The First Crusade was one of the greatest military endeavours of Christendom during the Middle Ages, an enterprise that came to an inevitable clash against Islam. A story of greatness and wonder, and a story of hatred and selfishness.
Anno Domini 1099. Noon. Jerusalem
“But these were small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon, a place where religious services are ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it suffice to say this much, at least, that in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins”Raymond of Aguilers
The Sermon of Clermont
The Papal need for a First Crusade
In November 1095, the entirety of Christendom was about to be shaken to its core. The Pope Urban II read a sermon in the French city of Clermont, stating that Christendom was in grave danger, threatened by the invasion of Muslims, who already owned the Holy City of Jerusalem and were oppressing the Eastern Christians. Urban II then followed up by stating that every citizen of Europe had to rise up in arms against the Muslims as “Milites Christi” (Soldiers of Christ) to retake the Holy Land and free the Eastern Christians.
The power struggles between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire had severely weakened the former, whose authority was now put into question. In 1088 Urban II was elected as the new Pope, who pursued a sensible policy of peace and reformation in Europe. Although the Pope managed to get back much of his prestige and power, he was nowhere near the power and authority he had before the power struggles (Struggle named as “Investiture Controversy”).
In March 1095, the Pope Urban II received a Byzantine embassy, sent by the “Basileus” (Emperor) Alexios I Komnenos, who urgently requested military aid in his war against the Seljuk Turks, who were Muslim. This petition was a Godsend for the Pope since it allowed him to fulfil many of his plans, the most important of which would be to restore his authority over Europe. After winning over the support of hundreds of priests and noblemen, he called for a monastic assembly in Clermont, France, where he stated his intention of aiding the Byzantine Empire. Furthermore, he also revealed his ultimate intention, that was the conquest of the Holy Land since it was the birthplace of Christ.
Holy and Just War
Stating that Byzantines were being tortured and imprisoned by the Turks and that Christian pilgrims were being persecuted by the Muslim people that lived in the Holy Land, Urban II forged the “casus belli” he desperately needed, since the European lords and kings had no quarrel with Muslims (with the exception of the Christian kingdoms of Spain, who already had their hands full in the “Reconquista”). Indeed there was some truth in his words, but only in the respect of the war between the Turks and the Byzantines. The rest of his speech was just an attempt to demonize the Muslims in the eyes of the people to justify taking violent actions against them.
Furthermore, Urban II offered the people who would partake in this expedition salvation of their souls and redemption of all of their sins, since the war against the Muslims would be considered as a “Holy and Just War” in which the men were doing “God’s will”:
“All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested. O what a disgrace if such a despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the faith of omnipotent God and is made glorious with the name of Christ! With what reproaches will the Lord overwhelm us if you do not aid those who, with us, profess the Christian religion! Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago.”Pope Urban II
After this, Urban II urged the clergymen reunited in Clermont to repeat and spread his sermon all over Europe, to gain the support of the people and to unite the Church and the Laic powers in raising an army of “Soldiers of Christ” to fight against the demons and infidels:
“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. I say this to those who are present, it is meant also for those who are absent. Moreover, Christ commands it”Pope Urban II
The army of the First Crusade
The People’s Crusade
The months that followed the sermon of Clermont became truly remarkable. The message of Urban II spread throughout Europe like wildfire, thanks to the bishops and priests who divulged the Pope’s message without delay.
The first force to be assembled was the army of Peter the Hermit, a French monk who was gifted in the art of oratory and in only six months after Clermont managed to assemble an army of 15.000 – 30.000 men. Their ill-training and peasant origin gave this army the name of “People’s Crusade”, that marched towards Constantinople without delay, butchering thousands of Jews along the way. The Byzantine “Basileus” shipped them over Anatolia and warned them that the Seljuks had a better-prepared army. The Crusaders disregarded his words and marched to meet the Seljuk army. The Turks only needed 5.000 men and the element of surprise to crush the Crusaders, killing around 17.000 of them in the Battle of Civetot, 1096. The “People’s Crusade” was swiftly crushed, and just a few thousand survivors managed to get back to Constantinople.
The leaders of the First Crusade
Regardless of the defeat, more men answered the call of the Pope, and the army of the First Crusade was soon created, formed by 7.000-10.000 knights and 35.000-50.000 infantrymen. Knights and lords from the highest aristocracy in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy joined the Crusade, each of them pledging their own military force to the Crusade. Even though not a single king joined the Crusade, many of the most important and powerful lords of Europe did, and soon the army was filled with powerful and experienced leaders.
The First Crusade was lead by five men: Raymond of Toulouse, one of the most influential lords in Southern France; Bohemond of Taranto, who had a vast military experience and was of Norman heritage, who answered the call alongside his young nephew, Tancred of Hauteville; Godfrey of Bouillon, unable to impose his authority over his lands in Lorraine and restless to start a new life in the Holy Land alongside his brother Baldwin of Boulogne.
These five men, who together commanded three of the greatest Frankish armies and a Norman army, had the support of another army, commanded by three noblemen. Robert Curthose, brother of the King of England, Stephen of Blois and Count Robert II of Flanders.
The Crusader Armies started to arrive in Constantinople in November 1096. Alexios I Komnenos was decided to impose his authority over the Crusaders since, in theory, this First Crusade was sent to aid him in his war against the Seljuks. The “Basileus“ demanded that every city, village or fortress that was taken by the Crusaders had to be given to the Byzantine attaché that would accompany the Crusade and annexed by the Byzantines.
The first leader to agree to this would be Godfrey of Bouillon, and the rest would soon follow, swearing a fielty oath to the “Basileus” except Raymond of Toulouse, who refused to accept the authority of Alexios I.
The First Crusade and their road to Jerusalem
The siege of Nicea
The first bit of action that the First Crusade encountered was the Siege of Nicea. After crossing the Bosphorus, courtesy of the Seljuk Sultan Kilij Arslan, who believed this new Latin Army to be just another rabble, same as the People’s Crusade, the crusaders encountered the Sultan’s capital of Nicea. The city was separated from Constantinople by only 20 kilometres, which made the Crusader leaders think that the city could threaten Constantinople itself, and thus, their vital supply lines on their way to the Holy Land. Alexios I Komnenos confirmed these fears and ordered his newly-acquired army to march on the city and take it back in his name.
Even though the crusaders had to face huge city walls and hundreds of defensive towers, they immediately set to the task. Upon arrival, Kilij Arslan, who by then had quickly realized that this new Crusade was no rabble and in fact, posed a deadly threat to his lands in Anatolia, launched a surprise attack against the Crusade before they could manage to build their camp in front of Nicea.
The attack was easily repelled by the crusaders, forcing Kilij Arslan to retreat and allowing the Latins to finally lay siege to the city. Nicea was built close to a lake, which was located on the west side of the city, and the Crusaders quickly realized that they had no means to deny the Turks supplies from the lake, and thus a long siege to starve the garrison of Nicea was ruled out. With this in mind and the threat of the lingering army of Kilij Arslan, the crusaders decided for a more direct approach.
The crusaders charged towards the walls with ladders but were soon fought off by the Turks thanks to their overwhelming number of defensive towers, that showered the enemy with arrows. Attempts to break the city walls with catapults and mangonels (Siege engine) proved useless, since they weren’t able to breach the strong walls.
The crusaders decided to use their artillery to cover their sappers, who would dig a tunnel under the city walls and collapse them this way. Their success in destroying a small segment of the enemy walls proved useless, since the Turks proved to be equally determined, partially rebuilding the fallen wall and sealing the breach overnight.
After six long weeks of frustrated siege, the Crusaders welcomed the arrival of Byzantine reinforcements, especially the fleet of warships that Alexios I sent to address the lake issue. A combined assault of the Crusader army and the Byzantine fleet proved unstoppable, and the Seljuk defences were overwhelmed, and Nicea surrendered on June 19, 1097. However, tensions between Byzantines and Crusaders quickly erupted when the latter learned that they were not allowed to sack the city, forcing Alexios I Komnenos to pay a generous amount of gold to appease the crusaders.
Alexios I couldn’t be a happier man during this moment. He managed to acquire the fielty and loyalty of the First Crusade, and he also managed to get them to reconquer Nicea, the capital of the Seljuk Turks and a constant thorn on his side. The presence of a Papal envoy within the army, Adhemar of Le Puy, wasn’t enough to remind him of the real mission that the First Crusade had: The conquest of the Holy Land and the Holy City of Jerusalem.
Battle of Dorylaeum
The leaders of the Crusade decided, in the summer of 1097, to divide their army into two forces that would march close to each other towards the old Byzantine encampment of Dorylaeum. Kilij Arslan was decided to get revenge on his humiliation in Nicea, and massed a powerful army with thousands of horseback archers. He waited to ambush one of the two crusader forces, and soon that opportunity came.
In July of 1097, the crusader vanguard of the force commanded by Bohemond and Robert was suddenly attacked by thousands of Seljuk riders, who used their superior mobility and number of horseback archers to harass the crusaders in the hope they would turn and flee. However, Bohemond and Robert managed to maintain control over their men and keep their positions, waiting for the rest of the army to reinforce them.
The crusader vanguard formed a defensive line in a marsh close by, hindering the mobility of the Seljuk cavalry and allowing the crusaders to even the odds with their better armour and bigger numbers. A surprise attack by the Normans of Bohemond, who came to reinforce the vanguard and attacked the enemy’s flank, proved to be decisive, setting the enemy on the run.
After five hours of endless battle, Kilij Arslan decided to withdraw. The determination of the crusaders and their will to fight had frustrated his plans since the Seljuk Sultan hoped for the crusader vanguard to flee at the sight of this cavalry and leave the rest of the army severely weakened. Although the crusader lost 4.000 men, their determination and resistance caused 3.000 Seljuk deaths.
Kilij Arslan decided not to engage the Crusader Army again and took defensive positions around his lands in Anatolia. The crusaders managed to emerge victorious once again, even if it was at a great cost of lives, and managed to repel the Seljuk forces, leaving the road to Syria now open.
The door of the Middle East: Antioch
During the three month journey to Antioch, the First Crusade encountered a new enemy that was deadlier than the Seljuk horseback archers: Heat. The crusaders were decimated by the strong heat, quenching thirst and deadly diseases that accompanied the crusaders on their journey.
Once the Crusader Army left Cilicia, the Turkish southern land that borders Syria, Baldwin of Boulogne decided to leave the army and seek fortune on his own. He headed East of Syria, to the lands homed by Armenians, who were also Christian. With a small number of men, Baldwin went on a conquering rampage that ended up taking him to the doorstep of Edessa, where he was received by Thoros of Edessa, governor of the city. Already an old man and knowing full well the intentions of Baldwin, Thoros invited the crusader to his palace, and shockingly, adopted him and named him his heir.
Baldwin’s ambition wasn’t appeased enough by this, and after the mysterious assassination of Thoros, probably orchestrated by Baldwin himself, the crusader took control over the city and its surrounding land. The County of Edessa was now born as the first Crusader State.
The rest of the Crusader Armies rallied at the northern border of Syria, and in autumn of 1097, the First Crusade arrived at the gates of Antioch, the heavily fortified door of the Holy Land. With Jerusalem at only three weeks distance, the Crusaders knew that a defeat at Antioch would mean the end of the First Crusade.
The First Crusade is arguably the most important Crusade ever launched. It had more success than any other, managing to conquer the Holy Land, the impossible mission set by the Pope. Such an endeavour must be given its full attention, this meaning, two articles are required, in my opinion, to showcase the most important elements of the First Crusade. The sieges of Jerusalem and Antioch are the most famous and relevant moments out of this campaign, but the fielty oath to Alexios I Komnenos, the reasons behind the Pope’s campaign for a Crusade, and the battles and sieges that the crusaders had to undertake to even reach Antioch deserve their own article.
- Asbridge, Thomas (2010) The Crusades: The authoritative History of War for the Holy Land, HarperCollins Publishers.
- History Channel (2009) Las grandes batallas de la Historia, Penguin Random House, Madrid.
- Riley Smith, Jonathan (1999) The First Crusade and the idea of Crusading, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.