Are historians right to dismiss Louis VII’s crusade to the Holy Land as having failed to achieve what it was supposed to?

This essay achieved a low 2:1 in the first year of my undergraduate.

Are historians right to dismiss Louis VII’s crusade to the Holy Land as having failed to achieve what it was supposed to?

The success (or lack thereof) of Louis VII’s crusade is arguably the least contentious area of the Crusades. Historians argue almost exclusively that the crusade failed not only in its varying aims, but also had negative long term impacts for the Franks of the Holy Land.[1] Most argue that the established aim of the Papal Second Crusade was to retake Edessa,[2] which had fallen in 1144, a year before Eugenius III issued the Quantum praedecessores.[3] While most historians agree with this, there are a few who admit that it did have the positive and probably unintentional effect of reigniting European religious fervour with regards to the Holy Land.[4] One must be careful when addressing the aims of the Crusade however, as it is debatable whether the Papal crusade and that of Louis VII were the same thing.[5] This does arguably mean that referring to Louis VII’s crusade encompasses neither the greater Second crusading movement nor the German expedition led by Conrad III. The crusade led by Louis was ostensibly following Papal direction, and so was aiming to retake Edessa, although there were possibly other goals mixed in. Despite this, Louis’ crusade can be considered at least as much a failure as the Second Crusade overall.

Most historians would consider the whole Second Crusade an utter failure for obvious reasons, and they are probably right to do so. When one considers that the initial aim of the Second Crusade was the recapture of Edessa, then there is no way in which it can be interpreted as a victory. The fact that the conquest of Edessa was not even considered upon reaching the Holy Land[6] is unforgivable, and it can be argued that from that moment on, the campaign was a failure. The reasons for the lack of interest in Edessa are debatable. Mayer argues that it was due to the fact that Louis considered his forces too weak following the losses in Anatolia,[7] while Richard states that it was a far more personal motive; that it was a case of his individual crusading vow being one of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as well as pointing out that only the nobility of Jerusalem were present at the meeting, and not that of the north. [8]

Even though the military aim of the movement changed from Edessa to Damascus,[9]  it is still impossible to interpret the Crusade as a success; the fact is that they failed to take the city, and all that was achieved was a significant loss of lives. It was not only this which made the siege such a disaster however. There was a seemingly impossible diplomatic situation, and the choice to attack is normally condemned as having destroyed the good relationship with Damascus: simply another thing which added to the failure of the Second Crusade.[10] More recently however, some historians such as Richard and Phillips have suggested that relations were not as friendly between the Crusader states and Damascus as was initially thought, and while this does not excuse the  stupidity of the venture, it means that it was not as counter-productive as was first thought, nor did it doom the crusader polities.[11]

While it is impossible to argue that Louis’ crusade was successful in terms of the Papal aim, it has been argued by some that it did have some victories. Perhaps most significant of these was the huge support that it gained initially,[12] and the precedent it set. The impact of the Crusade on Europe was arguably for more considerable than that on the Holy Land. In Europe, there was a vast amount of preaching the Crusade following the announcement of the Papal Bull, and this was instrumental in reigniting the religious fervour which had been present at the height of the First Crusade. [13] The general raising awareness of the plight of the Eastern Franks can be considered a victory, even if the response was not particularly successful. The re-ignition of the ideas of crusading was however a decidedly Papal motive, and so any credit cannot be attributed to Louis. Despite this, Mayer credits him with involving Bernard of Clairvaux; arguably the most significant figure in garnering support for the expedition.[14]

On the other hand, the events which took place in the Holy Land seem to contradict this feeling of cooperation. The lack of awareness of the local conditions in terms of the peaceful coexistence which had been established in areas was ignored completely and taken over by the religious fervour of the new arrivals. Naturally then, once the siege of Damascus had concluded unfavourably, the blame was cast on the native Frankish nobility, stating that they had given deliberately bad advice, or that they had been bought by the Damascenes.[15] Understandably, this caused a certain degree of tension between the European nobles and those native to the Holy Land, which arguably continued past the Second Crusade. This meant that each group possessed a pre-conceived notion of the other in later expeditions, and there was long a sense of distrust and dislike between them.[16]

While neither faction was responsible for this individually, there are certain events which it can be argued caused its growth. The first, and perhaps more important is the scandal concerning Louis’ wife, Eleanor of Aquitane and Raymond of Antioch which is given as one of the reasons for Louis’ hasty departure from Antioch.[17] The other, seemingly smaller issue was that Thierry of Flanders, a crusading noble was to be given Damascus when it was taken, rather than a native Frankish ruler.[18] All of this served to create and expand a rift between the native Franks, and the Europeans.[19] The fact that the expedition was also probably intended to shore up relations and blood ties between the Western nobility and that of the East means that it can be considered a failure in this respect as well.

As well as the divide between the Europeans and the East Franks, Louis VII’s crusade, and the aftermath also intensified the hostility of the Byzantine Empire. While it was not necessarily the fault of Louis VII, the passage of first the German army and then the French army through Byzantine territory meant that relations were already strained. This was coupled with the fact that Byzantine soldiers were instructed to defend Byzantine citizens,[20]while the Crusaders were harried by Turkish forces.[21] These factors meant that there was already tension between the Latin forces and the Greeks, even before Louis among others of the crusading nobility began to blame the Byzantines for their troubles. As well as this, there was further hostility following the conclusion of the siege of Damascus which resulted in Louis trying to call for another Crusade directed towards the Byzantines.[22] All of this served to irreparably damage relations between western Europe and the Byzantine Empire, something which undoubtedly aided the decline of the Crusader states. As a result Louis VII’s crusade must be considered a disaster in the long term as well as short.  Some people may point to this break down in relations as a further failure of Louis’ crusade. It is however unfair to say this, because there was no aim at any point to nurture relations with the Byzantines. They must be considered unfortunate by-products of the expedition.

There is some debate concerning the personal motives of Louis VII, and where they diverge from those of Eugenius III and the papacy. These range from things such as seeking repentance for burning the church of Vitry,[23] to a personal vow to his brother Philip, and finally, a vow to complete a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.[24] The latter is the most significant as it arguably played a considerable role in Louis’ decision-making once he reached the Holy Land. His personal crusading vow was probably one of pilgrimage, however armed,[25] as were those of his nobility. This significant difference to the more standard vow of protecting the faith meant that upon reaching the Holy Land, when faced with a choice between attacking Aleppo or Shaizar, and moving south towards Jerusalem and the other holy places, he did not make the more strategically sound choice, but rather jumped at the chance to fulfil his pilgrimage.[26] It is possible that a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was to serve as his repentance for the burning of the church. This means that Louis’ crusade can in some small way be considered a success, but only if one accepts that the aim was a much more personal one of pilgrimage to Jerusalem rather than to retake Edessa.

The question of whether or not Louis managed to repent is a somewhat theological one. It is possible that the pilgrimage and participation in the Second Crusade was not enough, because on returning west, he tried to call for a crusade against the Byzantines, suggesting that he did not feel he had repented enough. Another, more cynical interpretation is that Louis simply used religion as a cover for his personal vendetta against the Byzantines whom he perceived as having ruined his crusade.[27] This means that the success of this goal can be used on either side of the debate with different interpretations, but the more sceptical view is probably more believable. Having decided this, it is still open to interpretation whether Louis fully repented or not.

It is increasingly clear therefore that whether or not Louis VII’s crusade failed depends on how you define it. If your conclusions are drawn based on the initial aims of the Second Crusade, or indeed when they changed to include Damascus, then by any stretch of the imagination it was a resounding failure. If however Louis’ crusade was only one of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, then it was definitely a success, even if he did lose a good proportion of his troops. The latter is a little too focused on semantics to be credible, while there is no shortage of physical evidence for the former. The fact is that Louis VII returned from the Holy Land without having made any notable gains. If anything, his campaign damaged both the stability of the Crusader States[28] and the European relations with them and the Byzantine Empire both. While the latter was not necessarily a priority, the former was certainly the overall aim of the larger Crusade. To a certain extent, Louis probably was trying for something similar, he was just wildly incompetent. In conclusion therefore, historians are right to consider Louis’ Crusade a complete failure.

Word count: 1,990

[1] H.E. Mayer, The Crusades, B. Hamilton, The Crusades, S. Runciman, A History of the Crusades Volume II: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East 1100-1187

[2] B. Hamilton, The Crusades, pp.35-6, T.F. Madden, A Concise History of the Crusades, p.53-4, J. Richard, The Crusades c.1071-c.1291, p.156.

[3] T.F. Madden, A Concise History of the Crusades, p.54

[4] J. Richard, The Crusades, p.169, B. Hamilton, The Crusades, p.36

[5] H.E. Mayer, The Crusades, p.96, J. Richard, The Crusades, p.156

[6] T.F. Madden, A Concise History, p.62

[7] H.E. Mayer, The Crusades, p.105

[8] J. Richard, The Crusades, p.165-6

[9] S. Runciman, A History of the Crusades Volume II, pp.280-1

[10] H.E. Mayer, The Crusades, pp106-7, B. Hamilton, The Crusades, p.37

[11] J. Phillips, Holy Warriors, p.96, J. Richard, The Crusades, p.166

[12] B. Hamilton, The Crusades, p.36

[13] J. Phillips, Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the the Crusades, pp.77-83

[14] H.E. Mayer, The Crusades, p.96

[15] H.E. Mayer, The Crusades, p.107, J. Richard, The Crusades, pp.166-7

[16] J. Richard, The Crusades, p.479

[17] S. Runciman, A History of the Crusades Volume II, p.279

[18] J. Richard, The Crusades, p.167

[19] T.F. Madden, A Concise History, p.63

[20] T.F. Madden, A Concise History, p.60

[21] S. Runciman, A History of the Crusades Volume II, pp.273-5

[22] H.E. Mayer, The Crusades, pp.107-8

[23] J. Phillips, Holy Warriors, p.79

[24] J Richard, The Crusades, p.156

[25] H.E. Mayer, The Crusades, p.97, J. Richard, The Crusades, p165

[26] J. Richard, The Crusades, p.165

[27] T.F. Madden, A Concise History, p.63

[28] T.F. Madden, A Concise History, p.63


Madden, T.F., A Concise History of the Crusades (Oxford & Lanham, 1999)

Riley-Smith, J., The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades (New York, 1995)

Richard, J., The Crusades, c.1071-c.1291 (Cambridge, 1999)

Runciman, S., A History of the Crusades Volume II: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East 1100-1187 (Cambridge, 1952)

Hamilton, B., The Crusades (Stroud, 1998)

Mayer, H.E., The Crusades (Oxford, 1972)

Phillips, J., Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades (London, 2009)

Barker, E., The Crusades (London, 1925)

Hillenbrand, C., The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (Edinburgh, 1999)



All the following feedback is rated on the following scale: Outstanding-Excellent-Good-Competent-Pass-Fail.

Breadth of Reading: Excellent-Good

Critical approach to historiography: Good

Focus on question: Good

Organization of the material: Good

Depth of understanding and insight: Good-Competent

Use of examples: Good

Introduction and Conclusion: Good

Factual accuracy: Good

Comprehensiveness of coverage: Good

Fluent and correct English: Good

Accurate spelling/proof reading: Good

Sources cited correctly: Good

General Comments and Advice: A well constructed essay, which discussed the 2nd Crusade thoroughly. You had obviously read widely and your footnotes were good, although there could have been a few more, I have no doubt that the number of these will improve with experience.

You introduced your argument well. Your conclusion began by stating that the interpretation of whether Louis VII’s crusade failed depended on an analysis of his agenda. A very astute comment, and one worth discussing in the conclusion. However, because you obviously had a strong opinion on this subject you had, throughout the essay, been a little subjective at times and this somewhat detracted from your conclusion. It is important to remain as objective as possible, allowing your reader to be persuaded by your argument.



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