Legacy of Nicaea’s Epic Stand

Logistics of Warfare in the Age of the Crusades by John H. Pryor
Logistics of Warfare in the Age of the Crusades by John H. Pryor

The Siege of Nicaea (1096)

The First Crusade’s Opening Gambit

In the spring of 1097, the First Crusade embarked on its ambitious quest to recapture the Holy Land from Muslim control. Nicaea, a formidable city in modern-day Turkey, would serve as the initial proving ground for these fervent Christian warriors. The epic siege that unfolded between 14 May and 19 June 1097 marked not only the first major battle of the First Crusade but also a pivotal chapter in the annals of medieval history.

Nicaea’s Turbulent Past

Nicaea’s history was marked by tumultuous shifts in power. In 1081, this once-proud Byzantine city fell into the hands of the Seljuk Turks, who established it as the capital of the Sultanate of Rûm. Turbulence persisted as waves of change rolled over this city, setting the stage for the impending clash between the Crusaders and the Seljuks.

The Arrival of the Crusaders

As April waned, the First Crusaders set out from Constantinople, their fervor undeterred by the daunting challenges ahead. Among their ranks were illustrious figures like Godfrey of Bouillon, Bohemond of Taranto, the valiant Tancred, Raymond IV of Toulouse, and the formidable Robert II of Flanders. Despite their determination, the Crusaders faced a stark reality upon their arrival at Nicaea on 6 May – a city in possession of considerable strength but devoid of ample sustenance.

Siège de Nicée (1097)

Siège de Nicée (1097)

The Formidable Siege

Nicaea’s fortifications stood as a formidable obstacle to the Crusaders’ aspirations. With an imposing array of 200 towers guarding its walls, the city seemed impervious to their assault. However, the Crusaders were not to be dissuaded, and they meticulously organized their forces, each leader taking charge of a strategic section of the city’s defenses. The siege of Nicaea officially began on 14 May, heralding the commencement of a relentless struggle for control.

Clash of Arms and Defeat of Kilij Arslan

The Seljuk defenders of Nicaea launched a bold sortie on 16 May, attempting to break the Crusader siege. In a fierce skirmish, the Turks were defeated, but they sent urgent pleas to Sultan Kilij Arslan, beseeching him to return swiftly. Realizing the dire situation, the sultan hurried back to Nicaea. A pivotal confrontation unfolded on 21 May, a pitched battle that raged long into the night. The losses on both sides were substantial, yet ultimately, Kilij Arslan was forced to retreat, despite the impassioned appeals of his fellow Turks.

Byzantine Intervention

Notably, Emperor Alexios I of Byzantium had chosen not to march alongside the Crusaders but instead positioned his forces nearby, at Pelecanum. His strategic move involved dispatching boats to blockade Lake Ascanius, the crucial supply route to Nicaea. On 17 June, these vessels, commanded by Manuel Boutoumites, arrived at their destination, effectively cutting off the city’s lifeline.

A Controversial Surrender

In a twist of fate, on 19 June, the beleaguered Seljuks surrendered Nicaea to Boutoumites, a move that startled and incensed the Crusaders. They had anticipated plundering the city’s riches themselves, but Boutoumites assumed leadership of Nicaea and imposed strict regulations on the Crusaders’ entry. This turn of events would leave a lingering bitterness among the Crusader ranks.

Oaths of Vassalage

Emperor Alexios I, ever the diplomat, showered the Crusaders with monetary assistance, horses, and lavish gifts. However, their discontent brewed, fueled by the belief that they could have secured even more wealth through direct conquest. Boutoumites, meanwhile, demanded that they pledge their loyalty to Alexios before departing Nicaea, a condition met with resistance by some, like Tancred, before eventual compliance.

The Crusaders’ Forward March

On 26 June, the Crusaders left Nicaea, dividing into two contingents. Their spirits remained high, with dreams of reaching Jerusalem in a mere five weeks. Their journey, however, would prove arduous and fraught with challenges. On 1 July, they encountered Kilij Arslan once more, decisively defeating him at the Battle of Dorylaeum. Their path would take them to Antioch, yet the ultimate prize of Jerusalem would remain tantalizingly distant, their arrival postponed by unexpected obstacles and delays.

A Prelude to Jerusalem

The Siege of Nicaea stood as a testament to the indomitable spirit of the First Crusaders. This epic struggle, marked by Byzantine intrigue, unforeseen surrenders, and the evolving dynamics with Emperor Alexios I, was but a prelude to the trials and tribulations that awaited them on their journey to the sacred city of Jerusalem. Little did they know, their path to redemption would be a circuitous one, extending far beyond their initial expectations.

Gesta Francorum: Chronicles of the First Crusade

An Enigmatic Tale of Valor and Faith

This Latin chronicle, known as the Gesta Francorum (Deeds of the Franks) or the Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolimitanorum (Deeds of the Franks and the Other Pilgrims to Jerusalem), offers a captivating window into the tumultuous years spanning from the Council of Clermont in 1095 to the decisive Battle of Ascalon in August 1099.

The Anonymous Chronicler: A Mysterious Scribe of Valor

The identity of this intrepid chronicler remains shrouded in mystery, but his connection to Bohemond of Taranto, a prominent figure in the First Crusade, is a tantalizing clue. Hailing from the ranks of the crusading party, this enigmatic scribe was likely of Norman or Italian descent, enlisted by Bohemond in 1096 from the Duchy of Apulia. His pen, guided by the fiery spirit of the crusade, composed his narrative during the arduous journey to Jerusalem. A diligent scribe occasionally lent his hand, adding unique insights to a chronicle authored not by a high-ranking leader or a cleric, but by a humble knight.

A Chronicle of Daily Triumphs and Tribulations

The true historical treasure within the Gesta Francorum lies in its meticulous account of the day-to-day events of this epic pilgrimage. It unravels the intricacies of tactical operations, the challenges of provisioning, the ever-shifting moods of the crusaders, the undercurrents of anti-Greek sentiment, and the relentless march of progress, day by day. In this narrative, the pulse of the First Crusade beats vividly, providing an invaluable perspective from the trenches of history.

The Verdict of Literary Contemporaries

To his literary contemporaries, our anonymous author might have appeared as a “rustic” chronicler. Guibert of Nogent, drawing inspiration from the Gesta Francorum, penned his Dei gesta per Francos (1108), albeit with a critical touch, remarking that the original text at times left readers “stunned with its insipid vacuity.” In an effort to enhance both the literary and historical merits of this account, Robert the Monk took up the task of rewriting it as Historia Hierosolymitana. Subsequent revisions by luminaries like Baudri of Dol and the Historia Belli Sacri followed suit.

A Timeless Legacy

Yet, despite these adaptations and revisions, the original Gesta Francorum endures. Today, it stands as one of the most treasured contemporary sources of the First Crusade. In its pages, the valor and faith of those who embarked on this sacred journey continue to resonate, offering us a priceless glimpse into the crucible of history and the enduring spirit of the crusaders who sought to reclaim the Holy Land.

The Gesta Account on the Siege of Nicaea

And thus Duke Godfrey went first to Nicomedia, together with Tancred and all the rest, and they were there for three days. The Duke, indeed, seeing that there was no road open by which he could conduct these hosts to the city of Nicaea, for so great an army could not pass through the road along which the others had passed before, sent ahead three thousand men with axes and swords to cut and clear this road, so that it would lie open even to the city of Nicaea. They cut this road through a very Darrow and very great mountain and fixed back along the way iron and wooden crosses on posts, so that the pilgrims would know the way. Meanwhile, we came to Nicaea, which is the capital of all Romania, on the fourth day, the day before the Nones of May, and there encamped. However, before Lord Bohemund had arrived, there was such scarcity of bread among us that one loaf was sold for twenty or thirty denarii. After the illustrious man, Bobemund, came, be ordered the greatest market to be brought by sea, and it came both ways at the same time, this by land and that by sea, and there was the greatest abundance in the whole army of Christ.

Moreover, on the day of the Ascension of the Lord we began to attack the city on all sides, and to construct machines of wood, and wooden towers, with which we might be able to destroy towers on the walls. We attacked the city so bravely and so fiercely that we even undermined its wall. The Turks who were in the city, barbarous horde that they were, sent messages to others who had come up to give aid. The message ran in this wise: that they might approach the city boldly and in security and enter through the middle gate, because on that side no one would oppose them or put them to grief. This gate was besieged on that very day – the Sabbath after the Ascension of the Lord – by the Count of St. Gilles and the Bishop of Puy. The Count, approaching from another side, was protected by divine might, and with his most powerful army gloried in terrestrial strength. And so he found the Turks, coming against us here. Armed on all sides with the sign of the cross, he rushed upon them violently and overcame them. They turned in flight, and most of them were killed. They came back again, reinforced by others, joyful and exulting in assured (outcome) of battle, and bearing along with them the ropes with which to lead us bound to Chorosan. Coming gladly, moreover, they began to descend from the crest of the mountain a short distance. As many as descended remained there with their heads cut off at the hands of our men; moreover, our men hurled the heads of the killed far into the city, that they (the Turks) might be the more terrified thereat. Then the Count of St. Gilles and the Bishop of Puy took counsel together as to how they might have undermined a certain tower which was opposite their tents. Men were assigned to do the digging, with arbalistae and bowmen to defend them on all sides. So they dug to the foundations of the wall and fixed timbers and wood under it and then set fire to it. However, evening had come; the tower had already fallen in the night, and because it was night they could not fight with the enemy. Indeed, during that night the Turks hastily built up and restored the wall so strongly that when day came no one could harm them on that side.

Now the Count of Normandy came up, Count Stephen and many others, and finally Roger of Barneville. At length Bohemund, at the very front, besieged the city. Beside him was Tancred, after him Duke Godfrey, then the Count of St. Gilles, next to whom was the Bishop of Puy. it was so besieged by land that no one dared to go out or in. There all our forces were assembled in one body, and who could have counted so great an army of Christ? No one, as 1 think, has ever before seen so many distinguished knights or ever will again!

However, there was a large lake on one side of the city, on which the Turks used to send out their ships, and go back and forth and bring fodder, wood, and many other things. Then our leaders counselled together and sent messengers to Constantinople to tell the Emperor to have ships brought to Civitote, where there is a fort, and that he should order oxen to be brought to drag the ships over the mountains and through the woods, until they neared the lake. This was done forthwith, and he sent his Turcopoles with them. They did not want to put the ships on the lake on the very day that they were brought across, but under cover of night they launched them on the lake itself, (The boats were) filled with Turcopoles well decorated with arms. Moreover, at earliest daybreak the ships stood in good order and hastened through the lake against the city. The Turks marvelled upon seeing them, not knowing whether they were manned by their own forces or the Emperor’s. However, after they recognized that it was the host of the Emperor, they were frightened even to death, weeping and lamenting; and the Franks were glad and gave glory to God.

The Turks, moreover, seeing that they could have no further aid from their armies, sent a message to the Emperor that they would willingly surrender the city, if he would permit them to go entirely away with their wives and children and all their substance. Then the Emperor, full of vain and evil thinking, ordered them to depart unpunished, without any fear, and to be brought to him at Constantinople with great assurance (of safety). These he cared for zealously, so that he had them prepared against any damage or hindrance from the Franks. We were engaged in that siege for seven weeks and three days. Many of our men there received martyrdom, and, glad and rejoicing, gave back their happy souls to God. Many of the very poor died of hunger for the name of Christ, and these bore triumphantly to heaven their robes of martyrdom crying with one voice, “Avenge, Lord, our blood which has been shed for Thee, who are blessed and praiseworthy forever and ever. Amen.” In the meanwhile, after the city had been surrendered and the Turks had been conducted to Constantinople, the Emperor, more and more rejoiced because the city had been surrendered to his power, ordered the greatest alms to be distributed to our poor.”.

Emperor Alexius I: Letter to the Abbot of Monte Cassino

Portrait of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118)

Portrait of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118)

In June 1098, Alexius I Comnenus, the Byzantine Emperor, dispatched a letter of utmost importance to the Abbot of Monte Cassino, one of the most venerable monastic institutions in Italy. This letter, a testament to the complex and ever-shifting dynamics of the Crusade, holds within its words a profound narrative of diplomacy, strategy, and the delicate interplay between the East and the West during a tumultuous era. 

How much you have written to my empire, most venerable servant of God, abbot of the monastery of Monte Cassino! I have read your letter which declares honor and praise to my empire. Toward me and my subjects there is, indeed, very great favor from Almighty and Most Merciful God, for many are His blessings. Through His compassion and by His grace He has honored and exalted my empire. However, not only because I have nothing of good within me, but because I sin above all men, I daily pray that His compassion and patience may be sent to sustain my weakness. But you, filled with goodness and virtue, judge me, sinner that I am, a good man, and truly you have the advantage of me. My empire, though it is praised without having work worthy of praise, holds the praise to its own condemnation.

“I beseech you earnestly to furnish aid to the army of Franks, your most thoughtful letters state. Let your Venerable Holiness be assured on that score, for my empire has been spread over them and will aid and advise them on all matters; indeed, it has already cooperated with them according to its ability, not as a friend, or relative, but like a father. It has expended among them more than anyone can enumerate. And had not my empire so cooperated with them and aided them, who else would have afforded them help? Nor does it grieve my empire to assist a second time. By God’s grace, they are prospering up to this day in the service which they have begun, and they will continue to prosper in the future as long as good purpose leads them on. A multitude of knights and foot soldiers have gone to the Eternal Tabernacle, some of which were killed; others died. Blessed, indeed, are they, since they met their end in good intent! Besides, we ought not at all to regard them as dead, but as living and transported to life everlasting and incorruptible. As evidence of my true faith and my kind regard for your monastery, my empire has sent you an epiloricum, adorned on the back with glittering gold.

Sent in the month of June, (1098) sixth Indiction, from the most holy city of Constantinople.

Featured Image

Siege of Nicaea of 1096

Siege of Nicaea of 1096

This digitized manuscript, titled “Li rommans de Godefroy de Buillon et de Salehadin et de tous lez autres roys qui ont esté outre mer jusques a saint Loys qui darrenierement y fu,” offers a fascinating glimpse into the medieval world. It begins with an exploration of the sacred lands of the Earth and concludes with an account of events up to the year 1261. This historical treasure is enriched with numerous illuminations, providing visual context to the tales within. It is worth noting that this manuscript was completed in the year 1337, just before the feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle, with a dedication on the first folio to the Duke of Arschot in 1584, marking its enduring significance through the centuries.


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