The First Crusade succeeded in reclaiming Jerusalem and other holy places in the Near East that were under Muslim control. Note that this military expedition initiated and spearheaded by the Roman Catholic Church was the first of a series of religious wars or crusades transpiring within the span of five centuries.
As a backgrounder, during the Council of Piacenza in 1095, ambassadors of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos requested military assistance from the Catholic Church to neutralize an ongoing conflict with the Muslim Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor. Pope Urban II responded favorably. A papal speech delivered at the Council of Clermont in November 1095 signaled the beginning of a Christian-led military expedition against Muslims.
There are several reasons why the First Crusade succeeded. Furthermore, there were specific factors that contributed to this success. These reasons and factors could be categorized into two: A unified European front made of large and organized armies of loyal Christians, and a divided Muslim world due to religious schism and internal armed conflicts.
Three Major Reasons for the Success of the First Crusade
Unwavering Religiosity in Europe
Christians from different European states mobilized to form several armies and reclaim Jerusalem and other critical territories under the control of the Seljuk Turks. There was diversity within these Christian armies—from monarchies and experienced military men, to members of the nobility class and peasants such as farmers and laborers.
Pope Urban II was instrumental in unifying these individuals from different walks of life. His speech delivered during the Council of Clermont and the subsequent messaging of the Church appealed to the religiosity and sensibilities of these people. The pope promised redemption from sins and dubbed the First Crusade as the will of the divine, while the Church positioned this military expedition as a pilgrimage.
European states began considering themselves as protectors not only of the Western civilization 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 labeled this phase as the People’s Crusade.
Unity within Christian Armies
Historian Jonathan Riley-Smith explained the failures of the People’s Crusade. In the book “The Crusades: A History,” he noted that the lack of military discipline resulted in the absence of a clear-cut direction. Several factions within the army fought with unintended adversaries. Other groups fought over the food supply.
When some members of the army led by Peter the Hermit arrived in Constantinople, they began pillaging outside the city, searching for food and supplies. They further raided other communities upon their arrival in Asia Minor. Some ended up massacred after wandering far enough to reach territories under the control of the Seljuk Turks. They fundamentally lacked the experience and skills to handle trained and battle-hardened foes.
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 30,000 crusaders formed the combined numbers of the four Christian armies. An infantry or foot soldiers made a large portion of these armies while cavalry made a smaller portion. Each army followed a chain of command and strategically attacked enemy territories.
The four large armies of Godfrey, Raymond, Bohemond, and Hugh successfully snatched critical territories from the Seljuk Turks. 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 and Conflicts Among Muslims
It was unity among Arabs and early Muslims that enabled Islam to spread across and beyond the Arabian Peninsula during the 7th and 8th 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 culturally diversified 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 was no strong Muslim leadership in territories that were later targeted by the First Crusade. Governance in neighboring 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 10th century divided the expansive Muslim world. In the 11th 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 a 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 primary 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 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 organized armies of crusaders proved more prepared and devoted than their Muslim counterparts.
In summary, a unified European front made of large and organized armies of loyal Christians and a divided Muslim world due to religious schism and internal armed conflicts are two of the critical and general reasons why the First Crusade succeeded.