Pope Gregory VII on the Plight of Eastern Christians Prior to the First Crusade

In the wake of the Turkish victory over Byzantine forces at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, eastern Christians intensified their efforts to win military support from western Christians. Pope Gregory VII’s letters, written in the years that immediately followed, are an important source for highlighting how (at least some) western Christians interpreted the plight of eastern Christians at this time and the pope’s efforts to provide military aid. This brief post provides some selections from a few of those letters to give a sense of Gregory’s concerns.

Although the letters suggest a deep sympathy for eastern Christians and a genuine passion for providing them with western military aid in the form of an army under the pope’s leadership, Gregory was ultimately unsuccessful due in part to his conflicts with Henry IV during the Investiture Controversy. Nevertheless, both his concerns and his efforts reflect some interesting similarities with the circumstances leading to Pope Urban II’s approach to the calling of the First Crusade two decades later in 1095.

On these issues, see also:

Byzantine Recruitment of Western Warriors before the First Crusade: Peter Frankopan’s Call from the East.https://apholt.com/2016/10/26/byzantine-recruitment-of-western-warriors-before-the-first-crusade-peter-frankopans-call-from-the-east/

Gregory VII: Call for a “Crusade,” 1074.- https://apholt.com/2016/07/12/gregory-vii-call-for-a-crusade-1074/

Jonathan Riley-Smith on the Motivations of the First Crusadershttps://apholt.com/2016/06/08/jonathan-riley-smith-on-the-motivations-of-the-first-crusaders/

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The following letter was written in March of 1074, as a general summons for aid to the Byzantine Empire. Gregory emphasizes the terrible accounts he has received of Christian suffering in the East, noting that Christians have been “slaughtered like cattle.” He calls on western Christians to grieve for their “brothers,” but also to be willing to lay down their lives for them.

Gregory VII’s General Summons to the Defense of the Byzantine Empire (March 1, 1074)

We wish it to be known to you that this man, the bearer of the present letter, when he recently returned from the lands beyond the sea, has visited the threshold of the apostles and our own person. We have learnt from him just as from many others that a race of pagans has strongly prevailed against the Christian empire and with pitiable cruelty has already almost up to the walls of Constantinople laid waste and with tyrannical violence has seized everything; it has slaughtered like cattle many thousands of Christians. Because of this, if we love God and acknowledge ourselves to be Christians, we must deeply grieve for the pitiable plight of so great an empire and for so great a carnage of Christians.

And it does not measure up to the concern that is our due merely to grieve over this matter, but the example of our Redeemer and the debt of fraternal charity demand of us that we lay down our lives for the liberation of our brothers; because as he laid down his life for us, we also should lay down our lives for our brothers. Know, therefore, that we…are by every means taking steps and making preparations so that as quickly as possible, with God’s help we may bring assistance to the Christian empire….

we beseech you and…urge you, both that the wounds and the blood of brothers and the peril of this empire may inspire you with due compassion, and that for the name of Christ your valour may undergo a not unwilling toil in bringing reinforcements to your brothers….

Source: The Register of Pope Gregory VII, 1073-1085, ed. and trans. H.E.J. Cowdrey (Oxford, 2002), 54-55.

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Here Gregory writes to Count William VI of Poitou, first congratulating him for ending an non-canonical marriage before then praising him for his willingness to join an expedition the pope is trying to organize on behalf of eastern Christians. Interestingly, Gregory notes that he had recently heard of Christian military success against their Muslim foes and that, as a result, he is awaiting divine guidance for how western Christians should proceed. He also refers to the spiritual rewards Count William receive for his willingness to take part in the expedition.

Gregory VII praises Count William VI of Poitou…for his willingness to join Gregory’s eastern expedition (September 10, 1074)

We have gratefully gathered that you have a ready will for the service of St. Peter, but we do not consider it to be very advisable to write to you in fixed terms about the expedition. For rumour has it that, in parts beyond the sea, by God’s mercy the Christians have far repelled the savagery of the pagans, and we are still awaiting the guidance of divine providence about what more we ought to do. However, for you there has also been laid up with God a full reward for your good will; while for us a sure trust remains, if need shall arise, in your promises as in a beloved brother and son….

Source: The Register of Pope Gregory VII, 1073-1085, ed. and trans. H.E.J. Cowdrey (Oxford, 2002), 94-95.

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Here Gregory, during a lull in the Investiture Conflict, writes to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV of his planned expedition to aid eastern Christians. He again emphasizes that eastern Christians are being slaughtered in the “manner of cattle” and his great sorrow over the news. More interestingly Gregory also claims that he wishes he could lay down his own life on their behalf and that he hopes to “stir up Christians everywhere” to “incite them to this purpose.” He then details his personal desire to lead an army of 50,000 western warriors against the “enemies of God,” going as far as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. 

Gregory VII informs Henry IV of his planned expedition to help Eastern Christians (December 7, 1074)

Moreover, I give notice to your excellency that Christians from parts beyond the sea, of whom a very great proportion is suffering destruction by the pagans through unheard of disaster and is daily being slaughtered after the manner of cattle while the Christian people is being reduced to nothing, have humbly sent to me and driven by exceeding wretchedness, have implored that by all the means which I am able I should bring help to our brothers, lest (which heaven forbid) the Christian religion should altogether perish in our times. So as for myself, touched by exceeding sorrow and drawn by a longing even for death- for I would wish to lay down my life for these people rather than by neglecting them to command the whole world according to the will of the flesh, I have sought to stir up Christians everywhere and to incite them to this purpose: that they should seek by defending the lay to lay down their life for their brothers….

Men from Italy and from beyond the Alps have accepted this challenge, and already more than 50,000 are making themselves ready to that, if they can have myself as leader and as pontiff on a campaign, they are prepared to rise up in armed force against the enemies of God and to go as far as the sepulcher of the Lord under his leadership.

Another thing, too, most strongly spurs me to this task- that the church of Constantinople which dissents from us concerning the Holy Spirit is hoping for concord with the apostolic see; also the Armenians who are almost all astray from the catholic faith and nearly all the easterners are awaiting what the faith of the apostle Peter may decide amongst their various opinions….

Source: The Register of Pope Gregory VII, 1073-1085, ed. and trans. H.E.J. Cowdrey (Oxford, 2002), 122-123.

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Finally, provided below is a selection from one of Gregory VII’s letters to Countess Matilda of Tuscany, a loyal ally to Gregory during the Investiture Controversy. Here he highlights his efforts to raise western military support for eastern Christians and expresses his gratitude for her support. Once again, he refers to eastern Christians being “slaughtered like cattle,” his willingness to lay down his life in the cause, and praises other western Christians willing to sacrifice their lives as well. Interestingly, he also suggests the possibility of both Countess Matilda and the Empress participating in his proposed expedition.

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Letter to Countess Matilda of Tuscany (1074, after Dec. 16)

There are some who I blush to tell, lest I should seem to be led by a mere fancy, how firmly my mind and heart are set upon crossing the sea in order that, by Christ’s favor, I may bring help to the Christians who are being slaughtered by the heathen like cattle. But to you, my most beloved and loving daughter, I do not hesitate to disclose any of these thoughts, for even you yourself can hardly imagine how greatly I may count upon your zeal and discretion. When, therefore, you have read my letter about this matter which I am sending to those beyond the Alps, do all that you can to give your counsel, and still more your help, to your Creator; for if, as some say, it is a noble thing to die for our country, it is a far nobler and a truly praiseworthy thing to give our corruptible flesh for Christ, who is eternal life.

Now I believe that many knights support us in such a task, also that our empress herself desires to come with us to distant parts and to bring you with her, leaving your mother behind to safeguard our common interests here…. As for me, furnished with such sisterly aid, I would most gladly cross the sea, if need be to lay down my life for Christ with both of you…

Source: The Epistolae Vagantes of Pope Gregory VII, ed. and trans. by H.E.J. Cowdrey (Oxford, 1972), 10-13.

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  1. Pingback: The First Crusade as a “Defensive War”: A Response to Prof. Gabriele. | Andrew Holt, Ph.D.

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