The Catholic Southern Front

Chapter 9/21 – Our Lady of Boulogne and the First Crusade

In 636, in the City of Boulogne-sur-mer, (Belgium), during Bishop Saint Omer’s lifetime, a few people at the seashore witnessed a mysterious boat or ship, birthing alongside an estuary of the Liane River. At first glance no one was seen and on climbing aboard, a man confirmed that the embark was empty of people and without rudder, oars or sails. The only thing found was a Statue of the Virgin and Child. On bringing the statue on land a voice was heard saying, “I choose your city as a place of grace.”(1) Miraculous prodigies soon followed and pilgrims arrived to venerate Our Lady. Four centuries later, the city witnessed one of its sons, Godfrey of Bouillon, leaving for the First Crusade accompanied by his brothers. Godfrey was the son of Blessed Ida of Bouillon, her father the Duke Godfrey IV of Lorraine was a descendent of Blessed Charles the Great. Ida married Count Eustace II of Bouillon; she gave birth to Godfrey and his brothers Baldwin and Eustace. On becoming a widow Ida supported many monasteries in Picardy and became a Benedictine oblate, under the obedience of the abbot Saint Vaast.

Godfrey was one of the leaders and distinguished men of his day and received whole-heartedly the urgency of Pope Urban’s call for a Crusade to reclaim the Holy Land. The crusader fought valiantly in battle, a certain Guibert de Nogent later wrote that with one stroke of his sword Godfrey had hewn a Turkish horseman through the middle so that his body fell in two halves. An action which is reminiscent of Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew, who similarly sliced a Moorish rider and his horse with one stroke of his sword, ‘Durendal.’ In a peculiar incident Godfrey had to wrestle a bear, the injuries sustained he bore with patience throughout the whole of the Crusade. Before heading for, what is today considered a most controversial issue, the First Crusade, Godfrey prayed before the Blessed Virgin of Boulogne for her protection and assistance during the crusading years. Following the success in Jerusalem, occurring on July 15, 1099, Godfrey the Duke and Advocate of the Holy Sepulchre attributed his victory and symbolically offered the Crown of Jerusalem to ‘Our Lady of Molanus’ and ‘Our Lady of the Sea at Boulogne.’

Regarding the questions of the legitimacy of the initial disastrous crusades, the first crusade (with its supernatural phenomenon and miracles) and the following crusades, it is a clear notion that, had these events not taken place, events which produced the future military orders and Christian armies in Europe, the later Islamic and Ottoman onslought into Europe would probably not have been arrested. Christianity would have ceased to exist.

During the late 1090s, the Muslim world was in political turmoil. In Jerusalem the Egyptians supplanted the ruling Turks, referred to as Tatars. The Egyptians were less hostile to Western Christianity, however, the Islamic take over of North Africa, Spain and the Holy Land, and the heavy humiliation tax imposed on Christian pilgrims at the gates of Jerusalem, led to the crusades. Unfortunately, ignorance and personal greed ruled the day, a people’s crusade launched previous to the military marches, led to many disdainful incidents. Before reaching the Holy City of Jerusalem, Godfrey and his allies experienced diverse situations of victory, defeat and discouragement. On their march, their food provisions were so scarce that at one point, the crusaders resorted at consuming the cadavers of their slain enemy. The army marched under the standard of Saint George and discovered his remains together with those of four other martyrs. The apparitions of Saint George and Bishop Adhemar and the discovery of a relic, the spear of Longinus, took place along the journey to Jerusalem. In the early hours of June 7, 1099, the western armies reached the summit of the ‘Hill of Joy’ named ‘Montjoie’ or ‘Mount Joy.’ Jerusalem lay splayed out before them. The chronicler William of Tyre, describes the behavior of the Catholic Knights as following: “When they heard the name Jerusalem called out, they began to weep and fell on their knees, giving thanks to Our Lord with many sighs of the great love which He had shown them in allowing them to reach the goal of their pilgrimage, the Holy City which He had loved so much that He wished there to save the world. It was deeply moving to see the tears and hear the loud sobs of these good people. They ran forward until they had a clear view of all the towers and walls of the city. Then they raised their hands in prayer to heaven and taking off their shoes bowed to the ground and kissed the earth.”(2) After a march of 2000 miles and suffering greatly of plague and famine, due to Jerusalem’s impregnable defenses, the Christian armies were on the verge of abandoning the siege. A council was aptly organized between the bishops, the military leaders and the princes. The bishops and priests directed their soldiers to sing litanies including those of the Blessed Virgin, undertake fasts, pray and give alms. It was decided that all, bare foot, would march around the city walls in order that, he who entered would humbly open the gates for the rest. This procession was executed, a deed reminiscent of the Biblical fall of Jericho (Joshua VI:20). The crusaders circled Jerusalem and tearfully cried out the names of the saints and of the Blessed Virgin and Lord for their aid and intercession. Apparently this action of humility and trust in the strength of their Lord was accepted. As on the eight day following the procession, on the exact calendar day the early Church, the Apostles, had been driven out and the Christian day of remembrance of their dispersion, the city walls and gates of the Islamic controlled Jerusalem, were breached. On July 15, 1099, Godfrey and his brother Eustache placed a movable tower against the walls (a previous tower in the earlier siege of Antioch, was called ‘Blessed Virgin’). The first to enter Jerusalem, was Godfrey and mindful of his vow, stripped himself of his arms, and barefoot in his under-garments, made the rounds of the ramparts and prayed at the Holy Sepulchre. Few of the inhabitants were spared. On the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, on July 16, 1099, Jerusalem was entirely under Christian rule. Would it not seem that the coinciding Feast of Our Lady reveals her hand at interceding for the Christians?

Many pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem from the remotest places of Christendom to be denied entry at the last few steps. In fact before the capture of Jerusalem, pilgrims had to pay a large fee to enter Jerusalem and pray at the holy sites of Christ’s tomb. Many could not afford entry. Such was the anger of the Christians that for this main reason, mercy was shown only to the Emir and a few others who were spared and conducted to Ascalon. However, had the Christians spared the inhabitants, later reprisals would have been possibly avoided and the excuse to exterminate Christian settlements and towns not given.

Following the capture of Jerusalem, a King was sought. The crown was first offered to Raymond of Saint Gilles who declined, saying that the title of king seemed to him out of place in the Holy City. Robert Courte-Heuse also refused. On July 22, Godfrey was the one to accept the Guardianship, “For the love of Christ.” He refused to place the crown upon his head, “…through respect for Him who had been crowned in that place with the Crown of Thorns.”(3) Godfrey never bore the title of King (which was adopted by his successors) and was well pleased with the title ‘Duke and Advocate of the Holy Sepulchre.’ Due to his prayers before Our Lady at Boulogne-sur-mer and having left his hometown, for the First Crusade, on the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady (August 15, 1096), he symbolically offered the Crown of Victory to the Blessed Virgin. The Feast of this victory was celebrated annually in Jerusalem on July 15, with a double office and octave and was dedicated to ‘Our Lady of Molanus.’ During Godfrey’s short reign, he worked arduously to secure the territory and formed many alliances, such as with the Venetian Fleet. Godfrey died a year later on July 18, leaving the rule to his brother Baldwin. The Duke and Advocate of the Holy Sepulchre, was buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. His tomb was later destroyed by the Arabs in 1808 and a large sword believed to be his is still kept at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

A church, which commemorated the tomb of Mary, was built in the fifth century and consecrated by Juvenal in 422-458, this occurred after the Council of Calcedon in 431. A new church was built and received many pilgrims within the crypt for veneration. Previous to the arrival of the crusaders, this church was destroyed; on the site Godfrey built a monastery, the ‘Abbey of Saint Mary of the Valley of Jehoshaphat’ for the Benedictines of Cluny. The church was rebuilt in 1130 and in 1187 was together with the monastery once again destroyed by Saladin. Later, the Muslims respected the site and did not completely erase its memory, but the masonry of the third church was used to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. During the times when the Holy Lands were in Christian hands, monarchs from all over Europe performed pilgrimages to visit the holy sites. They visited the Holy Sepulchre in procession, picked palms, and visited the River Jordan, the site of the Lord’s Baptism by the hand of Saint John the Baptist. The princes swam across the Jordan, and on crossing to the other side of the bank, tied a knot in the brushwood and usually did not leave Jerusalem before obtaining some sacred relic. A few monarchs were lucky enough to obtain relics of the Holy Cross.

Sometime durig the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, Notre-Dame-de-Bouillon-sur-mer Cathedral kept the Statue of Our Lady for veneration. Boulogne Cathedral in France/Belgium, was a place of pilgrimage for people from England, France and Flanders, who arrived to pray before ‘Our Lady of the Sea.’ So did French monarchs visit the shrine, in 1814 King Louis XVIII thanked ‘Our Lady of the Sea’ for his restoration. At the Cathedral, the Arch-confraternity of ‘Our Lady of Compassion’ was established with the intention to pray for a speedy return of the English people to the Faith. In the Second World War, when the Nazis occupied Boulogne, four statues of the Blessed Virgin were carried on open trailers across France and back to Boulogne. The intention was to encourage the French to pray to ‘Our Lady of the Great Return,’ for the return of refugees, soldiers, prisoners and peace.

 

 

 

 

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