Post-classical history


To the Imperial City

ALEXIOS AND URBAN had played a dangerous game. The violent passions stoked up by the crusading propaganda were not easy to control; for all the logistical planning and nuanced political calculations, the raw enthusiasm for the Crusade was overwhelming. As tales of Muslim oppression and news of the expedition spread, it became impossible to control the message: Urban II was not the only charismatic figure who was preaching the Crusade in 1095–6. Peter the Hermit, a preacher from Amiens in northern France, capitalised on the excitement and the furore about the suffering of Christians in the east to unleash a People’s Crusade – the dangerously chaotic force described by Anna Komnene. As the western forces moved towards the great imperial city of Constantinople, Alexios needed to assert his authority. His reaction to the People’s Crusade, and the network of allegiances and relationships that were forged with the vanguard of the expedition proper, were to shape the future of crusading.

Contemporaries described Peter as ‘a famous hermit, held in great esteem by the lay people, and in fact venerated above priests and abbots for his religious observance because he ate neither bread nor meat – though this did not stop him enjoying wine and all other kinds of food whilst seeking a reputation for abstinence in the midst of pleasures’.1 Walking barefoot, Peter was a persuasive teacher travelling around the Rhineland, a region neglected by the Pope, who did not try to look for support in lands that were subject to Henry IV.2 Peter spread horrific tales about conditions in the east, sometimes telling his rapt audiences that he had suffered personally at the hands of the Turks during a recent pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Although it seems unlikely that he had ever been to the Holy Land, he claimed that he had met the Pope on his way home, and also that he brought with him appeals from the patriarch of Jerusalem. Like Urban, he found that his calls to action fell on fertile ground.3

Unlike the Pope, however, his appeals had no structure. Where Urban planned matters carefully – seeking out powerful magnates who would bring substantial contingents with them, limiting participation to those with military experience and insisting on oaths to formalise inclusion in the expedition – Peter did nothing of the sort. There was no set date for departure; nor was there a selection or screening process of who should or should not make the journey. The result was a free-for-all. As one commentator put it, ‘in response to [Peter’s] constant urging and calling, firstly bishops, abbots, clerics, monks; then the most noble laymen, princes of different domains, and all the common people, as many sinful as pious men, adulterers, murderers, thieves, perjurers and robbers; that is to say every sort of people of Christian faith, indeed even the female sex, led by repentance, all flocked joyfully to this expedition’.4

At the start of 1096, groups of knights began to set off from the Rhineland, accompanied by clerics, the elderly, women and children; it was this first tide that became known as the People’s Crusade. Recent scholarship has sought to rebalance this impression of utter chaos, emphasising the competence of some of those who took part, and pointing out that the motley collection gathered by Peter the Hermit did include some minor aristocrats and independent knights.5 Nevertheless, not only did this scheme to journey to the Holy Land lack the approval of the church, it was markedly different from the detailed plans put into place by Urban and Alexios.

With no significant leadership, chaos ensued. Those inspired by Peter set off at their own pace, oblivious to or disregarding the official departure date set by the Pope. Whipped into a frenzy of excitement about the journey, with vivid stories of atrocities in the east ringing in their ears, and apocalyptic prophecies haunting and spurring them on at the same time, it was not long before they found their first victims: ‘Whether by a judgement of the Lord, or by some error of mind, they rose in a spirit of cruelty against the Jewish people scattered throughout these cities and slaughtered them without mercy … asserting it to be the beginning of their expedition and their duty against the enemies of the Christian faith.’6

Horrific massacres accompanied the progress of the People’s Crusade as it passed through Germany; the Jewish populations in Cologne and Mainz became the victims of breathtaking violence. So shocking was the terror unleashed that in some cases, people took their own lives: ‘The Jews, seeing how the Christian enemy were rising up against them and their little children and were sparing none of any age, even turned upon themselves and their companions, on children, women, mothers and sisters and they all killed each other. Mothers with children at the breast – how horrible to relate – would cut their children with knives, would stab others, preferring that they should die thus at their hands, rather than be killed by the weapons of the uncircumcised.’ In other locations, such as in Regensburg, the Jews were at least spared death; but they were driven into the river Danube where they were forcibly baptised.7

The anti-Semitism spread. When Godfrey of Bouillon set out in the summer of 1096, he vowed to eradicate the Jews; he was only stopped from doing so after being warned by Henry IV that no hostile steps should be taken against anyone in his realm without his explicit authority. Such was the revulsion towards Godfrey that one Jewish contemporary prayed that his bones be ground to dust.8 This surge in anti-Semitism as a result of the Crusade was not confined to the Rhineland; there were also cases of violence in France threatening to turn into wholescale massacres of Jewish communities.9

Many contemporaries were appalled. One writer noted that those involved in the persecution of the Jews were threatened with excommunication and with serious punishment by the leading magnates – though neither seems to have had any effect.10 These German thugs, wrote Guibert of Nogent, represented the very worst of society; they were the faeces of the peoples of Europe.11

This view was echoed in Constantinople. Alexios had asked for, and was expecting, experienced fighting men to arrive in Byzantium towards the end of 1096, in accordance with the timetable set out by the Pope. He was startled not just by the fact that the first waves to reach the empire arrived months too early; it was also apparent that many of those who had come were completely incapable of taking on the Turks, let alone mounting a siege of the towns of Asia Minor. It is hardly surprising that, in the words of Anna Komnene, ‘he dreaded their arrival’.12

As the many groups making up the People’s Crusade approached Constantinople, anxiety grew. Appalling acts of violence were committed as the first of the armed pilgrims neared the Byzantine frontier in the spring of 1096. The commander of the Hungarian army, a distinguished figure with dazzling snow-white hair, was beheaded after being sent by the king to escort the pilgrims safely across his territory.13 The cocktail of religious fervour, excitement and ill discipline proved even more volatile when the first elements reached Belgrade, the empire’s westernmost entry point on the Danube. Caught off guard, the Byzantine authorities struggled to deal with the situation. The sale of provisions was banned outright by imperial officials so supplies could be hastily rationalised. This provoked an immediate reaction from the westerners who went on the rampage, sacking the surroundings of Belgrade in anger. Calm was finally restored, but only after the Byzantine garrison secured the town by using force against the rioters. Once enough provisions had been organised, a market was opened up which appeased the jumpy would-be Crusaders.14

A more effective response had been organised by the time Peter the Hermit himself arrived at the Byzantine frontier at the end of May 1096. Leo Nikerites, a man promoted in the wake of the Diogenes conspiracy, treated the contingent with diligence and care: according to one account, Peter the Hermit and those travelling with him received everything they asked for – all their requests were to be granted, as long as they behaved well.15 Nevertheless, frequent trouble accompanied the various strands of the People’s Crusade as it snaked towards Constantinople. Towns in Byzantium’s western provinces were regularly assaulted and the local populations attacked. In an attempt to contain the damage, markets were established exclusively for the Crusaders along the main road and escorts appointed to accompany the westerners, with orders to deal with troublemakers and stragglers by force if necessary. The arrival of Peter the Hermit in Constantinople was reportedly preceded by a plague of locusts that ravaged all the vines in Byzantium.16This was widely seen to be an omen of the impending swarm of westerners about to reach the capital.

Anna Komnene’s account of the emperor’s misgivings as the first waves of Crusaders approached Constantinople is usually interpreted as an attempt to absolve him of responsibility for an expedition which would have damaging consequences for relations between Byzantium and the west. However, it is difficult to see how Alexios can have been anything other than deeply dismayed by the appearance of Peter and his followers in Constantinople. The emperor’s concerns, already heightened by reports brought back by his scouts, only grew when the vanguard of the People’s Crusade arrived in the capital. Even Latin sources note that their behaviour was appalling: ‘Those Christians behaved abominably, sacking and burning the palaces of the city and stealing the lead from the roofs of the churches and selling it back to the Greeks so that the emperor was angry and ordered them to cross the Hellespont. After they had crossed they did not cease from their misdeeds, and they burned and laid waste both houses and churches.’17

In the past, the emperor had dealt with sizeable groups of westerners, such as the 500 knights from Flanders, with little difficulty. But his first experiences with the Crusaders were harrowing. Having made them cross over to Asia Minor to minimise the threat to Constantinople itself, the emperor expected them to wait for other contingents before moving against the Turks. Yet such was their enthusiasm and misplaced confidence that they set out for Nicaea at once, sparing no one they met on the way. According to theAlexiad, they acted ‘with horrible cruelty to the whole population; babies were hacked to pieces, impaled on wooden spits and roasted over a fire; old people were subjected to every kind of torture’.18 Western sources are equally damning. It was not just the Turks who were brutalised, says the anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum; vicious crimes were also committed against Christians. There was no escaping the cruel irony that having set out to defend the Christian east from pagan oppression, the participants of the People’s Crusade were ransacking and destroying churches in northern Asia Minor.19

Spurred on by the conviction that they enjoyed divine protection, one group advanced on Xerigordos, a small but well-fortified castle east of Nicaea. They took it without difficulty, slaughtering its Turkish inhabitants. Yet the ambition and single-mindedness of the Crusaders to take on anyone in their way, coupled with a lack of any clear plan, soon turned out to have catastrophic consequences. It was not long before the euphoria in Xerigordos was replaced by panic as a large Turkish force closed in to recover the fort.

The situation soon became desperate: ‘Our men were so terribly afflicted by thirst that they bled their horses and asses and drank their blood; others let their belts and clothes into a sewer and squeezed out the liquid into their mouths; others urinated into one another’s cupped hands and drank; others dug up the damp earth and lay down on their backs, piling the earth upon their chests because they were so dry with thirst.’20 When the westerners surrendered, they were met with little mercy. The Turks marched through the camp murdering clerics, monks and infants. Young girls and nuns were carried off to Nicaea, as were clothes, pack animals, horses and tents. Young men were forcibly converted to Islam, relinquishing the Christian faith that had inspired them to head east in the first place.21 Those who refused suffered horrible deaths: they were tied to posts and used as target practice by the Turks.22

The Turks now advanced on Kibotos, storming the camp set up by Alexios. People were slaughtered in their beds and the tents set on fire; those who did not flee into the mountains or jump into the sea were burnt alive. Conversion to Islam or death were again the options offered to those taken prisoner. Rainald, one of the leaders of the People’s Crusade’s foray into Asia Minor, chose the former, concluding that it was better to submit than to be murdered.23 Others met their fates decisively. A priest found celebrating Mass was decapitated in front of the altar; ‘what a fortunate martyrdom for that fortunate priest’, exclaimed one chronicler, ‘who was given the body of Our Lord Jesus Christ as a guide up to Heaven!’24 So many were reportedly killed in the first contact with the Turks at Xerigordos, Kibotos and elsewhere that the mass of bones of the fallen were heaped up in huge piles. They were then crushed by the Turks to make mortar for filling cracks in the walls of fortifications: thus the bones of the first wave of knights seeking to fight their way to Jerusalem were used to obstruct the men following after them.25

The devastating failure of the People’s Crusade by the end of October 1096 was a significant setback for Alexios. It threw into question his whole policy of seeking help from outside Byzantium; it even looked as if it might prove counterproductive, adding to the difficulties the empire was facing. According to Anna Komnene, Peter the Hermit, who was discussing logistics with Alexios in Constantinople, took a tough view of events. The men who had been killed at Xerigordos and elsewhere deserved their fate, he said; they were brigands and robbers who had been disobedient and followed their whims. This was why they had not been given the chance to worship at the tomb of the Lord in Jerusalem.26 Other contemporaries took a different view. Poor discipline, bad planning and overexcitement can exact the most terrible price, mused Guibert of Nogent; perhaps if this expedition had been led by a king, things might have turned out differently. The disasters had taken place ‘because death comes to meet the undisciplined, and the man who cannot control himself does not survive long’.27

The Gesta Francorum, a text that circulated widely across Europe immediately after the First Crusade and formed the basis of many other chronicles of the expedition to Jerusalem, reported that ‘when the emperor heard that the Turks had inflicted such a defeat on our men, he rejoiced greatly’. Alexios then ‘gave orders for the survivors to be brought back over the Hellespont. When they had crossed over, he had them completely disarmed.’28 Although this account was partly shaped by the intensely negative image of the emperor that emerged after the Crusade, it was also clear that Alexios had not been pleased with the first arrivals. He now had to prepare for the arrival of the First Crusade proper.

Managing the expectations of ambitious and powerful magnates arriving in Byzantium presented a set of complex political demands. Hugh of Vermandois, the brother of the king of France, sent ahead ambassadors to the governor of Dyrrakhion with a message for Alexios in the summer of 1096, setting out how he expected to be received: ‘Know, Emperor, that I am the King of Kings, the greatest of all beneath the heavens. It is fitting that I should be met on my arrival and received with the pomp and ceremony appropriate to my noble birth.’29 This was followed, not long after, by a message no less grand: ‘Be it known, doux [the Byzantine governor], that our Lord Hugh is almost here. He brings with him from Rome the golden standard of St Peter. Understand, moreover, that he is supreme commander of the Frankish army. See to it then that he is accorded a reception worthy of rank, and yourself prepare to meet him.’30

Hugh’s eventual arrival in Constantinople was disappointing – though not because of the failure of the Byzantines to welcome him in sufficient style. In fact, he was shipwrecked after sailing into a heavy storm as he crossed from southern Italy, and was washed up on the shores of Epirus, separated from his possessions, as well as from much of his force, who were lost at sea. Retrieved and quickly brought to Dyrrakhion, Hugh was promptly spirited to Constantinople by Manuel Boutoumites, who was rapidly emerging as a key lieutenant, so that Alexios could placate him.31 As the Alexiad wearily puts it, ‘the episode concerning Hugh was just the start of it’.32

Hugh of Vermandois was one of the first members of the Crusade proper to reach Constantinople, arriving at the end of October 1096.33 Godfrey of Bouillon and his brother Baldwin reached the capital around the same time.34 Robert of Flanders was not far behind, setting sail from Apulia in December.35 Stephen of Blois and Robert of Normandy, who were travelling together, must have set out later than the others, for they were only ready to cross from Italy in early April 1097.36 By then Bohemond had reached Constantinople, while Raymond of Toulouse was around a hundred kilometres away.37

The journeys across Byzantine territory by the aristocrats recruited by the Pope and the emperor were generally pacific, though marked by occasional misunderstandings. Some were the result of overeagerness. When the contingent led by Richard of the Principate crossed over to Epirus, his lookouts mistook the Byzantine fleet for pirates, prompting the order for battle to be given. A volley of crossbow bolts was fired from the Crusaders’ ships, one of which struck the Byzantine commander, Marianos Maurokatakalon, on the helmet, while another went straight through his shield and body armour, lodging in his arm. A priest accompanying the western knights then became involved in the attack, seizing a bow and shooting arrows as fast as he could, before grabbing a sling and launching a large stone, which knocked Marianos out cold. As the officer was getting back on his feet after regaining consciousness, he was struck on the cheek by a barley cake which the priest was now throwing after running out of other missiles.38

There were other mishaps on the way. The bishop of Le Puy was attacked as he paused to rest during the long march across Macedonia. Robbed of his mule and his gold, and beaten severely about the head, Adhemar escaped a worse fate as his attackers argued about money, alerting the bishop’s travelling companions who arrived in the nick of time to save his life.39

Where things went wrong, Alexios was often held responsible, even though attacks like these were the work of opportunistic locals rather than imperial agents. As we shall see, subsequent events led to a highly coloured and negative picture of the emperor, with the effect that the Latin accounts are quick to focus on anything that could vilify Alexios. In this context, the silence of various sources about conditions during the march to Constantinople is remarkable. Not one of them comments on shortages of supply, which indicates that successful arrangements had been put in place to meet the needs of the expedition. This was no fluke: high-ranking officials were sent out by the emperor to meet the various contingents, with instructions to guide them safely to the capital. ‘Whenever we passed by any of their cities’, wrote one eyewitness, ‘this man [sent by Alexios] used to tell the people of the land to bring us provisions.’40 Considerable planning and careful execution had gone into establishing, maintaining and provisioning markets along the arteries leading to the capital.

Escorts were assigned to the Crusaders to accompany them along the most efficient routes and to keep them moving and out of trouble. They were generally very successful in doing so, although one force was particularly rowdy. Bohemond and his men regularly left the main road to Constantinople to rustle livestock and other goods, and on one occasion set fire to a fort filled with what they deemed to be ‘heretics’.41 They also moved at a markedly slower speed than the other groups, suggesting that they took a dim view of the admonitions of the emperor’s agents.42 Their behaviour sharply improved on the arrival of an imperial guide, who prevented a proposed attack on a castle ‘filled with good things’, and convinced Bohemond to order that property plundered by his men be restored to the local population.43

As the Crusaders neared Constantinople, Alexios took further steps to make a positive impression on the most important leaders, sending personal messages that stressed the generous reception they were to receive in the capital and underlining his friendship with them. He affirmed ties of solidarity, extending the hand of brotherhood and even presenting himself as a father figure.44 Yet contact between the western leaders was monitored carefully by the emperor to prevent contingents linking up before they reached Constantinople.45 While he was concerned mass arrival would put a strain on provisioning arrangements, there was also the more pertinent danger of an attack on the capital. Alexios took steps, therefore, to ensure that communications were regularly intercepted.46He also sought to prevent trouble by inviting the various leaders to advance and meet him ahead of their forces. Hugh of Vermandois and Bohemond were brought swiftly to the capital, well ahead of their armies.47 The same would have been true of others whose journeys are recorded in less detail, such as Stephen of Blois and Robert of Flanders.

Raymond of Toulouse was reluctant to meet the emperor on his own: the count understood that travelling ahead without his men would weaken his position in any negotiations.48 His suspicions were well placed, for Alexios did indeed have an ulterior motive for meeting these prominent men one by one. He needed them to confirm their loyalty.

Alexios was a generous host, receiving the western leaders lavishly. In the summer of 1097, Stephen of Blois wrote to his wife Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror, reporting excitedly on his treatment in the imperial capital. The emperor showered gifts on all the leaders, he wrote, and took personal care to ensure supplies reached the western knights. ‘It seems to me that in our times, no other prince has had a character distinguished by such complete integrity. Your father, my love, gave many great presents, but he was almost nothing in comparison with this man. Writing these few words about him, so that you will have some idea of what sort of person he is, has given me pleasure.’49

Stephen’s letter reveals the level of attention paid to him by Alexios, who entertained him in the palace for ten days, giving him many gifts and asking Stephen to send his son to Constantinople so he could be honoured in a ‘great and distinguished manner’. The effect was that Stephen looked at the emperor not only as an excellent man and a generous benefactor, but ‘as a father’.50

Stephen’s letter pre-dates the later collapse of relations between the emperor and the Crusaders, but even many of those writing later comment upon Alexios’ largesse. According to Fulcher of Chartres who took part in the Crusade, the emperor gave out large quantities of coins, as well as highly prized silk garments.51 Another eyewitness, scornful of Alexios’ generosity and mocking his credulity, stated that the westerners were encouraged to ask for anything they liked, including gold, silver, gems and cloaks.52 Even if it is not true that the emperor agreed to every request, it says much about his desire to win personal support from the expedition’s leaders that his generosity was perceived to be boundless.

The sources also agree that the most prominent Crusaders met with Alexios in person. This approach was a radical departure for a Byzantine sovereign. Foreign dignitaries visiting Constantinople were usually kept at a distance from the emperor. Princess Olga, a leading member of the ruling house of Kiev, was invited only to take dessert with the emperor when she came to the capital in the mid-tenth century,53 while an ambassador sent by the German emperor around the same time was kept waiting for days for an audience with the Byzantine sovereign.54

In the tenth century, admittance to the ruler’s presence was an elaborate affair. As one eyewitness recalled: ‘in front of the emperor’s throne there stood a certain tree of gilt bronze, whose branches, similarly gilt bronze, were filled with birds of different sizes which emitted the songs of the different birds corresponding to their species … Lions of immense size (though it was unclear if they were of wood or brass, they certainly were coated in gold) seemed to guard [the emperor], and, striking the ground with their tails, they emitted a roar with mouths open and tongues flickering. Leaning on the shoulders of two eunuchs, I was led into this space, before the emperor’s presence.’ At this point, a mechanical device raised the throne towards the ceiling, taking the sovereign out of speaking distance from the foreign visitor.55

In his dealings with the Crusaders, Alexios opted for a style that would have astonished and appalled his predecessors. The emperor adopted an informal approach, designed to put the western leaders at ease. Indeed, some thought that Alexios was going too far; at one reception a particularly confident knight sat down on the imperial throne, left empty as the emperor mingled with his guests. After being reprimanded by a fellow knight he called the emperor names under his breath. ‘What a peasant!’ he reportedly said. When these comments were translated Alexios responded with grace, merely warning the knights of the stark dangers that lay ahead at the hands of the Turks.56

The best example of Alexios’ dealings with the western leaders and of the lengths he went in order to win their support is his relationship with Bohemond. Bohemond was a highly charismatic figure, capable of inspiring strong feelings of loyalty among the Crusaders. Extremely attractive, he was clean-shaven – unusual in a world where warriors tended to be bearded.57 According to Anna Komnene, he was a man ‘unlike any other, whether Greek or barbarian, who was seen in those days on Roman soil. The sight of him inspired admiration, the mention of his name terror.’ He certainly had charm, though this was ‘somewhat dimmed by the alarm his person as a whole inspired’ – according to the Alexiad, ‘even his laugh sounded like a threat to others’. He was to go on to become Byzantium’s and Alexios’ nemesis.

The two men had fought each other tooth and nail in the early 1080s, and knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. As he rode into Constantinople, Bohemond cannot have known what to expect, and when he was ushered straight into the emperor’s presence, the two men were soon talking about the past. ‘I was indeed an enemy and foe then’, Bohemond purportedly said, ‘but now I come of my own free will as Your Majesty’s friend.’ Alexios did not push matters too far at the first meeting. ‘You are tired now from your journey’, he replied. ‘Go away and rest. Tomorrow we can discuss matters at length.’58

Special arrangements had been made for the emperor’s former enemy. ‘Bohemond went off to the Kosmidion where an apartment had been made ready for him and a rich table was laid full of delicacies and food of all kinds. The cooks also brought in red meat and poultry, all uncooked. “The food, as you see, has been prepared by us in our customary way,” they said, “but if that does not suit you, here is raw meat which can be cooked in whatever way you like.”’59

Alexios was not wrong to think that Bohemond would be suspicious: the Norman did not touch the food – although he insisted that his companions help themselves. Asked the next day why he had not eaten anything, his reply was unequivocal: ‘I was afraid he might arrange to kill me by putting a dose of poison in the food.’60

Alexios was generous with gifts and arranged Bohemond’s quarters so that he would find that ‘clothes, gold and silver coins and objects of lower value [had] filled the place so completely that it was impossible for anyone to walk in it. He ordered the man deputed to show Bohemond the riches to open the doors suddenly. Bohemond was amazed at the sight … “All this”, said the man, “is yours today – a present from the emperor.”’61

The emperor’s extravagant generosity extended to the lower ranks of the Crusader army. Stephen of Blois reported that Alexios’ ‘presents are making the lives of the knights easier, and his banquets are reinvigorating the poor’.62 Every week, four envoys were sent to Godfrey of Bouillon, and presumably to other magnates too, weighed down with gold coins intended for the rank and file.63

Yet despite the care Alexios took in welcoming the Crusaders, things did not always go according to plan. The situation became uncomfortably tense following Godfrey of Bouillon’s arrival near Constantinople shortly before Christmas 1096. Despite repeated requests, the Duke of Lorraine refused to cross over the Bosphorus, plunging the emperor into ‘an ocean of worry’, as he was deeply concerned about the presence of a substantial body of experienced knights in close proximity to his capital.64 When Alexios’ efforts to encourage and cajole Godfrey to cross over had little effect, he resorted to more direct methods. A heavily armed squad was dispatched under the command of his son-in-law, Nikephoros Bryennios, with orders to use force to move Godfrey and his men away from the city to their designated quarters on the eastern side of the Bosphorus.65

It was not long before the Byzantine troops and Godfrey’s men engaged. ‘Roaring like a lion’, the duke himself killed seven members of the imperial force, while Bryennios’ unerring aim as an archer marked him out as an equal to Apollo himself – at least in his wife’s eyes. The significance of the encounter, however, lay less in the prowess of those who fought and more in the fact that Alexios had to resort to force to make the Crusaders obey his instructions.66

To start with, these efforts to dislodge Godfrey had little effect. His men ransacked the grandest properties on the outskirts of Constantinople, causing extensive damage to the city and its citizens.67 When the military response did not work, Alexios decided to withdraw supplies and he ‘removed barley and fish from sale, then bread to eat, so that the duke would be forced in this way to agree to see the emperor’.68 This was a bold move, which risked escalating the situation. But it worked. Godfrey backed down and agreed to meet with the emperor in person after Alexios offered his eldest son, still not ten years old, as a hostage in yet another attempt to win over the duke.69

Godfrey and his followers arrived for their meeting splendidly attired, in ermine and marten robes lavishly fringed with purple and gold – clothing that was symbolic of their power and status.70 Terms were finally agreed between the two sides, with Godfrey consenting that his men be transported across the Bosphorus to join up with the other knights at the designated holding camp near Kibotos. In return, he was rewarded with heaps of gold and silver, purple robes, mules and horses.71 Alexios got what he wanted. While largesse, bribery and brute force had failed, the withholding of supplies served to underline that Alexios held the upper hand in his relations with the Crusaders. As one westerner noted candidly, ‘it was essential that all establish friendship with the emperor, since without his aid and counsel we could not easily make the journey, nor could those who were to follow us by the same route’.72 Stopping provisions was an effective way of driving the message home.73

The use of force was a last resort; in most cases, the handling of affairs by the imperial administration in 1096–7 was remarkably successful and the arrival of the western knights was managed calmly and smoothly. This was partly due to the attention and generosity that the emperor showed to the expedition’s leaders. But other, more practical steps helped minimise the threat to the capital. For example, access into the city itself was strictly controlled and westerners were only allowed through the forbidding walls in small groups. According to one source, only five or six people per hour were let into the city.74

Alexios’ priority was to get knights to cross the Bosphorus to Kibotos, where arrangements had been put in place to receive and supply large numbers of men. This was a matter of urgency, as the emperor’s efforts against Godfrey of Bouillon showed. As we have seen, when the Crusaders approached Constantinople, a sense of foreboding had spread through the city. Some speculated that the expedition’s real target was not Jerusalem but the Byzantine capital itself. The Crusaders, wrote Anna Komnene, were ‘of one mind and in order to fulfil their dream of taking Constantinople, they adopted a common policy, which I have often referred to before: to all appearances they were on pilgrimage to Jerusalem; in reality, they planned to dethrone the emperor and seize the capital’.75This view was not just confined to Byzantines, who tended to be suspicious of the hidden agendas of foreigners. Other observers, like Michael the Syrian, writing on the periphery of the empire, also believed that the Crusaders had not only skirmished with the Byzantines but had launched an outright assault on Constantinople.76

The fears of the capital’s inhabitants were heightened by the attacks of Godfrey of Bouillon. Anxiety was greatest among those closest to the emperor. Alexios’ few remaining allies in Constantinople believed that hostile factions within the city would take advantage of the arrival of the Crusaders to rise up against the emperor. Some wanted to settle scores going back to seizure of power by the Komnenoi, and there were also more recent grievances in the wake of the Diogenes conspiracy. According to the Alexiad, at one point the emperor’s followers rushed to the palace to mount a last stand against the disaffected inhabitants of the city, whom they expected to rise at any moment. The emperor was urged to put on his armour and prepare for a fight to the death, but Alexios remained impassively on his throne in an admirable display of theatrical sangfroid.77

Rumours of plots to overthrow Alexios continued to circulate both inside Constantinople and beyond its walls. Mysterious strangers approached at least one of the western leaders when he reached the capital, warning that the emperor was devious and wily, and urging him not to trust Alexios’ promises and flattery.78 Add to this suspicions about the Crusaders and their intentions, and moving the Crusaders on to Kibotos was essential for the security of Alexios’ regime.79 The presence of large numbers of armed men so close to Constantinople was dangerous in itself; but there was the additional concern that those in the city might look for help from the newly arrived cohorts, or simply take advantage of the edgy situation, to make a move against the emperor.

Alexios had considered this in advance. Although he had brought all the principal western leaders to Constantinople ahead of their men to entertain them and win their goodwill, he also sought to bind them to him formally. One way he did so was by adopting them as his sons. This was an old tradition whereby Byzantine emperors established a spiritual and paternal relationship with foreign magnates. The Crusaders did not seem to have thought this strange; it was the emperor’s custom to adopt high-ranking foreigners, wrote one chronicler, and the leaders were happy to acquiesce.80Another simply noted without comment that Alexios adopted all the western leaders as his sons.81 But sensitive to the fact that adoption was a uniquely Byzantine custom, Alexios reinforced the bond with the main leaders in terms that they would certainly understand: Bohemond, Godfrey, Raymond of Toulouse, Hugh of Vermandois, Robert of Normandy, Robert of Flanders and Stephen of Blois were all asked to swear an oath of fealty to the emperor.

Fealty was a key element in the feudal structure and well established in western Europe by the time of the First Crusade. It created a relationship with specific legal implications between a vassal on the one hand, and a master on the other.82 Paying homage, the vassal committed to serve his lord and not harm him by swearing an oath over the Bible or another suitable religious object, such as a sacred relic, in front of a cleric. It was this loyalty that Alexios Komnenos sought to extract from the visiting Crusaders. As Anna Komnene later put it, the emperor was asking each leader to become his ‘anthropos lizios’ – his liegeman.83

When this request was put to the more important aristocrats on the expedition, some objected strongly to any suggestion that they – leaders in their own lands – should pay obeisance to any man at all, let alone to Alexios, to whom they owed no obligation or duty. The objections were vociferous: ‘This our leaders flatly refused to do, and they said “Truly, this is unworthy of us, and it seems unjust that we should swear to him any oath at all.”’84 Complaints were not unanimous, though: Hugh of Vermandois, Stephen of Blois and others were willing to swear loyalty to the emperor. This was perhaps because they had been so well looked after in Constantinople, but there would also have been an element of pragmatism, given that they needed the help and support of the emperor to make it to Jerusalem. As one eyewitness reported, ‘To these, then, the emperor himself offered as many coins and silken garments as he pleased; also some horses and some money, which they needed to complete such a great journey.’85 This was acknowledged by the author of the Gesta Francorum who, consistently hostile to Alexios and Byzantium, struggled to understand why oaths were given by the expedition’s leaders. ‘Why did such brave and determined knights do a thing like this? It must have been because they were driven by desperate need.’86

Bohemond, meanwhile, had his eye on a bigger prize, suggesting to Alexios that he should be appointed to lead the imperial army in the east – a position that presumably still lay vacant following the disgrace of Adrian Komnenos, the military’s previous commander-in-chief.87 With everything to gain from the expedition and little to lose, Bohemond from the outset sought to position himself as the emperor’s right-hand man; he was quick to see that there were serious opportunities if he played his hand well.88

When agreement was finally reached with Godfrey of Bouillon after the fighting over the winter of 1096–7, part of the settlement was that the duke would take the oath to Alexios as others had already done. When he did so, ‘he received generous amounts of money, and he was invited to share Alexios’ hearth and table and was entertained at a magnificent banquet … The emperor then gave orders that plentiful supplies should be made available for his men.’89

The oaths had two separate and distinct purposes for Alexios. The first was the long-term aim of ensuring that all future gains made by the western knights across Asia Minor would revert to him in due course. But there was a short-term goal too: to safeguard his own position in Constantinople as the Crusaders gathered in Byzantium. The latter lay behind the compromise reached with Raymond of Toulouse, who rebuffed Alexios’ demand for homage point-blank: ‘Raymond responded that he had not taken the Cross to pay allegiance to another lord, or to be in the service of any other than the One for whom he had abandoned his native land and his paternal goods.’90

For a time, the count’s refusal to take the pledge threatened to destabilise the expedition, both by delaying its progress and also because other leaders had already given commitments to the emperor. Robert of Flanders, Godfrey of Bouillon and Bohemond, all of whom had sworn the oath, urged Raymond to do the same, to little avail. Eventually, a compromise was reached: ‘At this juncture, following consultation with his men, the count swore that neither he nor those in his service would harm the emperor’s life or deprive him of his possessions.’ He continued to insist, however, that he would not pay homage ‘because of the peril to his rights’.91 The fact that Alexios was prepared to accept this compromise reveals his primary concern: with the Crusader camp outside the city walls, the emperor required reassurance that his life and position was not under threat.

With Bohemond too Alexios was prepared to be flexible and accommodating. The Norman agreed to become the emperor’s vassal in return for a specific agreement: ‘the emperor said that if he willingly took the oath to him, he would give him, in return, land in extent from Antioch fifteen days’ journey, and eight in width. And [Alexios] swore to him that if he loyally observed the oath, he would never pass beyond his own land.’92 Yet the value of this concession was negligible; if anything, it was to the empire’s advantage. Encouraging Bohemond to take over lands that were beyond the empire’s traditional frontiers could result in the creation of a buffer zone between Byzantium and the Turks. From the Norman’s point of view, he would use the massive Crusader army for his own gains; this was particularly attractive given his limited prospects in southern Italy where his half-brother and his uncle held sway. It was, in other words, an agreement from which both men stood to gain.

Bohemond was so pleased by the prospect of carving out a realm for himself that he intervened on Alexios’ behalf during the latter’s negotiations with Raymond of Toulouse. It was Bohemond who cajoled and eventually even threatened the most powerful member of the expedition, telling Raymond that if he continued to refuse to take the oath, he would take direct action against him personally.93 This endeared Bohemond to the rank and file of the entire expedition, who saw the disagreements between the leaders as distractions from the matter in hand of taking on the Turks in Asia Minor. Bohemond therefore took the credit for keeping the momentum of the Crusade going. It also endeared him to Alexios, who came to see his former rival as a valuable ally, someone with common sense and a common touch – in short, someone he could rely on.

Although the emperor had immediate concerns in 1096–7, as the Crusaders arrived in Byzantium, he also had an eye on long-term strategy when formalising his relations with the expedition’s leaders. He was particularly concerned about what would happen to towns and regions that were to be taken by the westerners as they crossed Asia Minor. This issue was addressed explicitly in the oaths that were made in Constantinople. Godfrey of Bouillon, along with other leading western knights, ‘came to the emperor and swore on oath that whatever towns, lands or forts he might in future subdue that had in the first place belonged to the Roman Empire, would be handed over to the officer appointed by the emperor for this very purpose’.94

Reports of this arrangement quickly spread well beyond Byzantium, becoming widely known in the Muslim world. Well-informed commentators writing in Baghdad and Damascus knew the outline of the terms that had been concluded in the imperial capital. One wrote that when the Crusaders arrived in Byzantium, ‘the Franks, on their first appearance had made a covenant with the king of the Greeks, and had promised him that they would deliver over to him the first city that they captured’.95 Another focused on the determination and resolve shown by Alexios to get what he had wanted: ‘the Byzantine emperor refused them passage through his territory. He said, “I will not allow you to cross into the lands of Islam until you swear to me that you will surrender Antioch to me.”’96

Latin sources noted not only the commitments given by the western leaders but also those offered in return by Alexios. ‘The emperor’, wrote the author of the Gesta Francorum, ‘for his part guaranteed good faith and security to all our men, and swore also to come with us, bringing an army and a navy, and faithfully to supply us with provisions both by land and sea, and to take care to restore all those things which had been lost. Moreover, he promised he would not cause or permit anyone to trouble or vex our pilgrims on the way to the Holy Sepulchre.’97

In the coming years much was to turn on who fulfilled their obligations, with accusations of breaches levelled by both sides. But one thing was clear: Alexios perfectly understood the concept of fealty and acted like a western ruler, couching his requests for homage in language the knights were familiar with. Whether the emperor also recognised that these mutual commitments could be unpicked in difficult circumstances is another matter.

As the author of the Gesta Francorum was quick to point out, responsibilities cut both ways. When the Crusaders arrived in Constantinople, it was assumed that the emperor would be taking personal command of the expedition. After all, as the Crusaders converged at Kibotos, Alexios was behaving as their commander-in-chief, bestowing gifts, providing accommodation and food, co-ordinating their movements and advising on suitable tactics to use against the Turks. With his demand for oaths, furthermore, he had positioned himself as the central figure in the expedition.

This put Alexios in a difficult situation. He had called for help from the west because he urgently needed men to assist with a major reconquest of Asia Minor, after the advances of the Turks and the associated rebellion of the empire’s aristocracy had left him dangerously exposed. His ability to play an active role in the campaign was therefore limited, as Anna Komnene acknowledged: ‘the emperor would have liked to accompany the expedition against the godless Turks, but abandoned the project after carefully weighing the arguments for and against: he noted that the Roman army was hopelessly outnumbered by the enormous host of the Franks; he knew from long experience, too, how untrustworthy the Latins were’. Alexios was also concerned about revolt breaking out in Constantinople in his absence. ‘So this was why the emperor decided against joining the enterprise at that time’, wrote Anna. ‘However, even if his presence was unwise, he realised the necessity of giving as much aid to the Kelts as if he were actually with them.’98

There was no need for the emperor to declare his hand just yet. He was able to accompany the Crusaders into Asia Minor and to take the lead in the initial operations. But he had presumably yet to decide what would happen if and when the expedition proved successful and started to make serious headway against the Turks. But by the late spring of 1097, things were going well for the emperor. He had successfully negotiated agreements with all the western leaders and had been careful to promise to help the expedition; nevertheless, whatever the western knights might have expected, he had at no stage indicated explicitly that he would lead them in person to Jerusalem. Their future relationship would depend largely on how successful the knights were. Alexios thus watched intently as the Crusader army advanced towards the first major target: Nicaea.

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