The Second Crusade

By Psycho Dan

In 1144 the Christian world was shocked by the news of the fall of Edessa. Taking advantage of Count Josceline’s absence, the Turkish ruler of Mosul – Zengi – was able to besiege the city, which was stormed after twenty eight days. This represented the first major victory by a Muslim power in the course of the Crusades. Indeed, it was a particular setback for the Franks as the County of Edessa had been the first Crusader State to be established and was one of the oldest cities in Christendom. Appeals for help from the Latin states following from this led to the creation of the Second Crusade, with Pope Eugenius III issuing the crusade bull on 1st December 1145.

This Crusade was notable for being an almost total failure despite the scale of the effort – with the king of France and the Holy Roman Emperor having taken part. It was a major setback for the position of the Franks in the East and damaged their reputation of military superiority. Conversely it was a significant Muslim victory that allowed Nur al-din (the son and heir of Zengi) to gain the initiative against the Franks. The Second Crusade also led to the development of the crusading movement, which included campaigns in Iberia against the Moors and in Eastern Europe against the pagan Wends.

This Crusade was primarily comprised of two major French and German contingents led by their respective sovereigns. Louis VII of France had already been eager to taken part in an expedition to the Holy Land and so embarked on it with gusto. Conrad III of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor Elect and the German nobility were originally unenthusiastic about the crusade until they were swayed by the powerful oratory of Bernard of Clairvaux one of the most respected clergymen in Christendom.

In June 1147 both armies set off for the East following the land route to the Holy Land. This choice seems influenced in part by the proven success of the route in the First Crusade but also due to the conflict between the Holy Roman Empire and the Normans of Sicily – thereby making a voyage by sea potentially more dangerous. An additional factor was due to sheer logistical difficulties, which indeed were to cause problems throughout the course of the Crusade. A smaller contingent from northern regions such as the Lowlands and England travelled by sea and on-route assisted the recently independent ruler of Portugal – King Afonso – in capturing Lisbon.

The German army marched ahead of the French army through Hungary into the Byzantine Empire. Though there were some clashes between the Germans and the Byzantines, the Emperor Manuel agreed to provide assistance to the Crusade whilst they travelled through his territory in Anatolia. Despite this, in Asia Minor the German army was much harassed by the Turks and their army was all but destroyed, with Conrad and the remnants of his army barely able to escape to join the French. The French were initially more successful than the Germans and managed to win a clear victory over the Turks in December 1147. However, the army became disorganised whilst crossing the Cadmus Mountains in Central Anatolia and falling victim to an ambush suffered heavy losses. After a further difficult march to the south coast the leaders of the Crusade and the cavalry embarked at the Byzantine city of Attalia for Syria, leaving the unfortunate infantry to continue on foot.

The French army regrouped at Antioch and were originally well received by its ruler – Prince Raymond – who hoped to benefit from being the uncle of Louis’s wife – Eleanor of Aquitaine – to assist him in a northern campaign However, Louis’s unwillingness to do so and rumours of him being to familiar with his niece led to the French moving on southwards to Acre.

At Acre a great council of war was convened by the leaders of the Crusade together with the local Frankish nobility led by King Baldwin of Jerusalem. With the city of Edessa all but destroyed – after Nur al-din had crushed a rebellion there – the decision was taken to attack Damascus. William of Tyre explains that the decision was taken because it was “A city that presented a great threat to us”. This was a city which after a period of truce with the Latin states had become hostile to the Franks – due to a rapprochement between its ruler Umar and the ruler of Aleppo, Nur al-din.

In July 1148 the Christian armies reached the city and initially besieged it on the western side through the dense orchards; however after the course of a few days the decision was taken (supposedly on the advice of the native Franks) to attack the eastern part of the city, which was allegedly less well defended. After a few days the lack of provisions, the continued resistance of the defenders and the eminent arrival of the army of Nur al-din led to the collapse of the attack and the end of the crusade.

Why did the crusade fail?

Contemporaries at the time gave a number of explanations to explain why a crusade sanctioned by God had ended in disaster. Louis VII blamed the disastrous losses on the march through Anatolia due to the treachery of the Greeks – a view, which seems to have some justification considering the minimal assistance the crusaders received from the Byzantines. Others such as William of Tyre blamed it on the treachery and cupidity of some of the Franks who persuaded their leaders to make the error of moving their camp (bribed by the defenders) so that they “Deserted the place which they had previously occupied with great effort and loss of men”. The Damascene chronicler, Ibn al-Qalanisi attributes the Muslim victory to the prowess of the defenders in defeating the attack and also as “News was reaching the Franks of the rapid approach of the Muslim armies” (Nur al-din).

These factors are all likely to have played a role in the collapse of the crusade before the walls of Damascus. Additionally historians such as Jonathan Philips have argued that it was lack of men and money that played a crucial role – the former undoubtedly as a result of the losses sustained on the journey to the Holy Land. A lesson that Richard I on the Third Crusade was careful to avoid with his well prepared and financed expedition. A further factor was the disunity of the leaders of the crusade as well as that of the native Franks some of who – as mentioned – were accused of sabotaging the crusade and whose refusal to take part in an expedition against Ascalon (following the debacle of Damascus) led to the westerners returning home. This was also a factor in the Third Crusade and led to Pope Innocent III’s decision to recruit an army with leadership from the nobility for the Fourth Crusade – as was the case with the First Crusade.


Jonathan Phillips and Martin Hoch, The Second Crusade: Scope and Consequences
Elizabeth Hallam, The Chronicles of the Crusades
Jonathan Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople
Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (London, 1984
Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades: Volume two, The Kingdom of Jerusalem
Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades