The First Crusade
W HILE the Cid was fighting against the followers of Mohammed in Spain, another people had conquered them in Asia. These were known as the Turks, a savage race who had risen to great power, run over the Holy Land, and taken Jerusalem for themselves. For many years pilgrims had flocked to Jerusalem from all parts of Europe. The Turks now treated them with great cruelty. The complaints spread over Europe, till the Christians of every land were stirred with wrath against the cruel Turk.
About the year 1092 a Frenchman, Peter the Hermit, went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. There his soul was stirred by the horrors he saw, the inhuman treatment of the Christian pilgrims, and the want of care towards the holy places. An old story says that he spent the night at the Holy Tomb. Weary with watching, he fell asleep; and as he slept Christ appeared to him in his dreams, bidding him hasten home to make known the woes of the Christians. At dawn he rose, hurried to the coast, and took a ship for Italy to tell the Pope all he had seen and heard.
Urban listened with enthusiasm and eagerly bestowed his blessing on Peter the Hermit, who went forth from his presence to carry the message through the length and breadth of the land. Riding upon an ass, with bare head and feet, carrying in his hand a huge cross, Peter the Hermit went far and wide stirring up the people to go and fight for their brethren in Jerusalem. Rich and poor, old and young, knight and peasant, flocked to hear him.
Then a great meeting was held in France. From a lofty scaffold Pope Urban addressed the crowds, princes and soldiers of France, before him. He urged all of them to go a great expedition to the Holy Land. Dangers would beset their way, sufferings would be their lot, but their reward would be for ever.
"Go then on your errand of love," he cried, full of zeal and enthusiasm. "They who die will enter the mansions of heaven, while the living shall behold the sepulchre of their Lord."
Suddenly a great cry broke from the assembled crowds. "It is the will of God! it is the will of God!" they shouted passionately.
"It is in truth His will," answered the Pope, "and let these words be your war-cry when you unsheath your swords against the enemy. You are soldiers of the cross: wear it as a token that His help will never fail you, as the pledge of a vow which can never be recalled."
Men fell on their knees and took vows of service in the Holy War. A red cross marked on the right shoulder was the common sign of all the soldiers thus sworn, and henceforth they were known as Crusaders.
The departure of the great army was fixed for the 15th of August 1096. But before this date a rabble of enthusiasts set out, under Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless, for the Holy Land. As might be expected, ignorant of the way, they fell into the hands of fierce tribes who killed them by hundreds, and only Peter the Hermit returned to tell the sad story of their fate.
But the hero of the First Crusade, the model crusader, the perfect knight, was Godfrey de Bouillon. His high birth, fine character, and military courage brought men flocking to his standard, and his great army of Christian enthusiasts started off for their march through Germany and Hungary to Constantinople.
It was Christmas time before the crusaders stood outside the walls of Constantine's capital. Two months later they were across the Bosphorus and standing on the soil of Asia in the eastern world. It was a host vaster than that of Xerxes, mightier than the army of Alexander when he attempted to conquer Asia, that now marched over the site of old Troy. October found them before Antioch, but it was nine months before they succeeded in wresting the city from the Turks, and ten more before they started on their last great march to the Holy City.
The Italian poet Tasso has given us a most wonderful account of the arrival of the crusaders before Jerusalem. He tells us of their joy, mingled as it was with fear and trembling, when their eyes beheld in the distance that town "where Christ was bought and sold,"—how, forgetting all their pains and perils, they each pointed out to one another the longed-for goal. Jerusalem lay in the morning sunshine. Each crusader fell on his knees filled with reverence as he beheld the scene of his desire, and his eyes filled with tears. Putting aside their armour, the crusaders advanced in pilgrim's garb and with bare feet toward the Holy City.
But there was stiff work to be done before Jerusalem was theirs. More than a month passed, until it seemed as if after all the Turks would be victorious. One day, says an old story, in the midst of that deadly struggle a knight was seen on the Mount of Olives, waving his shining shield to rouse the champions of the cross to their supreme effort.
"It is St George the Martyr, who has come to help us," cried Godfrey.
As he spoke all started up. That day they carried all before them, and the first victorious champion of the cross stood on the walls of Jerusalem. The story of the massacre carried out by these Christian knights is not pleasant reading. The horses of the crusaders riding to the temple were up to their knees in blood, says the old chronicle, while the knights showed no mercy to the vanquished.
Barefooted, bareheaded, and clad in a robe of pure white linen, Godfrey knelt at the Holy Tomb. The first great Crusade had been accomplished. The leaders of the army now held a council to decide who should be given the crown of Jerusalem. The choice fell on Godfrey de Bouillon. To the surprise of all, he declined.
"I will not wear a golden crown," he answered, "in a city where my King has been crowned only with thorns."
Still he consented to remain and watch over the Holy Tomb, and with his faithful knight Tancred he bade farewell to the crusaders who now started for home.
So ended the First Crusade—one of the most wonderful expeditions in the history of the world.