While the rest of the crusade prepared to march on Antioch, Baldwin of Boulogne left to find his fortune. Having abandoned Cilicia at the behest of his Armenian confidant Bagrat, he briefly rendezvoused with the Frankish host at Marash. In mid-October his English wife, Godwera, died from an illness, but if Baldwin felt any great grief it did not long distract him from his purpose. After the frustrations and disappointments of Cilicia, he decided to break away from the crusade, putting aside his vow to march to the Holy Land. Bagrat promised rich pickings to the east, and Baldwin saw an opportunity to carve out a new Levantine lordship around the River Euphrates. If he succeeded, the resultant territory might benefit the crusade, acting as a buffer state and foraging centre, but on this occasion there can be little doubt that Baldwin was acting primarily out of self-interest. His resources were extremely limited – he left Marash in the company of no more than a hundred knights – but this was balanced by his ruthless ambition and political acumen.47
At first, Baldwin was also able to capitalise on the awe that the western knights of the crusade inspired in Armenians and Turks alike. Playing off their fear of the main Frankish host, he was able to intimidate local Turkish garrisons into capitulation or flight. Thetowns of Tell Bashir and Ravendan fell into his hands, as their Armenian populations gratefully accepted ‘liberation’. He could, by the end of 1097, claim control of a swathe of territory running east to the Euphrates. Baldwin had begun to make his mark. He initially rewarded Bagrat with the lordship of Ravendan, but their friendship soon wore thin. The exact cause of the dispute is unclear – Bagrat may have been plotting to assert his independence – but, for whatever reason, Baldwin declared him a traitor and, when he fled, had him hunted down and dragged before him in chains. Baldwin then had his former ally brutally tortured, at one point threatening to have him ‘torn limb from limb while yet alive’ unless he confessed his plans.48
Baldwin’s conquests did not go unnoticed. To the east of the Euphrates, Thoros, the Armenian ruler of Edessa, was having trouble holding on to power. Distrusted by Edessa’s populace because of his close links with the Byzantines, and threatened with aggression from his Turkish neighbour, Balduk of Samosata, Thoros needed a new weapon in his arsenal. Impressed by Baldwin’s ferocious reputation, he proposed an alliance. Edessa was one of the great cities of Mesopotamia, a fitting capital for Baldwin’s new lordship, so in February 1098 he set out across the Euphrates with a small force of knights, his eye open for any opportunity. En route, he only narrowly evaded a large raiding party from Samosata, but on approaching Edessa he enjoyed a rapturous welcome. One of his followers recalled that ‘Passing by Armenian towns, you would have been amazed to see them coming humbly to meet us, carrying crosses and banners, and kissing our feet and garments for the love of God because they had heard we were going to protect them from the Turks.’49
Thoros may initially have planned to employ Baldwin as a mercenary, but when the Frank actually arrived to such widespread acclaim he quickly decided to formalise their relationship. Although married, Thoros had no children, so he elected to adopt Baldwin as his son and heir. Baldwin duly submitted himself to the necessary, if somewhat bizarre, public ritual: both men were stripped to the waist; Thoros then embraced Baldwin, ‘binding him to his naked chest’, while a long shirt was placed over both of them to seal the union.
Thoros soon looked to exploit this adoption. Within a week, Baldwin and his Frankish troops were dispatched at the head of an Armenian force to deal with the threat from Samosata. Although he was unable actually to capture the town, Baldwin succeeded in garrisoning a nearby fort, largely neutralising the immediate threat posed by Balduk. On his return to Edessa, Baldwin discovered that a group of Edessene nobles were plotting to assassinate Thoros and elevate him in his adopted father’s place. Our view of Baldwin’s reaction, and the degree of his complicity in what followed, depends on which source we trust. According to one Latin contemporary, ‘Baldwin refused with every objection to undertake such a crime.’ But an Armenian living in Edessa at the time recorded that ‘they persuaded him to accede to their evil designs and promised to deliver Edessa into his hands; Baldwin approved of their vicious plot’.50
We do know that in early March 1098 Edessa’s population turned on Thoros. Terrified, he sought the sanctuary of his citadel. He realised that he could no longer rule the city but, still hoping to negotiate his escape and that of his wife, he turned to Baldwin. The crusader duly swore the most solemn of oaths, his hands placed upon Edessa’s most sacred relics, promising to protect the life of his father, and was allowed into the citadel. But, on the very next day, he let the mob into the fortress. Wild with bloodlust, they seized Thoros and ‘threw him down from the top of the ramparts into the midst of a raging crowd’ which ripped him to pieces and then paraded the remains of his body throughout the city. It was in this manner that Baldwin of Boulogne became ruler of Edessa. Even his own chaplain could muster only this terse defence of Baldwin’s actions: ‘The [Edessenes] wickedly plotted to slay their prince because they hated him and to elevate Baldwin to the palace to rule the land. This was suggested and it was done. Baldwin and his men were much grieved because they were not able to obtain mercy for him.’51
Complicit or not, Baldwin had blood on his hands, but he quickly asserted an iron grip over Edessa and its environs. Within months, Balduk of Samosata had been subdued, becoming a client ruler, while another nearby town, Sorogia, was conquered and entrusted to one of Baldwin’s Frankish lieutenants. In the space of less than half a year, with just a handful of men, Baldwin had established the first crusader state in the Near East – the county of Edessa.52