Post-classical history


Since passing through Constantinople, the leaders of the First Crusade had, in effect, been working for the emperor, fighting on the eastern border of Byzantium to recover Greek territory. With Alexius’ primary objective achieved – the recapture of Nicaea – one question remained: what would the crusaders do now?

With this in mind, on 22 June the emperor called the Frankish princes to his camp at Pelekanum to discuss their plans. With the exception of Raymond of Toulouse and Stephen of Blois, who remained behind to protect the Latin camp, the cream of crusader aristocracy attended. By this point, most of the Frankish host shared one deep-held and compelling ambition – to march on Jerusalem and recover the Holy City for Christendom. Alexius probably had no idea what this ‘barbarian’ horde was capable of achieving. So far they had served his purposes well and, for the time being at least, there was no reason for him not to support their expedition. Once again, he seems to have offered the princes valuable advice on the political and strategic realities of the world they were planning to traverse. From this point on, we know that the crusaders discussed their next major goal on the road to Palestine – the vast, ancient city of Antioch, on the border between Asia Minor and Syria. They also followed Alexius’ advice and dispatched envoys by ship to the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt, to discuss a possible treaty.24

There was no question in the emperor’s mind that the crusaders would remain his servants. A member of Stephen of Blois’ contingent pointed out that the Franks left Nicaea only ‘once they had received permission from the emperor to depart’. Alexius also took the opportunity presented by the gathering at Pelekanum to reinforce his primacy. The oaths of allegiance given to him at Constantinople were restated, and any members of the crusader nobility who had managed to slip through the net, such as Tancred and Baldwin of Boulogne, were now pressed into pledging their obedience. Alexius’ strategy was to assist the crusaders’ cause and, as they marched across Asia Minor, follow in their wake mopping up any territory they conquered. To this end, he ordered Taticius, and the troops he had led to Nicaea, to accompany the Latin host. According to a Greek contemporary, Taticius’ duty was ‘to help and protect them on all occasions and also to take over from them any cities they captured, if indeed God granted them that favour’. Even at this stage, it is very unlikely that the emperor offered any firm commitment to lead Byzantine reinforcements himself in support of the crusade, although the Franks do seem to have been expecting to be joined by a large Greek army at some later date.25

Alexius’ plan for controlled, constructive exploitation of the First Crusade had one major flaw. His power and influence over the expedition were almost absolute as it passed through Constantinople and besieged Nicaea, but, with every Frankish step into Anatolia (Central Asia Minor) and beyond, the crusade passed further out of the orbit of Byzantine authority. The spell of co-operation and subservience would continue to hold for months to come, but the level of collaboration experienced at Nicaea was never again repeated.

The Battle of Dorylaeum

The First Crusade left Nicaea in the last week of June 1097. By 29 June the entire army had assembled at a staging post one day’s march to the south, at a bridge over the Göksu river. Its next major target was Antioch, hundreds of kilometres to the east, but to reach this the expedition would have to overcome two challenges. The first was the enormous size of the crusade. An army of roughly 70,000 people might take up to three days to march past a single point. Moving as one massed force would be incredibly unwieldy and place intense pressure on local resources, given that the Franks intended to continue their practice of foraging for food as they went. Logic dictated that the expedition should break into smaller contingents, travelling just as it had en route to Constantinople. But this approach had inherent dangers. The threat posed by the Seljuq Turks of Asia Minor may have been beaten back at Nicaea, but it had not been extinguished. The crusaders must have suspected that Kilij Arslan would, at some point, attempt a counterattack. By splintering into smaller armies the Latin host would lose its overwhelming numerical advantage.

Faced with a difficult choice, the princes elected to divide their forces in two, but maintain relatively close contact during the march. On 29 June, Bohemond’s southern Italian Normans and Robert of Normandy’s army crossed the Göksu, trailed at some distance by Godfrey of Bouillon, Robert of Flanders, Hugh of France and the southern French. They intended to rendezvous some four days’ march to the south-east, at Dorylaeum, an abandoned Byzantine military camp.26

This was just the opportunity that Kilij Arslan had been waiting for. After his humiliating defeat at Nicaea on 16 May, he realised that every scrap of available manpower would be needed were he to have any hope of defeating the huge Frankish army. Putting aside past quarrels, he negotiated a pact with the Danishmendid Turks of northern and eastern Asia Minor and set off to intercept the crusaders. Even with this new larger army, he could ill afford to risk a full-scale battle against the massed Latin ranks. Instead, he hoped to pick off smaller portions of their army through ambush and guerrilla warfare. On the morning of 1 July 1097 he took his chance.

The first two days of Bohemond’s and Robert of Normandy’s march towards Dorylaeum had passed without incident. Scouts seem to have reported the presence of a Turkish force in the region as night fell on 30 June, but the princes must have judged this to be a small raiding party, because they took no steps to notify the second crusader force. This proved to be a fateful decision.27

A few hours after dawn on the following day, having just negotiated a small river crossing, the first crusader army reached an area of open ground at the junction of two valleys. Suddenly, a mass of Turkish horsemen appeared. Two Frankish eyewitnesses estimated their number at 360,000, but this is probably another wild exaggeration. Even so, the size of Kilij Arslan’s force may have equalled or even exceeded that of this half of the crusading host. The Franks faced an appalling predicament: isolated and exposed, they were about to have their first, terrifying taste of Turkish horsemen in full flight.28

The crusaders were horrified. One member of Bohemond’s army recalled how the ‘Turks began, all at once, to howl and gabble and shout, saying with loud voices in their own language some devilish word which I do not understand . . . screaming like demons’. Bearing down upon the stunned Latins was the very nightmare of which the Emperor Alexius had warned back in Constantinople – a rampaging pack of highly manoeuvrable mounted archers, itching to exploit the open ground, wheeling their nimble-footed horses in an encircling torrent, unleashing a deadly ‘cloud of arrows’.

In a moment of extraordinary courage and composure, Bohemond and Robert kept their heads and stayed the pulse of panic rushing through their forces. They realised that, in the face of such an enemy, only steadfast unity offered any hope of survival – if the crusaders broke formation or sought to escape they would be mown down without mercy. As the Turks swarmed towards them, the princes sent an urgent appeal for reinforcement to the second crusader army and ordered a makeshift camp to be set up beside a nearby marsh. Into its centre were placed all the army’s heavy gear, horses, women, children and other non-combatants, while the knights and infantry were deployed in a tight-knit defensive formation. One eyewitness remembered how ‘after we had set ourselves in order the Turks came upon us from all sides, skirmishing, throwing darts and javelins and shooting arrows from an astonishing range’. In the race to establish a secure perimeter many of the Frankish peasants following the army were caught in the open and were soon butchered. Taking pity on them, one Frankish knight, Robert of Paris, broke ranks and rushed out to help them, but within seconds he was struck by an arrow and decapitated.

The princes’ plan was to hold fast in close formation, stubbornly refusing to be drawn into open battle, while relying upon weight of numbers and superior armour to survive. They were playing a desperate waiting game, always hoping for the second army’s arrival. Ranged against them was a seemingly endless, writhing multitude of Turks. One eyewitness believed that ‘nearly all the mountains and hills and valleys, and all the flat country within and without the hills, were covered with this accursed folk’. To strengthen their resolve in the face of this swarm, the crusaders passed a morale-boosting phrase down the line: ‘Stand fast together, trusting in Christ and the victory of the Holy Cross. Today may we all gain much booty.’ At the same time, priests moved up and down the lines offering prayers of encouragement and receiving confessions, while women distributed water to stave off the day’s heat.29

Inside the camp, many non-combatants were transfixed with fear. One clergyman in the crowd recounted how ‘we were all huddled together like sheep in a fold, trembling and frightened, surrounded on all sides by enemies so that we could not turn in any direction’. At one point, some Turks actually broke through:

The Turks burst into the camp in strength, striking with arrows from their horn bows, killing pilgrim foot-soldiers, girls, women, infants and old people, sparing no one on grounds of age. Stunned and terrified by the cruelty of this most hideous killing, girls who were delicate and very nobly born were hastening to get themselves dressed up, offering themselves to the Turks, so that at least, roused and appeased by love of their beauty, the Turks might learn to pity their prisoners.30

But still the crusader line held. Through five dreadful hours the Franks waited, held together by a potent mixture of faith, fear and fortitude, inspired by Bohemond’s and Robert’s immutable stance. This was an extraordinary feat of martial discipline, the product of inspired generalship. In the medieval age, successful military leaders could not simply depend upon strategic awareness or logistical skill. Unable to communicate detailed orders in the midst of fighting, a general was required to command by example, controlling his troops through sheer force of personality. In this context, Bohemond’s and Robert’s achievements in the battle near Dorylaeum were of the highest order.

At last, shortly after midday, the second crusader army arrived. Godfrey, Hugh, Raymond of Toulouse and Adhémar of Le Puy raced to the battlefield, each leading a force of mounted knights. Adhémar sought to outflank the Turks, while the others joined forces with Bohemond and Robert to unleash a cavalry charge. There was no time to organise a well-ordered counterattack, but the Turks put up little resistance. They had harried the first Latin army through the day, enjoying little success. The prospect of facing the full force of a united crusader attack proved unpalatable. Having lost the chance to wipe out an isolated section of the Frankish host, Kilij Arslan realised he was beaten and fled the field. A member of Bohemond’s army joyfully recalled their defeat: ‘[The Turks] fled very fast to their camp, but they were not allowed to stay there long, so they continued their flight and we pursued them, killing them, for a whole day, and we took much booty, gold, silver, horses, asses, camels, oxen, sheep and many other things.’31

The First Crusaders had had a close brush with disaster, but in the end they won a famous victory. One Syrian Muslim, writing in the mid-twelfth century, recalled that ‘when news was received of this shameful calamity to the cause of Islam the anxiety of the people became acute and their fear and alarm increased’. Kilij Arslan’s will, and that of the Seljuq Turks of Asia Minor, had been broken and from now on they largely avoided the Franks. The sultan himself fled eastwards, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake, having adopted a scorched-earth policy to deny the Latins access to crops and other supplies.

The battle near Dorylaeum was a bloody affair, leaving some 3,000 Muslims and 4,000 Christians dead, including William Marchisus, Tancred’s brother. The crusaders spent three days camped by the battlefield, burying their dead and recovering their strength. Those that survived now had a bitter respect for Turkish warriors. One eyewitness remarked: ‘What man, however experienced and learned, would dare to write of the skill and prowess and courage of the Turks . . . you could not find stronger or braver or more skilful soldiers.’32

Across the wasteland

After Dorylaeum the crusaders faced a different type of enemy. They now set out to cross the arid plains of Anatolia, where the ravages of Kilij Arslan’s retreat and the blistering heat of mid-summer left ‘a land which was deserted, waterless and uninhabitable’. One of Bohemond’s followers wrote:

We barely emerged or escaped alive [from this region], for we suffered greatly from hunger and thirst, and found nothing to eat except prickly plants which we gathered and rubbed between our hands. On such food we survived wretchedly enough, but we lost most of our horses, so that many of our knights had to go on as footsoldiers, and for lack of horses we had to use oxen as mounts, and our great need compelled us to use goats, sheep and dogs as beasts of burden.33

Another contemporary recalled one day upon which the lack of water became so acute that:

Overwhelmed by the anguish of thirst, as many as five hundred people died. In addition horses, donkeys, camels, mules, oxen and many animals suffered the same death from very painful thirst. Many men, growing weak from the exertion and the heat, gaping with open mouths and throats, were trying to catch the thinnest mist to cure their thirst. Now, while everyone was thus suffering with this plague, the river they had longed and searched for was discovered. As they hurried towards it each was keen because of excessive longing to arrive first amongst the great throng. They set no limit to their drinking, until very many who had been weakened, as many men as beasts of burden, died from drinking too much.34

It may seem remarkable that the deaths of animals were described in almost equal detail to those of men, but all the contemporary sources share this obsession with horses and pack animals. The crusading army relied upon the latter to transport equipment and supplies, while knights depended upon their mounts in battle. In the past, modern historians have emphasised the military advantage enjoyed by crusader knights because of their larger, stronger, European horses, but, in truth, most of these had died even before Syria was reached. Although a few of the richer princes were able to buy horses during the journey, much of the Frankish army was gradually transformed into an infantry-based force and, as the expedition progressed, the Latin cavalry became a less decisive weapon.35

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