We remember the Council of Clermont, in 1095, as the launchpad of the First Crusade. But in order to understand why the Crusade was called, we need to look at the Council of Piacenza, held earlier in the same year.
Pope Gregory VII had died shortly after Norman mercenaries drove the King of Germany and his counter-Pope out of Rome. There was a short-lived Pope who doesn’t really enter into our story, and then in 1088, one of Gregory VII’s closest allies became Pope by popular acclaim, just as Gregory had done. The people of Rome were in favor of Papal power and against the Papacy being controlled by the Franks. So when they chose a Pope in this period, it was sure to be an opponent of the French and German kings. The new Pope took the name Urban II.
Urban II took up Gregory VII’s battles, including the counter-Pope who was still around. He held a series of church-wide councils to establish broad support for his own Papacy and Gregory’s reforms. It’s worth noting how important these assemblies were, even in times when monarchy was the normal form of secular government. Many early principles of self-government were worked out in the Church during the medieval centuries.
By 1093, Urban II had gained such power that he supported the King’s son of Germany in a rebellion against his father, crowning Prince Conrad as “King of the Romans.” He also excommunicated King Philip I of France for divorcing his first wife, Bertha, and remarrying another man’s wife, Bertrade. (Philip, you will recall, was the son of Anne of Kiev.) Additionally, he supported England’s Archbishop of Canterbury in rebelling against the new Norman dynasty to keep church power separate from the state.
In late 1094, Pope Urban began a formal tour of France and Italy so as to re-establish his personal authority in each locality. At the end, he called many of the people he’d met to come to a Council at Piacenza, Italy. The agenda was to discuss and ratify papal decisions from the past year, but the meeting also served as a royal court of the Church-King. Foreign ambassadors came to address the assembly.
Philip I sent a petition to have his excommunication revoked, but he was denied (unless he repented very soon). The Pope was determined to show himself master over the King of France. There was even worse in store for the King of Germany.
Henry IV had married Anne of Kiev’s niece Eupraxia of Kiev as his second wife. She was the widow of one of his nobles in Saxony, and she probably preferred to enter a convent, which is where Henry met her. However, she consented to a second marriage and was crowned Queen Adelaide. It was a terrible match; by the time Henry was taking his army into Italy, she had to be held prisoner. About a year before the Council of Piacenza, she escaped from his household and fled to Henry’s greatest enemy, the widowed Countess Matilda who claimed much of the same territory. She gave birth to a baby boy who did not live long.
Now, at the Council, Queen Adelaide/Eudoxia stepped forward to make a public accusation. She claimed that far from being the righteous Catholic that the Holy Roman Emperor claimed to be, he had joined a weird cult and forced her to participate in sex orgies and black magic. Further, both Adelaide and Prince Conrad, Henry’s son of his first marriage, claimed that he had even offered his second wife sexually to Conrad. Conrad professed that he had been terribly shocked and not at all tempted, and that it was the reason he rebelled against his father. It’s not clear what the Council did about any of this.
But soon after, the Pope could appear at the height of his power over the kings. Not to them, but to him, to Pope Urban II, came the Byzantine ambassadors. They brought a request from Emperor Alexios I Komnenos for mercenaries to help fight the Turks.
Alexios Komnenos had recently won a huge battle against a nomadic tribe, the Pechenegs, who had been in the region for centuries and had fought on any side they were paid to fight on. When they heard that Constantinople was weak, the whole tribe came with their carts, tents, and flocks. Along the way, they pillaged Byzantine farms for supplies. They had heard correctly that the Emperor was in a weak state; the Byzantine army was not strong enough to fight off even this rabble. But Alexios Komnenos took some of his stored gold and hired another nomadic tribe to join him. They devastated the Pechenegs and all nearby Seljuk Turks.
So Alexios Komnenos was a rising star. He wanted to take back Anatolia from the Turks; it did not yet seem inevitable that that land mass would become “Turkey.” With the Pechenegs dead and few other tribes nearby, his thoughts turned to the despicable Normans who had invaded not long ago in support of another Byzantine would-be Emperor. They were devils, but they fought like madmen. They’d do.
Revised entries, 2017:
One of Pope Urban II’s headaches came from the King of France. He should have been known to history as Philip the First Greek Name King, but instead he’s come down as Philip the Player, or more accurately, the Amorous. At the age of 19, he made a military intervention in a family usurpation dispute in Flanders. His side lost. The peace treaty included his agreement to marry Bertha of Holland, who was also the only plausible aristocratic lady not too closely related to Philip already.
Philip and Bertha were married for six years before she conceived any babies, but then she produced Prince Louis and Princess Constance. By now the couple was middle-aged, and they were both getting fat. History doesn’t tell us how fat she was, but he was having trouble riding a horse. That was the natural weight limit imposed on men in military leadership. We also know that her son later went into history as Louis the Fat.
Bertha was probably just fine; we don’t know. Philip left his complaints about her weight in written history because he had FALLEN IN LOVE. He chose to use the old Frankish custom of repudiating a wife. Bertha withdrew to her dowry lands in Holland and lived only a little longer, dying in 1094.
Bertrade, the glamorous new love, was already married to Count Fulk of Anjou. She had already given birth to the next Fulk, who will be a major character in the Crusades. King Philip simply took her from Anjou in 1092 and married her.
Count Fulk seems not to have cared that much. He had been married at least four times before, and in most of those cases, he had repudiated the bride, sometimes with a fig leaf excuse of “oh my we were too closely related.” He needed real brides to produce legitimate heirs, but now he had two sons, “an heir and a spare,” and he didn’t need a wife for sex, he had plenty of other options. He was a scandalous man, known for a bad temper.
But what Fulk could get away with, Philip could not. His “Queen Bertrade” had a living husband, while he had (for a few more years) a living wife. The Archbishop of Lyon excommunicated him: he could not participate in Mass.
So Agenda #1 at the Council of Piacenza was King Philip’s appeal to the Pope to reverse the Archbishop’s ruling. No repentance had taken place; in fact, gossip had it that the King was so infatuated with Bertrade that he paid little attention to other matters.
Henry IV, King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor, was the Pope’s greatest challenge and even enemy. The last thing King Henry wanted was for some irregularity in his personal life to come before the Pope, like his distant cousin King Philip. He did not attend the Council, since he was still refusing to acknowledge this Pope as the true one.
But sadly for Henry, his second wife was there, bigger than life. Let’s back up.
Henry had been betrothed in childhood to the daughter of the Count of Savoy. The girl, Bertha, grew up in the same household with him in Germany and was married to him at 15. It should have all worked out great, but Henry didn’t like her personally. Worse, he was a womanizer to a scandalous degree, sometimes forcing any pretty girl he saw to be delivered to his bed, while keeping multiple regular mistresses.
Just a few years after their marriage, Henry tried to have it annulled. He called a council of German bishops and presented his case, swearing that he’d never slept with Bertha. The problem was that Bertha’s mother the Countess of Savoy was a powerful, determined lady (the following year, she burned a rebellious city). The bishops and counts told Henry to take his wife back.
Queen Bertha comes out of this story well: she was a faithful wife, bore him a string of children, and asked her mother to be peaceful. She was with Henry when he pulled the penance stunt of standing in the snow. She was still with him when his anti-Pope crowned him Holy Roman Emperor. She exits this sordid tale at age 36, year 1087.
Then Henry saw a pretty widow in a convent; she was a Byzantine princess, a good connection for someone at war with the Roman Pope. Her parentage is interesting; father was Prince of Kiev, but her mother was a Kipchak Turk, one of the invading nomad groups. Eupraxia’s appearance was probably exotic: she was a blend of Viking Rus, Greek royalty, and Asiatic Turk. Had she been anyone less than a Princess, he’d probably have just ordered her brought to his room, but he betrothed and married her in 1089. Their relationship was a disaster. Henry ended up actually holding her prisoner when he came to Italy with an army in 1093. She was pregnant. He couldn’t trust her with anyone at home, so he locked her up in a loyal North Italy monastery while he fought.
Eupraxia had escaped to one of Henry’s devoted enemies, the same Countess of Tuscany who owned the snowy castle Henry had stood outside with Bertha. Eupraxia’s baby died. Eupraxia now wanted to be free, the marriage ended, so she could go home to Kiev. She sent Pope Urban II a letter in 1094, and was invited to come to Piacenza.
Eupraxia’s story was explosive: Henry, she said, had joined a sex cult. They were “Nicolaitans,” heretics who used sex orgies in worship, and Henry hosted their wicked ceremonies in his palace. He had forced her into these orgies, so that perhaps some other man had fathered her baby. Not only that, she said he had offered her body to his son Conrad, who virtuously refused the offer.
Bertha’s son Conrad was at the Council too, and he backed up Eupraxia’s claims. He was in full rebellion against his father now. He vowed allegiance to Pope Urban II and ceremonially led the Pope’s horse like a servant. Pope Urban II crowned him King of Italy, deposing his father Henry from at least the lands where the Pope had influence.
So was it true? We really don’t know. Historians of the time who were against Henry IV believed in the orgies, and some added details such as Eupraxia’s naked body being used as a Black Mass altar. The “Nicolaitan” name was taken from the New Testament, so it was not really a well-attested 11th century group. The wisdom of our time suggests that these stories are improbable and implausible. What’s implausible often turns out to be simply not true. Was Eupraxia just a Real Housewives Drama Queen? Or did her claims have a deeper purpose?
The Pope closed his Council at Piacenza with dignity, and with his hand strengthened everywhere. He took six months to think about what to do next.
So at the Pope’s early 1095 Council in Piacenza, both of the Frankish kings were accused of serious moral crimes. For 300 years, the Franks had been the Pope’s defense against Lombards and Saracens. The Papacy still needed real (not spiritual) armies to shore up spiritual authority (and literally keep the Pope alive). Urban II was suddenly handed a new opportunity.
Seljuk Turks were now ruling in Baghdad and all around it, including Syria and the Holy Land. Other Turkic nomad tribes had been in the area for several centuries, and still other new ones were drifting in. One of the long-term nomadic groups, the Pechenegs, had seen weakness in Constantinople and responded by flooding into Byzantine territory in great numbers. They were coming to settle, with flocks and wagons.
Emperor Alexios I Komnenos had been a general fighting against the Norman invasion. Robert Guiscard, now Duke of southern Italy, had invaded Albania in 1081, coming right into the Greek heartland. After winning several key battles and seizing most of Macedonia and Thrace, Robert was called back to Rome to save the Pope. His son Bohemond (later a Crusader) stayed on but eventually lost Albania and Macedonia to the energetic young Byzantine general. Then some typically “Byzantine” plots placed general Alexios Komnenos on the throne.
As Emperor, he turned to face the Turkic Pecheneg threat. Hiring another tribe, the Cumans, as additional manpower, he defeated the Pechenegs and some nearby Seljuks. But in addition to other troubles, he still had an increasingly permanent infestation of Seljuk Turks all along his eastern frontier. Alexios Komnenos was determined to reverse the ebbing tide of the Empire and start winning back land. He just didn’t have enough boots on the ground, and the Cumans could only serve as mercenaries that one time. He decided to seek a Western alliance to put an end to the Turkish threat.
He was the Eastern Roman Emperor. Officially, there was a Western Roman Emperor: the King of Germany, Henry IV. But Henry’s title had been bestowed by his own anti-Pope. The Eastern Emperor had to choose which Pope to side with. His church recognized neither Roman Pope since 1051.
Alexios Komnenos chose to send a formal request for help to Pope Urban II, not to Henry IV. It seems that the deciding point may have been his personal experience pushing back Robert and Bohemond Guiscard from Albania. The Normans were a fighting machine; they had integrated the old Viking shield wall technique with Arab-copied horseback fighting. (That’s part of how they conquered England; the English had not yet copied the Arabs’ horseback methods.) Anyone would want Normans on his side.
Pope Urban II, now primarily supported by Normans, was handed the opportunity of actually acting like a Holy Roman Emperor. It was the ultimate power move against the disgraced French and German kings. Stalin later asked ironically, “how many divisions does the Pope have?” Here, in 1095, Pope Urban II had a chance to prove that he had many.
He called for a second council in six months, this time in Clermont, France. That’s when the final decisions would be made. The Pope had the power to grant a divorce to a Byzantine Princess and call for an army to rescue the Byzantine Emperor. Surely now the Church could be united again under Rome…