Warriors For Christ: An Overview of The First Crusade

This is an overview of the First Crusade. I will be delving into much more detail over the next little while.

On a crisp day, 27 November 1095, in the village of Clermont, France, Pope Urban II stood on a dais before a large gathering of people and preached Holy War against the Muslims in the Middle East. They were a race of people he didn’t even know, yet Pope Urban deemed them as evil and barbaric.

Months before his sermon at Clermont, the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius I Comnenus had appealed to Pope Urban for military aid against the Turks. Ever since the fateful battle of Manzikert in 1071 when the Byzantine army was severely defeated by the Turkish army, the Turks had conquered much of Byzantium. Only the city of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and a few coastal cities of what is now part of Turkey remained in Byzantine control.

The thing is; Alexius needed only a couple hundred elite knights from the west to help him re-conquer land captured by the Turks. However, Pope Urban had another idea in mind. As much as he wanted to help his eastern Christian brethren, he really wanted to restore Jerusalem and all of Palestine to Christian rule.

In his sermon, Pope Urban addressed the knightly class, but his speech appealed to many more people because he promised everyone who took part in this expedition eternal forgiveness and absolution of all their sins. Europe in the 11th century was a society completely different from today’s Europe. It was a society dominated by religion. Men, women, boys, and girls spent every hour of the day doing things to please Christ and to avoid the fiery pit of hell. Though, perhaps not everyone did. Certainly not knights. They placed their values on honor, strength, and courage through bloodshed. However, that is not to say they didn’t worry about spiritual salvation. That is why they and many others responded so enthusiastically to Pope Urban’s call to Holy War.

Many modern historians have demonized the crusaders as barbarians who were moved only by lust for land and wealth. They also portray the Muslims as a peaceful people who were hard done by the crusaders. The crusades happened so long ago that it is impossible to know the real motives of the crusaders. In reality, they were not barbarians. We believe their justification of warfare as God’s Will was terribly wrong because Christ would never have sanctioned bloodshed. However, we must keep one thing in mind: Medieval Europe was a very different society from ours. Pope Urban and his flock genuinely believed they were doing the right thing. That was the reality of the life they lived. No one questioned Pope Urban’s sermon because more than ninety percent of the people at that time were illiterate. Given that fact and their deep religious beliefs, it was no wonder they took their pope’s word for gospel.

Many knights had their own religious convictions. However, religion was not the only reason for a knight to join the holy expedition. This was an extremely expensive, not to mention, dangerous expedition. The cost of horse and armor was worth a knight’s two years wages. Even some of the wealthiest barons had to mortgage their estate to family members just so they were able to pay for their own expenses as well as the expenses of their household. Many knights were lucky enough to have their horses and armor paid for by their overlord.

Europe in the late 11th century had endured an economic crisis. An expedition to the Holy Land offered knights a chance to obtain a lordship and a higher status in the Holy Land. Then, there was the question of honor. The crusade gave all fighting men an opportunity to display their military prowess in battle, persevere against the odds, and return home to a hero’s welcome.

The road to Jerusalem was long and treacherous. The crusaders didn’t just march there without much pause. Once they reached Constantinople, they were no longer under Pope Urban’s control. They had entered the Byzantine Emperor’s land and, so were under the Emperor’s authority. The Emperor Alexius made all the leading Frankish* nobles swear an oath to him: All lands in Asia Minor (Turkey) captured from the Turks would be restored to him. In return, Alexius gave the crusaders military advice, food, clothing, and military provisions, including horses. He then sent them on their way.

The crusaders were highly skilled and trained warriors, having fought each other over land disputes. However, they quickly discovered that the Muslims were no easy enemy. The Turkish warriors used a tactic that no Christian knight from Western Europe used: They feigned retreat, hid in the woods, waited for the enemy to chase them, and then attacked. They nearly conquered the Byzantines using this tactic and nearly annihilated the crusaders on many occasions.

The First Crusade was characterized by siege warfare. Almost every battle the crusaders engaged in involved the capture of key cities in Asia Minor as well as in the Holy Land. The only open field battle they engaged in was at Dorylaeam in early July 1097. Turkish warriors swept down the mountainside, taking the camped crusader army by complete surprise. Against all the odds, the crusaders fought hard and beat off the Turks. How did they do it? After they had captured Nicaea the previous month, the crusaders divided their army into contingents, each contingent of knights and men-at-arms commanded by a leading noble. The contingents headed by the well- known warlord, Bohemond of Taranto traveled ahead of the rest of the army. It was Bohemond’s army that was attacked by the Turks. The battle of Dorylaeum raged on for a number of hours. Just when the crusaders were about to be defeated, Duke Godfrey of Bouillon arrived with the rest of the army and helped Bohemond defeat the Turks.

No city was an easy victory for the crusaders. Every city was surrounded by walls that were tall and fortified with thick layers of stone. The walls also boasted several towers where watchmen could see an enemy army advance miles away. Each city’s geographical location gave the city’s Turkish garrison an added advantage against their enemies. The western wall of Nicaea was built close to the shores of Lake Askania. There was no way the crusaders could have completed a full encirclement around that city as they had no boats. The Turks put up such a fierce resistance, had it not been for the arrival of the Emperor Alexius and his troops, chances are the crusaders may not have captured the city.

Four months later, when the crusaders arrived at the walls of Antioch in October 1097, they discovered that Antioch was even more heavily fortified than Nicaea. The southern and eastern walls ran up and alongside Mount Silpius and the northern and western walls ran alongside the bank of the Orontes River. To make matters more difficult, many knights had either died in battle or from sickness. Their reduced army combined with Antioch’s geographical location did not allow them to complete a full encirclement of the city. They could have bypassed Antioch and marched on Jerusalem, but Antioch held to much religious significance for the crusaders to leave it. The Apostle Peter had built a large church in Antioch. They also knew that if they didn’t capture Antioch, they would cut themselves off from their allies.

Antioch belonged to the Byzantine Empire for centuries. The city was captured during the first Islamic expansion in the 8th century, but the Byzantines recaptured it in 969 AD. However, they didn’t keep it for long. The Seljuk Turks captured Antioch in 1085. Antioch was Byzantium’s jewel, not only because of its religious importance, but because of its location. It was located on the Syrian coast. Silks, spices and jewels from all over Asia Minor were shipped to and from Constantinople. The Emperor Alexius had good reason to want that city back. However, for reasons unknown, he did not aid the crusaders in their siege of Antioch.

The siege dragged on for several months. Many knights, as well as the noncombatants who were with them, died from starvation and disease. Thanks to Bohemond’s ingenuity and cunning nature, the city fell to the crusaders in early June of 1098. Not long after they captured the city, Kerbogha, the Muslim leader of Mosul and renowned military commander, arrived at Antioch’s walls with an army about ten times larger than that of the crusaders. Kerbogha’s army could have crushed the crusaders at Antioch, but quite the opposite happened: the crusaders sent them fleeing in different directions.  

Why was such a powerful Muslim army defeated at Antioch? Why did the crusaders roundly defeat numerically superior and equally fierce Islamic fighting forces time and again throughout the crusade? The crusaders believed that Christ was with them, fighting with them in every battle. At Antioch they saw a host of angels on horseback riding out with them to confront Kerbogha’s forces. In reality, the Muslims were heavily divided. Prior to the First Crusade, the various Muslim leaders fought each other over land, differing political and even interpretations of the Koran. They certainly did not mend their differences when the crusaders invaded their territory. In fact, the Muslims believed the crusaders were nothing more than mercenaries acting on behalf of the Emperor Alexius. They did not believe the crusaders would stay in the Holy Land and found a Christian Kingdom.

Regardless, it wasn’t uncommon for Muslim clans to make alliances with the crusaders. They did so in efforts to repel their own Muslim enemies. Contrary to popular belief, in the opening decades of the 12th century, there were several occasions when Muslims and Christians formed friendships.

As for the crusaders; after they captured Jerusalem in July 1099, many knights returned to their homes in Europe. Though, many others stayed behind and founded a Christian kingdom that would last for 200 years. Those knights who returned to Europe received a hero’s welcome, but they were impoverished. The men who stayed in Palestine were not only held in high esteem, they obtained a lordship and a baron’s status, two things most knights never had access to in Europe.

Today we view the crusades as a very dark time in History. No doubt they were violent, but they were also vibrant and colorful. Christian and Muslim knights alike fought for glory and for a higher purpose. At the same time, they recognized each other’s fighting abilities and admired each other’s skill as warriors.

*Frank is a medieval term that referred to people from Western Europe.

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