Massacre in Semlin

Peter the Hermit departed Cologne with his following on around 20 April. He had a much larger following than Walter and it grew bigger as he passed through villages along the Danube River. By the time Peter arrived in Oedenburg, the gateway into Hungary, his force numbered more than 20,000 pilgrims. King Coloman must have forgiven the first wave of crusaders for the trouble they caused in Semlin, or else news of their attempted theft did not reach him. He granted Peter and his followers’ food, other supplies and safe passage through his kingdom on condition they would not pillage and commit murder.

All went well until they entered Semlin. Steven Runciman credited Peter the Hermit as being a genuinely pious and humble man; he sought to build friendly relations with the kings and bishops of Europe because he wanted safe passage for himself and for his followers. He did not, according to Runciman, want his followers to pillage and murder their way through the various villages. Unfortunately, in Semlin dispute over the sale of a pair of shoes escalated into a pitched battle in which Geoffrey Burel, a knight led an attack on the town, killing four thousand Hungarians.

Albert, a chronicler of the First Crusade, painted a much different picture of the events that transpired in Semlin. Word of what the Hungarians had done to several of Walter’s men, reached Peter at Oedenburg, but Peter refused to believe that fellow Christians would do such a thing to their own men until he “saw hanging from the walls the arms and spoils of the sixteen companions of Walter who had stayed behind a short time before, and whom the Hungarians had treacherously presumed to rob.” At the site of their clothes and arms, Peter “urged his companions to avenge their wrongs.”

They raised their banners high and attacked the Hungarians, letting loose a hail of arrows from their bows. The Hungarians, completely caught off guard and unprepared for battle, gathered their strongest knights — who numbered about seven thousand — but they were quickly overwhelmed by Peter’s far more numerical force. Four thousand Hungarians were massacred in that pitched battle, while Albert wrote, only one hundred pilgrims perished.

After their quick victory, Peter and his followers remained in the city for a few days where they gathered enough grain, sheep, cattle, horses and wine to feed and supply the entire army. Then Peter learnt that King Soloman was marching on Semlin with an army to avenge his slain people. Taking all their newly acquired supplies, Peter hastened with his followers to the Save River, but they found very few boats to carry them safely across the river. On the other side, Nicetas ordered his Pecheneg mercenaries to restrict the crusaders’ crossing to one area. Desperate to get away from the Hungarian king’s army, the crusaders repelled the Pecheneg mercenaries; they sank the boats that carried Pechenegs and slay those who had not drowned. Very few of Nicetas’ mercenaries escaped the wrath of Peter and his pilgrims.  Furious and unstoppable, the crusaders descended upon Belgrade, a prosperous city in Bulgaria. There, they found the city abandoned. The townspeople, after undoubtedly hearing about the brutal massacre in Semlin, fled the city. They were wise to do that, for many–if not most–of them would have been slaughtered. Peter and his followers pillaged the city and then razed

The People’s Crusade

The first army that left for the Holy Land was that of Peter the Hermit’s. It wasn’t an actual army because the vast majority of his followers were peasants and laymen; many men had taken their entire families with them. Only a small minority of Peter’s following were knights, commanded by the pious knight, Walter Sans Avoir (The Penniless).

Nevertheless, Peter had amassed a great following.  Historians estimate that his following was anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people, large enough to be considered an army. Today, Peter the Hermit’s expedition is widely known as the People’s Crusade.

The biggest challenge Peter faced with leading such a large army was how he was going to keep them all well fed throughout the entire journey.  There were very few districts in Europe that had enough food to feed such a large group of pilgrims, so the only way he was going to keep them fed was to keep them moving.  Though, the district of Cologne lay strategically near the Rhine River so the land in that area was more fertile.  Peter assumed that the townspeople of Cologne would have enough food to feed him and his following. That was probably why he decided to stay there for a number of days. He also wanted to preach to the Germans with the intent to recruit more nobles to his crusade.

Peter was successful: the German nobles, Count Hugh of Tubingen, Count Henry of Schwarzenberg, Walter of Tech, Count Emich of Lusingen, Gottchalk and the three sons of the count of Zimmern, all inspired by Peter’s preaching, made their crusader vows.

However, not everyone left Cologne when Peter left. Walter Sans Avoir grew impatient and so he left Cologne, taking a few thousand of Peter’s followers with him, all of them probably knights. They marched alongside the great Rhine and Neckar rivers, then down the Danube, arriving in Hungary in early May of 1096. “When his (Walter’s) intention and the reason for his taking this journey became known to Lord Coloman, most Christian king of Hungary, he was kindly received and was given peaceful transit across the entire realm, with permission to trade. And so without giving offence, and without being attacked, he set out even to Belgrade a Bulgarian city, passing over to MaleviUa, where the realm of the kingdom of Hungary ends. Thence he peacefully crossed the Morava (Save) river,” wrote Albert, a chronicler of the First Crusade.

The moment they set foot in Semlin, discipline in Walter’s small army of crusaders disintegrated. As sixteen men attempted to rob a bazaar, they were caught in the act by the Hungarians. They were consequently stripped of all their arms and clothes and sent across the Save river naked. The Hungarians hung their clothes on the town wall as a warning to all.

Conditions for the crusaders deteriorated even more once they entered Belgrade. Since it was mid spring, the harvest had not yet been gathered, so the townspeople could not feed Walter’s army. They were probably just as suspicious of these foreigners as was their king and his military commanders. In any case, they forbade the sale of anything to Walter and the crusaders. Furious, Walter and his troops pillaged the countryside, stealing herds of cattle and sheep. In the process, the crusaders got separated from each other, so when the Bulgarians counter-attacked, they were quickly scattered and many of Walter’s men were massacred.

Walter fled with what remained of his army to Nish. “There he found the duke and prince of the land and reported to him the injury and damage which had been done him. From the duke he obtained justice for all; nay, more, in reconciliation the duke bestowed upon him arms and money, and the same lord of the land gave him peaceful conduct through the cities of Bulgaria, Sofia, Philippopolis, and Adrianople, and also license to trade.” They arrived at the gates of Constantinople in the middle of July and were received well by the Emperor Alexius. There, they waited for the arrival of Peter the Hermit and his much larger force.

Pope Urban Preaches Holy War: November 1095

When Pope Urban II got a hold of the Byzantine Emperor’s letter — Alexius Comnenus had intended for the letter to be passed on to him — he took matters into his own hands. Not only did he hate the Muslims, Urban shared the same deep rooted fear as did Emperor Alexius: Should military help not arrive in Constantinople soon enough, Byzantium, the gateway to the Holy Land, would fall to the Muslims. Pope Urban cared for the Eastern Christians and he wanted to help preserve their empire, but he was also a man of high ambition. So, it was very likely that his fear stemmed from the fact that the Muslims posed to threaten his papal expansion, the ultimate goal he held onto for several years.

Pope Urban inherited a mess when he assumed the papal throne in 1088. The papacy was embroiled in a power struggle with the German Emperor. This conflict was so bitter that it took Urban six years to reassert papal authority over Rome’s Lateran palace. In that time, Urban created a series of policies that were non-confrontational, designed to persuade the German Emperor, Henry IV to submit to Rome without force. Even those reforms did not succeed over night. Even when they did, Urban’s divine right to act as head of the Latin Church and spiritual overlord of every Christian in western Europe was still far from his reach.

Urban realized that his ‘Crusade’ — then termed as holy war or armed pilgrimage — would improve relations with the Greek church, which would enable him to expand papal authority into the eastern realm. He also believed that a crusade would unite all of Western Europe under one cause: to fight the Muslims in God’s Holy name. Only then could Urban’s goal become a reality.

In order to set his holy war in motion, Pope Urban needed to find a method to persuade all of Christendom to make the armed pilgrimage. He had to somehow reconcile murder, a deadly sin, with God’s divine will. However, Urban didn’t worry too much about that because he knew just the right thing to say and how to say it.

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Several versions of Pope Urban’s speech have been recorded and passed down through the generations. This version was written by Robert the Monk, Chronicler of the First Crusade.

‘Oh, race of Franks, race from across the mountains, race chosen and beloved by God as shines forth in very many of your works set apart from all nations by the situation of your country, as well as by your catholic faith and the honor of the holy church! To you our discourse is addressed and for you our exhortation is intended. We wish you to know what a grievous cause has led us to Your country, what peril threatening you and all the faithful has brought us.

From the confines of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth and very frequently has been brought to our ears, namely, that a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and has not entrusted its spirit to God, has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire; it has led away a part of the captives into its own country, and a part it has destroyed by cruel tortures; it has either entirely destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of its own religion. They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font.

When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate upon the ground. Others they bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent. The kingdom of the Greeks is now dismembered by them and deprived of territory so vast in extent that it cannot be traversed in a march of two months. On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you? You, upon whom above other nations God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great courage, bodily activity, and strength to humble the hairy scalp of those who resist you.

Let the deeds of your ancestors move you and incite your minds to manly achievements; the glory and greatness of king Charles the Great, and of his son Louis, and of your other kings, who have destroyed the kingdoms of the pagans, and have extended in these lands the territory of the holy church. Let the holy sepulcher of the Lord our Savior, which is possessed by unclean nations, especially incite you, and the holy places which are now treated with ignominy and irreverently polluted with their filthiness. Oh, most valiant soldiers and descendants of invincible ancestors, be not degenerate, but recall the valor of your progenitors.

But if you are hindered by love of children, parents and wives, remember what the Lord says in the Gospel, “He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me.” “Every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my name’s sake shall receive an hundredfold and shall inherit everlasting life.”

Let none of your possessions detain you, no solicitude for your family affairs, since this land which you inhabit, shut in on all sides by the seas and surrounded by the mountain peaks, is too narrow for your large population; nor does it abound in wealth; and it furnishes scarcely food enough for its cultivators. Hence it is that you murder one another, that you wage war, and that frequently you perish by mutual wounds. Let therefore hatred depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions and controversies slumber.

 Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves. That land which as the Scripture says “floweth with milk and honey,” was given by God into the possession of the children of Israel Jerusalem is the navel of the world; the land is fruitful above others, like another paradise of delights. This the Redeemer of the human race has made illustrious by His advent, has beautified by residence, has consecrated by suffering, has redeemed by death, has glorified by burial.

This royal city, therefore, situated at the centre of the world, is now held captive by His enemies, and is in subjection to those who do not know God, to the worship of the heathens. She seeks therefore and desires to be liberated, and does not cease to implore you to come to her aid. From you especially she asks succor, because, as we have already said, God has conferred upon you above all nations great glory in arms. Accordingly undertake this journey for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the kingdom of heaven.’

When Pope Urban had said these and very many similar things in his urbane discourse, he so influenced to one purpose the desires of all who were present, that they cried out, “It is the will of God! It is the will of God!” When the venerable Roman pontiff heard that, with eyes uplifted to heaven he gave thanks to God and, with his hand commanding silence, said:

‘Most beloved brethren, today is manifest in you what the Lord says in the Gospel, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them.” Unless the Lord God had been present in your spirits, all of you would not have uttered the same cry. For, although the cry issued from numerous mouths, yet the origin of the cry was one. Therefore I say to you that God, who implanted this in your breasts, has drawn it forth from you. Let this then be your war-cry in combats, because this word is given to you by God. When an armed attack is made upon the enemy, let this one cry be raised by all the soldiers of God: It is the will of God! It is the will of God!

And we do not command or advise that the old or feeble, or those unfit for bearing arms, undertake this journey; nor ought women to set out at all, without their husbands or brothers or legal guardians. For such are more of a hindrance than aid, more of a burden than advantage. Let the rich aid the needy; and according to their wealth, let them take with them experienced soldiers. The priests and clerks of any order are not to go without the consent of their bishop; for this journey would profit them nothing if they went without permission of these. Also, it is not fitting that laymen should enter upon the pilgrimage without the blessing of their priests.

Whoever, therefore, shall determine upon this holy pilgrimage and shall make his vow to God to that effect and shall offer himself to Him as a, living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, shall wear the sign of the cross of the Lord on his forehead or on his breast. When,’ truly’,’ having fulfilled his vow be wishes to return, let him place the cross on his back between his shoulders. Such, indeed, by the twofold action will fulfill the precept of the Lord, as He commands in the Gospel, “He that taketh not his cross and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.”‘