The Event That Triggered the First Crusade

On 27 November 1095, Pope Urban II instigated a Holy War – what we now call the First Crusade. Between 1095 and 1100, several thousand men, women and even children, made the perilous journey overland, conquered Jerusalem and other important cities in the Middle East.

These brave and violent warriors of the First Crusade, without realizing it at the time, set the advancement of Western Civilization in motion. At the same time, they strained Muslim-Christian relations with the blood of hate, forever.

Why did Pope Urban II urge his people to wage war against the Muslims, a race of people who lived far away from Christendom; an action that went against the teachings of Christ?

Expanding Muslim Empire

Throughout the eleventh century, the Muslims continued to expand their empire with the sole purpose of uniting the entire world under the banner of Islam. Christians living in Muslim-held territory were allowed to practice their religion, but were forced to pay a heavy tax. Persecution of Christians and even Jews was not uncommon, but that did not stop western pilgrims from travelling to and from the Holy Land. Naturally, they brought stories of Christian persecution with them back to Europe. That, however, was not the only thing that triggered hatred against the Muslims.

Shrinking Christian Empire

In the eleventh century, The Byzantine Empire – the eastern Christian empire and gateway into the Holy Land – was on the brink of destruction. In the 1040s, Turkish warriors migrated from the steppes of central Asia and conquered Persia, then invaded Armenia and Iraq and conquered Baghdad in 1055.

The Turkish invasions jeopardized the safety of pilgrims and threatened to sever Europe’s ties with Jerusalem. To make matters worse, Byzantium was severely weakened by the Bubonic Plague. Many people had died, leaving the emperor unable to protect the pilgrims and his people from Muslim raids.

Failed Christian Campaign

In the summer of 1071 Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes decisively chose to fight back with two goals in mind: recapture all territory lost to the Turks and crush Sultan Alp-Arslan and his armies for good. However, it was not so. The Emperor’s army numbered approximately 40,000 troops, but Caliph Alp-Arslan’s army held the upper hand in strategy. At the battle of Manzikert, Emperor Romanus was captured and his armies, defeated.

Romanus was not held captive for long, but shortly after he returned to his people, he was “deposed, and then blinded and finally killed after great torture and torment.”

Attacked From All Sides

When Alexius I Comnenus took the imperial throne in 1081, only a few coastal towns in the north belonged to the Byzantine Empire. Not only were his coffers empty, Alexius was bombarded with perpetual threats from the Turks. At the same time, ferocious Pecheneg and Cuman nomads from the Russian steppes raided the Danube frontier. It was at this crucial moment, Emperor Alexius decided he needed help.

In 1093, Alexius wrote a letter to Robert, Count of Flanders, requesting military aid against the Seljuk Turks. In his letter, Alexius wrote of all the horrible deeds the Seljuk Turks had committed. The letter to the Count of Flanders quickly ended up in Pope Urban’s hands. The Turks were conquerors, but it is highly unlikely they tortured and murdered Christians to the extent that Emperor Alexius described. Regardless, Urban believed him.

Lies And Ambition As A Means To An End

Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, though, needed only a small army of strong Knights and war lords to fight the Turks. That is what he wanted, but Pope Urban had a different plan. Urban hated and feared the Muslims just as much as Emperor Alexius did. He wished to save Byzantium from Islam, but was also a man of high ambition. Pope Urban believed that a Crusade would build relations with Byzantium which would enable him to expand his papal authority. To accomplish this grand goal, Urban needed to give the people a reason why they should wage war against the Muslims. He promised them eternal salvation and absolution from all their sins, two things Christians living in Medieval times strived to achieve every day. For that reason, the people did what he commanded them, willingly and with the same burning hatred for a people they had never before encountered.

In the meantime, Emperor Alexius awaited the arrival of the armed force he had requested. He did not know of Pope Urban’s ambitions, nor did he anticipate the enormous armed force that would arrive at the shores of Constantinople (now Istanbul) three years later; an event that would go down in history as the First Crusade.

Sources Used:

Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of The War For The Holy Land. Ecco; New York, 2011.

Alexius I Comnenus: Byzantine Emperor:

The Battle of Manzikert (1071 A.D.):