Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

1. First Crusade |
Centuries under attack, Europe

First Crusade is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 10, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Tens of thousands answer the pope’s call for war, and after a grim fight through the Muslim lands, they take Jerusalem, then besmirch their victory

First Crusade - Centuries under attack, Europe’s Christians finally strike back at Islam

First Crusade - Centuries under attack, Europe’s Christians finally strike back at Islam
In this nineteenth-century Gustave Doré lithograph, Peter the Hermit, standing in front of Pope Urban II, fires up a crowd in Clermont, France, with stories of Muslim atrocities to Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. Though these two men probably didn’t appear in public together as shown here, the artist is conveying how men were inspired to undertake an unprecedented challenge. The pope preached, “A barbarous people, estranged from God, has invaded the lands of the Christians,” assuring those who took up the cross “imperishable glory.”

As the sun rose on that historic July 8 of the Christian year 1099, incredulous Muslims looking down from Jerusalem’s forty-foot walls burst into hoots of scornful laughter. Some began derisively flaunting homemade crosses while others hurled down garbage. Below them, armor-clad Christian knights and soldiers, led by black-robed priests, were trudging along in procession, barefoot and singing hymns. This bedraggled contingent of twelve thousand men had besieged the Holy City for a full month, but now–starving, mad with thirst, sickened by the stench of dead and rotting oxen and horses, and outnumbered five to one by the city’s sixty thousand well-fed defenders–they apparently had given up.

This sorry parade, the jeering crowds on the walls concluded, was clearly a procession of defeated penitents. The vaunted Christian resolve to reclaim the Muslim heartland for Jesus Christ had turned into a humiliating, costly, and catastrophic flop.

The Muslim jubilation was premature, however. After thirty-four months and two thousand arduous miles on the road, these battle-hardened soldiers and clergy had spent the past three days fasting and in prayer. Now they were about to launch one last do-or-die assault on Jerusalem’s formidable defenses.

Their war with Islam went back much further than thirty-four months. Four long centuries had passed since conquering Muslim armies seized Christian Jerusalem and the whole Christian Middle East west of the Euphrates as well as Christian Egypt, Christian North Africa, and, finally, Christian Spain. Moreover, for three of these intervening centuries, Christians had been defending Europe itself against recurring Islamic aggression. Sicily, southern Italy, and southern France had all experienced Muslim occupation; even Rome had been attacked three times. At length, therefore, Christians had taken the offensive in what they saw as a valiant and inescapable mission. If Islam were not destroyed at its source, they reasoned, one of its inevitably renewed attacks would ultimately succeed, and all Christendom would fall.

This Christian resolve carried with it an abiding problem, of course. Jesus had warned the apostle Peter that he who takes the sword will perish by the sword (Matthew 26:52). If Christianity as a whole took the sword, would Christianity therefore perish by it? That was one of the questions their blood-drenched journey to Jerusalem and the two-hundred-year endeavor that would follow from it were about to answer.

If any such qualms had been on the mind of Pope Urban II three years earlier, however, he didn’t mention them when he addressed the dozen cardinals and archbishops, eighty bishops, and ninety abbots he had summoned to a historic church council in the town of Clermont, midway between Paris and the Pyrenees. Among other pressing things, the council was to deal with evidence of renewed problems in the East. Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem were increasingly being attacked. More serious still, Alexius I Comnenus, the Byzantine emperor, was begging for soldiers because the Muslim Seljuk Turks were threatening Constantinople, Christendom’s last bastion in the East. To meet these ominous threats, Urban had formed a plan, and on November 27, 1095, some five hundred people gathered in a field near Clermont to hear him disclose it.

The scene would prove memorable. The French-born Urban, a tall, handsome, black-bearded man, courteous in manner and eloquent of speech, was known for smooth diplomatic skill and unusual breadth of vision. He had been summoned from the monastery at Cluny to become cardinal-bishop of Ostia, then papal legate in France, and finally pope. Though stern and firm, he was also viewed as a collegial fellow who avoided controversy. This made the sermon he now delivered, which some historians deem one of the most influential speeches ever made anywhere, all the more astonishing.

Wearing a white robe and a black woolen vestment adorned with small crosses, Pope Urban addressed the throng from a stage beneath a glittering gold canopy. Around the stage clustered red-robed cardinals, purple-robed bishops, and a host of monks clad in either black or white. Beyond them, a restless crowd of barons and bourgeois, laymen and pilgrims, was suddenly still as the pope began to preach in vernacular Romance, the common language of the region.

“From the borders of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople ominous tidings have gone forth . . .” he declared. “A barbarous people, estranged from God, has invaded the lands of the Christians. . . . These invaders are Turks and Arabs. . . . The empire of Constantinople is mutilated. . . . Until now this empire has been our rampart.” He described the horrors perpetrated upon local Christians (“torturing and binding them, filling them with arrows . . . ravishing women”) and pilgrims (“their bowels were cut open with a sword”) and desecration of churches (“befouling altars with the filth out of their bodies”). The Muslims were “laying waste to the kingdom of God.”1

It was time, he declared, for Christendom to respond. The courageous knights of Europe must cease their petty, murderous private squabbles and begin to save their souls by restoring Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre to Christendom. “Come forward to the defense of Christ,” he implored. Women wept, then men too, and gradually a murmur crescendoed into a mighty roar: “Deus le vult! Deus le vult!” (“God wills it!”) Men drew and waved their swords. Urban raised his arms to still the tumult. “Let it be your battle cry when you go against the enemy: ‘God wills it!’ . . . And whosoever shall make his vow to go shall wear the sign of the cross on his head or breast.” And he promised absolution and remission of sins to any who died en route or in battle.

As Urban finished, one bishop pushed forward and knelt before him, offering himself as spiritual guide to the mission; he had been a pilgrim, he said, and he knew what such a project would involve. This was Adhemar of Monteil, destined to become known as the army’s most indispensable man. A trickle of barons followed him, then other senior clergy, then knights, freemen, and peasants. In the following weeks, all over Europe that trickle turned into a deluge. Word of the pope’s appeal echoed and reechoed from the Pyrenees to Venice, on the Adriatic, from Sicily through Normandy to Scotland, across the Rhine and north to Sweden. It resonated from churches and public squares into castles and cottages. In a world where almost none but the wealthy traveled more than a few score miles from home in a lifetime, hundreds of thousands would embark on journeys ranging from fifteen hundred to more than two thousand miles–knights riding horses but most men walking.

The church’s vast infrastructure was thrown behind the movement. Couriers rode from abbey to abbey while from monasteries monks reached out to freemen and peasants. The heralds wore crosses of red cloth and explained that anyone taking part would be granted indulgence from all penance for three years. The eloquent Urban labored tirelessly, moving from a Christmas sermon at Limoges to Poitiers in the Loire Valley, on through southern France, then over the Alps into Lombardy and eventually back to the Rhineland. More pledges came in from key nobles: Count Hugh of Vermandois, brother of the excommunicate king of France, Philip; Count Stephen of Blois, whose son would become king of England; more remarkable still, men like Godfrey of Bouillon, whose family had been traditional foes of the papacy. Europe had never seen anything like it. Within a year nearly two hundred thousand individuals of every social stripe would uproot their lives to embark on perilous journeys into the unknown.

Why did they do it? For most, rich and poor, it required notable sacrifice. For example, Duke Robert of Normandy, eldest son of William the Conqueror, mortgaged his entire duchy to raise money for horses, armor, provisions, and weapons for himself and his vassals. For a few land-poor knights like Bohemond of Taranto and Baldwin of Boulogne, eager to acquire an estate, it might mean material gain. But to every one of them it offered a share in the noblest cause they could imagine and an unparalleled adventure. Besides–and this was no small matter–there was the papal promise. For three years they need not fear the judgment of God. Their sins would be forgiven. This was not, in fact, what Urban had promised, but it is plainly the way many men took it.2

Urban’s reasons were likewise various. The persecution of Christian pilgrims was well established, and his concern for the Eastern Empire was certainly genuine. After conquering Armenia, the Muslim Seljuk Turks had trounced the Byzantines at Manzikert in 1071 (see volume 6, pages 276—278), had taken Antioch in 1085, and now occupied Nicea, a few short hours by ship from Constantinople. But while Alexius wanted “soldiers,” he had never envisaged the avalanche that was about to descend upon him. However, as Urban well knew, the greatest benefit for the church was this: the crusade, as it came to be called, would unite a Christendom torn by feudal strife, and it would be Rome and the papacy that did the uniting.

The day after his sermon couriers arrived at Clermont with magnificent news: Count Raymond of Toulouse would take up the cross. The most powerful noble in southeastern France and one of the wealthiest in western Europe, he commanded hundreds of knights and thousands of soldiers. At fifty-three, he was blind in one eye and scarred from his many battles with the Muslims in Spain. He wore a clipped gray beard and carried his short frame with rigid military bearing. Impulsive and quick to anger, he was vain and arrogant, and lacked what a later generation would call charisma. He was also a notorious womanizer and had twice been excommunicated by the reforming Pope Gregory VII. But he was, nonetheless, considered a devout Christian and was a close friend of both Pope Urban and Bishop Adhemar.

Raymond’s decision conferred, as he knew it would, great credibility on the project. He donated his most valuable possessions to the Abbey of St. Gilles and made a large donation to Bishop Adhemar’s cathedral, indeed giving away more than any other man to join, and he assumed that Urban would name him commander. When Urban did not (in fact, he refused to name anyone), Raymond was angry and bitterly disappointed. Further and greater disappointments would follow.

The army consisted of four contingents, each from a different homeland, under its own command and departing independently between August and October 1096 to rendezvous at Constantinople. Those from the farthest north, from Flanders and the lower Rhine Valley, marched overland via Germany and Hungary under the command of the tall, handsome, husky, golden-bearded Godfrey of Bouillon, age thirty-five, who had financed the enterprise honorably by selling two large estates and pledging his castle to a bishop, and dishonorably by blackmailing Jews with threats of persecution.3

The northern French contingent set out from Paris under the joint command of Duke Robert of Normandy, brother of England’s King William II; Count Stephen of Blois; and Count Robert II of Flanders. Mightily moved by Urban’s preaching, Duke Robert, at age forty, would contribute both his charm and his indolent interest. Wealthy Stephen of Blois reputedly did not in fact want to go at all. He had joined, it was said, because his wife, Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror, had shamed him into it. More admirably, Robert of Flanders was following the example of his father, who had once made the dangerous journey to Jerusalem as a pilgrim. Meanwhile, the southern French assembled under Raymond in Provence. With them was Bishop Adhemar, designated as Urban’s legate. This third contingent also included a notorious mob of rowdy Spaniards. Crossing through the Alpine passes, they gained northern Italy and Dalmatia, which put them on the old Roman road to Constantinople–all of which was cheaper than hiring ships.

The fourth contingent was an afterthought. A host of Normans from southern Italy under the leadership of Bohemond of Taranto took up the cross after the army of northern France and his Norman cousins passed by on their way to Constantinople by sea. Bohemond called a meeting where he dramatically tore off his rich scarlet cloak and ripped the cloth into pieces to make crosses. His vassals quickly followed his lead. Brilliant, brave, crafty, opportunistic, and ruthless, the towering Bohemond was at once the crusade’s greatest asset and worst liability. His past was unpropitious. He had acquired a small duchy by rebelling against his half-brother and then had launched an attack on Byzantine possessions along the Adriatic. Though it failed, he was dreaded and despised by the Byzantines, whose cause he now offered to champion. The mere mention of his name, wrote the emperor Alexius’s daughter, “occasioned panic” in Constantinople.4

The crusaders began arriving in that fabled city as early as 1096. Nothing in Europe had prepared them for its size and splendor. It teemed with more than a half million people, against thirty thousand in Paris. Its skyline silhouetted a stunning mélange of Greek, Roman, and eastern architecture, and to awestruck crusaders it delivered one overwhelming impression: wealth. They thoroughly alarmed the emperor. He had already diverted away from the city a brawling mob of some twenty thousand German peasants who had hastened pell-mell to answer Urban’s call (see sidebar, pages 16—17). He was not about to allow through his gates these thousands of armed westerners either. His objective was to get the four armies beyond Constantinople, not into it.

Alexius was a small man with oiled black hair and beard, his dark brows arching over large brown eyes, and nothing in his manner of monarchy endeared him to the muscular soldiery of the West. He seemed to them effete, with his luxurious purple mantle worn over a gold tunic and his velvet cap covered in diamonds and rubies. Most comfortable on his throne or a horse, he was poker faced and studiously polite, loved to impress friends and enemies alike with displays of wealth, and flattered and bribed shamelessly, all the while milking his empire through high taxes and, so it was said, also stealing from the church. He had seized power only five years earlier in a bloodless coup and now blunted persistent threats of rebellion and assassination by conferring an array of empty titles that placed potential plotters under his watchful eye at the imperial court.

Improbable as it might seem to western sensibilities, however, this popinjay paladin was a formidable commander. Alexius had decisively thwarted Bohemond on his western frontier, after all, and was holding the Turks in check on the east. He was confident that the Eastern Church would remain secure as long as the remaining Byzantine Empire survived, but to regain all the territory lost to Islam, he would need more troops; hence his appeal to Urban. Beyond that, he did not believe Christians needed to control Jerusalem. Further, if the four armies descending upon him took Syria, he wanted it restored to the Byzantine Empire, not to the West. To guarantee this, he required an oath of loyalty from the crusade leaders.

First to arrive was the Flanders—Rhine Valley contingent, a vast array of armor-clad chivalry with massed lances who celebrated Christmas of 1096 encamped outside the city walls. No, said Godfrey, he would not swear allegiance to Alexius, because he had already sworn it to the western emperor, who, he said, took precedence. Alexius insisted. Armed skirmishes followed, verging on open war. With the army of the redoubtable Bohemond also approaching, Alexius offered Godfrey a deal: free transit across the Bosporus for his troops plus supplies of food if he would take the oath. Grudgingly, Godfrey complied, and a veritable landslide of gifts from the emperor descended upon him as he crossed into Asia.

By now it was March 1097. Oaths presented no problems for Bohemond, who appeared in early April and crossed immediately, proposing that Alexius name him supreme commander. The emperor refused but placated him, too, with money and gifts. Raymond, reaching Constantinople later that month, initially refused to take Alexius’s oath–God was now his only suzerain, he claimed–but compromised with a vow not to “allow harm” to the emperor. The northern French, having wintered in Italy, arrived last. Their leaders took the oath and crossed the Bosporus to catch up with the rest. The Christian army now numbered over one hundred thousand, though more than half were noncombatants. Almost immediately the crusade’s most besetting problem emerged: intense rivalry between the short, gray-bearded Raymond and the tall, powerful Bohemond. For the moment it was agreed that decisions would be made by the leaders in council.

The enemy, the Muslim Turks, were not far away. Nicea, the Seljuk capital where more than seven centuries earlier the Christian faith was first defined in a creed by an ecumenical council, lay a scant four days’ march from Constantin-ople. It stood at the end of a lake, its massive walls rising from the water and describing a four-mile circuit on the landward side. Alexius had emphasized, and all had agreed, that this must be their first objective, though the emperor’s contribution to the effort was limited to a few siege machines and a general. The contingents positioned themselves at four points along the landward walls.

Raymond was the first to distinguish himself. The Seljuk sultan had taken his army from the city to fight rival Muslims elsewhere, possibly assuming that these latest arrivals would resemble the peasants’ brigade that he had casually liquidated the previous year. Alerted to the siege, his cavalrymen swept in from the south, met Raymond’s Provençals head-on before the city gates, and were quickly beaten back when Bishop Adhemar’s force attacked their right flank. While the other three armies occupied themselves with the walls, the Provençals repelled wave after wave. Finally, the sultan, recognizing that man for man his troops were no match for these people, left his capital to its fate.

The elated crusaders hacked the heads off dead Turkish cavalrymen and hurled them over the walls as an edifying message to the defenders, but the garrison, amply supplied via the lake, knew it could hold out indefinitely. Then a small flotilla of boats arrived, courtesy of Alexius, and was transported overland to the crusaders. Nicea was thereupon sealed, and the crusaders prepared for an assault and a promising haul of loot the following day. They needn’t have bothered. Daylight disclosed new flags flying over the city: the flags of the Byzantine Empire. Alexius’s envoys, with some Byzantine troops, had stolen into the city during the night and negotiated a surrender; the defenders now marched out under Byzantine escort. Alexius somewhat assuaged the rage of the westerners by bestowing gifts all round, including silks, valuable horses, and heaps of gold and jewels from the sultan’s treasury. Even so, though Nicea was again Christian, relations with the emperor Alexius had not been improved.

From Nicea the crusaders headed east in two groups, one led by Raymond and the other by Bohemond. The latter, always impatient, got his troops ready first. Soon miles ahead, they encamped that night on a plain surrounded by low hills near the village of Doryleum. At dawn the sultan’s shrieking Turks came swooping over one of those hills to encircle them in a wild, howling attack.

Bohemond responded instantly. Ordering noncombatants into the camp’s center, where there were springs, he told women to keep carrying water to a front line that he assembled in a circle around them. He also dispatched a messenger back to Raymond for help, then ordered his knights to dismount and had his soldiers pack tight together in a solid defensive formation. For the next five baking hours, they were attacked by wave after wave of mounted Turkish archers releasing showers of arrows from their horn bows, then wheeling back for another onslaught.

Finally, about noon Bohemond’s allies thundered in with Godfrey and Hugh of Vermandois in the lead and Raymond close behind. The reinforcements surprised and confused the Turks, slowing them down, and then, just as the crusaders began to gain, Bishop Adhemar rode in from farther west at the head of still more Provençal knights. This sight panicked the Turks and sent then fleeing eastward. What might well have been a major disaster for the crusaders turned into a landmark victory, one made all the sweeter because the Seljuks abandoned considerable treasure along with their tents. Moreover, news of the rout at Doryleum destroyed the sultan’s authority and burnished Bohemond’s reputation as a field general. But his impatient decision to divide the army further fueled his antagonism with Raymond.

Through the heat of August 1097 the armies proceeded slowly across the arid high plains of Anatolia, where the Seljuks pillaged towns and destroyed food supplies ahead of them. Hundreds of Christians died of thirst, as did horses, donkeys, oxen, and even camels. By late summer the weary expedition reached a region called Pisidia, north of the Mediterranean, where water and food were relatively plentiful and they were welcomed by the largely Armenian Christian population.

The next objective was Antioch, five hundred miles southeast. But on the direct overland route were two narrow mountain passes that Muslims could easily blockade: the Cilician Gates, north of Tarsus, and the Belen Gates, near Antioch. So the council agreed to turn northeast and travel twice as far through the region of Cappadocia, which would require two extra months on the road, with a mounting toll of human and animal life in the dry, rugged terrain.5 But at last the crusaders–hungry, dispirited, many in rags–reached the Orontes River. There they beheld Antioch, an intimidating sight. Behind eight miles of stone walls that rose sixty feet from the marshy ground, the city climbed fifteen hundred feet up a mountainside to a fortress at the summit. Five heavily guarded gates allowed entrance from the western plain, with a sixth at the mountaintop citadel.6

In Antioch the apostle Peter had served as bishop and had established one of the first Christian dioceses. Here, in fact, the very word Christian had come into being (Acts 11:26), and the population still comprised many Greek, Armenian, and Syrian Christians along with Arab and Turkish Muslims and Jews. Alexius wanted Antioch back in his empire for both strategic and economic reasons. The crusaders also wanted it, if only because it provided the Turks with a stranglehold on the overland pilgrimage route to Jerusalem. But by now their numbers had been reduced to forty thousand and their fighting strength to five thousand knights and six thousand infantry. Moreover, there was no wood to make siege engines, food was running low, and lightning attacks by mounted Turkish archers were taking a continual toll.

In mid-November thirteen Genoese ships carrying food and reinforcements arrived at the port of St. Simeon, twenty miles away. Equally comforting, the sly Bohemond lured marauding Muslim archers into an ambush, then wiped them out. But by late December the westerners were starving again, now in cold rain and snow, and there was worse to come. Bohemond and Robert of Flanders led four hundred knights to forage the countryside for food and supplies, and encountered a Muslim reinforcement contingent from Damascus twenty times their strength. Bohemond managed to fight them to a stalemate. Back at Antioch, however, Raymond had been lured by the Muslim garrison into a reckless chase and then forced into a chaotic retreat in which he lost thirty men. Even more humiliating, Bishop Adhemar’s flag, which depicted the Blessed Virgin Mary, was captured and was thereafter waved from the walls with jeers and ridicule. When Bohemond returned, victorious but with no food, morale plummeted. By January 1098 crusaders were chewing on skins of rotted animals and eating manure for the grain seeds.

All this misfortune must undoubtedly be due to sexual sin, Bishop Adhemar insisted, whereupon all women, wives included, were banished from the camp. But nothing improved. Desertions mounted, and by early February, when a Muslim relief force of twelve thousand was spotted approaching the city, the end seemed at hand. But Bohemond produced a daring plan. Rather than await their attack, he contended, he and Robert of Flanders should lead a thousand mounted knights (using every remaining horse) to strike first while the rest stayed by the wall. Even Muslim accounts affirm that Bohemond was outnumbered twelve to one, but he chose his battleground with great ingenuity–a narrow strip between a river and a hill–thus preventing encirclement. Once the enemy vanguard was in that narrow ground, eight hundred Christian knights charged headlong into them, and as they reeled back, down from the hill thundered Bohemond and the other two hundred. The bewildered Turks suffered heavy losses; the survivors fled.7 Once more the crusade had been saved, and a month later Bohemond captured a Muslim supply train trying to get into the city.

Raymond of Toulouse, having recovered from an illness, now formally proposed that he become sole commander, but Bohemond was working on yet another stratagem. Having secretly persuaded Emperor Alexius’s legate to return to Constantinople with an urgent plea for help, he proclaimed that the legate had deserted them. This obviously signified that no help could be expected from the Byzantines, Bohemond contended, clearly voiding any oaths made to the emperor. Therefore, he himself should be given responsibility for taking Antioch and, when he succeeded, should be made its lord. The others vehemently refused, but then came truly terrifying news. Kerbogha, the notorious Turkish atabeg (governor) of Mosul, was approaching with an army of nearly forty thousand. On May 29 the panic-stricken crusade council adopted Bohemond’s proposal after all, with only one negative vote. An oath was an oath, Raymond insisted.

There followed one of history’s more notable swindles. A handpicked body of men stealthily joined Bohemond outside Antioch’s Bridge Gate on the night of June 1, and about two o’clock in the morning, someone lowered down the wall a rope, to which Bohemond’s men attached a strong oxhide ladder. Up it they swarmed as soon as it was hauled back; they quickly killed the nearby watchmen, jumped down, and opened the Bridge Gate. Christian troops poured through, then raced up the hill to the Citadel Gate, where Godfrey was waiting with another powerful force. The explanation soon emerged: the Greek-speaking Bohemond had subverted an Armenian Muslim inside the city, a man who had a grudge against its Turkish governor.

As the waiting troops raced in with trumpet blasts and shouts of “Deus le vult!” the city awoke in confusion amid a cacophony of terrified screams. At dawn Bohemond ordered his red banner raised above the walls near the citadel, and a full-scale massacre ensued. By day’s end the streets were strewn with corpses. The Muslim garrison had achieved one success, however, by securing the citadel before Godfrey could break in. Meanwhile, Raymond had taken advantage of his Bridge Gate position to raise his blue banner over several nearby buildings, thus establishing his own claim.

The battle for Antioch was far from over, however. Next day Kerbogha’s men laid siege to it, and soon the Christians found themselves starving again, inside the city instead of outside it. Moreover, they clearly did not have nearly enough men to defend its walls. The atabeg managed to make contact with the citadel garrison. Morale dissolved. Some Christians took refuge in buildings where they hoped to escape the inevitable vengeance of Kerbogha, who now had much to avenge. Bohemond and Bishop Adhemar set the buildings afire to force them out.

But in all the strange annals of the First Crusade, what now ensued was strangest of all. A pilgrim sought audience with Raymond and Adhemar to inform them that buried beneath Antioch’s Basilica of St. Peter they would find the spear that pierced Christ’s side on Good Friday, perhaps brought there by St. Peter himself. Whoever carried it, this man insisted, would be invincible. Although even Adhemar was skeptical, a search was carried out that produced a steel shard. This information was duly conveyed by special emissary to Kerbogha along with a demand that he either withdraw his troops immediately or, to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, choose a single man or group to confront a similar number of Christian knights. Since the Turks outnumbered the Christians about seven to one, the atabeg countered by demanding the surrender forthwith of the Christian army, reduced at this point to some two hundred horses.

So after confession of sins and a three-day fast, the Christian foot soldiers marched out the gates to face the enormous Muslim host while Bohemond and his remaining knights waited by the gates behind them. He noticed, however, that Kerbogha’s force was assembled in separate groups with wide gaps between them and that the foot soldiers were advancing on a group that was bounded on three sides by the river, so it could not be reinforced quickly. Meanwhile, a black flag hoisted over the citadel warned Kerbogha that his enemies were coming out to attack him.

Kerbogha pondered. Should he advance to meet them immediately, or should he wait and let them join battle on his own ground? He decided to wait, the accounts say, because he was deeply absorbed in a chess game. Then he abruptly changed his mind and advanced with his main force toward the gate. The delay was about to cost him everything he had, save only his life.

The crusader infantry, battling such daunting numbers, fought so fiercely that some of the Turks began to panic; when Bohemond’s knights galloped in, they turned and ran. Seeing this, others followed, thus crashing into Kerbogha’s main force, coming up behind them and shattering his line of advance. The remaining Turkish contingents, thrown into complete disarray, joined what was becoming a rout, sweeping Kerbogha himself along with them. It was a stunning defeat. As the crusaders overran and plundered Kerbogha’s camp, Antioch’s citadel garrison also surrendered. Raymond’s troops, bearing the Holy Lance, contended afterward that the mere sight of it had paralyzed the Turkish commander. In truth, the crusaders had actually killed only a small fraction of the Muslim army. What they utterly destroyed, however, was the atabeg’s reputation. He was finished.

News of the great crusader victory struck terror into Muslims all the way to Jerusalem, but the Christians were now stalled in Antioch. Bohemond declared himself its ruler and decided to stay. Raymond said he would not leave while the oath to Alexius was being violated. Papal legate Adhemar, concerned for East-West church relations, insisted that the city be given to the Byzantines, but within weeks he died of typhoid. The council wrote asking Urban to take command. The pope declined.

Meanwhile, the wealthy Raymond tried bribing the vassals of other leaders to support him. It didn’t work. He declared that the apostle Andrew, Peter’s brother, had made him custodian of the Holy Lance. This didn’t work either. At length Raymond moved his Provençal knights southward, disrupting Bohemond’s supply line into Antioch, and built towers to besiege the town of Marrat. Bohemond followed; he took control of Raymond’s towers, and the town fell in a bloody battle.

This victory soon turned very sour indeed. By December Raymond had bribed enough of Bohemond’s supporters to back him to gain control of Marrat. He began knocking down mosques and declared the town Christian, but the Turks cut off his supply lines, and the starving poor of Marrat were reduced to digging up Muslim dead and eating the rotted corpses. Disgusted local Christians broke into open rebellion. Raymond thereupon gave up Marrat, tacitly yielded Antioch as well to Bohemond, and announced that he himself would now lead the way to Jerusalem. He set out in early January 1099, walking barefoot and calling for God’s mercy at the head of a religious procession.

Now events became increasingly bizarre. Raymond had gambled that Godfrey and Robert of Flanders would immediately follow him. They didn’t, but in any case his five thousand troops encountered no resistance at first. Then, for reasons never explained, he diverted his force to lay siege to an insignificant town called Arqa. It refused to yield; Raymond refused to leave. After three pointless months Godfrey and Robert joined him, bringing the total Christian strength to more than ten thousand. So did the prophet of the Holy Lance, now proclaiming a new vision. Christ had told him, he insisted, that the crusader army must be purged of sinful soldiers, so two out of every five men must be executed immediately. When the outraged crusaders challenged the man, he volunteered to undergo trial by fire. Holy Lance in hand, he walked through blazing olive branches. The burns killed him.

Most of Raymond’s “bought” vassals now deserted him, but when a message arrived from Constantinople protesting Bohemond’s seizure of Antioch and promising troops within three weeks for an attack on Jerusalem, Raymond nevertheless demanded to be made sole leader. The council rejected this plea, however, and on May 16 what was left of the First Crusade departed from Arqa for Jerusalem, two hundred miles ahead. Bypassing major centers like Acre and Beirut, they arrived unopposed at the magnificent Holy City on June 7 and from the plain to the northwest beheld a breathtaking view. Its looming stone walls, laid out originally by the Roman emperor Hadrian, stood four stories high and ran three miles around an irregular perimeter. To the east, south, and southwest, rugged, dry hills and deep ravines made approach difficult. A small outside rampart enclosed the main wall, which had five gates. On the city’s western edge rose two tall buildings, a citadel called the Tower of David and another fortress, the Quadrangle Tower. The governor, Iftikhar al-Dawla, who had taken Jerusalem from the Turks three months earl-ier, commanded a garrison of Sudanese and Arab troops.

After three years the crusaders were finally there, but they also were desperate. There was little food, and the governor had poisoned the wells and destroyed the pastures for miles around. They had too few troops to blockade the city. Their four contingents, such as they were, nevertheless took up positions at various points around the walls. After using ladders in attempting one assault, which brought heavy casualties and no success, they took to scouring the bare hills for wood, food, and water.

On June 17, however, six ships from Genoa and England landed at the port of Jaffa with food, armaments, ropes, and craftsmen. The crusaders cannibalized two ships for their timber and found more wood in Samaria to construct battering rams and two siege towers fitted with wheels. Even so, after two more weeks in oppressive daytime heat, morale sank. Then a priest announced a vision in which Adhemar called on all of them to seek forgiveness by fasting and walking barefoot around Jerusalem. With spirits renewed, the crusaders enthusiastically complied, and thus the Muslims beheld them at dawn on July 8.8

But meanwhile the crusader council had also formulated a two-pronged assault strategy, to be led by Raymond on the southwest and Godfrey to the northeast. In full view of the enemy, they built two thirty-foot siege castles while Jerusalem’s defenders heavily fortified the adjacent city walls. As night fell on July 10, Godfrey’s castle was standing near the Quadrangle Tower, but in the darkness his troops took it apart and carried the pieces a half mile. By dawn they had reassembled it where the walls were not reinforced at all. The appalled defenders saw it–too late– only at first light.

A massive battering ram initiated the attack by breaching Jerusalem’s small outer wall. By nightfall the Flanders and Rhine men and northern French had broken through and pushed their siege castle, filled with soldiers, close to the inner wall. Raymond had made little progress because massed Muslims, led by the governor himself, poured down rocks and fire. Godfrey’s attack fared better. From his siege castle’s topmost chamber, he noted with satisfaction that the tough hide covering was resisting the flames. Unhappily for the defenders, the same was not true of the wooden substructure of their city wall. When it caught fire, Godfrey and his men poured out of their siege castle and rapidly fashioned a makeshift bridge to reach the top of the wall and drop scaling ladders. More crusaders followed while others gained the gates and threw them open. The defense collapsed in chaos. Some ran for cover to the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque of al-Aqsa, but crusaders were there before them. The governor took refuge in the Tower of David but later turned it over to Raymond in exchange for his life.

But the next twenty-four hours converted what could have been a magnificent Christian victory into a historic disgrace that Christians would spend the next ten centuries ruing, apologizing for, and trying desperately to fathom. Insane with their victory, the crusaders ran through the streets and into houses and mosques, killing people regardless of age or sex, the massacre continuing through the night until bodies littered the streets. Jews hiding in a synagogue were burned alive there, on the grounds that they had aided the Muslims. No one knows the number slaughtered.

Why had it happened? The human tendency commonly called “mob violence” sweeps people into conduct that would revolt them as individuals. Oppressed populations, suddenly liberated, may be especially given to such conduct, as were the Jews themselves when Zoroastrian Persia took Christian Jerusalem in 614 (volume 5, pages 136—137). Conquering armies, when discipline has been lost, are also prone to it. Nearly a century and a half after the fall of Jerusalem, Mongol warriors, sweeping into both Islamic and Christian territories, would acquire the worst reputation in the medieval world for wholesale slaughter. Next evening, filled with deep remorse, the Christians prayed for forgiveness. But the stain remained and became a rallying point for Islam.

While nearly all the crusaders returned to their homelands in Europe, some remained and continued fighting. Raymond died at the siege of Tripoli in 1105. Bohemond was captured by the Muslims in 1100 and spent three years in a Muslim jail but was ransomed and then again beaten by them. Then he raised a great army in Europe to attack not Islam but Alexius, who also thoroughly defeated him. He died in 1111 as a vassal of Alexius and a broken man. Godfrey was made Advocate of the Holy Sepulchre in 1099, having refused the title “king.” He died the next year–by Muslim accounts, of a poisoned arrow at the siege of Acre but according to Christian records at Jerusalem, in great agony after eating a poisoned apple. Pope Urban, who had started it all, died just weeks before word reached Rome of the crusade’s success.

These Christian conquests barely dented the vast domains of Islam. Christian states–the county of Edessa, the principality of Antioch, the county of Tripoli, and, most notably, the kingdom of Jerusalem, known collectively as Outremer (“Beyond the Sea”)–were rapidly established. Though their governance was interminably in dispute, they lasted virtually unchallenged by Islam for nearly half a century. Then the tide would begin to turn.

This is the end of the First Crusade category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 10, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about First Crusade from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at