A Flippant History of the Crusades – The First Crusade – Naughty or Nicea?

In the last post, we looked at some of the key players in the First Crusade on both sides and how the various Christian leaders made their way to Constantinople (Byzantium).

A brief summary of where we are so far: The Byzantine Emperor Alexios sent a request to the Pope to put out a call for some good Christian knights to aid him in his war with the heathen Turks who had overrun eastern Christendom. Rather than a small contingent of elite nobles as hoped, thousands of cross-sworn soldiers of all levels of social standing turned up at the Emperor’s gate. Alex, wary of what such a horde of heavily armed troops might do if left to their own devices, asked the leaders to swear oaths to him that they’d return all reconquered territory to their rightful owner, i.e. him, and ferried them across the Bosphorus with much haste. Their first target? The ancient city of Nicaea.


Nicaea (or Nicea) at this time was under the control of the Seljuk Turks, specifically Kilij Arslan, Sultan of Rum. The lands of Rum covered much of modern-day Turkey and were so named because when they conquered the area from the Byzantine Empire, the Byzantines rather confusingly called themselves the Romans, so the Turks assumed that was the name of the land they had conquered – Rum.

Nicaea, a great city on the edge of a lake going back to ancient Greek and Roman times, was the Turkish capital for the region and where most of the Sultan’s treasures and family were kept. This was somewhat unusual for the nomadic Turks who valued pasture land for their vast herds of horses over pesky immovable cities, which they viewed as little more than tribute givers to provide funds for the army. On the whole, they tended to work like a national scale extortion racket1, sideling up to a city and passing suggestive comments in how flammable those thousands of buildings looked, all it would take is a few hundred clumsy oafs dropping torches and we’ve had such a long ride and our arms are tired holding these flaming sticks and what’s that? You’re wanting to give us all your precious belongings just out of the goodness of your heart? Well, thank you so much!

Anatolia and surrounds at the time of the First Crusade

This did, however, show an increasing trend towards a more settled status for the Turks and indeed when the Crusade arrived, the Sultan was off at the other side of his domain, attempting to forcefully settle some land away from another group of Turks known as the Danishmends. When word first reached Killy that a force of Christians had arrived, he dismissed them. His previous experience with the recent People’s Crusade lead him to believe this was another rabble of troublesome peasants who could be dealt with after he was done with the Danishmends. He was very much mistaken.

The crusaders besieged Nicaea on 14th of May 1097. Godfrey was the first to arrive but was soon followed by Bohemond and the others as they were transported over from Constantinople. They were joined by Peter the Hermit, who was still floating around with the remnants of the People’s Crusade2, as well as a small Byzantine contingent sent along to keep an eye on things. Raymond and his large army was, however, several days behind as was Robert. The city was well defended with multiple tall, broad walls, a deep water moat fed by the lake and by hundreds of towers equipped with ballista (giant crossbows firing huge heavy bolts).

How are we supposed to get up there?

As was standard for the time, the crusaders launched an attack as soon as they arrived to try and overwhelm the city, but the city had known of their coming and had time to prepare the defences and barricade the gates with earth and rubble. The attack was thrown back by the defenders and the Christian forces settled down for a siege. As Nicaea was bordered by marshy ground to the south as well as a large lake to the west and they hadn’t any ships to blockade the port, the crusaders focused their siege to the north and east.

By this point, Killjoy Arslan had received word of the real size and strength of the first crusader armies and gave up his squabbles in the east to rush back to his capital, arriving just a day after the first Christians. Scouting out the crusader position he realised the south was poorly defended and the armies were not all there yet, so he could attack quickly and move his forces into the city to bolster the defence. Things started to go poorly for the Sultan when several of his scouts fell into Christian hands and after a little “gentle persuasion” revealed the Turkish plan, allowing the crusaders to prepare a defence and send word to Raymond to stop dawdling and move his arse along to get there in time for the attack with the rest of the army. A forced march ensued to arrive just in time for the battle the following morning.

The elite core of the Sultan’s army, around twenty per cent of the troops, were the personal household troops, the Askar (army), along with some Ghulam/Mamluk3 slave soldiers. These were well-armoured, well-equipped and well-mounted troops, highly trained and veterans of many battles. They were armed with powerful composite bows, sharp swords, and sturdy lances and were highly proficient in their use. They could ride rings around crusader infantry, unleashing storms of arrows into their ranks, then go toe to toe with the knights in a melee. They were exceptionally badass and looked the part with golden shining shields and jewel-encrusted standards that glittered in the sunlight. The rest of his army, the vast majority, was made up of the Turkomen, light tribal cavalry archers, who would swarm across the battlefield like wasps, using their arrow stings to wear down the enemy then melting away in feigned retreat if charged, only to circle back and attack again when the coast was clear. This made for a fast and flexible force that could cover large distances in short times and outflank and outmanoeuvre their enemy.

The crusader forces, in contrast to the all-mounted Turks, was primarily an infantry force. This infantry would be equipped with a wide array of weapons and armour and was well supported with large contingents of crossbowmen known as arbalists. The crossbows of this time were weaker, less accurate and couldn’t keep up the rate of fire of a bow. Regardless, crossbows were cheap, lightweight and easy to produce and they didn’t require the years of and experience that a bow experience. This made them an easy and obvious ranged weapon to equip masses of inexperienced peasants with and could be devastating when used effectively in combination with the heavy European infantry and cavalry. So much so in fact that various Pope’s over the years tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent Christians from using them against other Christians4. Around fifteen to twenty per cent of the armies were made up of the knights. These heavily armoured cavalry troops were the cream of European society, equipped with the finest armour5 and weaponry of the time period. Their horses were also larger and heavier than the nimble horse of the Turks, which gave increased weight to their charges when they crashed into Turkish lines. While these weren’t quite yet the “tanks of the medieval battlefield” they would soon become, they were a force to be reckoned with and the impetuous charge they so loved would break many an Islamic army in battles to come.

Ray-Ray arrived just in time to take up position to the south and as the Turkish horses poured over the ridgeline to the south, instead of a wide-open space and a sleepy camp of dozy Christians, they were met with the fully armed lines of Raymond’s army, and the rest of the crusader armies moving up in the east. The Turks surged forwards and unleashed a hail of arrows at the Christians, before turning back and fleeing in what seemed to be wild panic. The crusaders cheered and surged forward, assuming their ferocious presence had scared the Turks into flight. They were met with another wave of horsemen who unleashed their arrows then turned in feigned flight. The crusaders were meeting for the first time the famous hit and run, feigned retreat tactics of the nomadic horsemen. Archers would move in and out of the battle, attempting to disrupt enemy lines and draw contingents out into the open, where the heavier horse could ride them down.

The Christian knights, well trained and well-disciplined, held their lines and moved forward as one, rather than splitting into scattered and easily defeated groups like they were supposed to. The knights churned into the Turkish lines and this time the Turks fled for real, having no desire to cross swords with these heavily armoured monsters. They charged back up the ridge and disappeared into the mountains. The knights, on their larger and heavier horses, were unable to follow and went back to resume the siege, though not before beheading all the Turkish dead and wounded and parading the severed heads back through the camp. Some of these were kept as trophies on saddles and spears, some catapulted into the city as a message of fear and warning to the inhabitants, and a cartload or two sent to the Emperor as a gift.

Present for you my good chaps, will really help you get “a head” in life, ha ha.

Kilij had had his fill of killing (being primarily on the receiving end of it) by this point and abandoned the city to its fate. He would encounter the Christians again soon but he was out of the picture for the moment. The crusaders then put their full efforts into taking the city. They started using stones instead of heads to launch at the walls and built various battering rams, mobile sheds, and siege towers to break down, undermine and assault the walls. These were generally ineffective as the rough ground around the city and the numerous defensive towers made the approach treacherous. The sources tell of one of the first engines, “The Fox”, a heavy mobile shed full of sappers to burrow under the wall tipping up at an angle when reaching the wall, then collapsing in on itself, killing all inside. While the walls were hard to approach, they were equally difficult to breach and the stone-throwing catapults hadn’t enough force to do any serious damage to the thick walls. Hunger and disease ravaged their camps, as although the Byzantine supply lines kept the flow of goods coming to them, the hefty price tags they attached meant those who could afford it had enough to eat. Bobby Blah and the last of the crusaders arrived at this time, completing the encircling of the city. Well, semi-encircling, as the lakeside of the city was wide open allowing the inhabitants to resupply easily.

There are several tales of individual heroism recorded during the siege. One tells of a mad knight who was so frustrated with the inability of the siege engines to breach the walls that he ran up to the wall by himself and started hacking away with a pickaxe in one hand and a shield held over his head in the other. He shouted encouragement to the others to join him and hack down the wall themselves without the cover of the useless mobile sheds. Sadly he soon learned why his colleagues preferred a bit of cover for such tasks when after weathering a hail of rocks and javelins from above, he was crushed by a large rock. The defending Turks had their own heroic madmen, including one who single-handed stalled a crusader assault by firing crossbow bolt after bolt down on them, then switching to rocks and whatever else he could find when his ammo ran out. Despite going full Boromir and being pierced by around twenty shafts from the attackers, he still fought on ferociously, to the point that Duke Raymond himself, an expert marksman, had to be called to the assault and under the shield cover of several knights, delivered a mortal shot on the hapless Turk.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?
No…its a honking great rock about to
crack open your skull, you ninny!

Assaulting the walls was never a pleasant task as would require weathering hails of missiles and showers of naphtha, a horrific flaming liquid known as Greek fire in the west, that stuck to and burned everything. One particularly embarrassing defence tactic for the attackers was to throw down hooks on long lines to snag on crusader armour, then to pull them up the walls, kill and strip them and then hang their corpses over the wall to discourage the enemy. Despite this, over time some of the besiegers began to undermine the walls by tunnelling under them, building wooden braces, then setting fire to them to weaken and collapse the foundations. Unfortunately for them, burning out the tunnels to collapse them could take some time and often the walls would subside during the night, giving the defenders time to reinforce and rebuild them before the morning assault, leading to more fruitless deaths and having to start the mining efforts anew.

The siege had been going on for about five weeks when the crusaders finally admitted they couldn’t take the city by force alone. After some discussions back and forth with the Byzantines, Alexios agreed to send some ships to finish the encirclement by taking the lake. The only problem was that the lake wasn’t connected to the sea, meaning these ships had to be transported at great effort overland. Along with these new ships the Byzantines sent more troops along, primarily archer contingents armed with more powerful and efficient bows than the crusaders to drive the defenders from the walls. The harbour now fully blockaded, and the siege engines beginning to weaken the walls again, the Sultana6 and sons of Kilij attempted to flee the city but were captured by the Byzantine fleet. With this and the ongoing crusader attacks, the Turks realised the situation was hopeless and sent word to the Byzantine fleet commander that they were willing to talk terms. Crucially at this point, the Byzantines failed to inform the crusaders that this was happening, leaving them to continue dying in their assaults against the walls.

As the crusaders prepared for another assault someone shouted out and pointed to the walls. Where the battered flags of the Turks had once stood, new flags with Byzantine markings now flapped defiantly. The city had surrendered, not to the crusaders who had been fighting and dying in the assaults the past six weeks, but to the Byzantines who turned up at the end to take the city and the credit. To add salt to the wounds, the Byzantines allowed the Turks safe passage with all their personal possessions and even enlisted many of them into the Byzantine army, leaving the crusaders next to nothing to show for all their blood, sweat and toil. There’s a reason that Byzantine is a byword for deception, craftiness and manipulation. The Byzantine commander, Butumites (I am sure that the Crusaders came up with many unpleasant nicknames for him) was given the title of Duke of Nicaea. Emperor Alexios, wary that the crusaders were a tad upset, reminded them of their oath to return the former Byzantine lands to him and gave them a large sum of money for their troubles, drawn from the Sultan’s treasury that had been left in the city.

This did assuage a few noble egos, but many of the soldiers were left with a bitter taste as they had nought to show for their endeavours but a handful of copper coins rather than their well earned looting and pillaging. This was only one of many encounters between the Eastern and Western Christians that would turn their relationship increasingly sour, but with nothing left to do at Nicaea, the crusaders turned south and began their long trudge through Anatolia.


Hopefully it won’t be quite so long until the next one, but in the meantime if you’re interested in a battle fought in simulation of the battle of Nicaea, please check out this post!


1 Or “government” in modern parlance.

2 Who by this point were probably wishing this mad Pete fellow had stayed a hermit rather than leading them all into a Turkish bloodbath.

3 The terms are used interchangeably depending on time and region but they were essentially non-muslim slaves (that’s all the words mean) who were trained from a young age to be a powerful military caste, completely loyal to the Sultan. This practice began with the Abbasids in the 9th century and would continue in various forms, such as the Ottoman janissaries, up until the early 19th century. Some would become powerful figures in their own right, even founding their own dynasties in Afghanistan and Egypt.

4 Their use against heathens and pagans was, of course, completely fine and even to be encouraged.

5A brief note on armour. The word knight often conjures images of men on huge horses clad head to toe in plates of gleaming armour charging with lances couched. This would be centuries off at this point. The knights here were primarily those of the Norman style, as seen in the Bayeux tapestry, in steel mail over thick cotton gambisons with kite shields, swords and spears. They were, however, the most heavily armoured people on the battlefield of the period.

6 The Sultan’s wife, not a dried fruit snack.