First Crusade: Siege of Nicaea and the Battle of Dorylaeum 1097 AD

Nicaea

Most significantly for the course of future crusades, during Bohemond’s stay in Constantinople he took a vow of allegiance to the emperor that resembled very closely a feudal oath of homage. Then he cajoled, bullied and browbeat many of the other princes who had been arriving at the city’s gates since the previous December into doing the same. In some cases this aroused considerable antipathy. Nevertheless, oaths were taken on relics including the Holy Cross and crown of thorns by Godfrey of Bouillon, Hugh of Vermandois, Robert of Flanders, Stephen of Blois, Tancred of Hauteville and many of the lesser lords, all of whom vowed to restore to the empire any Turkish-held towns and strongholds that they might capture along the road to Jerusalem. Even Raymond of Toulouse, who detested the emperor, grudgingly committed not to damage his property. In turn Alexios swore he `would not cause or permit anyone to trouble or vex our pilgrims on the way to the Holy Sepulchre’. He also awarded the crusading princes eye-poppingly large gifts of treasure and expensive religious vestments and dangled the prospect of land-grants far to the east of Asia Minor – assuming the crusaders got there.

Bohemond’s sudden display of subservience towards Alexios confused the author of the Gesta Francorum: `Why did such brave and determined knights do a thing like this? It must have been because they were driven by desperate need.’ Another chronicler marvelled that the mighty Latins had been prepared to bend their knees to `the puny Greeks, laziest of all people’. In fact selfinterest loomed large on both sides. Alexios had invited the armies into his territories and fully intended to see them deployed clearing the Turks from Asia Minor before they disappeared off towards Jerusalem. The crusaders, for their part, could not hope to proceed without the emperor’s goodwill and financial support. Bohemond himself had arrived with the smallest army and lowliest standing among all the princes; he realized there was much to be gained in prestige and power if he could become the man who held the eastern and western leaders together. To that end Bohemond even petitioned the emperor to appoint him as his domestikos – a title which would connote supreme command in Asia Minor – but Alexios demurred; Bohemond could not `out-Cretan the Cretan’, said Anna. Their exchange of oaths, brokered by Bohemond, effectively cemented a relationship that would – for a time – yield spectacular results for both sides.

With Easter celebrated, homage sworn, and tens of thousands of troops – including 7,500 heavy cavalry and perhaps six times as many light infantry – waiting across the Bosphorus on the western tip of Asia Minor, there was little point in wasting time. At the beginning of May Bohemond and the other princes marched their armies south-east towards the first target agreed with the emperor: Nicaea, the Seljuq sultan of Rum, Qilij Arslan’s capital. They arrived and set up camp on 6 May. A week later they laid the city under siege.

Bohemond had attacked plenty of cities in his life, but at Nicaea he encountered formidable defences. Huge walls, punctuated with towers topped with catapults, protected three sides of the city. A large lake called Askania (Ascanius/Iznik) rendered the fourth side inaccessible to the besiegers while allowing resupply of food, firewood, armour and other provisions to the citizens within. Robert the Monk reckoned it `the chief place to which no other is equal in Anatolia’. The princes camped in orderly fashion around the walls (Bohemond’s men took up their position before Nicaea’s main gates) to effect a land blockade while their engineers built siege engines. One eyewitness saw battering rams, mobile sheds to protect sappers known as `sows’, `cats’ and `foxes’, wooden towers and petrariae, or stone-throwing catapults. When these were constructed an exchange of missiles to and from the battlements began, with occasional skirmishing between besiegers and besieged. `The supporters of Christ deployed their forces around the city and attacked valiantly,’ wrote Robert the Monk. `The Turks, fighting for their lives, put up strong resistance. They fired poisoned arrows so that even those lightly wounded met a horrible death.’

Soon, amid the sawing and hewing of half-built war-machines, the crash of stone pelting stone and catcalls from the ramparts, came more ominous shrieks. On 16 May the woods behind the crusaders suddenly sprang to life: a relieving army sent by Qilij Arslan came forth, `exulting in their certainty of victory, bringing with them ropes with which to lead us bound into Khorasan [i. e. as slaves to be taken to Persia]’. They charged the besiegers and a major engagement began outside the city walls.

The relievers may have assumed that one crusading army was much like another, and that the princes’ armies would be as easily dispatched as Peter the Hermit’s followers had been the previous year. They were soon disabused of the notion, beaten backwards by a cavalry charge commanded by Raymond of Toulouse and Bishop Adhémar. Large numbers were killed on both sides, and grisly retribution followed. The crusaders decapitated corpses and flung the severed heads over Nicaea’s walls. The citizens let down grappling hooks from the ramparts, fishing for Latin soldiers, whose bodies they hanged in mockery from the towers.

On 1 June sappers tunnelled beneath one of Nicaea’s towers. That night they set fire to the wooden struts supporting their mine, collapsing it and bringing down a section of the wall above. Now a breach existed where efforts to storm the city could be focused. A daily contest began, in which crusading troops attempted repeatedly to rush the breach, while the defenders inside the city piled up rubble to barricade it. For those involved it was almost impossibly exciting. `I do not think that anyone has ever seen, or will ever again see, so many valiant knights,’ exclaimed a Latin eyewitness.

However, after several inconclusive days of this, the siege was slipping into stalemate. As long as the city could be supplied via the lake, it could tolerate any amount of bombardment. What broke the deadlock was action undertaken not by Bohemond and his Latin allies, but by the emperor they had taken such care to woo. Alexios had held back from the action at Nicaea, having no desire to take part in a fight he had hired foreigners to pick on his behalf. But he had crossed the Bosphorus and hung back a day’s ride away, monitoring events from the safety of a magnificent marquee shaped like a city, with a turreted atrium, which took twenty camels to transport. To represent him among the princes he sent one of his most trusted military advisors, a grizzled, jocular Arab-Greek eunuch by the name of Tatikios, who had fought against Bohemond’s father, Robert, in the 1080s, and who was distinguished both by his exemplary military record and his missing nose, in place of which he wore a golden prosthesis. Even more valuably, Alexios sent a small flotilla of ships, dragged 25 miles (40 km) overland from the shores of the Bosphorus by oxen and men wearing leather straps on their shoulders. These were launched quietly into Lake Askania, in readiness for a major combined assault.

At daybreak on 18 June the flotilla set sail across Askania towards Nicaea’s waterfront. Crewed with heavily armed turcopoles (imperial mercenaries recruited from the same ethnic group as the enemy), the vessels floated slowly and ominously into view of Nicaea’s defenders. On the landward side, a heavy assault by siege towers and catapults was taking place. As Robert the Monk wrote:

[When] those in the city saw the ships, they were terrified out of their wits and, losing the will to resist, fell to the ground as if already dead. All howled, daughters with mothers, young men with young girls, the old with the young. Grief and misery were everywhere because there was no hope of escape.

Having held out for more than seven weeks, the Nicaeans’ spirits were broken. They sued for a truce, and the garrison (along with Qilij Arslan’s wife and children) surrendered to be taken off to prison in Constantinople. As the city fell, there was plunder aplenty: some of the Frankish knights now treasured curved Turkish scimitars, taken from the dead hands of the enemy. The fall of Nicaea had proceeded from a model of co-operation between Latins and Byzantines. `It was Gaul that assured it, Greece that helped and God who brought it about,’ remarked Ralph of Caen, with satisfaction.

Dorylaeum

In line with the oaths sworn, Nicaea was handed over to Alexios, who showered the Latin princes, including Bohemond, with gifts and handed out alms to the rank and file of the crusader army. Ten days later, having refreshed and revived themselves, and taken counsel from the emperor about the best way to fight the Turks in the field (as well as receiving his gracious permission to leave) the princes packed up their camp and struck out eastwards into the Anatolian interior. They divided their army into two divisions, who were to follow parallel roads towards an abandoned Roman military encampment at Dorylaeum (Dorylaion), about four days’ march away. The first division was led by Raymond of Toulouse, Bishop Adhémar, Godfrey of Bouillon and Hugh of Vermandois. The second was headed by Bohemond, Tancred and Robert Curthose, duke of Normandy. A long and difficult summer march across Asia Minor awaited them. Qilij Arslan would assuredly be rallying his own troops for another attack.

It did not take long for Qilij Arslan’s next strike to come. As Bohemond’s army approached Dorylaeum, which lay at the confluence of two valleys, in the early morning of 1 July, `an innumerable, terrible and nearly overwhelming mass of Turks suddenly rushed upon [them]’. The author of the Gesta Francorum recalled hearing cries of `some devilish word I do not understand’ – surely the Islamic battle cry of Allahu Akhbar (`God is great’). Chroniclers suggested (with poetic licence) that more than a quarter of a million Turks, reinforced with Arab soldiers, descended on Bohemond’s army, forcing them to scramble a defence in which knights repelled the first waves while lighter-armed foot soldiers pitched a defensive camp in which the non-combatants could be protected. This formation held for a while but it was clear that, separated from Raymond, Godfrey and Adhémar’s army, the Latins were badly outnumbered. As the Turks closed in on the camp, every able person was deployed: women shuttling water to refresh men near the front line and cheering encouragement. Despite being outnumbered and occasionally panicked, with leaders including Bohemond contemplating a disorderly retreat, the crusader ranks did not break up. According to the Gesta Francorum, a motivational motto was passed down the line. `Stand fast all together, trusting in Christ and in the victory of the Holy Cross. Today, please God, you will all gain much booty.’

In later years the Battle of Dorylaeum would gain legendary status as the moment the First Crusade truly sprang to life. The writer Raymond of Aguilers, who travelled in the retinue of Raymond, count of Toulouse, reported on sightings within the Latin lines of miraculous, ghostly protectors: `Two handsome knights in flashing armour, riding before our soldiers and seemingly invulnerable to the thrusts of Turkish lances.’ That these sounded remarkably like the heavenly warriors who were said to have protected Judas Maccabeus in ancient times was probably no coincidence. It was certainly the first time that a full-scale battle had been fought against Turkish mounted archers, whose tactics of lightning raids and feigned retreat under a hail of arrows were designed to cause chaos in enemy ranks and drag them apart, inviting cavalry to attempt pursuit rather than holding a disciplined formation. Alexios had sent the goldennosed eunuch Tatikios out with the princes in order to advise them on resisting this stratagem (and the motto of `stand firm’ suggests that his words were heeded). Nevertheless, it was everything that Bohemond and Robert Curthose could do to keep their warriors from abandoning camp and fleeing in confusion, as they sent desperate word to the other princes to hurry across country and reinforce them.

A brutal contest of devastating arrow-shot against butchery at close quarters lasted from around 9 a. m. until midday. For one perilous moment a rout looked possible when the Turks broke through into the middle of the Latin encampment. Raymond of Toulouse charged into the valley with several thousand of his own knights, fresh to the battlefield; the Turks turned tail and fled, hoping to fight another day. The Franks, overwhelmed with relief and puffed up with pride in having survived, celebrated by chanting belligerent verses from the Old Testament (`Thy right hand, O Lord, hath dashed in pieces the enemy’), buried as martyrs all the dead who wore a crusader’s cross, plundered and desecrated the corpses of those who did not, and prepared to continue their march eastwards.

So under the leadership of Bohemond and the other princes, the debacle of the People’s Crusade was gradually forgotten. Robert the Monk later imagined a furious Qilij Arlsan berating Turkish troops he encountered running away from Dorylaeum. `You are totally insane. You have never come up against Frankish valour or experienced their courage. Their strength is not human: it comes from heaven – or the devil.’ Fanciful this may have been, but Qilij Arslan did not attempt to engage the crusader army on the battlefield again. In a way, he did not need to. Buoyed by victory, the princes decided to head for the vast city of Antioch that lay at the gates between Anatolia and Syria. A three-month summer trek through bitterly hostile countryside awaited them. They would have enough problems as it was.

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