Pope Urban II (1035 – 1099) was Pope and head of the Roman Catholic Church from 1088 to 1099. In 1096, he gave a speech exhorting Christians to go on a ‘Holy Crusade’ to regain the Holy Lands from Muslim rulers. Promising the pardon of sins, righteous conduct and the wealth of the Holy Lands, Christian knights from across Europe heeded his call, leading to two centuries of conflict in the Holy Land and radically changing European and middle-eastern history.
Urban II was born in Lagery, France. At baptism, he was named – Eudes (Odo) Châtillon-sur-Marne. From an early age, he pursued a career in the church. He became prior of the nearby abbey Gluny, and later was promoted to cardinal-bishop of Ostia. He became an ally of Pope Gregory VII who was leading reforms to the church, such as cracking down on corruption (selling of church offices) and centralising power in Rome with the pope. Gregory VII’s recommendation was important in leading Odo to being elected Pope Urban II in March 1088.
Pope Urban II proved an effective leader of the church – despite the opposition from the German Emperor Henry IV and his rival pope of Clement III. Urban II continued the Gregorian reforms but with a degree of flexibility and awareness of political possibilities. He was successful in gaining the support of influential figures in Europe to strengthen his position against the rival pope but continued to be strict in maintaining standards and continue the Gregorian reforms.
“The church shall be catholic, chaste and free: catholic in faith and the communion of saints, chaste from all contagion of evil, and free from all secular power.”
Decrees of Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont, 1095.
Call to Crusades
On 27 November 1095, Pope Urban II gave one of the most influential speeches of any pope. In response to the presence of Muslim rulers controlling Eastern Europe and Jerusalem, Urban II called for his fellow Christians to join together in a “Holy Crusade” to regain Jerusalem from the present Muslim rulers.
Urban II was influenced by reports from Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who wanted help against the Muslim Seljuk Turks, but the call for a crusade went far further than anyone expected. Urban II stated that anyone who took part would see their sins forgiven by God and go straight to Heaven. He argued it was a Christians moral duty to make the Holy Land safe for Christian Pilgrims. He also appealed to a wider set of motives saying that the Holy Lands were richer than the crowded countries of Western Europe.
“I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds to publish this everywhere and 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. I say this to those who are present, it is meant also for those who are absent. 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.”
Fulcher of Chartres version of Pope Urban II’s speech. From the five versions of his speech)
The effect of the speech was electric. It is reported people in the audience responded with a wave of enthusiasm.
“Scarcely had the Pope ended his words before the Bishop of Le Puy rose from his seat and, kneeling before the throne, begged permission to join in the holy expedition. Hundreds crowded up to follow his example.”
Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades
The people in the audience and across Europe response to the speech that this was indeed a “Holy Mission” – the slogan used by Christian Crusaders was “God Wills it.” The appeal of Pope Urban II had the effect of uniting Western Europe in a common purpose, helping to strengthen the supremacy of the Pope and reduce national divisions, such as the rival Holy Roman Empire. Later in the same year, French armies who heeded Pope Urban IIs call removed his rival Clement III from Rome. The crusades also had a huge impact on the Holy Lands, which became a field of conflict for the next two centuries. Ironically, the crusades would also bring Eastern culture and knowledge into Europe.
It should be noted there was no exact transcription of the speech. There are five versions written by writers after the event, and they all contain some contradiction. It is likely that they reflect what the writers felt the Pope should have said. However, letters written by Pope Urban II to different European kings confirm his intent and motives for calling the crusades.
“Whoever for devotion alone, not to obtain honour or money, shall set out to free the church of God at Jerusalem, that shall be counted to him for all penance (pro omni penitentia). ” (From Liber Lamberti, p.74)
Urban II also specifically encouraged Christians to continue their fight against the Moors in Spain. It is possible that Urban II hoped that a Crusade in Eastern Europe would also lead to the re-uniting of Eastern and Western Churches.
The First Crusade led to the capture of Jerusalem by Christian armies. Urban II died on 29 July 1099 two weeks after the fall of Jerusalem but before news reached him.
Pope Urban was beatified in 1881 by Pope Leo XIII – this was a controversial move as the primary motivator of the Crusades unleashed a century of conflict between Christians and Muslims. In fighting so bitterly, any ideal of Christian virtue often became overtaken by the bitterness and moral decay of war. Even a millennium later the consequences of a perceived clash of civilisation between the Christian and Muslim world are still being felt.
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