So what is the truth about the Crusades? The Crusades were in every way defensive wars. They were a direct response to Muslim aggression. It was an attempt by Christians to turn back Muslim conquests of Christian lands.
While Muslims can be peaceful, Islam was born in war and grew in war.. From the time of Mohammed, the means of Muslim expansion was always the sword.
The Birth of the Crusades
During the tenth century Christianity included the entire Mediterranean area; therefore, it was a prime target for Muslim leaders. The Muslims attacked the Christians shortly after Mohammed's death. They were very successful. Palestine, Syria, and Egypt quickly fell, then North Africa and Spain, and by the eleventh century, all of Asia Minor. Christianity was reduced to little more than Greece.
In desperation, the emperor in Constantinople sent word to the Christians of Western Europe asking for help. Christianity had to defend itself and the Crusades were that defense.
In 1895, at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II called upon the knights of Christendom to push back the conquests of Islam. The response was tremendous. Many thousands of warriors took the vow of the cross and prepared for war. Urban II gave the Crusaders two goals; the first to rescue the Christians; the second to recapture Jerusalem.
Crusading knights were generally wealthy European men willing to give up everything to undertake the holy mission. Crusading was also not cheap; even wealthy lords could easily impoverish themselves by joining a Crusade. Why did they do it? It is for similar reasons we would (and I hope will) defend Christianity today. In addition. they were eager to undertake the hardships of the Crusade as a penitential act of charity and love. Medieval charters attest to these sentiments.
Revisionists often state the Crusaders were those who took advantage of an opportunity to rob and pillage in a faraway land. Of course, Crusaders were not opposed to capturing booty if it could be had, and they did not wish to leave it to the Islam survivors either. Few people got rich. The vast majorities of Crusaders returned with nothing, or were even impoverished.
It is often assumed that the central goal of the Crusades was forced conversion of the Muslim world. This is basically untrue as the Crusaders' task was to defeat and defend against the Muslims. That was all. Muslims who lived in territories retaken by the Crusaders were generally allowed to retain their property and livelihood, and always their religion. Indeed, throughout the history of the Crusades, Muslim inhabitants far outnumbered the Catholics. In the 13th century the Franciscans began conversion efforts among Muslims, but this effort failed and was dropped.
The Crusades were wars, and like all warfare, there were mishaps, blunders, and crimes. During the early days of the First Crusade in 1095, a ragtag band of Crusaders made its way down the Rhine, robbing and murdering all the Jews they could find.
The Popes, bishops, and priests made it clear the Jews of Europe were to be left unmolested. In a modern war, we call tragic deaths like these "collateral damage." Even with smart technologies, the United States has killed far more innocents in our wars than the Crusaders ever could, but no one would seriously argue that the purpose of American wars is to kill women and children.
The First Crusade.
The First Crusade was terrible yet successful. There was no leader, no chain of command, no supply lines, no detailed strategy. It was simply thousands of warriors marching deep into enemy territory, committed to a common cause. Many of them died, either in battle or through disease and starvation. It was a rough campaign, one that seemed always on the brink of disaster, yet it was miraculously successful.
The Second Crusade
When the Crusader County of Edessa fell to the Turks and Kurds in 1144, there was an enormous groundswell of support for a new Crusade in Europe. It was led by two kings, Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany. It was an utter failure. Most of the Crusaders were killed along the way. Those who made it to Jerusalem only made things worse by attacking Muslim Damascus, which formerly had been a strong ally of the Christians. In the wake of such a disaster, Christians across Europe were forced to accept not only the continued growth of Muslim power but the certainty that God was punishing the West for its sins. Crusading in the late twelfth century, therefore, became a total war effort. Every person, no matter how weak or poor, was called to help. Every one prayed for the war effort. Warriors were asked to sacrifice their wealth and, if need be, their lives for the defense of the Christian East.
Still, the Muslims grew in strength. Saladin, the great unifier, had forged the Muslim Near East into a single entity, all the while preaching jihad against the Christians. In 1187, at the Battle of Hattin, his forces wiped out the combined armies of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem and captured the precious relic of the True Cross. Defenseless, the Christian cities began surrendering one by one, culminating in the surrender of Jerusalem on October 2.
The Third Crusade
The Third Crusade was led by Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa of the German Empire, King Philip II Augustus of France, and King Richard I Lionheart of England. The aged Frederick drowned while crossing a river on horseback, so his army returned home before reaching the Holy Land. Philip and Richard came by boat, but their incessant bickering only added to an already divisive situation on the ground in Palestine. After recapturing Acre, the king of France went home. The Crusade, therefore, fell into Richard's lap. A skilled warrior, gifted leader, and superb tactician, Richard led the Christian forces to victory after victory, eventually reconquering the entire coast. But Jerusalem was not on the coast, and after two abortive attempts to secure supply lines to the Holy City, Richard at last gave up. Promising to return one day, he struck a truce with Saladin that ensured peace in the region and free access to Jerusalem for unarmed pilgrims. The desire to restore Jerusalem to Christian rule and regain the True Cross remained intense throughout Europe.
The Fourth Crusade
The fourth Crusade ran aground when it was seduced into a web of Byzantine politics which the Westerners never fully understood. They had made a detour to Constantinople to support an imperial claimant who promised great rewards and support for the Holy Land. Yet once he was on the throne of the Caesars, their benefactor found that he could not pay what he had promised. Thus betrayed by their Greek friends, in 1204 the Crusaders attacked, captured, and brutally sacked Constantinople, the greatest Christian city in the world. Pope Innocent III, who had previously excommunicated the entire Crusade, strongly denounced the Crusaders. But there was little else he could do. The tragic events of 1204 closed an iron door between Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox, a door that even today our popes have been unable to reopen. It is a terrible irony that the Crusades, which were a direct result of the Catholic desire to rescue the Orthodox people, drove the two further apart.
The Fifth Crusade
The Fifth Crusade managed briefly to capture Damietta in Egypt, but the Muslims eventually defeated the army and reoccupied the city. St. Louis IX of France led two Crusades in his life. The first also captured Damietta, but Louis was quickly outwitted by the Egyptians and forced to abandon the city. Although Louis was in the Holy Land for several years, developing defensive works, he never achieved his goal: to free Jerusalem. He was a much older man in 1270 when he led another Crusade to Tunis, where he died of a disease that ravaged the camp. After St. Louis's death, the ruthless Muslim leaders waged a brutal jihad against the Christians in Palestine. By 1291, the Muslim forces had succeeded in killing or ejecting the last of the Crusaders. This erased the Crusader kingdom from the map. Despite numerous attempts and many more plans, Christian forces were never again able to gain a foothold in the region until the 19th century.
By the 15th century, the Crusades were no longer errands of mercy for a distant people but desperate attempts of one of the last remnants of Christendom to survive.
Europeans began to ponder the real possibility that Islam would finally achieve its aim of conquering the entire Christian world. It did not happen, but it very nearly did.
In 1480, Sultan Mehmed II captured Otranto as a beachhead for his invasion of Italy. Rome was evacuated. Yet the sultan died shortly thereafter, and his plan died with him.
In 1529, Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to Vienna. A run of bad weather forced him to leave. Thankfully he did not succeed.
Whether we admire the Crusaders or not, it is a fact that the world we know today would not exist without their efforts. Christianity not only survived but flourished. Without the Crusades, it might well have followed others of Islam's rivals into extinction.
Footnote: Excerpts were taken from Real History of The Crusades by Thomas F. Madden