In early 1099, the main body of ‘armed pilgrims’ who had obeyed Pope Urban II’s call to Holy War, leave the city of Antioch and start their long march to Jerusalem. They leave Prince Bohemond I behind, ruling another of the new Crusader territories.
On the march, the mystic Peter Bartholomew (or Barthelemy), who had discovered the Holy Lance in Antioch, continues to have visions. Faced with growing scepticism from others, he volunteers to undergo ordeal by fire to prove his veracity. Gustave Doré captures this dramatic event in his Peter Barthelemy Undergoing Ordeal by Fire. Although it is initially claimed that he survives the ordeal unscathed, he dies less than two weeks later from severe burns.
This march takes them southward along the Mediterranean coast, in parts on quite a narrow coastal corniche. They have local assistance, and most of the towns and cities that they pass capitulate peacefully, enabling them to move quite quickly. They take Beirut on 19 May, Tyre on 23 May, and Caesarea on 26 May.
News has already reached Jerusalem of their intentions; there, the city’s governor expels all its Christians, who had previously been living fairly peaceably and were hardly oppressed. This is to ensure that no one would betray the city to the Crusaders. He also has most of the local wells poisoned, to frustrate any attempts at siege.
A total of about 1250 knights and twelve thousand other armed men arrive and start putting the city of Jerusalem under siege on 7 June. Despite the greatly diminished size of this army, it is split into factions which co-ordinate poorly. Tancred has already left to respond to calls of help from Bethlehem, which he then seizes before returning to the siege.
Following consultations with a hermit on the Mount of Olives, the Crusaders attack the city near its Damascus Gate on 13 June, but are repulsed from its inner walls, and retreat quickly. Then on 17 June, Genoese sailors arrive in the port of Jaffa, bringing with them their engineering skills and some timber; wood is also obtained from Nablus to the north.
Francesco Guardi’s romantic fantasy showing Godfrey of Boulogne Summons His Chiefs to Council from about 1755 most probably shows this noble preparing to attend one of the many military Council meetings held during the siege. Other than his capture of Bethlehem, Godfrey’s achievements had been limited, but his reputation is growing.
Two great wooden siege towers are then constructed, one under the command of Count Raymond of Toulouse, funded from his own wealth, the other by the Crusaders from the north of France, paid for from common funds. Visions reported by a priest, Peter Desiderius, inspire the Crusaders to process around the city walls on 8 July, reminiscent of the story of Joshua during the siege of Jericho. On this occasion, the walls do not come tumbling down, but have to wait until the siege towers are ready for use a few days later.
On 13 July, the siege towers are moved into place and assault on the city’s defences starts. After two days, the outer rampart has falled, and the inner rampart is then captured. The defenders panic, and Crusaders enter the city at long last.
In the right of Ignazio Lucibello’s two frescoes, he shows The Capture of Jerusalem, with the monastic soldier in the foreground displaying the distinctive cross of Saint John on his shield. This was associated with the later Knights of the Order of Saint John, which survives as an order of chivalry and continues today to provide aid in many countries, including medical support to Palestinians in Gaza.
In the north of the city, Tancred and his forces pursue the city’s defenders to the Temple Mount, where they start to massacre the defenders. Tancred calls a halt to this, allowing them a safe refuge in the Al-Aqsa Mosque. In the south, the commander of the garrison agrees to surrender the citadel to Count Raymond in return for safe passage from Jerusalem to Ascalon.
Notwithstanding those efforts to control it, Crusaders continued to massacre the population of Jerusalem. Even Jews who had sought safety in their synagogue were killed when it was burned to the ground. Eye-witness accounts refer to parts of the city becoming knee-deep in blood. The few citizens who survive either fled early, or are held as prisoners for ransom.
Émile Signol’s Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099 from 1847 shows a rather idealised and expurgated version of what must have been carnage. At its centre, the knight on a white charger might be Godfrey of Bouillon, with a priest, perhaps Peter Desiderius, to the left. There are bodies littering the ground, and that in the centre is holding the severed head of a woman, and there is the smoke of a burning building, perhaps the synagogue. But there are also many figures apparently giving thanks to their ‘saviours’ for delivering the Holy City from occupation.
Following the ‘delivery’ of Jerusalem, one subsidiary mission is to locate a relic, a fragment of wood claimed to be from the cross on which Christ had been crucified. This had been hidden by Eastern Orthodox priests following the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009. Soon after the city had been taken by the Crusaders, Arnulf of Chocques was made Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, and set about finding the precious relic.
Arnulf is reputed to have tortured the Orthodox priests who had hidden the True Cross until they revealed its location. Doré shows this with uncharacteristically wild exaggeration in The Discovery of the True Cross. The relic was actually just a small piece of wood set in a larger cross of gold, and has now been returned to the rebuilt Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
When Count Raymond of Toulouse initially refuses to become king of the new Crusader city of Jerusalem, Godfrey of Bouillon is chosen to be its leader, and Raymond storms off in anger with his troops.
The military action is still not complete, for on 10 August Godfrey leads his remaining troops to Ascalon, where on 12 August in a short battle they put a much larger Fatimid army to flight. Following that, most of the Crusaders return to Jerusalem, from where many – but by no means all – set off on their long journey back to Europe.
Godfrey of Bouillon dies the following year (1100) in Jerusalem, by which time he has already become the folk hero of the ‘armed pilgrims’ who responded to Pope Urban II’s call. He is succeeded by his brother Baldwin, who becomes King Baldwin I of Jerusalem.
Merry-Joseph Blondel’s portrait of Baldwin I of Jerusalem from 1844 shows a surprisingly effete figure. The younger brother of Godfrey of Bouillon, he enjoyed substantial military success during his reign, dying in 1118. Like many others in the First Crusade, he never returned home.
For those who did leave Jerusalem and try to make their way back to Europe, their experience was very different from that shown in Carl Friedrich Lessing’s romantic Return of the Crusader from 1835. Many were killed before they even got to Constantinople, or died from the harsh environment or disease. Those who did survive were – not surprisingly – welcomed as major heroes.
Thomas Asbridge (2004) The First Crusade, A New History, Free Press, ISBN 978 0 7432 2084 2.
John France (1994) Victory in the East, a Military History of the First Crusade, Cambridge UP. ISBN 978 0 521 589871.
Joanthan Riley-Smith, ed (1995) The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 192 854285.
Jonathan Riley-Smith (2014) The Crusades, A History, 3rd edn., Bloomsbury. ISBN 978 1 4725 1351 9.