Post-classical history


The Consequences of the First Crusade

THE PARTICIPANTS IN the expedition to Jerusalem were feted when they returned home. News of their deeds was met with wild celebration. Songs about the Crusaders’ successes and the capture of Jerusalem were composed in central France, forming the basis of the epic song cycles of the First Crusade, such as the Chanson d’Antioche and the Chanson de Jerusalem.1 The exploits of the Crusaders were also commemorated in a rash of new religious endowments and foundations in western Europe made by those who had returned from Jerusalem. Robert of Flanders refounded a monastery close to Bruges, dedicating it to St Andrew in thanks for the saint’s help at Antioch in 1098 and his role in finding the Holy Lance.2 Crusaders brought countless relics with them back from Jerusalem, physical evidence not just of the success of the campaign, but of a new direct link between the churches and monasteries of Europe and the Holy Land.3

The returning Crusaders maximised the political capital gained from their exploits. Fulk V of Anjou, Robert of Flanders and Rainold of Château-Gontier were just three of those who adopted the epithet ‘Jerosolimitanus’ when signing acts and charters after their return from the Holy City.4Others sought to benefit vicariously from the kudos of the returning knights. In the first years of the new century, Philip I of France married off four of his children to prominent Crusaders or to the daughters of leading figures who had fought their way to Jerusalem. His heir, the future Louis VI, was married to the daughter of Guy of Rochefort, who took part and evidently did well in the expedition of 1101;5 another of the king’s sons, Philip, Count of Mantes, married the daughter of Guy of Trousseau – whose career in the east was rather undistinguished, to put it mildly.6

Not everyone had done well from the expedition. Stephen of Blois and Hugh of Vermandois had both left the western force to convey news to the emperor Alexios before and after the capture of Antioch respectively; neither rejoined the Crusader army, choosing instead to head home. In order to fulfil their vows to reach Jerusalem, both men set off again, taking part in the ill-fated campaign of 1101, yet they both died without reaching their destination. While Hugh was celebrated as an excellent soldier who died a martyr,7Stephen of Blois was lampooned in the popular songs about the Crusade, held up as a traitor and a buffoon.8

Many Crusaders did not make it home. Although it is difficult to assess the numbers of casualties during the expedition, it is clear that a substantial proportion of those who set out died on the way to Jerusalem, whether victims of disease or killed in battle; including deserters, perhaps as many as three-quarters never made it to the final destination.9 For those left behind, not knowing the fate of their loved ones proved a heavy burden. The wife of Baldwin of Hainault, for example, was devastated to hear that her husband had disappeared after being sent to the emperor together with Hugh of Vermandois in 1098. While there were reports that he had been killed, there was also news that he had been captured and was alive. Having exhausted all avenues of investigation and refusing to give up hope, Ida set out for the Holy Land herself to look for her husband. This was just one of many stories of loss during that time.10

Of those who did return, it was Bohemond who stood out above all. His exploits during the Crusade, in particular his courage in battle, marked him out as the idol of the campaign. Reports of his bravery and resolve when facing the armies of Kilidj Arslan, Duqaq, Ridwan and Kerbogha had made him a legend before he even reached the shores of Italy. There were many exotic stories about his exploits in the aftermath of the fall of Antioch and Jerusalem – his captivity at the hands of the Danishmenids and his secret communications with his fellow Crusaders from prison; his wooing of his captor’s daughter to secure his own release;11 or the tale that the Turks referred to him as the ‘little god of the Christians’.12

The cult that was built up around Bohemond and his adventures immediately after the Crusade owed much to the wide circulation of the Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolimitanorum – ‘The deeds of the Franks and the others who reached Jerusalem’. Ostensibly written by a member of the expedition from southern Italy who travelled east in 1096 before joining the contingent of Raymond of Toulouse at Antioch, it became wildly popular in the early twelfth century. Its central character was Bohemond.13

By the time that the Norman arrived back in Europe at the end of 1105, he was not just a member of the successful expedition; he was its undisputed hero. He was more prominent than any of the other leaders, his exploits commemorated in more detail and with greater resonance than those of his peers. There was some irony in the fact that Bohemond had not been present at the fall of Jerusalem, refusing to move from Antioch for fear of losing control of the city. Indeed, he had only completed his Crusade vow to reach Jerusalem in the winter of 1099, making sure that he travelled south with Baldwin of Bouillon to prevent Alexios’ principal client making a move on Antioch in his absence.14 But this did nothing to dim his star.

On his arrival in Italy, Bohemond was received by Urban’s successor, Pope Paschal II. In a letter to the Pope he referred to himself as ‘prince of Antioch’, using this high title regularly after his return home.15 Still unmarried, Bohemond was seen as the best catch in Europe, the epitome of the early medieval knight: handsome, brave, adventurous and selfless.

Eligible heiresses were soon being lined up for him to choose from. One who should not have been included was Constance of France, daughter of King Philip I, who was already engaged to Hugh of Troyes, Count of Champagne. Yet such was Bohemond’s cachet that Constance speedily abandoned her fiancé, who was promptly declared to have been an unsuitable match – though what he had done to deserve such a slur was unclear.16 Having not taken part in the expedition himself, Constance’s father was more than happy to bask in the reflected glory of the famed Crusader and eagerly gave his blessing to the match.

Bohemond did not need to think twice about marrying the most powerful woman of her generation, whose grandparents included the king of France, a princess of Kiev, and the counts of Holland and of Saxony. In the spring of 1106, a lavish ceremony took place in Chartres cathedral, attended by the great and the good of France, including men who had fought alongside Bohemond in Asia Minor and Syria – and many more who wished they had.17

Bohemond was becoming unstoppable. Before the wedding, he had begun recruiting men for his new expedition to the east. He obtained a papal blessing for his campaign, and was given the banner of St Peter to carry into battle as well as a legate to help gather further support.18 According to one author, the Pope was prompted to give his backing to Bohemond’s campaign against Byzantium after hearing what a disaffected legate to the east had to say about Alexios.19 More plausible, however, is that Paschal II did not sanction an all-out assault on the Byzantine Empire at all, but what seemed to be a major initiative to support the Holy Land – at least to start with. The Pope does not appear to have harboured animosity towards the Greek church, to Byzantium or to Alexios, and the assistance he provided should be seen in this light.20

Bohemond’s ambitions, conversely, were unambiguous as his call to arms accelerated. Travelling extensively over the course of 1105–6, he promised those willing to follow him that they would take part in victories no less spectacular than those at Nicaea, Antioch and Jerusalem. His first targets: Dyrrakhion and then Constantinople.21 With his new royal connections to help him, he gathered a substantial force in southern Italy in 1107 and prepared to launch his attack on Byzantium’s western flank.

Men flocked to join Bohemond from all four corners of the world, wrote Orderic Vitalis, eager not only to deprive Alexios of his empire but to kill him too.22 Bohemond was an effective propagandist against Alexios, regaling spellbound church congregations with stories of his exploits, urging his listeners to take the Cross and set out for Jerusalem – but attacking the emperor of Constantinople first.23 In a letter sent to the Pope, Bohemond crudely underlined a long list of supposed heresies perpetrated by the Orthodox Church to justify action against fellow Christians.24

Yet in England Bohemond’s appeals fell on stony ground. Having informed King Henry I that he wished to cross the Channel to look for support, he was bluntly told that he was not welcome. The king replied simply that it was wintertime and that the crossing would be too rough for the Norman.25 It may be that Henry I was unwilling to share his military resources with Bohemond at a time when the king of England had extensive designs of his own, namely in Normandy. But the king might have had other reasons for refusing to let Bohemond into England. At some point in the early twelfth century, he received an embassy from Constantinople led by a certain Ulfricus who brought precious gifts from Alexios, which are likely to have included an arm of St John Chrysostom that was later housed in Abingdon. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that the emperor had been looking for allies to neutralise Bohemond’s activities.26 Certainly, there is other evidence that Alexios continued to cultivate important relationships in western Europe in the aftermath of the Crusade.27

Despite the enthusiasm generated by Bohemond’s call to arms, his assault on Byzantium was an abject failure. Setting out in October 1107, Bohemond first moved on Epirus in the south-western Balkans, a region Alexios had already had to defend twice before during his reign. Replicating the tactics that had devastated Robert Guiscard’s force in 1084–5, the emperor made alliances with Italian city-states, cutting western supply lines back to Italy and imposing an effective land blockade. The noose was then tightened remorselessly. Having set off with grandiose plans to dispose of Alexios, seize Constantinople and then march east to join up with Tancred at Antioch, Bohemond found himself ground into the dust. With his men dying from disease and hunger, he eventually had no other choice than to sue for peace. At a humiliating meeting at Diabolis (or Devol), in modern Albania, he accepted Alexios’ terms, which are recorded in full in the Alexiad.

Bohemond was forced to recognise that he had made an agreement with the emperor when he passed through Constantinople in 1097, though he also stated that this had been violated as a result of ‘certain unexpected events’. He admitted that his attack on Byzantium broke the terms of the agreement, but while he had betrayed Alexios, this was the result of temporary insanity. He stated that he had finally regained his senses.28

Bohemond now paid new homage: he once again formally became the liegeman not only of Alexios but also of his son and heir, the young prince John Komnenos. He was to defend their lives with honour and resolution, his promise to do so set solid ‘like a statue hammered out of iron’. ‘Whatever happens’, he promised, ‘I will not violate this; nor shall there be any reason or method, manifest or obscure, that shall make me appear to be a transgressor of the articles of this present covenant.’29

The treaty agreed at Diabolis went on to delineate which provinces, towns and villages belonged to the Byzantine Empire, and over which it claimed jurisdiction. The military district of Tarsos, and the whole of the district of Cilicia between the rivers Kydnos and Hermon were subject to the emperor; Laodikeia and the surrounding area was identified as Byzantine, as were Aleppo and other towns in northern Syria and in the Caucasus.30 The purpose of listing these regions was to establish clearly which areas were subject to Alexios’ authority – either de facto, or de jure. This went beyond redrawing the boundaries of land that had been subject to imperial authority before the First Crusade, for in many cases, notably in Cilicia, the Byzantine military had also had to resist and repel forces led by Bohemond and Tancred that had taken control of territories recovered from the Turks. Bohemond agreed to restore possessions to the empire, and to wage relentless war on the emperor’s enemies and rivals – including his nephew Tancred – until they relinquished towns that rightfully belonged to Byzantium.31

The question of Antioch, the jewel of the Byzantine east, was finally resolved, with Bohemond agreeing to cede it to the empire. The Norman was to retain a life interest in the city, holding it as an imperial governor on behalf of Alexios until his death, whereupon it would pass ‘to the empire of New Rome, the Queen of Cities, Constantinople’. However, the emperor retained the right to claim it before this point, should Bohemond fall short in any way of his obligations as ‘servant and liegeman’.32 It was also agreed that Antioch was to have an Orthodox patriarch and that the city would follow the Greek rite; this was to be binding in perpetuity.33 This reversed the appointment of a western cleric following the expulsion of John the Oxite in 1100, when Bohemond had set about cementing his control of the city.34

While Tancred continued to cause trouble in the east – he had yet again moved into Cilicia when Byzantine troops were recalled from the region in 1107 – Alexios rewarded Bohemond with the high title of sebastos and a fat annual salary, and appointed him formally as Antioch’s governor. This was not a concession; Alexios knew that his best chance of regaining Antioch lay in Bohemond doing so as his agent.35

All these terms were accepted by the Norman, who gave a further, sweeping commitment to the emperor: ‘I will abide by all the undertakings I have given … and in no way whatsoever will I breach my oath, break my promises or evade my responsibilities. In thought and deed, I, and all my men, will do everything in my power to help and honour the empire of the Romans.’36 The treaty was concluded with Bohemond swearing to honour the terms in the name of Christ, while placing his hand on the Holy Gospels and in the presence of some of the most important relics in Christendom. These included the Cross of Christ, the crown of thorns and, significantly, the spear that pierced Jesus on the Cross – a tacit admission that the lance recovered so conveniently in Antioch in 1098 was a fake.37

This was a crushing victory for Alexios. The legitimacy of his claims had been established incontrovertibly. But it was Antioch, ‘the jewel of Asia Minor’, that provided the crowning glory. For the knights of the First Crusade, the culmination of the expedition came with the capture of Jerusalem in 1099. For Emperor Alexios, it came nine years later with the Treaty of Diabolis. The Crusader army had helped Byzantium to recover Nicaea and the coast of Asia Minor. But the agreement reached with Bohemond marked the point at which the emperor’s appeals for help from the west were finally resolved – it vindicated his policies, as well as his reign.

In practice, however, Alexios’ success looked less assured. His reputation in the west had been severely damaged in the wake of the expedition to Jerusalem. Doubtless there were many Crusaders who still respected the emperor – and the lavish reception given to Robert of Flanders and Robert of Normandy as they passed through Constantinople on their way home from Jerusalem was designed to leave them with a favourable impression of Byzantium.38 Alexios had also taken care to ransom knights captured by the Muslims, and to treat survivors of the doomed 1101 expedition with great generosity.39 However, the two earliest written accounts of the Crusade both painted an overwhelmingly negative picture of the emperor.

The Gesta Francorum was particularly poisonous in its portrayal of Alexios. The emperor, wrote its author, rejoiced when he learnt that Peter the Hermit and his force had been utterly smashed at Xerigordos.40 He was wretched and wicked, ordering his men to kill Crusaders whenever they had the chance.41 Alexios was ‘troubled in mind and fairly seething with rage, and planned how to entrap these Christian knights by cunning and fraud; but by God’s grace, neither he nor his men found place or time to harm them’.42 The emperor was a fool and a knave. At Nicaea, he ensured that Turks were spared and brought to Constantinople so they could be briefed and sent back to fight against the western knights. At every step of the way, Alexios had sought to hinder the expedition to Jerusalem.43

The account of Raymond of Aguilers, who travelled as part of the contingent of Raymond of Toulouse, also did not spare the emperor. Alexios, he wrote, bribed agents to deliver rosy reports about Constantinople as the army marched towards the capital on their way east; his words of friendship were without meaning or substance.44 In fact, the emperor was an out-and-out liar, declared Raymond. He made promises at Nicaea about founding a hospice for needy Franks and giving lavish rewards to the Crusaders. ‘The Franks trusted these sincere words and prepared for surrender. But once in possession of Nicaea, Alexios afforded the army such an example of gratitude that as long as he might live, people would ever revile him and call him a traitor.’45 Central to this was the sense that the emperor had sent the Crusaders into Asia Minor and towards Antioch; according to Raymond, Alexios had knowingly sent the westerners to their doom.46

These savage attacks on Alexios need to be understood in the context of the oaths that the emperor had demanded in Constantinople in 1096–7, and serve to explain why the Crusaders kept possession of cities like Antioch that should have reverted to Byzantium. The first historians of the Crusade produced such fiercely negative portrayals of the emperor to justify Bohemond’s decision to turn his back on the solemn commitments given to Alexios. This was because the emperor had not fulfilled his promises: Alexios’ betrayals – not the Crusaders’ – rendered the oaths void. According to the Gesta Francorum, the emperor swore to protect the knights and to keep them supplied by land and sea; Alexios also promised to accompany the expedition, bringing soldiers and a fleet with him.47 His failure to appear at Antioch during or after the siege meant that the oaths sworn by the Crusaders were no longer valid.48

The argument was forcefully made, but the accusations were dubious. Alexios had kept the Crusaders adequately supplied on their way to Constantinople and oversaw an effective system of provisioning at Kibotos and during the assault on Nicaea. The westerners crossed Asia Minor without complaint about inadequate supplies, which suggests that provisioning had been carefully planned and well executed. When the army arrived at Antioch in the autumn of 1098, measures had been put in place by the Byzantines to support a lengthy siege; this was why Anselm of Ribemont could write home reporting that stocks of corn, wine, oil and other goods were larger than could be imagined.49

That supplies ran short in the winter of 1097–8 was unfortunate; but it was hardly surprising given how hard it was to gather foodstuffs during the winter, and the difficulty of getting provisions through to Antioch across challenging terrain. And in any event, it was not clear how much Alexios was to blame for the hardship that ensued. In a letter Stephen of Blois wrote to his wife from Antioch in March 1098 – at a time when conditions in the Crusader camp were at their worst – he said nothing about the emperor’s failings.50

On the contrary, provisions clearly continued to reach the Crusaders from Cyprus and Laodikeia, even after Tatikios’ departure from the camp. It was Alexios presumably also behind the food and other materials being sent to the westerners by local commanders in Cilicia and by the Greek monks of the Black Mountain monastery in northern Syria, an institution that historically had close connections with Constantinople.51 And as one Crusade historian freely admits, Alexios’ heralds continued to urge the local population to supply the Crusaders with grain by land and sea.52 After Antioch fell, Byzantine ships carried on bringing supplies to the western armies, attempting to do so, for instance, during the siege of Arqa in 1099.53

Alexios certainly thought that he kept his part of the bargain in supporting the knights on the expedition. In a reply to a letter by the abbot of Montecassino, sent in June 1098 – just before he received reports of how dire the situation at Antioch had become – the emperor wrote: ‘I implore you earnestly to provide aid to the army of the Franks, your most thoughtful letter states. Let your Venerable Holiness be assured on that score, for my empire has been spread over them and will assist and advise them on all matters; indeed I have already helped them to the best of my ability, not as a friend or a relative, but as a father … By God’s grace, they continue to prosper in the service in which they have begun, and they will continue to prosper as long as good purpose leads them on.’54

There is other evidence that the Crusaders were satisfied with their progress around this time. In his letter to Manasses, archbishop of Rheims, in February 1098, Anselm of Ribemont made light of the problems facing the expedition, concentrating instead on the fact that the passage across Asia Minor up to Antioch had met with no obstacles. Two hundred towns and fortress had been recovered by the Christians, which Anselm thought to be a considerable achievement. ‘Let the Mother Church of the west’, he concluded, ‘rejoice that she has produced men capable of bringing such a glorious reputation to her and such marvellous aid to the Eastern Church.’55 In short, there were many in the Crusader army who felt that the expedition progressed successfully in the first part of 1098, and had no grievance or complaint with Alexios. Indeed, the reluctance of the other Crusader leaders to lend support to Bohemond as he agitated for control of Antioch shows that they did not consider the emperor to have breached his obligations.

Quite the opposite, in fact: messages were sent repeatedly from Antioch to Alexios to ask for advice and direction. This was why Stephen of Blois was dispatched just before Antioch was captured; Hugh of Vermandois was sent not long afterwards. Even the hostile Gesta Francorum noted that the message Hugh took to Alexios was unequivocal: Godfrey of Bouillon, Raymond of Toulouse, Bohemond, Robert of Normandy, Robert of Flanders and all the other knights wanted the emperor to come and take possession of Antioch. This is clear evidence that the oaths given to the emperor were considered intact even after the city’s fall.56

It seems it was only after the Crusaders began to argue amongst themselves that attitudes towards Alexios began to harden. By the autumn of 1098, he had become a lightning rod for criticism, a convenient cipher for the squabbles and rival ambitions amongst the Crusade leadership. In September, a letter was sent to the Pope by the most prominent knights taking part in the expedition to report on the terrible difficulties of the previous two years. Jesus Christ had delivered the Crusaders from the Turks who had attacked them from all corners, the letter explained. Nicaea had been taken and, at great cost to the western army, Antioch had also been captured. The knights now begged the Pope to join the Crusade himself, take personal control of the expedition, and finish what he had started.57

The letter-writers laid out a clear reason for their appeal to the Pope: Alexios had failed the Crusade. They claimed that the emperor had not just neglected to help God’s soldiers, but had actively worked against them: ‘he has placed whatever obstacle he could in our way’.58 Fulcher of Chartres, who reproduced a version of this letter in his chronicle, chose not to include these final comments, feeling them to be unfair and unjustified.59 There is no doubt that by late 1098 a concerted effort was under way to taint the emperor Alexios as the Crusade unravelled after the capture of Antioch.

The main line of attack on the Byzantine ruler now was his failure to come to the city to take control of the situation as the leading Crusaders squabbled among themselves. Hence it was the emperor, and not the western knights, who had broken the bonds made in Constantinople. But again, there was questionable substance to this claim. It was by no means clear that Alexios needed to come in person – nor indeed that his failure to do so constituted a breach of the agreement. Why could the city not be handed to one of his representatives, as had been the case at Nicaea and at many other towns in Asia Minor?

In addition, eyewitnesses to the oath-taking ceremonies in Constantinople were clear that Alexios did not give specific guarantees about joining the expedition. On the contrary, as Raymond of Aguilers set out, the emperor stated categorically in the imperial capital that he would not be able to take part in the campaign because of the variety of problems he had to contend with close to home.60

The Crusaders, in other words, were on shaky ground – and it seems that Raymond of Aguilers for one was aware of it. The chronicler avoided discussing the oaths altogether: ‘Shall I write of the most fraudulent and abominable treachery of the emperor’s counsel? Let anyone who wants to know about this find out from someone else.’61

As we have seen, Bohemond, keen to hold Antioch for himself, had remained impervious to the wishes of the other leaders and the rank and file who wanted to move on Jerusalem. When the Crusaders met in the Basilica of St Peter in Antioch to try to reach a compromise, Raymond of Toulouse calmly dismissed accusations that the commitments given to Alexios were void, repeating the words of the oaths that had been given to the emperor.62 He reminded everyone of what had been said: ‘We swore upon the Cross of the Lord, the crown of thorns and many holy relics that we would not hold without the consent of the emperor any city or castle in his dominion.’63

It is tempting to see the arguments about the oaths given to Alexios as turning exclusively on definitions of fealty and on the moral rectitude of those like Raymond, who considered themselves to be bound by their vows, and those like Bohemond, who did not. While clearly there were important legal implications to what had been agreed with the emperor, there were also practical issues underpinning the arguments between the Crusade leaders themselves. The positioning of the various leaders relative to each other was of course a factor in the refusal of the Count of Toulouse to let Bohemond have free rein to take Antioch for himself; it was not simply that the former wanted to respect the oaths given to Alexios, but also that he did not want to countenance one of his peers – and rivals – gaining an undue upper hand. In that respect, the oaths given to the emperor were a useful shield to hide behind – offering Raymond the chance to attack Bohemond while retaining the high ground.

From the Byzantine perspective too, the practical reality of the situation in Antioch and beyond was complex and subtle, and required a more nuanced approach than recourse to high-level notions of what exactly bonds of fealty meant. There can be no doubt that Alexios knew exactly what he was doing when he insisted on commitments being given to him in a format and manner that he knew would be understood by the principal leaders of the Crusade. But his main priority, at least in 1096 and early 1097, was ensuring that the passage of the expedition was trouble-free as it passed Constantinople at a time when the emperor’s hold on power was precarious. As it happened, the promises he extracted became very useful as time went on, offering Alexios the opportunity to claim that he had been wronged by individual leaders and by the Crusade as a whole.

But within this mix of accusation and counter-accusation, and what would seem to be rather arcane arguments about agreements being void (or otherwise), it became important for Bohemond to be able to demonstrate simply and clearly just how he came to hold Antioch in the face of claims from Byzantium and indeed from some Crusaders too that he had no right to do so. It was this political imperative that underpinned attitudes towards the emperor which circulated through Europe at the start of the twelfth century. Thus, while some effort was made by chroniclers writing in the early twelfth century to demonsrate that Alexios had not fulfilled his commitments to the expedition’s leaders, a great deal more went into mounting a full-scale character assassination of the emperor Alexios.

The real damage to the emperor’s reputation was not done by the Gesta Francorum and by the chronicle of Raymond of Aguilers, but by a string of accounts composed around the time that Bohemond began to recruit men for the expedition against Byzantium, after his return to Italy at the end of 1104. Histories of the Crusade written by Robert the Monk, Baldric of Dol and Guibert of Nogent in or soon after 1107 all made extensive use of the Gesta Francorum, faithfully repeating the negative portrayal of the emperor. The delight Alexios was purported to have felt at the massacre of the People’s Crusade in 1096 was dutifully reported by all three.64 Paraphrasing the Gesta, they stated coldly that the emperor did not advance to Antioch because he was a coward.65

Yet these authors went further than simply repeating and paraphrasing the Gesta, for they all elaborated on Alexios’ supposed shortcomings and faults. Guibert of Nogent was especially creative. The emperor’s mother, he wrote, was a sorceress with a firm command of the dark arts. Alexios, furthermore, was so iniquitous that he issued a proclamation by which families with more than one daughter had to give one girl up to be a prostitute; money raised from the sale of her services helped fund the imperial treasuries. He ordered families with more than one son to offer one up for castration. With so many young men deprived of their virility, little wonder Alexios had needed help from the west, wrote Guibert.66

Such outlandish charges were gleefully circulated and added to by historians writing in the twelfth century and later. One such history stated that Alexios was only able to defeat Robert Guiscard in 1085 because he told the Norman’s wife that he would marry her if she poisoned her husband, which she duly did.67 This was embroidered by others, like Roger of Hoveden, who stated that Alexios did indeed marry Sickelgaita, only to burn her alive after having her crowned as his empress.68

The hostility towards Alexios intensified rapidly in the early twelfth century. He was a man, said William of Malmesbury, who was ‘better known for treachery and his cunning than for honest dealing’.69 William of Tyre, writing several decades later, summed up how the emperor was seen in the Latin East. Alexios could not be trusted, wrote the archbishop; he was ‘like a scorpion; for while you have nothing to fear from its face, you do well to avoid injury from its tail’.70

This view was perpetuated over the centuries. In the eighteenth century, Edward Gibbon, for example, followed the medieval caricature closely. ‘I should compare the emperor Alexius’, he wrote, ‘to the jackal, who is said to follow the steps of and devour the leavings of the lion.’ Even the empress Eirene, he claimed, thought little of her husband, sharing the opinions of others. After the emperor died, therefore, she insisted that an epitaph be inscribed on Alexios’ tomb saying: ‘You die, as you lived – an HYPOCRITE.’71

The reputation of the emperor Alexios has never recovered and his vilification has had a wider impact in shaping interpretations of the First Crusade. The emperor has been barely visible in accounts of the expedition to Jerusalem, particularly of its origins, because he was airbrushed from history in the wake of the disputes at Antioch. Deliberately set to one side by Latin historians at the time, Alexios has remained on the periphery ever since – merely an incidental player in the campaign.

If anything, Alexios’ success at Diabolis in 1108 only served to reinforce this image, as western historians strove to undermine his claims as to what were now seen as legitimate Crusader possessions – above all Antioch. As it happened, Bohemond never returned to the city to take up his new ‘appointment’, which meant that imperial authority over Antioch remained notional. Envoys sent by the emperor to Tancred to enforce the terms reached at Diabolis were given short thrift; the Norman refused to accept the emperor’s demands, assuring his ambassadors that he would never release his grip on Antioch even if his adversaries came at him with hands of fire.72

When Bohemond died in 1111 possession of Antioch should have passed to Byzantium, as set out in the treaty. But his death came at an inopportune moment for the emperor, for as long as Bohemond was alive there was hope that he would exert influence over Tancred. Now Alexios had little opportunity to make political capital out of the terms reached with Bohemond – or indeed use the resulting settlement as a corrective to the inflammatory statements made in the early Crusade chronicles.

Instead of becoming known as a traitor, Bohemond was commemorated in a quite different fashion. His popularity in the west was little affected by the last, disastrous attack on Epirus, the settlement he reached with the emperor little known outside Byzantium. In the words of Albert of Aachen, who wrote a decade after his death, he was: ‘Bohemond, magnificent prince of Antioch, appointed by God’.73 Inscriptions on the cupola of the cathedral of Canosa in southern Italy where he was buried likewise preserve a rather more positive memory of Bohemond than justified by the treaty of Diabolis:

The magnanimous prince of Syria lies under this roof;

No better man than he will be born again in the universe.

Greece was conquered four times, while the greater part of the world

Knew for a long time the genius and strength of Bohemond.

He conquered columns of thousands with a battle line of tens because of his virtue, as the city of Antioch knows so well.

How noble Bohemond was, say inscriptions above the bronze doors at the southern end of the church. He conquered Byzantium and protected Syria from its enemies. He could not be called a god; but he was certainly more than a normal man. Pray for the mighty Bohemond as you enter the church, it goes on, that this great soldier is happy in heaven.74

To say that Bohemond defeated Byzantium four times was stretching things. All three of the assaults on Epirus that the Norman took part in – in 1081–3, 1084–5 and 1107–8 – had ended in failure, while the Crusade hardly represented a victory for Bohemond over the empire – especially in the wake of his ignominious surrender at Diabolis. But the inscriptions at Canosa are by no means the only evidence of elasticity with the truth from this period. One poem produced by a monk from the Loire region in France presented Bohemond’s last invasion of the empire as a great success. The hero of Antioch not only took on the emperor Alexios, who fought like a cornered boar, but scattered the imperial armies sent against him. The campaign concluded not in a crushing Byzantine victory, but quite the opposite: a peace treaty extended by Bohemond and readily agreed to by the emperor who was only too pleased to recognise the Norman’s superiority. It was Alexios, according to this poem, who swore an oath to Bohemond, and not the other way round.75 It appears that memory and reality were two different things when it came to Bohemond – and indeed to the emperor Alexios.76

In fact, it was not just these two leading characters whose roles and reputations were recast in the years that followed the First Crusade. Perhaps more surprisingly, so was the position of the Pope. The contribution made by Urban II was central and decisive when it came to laying the foundations for the campaign to Jerusalem. His galvanisation of the knighthood of Europe was instrumental and proved enormously effective in inspiring tens of thousands of men to take the Cross and make for the Holy Land. His role was clearly recognised by the Crusader leadership when they wrote to him from Antioch in 1098 following the fall of the city.77

Urban is, however, conspicuously absent from the first accounts of the Crusade. Neither the Gesta Francorum nor the Historia Francorum of Raymond of Aguilers seems to suggest that the First Crusade was conceived, inspired and put into motion by Pope Urban II. Raymond of Aguilers, who travelled alongside the Count of Toulouse, does not even mention the papacy at the start of his account of the expedition to Jerusalem. The moment that supposedly defined the expedition and changed the medieval world forever – the rousing speech at Clermont – is not referred to, directly or indirectly. Nor does the influential Gesta Francorum mention Clermont. Its author reports that the Pope travelled north of the Alps and encouraged men to take up arms and head east – but he is not cast as the originator of the Crusade. He simply fanned ‘the great stirring of heart throughout all the Frankish lands’. According to this author, at least, he was tapping into the zeitgeist rather than shaping events.78

It was only in the accounts written a decade after Clermont that the role of the papacy was clearly articulated and accentuated. Robert the Monk, Baldric of Dol and Guibert of Nogent, writing several years after the capture of Jerusalem, reshaped the origins of the Crusade, casting Urban as the main protagonist, placing him firmly at the heart of the expedition. Intentionally or otherwise, he now filled the void left by the expurgation of Emperor Alexios; the central figure behind the mobilisation of western knights was cast into the shadows in the decade that followed the Crusade, and has remained there ever since.

It is not that Urban did not deserve credit for the liberation of Jerusalem, or even that his efforts to draw thousands of men to the defence of the Eastern Church did not have a monumental impact. He almost certainly did not learn of the fall of the Holy City, even though he died at the end of July 1099 just a few weeks after it had been captured: news cannot have reached him that quickly. Nor did he live to see the effect of his effort to unite the church. While reconciliation talks with the Greek church had taken place at the Council of Bari in 1098, matters did not progress quite as well as he might have hoped. But in western Europe, at least, his backing of the Crusade proved to be a masterstroke, and had laid the basis for the transformation of the papacy’s role in the western world.

Urban had been elected pope in 1088 in Terracina, because he and the other senior bishops had been expelled from Rome. In the early 1090s his position remained precarious as he was outmanoeuvred by Clement, the rival pope, who was backed by the powerful emperor of Germany, Henry IV. But the success of the First Crusade decisively concluded the competition in Urban’s favour: Clement III swiftly became irrelevant. Such was the collapse in the fortunes of the antipope that his successor had to be chosen in secret and under the cover of nightfall following Clement’s death in the autumn of 1100 to protect his safety.

By then, Henry IV was openly talking about submitting to Urban’s successor, Paschal II.79 The German emperor had missed out on the First Crusade because of his enmity with the Pope; following the fall of Jerusalem, he soon declared that he also intended to set off for the east in a succession of solemn Masses in the winter of 1102.80 He also sought to mend the rift in the Western Church by writing to his godfather Hugh, the powerful abbot of Cluny, at the start of the following year to try to reopen discussions with Rome, as well as to profit from the status of knights returning from Jerusalem.81

This did not stop the new Pope demonstrating the extent of the authority that the Crusade had given him: by 1102, Henry was already being accused of heresy, and there were calls for those who had come back from Jerusalem to attack him as a result.82 The Pope’s power was such that by the start of the following year, the German emperor was admitting to one of the pontiff’s most senior supporters that he was to blame for the split in the church and wished for reconciliation.83

It was not until the Concordat of Worms in 1122 and the First Lateran Council at the start of the following year that the investiture crisis – the name given to the dispute between the papacy and the German emperors – was finally brought to a close. While it was up to the second generation of chroniclers of the expedition to Jerusalem to restore Pope Urban II to his central position in the narrative, there could be little doubt that the First Crusade had been a triumph for the popes of Rome.

In fact, for the man who had triggered Urban’s call to arms, Alexios I Komnenos, the expedition was also an astonishing success. The Crusade had brought an almost epic reversal in the empire’s fortunes. In the spring of 1095, Byzantium was in a perilous condition, forced to confront the total failure of its policy in Asia Minor, and bereft of a foothold from which to carve out the recovery of the subcontinent. To the north of the capital, things were little better, with Serbs and Cuman nomads stretching already depleted military resources to the limit. Constantinople all but collapsed under the pressure, with a full-scale mutiny threatening to bring about the emperor’s deposition and murder.

Twelve years later, things could not have looked more different. Nicaea had been restored to imperial authority, while the west coast of Asia Minor and the vital river valleys of the interior were back under Byzantine control. Troublesome figures from the Turkish world had been dealt with once and for all, and a good relationship built with Kilidj Arslan, secured by a peace that had held since the summer of 1098.84 Cilicia and the important ports on the south coast of Anatolia had been recovered. Even the Serbs had been pacified, thanks to a well-judged intervention by Raymond of Toulouse on his way to Constantinople in 1097. And to crown it all Antioch was back in Christian hands, with Byzantine claims over the city established emphatically.

While Tancred’s intransigence after the signing of the treaty of Diabolis in 1108 was galling, it turned out to be a temporary inconvenience. As the experiences of the Crusaders in Jerusalem had shown, the threat posed by the Muslims was not going to diminish. Alexios and Byzantium were key allies, and the knights who had established themselves in the east knew that they needed their support. This was why the chronicler Fulcher of Chartres, chaplain to Baldwin of Bouillon in Edessa and Jerusalem, was careful not to inflame passions. His account of the Crusade is conciliatory throughout towards the emperor; as we have seen, he even chose to excise the inflammatory final paragraph of the letter sent to the Pope in 1098 from Antioch, which accused Alexios of failing to help the Crusaders and of actively seeking to harm them during the expedition. Unlike his peers in the west, Fulcher realised there was little to be gained from antagonising those whose support might be vital in the future.85 Others too were cautious in their appraisals of Alexios and of Byzantium, and deliberately pulled back from the vitriolic assessments of some of their peers.86

Alexios continued to keep a close eye on the situation in the east. After the death of Raymond of Toulouse in 1105, he sent an embassy to ensure the loyalty and support of his successor in Tripoli, the base where Raymond had established himself at the start of the twelfth century.87 Three years later he took an oath from Bertrand of Toulouse, who journeyed to Constantinople where he received the same treatment the Crusade’s leaders had been given a decade before: an impressive reception, lavish gifts and careful attention by the emperor in person.88

The benefits that the Crusade brought to Byzantium could be measured in many different ways. A new empire emerged in the twelfth century, strident, self-confident and militaristic, very much in Alexios’ own image. The economy, in tatters at the time of the Komnenoi coup in 1081, was again in bloom, stimulated by the re-coinage of the currency, increased trade with Venice and the other Italian city-states, and of course by the Crusade itself. Expenditure on the army finally stabilised; while Alexios had been in the field almost every year in the first half of his reign, he rarely led the army in person after the passage of the Crusade through imperial territory. By 1107, the empire’s tax system had been completely overhauled, reset on a basis of documented land ownership that gave the state much clearer assessment of – and income from – private property in Byzantium. Stability and prosperity had been restored to the empire.

There is a remarkable poem, written as a guide to John II, the emperor’s heir, around the time of Alexios’ death in 1118. It reviews Alexios’ reign, noting the difficult and turbulent times he faced after taking the throne. But later, all, including ‘the massed movement of horsemen from the west’, yielded before the great ruler, cowering and withdrawing. As long as John II used the same techniques, he too would be able to benefit from his father’s expertise and skill. Money and gifts should be given ‘readily and with a gentle manner’, urged Alexios. The new emperor should stuff gold and presents into the ‘opened jaws’ of westerners and do so unstintingly. To prepare for this, John was urged to accumulate ‘many things’ in strong rooms, ‘so that you may fulfil the greed of the nations who are on the move all around us just as long ago’. In short, the new emperor should therefore treat Constantinople as ‘a fountain of gold’ from which rewards and inducements should be actively and generously distributed. As long as he did so, his reign would be stable. This was a startlingly confident view of the world, based firmly on Alexios’ policies and their success.89

The poem reflects how robustly the emperor emerged from the Crusade. This can also be seen in how Alexios conducted himself in the later years of his reign. After Henry IV of Germany’s younger son and successor, Henry V, marched on Rome in 1111, taking Pope Paschal II into captivity, Alexios sent embassies to Montecassino to offer his sympathies for the pontiff and the way he had been treated. The emperor was willing to come to Rome in person. To ensure that the city and the papacy were safe in the future, he proposed that either he, or his son John, take the imperial crown of Rome.90 So greatly had the fortunes of Byzantium been transformed as the result of the Crusade that Alexios’ ambitions now extended to taking power in Rome itself.

Persistent misgivings about Byzantium and its emperors cemented themselves in western European consciousness, but it was only when the Second Crusade fell into chaos as it crossed Asia Minor in 1146–7 that these negative portrayals of Alexios began to have an effect. After the German and French armies ran into trouble, the familiar need arose to find a scapegoat for the failure of men who were supposed to be doing God’s work. Blame was laid on the emperor in Constantinople, Manuel I Komnenos, the grandson of Alexios, who became the subject of vicious personal attacks across Europe. The same accusations that had been thrown at his grandfather were now levelled at him: treachery, double-dealing, sympathy with Islam, and betrayal of the defenders of Christianity. There were now calls for a full-blown Crusade against Byzantium itself. The empire’s reputation in the west never recovered.91

It was also the precise moment when Anna Komnene decided that the time had come to rehabilitate her father’s reputation and to record his achievements. But she faced the difficult problem of how to provide a balanced account of Alexios’ reign. On the one hand, he had saved Byzantium from the jaws of defeat; on the other, he had sown seeds that were to bring a slew of new problems. The resulting text, the Alexiad, is florid, contradictory and pregnant with hidden meanings. It has disorientated, confused and misled people ever since.

When we try to unscramble the erratic sequence of events provided by Anna’s account we see a clear picture. In the mid-1090s, the Byzantine Empire was teetering on the brink of catastrophe. Alexios’ policies in the east had spectacularly failed, while renewed pressure and setbacks to the north of Constantinople threatened what remained of imperial control elsewhere. With imperial finances in tatters, Alexios lacked the resources to engineer a serious fightback in the east, leading to the failure of confidence in his leadership and a full-scale revolt by the entire Byzantine aristocracy.

As Anna Komnene put it, it was one thing to deal with troublesome knights from the west; but ‘the rebellious spirit of his own subjects caused no less trouble – in fact he suspected them even more and hastened to protect himself as best he could, dealing with their plots with skill. But who could possibly describe the ferment of troubles which descended on him? It compelled him to become all things to all men, to accommodate himself as far as he could to the circumstances.’92

The emperor, wrote his daughter, was like a helmsman guiding his vessel through endless battering waves. Scarcely had one wave broken than the next rolled towards him: ‘There was a never-ending succession of woes, an ocean of trouble, as it were – so that he was allowed no chance to breathe nor even rest his eyes’.93 Alexios had responded to this onslaught with extraordinary boldness.

The story of the First Crusade has been told many times before. The exploits of men like Bohemond, Godfrey of Bouillon and Raymond of Toulouse have passed from one generation to another for centuries. The names and deeds of Baldwin of Calderun and Achard of Montmerle, who failed to return, were preserved for posterity, to be remembered for their heroism and selflessness in trying to liberate the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Less well known are the names of those who caused the First Crusade. Yet Abu’l-Kasim, Çaka, Bursuk, Togortak and Nikephoros Diogenes should feature in any discussion of the expedition that reshaped medieval Europe. They brought Byzantium to the verge of collapse and forced Alexios to look to the west. The attacks, intransigence and revolts of these men led, ultimately, to the restoration of Christian control of Jerusalem more than 450 years after it had fallen to the Muslims.

But it is one man, above all others, who stands out. Alexios I Komnenos put in motion the chain of events that introduced the Crusades to the world. The call from the east was to reshape the medieval world, massively expanding the geographic, economic, social, political and cultural horizons of Europe. After more than 900 years in the gloom, Alexios should once again take centre stage in the history of the First Crusade.

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