Battle of Ager Sanguinis, (1119) Part II

The Battle of Ager Sanguinis, 1119

Il-Ghazi’s plan worked perfectly. The Franks quickly became aware that they were surrounded. Prince Roger, even before the beginning of the battle, realised that things were not going as planned and described the Muslim attack as ‘many-sided’. At this point he made his last major mistake, and sealed the fate of the army. He had moved away from his defensive camp, and he was still miles away from al-Atharib. His best chance of reaching safety lay in carrying out a slow but disciplined ‘fighting march’ forward to the relative safety of al-Atharib castle. But this would have been difficult to conduct and, given the large number of ill-disciplined ‘volunteers’ in the army, Roger may not have thought it was feasible.

Instead, he seems to have decided to charge into the centre of the increasingly dense Muslim lines and push his way through to al-Atharib before the enemy could regroup. Roger knew that the first charge would be decisive. To give it the greatest chance of success, he sent Rainald Mazoir, founder of one of Antioch’s most famous noble families, with a detachment of troops over towards Sarmada, perhaps as a feint to divert attention away from the main army, or perhaps to try to halt the continuing numbers of Muslim troops entering from that direction.

The Antiochene army was still in good order and uncommitted at this stage, split into three main battle lines, van, centre and rear, and divided further into separate units within those lines. Last-minute adjustments and checks were made, and adjutants rode quickly up and down the lines to ensure that everything was as well ordered as possible. Final prayers were made in front of the fragment of the True Cross and the army’s shrine and then each of the units started to march forward. Messengers were continually sent from Roger in the centre to the other battle lines and units, conveying orders and receiving information, trying to keep the formations as well ordered as possible. He ‘venerated the symbol of the Holy Cross . . . then one by one the ranks raised their standards and set off in the assigned order, with bugles, flutes and trumpets blaring, and started their march eagerly’.

There were five units in the vanguard, the spearhead of the Frankish army. From right to left, these were the ‘battle line of St Peter’ (an elite military confraternity), the ‘battle line of Geoffrey the Monk’, the ‘battle line of Guy Fresnel’, and the unit commanded by Robert of St Lo. On the far left were the Turcopoles, tasked with protecting the flank of the charge as it connected with the enemy.

The attack was to go in from right to left, probably echeloned across the line. The ‘battle line of St Peter’ had performed well at Tell Danith, and was given the position of honour: the right of the line and the first into combat. The confraternity crashed into the Muslim lines to their front and, ‘giving their horses their heads, brandishing their lances as they made haste to strike the cohort in their path violently and quickly’, succeeded in putting them to flight.

The success of their charge triggered an onslaught from the next Frankish unit in the line, Geoffrey the Monk’s contingent, drawn mainly from his lands around Marash. This too was successful, routing not just the Turkic troops to his immediate front, but also other Muslim units on their flank. Il-Ghazi’s vanguard was looking increasingly shaky.

The unit next along the line, Guy Fresnel and his knights, also thundered into the Muslim ranks, and ‘attacked and assaulted the enemy with all its might’. The initial attacks of the Christian vanguard were causing significant damage. Even Muslim chroniclers admitted that the Franks ‘gave a redoubtable charge and the Muslims turned their backs in flight’. The Frankish charge on the right and centre was looking successful. The battle hung in the balance.

But Muslim reinforcements were immediately able to step in to fill the gaps. The routed Turkic vanguard regrouped behind the waves of horsemen that were coming up behind them. And there were vast numbers of nomadic cavalry still entering the sides of the battlefield, infiltrating around the flanks of the Christian army, and moving back towards the baggage train and rear.

The other problem was that, although the Frankish charge on the right and centre was successful, the assault on the left faltered and failed to connect. The Turcopoles were fighting a losing battle. Tasked with shielding the left flank of the vanguard for long enough to allow them to charge in, they were gradually pushed back by their opponents and, by the time Robert of St Lo’s contingent was ready to charge, the Turcopoles were beginning to intermingle and block their line of attack. We are told that ‘Robert of St Lo’s cohort, advancing with the Turcopoles from the left, when they should have struck, were unable to . . . as the Turcopoles were first to flee, and, driven by their own side’s charge and the shouts of the heathen, they got in the way of the prince’s battle-line as it rode against the strength of the [Muslims]’. The Turcopoles soon broke altogether and, to make matters even worse, their panic-stricken rout was infectious and ‘they carried along with them part of the prince’s cohort as they scattered’.

While the vanguard units were being pushed back and Roger’s central line was holding its ground, the rearguard division was beginning to falter. They could see things were not going well. Turkic light cavalry were beginning to filter round the flanks. Turcopoles and some of the vanguard were running back past them.

The decision facing the individuals in the rearguard was a brutal example of game theory in the raw: was the battle lost or not? If it was not yet lost, they could help themselves, and their comrades, by reinforcing the centre division and standing their ground. If they decided the battle was already lost, they knew that their best chance of survival lay in an early departure, back down the line of march before the few remaining exit routes were closed altogether by the nomadic horsemen. In the event, they decided the battle was over. The rearguard ran, even before they made contact with the enemy.

Walter the Chancellor, stationed in the central division near the prince and the Holy Cross, and writing soon after his release from an horrific period of captivity, was understandably bitter. He and his comrades were, he felt, betrayed by ‘some of the nobles, who had seemed estimable for their vigour and abilities and their noble blood, who also did not sustain the first assault, abandoned their prince alive on the battlefield, deserted their kin and friends, and set out at some speed, before the field of battle and the approach to the mountains could be closed to them by the enemy’s ferocity’. Although the fugitives had made it back to Antioch, he said ‘they would have preferred the port’, so they could keep running all the way back to Europe. As he commented bitterly, ‘as usual, last into battle, first through the gates’. The early flight of the rearguard was deplored by those who were left behind. But it was not entirely irrational. The battle was almost certainly lost by that point, and at least it meant that a cadre of Antiochene cavalry escaped to help defend the principality from the consequences of defeat.

Meanwhile, Il-Ghazi’s troops were softening up the Frankish centre and vanguard with archery prior to moving in for close-quarters fighting. The arrow storm created by thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of Turkic cavalry was immense. Witnesses reported that they saw ‘some of the horses stretched out on the ground like hedgehogs because of the quantity of arrows sticking into them’. The Frankish troops were subjected to a ‘hail of arrows which fell like a cloud of grasshoppers’.

The disintegration of the rearguard left Roger’s battle line vulnerable to being surrounded. The Turkic cavalry were able to wheel round and attack the centre, starting to overrun parts of the baggage train and tents.119 The Antiochene vanguard, aware that they were now encircled, began to fall back in disorder towards Prince Roger and his household knights, still defending the portable shrine.

Roger and some of his men made a last stand by the fragment of the True Cross, but it was all far too late. A sword thrust into his brain killed the prince instantly, and his household knights were cut down around him.120 The sources make it clear that soon after the charge of the vanguard, the Frankish army were almost totally surrounded. As an Armenian chronicle succinctly put it, the Muslim army ‘engulfed the Christians, who found themselves surrounded on all sides, with no way out. All were put to the sword and the count of the Franks, Roger, died with his men.’

The mounted members of the rearguard had unheroically but correctly decided that the only people who were going to leave the battlefield were those who were prepared to leave early. As the centre collapsed, thousands of Il-Ghazi’s cavalry were freed up to surge across the plain, cutting off the few remaining escape routes. Fugitives were killed in large numbers as ‘the battlefield was so hemmed in and access and paths to the mountains and valleys so observed, that not a single person trying to escape was able to get through unscathed’.

The last few knots of the men from the vanguard were still formed in some kind of order and were prepared to fall back on the centre to try to make a fighting retreat. By the time they got there, however, the Muslim cavalry had already been through the baggage train. Events had moved so quickly that the centre had already been largely overrun and Prince Roger killed in hand-to-hand fighting. The army had been surrounded on both flanks, even before the vanguard had fully regrouped from its initial frontal charges.

The troops from the centre division realised the main exit routes from the battlefield had been blocked. The survivors made their way to a nearby hill where they tried to establish a defensive position. They were gradually joined by refugees from the vanguard, falling back onto what they had hoped would be the fixed point of the army. But it was a vain hope. The troops were quickly surrounded (‘blockaded by infidels’) and subjected to ‘a barrage of spears and arrows from all sides’. A small number escaped but most were soon overwhelmed and killed or forced to surrender. By the end of the day the Christians were either in chains or dead. The ‘Franks were on the ground, one prostrate mass, horsemen and footmen alike, with their horses and their weapons, so that not one man of them escaped to tell the tale, and their leader Roger was found stretched out among the dead’.

Meanwhile, on the approaches from Sarmada, Rainald Mazoir with his ‘three-fold company’ had been conducting a battle of his own, and had succeeded up to a point, if only by diverting significant numbers of Il-Ghazi’s troops from the main battlefield. It played out remarkably similarly to the battle experienced by Roger and his men, however, and with the same results.

Rainald and his troops charged into the oncoming Turkic cavalry, routing the units to their front, and pushing back the enemy vanguard. As with the main battle raging nearby, it seemed at first as if the Christian troops were winning, and would be able to punch their way through. But the sheer volume of the Turkic forces they were facing meant that this was not possible. The impetus of the attack slowed down and eventually ground to a halt. Il-Ghazi’s units to their front may have been broken, but there were plenty of others coming up behind them. As the momentum of the charge was lost, the outnumbered Christian forces were overwhelmed. Rainald himself was wounded in the fighting, but his household men managed to get him out of the mêlée and fought their way through to Sarmada. There they took refuge in a small tower overlooking the town. Their hope was that they could stay there until reinforcements arrived.

That was no longer a realistic prospect, however. Although they did not know it, the main Antiochene army had already been destroyed and the army of Jerusalem was still several days away. The ‘tower of Sarmada’ was useful protection for villagers against marauding nomads or small raiding parties, but it was not designed to withstand a siege. Later the following morning, Il-Ghazi brought his entire army to Sarmada, together with the few hundred naked and shackled prisoners who were all that remained of the Antiochene army. Rainald had no choice but to surrender, as with ‘the weakness of the tower and the lack of food and, most of all, Il-Ghazi’s arrival there were good reasons why he could not remain there’.

Robert of Vieux-Pont and his men, who had played such a prominent part in the preliminary fighting outside al-Atharib, survived the battle. Perhaps because of their wounds or exertions on the previous day, they were lagging behind the main army when it was overwhelmed. They ‘saw the sudden attack and sped . . . to the city [of Antioch] where with their dreadful reports they brought out the citizens and roused them to the defence of their native land. Some hundred and forty escaped by being outside the camp.’

Luckily for the Franks, Il-Ghazi, as we have seen, took the opportunity of victory to treat himself to an extended bout of binge-drinking and torture. The arrival of King Baldwin with reinforcements from the south, combined with Il-Ghazi’s physical condition, meant that a rescue programme for the principality could be put into place. But the Muslims were able to roll up many of the Frankish frontier fortresses, including Artah, ‘Imm, al-Atharib and Zardana, pushing the Christian frontiers significantly westwards, back towards the Orontes. This was an important success for the Aleppans, who now had a far less threatening border to contend with. And as well as destroying much of the Christian frontier, Turcoman raiding parties were set loose across the whole Principality of Antioch. In the absence of any appreciable field army, bands of nomads were able to destroy much of the rural infrastructure, with raiders even getting as far as the Mediterranean coast.

That was the high-water mark. King Baldwin put an army into the field and met Il-Ghazi and his Turkic troops for another battle at Tell Danith on 14 August. The result seems to have been a fairly confusing draw, but it was Il-Ghazi who withdrew his men from the battlefield, and the ever restless nomads began to disperse. As Ibn al-Athir put it, ‘Il-Ghazi could not remain long in Frankish territory because it was through their desire for booty that he had brought the Turcomans together. Each one of them would arrive with a bag of wheat and a sheep and would count the hours until he could take some quick booty and then go home. If their stay was extended, they would disperse. Il-Ghazi did not have money that he could distribute to them.’

Even the most stable and focused leader, which Il-Ghazi could hardly be accused of being, would find it hard to wield such an army for extended periods of time. With the prospects of early booty disappearing, the campaign of 1119 ground to a close. It had been a major success for the Muslim powers, but they had not been able to convert that success into a cataclysm for the Franks.

Roger of Antioch

Roger of Antioch (d. 1119) Ruler of the principality of Antioch (1113-1119) in succession to Tancred. Roger of Salerno, as he was originally known, was a son of Richard of the Principate and a sister of Tancred. He succeeded Tancred as ruler of Antioch on the latter’s death in 1113. It is disputed whether Roger ruled in his own right or as regent for the young Bohemund II (born 1108), who was in Italy. However, Roger was accused of usurpation only by Fulcher of Chartres; other chroniclers treat him as the rightful ruler and refer to him as “prince.”

The first crisis of Roger’s reign was a massive series of earthquakes in 1114-1115. He demonstrated admirable qualities of leadership in his organization of the repairs to the city of Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey) and surrounding towns. In 1115, after careful reconnaissance and after making an alliance with the Turkish leaders Tughtekin of Damascus and Il-Ghazi, Roger campaigned against Bursuq of Hamadan. He did not wait for support from King Baldwin I of Jerusalem or Count Pons of Tripoli, his Christian allies, but launched a surprise attack on Bursuq’s camp on 14 September 1115. The ensuing battle of Tell Danith was an overwhelming victory for Roger and the high point of his reign. Bursuq died a few months later, and Antioch was established as a formidable political and military force in northern Syria. However, Roger tried to repeat his success in June 1119, by attacking a Turkish army led by Il-Ghazi, without waiting for Baldwin II of Jerusalem and Pons of Tripoli. The defeat that followed wiped out the Antiochene army and is known evocatively as the battle of Ager Sanguinis (the Field of Blood). Roger himself was killed in the fighting.

The principality of Antioch now lay wide open to conquest, but the Turks failed to follow up their victory, and the city held out until King Baldwin II arrived to take charge. He assumed the regency of the principality until Bohemund II achieved his majority in 1126.


Asbridge, Thomas S., “The Significance and Causes of the Battle of the Field of Blood,” Journal of Medieval History 23 (1997), 301-316.

—, The Creation of the Principality of Antioch, 1098-1130 (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2000).

Cahen, Claude, La Syrie du Nord a l’époque des croisades et la principauté franque d’Antioche (Paris: Geuthner, 1940).

Stevenson, W. B., The Crusaders in the East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1907).