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First crusade - badly led and achieved very little?

Nunney Castle - Built by a returning crusader

In what sense can the crusades be seen as badly led? This depends on how the phrase is defined. It assumes that there is an indisputed authority (whether an individual or a group) and that the leading authority fails to carry out its duties. It also assumes that there is a failure to achieve the goal, due to the failure of leadership.

Can we identify a leader for the first crusade? Urban II set the launch date of 15th August 1096 and had a plan for contingents from various nations to meet at Constantinople. However, he cannot be seen as the leader of the crusade. He took no part in the military actions and was in fact unable even to set the starting date, as the departure of bands of common people who were followers of popular preachers (e.g. Peter the Hermit & Walter the Penniless) had begun months before the set date.

Knights from the 1180s

The easy rout of these bands by the Turkish army, their association with robbery and their lack of military preparation had the consequence that the Byzantian authorities were extremely distrustful of the following official crusaders.

The official contingents at Byzantium were variously led by Hugh of Vermandois, Godfrey de Bouillon, Raymond of Toulouse, Bohemund of Taranto, Robert II of Flanders, Robert of Normandy, Stephen of Blois and others. Each leader commanded his own force and came with his own motivations. Commonly the crusaders were close to power in their places of origin but not quite close enough to have prospects of holding it. (Hugh was the French king's brother, Bohemund's father had made his second son his heir.) Several were motivated to seize their only chance of military success and wealth through their participation in the Crusade.

Knights by Perugino

Pre-existing rivalries at home were reflected in rivalries in action. Contemporary documents show the divided and opposing positions of the crusaders. For instance, theGenta puts Bohemund at the centre of the successes, d'Aguiliers puts the Franks.

The documents point to a divided collection of crusaders engaged in internal dissension, facing enormous practical difficulties in terms of obtaining men and supplies. However, they also show the crusaders as comparatively united by a belief system which allowed them to see all gains as due to the intervention of a deity for whom they were fighting. This must have been helped maintain morale in the face of extremely trying conditions. Indeed even the worst events could be interpreted in terms of their not having been steadfast enough in their religious observance.

In summary, one can say that the military leadership was divided and thus ineffective. However, individual leaders were not necessarily incompetent at their roles and such disharmony among feudal rulers was hardly unique to the Crusaders or to European armies. At the same time, the Muslims were themselves equally divided. Divisions in their ranks between Sunni and Shi-ites (particularly after the death of Tutush when the Fatimids retook Southern Palestine and Jerusalem) were of great help to the crusaders.

Farleigh Hungerford Castle - The Crusades brought vast riches back to Britain

The disagreements between the military leaders and other parties such as Alexius were also deep and acted against unification of the forces. For instance, Alexius had to act to compel agreement from Godfrey on the ownership of conquered lands by cutting off food supplies to his men.

The highly personalised and changeable (hence inefficient) nature of feudal leadership can also be seen as a strategic weakness. Communications were undeveloped so rumour was often the best intelligence available. No leader was sure what forces he could command, of the loyalty of his troops or allies. This left armies vulnerable to treachery and desertion (Tetigus/Tatius, the Emir Pirus) and to rumours (of aid to the enemy, of Slavs, etc sent by the Emperor.)


It is arguable whether the Crusaders achieved very little. Their avowed objective was the recapture of Jerusalem and the protection of pilgrims. This was achieved when they captures Jerusalem. They established the first crusader state in Edessa in 1098. They finally took Antioch in 1098 after a seven month siege, then defeated Kerbogha in battle.

That is, they achieved their military objectives. Whether the results were lasting was another matter, but has little to do with the leadership of the crusades. The divisions between different divisions of the crusading army continued to determine the outcome of the disposition of their gains. There were many unresolved issueswhich went beyond the actual events of the first crusade.

Muslim leaders were not likely to give up land without seeking to reclaim it. The isolation of the crusader enclaves would encourage raids and require yet more military activity to protect it. The wealth of the Muslim nations, the opportunities for foreign travel, enrichment and the gaining of spiritual merit would remain attractive to the ambitious lesser nobles and hungry peasants of Europe. Thus, the first crusade led inexorably to the following ones. However, this cannot necessarily be seen as due to the weaknesses of the leaders of the First Crusade.