The Holy Land Crusades

Most US school children are taught about the Christian crusades to the Holy Land at some point in their education. The term crusade is derived from the Latin word crux, meaning cross. Those events occurred in the what is known as the High Middle Ages (roughly the 11th to 14th centuries). We probably learned a little about the Knights Templar, King Richard the Lionhearted, and legends about the Holy Grail and the Holy Lance.

The crusaders’ goal was to restore Jerusalem, Palestine, and parts of Syria to the “Christian Empire”. The popes who rallied the masses and sent them on their way felt that Christians had the claim to that region because that was where Jesus had lived, died, and supposedly risen from the dead, and ascended into Heaven. That was the true birthplace of Christianity. But Jerusalem was also the place that Muslims believed Muhammad had ascended into Heaven from, so it was a holy site to them also.

An amazing discovery

A few years ago, if I’d been asked how many crusades there were, I would have guessed maybe three or four. But as I studied the crusades while researching my book, In Search of Christian Origin: A Timeline of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I realized I was very wrong. The number of pope-sanctioned, “official” crusades to the Holy Land was really eight or nine depending on what criteria are used. In addition to those, there were many unofficial invasions or attempted invasions of the Levant—the Eastern Mediterranean coastal region—between 1095 and 1291. I was stunned to learn that there were in all about twenty-eight different military incursions by Christian forces into that region during those two centuries. That included the campaigns launched from the crusader states of Jerusalem, Tripoli, Edessa, and Antioch.

The First Crusade

After Pope Urban II inspired knights and common folk to “take up the cross”, crusading became a veritable industry in Europe. Once Urban called for the First Crusade in 1095, he sweetened the pot by assuring those who answered the call that their sins would be forgiven and they would spend eternity in Paradise. After he said that, there was no shortage of volunteers.

Once the crusaders successfully captured Jerusalem in 1099, future popes realized that military invasions could be a lot more productive than long, drawn-out negotiations.

Life in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages was an era when the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches had total control over the lives of all Europeans who weren’t royalty. It was also a period when most people lived miserable lives and there was little pleasure. There was frequent warfare, famines, and many incurable diseases. They could die of something as minor as an infected wound. Death was always lurking in the shadows waiting for them. With so little control and so much drudgery, the idea of dying in battle and spending eternity in Heaven may not have seemed so bad.

Being uneducated and superstitious, most people believed whatever clergymen told them to believe. The clergy taught their interpretations of God’s will and warned their faithful what would happen if they disobeyed it.

There was no other source of information to contradict what the clergy said since secular knowledge was was basically non-existent in Europe. That was because Roman emperors and the Church had done their best to ban and destroy most of that pagan literature centuries earlier.

So, considering all of this, the Christian hierarchy learned how to entice people to join crusades. Then, they began to use those campaigns to carry out the Church’s “diplomacy”. The popes and bishops had found a clever way to justify mass murder and convince people that it was “God’s will”.

Further crusades against Muslims

By 1291, the Mamluks of Egypt drove the last crusaders out of Western Asia and scattered them onto a few islands in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Holy Land crusades were a colossal failure. They had resulted in tremendous loss of life on both sides and drained Europe’s treasuries. Since this was an age of superstition, the crusades also demonstrated to Europeans that the Muslim god may have been stronger than their God. The irony is that both sides worshipped the same god, but may not have known it. Following the disastrous Holy Land crusades, popes began to choose softer targets, and any future campaigns against Muslims were fought away from their home turf.

From 1291 to 1578 Roman Catholic popes conducted many more crusades—ones that we probably never learned about in world history classes. Christian armies attacked Muslims of every nationality—Ottoman Turks in Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece; Barbary pirates in Tunisia; and Moors on the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, the Canary Islands, Algeria, and Morocco.

The Reconquista—the reconquest of Spain and Portugal from the Moors, was basically an on-again off-again crusade that lasted from the 11th-15th centuries.

Crusades against Christian heretics

The Roman Catholic Church added any new Christian sect to its long list of heresies. The Church sought to either intimidate them into surrendering or exterminate them on the battlefield. The Albigensian Crusade targeted the Cathar sect in France. The Waldensian Crusade attempted to destroy the Waldensians in Italy. In addition to those, the Roman Church targeted the Donatists in North Africa, and conducted five crusades against the Hussites in Bohemia.

The Eastern Orthodox Church wasn’t nearly as focused on heresies but they did hunt down the Paulicians in Anatolia. That venture was primarily due to a Paulician rebellion against the Byzantine Empire.

The Popes’ political and territorial crusades

The popes also carried out campaigns against fellow orthodox Christians. Many people don’t realize that popes were more than Church leaders. They were also territorial leaders who owned vast tracts of land.

In 756, Pepin, the king of the Franks, who were papal allies at the time, defeated the Lombard invaders in Italy. In what became known as the Donation of Pepin, he gave most of the territory he seized in Italy to the pope. These lands were consolidated into what became the Papal States, and popes controlled them until 1870. That’s when Italian armies conquered them during the wars of Italian unification. During those eleven centuries, the popes had to deal with many territorial enemies and rivals.

Being so vast an area of central Italy, there were constant threats to the papal land. Consequently, the popes maintained their own armies or hired mercenaries. They launched crusades against the Kingdom of Naples, supporters of an anti-pope in Belgium, the Republic of Venice, a Holy Roman Emperor’s territory in Sicily, the powerful Colonna family in Italy, etc.

Popes instigated what are known as the Italian Crusades in the 13th and 14th centuries to humble their personal and political enemies. Those were directed against powerful men such as Manfred of Sicily, Ezzelino III da Romano, Peter III of Aragon, and Matteo I Visconti.

In thirteenth-century England, Pope Honorius III granted permission for King Henry III to conduct a crusade against his rebellious subjects. In the same century, in Bremen, Germany, the Church targeted the Stedinger people who held grievances with the Church over taxes and property rights.

The Northern Crusades against pagans

Christian armies conducted the thirteen Northern Crusades against pagans who resisted being converted. Even when conquests and forced conversions were successful, after Christian armies withdrew, the people often renounced Christianity and returned to their previous religion. The Northern Crusades took place in Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Poland, and the Baltic States of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. I suppose we could even included Charlemagne’s eighteen campaigns against the Saxons in the eighth century. Those Christian invasions of pagan lands were also motivated by to make Europe a Christian continent.

Crusades against Eastern Orthodox Christians

Catholic crusaders sacked the Eastern Orthodox city of Zara and the Byzantine capital of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. They burned and looted both cities and ruled Constantinople for fifty-six years. This was all part of a grand attempt to unite the two major branches of Christianity that had split apart in 1054.

After the Byzantines regained Constantinople, Roman Catholic leaders often plotted further military campaigns to retake the Eastern Orthodox capital. But, none of them were ever implemented.

Latin Crusaders conquered Byzantine lands on the islands of Rhodes and Cyprus.

During the Northern Crusades, Teutonic Knights vied with the Eastern Orthodox Novgorod Republic, in present-day Russia, for control of Estonia. There were still many pagans in Estonia in the 12th and 13th centuries. And both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox sought to establish political and religious control over them.


If you think about it, the age of European colonialism is actually a continuation of the Crusades. After the Church had eliminated its nearest enemies, it extended its reach to the rest of the world. Very few places in the world escaped European domination. During the period beginning in 1419 when the Portuguese landed in the Madeira Islands until the European-American annexation of Hawaii in 1898, European colonial countries were in a feeding frenzy. They seemed unable to satisfy their appetite for economic and military conquests.

Those who escaped domination

There were only a few countries that avoided European colonization. They were Japan, Korea, Thailand, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Mongolia, China, Ethiopia, Iran, Liberia, Saudi Arabia, Tonga, and Turkey. But that wasn’t for lack of effort on the part of the Europeans. They conquered, occupied, administered, and coerced nations into signing treaties. However, the European powers were never able to transform those countries into European puppet states with European-like societies. From 1783, beginning with the United States, colonies began to demand independence from European control. Colonial countries were still winning their independence from European powers as late as the 1980s.

Like the crusades in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, the conquests of Indigenous people in North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Oceania, were intended to spread Christianity and eliminate rival religions. The colonizers always carried superior armaments, a determination to control land and resources, and a desire to spread European culture to the world.

Still a hot topic

In 2001, when referring to the invasion of Afghanistan, President George W. Bush unfortunately said, “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.” I’m not sure he was aware of the message he was sending when he used the word “crusade”. The word had Christian symbolism written all over it.

In evangelical Christianity, the process of converting the world is still going on. But, now it’s more a more peaceful process, using missionaries instead of soldiers.


Wikipedia lists 134 different crusades. There were even more that could have materialized but went no further than the planning stages.

For the last one thousand years, all these “crusades” have been a major driving force behind the spread of Christianity. Don’t believe the religion was spread only by the peaceful teachings of missionaries. Usually, missionaries followed in the wake of the conquerors and coerced people into acknowledging the superiority of the Christian God. These crusades and the process of colonialism were little more than military and economic ventures. Ironically, they used the “Prince of Peace”, the “Lamb of God”, or the “Good Shepherd” to justify what they were doing.

What we’re discussing is the religion based on Jesus. That was the same Jesus who urged people to settle things peacefully and forgive others. To me, there’s not much more hypocritical about Christianity than the crusades.



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