Early Medieval Western Europe was a lawless place, the great Monarchies with which we are so familiar now had not yet established themselves and it was governed, if that’s the right word, by a series of petty warlords constantly squabbling and fighting over ever more land and increasingly scant resources. Starvation and the threat of violence was a feature of everyday life and the only unifying factor in this blood-soaked world of ever shifting alliances was the Roman Catholic Church and the fear of God, but in a world steeped in sin its influence was often negligible.
The power and primacy of the Christian Church was also being challenged elsewhere.
In the Middle-East and North Africa the religion of Islam which had only been established in the early 7th century had since not through persuasion but by force of arms spread like wildfire until by the 1090’s a powerful Caliphate straddled the borders of the Byzantine Empire and much of the land where Christianity had been born lay in the hands of these so-called Infidels.
In March 1095, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus I fearing for the territorial integrity of his Empire and indeed the safety of his capital Constantinople wrote a letter to and sent envoys to meet with his Western counterpart Pope Urban II in Rome.
In the letter he pleaded for assistance in his continuing battle against the expanding power of Islam and what he sought were a thousand or so armed knights to bolster his own forces to defend against the encroachments of the increasingly belligerent Seljuk Turks.
Pope Urban was delighted to receive a request for assistance from a man he often saw as a religious adversary in the East but Alexius was soon to regret his decision for the response he received horrified him – he had inadvertently unleashed Holy War.
The Church which had struggled for centuries to control a, quarrelsome and divided nobility long wedded to violence had been provided with a heaven sent opportunity to unite an often warring Christendom behind the primacy of the Church in Rome and to re-establish its political authority, and Pope Urban grasped it with both hands.
The centre of religious life in the then known world was the city of Jerusalem, a place holy to all three of the great monotheistic religions: to the Jews it was the site of the great temples of Solomon and Herod and the Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans; to Muslims it was where the prophet Mohammed ascended to Heaven; and to Christians it was where their Messiah was crucified.
It was a place of pilgrimage for all religions but it was under Muslim control – the Pope decided it was time to take it back for Christ.
The letter from the Emperor Alexius Comnenus had provided Pope Urban with a unique opportunity and the idea for a religious crusade appears to have been his alone, no such thing had been hinted at in the letter and there had been no prior discussions regarding it.
He had decided that instead of fighting each other the western warlords would now fight for him, they would owe their allegiance to him and through him to God, and he would reward them for their devotion to their faith with the remission of their sins.
Pope Urban II embarked upon a speaking tour of France to promote his idea for a Crusade to recapture the Holy Land for Christ which culminated in November 1095, in the Council of Clermont.
The word of his mission had spread and a great many clergy, nobles, and common people had turned up to hear him speak, so many in fact that the meeting had to be adjourned and reconvened in an open field nearby.
Pope Urban was not to disappoint his audience and he gave an impassioned, colourful, and not entirely accurate account of events. He began by describing in graphic detail the atrocities being committed against Christians in the Holy Land and the humiliations they were daily forced to endure:
“The cradle of our faith, the native land of our Lord, the Mother of our Salvation, is now forcibly held by a people without God. For many years now the wicked race of Saracens followers of unclean practices, have oppressed with tyrannical violence the holy places where our Lord’s feet rested; dogs have entered into the holy places, priests slain in the sanctuary, virgins forced into prostitution or face death by torture.”
He then went on to explain the duty of all Christians:
“This land which you inhabit, shut in on all sides by the sea and surrounded by mountain peaks, it is too narrow for your population, nor does it abound in wealth, and it provides scarcely enough for its cultivators. Hence it is that you murder one another that you wage war and frequently you perish by mutual wounds. Let hatred therefore depart from amongst you. Let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions and quarrels and controversies slumber.
Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre, rest the land from the wicked race of Saracens and subject it to yourselves. God has conferred upon you above all nations, great glory in arms. Accordingly undertake this journey for the remission of your sins with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage warfare against the faithful now go against the Infidel and end with victory this war that should have been started years ago.
Christians hasten to help your brothers in the East for they are being attacked, arm for the rescue of Jerusalem under your Captain Christ. Wear his Cross as your badge. I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s Herald to publish this everywhere and persuade all people of whatever rank, foot soldiers and knights, poor and rich to carry our aid promptly to those Christians and destroy this vile race.
All those who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the Infidel shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant through the power of God with which I am invested. O what a disgrace if such a despised and vile race which worships demons should conquer a people which has the faith of omnipotent God and is made glorious in the name of Christ!”
Pope Urban in his account of the life of Christians in the Holy Land was being disingenuous to say the least.
The burden of taxation was certainly great and like any traveller the pilgrim might be cheated of his money, robbed on the highway, or receive a hostile reception from the people but they were rarely subject to attack from the forces of Islam, and no massacres had occurred. The truth was there was no policy of persecution and a Christian was free to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land but would have to take his chances like anyone else.
But as always the devil is in the detail but who cared about the detail when you are doing God’s work.
To undertake the Crusade, Urban promised, would bring God’s forgiveness; to die on Crusade would see the remittance of all one’s sins and the fortunate martyr would ascend directly to Heaven with no time spent in purgatory.
Those who had sinned, in a world where it was impossible not to, could seek redemption on Crusade; a pilgrimage undertaken with the blessing of the Church would see its protection, and to go on Crusade against the Infidel would see exemption from taxes at home.
Pope Urban’s call for Holy War was greeted with wild enthusiasm as he concluded his speech with an appeal for all good Christians to take the cross and many in the crowd began to chant Deus Volt! Or God Wills It!
Priests were charged with spreading the message from town to town and village to village and the effect of his appeal went far beyond anything he could have foreseen or anticipated.
Pope Urban had planned for the Crusade to begin on 15 August 1096, and there was no lack of willingness on the part of the nobility to participate in a Crusade to free the Holy Land from the Infidel, for those knights steeped in blood it was a route out of Hell, and now they could violate the Sixth Commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill with impunity, as long as those they killed were Infidels.
But it was not for reasons of religious zeal alone that they rushed to take up the Cross.
Pope Urban had referred to the East as the Land of Milk and Honey, and so it seemed; it was the main trade route from the Orient for the great caravans laden with spices, silks, and jewels; there was also land in abundance that was seemingly there for the taking and to an impoverished Western Nobility it offered an opportunity not only to become rich but perhaps even carve out a Kingdom for themselves.
The most powerful of the future Crusaders and also the oldest was the 54 year old one-eyed veteran of many wars, Raymond of Toulouse. He was a feared military leader and a devout Christian who regularly took monks on his campaigns to hear his prayers. He had the most money and his was the largest army.
He was respected but his haughtiness caused a great deal of resentment for he considered himself to be the de-facto leader of the Crusade, though many others did not agree and the few who did were often bullied into doing so.
Duke Godfrey of Lorraine, described as being “tall, not overly so, but more than the average man, and strong beyond compare with solidly built limbs and stalwart chest” raised his forces from his Palatinate of the Rhineland and was the closest in power to Raymond of Toulouse but he was unpredictable, easy to anger, and prone to extreme acts of violence. Both he and his brother Baldwin were determined to create their own realm in the Holy Land.
Hugh of Vermandois was the younger brother of King Philip I of France, though from his behaviour you would never have known it. He was vain, arrogant, and boastful but in almost every other way ineffectual inspiring little confidence and few people respected him. He, on the other hand, demanded that his exalted status be recognised, he also had little money and was a nobleman on the make.
Duke Robert of Normandy was the eldest son of William the Conqueror and an argumentative man, so disputatious in fact that his father had considered disinheriting him. Instead he had split his Kingdom with Duke Robert ruling in Normandy and his younger son William Rufus in England.
It was not an entirely wise decision for the Duke Robert had run Normandy into the ground, so-much-so that he now barely possessed more than the clothes he stood up in. He wanted to go on Crusade not to redeem his soul but his fortune, but he’d had to mortgage what remained of his Duchy to do so.
Bohemund of Tarentum’s powerbase was the Island of Sicily. He had previously been an active participant in his father’s wars with the Byzantine Empire and he was someone the Emperor Alexius Comnenus considered a dangerous enemy not an ally.
Before any of these ruthless and ambitious men set off for the Holy Land however there were enemies to be found nearer to home. Why go abroad to kill the Infidel when he was living in your midst?
A brutal pogrom against the Jews was to be the bloody precursor to the recapture of the Holy Land.
The Jews had long been accused of the murder of Christ but more significantly perhaps they were also hated as the bankers of Christendom. Usury or the charging of interest on loans was proscribed by the Christian Church, as it was also in Judaism but in their case only to fellow Jews.
Banned from most other professions Jewish wealth was built on their ability to loan money at a profit, a sin in Christian eyes, and so surely any religious Crusade against the Infidel must surely also entail the elimination of the Jew. Of course to do so would also wipe out their debts and avenge years of humiliation at the hands of those they considered inferior.
The worst atrocities against the Jews were carried out in the Rhineland Palatinate. Duke Godfrey of Lorraine before setting off for the Holy Land took this oath:
“I go on this journey only by avenging the blood of the crucified one by shedding the blood and eradicating any trace of those bearing the name Jew, thus assuaging his own burning wrath.”
He then set his forces upon those Jews resident within his area of control and entire Jewish communities in Mainz, Cologne, Worms, Speyer and many other towns were completely wiped out despite in many cases having been promised the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV.
The worst culprit of the violence was a knight of ill-repute known as Emicho of Flonheim who used the opportunity of the pogroms to line his own pockets and make himself a very rich man indeed. There were many others like him and similar massacres elsewhere.
Long before the great and the good of Western Nobility or any army of knights set off for the Holy Land there was the People’s Crusade.
Pope Urban’s message of Holy War had been spread far and wide by the clergy and enthused by what they heard many peasants had flocked to a charismatic lay preacher by the name of Peter the Hermit. He had already travelled to Jerusalem on pilgrimage and now he preached from village to village calling on people to join him in returning to the city to answer the Pope’s call and redeem the holy places for Christ.
Described as being small and ugly riding a donkey which was almost as revered as he was:
“He wore a plain shirt with a hood and over this a cloak without sleeves, both extending to his ankles and his feet were bare. He lived on wine and fish and hardly ever ate bread.”
Unprepossessing though he may have been people hung on his every word.
By the time the People’s Crusade set off for the Holy Land it numbered around 30,000 men, women, and children with entire villages abandoned and it was to continue to pick up more and more followers as it went.
Despite having a number of knights and minor nobility among its ranks it remained an ill-disciplined rabble and Peter the Hermit was soon to realise how little control he wielded over it.
Having no provisions of its own it plundered its way across Europe defeating a small Hungarian Army sent to restore order at the River Sava and it wasn’t until the People’s Crusade reached the town of Nish that the Byzantine Emperor at last felt obliged to send Imperial troops to quell the disorder and put a stop to the attacks.
The People’s Crusade reached Constantinople on 1 August 1096, shocking the Emperor Alexius Comnenus, this was not what he had been expecting at all and he forbade them entry to the city. He later relented and they were let in a dozen at a time but few ever got within the city’s walls.
He did however wish to meet this Peter the Hermit but when he did he was not impressed and he seemed little better than the dirty, ignorant, and violent people he led. Nevertheless, aware of what would become of them if they continued on their journey to the Holy Land he tried to persuade Peter the Hermit to wait until the Crusader Armies arrived but he refused so ships were provided for him and his people to cross the Bosphorus.
In truth, the Emperor was relieved to see them go.
Once the People’s Crusade reached Asia-Minor their minds quickly turned from piety to plunder and the villages they passed through were pillaged and their populations, mostly Christian, put to the sword.
Arguments soon broke out however over how the plunder should be divided to such an extent that the French and the German contingents became two separate warring camps.
The Germans under the command of an Italian named Rainald marched with 6,000 men on the Castle at Xenigordon. It was barely defended and easily captured but once inside the Germans had failed to realise that its water supply was outside the walls and soon besieged by the forces of the Turkish ruler Kilij Arslan they were reduced to drinking the blood of donkeys and their own urine. Forced to surrender the Germans were given the choice of subjecting themselves to circumcision, converting to Islam and being sold into slavery, or be beheaded.
Many chose the latter, though their leader Rainald subsequently converted to Islam and was as a result sold as a slave.
Meanwhile Turkish spies within the main Crusader camp were spreading the rumour that the Germans had not only taken Xenigordon but had also captured the much larger town of Nicaea and were positively drowning in plunder.
Most of the 20,000 or so remaining Crusaders under the command of a Frenchman, Geoffrey Burel, left the camp in a state of great excitement determined to acquire riches for themselves, but they were marching straight into a trap.
On 21 October, near the village of Dracon they were ambushed and though Burel and some 3,000 knights and peasants managed to escape to a nearby disused Castle where they were able to hold out until rescued by Imperial troops, everyone else, men, women, and children were slaughtered and their bones piled high to be bleached in the sun as an example to those who might follow.
Peter the Hermit had avoided the massacre having already returned to Constantinople on the pretext of gathering supplies but in truth he had long ago lost all control over the direction of the People’s Crusade and was wise enough to see how it was going to end.
He would later join the Crusade proper but his influence remained minimal and was to die in Huy, France, in 1115, still the charismatic preacher.
By this time four separate European Armies were descending upon Constantinople. These were the official forces of Pope Urban II’s declared mission to re-take the Holy Land for Christendom.
The first to arrive in November 1096 was Hugh of Vermandois. He had sent ahead of him a message demanding an official reception and the granting of all honours that were incumbent upon a man of his exalted status:
“Know, O King that I am King of Kings, and superior to all, who are under the sky. You are now permitted to greet me, on my arrival, and to receive me with magnificence, as befits my nobility.”
He was later shipwrecked and had to be rescued from drowning and the now more contrite Hugh was to be quickly seduced by the Byzantine Court becoming the effective mouthpiece of the Emperor Alexius.
Over the next six months the other armies arrived, first Duke Godfrey, then Raymond of Toulouse, and finally Bohemond. In total their forces numbered around 60,000 men.
To have such an array of armed men, well-disciplined, fired by religious zeal, and enthusiastic for the fight camped outside the walls of his city was a truly terrifying prospect for the Emperor Alexius but he had learned from Hugh of Vermandois of the Western custom of fealty, or oath of loyalty and was determined to use this to his advantage.
He now demanded that each of the Crusader leaders swear an oath of loyalty to his person and that any victories won, land taken, and plunder acquired be done so in the name and the interests of the Byzantine Empire.
The Crusaders were reluctant to take any such oath and as a result Alexius refused to provide them with provisions or the ships to take them to the Holy Land but after an attempt by the Crusaders to break into the city was repulsed they had little choice but to comply and all swore fealty to the Byzantine Emperor except the more politically savvy Raymond of Toulouse who merely promised his friendship and support.
Alexius knew that the longer these Franks, as they became known, remained the more frustrated they would become.
The coarse, vulgar, and thuggish behaviour of these so-called Heralds of Christ appalled the people of Constantinople and induced both fear and panic. Likewise the Crusader leaders were not impressed by the formality of the Imperial Court and the womanly dressed, perfumed, sycophantic and effeminate men they met there.
Fights regularly broke out between the Crusaders and troops of the Imperial Guard and Alexius, who wanted to control but not lead the Crusade, merely wished to ship these violent and dangerous men across the Bosphorus where they could kill Turks before they turned their frustrations upon the city and killed Byzantines.
In the spring of 1097, enough ships had been gathered to begin transporting the Crusaders across the Bosphorus into Asia-Minor, accompanying them was a small force of Imperial troops to ensure that any plunder or land captured remained firmly in the hands of the Emperor.
The first city to fall was that of Nicaea.
Its ruler Kilij Arslan was away with his army fighting other Turks and the city was largely undefended but even so its walls were strong and it was able to hold out for a number of weeks.
Kilij Arslan hastened back upon learning that the Crusader Army was outside the gates of Nicaea but when his attempt to break the siege on 16 May failed it became only a matter of time before the city surrendered, but not to the Crusaders.
On the morning of 18 June, they awoke to find the flag of the Byzantine Emperor fluttering above Nicaea’s walls for during the night the city had surrendered to the Emperor’s forces without the knowledge of their Crusader allies and Alexius had ordered that to prevent looting the gates of the city should remain barred to them.
They were furious and it was the beginning of a breakdown in formal relations between the Crusader leaders and the Imperial Court.
The Crusaders marched on from Nicaea angry and determined to act without any further interference from the Byzantines but perhaps distracted by their erstwhile allies betrayal they seemed unaware that they were being closely followed by the army of Kilij Arslan.
During the march the Crusader army had become split with the Norman vanguard, some 10,000 men under the command of Bohemond of Taranto, becoming detached from the main force. Kilij Arslan with some 15,000 men now seized his opportunity.
As the sun rose on 1 July 1197, the Franks were woken by the thundering hooves and war cries of thousands of Turkish cavalry charging their camp.
The Turks rode small fast horses, were lightly armed, and were expert archers. Their tactics were to not engage the enemy where possible but instead charge, retreat, circle, and let loose their arrows. It was a form of warfare that the Franks had never previously encountered and confusion reigned in the Crusader camp as Bohemond struggled to bring some order to the chaos.
Only 500 of his men were armoured knights and their horses had become a particular target of the Turkish archers with many already cut down so rallying his men as best he could Bohemond formed a defensive line in the centre of the camp with his armoured knights at the front in an attempt to protect his men-at-arms from the rain of arrows.
In the stifling heat he ordered the women in the camp to bring water from the river for his troops and many were killed as a result.
As the battle wore on Crusader losses began to mount and Bohemond struggled to maintain the line as many of his men in their frustration broke and tried to give chase to the enemy which only resulted in their deaths.
Despite his best efforts to hold the line Bohemond was being forced gradually towards the river where calamity awaited.
Around midday 50 armoured knights led by of Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lorraine, broke into the camp. Their arrival boosted morale but did little to change the perilous situation. However, aware that Godfrey’s arrival was an indication that the Crusader’s main force was beginning to arrive on the battlefield the Turks now attacked with even greater vigour and Kilij Arslan committed his entire army to an all-out assault but still Bohemonde held out.
By late afternoon the Papal Legate Bishop Adhemar arrived with even more troops and the Turks were forced on the defensive for the first time.
A little later the Crusader Army under the command of Raymond of Toulouse arrived and out-flanking the Turks attacked them from the rear.
Heavily outnumbered and fearing encirclement the Turks now fled with the Franks in hot pursuit it being said that the Crusaders were riding steeds in season and the Turks mares which just added extra ferocity to the charge.
The Battle of Dorylaeum was the first major land engagement of the Crusades and it had almost ended disastrously for the Franks. Bohemond had lost some 4,000 of his men killed and many more wounded, but the hard won victory had opened the road to their next objective, the city of Antioch.
Fearing a further ambush the Franks now decided to take a more circuitous route to their destination across the Anti-Taurus Mountains. It was a dangerous route to take, an exhausting climb over high cliffs and along narrow paths with many a horse and a Crusader falling to his death on route.
Any suffering they endured crossing the mountains however was negligible compared to the arduous trek across the Anatolian Desert. Unremittingly hot during the day at over 90 degrees Fahrenheit the temperatures would plummet to near freezing at night. Such was the heat that many discarded helmets, shields and even their body armour. Also, with water scarce and having no food of their own they took what they needed from those they encountered on the way but the news of their violence soon spread and people, even entire villages, removed themselves from their path.
Eventually the Franks were forced to purchase or barter what they required and many a knight was forced into virtual penury for the sake of water, a loaf, and some eggs. Many thousands of others died beside the roadside from dehydration, malnutrition, and disease.
One of those who succumbed on the journey was Gudhilda, the wife of Baldwin of Bologna.
She had been rich and well-connected and had been a good marriage for Baldwin but upon her death her wealth and lands would be inherited by her bloodline not by Baldwin leaving him in a parlous financial position and with little to return home to. So taking his men with him he now left the main Crusader column to carve out a fortune for himself.
Baldwin’s destination was Edessa, a Christian city made prosperous by being on the main trade route for silks and spices from the East destined for the Mediterranean. It had long felt threatened however by the Muslim lands that surrounded it so when Baldwin arrived he was greeted as a saviour.
Edessa was governed by an elderly Armenian named Thoras not much loved by his people for his unorthodox Christian views and his perceived weakness in the face of the Muslim threat. His people now demanded that he persuade Baldwin to act as their protector.
The childless Thoras was intimidated by the large and aggressive Baldwin and yielded to his every demand naming him as his successor and adopting him as his son with the latter including a bizarre ritual that saw both men wear the same shirt and rub their bare chests together.
By adopting Baldwin as his son Thoras had effectively signed his own death warrant for in a position now to inherit the city Baldwin immediately began plotting the old man’s murder. Aware of this Thoras tried to escape by lowering himself over the city’s walls on a rope but alas it snapped. As he lay upon the ground in some pain Baldwin’s men set upon him and hacked off his head.
Baldwin now established the first Crusader Kingdom in the Holy Land, the County of Edessa.
On 21 October 1098, some fifteen weeks after the Battle of Dorylaeum, the Crusader Army at last reached the gates of Antioch.
The city was larger than they had imagined and it soon became evident that they did not have sufficient strength to fully invest it so Raymond of Toulouse suggested they attack at once but both Bohemond and Godfrey suspecting his motives and supported by Bishop Adhemar, defeated him in Council. Instead, the city would be besieged.
The Crusaders however were ill-equipped for a siege, they had nothing with which to break down Antioch’s formidable walls or scale its ramparts, as always food and water were scarce, and just how they would sustain a prolonged siege remained a matter of debate. It was merely hoped that whatever their situation was the predicament of the defenders would be even worse.
In November, Tancred arrived with reinforcements but this did little to alleviate the problem of how to break into the city and merely placed an even greater burden on their already scant resources. Not long after he arrived, the Crusader leaders despatched Robert of Flanders with 10,000 men to forage for supplies.
Yaghi-Siyan, the Saracen commander in Antioch seized upon this opportunity to sally forth from the city and attack the Crusader camp but he was beaten back as also was a small Saracen army that had arrived to relieve the city.
The weather was by now so inclement that it brought a halt to all military operations while on 30 December a minor earthquake struck terror into all concern.
The Crusader position was becoming increasingly desperate with the passing of every day and weakened by disease and starvation men were dying at an alarming rate and perhaps as many as a quarter of their total force was to perish in just such a way. Their much-prized horses were also being eaten and there were even reported cases of cannibalism.
Yet still the siege dragged on and desertion became almost as big a problem as illness and disease.
In February, Tatcius, the Byzantine Commander, left taking his entire army with him. Later that same month the Crusaders repulsed a second attempt to relieve the city.
At last in March 1099, there was some relief when a fleet commanded by Edgar Atheling, who 30 years earlier had been deposed as King of England by William the Conqueror, landed supplies and materials with which to build siege engines. With hopes restored the Crusaders set about hastily constructing the means by which they could breach the walls but even so it would still be sometime before they could have any real impact.
At the end of May a large Saracen Army under the command of Kerbogha, the Atebag of Mosul, was sighted advancing towards Antioch. The Crusaders knew they must either take the city or face annihilation before its walls.
Unknown to the other Crusader leaders, Bohemond had made contact with a Christian Armenian named Firouz who commanded one of the city’s towers.
He had let it be known that he had no love for the Muslims and in particular Yaghi-Siyan whom he believed had prevented his promotion and owed him money. He was willing to be bribed and Bohemond was quick to take advantage promising him that he would be richly rewarded if he allowed his men to scale the wall and enter the tower unmolested. Firouz agreed, and the preparations were made.
Bohemond now informed the other Crusader leaders that he found a means by which to gain entry to the city but he would only share it with them if they agreed to hand Antioch over to him upon its capture; both Raymond of Toulouse, Bishop Adhemar, and the others were reluctant to do so but given the seriousness of their plight they had little choice and on the night of 3 June 1099, a lantern was lowered from Firouz’s tower to indicate that it had been abandoned and was undefended. Bohemond with just a handful of men now scaled the tower and with the help of Firouz were pulled inside.
He expressed concern that there were not enough of them and that they would be quickly overwhelmed but Bohemond and his men made their way to the main gate where they unlocked and opened it for the waiting Crusader Army to attack.
The defenders were taken completely by surprise and a massacre quickly ensued. Yaghi-Siyan managed to escape the massacre only to be robbed and murdered a few days later by a goat-herder.
The Crusaders had little time to celebrate their victory for just two days later on 5 June the army of Kerbogha arrived and it was they who were now besieged.
After 8 months outside Antioch the Crusaders were at least now safely behind its walls but in every other respect they were barely better off than they had been before. There was little food and even less water and so weakened were many of them that they had begun to hallucinate.
It seemed only a matter of time before they were forced to surrender.
On 10 June, a monk named Peter Bartholemew declared that he’d had a vision which had revealed to him that the lance that had pierced the flesh of Christ was to be found within the city. Few believed him, but Raymond of Toulouse, among the more pious of the Crusaders, ordered that a search take place in the area where Bartholemew had said the lance could be found. After much frantic searching something akin to a lance was indeed discovered. As the news spread other monks declared that they too had had visions of Christ and the Virgin Mary.
Most of the Crusader leadership remained sceptical and considered the monks delusional. Raymond of Toulouse however demanded that the news of a miracle be spread and Bishop Adhemar declared it to be a Sign from God. Fired by renewed religious zeal the Crusader’s found the strength for one last foray.
Raymond of Toulouse ordered an all-out assault on the besieging army and Bishop Adhemar addressed the troops before battle telling them that the Host of Angels would be riding alongside them.
On 28 June the gates of Antioch were thrown open and the Crusader’s poured out yelling and screaming like furies, as if they were madmen. Some of the Crusaders would later describe how that they could see a host of ghostly figures on white chargers fighting with them.
It was do or die stuff and for a moment it appeared it might fail as the Saracens held but stunned by the ferocity of the attack they staggered, broke, and finally fled in panic leaving their baggage train behind.
The Crusaders had won an astonishing victory. It had been a miracle and now there could be no doubt that God was with them.
On 1 August, with great ceremony Bohemond was declared Prince of Antioch but the event was overshadowed when that same day the entire Crusader Army was plunged into deep mourning as the death of their spiritual leader Bishop Adhemar was announced. His death now cast doubts over the validity of the monk Peter Bartholemew’s vision, and he was made to prove his divine calling by having to endure Ordeal by Fire.
A furnace was hastily constructed and Bartholemew was force to run through it naked.
If he emerged from the ordeal unscathed then God would have protected him from the flames and his prophecy would be proved to be true; but if not then God would have been seen to abandon him.
He was horribly burned and died in great agony twelve days later.
The exhausted Crusader’s were to remain in Antioch longer than they had anticipated and they were desperately short of food. Pillaging the surrounding countryside was proving insufficient to their needs and they were beginning to starve.
On 12 December, a Crusader army descended upon the town of Ma’arrat al Numan.
It was easily captured and as was usual a massacre quickly ensued with more than 8,000 men, women, and children being put to the sword. But they soon realised there was little food in Ma’arrat either and in a desperation resorted to cannibalism.
One of the Crusader’s present later wrote to Pope Urban II:
“A terrible famine racked the army in Ma’arrat and placed it in the cruel necessity of feeding itself upon the bodies of the Saracens.”
The chronicler Radulf of Caen wrote:
“In Ma’arrat our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots, they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled.”
Fulchre of Chartres, who was present, wrote that they were so driven mad by starvation that strips of flesh were savagely consumed before they had even been cooked.
The terrible events at Ma’arrat al Numan were well documented.
In early 1099, the Crusaders resumed their march on Jerusalem proceeding along the Mediterranean coast where they were cooled by the sea breezes. They met little resistance and the march was uneventful except for the constant squabbling among the Crusader leaders.
Finally, on 1 June they arrived at the hills overlooking the Holy City where many now fell to their knees and wept at the sight of it whilst others prayed. Their joy and relief was short-lived however for the practicalities of actually taking the city remained and of the 60,000 who had set out from Constantinople three years earlier there were now barely 12,000 remaining.
If they were to take the Holy City for Christ then it would have to be done swiftly and by force.
The previous year Jerusalem had been captured from the Seljuk Turks by the Fatimids of Egypt who believing they had no quarrel with the Men from the North sent out peace-feelers seeking a negotiated settlement, but the Crusaders had not come this far and endured such hardship to strike a deal. In any case, news had reached them that a 20,000 strong Egyptian Army was on its way to reinforce the city.
On 13 June, the Crusader’s assaulted the city for the first time but exhausted their half-hearted attacks were easily repulsed. It appeared they no longer had any fight left in them and the fear spread that they were destined to fail at the last, and that God had indeed abandoned them.
But they were to be provided with yet another vision, this time by a monk named Peter Desiderius, who told them that he’d a visitation from Christ who had informed him that should they do penance, lay down their arms, fast for three days, and march barefoot around the city in prayer then Jerusalem would surely be theirs.
On 8 July, they paraded around the city their heads bowed led by monks chanting prayers as the people of Jerusalem crowded its walls to look on in amusement and jeer.
Why at this moment with the Crusaders unarmed and defenceless the Fatimids declined to attack remains a mystery.
On 13 July, the Franks resumed their assault on Jerusalem firm in the conviction that their religious devotions had assured its fall. Progress was at first slow but after two days intense fighting they at last breached the city’s internal walls. With Crusader knights now streaming through the streets of the city the Egyptian defenders abandoned their posts leaving the people to their fate.
Though the Commander of Jerusalem Ifthikar-al-Dawla was granted safe passage out of the city by Raymond of Toulouse no such courtesy was extended to his troops who were disarmed and hacked to death on the orders of Tancred de Hautville whilst the Crusader’s vented their fury on the people embarking upon an orgy of rape and slaughter so great that it was said that the streets ran with blood up to the ankles.
Those Jews who had fled to the safety of their Synagogue were hemmed in and burned alive.
Anyone who strayed into the Crusader’s path was brutally murdered, homes were broken into, and anything that could be removed was taken – there was to be no Glory of God in the capture of Jerusalem.
Following the fall of the Holy City, Raymond of Toulouse expected to be crowned its first Christian King, though he let it be known that he would refuse any such offer of the Crown out of a sense of piety but expected that his refusal would not be accepted by the other Crusader leaders. But heartily sick of his arrogance and took his initial refusal at face value and instead offered Jerusalem to Godfrey de Bouillon, Duke of Lorraine.
A man of great piety, brave in battle, who had the respect of his peers he accepted without hesitation and though he was to die less than a year later it was not before he had defeated an invading Egyptian Army at the Battle of Ashkalom.
Raymond of Toulouse fought on in his attempt to be recognised as the supreme leader in the Holy Land without success. He died in 1105, aged 63, whilst besieging Tripoli.
Hugh of Vermandois spent his time in the Byzantine Court before returning to France where he was condemned for not fulfilling his Oath to God and became the subject of much scorn. Threatened with excommunication he returned to the Holy Land in 1101 where he was wounded in battle dying of his wounds in October the same year.
Robert of Normandy’s reputation suffered badly on Crusade being frequently drunk and proving himself and unreliable and incompetent commander.
Returning to France in 1100 he married a wealthy woman which provided him with the funds to purchase back his Duchy. He then fought his brother Henry for control of England but defeated in 1106 he was captured and died in prison in 1134, aged 84.
Bohemond was not satisfied with merely being the Prince of Antioch and was to return to Europe to recruit troops for an attack on the Byzantine Empire itself but was to be defeated by Alexius in battle and forced to accept a humiliating peace that reduced him to little more than a vassal of the Emperor. He died not long after a broken man.
Tancred de Hauteville became Prince of Galilee, dying in 1112 of typhoid fever aged 37.
On 25 December 1100, Baldwin of Boulogne, the ruler of Edessa replaced his brother Godfrey de Bouillon, Duke of Lorraine as King Baldwin I of Jerusalem where he continued to drink to excess and whore his way around the city as he always had and contracted various sexual diseases which weakened his constitution. He died on 2 April 1118, after it was said he ate too much fish.
Pope Urban II never lived to enjoy the spoils of his triumph, for he died on 29 July 1199, just two weeks after the fall of Jerusalem and before news of its capture reached Italy.
The First Crusade had achieved its objective and established the Christian Kingdom Overseas known as the Outremer.
It consisted of the County of Edessa, the County of Tripoli, the Principality of Antioch, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. But it was to survive less than a hundred years.
There were to be a further eight Church sanctioned Crusades but also many more besides which were to become almost a rite-of-passage for any leading European Monarch.
They were to see the founding of Military Orders such as the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller and make iconic figures of men such as Richard the Lionheart and Saladin but they also heaped great misery on a region sacred to all that should have been bathed in peace and light not blighted by war and drowning in blood.
As the centuries progressed the Crusades became more overtly campaigns of plunder disguised only by the fig leaf of piety and the Byzantine Empire itself and its capital Constantinople no longer the bastion of Christianity in the East but the target of greed and exploitation.
The Crusades also served to unite a disparate Islam in defence of its faith, its culture, and its very existence in the face of repeated brutal assaults by the men of violence, so much so that the term Crusade has since become an almost a pejorative one and those who use it now do so at their own peril.