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Preaching the Cross

All men, proclaimed the Pope in October 1187, must do penance for the sins which had provoked the catastrophe, at the same time preparing a new crusade to regain the Holy Places.

This is a series about the journey that Archbishop Baldwin and Gerald of Wales took in 1188 to preach the crusade throughout Wales. Gerald kept a detailed account of the journey and their surroundings, which he later published. The series began with some background posts about Gerald. If you want to read the series from the beginning, go here.

One of the major things that Gerald of Wales was involved in was the crusade to recover the Holy Land.

During the late summer of 1187, astounding and terrible tidings spread through western Europe. The great Moslem warrior, Salah-ad-Din Yusuf, the dreaded ‘Saladin’, had surrounded the Christian army of Palestine at the Horns of Hattin, and utterly annihilated it: the Holy Cross of Christ, the sacred relic borne before the crusaders, was in the hands of the infidel. Within three months even worse news followed. Sweeping all before him, Saladin had taken the Holy City of Jerusalem, and only the desperately defended fortress of Tyre now held out against the final Moslem conquest of the land where Christ had lived and died.

Appalled by the magnitude of the disaster, Christendom reacted swiftly. All men, proclaimed the Pope in October 1187, must do penance for the sins which had provoked the catastrophe, at the same time preparing a new crusade to regain the Holy Places. Among the first to respond was Prince Richard, the famous ‘Lionheart’, while in January 1188 King Henry of England and King Philip of France swore to abandon their long feud and lead their united armies to Jerusalem. In token of their vow, they literally ‘took the cross’, accepting consecrated cloth crosses to be sewn upon the right shoulders of their cloaks. At that moment, reported chroniclers, the crusader symbol miraculously appeared in the sky above them, and all present ran forward to claim crosses of their own, of red cloth for the French but of shining white for the subjects of King Henry. Some, it was rumoured, even cut crosses in their flesh.
Richard_the_Lionheart_statue (w)
Amid further signs and portents, preparations for the expedition were at once put in hand. To finance it, Henry decreed the ‘Saladin Tithe’, the first ever income tax: excepting only those who personally took the cross, everyone must contribute a tenth of their wealth. Lest sin mar the preparations, over-eating and luxurious clothes were forbidden by law and no women were to follow the crusaders  save ‘washerwomen of unblemished reputation’ – who must travel on foot, presumably to discourage less reputable ladies from infiltrating their ranks. Meanwhile, clergy all over Europe began raising the crusader army by ‘preaching the cross’, and Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury decided on a recruiting tour of Wales, the home of the best archers and foot-soldiers in twelfth-century Britain. With him went his close friend Gerald, the court’s leading expert on Welsh and Marcher affairs and no mean preacher himself.

In an age when few ordinary people travelled far from their homes and fewer still could read, preaching tours were much the best means of mass communication. Summoned by announcements in parish churches and market places, large crowds would gather at prearranged locations, waiting excitedly to see the famous visitors and hear their impassioned appeals for recruits, sometimes reinforced by lurid pictures of Saracens defiling Christ’s tomb. Like the revival meetings of later centuries, therefore, crusading sermons would stir up collective emotions bordering on hysteria: miracles were even reported on several occasions when Baldwin preached, and at Haverfordwest he was almost trampled in the rush to secure cloth crosses.

Elsewhere, however, men hesitated, or were forcibly restrained by their wives and friends. These knew well what taking the cross involved: a solemn vow to liberate the Holy Land or die in the attempt; an expensive and hazardous journey, ending in fierce fighting. Nor could a promise made in the heat of the moment be easily set aside later. The names of cross-takers were carefully recorded, and stay-at-homes who failed to purchase a costly release from their vow risked excommunication, imprisonment or a ruinous fine. Long after 1188, indeed, fines were still being levied on those whose initial enthusiasm had been swamped by increasing age or growing families.

Others doubtless joined up after calculating the advantages, both present and future. On a practical level, this ‘adventure for the sake of Christ crucified’ offered crusaders the chance of plunder, immediate exemption from the onerous ‘Saladin Tithe’, and the suspension of all legal actions against them. Avery much more powerful inducement, however, was the papal ‘indulgence’ absolving all those who took the cross from every sin they had ever committed. Even the criminals who enlisted at Usk could thus make a completely fresh start, and if they died on crusade they were guaranteed a place in Heaven among the saints and martyrs. To many of those caught up in the crusading fervour of 1188, therefore, the cloth crosses distributed by Gerald and Baldwin represented the best bargain of their lives.

[taken from A Mirror of Medieval Wales by Charles Kightly]

Ann Marie Thomas head shot (80x90) (300dpi) Web GravatarAnn Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at