History Lesson: The First Crusade, Part I

Rooster dives into The First Crusade in Part I of a two-part series on History Lesson!

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“Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves.” – Pope Urban II

When the Roman Empire fell, Eastern and Western Europe were already at odds over a religious schism between the Byzantine Empire’s Orthodox Christianity and Western Europe’s Roman Catholicism. The two sides struggled for power and theological supremacy for hundreds of years, culminating in 1054, when they formally severed their communion and excommunicated one another.

In spite of this great divide, forty years later the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos and Roman Catholic Pope Urban II had a cooperative relationship, and even spoke of reuniting the Christian church. So, when the invading Seljuq Turks pushed farther West and took larger control of the Byzantine Empire, Alexios reached out to Pope Urban II for military aid.

The call for help was taken to heart, and Urban II gave an impassioned speech at the Council of Clermont in France, 1095. Western Europe at the time was rife with in-fighting, but now these restless and zealous folk were told that all their sins would be forgiven if they took up an armed pilgrimage to defend their fellow Christians against the Seljuq heathens and to maintain the Peace of God.

The First Crusade came in two main waves: the People’s Crusade and the Princes’ Crusade.

The People’s Crusade was led by Peter the Hermit, and consisted mostly of illiterate peasants. Perhaps not surprisingly, things did not go well for this ragtag army of would-be heroes. They pillaged their way across the East, even looting from their own Byzantine allies; but when they arrived in Seljuq territory, they began losing skirmishes to the more experienced Turks.

Peter returned to Constantinople to ask for the Emperor’s aid, but it was of no use by that point. In Peter’s absence, the pauper army was routed at the Battle of Civetot. Peter and the remaining survivors gathered at Constantinople to wait for the coming second wave. During this time, the call to fight Christianity’s enemies grew and sparked a chaotic fervor which ignited the persecution of Jewish people and beget the Rhineland Massacres, also known as the German Crusade of 1096.

The second wave, The Princes’ Crusade, consisted of four main armies, led by Hugh of Vermandois, Godfrey of Bouillon, Raymond, and Bohemond. With the armies gathered at Constantinople, Bohemond emerged as a natural leader, given his military expertise, enormous physical stature, sharp ingenuity, and abundant charisma. His Norman army was arguably the finest of the bunch, having previously gained experience fighting wars in the East.

Bohemond and Byzantine Emperor Alexios had been enemies for over thirty years before the truce, as Normans, led by Bohemond’s father, had on numerous occasions invaded and attacked Byzantine territory. But Bohemond was intelligent, reasonable, and ambitious — he made a point to act with respect towards Alexios in their new venture, paying due homage to the Emperor.

In turn, all leaders of the Princes’ Crusade were made to swear fealty to Alexios in return for his supply of provisions to their armies.

Alexios sent two of his own generals along with the crusaders into Asia Minor (the Anatolian Peninsula, or present-day Turkey). They aimed to take back Nicaea, which had become the capital of the Seljuq Sultanate under Kilij Arslan. Having underestimated the strength of the advancing crusaders, Arslan left Nicaea with an army of his own, to campaign in central Anatolia.

The crusaders seized this opportunity and laid siege to the city, surrounding its walls and building a siege engine to demolish one of its two hundred defensive towers. The Turks sent word of their plight to their ruler, and Arslan rushed back to confront the crusader army.

The ensuing battle was brutal, and both sides suffered heavy losses; but, unable withstand the daunting army of his enemies, Arslan was eventually forced to retreat, and the siege lingered on. However, all was not lost for the Turks, as Nicaea was situated on a lake, and the crusaders struggled to blockade Seljuq ships from supplying the city with provisions. Alexios schemed to cut off Nicaea from this vital source of supply, sending the crusaders their ships by land, rolling them over logs for many miles.

Unbeknownst to the crusaders, Alexios set another plan in motion.

He instructed one of his generals to join the siege, and the other he sent to negotiate surrender with the Turks on the down-low. The Turks accepted, and surrendered to the Byzantine general — much to the chagrin of the crusaders, who were hoping to take the city for themselves and loot its spoils.

Instead, the Byzantines peacefully retook Nicaea. No more than ten crusaders were allowed in the city at a time, though Alexios did pay the crusaders a tribute for their part in the victory. Reminded of their oath and vassalage to the Eastern Emperor, the crusaders begrudgingly took their winnings and marched onward towards Jerusalem — a journey that would ultimately take them two years.

Rooster stars in the history/spooky/society and culture/current events/everything show, Phone It In. She also covers the broad, daunting topic of ‘general history’ on History Lesson. Follow her on Twitter @SoBroRooster

Check out the SoBros Shop. Become a Patron. Give us money for no reason. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter @SoBrosNetwork. Watch on YouTube. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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