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,
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
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!