Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Crusade Grows

Today we return to the grand story of the First Crusade, one of the most grandiose operations in history, unrivalled in scope in all that had gone before it. On the 27th of November 1095, a day which shook the world, the charismatic Pope Urban II had cried out to the powers of Christendom to aid their beleaguered fellow Christians in the East against the rising power of Islam (for the story behind Urban's legendary speech, please click here). The gathered crowd of clergymen, knights and nobles were both stunned and moved. Little did the Pope realise that in that moment he had created an idea, an idea that would mobilise the nations of Europe like never before.

The Crusaders rally to the Crusade
Engraving by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville.
When the Supreme Pontiff had finished speaking, and tears were in the eyes of all men present, one among that crowd rushed forward. His name was Adhemar, and he was also the Bishop of Puy-en-Velay in France. Kneeling before the Pope, he vowed to see God's will be done. Urban II bent down and sewed a cross onto the robes of the Bishop. Adhemar of Puy was the first man to take the cross, and the first crusader. Urban II called to the crowd once more, declaring this man to be his personal representative, as Papal legate, on the Crusade, imploring more to follow his example. Many more followed in Adhemar's wake. Many more indeed. News of the Pope's call spread quickly across the Kingdoms of Europe. Bishops and legates soon appeared in towns and cities across the land, carrying the Pope's message to the people, both lord and peasant alike. "Undertake this journey for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the Kingdom of Heaven!" was a potent message, particularly to the pious, yet beaten down serfs of the feudal medieval world. Tens of thousands answered the Pope's call across Europe,  from all walks of life. Men, women, monks, knights, lords, Princes, Counts, hermits, peasants - all took the cross.

Godfrey of Bouillon leads the First Crusade
Image taken from a 13th Century Illuminated Manuscript.
Soon the sheer scale of the response took the Pope by surprise. Whilst continuing his journey through France, Urban II even had to urge women, monks and the sick to stay behind, so vast were the numbers. Yet the force he unleashed was too great even for the Church to control. Royalty too, soon began to stir. Due to an unusual set of circumstances, the three most powerful monarchs in Europe were unable to personally take the crusade (however, later crusades, famously the Third Crusade, were under the direct leadership of Kings). King Philip I of France had been excommunicated for polygamy by Pope Urban II himself. The Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV had been excommunicated for scheming against the Church. In England, King William the Conqueror had been dead only eight years and the Norman mastery of England still less than thirty years old. The new King William II's hold on the throne therefore needed a strong hand, so he too was unable to go. The Spanish were locked in battle with the Moors, wrestling for control of the Iberian Peninsula, already engaged in an effort to drive Islam from Europe, an effort known as the Reconquista, and so they too were out of the picture. However, in their wake royalty would still attend. After much deliberation, representing the Kingdom of France would be Hugh of Vermandois, brother to the disgraced King. Representing the Holy Roman Empire would be numerous lords and barons of the German King, most important of whom was Godfrey, Lord of Bouillon, who would became a key leader of the Crusade. Representing the Kingdom of England would be Robert, Duke of the Normans and son of King William the Conqueror and brother to King William II. Accompanying him would be Stephen, Count of Blois, son-in-law to the Conqueror (who would also be father to the future King Stephen of England, last of the Norman Kings). From the Norman lands in Southern Italy came Bohemond, the Prince of Taranto and his nephew Tancred. Each man brought with him a sizeable contingent, though overall credit for the First Crusade was to rest largely with the Normans. As the Kingdoms of Europe prepared themselves for the Crusade, Pope Urban II set a date for its departure, August 15th 1096, on the Feast of the Assumption. However, as always there were fanatics. One contingent decided to leave without delay.

Peter the Hermit guides the people to the Holy City
Image taken from a 13th Century Illuminated Manuscript.

Pope Urban II was not the only charismatic man of the cloth at the time of the Crusade. The story too, tells us of a hermit, by the name of Peter, who was a priest of Amiens. Years before, Peter had embarked upon a pilgrimage to the Holy City, but had fallen into the hands of the Turks, who had tortured him, deep in the dungeons of Anatolia. Seizing on the chance offered by the Pope, the hermit showed the marks of his torture before the eyes of the people, crafting powerful words and speech, urging the liberation of the Holy Lands. Preaching to the people of the Low Countries (the future Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg - all vassals of the Holy Roman Empire in 1095), Peter gathered a vast following. Departing early in 1096, leading anything from forty to eighty thousands peasants, knights and nobles, this 'Crusade of the People' marched forth to Constantinople, but not before some stops on the way. Riding a donkey and dressed in simple robes, Peter led the host to the city of Cologne to preach the Crusade. But here this 'rogue crusade' hit its first troubles. Some were impatient and called for an immediate march to Jerusalem. Peter's vision was dashed with a dark new side to the Crusade which manifested early in 1096. An alarming many in Europe saw the Jews as enemies just as much as they did the Saracens. Some questioned why they should travel thousands of miles to fight a foreign foe, when another lay within. This sentiment reached boiling point in the Crusade with a bloody vengeance. Over eight hundred years before the Third Reich, Jews were systematically slaughtered throughout German towns and cities. Thousands were put to the sword, hundreds were locked inside buildings and burned alive. The People's Crusade had run amok. The Holy Roman Emperor, away in Southern Italy, was outraged when the news reached him. The Church universally condemned the anti-Semitism, denouncing all involved.

The People's Crusade in Anatolia
Image taken from a 15th Century
Illuminated Manuscript.
The First Crusade had got off to an appalling start, but things would get worse before they got better. A force loyal to none, the hermit's 'army' continued through Eastern Europe, through Hungary to the borders of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor Alexius Comnenus had a dilemma. If the rogue crusaders attacked his lands he would have to retaliate, yet this would jeopardise the ethos of the Crusade, which was supposed to be aiding him. If they entered Constantinople, who knows what they would do? After pillaging the city of Belgrade, the crusaders entered Roman territory. But Peter's 'army' was little more than a collection of ill-equipped and uneducated vagabonds and thieves than the might of Christendom. Peter accepted the Emperor's offer of an escort through his lands, but his followers were a force of their own. Causing havoc in the city of Nis (in modern Serbia), as many as ten thousand troublemaking crusaders were slain by the Roman garrison, yet still they marched on. Passing through Sofia and reaching Constantinople at last, the Emperor was bemused by what he saw. Hardly any of the crusaders even wore armour, let alone training or organisation. Yet these brigands were to face the might of the Turks? Men who had bested the Roman army itself? Little wonder the Emperor's daughter, Anna, described them as "a host of barbarians 'bursting forth into Asia in a solid mass".  Despair though he did, the Emperor saw a good man at heart in Peter, even if he held little control over his mob. Urging him to await the leaders of the true Crusade, the Emperor begged him to wait. But his followers would have none of it. Reluctantly, the People's Crusade was quickly ferried across the Bosphorus, into the lands of the Turks.

Amongst the rabble were two groups. One, consisting largely of the Germans who had so violently slaughtered the Jews, who urged immediate action, and another more cautious. Impatient, the Germans advanced forth, finding the fortress of Xerigordon unnoccupied. In fact, the country itself seemed empty. Where were the Turks? The fortress did however, have many riches left in it, left for the taking. The Germans charged in and revelled in their luck, short lived though it was. For they had walked straight into the trap laid by Kilij Arslan, Sultan of the Great Seljuk Empire. Quickly sending forth men to surround the fortress, the Turks promptly cut the water supply to the castle. The Germans soon found that gold could not quench their thirst. So they received their justice, as they starved and died of thirst. It is said that some resorted to drinking the blood of their horses, and their own urine, before succumbing in the burning heat. The cautious crusaders had heard nothing from the Germans for some days, until a messenger arrived, telling them that they had in fact taken and looted the city of Nicaea, and plunder was all theirs! Little did the crusaders know that this man was actually a Turkish spy... All order thrown into confusion, the greedy crusaders plowed on to the city, through a narrow gorge. The Sultan once more sprang his trap. Thousands upon thousands of arrows fell upon the crusaders, and thousands fell, unarmoured as they were. Tens of thousands of crusaders were killed or sold into slavery, and barely a few hundred of the great host made it back to Constantinople. One among the survivors however, was an old hermit...

Often passed over in the story of the First Crusade, the People's Crusade is a shocking precursor to the very recent and very real persecutions of the twentieth century. The Crusades had barely begun, and the darkest sides of religious conflict had been illuminated. Though quickly eclipsed by the events of the true First Crusade, the People's Crusade is a story which must be known. It was with a heavily tarnished image that the true crusaders marched to Constantinople in August 1096, a force of Princes, knights and soldiers...

United Kingdom

Eyewitness accounts
The First Crusade: "The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres" and Other Source Materials (Middle Ages)
(A very useful collection of eyewitness accounts of the First Crusade - including the People's Crusade)

United States

Eyewitness accounts
The First Crusade: "The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres" and Other Source Materials (The Middle Ages Series)
(A very useful collection of eyewitness accounts of the First Crusade - including the People's Crusade)

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