What happened during the crusades?

The crusades were an armed Christian movement chiefly to parts of the eastern Mediterranean known as the Holy Land. Crusaders hoped to reconquer what they saw as Christian land. It was a time of upheaval with brutal violence committed by all parties.

The crusades inspired a sense of militant Christian identity in Western Europe and, through centuries of conflict and war, played a role in uniting disparate Muslim states against the invaders. Click to discover the bloody centuries-long history.


What led to the First Crusade?

Getty Images 113636886crop

Pope Urban II delivers his address at Claremont, France.

In the late 11th Century, the Eastern Roman Empire was losing territory to Muslim Turks in the East, whose invasion had killed Muslims and Christians.

In 1095, Emperor Alexios I appealed to Western Christians for help. Pope Urban II responded. He ordered an armed pilgrimage to retake the Holy Land, claiming Christians were under threat and promising that fighters would be forgiven for their sins. Urban was engaged in a struggle with a rival Pope, and wanted to consolidate his tenuous grip on Western Europe. There was a long tradition of authorised Christian warfare but it was the first time the church had called for violence on such a scale.

BBC Ethics: Holy Wars

All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins.

Pope Urban II


First Crusade

Getty Images bat200592

The taking of Jerusalem by the crusaders.

Between 1096 and 1099, tens of thousands of knights and ordinary people heeded the Pope’s call and went East to fight various Muslim factions.

Pilgrims captured cities such as Edessa and Antioch from the Turks and Jerusalem from the Egyptians. Christian writers describe crusaders wading ankle deep in blood, killing civilians and resorting to cannibalism. However, they may have exaggerated their accounts as they thought extreme violence would be rewarded in heaven. The First Crusade ended with the establishment of several Christian principalities around the eastern Mediterranean, including the kingdom of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem: The making of a holy city

They boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots, impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled.

Radulph of Caen, written nine years after the events


Second Crusade

Getty Images 163236666

King Louis VII the Younger of France departing for the second crusade.

For decades the crusaders defended hard-won territory against disparate Muslim Syrian, Turkish and Egyptian factions.

The Turks finally retook Edessa in 1144. Western Christians launched a second crusade from Europe. They now faced a more united Muslim Syria unified by the powerful leader Nur ed-Din. Christian armies tried and failed to take Damascus in Syria and their crusade was largely a failure. But Nur ed-Din succeeded in strengthening the unified Muslim response to the Western invaders.

The Queen who went on a crusade

A just prince, valiant and wise, and according to the traditions of his race, a religious man.

Western chronicler William of Tyre describing Nur ed-Din


Third Crusade

A67 TP5

Richard the Lionheart.

In the 1170s, the Kurdish general Saladin united Syria and Egypt. His Muslim army retook most of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187.

In response, the Third Crusade saw England's King Richard I – ‘The Lionheart’ – answer the Pope's call to war. Richard defeated Saladin in battle and a truce re-established the state of Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem remained in Muslim control, but Christian pilgrims were granted access. After 1192, the city was home to Jewish, Muslim and local Palestinian Christians whose fortunes changed depending on which religion was in charge. They lived together in fragile peace.

BBC Two: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin

[Richard's] captives were slain by way of reprisal for the death of those Christians whom the Musulmans (Muslims) had slain.

Saladin's biographer Baha ad-Din, describing Richard I's execution of captives


Fourth Crusade

Getty Images 529034247

The fall of Constantinople.

After Richard I’s truce expired, Pope Innocent III ordered a crusade to retake Jerusalem. But opportunism and lack of commitment changed his plans.

A well organised force was meant to invade Egypt en route to Jerusalem, but was diverted to the Eastern Christian city of Constantinople at the request of the son of its deposed emperor. Instead of welcoming the invading army, residents dug in. The crusaders attacked the city, massacring many of its inhabitants in 1204. With their appetite for loot sated, few continued towards Jerusalem. It would seem that for these crusaders, plunder was as important as piety.


Fifth Crusade and aftermath

Getty Images 1136314742

St. Francis of Assisi tries to convert Melek-el-Kamel, Sultan of Egypt, to Christianity during the Fifth Crusade

In the 1210s, several popes sent armies on new crusades. Egypt was invaded. Jerusalem's return was negotiated in 1229, but the city was soon retaken.

By 1291, all the crusader states of mainland Syria and Palestine were reconquered by Muslim armies, while Christians continued to regain control of the Iberian Peninsula. Today, Popes no longer try to start wars, but the legacy of the crusades has done much to create a sense of hostility between Christianity and other religions.