Today in Catholic History – Bernard of Clairveaux preaches a crusade

On 31 March 1146 in Vézelay, France St. Bernard of Clairveaux issued a call for what would become known as the Second Crusade.

In 1144, the city of Edessa fell to the Seljuk Turks, this along with requests from Armenia and the other Crusader states for assistance led Pope Eugene III to ask St. Bernard to publicly call for Christian knights to again go to the Holy Land, offering the same indulgences that had been issued by Pope Urban II for the first Crusade.

In front of an enormous crowd at Vézelay, including French King Louis VII and his wife Queen Eleanor of Acquitaine, Bernard preached a very inspiring sermon. Whereas previously there had been little interest in another crusade, after Bernard’s sermon those in attendance rushed to swear oaths to go to the Holy Land. It is said that the crowd ran out of cloth to make Crusader crosses and that Bernard gave up his own outer garments to be cut up to make more. These cloth crosses were worn by crusaders as a sign of the oaths they had taken.

Bernard would later write to Pope Eugene about the great response, “Cities and castles are now empty. There is not left one man to seven women, and everywhere there are widows to still living husbands.” He would claim himself of deserving no praise for the tremendous response to his preaching as he was acting only in obedience to the will of the pope.

The Second Crusade proved to be a disaster for the Crusaders. While the Seljuk Turks were united in their resistance, the Crusaders were divided both in terms of objective as well as in their leadership. One chronicler sums up the results of the Second Crusade with these words, “having practically accomplished nothing, the inglorious ones returned home.”

The failures of the Second Crusade after such an inspirational beginning left Europe disillusioned with the whole idea of a crusade and there would never again be such a popular response to the call for a crusade as their had been with the First and Second Crusade. Much of the blame for the failure fell upon Bernard, who would later send a letter to the pope trying to distance himself from the Second Crusade and laying the faults for its failure upon the sins of the crusaders. Again, Bernard asserted that he had not preached the Second Crusade from his own desires but rather because he wished to respond to the will of the pope.

More on the Second Crusade

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