First Crusade (1095-1099)

views updated

First Crusade (1095-1099)


Holy Land. The Muslims who controlled the Holy Land (Palestine) were more often than not friendly to visiting European pilgrims who, after all, were good for the local economy. The Muslims even allowed the existence of monasteries of every Christian denomination in the region. In fact, between the late eighth century and early eleventh


In a sermon at the Council of Clermont on 26 November 1095, Pope Urban II painted a gruesome image of the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem and promised remission of sins for all those who would go on a crusade to liberate the Holy Land. Thousands of knights responded to this call to arms, and the result was the First Crusade (1095-1099).

From the confines of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth and very frequently has been brought to our ears, namely, that a race from the kingdom of the Persians [that is, the Seljuk Turks], an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and has not entrusted its spirit to God, has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire; it has led away a part of the captives into its own country, and a part it has destroyed by cruel tortures; it has either entirely destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of its own religion. They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font. When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostate upon the ground. Others they will bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? The kingdom of the Greeks is now dismembered by them and deprived of territory so vast in extent that it cannot be traversed in a march of two months. On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you?. . .

Jerusalem is the navel of the world; the land is fruitful above others, like another paradise of delights. This the Redeemer of the human race has made illustrious by His advent, has beautified by residence, has consecrated by suffering, has redeemed by death, has glorified by burial. This royal city, therefore, situated at the center of the world, is now held captive by His enemies, and is in subjection to those who do not know God, to the worship of the heathens. She seeks therefore and desires to be liberated, and does not cease to implore you to come to her aid. From you especially she asks succor, because, as we have already said, 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.

Source: Original Sources of European History, volume 1 (Philadelphia: Department of History, University of Pennsylvania, 1910), pp. 5-7.

century, trade and educational ideas flowed between the Christians and Muslims with little disruption.

Seljuk Turks. However, all of that peaceful interaction was to cease in the 1050s with the rise of a powerful, united Muslim group, known as the Seljuk Turks, who came south into the Middle East from an area that is today Afghanistan. The Seljuk Turks did not hold the same tolerance for Christians that those who controlled the Holy Land, the Fatamid Egyptians, did. Their view became especially evident in 1064-1065 when they massacred a large group of German pilgrims in Syria. Yet, what may have been even more stunning to those European Christian powers, who for so long had counted on peaceful relations between themselves and the Muslims, was the defeat of a large Byzantine army by the Seljuk Turks at the battle of Manzikert in 1071, a defeat that forced the Byzantine Empire to surrender almost all of Asia Minor to Muslim control. In response to this grave setback the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, made an appeal to the Roman pope, Urban II, that he summon an army from the western political leaders to aid the Byzantines in regaining their lost territories.

Call to Arms. This papal summons was, it seems, not only a solution that might aid the Byzantines but also a solution to the problem that had plagued Europe for almost two centuries. By sending the soldiers of Europe to the Holy Land, the amount of intra-European violence and warfare would obviously diminish. On 26 November 1095, at the Council of Clermont, attended by many ecclesiastic and lay leaders, Urban II made an emotional plea for the First Crusade by painting a savage picture of supposed Musilm depredationsl

Two Armies. Just how many Urban II expected would answer this call to arms is not known. Certainly, the Byzantine emperor did not expect the large turnout that formed the First Crusade, as he was completely unprepared for the onslaught of those willing to serve the church by “taking up the cross” (the Crusaders affixed a crucifix to their tunics and shields) and fighting against the Muslims in the Middle East. For no sooner had Urban II called for the Crusade before bishops and priests began preaching it throughout Europe. Itinerant preachers, such as Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless, who mostly served the poor, also began to take the message of the Crusade to their congregations. Soon two armies of European Christians were making their way overland toward the Byzantine Empire. One, which assembled on Urban II’s declared day, Assumption 1096, included many knights of renown: Raymond, Count of Toulouse; Hugh of Vermandois, brother to Philip I, the French king; Robert, Count of Flanders; Stephen, Count of Blois and son-in-law of William the Conqueror; Robert, Duke of Normandy and son of William

the Conqueror; Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine, and his brother, Baldwin; and Bohemond Guiscard, the son of Robert Guiscard, and his nephew, Tancred. Absent were any kings of Western Europe, but those who were sent in their place were certainly the finest military leaders the West could offer. However, the second army was not so well known or well led. It was filled with many unarmed peasants, including women and children who had also answered the call, expecting that their faith alone would defeat the enemies of God. Together the two groups may have numbered more than one hundred thousand. In charge of both armies, at least in name, was Adhe-mar, the bishop of Le Puy; he traveled with the soldiers.

Struck with Awe. By the beginning of 1097 these armies by separate routes had reached Constantinople. Their numbers struck Alexius I Comnenus with awe, especially those in the peasants’ army, who arrived at the city first. This situation was not at all what he wanted or expected. He fed the peasants and ferried them across the Bosporus Strait, where they quickly met their end at the hands of a Muslim force. Nor did Alexius expect the large numbers of Western soldiers when they arrived; it is thought that he was hoping at best for a couple thousand soldiers to serve as a division in his army, not an army itself. He gave the troops no warm welcome, nor would he allow them to proceed across the Bosporus until they had taken an oath of fealty to him and had promised that any lands that they regained from the Muslims would be returned to him. The Crusaders reluctantly agreed, although to most of them this oath and promise meant nothing.

Difficult March. The march across Asia Minor brought many difficulties. Although it began with a victory over the Turks outside the walls of Nicea, a city that was dutifully given back to the Byzantines, it soon became apparent that the Crusaders had made a gross misjudgment in the distance of the march and their ability to live off the land. There was almost perpetual famine and lack of water. Many of the more prominent nobles gave up and returned home. Yet, most kept on marching, and every time they encountered a Muslim force they defeated it, which brought them great confidence in their endeavor despite its hardships.

Antioch. Finally, early in 1098 they reached the first large Muslim city. Antioch was a powerfully built, entirely walled city with a large citadel that towered over the rest of the city. Although the Crusaders were weakened by starvation, they were a determined group, and, besides, their only means of escape was back across Asia Minor, a journey that no one wanted to make again. Ultimately, they were able to gain access to the city, but not the citadel, when they bribed one of the defenders of a city gate. Immediately, they began to engorge themselves on the fresh fruits and victuals that the city had to offer, which quickly led to dysentery throughout the army. In that condition they became besieged by a large Turkish relief army. The starvation that ensued because of this siege actually cleared up their dysentery. On 28 June 1098, after being inspired by one of their accompanying priests who claimed to have found the lance of Longinus (the lance that pierced Christ’s side on the cross), the location of which he said he saw in a dream, and spurred on by further sightings of St. George and other military saints, they sallied out of the city and defeated a much larger, but extremely surprised, Muslim force.

Jerusalem. The Crusaders were helped at Antioch and elsewhere on this first Crusade by the fact that the Seljuk Turks and Fatamid Egyptians had been fighting their own war for a few years prior to the Europeans’ appearance in the Holy Land. The Seljuks had captured Jerusalem in 1070, but early in 1099, when the Crusaders were marching from Antioch toward the holy city, the Fatamids had regained it. Thus when the Crusaders, now possibly numbering no more than 10,000 to 20,000, reached their primary target, Jerusalem was a weakened shell of its earlier military strength. Nevertheless, Jerusalem still held out until 15 July 1099 when a major assault of the walls using siege towers and catapults finally allowed the Westerners to capture it. In response to their hard task, and impelled by rumors of great treasures hidden by the city’s residents, the Crusaders butchered all of the inhabitants and searched their entrails for precious stones they may have swallowed.


John France, Victory in the East: A Military History of the First Crusade (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Hans Eberhard Mayer, The Crusades, translated by John Gillingham (London: Oxford University Press, 1972).

Jean Richard, The Crusades, c.lO71-c.l291, translated by Jean Birrell (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A Short History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

About this article

First Crusade (1095-1099)

Updated About content Print Article