Holy War: How the Pope Held Power


By Carol SymesUniversity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Pope Gregory insisted that the pope alone had the power to judge all men, though he could not himself be judged by any earthly authority. Moreover, he had the power to free any man from obligations to his lord, because every Christian owes ultimate loyalty to the pope, the arbiter of eternal life or death. These were big claims. How could they be realized?

Statue of Urban II
Pope Urban II wanted to heal the schism between Orthodox and Roman Churches. (Image: Novinit Images/Shutterstock)

Pope Urban II

Pope Gregory’s immediate successors had to find concrete ways to demonstrate the credibility of Gregory’s pronouncements or risk losing their advantage. 

In 1095, a decade after Gregory’s death, his protégé Pope Urban II, hit upon a way to put this theory into practice. Alexius Comnenus, the new Roman emperor in Byzantium, had approached Urban through his emissaries and asked for help in recruiting a small mercenary force of knights to assist in pushing the Seljuk Turks (newly converted to Islam) away from the empire’s eastern frontier. Urban saw a golden opportunity in this request. By coming to the aid of the eastern Roman Empire, he would show the restive princes of Europe that the papacy was a force to be reckoned with.

Bringing Peace?

At the same time, Urban hoped to show that Latin military and spiritual might was greater than that of the weakened Greeks, thereby healing the schism between Orthodox and Roman Churches and realizing the centuries-old dream of a universal Christian Church based in Rome, with the pope at its head.

In addition, Urban would thereby show support for another reforming effort that had gained momentum in recent years—a peace movement that was attempting to quell the endemic violence unleashed by competitive bands of knights and their rapacious lords. What better way to defuse the situation than to ship those violent energies overseas, deploying them against a common enemy? 

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Urban II on Muslims

But how could Urban claim that these randy, rapacious warriors had somehow been transformed into unspotted saints? In November of 1095, at a general council of the Church held in Clermont (in central Francia), he preached that a war against the ‘heathen’ Turks and Arabs was so just that “All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.”

He went on to say, with reference to the Muslims:

O what a disgrace if such a despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the faith of omnipotent God and is made glorious with the name of Christ! With what reproaches will the Lord overwhelm us if you do not aid those who, with us, profess the Christian religion! Let those who have been accustomed to wage unjust private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago. Let those who for a long time have been robbers now become knights. Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians. Let those who have been serving as mercenaries for small pay now obtain the eternal reward. Let those who have been wearing themselves out in both body and soul now work for a double honor. Behold! On this side will be the sorrowful and poor, on that, the rich; on this side, the enemies of the Lord, on that, his friends. Let those who go not put off the journey, but rent their lands and collect money for their expenses; and as soon as winter is over and spring comes, let them eagerly set out on the way with God as their guide.

The ’Just War’ Theory

Hence, we see the emergence of an extraordinary new tenet of the just war theory—the idea that those who die in the course of combat, or even on the way, will be absolved of sin.

Urban himself had revealed the key underlying historical impetus for this—the need to rid his own Christendom of the persistent violence that had engulfed it since the fragmentation of political power in the 9th century, which had seen the rise of predatory, mutually hostile Christian lordships waging war with one another and preying on the poor and defenseless.

It was this, quite unholy, army of robbers, mercenaries, and marauders whom Urban urged to take up the cross: crux in Latin, croix or cruce in the new romance vernaculars. 

Painting of Pope Urban II preaching the First Crusade
Urban preached that fighting or dying in the service of Christ would win absolution for sins. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

So, in tandem with the emerging idea of holy war was the very real need for one: a need that had nothing to do with fighting an infidel enemy and rescuing the Holy Land from the clutches of Christ’s oppressors, and everything to do with the problem of strife within Christian Europe.

Influence of Jihad

In preaching a ‘crux-ade’, Urban had declared that any knights who wished to fight, pillage, and wreak havoc could do so for a just and holy cause. At home, they were riffraff and murderers, destined for hellfire and damnation; but abroad, fighting or dying in the service of Christ, they would win absolution for their sins. 

But where did he, or his advisors, get this idea? It’s more than possible, and very ironic, that it was an adaptation, or perversion, of the Muslim concept of jihad—a word that means striving for a righteous purpose. In the early centuries of Islam, it had usually meant the struggle to establish, defend, and extend the Prophet’s authority in Arabia and, thereafter, to honor his legacy by expanding the reach of Islam and ensuring its survival.

However, the men and women who joined the first crusading movement did not use the word crusade. They, and the many contemporary chroniclers who recorded these events, called their expedition a pilgrimage—a journey to be rewarded by remission of sins. Their army managed to capture Jerusalem in 1099.

Common Questions about Holy Wars

Q: What was the new tenet of the just war theory?

The new tenet of the just war theory was the idea that those who die in the course of combat, or even on the way, will be absolved of sin.

Q: What did Pope Urban II declare by preaching a ‘crux-ade’?

In preaching a ‘crux-ade’, Pope Urban II declared that any knight who wished to fight, pillage, and wreak havoc could do so for a just and holy cause.

Q: What does jihad mean?

Jihad meant striving for a righteous purpose.

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