“Battle of Nicaea (1097)”, Igor Dzis
The first challenge
It was only on 15 May that the Franks found out why, when two Turkish spies were caught in the Frankish camp masquerading as Christians. One was killed during capture, but the other was immediately taken for interrogation. Threatened with torture and death, he quickly confessed everything. Kilij Arslan had returned from the east. Having finally realised how dangerous the crusaders might be, he had gathered a large army from across the sultanate of Rüm, and was even now camped in the steep hills to the south of the city, planning a counterattack the very next day. Contact had already been established with the Turks in Nicaea – hence their change of heart – and these two spies had been sent to observe the Frankish army and then carry final battle instructions to the garrison. Kilij Arslan’s plan was to charge out of the southern hills at the third hour after dawn, enter Nicaea through the unblockaded south gate, regroup and then launch an immediate combined counterattack. Having told this story, the Turkish spy pleaded for his life, weeping, begging and even offering to convert to Christianity should he be spared, and eventually the princes took pity on him.
The princes reacted quickly to these shocking revelations. They knew that Raymond of Toulouse and the Provençal army were already en route to Nicaea, and were, at that very moment, perhaps less than a day’s march away to the north, along the road from Nicomedia. As dusk approached, messengers were dispatched urging haste, and the Frankish host kept nervous watch through the night. Finally, at dawn on 16 May, Raymond’s men appeared out of the north. The crusaders’ careful preparation of the old Roman road had paid off – news had reached the Provençals quickly and they had then been able to march along the clearly marked route through the night. In fact, Raymond of Toulouse arrived just in time. His army was still in process of setting up camp before Nicaea’s southern gate when, just as the spy had predicted, Kilij Arslan’s forces came pouring out of the hills.
He had come prepared for victory – his men carried ropes with which to bind the crusaders once they were taken captive – but, even without the Provençal reinforcements, Kilij Arslan would have been hard pressed to overcome the massive Latin army. With Nicaea’s southern gate blocked, his troops were both outnumbered and isolated. He led an archetypal Seljuq Turkish army: thousands of lightly mounted, fast-moving archers, armed with powerful bone-and-horn composite bows. Faced with staunch resistance from the Provençals led by Raymond and Baldwin of Boulogne, hemmed in by the lake to the west and struck in the flank by Godfrey’s and Bohemond’s fierce cavalry charge from the east, the Turkish attack soon faltered. Realising that he was hopelessly outnumbered, Kilij Arslan fled the field south. It would be his only attempt to break the siege of Nicaea. In the days that followed, the renegade Turkish spy, whose predictions had proved to be accurate, went through a ritual of conversion and became a regular guest of the Frankish princes, to whom he was an intriguing curiosity. Soon his guards became relaxed in his company and in one careless moment took their eyes off him. Instantly seizing the opportunity, he ‘flew across the city moat with a nimble-footed leap’ and was soon pulled over the walls on a rope.
In spite of this minor betrayal, the crusaders’ first battle with a Muslim force had been a resounding success. Even Anna Comnena, not usually given to praising the Franks, described it as ‘a glorious victory’. In truth, although the crusader defence had been well co-ordinated, Kilij Arslan escaped with most of his army intact. The real damage was done to his military prestige and the morale of Nicaea’s garrison. In the aftermath of the fighting, ‘the Christians cut off the heads of the dead and wounded and as a sign of victory they brought them back to their tents with them tied to the girths of their saddles’. Some were stuck on the ends of spears and paraded before the city walls, others were actually catapulted into the city ‘in order to cause more terror among the Turkish garrison’. One Latin contemporary even suggested that a thousand Turkish heads had been sent to Alexius as a sign of victory.
Any medieval army knew the profound significance of morale amid the slow grind of siege warfare, and exchanges of horrific acts of brutality and barbarism were commonplace. For its part, the Turkish garrison soon retaliated, adopting a rather macabre tactic. The crusaders began to lead direct assaults upon the city and inevitably sustained some losses. One Latin eyewitness was disgusted by the Turks’ treatment of these dead: ‘Truly, you would have grieved and sighed with compassion, to see them let down iron hooks, which they lowered and raised by ropes, and seize the body of any of our men that they had slaughtered in some way near the wall. None of our men dared, nor could, take the body from them.’ These corpses were robbed and then hung from the walls to rot, so as ‘to offend the Christians by this inhuman conduct’.
With the first threat from Kilij Arslan repulsed, the crusaders sought to prosecute a direct assault. This would be a dangerous and exhausting process for defender and aggressor alike, and we hear that in the midst of the fighting, ‘often, some of the Turks, often, some of the Franks, struck by arrows or by stones, died’. When early attempts to storm Nicaea’s defences with ladders had failed, the crusaders concentrated their efforts almost exclusively upon creating a physical breach in the city’s walls. This could be achieved through a variety of means. The safest, but technologically most advanced, was bombardment from a distance. The Franks built some stone-throwing machines, known as petraria or mangonella, which propelled missiles through the use of torsion or counterweights. Powerful machines could hurl massive rocks against their target, eventually causing walls to buckle and collapse, but at Nicaea the crusaders lacked the skills and craftsmen to build engines massive enough to damage the city’s stout walls. Their bombardment was designed, instead, to harass the Turkish garrison and provide covering fire, under which they could employ a second technique.
If a besieging army could not topple walls from a safe distance, then the only alternative was to get in close and undermine the defences by hand. Just approaching the walls was, however, a lethal affair. The Turkish garrison had ballistae – giant crossbow-like devices used to hurl stones – and archers with which to defend their city: ‘The ballistae of [Nicaea’s] towers were so alternately faced that no one could move near them without peril, and if anyone wished to move forward, he could do no harm because he could easily be struck down from the top of a tower.’ One crusader knight, Baldwin of Calderun, who had made many ‘daring and rash’ attempts to assault the city, ‘breathed his last when his neck was broken by the blow of a hurled stone’. Another, Baldwin of Ganz, died during ‘a careless rush at the city, his head pierced by an arrow’. If a crusader did, somehow, manage to reach the foot of the walls alive, he then faced an onslaught from above, as defenders atop the battlements gleefully rained rocks and a burning mixture of grease, oil and pitch down upon his head.
The Franks experimented with a range of devices to combat these problems of direct assault, with varying degrees of success. Two prominent Latin lords, Henry of Esch, a member of Godfrey’s contingent, and the German Count Hartmann of Dillingen, who had participated in the Jewish pogrom at Mainz, approached the challenge of this first crusader siege with enthusiasm. They pooled their resources and built what one contemporary called a vulpus or fox, to their own design and with their own money. This was apparently some form of bombardment screen, constructed of oak beams, under which infantry troops could advance on the walls, protected from Turkish missiles. Henry and Hartmann shrewdly decided to sit out the first test run of this contraption, and had to look on in horror as twenty of their men were crushed to death when ‘the beams, the uprights and all the bindings came to pieces’ and the vulpus collapsed at the foot of the walls.
The Provençals adopted a more professional approach. Raymond of Toulouse employed a master craftsman to design and build a testudo or tortoise, a much sturdier, sloping-roofed bombardment screen. Under this protection, southern French crusaders were dispatched to undermine a tower on Nicaea’s southern walls. One eyewitness described how, when they reached the fortification, ‘sappers dug down to the foundations of the wall and inserted beams and pieces of wood, to which they set fire’. If carried out correctly, the siege technique they were attempting – that of sapping – could be extremely effective. The idea was to dig a tunnel beneath a section of wall, carefully buttressing the excavation with wooden supports as one went along. Once complete, the void was packed full of branches and kindling, set alight and left to collapse, thus bringing down the wall above it. Raymond’s sappers managed to bring down a small section of one tower as night fell on around 1 June, but the Turkish garrison worked through the night to rebuild the defences so that by daybreak ‘there was no chance of defeating them at that point’.
In the end, the crusaders’ best efforts at assault were thwarted by Nicaea’s almost impregnable fortifications and the sheer energy and ferocity of the Turkish defence. Even Raymond of Aguilers, a chaplain in the Provençal army, was forced to admit that the Muslim garrison had made a ‘courageous’ effort. We hear, for example, of one unnamed Turkish soldier who went berserk and continued fighting, peppered with twenty crusader arrows. Even after 3 June 1097, when the Latin army was further strengthened by the arrival of the northern French, under Stephen, count of Blois, and Robert, count of Flanders, the city still refused to fall.
By the second week of June, the crusaders realised that a new strategy was needed. Up to this point they had encircled Nicaea’s three landward walls, but the fourth, westward face of the city, on the banks of the great Askanian Lake, lay open and unblockaded. The sheer size of this lake meant that its banks could not be effectively patrolled, and it became apparent that Turkish boats were bringing all manner of supplies into Nicaea without fear of attack. If this situation persisted and the city’s walls held, Nicaea’s garrison might realistically hope to hold out indefinitely. Around 10 June, the crusader princes met in council to discuss this problem, and within hours a messenger had been sent to the Emperor Alexius, carrying an audacious proposal. Control had to be taken of the Askanian Lake, but no navigable river offered ships access to its waters. The princes’ solution sounded simple: if vessels could not be sailed to the lake, they would have to be carried. In practice, of course, the process of portaging large sailing boats almost thirty kilometres from the coast at Civetot to the shores of the Askanian Lake was no mean feat. Alexius agreed to supply the boats, under the command of Manuel Boutoumites and manned by a force of Turcopoles – well-armed Byzantine mercenaries of half-Greek, half-Turkish stock. Special oxen-drawn carts were constructed to bear this strange cargo through the hills of Bithynia. Late in the day of 17 June they reached the lake, but waited until the following dawn to set sail so that a combined lake- and landbased attack could be launched on Nicaea. The plan was to terrify the Turkish garrison into submission, driving home their isolation and the utter hopelessness of continued resistance. To this end, Alexius equipped the small Greek flotilla with more standards than were usual – so that the boats might appear more numerous than they really were – and a selection of trumpets and drums with which to create an intimidating racket. One Latin eyewitness described the scene:
At daybreak there were the boats, all in very good order, sailing across the lake towards the city. The Turks, seeing them, were surprised and did not know if it was their own fleet or that of the emperor, but when they realised it was the emperor’s they were afraid almost to death, and began to wail and lament, while the Franks rejoiced and gave glory to God.
The shock broke the Turkish garrison’s will, and within hours they were suing for peace. After holding out for five weeks, Nicaea capitulated on 18 June. It was, however, the emperor’s men, Manuel Boutoumites and Taticius, who actually took surrender of the city and raised the imperial standard. After all their efforts, the crusaders were left waiting outside the walls. Byzantine Turcopoles were set to guard the city’s treasury and the crusaders were denied any chance of plunder. It was a precarious moment for Alexius’ envoys: they may have had nominal authority over the campaign, but they were outnumbered both by the barely subdued Turkish garrison inside the city and by the acquisitive Frankish horde without. Had either side chosen to rebel, the Greeks would have been annihilated. As it was, the crusader princes kept their promise to return the city to the emperor, and the leading members of the Turkish garrison were quickly ferried out in small, manageable groups to Constantinople. There were some complaints among the Latin rank and file, worried that the captured Turks would soon be ransomed and thus free to fight the crusaders on another day, but even these were quickly silenced by the emperor’s extravagant largesse. He knew only too well how to keep this ‘mercenary’ crusading army under control. One Frank recalled that, ‘because he kept all, the emperor gave some of his own gold and silver and mantles to our nobles; he also distributed some of his copper coins, which they call tarantarons, to the footsoldiers’.
The fall of Nicaea was a product of the successful policy of close co-operation between the crusaders and Byzantium. The Franks would probably have enjoyed little success without Greek aid, while Alexius had needed the might of the Latin army to overcome Kilij Arslan’s capital. One contemporary, reflecting upon the siege, wrote, ‘Now that the storm of war had thus abated . . . the army of the living God spent the day in great rejoicing and exultation right there in the camp, because everything so far had gone well for them’. Their success had, however, been bought at a price. Many crusaders died in battle or from illness during the campaign. An eyewitness in Bohemond’s army recalled that ‘many of our men suffered martyrdom there and gave up their blessed souls to God with joy and gladness, and many poor starved to death for the Name of Christ. All these entered Heaven in triumph, wearing the robe of martyrdom.’ Even at this early stage in the expedition to Jerusalem it seems that the crusaders believed that fighting and dying in the name of God cleansed them of sin and brought the gift of everlasting life.