First Crusade

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The First Crusade was an armed expedition under religious authority by various western European Christian lords against the Muslim-controlled Holy Land. Consisting of two distinct stages, the Peasants' Crusade and the Frankish Crusade, it lasted from 1096 - 1099 CE and resulted in the foundation of the Crusader States, most significantly the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Preaching the Crusade

On 27 November, 1095, in response to a plea from Byzantine Emperor Alexius I, Pope Urban II made a public speech in the cathedral of Clermont, urging all Christians to reinforce the Byzantines and reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslims. This notion of a crusade, a huge "armed pilgrimage" to the lands where Christ has lived was without precedent in Europe, and his request succeeded beyond his wildest dreams; soon huge armies were being amassed to make the long journey to Constantinople and beyond, to Jerusalem.

The first nobleman to lead an army from Europe was Walter Sans-Avoir ("Walter the Penniless"), who led a small force to Byzantium without major incident and awaited the remainder of the armies.

The People's Crusade

The second of the armies to set off was not an "army" at all, but a rag-tag force of commoners, including old women and children, led by the charismatic preacher Peter the Hermit. This Peasants' Crusade (also called the People's Crusade or Pauper's Crusade) did great damage to the Hungarian countryside, cumulating in a massacre at the town of Semlin earning the enmity of King Coloman. Fearing his retribution, they entered the Byzantine empire and promptly fired the city of Belgrade.

Despite having hostages taken by the Byzantines against their good behaviour, they attacked the city of Nish without much success. In response, general Nicetas attacked the peasant army and inflicted heavy casualties. After this, the much-diminished force led by Peter the Hermit was permitted to approach Constantinople, but not to enter the city except in small numbers under guard.

Joining with Walter Sans-Avoir's force, Peter the Hermit's troops were ferried across the Bosphorus by Alexius' ships and deposited in Asia Minor, where their leaders began quarreling. The divided force moved inland to an old Byzantine military camp at Civetot, plundering Byzantine subjects as they went. Peter the Hermit's largely French force attacked the countryside around Nicaea, burning and taking plunder. Walter's mostly German force seized the castle of Xerigordon, and were immediately besieged by the Turks. Lacking an internal water supply, Xerigordon's defenders suffered great hardship and were wiped out, the few survivors forcibly converted to Islam and enslaved.

Peter the Hermit, unaware of the fall of Xerigordon, marched blindly into Turkish territory from Civetot and were ambushed near the village of Dracon, where the last of the Peasants' Crusade were massacred and enslaved. A handful of survivors, including Peter the Hermit, fled back to Civetot and were rescued by a hastily organized Byzantine force.

The Armies Gather

The leaders of the Crusades are listed in the order in which they arrived in Constantinople.


While the Peasants' Crusade met with disaster in Asia Minor, in Europe the main armies of the Crusade were gathering. Pope Urban II had spent much of the winter of 1095-96 preaching the Crusade in France, and the nobility was responding. First of the great lords to swear an oath to free Jerusalem was Raymond of Toulouse, bringing his vassals with him, but he tarried in France. He was quickly overtaken and passed by Hugh of Vermandois, the younger son of Henry I of France, who hastened with his troops to Constantinople by sea, and was then compelled to wait on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus for months while the other Franks caught up. This delay, however, was perhaps mitigated by Hugh's need to re-equip, having lost much of his personal baggage in a shipwreck while en route.


Godfrey of Bouillon raised money for the crusade by selling estates in France, then elected on an overland route through Hungary, following the path of Peter the Hermit the year before. King Coloman allowed Godfrey's force to pass through his territory, but only on the condition that Godfrey's brother Baldwin be held hostage to their good behaviour.

The army crossed into Byzantine territory, skirting the still-devastated city of Belgrade and making camp at Selymbria, where the troops remained while their leaders travelled onward to Constantinople to meet the Emperor. In Constantinople, Alexius demanded oaths of allegiance from the Franks, who promptly balked; in response to their reluctance he cut off their food supply, whereupon Godfrey returned to Selymbria, gathered his now-riotous troops, and attacked the city of Constantinople.

A siege was narrowly avoided following negotiations which resulted in Godfrey swearing allegiance, and his army was quickly ferried across the Bosphorus before further trouble could develop.


Bohemund of Taranto, a Norman lord, left from his Italian holdings in late 1096, quite literally forsaking his local struggles for the glory of the crusade; in order to gather his forces he abandoned the siege of Amalfi midway. Despite his reputation as a ruthless disciplinarian (or, perhaps, because of it) his army traveled overland to Constantinople with little incident. However, Bohemund had ambitions to lead the entire Crusade, not merely his own army and this quickly brought him into conflict with other Frank leaders. In addition, he had his own never-abandoned claim on the throne of Byzantium to cause tension with Alexius. Regardless, he swore allegiance (unlike his nephew Tancred) and crossed the Bosphorus, joining the other Crusader lords there.


Raymond of Toulouse, while being the first lord of substance to take up the Frank's badge of the red cross, was also the last southern French lord to arrive in Constantinople. His army, unlike the relatively disciplined forces who had preceded him that year, had quite literally fought their way across the Balkans, engaging in a long and bloody conflict with the Serbian tribes of that region. Worn and battered, they straggled into Byzantine territory with only a handful of their commanders surviving.

Without the moderating influence of Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy, wounded and recuperating in Thessalonica, Raymond's army was restless and unguided. When Raymond and his officers hurried ahead to meet Alexius, his undisciplined troops took to raiding the surrounding Byzantine countryside out of boredom. A Byzantine counterattack seized their baggage train and cut off their supplies.

In Constantinople Alexius fared little better with Raymond. Like earlier arrivals, he balked at the required oath of allegiance; this situation was complicated by Raymond's distrust of Bohemund, who was intriguing for command of the crusade. An impasse was quickly reached which could only be smoothed by the still-recovering Bishop Adhemar, who hastened to Constantinople to break the deadlock.


A final army arrived under Robert of Normandy, eldest son of William the Conqueror. Nominally in command, he led a cobbled-together force with Stephen of Blois and Robert of Flanders, whose opinions he was required to consult before making decisions. This state of affairs was further complicated by the presence of most of the notoriously independent nobility of Normandy, including his domineering sister Adela (wife of Stephen of Blois), and Bishop Odo of Bayeux, as well as knights from England, Scotland and Brittany.

This large and fractious force made its way to Italy where it received the personal blessing of Pope Urban, then took ship to Constantinople, where, after some persuasion, Alexius extracted oaths of allegiance and shipped their force to the southern shores of the Bosphorus to join the force of some 70,000 assembled Crusaders in April of 1097.

Asia Minor


Now gathered at last, the Franks (as they were collectively called by the Muslims) marched inland towards Turkish territory. Following Peter the Hermit's route, they attacked Nicaea but unlike the ill-fated Peasant's Crusade these Franks had the skill and determination to take a walled city. Led by Godfrey (Bohemund had remained in Constantinople to lobby for overall command) they laid siege to the city, fully encircling it. Raymond drove off a Turkish force coming to reinforce the city, and Bohemund fortuitously arrived with fresh supplies.

Alexius' representatives, meanwhile, secretly negotiated with the leaders of Nicaea, a city that had been, after all, Byzantine a generation before. Despite a determined Turkish attempt to relive the city on 21 May, the siege was successful and Nicaea surrendered on 19 June 1097, just before a planned final assault by the western Franks, but to Alexius. The negotiations, conducted without the knowledge of the Crusader lords, had been successful and the Franks were denied the opportunity to sack the city. Alexius quickly sent gifts to the army's leaders, attempting to smooth over any ruffled feathers.


Following the fall of Nicaea the Franks were faced with a difficulty of feeding their huge force. For logistical reasons they were divided into two armies and proceeded further into Turkish territory, foraging as they went. A primarily Norman force under Bohemund, Robert of Flanders and Stephen of Blois was encamped at Dorylaeum and attacked by a large Turkish force.

Bohemund defended the camp, which had a protected well, by dismounting his knights and holding them in a disciplined formation; meanwhile riders were sent to find the second Frankish army, which was brought up to reinforce their beleaguered comrades. Bishop Adhemar personally led the counterattack, and the Turks retreated. Estimates place the Franks' dead at more than 4,000, the Turks as many as 3,000.

As the Franks began a six-week pursuit across Asia Minor, the Turkish forces began a scorched-earth policy, in particular destroying cisterns, and the Franks suffered greatly in the heat of the summer. By the time they reached Iconium in August, they were badly in need of a rest.

Tarsus and Armenia

In September of 1097 Tancred and Baldwin led small forces from the Franks' resting-place in Heraclea across the Taurus Mountains and into Armenia, attacking the ancient city of Tarsus. A primarily Christian city garrisoned by Turks, the city was quickly seized after a short siege when the garrison abandoned the city. However, despite the fact that Tancred had started the siege, Baldwin claimed Tarsus as his own domain. As Tancred's force numbered some 300 and Baldwin's more than 2500, Baldwin's troops prevailed after a brief battle. This fighting between Christians shocked the Crusaders and drove a permanent wedge between Tancred and Baldwin; later, when Tancred seized the virtually undefended town of Mamistra he outright refused to allow Baldwin entrance, and another brief battle broke out.

While this was occurring to the south of them, the main Frankish force entered the Christian land of Armenia. Long under threat by the Turks, the Armenians now welcomed the Franks as liberators, and they hoped for a quick and well-supplied passage to the Holy Land. However, as the army crossed the Anti-Taurus Mountains into Cilicia they were struck by torrential rains which made travel a nightmare. By the time they reached Marash it was badly battered army which wearily crossed the plains into the Levant, making for Antioch.

Meanwhile, following his disputes with Tancred, Baldwin made alliance with the Armenian ruler Thoros of Edessa. Baldwin had managed to get himself named Thoros' son and heir, and quickly became co-regent of Edessa. By March of 1098 he became sole ruler of the city when Thoros was killed by a mob. Edessa was then besieged by Kerbogha, Atabeg of Mosul, who could not quickly seize the city. Rather than spend months in a siege, Kerbogha marched on Antioch, trying --unsuccessfully -- to reinforce the city before the Franks under Bohemund breached the walls.


The ancient city of Antioch was the key to the Holy Land for the Franks, and in October of 1097 they besieged it. Initial successes, such as the massacre of the garrison of Harenc and the arrival of a Genoese fleet at the nearby port of Saint Symeon, quickly came to naught. Supplies, at first plentiful, quickly ran out as winter arrived. As the siege dragged on into winter, divisions between the Crusader lords grew and tensions in their camp increased. Just after Christmas, Bohemund actually stripped 20,000 Franks from the siege and went raiding, apparently out of boredom; the ruler of Antioch, Yaghi-Siyan, took advantage of his absence to launch a massive attack on the Frank camp on 29 December, which was defeated by Raymond. Bohemund meanwhile besieged the city of Albara and was attacked by a large relieving force on 30 December; thanks to the courage of Robert of Flanders he managed to beat them back.

By the end of January these small victories could no longer boost morale, despite control of the port of Saint Symeon the army was not being supplied properly. In addition, Bishop Adhemar ordered a three-day fast to mortify the army spiritually. This did little to help morale, and in February 1098 a second Turkish relief force was sighted approaching, whereupon Alexius' representatives left the army to return to Byzantium. His troops outnumbered and starving, Bohemund planned an ambush at the Orontes River. It succeeded, and the Turks were routed, providing a boost to Frankish morale. Soon after, a fleet brought enough supplies to continue the siege for a few weeks. As well, a Turkish sortie outside the walls resulted in the loss of some 1,500 of the city's defenders.

As the siege progressed, however, hardship has increased inside the walls as well. A dissatisfied Armenian officer in the Turkish defense made a deal with Bohemund, allowing the Franks to enter the city through the tower he commanded, and in June 1098 the city gates were opened from within. The Franks swarmed through the gate and killed every Turk they could find, as well as a goodly number of Christians. Yaghi-Siyan died in the sack of the city, and his surviving troops fled to the citadel, holding it in hope of reinforcement. Unfortunately for the Franks a large Turkish force under Kerbogha, Atabeg of Mosul, was approaching Antioch, having given up the siege of Edessa. They quickly retreated within the walls and sealed the gates.

The situation was now this: The surviving Turkish garrison of Antioch held the citadel, but could not retake the city. The Franks held the city, but were now trapped inside the walls by Kerbogha and cut off from even the thin trickle of supplies via Saint Symeon. Kerbogha lacked the strength to storm the walls. Nobody had much in the way of supplies, and Bohemund desperately called to Alexius I for help. As Alexius brought a large Byzantine army across Asia Minor, he was met by Stephen of Blois, who erroneously reported the destruction of Bohemund's force at Antioch. Alexius, believing Antioch a lost cause, turned back to Constantinople.

Starving, surrounded and with no help coming, the Franks inside Antioch were in a seemingly hopeless predicament. However, their morale was greatly increased when a peasant, one Peter Bartholemew, reported finding the Holy Lance, an important Christian relic, under the floor of the cathedral. With this powerful symbol in hand the Franks sortied on 28 June 1098 and attacked the Turks in the open field, shattering Kerbogha's forces and driving them all the way back to Mosul. Without hope of reinforcement, the survivors of the original Turkish garrison surrendered the citadel in exchange for their lives. It was a seemingly miraculous victory in the very face of defeat.

Internal Conflict

Following the fall of Antioch, the Franks became even more divided. After the hardships of the preceding year, many of the Crusaders felt their vows had been fulfilled and wished to return home. First to leave was Hugh of Vermandois, who returned to France via Constantinople, informing a chagrined Alexius I of the Franks' victory. Bohemund also favoured returning home, but found himself in conflict with Raymond, who fervently wished to press on to Jerusalem. As the two had divided Antioch between themsevles conflict seemed inevitable. All eyes looked to Bishop Adhemar to mediate the growing tensions, but in August of 1098 he succumbed to an epidemic of typhoid which had swept the army.

His death served to dissolve the bonds which held the Franks together. Bohemund set off to the north to conquer Cilicia for himself, Godfrey was given the towns of Turbessel and Ravendel by his brother Baldwin (who of course held Edessa), Robert of Flanders left to seize the port of Lattakieh. As supplies remained low, Raymond was raiding extensively, trying to feed his army; the troops became increasingly restless and undisciplined.

By late autumn the tensions between Raymond and Bohemund reached a head. At the fortress of Maarat an-Numan the Franks were besieged and suffered great privations while Raymond and Bohemund wrangled about competing claims to the town. In disgust their own men undermined and toppled the walls, making the town strategically useless and compelling their lords to press on. An agreement was reluctantly reached: Raymond would abandon his claim to Antioch for Bohemund's assistance taking Jerusalem.


After abandoning Maarat an-Numan, the Frankish army crossed to the coast, taking the port of Tortosa by trickery, unsuccessfully besieging the town of Arqa, and establishing a Catholic bishopric at Ramleh in defiance of Alexius' Orthodox church. After this, Tancred led a small force to Bethlehem to liberate the inhabitants, a large morale boost for the Franks.

On 7 June 1099 the Crusade reached Jerusalem, held by Egyptian and Sudanese troops under the command of Iftikhar ad-Daula, who seized the property of all Christians within the walls and expelled them, in the hopes of burdening the besiegers. The Franks surrounded the city but knew they could not afford a long siege, as desertions were on the rise and infighting between the nobles was increasing. Faltering morale was boosted by a fast and barefoot procession around the city walls on 8 July. The next day the Franks brought up hastily-constructed siege engines, causing alarm within the city. During the night of 13 July, the engines were brought close to the walls under cover of darkness and the battle was joined in earnest.

By 15 July a siege tower under Godfrey had reached the walls and a footholds had been secured within the city. Godfrey hastily sent men through the streets to seize and open the gates, while Tancred attacked and pillaged the Dome of the Rock, an act of great sacrilege to Muslims. A large number of Muslims fled to the al-Aqsa Mosque and Tancred seized them for ransom, but was unable to stop his fellow crusaders from massacring them in the mosque itself.

As the defenses crumbled in panic, the Franks poured into the city and began an appalling slaughter. Three years of deprivation and hardship was transmuted into the massacre of the majority of the inhabitants of Jerusalem with little regard for the niceties of ransom and chivalry. In the initial rush, everyone the Franks met, man, woman or child, was put to the sword without mercy. Fulcher of Chartres claimed that in the al-Aqsa Mosque some ten thousand people were beheaded (despite Tancred's efforts to protect his valuable hostages) and the blood ran ankle-deep within the sanctuary. Many of the city's Jews, seeking shelter in the synagogue, were sealed in and burned alive when the building was fired.

After the massacre, the Gesta Francorum records that the streets were filled with dead, and the Frankish leaders commanded the corpses be dragged out of the city and cremated on "pyres like pyramids", and in this fashion "countless pagans" were burnt.


Although the various Crusader lords had sworn oaths of allegiance to Alexius I specifically pledging to return freed lands to the Byzantine Empire, this was not done. Alexius' failure to provide support at Antioch was regarded as a betrayal and an abrogation of the oath.

Likewise, many of the Crusader lords were planning on returning to Europe, and the rulership of Jerusalem was in debate. Raymond, whose popularity had waned after the debacle with Bohemund, was not a serious candidate, and Bohemund already held Antioch. Eventually the throne of Jerusalem was offered to Godfrey, who accepted it but declined the title of King, claiming the more pious title Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri -- "Defender of the Holy Sepulcher" -- a move which enraged Raymond, who withdrew to Jericho in anger, although he would later be instrumental in driving off an Egyptian counter-invasion.

The divisions between the Crusaders would result in an extremely complex series of alliances and fealties, the basis of which would become the Crusader States. In addition, two great orders of monastic knighthood were formed to protect pilgrims and to guarantee Christian access to the Holy Land -- the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller. Over the next few centuries, Muslim attempts to drive the Franks out of what would become known as Outremer would result in several more Crusades, the first of these being the Crusade of 1102, a minor reinforcement sometimes called the "Crusade of the Faint-Hearted", as it was led by several nobles of the First Crusade who had turned back before reaching Jerusalem, such as Stephen of Blois.

First Crusade | Second Crusade | Third Crusade | Fourth Crusade | Fifth Crusade | Sixth Crusade | Seventh Crusade | Eighth Crusade
Northern Crusades | Albigensian Crusade | Reconquista
Peasants' Crusade | Crusade of the Faint-Hearted