other side of the battlefield as well – Arabian leaders Saif ad-Din of Mosul and Nur al-Din of Aleppo helped Damascus send the Christians packing with another humiliation.
The Third Crusade (1189-1192) is probably the one you’re picturing
This is the big one people talk about, featuring the battle royale between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin – the Arab leader who retook Jerusalem from the Christians in 1187, courtesy of an unbreakable siege. Richard had been busting for a fight since he took the British throne, raising funds for an eastern sortie from almost day one (fortunately his dad – who he killed to seize power – had already begun the Saladin Tithe to build a war chest).
Meanwhile, the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, fell victim to Byzantine treachery... as well as his horse, which tripped and threw him in the Saleph River to drown. In the end, the Crusaders clawed back a significant amount of terrain, but fell down at the final hurdle: Jerusalem remained in Islamic hands. It wasn’t a complete Christian failure, however – the Treaty of Jaffa allowed pilgrims to visit the city (as long as they were unarmed).
The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) was an unmitigated facepalm
Once again a new pope, Innocent III, decided it was high time the Holy Land was brought back into the Christian fold. But for various geopolitical reasons (including an intense dislike of growing papal power), the crowned heads of Europe weren’t as keen for an eastern expedition as they once were. Instead, the soldiers who marched east for the Fourth Crusade were more mercenary than your usual zealots.
In the end, egged on by Venetian interests, they wound up sacking Constantinople – a Christian city – with the plan to reinstate a deposed emperor and use his gratitude, in the form of money and men, to carry on to Jerusalem. The sacking took place, but the second part of the plan... didn’t.
Would you like to know more?
It’s easy to find plenty of great books about the Crusades, but if you’re interested in some readable works on the era in general, try Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: The Biography, Dan Jones’ The Plantagenets and Richard Fidler’s Ghost Empire. The Holy Roman Empire by Peter H Wilson is also informative, but not for newcomers (or people with weak arms – it’s a brick).
And, of course, watch Knightfall!
Knightfall premieres Thursday 1 February at 8.30pm on SBS and continues Thursdays at 9.30pm. SBS On Demand will have a sneak preview of episode one available from 25 January. Then, all episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere, for free via SBS On Demand.