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

The Siege of Antioch

The faithful armies sang

"Hosanna to the Highest." . . . Now storming fury rose

And clamour, arm on armour clashing brayed

Horrible discord.

MILTON: Paradise Lost.

The city of Antioch, capital of Syria, towards which the faces of the Crusaders were now set, was one of the most famous and beautiful cities of the East. Behind it lay the rugged ranges of Lebanon; lion; part of its wide girdle of walls and turrets was washed by the river Orontes, towards which sloped gardens fragrant with roses; and it was intersected by a spacious street adorned with double colonnades. But it was yet more famous for its associations with St Peter, its first bishop, and for having been the birthplace of St Chrysostom, "the golden-mouthed" teacher of Eastern Christendom.

A few days after the march from Nicaea to Antioch had commenced, the great army divided itself into two parts, one led by Raymond, Baldwin, and Godfrey; the other by Bohemond, Tancred, and Robert of Normandy. This division suited the plans of the Sultan David, who, since the fall of Nic aea, had been watching operations from the surrounding heights.

No sooner was Bohemond's army seen to halt for rest and refreshment beside a river, than, with a terrific uproar, thousands of Turks hurled themselves upon them from the heights above. Hasty messages were sent to summon the other army, and meantime the Crusaders fought with desperate valour.

"Even the women were a stay to us, for they carried water for our warriors to drink, and ever did they strengthen the fighters."

The numbers of the foe were overwhelming, however, and only the courage and energy of the leaders prevented a panic-stricken flight. The tact of Robert of Normandy, who, at a critical moment, snatched off his helmet and cheered on his men in the thick of the fight, is said to have turned the scale of victory. Even then success seemed hopeless, but just as evening drew rapidly on, the second army came upon the scene. Seeing this, the Sultan fled, and many of his followers with him, but he left behind so rich a spoil of gold, jewels, silks, and other luxuries, that it was with difficulty the victors were induced to leave the booty and resume their march without too much encumbrance.

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


Such was the first pitched battle between the Crescent and the Cross, of which one of the combatants writes: "Had not the Lord been with us, and sent us speedily another army, not one of our men would have escaped."

And now the Crusaders were free to pass on to Antioch, though the march thither probably cost them more lives than did that battle of Dorylaeum.

The heat of the desert wastes during the month of July left many prostrate by the wayside, never to rise again. Terrible thirst tormented them, and the sight of a welcome stream was the signal for such excesses of drinking that both men and horses died by hundreds.

It was almost impossible to obtain food, for the son of Sultan David had marched before the Crusading host, destroying all supplies and leaving the towns upon the track empty and famine-stricken.

At length the fertile district of Cilicia was reached, and relief was obtained from these woes. But here arose those unfortunate dissensions which were a lamentable feature both in this and later Crusades.

Meantime Tancred and Baldwin with a part of the army had pushed on to Tarsus. This city, the birthplace of St Paul, though held by a small band of Turks, was largely inhabited by Christians, who eagerly claimed Tancred as their protector and lord. Just as the Turks were about to surrender to him, the forces of Baldwin, who had been exploring elsewhere, appeared on the distant heights, and being mistaken by the Turks for their allies, encouraged them to delay giving up the city.

The arrival of the new-comer before the walls gave rise to a quarrel with Tancred, the heat of which was only intensified by the discovery that the unscrupulous Baldwin was busy intriguing with the inhabitants with the object of winning their allegiance.

In disgust, Tancred, the weaker but more upright of the two, left him to take possession of the city and marched to Messis. But thither, too, the grasping Baldwin followed, and the sight of his tents pitched beneath the walls was the signal for a conflict between the two hosts of Crusaders which reflects little credit on either side.

Finally, since reconciliation was impossible, Baldwin gladly accepted an invitation from the famous Armenian city of Edessa to take up its cause against the Turks. The prince adopted him as his son, and was ill rewarded by a rebellion of his people in favour of the new-comer, which soon cost their ruler his life. Thus, while the main army was pressing on to Antioch, Baldwin, married to an Armenian princess, was busy in establishing in Edessa the first Latin kingdom of the East.

On October 21st, 1097, the host of the Crusaders at length encamped around the walls of Antioch and made their preparations in anticipation of an early victory. The gates, however, were blocked by huge masses of rock from neighbouring quarries, and it seemed an easier task to break the walls than to force the gates.

But both proved to be impossible, even with the aid of a new instrument of war, a huge tower, the outcome of great toil and expense, which, full of troops, was wheeled against one of the gateways. This proved a failure before the showers of Turkish arrows, and was burnt to ashes as it stood.

Three months of fruitless effort passed, and the host of the Crusaders began to suffer from lack of food. They dared not venture far to look for it, for the Turks were always on the watch, and no man could with safety leave his post.

Finding, moreover, that the Crusaders generally got the worst of it when the Turks made a sally from the city, the native Christians of the country transferred the provisions they had been wont to bring to the former, to those from whom they now believed they would reap the greater advantage in the near future.

Then hope began to fail the besiegers, whose camp, owing to the heavy rain, had now become a fever-haunted swamp. One or two of the meaner-spirited leaders tried to get quietly away with their troops; even Peter the Hermit lost heart, and would have deserted the host had he not been forcibly turned back by Tancred.

Meantime the Seljukian Turks had been expelled by the Saracens from Jerusalem and Tyre, and the Caliph of the latter now sent envoys to the leaders of the Crusade, of whose evil condition he had been informed, to express his surprise that the Christians, while rightly warring against the fierce Seljuks, should desire to attack Jerusalem also. He promised, moreover, to extend his protection for a whole month to any peaceable pilgrims who should wish to visit the Holy City, on condition that the Crusaders would acknowledge his supremacy in Syria; and he warned them that if they refused his terms his whole power would forthwith be directed against them.

The Caliph's envoys expected to find the camp in sorry plight; but, to their surprise, they were entertained in lordly fashion, and found every sign of prosperity and plenty. They were sent back with an absolute refusal to relinquish the right of Christendom over the whole of Palestine, and quite in ignorance of the terrible straits in which the army really stood, in spite of its outward appearance of prosperity. It was true that when the en-my attacked them in the open, the Crusaders were more than able to hold their own; it was the hopeless inaction, the dread of disaffection in the camp, and the pangs of actual famine that were sapping the courage of the besiegers; and now the news that an immense army, led by the Sultan of Persia, was coming to the relief of the city was the last and most crushing blow.

At this crisis, Bohemond, whose movements had for some time been full of mystery, assembled the leaders and asked for a solemn oath from them that the man who succeeded in taking the city should be its future ruler. Very unwillingly they gave their consent, upon which Bohemond revealed the fact that he had for some time past been in communication with an officer of the city guard, who was in the full confidence of the governor, and could obtain possession of Antioch whenever he wished.

So, on the 2nd of June 1098, nearly six months after the beginning of the siege, a little band of Crusaders quietly approached the gate of St George and gave their signal. A rope ladder was silently lowered from the top of the wall, up which Bohemond promptly sprang. But at the summit he found himself alone; for in their distrust of him, the rest had waited to see what would happen. The sight of his safe arrival gave them confidence, and about sixty swarmed up the ladder, which then broke. Those at the top, however, undeterred by their isolated position on the walls of a hostile city, found their way in the darkness to a gate, and broke it open. In rushed the invading army with their battle-cry of "Deus vult! Deus vult!" and the city, taken quite unawares, was soon in their hands.

The sun rose on the third day of June upon a city red with blood, the governor of which had paid with his head for his courage in holding out so long. Dawn also revealed the blood-red banner of Bohemond floating from the highest tower. Only the citadel, by a strange oversight on the conqueror's part, was still in the hands of a small body of Turks.

The news of the fall of Antioch gave rise to general alarm throughout the East. The followers of Sultan David, their former foe, joined with those of the Sultan of Persia against the Crusaders, and led by the famous general Kerboga, flung themselves against the walls of the city. Flushed with success, the victors had over-looked the fact that there was scarcely any food within the gates, and also they had allowed their means of access to the Mediterranen ports to be cut off. Within a few days the besiegers were the besieged and in far worse plight than before. Many, even of the nobles, were seized with panic, and letting themselves down by ropes from the walls, fled to the sea-coast. Even Stephen of Chartres, son-in-law of William the Conqueror, who, through illness, had retired before the city fell, and who was now entreated to return with his troops to its aid, lost his nerve when he looked down from the hills upon the sea of tents that lay before the walls. Not only did he rapidly retreat, but meeting the Emperor Alexios marching with an army to aid the Crusaders, he actually prevailed upon the latter, not at all against his will, to retire from the hopeless conflict.

With foes outside the walls, and foes holding the citadel within, the unfortunate host of Crusaders was indeed in evil case.

"We who remained," writes one, "could not hold out against the arms of those within the castle, so we built a wall between ourselves and them, and watched it day and night."

Despair led to loss of nerve and discipline; many of the soldiers refused to bear arms or even leave their abodes, and had to be " burnt out " by the orders of Bohemond. The destruction of a great part of the city to which this inadvertently led, did not improve matters.

The situation was relieved at this apparently hopeless juncture in a most remarkable manner. Into the midst of the council at which the chiefs were hurriedly considering what could best be done to prevent further demoralisation, appeared a certain priest, Peter Barthelemy, chaplain to Raymond of Toulouse, who declared unto them a marvellous dream or vision. He had, he said, been carried in his sleep by St Andrew to the Church of St Peter within the city, and had been shown there the head of the lance which had pierced the sacred side of the Saviour. This, the saint had told him, if borne at the head of the army, was certain to bring them success.

Great was the power of religious faith in those days. Whether the story was true, or merely a device to drive out panic and awaken enthusiasm, matters not; the effect remains the same. Marching in solemn procession to the Church of St Peter, they made excavations at the spot indicated, at first with no success. Then as the dusk began to fall, Peter the priest himself descended barefooted and dressed only in a tunic, and after digging for some time, declared with a joyful shout that the sacred relic was discovered.

"At last," says the historian, "seeing that we were fatigued, the young man who had told us of the lance leapt into the pit, all ungirt as he was, without shoes, and in his shirt. He adjured us to call upon God to render us the lance for our comfort and our victory. At last the Lord, moved by such devotion, showed us the lance. And I, who have written these things, as soon as ever the blade appeared above ground, greeted it with a kiss, nor can I tell how great joy and exultation then filled the city."

Such was the effect of this discovery, that, in their certainty of victory, the Crusading chiefs forthwith sent a message to Kerboga, offering him a chance of withdrawal before he was utterly demolished. Peter the Hermit was the chosen ambassador, who, in spite of the courteous hospitality with which he was received, so disgusted the leaders of the host of Islam by his haughtiness and insolence, that no such peaceful arrangement could be entertained. "So much the better," said the rank and file, who were now as keen to fight as they had before been to escape. And so, very early on a perfect June morning, the army marched out through the rose- scented air in twelve battalions, according to the number of the twelve apostles, led by Bishop Adhemar with the Holy Lance held on high.

Some say that Kerboga was taken by surprise, others that he welcomed the opportunity, long hoped for, of drawing them into the open plain, and that he had planned to surround them from the rear, and cut them off from the city. However that may have been, a desperate struggle now began, which, from the overwhelming numbers of the foe, must in the ordinary course have gone against the Crusaders, weakened as they were by want of food. But it was the old story of the victory of mind over matter.

When Adhemar, deserted by Godfrey and Tancred, who had been summoned s to the aid of Bohemond, hard pressed by David the Sultan, found himself surrounded by the dark face of the infidel, the sight of the Holy Lance moved his handful of followers to fight with such desperate valour, that for a moment the foe fell back. Raising his eyes to the encircling mountains, the Bishop saw, or thought he saw, three radiant figures riding upon milk-white horses to their aid.

"Behold, soldiers, the succour that God has provided for you!" he cried, and at once a shout went up from all parts that St George, St Theodore, and St Maurice had come to their help.

"Deus vult! Deus vult!" they cried, and Islam shrank before the extraordinary enthusiasm of their attack.

The story of the battle is a monument to religious faith, and illustrates in a wonderful way what miraculous deeds of valour can be wrought under its influence.

Ere long the Turks fled in confusion to the mountains, leaving the ground strewn with the bodies of the slain.

"But us the Lord multiplied," says he who tells the tale, "so that in battle the were more than they, and returning to the city with great joy, we praised and magnified God, who gave the victory to His people."

It is a pity that the sequel of the story fails to preserve this high level of enthusiasm and devotion. Had it been possible to march directly to Jerusalem, such might have been the case; but the burning heat of summer forbade such a course. Left idle in Antioch, the soldiers grew mutinous, and their leaders quarrelsome. Bohemond excited jealousy by his conquests of neighbouring cities. Hugh of Vermandois deserted with his troops and returned home. A pestilence, caused by the thousands of unburied bodies of the slain, fastened upon the Crusaders, and claimed amongst its victims the good Bishop Adhemar, the first to take up the Cross in the Holy War.

Not till January 1099 did the army march out towards the South, leaving Bohemond behind as Governor of Antioch.

It was upon this journey that Peter Barthelemy once more became prominent by reason of many new visions and dreams. But his master, Count Raymond, was unpopular at that time, and the occasion was seized by his opponents to accuse him indirectly of fraud in the matter of the Holy Lance. Whether this was true it is impossible to say; but it must be remembered that Peter himself never ceased to affirm his sincerity, and confidently offered to go through the terrible Ordeal by Fire in proof of the latter.

"Make me the biggest fire you can, and I will pass through the midst with the Lord's Lance in my hand. If it be the Lord's Lance may I pass through unharmed; if not, may I be burnt up."

A vast crowd of Crusaders gathered to witness the ordeal early on the morning of Good Friday. Peter, clad only in his tunic, passed fearlessly through the midst of two blazing piles of dead olive branches, a foot apart from one another. "God aid him!" cried a thousand throats, and when he emerged, apparently unhurt, a thousand hands were stretched out to feel his limbs and flesh. For the moment faith again seemed to have triumphed, and the followers of Raymond rejoiced. But presently it was seen that the unhappy priest was in terrible suffering, some say from burns, others from the too eager handling he had received from the crowd. He died a few days later, confident in his honesty to the last, and leaving those who had scoffed and those who had believed exactly in the same frame of mind.

Yet this much attacked and possibly deluded priest had done an important work; for, as far as we can see, the Holy War would have come to an abrupt end during the latter part of that remarkable siege of Antioch, had it not been for the almost miraculous spirit of zeal and devotion aroused by his alleged discovery.