The Strange Shipwreck Omen Before Crusaders Set Out On The First Crusade

Answering Pope Urban II’s call for an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1095, Count Robert Curthose of Normandy, Count Robert of Flanders and Count Stephen of Blois were among the many noblemen of Europe who mobilized armies for the First Crusade. A man named Fulcher of Chartres (c. 1059-1127) joined the crusading warband of the three counts named above, and fortunately for us, Fulcher wrote a chronicle about his experiences. The counts, their army, and Fulcher, finished preparing for their journey by September or October of 1096. They made their way out of France and trekked into Italy, where they went sightseeing at the holy sites, while also arranging for themselves to be ferried across the Adriatic Sea at the port city of Bari. Count Robert of Flanders quickly brought his own troops across the sea around December, 1096, whereas Robert Curthose of Normandy and Count Stephen of Blois delayed in Italy until April of 1097. Fulcher of Chartres remained with Robert Curthose and Stephen during that time, and his stay in Italy was peculiar to say the least.

Morale in the particular army that Fulcher was attached to became dangerously low during their wait in Italy. The crusaders learned firsthand that not everyone in Christendom was in agreement on the Crusade and its leading proponent, Pope Urban II. In fact, an antipope named Clement III (r. 1080-1110) existed at that time and some of his supporters still resided in Italy. Clement’s people despised anything to do with Pope Urban, and therefore also rejected his idea of a crusade. In a memorable episode, Fulcher claimed that he and other crusaders were harassed by these followers of Clement, stating that they “threw stones at us as we were prostrate praying. For when they saw anyone faithful to Urban, they straightway wished to slay him” (Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres, 1.7.2). This harassment, mixed with fear of the battles to come, reportedly caused desertion to become a problem in the crusader army. As told by Fulcher, “without hesitation, many who had come this far with us, now weak with cowardice, returned to their homes” (Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres, 1.7.3). Therefore, by April 1097, Count Robert Curthose and Count Stephen were eager to get their troops on the move, and for the sake of the already low morale, they wanted the process to be as smooth and seamless as possible. Nevertheless, fate had something else in store for them.

Of all things, a deadly mass-casualty tragedy occurred just as Fulcher and his companions were about to sail across the Adradic Sea. One of the ships that the counts had acquired for their journey proved unable to carry all of the animals, gear and people that were loaded onto it. The strained ship sank catastrophically, killing many people and livestock, as well as destroying great quantities of cargo. Fulcher of Chartres described this ill-timed disaster, writing, “we saw one boat among the others, which, while near the shore and apparently unhindered, suddenly cracked apart in the middle. Whereby four hundred of both sexes perished by drowning…” (Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres, 1.8.2). This disaster greatly affected the army—the deaths, alone, dismayed the troops, while the shipwreck also caused many to have a newfound or amplified fear of the water. Fulcher of Chartres continued his description of the tragedy, making note of the emotional impact it took on some in the army:

“Of the others now wrestling with death, only a few lived. Horses and mules were destroyed by the waves, and much money was lost, too. When we saw this misfortune, we were confused with so great a fear that very many of the weak-hearted ones, not yet aboard the vessels, went back to their homes, having abandoned the pilgrimage, and saying that never would they place themselves on the deceptive water” (Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres, 1.8.4).

A deadly shipwreck such as this was definitely not what Count Robert and Count Stephen needed at that time. Therefore, the leadership in the group applied all of their rhetorical and religious skills to minimize the impact of the disaster. As the story goes, some of the soggy bodies that were hauled out of the sea had the signs of a cross imprinted, dyed, or otherwise marked on their bodies, and this was all that the leadership figures needed for a new narrative to spin the disaster in its best possible light. Pointing out these mysterious cross imprints, Count Robert, Count Stephen and their accompanying clerics reportedly claimed, “by such a miracle, those dead had already by God’s mercy obtained the peace of everlasting life in the clearly evident fulfillment of the prophecy which had been written: ‘The just, though taken prematurely by death, shall find peace’” (Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres, 1.8.3). This silver lining—a perceived confirmation that participation in the crusade led to salvation—was masterfully spun by the quick-thinking leadership figures, who were able to keep the shaken army calm enough for them to cross the Adriatic Sea and enter the lands of the Empire of Constantinople.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Two Ships From BL Add 10292, f. 36v L’estoire del Saint Graal (or de Merlin), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and The British Library.jpg).



  • Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres, translated by Martha McGinty (1941), in The First Crusade edited by Edward Peters. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971, 1988.

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