Deus le Volt! - The Success of the First Crusade

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Final essay for History of the Medieval World course; 2nd year university

Submitted: December 02, 2011

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Submitted: December 02, 2011



In 1096, the first official crusade began.  Its objective was to reclaim the Holy Land, the sacred city of Jerusalem.  In his crusading speech at Clermont in 1095, Pope Urban II urged the Franks to “Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves!”1  People rallied to the cause, crying “God wills it!”, and by 1099, it was done.2  The first crusade was successful because the crusaders were able to take advantage of the disunity among Islamic leaders, but it was a shallow and short-sighted success.  The taking and defense of Antioch were made possible by internal conflict in Muslim forces, and the crusading force that subsequently marched from Antioch to Jerusalem was able to significantly ease its passage by striking a deal with Muslim leaders.  Once Jerusalem was taken, the Europeans in the Levant found themselves facing an unstable future in which the only certainty was further war.  The goal to liberate the Holy Land was accomplished, but the price paid to do so was steep, and it was a constant struggle to maintain.

When the Crusaders embarked on their mission to Jerusalem, they were unaware that they were headed for a world at odds with itself.  The Islamic world had been weakened by several events in the recent past that boded well for the crusaders.3 The sultan Malik Shah had died under suspicious circumstances in 1092,4 and the most powerful leaders in the Islamic world after his passing—Kerbogha, the atabeg of Mosul, and the brothers Ridwan of Aleppo and Duqaq of Damascus—consistently fought with each other. Yaghi-Siyan, the emir in control of Antioch, was supposedly under the suzerainty of Ridwan of Aleppo, but he stirred up tensions between Ridwan and his two rivals, Duqaq and Kerbogha, to keep Ridwan otherwise occupied so that Yaghi-Siyan could rule Antioch with virtual independence. 5 Eventually, he betrayed Ridwan to Duqaq and switched loyalties; the result of this, later, was that when Yaghi-Siyan called for allies to help him fight off the crusaders, Ridwan, whom he had betrayed, refused to send a relief party.6 The crusaders envisioned themselves as being on a quest to end “a thousand-year vendetta,” and, wound into a fervor by the preachers, they approached Antioch better united in ambition than the Muslim force defending the city.7 Compared to their Muslim enemies, the Christian army was weak in numbers and seriously under-provisioned, so the disunity and subsequent inefficiency of the Muslim leaders was crucial to the successful taking and defense of Antioch.8

A crusade force of about 30,000, which included women as well as combatants, laid siege to the walls of Antioch for seven and a half months.  The constant search for food was a more prominent feature of the siege than actual warfare, morale amongst the troops dropped, and many deserted9— including Stephen of Blois, who had sent a letter to his wife describing Antioch as “very extensive, fortified with incredible strength and almost impregnable.”10 Despite much of his letter being exaggerations or complete falsehoods, this was true: Antioch had well-guarded walls, a river to supply water, and it could not be completely surrounded.11 The crusaders only managed to breach the walls of Antioch through treachery, with the help of a traitorous guard: the general Bohemond struck a deal with the guard, who was a man that had risen to high position in Yaghi-Siyan’s government but was jealous of his lord. Bohemond led the crusaders away from the city walls as a diversionary tactic, returning after dark to the Tower of Two Sisters, where the guard allowed sixty of Bohemond’s men to scale the wall and enter through a tower window. Once inside, those men opened the gate to admit the rest of the army, and Antioch was under crusader control by nightfall.12 When Yaghi-Siyan woke to the sounds of battle, he fled the city on horseback with a small escort, but was thrown from his horse, abandoned by the escort, then happened upon by an Armenian peasant who beheaded him and took his head to Bohemond.13 Antioch had been taken, but it was only made possible by a guard who was disloyal to the Islamic army—had he not allowed Bohemond’s men to scale the city walls by the tower under his watch, the crusaders would have been forced to give up the siege and return home due to famine and desertions; stymied before Antioch’s walls for months, the men had been slowly starving to death.  Once the walls were breached, Yaghi-Siyan fled in terror, abandoning his men instead of rallying the troops to fight off the invaders.  If he had stood firm in his leadership, the well-supplied fighting men of Antioch could have defeated the malnourished crusaders. When the crusaders had to defend Antioch against the Muslim relief party led by Kerbogha, a similar situation of poor leadership favoured the fortune of the Crusaders.  In his chronicle of the first crusade, the Muslim scholar Ibn al-Athir relates Kerbogha’s unwise behvaviour thus:

“Kerbuqa, thinking that the present crisis would force the Muslims to remain loyal to him, alienated them by his pride and ill-treatment of them.  They plotted in secret anger to betray him and desert him in the heat of battle.”13

Kerbogha’s men did abandon him; he refused to allow them to attack the crusaders as they emerged from the gate in small groups, and once the full array of men was assembled, Duqaq of Damascus led a significant number of Kerbogh’a force off the field. Their desertion caused the remainder to panic, and the army broke up into a disorderly retreat.14 This caused crusaders to wonder, “why did Kerbogha flee, who had so many men and was so well provided with horses,” and they attributed it to the power of God: “Since he [Kerbogha] tried to make war on God, the Lord, seeing his pomp from afar, shattered it and his power altogether.”15 It may have seemed that way to the Christians, but Ibn al-Athir saw it differently: “It was the discord between the Muslim princes… that enabled the Franks to overrun the country.”16 Kerbogha’s poor leadership made it much easier for the crusade forces occupying Antioch to defeat the Muslim besiegers; had the Muslim army been united under a wiser leader, they could have taken back Antioch and halted the process of the crusade, preventing the Europeans from reaching and ultimately conquering the Holly Land.

When a crusade force eventually left Antioch to continue on towards Jerusalem, it faced little resistance, because the areas of Muslim rule that they passed through were disorganized and at odds with each other, unready to face a unified Christian force.17 The Emirs of Hama and Homs, who had been a part of Kerbogha’s force, did not oppose the crusaders’ passage.  The Emir of Shaizar, whose family controlled the large stretch of land that lay ahead of the crusaders, sent emissaries to the crusade leader, Raymond, and offered to provide Raymond with a guide and provisions for the army if they promised to pass through his territory peacefully.  Raymond gladly accepted the offer, and so the crusaders followed a Muslim guide through the Orontes and up the Sarout valley.18 The benefit of this bargain for the crusaders was twofold.  Firstly, because they were crossing lands that they had never seen before, having a guide meant that they were able to take the route to Jerusalem with the most-navigable terrain. Second and most importantly, the bargain enabled them to pass, unchallenged, through what would otherwise have been “enemy territory,” so to speak, where without the protection of the Emir of Shazain, they would have most likely encountered hostile natives and raiders.  The army that marched from Antioch was small, numbering, approximately, only five thousand foot soldiers and a thousand mounted knights.19 This was a small force to lay siege to any city, particularly Jerusalem, which was too large to be completely surrounded by even a mid-sized army.20 If Raymond had not struck the deal with the Emir of Shazain, his men would have had to fend off attacks from Muslim raiding parties and fight with the irate inhabitants of villages that they pillaged for supplies.  They would have suffered further losses, arrived at Egyptian-held Jerusalem hungry and battle-weary, and then have to attempt to lay siege.  If that had been the case, Jerusalem would not have fallen.  Essentially, in looking out for his own interests, instead of for the Islamic world as a whole, the Emir of Shazain sustained the crusading army long enough for it to reach the walls of Jerusalem, fed, not depleted by scuffles on the road, and ready to lay siege.  Without the Emir’s help, Raymond’s contingent of crusaders would not have been able to take Jerusalem after five weeks of assault.21

Once the crusaders had accomplished their goal and wrested the Holy Land from the Muslims, the conflict did not end.  The first order of business was to make the city entirely Christian, which they did by massacring any non-Christians they found.  Afterwards, Christian European settlers in the Levant discovered that good farmland was difficult to come by; for the most part, the region was only well suited to grazing herds of goats or sheep. This made subsistence a daily challenge.22 Also, from the moment the Europeans took control of Jerusalem, they were at war with their Islamic neighbours consistently, which meant that a huge amount of the colony’s revenue was spent on defending its borders.23 This constant state of war was strenuous on the Kingdom of Jerusalem in terms of both money and manpower, and its rulers found that the vassals of their lords were not a sufficient defense.  This led to the creation of a new, militant, monastic order, the Knights Templar.  It was considered the “normal occupation” of these knights “to shed human blood.”24 Although the Order of the Temple was originally founded for the purpose of defending the kingdom’s borders, the knights were encouraged to kill infidels. Peace between the European Kingdom of Jerusalem and its neighbours, therefore, was not possible, because the prejudice among religions was never dispersed, and was, in fact, perpetuated.25 Matthew of Edessa wrote a chronicle in which he talked about the unstable nature of life in the East:

“…we also have become aware of time passing by very quickly, showing us change, decay, and disappearance of what exists and revealing to us the instability of mankind on earth.”26

His chronicle takes on an apocalyptic-type tone, and violence is the force that moves his story forward; he sees the rule of ‘the Franks’ (the Europeans) as grim.27 What this shows is that although the crusade was successful to the extent that the Christians claimed control of their Holy City, they did not bring peace, contentment, or stability to the region.  To the contrary, they solidified a future which promised further bloodshed and war: the lives of the settlers were dominated by military concerns.27  Robert Chazan described the First Crusade has having “constituted a remarkable innovation for both aggressors and victims;”28 perhaps this is because, in the wake of the First Crusade, a person living in the Levant by default became either an aggressor or a victim, unable to simply remain neutral because of the huge cultural rift between Christians and Muslims, which had existed before but had been seriously aggravated by the crusade. What all this means is that in the crusaders’ elation over conquering Jerusalem, they overlooked the reality that their success could only be temporary.  European settlers in the Levant probably numbered approximately 15,000 at the colony’s peak; they were outnumbered and surrounded by Islamic communities and were dependant on inadequate resources.29 Later crusades would have to be called, among other, political reasons, to shore up the flimsy borders of the European-held lands in Palestine, and these crusades built on the model of the first.30  After a period of Latin rule that lasted approximately two hundred years, the European presence in the East lost its hold on the kingdom of the Holy Land that they had fought so long to gain and keep, which thousands of men died for and vast amounts of money had been spent to uphold.31, The Christians had lost the land that they sacrificed so much to attain, but the animosity between Christians and Muslims remained.

The crusading force that set out in 1096 with the goal of reclaiming Jerusalem from the Muslims achieved it three years later, in 1099.  Despite being outnumbered and under-supplied, crusaders were able to take first Antioch, the Jerusalem, in a violent, unexpected, and surprising success.31 This success was owed significantly to the internal quarrels and disruptions among prominent men in the Islamic community; crusade leaders were able to take advantage of this disunity to get the better of their Muslim adversaries, but the success that the Christians achieved was a temporary one with a high cost.  Antioch was taken from and defended against Islamic forces with the help of disloyal and unwise individuals within those armies, and the crusaders’ march to Jerusalem after taking Antioch was made easier by bargaining with Muslim Emirs.  The Holy Land was conquered with a high death toll, and maintained with a further death toll and high monetary expenditures.  Ultimately, the crusaders’ success was due more to their enemies’ inefficiencies than their own prowess, and the continual cost outweighed the benefit of that success.


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