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Historical People of the Crusades
Richard I of England
Richard I was born in England in 1157, the son of King Henry II of
England and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Richard spent most of his life
in France, the home of his mother. He became Eleanor’s favorite son.
Richard frequently fought with his father. Twice he participated in
rebellions against King Henry, with Eleanor’s support. However, Henry
forgave Richard, and when Henry died in 1189, Richard was crowned
king. Powerfully built, Richard was well suited for fighting. As a child,
he was educated in poetry, music, and literature. He learned the refined
manners and courage of the chivalric knight, and was respected for his
cleverness in designing fortresses and planning military attacks. Because
he had such a strong reputation for bravery in war, Richard was known to
the English as Richard the Lionheart.
When Richard became king of England, he taxed the people heavily to
raise money for himself and his soldiers to fight the Third Crusade (also
called the Crusade of Kings). When money from taxes was not enough,
Richard sold government offices to the highest bidders. Desperate to find
enough money to fight in the crusade, Richard declared, “‘I would have
sold London herself if I could have found a buyer.’” Although passionate
about fighting in the crusade and recapturing Jerusalem, Richard was also
practical. The crusading spirit of defeating non-Christian infidels had led
to anti-Jewish laws and murders of Jews in England. Richard, however,
tried to protect the Jews in England so that their tax money could help
pay his expenses. By organizing the best equipment, the largest ships,
the greatest number of troops, and the most money, Richard became the
leading fighter in the Third Crusade.
Despite Richard’s organization, the Third Crusade was long and hard. The
European crusaders needed to cope with a radically different environment
(largely desert), disease, and fierce fighting by the Muslims, led by Salah
al-Din. Richard and his troops conquered Sicily and Cyprus. In June
1191, Richard arrived at the Muslim town of Acre. Fellow crusader King
Phillip II of France had begun to surround and attack Acre two months
earlier. The Muslims gave up and surrendered to the crusaders. However,
when Richard felt that Salah al-Din was too slow to follow through on a
promised exchange of prisoners, he became frustrated and ordered the
deaths of all 2,700 Muslims inside Acre’s city walls.
By the time Richard and his soldiers finally neared Jerusalem, the men
were exhausted and many had been hurt badly in battle. Realizing that
he could not capture the city from the Muslims, Richard turned around
without ever seeing Jerusalem and headed back to England. During the
journey home, he was captured and handed over to Emperor Henry VI,
who accused Richard of plotting against him. Eleanor worked hard to
raise the enormous amount of money needed to pay for Richard’s release,
and the English people were forced to pay even more taxes. Richard
finally returned to England in March 1194.
Richard was devoted both to the Catholic Church and to the knightly
ideals of courage and honor in battle. He loved the thrill and challenge of
battle and the respect he received for leading the fight in God’s name to
capture the Holy Land. According to legend, when Richard and his troops
were close to Jerusalem, Richard rode his horse to the top of a hill overlooking
the Holy City. When he realized that after so long and so many
battles, he might finally be able to see Jerusalem, he threw his shield over
his face to cover his eyes and began to cry, pleading to God that he never
wanted to look upon the city if he could not have the honor of capturing
Jerusalem from the Muslims. Richard refused to enter Jerusalem as a
loser. He promised, “O Holy Land, I commend thee to God, and, if His
heavenly grace grants me so long to live, I hope, pledge to come one day
to succor [help in time of distress] thee.”
Anna Comnena
Anna Comnena was born in 1083, the first child of Byzantine emperor
Alexius Comnenus and empress Irene. Friends described her as lively,
spirited, and stable. Because of her important position as a princess, Anna
was well educated. A good student, she studied Plato and Aristotle and
became an expert in Greek and rhetoric (persuasive speaking or writing),
which was extremely unusual for a woman in the Middle Ages. When
Anna was born, her mother expected her to become the next empress.
However, her fate changed dramatically when her brother John was born
a few years later. Although Irene still wanted Anna to succeed her father
as the Byzantine ruler, Alexius chose their son instead. Still, Anna was
proud of her royal upbringing and of the wise actions and decisions made
by her father.
Anna Comnena’s chronicle of her father’s rule, The Alexiad of the
Princess Anna Comnena, is the only Greek account of the First Crusade
that has survived. It describes the problems she and her family faced
when the crusaders arrived, despite the fact that they had supposedly
come to help Anna’s family and the Byzantine Christians against the
Turks. Comnena was shocked and amazed at seeing such vast numbers of
fanatical crusaders storm into Constantinople. At the same time, despite
all the difficulty the crusaders presented for her father, according to
Comnena he treated them kindly because they were Christians. He
answered their questions calmly and gave them money and supplies
even when his own resources were exhausted.
Comnena had mixed feelings about the crusades. On one hand, she
respected the crusaders because they were, like herself and the Byzantines,
Christians. She understood that one of the reasons for the crusade
was her father’s need for help in fighting the Turks and defending the
Christian Byzantine Empire. At the same time, Comnena expressed fear
and dislike of many of the crusaders, whom she described as unstable and
dangerous. She saw that huge numbers of fanatical Christians were overtaking
her city: “And the sight of them was like many rivers streaming
from all sides, and they were advancing towards us.” To Comnena, this
seemed to be an invasion.
Comnena believed that once the Europeans had begun to fight for a cause,
they were uncontrollable. She described the results of the violence the
crusaders did to nearby Muslims: “When they piled up the corpses of the
slaughtered men which were lying on either side they formed, I say, not
a very large hill or mound or a peak, but a high mountain... so great was
the pyramid of bones.” She included descriptions of crusaders roasting
children in the fire and tearing off the limbs of others. Especially representative
of the violent crusader spirit, according to Comnena, was the
leader Bohemond. For her, he stood for the intense mixture of courage
and violence, dedication to God, and lust for battle that she observed in
the First Crusade: “The sight of him inspired admiration, the mention
of his name terror... there was a hard, savage quality to his whole aspect...
in him both courage and love were armed, ready for combat.”
Comnena was also suspicious of the crusaders. Although she admired the
dedication of some of the soldiers to Christianity, she questioned whether
many were truly fighting for God. She believed that some of the crusaders,
men like the leader Bohemond, fought mainly for glory in battle
and the greedy urge to acquire more wealth and land. Emperor Alexius
was similarly suspicious. Comnena defended her father’s decision to stay
in Constantinople as emperor and not to go on the crusade.
Salah al-Din
Salah al-Din (Saladin) was born in 1138 to a powerful Kurdish Muslim
family in Syria. He was a schoolboy in Damascus when the Christians
attacked the city during the Second Crusade. He observed firsthand how
important it was for Muslims to defend their religion and themselves from
the Christian crusaders. When Salah al-Din was a teenager, he served in
the army of Nur al-Din, the powerful Syrian-Mesopotamian leader. As
a soldier, Salah al-Din was respected and successful. In 1156, at the age
of 18, he was put in charge of the Muslim security forces in Damascus.
He became the personal assistant to Nur al-Din and relayed messages
between Nur al-Din and his military commanders. Salah al-Din gained
valuable experience in military and political organization and effective
communication. He fought successfully with the Syrian Muslim troops in
Egypt against the crusaders.
Salah al-Din’s successful military performance brought him more honors
and leadership positions. When Syria took over control of Egypt, he was
appointed to be the Muslim military leader in Egypt. In 1169, he was
chosen commander-in-chief of the entire army of Nur al-Din. At this
time, the many groups of Muslims fighting against the crusaders were
not united. Often Salah al-Din and his army fought against other rival
Muslims. This wasted much of the Muslims’ money and energy, and
contributed to the success of the crusaders. Salah al-Din was a strong
leader and was widely respected among many different Muslim groups.
Consequently, he was able to unify many groups into a more powerful
Muslim army. In 1174, he became the leader of both Syria and Egypt.
Under his leadership, Muslim forces defeated one crusader attack after
another. By 1187, Salah al-Din was directing an army of over 12,000
cavalrymen (soldiers on horseback) and close to 12,000 other soldiers on
foot. In July 1187, his forces defeated the crusaders at Horns of Hattin
(two hills). This victory strengthened the Muslim army and their spirit.
On October 2, 1187, Salah al-Din and the Muslim army reconquered
Jerusalem. Unlike the crusaders who massacred Muslims and Jews when
they captured the holy city in 1099, Salah al-Din was generous with the
Christians and other inhabitants of Jerusalem who surrendered to his
army. Although the Muslims now controlled Jerusalem, they never succeeded
in chasing all the crusaders out of the Holy Land. Some crusader
fortresses outside Jerusalem remained, and these helped the Christians to
begin the Third Crusade two years later.
The Third Crusade was difficult for Salah al-Din and his army. The
crusaders were vicious to the Muslims they attacked and captured. After
the crusaders’ victory under King Richard I at Acre in 1191, many
Muslims were massacred and the others left exhausted. Salah al-Din’s
army began to lose some of its energy and spirit. Salah al-Din was a
devout Muslim, dedicated to the cause of Islam and his people. He was
also wise and careful. When he realized he could not defeat the Christians
in the Third Crusade, he signed a peace treaty with King Richard in
September 1192. Under the agreement, the crusaders remained in control
of the cities on the Mediterranean coast and the Muslims remained in
control of Jerusalem and surrounding lands, but the Christians were still
able to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem. It was largely due to Salah
al-Din’s leadership that the crusaders failed to recapture Jerusalem during
the Third Crusade and that Richard turned around and went home to
England. Despite the pain and deaths the Muslims had endured from the
crusaders, Salah al-Din was able to talk reasonably with King Richard.
Salah al-Din remarked that he thought so highly of King Richard that if
he himself had to lose Jerusalem, he would rather see it ruled by Richard
than by anyone else.
Throughout his life, Salah al-Din was respected by his people and considered
a sincere, generous, and religious man who was truly devoted to the
cause of Islam and the Muslim people. Wanting revenge for the crimes
Christian crusaders had committed against the Muslim people and Islam,
he killed many crusaders in the Battle of Hattin. His strength was weakened
by the difficulty of the Third Crusade. He returned to Damascus and
died shortly thereafter on March 4, 1193.
Usamah ibn-Munqidh
Usamah ibn-Munqidh (pronounced oo-SAW-mah ib-in moon-KEED) was
born in 1095 to an Arab lord of a castle in Syria. Usamah was strongly
influenced by his father, who, according to Usamah, spent his time reading
and studying the Qur’an, fasting during the day, hunting, and copying
the Qur’an at night. Usamah’s father was widely respected for his
strength in battle, bravery, honor, and religious devotion. Born one year
before the First Crusade, Usamah spent his childhood surrounded by danger.
He was taught good manners and learned not to be afraid of danger
and to accept the judgment of God. Private tutors educated the young
Usamah in grammar, writing, poetry, and the Qur’an. Usamah later
became a poet, a hunter, and a warrior who defended the Holy Land
from the Christians during the crusades.
Usamah fought in many battles against the attacking Christians during
the Second Crusade. He also wrote extensively about the conflict. His
memoir, Memoirs of an Arab-Syrian Gentleman, is filled with descriptions
of having been cut and stabbed with swords and wounded with darts
and stones thrown at him in battle. He describes his first battle against the
crusaders and comments: “O my lord, that was the first fight in which I
took part [August 4, 1119]…. But the moment I saw that the Franks
[crusaders] were in contact with our men, then I felt that death would be
an easy matter for me. So I turned back to the [crusaders], either to be
killed or to protect that crowd.” Yet Usamah fought in battle after battle,
neither fearing death nor feeling sorry for himself for the danger and
injury he endured. His greatest sadness came in old age when he was
forced to accept his physical weakness. Usamah lived to know that the
Muslims recaptured Jerusalem in 1187. He died a year later in Damascus.
Usamah also wrote extensively about dedicated Muslims—including the
heroic actions of Muslim women—defending themselves against the
enemy crusaders. Usamah called the crusaders “devils” and “infidels”
who were betraying, according to him, the true religion of humankind,
Islam. After mentioning the crusaders in his writing, Usamah often
made the comment that they should be cursed by God, as when he wrote,
“May Allah render them helpless!” He compared the crusaders to animals
whose only good quality is their bravery in battle. At the same time,
Usamah expressed tolerance of the Christians in Syria who had lived
among the Muslims for some time. Usamah wrote about at least one
crusader who became his friend. Considering the angry atmosphere that
resulted from years of Christian and Muslim fighting, Usamah’s dislike
of the crusaders seems relatively mild.
An important reason for Usamah’s relatively open-minded attitude toward
the crusaders was his intense devotion to Islam. An extremely religious
man, he considered Christians and Jews spiritually similar to Muslims
since they shared the belief in one God. Although he was a skilled and
experienced soldier, Usamah did not put much faith in the value of military
planning. “Victory in warfare is from Allah (blessed and exalted is
He!) and is not due to organization and planning.” Similarly, no matter
how many bad things the crusaders said about Muslims and Islam,
Usamah felt that their words did not matter. The constant risk of danger
and death that was a part of the crusades did not destroy Usamah’s spirit.
He was not afraid of being killed in battle, because he was confident he
was fighting for a just cause: the liberation of the Holy Land from the
crusaders. This confidence came from his view that whether he lived or
died, he would be fulfilling the role God had assigned him. This belief
enabled Usamah to fight courageously time after time, never showing
cowardice in the face of his adversaries. In 1140, when Usamah went to
Jerusalem as an ambassador of the Muslim forces in Damascus, he participated
in diplomatic negotiations with the crusaders, which gave him an
opportunity to meet his opponents off the battlefield. Usamah continues
to be recognized for his inquisitive mind and his keen observations of life
during the crusades.
Eliezer ben Nathan
Eliezer (pronounced ell-ee-AY-zar) ben Nathan, a Jewish poet and writer,
was born around 1090, several years before the beginning of the First
Crusade. He studied the Talmud, a book of writings about the Jewish
Torah, under some of the most famous Jewish scholars of the Middle
Ages. His poetry included prayers for special Sabbaths, poems for Jewish
services, and poems that expressed his sadness over the many Jews killed
in the First Crusade. His chronicle The Persecutions of 1096 told about
the violence that occurred in the European Jewish communities of Speyer,
Worms, Mainz, and Cologne. It is one of only three Jewish accounts of
the First Crusade that have survived.
The Persecutions of 1096 was probably written many years after 1096,
and Eliezer may have relied on other sources besides his own experience
in writing it. With passionate language, he describes how the European
crusaders stole from the Jews, destroyed their homes, and murdered anyone
who refused to convert to Christianity and be baptized. He writes that
the crusaders stole the Torah, stomped on it in the mud outside Jewish
homes, tore the scroll, and made fun of the Torah itself, all the while
laughing, celebrating, and saying, “This is the day that we hoped for.”
One of the most shocking parts of Eliezer’s account of the crusades is his
description of Jews who killed their children and themselves rather than
be forced to give up their religion and convert to Christianity or be killed
by the Christian crusaders. Although many of the Jews who did choose to
convert in order to save their lives continued to secretly practice Judaism,
Eliezer still felt that the Jews who killed themselves displayed more dedication
to God. He wrote: “The foe [enemy] hurled stones and arrows at them,
but they did not scurry to flee. Women… slew their own sons and
daughters and then themselves. Tenderhearted men also mustered
[gathered] their strength and slaughtered their wives, sons, daughters,
and infants. The most gentle and tender of women slaughtered the child
of her delight.”
Eliezer’s description of the effect of the First Crusade on Jews is extremely
emotional. He wrote about his enormous feeling of sadness that God
allowed so many Jews to be killed. Toward the Christian crusaders he
expresses great hate, describing them as arrogant (excessively proud)
enemies and oppressors whose anger and violence caused great harm to
Eliezer’s people. It was difficult for Eliezer to understand why God could
have allowed such an enormous tragedy to happen to the Jewish people,
not all of whom could have done things so horrible as to deserve death.
Eleazar ben Judah
Eleazar (pronounced ELL-ah-zar) ben Judah was born around the year
1165 to the Kalonymus family, one of the best-known and respected
German-Jewish families of that time. A relative of Eleazar’s in the
Kalonymus family became the leader of the Jewish defense against the
crusaders. Eleazar was born in the town of Mainz and later spent a great
deal of time traveling and studying in Germany and France. He lived
most of his life in the town of Worms, where he became one of the most
famous Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages. His work and writing covered
many fields, including the Talmud (a book of writings about the
Torah), poetry, astronomy, and the Kabala. The Kabala was a part of
Judaism that involved spiritual or supernatural studies. Eleazar claimed
to see angels and demons; according to legend, he traveled to and from
Jewish religious ceremonies on a cloud.
Eleazar was personally and deeply affected by the Second Crusade. He
and all the Jews of Worms and the surrounding towns were forced to
leave their Torah scrolls, books, and other belongings behind in order
to escape from the crusaders. Several years after this escape, in 1196,
Eleazar was at home writing about Genesis, the first book of the Bible,
when two crusaders forced their way into his home. The crusaders killed
Eleazar’s wife, Dulcina, his two daughters, Belat and Hannah, and his
son, Jacob. Eleazar was badly hurt, but he survived the attack. After this
night, Eleazar’s life changed dramatically. Dulcina had sold parchment
scrolls to support the family and allow Eleazar to spend all his time
studying and writing. Now Eleazar had no one to support him.
After seeing the tragedies that happened to his family and to other Jews in
his town, Eleazar wondered if his people and their religion would survive
in Germany and Europe. During the crusades, Jews did their best to
defend themselves in any way possible. Some Jews came out to fight
at their city gates, although there was little chance of these untrained
townspeople defeating a host of crusaders. Other Jews paid bishops
for protection. Many Jews who were captured by crusaders refused to
become Christians, even when savagely tortured to death.
The death of his wife and family is the subject of a story and poem by
Eleazar. He wrote about his wife with intense emotion, describing how
she took care of him, cooked for him, sewed clothes for him, worked
making Torah scrolls, and took care of students to support his studies.
According to Eleazar’s story, Dulcina gave food to the poor, visited the
sick, and encouraged her sons to study the Torah. She was polite and
obedient, and always rushed to do what her husband wanted, never
upsetting him. Eleazar loved her deeply.