France and the Levant/Chapter 1

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Europe, Asia and Africa meet in the Levant, the land of the rising sun; and of all the nations of Christendom France claims by far the largest share in its romantic story.

I. The Crusades

French interests and ambitions in the Levant date from the Crusades, which, though springing from a common Christian sentiment, owed their main impulse and their greatest achievements to France. The First Crusade was preached by Urban II, himself a Frenchman, and by itinerant preachers, such as Peter the Hermit, of Amiens, and, though the King stood aloof, was largely the work of French nobles, French troops and French money. To French feudatories belonged the glory of rescuing the Holy Places from the infidel in 1099; and the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, ruled as it was by French Kings, was for nearly a century an outpost of France. When the inevitable counter-attack of Islam was launched half a century later and Edessa was lost, it was a French Abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux, who summoned Christendom to save the remaining Christian principalities in the Levant. Louis VII cooperated with Conrad III, and Damascus was attacked; but the Second Crusade ended in failure. The capture of Acre and Jerusalem in 1187 by Saladin set the Third Crusade in motion; but Barbarossa, who was first in the field, perished in Asia Minor. He was followed by Richard I—himself a French feudatory as well as an English King—and Philip Augustus, who recovered Acre, after which Philip quarrelled with his colleague and returned to France. Cyprus, which had been conquered by Richard I, was granted by him as a fief to Guy de Lusignan. The Fourth Crusade, though planned by Germans and aided by Venetians, was largely French in composition; it established at Constantinople the line of French Emperors who ruled the shrinking Byzantine Empire for half a century, and created a number of petty principalities with French rulers in Greece. In the Fifth Crusade, proclaimed by Innocent III at the Lateran Council in 1215 and carried out by Germany and Austria, France took no part; and she also stood apart from the Sixth, in which the Emperor Frederick II regained Jerusalem in 1229 by negotiation. When the Holy City was lost again in 1244, St Louis in the Seventh Crusade revived the ardent piety of the First. Conquering Damietta, which had been won and lost in the Fifth Crusade, he essayed the conquest of Egypt, but was captured with his whole army in 1250. Winning his liberty by a heavy ransom, he spent three years in the Holy Land, fortifying Acre and other coast cities. On his return to France in 1254 he attempted to secure peace among the rulers of Christendom in order to combine against the infidel; but Europe had outgrown its crusading fervour, and in the Eighth Crusade St Louis found himself alone at the rendezvous. His death in 1270 in Tunis, which he had resolved to regain for the faith, consecrated the life of the last and noblest of the Crusaders. Acre was stormed by the Mamelukes in 1291, and the last Christian posts in the Levant were abandoned.

The result of two centuries of effort, marred as they were by cruelty, treachery and self-seeking, was to leave the infidel even more strongly entrenched in the possession of the Holy Places. Yet France had more to show for her pains than any of her comrades or rivals. The kingdoms and principalities founded during the Crusades in Palestine and Syria, Asia Minor and Cyprus, were French. The Latin Emperors at Constantinople were French, and French princelets retained some fragments of territory in Greece. The French tongue was never forgotten; and for centuries to come the Christians of Europe were "Franks" to dwellers in the Levant. In any future rivalry for power or privilege in the Eastern Mediterranean, France, with her memories of Gesta Dei per Francos, would start with more substantial assets and richer traditions than any of her competitors.

For two and half centuries after the death of St Louis Christendom turned a deaf ear to the appeals of successive Popes to stem the tide of Turkish conquest. France averted her glance from the East, being fully occupied with the Hundred Years' War and with the consolidation of her Monarchy. Her place in the foreground of the stage was taken by the City Republics of Italy, whose steps were drawn to the Levant not by religion but by lure of gain, and who witnessed the rapid growth of the Ottoman dominion without a qualm. Bertrandon de la Brocquière, a French traveller in Syria and Asia Minor in 1432, found that the Turks were well disposed towards the French; but, whenever he or any other Frenchman was in a difficulty, he was compelled to have recourse to the protection of the Venetians or the Genoese. On reaching Constantinople he discovered that these two States possessed not only their own markets but officials corresponding to modern Consuls, and that no other Christian nation could boast of similar representatives in the capital of the Byzantine Empire. When the city was besieged and fell in 1453 no Christian Power lifted a finger to avert its fate. For one moment alone did the old glamour of the East reassert its sway, and it is characteristic of the atmospheric change of the fifteenth century that the vision of a new crusade was vouchsafed to an eccentric, if not half-witted, ruler. It was the dream of Charles VIII to prepare for the domination of the East by the conquest of Italy, and at Naples he crowned himself King of Jerusalem. But his invasion of Italy led to a combination not against the Turks but against the French, and he had enough to do to withdraw his forces to France.