Hugh’s army was one of the first of the better-organized princely forces to depart, probably leaving France sometime near Urban II’s proposed date of August 15, 1096. Eschewing the roads through Hungary, the army aimed instead for Bari in southeastern Italy, intending to sail from there to Durazzo (Durrës, in modern Albania).
As Hugh’s followers set about putting their moral and financial houses in order, Hugh himself wrote a letter to the Emperor Alexius, warning him of his imminent arrival. The letter does not survive. Instead, we have a satirical paraphrase written in the biography of Alexius by his daughter Anna Comnena. Hugh, according to Anna, proclaimed himself “the King of Kings, the greatest of all beneath the heavens,” and warned Alexius that he expected to be received in Constantinople with all the pomp suited to his great station. The language, though a bit over the top, does accord with what we know about Hugh and his followers—namely, that they expected him to become king of Jerusalem. We also know that most Latin observers found Greek court ceremonial more than a little overbearing. It is easy to imagine, then, the brother of the French king firing off a pompous and high-handed missive to the Greek emperor before departing for the East.
Alexius must have viewed Hugh’s letter not so much as a sign of Frankish pretension but as part of an ongoing crisis. By the time it arrived, he had already received the armies of Walter and Peter at Constantinople. He would have also had to deal with the crises created by Peter’s followers near Belgrade and afterward at Nish. Finally, Alexius would have heard how King Coloman, because of the Franks’ boorish and brutal conduct, had decided to forbid them from entering his domain. Alexius’s own subjects, already overburdened with the massive armies of Peter and Walter and equally aware of the chaos engulfing Hungary, were likely ready to take a similar stand against Hugh—even without knowing that while passing through Italy, Hugh had welcomed into his army some of the most erratic and violent members of Emicho’s following.
As soon as Hugh reached Bari in early October, he sent ahead a party of envoys to the Byzantine port of Durazzo to announce his imminent arrival. Accompanying this diplomatic group, unaccountably, was William the Carpenter. At Durazzo, according to Anna Comnena, the Franks repeated the veiled threats of Hugh’s earlier letter, backed up this time by Urban II’s endorsement: “Be it known to you, Duke, 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 his rank and yourself prepare to meet him.”
Hugh arrived at Durazzo a few days later, after, according to one source, his ship nearly sank during a treacherous crossing of the Adriatic. Envoys from Durazzo’s Byzantine governor met up with him, on the beach and still reeling from the voyage, and escorted him into the city. There he was greeted warmly and feted in a manner appropriate to his station. The following morning, after the Franks had had a good night’s sleep, the Greeks placed Hugh and his men under arrest and escorted them under close supervision all the way to Constantinople.
At about the same time as Hugh was preparing to cross the Adriatic, the two princes from northern France, Robert of Normandy and his cousin Robert of Flanders, were still readying their followers for the long journey east. Sometime in mid-October 1096, probably at Chartres, their two armies rendezvoused with Robert of Normandy’s cousin, Stephen of Blois, a wealthy and prominent count who had also decided to take the cross.
Stephen’s army included a chaplain named Fulcher of Chartres, not a warrior or, in the conventional sense, a person of any significance, but in terms of history one of the most important of all crusaders. Fulcher, a somewhat officious man, had not only attended the Council of Clermont but had also jotted down notes about its more important decrees (though, curiously, he failed to mention Jerusalem in connection with Urban II’s sermon). When he left with the French armies that October, he probably continued his record-keeping habits, or at least he made careful note in his own memory of the things he saw. At some later date, probably starting around 1102, he began to arrange these notes and memories more coherently in a book that he would revise often, entitled The Jerusalem History.
His description of the atmosphere around Chartres at the time of the Franks’ departure was suitably vivid: “At that time a husband would tell his wife when he expected to return, and that if God permitted life to be a companion to him on the journey, he would come back to his homeland and to her. He commended her to the Lord, and he kissed her, and as they cried, he promised that he would return. But she feared that she would never see him again and was unable to hold herself up and fell to the ground lifeless, sobbing for her friend who left her, now alive but seemingly already dead.” Crusaders may have expected a hundredfold return on their labors, but the immediate sacrifice and loss were no less daunting because of it.
By October the French armies had crossed over into Italy. Along the way they stopped at Lucca, where Urban II himself received them. It was the first time most of the soldiers had laid eyes on the pope. It was also very likely the only opportunity Urban had to preach directly to an army of crusaders, though there is no evidence that he did so. Fulcher observed only that the pope spoke individually or in groups with several of the pilgrims (including Fulcher) and then gave the army as a whole his blessing.
From there the Franks marched down the coast to Rome, hoping to pray at St. Peter’s. Unfortunately, the supporters of the antipope Clement III still controlled most of the basilica and were hostile to Urban’s loyalists. When the pilgrims entered the Vatican unarmed to pray, a few of Clement’s men threatened them with swords and stole their offerings. When the Franks knelt before the altars, Clement’s followers dropped rocks on their heads. The experience proved dispiriting enough for many of the crusaders that they decided to return home—victims of cowardice, according to Fulcher. More likely the grandeur of the papal vision, of which they would have at least had a taste at Lucca, clashed too sharply with the tawdry reality of Roman politics.
Toward the end of November, the armies finally arrived at Bari. As they would have quickly learned, they were the third major crusading host to pass through this port, seeking transportation to Durazzo. Hugh the Great had sailed about six weeks before Stephen and the two Roberts, and Bohemond—having just delivered the rousing sermon that reached a crescendo with him cutting up his own cloak into crosses—had probably left about a month after Hugh. It was probably rumor of Hugh’s army that inspired Bohemond to abandon his uncle at Amalfi and prepare to attack Jerusalem instead.
Once in Bari, the Franks would have gone at once to pray before the recently erected shrine of St. Nicholas, whose bones Italian adventurers claimed to have stolen from Asia Minor during the chaos that had followed upon the Seljuk Turks’ expansion into that territory. They likely prayed for favorable winds and a quick crossing. If so, Nicholas did not listen. The winter seas had begun to turn ugly, and Robert of Normandy and Stephen both agreed that it would be wiser not to test them and instead to set camp in Italy until spring. Robert of Flanders, however, was impatient. He successfully led his army across the Adriatic to Durazzo. There is no record of how he fared upon arrival, but presumably he received the same strained welcome as Hugh the Great had before him.
As for Bohemond, he was too familiar with Alexius’s strategies to fall so easily into his hands. To avoid the emperor’s traps, he arranged for his army to land at different points along the Adriatic coast and then to meet up on All Saints’ Day, November 1, at the port city of Valona (Vlorë, in modern Albania). On his best behavior, Bohemond instructed his men not to plunder the country where they had arrived, since it belonged to Christians, and not to claim more food than they needed. These rules were necessarily flexible. On Christmas Day, when the Byzantine town of Castoria refused to open its markets for the crusaders, Bohemond granted his men permission to plunder the countryside. And when, around New Year’s, they stumbled upon what they took to be a castle full of heretics, they burned it to the ground and killed everyone inside.
This was all part of a drawn-out, slow, even leisurely four-month-long march to Constantinople. It was a kind of “purposeful procrastination,” as a recent historian has phrased it, where Bohemond tried to make contact with other crusade leaders to propose to them an idea: that they begin their expedition with an attack on Constantinople. It was not as mad an idea as it now sounds. Bohemond was a veteran leader in the Norman wars against Alexius and had previously defeated the emperor in battle. Growing up, he had learned to think of himself as a potential Byzantine emperor. The crusade potentially gave him his chance. He only succeeded, however, in reaching Godfrey of Bouillon, who had arrived at Constantinople at about the same time Bohemond was looting around Castoria. The Lotharingian duke politely refused the invitation.
Godfrey himself had left his homeland at the head of an army of “illustrious princes,” according to Albert of Aachen—though most of these princes were related to Godfrey or else were members of his household. Most notable among them was Godfrey’s younger brother Baldwin (his older brother Eustace, Count of Boulogne, as noted earlier, had departed with Robert of Flanders). They set forth around August 15, the semiofficial departure date and also at about the same time as Hugh the Great left France. Like the armies of Peter and Emicho, they followed the pilgrims’ route through Hungary. But as they approached the German-Hungarian frontier, they met up with an alarming number of refugees from Emicho’s and Gottschalk’s armies, who told them how Coloman had betrayed their trust and how the Hungarians had closed all their markets and had refused them any hospitality. Godfrey wisely set camp on the Austrian side of the Leitha River and tried to discover the truth behind the stories.
Three weeks of tense negotiations followed. First Godfrey sent a small and undistinguished delegation to meet with Coloman. It included a knight named Godfrey of Esch, who had met Coloman in the past. Each side aired its complaints over the course of eight days, before Coloman allowed the envoys to return with an invitation to Godfrey that they meet together near one of his castles, called Sopron. Godfrey agreed, and at the advice of his men traveled there with three hundred soldiers. Leaving the main part of his army to mill about, he crossed a bridge with only two relatives to accompany him and walked into a marsh, where he found the king of Hungary awaiting.
They sat together for hours and talked about friendship, peace, and love. Each man, king and duke, decided that he found the other to be sincere in his affections. But Godfrey still had more negotiating to do if he were to achieve a satisfactory accord. At no small risk, he walked back across the bridge and dismissed all but twelve of his three hundred followers and then, with this much smaller group, entered yet another of Coloman’s castles. Negotiations and feasting continued for another eight days.
Finally, as the end of September neared, a deal was struck: Coloman would open his kingdom to the Lotharingians provided that they agreed to keep the peace and to respect Hungary’s markets and properties and also provided that Godfrey offered Coloman hostages of sufficient importance. Godfrey agreed to these terms and turned over to the king as hostages his brother Baldwin, Baldwin’s wife, and their household. Each side sent out heralds to proclaim the terms of the agreement. The penalty for even the slightest violation of the peace was death.20
Through this combination of diplomacy and fierce discipline, Godfrey steered his army through Hungary. Soldiers of the king shadowed his every step and effectively held his brother and his brother’s family prisoner—very similar to the treatment Hugh the Great received at Durazzo from Alexius. After three weeks, around October 15, Godfrey’s army reached Zemun, plundered just four months earlier by Peter the Hermit. They rested there for five days, in part because they heard that their diplomatic situation was unlikely to improve once they reached Byzantium.
The crossing of the Sava River to Belgrade thus became something of a preemptive military operation. Approximately one thousand soldiers managed to fit into only three ships and to establish a defensive line against any potential Greek attackers. The rest of the army, like many of Peter’s followers before them, used makeshift rafts constructed of timber and vines to cross safely. The operation proceeded without incident, and once all of the Lotharingians were across the Sava and outside of Hungarian lands, Coloman released Baldwin and his family from captivity and sent them to the other side of the Sava, too.
The next day, just as Godfrey’s army was entering “the vast and mysterious woods of the kingdom of Bulgaria,” envoys from Alexius met up with them and proposed yet another truce. Provided that, again, Godfrey respected the peace of the empire, Alexius would allow his army free passage and access to markets. At the city of Nish, where Peter the Hermit had lost nearly one-quarter of his army, the governor Nicetas now offered to the Lotharingians a generous gift of grain, wine, oil, and meat. The cities of Sophia and Philippopolis did much the same.
It was at Philippopolis, however, after an eight-day rest (where the soldiers might have occupied themselves visiting the first crusader shrine—the tomb of Walter of Poissy), that relations with Byzantium suddenly soured. A messenger arrived (it is unclear from whom) announcing that Alexius was holding as hostages and, rumor had it, in chains Hugh the Great, Drogo of Nesle, Clarembald of Vendeuil, and William the Carpenter. Perhaps this was honorable captivity, akin to what Baldwin had received from Coloman. There was also something like an expectation that Godfrey would join his fellow leaders in Constantinople. Instead, he stopped his advance and sent envoys to Alexius, demanding the captives’ release. (Two other leaders in Godfrey’s army rode ahead of the delegation, hoping to win a few last-minute presents from the emperor before the truce fell completely apart.) When Alexius refused this demand, Godfrey ordered his men to start plundering.
They did so for eight days. Alexius relented. Two new messengers reached Godfrey, promising that Alexius would release the prisoners provided the Lotharingians stopped ravaging the countryside. Godfrey ordered his men to cease their attacks and then moved camp up to the outskirts of Constantinople. Hugh, Drogo, Clarembald, and William were waiting to meet him, in the shadow of the city’s great walls and its golden domes, intimidating in their splendor. The former prisoners and the duke rejoiced at their newfound fellowship, embracing and kissing one another. Peace was, for a time, restored. But when messengers arrived from Bohemond a few days later and offered to make all-out war against Alexius, Godfrey must have been sorely tempted.
The final army to leave for the Holy Land was the first one that Urban II had recruited—the southern French. Though no one knows the exact numbers, it was the largest of the princely armies, a fact explained in part by the amount of time Urban II had spent recruiting in this area. Equally important was Raymond of Saint-Gilles’s extraordinary wealth, which enabled him to finance a much larger army than any of the other princes could. Theoretically attached to the French crown, Raymond’s Occitan—or as they are more often known, “Provençal”—followers would have formed a distinct cultural and linguistic group within the main army. One feature in particular would have immediately distinguished these Provençals from their fellow crusaders: the unusually large number of poor men and women who chose to follow in their wake. The care of these indigent pilgrims, as we shall see, Count Raymond took very seriously.
Before leaving Occitania, Count Raymond attended to his spiritual obligations, trying to resolve conflicts throughout his principality, including one of his own property disputes with the abbey of Saint-Gilles. As a final step toward putting his spiritual house in order, he arranged to have a candle left on the altar in the cathedral of le Puy, with a flame burning there before an image of the Blessed Virgin (likely the black statue of the Madonna, a replica of which sits in the cathedral today) as long as he should live. Perhaps because of the great care with which he approached these financial and spiritual obligations, his armies did not manage to leave until near the end of September, if not early October, well after Urban II’s mid-August goal.
In addition to a number of Provençal princes and castellans, Raymond’s army included several distinguished churchmen—most notably, papal legate Bishop Adhémar of le Puy and Bishop William of Orange. In the long run, however, the most important and influential among them was an obscure cleric named Raymond of Aguilers, ordained a priest during the course of the march. This Raymond was a chaplain within the household of Count Raymond, and he had served some minor role in drawing up plans for the departure. By the time the armies had arrived in Anatolia, as Constantinople neared, he certainly had a clear sense of what the crusade ought to be about, and he worried constantly that the army was losing its direction or else that deserters who had returned to the West were spreading lies about what was going on in the East. He wanted to make sure not only that the crusade succeeded, but also that his vision of the crusade prevailed. As often happened in the Middle Ages, he sought to control history by writing it. Probably realizing that his word alone would carry little weight, he recruited a knight named Pons of Balazun to help him with the project. And at some point during the march, certainly by the fall of 1098, like Fulcher of Chartres, they began writing a book, which is today simply called The Book of Raymond of Aguilers.
It begins in the middle of things. Passing over the early stages of the march, where the Provençals skirted across northern Italy, Raymond opened his story with the army already in Dalmatia, or “Sclavonia,” as he preferred to call it, a semiautonomous kingdom under the protection of the Byzantine Empire. Its land was, in Raymond’s description, mountainous and devoid of all sustenance, and its natives were a barbarous and ignorant people. When the Slavs’ harassment of the Provençals grew unbearable, Count Raymond ordered six of them captured and then had their eyes gouged out and their hands and feet cut off. Upon his command, they were left alive in public view, a warning of the consequences to be faced by those who would bedevil Christians. It was also a perfect example of the kind of rough justice characteristic of Christian lords in eleventh-century Europe—composed of small-scale acts of brutality intended to intimidate and subdue a potentially rebellious population. For Raymond the writer, the mutilations in Dalmatia were among Count Raymond’s outstanding deeds, a shrewd tactic that made the final forty days in that wilderness pass in relative peace.
By February 1, 1096, the Provençals entered into Byzantine territory at last, walking to the port city of Durazzo, where previously the northern Franks and southern Italians had arrived by sea. As soon as Raymond’s men reached the city, Alexius began applying to them the same treatment he had given to the earlier armies. His envoys presented Raymond with letters of safe conduct but at the same time established armies to shadow them and—perhaps deliberately, perhaps owing to misunderstanding—engage them in small skirmishes. These encounters could be deadly. Early on Greek soldiers killed a knight named Pons Rainaud. Later in February Bishop Adhémar of le Puy himself was attacked. As the army entered “the valley of Pelagonia,” Adhémar rode off alone on a mule, apparently looking for a congenial place to set camp. A group of Pecheneg soldiers or brigands (in the frontier regions of Macedonia, the distinction would have been a fine one) suddenly fell upon him, hit him sharply on the head, and knocked him off his mule. As much as the dazed Adhémar could later reconstruct things, most of the Pechenegs were ready to kill him, but one of them sensed that the bishop had access to more money than he was carrying. This brigand tried to stop his companions from killing Adhémar so that he might interrogate him, and in the process they all made enough noise to alert the rest of the army that the bishop was in danger. A group of Provençal soldiers quickly rode to his rescue.
This turn of events caused Count Raymond to take a more aggressive strategy against the emperor. Near a castle called Bucinat, he set an ambush for Pecheneg soldiers and routed them all. About a month later, around April 12, 1097, when the town of Roussa refused him supplies, he ordered an attack. His soldiers quickly broke down the walls, accepted the citizens’ surrender, and then stole much of their wealth. As the crusaders marched away, they shouted Count Raymond’s war cry: “Toulouse! Toulouse!” To all appearances, the Provençals were at war with the Greeks. Again, the crusade was turning into a war of Christians against Christians.
But at about this time more messengers from Constantinople arrived, along with envoys that Raymond himself had dispatched, carrying with them further promises of peace from Alexius. This time they carried news, too. The emperor was hosting at his palace Bohemond, Godfrey of Bouillon, and Robert of Flanders, among other princes. He was no longer keeping them prisoner; he was discussing with them whether to join the Latin army on the road to Jerusalem.
Important decisions were thus being made about the organization and financing of the crusade army. Raymond’s presence was required if he did not wish losing, despite his wealth and his great number of followers, control of the crusade. Setting aside his grievances, he departed with a small escort, leaving the rest of his army to complete the journey to Constantinople without him. Up until this point, chaplain and writer Raymond observed, his tale had been pleasant to tell. But from the moment that Raymond left for Constantinople, the story became suffused with grief and anguish. The thought of Alexius made the chaplain regret ever having taken up his pen.