King Philip I of France (r. 1059-1108) had a brother named Hugh “the Great,” who held the rank of Count of Vermandois. As King Philip—like other medieval monarchs—quarreled with the church over investiture and marriage, he chose not to directly involve himself with the Crusades, which were stoked into being by the rhetoric of Pope Urban II in 1095. In his stead, the king’s brother, Count Hugh of Vermandois, took the opportunity to become the frontman for the Capetian Dynasty’s involvement in the First Crusade.
Compared to the other members of the nobility that took part in the First Crusade—such as Raymond of Toulouse, the Norman Bohemond (and his nephew, Tancred), and Godfrey of Bouillon (along with his brothers, Baldwin and Eustace)—Count Hugh of Vermandois was one of the quickest leaders to mobilize an army and set off for Constantinople. Also, unlike some of the other Crusade leaders of the time, Hugh made an effort to give prior warning to the leaders of the regions he planned to travel through on his journey. After mobilizing his personal band of Crusaders, he charted a route through Italy and successfully reached the port city of Bari without any difficulty.
While ships were gathered to ferry the crusader army across the Adriatic, the count continued reaching out to the people through whose lands he would be traveling. According to sources from inside the court of Constantinople, Hugh preemptively sent a letter to Emperor Alexios I (r. 1081-1118), and envoys were also dispatched by the count to meet with the emperor’s appointed governor of Dyrrachium, who oversaw the region where Hugh planned to make landfall. Although these letters and ambassadors were criticized by the imperial sources as being haughty in word and conduct, the contact was quite helpful in putting the two sides on friendly footing.
Despite Count Hugh’s planning and correspondences, he could not foresee the perils of the sea and weather. As soon as the count and his army set off into the sea, his fleet was hit by a terrible storm. Caught in the tempest, the seaborne army was destroyed, and Hugh himself was reportedly shipwrecked twice—the first being his flagship, and the second time on his lifeboat. Miraculously, Hugh of Vermandois survived the storm and the sea. Many of his followers, however, did not. Thankfully, due to Hugh’s earlier correspondence with the emperor and local officials near Dyrrachium, there were sentries present on the coast who were able to organize help for the sailors and warriors who washed up on the coast. Emperor Alexios’ daughter, Anna Komnene, wrote about Hugh’s disastrous voyage across the sea:
“Hugh, as it is said, came from Rome into Longobardy; and leaving Bari toward Illyricum, he was caught by a most awful storm and lost the greater number of his ships, together with their oarsmen and passengers. The little boat in which he saved himself was cast up by the waves, as though they spewed it forth, on the seacoast which lies half way between Durazzo [aka Dyrrachium] and another place called Palus [or Pales]. It, too, was half cut to pieces. Two men who were on the watch for his arrival, met him after he had been saved…” (Anna Komnene, The Alexiad, 10.7).
Hugh and what was left of his army were welcomed by Emperor Alexios. The other crusading nobles who arrived after him, contrastingly, communicated poorly with the authorities of Constantinople as they marched into the territory of the empire, and therefore their relationship with Emperor Alexios was much more plagued with distrust and hostility, sometimes erupting into violence. Nevertheless, Emperor Alexios was able to extract oaths and agreements from the majority of the crusade leaders, and sent them on their way into Anatolia. Although Hugh’s own contingent of warriors was greatly reduced because of the shipwreck of his fleet, he remained with the Crusade for a time. He participated in the Siege of Nicaea, which lasted from May 14 until June 19, in 1097. He also played a prominent role in bringing reinforcements to a precarious battle against Sultan Kilij Arslan I of the Rūm Turks (r. 1092-1107), who almost defeated a vulnerable section of the Crusader coalition. Afterwards, the Crusaders besieged Antioch from October 20, 1097, until the city finally fell on June 3, 1098. Hugh remained with the coalition army for the duration of the siege, and he was also involved in defending the newly conquered city against a force led by Kerboga of Mosul on June 28, 1098. Yet, after that battle, Count Hugh of Vermandois decided to end his participation in the crusade. In early July, he returned to Constantinople and then traveled back home to France. Count Hugh “the Great” died in 1101.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Louis IX from Chroniques de France ou de St Denis (manuscript BL Royal 16 G VI, f. 437v), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, Europeana, and The British Library).
- 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.
- The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, translated by E. R. A. Sewter. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.