In modern thinking, the crusades are vaguely known as efforts made for centuries in which European forces attempted, time and again, to capture Jerusalem and restore it as a Catholic capital. The general and lingering belief, generally speaking, is that these were holy wars. Various popes and great kings of Europe were, it is believed, committed to the ultimate goal, and the authority of the Church was the driving force. Without question, the Catholic powers in Europe perceived the religion as the only true one, and it was held that the holy city needed to be freed from the control of the “infidels.” To some extent, this was the motivation. At the same time, the actual idea of crusading was based on extremely complex factors, and this is particularly evident when the reign of Innocent III is examined. A wide range of influences went to encouraging Europeans to go to war in this way. Much of this was political, as in Innocent’s determination to establish the papacy as the ultimate power worldwide, and promises of spiritual absolution for all those willing to fight. There was as well an ambition to take away riches from the Middle East, and knights and others saw participation in the crusades as greatly enhancing their prestige when they returned home. Consequently, and as the following explores, the crusades engaged in during the reign of Innocent III were motivated by a number of ideas, and the need to reinforce the Catholic faith was ultimately only one aspect of the movement.
To begin with, it is at least arguable that the agenda of Innocent III was the dominant element in the idea of how and why the crusades were undertaken. It must be remembered that, in these centuries, the pope did not exist as the spiritual leader he is known as today. Instead, they were extremely powerful rulers, and often acted as kings in terms of promoting war, gaining lands, and extending their own authority over all. Since the fall of the Roman empires, certainly, the Catholic Church increasingly held vast authority in Europe. If this was reinforced by fear, it is still true that the majority of the people, often coerced into shifting from pagan belief to Catholicism, became obedient to the Church. This was largely due to economic need, as monks and priests controlled estates and the large peasant population worked for them. Then, knights and other higher ranked individuals relied on the Church to support their own positions and power.

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Nonetheless, Innocent had a motive all his own. In 1202, he issued a papal bull declaring that he, as Christ’s vicar on earth, was above any emperor or king. Only the pope, he declared, had the power to invest a prince with a throne, so he was endowed with the highest authority (Falk 156). By launching the fourth crusade, Innocent was intent on reaffirming this authority and he was greatly responsible for how the actual idea behind the crusade would develop. For example, Innocent did not call upon Europe’s kings to join in the efforts. He especially did not want any German princes, who opposed him, to go to the crusades, and he instead only called upon knights and lesser nobles (Falk 156). This suggests that political control was very much a factor here, so the idea of the crusades was already complicated. In a sense, Innocent relied on the idea, which spread through Europe, that kings needed to be made to see that their power was lesser than the pope’s, as the pope was determined to establish the greatest European rule.

Other ideas went to the crusades of Innocent’s time, and some of these were, as noted, economic in motivation. Feudalism was the order of the day and, under this system, family lands of the wealthy were passed on only to the eldest son. This meant that younger sons were dispossessed and forced to find other means of gaining stature and wealth. With the idea of the crusades as so encouraged by Innocent III, opportunity was seen as there for the taking. Younger sons believed that, through victory in Jerusalem, they would be able to take lands and riches. Profit was then a significant motivation in the general idea of what the crusades could mean. At the same time, with this being the fourth crusade, those with such interests in going had another ambition. They knew from experience that knights returning from a crusade were often celebrated as heroes in verse and song. They achieved a legendary status and this certainly had a strong appeal to the Europeans. At the same time, there is evidence that, in Innocent’s era, more than desires for wealth and fame influenced the crusaders. There can be no underestimating of the force of Catholicism in the early 13th century, and belief tended to be absolute. This being the case, many crusaders were after a form of absolution. In Europe, they frequently went to war with neighboring landowners, and they believed that fighting to reclaim Jerusalem was a means of atoning for these sins (Jotischky 15). Materialism and spirituality then combined in the idea behind the crusades launched by Innocent III.

The above notwithstanding, however, the reality remains that it was Innocent III who was chiefly responsible for how the crusades took on greater meaning in Europe. This pope lost no time in his ambitions; he undertook to launch a crusade upon his election to the papacy in 1198, and he would never lessen this ambition until his death in 1216. In a sense, Innocent was picking up on the legacy of Emperor Henry VI, who had died the year before. Henry had built up a crusades momentum but, upon his death, the situation was dangerous. At this time, Egyptian armies had gathered and were likely to overcome the remaining forces of Henry. Innocent then worked to negotiate whatever aid he could generate and, by 1201, he made deals with the Venetians in which 20,000 foot soldier, 9, 500 knights, and supplies for a year would be provided (Jotischky 164). Ultimately, the crusades failed after long centuries of warfare. Nonetheless, and importantly, the crusades initiated by Innocent III demonstrate how an idea of a need to go to war, and holy war at that, relies on many different ambitions and motivations. As the above supports, the crusades launched during the reign of Innocent III were promoted by a number of ideas, and the ambition to restore and uphold the Catholic faith in Jerusalem was ultimately only one aspect of the movement.

  • Falk, Avner. Franks and Saracens: Reality and Fantasy in the Crusades. London, UK: Karnac Books, 2010.
  • Jotischky, Andrew. Crusading and the Crusader States. New York: Routledge, 2014.