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The First Crusade

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The First Crusade
Setting Out | Into Muslim Territory | Antioch | Straying from the Path | Jerusalem

The First Crusade
Jerusalem is lost!
– Chris de Burgh, Crusader

There are many stories told about the crusaders, Christian knights who set aside their grievances to unite and drive out what they saw as the infidels from the Holy Land. Some of them are true.

Setting Out

The years 1095-1098 AD saw one of the most bizarre military expeditions in the history of the Western World. Tens of thousands of people left their homes and their countries and travelled nearly 4,000 kilometres eastward to fight against the Muslims and to take control of the city of Jerusalem in Palestine. The expedition involved such unusual events as two separate sieges of the same city a day apart, the first with the Christians on the outside and the Muslims inside, the second with the positions reversed. There were cases of starvation and cannibalism, battles planned and unplanned, and holy relics being used to bolster the spirits of the Christians.

The expedition later became known as the First Crusade, as it was the first of a number of such expeditions. It changed the face of Europe, and of relations between the Christian Europeans and their Muslim neighbours, an effect that we still feel the ramifications of today.

This Entry attempts to explain what happened in the First Crusade, which is fairly straightforward, and why it happened, which is much less clear. The crusaders were mainly illiterate, even the princes who led the expedition, and accounts we have were mostly written by monks after the event. They could be accused of exaggerating the spiritual aspects of the crusades.

Europe in the 11th Century

The First Crusade took place at the end of the 11th Century. Europe at the time was just recovering from the 'Dark Ages', a period of about 500 years of lawlessness after the demise of the Western Roman Empire. Kings were starting to establish control over their own kingdoms, and a new class of people, the armoured knights, had just been established, with control over large estates and a responsibility to protect those estates and the people in them. Peace was gradually being established.

The people who went on the Crusade are usually known as Franks, because they themselves used that name, but they were in fact a mix of different groups speaking different languages. There were Normans from Northern France and from Southern Italy. There were the Flemish, from the Low Countries, and the Provençals from Southern France. England was also ruled by the Normans, but they had only just taken over the country 30 years previously, so they had not yet fully established themselves there. As a result the English did not participate in the First Crusade. The Spanish were similarly occupied in local matters, having recently repelled the Muslim Moors from Spain.

What all these countries had in common is that they were all Christian, and all practised the Western type of Christianity, centred on Rome. Because the rites of Roman Christianity were done in Latin, these people are often called the 'Latins', particularly to distinguish them from the Greek-speaking Christians of the East.

Germany and Northern Italy were conspicuously absent from the First Crusade because their ruler, Henry IV, was engaged in a political struggle with the Pope.

The Byzantine Empire

Southeastern Europe was ruled by the remains of the Eastern Roman Empire. Nowadays we call it the Byzantine Empire, but this name was unknown at the time. They called themselves Romans, although they spoke Greek, and the westerners called them the Greeks. Their empire was ruled from Constantinople, the city on the border between Europe and Asia which is now known as Istanbul. The Empire was eroding, gradually losing land in the east to the Turks, who occupied central Turkey and were pushing westward.

The Muslim World

To the east of the Byzantine Empire lay the Muslim world. The Westerners called them all 'Saracens', but they were not a united force, being in effect two separate empires. The Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad was Sunni Muslim, while the Fatimid Caliphate based in Cairo was Shi'a Muslim. These two political units were at war with each other, as the Sunnis and Shi'ites hated each other due to deep-seated theological differences, while both were on reasonably friendly terms with the Christian world. Admittedly the Muslim Turks were constantly invading the Christian Byzantine Empire, but that was not a matter of religion. They were looking for land and booty, and were tolerant towards Christians in the lands they had conquered.

Most of the land traversed by the First Crusade was in Sunni Muslim hands. Even within the Caliphates, the Muslims were as disunited as the countries of Western Europe - overlords did not have absolute control. Instead, there was a network of loosely co-operating cities each promising allegiance to the Caliph, but prepared to switch allegiances, and even overthrow the Caliph if they got enough support.

Pope Urban II and the Sermon at Clermont

The Crusade was the brainchild of Pope Urban II. The office of Pope had up to recently been considered unimportant. Urban became Pope in May 1087, at a time when this position was in a fight with the greatest leader of the day, Henry IV of Germany, who had appointed his own pope. Urban had to work hard to get acknowledgement of his position by the nobility of Europe.

In March 1095 an embassy arrived in Italy from the Byzantine Empire, asking for military aid against Muslim Turkish invaders, who had been gradually encroaching on the Empire. Only 11 years earlier they had taken the major Byzantine city of Antioch. Seven years before that, they had taken Nicaea, only 90km as the crow flies from the Byzantine capital. The Byzantine Emperor, Alexios I Comnenos, was looking for some sort of military support, and he went to the person he considered the ultimate authority in Western Europe, the Pope.

It is a common misconception that Muslim invaders captured Jerusalem and the Crusade was a direct response to this. It's true that Jerusalem was in Muslim hands, but it had been for over 400 years, since 638 AD. Rather, a gradual encroachment on Christian lands was taking place. The boundaries of most countries in Europe were constantly changing as each country fought all the ones around it. The Muslims attacking the Byzantine Empire were not considered any different from anybody else. Christians were at the same time encroaching onto Muslim lands in Spain.

There's no evidence that the Christians and Muslims even disliked each other. Christians living in Muslim territory were well treated and allowed religious freedom. Pilgrims could still travel to Jerusalem, although locals were sometimes rather rough, throwing stones at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the sacred shrine at the end of the pilgrim route.

Then in 1086, a group of Muslim fanatics invaded Spain from Africa and tried to oust the Christians. This may have been the start of the ill feeling between the two religions.

Urban thought about the plea for help for a number of months, and eventually he came up with the idea of the Crusade. He could see a number of benefits:

  • If he helped the Byzantines, they might become closer to the west. He wanted to heal the rift between the Byzantine Church (Greek Orthodox) and his own Church. The main bone of contention between the two was that the Western (Latin) Church considered the Pope the ultimate authority while the Eastern (Greek) Church didn't. There were a few other theological differences, such as the exact nature of the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

  • It would establish him as the Leader of the West, confirming the position that the Byzantine Emperor had assumed.

  • He needed a means of justifying the existence of a ruling class in Europe who were armed warriors devoted to violence. He would get their support and simultaneously save their souls.

  • He also had his sights set further afield to beyond the Byzantine Empire. There were many Christians living in Muslim-controlled lands in the Near East, independent of the control of Rome. He wanted to welcome them back into the true Church.

  • 'Liberating' Jerusalem, the Holy City, would be a major coup for Christianity.

The Crusade was the ultimate example of a justifiable war. Ever since the Roman Empire joined up with Christianity, the Church had struggled to legitimise the violence needed to defend the Empire. Searching the Bible, theologians found plenty of examples of the Hebrews fighting, with God on their side. So war was justifiable if it was for God. St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) developed three principles for a just war:

  1. It must be proclaimed by a legitimate authority
  2. It must have a just cause
  3. It must be fought with right intention - not to kill but to achieve the just cause

Urban decided the crusade would be not only a just war but also a holy one - those participating would gain a spiritual benefit. They would do this by visiting the shrine in Jerusalem, turning the expedition into a pilgrimage.

Preaching the Crusade

Urban went on a Grand Tour of France at the end of 1095. On 27 November, 1095, at Clermont, he preached the special sermon that unleashed the crusaders on the world. This was to be the spark that lit the flame of holy war. It was an open air assembly with probably about 400 people present, including 12 archbishops, 80 bishops and 90 abbots. Nobody wrote down the speech at the time. There are three eye-witness accounts but they were all written years later after the crusade was over, so they may be coloured by the success of the crusade.

We know that Urban asked for two things:

  1. Liberating the Eastern church from oppression by the Turks by providing military aid;
  2. The reconquest of the Holy Land

Urban made frequent reference in his speech to atrocities committed by Muslims against Christians: 'a race absolutely alien to God', the 'savagery of the Saracens'. He told stories of them cutting open Christians to see if they had money hidden in their stomachs. These stories appear to have been totally spurious — there are certainly no records of such events happening before that time. He described the Eastern Christians, who no longer recognised his authority, as 'your blood brothers... sons of the same Christ and the same Church'. He pointed out that Jerusalem, that most holy of cities, was in the hands of 'unclean races'. He wanted the listeners to become 'Soldiers of Christ'. No restraint need be shown (as it would be in normal warfare) because the enemy were alien and sub-human. (The crusaders certainly took this part of the sermon to heart, later displaying amazing brutality in their dealings with the enemy.)

Urban did not promise any special new rewards for going on the Crusade, but pointed out that a pilgrimage to Jerusalem would be considered penance enough to forgive all previous sins. The Crusade was both a holy war and a pilgrimage, and thus the ultimate penance.

Taking the Cross

Urban had plants in the audience. Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy stood up and volunteered at the end of the sermon, the first crusader. The next day, he was appointed the spiritual leader of the Crusade. This had been arranged in advance between him and Urban - they had met the day before the sermon. Another pre-arranged volunteer was Raymond of Toulouse, second son of Count Pons of Toulouse. He wasn't at the sermon, but he volunteered the next day. He was hoping to be appointed military leader of the Crusade, but this did not happen. In fact no single person was at any stage appointed to be the leader, so the Crusade was ruled by a committee of rulers.

Urban spread the message by preaching in many cities around France, not returning to Rome until July 1096. All the bishops present at the original sermon also spread the word, and soon it permeated through the whole of the Western Christian World.

The response to the sermon and the call to arms was phenomenal. Whereas Urban was hoping for a small army of elite warriors, what he got was a huge crowd from all walks of life, including women and even children. Somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 people went on the crusade.

All crusaders took a vow to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which would finish their pilgrimage. In order to do so, they would have to fight their way to the church. All wore a cross; most had it stitched onto their clothing, but some extremists had it branded into their foreheads. Agreeing to go on the Crusade became known as 'Taking the Cross'.

It has become fashionable in modern times to say that the crusaders embarked on the Crusade for personal gain, in order to conquer land and collect plunder. The reality is that going on the First Crusade was cripplingly expensive - each knight had to raise about five times his annual income in advance to provide for food along the way for himself and his support team. And most crusaders came home empty-handed, although of course they didn't know this in advance. From all accounts written at the time, it really does seem that the crusaders were motivated by the spiritual gain they would receive from the expedition.

Of course, once they got the taste for conquest, it was a different matter. They may not have set out to own land in the Near East, but at least some of the most important crusaders strayed from the cause and became only interested in carving out their own personal kingdoms. We'll see plenty of this later on. But for the moment, let's accept their own accounts, that they set off with the intention of improving their immortal souls.

To raise money for the journey, many sold their land to the Church. So many were selling that land prices dropped and the Church got the land at a bargain. But the agreement was that the land could be bought back again when they returned.

As well as the knights and foot soldiers, there were also huge numbers of peasants who accompanied the army but did not fight. Some would have been involved in the business of providing food for the soldiers, but many were just along for the journey. We really have no idea what motivated the peasants to go, as there are no accounts written at the time by them or about them. Very few of the peasants survived the journey.

The crusaders were granted immediate pardon of all their sins by going on the Crusade, but in fact they could get this by staying at home, confessing and doing penance. As pilgrims, they were protected by the Church - their lands could not be invaded by anybody in their absence, and no Christian could fight with them along the way. In return, they agreed they would not fight with any Christian while on the Crusade.

The Crusaders

In all about 7,000 knights, 35,000 infantry and between 20 and 60,000 non-combatants set out. The number of non-combatants is imprecise because nobody kept records. Medieval writers were very bad at estimating numbers, apparently always exaggerating for effect. We'll see this in descriptions of the battles later.


Knights were not professional soldiers. They were lords with estates. They practised all the skills of warfare to protect their lands from other knights, to protect their country from invasion, and of course to invade nearby countries, thus expanding their own lands. They were in effect legalised bandits. The knight was an armoured, mounted warrior and they were formidable in battle. Occasionally, the knights in a battle would unite to perform a cavalry charge which was well nigh unstoppable, but for the most part each knight fought independently. The techniques of co-operation had not yet been perfected.

Knights at the end of the 11th Century wore chain mail rather than the heavier plate armour which was developed later. This effectively protected them from swords and arrows - pictures of knights fighting show them stuck with so many arrows they resemble hedgehogs, but still fighting. The most common way for a knight to be killed while still on his horse was a wound to the throat when he got too hot and removed his mail coif which protected his head and throat. An arrow in the eye was another way. Once knocked off his horse, a knight was slower than a normal foot soldier because of the chain mail, but couldn't be injured easily, so he was still formidable. Knights carried a wooden shield on their left arm, and in their right either a lance or a heavy sword.

Knights needed a support crew of five men, who looked after the horse and kept the armour and weaponry in order. A knight had to be reasonably well off to afford to pay these men and to spend his own time in practising warfare.

Knights were very good at siege warfare, with teams of backup crew to build ladders and the smaller siege weaponry such as protective screens and smaller catapults, and sappers to tunnel under walls. The really big siege weapons such as siege towers and battering rams were not used much in Western Europe and were only really developed during the Crusades.

Foot Soldiers

Foot soldiers were not so well armoured as the knights, and tended to be a mixed bunch, some of them knights who had lost their horses, others peasants who had found a sword. They used whatever weapons they could lay their hands on, swords, spears, clubs and axes. The bow was very popular - a two-metre longbow had a range of about 300m. Some used crossbows, which were slow and difficult to reload, but had the advantage of being able to pierce armour.

The Leaders of the Crusade

Urban appointed Bishop Adhémar as the spiritual leader of the Crusade, but he did not appoint a military leader. He was hoping to attract a king to the cause and it is likely that such a king would have been the military leader, but the best he got was the highest nobility from France, Italy, Germany and the Low Countries who were not kings nor due to inherit the kingship. These were in effect princes, but carried titles such as Count or Duke. The most important of these were:

  • Raymond of St Gilles, Count of Toulouse, normally referred to as Raymond of Toulouse. He was in his mid-fifties and the most experienced of all the crusaders, but due to his age he suffered bouts of illness throughout the expedition. He was also the richest of the crusaders. He brought with him one of the biggest armies, from Southern France.

  • Bohemond of Taranto, from Southern Italy. Aged 40, he was described as blue-eyed, very tall, 'a full cubit1 over other men', clean-shaven, with shortish hair (not shoulder-length as would be normal) and with broad shoulders. Bohemond was the firstborn son of the King of Southern Italy, but on his father's death had lost the rule of the country to his younger half-brother, Roger. Before the Crusade, Bohemond had been involved in a war between Southern Italy and the Byzantine Empire, first driving the Byzantines out of Southern Italy, then fighting over the control of the Balkans.

  • Godfrey of Bouillon. This town is now in Belgium, but at the time was part of a country called Lotharingia. Godfrey was an ally of Henry IV of Germany, who was the enemy of the Pope, but he was swayed to the Crusading cause. Aged 35, he was 'taller than the average man, not extremely so... strong beyond compare' and with yellowish hair and a beard. Not a particularly honourable character before the Crusade, he became honest and dependable as the Crusade progressed and eventually became the favourite of the people.

Of lesser importance, but prominent in the story were:

  • Baldwin of Boulogne, brother of Godfrey. He was darker haired and paler skinned than his brother and had a piercing gaze.

  • Tancred of Hauteville, nephew of Bohemond. Aged 20, he was tall, blond and athletic; he could speak Arabic.

  • Robert 'Curthose' of Normandy, son of William the Conqueror and brother of William Rufus, King of England.

  • Robert II of Flanders, cousin of Robert of Normandy.

  • Stephen of Blois, son-in-law of William the Conqueror.

Note that Western Europeans did not yet have proper surnames. In addition, the number of first names was severely limited - reports of the Crusades list many different Stephens, Baldwins, Roberts, Raymonds and Peters. They were generally distinguished by putting the name of the place they were from after their names.

Peter the Hermit

Peter the Hermit was a particularly persuasive preacher who gathered a large group and set out in advance of the main group. They were already on the road when the rest were just making preparations. His group consisted mainly of ordinary people (peasants), but there were quite a few knights. This group is often called the 'People's Crusade', as if it was different from the later groups, but in fact they weren't dissimilar. The official date decided by the Pope for departure was 15 August, 1096, but Peter and his group set off in May. As well as Peter's group, there were many other, even less organised, groups wandering eastward, some starting out as early as March or April.

The Journey to Constantinople

With a population of about 600,000, Constantinople was the biggest, richest, best defended city in the Western World, being the one remaining bastion of the Roman Empire. Although the Empire was fighting a constant war against invasion from all sides and was on the verge of collapse, the city was still very impressive. The defensive walls of the city had never been breached, and it was protected from attack on three sides by deep water. As the last city in Christian territory, Constantinople was chosen as the place to assemble.

The crusaders travelled across Europe independently, in big or small groups, and gathered at the city. Most of them walked the thousands of kilometres - from France it's a distance of 2,300km. They did not bring food with them - they relied on buying food as they went while still in Europe. They would get the food by foraging or pillaging when they reached enemy territory.

There were three main routes. Those starting from the Low Countries and Germany followed the Danube which brought them through Hungary and down to Southeastern Europe.

The second route, favoured by those in France and Italy, was to travel down Italy to the southern ports of Bari and Brindisi, by ship across to the Balkans and then east to Constantinople. This route proved somewhat difficult as storms delayed crossings and some ships sank, drowning many of the crusaders.

The third route, taken by a few, was across northern Italy and down the east coast of the Adriatic, through what are now Croatia and Montenegro. This route was through a fairly uninhabited area, which made it difficult to find food.

The First Holocaust

The early groups who travelled across the northern route were involved in the first major atrocity of the Crusade. While still in Germany, they encountered a number of Jews who lived in the cities there. Why, they asked, should we travel thousands of miles to kill the enemies of Christ when they are living here among us?

This was the start of a pogrom, in which Jews were slaughtered by the thousand. The worst affected were the cities of Worms and Mainz. This is often called the 'First Holocaust'. Up to that time the Jews had lived peacefully with the Christians, but the ill-feeling that Urban had stirred up caused the beginning of the Christian hatred for Jews. The slaughter at Worms took place on 20 May, 1096.

The group responsible for the pogrom travelled east but when they reached the borders of Hungary, the locals, who had heard about the killings, refused to let such an unruly bunch enter. Many of them abandoned the Crusade at this point and headed home.

The People's Crusade

Later travellers were allowed through Hungary freely. Peter the Hermit and his group, now known as the People's Crusade, travelled to Constantinople without incident, arriving there at the start of August 1096. The emperor, Alexios I Comnenos, asked them to wait outside the walls for the arrival of the main host. They proved to be a troublesome lot, looting and pillaging, so Alexios shipped them across the Bosphorus, the narrow strait between Europe and Asia.

The land on the eastern shore was officially Byzantine but had been encroached upon by Turkish bands. The crusaders continued their pillaging here while they waited for the main army to arrive. They gradually strayed into Muslim-occupied territory, and one band came directly up against a Turkish military force - all the Christians in the band were killed.

This so enraged the rest of the crusaders that they decided to launch an attack upon the Turks. On 21 October, 1096, before many of the main army had even left their homes, the first battle of the First Crusade took place. An army of 500 knights and some thousands of foot soldiers and peasants set off. They very soon met up with a Turkish army. It was a complete disaster for the Christians — the crusaders were wiped out. The Turks then advanced to the crusader camp and destroyed it, slaughtering the older women, monks, the sick and the children, and enslaving young men and women. That was the end of the People's Crusade. Peter the Hermit, their nominal leader, had been in Constantinople negotiating supplies with the Emperor at the time.

The Main Armies Arrive

The main armies set out from Western Europe in August to December 1096 and arrived in Constantinople between November 1096 and May 1097. The city's defences were the best in the world, but a defensive wall is no use if your enemy is on the inside. Alexios didn't fully trust these Westerners, so he made them camp outside the walls, but allowed them into the city in small groups. The crusaders marvelled at the riches of the city. Not only were there gold and jewels displayed everywhere, but the city was full of holy relics, items said to be belong to the saints, or even to be parts of the bodies of the saints of long ago. The crusaders would have valued these as much as the more worldly riches.

Alexios chose to meet each noble leader as he arrived; this was not a meeting of equals. Alexios went to great lengths to impress on the Westerners how much more important he was than they, and made them swear an oath of vassalage to him - this included a promise to return to his control any former Byzantine cities they liberated from the Turks. Only three of the leaders of the Crusade refused to swear the oath - Raymond, Baldwin and Tancred — but they gave in later. This oath had a major effect on the progress of the Crusade. Those nobles who swore the oath of vassalage were lavished with gifts of gold, silver and horses.

As soon as the audience with the Emperor was over, Alexios arranged to ship the noble and his troops across the Bosphorus to the Asian side. Given the disaster of the People's Crusade, this may have seemed dangerous, but as the numbers grew, the assembled armies became a formidable force and the Turks kept away from them.

The crusaders appear to have expected Alexios to lead the Crusade from this point himself, particularly since it was his request to the Pope for help that had inspired it in the first place. The Emperor, however, showed no inclination to leave his city and go into enemy territory - Byzantine politics was such that he risked losing his throne in a coup if he left the city for long. He did, however, provide much tactical advice to the crusaders, as well as some troops and a couple of Byzantine generals. Eventually, all the armies were assembled on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, and the Crusade was ready to venture at last into enemy territory.

The story continues in The First Crusade - Into Muslim Territory.

1An ancient unit of measurement, usually from the elbow to the tips of the fingers. It was approximately 18 inches (45cm).

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