The First Crusade was a successful military expedition aimed at reclaiming Jerusalem and other holy places in the Near East that fell under Muslim control. This expedition also signalled the beginning of a series of other crusades that transpired within the span of five centuries.
As a backgrounder, during the Council of Piacenza in 1095, ambassadors of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos asked the Roman Catholic Church to lend military support to help the empire fend off the Muslim Seljuk Turks. Pope Urban II responded favourable and his speech delivered at the Council of Clermont in November 1095 marked the beginning of the First Crusade.
There are several reasons why the First Crusade became successful. It is also worth mentioning that there were specific factors at play that contributed to this success. However, these reasons and factors could be generally categorised into two: A unified European front made of large and organised armies of loyal Christians and a divisive Muslim world due to religious schism and internal armed conflicts.
Unwavering religiosity as reason for the success of the First Crusade
Christians from different European states mobilised to form several armies for reclaiming Jerusalem and other important territories under the control of the Seljuk Turks. There was a great diversity within these Christian armies—from monarchies and experienced military men, to members of the nobility class and peasants such as farmers and labourers.
Pope Urban II was instrumental in unifying these individuals from different walks of life. The speech he delivered during the Council of Clermont and the subsequent messages of the Roman Catholic Church appealed to the religiosity of these people. The pope promised redemption from sins and billed the First Crusade as the will of the divine while the Church presented the military expedition as a form of pilgrimage.
As a response to the call to arms of Pope Urban II and the Church, European states began considering themselves as protectors not only of the Western civilisation but also of the entire Christendom. Remember that Christians have regarded the Holy Land of Jerusalem as their spiritual home. Their staunch religiosity prompted them to defend and reclaim Jerusalem and other places from the Muslims.
Of course, the earlier phase of the First Crusade was disastrous. Inexperienced nobles and peasants led by Peter the Hermit formed armies in their attempt to heed the request of Pope Urban II and the Church. Chroniclers and historians labelled this phase as the People’s Crusade.
Unity within Christian armies as reason for the success of the First Crusade
Historian Jonathan Riley-Smith detailed the failures of the People’s Crusade. As mentioned in his book “The Crusades: A History,” the lack of military discipline resulted in lack of direction. Some groups within the army fought with unintended adversaries, including the Hungarians. Some fought over food supply.
When some members of the army led by Peter the Hermit arrived in Constantinople, they began pillaging outside the city in search of food and supplies. They further pillaged other communities upon their arrival in Asia Minor. Some wandered far enough to reach territories under the control of the Seljuk Turks. They ended up massacred and some groups lost due to the battle experience of their enemy.
Nonetheless, another phase within the First Crusade marked true unity and direction. Historians called this the Princes’ Crusade. In his book “The First Crusade: A New History,” medieval history scholar Thomas Asbridge mentioned that four key individuals led four large Christian armies. They were Godfrey of Bouillon, Raymond of Saint-Gilles, Bohemond of Taranto, and Hugh of Vermandois.
Leadership helped in the ultimate success of the First Crusade. An estimated 30 thousand crusaders formed the combined numbers of the four Christian armies. An infantry or foot soldiers made a large portion of these armies while a cavalry or horsemen made a smaller portion. Each army followed a chain of command and strategically attacked enemy territories.
These four large armies of Godfrey, Raymond, Bohemond, and Hugh successfully snatched critical territories from the Seljuk Turk. Their military campaign led to the creation of the first Crusader states in the Levant region. These included the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, and the County of Tripoli.
Division within the Muslim as reason for the success of the First Crusade
It was unity among Arabs and early Muslims that enabled Islam to spread across and beyond the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh and eight centuries. They were able to establish a united front that exploited the weakness of the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Empire. Note that both empires had become exhausted from years of battling with each other. Middle Eastern communities also preferred the lenient leadership of Muslims to the overzealous leadership of the Byzantine and Sassanid empires.
But the ensuing decades and centuries saw a growing division within the Muslim world that started with the emergence of the two branches of Islam. The conversion of other tribes and groups to Islam also created a diverse environment that was susceptible to conflicts and dissolution of power.
In her book “The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives,” professor of Islamic history Carole Hillenbrand wrote that there were no strong Muslim leadership in territories that were later targeted by the First Crusade. Governance in neighbouring countries was also weak.
The rivalry between the Fatimid Caliphate composed of Shiite Muslims in North Africa and the Abbasid Caliphate composed of Sunni Muslims in Baghdad that began in the tenth century divided the expansive Muslim world. In the eleventh century, this rivalry resulted in a military confrontation between the Fatimid Muslims and a new band of Sunni Muslims from the east. They were the Seljuk Turks.
Control over parts of Asia Minor and Levant fell under the Seljuk Turks. However, there were political conflict and hostility among the Seljuk princes and military commanders that ruled different territories in the Near East. The only similarity among these Seljuk groups was their refusal to make strategic alliance with the Fatimid Muslims.
Summary: Reasons for the success of the First Crusade
The leadership of Pope Urban II and the Roman Catholic Church appealed to the religiosity of European Christians. In preaching for a pilgrimage that involved an armed struggle with the Muslims, the Church inspired its followers to defend and reclaim the Holy Land of Jerusalem and other holy places. Crusading became a religious calling nonetheless.
However, religiosity was not enough. Armies composed of inexperienced nobles and peasants launched the First Crusade. This was the People’s Crusades. But these people lacked military experience and discipline. As a result, this initial phase was disastrous. Some members of these armies fought with unintended factions. Others pillaged villages for food and valuable items. Most ended up massacred by the Seljuk Turks.
The second major phase of the First Crusade came. This was the Princes’ Crusade. Godfrey of Bouillon, Raymond of Saint-Gilles, Bohemond of Taranto, and Hugh of Vermandois successfully spearheaded four large Christian armies that strategically sieged territories under Muslim control.
Of course, both unwavering religiosity and unity would not be enough if not for the internal problems within the Muslim world. The schism with the Muslim world was too much that Muslim leaders were willing to collaborate with other non-Muslim factions against their traditional Muslim rivals.
Most territories under the Muslim control were vulnerable to strategic attacks because of the absence of strong governance. The Muslim factions also failed to establish a united front that would allow better use of military resources. In other words, the organised armies of crusaders proved more prepared and devoted than their Muslim counterparts.
In summary, a unified European front made of large and organised armies of loyal Christians and a divisive Muslim world due to religious schism and internal armed conflicts are two of the critical and general reasons why the First Crusade was successful.