Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Holy Lance

It was under a dark shadow that the lords, knights and barons of the West embarked upon the First Crusade in August 1096. The call of Pope Urban II had been answered by lord and peasant alike, but also fanatic. The mass slaughter of Jews in Germany, and the pillaging of Roman towns by the ‘People’s Crusade’ had left an ugly stain on the Crusade (for this story, please click here), but now the true crusaders were on their way to Jerusalem. It was a road that even in 1096 could be done in a matter of weeks. But it would be four gruelling years before the Holy City appeared on the horizon…

The Crusaders cross the Bosphorus
Artist unknown, painted in the 19th century
Beginning their arduous voyage in August 1096, the four leaders of the crusade marched forth for Constantinople. Raymond, Count of Toulouse, Godfrey of Bouillon, Baron of the Holy Roman Empire, Hugh of Vermandois, brother of King Philip I of France and Bohemond, Prince of Taranto, lead four contingents from across Europe to the Imperial City, as an unprecedented truce between the Christian nations of the West was declared. Tens of thousands across the Christian world flocked to their banners. Class and right of birth was no distinction as knight and peasant marched side by side. Ever wary of a collapse of discipline such as had occurred under the People’s Crusade, the Eastern Roman Emperor Alexius I kept a tight watch on the Christians who now flooded his lands. This time, he had even greater cause for concern. For Bohemond, along with his father, Robert Guiscard, had launched an attack on Roman lands some twenty years earlier, driving the Romans from Southern Italy. The Emperor summoned the leaders of the Crusade to him one by one, ordering them to swear an oath of fealty to him, with a solemn pledge to return the lands they liberated to the Empire. One by one they took the oath, some more grudgingly than others, except the cautious Raymond, who simply promised to do no harm to the Empire. Putting his own demons aside, the hot headed Bohemond swore the oath, knowing the disaster it would spell for the Crusade if they were denied the valuable supplies of the Empire. For a brief time, the crusaders embraced the Romans as their brothers once more, and the Emperor declared his blessing for the Crusade, generously gifting them a plethora of supplies, as well as ordering his own general staff to advise the crusaders on what they were up against from the Turks. So, in 1097, the First Crusade cross the Bosphorus straits, and made landfall in Asia.

Bidding farewell to the comforts of friendly nations, the crusaders now trod in hostile territory. Finding the mauled remnants of Peter the Hermit’s crusade, the Christians were under no illusions of complacency this time. The Sultan of the Great Seljuk Empire, Kilij Arslan, confident after his triumph over the People’s Crusade, left his cities with minimal garrisons as he marched to war in the East, fatally underestimating the new threat. The crusaders stormed across Anatolia to the walls of Nicaea, a once great Roman city, now capital of Arslan’s realm. Hardly could they believe their luck as they saw the enemy’s heartland so scantily defended, and they seized the opportunity, placing it under siege. Arslan, roused by the news his heralds brought, made peace with his foes in the East, and rushed to the aid of his capital. The large lake by Nicaea’s walls made the siege difficult for the crusaders, as they could not cut off the city’s supplies completely. Arslan arrived on the scene, expecting another rabble such as that Peter had lead against him. It was with a terrible shock that he laid eyes upon the mighty crusader force as he reached the crest of the hill before the city. The crusaders, emboldened by their fortunes so far, pounced. The Sultan’s force was badly bloodied, and Arslan fled. The garrison of Nicaea, spirit broken, surrendered to the crusaders on the 19th of June 1097. It was with much reluctance on the part of many that the city was immediately handed over to the Empire, honouring their oath. One crusader rejoiced that Jerusalem was only five weeks march away. Little did they all know that it would be two years before the Holy City lay in reach.

Bohemond storms Antioch
Painting by Gallait
Emboldened by success, the crusaders roared through Anatolia, as city after city fell to Christendom. Arslan lay in wait, desperate for a weakness to open up. On July 1st, at Dorylaeum, a chance came. The Norman contingent, under Bohemond, had ventured ahead of the crusader force in search of food and water. The sun grew strong. A glint in the distance, and a flash of sunlight on metal caught Bohemond’s eye - Turkish scouts. Barely a moment later, the slopes erupted in a storm of thundering hooves as the Sultan struck. The Normans were cut off, but not for nothing was Bohemond so loathed by the Emperor of the Romans. Leaping from his horse he rallied the Normans, turning them to face their foe. Many fell, yet the Normans held firm. Hours of the onslaught passed and Bohemond refused to break. Just then, when death seemed certain, the sign of the Cross appeared on the horizon, signalling the arrival of Raymond, and salvation. The Sultan retreated once more, and Christendom rejoiced, but not for long. The Crusade advanced, but soon it dawned upon the Christians how little there was to forage here. Not one to risk all in battle, the Sultan had devastated the land, burning its fields and laying waste its pastures. Christian morale, that had been so high, began to dwindle, as the burning sun withered them and lack of food weakened them. Supplies from Constantinople began to ebb away. Desperation sank in the crusader lines:

                  “ We did not dare to go outside; we could find absolutely nothing

                     to eat within the land of the Christians, and no one dared to enter
                     the land of the Saracens without a great army ”
                               - THE SUFFERING OF THE CRUSADERS

Well might the Christian plight seem hopeless, as they descended into Syria, and the great city of Antioch lay before them. One of the mightiest cities ever built, with fortifications that rendered its defenders all but invincible, high on a mountain, to say the city was a daunting prospect was an understatement if ever there was one. Once a great city in ancient times, prospering under the Eastern Romans, the Turks had seized it fourteen years earlier. Even worse, the Turkish governor of Antioch knew the crusaders were coming. The Christians moved quickly to surround the city, but so vast were her walls that even they did not have enough men to surround it. Though stopping most supplies entering the city, they were unable to stop riders breaking through, racing toward the Turk’s allies for aid. A galling prospect now arose. A beleaguered Christian force now faced one of the mightiest citadels of all time, and the knowledge that enemy may well be reinforced by further armies to their rear. On the 20th of October 1097, the crusaders dug in for a gruelling siege. “Even if all mankind came against it”, Antioch need not fear defeat, one Christian priest travelling with Raymond declared, as the crusaders stared up in horror at the towering walls.

St. Longinus pierces Christ's side
Fresco by Fra Angelico
Days passed in deepest tension. Every effort the crusaders made toward Antioch was fought off by the garrison, halting the Christians before they even reached the impregnable walls. Raising earthworks, to desperately gain respite from the endless barrage of missiles from the walls, the Christians casualties mounted. The arrival of Christian reinforcements from Europe by sea actually worsened their situation, as food was so scarce. Winter set in. Food ran dangerously low for the crusaders, and still no impact on Antioch, and then, on New Year’s Eve 1097, the crusaders’ failure to stop the Antiochian riders came back to haunt them. Duqaq, the fiery spirited ruler of Damascus, whose bloody rebellion two years earlier had thrown Syria into a brutal civil war, had answered the city’s call and marched to their aid. The crusaders fought valiantly, but it was the appalling weather which spared them this time. So heavy was the rain and so biting the cold that Duqaq soon retreated back to Damascus, but the damage was done. Much of the food the crusaders had foraged for was lost. Fodder for the horses reached such a price that even the knights were forced to sell their helmets and breastplates for even one days rations.1098 arrived, and with it news that yet another Islamic force was on its way, under Ridwin of Aleppo. Men and horses were starving to death every day in the Christian camp, and desertion began to have its ruinous effect. Even Peter the Hermit escaped, though he was soon retrieved by the irate commanders. News that Eastern Roman supply ships were on their way fired the morale of the crusaders, as the Christian knights hurled themselves at the fresh threat. Shocked by the size of the crusader force, and the power of their attack, the Aleppans were routed. To the amazement of all, the Crusade was hanging in, just.

Fresh supplies from the Romans brought desperately needed food and raw materials for constructing siege engines – now at last the crusaders could cut off the city. The morale of the Crusade grew, only to be dashed once again when an unnerved scout arrived. The crusaders would have to face not one, not two but three relieving armies. This time, however, the force which marched on them was enormous, as the governor of Mosul, Kerbogha, advanced with the combined forces of the Turks, of Persia and Mesopotamia. Near the entire Islamic world now bore down upon the First Crusade with breakneck speed, determined to grind the crusaders into the desert sands. The leaders of the West held urgent council. Now was the endgame. If Antioch did not fall soon, they would be annihilated when Kerbogha arrived. Bohemond stepped forward. If all present agreed that the city would come under his control, he would ensure Antioch’s fall. Near all the other leaders, driven by desperation, gave in to his wish. Raymond, however, an honourable man, was fired with rage, reminding him that it was the rightful property of the Empire, and that Bohemond had sworn an oath before the Emperor. Alas that honour was outvoted that day. By means of utmost stealth, Bohemond had already opened secret lines of communication with a disgruntled Tower Guard of Antioch, a man by the name of Pirus, who was angered by the seduction of his wife by a Turkish officer. The two men agreed a daring plan. The crusaders would break camp and march away, deceiving the garrison of Antioch that they had turned to engage the Saracen forces on their way, and under cover of darkness creep quietly back. A few select men would sneak up to the tower Pirus guarded, who would then throw a ladder over the side. So, on the night of the 2nd of June 1098, the raid began. A few picked men, wielding Bohemond’s banner, dashed up onto the wall. Initially alarmed at how few they were, Pirus feared. But, overjoyed after six months of toil, the crusaders eagerly beckoned their brethren on. The crusaders stormed through the city, though so mighty was Antioch, even this was not enough to take it once and for all. The Turks still held the highest citadel, far up on the mountain, while the Christians cursed. The food situation in Antioch, they discovered to their horror, was little better than their own.

The Crusaders march before the Holy Lance
British Library Manuscript in the Yates
Thompson Collection
Now trapped in the city between the garrison and the armies of the East, the situation for the crusaders was desperate. Only four days later, Kerbogha arrived and surrounded the city. The besiegers had become the besieged. The Emperor Alexius, hearing reports of their plight, decided that the situation was hopeless, and did not send aid. The crusaders were on their own. Days passed, and hellish perdition descended on the Christians, as famine, disease and thirst felled many every day. But then, when all hope had faded, a priest, Peter Bartholomew by name, in the Christian camp awoke with a start after a stunning vision. Seized with urgency, he made haste to his leaders, eager to share a revelation. A stranger had appeared in his dream. Peter asked the stranger “Who art thou?”. Spake the vision “I am St.Andrew, the apostle. Know, my son, that when thou shalt enter the town, go to the church of St. Peter. There thou wilt find the Lance of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, with which He was wounded as He hung on the arm of the Cross”. Raymond, Bohemond and Godfrey were taken aback. Many could not believe it. The Holy Lance, its location revealed? The actual spear of Longinus, thrust into Christ’s side at the Crucifixion? (It is a common mistake to believe that it was the crucifixion itself that killed Jesus Christ – it was in fact the spear thrust into his side by the Roman soldier Longinus while he was nailed to the Cross). Many crusaders, driven to the brink of madness by hunger, prone to hallucinations, hailed Peter as a new prophet. Bohemond was highly sceptical. One of the holiest of relics in Christendom, here at last? Raymond did believe, however, and urged Peter to follow his vision. On the 14th of June, a meteor was seen in the sky, an omen, but good or bad? Peter climbed the heights to the Cathedral of St. Peter, and thirteen men dug from dawn until dusk under the nave. Then, as night fell, Peter climbed into the pit. All present were utterly struck dumb, as Peter reached down into the dirt and his hand closed around a spear point. It was as though seven months of agony had never happened. The fire of zeal burst through the Christian camp. “Joy beyond measure arose in the whole city”, one eyewitness reported. If there were any doubters, they were silenced now. They bodies battered, but their spirits born anew, the crusaders, spurred on by their faith, turned to face their foes. Deciding to risk everything on one great gamble, the entire crusader force burst out of the gates and charged down upon Kerbogha’s vast array. Riding before them was Adhemar, legate of the Pope, bearing the relic of the Holy Lance. Many crusaders saw visions of St. George, St. Demetrius and St. Maurice riding beside them. A great roar rose from the Christians, and Kerbogha feared. Shocked to see a fully unified Christian force before him, he could not believe his eyes. He had been told they were on the brink of utter collapse. Vast were his forces, yet they hailed from all parts of the Eastern world. Many emirs schemed and plotted against him, rumours that he planned to take over all of Syria upon his victory, and division rippled through his lines. Quaking before the armoured knights now thundering towards them, many turned in terror. The Muslim lines were thrown into anarchy, as the crusader knights slammed into them with irresistible force. The Christians rode to a crushing victory, and the garrison high in Antioch, distraught by what they saw, surrendered. Antioch, the great city, had fallen at last. Finally, the road to Jerusalem was open…

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)

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) 

No comments:

Post a Comment