01 January 2013

Pope Urban II and his Norman knights: the first crusade 1096

In examining the First Crusader to liberate the Holy Land from Muslim infidels, my students had to discover why almost all the first responders were Frenchmen and why the majority of these Frenchmen were Normans.

All Norman nobles were themselves mounted warriors, as well as being lords of their men in the feudal system; the higher a man was in the social hierarchy, the more fighting he did. Thus the social elite in Normandy had become the military elite, but alas it had no focus on French soil except for random violence. The Church could not stop the killing, but it could try to redirect the killing off-shore. Instead of killing being a sin for which repentance was required, it became a positively meritorious act which did not need punishment, as long as the dead were infidels. In transforming this warrior class into a Christian knightly order, the Church possessed a valuable political weapon. This would boost each pope’s stocks in his ongoing battle against the Holy Roman emperor.

And by placing himself in the pope’s service, the warrior would do very well for himself. He stood to gain indulgences, booty, land, travel, sexual freedom and in case of death, martyrdom. Clearly these Godly wars were to be in areas far from France, removing the violent men off-shore.

These were very troubled times for Christianity and only Sicily was going well for the Church. The Turks captured Armenia in 1059, more of Byzantium in 1071; Anatolia 1081, and Antioch in Syria in 1085. Even Spain, the main battleground for Christendom against Islam, was not going well. In 1089, Pope Urban II (reigned 1088-1099) promised spiritual benefits to those rebuilding Tarragona in Spain, explicitly comparing the task with pilgrimage.

One Christian state tried to defy Islam - Byzantium. In 1095 the new Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus (reigned 1081-1118) was desperate to regain his lost provinces from the Muslims, so he begged the pope in Rome for military assistance. The Byzantine ambassador spoke of Muslims ravaging their important churches. Pope Urban was delighted to cooperate because he hoped to reunite the Latin and Orthodox Churches under Rome's leadership. Was Urban also secretly thinking of pushing on to Jerusalem, liberating the land where Christ himself had taught?

Pope Urban II preaching the first crusade
in the Council of Clermont,
November 1095.

Once negotiations with the Byzantine court were underway, pope Urban - himself a Frenchman - spontaneously declared his crusading plans in a French town, Clermont, in November 1095. In Pope Urban’s entourage, Abbot Hugh of Cluny and his monks stood at the other end of the altar. A large crowd gathered to hear him make the appeal, preaching this holy war as a pilgrimage, extending to fighters the privileges that were normally pilgrims'. With tears running down his cheeks, he described in graphic detail the Turks' plunder of eastern Christians.

Pope Urban directed his call not to all Christians but to his beloved French nobles. He did not want the sick to go against the infidel, even though these were the most likely to go on pilgrimage. He appealed directly to the knightly class in terms appropriate to their society: "race chosen and beloved by God"; "You girt about with the badge of knight hood". His speech was then repeated by other churchmen across France.

No one responded to Pope Urban II as warmly as the Norman knights. Perhaps fear of criticism from the local church motivated some, given that so many other young men from Normandy had immediately volunteered to Take The Cross. Perhaps the Normans were having a tougher time economically than other Frenchmen, with failed crops throughout their region. In any case, there was a struggle for land. First sons inherited all the land a family had, and could therefore marry and breed; second sons went into the church; third subsequent sons, who could not marry, had to be found useful employment.

Underlying Pope Urban’s success was a great spiritual, cultural and economic revival and an expanding population, combining to make the crusade both conceivable and doable. Religious pilgrimage, military crusading and a yearning for new spaces all merged.


After the lectures were over, a student sent me a document written by Dominic Sandbrook in BBC History Magazine (13, 11, November 2012). Sandbrook agreed on the key points:

1. That Pope Urban II was himself a Frenchman and turned to other Frenchmen when he needed support, especially in his ongoing battle against the Holy Roman emperor.

2. That the new Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus was desperate to regain his lost provinces from the Muslims, so he begged the pope in Rome for military assistance.

3. That all Norman nobles were already well trained and equipped warriors who had no real role to play inside France. The Church needed to divert these knights off-shore.

Bishops leading the Norman knights
out of France, towards Constantinople
at the start of the First Crusade, 1096

But Sandbrook added a fourth critical point that I had missed. Pope Urban II had taken many months to carefully plan a massive tour of France. But he didn't pop in briefly to one French town. In mid 1095, he left Rome and travelled to more cities in central and southern France than the Beatles did in the 1960s – Lyons, Cluny, Toulouse, Poitiers, Avignon, Montpellier etc. The grand finale of the tour was planned for the Council of Clermont, just west of Lyons, where the aides had invited 13 archbishops, 82 bishops, abbots by the score and every nobleman they could locate in Normandy. It was a superbly planned and executed enterprise across France.

The Pope was not responding spontaneously to the Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus’ heart-rending request for support. The Pope had planned, long and carefully, to mount a campaign across France that would change history. Responding to the call were more than 200 Archbishops and Bishops, 4,000 clerics and 30,000 laymen – more probably than the Pope had anticipated in his most fervent prayers. Change history single handedly, he clearly did!


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels,

I don't think that the logic that it was o.k. to kill "infidels" was new even at that time, and that thought (i.e., excuse) was to play a prominent role in European colonization of Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

As you hint, there always seems to be an economic motive backing up the ostensible moral and political ones.

On a more pleasant and friendly note, have a happy New Year and a wonderful 2013, and I am looking forward to many more of your fascinating articles.
--Road to Parnassus

Anonymous said...

Was the conquest of England part of the same activity of the Normans - Just 30 years before Pope Urban turns his gaze to the Holy Land?

Hels said...


isn't it interesting that Pope Urban gave the important task, for moral-political-or-economic reasons, to his beloved French knights. And even more interesting that they responded in such enormous numbers.

I wonder if the Muslim infidels, in Constantinople or points east, knew what was coming.

Hels said...


The timing is amazing, but I don't think so.

The Normans who invaded Britain in 1066 did not go back to Normandy, once they had achieved their goal. They married local women, changed the language of Britain, established new courts etc. They were there for ever.

Pope Urban did not ask the Normans who went to the Holy Land to marry local Muslim women and settle down. They were to live as single men in military castles in the Holy Land for a few years, then return to France.

English King Richard the Lionheart DID go on the 3rd Crusade in 1189, but of course that was much later. And note that his mother Queen Matilda was the eldest daughter of King Henry I of England and Duke of Normandy. Richard was himself Duke of Normandy.

the foto fanatic said...

By coincidence, yesterday I watched an Orlando Bloom movie called Kingdom of Heaven. In it, the Christians lose Jerusalem to the Muslims, but at the end of the film Richard the Lionheart is preparing to wrest it back.

The message hidden amongst the Hollywood special effects was that no matter which God you are fighting for, war is futile.

Hels said...

foto fanatic

*nod* I think the message was never as correct as in the Crusades. The First Crusade killed so many Jewish infidel in the Rhineland (en route to the East) and so many Muslim infidel in Jerusalem that the blood in the streets flowed up the legs of the horses.

And for what? The Crusader Kingdom soon faced a disaster when Crusaders were annihilated by Islamic armies under Seljuk in 1101 and 1104. Now the blood reached the Muslim horses' knees.

Student of History said...

Poor old Pope Urban died before Jerusalem was captured. He didn't have the pleasure of hearing about his crusade's success.

Hels said...


Jerusalem was actually captured while the pope was still alive but he died in 1099 before news of the success reached Rome. Pope Urban would have been thrilled, had he known.

Blue Bead said...

Popes are always fascinating.

Robert Morschel said...


A holy war decreed by God is by definition just (unless you believe right and wrong exist outside God). The Old Testament is full of such "just" genocide of the wicked.

The issue with the crusades, and other "holy" wars is that it is very doubtful that they were directly requested by God (even with Papal infallibility in place), and hence are probably unjust.

Hels said...

Blue Bead

Oh agreed! I have given lecture series about the popes a number of times before, and always find them fascinating. Even though Urban only sat on the papal throne for 11 years, he is always an important part of the lectures.

Hels said...


thanks for the comment. The whole idea of a holy war decreed by God may well have been applicable to saving the Holy Land, especially Jerusalem, from the Muslim Infidel. But it didn't have much to do with helping Alexius Comnenus in his Byzantine political struggles. And yet Pope Unrban didn't mention Jerusalem in his speeches in France at all! Still fascinating today.

I am not at all confident about when the concept of Papal infallibility became well accepted in the Church. Pre-1096 AD? Middle Ages? More recently?

Pat said...

Of the 266-odd popes you had to choose from for our course this semester, I would love Urban II to have been included.