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The Crusades: The First Crusade

Updated on January 14, 2015
Pope Urban II, preaching the Crusade
Pope Urban II, preaching the Crusade | Source

The People's Crusade

Despite the plans of Pope Urban II, a few small incursions by groups of pilgrims were made on Muslim territory prior to the official start of the expedition. The People's Crusade, under the possibly unsanctioned leadership of Peter the Hermit, consisted of a number of peasant armies under Peter, a secondary force under Walter Sans Avoir, and a few other groups.

The main force reached Constantinople with minimal losses in spite of conflict in Hungary despite their unruly, undisciplined nature and soon after began to pillage the outlying villages of the Byzantine Capitol. In order to stem the tide of violence, Alexios quickly ferried the peasant army across the Bosporous and into Seljuq territory near Nicea, where the Turks decimated the Christian forces. Walter was among the dead, but Peter was not present at the time and later rejoined the main Crusader army.

Location of Constantinople

The Princes' Crusade

The Crusader Army proper gathered in Constantinople by April 1097 in four segments. The leaders of these segments of Crusaders were Godfrey of Bouillon, Hugh of Vermandois, Bohemond of Taranto, and Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse. (See "Leaders of the Crusades section for additional information.)

Alexios, apprehensive after the Peasants' Crusade, offered the Crusaders a deal. In exchange for supplies, the leaders of the army would have to swear an oath of fealty to the emperor and to return any Byzantine lands captured to the empire. It is worth noting that Raymond did not swear this oath, promising only to avoid inflicting harm on the empire.

The Beginning

While, as so often happens, there is contention among historians as to the precise reasons for the instigation of what would become known as the Crusades, there were a few undeniable factors. The political situation following the Islamic conquests had built tension over years, limiting Christian rule largely to the west and inciting tension in eastern territories of the church that bordered Islamic-controlled lands.

Largely, however, the tipping point was a request for help by the Byzantine emperor, Alexios I Komnenos. Despite tensions between the Eastern church and the papacy, Pope Urban II agreed to send aid against the encroaching Sejjuqs. Alexios requested a small mercenary force that he could strategically deploy, but Pope Urban had his own designs on uniting the eastern and western churches under the papal banner. His campaign of recruitment began, culminating with the Council of Clermont in 1095.

While not specifically citing the capture of the Holy Land as a goal, Urban gave a stirring speech including wildly exaggerated tales of atrocities committed by the Muslims and a need for peace and cooperation in the Christian world. Many sources claim this speech as the source of what would become the battle cry of the Crusaders, "Deus Vult" or "God wills it."

Urban began a grand campaign, urging his bishops to spread the word of the coming Crusade. For his own part, he convinced a number of powerful nobles and knights to "take the cross", a vow symbolized by a cloth (usually sewn onto clothing) to travel to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Godfrey and the leaders of the First Crusade
Godfrey and the leaders of the First Crusade | Source

Leaders of the Crusades

The leaders of the First Crusade main force are a group of knights and noblemen diverse enough to warrant a quick reference:

Godfrey of Bouillon - A French noble, Godfrey participated in nearly every major conflict of the First Crusade, even in the absence of his brother Baldwin at Antioch. He was the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem upon the success of the First Crusade, but refused to be crowned king, saying that he should not wear a crown of gold where Christ wore a crown of thorns.

Baldwin - The brother of Godfrey, Baldwin was landless but for the claim of his wife. After her death at Dorylaeum, Baldwin sought out his own fiefdom and became ruler of the wealthy County of Edessa in order to secure himself land and riches.

Raymond of Toulouse - A southern French nobleman, he was the richest among the Crusader leaders, he was a deeply pious man who was among the first to take the cross. A rival to Bohemond, Raymond was a pivotal leader in the siege of Antioch.

Bohemond of Taranto - Likely the best leader among the First Crusaders, Bohemond is credited largely with the Crusader victory at Antioch. However, his relationship with Emperor Alexios was not a pleasant one due to Bohemond participating in the Norman Byzantine war under his father.

The Siege of Nicaea

The Crusader Army, bolstered by Peter the Hermit and a pair of Byzantine generals sent by Alexios, made their way first to the city of Nicaea. Formerly under control of the Byzantine empire, it was now under Turk control and ruled by Kilij Arslan who was away on a campaign in Anatolia. When he learned that the Christian forces had besieged his city he returned in force only to be defeated by the numerically superior Crusaders. The siege continued until Byzantine ships arrived to blockage the lake by which Turk supply lines ran to the city.

However, the Turks brokered their surrender to Alexios behind the backs of the Crusaders, and the Byzantine army took control of the city in June 1097, while the Crusaders were forbidden from even entering the city without escort.


After dividing into two armies, one under Norman control and one French, the Crusaders moved on through Anatolia with the intention of meeting in Dorylaeum. However Kilij Arslan, who had bolstered his forces, set upon the Norman troops and surrounded them. The French forces, upon learning of this, quickly rushed to the aid of their brethren. Godfrey broke through the Turkish lines and flanked Arslan's troops, forcing them into retreat. Unfortunately for the Crusaders, the Turk forces burned and destroyed nearly everything of use during their retreat, and the Christian forces suffered greatly on the trip to their next stop, Antioch.

Baldwin, however, did not continue on with the main force, opting instead to move north into Armenian territory. Following the death of his wife at Dorylaeum, Baldwin found himself without a claim to wealth and made his way to Edessa. After being named heir to the city in exchange for protection against the Turks, Baldwin instigated a coup against the current ruler, Thoros, and became ruler of the first Crusader State, the County of Edessa.

Map of the First Crusade
Map of the First Crusade | Source
The Holy Lance, discovered in Antioch.  It is currently on display in Armenia.
The Holy Lance, discovered in Antioch. It is currently on display in Armenia. | Source

The Siege of Antioch

Situated roughly between Constantinople and Jerusalem, Antioch was a critical city to the Crusaders, however it was described as "unassailable" and attacking it was a source of great unease among the Christian forces. Despite this, Antioch fell under siege in October 1097.

Confounded by the cities defenses, the Crusaders fended off famine and disease along with two Turkish relief armies during the 8-month siege, only aided by a fleet of Saxon crusader ships. When a third Muslim force under Kerbogha of Mosul approached, desperation settled among the Christian ranks but Bohemond managed to bribe an Armenian captain within Antioch to surrender his post, one of the primary guard towers on the city walls. What resulted was the massacre of most of the inhabitants of Antioch and the capture of the city, but the victory was short-lived when Kerbogha arrived and besieged the Crusaders in turn.

Hungry, exhausted, and with their ranks severely diminished, the Crusaders found inspiration in the alleged discovery of the Holy Lance (the spear that pierced the side of Christ) by a monk named Peter Bartholomew. Taking it as a sign of holy support, the Crusaders marched out of the city gates in June of 1098 and defeated Kerbogha.

The Siege of Jerusalem

Encountering little resistance after Antioch, the Crusaders' arrival at the walls of Jerusalem in 1099 was a huge initial boost to morale. However, the arid landscape left little in the way of supplies and a siege was impossible for the badly diminished force. Some estimates say that only about 12,000 of the original 60,000 Crusaders remained by this time, so it was resolved that a full assault was the only option.

Though the initial assault on the inner walls of the city failed, a supply line in the form of Genoese mariners arrived and provided timber and engineers enough to build the siege engines that the Crusaders needed. Additionally, morale was bolstered by an alleged prophetic vision by the Bishop of Adhemar. Mimicking the siege of Jericho on the instructions of the Bishop, the Crusaders fasted for three days then marched barefoot around the city.

On the 13th of July, the final assault on Jerusalem began. Raymond moved his forces to the southern gate while the remaining army moved north, eventually capturing a critical rampart in the northern wall and allowing the Crusaders to enter the walls. Muslim and Jewish citizens of Jerusalem were slaughtered en masse, but at the end of the day the city in which Christ had died rested in Christian hands.

Poll Question

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Author's Note

I hope you enjoyed reading, and as always feel free to track me down on Facebook, or visit my home page for more on the history of pretty much everything.

© 2013 JG11Bravo


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    • Anate profile image

      Joseph Ray 

      4 years ago

      This was a very good summary of the Crusades.

    • JG11Bravo profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Wow! Thank you! That really means a lot.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I think you have potential to do incredible things.

    • JG11Bravo profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Thank you. I hope I can get and maintain enough exposure to make it viable to continue.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      You're quite a writer.


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