Sunday, 17 July 2011

Bohemond and the First Crusade

The names of the great lords who led their armies by various routes to Constantinople between November 1096 and May 1097 read like a splendid litany: Robert, Duke of Normandy, eldest son of William the Conquerer; his cousin, Robert, Count of Flanders; Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine and his brother Baldwin; Stephen, Count of Blois, the Conquerer's son-in-law; Hugh, Count of Vermandois, the son of King Philip of France; Raymond, Count of Toulouse, leading a large but ill-disciplined contingent from the south of France; and from southern Italy, Bohemond of Taranto, with a contingent of Normans. There was no overall military leader, though Pope Urban had appointed Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy as his representative.

The Byzantine Emperor, Alexius Comnenus, must have been horrified as these forces arrived at his capital. When he appealed to the Pope for aid, what he had wanted was mercenaries to defend his empire against the Seljuk Turks, who since their destruction of the Byzantine army at Manzikert in 1071 had overrun most of Anatolia and penetrated almost to the Aegean (see map). Instead these huge crusading armies, totalling perhaps 60,000 fighting men plus followers, had entered his territories and were intent on conquering Jerusalem, which frankly was of little interest to him: Jerusalem had fallen under Moslem control more than 400 years earlier, and was currently being disputed between the Turks and the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt.
Alexius thought the only way of avoiding bloodshed and pillage would be to supply them with plenty of food, make them stay camped outside the city, and persuade then to swear sacred oaths to obey him. This he eventually achieved, though only after months of stalemate, following which they were rewarded with lavish presents & shipped across into Asia. There was mutual incomprehension from the start. To the crusaders, the Byzantines were effete city-dwellers, ruled by eunuch bureaucrats and practising heretical rituals in their huge golden churches. To the average Byzantine, the crusaders were illiterate barbarian thugs: partcularly the Normans - who when all is said and done were only second-generation Vikings with a thin verneer of Christianity, whose brutality towards Moslems only narrowly exceeded their brutality to any fellow-Christians who opposed them. But Alexius well knew the military effectiveness of the Norman knights, and Bohemond he knew only too well.

Bohemond arrived in the city April 1097, with his nephew Tancred and other members of the Hauteville clan. He was aged about 40, and unlike most of the crusaders he spoke Greek and knew the Byzantines well. He was the son of Robert Guiscard, the most ferocious of a clutch of brothers, the sons of an obscure Norman knight, who had all come to Italy to seek their fortunes. Over previous decades, by a mixture of ruthlessness and cunning they had made themselves rulers of southern Italy, and were even now in the process of conquering Moslem-ruled Sicily. Even Rome itself had fallen victim to their ferocity. Robert Guiscard and Bohemond had invaded the Byzantine Empire ten years earlier, and smashed an army commanded by Alexius himself before troubles back in Italy forced them to retreat. Alexius knew Bohemond was a great warrior and a man of limitless ambition, and didn’t trust him an inch! (For more on the Normans in Italy and Sicily, see earlier entries on my Blog)
We have an intimate source for the story. The Emperor's daughter, Anna Comnena, wrote a biography of her father, known as the Alexiad", in which she describes Bohemond. She mentions his great size, his blue eyes, his charm, his threatening-sounding laugh, the hard, savage quality of his appearance, the admiration and terror that he inspired in equal measure. Anna was only thirteen when Bohemond first came to Constantinople, and we can easily imagine the mixture of fascination and horror with which this highly educated princess, who could quote the ancient Greek philosophers and poets, would view the giant barbarian warlord. (In fact, after Anna’s own father, Bohemond is much the dominant personality in the second half of her book: she says precisely nothing about her husband and openly despises her brother, who later succeeded as Emperor himself)

Bohemond agreed to swear an oath to Alexius, but in return demanded the title “Grand Domestic of East“, that is, the commander of all Imperial forces in Asia. The Byzantine Empire had a long history of military coups, and Alexius had little doubt that Bohemond's ultimate ambition was not the regaining of Jerusalem for Christianity, but the seizure of the throne of Constantinople itself. He prevaricated and shipped Bohemond and his Normans across the straits, no doubt with a sigh of relief.

The crusaders and Byzantine forces took Nicaea (Iznik) in June 1097. On July 1st the advance guard ran into a Turkish ambush at Dorylaeum and were surrounded by horse-archers who refused to close with them, and were fortunate to escape when supporting forces arrived a few hours later and drove the Turks off with heavy losses. (Anna's account becomes less accurate as the distances increase, and we henceforth have to rely on a work written by an anonymous Crusader, known as the "Gesta Francorum": "The Deeds of the Franks". Both Anna and the author of the "Gesta" reveal complete ignorance of the Islamic religion, but the "Gesta" shows much respect, even admiration, for the Turks as warriors. In fact, the Turks and the Crusaders had far more in common with each other on a cultural level than either had with the sophisticated urban Byzantines).

After Dorylaeum the Turks did not further impede the crusaders' march onwards, but soon reoccupied the land once they had passed on. The crusaders' main enemy was the climate, as they crossed the Anatolian plateau and then the mountains beyond in the height of summer. Their losses were enormous, especially of horses. Many knights had to ride oxen, or continued on foot, discarding their heavy equipment. Eventually they reached Cilicia, in the south-east of modern Turkey, territory then inhabited mostly by Armenian Christians, and effectively beyond Turkish control. At this stage
Baldwin left the main army and with 80 knights headed eastwards to Edessa, a largely Armenian-inhabited city in eastern Syria beyond the river Euphrates under threat from the Turks; where by the usual mixture of violence and trickery he not only drove away the Turks but seized control of the city, styling himself Count of Edessa, after the existing ruler contrived to get himself killed. (As the historian of the crusades, Sir Steven Runciman, put it; “We know nowadays to distrust the hopeful word “liberation”!”). Meanwhile the main body of the crusaders reached Antioch in October 1097.

North Syria had a very mixed population of Greeks, Armenians, Kurds and others. The Turks were very recent arrivals on the scene, and tensions lay close to the surface. The key to what follows is that local chieftains often hated and feared each other at least as much as they did the crusaders. The city of Antioch was crucial: it must be taken if the crusade was to progress any further. It was an ancient Hellenistic city: once the third greatest of the Roman Empire. It had been seized by an Armenian general in 1079 and only captured by the Turks in 1085. The Turks had also only recently taken the major nearby cities of Mosul and Aleppo from their Arab ruling dynasties, and furthermore the current rulers of Mosul and Aleppo deeply disliked and distrusted each other, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they were brothers!
Antioch would be very hard to attack: it occupied a strongly fortified position above the river Orontes, and the walls were too long to be fully besieged. Through winter 1097-8, crusaders camped outside Antioch, but were unable to storm city or even prevent supplies getting in. The crusaders themselves might have starved but for the arrival of ships from Italy, and even some from England, bringing supplies. Even so, by summer 1098 they were still camped outside Antioch, the poorer crusaders were starving and there was continuing great losses of horses: the crusade was perhaps down to no more than 200 effective mounted knights. Stephen of Blois abandoned the crusade and fled back to Byzantine territory, where he tried to excuse his desertion by saying that the crusade had been defeated.
Then, June-July 1098, there came the most dramatic sequence of events in the entire crusading story!

One of the towers on the southeast city wall of Antioch was commanded by a man named Firuz. Who was he? Perhaps an Armenian Christian who had been forcibly converted? Somehow, for reasons not known, he agreed to betray his tower to Bohemond. On June 2nd, most of the crusader army appeared to march away. But just before dawn the next day, Bohemond’s men occupied Firuz's tower and a opened postern gate. As the crusaders flooded in, the Christian population of Antioch rose up and massacred much of the garrison. The survivors retreated to the citadel, which the crusaders were unable to storm. Antioch was taken at last! But this was only the start.

While this going on, the Caliph at Baghdad had persuaded Kerbuga, the governor of Mosul, to raise an army for the relief of Antioch. Forces were assembled, but Kerbuga then spent three weeks in an unsuccessful attack on Baldwin in Edessa, and as a result only arrived outside Antioch four days after the city had fallen. The crusaders were now themselves besieged in Antioch, and starving, there being no food left in the city! Nor was there any prospect of help from Constantinople: following the news he had received from Stephen of Blois, the Emperor Alexius abandoned the relieving expedition he had been planning.

Then on June 28th a Toulouse priest named Peter Bartholomew announced that Saint Andrew had appeared to him in a dream, bringing sensational news. If the crusaders would dig beneath the floor of a certain church in Antioch, they would find hidden there the Holy Lance: nothing other than the spear that had pierced Christ's side as he hung on the cross; and this would be a sign that God had not forgotten his people. The crusaders dug where instructed, and duly found this holiest of relics. Filled now with confidence of victory, they prepared themselves by holding masses, fasing (which cannot have been difficult), confessing their sins, and on June 28th sallied forth against Kerbugha, with Bishop Adhemar bearing the Holy Lance. It is unclear precisely what happened in the ensuing battle. The "Gesta Francorum" says that angels cames down to fight for the crusaders. But in any event it was a stunning victory: Kerbugha’s forces mostly ran away, and we are told that 3000 heavily armed Moslem warriors taken prisoner. The Crusade was saved!
Modern historians suggest a more prosaic explanation: that many Moslem lords were jealous of Kerbugha and didn’t want him to win. The rulers of Aleppo and Damascus had refused to help him. Also, at same time, unknown to the crusaders, the Fatimid rulers of Egypt took advantage of situation to seize Jerusalem from the Turks after a 6-week siege. This division of Moslem rulers crucial for the success of the crusade: if the Moslem world ever united against them, the crusaders were doomed, as Saladin was to prove in the next century.

The aftermath of the Antioch miracle was equally strange. When the excitement had died down, it occurred to people that the Holy Lance did look suspiciously like a modern spear. Bohemond had never really believed in it anyway, and he poured scorn on its discoverer, Peter Bartholemew. Why had Saint Andrew chosen him for such an important revelation? It wasn't as if he had ever been particularly pious or holy! As more of the crusaders came to have doubts, Peter Bartholemew was made to undergo a trial by ordeal to prove his claims. Two huge bonfires were lit, and he ran through them, emerging somewhat scorched by still alive. Shortly afterwards he died, but it is unclear how; whether he succumbed to the burns or was mobbed by the excited crusaders, who decided he must be holy man after all, and perished in the crush. As for the Holy Lance itself, two were later recorded: one in southern Germany and another one in Georgia.

The crusaders were too exhausted to move on immediately, but waited for supplies and reinforcements. Bishop Adhemar died at this point, leaving the crusade with no clear unifying leader. Finally in January 1099 Raymond, Godfrey, Tancred and the two Roberts set off southwards for Jerusalem, leading about 700 mounted knights and several thousand footsoldiers and pilgrims. But Bohemond refused to go any further. He proclaimed himself Lord of Antioch, and was later invested as Prince by a papal legate, making him independent of both Constantinople and what became the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Like all Normans, and especially his father, Robert Guiscard, he was always supremely ambitious, and was never really committed to the religious aspect of crusading.

Bohemond's subsequent career was a disappointment. In 1100 he was captured by the Turks, and only released three years later. He fought against both Turks and Byzantines. Anna Comnena tells a delightful story of how he was once besieged and escaped by a vey ingenious stratgem. His followers announced that Bohemond had died, and requested permission to take his corpse back to his homeland for burial. This being granted, they carried him out in a closed coffin which also contained the rotting body of a cock, to provide a suitable stench of putefaction and deter any close examination. It was only when they were safely on board ship that Bohemond was released from his confinement. Sadly, most historians believe this story is pure fiction!
Bohemond handed over Antioch to his nephew Tancred, and in 1105 travelled to France, where he married the daughter of the King and raised troops for a new expedition; not this time against the Moslems, but against the Emperor Alexius! He attacked Durazzo (Albania) 1108, but was cut off by the Byzantine fleet. He was forced to submit and swear an oath to Alexius, following which he was formally invested with Antioch, but as a fief of the Byzantine Empire. Bohemond than retired to Italy, where he died. Nevertheless, Antioch was always ruled as a crusader state by Bohemond’s descendants until it eventually fell to the Egyptians in 1268 and was totally destroyed.

(The classic account of the Crusades is the three-volume history by Sir Steven Runciman. The best modern writer on the subject is Jonathon Riley-Smith. See also volume three of John Julius Norwich's history of Byzantium)

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