Thursday, September 11, 2008


A mitred Adhémar de Monteil carrying one of the instances of the Holy Lance in one of the battles of the First Crusade.

Godfrey of Bouillon leads the siege of a city from a 14th-century French manuscript. The crusaders are deploying a wheeled tower that could be rolled right up to the defensive walls-a similar structure was used during the siege of Nicaea.

The crusader knights clash with Muslim troops during the First Crusade's second siege of Antioch from a French manuscript of ca. 1200. The regional struggle for religious dominance had affected the fortunes of Antioch for centuries. As far back as 638 the Syrian city which was where the new faith of Christianity was given its name was captured from the Byzantines by the Arabs. In 969 the Byzantines recaptured the city by treachery after a long blockade. In 1097 the Byzantine general on the crusade urged a similar blockade but the crusaders preferred to invest the city. However; they were unable to assault its strong fortifications and in the end it was betrayed to them by a discontented officer commanding three of its towers.

The crusaders arrived at Antioch to find that an English fleet had already seized its port, St. Symeon. The Roman walls of Antioch were strong, and half their circuit of 10 miles (I6km) lay inaccessible in the mountains. The crusaders dared not attack because of the city's size; similarly, they could not surround it and so chose to strangle it by blockade. This strategy took time and involved constant fighting with the garrison and its supporters in outlying forts such as Harim.

By Christmas 1097 hunger within crusader ranks had forced them to send a foraging expedition led by Bohemond of Otranto into Syria. On 31st January he fought a force under Duqaq of Damascus near al-Bara: a drawn affair, Duqaq retreated but the crusaders returned without food. With the army starving and its horses dying, the Byzantine General Tatikios returned to Constantinople to seek more aid. Ridwan of Aleppo, freed from the threat of Duqaq, his brother and rival, now chose to strike. But Bohemond managed to gather a small mounted force with which he ambushed Ridwan's army, scattering it and seizing Harim. Relieved of Turkish pressure, the army could forage again.

On 4th March 1098 more English ships put into St. Symeon, and the crusaders used the equipment and skills of the new arrivals to build a fort outside Antioch's vital Bridge Gate. Despite savage resistance they succeeded and soon had closed off all the main gates. Spring meant more food became available and the crusaders were further encouraged by news of Baldwin of Boulogne's seizure of Edessa.

At this time the crusaders made an alliance, against the Seljuks, with the Fatimid rulers of Egypt. Antioch's ruler, Yaghi-Siyan, appealed for help to Kerbogah of Mosul, who was subject to the Seljuk sultan at Baghdad. Kerbogah raised a huge army and from 4th to 25th May besieged Edessa, giving ample warning to the crusaders at Antioch. There, a tower-commander offered to betray the city to Bohemond, who demanded to be made ruler of the city. The other crusade leaders refused this as a breach of the oath to the emperor Alexius, but the threat from Kerbogah was a very pressing one and in the end they agreed, but only on the condition that control of the city be ceded to Alexius if he came to claim it.

On the night of 2nd June an elite crusader force entered Antioch and the next day the city fell amid scenes of massacre. But the citadel on the walls held out. On 4th June Kerbogah laid siege to the heavily outnumbered crusaders in a city that was short of food. To make matters worse, his men could enter Antioch through the citadel and were only halted by desperate fighting. Stephen of Blois, who was absent when Antioch had fallen, fled when he saw the situation. He met Alexius at Philomelium on 20th June and told him that all was lost, whereupon the emperor returned to Constantinople.

In Antioch itself, sheer despair and pious zeal had rallied the crusaders. Fired with enthusiasm, they appointed Bohemond as commander and on 28th June marched out of the city to defeat Kerbogah, who had unwisely let his army become dispersed.

The way south to Jerusalem now lay open, but the crusaders needed to rest and may even have hoped that the Egyptian alliance would deliver Jerusalem without a fight. Taking seriously the condition of their promise to Bohemond, the leaders sent a delegation to Alexius and postponed their advance to Jerusalem until 1st November- ample time for Alexius to claim Antioch. In the meantime, Bohemond behaved as a ruler and there was tension between him and Raymond of Toulouse, the champion of the imperial alliance.

By September, news of Alexius's "desertion" at Philomelium had hardened opinion against the Byzantines and at a council in early November the quarrel between Raymond and Bohemond paralyzed the army. Ultimately, Bohemond refused to go on to Jerusalem and when the other leaders had departed he ejected Raymond's men from Antioch, thus breaking up the unity of the crusade.


In their desperation, besieged in Antioch by the enormous forces of Kerbogah, the basic religious motivation of the crusaders emerged to inspire them. On 10th June a poor pilgrim announced that St. Andrew had revealed to him that the Holy Lance, which had pierced the side of Christ, was buried in the ancient church of St. Peter at Antioch. The papal legate was skeptical, but the next day a respectable priest declared that Christ had confirmed to him in a vision that a token of victory would be revealed to the army.

Amid great religious fervor digging began in St Peter's church and on 14th June a lancehead was indeed discovered. This coincided with a startling event-a meteorite fell into Kerbogah's camp and he withdrew his forces from within the city. The clergy then fanned the fires of pious fervor with a series of celebrations. Thus incited, on 28th June the army marched out with the Holy Lance borne before them. Their victory owed much to Kerbogah's unwise dispersal of his army, and to Bohemond's tactical acumen. But without the inspiration of the lance and its "miracles" it seems unlikely that the starving army would have challenged Kerbogah. Little wonder that after the battle the relic enjoyed enormous prestige.

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