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The First Crusade part III: From Constantinople to Antioch

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The City of Nicaea

The crusade’s first objective was the city of Nicaea. The capital of the Turkish sultanate, Nicaea was an important strategic location for any further advances into Asia Minor. The heavily fortified city rested on the shores of a lake, making a complete investment of the city impossible until Byzantine vessels were sent overland to close off the city’s ports. Having easily dispatched the crusade of Peter the Hermit, Sultan Kilij Arslan, who was not in the city, did not at first take this second army very seriously. He may even have heard that Peter was present and therefore assumed the caliber of forces to be poor. He learned differently, but too late. By the time he brought his army to relieve the city, the crusaders had established their siege. In a pitched battle on May 21, the crusaders decisively defeated the Turkish forces. In the mayhem, Kilij Arslan fled, leaving behind his wife, family, and treasury in the city.

The imperial banners flying over the city walls

With the defeat of the relieving forces, the Turkish garrison opened negotiations with Alexius for terms of surrender. The emperor guaranteed the life and property of all inhabitants and assured them that the Latin crusaders would not be allowed in the city. In the dead of night, the ports were opened to the Byzantine vessels. When the crusaders awoke, they found the imperial banners flying over the city walls. Alexius thanked the westerners for their assistance and bestowed rich gifts on their leaders. Many of the crusaders felt cheated. They had sworn to restore property like this to the emperor, and they were now robbed of the opportunity to break their oath. Surely a little plundering was justified, many grumbled, if only of the Muslim inhabitants.

Moving across Asia Minor

On June 26, the crusading army departed Nicaea, bound for Antioch. Between the two cities lay the sun-baked expanse of Anatolia. Summers in Asia Minor are oppressively hot. What little food was in the fields had been destroyed by the retreating Turks. The crusaders decided to split their forces
into two groups. The first was led by Bohemond and a few other lords. The second, which traveled a day behind, was commanded by Godfrey and Raymond. The wisdom of this deployment was demonstrated a few days later when Kilij Arslan attacked the first group, apparently believing that it was the entire force of the crusade. Bohemond lacked the manpower to defeat the sultan, but he could defend himself for a day while word was sent to Raymond and Godfrey. On June 30, the second group arrived, catching Kilij Arslan completely by surprise. He and his troops fled in panic, leaving behind their provisions and tents. For the next four months, the crusaders made their way across Anatolia under horrible conditions. The heat was brutal, water scarce, and food scarcer. Repeatedly, the enterprise seemed doomed, yet in each case something allowed it to continue, if only just a little farther. For the crusaders, these were the miracles that God performed for those who marched to the land of his Son. Finally, on October 21, 1097, they caught sight of the great walls of Antioch. The crusaders were a large but pitiful force. A cleric, Fulcher of Chartres, recorded:

Truly, either you would laugh or perhaps shed tears out of compassion, when many of our people lacking beasts of burden, because many had died, loaded wethers, she-goats, sows, or dogs with their possessions. . . . We saw the backs of these small beasts chafed by the heavy loads. Occasionally armed knights even used oxen as mounts.

Baldwin and the conquest of  Edessa

Baldwin of Boulogne and Tancred, the cousin of Bohemond, had split off from the main body of the crusade to acquire assistance from Armenian Christian cities farther to the southwest in Cilicia. They were warmly welcomed, and both men soon found themselves caught up in local politics. Baldwin then headed east into greater Armenia, where he received a similar welcome. The capital of the region was the city of Edessa. It was ruled by Thoros, who was officially a vassal of the Turks but in reality acted independently. He did not expect that situation to continue for very much longer without help, so he offered to adopt Baldwin as his successor. Baldwin accepted and entered Edessa among cheering throngs of citizens. Shortly thereafter, a coup toppled Thoros, leaving Baldwin as the sole ruler of Edessa, where he settled permanently. The new County of Edessa was the first of the crusader states. It was to provide a valuable buffer against Turkish attacks on Antioch and other Christian lands. The means of Baldwin’s acquisition nevertheless was a clear warning that relations between Byzantines and crusaders would not be smooth. Despite his oath, Baldwin made no attempt to restore Edessa to Alexius I in Constantinople.

Arriving at Antioch

One of the greatest cities of the ancient Roman Empire and one of the patriarchal sees of Christianity, Antioch was an imposing sight for the wearied crusaders. Its fortifications were massive, consisting of long walls studded with four hundred towers. The population was predominantly Greek and Armenian Christian, although it was garrisoned and ruled by Muslim Turks. The crusaders probably numbered around forty thousand souls, but they were incapable of completely investing the city for a siege. Raymond suggested an immediate attempt to take the city by storm, but Bohemond argued against it. The Norman leader clearly hoped to find a way to claim Antioch for himself, just as Baldwin had done at Edessa. If a direct assault were successful, the city
would likely fall under the control of the most powerful lord. That would be Raymond. In any event, Bohemond did not think it possible to take the city so easily, and neither did a majority of the nobility. They decided to wait out a siege.

Lack of supplies during the siege of Antioch

The winter of 1097–98 was a particularly cold and difficult one. Forty thousand people require a great deal of food, and there was little to be had. Foraging parties already had exhausted nearby lands, so they were sent ever farther in search of provisions. The leaders were often less concerned with the blockade of the city than the acquisition of supplies. Hunger, starvation, and disease descended on the soldiers. Many knights who had not lost their horses during the grueling journey were now forced to slaughter them for meat. This was a decision made only as a last resort, for the horse was not only the symbol of a knight’s social station but also his principal means of combat. Fulcher of Chartres described the pitiful conditions:

At that time, the famished ate the shoots of beanseeds growing in the fields and many kinds of herbs unseasoned with salt, also thistles, which, being not well cooked because of the deficiency of firewood, pricked the tongues of those eating them; also horses, asses, and camels, and dogs and rats. The poorer ones ate even the skins of the beasts and seeds of grain found in manure

Some soldiers turned to cannibalism, making use of Turkish casualties. Many more simply died of starvation.

Danger from the Turks

When it seemed that the situation could not get any worse, news from the East made it so. In 1098, the Arab Fatimids of Egypt launched an attack against the Turks in Palestine, capturing Jerusalem and the surrounding region. Many of the Turks displaced from Palestine made their way to the greater Turkish lords in Damascus, Aleppo, and Mosul. The atabeg of Mosul, Kerbogha, combined these troops with others from Mesopotamia and began a march to relieve Antioch. When news reached the crusaders of the coming of Kerbogha, it created a panic. Decimated by hunger and disease, the crusade was in serious danger of being crushed between the Turkish forces and the walls of Antioch. Throughout the preceding winter months, many had been comforted by the visions of various holy men, who saw saints and angels conspiring for the victory of the followers of Christ. Now that seemed foolish. So far from home, they were in desperate danger. Desertions reached an epidemic level. Even Peter the Hermit, the famed preacher who still bore his letter from heaven, slipped out of camp and ran for home. He was easily captured and returned. With profuse tears, he begged the crusaders to forgive him for his loss of faith, and they did.

Fall of Antioch

All was not as bleak as Peter the Hermit believed. Bohemond had for some time been attempting to corrupt a captain of the guard in the city, and he had finally met with success. For a price, this captain was willing to allow Bohemond and his men to enter under cover of night. The Norman leader called a meeting of the crusading lords. Without revealing his plans, he asked them to agree that if he and his men could take Antioch unassisted, then by rights the city should belong to him. All the barons were quite willing to agree to this—all, that is, except Raymond. The count of Toulouse reminded his fellow leaders that they had sworn oaths to restore this land to the emperor if it could be conquered; they had no right to promise it to a Norman adventurer. It is striking that although Raymond alone had refused to take the oath to the emperor, he alone insisted that it be honored. In part this was due to his own reluctance to let Bohemond acquire such a prize, but it was also motivated by what appears to have been a warm friendship that had materialized between Raymond and Alexius. At last, however, Raymond agreed that if Bohemond could take the city, he should have it until such time that the emperor could make his claim in person. On the night of June 3, 1098, Bohemond and his men scrambled over the walls and opened the gates for their comrades. The crusaders spilled into the dozing city, capturing it in a matter of hours. Only the citadel held out.
Antioch was in crusader hands.

Kerbogha besieging the Crusaders

Instead of heading straight for Antioch, Kerbogha had first stopped off at Edessa in an unsuccessful attempt to wrest the city from Baldwin. He remained there for three weeks, a crucial delay that allowed the crusaders time to hole up in Antioch. Had the sultan not stopped, he would have caught the Christians outside the walls, just as they feared. When he finally arrived, Kerbogha completely invested Antioch. Now the former besiegers were the besieged. There was little food in the city, so starvation remained a severe problem. And the forces of Kerbogha were truly awesome. Fear, hunger, and despair wracked the city. Some deserted and escaped; others were captured by the Turks and cruelly tortured and mutilated in view of their comrades on the walls. Stephen of Blois and some four thousand crusaders were in nearby Alexandretta when Antioch was taken. When they returned they discovered that although their comrades had captured the city, the Muslim forces camped outside as well as those still in the citadel seemed certain to destroy the crusade. In Stephen’s estimation the situation was simply hopeless. With great sorrow he abandoned the enterprise and began his journey home. On the way he learned that Emperor Alexius was marching to Antioch with a sizable army. Fearing that the Byzantines would be ambushed by the victorious Turks, Stephen made a special trip to rendezvous with the emperor at Philomelion. There he related the heartbreaking news of the arrival of Kerbogha and the sure destruction of the crusade at Antioch. He urged Alexius not to continue on to what was certain doom. Alexius thanked Stephen for the warning and ordered his men to return to Constantinople. Stephen went back to France.
Back in Antioch, the crusaders were thunderstruck when they heard of the retreat of the much-needed Byzantine troops. They derided both Stephen and Alexius as faithless cowards. Those lords who had previously sworn to return their conquests to the emperor now repudiated those oaths, insisting that they would render nothing to such a traitor. It is not surprising that in such desperate straits, the visions that were always a part of the crusade increased in frequency. One visionary, Peter Bartholomew, proclaimed that St. Andrew had told him the whereabouts of the Holy Lance, the implement used to pierce the side of Christ. Raymond was convinced by the story, but the papal legate, Adhemar of Le Puy, was openly skeptical. How could the Holy Lance be in Antioch, he asked, when he and others had seen it in Constantinople? News of the vision spread quickly, though, and sparked other visions corroborating the first. On the night of June 14, a meteor streaked across the sky and appeared to land in the camp of the Turks. The signs of heaven seemed clear. The next morning, Peter Bartholomew solemnly led Raymond and a procession of clergy into the Cathedral
of St. Peter, where the visionary pointed to the spot where workmen should dig. Dig they did. Hour after hour passed with no sign of the relic. Raymond had lent his prestige to this search and he was clearly irritated that it was revealing nothing. Finally, when the diggers were ready to quit, Peter Bartholomew himself jumped into the pit and began scrounging with his bare hands. After a few minutes, he cried in triumph and was pulled out of the hole holding something that looked like a worn lance head. Raymond rejoiced at the find, which he quickly attached to a spear pole and carried around the city. Adhemar and others suspected that Peter Bartholomew had planted the relic,  but nothing could stem the excitement that swept the crusade. Morale rose throughout the ranks. In the Holy Lance, they believed that Christ himself had given a sign of their impending victory.

The Crusaders sally forth from the walls of the city

Kerbogha’s troops were numerous and his position strong, yet within his forces there were internal divisions between jealous emirs, divisions that became more acute as the siege dragged on. In time, these factors might lead to the breakup of the besieging army; however, the crusaders lacked the supplies to wait for that. Their only hope was to sally forth from the walls of the city and defeat the Muslim forces in a pitched battle. Because Raymond was bedridden with illness, it fell to Bohemond to lead the Christian forces against Kerbogha. On June 28, the assault began. Kerbogha watched as the crusading forces marched out of the city gates, banners flying, drawing up their ranks. Some of the emirs urged him to attack the Christians immediately, while they were still exiting the city, but the Turkish commander wanted to wipe out his enemy with a single blow. He may have believed that desertions and starvation had more seriously harmed the crusaders than was the case. Perhaps he also considered the reports of a very large army coming all the way from western Europe to be exaggerated. Whatever the reason for his decision, Kerbogha was plainly astonished when he saw the size of the forces assembling before him. Quickly, he sent an emissary to discuss a truce, but the crusaders would hear none of it. They advanced in good order amid a torrent of arrows. When it became clear that a bloody and difficult battle was ahead, many of the Turkish
emirs, who resented Kerbogha in any event, withdrew from the field. Their departure sparked a crescendo of panic in the Turkish forces, scattering them into the countryside. The crusaders quickly defeated the remaining forces. The extraordinary reversal in fortunes seemed truly miraculous to the crusaders. Muslim observers too noted the surprising outcome. The Syrian chronicler Ibn al-Qalanisi wrote:

“Thereafter the Franks, though they were in the extremity of weakness, advanced in battle order against the armies of Islam, which were at the height of strength and numbers, and they broke the ranks of the Muslims and scattered their multitudes.”

With Kerbogha and his forces neutralized, the city’s citadel surrendered to Bohemond. Antioch and its region were now safely in Christian hands. Against all odds, the crusaders had won a smashing victory, but not alone. Many of the combatants and those watching from the walls attested to the
presence of armies of angels and saints, as well as the spirits of their fallen comrades, fighting alongside Bohemond’s troops against the forces of the Turks.

The Great Importance of the Capture of Antioch

The victory at Antioch placed the crusaders materially in their best position since leaving Constantinople. They now controlled a large port city and a strategic region stretching from Antioch to Edessa. The rich gains, however, were also the cause of internal strife. Raymond had opposed Bohemond’s efforts to acquire Antioch from the beginning, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to do so now. The Norman leader had single-handedly captured the city and led the sortie that liberated it. From the point of view of most crusaders, Alexius and the Byzantines had forfeited their rights to Antioch when they turned their back on it. Since then, Alexius had declined an offer to garrison Antioch and lead the crusaders to Jerusalem. Surely, then, Bohemond deserved to have the city. Raymond disagreed. Even putting aside the oath the leaders had sworn to the emperor, Raymond stressed that they had also taken an oath to God to travel to Jerusalem and deliver the land of his Son. No crusader should be allowed to renounce that sacred vow for temporal gain.
Raymond, therefore, insisted that Bohemond and his troops remain with the crusade as it headed south. Bohemond clearly did not want to do that, and so the crusade stalled.

Preparations for Jerusalem

It was not an inopportune moment for it to stall. Summer had begun, and none of the soldiers were eager to march south into Syria’s scorching desert heat. It was decided, therefore, to remain at Antioch until November 1. During the summer, a plague descended on the city, taking the life of the papal legate, Adhemar of Le Puy. This was a significant blow. Adhemar had been the voice of reason and common sense in the councils of the lords. When rivalries threatened to explode, it was always the papal legate who cooled heads. Along with Raymond, Adhemar opposed giving the city to Bohemond or to any crusader. Now the count of Toulouse stood virtually alone in that view. Nevertheless, Raymond was as determined as ever that the crusade would not leave without Bohemond and that Antioch should not be given to the Norman leader. In council, the lords decided to send a letter to Pope Urban II informing him of the death of his legate and asking him to come to Antioch to take the city himself and lead the army to Jerusalem. No one seriously believed that the pope would agree, but it did help to put the question off a bit longer. November 1 came and went, and the crusade was no closer to leaving Antioch. The rank-and-file crusaders, exasperated with their leaders, demanded that they put aside their squabbles and prepare to march south. On November 5, the leaders met together in the Cathedral of St. Peter. After fruitless arguments, spokesmen for the army strode into the church and informed the lords that if they did not come to an agreement, the men would tear down the fortifications of Antioch. At last, Raymond agreed to a compromise of sorts. Bohemond could have Antioch provided he agreed to depart with the host
and serve the crusade until the conquest of Jerusalem. Bohemond willingly agreed. The news was reported to the rank and file, who rejoiced.

Who is to lead the Crusaders to Jerusalem

All was not in readiness for departure. Over the course of November and December, preparations were made and a few nearby locations conquered. The soldiers were continually assured that their departure was forthcoming, but it became clear that Bohemond and Raymond were again attempting to outmaneuver each other. The Norman leader plainly had no intention of leaving Antioch, regardless of what he had agreed to previously. At last, the army offered to Raymond the title of commander in chief of the crusade if he would lead them to the Holy Land. He consented. The title, though impressive, was ornamental: Godfrey of Bouillon and Robert of Flanders had no intention of taking orders from the count of Toulouse. Raymond did acquire command over other nobles, but only because he paid money for it, not because of his designation as supreme commander.


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