5 Key Battles of the First Crusade

The First Crusade was to be an “armed pilgrimage” to Jerusalem. In the Muslim world, the effects of this decision echo to the present.

Apr 11, 2022By Matthew Doherty, Msc East Asian Relations, BA Asia Pacific Studies

battle of antioch first crusade


Originally a response to a call for aid to Pope Urban II from the Byzantine Emperor Alexius in the late 11th century, the First Crusade stirred the imagination of a violent Western Europe. Religious fervor rose to fever-pitch, and numbers of those willing to take the cross swelled beyond all expectations. Expecting to receive a body of perhaps no more than a thousand elite soldiers, to Alexius’ horror, around 60,000 Westerners (including civilians) descended on Constantinople. The emperor wisely decided to ferry them across the Bosphorus as quickly as possible, letting them loose into Muslim-held territory. The following years would see this army fight its way to Jerusalem and beyond. Presented below are the five key battles that defined the Crusade.


1. Dorylaeum: The Seljuk Turks vs. the First Crusade

first crusade battle dorylaeum 1097
Battle of Dorylaeum, 14th Century, French manuscript, via History Extra


After successfully sieging the Turkish-held city of Nicea, the Crusaders planned to march through Anatolia and the Levant, taking key cities such as Antioch and Tripoli before reaching their ultimate goal – Jerusalem.


Their first great test would come in the form of Kilij Arslan, a Seljuk Turk leader. He had gathered a force of perhaps 8,000 horse archers and a few thousand feet to oppose the Crusader march. This battle would see both sides exposed to unfamiliar military systems. The Crusaders were unused to the hit-and-run ambush tactics of horse archers. Conversely, this would be the first time a Muslim army had been exposed to a Western European heavy cavalry charge made by mounted knights.


Kilij Arslan decided to use the rough terrain of Anatolia to catch the Crusaders on the march in an attempt to destroy the head (or van) of the army before those at the rear could come to their aid. On 1 July 1097, he sprung a carefully prepared trap.

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Initially, things went well for the Turks. They even managed to break into part of the Crusader camp, and for some time, the outcome was in the balance. But the battle-hardened Crusader foot soldiers held out long enough for reinforcements to arrive in the form of heavy cavalry led at first by Bohemond of Taranto. This mounted charge proved too much for the Turks, and they broke. Both sides’ casualties were high, with Arslan’s troops taking 3,000 and the Crusaders around 4,000. Dorylaeum became a strategic Crusader victory despite being a tactical draw, as the Seljuk Turks gave no further resistance to the continued march across Anatolia.


Morale was high for the soldiers of the First Crusade. One knight wrote optimistically to his wife, “We will be in Jerusalem within six weeks.”


2. Siege of Antioch: A Crisis Point 

first crusade walls antioch
Byzantine walls of Antioch, 19th Century engraving by R. Turner, via Carmichael Digital Projects


Antioch was the great city of Northern Syria. Though the ultimate objective of the First Crusade was Jerusalem, Antioch could not simply be bypassed. To do so would have put unsustainable pressure on already stretched Crusader supply sources. The city had to be taken.


But it was going to be a challenge. The walls themselves were Roman and had been reinforced by their Muslim defenders. In addition, the town contained a citadel within it so that if the outer walls fell, the garrison had a place of retreat.


The siege turned into a long, drawn-out nightmare for both sides as starvation set in. Many Crusaders lost heart and began to slip away back to Europe; many more died of disease and hunger. During winter 1097, the Crusaders were reduced to eating their horses (a desperate act for any medieval army). And still, the great city held.


In March 1098, the arrival of English ships carrying food and siege equipment helped the Crusaders immensely, and they were finally able to put serious pressure on the formidable walls. Seeing the hopeless situation his garrison faced, the Muslim commander sent out a call for help to Kerbogha, a prominent Muslim warlord to the east.


On the night of 2/3 July 1098, the Crusaders, partly through subterfuge, partly through skill, took possession of a crucial tower and managed to fight their way in. By mid-morning, all Muslim forces in the main city had been killed, the survivors retreating to the citadel. One day later, Kerbogha arrived with a huge force and surrounded the city. The besiegers had just become the besieged.


3. Battle of Antioch: Crusader Deliverance, Muslim Debacle

first crusade battle antioch
Robert II at the Siege of Antioch by J.J. Dassy, 1850, via Britannica


On the morning of the 4th, the Crusaders faced three immediate problems. First, the citadel was still in Muslim hands and proving impossible to take. Second, Kerbogha’s army around Antioch numbered in the region of 40,000. Third, the supply situation was critical – Antioch’s food stocks had been exhausted by the siege.


Initial elation at breaking into the city quickly turned to despair. Since collecting at Constantinople, the Crusader army had been reduced by over two-thirds, meaning Kerbogha now outnumbered them at least two to one. Hunger was rife; there are reports of some men attempting to eat their leather shoes by boiling them. Desertions became a regular event every night, with men slipping over the walls hoping to make it back to friendly lands. Some wanted to negotiate with Kerbogha for safe passage. The First Crusade was in real danger of falling apart.


Then a curious and timely discovery occurred. A peasant named Peter Bartholemew claimed to have had a vision that the Holy Lance (the spear that had pierced Christ’s side on the cross) was buried at the Basilica of St. Peter within the city walls. Peter began digging, and sure enough, a metal shard was found, declared by those witnessing the event to be a true piece of the lance.


first crusade peter holy lance
Peter Bartholomew undergoing an ordeal by fire, illustration from William of Tyre’s Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum, via Britannica


Whatever the truth of the matter, it certainly was the case that the lance proved an inspiration to the Crusaders. One of the top Crusade commanders, the Sicilian-Norman  Bohemond of Taranto, had been elected leader. He could see that there would be no army left in a few weeks, so he decided to fight. Explaining that disease, hunger, and desertion would soon destroy the army, he managed to convince the other leaders. On the morning of 28 July, the half-starved Crusaders filed out and formed a rough battle line.


In the tradition of Christian armies of the time, each soldier would have knelt to kiss the earth before advancing banners. There was no complex battle plan – Bohemond simply ordered the entire line to charge. To Kerbogha’s men, the sight must have been terrifying. Many Crusader knights were mounted on oxen; others ran forward on foot. Only the commanders and top men would have retained their horses. As this desperate host slammed into them, Kerbogha’s army began to buckle, then rout. Casualties are not well recorded, but it is probable that Muslim losses were heavy and Crusader losses were light, if not minimal.


Reasons for the shock Crusader victory are threefold. The Crusaders were fighting out of complete desperation; to lose would have meant eventual death through starvation while trapped in Antioch. By contrast, Kerbogha’s force had retreat paths open to them. Additionally, the Muslim soldiers in this part of the Near East were still unfamiliar with heavily armored European knights and their combat prowess. Finally, there was genuine religious fervor in the Crusader ranks at the discovery of the Holy Lance. Thus, by the afternoon of the 28th, Kerbogha, the most powerful warlord in the Muslim world at that time, was no longer a threat to the Crusaders.


4. Siege & Sack of Jerusalem: “If We Told You, You Would Not Believe Us”

first crusade sack jerusalem
Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099 by Émile Signol, 1847, via History Extra


Antioch had fallen to the Crusade. Northern Syria was under Crusader influence. Yet, because of the need to secure this new territory, it took the Crusaders almost another year to reach Jerusalem. When the bulk of the army finally arrived in June 1099, a siege immediately began. By now, Crusader ranks had dwindled to just 12,000. The Muslim garrison was sizeable, consisting of a good mix of infantry and archers.


The Crusaders were determined not to let this turn into another Antioch and resolved to take the city as quickly as possible, but it would be no easy task. One Christian chronicler noted how the Tower of David alone was “constructed with large square stones sealed with molten lead” and, if well supplied with rations, “fifteen or twenty men could defend it from every attack.”


There was very little water around the city. Just days into the siege, flasks of clean water were changing hands at six pennies a time. There are accounts of peasants within the army dying from drinking dirty marsh water infested with leeches. By contrast, the garrison had reasonable provisions.


An even more worrying problem confronted the Crusaders. A Muslim army from Fatimid Egypt was reported to be heading north to relieve the siege. It became obvious to the Crusader commanders that Jerusalem would have to be stormed before their arrival. Luckily for the Christians, a Genoese fleet landed at the coast in mid-June and provided vital siege equipment.


first crusader fleet
Crusaders embark for the Levant from “Le Roman de Godefroi de Bouillon,” 1337, via History Today


Godfrey de Boullion was one of the main Crusade leaders. He set about a strategy of deceiving the defenders. He ordered the construction of a siege tower opposite the north-western corner of the city. Day by day, the defenders watched the edifice being built and naturally strengthened their forces in this sector, expecting an assault.


But it was a trick. The siege tower was built with an ingenious refinement. It could be broken down into sections and rebuilt. On the night of 13/14 July, in a Herculean effort, Godfrey’s troops did just that, moving the tower over half a mile to the east. When dawn broke, the defenders were, according to one chronicler, “thunderstruck.”


Godfrey quickly launched an assault. After heavy fighting, the city fell to the First Crusade the next day. The Crusaders went berserk, massacring many of the citizens regardless of religion. One soldier reported that “piles of head, hands, and feet lay in the houses and the streets, and men and knights were running to and fro over the corpses.”


Another Christian chronicler attempted to convey what had happened: “If we told you, you would not believe us… crusaders rode in blood to the knees and bridles of their horses.”


5. The Battle of Ascalon

first crusade battle ascalon
Engraving of the Battle of Ascalon by C. W. Sharpe, 1881, via ThoughtCo


The Crusaders had little time to consolidate their position. Many in the army, believing they had done their Christian duty upon capturing Jerusalem, simply left to return to their lands in Europe. In early August, news came that the Egyptians had landed on the coast with an army of 20,000 men.


Godfrey was now in de facto command of Christian forces in the region. Even so, he could only scrape together a scratch force of 1,200 knights and around 6-9,000 infantry. But these men represented a supremely battle-hardened core – soldiers who had survived all the challenges of the Crusade thus far.


The final battle at Ascalon turned into a one-sided affair. The Egyptian soldiers and their North African levies had never experienced a European mounted charge before, and they had no effective defense against it. A ferocious dawn attack by Godfrey’s army surprised the Egyptians, and the battle quickly became a rout. One knight recalled how “our men cut them to pieces as one slaughters cattle for the meat market.”


After Ascalon, Crusader control of the Near East was established, and it would be around forty years before a serious threat to the Crusader States emerged.

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By Matthew DohertyMsc East Asian Relations, BA Asia Pacific StudiesMatthew is a writer, editor, and teacher, specializing in all things military history related. His work has been published in the UK Defence Journal and the Small Wars Journal. He holds an Msc from the University of Edinburgh and a BA from the University of Leeds. In his spare time, he also writes science fiction stories.