Bernard of Clairvaux

The “theologian of love” who preached war

Bernard, the son of a crusader, was a model monk. While young, he fasted so much he damaged his health, causing lifelong digestive problems. He reportedly studied the Bible and worshiped more than half of each day. He said Christ came to him in visions.

His spiritual intensity made for penetrating sermons, letters, and hymns. His essay “On Loving God” is one of Christian literature’s most eloquent on the subject. In it, Bernard writes, “God himself is the reason why He is to be loved.”

This same Bernard, in 1128, convinced church leaders to recognize a new order: fighting friars known as Templars. Though they took vows of poverty and chastity, these military monks were allowed to kill. They defended the pilgrim roads in Palestine.

Bernard was a powerful preacher, perhaps the greatest of his time. At times, he could be blunt. To the pope he wrote, “You have been entrusted with stewardship over the world, not given possession of it.” To crusaders fighting the pagan Wends in Germany, he insisted on no truce until “either their religion or nation shall be wiped out.”

Pope Eugene III, a former student of Bernard, enlisted his mentor to rally the people behind the Second Crusade. In his sermons and promotional letters, Bernard declared, “God arranges for himself to be in need, or he pretends to be, so that he can award to those fighting for him wages: the remission of their sins. … Take the sign of the cross. … If the cloth itself is sold it does not fetch much; if it is worn on a faithful shoulder, it is certain to be worth the kingdom of God.”

Response to his 1146 Easter sermon was so enthusiastic, he ran out of cloth crosses to pass out. So he tore pieces from his own habit to stitch on the shirts of would-be crusaders.

Though the promotion was a huge success, producing as many as 50,000 volunteers from France alone, the Second Crusade ended in embarrassing retreat. Bernard’s popularity took a dive, and for the remaining four years of his life, people criticized him.

With unyielding confidence he replied, “How can human beings be so rash as to dare to pass judgment on something that they are not in the least able to understand?”

Richard the Lion-Heart

Courageous commander

King Richard I of England deserved his nickname.

During the Third Crusade, while 70 miles from Jaffa, he heard that the city had fallen to Muslims and that the last defenders were surrounded. He immediately started his troops on the march while he sailed ahead. From Jaffa’s harbor, he saw Muslim flags flying in the city. A priest jumped from the fortress walls into the ocean and swam to the ship, telling Richard that Christians were negotiating a surrender.

Richard unstrapped his leg armor and waded ashore. Behind him were no more than fifty knights and a few hundred archers and sailors. His advance stirred the defenders in the fortress to charge, and the Muslims were run out of town.

Richard’s crusading career began ten months after he was crowned at age 32. Recovering Jerusalem was his top priority. He made his way to the Holy Land with no more than 800 mounted soldiers. They were, however, well financed: Richard had collected an unpopular tithe of all income, arm-twisted acquaintances for donations, and even sold political offices.

An accomplished military strategist and skilled politician, Richard was also hotheaded and sometimes irresponsible. He arrived in the Holy Land in June 1191, in time to join the siege of Acre. Muslim defenders surrendered a month later. While negotiations for the release of captives were underway, Richard suspected bad faith on the part of the Muslims. In a rage, he ordered the immediate massacre of 2,700 Muslim hostages.

A month later, Richard headed south and began fortifying cities to make an assault on Jerusalem. Twice he managed to get within 12 miles of the Holy City, but his supply lines and forces proved too weak.

After sixteen months in Palestine, Richard heard his brother was plotting a takeover and that France was amassing troops for an attack. Before he left, he made a treaty with Muslim general Saladin that gave crusaders the Smile stretch of coastline from Tyre to Jaffa. Christians also were accorded safe passage throughout Palestine, permitting them to visit holy shrines.

Richard was 41 when, in a minor battle in northern France, he was killed by a lone arrow.

(c. 1138–1193)

Chivalrous Muslim general

Balian, a soldier in Christian forces just defeated by the Muslims, asked Saladin for one favor. Could he travel safely to and from Jerusalem to get his family out before the Muslims attacked the city? Saladin granted the request; he asked only that Balian not stay to fight.

When Balian reached Jerusalem, however, the city’s few defenders wanted him to command the garrison. Embarrassed, he asked Saladin for release from his vow. Saladin understood and also gave Balian’s family safe passage to the coast.

Such incidents have built the chivalrous reputation of the brilliant and sometimes brutal Saladin.

A Muslim Kurd from northern Iraq, Saladin was raised in a prominent family. At 14 he joined his uncle’s military staff and at 31 followed him to Egypt, where his uncle became vizier (a high officer). When his uncle died two months later, Saladin succeeded him. He then defeated competing Muslim leaders and started a dynasty that restored Egypt as the major Muslim power in the Middle East.

Saladin declared a jihad against the Christians. In July 1187, in mountains overlooking the Sea of Galilee, he won the bloody and critical Battle of Hattin. Thousands of Christians were killed during the battle, and hundreds slaughtered afterwards. Then Saladin swept through Palestine, taking Jerusalem and capturing more than fifty crusader castles in two years. When he was done, he had pushed the Christians back to three coastal cities.

In Richard the Lion-Heart, Saladin found a worthy military opponent, who thwarted his Muslim armies time and again. Saladin found Richard “pleasant, upright, magnanimous, and excellent.” Once when Richard contracted a serious fever, Saladin sent him peaches and pears, along with ice from the top of Mount Hermon 100 miles away. Eventually stalemated, Richard reluctantly agreed to a three-year truce.

Islam’s most famous military hero left an empire stretching some l,200 miles north to south, covering parts of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey. Saladin died at 55, weary of perpetual war. Generous throughout his life, he did not have enough money left to pay for a grave.

Innocent III
(c. 1160–1216)

Mightiest of popes

The prestige and power of the medieval papacy were never more obvious than during Innocent’s reign, which began in 1198. He argued that his position was semidivine—“set in the midst between God and man, below God but above man.” He was the first to call himself “Vicar of Christ.”

Innocent exercised what he believed was his right to select the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (which took in Germany and much of Italy). When the emperor he had chosen, Otto IV, made plans hostile to the pope, he soon found himself excommunicated, and eventually, ex-emperor.

Innocent longed to recapture the Holy Land. To make crusading easier for pilgrims and knights, he taxed ministers, collecting one-tenth of all revenues from clergy in Rome, and one-fortieth from outlying clergy. As a result, crusading was continuous during his l8-year papacy.

He repeatedly tried to convert the Albigensians of southern France from their dualist heresy. He even sent his personal representative as a missionary. When this legate was murdered, Innocent launched a crusade against the Albigensians, the first against heretics. Innocent tried to reduce the carnage, but the crusade produced horrifying massacres.

Innocent also longed to reunite the Western and Eastern churches under his papacy. But the disastrous Fourth Crusade ended that dream.

These crusaders never even made it into Muslim territory. Instead, in spite of Innocent’s threats of excommunication, soldiers captured and plundered Constantinople, the capital of Eastern Christianity, and divided the empire of the Eastern church. This bizarre turn of events shocked the world.

Innocent was planning what he hoped would be a more successful Fifth Crusade when he died from one of his frequent bouts with fever, likely caused by malaria.

A year before his death, he convened the Fourth Lateran Council, which enacted lasting decrees: that every Catholic make confession at least annually, and that the bread and wine of Communion are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ.

St. Louis

The ultimate Christian king

When Louis IX fell seriously ill with malaria in 1244, he vowed if he got well he would join the holy war. He recovered and did what men of nearly every generation in his family had done since the First Crusade 150 years earlier—he led crusades.

Born the fourth of eleven children to King Louis VIII and Queen Blanche, he became heir to the throne after his three older siblings died. At age 12, prepubescent Louis found himself king, with a devout but smothering mother at his side.

Louis lived his faith: He wore hair shirts and visited hospitals, sometimes emptying the bedpans. He collected relics and built a chapel to house them.

At 20 he married Margaret, to whom he quickly became devoted. She bore him 11 children. When he left on a crusade, he took his wife and children along.

In 1248, with 36 ships loaded with 15,000 men, their horses, and supplies, Louis headed for Egypt, the center of Muslim power and the doorway to Jerusalem. After capturing Damietta, he led his army inland toward Cairo. But an epidemic forced Louis to retreat. The king suffered so badly from dysentery that he cut a hole in the back of his pants and marched with the rear guard.

Louis and part of the army were captured before making it back to the ships. Their ransom was so high, it reportedly took two days to count the gold. When one of Louis’s officials bragged about cheating the Muslims, the king angrily ordered the ransom paid in full.

The defeat plunged him into despair and deeper piety. He blamed himself for the loss, believing God was punishing him for his sins. He began dressing plainly, eating simply, and helping the poor.

Instead of going home, Louis took his army to Palestine, where they built walls and towers around several coastal cities. He stayed four years, returning to France only upon hearing of the death of his mother, who had been ruling in his absence.

Twenty-two years later, Louis tried to redeem himself with another crusade. He landed in Tunis, in northern Africa, in the heat of the summer of 1270. Dysentery or typhoid quickly swept through the unsanitary camp. Louis fell ill and died while lying penitently on a bed of ashes, whispering the name of the city he never won: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.”

He soon became the only king of France named a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

Peter the Hermit
(c. 1050–1115)

Fiery recruiter

Two years before Pope Urban II called for a crusade, Peter made a pilgrimage to the Muslim-controlled Holy Land. There, he later said, he saw Christians chained, beaten, and killed. When he returned to France, he became an eloquent promoter of armed pilgrimage.

During some services, when he had exhausted his words and was overcome with emotion, he reportedly waved his crucifix before the sobbing masses. He attracted at least 20,000 followers—mostly peasant men, women, and children—in what became the first wave of the first Crusade.

This ragtag “army,” mockingly known as the Peasants’ Crusade, set out on the 2,000-mile walk in March 1096, five months before the official starting date set by the pope. The effect was electric. Whatever Peter did or said, wrote one medieval chronicler, “was regarded as little short of divine, to such an extent that hairs were snatched from his mule as relics.” One witness said Peter looked very much like the donkey he rode: his long face was framed in the hood of a dirty old robe made of coarse wool, tied at the waist by a rope.

As the army marched across Germany and south toward the Holy Land, Peter began losing control. The army forced the mostly Jewish community of Regensburg to undergo baptism. When they crossed into modern-day Hungary, Peter’s band began pillaging cities and countryside—all of which was under the jurisdiction of Greek Christians.

After crossing into Asia Minor, the army moved only 50 miles into Muslim territory before it was wiped out. “Their monument,” a chronicler wrote, “was a heap of bones.”

Peter, who happened to be in Constantinople seeking supplies, then joined the army of Godfrey of Bouillon in the second wave that eventually reached Jerusalem. Though an ascetic used to deprivation, Peter deserted the crusade during the siege of Antioch when food got scarce. This caused a scandal; one of the military commanders brought him back forcibly and made him vow not to leave again.

Shortly before the storming of Jerusalem, Peter stood on the Mount of Olives, a few hundred yards outside the city walls, and preached a stirring sermon. As Muslims jeered, he said, “You hear them? You hear their threats and blasphemies? Christ dies again on Calvary!”

The next year, Peter returned to Europe and started a monastery in Belgium, where he died eleven years later.

Stephen M. Miller is editor of Illustrated Bible Life.