Armenian Contributions to the Birth of the Crusading Movement

Much has been written about the plight of eastern Christians prior to the calling of the First Crusade, and the way in which their extensive lobbying efforts for military aid from the West contributed to the birth of the crusading movement.

See, for example, the following:

Peter Frankopan on the Byzantine Recruitment of Western Warriors before the First Crusade.

Peter Frankopan and Jonathan Phillips on The Situation for Eastern Christians in the 1090s prior to the First Crusade.

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

Jonathan Riley-Smith on the Motivations of the First Crusaders.

In making such a case, the focus is usually on Byzantine Christians and their letters and embassies to popes and western nobility, as well as their attendance at ecclesiastical councils like Piacenza and Clermont, all in an effort to win military support through sympathetic descriptions of their suffering in the east as a result of Turkish invasions of Asia-Minor and surrounding regions.

Recently, I have been rereading Oxford scholar Jacob G. Ghazarian’s book The Armenian Kingdom in Cilicia During the Crusades (Routledge, 2000), and was intrigued to note his description of Armenian Christians who also participated in such efforts in the years leading up to the calling of the First Crusade.

At the start of chapter three, Ghazarian quotes from the 1074 letter of Pope Gregory VII to Emperor Henry IV, in which he proposes raising an army of 50,000 western knights that the pope will lead personally to the Holy Land in response to Byzantine Christians (“the Church of Constantinople”) who had requested aid (“seeking the fellowship of the Apostolic See”) in their conflict with the Turks. Ghazarian notes that while Gregory’s proposal is seen as laying an important early conceptual foundation for the birth of the crusading movement, the lobbying efforts of Armenians also contributed to papal support for western military aid for eastern Christians in the latter eleventh century.

Ghazarian writes:

“There are, however, grounds to suspect an Armenian influence. In 1080, the Armenian patriarch, Gregor II Vkayaser (Gregory II, the traveler), had appealed to Pope Gregory for military aid to impede the Seljuk Turks’ occupation of the holy sites of Christianity throughout Anatolia, Syria and Palestine.

The pontiff’s response in June of the same year came only in the form of a letter addressed to the Armenian patriarch. Several sources suggest that as early as 1074, the Armenian patriarch may even have traveled to Rome; a visit which may account for the Pope’s specific reference to the Armenians in his letter to Emperor Henry. Grigor’s mission would have been clear; the Turks had already wreaked havoc in Greater Armenia- in eastern Anatolia- and were turning their attention to the Armenian held territories of Cilicia and the northern Euphrates where communities such as Edessa and Antioch could trace their Christian faith to the days of the Apostles….

Therefore, Pope Gregory’s vision of a unified European expedition, which was ultimately fulfilled by Pope Urban II in 1095, to repel the infidels and thus indirectly appeasing the Greek and the Armenian Churches back into the fold of the Roman ecclesiastical sphere of influence, cannot be overlooked simply as a mere historical coincidence with the Armenian patriarch’s concept of Christian fighting men coming from Europe with the approval of Rome to protect the holy sites of Christianity from the infidels.” p. 81-82.

Again, while modern scholars have paid significant attention to Byzantine efforts to recruit military assistance from the West, both to fend off continuing Turkish aggression and restore recently conquered lands in Asia Minor to Christian control, it seems that relatively little attention has been given to Armenian efforts to do the same in the latter half of the eleventh century. Similarly, I would be interested to know how the medieval Kingdom of Georgia responded to Turkish aggression during the later eleventh century, as it represents another Christian kingdom in the broader region dealing with the same challenges.