Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.
Urban II was always going to be an achiever. Born into a wealthy, aristocratic family sometime between 1035 and 1042 he became the most powerful religious figure in Western Christendom, beat his rival, Clement III in a Papal popularity contest, almost healed the Great schism separating East and West and launched the only successful Crusade to the Holy land. That’s quite a list of achievements for one man.
Not only that, he almost solved the problem of lay-investiture (Simony) and managed to keep the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV (who had appointed Urban’s rival, Clement III) at bay both before and during his papacy.
For all that it is the launching of the First crusade that Urban is best known for. He was the pontiff who, in order to further other political objectives planned to persuade a few thousand knights to Constantinople to help Eastern Christians fight off encroaching armies in the Middle East. Constantinople was losing important territories such as Antioch and Edessa and the Eastern emperor, Alexius I needed help. Urban II was only too happy to provide it.
If he could save the Eastern empire he might heal the rift between East and West. If he could heal the rift he would undoubtedly be seen as the true Pope over the claims of the usurper Clement III. If he could do that he could heal the rift within the Western church. Now there’s a legacy worth leaving.
So it was that on November 27th 1095 (the last day of the council of Clermont) Pope Urban II gave one of the most disastrous and infamous sermons in the history of Christianity. He called for brave warriors to go to the defence of Constantinople and its territories. It is just possible that he also called for the retaking of Jerusalem but as we have explored in a separate post that seems unlikely. Quite how Jerusalem became top of the Crusaders’ list is unclear but it probably had more to do with prevailing pilgrim culture than any request from Urban II. Taking Jerusalem wouldn’t have helped his wider political aims and it wouldn’t have helped Emperor Alexius either.
Urban II seems to have been a pretty empathetic and persuasive character. Not only did he garner significant support from diverse and traditionally opposing factions within the church, he also managed to carry many noble families along with him too. This allowed him to implement some of the most far-reaching reforms to the medieval Roman Catholic church, not least regarding the practice of Simony) although conflicts with Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury meant his influence in England was more limited than elsewhere in Western Europe. This is ironic given Anselm’s support for reform but despite his personal preferences and disagreements the old Archbishop remained loyal to his King.
Urban II died on July 29th 1099, two weeks after the First Crusade captured Jerusalem but before news of the victory could reach him. His most dramatic achievement, chosen by accident rather than design, happened without his knowledge. Perhaps that was God’s punishment for Urban II refusing to travel to the Holy Land to lead the Crusades himself. Or perhaps it wasn’t.
The Crusading Barons had asked Urban II to provide ‘on the ground’ spiritual leadership following their successful capture of Antioch but, unsurprisingly he refused, leaving that particular task to the Papal legate, Bishop Adhemar instead. Sadly (for Adhemar) that decision cost the legate his life. Crusading was a risky business.