Part 92: Crusade
Part XCII: Crusade
To understand the course of events which occurred leading to the march on Constantinople we must introduce a figure I had hoped to ignore, Leo Caesari, Julius’s younger brother. He had bought completely into Julius’s ideas, and so when the exarch of Italy began mustering an army and fleet to sail to Constantinople Leo went north, readying the remainder of Italy’s twenty thousand men, and then went beyond the Alps to Aachen to meet with the kings of the former Frankish Empire.
Also present was the Archbishop of Cantware, Archbishop Heloise, and representatives of the kings of Polani, Bulgari, Alba, Brittani, Caledonia, Pedinia, Svear, and Norvegia. As agreed Heloise was a dedicated defender of the Roman plea, and she was an invaluable asset as Leo made his case, as most of the present were far more willing to talk openly in the presence of a woman, even one as openly partisan and high-ranking as Heloise, than they were with Leo. Over the course of December Leo got offers of assistance from Henry, king of Germani personally, as well as troops from his fellow kings. Messengers were sent out to raise banners and call knights to the kingdom capitals as soon as spring arrived.
The upside of these agreements were promises of large sums of cash for the men who came to the defense of Constantinople, partially paid up front with Italian gold, and including gold stripped from the Churches of Rome itself, and promises of the forgiveness of sins before the Crusade began. That last was a key point in getting many knights to go to Constantinople. Heloise deliberately sold the endeavor as a pilgrimage that just happened to be armed and going to fight rather than a proper war, even though that was exactly what it was.
Leo remained in Aachen through the end of winter, and was back down the Italian passes in March, as soon as they were clear. He now had more work cut out for him, as he organized the Italian army fully, and laid out marching instructions before racing off into the Balkans with messengers and trusted lieutenants to lay the groundwork for the massive undertaking.
The entire march had to be carefully timed, as moving too early would leave the soldiers starving and liable to begin looting the countryside, which would make an already bad situation worse. Italian ships raced up and down the Adriatic, delivering food from the granaries of Italy, Africa, and Sicily to every port along the way, and leaving behind administrators with chests of copper coins to be used to purchase more supplies if needed.
The first contingents of Western troops did not set out until late March, these coming from Albion, Caledonia, and Brittani. Their route took them by Frankish ships from preselected ports to the Rhine, then down that great river to the Alps, where they crossed over into northern Italy, where they linked up with soldiers from Franki and Gael who had departed slightly later. These forces then moved into Illyricum, down the coast to Dyrrachium, and from there across the peninsula to Thessalonika where they met a local Roman force of Italians, who extracted oaths of fealty to Julius, and placed them all under the overall local command of Henry, who had been designated as Imperator (in the old sense of supreme commander rather than Emperor), of the Crusade.
The arrival occurred in early-June, with some early crops becoming available for harvest, and more grain shipped into the Thessalonikan port, left the men mostly satisfied with the trip. The gifts given by Leo to every major lord who arrived also mollified anyone who was starting to regret coming this far.
After the far western forces arrived the Germans, Danes, Norvegi, Sveari, Polani, and Bulgari arrived coming from the north. These forces come down along the Danube, then through Dacia and through the Hemus Mountains to the city. The normal total given for the combined army that massed at Thessalonika was one hundred thousand, and I referenced it earlier in the narrative. This number though is somewhat misleading. It is true that there were one hundred thousand people who marched the Thessalonika in 1248, but not one hundred thousand Western soldiers. To start off, some fifteen to twenty thousand were Italian soldiers, who were coming to the defense of their countrymen, and to put their own ruler on the Imperial throne.
Furthermore, each Western knight had at least one servant, and often two who accompanied him. Some of these men were also soldiers, but many were not. Also with the army were priests, guides, interpreters, women of various professions, and others. In total the number of actual Western soldiers was somewhere between forty and fifty thousand, with about forty-four thousand being the normal estimate. Of these about twenty thousand were knights, with the rest being either peasants raised to fight for their lords, or men at arms, a type of semi-professional soldier beginning to be utilized widely in the West. And since they don’t fit quite so neatly into any of these groups there were also some ten thousand Frankish militia from the Rhine cities.
Notably this contingent of militia was the primary addition to the army by Franki, a sign of the sort of military that would be fielded traditionally by that kingdom. Henry led his army out of Thessalonika on June 25th, headed for Constantinople.
Pushing his men on the German king’s scouts sighted the city on July 3rd, and raced back with the news that the city’s outer wall had been breached, and smoke billowed from inside, but that it seemed to still be holding. Henry pushed his army harder, and on the night of the 8th he gathered a force of Normans, Germans, and Poles to push ahead with him under darkness to try and reach the city early the next morning. Four thousand horsemen went with him, and the rest of the army set off early in the morning to catch up.
Henry’s force arrived at dawn, and he ordered his trumpets blasted, and his banners flown to tell friend and foe alike that he had arrived. Inside both the Roman controlled inner city and the Hun controlled outer city confusion reigned at first, as neither side had any idea just who had suddenly appeared. The battered and beleaguered defenders initially panicked at the idea that yet more nomadic reinforcements were on the way, but as Hunnic troops pulled back rumor began to spread that salvation as at hand. Some said that Christ himself was leading an army of angels to defend His city.
That was close enough, as the defenders watched a force of four thousand knights suddenly burst through the holes in the Theodosian Walls and charge into the regrouping Huns. Henry led the first charge personally, his gilded armor gleaming in the light of dawn, and he slammed directly into the line of Hunnic horsemen moving out to meet him. But without warning the pagan cavalry had been unable to properly arm themselves with fire lances, and so instead were armed instead with swords, useless against the armor of Henry and his leading knights.
The first wave of Hunnic horsemen broke and fled back to their reforming army, and Henry drove on, looking to break the entire enemy force right away if possible, but Tolui was reacting quickly. He had ten thousand of his men already fully prepared to assault the city the next day, and as the Westerners came on this force had turned and withdrawn from their positions, now meeting Henry and his knights. Fire lances roared, and the Western charge was blunted, then broken under the flames. Henry though was a long-time veteran, and he had the strength of a fanatic behind him, and so even as he withdrew he rallied his men to stand against the fires of the devil which the pagans wielded. He and his household guard rode back and forth like angels, rallying fleeing men and coming down upon pagans who had not expected such a rally.
More Huns however were now coming into the fight, leaving the siegeworks only lighly manned, almost entirely by the Syricans. Those men dutifully rotated the remaining canna to face the fighting, but held off on actually joining themselves. For now their commander, Huizong Fei, planned to watch what was happening in this new ongoing fight.
Henry was forced to gather his remaining knights, some 3000 men, into a circle, with shields and lances outward to hold off the Huns, their horses remained in the center. Inside the city Julius and Constantine watched with anticipation as the hours dragged on, until near ten in the morning more trumpets were heard, and another wave of Western cavalry came through the walls, followed minutes later by the Italian infantry, and then the Western infantry. The Huns were beaten back from Henry’s position, and the German king once again mounted his horse and led the assault on the pagan lines.
As he did so there were signals inside the city, and the main gates open, letting forth the defenders, who saw their last chance to survive the siege and seized it. At the head of the Imperial army were Julius and Constantine, the latter quite literally tied to his horse. And finally, in the last significant surprise of the day the Syricans rejoined the fight. On the Roman side.
Huizong and his men had little love for their Hunnic masters, who had conquered their homeland only a few decades before, and now saw a chance to at least survive the battle. The canna roared, blowing into the Hunnic lines as the horsemen retreated, and sowing even more confusion and panic among their ranks. At this point the battle was effectively won, but the Huns fought on, inflicting heavy casualties on the Crusaders, the Romans, and especially the Syricans, who were targeted specifically as traitors, with Tolui supposedly saying that their treason would be punished with devastation to their homelands, which is probably false, not least because it was so prescient.
The Western army was the force which fully won the battle however, with Henry driving his guards through the Hunnic lines to Tolui himself, and the pair battled one another on horseback, until the Hunnic khagan fell from his horse, dead.
Henry raised his sword in triumph, letting all see that he was victorious. And as all around looked on in horror the great king of Germanni, swayed in his saddle, looked on the setting sun, and fell from his horse as well. He was probably dead before he hit the ground.
Henry’s death is dramatically portrayed as the end of the battle in most depictions, including in The Charge of the West membri. But reality is of course more complicated. Certainly the death of both Tolui and Henry in combat with one another marked the disintegration of the Hunnic army, but even as many attempted to flee or threw down their arms killing and fighting continued. With the breaches in the wall covered by soldiers, and in particular by Britanni archers whose powerful bows could punch through the armor worn by even the heaviest Hunnic cavalry, none were able to break out of the Theodosian Walls. As the sun went down the last contingents of Hunnic troops were surrounded and either disarmed or killed.
The Westerners took shelter in surviving buildings of the outer city, and the day of battle was finally over.
But there were still many things left to do. To begin Julius and Constantine marched the prisoners through the streets in chains, unil all Hunnic prisoners, some five thousand in total, were brought to the Hagia Sophia for the crowd to jeer at, and in full view of the entire populace Constantine ordered that nine in ten be blinded, and to have their right hands cut off.
This order was probably a means of terrorizing the prisoners, as actually carrying out such an order would have been nigh-impossible, but the people cheered in support for the Emperor who was mostly held responsible for the city holding. This duty done Constantine retired, and would die of his injuried before the end of the day.
Julius was the one who actually set about dealing with the prisoners in actuality, and he immediately had all identified leaders, mostly pointed out by the surviving Syricans, blinded, and then executed. The men were given a kinder fate, they were simply sold into slavery and put to work repairing the Theodosian Wall.
The Syricans themselves were publicly welcomed by Julius, but privately held in considerable suspicion, as the Romans could tell little difference between them and the Huns, regardless of explanations. However, Huizong brought with him the ultimate decider, many of his surviving men were engineers, and they could bring to the Roman Emperor the secrets of firepowder, which Julius desperately wanted. So regardless of his suspicions the Roman Emperor needed them.
The Emperor’s brother Leo, so critical in organizing the Crusade and winning the battle had died in the fighting.
The Westerners were greeted in the capital as heroes, and the pope in Rome arrived days after the victory, having been en route at the request of Leo before the battle was fought. He, his priests, and several bishops blessed each of the men who had come on Crusade, and assured them that all sins they might have committed before the Crusade was forgiven. Masses and celebrations were held, but it rapidly became clear the Westerners really needed to leave. The devastated Roman capital could not hold them long-term. Men departed on ships or in groups overland, with guides provided, and everyone was given gifts as rich as Julius could afford to hand out. And indeed more than he could afford, because when the last Western lord departed the new Emperor looked at an analysis of the Imperial treasury, and found that even with Italy he was broke.
Henry’s body was taken back by ship to Venice, to be transported north to his homes in northern Germani to be buried. Most of the other soldiers were buried in Constantinople itself. In total of the forty-four or so thousand Westerners who had come to save the Roman Empire nearly fifteen thousand were dead, as were five thousand of the Italian reinforcements. In total the Hunnic invasion had cost the Romans almost three million dead, over one tenth of the entire population of the Empire, and had virtually annihilated the Roman army. Julius had a grand total of forty thousand men in all of Africa, Italy, Greece, and the coast of Anatolia.
Worse news was to come though. The Bulgari had liberated Dacia and Moesia from the Huns, and now were refusing to withdraw from those regions, under the claim that the liberation of Constantinople had ended whatever oaths they had taken to defend the Empire. The Roman border in the north had effectively been pushed south the Hemus Mountains, and Julius could do nothing about it.
But for now, Constantine X had been in late twenties, and had been Emperor for just under a year. And yet despite his short reign he is often considered among the great leaders of the Empire. In part this is because he had the good sense to die during the siege, which cemented both his reputation among people of the time, and ensured he was absolutely no threat to the Caesari as Julius set about consolidating his reign. Given how difficult the next century would be, a potential challenger could never have been acceptable. But Constantine had only a single young daughter, who would be bound by marriage to the new Emperor’s family.
And that is where we will leave off. The Roman Empire is in shambles, the East remains effectively in revolt, the north is lost, Hispani has broken away, and the treasury empty. To put things right Julius had his work cut out for him.