Relighting the Fire of the First Crusade: Warriors, Priests, and the Holy Lance of Antioch

From its emphatic beginnings at Clermont in 1095, to its ultimately dramatic and triumphant conclusion at Jerusalem in 1099, the First Crusade was an arduous journey of devotion, determination, survival, and some would argue, divine intervention.

A particularly significant site, and literal road block, along the ambitious and imposing journey of the western crusaders, was the Syrian city of Antioch. The city would prove crucial to the success of the Crusade; being the site at which significant events and figures would re-light the fire of passion in the hearts of the Christians that would arguably spur them on to ultimate success.

On the 26th of June, 1097, the Christian army of the First Crusade set forth from the newly liberated Nicaea, en route to Jerusalem. A journey that one participant, Stephen of Blois, in a letter to his wife, anticipated would take a matter of only five weeks – unless they were to be held up at Antioch. The strongly fortified Syrian city which lay along the main route from Asia Minor into Syria and Palestine, was a precarious crossroad on the pilgrimage of the First Crusade. Simply passing the city by was not an appropriate strategy; in order to safeguard the crusade, the Christians needed to capture the site to prevent its use as a rearguard foundation for Muslim resistance – this became a common necessity throughout the Crusades, further examples of the strategic relevance of captured cities can be seen in my previous article examining the city of Acre. So, lets take a look at the first instance of ‘divine intervention’ and the first of the individuals of focus…

Bohemond and the Capture of Antioch

The siege of Antioch was unbearably relentless as the defence of the city was markedly persistent. Not only was the conflict an enduring struggle, as, well, the word siege kind of implies…but it was significant as it required the engagement of the entire crusading host. Appropriately, the eventual success of the siege lived on as a source of immense pride in the memory of the Franks (the commonly used collective name to describe crusaders who settled in the Holy Land). It is worth noting that here that to facilitate their epic journey the crusaders were forced to make certain agreements; most notably is that of an oath sworn to the Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus. The emperor was suspicious of the intentions of a number of crusading leaders, and in addition, the outer reaches of his land were at the mercy of Turkish forces, thus through the alliance to the crusaders, Alexius sought to safeguard his empire. The resulting oath required that, in return for Byzantine assistance, the crusaders were to yield control of any captured cities to the emperor. Alexius deployed a representative to accompany the crusaders to ensure the oath was upheld.

As noted earlier, prior to arriving at Antioch, the crusaders had captured Nicaea and, in accordance with the oath, control of the city had been passed over to Alexius. The city of Antioch was once an important Byzantine trading centre, but fell into the hands of the Turks just 12 years prior to the arrival of the First Crusade; repossession of the city in the same manner as Nicaea was of paramount importance to Alexius. The ensuing captor of the city on behalf of the crusaders was one, Bohemond I of Taranto, who, although being described as an outstanding commander and somewhat proving his worth in capturing Antioch, was also noted as a highly egocentric individual. He also happens the be the one that the Byzantine emperor was most suspicious of… Despite the oath to Alexius, in an interesting series of events, Bohemond would go on to rule the fortified Syrian city, and Alexius would miss out.

As I mentioned previously, Bohemond was viewed as a capable leader, however the first hand accounts of his exploits during the siege have some rather noticeable differences. The unknown author of the Gesta Francorum, in recounting the suffering of the crusader host and of the food shortages, describes a heroic and highly capable Bohemond, riding out into the land of the Saracens willing to suffer for the cause of the Christians (rather poetic isn’t it…). By comparison, Raymond d’Aguilers, in retelling the same expedition, notes rather plainly that Bohemond was elected to join the Count of Flanders in his journey into the land of the Saracens – effectively serving beneath the Count and thus not leading, but in fact following at a distance while the Count prevailed in the action which took place at the front. Not to be entirely negative – and in doing so arguably presenting a less romanticised and thus likely more accurate depiction of Bohemond’s actions – d’Aguilers does note some of his small successes. Attributing his achievements in the rearguard to his praiseworthy foresight as a military figure.

So, back to the siege… During discussions with Tacitius, who was the envoy of emperor Alexius mentioned earlier as joining the crusade purely to keep an eye on Byzantine interests, Bohemond was once again able to demonstrate his foresight and military aptitude. The soon to be ruler of Antioch was able to persuade Tacitius that his life was in imminent danger, and upon being convinced of such looming peril, the envoy fled the conflict. Bohemond had it deemed that through the actions of his chosen envoy, the emperor had failed to uphold his part of the arrangement and as such had forfeited his right to a claim over Antioch. Arguably in demonstration of his egocentrism and arrogance, Bohemond took the performance one step further and convinced fellow crusading leaders that if Alexius failed to send assistance, and notably, if he was able to capture the city himself, Antioch should be his.

In the midst of an unrelenting and punishing siege, with the crusader host confronting not just the fighting but also a spreading famine, Bohemond was able to break through the defences of the as yet adequately defended city, with only a small portion of the army. Valiantly scaling the walls of the city (as seen in the cover image) and with the aid of his small force, opening the gates and putting an end to the city’s resistance. The specific details of this seemingly impressive achievement differ among historians’ explanations of the siege. The first hand account of the Gesta Francorum asserts that Bohemond formed an unlikely pact with a ‘renegade Armenian’ keeper of towers within the city – known as Pirus or Firouz.  Convincing the Armenian, with promises of honour and riches, to convert to Christianity and take the side of the Crusaders.  However, a number of other versions, consisting of both first hand accounts and later retellings, slowly distort this version of events to include less of the offers of riches that the Gesta affirms Bohemond offered.  These other first hand versions instead insist upon matters of divine influence.  The key difference of the histories essentially exists in the crediting of the successful capture to either Bohemond, or God. No matter which version of events we take, Bohemond was successful in his negotiations with Pirus/Firouz – with or without the assistance of divine intervention – and the city gates were thrown open to the crusader host. The city of Antioch was taken, and it now belonged to Bohemond.

Peter Bartholomew and the Holy Lance

So we move on to the second of our individuals of focus, and the second episode of apparent divine intervention. Despite successfully overwhelming the defenders of the city of Antioch, the Christian’s struggles were far from over. In fact, they were barely given time to enjoy to spoils of victory, barely time to occupy the city themselves, before a relief force under the command of Turkish general Kerbogha would arrive. The crusaders were in desperate need of assistance, but their greatest chance of receiving any from external allies would be extinguished by one of their own. Stephen of Blois – the man who had hoped to travel from Nicaea to Jerusalem in just five weeks – had abandoned the siege shortly before the city fell, and fled to Constantinople. Whilst there, he convinced Alexius that the situation in Antioch was without hope and the Byzantine emperor would compound his earlier loss of the city by failing to offer any support to the Christian forces. In essence, unknowingly giving weight Bohemond’s claims to Antioch.

It was at this time that one man would rise to prominence and assume a role of great significance in the following months of the First Crusade. Whilst the battered and fatigued host had successfully entered the city of Antioch, they had failed to find the adequate stores of food that would be required to hold the site. This stark reality, combined with the news of the approaching Turkish force, led to an overwhelming feeling of dread within the city walls and discord flourished throughout. At the time when the crusaders had reached their lowest point, a Provencal priest in the company of Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse, began to make claims of visions, and preached the deliverance of his people from the dismal struggle. As quoted in Elizabeth Hallam’s rather fantastic Chronicles of the Crusades, the priest Peter Bartholomew claimed:

‘The blessed apostle Andrew appeared to me while I was half asleep and gave me these instructions. “Get up and announce to the struggling people that a source of consolation has fallen from heaven for them, through the finding of the lance which opened the side of our Lord. It lies hidden beneath the earth within the church of St Peter. You must take up the floor right here (and he showed the place); there if you dig you will find the weapon. When the clash of arms threaten, raise it against your foes, and in it you will conquer.” Jolting awake I thought I had been deceived by a dream. I did not make it known but kept completely silent until I had been warned a second time’.

Bartholomew would take to fasting and prayer, claiming he was awaiting a third sign or warning, which would eventually occur. During the third vision, the priest was told, rather bluntly, ‘Come on, get up, you lazy mute dog, delayer of salvation, procrastinator of triumph…’ and was finally ready to take action. Upon hearing rumours of the priest’s visions, Raymond of Toulouse called a meeting and Bartholomew was summed to the church. Now, it would be rather a good time to note that, even in contemporary writings, Bartholomew was described as being ‘skilled in lies and inventions’. Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy, the papal legate of the First Crusade was highly suspicious of Bartholomew, and decidedly doubtful of his visionary claims. Despite this, on the behest of Raymond, the crusaders dug below the pavement behind the altar in the church of St Peter – the location Bartholomew claimed was shown to him in his visions. Although the initial digging proved fruitless, the priest himself leapt into the ditch and commencing digging of his own. It was at this point that he unearthed what he claimed was the Holy Lance.

A crusader by the name of Radulph of Caen provides a more likely explanation of Bartholomew’s ‘successful’ search. Radulph claims that Bartholomew had with him an Arab spear (most likely just the head – would be hard to hide the whole spear right…?) which the priest had found by chance. With his skill at invention and lies, Radulph claims that Bartholomew, in seeing that the spear was aged, rusty, and vastly different from those of the Christians, judged that his visions would be given credibility upon the finding of his falsified Holy Lance at the site he proclaimed was shown to him in his visions. Whilst partaking in the dig, Radulph claims that Bartholomew secretly dropped the Arab spear into the dirt only to pick it up moments later claiming the discovery of the Holy Lance.

Raymond d’Aguilers, the author of the more plausible account of Bohemond’s actions in the field of battle discussed earlier, also provides an account of the recovery of the Lance on behalf of Raymond of Toulouse. In comparison to Radulph, d’Aguilers’ account is a more sympathetic version of events – and by sympathetic, I mean it is not a scathing account of the apparent lies and deceit, but rather an uplifting tale of perseverance and piety. The early stages of the events are notably similar in both accounts, but the eventual actions of Bartholomew differ greatly between the two. In the account of d’Aguilers, the priest, upon seeing that the men conducting the dig are visibly tiring, disrobes, removes his shoes, and wearing only a shirt climbs down into the pit to continue the dig. Whilst digging, the priest implores the people within the church to pray to God to provide them with the promised Lance – Radulph would probably argue this was just to get them to close their eyes. Raymond d’Aguilers account then states ‘at last, thanks to his piety, God showed us his Lance (immature sniggers…). As the weapon appeared above ground, I kissed it. I cannot express the joy and exultation which filled the city then. The lance was found on 14 June 1098’.

As d’Aguilers states quite aptly, the recovery of the Holy Lance in Antioch led to sheer euphoria within the city. The feeling of dread and the discord within Antioch was immediately replaced by jubilation and replenished religious fervour. The desire and eagerness initially sparked by the appeals of the Pope in 1095, gained renewed vigour as the passion in the hearts of the men of the First Crusade had been re-lit. Despite the lack of assistance from Alexius, the Crusaders would go on to defeat Kerbogha and ultimately march to conquer Jerusalem. Despite the differing accounts and feelings toward Bohemond, he remained in charge of Antioch as the crusader host left for Jerusalem – the city forming the basis for the second of the Crusader states in the Holy Land. The fortunes of Bartholomew were not to be as rich as those of Bohemond. Despite the initial response, the priests find would ultimately be discredited; partly by his own words, and partly resulting from the challenges of his contemporaries. In April 1099, mere months before the Christians would successfully capture Jerusalem, the priest submitted himself to an ordeal by fire in order to confirm the validity of his claims and visions. Although one account of the events that followed claims the priest emerged from the flames unharmed only to be beaten to death by zealous Crusaders, most the vast majority of accounts show Bartholomew was fatally burned and after his resultant death the Holy Lance of Antioch was discredited. As a result of his connection, the stature and reputation of Raymond of Toulouse was diminished.

– Jamie Gatehouse

References

  1. Feature image by Gustave Doré – Bohemond Scaling the walls of Antioch. Image from Wikimedia Commons
  2. Anna Comnena, The Alexiad of Anna Comnena, trans. E. R. A. Sewter (London, Penguin Books, 1969).
  3. Anon., ‘Gesta Francorum’, in August C. Krey, The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eyewitnesses and Participants (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1921).
  4. Elizabeth Hallam, ed., Chronicles of the Crusades: Eye-witness accounts of the wars between Christianity and Islam (Surrey: Bramley Books, 1996).
  5. Jonathon Harris, Byzantium and The Crusades (London, Hambledon Continuum, 2006).
  6. Jean Richard, The Crusades: c. 1071-c. 1291 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)
  7. Steven Runciman, ‘The First Crusade: Antioch to Ascalon’ in A History of the Crusades Vol. I: The First 100 Years, 2nd edition, 6 volumes, (London, book X, 1969).

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

Saladin and the Lionheart: A call to Jihad and the Siege of Acre

Crusaders on the Baltic Shore – The Wendish Crusade (1147 – c.1185)

Crusaders on the Baltic Shore – The Livonian & Estonian Crusades (c. 1198 – 1290)

See our bibliographies on the Crusades

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