The Motives Behind the First Crusade

WHILST the First Crusade is overwhelmingly portrayed as a decidedly Catholic affair, the aims and objectives of its chief participants from the West must never obscure those of the great Byzantine Empire to the East. This article will examine four main areas in which a diverse set of motives can be shown to have been apparent during the tumultuous events which left their mark on the world during the final years of the Eleventh Century. The four principal categories I shall examine, seek to interpret the rationale which led Alexius I, Pope Urban II, the crusading armies (and, in particular, Behemond) and scores of ordinary pilgrims to engage in an historical episode of quite staggering proportions.

During the reign of Pope Gregory VII, the tense relationship between Catholicism and its estranged counterparts in Constantinople had rarely been so bad. With the advent of Urban II, however, the mutual tension between these opposing strands of Christianity was alleviated somewhat by the Pope’s decision to reverse the excommunication imposed on Alexius I some years earlier. Consequently, Alexius himself

“welcomed this new gesture of friendship from the papacy and responded at once by calling a synod in Constantinople, attended by the patriarchs of Constantinople and Antioch and some twenty prelates.” [1]

This synod is significant in that it represented a genuine attempt to bring an end to the contentious rivalry which had threatened the unity of Christendom. That Alexius felt confident enough to initiate such proceedings demonstrates that the first ten years of his reign had been relatively successful. He confronted the two most prominent questions of the period head-on. On the one hand he had used diplomacy and tact with which to calm the perpetual threat of Norman aggression and, through sheer force of arms on the other, had successfully crushed the Pechenegs. This allowed Alexius to turn his thoughts towards strengthening and maintaining his frontiers with Asia. However, due to the fact that the Byzantine “treasury was short of money, while recruitment for the navy and army slackened seriously”[2], Alexius was faced with a dilemma. Whilst on the one hand the Empire “would previously have resented, and resisted, any attempt by the barbarians of the Latin West to interfere in Palestine or Syria”[3], on the other Alexius “seems to have felt that the western European market, which could provide an abundance of luckless knights and cheap soldiers, had not been sufficiently exploited.”[4] When the Byzantines had lost almost the whole of Anatolia to the Seljuk Turks at the battle of Manzikert, Alexius had appealed for help to Gregory VII, although the Investiture Controversy inevitably meant that the Pope was so busy trying to sort out the problems of the West that he had either little or no time to think about those in the East. In 1090, Alexius also had serious negotiations with Count Robert of Flanders as the latter happened to travel through Constantinople on his return from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Robert agreed to send a contingent of five hundred knights to assist the Byzantines in their struggle against the Pechenegs, who at that time were threatening to encroach upon the capital itself. But whilst Alexius was keen to secure Constantinople’s eastern frontiers and eager to hire Western mercenaries in order to achieve such an objective, he never envisaged that his counterparts in the West would launch anything like a huge military crusade to remove the infidel from the Holy Land. As far as he was concerned, Palestine was irrelevant if the Byzantine Empire itself was in danger of collapse and his primary motive was to reclaim the lands which had been stolen by his enemies.

On 27th November 1095, at Clermont in central France, Pope Urban II delivered the emotional speech that launched the First Crusade. Employing a multitude of colourful adjectives with which to motivate and inspire his listeners, the Pope described how

“the Turks, a Persian race, have overrun the eastern Christians right up to the Mediterranean Sea. Occupying more and more of the land of the Christians on the borders of Romania [the Byzantine Empire], they have conquered them (…) slaughtering and capturing many, destroying churches and laying waste the kingdom of God. So, if you leave them alone much longer they will further grind under their heels the faithful of God.” [5]

There is little doubt that Urban II sought to play upon the emotions of his audience, but, according to Marcus Bull – who has recently taken a fresh look at the events leading up to the First Crusade – few people were actually present during the meeting at Clermont, “and only a small minority of those who went on the crusade could claim that they had heard”[6] the call to arms. In fact the meeting was mostly comprised of ecclesiastical representatives, and few lay folk were actually present. The Pope’s message found its way across Europe by way of the preacher – men like Peter the Hermit – but who could have foreseen that tens of thousands of people from all walks of life would seek to converge upon the Holy Land in defence of their faith? Whilst the actual motives of the participants themselves will be discussed in due course, the Catholic Church does seem to have been driven by a genuine sense of religious piety. In addition, “Urban was well disposed towards Alexius as a result of their earlier negotiations, and he sincerely wanted to help and protect the eastern Christians. He felt that if the Christians of the West went to the support of their brothers in the East, the eastern Emperor, who had already shown himself amenable, would be so grateful that all differences would be resolved and the whole of Christendom united (as it must be) under the leadership of Rome.”[7] However, Urban II did consciously seek to exaggerate the problems which had beset the eastern fringes of Christendom. Indeed, whilst he vilified the character of the murdering, pillaging Turk, he also severely overestimated the potential of the Turkish army. Despite all the scaremongering at Clermont, by 1098 the Turks had lost control of Jerusalem to the Egyptians. My use of this example is not necessarily intended to suggest that the papacy was somehow adhering to a secret agenda or that the Pope was seeking to deceive those who sought to take his words in a literal sense, on the contrary, perhaps Urban II simply got slightly carried away by his own propaganda? Any Christian worthy of the name was certain to be outraged by the rise of a heathen enemy which sought to impose its methods across the very land in which Christ and his disciples had walked more than a millennium before.

Meanwhile, however, Alexius I was greatly dismayed at the incredible reaction his request for help had inadvertently set in motion: “He had asked for mercenaries and auxiliaries to fight with the Byzantine armies. But what he provoked was a whole army, a succession of whole armies, almost a mass migration from West to East; and he can hardly have enjoyed discovering that four of the eight leaders of the First Crusade were Normans.”[8] At first, the crusaders appeared to be guided by spiritual motives, believing that “if people fought God’s enemies on earth and completed a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, their actions would receive a spiritual reward of remarkable magnitude.”[9] This attitude was expressed in the following manner by Nivelo of Freteval, who sought to redeem himself for the crimes he had committed against the village of St. Peter:

“Whenever the onset of knightly ferocity stirred me up, I used to descend on the aforesaid village, taking with me a troop of my knights, and a crowd of my attendants, and against nature I would make over the goods of the men of St. Peter for food for my knights. And so since, in order to obtain the pardon for my crimes which God can give me, I am going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem” [10].

But were the allegedly penitential motives of the average crusader really that sincere? The call to arms had initially sought to create a unified military force, an international network controlled and directed by an aristocratic elite under the watchful eye of the papal legate, but those who comprised the knightly contingents of Europe had formed themselves into four distinct armies. The first (and truly official) contingent came from southern France and was led by Count Raymond of Toulouse; the second came from northern France and was directed by Hugh of Vermandois (the brother of the French king), Count Robert of Flanders, Count Stephen-Henry of Blois and Robert, Duke of Normandy; the third was drawn from the French-German borderlands and was led by Godfrey de Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine and his brother Baldwin; and finally, the fourth wing came from southern Italy and was directed by Bohemond, the son of Robert Guiscard.

The latter, in particular, did not receive a very warm welcome from Alexius I. Bohemond’s father had been a bitter enemy of the Byzantine Empire and Alexius Comnenus could hardly be expected to trust the offspring of a hated adversary, and rightly so, for Bohemond’s motives were far from honourable. Both he and his father had invaded the Empire on many occasions, “and their valour and treachery were well known.”[11] As a result, Alexius demanded that the crusaders take an oath of fealty, something with which they were forced to comply in order to receive a safe escort through Byzantine territory. Alexius also agreed to provide the crusaders with supplies, although the mean of the West had to promise that “in return they would restore to him any provinces of his Empire which they should recover from the Muslims.”[12] At this point it becomes apparent that the two sides in this uneasy alliance had very different motives, for the leaders of the First Crusade had shown suspicious alacrity in swearing their allegiance to Alexius and were more eager to conquer the Near East for themselves, despising the Levantine Christians almost as much as the Muslims. Bohemond revealed a snippet of his true designs when he asked the Emperor to appoint him Grand Domestic of the East, the Byzantine equivalent to regional commander-in-chief. Alexius managed to avoid granting this ambitious request by insinuating that such a move was far too premature. But the Emperor could hardly expect the crusaders to risk their lives simply to enable him to recover lost Byzantine territory. Indeed, that Alexius sought to use the crusaders as mere pawns in his efforts to rebuild a shrinking Empire is best demonstrated by the fact that, in May 1097, the Anatolian Turkish capital at Nicæa chose to surrender to the Byzantines rather than to the crusaders themselves (thus depriving them of the spoils of war). Consequently, however, after defeating a Seljuk army at Dorylæm and attacking Antioch on 21st October 1097, the crusaders captured the city several months later (on 3rd June, 1098) and set about exterminating its inhabitants. Bohemond clearly had no intention of relinquishing the territory which he himself had acquired by way of his own inspirational leadership, and was fully aware that Antioch was an important centre for trade between East and West. Furthermore, the astute Bohemond must have realised that the city and its hinterlands occupied a strategic position on the fringes of the Byzantine Empire and the mutually contentious Turkish emirates of Aleppo, Mosul and Damascus. In accordance with the prevailing eleventh-century mindset, territory was all and the future of the First Crusade was now hampered by the fact that “Bohemond had claimed Antioch and had preferred to secure the conquest of its surrounding territory rather than to advance on Jerusalem.”[13] Elsewhere, of course, “many other crusaders were showing unmistakable signs of ambition either for themselves or their protégés”[14].

Similarly, whilst Urban II had originally agreed that all recaptured territory should be handed back to Alexius, “in both Spain and Italy, the Pope had maintained (successfully) that all territories conquered from the Muslims should be held as papal fiefs, and signs were not lacking that he had the same intentions in Palestine.”[15] After the fall of Jerusalem on 15th July, 1099, Godfrey de Bouillon refused to accept the title of king and, instead, was made Defender of the city or, to give him his full title, Advocate of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But whilst Godfrey’s own motives were to establish a Latin government and grant the papacy ultimate rights over the whole area, the same cannot be said of his brother, Baldwin. Instead of accepting the authority of the Pope once Godfrey had died in 1100, Baldwin had himself elected king and ruled for a further eighteen years. As far as the motives of the Church itself are concerned, although Urban II had been genuinely committed to the spiritual and temporary liberation of the Holy Land right up until his death in 1099, his successor, Paschal II, appeared to pursue the acquisition of Eastern territory in an exceedingly blatant fashion. In 1107, with the blessing of the Pope himself, Bohemond – “[f]ickle, malicious, courageous, tenacious”[16] – threw caution to the wind and returned to the East, determined to crush the perfidious Alexius and replace the Empire of the Byzantines with a Norman alternative. The fact that his resources proved inadequate and led to failure, however, does not in any way obscure Bohemond’s ambitious mentality; a mentality, of course, which he had been forced to suppress during those first tentative steps of the First Crusade. But what of the ordinary pilgrims? What were their motives?

When Urban II launched the First Crusade he intended for it to be an entirely military affair. However, his message had undoubtedly struck a deep chord with people from a variety of social and economic backgrounds and it soon became clear that women, children, the elderly and the poor

“would hinder the progress of an army because they had to be fed and protected. The Pope tried to limit their involvement by requiring people to consult their parish priests before taking their vows, but this measure failed and the crusade set out accompanied by many non-combatants.” [17]

Whilst some wanted to atone for their sins, others wanted to sample the delights of an exotic culture. The largest and most important group of pilgrims was recruited by Peter the Hermit, an apostle of the First Crusade and a native of Amiens in France. But although the participants in the popular Crusade were numerous, only a tiny fraction of them were to succeed in reaching the Middle East; even fewer survived to see the ultimate triumph of the Crusade at Jerusalem. In 1096, Peter the Hermit led his raggle-taggle band of pilgrims through Constantinople and onwards to Asia Minor, where they were annihilated by the Turks whilst he was busy seeking help elsewhere. The ‘popular’ crusaders were simply townspeople or peasants, many of whom had been caught up in the wave of popular enthusiasm and religious piety which swept across medieval Europe. Their motives were clearly sound, although it was their judgement which was flawed. It is easy to trivialise the hopes and desires of a past generation whilst looking back from an age in which the glossy travel brochure has achieved a god-like status of its own, but there remains little doubt that these eleventh-century pilgrims were totally oblivious to the dangers such an expedition entailed.

Whilst I have accounted for the various motives behind the First Crusade, we must never lose sight of the fact that two distinct worlds had collided as a result of Islamic expansion at the vast expense of the Byzantine empire; a scenario in which the spiritual – and let us not forget the temporal – desires of Western Christendom were taken to extreme lengths in order to reassert the supremacy of Rome. Had the Turks been able to seize control of the East, Christianity would have been faced with an enemy the like of which the world had never seen. In reality, however, the Byzantine Empire was almost sacrificed completely during the cataclysmic struggle between the earth’s most bitter rivals: Christianity and Islam. A struggle, perhaps, which has yet to be resolved because of the perceived decline of Christian values in our own era. History may be about to repeat itself. In the view of Hilaire Belloc, a modern Catholic apologist:

“We are divided in the face of a Mohammedan world, divided in every way – divided by separate national rivalries, by the warring interests of possessors and dispossessed – and that division cannot be remedied because the cement which once held our civilisation together, the Christian cement, has crumbled.” [18]


1. D. M. Nicol, ‘Byzantium and the Papacy in the Eleventh Century’ in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History (1962), Volume 13, p. 15.

2. Kenneth M. Setton, A History of the Crusades: Volume II (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962), p. 125.

3. R. H. C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe: From Constantine to Saint Louis (Longman, 1988).

4. D. M. Nicol, op. cit., p.17.

5. Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont, 27th November 1095.

6. Marcus Bull, ‘The Pilgrimage Origins of the First Crusade’ in History Today (March 1997), p. 10.

7. D. M. Nicol, op. cit., p. 18.

8. Ibid., pp. 18-19.

9. Jonathan Phillips, ‘Who Were the First Crusaders?’ in History Today, op. cit., p. 16.

10. Nivelo of Freteval, in a Charter to the Abbey of St. Peter of Chartres (1096).

11. R. H. C. Davis, op. cit., p. 269. Deutschen Reichstag, 26th February, 1891, p. 1805.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., p. 270.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., p. 271.

16. Kenneth M. Setton, op. cit., p. 127.

17. Jonathan Phillips, op. cit., p. 19.

18. Hilaire Belloc, The Crusade: The World’s Debate (Cassell, 1937), p. 306.


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