A Flippant History of the Crusades – The First Crusade – The Road to Constantinople

In the last post we looked a little at the background of the Crusades and the state of the (relevant) world before the launch of the First Crusade. We also looked at the less than stellar performance of the People’s Crusade, sometimes known as the Peasants Crusade, Crusade Zero, or a huge mob of mislead poor people making a mess of everything except what they were supposed to. In this post we’ll take a look at the “real” First Crusade, the Princes’ Crusade and the characters and events therein.

To summarise where we are up to: The Byzantine Empire, or the (Eastern) Roman Empire as they liked to call themselves, was feeling the pinch from decades of internal instability, being overrun in the East by the Turks and threatened in the West by the Italo-Normans. At this time the Christian world was split in two, the eastern and western halves having mutually excommunicated each other half a century prior in the Great Schism1. The current Byzantine Emperor being a bit more Westophilic and pragmatic than prior Emperors, reached out to his Christian brothers through the Pope and asked for the help of a few hundred western knights against the Turks, and hopefully distract the Italo-Normans from conquering his westerly holdings in the process. Filling the Pope with (somewhat exaggerated) tales of the horrendous onslaught of the Muslim Turks and the great suffering their fellow Christians were being subjected to worked2 and at the Council of Clermont in France the Pope incited hordes of people to take up the cross and prepare for an armed pilgrimage to the Holy Lands to help retake Byzantine holdings in the Near East and onwards to Jerusalem3. While a bunch of upstart peasants got a bit overexcited and went charging ahead to their deaths, the main bulk of the western armies spent a year preparing for a mighty campaign. The First Crusade was underway.

Key Players

Before getting into the story, I think its best to explain a little background to who the key figures are and the roles they will play in the events to come.

The Forces of Allah

In this section we’ll introduce the main figures in the Muslim lands against whom the Crusade will be targeted. A quick note on titles and their rough English equivalent:

Sultan: King/Emperor (secular ruler)
Caliph: King/Emperor (secular and religious ruler in one)
Emir: Lord/Commander/Prince (usually the ruler of a small state/city subject to a higher ruler)
Atabeg: Turkish title indicating a high placed governor, advisor and leader who was also charged with the care and upbringing of the Sultan’s heirs.

Just look at that ferocious ‘tache!
(Not a real picture)

First up, Sultan Kilij Arslan I, who had to have one of the best names in the time period. It’s like someone took the English words Kill, Pillage, Arson and Slain and mashed them together into a cool sounding name, which just happened to mean “Sword Lion” in Turkish. I mean…is it any wonder the Turks were so fearsome with a leader named like that? He forcefully reunited the Turks in Anatolia and reformed the Sultanate of Rum when the previous Sultan of the Great Seljuk Empire, Malik Shah, died leaving a fractured empire. He had previously been a prisoner of Malik Shah who was jealous of Arsalan’s awesome name and so insecure about his own he had to call himself King King in two different languages just in case anyone doubted his position.4 Name coolness rating: 10/10.

Yağısıyan, I think pronounced a little like “You-aah-uh-suh-uh-you-an” or “Yah-gi-see-yan ” based on my sketchy understanding of wikipedias phonetics5, was the Emir of Antakya, or as it is better known in the west, Antioch. Not much is known of him beyond this and that he was a brother of Malik Shah. When Antioch was besieged by the Crusaders (spoilers!) he did reach out for help to the other Emirs in the region, but the divisiveness that had grown after Malik Shah’s death played against him. Name coolness rating: 5/10.

Maybe I should steal all the pictures from Crusader Kings II

Kürboğa/Kurbaga, I believe pronounced “Kur-booh-a” though I’ve heard it said as “Kur-bo-ga”, I’m fairly sure that ğ is meant to be silent and extend the preceding vowel.6 Regardless, he was the Atabeg of Mosul giving him great power and influence as well as being a famous soldier and military commander. He would attempt to attack the Crusaders at Edessa and Antioch, without much success. I’ll give him an 8/10 on the name coolness rating as it sounds a little like something a Ninja Turtle would say while kicking some righteous posterior.

Sultan Radwan of Aleppo, was the successor to the Syrian throne when his father, Tutush I, died. He ruled from Aleppo and despite a minor quibble with his brother over ownership of a city or two (see below) had a reasonably successful early reign. Most of this was due to Janah ad-Dawla al-Husain, Atabeg of Homs, who was the real governor of Syria. When Janah was assassinated, literally, by one of the original Assassins, Radwan had to fend for himself. He managed to retake Damascus after his brother’s death, but got his nose bloodied by the crusaders, specifically the Norman Prince, Tancred, eventually being reduced to a tributary of the same. Name coolness rating: 7/10, the “Rad One” is a little dated but still has some charm.

Duqaq was a buddy of Yaghi-Siyan and brother of Radwan.He revolted against his brother with the help of Yaghi and split Syria in half, becoming the ruler of Damascus in his own right, one of the key cities in the region. He joined up with Kurbaga to try and retake Antioch after the successful Crusader siege without much joy. After taking a few punts at the Crusaders over the years and grabbing the city of Homs after the previous ruler was assassinated, he grew sick and died leaving his rulership to his young son under the stewardship of his loyal Atabeg, Toghtegin, who promptly took over and established his own dynasty. Name coolness rating, 2/10. I’m sure its a delightful name in Arabic, but in English it sounds a little like something you don’t want to step on in the street. Condolences.

This is all I thought of while reading about him

Al-Afdal Shahanshah, the Excellent King, the Glory of Islam and Protector of the Faith, was a modest man born in Acre who went on to become the vizier to the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt, maneuvering a child Caliph onto the throne rather than the more competent older successor so he could take the reigns himself. He went on to reestablish Fatimid control over much of Palestine after it had been lost to the Seljuk Turk invasions. Mistaking the Crusaders for mere Byzantine mercenaries, he approached them looking an alliance against the Turks, only to be rebuffed when the Crusaders didn’t stop their conquest at Antioch and continued onwards towards Jerusalem. He fought multiple times against the Crusaders and put up a fearsome resistance, but gradually the peripheral edges of the Fatimid holdings were ground down and taken over by the upstart Christians. The Egyptian core stayed strong, however, and proved fertile ground for the next generation to show the Crusaders what was what. But that’s a story for another time. He already has so many glorious titles attached to his name, a mere mortal such as I is not worthy to rate it.

Danishmend Gazi, who is not a Dane on the mend you’ll be surprised to hear, caused the Crusaders a little consternation in Asia Minor by getting in their way. He did not last long. Name score, 6/10.

Iftikhar al-Dawla was governor of Jerusalem until the Crusaders unceremoniously booted him out. He then went on to rule Ascalon, until the Crusaders unceremoniously booted him out. “Lift a car al day-a” deserves a 7/10.

The Forces of Christ

Portrait of Emperor Alexios I, from a Greek manuscript

Alexios I Komnenos, Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans was a bit of a badass as far as Byzantine emperors go. The Empire had been in a long slow decline, losing territory to the various Muslim and Turkish invaders in the East (culminating in the devastating Battle of Manzikert) and to the naughty Normans in the West. Alexios was able to turn things around for the Empire and kicked off a restoration movement that lead to military, economic and territorial recovery. While he didn’t forestall the slide into ignominy permanently, he did rage brightly against that dark night of the Empire’s decline. Much of what we know of him comes from the writings of his daughter, Anna, who being unable to enter politics herself, did what many of those excluded from the circles of power do and wrote about it instead. The “Alexiad” is obviously heavily biased towards her father and the Byzantines, but is an invaluable resource for the period. Alexios was a consummate politician and we’ll encounter many of his crafty political wranglings as we move on in the story.

The Five Armies

Rather than go through all the figures in Christendom involved in the Crusade I thought it best to break them up into the five main contingents that left Europe on their way to the Holy Land and talk about the individuals there in that context. This has the advantage of moving the story long a bit faster as I’m sure you’re asking when the Crusade will actually start!

Map of the region prior to the First Crusade showing (if you squint) the paths of the various armies progressing towards the Holy Land.
You can boil my hat to make bouillon

The Army of Godfrey of Bouillon7
Headed up by Godfrey, Duke of Lower Lorraine, himself along with his younger brother Baldwin (take note of him, we’ll be hearing a lot more from this one), it was drawn from the germanic region in and around Lotharingia, roughly equivalent to modern Belgium and Lorraine in Eastern France. Godfrey sold or mortgaged off large portions of his land to several “charitable” bishops to raise funds8 to gather a large contingent of knights and an army potentially as large as 40,000 strong and set out in 1096 on the overland route to Byzantium.

This was the same general route used by the People’s Crusade and when Godfrey and his troops turned up on Hungary’s doorstep, the King was understandably reluctant to let thousands of potential pillagers into his lands. Eventually they agreed on a compromise with the Hungarian king keeping some of Godfrey’s family as hostages, including his wife and younger brother, to insure the army crossed the land peacefully. They managed to do so without any plundering, quite the achievement by Crusader standards, and his family was released. Now they were into the Empire proper and arrived to camp outside Constantinople two days prior to Christmas. Alexius suggested Godfrey (and the other Crusaders) swear an oath of fealty to him before setting out on the Crusade. Needing the support of the Byzantine supply lines, Godfrey agreed to a modified oath that would return some of the lands conquered to Alex.

Take that!

Army of Robert Curthose of Normandy and friends
Lead by Bobby Shortstockings, Duke of Normandy and eldest son of the previous Duke of Normandy (and King of England), Billy the Bastard. Since losing his claim to the English throne to his little brother William II, who was in the right place at the right time, he was left with poor old Normandy and had to mortgage his lands just to raise the funds for the Crusade. The forces were drawn (unsurprisingly) from Normandy and England and joined up with the armies of his relatives Robert II, Count of Flanders, and Stephen II, Count of Blois9.

After a saunter through France and Italy he and his men hopped on some ships and sailed to Constantinople, swore the required oath to Alex and set off for the Holy Land. It was said Robert was an excellent field commander, but had no head for strategy. This might explain why he was found sleeping in, drunk and naked when his other brother Henry, now King of England due to patiently waiting in England for his brother to die rather than swanning about on crusade, decided to invade Normandy and relieve Bob of his Duchy, his liberty and eventually, his life.

Army of Hugh the Great
Hugh was Great. Like really great. The greatest. He was the son of Henry I, King of France, which made his extra great as well. He married the Countess of Vermandois, which was pretty great because it made him the Count of Vermandois. He set out with a small band of fellow great knights on the jolly jaunt to the Holy Land, taking a cruise from Italy to Constantinople. He was so great, the Pope gave him the Banner of the Holy Roman Church, which he was sure to wave heartily as he sashayed his way into the city. He was the first Crusader to get there, how great is that? And of course considered himself the clear choice for leader of the crusade.

Look how great he is.

He’d already sent word to the Emperor on how he expected to be greeted, “Know, Emperor, that I am the King of Kings, the greatest of all beneath the heavens. It is fitting that I should be met on my arrival and received with the pomp and ceremony appropriate to my noble birth.” Alexius, crafty bugger that he was, wined and dined him and impressed him so much that Hugh swore that he would serve Alexius and relinquish any lands conquered by the Crusaders back to the Empire. Later in the Crusade, he would be sent back to his new bestie, Alex, for reinforcements. When none were forthcoming, instead of returning to the Crusade and making his way to Jerusalem, he went back to France to tell people how great he was. Shamed by not fulfilling his oath to Jerusalem, he made another attempt to do so a few years later only to be killed by the Turks. So great.

Who me?

Army of Bohemond I, Prince of Taranto
Representing the Italo-Normans was Bo Taranto, son of Bobby the Weasel, conqueror of Italy. When all these Crusader fellows started drifting through his lands talking of land and riches to be had in the Middle East, the canny prince’s interest was peaked. Together with his nephew, Tancred, he gathered a hefty Norman force and headed for Byzantium. His army, while small, was one of the most experienced to go on Crusade, having tested their skill against the forces of…eh…the Byzantines for many years. Understandably, Bo and Alex were a little wary of each other, but when Alex hinted that there might be some nice shiny gold in it for Bo, and that with all his combat experience he’d make a pretty good leader of the crusaders, he was happy to swear an oath of loyalty. Distracted by his old enemy swearing the oath, Alex didn’t seem to notice that Bo’s nephew, Tancred, had snuck through Byzantine lands without technically swearing the oath of fealty. Oops!

The Army of Adhemar of Le Puy and Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse

This was the largest of the armies to set off and was lead by two of Southern France’s leading figures. Adhemar of Le Puy Lentil was the designated papal legate and “official” leader of the crusade as the pope’s representative. He had the honour of being the first to take the cross at Clermont. Never one to let his bishop’s robes get in the way or a good fight, he could often be found in the thick of battle leading knights against the infidel.

See that? I own that. I’m rich you know, so rich I paid an artist to knock a few years off my painting.

Ray was the richest of the crusaders and also the oldest, a venerable ancient at 56 years old. It’s said he lost an eye when he travelled to Jerusalem on pilgrimage, after getting into a fight with the doorman of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Possibly he was refused entry for being too drunk on the holy spirit. The rich old cripple was a devoutly religious man and had no greater desire in life than to die in the Holy Lands. His wish was fulfilled, though not in the way he’d entirely expected. As the leader of the largest army on crusade as well as being the oldest, and did I mention richest, member of the noble crew he felt himself the natural leader. That must have been a bit awkward when traveling with Adhemar and his “official” command, but maybe Addy was just humouring the old boy. Regardless, he turned up in Constantinople with only an incy wincy tiny little bit of looting of Christian lands by his army and being far too old and rich to swear any oaths of fealty to some upstart young whippersnapper of an emperor, instead swore an oath of friendship and offered to support Alex against Bo and the Italo-Normans if they got uppity again. This seemed to be sufficient and he and his army were ferried off to Asia minor with the rest of the Crusaders.

Finally, the crusade had left Europe and was en route for Jerusalem. First stop, Nicea. But that’s a story for next time…

You may have noticed a common theme here. These aren’t two unified sides clashing against each other in an epic battle of Empire. These are two large groups of diverse leaders who often end up fighting and disagreeing with each other as much as against the enemy. This will continue to reveal itself throughout the First Crusade, and in no small part the success of the Christians is due to the fact they were able to pull together slightly better than the various enemies they faced. Though… that isn’t saying much…


1I didn’t mention this directly last time, it’s pretty important. They did not get along. The division between the Greek and Latin church had been growing for a while, ever since the Bishop of Rome did what had previously only been the prerogative of the Patriarch of Byzantium and crowned a new “Holy Roman Emperor”, Mangy Charlie, on Christmas day 800 AD. In the centuries since then things had only gotten worse and in 1053 the divorce between the two traditions was formalised. They were all, however, still technically Christians.

2This also helped the Pope redirect western knights and lords from fighting each other and attacking someone outside of Europe for once.

3The Byzantines didn’t particularly care about Jerusalem and the Holy Land at this point, having gutted it of most of it’s holy relics and shipped them back to Byzantium (now Constantinople) before it went under new management with the Muslims. As far as the Byzantines were concerned, their great mother city was their holy place.

4This is probably not why he was imprisoned, but Malik does mean King in Arabic and Shah is King in Persian. Then again, when your full name is Jalāl al-Dawla Mu’izz al-Dunyā Wa’l-Din Abu’l-Fatḥ ibn Alp Arslān, Malik Shah is less of a mouthful.

5Deepest apologies to any Turkic speakers for my horrendous butchery of this and any other names.

6Aren’t linguistics fascinating!

7The region in Belgium, not the tasty broth.

8Also rumoured to have extorted money from nearby Jewish communities too, as was a popular Christian pastime in medieval europe.

9Better to be called the Count of Bleh since he fled the battle of Antioch and ran home, never reaching Jerusalem. He did make another attempt a few years later, only to be killed by the Fatimids.

3 thoughts on “A Flippant History of the Crusades – The First Crusade – The Road to Constantinople

  1. A fun and very enjoyable read. Haven’t visited this material in any depth for over fifty years (gasp!). This is a great (and quite painless) refresher. Keep it up!


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