When was the First Crusade?

The First Crusade was launched on 27 November 1095, and culminated in the siege of Jerusalem in June to July 1099 and the subsequent battle of Ascalon in August that year.


However, most of the major events of the First Crusade took place after the agreed departure date: 15 August 1096.

Who called for the First Crusade?

Pope Urban II first sparked the idea of crusading when he issued a landmark call at the Council of Clermont on 27 November 1095, commanding the Christian warriors of western Europe to take up arms against perceived enemies in the east, in order to reclaim the Holy Land.

Urban hailed from a noble French family, before becoming a Cluniac monk and later pope. He understood the wants and needs of those he called upon in Clermont, appealing to a throng that included all kinds of religious leaders, from archbishops to clerics.

Pope Urban II first sparked the idea of crusading when he issued a landmark call at the Council of Clermont on 27 November 1095. (Image by Getty Images)
Pope Urban II first sparked the idea of crusading when he issued a landmark call at the Council of Clermont on 27 November 1095. (Image by Getty Images)

According to eyewitness contemporary chronicler Fulcher of Chartres, it was the mission, said the pope, of warriors “to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends”. Urban also promised a reward: that all who should embark upon such a crusade and die would receive remission of their sins: in other words, guaranteed entry into heaven.

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Pope Urban II’s rallying cry soon became what is known today as the First Crusade, as men and women, young and old, set off to reclaim the Near East for Christendom. Within months, thousands had ‘taken the cross’.

By the summer of 1096, four crusading contingents – estimates vary between 30,000 and 100,000 crusaders – were on their way to Jerusalem.

Find out more in our podcast series, The First Crusade: The War That Transformed The Medieval World.

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Why did the First Crusade happen?

There is a complex web of reasons why the First Crusade was called by Pope Urban II.

Since the 1060s, Christian Byzantines had been engaged in conflict with the Sunni Muslim Seljuk empire – a rival power to the Fatimids that had conquered much of Anatolia (now part of modern-day Turkey, then a part of the Byzantine empire) and the near east – and by 1095 they had hoped to claim back what they had lost.

Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos had pleaded for western warriors to strengthen his own troops, sending envoys to Pope Urban II at the Council of Piacenza (March 1095) and, later, the Council of Clermont (November 1095).

Alexios’ appeal offered a solution to two issues that had troubled Urban. It not only allowed him to establish himself as the true leader of Christendom at a time of wavering papal authority, but provided the aggressive knights of western Europe with an outlet for their martial energies – all while offering his flock the chance to achieve salvation.

It is uncertain to what extent Jerusalem was central to Pope Urban II’s thinking when he issued his call to arms; it may have been tagged on by the Byzantines or the papacy as an additional incentive to entice western Christendom to action. Certainly, in later sources, it is attributed as a main aim of the campaign, but it could have been easy to reverse-engineer as justification for Jerusalem’s conquest.

In terms of practicalities, after years of poor harvests, 1095 AD had proven a bountiful year, making supplying a large army on the move feasible.

Timeline: key moments of the First Crusade

27 November 1095

Pope Urban II issues a call to arms at the Council of Clermont, setting the idea of crusading ablaze in western Europe’s Christian states.

April 1096 

Some 30,000 people set off on the ‘People’s Crusade’. In October, they are crushed by Seljuk Turks at the battle of Civetot, south-east 
of Constantinople (now Istanbul). 

November 1096–April 1097 

The main wave of the crusading army gathers outside the walls of Constantinople before crossing the Bosphorus. Many of the leaders swear an oath of fealty to Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos.

14 May–19 June 1097

In the first major clash of the First Crusade, Christian forces besiege Nicaea (near the site of modern-day İznik, north-west Turkey), where the defending Seljuk Turks surrender to the Byzantines

1 July 1097 

A crusader contingent is ambushed at the battle of Dorylaeum (now Eskişehir, south-east of Istanbul). Relieved by the main army, a crusader victory ensues.

20 October 1097– 3 June 1098 

The crusaders besiege Antioch (now Antakya, south-east Turkey). After striking a deal with a local man, Firouz, they sneak into the city and seize it. 

10 March 1098 

Baldwin of Boulogne becomes Count of Edessa (in what is now south-east Turkey) after an Armenian uprising overthrows its previous lord, Thoros. 

7–28 June 1098 

A Seljuk relief force besieges the crusaders inside Antioch. The crusaders break the siege at the battle of Antioch.

7 June–15 July 1099 

The crusaders arrive at Jerusalem and besiege it. Once they breach the city walls, they massacre many of its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants 
before making Godfrey of Bouillon ruler 
in all but name.

12 August 1099 

Crusaders defeat Fatimid forces at the battle of Ascalon (now Ashekelon, north of Gaza), securing their hold on the Levant.

Who fought in the First Crusade?

While the pope had intended to rally the elite troops of western Europe, his summons had a surprising result: an explosion of popular religious fervour that inspired tens of thousands across Europe to travel thousands of miles to fight an enemy in utterly alien territory.

Nobles, knights, engineers, clergy, peasants, women and children all set out. They were mostly from France, but also from the Iberian peninsula to England, and from the Italian peninsula to the German states, and were spurred on by religious zeal, or travelled either out of obligation to a lord, or even for honour, land or wealth.

This crusading army encompassed four contingents that, while not always cooperative, were held together by their common goal – to recapture Jerusalem.

What were the key sieges of the First Crusade?

While there were several other notable confrontations, there were four major sieges during the First Crusade.

1) The siege of Nicaea

The first target of the crusading army lay just under 100 miles into Asia Minor: the ancient Greek city of Nicaea, which had been captured by Seljuk Turks in 1081.

A battle scene during the First Crusade
A battle scene during the First Crusade, led by Goffredo Count of Bouillon. Miniature from 'Roman de Godefroi de Bouillon', France c14th century. (Images by Getty Images)

This first encounter was relatively anticlimactic as, after at the end of the siege – which lasted from May and June 1097 – the Byzantine contingent of the crusading army negotiated a surrender with the defenders. This forced the crusaders to move on before they had a chance to loot the city.

As they travelled further through Asia Minor, some of the crusaders were ambushed at the battle of Dorylaeum in July 1097, before being rescued by a relief force.

2) The siege of Antioch

Arguably the most arduous moment of their journey was to be found shortly afterwards at Seljuk-held Antioch (modern-day Antakya in Turkey), which the crusaders besieged from October 1097 until June 1098.

For much of that time, starvation rocked the crusader camp, and it ended not with open battle, but guile and violence.

In the spring of 1098, one of their leaders – Bohemond of Taranto – made a deal with an Armenian guard, Firouz. He allowed Bohemond and a small party into Antioch, who subsequently opened the gate, allowing the rest of the crusading army to flood in and take the city by storm.

3) The second siege (and subsequent battle of Antioch)

Having conquered Antioch, within days the crusaders were in a desperate position, as they were then besieged themselves – trapped by a relief force of Seljuk Turk Kerbogha.

It was during this month-long siege that a priest called Peter Bartholomew claimed to have made a miraculous discovery – the Holy Lance that had pierced the side of Christ as he was tied to the cross.

In a last-ditch attempt, they marched out of the city, scattering Kerbogha’s forces in battle on 28 June 1098.

4) The siege of Jerusalem

The crusaders final challenge was the holy city of Jerusalem, which they besieged in the simmering heat of July 1099.

Good fortune struck, and utilising timbers from allied supply ships trapped in a nearby harbour, the crusaders were able to build two siege towers and scramble over the city walls, where they sacked and massacred many of its inhabitants.

The crusaders’ victory of 15 July 1099 AD at Jerusalem prompted widespread celebration in the Christian world. In the Muslim world, stories and rumours about the crusaders’ conquests swirled and were weaponised over time, which had long repercussions in the following centuries.

What was the outcome of the First Crusade?

The First Crusade was interpreted in western Europe as a major success. The crusaders had captured the holy city of Jerusalem, and with it the supposed site of Jesus Christ’s burial, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

The Church seized upon this achievement quickly, establishing crusading as a worthy military endeavour. In future years, it would hark back to the First Crusade as the blueprint for any subsequent campaigns.

There were geopolitical changes, too. In the wake of the campaign, the crusaders also established four crusader states: the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Edessa and the County of Tripoli.

Although Edessa was lost in 1150, the remaining three survived for almost 200 years, providing defence for Christian communities in the Middle East, as well as maintaining a western presence on the borderlands of Christian control.

However, in the long-term, the First Crusade created a series of problems.

Primarily, the success of the First Crusade led western Christians to believe they could seize and hold the Levant – a broad geographical term describing the eastern part of the Mediterranean, with its islands and the countries adjoining.

In reality, the crusader states were too far from Europe’s heartlands, and were on the edge of a vast, militarily impressive Islamic empire.

Gradual resentment among the Muslim caliphates about these Christian landholdings escalated into a growing counter-crusade which, by the 1140s, had exploded into full-blown retaliation. Against such a threat, maintaining a western presence in the region became an unsustainable campaign.


Find out more about the First Crusade in our podcast series, The First Crusade: The War That Transformed The Medieval World. All episodes are available to members of HistoryExtra now


Emily BriffettContent Producer (Podcasts)

Emily is HistoryExtra’s Content Producer (Podcasts). Before joining the BBC History team in 2021, Emily graduated with an MA in Public History from Royal Holloway, University of London