“History always repeats itself: the first time is tragedy, the second time is farce” - Karl Marx
There is only one instance of a crusade being part-led by a woman, and this woman was one of the most extraordinary characters of the Middle Ages: Eleanor of Aquitaine.
She was born in 1122, the eldest daughter of William, Duke of Aquitaine, the immensely rich ruler of a vast domain in the south-west of France. This was the time of the great "Twelfth-century Renaissance", when it was increasingly no longer sufficient for noblemen to be illiterate warlords, and the ducal court at Poitiers was a a home for troubadours. The Dukes of Aquitaine could trace their ancestry back for many generations, and tended to regard the Kings of France as uncultured provincial upstarts. Eleanor was taught to read, and her father wrote poetry.
Eleanor's grandfather, another William, had not initially taken part in the First Crusade, where his powerful neighbour, Raymond, Count of Toulouse, had been one of the leaders. Two years after the capture of Jerusalem, William had taken out a reinforcing expedition, but it had met with disaster: most of his troops had been massacred by the Turks, though William himself had managed to reach the Holy City before returning home. He died when Eleanor was only four years old, but the court at Poitiers must have been full of stories of “Outremer” the land beyond the sea, where crusading lords, who were mostly French, now lived in fabulous luxury unknown at home, ruling the places where Christ had once walked. No doubt the young girl was fascinated.
When Eleanor was 15, her father died. He left no son to succeed him, so Eleanor became the heiress to the province of Aquitaine. The King of France, Louis VI, (known as “Louis the Fat”), saw the dynastic possibilities, and was quick to arrange a marriage between Eleanor and his own son, another Louis, who was just a year older, thus bringing this region, amounting to as much as a quarter of present-day France, under direct royal control for the first time. The young couple had only been married a few weeks when King Louis died, and Eleanor found herself Queen of France.
The marriage proved to be disastrously unsatisfactory for both parties. The new King Louis VII had not expected to become King; he was the second son of his father and was intended for a career in the Church, but became heir to the throne at the death of his elder brother in 1131. In truth Louis always seemed more interested in religion than in ruling: he spent much of his time praying and doing penance; and although personally brave, proved an ineffective strategist and commander. Under his leadership the government of the French kingdom was weak, with anarchy and civil war always threatening. Eleanor soon became tired of him, and of life in Paris, which compared with the glorious south was poor, dirty, cold and culturally backward. Furthermore she failed in her principal duty as Queen: after several years of marriage, she had not produced a son and heir, having given birth only to a daughter. But the personal problems of Louis and Eleanor were soon overshadowed by grave news from Palestine.
The main reason for the success of the First Crusade had been divisions amongst Moslems. The local emirs were always feuding with each other, and the Turks and Egyptians hated each other as bitterly as they hated the crusaders; a hatred exacerbated by the fact that in the eyes of most Moslems, the rulers of Egypt were Shia heretics. But this situation was soon to change.
The Turkish ruler of Mosul and Aleppo was Zanghi, nicknamed “Zanghi the Bloody”. Ferociously brutal even by the standards of the time; the savagery of his punishments was much remarked on by contemporary Moslem writers. Now in his sixties, he had fought many times against the crusaders. At Christmas 1144 he attacked Edessa, beyond the Euphrates, the most easterly of the Crusader states. Count Jocelyn, who was supposed to be in charge there, had gone away for the festivities, leaving the city inadequately garrisoned and provisioned. Zanghi captured Edessa, slaughtering the men and enslaving the women. This was the Moslems’ first real success over the crusaders, and the Caliph in Baghdad rewarded Zanghi with the title, “Ornament of Islam”. He did not long enjoy his triumph, because shortly afterwards he was stabbed to death by a eunuch whilst in a drunken stupor. His son, Nur ad-Din, less brutal but no less determined, succeeded him and vowed to continue a jihad against the Franks. He had some able lieutenants, notably two Kurdish brothers, Asad ad-Din Shirkuh and Najm ad-Din Ayub. The latter’s son, born in 1138, was destined to become the greatest of all the opponents of the crusaders; known in the west as Saladin.
Jerusalem was currently under control of a woman, Melisande, widow of King Baldwin II and acting regent for her young son Baldwin III. She decided to appeal to the west for help; directing her appeal specifically to undisputed leader of western Christendom: Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux
Bernard had been born in 1090, from a noble Burgundian family. He entered the abbey of Citeaux in 1113, but then left to create his own abbey, Clairvaux, where he stayed till his death in 1153, soon after which he was proclaimed a saint. He must have been a truly extraordinary figure. His ulcerated body resembled a walking skeleton from all the fasting and penances he inflicted on himself, he was barely able to eat, and was filthy from the hair-shirt which he never removed; but his marvellous voice moved thousands when he preached. He adjudicated between two rival candidates for the Papacy in 1131 and sponsored the election of Eugenius II as Pope in 1143; he condemned the rationalist ideas of great scholar and teacher Peter Abelard, but fearlessly denounced kings who resisted church reform. On one memorable occasion he had, by sheer force of personality, compelled Eleanor’s father to fall prostrate before him.
It took time for news of the Edessa disaster to reach Europe, but near the end of 1145 Pope Eugenius wrote to King Louis urging him to lead new crusade. There was little initial enthusiasm: no kings had ventured on the First Crusade and many royal advisors feared anarchy in France if king was absent. But at Easter 1146, Bernard preached the need for a Second Crusade to vast public gathering: it was a Christian duty to protect the Holy Land, and remission of sins guaranteed. Bernard’s eloquence won over King Louis and many of his nobles. Eleanor was also determined to go, doubtless welcoming a bit of excitement in her dreary marriage, and also having her own family reasons: her uncle Raymond, whom she remembered and liked from her childhood, was now ruling Antioch, having married Constance, the granddaughter and heiress of the famous crusader leader Bohemond. In 1147 Pope Eugenius came to Paris and presented the sacred banner of France, the red and gold Oriflamme, to King Louis. England was paralysed by the civil war between King Stephen and the rival claimant for the crown, his cousin Matilda, but when Bernard preached in western Germany, he won over the Emperor Conrad III to the crusade.
Both the French and German contingents decided to follow the land route, down the Danube and through Bulgaria to Constantinople, then across Turkey to Antioch. The Germans, ill-led and undisciplined, set out first, beginning their crusade with a massacre of Jews in the Rhineland, to the disgust of Bernard, who denounced it. They then created mayhem all the way across central Europe, before arriving in Constantinople in late summer 1147. The Byzantine Emperor Manuel did not want them, having long pursued a reasonably successful policy of playing off Moslem princes against each other, and after much trouble he persuaded the crusaders to ship across to Asia in September. The French arrived a few weeks later, crossing lands already ravaged by the Germans, and were also shipped across.
By the time the French began their march across Asia Minor, Conrad’s Germans had already been trapped and massacred by the Turks near Dorylaeum, but the French only knew this when Conrad and a few ragged survivors turned up on a retreat back to Constantinople. Despite this most unpromising beginning, Louis decide to press on. The French marched south and east, without Byzantine guides, sometimes getting completely lost, and then winter set in, bringing hunger and disease. Discipline broke down and the army split up into separate groups. In mid-January 1148, Louis with the rearguard was ambushed by Turks in mountains north of Antalya. Louis managed to fight his way out and was one of the very few to escape. His courage in battle was never in doubt, and for once his personal piety and modesty helped him. He was dressed as a simple knight, with none of the accoutrements of royalty, with the result that the Turks did not realize he was the king, and made little effort to stop him getting away. The remnant of the army escaped to Antalya on the coast, only to find that there were not enough ships to evacuate them all, and then plague broke out. Finally, Louis, Eleanor and some followers took ship to Antioch, leaving the rest of army behind, where most of them died; though it was reported that a great many converted to Islam in order to save their lives.
What was left of the royal party reached Antioch in March 1148. Eleanor was delighted to find the city a great and civilised place; so much better than Paris! She was equally delighted to meet her uncle Raymond again. Louis, it goes without saying, did not approve of the oriental lifestyle at all. Raymond now suggested that the crusaders should join him in an expedition against Nur ad-Din in Aleppo, before he became too powerful. This made good strategic stress, but Louis vetoed it. He was eager to push on to Jerusalem, and also felt a dark suspicion that his wife and uncle Raymond were becoming altogether too close. Eleanor was now determined on annulment of the marriage, on the grounds of consanguity, but Louis put the matter off by saying he would have to consult the lords and bishops of France. They set off southwards for Jerusalem.
Predictably, Louis loved the Holy City, and Eleanor did not. What should the crusade do now? After much debate between the new arrivals, King Baldwin and the Templars, it was decided to attack Damascus. This made no sense whatsoever. The Emir of the city was causing no trouble, he was afraid of Nur ad-Din and wished only to live at peace with the crusaders. Furthermore, the campaign was conducted with considerable ineptitude. The crusaders, reaching Damascus in midsummer 1148, cunningly set up camp in an area without water supplies, imposed an ineffective siege for a month, and then, hearing that Nur ad-Din’s army was approaching, gave up and retreated, suffering heavily casualties from Saracen raiders as they pulled out, amidst much bickering and accusations of treason and bribery. The campaign served only to boost Moslem morale, and 1154 the previously neutral Damascus was taken without a fight by Nur ad-Din when the current Emir died.
Louis insisted on staying in Jerusalem till April 1149, when he and Eleanor sailed for home on different ships. On reaching Sicily, they met more tragic news: uncle Raymond in Antioch, riding out against Nur ad-Din, had been killed along with almost all his men.
So ended the spectacularly inglorious Second Crusade. One cannot but reiterate Karl Marx's comment, given at the top of this piece. He was writing about the French Emperor Napoleon III in the 19th century, but it applies just as well to the expedition of Louis VII, six hundred years earlier.
(There will be more about Eleanor in my next entry. An interesting sidelight on the logistical problems can be found in Tim Severin's book, "Crusader", where he follows on horseback the route of the crusaders from the Rhine to Jerusalem. Even in the modern age he encounters great difficulties in the journey)