The year is 1095, and Pope Urban II preaches to a crowd of nobles and clergymen at the Council of Clermont: ‘They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire.’
This was the beginning of the First Crusade – a pilgrimage that grew into a vast gathering of knights and peasants from England, France, and the Byzantine and Holy Roman empires, as well as other smaller kingdoms. It was a war to defend Christendom against growing threats in the east, a war that resulted in the death of thousands and the formation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
The First Crusade did not have one single leader, but instead a combination of both spiritual and military men alike – priests such as Peter the Hermit and lords like Walter Sans Avoir were some of the more notorious commanders from 1096. They led thousands of skilled and unskilled men, women and children out of Europe to fight for the holy cause; this mass movement of ordinary people was known as the People’s Crusade.
Upon reaching Constantinople, the devout amateurs were advised to wait for the main crusader army, which consisted of the more professional fighting forces, but instead decided to push forward into Asia Minor. Here, they led raiding parties across modern day Turkey, but due to poor organisation and a lack of proper training, weapons and supplies, the People’s Crusade was soundly defeated at both the Siege of Xerigordon and the Battle of Civetot, in which nearly the entire group was destroyed.
Meanwhile, between the years of 1096-1097, the main crusader forces gathered around Constantinople, and the army crossed into Asia Minor like the People’s Crusade before them. The First Crusade was now truly underway.
The Siege of Nicaea in 1097 was the first major crusader victory, giving the European and Byzantine powers a foothold in Turkey. From there, the crusading forces were successful at repelling resistance from the Turks at Dorylaeum and laid siege to the city of Antioch until the city was taken in June 1098.
The unified crusaders then marched to Jerusalem in June 1099, and a month later the city fell. The ensuing massacre of its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants was such that, according to Fulcher of Chartres, the ‘blood of the slain’ reached the ankles of the crusaders.
With this, the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem was established, and Godfrey of Bouillon led the remainder of the weary forces to Ascalon to drive away the last of the resistance. With this, the holy city of Jerusalem was now safe. The First Crusade was successful, but the conflicts in the Mediterranean were far from over.