The First Crusade: The Journey to the East I

December 1096–June 1097

Between August and October 1096 the larger, wealthier, more disciplined armies embarked eastwards. The anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum who travelled with Bohemund of Taranto, or based his account on the memories of those who did, described the process, beginning with Godfrey of Bouillon’s departure from Lorraine in mid-August, before recounting a rather fancifully dramatic account of Bohemund’s recruitment to the cause of the Cross in September.

Our second army came through the Dalmatian lands, and it was led by Raymond count of St Gilles, and the bishop of Le Puy. The third came by way of the old Roman road. In this band were Bohemund and Richard of the Principality, Robert count of Flanders, Robert the Norman, Hugh the Great, Everard of Puiset, Achard of Montmerle, Isoard of Mouzon and many others. Some of them came to the port of Brindisi, others to Bari or Otranto. Hugh the Great and William son of the marquis embarked at Bari and sailed to Durazzo, but the governor of that place, hearing that warriors of such experience were arriving, immediately devised a treacherous plan, and he arrested them and sent them under guard to the emperor at Constantinople, so that they might swear fealty to him.

After this Duke Godfrey was the first of all our leaders to reach Constantinople with a great army, and he arrived two days before Christmas, and encamped outside the city until that wretch of an emperor gave orders that quarters were to be assigned to him in the suburbs. When the duke had settled in, he sent his squires out each day, quite confidently, to get straw and other things necessary for the horses; but, when they thought that they could go out freely wherever they liked, the wretched Emperor Alexius ordered his Turcopuli and Patzinaks to attack and kill them. So Baldwin [of Boulogne], the duke’s brother, hearing of this, lay in ambush, and when he found the enemy killing his men he attacked them bravely and by God’s help defeated them. He took sixty prisoners, some of whom he killed and others he presented to the duke his brother. When the emperor heard of this he was very angry, and the duke, realising this, led his men out of the suburb and encamped outside the walls. Late that evening the miserable emperor ordered his men to attack the duke and the Christian army, but our unconquered leader with his Christian knights drove back the imperial troops, killing seven men and driving the rest to the gates of the city. Afterwards he came back to his camp and stayed there for five days, until he came to an agreement with back the imperial troops, killing seven men and driving the rest to the gates of the city. Afterwards he came back to his camp and stayed there for five days, until he came to an agreement with the emperor, who told him to cross the Hellespont and promised that he would have as good provision there as he had in Constantinople; moreover the emperor promised to give alms to the poor so that they could live.

As for Bohemund, that great warrior, he was besieging Amalfi when he heard that an immense army of Frankish crusaders had arrived, going to the Holy Sepulchre and ready to fight the pagans. So he began to make careful enquiries as to the arms they carried, the badge which they wore in Christ’s pilgrimage and the war-cry which they shouted in battle. He was told, ‘They are well armed, they wear the badge of Christ’s Cross on their right arm or between their shoulders, and as a war-cry they shout all together “God’s will, God’s will, God’s will!” ’ Then Bohemund, inspired by the Holy Ghost, ordered the most valuable cloak which he had to be cut up forthwith and made into crosses, and most of the knights who were at the siege began to join him at once, for they were full of enthusiasm, so that Count Roger was left almost alone, and when he had gone back to Sicily he grieved and lamented because he had lost his army. My lord Bohemund went home to his own land and made careful preparations for setting out on the way to the Holy Sepulchre. Thereafter he crossed the sea with his army, and with him went Tancred son of the marquis, Richard of the Principality and Ranulf his brother, Robert of Anse, Herman of Cannes, Robert of Sourdeval, Robert Fitz-Toustan, Humphrey Fitz-Ralph, Richard son of Count Ranulf, the count of Russignolo and his brothers, Boel of Chartres, Aubré of Cagnano and Humphrey of Monte Scaglioso. All these crossed at Bohemund’s expense, and reached western Macedonia, where they found plenty of corn and wine and other things to eat, and going down into the valley of Andro-nopolis, they waited for their men, until all had crossed over. Then Bohemund called a council to encourage his men, and to warn them all to be courteous and refrain from plundering that land, which belonged to Christians, and he said that no one was to take more than sufficed for his food.

Anna Comnena, aged only thirteen at the time, supplied from the perspective of half a century later a vividly anecdotal and partisan account of the early arrivals of the western armies in Constantinople in the winter of 1096–7.

A certain Hugh, brother of the king of France, with all the pride of a Navatus in his noble birth and wealth and power, as he was about to leave his native country (ostensibly for a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre) sent an absurd message to the emperor proposing that he [Hugh] should be given a magnificent reception: ‘Know, emperor, that I am the king of kings, the greatest of all beneath the heavens. It is my will that you should meet me on my arrival and receive me with the pomp and ceremony due to my noble birth.’ When this letter reached Alexius, John the son of Isaac the sebastocrator happened to be duke of Dyrrhachium, and Nicholas Mavrocatacalon, commander of the fleet, had anchored his ships at intervals round the harbour there. From this base he made frequent voyages of reconnaissance to prevent pirate ships sailing by unnoticed. To these two men the emperor now sent urgent instructions: the duke was to keep watch by land and sea for Hugh’s arrival and inform Alexius at once when he came; he was also to receive him with great pomp; the admiral was exhorted to keep a constant vigil – there must be no relaxation or negligence whatever. Hugh reached the coast of Lombardy safely and forthwith despatched envoys to the duke of Dyrrhachium. There were twenty-four of them in all, armed with breastplates and greaves of gold and accompanied by Count William the Carpenter and Elias (who had deserted from the emperor at Thessalonica). They addressed the duke as follows: ‘Be it known to you, duke, that our Lord Hugh is almost here. He brings with him from Rome the golden standard of St Peter. Understand, moreover, that he is supreme commander of the Frankish army. See to it then that he is accorded a reception worthy of his rank and yourself prepare to meet him.’ While the envoys were delivering this message, Hugh came down via Rome to Lombardy, as I have said, and set sail for Illyricum from Bari, but on the crossing he was caught by a tremendous storm. Most of his ships, with their rowers and marines, were lost. Only one ship, his own, was thrown up on the coast somewhere between Dyrrhachium and a place called Pales, and that was half-wrecked. Two coastguards on the look-out for his arrival found him, saved by a miracle. They called to him, ‘The duke is anxiously waiting for your coming. He is very eager to see you.’ At once he asked for a horse and one of them dismounted and gave him his own gladly. When the duke saw him, saved in this way, and when he had greeted him, he asked about the voyage and heard of the storm which had wrecked his ships. He encouraged Hugh with fine promises and entertained him at a magnificent banquet. After the feasting Hugh was allowed to rest, but he was not granted complete freedom. John the duke had immediately informed the emperor of the Frank’s adventures and was now awaiting further instructions. Soon after receiving the news Alexius sent Butumites to Epidamnus (which we have on numerous occasions called Dyrrhachium) to escort Hugh, not by the direct route but on a detour through Philippopolis to the capital. He was afraid of the armed Celtic hordes coming on behind him. Hugh was welcomed with honour by the emperor, who soon persuaded him by generous largess and every proof of friendship to become his liege-man and take the customary oath of the Latins.

This affair was merely the prelude. Barely fifteen days later Bohemund made the crossing to the coast of Cabalium. Hard on his heels came Count Richard of the Principate. He too when he reached the Lombardy coast wanted to cross over to Illyricum. A three-masted pirate vessel of large tonnage was hired for 6,000 gold staters. She carried two hundred rowers and towed three reached the Lombardy coast wanted to cross over to Illyricum. A three-masted pirate vessel of large tonnage was hired for 6,000 gold staters. She carried two hundred rowers and towed three ship’s boats. Richard did not make for Avlona, as the other Latin armies had done, but after weighing anchor changed direction a little and with a favourable wind sailed straight for Chimara (he was fearful of the Roman fleet). However, in escaping the smoke he fell into the fire: he avoided the ships lying in wait at different points in the Lombardy straits but crossed the path of the commander-in-chief of the whole Roman fleet, Nicholas Mavrocatacalon himself. The latter had heard of this pirate vessel some time before and had detached biremes, triremes and some fast cruisers from the main force; with these he moved from his base at Ason to Cabalium and there took up station. The so-called ‘second count’ was sent with his own galley (Excussatum to the ordinary seamen) to light a torch when he saw the rowers loose the stern cables of the enemy ship and throw them into the sea. Without delay the order was carried out and Nicholas, seeing the signal, hoisted sail on some of his ships, while others were rowed with oars – they looked like millipedes – against Richard, who was now at sea. They caught him before he had sailed three stades from the land, eager to reach the opposite coast by Epidamnus. He had 1,500 soldiers on board, plus eighty horses belonging to the nobles. The helmsman, sighting Nicholas, reported to the Frank: ‘The Syrian fleet is on us. We’re in danger of being killed by dagger and sword.’ The count at once ordered his men to arm and put up a good fight. It was midwinter – the day sacred to the memory of Nicholas, greatest of pontiffs* – but there was a dead calm and the full moon shone more brightly than in the spring. As the winds had fallen completely the pirate ship could no longer make progress under sail; it lay becalmed on the sea. At this point in the history I should like to pay tribute to the exploits of Marianus [Mavrocatacalon]. He immediately asked the duke of the fleet, his father, for some of the lighter vessels and then steered straight for Richard’s ship. He fell upon the prow and tried to board her. The marines soon rushed there when they saw that he was fully armed for battle, but Marianus, speaking in their language, told the Latins there was no need for alarm; he urged them not to fight against fellow Christians. Nevertheless one of them fired a crossbow and hit his helmet. The arrow drove clean through the top of it without touching a hair on his head – providence thwarted it. Another arrow was quickly fired at the count, striking him on the arm; it pierced his shield, bored through his breastplate of scale-armour and grazed his side. A certain Latin priest who happened to be standing in the stern with twelve other fighting-men saw what had occurred and shot several times with his bow at Marianus. Even then Marianus refused to give up; he fought bravely himself and encouraged his men to follow his example, so that three times the priest’s comrades had to be relieved because of wounds or fatigue. The priest, too, although he had been hit again and again and was covered with streams of blood from his wounds, still was undaunted. After a bitter contest which went on from evening till the next midday the Latins yielded much against their will to Marianus, when they had asked for and obtained an amnesty from him. The warrior-priest, however, even when the armistice was being arranged, did not cease from fighting. After emptying his quiver of arrows, he picked up a sling-stone and hurled it at Marianus, who protected his head with a shield, but that was broken into four and his helmet was shattered. The blow stunned him; he lost consciousness at once and for some time lay speechless, just as the famous Hector lay almost at his last gasp when struck by Ajax’s stone. With difficulty he recovered his senses, pulled himself together and firing arrows against his enemy wounded him three times. The polemarch (he was more that than a priest) was far from having had his fill of battle, although he had exhausted the stones and arrows and was at a loss what to do and how to defend himself against his adversary. He grew impatient, on fire with rage, gathering himself for the spring like a wild animal. He was ready to use whatever came to hand and when he found a sack full of barley-cakes, he threw them like stones, taking them from the sack. It was as if he were officiating at some ceremony or service, turning war into the solemnisation of sacred rites. He picked up one cake, hurled it with all his might at Marianus’ face and hit him on the cheek. So much for the story of the priest, the ship and its marines. As for Count Richard, he put himself in the hands of Marianus, together with his ship and her crew, and thereafter gladly followed him. When they reached land and were disembarking, the priest kept on making enquiries about Marianus; he did not know his name, but described him by the colour of his garments. When at last he found him, he threw his arms round him and with an embrace boasted, ‘If you had met me on dry land, many of you would have died at my hands.’ He drew out a large silver cup, worth 130 staters, and as he gave it to Marianus and uttered these words, he died.

It was at this time that Count Godfrey made the crossing with some other counts and an army of ten thousand horsemen and seventy thousand infantry. When he reached the capital he quartered his men in the vicinity of the Propontis [Sea of Marmara], from the bridge nearest the Cosmidium as far as the church of St Phocas. But when the emperor urged him to go over to the far side of the Propontis he put off the decision from day to day; the crossing was deferred with a series of excuses. In fact, of course, he was waiting for Bohemund and the rest of the counts to arrive. Peter had in the beginning undertaken his great journey to worship at the Holy Sepulchre, but the others (and in particular Bohemund) cherished their old grudge against Alexius and sought a good opportunity to avenge the glorious victory which the emperor had won at Larissa. They were all of one mind and in order to fulfil their dream of taking Constantinople they adopted a common policy. I have often referred to that already: to all appearances they were on pilgrimage to Jerusalem; in reality they planned to dethrone Alexius and seize the capital. Unfortunately for them, he was aware of their perfidy, from long experience. He gave written orders to move the auxiliary forces with their officers from Athyra to Philea en masse (Philea is a place on the coast of the Black Sea). They were to lie in wait for envoys from Godfrey on their way to Bohemund and the other counts coming behind him, or vice versa; all communications were thus to be intercepted. Meanwhile the following incident took place. Some of the counts who accompanied Godfrey were invited by the emperor to meet him. He intended to give them advice:

thus to be intercepted. Meanwhile the following incident took place. Some of the counts who accompanied Godfrey were invited by the emperor to meet him. He intended to give them advice: they should urge Godfrey to take the oath of allegiance. The Latins, however, wasted time with their usual verbosity and love of long speeches, so that a false rumour reached the Franks that their counts had been arrested by Alexius. Immediately they marched in serried ranks on Byzantium [Constantinople], starting with the palaces near the Silver Lake; they demolished them completely. An assault was also made on the city walls, not with helepoleis‡ (because they had none), but trusting in their great numbers they had the effrontery to try to set fire to the gate below the palace, near the sanctuary of St Nicholas. The vulgar mob of Byzantines, who were utterly craven, with no experience of war, were not the only ones to weep and wail and beat their breasts in impotent fear when they saw the Latin ranks; even more alarmed were the emperor’s loyal adherents. Recalling the Thursday on which the city was captured, they were afraid that on that day (because of what had occurred then) vengeance might be taken on them. All the trained soldiers hurried to the palace in disorder, but the emperor remained calm: there was no attempt to arm, no buckling on of scaled cuirass, no shield, no spear in hand, no girding on of his sword. He sat firmly on the imperial throne, gazing cheerfully on them, encouraging and inspiring the hearts of all with confidence, while he took counsel with his kinsmen and generals about future action. In the first place he insisted that no one whatever should leave the ramparts to attack the Latins, for two reasons: because of the sacred character of the day (it was the Thursday of Holy Week, the supreme week of the year, in which the Saviour suffered an ignominious death on behalf of the whole world); and secondly because he wished to avoid bloodshed between Christians. On several occasions he sent envoys to the Latins advising them to desist from such an undertaking. ‘Have reverence,’ he said, ‘for God on this day was sacrificed for us all, refusing neither the Cross, nor the nails, nor the spear – proper instruments of punishment for evildoers – to save us. If you must fight, we too shall be ready, but after the day of the Saviour’s resurrection.’ They, far from listening to his words, rather reinforced their ranks, and so thick were the showers of their arrows that even one of the emperor’s retinue, standing near the throne, was struck in the chest. Most of the others ranged on either side of the emperor, when they saw this, began to withdraw, but he remained seated and unruffled, comforting them and rebuking them in a gentle way – to the wonder of all. However, as he saw the Latins brazenly approaching the walls and rejecting sound advice, he took active steps for the first time. His son-in-law Nicephorus (my Caesar) was summoned.† He was ordered to pick out the best fighters, expert archers, and post them on the ramparts; they were to fire volleys of arrows at the Latins, but without taking aim and mostly off-target, so as to terrify the enemy by the weight of the attack, but at all costs to avoid killing them. As I have remarked, he was fearful of desecrating that day and he wished to prevent fratricide. Other picked men, most of them carrying bows, but some wielding long spears, he ordered to throw open the gate of St Romanus and make a show of force with a violent charge against the enemy; they were to be drawn up in such a way that each lancer had two peltasts

[foot-soldiers]

to protect him on either side. In this formation they would advance at a walking pace, but send on ahead a few skilled archers to shoot at the Celts from a distance and alter direction, right or left, from time to time; when they saw that the space between the two armies had been reduced to a narrow gap, then the officers were to signal the archers accompanying them to fire thick volleys of arrows at the horses, not at the riders, and gallop at full speed against the enemy. The idea was partly to break the full force of the Celtic attack by wounding their mounts (they would not find it easy to ride in this condition) and partly (this was more important) to avoid the killing of Christians. The emperor’s instructions were gladly followed. The gates were flung open; now the horses were given their head, now reined in. Many Celts were slain, but few of the Romans on that day were wounded. We will leave them and return to the Caesar, my lord. Having taken his practised bowmen, he set them on the towers and fired at the barbarians. Every man had a bow that was accurate and far-shooting. They were all young, as skilled as Homer’s Teucer in archery. The Caesar’s bow was truly worthy of Apollo. Unlike the famous Greeks of Homer he did not ‘pull the bowstring until it touched his breast and draw back the arrow so that the iron tip was near the bow’; he was making no demonstration of the hunter’s skill, like them. But like a second Hercules he shot deadly arrows from deathless bows and hit the target at will. At other times, when he took part in a shooting contest or in a battle, he never missed his aim: at whatever part of a man’s body he shot, he invariably and immediately inflicted a wound there. With such strength did he bend his bow and so swiftly did he let loose his arrows that even Teucer and the two Ajaxes were not his equal in archery. Yet, despite his skill, on this occasion he respected the holiness of the day and kept in mind the emperor’s instructions, so that when he saw the Franks recklessly and foolishly coming near the walls, protected by shield and helmet, he bent his bow and put the arrow to the bowstring, but purposely shot wide, shooting sometimes beyond the target, sometimes falling short. Although, for the day’s sake, he refrained from shooting straight at the Latins, yet whenever one of them in his foolhardiness and arrogance not only fired at the defenders on the ramparts, but seemingly poured forth a volley of insults in his own language as well, the Caesar did bend his bow. ‘Nor did the dart fly in vain from his hand,’ but pierced the long shield and cleft its way through the corselet of mail, so that arm and side were pinned together. ‘Straightway he fell speechless to the ground,’ as the poet says, and a cry went up to heaven as the Romans cheered their Caesar and the Latins bewailed their fallen warrior. The battle broke out afresh, their cavalry and our men on the walls both fighting with courage; it was a grim, dour struggle on both sides. However, when the emperor threw in his guards, the Latin ranks turned in flight. On the next day Hugh advised Godfrey to yield to the emperor’s wish, unless he wanted to learn a second time how experienced a general Alexius was. He should take an oath, he said, to bear his true allegiance. But Godfrey rebuked him sternly. ‘You left your own country as a king,’ he said, ‘with all that wealth and a strong army; now from the heights you’ve brought yourself to the level of a slave. And then, as if you had won some great success, you come here and tell me to do the same.’ ‘We ought to have stayed in our own countries and kept our hands off other peoples’,’ replied Hugh. ‘But since we’ve come thus far and need the emperor’s protection, no good will come of it unless we obey his orders.’ Hugh was sent away with nothing achieved. Because of this and reliable information that the counts coming after Godfrey were already near, the emperor sent some of his best officers with their troops to advise him once more, even to compel him to cross the Straits. No sooner were they in sight when the Latins, without a moment’s hesitation, not even waiting to ask them what they wanted, launched an attack and began to fight them. In this fierce engagement many on both sides fell and all the emperor’s men who had attacked with such recklessness were wounded. As the Romans showed greater spirit the Latins gave way. Thus Godfrey not long after submitted; he came to the emperor and swore on oath as he was directed that whatever cities, countries or forts he might in future subdue, which had in the first place belonged to the Roman empire, he would hand over to the officer appointed by the emperor for this very purpose. Having taken the oath he received generous largess, was invited to share Alexius’ hearth and table, and was entertained at a magnificent banquet, after which he crossed over to Pelecanum and there pitched camp. The emperor then gave orders that plentiful supplies should be made available for his men.

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