Saturday, December 31, 2016

The First Crusades

At the end of the eleventh century, Europeans began their first concerted attempt to expand beyond the frontiers of Europe by conquering the land of Palestine.

CHRONOL0GY - The Crusades

Pope Urban II’s call for a Crusade at Clermont 1095

First Crusade 1096–1099

Second Crusade 1147–1149

Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem 1187

Third Crusade 1189–1192

Fourth Crusade—sack of Constantinople 1204

Latin Empire of Constantinople 1204–1261

The Crusades were based on the idea of a holy war against infidels (unbelievers). Christian wrath against Muslims had already found some expression in the attempt to wrest Spain from the Moors and the success of the Normans in reclaiming Sicily. At the end of the eleventh century, Christian Europe found itself with a glorious opportunity to go after the Muslims when the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I, asked Pope Urban II for help against the Seljuk Turks. The pope saw this as a chance to rally the warriors of Europe for the liberation of Jerusalem and the Holy Land of Palestine from the infidels. The Holy City of Jerusalem had long been the focus of Christian pilgrimages. At the Council of Clermont in southern France toward the end of 1095, Urban challenged Christians to take up their weapons and join in a holy war to recover the Holy Land. The pope promised remission of sins: ‘‘All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.’’ The enthusiastic crowd cried out in response: ‘‘It is the will of God, it is the will of God.’’

The initial response to Urban’s speech reveals how appealing many people found this combined call to military arms and religious fervor. A self-appointed leader, Peter the Hermit, who preached of his visions of the Holy City of Jerusalem, convinced a large mob, most of them poor and many of them peasants, to undertake a Crusade to liberate the city. One person who encountered Peter described him in these words: ‘‘Outdoors he wore a woolen tunic, which revealed his ankles, and above it a hood; he wore a cloak to cover his upper body, a bit of his arms, but his feet were bare. He drank wine and ate fish, but scarcely ever ate bread. This man, partly because of his reputation, partly because of his preaching, [assembled] a very large army.’’

This ‘‘Peasant’s Crusade’’ or ‘‘Crusade of the Poor’’ consisted of a ragtag rabble that moved through the Balkans, terrorizing natives and looting for their food and supplies. Their misplaced religious enthusiasm led to another tragic by-product as well, the persecution of the Jews, long pictured by the church as the murderers of Christ. As a contemporary chronicler described it, ‘‘They persecuted the hated race of the Jews wherever they were found.’’ Two bands of peasant crusaders, led by Peter the Hermit, managed to reach Constantinople. The Byzantine emperor wisely shipped them over to Asia Minor, where the Turks massacred the undisciplined and poorly armed mob.

Pope Urban II did not share the wishful thinking of the peasant crusaders but was more inclined to trust knights who had been well trained in the art of war. Three organized crusading bands of noble warriors, most of them French, made their way eastward. The crusading army probably numbered several thousand cavalry and as many as ten thousand infantry. After the capture of Antioch in 1098, much of the crusading host proceeded down the Palestinian coast, evading the well-defended coastal cities, and reached Jerusalem in June 1099. After a five-week siege, the Holy City was taken amid a horrible massacre of the inhabitants---men, women, and children.

After further conquest of Palestinian lands, the crusaders ignored the wishes of the Byzantine emperor and organized four Latin crusader states. Because the crusader kingdoms were surrounded by Muslims hostile to them, they grew increasingly dependent on the Italian commercial cities for supplies from Europe. Some Italian cities, such as Genoa, Pisa, and especially Venice, grew rich and powerful in the process.

But it was not easy for the crusader kingdoms to maintain themselves. Already by the 1120s, the Muslims had begun to strike back. The fall of one of the Latin kingdoms in 1144 led to renewed calls for another Crusade, especially from the monastic firebrand Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. He exclaimed, ‘‘Now, on account of our sins, the enemies of the cross have begun to show their faces. . . . What are you doing, you servants of the cross? Will you throw to the dogs that which is most holy? Will you cast pearls before swine?’’ Bernard even managed to enlist two powerful rulers, but their Second Crusade proved to be a total failure.

The Third Crusade was a reaction to the fall of the Holy City of Jerusalem in 1187 to the Muslim forces under Saladin. Now all of Christendom was ablaze with calls for a new Crusade. Three major monarchs agreed to lead their forces in person: Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany (1152--1190), Richard I the Lionhearted of England (1189--1199), and Philip II Augustus, king of France (1180--1223). Some of the crusaders finally arrived in the Holy Land by 1189 only to encounter problems. Frederick Barbarossa drowned while swimming in a local river, and his army quickly disintegrated. The English and French arrived by sea and met with success against the coastal cities, where they had the support of their fleets, but when they moved inland, they failed miserably. Eventually, after Philip went home, Richard the Lionhearted negotiated a settlement whereby Saladin agreed to allow Christian pilgrims free access to Jerusalem.

The Later Crusades
After the death of Saladin in 1193, Pope Innocent III initiated the Fourth Crusade. On its way east, the crusading army became involved in a dispute over the succession to the Byzantine throne. The Venetian leaders of the Fourth Crusade saw an opportunity to neutralize their greatest commercial competitor, the Byzantine Empire. Diverted to Constantinople, the crusaders sacked the great capital city of Byzantium in 1204 and set up the new Latin Empire of Constantinople. Not until 1261 did a Byzantine army recapture Constantinople. In the meantime, additional Crusades were undertaken to reconquer the Holy Land. All of them were largely disasters, and by the end of the thirteenth century, the European military effort to capture Palestine was recognized as a complete failure.

Effects of the Crusades
Whether the Crusades had much effect on European civilization is debatable. The crusaders made little long-term impact on the Middle East, where the only visible remnants of their conquests were their castles. There may have been some broadening of perspective that comes from the exchange between two cultures, but the interaction of Christian Europe with the Muslim world was actually both more intense and more meaningful in Spain and Sicily than in the Holy Land.

Did the Crusades help stabilize European society by removing large numbers of young warriors who would have fought each other in Europe? Some historians think so and believe that Western monarchs established their control more easily as a result. There is no doubt that the Crusades did contribute to the economic growth of the Italian port cities, especially Genoa, Pisa, and Venice. But it is important to remember that the growing wealth and population of twelfth-century Europe had made the Crusades possible in the first place. The Crusades may have enhanced the revival of trade, but they certainly did not cause it. Even without the Crusades, Italian merchants would have pursued new trade contacts with the Eastern world.

The Crusades prompted evil side effects that would haunt European society for generations. The first widespread attacks on the Jews began with the Crusades. As some Christians argued, to undertake holy wars against infidel Muslims while the ‘‘murderers of Christ’’ ran free at home was unthinkable. The massacre of Jews became a regular feature of medieval European life.

The Roman Catholic Church shared in the challenge of new growth by reforming itself and striking out on a path toward greater papal power, both within the church hierarchy and over European society. The High Middle Ages witnessed a spiritual renewal that enhanced papal leadership and the religious lives of the clergy and the laity. At the same time, this spiritual renewal also gave rise to the crusading ‘‘holy warrior’’ who killed for God, thereby creating an animosity between Christians and Muslims that still has repercussions to this day.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Queen Melisende of Jerusalem

The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the other Crusader states, with Moslem states (in shades of green) in 1135 during the reign of Melisende.

Within fifty years of its capture, Jerusalem, the most prestigious city in Christendom, was ruled by a woman. Queen Melisende’s powerful and charismatic personality cast its influence across the Levant for over two decades—a remarkable achievement in the most war-torn environment in Christendom and in such a male-dominated age. Broadly speaking, medieval women were characterized as either sinful temptresses, heiresses to the legacy of Eve, or simply lacking the physical strength to govern. Biblical authority indicated women were subject to the authority of their husbands. Melisende came to the throne of Jerusalem through a complex combination of personal determination and circumstance. At first glance, however, the possibility of any woman wielding authority in the Levant seems remote.

As we have seen, the first Frankish ruler of Jerusalem, Godfrey of Bouillon, refused to call himself king in Christ’s city and modestly took the title of Advocate of the Holy Sepulchre. He died just over a year later, to be succeeded by his more pragmatic brother, Baldwin of Boulogne, who was crowned king in November 1100. Thus began the royal line, headed by one of the great warrior leaders of the First Crusade. King Baldwin I had to expand and consolidate his lands in the face of fierce Muslim opposition. He also needed to establish a dynasty, his first wife having died during the terrible crossing of Asia Minor. And so, in 1098 he married the Armenian noblewoman Arda, partly in an attempt to forge closer links with the indigenous Christians of northern Syria. Arda traveled south to be installed as queen of Jerusalem but within six years, Baldwin—whose wars had made him desperately short of cash—cast her aside to seek a wealthier bride. Arda fled to Constantinople where she is said to have lost her queenly dignity and become a common prostitute. Flagrantly ignoring the fact that Arda was still alive, the king then married the wealthy, but late-middle-aged, Adelaide of Sicily. Once he had spent all her money, Baldwin callously repudiated this queen too and sent her home: apparently the king regarded women as useful sources of financial and political advancement but little else, and in not providing an heir, he had failed in the most vital responsibility of a medieval monarch.

At the time of his death Baldwin I’s closest male relative had returned to Europe. By chance, however, the king’s cousin, also named Baldwin—and, at that time, count of Edessa—was in Jerusalem. Rather than suffer a long interregnum, the nobility agreed he should be crowned and his family soon came south to start a new life in the holy city. Fourteen grim months as a captive of the Muslims in 1123–24 did little to deter Baldwin II from an aggressive military policy and he fought numerous campaigns across the Levant. His Armenian wife, Morphia, bore him four daughters—Melisende, Alice, Hodierna, and Yveta—before she died in 1126. Once again there was no immediate male heir. Circumstances required that an outsider be brought in to marry the eldest princess and become king, although, as we shall see, first Baldwin, and then Melisende, were utterly determined to protect the standing of their own bloodline.4 Transforming this desire into a reality lies at the heart of this episode and in the course of the struggle Melisende challenged and, in her lifetime at least, overturned women’s conventional role as passive and politically inferior to men.

As (often) a child heiress, then a bride, a mother, and finally a widow, women could carry or create the royal line of succession. For every ruling house the maintenance of a dynasty was a matter of the utmost priority; a woman could, therefore, through the various stages of her life, hold or transmit something of inestimable value. By bearing children a woman could derive glory and hold a special place in a ruling family. To convert that into genuine day-to-day influence and to overcome the strictures of churchmen was, for the majority of medieval noblewomen and queens, impossible. Elsewhere in twelfth-century Europe, several women—such as Matilda of England—attempted to become rulers, but their efforts almost invariably failed and were not repeated for centuries. For Melisende the boundaries imposed by her sex were there to be broken.

In August 1131 King Baldwin II marched into Jerusalem after settling a rebellion in northern Syria. Within a week of his return, however, the king was struck down by a serious illness and his condition rapidly deteriorated. Baldwin realized that his last days were at hand and he asked to be carried the three hundred meters from the royal palace in the Temple of Solomon to the palace of the patriarch of Jerusalem in the Holy Sepulchre.

The head of the Catholic Church in Jerusalem occupied a series of spacious apartments connected to the uppermost part of the rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre. Baldwin could hardly be closer to the core of the Christian faith—the place where Jesus had been buried and had risen again. It was on a quest to free the Lord’s tomb from Muslim hands that Baldwin had set out on the First Crusade and fought and suffered during the three thousand long miles from his homeland in Boulogne to the holy city. Thirty-three years later he was one of the few surviving veterans of the crusade and it was wholly apposite that he chose to die at the place of greatest spiritual resonance for Christian pilgrims.

As his strength faded Baldwin summoned his eldest daughter, the slender, dark-haired Melisende, his son-in-law, Count Fulk V of Anjou, and their son, a two-year-old also named Baldwin. For Melisende it must have been an intensely poignant moment as she witnessed the loss of her remaining parent and the change in her status from princess to queen. Fulk had waited for this time since his arrival in the Holy Land three years earlier. The nobles of Jerusalem had unanimously chosen him to marry Melisende because he was a man of considerable military experience and the head of one of the most important families in western Europe. He was also known to the Franks from an earlier pilgrimage to the Levant when he stayed with the newly founded Order of Knights Templar. When Baldwin passed away, Fulk believed that he would become king of Jerusalem.

As his time drew near, Baldwin had one final, maverick decision to hand down. It was an act that would have profound consequences for Melisende, Fulk, and the future of the kingdom of Jerusalem. Baldwin summoned the patriarch and various senior nobles to join his family at his bedside. In front of these witnesses the ailing monarch formally resigned the crown and then—and here lay the twist—he committed the kingdom not to Fulk alone, but to the care of Melisende and the infant Baldwin as well. In other words, he decreed that Jerusalem would be ruled by a triumvirate, not just by one man.

The majority of people in the room murmured their assent—for one individual, however, years of planning and anticipation were in utter ruins. As he heard the pronouncement Fulk must have felt shaken to the core—a mixture of horror and fury; yet at such a solemn moment he could hardly give vent to his true emotions. He had relinquished his position as count of Anjou in order to rule Jerusalem in his own right. He had not surrendered his old life in France to share power with anyone, not even his own wife. Now he had been cornered and confronted with—potentially—the demolition of his sole authority.

As a piece of political drama this deathbed scene was an episode of the highest order. Who could resist the dying command of a hero of the First Crusade, the anointed king of Jerusalem? Baldwin had sent a startlingly clear signal that it was his bloodline—carried in the person of Melisende—and not Fulk’s, that lay at the heart and soul of the kingdom. Baldwin did not, under any circumstances, wish to see the lands that he had fought so hard for absorbed into Fulk’s Angevin Empire. Yet it was precisely because Baldwin’s line had to be transmitted through a woman, with all the disadvantages that this carried in medieval society, that he had needed to stage such a coup de théâtre. Fulk was important as a provider of military leadership and to father children, but Baldwin plainly wished to limit his influence and to ensure that Melisende held power as well. Much depended on how Melisende herself handled this legacy.

Some women may have simply acquiesced to their husband’s wishes—as the Church recommended they should—in which case Baldwin’s decree would have become a hollow and worthless act. There were numerous cases of female regents being bullied aside by the political and military muscle of men who sought power for themselves. The dying king knew his daughter well, though; Melisende had the strength of character to uphold her position to the full and as the years unfolded her uncompromising political skills showed her father’s faith in her to be entirely justified.

It is difficult not to feel some sympathy for Fulk. There was no record of any overt tension between Baldwin and his son-in-law in the three years before the king died; in fact, William of Tyre recorded quite the opposite. Fulk is reported to have “devotedly fulfilled all the duties of a son . . . and in deference to the lord king he proved he was not lacking in those qualities which ordinarily win friends.” Yet Orderic Vitalis, who wrote within a decade of these events, offered a different perspective and observed that Fulk had “exercised authority undisturbed as [Baldwin’s] son-in-law and heir throughout the realm during the [last] year of the old king’s life.” Fulk would have been able to stamp his influence on the royal household, and the arrival of a number of Angevin newcomers may have perturbed Baldwin. While the presence of extra warriors was always welcome in the Holy Land, such men would need lands and titles for themselves—which could only come at the expense of the indigenous nobility: those who had grown strong in supporting King Baldwin. The invitation to Fulk was the first time that such a powerful western lord had been asked to settle in the Levant; almost certainly the king had underestimated the wider effects of his being there.

While the nobility of Jerusalem had universally endorsed the choice of Fulk as ruler, evidently they had now reconsidered; some may have feared that he would cast Melisende aside. After all, his father, Fulk le Réchin, had, in spite of his nickname, married four, possibly five times, and Fulk himself had an adult son, Elias, from his first marriage. At the time of his father’s negotiations to wed Melisende, Elias had been expected to succeed to the county of Perche in northern France, but had since been cheated out of this by his father-in-law. Could the next king of Jerusalem lever his own son into the line of succession in the East?

After Baldwin had revealed his final wishes he removed himself from any further controversy when he donned a monk’s cowl and took vows of holy orders. Like many nobles of the time he chose to end his life as a cleric and forsook the secular world to be closer to God. On August 21, 1131, the king died. He was buried near his predecessors in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the foot of Mount Calvary, the place of Christ’s Crucifixion.

Within a month Fulk, Melisende, and the young Baldwin were crowned. The coronations of Baldwin I and Baldwin II had taken place at the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem, but the 1131 ceremony was moved to the focal point of the kingdom, the Holy Sepulchre—an early indication that Fulk wanted to change direction. The court officials chose September 14, the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a commemoration of the discovery of the relic of the True Cross, as an auspicious and appropriate day for the occasion.

The coronation was a great public event, designed to cement in the minds of everyone who witnessed it the beginning of a new period of divinely sanctioned rule. In a society without means of mass communication, such carefully staged displays were vital opportunities to reinforce notions of power and splendor. Detailed descriptions of thirteenth-century coronations allow us to reconstruct the events of 1131 with some confidence; we also have the evidence of an early twelfth-century coronation oath. The minutely calculated ceremonial emphasized the royal dignity, the position of the senior nobility, especially the great officers of state, as well as the authority of the Church. Many parts of the ritual can be traced back to the settlers’ homelands and dated from the age of Charlemagne, giving them further gravitas by the weight of tradition.

Once the coronation date had been announced the preparations began. The nobility of Jerusalem traveled to the capital to take part in the ceremony, as did representatives from Antioch, Tripoli, and Edessa. Bishops, abbots, and all the other churchmen of the realm also started to assemble. A more exotic touch was added by the presence of an embassy from Fatimid Egypt; serious political turmoil prompted the new vizier, Kutayfat, to seek a truce with the Christians and his envoys carried a beautiful gift, a carved ivory tau or staff, to advance their cause. Most of the annual pilgrim visitors were still in the Holy Land and they must have been delighted to witness an event of such importance. As the great day approached, people were drawn toward the holy city to watch or take part in the coronation; Jerusalem must have been overflowing with visitors staying with friends, fellow religious groups, or in the many hostels.

On September 14 Fulk and Melisende dressed in the royal palace, assisted, as ever, by their servants. They wore special robes, beautifully embroidered dalmatics—wide-sleeved tunics, open at the sides—and stoles. The family assembled in the Temple complex at the entrance to the royal palace where the marshal and the constable awaited them with horses and the royal standard. This was a square of white cloth with a cross at each corner and one in the center to represent the wounds of Christ. Fulk and Melisende mounted their horses, specially caparisoned for the event, and the chamberlain pointed the way forward with the royal sword. Behind the couple came the seneschal carrying the scepter and the constable holding the standard. Given the scale of the entourage it is likely that the procession went along Temple Street, one of the wider thoroughfares of the city—perhaps seven meters across, rather than the two to three meters of most byways. Temple Street ascends gently uphill for about three hundred meters until a small dogleg moves onto David Street. The way was thronged with cheering spectators crammed in doorways, leaning from windows, standing in front of shops and up on the flat roofs of the houses. The route was decorated with highly colored banners and a swell of noise and anticipation rolled ahead of the approaching party. After another couple of hundred meters the procession turned right onto Patriarch Street and moved alongside the western wall of the Hospital of Saint John before turning right into the courtyard in front of the Holy Sepulchre itself. The street plan of this district of Jerusalem is barely changed today and many of the buildings that rise either side of these roads are crusader in origin. Almost claustrophobic, and often in heavy shadow because of the narrow streets, the area has a truly medieval feel.

The absence of traffic, the bustle of people buying and selling; the slower, less certain pace of strangers visiting holy sites; the smells of cooking food and exotic spices, and the mounds of brightly colored merchandise provide the modern tourist with some echoes of the crusader age. Fulk and Melisende dismounted at the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre. The constable handed the royal standard to the marshal and took the horses’ bridles. Standing in the doorway of the church, waiting to welcome the royal couple, was Patriarch William I of Jerusalem, accompanied by his senior churchmen and the Eastern Christian religious hierarchy, all wearing their finest robes. The party moved from daylight into the holy of holies, the candlelit rotunda that contained Christ’s tomb. The building in place today was (as we will see later) the product of a reconstruction program initiated by Fulk and Melisende soon after their coronation, but in September 1131 the Sepulchre area was already laid out in a basic circular shape. As the candles flickered and incense wafted through the air, everyone knelt in worship and the patriarch led prayers for a successful reign. William then asked Fulk and Melisende to take the coronation oath. No previous rulers of Jerusalem had been designated joint monarchs in the way that Baldwin II had prescribed, but given Fulk’s and Melisende’s status—and the events that followed—we should assume that they both took the same oath. The infant Baldwin must also have been present, but for obvious reasons only as a witness.

The text of the twelfth-century coronation oath has survived and in this case probably resembled these words: “I, Melisende [or Fulk] promise, in the presence of God and his angels, from this day and henceforth, to conserve law, justice and peace for the Holy Church of God in Jerusalem and for my subjects.” They also agreed to seek the advice of the best churchmen of the land where needed. After swearing the oaths the king and queen promised to maintain and defend the crown. William then kissed the couple, turned to the clerics, nobles, and visitors who packed into the church and asked them to confirm that Fulk and Melisende were the lawful heirs to the throne. Three times he asked the question and on the third, a shout of “Oill!” (Yes!) echoed around the building. A further acclamation came through the open doors of the church from those unable to squeeze inside, then everyone sang the hymn “Te Deum Laudamus.”

Another solemn procession then entered the rotunda. Senior nobles had taken the royal crowns out of the treasury of the Holy Sepulchre and carried them forward. The king and queen sat in their choir stalls near the altar and Mass was said. William proclaimed a blessing and began to anoint them. This was one of the most crucial elements of the coronation ritual; the blessing of kings and queens with consecrated oil set them apart from all other laymen. Dukes and counts made oaths and received insignia, but royalty were the only secular people anointed in such a way. The patriarch, holding a horn that contained holy oil, dipped his fingers into it and then touched the head and shoulders of Fulk and Melisende. They now had divine sanction. Next Patriarch William moved on to the symbols of office; given that a joint coronation was unprecedented, either a duplicate of each object had to be found or, more likely, they were given to Fulk alone. A ring, to symbolize loyalty, was put on the king’s finger and he was girded with a sword to indicate justice and the duty of defense. Then he was crowned, given a scepter in his right hand to signify the punishment of sinners and an orb in his left to show dominion. At this point, Melisende must have been crowned queen.

The two monarchs turned to the senior churchmen present, said, “Long live the king/queen in prosperity,” and kissed all of them before turning to their thrones. The Mass ended with Communion. The patriarch blessed the royal standard and gave it to the constable. One wonders what was running through the minds of Fulk and Melisende. In some ways, both must have felt elated by the sense of occasion, their being the center of attention, the bellow of acclaim from the audience, the special ritual of anointing and the placing of the crowns upon their heads. Fulk must have been conscious of his elevation: from the ranks of the senior nobility as count of Anjou he had now reached the very top echelon, that exclusive level of royalty. Exactly how unwilling he was to share this with Melisende would soon become evident. Nothing from his experiences in western Europe would have prepared him for an equal division of authority with a woman; indeed he almost certainly believed that his wife should obey him in all things. The day secured Fulk’s handhold on royal status, but he resolved to ignore the element of joint rule that lay at the heart of the ceremony and he began to exercise power in the way he felt to be appropriate and his due.

Melisende too had moved to the highest rank of secular life; perhaps she felt some trepidation—even as a joint ruler she was doing something almost unprecedented in living memory. The only comparable case had been that of Queen Urraca of Castile and León (1109–26) and she had used a male companion to help govern without a husband. Whether Melisende knew much about Urraca’s experiences is unclear. At the very least she could rely on a core group of her father’s nobles with whom she had grown up and who were likely to be loyal to Baldwin’s memory.

The king and queen stepped out from the Holy Sepulchre into the sharp light of day to receive the cheers of the crowds outside. They retraced their steps back to the Templum Domini (today the al-Aqsa Mosque) where they laid their crowns on the altar to commemorate the presentation of Jesus to Simeon in the temple. This was the last solemn act of the day. Now the nobility of Jerusalem served a splendid celebratory banquet—singing, storytelling, and dancing rounded off one of the landmark events in the history of Jerusalem: the inauguration of a new and experimental phase for the royal dynasty.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Alexius I Comnenus: Byzantine Comeback I

Alexius I Comnenus
It was true that Alexius had an unrivaled military reputation—in his early twenties, he had fought at Manzikert, and he hadn’t lost a battle since—but he had risen to power in the usual way by overthrowing his short-lived predecessor instead of by fighting the Turks. The motley army he commanded was so full of foreign mercenaries that the moment he brought them inside the walls of Constantinople they started looting the city, and a full day passed before he could bring them under control.

Alexius I Comnenus was an unlikely savior. A member of the aristocratic ranks that the Macedonian dynasty had struggled so long to suppress, he seemed at first to be just another usurper in a long line of meddlesome nobles that had brought such ruin to imperial fortunes. It was true that Alexius had an unrivaled military reputation—in his early twenties, he had fought at Manzikert, and he hadn’t lost a battle since—but he had risen to power in the usual way by overthrowing his short-lived predecessor instead of by fighting the Turks. The motley army he commanded was so full of foreign mercenaries that the moment he brought them inside the walls of Constantinople they started looting the city, and a full day passed before he could bring them under control. Some of Constantinople’s older citizens might well have shaken their heads and muttered that there was indeed nothing new under the sun.

It was hardly an auspicious start, but worse was yet to come. Within a month of Alexius’s coronation, word reached him that a terrible force of Normans had landed on the Dalmatian coast and was heading toward the port city of Durazzo. If they took the city, they would have direct access to the thousand-year-old Via Egnatia and with it a straight invasion route to Constantinople.

The Normans were no ordinary wandering band of adventurers. The descendants of Vikings, these Northmen were the success story of the eleventh century. While their more famous brothers in Normandy had battered their way into Saxon England under the command of William the Conqueror, the southern Normans had batted aside a papal army, held the pope captive, and managed to expel the last vestiges of the Roman Empire from Italy. Led by the remarkable Robert Guiscard, they had invaded Sicily, capturing Palermo and thoroughly broken Saracen power over the island. Now, having run out of enemies at home, and with his appetite whetted for imperial blood, the irascible Guiscard turned his attention to the far more tempting prize of Byzantium.

Upon arriving before the walls of Durazzo, Guiscard cheerfully put the city under siege, but its citizens were well aware that Alexius was on his way and showed no inclination to surrender. After a few months of ineffectual assaults, Robert withdrew to a more defensible position. On October 18, the emperor arrived with his army. The force Alexius had managed to gather in such a short period of time was impressively large, but it suffered from what was by now the traditional Byzantine weakness. The core of the army as always was the elite Varangian Guard, but the rest was an undisciplined, ragtag collection of mercenaries whose loyalty—and courage—was at best suspect. The only consolation for Alexius was that the Varangians, at least, were eager for battle.

Fifteen years before, a Norman duke had burst into Anglo-Saxon England, killing the rightful king at Hastings and placing his heavy boot on the back of anyone with a drop of Saxon blood. Many of those who found life intolerable as second-class citizens in Norman England had eventually made their way to Constantinople, where they had enlisted with their Viking cousins in the ranks of the Varangian Guard. Now at last they were face-to-face with the foreigners who had despoiled their homes, murdered their families, and stolen their possessions.

Swinging their terrible double-headed axes in wicked arcs, the Varangians waded into the Norman line, sending their blades crunching into any man or horse that got in their way. The Normans fell back in the face of such a ferocious assault, but Alexius’s Turkish mercenaries betrayed him, and he was unable to press the advantage. The moment the Norman cavalry wheeled around, the bulk of the imperial army scattered, and the exposed and hopelessly outnumbered Varangians were surrounded and butchered to a man. Alexius, bleeding from a wound in the forehead, kept fighting, but he knew the day was lost. Soon he fled to Bulgaria to rebuild his shattered forces.

The empire had proven as weak as Guiscard had hoped, and with the cream of the Byzantine army gone, there was seemingly nothing to fear from Alexius. By the spring of 1082, Durazzo had fallen along with most of northern Greece, and Guiscard could confidently boast to his men that by winter they would all be dining in the palaces of Constantinople. Unfortunately for the invader’s culinary plans, however, Alexius was far from finished. The ever-resourceful emperor knew he couldn’t hope to stand toe-to-toe with Norman arms, but there were other ways to wage war, and in his capable hands diplomacy would prove a sharper weapon than steel.

Guiscard had been all-conquering in southern Italy, but his meteoric career had left numerous enemies in its wake. Chief among them was the German emperor Henry IV, who held northern Italy in his grip and nervously watched the growth of Norman power in the south. When Alexius sent along a healthy amount of gold with the rather obvious suggestion that a Norman emperor might not be a good thing for either of them, Henry obligingly invaded Rome, forcing the panicked pope to beg Guiscard to return at once. Robert wavered, but more Byzantine gold had found its way into the pockets of the Italians chafing under Norman rule, and news soon arrived that southern Italy had risen in rebellion. Gnashing his teeth in frustration, Guiscard had no choice but to withdraw, leaving his son Bohemond to carry on the fight in his place.

Alexius immediately attacked, cobbling together no fewer than three mercenary armies, but each one met the same fate, and the emperor accomplished nothing more than further draining his treasury. Even without their charismatic leader, the Normans were clearly more than a match for his imperial forces, so Alexius began a search for allies to do the fighting for him. He found a ready one in Venice—that most Byzantine of sea republics—where the leadership was as alarmed as everyone else about the scope of Guiscard’s ambitions. In return for the help of its navy, Alexius reduced Venetian tariffs to unprecedented (and from native merchants’ perspectives rather dangerous) levels, and gave Venice a full colony in Constantinople with the freedom to trade in imperial waters. The concessions virtually drove Byzantine merchants from the sea, but that spring it must all have seemed worth it as the Venetian navy cut off Bohemond from supplies or reinforcements. By this time, the Normans were thoroughly exhausted. It had been nearly four years since they had landed in Byzantine territory, and though they had spectacularly demolished every army sent against them, they were no closer to conquering Constantinople than the day they arrived. Most of their officers were unimpressed by the son of Guiscard and wanted only to return home. Encouraged by Alexius’s shrewd bribes, they started to grumble, and when Bohemond returned to Italy to raise more money, his officers promptly surrendered.

The next year, in 1085, the seventy-year-old Robert Guiscard tried again, but he got no farther than the island of Cephalonia, where a fever accomplished what innumerable enemy swords couldn’t, and he died without accomplishing his great dream. The empire could breathe a sigh of relief and turn its eyes once more to lesser threats from the East.

The Muslim threat—much like the Norman one—had recently been tremendously diminished by a fortuitous death. At the start of Alexius’s reign, it had seemed that the Seljuk Turks would devour what was left of Asia Minor. In 1085, Antioch had fallen to their irresistible advance, and the next year Edessa and most of Syria as well. In 1087, the greatest shock came when Jerusalem was captured and the pilgrim routes to the Holy City were completely cut off by the rather fanatical new masters. Turning to the coast, the Muslims captured Ephesus in 1090 and spread out to the Greek islands. Chios, Rhodes, and Lesbos fell in quick succession. But just when it appeared as if Asia was lost, the sultan died and his kingdom splintered in the usual power grab.

With the Norman threat blunted and the Muslim enemy fragmented, the empire might never have a better opportunity to push back the Seljuk threat—and Alexius knew it. All the emperor needed was an army, but as the recent struggle with the Normans had shown, his own was woefully inadequate. Alexius would have to turn to allies to find the necessary steel to stiffen his forces, and, in 1095, he did just that. Taking pen in hand, he wrote a letter to the pope.

The decision to appeal to Rome was somewhat surprising in light of the excommunication of forty-one years before, but most of those involved in that unfortunate event were long dead, and tempers had cooled in the ensuing decades. The emperor and the pope might quibble occasionally about theological details, but they were members of the same faith, and it was as a fellow Christian that Alexius wrote Urban. As a gesture of goodwill to get things off on the right foot, the emperor reopened the Latin churches in Constantinople, and when his ambassadors reached Pope Urban II, they found the pontiff to be in a conciliatory mood. The appalling Turkish conquests had profoundly shocked him, and the sad plight of eastern Christians under Muslim rule could no longer be ignored. No record of the conversation that followed has survived, but by the time the pope made his way to France a few months later, a grand new vision had formed in his mind. Islam had declared a jihad to seize the holy places of Christendom and spread its faith into Europe; now it was time for a grand Christian counteroffensive. On November 18, the pope mounted a huge platform just outside the French city of Clermont and delivered one of the most fateful speeches in history.

The Saracens, he proclaimed, had come storming out of the deserts to steal Christian land and defile their churches, murdering Christian pilgrims and oppressing the faith. They had torn down the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and forced innumerable believers to convert to Islam. The West could no longer in good conscience ignore the suffering—it was the sacred duty of every Christian to march to the aid of their eastern brothers. The Saracens had stolen the city of God and now righteous soldiers were needed to drive them out. All those who marched with a pure heart would have their sins absolved.

The moment the pope finished speaking, the crowd erupted. Medieval Europe was filled with violence, and most of those gathered were painfully aware of how much blood stained their hands. Now, suddenly, they were offered a chance to avoid the eternal damnation that in all likelihood awaited them by wielding their swords in God’s name. A bishop knelt down on the spot and pledged to take the cross, and within moments the papal officials had run out of material for those who wanted to sew crosses on their clothing as a sign of their intentions. France, Italy, and Germany were swept up in crusading fever as Urban traveled spreading the message, and peasants and knights alike flocked to his banner. So many responded that the pope had to begin encouraging some to stay home to take in the harvest and avert the danger of a famine. Not even in his wildest dreams had he imagined such a groundswell.

Alexius I Comnenus: Byzantine Comeback II

Then he was surrounded by nine Normans who stuck him with spears. But his heavy cataphract armor stopped all six spears and his horse bolted and he managed to escape.

The sheer scale of the response electrified the pope, but it horrified Alexius. The last thing he needed was a shambling horde of western knights descending on his capital. What he really wanted were some mercenaries who recognized his authority, while the pope had given him what was sure to be an undisciplined rabble that listened little and demanded much.

And there were plenty of other reasons to mistrust the crusaders. Not only had the pope cleverly substituted Jerusalem for Constantinople as the object of the holy war, but he had also neglected to mention Alexius in any of his speeches, putting the Crusade firmly under his own control, and reinforcing the idea that the pope—not the emperor—was the supreme authority in Christendom. Furthermore, the whole idea of a “holy” war was an alien concept to the Byzantine mind. Killing, as Saint Basil of Caesarea had taught in the fourth century, was sometimes necessary but never praiseworthy, and certainly not grounds for remission of sins. The Eastern Church had held this line tenaciously throughout the centuries, even rejecting the great warrior-emperor Nicephorus Phocas’s attempt to have soldiers who died fighting Muslims declared martyrs. Wars could, of course, be just, but on the whole diplomacy was infinitely preferable. Above all, eastern clergy were not permitted to take up arms, and the strange sight of Norman clerics armed and even leading soldiers disconcerted the watching hosts.

These strange western knights were obviously not to be trusted, and some Byzantines suspected that the true object of the Crusade was not the liberation of Jerusalem at all, but the capture of Constantinople. Anyone who doubted that only needed to look at the nobles who were already on their way, for foremost among the crusading knights was Bohemond—the hated son of Robert Guiscard.

The first group of crusaders to arrive before the gates of the city didn’t improve Alexius’s opinion of them. After the pope had returned to Italy, other men had taken up the task of preaching the Crusade, fanning out to spread the word. One of them, a rather unpleasant monk named Peter the Hermit, traveled through northern France and Germany, preaching to the poor and offering the destitute peasants a chance to escape their crushing lives. After attracting a following of forty thousand men, women, and children who were too impatient to wait for the official start date, Peter led his shambling horde to Constantinople. When they reached Hungary, it became apparent that many had joined the Crusade for less than noble reasons, and neither Peter nor anyone else could control them. Looting their way through the countryside, they set fire to Belgrade and stormed the citadel of any town that didn’t turn over its supplies. At the city of Nish, the exasperated Byzantine governor sent out his troops to bring them into line, and in the skirmish ten thousand crusaders were killed. By the time Peter and his “People’s Crusade” reached Constantinople, they were looking less like an army than a rabble of hungry, tired brigands. Knowing that they wouldn’t stand a chance against the Turks, Alexius advised them to turn back, but they had come too far by now and were firmly convinced of their invulnerability. They were already becoming a headache—taking whatever they pleased and looting the suburbs of Constantinople—so with a final warning Alexius ferried them across to Asia Minor.

The People’s Crusade came to a predictably bad end. The crusaders spent most of the next three months committing atrocities against the local Greek population—apparently without noticing that they were fellow Christians—before blundering into a Turkish ambush. Peter the Hermit managed to survive and make his miserable way back to Constantinople, but the rest of his “army” wasn’t so lucky. The youngest and best-looking children were saved for the Turkish slave markets and the rest were wiped out.

The main crusading armies that arrived over the next nine months bore no resemblance to the pathetic rabble that Peter had led. Headed by the most powerful knights in western Europe, they were disciplined and strong, easily doubling the size of any army Alexius could muster. The logistics of feeding and handling such an enormous group were a nightmare, made especially difficult by the fact that neither they nor Alexius trusted the other an inch. Obviously, the emperor had to handle the situation with extreme care. Since these westerners valued oaths so highly, they must all be made to swear their allegiance to him, but it had to be done quickly. Arriving separately, they were small enough to be overawed by the majesty of the capital, but if they were allowed to join together, they would undoubtedly get it into their heads to attack the city. Constantinople had been a temptation to generations of would-be conquerors before them; why would crusaders prove any different?

The emperor was right to be alarmed. Constantinople was unlike any other city in the world, more splendid and intoxicating than any the westerners had ever seen. To a poor knight, the city was impossibly strange, dripping in gold and home to a population nearly twenty times that of Paris or London. The churches were filled with mysterious rites that seemed shockingly heretical, and the babble of dozens of exotic languages could be heard on streets choked with merchants and nobles dressed in bright silks and brilliant garments. The public monuments were impossibly large, the palaces unbearably magnificent, and the markets excessively expensive. Inevitably, there was a severe culture clash. The Byzantines the crusaders met treated them like barely civilized barbarians, resenting the swarms of “allies” who had looted their cities and stolen their crops, while the crusaders in response despised the “effeminate” Greeks arrayed in their flowing robes and surrounded by perfumed eunuchs who needed westerners to do their fighting for them. Annoyed by the cloying ceremony of the Byzantine court, most of the crusading princes at first treated the emperor with barely concealed contempt—one knight even went so far as to lounge impudently on the imperial throne when Alexius entered to meet with him. The emperor, however, was quite capable of holding his own. With a shrewd mixture of vague threats and luxurious gifts, he managed to procure an oath from each of them. Few arrived eager to pledge their loyalty, although some were compliant enough (Bohemond in particular was a little too willing to swear), but in the end virtually every leader agreed to return any conquered city to the empire. Only the distinguished Raymond of Toulouse stubbornly refused the exact wording, substituting instead the rather nebulous promise to “respect” the life and property of the emperor.

By the early months of 1097, the ordeal was over and the last of the crusaders had been ferried across the Bosporus and settled on the Asian shore. For Alexius, the feeling was one of extreme relief. The armies that had descended on his empire had been more of a threat than a help, and even if they were successful in Anatolia, they would most likely prove more dangerous than the currently disunited Turks. In any case, all that he could do now was wait and see what developed.

As soon as they landed, the crusaders headed for Nicaea, the ancient city that had witnessed the first great council of the church nearly eight centuries before. The Turkish sultan who had wiped out the People’s Crusade was more annoyed than alarmed, assuming that these recent arrivals were of the same caliber. Instead, he found an army of hardened knights mounted on their powerful horses, encased in thick armor that rendered them completely impervious to arrows. The Turkish army shattered before the first charge of the crusader heavy cavalry, and the stunned sultan hastily retreated.

The only thing that marred the victory for the crusaders was the fact that the garrison of Nicaea chose to surrender to the Byzantine commander—who promptly shut the gates and refused to let them enjoy the customary pillaging. Such behavior by the Byzantines was perfectly understandable since the population of Nicaea was predominantly Byzantine Christian, but to the crusaders it smacked of treachery. They began to wonder if the emperor might not be confused between his allies and his enemies—especially when the captured Turks were offered a choice between service under the imperial standards or safe conduct home. For the moment, the crusaders muted their criticism, but their suspicions didn’t bode well for future relations with Byzantium.

Alexius was more than happy to ignore western knighthood’s injured pride, because he was fairly certain that they stood no chance against the innumerable Muslim enemies arrayed against them. Against all expectations in Constantinople, however, the First Crusade turned out to be a rousing success. The Turkish sultan tried again to stop the crusaders, but after two crushing defeats, he ordered their path stripped of supplies and left them unmolested. After a horrendous march across the arid, burning heart of Asia Minor, the crusaders reached Antioch and managed to batter their way inside. No sooner had they captured the city, however, than a massive army under the Turkisn governor of Mosul appeared, and the crusaders—now desperately short of water—were forced to kill most of their horses for food. Alexius gathered his army to march to their defense but was met halfway by a fleeing crusader, who informed him that all hope was lost and that the city had most likely already fallen. Realizing that there was nothing to gain by sacrificing his army, Alexius turned around and returned to Constantinople.

The crusaders, however, hadn’t surrendered. Inspired by the miraculous discovery of a holy relic, they had flung themselves into a last-ditch offensive and managed to put the huge army to flight. Continuing their advance, they reached Jerusalem in midsummer, and on July 15, 1099, successfully stormed the Holy City. Many crusaders wept upon seeing the city that they had suffered so much to reach, but their entry into it unleashed all the pent-up frustrations of the last four years. Few of the inhabitants were spared—neither Orthodox, nor Muslims, nor Jews—and the hideously un-Christian bloodbath continued until early the next morning.

It was the work of several weeks to cleanse the city of the stench of rotting bodies, and by that time the crusaders had chosen a king. By the oaths they had all taken, they should have returned the city—along with everything else they had conquered—to the Byzantine Empire, but there was no longer any chance of that. As far as they were concerned, when Alexius had failed to relieve them in Antioch, he had revealed himself to be treacherous, releasing them from their vows. Bohemond had already seized Antioch, setting himself up as prince, and the rest of their conquests were now broken up into various crusader kingdoms. If the emperor wanted to press his claims to their lands, then he could do so in person with an army at his back.

Alexius was more than happy to let Palestine go. A few Christian buffer states in lands that had been lost for centuries might even be a good thing. But having his enemy Bohemond installed in Antioch was more than he could swallow. Long regarded as the second city of the empire and site of one of the great patriarchates of the church, Antioch had been lost to the Turks only fifteen years before. Its population was thoroughly Orthodox, its language was Greek, and its culture was Byzantine through and through. But even when Bohemond added insult to injury by tossing out the Greek patriarch and replacing him with a Latin one, there was little Alexius could do. The emperor had used the distraction of the Crusade to recover most of northwestern Asia Minor—including the cities of Ephesus, Sardis, and Philadelphia—but his armies were stretched out, and there was no hope of extending his reach into Syria.

Friday, August 5, 2016


Raphael's Portrait of Leo X with cardinals Giulio de' Medici (later Pope Clement VII) and Luigi de' Rossi, his first cousins, (Uffizi gallery, Florence)

The final serious attempt to launch a major crusade to the East occurred on the very eve of the Protestant Reformation. Pope Leo X (1513–21) believed that he had no greater task than to organize the defense of Latin Christendom. Sultan Selim I (“the Grim”) (1512–20) was among the most ruthless and effective rulers of the Ottoman Empire. His name struck fear in the hearts of Christians, for they knew of his plans to conquer Europe. Leo invoked Selim’s name when he wrote to Europe’s leaders begging them to put aside their disputes and make ready to take up the cross of Christ. The new king of France, Francis I (1515–47), expressed youthful, bold, and probably sincere promises to put the resources of his kingdom at the disposal of the crusade. In the interim, he requested and received Leo’s permission to tax the French clergy for the crusade. Overjoyed, the pope wrote to King Henry VIII of England (1491–1547), Maximilian I of the German empire (1486–1519), Charles I of Spain and the Netherlands (1516–56), and Manuel I of Portugal (1495–1521), urging them to join with Francis in this holy enterprise. All the monarchs were enthusiastic about the crusade, but not about Francis. They doubted his sincerity, suggesting that he was interested only in collecting tithes. Maximilian even proposed that Germany, England, and Spain should organize their own crusade, which could then conquer France before heading off to the East.

The urgency for a crusade was ratcheted up in 1517 when, in the space of two years, Selim and his armies conquered Syria and Egypt. The Ottoman Empire was now truly massive, encompassing the entire eastern Mediterranean. Europeans were terrified. All the monarchs reiterated their firm intention to crusade, but all insisted that a truce must first be in place. As Henry VIII told a Venetian ambassador to his court:

No general expedition against the Turks will ever be effected so long as such treachery prevails among the Christian powers that their sole thought is to destroy one another; and I think how I could quit this kingdom when such ill will is borne me by certain persons.

To get the ball rolling, Leo appointed a committee of cardinals to gather data concerning Ottoman movements and to make recommendations for a general crusade. The committee finished its work efficiently and in a timely fashion. It recommended that a universal truce be imposed on Europe that would last until six months after the crusade ended. Because it was clear that the kingdoms would not line up behind one ruler, the committee proposed two great armies, one led by the Holy Roman emperor and one by the king of France. As in the Second Crusade, the two forces would work separately but cooperatively. The army should consist of a minimum of sixty thousand infantry, drawn from Germany, Spain, and Bohemia. In addition, four thousand cavalry would come from Italy and France, and another twelve thousand light cavalry from Spain, Italy, Dalmatia, and Greece. The crusader fleet would be donated by Venice, Genoa, France, Brittany, Portugal, and England and would be under the joint command of the kings of England and Portugal. The land forces should march into Italy and assemble at Ancona and Brindisi, where the fleet would ferry them across to Durazzo. From there, they could follow the ancient Via Egnatia straight to Constantinople. They reckoned the total cost of the expedition at 8 million ducats. A general ecclesiastical tithe could pay part of the sum; the rest would come from the kings and barons, who, after all, had the most to lose if the Turks conquered Europe.

Francis committed himself and his armies fully to the plan and began collecting the new clerical tithes without delay. Maximilian offered a more ambitious counterproposal. He suggested that the crusade be organized along a three-year plan. In the first year, he, Charles of Spain, and Manuel of Portugal would land in North Africa and begin marching east. With naval support from England and France, Maximilian felt certain they could conquer Egypt within the year. Meanwhile, an army of Hungarians, Poles, and other east Europeans would attack the Turks in the Balkans. The second year, Francis and his armies would march to Ancona, as the papal commission suggested, and sail to Durazzo. They would then meet the Hungarian and Polish troops at Novi Pazar and conquer all of Greece. The third year, they would close the trap. The French, Hungarian, and Polish troops would besiege Constantinople by land, and the German, Spanish, and Portuguese would surround it on the sea. When the capital surrendered, they would join into one huge army and push the Turks out of Anatolia and Syria. Thus, in the space of three years Maximilian proposed undoing the Muslim conquests of the past millennium.

In March 1518, Leo proclaimed a five-year truce in Europe. England and Venice ratified it immediately. The pope sent legates to France, Germany, Spain, and England to oversee crusade preparations. A tangible excitement filled the courts of Europe, particularly that of England. Young Henry VIII and his lord chancellor Cardinal Wolsey were dead serious about getting the crusade on its feet. Wolsey realized that for a truce to be taken seriously, it must rest on more than just papal words; it would have to be hammered out among Europe’s most powerful states. He rightly saw that France was the greatest obstacle to such a truce. Without papal assistance, Wolsey negotiated a peace between France and England as a precursor to a universal peace. On October 3, 1518, the French and English were the first to sign Wolsey’s Treaty of London, which proclaimed an eternal peace throughout Christendom. Signatories agreed to attack in unison any other signatory that broke the general peace. The pope was overjoyed. In his ratification of the treaty, he proclaimed, “Be glad and rejoice, O Jerusalem, for now your deliverance can be hoped for!” Within a year, twenty-five princes had signed the peace treaty. In gratitude, Leo granted Cardinal Wolsey full authority over the forming crusade.

It seemed that at last the states of Europe would organize a powerful crusade against the Turks. A summit meeting between Francis I and Henry VIII was scheduled, and all countries were informed that they should send ambassadors to the meeting to coordinate preparations for the expedition. But on January 12, 1519, Emperor Maximilian I died, and the crusade died with him as Europe was plunged into a struggle of imperial succession. Charles I and Francis I wanted the imperial crown, and both promised to lead even greater crusades against the Turks if they got it. The reality was rather different. Whichever monarch won the German throne would hardly be on good terms with the loser, and Europe would again be divided. All of Wolsey’s work was for nothing. Pope Leo watched in horror as this bold new crusade became merely a tool of political rhetoric.

When King Charles I became Emperor Charles V (1519–58), Francis washed his hands of everyone and everything. Within a few years, he had allied France with the Ottoman Empire, an alliance that was to last for centuries. The homeland of the crusades was now in league with the Muslims. Leo continued to promote the crusade to Charles V, but even the pope abandoned it in 1520 when news of Selim’s death arrived in Rome. The new sultan, Suleiman, was known to be a quiet and scholarly man committed to peace. All of Europe breathed a sigh of relief.

Europe was wrong—the new sultan was quiet and scholarly, but not peaceful. Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–66) was the most dangerous foe the West had ever faced. He brought the Ottoman Empire to new heights of prosperity while pursuing an aggressive policy of conquest. In 1521, he captured Belgrade. The next year, he began a massive naval bombardment of the Hospitallers at Rhodes. With their fortresses in ruins, the knights were allowed to leave the island with honor, but it was a bitter defeat for the West. Suleiman decisively defeated Christian armies at the Battle of Mohács in 1526, opening the way for him to besiege Vienna in 1529. The battle was close, but Vienna held out. Had it fallen, all of Germany would have been at the mercy of the Turkish armies.

Missionaries and Crusaders

The crusading order “The Sword Brothers” is incorporated into the order, “The Teutonic Knights” by decree of Pope Gregory. Both orders had been involved in the crusade against the pagan Prussians. It was due to defeats and weakening of the Sword Brothers that they were merged with the Teutonic Knights.

The twelfth century saw many efforts to expand the boundaries of the Roman Catholic world other than by means of crusades in the Holy Land, Spain and Portugal, and the West’s periodic quarrels with the Byzantines. Usually this was by missionary efforts into pagan lands, and, when the missionaries failed, by the application of economic pressure and force of arms. Most often, in cases where warfare was involved, theology took fourth place to dynastic ambitions, individual greed, and the rooting out of dens of pagan pirates and raiders. As a result, popular support for holy war in the Holy Roman Empire and Scandinavia varied according to the goals that potential volunteers and donors perceived.

Vassals had to serve when summoned by the lords, of course, and relatives usually helped in outfitting and covering the travel expenses of those who wished to take the cross, especially if the total cost was reasonable; mercenaries were always eager for work, if the assignment did not appear too dangerous. Moreover, people who would have preferred to fulfil crusading vows in the Holy Land would calculate the risks to their health and lives, the time and money involved, and whether or not there was a serious military effort under way at the time; this usually worked in favour of crusading in the Baltic region. Lastly, some German nobles went on crusade to escape periodic civil wars; thus, civil unrest in the Holy Roman Empire sometimes hurt recruiting efforts for crusades, and sometimes it helped.

In short, motives for taking the cross were diverse, and more often than not secular motives were mixed in with idealism and religious enthusiasm. The medieval public, and those nobles and clerics whose interests were not being served, were as good at detecting hypocrisy as their modern equivalents; even then one tended to believe what one wanted to believe. Missionary efforts, in contrast, were generally endorsed enthusiastically. Although the cleric who sponsored the effort to preach the gospel might well be suspected of seeking fame and an enlargement of his diocese, the benefits would be widely shared and the risks would be few. Those who donated money would be honoured and perhaps saved in the afterlife, while those who went among the pagans would anticipate achieving either fame and honour or earning martyrdom.

Although the missions in the Baltic are usually remembered as German efforts, there were Swedish and Danish missionaries as well. In fact, the Scandinavian churchmen were well in advance of German monks until the merchant community in Visby, on the island of Gotland, opened the Livonian market at the mouth of the Daugava River in the late twelfth century. When the German merchants went to the Daugava, they were accompanied by their own priests. In 1180, one of them – Meinhard, an Augustinian friar – remained with the local tribe, the Livs (whence Livonia), as a missionary.

We have Meinhard’s story, and the history of the next fifty years of the mission, from one of the finest chroniclers of the Middle Ages, Henry of Livonia, who wrote a stirring account of the heroic efforts of missionaries and crusaders to overcome pagan scepticism and resistance. The careful reader can also note the chronicler’s comments about the Christians’ many personal and group failings.

Meinhard had sufficient success for the pope to name him bishop of Üxküll, the island where he had his small church; moreover, his success was sufficient to raise the ire of the pagan priests, who curtailed Meinhard’s activities significantly, fearing that the missionaries would soon be followed by foreign troops. The priests’ fears were not entirely groundless. The Livs and their neighbours upstream, the Letts, had already been visited by Rus’ian officials, collecting tribute for their distant lord, and their folklore undoubtedly contained stories of Viking raiders and travellers. Primitive societies often have widely divergent ways of dealing with strangers – sometimes both great hospitality toward guests and a suspicion that foreign visitors were generally up to no good.

Meinhard had built two fortifications to protect his small flock against Lithuanian raids, and had hired mercenary troops as garrisons. The earlier failure of the Germans to send volunteers to protect the small mission can be partly attributed to the conflict between Welf and Hohenstaufen parties for possession of the imperial title, the conflict worsening after the 1198 death of Heinrich VI. It was in the midst of this uproar that the mission to Livonia was changed into a crusading venture; it was partly to escape that conflict that numerous knights and clerics later took the cross to fight the pagans in Livonia, because by doing so their immunity as crusaders would protect their persons and property from seizure by whichever party was dominant at that moment.

So, with little help from his homeland, Meinhard had built – on the natives’ promise to pay the tithe and taxes – two small stone castles. When it came time to pay the workmen and the mercenary soldiers, however, many natives refused to honour their commitment. Moreover, they then mocked their impoverished bishop for his gullibility. Meinhard seems to have accepted this with Christian fortitude, but since he died soon afterward we cannot be sure what he would have done next. Certainly his successors were less forgiving and patient.

In 1197, before the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen left on crusade to the Holy Land he invested Berthold, the Cistercian abbot of Loccum, as bishop of Üxküll. The younger son of a ministeriale family which had colonised the swamps along the Elbe River, Berthold was familiar with many of the noble families of Saxony and the complexities of local politics.

Berthold first tried to make friends with the local tribal chieftains, entertaining them and distributing gifts, but his frightening experience at the consecration of a cemetery changed his approach. Pagans set fire to his fortified church, sought to kill him as he fled to his ship, and then pursued him downriver. Berthold went to Gotland, then to Saxony, where he wrote a detailed letter to the pope asking for permission to lead an army against the heathens. When the pope granted his request for ‘remission of sins to all those who should take the cross and arm themselves against the perfidious Livonians’, Berthold criss-crossed the North German countryside, preaching the crusade.

He returned to Livonia in July of 1198 with an army of Saxons and Gotland merchants. The Livs gathered their forces opposite the Christians, and, though they were unwilling to submit to mass baptism, they offered to allow Berthold to stay in the land and to compel his parishioners to remain faithful; but they would allow him only to persuade others to believe in Christ, not to force them to accept the new faith. This was not sufficient for Berthold. When the natives refused his demand for hostages and killed several German foragers, he ordered an attack. His army was not large, but it was well equipped. He not only had heavy cavalry – armoured knights on war-horses which easily overthrew the small Baltic ponies that failed to move out of their relentless path – but he also had infantry armed with crossbows, pikes, billhooks, and halberds, who were protected by iron armour and leather garments. By comparison the Liv militiamen were practically unarmed. Moreover, they were not particularly numerous, and their military tradition was one of perceiving a predictable defeat and evading its consequences. As the Western proverb puts it, discretion was the better part of valour.

Ironically, almost the only Christian casualty was Berthold himself. Although his Saxon knights quickly routed the pagans, Berthold’s horse bolted, carrying him into the enemy’s ranks among the sand dunes, where he was cut down before rescuers could reach him. After taking a terrible revenge for his death, the crusaders left small garrisons in the castles and sailed home. However, the size of these garrisons was insufficient to impress the pagans, who symbolically washed off their baptisms and sent them down the Daugava after the departing crusaders. They then besieged the castles, so that the monks were unable to go into the fields and tend their crops. When the Livonians warned that any priest who remained in the land past Easter would be killed, the frightened clergy fled back to Saxony.

The third bishop, Albert von Buxhoevden, brought a large army from Saxony, forced the Livs to become Christians, and founded a city on the Daugava at Riga. Within a few years the crusade he organised would overwhelm the Letts, push into Estonian territory to the north and east, and occupy the lightly settled areas south of the Daugava and along the coastline to the south.

Although adequate numbers of crusaders came almost every summer to protect the Christian outpost and even undertake offensive operations, it was clear that they were insufficient to conquer the pagans of the interior; and such crusaders contributed little to the defence of the country through the long winters. Bishop Albert’s first thoughts were to make the foremost native elders into a knightly class. This was only partly successful, because so few of them had sufficient income to equip themselves properly. Caupo and a few elders were important in Livonia – Caupo even travelled to Rome to meet the pope – and the ‘Kurish Kings’ were prominent locally for many years. Albert’s second plan was to grant tax fiefs to his relatives and friends; he gave this small number of German knights a share of the episcopal income rather than expecting them to live from the produce of their fields. Some of the Germans married native noblewomen; and in time some of the native knights were absorbed into their number. But the number of German knights was small, and the bishop could not give out more tax fiefs without jeopardising his own slender income and that of his canons. His third plan was to create a new military order, the Swordbrothers. The Swordbrothers provided the garrisons that protected the conquests through the long winters and the military expertise that transformed visiting summertime contingents into more effective warriors.

Consequently thirteenth-century crusading armies operating in Livonia were composed of diverse forces: the Swordbrothers, the vassals of the various bishops, the militia of Riga and other towns, native militias, and visiting crusaders. Native troops were sometimes organised in uniformed infantry bodies, fighting under their own banner; such groups would take turns serving in the border castles, watching for enemy incursions; in battle they usually served on the wings (with the tribes sometimes being kept far apart, lest they mistake one another for the enemy or decide to fight out ancient rivalries right in the middle of a battle). When the prospect for victory seemed good, they fought well, but whenever the tide of battle turned against them, they fled hurriedly, leaving the heavily-armoured Germans in the lurch. Native light cavalry served as scouts and raiders; relatively unsupervised, they had more opportunities for loot, rape and murder than did the slower-moving knights and infantry. Many of the summer volunteers from Germany were middle class merchants who had the money to equip themselves as mounted warriors. All in all, the Livonian crusade differed significantly from crusades in the Holy Land or even Prussia.

After Bishop Albert moved his church to Riga, that city became an important mercantile centre, with Rus’ian traders coming down the Daugava to sell their wax and furs, and Germans sailing upriver as far as Polotsk with their cloth and iron. This brought an additional complication to his policies. The Orthodox Christian church held sway in the lightly settled forests of northern Rus’. These princes’ titles were grander than their present wealth, but their lands were broad, the fields and forests rich, the mercantile cities along the great rivers prosperous, and they were proud that their isolation kept them from the temptations and corruptions of the Roman Catholic world. Individually the Rus’ian dukes of Pskov, Novgorod, and Polotsk attempted to drive Bishop Albert out of Livonia, claiming to be coming to the aid of their subjects. Only the Swordbrothers saved the bishop in these crises, as well as saving his hide from the king of Denmark, who wanted to make himself master of the entire Baltic coastline. However, the Swordbrothers refused to be vassals. They claimed their allegiance was to the pope and to the emperor.

In time Bishop Albert gave one-third of the conquered lands to the Swordbrothers, but he did so grudgingly and made repeated efforts to assert his authority over them. When these quarrels grew so heated as to endanger the crusade, the pope sent a papal legate, William of Modena, to resolve the differences. In the end the bishop had to recognise the Swordbrothers’ autonomy, then give much of his remaining lands to four subordinate prelates, two abbots, and his canons; then, once he had endowed his relatives with estates, there was little left to support a sizeable episcopal army. Nor could Bishop Albert rely solely upon the native militias, though they were very willing to join in the fight against traditional rivals. He needed advocates – experienced warriors who knew the native languages and customs – to train the militia in Western tactics and lead them in battle; but only the Swordbrothers had knights willing to live among the natives, and only the Swordbrothers would perform this task at a reasonable price (poverty, chastity and obedience had little lure for ambitious secular knights). Thus the Swordbrothers, whose military contingents were indispensable when crusading armies were not present, and who could provide knights to organise the native forces, became the leaders of the crusade in Livonia.

If the Swordbrother organisation had great strengths, it also had weaknesses. Foremost of these was its need for more convents in Germany. This lack of local contacts made sustained recruiting drives difficult and hindered efforts to solicit contributions among the faithful; also, incomes from estates would have eased the order’s chronic financial crisis. Secondly, the Swordbrothers’ revenues from Livonian taxes and their own estates were insufficient to hire enough mercenaries to supplement properly the numbers of knights and men-at-arms. This perennial financial crisis drove them to expand their holdings in the hope of increasing the number of ‘converts’ who would pay tribute and provide the warriors needed to make their armies more equal to those of their enemies. This resulted in conflicts with the king of Denmark over Estonia; with the Lithuanians, the most important pagans to the south; and with the Rus’ians, especially those in Novgorod.

The End of the Swordbrothers
The military disaster experienced by the Swordbrothers in 1236 was far from unexpected. For several years the order had realised that its manpower was insufficient to accomplish the tasks that lay before it. It dared not further overburden the natives, who had suffered significant losses in lives, cattle and property during the conquest. Consequently, its officers believed that the best way to increase the revenue needed to support its knights, mercenaries and priests was by obtaining property in Germany. Acquiring manors and hospitals in the Holy Roman Empire, of course, could not be done instantly, and certainly not without a powerful patron. In 1231 Master Volquin had sought to resolve the economic and political crisis by uniting his order with the Teutonic Knights. He had hoped that the superior resources of the ‘German Order’ would provide the men and money needed to defend Livonia, that its discipline would reinvigorate the Swordbrother convents, and that its good offices with Pope Gregory would resolve the conflicts with the bishop of Riga. Even more importantly, there was a terrible row with the papal officer appointed by William of Modena to serve in his absence, who seems to have seen this assignment as a step toward a great career in the Church.

The grand chapter of the Teutonic Order that met in Marburg chose not to act on the Swordbrother proposal, but the idea was far from impractical. In the interchanges of experience and ideas that took place at their frequent meetings at the papal and imperial courts, the Teutonic Knights probably learned more than they taught. The Swordbrothers had the greater experience in the Baltic, having been there for two and a half decades before the Teutonic Knights sent their first permanent unit to the region.

Hermann von Salza sent two castellans from Germany to inspect the situation in Livonia. They spent the winter of 1235 – 6 there and reported their findings to the annual assembly that must have taken place shortly after Friedrich II and the grand master had attended the canonisation of St Elisabeth in Marburg. The report was so negative that there could have been little discussion. In addition to the political problems previously mentioned, they found that convent life among the Swordbrothers was far below the standards of the Teutonic Order, and that the Swordbrothers demanded such autonomy within any future united order that reforming their convents would be impossible.

The Swordbrothers came to their downfall soon afterwards. Their greed and ruthlessness made them vulnerable to accusations before the pope, and they were cut off from the money and the crusaders needed to survive. Desperate for some way out of his situation, Master Volquin led his armies into the pagan regions to the south. A reconciliation with the papacy arranged by William of Modena came too late.

The Swordbrother Order might have survived its financial crisis if Volquin had avoided unnecessary risks. Unfortunately for him, a party of crusaders from Holstein arrived late in the season in 1236 and, despite the lack of adequate numbers to guarantee success, they demanded to be led into battle. Master Volquin, not wanting to disappoint his guests, reluctantly undertook a raid into Samogitia, that part of Lithuania that lay between Livonia and Prussia. Perhaps earlier expeditions into Lithuania had been no less risky, but this time fate collected its due. Volquin led the crusaders across the Saule River (Šiauliai), where they attacked Samogitian settlements. Resistance was insignificant, because the native warriors chose to abandon their homes in favour of ambushing the raiders at the Saule River crossing on their way north. When the retreating crusader force reached the ford, they found it blocked by a small number of resolute pagan warriors. Volquin ordered the crusaders to dismount and wade across the stream. He warned that unless they hurried, it would soon be even more difficult to fight their way across, because the pagans would be reinforced. The Holstein knights, however, refused to fight on foot. Volquin could not impose his will on the visitors, and the crusaders made camp for the night.

The next day, when the crusaders splashed across the stream, they discovered that the leading highlands chieftain, Mindaugas, had either led or sent a large body of men to fight alongside the Samogitians. In the ensuing combat Volquin and half his Swordbrothers perished, together with most of the crusaders. The native militias scattered early in the battle; unencumbered by heavy armour, most native warriors found ways to cross the river and flee north while the Lithuanians were preoccupied.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Crusader Commanders - Peter II of Aragon against Simon de Montfort

Las Navas de Tolosa

The victory of La Navas de Tolosa was the result of a carefully prepared campaign, intended to recover the initiative held by the Almohad Caliph Muhammad since the Christian defeat at Alarcos in 1185. A crusade was preached with considerable success, for despite the fighting between Léon and Portugal, whose rulers played no part, troops gathered from all over Spain. They included those of the religious orders, the King of Navarre - although he came late - and many French crusaders. So large was the army that, as it gathered outside Toledo, enormous sums of money had to be minted for its support and there were great difficulties over feeding it, as Alfonso VIII of Castille admitted in his letter proclaiming the victory.

On 20 June the army, led by Alfonso VIII of Castile and Peter II of Aragon, left Toledo and seized Malagon and Calatrava. At this point, all but 130 French knights abandoned the crusade, although Sancho VII of Navarre then arrived with 200 knights. Encouraged by this desertion, the Muslim army left Jaén and moved to the foot of the Losa canyon. Topography now dictated events. The Islamic army effectively blocked this narrow pass and a vigorous debate ensued in the Christian camp, quite comparable to that before Hattin. However, a shepherd told them of a narrow defile by which they could descend, and this they followed, their vanguard debouching into the plain of the Mesa del Rey to the west of the Muslim advance guard. Both sides spent the whole of 15 July preparing. The Christians planned an attack, while the Almohads took up a defensive position on the slopes opposite them. The battle on 16 July was a confused affair, with the Christian army making a series of attacks with infantry and cavalry over the rocky slopes seamed with ravines, until a final cavalry charge broke the enemy. 

Battle of Muret - September 12, 1213: in which the French nobleman Simon IV de Montfort defeated Raymond VI of Toulouse and King Pedro II of Aragon in a major battle of the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars. Peter's death - a famous crusader who had faced the Muslims in Spain-was detrimental to the Cathar cause. 

The next year saw Peter II, one of the victors of Las Navas de Tolosa, in battle against Simon de Montfort at Muret on 13 September. The battle arose as a consequence of Simon's ambition, supported by the Church, to forge a principality in southern France at the expense of the Count of Toulouse and other southern leaders who had been declared heretical. Peter, deeply opposed to such a creation, raised a great army and joined Raymond of Toulouse at Muret. The men of Toulouse besieged the city, while the Spanish army established a camp in the hills to the west of the River Saudrune, about 3km away. The reasons for this dispersion of force are not in the least clear, but it was fatal. Simon de Montfort led his army into Muret in an effort to relieve the city, but his position seemed hopeless, because he only had about 800 knights against an estimated 1,400-1,500 in the allied force, which also had huge numbers of infantry.

The allied army then debated what to do. The Count of Toulouse wanted to continue the siege, for Muret was not a strong place. He seems to have assumed that this would force Simon's army into a sally, and suggested that the Spanish should fortify their camp so that they could shoot down Simon's desperate cavalry with crossbows, before emerging to crush a weakened enemy. But the Aragonese were offended by this proposal, perhaps overconfident after the victory of Las Navas de Tolosa, and they urged an immediate attack. This took the form of a mounted assault on Muret through the Toulouse Gate, which was left open, perhaps to facilitate negotiations that the clergy were conducting. It is possible that this was a ploy by Simon to draw in enemy forces but, if so, it was a great risk and the southerners all but seized the town before retiring to eat lunch. Simon de Montfort then led his forces out of the open gate to confront the southern army, which had taken up station about 2.5km northwest of Muret between the Saudrune and the Pesquiès marsh, a position in which they should, given their numbers, have been invulnerable. They were drawn up in two lines, each of three divisions, and King Peter insisted on taking his place at the head of one of these, dressed only as a simple knight. They appear to have left all of their infantry in the camp, a kilometre to their rear, suggesting that they intended to fight a mounted battle on the open plain. Simon marched his men out of the city, divided them into three squadrons, and sent the first two hurtling into the mass of the enemy army, focusing their effort on King Peter. As they struck the southern army they became enveloped in it; Simon moved forward and to the right, crossed the marsh and took the enemy in the left flank, causing a panic which was intensified when Peter II was killed; "when the rest saw this they thought themselves lost and fled away".

The sources are quite clear on the reasons for this disaster: the southern army was poorly organized, while Simon formed his squadrons in close order. James I had no doubt as to the causes of his father's defeat: "And thereon they [the French] came out to fight in a body. On my father's side the men did not know how to range for the battle, nor how to move together; every baron fought by himself and against the order of war. Thus through bad order, through our sins and through those from Muret fighting desperately since they found no mercy at my father's hands, the battle was lost." As Simon's army struck the Aragonese, the knights of Toulouse rushed up with no idea of what was going on and "paying heed to neither count nor king". It seems as if the forces between the marsh and the river had not expected an attack and had little time to prepare when it materialized. It is not clear that anyone was in command of the allied army, which had dispersed its strength dangerously. A substantial force, including many cavalry, had tried to get into the Toulouse Gate and seems to have played no part in later events: a massive infantry force was left to do nothing, a kilometre behind the fighting. Once battle was joined, King Peter - imprudently positioned like Frederick I at Legnano - was unable to direct events. By contrast, Simon was very much in command and judged his moment to launch his reserve. His force was small, but it was the kernel of the crusader army and many of its members had been fighting together for a long time. It had the qualities of a highly cohesive force and fought as such against an uncertain and virtually leaderless enemy.