One of the leaders of the First Crusade (1096-1099), and subsequently the first Frankish ruler of Jerusalem (10991100) after its capture from the Fātimids.
Godfrey was born in the third quarter of the eleventh century, the second son of Eustace II, count of Boulogne, and Ida of Bouillon, daughter of Godfrey II “the Bearded,” duke of Upper and Lower Lotharingia. Since his elder brother Eustace III was intended to inherit the paternal inheritance, Godfrey was groomed as heir to his childless maternal uncle, Godfrey III, duke of Lower Lotharingia, on whose death he inherited the county of Verdun, the territory of Bouillon, and other domains in the Ardennes region, Brabant, and the valley of the middle Meuse (1076). However, the office of duke of Lower Lotharingia, which had been held by several of his ancestors, was withheld from him by the Emperor Henry IV (1056-1106), who compensated him with the largely powerless office of margrave of Antwerp.
Death of Godfrey of Bouillon (1100) and crowning of his brother Baldwin I as king of Jerusalem. Fourteenth-century manuscript from Jerusalem, Bibliotheque municipale, Lyon, France. (Snark/Art Resource)
From the outset Godfrey’s possession of his hereditary domains was disputed by rival claimants and other enemies: Countess Mathilda of Tuscany (estranged wife of Godfrey III), Count Albert III of Namur, Count Arnulf II of Chiny, the bishop of Verdun, and others. Since most of his opponents were adherents of the papal party in the struggle then raging between the German monarchy and the Reform papacy, Godfrey benefited from the support of the imperialist bishop of Liège, Henry of Verdun. Nevertheless, for most of the two decades following his accession, Godfrey was engaged in a relentless struggle to defend his inheritance, and although he was finally made duke of Lower Lotharingia by Henry IV in 1087, he was never able to exercise effective ducal authority.
Godfrey’s decision to take part in the First Crusade was the occasion for the dissolution of his inheritance, since the disposal of his landed territories offered the most effective means of raising funds for the forthcoming expedition, as well as presenting an opportunity to resolve outstanding disputes with his enemies. By the summer of 1096, he had sold his rights in the county of Verdun to the bishop of Verdun and mortgaged the territory of Bouillon to the bishop of Liège, while smaller domains were sold off or donated to the church. Godfrey was accepted as leader by a large number of crusaders from Lower and Upper Lotharingia and northeastern France, including his younger brother, Baldwin, and many other kinsmen and allies. This army left Lotharingia in the middle of August 1096, marching up the Rhine and along the Danube, then through Hungary and the Balkans, arriving at Constantinople in December 1096. There, like most of the other crusade leaders, Godfrey took an oath to the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, promising to restore to him any former Byzantine territories recaptured by the crusade, and receiving in return a cash subsidy from the imperial treasury (spring 1097).
After crossing to Asia Minor, Godfrey’s largely Lotharingian army was joined by many crusaders who had come east with other contingents, such as his elder brother, Count Eustace III of Boulogne, and numerous French and German crusaders from the “People’s Crusades” defeated by the Turks in the autumn of 1096. In the course of the march from Nicaea (mod. Iznik, Turkey) to northern Syria, Godfrey figured as an active commander who had generally good relations with the other leaders. During the winter of 1097-1098, he provided his brother Baldwin with troops and resources for the conquest of the territories of Edessa (mod. Şanlıurfa, Turkey) and Turbessel (mod. Tellbaflar Kalesi, Turkey); he was repaid by Baldwin in the form of money and supplies, and the duke’s financial and logistic strength enabled him to maintain and attract the service of numerous crusaders in the course of the march to Palestine.
During the six-week siege of Jerusalem by the crusade (June-July 1099), Godfrey and his troops undertook the investment of the northeastern section of the walls, but took up new positions facing the northwestern walls for the assault beginning on 13 July. On 15 July he fought in a siege tower that the crusaders dragged up to the walls, and it was troops under his command who achieved the first breakthrough into the city the same day. On 22 July Godfrey was chosen as ruler of Jerusalem by the leading members of the crusade in preference to Raymond of Saint-Gilles, count of Toulouse. To forestall objections by Raymond and others that it was sacrilegious for a king to be crowned in the city where Christ had worn a Crown of Thorns, Godfrey declined to adopt a royal title, taking that of prince (Lat. princeps) and defender of the Holy Sepulchre (Lat. advocatus Sancti Sepulchri). The territory under his control consisted of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, and environs, and the coast between Jaffa (mod. Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel) and Lydda (mod. Lod, Israel).
The crusade armies successfully repulsed a Fātimid invasion at the battle of Ascalon (12 August 1099), but the subsequent return of the majority of crusaders to the West left Godfrey with only around 300 knights and 2,000 foot soldiers to defend and expand the Christian-held territory. Looking to conquer the Fātimid cities of the coast, Godfrey came to an agreement with the papal representative Daibert, archbishop of Pisa, who had arrived with a fleet in the autumn of 1099. In order to secure the services of the Pisan ships, Godfrey was obliged to accept Daibert as patriarch of Jerusalem in place of the patriarch-elect Arnulf of Chocques (Christmas 1099).
The next year Daibert demanded sole possession of the cities of Jerusalem and Jaffa, a concession that would have reduced Godfrey to impotence, but the departure of the Pisan fleet in the spring of 1100 deprived Daibert of his principal bargaining counter. The relationship between the ecclesiastical and secular powers was still unresolved when Godfrey fell gravely ill in June 1100, and on his death (18 July) Godfrey’s household knights, led by Warner of Grez, seized control of Jerusalem and Jaffa, and defied Daibert and his ally Tancred until Baldwin I arrived from Edessa to take up his brother’s inheritance.
Godfrey was buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. His distinction as first Frankish ruler of the liberated Holy Land, his death at a relatively early age, and his reputation for valor and personal piety combined to ensure that subsequent generations regarded Godfrey as the principal hero of the First Crusade. He was celebrated in literature, notably as the central figure of a whole series of epic poems in the Old French Crusade Cycle, with the legendary Swan Knight as his ancestor. He was also generally regarded as one of the three Christian members of the configuration of chivalric heroes known as the Nine Worthies. In Jewish folklore, by contrast, Godfrey acquired a largely undeserved reputation as a notorious persecutor of the Jews.