First Crusade: Definition, Summary, Major Battles & Facts

There were so many battles that took place during the First Crusade; however, the ones we present below are considered by many historians as the most famous battles of this late 11th-century military campaign to reclaim the city of Jerusalem. But first, here is a quick look at the major facts and summary of the First Crusade.

History of the First Crusade

The goal of the First Crusade, a religious war driven by Pope Urban II, was to recapture the Holy Land from Islamic rule.

First Crusade: Quick Facts

Date: August 1096 – August 1099

Location: The Levant and Anatolia

Outcome: Crusader victory

Major territories won by the crusaders: Nicaea, Antioch, and Jerusalem

Major battles: Battle of Dorylaeum, Siege of Antioch, Siege of Jerusalem

Summary of the First Crusade

Known as the “armed pilgrimage” to Jerusalem, the First Crusade was a fierce military campaign embarked by the various armies of Western European nations to recapture Jerusalem, a prized city and the jewel in the Middle East.

After receiving what could only be described as the modern equivalent of an SOS call from then-Byzantine Emperor Alexius, Pope Urban II invited all Western European countries to join in the march to reclaim Jerusalem from the Muslims.

For several hundreds of years, the Eastern Roman rulers tolerated Islamic rule of the Holy Land; however all that changed when the Seljuks, a Turko-Persian Sunni Muslim group, rose to power in the region. The Seljuks had become a huge threat to the Byzantine Empire, necessitating Alexius’ request for military support from Western Europe.

Between 1096 and 1102, about 60,000 Western soldiers were unleashed upon Muslim-held territories. In addition to securing control of Jerusalem (in 1099), the Western forces of the First Crusade took over very important cities like Antioch and Nicaea. The greatest effect of the First Crusade was that it ushered in more religious wars in the Middle East in the centuries that followed.

The First Crusade resulted in the setting up four Crusader states – the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Edessa, and the County of Tripoli.

The effect of Urban’s speech at the Council of Clermont in 1095

Pope Urban II

Pope Urban II’s speech at the Council of Clermont in 1095 moved the hearts of men. As a result, people from all walks of life, including peasants, petty criminals, townsmen and minor knights, in Western Europe headed the Pope’s call to recapture Jerusalem. Image: Pope Urban II at Clermont (14th-century miniature)

At the Council of Clermont in France on November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II gave a powerful and inspiring speech that moved the hearts of the attendants in ways never seen before. Following the speech, laymen and ecclesiastics across Western Europe absolutely bought into the idea of “liberating the Holy Land from the infidels”.

Pope Urban II’s reasons for championing the First Crusade

Urban envisaged the religious war in the Holy Land would help improve ties between Eastern Christendom in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey) and Western Christendom centered in Rome. The Great Schism (also known as the Schism of 1054) had fractured European Christendom into two denominations – the Roman Catholic headed by the Pope in Rome and Eastern Orthodox headed by the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Furthermore, Pope Urban II hoped to use the war to consolidate his power and position in the West. For many centuries, the power of the pope in Rome dwindled primarily as a result of the rise of the Holy Roman emperors. The First Crusade in a way helped Urban boost his standing as the leader of Christendom in Western Rome.

Peter the Hermit

Due to the propaganda message propagated by the papacy, there was such religious fervor among Europeans to participate in the First Crusade. A charismatic monk called Peter the Hermit was one of the notable figures who got all pumped up by the speech of Urban II in 1095. Besides, the monk had the unpleasant experience of once been captured and tortured by the Muslims. His involvement in the First Crusade was certainly borne out of the desire to dish out some cold revenge to his former captors.

The People’s Crusade in 1096

Such was the effectiveness of Pope Urban II’s message that many ordinary people in Europe were convinced to head to the Levant to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims. Unfortunately for the West, the people who marched on the Holy Land in 1096 did not possess the skills of well-trained soldiers. Their army comprised a large number of poorly trained soldiers and knights.

According to a Byzantine princess, the People’s Crusade even had women and children among them. This explains why they came to be known as the Peasants’ Crusade.

The People’s Crusade in 1096 neither authorized by Pope Urban II nor the Byzantine rulers. In addition to not being skilled enough, the People’s Crusade were not properly organized and armed enough to go toe-to-toe with the Muslims.

Led by Peter the Hermit (also known as Little Peter), the People’s Crusade committed a lot of atrocities as they marched through central Europe, killing thousands of Jews in the process. This ill-disciplined bunch of people also plundered a number of Hungarian cities. Upon arriving in Constantinople, Byzantine Emperor Alexios quickly ferried them across the Bosphorus to Asia Minor.

In the end, the People’s Crusade was decimated by the Muslim Seljuks who were led by Kilij Arslan (1079-1107), the Seljuk Sultan of Rum. Only a few of the Christians survived after the Muslim armies ambushed and reduced them to nothing. Their de facto leader Peter the Hermit survived and later joined the Princes’ Crusade the following year.

Prior to their defeat in October at the Battle of Civetot, they were defeated at the Siege of Xerigordox in September 1096.

People's Crusade

The march by peasants and ordinary folks from Western Europe to reclaim the Holy Land came to be known as the People’s Crusade or the Peasants’ Crusade. Image: Peter the Hermit leading the People’s Crusade.

The Princes’ Crusade

When the news of the defeat of the People Crusade reached the Byzantine ruler Alexios and the Pope, they were utterly disappointed.

The leaders of the People Crusade had failed to listen to the expert advice of Byzantine military generals. They grossly underestimated the resolve of the Seljuk Muslims.

Following the debacle of the People’s Crusade, the Pope and the Byzantines set out to have a more organized Crusaders that are mainly made up of knights and professional soldiers.

Military leaders of the First Crusade

One of the military leaders of the First Crusade Baldwin of Boulogne entering Edessa in 1098 (history painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury, 1840)

This Western army crusaders later come to be known as the Princes’ Crusade as they are composed of very high-ranking members of European society, including famous knights, noblemen, and princes. Notable examples of the leaders of the First Crusade include Adhemar of Le Puy, Raymond IV of Toulouse, Godfrey of Bouillon, Baldwin of Boulogne, Stephen of Blois, and Robert II of Flanders. Those nobles each commanded their own forces.

The Princes’ Crusade had more than 95,000 people, including non-combatant personnel.

The leaders of the Princes’ Crusade made a solemn pledge to Byzantine Emperor Alexios to return all future conquered lands to the Empire.

Who were the Muslim Seljuks?

The Seljuks were a Turkish tribe that rose to regional dominance by uniting the various fractured people in the eastern Islamic world. With winds in their sails, the Seljuks, particularly under the reign of Malik-Shah I (r. 1072-1092), ramped up their campaigns in the region, seizing most parts of Asia Minor and northern Syria. As a result, the Seljuks came into open confrontation with the Byzantine Empire.

The Seljuks successfully captured cities like Antioch and Edessa. Those military victories allowed them to establish the Sultanate of Rum. Nicaea, in northwest Asia Minor, was chosen as the capital of the Muslim Seljuks. Soon the city of Jerusalem came under the control of the Seljuks. They had seized the prized territory from the Shiite Fatimids.

First Crusade

Less than two decades after the famous Manzikert victory, the Seljuks would take control of Jerusalem. Image: The Byzantine Empire and the Seljuks in the 11th century.

Byzantine ruler Alexios I Komnenos, desiring to rid Asia Minor of the Seljuks, was able to convince the West to raise an army to wage war against the Seljuks in the Holy Land.

The First Crusade was not the first time that Pope Urban II (reign – 1088-1099) had responded to calls from the Byzantine to aid in their defense. In 1091, the Pope had sent military aid and forces to help the Byzantine armies that were fighting against the Pechaneg steppe nomads.

The Siege of Nicaea in 1097

The Siege of Nicaea was the first major battle of the First Crusade.

Having lost Nicaea to the Seljuks, the Byzantine forces allied with the Princes’ Crusade. They set out from Constantinople to retake Nicaea, a well-fortified city just on the eastern shore of Lake Canius.

The Byzantines supported the siege by mounting a naval assault and providing about 2,000 troops, led by General Tatikios. They also provided siege equipment, naval ships and other battle gears.

Unfortunately for the Seljuks, the city’s walls were over 6 kilometers in length. This made it almost impossible for the Turks to create a strategic defense.

Coupled with the absence of their famous warlord, Kilij Arslan, the Seljuks threw in the towel and abandoned Nicaea in June 1097.

Some notable commanders who fought during the Seige of Nicaea include Bohemond of Taranto, Godgrey of Bouillon, Baldwin of Boulogne, and Raymond IV of Toulouse.

By recapturing Nicaea, the Crusaders were encouraged to march even further into the inner parts of the Levant, conquering many cities en route to Jerusalem.

Battle of Dorylaeum

Western crusader forces once again locked horns with the Seljuk Turks in July 1097. In what became known as the Battle of Dorylaeum, the Seljuks under the leadership of Kilij Arslan took very good positions and were poised to secure victory. However, the timely intervention of more crusader forces was enough to snatch victory from the hands of the Muslims in the city of Dorylaeum (located near today’s Eskişehir, Turkey).

The Seljuks had close to 10,000 soldiers, including about 8,000 archers at Dorylaeum. The western crusader forces comprised very heavy cavalry of about 2,000 and 8,000 infantry. All in all, the western forces lost around 4,000 troops while Arslan suffered about 3,000 deaths.

Siege of Antioch

Siege of Antioch

It must be noted that the Battle of Dorylaeum severely demoralized Arslan’s forces. This resulted in the crusaders meeting little resistance from the Seljuk Turks.

As for the crusaders, their spirits were very high. Unfortunately, a wrench was thrown into the works of the crusaders.

As the crusaders made their way through Anatolia (what is today’s Turkey), they were blighted by disease, hunger and thirst. The latter was due to the scotching weather condition of the summer. Regardless, the crusaders were able to mount a fierce siege on the city of Antioch (present day Antakya in Hatay Province, Turkey) beginning in October 1097.

The crusaders right from the get go were up against very strong Roman-era city fortification that were further reinforced by city’s inhabitants. As the Muslims had anticipated the attack, Yaghi-Siyan, the city’s governor, ordered for the stockpiling of food. He also sent out an appeal for military support from a Muslim warlord to the east.

Antioch’s fortifications weren’t the only formidable hurdle that the crusaders had to contend with. Disease and starvation swept through the winter months of 1097, forcing many crusaders to eating their horses.

Feeling dispirited, many soldiers were tempted to desert. They also had to fend off a number of ambushes by Muslim Seljuk rulers in the surrounding region, including Duqaq, ruler of Damascus, and Ridwan, emir of Aleppo.

The crusaders’ situation got increasingly precarious until aid arrived in March 1098. With new siege equipment, the crusaders ramped up the heat on the walls of Antioch.

By early June 1098, the crusaders had successfully fought their way into the city and killed many inhabitants.

Importance of Antioch in the First Crusade

Beginning from October 1097 to June 1098, the Siege of Antioch witnessed a combined force of more than 40,000 crusader-Byzantine army come up against more than 50,000 Muslim troops. The crusaders needed to take the city of Antioch in order to help with their supply lines. Not doing so could seriously jeopardize their quest to capture Jerusalem.

Additionally, Antioch was considered by European Christendom as an important city in the region. This was because it was said to be the home of many Christian patriarchs including Saint Luke, Saint Peter, and Saint Paul.

The Battle of Antioch

A few days after the crusader forces had broken into the city of Antioch, help for the Muslims arrived in the form of troops led by Kerbogha, a powerful Muslim warlord of Mosul. The crusaders now became the ones who were under siege. For about three weeks, the crusaders fiercely defended the city of Antioch. Fearing that Kerbogha’s army could break into the city, a resource-depleted and disease-battered crusader army took a bold decision by coming out of the city and engaged the Mosul-led coalition of Muslim forces of about 40,000. Karbogha had gravely underestimated the numbers that the crusaders possessed.

Having being inspired by the Holy Lance (the spear that was used to pierce Jesus Christ on the cross) that a peasant named Peter Bartholomew claimed to have found at the Basilica of St. Peter, the crusaders charged straight out of the city’s walls and startled their enemies. The Muslims soon found themselves in a very difficult situation as many of the emirs and Muslim commanders began to desert en masse. The crusaders capitalized on the panic that ensued in their opponents’ camp and intensified their attacks. In the end, the crusaders defeated Kerbogha at what came to be known as the Battle of Antioch on June 28, 1098.

Subsequently, the Muslim forces that were in the citadel surrendered to the victorious crusader forces.

Siege of Antioch during the First Crusade

After the victory at Antioch, the crusaders spent about a year securing the city so that it could serve as a vital supply route for when the attack on Jerusalem began. Image: Robert of Normandy at the Siege of Antioch in 1097 during the First Crusade. A 19th century CE painting by Jean-Joseph Dassy of Robert of Normandy, one of the leaders of the Crusade, at the Siege of Antioch, 1097-8 CE during the First Crusade

Siege of Jerusalem

After turning things around and securing victory at Antioch, the knights of the crusaders began to truly believe that God was on their side. If that was not the case, how else could they have won against a Muslim army that outnumbered them at least two to one during the Battle of Antioch?

Therefore, the crusader did not waste too much time. They marched on to Jerusalem, arriving in June 1099. There it took them a bit more than month to capture the city. The crusader 100,000-crusader forces that had marched at the start of the crusade was now down to around 14,000. However, what the crusaders lacked in numbers they made up for it in their combat prowess and well-equipped knights.

Godfrey de Boullion

Godfrey de Boullion was the western crusader forces leader who led the capture of the city of Jerusalem in 1099. Godfrey also reigned as ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem from 1099 to 1100. Image: Equestrian statue of Godfrey of Bouillon in Brussels, Belgium

The military fortifications of Jerusalem was far greater than Antioch’s. The crusaders siege of Jerusalem was aided by the timber that arrived in time for them to make catapults, siege towers and battering ram. Those weapons, however, barely made a dent on the strong walls of Jerusalem.

The Muslims, on the other hand, were content with just sitting behind their walls and periodically making raids on the crusaders outside the walls.

This continued until mid-July, when one of the leaders of the crusaders, Godfrey of Bouillon, found a weak section of the walls. Bouillon ordered for the siege tower to be moved secretly to that part of the wall.

Come morning, the crusaders had managed to scale the impregnable wall and made their way inside the city. The crusaders were hastened to storm the city of Jerusalem by news of the approach of Muslim army from Fatimid Egypt.

What followed after the crusaders entered the city of Jerusalem was an utter bloodbath. The crusaders went on a rout, massacring thousands of the Muslim inhabitants of Jerusalem. Jews weren’t spared in the slaughter. It has been estimated that up to 30,000 of the city’s dwellers were killed by the invading crusaders. Some historians say that the figure was around 75,000.

To add insult to injury, the crusaders forced the conversion of many thousands of the Muslims into Christianity. Similarly, many Muslim holy sites were converted into Christian sites.

First Crusade history and facts

First Crusade – the massacre that took place in Jerusalem

Battle of Ascalon

By the time the Muslim army of about 21,000 troops from Fatimid Egypt arrived in the Holy Land, the crusaders had taken full control of the city of Jerusalem.

An already battle-weary and depleted crusader forces now had the herculean task of defending the city from the Fatimid army.

Godfrey of Bouillon, who would later serve as the ruler of Jerusalem, had a total of about 10,000 men. Although, his forces were outnumbered, they still put up a good fight at the Battle of Ascalon in August 1099. The Fatimid army under vizier al-Afdal Shahanshah could not match the intensity of the crusaders. About 12,000 Muslim soldiers perished at the Battle of Ascalon.

Effects of the First Crusade

Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099 by French artist Émile Signol

Following the capture of the Holy Land, the crusaders held control (of the Kingdom of Jerusalem) for about four decades before the Muslim army could mount a serious offensive against the crusaders. Image: Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099 by French artist Émile Signol

The western crusader forces dominated proceedings in the First Crusade largely because the Muslim armies were not familiar with the battle tactics and fighting styles of the western armies. Additionally, the Muslims could not match the ferocious nature in which heavily armored European combatants fought.

Following the end of the First Crusade around 1099, as expected, many European nobles who fought in the campaign returned to the continent with vast amounts of riches and many holy relics captured from the Holy Land. However, the riches that were looted in the Holy Land weren’t fairly distributed, leaving a good number of knights and nobles feeling frustrated and hard done by the crusade. This and many other reasons propelled them to go on future crusades.

With every passing Norman crusade in the Holy Land, the Muslim defenders got better at handling the battle strategy, tactics and fighting style of the Crusaders.

In the years that followed after the First Crusade, relationship between the Byzantines and the European crusaders was further strained. Led by Bohemund, many knights and nobles convinced European monarchs that the Byzantines were the biggest threat to Western Christendom. Therefore attention would turn to plundering and raiding the already declining Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines were able to put up a strong resistance, causing the Crusaders to recognize the eminence of the Byzantine rulers in the region. However, this did not stop the two sides from having a deep distrust of each other. That distrust ultimately led to the crusaders sacking Constantinople in 1204.

Other notable facts about the First Crusade

  • Bohemund broke his promise to return recaptured territories in Anatolia to the Byzantines because he felt that the Byzantine emperor Alexios had deserted him during the Siege of Antioch.
  • During the Siege of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, western crusader army had to endure very brutal conditions. Aside from the severe starvation and disease that swept through the camp, soldiers, especially peasants and lower-ranked personnel, also had to drink leech-infested water. Those unsanitary conditions further fueled more diseases and deaths. Extremely hungry, some crusader soldiers resorted to eating their leather shoes.

How Pope Urban II inspired all of Western Europe to participate in the First Crusade

Pope Urban II was able to invoke very high religious enthusiasm from the people of Europe. The number of people who signed up to fighting in the First Crusade swelled very quickly because of the well-crafted propaganda message that the Pope used.

First and foremost, the noblemen that heeded the call of Pope Urban II to begin crusading in the Holy Land were driven by the papacy’s message of remission of sins. The next obvious reason was the quest for adventure that many European princes and wealthy nobles simply could not resist. As a natural consequence of those adventures, the nobility in Europe expected to rake in a lot of riches from plundering the cities that led to the Holy Land.

Owing to the false rumor that the Muslim Seljuks had desecrated many important Christian sites in the Holy Land, people in Europe were enraged and eager to march to the region and protect those holy sites.

There was also a strong desire by Europeans to march an army on Jerusalem in order to protect pilgrims and Christian communities that the Pope had falsely claimed were being terrorized by the Muslims.

Did you know?

Route of the First Crusade through Asia

Unspeakable and fiendish acts of carnage were committed by the First Crusaders in the name of God. Image: Route of the First Crusade through Asia

  • About a few months before the Western Crusader armies arrived, the city of Jerusalem had changed hands from the Sunni-majority Seljuks to the Shiite Muslim-majority.
  • Historians cite the power wrangling between the Sunni Muslim Seljuk and their foes the Shiite Muslims as one of the reasons why Jerusalem was not prepared enough to repel the conquest of Western armies during the First Crusade. The Muslims in the city probably thought that the Western armies were there to raid and not conquer.

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