Stephen, Count of Blois

His full name is Étienne Henri ‘Stephen’ II, Count of Blois, de Champagne and de Meaux. And he was my 28th great grandfather.

This is yet another sad tale, which ends with Stephen dying in battle, a thousand miles from home. He was a Crusader.

I’ve always known that the common view of Crusaders,and the Crusades have been bad, they have been shown in a bad light. It wasn’t until recently that I’ve been able trace where this came from. The first sources of negativity were individuals that distrusted Roman Catholics, particularly the Pope.

The Crusades were called and presented by the Pope. There are those who cannot make the distinction between things that are “proper”, if they are voiced by someone that they do not agree with. As far back as Gibbons, who disliked the papacy, the Crusades, and Crusaders were subjected to questions of greed, power, and social injustice. So much of this has been portrayed in books and movies that the truth can barely be discerned. Most probably because certain individuals, particularly leaders, failed in major ethical ways. Case closed.

Yet there were thousands of individuals that left their comfortable homes, and lives, with no idea of power and wealth. They were committed to the idea that followers of Christ should be able to follow in Christ’s footsteps without danger, harassment, or death. This was a form of piety that had taken hold in Western Christianity, and it was a grass roots movement.

Throughout France, Spain and England, people were on pilgrimage, visiting various cathedrals through Europe. Yes, visiting relics were a goal, but not the base reason. It may have been the belief that time was short, the year 1000 was approaching. It was time to put their faith to the test. This was not something “planned” by religious leaders.

The truth is that pilgrims were in danger, and making a military decision is one method to change things. Making treaties also works, and for the most part, that was the lasting solution. The movie “Kingdom of Heaven” does a fair job of presenting multiple agendas for the Crusades, and the types of people that were on Crusade. Naturally the hero seems to be one of the few reasonable ones.

Examples of the misuse of force are rampant. On the first Crusade, long before the Crusaders left Europe, the leaders allowed murder and carnage on Jewish communities that they passed by. It was absolutely horrific genocide. We should know this. But what is often not written is that the Emporer Frederick Barbarossa was in charge of the Third Crusade. He made the decision to order his Crusaders not to attack Jewish settlements. Frederick met with the Chief Rabbi to work out the solution for a safe transit.

As a younger man, Frederick had been on an earlier Crusade, and knew what needed to be done. At one point a Crusader had fallen ill and had taken refuge in a local monastery to recover. While there, he was robbed and killed. Frederick was charged to go back to bring justice. He was very successful, and the Byzantine Empire made sure that the rest of their journey was safe.

As to Stephen, he had a very successful home, typical of a medieval count. He had eleven children, one of them destined to be a future King of England. It took a great deal of his personal wealth to support his pilgrimage, he was not in it for the money or the fame.

Actually his commitment to the Crusade was over. The rest of his companions were already taking ships to go back home. A sandstorm had delayed his journey to the port of Acca, it was at this time that he heard about an army sent from Eqypt to attack the Latin Kingdoms. Stephen had survived his Crusade but volunteered to help.

He met the opposing force at Ramleh, a place on the road to Jerusalem. There had been a lopsided victory for the Crusaders the year before. The Eygptian forces had beaten the first two formations. It was only when King Baldwin had led his reserve heavy Calvary that things changed, but many knights were lost. The next year the same forces met, this time it was 20,000 plus Egyptians meeting about thousand Crusaders. It was a disaster with most of the Crusaders wiped out.

King Baldwin and about 200 knights had taken refuge in the only tower in the city of Ramleh. Late that night he escaped with just a few of his men. Stephen was left in charge of the remainder. In the morning the full force of the Egyptians charged the tower, it came down to furious hand to hand fighting and Stephen was one of the very last. It is said that he had fought so valiantly, and so well, that if he surrendered his life would be spared. He didn’t surrender.

So my 28th great grandfather died at Ramleh, after he had already survived his sworn Crusade. He didn’t return to his home, and he didn’t find fortune. But he is remembered.

Two Hundred Knights Attack Twenty Thousand Saracens. Illustration by Gustave Doré(1877)

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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