"Deus vult!" [God wills it]: Pope Urban II Calls for a Crusade at Council of Clermont

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"Deus vult!" [God wills it]: Pope Urban II Calls for a Crusade at Council of Clermont

Pope Urban II (background) at the Council of Clermont, late 15th century illustration
From the Livre des Passage d'Outre-mer, in National Library of France, Paris
(Unless otherwise noted, all illustrations/images are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: November 27, 1095

Today's walk through military history is not very warlike or martial. It involves the beginning of the Crusading movement and the Pope who got the ball rolling.


Byzantine Empire in 1091, 20 years after battle of Manzikert; Image courtesy of http://www.ict.griffith.edu.au/wiseman/Roman/Decline&Fall.html
Byzantine Empire in 1091, 20 years after battle of Manzikert
Image courtesy of http://www.ict.griffith.edu.au/wiseman/Roman/Decline&Fall.html

Since the advent of the forces of Islam sweeping out of the Arabian Desert, two major empires tried to stop their roaring tide of conquest. The Sassanid Persians were forcibly absorbed by the Islamic armies. Resisting somewhat more solidly, the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire lost Egypt, North Africa, and Syria to the Muslim armies. During the eleventh century, Anatolia and Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) were the center of attempted conquest by the Seljuk Turks and the Byzantines. The defining event occurred in August of 1071, when a Turkish army defeated a Byzantine force at Manzikert. [For information about that particular East Roman disaster, please read my Burn Pit post from August of 2013 at: Battle of Manzikert: Turks Defeat Byzantines, Emperor Captured.] As a result, nearly all Asia Minor was lost to the Turks, except the area immediately in the vicinity of the capital Constantinople, and some cities on the western and northern coast of the peninsula.

Prelude to the Council

Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus (reigned 1081-1118); Artist unknown, from a Greek manuscript, 12th or 13th century; Currently in the Vatican Library, Rome, Italy
Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus (reigned 1081-1118)
Artist unknown, from a Greek manuscript, 12th or 13th century
Currently in the Vatican Library, Rome, Italy

Beginning in 1081, Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus began retaking areas of the empire which had fallen away. The islands of Crete and Cyprus were recaptured, as were Serbia, many of the islands in the Aegean Sea, and the province of Paradunavum, which allowed the East Romans to once more control the Danube River's southern bank. Early in his reign, he sought to stop an invasion of the Balkans by Sicilian-Norman forces, but was defeated at the battle of Dyrrhachium in 1082. [For information about that particular battle, please read my Burn Pit post from October of 2013 at: Battle of Dyrrhachium: Normans Defeat Byzantines, Varangian Guard Slaughtered.] After flexing the empire's military muscles in these campaigns, Alexius felt he was ready to take on the Turks.

However, the Byzantine army was still a shadow of its former greatness. The Anatolian plateau of Asia Minor had been the major recruiting area for the empire, and it was still ruled by the Turks. Feeling the need to recruit more soldiers, Alexius felt that the best way to do this was to get them from western Europe.

Consequently, in 1095 the Byzantine ruler sent diplomatic envoys to Pope Urban II in Rome, appealing to the Holy Father, requesting military assistance against the Turks. The request reached Urban at the Council of Piacenza in March of that year. The Pope asked the council attendees to send aid to Constantinople. This request was presented to the ecclesiastics as sort of an after-thought of the council's actual agenda.

The Council of Clermont

Over the next few months, Pope Urban made contacts with bishops, legates, and abbots throughout France. Urban was essentially a "Pope in exile," as an anti-Pope "Clement III" was sitting in the Vatican. Urban spent most of his reign in southern Italy and France (the latter being his homeland). The Council of Clermont began on November 18, 1095. Approximately 300 French clergy were in attendance. Urban had asked these attendees to bring their local feudal lords with them to the Council.

The first week or so of the Council was devoted to church reform, and ways to cut back the military fighting and violence that permeated most of Europe. Included in measures passed at the Council was the Truce of God, which declared that it was not allowed for Christians to fight one another except on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. This measure was put in place in part to encourage Christians to go fight the enemy in the east instead.

During the first few days of the Council, only the clerics and some nobles were present. However, word spread among the common people of the city and surrounding area that something momentous would soon occur. On November 27, Pope Urban addressed the Council, the nobles, and a crowd of commoners. [At least one chronicle of the Council said that Pope Urban's address was made in a field outside the city of Clermont.]

When he was finished speaking, Pope Urban had changed history…

Pope Urban making call for a crusade; Council of Clermont, November 27, 1095; Artist and date of composition unknown
Pope Urban making call for a crusade
Council of Clermont, November 27, 1095
Artist and date of composition unknown

What Did the Pope Say?

Urban delivered a rousing speech summoning rich and poor alike to stop their in-fighting and embark on a righteous war to help their fellow Christians in the East and take back Jerusalem. Urban denigrated the Muslims, exaggerating stories of their anti-Christian acts, and promised absolution and remission of sins for all who died in the service of Christ. [However, with different sources for the Pope's oration, we may never know his exact words.]

There are five different versions of the Pope's speech of November 27. At least two of the writers – Fulcher of Chartres and Robert the Monk – were likely in attendance. One of the mitigating factors in trying to compare and reconcile the different accounts is that most of these accounts were written almost a decade after the event, all of them after the successful conclusion of the First Crusade. None of the five agree completely on what was said. However, one source that could be considered authoritative are some letters written by Pope Urban himself to the Catholic faithful in Flanders (part of modern-day Belgium), urging their support for the "armed pilgrimage."

The version that has gained a great deal of attention is from the pen of Robert the Monk, from his chronicle Historia Hierosolymitana (History of Jerusalem):

When Pope Urban had said these and very many similar things in his urbane discourse, he so influenced to one purpose the desires of all who were present, that they cried out, "It is the will of God! It is the will of God!" When the venerable Roman pontiff heard that, with eyes uplifted to heaven he gave thanks to God and, with his hand commanding silence, said:

"Most beloved brethren, today is manifest in you what the Lord says in the Gospel, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them.' Unless the Lord God had been present in your spirits, all of you would not have uttered the same cry. For, although the cry issued from numerous mouths, yet the origin of the cry was one. Therefore I say to you that God, who implanted this in your breasts, has drawn it forth from you. Let this then be your war-cry in combats, because this word is given to you by God. When an armed attack is made upon the enemy, let this one cry be raised by all the soldiers of God: ‘Deus vult! Deus vult! [God wills it! God wills it!]'"

The Aftermath

The next day, a number of French clerics and nobles came forward before Pope Urban and the assembled Council and became the first men to "take the cross." Within two years, four separate armies would converge on the East Roman capital by land and sea and launch the First Crusade, the only one of the Crusades which actually achieved its objective.

Footnote #1: Historians are still debating exactly what Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus was asking for, or even expecting, from his appeal to western Europe. Some believe the East Roman ruler was seeking an army of experienced mercenaries, who could be dismissed and sent home when they were done (and paid). It is almost certain that the huge numbers of knights, infantry, laymen and Catholic clerics who descended upon Constantinople were unexpected.

Footnote #2: Pope Urban died July 29, 1099, two weeks after the end of the siege of Jerusalem, but before word of the great victory had reached Italy. He was beatified in 1881.

Footnote #3: It is disputed whether the famous slogan "God wills it" or "It is the will of God" (deus vult in Latin, Dieu le veut in French) in fact was established as a rallying cry during the Council. While Robert the Monk says so, it is also possible that the slogan was created as a catchy propaganda motto afterward. After 900+ years, the truth may never be known.

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Civilized Peoples around the globe needed them, and the glorious Crusaders have returned to save the world, as they did once before. Deus Vult!

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