The First Crusade: Christian and Muslim Bloodshed as Peasants, Princes, and Turks Clash in the Holy Land
The First Crusade (1095-1099 AD) was a military campaign launched by Christendom in an attempt to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims to make the holy site safe once more for Christian pilgrims. The First Crusade was not the only one, but it has been argued it was the most successful because the crusaders succeeded in their objective - to establish Crusader states in the Levant, which lasted until the 13th century.
What Was the Main Cause of the First Crusade?
One of the factors contributing to the call for the First Crusade was the plea for aid by the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Komnenos. During the 11th century, much of Anatolia, which was once controlled by the Byzantines, had been lost to the Turks. As the Muslims were now dangerously close to his capital of Constantinople, Alexius was hoping to obtain military aid from the West. In 1095, Byzantine envoys were sent to the Council of Piacenza to request this aid from the pope, the leader of Western Christianity.
Portrait of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118). (Public Domain)
The pope, Urban II, responded favorably to the plea of the Byzantine emperor, as he saw it as an opportunity to mend the schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. The split between these two branches of Christianity occurred in 1054, though during the time when Alexius’ plea was made, relations between the two were improving. Additionally, this was a chance for Christianity to regain control of the Holy Land. The significance of this goal lies in the popular practice of pilgrimage. As a result of the war between the Byzantines and the Turks, as well as the in-fighting amongst the warlords of the latter, pilgrimages to the Holy Land became increasingly dangerous.
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The People’s Crusade
In 1095, the Council of Clermont was convened, during which the Pope gave a speech calling on Christians to take up arms to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims. In addition to nobles and knights, many peasants also answered the Pope’s call for holy war.
Miniature: Pope Urban II preaching at the Council of Clermont. Sébastien Mamerot, ‘ Les passages d'outremer.’ (Public Domain)
Groups of peasants rallied under Peter the Hermit, a charismatic priest, and set out for Jerusalem several months before the departure of the armies of the crusading nobles. This became known as the People’s Crusade, and was more of a rampaging angry mob than an actual organized army. Still, the People’s Crusade arrived in Constantinople, and Alexius had them quickly transported across the Bosphorus into Asia Minor, where they were slaughtered by the Turks.
Peter the Hermit Preaching the First Crusade, from the painting by James Archer found in Cassell's History of England, Vol. I - anonymous author and artists. (Public Domain)
Who Led the First Crusade?
The main body of crusaders, however, was divided into four main armies which were led by Godfrey of Bouillon, Raymond of Saint-Gilles, Bohemond of Taranto, and Hugh of Vermandois. As these men were nobles (as opposed to kings), the crusade became known also as the Princes’ Crusade. Most of the Crusade’s leaders swore fealty to Alexius, as requested, and promised to return to the Byzantines any land they took from the Turks. Initially, the crusaders received aid from the Byzantines, though this changed later on, when relations between the two powers soured.
The first conflict between the crusaders and the Turks was the Siege of Nicaea, which took place in 1097. After a siege of about a month, the crusaders emerged victorious, and Nicaea was restored to the Byzantines. The crusaders then marched through Anatolia, defeating the Turks once more at the Battle of Dorylaeum in the same year. In October 1097, the crusaders arrived before the walls of Antioch, and laid siege to it. Although the city fell in June 1098, the victorious crusaders found themselves being besieged in turn, though they were able to break the siege when they sallied forth from the city, and defeated the besiegers in battle. With the exception of Bohemond of Taranto, who claimed Antioch for his own, thus establishing the Principality of Antioch, the rest of the crusaders continued their march to Jerusalem.
Imaginary portrait of Bohemond I by Merry-Joseph Blondel (1781–1853). (Public Domain)
The crusaders finally arrived in Jerusalem, which was controlled by the Fatimids, in 1099. They began the siege of the holy city in June, and captured it after a month. In August 1099, the Fatimids attempted to retake Jerusalem from the crusaders. An army five times the size of the remaining crusaders was raised, though they were defeated at the Battle of Ascalon. This was to be the last battle of the First Crusade.
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The Siege of Jerusalem as depicted in a medieval, possibly 14th century, manuscript. (Public Domain)
What was the Outcome of the First Crusade?
The fall of Jerusalem to the crusaders meant that the holy city was once again in the hands of the crusaders. The First Crusade also resulted in the establishment of the crusader states in the Levant, including the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Principality of Antioch, and the County of Edessa.
Although these states were weak, they played an important role in the geopolitics of the region. This is evident, for instance, in the call for further crusades when these states were threatened or conquered by the Muslims. Thus, the First Crusade, though being the first of its kind, was certainly not the last.
Top Image: “Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099” (1847) by Émile Signol / Giraudon / The Bridgeman Art Library. The Crusaders were mostly successful in the First Crusade. Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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