Post-classical history


The Call from the East

THE DECADES PRIOR to the First Crusade had witnessed the emergence of a heightened sense of Christian solidarity, of a shared Christian history and destiny that united east and west. This was largely the result of increased movement of people and ideas across Europe, but it was also deliberately cultivated by Byzantine propaganda.

There had of course always been interaction between east and west, but with the Byzantine Empire eager to attract western knights to Constantinople, this exchange had become increasingly institutionalised in the eleventh century. There was even a recruitment bureau in London where those seeking fame and fortune had their appetites whetted, with Byzantine officials assuring those who wanted to venture east that they would be well looked after in Constantinople.1 A range of interpreters were kept on hand in the imperial capital to greet those who had come to serve the emperor.2

It seems that at times, it was a struggle in the west to stop adventurous young men from leaving home. A letter written in the late eleventh century by Anselm, abbot of the influential monastery of Bec in Normandy and later archbishop of Canterbury, to a young Norman knight named William indicates that it was common knowledge that tempting rewards were on offer in Byzantium. Do not be taken in by lucrative promises, advised Anselm; follow instead the true destiny and design that God had in mind for you and become a monk. Perhaps William followed this advice; but it is likely that he did not: as the same letter reveals, his brother had already gone to Constantinople and William would be following in his footsteps.3

This steady flow of knights was widely welcomed in Byzantium, even before Alexios took the throne. Unlike the Byzantine imperial armies which remained largely an infantry force, western warfare had evolved a strong emphasis on cavalry. Technological advances in western armour meant that the knight, mounted on a heavy charger, was formidable on the battlefield. Tactical developments reinforced this advantage: the western cavalry were at their most effective when holding a battle line, both when advancing and in defence.4 Their discipline made them redoubtable in the face of fast-moving enemies like the Pechenegs and the Turks, whose aim in battle was to split the enemy and then pick off elements that had been separated from the main force.

But not everyone in Constantinople was happy about the arrival of these ambitious outsiders from the west. The resentment towards Hervé Frangopoulos (literally, ‘son of a Frank’), who proved extremely successful in thwarting Turkish raids in Asia Minor in the 1050s and was rewarded by the emperor with generous land grants and a high-ranking title, was so strong that he ended up at the bottom of the Mediterranean with a stone around his neck.5 Robert Crispin was another westerner whose accomplishments stoked envy among the Byzantine aristocracy: he met his end not on the battlefield fighting the Turks, but after taking poison administered by jealous rivals in Constantinople. That, at least, was the rumour that swirled around Europe at the time.6

As the situation in Asia Minor deteriorated towards the end of the eleventh century, Alexios began to look more keenly for help from outside the empire. Contemporaries from all over Europe started to note increasingly anxious calls for assistance emanating from Constantinople in the 1090s. Ekkehard of Aura recorded that embassies and letters ‘seen even by ourselves’ were sent out by Alexios to recruit help in the face of serious trouble in ‘Cappadocia and throughout Romania and Syria’.7 According to another well-informed chronicler: ‘At last an emperor in Constantinople, named Alexius, was trembling at the constant incursions of the heathens and at the diminishment of his kingdom in great part, and he sent envoys to France with letters to stir up the princes so that they would come to the aid of … imperilled Greece.’8

Correspondence of this kind was also received by Robert, Count of Flanders. Every day and without interruption, came reports from the emperor, countless Christians were being killed; boys and old men, nobles and peasants, clergymen and monks were suffering the terrible sin of sodomy at the hands of the Turks; others were being forcibly circumcised, while aristocratic ladies and their daughters were being raped with impunity. The most holy empire of the Greek Christians, stated Alexios, was being oppressed from all sides by pagans.9

These shocking tales of Turkish violence and Christian suffering provoked outrage in the west. In the early 1090s, when Nikomedia came under attack, Alexios’ appeals became more urgent. The emperor ‘sent envoys everywhere with letters, heavy with lamentation and full of weeping, begging with tears for the aid of the entire Christian people’ to appeal for help against the barbarians who were desecrating baptismal fonts and razing churches to the ground. As we have seen, a western force was raised as a result by Robert of Flanders, finally enabling the recovery of the town and of the land as far as the Arm of St George, extending into the Gulf of Nikomedia.10

News of the empire’s collapse spread across Europe, brought by embassies made up of ‘holy men’.11 According to one chronicler it became widely known that Christians in the east, ‘that is to say the Greeks and Armenians’, were facing ‘extensive and terrible persecution at the hands of the Turks throughout Cappadocia, Romania [Byzantium] and Syria’.12 Other reports were more specific: the Turks had ‘invaded Palestine, Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre and captured Armenia, Syria and the part of Greece that extends almost to the sea which is called the Arm of St George’, wrote one contemporary.13 It was also known in the west that the landed gentry had suffered greatly from the loss of their estates.14

Up-to-date and extremely accurate information about the plight of Byzantium had spread so extensively that when Urban II stood before the assembled crowd at Clermont in the winter of 1095, he hardly needed to introduce the subject. ‘You must hasten to carry aid to your brethren dwelling in the East’, reported one version of the speech, ‘who need your help for which they have often entreated. For the Turks, a Persian people, have attacked them, as many of you already know, and have advanced as far into Roman territory as that part of the Mediterranean which is called the Arm of St George. They have seized more and more of the lands of the Christians, have already defeated them seven times in as many battles, killed or captured many people, have destroyed churches, and have devastated the kingdom of God.’15 The widespread knowledge of the downturn in the east owed much to the letters that Alexios had sent out and the efforts that he had made to solicit support for his empire in the 1090s.

Information did not just arrive in the west through official lines of communication. Some of the news from Asia Minor was brought back by travellers and pilgrims who had journeyed to Constantinople or Jerusalem at the end of the eleventh century. Men like Robert of Flanders saw for themselves the position Byzantium was in when he travelled home from the Holy Land in 1089. William of Apulia, writing in southern Italy at the end of the eleventh century, had also heard of the attacks on churches and of the persecution of the Christians but believed that the crisis was the result of the Byzantine emperor having become too close to the Turks, hoping to use them to bolster his own position.16 Given Alexios’ alliances with Sulayman and especially Malik-Shah, there was substance to such views. Yet the assessment that the emperor was to blame for the dire situation shows that the flow of news from the east could not be exclusively controlled by the imperial court.

However, despite visitors to Constantinople and the Holy Land bringing home with them their own stories, the consistency of their reports shows how efficiently, on the whole, information was being managed from the centre. Their content, tone and message were near identical: churches in the east were being destroyed; Christians, especially the clergy, were subject to terrible persecution; Asia Minor had collapsed, with the Turks reaching as far as the Arm of St George; military assistance was urgently required in Byzantium. The narrative was so universal because so much of the information was emanating from the emperor.

One particular element common to many of the reports was the worsening situation in Jerusalem itself. Conditions seem to have become increasingly precarious in Palestine and in the Holy City towards the end of the eleventh century. Although the Turks initially displayed considerable tolerance to non-Muslim communities in this region, the capture of Jerusalem from the Fatimids of Cairo in the 1070s sharpened tensions between the Sunni Turks and Shia Fatimids. A major Fatimid expedition against the coastal region was able to make important gains in 1089, while the death of a leading Turkish commander in battle in 1091 inflamed anxieties futher still. These were taken out on the local population.17 Reports stressed that there were forced conversions of Greek and Armenian Christians in Antioch, and sharp rises in taxes and obligations for Christians living in Jerusalem were accompanied by persecution.18 Jews too were targeted. A major synagogue in Jerusalem was burnt down in 1077, just one example of the harassment recorded in this period.19

Although recent research has questioned how difficult conditions for non-Muslims became in the 1070s and 1080s, Arabic sources also recorded tensions in Jerusalem, Antioch and the Holy Land immediately before the Crusade.20 One twelfth-century Arabic commentator from Aleppo noted that ‘the people of the Syrian ports prevented Frankish and Byzantine pilgrims from crossing to Jerusalem. Those who survived spread the news about that to their country. So they prepared themselves for military invasion.’21Another writer speculated that the conspicuous mistreatment of the Christians in Antioch by the newly appointed governor, Yaghi-Siyan, was bound to provoke a reaction.22

As a result it had become more difficult for western pilgrims to visit the Holy City. Jerusalem had seen a massive increase in pilgrimage across the tenth and eleventh centuries, spurred on by increasing material wealth, intellectual curiosity and the greater openness to travel that brought about a general contraction of the early medieval world.23 But pilgrim traffic now slowed dramatically as a result of the rise in violence in Asia Minor and the Levant. Shocking stories about the holy places were widely circulated and it was reported that pilgrims were subjected to torture and violence and forced to pay ransoms to the oppressive Turks.24 Peter the Hermit, a charismatic preacher, told an extensive and horrified audience about the ill-treatment he had supposedly experienced on a harrowing journey to Jerusalem.25 Not everybody was put off, however. Roger of Foix persisted in making arrangements to go to the Holy City in the spring of 1095, returning a year later to reclaim his lands in southern France.26 Another knight from Normandy completed the pilgrimage not long after, celebrating his safe return by endowing the abbey of Jumièges.27 But they were the minority; as one chronicler put it, such were the circumstances in the 1090s that few dared even to set off on the journey.28

This growing concern about Jerusalem in western Europe was exploited by Alexios. With many westerners living in Constantinople at the end of the eleventh century, including several at the very highest ranks of imperial service, the emperor well understood the significance and emotive lure of the Holy City. It was for this reason that in 1083 he called on Euthymios, patriarch of Jerusalem, to witness his peace agreement with Bohemond, ‘that terrible Frank’, after the first Norman attack on Byzantium had finally been curtailed by the emperor. The patriarch’s presence was intended to demonstrate that the invasion of the empire was a matter of concern to one of the most important figures in Christendom.29

Another example comes from the interpolation to a contemporary Slavonic text. At the beginning of 1090, envoys arrived at the court of King Zvonimir of Croatia, sent by the emperor Alexios and Pope Urban II in the wake of the budding alliance between the Latin and Greek churches that had been forged in Constantinople eighteen months earlier. The envoys described to Zvonimir’s court how Jerusalem and the holy places had fallen to pagans, who were destroying and desecrating these sacred sites. ‘We ask and beseech you, our brother Zvonimir, most pious king of the Christians’, they pleaded, ‘to help us for the love of Christ and of the holy church.’30

Alexios’ controversial letter to Robert of Flanders in the early 1090s also seems to have made deliberate use of Jerusalem to elicit a response from the west. If the kingdom of the Christians fell to the Turks, the emperor warned, the Lord’s Sepulchre would be lost forever.31 This twinning of the fate of the Byzantine capital and the Holy City found its way into the chronicles of early-twelfth-century Europe. ‘Disturbing news has emerged from Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople’, wrote Robert the Monk, ‘the race of the Persians, a foreign people and a people rejected by God … has invaded the lands of the Christians, depopulated them by slaughter and plunder and arson, kidnapped some of the Christians and carried them off to their own lands.’32 It was a message that could be traced back to the emperor in Constantinople.

Alexios’ championing of Jerusalem was a shrewd move, bound to provoke a reaction among the Christian knighthood of Europe which had become increasingly attuned to the ideals of piety and service. The introduction of sanctions by the church for fighting on Sundays, feast and holy days, helped instil in western knights a Christian ethos that transcended mere fighting and military conquest.33 Although there was a marked difference between rhetoric and practice – demands like those of Ivo of Chartres that anyone who engaged in violence between sundown on Wednesdays and sunrise on Mondays should be excommunicated were undoubtedly ambitious – the attempts of the church to intervene in secular life were striking and clearly made an impact on society.34

In this context, news of the distress in the east had a particular resonance. With interest in Jerusalem already at almost obsessive levels at the end of the eleventh century, reports about the threat to Christians and to the Holy Land sat neatly alongside the rising fears of an imminent apocalypse. Floods, famine, meteor showers and eclipses all seemed to point to the conclusion that the end of the world was nigh.35 The Pope’s calls to the defence of the church therefore gave the western knighthood a new raison d’être. The promise of spiritual reward for those prepared to go to the aid of the faithful in the east was a seductive rallying call. Alexios’ call for help lit a touchpaper in Europe.

Alexios’ elision of Constantinople and Jerusalem, and his presentation of himself as championing the interests of the Holy City as much as his own empire, certainly made an impact on contemporaries in southern Italy. One chronicle, attributed to Lupus Protospatharius, reported that the reason knights from western Europe set off in the mid-1090s was so that ‘with the aid of the emperor Alexius in fighting the pagans, they might reach the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’.36 Gilbert of Mons likewise noted the attention drawn to the plight of the Holy City by envoys sent from Constantinople.37 One later author had no doubts that Alexios utilised the problems in Jerusalem to his own advantage. ‘He realised he would have to call on the Italians as allies, and to do so with considerable cunning’, wrote Theodore Skutariotes in the thirteenth century. The emperor realised that he could take advantage of the popularity Jerusalem enjoyed in western Europe: ‘That is the reason why many of them, numbering thousands and tens of thousands, having crossed the Ionian Sea, rapidly reached Constantinople.’38

In short, Alexios knew how to pull the emotional triggers of western Christians. He also played on the rapidly growing obsession with relics, where any object relating to Christ’s life, however banal and improbable – including his milk teeth and bread he had once chewed on as a baby – had spiritual significance.39 The emperor actively stimulated this demand in the years before the First Crusade. An otherwise unremarkable account of the life of Bishop Pibo of Toul reveals that the bishop had brought a part of the Holy Cross back to Germany with him on his return from pilgrimage in 1086. The bishop had not found this by chance: it had been given to him personally by the emperor. Little wonder that Alexios was described by Pibo as ‘the most glorious emperor of the Greeks, who loved him most dearly’.40

Other beneficiaries of Alexios’ relic diplomacy included Henry IV of Germany, who was sent religious treasures to win his support against the Normans in the early 1080s. He was given ‘a gold pectoral cross set with pearls and a reliquary inlaid with gold containing fragments of various saints, identified in each case by a small label’.41 According to two German authors, other items included vases and jugs that were very likely to have come from the collections expropriated by Alexios from the churches of Byzantium not long before.42

When Peter the Venerable writes that the emperor enriched a great many chapels and churches north of the Alps, he can only refer to the relics and holy objects Alexios dispatched to far-distant regions. Although Peter, abbot of the great monastery of Cluny, does not specify which gifts he himself received from Alexios, or when he received them, his emphatic approval suggests that Alexios had been sending items of genuine significance: truly he was ‘great in name and deed’.43

It is not surprising that the letter from Alexios to Robert of Flanders drew attention to Constantinople’s collection of relics, which included the most holy and significant objects relating to Christ’s life, such as the pillar to which Jesus was bound before being submitted to the scourge, as well as the lash itself; the scarlet robe in which Christ was arrayed; the crown of thorns; garments from the Crucifixion, as well as most of the Holy Cross and the nails that had fastened him to it; linen cloths from the tomb; the twelve baskets with remainders of the five loaves and two fish which had fed the 5,000; and relics and bones belonging to any number of the Apostles, martyrs and prophets.44 Guibert of Nogent, who had read the letter and provided a summary of its contents, noted the claim that the head of John the Baptist, including his hair and his beard, were in Constantinople – something that surprised him since he had been under the impression that John’s head was preserved in the church treasury at Angers. ‘Now we are certain’, he wrote wryly, ‘that two John the Baptists did not exist, nor did one man have two heads, for that would be impious.’45 He promised he would investigate the matter further.

Alexios was particularly creative in his use of various sections of the Holy Cross as his appeals for help gathered pace in the mid-1090s. The Cross was the relic most closely associated with Constantinople after being brought to the capital during the reign of the emperor Constantine in the fourth century. The flurry of altars and churches blessed by Pope Urban II in central France in 1095–6 suggests that Alexios may have given the pontiff pieces of the Cross as powerful tools to help galvanise support for the military expedition.46

Influential western visitors to Constantinople were judiciously shown the relics held in the capital. A monk from Kent who visited in the early 1090s fortuitously met a friend from home serving in Alexios’ bodyguard and was allowed into the emperor’s private chapel. Access was normally strictly controlled. The fact that the monk was allowed in and then given relics belonging to St Andrew, which he took back to Rochester cathedral, suggests that the emperor was monitoring diplomatic channels to win the goodwill of westerners.47

Alexios’ shrewd ability to decipher what mattered to westerners extended to the language he used when communicating with leading figures in Europe. Contact with Henry IV in the early 1080s, for example, was couched in terms of Christian solidarity and religious obligation. Henry and Alexios had to co-operate against the Norman leader, Robert Guiscard, wrote the Byzantine emperor, ‘so that the wickedness of this enemy both of God and of Christians will be punished – murderer and criminal … You and I can be friends as Christians, brought more closely together as kinsmen; thus deriving strength from one another, we shall be formidable to our enemies and with God’s help invincible.’48

His communication with the great Benedictine monastery of Montecassino in Italy was no less carefully judged. Thanking the abbot for a letter expressing warm regards and wishing for great favours from Almighty God, Alexios replied that ‘through His compassion and His grace He has honoured and exalted my empire. However, not only because I have nothing of good in me, but because I sin above all men, I pray daily that His compassion and patience be sent to sustain my weakness. But you, filled with goodness and virtue, judge me, sinner that I am, a good man.’49Alexios was keen to show his humility and underscore his personal piety and devotion: it was calculated to impress a monk at the head of an order based on strict rules of obedience and self-restraint.

It seems clear, therefore, that Alexios knew how to appeal to westerners. In this he was undoubtedly drawing on his experiences with men such as Peter Aliphas, the Norman who took imperial service in the 1080s, and Goibert, a monk from Marmoutier who became a close confidant of the emperor and his inner circle shortly before the First Crusade. The emperor deliberately used the lure of Jerusalem to draw military support to Byzantium, and to cast the empire’s troubles and its political interests in terms of Christian obligation.

In his appeal, Alexios could be encouraged by the success of his earlier pleas for help. The letters he sent out after Nikomedia fell to Abu’l-Kasim in the early 1090s, for example, had yielded immediate results, with western knights joining him to drive back the Turks ‘with God’s assistance’.50But as the situation deteriorated in Byzantium, the emperor required more formidable assistance. Alexios therefore carefully targeted his appeals to those who had responded enthusiastically in the past. Most promising was Robert of Flanders. Alexios knew Count Robert personally from meeting him at the end of 1089 and had benefited from the 500 knights that Robert had dispatched to Constantinople soon after. It was no surprise, then, that Flanders was heavily canvassed by the emperor in the 1090s even after Count Robert’s death in 1093. When Pope Urban II wrote to ‘all the faithful’ of this region in 1095, he noted that they needed no introduction to the problems in the east: ‘Your brotherhood, we believe, has long since learned from many sources that a barbaric fury has disastrously attacked and laid waste the churches of God and the regions of the Orient.’51The Pope was right – people in Flanders who were particularly well informed about the situation in the east included Count Robert’s heir, Robert II of Flanders, and his wife, Clementia, who in a charter issued in 1097 noted with sadness that the Persians had occupied the church of Jerusalem and had destroyed the Christian religion in every direction.52

The emperor sought to capitalise on his relations with Count Robert I to recruit other nobles.53 Deliberately widening his appeals for help, his letter to Flanders was addressed not only to the count, but ‘to all the princes of the realm and all lovers of the Christian faith, laypeople and clerics alike’.54 As Guibert of Nogent astutely noted, the emperor ‘did not approach him because he thought that Robert was extremely wealthy and capable of raising a large force … but because he realised that if a man of such power went on such a journey, he would attract many of our people, who would support him if only for the sake of a new experience’.55

But the person on whom Alexios most focused his attention was Pope Urban II. Here too the emperor could draw on a personal relationship – and here too he would have been encouraged by the help he had previously received from the pontiff. Around the end of 1090, Alexios had sent a delegation to Urban to ask for help against both the Pechenegs and the Turks: ‘The Lord Pope was in Campania and was addressed with due reverence by all Catholics, that is to say, by the emperor of Constantinople’, wrote one contemporary historian.56 Even though Urban was in an extremely weak position himself at the time – which was why he was found in Campania, rather than Rome – he agreed to send a force to the east.57 Knowing that his message to the pope would be circulated more widely, Alexios assured Urban that he would personally do all he could to provide whatever assistance was necessary to those who came to support him, whether by land or sea.58 The precariousness of the Pope’s own position meant there was little more Urban could do to help Alexios at the time, but as the situation in Italy and Germany began to change in the mid-1090s, Urban would capitalise both on the developments in the west and on the threats in the east – of which Alexios regularly informed him – in a rhetorical and political tour de force.59

And there had been an even more important precedent. In fact, in his appeal to Urban, Alexios was deliberately emulating the previous attempt by one of his predecessors to come to almost exactly the same arrangement with an earlier pope. In the summer of 1073, Emperor Michael VII had sent a small delegation to Rome with a written proposal to forge an alliance with Pope Gregory VII, following Byzantium’s collapse in southern Italy and the increased threat posed by Turks in Asia Minor. The Pope, also worried by the rise in Norman power, replied enthusiastically, thanking the emperor for his letter which was ‘filled with the pleasantness of your love and with the no small devotion that you show to the Roman church’.60 Recognising that this offered the opportunity to mend the rift with the Orthodox Church while also strengthening his own position in Italy, the Pope leapt into action.

Gregory was much taken with the idea of recruiting a military force to defend Constantinople: he could cast himself as a defender of all Christians, and in so doing galvanise support that could also be targeted against Robert Guiscard and the Normans. Over the course of the following months, the Pope sent letters to leaders all over Europe, setting out his message. In February 1074, for example, he wrote to Count William of Burgundy, asking him to send men to Constantinople ‘to bring aid to Christians who are grievously afflicted by the most frequent ravagings of the Saracens and who are avidly imploring us to extend them our helping hand’ – though first they should help defend papal territories from Norman attacks.61

The following month, the Pope sent a letter sent to ‘all who are willing to defend the Christian faith’, which contained a stark warning. ‘A race of pagans has strongly prevailed against the Christian empire’, Gregory wrote, ‘and with pitiable cruelty has already almost up to the walls of the city of Constantinople laid waste and with tyrannical violence has seized everything; it has slaughtered like cattle many thousands of Christians.’ It was not enough to grieve for those who were suffering, the Pope declared; ‘we beseech you and by the authority of blessed Peter the prince of apostles we urge you to bring reinforcements to your brothers’.62

Gregory continued to canvas support for a military expedition to reinforce Byzantium against the Turks throughout the year. Further letters sent in 1074 pointed out that ‘I have sought to stir up Christians everywhere and to incite them to this purpose: that they should seek … to lay down their life for their brothers’ by defending Christians who were being ‘slaughtered daily like cattle’.63 The Devil himself was behind this suffering, he said; those wishing ‘to defend the Christian faith and to serve the heavenly King’ should show themselves now to be the sons of God and prepare to cross to Constantinople.64

As it happened, nothing came of Gregory’s plans – though not for lack of interest; the Pope’s powerful messages struck a nerve with some of the leading figures in the west. William, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitou, for example, indicated that he was prepared to march in the service of St Peter against the enemies of Christ.65 Others, like the Countess of Tuscany, Beatrice, and Godfrey of Bouillon were also prepared to rally to the cause.66 The problem was that at the same time as negotiating with Gregory, the Byzantines had also sounded out Robert Guiscard, reaching terms with the Norman leader in the middle of 1074.67 This not only left the Pope exposed in Italy, it also compromised the prospect of a union between the Eastern and Western churches, which had been at the basis of his appeals to the knighthood of Europe. Gregory was forced to make an embarrassing climbdown. There was no need for William of Poitou to concern himself any more with the proposed eastern expedition, he wrote, ‘for rumour has it that, in parts beyond the sea, by God’s mercy the Christians have far repelled the savagery of the pagans, and we are still awaiting the guidance of divine providence about what more we ought to do’.68 In fact, there had been no major military successes in Asia Minor in 1074, and nothing to support the Pope’s suggestion that the situation had dramatically improved. Gregory was simply trying to back down as gently and diplomatically as possible.

By 1095, when Alexios dispatched envoys to the Pope activating the same channel as his predecessor, two crucial things had changed. First, the situation in Constantinople itself had degenerated beyond recognition. Whereas the appeals to Gregory VII were exploratory and partly an attempt by Byzantium to retain a foothold in the politics of Italy, Alexios’ call to Pope Urban II was one of pure desperation. The delegation that found Urban in March 1095 in the town of Piacenza, where he was presiding over a church council, delivered a stark message: ‘An embassy of the emperor of Constantinople came to the synod and implored his lordship the Pope and all the faithful of Christ to bring assistance against the heathen for the defence of this holy church, which had now been nearly annihilated in that region by the infidels who had conquered as far as the walls of Constantinople.’69 Unlike two decades earlier, this time there was real substance to the picture painted of the Turkish advances in Asia Minor and of the impotent response of the Byzantine Empire. In fact, things were even more perilous than Alexios’ ambassadors let on; they seem to have made no mention of the emperor’s vulnerability as the result of the Diogenes conspiracy of 1094. Now Byzantium was on the edge of a precipice.

The second difference was that while Pope Gregory VII had much to gain from promoting himself as the champion of all Christians, the stakes for Urban II in the mid-1090s were much higher. Facing powerful enemies and a rival pope, Urban had far greater incentives than his predecessor to promote the unity of the churches and to position himself as the man who could bring an end to discord. And the timing was perfect. Just as Byzantium disintegrated and Alexios appealed for help, the political situation in Italy dramatically changed, following the high-profile defections of Henry IV’s wife and son to the Pope. This energised Urban and, in the process, threw an extraordinary lifeline to the emperor.

The Pope immediately recognised the opening. He had already been intending to visit France in order to take advantage of the sharp improvement in his position. He reacted quickly and decisively to the appeals from the emperor’s envoys at Piacenza: ‘Our Lord Pope called on many to perform this service, to promise by oaths to betake themselves [to Jerusalem] by God’s will and to bring the emperor the most faithful assistance against the heathen to the limits of their ability.’70 Rather than sending out letters that talked about the principles of an expedition without providing detail, structure or purpose, Urban decided to devise and put in place personally an expedition to transform the eastern Mediterranean. He was single-minded in his purpose. As one chronicler reported, ‘when he heard that the interior part of Romania had been occupied by the Turks and the Christians subdued by a ferociously destructive invasion, Urban, greatly moved by compassionate piety and by the prompting of God’s love, crossed the mountains and descended into Gaul and caused a council to be assembled in Auvergne at Clermont’.71

This was to be the moment at which the Pope’s grand scheme would be announced. Much now depended on the pontiff’s stamina and his ability to engage with leaders and communities across France to mobilise a force to come to the help of Byzantium.

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