Selskar Abbey, Wexford ... intimately linked with myths and legends about Crusaders from Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
9 March 2013
2.30 p.m., Hartin Room
MTh part-time), Church History elective module (TH 7864)
Church History (part-time) 4: Challenging myths and memories (2): Invaders and Crusaders
Let me begin this session by telling you a tale or two.
I have a lot of respect for the work of local historians because they are like the coalminers of history. They burrow away in areas often ignored by professional and academic historians, and bring some valuable nuggets to light.
But local historians can also have a romantic attachment to their local area, and continue to tell local romantic stories, without critically analysing them.
Let me then tell you about two have contradictory legends:
Selskar Abbey in the centre of Wexford town is raid to stand on the very place where the first Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed when the Anglo-Normans arrived in 1169 when the town of Wexford was surrendered to Robert FitzStephen.
Another legend says that Selskar Abbey is also the place where Henry II did public penance in 1171 for his role in instigating the murder of Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury.
This may have been a Viking foundation originally. But we have no evidence to support it. We certainly know from its dedication to Saint Peter and Saint Paul that was never a “Celtic” foundation.
Whatever its origins, it was later endowed, enlarged and given to the Canons Regular of Saint. Augustine in 1190 by – according to local legends – by Sir Alexander Roche of Artramont, outside Wexford.
The legendary accounts attached to Selskar Abbey say that when Sir Alexander Roche was a young man he became infatuated with a beautiful girl, the daughter of a poor burgess of Wexford town. To prevent their marriage, his parents persuaded him to join the Crusade, and that they sent him off on foot, to join the campaign for the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
On his return from Palestine, Roche’s parents had died and he was now free to marry. But when he visited the home of the woman he wanted to marry, he found she had heard he had died in battle, and so she had entered a convent.
Roche then took a vow of celibacy, endowed Selskar Abbey, dedicated it to the Holy Sepulchre, placed relics from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in the abbey church, and he became its first Prior.
Of course, it is a popular myth in Wexford.
But did Sir Alexander ever exist?
Did his childhood sweetheart ever become a nun?
Indeed, did she ever exist?
Was there ever a crusader link with Wexford Town and Selskar Abbey?
The name in Danish means Seal’s Rock, as in Selskar Rock in Bannow Bay, the site of the main Anglo-Norman landing in 1169. The existing tower is 14th century; surviving parts of the nave are 15th century; and the church you see today dates from the 19th century.
As usual, there is confusion and debate surrounding the dates: the Third Crusade (1187-1192) ended without Jerusalem being retaken; the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) never reached Jerusalem, and those involved expended their energies in sacking Byzantium. So if Sir Alexander ever existed, ad if he ever was a Crusader, and if he ever came back with relics, they were certainly not from Jerusalem and certainly not from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Indeed, the family historian says the first Alexander Roche in the Wexford family was the son of Sir Richard de la Roche, who was Lord Justice of Ireland in 1261 (Journal of the Old Wexford Society, No 2, 1969, p. 42).
He might just have been of the right age to have taken part in the Seventh Crusade (1248-1254), which only fought in Egypt; the Eighth Crusade (1270), which ended in defeat in Tunis in North Africa, and was the last major attempt to take the Holy Land; of perhaps the Ninth Crusade (1271–1272), which ended as a failure with the Knights of Saint John moving to Rhodes, and marks the end of the Crusades in the Middle East. None of these Crusades reached Jerusalem, they are too late for the foundation and endowment of Selskar Abbey, and even entertaining the possibility of trying to reconcile local legend with major events in Medieval History has become absurd at this stage.
My second local legend sounds like something from The Da Vinci Code or The Name of the Rose.
There is a legend in Co Kilkenny that links Jerpoint Abbey with the Crusades and with Saint Nicholas of Myra – Saint Nicholas as in Santa Claus.
The Cistercian abbey at Jerpoint was founded in 1183, and served as a launch-pad for Irish-Norman Crusaders from Kilkenny in the Third Crusade (1187–1192).
Why a Cistercian Abbey? Because the initiator of the Cistercian reform within the Benedictine tradition was Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who also “preached up” the Second Crusade (1145-1149).
Jerpoint Abbey was founded during the reign of Henry II. In order to persuade the local people that the monastery was of divine origin and had supernatural powers, it was useful to have buried there a saint of high standing with a reputation as a miracle worker.
Saint Nicholas had lived in Myra, in present-day Turkey, from ca 270 until he died on 6 December 343.
In 809, Myra was captured by Muslims when the besieged town fell to Harun al-Rashid, and it fell again to Muslim conquerors between 1081 and 1118.
Taking advantage of the confusion, sailors from the port Bari in southern Italy collected half of Saint Nicholas’s skeleton in Myra in 1087, leaving the rest of his remains in the grave. These remaining remains were later collected by Venetian sailors during the First Crusade (1096–1099).
Saint Nicholas Church on Gemile Island, between Rhodes and Fethiye … was this is true burial place of Saint Nicholas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The first part of his body – perhaps half his bones – arrived in Bari on 9 May 1087, and they were moved to the Church of Saint Stephen. The remaining bones were taken to Venice in 1100. Whether these were the actual remains of Saint Nicholas, but at least they were from the same body, according to the results of scientific tests. Another grave attributed to Saint Nicholas also exists on the small Turkish island of Gemile, between Fethiye and Rhodes, and some historians say this is his original grave.
However, a local story in Co Kilkenny says that a band of Irish-Norman knights from Jerpoint, who had travelled to the Holy Land to take part in the Crusades, seized Saint Nicholas’s remains as they headed home to Ireland, bringing them back to Kilkenny, where they buried the bones in Jerpoint Old Town, a few miles from the abbey.
Another version of the story says a Norman family called de Frainet or Frenet, removed Saint Nicholas’s remains removed from Myra to Bari in 1169 and later brought the relics to be buried in 1200 in the Church of Saint Nicholas in the medieval village of Newtown Jerpoint.
The churchyard has graveslab dating from the 1300s with an image of a cleric, thought to be a bishop, and two other heads. The cleric is said to be Saint Nicholas and the heads the two crusaders who are said to have brought the saint’s relics to Ireland.
But this is all the stuff of myth and legend. The Normans and the Cistercians preferred to name their churches and abbeys after Biblical and Continental saints rather than the local “Celtic” saints. And in that sense, our discussion last month about Patrician and “Celtic” Christianity is linked to the Norman and subsequent identities of the Church in Ireland by the Crusades, which also provide a link in the change of patterns in Irish medieval monasticism. And looking at the Crusades also equips us to deal with some of the myths and legends that leave legacies that remain barriers to ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox Church, interfaith dialogue with Jews and Muslims, and that cast shadows over our efforts to deal with major social theological issues such as war, violence, tolerance, and Church-State relations.
Introducing the Crusades
The Crusades were a series of religious wars between 1095 and 1291 blessed by the Pope and the Church with the expressed goal of restoring Christian access to holy places in and near Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is the sacred city and symbol of the three principal Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was first captured by Islamic forced in the year 638. When the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantine army in 1071, Christian access to Jerusalem was cut off and the Emperor Alexis I feared the Turks would over-run all Asia Minor. The Byzantine emperor called on western Christian leaders and the papacy to come to the aid of Constantinople and to free Jerusalem from Islamic rule.
In all, there were nine Crusades from the 11th to the 13th century, along with many “minor” Crusades. Several hundred thousand Crusaders came from throughout western Europe, but they were not under any one unified command. Their emblem was the cross, and the term “Crusade,” although not used by the Crusaders to describe themselves, comes from the French term for taking up the cross. Many were from France and were called “Franks” – the common term used by Muslims.
In the decades immediately before the launch of the Crusades, the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim bin-Amir Allah ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. His successors allowed the Byzantine Empire to rebuild the church in 1039 and Christian pilgrims were allowed once again to visit the holy sites in Palestine.
But in the second half of the 11th century, even before the First Crusade, European forces had already been at war with Muslim forces:
● The city of Pisa in Italy funded its new cathedral through two raids on the Muslims – in Palermo (1063) and Mahdia (1087).
● In Sicily, the Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard had conquered northern Sicily by 1072.
● In 1085, Moorish Toledo fell to the Kingdom of León.
The Crusades came as a response to wave-after-wave of Turkish assaults on the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine emperors sent emissaries to the Pope asking for aid in their struggles with the Seljuk Turks. In 1074, Emperor Michael VII sent a request for aid to Pope Gregory VII, but there was no practical response.
In 1095, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos appealed to Pope Urban II for help against the Turks, and Urban II responded by launching the crusades on the last day of the Council of Clermont.
His speech is of the most influential speeches ever. He called for Christian princes across Europe to launch a holy war in the Holy Land. He vividly described attacks on Christian pilgrims and contrasted the sanctity of Jerusalem and the holy places with the plunder and desecration by the Turks. He urged the barons to give up their fratricidal and unrighteous wars in the West for the holy war in the East. He also suggested material rewards in the form of feudal fiefdoms, land ownership, wealth, power, and prestige, all at the expense of the Arabs and Turks.
When he finished, those present chanted: “Deus vult, God wills it.”
Immediately, thousands pledged themselves to go on the first crusade. Pope Urban’s sermon at Clermont was the start of an eight-month preaching tour he undertook throughout France. Preachers were sent throughout Western Europe to talk up the Crusade.
Urban’s example inspired the preaching of Peter the Hermit, who eventually led a “People’s Crusade” of up to 20,000 people, mostly from the lower classes, after Easter 1096. When they reached the Byzantine Empire, Alexius urged them to wait for the western nobles, but the “army” insisted on moving on. They were ambushed outside Nicaea by the Turks, and only about 3,000 people escaped the ambush.
First Crusade (1095–1099):
The leaders of the First Crusade were Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke William II of Normandy, but not King Philip I of France or the German Emperor Henry IV. In all, the forces may have numbered 100,000.
The first crusader armies set off from France and Italy on 15 August 1096. They received a cautious welcome in Constantinople from the Byzantine Emperor. The main army, mostly French and Norman knights, then marched south through Anatolia and first fought the Turks at the lengthy Siege of Antioch from October 1097 to June 1098. Once inside the city, the Crusaders massacred the Muslim inhabitants and pillaged the city.
Most of the surviving crusader army then marched south, finally reaching the walls of Jerusalem on 7 June 1099 with only a fraction of their original forces. Although Jerusalem was defended by its Jewish and Muslim inhabitants, who fought alongside each other, the crusaders entered the city on 15 July 1099. They proceeded to massacre the remaining Jewish and Muslim civilians and pillaged or destroyed the mosques and the city itself.
As a result of the First Crusade, several small Crusader states were created. In the Kingdom of Jerusalem, at most 120,000 Franks ruled over 350,000 Muslims, Jews, and e Eastern Christians. The other Crusader states were the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch and the County of Tripoli.
Eventually, the Muslims began to reunite and Edessa was retaken in 1144 It was the first city to fall to the Crusaders, and was the first city recaptured by the Muslims. This led the Pope to call for a second Crusade.
The historian Steven Runciman summarises the First Crusade as a barbarian invasion of the civilised and sophisticated Byzantine empire, ultimately bringing about the ruin of Byzantine civilization.
The Second Crusade (1147–1149):
After a period of relative peace in the Holy Land, the Muslims reconquered Edessa and a new crusade was called for by various preachers, especially Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. However, Saint Bernard was upset with the amount of misdirected violence and the slaughter of the Jewish population of the Rhineland.
French and German armies under the King Louis VII and King Conrad III marched to Jerusalem in 1147 but failed to win any major victories. Even the pre-emptive siege of Damascus was a failure. By 1150, the kings of France and Germany had returned home without any gains. As part of the wave created by the Second Crusade, however, Lisbon was retaken from the Muslims in 1147, and Tortosa was captured in 1148.
The Third Crusade (1187-1192)
The divided Muslim forces and powers were united by Saladin, who created a single powerful state. Following his victory at the Battle of Hattin, he overwhelmed the disunited crusaders in 1187 and all of the crusader holdings except a few coastal cities. The Byzantines, who now feared the Crusaders, made a strategic alliance with Saladin.
Saladin’s victories shocked Europe. When he heard of the Siege of Jerusalem (1187), Pope Urban VIII died of a heart attack on 19 October 1187. On 29 October, Pope Gregory VIII issued a papal bull calling for the Third Crusade. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, King Philip II of France and King Richard the Lion-Hearted of England responded by organising a crusade.
But Frederick died on the way and few of his men reached the Holy Land. The other two armies arrived but were beset by political quarrels. Philip returned to France. Richard captured Cyprus from the Byzantines in 1191, recaptured the cities of Acre and Jaffa, and his Crusader army marched south to Jerusalem. However, Richard did not believe he could hold Jerusalem once it was captured.
The crusade ended without Jerusalem being retaken. Instead, Richard negotiated a treaty with Saladin allowing merchants to trade and unarmed Christians to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204):
The Fourth Crusade was initiated by Pope Innocent III, with a plan to invade the Holy Land through Egypt, with a fleet contracted from Venice. But the crusaders lost the support of the Pope and were excommunicated.
They lacked supplies, the leases on their vessels were running out when they turned on Constantinople and tried to place a Byzantine exile on the throne. In 1204, the Crusaders sacked the city and established the so-called “Latin Empire” and a collection of petty Crusader states throughout the Byzantine Empire.
Finally, the Pope returned his support to the Crusade, and backed a plan for a forced reunion between the Churches of the east and the West. But this forced but short-lived reunion was the final breaking point of the Great Schism.
The Fifth Crusade (1217-1221):
In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council formulated yet another crusade plan for the recovery of the Holy Land. In the first phase, a crusading force from Austria and Hungary joined the forces of the “King of Jerusalem” and the “Prince of Antioch” to retake Jerusalem.
In the second phase, the Crusader forces captured Damietta in Egypt in 1219. Saint Francis of Assisi crossed the battle lines at Damietta to speak to the Sultan, who was impressed by Francis and spent some time with him. Francis was given safe passage and his action eventually led to the establishment of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.
But in 1221, the Crusaders launched a foolhardy attack on Cairo, where they were turned back and forced to retreat.
The Sixth Crusade (1228-1229):
Emperor Frederick II launched the Sixth Crusade in 1228, when he set sail from Brindisi for Saint-Jean d’Acre. There were no battles in the Crusade, and Frederick signed a treaty with the Sultan of Egypt allowing Christians to rule over most of Jerusalem and a strip of territory from Acre to Jerusalem, while the Muslims had control of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount and al-Aqsa Mosque. In 1228, Frederick crowned himself king of Jerusalem. The peace lasted for about ten years. Following the Siege of Jerusalem in 1244, the Muslims regained control of the city.
The Seventh Crusade (1248-1254):
King Louis IX of France organised a crusade against Egypt from 1248 to 1254. The crusaders were decisively defeated on their way to Cairo and King Louis was captured, released only after a large ransom had been paid.
The Eighth Crusade (1270):
Louis IX again attacked the Arabs in 1270, this time in Tunis in North Africa. The king died in Tunisia, ending this last major attempt to take the Holy Land.
The Ninth Crusade (1271–1272):
The future Edward I of England, who had accompanied Louis on the Eighth Crusade, launched his own Crusade in 1271. But the Ninth Crusade was a failure and it marks the end of the Crusades in the Middle East.
Antioch had fallen in 1268, Tripoli fell in 1289, Acre n 1291, and the island of Ruad, 3 km off the Syrian shore, was captured by the Mamluks in 1302. The last traces of Christian rule in the Levant disappeared.
The Knights of Saint John relocated themselves to the island of Rhodes, which they held until 1522. Cyprus remained under the House of Lusignan until 1474, and then in the hands of Venice until 1570.
Some other ‘Crusades’:
The Albigensian Crusade was launched in 1209 to eliminate the heretical Cathars of Occitania in southern France. It was a decades-long struggle that had as much to do with the concerns of northern France to extend its control southwards as it did with heresy. In the end, the Cathars were exterminated and the autonomy of southern France came to an end.
The “Children’s Crusade” The chronicles report a spontaneous youth movement in France and Germany attracted large numbers of peasant teenagers and young people in 1212, convinced they could succeed where older and more sinful crusaders had failed. Many of the children died of hunger or exhaustion on the hot summer’s journey to the port of Marseilles, others were captured and sold into slavery. At Marseilles, seven ships were put at their disposal. It was 18 years before anything more was heard of them.
Evaluating the Crusades:
The Crusades had political, economic, and social impacts on western Europe. Later consequences were, on the one hand, the way they weakened the Byzantine Empire, which fell eventually to the Muslim Turks; and on the other hand a long period of wars in Spain and Portugal leading to a Christian conquest or reconquest of the Iberian peninsula. The Crusades allowed the Papacy to assert its independence of secular rulers and developed the arguments for the proper use of armed force by Christians, leading eventually to the development of the “Just War” theories.
Some historians have argued that the Crusades opened up European culture to the world, especially Asia, and gave Christian Europe a more cosmopolitan world view that led to its world-wide empires.
Sir Steven Runciman says of the Crusades: “High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed ... the Holy War was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God.”
Runciman has highlighted the tension between the Patriarchs of Constantinople and the Popes in Rome during the Crusades, and the more tolerant attitude of the Byzantines towards Muslim powers. For Runciman, the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 was the culmination of the mounting dislike and suspicion that western Christendom felt towards Byzantium.
The West misunderstood Byzantium, and could not accept the ideas that the Roman inheritance had shifted from Rome to Constantinople and that the civilised, Christian world was centred on Constantinople. For their part, the Byzantines had a deep-rooted antipathy towards the West, convinced of Byzantine cultural and religious superiority, despite Byzantium’s military and political weakness.
Nevertheless, the Crusades had an enormous influence on the Church and on western Europe in the Middle Ages. In part, they contributed to the development of nation states such as France, England, Spain, Burgundy and Portugal.
Much knowledge in areas such as science, medicine, mathematics, philosophy and architecture were introduced to Europe from the Islamic world during the crusades.
Along with trade, new scientific discoveries and inventions made their way east or west. Arab and classical Greek advances, including the development of algebra and optics and the refinement of engineering, made their way west and sped the course of advancement in European universities that led to the Renaissance in later centuries.
Maritime passage brought the rise of Western European and Mediterranean trading and naval powers such as the Sicilian Normans and the Italian city-states of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa.
Following the Crusade that proved a disaster for Byzantium, Venice began to assert its claims to be the Byzantium of the West. Treasures looted from Byzantium were put on public display and became emblematic of Venice, including the four bronze horses from the Hippodrome, carved pillars from the Church of Saint Polyeuktos, and the porphyry sculpture of the Ten Tetrarchs now at the Basilica of San Marco.
Saint Mark’s Basilica itself is a statement in church architecture that Venice is the new Byzantium. Why, even the Bishop of Venice assumed the title of Patriarch.
Trade routes opened across Europe, bringing many things to Europeans that were once unknown or rare, including a variety of spices, ivory, jade, diamonds, improved glass-manufacturing techniques, early forms of gun powder, oranges, apples, and other Asian crops and produce.
Judith Herrin, in Byzantium, the Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (London: Penguin, 2007), reminds us that it could be said that many instruments that we take for granted today, from the fork to the organ, were introduced to the West from Byzantium through Venice.
The Crusades mark Europe’s recovery from the Dark Ages (ca 700–1000). The economy of Western Europe advanced, and the Renaissance began in the Italian maritime republics of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa which were opened to the ancient knowledge of the Greeks and Romans.
But the rising Ottoman Empire would pose a new threat to Western Europe in advance of Christopher Columbus’s voyage in 1492 and the opening of the Reformation at the beginning of the 16th century.
Next (April weekend):
Church History (part-time) 5: A Reformed and Disestablished Church
Church History (part-time) 6: Challenging Myths and memories (3): memories and the decade of centenaries
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This essay is based on notes used for a lecture on the Church History module (TH 7864) with part-time MTh students on 9 March 2013.