Stories from German History - Florence Aston

The Crusades


After our Lord Jesus Christ had ascended into heaven, the Holy Sepulchre where His body rested three days became a spot of especial veneration to Christian believers, and as the gospel spread far and wide through Europe, more and more people made pilgrimages to visit the sacred city of Jerusalem and the scenes of His labours and sufferings.

The great Constantine, Emperor of the Eastern or Byzantine half of the Roman Empire, was a devout Christian, having been carefully brought up by his mother, whom the world knows as Saint Helena, finder of 'the true cross.'

Helena is believed to have been a little maid in a Yorkshire inn in the days when Britain was garrisoned by troops of Roman soldiers.

Having attracted the attention of a Roman officer named Constantius by her sweetness and simple dignity of bearing, she became his wife and was carried far away from Britain to the East, where her husband was raised to the imperial throne of Constantinople, and where she bore the son who is called Constantine the Great, although English people like to think that he was born at York.

In honour of the Christ, Constantine built a magnificent marble temple around the simple cave in the garden where the sacred body had lain, and erected a noble cathedral, which is called the Church of the Resurrection. The pious Helena, too, when growing old in years, undertook a pilgrimage to these holy places, and founded several churches and chapels. She caused excavations on Mount Calvary to be made, and discovered there remains of the crosses used by the cruel Romans for the crucifixion of their victims. Believing one of these to be the remains of the cross on which Christ died, she brought it back to Europe, and fragments were kept as holy relics by numbers of monasteries and churches.

The desire to pray beside the Holy Sepulchre, to visit the scenes of Christ's sufferings, and the belief that such a pilgrimage would atone for sins committed and open the gates of heaven, led many a man to undertake the terrible journey and brave the perils of the way.

The pilgrim would first kneel before the altar of his church at home, and there receive from the priest a simple robe of coarse black serge, a rosary of beads with which to pray, a slouched hat to shield his face from the sun, a wallet to hold his food, and an iron-shod staff to help him on his way.

Thus equipped, he would wander forth, and if he managed to survive the many dangers on his journey, he would visit the sacred places and pray, lay his rosary on the Holy Sepulchre, and bring it back sanctified by this act, bathe in the River Jordan, where Jesus was baptized, and stitch the cockle-shells from the seashore round his hat. Years afterward, wayworn and old, he would perhaps return to his native place, bearing a faded palm-leaf in his hand to lay upon the altar as a token of his pilgrimage to the sepulchre of Christ.

After the year 1000 the number of these pilgrims increased and they found that it was much safer to travel together in companies for mutual protection on the way. Also when they saw the beautiful silks and carpets, steel

and brasswork of the East, they would take money or

goods from Germany and exchange them for the foreign treasures, thereby combining the advantages of a pilgrimage with those of a trading expedition.

When the Arabs took possession of the Holy Land in the seventh century they left the Christian pilgrims in peace to visit their holy places. Indeed the great Charlemagne had made an agreement with the famous Haroun al Raschid, by which, in return for a small tribute, the Caliph undertook that they should not only remain unmolested, but should be granted protection. The Arabs also aided them in the erection of churches, and of a hospital which was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. But when Palestine fell into the hands of the Turks, the position of the pilgrims became unbearable. The holy places were plundered and desecrated and the pilgrims themselves not only disturbed in their devotions but ill treated and robbed, or captured and sold as slaves. Rumours of these abuses soon reached Europe, where it was felt a shameful thing that Jerusalem should remain in the hands of unbelievers.

Pope Gregory VII was justly indignant, and conceived the idea of fitting out an expedition to go and take the city by force from the hands of the Turks, but he was too much occupied with his quarrels with Henry IV to make any practical arrangements, and it was left to a simple hermit to rouse Christendom.

This man was a Frenchman named Pierre of Amiens, whose name has become familiar to us as Peter the Hermit. In his youth he had been a soldier, but, finding no pleasure in his calling, had exchanged the breastplate for the monk's frock, and had gained a great reputation for holiness by his sanctity of life.

He too had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and had been horrified at what he had seen, and at the fearful stories he had heard of the sufferings of Christians at the hands of the 1urlrs. Kneeling in the Church of the Resurrection at Jerusalem and meditating on these things, he heard a voice from heaven which said: "Rise, Peter! Hasten to accomplish the work begun. Declare the sorrows of My people, that they may gain help and the Holy Place freedom from the hands of the unfaithful."

So Peter arose, and came with all speed to Rome, where he was received by Pope Urban II, to whom he told his story. And the Holy Father commended him for his simple pious life, gave him a blessing on his mission, and letters to various princes, asking them to receive him and listen to his words.

So he traversed Italy and ice, haggard and way-worn, barefoot and girt with a rope around his waist, mounted on a sorry ass and holding the crucifix in his Land. And the people ran out to see this strange man, who told the story of his vision and of his interview with Pope Urban, and who preached with such fiery eloquence that he melted his hearers to tears, and they would declare themselves ready to go wherever he chose to lead them.

He was honoured as a saint, and happy were those who could press near enough to touch the hem of his garments. Even the hairs of the ass were plucked out and kept as relics of its pious master.

Meanwhile the Eastern Emperor, Alexius, sent a swift messenger to Rome, begging for help, relating the atrocities perpetrated by the Turks upon the Christian pilgrims, and, what proved to be only too true, their determination to fall on Constantinople and take the Eastern Kingdom for their own.

Pope Urban saw that no time was to be lost, so he convoked a meeting at Piacenza in the north of Italy, which was attended by so many people that no building could hold them and he had to speak in the open air.

So moved was the multitude by his words, that a large portion of the assembly made a solemn vow to aid the Eastern Emperor against the enemies of Christendom. Encouraged by their interest, Urban crossed the Alps, and in the year 1095 entered France, summoning the clergy and laity to meet him at a great general council to be held on the eighth day after the feast of Saint Martin at Clermont in Auvergne.

So great was the enthusiasm roused by the preaching of Peter the Hermit that vast crowds flocked to Clermont to hear the Pope's wishes, and the town could not hold them. All the towns and villages in the neighbourhood were crowded, and in spite of the cold November weather, hundreds slept in tents or in the open, refusing to go away.

Fourteen archbishops, 225 bishops, and 400 abbots were there, besides hundreds of inferior clergy and a countless multitude of laymen.

After the ordinary affairs of the Church had been settled, and King Philip of France, who was at that time at variance with the Pope, had been excommunicated, Peter the Hermit addressed the vast assembly, describing all he had seen in the Holy Land with fiery eloquence that had a wonderful effect upon his hearers.

Then Pope Urban himself took up the word, pleading so piteously for the cause of Christ and exhorting them so powerfully to wrest the Holy Sepulchre from the hands of the infidels, that the multitude burst into one great shout: "It is the will of God! It is the will of God!"

Peter the Hermit


Next Bishop Ademar of Puy approached, and, kneeling before the Pope, entreated permission to accompany the expedition to Palestine. He was followed by almost all the clergy and laity present, and each one sewed on his shoulder a cross of red cloth, from which the expedition received the name of Crusade.

After the assembly was dismissed and had departed home, the clergy preached the Crusade in all directions and the laity told what they had heard and enkindled enthusiasm everywhere.

Forgiveness of sins was promised to all who joined, and hundreds pressed forward in the hope of thus gaining eternal life.

Many serfs took the cross, for in this way they might gain freedom from cruel lords, and debtors saw in the expedition a means of leaving their burdens behind them.

Enthusiasm at length became fanaticism, and signs and wonders abounded throughout the whole of France. Stones fell from heaven, comets and northern lights appeared; one man saw a great city in the sky, another a long road leading eastward, and another a sea of blood. A priest discerned a sword in the heavens, another an army, and a third found warriors fighting with crosses in their hands. It was even rumoured that the great Charlemagne had risen from the dead to lead the band in person, and a fever which was devastating the country at the time was called the Holy Fire and was accepted as a punishment for delay in setting out.


In the spring of 1096, Peter the Hermit found himself at the head of a motley multitude, ill armed, ill disciplined, destitute of money, horses, armour or any proper provision for the way, destitute of everything except an unreasoning enthusiasm which would lead them to the death. They crossed the Rhine and entered Germany, where they were received with ridicule by the people, only being joined by the Bishop of Strasburg and the Abbot of Schaffhausen.

Having passed onward into Hungary and Bulgaria, they were fallen upon by the fierce tribes of those countries, plundered and murdered, and of the enormous crowds that set forth, 100,000 men met their deaths without having set eyes on the Holy Land.

Peter the Hermit, with a handful of men, managed to press forward as far as Asia Minor, but being attacked there by the Turks, turned back, and thankfully took refuge in the city of Constantinople.

A second rabble, after having risen and massacred 12,000 Jews because their fathers had crucified the Lord of Life, met in Hungary the same fate as their predecessors.

Meanwhile, the expeditions of the serfs and vassals having so miserably failed, the nobles were preparing a band with much more knowledge and forethought, and by the next August they too started on their way. Many eminent men were with them, of whom the most distinguished were Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lorraine, his brother Baldwin, Count of Flanders, Hugh de Vermandois, brother of the King of France, Robert, Duke of Normandy, son of William the Conqueror, and Boemund, Prince of Tarento, who was accompanied by his nephew Tancred, one of the most famous warriors of the age. +

This force was a great contrast to the motley rabble who had wandered eastward a few months before. They passed in good order down the River Danube, and the Duke of Lorraine, with 80,000 men, marched safely through Hungary to Constantinople, where he was met by Hugh de Vermandois with the finch force.

others soon joined them, and altogether they formed an army of 600,000 men, of which Godfrey of Bouillon was chosen as leader.

His gentle piety, courage and splendid honesty fitted him for this position, and he has ever been renowned as one of the most gallant knights of history. As a youth he had fought for the Emperor Henry IV against his rival Rudolph, and had borne the banner in the fight, with the end of which he had given Rudolph such a mighty blow in the chest that within a few days he had died, and as a reward for this deed the young standard-bearer had been granted lands in Lorraine. The other nobles looked up to him as their chief, for besides his nobility of character he possessed an unusually handsome person and a lever, practical mind.

Alexius, the Eastern Emperor, was somewhat nervous at the approach of so alarming a multitude, and took an oath of allegiance from each leader before he allowed them to take ship for Asia Minor. Here they were joined by Peter the Hermit and his poor remnant, and they stormed the city of Nicaea, famous in Church history for its councils.

As they marched southward they took Edessa, which was given to Boemund of Tarento, and then attacked Antioch, which was only captured after fierce resistance on the part of the inhabitants.

No sooner had the Christians taken possession of the city, than an army of Turks appeared, and they in their turn suffered all the horrors of a siege.

Unprovided with food, they were on the point of surrendering, when a monk declared that in a vision he had seen the spear that pierced the side of Jesus Christ hidden in one of the ancient churches of the city. Search was made, and an old spear-head was discovered in the indicated spot, and when it was elevated on the ramparts the Crusaders' courage revived. The Archangel Michael, they declared, was distinctly visible fighting in the ranks, and such was the enthusiasm roused by this belief that the Turks were utterly routed, leaving rich booty in the hands of the victors, and the Christian army swept on to a position within sight of Jerusalem.

Here they fell on their knees and kissed the sacred earth, but a terrible struggle awaited them.

Pestilence and war and the inroads of marauding Turks had miserably reduced their numbers, and Jerusalem was guarded by at least 40,000 men. But from the Mount of Olives, the very scene of our Lord's Agony in the Garden, Peter the Hermit addressed the Crusaders, his ancient fire by no means quenched in spite of the hardships he had endured, and with desperate courage, amid cries of "God with us! God willeth it!" they broke through the gates, and Jerusalem was won.

After fearful slaughter of men, women, and children, for all infidels were considered enemies of God, the Crusaders washed the blood-stains from their hands, laid aside their swords, and, bareheaded and barefoot, they formed a procession, and filed into the Church of the Resurrection to give thanks for victory.

After this Boemund was made Governor of Edessa and Baldwin, Governor of Antioch. Godfrey of Bouillon was unanimously elected King of Jerusalem, but he refused to bear the title or to wear a crown of gold in the city where the Saviour had worn a crown of thorns, so he governed Jerusalem under the simple title of Protector of the Holy City.

Two years later, worn out by the hardships of the Crusade, the pious Godfrey died, and his brother Baldwin succeeded to his throne.

Peter the Hermit reached Europe in safety and lived eighteen more years to stir men's hearts by his wondrous eloquence.

The hospital of Saint John was restored some time afterward and an order of knights was founded there called the Knights Hospitallers or Knights of Saint John, who were dedicated to the service of the sick and infirm, at the same time taking the monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

During the same year, on the spot where Solomon's temple had once stood, a second order of knights was founded, who, in addition to the usual monastic vows, swore to defend the Holy Sepulchre against the enemies of the Christian faith.

The kingdom of Jerusalem, however, never gained great power, since the Turks were determined to get rid of the invaders, and constantly worried them by skirmishes and sallies during the reigns of Baldwin I and his son Baldwin IL But when the latter was succeeded by his son Baldwin III, who was a boy of only thirteen years of age, the Saracens saw that their opportunity was come, for the Christian community consisted of a mixed multitude of Germans, Frenchmen, Italians, English, Normans and Greeks, who looked upon each other with jealousy and aversion, and were only kept in check by the discipline of a strong hand over them. Their dissensions were the enemy's opportunity, for wandering missionaries had preached rebellion among the Saracens, and formed them into societies, all with the aim of overthrowing the power of Christ and glorifying the name of Mohammed. Some of these societies consisted of dangerous fanatics, chief among which was that of the Assassins, a name derived from a potent drug named hashi8ch, which they drank before going into battle, and under the influence of which they fought with reckless fury.

In the year 1142 Edessa was retaken by the Sultan of Bagdad, and when the news reached Europe it caused consternation, and Pope Eugenius III sent out a pious monk named Bernard of Clairvaux, who first displayed the doubled-headed eagle as the arms of the empire, symbolizing the union of the German and Greek nations for the defence of Christianity. It is now borne both by Austria and Russia as the representatives of the German and Grecian emperors.

In the spring of 1147 the German contingent of the Second Crusade set forth under Conrad III, and marched safely through Hungary, though they suffered severely from floods as soon as they reached Greece.

When they reached Asia Minor they were led astray by faithless guides into a wilderness where neither food nor water could be procured, and here hundreds perished of hunger, thirst and disease under the burning Eastern sun.

To add to their distress, they were constantly harried by Turks, who so far reduced their numbers as to leave to Conrad no alternative but to turn back. At Nicaea he met the French, who at first mocked the Germans scornfully for their retreat, but they dearly atoned for their insults a few days afterward, when they themselves had to turn and beat a retreat before the attacks of Turkish marauders. Weary and sad, Conrad returned to Constantinople, where the French and German nobles took counsel, and decided to set sail for Antioch, since they despaired of ever reaching Palestine by land. But this decision only served to discourage the armies still more, and many turned homeward, leaving a miserable handful to march on Damascus.

Here the Germans fought bravely, and Conrad is said to have cut off a Turk's head and arm with one stroke of his sword; but their army was not sufficiently disciplined to be able to carry on the siege with success, and they were obliged to retreat and return home, miserably conscious that the Second Crusade had been a complete failure.

For one man, however, the expedition had provided experience of the greatest value, and this was Conrad's nephew, Frederick Barbarossa. He had won great honour by his valorous deeds on the Crusade, had gained insight into the management of armies and conduct of war, and, last, but not least, had trained a naturally strong body to withstand cold and heat, hunger and thirst, and the utmost hardships that man can endure.

Frederick was a Guelph on the side of his mother, Judith, who was a daughter of Henry the Black, Duke of Bavaria, and a Ghibelline on the side of his father, Conrad's brother Frederick, Duke of Swabia, and as he was thirty years of age, and so tried a warrior, much satisfaction was felt when Conrad on his death-bed named him as his successor, instead of his own son, who was only a child.

Since he was Conrad's nephew on the male side, Frederick was one of the mighty Hohenstaufen family. Accordingly, in March 1152, he was unanimously elected King of Germany at Frankfort and crowned at Aix-la-Chapelle.