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The story of the First Crusade

Dr Tom J Rees

Dieu li volt!

Chirst leads the crusader into battle
Christ leads the crusaders into battle (early 14th century)

The First Crusade began on November 27, 1095, with a proclamation from Pope Urban II delivered to clergy and lay folk who had gathered in a field in Clermont, central France. His topic: an appeal for help that he had received from the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius I Comnenus.

There are no records of exactly what Urban said, but it seems he began with a general denouncement of the continual warfare which plagued the Europe of his day. He then described in lurid detail the attacks of the Turks upon the Christian Byzantine Empire, and begged the soldiers present to travel to the east to attack the Muslims, rather than their fellow Christians.

As a further encouragement Urban offered them a Papal Indulgence, which promised the immediate remission of all sins of any who participated in the expedition.

Excerpt from one version of Pope Urban's speech
'For your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them. For, as most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and conquered the territory of Romania as far west as the shore of the Mediterranean and the Hellespont. They have occupied more and more lands of those Christians and have overcome them in seven battles ... On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ's heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends.
From Fulcher of Chartres, History of the Expedition to Jerusalem.

The crowd responded with the chant the was to become the war cry of the first crusade – Dieu li volt! (God wills it!). Afterwards, Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy handed out crosses made of cloth that were sewn onto the clothes of those who had vowed to take part.

Peter the Hermit

Pope Urban had wanted the expedition to the East to be a military one, undertaken by soldiers and controlled by clerics. But such was the appeal of his call for the liberation of the Eastern Church that soon tens of thousands of ordinary people were on the People's Crusade. The most famous leader of these bands of common folk was called Peter the Hermit, who rode his donkey out of Amiens early in March 1096 and reached Byzantium in August. Other bands of crusaders, most of whom never made it to the east, savagely attacked the Jews in Mainz, killing thousands.

When Peter the Hermit reached Constantinople, he and his people were ferried across the Bosphorus by the Emperor Alexius Comnenus. Alexius had advised them to wait for the main crusader armies, but by this time the multinational horde was out of control. They were almost all killed in a running battle with the Turks at Civetot.

The Principle Armies Depart

The official crusading armies did not depart until the middle of 1096. In the end, three main bands were to travel. From northern France, groups of Normans and Lotharingians (from Lorraine) travelled under the command of  Robert, Hugh and Godfrey.

From southern France came the most powerful faction, under the command of Raymond of St Gilles. And from southern Italy, a large group of Normans set out under their warlord, Bohemond.

The army commanders
Raymond IV of St Gilles, Count of Toulouse
Bohemond, Duke of Taranto
Godfrey of Bouillon
Hugh, Count of Vermandois
Robert, Duke of Normandy

The spiritual leader of these armies, and the only person who could exercise any kind of overall authority, was Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy, a close confidant of Pope Urban II. They arrived in Byzantium over a period of several months early in 1097 and, after a period of wrangling in which Godfrey's forces actually attacked the Imperial Palace at Blachernae, all the principle leaders were made to swear allegiance to Alexius.

Nicaea Besieged

After crossing the Bosphorus, their first target was Nicaea, which had fallen to the Turks 10 years previously and was now the capital of Kilij Arslan, sultan of the Seljuk Turkish state of Rhüm. Arslan was in the east of his country fighting the neighbouring Danishmend Emir when the crusaders attacked. A two-month siege ensued, during which the crusaders were assisted by Byzantine troops under the command of Tatikios, and a Byzantine naval blockade commanded by Boutoumites. Arslan made peace with the Danishmend and attempted to lift the siege, but in the end Nicaea surrendered to agents of the Emperor. Alexius distributed the spoils, including food and money, but he would not allow the crusaders to pillage the city – a move that was later to be the cause of a lot of bitterness.

Ambush at Dorylaeum

The crusaders soon marched on, heading towards Antioch. In the process they split into two groups, probably because of the sheer size of the army, and Arslan took advantage of the situation to ambush the vanguard near Dorylaeum. Bohemond, Hugh of Vermandois, and Count Stephen of Blois now faced the combined armies of Kilij Arslan and the Danishmend Emir. Bohemond took command and formed the army into defensive positions. After six hours of fierce onslaught, during which the crusaders were driven back on their camp, the main army, led by Raymond of St Giles and Adhémar, appeared on the flank of the Turks and forced them to flee.

The Conquest of Armenia

The journey across Anatolia became a nightmare, even though there were no further serious engagements. The army ran short of food, and was ill-equipped to deal with the lack of water and freezing cold. It may have been this that prompted a series of diversionary movements, the most notable of which was Baldwin's effective annexation of Edessa, one of the most powerful of the Christian Armenian kingdoms that stretched from the coastal plain of Cilicia all the way to the Euphrates. The possession of Edessa, deep within Muslim lands, provided a secure flank for the subsequent campaign.

The Siege of Antioch

The siege of Antioch began in October, 1097. Antioch was a huge and strongly defended city, famous for having never fallen except by treachery. It was so large that the crusaders found it impossible to fully surround it. Instead, they settled down to blockade the main gates, ensuring that the defenders could not get out to mount an attack, whilst fending off any relief forces. The siege dragged on through the winter and into 1098 and the crusaders, deep in hostile territory, quickly ran short of food. Many died of starvation and disease (including Bishop Adhémar), and many fled home.

There were numerous foraging expeditions but these ran the risk of Turkish ambush. One of the largest of the foraging expeditions was lead by Bohemond. His force soon encountered a relief army, under the command of the Duqaq of Damascus. The crusaders were forced to flee, but inflicted sufficient damage on the Duqaq's army to cause him to abandon his march on Antioch.

Back at Antioch, word came that a much larger relief army was on its way, this time under the command of Kerbogha, Attabeg of Mosul. In despair, Stephen of Blois left and made his way back to the Emperor. Bohemond, however, was by this time in contact with with an Armenian, Firouz, who had converted to Islam and now commanded on of the city's towers. Firouz was ready to allow the crusaders in. The crusaders entered his tower and swarmed into Antioch, just as Kerbogha's army appeared on the horizon.

Extract from a letter sent during the siege by Stephen, Count of Blois, to his wife, Adele – March 29, 1098.
We found the city of Antioch very extensive, fortified with incredible strength and almost impregnable. In addition, more than 5,000 bold Turkish soldiers had entered the city, not counting the Saracens, Publicans, Arabs, Turcopolitans, Syrians, Armenians and other different races of whom an infinite multitude had gathered together there. In fighting against these enemies of God and of our own we have, by God's grace, endured many sufferings and innumerable evils up to the present time. Many also have already exhausted all their resources in this very holy passion ...  throughout the whole winter we suffered for our Lord Christ from excessive cold and enormous torrents of rain.

Crusaders Besieged

The crusaders were now, if anything, even worse off – trapped in Antioch with no hope of escape. The Emperor, who had been approaching with an army to help capture Antioch, was persuaded by Stephen of Blois that the situation was hopeless. The Emperor returned to Byzantium.

The Miracle of the Lance

A Provençal peasant, Peter Bartholomew, claimed that Christ and St Andrew had come to him in a vision and told him that the Lance that had pierced the side of Christ was buried beneath the high altar of the Church of St Peter. Peter was allowed to supervise the digging, and duly found the Lance. Many of the army leaders thought him a fraud, but the rank and file believed that a miracle had occurred. The army leaders took advantage of this to launch a last-ditched attempt to break the siege.

Kerbogha allowed the crusaders to leave the city and form up outside. The morale of his disparate troops was as low as the crusaders' morale was high, and they swiftly broke under the desperate attack. The crusaders triumphed.

The Principality of Antioch is Founded

The crusaders spent the next few months consolidating their position. Bohemond demanded that Antioch be given to him, and the various leaders spent time capturing outlying towns as bargaining chips. Bohemond had his way, and popular unrest at the squabbling forced the other leaders, now under the undisputed command of Raymond of St Gilles, to set out for Jerusalem early in 1099.

Jerusalem Conquered

With the major regional power destroyed, the journey south to Jerusalem was uneventful. Jerusalem, however, had been stoutly fortified by her governor, Iftikhar ad-Daula. He had expelled the Christians living there and desolated the surrounding countryside. His garrison of Arab and Nubian troops outnumbered the besiegers, and there was an Egyptian army on its way.

The Crusaders set up their positions along the northern and western walls and began constructing siege equipment. Before their preparations were complete, however, one of the many mystics that permeated the army persuaded the leaders to attempt an assault. God, he said, would not fail them. The attack was a disaster.

The chastened crusader army settled down to the business of conducting the siege. They were now in a state of high spiritual fervour with miracles, signs and portents occurring daily. In one of these, the dead Bishop Adhémar appeared before a priest, Peter Desiderius, and told him that the crusaders must humble themselves before they would be allowed to enter Jerusalem. The leaders were convinced, and organised a fantastic procession. Lead by priests chanting and holding their sacred relics before them, the entire army marched in slow, solemn procession barefoot around Jerusalem.

Six days later the final assault began. The night before the attack Godfrey of Bouillon and Robert of Normandy stealthily moved their forces to an undefended part of the wall. It was from their positions that, after more than a day of continuous fighting, the crusaders forced their way into the city.

The Massacre

The crusaders rampaged through the streets of Jerusalem, killing everyone they came upon. Some of the locals took shelter in the Dome of the Rock where Tancred, with an eye towards the ransom money, promised them his protection. Even this was to no avail, as men not under his command tore through the al-Aksa Mosque and slaughtered its occupants.

Likewise, many of the city's Jews took refuge in the main synagogue. It was burned to the ground, killing all inside. Not everyone was killed – some were made captive and used as labourers to cart the bodies out of the city.  Iftikhar ad-Daula and his bodyguard shut themselves in the Tower of David, negotiated a surrender with Raymond of St Giles, and were allowed to go free.

The pillage of Jerusalem
Now that our men had possession of the walls and towers, wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men (and this was merciful) cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one's way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared with what happened in the Temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are normally chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, you would not believe it. Suffice to say that, in the Temple and Porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgement of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies. The city was filled with corpses and blood.
From Raymond d'Aguilers,  Historia francorum qui ceprint Jerusalem

Copyright © 1999 Dr Tom J Rees. All rights reserved.


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