Post-classical history

Naval History, 1096-1099

Naval contingents played decisive roles in the history of the First Crusade, even though their importance has tended to be obscured by the attention given by historians to the land- based armies. The crusade was preached in Genoa by legates of Pope Urban II, probably also in Pisa, and possibly in Venice. All three Italian maritime republics responded to the call, as did significant naval forces that sailed from northern Europe to participate. Some tens of thousands may have been involved.

The logistics are to be wondered at. Fleets had to carry water and provisions with them or else be confident that they could obtain them by purchase or pillage en route. In the Middle Ages, water was a precious commodity in the Mediterranean. Few ports were situated on large rivers, and many depended upon wells. Developed port facilities were few and far between at the time of the First Crusade. Moving into waters off enemy-controlled shores immediately deprived fleets of provisions and water supplies unless they could take them by force. Moreover, even if manpower was free because early crusaders were pilgrims and volunteers, ships had to be built and paid for, and they were expensive. Some were no doubt provided by crusaders who already owned them, but even then there were still costs: armaments and supplies had to be paid for, and the removal of ships and their crews from their normal functions for long periods could only be done at a significant cost to their communities.

The Forces at Antioch

According to the chronicler Albert of Aachen, the first fleet to appear in the East during the crusade was commanded by a mysterious Guynemer, who anchored off the town of Tar- sos (mod. Tarsus, Turkey) in Cilicia in September 1097. When he encountered Baldwin of Boulogne, who was with the land armies, Guynemer told him that he was a pirate and had landed to divide booty. The facts that he had to ask who Baldwin was and had to have the crusade explained to him suggest that he had been out of contact with his homeland since before 1095 and thus really cannot be considered as a crusader. As his crews originated from Flanders, Antwerp, and Frisia, and he himself had belonged to the household of Count Eustace II of Boulogne, Baldwin’s father, Guynemer accepted Baldwin as his leader and garrisoned Tarsos for him. Albert then narrated two versions of Guynemer’s activities. In the first, having occupied Laodikeia in Syria (mod. Al-Lādhiqīyah, Syria) in autumn 1097, he was thrown into prison by the Byzantines and liberated only at the request of Baldwin’s brother Godfrey of Bouillon, after the crusader victory at Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey) on 28 June 1098. In the second, having captured Laodikeia in conjunction with Raymond of Saint-Gilles during the siege of Antioch, he delivered the port to Raymond after Antioch fell and was imprisoned after this, again being freed by Godfrey of Bouillon. When Raymond moved south in January 1099, Guynemer handed Laodikeia over to the Byzantines. Guynemer was subsequently recorded by William of Tyre as operating south of Tripoli (mod. Trâblous, Lebanon) with a combined fleet, after which he disappears from the record, as do almost all of the naval forces involved in the crusade.

According to Raymond of Aguilers, an English fleet reached Laodikeia and Antioch before the land armies. Only 9 or 10 of its 30 ships remained by the time the siege of Arqahended on 13 May 1099, and some were abandoned or burned. The crusader Anselm II of Ribemont wrote in one of his letters that both Laodikeia and Tarsos had been captured before Antioch was besieged, but did not say by whom. The Genoese chronicler Caffaro wrote that at the time of the capture of Antioch, Laodikeia was deserted, but that the civ- itas (the town) and two towers of the harbor were held by Byzantines. The governor of Cyprus, Eumathios Philokales, had 20 salandrii (transport galleys) and troops there. By the autumn the city was certainly in Byzantine hands, but how that happened is unclear.

According to Raymond of Aguilers and Albert of Aachen, another fleet reached St. Simeon, the port of the city of Antioch, before 4 March 1098. William of Tyre later wrote that these were Genoese ships, but a letter circulated in the West by the Luccans and dated to October 1098 reported that a Luccan citizen called Bruno went with ships of the English to Antioch, arriving on 3 March 1098. Some of these “English” ships may have been actually Byzantine ships manned by Englishmen in imperial service, but Raymond of Aguil- ers stated explicitly that the English ships were abandoned at Arqah because their oak timbers were rotting. Ships built entirely of oak were much more likely to have come from northern Europe; Mediterranean oak was used mainly for keels.

Whatever the origins of the naval forces that arrived between autumn 1097 and the fall of Antioch, they were certainly instrumental in provisioning the crusade armies. Raymond of Aguilers wrote that English and Genoese ships plied to Cyprus for provisions and protected Greek ships doing the same thing. Radulph of Caen wrote that during the winter Laodikeia was held by English troops sent by Alexios I Kom- nenos, the Byzantine emperor, and that foodstuffs were imported from Cyprus and forwarded to Antioch.

After the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II sent Hugh of Châteauneuf, bishop of Grenoble, and William, bishop of Orange, to Genoa to preach the crusade. A small fleet of only 12 galee (recently developed Western galleys) and 1 san- danum, or transport galley (from Gr. chelandion), left in July 1097 and reached St. Simeon around 20 November. This meant an average speed of only 0.70 knots for the 3,440 kilometers (c. 2,150 mi.) from Genoa. This fleet helped supply the crusader forces at Antioch, and when the city was taken, the Genoese agreed to help defend it. In return they were granted the church of St. John, a market, a well, and thirty houses around the church.

According to Albert of Aachen, a Rhenish fleet reached St. Simeon in August or September 1098: its 1,500 men left the ships and joined the crusader forces. In view of this they may have been the first crusaders actually transported by sea, rather than being seafaring crusaders like the Genoese and English.

From Antioch to Jerusalem

Elements of fleets accompanied the crusaders south to Tripoli. Raymond of Aguilers reported that the decision to leave the area of the river Orontes in northern Syria and strike for the coast to Tripoli was made so that ships could supply the armies. They were able to do so as far as Arqah, but because there was no port there, they were forced to withdraw to Laodikeia and Tortosa (mod.Tartûs, Syria). Beyond Tripoli, according to William of Tyre, Maronite Christians advised the crusaders to again follow the coast so that ships could assist them. Yet this did not happen, and would not have been possible unless the armies stopped to capture ports to be used as bases; in fact the crusader command had clearly decided to strike straight for Jerusalem. The march from Tripoli to Jerusalem took a mere twenty-two days.

Only after the siege of Jerusalem had begun (June 1099) did 6 ships put in to Jaffa (mod. Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel). At least 2 of them were Genoese galleys commanded by William and Primo Embriaco. They were blockaded by an Egyptian squadron, and their galleys were dismantled and their timbers taken to Jerusalem to build siege engines. The skills of the Genoese as engineers proved invaluable, and William and Primo Embriaco bought a galley with booty taken at the battle of Ascalon (12 August 1099) and returned home, reaching Genoa on Christmas Eve. Given the time needed to buy and provision a galley, the return voyage against prevailing winds and at the onset of winter was remarkably daring and fast, suggesting a need to return to the West with urgent dispatches.

Evidence for the fleets is conflicting and contradictory. Except for Caffaro, none of the source authors had nautical experience; their perspective was that of the land forces. Events off the coasts probably became known only from rumor reaching the camps. Also, small naval forces arrived constantly, and to separate them into identifiable “fleets” is to distort the reality. The Embriaci probably sailed in spring 1099, after the departure of the first Genoese fleet. There may have been three or more English flotillas, which dribbled in between 1097 and 1099, and they were not distinguished clearly. Venetian as well as Greek ships were mentioned by Raymond of Aguilers at Arqah in February 1099, long before the main Venetian fleet arrived.

Rhetorical writers who reformulated earlier accounts later introduced new details. According to the Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis, some 20,000 pilgrims, including the English prince Edgar the Atheling, reached Laodikeia while the crusaders were being besieged at Antioch by Karbughā (6-28 June 1098). Having captured the port, Edgar then handed it over to Duke Robert of Normandy. However, Edgar is known to have been in Scotland in late 1097 and could not have reached the East by the summer of 1098. William of Malmesbury, who placed Edgar’s arrival at the time of the siege of Baldwin I of Jerusalem in Ramla (May 1102), was no doubt correct, and it is likely that Orderic confused Edgar’s expedition with those of other English crusaders in 1098.

Why did so few ships accompany the armies south from Tripoli to Jerusalem? All sources are unanimous that only 6 ships put in to Jaffa. Yet many more must still have been at St. Simeon and Laodikeia, and probably in Cyprus and elsewhere. Why did none of these accompany the land forces to Arsuf, from where they turned inland toward Jerusalem? The euphoria with which those that reached Jaffa were welcomed suggests that they were unexpected.

Except for the Genoese galleys of November 1097 (if they were still in the Levant) and the Embriaci galleys, there is no evidence for any warships capable of engaging a Muslim fleet in battle being available. Guynemer may possibly have brought some North Sea longships (ON langskip, snekkjur, or drekar) into the Mediterranean Sea, but he would have been the only one who would have done so. English crusaders would almost certainly have used Anglo-Norse transport ships (ON knerrir, OE ceôlas), which were not designed for battle. Commanders in northern Syria would have had to consider what opposition they might meet at sea south of Tripoli; the Genoese would have known all about the Fātimid navy, since they had been sailing to Alexandria since the 1060s.

The city of Tripoli was held by Jalāl al-Mulk ‘All, an emir of an independent Arab dynasty, who was willing to facilitate the crusaders’ passage south. However, beyond Tripoli the entire coast was held by the Fātimids, who had a navy of 70 or more warships with squadrons periodically stationed at Beirut, Ascalon (mod. Tel Ashqelon, Israel), and Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel). The squadron that blockaded the ships in Jaffa came from Ascalon. In spring 1099 the Fātimids could put to sea major battle fleets with secure lines of supply from Egypt. Commanders of crusader squadrons would have known that they would be hopelessly outnumbered and that pressing south would sever their lines of supply. There was nowhere to take on water unless they could capture a port or force entry to a river, but they had the numbers to do neither, since all ports were fortified and the few rivers in the area debouched into the sea close to well-garrisoned ports. Beyond Tripoli they had to abandon the armies to their fate, and that is why almost all disappeared from the sources. One is left to wonder at the 6 ships that did reach Jaffa. It is as though the crusader commanders in the north, unable to engage the Fātimid navy in strength, decided to try to slip a small squadron south loaded with materiel for the assault on Jerusalem, hoping that it would avoid detection.

A generous estimate is that an early Western bireme galee (galley) could carry up to 7.5 tonnes of water, enough for six to seven days. A cruising speed of 2 knots was at the high end of the spectrum, giving a range of around 565 kilometers (353 mi.). Of course, all factors were variable. Weather and oceanographic conditions made all the difference, and human endurance, toughness, and skill were also critical. But galley fleets cannot have ranged normally more than around 650 kilometers (c. 400 mi.) without watering. The sailing distance from Tripoli to Jaffa was around 305 kilometers (190 mi.); by the time they sighted Jaffa, the crusader ships were thus at the limit of their range. Somehow, they sailed from Tripoli to Jaffa through enemy-controlled seas and risked finding somewhere to land. As it happened, they found Jaffa deserted, but they could not have known this when they departed. The Embriaci and their companions were very brave men, and it is no wonder that their arrival was received with such euphoria.

The Pisans and Venetians

Pope Urban II also sent a delegation to Pisa, and Bernardo Maragone wrote that 120 ships left for the East in response. This fleet did not leave until the year of the Annunciation 1099 (25 March 1098 to 24 March 1099), probably because it was so large that it took a long time to prepare, even if the figure of 120 ships was exaggerated. According to the Greek chronicler Anna Komnene, it raided Corfu (mod. Kerkira, Greece), Levkas, Kephallonia, and Zante en route and when news of this reached Constantinople, Emperor Alexios put a fleet under the command of Tatikios and a Frankish mercenary named Landulph, which defeated the Pisans off Lycia. Bernardo Maragone confirmed the raids against Levkas and Kephallonia, with the explanation that they were “wont to obstruct the journey to Jerusalem” [Bernardo Maragone, “Annales Pisani,” in Gli Annales Pisani di Bernardo Maragone, ed. Michele Lupo Gentile (Bologna: Zanichelli, 1936), p. 7].

The Pisan fleet probably intended to winter in the Ionian Islands, and what transpired may have resulted from the inability of the Byzantine authorities to supply such a fleet: that is, they may have refused permission to winter there, and the Pisans therefore took what they needed. Counting on wintering there but not having obtained permission, they would have been able neither to go on nor to go back. This seems to be the most probable explanation of their behavior and of Maragone’s reference to Levkas and Kephallonia impeding the journey to Jerusalem.

The Pisans reached the East in late summer 1099, were off Laodikeia in Syria by November 1099, and reached Jerusalem on 21 December 1099. The desperate need of the Franks for the assistance of their ships and men was reflected by Godfrey of Bouillon’s sanctioning of the election of Daim- bert of Pisa as patriarch of Jerusalem and the concessions Godfrey then made to him. The fleet left for home in the first week of April 1100.

The primary source for the Venetian expedition is the Historia de translatione sanctorum Magni Nicolai by an anonymous monk of St. Nicholas of the Lido. Command was assigned to Henry, bishop of Castello, and John Michiel, son of the doge. It sailed from Venice on a date not recorded for Zara (mod. Zadar, Croatia) and Rhodes (mod. Rodos, Greece), where it wintered. From there legates were sent to the patriarch of Jerusalem, Godfrey of Bouillon, Raymond of Saint-Gilles, Bohemund I of Antioch, and other princes. This sequence of events could have taken place only in the autumn and winter of 1099-1100.

At Rhodes a Pisan fleet demanded entry to the port. Thirty Venetian ships then engaged and defeated 50 Pisan vessels, of which only 22 escaped. If the Pisans left Jaffa in early April but did not reach Rhodes until late May, they must have had a wretched voyage. Prevailing winds would have been unfavorable, and the fleet may have had to creep along the coasts using currents and coastal breezes. Perhaps by the time they reached Rhodes they had exhausted their food and water. Eventually, the Venetians left Rhodes, having stayed there from 28 October 1099 to 27 May 1100. They reached Jaffa sometime before 24 June 1100, the date from which they agreed to serve with Godfrey of Bouillon until 15 August. They participated in the capture of Haifa (mod. Hefa, Israel) around 20 August 1100.

The Italian maritime republics have been characterized as being slow to respond to the call to crusade, the imputation being that they were less than enthusiastic. In more popular literature, this inference has been stretched to attributing to them only base motives, a desire to profit from the “real” crusaders: those who marched by land from the West. The Genoese contribution has been acknowledged, but historians have largely ignored the fact that the Pisans left to come to the Holy Land long before the outcome of the crusade could be predicted and the Venetians departed before its outcome became known. In all cases preparations must have begun years and months prior to departure.

Supplies, Crews, and Their Implications

Crews on Venetian fleets in the thirteenth century consumed 22.2 kilograms (48 3/4 lb.) of ship’s biscuit, 1.6 kilograms (3 1/2 lb.) of salt meat, 1.2 kilograms (2 3/4 lb) of cheese, 3 kilograms (61/2 lb.) of legumes, and 16.62 liters (29 pints) of wine per man per month, as well as (in all probability) around 8 liters (14 pints) of water per man per day. The crews of galleys of the first Genoese fleet would have been roughly equivalent to later bireme galleys; certainly the number of oarsmen (around 108) would have been so, and a further complement of officers, marines, and others, up to a total of around 150, would be expected. A reasonable estimate of provisions and water required by the Genoese fleet of 12 galleys for its four-month voyage as far as Antioch would be up to 162 tonnes (159 1/2 imperial tons) of biscuit, 14 tonnes (13 3/4 tons) of salt meat, 10 tonnes (9 3/4 tons) of cheese, 13 tonnes (12 3/4 tons) of legumes, 120 tonnes (118 tons) of wine, and a massive 1,730 tonnes (1,702 tons) of fresh water. The fleet may have been able to carry provisions for four months from the West (although probably not the full quantity of biscuit), but it would certainly have had to have taken on water many times over. Watering required much time and helps explain why it took four months to reach the Levant. The larger the fleet, the longer watering would have taken, and the greater the problem of providing provisions for an entire voyage.

The crews of the Genoese galleys and their accompanying sandanum must have amounted to around 1,900-2,000 men. The composition of the larger Pisan and Venetian fleets, particularly the numbers of their galleys as opposed to their naves (sailing ships), is unknown. The only figure for the Venetian fleet is the 30 naves mentioned in the battle with the Pisans off Rhodes. There are two figures for the Pisans: the 200 naves of Maragone and the 50 said to have fought the Venetians off Rhodes. At that time it was most unusual for sailing ships to engage in naval battles and large fleet engagements such as this one would have been between galleys. The crews of 30 Venetian and 50 Pisan galleys would have amounted to around 12,000 men. Then there were some actual sailing ships. In the thirteenth century, crews of even small two-decked and two-masted sailing ships numbered around 25 sailors, plus officers and some ship’s boys or servants; this figure would perhaps be correct for the other 150 naves of Maragone’s Pisan fleet. That would be another 3,750-4,000 men, plus crusaders carried as passengers. Total figures for the Italian maritime republics alone ought to have been at least 18,000 men. What the crews of northern fleets may have been is anyone’s guess but, even if they were only approximately 10,000, then a total for the naval contingents of around 25,000-30,000 men is around half of the latest estimates of that of the land forces: 60,000 or so.

These considerations explain why the Pisans and Venetians deliberately decided to winter en route. Their fleets were too large to make the voyage in a single sailing season. They thus had to winter in the Ionian Islands and Rhodes, although that extended the problems of re-provisioning. It also explains why the Italian maritime republics and the northern naval contingents were apparently so tardy in responding to the call to crusade. The ships, men, and provisions for fleets of this magnitude could not be assembled overnight. Two years’ preparation during 1096 and 1097 would not have been at all unreasonable; of course, the smaller the fleet, the less time would have been required, which explains why the Genoese could leave in the summer of 1097 but the Pisans and Venetians had to wait until the following year. One wonders at the logistics of the northern fleets and can only conclude that some of them at least must have sailed on a wing and a prayer, hoping for the best.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!