The Council of Clermont

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Pope Urban the Second set in motion the First Crusade with his incendiary call to arms at Clermont in 1095.

The Council of Clermont, which took place between the 18th and 28th of November 1095, is rightly seen as one of the main contributing causes of the First Crusade. In preaching holy war against the Seljuk Turks menacing the Holy Land Urban set in motion a train of events that was to culminate in the capture of Jerusalem and the establishment of Christian Outremer. Urban’s revolutionary speech promised plenary indulgences and a full remission of sins to all those who fought for Christ and the restoration of the holy city.

Byzantium Calls for Assistance

At the Council of Piacenza, held in March 1095, the Byzantine Emperor had sent envoys to Pope Urban to request assistance in their conflict against the invading Seljuk Turks. The Seljuk’s, who in a few brief decades had made themselves masters of Anatolia and de facto rulers of the Sunni Muslim world, were menacing the eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire. Indeed the Seljuk’s had established their provincial capital at Nicea, only a days march from the walls of Constantinople.

Through the internecine feuding of the Turks and Alexius’ adept diplomacy the Seljuk threat was receding, though the beleaguered Emperor lacked the man power to decisively take the conflict to the Turks. As ruler of a sprawling empire with multiple borders and frontiers to defend Alexius was largely dependent upon foreign mercenary muscle (ranging from Petcheneg frontier guards to Varangian shock troops). If he was to be able to take the offensive he desperately needed more troops.

Alexius’ plaintive entreaty struck a chord with Urban in 1095. In answering the call of the Basileus Urban would be able to redirect the energies of his quarrelsome flock towards a distant and pagan enemy. The Pope may also have been motivated by the possibility of healing the schism that had grown up between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, while at the same time establishing the primacy of the Latin church across Christendom.

The Council of Clermont Itself

The Council of Clermont was the culmination of a long tour of France, undertaken by Urban, aimed at reinforcing the agenda of the Reforming Papacy. During the Council the 300 or so clerical delegates discussed a diverse range of topics ranging from lay investiture and Clerical abuses (such as simony and priestly marriage) through to the proposed excommunication of the adulterous King Philip of France.

It was only on the penultimate day of the Council of Clermont that a general public session was announced, which would herald a great announcement from the Pope. No official account of what urban said exists today, although there are five accounts written by contemporary chroniclers; though it must be added that all of these versions were penned after the eventual success of the enterprise had, in the words of Christopher Tyerman, “moulded attitudes and perspectives.” The accounts differ with each other, sometimes markedly, and illustrate the difficulty the historian has in peering through the hazy gloom of nine centuries. The only verifiable first hand sources that remain in existence are a number of letters penned after the Council by Urban himself.

Urban The Second’s Speech

It appears certain that Urban began his speech painting a vivid picture of the depredations suffered by the Christian brethren in the East. Urban wove a tale of the Turks pressing inexorably in the heartland of Christian Byzantium, “maltreating the inhabitants and desecrating their shrines” as Steven Runciman put it. Urban stressed the need for an armed expedition to relieve the Christians in the East.

The special holiness of Jerusalem was also forcibly alluded to during the Council of Clermont. The holy city had long been a centre of pilgrimage and Urban emphasised the difficulties experienced by the pious in their attempt to reach Christendom’s holiest shrines. Urban exhorted those present to take up arms for the relief of Byzantium and the recovery of Jerusalem. Urban stressed that the conflict was inherently meritorious and just (a concept of holy war that had been promulgated by his predecessor Gregory the Seventh) and that all who fought for the cross would receive a full remission of their sins.

Urban, according to a number of the surviving sources attempted to limit the field of participants, clerics and monks were forced to seek the permission of their bishops or abbot’s, while the old, infirm or poor were discouraged from making the journey. Urban promised that the property of any who took up arms for Christ would be protected by the church..

A novel flourish was the employment of a red cross as the symbol of the movement, which every participant would sew onto their surcoat. Bishop Adehmar of Le Puy, who was to lead the eventual crusade as Papal legate, was the first to take up the cross at Clermont and his example inspired hundreds to pledge their support there and then. During the speech a chant of Deus lo Volt (God wills it) was taken up by the massed congregation, though Tyerman hints that this may have been started by Papal plants in the audience.

The Response to the Council of Clermont

Urban’s exhortations at Clermont were greeted with widespread enthusiasm. Roused by the twin forces of piety and poverty the poor took up the cross in huge numbers, despite Urban’s attempts to regulate their involvement. Numerous great lay lords (ranging from the Duke of Normandy to the Italian-Norman princes of southern Italy) answered Urban’s call within months of the Council. Urban had cleverly combined the warlike militarism of his flock with the promise of salvation. Urban’s just war was the Middle Age’s ultimate clarion call. Urban’s words had mobilised a continent and the result of his honeyed eloquence was to resonate sonorously down the corridors of time.