In early May 1097 about two-thirds of the crusading army set out for Nicaea. The forces led by Godfrey, Robert of Flanders, Hugh of Vermandois, and the southern Italian Normans, currently in the care of Tancred, first congregated at the town of Nicomedia. Here they were joined by Peter the Hermit, beleaguered leader of the People’s Crusade, who had been eking out an existence around Constantinople and Bithynia since October 1096. Peter must have been glad to approach Nicaea from the north, rather than retrace his ill-fated steps from Civetot – a group of crusaders who took that route some weeks later were horrified and saddened to discover ‘many severed heads and bones of the dead lying on the plains near [the] sea’, the unholy graveyard of Peter’s followers. Coming from Nicomedia, the main army chose to follow the ancient Roman road running south over the mountains to Nicaea. This route was direct, but heavily overgrown, so 3,000 men were sent ahead to clear the way with axes and swords, and then mark the route with crosses, establishing a well-defined line of communication back towards Constantinople. On 6 May Godfrey and his companions reached Nicaea, but even at this late stage, as the crusaders approached their first Muslim target, they were woefully unprepared for what one contemporary would later call ‘the first storm of war’.
Serving the emperor
The crusade was still operating as a rough conglomeration of Latin armies, with little or no central co-ordination, much less organisation. Godfrey, Hugh, Tancred and Robert of Flanders seem to have moved on Nicaea without establishing a coherent plan of action, and their arrival was badly mistimed. When the city was reached on the 6th, their forces were left camped before it, isolated and inert, for eight dangerous days. It was not until the 14th, by which time Bohemond had arrived to solve the initial logistical problems surrounding the supply of food, that the crusaders moved in to lay siege to Nicaea. Even then they were fighting under strength, and it would be another two weeks before the full complement of the First Crusade’s armies was brought to bear. This rather ramshackle, piecemeal deployment was extremely risky. Only Kilij Arslan’s continued absence prevented an uncomfortable delay from becoming a potential disaster. The crusaders’ lack of co-ordinated action and purposeful leadership was to some extent a symptom of their relationship with Byzantium.
In besieging Nicaea, the crusaders were carrying out the emperor’s will. They had come to Constantinople with half-formed ideas of aiding the eastern Churches and marching on Jerusalem, perhaps expecting the emperor himself to take personal command of the expedition. Alexius had other ideas. He certainly wanted to direct and make use of the crusading armies – after all they had come east, at least partially, in response to his call for military aid – and his primary goal was the recovery of Nicaea. The Seljuq capital was far too close to Constantinople for comfort, but the city had stubbornly resisted all of Alexius’ attempts to recapture it. Indeed, one Greek source even suggested that ‘the emperor, who had thoroughly investigated Nicaea, and on many occasions, judged that it could not possibly be captured’. His plan was to throw his new weapon, the crusading horde, against the city, and then watch what happened from a safe distance. Alexius had absolutely no intention of leading the campaign in person, judging the ‘barbarian’ Franks to be too unpredictable and suspecting that this weapon might turn on its master. By avoiding direct involvement, Alexius was also able to maintain a thin façade of impartiality, leaving a door open for diplomacy and détente with Kilij Arslan should the siege fail. So it was that Alexius, ever the shrewd and calculating politician, established his camp at Pelekanum, to the west of Nicomedia.
It is true that the emperor put the interests of his empire above those of the crusade, even that he coldly exploited the Franks to further his own ambitions, and, on this basis, most modern historians have painted a picture of immediate tension and distrust when characterising the crusaders’ relationship with Byzantium at Nicaea. This image has been shaped by eyewitness sources, who wrote with the benefit of hindsight, knowing how later events would poison relations. In reality, the siege of Nicaea was a largely collaborative venture, in which Latins and Greeks co-operated effectively, and the crusaders willingly fought for the Byzantine Empire. Even though Alexius refused to participate in person, it was of course in his interests to see the crusaders succeed at Nicaea. To this end, he nominated military advisers to support and oversee the Franks. Manuel Boutoumites, one of his most experienced lieutenants, accompanied Godfrey and the first group of crusaders to arrive at Nicaea. Indeed, Manuel was initially granted entry into the city to discuss a negotiated surrender, but, when this fell through, he lent his military expertise to the Latin siege preparations. A few weeks later, a second adviser, Taticius, arrived at the head of 2,000 Byzantine troops, to command the Nicaea campaign. Later he would become Alexius’ chief representative among the crusaders. Taticius was an interesting choice; a member of the imperial household and experienced in battle, he was reportedly ‘a valiant fighter, a man who kept his head under combat conditions’, but he was, at the same time, a eunuch. He had an excellent knowledge of Nicaea’s defences, having led the last Greek assault on the city more than a decade earlier. Taticius was a striking figure – born of half-Arab, half-Greek parentage, his nose had been cut off earlier in his military career and he wore a metal replica in its place.
Alexius also took steps to ensure that the crusaders had ready access to food and supplies. On his orders, the poorer Franks were given money and free provisions. Merchant ships were brought from across the Mediterranean to set up markets at the port of Civetot, where corn, meat, wine, barley and oil could be bought, while the traffic along the road back to Nicomedia must have been nearly constant. The Greeks were obviously committed to this complex web of logistical support, because, in spite of the immense size of the crusader army, we hear few reports of severe shortages or starvation. Later sieges would not always be so efficient.5
Even with Byzantine support, Nicaea’s defences presented a formidable challenge. Today the ancient city has crumbled to become little more than a backwater village. Iznik, as it is now named in modern Turkish, is still surrounded by decrepit fortifications, but its quiet, unassuming pace of life gives little sense of its place in history. It is hard to imagine that this was once one of the great cities of Rome and Byzantium. In 325 CE the first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine the Great, held a monumental Church council at Nicaea, attended by more than 300 bishops from across the known world, at which the Nicene Creed, which still serves to define the Christian faith, was adopted. When the First Crusade arrived in 1097 Nicaea remained an imposing stronghold. One Frankish eyewitness later recalled:
Nicaea [was] a city well protected by natural terrain and clever fortifications. Its natural defences consisted of a great lake lapping at its walls and a ditch, brimful of runoff water from nearby streams, blocking the entrance on three sides. Skilful men had enclosed Nicaea with such lofty walls that the city feared neither the attack of enemies nor the force of any machine.
Located in a fertile basin, surrounded by hills, Nicaea lies on the eastern shore of the massive Askanian Lake, which stretches to more than forty kilometres in length. To the north, east and south a defensive wall, five kilometres long, enclosed the remaining three sides of the city, reaching to ten metres in height, punctuated by more than a hundred towers, and reinforced by a double ditch. Its capture would be no simple task, but the crusaders had one major advantage – sheer weight of numbers. When the siege began, in mid-May, the Franks were able to blockade only the city’s northern and eastern gates, but by early June, with the majority of the crusader forces now assembled, it became possible to encircle Nicaea’s land walls.
In command of the masses
This was the first time that the main army of the First Crusade had come together. Franks, Greeks and Muslims alike were awestruck by the spectacle. One Byzantine contemporary described the crusaders as ‘a countless multitude of locusts, so great as to resemble clouds and overcast the sun when it flew’. A Latin eyewitness recalled, ‘Then the many armies there were united into one, which those who were skilled in reckoning estimate at 600,000 strong for war. Of these there were 100,000 fully armed men [and a mass of] unarmed, that is clerics, monks, women, and little children.’
Medieval writers were notoriously poor judges of manpower, and these figures were probably a gross exaggeration, wild guesses designed to convey the enormous scale of the army. Even so, the First Crusade did represent the largest single mobilisation of European troops in centuries. At our best estimate, some 75,000 Latins gathered at Nicaea, of whom perhaps 7,500 were fully armed, mounted knights and a further 5,000 were infantry. This was, of course, a composite force, one mass made up of many smaller parts. All shared a common faith – Latin Christianity – but in other ways they were quite disparate, drawn from across western Europe, born into diverse political and cultural surroundings. Many had been enemies before the expedition began. They even faced a profound communication barrier: Fulcher of Chartres remarked, ‘Who ever heard such a mixture of languages in one army, since there were French, Flemings, Frisians, Gauls, Allobroges, Lotharingians, Allemani, Bavarians, Normans, English, Scots, Aquitanians, Italians, Dacian, Apulians, Iberians, Bretons, Greeks and Armenians? If any Breton or Teuton wished to question me, I could neither understand nor answer.’
To make matters worse, the crusade had no single leader. The pope’s legate, or representative, Adhémar of Le Puy, could claim spiritual primacy, but overall strategic command could be contested by up to seven of the most powerful crusading lords, or princes. By the dictates of military logic, this would appear to have been a recipe for disaster. At Nicaea, the crusaders were, for the first time, forced to confront this problem. The Emperor Alexius might be the nominal leader of the campaign, but he had absented himself from the siege and, while his lieutenant Taticius was the official commander-in-chief, in practice he never wielded total power. From Nicaea onwards, the crusaders were forced to feel their way towards an organisational structure, through a process of experimentation and innovation. Within a few weeks they instituted a new decision-making structure – a council of princes – in which the highest echelon of crusade leaders, men such as Raymond of Toulouse and Bohemond of Taranto, met to discuss and agree policy. On the whole, this system was remarkably successful. One of its first pronouncements saw the creation of a common crusader fund through which all plunder could be channelled and redistributed.
It was the council of princes that decided to adopt what might be termed a combined siege strategy to overcome Nicaea’s defences. In this method two styles of siege warfare were deployed simultaneously. On the one hand, the Franks sought to blockade the city, cutting it off from the outside world and grinding it into submission through physical and psychological isolation, in a close-encirclement siege. At the same time, the crusaders actively pursued the more aggressive strategy of an assault siege. This involved building various machines of war – catapults, battering-rams, bombardment screens – which might allow them literally to bludgeon their way into the city through direct attack. On 14 May 1097 Bohemond and the southern Italian Normans made camp before Nicaea’s northern gate, while Godfrey of Bouillon and Robert of Flanders were deployed to the east, and work began on a series of siege engines.
The crusaders’ arrival terrified the Turkish garrison of Nicaea. The city would probably have been manned by no more than a few thousand troops, each aware that Nicaea offered irresistibly ripe pickings to the massive Frankish horde. Kilij Arslan’s capital stood not only as a bastion of the sultan’s military and political pride, it was also home to his treasury. Under these circumstances, the garrison rightly judged that the crusaders would throw every resource into the siege. Against such odds, the Turks could not hope to prevail, and so in the second week of May they came close to agreeing terms with Manuel Boutoumites, the emperor’s envoy. But, suddenly, they changed their minds and expelled him from the city.