The Second Crusade: The cracks begin to show.

Written by Chris Riley.


After the surprising success of the first crusade (1095-1099) and the creation of the Crusader states consisting of; the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, a Latin power base was firmly in place in the Levant.

The first 20 years after Pope Urban II’s Crusade of the late 11th century, saw a strong Christian presence form around the Kingdom of Jerusalem but, after successive kings and counts of the Crusader states died without sons, the political situation began to falter. It is important to remember that the Muslim world of the 11th century was heavily divided and, saw the events of the first Crusade as simply local power struggles with Byzantine mercenaries from Europe.



A map showing the Crusader states, their Muslim, Byzantine and Armenian neighbours at the height of their power in the region SOURCE: MapMaster, Patrick Tinkham via ancient.eu


Zengi and the fall of Edessa

The most northern and most exposed of the Crusader states was the County of Edessa. The first state to be formed and one of the largest (in terms of territory), Edessa was surrounded on all but one side by Muslim states and this time, they had a leader in the form of Imad ad-Din Zangi, known to history as Zengi.

After the death in 1128 of Toghtekin, Atabeg of Damascus, Zengi was able to consolidate power in both Mosul and Aleppo, uniting much of the fractured Seljuks empire under his rule. Through the 1120’s and 30’s Zengi attempted to capture the Muslim held city of Damascus who had allied itself with the Crusaders, pulling more and more resources away from the now exposed borders of Edessa. By the summer of 1144, Zengi turned his attention away from Damascus and looked to Edessa, the significantly weaker city was a juicy target that Zengi couldn’t resist and on 24th December 1144, the city and subsequently the county, fell to Zengi.

Zengi was notorious for his religious and political ruthlessness and spared few in his campaigns, known for his murder and enslavement of western Christians (usually, not always, allowing eastern Christians to go free) throughout the Levant.


A 12th Century (some time after 1150) portrait of Imad ad-Din Zangi, Artist unknown SOURCE: Public domain

Zengi was murdered by a slave in 1146 but if anything that adds more to his reputation. Known for his violence and willingness to commit atrocities, such as after the capture of Baalbek in 1139, where he had the governor flayed alive, hanging the rest. The actions of Zengi and the capture of Edessa led to Pope Eugene III calling for what would be known as the Second Crusade.


The King’s Crusade

By 1145, the news that Edessa had fallen to the infidel, and that the Pope quickly called for a new crusade, gained little support until the French king, Louis VII pledged he would travel to the Holy Land as a loyal Christian. The Pope used his old friend Bernard of Clairvaux, who had already helped plaster over the cracks of the previous decades papal schism to preach the new effort for the Levant. Unlike the initial crusader effort of the 1090’s, there was a level of reluctance, even though the same promises of remission from sin had been made. It took until 1147 for both Louis of France and Conrad III, the German king to form their armies and march them across Europe to Constantinople.

The death of Zengi introduced the world to Nur al-Din, an even more vengeful and aggressive advisory for the Latin powers. After an attempt to retake Edessa by Joscelin II (former ruler of Edessa) was put down by Nur al-Din, with all the Christians ether executed or, sold into slavery just as their forebears had been under Zengi. The furious attack by Nur al-Din highlighted just how important a decisive Christian victory would be, showing how delicate the political state of the Crusader lands had become but, the crusader army had an internal rival to content with.


A catastrophic failure

The Byzantine Emperor at the time of the second crusade was Manuel I Komnenos, and he was very wary of his western ‘allies’. Since his ascension to the throne in 1143, Manuel had attempted to sure up his own borders, agreeing to a truce with the Turks on his doorstep. Obviously, this rubbed up the French and German forces the wrong way, seeing this as yet another betrayal of the eastern orthodox church, who was becoming more alienated from their Papal friends since the first crusade.


Manuscript miniature of Manuel I Komnenos with his second wife, Maria of Antioch SOURCE: Vatican Library, Public domain

Regardless of Manuel’s personal feelings toward the west, it was in his and his peoples best interests that the crusade was a success but, the crusade lacked real goals or leadership. Yes, Edessa would be the ideal war target but, there were Seljuk Turks everywhere and they would first need defeating in battle.

The German forces under Conrad were first to cross over to Asia Minor and completely ignored all advise from the byzantines, sticking to the coast and taking a slow and steady approach would have seen the crusader army in a far better position but, the German forces were soon beaten thoroughly at the battle of Dorylaion on 25th October, 1147. With Conrad limping back, wounded to friendly territory, it was Louis’ turn to take on the Muslim forces, defeating a relief army in December, relying on heavy cavalry to smash the lines of Seljuk archers who had caused Conrad so many problems.

After some small skirmish victories for the French, Louis, without proper supplies pushed further into Asia Minor where he was set upon by bands of Muslims who had been trailing the now very stretched out French armies, leaving any attempts to recapture Edessa out of the question.

The Siege of Damascus


With Conrad still in Constantinople, Louis all but abandoned his army, choosing to sale to the relative safe haven of Antioch where his wife’s uncle was ruler. Raymond ‘the handsome’ of Antioch was uncle to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the then wife of the French king and as his name suggests, he was rather dashing. Louis was a pious man and Eleanor had already tried to get her marriage to him annulled but once they reached the city of Antioch, rumours of an incestuous relationship began to emerge. Louis disliked the supposed relationship (there was literally no proof of any ‘wrong doings’) his young bride had with her uncle and thus refused to stay and help him fend of Saracen attacks in the north, choosing to look further south at the city of Damascus.


The siege of Damascus (artist unknown) SOURCE: Public domain


Damascus was an important city for the Muslim forces and wasn’t the worst target for the very beleaguered Crusader forces but, the city was well defended and the siege would only last 4 days. From the 24th to the 28th of July 1148, the Crusaders were harassed to the point that they gave up on the idea of taking the city. Poor logistics and lack of water caused both Louis and Conrad (who had managed to arrive just before the siege) to return to Europe having completely failed in achieving anything and the incredible successes of the first crusader were put into some perspective.

Lasting legacy

The second crusade was as much lost by the Franks as it was won by the now united Muslims. To say that Louis and Conrad III’s efforts were short sighted and short of the mark is an understatement but, arguably more importantly, the Seljuk forces first under Zengi and then under Nur al-Din were able to focus their efforts in defeating both kingly armies in the field using both their superior understanding of their homelands and, their use of swift, lightly armored horse archers, a tactic that would be used in the infamous Third Crusade.

Written by Chris Riley,


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Thanks for Reading.



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.

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