What Was Pope Innocent III’s Role in the Medieval Crusades?

Pope Innocent III was deeply involved in the development of three medieval crusades in his lifetime, greatly shaping the narratives around crusading throughout the medieval world.

Jan 22, 2024By Laken Bonatch, MA History and MS Archives Management (in-progress), BA History & Classics,

pope innocent iii medieval crusade


The Crusades were a set of religiously inspired military campaigns started by the Catholic Church, which most often attempted to reclaim or protect the holy city of Jerusalem. However, at other times, crusades were used to purge areas within Europe of so-called heretics. Depending on your view, there were eight or nine major crusades in the medieval world. Out of these, Pope Innocent III was directly involved in at least three of them, and his actions as pope during these campaigns would greatly impact the course of future crusades.


Early Life

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Relief portrait of Innocent III, by Joseph Kiselewski, 1950, Source: Architect of the Capitol, Washington D.C.


Lotario dei Conti di Segni was born in 1160 or 1161 in Gavignano, a papal state in what is now modern Italy. He was the son of the count of Segni and a noblewoman, meaning that he received a high-quality education from birth. Primarily educated in Rome and Paris, Lotario studied theology and later law. Instead of pursuing law as a career, however, Lotario became a clergyman. He traveled, writing well-known tracts and giving popular sermons. He worked with both Pope Gregory VIII and Pope Clement III as a subdeacon under the former and a cardinal under the latter. He continued his work for the papacy until the death of Pope Celestine III, when he officially was elected to the papacy. Once he was coronated in February of 1198, he took the name Innocent III.


At the age of 37, Innocent was rather young and inexperienced compared to previous popes, making his quick election quite unusual. For reference, his predecessor, Pope Clement III (1130-1191), was 57 at the time of his election. Nevertheless, Innocent’s colleagues must have had faith in his abilities to lead the church, and Innocent was certainly up to the challenge. His ideology of the pope as above man yet below God would lead Innocent to become directly involved in secular matters throughout Europe, setting him apart from previous popes. Furthermore, Innocent was ashamed of the failure of the Third Crusade to recapture Jerusalem from the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt, so he immediately began preparations for the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) in the early months of his papacy.


The Fourth Crusade

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Crusaders Reach Jerusalem (First Crusade), designed by Domenico Paradisi, 1689-93 (woven 1732-39), Source: The MET, New York


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Pope Innocent III issued a papal bull on August 15, 1198, only half a year after his election, calling all Christians across Europe to action. Previous crusades were also composed of volunteers from kingdoms loyal to the Catholic Church, and the troops were led by nobles and royalty (for example, Richard I of England and Philip II of France participated in the Third Crusade). However, due to a brewing war between England and France, Innocent found himself with a lack of participants for his upcoming crusade.


To incentivize people to join the campaign, Innocent III was the first pope to codify the benefits (or indulgences) crusaders would receive, although previous popes had also made use of them. These benefits included pardons for sins, debt forgiveness, property protection, and possibly eternal salvation (for particularly valorous deeds). The fear of damnation was widespread in the medieval Christian world, and the Catholic Church had control over the afterlives of their followers (at least in their minds). By promising these material and religious benefits, Innocent would certainly have attracted many to his cause.


After four years of planning, which included choosing a city-state to provide the ships for the campaign, locating leaders, and deciding on a route, the Fourth Crusade began in 1202. Venice provided the fleet under the command of Doge Dandolo, making them a major player in the campaign. Furthermore, the fleet was built before individual members of the crusade paid for their passage, resulting in more ships than men and a large amount of debt on behalf of the non-Venetian crusaders. Much of the crusade was dictated by this debt, and the actions taken by the crusaders were often against the wishes of Innocent.


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Illustration from Villehardouin’s account of the Fourth Crusade, 1330, Source: The Bodleian Library, Oxford


Instead of going to Egypt, defeating the sultan’s forces, and recapturing Jerusalem (the plan created by the leaders of the crusade), the Crusaders first captured the Christian city of Zara and placed it back under Venetian control in November of 1202, assisted in a coup at Constantinople in July of 1203, and eventually captured the city themselves in April of 1204.


What was Innocent III’s role in this crusade? Like the three crusades that came before it, the Fourth Crusade was called for by a pope, but unlike the three previous crusades, Innocent took a larger role in the planning of the campaign. This may be due to the lack of a defined leader at the beginning of the Fourth Crusade.


Eventually, Boniface of Montferrat was recruited to lead the soldiers, but there were no kings or hermits to lead the cause. Innocent truly shaped what it meant to be a crusader in the medieval world by providing official papal benefits to holy soldiers, and he took a more active stance in the Fourth Crusade due to his unique ideology as Pope.


delacroix crusaders capture constantinople 1840
Prise de Constantinople par les croisés (12 avril 1204), by Eugène Delacroix, 1840, Source: The Louvre, Paris


A large collection of Innocent’s letters has been preserved detailing his communications with the Crusaders between 1202 and 1205. They highlight his attempts to control a campaign that was largely spinning out of his control. Although the conquest of Constantinople pleased Innocent in the end, the siege on Zara (1202) and the initial coup at Constantinople (1203) angered the pope and soured his relationship with the Crusaders. After Zara, the Venetians were blamed and excommunicated (essentially, their papal blessing was removed, and they no longer could participate in church services), and this excommunication continued until after the conquest of Constantinople (1204).


Based on Innocent’s original goal of reclaiming Jerusalem, the Fourth Crusade was technically a failure. However, the conquest of Constantinople and its separation from the Greek Orthodox Church was seen as a victory in his mind.


The Albigensian Crusade


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Manuscript illustration of the Albigensian Crusade, by Mahiet and the Master of the Cambrai Missal, 1332-1350, Source: The British Library, London


The Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) was the first medieval crusade that remained within Europe and targeted peoples in these regions. Innocent III, in addition to wishing to reclaim Jerusalem, was worried about the spread of “heresy” within the lands loyal to the Catholic Church. Perhaps he was bolstered by the recent conquest of Constantinople or was encouraged by the French king. Either way, Innocent declared a crusade against the Cathars, a religious minority in what is now southern France.


Unlike previous crusades, Crusaders could earn the same religious and monetary benefits without traveling far from home or serving for long. Furthermore, the tension between the French king, the nobles in (what is now) northern France, and the Cathars led to a large number of French participants.


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King Phillip of France, 14th century, Source: The Bodleian Library, Oxford


Innocent’s role in this crusade was perhaps even greater than in the Fourth Crusade. After all, previous popes called for campaigns to Jerusalem but no other pope used a crusade as a means to eradicate heretics inside of Europe. The Albigensian Crusade is where Innocent’s ideologies as pope truly begin to shine through. He worked to end the schism between the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church in the Fourth Crusade, and reclaiming Jerusalem was still a priority, but above all, he wanted to eradicate heresy entirely. This unprecedented move in the history of the papacy would greatly inspire the actions of future popes and blur the definition of what a crusade is.


The Albigensian Crusade itself was much longer than previous crusades, partly because it did not involve consistent fighting, and Crusaders would often be free to leave after serving for a short period of time. This crusade did not officially end until 1229, over ten years after Innocent’s death in 1216. Although Catharism was not entirely wiped out by this crusade, the number of Cathars in southern France was greatly diminished, leading to them almost entirely disappearing by the 14th century. Many scholars now see the Albigensian Crusade as an example of genocide in the medieval world.


Preparations for the Fifth Crusade

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The Capture of Damiate, by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen, 1627, Source: the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem


A few years after beginning the Albigensian Crusade, Innocent began his preparations for the Fifth Crusade between 1213 and 1215. Despite the establishment of a Latin Empire in Constantinople and the unification of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, the Fourth Crusade still failed in its main goal to recapture Jerusalem. To rectify this failure, Innocent planned another campaign to Jerusalem, but this time, he was determined to maintain control.


To do this, he increased the Catholic Church’s involvement in recruiting soldiers and spreading the word about the future Fifth Crusade across Europe, encouraging people to either take part in the upcoming campaign or assist in the war effort through donations and prayer. Innocent himself did not leave the seat of the papacy to do this, but he sent out skilled preachers and legates to speak for him. Although preparations began in 1213, the Fifth Crusade did not officially begin until 1217, one year after Innocent’s death. Innocent oversaw a majority of the preparation, but his successor, Honorius III, picked up where he left off. The Fifth Crusade lasted until 1221, and it once again resulted in the failure to reclaim Jerusalem due to leadership disputes and poor decision-making.



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Vision of Pope Innocent III, by Manuel de la Cruz Vázquez, 1788, Source: The Museo del Prado, Madrid


Pope Innocent III was in the papal seat for eighteen years, and he was part of three significant medieval crusades during this time. He took an active involvement in the campaigns for Jerusalem, codifying the indulgences that people received from joining a crusade and using preachers and legates to control recruitment and the progress of the campaigns. Furthermore, Innocent called the first crusade against peoples within Europe, waging a war on heresy that would continue past his death.


Innocent’s involvement in three medieval crusades not only influenced the events themselves but would shape the actions of future popes after his death. Innocent provided them with a framework on how to be involved in both religious and secular matters in Europe, and he created a model of papal authority that would give the pope more power than any other figure in medieval Europe.

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By Laken BonatchMA History and MS Archives Management (in-progress), BA History & Classics, Laken has a BA in History and Classics from Bryn Mawr College and is currently pursuing an MA in History and MS in Library Science with a concentration on Archives Management from Simmons University. She is working toward becoming an archivist in order to help others in their research while preserving history at the same time, and her academic interests include medieval and ancient history.