The Age of the Crusades- Part 1: Trouble in Christendom


The Crusading period is one which is often glorified and dramatized in the media and in popular culture, so it’s astonishing how little people truly know about it.  The extent of most people’s knowledge is that the Crusades are a series of military conflicts between Christians and Muslims vying for control of the Holy Land. That is correct but it only scratches the surface of what is genuinely fascinating period in history. In this series, I hope to give a reasonably detailed account of the first four Crusades, and the events that precipitated and followed them. Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy!

Our story starts with two large and powerful groups fighting for the possession of Anatolia (modern day Turkey). The Byzantine Empire, the eastern portion of the Roman Empire forged when it permanently split in 395 AD, was a Hellenistic Christian state who then had control of much of Asia Minor. Its emperor was Romanos IV, a man who was determined to restore the once might Byzantine military to its former strength, and expel the Turks from his land. The Seljuk Turks, were a semi-nomadic group who had settled in Persia, adopting its language and customs, before reaching Baghdad, where they became the de facto leaders of the Sunni Abbasid caliphate, the Muslim group who controlled much of the Middle East including Iraq, Iran and the Levant. The leader of the Seljuks was the ambitious Alp Arslan, who held great expansionist aims, wanting to see his great empire stretch into Byzantine territory.

Tensions between these two mighty forces came to a head at the decisive and bloody Battle of Manzikert in August 1071. Days before the battle, Turkish forces made gains in and around the city of Manzikert but Romanos, determined to deal with the Seljuk problem once and for all refused to negotiate peace with Arslan. The two armies met on the 26th August, and the battle did not go Romanos’ way. The main block of the Byzantine force led by the emperor was cut off from their flanks by the Turkish  horsemen and, as the light of day was starting to fade, Romanos called for an orderly retreat. This went disastrously wrong as Andronikos Doukas, rival to the emperor and leader of the Byzantine rearguard, returned back to camp with his men, forcing the emperor to keep fighting. This left Romanos’ army open to an all-out attack from the Turks. Upon failing to organise his panicking units, Romanos made his last stand against the Muslims before his horse was killed from beneath him. He was captured and brought before Alp Arslan.

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Map of the Battle of Manzikert 1071

The Battle of Manzikert represents a significant turning point in Byzantine history. It led to the loss of almost all of Anatolia (as I shall later discuss), and caused a great deal of economic stress. Not only this but upon Romanos IV’s release and return to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, he was blinded, deposed, and banished, dying in exile just a year later. This led to a decade long civil war which would tear Byzantium apart. Michael VII Doukas, brother of the man who had betrayed the former emperor, was deposed by Nikephorus III in 1078, and he was later deposed by his own general Alexios I Komnenus in 1081. These intense internal divisions put the Byzantines in a very weak position by 1095, when Alexios called for the First Crusade.

Following Manzikert, the Turks made great gains in Anatolia. The newly created Sultan of Rum, Suleiman, captured the city of Nicaea in 1078, and later Antioch in 1084. Abu’l Kasim acquired the city of Nicomedia in 1091. Caka, a semi-independent Turkish warlord, captured Smyrna in 1084. By early 1090s, the Byzantines had lost all Anatolia except Trebizond and Chalcedon. Despite these heavy losses, there is some evidence to suggest that the relationship between the Turks and the Byzantines was not all bad. Alexios had used Turkish mercenaries in his 1081 usurpation, and he was assisted by Suleiman at Larissa in 1082 against the Normans.

Moreover, the Byzantine’s faced external threats as well. The Pechenegs, a nomadic group, raided Byzantine territory to the north. They invaded with a huge force in 1087 but were paid off by Alexios, who saw no other way to quell the threat. Soon they became an even greater threat as they captured Thrace, putting them dangerously close to Constantinople. Though Byzantines were undoubtedly weakened by the Pechenegs, they were defeated soundly at the Battle of Lebounion in 1091 with the help of the Cumans. Another outside threat to Byzantium was another Christian group descended from Vikings: the Normans. The Normans invaded southern Italy, an area that the Greeks regarded as their own even though they had lost most of it already. In April 1071, the Normans captured Byzantium’s final possession in the region, Bari. At the Battle of Dyrrhachium in 1081, Alexios was defeated by the Normans led by Robert Guiscard. These external threats ensured that the Byzantines could not put their full focus on dealing with their own internal divisions and the more pressing issue of Turkish expansion.

Finally, the Byzantines were under immense financial pressure between 1071 and 1095. The debasement of coinage saw its gold content plummet from 70% to 10%. This led to massive inflation and a complete lack of economic confidence. Moreover, Venetian traders were exempt from Kommerkion and did not have to pay the commercial tax (10%), this led to resentment by Byzantine merchants who were at a disadvantage. As a result, trade suffered. These issued were eased somewhat in 1092 when Alexios introduced a new currency, the Hyperpyron. This restored some economic confidence but did not entirely resolve issues.

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Picture of the Hyperpyron

It was not just Byzantium that was having a tough time, however. The papacy, too, was struggling to assert its authority in the Latin West. Pope Gregory VII, pontiff from 1073 to 1085, fought against the common practice of lay investiture, whereby the secular princes of Europe would elect bishops rather than the Church. A leader that was particularly resistant to this was Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor (or just the king of Germany). Tensions became so strong between them that Henry gave his support to a rival antipope, Clement III. A particular focal point of the investiture conflict was the archbishopric of Milan, which was contested in 1075. In the end, Gregory’s choice for the position, Atto, was successful over Tedald, Henry IV’s choice. While the papacy was in this example successful at asserting its independence and influence, it does demonstrate that there was significant resistance by European leaders. Indeed William the Conqueror and his son, William II, continued to appoint bishops against the wishes of the pope.

Relations between the Latin West (led by the papacy) and the Greek East (led by the Byzantine church) were very poor when the First Crusade was called, and had been for a long time. Divisions can be traced back to the Nicene Creed of 325, and the infamous Filioque controversy. This theological debate about the nature of the Holy Trinity (which is very interesting and something that I highly recommend reading about) led to much disagreement in Eastern and Western Christianity. Tensions finally manifested in 1054 with the Great Schism when the eastern and western church broke communion.

From all of the aforesaid information, it is clear that both Byzantium and the papacy were in fairly weak positions. It was mutually beneficial for both sides to unite against a common enemy: the Muslims. At the Council of Piacenza in March 1095, Alexios I sent envoys to the pope asking for assistance against the Seljuk Turks. Urban II, the pope from 1088 to 1099, promised to help but no real action was taken until several months later at the Council of Clermont in November. Thirteen archbishops, two hundred and twenty-five bishops, and over ninety abbots were present at the synod, where Urban called for a military expedition to help Byzantium and liberate the Holy Land from the Saracens.

An extract of Urban II’s speech at Clermont, as recorded by Guibert of Nogent in 1108, goes as follows:

‘Most beloved brethren, if you reverence the source of that holiness and if you cherish these shrines which are the marks of His footprints on earth, if you seek the way, God leading you, God fighting on your behalf you should strive with your utmost efforts to cleanse the Holy City and the glory of the Sepulchre, now polluted by the concourse of the Gentiles, as much as is in your power. You ought to consider with the utmost deliberation, if by your labours, God working through you, it should occur that the Mother of churches should flourish anew to the worship of Christianity. He may wish other regions of the east to be restored to the faith against the approaching time of the Antichrist’.

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Painting depicting the Council of Clermont (1095)

It was these words that would spark the largest Christian military expedition to the east theretofore seen, the First Crusade.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed. Next time we’ll talk about the events of the First Crusade, as well as its leaders, and the motivations of its participants.

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