15) First Knights' Crusade

Click here to return to 14) The Pauper's Crusade 

The Crusades
Princes’ Crusade

The Saga

Commencing at the end of the 11th century, the Crusades would become somewhat episodic, running until the 15th century. Including the Reconquista, they would extend seven centuries, approximately the same duration as the conflict between the Roman and Persian empires (which had ended just four centuries earlier).

There were a total of nine formal Crusades, or armed expeditions to the Holy Land. In total, there would be 19 military incursions between Europe and the Muslim Caliphates. The Eastern Empire would have numerous territorial wars with Islam, and Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) would eventually fall to the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire in 1453.

Byzantium would have limited participation in the crusades to the Holy Land. However, being Christian, certainly did not weigh in the Eastern Empire’s favor after Pope Urban II declared intolerance towards Islam and indiscriminate bloodletting by the crusades began.

The First Crusade

Historians usually consider the Paupers’ Crusade and the Princes’ Crusade as a combined representation of the First Crusade. However, since the Paupers’ Crusade (sometimes called the People’s Crusade) had only about two dozen trained knights under the leadership of Walter Sans Avoir, there could be little doubt the far more militarized Prince's Crusade became the first serious armed excursion. This followed about three months behind Peter the Hermit and Walter San Avoir’s outing of untrained rabble, numbering in excess of 40,000. Although 3,000 "paupers" are said to have survived the final slaughter in Anatolia, at the hands of the Seljuq Muslims, there exists no record of any members of the Paupers’ Crusade returning home to Europe, other than Peter the Hermit. The somewhat clairvoyant Peter had an uncanny knack of being required elsewhere whenever a major incursion was imminent.

Peter the Hermit with Knights
Peter the Hermit with Knights

With the departure of the Paupers’ Crusade, Pope Urban had at a minimum, succeeded in getting a good number of Europe’s poor and undernourished population out the door. No doubt, a good number of depraved were amongst them. However, for Pope Urban to provide a serious response to Emperor Alexios request for military aid, he was obligated to muster something resembling a military force. In assembling armies of armed knights, who were otherwise roaming and pillaging the countryside, he would also take a considerable bite out of Europe’s high crime rate.

This latter force is known today as the “Princes’ Crusade”. It would begin departure from various locations beginning in August of 1096, four months after the Paupers’ Crusade, and arriving two months after the slaughter of that expedition.

The five armies comprising the second expedition would be lead by Godfrey of BouillonRaymond di Saint-Giles, of ToulouseRobert of FlandersBohémond of Taranto and Hugues I of Vermandois. Hugues of Vermandois army would be the first to depart, arriving before the others in Constantinople in November of 1096. Hugues would take the southern route through Italy ahead of Bohémond (see map), losing some of his troops crossing the Adriatic. All five armies would pick up troops and materials along the way. Godfrey, Raymond and Robert would depart from various locations in France and pass through Germany in August of 1096. Bohémond would push off from the boot of Italy, to cross the Adriatic, in October. The ones that did not meet up on the trail would eventually combine forces upon arrival in Constantinople between November of 1096 and April of 1097.

First Cursaade Land/Sea Routes 1096-1099
Click to Enlarge
Pogroms of 1096

Enforced State Religion

To the Christian mind of the 11th century, the inhabitants of the earth were divided into three groups, Christians who followed Church doctrine, heretics, who questioned it, and infidels who subscribed to different beliefs. Such was the hold the institution of the Church had on its subjects. Heretics, or fallen Christians, had been routinely tortured and condemned to death since the establishment of ecclesiastical law centuries earlier.

Medieval Inverted Hanging of Jews
Since Pope Urban’s speech at the Council of Clermont, capital punishment was to now be expanded to include infidels, anyone who simply didn’t practice Christianity. Moreover, plenary indulgences would be handed out to religious vigilantes interested in pursuing the eradication of non-Christians. In short, Europe had become unsafe for its prospering Jewish population, a community that Charlemagne had embraced and even relocated to improve trade in the northern regions.

By the 11th century, the Jew had become firmly established as a Christ-killer (Jewish Deicide). This was somewhat ironic, for had the Jews of Jesus’ time actually killed him, the capital punishments of Judaism were limited to stoning, burning, beheading and strangulation (hanging). However, Christ was crucified, a punishment reserved for the crime of sedition against the state of Rome. Therefore, it was somewhat incongruous that Christians, fixated upon the cross, would conveniently overlook this detail.

Godfrey of Bouillon
Like the Paupers’ Crusade, the knight armies too would leave their mark. Leading one of the five armies was Godfrey of Bouillon, who would be quoted as saying “...to go on this journey only after avenging the blood of the crucified one by shedding Jewish blood and completely eradicating any trace of those bearing the name 'Jew,' would then assuage his own burning wrath.”

Godfrey’s point is clear, using the war of the cross to sway conscience with gold for motivation, more Jews would die. The Frank towns of Mainz and Cologne would pay Godfrey 500 silver marks to move on. Others were less fortunate. Upon news of their approach in the Rheinland, entire families were reported to commit suicide rather than be captured, tortured and raped or in other ways forced to convert. Such was the fear instilled by the armies purported to represent the gentle Christ.


The Emperor’s Doorstep

Since the Crusades had been the response to Emperor Alexios’ request to Pope Urban II for military assistance after the fall of Anatolia, the princes heading the five armies naturally assumed they would be meeting up with Byzantine forces upon their arrival in Constantinople. Instead, the emperor decided, once again, to have the forces hold up outside the walls of Constantinople and negotiated with just the leading knights.

Arrival at Constantinople
Hugues I of Vermandois was the first to arrive. Having received Hugues’ earlier letter announcing his superiority to all rulers, Emperor Alexios lured Hugues to a secure monastery where he refused his release until he swore an oath of obedience to him. The proud Hugues, who had earlier boasted he was “king of kings”, eventually complied. Also appearing in the month of November 1096 was Godfrey of Bouillon, who arrived shortly afterwards. It was at this time the Eastern Emperor became aware of differing goals. Alexios had requested military aid to reclaim territories taking by the Seljuq Turks. The Crusaders wanted to take Jerusalem.


Emperor Alexios had prohibited Peter the Hermit’s mob from entering Constantinople for pretty much the same reasons a captain would work to prevent rats from boarding a ship. However, the knights were an entirely different matter. Not only had Pope Urban sent Alexios the earlier unwanted mob of mostly untrained, unprovisioned civilians, he had also succeeded in enlisted armies of a considerably larger size than the emperor would have imagined, armies large enough to overthrow the emperor’s own somewhat susceptible Byzantine government.

As though to confirm these suspicions, there was the pretentious letter from Hugues de Vermandois. Moreover, the formidable Bohémond of Taranto had (along with his father, Robert Guiscard) been in a territorial war with the Byzantine Empire over disputed Italian and Eastern European provinces for half a decade. Certainly, any competent head of state would have become mistrustful of the Pope’s motives.

Alexios I Komnenos in Conference
Having doubts, but not quite yet regretting contact with the Pope, the resourceful Emperor would work to employ the crusaders to his own ends. Upon the arrival of the remaining knights, Alexios negotiated much neeeded supplies and transport across the strait for military aid from the crusaders to recapture Nicaea. After which, they were free to continue to the Holy Land, provided all reclaimed, former Byzantine territory, would be handed over to the Constantinople government. The emperor would also get the four newly arrived knights to swear to a modified version of Hughes’s oath of loyalty. All were in final agreement and provisioning was completed by spring of 1097 when they departed for Anatolia, minus the Emperor or any supporting imperial troops. No doubt, the Emperor felt good about the negotiations.

Circumstantial Cheerleaders

Peter the Hermit with Knights
The only ones to rejoice in the arrival of the princes’ armies were the few survivors of the Pauper’s Crusade that had managed their way back across the Bosporus Strait to rejoin their leader, Peter the Hermit. Any role of further leadership in the Crusades would be out of reach for Peter, especially since his pronouncement of divine protection over the previous expedition had proven so disastrous. Instead, his role would be relegated to that of cheerleader from the battlefield sidelines, where he was still to make a few rousing orations.

It’s unknown exactly how many of the earlier expedition made it back from Anatolia. Only about 3,000 survived the Turkish massacre. Far fewer managed to make passage back across the strait. These civilian ranks would grow with the injured as well as prostitutes that would eventually journey eastward to make their own fortunes.

Pre-Siege Assembly
The Emperor and Knights

Divided Goals

The War of the Cross was slowly developing into a war of betrayal between the Eastern and Western Christian hemispheres. A questionable gift of aid from Pope Urban II had resulted in conflicting interests. The clever Emperor Alexios would turn things to his favor for a time but once the Crusaders experienced success and gathered a foothold, Christian would work against Christian, with both sides sometimes employing the use of Muslim aid to counterbalance the other’s purpose.

In retrospect, the gift aid from the Pope had resulted is suspicion and limited support by Emperor Alexios. The Crusaders, who had originally set out for the Holy Land, would eventually be tied down in a three-way territorial struggle.

As the Crusaders would distance themselves from the Eastern Empire with miles and broken pledges, their resolve to beat a path to Jerusalem would continue to grow. Nicaea would prove to be a military classroom for the knights. The larger than life Bohémond of Taranto with his former experience of fighting the Byzantines would adapt to deal with the military tactics of the his new Muslim. Along with Richard the Lionheart (Third Crusade), Bohémond would become one of the most formidable warriors and tacticians of the Crusades, a thorn in the side to both Muslim and Byzantine.


Blessed are the Meek

Had Emperor Alexios been more trusting and the Crusaders proven to be more trustworty, the outcome of the Crusades may have unfolded towards a far different conclusion. Based upon known events, the restoration of Anatolia with the formidable aid of the Crusaders was well within the realm of possibility. Subsequently, a foothold in the Holy Land and an alliance with the Muslims would have likely been reached.
The Crusaders were quick to learn they would require a home away from home if they were to meet their objective of conquering Jerusalem. Therefore, since the eastern empire would only provide limited support and resources, it became understood early on that any pledges of returning territories to Alexios would have to be discarded.

Sermon on the Mount
Consequently, like the earlier divisions between the East and West Church, the distrust and separate agendas of Emperor and Crusader would result in the final struggle with Islam to be a divided offensive, with accompanied religious hatred, territorial exchange and ethnic cleansing. A war for the Holy Land that would last three and a half centuries, resulting in an indelible stain upon the history of both church and civilization, one that would be perpetrated in the name of Jesus, author of the Beatitudes.

Ironically, seven and a half centuries earlier, Constantine had employed the cross to unite and strengthen east and west forces. Now its sudden appearance upon the knight’s tunic would only further divide the two halves of the former empire, as the Crusades would work to establish a new competing Eastern Kingdom centered in Jerusalem.

Click here for 16) Siege of Jerusalem

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