The crusades were a miraculous combined effort of multiple Christian nations throughout Europe to unify and take back the Holy Land from their Muslim adversaries. A spectacular feat, given how much Europe’s nations were usually at war with each other, the crusades should, in theory, have been a mighty display of passion and strength. Yet, somehow, the crusades failed.
Why, and how, did this happen?
The First Crusade began in 1095 and didn’t end until 1102 in reaction to the rise of the Muslim Seljuk Turks. By this point, after the Great Schism of 1054, the Christian world had already been divided between the Catholic Romans and the Orthodox Byzantines, but with the growing Seljuks beginning to encroach upon Byzantium, Emperor AlexiosI Komnenos was forced to ask Pope Urban II for help in protecting their Christian lands. By 1087,
the Turks had already taken the integral Orthodox cities of Antioch and Jerusalem, prompting the Pope to call for the first crusade on November 27, 1095, during the Council of Clermont. After roughly a year of drumming up support by convincing any and all Christians that by “taking the cross” and joining the crusade they could be cleansed of their sins and rewarded greatly, Pope Urban managed to send around 60,000 Christian fighters to aid the Byzantines.
As these crusaders had been gathering, the Seljuk Turks had been locked in a back-and-forth clash with the Muslim Fatimid Caliphate from Egypt, who eventually seized Jerusalem just months prior to the Christians’ arrival. Despite the crusading forces being vastly made up of peasants, not knights as Emperor Alexios had requested, the First Crusade was a success. Both Antioch and Jerusalem were recaptured, along with other territories gained, and five new Christian states were then established throughout the region…
But alas, this remarkable triumph on its own was not enough to satisfy the Christian world. A second crusade was launched in 1147 and lasted roughly two years. The problem with this crusade was that it technically had a goal of taking back the city of Edessa from, yet again, the Seljuk Turks, but when Pope Eugenius III called for the campaign to be launched in 1145,
he was extensively vague and advertised the goal as more of a call to protect holy lands and relics in the Levant, without specifically naming Edessa. Consequently, there was some confusion on the battlefield as to what should be the primary aim of the crusaders, which ultimately resulted in an embarrassing failure. While some efforts in Iberia and the Baltics did prove successful, the overall outcome of the Second Crusade was severely negative. Infighting between the western and eastern crusaders, along with poor planning and strategy, sabotaged the Christian efforts and allowed the Muslim enemies to remain in control.
T is a disappointment would soon trigger the next campaign… The Third Crusade began in 1189 and was focused once more on retaking the holy city of Jerusalem, which had now been captured by the infamous Muslim Ayyubid ruler, Saladin. This time, some early victories, such as the seizure of Acre, would appear to predict a redemption for the failure of the Second Crusade. When Pope Gregory VIII called for the third such campaign,
It was determined by the Christian world that success was a necessity and nothing less than the positive results of the First Crusade would suffice. Nonetheless, by the end of the two-year campaign, only one of the original three kings to take up the cross had survived, and his army had been disastrously weakened by the last months of battle. Upon reaching the edge of Jerusalem, the last king, Richard I of England, realized that he would stand no chance against any amount of counterattack from Saladin’s army, and chose not to follow through with a siege on the city.Completely contrary to what the crusaders had hoped for, the Third Crusade was the most demoralizing campaign yet…
Until, the Fourth Crusade. When Pope Innocent III called for yet another crusade to begin in 1202, his sights were still set on retaking Jerusalem.
This was, in fact, the initial goal of the crusaders, but in an absolutely bewildering and disturbing twist, the real target became none other than Constantinople. The West had long been suspicious of the East, and vice versa, but this would not even be the only problem to wreak havoc on the Fourth Crusade.
The first sign of trouble came when the crusaders were preparing to sail from Venice to their first target – Egypt. Before the crusaders could leave, the Venetians required the former to come to a deal since they were unable to afford the expensive cost of the Venetian ships.
As part of this agreement, the crusaders had to make a detour to the Christian city of Zara, which had recently fallen into Hungarian hands, in order to reconquer it for the Italians. When word reached the Pope of this change in plans, he was outraged at the actions of both the Crusaders and Venetians and excommunicated every Venetian and crusader who participated in the attack on Zara. The reason why attention now turned to Constantinople is widely debated by historians, but in some startling turn of events, the crusaders marched on the Byzantine capital.
The invaders first attempted to replace the current emperor with one who favored the West, but they quickly realized that their intended candidate was not, in fact, a supporter of theirs. This led a completely different usurper, Alexios V Doukas, to seize the throne instead, and push the crusaders to use military might instead of further negotiation. An initial attack on April 9, 1204, was repelled by the Byzantines, but the crusaders broke through 3 days later.
The latter then massacred and raped thousands upon thousands of Byzantine defenders and innocent civilians, destroying property on their way, including Christian churches. The crusaders finally finished their raiding after a few days, and a treaty was signed that gave the Venetians three-eighths of the Byzantine Empire, and a Latin emperor was placed on the throne.
The Byzantines would never fully recover, and the Fourth Crusade showed the world that the real reason behind these campaigns was not quite as noble as had been portrayed… And yet, somehow, Pope Innocent managed to convince himself and others that another crusade was a good idea.
So, in 1217, the Fifth Crusade would begin; this time with the intention of capturing Jerusalem by first weakening the Muslim forces through incursions in North Africa and particularly Egypt, which was under Ayyubid control. Predictably by this point, the crusaders were simply unprepared, ill-equipped, and unorganized. Another failure came and Jerusalem was still in Muslim hands… The Christians, albeit an utter mess when it came to any crusade campaigns after the first, were surely determined. Now, in 1228, a sixth such operation was launched, and this time had at least one reliable leader
Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.
Though the monarch had been excommunicated at the start of the Sixth Crusade due to a repetitive delay of making good on his promise to join the holy campaign, Frederick would become the savior of this endeavor. Finally, in 1229, the emperor and his army marched to Jaffa where military action was put on a pause. With the Muslim sultan facing internal threats at the same time,
he opted to enter into peace negotiations with Frederick. The opposing leaders ultimately signed the Treaty of Jaffa, which gave the Christians full freedom to occupy Jerusalem once again, all except for the Temple area. This, along with other possessions received from the agreement, resulted in a remarkable success after the previously calamitous crusades. But, unfortunately, the crusaders knew not when to stop…
As had been the case many times over, Jerusalem was once more stripped from the Christians by Muslim forces. So, as they neared the mid-13th century, Pope Innocent IV called for the Seventh Crusade. This one was led by the French King LouisIX who intended to not only retake Jerusalem but to capture the whole of Egypt as well. Initially, this crusade also began with success, and the Christians took Damietta fairly effortlessly.
But, as history repeats itself, this was where the success ended. The crusaders were routed at Mansourah, ending in the capture of King Louis and the surrender of the minuscule remainder of his army. Damietta was also returned to the Muslims. Once the French king was released from enemy captivity, he would remain in the Levant and eventually begin another campaign The Eighth Crusade was scarcely even a crusade.
Organized by King Louis as before, the goals remained roughly the same as those from the Seventh Crusade. The plan was to attack a weak point in North Africa as before, this time focusing on Tunis. As the bulk of the crusader army set up camp in Carthage, a wave of disease washed over them, bringing even the king himself down with dysentery. Though Louis had suffered from dysentery previously as well, this time, he was unable to recover and passed away on August 25, 1270.
Charles of Anjou would take Louis’s place as head of the crusade, which drastically changed the campaign’s trajectory, as Charles decided to make a deal with the Emir of Tunis that allowed some privileges for Christians in the city and freed some prisoners, but gave no new territory to the crusaders. Still, this was enough for Charles, and he then called off the crusade… In one final push to redeem the crusader’s name after the previous failures and surrender, Lord Edward of England attempted to launch the Ninth Crusade.
This last-ditch effort was only minimally triumphant from the start, as the crusader spirit was nearly non-existent by this point and only limited forces stayed loyal to the cause with Edward. After some minor victories, Edward and his men reached a truce with their Muslim rivals in 1272 and returned home shortly after Still, the Christians lacked Jerusalem…
So, the answer to why the crusades failed comes down to the sum of why each of the failed campaigns had such disastrous results. Mostly, the outcome was a consequence of poor planning, disorganization and infighting, and ill-equipped forces.
The crusaders, to be fair, were often just a quickly thrown-together team of devout Christians. While some high-ranking generals and monarchs join the cause, it would nevertheless fall short of being enough. And frankly, the biggest reason why the crusade failed is easy to spot as the cause of each individual failure along the way.