You have commanded, and I have obeyed ... I have declared and spoken; and now they [the Crusaders] are multiplied, beyond number. Cities and castles are deserted, and seven women together may scarcely find one man to lay hold on, so many widows are there whose husbands are still living.
St Bernard of Clairvaux to Pope Eugenius III, 1146
Manuel Comnenus had been proclaimed basilius by his father, before any number of witnesses; but his succession was by no means assured. Emperors, he was well aware, were made in Constantinople: he was still in the wilds of Cilicia, impossibly placed to deal with any rival claimants to the throne. Clearly there could be no question of pursuing the war against Antioch; he must get back to the capital as soon as possible to consolidate his position. On the other hand, he had his filial duties to perform. First there was the funeral service to be arranged, and a monastery to be founded on the spot where John had died; the body must then be carried overland to Mopsuestia, and thence down the river Pyramus to the open sea, whence it would be taken by ship to the Bosphorus for burial in his own foundation of the Pantocrator. Manuel therefore decided to send Axuch ahead of him to Constantinople, with the title of Regent and instructions to put under immediate arrest the most dangerous of possible contenders: his elder brother Isaac, passed over by his father but already installed in the Great Palace and thus with instant access to the treasure and the imperial regalia.
Axuch id his work well, travelling so fast that he reached the capital even before the news of the Emperor's death. He seized the protesting Isaac and locked him up in the Pantocrator; for good measure, he also ordered the arrest of that other Isaac, John's brother, exiled at the Pontic Heraclea. The only other possible source of trouble was the Patriarchate, on which Manuel had to rely for his coronation. As it happened, the chair was vacant - the previous incumbent of the office having died a short time before and his successor having not yet been appointed. In order to ensure that his master would have the support of every possible candidate, the Grand Domestic therefore summoned all the senior churchmen to the palace and presented them with an impressive diploma, its silken ribbons sealed in scarlet wax, by which the new basileus undertook to pay annually to the clergy of St Sophia two hundred pieces of silver. They accepted it with every show of gratitude, assuring him that there would be no difficulties over the coronation. Little did they know how cheap they were selling themselves; concealed in his robe Axuch had another, similar document for use as necessary, offering two hundred pieces not of silver but of gold.
Thanks to his speed and efficiency there were no disturbances in the capital — and only one conspiracy. Its leader was the Caesar John Roger, a son-in-law of the late Emperor who had been given his title in recognition of his marriage to Manuel's sister Maria. He seems to have been a Norman, one of the number of barons from South Italy who, having unsuccessfully rebelled against the King of Sicily in the years following his accession in 1130, had been expelled from their lands and had sought refuge in Constantinople; and it was from them, not surprisingly, that he drew his support. Fortunately Axuch was informed of the plot at an early stage, by the Princess Maria herself; and within hours her husband too was under arrest.
It was only after several weeks that Manuel was able to leave Cilicia for the capital. Before doing so he had an acrimonious exchange of letters with Raymond of Antioch who, saved by the unexpected turn of events from almost certain catastrophe, was showing all his old arrogance and bluster; but with the imperial succession at stake, the situation in the East would have to wait. The moment therefore that he had properly fulfilled the obligations resulting from his father's death, Manuel set off with his army; and once on the road nothing could stop him. Not even when he heard that Raymond, having invaded Cilicia the moment he had left it, had regained several of the castles taken from him by John -not even when his cousin Andronicus, the latter's son-in-law and a group of noblemen wandered off into the countryside on a quick hunting expedition and were captured by Seljuk soldiers - would he agree to call a halt. They had, after all, no one to blame but themselves; he was certainly not prepared to risk his throne to rescue them.
When he arrived in Constantinople — it was probably around the middle of August - his first priority was to appoint a new Patriarch, a certain Michael Curcuas; and the first task of the new Patriarch after his installation was to crown the Emperor. Immediately after the ceremony, Manuel laid two hundred pounds of gold on the high altar of St Sophia, over and above his promised annual subsidy, and decreed that in celebration of the occasion two golden pieces should be presented to every householder in the city. A few days later he ordered the release of his brother from captivity and lifted the sentence of exile on his uncle, the sebastocrator Isaac: there was nothing more to fear from either of them. He had been nominated by his father, crowned by his Patriarch and acclaimed by his subjects. At last his position was secure.
The first thing people noticed about Manuel Comnenus was his height. The chroniclers all remark upon it; and though it would probably seem fairly normal today, by the standards of the twelfth century it was certainly exceptional. But for the fact that he walked - despite his youth1 - with a slight stoop, he might have looked taller still. Nicetas describes his complexion as being dark, but not unduly so; later, however, he tells us how, during the siege of Corfu in 1149, the Venetians mocked him by dressing up an Ethiopian slave in imperial robes - a story which suggests that he had inherited all the swarthiness of his father. But in two respects at least he differed from him dramatically. First, he was outstandingly handsome; secondly, his charm of manner, his love of pleasure and his sheer enjoyment of life stood out in refreshing contrast to John's humourless and high-principled austerity - to which, indeed, they may have been a very natural reaction. For Manuel, whether in his Palace of Blachernae, a hunting-lodge or one of the several villas on the Bosphorus in which he was to spend so much of his time, any excuse was good enough for a celebration.
Yet there was nothing shallow about him. When he was on campaign all his apparent frivolity fell away to reveal a fine soldier and superb horseman. He was, perhaps, too much in love with adventure for its own sake to be quite the brilliant general that his father had been - few of his campaigns were outstandingly successful - but there could be no doubting his energy and enthusiasm. He was indifferent alike to the extremes of heat and cold, his powers of endurance were legendary, his only weakness a propensity for riding off alone into enemy territory and exposing himself unnecessarily to danger. 'In war,' wrote Gibbon, 'he
1 See p. 82 note 2. If we were to put Manuel's age at twenty-one at the time of his coronation we should not be far wrong.
seemed ignorant of peace, in peace he appeared incapable of war.' A skilful diplomat, he was to show again and again during the coming years the imagination and sureness of touch of a born statesman. And somehow, through it all, he remained the typical Byzantine intellectual, cultivated and well-read in both the arts and the sciences, a man who liked nothing better than to debate for hours with monkish theologians and to immerse himself in doctrinal issues of the most speculative kind. Some of his more outrageous suggestions would often horrify his interlocutors; but Manuel made no pretence of being deeply religious, as his father had been. He debated not so much for the sake of winning an argument or arriving at the truth as for the love of the debate itself. No wonder, as his reign went on, that he became increasingly unpopular with the Church - which mistrusted his continued attempts to achieve a reunion with Rome, disapproved of his frequent tactical alliances with the Saracen and was scandalized when he not only invited the Sultan of Iconium to Constantinople but actually proposed to include him in a solemn procession to St Sophia.
Most of all, perhaps, it deplored his private life. Manuel's appetite for women was prodigious, his way with them irresistible. His infidelity to his first wife was to begin almost immediately after his marriage; on his deathbed thirty-four years later he was still confidently expecting an early resumption of his infidelity to his second. As to the identities of the other ladies concerned, our sources are irritatingly discreet: the only one to whom we can give a name is his niece Theodora,1 who bore him a son and whom he set up as a maitresse en titre, with her own palace, retinue and personal guard. She behaved in every respect like an Empress, and a Byzantine Empress at that: on one occasion, scenting a potential rival to her position, she is known to have had the girl eliminated. Future members of the imperial harem took due warning.
Manuel would always have been an unfaithful husband; but his natural proclivities were doubtless given additional impetus by the appearance and character of his first wife. As early as 1142 John Comnenus had suggested a dynastic marriage, with Manuel as bridegroom, to seal his alliance with the Western Emperor-elect Conrad2 against King Roger of Sicily; Conrad, delighted with the idea, had
1Even her precise identity is doubtful, since Manuel had at least three nieces and one great-niece of this all-too-frequent name. The most likely candidate is the daughter of his sister Maria and the Norman John Roger, but we cannot be sure.
2Though effectively Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad was never crowned by the Pope in Rome and consequently had no right to any title higher than that of King of the Romans. See p. 2on.
proposed his sister-in-law, the German princess Bertha of Sulzbach, and had sent her off on approval to Constantinople. Manuel — who at that time had three elder brothers living and virtually no prospect of the succession - had been distinctly lukewarm about the whole idea, and his first sight of his intended bride had done little to inflame his ardour; but towards the end of 1144 he began to have second thoughts, and after more discussions with Conrad - which culminated with a treaty of alliance - the arrangements were made. Bertha, who had been living for the past four years in the obscurity of the imperial gynaeceum, now re-emerged into public view, shed her barbarous Frankish name for the more euphonious if sadly unoriginal Greek one of Irene, and in January 1146 duly married the Emperor.
According to Basil of Ochrid, Archbishop of Thessalonica, who preached Bertha's funeral oration in 1160, the Empress 'by her form and figure, the rhythmic beauty of her movements and her fine and flowerlike complexion, gave a sense of pleasure even to inanimate objects'. No man, however, is on oath in a funeral oration, and it can only be said that other more objective authorities paint a rather different picture. Nicetas Choniates tells us that
she was less concerned with the embellishment of her body than with that of her spirit; rejecting powder and paint, and leaving to vain women all those adornments which are owed to artifice, she sought only that solid beauty which proceeds from the splendour of virtue. This was the reason why the Emperor, who was of extreme youth, had little inclination for her and did not maintain towards her that fidelity which was her due; although he bestowed great honours upon her, a most exalted throne, a numerous retinue and all else that makes for magnificence and induces the respect and veneration of the people.1
By the time of her death, she was not enjoying much respect or veneration either. However hard she tried - which was not, one suspects, very hard — Bertha never endeared herself to the Byzantines, for whom she remained too stiff, too inelegant: frankly, as they put it, too German. Her meanness, too, was legendary. Only in the diplomatic field did she conclusively prove her worth, coming several times to the rescue when relations between her husband and brother-in-law became strained and playing a valuable part in the political alliance concluded between Manuel and Conrad on the latter's visit to Constantinople in 1148. For the rest, she spent her life quietly in the palace, occupying herself with
1 Choniates, .'Manuel Comnenus', I, ii.
pious works and the education of her two daughters, one of whom died in infancy. Her death occasioned little regret - to her husband none at all.
Manuel Comnenus had ascended the throne of Byzantium with anger in his heart. He could not forget the insults he had received from the Prince of Antioch at the time of his departure from Cilicia, nor could he forgive the alacrity with which Raymond had moved to reconquer the captured castles the moment his back was turned, doing all the damage he could to Byzantine cities, towns and country estates. It was as inglorious a beginning to his reign as could have possibly been imagined, and he was determined that it should not go unpunished. Unfortunately he could not lead a campaign himself, much as he would have liked to do so; to leave his capital so soon after his coronation would have been to invite upheavals. Early in 1144, however, he dispatched a major amphibious expedition to the south-east, the fleet being entrusted to a certain Demetrius Branas and the army to the joint command of the brothers John and Andronicus Contostephanus and a converted Turk named Bursuk. The lost castles were regained and - to give Raymond a dose of his own medicine — the land around Antioch devastated. Branas, meanwhile, swept the entire coastline of the principality, destroying all the ships he found beached on the sand and taking many of the local inhabitants into captivity, including a tax collector with his moneybags.
Whether or not the Prince of Antioch planned revenge we do not know, for before the year was out the whole situation in Outremer had changed: on Christmas Eve, after a siege of twenty-five days and amid scenes of terrible butchery, Imad ed-Din Zengi captured the Crusader principality of Edessa. Antioch, it seemed to many, would be next on the list. For Raymond, one course only was open: to swallow his pride, travel to Constantinople and seek help from Manuel. At first the Emperor refused to receive him; only after the Prince of Antioch had made his way to the monastery of the Pantocrator and knelt in silent contrition at John's tomb was he granted an audience. Manuel then treated him with surprising consideration, promising him a regular subsidy — though stopping short at direct military assistance; and Raymond returned to the East moderately satisfied with what he had achieved. He would have been more so had he known that news of his visit — but not of its results — had been brought to Zengi, who had consequently decided to postpone the new attacks on the Franks that he was already preparing. The following year the great Atabeg was murdered by a drunken eunuch, and the Crusader states were rid of the most formidable enemy that they had yet confronted.
The news of the fall of Edessa, however, had an effect that went far beyond Antioch. It horrified the whole of Christendom. To the peoples of Western Europe, who had seen the initial success of the First Crusade as a sign of divine favour, it called in question all their comfortably-held opinions. How, after less than half a century, had Cross once again given way to Crescent? Travellers to the East had for some time been returning with reports of a widespread degeneracy among the Franks of Outremer. Could it be, perhaps, that they were no longer worthy in the eyes of the Almighty to guard the Holy Places under the banner of their Redeemer?
As for the Franks themselves, long familiarity with these shrines had made possible a more rational approach. They knew well enough why Edessa had been captured. It was because of their own military weakness. The first great wave of Crusading enthusiasm, culminating in the jubilant capture of Jerusalem in 1099, was now spent. Immigration from the West had slowed to a trickle; of the pilgrims, many still arrived unarmed according to ancient tradition, and even for those who came prepared to wield a sword a single summer campaign usually proved more than enough. The only permanent standing army - if such it could be called - was formed by the two military orders of the Hospitallers and the Templars; but they alone could not hope to hold out against a concerted offensive. Reinforcements were desperately needed. And so from Jerusalem an embassy under Hugh, Bishop of Jabala, was sent to the Pope to give him official notification of the disaster and to ask, with all possible urgency, for a Crusade.
Pope Eugenius III was in none too strong a position himself: in the usual turmoil of medieval Rome he had been obliged to flee the city three days after his election and had taken refuge in Viterbo. He was thus unable to assume the leadership of the new Crusade as Pope Urban had tried to do; and when he came to consider the princes of the West, he could see only one possible candidate. King Conrad, to whom the honour should properly have been given, was still beset with difficulties in Germany; King Stephen of England had a civil war on his hands; Roger of Sicily, for any number of reasons, was out of the question. That left King Louis VII of France. Though still only twenty-four, Louis had about him an aura of lugubrious piety which made him look older — and irritated to distraction his beautiful and high-spirited young wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. He was one of Nature's pilgrims; the Crusade was his duty as a Christian - and there were family reasons too, for was not Eleanor the niece of the Prince of Antioch? At Christmas 1145 he announced his intention of taking the Cross and formally notified the Pope; then, in order that the hearts of all his subjects should be filled, like his, with Crusading fire, he sent for Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux.
St Bernard, now fifty-five, was far and away the most powerful spiritual force in Europe. To the twentieth-century observer, safely out of range of that astonishing personal magnetism with which he effortlessly dominated all those with whom he came in contact, he is not an attractive figure. Tall and haggard, his features clouded by the constant pain that resulted from a lifetime of exaggerated physical austerities, he was consumed by a blazing religious zeal that left no room for tolerance or moderation. His public life had begun in 1115 when the Abbot of Citeaux, the Englishman Stephen Harding, had effectively released him from monastic discipline by sending him off to found a daughter-house at Clairvaux in Champagne. From that moment on his influence spread; and for the last twenty-five years of his life he was constantly on the move, preaching, persuading, arguing, debating, writing innumerable letters and compulsively plunging into the thick of every controversy in which he believed the basic principles of Christianity to be involved. The proposed Crusade was a venture after his own heart. Willingly he agreed to launch it — at the assembly that the King had summoned for the following Palm Sunday at Vezelay in Burgundy.
At once the magic of Bernard's name began to do its work; and as the appointed day approached men and women from every corner of France began to pour into the little town. Since there were far too many to be packed into the basilica, a great wooden platform was hastily erected on the hillside; and here, on 31 March 1146, Bernard made one of the most fateful speeches of his life, with King Louis - already displaying on his breast the cross which the Pope had sent him in token of his decision - standing beside him. The text of what he said has not come down to us; but with Bernard it was the manner of his delivery rather than the words themselves that made the real impact on his audience. As he spoke the crowd, silent at first, began to cry out for crosses of their own. Bundles of these, cut in rough cloth, had already been prepared for distribution; when the supply was exhausted, the Abbot flung off his own robe and began to tear it into strips to make more. Others followed his example, and he and his helpers were still stitching as night fell.
It was an astonishing achievement. No one else in Europe could have done it. And yet, as events were soon to tell, it were better had it not been done.
Some time during the summer of 1146 Manuel Comnenus received a letter from Louis VII, attempting to enlist his sympathies for the coming Crusade. Manuel was fonder of Westerners and the Western way of life than any previous basileus; nevertheless, he found the prospect of another full-scale incursion into his Empire by undisciplined French and German armies - for St Bernard had gone on from France to Germany, where his message had been received with equal enthusiasm - unpalatable in the extreme. He fully understood the extent of the nightmare that the First Crusade had caused his grandfather half a century before, and had no wish to see it repeated. Admittedly he was having a good deal of trouble with the Sultan of Iconium, against whom he was at that moment involved in the second of two fairly indecisive campaigns; it was just conceivable that the new wave of Crusaders might be better behaved than their predecessors and even turn out to be a long-term blessing; but he doubted it. His reply to Louis was as lukewarm as it could be made without actually giving offence. He would provide food and supplies for the armies, but everything would have to be paid for. And all the leaders would be required once again to take an oath of fealty to the Emperor as they passed through his dominions.
Any faint hopes that Manuel might have entertained about the quality of the new champions of Christendom were soon dashed. The German army of about twenty thousand that set off from Ratisbon in May 1147 seems to have included more than its fair share of undesirables, ranging from the occasional religious fanatic to the usual collection of footloose ne'er-do-wells and fugitives from justice, attracted as always by the promise of plenary absolution offered to all who took the Cross. Hardly had they entered Byzantine territory than they began pillaging, ravaging, raping and even murdering as the mood took them. Often the leaders set a poor example to their followers. Conrad himself - who had at first refused to have anything to do with the Crusade but had repented the previous Christmas after public castigation by Bernard - behaved with his usual dignity; but at Adrianople (Edirne) his nephew and second-in-command, the young Duke Frederick of Swabia (better known to history by his subsequent nickname of Barbarossa), burnt down an entire monastery in reprisal for an attack by local brigands, massacring all the perfectly innocent monks. Fighting became ever more frequent between the Crusaders and the Byzantine military escort which Manuel had sent out to keep an eye on them, and when in mid-September the army at last drew up outside the walls of Constantinople - Conrad having indignantly refused the Emperor's request to cross into Asia over the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles), avoiding the capital altogether - relations between German and Greek could hardly have been worse.
And now, even before the populations along the route had recovered from the shock, the French army appeared in its turn on the western horizon. It was smaller than the German, and on the whole more seemly. Discipline was better, and the presence of many distinguished ladies - including Queen Eleanor herself - accompanying their husbands doubtless exercised a further moderating influence. Progress, however, was not altogether smooth. Not surprisingly, the Balkan peasantry was by now frankly hostile, and asked ridiculous prices for what little food it had left to sell. Mistrust soon became mutual, and led to sharp practices on both sides. Thus, long before they reached Constantinople, the French had begun to feel considerable resentment against Germans and Greeks alike; and when they finally arrived on 4 October they were scandalized to hear that the Emperor had chosen that moment to conclude a truce with the Turkish enemy.
Although King Louis could not have been expected to appreciate the fact, it was a sensible precaution for Manuel to take. The presence of the French and German armies at the very gates of his capital constituted a far more serious immediate danger than the Turks in Asia. The Emperor knew that in both camps there were extreme elements pressing for a combined Western attack on Constantinople; just a few days later, indeed, St Bernard's cousin Geoffrey, Bishop of Langres, was formally to propose such a course to the King. Only by deliberately spreading reports of a huge Turkish army massing in Anatolia, and implying that if the Franks did not make haste to pass through the hostile territory they might never manage to do so at all, did Manuel succeed in saving the situation. Meanwhile he flattered Louis - and kept him occupied -with his usual round of lavish entertainments and banquets, while arranging passage over the Bosphorus for the King and his army at the earliest possible moment.
As he bade farewell to his unwelcome guests and watched the ferryboats shuttling across the straits, laden to the gunwales with men and animals, Manuel foresaw better than anyone the dangers that awaited the Franks on the second stage of their journey. He himself had only recently returned from an Anatolian campaign; though his stories of gathering Turkish hordes had been exaggerated, he had now seen the
Crusaders for himself and must have known that their shambling forces, already as lacking in morale as in discipline, would stand little chance of survival if suddenly attacked by the Seljuk cavalry. He had furnished them with provisions and guides; he had warned them about the scarcity of water; and he had advised them not to take the direct route through the hinterland but to keep to the coast, which was still under Byzantine control. He could do no more. If, after all these precautions, the Crusaders insisted on getting themselves slaughtered, they would have only themselves to blame. He for his part would be sorry - but not, perhaps, inconsolable.
It cannot have been more than a few days after bidding them farewell that the Emperor received two reports, from two very different quarters. The first, brought by swift messengers from Asia Minor, informed him that the German army had been taken by surprise by the Turks near Dorylaeum and virtually annihilated. Conrad himself and the Duke of Swabia had escaped, and had returned to join the French at Nicaea; but nine-tenths of their men now lay dead and dying amid the wreckage of their camp.
The second report brought him less welcome news: the fleet of King Roger of Sicily was at that very moment sailing against his Empire.
The Sicilian fleet was commanded by George of Antioch, a renegade Greek who had risen by his own brilliance to the proudest title his adopted country had to offer: Emir of Emirs, High Admiral and Chief Minister of the realm.1 It had sailed in the autumn of 1147from Otranto and had headed straight across the Adriatic to Corfu. The island fell without a struggle; Nicetas tells us that the inhabitants, oppressed by the weight of Byzantine taxation and charmed by the honeyed words of the admiral, welcomed the Normans as deliverers and willingly accepted a garrison of a thousand men.
Turning southward, the fleet then rounded the Peloponnese, leaving further detachments at strategic positions, and sailed up the eastern coast of Greece as far as Euboea. Here George seems to have decided that he had gone far enough. He turned about, made a quick raid on Athens and then, on reaching the Ionian islands, headed eastward again up the Gulf of Corinth, ravaging the coastal towns as he went. His progress,
1 It is perhaps worth mentioning here that the word admiral, found with minor variations in so many European languages, is derived through Norman Sicily from the Arabic word emir; and in particular from its compound emir-ai-bahr, Ruler of the Sea.
Nicetas tells us, was 'like a sea monster, swallowing everything in its path'. One of his raiding parties penetrated inland as far as Thebes, centre of the Byzantine silk manufacture. Together with innumerable bales of rich damasks and brocades, George also seized a large number of women workers, expert alike in the cultivation and exploitation of the silkworm, the spinning of the silk and its subsequent weaving, and brought them back triumphantly to Palermo.
The news of the Sicilian depredations stung Manuel to a fury. Whatever he might have thought about the Crusade, the fact that a so-called Christian country should have taken deliberate advantage of it to launch an attack on his Empire disgusted him; and the knowledge that the admiral concerned was a Greek can hardly have assuaged his wrath. A century before, Apulia had been a rich province of the Byzantine Empire; now it was little better than a nest of pirates. Here was a situation that could not be tolerated. Roger, 'that dragon, threatening to shoot the flames of his anger higher than the crater of Etna . . . that common enemy of all Christians and illegal occupier of the land of Sicily',1 must be driven for ever from the Mediterranean. The West had tried to do so, and failed; now it was the turn of Byzantium. Given adequate help and freedom from other commitments, Manuel believed that he could succeed. The Crusading armies had passed on. He himself had already concluded a truce with the Turks, and this he now confirmed and extended. It was essential that every soldier and sailor in the Empire should be free for the grand design that he was planning, a design that might well prove to be the crowning achievement of his life: the restoration of all South Italy and Sicily to the Byzantine fold.
The problem was to find suitable allies. With France and Germany out of the running, Manuel's thoughts turned to Venice. Her people, as he well knew, had long been worried about the growth of Sicilian sea power. No longer could they control the Mediterranean as once they had done; and while the bazaars of Palermo, Catania and Syracuse grew ever busier, so affairs on the Rialto had begun to slacken. Moreover, if Roger were to consolidate his hold on Corfu and the coast of Epirus he would be in a position to seal off the Adriatic; and Venice might at any moment find herself under a Sicilian blockade. The Venetians bargained a little, of course - they never gave anything away for nothing - but in March 1148, in return for increased trading privileges in Cyprus, Rhodes and Constantinople, Manuel got what he wanted: the full support of
1 Imperial Edict of February 1148.
their fleet for the six months following. He himself was meanwhile working feverishly to bring his own navy to readiness; John Cinnamus, by now his chief secretary, estimates its strength at five hundred galleys and a thousand transports - a worthy complement to an army of perhaps twenty or thirty thousand men. The army he entrusted as usual to the Grand Domestic, Axuch; the navy to his brother-in-law, Duke Stephen Contostephanus, husband of his sister Anna. He himself would be in overall command.
By April this huge expeditionary force was ready to leave. The ships, refitted and provisioned, lay at anchor in the Marmara; the army waited for the order to march. Then, suddenly, everything went wrong. The Cumans swept down over the Danube and into Byzantine territory; the Venetian fleet was held up by the sudden death of the Doge; and a succession of freak summer storms disrupted shipping in the eastern Mediterranean. It was autumn before the two navies met in the southern Adriatic and began a joint sea blockade of Corfu. The land attack, meanwhile, was still further delayed. By the time he had dealt with the Cumans it was plain to Manuel that the Pindus mountains would be blocked by snow long before he could get his army across them. Settling in in winter quarters in Macedonia he rode on to Thessalonica, where an important guest was awaiting him. Conrad of Hohenstaufen had just returned from the Holy Land.
The Second Crusade had been a fiasco. Conrad, with the few of his subjects that had survived Dorylaeum, had continued in the company of the French as far as Ephesus, where at Christmas he had fallen gravely ill. Manuel and his wife, on hearing the news, had immediately sailed down from Constantinople, picked him up and brought him safely back to the palace, where the Emperor, who prided himself on his medical skills, had personally nursed him back to health. The King of the Romans had remained in the capital till March 1148, when Manuel had put ships at his disposal to carry him to Palestine. The French, meanwhile, had had an agonizing passage through Anatolia, where they had suffered heavily at Turkish hands. Although this was entirely the fault of Louis himself, who had ignored the Emperor's warnings to keep to the coast, he persisted in attributing every encounter with the enemy to Byzantine carelessness or treachery or both, and rapidly developed an almost psychopathic resentment against the Greeks. At last in despair he, his household and as much of his cavalry as could be accommodated had taken ship from Attaleia, leaving the rest of the army and the pilgrims to struggle on as best they might. It had been late in the spring of 1148 before the remnant of the great host that had set out so confidently the previous year dragged itself into Antioch.
And that was only the beginning. The mighty Zengi was dead, but his mantle had passed to his still greater son Nur ed-Din, whose stronghold at Aleppo had now become the focus of Muslim opposition to the Franks. Aleppo should thus have been the Crusaders' first objective, and within days of his arrival in Antioch Louis found himself under considerable pressure from Raymond to mount an immediate attack on the city. He had refused on the grounds that he must first pray at the Holy Sepulchre; whereat Queen Eleanor, whose affection for her husband had not been increased by the dangers and discomforts of the journey - and whose relations with Raymond were already suspected of going somewhat beyond those normally recommended between uncle and niece - had announced her intention of remaining at Antioch and suing for divorce. She and her husband were distant cousins; the question of consanguinity had been conveniently overlooked at the time of their marriage, but if resurrected could still prove troublesome - and Eleanor knew it.
Louis, for all his moroseness, was not without spirit in moments of crisis. He had ignored his wife's protests and dragged her off to Jerusalem; had antagonized Raymond to the point where he refused to play any further part in the Crusade; and had arrived, his tight-lipped queen in tow, in the Holy City in May, soon after Conrad. There they remained until, on 24 June, a meeting of all the Crusaders was held at Acre to decide on a plan of campaign. It did not take long to reach a decision: every man and beast available must be immediately mobilized for a concerted attack on Damascus.
Why Damascus was chosen as the first objective remains a mystery. The only major Arab state to continue hostile to Nur ed-Din, it could -and should - have been an invaluable ally to the Franks. By attacking it, they drove it against its will into the Emir's Muslim confederation - and in doing so made their own destruction sure. They arrived to find the walls of Damascus strong, its defenders determined. On the second day, by yet another of those disastrous decisions that characterized the whole Crusade, they moved their camp to an area along the south-eastern section of the walls, devoid alike of shade or water. The Palestinian barons, already at loggerheads over the future of the city when captured, suddenly lost their nerve and began to urge retreat. There were dark rumours of bribery and treason. Louis and Conrad were shocked and disgusted, but soon they too were made to understand the facts of the situation. To continue the siege would mean not only driving Damascus into the arms of Nur ed-Din but also, given the universal breakdown of morale, the almost certain destruction of their whole army. On 28 July, just five days after the opening of the campaign, they ordered withdrawal.
There is no part of the Syrian desert more shattering to the spirit than that dark-grey, featureless expanse of sand and basalt that lies between Damascus and Tiberias. Retreating across it in the height of the Arabian summer, the remorseless sun and scorching desert wind full in their faces, harried incessantly by mounted Arab archers and leaving a stinking trail of dead men and horses in their wake, the Crusaders must have felt despair heavy upon them. For this, they knew, was the end. Their losses, both in human life and material, had been immense. They had neither the will nor the wherewithal to continue. Worst of all was the shame. Having travelled for the best part of a year, often in conditions of mortal danger; having suffered agonies of thirst, hunger and sickness and the bitterest extremes of heat and cold, their once-glorious army that had purported to enshrine every ideal of the Christian West had given up the whole enterprise after four days' fighting, having regained not one inch of Muslim territory. Here was the ultimate humiliation -which neither they nor their enemies would forget.
Louis was in no hurry to return to France. His wife was now determined on divorce, and he dreaded the difficulties and embarrassments that this would involve. Besides, he wanted to spend Easter in Jerusalem. Conrad, on the other hand, could not leave quickly enough. On 8 September he left Acre with his household on a ship bound for Thessalonica, where the Emperor met him and, for the second time, bore him back to Constantinople. The pair were by now close friends. Despite the recent debacle, Manuel remained fascinated by Western culture and customs, while Conrad for his part had totally succumbed to Manuel's kindness and charm - to say nothing of the unaccustomed luxuries of the imperial palace, which made a refreshing contrast to the draughty halls of his homeland.
That Christmas was marked by a further union of the two imperial houses when Manuel's niece Theodora - the daughter of his late brother Andronicus - was married to Conrad's brother, Duke Henry of Austria.1
1 A slight gloom may have been cast over the proceedings by the horror felt by many Byzantines at the fate of a Greek princess being delivered into the hands of Frankish barbarians; a poem by Prodromus in honour of the occasion describes poor Theodora as being 'sacrificed to the beast of the West'.
Before the King of the Romans left for Germany in early February, the two rulers had cemented a further alliance against Roger of Sicily and agreed on a joint South Italian campaign later in the year. They had even reached agreement on the fate of Apulia and Calabria after the King's downfall. Both territories were to go to Conrad - who would, however, immediately make them over to Manuel as the belated dowry of his sister Bertha, now the Empress Irene.
This alliance was in fact to achieve little: it certainly failed to topple the King of Sicily, and when a few years later Manuel was to find himself briefly master of much of Apulia this was the result more of his own efforts than of any generosity on the part of the Western Empire. It remained, however — for what it was worth — the only positive result of the Second Crusade, which in all other respects had proved a disgrace to Christendom. With the single personal exception of Conrad himself, it had sown dangerous dissension between Frenchman and German, Frank and Byzantine, and even between the newly-arrived Crusaders and their own brethren who had long been resident in Outremer. It had afforded untold encouragement to the forces of Islam, giving them new solidarity and strength; and it had utterly destroyed the military reputation of the West.
Many centuries were to pass before that reputation was restored.