On 18th November 1095 Pope Urban II called on the Christians of western Europe to march to Jerusalem and reclaim the city, together with its Christian holy places, from the Seljuk Turks who were occupying it. This must therefore count as one of those “days that will live in infamy”, of which the world has had far too many.
Pope Urban had been influenced by the stories told by a monk named Peter the Hermit, who had travelled to Jerusalem and witnessed the oppression meted out to resident Christians by the Muslims, and the lack of respect shown to their shrines. The Pope therefore came up with what he thought would be the solution.
(Richard I of England Leaving England for the Crusades, 1189. Painting by Glyn Philpot, c. 1927)
An army of 4,000 mounted knights and 25,000 men on foot was assembled, mainly from France, Italy and the states of Germany. They set off for Constantinople full of religious fervour, having painted white crosses on their tunics and shields, but Christian piety soon went out of the window once opportunities for personal enrichment began to present themselves.
The army turned into a pillaging horde once it left its home countries, and any riches encountered on route were likely to be looted and their defenders killed. Pope Urban had declared that anyone fighting as a Crusader would be absolved of penance for sin, and many of the men at arms took this as permission to commit any crimes they felt like. When a city fell to their swords they would shout “God wills it” as they plundered, killed and raped.
Needless to say, many of the Crusaders, who may well have started out with good intentions, saw little point in continuing once their packs were full of loot. Desertions, coupled with battle casualties and disease victims, reduced the army to 1,500 knights and 12,000 foot soldiers when it eventually reached Jerusalem in June 1099.
The city was captured on 15th July, followed by a massacre of its Muslim inhabitants. It would remain in Christian hands until 1187 when it was recaptured by Saladin who, much to the surprise of the defeated inhabitants, treated them with much more humanity and forbearance than had been shown when the boot was on the other foot.
(Crusaders, including King Louis IX of France, on board ship during the Seventh Crusade – 1248-54. 14th century image)
The Age of Crusades was to last until 1365, with nine crusades being held in total, these having very mixed results. However, it was not an age of which Christianity can be all that proud. Unfortunately, mankind has never learned that claiming to have God on your side is no excuse for behaving in a thoroughly ungodlike way.