The First Crusade (1096-99) was the first in a series of religious wars in which the primary aim was to recover Jerusalem from “the Infidels”. In broader terms, the Church initiated these wars of religion in order to “save” the Holy Land from Islamic rule and return it to Christian rule. There were numerous crusades, but the First Crusade saw some of the most notable characters in medieval history make a name for themselves. Discussed below are 5 of the most important figures from the First Crusade, including Godfrey of Bouillon and Raymond of Toulouse.
1. Pope Urban II: The Brains Behind the First Crusade
It is funny to think that, of all the characters who could’ve inspired a series of bloody wars that took place halfway across the known world and which went on for almost four hundred years, it was a churchman, Pope Urban II. Urban II (r. 1088-99), a Frenchman who became Pope after the death of his predecessor, Victor III (r. 1086-87).
One pressing matter during Urban’s early tenure as Pope was the Byzantine Empire. His main goal was to create a unified Church, rather than having an Eastern Orthodox Church and a Western Latin Church. In late 1094, Urban sent an invitation to the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus (r. 1081-1118), inviting him to send his representatives to a Council of the Roman Church at Piacenza in Italy in March 1095.
Alexius knew that this would be a huge opportunity for him to ask for western help against the Turks, who had invaded Byzantium in 1069 and had taken over the majority of Anatolia. Alexius believed that they could be driven out, but it would take a considerable force to do so.
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The Byzantine representatives did their job well, and Pope Urban II was impressed. What Urban came up with was far more than Alexius could have dreamt of: a Holy War, with the united forces of Christian Europe fighting against the Islamic Turks. Back in his native France, Urban called another Council to gather at Clermont (modern-day Clermont-Ferrand) on the 18th of November 1095.
The Council itself was to last for ten days, but it had been announced that on Tuesday 27th of November a public session would be open to anyone and everyone, where the Pope would make a statement “of immense significance to all Christendom” (John Julius Norwich, The Popes: A History). It gathered so much momentum that the cathedral was abandoned, and the Papal throne was instead placed on a platform outside in a public field.
Pope Urban told the crowd of the problems that their Christian brethren were facing in Byzantium. He also mentioned that any man who was to fight in this “Crusade”, would have all of his sins remitted upon their death. In other words, all a man’s previous sins were washed away if he died on Crusade. The First Crusade was officially called by Pope Urban II on Tuesday 27th November 1095. The aim was set out by the Feast of Assumption (5th August 1096), just under a year away.
So why does Pope Urban II deserve a place on this list of key figures from the First Crusade? Simply put, the First Crusade as we know it would not have happened without Urban. If he had simply sent a small Papal force over to Alexius I Comnenus in 1094, they may have dealt with the problem of the Turks temporarily. However, by rallying Christendom together to fight against the Infidel, Pope Urban II kickstarted what was to be one of the most famous Holy Wars of all time — and ultimately, one of medieval Christendom’s most important victories.
Men from all over Christendom joined the pledge to fight in this Crusade, knowing that they could die as heroes or live long enough that their sins were absolved regardless. There were thousands of men who joined, including one of the most famous of all the crusaders: Godfrey of Bouillon.
2. Godfrey of Bouillon: Defender of the Holy Sepulchre
When discussing the First Crusade, one of the key figures that is always highlighted is Godfrey of Bouillon. But who was he, and why was he so significant? Godfrey was born circa 1060 in Boulogne, in the Kingdom of France to Eustace II of Boulogne and Ida of Lorraine. He became Lord of Bouillon (from where he took his name) in 1076 and he gained a reputation as a good military leader and warrior, for successfully defending his lands from usurpers in the late 1070s. However, it was not until the First Crusade that he really made a name for himself.
Following Pope Urban II’s call to arms in 1095, Godfrey of Bouillon took out loans and sold most of his lands in order to fund an army to liberate Jerusalem. He was joined by his older brother Eustace and his younger brother Baldwin, who had no lands at the time. With the money he had from these loans and the sale of his lands, he gathered thousands of men together to fight in what was to be known as the Army of Godfrey of Bouillon. This army was massively significant in the sense that the first three kings of Jerusalem all fought in it.
Godfrey of Bouillon and his army (which some claims suggest was up to 40,000 strong) departed from Lorraine in north-east France in August 1096 (Dan Jones, Crusaders: An Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Land). They traversed across mainland Europe on what the contemporary chronicler Robert the Monk referred to as “Charlemagne’s Road”.
In 1096, Godfrey of Bouillon and his troops had arrived in Constantinople, but they already had a different aim in mind rather than just aiding Alexius I Comnenus against the Turks: they wanted to liberate the Holy Land and recapture Jerusalem. However, they swore an oath of loyalty to Alexius and won two huge victories at Nicaea and Antioch, helping to regain Byzantine territory.
It was after the victory at Antioch that Godfrey of Bouillon really established his reputation as a crusader. His army marched onto Jerusalem and arrived in June 1099. His army built a wooden siege tower and prepared it in less than a month before one of the most famous battles of the First Crusade: the Siege of Jerusalem.
From July 14th – 15th 1099, the Crusaders besieged the city, and Godfrey himself was the first man to cross the city walls and enter Jerusalem, claiming it for the Christians. After a long and bloody siege, Jerusalem fell and was regained by the Church.
Godfrey of Bouillon undoubtedly belongs on this list as one of the most iconic figures of the First Crusade. He was so iconic, in fact, that he was offered the position of King of Jerusalem for his feats during the First Crusade. He would not take the title of King, however, as he believed Jesus Christ to be the only King of Jerusalem, having worn a crown of thorns upon entering the city. Godfrey took the title of Defender of the Holy Sepulchre instead, and reigned for less than a year until his untimely death in 1100.
He was succeeded by another key figure in the First Crusade: his brother, Baldwin, who became King Baldwin I of Jerusalem.
3. Baldwin I of Boulogne: The Man Who Would Be King
Sometimes, particularly in medieval history, a ruler’s younger brother is simply known for being a younger brother. This could not be further from the truth in the case of Baldwin I of Boulogne.
Born sometime in the 1060s, he was the youngest son of Eustace II of Boulogne and Ida of Lorraine, and was destined for a career in the Church, as was the custom in the Middle Ages for the youngest brother. However, Baldwin abandoned this career and joined his older brother Godfrey of Bouillon to go on crusade in 1096, eventually going on to become one of the most successful commanders of the First Crusade.
Baldwin had been left in Hungary as a hostage when Godfrey was dealing with a safe passage through the country with Coloman of Hungary, but was released soon after the main crusading army had left, eventually entering Byzantium in November 1096.
After the Battle of Dorylaeum in July 1097, Baldwin broke away from the main body of the army to search for food and other supplies which were quickly running out. Thanks to Baldwin striking up a friendship with Bagrat, an Armenian nobleman, the crusaders were assisted by the Armenians in their search for food, which was ultimately a success.
On Crusade, Baldwin had a fascination with the County of Edessa as it was the first county to convert to Christianity — and it was also ruled by the Armenians. Baldwin was proclaimed Count of Edessa in 1098, and thus Edessa became the first Crusader state — and would remain so for over a century.
However, upon hearing of his brother’s death in 1100, Baldwin traveled to Jerusalem, reaching the city on 9 November 1100. He was crowned King of Jerusalem on Christmas Day 1100, and reigned until his death on 2nd April 1118.
Baldwin helped to establish the first Crusader state, as well as becoming the first Crusader with the title “King of Jerusalem”, as Godfrey of Bouillon had refused to use the title “King”, and Raymond IV of Toulouse — another key figure — turned down the role. Baldwin was technically the first Crusader King of Jerusalem, a lineage which was to last (in one form or another) consecutively until 1324.
4. Raymond IV of Toulouse: The Pious Crusader
Raymond was the oldest of the leaders in the First Crusade, and also the most experienced. He was born circa 1041, and was deeply religious — even stating in his early life that he wanted to die in the Holy Land (Thomas Asbridge, The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land).
Naturally, when Urban II made the call for the First Crusade in 1095, Raymond was one of the first to join. He left Toulouse in October 1096, and he even brought his wife and infant son with him (who sadly died on the way), suggesting that he had no intention of returning back to France. He marched south-east across Europe, through Dyrrhachium (modern-day Durres, Albania), and onto Constantinople.
Although he was present alongside Godfrey of Bouillon at Nicaea, Raymond’s major breakthrough came at the siege of Antioch in October 1097. Upon hearing a rumor that the Turks had deserted the city, Raymond sent in an army to occupy it. The city was still occupied by the Turks, though, and it was only taken by the crusaders after a lengthy siege in June 1098.
Raymond himself took the tower near the Bridge Gate and also the Emir’s palace, which culminated in the discovery of a fragment of the Holy Lance — the spear which had pierced Christ’s side when he was on the cross. Despite the dubious and coincidental nature of the discovery of the lance, it nevertheless gave Raymond’s men a morale boost and they went on to then take Kerbogha, just outside Antioch.
Raymond then marched south towards Jerusalem but was delayed on the way as he wanted a city of his own: Tripoli. He began to besiege Arqa, a small town outside of Tripoli. This siege lasted longer than he thought it would, and on 13th May 1099, he carried on his march to Jerusalem.
Raymond was also offered the crown of the new Kingdom of Jerusalem, but, like Godfrey of Bouillon, he refused to rule in the city where Jesus had suffered (Geoffrey Hindley, The Crusades: Islam and Christianity in the Struggle for World Supremacy).
Raymond died on 28th February 1108, before Tripoli was captured. However, he deserves a place on this list as a key figure from the First Crusade as without his actions at Antioch, the Holy Lance would not have been discovered, and his men would not have had the morale boost they needed.
5. Robert II, Count of Flanders: Hero of the First Crusade
The final key figure in this list is Robert II, Count of Flanders. Due to his exploits during the First Crusade, he earned the nickname Robert of Jerusalem. He was born circa 1065, the eldest son of Robert I of Flanders and Gertrude of Saxony. After becoming Count of Flanders in 1093, Robert II joined the First Crusade. Upon arriving in Constantinople, Robert was one of the few leaders who had no problems swearing an oath of loyalty to Alexius I Comnenus, as his father had served him in the 1080s.
Alongside both Godfrey of Bouillon and Raymond IV, Robert was present at the Siege of Nicaea. Following the siege, the huge crusading army was split into two regiments — one with Robert II and other leaders including William the Conqueror’s eldest son, Robert Curthose. Their army set off a day ahead of the remaining army, which included both Raymond and Godfrey.
Robert II’s army was surrounded by Turks at the Battle of Dorylaeum on 30th June 1097, but was rescued by the arrival of the second army who broke the Turkish encirclement, with both Robert and Raymond forming the center. They successfully defeated the Turks and moved on to Jerusalem.
Upon their arrival at Jerusalem, it was Robert who led an expedition into unknown territory to find wood to construct the siege engines with. Without Robert’s willingness to enter the unknown while on the outskirts of the Holy City, the Siege of Jerusalem may never have happened.
At the end of August 1099, and the end of the First Crusade, Robert decided to return home. He traveled home via Constantinople, where he received a precious relic from Alexius I Comnenus: the arm of St George. The arm was placed in Anchin Abbey in Flanders upon his return to France. Due to his actions in the First Crusade, he earned the title Robert of Jerusalem.