Post-classical history

Chapter Six



Knights wearing their chain-mail armor head for the Holy Land, with bishops leading the way. Perhaps more than 60,000 crusaders set out, but only about 15,000 of them reached Jerusalem, most of the rest having died or been killed along the way.
© Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

NO ONE REALLY KNOWS how many people set out for the East during the First Crusade. Fulcher of Chartres claimed that 6 million fighting men began the journey east and that six hundred thousand reached Nicaea.1 This is impossible, since the total population of France, from which most crusaders came, was less than 5 million in 1086.2 Anna Comnena reported that Peter the Hermit’s force alone consisted of “80,000 infantry and 100,000 horsemen.”3 In fact, Peter’s entire following, including all the women and children, numbered only about twenty thousand.4 The other original sources are equally absurd.5

The best modern estimate is that around 130,000 set out for the Holy Land, of which about 13,000 were nobles and knights6 accompanied by perhaps 50,000 trained infantrymen and 15,000 to 20,000 noncombatants, including clergy, servants, and the usual camp followers.7 The rest were peasants and villagers who had been swept up in the excitement. These numbers are at least compatible with the estimates that, having suffered huge losses along the way, about 40,000 Western Christians lay siege to Nicaea in June 1097 and that 15,000 reached Jerusalem in 1099.8

Whatever their numbers, the First Crusade was composed of three primary elements. First came the People’s Crusade—the main body led by Peter the Hermit, with an advance party led by Walter the Penniless. Several later-leaving groups also were associated with the People’s Crusade but are more appropriately treated separately as the German Crusade. One of these groups was led by a priest named Volkmar; another was led by Peter’s disciple, a monk named Gottschalk. The third was recruited by a minor Rhineland nobleman, Emicho of Leisingen (or Leiningen) and probably was not associated with Peter’s expedition. Aside from the fact that those involved in these groups were mostly Germans rather than Franks, a major reason to examine these three groups separately from the People’s Crusade is that they committed a series of Jewish massacres along the Rhine River in preparation to going east. All three were, in turn, annihilated when they tried to force their way through Hungary. Not long afterward, those participants in the main body of the People’s Crusade who had managed to reach Constantinople were killed after they crossed into Turkish territory.

The success of the First Crusade was achieved by the companies of well-armed, well-trained knights who left several months to a year later than the groups involved in either the People’s Crusade or the German Crusade. These battalions often are identified as the Princes’ Crusade, because that’s who organized and led them; the leaders of three of the five major contingents were the sons of kings.

The pope had set August 15, 1096, as the departure date so that the crops would have been gathered along the routes east. This was crucial since medieval armies of necessity lived off the land, it being impossible to transport sufficient supplies of food and fodder very far overland. All of the groups setting out, including the People’s Crusaders, were prepared to pay for supplies, but if the locals were uncooperative, armies had no choice but to take what they needed, which easily and often turned into looting and worse.9 Availability of supplies also was the reason that the crusader contingents followed several different routes in an effort not to overload local capacities.

All the crusader groups planned to meet at Constantinople, where they expected that they would join forces with a Byzantine army and that this combined force would be under the command of Emperor Alexius Comnenus. As it turned out, Comnenus neither took command nor provided significant Byzantine forces, and the westerners had to go it alone.


Many myths surround the People’s Crusade. Based on Ekkehard of Aurach’s account, many modern historians have claimed that Peter could so easily arouse ordinary people to go on a Crusade because economic conditions in Europe were dreadful at this time,10an argument frequently extended to explain why younger sons of the nobility were eager to go as well.11 Not so. The Crusades were possible only because this was not a period of economic hardship but rather a boom time of rapid economic growth, 12 which explains why even the People’s Crusade was relatively well funded, not only by participants, but by sympathetic donors. Despite being known as Walter the Penniless, he and his followers were able to pay for their supplies all the way to Constantinople. It was lack of discipline, not poverty, that produced episodes of pillaging by Peter’s contingent. He set out with an adequate treasure wagon, and many, perhaps most, of his followers had funds of their own.13

That brings us to the second myth: that Peter’s followers were overwhelmingly made up of the dregs of society—an utterly impoverished and hopelessly ignorant, “ramshackle horde,”14 mostly “drawn from the lower classes.”15 That charge also goes back to early chroniclers: Ekkehard dismissed Peter’s followers as chaff, and Guibert of Nogent did as well.16 According to Albert of Aachen, Peter’s contingent included “all the common people, the chaste as well as the sinful, adulterers, homicides, thieves, perjurers, and robbers.”17 In reality, these views merely reflected the snobbery of the times. The worst that can be said of these people is that they were commoners and that they probably sold everything they had in order to finance their participation.

Walter the Penniless

Walter’s group led the way along what was known as the northern route. Leaving Cologne, they marched through Swabia, Bavaria, and Austria and on through Hungary, entering the Byzantine Empire at Bulgaria. From there they went through Nish to Sophia and on to Constantinople. The march was not entirely uneventful. When they entered Bulgaria, sixteen of Walter’s contingent lingered in the town of Semlin, just west of Belgrade, hoping to purchase arms. According to Albert of Aix, “[S]eeing the absence of Walter and his army, [locals] laid hands upon those sixteen and robbed them of arms, [armor], garments, gold and silver and so let them depart naked and empty-handed.”18 Walter refused to be provoked and marched on to Belgrade, where a new crisis arose. Having had no knowledge that crusaders were headed his way, the local Byzantine magistrate sent urgent word to the governor at Nish asking for instructions. Meanwhile, he stupidly refused to allow Walter’s troops to buy food. Rather than starve, the crusaders went out foraging and rounded up some local herds, which upset some Bulgarians to the point that they drove one foraging party into a church and burned the building, killing about sixty crusaders. Knowing that retaliation would cost him time and casualties, as well as lead to greater hunger, Walter marched his troops through the forests to Nish, the provincial capital, where they were well received and able to resupply. Then, moving right along, they arrived at Constantinople on July 20, having been 102 days on the road. Once at their destination, Walter and his contingent were welcomed by the emperor and set up camp outside the walls to wait for Peter.

Peter’s Progress

Peter the Hermit led his people east from Cologne on April 19 and followed the route taken by Walter’s contingent. The march to the Hungarian border was peaceful and uneventful. King Coloman granted them passage across Hungary provided “there should be no plundering, and that whatever the army required should be purchased without contention and at a fair price.”19 Peter’s company observed these rules all across Hungary. But Bulgaria was another matter. Just as Walter had trouble at Semlin, so did Peter.

As he approached Semlin, Peter got word that the Bulgarians planned to ambush his contingent and seize its treasury. Peter dismissed this as mere rumor, but as his company approached the city, they saw the armor that had been robbed from Walter’s sixteen stragglers hanging from the walls. This enraged many in the advance guard, and Peter lacked sufficient control to prevent them from assaulting the city and killing a large number of its inhabitants. Albert of Aix reported that Peter and his forces remained there for five days and systematically looted both the city and surrounding area, taking “an abundance of grain, flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, a plentiful supply of wine, and an infinite number of horses.”20 Moving on, the crusaders suffered serious losses while attempting to cross a river. Eight days later they reached Nish, and Peter sought permission to purchase food. This was granted, but the next day some German stragglers got into a dispute and set fire to some mills near the city. Peter hurried to the rear to try to put things right, but he was too late to prevent thousands of his men from getting into a battle with the Bulgarians. As many as a third of Peter’s contingent were killed, 21 and many of their wagons were lost to the Bulgarians, including Peter’s treasure wagon.

When word of all this reached Constantinople, Emperor Alexius sent officials with large gifts to meet Peter and supervise the remainder of the journey. After traveling for more than three months, Peter’s forces reached Constantinople on August 1 (fourteen days before the departure date set by the pope). Shortly thereafter Peter met with the emperor, who gave him a substantial amount of gold coins, and the two agreed that Peter should lead his contingent across the Sea of Marmara and establish camp at Hellenopolis. He was joined there by Walter the Penniless and his knights.

The plan was that this combined force would wait for the arrival of the other crusader groups just then leaving for the Holy Land. Peter’s people had ample supplies, and Hellenopolis was a safe haven so long as they did not venture into Turkish territory; Nicaea, the Seljuk capital of Asia Minor, was only twenty-five miles away. It probably was too much to expect this poorly disciplined company to mind their own business for the period it was going to take for groups in the Princes’ Crusade to reach them. After two months, monotony led to pillaging raids in the direction of Nicaea. Initial success led to “war fever,” and while Peter was absent, all of his fighting men marched out to attack the Turks, whereupon they were slaughtered; Albert of Aachen claimed that Walter the Penniless was killed by seven arrows. A Byzantine relief force managed to rescue a few survivors who had taken refuge in a deserted castle on the shore. These seem to have been knights. Apparently all of the noncombatants, including women and children, had perished or been enslaved.

Many historians have blamed the debacle on the emperor for stationing the People’s Crusaders at Hellenopolis. But Hellenopolis served as a secure haven so long as the Europeans remained there. The proximate cause of this disaster was simply that Peter’s people arrived far too early and then failed to understand the strength and abilities of their enemy. But the fundamental cause was lack of authority.


Historians often claim that the main body of Peter’s followers attacked Jews along the way to Constantinople.22 This is careless. As Frederic Duncalf (1882–1963) pointed out, Peter’s followers “do not seem to have been guilty of the persecution of the Jews which became so prevalent in the Rhine valley after their departure.”23 Several of these massacres were committed by two groups that were following in the wake of Peter’s expedition, but most of them were the work of German knights who seem not to have been involved with Peter.

Emicho of Leisingen was a minor Rhineland count who responded to the pope’s call to crusade by assembling a small army of German knights. Then, on May 3, 1096, two weeks after Peter’s group had set out for the Holy Land, Emicho led his troops in an attack on the Jewish population of Speyer (Spier).24 Some historians believe that Emicho’s attacks on the Jews were cynical, prompted primarily by greed, while others accept that he sincerely believed that all “enemies of Christ” should be converted or killed. In any event, warned of Emicho’s approach and intentions, the bishop of Speyer took the local Jews under his protection, and Emicho’s forces could lay their hands on only a dozen Jews who had somehow failed to heed the bishop’s alarm. All twelve were killed. Then Emicho led his forces to Worms. Here, too, the bishop took the local Jews into his palace for protection. But this time Emicho would have none of that: his forces broke down the bishop’s gates and killed about five hundred Jews. The pattern was repeated the next week in Mainz. Here, too, the bishop attempted to shield the Jews but was attacked and forced to flee for his life. The same again in Cologne, and again in Metz. As the distinguished historian of anti-Semitism Léon Poliakov (1910–1997) summed up: “It is important to note that almost everywhere…bishops attempted, sometimes even at the peril of their own lives, to protect the Jews.”25 At this point a portion of Emicho’s forces broke away and set out to purge the Moselle Valley of Jews. Being careful only to attack towns without a resident bishop, they managed to kill several thousand Jews.

Meanwhile, two of Peter the Hermit’s followers, who had remained behind to organize stragglers, also attacked Jews. Volkmar overwhelmed the opposition of the local bishop and massacred Jews in Prague. Gottschalk led a murderous attack on the Jews of Ratisbon (Regensberg). The pope “harshly condemned” all these attacks, “but there was little more he could do.”26 However, it turned out that there was a lot that the knights of Hungary could do. When Volkmar and his forces reached Hungary and began to pillage, they were wiped out by Hungarian knights. The same fate befell Gottshalk. And when Emicho and his forces reached Hungary they were denied passage, and when they tried to force their way through, they also were dispatched by Hungarian knights.

According to the revered historian of the Crusades Sir Steven Runciman (1903–2000), these defeats struck “most good Christians” as “punishments meted out from on high to the murderers of Jews.”27 This is consistent with the efforts of local bishops to preserve the Jews, and with the fact that other armies gathered for the First Crusade did not molest Jews—with the possible exception of several hundred Jews who may have died in Jerusalem during the massacre subsequent to its fall to crusaders.


Five major groups made up the Princes’ Crusade—appropriately named, since not only were these groups led by princes, but many others of equally high rank were enrolled. The groups left at different times and followed different routes, but all of them reached Constantinople (see table 6.1).

Hugh of Vermandois

King Philip I of France was ineligible to go on the Crusade, having been excommunicated for marrying another man’s wife without either of them getting divorced and for refusing to give her up when the Church demanded that he do so. However, he supported the crusading enterprise by buying several large counties from nobles raising money to enable them to go, and he encouraged his brother Hugh to take part.

TABLE 6.1 Elements of the First Crusade

CRUSADE: People’s

LEADERS: Walter the Penniless

DATE OF DEPARTURE: April 3, 1096


LEADERS: Peter the Hermit

DATE OF DEPARTURE: April 19, 1096



LEADERS: Volkmar


DATE OF ARRIVAL IN CONSTANTINOPLE: Did not arrive. Probably killed by Hungarian knights.

LEADERS: Gottschalk


DATE OF ARRIVAL IN CONSTANTINOPLE: Did not arrive. Killed by Hungarian knights.

LEADERS: Emicho of Leisingen


DATE OF ARRIVAL IN CONSTANTINOPLE: Did not arrive. Returned home after defeat in Hungary.

CRUSADE: Princes’

LEADERS: Hugh of Vermandois



LEADERS: Godfrey of Bouillon



LEADERS: Bohemond of Taranto



LEADERS: Raymond IV of Toulouse



LEADERS: Robert, Duke of Normandy



Hugh, Count of Vermandois (1053–1101), was the son of King Henry I of France and a Scandinavian princess, Anne of Kiev. When he left to go east he was about forty and, as will be seen, remarkably arrogant even for these times. He was long remembered as Hugh the Great (“Hugh Magnus”) because he was so designated by William of Tyre. This turns out to have been a copyist’s error, mistaking Minus, meaning “the younger,” for Magnus.28 This correction is consistent with reality, because despite all his boasting and posturing, Hugh was an ineffectual commander. But given his royal connection he was able to assemble a very select group of noble knights from the area near Paris, and just before he left he was joined by knights who had survived Emicho’s defeat in Hungary. Hugh’s contingent left in August, in accord with the pope’s plan.

Hugh chose to make part of the journey by sea from the port of Bari in the Norman kingdom of southern Italy. His march down the Italian Peninsula was uneventful, and he arrived at Bari in October, where he found the Norman prince Bohemond organizing a company of crusaders. But Hugh did not want to wait for the Normans despite warnings that it was a bad time of the year for voyaging. Before setting sail, according to Anna Comnena, Hugh sent this message ahead to Emperor Alexius: “Know, Emperor, that I am the King of Kings, the greatest of all beneath the heavens. It is my will that you should meet me on my arrival and receive me with the pomp and ceremony due to my noble birth.”29

The emperor was not favorably impressed by this message. Nor, it would appear, was Neptune. The predicted winter storms took place, and most of Hugh’s ships were sunk off the Byzantine port of Dyrrhachium. Many of his men drowned, but Hugh managed to reach shore, where Byzantine officials found him “bewildered and bedraggled.”30 The Greeks reequipped his surviving knights and flattered Hugh, but they kept him under house arrest. Escorted to Constantinople, he was greeted by Alexius Comnenus, but not given his freedom until he swore an oath of loyalty to the emperor.

After the crusader conquest of Antioch in 1098, Hugh went back to France. There he was shamed for having failed to keep his vow to go to Jerusalem—the new pope, Paschal II, even threatened to excommunicate him for it—so he went back to Palestine in 1101, where he was wounded in a battle and died of his wounds.

Godfrey of Bouillon

Godfrey of Bouillon (c. 1060–1100) was also Duke of Lower Lorraine, which was part of the German Holy Roman Empire, and (through his mother) he was a direct descendent of Charlemagne. He was tall, sturdy, very blond, and admired for his pleasant manners. Godfrey was greatly influenced by the Cluniac monks and so committed to the Crusade that he made very substantial financial sacrifices to go: he sold two major estates and borrowed against his castle from the bishop of Liège. This allowed him to equip and supply a large army. He was joined in this venture by his two brothers, Eustace III and Baldwin of Boulogne.

Eustace was not eager to go crusading but performed very well once he arrived in the Holy Land. Baldwin had been destined to the Church but lacked a taste for contemplation and chastity. He was even taller than Godfrey and as dark as Godfrey was fair. When he set out on the Crusade, Baldwin took along his Norman wife, Godehilde of Toeni, and their small children. He seems not to have intended to come back to Europe. In any event, he had a glorious career in the crusader states, eventually becoming king of Jerusalem, succeeding his brother Godfrey (although the latter had never permitted himself to be crowned).

Godfrey decided to journey to the Holy Land via the northern route. He left Lorraine at the end of August and marched up the Rhine Valley and then down the Danube Valley until he reached Hungary. King Coloman of Hungary was still angry about his experiences with the People’s Crusaders. So when Godfrey sent a delegation ahead to arrange for passage, Colomon arranged to meet directly with Godfrey. This meeting convinced the king to allow the crusaders to pass (for a very substantial price), but only if Baldwin and his wife and children would serve as hostages to guarantee the behavior of the army. Although reluctant to place this burden on his family, Baldwin eventually agreed, whereupon Godfrey sent heralds to announce to everyone in his army that any infractions against Hungarians or their property would be punished by death. No violations were reported, and when Godfrey’s forces reached Bulgaria, Baldwin and his family were released.

Having entered Bulgaria, Godfrey’s army passed by Belgrade, still a deserted ruin since its pillage five months earlier by Peter’s forces, and, heading for Nish, they were met halfway there by representatives of Emperor Alexius, who made arrangements to resupply the crusaders. Gregory then led his forces uneventfully to Sleymbria, on the coast of the Sea of Marmora. There, for entirely unknown reasons, Godfrey lost control of his troops, and they pillaged the countryside for eight days. Some have said that they were angered from having heard that Hugh of Vermandois was being held as a prisoner—at least that’s what Godfrey used as an excuse when he met with Byzantine representatives sent by the emperor.31 In any event, order was restored, and Godfrey’s army reached Constantinople on December 23, 1096.

The arrival of this large, well-armed, and unruly force of trained soldiers at his gates caused Emperor Alexius a great deal of worry. Therefore, he attempted to assure himself of Godfrey’s allegiance and to get him and his troops some distance from the capital as soon as possible. As to the first, he invited Godfrey to come to see him and to swear an oath of homage to him, using Hugh of Vermandois to carry the invitation. Godfrey refused. Eventually Alexius resorted to threats, marching to Godfrey’s camp with a large army of Byzantine veterans. Faced with overwhelming force, Godfrey consented to swearing the oath and to having his troops transported across the Bosporus to an encampment at Pelecanum.

Just behind Godfrey’s army came an assortment of small groups of knights, “probably composed of various vassals of Godfrey who had preferred to travel through Italy”32 and come from there by sea. They were a truculent lot and also resisted swearing an oath to the emperor. Eventually they did so, but only after an intervention by Godfrey. Then they, too, were quickly transported across the Bosporus; the emperor was convinced that the crusaders really meant to seize his empire and not go to Jerusalem. The party that came next was the one most likely to have imperial designs—Normans who already had repeatedly beaten Greek armies led by Alexius and who ruled over the former Byzantine colonies in southern Italy.

Bohemond of Taranto

On April 9, 1097, Bohemond, Prince of Taranto (c. 1058–1111), arrived in Constantinople, followed by his large army of veteran Norman knights. This was a quite remarkable event, since Bohemond was the son of Robert Guiscard, who had led the Norman conquest of Sicily and southern Italy by repeatedly defeating the best armies that Byzantium could send to defend them. Worse yet, father and son had fought, and usually won, a number of battles against Byzantine armies led by the Emperor Alexius Comnenus himself.

No wonder that when Alexius discovered that a major contingent of crusaders were Normans recruited in Italy and led by Bohemond, he was very apprehensive. His daughter Anna, who was fourteen at the time she met Bohemond, wrote a remarkable sketch of the man many years later in her Alexiad: “The sight of him inspired admiration, the mention of his name terror…His stature was such that he towered almost a full cubit [about twelve inches] over the tallest men.” In fact, his real name was Mark; his father had nicknamed him Bohemond (after the mythical giant) because of his great size as an infant. Anna continued, “He was slender of waist…perfectly proportioned…His skin was…very white…His hair was lightish-brown and not so long as that of other barbarians (that is, it did not hang to his shoulders)…There was a certain charm about him, but it was somewhat dimmed by the alarm his whole person inspired; there was a hard, savage quality in his whole aspect, due, I suppose to his great stature and his eyes; even his laugh sounded like a threat to others…His arrogance was everywhere manifest; he was cunning, too.”33

The emperor was fully aware that Bohemond was undoubtedly the most experienced, talented, and politically astute commander among the crusaders, having learned it the hard way. Back in 1081, having placed his new Norman kingdom of Italy and Sicily firmly under his control, Robert Guiscard and his son Bohemond had sailed their Norman troops across the Adriatic Sea, taking Corfu and Durazzo, coastal cities within the primary Byzantine area. Emperor Alexius Comnenus marched north to expel the Normans, only to be badly defeated at the Battle of Dyrrhachium. Next, the Normans conquered nearly all of northern Greece. Desperate to prevent the Normans from taking his entire empire, Alexius paid an enormous sum (said to be 360,000 gold pieces) to Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, to attack the pope, who was the Normans’ ally in Italy. Robert Guiscard rushed back to Italy to meet this threat, leaving Bohemond in command in Greece. Although still in his early twenties, Bohemond proved a brilliant leader, especially gifted at recognizing and countering enemy tactics, and he defeated Alexius in two battles, thus putting the Normans in control of Macedonia and nearly all of Thessaly. At this point Alexius managed to convince the Seljuk Turks that the Normans were a threat to them, too, and so, with a new army including thousands of Turks, Alexius was barely able to defeat the Normans at Larissa. At this point, in large part because Bohemond lacked the funds to pay his troops their back salaries, the bulk of the Norman army sailed back to Italy, although Corfu and a substantial area along the Adriatic were still in Norman hands. To regain these, Alexius hired Venetians, who successfully attacked from the sea and restored the area to the empire.

Now, about fifteen years older and nearing forty, Bohemond had raised sufficient funds to fully support a large force to go crusading. Accompanied by the anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum, the most influential eyewitness account of the First Crusade, he boarded his forces on ships at Bari and sailed to the Bulgarian coast and from there marched on to Constantinople. His meetings with the Emperor Alexius were tense. Bohemond was as leery of the situation as was Alexius. Aware of the Greek penchant for palace poisonings, he refused to eat any food offered at court. However, he fully retained his political acumen and readily agreed to swear an oath of allegiance to Alexius. Then he led his troops across the Bosporus to join Godfrey’s contingent at Pelecanum.

Raymond IV of Toulouse

The fourth group of crusaders was led by Raymond IV of Toulouse (c. 1041–1105), also known as Count Raymond of Saint-Gilles. Although extremely devout, he was excommunicated twice for marrying women to whom, according to Church rules, he was too closely related. In keeping with the network aspect of crusading, the second of Raymond’s three wives was Bohemond’s niece.

Raymond had decided that he wished to be buried in the Holy Land, and so when the pope first began to circulate his proposal for a Crusade, Raymond was one of the first to respond; his representatives followed Urban’s speech at Clermont with the announcement that Raymond had already taken the cross. At fifty-five, Raymond was certainly the oldest of the leading crusaders, and he probably was the richest as well. He departed in October 1096 at the head of a large company of knights, accompanied by his third wife (the daughter of King Alfonso VI of Castile) and their infant son (who died on the journey).

Raymond’s party crossed the Alps, and because of the season Raymond decided he did not want to sail across the Adriatic Sea, so he marched on until he was able to descend the eastern shore—an unwise choice, as it turned out. The roads were very bad; it was winter, and the weather was foul; and the locals were mostly wild Slavs who refused to sell them any supplies, harassed and stole from their rear guard, and murdered stragglers. Hungry and miserable, the contingent reached Dyrrhachium early in February. There they were met by Byzantine officials and were escorted by local troops. This seems to have caused antagonism among Raymond’s knights, who already were angry. A series of minor skirmishes began with their escorts, but nothing too serious took place until they reached Roussa in Thrace. With Raymond having gone ahead to Constantinople and not there to exert control, his followers, finding there were no provisions for sale at Roussa (Bohemond’s man having bought everything two weeks earlier), scaled the walls of the city and pillaged all the homes. Then, as they continued on, they were intercepted by a major Byzantine army and suffered a serious defeat.

Meanwhile, Raymond was negotiating with Emperor Alexius. The emperor tried to play on Raymond’s fear that Bohemond would become leader of the Crusade, reassuring Raymond that he would never give Bohemond an imperial command. However, instead of swearing the oath of allegiance to Alexius, Raymond pledged himself to support the emperor only if Alexius led the Crusade in person. Then he and his forces, reassembled after their battle with the Byzantines, were ferried across the Bosporus.

Robert, Duke of Normandy

Robert, Duke of Normandy (c. 1051–1134), the eldest son of William the Conqueror, was denied the throne of England for having allied himself with the king of France and plotting against his father. Although he held the duchy of Normandy, he was very lacking in wealth and had to mortgage Normandy to his brother, King William of England, in order to support an army to go crusading. His party included Norman knights from England and Scotland as well as Normandy; the many notables among them included his cousin Robert II, Count of Flanders; his brother-in-law Stephen, Count of Blois; and the cleric Fulcher of Chartres, who wrote a lengthy history of the whole undertaking.

Having crossed the Alps, Robert’s forces marched south through Italy until they reached the Norman Kingdom. Because it was so late in the year, Robert wintered his forces in Calabria. Seeming to be in no hurry, Robert finally went to Brindisi in April and set sail. The first ship to leave was hardly under way when it suddenly broke in half and about four hundred were drowned. Some of the more weak hearted deserted at this point, but the bulk of the army was safely transported to Dyrrhachium. From there they marched, reaching Constantinople in early May. They were cordially received by the emperor, Robert swore the required oath to Alexius, and then he and his troops were ferried across the Bosporus.

Finally, the entire cast of crusaders had been assembled.


It turns out Alexius had never anticipated that thousands of high-ranking European nobles and knights would answer his call for help against the Turks. He had assumed that companies of mercenaries would be sent; few upper-class Byzantines engaged in any military activities, and for centuries the armies of the empire had consisted of mercenaries, and even slaves—often under the command of a eunuch.34 Now Alexius was confronted with thousands of men who had come of their own free will, were dedicated to a cause, and already had fully demonstrated that they were difficult to manage. Alexius and his court thought them to be dangerous barbarians. In turn, the crusaders thought Alexius and his court were a bunch of decadent, devious plotters; the Gesta Francorumoften attaches a nasty adjective when referring to Alexius, using phrases such as “the wretched emperor.”35

Both sides were correct. The dangerous barbarians won battle after battle against staggering odds, even though they had been abandoned by the devious plotters. For when the time came to attack the Turks, Alexius did not take command. Nor did he merge his army with the crusaders. Instead, he sent a small contingent to accompany the crusaders into Asia Minor only as far as needed to recover recently lost Byzantine territory; he interpreted the oath sworn to him by leading crusaders as giving him full and exclusive rights to all these recovered cities and areas. Once the Western knights had accomplished that goal, Alexius seems not to have intended that even a token Byzantine army go any further. His position was that if the crusaders wanted to push on to the Holy Land, that was their own concern, but that “Jerusalem was strategically irrelevant to the empire.”36 Henceforth, the “barbarians” would have to go it alone, even though the most difficult battles still lay ahead. Consequently, feeling that they had been tricked by the emperor, many leading crusaders rejected Alexius’s territorial claims and their oaths to him, on grounds that he had not kept his word. Thus began an antagonism between East and West that ultimately resulted in the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade.


A very frustrating feature of the literature on the Crusades is the lack of reliable numbers. Not only is it extremely difficult to know how many people actually set out on the First Crusade, but few plausible attempts have been made to estimate how many were lost along the way. We know that a substantial proportion of the People’s Crusaders were killed in their several battles in Bulgaria. Surely many more died of the natural causes that always beset such groups in those days; even during the American Civil War, the Union Army lost three men from disease for every one lost in battle.37 So it is very difficult to guess how many of Peter’s people survived to be slaughtered by the Turks. Similarly, although many, perhaps most, of Hugh of Vermandois’s contingent who set sail from Bari drowned, we can’t estimate how many they were, let alone how many fell out along the way.

All that having been said, I estimate that of the perhaps 130,000 who set out on the First Crusade in 1096, 90,000 did not take part in the siege of Nicaea in June 1097. That is a loss rate of roughly 35 per mile who died or turned back. And by the time Jerusalem was taken, perhaps as many as 115,000 (or 88 percent) of the original crusaders had been lost. If this seems excessive, consider that of Bohemond’s Normans who were sufficiently prominent to be named in the Gesta Francorum, a third were dead before 1099 and another fourth were unaccounted for.38 In addition, these estimates of losses do not include the several thousand additional knights who arrived by sea during the course of the campaign. So the total number who died or deserted probably totaled about 120,000—most of whom perished.

It was not until the upper-class sons of Europe were slaughtered in the trenches during World War I that Europe suffered the loss of a generation of leaders equal to that which took place during the First Crusade. Those who marched east were among the best and the brightest of their time. When they died, the responsibilities for managing many major estates and dealing with many important concerns fell upon widows and minor sons, and on those who failed to serve, just as it did in England, France, and Germany in the 1920s. Even so, commitment to crusading remained high for many more years as the families involved in the First Crusade continued to send their subsequent generations to defend the Holy Land. Indeed, when Europe began to sour on crusading, it appears that it was not the families who had given the most who lost heart; rather, it was families who had never sent a crusader who opposed continuing to pay the taxes required to sustain the crusader kingdoms.

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