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First Crusade

The First Crusade was launched in 1095 by Pope Urban II to regain control of the sacred city of Jerusalem and the Christian Holy Land from Muslims. What started as a minor call for aid quickly turned into a wholesale migration and conquest of territory outside of Europe. Both knights and peasants from many different nations of western Europe, with little central leadership, travelled over land and by sea towards Jerusalem and captured the city in July 1099, establishing the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the other Crusader states. Although these gains lasted for fewer than two hundred years, the Crusade was a major turning point in the expansion of Western power, and was the only crusade – in contrast to the many that followed – to achieve its stated goal.



The origins of the crusades in general, and of the First Crusade in particular, stem from events earlier in the Middle Ages. The breakdown of the Carolingian empire in previous centuries, combined with the relative stability of European borders after the Christianization of the Vikings and Magyars, gave rise to an entire class of warriors who now had very little to do but fight among themselves and terrorize the peasant population.

Outlets for this violence took the form of campaigns against non-Christians. The Reconquista in Spain was one such outlet, which occupied Spanish knights and some mercenaries from elsewhere in Europe in the fight against the Islamic Moors. Elsewhere, the Normans were fighting for control of Sicily, while Pisa, Genoa and Aragon were all actively fighting Islamic strongholds in Majorca and Sardinia, freeing the coasts of Italy and Spain from Muslim raids.

Because of these ongoing wars, the idea of a war against the Muslims was not implausible to the European nations. Muslims occupied the centre of the Christian universe, Jerusalem, which, along with the surrounding land, was considered one giant relic, the place where Christ had lived and died. In 1074, Pope Gregory VII called for the milites Christi ("knights of Christ") to go to the aid of the Byzantine Empire in the east. The Byzantines had suffered a serious defeat at the hands of the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert three years previously. This call, while largely ignored, combined with the large numbers of pilgrimages to the Holy Land in the 11th century, focused a great deal of attention on the east. It was Pope Urban II who first disseminated to the general public the idea of a Crusade to capture the Holy Land with the famous words: "God wills it!"

The East in the late eleventh century

Western Europe's immediate neighbour to the southeast was the Byzantine Empire, who were fellow Christians but who had long followed a separate Orthodox rite. Under emperor Alexius I Comnenus, the empire was largely confined to Europe and the western coast of Anatolia, and faced enemies in the Normans in the west and the Seljuks in the east. Further east, Anatolia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt were all under Muslim control, but were politically and, to some extent, culturally fragmented at the time of the First Crusade, which certainly contributed to the Crusade's success. Anatolia and Syria were controlled by the Sunni Seljuks, formerly in one large empire ("Great Seljuk") but by this point divided into many smaller states. Alp Arslan had defeated the Byzantine Empire at Manzikert in 1071 and incorporated much of Anatolia into Great Seljuk, but this empire was split apart by civil war after the death of Malik Shah I in 1092. In the Sultanate of Rüm in Anatolia, Malik Shah was succeeded by Kilij Arslan I and in Syria by his brother Tutush I, who died in 1095. Tutush's sons Radwan and Duqaq inherited Aleppo and Damascus respectively, further dividing Syria amongst emirs antagonistic towards each other, as well as towards Kerbogha, the atabeg of Mosul. These states were on the whole more concerned with consolidating their own territories and gaining control of their neighbours, than with cooperating against the crusaders.

Elsewhere in nominal Seljuk territory were the Ortoqids in northeastern Syria and northern Mesopotamia. They controlled Jerusalem until 1098. In eastern Anatolia and northern Syria was a state founded by Danishmend, a Seljuk mercenary; the crusaders did not have significant contact with either group until after the Crusade. The Hashshashin were also becoming important in Syrian affairs.

Egypt and much of Palestine were controlled by the Arab Shi'ite Fatimids, whose empire was significantly smaller since the arrival of the Seljuks; Alexius I had advised the crusaders to work with the Fatimids against their common Seljuk enemies. The Fatimids, at this time ruled by caliph al-Musta'li (although all actual power was held by the vizier al-Afdal Shahanshah), had lost Jerusalem to the Seljuks in 1076, but recaptured it from the Ortoqids in 1098 while the crusaders were on the march. The Fatimids did not, at first, consider the crusaders a threat, assuming they had been sent by the Byzantines and that they would be content with recapturing Syria, leaving Palestine alone; they did not send an army against the crusaders until they were already at Jerusalem.

Chronological sequence of the Crusade

The Council of Clermont

Main article: Council of Clermont

In March of 1095 Alexius I sent envoys to the Council of Piacenza to ask Urban for aid against the Turks. The emperor's request met with a favourable response from Urban, who hoped to heal the Great Schism of 40 years prior and re-unite the Church under papal supremacy as "chief bishop and prelate over the whole world" (as he referred to himself at Clermont, [1]), by helping the Eastern churches in their time of need.

At the Council of Clermont, assembled in the heart of France in November 1095, Urban gave an impassioned sermon to a large audience of French nobles and clergy. He summoned the audience to wrest control of Jerusalem from the hands of the Muslims. France, he said, was overcrowded and the land of Canaan was overflowing with milk and honey. He spoke of the problems of noble violence and the solution was to turn swords to God's own service: "let robbers become knights." [2] He spoke of rewards both on earth and in heaven, where remission of sins was offered to any who might die in the undertaking. The crowd was stirred to frenzied enthusiasm with cries of "Deus le volt!" ("God wills it!").

Urban's sermon is among the most important speeches in European history. There are many versions of the speech on record, but all were written after Jerusalem had been captured, and it is difficult to know what was actually said and what was recreated in the aftermath of the successful crusade. However, it is clear that the response to the speech was much larger than expected. For the rest of 1095 and into 1096, Urban spread the message throughout France, and urged his bishops and legates to preach in their own dioceses elsewhere in France, Germany, and Italy as well. Urban tried to forbid certain people (including women, monks, and the sick) from joining the crusade, but found this to be nearly impossible. In the end the majority of those who took up the call were not knights, but peasants who were not wealthy and had little in the way of fighting skills, but whose millennial and apocalyptic yearnings found release from the daily oppression of their lives, in an outpouring of a new emotional and personal piety that was not easily harnessed by the ecclesiastical and lay aristocracy.

The People's Crusade

Main article: People's Crusade

Urban planned the departure of the crusade for August 15, 1096, but months before this a number of unexpected armies of peasants and lowly knights organized and set off for Jerusalem on their own. They were lead by a charismatic monk and powerful orator named Peter the Hermit of Amiens. The response was beyond expectations: while Urban might have expected a few thousand knights, he ended up with a migration numbering up to 100,000 mostly unskilled fighters including women and children.

Lacking military discipline, and in what likely seemed to the participants a strange land (eastern Europe) with strange customs, those first Crusaders quickly landed in trouble, in Christian territory. The problem was one of supply as well as culture: the people needed food and supplies, and they expected host cities to give them the foods and supplies - or at least sell them at prices they felt reasonable. Unfortunately for the Crusaders, the locals did not always agree, and this quickly led to fighting and skirmishing. On their way down the Danube, Peter's followers looted Hungarian territory and were attacked by the Hungarians, the Bulgarians, and even a Byzantine army near Nis. About a quarter of Peter's followers were killed, but they arrived largely intact at Constantinople in August. Constantinople was big for that time period in Europe, but so was Peter's "army", and cultural difference and a reluctance to supply such a large number of incoming people led to further tensions In Constantinople , moreover, Peter's followers weren't the only band of crusaders - they joined with other crusading armies from France and Italy. Alexius, not knowing what else to do with such a large and unusual (and foreign) army, quickly ferried them across the Bosporus.

After crossing into Asia Minor the Crusaders began to quarrel and the armies broke up into two separate camps. The Turks were experienced, savvy, and had local knowledge; most of the People's Crusade - a bunch of amateur warriors - was massacred upon entering Seljuk territory. Peter survived, however, and would later join the main Crusader army. Another army of Bohemians and Saxons did not make it past Hungary before splitting up.

The German Crusade

Main article: German Crusade, 1096

The First Crusade ignited a long tradition of organized violence against Jews in European culture. While anti-Semitism had existed in Europe for centuries, the First Crusade marks the first mass organized violence against Jewish communities. Setting off in the early summer of 1096, a German army of around 10,000 soldiers led by Gottschalk, Volkmar, and Emich of Leiningen, proceeding northward through the Rhine valley, in the opposite direction of Jerusalem, began what is known as "the first Holocaust", or pogrom.

The preaching of the crusade inspired further anti-Semitism. According to some preachers, Jews and Muslims were enemies of Christ, and enemies were to be fought or converted to Christianity. The general public apparently assumed that "fought" meant "fought to the death", or "killed". The Christian conquest of Jerusalem and the establishment of a Christian emperor there would supposedly instigate the End Times, during which the Jews were supposed to convert to Christianity. In parts of France and Germany, Jews were perceived as just as much of an enemy as Muslims: they were thought to be responsible for the crucifixion, and they were more immediately visible than the far-away Muslims. Many people wondered why they should travel thousands of miles to fight non-believers when there were already non-believers closer to home.

The crusaders moved north through the Rhine valley into well-known Jewish communities such as Cologne, and then southward. Jewish communities were given the option of converting to Christianity or be slaughtered. Most would not convert and as news of the mass killings spread many Jewish communities committed mass suicides in horrific scenes. Thousands of Jews were massacred, despite attempts by local clergy and secular authorities to shelter them. The massacres were justified by the claim that Urban's speech at Clermont promised reward from God for killing non-Christians of any sort, not just Muslims. Although the papacy abhorred the purging of Muslim and Jewish inhabitants during this and future crusades, there were numerous attacks on Jews following every crusade movement.

The Princes' Crusade

The First Crusade did not end with the disasters of the People's Crusade and the massacres of Jewish people. The Princes' Crusade, also known as the Barons' Crusade, set out later in 1096 in a more orderly manner, led by various nobles with bands of knights from different regions of Europe. The three most significant of these were the papal legate Adhemar of Le Puy; Raymond IV of Toulouse, who represented the knights of Provence; and Bohemund of Taranto, representing the Normans of southern Italy with his nephew Tancred. Other contingents were Lorrainers under the brothers Godfrey of Bouillon, Eustace and Baldwin of Boulogne; Flemings under Count Robert II of Flanders; northern French Robert of Normandy (older brother of King William II of England), Stephen, Count of Blois, and Hugh of Vermandois (younger brother of King Philip I of France, who was forbidden from participating as he was under a ban of excommunication).

The march to Jerusalem

Leaving Europe around the appointed time in August, the various armies took different paths to Constantinople and gathered outside its city walls in December of 1096, two months after the annihilation of the People's Crusade by the Turks. Accompanying the knights were many poor men (pauperes) who could afford basic clothing and perhaps an old weapon. Peter the Hermit, who joined the Princes' Crusade at Constantinople, was considered responsible for their well-being, and they were able to organize themselves into small groups, perhaps akin to military companies, often led by an impoverished knight. One of the largest of these groups, consisting of the survivors of the People's Crusade, named itself the "Tafurs ".

The Princes arrived with little food and expected provisions and help from Alexius I. Alexius was understandably suspicious after his experiences with the People's Crusade, and also because the knights included his old Norman enemy Bohemund. In return for food, Alexius I requested the leaders to swear fealty to him and promise to return to the Byzantine Empire any land recovered from the Turks. Without food or provisions they eventually had no choice but to take the oath, though not until all sides had agreed to various compromises, and only after warfare had almost broken out in the city. Only Raymond avoided swearing the oath, instead allying with Alexius against their common enemy Bohemund.

Alexius agreed to send out a Byzantine army to accompany the crusaders through Asia Minor. Their first objective was Nicaea, an old Byzantine city, but now the capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rüm under Kilij Arslan I. The city was subjected to a lengthy siege, which was somewhat ineffectual as the crusaders could not blockade the lake on which the city was situated, and from which it could be provisioned. Alexius, fearing the crusaders would sack the city and destroy the wealth it would bring the Byzantine Empire, secretly negotiated the surrender of the city; the crusaders awoke on the morning of June 19, 1097 to see Byzantine standards flying from the walls. To add insult to treachery, the crusaders were not allowed to enter the city except in small escorted bands, so deeply did Alexius distrust them. This caused a further rift between the Byzantines and the crusaders. The crusaders now began the journey to Jerusalem. One crusader wrote home, stating he believed it would take five weeks. In fact, the journey would take two years.

The crusaders, still accompanied by some Byzantine troops under Taticius, marched on towards Dorylaeum, where Bohemund was surrounded by Kilij Arslan. At the Battle of Dorylaeum on July 1, Godfrey broke through the Turkish lines, but he too was surrounded, and the two crusader armies were saved only by the timely appearance of the troops led by the legate Adhemar, who defeated the Turks and looted their camp. Kilij Arslan withdrew and the crusaders marched almost unopposed through Asia Minor towards Antioch, except for a battle in September in which they again defeated the Turks.

The march through Asia was unpleasant. It was the middle of summer and the crusaders had very little food and water; many men died, as did many horses, without which a knight was no more than an ordinary foot soldier. Christians, in Asia as in Europe, sometimes gave them gifts of food and money, but more often the crusaders looted and pillaged whenever the opportunity presented itself. Individual leaders continued to dispute the overall leadership, although none of them were powerful enough to take command; still, Raymond and Adhemar were generally recognized as the leaders. After passing through the Cilician Gates, Baldwin of Boulogne set off on his own towards the Armenian lands around the Euphrates. In Edessa early in 1098, he was adopted as heir by King Thoros, a Greek Orthodox ruler who was disliked by his Armenian subjects. Thoros was soon assassinated and Baldwin became the new ruler, thus creating the County of Edessa, the first of the crusader states.

Siege of Antioch

Main article: Siege of Antioch

The crusader army, meanwhile, marched on to Antioch, which lay about half way between Constantinople and Jerusalem. They arrived in October, 1097 and set it to a siege which lasted almost 8 months. Antioch was so large that the crusaders did not have enough troops to fully surround it, and thus it was able to stay partially supplied. As the siege dragged on, it was clear that Bohemund wanted the city for himself. In May 1098 Kerbogha of Mosul approached Antioch to relieve the siege. Bohemond bribed the Armenian guard of the city to open the gates, and in June the crusaders entered the city and killed most of the inhabitants. However, only a few days later the Muslims arrived, laying siege to the former besiegers. At this point a minor monk by the name of Peter Bartholomew claimed to have discovered the Holy Lance in the city, and although some were skeptical, this was seen as a sign that they would be victorious. On June 28 the crusaders defeated Kerbogha in a pitched battle outside the city, as Kerbogha was unable to organize the different factions in his army. According to legend, an army of Christian saints came to the aid of the crusaders during the battle.

Bohemund argued that Alexius had deserted the crusade and thus invalidated all of their oaths to him. Bohemund asserted his claim to Antioch, but not everyone agreed, and the crusade was delayed for the rest of the year while the nobles argued amongst themselves. It is a common historiographical assumption that the Franks of northern France, the Provencals of southern France, and the Normans of southern Italy considered themselves separate "nations" and that each wanted to increase its status. This may have had something to do with the disputes, but personal ambition is more likely to blame. Meanwhile a plague (perhaps typhus) broke out, killing many, including the legate Adhemar. There were now even fewer horses than before, and Muslim peasants refused to give them food. The minor knights and soldiers became restless and threatened to continue to Jerusalem without their squabbling leaders. Finally, at the beginning of 1099 the march was renewed, leaving Bohemund behind as the first Prince of Antioch.

Siege of Jerusalem

Main article: Siege of Jerusalem

Proceeding down the coast of the Mediterranean, the crusaders encountered little resistance, as local rulers preferred to make peace with them and give them supplies rather than fight. On May 7 the crusaders reached Jerusalem, which had been recaptured from the Seljuks by the Fatimids of Egypt only the year before. Many Crusaders wept on seeing the city they had journeyed so long to reach.

As with Antioch the crusaders put the city to a lengthy siege, in which the crusaders themselves suffered many casualties, due to the lack of food and water around Jerusalem. Of the estimated 7,000 knights who took part in the Princes' Crusade, only about 1,500 remained. Faced with a seemingly impossible task, their morale was raised when a priest by the name of Peter Desiderius claimed to have had a divine vision instructing them to fast and then march in a barefoot procession around the city walls, after which the city would fall in nine days, following the Biblical example of Joshua at the siege of Jericho. On July 8, 1099 the crusaders performed the procession as instructed by Desiderius. Meanwhile, siege engines were constructed and seven days later on July 15, the crusaders were able to end the siege by breaking down sections of the walls and entering the city.

Over the course of that afternoon, evening and next morning, the crusaders murdered almost every inhabitant of Jerusalem. Muslims, Jews, and even eastern Christians were all massacred. Although many Muslims sought shelter in Solomon's Temple (known today as Al-Aqsa Mosque), the crusaders spared few lives. According to the anonymous Gesta Francorum, in what some believe to be an exaggerated account of the massacre which subsequently took place there, "...the slaughter was so great that our men waded in blood up to their ankles..."[3]. Other accounts of blood flowing up to the bridles of horses are reminiscent of a passage from the Book of Revelation (14:20). Tancred claimed the Temple quarter for himself and offered protection to some of the Muslims there, but he was unable to prevent their deaths at the hands of his fellow crusaders. According to Fulcher of Chartres: "Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet coloured to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared."[4]

In the days following the massacre, Godfrey of Bouillon was made Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri (Protector of the Holy Sepulchre), refusing to be named king in the city where Christ had died. In the last action of the crusade, he led an army which defeated an invading Fatimid army at the Battle of Ascalon. Godfrey died in July, 1100, and was succeeded by his brother, Baldwin of Edessa, who took the title of "King of Jerusalem".

The Crusade of 1101 and the establishment of the kingdom

Main article: Crusade of 1101

Having captured Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the crusading vow was now fulfilled. However, there were many who had gone home before reaching Jerusalem, and many who had never left Europe at all. When the success of the crusade became known, these people were mocked and scorned by their families and threatened with excommunication by the clergy. Many crusaders who had remained with the crusade all the way to Jerusalem also went home; according to Fulcher of Chartres there were only a few hundred knights left in the newfound kingdom in 1100. In 1101 another crusade set out, including Stephen of Blois and Hugh of Vermandois, both of whom had returned home before reaching Jerusalem. This crusade was mostly annihilated in Asia Minor by the Seljuks, but the survivors helped reinforce the kingdom when they arrived in Jerusalem. In the following years assistance was also provided by Italian merchants who established themselves in the Syrian ports, and from the religious and military orders of the Knights Templars and the Knights Hospitaller which were created during Baldwin I's reign.

Analysis of the First Crusade


The success of the First Crusade was unprecedented. Newly achieved stability in the west left a warrior aristocracy in search of new conquests and patrimony, and the new prosperity of major towns also meant that money was available to equip expeditions. The Italian naval towns, in particular Venice and Genoa, were interested in extending trade. The Papacy saw the Crusades as a way to assert Catholic influence as a unifying force, with war as a religious mission. This was a new attitude to religion: it brought religious discipline, previously applicable to monks, to soldiery—the new concept of a religious warrior and the chivalric ethos.

The First Crusade succeeded in establishing the "Crusader States" of Edessa, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Tripoli in Palestine and Syria.

Back at home in western Europe, those who had survived to reach Jerusalem were treated as heroes. Robert of Flanders was nicknamed "Hierosolymitanus" thanks to his exploits. The life of Godfrey of Bouillon became legendary even within a few years of his death. In some cases the political situation at home was greatly affected by absence on the crusade: while Robert Curthose was away, Normandy had passed to his brother Henry I of England, and their conflict resulted in the Battle of Tinchebrai in 1106.

Meanwhile the establishment of the crusader states in the east helped ease Seljuk pressure on the Byzantine Empire, which had regained some of its Anatolian territory with crusader help, and experienced a period of relative peace and prosperity in the 12th century. The effect on the Muslim dynasties of the east was gradual but important. The instability of the Muslim territories in the east had at first prevented a coherent defense against the aggressive and expansionist Latin states. Cooperation between them remained difficult for many decades, but from Egypt to Syria to Baghdad there were calls for the expulsion of the crusaders, culminating in the relative unity of the eastern Muslim world and the recapture of Jerusalem under Saladin later in the century.

The pilgrims

Although it is called the First Crusade, no one saw themselves as a "crusader." The term crusade is an early 12th century term that first appears in Latin over 100 years after the "first" crusade. Nor did the "crusaders" see themselves as the first, since they did not know there would be more. They saw themselves simply as pilgrims (peregrinatores) on a journey (iter), and were referred to as such in contemporary accounts.

Popularity of the Crusade

What started as a minor call for military aid turned in to a mass migration of peoples. The call to go on crusade was very popular. Two medieval roles, holy warrior and pilgrim, were merged into one. Like a holy warrior in a holy war, one would carry a weapon and fight for the Church with all its spiritual benefits, including the privilege of an indulgence or martyrdom if one died in battle. Like a pilgrim on a pilgrimage, one would have the right to hospitality and personal protection of self and property by the Church. The benefits of the indulgence were therefore twofold, both for fighting as a warrior of the Church and for travelling as a pilgrim. Thus, an indulgence would be granted regardless of whether one lived or died. In addition, there were feudal obligations, as many crusaders went because they were commanded by their lord and had no choice. There were also family obligations, with many people joining the crusade in order to support relatives who had also taken the crusading vow. All of these motivated different people for different reasons and contributed to the popularity of the crusade.

Spiritual versus earthly rewards

Older scholarship on this issue asserts that the bulk of the participants were likely younger sons of nobles who were dispossessed of land and influenced by the practise of primogeniture, and poorer knights who were looking for a new life in the wealthy east.

However, current research suggests that although Urban promised crusaders spiritual as well as material benefit, the primary aim of most crusaders was spiritual rather than material gain. Moreover, recent research by Jonathan Riley-Smith instead shows that the crusade was an immensely expensive undertaking, affordable only to those knights who were already fairly wealthy, such as Hugh of Vermandois and Robert Curthose, who were relatives of the French and English royal families, and Raymond of Toulouse, who ruled much of southern France. Even then, these wealthy knights had to sell much of their land to relatives or the church before they could afford to participate. Their relatives, too, often had to impoverish themselves in order to raise money for the crusade. As Riley-Smith says, "there really is no evidence to support the proposition that the crusade was an opportunity for spare sons to make themselves scarce in order to relieve their families of burdens." (The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading, pg. 47)

As an example of spiritual over earthly motivation, Godfrey of Bouillon and his brother Baldwin settled previous quarrels with the church by bequeathing their land to local clergy. The charters denoting these transactions were written by clergymen, not the knights themselves, and seem to idealize the knights as pious men seeking only to fulfill a vow of pilgrimage.

Further, poorer knights (minores, as opposed to the greater knights, the principes) could go on crusade only if they expected to survive off of almsgiving, or if they could enter the service of a wealthier knight, as was the case with Tancred, who agreed to serve his uncle Bohemund. Later crusades would be organized by wealthy kings and emperors, or would be supported by special crusade taxes.

Selected sources and further reading

Primary sources

Primary sources online

Secondary sources

  • Asbridge, Thomas. The First Crusade: A New History. Oxford: 2004. ISBN 0195178238.
  • Bartlett, Robert. The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Exchange, 950–1350. Princeton: 1993.
  • Chazan, Robert. In the Year 1096: The First Crusade and the Jews. Jewish Publication Society, 1997. ISBN 0827605757.
  • Hillenbrand, Carole. The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives. Routledge, 2000. ISBN 0415929148.
  • Holt, P.M. The Age of the Crusades: The Near East from the Eleventh Century to 1517. Longman, 1989. ISBN 0582493021.
  • Mayer, Hans Eberhard. The Crusades. John Gillingham, translator. Oxford: 1988. ISBN 0198730977.
  • Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading. University of Pennsylvania: 1991. ISBN 0812213637.
  • Riley-Smith, Jonathan, editor. The Oxford History of the Crusades. Oxford: 2002. ISBN 0192803123.
  • Runciman, Steven. The First Crusaders, 1095–1131, Cambridge: 1998. ISBN 0521646030.
  • Setton, Kenneth, editor. A History of the Crusades. Madison: 1969–1989 (available online).


Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04