Post-classical history



As dawn broke on Friday, October 13, 1307, royal officials smashed their way into Templar priories and commanderies across France and arrested hundreds of knights.1 The men were accused of a series of profane reception rituals that included: the denial of Christ’s divinity, saying that he was a false prophet; spitting on the cross; kissing the officiating knight on the mouth, navel, and genitals; worshipping false idols; and engaging in further homosexual acts.2 This was a very contentious move on the part of the French crown because the Templars were the most feared and formidable warriors in Christendom; in modern terms it would be comparable to a claim that the U.S. Marines were disloyal to the American government and then, within years, disbanding them.

The crackdown was sudden and largely unexpected. The decision to persecute the Templars can, in part, be explained by the personality of their chief adversary, King Philip IV “the Fair” (a reference to his good looks, rather than his character) of France (1285–1316). Philip was an austere man of high moral tone and it is possible that he saw some truth in the allegations and felt justified in moving to end the pollution of a religious order. Yet other, less lofty, ideals were in evidence too: expensive wars against England and Flanders meant that Philip owed the Templars massive sums of money and the need to repair his ailing finances was strongly rumored to underlie his actions. Recent events had rendered the order strangely susceptible to these accusations and to leap from the Templars’ arrest to their complete destruction in only five years demonstrates peculiar vulnerability in a group hailed by many as the bravest of the brave. One trivial indication of the Templars’ customary standing was their central role in Parzival, the popular story of the Holy Grail, composed in the first decade of the thirteenth century: who, other than the Templars, were fit to be the guardians of this most sacred object? Yet there had been complaints about the Templars’ wealth, and sometimes their greed, for decades. Churchmen, in particular, grumbled about their substantial landholdings in western Europe (over nine thousand properties) and resented their exemptions from ecclesiastical taxes. Such corporate riches were a long, long way from the simple and rigorous path of founding father Hugh of Payns and his eight companions back in 1120, but this stupendous accumulation of property reflected their long-lasting popularity among lay donors, grateful for the Templars’ protection during pilgrimages and their efforts in fighting the Muslims. In any case, these vast resources were vital because of the phenomenal cost of developing and holding spectacular castles such as Krak des Chevaliers. By 1307, however, the Templars’ prime problem was one of perception. With the expulsion of the Christians from Acre in 1291 many felt that the order had failed in its primary task, the defense of the Holy Land, and for this reason it became far more open to criticism than before. The Templar master, James of Molay, had a rather different perspective: to him, the Holy Land fell because of the indifference of western Europe and it was in an attempt to gather new crusading armies that he happened—fatefully for him—to be in France during late 1307.

Long before 1291 there had been discussions about a merger between the Templars and the other great Military Order, the Hospitallers. The latter’s medical vocation gave them an additional and important raison d’être, and it was intimated that the united order would follow a rule closer to the Hospitallers’ charitable way of life with less of the Templars’ more militaristic focus. James vociferously opposed the plan because he feared his organization would be absorbed into the Hospitallers and, more seriously, that the new entity would come under the dominance of one of the scheme’s most enthusiastic advocates, Philip of France.3 Crucially—and again, an issue of circumstance—one prime source of protection for any religious order was particularly feeble at this time: the frail Pope Clement V (1305–14) was based in Poitiers rather than Rome and there were times when he seems to have been bullied by the same French churchmen responsible for his election to the papal crown.4

Once Philip had the order in his sights he moved extremely fast: Templar property was seized and the crown initiated a vicious and wide-ranging propaganda campaign against the knights. The king gave his officers a sweeping mandate to discover the “truth.” He wrote of “the strength of the presumptions and suspicions” raised and he described the Templars as “enemies of God, religion and nature, those opponents of human society.” Philip acknowledged that some of the men might be innocent, but argued that it was still appropriate they “should be tested in the furnace like gold and cleared by due process of judicial examination.”5 The king had convinced himself of the knights’ guilt and he mandated torture as an entirely legitimate way to extract a confession.6 Inquisitors used a variety of horrific techniques, including the application of fire to a prisoner’s feet; a process accelerated by smothering the feet in fat before they were placed in the flames. To allow further questioning a board could be placed between the feet and the fire and on occasion the torture was so extreme that some of the victim’s foot bones dropped out. The rack, a triangular-shaped frame onto which the detainee was tied, was another option open to the interrogators. A windlass was attached to the ropes that bound the prisoner’s ankles and wrists and when it was turned their joints dislocated. Finally, there was the strappado, a procedure in which a prisoner’s hands were tied behind his back and attached to a rope passed over a ceiling beam. Weights could be attached to his testicles or feet before the knight was hoisted high off the ground and then allowed to plummet down, the rope stopping him inches from the floor and the violent deceleration causing excruciating pain. In October and November 1307, 138 knights were questioned and in the face of such a terrifying array of machinery only four failed to confess to some or all of the crimes alleged. The testimony of James of Molay was damning—he admitted to the denial of Christ (although like many colleagues he claimed to have spoken such words without meaning them in his heart) and spitting on the cross; other Templars confessed to kissing on the mouth and stomach. James was made to repeat his disclosure before the scholars of Paris University, thus providing vital publicity for King Philip’s case.7

By Christmas, however, Clement had begun to stand his ground a little, furious at Philip’s uncompromising and extensive interference in Church matters. Soon he suspended the French Inquisition and sent his own cardinals to see the Templars; unsurprisingly they all retracted their statements and claimed they were given under extreme duress. By 1308 Clement established a papal commission and many of the knights continued to plead their innocence. Brother Ponsard of Gizy stated that “if he continued to be tortured he would deny everything he was now saying and would say whatever any man wanted. While he was prepared to suffer death by decapitation, fire or boiling water for the honour of the Order, he was incapable of bearing such long torments as he had suffered in the more than two years he had been in prison.”8 The recent discovery of a document hidden for centuries in the labyrinthine Vatican archives sheds fascinating new light on the ebb and flow of these proceedings. In spite of Philip’s continued obstruction, a papal commission managed to meet the Templar leaders at the castle of Chinon on the River Loire in August 1308. In the presence of the pope’s representatives the master and his companions denied the charges against them and were duly absolved of heresy—an intriguing development that showed, at this point, Clement’s unwillingness to accept certain of the accusations directed at the order.9

James of Molay began to make a positive case for his brethren: he emphasized their religiosity and frequent veneration of proper relics; he also noted their generosity to the poor in alms-giving and their willingness to risk life and limb in their vocation of fighting the Muslims.10 While Molay’s efforts were of limited effect, the defense mounted by Brother Peter of Bologna, a man trained in canon law, was considerably more powerful. He challenged the jurisdiction of Philip’s churchmen and also raised what was, arguably, the most telling factor in this whole inquiry: the progress of other investigations across Christian Europe. As he indicated: “Outside the kingdom of France no brother of the Temple can be found in whatever country on earth who tells or has told these lies; hence it is plainly obvious why these lies were told in the kingdom of France, namely because those who told them were corrupted by fear, persuasion or bribery when they made their depositions.”11 In complete contrast to Philip the Fair, King Edward II of England and King James II of Aragon flatly refused to countenance the idea that the Templars were guilty, and in Germany and Cyprus—without the use of torture—the inquisitors secured no confessions at all.12 In fact, in the case of Cyprus, for which a manuscript of the trial hearings survives, numerous non-Templar witnesses testified to the good faith and charity of the brothers.13 The only other areas where confessions were made were Navarre and Naples—both regions ruled by relatives of the Capetian royal house.

Philip’s response to the Templars’ show of defiance was swift and effective. In May 1310 the archbishop of Sens, a close associate of the crown, convoked a council to judge the individual charges against the Templars in his custody. He pushed aside objections from Peter of Bologna and rejected the idea that his process was running counter to the papal inquiry. On May 12 he ordered fifty-four knights, all hopelessly protesting their innocence, to be loaded onto carts and burned to death in a field near the convent of Saint Antoine outside Paris. By this brutal display of force Philip broke the resistance of many of the brothers and more began to make confession and seek absolution.14

For a while the papal commission stalled King Philip’s momentum, but the weakening Clement was driven toward a definitive pronouncement at the Council of Vienne in March 1312. The arrival of King Philip and an armed force ensured that the pope made the “correct” statement. On March 22 Clement held a secret meeting at which it was decided to suppress the Order and on April 3 a formal announcement was read out in public. In language saturated with biblical texts Clement made his position known: “Not slight is the fornication of this house, immolating its sons, giving them up and consecrating them to demons and not to God, but to gods whom they do not know. Therefore this house will be desolate and in disgrace, cursed and uninhabited . . . let it not be lived in but reduced to a wilderness. Let everyone be astonished at it and hiss at all its wounds [Jeremiah 50:12–13].”15 The pope noted how, initially at least, he had been unwilling to believe the stories that circulated about the order. He then spoke of Philip’s “zeal for the orthodox faith,” and he was careful to distance the king from any hint of financial concerns. The absolution granted to the Templar leaders at Chinon was seemingly disregarded when Clement outlined the various confessions, including that of James of Molay, and he concluded that the brethren were guilty of apostasy, idolatry, sodomy, and various other heresies. He added that his own officers had made further enquiries and claimed that these had unearthed more incriminating information.

A majority of the council favored giving the Order a chance to defend itself, but Clement adjudged that “although legal process against the Order up to now does not permit its canonical condemnation as heretical . . . its good name has been largely taken away by the heresies attributed to it.” Because, he argued, so many individuals were guilty of heresy the order as a whole remained suspect and for that reason no one of any caliber would wish to join it in future, thus it was rendered worthless in the task of recovering the Holy Land. Clement felt that further delay would only mean the final dilapidation of Templar property—land given to them in good faith to aid Christ’s cause. “Therefore, with a sad heart . . . we suppress the Order of Templars, and its rule and habit and name, by an inviolable and perpetual decree and we entirely forbid that anyone from now on enter the Order, or receive its habit or presume to behave as a Templar.”16 Those brothers who had confessed and been absolved were to become Knights Hospitaller, while many of those who refused to recant were imprisoned. Templar lands were usually given over to other Military Orders, particularly the Hospitallers; within a couple of years, however, the rapacious King Philip had managed to acquire large amounts of this property in France.17

For the leading Templars, however, there was to be little mercy. They had languished in prison at Gisors since 1310 but were not brought to trial in Paris until December 1313.18 James was to be tried on the basis of his initial confession, which he had retracted once, but since returned to. At a public gathering in front of the church of Notre Dame he, along with three senior colleagues, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Two of the men remained silent, but James, along with Geoffrey of Charney, commander of the Templars in Normandy, stood up. Surely aware of the danger, once again they denied everything they had confessed, stubbornly refuted the charges against them, and affirmed that they were good Christians. They argued passionately that they had never turned aside from their task and had suffered for God and justice. The presiding cardinals were taken aback and ordered the men to be kept under guard until the matter could be debated further. Calamitously for the prisoners, however, their custodian was a royal official who told the king. Philip snapped into action: he quickly consulted his advisers and, without any reference to the Church authorities, he commanded the two men to be burned at the stake that very day. They were sent to the little island at the tip of the Île de la Cité, below the gardens of the king’s palace (today known as the place du Vert-Galant; a memorial plaque marks the place of this shameful episode) where the stake was set up. A royal cleric, Geoffrey of Paris, witnessed the scene and wrote a verse chronicle of the event. James’s serene bearing at this terrible moment profoundly moved those present:

The master, who saw the fire ready,
Stripped with no sign of fear.
And, as I myself saw, placed himself
Quite naked in his shirt
Freely and with good appearance;
Never did he tremble
No matter how much he was pulled and jostled.
They took him to tie him to the stake
And without fear he allowed them to tie him.
They bound his hands with a rope
But he said to them: “Gentlemen, at least
Let me join my hands a little
And make a prayer to God
For now the time is fitting.
Here I see my judgement
When death freely suits me;
God knows who is in the wrong and has sinned.
Soon misfortune will come
To those who have wrongly condemned us:
God will avenge our death.
Gentlemen,” he said, “make no mistake,
All those who are against us
Will have to suffer because of us.
In that belief I wish to die . . . ”
And so gently did death take him
That everyone marvelled.19

Through his intimidation of the papacy and by his brutal and relentless persecution of the Templars, King Philip achieved something beyond the powers of the Muslims of the Near East: the destruction of a Military Order. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that some of their difficulties were self-inflicted: for example, their reception ceremonies were arcane and secretive, yet in truth, they were a flawed, rather than a heretical, organization and had been the victims of a greedy and paranoid king. Nowhere other than France were they treated with such barbarity: elsewhere their membership simply dwindled and then expired; by the late fourteenth century the Templars were gone forever.20 By coincidence—or fate, if you believed the Templars’ supporters—James’s final curse came true: one month later Pope Clement died and in November of the same year King Philip was killed in a riding accident.

The problems endured by the Templars help to illustrate the crisis that faced the crusading movement after the fall of Acre—but it would be wrong to suggest that there was no hope of recovering the Holy Land. The Christians still held Cyprus as a base in the eastern Mediterranean and for a short time there seemed the possibility of an alliance with the Ilkhan Mongols of Persia, who, in 1299, had inflicted a heavy defeat on the Mamluks and then took Jerusalem. Rumors flashed across Europe that the Mongol khan Ghazan had handed over the Holy Sepulchre to local Christians. Pope Boniface VIII solemnly announced as much to Edward I of England in a letter of April 7, 1300, and the Christian West briefly regarded Ghazan as an instrument of divine will. The pope tried to fan enthusiasm for a new crusade but once the truth emerged this bubble of excitement quickly burst: Ghazan had not surrendered Jerusalem and it was soon under Mamluk rule again. Furthermore, the khan was not, as rumored, a Christian (he was a Muslim), although in 1302 he sent an embassy to Edward I that sought cooperation against the Mamluks.21

An intriguing feature of this period of crusading—and really over the two generations after the fall of Acre—was the production of a large number of elaborate plans designed to hold on to, or regain, the Holy Land.22 Often produced at papal request, these so-called “Recovery Treatises” took two basic forms: either a passagium generale, that is, a papally directed, pan-Christian enterprise—rather like the First Crusade—or the use of a far more focused, professional force that aimed to strike hard at a particular target. The latter would be prefaced by a blockade of the Mamluk ports (a reflection of Christian naval superiority) and, with calls for a general peace in Europe, was to be followed up by a larger, more traditionally constituted expedition. Perhaps the plan that came the closest to fruition was that of King Philip VI of France (1328–50), who in October 1332 announced his intentions to a splendid gathering of nobles in Sainte-Chapelle, the wondrous creation of his crusading predecessor, King (and by now Saint) Louis IX. The papacy tried hard to encourage this venture through clerical taxation and offers of generous spiritual rewards, yet public enthusiasm for the expedition was mixed.

Twice in the fourteenth century (in 1309, known as the Crusade of the Poor and 1320, the Shepherds’ Crusade) there had been unauthorized popular movements in support of a new campaign to the Levant. Thousands of people—mainly from peasant stock—gathered in northern France and headed south to the Languedoc where they had massacred the Jewish populations and then hoped to set out for the Levant. Such anarchic bands posed an intolerable threat to civil order and the authorities had to suppress them, but anti-Semitism aside, they represented a fervent desire to recover the Holy Land.23 By the time of Philip’s planned crusade, however, a wider level of skepticism proved a serious barrier to recruitment. As one contemporary chronicler wrote of the royal project: “fewer people than expected took the cross, for they had had their fingers burnt too often, and they suspected that the sermons being delivered in the name of the cross were only being given to get money.”24 Outright resistance from the French towns brought Philip’s enterprise to a halt; a year later, the beginning of the Hundred Years War compounded this and delivered a severe blow to crusades to the Holy Land. Other factors soon made their mark as well: in 1343, the Italian bankers, whose financial backing was vital to any new campaign, went into crisis; shortly afterward the Black Death broke out, and thus crusading started to slip down the list of priorities of Christian Europe.


Even though major expeditions became less feasible, numerous manifestations of crusading, or an evolving form of the genre, were in evidence during the latter half of the fourteenth century. These were often channeled through, or alongside, notions of chivalry—in itself a theme that had become a dominant feature of European society; in fact, with its fusion of military, aristocratic, and Christian mores, there were times when the boundary between chivalry and crusading became almost imperceptible.25 Holy wars continued to take place in the eastern Mediterranean, the Baltic, and Iberia, and one—fictional—person who fought in all three of these arenas was the knight in the Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written c. 1384. As has been argued elsewhere, this figure probably formed an accurate template of the aspirations and attitudes of leading men of the day:

A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.
Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre,
As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse,
And evere honoured for his worthynesse;
At Alisaundre [Alexandria] he was whan it was wonne.
Ful ofte tyme he hadde the bord bigonne
Aboven all nacions in Pruce [Prussia];
In Lettow [Lithuania] hadde he reysed and in Ruce [Russia],
No Cristen man so ofte of his degree.
In Gernade [Granada] at the seege eek hadde he be
Of Algezir [Algeciras], and riden in Belmarye [Morocco].
At Lyeys [Ayash] was he and at Satalye [Satalia],
When they were wonne, and in the Grete See [Mediterrarean]
At many a noble armee hadde he be.26

It seems likely that Chaucer’s knight was a conflation of the crusading feats of the Scrope clan of Yorkshire, a family represented at all the episodes described above. But the Scropes were no aberration and their exploits were paralleled by numerous men from senior families across northern Europe (including royalty), as well as esquires and men of fortune.27 This is not to say that military activity elsewhere, such as the recurrent conflicts of the Hundred Years War, was not the dominant concern of these people, but the point remains that all of these crusading outlets were deemed worthy of the risk and the expense. For the higher echelons of society the primary attraction of such escapades was simple: to gain an honorable reputation through great feats in battle, and the fact that this service was in the armies of God—the ultimate Lord—gave it particular prestige. For men-at-arms, unemployed during periods of peace between the major European wars, more basic motives operated and the lure of wages was paramount, but in the case of the nobility (who had to finance their own campaigns), repeated experience would have shown that most of these adventures—especially those in northern Europe—were physically arduous and rarely profitable. Yet that was not the point: the material outlay and personal hardship were more than compensated for by the boost to one’s good name and the sense of belonging to an exclusive club, an elite group with shared values and experiences; the very pinnacle of chivalry. The escapades of two Englishmen can offer us a glimpse of this mentality: Sir Richard Waldegrave (an acquaintance of Chaucer), a well-to-do Suffolk knight from Bures Saint Mary, and Henry Bolingbroke, earl of Derby, later King Henry IV of England (1399–1413).

Over a five-year period, Richard took part in a trio of crusading enterprises: in southern Turkey in 1361, Prussia in 1363, and Egypt in 1365.28 The first and third of these campaigns were under the leadership of King Peter I of Cyprus (1359–69), a man canny enough to note this contemporary enthusiasm for individuals to venture to the eastern Mediterranean. In 1361 Waldegrave, aged twenty-three, followed the trend when he fought in the capture of the southern Turkish port of Satalia. Peter’s motives were not simply to defeat the Mamluks but also to protect Cyprus from Turkish invasion and to boost his own economy. The presence at Satalia of westerners such as Richard encouraged the king to seek further help and in 1363, aided by a period of peace between England and France, he began a two-year tour of the West. Guillaume de Machaut’s sympathetic account portrayed the king as a dynamic, persuasive leader determined to regain Jerusalem, but as we have just seen, other ideas were also in play.29 Edward III of England was adamant that he would not join the crusade, although his subjects were free to do so. King John II of France was keen to follow in the crusading footsteps of Saint Louis but his death in 1364 left the crusade’s leadership to King Peter. While much of the early preaching for the expedition was framed in terms of a broader recovery of the Holy Land, the target of the campaign was eventually revealed as the prosperous Mamluk port of Alexandria.

In spite of the enthusiastic advocacy of Pope Urban V, no crowned heads from the West took part, although a number of English and French nobles, including Richard Waldegrave, saw it as a worthy cause. Peter also employed European mercenaries (the notorious Free Companies), a measure supported by the pope, who offered indulgences to these men as a means of steering their unruly presence away from France and Italy. Spiritual rewards for hired thugs might seem a little out of tune with Pope Urban II’s original crusading ideas, but stipendiary troops had been employed on crusades for much of the thirteenth century, and, in one sense, this echoed Urban’s desire to export the lawless nobility of western Europe back in the eleventh century. Peter’s crusade was also joined by the Knights Hospitaller, who had been based on Rhodes since the fall of the Holy Land. The Hospitallers had developed an important naval function and Christian fleets worked hard to keep the seas free from Muslim raiders and to promote trade and pilgrimage. Thus—as with so many previous crusading expeditions—participants in this campaign had a plethora of interlocking, possibly contradictory, motives, and while it was endorsed by the papacy, European knights fought in a personal, rather than a national, capacity.

On Rhodes the legate “piously preached to the king’s little army on the mystery of the cross and the Lord’s Passion and gave the venerable sign of the cross to all who were setting out.”30 On October 4, 1365, the fleet departed for Alexandria—a formidable target and one that brought trepidation to the hearts of many. Peter encouraged them to be brave and he chose to blend a message of determination with the prospect of gaining fame and repute: “you will defeat these men, you’ll see it happen and you’ll live to talk of it!” The shallow waters outside Alexandria made for a difficult landing because the galleys needed to hold just offshore. This meant the crusaders had to jump down from their ships and wade up the beach in the face of stern enemy resistance. Peter proved his courage—“he excels them all” reported Machaut—and the king urged the troops forward: “Those are God’s enemies. . . . Forward my lords, let each man amaze his neighbour.” After successfully forcing their way onto dry land the Christians paused to consider their next move—again, expressed in terms suggestive of a spiritual and chivalric blend: “Think of our Lord helping us to win such fame against the pagans.”

After a vigorous effort the crusaders managed to set fire to one of the gates and then burst inside to take control of the city on October 10, 1365. Overnight, however, poor discipline briefly enabled the enemy to recover a gate before Peter rallied and drove the Muslims out. The visiting crusaders began to reflect on just how large a task they faced holding on to Alexandria and they started to comprehend the sheer scale of resources the Egyptians possessed. They became overwhelmed by fear of the Muslim response and demanded to depart, although Peter wanted to stay and secure the prosperity of his kingdom. He proclaimed his faith in God’s support, the strong walls of Alexandria, and the flood of people he believed would arrive from the West, inspired by his success. The legate pleaded with the Europeans to remain, couching his argument in spiritual terms: “He [the legate] showed clearly how God’s honour, the good of Christendom, and the acquisition of the city of Jerusalem hung on the retention of Alexandria . . . but by the Devil’s work, the majority stood in his way . . . they had no trust in God . . . and entirely forgot His incredible victories.”31 Machaut gave Peter’s pleas a more chivalric spin: “Honour, ladies and love, what are you going to say when you see these crowding to run away? They’ll never win glory and honour, all are marked in shame!”32 Yet the crusaders were adamant—they would leave. As they began to reembark, the Muslims poured back into the city and, for the second time in just under two hundred years (remembering Amalric of Jerusalem’s brief tenure of the city in 1167), the Christian hold on Alexandria was over within a couple of days.

Peter soon renewed his attempts to recruit help from the West but he met with little success and the following year returned to Cyprus. In spite of the brevity of his conquest, this all too rare blow against the Mamluks had won him widespread renown and was reported in glowing terms across the Christian world, as far afield even as Russia. Yet the king’s ultimate fate is hard to reconcile with this image of a gallant holy warrior. His attack had infuriated the Mamluks and thereby damaged the Cypriot economy, and this, coupled with his own appalling temper, provoked a political crisis. Relations with his nobility deteriorated and Peter was frequently offensive toward their womenfolk. Such was his level of irrationality that he is reported to have imprisoned his steward for failing to provide oil for his asparagus! These matters culminated in a decision to kill him and on January 16, 1369, he was attacked in his own bed. The murderers smashed his skull, cut his throat open, dressed him in a tramp’s clothes, and left the corpse in the palace hall.33

The siege of Alexandria represented one of the few high points of crusading warfare in the Mediterranean and, in effect, it came to mark the end of major conflict with the Mamluks. Richard Waldegrave survived the campaign and returned home, soon to venture into another field of war, the Baltic. Once more, he endured and in 1376 entered Parliament, and five years later he ascended the political hierarchy to become the speaker of the House of Commons (one of his descendants, William Waldegrave, was a member of the cabinet under Margaret Thatcher and John Major). Richard’s days of long-distance travel were over and he settled down in England until his death in 1402. His career had overlapped with a much more influential figure, the future Henry IV of England, Henry Boling-broke, and through him we can glimpse something of crusading in the Baltic region.

Henry was only twenty-four years old when he proposed to campaign against the infidel in, first, the Mediterranean and then the Baltic. His plans to join a crusade against Muslim pirates, based at al-Mahadia in Tunisia, foundered when promises of safe conduct through France failed to materialize, but he sustained his enthusiasm for holy war by going to northeastern Europe in July 1390. After a second visit to the Baltic in 1392 he headed south to Venice and made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1393. The survival of his household accounts permit an exceptionally vivid reconstruction of both these journeys: as the son of John of Gaunt, the wealthiest man in England, and as a cousin of King Richard II (1377–99), he was able, and expected, to travel in some considerable style.34

Henry became involved in the Teutonic Knights’ continued attempts to defeat the Lithuanians, a fierce, pagan people who worshipped a panoply of gods. Their rituals included the burial of leaders in full war regalia with their horses, while captured enemy commanders were asphyxiated to show their weakness. By this time they occupied lands in the river basins of a region known as the Wilderness, a hundred-mile stretch of territory characterized by dense forests, marshlands, and lakes, as well as innumerable tributaries. This was an astoundingly hostile region in which to live and campaign. Experienced guides were vital to the crusaders and progress through the forests was inevitably slow, compounded by terrible rain and snowstorms. Freezing temperatures were the norm and daylight hours were minimal. Campaigns were only really possible twice a year: first, when it was cold enough to freeze the rivers and to solidify the bogs, yet not so bitter as to render movement dangerous; secondly, after the thaw when the sun had sufficiently dried out the marshes to permit safe passage.35 The Teutonic Knights, based at Marienberg in Poland, had responsibility for the conversion and defeat of these pagans, although the morality of using warfare as a means of conversion provoked fierce debate in ecclesiastical circles.

In the end, arguments that emphasized the untrustworthiness of the pagans—and hence the need to conquer them—prevailed and the Teutonics’ role was reconfirmed. Not an especially convincing line of reasoning, perhaps, but sufficient for those contemporaries who fought for, and with, the Knights. Given the privilege of a perpetual crusade they could launch annual wars against the heathen, known as Reisen (journeys), for which spiritual rewards were merited, although there is little record of any ceremonial taking of the cross. The ebb and flow of local allegiances also intervened, most dramatically when, in 1386, the Lithuanian ruler Jogaila was baptized and, on his marriage to a Polish princess, he was elected to the throne of Poland as Wladislaus II. In consequence, the conversion of his lands looked likely and the morality of a crusade against Christians became ever more dubious.36

In the course of the fourteenth century, nobles from across Europe were drawn to these campaigns and during 1391 Henry Bolingbroke made his preparations. His expedition displayed all the hallmarks of a typical Reise with its potent combination of finery, feasting, and fighting. He was accompanied by around seventy companions, including paid knights (plus their retainers), his own squires and domestic staff, as well as contingents of specialist miners and engineers, and maybe sixty bowmen. The actual expedition fell into two distinct elements: the military campaign (August 9 to October 22, 1391) and the “reward,” laid on by the hosts (October 22, 1391, to late March 1392). The first part saw steady progress through the dense forests toward Vilnius. A battle at the River Vilna saw the loss of one young English knight but the Lithuanian Prince Skirgal (one of Wladislaus’s brothers) suffered heavier casualties with three or four dukes taken prisoner and hundreds of his men slain. The town of Vilnius—an important trading center—was quickly seized, a feat in which Henry played the prominent role that his position demanded. Thomas Walsingham’s Chronica Majora recorded that “the town was captured by the great abilities of the earl. For it was men of his own household who were the first to scale the town wall and to place his standard on its top, while the rest of the army were still drowsing.”37 The main fortress resisted the efforts of miners and engineers and, after five weeks, the master of the Teutonic Knights decided, in the face of a lack of progress, sickness in the camp, and the oncoming winter, to abandon the attempt. Henry then headed back toward Königsberg, the usual base for campaigns against the Lithuanians; he also visited the nearby chapel of Saint Katharine, a place of pilgrimage.

Over the next four months the tenor of the earl’s stay changed: he was entertained by splendid tournaments and hunting trips; he was presented with hawks and horses (he was particularly careful to take the former home) and bears. Among his train were minstrels: two trumpeters, three pipers, and a nakerer (drummer), as well as heralds, all of whom were kept busy during an intensive succession of feasts and social events. A particular highlight was the Ehrentisch, or Table of Honor, a feast usually held in Königsberg. This select gathering saw the leading knights on each campaign (the paid retainers were excluded) invited to a special ceremony at which they were seated according to their chivalric achievements and presented with a badge that bore the motto “Honour conquers all” in golden letters. Such a highly esteemed award reflected immense prestige on the recipient and was borne with great pride at public events back home. Chaucer’s imaginary knight often “began the Board,” which meant that he was seated in the place of honor at the feast. Such occasions added greatly to the allure of the Reisen and did much to seal bonds of appreciation between the hosts and their guests.38 The spiritual aspect of Henry’s journey did not disappear entirely because the earl made a variety of donations to churches and the poor during his stay in the north, including a gift to the Hospital of the Holy Spirit in Danzig, while in the same city his week of visits and gifts to four particular churches merited the award of an indulgence from Pope Boniface IX.39 Thus, we see the Reisen representing an overlapping blend of chivalry, spirituality, and crusading.

Multiple tensions within the Polish-Lithuanian relationship offered the Teutonic Knights chances to assert their strength, but the intellectual justification for their policies began to crumble. The University of Cracow produced a polemical tract that demolished the order’s claims to promote conversion. It said that the knights were only interested in land and not in people’s souls: the Prussians still remained semi-pagan after more than a century of the order’s rule, while the convert Wladislaus and one of his subject tribes, the Samogitians, were worthy of admiration; thus greed, rather than God’s grace, motivated the knights.

In July 1410 events on the battlefield dealt another heavy blow to the order’s standing. With the support of a number of German crusaders the knights confronted Wladislaus’s Polish-Lithuanian invasion force at Tannenberg (now Grünwald), about seventy miles southeast of Marienberg. Both sides implored the Virgin Mary for help and by the end of the day she seemed to have favored the Poles and Lithuanians. At first, the Teutonics swept aside the Lithuanian right wing, but in their triumphant pursuit a group of knights parted company with their comrades and the larger contingent of Poles (with Russian and Tartar Muslim auxiliaries) outflanked and swamped the grand master and his men, killing most of the Order’s leading officials and around four hundred knights. The survivors rallied sufficiently well to fight off a fifty-seven-day siege of Marienberg or else the order might have collapsed entirely. Of course, given the Lithuanian-Polish forces’ Catholicism this defeat could not be portrayed as a loss for Christendom, unlike previous setbacks in the north.40 Continued debates about the validity of warfare against the Lithuanians and various political and economic crises plagued the order, and while it struggled on to the Reformation and beyond, its heyday was long past.41

Henry Bolingbroke had evidently enjoyed his Reise sufficiently to repeat the experience in 1392; the political situation in England may well have made it expedient for him to travel as well. Unfortunately, by the time he had taken the trouble to reach Lithuania there was no need for outside help, although the Teutonic Knights were sufficiently grateful to offer him the considerable sum of £400 toward the cost of his journey. Undeterred, Henry decided to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (contrary to the impression given by Shakespeare, who suggested that he never went at all). Using the financial services of Lombard merchants he raised the money to march overland through Bohemia to Prague where he stayed with King Wenceslas, brother of Queen Anne of England; thence he went on to Moravia, Vienna, and Venice. There, as befitted a man of his standing, he was accorded the honor of a public reception by the doge and together they gave oblations to Saint Mark’s Basilica. On several occasions he visited the magnificent relic collections in the city, part of the haul taken by the Fourth Crusade from Constantinople in 1204. Huge supplies of food were laid in for Henry’s voyage to the Orient, including 2,250 eggs, 450 kilograms of almonds, two thousand dates, as well as fine wines; he also took the precaution of taking two doctors on the trip.42 By this time, shipping could endure the Mediterranean in winter and Henry set sail from Venice on December 23, 1392. He spent Christmas Day in Zara, the site of so much contention during the Fourth Crusade, and then, via Corfu, he went on to Rhodes. Here Henry was entertained by the Hospitaller grand master before he pressed on to the port of Jaffa. In previous centuries Christian and Muslim rulers had permitted pilgrims to visit shrines and, given the lack of large-scale, open hostilities between the rulers of the Near East and the Catholic powers of the region, Henry was able to make his pilgrimage.

His stay in the Holy Land lasted only a few days, although the purchase of wax candles and records of offerings made at the Holy Sepulchre and the Mount of Olives signify conventional acts of devotion. En route home a stay on Lusignan Cyprus was accompanied by the usual festivities and the earl received a leopard to transport back to England, as well as a converted Muslim whose baptismal name was given as Henry. The earl then sailed to Venice before progressing through Milan, Burgundy, Champagne, Paris, and thence to Dover and London.43 This journey was, of course, a pilgrimage and a sign of devotion, rather than a crusade, although his travels—by no means unique for the English nobility—brought him into contact with those in the front line of holy war, such as the Hospitallers on Rhodes, and was a sign that interest in the holy places remained tangible among the elite of northern Europe.

Around the same time as Henry’s adventures, upheavals within the Catholic Church brought a controversial new kind of crusading to the fore. As European warfare grew increasingly costly, professional soldiers became the norm and the papacy used paid troops to try to shape the complex politics of northern and central Italy. Their aim was to end a period of exile at Avignon, a situation precipitated by disturbances in Rome. Although they returned to the holy city in 1376, within two years the outbreak of the Great Schism (1378–1417) damaged the reputation of the papacy even further. Disputes over the identity of the rightful occupant of the chair of Saint Peter meant that at times there were two, or even three, claimants—a corrosive state of affairs that inflicted considerable damage on the standing of, and respect for, the papacy. A series of overtly political crusades took place, most obviously when the agenda of a party in the papal schism coincided with that of someone in another conflict such as the Hundred Years War. In the early 1380s Pope Urban VI offered the English full crusade privileges to fight the French—the allies of his rival, Clement VII. The ebullient Bishop Hugh Despenser preached a crusade and sold large numbers of indulgences, although in the event Parliament granted a substantial sum to support the enterprise and approved the choice of commander. While officials tried to build up a case for the “crusade in defence of the Holy Church and the realm of England,” many contemporaries simply regarded this as a flimsy pretext to continue both the Great Schism and the Hundred Years War. National warfare was fast emerging as the major form of conflict within Europe, and while religious imagery and a sense of righteous cause was often writ large within it, this was not crusading. For example, in spite of the potent rhetoric that described King Henry V of England as a holy warrior, worthy of comparison with the Old Testament hero Judas Maccabeus—a figure who inspired the heroes of the First Crusade—in no sense was the Battle of Agincourt (1415) a papal crusade with full spiritual indulgences.44

Divisions of belief sparked another notable branch of crusading within Europe, although there was a contemporary whiff of nationalism. The first major crusade against heresy since the Albigensian Crusade of 1209 was directed at the supporters of John Hus, a radical teacher at the University of Prague. He was a man scathing in his criticism of clerical vices, and he demanded that the clergy follow the example of the Bible and nothing else. Hus also dismissed various papal indulgences and stated that laymen could receive both bread and wine in the Eucharist, rather than just bread. The Bohemian monarchy reneged on promises of safe conduct and had Hus burned to death on July 6, 1415. His supporters, many of whom were members of the local nobility (shades of the situation in southern France two hundred years earlier), turned to war and widespread social unrest followed. The king of Bohemia was (temporarily) deposed and the papacy authorized a series of crusades in 1420–22, although there was also a nationalist dimension in that the Hussites represented Czech identity in conflict with the crown’s mainly German allies. The Hussites’ anger toward the papacy cascades out of this manifesto published by the citizens of Prague in 1420:

Most recently the Church acted not as a mother but as a stepmother. That most cruel snake has given birth to a malignant offspring . . . and the entire poison has been poured out upon us when . . . the Church raised the cruel cross against all of the faithful in our kingdom and with bloody hands announced a crusade. . . . All of this has been for nothing other than . . . the truth of God. The pope has called from everywhere an unjust war, summoning our natural enemies, the Germans, and has invited them, with false indulgences from pain and sin, to fight us. Even though they have no reason they are always antagonistic to our language. . . . Who, faithful to the kingdom, would not grieve over the fact that the lying priest, full of iniquity, wished to ferment this pus in this golden and most Christian kingdom even to the point of exterminating within us the truth of God. . . . We pray that you, like brave knights, may remember our fathers, the old Czechs, and stand up willingly against this evil.45

On several occasions the Hussites roundly defeated the crusaders, often because of their innovative military skills. The use of wagons, sometimes drawn into a rectangular formation or else used as a mobile defensive barrier for infantry and cavalry, or even as a base for small cannon, was one element in their repertoire.46 Hussite forces spread into neighboring lands such as Poland, Hungary, and Austria but local anti-Czech nationalism often blunted their religious message. Further crusades in 1427 and 1431 also failed; Hussite beliefs survived in Bohemia and in subsequent years a negotiated compromise was reached—a settlement in part engendered by increasing fear of the most powerful and dynamic force in southeastern Europe, the Ottoman Turks.


In the course of the fourteenth century the main forum of crusading warfare in the eastern Mediterranean became Constantinople and the Balkans, a shift prompted by the remorseless rise of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were a nomadic tribe from northwestern Asia Minor who had emerged under the leadership of Osman, a frontier warlord, at the very start of the fourteenth century. Their origins are somewhat hazy but early on the presence of large numbers of ghazis (volunteers dedicated to the holy war who fought in the expectation of booty and who were treated as martyrs on their death) and Sufi mystics gave them a strong religious drive. A series of victories against Muslim and Byzantine Christian opponents convinced them that God was on their side. By the middle of the century they had established a strong territorial base in northwestern Anatolia and begun to push through the Dardanelles and into southeastern Europe. In 1389 the Ottomans destroyed a Serbian army at Kosovo, another battle that has remained strong in modern regional consciousness. The immensity of the Turkish threat began to concentrate minds in Catholic Europe in a way not seen for decades. Coupled with a rare window of peace in the Hundred Years War, and inflamed by the crusading enthusiasm of John of Nevers, son of the duke of Burgundy, and Marshal Boucicaut, this generated a substantial army ready to turn back the Ottoman menace. Boucicaut’s biographer evoked the spirit in which the French nobility joined the crusade: “he [John of Nevers] was then in the full flower of youth, and wanted to follow the path sought by the virtuous, that is to say, the honour of knighthood. He considered that he could not use his time better than in dedicating his youth to God’s service, by bodily labour for the spreading of the faith . . . several young lords wanted to go along, to escape boredom and employ their time and energies on deeds of knighthood. For it really seemed to them that they could not go on a more honourable expedition or one more pleasing to God.”47 The results of the expedition were, however, catastrophic.

In July 1396 the French linked up with King Sigismund of Hungary at Buda and a combined army of perhaps fifteen to twenty thousand men began to march down the Danube intent upon the recovery of Nicopolis, a strong defensive site in Bulgaria. After this the crusade planned to move on to Constantinople and relieve the city from a siege led by Sultan Bayezid I (1389–1402), known as Yilderim, or Thunderbolt. Early successes lulled the Christians into a sense of complacency and as they blockaded Nicopolis their camp became a scene of indiscipline and licentiousness; Bayezid, meanwhile, had gathered his troops and was approaching fast. On September 25 the two sides met in battle. The French impetuously hurled themselves against Bayezid’s infantry and light cavalry who were carefully positioned at the top of a hill. Stakes in the ground tore the crusaders’ horses to pieces, but although they fought on foot, so great was their momentum that they succeeded in cutting their way up past the Turkish infantry to face the light cavalry. At this point they discovered Bayezid’s trap: waiting on the other side of the hill, fresh and rested, were his heavy cavalry. The Ottomans charged and the crusaders, from being convinced of their success, collapsed: “the lion in them turned into a timid hare,” commented one contemporary. Thousands of men were killed or taken prisoner, an earlier massacre of Turks was avenged by the summary execution of countless Christians, and Count John and Marshal Boucicaut were imprisoned. The debacle of Nicopolis was a massive blow to crusading morale in western Europe and it gave the Turks free access to continue their conquest of the Balkans.48 In 1402 their momentum was briefly stalled by defeat at the hands the Turcoman ruler Timur (also known as Tamerlane) at the Battle of Ankara, and a period of dynastic infighting checked their progress further, but within a couple of decades they were looking to expand again.49

The Turks’ prime target was clearly Constantinople, in part because of its immense wealth and importance to Christianity, in part because it lay directly between Ottoman lands in Anatolia and their possessions in the Balkans. The Greeks had regained the city from the Latins in 1261, but only a pale shadow of past glories survived; that said, it did survive blockades and sieges from 1394 to 1402 and in 1442. So great was the Ottoman menace that Emperor John VIII was persuaded to grasp the nettle of Church unity and in 1439 he led a delegation to Florence where, after centuries of division, the union of the Catholic and Orthodox—with the former as the senior partner—was finally proclaimed. This provoked outrage among some of the Greeks: “We have betrayed our faith. We have exchanged piety for impiety.”50 John, however, received the reward he was after with a new crusade in 1444. This saw another heavy defeat for the Christians at the town of Varna on the west coast of the Black Sea (in modern-day Bulgaria) when Ottoman troops, fighting under the banner of jihad, entirely crushed their opponents.51

In 1451, Mehmet II, known to posterity as Mehmet the Conqueror, became sultan at the age of seventeen (he had held the title briefly between 1444 and 1446). Two years later this remarkable character struck Christendom an enormous blow with the capture of Constantinople. He was a brave, secretive, and utterly ruthless man; he was also a scholar and a superb strategist. He is described as having a hooked nose and fleshy lips, or “a parrot’s beak resting on cherries” as a poet so colorfully expressed it. Two actions early on in his sultanate—one a combination of the private and the political, the other strategic—give a sense of the man. First, as soon as he became ruler, he ordered his infant half-brother to be drowned in his bath (the perpetrator was then executed for murder); thus he enshrined fratricide as a means of preventing civil war. Secondly, he commissioned the construction of the castle of Bogaz Kesa, the Throat-Cutter, a few miles east along the Bosporus. This fine fortress (known today as Rumeli Hisari) has four large and thirteen smaller towers and was completed in a matter of months, testimony to the superbly efficient Ottoman war machine. As the name of the castle suggests, it was designed to block the passage of Christian shipping along the Bosporus and thereby to close the net around Constantinople.

Within the city, Emperor Constantine IX (1449–53) viewed these developments with understandable trepidation.52 He appealed to the West for help, but other than some support from the Venetians, who still retained an interest in Constantinople long after their part in the 1204 conquest, no major forces arrived. The Genoese held a colony at Galata, just across the Golden Horn, and while they professed neutrality, their men and shipping also came to play a vital role in the defense of the city. Even with such limited outside assistance the sheer strength of Constantinople’s fortifications made it a formidable site. The emperor commanded ditches to be cleared while the dilapidated outer walls were restored and covered with huge bales of cotton and wool to try to cushion them from cannon fire. He also ordered the fabrication of a huge boom, made from massive sections of wood and iron links, to span the Golden Horn and protect the more vulnerable walls on the inlet—the area where the Fourth Crusade had broken into the city. Contemporaries indicate the defenders’ great faith in this construction and their confidence that, in conjunction with the mighty city walls, it would enable them to endure once more.53

It is interesting to compare the two great sieges of 1204 and 1453. Aside from the obvious contrast of the latter episode being Muslim against Christian, rather than Catholics versus Orthodox, the size of the opposing forces was strikingly different. In 1204 the crusaders were massively outnumbered by the Byzantines; in 1453, however, the Christian troops in Constantinople totaled perhaps ten thousand. Notwithstanding the defensive efforts of the citizenry—and even monks were pressed into service—in military terms, at over eighty thousand men (plus tens of thousands of laborers) the Ottoman army was a vastly bigger fighting force, mighty enough for a Venetian eyewitness to describe the defenders as “an ant in the mouth of a bear.”54 The 1453 siege was also more multifaceted with a significant part of the fighting taking place on water. During the earlier campaign the besieging Venetians had enjoyed almost a free hand at sea, but in 1453 an Ottoman fleet of up to four hundred ships frequently tussled with a small but powerful Genoese and Cretan force based around the defensive boom. Finally, technology had moved on: by 1453 the emergence of gunpowder (during the late thirteenth century) meant that cannon came to play a hugely prominent role in the later campaign.55

The siege began on April 6. Mehmet’s engineers had constructed a massive palisaded rampart that ran from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn while a similar structure overlooked the city from the Galata side. With siege guns and catapults the Turks soon began to bombard the “queen of cities.” Teams of workmen had strengthened roads and bridges to allow the transportation of several colossal cannon—one required sixty oxen to pull it—from their base at Edirne, 250 miles to the northwest. Most of the firepower concentrated on the gates of Saint Romanus (now known as the Topkapi Gate) and Charisus, both toward the middle of the land walls. The Turks’ largest gun burst, but one of the others remained a monstrous piece of weaponry, capable of firing a shot of almost 550 kilograms. Mehmet had over fourteen batteries of cannon, most of which could launch balls of between 100 and 200 kilograms. Day after day these machines generated a lethal hail of stone that crashed and smashed against the walls of Constantinople, splintering its defenses and demoralizing the defenders. Mehmet was canny enough to continually reposition his cannon to best advantage, and at times he triangulated three guns on a single point to maximize their effect. The Byzantines had artillery of their own but these were far smaller devices and used mainly against troops and siege engines; lack of powder and shot were further restrictions on the Christians’ firepower: by contrast, Mehmet’s biggest cannon consumed 1,100 pounds of gunpowder a day! A contemporary noted: “He devised machines of all sorts . . . especially of the newest kind, a strange sort, unbelievable when told of but, as experience demonstrated, able to accomplish everything.”56

Nicolò Barbaro, a Venetian eyewitness, described the debilitating effect of living in continuous anticipation of a major assault. Such tensions were increased by a series of night attacks, usually heralded by the harsh cracking and snapping of castanets, but all were successfully resisted. On April 20, however, the Christians scored an unexpected victory. The appearance of three large Genoese vessels bearing papally sponsored troops and supplies prompted a sea battle. Mehmet’s admiral engaged the galleys but the greater size of the Genoese boats gave them a crucial advantage over the oared Turkish ships and the Christians used their superior height to pour down arrows and small-arms fire onto their enemy. As Mehmet watched from the shore he grew increasingly enraged at the lack of progress and, famously, he mounted his horse and plunged into the sea to bellow inaudible advice to his admiral. Once the wind turned, the Christian vessels were able to reach the safety of the boom and this duly opened to bring them sanctuary. The defeat was a massive blow to Ottoman pride and caused consternation in the Muslim camp. Mehmet was beside himself with rage and summoned the admiral to answer for this failure—the sultan was said to have wanted to execute the man, but his colleagues persuaded their ruler that the loss of rank and a flogging would suffice.57

The Christians’ continued trust in the boom seemed well placed, but Mehmet was not to be resisted. Because he could not break the barrier the sultan devised a quite brilliant way to—literally—get around it. As we saw with Reynald of Châtillon’s transportation of kit-form ships from Kerak down to the Red Sea in 1182, it was possible to move vessels overland. Others had followed his example; more recently the Venetians had shifted galleys from the River Adige to Lake Garda. Mehmet accomplished something similar, although on a jaw-dropping scale. His engineers constructed a shallow trench that ran from the shore of the Bosporus, up over the steep hill (through the modern Taksim Square) and then down to the Golden Horn. This carefully crafted ditch was then covered in boards and greased, allowing ships to be laboriously hauled up the slope and then eased downhill behind the boom and into the heart of the Christian harbor. An incredible seventy-two vessels made this journey and once back in the water their sails were rerigged and they could threaten the weakest walls of Constantinople. The creation of a pontoon bridge to link up the troops near Galata with those by the land walls was another sign of technical flair and a hint that a major assault was brewing.

On April 28 the Christians attempted to seize the upper hand with a bid to destroy the main Ottoman fleet. They filled transport ships with sacks of flammable materials—cotton and wool—to set the Turkish boats ablaze, but the flotilla’s commander, “a man eager to win honour in this world,” raced ahead of the escort vessels and drew the full weight of enemy firepower. The Turks scored a direct hit on only their second shot and “quicker than ten paternosters” the ship sank with all hands to ruin the Christian offensive.58 Soon the Ottomans regained the initiative and in mid-May heavy bombardment of the gates of Saint Romanus and the Caligaria (near the Blachernae Palace in the north) called for the most desperate resistance.

Around this time the Turks started to use yet another stratagem to break into the city—a contingent of specialist Serbian miners began to dig a series of shafts in a bid to get under the walls and to provide an entry point into Constantinople. As usual with Mehmet’s armies the scale of these works was immense—one of the tunnels was over half a mile long—but one night the defenders heard the sound of digging and their own mining expert, a Scotsman named John Grant, located the shaft. He dug out a countermine, set fire to the Turks’ supports, and caused them to collapse and suffocate the attackers.59

Throughout the siege, the Turkish artillery continued to pound away at the walls, parts of which were now filled with a patchwork of earth, rubble, and timber barricades. Barbaro noted the demoralizing effect of the mighty cannon: “One was of exceptional size . . . and when it fired the explosion made all the walls of the city shake and all the ground inside, and even the ships in the harbour felt the vibrations of it. Because of the great noise, many women fainted with the shock which the firing of it gave them. No greater cannon than this one was ever seen in the whole pagan world and it was this that broke down such a great deal of the city walls.”60 A strange fog caused consternation in the Christian camp when what should have been a full moon appeared as a slim, three-day moon, an event seen as a dire omen because a famous prophecy foretold that Constantinople would fall when the planet gave a sign.61

Meanwhile Mehmet considered his next move. Some of his inner circle argued in favor of a peaceful solution and they suggested that Constantine could hand over his city in return for control of the Morea. The Byzantine emperor’s response was curt: “God forbid that I should live as an emperor without an empire. As my city falls, I will fall with it.” Rumors of an approaching Venetian fleet and plans for a Hungarian relief force to march to Constantinople probably underlay Constantine’s continued resistance. By the same token, however, fear of this imminent crusade pushed Mehmet into action.62 Like Saladin before the Battle of Hattin, the sultan’s campaign had built up so much momentum that he needed to bring it all to the boil or else risk losing support of his own people. The danger of running out of supplies—his enormous army had been outside Constantinople for over fifty days and had utterly stripped the countryside of food—was another important consideration.

On May 26 the sultan ordered preparations to be made for the final assault. Huge fires were lit throughout the Turkish camp and the men fasted by day and feasted by night. Mehmet went among his men to raise morale and the imams told stirring stories of the jihad and of Islamic heroes of the past. The prospect of taking Constantinople had a profound spiritual resonance with Muslims because a well-known Hadith promised the capture of the city. The prophecy had powerful eschatological overtones and claimed this would be a definitive Muslim victory, surpassing all others and representing the penultimate defeat of Christianity before the final Armageddon. Here, then, was a chance to fulfill that centuries-old destiny—and with a leader named Mehmet, the Turkish form of Muhammad. Encouraged by these portents, the Ottoman encirclement of Constantinople grew ever tighter. The troops brought up two thousand scaling ladders, they filled in the ditches, and the bombardment intensified further until, in Barbaro’s words, “it was a thing not of this world.”63 The defenders knew their supreme test was about to come and while Emperor Constantine deployed his troops as best he could, the clergy paraded relics and led prayers and processions around the city.

A couple of hours before daybreak on May 29 a volley of artillery fire announced the start of the attack. The principal focus was the damaged area near the Saint Romanus Gate, although in the course of the day Ottoman forces also engaged the remainder of the land walls and the defenses along the Golden Horn. First to be sent forward were Christian prisoners and subject peoples—the most expendable of all Mehmet’s troops. The defenders’ crossbowmen and light artillery duly slaughtered most of these hapless souls—in any case, had they retreated, then Mehmet’s Janissaries, his crack troops, had orders to kill them. A second, more organized division made a further foray although they too were driven back. All of this drained the defenders’ energy and resources—it also left the Janissaries fresh and rested, waiting for their turn to move. As Mehmet himself watched, these professional warriors advanced with disconcerting slowness toward the Saint Romanus Gate and, unusually for Muslim armies, without musical accompaniment. This sinister new assault was fiercer than ever—they were “not like Turks, but like lions,” related Barbaro. Still the Christians held them off, but the city resounded with the chaos of battle, the Turks “firing cannon again and again, with so many other guns and arrows without number and shouting from these pagans, that the very air seemed to be split apart.” For all the Christians’ valor they were doomed, “since God had made up his mind that the city should fall into the hands of the Turks.”64

The Janissaries at last got a foothold in the Saint Romanus barbican but their determination was colored with good fortune too. Several accounts describe the Genoese commander, John Giustiniani Longo, being wounded, although reports of his reaction vary. Some claim that he sought medical help, although in doing so, he caused the emperor to believe he was deserting his post. Barbaro, admittedly a hostile Venetian, suggested that Longo had retreated, shouting “The Turks have got into the city!,” which made everyone abandon hope. This panic, in turn, gave the Janissaries the chance to make a proper opening in the main walls and from there they poured into the city. In the early morning light the flags of Venice and the emperor were torn down and Ottoman banners began to appear on the skyline of Constantinople. As the Christians lost heart, the Genoese and the Venetians attempted to fight through to their vessels on the Golden Horn and flee. While the Italians rushed out, Ottoman troops poured in from every side and for one day the city was given over to the sack. Across Constantinople, the Turks wrought havoc, killing indiscriminately, whether young or old, male or female, healthy or infirm. Women, girls, and nuns were ravaged and many thousands of Christians were captured to be ransomed or sold as slaves. Barbaro luridly conveys the savagery of the moment: “The blood flowed in the city like rainwater in the gutters after a sudden storm, and the corpses of Turks and Christians were thrown into the Dardanelles, where they floated out to sea like melons on a canal.” They tore an inestimable amount of booty from the great religious institutions, as well as from private houses and from merchants.65 Just as in 1204, the mighty sanctuary of the Hagia Sophia was ripped open and plundered, and Leonard of Chios claimed the Turks “showed no respect for the sacred altars or holy images, but destroyed them, and gouged the eyes from the saints . . . and they stuffed their pouches with gold and silver taken from the holy images and sacred vessels.”66Crucifixes were paraded in a mocking procession through the Muslim camp and very soon the Hagia Sophia was turned from a church into a mosque.

The death of Constantine himself is shrouded in mystery. Some writers claimed that as the final onslaught began the emperor begged his courtiers to kill him and when they refused he charged into the fray and died under a hail of scimitars and daggers. Muslim sources indicate that he was close to the walls on the Sea of Marmara, looking to escape by boat, when he was slain by troops unaware of his true identity. Yet once the battle was over Sultan Mehmet did not try to eradicate a Christian presence from his new capital; for a start he realized that the city needed its local population to survive and prosper and soon Muslims, Christians, and Jews mingled freely enough, although the latter two remained subject groups who paid a poll tax according to Islamic law. The sultan even appointed a new Orthodox patriarch, which shows a broad sense of tolerance too.

The loss of Christendom’s greatest city provoked outrage in the West, not least because of the apparent indifference of the major ruling powers. Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (later Pope Pius II) wrote: “For what calamity of the times is not laid at the door of the princes? All troubles are ascribed to the negligence of rulers. ‘They might,’ said the populace, ‘have aided perishing Greece before she was captured. They were indifferent. They are not fit to rule.’”67


Within a year of Mehmet’s triumph, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, one of the most powerful men in Europe, made lavish promises to launch a crusade to recover Constantinople and to drive back the infidel. The forum for this was the Feast of the Pheasant (February 1454), an event saturated with chivalric behavior and another superb, if slightly late, example of the intimate connection between noble display and crusading.68 The year 1453 had also marked the end of the Hundred Years War and this seemed the perfect moment to respond to the catastrophe in the East. Philip’s father had led the forces defeated at Nicopolis in 1396 and although held prisoner for six months he had received a hero’s welcome on his return. Philip summoned the Burgundian nobility to the city of Lille in northern France to attend a sumptuous banquet and to hear his plans. Thirty-five artists were employed to decorate the chamber and, to ensure that the world knew of this splendid occasion, the duke ordered official accounts of the feast to be distributed. The report noted:

There was even a chapel on the table, with a choir in it, a pasty full of flute players. A figure of a girl, quite naked, stood against a pillar . . . she was guarded by a live lion who sat near her. My lord duke was served by a two-headed horse ridden by two men sitting back to back, each holding a trumpet. . . . Next came an elephant . . . carrying a castle in which sat the Holy Church, who made piteous complaint on behalf of the Christians persecuted by the Turks, and begged for help. Then two knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece brought in two damsels . . . these ladies asked my lord duke to make his vow. It was understood that if the king of France would go on the crusade, the duke would go.69

Philip’s vow was made “to God my creator and to the most virgin His mother, and to the ladies, and I swear on the pheasant. . . . If the Grand Turk would be willing to do battle with me in single combat, I shall fight with him with the aid of God and the Virgin mother in order to sustain the Christian faith.”70 This entrancing combination of revelry and unrestrained excess shows an almost total absorption of crusading into the chivalric ethos. The contrast between the cavorting of naked women and the impassioned preaching of a man such as Bernard of Clairvaux is self-evident, yet the Holy Church was said to be delighted by Philip’s promise—as well it might, given that many of the guests soon followed his example and assumed the cross too.

Two months later Philip repeated his intention at Regensburg where he spoke of his Christian duty and of “the crisis in which Christianity finds itself. If we wish to keep our faith, our liberty, our lives, we must take the field against the Turks and crush their power before it becomes any stronger.” Centuries of crusading hyperbole had preceded this statement, but it was a rare occasion when the gravity of the threat seemed to match the claims being made. Philip pushed ahead with his plans and engaged in serious and extensive preparations that included the manufacture of new pennons and banners, as well as signing up over five hundred gunners: an indication that Mehmet’s use of heavy artillery had been noticed in the West. Mehmet heard about the crusade and riled the duke with use of his spectacular title: “true heir of King Alexander and Hector of Troy, sultan of Babylon,” and he promised to do to Philip’s army the same as his predecessor had done to the duke’s father at Nicopolis.71 By the summer of 1456, however, the duke’s enthusiasm had begun to wane. His stipulation that the king of France should crusade remained unfulfilled as national rivalries became ever more important in frustrating the chances of holy war.

Mehmet, meanwhile, inspired by his triumph, advanced toward the Balkan town of Belgrade. In spite of his recent successes the determined resistance of Hungarian troops led by John Hunyadi and the seventy-year-old Franciscan friar John of Capistrano held off the Turks for three weeks and then, in a pitched battle, utterly defeated them.72 This feat of virtuosity, achieved without the crowned heads of western Europe, did much to stem the Ottoman advance for the next fifty years at least. As the fifteenth century drew to a close, the final large-scale crusading campaign of the medieval period was about to take place in Iberia.


Chaucer’s fictional knight had campaigned in Iberia during the late fourteenth century. A burst of crusading energy during the reign of Alfonso XI of Castile (1325–50) brought the capture of Algeciras in 1344, but this was not really a period of substantial progress for the reconquest and more one of consolidation and immigration as the Christians sought to confirm the gains of previous generations. Decades of political infighting also slowed the process, and the rule of Henry IV of Castile (1454–74) saw a man drawn to Islamic customs, clothing, and company. Some disapproved of this dubious behavior and continued unrest saw him cede the succession to his half-sister, Isabella, and her husband the Aragonese Prince Ferdinand. Thus two of the great Spanish dynasties joined together and their profound personal devotion to the crusading cause was a vital factor in the Christians’ eventual victory. This aggressive mood chimed in with the feelings of their people too. Convivencia, that is the toleration of other peoples, had been a striking feature of Iberian culture for centuries but a new sense of hostility now emerged. The first groups to experience this were the Jews and the converses (converts from Judaism) and pogroms began during the 1390s. In the aftermath of Henry IV’s reign, Ferdinand and Isabella stepped up the antagonism toward non-Catholics with the launch of the Inquisition in 1478, once again targeted largely at the conversos.

Ferdinand and Isabella’s eventual triumph was also the product of a good, if at times tense, relationship with the papacy. National and religious interests coalesced and successive popes legislated vital financial support for the enterprise. Increasingly generous offers of spiritual rewards—not just for those who went on crusade, but also to individuals who paid for someone to go in their place—were augmented by the full indulgence for people who gave as little as two silver reales. Legislation that allowed payment for spiritual benefits for deceased relatives was another recent—and highly lucrative—development. Taken together, and actively promoted by the Church hierarchy, these measures produced immense sums of money without which the reconquest could not have happened. As well as creating a fiscal framework for this new offensive, Pope Sixtus IV also offered spiritual encouragement, and in 1482 he sent the two monarchs a great silver crucifix to be carried at the front of the crusader army as a battle standard. These new expeditions were important to the pope, and indeed to Christendom in general, because the Ottoman triumph at Constantinople had generated a fear that the Turks might move through North Africa and penetrate Europe from the west. Ferdinand and Isabella played upon this sentiment to some extent and a letter from the king to his envoy in Rome in 1485 is generally taken as a fair representation of his crusading fervor: “We have not been moved nor are we moved to this war by any desire to enlarge our realms and seigniories, not by greed to obtain greater revenues than we possess, not by any wish to pile up treasures; for should we wish to we could do it with much less danger and expenditure. . . . But our desire to serve God and our zeal for His holy Catholic faith, make us put all other interests aside.”73

Thousands of people journeyed to Spain to expel the Moors from Iberia—men from England (sent on the orders of King Henry VII himself, who commanded prayers for the crusade’s success to be said across the land), Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Poland, and France came to fight under the silver standard, although the bulk of the armies were of Spanish origin. Annual campaigns began in 1483 and within a few years they took Ronda and Malaga. The size of the Christian forces was immense and we have reliable evidence that an army of 52,000 besieged Baza for six months in 1489. By way of comparison, the combined sides at the Battle of Hattin in 1187 had numbered no more than 40,000. By the summer of 1491 the Muslims were pinned back to the stronghold of Granada, on the edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains, deep in southern Andalusia. The royal family led a huge army, well supported by artillery, to besiege this formidable site, which was defended by the emir Boabdil. This was not the most intense of conflicts, and once it became plain that the Muslims were not going to get help from their coreligionists in North Africa a negotiated surrender was always likely. On January 2, 1492, Granada capitulated and the great silver cross was raised on the highest tower. Ferdinand and Isabella received Boabdil’s submission (the doffing of his hat to Ferdinand), leaving the Muslim to a tearful, if probably apocryphal, return to his mother, who allegedly scolded him for crying like a woman for what he could not defend like a man.

The entire Iberian Peninsula was back in Christian hands and the king sent an ecstatic report to Rome: “Your Holiness has such good fortune, after many travails, expenditures and deaths, and outpouring of the blood of our subjects and citizens, this kingdom of Granada which for 780 years was occupied by the infidels, that in your day and with your aid the victory has been won . . . to the glory of God and the exaltation of our holy Catholic faith.”74 A special Mass celebrated this landmark victory—and the Spanish legate held a bullfight for the citizens of Rome as his way of marking the moment.

In the decades immediately after Granada the Spanish started to make inroads into North Africa, in part to gain economic benefits but also to progress eastward in the stated hope of reaching Jerusalem. Back in the 1120s Bishop Diego Gelmírez of Compostela had argued that the holy city could be reached via North Africa and, almost four centuries later, it seemed a possibility. In 1510, however, a Spanish defeat at Tripoli marked the end of this plan.75 The wish to recover Jerusalem had been a powerful idea in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella and the same year that Granada fell one notable individual made his contribution to this aim: Christopher Columbus. Given his fame as the man who discovered the Americas, Columbus may not be the most obvious character to be heralded as a crusader but the capture of Granada had generated a fevered atmosphere of religious renewal. Within months the Spanish monarchs had signed and sealed documents to authorize his first great voyage, and Columbus’s own diaries show that his ultimate intention was to lay the ground for the recovery of Jerusalem itself. On December 26, 1492, he wrote of his wish to secure gold and spices to finance an expedition “to conquer the Holy Sepulchre, for thus I urged Your Highnesses to spend all the profits of this, my enterprise, on the conquest of Jerusalem.” His desire for riches was driven by spiritual as well as earthly reasons. By 1501–2 Columbus came to see himself as an agent of divine will, encouraged by the Holy Spirit. Stirred by apocalyptic ideas in the writings of contemporary Franciscans, he hoped to create the conditions for the Second Coming of Christ by the conversion of all peoples to Christianity and the recapture of the holy city. He also wanted to form an alliance with the great Mongol khan to fight Islam. By this time, however, while the Mongols might offer patronage to Nestorian monks, they had no interest in a war against the Muslims. Even more damagingly, Columbus’s conviction that such an alliance was possible was founded on a misunderstanding that the distance westward to the Orient was far smaller than in reality.76

The political and religious climate of the sixteenth century effectively brought to an end crusading’s formal ties with its medieval origins. Struggles between the mighty Habsburg Empire of Charles V (1519–56) and the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1520–66) still represented Christianity at war with Islam and in 1529 the relief of Vienna repulsed a Turkish thrust at the heart of Europe. While this was indeed a fully fledged crusade, such clashes were more akin to an imperial-led defense of Habsburg lands, rather than a holy war. In northern Europe, meanwhile, the Reformation swept away Catholic beliefs, national churches emerged to cast aside papal authority, and crusading became increasingly irrelevant: indulgences had become a debased and discredited idea. Too many false preachers had extracted money for their own ends and spiritual rewards were seen as a commercial, rather than a holy, transaction. A vast range of causes were eligible for these benefits and many people—often including secular princes—had taken a cut from the funding. As Pius II lamented, “People think our sole object is to amass gold. No one believes what we say. Like insolvent tradesmen, we are without credit.”77

What had happened at Granada represented a combination of crusading fervor and national interests, combined with effective papal support, efficient government control over crusade taxes, and a well-oiled publicity machine. This had helped to generate widespread popular enthusiasm but elsewhere in Europe it became almost impossible to draw together all these factors simultaneously, and this too explains the broader decline of crusading in this period. On rare occasions, fear of the Turks induced the Christians to act together, most notably with the epic sea victory of a Venetian-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Perhaps the last crusade of any real size was the Spanish Armada where the agendas of the papacy and Philip II coincided and the curia blessed the expedition as a crusade. When God’s will—or the tenacity of the English navy, combined with devastating storms off Ireland—rebuffed the campaign, the holy war seemed spent. Other than the Knights Hospitaller, boldly holding on to their island fortress of Malta, this most prominent feature of the medieval age appeared, finally, to have run its course.

The jihad spirit was in decline too—at least with regard to its use against the Christian West. In fact, the Ottomans spent much of the sixteenth century fighting Muslims rather than Christians. The Safavids of Iran, a powerful Shi’ite group, emerged as a serious danger and, just as Nur ad-Din and Saladin had called jihads in the name of orthodoxy, so the Turks vigorously pursued holy war against these enemies of the Sunni. Another opponent was, however, orthodox; namely, the Mamluks of Egypt, and in 1516–17 further Ottoman success brought an enormous area of land (plus a massive increase in revenue) under their control. From Egypt much of North Africa fell under Turkish authority. In the West, the armies of Suleyman the Magnificent prevailed at Belgrade in 1521, although defeat at Vienna eight years later marked the fullest extent of Ottoman expansion. The Turks also picked off surviving outposts of the crusades: the Hospitallers were expelled from Rhodes in 1522 (which prompted their move to Malta) and by 1571, Venetian-ruled Cyprus was conquered as well. Notwithstanding the famous defeat at the Battle of Lepanto the Ottomans dominated the eastern Mediterranean. By the seventeenth century, jihad sentiments and the drive of the ghazis had, like the zeal of the crusaders, largely given way to an imperialist agenda and the need to sustain the ruling institution. As the century drew to a close, the mighty Ottoman Empire began, ever so slowly, to decline—and in doing so it became ever more tempting to the expanding monarchies of Christian Europe.78

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