Story of the Crusades - E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

The Story of the Emperor Alexios and the First Crusade

Nought is more honourable to a knight

Nor battle doth become brace chivalry

Than to defend the feeble in their right

And wrong redress in such as wend awry

While those great Heroes glory got thereby.

SPENSER: Faery Queene.

In the August of 1096, the first great army of the Crusaders began to move towards the East, under the command of Godfrey of Boulogne, together with his brothers Eustace and Baldwin.

This Godfrey, leader of the Teuton host, is thus described by one of his own day: "He was of a beautiful countenance, tall of stature, agreeable in his discourse, of excellent morals, and at the same time so gentle that he seemed better fitted for the monk than for the knight. But when his enemies appeared before him, and the combat was at hand, his soul became filled with a mighty daring; like a lion, he feared not for his own person; and what shield, what buckler, could withstand the fall of his sword?"

Four other armies set out after him in due course, travelling by land to Constantinople; for, in those days, not even the stoutest general could face the horrors of a sea-voyage in the untrustworthy vessels of the Mediterranean shore.

Marching through Europe in perfect order, Godfrey's troops met their first check on the borders of Hungary. Here they not only found the track marked out by the bodies of those who had perished in the previous year, but a distinct air of hostility was seen in the attitude of the people. Knowing nothing of the actual facts, Godfrey cautiously arranged for a meeting with King Carloman. Matters were explained on both sides and a mutual arrangement was made by which Godfrey's troops were allowed to pass through Hungary buying food as they went, while Baldwin, the brother of Godfrey, with his wife and children remained behind as hostages until the Crusaders should arrive at the further boundary—the River Save.

"So, day by day, in silence and peace, with equal measure and just sale, did the duke and his people pass through the realms of Hungary."

[Illustration] from The Story of the Crusades by E. M. Wilmot-Buxton


Once within the Emperor's domains, one would have thought the Crusaders on safe ground. But this was by no means the case. The second army of the Crusaders, which started almost at the same time as the first, was led by the brother of the French King, Hugh of Verrnandois, a headstrong and self-willed prince. He chose, together with Robert of Normandy, son of the Conqueror, and some less important leaders, to make his own way through Italy in disorderly fashion; and after leaving in that pleasant land many of his followers with Duke Robert, he embarked at Bari for the East. A tempest cast him on the Austrian coast, which was under the Emperor's rule. Hugh at once despatched four and twenty knights dressed in golden armour to demand a fitting reception for himself and his followers; and was answered by the arrival of an armed escort, which led him as a prisoner before the Governor. There was some excuse for the conduct of Alexios, extraordinary as it seems; for, so far, the hordes of so-called Crusaders had brought such desolation and destruction upon his land that he had come to the conclusion that the Turks, at this time apparently inactive, were safer neighbours than the troops of Christendom. But Alexios was as wily as he was timid. After a short imprisonment, Hugh was brought to Constantinople and treated as the honoured guest of the Emperor—treated indeed so well that he fell a victim to his host's perfidious charm, did homage to him, and promised to persuade the other chieftains to follow his example.

This was the state of affairs when Godfrey of Boulogne appeared on the plains of Thrace, and hearing of the imprisonment of Count Hugh, he sent at once a peremptory message to demand his release. This demand met with absolute refusal, upon which Godfrey promptly gave orders to ravage the surrounding country.

Immediately alarmed, as usual, by the prospect of armed conflict, Alexios implored Godfrey to desist and to meet him in friendly conference at Constantinople. To this Godfrey agreed, and was met by Hugh himself outside the city walls. The latter sang the praises of the Emperor with enthusiasm, but Godfrey was still on his guard. A warning had reached him from some French merchants living in the city that treachery was meditated; and he therefore refused either to enter within the walls or to partake of the rich food which the Emperor sent to the camp.

Then Alexios vainly tried to persuade the Crusader to settle his army for the winter in the luxurious quarters of the Greek nobles across the Bosphorus, where they would act as a buffer between Constantinople and hostile forces from the East, at the same time removing themselves to a safe distance from the city.

This also Godfrey refused; and the alarm of the Emperor grew into panic when he realised that the army of another Crusader, Bohemond, his ancient enemy, who had already established a claim upon a large part of his Empire, was fast nearing his boundaries. It was absolutely necessary to make friends with Godfrey before the arrival of the dreaded Bohemond. As there seemed a possibility of the Crusaders, in their wrath at the refusal of supplies, attacking the city itself, a compact was made. Godfrey had no desire to use up his strength in fighting fellow-Christians, and readily accepted the Emperor's terms. The son of Alexios was sent as hostage to his camp, and the leaders, on their side, swore fealty to the Emperor for the time they were obliged to remain on his borders, and forthwith entered the city in peace and security.

But Alexios was still consumed with secret terror of the vast host which had swarmed into his land; and, on the pretext of an insufficient food supply, he managed to persuade Godfrey, after a brief sojourn, to transport his troops across the Bosphorus. With his usual craft, he then arranged that the vessels which had taken them over should immediately return.

Meantime the dreaded arrival of Bohemond, Prince of Tarentum, had actually taken place. A weak attempt was made to drive him back by force; but this was quickly overcome, and when Bohemond sent the prisoners taken in the conflict back to the Emperor with an indignant and reproachful message, the wily Alexios promptly disowned all knowledge of the affair, professed the most affectionate regard for his ancient enemy, and sent him a pressing invitation to visit the capital city.

Now Bohemond was of a very different nature from the simple and upright Godfrey of Boulogne. He was an excellent leader, bold and skilful in warfare, but his character was warped by a mean, designing, and crafty spirit which entirely incapacitated him from playing a heroic part. When met by Godfrey in Constantinople and informed by him of the terms made with Alexios, he declared at first that nothing in heaven or on earth should induce him to swear fealty to his former foe. The Emperor ceased to press the matter, and merely treated him with more than ordinary magnificence of hospitality. Then, as though by chance, the Count was one day taken by an officer to a great room in the palace, crammed with costly jewels, ornaments of gold and silver, rich silks and brocades. The man's weak point had been observed too well. "What conquests might not be made if I possessed such a treasure!" cried Bohemond.

"It is your own!" replied the officer. The promise of an independent lordship near Antioch completed the bribe, and Count Bohemond was no longer to be feared.

Of very different stuff was Raymond, Count of Toulouse, the first to volunteer but the last of the Crusading chiefs actually to set out for the East. He was now over fifty years of age, and, declaring that that was the last journey he should ever make, he determined to be well prepared. With the idea of choosing a route as yet untried by his predecessors, Raymond took his way through Lombardy into the desolate country of Dalmatia and Slavonia.

"It was already winter," says a writer of the time, "when Raymond's men were toiling over the barren mountains of Dalmatia, where for three weeks we saw neither beast nor bird. For almost forty days did we struggle on through mists so thick that we could actually feel them, and brush them aside with a motion of the hand." The weak, the sick, and the old suffered terribly from the attacks of the wild natives upon their rear; the bareness of the country gave no chance of even purchasing food, much less of foraging. It was with intense relief that they entered the Emperor's domains, "for here," writes one of the travellers, "we believed that we were in our own country; for we thought that Alexios and his followers were our brothers-in-arms."

[Illustration] from The Story of the Crusades by E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

In this belief the troops of Raymond found themselves mistaken, for they were harassed on all sides by the Emperor's soldiers. Alexios, as usual, disclaimed all responsibility, and begged the Count to hasten to Constantinople. There, to his disgust, the old warrior found that Godfrey, Bohemond, and the other leaders had all taken the oath of fealty, and were very anxious that he should follow their example. This Raymond emphatically refused to do. "Be it far from me," said he to Alexios, "that I should take any lord for this way save Christ only, for whose sake I have come hither. If thou art willing to take the cross also, and accompany us to Jerusalem, I and my men and all that I have will be at thy disposal."

Meantime came news to the Count that the army he had left when he accepted the call to Constantinople, had been attacked by the troops of the perfidious Emperor, whose aim, possibly, was to frighten Raymond into submission; but he had quite mistaken his man. Furious at this treachery, Raymond called upon his colleagues to join him in an attack upon the capital. But here he met with unexpected opposition. Bohemond, indeed, went so far as to threaten that if an open conflict took place, he would be found on the side of the Emperor, and even Godfrey urged most strongly that he should overlook everything rather than weaken their cause by fighting against fellow-Christians.

Strangely enough, though Raymond accepted unwillingly the advice of Godfrey, his upright character and vigorous simplicity seem to have won the respect and affection of the Emperor more than all the rest. It is true that Raymond refused steadfastly to pay him homage, "and for that reason," says the chronicler, "the Emperor gave him few gifts"; but we read in the record of the daughter of Alexios, who gives us a vivid account of this period, "One of the Crusaders, Count Raymond, Alexios loved in a special way, because of his wisdom, sincerity, and purity of life; and also because he knew that he preferred honour and truth above all things."

By this time such remnants of the army as had lingered in Italy under Robert of Normandy, together with all that was left of the rabble led by Peter the Hermit, had joined the main body of the Crusaders and were ready to advance upon the Turkish strong-hold of Nicaea.

The full array of the armies of the First Crusade, before they were decimated by war and famine, must have constituted a truly overwhelming force. Their number must have been about six hundred thousand; in the words of the daughter of Alexios, "all Europe was loosened from its foundation and had hurled itself against Asia." The horsemen wore coats of mail, with pear-shaped shields, each with its own device, and carried a long spear and short sword or battle-axe. The foot-soldiers bore the cross-bow or long-bow, with sword, lance, and buckler. "They were covered," says a Saracen historian, "with thick strong pieces of cloth fastened together with rings, so as to resemble dense coats of mail."

Such was the appearance of the host which now marched upon the stronghold of Nicaea to begin a siege which is memorable for the light it throws upon the despicable character of the Emperor Alexios.

When the Crusaders first drew near to the city, says one of them, "the Turks rushed to war, exultingly dragging with them the ropes wherewith to bind us captive. But as many as descended from the hills remained in our hands; and our men, cutting off their heads, flung them into the city, a thing that wrought great terror among the Turks inside."

After this defeat the Sultan David deserted the city and hastened away to rouse his countrymen to give active help at this crisis; and the Crusaders, much encouraged, renewed the siege. The great obstacle to success was the fact that the city was protected on the west by a lake, which made it impossible to surround the walls. Aid was sought of Alexios, who sent boats from which skilful archers poured their arrows against the ramparts. It was evident that these must very shortly fall.

Knowing this to be the case, the Emperor sent a secret envoy to offer the Turks better terms than could be expected from the Crusaders, if they would give up the city to him.

Hence, just as the latter were preparing to make their last assault, they saw, with a disappointed fury that can be imagined, the Imperial flag floating from the citadel. The glory and the spoils of victory were both with Alexios, and though he tried to smooth the matter over by lavishing gifts upon the Crusaders, the feelings of the latter were truly expressed by Count Raymond when he said, " Alexios has paid the army in such wise, that, so long as ever he lives, the people will curse him and declare him a traitor."