Editor’s note: The First Crusade is the fourth post in a series of posts about the Crusades. If you’re interested, I recommend starting with the first one which you can find here. Otherwise enjoy.
When I got it in mind to write an account of the Crusades, I had no idea just how incredible the story really was. My plan for this series was to provide you with a dramatic, historically accurate, tale of our manly Christian heritage. What I didn’t expect was how easy that would be… but I guess I’ll let you be the judge of that.
The first Crusade is possibly one of the most underappreciated events in military history. Arguably the most notable and successful of all the crusades (as in, all those that followed), the first Crusade was revered by many in its time. It became a legendary event that would serve as the benchmark and inspiration for all Crusades that followed, and marks the beginning of the ‘crusading period’ of history. During the first Crusade, legends were born. Some were known for their infamy; some for their heroism and skill in battle.
Before we get started, let’s recap on some of the important details that will help put the crusades in context.
Jerusalem and every other notable location captured by Crusaders was formerly Christian territory. Pilgrims and the native Christians, Jews and pagans within Islamic controlled territories had been subject to intense persecution for centuries, which was gradually worsening over time. Furthermore the encroaching of the rude, less hospitable Seljuk Turks inhibited trade routes into Asia, forcing the Europeans to seek alternatives.
Jerusalem was a Holy city to Christianity and Judaism long before it was holy to Islam. Islam had been continually pushing the boundaries of its territory for centuries and were it not for the experienced and determined Christian soldiers Islam may have continued to expand into Christendom until it was extinct. Perhaps that’s a little overstated. Actually the Christians were formidable military opponents and a white wash of Christianity would’ve been a significant feat no matter how far Islam pushed in.
Prior to the first Crusade, the battle of Manzikert was a devastating loss for the Greek Byzantines. The majority of the Byzantine army was either slaughtered, or they defected and the Greeks lost a major portion of Asia Minor to the Seljuk’s. They were also under pressure on other sides of their empire including against the Normans (who formed a major group in the first Crusade).
Thus Christianity was under increasing pressure not only from Islamic imperialism, but also due to economic pressure, inhibited trade and the general persecution of Christians by an increasingly hostile Muslim power. Previous attempts to rouse the Western kingdom to action had been made. It was only a matter of time before someone with the presence and the rhetorical skill would move the men’s hearts and ignite the spark that would drive them into the East, and take back what was once theirs. That someone was Pope Urban II.
A Call to Arms
And so it is customary to begin our account of the first crusade with Emperor Alexius Comnenus appeal to the Pope, Pope Urban II, for aid to resist the continuing Islamic expansion across Asia Minor. Alexius was looking for reinforcements to push back against the Seljuk Turks and to possibly regain control of some formerly Byzantine territory.
This event precisely marks the beginning of the Crusade saga. A massive crusade for Jerusalem was definitely not what Alexius had in mind however, when he first sent his plea to Pope Urban. Alexius ambitions were far more modest.
Alexius inquired about a mercenary contingent to aid in the recapture of Asia Minor; what he got was an armada.
Theories abound as to the true motives of Pope Urban’s call for a Crusade. He would’ve known what Alexius was asking for. So what prompted him to make the call (so successfully) for a Crusade to recapture Jerusalem? Most likely it was the reasons previously discussed. But it can’t be ruled out that he saw an opportunity to expand his power and influence throughout the empire.
I like to imagine the Pope, in leading up to his impassioned speech at Clermont, pondering the implications of what he was about to undertake. No doubt, if he was as sincere and devout a religious leader as he is given credit for, then it is fair to think his intentions were noble. Given the evidence, it seems clear that the primary motivation was to protect pilgrims, possibly reclaim lost territory including of course the Holy lands.
In any case, Urban’s campaign to rouse the West from their slumber, and take up the cross was far more successful than even the Pope himself must have anticipated. With the help of his powerful voice and influence among the local religious leaders (they saw him as being among the church of piety); the call for the Crusade was an enormous success.
What actually happened, no one could have predicted. Urban called upon Western Europe and moved it against Asia Minor like a blanket cast out over a mattress.
The Amazing First Crusade
The First Crusade can be somewhat neatly split up into three smaller crusades, or distinct crusade groups: the German Crusade, the People’s Crusade and the Princes Crusade.
The German Crusade
The German Crusade is most well known for not really being a crusade. Made up of mostly German knights (shocking), led by a count named Emicho of Leiningen and a few others. It never made it to Constantinople and instead rather shamefully traipsed along the Rhine valley, and slaughtered thousands of Jews until it reached Hungary where most of the crusaders were killed by the Hungarians. A small number of survivors rallied with the main body of crusaders later on, including some of the ring leaders such as William the Carpenter and others.
At the risk of oversimplification, this is the clearest example of true atrocities committed by crusaders during the first crusade. There are other, less significant and more debatable examples, but not here. The German crusade codifies a significant attack on Jewish populations fueled by antisemitism.
I make absolutely no excuses for these events. Except to say that firstly, these attacks were resoundingly condemned by catholic leaders and officials back in Rome and especially by the Pope. Secondly, on every occasion local Christian leaders, bishops and many local Christian families hid and otherwise did what they could to protect the local Jewish populations (often to no avail). Finally, that they were as I said, particularly distinct in their leadership to the main crusading body.
The German crusade was not so much a case of ‘Christian bigotry’ and violence towards Jews, but a select group of fanatical anti-Semitic (and possibly greedy) Germans who were no doubt Christian (if only in name), but in no way represented popular Christian sentiment at the time. I can’t deny the existence of some anti-Semitic sentiments in the undercurrents of the broader Christian institution of the day, but nothing to the extent that was seen in the German crusade.
The people’s Crusade
The people’s Crusade did not fare much better than the German crusade. There is debate about the level of involvement of the leaders of the People’s Crusade in the German massacres, but in any case they were not directly or personally involved in the events. The People’s Crusade was inspired and led primarily by Peter the Hermit. It was a band of mostly untrained individuals filled with zeal for the crusades by the persuasive and enthusiastic preaching of Peter the Hermit. However it would be a mistake to say that it was only peasants and the poor involved. Many of the prominent leaders were well trained knights and nobles. But the contingents they led were poorly trained and armed mostly with only crude weaponry.
The People’s crusade left before the official leaving date set by Pope Urban, as they made their way towards Constantinople. It was difficult enough to charter large battalions of trained, well disciplined knights across large distances. So much the worse for large numbers of zealous civilians. At various points Peter the Hermit, and Walter the Penniless’ contingents were refused food and supplies. This led to occasional pillaging and a couple of more serious encounters, particularly with the Bulgarians, where both the crusaders and the local military suffered loss, not to mention those lost to the elements.
Arriving three months ahead of schedule, they were ushered out of Constantinople and into nearby territory only a few kilometers from the borders of the empire. Impatient and restless, the People’s Crusade marched into enemy territory and was quickly and decisively decimated by the Turks. Any that did not immediately convert to Islam were killed. They didn’t stand a chance.
Only a few escaped including Peter the Hermit, who later joined with the Princes Crusade when they made their way into Constantinople.
The Prince’s Crusade
OK, if you haven’t yet, now is a good time to settle down with a nice cup of coffee and grab some peanuts and pork crackle, because you’re going to be here for a while.
The Princes Crusade is what we all came here to see, the feature length episode of the Crusades and arguably the most successful of all. It was perhaps the most successful by the fact that it was the only one that truly achieved its initial objective to recapture Jerusalem. Of all the Crusades, the first was the one with a fairly clear beginning, middle and end. In fact as far as true history goes it makes for some great storytelling.
The Princes Crusade was named so, because it was led mostly by wealthy Medieval Princes. The five major contingents ran under the leadership of these five men:
Hugh of Vermandois
Hugh was the son of the King of France, Henry I and he was 40 years old at the outset of the first Crusade. Probably the most notable thing to say about Hugh was that his status allowed him to amass a significant force of high profile knights; among them were Walo of Chaumont-en-Vexin, the King’s constable and Gilbert Payen of Garlande seneschal of the King of France.
Hugh was probably the most forgettable of the major Crusader commanders. Indeed Ernest Barker’s account of the Crusades claims “But three large divisions, under three considerable leaders, were preeminent among the rest”; Hugh was not one of them.
Despite being the Prince of France he was considerably arrogant and, as it turned out, unjustifiably. Stark describes him as ‘ineffectual’. Before Hugh even arrived at Constantinople he had ignored warnings of a pending harsh winter and sailed from Bari a few months ahead of the rest of the main crusading body. As predicted the winter was harsh, and stormy, and the majority of his ships perished in the sea in transit to Constantinople.
Before we get too into it, spare a thought for the would-be brave warriors who, for reasons not their own, were denied the opportunity to carve out a heroic legacy alongside those who survived the elements to face the Mohammedans squarely. It is a shame that in recounting the crusades these unfortunate casualties are often lumped in with the many who defected during times of hardship. The list of casualties far, far outstrips the list of those who turned home before the end, but they are still often collectively regarded as ‘those who perish on the way and those who deserted’, but they are not the same. How many who braved the elements and perished, would have been there till the end if they could?
Hugh made it to Constantinople half alive. He and what remained of his force were essentially rescued by the Byzantines and accompanied to Constantinople by their aid.
Hugh deserted following the battle of Antioch.
Godfrey of Boullion
Godfrey of Boullion, the first of the three most influential leaders of the crusade took a northern route, overland to reach Constantinople. Godfrey was a descendant of the famous Charlemagne, the grandson of the legendary Charles Martel who led the miraculous victory at the battle of Tours. Appearance wise Godfrey was the archetype hero; Blonde haired, large and brooding in appearance. He was a burly Norman who had a reputation for being cordial and polite. Legend has it that he fought a bear, and won.
Godfrey was accompanied by his brother Baldwin of Boulogne who diverted from the main party before they reached Antioch and headed towards Edessa, claiming it as the first official crusader state.
Godfrey made his way through the Rhine valley, the Danube and into Hungary. He was not at all involved in the German crusade, but certainly felt the after effects of it. The German crusaders responsible for the massacre of the thousands of Jews along the Rhine met their demise in Hungary. Understandably the Hungarians were wary of the Crusaders. As a result Godfrey’s passage through Hungary was peaceful, but very expensive and filled with tension. The Hungarians insisted on taking numerous hostages (including Godfrey’s wife) to ensure the peace and civility of his large force. Nevertheless they made it through Hungary peacefully.
Also as a result of some political unrest between Godfrey and the Byzantines, numerous accounts of pillaging took place both before and shortly after his arrival at Constantinople. Godfrey’s sizable army was difficult to manage, even when being peaceful. In the end however, despite initial reluctance, Godfrey was forced to swear his allegiance to Emperor Alexius.
Bohemond of Taranto
Bohemond of Taranto was a total badass.
He is easily my favourite of the major historical figures of the first crusade. One of the legitimate hero’s of the first Crusade and more-or-less regarded as the leader. The Normans had a reputation for being brutes, and Bohemond was a giant among giants. The son of Robert Guiscard, in fact he was nicknamed Bohemond (born as Mark) after a Norman mythological giant; tall, burly and rough looking, Bohemond was an intimidating beast to behold. Anna Comnena the daughter of Alexius in a now famous account of him said this:
Now [Bohemond] was such as, to put it briefly, had never before been seen in the land of the Romans [that is, Greeks], be he either of the barbarians or of the Greeks (for he was a marvel for the eyes to behold, and his reputation was terrifying). Let me describe the barbarian’s appearance more particularly – he was so tall in stature that he overtopped the tallest by nearly one cubit, narrow in the waist and loins, with broad shoulders and a deep chest and powerful arms. And in the whole build of the body he was neither too slender nor overweighted with flesh, but perfectly proportioned and, one might say, built in conformity with the canon of Polycleitus… His skin all over his body was very white, and in his face the white was tempered with red. His hair was yellowish, but did not hang down to his waist like that of the other barbarians; for the man was not inordinately vain of his hair, but had it cut short to the ears. Whether his beard was reddish, or any other colour I cannot say, for the razor had passed over it very closely and left a surface smoother than chalk… His blue eyes indicated both a high spirit and dignity; and his nose and nostrils breathed in the air freely; his chest corresponded to his nostrils and by his nostrils…the breadth of his chest. For by his nostrils nature had given free passage for the high spirit which bubbled up from his heart. A certain charm hung about this man but was partly marred by a general air of the horrible… He was so made in mind and body that both courage and passion reared their crests within him and both inclined to war. His wit was manifold and crafty and able to find a way of escape in every emergency. In conversation he was well informed, and the answers he gave were quite irrefutable. This man who was of such a size and such a character was inferior to the Emperor alone in fortune and eloquence and in other gifts of nature.
The man ticked all the boxes. Brooding and handsome in a barbarian kind of way, he was also a brilliant politician and military leader.
His reputation did not overstate his abilities; he was undoubtedly the most experienced and skilled of the major crusader commanders (a fact which Alexius was all too familiar with), which he proved on numerous occasions during the crusade. He was known for his ability to anticipate his opponents’ battle tactics and respond effectively to the changing dynamics of the battlefield. Bohemond was the quintessential picture of masculinity in medieval Christendom. He also boasted an intimidating force of highly experienced Norman knights.
If that wasn’t enough, he already had a history of violent clashes with Alexius himself. Bohemond had defeated Alexius on numerous occasions, often decisively.
Following the harsh winter which claimed the majority of Hugh’s entourage, Bohemond sailed from Bari to Bulgaria and then marched largely uneventfully onto Constantinople from there. Obviously Alexius was nervous at the prospect of Bohemond leading a major force in the crusades. Given their past confrontations their dealings were filled with tension. Bohemond reportedly refused to eat anything offered to him in Alexius’ courts on account of the Greeks reputation for poisoning. Despite their history however, Bohemond quickly signed his allegiance to Alexius and was perhaps among the most agreeable of the crusader commanders in his dealings with the emperor. He proved to be a resourceful medium. Being well educated, there was evidence that he was familiar with Greek language.
Furthermore, despite his political shrewdness and his ambitions, Bohemond cannot be taken to be purely opportunistic. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest he was as religiously committed to the crusading cause as anyone.
Following the formalities at Constantinople he marched to Pelecanum to meet Godfrey’s forces prior to the arrival of the final contingents.
Raymond of Toulouse
Raymond of Toulouse, despite being a ravenous womanizer was extremely religious. Being deeply religious did not often imply being well behaved in medieval Christendom (not much has changed). Besides having a cool name, he was the oldest leader of the crusaders and probably one of the wealthiest.
Raymond had the means to amass a large force. He took an overland route as Godfrey had to Constantinople; however his men suffered more-so than Godfrey’s it seems. The roads he took were harsh and along the way his army was constantly harassed by the locals. Stragglers were often picked off and murdered and they were pillaged on numerous occasions. Due to the recent passage of the other crusader armies food and supplies were becoming scarce. Once they were within Byzantine territory, Alexius sent escorts to aid them, and on account of their hunger and frustration skirmishes between Raymond’s men and their Byzantine escorts were common.
Raymond had a reputation for his temper at the best of times, so he was understandably irate by the time he reached Constantinople and refused to sign his allegiance, instead swearing an oath of friendship. Interestingly enough he ended up being one of the most loyal to Alexius interests at the end.
Robert II, Duke of Normandy
If Raymond was the oldest and wealthiest crusader, Robert was by far the poorest and one of the youngest of the major leaders of the first Crusade. Also a descendant of Charlemagne, Robert spent most of his life embroiled in political intrigue, both before and after the Crusade. He rebelled against his father William the Conqueror, and attempted to overthrow his brother Henry. After losing a number of battles, he was eventually imprisoned where he remained for the rest of his life (over twenty years).
His role in the Crusades therefore, turned out to be a rare shining moment for him. It was a brief redemption from an otherwise unruly life.
Due to his lack of wealth, Robert had to make substantial sacrifices to obtain his army for the crusade. He mortgaged ‘Normandy’ (imagine selling someone a whole country) to his brother William for 10,000 marks. His forces joined with Robert Count of Flanders and Stephen of Blois. A notable non-combatant among his party also was Fulcher of Chartres who wrote an account of the first crusade which is held in high regard even today.
Robert and his party were the last to arrive in Constantinople having spent the winter in Normandy. They sailed from Brindisi, and despite the first ship to leave port sinking almost immediately (resulting in ~400 deaths and a number of deserters), the majority of his fighting force made it safely in Dyrrhachium and onto Constantinople where they were treated very kindly by the emperor. Robert too gave his allegiance to Alexius and thus culminated the significant majority of crusaders that comprise the Princes crusade.
Alexius Comnenus (Emperor of Byzantium),
Depending on what perspective you take of the Crusades, Alexius can be seen as a clear villain, calculating and treacherous, or as brilliant emperor stuck in a difficult position with a lot on his plate. It can be argued that he left the crusaders for dead during their greatest time of need, and even prior to this supplied hardly more than a paltry handful of soldiers to aid the crusade efforts.
However, it also needs to be pointed out that in many ways Alexius was sitting between a rock and a hard place.
Alexius held the throne of Byzantium from 1081-1118 and brought order to an empire on the brink of collapse. Despite the reputation he garnered by the end of the first crusade, Alexius was a brilliant military leader, and he proved to be an excellent political leader also. Following almost a century of hapless, successively short-lived leaders he returned a semblance of power to the Greek Christian Empire successfully defending it against encroaching powers on every side (including the Normans). It was his desperation in fact that led to the call for assistance that he sent to Pope Urban.
So, when Alexius asked for help from the West, he was hoping for some reinforcements to push back against the Turks and possibly recapture some lost territory (such as Antioch and parts of Syria). What he got was half of the Latin West.
As a result Alexius became immediately apprehensive about the whole endeavor. He never had plans to recapture Jerusalem. So the Crusaders marched on largely unaided by the Byzantines. While the crusaders themselves were princes with all number of various ambitions, not the least of which being the promise of the remission of their sins, Alexius was an emperor, with emperor’s responsibilities. He had an empire to foster and foreign policies to adhere to.
At the end of it all, his loyalty lay with his own empire. A pious march toward Jerusalem simply was not a politically important concern for him.
The Main Event
As many as 130K individuals set out for the first Crusade. Perhaps only around 40K participated in the first major battle at Antioch. That’s just incredible to me. Many deserted, but many more than that died on the road. Disease and starvation were common. Over a third of the mighty Normans led by Bohemond died before the end of the Crusade. Consider these things in light of the effect that it would have had on history in general. These soldiers were not peasants. They comprised much of the upper class in Christendom.
The journey to Jerusalem took almost two years, far longer than the few weeks it was expected to have taken. There’s something really bittersweet about the success of the first Crusade, given that it comes off the back of so many needless deaths. So many soldiers, filled with fire on a mission for the Holy Land, uneventfully met their fate on the road, not even meeting the enemy in battle.
Nicaea was located a mere 50 kilometers from the borders of the Byzantine Empire. It was the capital of the Seljuk sultanate, ruled by a Turk named Kilij Arslan at the time the crusaders lay siege to it. Arrogant and overconfident (due in part to the crushing defeat of the people’s crusade some months earlier), Kilij was not even present when the crusaders first arrived. He was instead leading an army towards the east, leaving all of his wealth and his family within Nicaea. Upon learning that the city was surrounded by the crusaders he rushed back attempting to launch a surprise attack, but his plan was discovered. Kilij rushed Raymond’s forces and engaged them on open ground. Robert came to his aid and together inflicted massive casualties on the Turks. After a day of battle Kilij fled Nicaea (leaving his wife and children) and left it to its own fate. In order to incite fear the crusaders were catapulting the severed heads of the slain Turks over the walls and into the city.
This battle was the first of many demonstrating the clear superiority of the crusaders in battle. Pound for pound the Muslims were no match for the crusaders superior armour, strategy and determination. The crusaders were fighting for a truly noble (in their eyes) cause.
Despite their victory however the crusaders suffered heavy losses, and they still had to actually take the city. This is where the first cracks in the East-West Christian alliances began to show. It turned out that Alexius had been secretly negotiating with the Turks to surrender the city prior to its siege. The Crusaders awoke on the morning of the planned assault to a Byzantine occupied city. Alexius then dealt with the Crusaders somewhat contemptuously, only allowing them access in small groups at a time. By contrast, Alexius was most hospitable to Kilij’s family and former commanders.
Again here you can choose to see Alexius as the villain, or as a man under pressure to rule an empire. He sent a small number of reinforcements to the crusaders following the capture of Nicaea which according to Stark was:
“although the Byzantine army stationed in and around Constantinople greatly outnumbered the crusaders, Alexius sent only a surprisingly small detachment of about two thousand soldiers, commanded by a general named Taticius, the son of an enslaved Turk.”
Chris Tyerman takes a more glass half full perspective:
“A Byzantine division accompanied the army eastwards towards Antioch, under an experienced commander, Tatikios, a safe choice as a Turkish eunuch of unavoidable loyalty to the emperor rather than a Greek nobleman who could have harboured imperial longings of his own.”
Tyerman’s account is interesting, when you further take into account that Alexius would not have been ignorant to the potential ambitions of the crusaders. The last thing he needed was to aide them in an attempt to ‘steal’ his lands from him.
In any case, this strained the relations between the crusaders and Alexius. They felt as if he wasn’t keeping up his end of the bargain. Once Nicaea was firmly in the hands of Christians, the crusaders moved on, happy to place Nicaea back into Byzantine control. They learned shortly after that Kilij had amassed a relief force including a large number of reinforcements and local mercenaries.
So there was a big battle not far from Dorylaeum. It’s called this because this is from where the battle was long believed to have taken place. However it is now understood to have been about 80 km west of Dorylaeum, the exact location is unknown. It gets a mention in my story because it was one of the first demonstrations of Bohemond’s exceptional talents.
The crusaders were expecting an attack shortly, and so began preparations. Kilij however launched a surprise attack on the vanguard. Now this is where Bohemond first begins to exert his military brilliance. They suffered heavy losses. Yet Bohemond, his experience having been quickly recognized by the others who were among the party including Robert of Normandy and Stephen of Blois, immediately took charge and was able to quickly gather his troops and form a defensive perimeter completely surrounding his non-combatants amidst water springs. Many of whom then were responsible for transporting water between the springs and the fighting men; a stunning display of efficient battlefield management and authority. Furthermore Bohemond dismounted all of his knights to join the infantry forming an essentially impenetrable line. The mostly lightly armoured cavalry of the Turks were almost at a loss to break the defenses of the crusaders. Overall it was a close knit and ferocious engagement.
The Muslims arrogance again here played against them. They apparently believed that the vanguard comprised the entire crusade army, and as a result were utterly unprepared for a heavy cavalry charge on their flank. The Turks were utterly decimated. The crusaders slaughtered massive numbers of them. They charged them down, running them out of their own camp and into the sunset (probably…) and the crusaders took a huge plunder. What remained of the Turkish force fled into the mountains destroying the local food sources with a view to hinder the crusaders advances. The battle of Dorylaeum was in many respects, a close call. If it weren’t for Raymond and Godfrey’s arrival it may have been lost.
The Crusaders marched on through a decrepit wasteland, hot and dry. On the brink of thirst and starvation, many perished. The Crusaders made it through but ‘lost most of our [their] horses’. With plenty of food and water Iconium was their reward.
They claimed the city and moved onto Heraclea where they were again confronted by Turks. The Turks arrogance was again their downfall, seemingly expecting the Crusaders to cower before them. Instead the Crusaders immediately rushed at them, cutting them down. The Turks fled, their only salvation being the Crusaders lack of horses.
Onward from here the Crusaders made their way variously towards Antioch. After regrouping at Coxon where they found food, water and rest, they then faced the most difficult terrain of the entire journey, “so high and steep that none of our men dared to overtake another on the mountain path. Horses fell over the precipice, and one beast of burden dragged another down. As for the knights… [some] threw their arms away and went on.” Armor was heavy, with no animals to carry it, it was often discarded.
From here Baldwin and Fulcher left the Crusade and headed towards Edessa, Baldwin became the first count of Edessa, which became the first official Crusader state. The rest of the Crusaders finally made it to Antioch. It had taken more than a year since they departed from Nicaea and after suffering countless losses to the elements was reduced to about forty thousand. Less than two thirds of that which left Constantinople had either perished on the road or deserted.
The siege of Antioch from October 1097 to June 1098 provided the twelfth century with its Trojan War, famed in verse, song and prose, commemorated in stone and glass, the central episode of trial and heroism in epic and romantic recounting of the First Crusade. For once, legend was justified.
Chris Tyerman, God’s War.
Of all the major battles during the first Crusade, two were undoubtedly the most significant. The first was, obviously, the capture (and defense) of Jerusalem. The second was the siege of Antioch.
At the beginning of Christianity Antioch was the third largest Christian city, second only to Alexandria (in Egypt) and Rome itself. After the spread of Islam it began to flounder politically and economically. Despite a brief renaissance under Byzantine rule, it was recaptured by the Turks and again driven into the ground. Despite this it was still an imposing city in terms of its size and defensive capabilities.
By the time the crusaders forces reached Antioch they were in fact not large enough to fully surround the city. Nonetheless the crusaders engaged in a lengthy and dangerous siege of the city. This was a seemingly fruitless effort since supply routes into the city were still open. The crusaders were getting lower on supplies and once again endured much suffering and starvation. Indeed many of the poorer and lower class starved to death. Not unlike the Muslims siege of Constantinople a couple centuries earlier.
There was some relief for the crusaders from the coast, but nowhere near enough. Worse still, Alexius offered no relief whatsoever, not at this point at least. Many were dying and deserting and they were losing other valuables including many of their already diminished stock of war horses.
Given this fact, and also that there was instability within the mostly Christian population of the city due to their Muslim leaders, Bohemond had in mind a more cunning strategy. In fact this had been his plan for some time. But not before a Muslim relief army reached them in 1098.
Once again the heavily armed crusader infantry stood firm against a far larger Muslim army made up of mostly light cavalry. The Muslims again took massive losses (a recurring theme). Bohemond here launched a surprise cavalry charge (with the few cavalry the Crusaders had remaining) and flanked the Muslims who were again crushed in yet another miraculous defeat. But the best was yet to come!
Besides another stunning victory the Muslim army camp also provided desperately needed supplies for the Crusaders. Furthermore a reinforcement of Normans arrived shortly after by sea. But the Crusaders still had not taken the city. The supplies again wore thin, and a trickle of deserters continued, which increased over time until eventually significant portions began to leave, including Stephen of Blois and a large number of Frankish knights.
The story gets really interesting here.
Coincidentally, Alexius had meanwhile decided that now was the time to aid the Crusaders and personally led a large army towards Antioch to aid the siege effort only to be intercepted by Stephen’s forces less than a day’s march to Antioch. Stephen assured Alexius that the situation was hopeless. Alexius then decided to hang tight instead of continuing on to Antioch to assess the situation himself. Now Bohemond still had his eyes set on a covert take over, attempting to source an ally from within the city walls who could open the gate… and this is exactly what happened within hours of Stephen’s departure!
After apparently lengthy negotiations with a garrison commander named Firuz, Bohemond covertly gained access to the city, took control of a segment of the city wall and led an assault on the Muslim forces within the city. Joined by the disgruntled Christian population, the Muslim troops were swiftly dispatched and crusaders had taken control of the city.
Finally, after a horrendous siege that had lasted eight months, and had pushed the crusaders to the breaking point, Antioch was in the hands of the crusaders, but not for long.
A huge Muslim relief force led by a Turkish Sultan named Kerbogah arrived merely days following the capture. Kerbogah’s army swiftly surrounded the city and easily crushed the city’s outer defenses. Within 24 hours of yet another much needed victory, the crusaders were again in an extremely perilous, seemingly impossible situation.
Desertions continued (don’t ask me how they got past the surrounding Muslim force), and morale was at an all time low. Incredibly, once again, as Alexius and Stephen both were about to make their way back to Antioch, the deserters again intercepted them. From here, they all tucked tail and abandoned the effort completely. The Crusaders now broke essentially all ties and affiliations with Alexius, and Stephen of Blois was henceforth declared a total coward. Even his own wife lost all respect for him, to the point where a few years later (after the end of the Crusade) he amassed an army and marched back to Jerusalem (God only knows why) where he was defeated and killed… anyway.
Trapped within the walls of Antioch with almost no supplies, no means of communicating for relief outside the walls, and seemingly no hope of victory, the crusaders were in by far the most desperate situation they had yet faced. A few days of skirmishing between wall defenders and the Muslims led to heavy losses on both sides.
Now, if you were not up to this point convinced of the sincerity and religiosity of the Crusaders, then you might find the next part of this story difficult to fathom. On June 11 a priest claimed to have received revelation from Christ himself that divine aid was on its way in five days time.
Frankly I’m skeptical.
The crusaders however, were variously convinced of its sincerity. And why wouldn’t they really? What other hope did they have besides a legitimate miracle?
As a result they swore to stand firm. Shortly following this, another individual apparently received a vision of the location of the spear that was used to impale Christ during his crucifixion known as ‘the Holy lance’. Again I’m skeptical. But amazingly in the selected location a piece of iron was recovered, which was of course touted as the genuine article. Ignoring the fact that the random piece of Iron was dug up only three days after the first vision (not five), and the ensuing charge took place 9 days after the first vision (not five), the Crusaders were filled with zeal and confidence.
Bohemond having been firmly justified on numerous occasions had already been designated the spear head of military operations (no pun intended). Not to be outdone though, he once again took command of the crusade to lead into his most shining moment of the endeavour. Of all the incredible displays of crusaders superiority in skill and determination up till now, none of them matched the unbelievable victory achieved this day.
Paradoxically, the smaller the crusader army got over time, the better and more determined they became. Despite the fluctuating morale, the crusading army was slowly being chipped away, like a hard wood carving, into a fearsome collection of the most experienced and tenacious warriors; those who had endured the most extreme of hardships and claimed stunning victory upon victory. What remained of the crusader force was only the most determined and battle hardened fighters.
Once again vastly outnumbered, the crusaders exited the city through the front gate and faced the Muslims squarely.
And once again for lack of horses the crusaders broke into heavily defended, phalanx formations.
And once again, as if on cue, the Muslims attempts to charge down the crusaders were cut down.
The Muslims charged, and fell, over and over again. The Crusaders slowly crept forward, as the Muslims vanguard eventually began to disintegrate and then retreat. The crusaders charged down the fleeing enemy, and overran them. Once again, the Muslims were provided some relief by the lack of Cavalry on the Crusader side, allowing some of them to escape. Among them was Kerbogah who, like Kilij Arslan at Nicaea, abandoned his forces and his wealth and supplies to the victors, those invincible crusaders, and fled.
This victory was utterly magnificent. It really was as if the God of angel armies had carried them into battle. In fact news of the incredible victory spread and quickly amassed embellishments such as saints descending from heaven to fight alongside the Crusaders.
One can only imagine the festive celebrations that must’ve followed.
As it turns out this was not just the highlight, but also the end of Bohemond’s part in the story of the Crusades. Such is the case with real life; there is rarely a clearly defined and neat story from beginning, middle and end. And so Bohemond of Taranto, the clear hero of the story, retired to seize full control of Antioch for himself. After Alexius abandoned the crusaders for dead just prior to their victory against Kerbogah, Bohemond surmised that he owed Alexius nothing. Bohemond appealed to his masterminding essentially the entire operation from getting into Antioch, and of course leading the utterly miraculous charge against the Muslims. He believed he was the rightful claimant to the city of Antioch.
A considerable amount of time was spent on negotiations, but Bohemond was eventually given the blessing of his contemporaries. Raymond of Toulouse was the most difficult to convince. In the end, the situation forced Raymond to accede leadership to Bohemond in favour of marching on to Jerusalem. Among other things, the soldiers were getting restless. Bohemond followed the Crusaders about a hundred kilometers south towards Jerusalem, and then returned to Antioch to take full control.
Antioch was officially a Latin Christian principality, and remained one for over two centuries. It became the longest standing Norman controlled principality.
What really amazes me is that such an incredible story is not a household tale even today. What took place at Antioch rivals much of the embellishments of history such as the Spartans at Thermopylae, or the exploits of Julius Caesar. Is the world so hostile to Christianity that Hollywood should pass up the opportunity to regale the incredible heroics of the first crusade in favour of fanciful, historically worthless tripe such as ‘Kingdom of Heaven’?
Anyway, it is what it is.
The Crusaders had achieved the seemingly impossible, but the job was not done. Far from it, they still wanted Jerusalem, which also proved to be no idle feat.
10 “When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace. 11 If it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall become your forced labor and shall serve you. 12 However, if it does not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. 13 When the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword. 14 Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the Lord your God has given you.
Deuteronomy 20:10-14 – The rules of War
The siege of Jerusalem is generally the most criticized chapter in the first crusade (besides the German crusade). It is regarded as the best example of the crusaders unadulterated blood lust. The belligerent crusaders supposedly stormed the walls of Jerusalem and killed everything in sight, traipsing through the streets knee deep in a river of blood.
Give me a break.
Hopefully you’ll find that the real story is much more down to earth.
The journey from Antioch to Jerusalem was the most comfortable, leisurely and uneventful. The crusaders were regularly supplied by ships as they strolled down through the coastal regions, recuperating from the extreme hardships endured up till then. It’s true that Alexius allowed the supply ships passage through his ports, but at the same time he sent communications to the Egyptian Fatimid’s declaring no affiliation with the Crusaders. The Crusaders discovered this correspondence and were not impressed. By this stage Alexius was a heinous traitor; a treacherous, untrustworthy scoundrel, a Greek.
Despite their slow moving pace in reaching Jerusalem, the crusaders knew that time was of the essence. Word had spread of yet another relief force amassing from Egypt to aid Jerusalem in its defense against the crusaders. On June 7, 1099 the crusaders reached the walls of Jerusalem. Their own Holy Grail, the object of their affections and the finality of their entire enterprise; they had finally made it.
Jerusalem was an impressive fortification, one that possibly rivaled Constantinople in its grandeur. When the crusaders arrived, Jerusalem was not controlled by the Turks, but by the Egyptian Fatimid’s who had, since the beginning of the crusade, taken it from the Turks. In preparation for the Crusaders arrival, the city ruined all the surrounding wells, ‘drove away all the livestock’, and constructed siege weapons to prepare for its defense. They also wisely evacuated the Christians from within the city walls, so as not to have a repeat of the traitorous shenanigans and Antioch.
The Crusaders had enjoyed one of the easiest stretches of the journey; well supplied and well rested, they arrived at Jerusalem in good shape, but reaching the limits of their supplies. They knew they had to act fast. After a hearty, but initial attack was repelled, the Crusaders were reinforced by supply ships carrying essential equipment including food and also provisions for constructing siege weapons and ladders. Despite this, the intense heat and continued suffering caused still more desertions.
Once again (I say that a lot), as at Antioch, another contrived vision filled the Crusaders with confidence. Promised with victory from the heavens the Crusaders, in an act inspired by Joshua and the story of Jericho, traversed the perimeter of the city barefoot, and then set themselves enthusiastically on the construction of the siege weapons. Within two days they were ready. Ditches around the city walls were filled in, and towers rolled up against the walls.
Things were tough at first. But after a time, Godfrey of Bullion led a tower against the North wall and most likely with the use of crossbows was able to gain control of a portion of the city wall. This marked the beginning of a swift end. Crusaders used ladders and quickly overran the Muslims within the city. Within a day Jerusalem was dripping with the blood of the slain. Now that sounds quite harsh. Indeed it was a great slaughter, no doubt about it. To be sure, they were not knee deep in a river of blood, but many were killed.
In Stark’s words “This is the horror story that has been used again and again to vilify the crusaders.”
Take the words of this random webpage as a good example of the anti Christian bias:
“The entire Jewish and Muslim population of the city is indiscriminately put to the sword. This is the worst of the many Christian atrocities committed during the Crusades”
However, Stark goes into lengthy detail to put this event in context as we all should.
Before we do that, this is a good time to place ourselves into the context in which we are reading this chapter. Many of us in the west have scarcely tasted violence in any form. We’re constantly bombarded with news pieces about criminals and murderers and other forms of fear mongering. Even what we are presented with in the news today is grossly disproportionate to the amount of real danger that most everyday individuals face. In our eternally connected world of digital communication we have become hyper sensitive to others beliefs and opinions to the point where we moralize everything from another’s political point of view, to their favourite flavour of ice cream. We have to be careful not to judge the crusaders by the standards we have today, especially since most of us have conflicting moral standards anyway. The best we can do is to judge them by the standards of the Word of God, the only objective standard that we have.
However, even in this we cannot discount the effect that our culture and our moral lens through which we view scripture will have an influence on how we use it to judge the crusaders. I say all this not to make excuses for the actions of individuals, but simply to remind us of the contrast between us and them, both culturally and in terms of what they have been through. Even so, as you will see, this is more than a simple tale of retribution and violence.
The first point that needs to be considered is the psychology of the crusaders at this time. The siege of Jerusalem was two years in the making. Their army is now reduced to a mere shadow of what it was when they left Constantinople. The crusaders had endured suffrage and hardship the likes of which very few people today have experienced. I know even I write posts about Facing Adversity, and hardship full of embellishments and calls to a more strenuous existence, but this is laughable in the face of what the crusaders went through. Not just compared to us today, but even for the time, these men had become legends. Jerusalem was their prodigal son. It’s impossible to even fathom the emotional significance of capturing the Holy City after everything they had been through to get it. We have to consider the extremely emotional experience and excitement that must’ve been wholly felt by each and every knight and soldier who crossed the walls of Jerusalem that day, the 15th of June 1099. Of course this does not necessarily justify the merciless slaughter of the innocent, but this is not the only point to consider.
Another point is that most of the criticism levied against the crusaders is garnished with sympathy for the more ‘civilized’ Muslims, which is completely ludicrous as I have shown in my previous posts (and more so in posts to come).
A key point is that according to the well established rules of engagement at that time regarding siege warfare, the crusaders were well within their rights to completely massacre the inhabitants of the city, because the Muslims did not surrender. The main justification for this is that stands as an example to anyone in future who might consider resisting a siege. Furthermore it was considered repudiation for the necessarily heavy losses incurred by the invaders. Which I think we can all agree was especially severe in this case.
No such slaughter had taken place during the crusade up to this point, which is important to note, because the Crusaders had by this time taken numerous cities (including many not mentioned in this post). This is good evidence that the Crusaders would’ve offered more reasonable terms had the Muslims considered surrender prior to the beginning of the siege.
Finally and probably most importantly, Stark argues that there is good reason to believe that the reports of the slain were exaggerated. Given that the reports were coming from those who often reported armies numbering the millions (as opposed to the more likely tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands), this is evidence in itself to draw more far more conservative estimates.
Perhaps the most accurate summary was that the event was comparable to other similar situations of the day.
There’s also the issue of Antisemitism amongst the Crusaders. In reality, the Jews often allied with Muslims against Christians. Even so, there is apparently good evidence that most of the Jews were not slaughtered. I think today it’s difficult to know for sure. But all this proves is that for better or worse, any attempt to smear the reputation of the crusaders as violent merciless pre-nazi’s is based on tenuous evidence at best and is likely motivated by Anti-christian sentiments.
So make of it what you will. I don’t mean to make excuses for the crusaders actions if indeed they were reprehensible, but I do think that we should all be willing to judge them fairly, and objectively.
For more information on the post siege events in Jerusalem see this very informative post by Deanna Proach.
So the crusaders had achieved the impossible. Not just Antioch, but Jerusalem was theirs. By this stage large contingents were beginning to return home. They had after all done what they came to do, and many of the men had families waiting for them back home. But as you may have guessed, the crusaders still had one great hurdle to face – a substantial relief army was still on its way from Egypt and had settled in Ascalon. The crusaders within weeks had to once again face the Muslims, once again outnumbered by an army almost twice their size.
The battle took place at Ascalon – somewhere between Jerusalem and Egypt. Godfrey of Boullion led the remaining military forces which was scarcely ten thousand men by this stage. The crusaders encroached on Ascalon and came across a sizeable herd of livestock which they heartily dined on that evening. All the more tender to taste I imagine given they were there to supply the Muslim relief force. Well fed, the crusaders then rested the night.
Now it really wouldn’t be in true crusader style if it wasn’t in some way miraculous. As it turned out, the crusaders rose early to charge down the Muslims like every Hollywood movie you’ve ever seen, only to stumble upon a sleeping giant. If it’s possible to even believe, the Muslims simply couldn’t pass up one more opportunity to demonstrate their arrogance. They were caught with their pants around their ankles (probably literally in some cases). The crusaders charged them down in yet another great slaughter as the unprepared and completely unaware Egyptians fled. It was to no avail. They were almost totally destroyed and the crusaders were rewarded with a mysteriously enormous plunder.
And so, this surprisingly easy defeat marks the rather unceremonious end to an otherwise epic first crusade.
So the Crusaders had been victorious. In many instances when all seemed lost, they overcame the most incredible odds; even more incredible considering the cynicism that is attached to the crusades today.
As I reflect, it is a shame and an insult that the crusaders are brushed aside with such a fickle smear, when the reality is that the first crusade was an incredible feat of human determination, courage and commitment. The Crusaders over and over again demonstrated their superiority over the Muslims in both tactical and military prowess. My only regret is that tales of the crusaders have not been bedtime stories of mine since I was a child.
As a 10 year old boy, how much would I have loved to hear the tale of the mighty Bohemond of Taranto, fierce and cunning as he drove the hapless armies of Kerbogah and his men into the ground with but a handful of exhausted and famished knights?
I am nothing, if not dazzled by the first crusade.
The crusaders had achieved the impossible, more than once. But now they faced the impossible task of protecting their newly reclaimed lands from enemies on all sides. No doubt, the newly formed Latin states were vulnerable. Physically distant from Rome and spread thin, the new territories needed a way of protecting themselves and maintaining the land.
It is out of this need there arose the knightly orders, destined to become legends, shrouded in mystery and wonder. Formed for the protection of pilgrims, and the crusader states: the knights Hospitallier… and the Knights Templar…
Next post: The Knights Templar.
All Bible references are taken from biblegateway.com, from the NASB version, unless otherwise stated.
Barker, E. 1923. The Crusades. Oxford University Press, London, pp 23.
Frankopan, P. 2012, The First Crusade: The Call from the East. Harvard University Press.
Ludlow, J. 2011. The Crusades. Kindle edition.
Stark, R. 2009. God’s battalions: The case for the Crusades, HarperCollins Publishers.
Tyerman, C. 2006. God’s War: A New History of the Crusades. Penguin Books. London
The Chanson d’Antioche: An Old French Account of the First Crusade