History of the Knights Templar in the Crusades:
A Basic Overview
compiled by Ron "Modar" Knight
On Tuesday, November 28, 1095 Pope Urban II had proclaimed the beginning of what would be the first crusade. Due to his oratory skills and the climate of the time, this proclamation was met with overwhelming enthusiasm. Following the initial exuberance, however, it became apparent that considerable organization would be necessary to begin the crusade. To allow time to complete all the arrangements, the departure date for the newly-formed crusading army was set for nine months hence, on the 15th of August 1096, the Feast of the Assumption, following the harvest.
For the nobles and knights, this amount of time was needed to get their holdings in order to run well while they were away, and to obtain necessary provisions, both for themselves and the men-at-arms they would take with them. But to the common folk who had been inspired to undertake this glorious quest, nine months seemed like an eternity away.
The peasantry were poor, landless, and largely ignorant. They were a down-trodden lot, worn from generations of toil and a society that prevented them from having any chance of changing their existence. They believed that if any hope remained for them it would be in another land. The crusade would take them to this better land as their religious leaders had always referred to Jerusalem and the Holy Lands as a land flowing with milk and honey. The crusade represented a chance at new life on earth, and a future place in heaven. They had no affairs to set right, and so were anxious to begin immediately. One did not know when death might strike their insecure existence, and they did not want to lose a sure way to salvation and getting into heaven, because they waited too long to begin their pilgrimage. Therefore they were ready to hear the words of the man who would next appear on the scene, Peter the Hermit.
Peter, although probably neither priest nor monk dressed in sacking and wore a cape of a hermit. He began riding through Europe on a donkey calling for an immediate departure to the Holy Lands. Peter claimed to have been given a vision by God. In the vision he was standing before Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Peter was then commanded to rouse the people against the Turks and free the Holy Sepulchre from Turkish control. In return for their efforts, those who took part in the expedition would have the gates of the heavenly Paradise opened for them. And after all, what danger was there really? Their faith would allow them to overcome the heretical Turks.
So, apparently without consulting Pope Urban, Peter proclaimed the beginning of his own crusade, which would begin on Easter Day 1096. At that time, the collected pilgrims would leave from Cologne, Germany for the Holy Lands. He found thousands of followers in the common man. Of course they were ready to follow Peter immediately; what reason did they have to wait?
These people though, had no idea of the hardships they would face. But Peter should have. Once, years before, Peter had attempted a personal pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Turks had abused him so greatly during his trek that he had to turn back long before getting near the Holy City.
Whether he had forgotten the difficulties involved in such a journey, or merely assumed that the large group of fifteen thousand he had gathered would not be bothered the way he had been as a single pilgrim, or had faith that because this pilgrimage had been blessed by God that all would go easily, no one knows. But because of the lack of any sort of planning, the People's Crusade as it would become known was ripe for disaster.
Early in March of 1096, Peter and his collection of pilgrims left Amiens, France for Cologne where the real start of the crusade would begin. Some of the events of the journey are known from the writings of one of the few literate members of the pilgrimage, Guibert de Nogent. The writings speak of how whatever Peter said or did was held as half-divine by the pilgrims. (Perhaps this is not surprising as Peter, riding a donkey at the head of their throng, preaching the glories that awaited the pilgrims most likely appeared to the masses the way Christ had been described to them by their religious leaders.) However, the author was perhaps a bit more skeptical and adds comments in the missives that mention that Peter looked very much like the donkey, and smelt considerably worse than the poor creature.
In describing Peter's extraordinary influence on the people he gathered, Guibert de Nogent wrote:
...he was surrounded by such great throngs, received such enormous gifts, and was lauded with such fame for holiness that I do not remember anyone to have been held in like honor. He was very generous to the poor from the wealth that had been given him. He reclaimed prostitutes and provided them with husbands, not without dowry from him; and everywhere with an amazing authority he restored peace and concord in place of strife. Whatever he did or said was regarded as little short of divine, to such an extent that hairs were snatched from his mule as relics. This we ascribe not so much to the popular love for truth as for novelty.
He wore a plain woolen shirt with a hood and over this a cloak without sleeves, both extending to his ankles, and his feet were bare. He lived on wine and fish: he hardly ever, or never, ate bread.
Peter's influence was evidenced from the nature of the huge crowd. It was a joyful and optimistic company. All throughout the march everything was orderly and spirits were high. They played music and sang hymns. People from various countries joined the march, French, English, even Scotsmen whose "short tunics of bristling fur" Guibert de Nogent comments on. The members of the pilgrimage took to wearing a sideways cross, like an "X", on their shoulders, in memory of Christ's journey to Calvary bearing a heavy cross.
Besides the common folk that Peter had attracted, there were a few knights, five of which were all from the same family, who had joined the crusade. These five were Walter de Poissy and his four nephews - Walter, William, Matthew and Simon. Walter, the elder, was to serve as Peter's military leader for the crusade, but he died in route to Cologne. The eldest of the nephews, Walter Sans-Avoir then took over the position.
Sans-Avoir had joined Peter's crusade out of necessity. He had squandered his patrimony years before. Since that time he had been living as a mercenary, mainly working for various nobles in their land disputes. But with the impending crusade called for by Pope Urban, all these disputes were being put aside to send forces to the Holy Lands, to grab land there. Work for a mercenary was difficult to come by until then. Out of work, and with no way to support himself, he could not wait until the main army left in August. So he jumped at the first opportunity that came along, Peter's crusade. And although San-Avoir was not known as an especially good soldier, he was brave, loyal and skilled in both diplomacy and negotiations.
It was on Holy Saturday, the 10th of April when Peter and Walter led the growing army of men, women and children into Cologne. Instead of starting out the next day, Easter, as originally planned, Peter decided to stay for a time and attract more followers. After a few days, many of the collected were becoming impatient, wanting to be on their way to the lands of bounty. Walter Sans-Avoir obtained permission to lead a vanguard of the massed one hundred thousand plus crusaders onward. So with a column of ten thousand common folk, a few knights that had joined up, a handful of baggage carts and a smattering of swords, axes, armour and shields, San-Avoir headed for the Hungarian front. The folly of poor advance planning would soon rear its ugly head for this group.
The first problem encountered was that the column was halted at the border by Coloman, the King of Hungary. He had no wish for ten thousand "armed troops" to pass through his country. But between the fact that Hungary had recently converted to Christianity and the diplomacy skills of Walter combined with assurances that order would be maintained, everything would be paid for, and no harm would could to any Hungarians, Coloman relented and allowed the column to pass on its way.
Only one minor incident occurred in Hungary. It was at the town of Semlin. There a handful of the unsuspecting crusaders were set upon by several Hungarians that beat them and stole their clothes and armour. They were further taunted when the Hungarians hung the stolen items from the city walls. But other than this, the vanguard moved without difficulty on to Belgrade in the Byzantine province of Bulgaria.
Here another problem loomed. The governor of Belgrade had no notice that a large group of pilgrims would be coming his way. So when scouts reported a large ragged army approaching, he had the city gates closed and the wall manned with militia. Walter found himself standing before a closed city. When he requested permission for his group to "stop over", he was turned away. He then petitioned for being allowed at least to purchase food, as the vanguard was almost totally out of provisions. He was informed that there was no food to spare, and that he should look elsewhere. (Due to poor planning, the crusaders were arriving at a time before the annual harvest, and food supplies would be at their lowest in the cities. Most likely Belgrade didn't have enough stores to sell.) Despite using all his ability as diplomat and negotiator, the governor of Belgrade refused to assist Walter.
Walter's failures weren't to end there. Even though he was military commander in chief, he couldn't prevent some of his men from taking matters into their own hands. Not far outside Belgrade were herds of livestock. They began raiding the herds of cattle and flocks of sheep and driving them by force back to their own camp. When reports of this reached Belgrade, the governor sent out armed forces to prevent the plunder. At one point the Bulgarians found about one hundred and fifty of Walter's men engaged in stealing cattle. The Bulgarians attacked, but the thieves ran. Being pursued, the thieves took refuge in a local church, expecting to find sanctuary. They were wrong. The Bulgarians set fire to the church, burning all the thieves to death.
Following this incident, Walter was able to get the column back under control and to continue their march. As the rabble force of pilgrims continued their trek onward, they were turned aside at every town they encountered, so they began pillaging the countryside. This continued until they reached the town of Stralicia (now known as Sofia). There they were met openly by the town's governor who was kindly disposed to Walter. No mention of their previous behavior was mentioned, or at least forgiven. The governor agreed to furnish a market for the crusaders, where they could purchase foods and goods -- at a fair price. He gave them guides that would take them on to Constantinople, where they would wait until the rest of Peter the Hermit's contingence arrived.
But first he offered them a place to rest and entertainment for a few days. While this was going on, unknown to the crusaders, he sent messengers to the Emperor Alexius to warn him of their coming.
This aid was based in politics, more than mercy. The governor knew that the Emperor Alexius needed the good will of the crusading army that would be coming, and could not afford to offend by treating these "holy pilgrims" poorly. Yet, there was a need to maintain control of this rampaging horde within the Byzantine borders or there would be an uprising of the Byzantine people over the "invasion" of foreigners. Aiding this enormous troop was the easiest way to maintain control.
The Emperor was ready to receive Walter's group when they arrived, but had been surprised they were coming in the first place. Alexius had been in communications with Pope Urban II and the Kings and Princes of the various countries and had thought that the crusaders would not be entering Byzantine territory until the autumn. Lodgings and a marketplace had been prepared for them, outside the city walls. With the vast number of people that would be coming to Constantinople it was incumbent on him to take precautions to prevent friction between the peoples, and from the crusaders forming a power base in the city that they could use to take over.
Peter the Hermit's army left Cologne approximately ten days after Walter Sans-Avoir vanguard. With the addition of Italians, Germans, Swabians and Barvarians, the vast army was becoming unwieldy. Yet it managed to reach the borders of Hungary without incident. There they were greeted by King Coloman, who having been primed for this onslaught of masses by Walter. Things went well, and the army began its trek through Hungary. Peter had given orders that there should be no pillaging, and everything went smoothly and uneventfully. So smoothly that Peter began traveling in an advance column ahead of the main thrust, so as to prepare towns for the approaching throng. Everything was fine until the main group reached Semlin.
Members of the main group recognized the shields and armour hanging from the city wall, which had been taken from Walter Sans-Avoir's vanguard. Believing that these men had been killed, and the hanging trophies were a deliberate provocation, the group became incensed and rioted. In the pitched battle, over four thousand Hungarians were killed, compared to the reported loss of only one hundred crusaders. It was days before word reached Peter who rode back to stop it. By then, it was too late. The first battle of crusades would go into history as being fought between Christians.
From this point on order was impossible to maintain. Peter had order that everything be paid for. No one listened. The army became a river, flooding over everything, sweeping away anything in its path. When the massive force reached Belgrade, they found it abandoned, the inhabitants having fled to the mountains on see the army coming. The crusaders took what they wanted, set fire to the city, and moved on toward Nish which they reached seven days later.
There was a large garrison permanently stationed at Nish, so the city was very capable of defending itself. Upon arrival, Peter approached and asked for provisions and guides. The city governor being wary and concerned about this force asked for hostages against their promise of good conduct, while continuing on. The hostages would remain until the crusaders reached Constantinople, then they would be sent on after them. Peter granted the request, and both food and guides were provided. No incidents occurred during their "lay over" and the army marched on, with Peter at the head, on his donkey, conferring with the guides.
But then the worst of occurrences happened. Days behind Peter, in the rear guard, were some unruly Germans who decided to amuse themselves by setting fire to some of the houses outside Nish's city walls, and to several watermills on the nearby river. These actions shocked and outraged the governor. He ordered troops to attack the rear guard, capture those responsible, as well as any others they could. Those responsible were put to the death, the rest were held hostage. Then the governor had the troops start harassing the rear of the crusader "train", capturing as many as they could. Thousands were killed and masses of women, children and elderly people, who were in the rear, as they couldn't keep up with the front leaders, were taken into captivity. Eventually news reached Peter who rode back to find out what was going on.
By the time Peter arrived, found a Byzantine officer who could fill him in on what was going on, and realized the people being attacked weren't totally innocent as they had provoked the Byzantines, it was too late to regain control of the situation. The crusaders had counter-attacked and for three days the battle waged. Over ten thousand men alone from Peter's army were killed or captured. There was nothing for Peter to do but wait out the crisis. Gradually he was able to restore order and the fighting stopped. On a hill some distance from Nish, he established a camp and sent out "heralds" to try and round up survivors. The entire force had disintegrated and where scattered for days in every direction. He was in such despair that he spoke of ending the crusade and returning home.
Yet, when all seemed lost, hope returned. In the form of a message from Emperor Alexius. The missive stated that news of fighting had reached the Emperor. To prevent further incidents he would grant food, guides, money and an escort to take them immediately to Constantinople. This olive branch of peace renewed Peter's dream and the crusaders moved on. The fighting had subdued the exuberance of the massed group and everything went smoothly. On, or about, August 1, 1096, Peter and the remaining crusaders reached Constantinople, two weeks behind Walter Sans-Avoir's group.
Peter received audience with the Emperor, where he expounded both his gratitude for the Emperor's aid plus the trials he had suffered years earlier at the hands of the Turks. He spoke of the vision given to him by God to save the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Alexius was so impressed by his speech that he granted Peter splendid gifts.
Peter wanted to take his forces and immediately march against the Turks. Alexius advised that he wait until the rest of the force being sent by Pope Urban arrived. (Obviously he had no confidence in Peter's group, thinking they could be integrated into the real fighting force to come as laborers, scouts, water-bearers and grooms.) But Peter was insistent and five days later Alexius was in full agreement with sending the army onward. The enormous troop became little better than brigands while in Constantinople. They behaved abominably; began stealing lead from the roofs of the churches because they could sell it to the Greeks; then started vandalizing houses. The Emperor became so furious that he order them out of the city. So the remnants of Peter's force, now numbering less than thirty thousand after the battle at Nish, were ferried across the Bosphorus.
Near the place of Helenopolis was a fortified camp formerly used by English mercenaries, and there the army pitched camp. The place was called Cibotos by the Greeks and referred to as Civetot by the Franks. Here a war council took place to determine the coming offensive against the Turks. Peter, after seeing how few there really were of his once great horde, counseled waiting until the arrival of the "great army of the princes" that Pope Urban was sending. The military sorts disregarded him, relieved him of authority and relegated him to acting as ambassador to the Byzantine Emperor and charged with trying to get whatever aid he could for them.
The two main leaders were Geoffrey Burel who headed a contingent of Franks and a man named Rainald who led a German/Italian faction. All the rest fell in behind these two. From Civetot the army began attacking surrounding villages, murdering and plundering. Regrettably, the nearest villages were Christian. The attacks ranged further, finally assaulting villages just inside the Turkish frontier. However, these also were inhabited by Christians. To date, all their fighting and success had been at the expense of helpless villagers who shared their faith.
After many weeks of successful raids, the crusaders were embolden. Geoffrey Burel decided to take the Franks out on their own and attack Nicaea, the capital of Seljuk Sultan Kilij Arsalan. They began by looting the villages around Nicaea; destroying livestock, pillaging and murdering. Written accounts from the time by Anna Comnena report them impaling babies on wooden spits and roasting them over fires.
Nicaea was a walled city with huge defensive towers. It held a large, capable, and well led garrison. A column of this garrison was sent out to engage the Franks. The Franks fled the field. And while they did not even come close to conquering Nicaea, they had acquired or destroyed almost everything of value in the nearby villages.
The German/Italian faction, not wanting to be outdone by the Franks went out to pillage. They moved past Nicaea to a fortress called Xerigordon. They found it undefended and "captured" it. Inside were a large amount of supplies. Had they taken the good and left things would have been fine, but they decided to remain for a few days and celebrate their "victory". Days later, on September 21, 1096 the Turks arrived in force, surrounded the fortress and conquered it after eight days, by cutting off the fortress' water supply which was outside the walls.
A surviving script known as the Gesta Francorum (The Deeds of the Franks) described the suffering of the troops:
Our men were terribly afflicted by thirst. They bled their horses and asses to drink the blood. Some let their belts and handkerchiefs down into a cistern, and squeezed the liquid into their mouths, while others urinated into their fellows' cupped hands and drank. Still other dug up the moist earth and lay down on their backs and spread the earth over their breasts, being so dry with thirst.
When the Turks finally came in, they offered to spare the lives of any who would give up their religion. Those who did were sent to slave markets. Those who did not were killed.
The remaining forces upon finding out about the incident wanted revenge. So Geoffrey Burel led the remaining armed force of about twenty thousand out against the enemy. Only old men, women and children were left at Civetot. The Troops marched out in six columns with standards flying and trumpets blaring toward Nicaea, hoping to draw the enemy out.
As fate would have it, the Turks had picked this day to attack the crusader camp and destroy it. The road leading to Nicaea ran through a narrow wooded valley, about three miles outside of Civetot. Turkish scouts were on the hills surrounding the valley and therefore saw the crusaders advancing toward Nicaea. They reported back to the main army that was awaiting in the plain beyond the valley, so that when the crusaders exited, their doom awaited them. The Turks waited until the cavalry leading the army emerged then had their bowmen lay down a shower of arrows. Many of the riders and horses were killed outright. The rest attempted to flee back, toward Civetot. However, the retreating cavalry collided with the forward marching infantry. Chaos ensued, then the woods of the valley sprang to life with Turkish forces that had been hidden there. The crusaders were massacred with ease. Among those killed right away was Walter Sans-Avoir. Death occurred from seven arrows. A handful managed to escape and make it back to the camp with the Turks right behind. Only two hours had passed since the crusaders had left, and now the Turks were burning the camp and killing old men, women and children indiscriminately. Those who could sought shelter in a nearby fortress on the seashore. It had been abandoned long ago and none of the buildings had roofs, and there was no gate. However by piling rubble the few survivors were able to shut out the Turks, who immediately surrounded the fortress and laid siege. Since there were no roofs, the Turks began firing arrows over the walls, hoping to drive the crusaders out. However, by pressing themselves against the inner walls, they were able to avoid being killed.
Because of the nearness of the fortress to Constantinople, word soon reached the ears of Emperor Alexius whom immediately sent a fleet with soldiers to aid the crusaders. When the ships came in sight of the fortress, the Turks lifted the siege and stole away. The survivors of the once great horde now numbered less than three thousand. They were taken back to Constantinople where they could recover before heading home. A few days later, the first contingent of Pope Urban's army of the princes arrived.
Go to Part III
Go back to Part I
Return to "A History of the Knights Templar in the Crusades: A Basic Overview" Index page
Go to the Baille of Sidon/Knights Templar page
Go to Modar's Templar Persona Page
©1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003,
2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 Ron "Modar" Knight
Baron Modar Neznanich, CLM, CSH, CT, CCC, OPel
Permission to Print