Episode 49 – Conrad’s Catastrophe

1147-1149 The title is a bit of a spoiler. Suffice to say that Cornad III’s great crusade does not go quite as planned.

He had set off with an army of between 20,000 and 60,000 from Regensburg in June 1147 making his way doen to Constantinople via Hungary and the Balkans. Ever eager for glory he had set off a month before his rival, king Louis VII of France and he presses on towards Jerusalem.

Before the year is out he will find himself in Ephesos, severly wounded, his army broken and spread across the four winds. But being a man of infinite- resource-and-sagacity, he keeps going, trying to gain at least one small bit of glory in the Holy Land…..

The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.

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Hello dear listeners. I guess you are glued to the terrible news from Ukraine as I am. I am not sure I have any particular insights to impart that have not been shared by other people more qualified to talk about Ukraine past and present than I am.

One point I would however like to make. In this conflict as in many others before, history is being distorted and abused to justify political objectives. German history is crammed full of accidental and deliberate twisting of narratives to support claims on foreign lands. It usually backfires, maybe not immediately but over time. And that makes it ever more important to keep the study of history objective and true, to tell it as it was, warts and all.

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Ok, that’s it. Now let us go to our podcast, where we will find a lot of twisted narratives, unjustifiable invasions and callous leaders. And they say the Middle Ages are over.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 49 – Conrad’s Catastrophy

Ok, that title is a massive spoiler. Let’s just say that this week, Conrad’s great crusade will not go quite as planned.

Before we start just a reminder. The History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website historyofthegermans.com. You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Tom, Wendy and Tiryn who have already signed up.

Last week we saw Conrad mustering his enormous army to set off for the Second Crusade. This second crusade differed from the first in two crucial aspects. First, it was headed not by some ambitious noblemen but by two kings, Konrad III and Louis VII of France. That created a number of issues of protocol and a competitive tension between the two armies that will drive a number of hard to explain military decisions.

The second crucial difference was that the First crusade was called for by the emperor of Byzantium, but this time around the emperor had no interest in crusader help. Au contraire, he would have preferred them to have stayed home.

Byzantine thinking went as follows: On the one hand they did not really need any crusader support. They were making decent progress in Anatolia and an undisciplined horde of Franks may well start pointless sieges or battles that would obliterate these improvements. But mostly the Basileus did not trust the Latins further than they could throw them, and let me tell you, a fully armed Norman knight is hard to throw.

The rifts had already begun when the crusader armies plundered Byzantine territory during their march to Constantinople during the first crusade. It became really hostile when the Norman crusaders around Bohemond refused to hand over Antioch and Edessa to the Byzantine emperor. This, the Vasilevs believed had been promised by the Franks when they had asked for free passage through the Eastern empire. The crusaders argued that the Byzantines had absconded during the siege of Antioch and hence had no right to the cities. Recapturing Antioch and Edessa for the empire became one of the tree main political objectives of Byzantium. John II Komnenos and the current emperor, his son Manuel had gradually extended Byzantine power down to the walls of Antioch. In 1144 John II made a rather complex agreement with the Prince of Antioch that could have brought the city under Byzantine control, though it was never executed. The last thing emperor Manuel wanted was for the second crusade to achieve its objective, recapture Edessa and strengthen Antioch.

On top of the Antioch/Edessa issue and the size of the crusader army, the Byzantine emperors were concerned about another king. A king who did not come on crusade himself but was there in the heads of the protagonists, driving decisions. And that king was king Roger II of Sicily.

Roger II had unified southern Italy by ousting his cousins, the descendants of Robert Giuscard and established an efficiently governed and centralised state. This state exercised a high degree of religious tolerance, allowing Greek Orthodox, Muslims and Jews to worship at their hearts content, provided they pay a special tax. That helped make Palermo one of the great trading hubs of the Mediterranean competing with the Italian maritime republics and even with Constantinople itself. Moreover, Roger II had build himself a navy rivalling that of Venice manned by Greek and Arab sailors. This navy conquered the coast of North Africa including the then dominant seaport, Mahdia. And now he was looking east, resuming Robert Giuscard’s ambition to take over Greece and maybe even the city on the Golden Horn itself.

As so often in history, the rise of a new power upsets the existing system of alliances with ripple effects across most of Europe. Before the Normans and specifically before Roger II, southern Italy was a place where Byzantine and Ottonian interests clashed. As the Normans took over, the three powers that had an interest in Southern Italy came together to oust them, the papacy, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Byzantine emperor. This coalition was inherently fragile, since all three claimed overlordship over Puglia and Calabria leading to clashes as we have seen during Lothar III’s Italian campaign. The link between Byzantium and Konrad had recently been strengthened when Manuel married Bertha, the sister-in-law and adopted daughter of Konrad III.

Their alliance was joined by Venice and Pisa who provided the maritime forces the Byzantines lacked at that point. On the opposing side, Roger II’s allies were his enemies’ enemies. That meant for now it only included the Hungarians who were fighting Venice over cities on the Balkan coast and the Germans over some misunderstanding too complex and too pointless to explain.

And then you have the undecided. Some crusader states like Antioch and Edessa were ruled by relatives of Roger II and overall their relationship with Byzantium was fraught. Equally the French had close links to the Holy Land as the leaders of the First Crusade had been French and were now the ruling elite in the kingdoms. For both of these the relationship to Roger II is largely a function of the relationship with Byzantium.

Now you can see the kind of tightrope walk Manuel had to perform as 10s of thousands of French and German soldiers were heading down the Balkans towards him. In order to preserve his alliance with Konrad III, he needed to treat him honourably and provide him support, but not so much support that he could actually win Edessa back, or if he won it back, find a way how he could compensate him afterwards. The French were an even bigger problem. A French victory in Edessa would cement the situation in the Levant and Antioch would never come back. But actively hindering the French might turn them into enemies and allies of Roger II. And then we have the general issue that these enormous armies are difficult to feed and prone to robbing, raping and murdering his own citizens. As far as Manuel is concerned, the second crusade is a massive challenge with a very narrow landing spot.

So, let’s see how this all goes. The German crusaders decide to take the route down the Balkans via Hungary. Yes, they could theoretically have taken Venetian or Pisan ships, but that was prohibitively expensive and also barely feasible given the size of the two armies. Roger II offered to ship them across but that offer was rejected since they had no interest of being thrown overboard in the middle of the sea.

Hungary was the only route available and even though Hungary and Conrad III had actually been at was at the time, the moral pressure of the crusade forced the two sides to agree a sort of truce. The German army would behave itself whilst marching through Hungarian territory and King Geza of Hungary would let them pass.

The German crusaders arrived in Byzantine territory in July 1147. And from there the problems began. The kinds of supply issues that had hampered the first crusader’s march through the Balkans raised its ugly head. The Byzantines provided food, but it was not enough. Discipline began to fray, and soldiers burned down farms and killed peasants unwilling to hand over their crop. At some point a market town was almost razed to the ground as the Germans accused a juggler of sorcery. Konrad did punish perpetrators severely but could not prevent the transgressions. The troops were hungry, and disease started to take hold.

Things came to a blow when a German knight who had been left behind in a monastery for recovery had been robbed and murdered. Frederick Barbarossa, in one of his less honourable deeds was sent back, burned down the monastery, killed some of its inhabitants and forced the locals to compensate for the loss. According to Byzantine sources the event resulted in a brief fight between crusaders and the army of Manuel.

That sent alarm bells ringing in Constantinople. Manuel and Conrad may have been close allies, united in their opposition to Roger II. But that does not mean Conrad’s army was allowed to lay waste to his lands.

Manuel asked Conrad to cross over to Asia at the Hellespont, 300km west of Constantinople to reduce the damage. He went as far as telling him that any move onto Constantinople would be seen as a hostile act.

But Conrad III refused. Why he wanted to go across in Constantinople is not quite clear. Maybe he wanted to retrace the steps of the First Crusade, maybe he wanted to see Constantinople and pray at its most powerful relics, his ego would not allow some other monarch to tell him what to do.

Manuel had initially ordered his troops to hold Konrad off but at the last minute told them to step down and let them come to Constantinople.

But he got his revenge, nevertheless. It is now early September and the rains had begun. Konrad’s army made camp in a valley not far from Constantinople. In the night a severe storm flooded the valley. The small brook near of which the bulk of the army had pitched their tents turned into an unbridled torrent. Men and horses drowned in the hundreds or maybe thousands. Survivors had run up the sides of the valley but had to leave the baggage train down below. Only Frederick Barbarossa and Welf VI remained unharmed with their men as they had made camp on the ridge.

Otto of Freising who was there saw it as a bad omen for the whole enterprise. Byzantine chroniclers rejoiced, suggesting the Madonna had drowned the army to prevent them from attacking Constantinople itself.

The Byzantine side was now on high alert. Manuel signed a peace agreement with the Seldjuc Turks he had fought just the year before. He needed to have his back covered to deal with this semi-hostile crowd of heavily armed undisciplined men. The crusaders saw this peace agreement as just another sign of byzantine duplicity.

And another piece of news arrived. Roger II had taken advantage of the emperor’s preoccupation with the crusaders. His mainly Muslim forces attacked the island of Corfu, occupied its almost impregnable citadel and were carrying all the wealth of the island back to Sicily. They raided the Greek coast and kidnapped silk weavers from Thebes, shipped them to Palermo to strengthen the nascent silk industry there. This was just an opening gambit in a move that - at least in Roger’s mind – could lead all the way to Constantinople. When emperor Manuel demanded the 2000 knights his father-in-law and technically closest ally had promised should Roger II attack, Konrad III refused.

All this results in a more than uncomfortable stay outside the walls of Constantinople. There are widely differing reports. The Latin sources say that the crusaders were greeted friendly and given all the honours owed to their rank. Byzantine sources describe the army as undisciplined, constantly raiding poor peasants and merchants, devastating the imperial palace given to them as a residence until they were beaten by a humiliatingly small Byzantine army. Probably both of these reports are exaggerated.

There is one point they agree on, and that is that Conrad and Manuel do not meet in person, something that could have resolved many issues. What put the spanner in the works was that both claimed to be the universal emperor, the true successor to Caesar, Augustus and Constantine. In Conrad’s case that was even more doubtful than with his predecessors since he had not even been crowned emperor. To overcome this niggle, his chancellery created the legal notion that it was the election and not the coronation that made someone emperor. Hence before the coronation in Rome he may be technically only king of the Romans but in all other aspects, he was already emperor. And that meant all other kings had to show him the respect he was due as emperor from day one. This view will gain traction over the next 200 years until the Golden Bull does away with the need to go to Rome entirely.

For now, the two emperors cannot meet.

The German army does not stay long though. In part the supply issues make it almost impossible to maintain a huge army outside the city as well as feeding the population inside. In particular not when Roger II is running amok in the Dardanelles. But there is also imperial honour at stake. The army of Louis VII had set off a month after Conrad and had followed the same route. The French were about to arrive in Constantinople. Louis had sent a letter ahead asking Conrad to wait for him so that they could coordinate next steps. Conrad was not prepared to take instruction from a mere king plus he wanted all the glory for himself. How much would his standing improve if he alone fought the way through to the Holy Land, killing Turks left, right and centre, whilst the king of the French would follow him along his pacified road. Hence by end of September the German army crosses the Bosporus, very much to the relief of Emperor Manuel.

The Byzantine had strongly suggested that Conrad should take a route along the coast down to Antalya and take ships to the Holy Land from there. There he could travel under the protection of Byzantine fortresses and might even get resupplied by the Byzantine navy following alongside.

But Conrad insisted on taking the most direct route across the plateau of Anatolia, the same rout the First Crusade had taken. He did not care that this route went straight across territory held by the Seldjuc Turks. Nor did he care that it was now October and food was beginning to become scarce. In Conrad’s mind that was just one more reason for the Turks to surrender quickly. The only concession to Manuel’s advice was to split the army, letting some of the mostly unarmed pilgrims follow the coastal road under leadership of Otto of Freising. In an ideal world all the unarmed men, women and children would have left with Otto, but many refused. Hence Conrad’s army still had a large number of non-fighting mouths to feed.

Conrad did only take provisions for 8 days, thinking he would make it to Konya, the capital of the Turkish Sultan in less than that. In later French and German retelling, this decision was blamed on treasonous Byzantine guides. Manuel, who had made peace with the sultan of Konya had deliberately sent the Germans into a trap. But that made little sense. Even if the Byzantines had given wrong advice about how long it takes to get to Konya, Konya was a large fortress and Manuel had besieged it for months before. The idea the German army would just walk up to the gates, knock them down and get resupplied was not just naïve, but criminally stupid. We will never find out what really drove that decision, but it came as it had to.

Food and even water runs low almost from the start. The Turkish fighters are lightly armoured horse archers, something Germans had not encountered since the days of Otto the Great. They rode up on their swift horses, released a volley of arrows and then raced off, long before the heavily armoured knights can even get up to pursue them on their slower horses. A few days in the guides sent by Manuel disappear in the night.

Progress is slow and losses heavy when the starving and thirsty army reaches the river Bathys, not far from Dorylaeum. During the First Crusade the Franks had achieved its first great victory over the Turks not far from this place. The crusaders felt safe there. Some had dismounted to drink, or their horses were no longer able to carry them anyway. That is when the Turks attack from the high ground overlooking the river valley. The rear guard is hacked to pieces and then the whole thing turns into a massacre. Conrad himself enters the fray receiving several arrows in the process.

Whatever is left of the mighty host is now turning tail, heading down the route they had come. In their retreat they get harassed not just by the Turks but also by the local Greek population who had suffered from their incessant plundering. In his despair Conrad has to ask his rival Louis VII for help. Louis graciously receives him and his much-diminished host into his camp. Within barely a fortnight Conrad had gone from being the commander of the greatest army in the east to being the house guest of the man he had planned to beat I the pursuit of glory.

The other part of his army under command of Otto of Freising had travelled along the coast but fared no better. They too had come under Turkish attack. Most of the largely unarmed pilgrims were slaughtered and only a few, amongst them Otto of Freising escaped.

For Conrad the crusade had turned into a complete nightmare. His great army, the greatest ever fielded by a medieval emperor, 20,000 or maybe even 60,000 men all dead, wounded or fleeing across Anatolia. He himself wounded and having to seek shelter with the French king. Louis treated him with all the honours and even recognised his formally higher rank. But the smirks and furtive glances of the mighty French nobles gave him a foretaste of what awaited should he ever get back to Germany.

When the army reached Ephesus, Conrad was too ill or too humiliated to keep going. He stayed behind when the rest of the army proceeded towards Antalya. Emperor Manuel had heard of Conrad’s illness and offered to treat him in Constantinople. Manuel had a passionate interest in medicine and did look after Conrad himself. All that rivalry between two emperors had gone down the way Conrad’s army had gone. The two rulers renewed their alliance, agreed to fight Roger II together and further strengthened ties when Henry Jasomirgott, the duke of Bavaria and half-brother of Conrad married Theordora, the niece of emperor Manuel. It is heavily contested, but it may have been that Conrad had fallen so far that he agreed to recognise Byzantine lordship over Southern Italy and to fight his way down to Bari on the emperor’s behalf.

Whilst in Constantinople, news arrived from the French. As they had continued on during the winter, they also encountered severe food shortages. Emperor Manuel warned them that the Turks were on the warpath and that they should proceed by ship or shelter under the cover of the byzantine fortresses. But Louis kept going on his chosen road inland. They won a first battle near a small Byzantine town but saw with utter confusion that the Turkish fled behind the walls of the Byzantine city. Talk of byzantine duplicity was making the rounds. The emperor had made his own peace with the Turks and now his garrisons are sheltering the enemies of the Christian faith. And generally, why did the Byzantine let the Turks raid deep into their territory, only attacking crusaders?

The French nobles had good reason to be concerned about Manuel’s intentions. Not that Manuel was initially outwardly opposed to the French. As we said earlier, Manuel wanted to treat them well so as to avoid them joining forces with Roger II. But back in the days when they had lain before Constantinople one of their leaders, the bishop of Langres had proposed to join forces with Roger II and attack Constantinople itself. It was only by reference to the terms of the crusading oath that king Louis could stop his army to do what the Venetians would do in 1204. And it is not that these discussions were unknown to Manuel.

In light of that Manuel’s support for the crusader army seems more than magnanimous. But the French did not believe his intentions. When guides suggested routes, they smelled treachery and took different ones. When the guides then left, not willing to run into a trap, their treachery was proven.

And all that happened in the depth of winter. On one occasion the forward troops disregarded orders to camp at the top of a mountain but pressed on. They quickly lost contact with the larger army and the Turks stepped into the breach. Only nightfall prevented a complete rout. Finally, the bedraggled and much diminished Franks dragged on, following the route that Otto of Freising’s pilgrims had taken, whose bodies lay unburied on the banks. In late January they arrived in Antalya, a town too small to house them and an area too poor to feed them.

Louis decided to continue by ship to Palestine, but not many sailors were foolish or greedy enough to brave the Mediterranean in February. A small fleet was assembled and Louis showing true leadership, booked up all the berths for himself, his wife, the famous Eleonor of Aquitaine, his household and the cavalry. The rest was to stay in Antalya and wait for the next fleet. He gave the Byzantine city governor 500 pounds of silver and asked him to look after his men – and then he scarpered.

That same night the Turks came back and attacked the crusader camp which absent any cavalry was indefensible. Even more died.

When the next set of ships were ready to take people across to the Holy land, the remaining high aristocrats, the dukes of Flanders and of Toulouse followed the royal example and shipped themselves, their household and what was left in viable troops to Antioch, leaving the rest of the army to fend for themselves. These poorer knights and pilgrims were stranded. They lacked the money to pay for a berth and resigned to the inevitable, going to Antioch on foot. Badly armed, too poor to buy food so had to steal it, constantly harangued by Turkish riders, the pride of France tumbled down the Silician gates in April.

How many people the French lost is hard to say, but at least half, most likely more if you count all those that had turned around before the string of catastrophes hit. The German losses were likely even higher.

But by now Louis had made it to Palestine and so had Conrad who had taken a ship from Constantinople. Both kings realised that they needed some sort of tangible result from this disaster. And so, they asked their respective finance ministers to wire funds to hire soldiers or equip the pitiful remnants of their armies again.

The question is what to do with these forces. Edessa was a pointless target. It was a long way away and after the two raids by Nur ed Din and his father the city was nothing but a smouldering ruin. Then there was a scheme to attack Aleppo, the capital of Nur ed Din, proposed by Raymond, the prince of Antioch. That sort of made sense and would have strengthened the crusader states of Antioch and Tripoli. But the plan collapsed when Louis became suspicious of Raymond’s intentions towards his wife, the formidable Eleonor. Raymond was a crusader prince, a tall and blond Norman, a fighter and conqueror, whilst Louis, well Louis was very pious. And that pious man was now a jealous man too. Whether he did it out of passion for her, or for the duchy of Aquitaine she had brought along, he dragged her out of Antioch and travelled to Jerusalem. Eleanor asked for a divorce, which we all know ultimately happened, benefitting not the strapping Raymond but Henry II, king of England.

In Jerusalem the crusader army and the barons of Outre Mer decided on a new target, the fabulously rich and ancient city of Damascus. There was great booty to be had, but It was a pointless and unnecessary attack. The ruler of Damascus was not openly hostile and had been tying down other Muslim forces in the region, most prominently Nur-ed-Din. Knocking out Damascus would only free up Nur-ed-Din to attack Antioch.

Knowing these calculations, Damascus did not expect an attack from Jerusalem. The defenders were utterly unprepared when the crusader army arrived before the city. The crusaders made great inroads in the first few days, getting close to the weaker walls of the city. But by day 3 reinforcements began to arrive in the city and the Latins were pushed out of their positions. They then chose a thoroughly unsuitable spot to make camp, right below the strongest walls and without any water. By day 5 news arrived that Nur-ed-Din was nearby, and the game was up. The crusaders turned tail and went back to Jerusalem. Again. Loads of dead soldiers and talk of treachery, this time of the Palestinian barons who – some say – had been paid off by the emir of Damascus.

That was not quite the end of the second crusade. Conrad tried one very last time to get something, anything. He agreed with the treacherous barons of Jerusalem to besiege Askalon but when he shows up for the muster in Jaffa, nobody is there.

Deeply frustrated the kings and their nobles embarked on their return journey by sea. King Louis, by now convinced of treachery by everyone, the emperor in Byzantium, the Germans, the barons of the kingdom of Jerusalem, his own wife and who knows who else, that king Louis returned via Palermo, making friends with Roger II, dashing Manuel’s hopes.

Conrad took ship first to Thessaloniki where he meets up with Manuel and then to Aquilea. He did not dare to show his face in Germany again unless he achieved at least something. Hence, he made preparations to do what he had promised Manuel and the pope to do, to go down to Southern Italy and fight Roger II. His pockets filled with Byzantine gold he began recruiting an army.

But even this plan blew up in his face. What he had not counted on was that his adversary, Welf VI would follow king Louis’s route to Palermo rather than staying by the side of his liege lord. In Palermo Welf VI received a bag of gold similar in size to the one Conrad had received from Manuel and returned to Swabia where he resumed his guerrilla warfare against Henry Jasomirgott and the other allies of Conrad III.

. No way Conrad could go down to Rome when the civil war in Germany kicked off again. He returned to Germany in May 1149 having achieved precisely nothing at all. The great host he led out of Regensburg in 1147 had vanished, thousands of pilgrims are dead, Jerusalem is in an even more precarious state and his reputation has fallen even further. We are back to where we were in 1144, only worse. The failure of the crusade is blamed on hunger and Byzantine betrayal, but, in their heart of hearts, they all know, it was god’s punishment for their sins, and the sins of their king. Konrad has no way out. He cannot get to Rome, let alone fight Roger II. His wound is sapping his energy and at 56 years of age he is already quite old by medieval standards. He will drag on for another 3 years before he is finally gone, making way for the next and most famous of the Hohenstaufen, Frederick Barbarossa.

Next week we will cover the last years of Konrad’s rule and how Barbarossa reached the throne. We will talk about his background, his early life and why he was known as the cornerstone. I hope you will join us.

And in the meantime, should you feel like supporting the show and get hold of these bonus episodes, sign up on Patreon. The links are in the show notes or on my website at historyofthegermans.com.

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