To What Extent Was Pope Urban II Responsible For The First Crusade?

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The Crusades did not happen all of a sudden. Right from the advent of Christianity, numerous religious campaigns had been initiated by the royalty as well as the Roman Catholic Church to protect Christianity from perceived threats, particularly from the belligerence of the Muslims. This essay will explore the events that led to the momentous speech of Pope Urban II that eventually triggered the Crusades.

The required information for this paper has been drawn from two seminal texts on the topic: “The First Crusade – A New History” and “A History of the Crusades – the First Crusade”. Other books that have also contributed to the making of this essay include: “The Crusades”, “God’s War” and the “Holy Warriors”. This section contains a thorough examination of the origins, objectives, content and shortcomings of the primary and the secondary sources. The details of the actual investigation are presented in the next section while the final section deals with reflections on the investigation process and the limitations encountered by historians while analyzing the event.

The first source

The principal source of information for this essay is a well known book written by the eminent British scholar and Professor in medieval history- Thomas Asbridge. The author currently teaches at Queen Mary, London. His book called: “The First Crusade: A New History – The roots of conflict between Christianity and Islam”, which came out in 2004, presents a lucid account of the events surrounding the Pope’s speech in Clermont.

The treatise is critically acclaimed all over the world. Unlike most other books on the Crusades, this one focuses exclusively on the 1st Crusade. The book, which comprises 408 pages, is undoubtedly among the most authentic sources of information on the first series of crusades. It has been written from an objective point of view and it successfully works out the exact reasons behind the initiation of the prolonged conflict between the Christians and the Muslims. The text presents a highly realistic picture of the event and unlike other scholarly works on the subject does not look at the event through the lens of heroism.

The second Source

The other text that I have selected for my investigation is once again a definitive treatise on the topic by the famous English scholar: Steven Runciman. His book is titled – “A History of the Crusades: The First Crusade” and it first came out in 1951. The book served the purpose of a subsidiary reference text. Despite its status as a standard scholarly work on the topic, the book falls short of scrutinizing all the possible stimuli for the 1st Crusade. Runciman has included all the events that occurred before the series of wars broke out- beginning from the point of Muslim invasions and acquisitions - but unlike Asbridge, he hasn’t provided a detailed exposition of Pope Urban II’s motivations for the campaign. The book has plenty of redundant information which can potentially perplex the reader. It is a great book in its own right, but it doesn’t serve the purpose of a primary source for this paper.



The instigation of the 1st Crusade by the Pope was caused by disparate factors such as the political scenario in Europe, the tense relationship between the papacy and the monarchy, conflicts among the knights, skirmishes in the region surrounding the Holy Land and the dangers posed by the aggressive policies of Muslim rulers. Repeated invasions were being carried out by the Turkish tribes in the eastern frontiers of the Christian territory and they eventually conquered Jerusalem in 1085. However, this did not cause much panic among the rulers of the West or the successive Popes who were keener to consolidate their own dominions.

The Byzantine Empire plunged into crisis when it was subjected to repeated raids by the Islamic forces, who even threatened to take over Constantinople. However, for most of Europe the principal concern was the maltreatment meted out to the Christian pilgrims by the Muslims inhabiting the region. While the whole of Christendom was concerned about these issues related to pilgrimage, the greatest concern of the Pope was the loss of political influence of the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy.

The Pope and his antecedent

Unlike Pope Gregory VII who was his predecessor, Urban II was an artful and calculative person. Gregory was a headstrong individual with strong views. His excommunication of the German ruler, Henry IV brought him into direct confrontation with the monarchy. Urban, on the other hand, had tenacity and farsightedness. He constantly made plans and calmly awaited an opportunity for their execution. The available evidence suggests that he launched the Crusade in order to regain the influence over Christendom that the papacy had lost.

Relationship with Byzantium

Pope Urban II wanted to repair strained relations with the Byzantine Church. The Roman Catholic and the Byzantine churches were involved in the Great Schism which began in 1054, mainly due to theological differences. The most immediate reason behind the ordering of the First Crusade by Pope Urban II in the year 1095 was the appeal made by Emperor Alexius to the Council at Piacenza earlier that year. Alexius, who was the Byzantine Emperor, sent his ambassadors to the Pope to seek military assistance in combating the aggressive Seljuk Turks. The Pope considered this an opportunity to gain control over the whole of Christendom, both in the East and the West.


Although there was hardly any external threat for the European kingdoms, the great friction among the various nobles, tribes, rulers and knights of the region and France in particular clearly made the Pope uncomfortable. In France, the medieval and the ruling knights were engaged in random acts of violence among themselves over a prolonged period of time. The Pope, who had been raised in France, was aware of the situation and realized that such infighting rendered France and a few other Christian states more vulnerable to invasions by the pagans. He made plans to divert this superfluous energy towards the liberation of Jerusalem and protection of Byzantium in the east by instigating the Holy War. He promised the devout Christians that they would be absolved of all sins as a reward for their dedication to the Christian religion. The promise of salvation provided the Christians with an easy justification for the bloodshed they were about to indulge in.

The condition of the papacy

By the time Pope Urban assumed office as the Pope in 1088, the Roman Catholic Church had lost all its prestige while the Pope held merely a nominal post. The state of affairs between the previous pope and Henry IV had turned so sour that the latter had started an antipope campaign. In retaliation, the Pope considered the idea of setting up an army of his own, but the ambitious plan remained unrealized until his death. Following Gregory’s demise, Henry IV appointed his own candidate Clement III as the pope and there was no one who challenged the German antipope. Clement’s death in May 1087 resulted in six months of struggle for succession before Urban was finally appointed Pope in 1088. Pope Urban II had realized that tact would prove more effective than violence and a prolonged conflict with the royalty could never result in a recovery of the lost prestige of the papacy. Hence, he devised schemes for reunification of the mutually warring knights and lords. He also cherished the desire of bringing the Eastern Byzantine Church under his patronage and knew that this could be achieved by responding to the entreaties of the Byzantine Emperor.

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The Pope’s campaign and the Clermont Council

The Pope actively campaigned all over France in support of a Holy War against the Muslims. It was his intention to create awareness among the general public and he exhorted the common people to enlist themselves as soldiers of Christianity. In November that year, he delivered an electrifying speech in the Council at Clermont which led to mass mobilizing of people who were desperate to drive away the Seljuk Turks and retrieve both Jerusalem and Byzantium.

Urban II’s association with Pope Gregory VII had taught him that brute force and the thirst for retribution cannot help in gathering support for the papal cause. He adopted a less stubborn and more interactive form of government in which he worked in concert with his advisors. With extreme astuteness of vision, he united the Christian knights by promising them absolution from their sins if they succeeded in reclaiming the Holy Land.

The envoy sent by the Emperor Alexius was interpreted by the Pope as divine approval of his schemes. He appropriately exploited the event in the presence of a large crowd in Clermont. For over eight months, he travelled extensively all over France in an attempt to instigate the Christians against the Muslims whom he referred to as people “alien to God” in his impassioned speech at the Clermont Council. He cleverly exaggerated the condition of pilgrims visiting Jerusalem and the Christians residing in the region under Muslim hegemony. This aroused an enthusiastic response from the multitude which had gathered there to listen to his discourse.

The call for assistance by the Byzantine ruler was shrewdly linked to the religious belief that every Christian should take up the obligation of protecting the followers of his faith. The Pope declared that any person who fights to protect Christianity would be remitted of all his sins. In addition to this, waging war against the pagans would assure them of eternal life in heaven. Thus, Urban II tactfully managed to gather public support and active participation for the 1st Crusade.


Pope Urban II’s exhortations to reclaim Jerusalem through a religious war did not happen all of a sudden. The seeds of the First Crusade had already been sown by the Popes who preceded him. In the 9th century, Leo IV had promised the reward of salvation for anyone who was killed while battling for the Church. Two centuries later, Pope Alexander II granted his support to the war against Muslim dominated Iberia. Pope Gregory VII had immersed himself in a bitter feud with Henry IV, whom he accused of interference in the affairs of the church. Furthermore, the belligerence of the Turks in the east, the suffering of the pilgrims who travelled to Jerusalem, the chaotic political scenario in Europe and issues related to harvest were the principal events responsible for the launching of the 1st Crusade by Pope Urban II. However, the most immediate cause was undoubtedly the plea for assistance sent by Alexius I, the Byzantine ruler. The objective of bringing all the churches of the East and the West under his control was evidently the primary motivation for Pope Urban II’s campaign.


There are several challenges that historians face when they reconstruct events that happened a century ago. Jonathan Riley-Smith called historiography a reconstruction of the past from the perspective of the present. Since the present is continuously changing, our interpretation of history changes too. Inspired by the Romantic works of Sir Walter Scott, nineteenth century historians interpreted the 1st Crusade as a heroic act. In the twentieth century, Runciman reversed this view completely and described the enterprise as a barbaric one.

While Asbridge belongs to a group of historians that regard Pope Urban II as the chief instigator of the Crusade, several others believe that the Byzantine Emperor Alexius carefully planned the Holy War. There is also a third approach that regards Alexius’ response as a natural reaction to a perceived threat. Christopher Tyerman has rightly called historiography a personal, malleable and cultural act.

Asbridge has taken a nomothetic approach to history writing in which cause and effect relationships are generalized. This is the approach that has been followed in this investigation too. Its major limitation is that it fails to account for unique behavior of any historical character. Moreover, different people may act similarly in different situations, in which such a method turns out to be deficient.

The interrogation of actual eyewitnesses who were present when the event took place greatly enhance the reliability of the historical work. For instance, there are at least six available accounts of the Pope Urban’s speech at Clermont, out of which the description by Fulcher of Chartres is taken to be the most reliable, since the narrator was himself present at the council. However, such eyewitnesses are absent for an event that took place a century ago. Hence, a degree of subjectivity percolates into the work.

Unlike the scientists who can verify a theory for themselves through experiments, historians have to largely rely on secondary sources of information and hypotheses can never be conclusively proved. One can only state the most probable hypothesis. This can be done by:

  • Relying on sources such as first hand witnesses and relics.
  • Choosing those sources that are closer to the event to avoid distortions
  • Considering other possible ways of interpreting the same observations. If the chosen hypothesis explains the given set of observations the best, it can be adopted.
  • The hypothesis should not include any ad hoc assumptions about the past.

Although historical methods are not infallible and have their own limitations, a hypothesis that obeys the above criteria is more acceptable than the others.



  1. Asbridge, Thomas – The First Crusade: A New History – The roots of conflict between Christianity and Islam. OUP, 2004
  2. Runciman, Steven – A History of the Crusades – Volume I, the First Crusade and the Foundation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Penguin Books, 1951.
  3. Asbridge, Thomas – The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the war for the Holy Land. Harper Collins, 2010
  4. Tyerman, Christopher – God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, Harvard University Press, 2006
  5. Phillips, Jonathan – Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades, Random House, 2009
  6. Woolf, Daniel -The Oxford History of Historical Writing : 1800-1945


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