Holy Warriors—A Modern History of the Crusades

by Jonathan Phillips

Random House, New York | 2009

An essay by Jane M McCabe

holy warriors


Failing to understand the crucial role the Crusades played in the development of Western civilization, we often disparage them, citing them as the foremost example of violence wrought in the name of religion. This argument is used to explain our distrust of organized religion. We see the Crusades as the time when European knights marched to wrest the Holy Land back into Christian hands. Whereas this is true, a rich tradition of crusading is part of our history.

A little more background is perhaps in order:

Christians have been at war with Muslims since the 7th Century—for 13 centuries! Prior to Mohammed (570 – 632 AD), the Holy Land was inhabited primarily by Christians. (The Jews became scattered throughout the world after the Romans destroyed the Temple in 90 AD, the Second Diaspora.) Since Christians consider Jesus the Messiah God’s final Revelation, they have never known what to make of Mohammed, nor his Revelation as recorded in the Koran.

Christianity and Islam have seemingly irreconcilable doctrinal differences, mostly over the concept of the Trinity, which Muslims deny, yet their origin is the same: all three monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—call Abraham their father. Crusades and Jihad can be seen as opposite sides of the same coin. Each side refers to the other as “infidels,” or the unfaithful.

Jerusalem was among the first conquests (637 AD), as Muslim warriors swept through the Middle East and North Africa in the centuries following Mohammed’s death. By 711, they had entered Spain, controlling the Iberian Peninsula for the next 700 years before its “Reconquista” by Christians.

We refer to the 5th through the 13th Centuries as the Middle or Dark Ages. Before they were converted to Christianity, Europeans were a barbarous and superstitious lot, and Muslim Baghdad and Cordova, Spain, were the highest centers of learning in the world.

From the 11th through the 13th Centuries we have the Crusades. A great deal has been written about them, and while they were in progress, Christian and Muslim chroniclers wrote of them. With so many books already available, one might wonder, why another? Yet Random House chose this year to publish another book on the Crusades, Holy Warriors—A Modern History of the Crusades by Professor Jonathon Phillips, the Professor of Crusading History at Royal Holloway, University of London, and an author of three previous books, as well as a main contributor to the History Channel’s 2005 series, “The Crusades: the Crescent and the Cross.”

Usually a scholar chooses to write on a subject already widely written about either because new information has become available, or because he sees the topic in a new way that he feels will illuminate the past and make it more relevant to modern times. In Professor Phillips’ case, unlike accounts that end with expulsion of the Christians from the Holy Land in 1291, Holy Warriors reexamines the conflict from its origins, through its expansion, decline and disappearance. Beyond the 15th Century, Phillips also discusses how the term “crusade” survived into the modern era and how its redefinition through romantic literature and the drive for colonial empires during the 19th Century gave it an energy and resonance that persists down to the alliance between Franco and the Catholic Church during the Spanish Civil War, right up to George W. Bush’s pious “war on terror,” thus making crusading relevant to our own times.

Nine hundred years ago, Pope Urban II triggered the First Crusade. On November 27, 1095, he urged the knights of France to regain Jerusalem from Muslim hands in return for spiritual rewards. “He told them, hugely exaggerating the truth, that a grave report had come from Jerusalem and that a race alien to God had invaded the land and had committed atrocities, so they must rescue it, to which the people shouted in unison, ‘Deus vult. Deus vult!’ ‘God wills it. God wills it!’”

On July 15th, 1099, four years later, crusaders stormed the walls and put its defenders to the sword to reclaim Christ’s city from Islam, one of the biggest bloodbaths in recorded history.

Thus began 300 years of crusading. There was not just one crusade; there were seven or eight or nine. Jerusalem was ruled by Christians until 1187 until the great Islamic leader Saladin, reclaimed Jerusalem following the terrible Battle of Hattin. Though it was briefly reclaimed by Frederick II, in 1229, for most of the next 600 years the Holy Land remained in Muslim hands until 1948, when the Jews drove the Arabs from Palestine and established the state of Israel. On May 29, 1453, Constantinople (founded by Constantine, in 325), the “queen of cities,” and seat of the Byzantine Empire, was captured by Muslims and renamed Istanbul. It has been a Muslim city ever since. This is one of history’s watershed dates.

In 1492, another important watershed date, (the same year that Columbus sailed for the new world under Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand), the Moors were expelled from Granada, completing the Reconquista. Spain has remained Christian ever since. And so the map of the world remained drawn between Christian and Muslim lands for the next 500 years, until modern times when hostilities have been revived.


Faith lies at the heart of “holy war.” “From a modern-day western perspective, extreme religious fervor is often synonymous with the fanaticism of minorities, but in the Europe of the central Middle Ages crusading was regarded as virtuous and positive, points out professor Phillips.” By the 13th Century, it was a badge of honor to have ancestors who had taken part in the early Crusades. Positively, crusading was instrumental in establishing our code of chivalry—bravery, honor, loyalty and self-sacrifice-- negatively, it led to the horrors of the Inquisition. Crusading history contains stories of heroism and feats of courage displayed on both sides.

The propaganda promoting the 1st Crusade used highly inflammatory images to provoke moral outrage. There had been no systematic persecution of Christians by Muslims in the Holy Land—Urban and his circle of advisors constructed a case whereby violence was justified against Muslims for the atrocities they allegedly had committed. The war between Christians and Muslims has thus always been fueled by misconceptions.

In truth, Emperor Alexius of Constantinople, the ruler of the Byzantine Empire, had sent envoys to the Pope appealing for help in the struggle against the Muslims of Asia Minor. In the autumn of 1096, the main crusading armies set out on the 3,000-mile journey from northern Europe to Jerusalem. Sixty thousand people took part in the expedition. Members of the senior nobility provided its leadership—Godfrey of Bouillon, Baldwin of Boulogne, Count Stephen of Blois, Count Raymond of Saint-Gilles, and Bohemond of Taranto.

The crusaders stay in Constantinople was fraught with tensions, as there was a massive philosophical gulf between the native Greeks and the crusaders. Anna Comnena describes the Byzantines’ dismay toward the rough-hewn crusaders in “The Alexiad,” her account of her father’s life, the Emporer Alexis. Alexis hurried his fellow Christian crusaders across the Bosporus as quickly as possible.

On June 7, 1099, the crusaders reached Jerusalem, and unleashing a savagery and slaughter on an appalling scale, captured the city. The horror of this event has left an indelible stain on Muslim/Christian relations down through the centuries. Following the Battle of Ascalon, for the first time in 462 years the Holy Land was in Christian hands. Sad to say that in three hundred years of crusading, the first battle fought was the most successful.

The Franks set up four states in the Levant—the Kingdom of Jerusalem, county of Tripoli, principality of Antioch, and the county of Edessa. The history of the 88 years that Jerusalem was held by Christians is rich in lore—from the pious Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, who led the sack of Jerusalem only to refuse the title of King, to Queen Melisende, one of history’s little known female monarchs, who continued to rule Jerusalem despite her male son’s claim to throne, and to the four Baldwin’s, who ruled down to Baldwin IV, the Leper King.

The first comingling of Christians and Muslims is of note, as a number of Christian crusaders settled in the Holy Land and made it their home. Muslim historians write of the Muslim disdain for Christians. They considered them uncivilized and thought themselves to be culturally superior.

Jihad was a part of Islamic faith from its foundation, but it took decades for it to inspire Muslims to cohere in sufficient numbers to expel the Christians. Finally, “one al-Sulami spoke from the carved pulpit (minbar) in the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and used a Hadith to remind people that holy war was the duty of all Muslims. Echoing Urban’s appeal, he spoke: ‘May God hasten your waking up from the sleep of neglect.’”

The Battle of Hattin, mentioned above, provoked Pope Eugenius III and Bernard of Clairvaux to call for the 2nd Crusade (1189-92), a call to arms, to which the King of England, Richard the Lion-hearted, responded. The relationship between Richard and Saladin has been often written of, as both leaders were admirable, instilling respect for one another.

The Siege of Acre, which went on for several years before the Christians, under Richard’s heroic leadership, were able to hold onto their bit of territory left in the Middle East, is a story unto itself.

The crusaders who rallied themselves to partake in the 4th Crusade never made it to the Holy Land, but instead sacked Constantinople, in 1204, under the leadership of the aged and blind Doge Dandolo of Venice, another choice bit of crusading history.

The horror of the 5th Crusade, in which Crusaders never even left Europe, was the phenomenon that occurred when a more liberal element within a society turned against the more puritanical with a revenge—in this case, it was the traditional Catholics who turned against the Cathars, a Christian sect that opposed the economic boon brought by urban expansion and advocated a life of apostolic poverty and a return to a more simple life-style.

“These men and—crucially—women, renounced all property, vowed never to kill any human or warm-blooded beast, to consume no products of sexual intercourse such as meat, cheese, eggs, or milk, to tell no lies, and abstain completely from sex, which was the means of physical procreation and intrinsically evil…They rejected the Old Testament, the Eucharist, baptism, and only took the consolamentum—thus obtaining salvation—as they neared death.”

The reaction of the medieval church, which felt threatened, was harsh. They set out to eradicate this “heresy” in what is known as the Albigensian Crusade. We have an echo of this phenomenon in modern times, in the contempt that liberal society has for peoples of a fundamentalist persuasion

There were more crusades to follow, as crusading had evolved into warring against any people who had not accepted Christianity or who were perceived to pervert its creeds.

Frederick II of Germany, referred to as “Stupor Mundi,” the wonder of the world, briefly recovered Jerusalem in 1229. Having spent his childhood in southern Italy, where Muslim and Christian influences comingled, he spoke Arabic and was criticized for being sympathetic to Islam.

Then there was King Louis IX of France, a pious individual who dedicated his life to crusading. And yet I’ve said nothing about the Templars, the knightly order that came to the Holy Land and built stupendous castles, only to be brought to trial, accused of heresy and debauchery, and outlawed in the early 14th Century.

The 15th Century saw the sack of Constantinople in 1453, another heart wrenching story, and at the century’s end, the final blow to the Muslim control of Spain, when the Moors were expelled by Isabella and Ferdinand.

The reader by now must surmise that reading a comprehensive history of the crusades is an awesome enterprise. If one were to read only one history of this period, Jonathan Phillips’ Holy Warriors is good choice, as Dr. Phillips writes with the kind of clarity and zest that makes reading history a pleasure


Crusading is part of our heritage. The third definition for “crusade” in my American Heritage Dictionary is “a vigorous concerted movement for a cause or against an abuse.” We see many such crusades in modern times.

Jane M McCabe is a freelance writer and former teacher living in Amargosa Valley, NV.

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