Post-classical history


Accounts of the Fourth Crusade usually start with a tournament held outside the northern French village of Ecry-sur-Aisne on 28 November 1199. Here Counts Thibaud III of Champagne and Louis I of Blois took the cross, promising to go on crusade to regain the Holy City of Jerusalem. Large numbers of other knights followed suit in the excitement that followed such a major medieval ‘sporting event’. More senior men followed, including Count Baldwin IX of Flanders on 23 February the following year, Hugh of Saint-Pol, Geoffrey III of Perche and Simon IV of Montfort. Baldwin IX soon made clear that his intention was serious by issuing two important charters for his other territory, the County of Hainault, to make government easier while he was away. In fact they provided the first codification of Hainault’s existing ‘customary laws’ and avoided the outbreaks of private war that had blighted the county in the past.

For all aspiring Crusaders the immediate concerns were money, supplies and transport. Venice seemed to hold the answer, and so six senior men went to negotiate with the Republic’s government. All went well, and in April 1201 a treaty was agreed under which the Venetians would transport and provide provisions for 33,500 men and 4,500 horses. In return the leaders of the forthcoming crusade would pay 85,000 silver marks on the standard of Cologne’ while Venice would also take half of whatever the expedition won. As part of this deal the Venetians would provide – at their own expense – sufficient ships to carry this army, plus 50 galleys to defend it. All would be ready to sail on 29 June 1202, by which time nine months’ provisions would also be available.


Even before the Fourth Crusade, Venice’s Grand Canal was lined with impressive commercial buildings. One of the finest was the Fondaco dei Turchi. (Author’s photograph)


The ‘Story of Troy’, illustrated in Acre in the late 13th century and showing shipbuilders at work. (Histoire Universelle William of Tyre, British Library, Ms. Add. 15268, f.105v, London)


The Lido, separating the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea, is a popular tourist resort, but at the start of the 13th century it was a sandbar with a few fishermen’s huts. (Author’s photograph)

It was a massively ambitious undertaking, and for Venice it meant that normal commercial life virtually stopped while all available shipyards were dedicated to preparing the fleet. In fact the Republic did what it had signed up to; it was the Crusaders who proved unable to fulfill their contractual obligations.

Only a month later, the crusade suffered a major blow with the sudden death of its designated leader, Count Thibaud III of Champagne. In his place Marquis Boniface I of Montferrat in Lombardy was chosen as leader and took the cross at a gathering of senior Crusaders at Soissons in August or September 1201. Whether Boniface’s troubadour, Raimbaut de Vacqueyras, was present is unknown, but he did celebrate the event in a song, the sixth verse of which proclaimed:

May St Nicholas of Bari guide our fleet,

And let the men of Champagne raise their banner,

And let the Marquis cry ‘Montferrat and the lion!’

And the Flemish Count ‘Flanders!’ as they deal heavy blows;

And let every man strike then with his sword and break his lance,

And we shall easily have routed and slain all the Turks.5

Meanwhile the young Byzantine prince Alexios Angelos, son of the deposed, blinded and imprisoned Isaac II Angelos, fled from Constantinople late in September or October 1201, making his way to Sicily and then Rome where he was turned away by Pope Innocent III. Next Prince Alexios went to the court of his brother-in-law, Philip of Swabia, the King of Germany, where, at Christmas 1201, he met the newly elected leader of the forthcoming Crusade, Boniface of Montferrat.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East an internecine war was threatening to tear the Crusader states apart. This ‘War of the Antioch Succession’ lasted from 1201 until 1216, pitting the Armenian King Leo of Cilicia against Prince Bohemond of Tripoli and Antioch. On the other side of the frontier the Ayyubid realms, which had been torn by dissension following the death of Saladin, were gradually being reunited under the leadership of Sultan al-‘Adil of Damascus, who had won control of Egypt in February 1200. Two years later his dominant position was confirmed by winning suzerainty over Aleppo. Then came a massive earthquake, which caused serious damage from Palestine to northern Iraq. Muslim and Crusader fortifications alike suffered, including those of the main Crusader city of Acre.


The fortified harbour of Zadar was rebuilt several times, so that little remains of the walls that faced the Fourth Crusade in 1202. (Author’s photograph)

On the whole the problems in the Middle East might have made the Fourth Crusade’s task easier, but it was already facing difficulties even as Crusaders of varying ranks set out in April and May 1202. The agreed assembly point was Venice, and this is where most men headed. However, 29 June 1202, the designated date for setting sail, came and went as contingents large and small straggled into Venice; even Boniface of Montferrat and his followers left home only in early August. Worse still, the numbers reaching Venice were far lower than planned because several contingents decided to make their own way to the Holy Land by different, perhaps cheaper routes. In some cases this was part of the overall plan; the fleet that sailed directly from Flanders under Jean de Nesle, and apparently carrying supplies for the contingents of Counts Baldwin and Henry of Flanders, wintered in Marseilles, having perhaps been slowed by adverse weather. This Flemish fleet then sailed on to the Middle East, along with other contingents from southern France.

Meanwhile the main force encamped on the Lido, the island between the Venetian lagoon and the Adriatic Sea. Its men paid what had been agreed and the great lords dug deep, but the army could offer the Venetians only 51,000 silver marks – nowhere near the agreed sum of 85,000. This meant that Venice faced a financial catastrophe, having dedicated a year’s time, effort, materials and lost commerce to the enterprise. As the Crusaders waited on the Lido for men to arrive, they also used up food supplies that Venice had agreed to supply. Autumn and winter passed as all sides faced humiliating failure and financial ruin.

Two lesser-known Venetian sources offer reasonably accurate numbers; Andrea Dandalo maintaining that 4,500 horsemen and 8,000 foot soldiers ‘embarked on crusade’, whereas the anonymous Venetiarum Historia states that Venice transported 5,000 horsemen and 8,000 infantry. Modern statistical methods, based upon the normal ratio of horses to men in a medieval army, and of non-combatants to fighting men, offer significantly larger numbers of mouths to feed; perhaps as many as 1,500 horses, 4,500 knights and squires, plus 10,000–13,750 infantry and servants.

Venice had agreed to provide each person with six sextaria (about 3 litres) of flour, grain and vegetables plus half an amphora of wine, as well as three ‘Venetian modia’ (about 25 litres) of feed for each horse. The Venetians could probably support the army for a further three months, but winter would pose really serious problems, the agricultural region between Venice and Cremona probably having been depleted when food was gathered for the Crusaders. Furthermore, summer conditions on the Lido caused disease and desertion.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!