Ireland and the First Crusade

Published in Issue 1 (Spring 2003), Medieval History (pre-1500), News, Volume 11

At Clermont on 27 November 1095 Pope Urban II made an appeal to his French audience to cease fighting one another and to turn to the east against non-Christian enemies. Urban might well have been wanting to raise a force in response to an appeal for help by the Orthodox Christian emperor at Constantinople, but what he unleashed was a massive movement which aimed at the capture of Jerusalem.
Irish historians addressing the question of whether participants came from Ireland on the First Crusade, having scoured the Irish annals in vain, have generally come to a negative conclusion. A few historians have taken the opposite view, inspired by Gibbon, relying on a passage by Guibert of Nogent that uses the term Scoti as being a reference to Ireland. Guibert, an eyewitness to the gathering of forces for the First Crusade, made the observation in his crusading chronicle, Gesta Dei Per Francos, that videres Scotorum apud se ferocium, alias imbellium, cuneos crure intecto, hispida chlamyde, ex humeris dependente psitarcia, de finibus uliginosis allabi. Gibbon translated this in characteristically colourful style: ‘From the distant bogs and mountains of Ireland, issued some naked and savage fanatics, ferocious at home, but unwarlike abroad’. Unfortunately Guibert was not one of the early scholars who distinguished between the Irish and the Scots, and since on the only other two occasions when he used the term Scoti he was clearly referring to people from Scotland, it is more likely that Guibert’s crusaders were Scots rather than Irish.
There is, however, evidence that Ireland did contribute to the First Crusade which is much more reliable since it is unambiguous:

All the excited souls having taken that pledge, around 100,000 men were chosen, in the presence of the Lord, for military service; that is, from Aquitaine and also from Normandy, England, Scotland and Ireland, Brittany, Galicia, Gascony, Burgundy, Flanders, Lotharingia and other Christian nations whose names occur very seldom now.

In his Chronicon Universale the Franconian (German) monk and later abbot of Aura, Ekkehard, provides a definitive proof that Irish people were amongst the contingents of participants on the First Crusade. Ekkehard attached himself to Welf IV of Bavaria in the crusade of 1101, reaching Jerusalem in that year, and wrote up his own chronicle c. 1105. His report is highly significant, for not only was he an eyewitness to the movement of peoples on the First Crusade but he is one of the earliest medieval Continental writers to distinguish between Scotia and Hibernia.
Nor does the testimony of Ekkehard stand alone. Two generations later (c. 1143–7) Otto of Freising wrote his Chronicon, for which Ekkehard was an important source. This meticulous historian was also a leader of the Second Crusade and as such had a particular interest in the history of the first. It is worth noting that Otto repeated Ekkehard’s list of the diverse peoples of the crusade, adding the phrase ‘and other peoples, not only those of the land, but also the inhabitants of the islands of the sea and the farthest ocean’.
Orderic Vitalis wrote his Ecclesiastical History in Normandy between 1125 and 1141, and was very dependent upon the anonymous record of the crusade called Gesta Francorum as rewritten by his acquaintance, Baldric of Dol. But at one of the points in which he (and Baldric) diverged from his source, Orderic wrote of the call from Clermont, 1095:

News of the papal command spread rapidly all over the world and aroused the men of all nations who were predestined to join the army of the almighty Messiah. Its great thunder did not fail to reach England and the other islands of the ocean, though the depths of the sounding sea separated them from the remainder of the world.

Is it reasonable to assume that Orderic includes Ireland as one of these maritimae insulae? Or is the term so vague as to mean all islands? The context suggests that Orderic is writing in the sense that we would use ‘these islands’ to mean England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (and possibly the smaller islands).
Orderic entered the school of Saint Évroul in 1085 at the age of ten, and in the library he would have found copies of Isidore of Seville’s Etymology and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. The latter was indeed transcribed by Orderic. Both these works, of great importance in the education of a monk c. 1100, use the phrase ‘Britain is an island of the ocean’, a phrase that Orderic seems to have inherited. He uses such a phrase four other times in his works: to describe the power of King Magnus of Norway; in the description of the composition of a fleet employed by Manuel Comnenus that arrived near Antioch on 4 March 1098; in describing the attendance at the Council of Rheims (1119); and in describing a prophecy of Merlin. In all cases it is clear that he is referring to islands in the seas to the north of the Continent, and in the last case the phrase is explicitly used to cover only two islands of similar size: Britain and Ireland. This restricted geographical meaning of the phrase ‘islands of the ocean’ adds considerable weight to the likelihood that Orderic’s intended meaning includes Ireland among those islands from which people travelled on the First Crusade.
That people from Ireland were participants in the crusade should in fact come as no surprise given the connections between Ireland and the Continent. The evidence of the plague that ravaged northern Europe in 1094 and devastated Ireland the following year—hitting the country harder than it did England—provides one grim example of the intercourse between Ireland and the Continent at this time. Directly connecting Ireland to the First Crusade were the strong traditions of penitential pilgrimage that existed in the country at the end of the eleventh century. In this regard there is a very interesting entry in the Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles:

Godred subdued Dublin . . . He subjected the Scots . . . [and] died in the Isle of Islay. He left three sons: Lagman, Harald and Olaf. Lagman, the eldest, assumed the crown and ruled for seven years. His brother, Harald, rebelled against him for some time, but was at last captured by Lagman, who castrated him and blinded him. Lagman afterwards repented blinding his brother, and abdicated his kingdom of his own accord; and marked with the sign of the Lord’s cross set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but died on the way.

From 1091 to 1094 Dublin had been part of the kingdom of the Ostman ruler of the Isle of Man, Godred Crovan. In 1094, however, Godred was expelled from Dublin by Muirchertach Ua Briain, to die of plague the following year. So when the chronicle reports that his son Lagman went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem it was referring to the journey of someone with very strong Irish connections. Godred’s antecedents included Sitric Silkenbeard and Olaf Cuarán.
J. Riley-Smith, the historian of the crusades, takes the annal entry as providing evidence that Lagman was a participant in the First Crusade. The symbol of penitents wearing a cross is strongly associated with the launch of the crusade, and so it seems reasonable to conclude that Lagman was conscious of being a crusader. However, the earliest version of the chronicle available to us was not compiled until the mid-thirteenth century, by which time the idea of the pilgrim wearing the cross might have contaminated the original source. Lagman is reported as dying on the pilgrimage in 1095, which leaves little time for the news of the crusade, preached at Clermont in November 1095, to have reached him, although the Manx chronicle is quite confused at this point and the medieval year could be reckoned by a variety of dating systems that would allow several months between the council and the end of 1095. It is also possible that Lagman set forth on a pilgrimage and encountered information about the crusade as he travelled. Despite a certain lack of precision with regard to the particular case of Lagman, the chronicle does provide the information that around the time of the First Crusade people from Ireland were undertaking pilgrimages to Jerusalem.
On its own, the testimony from Ekkehard would be sufficient to establish an Irish presence on the First Crusade; the supplementary evidence confirms the point.

Conor Kostick is a PhD student in the Department of Medieval History, Trinity College, Dublin, and chairperson of the Irish Writers’ Union.


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