In a new series of blog posts, Laura Slater examines the relationship between court cultures and the crusades, crusading as a late medieval ideal, and the penitential obligation and social cachet attached to becoming a holy warrior…
When we imagine knights going off on crusade to the Holy Land, we tend to locate this activity in the twelfth century. From the sixteenth century onwards, the legends of Robin Hood have been set in England during the absence of Richard I (‘Richard the Lionheart’) on the Third Crusade in the 1190s, with the kingdom suffering under the rule of his wicked and cowardly brother John.
After the 1291 fall of the last crusader kingdom of Acre, it certainly became more difficult to go and fight for Jerusalem. But crusading remained a very powerful late medieval ideal. Fighting in God’s service was seen as spiritually purifying- a way of gaining forgiveness from God from all your sins. Holy warfare was seen by some as a religious duty and penitential obligation, a way of quieting and healing the soul through physical exertion of the restless body.
There was also a great social cachet attached to becoming a holy warrior. Going on crusade was seen as the ultimate mark of chivalric honour. It was incredibly expensive to travel to faraway places ready to fight in this way. With the exception of a few, lucky early noblemen in the early years of the crusader states, such as the Ibelin counts of Jaffa and Ascalon, there were no great fortunes or estates to be won in medieval Syria and Palestine. Crusaders slogged at an endless grind of defensive warfare, in besieged castles or disease-ridden military camps. To be willing to risk your life and waste your material resources in this way was thought to demonstrate your impeccable noble lineage, the generosity of your Christian spirit and your great knightly virtue.
Such a combination of spiritual heroics, and the possibility of secular fame and wealth, made the late medieval European court a hub of crusading enthusiasm and recruitment. It was at court where idealistic knights hoping to prove themselves in battle met and signed up with the ‘professionals’ charged with organising crusading missions: papal envoys from Avignon, diplomatic embassies from Byzantium or Spain, or crusading orders such as the Knights Hospitallers of St John. The increasing threat of the Ottoman Turks to Europe saw the creation of naval leagues financed by the papacy, the Hospitallers, and the great maritime and trading powers of Venice and Cyprus. Throughout the fourteenth century and later, European knights continued to travel to Palestine and northern Syria, fought in modern-day Turkey against the Ottomans, took part in the Reconquista led by the Spanish monarchy, or crusaded on the eastern edges of Europe with the Teutonic Knights of Prussia.
At court, knights might hear friars preaching sermons encouraging them to take the cross. They would also come across luxury artefacts depicting ancestral crusading exploits, or relics and souvenirs from the Holy Land. In 1251, Henry III of England commanded that his personal chamber at the palace of Clarendon be painted with the ‘story of Antioch and the duel of King Richard’, either depicting events from the Third Crusade, or the epic romance history of the First Crusade, the Chanson d’Antioche. The Grandes Chroniques de France, a royalist official history of the kings of France coped and circulated at the French court, includes many pictures of crusading heroics by the French kings.