Crusading Armies of the West Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The engine driving the Crusades began with Pope Urban II (1042-1099) in 1095 at the Council of Clermont, when he called for Christendom to rise in defense of the Holy Land.

Political Considerations

The engine driving the Crusades began with Pope Urban IIUrban II (pope)[Urban 02]Urban II (1042-1099) in 1095 at the Council of Clermont (1095)Clermont, Council of (1095)Council of Clermont, when he called for ChristendomChristendom to rise in defense of the Holy Land. The pope had responded to Byzantine emperor Alexius IAlexius I (Byzantine emperor)[Alexius 01]Alexius I’s call for assistance against Islamic encroachment in areas Christianity deemed important as part of an effort to seal the 1054 rift between Catholicism and the Orthodox Byzantine East. Beginning at Clermont, the pope called for the Holy Land’s rescue and the restoration of the Truce of God (medieval Christian concept)“Truce of God.” Following his cue, clergy throughout Europe began preaching sermons and delivering calls to liberate Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Islam, spurring nobles to take up arms and undertake the long, arduous journey. Additional inducements, such as the forgiveness of sins and eternal glory, convinced many to go. An additional political motive behind the Crusades was to divert the nobility from fighting with each other. This peace, both in the Holy Land and in Europe, would serve to strengthen the Church’s authority.CrusadesArmies;CrusadesIslam;CrusadesCrusadesArmies;CrusadesIslam;Crusades

Crusaders under English king Richard I reach the holy city of Jerusalem.

(Library of Congress)

When the Crusades;First (1095-1099)First Crusade began in 1095, the Byzantine military had declined and its forces were composed of mercenaries throughout Europe. Despite the internal decay, the Byzantine military remained a force worthy of consideration. It would provide supplies, siege columns that proved extremely useful in siege operations, and medical units that marched in the field with the fighting troops. The Byzantines also used the Varangian Guard, descendants of the early Viking settlers in Rus who had followed two Byzantine monks, brothersCyril, SaintCyril, SaintCyril andMethodius, SaintMethodius, SaintMethodius (later made saints), down the Dneiper River in the ninth century and whose mission was to convert the uninformed to Orthodoxy.

Military Achievement

The First Crusade did not succeed, at least in part because of a lack of planning and experience. Participants and their motives varied and the prospective glories were exaggerated in order to gain general support for the ventures. Seven Crusades between 1096 and 1254 marked Crusader-Islamic relations and left a negative imprint on relations between the Islamic world and Christian Europe. Also, internal problems plagued the Crusader force; while some wanted to conquer Jerusalem, other Crusaders wished to create a fiefdom for themselves. In time, the disorganization dissipated, but distance and supplies made short shrift of any gains. Many small Crusader kingdoms“Crusader kingdoms” collapsed as quickly as they came into existence from 1098 until the fall of Acre in 1291, and enthusiasm diminished with each Crusade. However, as new militant orders were created, the Crusaders finally developed a semblance of central authority and armies to combat the Islamic forces. The Crusaders, led by European nobility, had knights, archers, battle columns, squares, archers, and footmen. Each nobleman could furnish a force, but not equal to that of the combined Islamic forces, who knew how to dress for warfare in the region.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

As the Crusades were waged over numerous centuries, the types of weaponry used by both sides were vast. Often, the weaponry used was haphazard and makeshift. Crusaders who were not of high social rank used whatever weapons they could get their hands on, from pikes to rudimentary clubs, which could be fashioned easily from nearly any piece of wood. The Cudgelscudgel was essentially a club with metal pieces attached to it, so as to inflict more damage. A step above the cudgel were crude axes. Likewise, the Maulsmaul, essentially a large sledgehammer, could do significant damage. Taking some skill on the part of the weaponsmith were the mace and the Ball-and-chain[Ball and chain]ball-and-chain. These blunt weapons could inflict significant damage, but like all weapons of this sort, they were used by the lower-class Crusaders in hand-to-hand combat.

Those Crusaders who were of higher birth had access to better weaponry. Their blunt weapon of choice was the War hammerswar hammer, which came in blunt and sharpened versions. Although the evolution of weaponry during these centuries was slow, one technological innovation that had an important impact was the Crossbows;Crusadescrossbow, which appeared in the eleventh century. The fact that it could be loaded with arrows prior to the battle rather than during the heat of combat made it especially useful. Small daggers were useful as secondary weapons but were not especially effective. The Knights Templar;CrusadesKnights Templar were well known for their effective use of the lance. The weapon that knights were probably best known for, however, was the sword. (The stereotypical long sword, however, did not appear until almost the end of the Crusade era.)

The swords and knives used by the Muslims had many different types of blades, most of them curved, giving them greater speed in their use. ScimitarsScimitars, Saberssabers, and Tulwar (Indian saber)tulwars were three typical types of blades used by Muslim defenders, but, like the weapons of the Crusaders, the variety of the Muslims’ weapons was nearly infinite.

Large-scale weapons were used to lay siege to cities. Many of them were too large to transport over long distances and thus were often built of local materials very close to the cities they were used to attack. A Ballistaeballista was a large, arrow-shooting machine that could hurl heavy arrows several hundred yards. Different Catapults;Crusadescatapults, such as the Mangonel (catapult)mangonel and the Trebuchet (catapult)trebuchet, hurled rocks at city walls. Siege towers;CrusadesSiege towers were built and then pushed against city walls, allowing soldiers to climb stairs within the tower’s interior, protecting them from city defenders. More crudely built, battering rams were used to break through city gates. In defense, garrisons poured boiling liquids–oil being the most effective, if the most expensive–from the tops of the walls, inflicting immense pain on those trying to scale the walls.

Only wealthy soldiers would have been able to afford any type of Armor;Crusadesarmor. Commoners used makeshift shields and other rudimentary methods to protect themselves as best they could. True armor was one way in which knights were identified. Mail;CrusadesChain mail;CrusadesChain mail, one of the earliest forms of armor, was used in conjunction with a shield and a helmet. However, with the development of better weaponry, such as the crossbow, mail armor became increasingly ineffective, and plate armor appeared near the end of the Crusades. Though cumbersome, it could protect the knight against most weapons and made other types of protection, such as shields, unnecessary.

Military Organization

The reasons for joining a crusading army involved the Feudalism;Crusadesfeudal class system as well as political, economic, and social factors. The feudal system defined every human’s station in life. Society resembled a pyramid, with the king sitting at the apex, the nobility below him, and the great masses at the bottom. The king was the absolute ruler of the state, aided by his nobility. His knights of the sword governed without restraint and with the Church’s collusion. The rationale for the existence of various classes was to defend the kingdom.

Kings, nobles, and knights controlled the workings of society but had a responsibility to provide soldiers when called upon. Feudal nobility and royalty hiredMercenaries;Crusadesmercenaries if they were unable to draft enough local soldiers, and such soldiers served regardless of faith and background. With increased births and the expansion of the noble classes, more heirs existed than positions available. As a result, many nobles did not acquire estates; the options were that the eldest received the estate Primogeniture;European(primogeniture), the second male became a warrior, and the third joined the Church. Many of those denied estates had to join the Crusades to make their fortunes. The lower classes served the needs of the nobility, whose duty was to defend them. PeasantsPeasant classes had few rights and many obligations to their lords. They surrendered much of their produce, cared for animals, and had to endure the humiliation of the “first night,” during which the noble could enjoy carnal relations with the newly married woman before her husband did. Such a custom, which could not be resisted, caused despair and offered no hope for the future. This hopeless status provided the impetus for many peasants to take up the Cross and join the Crusades.

Women’s Women;Crusaderspositions were even more confining and problematic. At the time of the First Crusade women of noble birth could marry, enter a convent, or walk to Jerusalem, the latter option providing an alternative to the confines of their roles in Europe. The long, arduous trip offered some hope of a less restricted life, but even that option was removed when, in the aftermath of the bloody failure of the First Crusade in 1096, the pope declared that no women, children, or old people would be allowed to go on later Crusades.

With Crusader ordersthe need for additional well-trained troops, the Knights of Saint John of JerusalemKnights HospitallerKnights of Saint John of Jerusalem (known as the Hospitallers)–whose membership comprised men of noble birth and those who had taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the Church–were founded in 1080 as a hospital in Jerusalem. After the Crusaders were finally able to take Jerusalem in 1099, they were transformed into a military-religious order, and their experience in the region helped the Crusaders. They maintained medical and hospital facilities for the pilgrims and had military obligations, as the Church charged them with the defense of pilgrims in the Holy Land. They received donations of castles and other significant properties in the Holy Land and in time had to fight in their defense. The Knights of the Temple, or Knights TemplarKnights Templar, were another military crusading order. They were chaste, subject to rigid discipline, and imbued with feudalism. They actively participated in the seizure of Jerusalem. After their formation in 1119, they bore the major burden of retaining Jerusalem for Christianity. They protected pilgrims, had small empires, formed the largest army in the east, and maintained castles and fortifications. Although their existence survived the end of the Crusades, they soon fell out of favor both with European royalty and with the pope, because of their great wealth. The pope would eventually, in 1314, abolish the Knights Templar for fear that they were acquiring too much wealth and power. Other orders appeared, but their contributions were smaller than those of the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights Templar. The Brethren of the Sword, the Knights of Calatrava, the Knights of Santiago, the Brethren of Santa Maria, and the Knights of Our Lady of Montjoie all made contributions, but to differing degrees. They demonstrate, however, the universal attraction of joining the Crusades, coming from as far away as Spain. Such orders, with small contingents, generally left the region after collecting their booty.

Europe and the Byzantine Empire During the Crusades

Despite the tenuous relations between Rome and Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire;CrusadesByzantines had shared a common enemy with the European Crusaders: the expansionist forces of Islam. Providing a safe route to Jerusalem led to constant warfare with the Seljuk TurksSeljuk Turks and others. Specialized units of Byzantine cavalry aided the Crusaders. They captured Antioch (Crusader kingdom)Antioch in 1137, forcing the Christians to pay homage to the Byzantine emperor. A year later, a combined force of Franks and Byzantines compelled the emir of Shaizar to yield. Shortly afterward, Byzantine forces accompanied the Franks in their struggle against the Saracens. In 1163-1164, the Byzantine navy transported the Franks on their Egyptian venture, but as competition between the Franks and the Byzantines became more obvious, this was the last engagement of a combined force against Islam.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

The Tactics;CrusadesStrategies;CrusadesCrusades were intended to purify Christians;CrusadesChristendom against pagans, heretics, and the excommunicated. The driving Ideology and warfare;Crusadesideology was that all disagreements between Christian lords should be put aside, and the nobles’ efforts directed toward a more important enemy, the Muslims;CrusadesMuslims, who had held the Holy Land;CrusadesHoly Land for more than three hundred years and who were making it difficult for Christians to make pilgrimages to the land where Jesus walked. The problem of the Muslims was not just confined to the Levant, though. At the time, Turks;CrusadesTurks were at the gates of Europe and the Byzantine Empire was only a weakened shadow of its former self. Pope Urban II’s call to free Jerusalem of the Muslim infidels provided long-sought opportunities under the guise of religious zeal and sacrifice. Individuals of every social, political, and economic class, many of whom were unprepared for the journey, assembled at various points through Europe and moved toward the Mediterranean Sea. On the way, the Crusaders pillaged for food and murdered in the name of God. Whole Jewish communities were eliminated solely for religious reasons. Rome, viewing Jewish and Muslim believers equally as infidels, made no effort to quell the Crusaders’ European slaughter.

The Crusades, and the ideology behind them, flowed from the Papacy;CrusadesPapacy. The nobles who participated received indulgences for the forgiveness of sins, temporal privileges, and often immunity from civil jurisdiction. The Papacy itself stood to gain from the Crusades as well. At the time, papal jurisdiction did not extend outside Europe, and the establishment of the Crusader kingdoms certainly expanded the power of the Western, or Roman, Catholic Church into regions that had previously been under Eastern, or Byzantine, jurisdiction. The Knights TemplarKnights Templar and the Knights HospitallerHospitallers formed the largest portion of the crusading army remaining in the east. Their expressed devotion resulted in large donations and recruits for the OutremerOutremer (literally, “overseas”–the name for the Crusader kingdoms of the Middle East). They soon became the largest landholder in the area. Their self-declared responsibilities required them to patrol the vast regions seeking pilgrims in trouble. The quest for power was also a large part of the ideologies that drove many individual Crusaders and a number of the religious orders that were founded during this time. City-states[city states];ItalianCity-states, like the maritime cities in Italy, also saw the potential to gain power through participation in the Crusades. By 1204, papal leadership was for the most part dispensed with, as German and French princes pursued Crusades of their own accord. Still, Crusades went on until the fifteenth century, when the Turks were allowed to take Constantinople, Siege of (1453)[Constantinople, Siege of 1453]Constantinople and Europe withdrew from the Middle East.

In time, the Crusaders, through the assistance of these orders, learned how to prolong the conflict between themselves and Islam. They allowed the creation of soldier-monks to protect the Christians on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Since they were involved in a "Just war"[Just war];Crusades“just war,” the pope did not condemn the actions of his armies. Rather, European conduct became known and when the Franks arrived at Jerusalem, the Muslims;CrusadesMuslims and Jews;CrusadesJews united to fight for the city, which fell on July 15, 1099.

After capturing the city from the Muslims, the Jewish and Muslim populations were massacred. The Crusaders then established four major kingdoms, the Kingdom of Jerusalem;Crusader kingdomJerusalem with Godfrey of BouillonGodfrey of BouillonGodfrey of Bouillon proclaiming himself as king, County of Edessa (Crusader kingdom)Edessa, Principality of Antioch (Crusader kingdom)Antioch, and County ofTripoli (Crusader kingdom) Tripoli. Throughout the region the Crusaders established other fiefdoms, in none of which were non-Christians well treated. These events strengthened the opposition to the Crusades and provided Islamic fervor to fight. In 1009, Fāṭimids[Fatimids]Fāṭimid caliph al-Ḥākim destroyed the Church of the Holy SepulchreChurch of the Holy Sepulchre, and by 1039 it was rebuilt mainly because the Muslims realized the profit of having Christian pilgrims in the region. Whether Turks, Mamlūks, ՙAbbāsids, Moors, Seljuks, Fāṭimids, Ayyūbids, or Syrians, they did not forget the Crusaders’ conduct. Their professional armies were larger and better trained, had better archers, had more sophisticated strategies, were more adaptable to the climate and food, had public support, and had time on their side. While the European nobility eventually tired in their ventures, Muslims retained the vigor of fighting the “infidel” in their own land.

Eventually a Kurd, SaladinSaladin (sultan of Egypt and Syria)Saladin, became the commander of Islamic forces after the fall of the Fāṭimids, and he established a new dynasty, the Ayyūbids[Ayyubids]Ayyūbids. He had military talent and was appointed commander of all Muslim forces. He Hattin, Battle of (1187)united the Muslims in Egypt and, in 1187, recaptured Jerusalem in the Battle of Hattin. Under Muslim rule, Jewish and Christian populations were respected. After Saladin, the Crusaders lost their initiative and did not mount another credible campaign against the Muslims. By the thirteenth century, the few remaining principalities in Crusader control had fallen to the Egyptian Mamlūks[Mamluks]Mamlūks. With the fall of Constantinople, Siege of (1453)[Constantinople, Siege of 1453]Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Christendom gave up its religious and political influence in the region.

Medieval Sources

As interest in the Crusades has been nearly constant over the centuries, there is no dearth of published sources written by the Crusaders themselves. Mostly written by those of nobility, among the most accessible are those of William, archbishop of Tyre (c. 1130-c. 1190), who wrote Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum (History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, New York: Da Capo Press, 1973). Philippe de Mezières (c. 1327-1405) wrote Le Songe du vieil Pelerin (the dream of old Pelerin; London: Cambridge University Press, 1969). John M. Sharp edited and Frances Hernandez translated The Catalan Chronicle of Francisco de Moncada (El Paso: Texas Western University Press, 1975). The nine thousand lines of verse that constitute The Chronicle of Morea tell the tale of Frankish Crusaders during the Fourth Crusade. Edited collections include Elizabeth Hallam’s Chronicles of the Crusades: Eye-Witness Accounts of the Wars Between Christianity and Islam (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989) and D. C. Munro’s 1902 Letters of the Crusaders. Primary sources looking at the Crusades from the Muslim side include Ibn Kalanisi’s The Damascus Chronicle of the Crusades and Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (London: Al Saqi Books, 1984).CrusadesArmies;CrusadesIslam;Crusades

Books and Articles
  • Cowdrey, Herbert E. J. Popes, Monks, and Crusaders. London: Hambledon Press, 1984.
  • Kedar, B. Z. Crusade and Mission: European Approaches Toward the Muslims. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.
  • Nicholson, Helen, and David Nicolle. Crusaders, Saracens, and the Battle for Jerusalem. New York: Osprey, 2005.
  • Nicolle, David. The Crusades. New York: Osprey, 2001.
  • _______. Knights of Jerusalem: The Crusading Order of Hospitallers, 1100-1565. New York: Osprey, 2008.
  • _______. Teutonic Knight: 1190-1561. New York: Osprey, 2007.
  • Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Wise, Terence. Armies of the Crusades. New York: Osprey, 1978.
Films and Other Media
  • The Crusades. Feature film. Paramount Pictures, 1935.
  • The Crusades: Crescent and the Cross. Documentary. History Channel, 2005.
  • Crusades: Quest for Power. Documentary. History Channel, 2003.
  • Kingdom of Heaven. Feature film. Twentieth Century-Fox, 2005.
  • Soldier of God. Feature film. Anthem Pictures, 2005.

Armies and Infantry: Ancient and Medieval


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The Anglo-Saxons

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Armies of Christendom and the Age of Chivalry

Knights to Cavalry

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