When Pope Urban II announced the First Crusade in 1095, the Norman noble, Bohemond (1050/58-1109), quickly grasped at the opportunity. Of all of the crusader lords that partook in the armed pilgrimage, his motives are among the clearest. As his half-brother seized the great majority of the family’s lands and assets, Bohemond saw the crusades as an unequalled opportunity to amass land, gold and glory. Plus, the spiritual rewards and absolution of sins promised by the pope were also gladly welcomed.
The crusader coalition made their way to the Holy Lands by a route through the Byzantine Empire, which controlled most of the Balkans and much of western Anatolia at that time. To gain safe passage through the Byzantine territory, the crusaders made a costly deal with the emperor, Alexios I Komnenos—the crusaders swore that they would hand over all the lands to the emperor that they captured which were former imperial provinces. Unfortunately for the crusaders, the Byzantine Empire was the surviving remnant of the Roman Empire, which meant that Emperor Alexios claimed as his own almost everything that was captured during the First Crusade.
The crusaders agreed to the deal and the coalition was able to leave imperial lands without too much chaos. The whole situation must have been extremely awkward for Bohemond, as he and his father, Robert Guiscard, had launched a brutal, but ultimately unsuccessful, invasion of the Byzantine Empire during the first half of the 1080s. None other than Emperor Alexios had defeated that Norman invasion, but the old enemies were able to put aside their differences and become hesitant friends, at least for the moment.
By October of 1097, the crusaders had reached the city of Antioch. The siege lasted until June of 1098, when Bohemond won over a mole in the city. With the help of Bohemond’s inside man, the crusading army was able to take the city. In the aftermath of the successful siege, Bohemond staked his claim to Antioch and its surrounding lands. While the rest of the crusading army marched on to Jerusalem (which fell in 1099), Bohemond stayed behind in Antioch, defending the city and cementing his rule.
When the First Crusade was over, Bohemond had no intention of relinquishing his control of Antioch to Emperor Alexios and the Byzantine Empire. That conviction, however, made his position very precarious. On the one hand, Alexios and his imperial army were looking to collect on their earlier agreement with the crusaders. On the other hand, there was a slew of Muslim armies looking to drive the crusader states out of the Middle East. To make matters worse, the powerful Muslim leader, Danishmend, captured Bohemond in 1101, after the crusader attempted to expand his lands toward Aleppo. He remained imprisoned until around 1103 or 1104, and by the time of his release, Bohemond knew he needed more manpower to keep his position in Antioch secure.
By 1105, Bohemond arrived back in Italy, where he would gather political and military support. The details of his trip from the Middle East to Italy, however, remain oddly vague—this is where Anna Komnene, daughter of Emperor Alexios, comes in. In her history (The Alexiad) on the reign of her father, Anna Komnene recorded the interesting gossip and rumor surrounding how Bohemond escaped from the dangers of the Middle East without being intercepted by Byzantine or Muslim forces. Historical note: this account has only been found in Greek/Byzantine sources such as The Alexiad, and has never been included in any other descriptions or histories of Bohemond’s life from the crusade-era.
According to Anna Komnene, Bohemond escaped the Middle East with the help of an elaborate plan of deception and misinformation. For the first step, Bohemond disappeared—he held none of his usual courts, councils or correspondences. Then, he had his agents spread rumors throughout the Mediterranean claiming that the great crusader, Bohemond, had died. When the rumors were noticed and believed, Bohemond procured a coffin, in which he had holes drilled for air. Finally, Bohemond hid inside the prepared coffin and had himself loaded onto a ship crewed by trustworthy sailors. For the sake of authenticity, Bohemond brought with him into the coffin a dead rooster, which would give off a convincing odor of decomposition. With all the pieces of the plan in place, the ship bearing Bohemond’s coffin set sail toward Rome.
Anna Komnene would have us believe that the ship stopped at multiple ports on the voyage to Italy, where mourners showed up to pay their respects to the fallen crusader. Between stops, Bohemond was given food, drink, and—hopefully—some fresh ocean air. Nevertheless, whenever the ship drew near a port or another vessel was spotted, back into the coffin went Bohemond.
One way or the other, Bohemond returned to Italy. According to Anna Komnene, he even wrote a grandiose letter to Emperor Alexios, claiming that he had risen from the dead. Yet, again, it must be stressed that most historians consider this entertaining account to be simply gossip. Bohemond, however, did indeed return to Italy in 1105. Within the following few years, he was able to garner the military support of France and the religious backing of the pope, allowing him to launch another invasion against the Byzantine Empire in 1107. Bohemond would ultimately become a vassal of the Byzantine Empire, but he (and his dynasty that followed him) would long continue to rule in Antioch.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, translated by E. R. A. Sewter. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.