5 Key Figures That Shaped the Second Crusade

Discover how these five key figures shaped the infamous Second Crusade.

May 22, 2022By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History

portrait eleanor aquitaine san bernardo battle inab


The Second Crusade (1147-50) was a collective effort by the Christian forces of Europe to reclaim the crusading County of Edessa, which had fallen in 1144 to the Islamic leader, Zengi. The Second Crusade was nowhere near as successful as the First Crusade, but many characters emerged in this crusade that are still keenly remembered in history — for good and for bad reasons.


1. Bernard of Clairvaux: Preacher of the Second Crusade

san bernardo portrait
San Bernardo, by Juan Correa de Vivar, 16th Century, via Museo del Prado


Similar to the First Crusade, it was the sermon of a churchman who inspired thousands to take up the cross in the name of Christendom. Born around 1090, Bernard was just a child when the First Crusade was undertaken, thanks to Pope Urban II’s famous Council at Clermont in 1095.


Bernard was a Cistercian Abbot at the time of the Siege of Edessa in 1144, when the Christians lost the majority of the crusading County, and it fell into the hands of the Seljuk Turks. Pope Eugene III (r. 1145-53) commissioned Bernard to preach the Second Crusade. He also granted the same rewards that Pope Urban II had offered in the First Crusade in order to attract more people to sign up.


On 31st of March, Bernard preached to a huge crowd in an open field in Vézelay in France, with King Louis VII of France present at the sermon. Unfortunately, no transcripts of the speech survives today, although an anonymous contemporary said that “his voice rang out across the meadow like a celestial organ.” (John Julius Norwich, The Popes: A History, 2012).

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Bernard’s speech worked: there were reports of the crowd enlisting en masse, and they even ran out of material to make crosses with: Bernard himself cut off his own robe, ripped it apart and made crosses with it, and others soon followed suit.


st bernard vision
The Vision of St Bernard, by Fra Bartolommeo, 1504, via the Web Gallery of Art


One major factor which differentiated the Second Crusade from the First Crusade is that a huge number of royals and nobles were attracted to sign up. Some of these will be discussed below, but others who signed up but have avoided mention here include: Alphonse I of Toulouse; Yves II, Count of Soissons; the future Henry I, Count of Champagne, and William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Surrey.


However, as with the First Crusade, the preaching also led to attacks on the Jews. The Archbishops of Mainz and Cologne were vehemently opposed to these attacks, and Bernard himself even punished the monks who were insinuating these attacks, among them a notable Frenchman called Radulph.


Bernard’s legacy is indeed one of inspiration. Without him, the Second Crusade would not have gone ahead. Although it was not the result that the Christians wanted, Bernard is nevertheless an important figure in the history of the Second Crusade. He died aged 63 on 20 August 1153 and was buried in Clairvaux Abbey. He was later canonised by Pope Alexander III on 18 January 1174.


2. Conrad III of Germany

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Battle of Inab, from Passage Outremer, by Jean Colombe and Sebastien Momerot, 14th Century, via Brewminate.com


Conrad III (r. 1138-52) was King of Germany at the time of the Second Crusade, and at the time he was head of the House of Hohenstaufen. In 1146 at Speyer (in the modern-day Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany) he heard Bernard of Clairvaux preach the Second Crusade. He, along with his French contemporary Louis VII, agreed to go on crusade together.


Conrad’s army of 20,000 men traveled across the land, going through Hungary and Byzantine territory — where they caused notable disruption — before they finally reached Constantinople in September 1147, before the French army.


Interestingly, Conrad sent his forces through Anatolia rather than around the coastal route where he sent his non-combatants, including women and their servants. This gamble was a dangerous one and inevitably it ended in the Battle of Dorylaeum in October 1147. This battle resulted in a defeat for Conrad, and although he and most of his knights escaped, a majority of his foot-soldiers were either killed or captured.


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Siege of Damascus, from Chronique d’Ernoul et de Bernard le Trésorier, 1148, via Newrepublic.com


Conrad’s remaining army of 2,000 traveled onto Lopadium, where they were reunited with Louis VII’s forces. However, Conrad fell ill and was sent back to Constantinople to recover. His personal physician was the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos. Following his recovery, Conrad sailed to Acre and then reached Jerusalem.


It was following his reunion with Louis that one of the most damaging defeats of the Second Crusade took place: the Siege of Damascus. From 24-28 July 1148, the two armies, led by Conrad III and Louis VII respectively, began to besiege the Muslim city of Damascus, in Syria. They initially attacked from the west where there was plentiful food and a water supply from the local orchards, but they later wrongfully changed tactics to attack from the east, where there was not as much food or water. The Muslim defenders kept attacking them, and eventually by 28 July, the crusading armies retreated in one of the most humiliating defeats of the Second Crusade.


Conrad’s relationship with his allies was on seriously bad terms by this point, and he retreated to Germany, empty-handed. Although an unsuccessful crusader, Conrad III still deserves a mention on this list. He was a key figure in the Second Crusade and one who was more successful back in Europe than on Crusade. Nevertheless, he was still admired by his contemporaries for taking the cross, and he is part of a small group of people who survived the crusading ordeal. Conrad would only rule for another four years after leaving the Second Crusade and died back in Germany in 1152.


3. Louis VII of France

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Effigy of Louis VII on his seal, c. 12th century, via HistoryHit.com


Louis VII (r. 1137-80) was not the ideal image of a crusader king. Born as a younger son of King Louis VI, he was not even destined to become king and was sent to the priesthood. He only became king when his older brother, Philip, fell from his horse and died. Even his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, once quipped: “I married a monk, not a king.”


Nonetheless, both Eleanor and Louis set out together on crusade. On their way to the Holy Land, Louis was involved in the Battle of Mount Cadmus on 6 January 1148. His French forces were ambushed by Seljuk Turks and forced to retreat into a narrow gorge. Under the cover of darkness, Louis VII — who had managed to singlehandedly fend off Turkish attackers according to the historian Odo of Deuil — managed to re-join his vanguard. Unfortunately, it was another loss for the French army on the Second Crusade.


eleanor of aquitaine louis vii painting
King Louis VII Takes the Standard, by Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse, 1840, via BritishHeritage.com


Even so, Louis arrived in Antioch on 11 March 1148 and was seen to by Eleanor’s uncle Raymond. Louis’ aim of going on crusade fit with his deeply religious nature — he wanted to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Unfortunately, he clashed with Raymond over their differing objectives, and Louis left for Tripoli shortly afterwards.


Following the debacle at Dorylaeum, the crusader kings (including Baldwin III of Jerusalem) had all fallen out with each other. When Conrad III returned home, Louis decided to fulfil his vow to reach the Holy Land, and he did. He stayed in Jerusalem until 1149, when he and Eleanor — who were barely speaking with each other — sailed home on separate ships.


Louis VII, despite his losses during the Second Crusade, is a key figure of the conflict. For instance, his pious nature was taken advantage of to an extent, but even so, he managed to fulfill his promise to reach the Holy Land. Ultimately, on his return to France, he would still rule for another 31 years, until his death in 1180.


4. Eleanor of Aquitaine

eleanor of aquitaine louis vii second crusade
Eleanor of Aquitaine marrying Louis VII in 1137 (left) and Louis going on crusade in 1147 (right), from the Chronique st Denis, 14th century, via Iowa University


Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of medieval history’s most formidable characters. She was a hugely influential figure in the Middle Ages, and one of the very few women to have been married to two different kings: Louis VII of France and Henry II of England. However, her involvement in the Second Crusade grants her a place on this list.


Eleanor actively wanted to join the Second Crusade, rather than being dragged along with her husband. She had even corresponded with her uncle, Raymond, Prince of Antioch, who had asked for French protection against the Saracens. Eleanor and her husband, Louis VII, left Vézelay in June 1147 and sailed for the Middle East. They arrived in Antioch almost a year later, on 11 March 1148, where they were showered with lavish gifts and huge pomp and ceremony.


The historian Dan Jones argues that this was “likely a source of comfort” for Eleanor, to visit a family member so far away from home, and revel in the exotic courts of Antioch. However, despite merely spending ten days at Antioch enjoying Raymond’s hospitality, it was enough to create a rift in the French couple’s marriage.


Eleanor was happy at Raymond’s court, and refused to leave with Louis. In response, Louis left Antioch without Eleanor. However, Eleanor’s joy was short-lived. Soon, rumours began spreading that she was having an incestuous affair with her uncle Raymond. Even if they were having an affair, technically it would not have been incestuous, as Raymond was Eleanor’s blood-aunt’s husband. Nevertheless, these rumours blackened Eleanor’s reputation and cuckolded Louis.


portrait eleanor aquitaine
Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Frederick Sandys, 1858, via the National Museum Wales


Once again, William of Tyre voiced his opinion on the matter, claiming that “Contrary to her royal dignity, she disregarded her marriage vows and was unfaithful to her husband.” However, recent research suggests that Tyre was not referring to infidelity; rather, he was referring to the perceived sin of domestic disobedience, which many of his straight-edged contemporaries regarded as a sin of almost equal magnitude to infidelity.


The Second Crusade raged on while Eleanor stayed with Raymond in Antioch, although she was eventually reconciled with Louis at Easter 1149, just before they set sail back home on separate ships. Pope Eugene III attempted to relight the couple’s fire, but it was all but extinguished. On 11 March 1152, Eleanor and Louis’ marriage was dissolved, and just two months later she was to marry the future Henry II of England.


Eleanor’s legacy is not just one of being the target of rumours and embarrassing Louis VII. She was a noble woman who felt it right that she should go on the Second Crusade, and not only survived it, but lived on to see the Third Crusade, re-married. She was to live until the age of 81-82 when she died in 1204. During her time in Antioch, she also developed trade agreements with Constantinople and ports of trade in the Holy Land. Her legacy is much more complicated than simply being King Louis VII’s wife.


5. Raymond, Prince of Antioch: Major Casualty of the Second Crusade

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Raymond of Poitiers welcoming Louis VII in Antioch,from Passages d’Outremer, by Jean Colombe and Sebastien Marmerot, 15th century, via HistoryHit.com


The last, but by no means least of our key figures from the Second Crusade is Raymond, Prince of Antioch. Sometimes better known as Raymond of Poitiers, he was made Prince of Antioch in 1136 and held this position until his death in 1149.


Upon hearing news of the Fall of Edessa in 1144, Raymond sent a delegation to Pope Eugene III asking for aid. His calls were answered, in the form of Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Upon their arrival, he showered them with gifts and generous hospitality, in an attempt to dissuade Louis from travelling south to Jerusalem. He wanted Louis and Eleanor to stay with him in Antioch to help him with the conquests of Caesarea and Aleppo.


Unfortunately, Louis had other plans, but Eleanor stayed. This increased rumours that the two were having an affair behind Louis’ back. Raymond was furious that Louis would not stay and help him against the Saracens, and the chronicler William of Tyre claimed that: 


Raymond began to hate [Louis’] ways; he openly plotted against him and took means to do him injury.’ In order to do this, Raymond used his relationship with Eleanor to persuade her to stay, while Louis left.


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Recovery of Raymond’s body after the Battle of Inab, from Passages d’Outremer, by Jean Colombe and Sebastien Marmerot, 15th century, via Wikimedia Commons


Even so, Raymond undertook a battle against the Muslims, who at that time were under the rule of Atabeg Nur ad-Din Zangi, of the Zengid dynasty. The Battle of Inab was fought on 29 June 1149 at Inab, in the Seljuk Sultanate (modern-day Syria). The crusaders were outnumbered, with their troops numbering 1400 while the Zengids numbered around 6,000. It was during this battle that Raymond was killed. He was beheaded by Shirkuh (the uncle of Saladin), and his head was sent as a prize to the Caliph of Baghdad in a silver box.


Raymond is another key figure in the Second Crusade. He was undoubtedly a great figure in the Middle East, but personal disagreements with Louis led him to make rash decisions, such as fighting against the Zengids without a proper army. Even so, he deserves his place in this list — without his hospitality, Eleanor and Louis may never have even reached the rest of the European armies on the Second Crusade.

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By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.