The First Crusade, the true story
By Peter Frankopan *
On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II stood up at the Council of
Clermont in central France to make an important announcement. Persians
(by whom he meant the Turks), “a people rejected by God,” had risen up
against the Christians in the East, he said. It was imperative for the
knighthood of Europe to rush to defend their brethren. Take up arms, he
urged, and defend the faithful who were suffering unspeakable deeds at
the hands of the oppressors.
The story of the First Crusade has
remained largely the same ever since. The expedition that eventually
reached and captured Jerusalem in 1099 was conceived by the pope, who
seized the chance to encourage men in Western Europe (above all France)
to march to drive the Turks back from major Christian sites. It is a
story that was commemorated in chronicles, poems and songs almost as
soon as the Crusaders reached the Holy City; and it is a story that has
been told for generations ever since.
And yet, underneath this
tale of bravery, courage and devotion is the story of what really
happened, a story that has been hidden in the mists: In the place of
heroism is a tale of deception; in the place of honor is the breaking of
some of the most sacred oaths in Christendom. At its heart lies the
betrayal of the Byzantine Empire.
The speech made by the pope is
so famous that it is rarely asked why he delivered it in the first
place. Jerusalem, it should be remembered, fell to the Muslims many
centuries before he gave his address. Why now, more than 450 years
later, was there a sudden need to recover the city where Jesus Christ
lived and was crucified?
The answer lies not in Rome or in
Clermont, but in the imperial capital of Constantinople. In fact, it was
in the heart of the Byzantine Empire that the expedition to the East
was conceived; it was the emperor -- Alexios Komnenos -- who devised the
campaign and took control of it; perhaps most importantly, it was
specific strategic targets, set by the emperor, that the Crusade was
designed to attack.
The reign of Alexios Komnenos is recorded by
several texts, the most important of which is the remarkable “Alexiad,”
written by his daughter Anna Komnene. It is an account written in high
style, full of subtlety and hidden meanings -- many of which have
remained hidden and unidentified since she wrote the text.
account has now finally been unraveled. What has emerged can be taken
alongside other Byzantine, Arabic, Syriac and Armenian sources to
present a startling and new picture of the empire on the eve of the
Rather than being in a healthy position, as has
long been assumed, a series of disastrous events took place in and
around Constantinople that led Byzantium to the brink of collapse. The
emperor’s immediate family, rather than being a rock he could rely on,
turned on him -- his own brothers and relatives joining a conspiracy to
depose and if necessary murder him.
If that was not bad enough,
major attacks in the Balkans by Serbian opportunists and by nomadic
tribesmen increased pressure further still on the embattled ruler. And
then in Asia Minor, the empire’s position simply collapsed.
the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 has long enjoyed notoriety for marking
the turning point in the Turkish conquest of Anatolia, the moment when
Byzantium lost control of the region, evidence from the texts and from
lead seals now shows that the apparatus of government remained intact
long after this military setback.
As a matter of fact, there are
signs that the provincial administration was in good shape long after
the supposed defining moment in the history of Asia Minor. Indeed, there
were extensive -- and direct -- contacts between Alexios and the
Turkish ruler of Baghdad, with much cooperation between the two until
the latter’s death in 1092.
What happened next was catastrophe:
Turkish warlords in Nicaea, Smyrna and elsewhere took matters into their
own hands, and pushed the empire to the brink of collapse. The Aegean
was devastated -- figures like St Christodoulos were forced to abandon
their monasteries in Patmos because of incessant raids; suddenly
Byzantium was left without even a foothold in the East; Constantinople
itself was under threat.
Alexios took a bold decision. He turned
to the pope, suggesting an end to the schism between the churches in
return for military help. The pope did not need to be asked twice -- and
headed straight for his home region, where he was confident of raising
To start with, Alexios’s gamble paid off. Nicaea was
recovered first, followed by a series of other gains in Anatolia. But at
Antioch he lost control. One of the leading figures, Bohemond, a
handsome but devious fellow, realized that he could benefit personally
from the Crusade and set about doing exactly that, insisting that he be
given control of substantial territories, including Antioch.
was not easy, for the knights had given solemn oaths to Alexios as they
passed through Constantinople on their way east. The emperor had
demanded that the senior figures swear vows to him over some of the most
holy Christian relics -- the Holy Cross and the crown of thorns -- that
they would hand over any gains they made to him. It was hard to see how
these could be conveniently put to one side.
And yet they were.
Although many did not agree, Bohemond managed to take Antioch for
himself, declaring boldly that his oath was invalid. He then promptly
wrote to the pope, accusing Alexios of not doing enough to help the
Crusade and of actively conspiring against the best interests of the
Christian knights. It was the first salvo of what quickly became a
vicious -- and highly effective -- campaign to destroy the reputation of
Alexios and in fact of the Byzantine Empire in Western Europe. Neither
It also resulted in the real origins of the Crusade
being concealed. Rather than Alexios and Byzantium being at the heart of
the story, contemporary accounts made sure that the focus remained
elsewhere -- on the pope and on those brave knights who set off for
History, they say, is written by the winners. In the
case of the First Crusade, it has taken nearly a millennium to show just
how true this is. But finally the time has come for Alexios Komnenos to
step out of the shadows.
* Dr Peter Frankopan is director of the
Center for Byzantine Research at Oxford University and author of “The
First Crusade: The Call from the East,” published this spring by Random
House and Harvard University Press.