The First Crusade

Righteous Wrath:
The Struggle for Possession of Jerusalem


This paper is one I wrote back in 1997 for a class I took on Jerusalem. I’ve always been interested in military tactics, and so for my final project, I focused on how Jerusalem was captured by the Crusaders in the First Crusade. If you’re interested in knowing the basics of the First Crusade, including the key players and the essential route taken by the Crusaders to capture Jerusalem, please read on. Think of this as “The First Crusade for Dummies.” It was, after all, written my freshman year of college.

The Paper

In the movies, the Crusades are the basis for plots of magical grails and princes of thieves. They are referred to with sweeping generalizations, and a real explanation of what they really were is never forthcoming. The true story of the First Crusade is more exciting than anything Hollywood could ever dream up. People know bits and pieces of the story; the First Crusade captured Jerusalem and killed lots of people. However, that skips the how. With a study in military history, one finds that only through great strategies and a lot of luck did the Crusaders find themselves in possession of Jerusalem.

The originations of the First Crusade were strongly rooted in religion. In 1095, around three-hundred clergymen met at the Council of Clermont to discuss the recent offensive military activities of the Seljuk Turks in the Byzantine Empire (Chartes 62). On November twenty-seventh of that year, Pope Urban II, leading the Council, called upon the “sons of God” to “carry aid to [their] brethren dwelling in the East,” for it would be a “disgrace if a race so despicable, degenerate, and enslaved by demons (the Seljuk Turks) should thus overcome a people endowed with faith in Almighty God” (Chartes 66). The Infidel had to be overcome, and it had to happen that very Spring (Chartes 67). The Pope himself ordered this war, and that was the strongest religious support the Crusaders could ask for. The Pope also promised that “if any man wants to save his soul, let him have no hesitation in taking the way of the Lord in humility” (Gesta, 1). In other words, those who went on the Crusade would be forgiven of their sins, a strong incentive from a religious view.

Answering the call of the Pope, thousands of Catholics, devout or otherwise, noble or common rushed to join the Crusade. Peter the Hermit led a large group of unorganized commoners that decided to go on the Crusade on a trek that came to be know as the People’s Crusade (Gesta, 2). Godfrey de Bouillon and his brother Baldwin, the future first two rulers of Crusader Jerusalem (Bradford 90 & 105), followed the same path as the People’s Crusade, and arrived in Constantinople after the main contingent of Peter’s army (Runciman 149). Two other armies of nobles and knights left soon after Peter’s horde, one led by Raymond of Saint-Gilles and Adhemar, bishop of le Puy (ecclesiastical leader of the First Crusade), and the other headed by Robert, Count of Flanders and Robert, Count of Normandy (Tudebode 21). All three armies met at Constantinople, city designated by Pope Urban II for that purpose. It is estimated that the combined group that survived the journey thus far totaled around 175,000 in comparison to the possible 250,000 who took up the cross in Europe–only around 30,000 would survive to lay siege to Jerusalem (Lamb 326). From late April to early March of 1097, the Crusaders left Constantinople with Jerusalem as their goal, a goal that would take two years to obtain (Tudebode 136).

When the Crusaders finally set eyes upon Jerusalem on June 7, 1099, they had survived countless battles and been tested repeatedly. They had lain siege successfully to the city of Antioch, a process that took eight months, due to the city’s superb fortifications (Tudebode 30-31). However, the task that lay ahead of them surpassed any previous challenges, both physically and mentally. Bishop Adhemar, the cement holding the spiritual nature of the quest intact, died during one of the many battles on the road to Jerusalem (Bradford 76-77). Following his death, the army became overrun with different factions arguing over where to go next: immediately to Jerusalem or wait and build strength at Antioch (Bradford 77). While the groups eventually agreed to go on towards Jerusalem, it was clear that unity could be easily upset as grudges began to form among the army (Bradford 77).

The fortifications of Jerusalem added a physical obstacle. The city had been taken over by Fatimids in 1098, and the Fatimid governor Iftikhar-ad-Daulah strengthened the already formidable defenses with more of his own, including four-hundred highly trained cavalry from Egypt (France 334). The Muslims moved their food, arms, and supplies within the walls, poisoned the surrounding wells, and burnt all of the wood to be found in the vicinity (Benvenisti 35). This left the attackers with a severe shortage of water and food as well as no materials to build standard siege weapons. Jerusalem, conversely, had “a sufficiency of water” plus all of the supplies they had gathered from the surroundings; they were more than ready for a long, drawn out siege (Chartes 117). With the refugees who fled to Jerusalem for safety, the population of the city shot from 20,000 to 40,000, even though all of the Christians in the city had been expelled (Benvenisti 35-36).

The main tactical weakness of Jerusalem was its northern side. The west and east sides of the city are defended by steep slopes caused by the Kidron and Hinnom Valleys (Bradford 80). On the western walls of the city lay the Tower of David, a fortification of such “solid masonry” that “fifteen or twenty men, if well supplied with food, could defend it from all assaults of an enemy” (Chartes 117). The eastern portion was enforced with a moat, keeping a northeastern attack from being too easy (France 342). An attack from the south could only be feasible from what is today called Mount Zion, the only portion not too steep to impede an assault (Bradford 80). However, that section is not big enough for a full fledged strike and at the time was also enforced by the same moat defending the eastern wall (France 342). An attack from the north was the only option (Bradford 80).

To counter this the defenders, while strengthening all of the walls, focused on the northern parts of Jerusalem (Benvenisti 35). A barbican, or tower, was built in the middle of the northern wall, making the area easier to defend (Benvenisti 35). However, there was a kilometer and a half of wall to protect on the north, and the lay of the land made that wall more difficult to guard (France 341). The difficulty was that on the northern side, the slope is down towards Jerusalem, allowing attackers to gain a tactical advantage (France 341). This slope is more marked on the northwest corner of the city, and the Quadrangular Tower was strategically built there to fortify that weakest point (France 341). On the northeast portion of the wall, the slope is less evident and natural land formations were used to strengthen the wall, but “the attacker (was) faced with a less than frightening aspect and a fair choice of attacking points” (France 342). These weaknesses were aggravated by the length of the wall itself, forcing the defenders to spread out if they were to secure the whole side (France 343). Obviously, this is where the Crusaders immediately set up camp (France 343).

The Crusaders rejoiced when they finally saw their goal, but then quickly split up their forces to take advantage of the northern weakness. Robert of Normandy took his troops to the northernmost part of the city (Tudebode 112), right outside of St. Stephen’s Gate, today known as the Damascus Gate (France 341). Next to him was Tancred’s forces and Godfrey took up post at the northwest corner (Tudebode 112). Raymond of Saint-Gilles, Count of Toulouse, tried to set camp on the western side of Jerusalem (D’Aguilers 116), but soon switched to occupy Mount Zion, covering that weak point (Tudebode 112). Raymond heard rumor of the many relics that were in St. Mary’s Church of Mount Zion, and he moved his army there in anticipation of a Muslim attempt to capture and defile the church (D’Aguilers 117). To him, the greater tactical advantage was an added bonus.

The Crusaders were at a severe disadvantage. Because the Muslims had burned all surrounding lumber, siege-engines could not be built (Benvenisti 36). They had no water or food while the defenders had plenty, and an Egyptian army was on its way to reinforce and come to the aid of the army in Jerusalem (Benvenisti 36). The only suitable drinking water was four miles away and had to be carried back in animal skins (Chartes 120). The defenders, knowing the predicament of their enemies, sent out raiding parties to prey upon these water expeditions (Runciman 281). Unfortunately, the Crusaders “expected a miracle that would cause the city walls to fall before them” (Benvenisti 36). Their piety would become a military blunder.

The lack of time unnerved the Crusaders. Anxious for a fight, some of them went off to find one, discovering two-hundred Arabs and slaughtering them all on June tenth (Gesta, 88). On the twelfth of June, a hermit on the Mount of Olives told some of the Crusaders that “the Lord will give you Jerusalem if you will storm it tomorrow until the ninth hour” (D’Aguilers 117). When the men replied that they were unprepared, the hermit claimed that “God is so omnipotent that if He wishes, you could scale the wall with one ladder” (D’Aguilers 117). Combine this challenge with the Crusaders’ faith in a miracle to deliver Jerusalem into their hands, and it was more than enough to convince them to attack unprepared.

On the thirteenth of June, the first main assault on Jerusalem was launched from the north (Runciman 281). Lacking the needed siege-engines and scaling ladders to overcome the walls, Crusader soldiers attacked with hammers, attempting to break stone by hand (Benvenisti 36). These impromptu masons used a “tortoise” like method to protect themselves, interlocked shields held above to ward off incoming arrows and rocks (France 345). This style of attack was not used regularly for a reason. The Arabs spent the whole time pouring boiling oil and throwing boulders down on the Crusaders, weapons which the “shell” could not repel; attacker deaths ran high (Benvenisti 36).

Peter Tudebode wrote that “Jerusalem would have fallen if scaling ladders had been available,” and this was probably true. The attack centered on the barbican built by the defenders on the northern wall, east of the Quadrangular Tower (France 345). The outer walls were breached, and the sole scaling ladder the Crusaders had was placed against the inner wall (Tudebode 113). For a time it looked like the Crusaders might succeed; several of the attackers mounted the inner wall and began to fight the Arabs hand to hand, but were out numbered and soon lost their position (D’Aguilers 117). Some claimed that the defeat was due to “sloth and fear” (D’Aguilers 117), but the bravery of the Crusaders in a disadvantaged attack puts that accusation to rest. The battle lasted for three hours until a retreat was called (Lamb 222).

After this initial skirmish, the Crusaders’ situation rapidly worsened, and a council on June fifteenth decided to wait until ladders and siege-engines were built before attacking again (Runciman 282). However, there was no way to take the city though a long siege; the attackers didn’t have the supplies necessary. No wood suitable for siege material could be found in a thirty mile radius, so effective had the defenders tactics been (Lamb 223). Even worse, the Crusaders found no carpenters left in their army with the knowledge of how to build the siege-engines (Benvenisti 37). Even when the small amount of wood to be scrounged was brought to the army, advanced weapons couldn’t be made. Conditions deteriorated as the need for water caused dissension among the army (D’Aguilers 118).

The weak sprawled on the ground by the fountain (the Pool of Siloam) with gaping mouths made speechless by their parched tongues, and with outstretched hands begged for water from the more fortunate ones. In the fields stood horses, mules, cattle, sheep, and many other animals too weak to take another step. There they shriveled, died from thirst, and rotted in their tracks, and filled the air with the stench of death. (D’Aguilers 118)

Supplies were what the Crusaders disparately needed, and as luck would have it, supplies were on the way.

On June seventeenth, six merchant ships, now called the Genose Fleet, docked at Jaffa laden with the badly needed materials, such as nails and rope, to make siege-engines (Tudebode 113). Better yet, the ships carried carpenters with the knowledge to make the machines (Benvenisti 37). If wood was found, the Crusaders could launch a true attack and avoid the long siege that would be disastrous. Jaffa was an Arab-occupied city, but apparently the Muslims fled when the Crusaders came into the area, leaving the port open for the life saving ships (Bradford 83). It was a day’s journey from Jerusalem to Jaffa, and the Crusaders immediately sent around one-hundred knights and more footmen to fetch the materials (Tudebode 113). However, the Arabs had also received word of the ships, and four-hundred “crack Arab troops” and two-hundred Turks were waiting for the Crusaders (D’Aguilers 119).

Thirty knights ran ahead of the main contingent, and those few bore the brunt of the Arab attack (Tudebode 114). Unafraid and “confident is God’s help,” the thirty knights attacked six-hundred Arabs, battling valiantly and holding their own until the overpowering numbers fatigued the knights (D’Aguilers 118). A messenger fled from the fray to the slower moving body of knights with the cry for help (Tudebode 114). The knights rushed to the battle, and the Arabs, seeing the dust on the horizon and fearing a stronger force of Crusaders, retreated (D’Aguilers 120). The combined knights followed the Arabs and killed two-hundred of them while the rest escaped (D’Aguilers 120). Supplies, water, food, and carpenters made it back to the Crusader camp, and Tancred and Robert of Flanders led soldiers to the forests of Samaria, thirty miles away, to get the needed wood (Runciman 282). A true assault of the Holy City was possible as siege engines were built in earnest.

Weapons of siege were complicated to make and difficult to use. In the siege of Jerusalem, three siege towers as well as mangonels, large crossbows, and battering rams were the main weapons used on the walls (France 347-350). Mangonels are a form of catapult, used to fling missiles over a defender’s wall, and large crossbows could be fired specifically at someone or just at the city itself (essentially acting like a specialized mangonel) (France 48). The effectiveness of these weapons at the time was limited by their range: anything beyond fifty meters was inaccurate and improbable at best (France 49-50). Battering rams were a little more complex than usually portrayed. The weakness of a battering ram was that people manning it were open to attacks from the defenders above (France 48). To counter this, the assaulters would wheel in a cover for their troops, allowing them to go about their job undisturbed (Funcken 22). The ram was hung from chains to the top of the covering and then swung on those chains to make it easier to move and gain momentum (Funcken 22-23).

A siege tower’s purpose was to “cover the mounting of ladders by fire-power, as well as to deliver troops onto the wall itself” (France 48). They were enclosed on all four sides by walls with ladders inside and the whole machine built on wheels (France 48). The attackers would wheel it up against the wall while archers, protected by mantlets, or “woven twigs or sheets of leather,” fired upon the defenders (France 48). Once the tower was in place, a drawbridge would open at the top of it, creating a bridge from tower to wall from which the attackers could storm the wall and capture it (France 48). The main problem was that, since the siege tower had to be wheeled into place, it could only attack from a level surface; it was also highly flammable (France 350-351). The Crusaders were not new to this game, however, and they went into battle prepared with plenty of water.

Preparations were completed in the beginning of July, and it is at this time the the Crusaders attempted one last chance at a miracle (Tudebode 137). It was remembered that Adhemar, Bishop of le Puy, said before his death that the Crusaders should fast and march around Jerusalem’s walls with holy relics, blowing trumpets (reminiscent of the Biblical Battle of Jericho) (D’Aguilers 122-123). Adhemar promised the Crusaders that if they did this, in nine days the city would be delivered after a military assault (D’Aguilers 122). Interestingly, the Crusaders started fasting on July sixth, marched around Jerusalem’s walls July eighth, and captured the city on July fifteenth, nine days after the beginning of the fast (Tudebode 137). As they proceeded around the city, the Muslims inside mocked and shot at them, making fun of their piety and religion (Benvenisti 37). After this ritual was completed, the Crusaders felt ready for battle.

The main siege tower was built by Godfrey’s contingent right next to the Quadrangular Tower (France 340). Expecting an attack from this direction, the defenders bolstered their defenses around that area (D’Aguilers 124). However, the Crusaders anticipated this and used their construction site as a ruse. On the night of July ninth, they moved the siege tower about a mile away to the east, close to Herod’s Gate today (D’Aguilers 124-125). It had both a flat area for the siege tower to move up to the wall and the downward slope (France 349). The tower built by Raymond of Saint-Gilles, positioned at the south of the city (the Church of St. Mary of Zion), did not share these advantages (Tudebode 116). Raymond spent three days filling in a ditch to make the ground level, and those three days lost any element of surprise (France 349).

It took some time to rebuild the siege tower in the north, but on the night of July thirteenth the attack began (Runciman 285). The size of the Crusader army was down to twelve thousand foot soldiers and thirteen hundred knights (D’Aguilers 125). Tancred, Godfrey, and Robert of Normandy moved their armies to the site of the main siege tower (France 340), abandoning the Quadrangular Tower after a brief feint (Runciman 285). The towers moved towards the wall with the Crusaders filling in last minute ditches as they went, all the time rained on with oil and arrows from the walls ahead (Runciman 285). Attempts were made to set the tower aflame with fire arrows, but the Crusaders had soaked the wood in water and shielded it with iron (France 350). The Arabs then used a more effective method, throwing flaming mallets spiked with nails at the tower; the nails stuck into the wood, if not igniting it then at least providing a hindrance to the attackers (D’Aguilers 126). The tower moved on, however, flames and all.

Meanwhile on Mount Zion, Raymond of Saint-Gilles was still trying to overcome the ditch which blocked his tower’s approach. Desperate, he offered to pay anyone who dropped three stones into the depression (Tudebode 118). While this finished the filling, it did not ensure victory, for the tremendous effort was soon confounded. By the evening of July fourteenth, the siege tower on Mount Zion was destroyed, the tower under command of Tancred to the northwest was crippled, and the main siege tower was also badly damaged (Benvenisti 37). The Arabs had fourteen of their own mangonels pounding away at the towers, five aimed at Godfrey’s tower to the north and nine at the tower south of the city (France 351). By the end of the first full day of battle, the Crusaders had the advantage to the north, as expected, but their southern attack left much to be desired.

Battle resumed the next day, and the Crusaders took control. At nine o’clock in the morning, the time of Christ’s passion, a knight named Lethold fighting in Godfrey’s contingent was the first to mount the northern wall (Gesta 91). The main siege tower had reached the wall in a rather complicated maneuver. Crusaders brought in a battering ram to destroy the defenses around the wall, and in that task they were successful (France 350). However, the ram was too large to get around once it broke through enemy territory, so the Crusaders were forced to burn it to let the siege tower approach(France 350). However, due to the vulnerability of hinge systems in an attack and not expecting to need them, the towers used in the Crusade had not been equipped with drawbridges; the Crusaders were at the wall with no way to get onto it (France 352). Godfrey ingeniously cut down one of the mantlets and moved it to where the drawbridge should have been, allowing the knights to finally get into Jerusalem (France 353).

From there the Crusaders had no difficulty in taking the city. The heightened threat to the north drew away defenders from the southern front, and Raymond of Saint-Gilles’ army was soon in the city, as well (Gesta 91). All that was left was “clean up” consisting of a massacre of the citizens.

With the fall of Jerusalem and its towers one could see marvelous works. Some of the pagans were mercifully beheaded, other pierced by arrows plunged from towers, and yet others, tortured for a long time, were burned to death in searing flames. Piles of heads, hands, and feet lay in the houses and streets, and indeed there was a running to and fro of men and knights over the corpses. (D’Aguilers 127)

What had started as a decree from the Pope for a Holy War ended in blood lust.

However, the Crusaders retained their piety. They went straight to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and gave thanks to God for their victory (D’Aguilers 128). Many people in the battle claimed to have seen the spirit of Adhemar leading the troops into battle (D’Aguilers 128). On July seventeenth, the victors wanted to hold a large mass to give thanks to God and ask Him to appoint a new leader, but the priests would not hear of it (Tudebode 120). First, the dead had to be removed, for “all of Jerusalem was clogged with cadavers,…God alone knows the number, for no one else does” (Tudebode 120). Duke Godfrey was elected king of Jerusalem, but he would not take the title, for only Christ was king in Jerusalem, he claimed (Tudebode 120). Instead, he settled on the title “Defender of the Holy Sepulchre” (D’Aguilers 130). There were yet battles to be fought by that army, but for the most part, the First Crusade was finally over, and its main goal was accomplished.

It is interesting that throughout this war, the Crusaders claimed religion as their cause and yet did not shy from ruthlessness. While this may seem contradictory, certain facts must be remembered. First of all, the Pope had ordered them to conquer the “infidels.” Coming from the highest ranking churchman, that was more than enough to give religious backing to murder. In addition, in those days it was common practice to kill all inhabitants of a rebellious city; it had been done repeatedly in the past. The Crusaders were just carrying out the norm for their era. Thus, although by today’s standards the ending seems rather unreligious, it is easy to see how the Crusaders would feel justified before God. In their eyes, they had completed their job perfectly.

Works Cited

  • Benvenisti, Meron. The Crusaders in the Holy Land. New York, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970.
  • Bradford, Ernle. The Sword and the Scimitar. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1974.
    D’Aguilers, Raymond. Historia Francorum Qui Ceperunt Iherusalem. Trans. John and Laurita Hill. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1968.
  • France, John. Victory in the East: A Military History of the First Crusade. Cambridge: University Press, 1994.
  • Fulcher of Chartes. A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem. Trans. Frances Rita Ryan. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1969.
  • Funcken, Liliane and Fred. The Age of Chivalry; Part Two. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1981.
  • Gesta Francorum et Aliorum Hierosolimitanorum. Trans. Rosalind Hill. New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1962.
  • Lamb, Harold. The Crusades: Iron Men and Saints. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc, 1930.
  • Runciman, Steven. A History of the Crusades. Vol.1. Cambridge: University Press, 1953.
  • Tudebode, Peter. Historia de Hierosolymitano Itinere. Trans. John and Laurita Hill. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1974.