Post-classical history


The First Crusade and the Capture of Jerusalem, 1095–99

“‘Agrave report has come from the lands around Jerusalem . . . that a race absolutely alien to God . . . has invaded the land of the Christians. . . . They have either razed the churches of God to the ground or enslaved them to their own rites. . . . They cut open the navels of those whom they choose to torment . . . drag them around and flog them before killing them as they lie on the ground with all their entrails out. . . . What can I say of the appalling violation of women? On whom does the task lie of avenging this, if not on you? . . . Take the road to the Holy Sepulchre, rescue that land and rule over it yourselves, for that land, as scripture says, floweth with milk and honey. . . . Take this road for the remission of your sins, assured of the unfading glory of the kingdom of heaven.’ When Pope Urban had said these things . . . everyone shouted in unison: ‘Deus vult! Deus vult!,’ ‘God wills it! God wills it!’1

In this vivid—and hugely exaggerated—language, as reported by Robert of Rheims, Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade at Clermont in central France in November 1095. Four years later, having endured a journey of astounding hardship, the self-proclaimed “Knights of Christ” arrived at Jerusalem. On July 15, 1099, the crusaders stormed the walls and put its defenders to the sword to reclaim Christ’s city from Islam.


While nine hundred years later a distant descendant of Pope Urban’s creation continues to cast its shadow on Christian–Muslim relations across the world, it is an irony that crusading was primarily intended to remedy problems within western Europe. As the head of the Catholic Church, Urban was responsible for the spiritual well-being of everyone in Latin Christendom. Yet Europe was beset by a variety of evils: violence and lawlessness were rife and Emperor Henry IV of Germany, the most powerful secular ruler, was, at times, an excommunicate, cast out of the Church because he had challenged papal authority.2 In Urban’s mind, the fundamental cause of such chaos was a diminution of faith; it was his role to restore peace and stability. If this was to be achieved, spiritual concern would have to be blended with canny political calculation; perhaps to a modern audience the second of these elements sits a little uneasily on a man in his position, but to Urban the two were indivisible; as pope he did everything that was necessary to further God’s work.

It was Urban’s genius that he conceived of a plan that offered benefits to the pope and to all of his flock. Perhaps he achieved this partly because of his family background: he was from the county of Champagne in northern France and was a man of noble blood. The combination of this high-born lineage and a successful career in the Church gave him a direct insight into the hopes and fears of the knightly classes, and this, in part, explains why crusading satisfied the aspirations of so many. He linked several ingredients familiar to medieval society, such as pilgrimage and the idea of a holy war against the enemies of God, with an unprecedented offer of salvation, a combination almost guaranteed to enthuse the warriors of western Europe.

To persuade people—in any age—to leave their homes and loved ones and to venture into the unknown, it is usually necessary to convince them that the cause is worthwhile. As many modern conflicts reveal, propaganda can play a vital part in a buildup to war. Pope Urban II’s address at Clermont used highly inflammatory images to provoke moral outrage in his audience. The Muslims were described in language that emphasized their “otherness” and their barbarity toward innocent Christians. In reality, while it is true that pilgrims were occasionally maltreated, it was also the case that there had been no systematic persecution of Christians by the Muslims of the Holy Land for decades. Yet Urban’s impassioned rhetoric demanded a response from the knights of France. He called for vengeance, a concept that was second nature to knights accustomed to correcting an injustice through force, supported by the weight of moral right. Through references to authorities on Church law, such as Saint Augustine, Urban and his circle of advisers constructed a case whereby violence could, in certain circumstances, be seen as a morally positive act.3 This required a just cause—usually it was a reaction to the aggression of another party, in this case the alleged atrocities committed by the Muslims. It needed proper authority to proclaim the war; and also right intention—that is, pure motives in a conflict of proportional, but not excessive, force. To these “just war” principles, crusading added the taking of a vow and an association with pilgrimage. Thus, because it was judged to be morally positive the crusade became an act of penance that merited a spiritual reward. Earlier attempts to restrict the violence that plagued eleventh-century Europe included the Peace of God movement in which the Church forbade fighting for a specific period of time under pain of ecclesiastical penalties. At Clermont, however, Urban urged the knights of France to cease their private wars and to begin a battle worthy of their noble status; to fight for God was to take service with the ultimate Lord, and to win forgiveness for their wicked lives was a prize immeasurably greater than any earthly riches could offer.4

Without doubt the violent warriors of the West had committed many acts displeasing to God and here Urban offered them a chance to avoid a terrible fate. Practically every church in the land had a sculpture or a fresco of hell: savage devils gouged out the eyes of screaming sinners; others were skinned or tortured with spears and pitchforks; impaled humans were roasted for eternity.5 The message from the Church was terrifyingly simple: there was no avoiding the consequences of sin; a knight, therefore, needed an escape route from Satan’s fires. These same frescoes also showed heaven—a place of peace, tranquillity, and everlasting safety. Making pilgrimages and giving donations to monastic houses could help to avoid hell, but Urban brilliantly presented what one contemporary described as “a new way to attain salvation.”6 The pope judged—correctly—that the crusade would be a sufficiently arduous experience to deserve the remission of all penance; in effect it would wipe the slate clean and all the vicious, violent misdeeds of the medieval warrior—or anyone who took part—would be cleared. As far as the knightly classes were concerned, the neatest aspect of all was that they could continue fighting—only now their energies were directed toward the enemies of God, rather than their fellow Christians. Thus, the cause in which they fought meant the Church now blessed their activities, rather than condemned them.

Those who wished to take part in the crusade had to make a public statement of their commitment in the form of a vow and being marked with the sign of the cross. Often amidst hugely emotional scenes, enthusiastic recruits would surge forward and demand to have a cloth cross pinned to their shoulder, desperate to bear the symbol that represented Christ’s sacrifice and their own imitation of his suffering. Preachers adopted the words of Christ himself: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” If a crusader deserted his vows then he deserved eternal opprobrium; Urban “commanded that . . . he should forever be regarded as an outlaw, unless he came to his senses and undertook to complete whatever of his obligation was left undone.”7 As an aside, the crusade also had the effect, temporarily at least, of bringing huge numbers of people under the control of the Church. Once again, we can see how Urban had found a way to enhance the standing of the papacy while offering something attractive to others.

The call to free the Holy Sepulchre and the Christians of the East was shaped in a familiar form, namely, a pilgrimage. This was a fundamental feature of medieval life; the notion of turning to a saint for help was an everyday experience and people sought the assistance of these heavenly beings in health, harvests, fertility, protection, and forgiveness for sins. The presence of a saint was manifested by relics, parts of a saint’s body, or objects associated with his or her life, that were believed to retain their holy power and to offer a conduit to divine help. The veneration of relics often required a journey and some saints became associated with particular causes: Saint Leonard of Noblat, for example, was the patron saint of prisoners. People in captivity prayed to him and when their incarceration ended they made a pilgrimage to Noblat (in central France) and, as a mark of gratitude, placed their chains on the church altar. While many pilgrimages were simply processions or visits to local churches, longer journeys to important shrines, such as that of Saint James at Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, grew in popularity during the eleventh century. The ultimate pilgrimage destination was the Holy Land—the place where Christ had lived and died. Because He had ascended to heaven, there was no body to venerate and so the focus was on places touched by His presence and His death, most particularly His tomb, the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The Holy Land, and this particular site above all, became the principal goal of the First Crusade. For the crusaders, a journey there deserved the greatest reward of all—the remission of all sins. This was integral to the hearts and minds of medieval man and the notion of regaining Christ’s land for Christianity lay at the core of Urban’s appeal.

Even though the papacy advanced spiritual motives as the prime reason for the crusade it is clear that more worldly factors also played their part. Robert of Rheims’s account (written c.1106–7) of Urban’s speech pointed this up when he claimed the pope spoke of a land of milk and honey—an alluring prospect for people troubled by poor harvests and in search of a change from the drudgery of village life. While the desire to liberate Christ’s city had to be paramount—otherwise God would not favor the expedition—some crusaders would need to remain in the Levant to hold the territory; there was very little point in taking Jerusalem if everyone then returned home. The First Crusade was in part, therefore, a war of Christian colonization, as well as Christian liberation. For those prepared to take a chance it offered a new life. However, as it turned out, while huge numbers were willing to become crusaders, relatively few chose to stay in the East afterward. If the hope of plunder and riches helped to draw people toward this great adventure, in the event, the acquisition of wealth proved far harder than it had appeared beforehand.

Notwithstanding Urban’s desire to restore the spiritual well-being of western Europe it was an external trigger that prompted him to launch the crusade. In March 1095 envoys arrived from Emperor Alexius of Constantinople to appeal for help against the Muslims of Asia Minor. Alexius ruled the Byzantine Empire, the successor to the old Roman Empire, and had, until recent years, controlled territories that stretched across Asia Minor to Antioch in northern Syria, as well as modern-day Greece, Bulgaria, and Albania. By 1095, much of Asia Minor had been lost, although ongoing troubles within the Muslim world gave him an opportunity to fight back.8 For many years he had sent requests for groups of well-armed knights to help his cause, and there was, by now, a strong tradition of western mercenaries serving in the imperial army. In 1095, however, Alexius, understandably, failed to anticipate that Pope Urban would use this opportunity to make a far wider appeal to the people of Latin Christendom and launch the crusade.9Pope Urban himself also had an agenda with regard to Alexius. In 1054, disputes over doctrinal matters and, more pertinently, the relative authority of the pope to the patriarch of Constantinople had provoked a schism between the Catholics and the Orthodox Church: a situation that still exists today. In spite of this split, the two camps maintained contact and Urban saw the crusade as an opportunity to foster better relations—although from his perspective Rome was the senior partner because the Catholics were the people offering help to their Orthodox brothers. In fact, Urban cast himself in the role of a father to his “son” the Byzantine emperor, and saw Rome as a mother to Constantinople.


Urban and his circle considered how best to broadcast the crusade appeal. In an era before mass communications it was vital to make as big a visual impact as possible. This meant staging numerous public ceremonies: the Council of Clermont was carefully publicized with invitations sent to churchmen across France, Spain, and parts of Germany. Urban chose Clermont for its central location and the meeting attracted thirteen archbishops, eighty bishops and cardinals, and over ninety abbots. For about a fortnight the pope laid down a legislative program for the spiritual recovery of Christendom. On the penultimate day he unveiled the centerpiece of his agenda: the crusade. Urban knew that his own presence was crucial and to this end he then embarked upon a huge tour that took him hundreds of miles northward to Le Mans and Angers, down to Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Montpelier in the south.10 This was no casually arranged ramble, however; no pope had been north of the Alps for fifty years. Even in today’s Internet age the appearance of a celebrity—be it at a supermarket opening or a major political rally—attracts crowds of people eager to see or hear a famous individual for themselves. The arrival of such a powerful figure was bound to excite attention and Urban did his utmost to exploit this. Time and again, for example, at Saint-Gilles, Le Puy, Chaise-Dieu, Limoges, Tours, and Poitiers, the pope would appear on the feast day of the local saint, or else he would consecrate a new building or attend an important festival. In other words, he was careful to choose an opportunity that allowed him to address the biggest crowd possible. The arrival of the papal entourage was a truly splendid sight; the wealth and splendor of Pope Urban and his court were dominated by this successor of Saint Peter who wore a conical white cap with a circlet of gold and gems around the base.

It was not just through his personal appearances that Urban recruited crusaders. The audience at Clermont carried the call back to their homes and, even though the response to his speech had been rapturous, the pope had little sense of the extraordinary zeal with which his words would be taken up. News of the expedition surged across Europe and saturated the Latin West with crusading fervor. The pope’s appeal to the knights of France soon spread to encompass parts of Spain and Germany as well.

One immediate, if undesired, side effect was a series of attacks against the Jews.11 The rabble-rousing sermons of a preacher named Folkmar incited audiences to turn against the non-Christians in their midst. Jewish communities had peacefully existed in western Europe for many centuries. Folkmar took Urban’s theme of alien peoples and, instead of directing Christian violence toward the Muslims, he chose to emphasize the Jews’ history as the killers of Christ and to suggest that they therefore deserved punishment. One contemporary Hebrew source wrote: “the princes and nobles and common folk in France took counsel and set plans to rise up like eagles and to battle and to clear the way for journeying to Jerusalem, the holy city, and for reaching the sepulchre of the crucified, a trampled corpse who cannot profit and who cannot save for he is worthless. They said to one another: ‘Behold we travel to a distant land to do battle with the kings of that land. We take our souls in our hands in order to kill and to subjugate all those kingdoms which do not believe in the crucified. How much more so should we kill and subjugate the Jews who killed and crucified Him.’”12 Of comparable importance was the Jews’ wealth—many people owed them money (secured by the sin of usury—the charging of interest on loans), and the crusaders needed large sums of cash to set out. In spite of enjoying the nominal protection of local bishops, in the late spring of 1096 the Jewish quarters in Cologne, Speyer-Mainz, and Worms were besieged and stormed. The army of Count Emicho of Leiningen was especially culpable. He was described as a wicked man: “our chief persecutor. He had no mercy on the elderly, on young men and young women, on infants and sucklings, nor on the ill. He made the people of the Lord like dust to be trampled. Their young men he put to the sword and their pregnant women he ripped open.”13 The Christian chronicler Albert of Aachen suggested that there was an effort to convert the Jews—often forcibly.14 Hebrew sources echo this in reporting the crusaders’ attitude: “Let us take vengeance first upon them. Let us wipe them out as a nation; Israel’s name will be mentioned no more. Or else let them be like us and acknowledge the child born of menstruation.”15 Beyond these terrible episodes in the Rhineland, however, the attacks were limited; this was not a Europe-wide or systematic persecution of the Jews. The ecclesiastical authorities tried to calm matters; the Bible forbade the killing of Jews. The need to prevent major civil unrest was another reason to bring these events to a close; the Jews’ payment of bribes to local bishops also helped and order was duly restored.

Crusaders from the Rhineland—often known as the Peasants’ Crusade—set out for the East as early as the spring of 1096, led by the charismatic preacher Peter the Hermit. Historians have shown that this group included a number of nobles and it is no longer, as previously thought, regarded as an army made up of rustics; it has now been renamed the People’s Crusade. These adventurers reached Constantinople in August 1096 where their dismal levels of discipline horrified Alexius. The emperor took harsh measures to preserve the safety of his city while the fear and animosity generated by this group contributed much toward subsequent tensions between the crusaders and the Greeks. Alexius persuaded the Rhinelanders to cross the Bosporus into Asia Minor and then he abandoned them, providing little support in terms of guides or supplies. Within a few weeks the crusaders encountered the armies of Kilij Arslan, the Seljuk Turkish sultan of Asia Minor. In October 1096 his forces slaughtered the vast majority of the Christians, although Peter the Hermit managed to escape. As Albert of Aachen observed, it was just punishment for the crusaders’ ill-treatment of the Jews. This was scarcely an auspicious start to the First Crusade.16

While these events unfolded in the East, the main armies began to finalize their preparations. The first good harvest in years seemed to signify divine approval and across Europe people raised money for their great adventure. Many individuals have left traces of their preparations in charters—documents that detail the sale or mortgage of their lands and the acquisition of money and provisions. In subsequent centuries material of this sort becomes bland and formulaic, an efficient record of the practical details of a transaction. Back in the late eleventh century, however, such bureaucratic conformity was blissfully ill-developed and charters often contained long and elaborate stories that explained why an individual had taken a particular course of action. This material can give a vivid insight into the mind-set of the contemporary nobility, not least because the charters were made prior to the expedition’s departure and are not clouded by the knowledge of its subsequent success.17 A document of the castellan Nivelo of Fréteval related: “Whenever the impulse of warlike fierceness roused me, I would gather about myself a band of mounted men and a crowd of followers. I would descend upon the village and freely give the goods of the men of St Père of Chartres to my knights for food. Now, therefore, I am going as a pilgrim to Jerusalem, which is still in bondage with her sons, to secure the divine pardon that I seek for my misdeeds.”18 We can see in this the violence and chaos so troublesome to Pope Urban; in this instance a church had been targeted for the knightly depredations. Yet with the call for the crusade, Nivelo saw a chance to redeem himself and to make good his sins as a pilgrim warrior fighting to liberate Jerusalem. The fusion of pilgrimage and holy war is neatly displayed in a Provençal charter for Guy and Geoffrey of Signes, who took the cross “on the one hand for the grace of pilgrimage and on the other, under the protection of God, to wipe out the defilement of the pagans and the immoderate madness through which innumerable Christians have already been oppressed, made captive and killed with barbaric fury.”19


In the autumn of 1096 the main crusading armies set out on the three-thousand-mile journey from northern Europe to Jerusalem. It has been estimated that about sixty thousand people took part in the expedition. The population of western Europe may have been around twenty million; self-evidently the vast majority of people stayed at home; if, however, one considers ties of family, friendship, and trade, then the crusade touched the lives of millions. Fulcher of Chartres wrote: “whoever heard of such a mixture of languages in one army since there were French, Flemings, Frisians, Gauls, Allobroges [Savoyards], Lotharingians, Allemani [southern German and Swiss], Bavarians, Normans, English, Scots, Aquitainians, Italians, Danes, Apulians, Iberians and Bretons.”20 While recent episodes such as the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 gave some indication of the resources required for a large military campaign, the crusade was on a far greater scale. It has been estimated that the expedition cost four times a knight’s annual income and so loans, gifts, and mortgages were essential.21 Families gave what they could; often they had to support more than one individual because brothers or fathers and sons went together. Gifts of horses and mules were particularly welcome, as were precious stones, gold, and silverware. The currency of the time was of such a small denomination that it was utterly impractical to try to carry the necessary cash, otherwise the crusader army would have consisted of countless treasure-carrying carts. While we know that at least seven different currencies (coins from Lucca, Chartres, Le Mans, Melgueil, Le Puy, Valence, and Poitou) were in circulation among the Provençal contingent alone, the better option was to take precious objects to trade with local money-changers en route.22 Yet Urban’s offer of salvation struck a deep chord with the wider populace—who would not want to have all their sins wiped clean? Thus, men and women, young and old, the poor and the infirm joined the expedition as pilgrims. Many were utterly unsuited to the rigors of the campaign and in the course of the crusade the majority of this anonymous mass perished through disease or starvation, or deserted.

Two particular groups were not represented on the crusade. One body of people who wished to take part were banned, namely monks. Their vows required them to remain in the cloister; they were to fight the Devil through prayer, rather than with the sword. As Urban wrote: “we do not want those who have abandoned the world and vowed themselves to spiritual warfare either to bear arms or to go on this journey; we forbid them to go.”23 The fact that Urban had to issue letters making such points explicit shows that many monks were attracted to the concept. Probably the most noticeable absentees from among the First Crusaders were kings. Monarchs could have provided an obvious focus of command and resource, yet none became involved. In large part, this was a matter of circumstance, although their absence undoubtedly suited Urban because it meant the papacy retained a dominant position in the campaign. King William Rufus of England was in perpetual conflict with his churchmen; Emperor Henry IV of Germany was never likely to participate on account of the long-running conflict between his empire and the papacy, while King Philip of France was also cast out of the Church, albeit for more carnal reasons. He had pursued a relationship with Bertrada of Anjou, who was already married to Count Fulk IV of Anjou (“le Réchin”—Fulk “the Repulsive,” a name acquired because of his hideously deformed feet). Clearly this was a situation the Church could not sanction. Philip refused to end the affair (he too was already married) and he was duly excommunicated; it would be unacceptable for the “Knights of Christ” to be headed by an adulterer.

Without the presence of kings it was left to members of the senior nobility to provide leadership, and five individuals stand out particularly. Godfrey of Bouillon ruled the duchy of Lorraine, a region on the border between France and Germany, although it was to the ruler of the latter that he owed obedience.24 Godfrey was a deeply religious man who, contrary to Urban’s strictures, brought a group of monks with him to provide spiritual support. He was also a fearless soldier, famed for his ability in single combat. Generous, gracious, and affable, this tall, bearded man was a model holy warrior. His younger brother Baldwin of Boulogne began his career as a cleric but he set aside his habit and became a soldier. Also tall, with brown hair and a beard, he was serious in dress and speech; those who did not know him well took him to be a bishop. Baldwin was married to an En glishwoman, Gothehilde, who accompanied him on the campaign. He was a fine horseman and fighter, although as events reveal, he had a harsh, pragmatic streak too. Count Stephen of Blois was a charming, well-educated man who wrote poetry and sent back letters to his wife, Adela, a daughter of William the Conqueror.25 He was an individual of high standing and at one point seems to have been made commander of the army, although as we will see, this was not a task he carried out with any distinction or dignity. Count Raymond of Saint-Gilles was an Occitan-speaking noble whose territory was based around Toulouse in southern France.26 He was an older man, in his sixties at the time of the crusade, who had committed himself to support Pope Urban’s appeal prior to the Council of Clermont. Raymond actually sold his lands in Europe as a sign that he was wholehearted in his wish to forge a new life in the Holy Land or die in the attempt. He was a strong-willed, pious individual, although rather arrogant and overbearing in his manner; in fact, his lack of diplomatic skills ultimately cost him the throne of Jerusalem. Finally, there was Bohemond of Taranto, arguably the most controversial figure on the crusade.27 He was a Norman-Sicilian whose father had already passed over him in his choice of successor; he was in consequence not especially wealthy, but possessed a fierce determination to advance his standing. Bohemond was a formidable warrior, tall, fair-haired, and blue-eyed; clean-shaven unlike most of his colleagues, he had the bravery required of a champion of Christ. As a Norman-Sicilian he was a traditional enemy of the Byzantines and had taken part in an unsuccessful invasion of the empire in the 1080s.

As the crusaders set out in late 1096, chroniclers recorded the tearful scenes of departure. Fulcher of Chartres wrote of the overwhelming emotional turmoil at this traumatic moment:

Oh what grief there was! What sighs, what weeping, what lamentation among friends when husband left his wife so dear to him, his children, his possessions however great, his father, his mother, brothers and many other relatives! But . . . none flinched from going because for love of God they were leaving . . . firmly convinced that they would receive a hundredfold what the Lord promised to those who loved Him. Then husband told wife the time he expected to return, assuring her that if by God’s grace he survived he would come back home to her. He commended her to the Lord, kissed her lingeringly, and promised her as she wept that he would return. She, though, fearing that she would never see him again, could not stand but swooned to the ground, mourning her loved one whom she was losing in this life as if he were already dead. He departed . . . with firm resolution.28 Onward, Christian Soldiers.


The various contingents of crusaders planned to rendezvous at Constantinople. Some marched through Italy and then sailed from Brindisi across to the western edge of the Byzantine Empire in Dalmatia. Others followed the old pilgrim roads through Hungary and entered Alexius’s lands from the north. The crusaders’ stay at Constantinople was to be fraught with tensions; as we saw above, the behavior of the People’s Crusade had alarmed the Greeks and the arrival of the main armies provoked deeply conflicting emotions. It must be remembered that the emperor had requested a few hundred knights to enter his service; what he got was tens of thousands of holy warriors, intent on passing through his lands toward Jerusalem, and, numbered among them, some of his greatest enemies. More significantly, there was a massive philosophical gulf between the Greeks and the crusaders. To the Byzantines, holy war—be it crusade or jihad—was abhorrent. They fought for the empire; the emperor was the leader of Christ’s people but they expected no spiritual rewards for their endeavors. They were immensely suspicious of the crusaders’ professed motives and suspected that the wish for land and money was the real reason for their presence.29 The crusaders felt that, as fellow Christians, the Byzantines should provide them with food. When this failed to appear they felt entitled to seek supplies; however, the line between foraging and ravaging was an easy one to cross. Alexius dispatched his own troops to shadow the crusaders. Sometimes this ensured peace, on other occasions there was conflict; the papal legate Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy was beaten up and nearly killed in one exchange in the Balkans.30

Alexius was determined to turn the crusade to his advantage and any help that he provided was to come at a price. His daughter Anna Comnena was in Constantinople when the crusaders arrived and, fifty years later, she wrote The Alexiad, an account of her father’s life. Notwithstanding this time lapse, she neatly summarized his methods: he “used every means possible, physical and psychological, to hurry [the crusaders] to cross the straits [the Bosporus].”31 The Byzantines were masters of ceremony and display and they employed their most potent advantage—the city of Constantinople itself—to great effect.32 Its sheer size amazed the crusaders: the population of Paris at this time was approximately thirty thousand; Constantinople’s was around 350,000. The city was shaped like a colossal triangle—the Bosporus and the Golden Horn provided protection on two sides; on the third the mighty double-layered Theodosian walls, built in the sixth century to keep out the barbarian hordes, stretched for three and a half miles between the two waterways. The “queen of cities,” as the Byzantines described their capital, was a place of wealth and splendor far beyond the experiences of the vast majority of the westerners. Hundreds of churches lay filled with relics of unimaginable beauty and value, while at the heart of the city lay the magnificent cathedral of the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), far bigger than any building in the West. Covered with the most stunning mosaics, its interior walls were cloaked in multicolored marble. The Greeks offered the nobles and churchmen guided tours of the holy sites and then entertained them in the vast and opulent imperial palaces. Alexius himself played the part of the all-powerful ruler to the full. Godfrey of Bouillon and his men were received by the emperor, who was “seated, as was his custom, looking powerful on the throne of his sovereignty, not getting up to offer kisses [of welcome] to the duke or anyone.”33 It was entirely plain which was the superior force.

Alexius insisted that the senior nobles should hand back any lands that had formerly been in the possession of the Greeks. In effect, this meant the bulk of Asia Minor and Antioch. The latter had been under Byzantine control until 1085 and was one of the five patriarchal seats of the Christian Church. To the Greeks, Constantinople was the home of Christianity and a far more important city than Jerusalem. That the crusaders wished to recover it was of limited interest to them. The emperor also demanded a form of vassalage; the crusaders were to swear peace and mutual friendship—in other words, to behave themselves—and in return they would receive imperial support and advice, although Alexius would not journey to Jerusalem in person. Some nobles were reluctant to give oaths to a non-Catholic ruler; a few evaded the situation by traversing the Bosporus immediately, and others, such as Raymond of Saint-Gilles, attempted to resist or to negotiate down the level of allegiance required. The majority, however, acquiesced. For those who conceded gracefully there were advantages: Godfrey of Bouillon was given a mound of gold and silver, as well as purple silks and fine horses; even the Greeks’ old enemy, Bohemond of Taranto, was persuaded to conform, and after taking his oath he was rewarded with the contents of a room so full of riches that he could barely enter.34

By the middle of 1097 the armies of the First Crusade were ready to move into Muslim lands. By sheer coincidence—and there is absolutely no evidence that this was planned—the crusaders chose to enter the Muslim world at a moment when it was particularly weak.35 There was, and remains, the basic division in the Islamic faith between the Sunni and the Shi’a. The former were in control of Asia Minor, Syria, and the lands of Persia to the east; their spiritual leader was the caliph of Baghdad. The Fatimid dynasty was Shi’a and they ruled Egypt from Cairo, the base of their caliphate. Such was the level of bitterness between Sunni and Shi’a that they were prepared to ally with the crusaders against one another rather than form a united front against the invading Christians. This situation was compounded by a catastrophic period of upheaval during the mid-1090s when caliphs and viziers from both camps died with alarming regularity—often in the most dubious circumstances. The later Muslim writer Ibn Taghribirdi, wrote of 1094: “this year is called the year of death of caliphs and commanders.”36 In Asia Minor the demise of the powerful Seljuk sultan Malikshah created a power vacuum that meant that the crusaders did not encounter a major international power, but only smaller lordships more concerned with defeating each other than confronting the Christians. Little help came from the leadership of Islam. The caliph of Baghdad showed negligible interest in events on the western periphery of his lands and largely ignored appeals for help. Unsurprisingly, of course, given the unprecedented nature of the Christian invasion, most Muslims failed to recognize that this was a war of religious colonization. They perceived it as another raid from Byzantium, rather than a war of conquest and settlement, and this misunderstanding also helps to explain the lack of concerted resistance to the crusaders. With the benefit of hindsight, knowing just how marginal the crusaders’ survival actually was, had they faced a more formidable leader, such as Malikshah, it is doubtful whether they would have even managed to cross Asia Minor.

The city of Nicaea (modern Iznik), about 120 miles into Asia Minor, was the first settlement to be attacked by the crusaders. By June 1097 they were joined by their Greek allies and the Muslims soon had to surrender. This marked the only real cooperation between the two Christian groups. Later the same month came the first serious test of the crusaders’ strength. While the Greeks had warned them of Muslim tactics, little, it seems, had prepared them for the intensity of the onslaught. Seljuk armies were based around cavalry, most of whom were lightly armored, highly skilled archers. They would gallop to within fifty to sixty meters of the crusaders, release a hail of arrows, and then retreat. Fulcher of Chartres, an eyewitness, wrote, “The Turks were howling like wolves and furiously shooting a cloud of arrows. We were stunned by this . . . to all of us such warfare was unknown.”37 As the crusader army pushed across Asia Minor it was Bohemond’s men who became the focus of special attention. After an exhausting day of skirmishing on the march he was forced to halt and sent urgent entreaties for help to Godfrey and Raymond. The anonymous writer of the Gesta Francorum, an eyewitness to these events, lauded Bohemond’s men for their fortitude in withstanding the ferocity of the Seljuk assaults. He also made a point of praising the role of women in the army: “they were of great help to us that day, for they brought water for the men to drink and gallantly encouraged those who were fighting and defending them.”38 Godfrey and Raymond arrived at speed by the following morning and after an epic six-hour struggle (known as the Battle of Dorylaeum), the combined strength of the crusaders prevailed. As the Gesta Francorum commented, “If God had not been with us in this battle and sent the other army quickly, none of us would have escaped.”39

The march through Asia Minor tested the crusaders’ physical and mental resolve; most of the knights’ fine warhorses died and the greatest warriors of the age were reduced to riding oxen, while goats, sheep, and even dogs carried the baggage. In the late summer of 1097 the crusader army began to divide up. Baldwin of Boulogne headed east toward Edessa (modern Sanliurfa), a fertile region astride the River Euphrates in the southeast of modern Turkey. Edessa was an important site in early Church history because it was the first city to formally adopt Christianity and was the burial place of the apostles Thomas and Thaddeus.40 At the time of the First Crusade it was ruled by Christian Armenians who welcomed the westerners’ support against the Muslims who surrounded their lands. At first, relations between the two parties were good: the local ruler, Thoros, adopted Baldwin as his son in a strange ritual where the two men stripped to the waist and embraced while a large white shirt was placed over both of them. In fact, Thoros was not especially popular with his people and he was soon torn to pieces by a mob, which left Baldwin to take control for himself. Notwithstanding Edessa’s Christian past, this was an act of brazen territorial acquisition by Baldwin, largely disconnected from the spiritual concerns at the heart of Urban’s appeal.


The majority of the army struggled grimly onward, impelled by the lure of Jerusalem. By October 1097 they reached Antioch in northern Syria (although today just inside Turkey and called Antakya). It was here that the pivotal battles of the crusade were fought; the holy warriors’ faith and fortitude were challenged as never before. It would take almost ten months to break the defenders’ resistance, a period of extraordinary suffering and hardship on both sides, yet one that was fundamental to the crusaders’ success. Modern Antioch, bisected by the Orontes, is a rather nondescript city that covers a fraction of the area of its late classical heyday, yet the shattered remains of its medieval citadel still crown the vertiginous 1,600-foot ridge that looms over the site. Walls and towers cling to the steep sides of this great rock, but on the plain below the formidable ring of double walls that once confronted the crusaders has now almost gone. The size of the city and the scale of its fortifications meant that it was impossible to blockade effectively; in any case, the defenders had prepared well. As the harsh Syrian winter drew on it was the Franks (as they were generically known in both the Christian and Muslim worlds) who began to struggle. On occasion, supplies arrived at the nearby port of Saint-Simeon, courtesy of the Greeks, but the presence of such a large army inevitably began to denude the locality of food. The crusaders were forced to make increasingly distant and dangerous foraging trips and the price of basic commodities soared. Only one thousand horses had survived and the cold and rain caused tents and equipment to rot. Pestilence broke out and thousands of crusaders died or deserted; a steady stream of people left the expedition—perhaps those driven predominantly by material desires believed their hopes to be lost and gave up. Outside Antioch the crusaders constructed their own fortifications and made sporadic assaults on the city, but the campaign appeared to have stalled.

The siege dragged on into the spring of 1098 with sallies, bombardment, engagement and counterengagement. In June, however, the crusaders made a breakthrough. As we saw earlier, Bohemond was a man without lands and the chance to carve out a principality based upon such a splendid city was too good to miss. Unknown to his colleagues, Bohemond had contacted a renegade Armenian inside Antioch who was prepared to betray the city to the crusaders. With pressure for progress at a peak Bohemond made a proposition to the other leaders: if he could get the Christians into the city, they should agree that he could keep it. At first the others refused—they argued that everyone had toiled in front of its walls and that all should share its spoils. News of the imminent arrival of a large Muslim relief force from Mosul focused the minds of the nobles, however; Bohemond’s colleagues consented on condition that if Alexius came to help, the city would be given to him as they had promised.41

Just before dawn on June 3, 1098, a rope was lowered from one of the towers on the southern wall of the city. Before the first fingers of light crept over the citadel the crusaders clambered up ladders and began to take control of the walls; soon a gate was opened and the holy warriors flooded in. While they began to massacre the inhabitants and to seize as much booty as they could, the majority of the defenders simply withdrew to the safety of the citadel. In other words, the crusaders had taken only the outer shell of Antioch. Within days, the army from Mosul appeared and the westerners became pincered between the Muslims in the citadel and those outside the city: the besiegers had become the besieged. Christian morale plummeted and the crusaders experienced terrible privations. Food was in desperately short supply. The Gesta Francorum recorded: “These blasphemous enemies of God kept us so closely shut up in the city of Antioch that many of us died of hunger. . . . So terrible was the famine that men boiled and ate the leaves of figs, vines, thistles, and all kinds of trees. Others stewed the dried skins of horses, camels, asses, oxen, or buffaloes, which they ate. These and many other troubles and anxieties . . . we suffered for the Name of Christ and to set free the road to the Holy Sepulchre.”42 More men deserted, including Stephen of Blois. These individuals became known as the “rope-dancers of Antioch,” a derogatory term deriding them for their cowardice.

Yet Stephen’s actions had a further consequence because in his retreat across Asia Minor he encountered Alexius, belatedly coming to assist his allies. Unsurprisingly, the news that the Franks were doomed caused him to turn back; there was no point in carrying on to Antioch if, by the time he arrived, the crusaders had been defeated. Of course, events turned out differently and, regardless of Alexius’s apparent good faith, his decision to retreat allowed Bohemond to claim the Byzantines reneged on their promise to provide military support and that he was free from his oath to return former Greek lands to them.43

By late June the First Crusade was on the verge of collapse. It seemed that only a miracle could save the expedition and, in the heightened, desperate atmosphere of a failing holy war, that is exactly what happened. Peter Bartholomew, a pilgrim in Count Raymond’s contingent, had a vision in which he claimed that Saint Andrew appeared to him and told him where to find the Holy Lance, the lance that had pierced Christ’s side during the Crucifixion.44 As an object so intimately linked to Christ’s last days on earth this was a relic of incalculable importance. A group of thirteen men gathered in the Church of Saint Peter in Antioch and all day they dug frantically at the specified place. By the early evening hope was beginning to fade, yet the men labored away in the sputtering torchlight and then, finally, a spade struck wood; it was there! A miracle! The chronicler Raymond of Aguilers witnessed the discovery and was so overcome that he kissed the point of the lance even before it was removed from the ground. The news whipped through the Christian camp, energizing and inspiring the common troops as never before. God had encouraged them to persist and they faced their opponents with renewed vigor. Some among the leadership were more skeptical, however. They saw the prestige that accrued to Count Raymond’s men for having discovered the relic and wondered whether it was simply a ploy to enhance his position. At this stage, however, it was unwise to broadcast such concerns too loudly, largely because morale was so greatly enhanced. Adhémar of Le Puy proclaimed a three-day fast, ordered the women out of the camp, and banned gambling and swearing in an effort to cleanse further the crusaders’ morality as they prepared for battle.

On June 28, in six contingents, the Christians lined up outside the city for a do-or-die confrontation. The priests put on their finest vestments and prayed to God to rescue them from evil: “So we closed our ranks and, protected by the sign of the cross, marched into battle.”45 By this time, after two years on campaign, the remaining knights were a tough, battle-hardened force; a loose analogy from the modern day might be a tour or competition in which an international sports team draws players from different club sides. In the course of the tour the players learn how to work with new colleagues to good effect and by the end of the competition they are, in theory, at a peak. The crusaders possessed a cohesion that troops gathered for specific campaigns usually lacked; this was long before the existence of standing armies who could practice tactics on a daily basis. The Muslims began with their customary bombardment of darts and arrows but the crusaders kept their discipline perfectly. It was during this engagement that many of the men saw further evidence of divine support. “There also appeared from the mountains a countless host of men on white horses, whose banners were all white. When our men saw this they did not understand what was happening, or who these men might be, until they realised that this was the succour sent by Christ, and that the leaders were St George, St Mercurius and St Demetrius (this is quite true for many of our men saw it).”46 Given the confusion of battle, the desperation of the troops, the extraordinary pitch of religious fervor—combined with a lack of food and drink—such apparently implausible events formed an integral part of the crusading experience and did much to inspire victory. The Christians executed a series of complex military maneuvers and drove the Muslims from the field.47

Soon the defenders in the citadel realized that all was lost; they surrendered—Antioch was again in Christian hands. The crusaders were exhausted after their victory and settled down to recuperate. As often happens to those weakened by conflict and poor diet, disease struck hard. Thousands of men and women perished, almost certainly of typhoid. The most notable casualty was Adhémar of Le Puy.48 His firmness and diplomatic skills had done much to keep tensions between the lay nobles at a manageable level, but with his demise the papal influence over the campaign waned and the squabbles between the senior warlords escalated.

The discovery of the Holy Lance had an interesting coda. As noted above, some suspected that Peter Bartholomew’s “discovery” had been rigged to enhance the authority of Raymond’s Provençal forces. Rivals voiced their skepticism and Peter, by this time so convinced of his role as a divine agent, offered to be subjected to an ordeal: trial by fire. By the time of the First Crusade this practice was in decline because people increasingly doubted its veracity. The heat of the fire, for example, could be manipulated by the unscrupulous to affect the result; in a more spiritual sense, it was deemed insulting to demand that a miracle from God act in such a peremptory fashion.49 Peter opted for one of the most rigorous forms of the ordeal ever recorded. After four days of fasting and spiritual preparations he was ready for his test. In front of a huge audience he carried the relic down a narrow gap between two walls of blazing olive branches, four feet high and thirteen feet long. Raymond of Aguilers was again an eyewitness and reported that Peter emerged unscathed and shouted “God help us!” He was then borne to the ground by an ecstatic mob, determined to grab a piece of clothing from such a sanctified soul. In the course of this frenzy, Raymond claimed that Peter’s backbone was broken and this caused his death. Others were more doubtful: Fulcher of Chartres wrote that the priest’s skin was scorched and that he was so badly hurt that he perished from his burns: divine judgment on his fraudulent behavior. The cult of the Holy Lance withered, but whatever the truth of its discovery it had done its work.50

In late 1098 the surviving crusaders began to advance south. In November they besieged the town of Ma’arrat an Nu’man. Once again, in the depths of winter, supplies were hard to find, and Fulcher of Chartres reported: “our men suffered from excess hunger. I shudder to say that many of our men, terribly tormented by the madness of starvation, cut pieces of flesh from the buttocks of Saracens lying there dead. These pieces they cooked and ate, savagely devouring the flesh while it was insufficiently roasted.” Such an act has understandably disgusted generations, although a sense that this was done as a sign of the crusaders’ hatred of the Muslims should be uncoupled from the simple, harsh realities of warfare. (In more recent times, for example, cannibalism has been well documented among early settlers in nineteenth-century Tasmania or in the terrible conditions during the Russian Revolution. During the winter of 1921 in the Volga district people refused to bury their dead relatives and insisted on keeping them to eat; bands of cannibals and traders started to hunt children for food, parents killed babies to feed their other children and even doctors took to eating the remains of their patients.51)

It was around this time that tensions became apparent between the rank and file and the leadership. The former, impelled by their desire to reach the Holy Sepulchre, fulfill their vows, and return home, demanded to push on. The nobles, however, were too busy feuding with one another over who should lead the campaign and who might hold past and future conquests. In the end, people power triumphed and pressure from the pilgrims forced the armies to move on, although Bohemond remained behind to consolidate his hold on Antioch. He firmly resisted calls from Alexius to hand the city over to the Greeks, which frustrated the emperor’s design of reestablishing Byzantine influence in northern Syria and generated a tension that would scar relations between the Greeks and the Latin settlers for decades to come.


In the meantime, the main crusading armies moved southward with such speed that many towns were left unconquered in their wake. On June 7, 1099, they finally reached the goal of their three-year journey, Jerusalem, the place marked as the center of the world on most medieval maps and the most important city in the Christian world. Many were moved to tears. Bohemond’s nephew Tancred saw the city from the Mount of Olives and sank to his knees saying that he would willingly give his life for the opportunity to kiss the Holy Sepulchre.52

By now the crusader force had dwindled to around 1,300 knights and 12,500 footmen. They faced unfamiliar opponents because in August 1098 the Fatimid Egyptians had seized the city from their Sunni Muslim rivals. A strong garrison, including four hundred elite warriors, was well prepared: the Eastern Christians who lived in Jerusalem were expelled to avoid possible betrayal, the local wells were poisoned, and the cisterns inside the city filled to the brim. The walls that encircle Jerusalem today date, for the most part, from the Ottoman period, but their foundations, course, and scale are a close match to those of the late eleventh century. They stretch for about two and a half miles in circumference and are complemented by a moat to the north, the natural defenses of the Valley of Jehoshaphat to the east and the Kidron Valley to the south. The crusaders made a loose encirclement of the city but concentrated their troops in two particular sections. Raymond of Saint-Gilles went to the southwestern corner, while the remainder of the men under Godfrey and Tancred went to the northwestern district. Early attacks foundered; the defenses (a double wall to the north) were too high and the crusaders lacked the wood to build ladders. Tancred himself solved the problem. It seems that he was afflicted with terrible diarrhea; he slunk away to a remote spot to seek relief only to discover a cave filled with beams of timber—a truly divine intervention. The arrival of more wood, plus tools and nails from a Genoese supply ship, was a further boost. The crusaders spent the next few weeks engaged in the construction of two mighty siege towers, several catapults, and a ram. At the height of summer, water supply remained a problem; some were forced to travel six miles to find refreshment and even then it was said to have been filled with leeches. Meanwhile the men labored hard. Pride of place went to the two huge towers, each about fifty feet tall and built on wheeled platforms to enable them to move up to the city walls. Animal hides and branches provided a level of protection for the men inside. A mighty battering ram was another essential weapon, a huge beam tipped with a lethal metal head designed to smash through the lower walls. Those within the city prepared their own defenses: catapults were set up and parts of the fortifications disappeared under a mattress-type padding to try to absorb the impact of crusader artillery.

As the struggle approached its climax, the level of antipathy between the Christians and the Muslims intensified. An Egyptian spy was captured and then catapulted back toward his coreligionists; the defenders responded by spitting and urinating on crosses. The crusaders decided to fortify themselves spiritually as well. One man had a vision of the dead papal legate, Adhémar of Le Puy, who advised the holy warriors to stage a special penitential procession to the Mount of Olives, the place where Christ ascended into heaven. Afraid to ignore the direction of such a respected figure, the leadership decided to follow this instruction. Barefoot and bearing crosses and relics, the clergy headed a snake of crusaders down the Valley of Jehoshaphat and then up to the sacred place, praying, chanting, and invoking God’s favor.53

By now, with food and water in short supply and the prospect of Egyptian reinforcements imminent, religious devotion became colored with the growing need for a quick breakthrough. Raymond’s tower exerted pressure to the southwest and kept large numbers of defenders occupied. On the other hand, the siege tower to the northwest of the city seemed to be achieving very little. Muslim resistance was strong and the defenders had prudently gathered where the crusaders posed their greatest threat. On the night of July 13, however, Godfrey showed his military genius; he had seen another area of the wall that was weaker, less well defended, and offered a flatter approach for the siege tower. The duke ordered his siege machine to be broken up into its constituent parts and then, under cover of darkness, laboriously moved over a mile to the east and reassembled.

A little detective work can reconcile eyewitness descriptions with the present-day topography to identify a short stretch (sixty meters) of fortifications, between the second tower east of Herod’s Gate and the next larger salient beyond it. Today, opposite the Rockefeller Museum, it is possible to stand among the overgrown thorn bushes in the ditch and to look up at the walls above. Notwithstanding the grind of modern traffic passing close by it is a deeply sobering experience to pause in the shadows at the foot of these fortifications and to imagine the brutal, desperate struggle that took place on the very same spot on July 14 and 15, 1099.

Godfrey’s decision to change the focus of the attack was an inspired one as well as a remarkable physical feat. At dawn, the crusaders launched their onslaught, desperate to capitalize on their advantage. First of all, they brought a huge battering ram to bear on the outer wall in order to create a breach for the tower. An eyewitness described the intensity of the fighting around it: “The hellish din of battle broke loose; from all parts stones . . . flew through the air, and arrows pelted like rain. But God’s servants, resolute in their faith, regardless of the outcome of death or immediate vengeance on the pagans, endured this patiently. . . . Defenders rained down upon the Christians stones, arrows, flaming wood and straw, and threw mallets of wood wrapped with ignited pitch, wax, sulphur, tow and rags on the machines. The deeds performed in the day-long battle were so marvellous that we doubt that history recorded any greater.”54 After hours of fighting, the crusaders’ muscle power thrust the metal-tipped monster through the stonework to make the first breach. As the day ended they were now poised for the final assault; the battle for Jerusalem was at a pivotal juncture; as one contemporary wrote: “With the coming of night, fear settled on the two groups . . . alertness, labour and sleepless anxiety prevailed in both camps, and on our side confident hope, on theirs, gnawing dismay.”55

At daybreak, the struggle began again. Godfrey himself commanded the battle from inside the great siege tower and the unwieldy device was heaved through a lethal storm of rocks and flames to within a few feet of the curtain wall. One stone decapitated a man who stood next to the duke, but Godfrey fought on undaunted. The tower was about six feet above the defenses and this differential proved crucial because the men on the top story could pin down the defenders. The Muslims even deployed a form of Greek fire—a naphtha-based substance that could not be extinguished by water. Fortunately local Christians had warned the crusaders about this and a store of vinegar was on hand to quell the flames. Nonetheless, the Muslims’ stubborn resistance started to sap both the morale and the energy of the Christians; many of their siege weapons had been shattered and they had taken heavy casualties. Around midday, however, a crusader archer began to shoot blazing arrows into the Saracens opposite the siege tower. The fire raged with particular intensity—perhaps it had ignited some of the Muslims’ own flammable weapons—and the defenders had to flee from the walls. Here was the crusaders’ opportunity: hurriedly, Godfrey ordered the siege tower’s drawbridge to be lowered and it swung onto the walls. Two brothers, Ludolf and Englebert of Tournai, are named as the first men to leap onto the ramparts. With this breach made, ladders were laid against the walls and Godfrey’s men poured into the north of the city.56 Raymond had made little headway to the southwest but as news of the breakthrough spread, Muslim resistance quickly collapsed.

The combined tensions of the three-year march, the terrible suffering at the siege of Antioch, and the fierce fight outside Jerusalem, compounded by their uncompromising religious fervor, contributed to the crusaders unleashing savagery and slaughter on an appalling scale. They had liberated the holy city, now they sought to purge it of unbelievers. “Some of the pagans were mercifully beheaded, others pierced by arrows plunged from towers, and yet others, tortured for a long time, were burned to death in searing flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet lay in the houses and streets, and indeed there was a running to and fro of men and knights over the corpses.”57 A group of Muslims on the roof of the Temple of Solomon surrendered, only to be killed soon afterward. Women and children were not spared in this brutal orgy of destruction. The crusaders “seized infants by the soles of their feet from their mothers’ laps or their cradles and dashed them against walls or broke their necks; they were slaughtering some with weapons [others] with stones; they were sparing absolutely no gentile of any place or kind.”58 The horror of these events has left an indelible stain on Muslim–Christian relations down the centuries.

The crusaders also seized huge amounts of booty: gold, silver, precious stones, and horses. Men took property for themselves; if a crusader entered and stayed in a house, he was entitled to keep it. Some even slit open the stomachs of Muslims they suspected had swallowed valuables in an attempt to conceal them from the crusaders. “No one has ever seen or heard of such a slaughter of the pagans, for they were burned on pyres like pyramids,” an eyewitness reported.59 Yet, amid this almost incomprehensible violence, the crusaders’ thoughts turned to devotion. One later writer vividly evoked this combination of religious zeal and extreme brutality, a blend that does not sit well with our own sensibilities:

It was impossible to look on the vast numbers of the slain without horror; everywhere lay the fragments of human bodies. Still more dreadful was it to gaze upon the victors themselves, dripping with blood from head to foot. . . . Then, clad in fresh garments with clean hands and bare feet, in humility they began to make the rounds of the venerable places which the Saviour had deigned to sanctify and make glorious with His bodily presence . . . with particular veneration they approached the church of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord. . . . It was a sour ce of spiritual joy to witness the pious devotion . . . with which the pilgrims drew near to the holy places, the exultation of heart and happiness of spirit with which they kissed the memorials of the Lord’s sojourn on earth.60

Three weeks later, at the Battle of Ascalon, the crusaders defeated a large Egyptian army to seal the campaign’s success; the Holy Land was in Christian hands. The conquest of Jerusalem was an astonishing achievement: “The Lord has certainly renewed His miracles of old” was one analysis.61 The crusaders seized the spoils of war—they had, after all, incurred huge expenses in the course of their journey, and many needed money to return home. For those who had driven themselves on to Jerusalem, there is little doubt that religious motives were at the heart of their experience: “The children of the Apostles freed the city for God and the Fathers,” as one contemporary stated.62 Their growing military cohesion and the divisions within the Muslim world both contributed to their victory, but piety was their ultimate motive. It is one of history’s ironies, however, that Pope Urban did not live to learn of the crusade’s success: he died in July 1099.

Godfrey’s actions during the siege, along with Raymond’s abrasive personality, led to the former being elected to rule this new land. Such was Godfrey’s piety, however, that he declined a crown, not wishing to be a king in the land of the Lord; instead he took the more modest title Advocate of the Holy Sepulchre.63 In the autumn of 1099 many crusaders prepared to leave for the West, exhausted but exultant. These men returned as heroes, celebrated in verse and chronicles and feted for their achievements: models for future generations to emulate.64 Perhaps only three hundred knights remained in the nascent Christian state of Jerusalem—a figure that entirely demolishes the old charge that most crusaders were simply in search of new lands; for the majority at least, their dearest wish was a safe voyage back to their families and loved ones. In the Muslim world there was, in some quarters at least, shock and outrage at these events. Yet neither the caliph, nor the Seljuk sultan, dispatched an army to take on the new arrivals. Such neglect was vital to the Frankish settlers because it allowed them a breathing space to consolidate their conquest and to establish Catholic rule in the Holy Land and a presence that would endure for almost two hundred years.

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