So You Want to be a … Crusader?

So You Want to be a … Crusader?

Your King and PopeNEED YOU!
Knights wanted for glorious crusade. Low wages, long marches, endless hours of hot desert battle. Death possible. Honor and glory if successful. Everlasting life assured. Armor required. Your own horse a plus!

Nothing sparks the imagination of medieval lovers more than tales of victorious knights and their epic battles. Images of strong men on horseback, clad in shining armor, wielding swords and fighting for chivalrous right spring instantly to mind. Every knight a “sir” and his home truly a castle!

For centuries, writers of medieval legends and history have regaled us with tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. When these noble soldiers weren’t jousting in tournaments, they went about enforcing justice for their king and defending the helpless.

The Call of Christ

But among knightly lore, there is perhaps a special class of knight that is more admired than any other. This would be the noble knight that answered God’s call to be a crusader – and to fight a holy war to save Jerusalem from the Muslims.

He was a “soldier of Christ”, a holy Crusader. And to the medieval knight, the Church’s blessing of their skills and prowess as a soldier gave his life’s work a piety and chivalry that had been missing in medieval warfare.

(Now please remember that we’re speaking of a time almost a thousand years ago and we should not judge with our 21st-century sensibilities.)

In 1095, Pope Urban II preached the first Crusade at Clermont, France to the French nobility urging them to free the Holy Land from the Muslims.

“Let none of your possessions detain you, no solicitude for your family affairs, since this land which you inhabit, shut in on all sides by the seas and surrounded by mountain peaks, is too narrow for your large populations; nor does it abound in wealth; and it furnishes scarcely food enough for its cultivators. Hence it is that you murder one another, that you wage war, and that frequently you perish by mutual wounds. Let therefore hatred depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions and controversies slumber, Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre (the church in Jerusalem built upon Calvary where Christ died and also encompasses the site of the tomb where Jesus was buried and rose from the dead); wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves.”

Urban II at Clermont, according to the
Historia Hiersolymitana (History of Jerusalem), by Robert the Monk

Pope Urban promised that any crusader who died while fighting would be pardoned of his sins and go automatically to heaven. His earthly promises were more venal. The crusader was free from paying taxes or repaying any debts while on crusade. Not everyone went to do their Christian duty!

Pope Urban also commanded the knights to wear a cross on their tunics as the symbol of their Crusader status. Up to 10,000 knights took the vow, along with 30,000 foot soldiers.

The title “crusader” came from the French “croix” meaning cross, which changed to “croisades”.

Originally, knights were on the very lowest rung of the nobility, often very small landholders and a vassal of a higher noble. But with the Pope’s blessing, knighthood suddenly took on a prestige that even kings clamored for. The fight against the Muslims became a Holy War – a just war.

When taking the holy vow to crusade, a new knightly crusader had to provide his own horse and armor. A knight wore a helmet, made of iron and body armor, known as a “hauberk”. The hauberk was made of heavy chain mail and varied in length – some going all the way to the knees. In one hand, usually the left, a knight carried a long shield made of wood covered with leather. It was rounded at the top and pointed at the bottom. In his right hand, he carried a large broad-blade sword. The sword was belted to his waist, sheathed in a scabbard of wood, also covered in leather. Wealthier knights often carried an axe or a lance.

Knights also brought their own horses. You could not be a knight without a horse. If you lost your horse, you would have to obtain another in order to keep your knightly status. Knights served as the armored cavalry. By the time the crusaders reached the Holy Land, their worn-out steeds were often replaced by strong Arabian horses.

The trek to the Holy Land was not an easy one. For the first crusade, they went by land … across France, through Italy, Eastern Europe and Turkey. (On later crusades… the journey was sometimes partly by sea. See map below for the routes).


Crusaders trudged over snow-covered mountains and scorching deserts. Food was bought along the way, but was scarce and expensive. Transportation costs and supplies were usually provided by the royal leaders of the Crusade, but the noble crusaders were often forced to plunder for food. They called it “God’s Providence”. Local peasant farmers may not have thought so.

Clean water was scarce and the crusaders often drank dirty water causing dysentery. Many fell ill and died before seeing any glorious battle.

But by the summer of 1099 the Crusaders reached Jerusalem and defeated the Muslims – fairly quickly. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was established and the Crusaders named Godfrey of Bouillon its first king.

But if as an eager knight, you were crushed to have missed the crusade, not to worry, there were eight more crusades!

The Second Crusade

In 1144, Muslims captured the city of Edessa. The Pope called for a second crusade, even though Jerusalem was not in danger of capture. This time Louis VII of France decided to lead the effort. He took along his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. They were joined by the Holy Roman Emperor. But they were defeated and returned home in 1149. (It was shortly after this disastrous crusade in 1152 that Eleanor and Louis dissolved their marriage.)

Jerusalem remained under Christian control for 38 more years. But in 1187, a new Muslim warrior appeared. His name was Salah al-Din Yusef, known as Saladin. He recaptured Jerusalem.

Richard the Lionheart and the Third Crusade

Richard-coeur-de-lionRichard the Lionheart the most famous Plantagenet Crusader

With Saladin’s recapture, Pope Gregory VIII issued a new call for a Third Crusade in 1189. And perhaps the most famous crusader of all took up the call, Richard the Lionheart, King of England and son of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II. Richard was joined by King Frederick, the Holy Roman Emperor and King Phillip II of France.

Sadly, Frederick drowned on the way to the Holy Land. Most of his army decided to return to Germany. Phillip and Richard carried on, capturing the strategic port of Acre in 1191.

Phillip decided he was done and took his army home. Left alone, Richard pushed his crusaders on to Jerusalem in the blistering heat and scarce fresh water. On the way he captured Arsuf and Jaffa, reclaiming much of the land for the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Richard-the-LionheartRichard the Lionheart captures Acre.Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

In June of 1192 Richard arrived in Jerusalem, but with only 2,000 soldiers and about 50 knights. Richard knew he could not retake the city with such a ragtag army. So he and Saladin signed a truce allowing Christian pilgrims to visit Jerusalem without interference from Muslims.

The Third Crusade, even though judged a failure for the failure to retake Jerusalem, is perhaps the most famous of all the Crusades as it involved the charismatic leaders Richard and Saladin.

Yet five more crusades followed lasting another 200 years. England did not participate in any more until the Ninth Crusade in 1271. However, the rest of Europe was eager to do so.

The European Crusades

The fourth crusade was called by Pope Innocent in 1201 to once again recapture Jerusalem. But it quickly devolved into the capture of Constantinople, a “civil war” between the Eastern Orthodox Catholics and the Roman Catholic westerners, which had nothing to do with the Muslims. Once the city was taken by the western Crusaders, its treasures were plundered. Crusaders became quite unpopular.

Still, Pope Innocent called a Fifth Crusade in 1217 to recapture Jerusalem. But after three defeats in a row, the Christian kings of England and Europe were not eager to take up the call. Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor finally did send troops. The Crusading army was all but wiped out in Cairo – another failure.

Pope Honorius III called for yet a Sixth Crusade in 1226. This one was actually led by Frederick II. By this time he had married the daughter of the King of Jerusalem and had a claim to that throne. Frederick was successful in recapturing Jerusalem in 1229. However, the Turks regained it again in 1244.

As a result, the Seventh Crusade was launched – not by the Pope, but by Louis IX of France. Many crusaders caught the plague and died. The rest were defeated and captured by the Muslims, including Louis. A ransom was paid and Louis returned to Acre in Syria, the last remaining Crusader possession, his crusade a failure.

Louis-IX-lands-at-Tunis,-but-fails-to-take-the-city.Louis IX lands at Tunis, but fails to take the city.Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

But Louis just couldn’t give up. In 1267, he called for an eighth crusade. Louis hoped to take Tunis, but he failed. Then in 1271, Prince Edward of England, (later Edward I), suddenly took up the cause. He won a number of battles but never regained the Holy Land. He returned home. Pope Gregory X called for a Tenth Crusade, but no one was interested and it went nowhere.

The Age of the Crusader was over! It had lasted more than 200 years … with very little to show for it in the way of spoils. It wasn’t until Edward III claimed the throne of France in 1337 that English knights were off on another foreign adventure – this one lasting 100 years.

We’d love to hear from you:

What was the fascination of the Crusades for many in the Middle Ages? Was it their Christian duty? Or was it a thirst for battle and power? Knights were trained for battle. So was going on Crusade their job? What does a knight do if peace fills the kingdom? Comment below and let us know what you think.