Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The joys of clear mornings in winter sunshine

Clear winter skies in Knocklyon this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Winter is cold here this month. Temperatures have dropped below zero some nights, and in the morning, at first, the temperature is hovering around 2, and is threatening to fall.

But the mornings are bright, and the cold weather means the skies are often clear and bright soon after 8.

I don’t know why, but during the night there is still some continuing birdsong, and in the morning the dawn chorus is particularly beautiful.

Perhaps the cold weather means the ground frost makes it difficult for the birds find food; perhaps because there is no snow this year means they find it easy to find food; I honestly don’t know, but my heart is cheered each morning and it’s been a joy going to work each morning.

There is a large group of students in this week for a programme in Continuing Ministerial Education (CME), with a heavy programme in Church History. Then, the part-time students return on Friday for a residential weekend, and the full-time students are back on Monday for a new semester.

Each morning, it is a joy heading in to work.

But with a nagging pain in my upper left back and chest for almost a week and an unusual cough, I eventually went to my GP on Monday evening. It was a long three hours between waiting and consultation, and the news was tough to take. I have pleurisy in my left lung that has either been aggravated by or has aggravated a fresh flare-up in my sarcoidosis symptoms.

The weather I have been enjoying has not helped my physical health.

Now I’m back on a fresh dose of steroids, another new batch of medication, and told to rely on my inhaler more frequently.

But none of this is going to dull my spirits. As I have said so often in the past, I may have sarcoidosis, but sarcoidosis, but sarcoidosis is never going to have me.

I’m looking forward to some of the intellectual stimulus of the new semester.

I had a taste of Greece when I got back home from my GP late on Monday night – I opened a bottle retsina bought in Crete last summer.

And, from today, I can also say I am looking forward to another visitto Greece later this summer.

The lighthouse and harbour in Rethymnon ... ’'m looking forward to a return visit to Crete this summer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)


Church History (CME) 3: Challenging myths and memories (3): the decade of centenaries

Looking down the Liffey towards Liberty Hall … would the key players in the events 100 years ago recognise the Ireland of today? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Continuing Ministerial Education programme

Introduction to Church History

Wednesday 9 January 2013, 11.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m.:

Challenging myths and memories (3): The Decade of Centenaries


As we begin a new year, and wonder what’s going to be different, it’s worth reminding ourselves too that we continue living in the past on this island.

Last year, we began a decade of anniversaries, and we are now into a roll-over series of commemorations of events a centenary ago, recalling the tumultuous events between 1912 and 1922 that shaped not only Irish identity but also shaped the map of Europe.

It is the decade that was marked by the demise of Chinese imperial dynasties, World War I, the Armenian Genocide, the Gallipoli landings, the Battle of the Somme, the Russian Revolution, the Balfour Declaration, the defeat of Germany, the fall of the Hapsburgs, the creation of the Weimar Republic and the Soviet Union, the first non-stop transatlantic flight, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the winning of women’s voting rights, and the rise of Communism and Fascism.

But it was the decade too that brought us the modern zipper, stainless steel, and the pop-up toaster. It was a decade that saw the publication of Einstein’s theory of relativity, the first US feature film, the debut of Charlie Chaplin, the publication of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and Women in Love and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land.

For Irish people, this was the decade that saw the death of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, who was born into a Dublin Church of Ireland family. It was a decade that saw the publication of James Joyce’s Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses, and of Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. And it was a decade too that was marked by the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania.

‘The centre cannot hold’

The Rotunda in Dublin … a venue for many of the political meetings and heated debates on all sides in the decade between 1912 and 1922 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The world was so changed and transformed WB Yeats could open his poem The Second Coming with these lines about Europe in the aftermath of World War I:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Dublin Castle … the seat of Government until 1922 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Towards the end of that decade, the Church of Ireland was living with the consequences of a half century of disestablishment. But the Church was more concerned with social political upheaval on this island, and the way we were tearing ourselves apart as a people. Irish identity was changed violently over that ten-year period, so that the lines by Yeats about the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916 could be applied to the whole island and the whole population:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Charles Stewart Parnell, founder of the Irish Parliamentary Party, influenced a later generation of nationalists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It was a decade that saw the reconstruction of Irish identity through the creation of myths that by-passed the facts, even as the main actors in those myths were still alive.

Language and identity

The Abbey Theatre contributed to the cultural expressions of Irish nationalism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is forgotten that modern Irish nationalism had its incubation and gestation in the revival of the Irish language – a revival in which the main players included Dr Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector, and Dr Eleanor Hull in hymns such as Be thou my vision (643).

Sean O’Casey, the playwright of the left, was born into the Church of Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The artistic expressions of the new nationalism were found in the Abbey Theatre, founded by Lady Gregory, WB Yeats and George Russell (AE), the poetry of Yeats and the plays of Sean O’Casey – all members of the Church of Ireland.

Since 1916, the leaders of the Easter Rising in Dublin have been transformed into either working class heroes or the personifications of what it is to be Green, Gaelic, Catholic and Irish. But the myths that have been created by those who have a blinkered vision of what it is to be Irish betray the truths of history.

The Garden of Remembrance treats the 1916 leaders as martyrs … but their backgrounds were diverse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Who remembers today that Pádraig Pearse was born Patrick Henry Pearse, the son of a Birmingham Unitarian who had come to Dublin from England as part of the Victorian arts-and-crafts movement?

There are other myths surrounding Pádraig Pearse, including one that he was “President of the Provisional Government,” a post that may have been held instead by Thomas Clarke. There is no manuscript version of the 1916 Proclamation, but on all printed versions, the leaders’ names are not printed in alphabetical order, so that Pádraig Pearse’s name is listed fourth, after Thomas Clarke, Sean Mac Diarmada and Thomas MacDonagh.

Ironically, Thomas Clarke was not born in Ireland but in an army barracks on the Isle of Wight in England, where his father was a soldier in the British army.

Thomas MacDonagh had a middle class education in Rockwell College, Co Tipperary, and was a lecturer in English in UCD. In 1912, he married Muriel Gifford, a member of a well-known Church of Ireland family in Dublin. Éamonn Ceannt, an accountant, was born Edward Thomas Kent, the son of an officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary.

James Connolly was born in Scotland and married a member of the Church of Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

James Connolly was born in Edinburgh, and spoke with a Scottish accent all his life. After joining the British Army at the age of 14, he spent seven years with the army in Ireland. In 1890, he married Lillie Reynolds, a member of the Church of Ireland, who was born in Co Wicklow.

Joseph Mary Plunkett was the son of Count George Noble Plunkett, and his distant cousin, Sir Horace Curzon Plunkett, was a prominent lay member of the Church of Ireland and a Home Rule MP. The poet was born into a privileged family in Fitzwilliam Street, then an affluent suburb of Dublin, and was educated by the Jesuits at Belvedere and Stonyhurst, a Jesuit-run public school in Lancashire. Hours before his execution, he married Grace Gifford, who, like her sister Muriel MacDonagh, had been born into a prosperous Dublin Church of Ireland family.

In other words, two of the seven signatories were not born in Ireland, one was the son of an Englishman, one had served in the British army, one was the son of an RIC officer, one was born in a British army barracks, one was a titled aristocrat who went to an English public school, and at least three married women who were born into the Church of Ireland.

The General Post Office in Dublin … but the Easter Rising is not the only important anniversary to remember (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

These backgrounds were similar to those of many prominent figures on the Republican side in 1916. For example, Liam Mellows, later executed in 1922 at the height of the Civil War, was born William Joseph Mellows in an army barracks in Manchester, and his father was born in a British army barracks in India.

It should be remembered too in the coming years that while the 1916 Rising was being planned, Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin still favoured establishing a form of dual monarchy linking Ireland and Britain, similar to the dual monarchy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and that Sinn Féin did not take part in the 1916 Rising.

Voices for the oppressed

Dr Kathleen Lynn took command of the rebel position in City Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Many of the women who took prominent roles in the Rising were members of the Church of Ireland: Countess Markievicz, the suffragette and a leader of the Irish Citizens’ Army, was born Constance Georgine Gore-Booth in Buckingham Gate, London, the daughter of Sir Henry Gore-Booth of Lissadell House, Co Sligo. She and her younger sister, Eva Gore-Booth, were childhood friends of Yeats, who frequently visited their home and described them in one poem as “two girls in silk kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle.”

Dr Kathleen Lynn, a founding member of the Irish Citizen’s Army too, took command of the rebel garrison in City Hall in Easter Week 1916. She remained a pious member of the Church of Ireland until her death in 1955.

Jim Larkin … “The great appear great because we are on our knees: Let us rise.” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Alongside James Connolly, Jim Larkin Countess Markievicz and Kathleen Lynn, the founding members of the Irish Citizens’ Army in 1913, included Captain Jack White, a Presbyterian from Broughshane, Co Antrim, and the son of Sir George Stuart White.

Much of O’Connell Street, Dublin, was destroyed during the 1916 Rising (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Indeed, the first informal meeting to form the Irish Citizens’ Army was held in Trinity College Dublin in the rooms of the Revd Robert Malcolm Gwynn. He was a communicant at Saint Bartholomew’s until his death in 1962, and is buried in Whitechurch Churchyard in Co Dublin. One of his brothers, Brian Gwynn, was the father-in-law of the late Archbishop George Simms. Through their mother, the Gwynns were grandsons of William Smith O’Brien, the exiled 1848 revolutionary whose statue in O’Connell Street is close to the GPO and the statue of Jim Larkin.

The house in Rathgar where George Russell (AE) was living in 1913 during the Dublin lockout (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In a letter of protest during the Dublin lockout, George Russell (AE) accused the employers of “refusing to consider any solution except that fixed by their pride” and he accused them of seeking “in cold anger to starve one-third of this city, to break the manhood of the men by the sight of the suffering of their wives and the hunger of their children.”

Howth Harbour ... the Howth gunrunning must have appeared almost like aCurch of Ireland parish vestry meeting! (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

A year after the Dublin lockout, members of the Church of Ireland were among the most prominent organisers of the Howth gun-running. Erskine Childers, a cousin of the Bartons of Glendalough House, sailed into Howth on the Asgard and landed 2,500 guns.

The organisers included his wife Molly Childers, Sir Roger Casement, Alice Stopford Green and Mary Spring Rice – all Church of Ireland parishioners, as were many of those waiting for them on the pier, including Countess Markievicz, Douglas Hyde and Darrell Figgis.

Edward Conor Marshal O’Brien (1880-1952), skipper of the Kelpie, one of the yachts involved in the gunrunnings , was a member of the Church of Ireland from Limerick and his first cousin, Brian Gwynn, was the father of the late Mercy Simms, wife of Archbishop George Otto Simms.

Kilcoole, Co Wicklow ... the gunrunning organised y Sir Thomas Myles is often forgotten in the shadows of the Howth gunrunning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The accounts of the Howth gunrunning seem to overshadow the equally dramatic Kilcoole gunrunning in Co Wicklow, which was organised by the skipper of the Chotah and the King’s Surgeon in Ireland, Sir Thomas Myles (1857-1937), who was baptised in Saint Michael’s Church of Ireland parish church in Limerick City.

Sir Thomas Myles ... knighted by Edward VII

Nor can we dismiss Myles as a marginal member of the Church of Ireland: his father-in-law, the Revd George Ayres (1825-1881), was a Church of England clergyman; and his youngest brother was the Very Revd Edward Albert Myles (1865-1951), Dean of Dromore. Sir Thomas Myles was knighted at King Edward VII’s coronation while he was President of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

After the Kilcoole gunrunning , when World War I began, he became an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was later appointed one of the honorary surgeons to the King in Ireland.

Written in or written out?

The War Memorial Park in Islandbridge, Dublin, recalls the Irish dead of two world wars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The myths that have accumulated over the past century have written members of the Church of Ireland, their consciences and their role out of the shared history of this island.

In these coming years, we must remember that more Irish soldiers – Catholic and Protestant – died at the Gallipoli landings in 1915 or at the Somme in 1916 than died in the Easter Rising.

Five Irish Home Rule MPs fought in the British Army in World War I: Sir John Lymbrick Esmonde, Stephen Gwynn, Willie Redmond, William Redmond and DD Sheehan.

Nor should we forget that more than 400,000 people on this island, including five bishops of the Church of Ireland, signed the Ulster Covenant, and in doing so were led by Sir Edward Carson, who was born in Harcourt Street, Dublin.

A divided family

A family divided ... Colonel Thomas Comerford on his wedding day; and his sister Marie Comerford

Many families in this part of the island – both Protestant and Roman Catholic – were totally divided when it came to loyalties at this time. Colonel Thomas James Comerford (1894-1959), who was raised in Co Wexford and Co Waterford, came from an interesting background. His grandfather, Colonel Thomas Esmonde (1831-1872), was decorated with the VC for his part in the Battle of Sebastopol in the Crimean War, his mother was three times tennis champion of Ireland, and his cousin, Sir John Lymbrick Esmonde, was one of those five Irish MPs who fought in the British Army in World War I. Thomas Comerford served in World War I, initially with the Royal Irish Regiment and later with the Royal Irish Rifles. He fought at Gallipoli in 1915, where he was wounded, and was at home in Dublin on sick leave in 1916 when the Easter Rising broke out.

The family story says he was taken out of Dublin immediately so he would not be compromised by the curious activities of his sister. He was wounded at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, and went on to spend 25 years in India, where he was married in Bombay in 1921 and where he was active in World War II, organising supplies for the Chindits.

His sister, the journalist and writer Mary (‘Máire’) Eva Comerford (1893-1982), was also raised in Co Wexford and in Co Waterford. She became involved in politics initially as a Redmondite Home Ruler activist in Wexford Town, but later became a life-long Republican activist, and took part in the 1916 Rising in Dublin. Little wonder that her brother had to be moved out of the city.

The Four Courts … burned in the clashes of the Civil War in 1922 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Archbishop JAF Gregg of Dublin said in a sermon in December 1921, the month the Treaty was signed:

It concerns us all to offer the Irish Free State our loyalty. I believe there is a genuine desire on the part of those who have long differed from us politically to welcome our co-operation. We should be wrong politically and religiously to reject such advances.

Archbishop Gregg and Eamon de Valera together in the 1930s.

In 1922, after many Protestants were forced to leave their homes because of threats and some had been murdered in Co Cork, a delegation of southern members of the General Synod met Michael Collins and WT Cosgrave, and asked whether the government of the new Free State was “desirous of retaining” the Protestant community. The new government readily gave the assurances sought.

WB Yeats ... We are no petty people

A few years later, when the Irish Free State was poised to outlaw divorce, the poet WB Yeats delivered a famous speech in the new Senate of the Irish Free State on 11 June:

I think it is tragic that within three years of this country gaining its independence we should be discussing a measure which a minority of this nation considers to be grossly oppressive. I am proud to consider myself a typical man of that minority. We against whom you have done this thing, are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence. Yet I do not altogether regret what has happened. I shall be able to find out, if not I, my children will be able to find out whether we have lost our stamina or not. You have defined our position and have given us a popular following. If we have not lost our stamina then your victory will be brief, and your defeat final, and when it comes this nation may be transformed.

The Mansion House in Dublin, where the First Dáil held most of its meetings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘No petty people’

Over these ten years, it is important that one single event should not dominate all the other centenaries and the memory of what has made the Ireland we know today. We should remember the Ulster Covenant, the lockouts, Gallipoli, the Somme, the men who rallied to Redmond’s call, and the poetry of Tom Kettle. Nor should we forget the diversity of contributions made by members of the Church of Ireland in those ten years.

For in the words of Yeats, we “are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence.”

The Luas in Abbey Street … have we moved on in shaping a modern Irish identity? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture on 9 January 2013 was the third of three in the programme in Continuing Ministerial Education.

Church History (CME) 2: Challenging myths and memories (2): the Crusades

Selskar Abbey, Wexford ... intimately linked with myths and legends about Crusaders from Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Continuing Ministerial Education programme

Introduction to Church History

Wednesday 9 January 2013, 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.:

Challenging myths and memories (2): The Crusades


Let me begin this morning 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.

Jerpoint Abbey, Co Kilkenny, linked with Irish legends about Crusaders and the bones of Saint Nicholas

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 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.

The grave-slab in Newtown Jerpoint said to be carved with an image of Saint Nicholas

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 yesterday 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 Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem … at the heart of the conflict between Islam and Christianity in the Holy Land

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.


The Cathedral of Pisa … funded through two raids on Muslim territories in the 11th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

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 Siege and Capture of Jerusalem in 1099 (Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon; Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)

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 writes of 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):

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux preaches the Second Crusade

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 Crusaders before Saladin

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 Crusaders assault Constantinople in 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):

Saint Francis of Assisi before the Sultan at Damietta in 1219

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):

The Dome of the Rock ... left in Muslim hands by the Sixth Crusade

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.

Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice ... a statement in church architecture that Venice had become the new Byzantium (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.


Church History 3: The decade of centenaries

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture on 9 January 2013 was the second of three in the programme in Continuing Ministerial Education.