Looking Back on the Second Crusade: Some Late Twelfth-Century English Perspectives

Second CrusadeLooking Back on the Second Crusade: Some Late Twelfth-Century English Perspectives

Peter W. Edbury

The Second Crusade and the Cistercians

It was as long ago as 1953 that Giles Constable published his seminal study, “The Second Crusade as seen by Contemporaries”.1 By contrast, my concern is to consider very briefly not what contemporaries knew or thought, but how people writing a generation or so later viewed the crusade, and ask what, if anything, they have to say that is distinctive, and whether subsequent events influenced their perceptions. As we might expect, English writers of the late twelfth century or early thirteenth tended to rely heavily on histories com–posed nearer the events. Two authors were especially influential: Henry of Huntingdon, who must have composed his account of the crusade by 1155 – in other words within seven years of the expedition itself – and the Norman abbot of Mont St. Michel, Robert of Torigni, who would seem to have been writing rather later. Roger of Howden, for example, lifted his account of the crusade verbatim from Henry of Huntingdon, while the description of these events in the annals of the Cistercian abbey of Waverley in Surrey is copied word for word from Robert of Torigni. Roger of Howden’s lack of originality is especially disappointing in view of his importance as a source for the Third Crusade. Another invaluable writer, Ralph of Diceto, mentioned only the preliminaries to the crusade, not the crusade itself. What has happened is that his Abbreviationes Chronicorum breaks off in 1148; his Ymagines Historiarum begins in the same year, and the events of the crusade would appear to have been lost in the hiatus between these works.2 It also came as something of a disappointment to discover that neither of those two late twelfth-century gossips, Walter Map and Gerald Wales, has any comments on the crusade. Gerald, it is true, does have what I take to be an oblique reference: recalling his own preaching of the Third Crusade at Haverfordwest in 1188, he compared his success at moving an audience made up of Welshmen while speaking in a language they did not understand to Bernard’s earlier success in preaching in French to the Germans.3


Gerald’s memory of St. Bernard’s role as a crusade preacher, though mentioned by Robert of Torigni, found few other echoes among the English writers of my period. Of the historians I have seen, only Ralph of Diceto made any significant allusion to his role. Ralph described Louis VII’s conflict with the Church over the archbishopric of Bourges. The affair was resolved thanks to Bernard’s mediation, and the king agreed to back down and go to Jerusalem to atone for the sacrilegious oath he had sworn during the quarrel. He thereupon took the cross and prepared for his crusade. The idea that Louis was concerned principally with a pilgrimage for the expiation of his sins rather than with undoing the damage wrought by the Muslim capture of Edessa has been discussed elsewhere by Aryeh Grabois; Ralph of Diceto is the only one of these English writers to suggest that the motivation for the crusade was anything other than the needs of the Holy Land.

Henry of Huntingdon and Robert of Torigni had followed the papal bull Quantum Predecessores in linking the crusade to the Muslim capture of Edessa, but it was William of Newburgh, writing in the late 1190s, who gave this theme its most full and most sophisticated treatment.5 William was in no doubt that the crusade had come about as a direct response to the fall of Edessa, and he described the circumstances at length: Edessa had long been a bastion of Christendom; the faith of the people had stood firm at the time of Valens – here William has a historical tradition deriving ultimately from the Historia Tripartita – and the city had never at any time fallen to the Muslims – a misconception which may originate in the reference in Quantum Predecessores to the idea that Edessa had escaped Turkish occupation during the period of Byzantine collapse in the decades before the First Crusade. The fall of Edessa was blamed on its ruler, Joscelin, who had seduced the daughter of a certain Armenian; the father had then taken revenge by letting the Turks into the city. Where this story came from is not known – the idea that Edessa fell as the result of the treachery of one of its inhabitants is at variance with our other information – but William’s account may not be entirely without foundation: William of Tyre similarly had heard reports of Joscelin’s unsavory sexual behavior.6

No English author made any reference to the crusade on the eastern marches of Germany, but several followed Henry of Huntingdon or Robert of Torigni in mentioning the successes at Lisbon and in Spain. Henry had contrasted the absence of God’s grace at the siege of Damascus with the divine aid that had attended the more lowly crusaders in Spain and Portugal and quoted the first epistle of St. Peter (5 v.5): “For God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.” He took evident pride in noting that the greater part of these men had come from England. But despite this English involvement, no one could add anything; Gervase of Canterbury, for example, was content simply to record the victories at Lisbon and Almeria, stripping away all Henry’s theology.7 It was the expeditions of Louis VII and Conrad III that continued to hold the center of attention.

So what went wrong?  For Henry of Huntingdon, God had spurned the efforts of the crusaders: their fornication, adultery and other wickedness had earned His displeasure, and so it was that the armies were betrayed by the emperor of Constantinople and harried by the sword of the enemy; Louis’ hope of restoring his reputation at Damascus had come to nothing as he lacked God’s grace. Robert of Torigni was scarcely less theological in his explanation. He preferred not to dwell on the hardships, pestilence and enemy attacks suffered during the passage through the Byzantine empire, ascribing them to the oppression of the poor and the spoliation of churches that had attended the start of the expedition.8 But of the later writers, only William of Newburgh, his near contemporary Gervase of Canterbury, and the early thirteenth-century Cistercian, Ralph of Coggeshall, attempted an answer that was not totally derivative.

Gervase and Ralph are notable for their secular tone. Gervase mentioned the foolhardiness of the crusaders and the efforts of the Saracens before going on to recount the story of how the Damascus expedition was frustrated by the treacherous dealings of the Templars, who accepted a huge bribe from the citizens to raise the siege only to discover too late that what they had thought were gold coins were in fact copper. Ralph of Coggeshall also reported that the siege was raised when the Templars accepted a bribe, although in his case he believed that it had been paid by Nur al-Din.9 The idea that Templar venality was to blame was not new – earlier writers including John of Salisbury and the Wurzburg Annalist had already repeated the allegation 10 – while other authors, notably William of Tyre and Michael the Syrian, alluded to a bribe which turned out to be in counterfeit money.11 So far as I am aware, Gervase is the earliest writer to link the counterfeit bribe with the Templars, although the tale may have had a wide circulation; there is another version in the early thirteenth-century Chronique d’ Ernoul.12 But despite their popularity among later writers, it is most unlikely that these stories have any factual basis. The accusations against the Templars are clearly a further symptom of the mounting antipathy towards the Order which elsewhere in the later twelfth century found expression in the writings of, among others, William of Tyre and Walter Map,13 while the story of the valueless bribe probably appealed to clerical writers because of its moral dimension, showing that avarice and treachery do not prosper. Both Gervase and William of Tyre spoke of the frustrated expectations of the recipients as nothing short of miraculous, although in Gervase’s case there is more than a hint of sardonic irony.

William of Newburgh is very different. In his account we find theological and mundane explanations for the failure of the crusade juxtaposed at almost every turn.

After entering Asia Minor . . . (the crusaders) experienced the treachery of the Greek emperor. Our forces, however, had indulged in certain excesses and had incurred his displeasure, and by their arrogant and uncontrolled behavior, they had fired the anger of Almighty God as well against them.14

There is here an extraordinary evenhandedness: Greek perfidy, understandable ill-will, divine retribution. All go together. William proceeds to discuss God’s disfavor: alluding to the story in Joshua, ch. 7, of the sin of Achan and the Israelite’s failure before Ai, he explains how the secret crime of just one man could turn God against His people. In the case of the crusade it was licentiousness in the camp that lay at the root of divine displeasure. Secondly, the crusaders were trusting in their own strength rather than relying on God, and William quotes the same verse from I Peter that Henry of Huntingdon had employed: “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.” He then returns to mundane explanations: the crusaders plundered the Greeks; the emperor became hostile and withdrew food supplies; the army wasted away through hunger; it was prey to Muslim ambushes; the weather aggravated the crusaders’ plight. Essentially what we have is a reworking of the material to be found in Henry of Huntingdon’s account. But, unlike Henry, William was unable to see these events wholly in theological terms. As Professor Partner has remarked, “It is not that his stated critical and theological assumptions are very different from Henry’s, but he feels greater trepidation about applying them.”15

Having brought the remnants of the French and German armies to Jerusalem, William ended his account of the crusade abruptly: “They then returned ingloriously, having achieved nothing of note.”16 There is no reference at all to the Damascus campaign. Instead he described the death of Prince Raymond of Antioch in battle – this was in 1149 – and King Baldwin III of Jerusalem’s rescue mission to northern Syria, and he then mentioned the capture of Gaza (c.1150) and Ascalon (1153). Once again God, who resisteth the proud, had given grace to the humble. Interestingly, William has nothing but praise for the Latins settled in the East.

So what conclusions, if any, can we draw? Clearly these late twelfth-century writers had only a limited fund of information at their disposal. New elements, such as Joscelin of Edessa’s seduction of the Armenian woman, or the Templars’ bribe that turned out to be of copper and not gold, are the sort of tales that could conceivably have found their way back to England with the crusaders returning from the Third Crusade, but it would be unwise to insist on this point.17  John of Salisbury, the ablest and best-informed English commentator on the Second Crusade, was not writing in England and left no mark on later authors. So, for example, Richard of Devizes is alone in alluding to the allegation, which John had featured prominently, that Eleanor of Aquitaine had an adulterous and incestuous relationship with Raymond of Antioch. Other writers of his generation, Walter Map and Gerald of Wales, preferred to comment on Eleanor’s supposed adultery with Henry II’s father, Count Geoffrey of Anjou, while William of Newburgh decried her presence in the host during the crusade on the grounds that many other women had followed her lead in joining the expedition, with the result that the chastity which should have prevailed in the camp was compromised.18

            There was also a distinct lack of curiosity. None of the English historians who described the Second Crusade, nor, so far as I am aware anyone else, addressed the question of why, if the fall of Edessa had been the occasion of the crusade, there had been no attempt at its recovery. More significantly, it is difficult to detect any impact on their accounts of the Second Crusade from the events of 1187-92. Thus no one suggested that the sinfully obstructive behavior of the Latins in the East in the late 1140s prefigured the wickedness which led to the loss of Jerusalem, and no one seems to have drawn any parallels or contrasts between the fortunes of Louis or Conrad and those of Richard, Philip Augustus and Frederick Barbarossa. William of Newburgh, with his multiplicity of human and theological reasons for the failure of the expedition, and his appreciation that successes in the East in the years after 1148 did much to efface the disasters, is by far the most interesting, but even he is circumscribed by his limited information and by an inability to see these events in a broader historical perspective. Substantial numbers of Englishmen and Normans had joined the expedition, but echoes of their recollections are conspicuous only by their absence. It was not that later twelfth-century writers were unaware of the events of the Second Crusade: Ralph Niger, writing at the time of the Third Crusade, reminded his readers that the Muslims habitually curtailed the crusaders’ sources of supply and obstructed their routes, and he cited the experiences of Louis and Conrad as proof; elsewhere he lampooned Bishop Otto of Freising for his part in persuading Conrad to participate in the expedition.19 Interestingly, St. Bernard escaped his stricture. Nor are accounts of the Third Crusade completely devoid of references to the Second: Roger of Howden, for example, had the crusaders tell the Muslims in 1191 that they intended restoring the Christian possessions to the frontiers as at the time of Louis’ sojourn in the East.20 But the English writers were either locked in a historiographical tradition that precluded any original investigation of events before their own lifetime, or presumably took the view that the crusade had been too painful a failure for them to want to explore it any further.

End Notes

1. Constable, “Second Crusade”. I wish to thank David Bates and Jonathan Riley-Smith for their comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.

2. Henry of Huntingdon, pp. 279-81; Robert of Torigni, Chronicles, pp. 152, 154-55; Roger of Howden, vol. 1, pp. 209-10; Ann. Waverleia, pp. 231-33; Ralph of Diceto, vol. 1, pp. 256-58 (cf. p. 291). For Roger of Howden’s singular account of the First Crusade, see: Gillingham “Howden”, p. 60.

3. Gerald of Wales, vol. 1, p. 76 (cf. vol. 2, p. 152).

4. Ralph of Diceto, vol. 1, pp. 256-57Grabois, “Crusade”.

5. Wm. of Newburgh, vol. 1, pp. 84-87.

6. Wm. of Tyre, Chronicon, p. 635.

7. Henry of Huntingdon, p. 281; Genrase of Canterbury, vol. 1, p. 138.

8. Henry of Huntingdon, pp. 280-81; Robert of Torigni, Chronicles, p. 154.

9. Gervase of Canterbury, vol. 1, pp. 137-38Ralph of Coggeshall, p. 12.

10. John of Salisbury, p. 57; Ann. Herbipolenses, p. 7.

11. Wm. of Tyre, Chronicon, p. 769; Michael the Syrian, vol. 3, p. 276. Cf. Tritton & Gibb, p. 299; Bar Hebraeus, p. 274. I am indebted to Martin Hoch for these references.

12. Chron. d’Ernoul, p. 12.

13. For William, see: Edbury & Rowe, pp. 125-26; Walter Map, pp. 62-7, 72-3.

14. Wm. of Newburgh, vol. 1, pp. 92-5, at p. 92.

15. Partner, p. 59.

16. Wm. of Newburgh, vol. 1, pp. 94-7, at p. 94.

17. Both Roger of Howden and Ernoul record another story of this type: Louis visited Roger of Sicily on his way home from the crusade, and Roger allegedly induced him to place a crown on his head, thereby validating his kingship (Gesta Regis Henrici II, vol. 2, p. 202; Chron. d’Ernoul, p. 13).

18. John of Salisbury, pp. 11-12, 52-9, esp. pp. 52-3; Richard of Devizes, pp. 25-6; Walter Map, pp. 474-77; Gerald of Wales, vol. 8, p. 300; Wm. of Newburgh, vol. 1, pp. 128-29.

19. Ralph Niger, pp. 80 (cf. p. 70), 224.

20. Gesta Regis Henrici II, vol. 2, p. 174.

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