Alexius I Comnenus and the Crusaders

The first army to arrive in Constantinople was that commanded by Godfrey of Bouillon. They arrived on the shores of Constantinople in December 1097, just weeks before Christmas.

Alexius I Comnenus was prepared to meet this second army of Franks, but in no way was he looking forward to it. The annihilation of the people’s crusade tested his patience, but also made him much more wary of these crusaders. Not that Alexius trusted them in the first place. Peter the Hermit’s followers stole mercilessly from the people of Constantinople. If Alexius had ferried them across the Bosphorus any later than August 1096, war might have broken out between his people and the crusaders. For that reason alone, Alexius grievously mistrusted them. He may have even feared their military prowess and religious fervor. Yet, Alexius needed their help to repel the Turkish advance and he was prepared to use them to his advantage. Alexius believed that the crusaders would be an effective tool in his reconquest of Asia Minor, including the key Syrian city of Antioch, a city that once belonged to Byzantium.

The crusaders equally distrusted the emperor Alexius. While most crusaders took up the cross for religious motives, several — especially Bohemond of Taranto, Tancred of Hauteville and Baldwin of Boulogne — were ardently determined to obtain an eastern kingdom for themselves. These men were well aware of the emperor’s ambitions and resented them simply because his ambitions posed to thwart their own. It was also highly possible that the crusaders were quite jealous of their eastern Greek brethren.

Constantinople was unlike any city in Europe: About half a million people lived there which made it quite large by late eleventh century standards. It was also a city that was wealthy in material goods and history. Europeans marveled at the Basilica of St. Sophia and at statues of Byzantium’s forefathers. These statues dated back to the days of Emperor Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. When the crusaders saw these statues and relics that were unbeknownst to Europe, it was no wonder why they felt inferior to the Greeks.

Contrary to how their high-born counterparts felt, the lesser-nobles, knights, men-at-arms, and pilgrims believed that the emperor would assume control of the Crusade and pave the way to Jerusalem. Really though, Alexius didn’t care about the lands that lay south of Antioch and he had no desire to guide the crusaders once they had fulfilled their duty to his empire.

Alexius realized that if he was to successfully save his empire, he had to subdue the Franks. The only way he was going to accomplish this was if he flaunted his wealth; not with arrogance, but with kindness and generosity. So, Alexius summoned Godfrey and few of his leading nobles to his imperial palace. According to the twelfth century chronicler, Albert of Aix, “The Emperor sat in majesty on his throne, and did not rise to give the kiss to the Duke (Godfrey) or anyone. But the Duke, together with his men, bowed with bended knees to kiss so glorious and great and Emperor. When at last all had received the kiss, according to rank, he spoke to the Duke in these words: ‘I have heard that you are the most mighty knight and prince in your land, a man most prudent and of perfect trust. In the presence of this multitude and more to come, I, therefore, take you for my adopted son; and all that I possess I place in your power, that through you my empire and lands may be saved and freed.’ “

Alexius then made Godfrey swear an oath: Whatever territory in Asia Minor Godfrey and his army captured would be handed over to Alexius. Godfrey, recognizing the need for the emperor’s aid and counsel, offered his vassalage to Alexius. Alexius, in turn, sealed the oath by showering Godfrey and his men with gifts of gold, silver, exotic purple fabric, and valuable war horses. Knowing that other Frankish armies would soon arrive on the shores of Constantinople, Alexius sent Godfrey’s army across the Bosphorus to set up camp. The last thing he wanted was a build-up of Franks encamped outside his city’s walls.

In the following months, the other crusading armies arrived in Constantinople. However, they did not all arrive at the same time and not all of the princes swore the oath put forth by Emperor Alexius Comnenus. Baldwin of Boulogne and Tancred of Hauteville crossed the Bosphorus, avoiding Alexius so they wouldn’t have to swear their vassalage to him. Count Raymond of Toulouse refused to swear the oath, but he did promise the emperor that he wouldn’t threaten his possessions.

Of all the princes who did — and didn’t — swear the oath of allegiance to the emperor, there was one prince who Alexius and his daughter, Anna Comnena, did not trust or even like: The Norman prince, Bohemond of Taranto.

Alexius knew Bohemond’s greed and temperament well because, in the1080s, shortly after he ascended the imperial throne, Alexius engaged in a lengthy conflict against a Norman army after that army invaded the Balkans; Byzantine held territory. The Norman army was commanded by the wily Robert Guiscard. Bohemond, the eldest son of Robert, fought alongside his father, but assumed control over the army partway through the war after Robert returned home to settle a dispute. So, Bohemond brought with him to the crusading cause, military expertise and prowess, traits that even his Byzantine enemies — including Alexius and Anna — revered.

“Bohemond’s appearance was, to put it briefly, unlike that of any other man seen in those days in the Roman world, whether Greek or Barbarian. The sight of him inspired admiration, the mention of his name terror…His stature was such that he towered almost a full cubit over the tallest man. He was slender of waist and flanks, with broad shoulders and chest, strong in the arms…There was a certain charm about him, but also a hard, savage quality in his whole aspect…even this laugh sounded like a threat to others,” Anna Comnena wrote.

However, when Bohemond met with Alexius in April 1097, he swore the oath, publicly displaying his intention to make peace with his former enemy. It should be noted that   Bohemond’s desire to make peace with Alexius was superficial. That’s because peace with the Byzantine Emperor would make it much easier for Bohemond to acquire an eastern kingdom for himself.

Regardless, Alexius bestowed upon Bohemond the same kindness and generosity as he had to the other princes. He gave his former Latin foe an entire room packed with gold, silver, and other jewels. According to Anna, when Bohemond saw the immensity of these riches, he exclaimed: “If such riches were mine, long ago I would have been lord of many lands.”

Modern and medieval historians alike claim Bohemond’s status as a prince, but one who had very little wealth. When Bohemond joined the Crusade, he possessed only a small fief in the Duchy of Apulia. For that reason, he was unable to recruit as large an army as had his contemporaries. By the time Bohemond reached Constantinople he had little, if no money left to purchase supplies for himself and for his small force; another reason Bohemond was so willing to work with Alexius.

For Alexius, the deed was done. He had subdued the crusaders and on peaceful terms. Now, he needed to succeed in the second stage of his plan: Recapture all Byzantine territory that had been lost to the Seljuk Turks and repel the Turkish threat forever.

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