Princes’ Crusade: first victory

Around the same time that Peter the Hermit and Walter Sans Avoir were arriving in Constantinople, four official organized armies left Europe. As these armies traveled, the disorganized Peoples’ Crusade met thorough defeat in Anatolia. Only a few weeks after their 3000 survivors had been rescued by Byzantine soldiers, the first official force arrived under Hugh Vermandois, brother of the King of France.

Raymond of Toulouse, Bohemond of Taranto (that is, a Norman who had just conquered a swath of Italy) and Godfrey of Bouillon led the other three armies. With Godfrey rode his brothers Eustace Count of Boulogne, and Baldwin who as yet had no title. Modern estimates guess that Raymond of Toulouse had the largest army, and that all together there were probably many thousands of armed men, perhaps 30,000. Most were foot soldiers.

The first difficulty they met was that the Emperor considered them potentially an invasion and wanted them to swear allegiance to him before they could go farther into his territory. He wanted them to swear not to conquer any territory on their own, but only in the name of Constantinople. It’s interesting that the leader who successfully resisted this oath was the Count of Toulouse; Toulouse remained independent until 1229, when the Crusade against its Cathars left the region charred and broken. Toulouse did not consider itself French, nor under allegiance to the French king. Raymond IV also led the largest army. He swore not to harm the Emperor, but no more.

The first expedition of the official First Crusade was led against Nicaea by two Byzantine generals, the four princes, and the Papal Legate. This city was a Greek colony not far from Constantinople. It’s the home of the Nicene Creed, which we pronounce “Nice-een,” but in Greek it’s spelled Νικαια, with a k.

Sultan Kilij Arslan was using Nicaea as forward base and capital, which demonstrates just how close his army was coming to a frontal attack on Constantinople. The Byzantines certainly knew the town’s defenses well, since it had been one of their strongholds until very recently. Kilij Arslan’s army was away at the time, conquering more of Anatolia.

Nicaea’s chief defense against attack or siege was the presence of Lake Ascanius, a 20-mile long inland lake. The lake worked well to foil attempts to box the town in. The Crusader expedition was not prepared to fight on water as well as on land, but the Turkish garrison could always bring supplies from the other side of the lake. It must have been very maddening for the Byzantine generals to see all of Lake Ascanius’ boats in the hands of Turks.

However, some Crusaders had come by sea, and their boats were idle in Constantinople’s harbor. The Emperor sent some of these ships by tree-trunk log rollers, more than 40 miles to the inland lake. It doesn’t seem likely that he paid to have the ships hauled back, which may be why he didn’t use his own ships. Now both sides had boats!

But here, Alexios Komnenos played a careful strategy that, in retrospect, was the first step in the Crusades’ breakdown. He had appointed two generals, and the one closer to him was given secret instructions. While Byzantine forces appeared to be assisting in the siege, General Manuel Boutoumites arranged a sudden surrender of Nicaea only to Byzantine forces. Probably the Turks and resident Greeks had heard of the Normans’ reputation in Sicily. Once Nicaea surrendered, its terms stipulated that the Crusaders’ entry would be very controlled. General Boutoumites allowed them to enter only in very small groups, like tourists.

Nicaea was not sacked. Instead, the Byzantine treasury paid the Crusader princes for their valuable role. This was the model Alexios wanted to continue following as the guest army moved farther into Turkish-held territory. But his careful plans had rightly conveyed to the princes that he didn’t trust them. Their knights grumbled about the lack of loot. As a first try at cooperation, Nicaea was both success and loss.

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