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E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

The Story of Bernard of Clairvaux and the Second Crusade

The rhythm of their feet,

The ineffable low beat

Of the vast throngs pacing slowly,

Floats on the sea of Time

Like a musical low chime

From a far Isle, mystic, holy.

L. MORRIS, Marching.

T HE First Crusade, with all its errors and shortcomings, may yet be counted as a success so far as the rescuing of Jerusalem from infidel hands was concerned.

The Second Crusade is one of the great failures of history. Yet the movement is associated with the name of one of the most notable characters of his age, the monk Bernard of Clairvaux. Just as in the First Crusade, the uneducated hermit, Peter, had appealed to the popular feeling of Europe, and had stirred up the poor and ignorant to do their best for the cause of God, so St Bernard, himself the son of a noble house, made his appeal first to the wealthy, to the crowned heads of Europe and the flower of their knighthood, and afterwards, by his zeal, his self-denying life, and his religious faith, to all those amongst whom he had earned the reputation of a saint.

During the years in which Bernard, as Abbot of Clairvaux, was devoting his energies to raising the standard of monastic life, affairs in the East had taken a distinct turn for the worse. The Saracens had grown stronger as the Christians grew more slack and careless. Baldwin III., a boy of thirteen, had come to the throne of Jerusalem two years before the first preaching of the Second Crusade, and held the reins of government with a weak and nerveless hand. A year after his accession, the kingdom of Edessa, the first to be established by Western Christendom in the East, had fallen into the clutches of the dreaded Sultan Zeuzhi.

The loss of Edessa sounded a trumpet note of alarm to the West. The hard-won success of the First Crusade was evidently trembling in the balance. Something must be done to establish and settle Christian dominion of the Holy Land upon a much firmer basis.

There were other motives at work as well. France, torn by the constant quarrels between its feudal lords, who only united with one another in order to defy their sovereign, could not be pacified save by some pressing call to arms outside. But the immediate cause that led the young French king Louis to take up the Cross was the feeling aroused throughout the religious world of the West by one desperate deed.

He was attacking the rebel town of Vitry, which cost him so much trouble to quell, that, in revenge, he not only destroyed the city, but set fire to a great church in which over a thousand people had taken refuge. The cries of the victims and the reproaches of his subjects combined to rouse the conscience of the king, who vowed to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a penance for his crime.

It was the Easter of 1146. On the top of the hill that overshadows the town of Vezelay, a wooden tower had been hastily raised, with a high platform in front, on which sat the beautiful proud Queen Eleanor amidst a bevy of her ladies, and the young king with the great cross upon his tunic. Suddenly there appeared in the midst of the gallant throng a thin pale-faced monk, eager and bright-eyed, followed by three bishops of the Church. Presently a vast crowd, stretching far away to the edge of the plain below the hill, was hanging breathlessly upon the words of the famous Abbot of Clairvaux, as, quietly at first, and then with the most eloquent persuasion, be bade them go forth to drive the unbeliever from the Holy Land.

A roar of enthusiasm arose from the multitude before his words were done.

"Crosses! Crosses!" cried the people; and when Bernard had flung to them those which lay in a great heap by his side, he tore up his own long robe to make them more.

The vast multitude dispersed, with the solemn pledge of Louis of France that, after one year of preparation, the Second Crusade should march towards the East.

But Bernard's aim was not yet accomplished. Conrad of Germany, whose possessions in that land were threatened on every side, held back from the Holy War. The monk followed him from place to place, persuading and threatening him in vain.

At length Conrad promised to give a definite answer on a certain day, and on that occasion, when the Emperor came to Mass, Bernard preached a sermon in which he described the Day of Judgment. There Conrad was depicted trembling before the judgment-seat as he was called to account for his great riches and power. "How have I, thy Lord, failed in aught of My duty towards thee, O man?" asks his Master. In the breathless pause that followed, the Emperor arose and cried aloud with tears, "No longer will I be ungrateful. I will serve Christ and take up His Cross whenever He shall call me! "

"Praise be to God!" shouted the assembled congregation, rising to their feet, and before the service was ended, Bernard had marked the King with the Cross, fastening upon his breast the sacred emblem torn from a banner from the high altar.

In the wave of enthusiasm that now swept over France and Germany as St Bernard went from town to town, preaching and exhorting, the women did not stand aloof. Queen Eleanor herself prepared to accompany her husband, Louis, and with her went a crowd of fair dames from France. With Conrad, too, marched a troop of women, bearing shields and swords, led by one known as the "golden-footed dame."

The German army started first and, save for floods by which some were drowned, and lack of discipline which ruined more, reached Constantinople in comparative safety. But here the behaviour of the drunken German soldiers, who wantonly destroyed the beautiful pleasure gardens of the city, and showed themselves utterly untrustworthy, created serious ill-feeling between Conrad and the Greek Emperor Manuel. The latter succeeded in inducing Conrad to transfer his army across the Bosphorus, on the promise that he would provide them with guides through Asia Minor; but he had meantime determined secretly to betray the armies of the West at the earliest opportunity.

The guides supplied by him were in the pay of the Turkish Sultan of that region, and after leading the unhappy men by dangerous roads and in wrong directions, finally brought them to a barren plain, without food or water, bordered by hills amongst which lurked thousands of the enemy. The guides then fled in the darkness, leaving the army to cope with an enemy whose sudden attacks and equally sudden disappearances among the rocky hills gave the Crusaders little chance of effective retaliation. Wounded and dispirited, the unfortunate Conrad at length turned back to Nicaea, his starting-place in Asia Minor, taking with him barely one-tenth of the army which had started from Germany.

Meantime, the treacherous Manuel had taken measures beforehand with regard to Louis. When the French armies reached his territory they found every city closed against them. Even when provisions might be bought, they were let down from the walls in baskets by the Greeks. This unfriendly spirit was not disregarded by the French nobles and clergy, some of whom urged their king to make war upon an Emperor whose cities were not invulnerable, and who was said to be in league with the Turks.

This, however, Louis steadfastly refused, and trusted that his well-disciplined army would win the favour of the Emperor—a favour that the Germans had certainly not deserved.

It seemed, indeed, as though this might happen, for when they drew near the city, a fine procession came forth to meet the King, and to conduct him with honour to the presence of the Emperor.

Before long "the two princes became as brothers." Manuel himself displayed to Louis the magnificent buildings of his city, and described to him the victorious march which Conrad, as he said, with his assistance, had made through Asia Minor. He offered the same aid in the way of guides to Louis, if he and his barons would pay the customary homage.

With high hearts the French started for Nicaea, but they had not long encamped in that place when some ragged and blood-stained fugitives brought the news of the disaster to Conrad's troops. At once Louis hastened to meet his brother sovereign, "weeping, they fell upon each other's neck," and agreed henceforth to keep together and to aid one another.

In dread of fresh attacks and more treachery, they turned from the beaten track, and passing along the coast, came at length to Ephesus. There a message reached them from Manuel, possibly repentant of his former treachery, to the effect that their further way was blocked by a huge army of Turks. Conrad, weak with wounds, then determined to return for awhile to Constantinople, but, acting on his advice, Louis, after staying to rest his troops and to let them spend their Christmas in a fertile valley hard by, moved on over the frozen hills to the River Meander, the opposite bank of which was lined with Turks. For awhile both armies marched along the banks of the river in parallel lines; then Louis discovered a ford, and thereupon made good his passage and inflicted a great defeat upon the foe.

But a terrible obstacle now faced them some miles beyond Laodicca; they found the way shut in by a steep range of hills "whose summit appeared to touch the heavens, whilst the torrent at its base seemed to descend to hell."

Sent forward to secure the pass, Geoffrey de Rancogne struggled to the top, but instead of taking possession of it, descended the further slope, and, oblivious of the fact that the heights were thronged with Turks, bade his men pitch their tents there. The main army, thinking all was well, followed them to the summit of the narrow pass, where a tremendous precipice skirted the track. Down rushed the foe upon them, hurling them into the yawning depths. A large number of the Crusaders, pilgrims, who were quite unarmed, blocked the way when Geoffrey strove to return to the rescue; thousands of these were massacred, and Louis himself only just managed to save his life by scrambling up to a high rock, from whence his well-made armour defied the arrows of his assailants. For awhile they sought to drive him from his position, but, not realising that he was the leader of the expedition, left him at nightfall to his fate.


King Louis surrounded by the Turks

This awful disaster nearly ended the Second Crusade there and then. Rage against Geoffrey de Rancogne for his error, and dismay at the slaughter of their fellow soldiers, put an end to discipline for the time. It was only with the utmost difficulty that Louis was able to conduct a remnant of the army to the post of Attaleia; the rest had perished either by famine or by the constant attacks of the Turks upon their line of march.

At the coast it was hoped that the troops might be taken to Antioch by sea, and an attempt was made to arrange this with the Greeks who held the fort. They, however, demanded an impossible sum for the three days' voyage, and it was decided that the main army must go by land, in charge of Greek guides, while Louis and his barons crossed by sea. First, however, the King bargained to pay a large sum if the Greeks would receive into the city, and care for the large number of sick and infirm pilgrims; and this was readily promised. There was no reliance to be placed, however, upon the treacherous Greeks. Scarcely had the king's ship set sail than they betrayed the whole band of sick pilgrims into the hands of the Turks, and soon afterwards led the army also into the midst of the hordes of the infidel. The helpless misery of the victims touched the hearts even of the Turks, who pitied them and gave them food, "and therefore," says the historian, "many of the Christians forsook their own religion and went over to the Turks. O kindness more cruel than Greek treachery! For, giving bread, they stole the true faith. . . . God may indeed pardon the German Emperor, through whose advice we met with such misfortunes, but shall He pardon the Greeks, whose cruel craft slew so many in either army?"

Thus, by this twofold act of treachery, the Greeks, the representatives of Eastern Christianity, practically put an end to the Second Crusade. It was no triumphal entry that Louis of France made when, on reaching Jerusalem, he passed through the streets behind priests and bishops, who sang, "Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord." He had come empty-handed, for the bones of his troops were scattered on the hills and plains of Asia Minor.

At Jerusalem Louis found that Conrad, travelling from Constantinople by water, had preceded him with a fairly numerous following. Feeling that something must be done towards fulfilling the aim with which they had set out, the two sovereigns joined with the young king, Baldwin of Jerusalem, in an attempt to besiege Damascus, still one of the most important cities of the Holy Land. To this siege came the famous Knights of the Hospital and the Temple, and the combined troops fought with such success that the fall of the city seemed certain. Moreover, since they were attacking it from a quarter rich in orchards and springs, they had no fear of the ever-dreaded famine that had wrought such havoc in the First Crusade.

Then once again discord brought disaster. Heated discussions arose as to who should rule Damascus when it was taken, and the suggestion that it should be given to the Count of Flanders at once gave offence to the "barons of Palestine,"—those who had inherited the possessions of the First Crusaders. They actually began to enter into negotiations with the citizens of Damascus, and, playing the part of traitors, persuaded Louis, Conrad, and Baldwin that they would find the walls weakest at the farther side of the city. Falling into the trap, the three kings moved their camp, and soon found themselves cut off from all supplies of food and drink, and faced by hopelessly strong fortifications. So they gave up in despair. Conrad, in deep disgust, returned to Europe at once; Louis, after a short stay at Jerusalem, returned to France by sea, with a few wretched followers, in place of the gallant army that had marched forth barely a year before.

The utter failure of the Second Crusade—a failure which left countless homes in Western Europe empty and desolate-struck a heavy blow at the authority and popularity of Bernard of Clairvaux. He himself was not slow to point out the cause.

"We have fallen on evil days," says he, "in which the Lord, provoked by our sins, has judged the world, with justice indeed, but not with His wonted mercy. The sons of the Church have been overthrown in the desert, slain with the sword or destroyed by famine," and he goes on to say that this is due to allowing thieves and murderers to take part in an attempt which only the faithful and holy soul should be found worthy to make.

The chief result of the Crusade, as far as the Holy War itself was concerned, was to weaken the position of the Christians in that region; for as Fuller quaintly remarks, "The Turks, seeing one citie both bear the brunt and batter the strength of both armies, began to conceive that their own fear was their greatest enemy; and those swords of these new pilgrimes which they dreaded in the sheath, they slighted when they saw them drawn, and they shook off the awe which had formerly possessed them of the strength of the Western Emperor."