10 Key Figures in the Crusades | History Hit

10 Key Figures in the Crusades

Lily Johnson

09 Sep 2021
Image Credit: Public domain

The Crusades were a series of conflicts during the Middle Ages centred around the Christian fight to ‘reclaim’ the Holy Land of Jerusalem, which had been under the dominion of the Muslim Empire since 638.

Jerusalem was not just a holy city for Christians however. Muslims believed it to be the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, installing it as a holy site in their faith also.

Following Jerusalem’s capture by Muslim Seljuk Turks in 1077, Christians found it increasingly difficult to visit the holy city. From this and the threat of further Muslim expansion sprang the Crusades, lasting almost 2 centuries between 1095 and 1291.

Here are 10 figures who played a key role in the conflict, from holy call to action to bloody end.

1. Pope Urban II (1042-1099)

Following the capture of Jerusalem by the Seljuks in 1077, Byzantine Emperor Alexius sent a plea for help to Pope Urban II, fearing the subsequent fall of the Christian city of Constantinople.

Pope Urban more than obliged. In 1095, he willed all faithful Christians to go on a Crusade to win back the Holy Land, promising the forgiveness of any sins committed for the cause.

2. Peter the Hermit (1050-1115)

Said to have been present at Pope Urban II’s call to arms, Peter the Hermit began fervently preaching in support of the First Crusade, influencing thousands of paupers in England, France and Flanders to join. He led this army in the People’s Crusade, with an aim to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Despite his claims of divine protection however, his army suffered heavily from two devastating ambushes by the Turks. At the second of these, the Battle of Civetot in 1096, Peter had returned to Constantinople to arrange supplies, leaving his army to be slaughtered.

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3. Godfrey of Bouillon (1061-1100)

Tall, handsome, and fair haired, Godfrey of Bouillon was a French noblemen often perceived as the image of Christian knighthood. In 1096, he joined his brothers Eustace and Baldwin to fight in the second part of the First Crusade, known as the Princes’ Crusade. 3 years later he played a key role in the Siege of Jerusalem, capturing the city in a bloody massacre of its inhabitants.

Godfrey was then offered the crown of Jerusalem, and though declining to call himself king, he accepted under the title ‘Defender of the Holy Sepulchre’. A month later he secured his kingdom after defeating the Fatimids at Ascalon, bringing the First Crusade to a close.

4. Louis VII (1120-1180)

Louis VII, King of France was one of the first kings to participate in the Crusades, alongside Conrad III of Germany. Accompanied by his first wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who herself was in charge of the Aquitaine regiment, Louis travelled to the Holy Land on the Second Crusade in 1148.

In 1149 he attempted to lay siege to Damascus, suffering a crushing defeat. The expedition was then abandoned and Louis’ army returned to France.

Raymond of Poitiers Welcoming Louis VII in Antioch, from Passages d’Outremer, 15th century.

Image Credit: Public domain

5. Saladin (1137-1193)

The famous Muslim leader of Egypt and Syria, Saladin recaptured almost the entirety of the kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187. Within 3 months the cities of Acre, Jaffa, and Ascalon among others had fallen, with the all-important city of Jerusalem also surrendering to his army after 88 years under Frankish rule.

This stunned the West into embarking on a Third Crusade, drawing 3 kings and their armies into the conflict: Richard the Lionheart of England, Phillip II of France, and Frederik I, Holy Roman Emperor.

6. Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199)

Richard I of England, known as the valiant ‘Lionheart’, headed the English army during the Third Crusade against Saladin. Though this effort did find some success, with the cities of Acre and Jaffa returning to the Crusaders, their ultimate goal of reconquering Jerusalem was not realised.

Eventually a peace treaty was signed between Richard and Saladin – the Treaty of Jaffa. This capitulated that the city of Jerusalem would remain in Muslim hands, however unarmed Christians would be permitted to travel there on pilgrimage.

7. Pope Innocent III (1161-1216)

Many on both sides were dissatisfied with the results of the Third Crusade. In 1198, the newly-appointed Pope Innocent III began calling for a Fourth Crusade, yet this time his call was largely ignored by the monarchs of Europe, who had their own internal affairs to attend to.

Nevertheless, an army from across the continent soon amassed around the preaching of French priest Fulk of Neuilly, with Pope Innocent signing off on the venture on the promise that no Christian states be attacked. This promise was broken in 1202 when the Crusaders sacked Constantinople, the world’s largest Christian city, and were all excommunicated.

Conquest of Constantinople, 1204, from a 15th century miniature.

Image Credit: Public domain

8. Frederick II (1194-1250)

In 1225, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II married Isabella II of Jerusalem, heiress to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Her father’s title as king was stripped and given to Frederick, who then pursued the Sixth Crusade in 1227.

After supposedly suffering from illness, Frederick retreated from the Crusade and was excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX. Though again he had set out on a Crusade and again been excommunicated, his endeavours actually resulted in some success. In 1229, he diplomatically won back Jerusalem in a 10-year truce with Sultan Al-Kamil, and was crowned king there.

9. Baibars (1223-1277)

Following the end of the 10-year truce Jerusalem once again fell under Muslim control, and a new dynasty took power in Egypt – the Mamluks.

Marching on the Holy Land, the Mamluks’ fierce leader, Sultan Baibars, defeated the French King Louis IX’s Seventh Crusade, enacted the first substantial defeat of the Mongol army in history and in 1268 brutally demolished Antioch.

Some reports state that when Edward I of England launched the brief and ineffectual Ninth Crusade, Baibars attempted to have him assassinated, yet he escaped back to England unharmed.

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10. Al-Ashraf Khalil (c.1260s-1293)

Al-Ashraf Khalil was the eight Mamluk sultan, who effectively ended the Crusades with his conquest of Acre – the last Crusader state. Continuing the work of his father Sultan Qalawun, Khalil lay siege to Acre in 1291, resulting in heavy fighting with the Knights Templar, whose prestige as a Catholic militant force by this time had faded.

Upon the Mamluks’ victory, the defensive walls of Acre were demolished, and the remaining Crusader outposts along the Syrian coast captured.

Following these events, the kings of Europe became unable to organise new and effective crusades, being embroiled in their own internal conflicts. The Templars meanwhile were accused of heresy in Europe, suffering severe persecution under Philip IV of France and Pope Clement V. Any hope of a successful Tenth Crusade in the medieval age was lost.

Portrait of Al-Ashraf Khalil

Image Credit: Omar Walid Mohammed Reda / CC

Lily Johnson