The Field of Blood

The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East


By Nicholas Morton

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A history of the 1119 Battle of the Field of Blood, which decisively halted the momentum gained during the First Crusade and decided the fate of the Crusader states

During the First Crusade, Frankish armies swept across the Middle East, capturing major cities and setting up the Crusader States in the Levant. A sustained Western conquest of the region appeared utterly inevitable. Why, then, did the crusades ultimately fail?

To answer this question, historian Nicholas Morton focuses on a period of bitter conflict between the Franks and their Turkish enemies, when both factions were locked in a struggle for supremacy over the city of Aleppo. For the Franks, Aleppo was key to securing dominance over the entire region. For the Turks, this was nothing less than a battle for survival — without Aleppo they would have little hope of ever repelling the European invaders. This conflict came to a head at the Battle of the Field of Blood in 1199, and the face of the Middle East was forever changed.





THE FIRST CRUSADE was over. Jerusalem had been recaptured for Christ, and most of the victorious crusaders had returned to Europe. Against all odds, their hopes had been fulfilled. But for the handful of knights who remained to defend the lands conquered during the crusade, the battle had only just begun. Transforming their temporary conquests into viable states would be an undertaking every bit as challenging as the crusade itself.

Amid the lush ravines and steep-sided valleys of the Phoenician coastlands (Lebanon), Baldwin of Boulogne was outnumbered and far from help. His enemies had massed around him, and in the still-warm Levantine twilight their campfires glimmered across the hillsides. He had walked straight into a trap, but he had done so knowingly because a great prize awaited him to the south: Jerusalem.

His brother Godfrey—the holy city’s former ruler—was dead, and Jerusalem was Baldwin’s for the taking, an opportunity that warranted the extraordinary risks he was running. Only a short while earlier, a delegation had arrived at Edessa, the newly formed county where Baldwin ruled, offering him the city. The envoys were clearly in earnest, but he was not the only contender. Others, including the recently elected Patriarch Daimbert, the most senior churchman in the holy city, and Tancred of Hauteville, a powerful Norman warrior and lord of the newly won city of Tiberias, had other candidates in mind. Tancred also had not forgiven Baldwin for their quarrels during the recent crusade. Still worse, winter was near, and the roads would soon be treacherous.

Spurred on by these thoughts, Baldwin left Edessa in haste. However, as his journey progressed, his fears that there might be another claimant receded; his main rival, Bohemond of Antioch, was now languishing in a Turkish dungeon. Indeed, when he reached the Principality of Antioch, he felt sufficiently confident to send the women and baggage ahead of him by sea, proceeding himself by land with his main force.

Baldwin’s intended route was to travel from the Frankish-ruled city of Antioch, following the coast road hundreds of miles south to Jaffa—currently the only port controlled by the Franks in Jerusalem—and from there to take the pilgrim paths inland to Jerusalem itself (see here). It was a long and arduous road traversing rugged country, most of it still under Arab or Turkish control. There was a very real danger that his small force would be intercepted. Still, he had traveled on pilgrimage to Jerusalem only a few months earlier and had returned safely, so there was no particular reason to believe that this time would be any different. Most of the local Turkish and Arab rulers were far too frightened of provoking a Frankish attack to bar his passage.

Any hope of a peaceful journey was shattered at the Byzantine-held port of Latakia. News arrived that Baldwin’s Turkish enemies were readying to bar his path. Duqaq, ruler of Damascus and grandson of the great Turkish sultan Alp Arslan, was assembling an army to waylay Baldwin’s tiny force. This report caused such fear among Baldwin’s entourage that many fled ignominiously. Others pretended to be ill. Once the backsliders had departed, Baldwin was left with a mere 160 knights and 500 infantry. By the time Baldwin’s company reached Tripoli, a grave situation had worsened. The city’s Arab ruler was keen to win favor with the Franks, and he informed Baldwin that Janah al-Dawla, Turkish ruler of the town of Homs, had joined his forces with those of Damascus. The combined forces were now advancing to block his path.1

Baldwin may have been atrociously outnumbered, but to retreat now would be a disgrace. He pressed ahead despite the gathering storm clouds of war. From Tripoli he continued on the southward road into Phoenicia, a narrow strip of land between the Lebanese mountains and the sea. This was a place of immense beauty, where deep, heavily vegetated valleys, fragrant with the scent of herbs and alive with the sound of birds, ran down from the high cedar forests on the mountains’ slopes to the glistening sapphire of the Mediterranean. It was in this Eden, however, that Baldwin’s enemies were awaiting him, massing their forces in a place where the road narrowed: Dog River, a few miles to the north of Beirut. This was the point of highest vulnerability on Baldwin’s route. It was a place where even a handful of defenders could deny entry to an army. As Baldwin approached, his scouts reported that the road was blocked by enemy troops only a little way ahead. Battle was unavoidable.

Baldwin’s first move was to launch an attack to probe his enemies’ defenses. It was a complete failure. His casualties from this encounter were slight, but after a day of hard fighting, he had made no progress and was forced to make camp.

And so there he was, trapped, on the night before battle, aspiring for Jerusalem but hovering on the brink of disaster. The Turks occupied the high ground to the east, and enemy ships had disgorged more troops to the north, cutting off the road back to distant Antioch. Baldwin was blockaded in a small space without water. His men were getting thirsty and, more important, so were the horses. During the night, the Turks maintained a constant barrage of arrows into his sorry encampment. Sleep was impossible, and his chaplain Fulcher of Chartres spent the hours of darkness sitting outside his tent longing to return home to distant France.2

Baldwin’s forces were caught between the hammer and the anvil, yet their master was far from defeated. Here was a man who had carried his sword all the way from northern France. He had fought alongside the warriors of the First Crusade in countless battles, winning on almost every occasion. The four years of war that had passed since he left his home had hardened him, giving him a veteran’s eye for strategic advantage. He had become familiar with the Turks’ weapons and tactics. He knew, for example, that their bows, formed from lengths of bone and horn, were bound together with glue. They were exceptionally powerful, but the glue tended to dissolve in the rain, rendering them useless. That knowledge had been decisive only a few months earlier when his knights had ripped through a Turkish raiding party near the ancient Roman city of Baalbek.3

On this occasion, he decided to turn the Turks’ most effective tactic against them. At first light, Baldwin’s troops dismantled their tents and began to force a passage back toward Tripoli, to all appearances trying to flee. He abandoned the narrows of the ravine and managed to reach an area of more level ground some way to the rear. His enemies, scenting imminent victory, clustered around Baldwin’s small force, shouting war cries and firing arrows, while more sailors disembarked from the ships lying just offshore. In their excitement, the Turks left the high ground and began to assemble on flatter terrain. This was exactly what Baldwin wanted. Suddenly, he turned and charged.

Christendom’s tactics during this period were founded on one main advantage: the heavy-cavalry charge. Trained knights, armored in chain mail and mounted on big, exquisitely reared warhorses, were battle winners. They operated as shock troops, and the impact of the Christian charge could bulldoze enemy formations apart; if they could catch their enemy on open ground, they were almost unbeatable. It was precisely these tactics that had secured so many of the astonishing victories won during the First Crusade. On one occasion a group of only seven hundred Christian knights had defeated an enemy force of twelve thousand Turkish warriors; such was the power of their charge.4 The trick was to convince an enemy to deploy their forces on flat ground suitable for such a maneuver, and this is exactly what Baldwin had achieved.

Although Baldwin was employing the same kind of attack that his peers had used during the crusade, his assault had an innovative edge. His Turkish opponents were masters of the ambush and the hit-and-run attack. Theirs was a fluid approach to war; they swooped on their enemies like a flock of birds (one chronicler compared them to a “flight of swallows”)5 and retreated just as quickly. Here, however, Baldwin was using those same tactics himself, pretending to flee before turning and unleashing an overpowering attack. The result was an astonishing victory. Despite the huge imbalance in numbers, Baldwin’s warriors swept the plain clear of enemy forces before they could respond.6

It was an astonishing reversal of fortune and, for his enemies, a wholly unexpected defeat. The survivors from the Turkish army departed almost immediately, and the following day Baldwin returned to Dog River to find the road clear. A couple of weeks later, his battered force entered Jerusalem to a rapturous welcome. On Christmas Day 1100, Baldwin of Boulogne was solemnly crowned Baldwin I, king of Jerusalem.

Baldwin’s embattled journey to Jerusalem would soon seem like little more than a scuffle. As the newly appointed ruler of a state that had been in existence for less than two years, he would confront many far more serious challenges immediately after his arrival. Baldwin’s kingdom was a shambles, and his hold as ruler was far from certain. The “kingdom” consisted merely of a motley handful of secondary towns that had been conquered in the final phases of the First Crusade and its immediate aftermath. Jerusalem itself was spiritually precious but economically poor. It controlled no major trade route. It was located in craggy hill country, far from the prosperous farmlands of the coastal plain. It had no mines, and water was scarce. Outside the walls was bandit country, and travelers were often assaulted as they braved the winding roads from the Franks’ sole port at Jaffa.

To make matters worse, his army was tiny. To a pragmatic eye, his forces were insufficient even to fend off the attacks of Jerusalem’s neighbors, much less to expand the kingdom’s borders. His small territory was confronted by powerful enemies on all sides, most importantly the Turkish cities of Damascus and Aleppo and the Shia Muslim caliphate of Egypt, ruled by the Fatimid dynasty, each of which could deploy large field armies. In addition, Tancred of Hauteville, one of his chief noblemen, refused to acknowledge Baldwin’s rule.

Baldwin’s survival, like that of his kingdom, was far from certain, but his predicament was common to all the newly founded Crusader States. Baldwin’s former charge, the County of Edessa to the north in the hills of Anatolia, and the Principality of Antioch in northern Syria—Christian territories founded during the First Crusade—both confronted similar problems: scarce resources, powerful enemies, and limited manpower. Yet their rulers were determined both to survive and to thrive, securing the precious gains made during the First Crusade.

The First Crusade itself began in 1095, at Clermont in France, where Pope Urban II gave a sermon that set this colossal expedition into motion. In his address, Urban berated the knights of France for their avarice, their pride, and their incessant infighting, demanding in restitution for their sins that they wield their swords in God’s name. He challenged them to march east and to offer their support to the Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus by defending his crumbling frontiers in eastern Anatolia. More important, he planted a further ambition that had taken root in many hearts: the reconquest of Jerusalem. In return for their service, participating knights were offered a general indulgence (specifically, a cancellation of penance for all confessed sins)—a mighty reward.7

The response was enormous. In the wake of the council, and as Urban toured France preaching this message, tens of thousands of warriors joined the campaign. At this early stage, few of those who had sewn crosses onto their clothes had known much either about the enemy they would face or about the lands for which they were headed. Some said they were marching against Saracens (broadly meaning Muslims); most thought they would be fighting pagans (a generic term for non-Christians). It was only when the campaign was well advanced that the name “Turks” became familiar within their ranks.8

As recruitment for the campaign gathered pace, hysteria swept across many parts of Christendom. It manifested itself in different ways. In some places, Jews were massacred by mobs (in defiance of church law). In others, people saw strange signs and omens. Armed and unarmed pilgrims took the long roads to the East in the thousands.

In 1096 a mighty horde assembled outside the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, led by the enigmatic preacher Peter the Hermit. But Peter’s horde was hardly the disciplined contingent of knights the Byzantines had anticipated. The warriors of the “People’s Crusade” were unruly and caused continual trouble during their crossing of Byzantine territory. In practice, Emperor Alexius was appalled at their arrival and swiftly shunted them over the Bosporus (the narrow sea-lane between Constantinople and Anatolia). After that, it was only months before Peter’s ragtag force was torn apart by the Turks at the Battle of Civetot.

After this early failure, the fields outside Constantinople once again began to fill with crusaders, but these were men of a rather different stamp. They were, in large part, contingents of trained troops led by senior noblemen. There were no major kings among them, but their ranks included many illustrious names: Count Stephen of Blois (husband to William the Conqueror’s daughter Adela), Bohemond of Taranto (son of the famous Norman conqueror Robert Guiscard), and Tancred of Hauteville (Bohemond’s nephew). There was also Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, Count Raymond of Toulouse, Count Hugh of Vermandois, and of course Baldwin of Boulogne, future king of Jerusalem. These rulers and their entourages bore a closer resemblance to the experienced troops desired by Emperor Alexius, yet there were so many of them that the emperor feared they might chance an attack on Constantinople itself.

These were the beginnings of a troubled relationship between the crusaders and the Byzantines that would characterize their relations for decades. The emperor needed the Franks’ support, but he feared them as well. On the other hand, the crusaders needed Alexius’s guidance and logistical support, but they also deeply resented the attacks they had suffered from Byzantine war bands during their journey and were annoyed by the Byzantines’ cultivated air of sneering superiority. A particular sticking point was the emperor’s demand that the crusade commanders swear an oath of allegiance to him and promise to return any formerly Byzantine cities that they might capture. Eventually most leaders were corralled, grudgingly or not, into taking the oath, but many resisted.

The young firebrand Tancred, one of Bohemond’s commanders, was among the most obstinate. When pressed to take the oath, he had the insolence to state that he would only comply if, in return, the emperor would give him the great imperial tent in which Alexius was holding court, provided that it was filled with gold. Alexius was incensed at this impertinent demand and rose from his throne, contemptuously thrusting the young man away. Tancred then had the effrontery to attempt to retaliate physically against the emperor but was subdued by his uncle Bohemond, who shamed him and then forced him to take the oath.9 Tancred submitted willingly to no one, and his stubbornness and single-mindedness were to play a major role in shaping the world of the crusader East in the years to come.

Despite this friction, enough of a bond was formed between the emperor and the crusaders for them to collaborate in the campaign’s first objective: the reconquest of Nicaea, an important city that had been lost to the Turks in 1081. The Byzantines wanted it back. The siege was a success; the first contingents arrived outside its walls on May 6, 1097, and the city was under Byzantine control by June 19.

Their next target was the great Turk-held city of Antioch, which lay on Anatolia’s southern margins. This city had been in Byzantine hands as recently as 1084 and represented a formidable obstacle to the crusaders’ goal of reaching Jerusalem. From the crusaders’ perspective, the conquest of Antioch may have been desirable but was probably not essential: it was a long way from Jerusalem, and they could have chosen simply to steer clear of its walls. For the Byzantines, however, Antioch’s return would constitute a substantial advance in their reconquest of Anatolia from the Turks.

The journey to reach Antioch across Anatolia was torturous in the extreme. Many perished in the inhospitable landscape, succumbing to dehydration, starvation, or exposure. The Turks of Anatolia repeatedly attacked the crusader column, although they were soundly defeated when they risked a pitched battle outside the ruined city of Dorylaion. By the time the crusaders finally reached Antioch on October 20, their numbers were much reduced.10

Despite their suffering, in the final weeks of the crusaders’ advance upon Antioch they felt a growing sense of opportunism. These lands were ripe for conquest. Both Anatolia and Syria had been seized by the Turks only a few decades earlier, and the local Arab, Armenian, and Syriac peoples bitterly resented their rule. With the advent of the crusade, many local leaders grasped the chance to break into open rebellion against their Turkish masters. The precariousness of Turkish authority was only exacerbated by rivalries between individual Turkish commanders. Their great leader, the Turkish sultan Malik Shah, had died only a few years before, and the Turkish sultanate was in a state of civil war.

The fragility of Turkish rule became increasingly evident as the First Crusade crossed the Taurus Mountains and as, in city after city, the local Armenian people threw out their Turkish overlords, welcoming or seeking aid from the crusaders. At this stage the Franks may not have intended to seek permanent control of these Armenian cities. They may simply have been preparing for the siege of Antioch by establishing a zone of friendly territory around the city. Nevertheless, the readiness of many people in these Armenian areas to accept Frankish control dangled the possibility of long-term conquest.

During this phase of the campaign, two ambitious young lords made names for themselves: Tancred of Hauteville and Baldwin of Boulogne. These two commanders, each with a small fast-moving contingent, were dispatched to secure various cities that lay on or near the crusaders’ line of march. Most notably, in the autumn of 1097 these adventurers managed to take the major cities of Mamistra and Tarsus, located in the fertile coastlands of Cilicia, lying to the north of Antioch. They had probably been instructed to claim the cities in the name of the crusading army as a whole, but they clearly saw the conquests as a route to their own personal enrichment.11 At both Tarsus and Mamistra, Tancred and Baldwin quarreled over who should take control. Their disputes eventually escalated into a bitter and bloody skirmish when it became clear that neither would yield possession to the other. After this ugly incident, Baldwin and Tancred had little communication with one another for over three years. Their next encounter took place far to the south when Baldwin traveled to Jerusalem to claim the throne.

Soon after this incident, Baldwin broke away from the main crusader army. He had in his company an Armenian called Bagrat who had joined him at the siege of Nicaea. Presumably as a result of conversations with him, Baldwin was persuaded to venture eastward, toward the Euphrates River and further into Armenian territory, allying with local Christian nobles and driving out local Turkish garrisons. During this expedition he was approached by the bishop of Edessa, who, representing his master T’oros, the city’s ruler, sought Baldwin’s support against the Turks. Baldwin set out with an escort of eighty knights and was rapturously received, both in Edessa and in the neighboring towns.12 He became ruler soon afterward, following a rebellion against T’oros, and by doing so founded the first Crusader State: the County of Edessa.13

While Baldwin was busy establishing himself in Edessa, the main army was occupied with the grueling siege of Antioch. After an eight-month standoff, during which the Franks beat off two Turkish relief armies, they finally took the city on June 3, 1098. The leaders’ oath to Alexius obliged them to hand the city immediately back to the Byzantines, but instead, Bohemond of Taranto took it for himself.14

The basis for Bohemond’s seizure of the city was a promise he had extracted from the crusade’s leaders shortly before the city’s fall. At this point the crusade had been teetering on the brink of defeat; the crusaders were weakening daily, and Antioch’s impressive defenses remained fundamentally intact. To make matters worse, they had just received news that a third colossal Turkish relief army was approaching under the leadership of Karbugha, ruler of Mosul. Moreover, it was becoming increasingly clear that Emperor Alexius had abandoned them to their fate. In desperation and with nowhere else to turn, they agreed to a deal Bohemond proposed: if he could get the crusaders into the city, then he could keep it for himself.

On June 2, a windy night, Bohemond left the crusaders’ camp and headed away from the city with a force of cavalry, hoping the Turkish garrison would assume that he was marching off to fight the approaching Turkish army, thus lulling the city’s defenders into a false sense of security. After dark, he doubled back, returning stealthily to Antioch’s walls. There, by prior arrangement, an insider lowered a bull’s-hide rope ladder to let the crusaders mount the ramparts. The first warriors to climb did so reluctantly, wary of some kind of trick. But once twenty-five men had made the ascent, the remainder climbed so eagerly that the stone parapet to which the rope was attached crumbled. The ladder fell, and several unlucky climbers were impaled on a row of wooden stakes at the wall’s foot. The small company gathered atop Antioch’s walls quaked at the thought that the city’s defenders might have been wakened by their fallen comrades’ screams. Still, nothing happened; their cries had been drowned out by the sound of the wind. The rope ladder was then reattached, and when sixty fighters had assembled on the wall, they assaulted the neighboring towers and secured control of a postern gate. The crusaders were in.15

In the bloody aftermath of Antioch’s fall a second Crusader State was born: the Principality of Antioch. Bohemond’s title as ruler of the city would not go uncontested. Two days after the city fell to the crusaders, the first companies of Karbugha’s Turkish army arrived outside its gates; the former Frankish besiegers were now themselves besieged. Karbugha pressed the crusaders closely, and they began to starve; after the lengthy crusader siege, the city was entirely bereft of food. Many deserted. The most famous of those to flee was Count Stephen of Blois, who returned to western Christendom in ignominy and shame. He was later persuaded by his wife to redeem himself by returning on crusade in 1101.16 Eventually, on June 28, Bohemond led what was left of the crusader army out of Antioch’s Bridge Gate. By now they had lost most of their horses, so the starving Christian army marched out on foot to confront an enemy whose forces were both more numerous and better equipped.

The Turks, who generally fought on horseback, should have been able to rain arrows on the dismounted, slow-moving crusaders without ever needing to engage in hand-to-hand combat. Nevertheless, the steely discipline imposed by Bohemond, coupled with a strong sense of religious euphoria that led some to claim that they had been assisted in battle by a company of white knights led by Saint George, Saint Demetrius, and Saint Mercurius, maintained order in the Christian ranks.17 The crusader army also bore a mighty relic before them: the spear that had pierced Christ’s side at the Crucifixion, discovered two weeks earlier beneath the floor of Saint Peter’s Church in Antioch by a pilgrim named Peter Bartholomew. Not all had believed the relic to be genuine, but many had interpreted the finding of the spear as a sign of divine favor.18

In the Turkish camp, by contrast, Karbugha struggled to assert control over many of his lieutenants, some of whom were former enemies.19 His forces, dispersed around the long city walls, engaged haphazardly with the crusaders, in part negating their superior numbers.20 Most importantly, the Turks allowed themselves to be drawn into close combat and were cut to pieces by the heavily armed crusader infantry. The outcome was an astonishing victory for the crusaders, one that many believed to be miraculous.

Returning to the city in triumph, Bohemond then confronted Count Raymond of Toulouse, who challenged Bohemond on the question of who should rule Antioch. Bohemond claimed the city for himself, but other lords, including Raymond, felt that Alexius should be invited to take control. Raymond was eventually frustrated in his design, and after a bitter exchange he set out south with the remainder of the crusade, bound for Jerusalem.

Increasingly, the crusade leadership was beginning to split between those who had no intention of remaining in the East and wished only to complete their pilgrimage and return home and those who, either out of piety or opportunism or both, wanted to stay and carve out territories for themselves. From this point on, as the crusade headed south toward Jerusalem, leaders began to seize towns and cities in an attempt to assemble a nucleus of territory that could provide the basis for later growth. Raymond of Toulouse, in particular, was especially eager to acquire a foothold in the region, but he was repeatedly thwarted in this attempt.

Raymond’s greatest humiliation took place at Jerusalem. It was the summer of 1099, and the crusader armies had passed south along the Levantine coast. With Jerusalem just over the horizon, their goal was almost achieved. When they had set out on crusade, the holy city had been a Turkish possession, but while they had been besieging Antioch, it had been conquered by the Fatimid caliphate of Egypt.

The crusaders harbored little enmity toward the Egyptian Fatimids. Indeed, they had been discussing an alliance with them for almost two years.21


  • "The text is lit by vivid re-creations of battles as well as concise descriptions of each warring group's military tactics, training and equipment."—Wall Street Journal
  • "Nicholas Morton masterfully brings this period alive--and delivers some pointed lessons for our own times--in his lively and compact historical survey.... History can be weaponized, as Morton points out, but, in the author's capable hands, it can also be used to illuminate and defuse."—Washington Independent Review of Books
  • "Through a lean, fast-paced prose line, he distills a large amount of background context into a smooth reading experience. A particular strength of the book is the multifaceted look it gives readers at the polyglot Turkish forces involved and the fractious internal sultanate politics that frequently derailed Turkish progress against the western invasion."—The National
  • "Recommended for bringing multiple perspectives and a sense of immediacy to this historic period and for better understanding how the battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo existed in the 12th century as well as today."—Library Journal
  • "A riveting account of a battle that changed the course of the Crusades. Nicholas Morton captures the intensity, importance, and aftermath of the confrontation to produce a sparkling history of one of the key turning-points of the Middle Ages."
    Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
  • "More than just a chronicle of a battle, this book sheds revealing light on the First Crusade and its aftermath, disposing of myths, and laying bare the high stakes that drove men on all sides of the conflict."
    Thomas Madden, author of Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World
  • "Morton's analysis is meticulous, his knowledge of the politics and military practices of the medieval world formidable, and his ability to understand these events from multiple perspectives--Turkish, French, Arab, Armenian, among others--wholly remarkable."
    Jay Rubenstein, author of Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse

On Sale
Feb 20, 2018
Page Count
256 pages
Basic Books

Nicholas Morton

About the Author

Nicholas Morton is an associate professor at Nottingham Trent University. The author or editor of nine books, including The Field of Blood, Morton lives in Nottinghamshire, UK. 

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