Post-classical history


With disaster looming, Doge Enrico Dandolo suggested that Venice would defer the Crusaders’ massive debt if the army helped Venice regain the ‘rebel’ Dalmatian city of Zadar. Payment could then be made once the Crusaders won great victories in the east. Such an idea was fully within accepted medieval concepts of correct feudal behaviour, but the Crusader leadership was also aware that the ordinary Crusaders wanted to fulfil their pilgrimage to the Holy Land – not get caught up in political deals. Once this was agreed, the aged and blind Doge Dandolo took the cross on 8 September 1202 and agreed to lead a Venetian force, which, in an outburst of Crusading enthusiasm, eventually reached around 21,000 men – the largest contingent of the Fourth Crusade.

Zadar was a Latin Catholic city that had pledged its loyalty to King Imre of Hungary, who had himself taken the cross. Hence the Zadar proposal not only caused disquiet in the Crusader ranks but it also upset the Church, and the pope threatened to excommunicate those who attacked Zadar. As if these problems were not enough, around September 1202 Prince Alexios Angelos sent representatives from Verona to the Crusader leadership in Venice, promised to submit the Greek Orthodox Church to papal obedience, provide the crusade with 200,000 silver marks, provisions for a year, contribute 10,000 mounted soldiers to the expedition and maintain 500 soldiers in the Holy Land. In return he wanted the crusade to overthrow his uncle, the Byzantine Emperor Alexios III.


At the start of the Fourth Crusade there would have been hundreds of ships in the Lagoon of Venice. (Author’s photograph)

Such proposals divided the Crusader leadership and were kept secret from the increasingly disgruntled rank and file. However, Boniface of Montferrat, Baldwin of Flanders, Louis of Blois, Hugh of Saint-Pol and Doge Dandolo maintained that the crusade could not afford to turn down such an offer while some senior churchmen also supported them. Boniface and the others therefore signed an agreement with Prince Alexios, in return for which he agreed to join the crusading army at Zadar with his followers before 20 April 1203. News soon reached Alexios III, who sent a letter to the pope, complaining about a feared Crusader assault even before the Fourth Crusade attacked Zadar. Shortly before the Crusader fleet set sail, Boniface of Montferrat headed for Rome to join efforts to smooth relations between the Venetians and Pope Innocent III. Consequently, he was not present when the Crusader leadership decided to support the Venetian assault upon Zadar.

The Fourth Crusade’s fleet sailed from Venice in the first week of October 1202, its food supplies almost gone and too late in the year to head for Egypt. At a time when omens were taken very seriously, one of the largest vessels, the Violet, carrying Stephen de Perche and his followers, promptly sank, though Stephen survived and later made his own way to the Holy Land. The fleet itself sailed in two divisions, with the main Crusader division going to Pola, where it remained for a few days before heading for Zadar; meanwhile, Doge Dandolo sailed to Piran. The nearby cities of Trieste and Muggia hurriedly sent pledges of loyalty to Venice, after which the doge visited both before heading for Zadar.

The two naval contingents met off Zadar on 10 and 11 November, the armada probably consisting of 50–60 war galleys, 110–150 horse-transporting galleys and an unknown number of other ships, around 50 of which were large naves (sailing ships used as transports). An estimated half of the transports and up to two-thirds of the specialist horse-transports had been left in Venice, unwanted and unpaid for.

Major Events of the Fourth Crusade

1 1202: Crusaders heading for Venice overland are requested not to purchase food at Cremona

2  July–August 1202: Crusader leadership agrees to help Venice recover Zadar

3  Early August 1202: Boniface of Montferrat heads for Venice

4  8 September 1202: Doge Enrico Dandolo takes the cross

5  September 1202: Alexios agrees to join Crusaders at Zadar before 20 April 1203

6  Early October 1202: Crusader fleet leaves Venice

7  9 October 1202: Doge Enrico Dandolo’s ship arrives at Piran, sails to Trieste then returns via Muggia

8 10–11 November 1202: Crusader fleets reaches Zadar; Doge Enrico Dandolo rejoins main force at Zadar; November 24: Zadar capitulates

9  November 1202 to April 1203: crusade legates head for Rome; Pope excommunicates the Crusader army

10  November 1202 to April 1203: Crusader army winters at Zadar

11  November 1202 to April 1203: group of Crusaders attempts to travel overland from Zadar in winter

12  November 1202 to April 1203: Simon de Montfort returns to Italy and takes his men to the Holy Land

13  March 1203: Stephen de Perche sails to Acre

14  Spring 1203: Count Renard II of Dampierre sails to Acre

15  Spring 1203: volunteers join Crusader army at Zadar

16  7 April 1203: Crusader army evacuates Zadar; 20 April: Crusader fleet sails to Corfu

17  25 April 1203: Alexios Angelos arrives at Zadar then sails to Corfu

18  24 May 1203: Crusader fleet leaves Corfu

19  May–June1203: Crusader fleet meets ships returning from Holy Land

20  Early June 1203: Crusader fleet stops at Negroponte (Halkis) where authorities submit to Prince Alexios

21  Early June 1203: Prince Alexios is sent with part of the fleet to Andros

22  Early June 1203: main fleet sails from Negroponte to Abydos, where local authorities surrender

23  Mid-June 1203: expedition under Prince Alexios rejoins main fleet

24  23 June 1203: Crusader fleet arrives at Agios Stefanos

Other Events

25  1203: Kipchaqs help Bulgarians expell Hungarians from Brancievo

26  Early June 1203: Emperor Alexios III starts to strengthen the defences of Constantinople

27  1204: refugees from Zadar regain the city from the Venetians

The Adriatic and Aegean areas, c.1202






The simple floor mosaics in the church of San Giovanni Evangelistica in Ravenna were made shortly after the Fourth Crusade and include a representation of the conquest of Zadar. (Lipedia photograph)


The Cathedral of St Anastasia in Zadar is the largest in Dalmatia. Constructed during the 12th and 13th centuries, it survived the Fourth Crusade reasonably intact. (Author’s photograph)

The leaders of Zadar were reportedly prepared to surrender but others ‘within the army’ believed that the pope’s warning would stop the Crusaders attacking. Indeed the people of Zadar hung crosses outside their walls to show that they were not only Christians but Crusaders. Nevertheless Archbishop Thomas of the rival city of Split, farther down the Dalmatian coast, blamed Zadar for the attack, claiming that many of its leading citizens had protected or helped Bosnian heretics and that they were themselves polluted by heresy. Many in the Crusader host were unhappy about this confrontation and held back, but the majority joined the Venetians’ siege, which was brief and brutal.

According to Robert of Clari: ‘When the Doge saw that the barons would aid him he caused his engines to be set up to assault the city, until they of the city saw that they could not hold out against them; then they came to terms and surrendered the city to them’.6 The date was 24 November 1202. How much damage was done at this stage is unclear, but an Italian source called the Memorie della Dalmazia stated that: ‘After the desolation of Zara [Zadar], many of the inhabitants sought refuge in the interior of Croatia, and on some of the islands’.

For their part the Crusaders and Venetians settled down to spend the winter in the conquered city, which provided plenty of shelter but not much food. At some unspecified date that winter the pope took the remarkably drastic step of excommunicating an entire Crusader army. Given this it is hardly surprisingly that many Crusaders, including some senior men, either abandoned the crusade or made their own way to the Holy Land. However, the majority remained in Zadar, where the army received some welcome reinforcements, including Pierre de Bracheux, a knight who had not travelled with his feudal lord Louis of Blois but who would play a prominent role in the crusade and its aftermath. During that winter, negotiations continued with Prince Alexios Angelos, and in January these culminated in a formal treaty by which the leaders of the Fourth Crusade agreed to help Prince Alexios become ruler of the Byzantine Empire.


The Crusaders remained in Corfu for some time while their leaders argued about whether to go to Constantinople or head for Egypt. (Author’s photograph)

Being excommunicated was an uncomfortable position for medieval people and they were eager to have the pope’s ban lifted. In February 1203 he did so, albeit on the understanding that the Crusader leaders made full restitution to the King of Hungary and swore not to attack Christians. This was accepted by all except the Venetians, who refused to admit wrongdoing and therefore remained excommunicated.

Not surprisingly, the Crusader leadership tried to keep the rank and file ignorant of this continued Venetian excommunication. On 7 April 1203 the Crusader army evacuated Zadar and the Venetians razed its fortifications. This done, the Crusader armada set sail on 20 April, ‘destitute of goods’ according to a contemporary chronicler known as the ‘Anonymous of Halberstadt’; in other words they were still seriously short of food. Boniface and Dandolo stayed behind to await Prince Alexios Angelos. After a brief pause at Dürres in Albania, the fleet reached Corfu, news of its approach having reached Emperor Alexios III. According to the chronicler Nicetas: ‘He began to repair the rotting and worm-eaten small skiffs, barely twenty in number, and making the rounds of the City’s walls, he ordered the dwellings outside pulled down.’7 The ‘twenty small skiffs’ were probably the ships that would be tied alongside the boom across the entrance to the Golden Horn.

The stay in Corfu was something of a make-or-break time for the Fourth Crusade, the majority of men strongly opposed to the idea of diverting to Constantinople. After Boniface, the Doge and Prince Alexios rejoined them, the prince’s offers of substantial Byzantine assistance seeming to solve the food problem. Furthermore, their leaders promised that the army would stay in Constantinople for only a month before continuing to the Holy Land, unless the men freely consented to an extension. The argument was bitter and prolonged, but in the end a decision was made – the Fourth Crusade would sail to the Byzantine capital and support Prince Alexios Angelos in his claim to the imperial purple.

Operations around Constantinople and Thrace






Believing that Prince Alexios would be accepted by the Byzantine populace, the Crusaders sailed along the seaward walls of Constantinople. (Author’s photograph)

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