And so, at last, the Crusade sailed across the Bosporus. All five of the Crusading armies (and the remnants of the Peasants’ Crusade) joining into one massive force to retake the Holy Land. The Crusaders finally passed out of Christian territory! They weren’t on the allied ground anymore! For once, any damage they did would actually be to the enemy they were summoned to fight. The First Crusade really had begun.
But as the ships crossed the Bosporus, and disgorged their cargo of men in mail and plate; of giant destriers barded for war; of crossbowmen counting their quarrels; they were met with a silent, empty plain. One after another, the Crusader forces arrived and they waited. Anatolia was quiet… Too quiet… No Turkish horde came to sweep them back into the Bosporus. No Saracen riders came to pour waves of arrows down on their Crusading band. And so, the Princes met, discussed, and decided that they would move their forces to Nicaea, a few days’ march away, with Godfrey de Bouillon at the head of the band.
Nicaea was an important city. It was strategically important. It held the road to Jerusalem. If they couldn’t take it, they’d have to march a much more difficult path with an incredible enemy stronghold at their back. Nicaea was also symbolically important. The first Ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea, had once been called there by Emperor Constantine himself to determine what was orthodox for the Christian world. And it was politically important. When Kilij Arslan took over the Sultanate of Rûm, he took Nicaea for his capital. It housed the royal treasury and the family of the Sultan. So, the Crusading forces marched on Nicaea.
Godfrey and Bohemond and Tancred arrived first, followed by Raymond and Robert of Flanders. One by one, they set up the siege. And still, nothing happened. Still no Turks. This was getting weird for the princes… So, in the eerie quiet, the Crusader army broke into its component parts again and each army took a section of the high, ancient Roman walls to lay siege to. Godfrey took the north. Bohemond and Tancred set up around the east. Raymond was still dawdling towards Nicaea, but the other two figured he could hold the southern wall when he got there.
As for the west? Well, one of the key features of Nicaea is that it sits on the lake Askania, and this is no small lake; it’s about 115 square miles. The western wall of Nicaea abuts the Lake itself, so the Crusaders figured out that there is no need to guard that. And thus, the Crusaders set up around the walls of Nicaea and promptly began to starve. But Bohemond, a seasoned military man, set up a system of naval resupply with the Byzantines. With that handled, the real work of sitting around could get started.
Just as Raymond finally dawdled into place, the Turks, at last, arrived. Kilij Arslan at the head of about 10,000 horse archers thundered down in the plains surrounding the city. Then he saw just how many Crusaders he was facing, and turned right around and thundered off in the other direction. The Crusaders gave chase with their heavy steeds but, as the Turkish horses were faster, the Crusaders inflicted only light casualties on Kilij Arslan’s force. Still, they had routed them! The Crusaders celebrated; they held the field, and morale was lifted. It was time to get back to the siege!
Now, each of the Crusading forces had a different idea on how the siege should go. Some were trying to wait it out. Others were building siege engines. Others were digging under the walls, but none of this seemed to have much effect. Finally, it dawned on them that the western wall on the lake was a little more important than maybe they had first thought. Turns out, the garrison at Nicaea was secretly getting resupplied by boats coming over the lake at night. That kind of threw a wrench in this whole ‘siege’ plan.
The Crusaders didn’t have enough forces to guard the entire coast of that enormous lake and they didn’t have a navy of their own to stop the resupply, either. But if they didn’t somehow prevent supplies from getting into the city, the defenders could practically hold out forever. So what do they do? Well, in a feat of logistics that could only be achieved by the heirs of Rome, the Byzantines came to the rescue. They sailed a group of ships to the harbor at Civetot, hauled them out of the water, put them on rollers, and dragged them to Nicaea.
The next day, with as much fanfare as possible, the Byzantine ships began an assault from the lake while the Crusaders assaulted the walls of the city from the shore. And soon, with their resupply cut off and their reinforcements drove back, the people of Nicaea offered to surrender. But here’s where it gets complicated, because who do you surrender to?
There were basically five Crusading armies and the Byzantines surrounding the city. To make it even more complicated the garrison in the city – the only guys with weapons – were all Muslim Turks, while the population of the city, who vastly outnumbered them, were orthodox Christians who used to be part of the Eastern Roman Empire, and not to mention the fact that the Sultan’s wife and family were still in the city, as was the Sultan’s treasury.
So, the negotiations began. But, as the Crusaders were negotiating, they were also periodically assaulting the city. During one of those assaults, somehow, magically, the 2,000 Byzantine troops scaled the walls and captured the city; a feat which tens of thousands of Crusaders hadn’t been able to achieve. That might seem like an incredible military feat, but remember, this is Emperor Alexius Comnenus we’re talking about, and he was always a crafty guy.
He knew that if the Crusaders got a hold of Nicaea, they would loot it until it burned to the ground and then maybe not even give it back to him afterward. That would not do! So, he had secretly made a deal with basically everybody inside the city, to just let him take it. He let the Turks go free, he ensured the safety of the sultan’s family, He brought the people of Nicaea back into the imperial fold, and promised them protection from ransacking. And in return, they just sort of letting his troops over the walls.
Once the city was firmly in his hands, he let the Crusaders in. In small groups. And always under guard. But he tried to placate the Crusaders with gifts to varying degrees of effect. He also tried to get them to reaffirm their oath to him, to return Byzantine territory. Also with varying degrees of effect. And so, the Byzantines remained garrisoned in Nicaea, and the Crusaders prepared to press on.
So, what exactly was going on with the Turks this whole time? Why hadn’t they showed up until it was too late? Where was Kilij Arslan the whole time the Crusade was marching on Nicaea? Well, have I got a surprise twist for you! I bet you thought this whole time that that whole “Peasants’ Crusade” thing was useless. Perhaps even more than useless. Well, ha! Turns out, by dying so pathetically, in such large numbers, so quickly, They had convinced Kilij Arslan that the Crusading forces were not worth worrying about. And so, by heroically being such utter and unmitigated failures, the Peasants’ Crusade had lulled the Sultan into thinking he had far more pressing things to deal with than these silly French people that kept on showing up on his shores.
Like medieval Europe, the Islamic states were also always involved in minor wars against one other. And the Sunni and Shia split led some in Europe to believe that the Muslim sects were more likely to ally with Crusaders against one another than actual band together to fight. And when the Crusaders had landed, Kilij Arslan had been off in the eastern part of his realm dealing with border disputes from one of the other Islamic states. He had actually been informed of the Crusaders landing almost immediately, but he figured they’d probably bumble themselves to death before he’d even get there, and that his garrisons could deal with whatever trouble they might create anyway.
In one of the great ironies of history, if the Peasants Crusade hadn’t expired en masse without doing any real damage, the Prince’s Crusade might have been swept back into the sea before it ever had a chance to group up and gather steam. But gather it had, And now, the Crusade began to head south. But finding supply too difficult to manage, they split again into two forces. A smaller force led by Bohemond and Tancred, and the Vanguard, and a larger force with Godfrey, Raymond, Stephen, and Hugh behind.
After about four days’ march, as dawn broke and Bohemond’s forces began to wake in a small valley outside Dorylaeum, Turks started to pour out of the surrounding hills, Kilij Arslan was not done yet. The Turks whirled in and out of the camp, slaughtering civilians and unarmored combatants. Individual knights tried to arm and mount amidst the chaos, those who could try heroically but futilely, often alone or in small gathered groups, to charge the fluid Turkish line.
At last, Bohemond, riding furiously up and down the camp, shouted to his knights to dismount, lock shields, and defend the civilians. They formed a circle and tried to bring those without protection inside. The Turks rained arrows down on the knights in an unending stream, and yet they stood, solid and unmoving.
In one of the most impressive acts of discipline in all the Crusades, the knights held their line. For hours, Never being baited into charging, Never breaking formation as men fell from the deadly hail. Inside the circle, people screamed as stray arrows made it over the wall of armor and shields and occasionally found their mark. Then, the priests inside the circle began to sing, And those nearby began to sing with them. And the sun rose, And the men still held. Battered by such mortal rain, baking in the heart of Anatolia, wearing full mail armor under the blistering sun, then the women began to bring water to the line of knights, risky though it was to try. And still, the knights did one of the most difficult things for any army at any time. Simply take fire for hours without moving, without breaking, without ever being able to attack back at their foe. And the line held. Slowly throughout the day, small forces of Crusaders arrived. Godfrey, with some 50 knights, abandoned his main force and cut his way to the embattled Bohemond, as did men of Hugh’s forces. Then, at last, after seven straight hours of sun and arrows, Raymond’s forces arrived and slammed into the Turkish flank— surprising them completely.
As he did so, Bohemond and Godfrey ordered the men to remount, abandon the shield wall, and charge the Turkish line. With a mighty cry of, “Today if God’s willing, we’ll all be rich!”, that was the battle cry, (Just a bit more Latin) Reeling, Kilij Arslan pulled back to a hilltop to defend. The fighting was fierce until at last, a force led my Bishop Adhemar snuck around behind the Turks, burned their camp, and charged them from the rear. The Turkish line fell apart, and the way to Antioch was left open to the exhausted Crusaders.