The Great Crusades: History and Timeline

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  • 0:05 Failed Crusades
  • 1:16 Failures of Crusaders
  • 3:41 Crusades to the Holy Land
  • 8:40 Crusades in Europe
  • 10:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson examines the utter failure of the later crusades. We look at some of the factors that led to this failure. We then have a glimpse at each of the major crusades abroad, as well as the political and heretical crusades in Europe.

The Failure of the Later Crusades

The First Crusade had accomplished a miracle of sorts. A few thousand knights had taken the Holy Land by storm and established a series of Crusader states. These were The County of Edessa, The County of Tripoli, The Principality of Antioch, and The Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Yet, if the Crusaders believed their miraculous success during the First Crusade would set the tone of all future crusades, they were sadly mistaken. Every subsequent crusade would prove a dismal failure. Those counted as successes by western kings and popes achieved little more than a maintenance of the status quo.

One by one, the Crusader states would fall back into the hands of the infidel, and the hard won city of Jerusalem was in constant need of rescue. As Christian Crusaders grew ever more frustrated with their failure against their Muslim foe, they began to turn the crusading spirit against their fellow Christians. In the Fourth Crusade, they conquered the Orthodox Christian city of Constantinople. And by the turn of the 13th century, Popes were sending Christian kings on crusade against other Christian kings.

The Failures of Crusaders

So, how do we explain the failure of the later Crusades?

Well, to begin, we must remember that the success of the First Crusade was something of a fortuitous fluke. It was not won by the superior arms and tactics of the Crusaders, but rather by the disorganization of the Arabs. The once-united Arab nations had recently been shattered by invading Turks and internal strife.

The Crusaders were able to take advantage of this chaos in the First Crusade. In the later Crusades, the Holy Land was prepared for the Crusaders, and the many failings of the crusading movement led to a series of unmitigated disasters. The gross ignorance of the Crusaders combined with their lack of clear leadership and failure to commit all combined to doom the later Crusades.

The Crusaders had no real notion of the geography, climate, or political structure of the Near East. Crusaders often failed to even make it to the Holy Land. Northern Europeans, in their full armor, sweltered in the heat of Mediterranean summers. The shifting political power of the Middle East meant that a Crusader would sign a peace treaty with one leader, only to have that peace treaty violated by another. The Crusaders also had no clear leadership. Lords and kings squabbled among themselves, and popes struggled to keep the crusading armies pointed in the right direction.

The Crusaders never seem to have made a real commitment to retaking the Holy Land. The kings of Europe had more important matters to deal with, like expanding their territory and maintaining the dynasties at home. Had Europe turned its full power on the Middle East, they very well might have held on to the Holy Land. Instead, the efforts of Western kings in the Holy Land became ever more half-hearted. Going on crusade became something of a moral obligation. It was just something one was expected to do.

Many leaders simply went through the motions, bringing a small fraction of their armies on a sort of armed pilgrimage to the Holy Land. They'd engage in some minor skirmishes, slaughter a few handy Muslims, and then head back to Europe, to bask in unearned praise for their piety and bravery. So, let us take a look at the tales of incompetence and treachery that made up the later Crusades.

Crusades to the Holy Land

The Second Crusade

The Second Crusade seemed off to a good start. Unlike the First Crusade, which was led by a few lords, this crusade was led by two kings: Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany, who led their armies east to rescue Jerusalem. Though neither of these kings were particularly great leaders, and though neither had very large armies at their disposal, they must have set out with a fair expectation of success. Louis even brought his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, with him. Louis and Conrad never even made it to Jerusalem. Their armies were cut to pieces in Asia Minor. With what remained, they attempted a failed siege of Damascus, before finally heading home with their tails between their legs. By the end of this crusade, the county of Edessa had fallen from Christian hands, never to be reclaimed.

The Third Crusade

Thinking that perhaps three kings would succeed where two kings had failed, three monarchs led the Third Crusade: Barbarossa of Germany, Philip Augustus of France, and Richard the Lionhearted of England. This was an uneasy alliance of old rivals. Nevertheless, these three kings might have enjoyed some degree of success, if the Middle East had not been united under the rule of the powerful Sultan of Egypt: Saladin the Great. Though Barbarossa could not even stay on his horse and died early in the crusade, and Philip Augustus seemed simply to be going through the motions, Richard the Lionhearted was fully committed to the crusading spirit.

However, this crusading spirit was not enough to accomplish much. After a few skirmishes and some inconclusive battles, the Third Crusade ended with no real progress made. Richard's strange combination of blood thirst and piety made him unpopular among his fellow rulers. The three kings squabbled almost the entire trip, and Richard managed to antagonize his allies to such a degree that he found his return trip to Europe blocked by hostile Germans, who captured Richard and held him for ransom.

The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204)

The Fourth Crusade marked Europe's first real victory since the First Crusade. However, it was a victory over Christians, rather than Muslims. Though Pope Innocent III had called this crusade to rescue Jerusalem, the Venetian traders who provided the funding and ships for this crusade had a different idea. Hoping to undermine one of their greatest trading rivals, the Venetians persuaded the Crusaders to attack Constantinople, the capitol of the Byzantine Empire.

In 1204, Constantinople, which had stood up to countless Eastern invaders and served as Europe's shield in the East, was betrayed and sacked by misguided Crusaders. The Crusaders would hold Constantinople for about 60 years before the Greeks finally took their kingdom back. Nevertheless, the deathblow had been dealt to the Byzantine Empire, though it would take the massive Byzantine bureaucracy another two centuries to realize it.

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