A huge group of ragged, pitchfork- wielding peasants wasn’t exactly what Alexeis had imagined. When he told the group to hang out and wait until the actual warriors arrived, they became a little restless. They were convinced that they were on a divine mission and demanded to be ferried across by the Byzantines. Growing tired of them; the Emperor gave in and transported them across the Bosporus Straight.
After actually having a small amount of success with minor raids on small towns, they caught the Turks attention. Peter the Hermit had made a trip back to Constantinople to gather supplies when the Turkish army attacked the group. A few escaped, a few converted to Islam, but the vast majority - men, women, and children - were massacred by the Turks.
But, back to the main story. The knights of Europe and their forces arrived in Constantinople separately. As word of their numbers reached the Byzantine Emperor Alexeis, he became a little worried. While a huge group of peasants wasn’t what he had expected, an army of 50,000 wasn’t either. First of all, that many boots stomping across you land can be slightly disruptive. And secondly, the emperor was interested in not only driving the Turks out, but also regaining the areas he once controlled.
So as the knights arrived at Constantinople, the emperor demanded they take an oath saying that the Crusaders would return any land conqueror to the Byzantine Empire. The commanders were not very happy about this, but consented to doing it because the emperor refused to ferry them across to Asia Minor until they did. And until they all had crossed, the Crusade could not continue.
Once across, the Crusader forces headed for Nicaea. As the Crusaders had the city under siege, the Turkish commander who destroyed the “People’s Crusade” brought his troops up to attack and lift the siege. It seems that the Turks greatly underestimated the Crusaders, possibly thinking that this was another peasant army. But a peasant army it was not, and the Turks were beaten badly and routed. Without a Turkish army to help, Nicaea surrendered to the Byzantine emperor. The first major victory of the Crusades was history.
From Nicaea, the Crusaders began their long march to Antioch. The path from Nicaea to Antioch was a mix of desert and farm fields whose crops the Turks had burned. Marching a long distance over desert land during the summer without food can be hard on a soldier’s morale and health. Instead of accompanying the Crusaders, the Byzantine emperor decided to return to Constantinople and raise more troops (and maybe wait for cooler weather?). He promised that once he did, that he would return to help the Crusaders at Antioch.
In October of 1097 the Crusaders arrived at Antioch. Antioch was a huge city with huge walls which caused a huge problem. The Crusaders laid siege to the city over the winter, but with Antioch’s size, and its ports, it was hard to stop all the food from entering the city. And as time went on the Crusaders, like a group of locusts, had exhausted the land around the city of its food.
With many of the Crusaders dying of starvation, news arrived that a massive Turkish force had been raised and was headed their way. It was a tough situation; starvation, despair, and desertions spiked. Things around camp were a smidge gloomy. Even Peter the Hermit was caught trying to flea.
One knight, Stephen of Blois, feeling the situation was hopeless deserted (yes, he was French) and headed back toward Constantinople. On his way, he met Alexeis coming with a force to help the Crusaders at Antioch. Stephen informed the emperor that the situation was hopeless and that traveling to Antioch with his forces would mean disaster. Alexeis, interested in being more practical than noble, took the advice and returned to Constantinople, deserting the Crusaders when they desperately needed his help. When the word reached the Crusaders, they were furious. After all, they had traveled a long way in pretty nasty conditions to help the emperor out. The oaths sworn to the emperor were now renounced.
But the Crusaders needed to get into the city and it began to look like it would take a miracle. Miracles can come in different forms. Some take the form of mind-boggling events, which run against the very laws of nature. Others look more like finding out that a captain of the Antioch guard is Christian and willing to leave the gate unlocked one night – for a price of course. So during the night, the crusaders entered through an unlocked gate and took the city.
It was great to be in the city, but since they had just spent the last several months starving its population, the Crusaders still didn’t have much to eat. The Turks reached the city’s walls and laid siege to it. It began to look like this would be where the Crusade would end.
But just when it looked the darkest, a mystic had a vision in which he was told where the Holy Spear was buried. Bonus. Without much to loose, the Crusaders began digging at the location, and you know what? A spearhead was found, and new hope was given the Crusaders. Reminding us all that the “mystic having a vision of where the Holy Spear is buried” maneuver should never be written off.
With the current situation, it was decided that the only chance, and honorable way, was to leave the city and meet the Turkish forces head on. The spearhead found was placed at the end of a pole and was carried into battle. The Crusaders gathered together and marched out into battle.
The Turks were completely unaware of the number of men the Crusading forces had. When the Crusaders began pouring out from the city, the Turks realized that this was going to be a much greater battle than they had originally expected. Faced with the possibility of unforeseen heavy losses, the coalition of Turkish forces began to break apart and the force dissolved with very little fighting.
The Crusaders had defeated the larger Turkish army despite what they considered the Byzantine emperor’s treachery and cowardice. Because of this, Antioch would not be turned over to the emperor, and the goal of unifying the east and west would suffer because of it. Next stop, Jerusalem.
To be continued …