The Holy Lance & The First Crusade: Can Faith Win a War?

At the Siege of Antioch during the First Crusade, an unassuming monk found the Holy Lance, the spear that pierced Christ’s side during the crucifixion.

Jul 15, 2023By Jonathan Szo, Ph. D. History (in progress), MA History, BA (Hons.) History, B.Ed

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The First Crusade was the first of what would be numerous forays into the Holy Land by Western Christians in a determined attempt to regain the holy city of Jerusalem from its Islamic rulers. Called in 1095 by Pope Urban II, the First Crusade was met with unparalleled enthusiasm from Christians who eagerly took up the cross and the sword in the name of Jesus. By 1097, however, the entire Crusade and all its promises seemed to be crashing down around them. Numerous battles had decimated their ranks, disease ran rampant, and faith wavered as the Crusaders came upon the great city of Antioch, one of the ancient strongholds of the East.


The First Crusade Before the Walls of Antioch

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Siege of Antioch, by Jean Colombe, from Les Passages d’Outremer by Sébastien Mamerot, 1474, via Bibliotheque Nationale de France


As the disconsolate Crusaders camped around Antioch (which was so massive they could not fully encircle its walls), it became clear that force of arms would not win them the day. Matters quickly became more dire when, in the spring of 1098, terrifying news reached the besieging  Christian army. Stirred into action by the Crusade and the desire to come to the aid of their religious allies, an Islamic army from Mosul, 40,000 strong, had crossed the Tigris River and was bearing down on Antioch under the command of the famed general Kerbogha.


The situation was grim, and the Crusaders risked being crushed against the walls of Antioch. Drastic action was required and took shape in the form of an incorrigible Crusader prince, Bohemond of Taranto. Contacting a disgruntled Armenian named Firouz who manned one of the towers, Bohemond convinced him to aid the men on Crusade after learning that he was a former Christian who was further angered when his wife had left him for a Turkish officer.


Victorious Crusade: The Taking of the City

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The Siege of Antioch, by Gustave Doré, 19th century, via Wikimedia Commons


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On the night of June 3, 1098, Firouz lowered a rope ladder, and Bohemond and his comrades silently climbed into the city. Crusaders poured into the city when the sun rose over Antioch as the gates were thrown open. Unfortunately, the crusaders only enjoyed a short-lived victory. Not only had the remaining Muslim forces within the city barricaded themselves within the nigh-impregnable citadel, but the relief army under Kerbogha also arrived shortly after and subsequently laid siege to the crusaders.


At this point, the morale of the Christian force reached its lowest ebb. Caught between a massive relief force outside the walls and a citadel full of enemies from within, the Crusade stood upon the edge of a knife. Desertion became the norm as faith failed and food stores became depleted. Several crusaders snuck past the Muslim forces camped outside the walls to make the long trek back to Europe.


One glimmer of hope remained for the crusaders — word had reached the city that Byzantine Emperor Alexios I was on the march at the head of the Imperial army, ready to relieve them. However, even this hope was quickly dashed. Several deserters who had left the now besieged crusaders informed Alexios that Kerbogha had caught the Crusade between the walls and the citadel, that all was lost, and that to risk the Byzantine army on such a venture was pure madness. Thus, Alexios and the grand army of Byzantium returned to Constantinople, leaving the Christians at Antioch alone and friendless, with a brutal massacre forthcoming. The crusaders were devastated. Such was their anguish at this perceived betrayal that when Kerbogha mounted an assault on the walls, Bohemond had to set fire to the barracks to get the despondent soldiers out of bed to meet the attack.


A Light in the Darkness: The Discovery of the Holy Lance

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Longinus Fresco, by Fra Angelico, 1437-1446, via History Today


Although despair ran through the Crusader camp, the nature of their mission ensured that they were never truly alone or friendless — and in their darkest moment, God revealed himself in the most unlikely fashion. Peter Bartholomew was one of the many camp followers of the Crusades. A scruffy youth from France, Peter was a monk and a non-combatant. In June of 1098, Peter requested an audience with the crusading leaders, to share a fantastic story of how Saint Andrew had consistently appeared to him in his dreams since Christmas. The message of the visions was simple — find the Holy Lance within the walls of Antioch and defeat the Muslim army.


The Holy Lance (or spear) was one of the most famous Christian relics. As mentioned in the Gospel of John, the spear pierced the side of Jesus as he hung on the cross and became coated in his blood. As the Gospel tells it: “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance, and immediately there came out blood and water.” (John 19:34).


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The Discovery of the Holy Lance, via National Geographic Society, 1969


Unsurprisingly, the Crusade leaders were dubious. It seemed terribly convenient that this news was only reaching them in their darkest hour and it even more confusing when they considered how a different Holy Lance had been shown to them when they stopped in Constantinople on their way to the Holy Land. Most, led by Bohemond, were prepared to dismiss Peter due to the growing fanaticism in the camp spurred on by lack of food and water. Peter, however, was adamant. He, too, had been skeptical of the visions and attempted to ignore them before being visited by Christ personally in his latest dream, who reiterated the importance of finding the Holy Lance, supposedly buried in St. Peters Cathedral.


Only one Crusading leader trusted Peter — Raymond of Toulouse was Bohemond’s greatest rival. He also wished to win over the common crusaders to spite Bohemond’s grand plans for Antioch. Furthermore, Peter hailed from his own Provencal region of France. So, on June 15, 1098, the dig began in the cathedral with Raymond of Toulouse, Peter Bartholomew, and several of Raymond’s men.


After several hours of unsuccessful digging, frustration, and disbelief crept back into the crusaders’ minds. Of course, they reasoned, the Holy Lance was not here, and the shabby monk was mistaken. The frustrated Raymond even left the group for a short time as exasperation mounted. However, as the light began to fail and the search was ready to be halted, a shout rose from the bottom of the massive pit. Peter Bartholomew scrambled out of the hole, grasping the head of a rusty spear in his hand.


A Final Gambit: The Crusade Prepares for Battle

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Discovery of the Holy Lance, by Jean Colombe, in Les Passages d’Outremer by Sébastien Mamerot, 1474, via the Bibliotheque Nationale de France


The finding of the Holy Lance in Antioch can only be compared to discovering Plutonium by accident. The faith of the crusaders sparked, flickered, and burst into a raging fire. Pandemonium reigned in the besieged city as men wept with joy and all clamored to see the spear that had once glistened with the blood of Christ. The lance bolstered the crusaders’ morale beyond anything imaginable — long had they prayed for such intervention, and the fruits of their prayer lay clasped in a grubby commoner’s hands. While Bohemond and others were still skeptical about the authenticity of the lance, it was more than their life was worth to call such a miracle into question.


Of course, the finding of the Holy Lance had changed everything. While days prior their beds were set ablaze to motivate them to fight, the Crusaders were now bristling with anticipation at the coming attack. How could they lose? God had sent his messenger, and they had received it gratefully.


In their newfound confidence, the Crusaders demanded a total surrender from Kerbogha and his conversion to Christianity. The Muslim general scoffed at their request. Not only was he openly disdainful of their force, but his army had also been bolstered by several allies and vassals, such as Ridwan of Aleppo and Duqaq of Damascus, pushing his group of fighting men to an alarming number.


“God Wills It!”: The Victorious Crusade

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Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099, by Émile Signol, 19th-century, via


The day after Kerbogha’s refusal of their terms, the great gates of Antioch were thrown open, and the crusaders emerged from the city and onto the open plain in all their glory. As a display of the covenant struck with God, the Holy Lance was held in front of them at the head of the army. The attack itself seemed like folly. The crusaders were sick and weak and had been fasting for days in preparation. They were also heavily outnumbered, as their fighting force was only 20,000 by this time.


Kerbogha must have grinned at the sight — not only was the army much smaller than his, but they had also abandoned the sanctuary of the city’s impregnable walls. Allowing the entire force to exit the city, he planned to wipe out the whole crusading army in a single, pitched battle.


The Christians thundered down from Antioch in a massive cavalry charge, the cry of “God Wills it!” ringing from their throats as the Holy Lance was held in front, leading the attack. Arrows pummelled their frontline and many fell, but the charge continued. Chroniclers of the day even speak of an army of Saints descending from Heaven to join the fray and their fallen comrades clothed in white. They were said to be “countless armies with white horses, whose standards were all white… whose leaders were St. George, Mercurius, and Demetrius. This is to be believed, for many of our men saw it.” (Krey, 1921).


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Bohemond and his Norman troops scale the walls of Antioch, in an engraving by Gustave Doré, via Wikimedia Commons


Whether or not this extraordinary miracle is believable to the modern reader, some rather human events decided the battle’s outcome. While the confidence of the crusader force and the potential army of warrior saints were indeed setbacks, Kerbogha still held the advantage in manpower and strength. That is, however, until his allies betrayed him. Political fracturing and infighting defined much of the Muslim world at this time, with many sides disagreeing and arguing. Without this politically fractured reality, the naïve Crusaders would have likely been wiped out a year prior when they first crossed the Bosphorus into Muslim territory.


However, this was of no consequence to the Christians. Kerbogha’s army betrayed and deserted him at a critical juncture, and the Crusade smashed the Islamic forces. Kerbogha, his power broken, fled the field, leaving his soldiers to be butchered. The crusaders pursued the routed Muslims until nightfall, killing all in their path. Seeing defeat, the remnants of the citadel’s Antioch garrison also surrendered. Almost a year and a half after the beginning of the siege, the great city of Antioch was in the hands of the crusaders, delivered to them through the faith imparted by a monk holding a rusty and pitted spearhead.


A Trial Fit for a Prophet: The First Crusade and the End of the Holy Lance

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Peter Bartholomew undergoing the Ordeal of Fire, by Gustave Doré, 19th century, via Leiden University


As the Crusade continued its march towards the holiest city of Jerusalem, what became of the lance? Peter Bartholomew’s confidence had soared to new heights since the incredible victory at Antioch. He now viewed himself as a veritable prophet and pestered the other Crusaders daily with his visions, dreams, and predictions. He dreamed of several more relics, supposedly hidden nearby, that would deliver them more victories. This was much to the annoyance of his fellows. As one Crusader succinctly put it, “Why should we weight ourselves with unknown bones and carry them along?”


What occurred next is a mystery and, in many ways, a fitting end to the tale of the crusaders’ Holy Lance. Either through his own initiative or due to a challenge from a doubter, they planned a task to test the veracity of the lance. Due to the nature of the quest, a trial of biblical proportions seemed reasonable. The test would be simple — a trial by fire. Clutching the lance, Peter would be required to run between columns of burning logs. If he emerged unharmed, all agreed that the lance would be deemed authentic and Peter would assuredly take his place among the most famed prophets. If he died, the lance would probably fade into obscurity.


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One of several “holy lances” from the Middle Ages, with gold inscription added by Charles IV in 1350, via Wikimedia Commons


Confidently, protected only by his tunic and the small piece of metal, Peter scurried into the flames, amazingly emerging alive on the other side. However, two stories exist concerning what happened next, both ending in Peter Bartholomew’s death. One tale tells that he emerged completely unscathed from the flames. Overcome with excitement at the truth of the Holy Lance, a mob rushed him in order to get a piece of his clothing or touch him, and he was crushed or pushed back into the flames and killed.


Conversely, in another story, Peter also emerged from the trial by fire, although horrendously burned and disfigured by the flames. In this tale, Peter suffered horribly and painfully for almost two weeks before finally succumbing to his wounds.


Either way, apart from a small group of French soldiers from Peter’s home province, the Holy Lance was largely forgotten after the one who discovered it died. The lance, the great morale booster that had delivered them Antioch, faded into myth and obscurity as the Crusade continued its march towards Jerusalem.

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By Jonathan SzoPh. D. History (in progress), MA History, BA (Hons.) History, B.EdJonathan is currently a Ph.D. student in history at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, where he is focusing on Canadian History, the Upper Canada Rebellion, and the Age of Revolutions. He holds a Master's in History from UNB, a BA in History (Hons.) from Crandall University, and a Bachelor of Education from St. Thomas University. In his spare time, Jonathan enjoys baseball, soccer, mountain biking, and hanging out with his golden retriever, Bo.