The Failure of the Second Crusade

While those who participated in the Second Crusade had probably planned to do so before hearing of the loss of Edessa to Zangi, the urgency of the crusade was likely reinforced by the loss. Pope Eugenius III issued a crusading bull (Quantum praedecessors) to Louis VII of France. A Cistercian abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux, convinced Conrad III of Germany to go on crusade as well. Louis VII and Conrad III arrived in Constantinople in 1147. The crusaders then attacked Damascus, a Muslim city that had been allied to the Christians until the attack. Upon the arrival of Nur al-Din (Nureddin) and his forces, the crusaders gave up their siege, ending the Second Crusade. It is important to note that the majority of the crusaders during this period crusaded either in Iberia (where they seized Lisbon) or (more unsuccessfully) on the eastern border of Germany against the Slavs and Wends.

The Failure of the Second Crusade: The events that followed their departure are fairly clear in the sources. Conrad was the first to set off, in May 1147. He was accompanied by a host of great nobles: King Vladislav of Bohemia, King Boleslav IV of Poland, as well as his nephew and heir, Frederick, Duke of Swabia, and the bishops of Metz and Toul.

Runciman describes the host as 'a turbulent army.'. They moved through Hungary without incident but were met there by Demetrius Macrembolites, an ambassador from the Byzantine court, who asked Conrad to swear an oath to do nothing against the welfare and interests of the emperor. After taking the oath, Conrad crossed the Danube into imperial territory on 20 July, with assistance from the Byzantine navy. He was given an official welcome at Sofia by the emperor's cousin, Michael Paleologus. After this, however, relations between the Germans and the Byzantines became very sour. The German army lacked discipline and the aging Conrad could not control his forces. They pillaged their way east, killing any who opposed them. The emperor sent troops to escort them through Byzantine territory, but this failed to quell the disorder and there were many violent incidents even before Conrad's host reached Constantinople.

In the meantime, king Louis and the French contingent were on the march. They had set off in June, a month behind the German force. Louis' contingent included his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was also niece to Raymond, Prince of Antioch. The Countesses of Flanders and Toulouse and many other great ladies travelled with their husbands. The army also included a contingent of the Knights of the Temple, led by their Grand Master. According to Runciman, some of the French hurried on ahead, to link up with the Germans. They found the Germans unfriendly, refusing to spare them rations, and relations between the two armies became embittered. Both sides developed a dislike for their Byzantine hosts. As Runciman points out, it 'did not augur well for the success of the Crusade.

The French arrived in Constantinople by 4 October where they were well received by the emperor, who nevertheless moved them on across the Bosphorus as quickly as possible. By November they arrived at Nicaea where they linked up with Conrad and the Germans, and learned of a major defeat suffered by Conrad's army. When the German army left Constantinople Manuel made sure to warn them to stick near the coast. But Conrad had other plans. He wished to go through the interior, like the army of the First Crusade. In truth, however, his army was ill-prepared for this route and soon lacked both food and water. On the 25th of October the army came across a small river (at Dorylaeum, near the site of the victory of the First Crusade.) The Seljuk army attacked. It was "not a battle but a massacre." according to Runciman. There is no doubt that this battle was a major factor in the over-all failure of the second crusade.

The two kings now joined forces and decided to take the coast road southward, keeping within Byzantine territory. At Ephesus, Conrad's health deteriorated and he returned without his army to Constantinople, where the Emperor himself nursed him. He remained here for the next few months, until a Byzantine naval squadron escorted him to Jerusalem in March 1148. In the meantime, the combined army, led by king Louis, struggled through Anatolia and across the mountains towards Antioch. The journey was a nightmare of cold, hunger, and attacks by Turkish horsemen.

The two armies eventually reached Attalia, in modern Turkey, from where the cavalry and Louis' royal household embarked by ship to the Holy Land, leaving the foot soldiers to fare for themselves. Acoording to Runciman, fewer than half of them finally reached Antioch.

So far, the failure of this crusade can be detected in a number of ways. To begin, the bad discipline of the German army and the foolish decisions of its leaders had reduced its numbers dramatically. Further, while staying in Constantinople the Germans practically destroyed the palace at Philopatium, an act which did nothing to improve the native Christians' opinions of the crusaders. When the Byzantine emperor Manuel suggested that Conrad should take steps to discipline his troops, Conrad responded by threatening to come back a year later to take over Manuel's empire. It can be imagined that this idle threat did not help the crusaders' cause.

But Manuel had more at stake than just the palace. He had mounting problems with a local Turkish rebel leader, Masud, and when Masud offered him a treaty he had little choice but to accept. Because of this recently formed alliance, Masud and his agents could go freely through the empire, giving them access to the crusading army. Those who fell behind were easy targets for Turkish attack.

While the Turk unceasingly harried and inflicted death upon the crowd of people on foot, who were unable to keep up. Pitying the fate of the suffering people, who were dying both from famine and from arrows fired by the enemy.

When the crusading army found out about this treaty they could not understand Manuel's actions. Distrust and hostility developed between the Crusaders and their fellow Christian Greeks in the Byzantine Empire.

But the most significant mistake was still to come. The decision was made that the remaining crusading force would mount a full scale attack on Damascus. This was suicide. There were many faults in this plan. Damascus was a walled city with a strong garrison and, perhaps more importantly, the people of Damascus wished to remain on friendly terms with the Christians. Not surprisingly the attack failed and soon after the crusaders returned home in disgrace.

But then certain people whom we had no reason to distrust treacherously alleged that the city was impregnable on that side, and they led us to another position where there was neither water for the army nor could anyone gain entry. Everyone was annoyed and also upset by this, and we retreated, abandoning the enterprise as a failure.

According to Runciman, the failure of the Second Crusade was caused by the truculence, ignorance and folly of its noble leaders. (1952, P288). He rejects the notion that the cause of defeat was the treachery of the emperor. The real reasons for the failure of the second crusade may never be known but it is pretty safe to assume that there were four main factors. Firstly, the lack of discipline among the German soldiers. Second, the treaty made by Manuel with the Muslims; thirdly Conrad's decision to ignore Manuel's advice and travel through the interior, thus losing many men; and finally, by far the most important, the decision to attack Damascus. Nothing could be gained by this move and in fact much was lost.

The setbacks of the otherwise successful First Crusade were minor compared to the problems encountered during the Second Crusade. To inspire participation in a Second Crusade, Pope Eugene III cited the success of the First Crusade, forty years earlier, as evidence of God’s favor for such expeditions. He noted that the first crusaders had achieved much, but in keeping with the propaganda of the First Crusade, he claimed that such accomplishments were only brought about by the grace of God. The pope utilized the propaganda of the First Crusade to argue that the recent Muslim re-conquest of the Christian city of Edessa was the result of God’s displeasure with sinful Christians. Because God had punished Christians by allowing for their defeat, Eugene claimed the proper remedy was a new expedition of repentant and holy crusaders to head East and rectify the situation. The pope’s predictions proved wrong, as when the crusade was over, the crusaders had little to show for their massive sacrifices in life, money, and effort. Consequently, the Second Crusade was widely viewed as a debacle.

In reference to the disastrous events of the Second Crusade, the anonymous annalist of Würzburg wrote, “God allowed the Western church, on account of its sins, to be cast down.” The clerical preachers and writers who had called for the expedition would have agreed with the author up to this point. For them, God’s punishment for men’s sins was the most convincing explanation for the failure of the crusaders. However, such clerics would have found the analyst’s following commentary troubling, as he went on to list the clerics as the sinners and their preaching of the crusade as the sin.

Numerous clerical writers and preachers, who had advocated the Second Crusade, unexpectedly found themselves the target of similar criticism. No less a saintly figure than St. Bernard, perhaps the most popular and influential preacher of the twelfth-century, felt compelled to offer an apology for the crusade. Most clerical chroniclers who reflected on the failure of the Second Crusade did not find fault with either themselves or their preaching. Instead, clerical propagandists attempted to refocus the attention and criticism of their detractors on women.

Other chroniclers of the Second Crusade, including Giselbert of Mons and William of Newburgh, echoed Vincent’s sentiments. William of Newburgh went beyond only attributing the failure of the Second Crusade to women, arguing that the cause for launching the crusade resulted from male desire for a woman. According to William, the fall of the crusader state of Edessa in 1144, which effectively inspired the calling of the Second Crusade, was due to the lust engendered in its naïve governor by the daughter of an Armenian whom he referred to as a “perfidious individual.” The Governor, Count Jocelin II, had actually raped the daughter of the “perfidious individual,” which resulted in the victim’s father betraying the city to the Turks. The cleric William of Tyre made similar claims about Jocelin’s inattention to his duties during his pursuit of pleasure.

Result of the failure:

The experiences of the Second Crusade heavily influenced policies of the Third Crusade. The recapture of Jerusalem by the forces of Saladin sent shock waves through Christendom. Pope Gregory the VIII employed much of the same propaganda as his successors. He attributed the loss of the city to God’s anger with the sins of Christians. Regarding the fall of Jerusalem, he told the faithful, “…we do not doubt that the disasters of the land of Jerusalem… have been expressly caused by the sins of the inhabitants of the land and of the whole people of Christendom.” Letters from clerics in the East, that purported to record the events of the Jerusalem’s conquest, supported the pope’s claim that sin was the cause of defeat. A letter written in 1187 by the cleric Ansbert to the Master of the Hospitaller’s was representative of such accounts. He claimed, “because of our sins, very many of ours were killed, the Christian people were conquered, the king was captured.”

A much deeper, fundamental and principled criticism of the crusading movement emerged after the crusaders’ defeat at Damascus in the Second Crusade. Chroniclers lamented that the expedition, which had raised such hopes, had achieved nothing. Disillusionment spread widely. Bernard of Clairvaux, the crusade’s strongest preacher, received much personal criticism, and donations to his Cistercian Order declined. Pope Eugenius III called the Second Crusade "the most severe injury of the Christian name which the church of God has suffered in our time." The efforts of Bernard and others to attribute failure to God’s mysterious will or to explain this defeat as God's judgment on the crusaders' sins did little to ease the pain and renew courage, and crusading stalled for forty years. But opposition was unsystematized. Systematic, philosophical and theological critiques emerged only with the Third Crusade, but what led many to rethink their position was the personal despondency of the Second Crusade. Rationalization followed experience.


Andrew Holt, The Snare of the Devil, Women, Sin, and Crusades Propaganda, University of North Florida 2005.

Hue M, The Failure of the Second Crusade, Journal of Ancient and Medieval History.

Read online references and articles about the second crusade at Crusades-Encyclopedia, Second Crusade.


Five Letters in connection with the Second Crusade

1-(a) King Conrad III writes to Pope Eugenius III from the Diet of Frankfurt to inform him of his plans for the Crusade (March 1147)

Conrad by the grace of God King of the Romans and always Augustus to his father in Christ Eugenius, supreme pontiff of the Holy Roman Church, [expressing to him] filial love and due reverence in the Lord.

We have gratefully received the letter from your holiness sent with your legate Bishop Theodwin of Santa Rufina, a man who has been received by us with love and honour, and we have carried out the suggestions contained within it with filial and cordial charity. Hence we have with God’s assistance taken careful and effective steps for the government of our kingdom, which has been granted to us by God, a matter about which you advised and exhorted us with paternal affection.

This was discussed with great attention and thoroughness at a gathering of the princes at Frankfurt, where we held a general court. A lasting peace has been confirmed throughout every part of our kingdom, and our son Henry has been chosen with the unanimous agreement of the princes and the eager acclamation of the whole kingdom as king and as the successor to our sceptre. We have ordered that in accordance with Divine mercy he should be crowned in the palace at Aachen in the middle of Lent. Indeed, the matter which was of concern to your good self, that we have assumed such a great task, namely the holy and life-giving cross and the intention of [making] so great and lengthy an expedition, without your knowledge, proceeds from a strong feeling of true love. But the Holy Spirit, which ‘bloweth where it listeth’, and is accustomed to ‘coming suddenly’, allowed us to make no delay to take counsel with you or anybody else; and immediately He touched our heart with His wondrous finger, He commanded our absolute obedience without there being any opportunity for delay interposing.

Since we understand both from your letter and from the legate that you will come to Gaul, we request, venerable father, and advise you with the utmost respect and thought, that you seek to cross the Rhine so that we can meet together so that we may be able both to discuss and to plan how, with [the help of] God’s compassion, the peace of the churches and the ordering of the Christian religion may be augmented with appropriate measures and the well-being of the kingdom which has been granted to us by God, and the enhancement of our honour, may be confirmed through necessary decisions. And since there is very little time available for preparing our journey, we would very much like to have a face-to-face meeting with you at Strassburg on the sixth day of Easter Week.

We commend to your sincerity our envoys, men who are especially prudent and discreet, lovers of the Holy Roman Church and of the kingdom, and who are most dear to us, namely Bishop Bucco of Worms, Bishop Anselm of Havelburg and Abbot Wibald of Korvey, so that you may hear those things that they say as though [they were] from our own mouth, and you will not refuse to discuss and arrange the affairs of the Holy Roman Church and the kingdom with them in a friendly fashion.

2- (b) King Conrad III writes to Abbot Wibald of Korvey describing his journey to the east and his future plans (January/February 1148)

Conrad by the grace of God King of the Romans to the venerable Abbot Wibald of Korvey and Stavelot [wishing him] his grace and all good things.

Since we have had proof of your loyalty towards us and our kingdom shown on many occasions, we do not doubt that you will greatly rejoice now that you hear of the favourable state of our affairs. We therefore bring news to you, our loyal subject. After we had arrived at Nicea with a numerous and untouched army, we wanted to complete our expedition in good time. So we set off towards Iconium on the direct route, accompanied by guides to show us the way, and carrying with us as many supplies as we could. But however, after ten days on the road, and with a similar march still left, the supplies began to run short for everyone, particularly for the cavalry, while the Turks unceasingly harried and inflicted death upon the crowd of people on foot, who were unable to keep up. Pitying the fate of the suffering people, who were dying both from famine and from the arrows fired by the enemy, and on the request of all the princes and barons, we led the army away from that wasteland towards the sea, so as to regroup; preferring to keep it unharmed for greater things [in future] rather than to win a bloody victory over the archers.

When we arrived at the sea coast and pitched camp, much to our surprise the king of France arrived at our tents in the midst of a great storm, not wanting to wait for better weather in his joy. He was distressed that our army had been worn down by hunger and toil, but showing no little joy in our company. Indeed he and all his princes faithfully and devotedly offered us their service [obsequium suum]. They provided us with money and whatever else they had which we wanted. They then joined forces with us and our princes, although indeed some of our people were left behind, being unable to follow either because of illness or through lack of money, and because of this they became separated from the army. We then went without difficulty as far as St. John [Ephesus], where the Saint's tomb is, from which Manna is believed to gush forth, and there we celebrated the Lord's Nativity. We stopped there for some days, since both we and many of our men had fallen ill. We wanted to go on when we had recovered our health, but were so ill that we were quite unable to proceed. Hence, after waiting for us as long as they could, the king and his army set off regretfully, but we remained racked by illness for a considerable time.

When our brother the Emperor of the Greeks heard of this he was much upset, and he and our most beloved daughter the empress came to us in haste, and generously provided us and our princes with everything that we needed for our journey from his own resources. He brought us back almost by force to his palace in Constantinople, so that we might he speedily restored to health by his doctors. There he showed us greater honour, so we have heard, than had ever been demonstrated to any of our predecessors. We now plan to set off for Jerusalem on Quadragesima Sunday, we shall muster a new army there over Easter, and then travel on to Rohas [Edessa]. We ask that you yourself pray, and have your brothers also pray, that God should indeed deign to make our journey a success; and commend us to [the prayers of] all the faithful. We ourselves commend our son to your faithful care.

3-King Louis VII gives news of the Crusade to his regent, Abbot Suger (March/April 1148)

Louis, by the grace of God King of the French and Duke of the Aquitanians, to Suger, venerable Abbot of St. Denis, greeting and [his] grace. It is our duty to send news of our affairs in the East as quickly we can to you, who are dear to us. For we know that you have a heartfelt desire to hear about them, and nothing can make us happier than for you to receive good news about us.

After we had departed the frontiers of our kingdom, the Lord favoured our journey, and He brought us in good health and unharmed as far as Constantinople, and by Divine mercy with our whole army safe and in excellent spirits. There we were joyfully and honourably received by the emperor. After remaining there for a little while to gather the supplies that seemed to be needed, we sailed across the Bosphorus and commenced our march through Romania. However, we suffered great damage in these regions, both through the treachery of the emperor and through our own fault, and we were indeed threatened by many and grave perils.

For we were spared neither the vicious ambush of robbers nor the serious difficulties of the route, and faced daily battles with the Turks who with the emperor's permission entered his lands to harry the soldiery of Christ, and who strove with all their might to harm us. Since in many places it was impossible to find food, the people were soon suffering from hunger. And on one particular day Divine judgement exacted punishment for our sins, and a number of our barons were killed. For among those who died on the climb into the mountains of Laodicea the Lesser and in the region round about were our blood-relation the Count of Warenne, Rainald of Tonnerre, Manasses de Bulles, Walter de Montjay, Everard of Breteuil, and many more, the list of whom will be announced at a more favourable moment than the present, since our grief does not allow us to speak further about them now. We ourselves frequently risked death, but on each occasion were saved by Divine grace.

We escaped the attacks of the Turks and, protected by the Lord, arrived at Attalia with our army safe. There we had frequent and prolonged discussions as to the best way to continue our journey, and the general opinion of the bishops and princes was that, since our horses had for a long time been worn down by hunger and the hardships of the journey, and the way forward was beset with great difficulty, we should hurry on to Antioch by ship. We followed their advice, and on the Friday after the middle of Lent we and the majority of our princes arrived safely by sea at the aforesaid city, and it is from there that we have had this letter dispatched to you. As for the rest, all our work is in the hand of God, who, as we trust in him, will not abandon us who have our hopes in him, but will guide His enterprise to a glorious conclusion.

For you should most certainly know that we shall either return in glory or we shall never return at all. It remains therefore for you to think frequently of us, and always commend us most sincerely to the prayers of religious men everywhere. And since our money has been in no small way diminished by many and various expenses, all of which have been entirely necessary to us, you should devote your energy to raising cash, and hasten to send what has been collected to us by trustworthy envoys. We shall only be able to further Christ's business without much expense and great labour. Farewell.

4- Conrad III informs Abbot Wibald of his imminent return home (September 1148)

Conrad by the grace of God august King of the Romans to the venerable Abbot Wibald of Korvey [wishing him] his grace and all good things.

Because we know that you very much want to hear from us and to learn how we are prospering, we take this opportunity to tell you first of this. By God's mercy we are in good health, and we have gone on board ship to return on the festival of the Blessed Mary in September, after having accomplished all that God allowed us to do in these regions, and the men of the land permitted.

Let us speak of these men. We arrived by general agreement at Damascus, and we pitched camp by the city gate, albeit with our men facing considerable resistance. There can be no doubt that we came very close to capturing the city. But then certain people whom we had no reason to distrust treacherously alleged that the city was impregnable on that side, and they led us to another position where there was neither water for the army nor could anyone gain entry.

Everyone was annoyed, and also upset by this, and we retreated, abandoning the enterprise as a failure. However, they all without exception promised to undertake another expedition against Ascalon, and fixed a place and a day for this. But when we arrived there as had been agreed, we found scarcely anybody else present. After we had waited in vain for the rest to arrive for some eight days, and been deceived by these people a second time, we consulted our own interests. In short therefore, we shall with God's aid return to you. We render our thanks to you, as you deserve, for the care that you have shown to our son, and for all the loyalty that you shown us. With regard to other matters, we ask that you continue in the same vein, and all your kindness will be suitably rewarded.

5- Abbot Peter of Cluny writes to King Roger of Sicily, offering to act as a mediator between the king and Conrad III, and urging him to attack Byzantium in punishment for the empire’s ‘betrayal’ of the Second Crusade (c. 1150).

Furthermore, we make known to your royal majesty that we greatly lament the conflicts that are going on between you and the lord King of the Germans (or Emperor of the Romans). Both I and many others are strongly of the opinion that this discord is harmful to the Latin kingdoms and to the Christian Faith. For we have heard many times and often how your military power has brought benefits to the Church of God in the lands of his enemies, that is those of the Saracens. Moreover, we believe that greater advantages would accrue if you and the aforesaid king were united in a lasting peace and concord. There is also another matter which has long been of concern to us, and to almost all of our fellow countrymen in France, in seeking such a peace for you; namely the wicked, unheard of and disgraceful betrayal by the Greeks and their miserable king of our pilgrims, that is those in the army of God.

I shall speak of what I have in mind. If it should be necessary, insofar as is appropriate for a monk, I would not refuse to perish, if the justice of God would, through the death of one of his servants, revenge that of so many men, both nobles and commoners, indeed the flower of almost the whole of France and Germany, destroyed by wretched treason. Moreover, I can see no Christian prince under Heaven through whom this work can be carried out who is better, more suitable nor more effective than yourself, nor so acceptable to Heaven and earth.

For, by the grace of God, I say this not in flattery but on account of your outstanding deeds and from the general opinion about you. You are wiser of mind, better endowed with riches, and more practised in courage than other princes, and furthermore you are physically closer to this place. So therefore, rise up, good prince, to fulfil what not just I with my voice am saying, but what is the wishes both of myself and of everyone else. Rise up to help the people of God, zealously to uphold the law of God like the Maccabees, to revenge so many insults, injuries and deaths, and such effusion of blood in the army of God, shed so impiously.

I myself am ready, should an opportunity present itself, to go immediately to the aforesaid emperor, along with anybody else I can recruit, to secure the peace of which I spoke above. I shall try with all my strength and all my care to restore and confirm between you and him a peace that is so pleasing to God.