This is the third part of Deadliest Blogger’s look at the religious and military phenomenon known as the Crusades. At best, considering the sheer volume of material and scope of history involved, this can only be a cursory examination of the Crusades, but with the politically correct blinders often found in modern scholarship removed. In these initial installments we will look at the First Crusade, and the establishment of the Christian Crusader States in Syria and Palestine.
After seven-and-a-half months Antioch was at last captured. However, within days the Crusaders found themselves besieged in turn by the late-arriving Muslim relief army under Kerbogha, Atabeg of Mosul. Shams ad-Daula, the cool-headed son of the late governor of the city, who still held the citadel atop Mt. Silpius, rode out to meet Kerbogha while the latter was encamped at the Iron Bridge. He offered to swear homage for Antioch if the Atabeg would avenge his father and destroy the Franks.
“If you can kill all the Franks and give me their heads, I will give you the town, and I will do homage to you and guard the town in your fealty.” 
The Crusaders in the city were ill-prepared to sustain a siege. Supplies were exhausted, and what little food had remained in the city had been consumed by the Franks in an orgy of celebration the day after its capture. On his first day outside Antioch, Kerbogha reinforced the citadel from the south side, and an attack was made on the walls by his forces as the now strengthened garrison of the citadel attacked down into the city from above. Fighting behind barricades in the upper streets, the Franks drove the garrison back, and held the walls against Kerbogha as well. Convinced the Christians could not long hold out with no food supplies in store, the Turks camped outside the walls, content to starve the Crusaders into surrender.
“Those profane enemies of God held us so enclosed… that many died of hunger because a loaf of bread sold for a besant (a Byzantine gold coin)…. Horse and donkey flesh was sold and eaten. They cooked and ate the leaves of fig trees, grapevine and thistle… Others cooked the dry hides of horses, camels, asses, or cattle… Such a tribulation, famine, and fears we endured for 26 days.” 
Besieged from without, the Franks were also beset by internal strife. Matters between Count Raymond of Toulouse commanding the south French and Bohemond of Taranto and his Normans had soured to a point where the two contingents had to be kept separated or violence would break out. Bohemond’s men held a section of the wall nearest the Turkish-occupied citadel, and the upper streets and buildings along the base of the mountain. Raymond controlled the now-dead governor’s palace, and a stretch of wall of their own. Only the intercession of Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, respected by both sides, kept the two leaders from coming to blows.
But it is always darkest before the dawn, and at this seemingly hopeless moment for the fortunes of the Crusade a simple pilgrim stepped forward to infuse the Frankish rank-and-file with renewed religious fervor. His name was Peter Bartholomew, a Provençal in Count Raymond’s contingent. Known as a man of bad character, it came as a surprise when he told one-and-all that he had been visited in his dreams by St. Andrew, who told him that the very spear that had pierced the side of their Lord Jesus Christ as he hung upon the cross lay buried beneath the Church of St. Peter there in Antioch.
Following his guidance, Count Raymond led a party of twelve men (which included Raymond of Aguilers, chaplain to the count and subsequent chronicler of the events, as well as the Bishop of Orange and young Peter Bartholomew) to search for this holy relic. Digging up the floor of the church, they worked “from morning till evening.” Raymond left to attend to guarding the citadel, and the work went on.
“The youth who had the vision of the lance disrobed and, taking off his shoes, descended into the (newly dug) pit in his shirt… At length, the Lord was minded to show us His Lance; and I who have written this kissed it when the point alone appeared above the ground. What great joy and exultation then filled the city can’t be described.”
They had found a spear-head just as Peter claimed they would. But the veracity of this relic was much doubted by the leadership, particularly by Bohemond and his Italo-Normans, as nothing more than a stunt by Count Raymond to somehow gain command of the Crusade. Even the papal legate Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy, who was one of Raymond’s vassals, disbelieved Peter’s claims; as the man was known less for his piety than his unsavory reputation. Many believed that Peter had simply secreted a rusted spear head into the dig and conveniently “found it” when the right time had come.
But the common pilgrims that made up the rank-and-file believed the relic to be a true one, and were fired with a religious zeal not seen since the first days of the Crusade. When Peter claimed to have been visited by a second vision from St. Andrew, ordering the Crusaders to fast for five days and then to attack the Turks, this was taken up enthusiastically.
Never one to let an opportunity go by, and understanding the value of high morale in combat, Bohemond put aside his distrust of Raymond and of Peter’s claims and drew-up a plan of attack that was accepted by the other leaders. Fasting was easy to do, in any case, as there was no food to be had in the city; so why not make a virtue of necessity? For the same reason attacking the Turks on the plain outside the town was preferable to waiting for hunger to do Kerbogha’s work for him.
On the morning of June 28, 1098, the Crusaders formed up in column and marched out of the city by the Bridge Gate. Only Raymond (who was too ill to fight) and those others in the same condition stayed to hold the city in case the Turkish garrison within the citadel sallied out. Kerbogha’s army of some 35,000 men was assembled on the narrow plain between the river and the hills; with their camp some 2 miles to the northeast. Raymond of Aguilars says that Kerbogha was caught by surprised by the Frank’s sudden sally, in fact playing chess in his tent. But this seems hardly credible. The army took hours to form in the streets before marching out, observed all the while by the Turkish garrison in the citadel above. A messenger would have been dispatched to Kerbogha in the hours before the Franks emerged. In any case, the plans to first fast and then to attack had been announced in the town five days earlier; and it is likely the Turks had spies in the city who learned of this open secret well before the day of battle.
The Crusaders marched out in the six divisions in which they planned to fight. One-by-one they crossed the bridge and formed a battle line facing the Turks; each succeeding division placing itself to the left of the one preceding it.
The first, leading the column as it emerged from the city, was the north French under Count Hugh of Vermandois, whose position as brother to the King of France earned him pride-of-place and the honor of commanding the van. They led the column north across the bridge, and then facing right (towards the Turks), formed line with the river anchoring their right flank. They were followed by the Flemings under their own Count Robert of Flanders. Marching past Count Hugh’s division, they then formed-up on the left of his force. Together these formed the right-wing of the army.
The next divisions (or battles, in Medieval parlance) were that of Duke Godfrey, leading the men of Lorraine; and the Normans of Normandy, led by Duke Robert Curthose, son of William the Conqueror. Together they comprised the solid center of the Frankish battle line. The fifth division was that of the south French, led by Bishop Adhemar in Raymond’s absence. Before them, held aloft, was the so-called Holy Lance; carried by Raymond of Aguilars. Together with a small force of Bretons, this was the left-wing of the line, closest to the hills.
The final division, that was meant to form the reserve, consisted of the Italio-Normans and a small force of Gascons. This was commanded by Bohemond, assisted by his nephew Tancred. In Medieval armies the last unit in a column was referred to as the “rearguard.” This can be deceptive, as Medieval armies didn’t always keep a real reserve. The “rearguard” sometimes formed up in line with the “van” and the “main,” taking station on the left. So it is not entirely clear if Bohemond’s division was meant to stand to the left of Bishop Ademar’s battle, or to act as a true reserve, remaining behind the main line. However, events were to unfold in such a way as to render the question moot in any case.
As one-by-one the Frankish “battles” crossed the bridge, the Turkish emirs around Kerbogha begged to be allowed to attack the head of the column and destroy the firangi piecemeal. But Kerbogha bid his captains to patience: “Let them come out, that we may the better have them in our power!”  Confident of being able to crush the Franks in open battle, he was no doubt pleased they were coming out to fight, and saving him the time of a siege.
11th century Frankish tactics normally relied upon the charge of heavy cavalry (knights and their close retainers) to break their foes. It was said that a Frankish knight could charge through the walls of Babylon!  But the Crusade had been mercilessly harsh on horses, with most of the great war horses brought from Europe having perished. On that day the Franks were fighting mostly on foot. Only a few hundred remained mounted, and these rode horses whose strength was wasted by hunger.
The furious charge of western knights, well-portrayed here in the film “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005) was the prime tactic of Frankish armies of the 11th century. However, loss of horses in the first two years of the Crusade forced many knights to fight on foot
However, this worked to their advantage. The favorite tactic of the Turkish light horse archer was to tempt the knights to charge, then, feigning flight, lure them away from their supporting infantry. Once so drawn out, the knight’s would find themselves isolated, surrounded by Turks, on blown horses. The light Turkish arrows could not pierce western mail. But it could kill or disable the knight’s mount, leaving him on foot as the Turks then closed in for the kill. But now the dismounted knights could not be lured from their infantry. As at Dorylaeum, those knights without mounts took their place in the front ranks of the line, their armor and valor bolstering the staying-power and over-all fighting quality of the common foot. Before Antioch, each of the divisions placed its infantry in front, with the dismounted knights in the first rank. Those knights and commanders who were fortunate enough to still have a horse to sit formed the reserve of each division; supporting and increasing the morale of the infantry. Overall, this led to a better balanced, combined arms force that was less susceptible to the common Turkish tactics.
The large shields and strong armor of the Frankish knights made them formidable infantry when forced by circumstances to fight on foot.
As Bohemond’s final “battle” marched behind the south French, towards their position on the extreme left (now occupied by the Bretons), Kerbogha began the battle with a spoiler attack. A flying column swept around the northern extreme of the Frankish line, between the Bretons and the foothills, in an attempt to get behind and attack the rear of the Crusader army. This was standard Turkish tactics. However, as luck would have it, they instead smashed into Bohemond and Tancred’s division. A fierce fight quickly developed.
As this fight was at close quarters, and the Turks gave a good accounting of themselves, it seems plausible that among this force was several Turkish amirs and their household Ghulams: elite slave-soldiers who served as armored bodyguards for the Muslim nobility. Some of this force broke away and rode west, where it was joined by the Turkish forces that had been blockading the western approaches to the city for the last few days.
As the main Christian line began its advance, it too was attacked all along its front by Kerbogha’s main forces. Turkish arrows had little effect, however, on the large shields and strong mail of the front-rank knights that comprised the Crusader line. As they continued to push forward, the Turks fell-back steadily.
It has been suggested that is was Kerbogha’s plan all along to withdraw before the Crusader’s advance (easily done, as many of his troops were mounted horse archers and the Franks advancing at the pace of their heavy infantry). That he had hidden troops in ambush: the forces of the emir of Hims and of Sökmen Ibn Artuk, governor of Jerusalem, were placed in hiding to attack the Crusaders in flank once they had passed their position. Feigned flight followed by an ambush was, as pointed out above, also a common Turkish tactic. However, like the flanking maneuver that began the battle, this too went awry as the “feigned” flight turned to real rout, with large portions of Kerbogha’s Turkish cavalry fleeing the field.
The sudden and inexplicable flight of so many of Kerbogha cavalry is best explained by treachery: Kerbogha had grown too proud and too ambitious (the anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum having him not only swearing to defeat the Franks at Antioch, but to also conquer “all Syria, Romania, and Bulgaria, even to Apulia”). Rival Arab and Turkish emirs now deserted him, galloping off the field.
The Turkish infantry auxiliaries, posted further back, attempted to defend the approaches to the Turkish camp; but these quickly broke as well. Only the garrison from Jerusalem fought on and died most valiantly on the stricken field. To cover their retreat, some set fire to the dry grass that covered the plain. This apparently didn’t stop the Crusader’s advance, however. They pursued, killing any who stood; capturing the Turkish camp (and its wealth) and continuing on till reaching the Iron Bridge, site of Bohemond’s earlier triumph.
Battle of Antioch by Matthew Ryan
The only place the Turks gave the Crusaders real trouble was in their rear; where not only did Bohemond have a tough fight before breaking the flanking column; but the force from the west harassed the Franks till Godfrey of Bouillon dispatched the Count of Toul from the center with all the cavalry the Duke had in reserve behind his division. Combined with Tancred’s mounted Normans, they drove these from the field with no few casualties from Turkish archery.
The battle was a complete and unexpected victory for the tired, hungry Franks; and (for them) a vindication of their faith. This was seen as nothing short of a miracle. How else could tired men and starving horses have defeated a fresh and well-fed enemy, who outnumbered them at least two-to-one if not more? Many reported seeing Christian warrior saints coming to their aid from out of the northern mountains, dressed in white. (This may have been an episode of mass hysteria; or a story spread in the aftermath of the victory to explain the inexplicable; or just the sight of white-robed Arab auxiliaries who had been placed in the foothills to ambush the advancing Crusader line, but who instead fled the field as the battle collapsed. Or, alternatively, it may have been a genuine case of divine intervention!)
Bohemond of Taranto was given credit for commanding the Crusader army to victory, and was given Kerbogha’s pavilion as his share of the spoils. That same day, seeing their relief army routed, the garrison of the citadel surrendered; insisting that they would only lay down their swords to and hoist the banner over the castle of Count Bohemond. From this point forward, it was a foregone conclusion that he would be given Antioch, as he desired.
Bohemond gave the Turkish garrison the choice of going free, or of taking Christian baptism and joining his service at Antioch. The majority took the latter choice: clearly, God was smiling upon the Franks and Bohemond was a very great leader to follow.
As for Kerbogha, he returned to Mosul, a broken man.
THE MARCH ON JERUSALEM
With the defeat of Kerbogha, Antioch was now firmly held as a base for the Crusaders to continue their advance on Jerusalem. All had sworn an oath to liberate the Holy City, and to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and most were eager to move onward. But the army was exhausted and needed a rest; and the disposition of the captured city yet to be decided.
All the leaders agreed that the city had only fallen because of Bohemond’s machinations, and that it was by his battle plan they had triumphed at the Battle of Antioch. But Raymond continued obstinately to refuse to leave the city till they agreed to hand it over to the absent Emperor Alexios. The city that summer was a stinking pest hole, filled with dead bodies and undisposed garbage. Typhus broke out, and among those who succumbed was the papal legate, Bishop Adhemar; a sore loss for the Crusade. To avoid the pestilence, many Crusaders left to forage and capture the surrounding territory; most of which submitted without a fight.
In December the town of Maarat was captured by a force of very hungry Crusaders. By this time northern Syria had endured the passing of armies and their foraging parties for over a year; and the land was nearly picked clean of food. It was reported by two contemporary chroniclers that the Crusaders resorted to cannibalism.
“I shudder to tell that many of our people, harassed by the madness of excessive hunger, cut pieces from the buttocks of the Saracens already dead there, which they cooked, but when it was not yet roasted enough by the fire, they devoured it with savage mouth.”
Finally, after six months, the rank-and-file (including many poorer knights) took matters in their own hands and declared they were marching on with-or-without the great lords. This forced everyone’s hand. As Bohemond had made it clear he was remaining there to hold Antioch, Raymond was forced to concede, without grace, departed the city on January 13, 1099. Bohemond remained to rule in Antioch; where, eventually, he established himself as Prince.
Detailed map of the First Crusade. Go here to see in detail
Raymond began the march barefoot and dressed as a pilgrim, with Tancred and Robert of Normandy agreeing to join him with their followers in return for wages to pay for provisions. As they advanced south, they encountered little resistance. However, Raymond had designs on the area around Tripoli in Lebanon, and wished to capture first Arqa (formerly Caesarea) and Tripoli itself, before moving on. Arqa was laid under siege.
Meanwhile, the following month (February) the rest of the pilgrims led by Godfrey, Robert of Flanders, and the Gascon leader Gaston viscount of Béarn mustered at Latakia, and began their own march south. They joined Raymond at Arqa in March, but the siege dragged on till May 13, when the Crusaders gave up and moved on. In truth, there was little stomach for cooperation between the leaders, especially as capturing Arqa (and Tripoli) would only benefit one leader directly, Raymond. The only thing holding the Crusade together at this point was their shared oath to capture Jerusalem.
That holy city had recently undergone a change of rule. After the Turkish garrison had gone north to fight (and be destroyed) at Antioch the Turks main Muslim rivals, the Fatimids of Egypt, had seized the city. Not wishing to fight the Crusaders, the city’s Fatimid governor, Iftikhar al-Dawla, offered peace on the condition that the Franks halt their march south. His offer was ignored.
As they passed Tripoli, the local ruler gave the Crusader leaders a gift of 15,000 bezants and 15 prize horses to placate them; as well as opening his markets for them to buy provisions (including more horses). He also released some 300 Christian prisoners he held in his dungeons, and vowed to convert to Christianity if the Crusaders captured Jerusalem from the Fatimids.
Continuing south along the coast, the Crusaders turned inland at Jaffa on June 3rd, reaching Ramlah, which they found abandoned. On June 6th Tancred and Gaston captured Bethlehem, with Tancred flying his banner from the Church of the Nativity.
On June 7 they reached the object of their three-year ordeal: the Holy City of Jerusalem!
- The Gesta Francorum, Ch. 13
- Raymond of Aguilers, Historia Francorum; Ch. 8
- Gesta Francorum, Ch. 15
- Anna Comnena
- Fulcher of Chartres
- Gesta Francorum, Ch. 16
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.