Antioch had been the regional capital of Roman Palestine. It was a walled city, with the Orontes River dividing it into two parts connected by bridges. Each bridge had a tower and could be defended; there was also a separate walled citadel (a sort of inner city) on its own hilltop. The outer wall encircled a fairly large area, with a number of gates, each defensible. The river valley had made a broad plain around Antioch, which was both good and bad for defense. Attackers could easily set up siege camps in the plain, but on the other hand, everything they did was visible to the defenders.
When the Crusaders’ army came to Antioch in 1097, the Muslim empire at last saw the seriousness of the invasion. At this late stage, they tried to make a concerted defense. Antioch, like the other nearby cities, had been ignoring Baghdad’s central rule since the last powerful vizier was assassinated. Now under siege, the governor of Antioch sent messengers to ask for help. Baghdad was still disorganized. Kerbogha, the Atabeg of Mosul, began to organize a large army drawn from all over Central Asia. If he could raise the siege of Antioch, it would be a first step toward making *himself* the new central power.
As large as the European army was, it was not large enough to complete a blockade of the city. Each of the princes stationed himself at one of the gates, but a few gates could still be used so that Antioch did not quickly run out of provisions. The Crusaders, on the other hand, found themselves functionally besieged in the river valley. Their Armenian allies in Edessa and Cilicia sent what help they were able to. But Radwan and Daquq were able to keep most local provisions from them. As the siege dragged on from October into December, the Crusaders were forced to send an army out into the Muslim-ruled countryside to attack some smaller towns and get provisions.
Bohemund, the son of Robert Guiscard, Norman conqueror of Sicily, offered to lead the food expedition. It didn’t go well, because Daquq of Damascus counter-attacked. Bohemund got back to Antioch safely and even with enhanced status, but they were no better off concerning food. People began to desert the Crusade in January, and by February, it was getting desperate. Radwan of Aleppo now attacked to lift the siege, but the starving Crusaders managed to hold on.
By May, there were two significant developments. From the east, Kerbogha marched from Mosul to Aleppo with a large army made of Turks, Persians, Arabs and other ethnic factions. He was confident that his army could easily defeat the Franks, starting with Edessa. What he didn’t realize is that the Normans had learned Turkish war tactics and now used specific strategies to counter them. The Turks liked to surround an enemy; the Normans would dispose their troops precisely to block being surrounded. The Turks were better archers than swordsmen; the Normans would force close combat. Kerbogha was not able to take Edessa back from Baldwin, but his confidence was not shaken and he marched toward Antioch.
The second key event: in Antioch, Bohemund started secret communication with an ethnic Armenian named Firouz, who oversaw the defense of some of the towers. Firouz knew that a Crusader was now ruler in Edessa and that his countrymen were supporting the Europeans. Firouz agreed to leave his towers undefended if and only if Bohemund himself attacked them, personally. He didn’t trust the others.
Bohemund didn’t tell his fellow princes about his secret, but instead he casually suggested that they elect a leader who would then rule Antioch. Once he was put in command, he sent his troops–at night—straight at Firouz’s towers. They put ladders to the walls, but there was no defense. They climbed up and attacked. Firouz’s brother was killed, perhaps in the confusion, but at last Bohemund came over the wall personally and made sure that Firouz survived. His men opened the gates, and the other Crusaders ran in.
The sacking of Antioch was done with no mercy and lots of time pressure, because the army from Mosul was coming closer. The Crusaders would now be manning the wall of Antioch themselves, as defenders. Anyone spared was someone who would need food, and after six months of siege, the city’s rations were getting short. So for two days, they investigated food storage and defenses, killing anyone they found and tossing bodies in the street. The Armenian quarter was supposed to be spared in Firouz’s deal, but some Franks knifed any “foreigners” they found.
On the third day, Kerbogha’s vast army arrived. The Crusaders were now besieged within Antioch, restricted to the supplies that Antioch had been able to spare. Worse yet, the hilltop citadel inside Antioch was untouched, still held by Muslims. If at any time Kerbogha’s army seemed to be on the brink of winning, the Muslims inside the citadel could break out and start killing Crusaders.
The reserve of the Crusader army back in Tarsus heard of this difficult situation from deserters and other travelers. Their leader Stephen of Blois had made a vow to go all the way to Jerusalem, but when he heard of the desperate position in Antioch, he broke his vow and retreated. He recrossed Anatolia to Constantinople, and along the way, he met the Byzantine Emperor with an army.
What happened next was pivotal in the long-term results of the First Crusade. Stephen of Blois told the Emperor it was hopeless to ride to Antioch to assist the now-defenders. Alexios Komnenos listened to their persuasion and did not go. Not only was Stephen of Blois breaking his Crusade vow, but the Emperor was now breaking the vow made when he got the Crusade princes to swear fealty to him. Fealty was a two-way street. Submission by the lower prince was not more important than the duty of the higher prince to come to his vassal’s aid. To the extent that the Crusader princes actually meant their fealty vows, they now felt keenly the Emperor’s failure. In their eyes, the contract was void. They may never have known the role of Stephen, their fellow prince. All they knew was that the Emperor failed to come.
The Crusaders in Antioch were on their own during twenty long, terrifying days of siege by a massive army, on unfamiliar ground, with dwindling food and already half-starved soldiers.
The odds were heavily against the Europeans. The way they rescued themselves is a lesson in how important morale is during a battle. If you think you’re winning, just maybe you will. A monk named Peter Bartholomew had a vision of St. Andrew telling him that the Holy Lance (which had pierced Jesus’ side) was buried in Antioch. The princes were skeptical, but Raymond of Toulouse decided to back the monk up and start looking for the lance. They excavated inside the cathedral, then Peter Bartholomew himself went into the pit and brought up a spear point.
The news of this miracle surged through the city. In the next five days, the princes had to make a key decision: to surrender, negotiate or attempt a sortie. They sent Peter the Hermit (who had not only survived his followers’ previous disaster and was still around, but also spoke Arabic!) to talk to Kerbogha, but the terms were not acceptable. Peter and others brought back another interesting piece of news: Kerbogha’s alliance was starting to crack up. This made the princes’ decision. The knights and foot soldiers were only told that Holy Lance’s discovery had saved the day! Deus Vult! Morale surged; men began to mend their weapons and brush their surviving horses.
In reality, Kerbogha and Bohemund were both using Antioch as a springboard to power. The Crusaders knew that if Bohemund succeeded in saving their possession of Antioch, he would become the regional king. Although some of the princes grumbled, they were not really determined to vie against Bohemund, who was an excellent general. By contrast, Kerbogha was surrounded by Turkish, Persian, Arab and Kurdish war leaders who took strong exception to assisting him in becoming the next regional strongman. Radwan and Daquq wanted to push out the invaders, but Kerbogha’s power bid was actually a greater threat.
It all came together on June 28, 1098. Six starving divisions of Crusaders suddenly flung open the city gates and attacked the Turkish camp. Their leaders were Bohemund, Adhemar the Papal Legate, Hugh of Vermandois (brother of France’s king), Godfrey of Bouillon (whose brother was now Count of Edessa), Robert Duke of Normandy, Tancred who was Bohemund’s nephew, and Robert Count of Flanders. One of the knights carried the Holy Lance at the head of their charge.
Simultaneously, many of the Turkish governors and commanders deserted, moving their men quickly from the camp back through the hills away from Antioch. Kerbogha, leading a shrinking and demoralized army, fled from the battle field. Seeing the crushing defeat from the hilltop, the last Muslims in the inner citadel of Antioch surrendered to Bohemund personally.
Bohemund was the undisputed victor of Antioch, and it was now settled that whatever rank (county? princedom? kingdom?) they decided Antioch should have in their new feudal organization, he would be its prince. His nephew, Tancred, also rose in status. Hugh Vermandois, one of the royal rivals for power, began a journey back to Constantinople and never returned. So did the two Count Roberts. The chief rivals left for Bohemund and Tancred were Raymond of Toulouse and Godfrey of Bouillon, who appeared willing to stay on for Season Two of The First Crusade.