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Few people from the British Isles participated in the First Crusade, historian finds

Chroniclers of the First Crusade often noted the diversity of the people who took part in the campaign to capture Jerusalem at the end of the eleventh-century. Among the long lists of groups they mentioned include the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish. However, a new article shows that participation from the British Isles was very slim.

Simon Thomas Parsons of King’s College London examined the various accounts of the First Crusade to see who was involved in the pilgrimage/military campaign. While the call for the crusade by Pope Urban II did reach England, the response was mainly to assist Duke Robert Curthose of Normandy lead his own contingent to the Middle East. His brother, King William II Rufus, did send him 10,000 marks of silver for the campaign, and Parsons believes that this large amount of money was so financially burdensome for the English nobility that it prevented them from taking up the cross themselves.

Parsons is able to find nine people who took part in the expedition that had connections to England, but even this group had a much stronger connection with Normandy, with most being exiled from England at the time. He writes:

Ralph de Gael, perhaps the most high-profile crusader born in England, and once earl of Norfolk, was of Breton heritage and held extensive lands in Brittany, where he had lived in exile continuously for more than twenty years by 1096. He travelled with his wife, the Norman-born Emma de Breteuil, and their son, Alan. Ivo de Grantmesnil was the son of the sheriff of Leicester, Hugh, but was out of favour with William Rufus because of his role in the 1088 rebellion against the latter’s rule, and was most likely resident in Normandy. The same was true of the major continental magnate Eustace of Boulogne, brother of Godfrey de Bouillon, who had probably not been in England since the 1088 rebellion. Odo de Bayeux, William I’s half-brother, was an exiled persona non grata before the expedition and had long lost his lands in England. Ernulf de Hesdin was a similar case, holding extensive lands in England until he was falsely accused of treason in 1096 and entered voluntary exile, but born in France and directly involved in the administration of his family’s patrimony in Artois.

These, and others such as Pagan Peveral and Edith de Warenne were far more connected to the Norman side of the Anglo-Norman Empire. Parsons also notes some other English attempts to join the First Crusade:

The monks of Cerne Abbey in Dorset had tried to hire a ship to go, prompting Anselm of Canterbury to write worried letters prohibiting monks on the south coast from taking part. Albert of Aachen talks about English participants joining one of the so-called peasants’ expeditions, which gathered in the Rhineland in 1096 before committing atrocities against Jewish populations and dispersed after an unsuccessful attempt to cross Central Europe. Neither of these groups reached the Levant.

Meanwhile, the article finds no instances of named individuals from Wales, Scotland or Ireland who took part in the First Crusade. Some historians have previously suggested some names, but a closer look reveals that while they did travel to the Middle East, it was most likely years after the First Crusade. For instance, Lǫgmaðr Guðrøðarson, the son of the King of Man, Dublin and the Isles, “with the sign of the Lord’s cross, took the road to Jerusalem,” as part of a punishment for castrating and blinding his brother, but because of the poor chronology of the 13th century source which recounts it, this event took place in either the years 1096, 1098, 1108 or 1110.

There are also accounts of English mariners who were working in the Eastern Mediterranean providing naval assistance to the crusaders, and some have suggested that they were sent from England. However, Parsons doubts that any English nobleman was in the position of funding a fleet of ships, and it was more likely that these men were Varangian mercenaries working for the Byzantine Empire, or that they were connected to Robert Curthose.

Parsons also comments on the habit of chroniclers of the Crusades who would mention the participation of various nations. Albert of Aachen describes crusaders who joined the expedition: “as much from the kingdom of France as from Lorraine, from the land of the Teutons, and from that of the English, and from the kingdom of the Danes.” William of Malmesbury adds this interesting statement about the people who decided to join in: “Then the Welshman left his leaping hunt, the Scot his familiar fleas, the Dane his continuous drinking, and the Norwegian his raw fish.” The historian finds these statements an attempt by chroniclers to emphasize how universal this undertaking was, with people from far off lands taking part. However, these should not be considered serious evidence of participation.

Simon Thomas Parsons’ article, “The Inhabitants of the British Isles on the First Crusade: Medieval Perceptions and the Invention of a Pan-Angevin Crusading Heritage” appears in English Historical Review Vol. CXXXIV No. 567, and was published earlier this year. You can read the article from Oxford University Press, and follow Simon on Academia.edu.

Top Image: A ship sailing in the First Crusade from a 13th century manuscript, with the vessel flying the cross of St George.

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