Pope (1088-1099), who can be considered as the initiator of the crusade movement through his promulgation of the expedition that came to be known as the First Crusade (1096-1099).
Originally named Odo of Châtillon, the future pope was born in the diocese of Soissons around the year 1035, a member of the aristocracy of Champagne. Odo was educated at the cathedral school of Rheims and became a canon and eventually archdeacon at Rheims. In 1067/1070 he entered the monastery of Cluny, where he became prior under Abbot Hugh. In about 1080 Pope Gregory VII appointed Odo as cardinal bishop of Ostia, a signal honor that indicates the great esteem in which he was by then held in the church. During the crisis of Gregory’s last years, he entrusted Odo with a legatine mission to Germany, where he shored up support for the reformed papacy in the south. After the death of Gregory’s successor, Victor III (September 1087), the papacy seemed in greater distress than ever, with Rome firmly in the hands of the imperialist antipope, Clement III (Guibert, archbishop of Ravenna). Odo was elected pope at Terracina south of Rome on 12 March 1088, choosing the papal name Urban; this was most likely out of veneration for his distant predecessor Urban I (222-230), familiar to him on the basis of decretals forged under his name in the ninth-century canonical collection known as the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, but the name could also be understood as an indication that he considered himself the bishop of the Eternal City.
The arrival of Pope Urban II in France, from the Roman de Godefroi de Bouillon, 1337. (Giraudon/Art Resource)
Urban’s beginnings were very difficult indeed. He could not enter Rome until 1093, after Clement III had withdrawn to the north of Italy. The situation in southern Italy, where Norman princes struggled against each other, the Byzantines, and non-Normans, was politically and ecclesiastically confused. The issue of whether bishops and churches were to follow Greek or Latin rites was nearly insoluble, and the experiences gained in that struggle as well as during the Reconquista (the reconquest of Iberia from the Muslims) probably formed the background to one of his later rulings regarding the Holy Land. As reported by Paschal II at the Council of Benevento (1113), in response to an appeal regarding the archbishopric of Tyre, Urban II determined at the Council of Clermont that ecclesiastical and political boundaries in Outremer should coincide, a decision that Paschal upheld.
Even during the early years of his pontificate, Urban never hesitated in his efforts to reform the church and elevate the Christian morals of both clergy and laity, particularly of the former, enjoining celibacy, ensuring canonical elections to church offices, prohibiting simony in connection with ordinations, and excluding lay influence in general from matters ecclesiastical. He convened three major councils while in southern Italy: Melfi (1089), Benevento (1091), and Troia (1093). The canons (decisions) of these councils were included in contemporary canonical collections and thus preserved. A decree from Melfi prohibited lay investiture of bishops and abbots. Like the letters and privileges of the pontiff, many of his conciliar and juridical decisions were of fundamental importance for the burgeoning new religious movements, foremost among them eremitical foundations and the canons regular. It is no exaggeration to state that it was Urban II who rescued the eleventh-century church reform and endowed the measures of Gregory VII with permanent validity. Urban’s successes were also in part a result of administrative changes at the Curia, in particular the reorganization of papal finances under a chamberlain on the pattern established at Cluny. He secured support from Roman churches by further expanding the college of cardinals and granting all ranks of cardinals participation in the government of the church.
Urban’s return to Rome in late 1093 marked the second phase of his pontificate, a rebuilding of papal authority throughout the Latin Church. Even with the invaluable assistance in the north of Countess Matilda of Tuscany and her troops, who defended Urban against Emperor Henry IV, and in the south of the Normans, Urban was never able to defeat Clement III, who had withdrawn to his archbishopric of Ravenna, but he proved himself a master of diplomacy. Willing to grant concessions and dispensations, he managed to secure the recognition of his pontificate in France and Spain as well as in England, ecclesiastically isolating the German monarchy. Since Henry IV refused to renounce the traditional right of investiture and to abandon Clement III, no compromise was possible there. Urban II even expanded the prohibition of lay investiture to a prohibition of fealty or homage by clerics to laymen. He gained the unstinting support of Count Roger I of Sicily, whom he granted special privileges regarding legations (1098), in a document that was to become the basis of the Sicilian monarchy. He carefully avoided a complete rupture with King Philip I of France despite that king’s marital problems. In Spain Urban furthered the Reconquista and reorganized the church by establishing Bernard, the Cluniac archbishop of Toledo, as primate and settling quarrels over episcopal ranking among old and newly Christian towns. In 1095 he granted a solemn papal privilege to King Peter I of Aragon.
Urban’s journey to France in 1095-1096 along an itinerary that touched many important regions, though not the area under the authority of Philip I, could be described as a triumphal return to his homeland. Beginning with the Council of Piacenza in northern Italy (March 1095), the journey was punctuated by several important councils, which Urban used to publicize reforming legislation and to give pastoral encouragement, as well as to settle disputes: Clermont (1095), and Tours and Nîmes (1096). His later councils at the Lateran in Rome (1097), Bari (1098), and St. Peter’s in Rome (1099) continued the traditions established since the beginning of his pontificate and probably repromulgated and expanded the legislation best known from the councils of Piacenza and Clermont. The Council of Bari was one of his largest councils, but no decrees issued there have survived. However, it is known as a forum for the exchange of views held by the Latin and the Greek church; Anselm of Canterbury, who was in exile at the time, gave an address defending the Latin tradition of the double procession of the Holy Spirit, that is, the belief that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father “and from the Son” (Lat. filioque).
Urban’s most famous council is that of Clermont in Auvergne (18-28 November 1095). It is forever associated with the crusades because two of its recorded regulations became the juristic foundation of the crusading movement. Urban announced a remission of all penance for all those who went to Jerusalem for the sake of liberating the church without any desire for personal gain. He placed the goods and property of all who participated under the protection of the Peace and Truce of God, that is, he protected them from any kind of seizure or infringement until the owners had returned from the East. As a third component, he issued a call to arms in a public speech at the conclusion of the council. The immediate motivation was an appeal to Urban as the leader of the Latin West by emissaries of Alexios I Kom- nenos, the Byzantine emperor, for military aid against the Turks, an appeal that arrived prior to the Council of Piacenza in March 1095. But Urban’s request at Clermont was not formulated as a response to the emperor’s appeal. He asked for aid for the Christian churches in the East and mentioned Jerusalem, but geography made an alliance between Alexios and Urban II a precondition of the crusade, and Constantinople the only possible point of departure for an army on the way to the Holy Land. Thus, assisting Constantinople and assisting the Eastern Christians and Jerusalem must be seen as a single objective.
The reconquests of Spain and southern Italy (especially Sicily) were examples that certainly must have come to mind. At Clermont Urban is not known to have mentioned Byzantium or the rapprochement between Latin and Greek Christians, but it is conceivable that he may have hoped to create better conditions for future negotiations. Urban’s appeal brought forth an immediate response from those assembled to hear it and rapidly gained adherents throughout the West. Adhemar of Monteil, bishop of Le Puy, was appointed as leader of the expedition on 27 November, and its departure was fixed for August 1096, after the harvest.
Chroniclers tell unanimously of crosses worn by those who were to participate.
After Clermont, Urban continued to drum up support for the crusade through his travels and letters. During the winter of 1098-1099, he appointed Daibert, archbishop of Pisa, as legate for the new territories that the crusaders had conquered. However, Urban’s death on 29 July 1099 at Rome meant that he did not hear of the culmination of the expedition he had proclaimed, the capture of Jerusalem on 15 July 1099.