Elite Participation in the Third Crusade


Dr Bennett, we are delighted you have joined us. Can we begin with how you first became interested in medieval history and then an overview of your studies to date?

I have been fascinated by military history since a child, but only began to focus my attention on the Middle Ages once I’d left the military in my mid-thirties. So, although I already had an MA in another field, I decided I needed to do one on the Middles Ages. I was pointed towards the combined Royal Holloway/Queen Mary’s course on Crusader studies by Prof David d’Avray. As a result of that course, I’ve published on subjects ranging from the depiction of crusader emotions to Papal intelligence gathering, but eventually settled on the Third Crusade for my thesis.

The subject of your book is fascinating: the motivations of those who joined the Third Crusade. More for the benefit of me than our knowledgeable readers, please tell us a little about this crusade and what triggered it.

On 4 July 1187, Saladin annihilated Latin forces under Guy of Lusignan, king-consort of Jerusalem, at the battle of Hattin. In the aftermath, his troops seized control of the majority of Guy’s kingdom, including its capital – the Holy City of Jerusalem, which had been in Latin hands for nearly a century. The Third Crusade sought to recover Jerusalem and re-establish Latin control over the Holy Land.

Do the Crusade’s dates, 1189-1192, cover the period of conflict or does a Crusade commence with the first calls to arms, in this case from Pope Gregory?

I start my study in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem in 1187, picking up Richard the Lionheart taking the Cross – committing be a crusader – in November of the same year, followed by his father, Henry II, Philip II of France, and Frederick Barbarossa in 1188. My case study into Richard’s military household over the course of the crusade starts in 1189 to coincide with him becoming king of England, but it does touch on members of his comital household.

How did you go about researching influences and motivations? Are they mostly gleaned from personal writings and correspondence? 

Very little of writings and correspondence survive for this period with most seemingly dictated to third parties (scribes) and the contents expected to be widely read. Peter of Blois’ letters to Baldwin of Forde that encourage the archbishop to preach the crusade are a rare and immensely valuable exception. Instead, I use social network analysis to reconstruct the complex societal system and map patterns of human behaviour. The main goal of social network analysis is to detect and interpret patterns of relationships between subjects of research interest. When data permits, these techniques allow for research into such issues as kinship groupings and regional patterns of recruitment. I then used prosopographical methodology to study the resulting community networks, which also helps reduce the risk of distortions. Prosopography is an investigation into the common characteristics of an historical group of people by means of a collective study into their lives.

Obviously to get the full answer we’ll need to read the book, but given that going on Crusade completely disrupted someone’s life, and could very possibly end it, what were the key motivating factors to join it?

Yes, the knotty question of ‘why did people go on crusade?’ In the case of the Third Crusade, a drive to recover the Holy City of Jerusalem reverberates through the primary sources – both official documentation and chronicles. However, this book also shows that significant numbers of participants in the Third Crusade were descended from crusaders and indicates that the majority of them travelled to the Levant in the company of friends, family, and neighbours, as well as through membership of a military household. It also identifies other potential influences, such as links to particular religious house or trade, as well as the role of tournaments in elite military culture.

Was it unthinkable for men of a certain rank not to go?

As well as those who remained in the West to manage familial or royal lands, large numbers did not take the Cross – King Richard’s younger brother John is an obvious example. It was not, therefore, unthinkable, but there is certainly room for a thorough study into those that did not go.

Do you think that the risks of Crusade were properly understood by the majority of men who undertook it?

Yes, by 1187 crusading had been around for nearly a century and I do not think there were many nobles in France and the Low Countries that hadn’t been exposed to the consequences of crusading. Similarly, commoners would not have been blind to risks inherent in medieval warfare, I believe. A crusading heritage was less established in England, but there had been a significant contingent from England at the siege of Lisbon in the Second Crusade – some forty years earlier – and a number of nobles from England had joined the count of Flanders on his crusade of 1177. Few would have been prepared, I suspect, for the full horror of the two-year long siege of Acre.

Were the same factors in play across different societies and nations or were there regional differences in what might count as influential or likely to motivate?

The idea of ‘nation’ had seemingly yet to emerge as a social construct. Although I separate out crusaders from the Angevin realm, the remainder of France, and the Low Countries to aid analysis, this is to draw out familial and regional influences and is not intended to suggest there were firm cultural boundaries. There are signs of regional affinities, however, such as crusader cavalry formations being organised by region at the battle of Arsuf in the same manner as they were in tournaments. There is, however, a risk of conclusions being skewed by the availability of surviving data. The Angevin realm, for example, did not form a singular polity and there were a variety of laws and customs in use across its constituent parts. Unfortunately, there is little surviving data from the Aquitaine and Poitou with most of it relating to Normandy and England.

And was it an entirely male endeavour? Did women have a voice in the discussion or any influence in the more personal sphere? 

They were female participants – both Berengaria of Navarre, Richard’s new bride, and his younger sister, Joanna dowager-queen of Sicily, travelled with him to the Latin East. There are also strong indications that Eleanor of Aquitaine intended to join her son on Crusade, I believe, but she turned back to help secure the Angevin realm. We also have evidence of non-elite female crusaders – more on which later. Other women played prominent roles in managing affairs in the absence of sons and husbands. Adela of Champagne, for example, was regent of France whilst her son, Philip Augustus was away in The Holy Land and this was reflected at all levels of society. Similarly, there are indications of women persuading, prompting, or inspiring members of their families to join the expedition, such as Alice of Courtenay and Maud of Valoignes.

Should we assume that you have studied elite participation because persons of lower rank had little choice either way?

Choice of subject matter was driven by the availability of data and little evidence survives of non-elite crusaders from north-western Europe. I do draw in other groups where data exists, but this predominantly covers those that took the Cross but failed to join the expedition. The surviving lists from Cornwall and Lincolnshire of unfulfilled crusader vows are, however, suggestive of the non-elites that did join the expedition. They both list a spread of trades: bakers, butchers, and vintners, but also smiths, clerks, ditchers, potters, and skinners. As the Saladin Tithe only excused laundresses of good character who took the Cross from paying the tax, the two women listed from Cornwall were presumably so employed. When placed alongside the one hundred-strong contingent from London, they do not read like lists of impressed workers, but of individuals who took the Cross of their own volition.

When did the idea for the book come to you and what led you to concentrate specifically on the Third Crusade?

My initial interest was in unit cohesion in the Middle Ages, or the bonding together of combatants to sustain them in combat. Some historians continue to highlight the individualistic nature of Medieval warfare. Contemporary works, however, suggest a high degree of teamwork was essential to military success, which resonates with my experiences in the military and doing living history research.

Recent studies have concluded that unit effectiveness is determined as much by task cohesion as social cohesion and there don’t come many expeditions much more complex in Medieval Europe than a large crusade to Western Asia. Whilst one of the most well-known crusades and enjoying huge interest amongst the general public, the Third Crusade still lacks a specific modern history. Mapping participation from across the whole of Christendom was, however, beyond the scope of a PhD so I settled on north-western Europe.

In all your research did you uncover anything that particularly surprised or shocked you?

I was pleasantly surprised at how much data has survived. Studies into participation in other crusades have been based on some 132 – 140 participants with Jonathan Phillips gathering a cohort of 350 participants for his analysis of the Second Crusade. In north-western Europe alone, there is evidence for over 580 individual participants in the Third Crusade, and I am certain other researchers will add to the total in due course or draw in participation from elsewhere in Europe. The amount of data made it much safer to offer broad conclusions on potential influences on motivations to take the Cross, such as on a crusader heritage or crusader kinship groups.

What do you think is next for you? Do you think you will continue with this theme and the Crusades or do you have other plans?

I have just finished a joint-edited book with Carsten Selch Jensen and Radoslaw Kotecki on Christianity and War in Medieval East and Central Europe and Scandinavia, and I am now looking at the Montferrat family’s relationship with crusading. Conrad of Montferrat was, of course, a key player in the Third Crusade – not that he enjoys a good press in Angevin sources.

We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. Naturally, we hope you have stayed well throughout the last year but how has your work been affected by lockdowns and restricted access to libraries and archives?

I’ve missed the intimacy of attending seminars at the IHR and the GCMS in Reading University, as well as conferences, in person, but researching under similar limitations is not unusual for members of the armed forces. I wrote my first MA dissertation whilst serving in Sierra Leone, for example, and doing everything at arms-reach – including supervision via video conferencing – was nothing new. Even though I had finished my PhD, Queen Mary kindly allowed me continued use of their library portal, which meant I could access any articles I needed – for which I am immensely grateful. There were a few books I had to buy to follow-up on valuable comments received during the peer-review process, but nothing I wouldn’t have wanted anyway. 

My heart goes out to those in less favourable situations. Maintaining a balance between sharing research and not undermining the financial viability of boutique publishers, such as Boydell & Brewer, is not easy. This book would have been the lesser but for the guidance of Caroline Palmer and the rest of the team.

Elite Participation in the Third Crusade


506pp, 6 line illus.;
£60/$99, 9781783275786
April 2021
Hardback and ebook
Warfare in History
Boydell Press



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STEPHEN BENNETT gained his PhD from Queen Mary, University of London; a former infantry officer, he is a graduate of both the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (UK) and Escuela Superior de las Fuerzas Armadas (Spain).