The Norwegian Crusaders

February 15, 2020

 

In 1107 a bloody chapter in Norway's history begins. King Sigurd Magnusson, later to be named Sigurd Jorsalfare, convenes a large Norwegian army of between 5,000 and 10,000 men to go on a crusade to Jerusalem.
 

He is the first European king to go on a crusade to the Promised Land, paving the way for Richard the Lionheart, the Knights of the Temple and the other known crusaders.

S igurd Jorsalfare was not the first Norwegian to leave. Already in 1102 a group under the countryman Skofte Ogmundsson from Giske in Sunnmøre had gone on a crusade to Jerusalem and then to the emperor in Constantinople, where they joined in service. And under the leadership of Norman Viking descendant Bohemond and other European aristocrats, thousands of other Norwegians put their noses to Jerusalem. This is a little known part of Norwegian history for many, but extremely exciting, although it is also a story characterized by brutal behavior by the Norwegians. And believe it or not, but now a fantastic lot of silver coins has emerged from one of the first crusades. Sit down and read!

The world's most powerful man

Let's start with a little historical recapitulation first: The Byzantine Empire was the successor — one after the Roman Empire, and was a huge power factor in the eastern Mediterranean for hundreds of years. The capital was Constantinople, or Miklagard as the Vikings called it (today Istanbul). Here sat the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, the most powerful and richest man in the world. Jerusalem in modern-day Palestine was initially an important part of the Byzantine Empire, and not least important as "the Christian capital.
"The Byzantine Empire represented for years the control of Christianity in and around the Mediterranean. But in 636 this would change. The Muslim caliphate took Jerusalem and in the centuries that followed, the Muslims advanced and took land after land in North Africa and gradually moved into Spain. There was a real crisis for the emperor in 1072. By then the Byzantines lost a major blow to the Muslim caliphate and all of today's Turkey was subject to the Muslims. The Caliphate stood on the Bosphorus Strait (which today separates Asia and Europe), and the Emperor was afraid that Constantinople, and thus himself and the Byzantine Empire, would soon fall if the Muslims advanced further west.


Christian mercenaries

Emperor Alexios the First therefore appealed to the Pope to urge the countries of Europe to send soldiers to oppose a Muslim advance in Europe. This was definitely something the pope was happy about. The church had already begun to argue what they called "just war" to win back Jerusalem. During a large ecclesiastical meeting in Clermont, France, in 1095, 300 bishops and priests from all over Europe, Norway included, were urged to convince Christians in Europe to sign up as mercenaries for the emperor in the war against the Muslims.
The church promised eternal forgiveness of sins and blessings to all who would join the crusade. But they were also threatened with curse if they for some reason jumped off. And the response was phenomenal. It is believed that as many as 100,000 soldiers and others from all over Northern and Western Europe joined various crusades for the first crusade in the period around the year 1100.


The Christians take Jerusalem back

But the plan did not go exactly as Emperor -Alexios had wished. Instead of campaigning for him against the Muslims, the various European leaders themselves wanted to fight the Muslims to secure their own states in the Mediterranean. Already in 1099, Jerusalem fell to Baldvin the first from France. The pope was greatly pleased, and was certainly indifferent to Baldvin proclaiming himself king of the state of Jerusalem, which covered much of what is today Israel. The most important thing for the pope was that Christians again had control and allowed pilgrims to go to Jerusalem. Emperor Alexios, on the other hand, was hardly happy. He had assumed that the Crusaders would win back land for himself and the Byzantine Empire.

One of the first major crusade leaders was Bohemond, and alone is believed to have assembled 30,000 volunteer crusaders. Bohemond was a descendant of the Vikings who had settled in Normandy. Whether his family originated in Norway or Denmark is impossible to determine, but on the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy, where the family lived, it was a significantly larger Norwegian than Danish immigration.

It is not known how many Norwegians joined Bohemond's army, or the other armies led by various European aristocrats during what is called the first crusade. But it is fun to read a lot of what is written in contemporary times. The English chronicler William of Malmesbury described the great support of the Crusades as follows: "The Welshman left his hunting trips, his Danish drinking cup and the Norwegian his dry fish" to join the crusades. The daughter of the emperor described us thus: “The beings came from the northern region; and by this I mean the barbarians who carry ax. "


Eternal forgiveness of sins​

Sigurd Jorsalfare would also follow the pope's request. He was a Christian and would do his duty as the pope commanded, and would secure forgiveness of sins. Going to Jerusalem at that time was associated with enormous prestige. Sigurd Jorsalfare gathered an army of between 5,000 and 10,000 Norwegians. Together with Bohemond and the other aristocrats' armies there must have been a considerable proportion of Norwegian men of the right age departing - for all we may know, up to 15,000 men or more. When we know that around the year 1100 only a few hundred thousand lived in Norway, we understand that this accounted for a large proportion of all men of war age. Those who left were probably tempted by eternal pardon and God's mercy, but surely many poor Norwegians saw the opportunity for income for themselves and their families. Crusaders were paid well and received part of the revenues from ravages along the way.

Sigurd Jorsalfare left Norway in 1107 with 60 ships, only 17 years old. The first stop on the trip was England, where he wintered until 1108. Here his late father Magnus Berrføtt had placed a large part of his taxes; more specifically in Lincoln. With the help of the English King Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, Sigurd took care of the treasures. This was crucial for financing the trip.

On the way to Jerusalem, the army raided and fought the Norwegians. They participated in a total of eight strokes and won all. Most famous is the action on the island of Formentera just off Majorca. Here, hundreds of North African pirates who ravaged the Mediterranean for decades were living in a large cave high up the steep slope of the island. The hula was unbearable for those who would attack. In steep uphill slopes it is difficult to win a battle.


Huge treasures

But Sigurd Jorsalfare knew the advice. According to Snorre Sturlason's "Heimskringla", the great army got two boats ashore on the other side of the island and they continued all the way down the slope towards the big cave. It was vertical down to the cave, and off the edge they threw down two boats full of Norwegian fighters. The pirates did not have a chance and fled into the cave. The Norwegians then made a huge bonfire at the cave entrance, so that all the pirates inside the cave were smoke-poisoned and perished, and the Norwegians could supply themselves. In the skald squads it says that this was by far the biggest treasures Sigurd Jorsalfare won.

Historians believe that Sigurd's plan was to join Bohemond's army. But the message eventually came to Sigurd that Bohemond had suffered a bitter loss and that the army had been decimated. Bohemond's army first went to an area in the middle of the Mediterranean, just north of today's Israel, where they quickly defeated an important fortress town for the Muslims called Antioch. But instead of informing the Emperor that this important city had been recovered, Bohemond likewise proclaimed that he appointed himself King of Antioch. He created a state by the same name that covered a considerable area, the size of Denmark. He did not give up. He wanted control over larger areas, and went against the emperor.