Written by Chris Riley.
One common misconception of the Crusades, is that they only took place in the Middle east, far away from Europe. Yes, the main ‘numbered Crusades’ that we all have heard of, for the most part, took part in and around Palestine and what is today Turkey but, Crusader fever wasn’t limited to the shores of Acre and walls of Jerusalem.
A full map showing the extent of the expeditions carried out during the 2nd Crusade SOUCE: Pintrest, via user Lord David Sellers
By the 12th century, most of Europe was Christian with the exception of small, fringe groups, usually isolated in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. One group were known as The Wends, a Slavic group of peoples situated in Northern Europe close to Denmark who had existed on the boarders of the Holy Roman Empire for centuries, dealing in furs, keeping themselves to themselves.
The Wends were known throughout both Europe and the middle east for their fine warriors who were more than generous to outsiders, trading with the northern Europeans and the remnant of the Byzantine Empire, but their biggest weakness was their lack of centralised control. Unlike the emerging kingdom states like, France, England and the German city states, the Wendish people stuck to their small tribal bands, usually fighting over small spots of land amongst themselves, allowing the remain Christians on their border an opportunity.
The Germans of the North
Vast swaths of central Europe were under the indirect control of the Holy Roman Emperor but, the northern regions such as Magdeburg, Saxony and Bremen were left with out support and therefore, Holy Roman interfering. Since the beginning of the 12th century, the German king, Lothar had been striking deals with local Pagans, taking land for himself but, after his death in 1137, many Saxons and other Northerns moved into Wendish territory,
A contemporary portrait of Lothar, King of the Germans SORUCE: Public domain
A Saxon count named Adolf II had been living and working with the Wends since the Saxon incursion of the 1140’s but in 1147, a Wendish raiding party found itself attacking Adolf’s land, robbing the Pagans of their greatest Christian ally.
A Crusade, of sorts
Bernard of Clairvaux had spent most of 1146 and 1147 rounding up the Crusaders of France and lower Germany in response to the recent capture of Edessa, but when it came to the North, the desire to travel all the way to the holy land to recapture a city thousands of miles away just wasn’t there. Bernard was able to convince Pope Eugene III to grant Crusader status to attacks on the pagan Wends occupying the eastern borders of Christendom, with Bernard reportedly saying “with God’s help, they shall be either converted or deleted” mercy was not on the cards.
Prince Nylot was the closest thing the Wends had to a united leader and he knew what was coming. Seeing his best chances of success in an all out attack, Nylot decided to attack deep into Saxon held lands, choosing to attack Wagria in June 1147. The attack on Wagria was a success for Nylot but, it further galvanised the German’s desire to fight. Alongside a Scandinavian fleet that had been assembled and was now harassing the northern shores of todays Germany, the Duke of Saxony, Henry ‘The Lion’ attacked Nylot at Dobin. Nylot knew that he lacked the man power to beat out not only Henry but the Danes under Canute V and Sweyn III (two danish kings who had been fighting a civil war for years) and, a second push from the south but he did what he could, attacking the Danish fleets as they lay in the harbour forcing the bickering Canute and Sweyn to return to their civil war back home.
With Dobin now under siege, Nylot eventually agreed to have the city baptised and thus saved his people and forced the Saxons out of Wendish territory. As with most pagans faced with Christianity, the introduction of symbols and festivals that will have followed such a mass ‘conversion’ wouldn’t have scared the Wends, it is likely that they quickly returned to their pagan ways as soon as they saw the backs of the German invaders.
A Complete Failure
Some would see the mass conversion of the pagan stronghold of Dobin as a massive success but, in reality, the Wendish Crusade of 1147 achieved nothing. No land was taken for the Christians and the Wendish people were left to continue their pagan ways, at least for the next few decades. Attacks on the Wends and the wider pagans of the Balkans continued well into the 16th century, a period in European history that saw religious wars destroy lives and redefine nations.
Iberia and the Reconquista
The Iberian peninsula, what is today Spain and Portugal, had been a hot bed of religious wars since the Muslim invasion of the 8th century. The Almohads, that controlled large parts of Northern Africa and Iberia had slowly lost control over the region, birthing the kingdoms of Aragon, Leon, Castile, Portugal and Navarre, who had pushed the Muslim forces into the south of the region.
The Reconquista (re-conquering in Spanish and Portuguese) was not isolated to just the second crusade but, during the doomed attempt to retake Edessa, would be Crusaders from England and the Low Countries saw an opportunity in Iberia to both go on Crusade and, be home for tea.
A map showing the Iberian peninsula in the year 1150 SOURCE: Reddit
The Siege of Lisbon
A detachment of Crusaders had assembled themselves in Dartmouth, England and by May of 1147, were ready to head out to the holy land. Forced due to bad weather, to land in Portugal, the Crusader ships docked in Porto and after speaking to the Portuguese King, Alfonso I, agreed to take the city of Lisbon for the Portuguese.
The siege of Lisbon began on the 1st of July and by October the same year, the Moorish defenders decided to surrender the city. A combination of hunger and the fact that one of the English siege towers had reached the walls, forced the Muslims to surrender to save themselves from the slaughter and pillage that they knew would follow and assault. Unfortunately, the Christians broke their oaths to allow the Muslims to leave the city and upon entering, sacked Lisbon, killing many in the process with many of the Crusaders choosing to settle in the area instead of retuning home.
The future of Iberia
The siege of Lisbon is considered the only success of the Second Crusade, with many arguing that it should not even be considered part of the Crusade and simply a part of the 700 year long effort to retake Spain and Portugal. Regardless of its place in crusader history, Lisbon would eventually (in 1255) become the capital of Portugal, a kingdom that would go on to form one of the largest empires in history, spanning the spice routes of India, to Brazil. The attack on Lisbon also created one of the longest alliances in the world, between the Kingdoms of Portugal and England, a treaty that is technically still in place today.
The Second Crusade was a massive disaster, failing to take any of its aims, in the Middle East, or, in northern Europe with Lisbon coming as the only exception to the rule. The events surrounding the Crusades of the 1140’s are somewhat forgotten to history but, the Muslim successes in the east sowed the seeds for years of Islamic dominance in the region with Christians finally pushing the Moors out of Spain in 1492, the same year Christopher Columbus stumbled into the Caribbean
Written by Chris Riley.
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