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The First Crusade - Straying from the Path

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

By July 1098 the end appeared to be in sight, it was only a month's march from Antioch to Jerusalem. Having defeated Kerbogha, the knights of the First Crusade were not likely to encounter much resistance along the way. But due to bad management, the Crusade now ground to a halt. It would be nearly a year before they saw the Holy City.

The troops were too exhausted, and the country was too hot to head south in July. They decided to wait in and around Antioch until November and to continue the journey then. While ostensibly the decision to postpone the march ahead was for the reasons just given, in reality it was due to the big problem the crusaders faced: what to do with the city they had just spent eight months capturing.

Who Should Rule Antioch?

Antioch had been a Byzantine city only 12 years before the crusaders arrived, so it certainly counted as Byzantine territory which had been taken by the Turks. They had sworn an oath to the Byzantine Emperor Alexios that they would return to him any such cities that they captured. On the other hand, the Emperor had not given them any of the help which they had expected (although, knowing the Byzantine deviousness, he had probably not actually promised it). They learned now from messengers that the Emperor had been on his way to Antioch with an army but had turned back.

Passing control of the city to the Byzantines would have really benefited the crusaders, as they would have a friendly power guarding their back while they got on with the business of marching on Jerusalem. But Bohemond disliked the Byzantines, having been at war with them for years over Southern Italy. It stuck in his craw now to hand the city to them, when his own troops had fought and died to capture it. He really wanted to hold on to the city, and the other crusading leaders had promised it to him if he managed to take it.

A strong leader would have decided one way or the other, but the committee of nobles vacillated. They would offer the city to the Emperor, and if he didn't come to take it they would let Bohemond keep it. A deputation of senior knights was sent to Constantinople overland to deliver the message and to ask the Emperor 'to fulfil the obligations which he had undertaken towards them'. The trouble with this was that it tied all the crusaders to the city for an indefinite period.

After the Great Battle, Bohemond accepted the surrender of the remaining Turkish troops in the citadel, which gave him control of most of the city. Raymond held the Bridge Gate and the area around it, giving him control of the route from Antioch to the port. Raymond officially held the line of supporting the Emperor's claim to the city, but behind this it appeared that he wanted to rule himself, and was reluctant to give the city away to Bohemond.

The crusaders started to clean up Antioch and restored many of the Christian churches which had been abandoned or converted to Mosques during the Turkish rule.

Foraging for Food

To survive the months until November arrived the armies needed to find food. They decided to split into groups and to forage in different places around Syria. Many of the poorer people at this time broke ties with their own leaders and joined up with other leaders, particularly ones who could pay. Raymond, who was one of the richest of the leaders, gained a large following at this time.

Bohemond's army looked for food around Antioch itself, and also in Cilicia where Tancred and Baldwin had established a crusader presence the previous year. Bohemond spent the summer negotiating with the city-states of Venice, Pisa and Genoa back in Italy, all of which had strong navies. He had no intention of handing Antioch over to the Byzantines, and knew that as soon as they realised it, he would need other ways of supplying his men. He visited Tancred's outpost in Cilicia, strengthening the crusader position there to prevent the Byzantines from taking it over.

Godfrey took his army east towards Edessa, where his brother Baldwin was now in charge. He conquered a number of towns along the route to Edessa and received a sizable income in both cash and provisions from control of these towns. He was set up nicely and in no great hurry to resume the journey to Jerusalem.

Raymond decided to concentrate on an area about 40km to the southeast of Antioch, the Ruj valley, which was a low-lying flat agricultural area. With the fierce reputation the crusaders had acquired by defeating Kerbogha's army, they were now able to gather food without fear of being attacked.

They didn't have it all their own way, however. Raymond Pilet, a lesser noble of Raymond of Toulouse's army, set up an expedition to go further southeast from the Ruj valley, to do a bit of conquering and plundering of his own. He reached the Jabal as-Summaq, the fertile plateau where the previous year Bohemond and Robert of Flanders had found such rich pickings before they stumbled across Duqaq's army. He bit off more than he could chew when he attacked the sizable town of Marrat on 27 July, 1098. He didn't bring enough water and when he arrived at Marrat, it was strongly defended. The inhabitants came out and attacked Raymond's troops who were weak from thirst. Many were killed and they had to retreat in disarray.

Back at Antioch, a plague, probably typhoid, struck the city and many people died, including Bishop Adhémar himself, the spiritual leader of the Crusade, on 1 August. Reinforcements arrived by sea from Germany, from the region around Regensburg, and all of them died of the plague within a few days.

The Cult of the Holy Lance

Raymond of Toulouse had been ill throughout the two sieges of Antioch and was seen as not pulling his weight. With Bohemond interested only in Antioch, Raymond saw this as a chance to take leadership of the whole Crusade. He was one of the richest crusaders and was able to buy support from the masses. He started advertising the role of the Holy Lance in the Great Battle, and his own role in having paid for the discovery of the lance. Peter Bartholomew, who had discovered the lance, became outspoken in his praise of Raymond. Adhémar was buried in St Peter's Basilica, in the hole that the lance had been found in, and Peter started to claim that Adhémar was speaking from beyond the grave through him, renouncing the doubts he had had about the authenticity of the Lance.

As the Holy Lance became more popular, Raymond's popularity grew too. But Peter started to become more eccentric. He said that Antioch should not be handed over to the Greeks but should be kept under Latin control, because the Greeks were heretics. This did not sit well with Raymond's official policy of returning the city to the Emperor.


The messengers sent to Constantinople were waylaid along the way and only one arrived, in the autumn. It was now too late in the year for the Emperor to march to Antioch. The crusaders even wrote to the Pope asking him to come to Antioch and lead the Crusade, but there's no record of any response.

On 1 November the leaders met to decide what to do next, but there could be no agreement between Raymond and Bohemond. Without these two, the Crusade could not continue. The normal crusading soldiers began to get very impatient with their leaders, even suggesting tearing down the defences of Antioch if it would get them moving again.

There was nothing for it but to split up again, and look for food until the leaders would come to their senses. Raymond couldn't take the city from Bohemond, but he could make it uncomfortable for him by controlling all the land around the city. He had wanted from the very start to lead the Crusade. But he also wanted to do as Bohemond had done, to control a fortified city and to set up the beginnings of a kingdom in Syria. If he had concentrated on either of these, he probably would have succeeded. But by doing neither fully, he fell between two stools and didn't really achieve either.

The Siege of Marrat

Raymond decided the best way to establish a base in Syria and to destabilise Bohemond's control of the area was to capture a fortified city of his own, which he could make the base for operations. He chose as his target the city of Marrat, where his namesake Raymond Pilet had had such problems. If he could capture it, its location in the middle of a fertile high-level plain would make it an ideal base: a defendable city with adequate supplies around it.

On 23 November, Raymond and Robert of Flanders set out towards Marrat. A few days later, an army led by Bohemond followed. Bohemond was looking for a lever with which to force Raymond's troops out of Antioch. He wanted to keep an eye on Marrat to see if an opportunity would arise.

Marrat (modern Ma'arrat an-Numan) was on the main road between Aleppo and Damascus, and was prosperous from trading with both those cities. It had a strong defensive wall surrounded by a dry moat. The crusaders laid siege to the town. Winter was coming and the crusaders would not have a good supply of food outside the walls. A long starvation siege was a bad idea, so they decided on direct attack.

To get into the city they had to go under, through or over the walls. Going under or through the walls was the job of the sappers, professional miners who would dig below the walls or at their base and undermine them. If possible, sappers would tunnel from a distance away so that they would be protected by the tunnel. Here at Marrat they didn't do this, because we're told that the inhabitants threw all sorts of stuff down on them: stones, fire, darts, hives of bees, and lime. This would only make sense if the sappers were on the surface, although they might have been protected by some sort of screens.

To go over the walls, two approaches were used, both involving wood, so any trees in the area were cut down. Some of this wood was used to make numerous scaling ladders - the walls of Marrat were not as high as those of Antioch, so attacks using ladders were possible. They also built a giant siege tower on wheels which was higher than the walls, allowing people in the tower to fire down on the defenders on the top of the wall, and ultimately to jump down onto the battlements and to take possession of the wall. For the siege tower to approach the city, the sappers were given the job of filling in the dry moat at the approach point.

On 11 December they attacked the city with the siege tower, attracting all the defenders inside to that part of the wall. Meanwhile another group climbed the wall at another point using ladders. At the same time, sappers protected by the siege tower managed to undermine the wall and a section of it collapsed. This happened just as the sun went down.

The leaders called their troops back rather than risking an attack in the dark. The poorer crusaders disobeyed and plundered the city during the night. The rest of the crusaders joined in the following day and proceeded to sack the city. The Muslim nobles of the city were gathered together, stripped of their jewels, then either killed or sold into slavery. Meanwhile the crusader foot soldiers killed every single other inhabitant. It's not clear how many were killed - medieval sources always grossly exaggerate numbers, but there were certainly thousands.

While Raymond's troops were busy taking the town, Bohemond's troops took the defensive wall and towers, so Raymond did not get control of the city as he had intended. Now Bohemond had a toehold in Marrat just as Raymond had in Antioch. Bohemond offered to hand over the defences of Marrat when Raymond relinquished his hold on Antioch.

Raymond Tries to Take Leadership

By the end of December 1098 it was six months since the Great Battle and the crusaders were still not any nearer to Jerusalem. The soldiers were getting very discontent. Raymond's popularity as leader was starting to suffer. He announced that he would start the march south in two weeks' time. Bohemond responded that he had no intention of moving before Easter.

Raymond called a council of leaders on 4 January, 1099, to discuss the resumption of the Crusade. He organised the meeting for a small town near Antioch which he controlled, rather than in the city itself. He was making his bid for the leadership of the crusade. He attempted to buy the support of the other leaders, offering each a large sum of money. Godfrey and Robert of Flanders refused the offer. Robert of Normandy and Tancred both accepted, and for the next while they marched under Raymond's orders. For Tancred, this meant turning away from Bohemond, who was his uncle.


Meanwhile, up on the plateau at Marrat, the food had run out and the crusaders were starving. Some of the poorest of them dug up the bodies of the Muslims who they had killed when they took the town, and they ate the rotting corpses. This cannibalism was totally repellent to the people of the time, as it is to us today. The contemporary writers thought nothing of the crusaders killing women and children when they sacked a city, but were appalled at the idea of cannibalism. One consequence of this barbaric act was that the local Muslims became even more afraid of the crusaders and rarely offered any resistance to them.

Although Raymond wanted to be leader of the Crusade, he also wanted to carve out an empire for himself in Syria. He couldn't get Antioch, so he decided he would start with the much smaller prize of Marrat and use that as his base to expand his control. When he announced that he was going to improve the fortifications of Marrat, his troops almost mutinied. They had been told they were to march south and now it appeared that Raymond would never get moving. They began to demolish the defences of Marrat. They probably did no real damage, but it sent a clear signal to Raymond - it was time to get moving. By 13 January Raymond had collected enough food to get going. On 15 January they were joined by Robert of Normandy and they set out. Six and a half months after the Great Battle, the Crusade was under way once more.

Raymond Marches South

The plan now was to march south ignoring any towns along the way. They no longer feared being attacked by small town inhabitants, and the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo had already been dealt with. But the further they marched, the more cut off from the rest of the crusading army they would become. It was obvious that Bohemond could not be shifted, but Raymond wanted to get Godfrey and Robert of Flanders to follow his example and to come after him.

Raymond took it slowly, allowing the crusaders to recover their spirits and their health. As they were now going into new territory, there was plenty of food and the crusaders' well-being improved. They entered an area where the locals were Arabs - who were more than happy to accept the crusaders instead of their hated Turkish overlords. Towns along the way either surrendered or made friendly agreements. Only one hill-top fortress1 had the audacity to attack the crusaders, on 28 January, 1099, thinking itself invulnerable. The crusaders fought back so ferociously that in the morning, they found that the fortress had been abandoned during the night.

The crusaders' route took them towards the coast, avoiding Damascus. They had defeated the Damascan army in the past, but there was no point in taking any chances. In February they reached the coast and Raymond decided they had gone as far as they could on their own. They would now have to wait for Godfrey and Robert of Flanders to come to their senses and join them. While he was waiting, Raymond decided to occupy the army by attacking a nearby fortified town, Arqa. This would keep the soldiers busy, scare the locals making it easier to intimidate them, and perhaps provide some loot and supplies.


Unfortunately, Arqa was extremely well fortified, and had its own catapult. The defenders used it effectively to shower the crusaders with missiles. The crusaders started the siege on 14 February, 1099; they were still at it three months later.

Meanwhile, they had discovered that the war between the two Muslim sects, the Sunnis and the Shi'ites, had taken an unexpected turning. Taking advantage of the removal of Antioch from the reckoning, the Shi'ite Fatimids had attacked and taken Jerusalem from the Sunni Turks back in August 1098. All the fighting the crusaders had been involved in up to now had been with the Sunnis, and the Shi'ites had remained neutral.

Now with Jerusalem in Shi'ite hands, it looked as if the crusaders would have to deal with the might of the entire Fatimid Caliphate. They quickly sent emissaries to the Fatimid military ruler Vizier Al-Afdal in Cairo. They explained that they wanted Jerusalem and nothing else. He was not impressed. He would not want to fight with an army backed by the Byzantine Empire, but he had learned of their break with Alexios. He considered the crusaders to be a small band, so he was not overly fearful of them and the best he would offer was safe passage for pilgrims in small groups into the city to visit the sacred shrine.

Taking advantage of Raymond's absence, Bohemond had by now expelled all Raymond's troops from Antioch and was in sole possession of the city. He would not leave Antioch, so had effectively abandoned the Crusade. Godfrey and Robert, on the other hand, were finally interested in getting moving. On 1 March, 1099, they set out to rejoin the crusade. They didn't hurry, stopping along the way to loot a few towns.

At the start of April they got a message from Arqa - Raymond needed help, and there were rumours of another big army coming, this time from Baghdad. They hurried to Arqa, but the rumours were unfounded. It's not clear whether Raymond had made them up to hurry the others along. In any event, all the Crusaders who intended continuing to Jerusalem were now assembled at Arqa. The time was ripe to proceed, but now Raymond dug his heels in. He wanted to finish the business at Arqa. If he couldn't even conquer a small town, what hope had he of leading the Crusade and taking Jerusalem?

The Trial of the Holy Lance

On 5 April Peter Bartholomew had a new vision, of Christ, St Peter and St Andrew. Their message was simple - the Crusaders included a lot of sinners and some good men. He proposed a scheme for weeding out 60% of the crusaders and putting them to the sword. This was such an extreme plan that popular opinion turned against Peter, and against Raymond (his sponsor) as well. Peter, to prove he was genuinely favoured by God, volunteered to undergo an ordeal - to walk through a fire carrying the Holy Lance. If it really was holy, he would be unharmed.

Sceptical accounts of the ordeal say that he was horribly burned. His followers said that he survived with only minor burns, but that people watching the spectacle rushed forward and he was injured in the crush. In any case, Peter died of his wounds 12 days later. Support for and belief in the Holy Lance subsided. Raymond as patron of the Lance also waned in popularity, and many of his soldiers moved to the camps of Godfrey and the other leaders.

On 10 April ambassadors arrived from Constantinople. They complained that Bohemond was not showing any signs of preparing to hand over Antioch to them, and said that Alexios was busy but would come to meet the crusaders on 24 June. He would then accompany the crusaders to Jerusalem. If this were true, then the crusaders would have to wait another 2½ months before resuming their journey, and the Emperor was perfectly capable of making such a statement just to observe the reaction. It caused much unrest among the masses. Some wanted nothing to do with the emperor; Tancred split with Raymond at this stage and joined up with Godfrey.

Raymond continued to attack Arqa, hoping that if he took it, it would prove his abilities as a military leader. Now the only one preventing the Crusade from continuing was Raymond himself. His own troops started to turn against him, and eventually in May he abandoned the siege. By 16 May all the remaining crusaders were on the road to Jerusalem. Raymond's inability to take command had lost him the chance to lead the Crusade.

The story concludes in The First Crusade - Jerusalem.

1Many years later, the crusaders built one of the biggest, strongest fortresses in the world on this hill top - the castle known as Krak des Chevaliers.

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