The First Crusade: A surprising success

Written by Chris Riley.

After centuries of Christian infighting, Pope Urban II made a decision that would echo down the ages, calling for the Princes, Lords and Barons of Francia, Italy and the German states, to take up arms not against each other but, against the Muslim infidel of the east. After the disastrous People’s Crusade of 1096, its safe to say that the Byzantine Emperor was likely less than thrilled at the thought of more ‘Franks’ arriving to help but, unlike Peter the Hermit’s abysmal attempt, the so called ‘Prince’s Crusade’ would have remarkably different results.

Arrival in Constantinople

Most of the Christian forces had arrived in the Byzantine capital by the winter of 1096, arriving in their thousands led by a gaggle of Frankish, German and Norman lords including Alexios’ old rival Bohemond of Taranto. Bohemond had had spent most of the 1080’s terrorising Byzantine held territories in Greece. Bohemond and his father Robert Guiscard were of Viking stock and thus liked to do what Vikings did best - raid and pillage, viewing the soft underbelly of the weak Eastern Roman Empire as easy pickings.

Surprisingly, things began quite well, with Alexios I Komnenos and the Frankish Christians, agreeing on their aims and plans to return all land captured to the Byzantine emperor himself with Bohemond, Robert Guiscard, Godfrey of Bouillon and Raymond IV Count of Toulouse all swearing oaths (upon the payments of vast amounts of gold and treasure I might add) to wholeheartedly wish to keep.

A portrait of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos from a contemporary Greek Manuscript SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, Public domaine.

The siege of Nicaea

By early 1097, the crusader army had moved onto their first major target of the campaign the Seljuk city of Nicaea. An important city located close to Constantinople, Nicaea had fallen to the Turks and was one of the main catalysts for the crusade in the first place, giving the Muslim forces a potential spring board for attacking deep in to Byzantine territories.

The city was not heavily defended but, Nicaea did have miles of thick walls and a large lake across one side to keep out possible attackers. The crusader army of about 60,000 men had to settle in for a conventional siege, attempting to burrow under the massive walls but, all attempts to destroy the walls were in vain.

A 13th Century depiction of the siege of Nicaea SOURCE: Public domain

It wasn’t until 17th June, some two months after the siege started, when a Byzantine fleet was sent to reinforce the desperate forces that the city finally fell and it did so in slightly mysterious circumstances. When the crusader forces awoke on the morning of the 17th, they saw Byzantine flags and infantry on the walls of the city, with Alexios apparently ordering his commanders to negotiate the cities surrender, starving the Franks of their plunder lust. The crusader forces were less than happy with Alexios’ decision to take the city without them as they now had the opportunity to loot, plunder and kill in the name of God, other than a small relief force (that retreated at the sight of the massive army) the Seljuk forces in the area were incredibly light.

Antioch and beyond

After Nicaea, the Crusader/Byzantine army split. One group headed to Edessa to the east, another group moving on to Cilicia, with the main group heading through to Antioch in Syria. Antioch was one of the most important cities for the crusaders as the city was previously the home of Saint Peter and Paul but, for both sides, the city was the key to the Euphrates frontier and all of Syria.

The Siege at Antioch, like Nicaea looked to be a long one but what made things worse was that Alexios and the Byzantines got some very bad information. Hearing from deserters from the siege that the army was all but done, with men suffering from disease, famine and plague (all true but this is the case in most medieval sieges) Alexios I turned his Byzantine forces round that were set to reinforce the attackers, and returned to Constantinople thinking the siege was over. After hearing this, Bohemund was not best pleased. Seeing this as a betrayal of trust between the eastern and western leaders, the relationship was never to be the same again. Even with this major set back, the Christian army was, after 8 months able to take the city but only after a Christian on the inside of the city was able to get one of the gates open, letting the bloodthirsty soldiers in.

By June of 1098, the city of Antioch was firmly in Crusader hands (minus the citadel who’s garrison was still holding out) but, all was not well. After the city fell, word had reached a massive Muslim relief force who then laid siege to the Christians now inside the city.

The situation was a dire one, thousands of Seljuk mounted archers and infantry men, well supplied by the surrounding area looked to take back the city but, a mystic by the name of Peter Bartholomew had the answer. During an excavation of the city Peter was miraculously able to find the Holy Lance, the tool in which Jesus was apparently finally killed with, and presented this to the Crusader leaders. This may have seemed to good to be true for most even the Papal legate Adhemar of Le Puy, the de facto religious leader and mouth piece for the Crusade didn’t believe the Lance was found and was most likely just planted. Regardless of Adhemar’s apprehensions the morale of the camp improved ten fold and the crusades were able to storm out of the city and charge the much larger force with the lance as their standard. The Turkish forces were quickly routed and it wasn’t long before the city was completely under Crusader control. Bohemund declared himself Prince of Antioch, going back on his vow to the Byzantine emperor to return the lands to him probably in retaliation to the Emperor’s earlier betrayal.

A 13th Century depiction of the battle outside the gates of Antioch from William of Tyre’s Historie d’outremer SORUCE: British Library (image: Public domain)

The Siege of Jerusalem

After Antioch fell, the Crusaders were ready to move on to the true goal of the whole expedition, Jerusalem. The army left Antioch in December of 1098 and raided, and captured several costal cities on their way down to the Holy city and the centre of the medieval world. Arriving in June of 1099, the Christian army was filled with the same religious fervor and conviction that carried them across Europe and Asia Minor but, what they made up for in drive, they lacked in man power.

Of the original 60,000 men and knights that responded to Pope Urban II call, only between 12,000 to 15,000 remained. Death and desertion were common place in all armies throughout history but because of the geographical location of the conflict, It wasn’t as easy to replenish the forces fighting.

The Crusader army laid siege to the city with their limited numbers and no siege equipment with seemingly no way into the city. Jerusalem was one of the most important cities to all faiths and thus heavily defended with large walls, moats and precipices, giving the attacking Crusaders little in the form of advantage. Relying instead on their religious fanaticism, the entire army led by the clergymen marched in prayer around the city in the hope that prayers would be answered and the the city would fall.

The Muslim defenders had supplies and time on their side and, a massive relief force was on its way from Egypt, and would easily be able to crush the Crusaders. At a critical moment some Genoise ships were sighted off the coast ready to reinforce the attacking Christians, using the wood from their ships the sailors were able to make two siege towers to help with the siege. Godfrey of Bouillon took the towers to less defended part of the wall and was able to storm the walls with Godfrey himself leading the initial charge over the walls. After the initial assault was successful, the gates were flung open and Raymond, Tancred and the rest of the Frankish invaders entered the city. According to the Muslim historian and philosopher Ibn-Al-Arabi, what followed was an indiscriminate slaughter. Of the 30,000 inhabitants of Jerusalem, it is believed that at least 3,000 where raped and murdered by the attacking Christians. Regardless of faith, Jews, Muslims, and even other Christians were set upon with many taking refuge at the Al Aqsa mosque.

After the city fell, going against the wishes of the Byzantine Emperor, Godfrey of Bouillon was made King of Jerusalem. What would become the centre piece of the so called Crusader states, the Kingdom of Jerusalem joined the Counties of Edessa and Tripoli and the Principality of Antioch in becoming a Papist empire in the east.

"Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099” by Emile Signol (1847) SOURCE: Public domain"

The goals that Pope Urban and Alexios I had set out for the Crusade, had more or less been achieved. The Turks had been pushed out of most of Syria and Asia Minor, the major cities of Nicaea, Edessa, Antioch and most importantly, Jerusalem had been captured, allowing a complete Christian control over arguably, one of the most holy Cities in the whole world. On 29th June 1099, the Catholic church was plunged into darkness, Pope Urban II died, the mastermind behind the whole expedition never found out that the Holy city had fallen just two weeks before his death. After the battle of Ascalon, a desperate attempt by Muslim forces to recapture Jerusalem, most of the remaining Knights and pilgrims went back to their homes leaving only 300 knights in the city to protect it and the pilgrims that would now be free to travel through the holy land. The issue was that, the holy land was still not safe and shortly after the first Crusade, famous orders such as the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller were formed to serve and protect Christian pilgrims on their journeys to the holy sites around the city.


Written by Chris Riley

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