A Prelude to War: the causes of the First Crusade

Written by Chris Riley.


When heard today, the term ‘Crusade’ often has very mixed connotations, from white nationalist groups claiming the cross of St George, to Greta Thunberg’s ‘crusade on climate change’ , but what were the Crusades, and how did they start?

Starting in the 1090’s, Western Europe was thrown into a semi-permanent state of war with the Muslim powers in the near east, a conflict that would last for centuries, taking the lives of unknown numbers of men, women and children. The Crusades are etched firmly into the minds of both Westerners and, the people of the supposed ‘Holy Land’ in the east, contributing to a Millennia of conflict.

The Council of Clermont

Behind every great conflict, there is usually a man who sees an opportunity for some kind of material gain, what would later be known as the First Crusade is no exception. With the Church recovering from a civil war that had rumbled on for centuries, the Pope saw an opportunity to reclaim half of the Christian world and further papal prestige. The Great Schism of 1054 saw the Christian faith torn in two, with the Western Catholic half (controlled by the Pope) in a dispute over doctrine against the Eastern Greek Orthodox (controlled by the Byzantine emperor) church, leading to a tentative relationship between the two factions.

Pope Urban II preaching at the Council of Clermont SOURCE: Public domain


The Byzantine emperor, Alexios I Komnenos, had been struggling with Muslims raiders, originally from the Turkish Steppe, who had been expanding into Asia Minor and Syria, threatening the Byzantine’s control over the region. By the 1090’s, The Turks had pushed the Byzantines out of Asia Minor and had captured Nicaea, a city within shouting distance of Constantinople, the capital of the empire. Alexios was in dire need of support leading him to send envoys to the pope in Rome, requesting Christian knights and soldiers to help reclaim his lost lands. Seeing this as a great opportunity to reassert his control, the Pope agreed to help, leading to the now famous Council of Clermont.

On 27th November 1095, Pope Urban II preached at the Council at Clermont, requesting help from the Noble men and Knights of the Christian West, to take up arms against the ‘invader’ Muslims and, recapture the most holy cities and Christian sites of Worship. The initial aim of the Holy War - that would later be known as the first crusade, was to recapture Byzantine lands, returning them to Alexios I but that didn’t exactly go to plan.

The Pope used the religious fear that was rife to stir up anti-muslim feeling, he also promised wealth and notoriety but, his trump card was promising that anyone that went on the ‘pilgrimage’ to the Holy Land would be absolved of all of their sins. At a time in history filled with violence and death, being told that all of your murdering, raping and pillaging would be forgotten sounded like a pretty sweet deal for the French knights at Clermont. The Pope’s sermon was followed by a series of speeches around France and the surrounding areas, stirring up the populous far more than he could have ever imagined. By the start of 1096 over 60,000 men and 6,000 knights had signed up, far beyond both the Pope’s and Alexios’s wildest dreams.


Taking the Cross

The thought of going on crusade likely seemed a great opportunity for both the highborn knights and, the lower orders of society. Wiping the sin slate clean, a chance for riches and plunder, and the chance to take the fight to the much hated Muslims who, due to papal propaganda were seen as the greatest threat to the Christian way of life.

For one to go on Holy pilgrimage, they would first need to stand out from the rest and to do that, they would ‘take the cross’. Taking the cross simply meant that a person would mark themselves with a cloth cross, usually placed on the shoulder or on the chest, marking them as a Crusader. The term would later be used generally to describe the act of going on crusade whether that be to the Holy Land, the Balkans, the Iberian peninsula or anywhere where a ‘holy war’ against heretics and non-believers was being waged.

The Pope and his clergymen encouraged men of all standings to take part in the pilgrimage, sold as a way to fulfil your Christian duty but, the Crusader movement of the 1090’s was really about papal control. The Crusade itself was to be led by a gaggle of French and Norman lords, these included Bohemond of Taranto, his father Robert Guiscard, Godfrey of Bouillon, Baldwin of Boulogne, Raymond IV of Toulouse and the brother of the new King of England, Robert II Duke of Normandy. The crusader forces were known to the Muslims simply as the Franks, as the vast majority of them came from France, known in the 11th century as Francia.

A 19th century statue in Brussels by Eugène Simonis of Godfrey of Bouillon SOURCE: Public domain


An unorganised enemy

The Seljuk Turks that had swept through Asia Minor were not aligned in their aims. As within the Christian faith, and after the death of Sultan Malik Shah in 1092, the Seljuks themselves were a mess of infighting with local lords all trying to lay a claim to the emerging empire. After the death of Malik Shah, the Muslim world continued to collapse in on itself, with warlords and Emirs taking control of whatever land they could, further destroying any hope of centralised power that they would need when fighting the ‘franks’ from the west.