Pope Urban II Calls the First Crusade

Pope Urban II initiated the first in a series of military expeditions from Christian Western Europe to the Middle East by calling the First Crusade, which intended to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims.

Summary of Event

Fought between 1096 and 1270, the Crusades, or “Wars of the Cross,” were defining features of the High Middle Ages in Europe. For almost four centuries, between nine and ten major military expeditions left the West for the Middle East in an effort to achieve two strategic goals. One was to prevent the conquest of the Byzantine Empire Byzantine Empire;Muslim invasion of , a Christian stronghold, by the Muslim Turks. The other goal, which was more important to the Europeans, was to establish Christian control over the venerated pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land, especially Jerusalem. Ultimately, neither aim was secured permanently. [kw]Pope Urban II Calls the First Crusade (November 27, 1095)
[kw]Urban II Calls the First Crusade, Pope (November 27, 1095)
[kw]Crusade, Pope Urban II Calls the First (November 27, 1095)
[kw]First Crusade, Pope Urban II Calls the (November 27, 1095)
Urban II
France;Nov. 27, 1095: Pope Urban II Calls the First Crusade[1710]
Europe (general);Nov. 27, 1095: Pope Urban II Calls the First Crusade[1710]
Israel/Palestine;Nov. 27, 1095: Pope Urban II Calls the First Crusade[1710]
Byzantine Empire;Nov. 27, 1095: Pope Urban II Calls the First Crusade[1710]
Religion;Nov. 27, 1095: Pope Urban II Calls the First Crusade[1710]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 27, 1095: Pope Urban II Calls the First Crusade[1710]
Urban II
Alexius I Comnenus
Peter the Hermit
Gautier Sans Avoir
Bohemond I
Godfrey of Bouillon
Raymond of Saint-Gilles
Adhémar de Monteil
Robert II of Jerusalem

Pope Urban II, at the Council of Clermont in 1095, calls Christians to the First Crusade (facsimile of a wood engraving from Grand Voyage de Hiérusalem, 1522).

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, ending forever the Byzantine Empire. By 1515, all the East, including Palestine, had fallen under the control of the Turks. The Crusades, however, represent the West’s earliest effort to expand and create what has been rightly called “Europe’s first adventure in colonialism.”

On Tuesday, November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade before the Council of Clermont Clermont, Council of (1095) , an assembly of some two hundred bishops meeting in the south of France. Of French noble birth, Urban had been educated at Soissons and Reims and had served as a prior in the reforming abbey of Cluny before becoming a papal legate and later pope on March 12, 1088, at Terracina. The agenda at Clermont included many items. The council adopted some thirty-two canons on a variety of topics. The main business, however, was the pope’s call for a holy war to liberate the East from the Turks. What language Urban used in his speech is not known, since there is no surviving transcript. The response to his speech was immediate and positive. From the congregation came the cry “Deus volt” (“God wills it”). The Crusades were launched.

The pope had two primary motives in calling the Crusade. One was his hope for the reunification of the Christian world, which had been rent asunder by a schism between Rome and Constantinople Schism;Rome and Constantinople in 1054. Another was his dream of a universal Papacy, with the pope having hegemony over Christendom’s three holiest cities—Rome, Constantinople, and Jerusalem. The Crusade he called would facilitate both these visions.

The occasion for the pope’s message was also twofold. The Byzantine Empire was in danger of falling under the control of the Turks. In August of 1071, the Seljuk Turks had decisively defeated the Eastern emperor at the Battle of Manzikert Manzikert, Battle of (1071) . In the wake of that victory, the Turks advanced across Anatolia, taking Antioch in 1085 and Nicaea in 1092. These reversals prompted the new Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus Alexius I Comnenus , to appeal to the West for help. A parallel problem involved the Turkish occupation of Palestine. The economic and religious revival of the West had resulted in an increased traffic of pilgrims journeying to the Holy Land. Tales of sacrilege, desecrations, and abuse were heard in Europe. Many individuals believed that only a Christian military presence in the East could guarantee the security and the integrity of Christian pilgrims and shrines from Turkish atrocities.

One facet of the First Crusade was the Peasants’ or People’s Crusade, led by Gautier Sans Avoir. Here he and his fellow crusaders receive permission from the king of Hungary to pass through his territory.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

A variety of reasons account for the popularity of Pope Urban II’s appeal among all classes—peasants, merchants, warriors, and clergy. Merchants and other residents of Italian towns were eager to secure commercial advantages in the Mediterranean from the Greeks and Arabs. Younger sons of the aristocracy could find fiefs of their own in Outre Mer (the land beyond the sea). Epidemic private warfare between Europe’s nobility was expected to diminish as aggression was directed toward an external foe.

A precedent for wars of reconquest had been established by Christian advances in Spain, Sardinia, and Sicily. Europe was in an expansive mood as new domains were added in Scandinavia, the Baltic, and the Balkans. An expanding population was seeking space all the way from Iceland to Cyprus. Military science had proved the potential for success of major international expeditions, as seen in the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Peasants were eager for freedom and adventure in the exotic East. A major religious revival was evident, giving birth to universities, cathedrals, and now the Crusades, a kind of “spiritual journey.” Very much a product of his times, Pope Urban II had touched the vibrant energies and the vivid imagination of a rejuvenated Europe.

Probably to the pope’s surprise, the masses were the first to respond to the call. A French ascetic from Amiens known as Peter the Hermit Peter the Hermit and a French knight named Gautier Sans Avoir Gautier Sans Avoir (Walter the Penniless) preached the Peasants’ Crusades;Peasants’ or People’s Crusade. This popular movement attracted the innocent as well as the iniquitous, who in undisciplined fashion worked their way down the Balkans to Constantinople. Crossing the straits of Bosporus into Asia, participants in the Peasants’s Crusade faced annihilation by the Turks at the Battle of Cibotus Cibotus, Battle of (1096) (Civetot) in August, 1096.

In Europe that same month, the expected response to the pope’s sermon occurred among the nobility. Although no kings took up the cross, many European nobles did. The First Crusade, also known as the Barons’s Crusade, set out for the East in four major contingents. One contingent was led by Godfrey of Bouillon Godfrey of Bouillon , the duke of Lower Lorraine. A second group was headed by Bohemond I Bohemond I , the middle-aged son of Robert Guiscard, a Norman noble with properties in Italy. Leading the third and largest forces was Raymond of Saint-Gilles, Raymond of Saint-Gilles the count of Toulouse, who was the oldest and most experienced of the crusaders. Raymond was accompanied by Adhémar de Monteil Adhémar de Monteil , a warrior bishop who served as papal legate for the Crusade. A fourth group was directed by Robert II of Jerusalem Robert II of Jerusalem . Because the French predominated among the Crusader forces, the soldiers of the First Crusade were known in the East as “the Franks” or “the Normans.”

Passing through Constantinople, some four thousand mounted knights and twenty-five thousand infantry invaded Anatolia, taking Nicaea on June 19, 1097, and surrendering it to the Byzantine emperor. On June 3, 1098, the Syrian city of Antioch was taken and was retained by Bohemond I as his own. Jerusalem itself was captured on July 15, 1099, with much bloodshed. Within three years, the Crusaders had obtained their goals of pushing the Turks back from Anatolia and securing western sovereignty in Palestine. Godfrey of Bouillon was appointed to remain as defender of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Within a few years, a series of Latin feudal principalities were established along the Levantine coast. For Europe, the First Crusade appeared to be a resounding success.


Appearances were deceptive, however, as Crusader victories occurred because of fragmentation of power in the Muslim East. Once the Turks and other Muslims recovered political control, the tide turned. Maintaining a Western military presence in the Middle East proved difficult, not only because of the proximity of enemies but also because of the distance of these military forces from the European base of power. Within a short time, it became necessary to wage the Second and Third Crusades, leading to a series of religious wars that would terminate in the eventual expulsion of European Crusader forces from the Middle East.

Further Reading

  • Bridge, Anthony. The Crusades. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982. Written for a general audience, this beautifully illustrated text provides a fine introduction to the history of the Crusades. Maps, useful bibliography.
  • Bull, Marcus. “The Pilgrimage Origins of the First Crusade.” History Today 47, no. 3 (March, 1997). The author explores Urban II’s speech at Clermont and then traces the Crusades from their start as a Christian pilgrimage to a holy war.
  • Chazan, Robert. “Jerusalem as Christian Symbol During the First Crusade: Jewish Awareness and Response.” In Jerusalem: Its Sanctity and Centrality to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, edited by Lee I. Levine. New York: Continuum, 1999. Examines the Jewish response to the presence of Christian Crusaders and the Christian Church in the Holy City.
  • Foss, Michael. People of the First Crusade. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997. This work on the First Crusade focuses on the individuals involved in the holy war. Bibliography and index.
  • France, John. Victory in the East: A Military History of the First Crusade. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. A detailed study of the First Crusade, primarily as a military campaign.
  • Hillenbrand, Carole. The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2000. Chapters explore Muslim reactions to the Franks of the First Crusade, ethnic and religious stereotyping, daily life, the conduct of war, and more. Bibliography, index.
  • Irwin, Robert. “Muslim Responses to the Crusades.” History Today 47, no. 4 (April, 1997). Presents a rich overview of the Muslim perspective on the Crusades, including the responses of the Seljuks before the First Crusade in the late eleventh century. Provides photographs and a short list of further readings.
  • Madden, Thomas F., ed. The Crusades: The Essential Readings. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. A collection of previously published articles about the Crusades, including Pope Urban’s call for the First Crusade, medieval sources, lay enthusiasm, patronage, Byzantium, and the subjection of Muslims. Bibliography, index.
  • Phillips, Jonathan, ed. The First Crusade: Origins and Impact. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. A collection that explores the First Crusade from multiple angles, including its patrons and chroniclers, the Muslim perspective, and property confiscation. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986. A scholarly overview of the initial Crusade and its motivations. Maps, excellent bibliography.
  • Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The First Crusaders, 1095-1131. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. The story of the First Crusade, including recruitment, preparation, preaching, the holy war, and the return. Includes an appendix listing the Crusaders, illustrations, maps, and index.
  • Runciman, Steven. A History of the Crusades. 3 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. One of the most detailed resources on the Crusader era, by a respected British historian. The first volume provides a good overview of the First Crusade. Illustrations, maps, genealogical table, bibliography, index.