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The Crusades


This narrative concerns only the first crusade, but there were many, stretching from 1095 until the mid-thirteenth century, with occasional efforts as late as the 1400s. The textbook gives a decent overview of the entire phenomenon; this narrative affords a closer look at the only one of the crusades that was ever successful.

Preaching and Preparation

The First Crusade was called by Pope Urban II in 1095. The reason why he did this has long been a cause of debate among historians. We know that the Byzantine emperor, Alexius Comnenus, had sent letters and an embassy to the West asking for military aid to combat the Turks in Asia Minor. We know that Urban was a reforming, activist pope who was looking for some great event or cause. My own interpretation is that Alexius' very limited request sparked a grander plan in Urban's mind, which he undertook without bothering to consult with the emperor or indeed with very many people at all.

The events themselves are much clearer than the motivations. Urban called a church council for November 1095 at Clermont in southern France. The council was typical of Urban and of the past generation of reformist popes. It was a kind of court at which proclamations were read and papal policy could be made known. Here, too, Urban heard the many complaints and petitions that always attended a court.

But this council was unusual in one regard. Urban announced that he intended to close the council with an important public speech. Everyone was invited to this speech, which was to be held in the cathedral.

This cause a good deal of local excitement, for it was known that Urban intended to speak regarding the Holy Land. Everyone knew about Jerusalem, although they had only the foggiest of ideas of its location and situation. But they knew well that Jerusalem was in the hands of the Muslims, and that the Turks were a new and fearsome presence in the region.

Urban's Speech

The word spread and when the day came, the crowd, which included many laymen, was too large for the cathedral. So the speech was moved outside. The papal throne was set on a platform in an empty field outside the city walls, and the crowd assembled there.

Urban was, by all reports, a powerful and gifted speaker, and he brought all his rhetorical skills to bear. His speech is recorded in at least four sources; I will give a conglomerate summary here.

The noble race of the Franks must aid their co-religionists in the East. The infidel Turks are advancing into the heart of eastern Christendom (which they were: Byzantines had lost Asia Minor at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071; these were the Seljuk Turks - new converts to Islam and full of militant zeal).

Christians are being oppressed and attacked; the holy places are being defiled; and Jerusalem itself is groaning under the Saracen yoke. The Holy Sepulchre is in Muslim hands.

The West must march in defense of the Holy Land. All should go, rich and poor alike. God himself will lead them, for they will be doing His work.

There will be absolution and remission of sins for all who die here they are poor and miserable sinners - there they will be rich and happy, true allies of God. Let them march next summer. God wills it! (deus vult)

Reaction to Urban's Speech

Upon the completion of the speech, the local bishop immediately knelt before the throne and begged permission to be the first pilgrim. Urban presented him with a cross of red cloth to be sewed onto his clothes as a sign. Hundreds followed on the spot, in such numbers that the town merchants ran out of red cloth.

The Council next day granted privileges and protections to those who take the cross, and these were confirmed by papal letters. Word of the event swept across Europe, and many knights took the vow.

The vow itself was quite simple. A crusader was technically a pilgrim, and his vow was to visit the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. But both the Holy Land and the way there was in the hands of enemies, so the crusader went armed, ready to do battle and with the blessing of the Church. This set the crusader apart from the usual sort of pilgrim.

The crusader was legally protected from foreclosure on debts, and from attack by Christian enemies. Should he die on his pilgrimage, he was assured of complete remission of sins; that is, he would not have to suffer in purgatory for them. Should he survive, glory and praise would be his -- and, with a little luck, fortune as well.

It was a potent tool and it roused thousands. It mobilized far more warriors than Alexius Comnenus wanted or desired, and for a purpose well beyond his interests. But it went even further, for the crusading call of Urban struck a responsive chord in every level of medieval society, with results that surprised everyone.

The People's Crusade

The call for crusade was spread by letter among the clergy and to the people in general by preaching. Urban had said that rich and poor alike should go, though by that he certainly meant only that a knight should not plead poverty as an excuse. He cannot have meant that poor peasants ought to walk away from their farms and march off to Jerusalem.

But that is exactly what happened. Preachers of the crusade emerged from numerous sources whose constant message was that all should go and God shall lead them. What need was there of military skill in such a holy cause? Moreover, the nobles of Europe were laggard; Urban had called for them to leave in the summer of 1096, but that summer came and went and no army was formed.

But the commoners did not delay. One of the most influential leaders was a hermit called Peter, who roused thousands to his cause. From Flanders he moved up the Rhine River valley, gathering strength and joined by other preachers with their forces. By the time he reached Cologne, there were 15,000 crusaders. Among these were a number of poor knights who added at least some military skill as leaven, one of whom was Walter the Penniless, a knight who joined forces with Peter at Cologne.

Of Armies and Mobs

Other leaders and groups were hardly more than mobs. Emich of Leiningen and Volkmar, led groups that moved through the Rhenish towns murdering hundreds of Jews and looting their possessions. These bands travelled separately from Peter and Walter's army. Their ill-discipline brought them to a bad end in Hungary. There they tried the same bullying and plundering tactics and soon found themselves facing a Hungarian army. The crusaders were completely routed and disbanded.

The largest force belonged to Peter and Walter, and this army entered Byzantine territory in the summer of 1096. It was not at all what the emperor had envisioned. Alarmed by reports of looting and pitched battles, Alexius sent an army to escort the crusaders. Disagreements escalated to conflict and by the time he reached Constantinople, Peter had lost a quarter of his army.


The crusaders behaved badly in Byzantine territory, had little money, and were embarassing and unwelcome guests. Alexius got rid of them as quickly as he could, having them ferried across the Bosporus in August 1096.

There the army was delayed while Peter the Hermit tried to gain Byzantine backing for a march on Jerusalem, but that hope was vain. In October 1096 a French force won booty on a raid. A German contingent tried to imitate their success and became trapped in a stronghold at Xerigordon without water. When the main army tried to help them, it marched into a well-prepared Turkish ambush.

Most were killed. Many more were enslaved, and only a handful (about 3,000 out of a force of 20,000) managed to escape. Peter, still in Constantinople, learned that his great armed pilgrimage of God's poor was over and that he was without an army.

That was the end of the so-called People's Crusade. The real crusader army had not yet arrived.

The Leaders of the First Crusade

The First Crusade proper was supposed to have a churchman as its leader. Pope Urban selected Bishop Adhemar of Puy for this role, but he was generally overshadowed by the lay lords who went.

Foremost among them was Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lorraine. He was the perfect material for legend: a descendant of Charlemagne, Godfrey was a good warrior and a pious Christian. Later chroniclers would turn him into the perfect knight.

His younger brother went, too: Baldwin of Boulogne. Baldwin was a contrast with his brother. Where Godfrey was personable, Baldwin was cold and aloof. He had a taste for luxury and power, and an arrogance that did not warm others to him. He was meant for a career in the Church, but that did not suit his taste.

More important than either of these two was Count Raymond IV of Toulouse; at least, he was more important in his own estimation. He was the oldest, being near sixty when he set out. He had served in the Reconquista in Spain and so had the credentials as a soldier of Christ. Well-mannered and cultured, Raymond could well have been the revered leader that Godfrey became, but he was greedy, vain and obstinate. His grasping nature made others wary of him even though they valued his leadership.

The last major player was Bohemond of Tarentum, a Norman of southern Italy. He was the best commander and politician of the group, and he had the most experience with Eastern affairs. Bohemond had invaded Byzantine territory fifteen years before under his uncle's leadership.

Bohemond and Baldwin almost certainly were setting out in part to win new lands for themselves. Godfrey may or may not have: he sold some estates before setting out, but he kept most of his traditional family lands. Raymond would never have given up Toulouse, and he surely did not need more honors, but his actions once in the East show he must have been thinking about the possibilities, at least.

These were not the only lords who set out with their own armies, but I'll restrict the narrative to these five.

Relations with Constantinople

Alexius Comnenus wanted warriors, but he wanted to control them himself and to employ them pursuing his goals, not theirs. The arrival of the People's Crusade had been unfortunate and embarassing, but the arrival of the real crusaders did not much impress the emperor, either.

The crusaders behaved badly, arguing with Byzantine merchants and getting into fights with the locals. They were loud, rude, demanding, and very well armed. Alexius needed them, but he found that he had to try to control them without angering them.

The sticking point came when Alexius insisted the crusaders swear an oath of allegiance to him. They lands they conquered that had been under Byzantine control were to be returned to him. Anyone gaining title to new lands were to become his vassals. If these barbarians were going to become his neighbors, he wanted to make sure they were not independent of Constantinople.

Most of the crusaders refused outright. The Greeks, they said, had lost their lands to the Turks. If the Franks won the lands from the Turks, then those lands would be Frankish by right of conquest. Negotiations were delicate if not always polite.

In the end, only Raymond of Toulouse took the oath, though Bohemond and others promised they would do so. The stay in Constantinople created a rift between the Greeks and the Franks that never fully healed. The Franks remained suspicious, the Greeks remained contemptuous, but both needed the other.


The crusader army finally crossed into Asia Minor in March 1097. Operating together for the time being, crusaders and Byzantines lay siege to Nicaea, the capital of the Turk.

The Byzantines took the city by stealth one night. The Franks woke the next morning to find Greek flags flying from the city walls. The crusaders were furious because they had been denied booty, prisoners for ransom, and glory.

This incident furthered the bad feelings toward Alexius, but Christendom was overjoyed at the victory - Nicaea was a holy place and its return to Christian hands boded well. The victory at Nicaea was also important because it was from this time that the Italian cities began to take the movement seriously, and to offer aid.


The crusaders faced as decision about routes after their victory at Nicaea. The Greeks wanted them to proceed down the Aegeancoast, where they could be supplied by sea. The Franks, however,chose to travel the inland route. This was riskier, for it played to the strengths of the Turks, but it had the advantage that there would be no long sieges. The coastline was filled with well-defended cities and progress was sure to be slow. The Greeks wanted this route because it meant winning back valuable resources. When the Franks chose the inland route, the emperor refused to risk his army in what he regarded as a foolish venture. So the crusaders went on without Byzantine assistance.

The interior of Turkey is arid and open, the perfect sort of place for the highly mobile Turks. But they were still disorganized and the crusader army advanced some distance before Kilij Arslan was able to meet them.

The two armies met in July 1097 near the town of Dorylaeum in Anatolia. The crusader army was rather strung out along the line of march, with Bohemond and his Normans in the van. He encountered the main Turkish army near the end of the day. Bohemond's small force was immediately surrounded, but the Turks waited for dawn to attack.

They attacked thinking they had surrounded the entire crusader force, and they were confident of victory. After all, they remembered how easily they had defeated the previous Frankish army (Peter the Hermit's rabble). But these Franks (the Arabs and Turks alike persisted in calling all Europeans Franks, regardless of their nationality) these Franks turned out to be another matter altogether.

The Normans fought on foot. Fully armored, despite the July sun, they were protected from the light arrows of the Turks, who used their usual tactic of swooping in upon the enemy, discharging a volley of arrows, then riding away again.

Reinforcements begin arriving around noon. The first to arrive was Godfrey of Bouillon, in the comapany of about fifty knights.Godfrey took one look at the situation and charged. He broke through the Turkish lines and arrived at Bohemond's side.

Now they were both surrounded. As the afternoon wore on, other contingents arrived and followed the same tactic. While each group became alike surrounded, each group also added to the strength of the defenders and inflicted heavier and heavier casualties upon the Turks. Fighting became fierce.

One of the last to arrive was the good bishop of Le Puy, Adhemar. He sized up the situation and decided on a different course. He took his men around the battlefield and proceeded to loot theTurkish camp. When the Turks saw their camp going up in flames, it unnerved them and they at last broke and fled.

This was all the proof any of the crusaders needed that their armed pilgrimage was indeed ordained by God. They had met a superior enemy and had triumphed. Nothing could stop them.

Dorylaeum instilled a new respect on both sides for their enemies. The crusaders discovered that the Turks were honorablewarriors and thought it a pity that they were not Christian. TheTurks, for their part, revised their estimate of the fighting ability of the Franks and generally tried to avoid further battle.


As the crusaders approached Syria, they were approached by Christians from the city of Edessa. These men begged the crusaders to turn aside from Jerusalem, or at least to send some portion of their army, to rescue their city, which was in the hands of the Turks. Edessa had long been a Christian city, had only recently fallen to the infidel, and its citizens were suffering greatly.

Most of the crusaders insisted that Jerusalem must take precedence, promising to attend to Edessa once the Holy City had been freed. Baldwin, however, agreed to go. This caused much consternation among the crusaders, who said they needed every knight they could get, but Baldwin was determined.

So, he turned aside from the main crusading army, and freed the city, and was adopted by the grateful Christian ruler. Within months, however, Baldwin had deposed the count and claimed the title for himself, which he very likely had planned to do from the first.

Thus the County of Edessa became the first of the crusader states, and Baldwin of Boulogne its first ruler. Although he had promised to go to Jerusalem as soon as he had liberated Edessa, he in fact did not go until after Jerusalem had fallen to the crusaders. Baldwin is one of the clearest examples we have of a knight who went on the First Crusade in order to win lands for himself.

Antioch In northern Syria, twelve miles inland from the coast, stands the city of Antioch. It was a powerful fortress, with four hundred towers along its miles of walls, and a citadel that stood a thousand feet above the town. The crusaders reached the city late in 1097 and settled in for a siege. Antioch was vital to any advance further south; despite its strength, it had to be taken.

Even with such a clear danger, and even with the crusaders firmly fixed in one spot, the Turks could not quiet their internal rivalries long enough to do the Franks in. Instead, month after month dragged by. Both besiegers and besieged faced starvation, but in June 1098 the city finally fell when the Franks were able to bribe someone on the inside to leave a gate open.

The city was a shambles after the long siege, and there was still no food. The crusaders barely had time to get themselves organized before a new Turkish army showed up, under the command of Kerbogha. Now the crusaders were the besieged.

Their position was immediately desperate. The entire surrounding countryside had long been scoured clean of supplies. They city itself of course was empty of food. The walls stood and the gates held, but the defenders themselves had little hope.

The Holy Lance

At this point, still in June 1098, something extraordinary, something miraculous occurred. A monk named Peter Bartholomew reported that he had been visited by an angel who had shown him where the Holy Lance was buried. This was the Roman soldier's spear that pierced Jesus's side as he hung on the cross. The lance was actually located in a church right there in Antioch!

The crusaders divided almost immediately between those who believed Peter's claims and those who rejected them. He was questioned carefully by Adhemar and others, and while the bishop was skeptical, Peter was believed by Count Raymond, whose support proved decisive.

The alleged location was at a nearby church. Men went there and, directed by Peter Bartholomew, began digging in the floor of the church. They dug some distance down, but found nothing. Peter himself went down to dig and, not long after, he pulled out of the ground the head of a spear.

News that the Holy Lance had indeed been found raced through the city. Such a miracle surely portended victory, and plans were made on the spot to sally out to meet the Turks.

There were still skeptics, of course, but in the general enthusiasm, they remained silent. The Christians gathered their forces, set a day for the attack, and prepared. The Holy Lance was affixed to a pole. During the actual battle it was carried before the Christians as a sort of banner.

The day came, in early July, and the Christians attacked with a furious cavalry charge, the infantry managing as best it could. The Turks fought briefly, then abandoned the field. In truth, Kerbogha had been able to raise an army only by dangling the prospects of easy victory before the eyes of his emirs. Once it became obvious that there would be serious fighting, the Arab princes faded away and the Turkish princes followed.

To the Christians, of course, this was plain evidence of the miraculous power of the Holy Lance. It was time to move on the Jerusalem.

On to Jerusalem

Settlement of Antioch

Yet, it was not until January 1099 that the crusaders finally set out, and even then it was at reduced strength. Antioch had been won from the infidel and someone was needed to rule it. Raymond of Toulouse and Bohemond of Tarentum maneuvered for the prize, but it was Bohemond who won it. Antioch became the second crusader state, and Bohemond remained there with his Normans.

The End of a Holy Man

The march southward was difficult and took months more. Several towns fell to the crusaders, some requiring a formal siege to win. Peter Bartholomew began experiencing regular visits from the angel, who advised him on all manner of details regarding the advance. At one siege, Peter even began giving military advice.

This was too much for his skeptics. Peter's visions were far too convenient and too martial, and he was openly accused of lying. Challenged, Peter offered to undergo ordeal by fire to prove that he was divinely guided. Being in Biblical lands, they chose a Biblical ordeal: Peter would pass through a fiery furnace and would be protected by an angel of God.

The crusaders constructed a path between walls of flame; Peter would walk down the path between the flames. He did so, and was horribly burned. He died after suffering in agony for twelve days. There was no more said about the Holy Lance, although one faction continued to hold that Peter was genuine and that this was indeed the true Lance.

The Siege of Jerusalem

The crusaders finally arrived before Jerusalem in the evening of 7 June 1099. Jerusalem is a city on a hill or bluff, in the middle of wide deserts. There are pools and springs around the city, but beyond that both water and good forests are miles distant, making this a difficult city to besiege for long.

Jerusalem was held by Arab, not Turkish, defenders. Inside the city, too, were a large number of Jews and Christians, who were tolerated by their Arab rulers. But Jerusalem was not well defended, and no Arab lord from Damascus or Cairo or Bagdad was willing to come to its rescue.

The crusaders besieged Jerusalem for a month, and were in turn assaulted by wind and heat. They very quickly managed to pollute the best water sources, thereby rendering themselves even more miserable. Siege engines could be built only by dragging great logs from the distant mountains, harassed by Arab marauders all the while.

It was discouraging and more than discouraging: why had God granted them such victories, only to deny them the final prize?

The priests in the army had an answer: God would not allow them to liberate the city because the army was guilty of great sins. There was gambling and prostitution and theft and worse rampant in the ranks of the crusaders, and such men could not liberate the Holy Sepulcher.

So, early in July, the Christian army underwent a three day fast. At the end of it, on 8 July, they marched around the city on a footpath in a complete circuit, bishops and priests in front, with crosses and relics, then princes and knights, then soldiers and pilgrims. All were barefoot, and they sang psalms as they went. And the Muslims jeered from the walls. The penitent crusaders then ascended the Mount of Olives and listened to inspired sermons.

The Fall of Jerusalem

The assault began night of 13-14 July, 1099. The attack came from several quarters, although they really didn't have an army numerous enough for this type of attack. Even so, their eagerness carried the day. Around noon on the 15th, Godfrey of Bouillon carried the wall at one point and the crusaders were inside. Not long after, Raymond of Toulouse likewise broke in.

What ensued was an orgy of slaughter. The crusaders killed all they met, regardless of age, sex or religion. The killing went on all that night and through the next day and into the next night. Order was not restored until the 16th of July. When the killing was over, all Muslims and Jews had either been killed or driven out. The crusaders had liberated Jerusalem, but the streets ran with blood and their prize was very nearly a corpse.

The Muslims would never forget the sack of Jerusalem, a city as sacred to their religion as to the Christians (Jerusalem is where Mohammed ascended to Heaven). This was the crowning event in a string of incidents that convinced the Arabs that these Franks were ferocious barbarians. Any Arab leader seeking to rally his people against the Christians had only to remind them of Jerusalem.


The crusaders were now in possession of Jerusalem plus two other states. What next? The representative of the pope was Bishop Adhemar, but he had died during the siege of Antioch. The crusaders chose Godfrey to be king of Jerusalem, but Godfrey declared that only Christ could be king in that city and chose instead the title of Defender of the Holy Sepulcher.

Many of the crusaders visited the holy sites, including trips as far afield as the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee, then they returned home to Europe. Within a few months, all Godfrey had left was about fifty knights.

News went back to a joyous Europe, but Urban II himself died on 29 July without ever knowing the results of his crusade. There were immediate calls for reinforcements for the Holy Land, and three more armies set out. All three separately met disaster in 1101 in Anatolia; only a handful reached the Holy Land.

The Latin Kingdom

The one crusading leader who was without a realm was Raymond of Toulouse. He had been outmaneuvered at Antioch, and was not popular enough to be chosen for Jerusalem. Instead, he turned his attention to the cities along the coast, and in particular upon Tripoli. Raymond died in 1105, but his Provencals took the city in 1109, forming the fourth and final Crusader state.

Godfrey died in 1100. His kinsman, Baldwin, was called down from Edessa. A papal representative crowned Baldwin King of Jerusalem on Christmas Day, 1100. Edessa was already his, but it was a separate state. Antioch and Tripoli in theory recognized Jerusalem as their superior, but in actual practice they went their own way. The Christians were no better than the Muslims at creating stable, central governments.

In sharp contrast to Europe, the nobles in Outremer (literally, beyond the sea) mainly lived in the cities. They soon set to work building castles, but the greater number of "Franks" were city dwellers. The countryside remained Arab Muslim (or, certain areas, Syrian Christian). The Franks were always a tiny minority, but their military prowess was respected and feared.

Still, the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem survived as much through Muslim disunity as through Frankish arms. Time and again the Muslims produced a great leader who united them (or some of them, at least) -- Zengi, Nuradin, Saladin, Baybars, Kulavan -- and every time these leaders were able to push the Christians back. But, every time save the final, rivals within the Muslim world emerged and the great leaders had to turn their attentions elsewhere, and Outremer was preserved for another generation.

Later Crusades

Moreover, Europe produced more crusader armies, which sometimes served to recover lost ground, to bolster positions, and to dismay or at least distress the Muslims. The formally numbered crusades set out in these years: Second Crusade, 1147; Third Crusade, 1189; Fourth Crusade, 1204; Fifth Crusade, 1217; Sixth Crusade, 1228; Seventh Crusade, 1249; Eighth Crusade, 1270. The last outpost of Outremer, the city of Acre, fell in 1291.

Even after the final collapse of Outremer, crusades continued to be preached. Among the more notable were an expedition against Egypt in 1334, and crusades that ended in terrible defeats at Nicopolis in 1391 and at Varna in 1444.

And these are only the more notable. All through the 12th and 13th centuries, smaller efforts were undertaken by individuals or groups. Crusades were preached against other enemies as well, including the pagan Slavs in northeastern Europe, the Muslims in Spain, heretics in southern France and in Bohemia, and even against political enemies of the popes in Italy.

But crusading had long since ceased to have the power to move all Europe to action. Crusades, even by the mid-13th century, were undertaken largely at the instigation of one or two princes. The crusades of 1249 and 1270, for example, were essentialy the crusades of King Louis IX of France. A king or great prince did most of the financing and raising of arms, and the Church merely gave its approval and support.

Results of the Crusades

It is common for textbooks to talk about the results of the crusades: increased contact with the East, opening up of markets, Arab influence on styles and customs, changes in military practice. While all these certainly came about at one time or another, crusades were preached from the end of the eleventh century on into the sixteenth century. One has to be cautious in assigning any sort of result to a movement that covers five hundred years.

Crusading activity simply became a part of European culture, the idea of making war on the enemies of the Church became part of European thinking. In a sense, the religious wars of the Protestant Reformation are the logical result of this mentality; by the time Europeans had exhausted themselves in internal religious war, we hear no more about wars against the infidel.

If we can assign specific results anywhere, it must be to the First Crusade. By creating formal states in the Holy Land, the First Crusade created a tie between Europe and the Near East. It was from this crusade that the consequences listed in the first paragraph above resulted, and that is why this crusade has received the attention of this narrative.

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