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 Pap