The First Crusade: The shock of the new?



When in March of 1095 Pope Urban II made a speech to an assembly of French nobility and clergy at Clermont, in which he explained that the Christians in the east, both Catholic and Orthodox, were facing daily attacks and depredations from the Muslim population and lords, and offered those who would unite against this common foe remission of their sins, few could have expected the huge impact that his words would have on both East and West.

The response was enormous. Apart from the 30,000 untrained and ill-prepared followers of Peter the Hermit’s Peasants’ Crusade, who were the first to arrive in the Holy Land and were quickly destroyed by the Seljuk Turks, forces were gathered from the lordships of Northern France, Italy and Germany – maybe 35,000, with some 5,000 knights.

Peter the Hermit riding the donkey

Peter the Hermit riding the donkey

But whilst the number of those who took up the cross was a shock to all, not least by Byzantines whom they were ostensibly there to support, they were not wholly unknown to the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean. Normans had entered southern Italy as part of the armies of the northern Lombards around 1000, and had fought for and against the Byzantine emperor for almost a century. In 1081 Normans under Robert Guiscard had defeated his forces at the battle of Dyrrachium, as they carved out a kingdom in southern Italy and the Balkans.

The First Crusade - Routes to the Holy Land

The First Crusade – Routes to the Holy Land

The knights by whom they were defeated at Dyrrachium and who they saw cross their territory on their way to Jerusalem left a lasting impression on the Byzantines. “A Frank on horseback is invincible, and would even make a hole in the walls of Babylon,” wrote Anna Comnena, the emperor’s daughter. His armour made him invincible and his initial charge was unstoppable. But she and her father were also aware of his weaknesses. It was essential to target his horse with arrows, since “directly he gets off his horse, anyone who likes can make sport of him.” The knight was also rash in battle and quick to pursue. After the initial charge knights were disorganized and weak.

Alexius I Comnenus, Byzantine emperor

Alexius I Comnenus, Byzantine emperor

Their leaders were as fickle and impetuous as their knights. Unlike the commanders of Byzantine armies who were generals steeped in the traditions of classical military learning, men like Godfrey de Bouillon, Bohemond of Taranto and Raymond de St Gilles – three of the key commanders – were war leaders, as much the warrior as their men. Arrogant and willful, they were divided by personal animosities and pride.

Scenes from the First Crusade (People’s Crusade), illustration by Sebastian Marmoret, c. 1490.

Scenes from the First Crusade (People’s Crusade), illustration by Sebastian Marmoret, c. 1490.

“So many and such great disputes arose between the leaders of our army,” writes the crusader Raymond of Aguilers, “thet almost the whole army was divided.” With no clear secular leader it was only the Pope’s representative, Bishop Adhemar, who held the forces together, and even he was unable to stop some from setting off alone, such as Boldwin of Boulogne, who went on to establish the County of Edessa, or Stephen of Blois, who left the crusade and returned home.

Bishop Adhemar with Raymond IV of Toulouse

Bishop Adhemar with Raymond IV of Toulouse

The victories of the First Crusade, with its capture of Jerusalem, cannot, in fact, be put down to the power and effectiveness of the heavy cavalry. Whilst the knights’ charges were important in their winning of the battles of Dorylaeum and Ascalon, it was the capture of Antioch and Jerusalem by siege that secured the crusade’s success. Victory came  as a result of the disunity of the Islamic world, divided on ethnic and religious grounds between the Seljuk Turks and the Fatimid Egyptians, the individual cities commanded by semi-independent governors who knew they could not rely on their respective lords for help. It came through the support of the Byzantines from whose territory supplies and intelligence arrived. Antioch had fallen by luck, when a tower captain betrayed the town.

Godfrey de Bouillon

Godfrey de Bouillon

The belief of the crusaders that they were doing God’s work was also a major factor. The miraculous discovery of the Holy Lance during the army’s time besieged in Antioch became a focus of morale, even if not everyone believed in its authenticity. As the sieges dragged on, it was the exhortations of Adhemar and the priests, with their days of fasting and processions, as much as the charisma of their military commanders, that inspired the crusaders to victory.

Seljuk Turks fighting the knights

Seljuk Turks fighting the knights

The success of the First Crusade had huge implications for the development of the medieval knight. In the crusading ideal the Church arguably found the key to reconciling the knightly desire for prowess with the Church’s concepts of “just war” and the Peace of God. Whilst it would not stop warfare between Christians, and became as much a political tool as an ideological one, crusading established itself deep within the psyche of knighthood, shaping chivalry into a more pious and spiritual ethos.

The excerpt from Robert Jones’s “Knight: The Warrior and World of Chivalry”

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