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The First Crusade - Jerusalem

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

In May 1099, having finally put personal conquest behind them, the crusaders marched straight to Jerusalem as quickly as they could. They went along the coast road, taking a chance that certain crucial points along the route would not be defended - they weren't. By 19 May, 1099, they reached the Dog River just north of Beirut, which was considered the northern boundary of Palestine, and they entered the Holy Land. There was one skirmish at Sidon with locals, and some crusaders died after being bitten by poisonous snakes there as well. At Caesarea, they took four days off to celebrate Pentecost. On 3 June they reached Ramleh, about 40km from Jerusalem. The town was deserted, the inhabitants having fled. The crusaders stocked up with supplies of food and headed on to Jerusalem.

That evening they were met by a contingent of Christians from Bethlehem, which is just eight kilometres south of Jerusalem, asking for aid. Tancred and a knight called Baldwin of Le Bourcq led 100 knights to free the town. Again when they arrived the local Muslims had fled. Tancred stayed just long enough to attend a Midnight Mass there, but he flew his flag over the town, laying claim to it. He then headed north to join the rest of the crusaders on 7 June, 1099, at Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, the Holy City

It was now nearly three years since the crusaders had set out; the final destination of their journey was in sight. Jerusalem was the Holy City of three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was considered to be the centre of the world, and was shown in this position on many maps. To the Christians, it was the city where Jesus Christ had preached, died and risen again. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Jesus' resurrection and burial, was the point the crusaders were aiming for to complete their pilgrimage.

The crusaders had covered the 300km from Arqa to Jerusalem in a month, but had not secured their passage by leaving fortified posts or supply lines along the way. They were taking a gamble, and if they failed to capture Jerusalem, they had little chance of retreat. They were not in the mood for a long siege, particularly since they suspected that the Fatimids in control of the city had considerable resources back in Egypt and reinforcements would be arriving. The sooner the crusaders took the city the better, so they had no intention of starving out the residents as they had tried to do in Antioch. They needed to attack and quickly break through the formidable defences of the city.

The city was roughly rectangular, and well fortified. Those who have visited modern-day Jerusalem will recognise the 'old city' from the following description, as it has changed very little in the intervening 900 years. There were four kilometres of walls, up to 15m high and 3m thick. There were two gates on the north side and one in each of the other sides. The east and west sides were protected by steep valleys just below the walls. On the north side, where it was easiest to approach the city, there was in addition a lower 'curtain' wall in front of main wall. There were two major fortresses built into the walls, one at the northwest corner and one halfway along the west side.

The Fatimid ruler of Jerusalem, Iftikhar ad-Daulah, when he heard of the approach of the crusaders, took two precautions. He expelled all the local Christians from the city, making it less likely that the crusaders could co-operate with a traitor inside the walls, and he poisoned all the wells outside the city, so that the crusaders would have to go far afield to get water, which was very important considering how hot it gets in Palestine in June and July.

The crusading force was by now down to 1,300 knights and about 12,000 foot soldiers, but it was not a united force - the rift between Raymond's camp and the others was now so great that he could not co-operate. He decided to attack from the south, while the rest, with Godfrey as their acknowledged leader, attacked from the north. Although this was done out of discord within the crusader ranks, it had the effect of forcing the defenders within the city to divide their efforts, greatly assisting the task of capturing the city.


The first attack on the city took place on 13 June. There were no trees around Jerusalem, so at the start the crusaders had nothing with which to build siege weapons. Tancred stumbled across a stack of firewood and his men built a single ladder, with which they attempted to storm the city. The first knight up the ladder, Raimbold Creton, had his hand nearly sliced off by the defenders. Some men got to the top of the wall, and there was hand-to-hand combat, but they obviously were not achieving much so the attack was called off.

On 15 June the leaders, including Raymond, met and agreed to hold off on any further attempts until they had assembled a collection of siege weapons. They had food enough to wait, but were short of water. This caused quite a problem because the wells had been poisoned. There was one pool which was barely drinkable, but it was within arrow-shot of the walls, and eventually became clogged with the dead bodies of those unlucky individuals who had been unable to dodge the arrows. Those travelling further afield to find clean wells were ambushed by Muslims sent out from the city.

On 17 June a fleet of six Genoese ships arrived at the port; an escort of 70 knights and 50 foot soldiers was sent to accompany them to the city. Their cargo and crew included craftsmen and tools as well as soldiers. By talking to local Christians, they located forests of good wood and the task of building siege weapons began.

At the same time, the nobles met to discuss who should rule Jerusalem once it was captured. Whereas at Antioch, the clergy had tried to calm the princes down, here they joined in the fray, wanting Jerusalem, as a Holy City, to be under the control of the Church. Nothing was decided.

Both Raymond's camp in the south and Godfrey's camp in the north built an enormous siege tower on wheels. These were covered in branches and animal hides, protecting the people inside from arrows. They also built catapults, scaling ladders and portable screens. Godfrey's camp also built a giant battering ram. Raymond set his siege tower up on the south side of the city. Godfrey set his one up on the north side, near the fortress at the northwest corner of the city. The defenders in turn prepared for the attack by moving their own catapults to where they could do most damage, and by covering their stone towers with straw to absorb the impact of any hard missiles.


On 14 July, 1099, at dawn, the first real attack began. Godfrey surprised everybody by having his siege tower dismantled during the night, and re-assembled a kilometre to the east, at one of the weakest spots on the northern wall, thus evading the defensive catapults.

The first task on the north side was to break the defensive 'curtain' wall. For this they used their huge battering ram, which was very heavy, manoeuvring it into place took most of the day. Eventually it crashed through the curtain wall with such force that it went right into the main wall behind it. The defenders poured burning pitch down onto it to set fire to it, and the crusaders hastened to put the fire out, using most of their water. Then they realised that the ram was stuck in the hole it had made in the curtain wall. They needed to get it out of the hole before they could advance their wheeled siege tower through the hole. They couldn't budge it, so they decided to burn it out. In a bizarre turn of events, they tried to set fire to it, and the defenders inside the walls poured down water on it to put out the flames. Eventually the ram was destroyed and the remains removed from the hole, leaving a gap in the curtain wall big enough for Godfrey's siege tower.

Meanwhile, Raymond's army on the south side of the city had attempted to push their tower up against the walls, but the Muslims had such a collection of catapults at that point that they couldn't endure the rain of missiles, which included wooden mallets embedded with nails and covered in burning pitch.

The next morning Raymond resumed his attack, but his tower soon caught fire and was destroyed. Meanwhile Godfrey advanced on the northern walls in his 16m-high tower. He led the attack personally from the top of the tower. The defending catapults on the walls kept up a continuous bombardment of stones and burning pitch, even killing a soldier standing right next to Godfrey. Eventually the tower reached a point where it was inside the range of the catapults and couldn't be hit by them. The siege tower was two metres higher than the walls of the city. When the siege tower was only one metre from the walls, the defenders sprayed it with a secret burning liquid which could not be put out with water. This was something similar to the 'Greek Fire' of the Byzantines. But the Crusaders were in on the secret - they knew that this fire could be put out with vinegar, and had supplies of it in the tower for this purpose.

At midday they noticed that one of the defensive towers on the walls was on fire, and was producing lots of smoke, providing the perfect cover for attack. Godfrey hacked away some of the covering of branches on the siege tower, making an impromptu bridge onto the top of the wall. The crusaders rushed onto the walls, led by Ludolf and Engelbrecht of Tournai, with Godfrey not far behind. Once they had taken a section of the walls, the army outside used scaling ladders to swarm over the wall. Terrified by the crusaders' reputation, the defenders of the northern wall turned and fled. Suddenly, the city was conquered.

The Sack of Jerusalem

No one has ever seen or heard of such a slaughter of pagans, and no one save God alone knows how many there were.

The crusaders now unleashed all the pent-up aggression and frustration of the last three years, and went on a killing spree. They beheaded, burned and pierced with arrows any inhabitants of Jerusalem they could find. The crusaders 'were up to their ankles in enemy blood'. Nobody was spared, not even women and children. They also grabbed any gold and valuables they could see as they went through the city. They worked methodically through the houses, stripping them of their valuables.

When they had finished killing and plundering they all headed to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, still laden down with booty and covered in blood, and prayed to their God in thanks for having delivered the Holy City to them. This completed the crusade they had vowed to undertake.

Cleaning Up

Only the Fatimid commander, Iftikhar ad-Daulah, and his immediate troops escaped the slaughter. They were in the giant fortress on the west wall, which had not yet been taken by the Christians. When the crusaders had calmed down, they negotiated the surrender of the fortress in exchange for safe passage to an Egyptian-held port.

Now the crusaders had to face the question of who was going to rule the city. On 22 July Godfrey was elected ruler, but he would not use the title 'King of Jerusalem', this being reserved for Jesus Christ himself. In one letter, Godfrey is described as 'Advocate of the Holy Sepulchre', so it is possible he used this title. Raymond left in disgust and set up camp at Jericho.

Since the city was to become Christian, the crusaders decided to set up a Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem who would report to the Pope, rather than restoring the Greek Orthodox Patriarch who was in exile in Cyprus. With the rift between the crusaders and Byzantium, the Pope's original plan of uniting the Eastern and Western churches was now no longer practical. The local Christians, who had managed their own affairs for centuries, were now considered to be out of line with the official Roman view of Christianity, and therefore heretics. They were therefore worse off than they had been under Muslim rule.

The Battle of Ascalon

The city had been taken, but there was still the fear of reprisal from the Fatimids. Reports came that a large Fatimid army was coming from Egypt to take back Jerusalem. The crusaders decided, rather than hiding within the walls of the city and being starved out as had happened in the second siege of Antioch, they would meet the Muslims head on. On 9 August, 1099, Godfrey and Robert of Flanders marched out of Jerusalem. The next day they were joined by Raymond and Robert of Normandy at Ramleh. The complete crusader army consisted of 1,200 knights and about 9,000 foot soldiers. The Fatimids had an army of about 20,000.

At dawn on 12 August, the Fatimids were camped at Ascalon (modern Ashkelon) on the coast about 70km as the crow flies from Jerusalem. The crusaders attacked in a wide cavalry charge. Many of the enemy weren't even awake yet. The Egyptian army was totally taken by surprise and the battle turned into a rout. The Fatimid commander escaped to the port and sailed back to Egypt without his army.

The last great hurdle had been overcome. There was no one left in the Muslim world that they had not beaten ignominiously. The crusaders were now secure in Jerusalem.

Homeward Bound

In September 1099 most of the Crusaders headed home, sailing from Syria. Godfrey and 300 knights remained in Jerusalem to guard the city. Raymond also remained in the Holy Land, still hoping to set himself up with a country to rule.

The crusaders had collected a lot of booty along the journey, but it was all spent funding the trip home. On arriving home, the crusaders were hailed as heroes. Some of them succeeded in integrating themselves back into their old lives; others had got used to fighting, so they went where the wars were. Many of the better off crusaders founded monasteries in thanksgiving to God for having survived the expedition, or even became monks themselves.

Despite the fact that none of them came back with treasure, some of the crusaders brought unusual items home. Gulpher of Lastours brought back a pet lion. Many brought relics such as pieces of the True Cross or hairs from the beard of Christ. Peter the Hermit brought back a piece of the Holy Sepulchre. Robert of Flanders even brought back the arm bone of St George, which a priest among his followers had stolen from a Byzantine monastery.

Whatever Happened To...

Warfare was a way of life for the nobles of the 11th Century, and most of the survivors of the Crusade died in other military engagements.

  • Pope Urban had died on 29 July, 1099, just two weeks before the fall of Jerusalem. He didn't live to see the fruition of his greatest venture.

  • Robert of Normandy came back to find that his brother William Rufus, the king of England, had died. This left Robert in line for the throne, but in his absence his younger brother, Henry, had taken it, becoming Henry I of England. Robert fought against Henry to seize the throne, but was defeated at Tinchebrai and was imprisoned for 28 years.

  • Robert of Flanders, in 1103, negotiated a deal with King Henry I of England and Normandy, providing him with cavalry. Henry reneged on the payment, leading ultimately to a war between Normandy and the rest of France. Robert was killed in this war.

  • Stephen of Blois, who had deserted the Crusade at Antioch, arrived back home in shame. He and many other deserters decided to redeem their names by taking part in another Crusade, the so-called 1101 Crusade. They travelled out to Constantinople and met Raymond there. The Crusade didn't get far before being set upon by Seljuk Turks. Stephen and many of the others were killed.

  • Raymond, after the fiasco of the 1101 Crusade, continued to wander around the Middle East attempting to conquer cities. He died in 1105 while besieging Tripoli.

  • Bohemond held on to Antioch. He travelled with Baldwin of Boulogne to Jerusalem in December 1099, fulfilling his personal pilgrimage. The following year he was captured in a skirmish and held captive by the Muslims for three years. Then his forces were defeated in a battle against the city of Aleppo. At this stage he had had enough of Syria. In 1105 he headed back to the Balkans, where he resumed his warring against the Byzantines. He died in 1111.

  • Tancred took over control of Antioch on Bohemond's departure. He was still young and now very experienced. Sadly, he only lived another seven years, dying at the age of 40.

  • Godfrey died in 1100, only a year after taking the city.

  • On Godfrey's death, his brother Baldwin of Boulogne, who had abandoned the Crusade to rule the city of Edessa, now left Edessa and took over the rule of Jerusalem. He was crowned King of Jerusalem on 25 December, 1100. Of all the leaders who had set out on the Crusade, Baldwin ended up being the only one to keep the Crusade alive, establishing a western-controlled state in the Holy Land.


The First Crusade was surprising in many ways: that so many people would drop everything and head into the unknown to fight for God; the brutality shown by the Christians to some non-Christians, while at the same time doing deals and being on reasonably friendly terms with other non-Christians; the peculiar circumstances of the two sieges of Antioch; the cannibalism at Marrat. The most surprising thing of all is that the Crusade succeeded. Despite overwhelming odds at various points along the way, the crusaders achieved what they set out to do, to re-capture the city of Jerusalem from the Muslims.

The reason it was successful appears to be because the Muslims were disunited, and because they continually underestimated the Western knights. If the armies of Damascus and Aleppo had united, they could have defeated the crusaders while they were still outside Antioch. If Kerbogha had taken the force in Antioch seriously, he had more than enough manpower to defeat them. And if the Fatimids at Ascalon had considered the crusaders a force worth reckoning with, they would have been ready for them when the combined armies arrived there, rather than being taken by surprise.

The whole expedition has often been criticised for being badly organised, but in fact there is clear evidence throughout of planning, establishment of supply routes, and of manned garrisons to prevent the towns they passed along the way from uniting against them. There was continual communication with the Byzantine Empire, who provided much-needed supplies by sea where possible, and despite the lack of an overall military leader, the committee of nobles worked reasonably well, until the divisive issue of Antioch rendered them ineffective.

The success of the First Crusade led to many more crusades over the next few hundred years, but the subsequent ones never achieved the success of the first, ranging from minor success to complete disaster, because the Muslims had started to unite against the Christians.

There are many stories told about the crusaders - Christian knights who set aside their grievances to unite and drive out the infidels from the Holy Land. And as we have seen, some of them are true.

Further Reading

There are many books on the First Crusade. One of the best is The First Crusade by Thomas Asbridge. This series of Entries is indebted to the detailed information in that book.

Anna Comnena, the daughter of Emperor Alexios I Comnenos, wrote The Alexiad, a history of her father, which is available from Penguin Classics. She gives descriptions of the crusaders as they passed through Constantinople, as well as justifications for all the Emperor's actions in his dealings with them.

The Gesta Francorum is an eye-witness account of the First Crusade written by an anonymous soldier in one of the armies. The Wikipedia article gives links to selections from it in English as well as the full text in both Latin and German.

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