Norman commanders largely led the epic siege in the Levant, where the First Crusade forces fought to secure the road to Jerusalem
Norman commanders were at the forefront of this epic siege during the First Crusade
The First Crusade was the bloody beginning of a theologically based military movement that changed the course of history and whose effects we still live with today. When European Christian warriors launched campaigns to wrest control of Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim control, they had no idea they were sowing divisions that would poison East-west relations into the 21st century. That dark legacy hints at what a huge movement the Crusades were, and Norman knights spearheaded the first Crusaders into the Levant.
The dramatic Siege of Antioch was the decisive engagement that marked the arrival of the First Crusade in the Holy Land. In October 1097, tens of thousands of European Crusaders arrived at the gates of Antioch, which is now Antakya in Turkey. They had previously marched through enemy Seljuk lands in Anatolia and captured Edessa in Upper Mesopotamia. Antioch was the strategic nut the Crusaders had to crack if they were to proceed towards Jerusalem.
Antioch was important for Christians. The saints Peter, Paul and Barnabas had formed the first Christian community there, and the patriarch of the city rivalled both Jerusalem and Constantinople in authority. Even the word ‘Christian’ was first used in Antioch. It was also strategically important. The city controlled the route from Asia Minor into Syria and had kilometres of walls and hundreds of towers. The surrounding terrain meant that Antioch could never be fully surrounded, and it had an excellent water supply. In short, the Byzantinebuilt defences surrounding the city were considered impregnable, and it had only fallen to Muslim Turks in 1085 through treachery.
Among the besieging Crusaders were several prominent Normans: Bohemond of Taranto, Robert, Duke of Normandy and Tancred de Hauteville. Bohemond and Raymond of Toulouse each commanded a section of the blockading lines. They came under constant attack from the Turkish garrison over the next four months, and the rulers of Damascus and Aleppo also attempted to break the siege. These attacks were driven off, but over the winter of 1097-98 the besiegers ran out of food faster than the besieged, and thousands of the poorer Crusaders starved to death.
Some relief materialised when a Byzantine fleet (which was led by Edgar Aetheling, an exiled Anglo-saxon claimant to the English throne) arrived with supplies for the Crusaders in the spring. In May, word reached the besiegers that Kerbogha, Atabeg of Mosul was marching to liberate the city. The Crusaders’ only hope was to take Antioch, but more Crusaders deserted, including Stephen of Blois, William the Conqueror’s son-in-law.
The day after Blois’s desertion, the Crusaders achieved a major breakthrough. Like the siege of 1085, Bohemond’s spies made contact with a traitor who would let them into Antioch. Firouz was an Armenian armourer who wanted revenge against his commanding officer at the Tower of
“IN SHORT, THE CITY WAS CONSIDERED IMPREGNABLE AND IT HAD ONLY FALLEN TO MUSLIM TURKS IN 1085 THROUGH TREACHERY”
the Two Sisters. He offered to let the besiegers in for money. Bohemond took this information and informed the Crusaders that he wanted to rule Antioch if the operation succeeded.
Firouz let Bohemond’s Norman troops in through a window, and the Crusaders rampaged across the city, killing all in their path. But they soon discovered to their horror that there was almost no food left in Antioch. 20,000 Crusaders were now starving to death, and Kerbogha’s army was coming. The besiegers had become the besieged and awaited relief from a Byzantine army led by Tatikios. Unfortunately, Tatikios encountered Stephen of Blois en route, who informed him the Crusaders had probably failed at Antioch. Tatikios turned back and the Crusaders were left to their fate.
A ‘miraculous’ victory
By June 1098, the Crusaders were on the cusp of destruction, but salvation was soon
at hand. On 14 June, a crusading peasant called Peter Bartholomew ‘discovered’ the
Holy Lance in Antioch Cathedral, and Crusader morale was boosted. The remnants of the army then staggered out of Antioch on 28 June to face Kerbogha’s newly arrived force. They saw white-clad cavalry in the distance that they mistook for charging Christian saints. In reality, the distant soldiers were Kerbogha’s disunited and deserting army, which disintegrated before the Crusaders. The Crusaders scattered the remaining Muslim cavalry. Bohemond then rushed back into the city and occupied the citadel. He declared himself prince of Antioch and a Norman-led principality was established.
The First Crusade could now continue, and Jerusalem fell in July 1099. Bohemond’s Antioch became a powerful Crusader state whose Christian settlers were mostly of Norman origin. It survived for over 150 years, until 1268.
Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, fighting at the Siege of Antioch. William the Conqueror’s eldest son was the most prominent Norman at the siege
The Crusaders finally broke into Antioch when an Armenian traitor let Bohemond’s men into one of the city’s towers