Richard Masefield, author of a new book set at the time of the Third Crusade to free Jerusalem from Islamic occupation, questions the Prime Minister’s use of crusading rhetoric in his recent comments about the Middle East.
Isil poses a direct and deadly threat to Britain, David Cameron tells us. But although he seems at first to rule out military intervention – “I agree that we should avoid sending armies to fight or occupy” – he goes on to say that Britain’s security rests amongst other things on “our military prowess”, and later in his article proposes “military action to go after the terrorists” – presumably referring, if not to soldiers on the ground then to bombing from the air?
We’re all aware that Isil’s methods and ambitions are savagely uncivilised to say the least. We see the sense of helping neighbours in the region to resist and block their progress. But having recently researched in detail one of our notorious medieval forays into Palestine, the disastrous Third Crusade, I was reminded reading David Cameron’s polemic of Pope Gregory VIII’s twelfth century encyclical, which was in essence a recruitment speech to launch a Holy War.
Cameron writes in the Sunday Telegraph of, “a battle between Islam on the one hand and extremists who want to abuse Islam on the other.” Pope Gregory in his crusade encyclicle speaks of “the discord which has recently grown in the Holy Land through the malice of devil-driven men.’ Cameron writes of an ideology that’s “warped and barbaric”. Gregory calls it “wild and wicked”. Cameron insists that “if we do not act to stem the onslaught of this exceptionally dangerous terrorist movement, it will only grow stronger until it can target us in the streets of Britain.” Pope Gregory writes in October of 1187 that, “We must be careful in case what is left of that land is lost, and the might of the Saracens is turned against other places.”
And how did Britain fare in a crusade promoted by a pope and led by legend’s favourite hero, King Richard the Lionheart? In fact we lost in almost every way that it was possible to lose. We failed to take Jerusalem or further our ambitions in the Middle East. We allowed our hero king to act with a barbarity that was unknown amongst the followers of Islam, in slaughtering 3000 helpless prisoners, bound men with women and small children, outside the walls of Acre. Then at the end of an abortive sixteen-month campaign which had already cost the country far more than it could afford, King Richard’s capture by the German Emperor on his way home through Europe virtually bankrupted our exchequer with the payment of a ransom which totalled thirty-four tons weight of silver.
The moral of the story? It’s that our past has much to teach us, and – despite his Minister of Education’s bid last year to limit history within our schools curriculum to largely national events – it apparently has something to teach David Cameron as well. In warfare, and especially war in the Middle East, no one wins and everybody loses. Our repeated interference in the region over a period of 800 years has done more harm demonstrably than good. And while we’re on the subject, I should like to ask (as I’ve asked in the Epilogue of The White Cross, my recent novel of the Third Crusade) why we still honour that war criminal, King Richard, with an heroic mounted statue in pride of place outside our parliament at Westminster? Surely not to celebrate negotiation with a naked sword? Surely not to justify our willingness to go to war in countries where the word crusade has once again become a byword for violent western intervention? We surely can’t be that incapable of learning from our past mistakes?
Richard Masefield’s book The White Cross is available now on Amazon, Kindle and all good book shops.