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Fearing the apocalypse was near, Thomas of Marle and the knights of the First Crusade unleashed holy hell on Jerusalem.

The climactic battle of the First Crusade ended with the victors bathing in the blood of the vanquished. On July 15, 1 of Jerusalem, the site of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection and the city they considered the center of the earth. What followed was more a slaughter than a battle. Muslim men, women, and children retreated in panic, seeking shelter in Jerusalem’s holy places. Crusaders killed anyone they encountered. Some later boasted that they had turned the streets into rivers of blood. Those who escaped the onslaught tried to ransom themselves the next day, when cooler heads ought to have prevailed. Instead, after releasing a few souls who had found refuge in the Tower of David, the crusaders executed nearly everyone.

In the words of a contemporary Christian writer, “The Christians gave over their whole hearts to the slaughter, so that not a suckling male child or female, not even an infant of one year would escape alive the hand of the murderer.”

Modern historians tend to describe the violence at Jerusalem as typical of medieval siege warfare. But this was a wholly new experience: the weapons of man turned into instruments of God’s wrath, pitilessly slaughtering the servants of the Antichrist. A few crusade veterans had moral qualms about what they had done. But most simply celebrated the massacre. All of them would have agreed on one point: The violence of the First Crusade, culminating at Jerusalem, had been unprecedented.

What caused this deluge of gore? The answer may lie with one of the crusaders’ forgotten heroes. Barely mentioned by contemporary historians, Thomas of Marle seems nonetheless to have been a celebrity among his fellow warriors. According to popular legend, the young nobleman from northern France was the first Christian to scale Jerusalem’s walls on that nightmarish day in 1099, and he later starred in oral histories of the crusade. Even before reaching Jerusalem, Thomas had joined in a series of massacres inspired by a cultlike religious figure and fueled by visions of the apocalypse. Now, at the climax of the Crusade, the warrior appears to have infected fellow knights with this messianic fervor, helping to turn their extreme religiosity to violent rage.

Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade with his famous November 1095 sermon at the Council of Clermont, calling on all nobles to wipe the Muslim Seljuk Turks from the Holy Land. Thomas of Marle was still a teenager, the son of a powerful, ruthless knight named Enguerrand, lord of the castle Coucy. As Enguerrand’s expected heir, Thomas would have trained from an early age for a military career. He most likely participated in an occasional violent skirmish and a handful of sieges—but nothing on the scale of the conquest of Jerusalem. Siege warfare in 11th-century Europe typically targeted not cities but castles, which at the time were usually unimpressive structures housing small garrisons.

Though trained as a warrior, Thomas did not have bright prospects. He had, in fact, just been disowned. In 1095 his father repudiated his first wife on suspicion of adultery, casting doubt on Thomas’s legitimacy and his claim to an inheritance. It is not surprising that a young warrior in such circumstances answered the call of adventure in the East.

Although most of the participants in the First Crusade took their inspiration from Urban II, Thomas accepted his calling from an unlicensed preacher named Peter the Hermit. Independent of the papacy, Peter preached assiduously about Jerusalem in 1095 and 1096, drawing great crowds and achieving notoriety. Refusing meat, traveling barefoot, riding on a mule, and using donations to redeem prostitutes, Peter delivered performances that drove audiences wild; they tore at his clothes and plucked hairs from his mule, preserving them as if they were fragments of the True Cross, on which Christ was crucified.

Peter also used an eye-catching prop, a parchment that he claimed had fallen from heaven. It was a letter from God commanding him to raise an army, go to Jerusalem, and battle the unbelievers who held it. “The times of nations,” he concluded, “are at hand.” That phrase is crucial to deciphering Peter’s message. It is from the Gospel of Luke, where Christ instructs his apostles how to recognize the Last Days: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be great earthquakes in various places, and famines and pestilences; and there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven.”

Such signs were readily apparent late in the 11th century. Comets streaked across the sky, dark red clouds rolled in from the east and west, and famine gripped the land. A woman claimed that a goose infused with the Holy Spirit’s power would lead her to Jerusalem. Stablemen saw mounted warriors clash in the sky, and one warrior bludgeoned the other with a cross.

Inspired by such visions and the words of Peter the Hermit, a few thousand Germans and Frenchmen, including Thomas, joined forces and marched east as early as April 1096, months before the main crusader armies left Europe. They chose as leader an obscure German aristocrat named Emicho of Flonheim. One contemporary historian described Emicho as “most powerful” and “most noble,” but it was his imagination that truly distinguished him. As madness swept across northern France and Germany in 1095 and 1096, he persuaded thousands of men and women that he was soon to fulfill prophecy and become Last World Emperor, hero of the End Times.

According to well-known but extra-canonical prophetic tradition, the Last World Emperor would unite Christians and eradicate unbelievers. Drawing inspiration from a variety of biblical passages, theologians had argued for years that a great war would mark these apocalyptic days. Catholic Christians would first conquer Constantinople, making the army’s leader the ruler of all Christians, Latin and Greek. The new emperor would then guide his troops to Jerusalem to conquer the Saracens, setting the stage for the final battle against the Antichrist.

Emicho’s band of warriors didn’t target Jerusalem at first. It seemed foolish to travel so far when so many Jews—another of God’s enemies—were near at hand. If the crusade  was a war against those who hated Christ, why not begin with the people believed to have killed him? The decision to attack local Jews also carried potential financial benefits for the cash-strapped army. Crusading was a self-financed expedition. Just as with many modern cults, joining the movement required a great financial sacrifice. Soldiers were responsible for their own weapons, retainers, provisions, and horses. Plunder taken from Jews might help them recoup these tremendous upfront costs.

Thomas of Marle would have participated in pogroms in the European cities of Rouen, Worms, Speyer, and Mainz. The Mainz attack was especially vicious. On May 25, 1096, Emicho, Thomas, and the rest arrived at the locked city gates. The bishop of Mainz, who was sheltering the Jews in his palace, had helped raise a large bribe to buy mercy from Emicho. But money would not dissuade these fanatical Christians: The Jews had murdered Christ, and now Christ’s family wanted vengeance.

Emicho settled in for a siege. After only two days, however, Mainz burghers grew weary of disrupting their lives for the sake of the Jews; they opened the gates and the carnage began. Seven hundred Jews died, according to a contemporary writer—men, women, and children. Some committed suicide rather than face the Christians. “They fell upon one another, brothers and sons, women, mothers and sisters, and died amidst mutual slaughter,” wrote Albert of Aachen in his 12th-century chronicle of the crusade. “Mothers with sons nursing at their breasts cut their throats with knives, horrible to say, and others they threw from the walls.”

Some mothers tossed money in the path of the crusaders, hoping to distract the marauders for just a moment while they killed their own children. Emicho’s men, meanwhile, ripped apart Torah scrolls and threw Jewish corpses into the street. A few critically injured Jews begged for mercy, but unless they first accepted baptism, the warriors simply dispatched them.

Contrary to the stereotype of the early Middle Ages, pogroms like those at Mainz were all but unheard of. The knights’ sense of calling, their belief in imminent apocalypse, their extreme religiosity, and their conviction that Jews and Muslims alike were conspiring against God robbed them of conscience and justified their actions, however extreme. All unbelievers—Muslim, Jew, and Christian heretic alike—deserved to die.

Most of Emicho’s followers, however, never left Europe. When their eastern march brought them to the Hungarian border, at the city of Moson, King Coloman refused to trade with them or  allow them entry. Three other armies inspired by Peter the Hermit had already passed through Coloman’s lands, and he had learned to distrust the crusaders. Emicho laid siege to Moson, and the two sides eventually met in battle, with the Hungarians wiping out the crusaders. A month later, when Urban II’s better-organized crusading army led by Godfrey of Bouillon reached Moson, rotting corpses were scattered in the fields around the city.

A few warriors escaped, including Emicho of Flonheim and Thomas of Marle. Emicho gave up his dreams of empire and returned home. Thomas, however, remained steadfast. The blood spilled at Moson only confirmed for him that he was living through the apocalypse. He and a few other men turned south from Germany toward Italy, where they met up with another crusading host organized by Hugh the Great, brother of King Philip I of France. Hugh enjoyed the most prestige among crusade leaders; some considered him a probable future king of Jerusalem. But his leadership apparently did little to stabilize Thomas. It’s more likely that Thomas, as a disciple of Emicho, radicalized other crusaders, first among Hugh’s followers and then in the general armies that rendezvoused at Nicaea and continued to Jerusalem.

The crusaders certainly would have been receptive to his message. As their three-year journey dragged on, they suffered unimaginable hardships. And as they miraculously prevailed in increasingly apocalyptic battles—particularly at Antioch, where they indiscriminately massacred, and at Ma‘arra, in present-day Syria, where they notoriously cannibalized their enemy—the sense that they were living through the Last Days would only have grown. The Last World Emperor, Emicho of Flonheim, may have abandoned the crusade, but his vision survived, in part through the influence of Thomas of Marle.

In June 1099, the main army of crusaders—along with Thomas and the remnants of Emicho’s force—reached Jerusalem, the prize sought for three years. When the men saw the city’s walls, they fell to their knees and kissed the ground. Some sang hymns of praise and wept with joy.

There were now at most 20,000 warriors, around one-fifth the number that had left Europe. One contemporary historian, Guibert of Nogent, wrote that the whole army “felt a burning love of martyrdom.” No group of aristocrats had ever risked and suffered so much for the sake of spiritual gain.

On June 13 the crusaders stormed the city. A lone ladder was raised against the wall, and the first knight to climb to the top had his hand sliced off. Other knights fell beneath stones thrown from the walls or had their eyes shot out by arrows.

This initial failure proved that apocalyptic dreams needed earthly siege machinery if they were to prevail, so the crusaders spent the following month carefully preparing for the next attack. Still, the desire for heaven was overpowering. At one point, a group of soldiers gave in to their passions, charged the city’s walls, and embraced the stones like spouses, thinking, “I will kiss my beloved Jerusalem before I die.” The city’s defenders dropped rocks on them, killing each one.

On July 14, their spirits buoyed by reinforcements and the siege engines they had built, the crusaders renewed their assault on the walls. On the first day, they focused their attacks at two points on opposite sides of the city, breaking through Jerusalem’s outer curtain wall to the north but making no progress to the south. The next day, this southern attack, at the foot of Mount Zion, looked hopeless—until the crusaders experienced what they believed to be a miracle.

On the Mount of Olives east of the city, where Christ had ascended to heaven and where he was expected one day to return, they saw a knight riding a beautiful white horse and waving the army forward.

At least a few of the clergy thought him a figure from the Book of Revelation: “Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself.”

Under the direction of this mysterious knight, the crusaders at Mount Zion placed siege ladders against the walls and clambered into the city, only later learning the reason for their sudden success. Defenses on the north side of the city had collapsed. Warriors in the siege tower had managed to improvise a bridge and scramble onto the ramparts. The move was wholly unexpected. Muslim defenders abandoned their positions, allowing crusaders, including Thomas of Marle, to storm into the city. The fight was over, and the massacre had begun.

The atrocities of the First Crusade were on a scale out of proportion to anything the warriors had committed or even seen in Europe. And when the survivors returned, they appear to have found a new justification for their everyday acts of brutality. The historian Guibert recorded the attitude of the returning warriors: “Because they had seen Jerusalem and the Sepulcher, they can thenceforth safely commit any crime.”

Thomas, for one, clearly believed that conventional rules of morality did not apply to him. The atrocities of the First Crusade had drained him of any sense of empathy, compassion, or humanity. According to Guibert, who left the most graphic account of Thomas’s post-Jerusalem brutality, he enjoyed hanging men by their testicles, then watching their innards spill out. Once when a prisoner marched too slowly, he leaped from his horse and chopped off the man’s feet. Another time he ordered holes carved into the shoulders of slow-moving captives and bound them together like a chain gang, the rope running through the fresh perforations in their flesh. The prisoners probably didn’t march faster, but it made Thomas laugh. The most merciful of his crimes was to burn people alive.

“Some who were thought cruel proved themselves gentler in the destruction of beasts than he did in killing men,” said a monk who had witnessed Thomas at work in later years. “The vilest of men and a plague to God and man alike,” wrote another.

Thomas’s crimes are shocking, even by medieval standards. In becoming a hero on the First Crusade, he had become a monster. And by all accounts, he remained a monster till his own end of days in 1130, when on his deathbed, according to one account, he broke his neck while receiving the Eucharist.


JAY RUBENSTEIN is a professor of medieval history at the University of Tennessee. A 2008 MacArthur Fellow, he is the author of Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse and Guibert of Nogent: Portrait of a Medieval Mind.

Originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.