Pope Urban II

Pope Urban II
c. 1035 – July 29, 1099

His words would unite European Christians and begin the first of several crusades. In 1035, Pope Urban II was born Odo of Lagery. He was a member of a noble family located in the French region of Champagne. As he got older, Odo pursued a religious career in the Catholic Church. After completing his studies, Odo became the Archdeacon of Reims. He would serve in this position from 1055 – 1067.

In 1079, Odo was dispatched to Rome to act as a representative on behalf of his abbot. By this time, he had become a seasoned administrator and was well versed in church policy. While in Rome, Odo gained the favor of Pope Gregory VII and became his protege. Both men sought to eliminate corruption within the Catholic Church and initiate reforms to counter clergy abuses. Gregory was so impressed with Odo’s abilities that the monk was created both the cardinal and bishop of nearby Ostia.

Conflict with the Holy Roman Empire

Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV
Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV

In the late 1070s, Pope Gregory VII was engaged in a power struggle with the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. The conflict itself revolved around the emperor’s authority to appoint church officials within his kingdom. Henry believed that he had this right, but Gregory strongly disagreed. As tensions between the two men increased, Gregory eventually excommunicated Henry. The pope further offended the emperor by supporting a rival claimant to his throne. In response, Henry threatened to depose Gregory.

In 1080, Henry IV carried out his threat. The emperor met with his German nobles, and they agreed to support his papal candidate. Henry’s choice thereafter became Antipope Clement III. Clement would serve as a papal puppet for Henry and allowed him to dictate church policy better. Pope Gregory VII resisted Clement but would die in 1085. His successor, Victor III, would continue fighting against the antipope until his death in 1087.

Ascension to Pope

On March 12, 1088, Odo was elected pope by his fellow cardinals. Taking the name Urban II, the new pope’s priority was to eliminate the threat of Clement III. The antipope was currently reigning in Rome, while Urban was south of Rome in Terracina. Instead of using military force to oust Clement, Urban decided to try reconciling with Henry IV. He hoped that by promoting reforms to the church, relations with the emperor would improve.

Unfortunately, Urban II’s efforts didn’t sway the emperor. He was unable to successfully make amends with Henry IV. As a result, Clement III continued to reign as an antipope. The emperor and pope would remain estranged throughout Urban’s pontificate. The strained relationship between the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire would continue with their successors.

The First Crusade

Although he had failed at reconciling with Henry IV, Urban II remained determined to assert his authority. He continued to build up support for his papacy over Clement III’s, while also furthering his legitimacy to reign. In 1095, at the Council of Clermont in France, Urban found an opportunity to strengthen his position. He realized that to defend himself from his opponents, Urban needed to unite them against a more significant threat.

During the 1090s, the Holy Land (Middle East) was beginning to be threatened by Muslims. They first seized Jerusalem and began heading west towards the Byzantine Empire. When Muslim forces started invading the empire, Byzantine Emperor Alexius I pleaded for help from Urban II. Seeing an opportunity to unite European Christians under his control, Urban accepted.

During the Council of Clermont, Urban II delivered a persuasive speech that called on all European Christians to put aside their differences and fight to regain Jerusalem. The pope portrayed the Muslim invaders as savages and declared that anyone who fought in the crusade would go to Heaven. Even if a heinous criminal participated in the crusade, they would automatically be forgiven for all of their sins. Urban’s message rapidly spread throughout Europe. It attracted not only devoted Christians but greedy nobles who wanted to acquire more wealth. By the time of the First Crusade, 60,000 – 100,000 Christians departed Europe for the Holy Land.

Later Years

Urban II would not live to see Jerusalem be reclaimed. In 1099, he died two weeks before Christian crusaders seized it. Although composed mainly of inexperienced peasants, the crusading army’s higher number of soldiers were able to overcome a more disciplined Muslim force. Jerusalem became a new Christian kingdom in the Holy Land, and its defense would be the primary reason for future crusades.


Pope Urban II was able to successfully unite Christian Europe against a common enemy while strengthening his position. Although he failed at repairing the papacy’s relationship with the Holy Roman Empire, Urban was still able to secure its power. However, the issue with the antipope would continue after his death. After the First Crusade concluded, eight more would occur over the next 200 years with varying results.


Becker, A. (2019, August 20). Urban II. Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Urban-II.

Pope Urban II orders first Crusade. (2009, November 24). Retrieved November 15, 2019, from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/pope-urban-ii-orders-first-crusade.


Andy Tree

I'm a European history enthusiast who seeks to share his passion with others. I hope to inform and inspire readers with my posts!

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