The Political Crusade

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

To most thirteenth century Europeans, taking crusader's vows would be completely natural. Publicly (usually in church), the potential crusignatus would pledge to support the Church's efforts in the Holy Land, and sew a linen cross to his or her garment. These vows could be taken at any time (the Holy Land was continuously in need of aid in these, the declining days of the crusades) and by anyone: rich or poor, man or woman, layman or cleric. This was in decided contrast to earlier practice in which all but knights were actively discouraged from taking the cross. One's reasons for taking the vows could range from an act of loyalty to a lord preparing to embark for the Holy Land to an act of penitence assigned as partial retribution for crimes. Needless to say, everyone who took such vows did not make the trip to Outremer. Very few women made the journey. We have, of course, the famous story of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who accompanied her first husband Louis VI on crusade; of Eleanor, Countess of Leicester, who accompanied Simon de Montfort as far as Sicily before stopping to give birth, and of Eleanor of Castile, Edward I's queen, who actually had a daughter born in Acre. But these women were exceptions. Clerics, especially those charged with duties to a parish or diocese, were also discouraged from actually going. The poor could usually make the journey only if they were attached to some lordıs retinue. What these folk were encouraged to do was give money to support the crusading efforts. They received the same protection as other crusignati -- indulgence from sins, special papal protection, and the like. The survival of a fair sized body of literature, music, and art relating to the crusade is ample proof of the depth to which the idea of the Crusade permeated society by the thirteenth century.

However, SCA society is somewhat more refined; most of us would blanch at the idea of anything resembling a religious war (my friends with Islamic personae would probably not be thrilled at that prospect). It is little known, however, that not all who took the cross did so in relief of the Holy Land or against heretics. In England twice and in Sicily once we may find examples of "Crusades" which under their religious veneer hide essentially political conflicts.

In 1216 England was in chaos. At the death of King John many of his barons were in open revolt due to his successful attempt to gain papal annulment of the provisions of Magna Carta, which had entailed doing homage to the Pope for the kingdom of England as a papal fief. John had then taken the cross. London and a large portion of southeast England were in the hands of the rebellious barons and their allies, French forces under Prince Louis (later Louis VIII). The heir to the throne, Henry III, was nine years old. Upon his coronation, Henry took the cross, and the royalist forces sewed white crosses onto their clothes. The Pope now had a direct interest in English affairs. He declared that the royalist forces were indeed "soldiers of Christ" and likened the rebels to Saracens. Papal registers are explicit in their reference to the crusade "in defence of the King of England" Contemporary sources use crusade imagery to depict the resulting battles, in which the French are driven out of England and the rebellious barons are eventually brought back into the fold.

In the late 1250's comes another example of this type of crusade. Unlike the English example, in which one's vows to go to the Holy Land could not be redeemed by participating in the suppression of the revolt, the Pope in this instance allowed those who had taken the cross to redeem their vows in Sicily, where Manfred, the illegitimate son of Frederick II (whose policies had threatened papal power in Italy), now ruled as king. Few were willing to engage in such an overtly political war against such a strong opponent, however. The crown was first offered in 1252 to Richard of Cornwall, brother of Henry III, who refused it on the grounds that actually taking control in Sicily was impossible. Henry III was later enlisted in this task, being promised the crown of Sicily for his son Edmund and the commutation of his crusader's vow to a papal-sanctioned holy war there. However, he was required to assume responsibility for the enormous papal debt, which immediately caused an uproar in England and insured that Henry would never complete the task. It was left to the French, who starting in 1264 and under much more reasonable terms succeeded in expelling Manfred and installing Charles of Anjou, brother of Louis IX, as king.

We must return to Henry, because here we find our third "political crusade". Henry's demand for funding for this "Sicilian Enterprise" led directly to a baronial revolt (reminiscent of the baronial revolt which followed John's demands for funds for ill-advised wars in France). To make a long story short, after seven years of attempted reform the baronial party (which came to be led by Simon de Montfort) was defeated by the royalist forces at the Battle of Evesham. In this case, we have evidence that the forces of both sides had taken the cross: a fair number of the English clergy, who loathed the Italian papal curia and its attempts to interfere in English affairs, supported Montfort and had promised his forces remission of sin, while the royalist forces had received papal sanction to preach a crusade against the Montfortians and were likewise promised absolution. It appears that the royalists wore a red cross on each shoulder, while Montfort's wore a single white cross on the right shoulder. Who were the "real" crusaders, then? The question is not one of religion; both Henry and Simon de Montfort had reputations as pious men. It seems that by this time the idea of crusades against other Christians whose political policies one opposed had become commonplace and that the practice of seeing one's opponents as "enemies of God and Christian unity" had become well established.


Lloyd, Simon. English Society and the Crusade, 1216-1307. Oxford 1988
____________, " 'Political Crusades' in England, c. 1215-17 and c. 1263-5", Crusade and Settlement, P.W. Edbury, ed., Cardiff, 1985. 113-9.
Powicke, Maurice, The Thirteenth Century. 2nd edition, Oxford, 1962.

Copyright 1993, 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.