Dark Legacy

How centuries of war began with one man's ambition

The Byzantine Empire was in trouble.

For decades the Turks, fierce nomadic warriors recently converted to Islam, had been conquering outer areas of the empire and subjecting these lands to their own rule. Recently, they'd captured the holy city of Jerusalem, and, before they understood how Christian pilgrims to the city could help their economy, they mistreated Christians and Arabs alike. Furthermore, they established their capital a mere 100 miles from Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium.

If Byzantine civilization was to survive, the Turks must be stopped.

Emperor Alexius Comnenus knew he did not have the means to stop these invaders on his own. Because Byzantium had been a center of Christian freedom and learning, he felt confident in asking the Pope for assistance. In 1095 AD he sent a letter to Pope Urban II, asking him to send armed forces to Eastern Rome to help drive out the Turks. The forces Alexius more than likely had in mind were mercenaries, paid professional soldiers whose skill and experience would would rival that of the emperor's armies. Alexius did not realize that Urban had an altogether different agenda.

The Papacy in Europe had acquired considerable power over the preceding decades. Churches and priests that had been under the authority of various secular lords had been brought together under the influence of Pope Gregory VII. Now the Church was a controlling force in Europe in religious matters and even some secular ones, and it was Pope Urban II who succeeded Gregory (after the brief pontificate of Victor III) and continued his work.

Although it is impossible to say exactly what Urban had in mind when he received the emperor's letter, his subsequent actions were most revealing.

At the Council of Clermont in November of 1095, Urban made a speech that literally changed the course of history. In it, he stated that the Turks had not only invaded Christian lands but had visited unspeakable atrocities on Christians (of which, according to Robert the Monk's account, he spoke in great detail).

This was a great exaggeration, but it was just the beginning.

Urban went on to admonish those assembled for heinous sins against their brother Christians. He spoke of how Christian knights battled other Christian knights, wounding, maiming and killing each other and thus imperiling their immortal souls. If they were to continue to call themselves knights, they should stop killing each other and rush to the Holy Land.

  • "You should shudder, brethren, you should shudder at raising a violent hand against Christians; it is less wicked to brandish your sword against Saracens."

    (from Robert the Monk's account of Urban's speech)

Urban promised complete remission of sins for anyone killed in the Holy Land or even anyone who died on the way to the Holy Land in this righteous crusade.

One might argue that those who have studied the teachings of Jesus Christ would be shocked at the suggestion of killing anyone in Christ's name. But it is important to remember that the only people who were generally able to study scripture were priests and members of cloistered religious orders. Few knights and fewer peasants could read at all, and those who could rarely if ever had access to a copy of the gospel. A man's priest was his connection to God; the Pope was sure to know God's wishes better than anyone.

Who were they to argue with such an important man of religion?

Furthermore, the theory of a "Just War" had been under serious consideration ever since Christianity had become the favored religion of the Roman Empire. St. Augustine of Hippo, the most influential Christian thinker of Late Antiquity, had discussed the matter in his City of God (Book XIX). Pacifisim, a guiding principle of Christianity, was very well and good in the personal life of the individual; but when it came to sovereign nations and defense of the weak, someone had to take up the sword.

In addition, Urban had been correct when he'd decried the violence going on in Europe at that time. Knights killed each other nearly every day, usually in practice tournaments but occasionally in deadly battle. The knight, it could prudently be said, lived to fight.

And now the Pope himself offered all knights a chance to pursue the sport they loved most in the name of Christ.

Urban's speech set in action a deadly chain of events that would continue for several hundred years, the repercussions of which are still felt today. Not only was the First Crusade followed by seven other formally numbered crusades (or six, depending on what source you consult) and many other forays, but the entire relationship between Europe and the eastern lands was irreparably altered. Crusaders did not limit their violence to Turks, nor did they readily distinguish among any groups not obviously Christian. Constantinople itself, at that time still a Christian city, was attacked by members of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, thanks to ambitious Venetian merchants.

Was Urban attempting to establish a Christian empire in the east? If so, it is doubtful he could have envisioned the extremes to which the Crusaders would go or the historical impact his ambitions eventually had. He never even saw the final results of the First Crusade; by the time news of the capture of Jerusalem reached the west, Pope Urban II was dead.

Guide's Note: This feature was originally posted in October of 1997, and was updated in November of 2006 and in August of 2011.