A month after his dedication of the major ecclesia, and Urban was presiding over his second council of the year: an even larger assembly of reform-minded bishops and abbots than Piacenza had seen.
- Millennium, Tom Holland
This would be Pope Urban II, otherwise known as Odo of Châtillon. The year was 1095; the location of the assembly was the ancient town of Clermont in Auvergne.
And then there was the assembly that preceded this – Piacenza, just south of Milan and from which he traveled onward to France. At Piacenza he would meet with diplomats from Constantinople, with a message from the Basileus, Alexius Comnenus.
Finding the Turks engaged in infighting, Alexius thought the opportunity had come to capitalize on their squabbling. He must go on the offensive; a second Manzikert would be the end of the Church in the East.
And so it was, looking around for reinforcements that might offer him a reasonable prospect of success, while also remaining safely expendable, that Alexius’s gaze had turned towards the West.
Let’s you and him fight! While this wasn’t the message brought to Urban, it certainly was on the mind of the Eastern emperor. Which brings us to Clermont; on 27 November, Urban would address the crowd of a few hundred in an open field with a message that would soon ring through Western Christendom:
“If any man sets out from pure devotion, not for reputation or monetary gain, to liberate the Church of God at Jerusalem, his journey shall be reckoned in place of all penance.”
Jerusalem: a city with no strategic or military significance; to take on such a journey would require five times the annual income of the average lord. All to fight an enemy that had already brought Constantinople to the brink.
Little did Urban expect that his call would be heeded not merely by fighters on horseback; the crowds would shout “Deus vult”: God wills it. For any who cared to be spotless before God, this was an unparalleled opportunity.
A whole new road to the City of God has suddenly opened up before the Christian people. The heroic labour of buttressing the world against Antichrist, and of preparing for that dreadful hour of judgement.
Thousands upon thousand would set of for Jerusalem – most horseless with no ability to fight (for an overview of the make-up of this bunch, covering both glory and warts, see here). Alexius, to his consternation, found the whole of the West on the march – toward him, toward Constantinople. He would attempt to bribe and browbeat the leaders of this fantastic advance to obedience – not that he would lead them in battle, as he knew the risks and reality of the situation.
By June 1097, Nicaea was brought to capitulate by this Western force, and the banner of the Second Rome once again flew over the birthplace of the creed. A month later, the crusaders would break a formidable Turkish army in open battle. By the following spring, Alexius felt safe enough to follow:
…taking full advantage of his enemies’ reverses, Alexius dispatched his brother-in-law to mop up in the crusaders’ wake.
In the summer, Alexius would finally lead an army himself, recovering perhaps half the territories lost after Manzikert. Yet, even now and after hearing news of the grim reality facing the crusaders, Alexius would not risk his position:
Alexius, who had been pondering whether to join forces with them, was reliably informed by a deserter that the entire expedition stood on the verge of utter destruction.
Rather than join forces with the beleaguered Western armies, rather than attempt to extend his gains, Alexius withdrew to Constantinople. The crusaders were left alone.
Not that this decision was irrational. The Sultan of Baghdad had dispatched an immense army, determined to annihilate the invaders. They would go against a crusading force now numbering perhaps twenty-thousand, including non-combatants – out of perhaps one-hundred-thousand who first began the journey. Most horses and mules gone; even dogs now used as pack animals. Those who remained rightly understood the pending doom.
Only to earn victory. These stragglers shattered the Turkish forces, winning (or returning) more cities to Christendom. Finally, after three long years, on 7 June 1099, they would arrive at the walls of Jerusalem and on the brink of retaking the Holy Sepulchre.
On 15 July, the crusaders finally broke into Jerusalem and took possession of the object of all their yearnings. The winepress was duly trodden: the streets were made to flow with blood. And at the end of it, when the slaughter was done, and the whole city drenched in gore, the triumphant warriors of Christ, weeping with joy and disbelief, assembled before the Sepulchre of the Saviour and knelt in ecstasy of worship.
I will leave the conclusion in the hands of Rodney Stark, from his book God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades:
The thrust of the preceding chapters can be summarized very briefly. The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonization. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultured Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God’s battalion.
While the truth may not be as pure as this, and certainly not for all participants, Stark presents a picture much closer to true than that of the mainstream Crusade narrative.