The Discovery of the Holy Lance

On June 15th, 1098, the army of the First Crusade discovered the Holy Lance – the very spear that had pierced Christ’s side on the cross - in the city of Antioch.

Jesus' side is pierced with a spear, Fra Angelico (c. 1440), Dominican monastery of San Marco, FlorenceEarly in June 1098 the army of the First Crusade, heading south through Syria on its way to wrest Jerusalem from the Saracens, captured the city of Antioch, but was promptly shut in the city and besieged by a powerful Turkish and Arab force. Food quickly ran out, morale plummeted and the crusaders were nearing desperation when the situation was saved by a miraculous discovery. A scruffy Provençal peasant named Peter Bartholomew, with a reputation as a drinker and womaniser, demanded to see the Count of Provençe, one of the principal crusading leaders. When given an audience by the count, and the Bishop of Le Puy, he explained that St Andrew had a appeared to him in a vision and had told him where the Holy Lance was – the very spear that had pierced Christ’s side on the cross – could be found in the cathedral of St Peter in Antioch. The bishop viewed the story with a cynical eye, but Count Raymond was impressed and a mood of excited expectation began to spread through the hard-pressed crusaders in the city. On June 15th, Count Raymond and others went with Peter Bartholomew to the cathedral. Workmen dug down into the floor where Peter indicated. They found nothing and Count Raymond walked away in disappointment, but then Peter himself who was wearing only a shirt, jumped down into the trench and triumphantly produced a piece of iron which everyone immediately hailed as the sacred lance-head itself.

As Sir Steven Runciman, the historian of the Crusades, remarked: ‘It is useless now to judge what really happened.’ Raymond of Aguilers, a reputable historian who was one of Count Raymond’s chaplains, observed what took place and reported that he had seen the iron in the ground before Peter Bartholomew began brandishing it. Whether Peter somehow salved the dig, or whether he had the diviner’s gift for sensing the precious of buried metal and knew there was something buried beneath the floor – whatever it really was – is impossible to say. In any case, the excitement in the city was intense as word of the find spread and even Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy and other sceptics kept their doubts to themselves for the moment because of the evident boost to the crusaders’ morale. This was so transformed that on June 28th, following further instructions issued through Peter Bartholomew by St Andrew, who guaranteed victory in another vision, the crusaders sailed out from Antioch. They were led by their best soldier, the Norman warrior Bohemond of Taranto, with the Holy Lance carried by Raymond of Aguilers. Desperately weak from hunger, they were in an exalted mood and some cried out that they could see celestial cavalrymen on white horses riding to help them, bearing white banners and led by St George. In berserk frenzy, they sent the besieging Saracens packing and slaughtered many of them in flight.

The victory saved the crusade and the lance was kept by Count Raymond, who treated it with great reverence. It was a useful addition to his armoury in his running power struggle with Prince Bohemond, but Peter Bartholomew did not inspire confidence. Doubts about the genuineness of the relic reached such a peak that eventually in April 1099, Peter demanded an ordeal by fire. On Good Friday April 8th, he walked through a narrow passage between two massive piles of blazing wood, wearing only a tunic and carrying the lance. He was hideously burned, and died in agony on the 20th, and few in the crusading army outside the Provençal ranks put much faith in the lance’s authenticity any longer. It was kept at Constantinople for a time, and later at St Peter’s in Rome. It was to play a major role in medieval European legends, however, in close association with the supremely sacred relic of Christ’s redeeming blood, the Holy Grail – the chalice of the Last Supper. The two relics appear together in many stories of the quests of King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table.