The Confusing Crusades

Richard the Lionheart – was he as heroic as we’ve been led to believe?

The Crusades are perhaps some of the most misunderstood events in history, yet they continue to intrigue politicians, journalists and commentators to this day. When George W. Bush called the war on terror a “Crusade” on September 11th, he was roundly criticised by European and Arab countries alike. Unfortunately, popular misconceptions of the Crusades still abound, so read on to find out what really happened:

Misconception 1: The Crusades were wars between Christians and Muslims.

The First Crusade (1095) was launched against Muslim Turks and Egyptians who occupied Jerusalem and the territories now known as Jordan, Israel and Syria. However, within a few years there were wars between the Principality of Antioch (one of the newly established Crusader States) and the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire, unfortunately, was Christian, and had been on the side of the Crusaders only a few years earlier.

This set the tone for the entirety of the Crusader period. Alliances between the Crusader states and Muslims against the Byzantines and each other were common. Short periods of war were punctuated by longer and profitable times of peace. Muslim states and factions often attacked each other, as they didn’t realise they were fighting a religious war until shortly before the Third Crusade.

Other Crusades made no attempt at attacking Muslims. The First Crusade, somewhat confused about the idea of “enemies of Christ”, killed large numbers of German Jews on the way to the Holy Land. The Fourth Crusade destroyed Orthodox Christian Constantinople, the Albigensian Crusade attacked Cathar heretics in southern France, and Teutonic Knights crusaded against pagans in what is now Lithuania.

Misconception 2: Richard the Lionheart was the best king England has ever had.

Richard’s fame has been greatly exaggerated over the years. He did not, for example, tear out the heart of a lion and eat it. He probably never even met a lion (lions being rather rare in Germany at the time). Richard’s popularity has much to do with the fact that he was followed by his younger brother, “Prince” John (of Robin Hood fame). At the beginning of John’s reign, England controlled half of France. By the end, the vast majority had been lost, his nobles revolted, all Church services were suspended, England had surrendered to the Pope and the Prince of France was declared King in London. Fortunately, he died before he could do even more damage. After such a travesty of a reign, people looked back to the good old days of Richard’s rule, whose legend slowly grew. John, however, gained the nickname “softsword” – referring purely to his lack of skill in warfare of course, minds out of the gutter please!

While Richard was a skilled general and fighter, his failings were many. He frequently rebelled against his father while still a prince. As well as arriving very late to the Third Crusade and letting hundreds die of starvation he failed to recapture Jerusalem despite vowing to do so, was captured on his way home from Crusade and had to heavily tax England to pay a ransom, and when he was finally released he spent most of his time in France. Only 6 months of his entire reign were even spent in England, and yet it is his statue that stands outside the Palace of Westminster.

Misconception 3: There were three Crusades, possibly four.

The fame of the Third Crusade has tended to obscure the others. There were in fact nine numbered crusades, but rather confusingly they were not numbered at the time. Neither were they called crusades, but pilgrimages, until at least halfway through the period. There is also a debate among historians (who, to be honest, have little better to do) about which crusade was the first one. Wikipedia lists thirty-one crusades. While quoting Wikipedia in an article may seem not very informative, their guess really is as good as anyone’s. Thomas Madden, a Crusade historian, claims that there were hundreds. Spain, for example, called the Spanish Armada a Crusade against Protestant heretics, though England merely called it an invasion.

Misconception 4: Kingdom of Heaven is an accurate account of the Third Crusade

Despite director Ridley Scott’s assurances that his film was based on history, Kingdom of Heaven, while a great visual spectacle, is almost as historically inaccurate as his earlier film Gladiator. Described as “absolute balls” by Jonathan Riley-Smith, one of the foremost Crusade historians, the film is largely based on The Talisman, a nineteenth century historical fiction by Sir Walter Scott (no relation). The idea of Saladin and Richard being noblemen who desired peace for all religions and fair access to Jerusalem is complete nonsense, and designed to let Ridley Scott release a film about the Crusades without incurring the hatred of countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, who have shown themselves somewhat sensitive in the past when it comes to matters such as Danish cartoons or fiction by Salman Rushdie. Orlando Bloom’s character, for example, was an important noble, not a blacksmith. Baldwin V, the Leper King who wears a mask in the film, never covered his face. He also died before the events of the film, so should not even be there.

Misconception 5: Saladin was an Arab

The late Saddam Hussein, who was born in the same town as Saladin, liked to portray himself as Saladin’s spiritual successor. Actually, he was a Kurd, the very people against whom Saddam launched numerous chemical weapons and repeatedly massacred. Of course, ethnic identity meant much less in the thirteenth Century than it does today, but this point is still worth emphasising.

Misconception 6: Mongols were never involved in the Crusades

By the mid-thirteenth century, the Mongol Empire founded by Genghis Khan and continued by his successors reached as far west as modern-day Iraq and Jordan. At first, the Pope tried to launch a crusade against the Mongols. Later, the segment of the empire based in Iran, the Ilkhanate (which contained Buddhists, Muslims and Nestorian Christians) attempted to ally with the Crusaders against Egypt – an alliance which never came about.

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