The First Crusade

There was curiously little pacifism in the High Middle Ages. St Augustine, already by the fourth century, had formulated a theory of just war (bellum justum), and subsequent clerics interwove his theory into a wider ideology of Christian kingship. The ideal Christian king tried to avoid war or, if war was unavoidable, tried to find honourable ways to re-establish peace (‘Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God’, Matthew 5:9). The Christian prince whose lands were invaded without legitimate reason or whose subjects were imperilled by the forces of a rival prince or by rebellion would necessarily use war as an instrument of policy and could do so legitimately.

War had rules – in time this elaborate set of rules became known as chivalry. In the late eleventh century, it was widely accepted in elite circles that non-combatants were not licit targets, unless they were spies or harboured or supplied the enemy. Under special protection were those considered as the most vulnerable non-combatants: women and children in general, but especially widows and orphans, as well as priests, monks, nuns, the aged and the infirm.

The just wars of the biblical past, for which the book of Joshua provided textual proof, openly received the blessing of God. Had He not made the sun stand still so that Joshua’s victory might be assured? (Joshua 10:12). In the most extreme statement of the case, it was said that wars against non-believers who had attacked the people of God were waged by the direct will of God. Apart from direct illumination from the Almighty, how better to determine the will of God than to have a priest, preferably the high priest, sanctify the war?

Jesus’s rebuke to Peter, who tried to defend him when he was being taken prisoner in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion, was the proof here: ‘Put up thy sword into the sheath’ (Matthew 26:52). The sword of physical retribution was not to be wielded by the spiritual descendants of St Peter – the clergy – but lordship over the sword still remained with the clergy: ‘Put up thy sword.’ It therefore rested with the Church, according to some ecclesiastical theorists, to determine how and under what conditions secular rulers could legitimately unsheathe and wield the sword of physical retribution. This was not in conflict with the older ‘doctrine of the two swords’ – one, spiritual (humiliation, malediction, excommunication, interdict), to be employed by the Church to coerce open but recalcitrant sinners; the other, temporal (physical force), to be employed by secular rulers. Rather, it clarified the traditional doctrine of the two swords by explaining the Church’s superintendence of temporal authority.

There was a centuries-old liturgy of war that emphasized certain other aspects of the intimate relationship between the clergy and righteous military violence. Ideally there was general fasting before battles were waged, and the clergy present in the entourage of the army celebrated votive masses, asking for victory and promising eternal devotion to God. The priests blessed the commanders and their troops and gave sermons of exhortation, the spiritual equivalent of the secular commanders’ harangues. They led the faithful in hymns and responsive readings like Psalm 20 (Vulgate 19), with the famous verse, ‘Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God. They are brought down and fallen: but we are risen, and stand upright.’

Also drawing on the stories in the biblical Book of Joshua of the conquest of the Promised Land, the clergy and the commanders commemorated victory, suggestive if not self-evident testimony, when and if it came, of the justness of their cause. They did so in part by following the example of the ancient Hebrews, who, at God’s command, despoiled their beaten enemies during the conquest of the Promised Land (e.g., Joshua 8: 26–27). They also obliged the army to hear mass, to rededicate itself to the vows of devotion with which the soldiers had prepared for battle, and to honour the weapons of war in the cult of military relics.

So, already in the eleventh century elite thinkers and other high-born people knew what a just war was and how it should be fought, even if they did not live up to their ideals. The Peace and Truce of God had done much to disseminate and popularize some of these ideals, but a particular set of events in the late eleventh century helped to create a more remarkable type of just and holy war – the crusade.

There was, it has been argued, a significant strain of millenarian feeling in eleventh-century western European society. This was perhaps slightly more characteristic of the earlier part of the century, but it may be that millennial and apocalyptic movements of a more or less popular character were in train throughout the century. The idea of a decisive colossal confrontation between the forces of good and the servants of evil was at the prophetic centre of several of these movements.

Jerusalem and its liberation, and more particularly the deliverance of the Holy Sepulchre, the Tomb of Christ, from pagan domination, loomed large in apocalyptic discourse. (In the eleventh and into the twelfth century Christians in northern Europe tended to regard Muslims as pagans.) Jerusalem was being used as a first name for girls in the West (Riley-Smith, 1997, p. 33), evidence of the penetration of its image into popular consciousness; and pilgrimages to Jerusalem from the West, relatively uncommon from the seventh to the tenth century, began to increase in frequency in the tenth. They became fairly common in the eleventh and also on occasion enormously large. In 1054, one band of such pilgrims numbered 3,000. Seven thousand Germans are said to have joined together to make the Jerusalem pilgrimage in 1064–5.

Reports of various Muslim victories over Near Eastern and Spanish Christians and of the gestures that sometimes followed fuelled the smouldering hatred and desire for vengeance by western Catholics. In October 1086, the Muslim victors at the battle of Sagrajas in Spain had the heads of the Christian victims gathered up into wagons and in a gruesome procession the wagons made their way down the peninsula and thence through North Africa with their rotting trophies. Pope Gregory VII himself, a decade or so before, seems to have envisaged the papacy’s retainers, the fideles of St Peter, as a possible army, to be accompanied by him, for delivering eastern Christians from the onslaught of their Muslim enemies and also for redeeming Jerusalem. Because of the Investiture Controversy and perhaps lingering doubts about the appropriateness of direct papal involvement in fighting, the fantasy never became reality, and important features of genuine crusade ideology, such as the penitential vow of the troops, were lacking in his vision, but Gregory’s musings helped inspire and sustain other images of a just war of liberation in reform circles.

After his election in 1088, and being obliged to vie with the imperial anti-pope Clement III for backing, Pope Urban II cast about for support in numerous ways. In part owing to the Peace Movement a close relationship had emerged between local aristocracies and a number of powerful monasteries, especially in France. Focusing on prayer – the prayers of the monks for the ancestors and living members of these aristocratic lineages – the relationship implicitly and sometimes explicitly raised the hope of these aristocrats’ salvation because of the good work they did in protecting the monastic life, the highest form of the Christian life and, by extension, Christendom in general. In practice, protection was ordinarily achieved by persuasion or the threat of force rather than by the actual use of force against would-be malefactors. But when persuasion and threats failed, the application of force against those who attacked monks and other vulnerable Christians was believed to be righteous in itself.

Force in the service of retributive justice (the bellum justum) was carefully distinguished from the fury and chaos attending ‘petty’ disputes among lords, the acts of internecine violence (guerrae, the origin of our modern word ‘war’) that had plagued the Central Middle Ages and helped excite the Peace Movement in the first place and which were still thickly woven into the fabric of social life in the late eleventh century. But Urban II or one of his advisers, drawing on the legacy of Gregory VII and inspired by pleas for help from eastern Christians, took another decisive step in the development of the idea of the crusade. The same lords who protected monks could protect Christendom east and west by directing their violence against the Muslim invaders and conquerors of the eastern Mediterranean, including the Holy Land.

There is some uncertainty as to the rewards the pope promised these would-be soldiers in his famous sermon at the Council of Clermont in southern France on 27 November 1095. But there is no doubt that the idea of fighting to regain the Holy Sepulchre or to help fellow Christians in the east was in the air and met a genuinely enthusiastic response. Although the mutual excommunications of pope and patriarch of Constantinople in 1054, emphasized so much in traditional interpretations, had exacerbated tensions between the western and eastern churches, they had not set them in malignant combat or reduced all mutual feelings of respect to nothing.

At the Council of Clermont shouts went up of ‘God wills it! God wills it!’ in response to the pope’s words. He appealed to lords and lordlings to put aside their petty strife, which would lead them to hell, and instead to take up the Cross, to offer their lives to save threatened Christians. Would there be sin in killing their enemies in what was clearly conceived of as a just and holy war? No. Would there be remission of sins in some wider sense, a wiping clean of the slate or immediate entrance into paradise if one died in the effort? The pope might have been carried away and uttered ambiguous words on this occasion or on any of the many subsequent occasions on which he gave similar speeches in favour of an expedition to the east. Certainly some of his audience that first day and many others later on believed that faithfully fighting in such an expedition would be rewarded with full forgiveness of all past sins and that death in such fighting was equivalent to martyrdom. Although learned churchmen understood and stressed the penitential nature of crusading, they were far more insistent on the limited nature of the forgiveness that joining or dying on a crusade might entail.

The pope recognized from the moment he addressed the crowds in Clermont that he had touched a well-spring of militant devotion. He continued in future sermons to make the same plea and to urge those lords who responded to make firm plans for an expedition in the spring of 1096. It may well be that some of the enthusiasm at subsequent councils and rallies in late 1095 and early 1096 was scripted, with supporters of the pope’s plan strategically planted in the crowds to get the chanting of ‘God wills it!’ started. It may also be the case that the genuine enthusiasm of the moment sometimes ebbed in the weeks that followed, as lords came to recognize the dangers and expense of the long and otherwise unpredictable journey they were going on. Fear of dying in a far-off place when one’s expectation had been to be buried in the choir of the family church, or at least in Christian soil, troubled their souls. It would later be stipulated that the flesh could be buried but the bones of dead crusaders had to be brought back for separate burial in their native lands.

All these apprehensions notwithstanding, the crusading movement, once started, grew exponentially in territories like France, the southern Low Countries, and those parts of Italy where the legitimacy of Urban’s pontificate was recognized. And, given its later successes, attributed to the intervention of God (He simply worked through the Franks), it raised disturbing questions about the evident lack of imperial sponsorship for the project. Emperor Henry IV was well aware of this, for at one point he offered to join the crusade himself. But as he would not yield on the point of lay investiture, his offer came to nothing.

Pope Urban II encouraged those who took the vow to prepare conscientiously, and the principal leaders, including many Flemish, Rhine-land, northern French and Provençal barons – though in the end no king – ultimately settled on 15 August 1096, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, as the date of departure. However, it was difficult to co-ordinate and control efforts that were taking place all over northwestern Europe, and what is sometimes known as the Peasants’ Crusade or Popular Crusade – the expeditions of several dispersed groups under the leadership of various itinerant preachers and knights – set off in the late spring. A small group at Rouen in Normandy helped set the violent and almost anarchic tone of these early expeditions by massacring several Jews in the city. Another of these groups, somewhat better commanded by a knight known as Walter the Penniless (Sansavoir), left France and travelled through Germany and Hungary, making it to the outskirts of Constantinople by July. A third group, led by the charismatic preacher, Peter the Hermit, arrived there by the end of July, but on their way these poorly disciplined troops provoked any number of bloody and, for them, humbling skirmishes with Hungarian and Byzantine soldiers.

Many of the earliest crusaders never made it, even to Constantinople. The disorder and depredations of one group, whose leader was a priest by the name of Gottschalk, provoked the Hungarians, through whose lands they were marching, to destroy them. An otherwise unknown preacher named Volkmar led his followers to a similar fate in Nitra on the Hungarian border with Bohemia, but only after they had violently attacked the Jews of Prague. The most notorious of the bands was led by the Swabian Count Emich of Flonheim. He and his followers, inspired in part by the desire to loot but mainly, it seems, to force the Jews’ conversion, carried out a series of violent attacks in the Rhineland, repercussions from which would reach down the centuries.

Before they left Germany on their way to the east and were themselves cut down by Hungarian forces, Emich’s men and other bands ravaged the Jewish communities of Speyer, Worms, Mainz, Cologne, Trier, Metz and Regensburg. In some cases, like Mainz, the entire Jewish population of these towns was annihilated; at others (Regensburg is an example) nearly every Jew was forced to convert to Christianity. Even where Christian authorities, especially bishops, intervened to protect the Jews, the situation continued to be ferociously dangerous. Occasionally, for example, Jews were dispersed into the countryside to prevent the crusaders from besieging them en masse, but search parties hunted down the refugees in villages and hamlets. On other occasions, churchmen promised protection at the price of conversion. Most arresting, perhaps, was that in several places Jewish resistance to the crusaders’ demands for conversion assumed the form of voluntary suicide. Many Jewish women led the way, urging the men of their communities to take their own lives rather than convert. Parents also slaughtered their children as a supreme act of devotion.

There had been rare instances of mass suicide earlier in the history of Judaism, but in 1096 and later years rabbis were troubled as to the moral legitimacy of the suicides. In the end, they came to accept them and subsequent ones as legitimate responses to the threat of forced conversion, and generations of poets would celebrate the heroism of the martyr suicides and the martyred children. Many of their names would be inscribed in memorial lists. The poetry celebrating their sacrifice entered the liturgy of the synagogue, so that the memory of the events of 1096 and of the martyrs and victims in later crusades and at other crises would never be forgotten.

Oh, how the children cried aloud!

Trembling, they see their brothers slaughtered;

the mother binding her son, lest he profane the sacrifice by shuddering;

the father making the ritual blessing to sanctify the slaughter.

Compassionate women strangle their own children;

pure virgins shriek bitterly;

brides kiss their bridegrooms farewell –

and all rush eagerly to be slaughtered.

Almighty Lord, dwelling on high,

in days of old the angels cried out to You to put a halt to one sacrifice.

And now, so many are bound and slaughtered –

why do they not clamour over my infants?

(Carmi, 1981, pp. 372–3)

Relations between Christians and Jews were affected in at least one other way by the horrendous incidents of 1096. A fissure developed in the Jewish community between those who seem to have developed a more restricted understanding of proper Jewish life and those who went back to the way of life they knew before. It is probably unfair to see the movement or sect attributed to these hasidim or pietists of the Rhineland only as a reaction to the crusade massacres, but that slaughter must have had an enormous impact in sustaining the rigorous beliefs of those survivors who insisted on a more pious way of living and an even greater avoidance of social and religious contamination by contact with non-pious Jews, let alone Christians. The sect disappeared in time; its ideas, embedded in an important body of texts, especially the Sefer Hasidim (‘Book of the Pious’), have repeatedly inspired revival movements among European Jews.


Although most of the contingents of the Peasants’ Crusade never reached Constantinople, those commanded by Walter the Penniless and Peter the Hermit did. The Byzantine emperor, Alexius, and his commanders were suspicious of these rag-tag troops and, rather than have them bivouac for a protracted length of time on the outskirts of the imperial capital, they transported them across the straits to Asia Minor on 6 August. There the crusaders split into several groups, largely along linguistic lines. A few early raids were successful, but a large band of German crusaders was isolated and defeated near Nicea and forced to convert to Islam and be deported eastwards or, if they refused, to die. By 21 October, the main body of crusaders, chastened by the slaughter of their comrades but still not coordinating their operations competently, and with relatively ineffective military intelligence, came face to face with overwhelming Turkish forces and were annihilated.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, the Princely Crusade was in the final stages of preparation. Powerful aristocrats commanded the various units, and in each case the commander knew that his retinue had honed their skills in battles at home. Long-standing and strong personal loyalties bound many of the units as well. It is a myth that the crusaders were composed of landless young knights; they tended to be mature and experienced men who left considerable properties behind. The prominence of loyalty among these warriors did not mean that there was always harmony within the units or that the various units themselves coordinated their efforts effectively. Nevertheless, there was a military ethos that informed the Princely Crusade in a way that it did not the Peasants’ Crusade. Moreover, the new units were relatively better supplied than their predecessors. Partly this was because the great aristocrats had much more cash and credit at their disposal to buy equipment and other supplies. Partly, however, it was a matter of timing: having departed at a later date, the new crusaders had more liberty to plan, while also having the opportunity to benefit from the harvests of 1096.

The chief princes and their crusader retinues began to arrive in Constantinople in November and continued to arrive until May 1097, and were steadily ferried across the Bosporus in anticipation of engagement. Most of the commanders promised that, if they were successful, those lands they conquered which had once been part of the Byzantine Empire would revert to the Empire, a necessary concession if Byzantine troops were to complement their efforts, as in fact they did for a time. According to the best estimates, the crusade could count on more than 40,000 troops.

This enormous army appeared at Nicea on 19 June and overawed the Turkish garrison, which surrendered to the Byzantines. A week later, the crusaders set out for the interior and on 1 July defeated additional Turkish forces at Dorylaeum. Forty-eight hours later they resumed their march, traversing city after city of interior Asia Minor in the weeks that followed, but eventually encountering another major Turkish force at Ereghli in early September. Here, too, the crusading army crushed their enemies and sent the remnants packing.

Two of the leading commanders, Baldwin of Boulogne and a mercurial baron, Tancred, the son of Robert Guiscard, then took contingents eastwards and south-eastwards, where they accomplished the reconquest of the coastal cities of Anatolia, including Tarsus, which they knew as St Paul’s birthplace. Baldwin followed up this success with the conquest of Edessa and, after supplanting its Armenian prince, he set up the first crusader principality there. Pressure was then put on the temperamental Tancred to rejoin the main crusader army, which was engaged in the long siege of Antioch from 21 October 1097 until June 1098.

The successful conclusion of the siege, with only the Muslim garrison of the citadel still holding out, led to the occupation of Antioch, but a few days later a large number of Turkish reinforcements arrived and surrounded the occupied city. At this point, a Byzantine army in reserve a few miles from Antioch and under the direct command of Emperor Alexius might have saved the situation, but the emperor’s military intelligence overstated the size of the Turkish forces and the significance of their early successes. The Byzantines therefore withdrew.

Out of this desperate situation arose the first great sequence of events that would mark the crusade – in the crusaders’ minds at least – as undeniably God’s work. Visionaries among the besieged claimed to have received comfort and inspiration personally from Jesus. The Blessed Virgin’s appearance was reported, as were the appearances of St Andrew and St Peter. And, miracle of miracles, thanks to a poor peasant, a lance was found under the floor of the Cathedral of Antioch which was said to be, though not everyone at first credited the tale, the lance with which the centurion had stabbed the dead Christ on the Cross (John 19:34). The Holy Lance, regarded as a relic, was interpreted as a sign for the crusaders to abandon the relative safety of Antioch’s defences and confront the Turks directly. On 28 June, they did just that. Completely surprised and unnerved by the crusaders’ daring, the Turks fled. Equally surprised by the failure of the Muslim army, the citadel garrison, which until that moment had courageously held out, also surrendered to the crusaders. Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians, was now entirely in crusader hands.

The crusaders believed that such success, like finding the Holy Lance itself, was a sign from God, but success also bred strife. The treachery of the Byzantine emperor, as some of the crusaders conceived it, relieved them of the necessity of honouring their promise to return all conquered lands to his authority. Other commanders demurred at forswearing their solemn oaths. Presently disease afflicted the army, felling some of its most gifted commanders and decimating the ranks. But despite this, the bickering persisted: as they continued to debate future plans, what was and was not pleasing to God became painfully and dangerously uncertain.

By January 1099 many of the rank and file were rallying around lesser lords, who intended to bring order to the army by compelling dissident commanders, by force if necessary, to put aside their disagreements and resume the march. Force was necessary, it turned out (in the guise of an attack on the fortifications of Raymond of Saint-Gilles, who favoured holding to the agreement with the Byzantines), but it was followed by a sobering rededication to the expedition. By February most of what was left of the army was on the move, traversing Lebanon and reaching Palestine in May. On 6 June Tancred conquered Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, and on 7 June the bulk of the army began the siege of Jerusalem. There were now approximately 15,000 troops left to do so.

They moved more quickly than they had at Antioch to end the siege, storming the city on 15 July. The frenzy of the assault and the slaughter were of epic proportions, as the crusaders took control.

Many of the Saracens [Muslims] who had climbed to the top of the Temple of Solomon in their flights were shot to death with arrows and fell headlong from the roof. Nearly ten thousand were beheaded in this Temple. If you had been there your feet would have been stained to the ankles in the blood of the slain. What shall I say? None of them were left alive. Neither women nor children were spared. (Fulcher of Chartres, 1969, pp. 121–2).

A week later the victors elected Godfrey of Bouillon as ruler – not king – of Jerusalem: Jesus was king. But they had learned something from the experience at Antioch. The Muslims would undoubtedly send another force to try to retake Jerusalem, and indeed an enormous Egyptian force invaded Palestine in August. But on the twelfth of the month, crusader forces surprised the Egyptians near Ascalon, on the Mediterranean coast about fifty miles west of the Holy City, and utterly destroyed them.

The First Crusade had reached its emotional high point, and it is customary to claim that the crusade more or less ended at this moment. The setting up of principalities and the evolution of political and religious life proceeded apace, but these hardly appeared to be aspects of the crusade itself. In fact, the crusade was far from over. For the next twenty years, men streamed into the Holy Land and fought any number of actions in the extraordinary attempt to stabilize, expand and territorially consolidate the Crusader States. These actions were the necessary coda of the more spectacular conquest of Jerusalem and are properly considered part of the First Crusade. What this almost continuous warfare ensured was that the political institutions and social arrangements of the Crusader States would be skewed. What has sometimes been said of Spain in the era of the Reconquest can be said even more accurately of the Crusader States: they constituted a society organized almost solely according to the exigencies of war.

One of the more distinctive features of this society was the presence of military orders, well-organized associations of devout Christians who cared for and provided protection for pilgrims, nursed the sick, and ultimately took an active part in the military defence of the Crusader States. Groups of people dedicated to the nursing of pilgrims probably existed before 1099, but there were dramatic increases in the numbers of Christian pilgrims to the Holy City from the time of the Christian reconquest onwards. Pilgrims to Jerusalem characteristically, if not exclusively, were aged or sick; they came to the city not for miraculous cures but in order to die where Christ had died. It was in part due to the pressure of such numbers that the people ministering to them organized themselves into formal orders. The earliest of these seems to have been the Order of St John of Jerusalem, known more familiarly as the Hospitallers. The Order of the Temple of Solomon or Knights Templars came into being in 1119–20, originally to guard the pilgrimage routes.

The Hospitallers ran the great pilgrim hospital in the Holy City, sometimes employing Jewish and Muslim physicians to help minister to the sick. The hospital accepted both Muslims and Jews who needed care. Orphans of war and abandoned children were taken in and put in the charge of female nurses; when they came of age they were invited to join the Order. But, as was typical of the military orders, the Hospitallers, while never losing their original function, came more and more to be identified as a fighting force. The Order’s great hospital, perhaps 1,000 beds or more, was often filled with the wounded from its own battles.

The military orders, in their mature form, came to be composed of knights who took monastic vows and vowed celibacy, priests who carried out the spiritual functions of the order, sergeants from lesser social backgrounds, and nuns who helped nurse women and children and who prayed for the success of the Christian mission. They were international orders who owed direct obedience to the pope and were supported by houses established throughout Europe which both sent funds to the orders in the Holy Land and provided venues for the retirement of older members of the orders. Their work, in the heroic age following the conquest of Jerusalem, was deeply admired. To St Bernard, who wrote in praise of the Templars, they represented a new order of Christian knighthood. King Alfonso I of Navarre and Aragon (d. 1131) wanted to give one-third of his kingdom to the Hospitallers to carry on their work.


The news in Christendom of the fall of Jerusalem and the good work of devoted Christians confirmed, more than almost anything else could, the spirit of renewal that had been articulated in the efforts at papal and popular reform. Of the crusaders who lived and returned home to Europe, few came back rich, and the difficult local conditions that had arisen on their estates during their absence often demanded extraordinary efforts at peacekeeping and restoration on their part. All of these men had lost kinsmen and good friends in great numbers in the deserts and plains of the Near East. Nonetheless, those who returned relished recalling their adventures – stories of their suffering and courage that grew in the retelling into wondrous tales of inspiration for generations to come.

Those who had failed to go on the expedition felt all the more need to prove themselves as time went by. But the specialness of having gone on the First Crusade was never lost. Families assiduously preserved the memory of the participation of their ancestors. Other families who could not count an ancestor on the expedition found it difficult to explain why this was so, since nobility and the defence of Christendom were so closely related in the aristocratic imagination. As time passed, some of these lineages ‘invented’ ancestral participants in the First Crusade by clever misreadings, whether deliberate or inadvertent, of original chronicle reports (Murray, 1998, pp. 38–54). Surely, it might be said, if the family of so-and-so had gone off to war in the East with a great entourage, and this family was closely connected to one’s own, then it was only natural and right to suppose that in that entourage one’s own kinfolk could be numbered. To have served Christendom in this, allegedly the most righteous of its wars, was the crowning achievement of nobility.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.