Reasons for Going on the First Crusade: A Checklist

By Steven Muhlberger

Why did people go on the First Crusade? A look at Pope Urban II’s speech in 1095 and how it helped convince people to take the cross.

Everybody agrees that the calling of the First Crusade was a unique event that inspired a surprising response. Why? It wasn’t just because of Pope Urban II’s famous speech at Clermont – though it must have been a doozy. The people who heard him at Clermont were individuals who responded to him in different ways. They had different priorities which made them more sympathetic to one part or another of the papal message. I’ve assembled a checklist of reasons that medieval chroniclers and modern scholars, all of them writing well after the event, have used to explain this mass movement.


Let me start with some excerpts from accounts of Pope Urban’s speech as remembered by contemporaries, all of whom knew that the Crusade had succeeded in taking Jerusalem.  Much more could be said – and has been. These are the passages that have struck me as significant. If you want more, you can find them on The Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

From Fulcher of Chartres, Deeds of the Franks on the Expedition to Jerusalem

Most beloved brethren: Urged by necessity, I, Urban, by the permission of God chief bishop and prelate over the whole world, have come into these parts as an ambassador with a divine admonition to you, the servants of God. I hoped to find you as faithful and as zealous in the service of God as I had supposed you to be. But if there is in you any deformity or crookedness contrary to God’s law, with divine help I will do my best to remove it….your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them. For, as the most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of Romania [the Greek empire]… If you permit them to continue thus for awhile with impunity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them. On this I or rather the Lord, beseech you  … to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends…Moreover, Christ commands it.  


“All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested. this war which should have been begun long ago. Let those who for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights. Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians. Let those who have been serving as mercenaries for small pay now obtain the eternal reward…

From Robert the Monk, History of the First Crusade

Oh, race of Franks, race from across the mountains, race chosen and beloved by God as shines forth in very many of your works set apart from all nations by the situation of your country, as well as by your catholic faith and the honor of the holy church! To you our discourse is addressed and for you our exhortation is intended. From the confines of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth and very frequently has been brought to our ears… On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you? You, upon whom above other nations God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great courage, bodily activity, and strength to humble the hairy scalp of those who resist you.

Let the deeds of your ancestors move you and incite your minds to manly achievements; the glory and greatness of King Charles the Great, and of his son Louis …recall the valor of your progenitors.

Let therefore hatred depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions and controversies slumber. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves. This royal city, therefore, situated at the centre of the world, is now held captive by His enemies, and is in subjection to those who do not know God, to the worship of the heathens. She seeks therefore and desires to be liberated,


Accordingly undertake this journey for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the kingdom of heaven.

And we do not command or advise that the old or feeble, or those unfit for bearing arms, undertake this journey; nor ought women to set out at all, without their husbands or brothers or legal guardians. For such are more of a hindrance than aid, more of a burden than advantage. Let the rich… take with them experienced soldiers. The priests and clerks of any order are not to go without the consent of their bishop; for this journey would profit them nothing if they went without permission of these. Also, it is not fitting that laymen should enter upon the pilgrimage without the blessing of their priests.

Whoever, therefore, shall determine upon this holy pilgrimage and shall make his vow to shall wear the sign of the cross of the Lord.


Anonymous’ The Deeds of the Franks

If anyone desired to follow the Lord zealously, with a pure heart and mind, and wished faithfully to bear the cross after Him, he would no longer hesitate to take up the way to the Holy Sepulcher.

Urban [and other clergy… began] to preach eloquently, saying: “Whoever wishes to save his soul should not hesitate humbly to take up the way of the Lord, and if he lacks sufficient money, divine mercy will give him enough.” …And when this speech had already begun to be noised abroad, little by little, through all the regions and countries of Gaul, the Franks, upon hearing such reports, forthwith caused crosses to be sewed on their right shoulders, saying that they followed with one accord the footsteps of Christ, by which they had been redeemed from the hand of hell.

Balderic of Dol, History of the Jerusalemites

Christian flesh, akin to the flesh of Christ, has been subjected to unspeakable degradation and servitude. Everywhere in those cities there is sorrow, everywhere misery, everywhere groaning (I say it with a sigh). The churches in which divine mysteries were celebrated in olden times are now, to our sorrow, used as stables for the animals of these people! Holy men do not possess those cities; nay, base and bastard Turks hold sway over our brothers. .. The sanctuary of God (unspeakable shame!) is everywhere profaned. Whatever Christians still remain in hiding there are sought out with unheard of tortures.

What are we saying? Listen and learn! You, girt about with the badge of knighthood, are arrogant with great pride; you rage against your brothers and cut each other in pieces. This is not the (true) soldiery of Christ … The Holy Church has reserved a soldiery for herself to help her people, but you debase her wickedly to her hurt. Let us confess the truth, whose heralds we ought to be; truly, you are not holding to the way which leads to life.  … [As vultures smell fetid corpses, so do you sense battles from afar and rush to them eagerly. Verily, this is the worst way, for it is utterly removed from God! if, forsooth, you wish to be mindful of your souls, either lay down the girdle of such knighthood, or advance boldly, as knights of Christ, and rush as quickly as you can to the defense of the Eastern Church. … You should shudder, brethren, you should shudder at raising a violent hand against Christians; it is less wicked to brandish your sword against Saracens… It is the only warfare that is righteous, for it is charity to risk your life for your brothers. That you may not be troubled about the concerns of tomorrow, know that those who fear God want nothing, nor those who cherish Him in truth. The possessions of the enemy, too, will be yours, since you will make spoil of their treasures and return victorious to your own; or empurpled with your own blood, you will have gained everlasting glory. For such a Commander you ought to fight, for One who lacks neither might nor wealth with which to reward you.


Crusaders and supporters—what Urban supposedly said and what various audiences heard

What Pope Urban II  hoped his audience heard:

  • Rescue of Eastern Churches/Repelling Turks and Arabs (“pagans”)
  • Rescue of Holy Sepulcher/Jerusalem/Holy Land
  • Redirection of knightly violence – only holy war is justifiable
  • Assertion of unique Papal authority derived from God

Clergy and monks

  • longtime promoters of pilgrimages, they hoped for open roads to Jerusalem


  • They were offered remission of sins
  • Offered glory of the right kind – following progenitors, esp. Charlemagne and Franks
  • Fighting with Jesus is the only justifiable warfare
  • They were be rewarded with the treasures of the enemy

Others and their expectations

  • Byzantine Empire – hoping for a trained army; as did Urban
  • Peter the Hermit and other “unauthorized” preachers  — expected and preached the Apocalypse
  • Women, the old and feeble, clerics others without clerical permission – all sorts of people whom Urban wanted to stay home went anyway

This of course is an incomplete collection of potential motivations for the first crusaders. Modern scholars of the last half-century have opened up new debates on subjects such the motives of the Crusaders, Crusades on the several frontiers with non-Christians, the Crusades against Christians, and the legal structure of the Crusades.  I am fond of Crusades: The Illustrated History, edited by Thomas F. Madden, as an introduction.

Steven Muhlberger, before he retired from Nipissing University, studied and taught Late Antiquity, the history of democracy, Islamic history, and chivalry. His most recent scholarly works include The Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis II Bourbon published by Freelance Academy Press.

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Top Image: Peter the Hermit leading people on the First Crusade – British Library MS Egerton MS 1500 fol. 45v