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  • James Houser

July 15, 1099 - The First Crusade

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 15, 1099. The First Crusade’s final assault breaches the walls of Jerusalem, with a terrible result for the civilians within the city. The victory and subsequent sack and massacre is the culmination of almost three years of campaigning and fighting by a polyglot European army from the West to the Holy Land. As we’ll see, though, no one really wins the Crusades.

The irony of the First Crusade is that it was both the crusade that should have been the least likely to succeed AND the only crusade that did. There was really no good reason why a barely organized army with no clear leader marching on foot across a whole continent into lands they didn’t even have a MAP of should be able to not only reach and take their target, but several other cities along the way. The fact that the First Crusade succeeded at all is surprising, since there were many occasions when it could have or should have fallen apart.

First, what were the Crusades? “Holy wars,” sure, but they were way more complex than that. They were also a response to rising population pressures and inheritance laws, the economic impulses of trade and commerce, and a very real desire by the Pope to reunify the divided Christian churches of Rome and Constantinople. The Crusades were not just a couple of events, but a whole period of about two centuries when there was a substantial Western Christian presence in Syria and Palestine, and this made things very complicated for everyone, least of all the Christians themselves.

The First Crusade only started because the Byzantine Emperor, Alexios I, was in a bad way in his wars against the Turks. The Byzantine Empire had suffered one of its worst ever defeats at Manzikert in 1071, and ever since then had steadily lost most of Anatolia (modern Turkey), one of its most important power centers. Faced with threats from the Turks to the east, the Pechenegs to the north and the Normans to the west, Alexios decided to offer an olive branch to the Pope in Rome. He sent a message asking for mercenaries and military assistance in exchange for possible moves towards a religious reconciliation – bringing the Roman Catholic Church and Greek Orthodox Church back into brotherhood with each other.

The Popes of Rome had long pursued the reunification of Christendom - ideally with the Popes of Rome as leaders. You can’t blame Pope Urban II for jumping at the chance to mend fences with Orthodox Christianity. You probably CAN blame him for making a huge speech at Clermont, calling for a massive military expedition to the east. Urban described it as an “armed pilgrimage” to save the Greeks, and promised remission of sins to any who died in its undertaking. Urban was more enthusiastic than tactful, though; he offered no specifics in his plan, nor did he specify a target or a mission. This would have unfortunate consequences.

See, somehow the Crusaders got it into their heads that “helping the Greeks” equalled “taking Jerusalem.” That was not something the Byzantines were remotely thinking about, but there wasn’t exactly a policy statement sitting around, and Alexios’s phone was on silent and he wasn’t picking up. So when the Crusaders DID show up and proclaim their intent to march on Jerusalem, and Alexios more or less said “You want to do WHAT?”, they all learned a valuable lesson about the importance of communication. Except for Urban, he was already dead.

The first and MOST unfortunate consequence was the immediate launching of a People’s Crusade. See, the people with hard armor and sharp pointy objects – that is, knights, nobles, and soldiers – recognized that a Crusade would take months of planning, preparation and mustering. If you were someone who didn’t know how to fight a war, like Peter the Hermit for instance, you might instead rouse up a barely armed mob of untrained and illiterate peasants. You might decide that you don’t need to get to the Holy Land to start the killing, and target the local Jews instead. You might also ping-pong around Eastern Europe with no idea where you’re going, robbing, looting, and pissing off everyone you run into INCLUDING the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I, who is NOT going to help you after this. You may then march boldly into Muslim territories, get massacred by the very experienced and capable Muslim armies, and have the rest of your army sold into slavery.


The ACTUAL First Crusade linked up outside the walls of Constantinople in November 1096, prepared to rest for the winter before moving on for Jerusalem. Alexios I was not really enthusiastic about this whole endeavor anymore. 35,000 heavily armed Westerners who needed feeding and arming had suddenly turned up on his doorstep, arguing over who was in charge. The People’s Crusade hadn’t helped his mood either. One armed mob led by a crazy hermit that staggers across your lands and gets owned by your enemies might make you suspicious of the next one. Plus, Alexios had been asking for a few mercenaries or maybe some financial support, not a large feudal army aimed at Jerusalem. He was shocked they would even try, since Jerusalem had been lost to the Byzantines for over four centuries.

The Crusaders, on the other hand, were offended that Alexios was so cool to them – HE had been the one to ask for help, after all. When they finally did move out in 1097, Alexios only went so far to help them – his priority was to reconquer Anatolia, theirs was to take Jerusalem (for some reason, as Alexios might have grumbled). So after a few major engagements, the Crusader army set out on its own into hostile territory to reach Antioch, the main city of medieval Syria, then Jerusalem.

Hostile territory – whose hostile territory? Well, that was a long story. One of the main reasons the First Crusade was able to succeed at all was because the Islamic Middle East was politically divided, without any clear major power. The Caliphs in Baghdad had been powerless for some time, and each local lord tended to rule his own territory pretty well. Syria and Palestine in particular were kind of a “no-man’s-land” between the Seljuk Turks in Iraq and the Fatimid Sultans in Egypt.

It’s worth looking at this from the Muslim perspective: you’ve spent the last 30 years trying to strategize against a few well-known foes to retake, say, Aleppo, and then an army of crazy barbarians comes barreling out of nowhere screaming something about Jerusalem. No one quite knew how to react. The Muslims for the next two centuries would refer to the Crusaders as just “Franks,” since they knew vaguely about Charlemagne but at first had no idea who these people were or WHY exactly they were running around in Syria all of a sudden. It was, in a very real sense, a barbarian invasion.

The Crusader army was not exactly a well-oiled machine. It was made up of nobles from France, Belgium, Germany and Italy, along with their local infantry and a whole mess of hangers-on from various other places. There was no clear leader; this was a group project, with all of the problems and benefits that entails. (Hint: few benefits, lots of problems.) There were seven major noble leaders, some of whom absolutely hated each other. Among them were Bohemond of Taranto, a Norman leader from Sicily; Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine, from eastern France; Robert, Duke of Normandy, eldest son of William the Conqueror; and Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse. The “mediator” for all these hotheaded knights was Adhemar of Le Puy, a French bishop who served as Urban’s personal representative.

Bohemond would be the most troublesome of the Crusaders, mainly because of his hostility to the Byzantines and his obvious ambition to gain a territory and title of his own. While he was an excellent and brave combat leader, nobody really trusted him.

From the end of 1097 to the middle of 1098, the Crusaders undertook the long and difficult siege of Antioch, one of the key cities of medieval Syria; they had to take Antioch in order to move on safely for Jerusalem. The Siege of Antioch was completely bonkers and is a post all on its own. The end result, though, was the Breaking of the Fellowship. Adhemar’s death got rid of the group project’s mediator. Bohemond revealed his true colors and said that it was fine if they wanted to go on to Jerusalem or whatever, but he wanted to take Antioch and make it his new territory. Some other Crusader lords went haring off to Edessa and in other directions to carve out nice little fiefdoms for themselves. To make matters worse, a lot of their soldiers had died or gone home, and the locals weren’t exactly lining up to join the ranks.

So when the First Crusade was finally ready to march on Jerusalem after almost three years, they were down to a quarter of their original strength and half their leadership. Adhemar was dead and Bohemond was quitting while he was ahead. Godfrey of Bouillon ended up taking the helm for the Crusaders as they marched down the Mediterranean Coast towards Jerusalem.

None of these guys had ever seen Jerusalem, mind you. They were deep in territory were every local ruler hated their guts, they were armed and trained for fighting in the fields of France and not the sands of the Middle East, and they probably all had dysentery by now. Any half-decent Muslim force should have been able to knock them off without much effort. The problem was – due to the aforementioned lack of unity in medieval Islam – there was no half-decent force. They had only won the Siege of Antioch when another Muslim army showed up to attack the Muslims that were attacking them. Now as they proceeded toward Jerusalem, the local governor was in a state of panic.

Iftikhar ad-Dawla was holding Jerusalem for the Fatimid Sultans, the Shi’ite rulers of Egypt who until very recently had been way more worried about the Turks than some nutso white people who came crashing through the roof ranting about Jerusalem and remission of sins and someone called Saint George. Hell, the Fatimids had only taken Jerusalem back from the Turks a year before, and they hadn’t had time to prepare the walls or rebuild defenses. So Jerusalem wasn’t exactly defended very well. Iftikhar began preparing as best he could for the oncoming Christians, expelling all Christians from the city out of fear of betrayal and poisoning all wells outside the walls.

The Christians, on the other hand, believed Jerusalem to be the center of the cosmos and of reality – heaven on Earth as described in sermons and medieval text. They were probably wondering right about now why heaven was so humid and full of Arabs and Jews. When they arrived outside the walls of Jerusalem on June 7, 1099, they were confronted by a wall about three miles long, three yards thick and sixteen yards high. The Christians slowly surrounded the city, and on June 13 launched their first assault. They hadn’t had time to build real siege engines, though, and only found enough wood for a single ladder – so the June 13 attack failed.

As the month dragged on, the Christians slowly brought up supplies to construct their ladders, battering rams and siege-towers, building some of the best and most complex siege weapons of the century in about three weeks. They faced great hardship from the searing heat of the Middle East in July, as well as a lack of water. Soon Godfrey got word that the Fatimid Sultan was sending an army to relieve Jerusalem. All their bad luck was about to catch up to them, so Godfrey decided that they had to attack as soon as possible.

On July 14, the Crusaders launched their assault. Even though they were not enough in number to achieve overwhelming superiority, they had vastly more combat experience than the unlucky militia manning the walls. By day one of the attack Godfrey and his knights had broken through the outer wall, and by July 15 they were on top of the towers above the gates. The Crusaders scaled their ladders and emerged from their siege towers, overrunning the enemy defenses; soon the Fatimid garrison was retreating everywhere.

What happened next was unusual even for medieval standards. A city taken by storm almost always suffers badly in any time period, no matter who was doing the storming or why they were fighting, and the medieval period was no exception. Just in the last year, both Crusaders and Fatimids had committed atrocities against cities they captured. Even still, the sack of Jerusalem was regarded as beyond the pale even by medieval standards – even by contemporaries. Christian and Muslim authors alike expressed horror and disgust at the massacre in Jerusalem.

The streets of Jerusalem were filled with blood. The crusaders massacred every inhabitant of the city, Muslim and Jew alike – the only reason they didn’t kill a bunch of Christians as well was their previous expulsion. Multiple eyewitness sources cite the widespread slaughter of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and even the Crusade’s leaders and nobles were unable to stop it. It is unclear to this day whether the massacre was deliberate policy or the unstoppable passion of men on campaign for three years, seeking vengeance and blood for their suffering and casualties. What is clear is that the Crusade’s leaders did not try TOO hard to stop it. About 40,000 people probably died in the sack and massacre of Jerusalem. If it was supposed to be heaven on Earth, they sure didn’t behave like it.

With the capture of Jerusalem, the First Crusade was at its end. The Christians had won! Awesome! Wait…where are you going?

See, it was a lot easier to take Jerusalem than hold it. To many Crusaders, like Raymond of Toulouse and Robert of Normandy, they had taken Jerusalem back and they were done. Time to go home. Never mind that the Crusaders now occupied a tiny sliver of land in a sea of Muslims who were VERY aware of the capture of Jerusalem and the desecration of Islamic holy places. Never mind that they didn’t have many soldiers left already, and that the Fatimids and the Turks were going to whip up expeditions to take their lands back.

So as the First Crusade ended and most of its veterans went home, the true failing of the Crusades came to light. A ragtag Christian army could, yes, fight its way through hundreds of miles of hostile territory and seize their holy city. But now the element of surprise was gone. The hard part wouldn’t be taking Jerusalem. The hard part was keeping it.

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