Holy Warriors

Norman Housley looks at an appealing modern history of the Crusades written for a general audience

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Reviewed by: Norman Housley
Author: Jonathan Phillips
Publisher: The Bodley Head
Price (RRP): £18.99

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Jonathan Phillips is one of the UK’s most prolific historians of the Crusades. His accounts of the Second and Fourth Crusades were highly praised, and he has now followed these with a book that describes the history of the Crusades from Urban II’s preaching of the First Crusade in 1095 right up to their present-day echoes and legacies. Whenever possible, he focuses attention on the remarkable individuals whose actions enliven crusading history, but he also provides an introduction to the ebb and flow of events.

So we learn about the successes of the First Crusade, culminating in the Christian capture of Jerusalem in 1099. Almost a century later, in 1187, Saladin recovered much territory including Jerusalem, successfully defending many of his gains against Richard I of England and the armies of the Third Crusade. A century after that, in 1291, the last remaining Christian outposts in the Holy Land were overrun by the Muslims.

Phillips takes a broad view of crusading and does not confine himself to the Holy Land. He writes about crusades in Spain and the Baltic region, as well as the crusades waged against the heretics of the Languedoc. The Children’s Crusade also receives a short but sympathetic treatment.

Most importantly, Phillips does not end his book with Christian expulsion from the Holy Land. In two concluding chapters he looks at crusading after 1291, including the suppression of the Knights Templar, and at the various ways in which crusading was later denigrated and memorialised. It is very difficult at the moment to write about the Crusades without reference to 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden, but as Phillips makes clear, the real Crusades had ended a long time before – even if it was not as long ago as 1291.

The market for popular books about the Crusades has never been as crowded as it is today, so it is natural to ask what the chief selling points of this newcomer are. To my mind there are three. In the first place, Phillips writes with authority. He is up to date on debatable issues like the Children’s Crusade and the trial of the Templars. Secondly, his account is concise and his book does not outstay its welcome. He has set himself the task of entertaining his readers and never forgets this. Thirdly, he has a real gift for highlighting the picturesque and for bringing the past alive. He is most at home when describing large-scale and dramatic events like the fall of cities and decisive battles. But he also writes engagingly about individuals who sometimes get overlooked, such as the Muslim courtier Usama ibn Munqidh and Queen Melisende of Jerusalem.

With a comparatively short book there is naturally a price to pay. Phillips does not go into any depth about the popularity of crusading, or try to explain why it declined. And it is unfortunate that the Fifth Crusade, one of the biggest and most significant expeditions, gets just nine pages. But Phillips has clearly decided that for his readers, that particular crusade is not interesting enough to deserve more. The decision is brutal, but logical given his agenda. With its crisp management, accessible style and deft characterisation, this book stakes a strong claim to be the most appealing narrative account of the Crusades for a general audience.

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Norman Housley is professor of history at the University of Leicester