The Second Crusade (1147-1149): Causes, Siege of Damascus, & Effects

Second Crusade - Causes and Effects

The Second Crusade spanned two years, from 1147 to 1149.

The middle ages saw it all: The fall of Roman civilization, the rise of Islamic caliphates, and a wave of religious fervor like never before. Religious acts of violence were the rule rather than the exception, and the desire for bloodshed was not an uncommon pursuit.

This was an era when one’s love for God was evidenced by a willingness to go to war against people who did not share one’s faith, i.e. infidels, and later receiving the prize of eternal glory in Paradise. The Christians and Muslims in particular, created a “unholy” mixture of piety and military action in a series of crusades which left in their trail a controversial legacy that stains our civilization even to this day: The Holy War.

The Second Crusade (1147-1149), championed by Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany, was a military campaign triggered primarily by the fall of the County of Edessa at the hands of Imad ad-Din Zengi of Mosul, a very powerful Turkmen atabeg.

The Crusade took place 48 years after the very successful First Crusade which saw the recapture of Jerusalem by the Christians from the Muslims. However, this second campaign not only led to a shocking defeat of the Christian forces, but to the eventual fall of Jerusalem, igniting a Third Crusade towards the end of the 12th century.

Background to the Second Crusade

After the unprecedented endeavor of the First Crusade in the Western world in the 11th century, four Crusader states were carved out in the Holy Land by the Latin Catholic leaders. The First Crusade had been sold by Pope Urban II to the whole of Western Europe as a chance to atone for their sins and transgressions.

These feudal states, also called Outremer, were the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Principality of Antioch, and the counties of Edessa and Tripoli. Kind courtesy of the actions of the Western Crusaders, an Armenian state was formed to serve as a buffer against the Muslims.

Western European forces chalked up successes in the First Crusade largely due to the disunity that characterized Muslim states in the Middle East. Many Muslim powers were weak and not united. As a result, they struggled to cope with the superior weapons and tactics of the crusaders.

The First Crusade (1096-1099) saw Western Christendom reclaim holy sites in the Middle East, especially Jerusalem, which had fallen to Muslim rule four hundred years before. Image: Baldwin of Boulogne entering Edessa in 1098; Painting by French painter Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury, 1840

Problems that the Crusader States faced after the First Crusade

Having carved out a significant portion of the Levant for themselves, the Western Crusader states would go on to experience major problems, including reduced support from the various kings in the west. Many of those kings had internal problems to deal with, and as result, their attention was taken away from the Middle East.

Another major problem faced by the Crusade states was their inability to convince skilled fighters and people to move to their states. The shortage of manpower would prove very disastrous during the Second Crusade.

The relationship between the Crusader states and ally the Byzantine Empire soured in the years after the First Crusade. The Byzantines were anything but happy with the way things had gone as the Western crusader forces and leaders reneged on their promise to return recaptured territories to Constantinople.

Surrounded by enemies, the Crusader states therefore struggled to keep an increasingly united and growing Muslim forces away. The County of Edessa, most famous for being the first Crusader state, was the first to suffer the wrath of the Muslim forces.

  • County of Edessa

The county of Edessa (present-day Urfa in Turkey) was the first Crusader state to be founded in 1098 by Baldwin of Boulogne who also served as the city’s first ruler. Edessa, a place known for its religious significance, was located on the deserts of Syria in Upper Mesopotamia. The city was also highly regarded as a business and cultural center.

Baldwin’s older brother was Godfrey of Bouillon, the first king of Jerusalem as well as the chief lay leader of the First Crusade. Like his brother, Baldwin had been one of the commanders of the First Crusade. In 1100, Godfrey died and Baldwin was appointed by the nobles to succeed him as Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri (Protector of the Holy Sepulcher) and the newly proclaimed king of Jerusalem.

In 1116, Baldwin was struck with a severe illness and eventually succumbed to the disease two years later. The death of such a powerful leader as Baldwin was seen as an opportunity for increasingly powerful Muslim forces to strike the county.

Siege and Capture of Edessa: Primary Cause of the Second Crusade

In 1128, Zengi had seized control of several Muslim territories in what is today Syria and united them to form a formidable region. He was a man of high ambitions and on a mission; to unite all of Syria under his rule. Through successive victories in wars and treaties, he rose to become the most powerful warlord among the Eastern Turks.

His seizure of the city of Aleppo placed him in charge of an important gateway to the inner regions of Levant, located along the eastern Mediterranean coastal lands of Asia Minor, present- day Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. By 1144, the fractured Muslim groups had reunited in North Syria under Zengi.

Meanwhile, Zengi had set his sights on the county of Edessa, which he viewed as prey for his imposing man power. Why wouldn’t he? The county had lost one of its most powerful rulers, i.e. Baldwin. Besides, Zengi knew that the city’s inhabitants were mostly non-military and could scarcely use arms and ammunitions as they had been bereft of vital support not just from Western Europe but also from the Byzantines.

Making matters worse for the townsfolks of Edessa, the county’s security was placed in the charge of mercenaries whose meager remuneration watered down their dedication to their job.

In addition, the Turk warlord got wind of the tension that had risen between Prince Raymond of Antioch and Count Joscelin of Edessa. During this time, Joscelin II, allying with the Ortoqids, had marched his army to the city of Diyarbakır, intending to lend support to Ortoqid in a conflict between the Seljuk Princes. The animosity between Joscelin II and Prince Raymond soon escalated to open hate. Rather than being each other’s keeper, they delighted in the other’s misfortunes. Zengi recognized an opportunity to strike and he did.

In November of the same year, Zengi marched his forces on Edessa in the hopes of besieging the city before Joscelin and his troops returned. After his eventual success in bringing down a section of Edessa’s towering walls, Zengi’s army gained entry into the city.

What followed a horrific scene that befitted the Middle Ages. The invading Muslim forces slaughtered numerous Christians and burnt down many of their houses. The few that were fortunate to survive were sold into slavery. Neither women nor children were spared. The young and aged; the widowed and orphaned were slain. Sensing trouble, the men watching the citadel surrendered and begged for dear lives.

Zengi’s successful capture of Edessa was largely successful because his invading forces met little opposition. Prince Raymond had refused to send reinforcement to help resist the resurgent Muslims. Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem had sent men but they had arrived too late. By the time Joscelin and his army returned to Edessa, the city had already fallen to the Muslim forces.

Zengi’s actions against Edessa were sparked off by a desire to regain lost Muslim territories during the First Crusade. As a result, the Muslim ruler turned his attention to the city of Damascus. He continued in his plans to invade Damascus and would have probably succeeded if his life had not been cut short. In September 1146, he was assassinated by Yarankash, one of his Frankish slaves he had threatened to punish.

The Papal Bull issued by Eugenius III in 1145

The viral success of Zengi’s attack on Edessa came as a huge shock to eastern and western Christians. After the First Crusade, these Christians had settled into a semblance of a normal life. They least expected Edessa, one of their prized cities in the Middle East, to fall back into the hands of the Muslims as it did in 1144.

Bewildered, the people of Edessa made a passionate request for help and asked for a general defense of the Latin East. In 1145, their cries eventually reached Europe. When Pope Eugene III (Eugenius III) was informed of Edessa’s fall, he issued the crusading bull (a public letter) known as the Quantum praedecessores, on December 1, 1145 in the town of Vetralla in Central Italy.

Second Crusade - Causes and Effects

St Bernard in stained glass, from the Upper Rhine, c. 1450

In his address, Eugenius acknowledged the king of France, Louis VII, his sons and all the nobles in his kingdom. He fervently appealed to the French king to volunteer his men to retake Edessa from the Muslims. In addition, the Pope recounted the efforts of the Franks and Italians who were motivated by his predecessor, Pope Urban II, to embark on the First Crusade that restored Jerusalem to the Christian fold.

The opening sentences of the papacy bull reads:

Quantum praedecessores nostri Romani pontifices pro liberatione Orientalis Ecclesiae laboraverunt, antiquorum relatione didicimus, et in gestis eorum scriptum reperimus……

This Papal bull became the first to address issues of a crusade. What primarily drove Pope Eugenius’ actions was a gnawing fear that the Muslims would retake control of the holy lands and their prized relics if they attacked again.

Some historians, however, assert that the Pope’s objectives for the Second Crusade were vaguely stated, mentioning neither Edessa nor Zengi in his address. They explained that Eugene made a general appeal to the crusaders to protect the legacy of the First Crusade, including the holy relics.

Did you know: In 1872, Pope Eugene III was beatified by Pope Pius IX?

Bernard of Clairvaux – the French abbot who incited Western Europe to commit to the Second Crusade

Second Crusade - Causes and Effects

Saint Bernard preaching the second crusade in Vézelay in 1146.

In the bid to make the Second Crusade more appealing, Pope Eugenius commissioned his dear friend and former tutor Bernard, a French abbot from Clairvaux (and co-founder of the Knights Templars) to preach the message of the Second Crusade and to make certain assurances to the Crusaders.

A distinguished leader of the Benedictine Order, Bernard, at the time, was considered one of the most charismatic and influential figures in Europe at the time, and Pope Eugenius looked to him as a spiritual father. Eugenius charged the Bernard with disseminating news of the Crusade across Europe.

With the sword of the Divine Word and an electrifying speech, Bernard encouraged many to join the fight for the sake of Christendom. This famous address was made at Vezelay in Burgundy in March 1146. The abbot had spoken with such conviction that thousands of people had signed up for the Crusade. When Conrad III heard Bernard’s speech, it’s said that the German monarch was moved to tears.

In return for their participation, the Crusaders were assured that their sins would be pardoned both in this life and in the afterlife. Besides having interests on their loans canceled, they were promised that their families and properties would be protected in their absence.

Pope Eugenius and Bernard fed into the minds of the campaigners the notion that the Crusade was more than just an act of war, describing it as a means of salvation for their souls.

Did you know: For his service to Christendom, Bernard of Clairvaux was canonized (by Pope Alexander III) in 1174, just 21 years after his death?

Participants of the Second Crusade

Pope Eugene III’s Quantum praedecessores and Bernard of Clairvaux’s recruitment tours yielded much success. About 60,000 men were willing to take up the cross up and fight to reclaim Edessa.

  • The Christian Army

The Christian forces were led by Conrad III of the Holy Roman Empire and Louis VII of France. Scholars describe this campaign as the first to be led by some of the greatest monarchs in the history of crusades.

Conrad led a 20,000-man army made up of knights and soldiers who journeyed on foot through Hungary. They finally arrived at the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, in September 1147. Their contemporaries, the French army, were made up of about 15,000 knights and soldiers who could fight better on horseback.

King Conrad III

Two key figures were conspicuously missing in the crusade: Stephen of England (also known as Steven of Bois) was said to be addressing disputes in his kingdom. King David of Scotland, on the other hand, was rumored to have been advised by his subjects to refrain.

It is important to note that other Western European nations who were involved in unrelated clashes were eager to identify these conflicts as crusading activities.

  • The Muslim Army

Nur-ad-Din, a reputed member of the Zengi dynasty, would go on to live out the meaning of his name (light of religion) and become one of the most significant Muslim figures in the history of the Second Crusade. For most of his life, he sought to unify the various Muslim groups in order to achieve a united front in defense against the Christian crusaders. With a rich history ranging from helping seize Jerusalem in 1187 to taking control of Syria and Egypt, he was a natural in the act of war.

Not surprisingly, Nur al-Din and his brother, Saif ad-Din Ghazi, were placed as leaders of the 50,000-man troop in the Second Crusade. The Muslim forces largely comprised better-trained soldiers (compared to the Muslim forces of the First Crusade) who were ably backed by the ahdath or local militias (often ethnic Arabs.)

Disagreements Between Christian Leaders

From the get go, the leaders of the Crusade were divided over issues of strategy. Dishonest individual motives and genuine differences in views further served to muddy the waters.

Manuel I Komnenos, the then emperor of the Byzantine Empire, insisted the leaders swear an allegiance to him and make all conquests in his name. The emperor’s request was founded on the suspicion that the leaders of the crusade wanted some parts of Byzantine for themselves.

Constantinople also insisted the Crusaders travel by land through Hungary by way of Byzantine logistics and transport. The French and Germans supported Manuel I’s proposal but his rival, Roger II, the Norman ruler of Sicily, rejected it. The Norman ruler wanted to use a route that would enhance his naval experience, and perhaps act to sabotage his rival’s kingdom. The Second Crusade was thus launched with dissenting views.

Manuel I Komnenos (1118-1180)

German Route

The Germans, under Conrad III, arrived in Constantinople almost a year before the Louis VII-led French army arrived. Conrad’s arrival was anything but smooth. While traveling through Byzantium, Conrad’s nephew Frederick Barbarossa had gotten into trouble with some Byzantines in the Balkans, which stirred up some tensions between Manuel I and Conrad.

For this reason, Manuel was eager to rid the German crusaders of his empire. He instructed his Byzantine forces to be at various points to ensure that there were no skirmishes. Manuel was able to grant the German crusaders safe passage into Asia Minor. However, overtime, the relationship between Manuel and Conrad improved considerably.

The Second Battle of Dorylaeum in October 1147

Without waiting to be joined by the French army, Conrad’s men headed for Iconium, the heartland of Asia Minor and capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum.

At Iconium, Conrad’s army, for reasons yet unknown, decided to take the city in spite of their smaller man power. Historians wonder why Conrad had not asked Manuel I for help as the Byzantine emperor himself had made several attempts in the past to besiege Iconium.

On October 25 1947, Conrad’s army proceeded to fight the Seljuk Turks, led by Sultan Mesud I, in what came to be called the Second Battle of Dorylaeum in modern-day Eskişehir, Turkey. Conrad had arranged his troops loosely, leading most of his men to be massacred and others taken. With what was left of his army, Conrad made his way to Nicaea to wait for Louis VII and his forces.

The French Route

Louis VII and the French Crusaders left Metz in Northeast France in 1147. While most of his men had traveled by land, another army, led by Alphonse of Toulous, had waited for a while to travel by sea. When Louis’ troops got to Germany, they joined forces with the Normandy and England crusaders and followed Conrad’s course.

Upon arrival in Nicaea, Louis was stunned to see Conrad’s numbers drastically reduced (due to losses suffered at Dorylaeum). While the newly-joined forces of Louis and Conrad made their way towards Syria, they were trailed and attacked by the Muslims using lethal hit-and-run tactics.

A year later, Conrad’s and Louis’ armies sailed to Constantinople. Later, the kings and the local lords of the Crusader states met to plan a new strategy that would ensure success in future campaigns.

After much deliberation, the majority suggested they launched an attack on the Muslim city of Damascus. This was because Damascus was an Eastern trading hub and al city where most attacks against the crusader states were staged.

The Major Events of the Second Crusade

At the time of the Second Crusade, there were secondary campaigns in many Christian territories, including Iberia and Baltic. Pope Eugene III allowed the Iberian kings to name their wars against the Moors as part of the Second Crusade.

Regarded as a significant event of the Reconquista (i.e., a series of military campaigns – from 8th century to the late 15th century – used by Christian States to take back territories lost to Muslim states in the Iberian peninsula), the Siege of Lisbon of 1147 resulted in Alfonso I of Portugal (also known the Conqueror) taking back Lisbon from the Moors. The Portuguese monarch received help from crusaders that had journey from Dartmouth in the south of England. After Lisbon fell into the hands of the Portuguese, some of the crusaders journeyed on to the Holy Land.

Second Crusade - Causes and Effects

The Siege of Lisbon by D. Afonso Henriques by Joaquim Rodrigues Braga (1840)

Similarly, French, Genoese, and Flemish crusaders helped King Alfonso VII of Leon mount a siege on Tortosa in 1148. The five-month siege, the city fell into the hands of the Christians.

Of all the major events of the Second Crusade, the Siege of Damascus was the most significant. Taking place in July 1148, the four-day siege changed course of history.

Siege of Damascus

Second Crusade

Crusaders besieging Damascus in July 1148

The patriarchs of Jerusalem and the Templars were in favor of the Damascus siege. After a heated debate of the Council of Acre which met (on June 24, 1148) at Palmarea, Louis and Conrad bought into the idea. The French and German troops united with the Templars and plotted their entry into Damascus.

On July 23, 1148, the crusaders got to Darayya, a suburb of Syria. They had hoped that Muslim leaders Nur ad-Din and Saif ad-Din Ghazi were too busy with their own personal squabbles to intervene. But they were wrong. The two sons of Zengi had called a temporary truce and advanced toward the south with their armies.

The Christian Crusaders were stunned at the turn of events. They realized rather quickly that their forces were no match for their approaching numerically superior counterparts. Uncertain of their next move and feeling helpless, the Crusaders decided to withdraw.

They found their way back to Jerusalem after only four days into the siege, intensely humiliated. Soon after, the peace treaty between Jerusalem and Damascus was revived.


A generally held view is that the Second Crusade and its repercussions were totally injurious to Outremer and should never have happened. When news of the shocking failure of the Second Crusaders hit Europe, it left many devastated.

Bernard of Clairvaux, whose actions were hinged on hopes of divine victory, was traumatized. As if that was not enough, he received his share of criticisms throughout Europe for the failed undertaking.

Louis VII and Conrad III were not left out of the blame game. Their poor coordination with each other was heavily condemned. They were further blamed for their weak strategies that had caused numerous losses of lives and territories. This Second Crusade was simply nothing like its predecessor which had been triumphant thanks to the brilliance of leaders like Baldwin of Boulogne, Godfrey of Bouillon, and Adhemar of Le Puy.


The failure of the Second Crusade in 1149 was in fact a victory for the Muslim troops. It was regarded as the first sign of the collapse of Outremer in the Middle East. Europe suffered a big blow economically, and Jerusalem became vulnerable to attacks. This weakness was ultimately capitalized upon by the Muslims during the Third Crusade, which saw the Muslims led by the very astute Muslim warrior-leader Saladin and his Ayyubid armies.

After the Second Crusade, Saladin, a devout Sunni Muslim, assumed leadership of Egypt and was successful in unifying Syria and Egypt against their Christian foes. Saladin was incensed by the incessant and combined attacks from the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Byzantine Empire against Egypt.

A positive outcome of the Second Crusade to the Christians, however, was that, people who had never been to foreign lands were directly exposed to other cultures. For example, countries in Europe were influenced by the arts and architecture of the Middle East. The exterior of many European buildings and wall mosaics reflected those found in Levant in Western Asia.

Again, the Crusaders from Europe brought home the superior Muslim knowledge in Mathematics and Science which eventually helped launch the Renaissance a few centuries later.

Why is Jerusalem Significant?

Even today, a conversation about Jerusalem would highlight issues regarding faith and control of one of the “holiest” cities in the world. For the Christians, it is the place where Jesus Christ preached the Gospel, was crucified and was raised from the dead. Protecting the city from the Muslims of the time therefore meant penance for their sins and eternal glory.

For the Jews, Jerusalem is the city of God’s original tabernacle built by the biblical King Solomon. The Muslims, at the core, held beliefs similar to the previous two religions. They believe the Holy City to be a place of significant events in the life of Prophet Muhammed, including his ascension to heaven.

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