Battle of Ager Sanguinis: Seljuk Turks Defeat Crusaders on the “Field of Blood”
“Battle of Ager Sanguinis,” Miniature painting (1337)
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)
Today in Military History: June 28, 1119
I recently began reading the classic series "History of the Crusades" – three volumes, by Steven Runciman, published 1951, 1952, and 1954 – and am currently about 100 pages into Volume III. As a result, I have acquired a whole plethora of battles to bedazzle and amaze my loyal readers. Today's offering is a battle which occurred between the end of the 1st Crusade and the beginning of the Second Crusade. It involved the Crusader states of Antioch and the neighboring Muslim principalities.
By the year 1100, a total of four Crusader states were carved out of lands that had been under Muslim control for over 450 years. They were: the Kingdom of Jerusalem; the County of Tripoli; the County of Edessa, and the Principality of Antioch. Nearby was the Kingdom of Lesser Armenia, which was sometimes allied with the Crusaders, but more often tried to ignore them. Surrounding all these Frankish states were the various Muslim states, which were constantly at war with each other. These intra-Muslim conflicts were mainly responsible for the fact that the Crusader kingdoms lasted as long as they did.
[The Muslims referred to all Crusaders generally as "Franks." It was basically their shorthand for "Western Christians." It did not matter to them from where the Crusaders came, whether France, England, Germany, Flanders, Normandy, or southern Italy. They were collectively Franks.]
One of the first Crusader state established was the Principality of Antioch. After the capture of the city of Antioch, most of the Crusaders eventually moved on to the conquest of the Holy City of Jerusalem. Antioch was established as a mini-nation of its own. Although the leaders of the First Crusade had promised the Byzantine Empire to turn over all their conquests to him, most of them distrusted the East Romans and decided to keep their acquisitions. During the discussions over who should rule Antioch, the recognized leader of the Crusaders decided to make the city his little kingdom. This was Bohemund of Taranto, who had a devoted band of South Italian Norman followers to whom he parceled out his new lands as fiefs. He died in 1111, a broken man who had been forced to make a treaty with the Byzantines, which recognized their overlordship over his hard-won principality.
The Crusader States, 1098-1291
(Map courtesy of www.allempires.com)
Bohemund was succeeded by his son, Bohemund II. However, as a child of three and living in Italy, a regent was necessary. His cousin Tancred, Prince of Galilee was appointed regent until the child could reach his majority (age 18). When Tancred died of typhoid fever a year later, the regency went to his nephew, Roger of Salerno. Another of the southern Italian Normans, Roger was apparently a successful military leader. In November of 1114 a major earthquake struck the Middle East, damaging nearly every Crusader fortification in the principality. Roger took great care to see that all these forts were restored and properly garrisoned. He defeated the Muslims in two major battles in 1114 and 1115.
Campaign for Aleppo
In 1117 Aleppo came under the rule of the atabeg Najm ed-Din Il-Ghazi ibn Artuq. He had gained control of the city after the assassination of its former ruler. He had been governor of Jerusalem prior to its fall to the Crusaders. He became head of the Artuqid dynasty in 1108, which his father had founded. Il-Ghazi made alliances with anyone, Muslim or Crusader. However, these alliances were never of long duration, and he honored his commitments only so long as they were to his advantage.
In Antioch, Roger soon began preparations to conquer the nearby city of Aleppo, one of the richest cities in the area. It was a merchant city of the first rank, and the western terminus of the famed Silk Road from China. Consequently, in 1118 Roger captured the town of Azaz, which left Aleppo open to attack from the Crusaders.
Il-Ghazi gathered his forces during the early spring of 1119, which included Kurdish troops from the north and Arab tribes of the Syrian desert. He also contacted Toghtekin, the emir of Damascus seeking reinforcements to repel the Antiochene invasion. Il-Ghazi left Aleppo in May of 1119, after he was badgered by his subordinate emirs, who feared that the Antiochenes would attack and plunder their own provinces. One Western source claims he had mustered 40,000 troops (this may be an exaggeration).
Roger marched out from the fortress of Artah – which was 25 miles east-northeast of Antioch – with Bernard of Valence, the Latin Patriarch of Antioch. Bernard suggested the Antiochene army remain there, as Artah was a well-defended fortress only a short distance away from Antioch; Il-Ghazi would not be able to pass if they were stationed there. The patriarch also advised Roger to ask for help from Baldwin, king of Jerusalem, and Pons, count of Tripoli. Roger sent requests for reinforcements to Jerusalem and Tripoli. King Baldwin replied that he would collect his troops – and those of the County of Tripoli – and march to the aid of the Antiochene regent. [Baldwin also was bringing a portion of the True Cross to bolster the Crusader morale.] However, Roger was bombarded by messages from the local Antiochene barons, asking him to move to protect their lands. Feeling he could not wait for the reinforcements from Tripoli and Jerusalem to arrive, Roger and his army left Artah, headed in a southerly direction, hoping to link up with the southern Crusader forces. Bernard returned to Antioch.
An alleged portion of the True Cross,
Imperial Treasury, Vienna, Austria
On June 20 the Antiochene force camped in a wooded valley near the town of Sarmada, thinking that the terrain was too rough for the Seljuk horsemen to negotiate. Unfortunately, the Frankish camp was surrounded by high cliffs, with few avenues of escape, and no water supply. Il-Ghazi was well-informed of the movements of the Crusaders. Muslim spies disguised as merchants reported the location of the Frankish camp and their small numbers. After receiving this intelligence, Il-Ghazi moved with a portion of his army (the chronicles are silent on the number) toward Sarmada. Along the way, he detached some of his men to threaten the nearby Frankish castle of Athareb. Roger received this information, and dispatched a small force to relieve the castle. Disquieted to know that the Muslims were so close, Roger sent the army's treasure back to Artah.
The Two Armies: Seljuk Turks vs. Antiochene Crusaders
Il-Ghazi's army was mostly mounted, probably some heavy cavalry but mostly Turkish light horse archers. There were likely some foot bowmen, and perhaps a bodyguard unit of heavily-armed foot soldiers. The histories of the battle do not give any figures for the size of Il-Ghazi's force. We can probably speculate that the Turkish force was at least equal to, if not slightly larger, than the Antiochene force.
Seljuk Turk horse archers (Illustration courtesy of Perry Miniatures, www.perry-miniatures.com)
Roger of Salerno's army was small by any standards. According to several chroniclers, the Antiochene force contained 700 knights and sergeants (mounted men at arms), 4000 foot soldiers and about 500 Turcopoles. These last were mounted light cavalry – based on the Turkish light horse – who were employed by the Byzantine Empire and the crusader states. Many were probably recruited from Christianized Seljuk Turks, or from Syrian Eastern Orthodox Christians under Crusader rule. In the Holy Land, turcopoles were more lightly armored than the knights and sergeants, being armed with lances and bows to help combat the more mobile Muslim forces. The turcopoles served as light cavalry providing skirmishers, scouts, and mounted archers; they sometimes rode as a second line in a charge, to back up the Frankish knights and sergeants. Turcopoles had lighter and faster horses than the western mounted troops and wore much lighter armour. Usually this comprised only a quilted jerkin and a conical steel helmet.
Turcopoles with bows & swords
(Illustration courtesy of Perry Miniatures)
Ever since the first appearance of the Franks 25 years previously, the Muslims feared the charge of the western knights. Their heavier armor protected them from pinpricks of the Muslim horsebowmen, and most of the Muslim cavalry could not withstand their irresistible charge or in hand-to-hand melee afterwards. However, as most of the knights had overly large egos that needed constant massaging, they could be undisciplined in battle, often charging without orders. This became particularly true with the military orders – the Knights Templar and Hospitallers – over the next 150 years.
Western knights charging, with lances leveled (couched)
(Illustration courtesy of Perry Miniatures)
The 700 Crusader horsemen noted in the histories were probably not all fiefholders to Antioch; some were probably mercenaries or men recently arrived in the Holy Land. There were possibly small contingents from other Frankish states which had arrived ahead of the main forces.
The Antiochene infantry were probably local Greek or Armenian smallholders, with some Frankish pilgrims who elected to remain in the Holy Land to defend the newly-liberated areas from the Muslims. Twenty years after the fall of the Holy City, most of the infantry were spearmen, with a smattering of swordsmen, axmen, crossbowmen and bowmen. They were also probably by now lightly armored, usually wearing nothing more than a steel helmet, possibly a leather jerkin, and carrying a Norman kite shield. [During the First Crusade, many of the western soldiers suffered severely from heatstroke and fevers from constantly wearing their heavy, metallic armor.]
Unarmored Crusader Spearmen (Photograph courtesy of Perry Miniatures)
Battle of Ager Sanguinis
After ambushing the small Frankish force sent to relieve Athareb, Il-Ghazi left a token force to blockade the castle, and marched with the remainder to confront the Antiochene army. The Muslims arrived at the Crusader campsite after sundown on June 27 and, using little-known footpaths in the steep hills, surrounded the Frankish camp without being detected. During the night, a sleepwalker ran through the Crusader camp, shouting that disaster was upon them. On the morning of June 28, scouts brought word to Roger that the camp was surrounded.
There was dwindling food and water in the camp, and a dry enervating wind was blowing from the south. Roger determined that he must break the Muslim encirclement or his army would not survive. Consequently, during the Frankish preparations, Peter the bishop of Apamea preached and confessed the whole army. Then, according to Runciman, "[Peter] confessed Roger in his tent and gave him absolution for his many sins of the flesh."
The Antiochene force formed into five divisions. These drew up in a V-shaped line with the tip farthest from the Muslim battle array. With the exception of the far left division, which comprised the Turcopoles under Robert of St. Lo, each division was composed of infantry and cavalry, with the infantry line up in front of the horsemen. From left to right, the other four divisions were commanded by Roger of Salerno; Guy de Frenelle, Geoffrey the Monk and Bishop Peter. Meanwhile, Roger formed up a sixth division composed solely of knights and sergeants under Renaud Mansoer, to protect the Antiochene rear.
Seljuk Turk Heavy Cavalry Charging (Illustration courtesy of Perry Miniatures)
Waiting for the Franks to ready themselves, the Seljuk army at first stood and waited. Then the noted Aleppan judge Abu al-Fadl ibn al-Khashshab, wearing his lawyer's turban but brandishing a lance, rode out in front of the army. At first the Turkish warriors were incredulous at being harangued by a scholar but at the end of his passionate evocation of the duties and merits of the jihad warrior – according to Kamal ad-Din, the contemporary historian of Aleppo – these hardened professionals wept with emotion and rode into battle.
The battle was begun by an archery duel between the Antiochene infantry, posted in front of the knights, and the Turkish horsebowmen. The Crusader army was at first successful when the right-hand divisions of Bishop Peter and Geoffrey the Monk attacked and defeated the Turks opposed to them. Guy de Frenelle's center division had some success also, but the battle was soon decided on the left flank. Robert of St. Lo and the Turcopoles were driven back into Roger's division, disrupting it. At this point, nature took a hand, blowing a north wind with heavy dust into the faces of the Antiochene knights and footmen, confusing them. The Antiochene footmen, local Syrians and Armenians, soon began to panic and began to crowd amongst the Frankish horsemen, disrupting the battle order. Soon afterwards, Turkish flanking forces enveloped the Crusader forces.
Turcoman (Seljuk ally) horse archers (Illustration courtesy of Perry Miniatures)
Early in the battle a force of about 100 Frankish horsemen broke through the Turkish encirclement. These men encountered the remnants of the relief force sent to Athareb, which had been ambushed the previous day and was hurrying to rejoin Roger's force. After learning the about the course of the battle, these men fled directly back to Antioch. Shortly after, Renaud Mansoer and a few knights also broke out, heading for the nearby town of Sarmada.
Roger of Salerno, regent of the Principality of Antioch, was killed in the fighting; one chronicle saying he took a sword to the face and fell at the foot of the large jeweled cross he used for a standard. Most of the Antiochene fighters not killed outright in battle were captured and put to death. By noon, the battle was over.
Atabeg of Aleppo Il-Ghazi paused on the battlefield only long enough to divide the Crusader booty, then headed for Sarmada. Renaud Mansoer surrendered to Il-Ghazi, but something about his proud bearing impressed the Seljuk leader, who decided to spare his life. However, his companions were not so lucky. These men were taken to nearby vineyards and tortured and massacred. After a time, Il-Ghazi ordered the torture to cease, then ordered the remaining prisoners to be taken to Aleppo, so the citizens could watch the events. Arriving at the city by sundown, Il-Ghazi entered in triumph while the Frankish prisoners were tortured to death in the streets of Aleppo.
Nearly the entire Antiochene force was wiped out, 3500-4000 men. Turkish casualties are not given, but could not have been extensive. This was the first major defeat of the Crusaders since the end of the First Crusade. It proved to the Muslim world that the Franks could be defeated.
King Baldwin II of Jerusalem
Illustration from 13th century manuscript
Footnote #1: With the massacre of Roger and the Antiochene forces, the city of Antioch was wide open to conquest by the Muslims. However, two things saved the city. First, Il-Ghazi threw a lavish victory feast to celebrate his victory. He also corresponded with nearly every Muslim leader in the Middle East to report on his achievement. He also began concentrating on capturing various border forts, but left Antioch itself alone. In addition, many of his troops returned to their home principalities with their booty.
Second, the Patriarch Bernard took command of the defense of Antioch. He disarmed the local Syrian and Armenian population, and distributed the available weapons to the Christian clergy and local merchants. These armed citizens stood watch on the city walls for over a month. In the first days of August, King Baldwin of Jerusalem appeared with his army, to the relief of the Antiochenes.
Footnote #2: Some scholars have speculated that the name of the battle was derived from the Biblical account in the Acts of the Apostles, of Judas Iscariot hanging himself in a field after betraying Christ. In Latin, that field was called Ager Sanguinis, or "field of blood."
Carving at Cathédrale Saint-Lazare, city of Autun, France
Depiction of Judas Iscariot hanging himself
Footnote #3: A few weeks after arriving in Antioch, King Baldwin led his forces against the Seljuks of Il-ghazi, winning a disputed victory over Il-Ghazi and his army at the battle of Hab. This Frankish victory allowed the Principality of Antioch to continue its existence for another century and a half.