The First Crusade and Reclaiming the Holy City (The Crusades part 2)

The Crusades (Part 2 of 6)

1. Deus Vult: Pope Urban II Calls for the First Crusaders (AD 1095)
2. The First Crusade and Reclaiming the Holy City (AD 1096-1099)
3. Bernard of Clairvaux and the Second Crusade (AD 1144-1153)           
4. Lionheart and the Third Crusade (AD 1187-1193)
5. The Fourth Crusade & Children’s Crusades: Perhaps Christendom’s Lowest Point (AD 1198-1212) 6.Final Crusades and Final Results (AD 1215-1291)


According to Ralph Winter, “The Crusades established a permanent image of brutal, militant Christianity that alienates a large proportion of mankind, tearing down the value of the very word Christian in missions to this day.”

The Crusades pitted the Cross against the Crescent

The sign of the cross, sewn onto the cloaks of the crusaders, was no longer a symbol of love and hope for many in later medieval times.

Rather than being the picture of Christ’s victory over death, the cross itself had become a symbol of death for the “enemies” of Christians, which included not only Muslims but also Jews, pagans, and even other Christians outside of the Frankish lands.

The Crusading armies became known by titles such as “the army of the Cross,” or, “the army of the faith.” Everywhere the crusaders went in Europe and beyond, the sign of the cross accompanied them.

There were several major military exploits in the name of Christendom before the Crusades. The cross was the banner for victory for Constantine and other Christian leaders of late antiquity. St. Augustine described the disenfranchisement that followed the fall of the Roman Empire which was a clear sign that the City of God had failed. Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire found much of its success through military domination and political strategy. While the Crusaders were not the first to make this mistake, they were certainly guilty of taking it to the next level.


The period known as the First Crusade actually took place in several waves. The struggle with Islam had been affecting Christians for centuries. In AD 846, Muslim forces had made it all the way into Rome. They had begun to control many of the trading routes in and around the Empire, including many that were connected to the Mediterranean and commercial shipping the Western Christian Empire took a major hit. It has been said that the squeezing of trade which took place would be the equivalent of terrorists controlling all of the major highways in the United States. A phrase developed in many places before the Crusades were launched: “Christians can no longer float a plank on the Mediterranean” (Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe, 3).

Therefore, when Urban II gave the Deus Vult call for crusaders at Clermont in November 1095, tensions were already high. Many Christians were prepared to take action. Urban’s plan had been to spend several months planning, strategizing, and organizing before setting out for Jerusalem. There were some, however, who could not wait so long.


After the Council of Clermont, the popularity of itinerant preachers began to rise. These energetic and often fanatical evangelists of sorts would travel from place to place delivering impassioned pleas for the Christian faith and its spread throughout Europe. The call for crusades became a golden opportunity for the itinerants to attract more followers and motivate more people to action.

The most well known of the traveling preachers was a man named Peter the Hermit (c.1050-1115). Peter, who gained his nickname during his days as a monk in Amiens, France, had become a fixture among the Franks because of his propensity to draw large crowds outdoors. He had been one of the strongest supporters of taking back Jerusalem even before Pope Urban’s declaration. In fact, it is likely that Peter tried to enter the Holy City on his own some years earlier but had been unsuccessful. This only added to his fervor for reclaiming the lands that once belonged to the people of Scripture.

Peter the Hermit Stirring Up a Crowd in Preparation for the People’s Crusades

Peter’s crowds began to gain substance and his followers increased. Just a few months after Clermont, Peter had accumulated his own disheveled sort of army. Other itinerants began to amass several small armies along with those of the Hermit, each of which would fail miserably in their attempts to enter the Holy Lands. These smaller, less-organized bands of civilians and soldiers became known as The People’s Crusades. They are not officially considered a part of the First Crusade, but rather its antecedents.

Early in 1096, the first pack of 12,000-20,000 “crusaders,” although they were more like a civilian militia, left for Jerusalem at the command of the Hermit and under the leadership of Walter the Penniless. They made it as far as Constantinople safely, killing many Jews and others who were not their “enemies” along the way. Once they entered Muslim lands, their death followed quickly.

A second wave of civilian soldiers left a few months later, led by Peter the Hermit himself. This group was closer to 40,000 and also included several trained knights and important church leaders. This army, too, was guilty robbery and senseless killing as they made their way through the Rhineland. Schaff described this group as “marauders,” who intentionally made their paths through rich provinces in order to plunder innocent people. The second wave, like the first, was slaughtered by Turkish Muslims – this time at Nicaea. Walter the Penniless, who had fled during the first wave, was killed with the second. Peter the Hermit fled back to Constantinople before the final battle even began.

For the rest of the Spring and early Summer of 1096, several more waves of People’s Crusades left for Jerusalem and were cut down along the way. The third wave, a group of around 15,000 Germans led by a monk named Gottschalk, were actually slaughtered in Hungary. Another wave which left out of Leiningen, Germany under the leadership of count Emich, may have been closer to 200,000 in number. Like their predecessors, this larger army targeted Jews and other Europeans and plundered their cities. Many from this army took their spoils and went back home. The rest died of illness or in battle before they ever making it inland into Muslim lands. When all was said and done, the People’s Crusades “may have cost three-hundred thousand lives” (Schaff), not including the number of people they themselves killed.


In August, 1096, four bands of the real crusaders left as Pope Urban II had planned. The size of these armies varies depending on which historian one reads, from a total of 30,000 to more than 300,000. The number likely lies somewhere in between. What is clear from the historical record, however, is that each band was made up of professional knights, cavalry, and soldiers who were better trained and better organized. The army of the First Crusade had one goal in mind – the reclamation of Holy Lands, which included Jerusalem and the other “holy cities” along the way.

The four units that made up the full crusading army were known as The Princes’ Armies, named after the four military commanders of the First Crusade: Bohemond I of Antioch, Raymond IV of Tolouse, Hugh I of Vermandoisand Godfrey of Bouillon. Godfrey, who was a descendant of Charlemagne on his maternal side, would eventually emerge as the most celebrated hero of the First Crusade.

Statue of Godfrey of Bouillon in Brussels, Belgium


Constantinople was an obvious destination between Western Europe and Jerusalem. It had long been a stop for pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land and had been a sanctuary of sorts during the People’s Crusades. Not to mention the crusaders’ remembrance of Urban II’s promise at the outset of the crusades: Western Christians would once again unit with Eastern Christians under the banner of defeating the Muslims and regaining the Holy City.

However, the Byzantine ruler Emperor Alexius I Comnenus was neither impressed with the first crusaders or willing to sacrifice the good of his own people for the pope’s cause. Alexius was also not willing to give up the rights to the control of land in Asia Minor, whether or not his empire currently held them. Alexius, therefore, saw the pope’s crusaders as a tool to regain his own fallen territory from Muslim control. Together, the crusaders and the Greeks successfully captured Nicaea on June 18, 1097.

Nicaea was the same stronghold of Asia Minor where Peter the Hermit and the People’s Crusade had been cut down. Since Peter had fled during the first battle, however, he had gathered another small group of followers and they joined the real crusaders in battle. The victory of Nicea, according to Asbridge, was the only true high point of cooperation among the Greeks and Franks during the First Crusade (55).


Over the next several months, the crusading armies fought their way through Asia Minor until they reached the northern border of Syria in October 1097. The next battle would be for the second most important city to the Early Church movement as recorded in the New Testament: Antioch. Antioch was a well-defended city with heavily fortified walls. Rather than attempting an ill-fated siege against the city, the crusader armies decided to camp all around the walls and wait for the Syrians to give up the city. For months, the crusaders and Muslims traded blows by capturing and killing each other near the walls. The Christians would behead captured Muslims and parade their heads around on spears. The Muslims would behead capture Christians, or members of the Antiochene Christian population, and catapult their heads back towards the crusaders outside the walls. By mid-1098, both the Christians and Muslims were malnourished and disheartened.

In the summer of 1098, however, a strategic move of the likes of the “Trojan Horse” brought victory to the crusading army. Bohemond I, an Eastern Christian prince who hailed from Antioch, had secured a man named Firuz who was a traitorous tower guard within the city. On the night of June 2, Firuz let a small band of Bohemond’s men use a ladder to climb into a small opening on the south-eastern wall of the city. Once inside, Bohemond’s men killed the remaining guards and opened a secret entrance into the wall. A larger patch of the crusading army then stormed into the city, sounding trumpets and shouting the battle cry given from Pope Urban II himself, “Deus vult! Deus vult!” (God wills it!). The remaining Antiochene Christians had also been rallied and they hurried to open the remaining city gates. When the crusaders entered, a massacre of all Syrians ensued. The crusaders even killed many of their Antiochene Christian brothers and sisters, not knowing which Syrians they were striking in the darkness. After holding off an attack by Muslims from the Persian lands, Antioch was once again a safe harbor for Christians. At least for a little while.

A depiction of the second siege of Antioch from a French manuscript around AD 1200


For the next several months, the crusaders suffered from famine and disease and the trek to Jerusalem was halted. In the midst of these difficulties, several crusade leaders vied for control of the armies. Bohemond believed he had the rightful claim to his home city of Antioch. The one-eyed Frankish leader Raymond IV of Toulouse, who had earlier been the champion of Urban II’s call to crusade also sought his share of power. There was also the Frankish mystic and military genius Peter Bartholomew and his group known as the Holy Lance. No one could minimize their role in securing victory for the Christian armies. Raymond of Toulouse would, for all intents and purposes, lead the armies into Jerusalem. For several reasons, however, the other leaders of the First Crusade and the soldiers themselves had lost confidence in Raymond’s leadership. By the time the siege of Jerusalem ended in July 1099, the Frankish knight Godfrey of Bouillon had emerged as the victorious leader of the First Crusade.

Asbridge describes the arrival at Jerusalem:

After nearly three years, and a journey of some 2,000 miles, the crusaders had reached Jerusalem. This ancient city, Christendom’s sacred heart, pulsated with religion. For the Franks it was the holiest place on earth, where Christ had suffered his Passion. Within its lofty walls stood the Holy Sepulchre, the church erected in the fourth century CE under the Roman Emperor Constantine to enclose the supposed sites of Golgotha and Jesus’ Tomb. This one shrine encapsulated the very essence of Christianity: the Crucifixion, Redemption, and Resurrection. The crusaders had marched east from Europe in their thousands to reclaim this church — many believing that if the earthly city of Jerusalem could be recaptured it would become one with the heavenly Jerusalem, a Christian paradise.

When the armies arrived in Jerusalem, a bloodbath ensued. Schaff’s record of the siege are well-put:

Jerusalem was reached early in June of 1099. The army was then reduced to twenty thousand fighting men. A desperate but futile assault was made on the fifth day. Boiling pitch and oil were used, with showers of stones and other missiles, to keep the Crusaders at bay. The siege then took the usual course in such cases. Ladders, scaling towers, and other engines of war were constructed, but the wood had to be procured at a distance, from Shechem. The city was invested on three sides by Raymund of Toulouse, Godfrey . . . and other chiefs. The suffering due to the summer heat and the lack of water was intense. The valley and the hills were strewn with dead horses, whose putrefying carcasses made life in the camp almost unbearable. In vain did the Crusaders with bare feet, the priests at their head, march in procession around the walls, hoping to see them fall as the walls of Jericho had fallen before Joshua.

Friday, the day of the crucifixion, was chosen for the final assault. A great tower surmounted by a golden cross was dragged alongside of the walls and the drawbridge let down…

The scenes of carnage which followed belong to the many dark pages of Jerusalem’s history and showed how, in the quality of mercy, the crusading knight was far below the ideal of Christian perfection. The streets were choked with the bodies of the slain. The Jews were burnt with their synagogues. The greatest slaughter was in the temple enclosure. With an exaggeration which can hardly be credited, but without a twinge of regret or a syllable of excuse, it is related that the blood of the massacred in the temple area reached to the very knees and bridles of the horses.

Headed by Godfrey, clad in a suit of white lined, the Crusaders proceeded to the church of the Holy Sepulchre and offered up prayers and thanksgivings . . . The devotions over, the work of massacre was renewed. Neither the tears of women, nor the cries of children . . . none of these availed to soften the ferocity of the conquerors.

Now that the European and west Asian Christians had control of Jerusalem again, they sought to appoint a new leader who would be given charge of holding and protecting the Holy City. The obvious choice was Godfrey of Bouillon, who was given the title, “defender of the Holy Sepulchre.” Christians began building projects throughout Jerusalem, which included castles, military structures, and houses of worship. Godfrey’s successor, Baldwin I (1058-1118), progressed the role of ruler even further, having himself crowned “king of Jerusalem.” The victory of Jerusalem was short-lived, however, and the call for further Crusades ensued . . .

Next up: Part 3: Bernard of Clairvaux and the Second, Third, and Fourth Crusades (AD 1147-1209)


  • Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land (2010)
  • Evangelisches Kirchenlexikon (1999) vol. 1
  • Pirenne, Henri. Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe (1956)
  • Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, vol. 5.

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