The Crusades were a series of religious wars beginning in the 11th century that lasted for almost 200 years. The wars were between Christians from western Europe and Muslims in the Middle East. These were some of the deadliest battles in history and responsible for millions of deaths. So, what were the Crusades, and what was their purpose?

In the beginning

Person dressed in historic knight templar garb with red cross and weaponry

The Byzantine Empire was located in the eastern part of what used to be the Roman Empire. After a messy civil war, Alexius Comnensus took the Byzantine throne and became Emperor Alexius I. The Turks had been capturing land throughout the area, and, knowing he couldn’t take them on alone, Alexius I asked the Pope for help against the non-Christian threat. The Pope agreed. This agreement unified Christians throughout Europe with a common cause: to rid the area of non-Christians and reclaim the Holy Land for themselves.

The cause was loved by people of all classes and spawned several religious military orders such as the Teutonic Order, the Hospitallers, and the Knights Templar. People joined the fight in droves and marched eastward. There were eight official Crusades between 1095 and 1270, with several unofficial crusades occurring well into the 16th century.

The first Crusade

Medieval weapons, shields and helmets from crusade era lined up against brick wall

In 1096, four armies from various European regions started making their way eastward to help the Byzantine Empire. While the armies were amassing, a smaller, less organized group of commoners and knights decided to mount a “People’s Crusade” and, against the Emperor’s advice, made their way into Muslim territory. This was officially the first attack of the Crusades. As you can imagine, it went poorly. The Turkish armies demolished the unprepared crusaders.

When the main armies were ready, they mounted their own assault on the Turks. The strength of the allies was overwhelming and led to the capture of Syrian Antioch in 1098 and eventually Jerusalem in 1099.

While the first official, armed Crusade was a success, it created a massive divide between the religious groups in the area. Many of the Crusaders took the war as a Christian push for supremacy. The mentality was, “If they’re not Christians, they’re enemies.” Many innocent people, including Jews who had nothing to do with the Crusades, were massacred in the name of progress. And, of course, the Islamic Empire was not pleased to lose so much territory.

The second Crusade

Stone relief in cathedral door showing soldiers fighting during crusade era

After the success of the first Crusade, four new Crusader States were formed: County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. These new states provided great trade opportunities for east and west Europe, but they wouldn’t last long.

In 1144, Muslim armies mounted an attack on the city of Edessa and recaptured the city. The German King, Conrad III, and the French King, Louis VII, didn’t take kindly to the Christian loss, beginning the second Crusade to retake the city. Although the Christian armies managed to kill the Muslim leader who initially captured the city, he was replaced by an even more determined leader, Nur al-Din. Nur al-Din wanted to escalate the Crusades into a full-blown holy war involving the entire Islamic Empire. With his determination, he managed to not only defeat the Crusader army at Edessa, but also to recapture Antioch as well.

The third Crusade

Aerial view of Jerulsalem

In 1187, a new Muslim leader, Saladin, took control of the city of Jerusalem. This was the final straw for Christian leaders. Three of the most powerful European rulers banded together to set off on the third Crusade. The armies were led by Philip II of France, Richard I “the Lionhearted” of England, and Frederick I Barbarossa, who was the king of Germany and the Holy Roman Emperor.

During their trip to Jerusalem, the Crusaders encountered several other battles, many of which they won. But by the time they got to the city, the armies were tired and worn down. They never even attacked. Instead, a compromise was struck. The Muslims would retain control of the Holy Land but allow access to Christian pilgrims. While the third Crusade was technically a failure, it did provide a Christian foothold in the Middle East and a jumping point for following Crusades.

Following Crusades

Up close view of stained glass window showing crusades at the cathedral of Brussels

Following the third Crusade, there were five more organized Crusades to recapture the Holy Land along with dozens of smaller skirmishes for hundreds of years after.

  • 4th Crusade, 1204 — The Pope and his allies sacked the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, in what was effectively a Christian civil war.
  • 5th Crusade, 1217 — Christians attacked Egypt in an effort to find a new way into the Holy Land. The initial siege was successful, but they were eventually driven out of the area.
  • 6th Crusade, 1228 — The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, peacefully negotiated control of Jerusalem from the Islamic leader, who was having trouble maintaining the area.
  • 7th Crusade, 1248 — Christian armies were defeated at the battle of La Forbie, and the French King Louis IX sought retaliation. He tried to go after Egypt again but had similar results. Louis IX was captured and ransomed back to France.
  • 8th Crusade, 1270 — Louis IX tried another attempt at taking North Africa, but this time he died along the way, as did the Crusades.

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