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Monday, April 4, 2022

The Difficulties of Commanding a Crusade

 "A crusade army was, in effect, a loosely organized mob of soldiers, clergy, servants, and followers heading in roughly the same direction for roughly the same purposes. Once launched, it could be controlled no more than the wind or the sea."

Professor Thomas Madden in The Concise History of the Crusades

When speaking or writing about the crusades, it is easy to forget just how different they were from modern military campaigns, not just in terms of weapons, clothes, and transport but with regard to structure and command and control.

First and foremost, as Professor Madden so eloquently pointed out, crusades were not regular armies with a clear command structure and officers nor were they composed of soldiers bound by discipline. Instead, they were collections of pilgrims led by prominent pilgrims whose presence (and pocketbooks) inspired greater or smaller numbers of other men to join them in their great undertaking. Not even the Holy Roman Emperor nor the various crusading kings from Richard the Lionheart to St. Louis commanded the troops of the crusades they led in the modern sense of the word. They literally could not order any action -- unless they had first persuaded their followers to follow their lead and their proposed course of action. 

The building blocks of a crusading army were individual pilgrims who had sufficient funds to finance such a long journey -- or could persuade someone else to finance it for them. The most common means to obtain the latter in the context of the crusades was to offer to serve in the entourage of a wealthier man. Thus, whether archer, sergeant or other foot-soldier, a man of modest means and common birth would look to attach himself to a knight or lord who would undertake to feed him and pay him wages throughout the journey in exchange for his "service."

Individual knights (with their squire, horses and one or more servants) would likewise attach themselves to a wealthier lord. These individual knights (their squire and servants like their horses being part of the "unit" that made a knight) were then "household" knights attached to another knight or lord. 

Wealthier knights that could afford to pay/provision other knights were known as "bannerets." They did not have to be noblemen or lords. A knight-banneret was simply a knight that commanded other knights, and usually some infantry (archers, pikemen) and maybe a couple of mounted sergeants as well. However, noblemen were all bannerets in the sense that they commanded other knights, at a minimum the knights of their own household or entourage. Most noblemen, however, were wealthy enough to engage not only their own household knights, sergeants, and soldiers, but to pay and provision other bannerets. Kings generally had the resources and prestige to solicit the support of many of their own barons as well as other independent knights.

Yet these relationships were fluid. As Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith words it:
The petty lords...and knights were independent and their allegiances constantly shifted as circumstances changed and the ability of princes to reward them and their little entourages came and went. [Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A History (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014) 62-63.

Nor was it just the "petty lords" and individual knights that changed their "employers" at whim. A famous case occurred in the Third Crusade, when the comparatively wealthy Henri, Count of Champagne, ran short of funds and asked for a loan from his uncle the King of France, in whose force he was then serving. The penny-pinching Philip II turned him down, so Henri turned to his other uncle, the King of England. Richard I gave generously, and Henri transferred his allegiance, bringing glittering band of Champagnois knights to serve under the banner of the King of England. 

This was possible because a crusade was not a "nationalist" undertaking and oaths of fealty that bound vassals to their lords at home were irrelevant in the context of a pilgrimage far beyond the borders of their liege's territory. Indeed, it could be argued that oaths of fealty were temporary suspended or superseded by the oath to God to fight for Christ. Thus knights of the Holy Roman Empire might choose to ride under a French or English banner, and vice versa. The reputation of an individual commander as a man who looked after his men, paid well, or divided booty liberally thus impacted the size of their troop.

That said, at the core of any band of soldiers under a banner was the leader surrounded by his household, his dependants (servants) and his kin. Most lords had brothers, uncles, nephews and cousins, who rode with them. Good lords retained the loyalty of those of their vassals who had embarked on the crusade with them. They traveled surrounded by these well-knit groups of men who knew each other well and spoke the same language. 

What these structures meant for the command of a crusade was that there was never a single unified command, with the possible exception of St. Louis' two crusades. All the other crusades, starting with the First, were characterized by fragmented leadership. 

During the First Crusade there were four different attempts to designate a commander-in-chief, and had the Byzantine Emperor agreed to lead the campaign he would undoubtedly have assumed this function without dissent -- but he didn't. None of the western leaders, however, was strong enough to either intimidate or inspire the other princes to subordinate themselves to him. 

The Second Crusade notoriously nearly fell apart because King Louis could not agree with the Prince of Antioch on a goal. The Third Crusade was weakened by the bickering between Philip of France and England of Richard, and later by the French refusal to follow Richard. The Fourth Crusade was characterized by assemblies at every stage along the way at which everyone discussed what to do next. With each decision that took the crusaders closer to the sack of Constantinople, more crusaders refused to follow the leadership and struck off on their own. The Fifth Crusade was riven by rivalries and bitter fights over strategy and spoils between the pope's representative, the Holy Roman Emperor's deputy and the King of Jerusalem. The Sixth Crusade saw the absurd situation of an excommunicated Emperor unable to command the forces of the military orders and alienating the local barons into revolt. 

Precisely because there was no commander-in-chief, the crusades were -- in the words of Professor Riley-Smith -- "run by committees and assemblies." On the one hand, each armed band engaged in the routine process familiar from government at home in which a lord (read banneret) consulted with his principle followers over any major decision. On the other hand, all the principle lords regularly met in "council" as necessary in order to make command decisions. Last but not least, the crusade leadership would call assemblies of the entire host in which proposals were put to the entire body of pilgrims, great and small.

This may surprise those unfamiliar with the Middle Ages. Yet medieval society was anything but authoritarian. On the contrary, society was communal and consensual as well as hierarchical. The medieval peasant was not a slave taking orders, but a member of society required to participate in consensus-building in daily life. At the village level, for example, basic decisions about planting, crop rotation and harvesting were taken communally. In the courts, judgments were reached by a jury, not handed down by the lord or judge. 

On crusade, "the non-noble elements...periodically acted in concert to influence the decisions of the leaders who regularly consulted them." [Riley-Smith, 63] During the First Crusade, for example, the common soldiers threatened to elect their own leaders unless the princes agreed to leave Antioch and the march to Jerusalem. In the Third Crusade, the common soldiers twice forced Richard the Lionheart to undertake a march toward Jerusalem against his better judgment. Only with great difficulty was Richard able to dissuade them from making a costly attempt at an assault -- both times in an assembly of crusaders where every man had a voice. 

Thus, while the lack of a unified command may strike us as a severe weakness for a military campaign, it was also a reflection of society and an important check on the leadership that was constantly required to explain and justify itself and its actions.  
The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilizations is available for pre-order on and

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades:






  1. "We don't have time to discuss it in committee." -- Han Solo

    This division -- both in goals and purpose -- are why the Crusades failed. There was never any true unity.

  2. Can you do a blog about the great crusading families of Europe? Like the Montlhéry's, Counts of Champagne , Lusignan's, Montferrat 's, House of Anjou, etc...

    These families had multiple crusaders, it was like some right of passage for them. The forune's they spent to go fight in the Holy Land...


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