Hear the word ‘crusade’ and you think of Templars fighting Saracens in the Holy Land. Maybe a scene from the movie Kingdom of Heaven comes to mind. But at the start of the 13th century there were multiple crusades raging across Europe. And the Popes in Rome had intriguing ways of getting people to go and fight in them.
The Iberian Crusade against the Moors
Going from west to east, we start with possibly the longest lasting of the crusades. What is now Spain and Portugal – the Iberian Peninsula – was torn apart by a 700-year struggle for control between Christian crusader kingdoms and a Muslim caliphate to the south.
Between the years 711AD and 1492 – Muslim armies first surged across Spain and into France before being pushed back very slowly over seven centuries. At times, the Popes put the Iberian crusade on a par with the Holy Land. Especially as the crusaders enjoyed consistent success in Iberia while the Holy Land saw frequent setbacks. Though the Holy Land always remained the most important given the burning desire to control all the biblical sites such as Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
FIND OUT MORE: Muslim Spain in the Middle Ages
The Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars
Heading north east to the south of France and we meet the so-called Albigensian Crusade. This was a bitter and bloody conflict between the Roman Catholic church and a Christian heresy often referred to as ‘Cathar’. In the year 1208, Pope Innocent III – often regarded as the most powerful pope ever – gave the green light to a crusade against the Cathars.
So desperate was Pope Innocent to get crusaders to destroy the Cathars that he offered to wipe their sins entirely in return for just forty days military service in France. This meant that after death they would sail through purgatory to their heavenly reward. Heresy was regarded by the church as a horrific existential threat that destabilised the natural order of things – as well as threatening their earthly power.
FIND OUT MORE: Templar links to the Cathars
The Teutonic Knights crusade in the Baltics
Then zooming northwards, we find the Teutonic Knights in battle with the last pagans in Europe. Unless you come from that part of Europe, this has to be the least remembered crusades. But it took well into the fourteenth century for paganism to be completely wiped out by the knights.
The Fourth Crusade attacks Constantinople
Going south we arrive at the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, disgracefully ransacked and burned by crusaders during the Fourth Crusade of the year 1204. This was an unwarranted attack by Catholic knights from across Europe against a city where the eastern orthodox variant of Christianity prevailed.
Officially the papacy was scandalised by what the crusaders did. The blame was firmly placed on the Doge of Venice – Enrico Dandalo. He had financed the Fourth Crusade and wanted his money back. He also was keen on knocking out the Byzantines who had once been trading and maritime rivals but were in terminal decline. Looting Constantinople achieved those cynical aims.
DISCOVER: Islamic history and influence in Europe
And the Holy Land…
And finally – the Holy Land. The Crusade you all know. From the end of the 11th century and the seizure of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, there were two centuries of one crusade after another. This activity is roughly encompassed by the lifespan of the Knights Templar (1118 to 1307). Their demise coincided with crusaders being forced off the mainland and on to the island of Cyprus.