Post-classical history


The Fourth Crusade’s second assault on Constantinople started on 9 April 1204, but the previous day the men prepared to cross the Golden Horn. Villehardouin described how ‘all entered into the vessels, and put their horses into the transports. Each division had its own ships, and all were ranged side by side, and the ships were separated from the galleys and transports.’ He maintained that the front ‘extended over full half a French league’ or more than 1km, while Nicetas stated that the enemy assaulted the walls from the Blachernae Palace to the Monastery of Evergetes. Meanwhile, Emperor Alexios V established his command post next to the Pentapoptes Monastery, on a steep hill just inside the wall from which he could observe the enemy fleet, the Golden Horn and the threatened fortifications.

During medieval times part of the irregular southern shoreline of the Golden Horn lay at a distance from the fortifications, as it still does, but other stretches of shore were close enough for ships to approach very close to the defences. Consequently, some of the ships that crossed the Golden Horn early on 9 April 1204 disembarked their troops onto dry land; others came close enough to fight the defenders hand to hand.


The iron-covered wooden doors of the Balat Kapi (‘Palace Gate’), which was probably the ‘Imperial Gate’ of Byzantine times, linking the Blachernae Palace to the Golden Horn. (Author’s photograph)

Where there was sufficient space between walls and shore the Crusaders brought ashore ‘armoured sheds’ to protect their miners while Crusader crossbowmen shot at those on the fortifications who were in turn trying to drop missiles on the miners. The defenders also used incendiary weapons against the armoured sheds. It should be noted that during this period siege mining involved the excavation of shallow galleries, often lateral, to undermine the walls or towers. Furthermore, the Crusaders’ miners were working at little more than a metre above sea level.

Unfortunately for the Crusaders, Byzantine counter-siege artillery proved notably effective, so that, in Robert de Clari’s words, ‘never a man durst remain within or beneath these [the Crusaders’] engines’. He also noted the fearsome effectiveness of the axe-armed English, Danes and Greeks who defended the walls. Elsewhere, the Venetians attempted to attack the walls directly from the rigging of their ships, but, furious as it was, this first assault failed, as Nicetas described: ‘The Romans had the upper hand. Both the ships carrying the scaling ladders and the dromons transporting the horses were repulsed from the walls they had attacked without success, and many were killed by the stones thrown from the City’s engines.’ Villehardouin agreed: ‘You must know that on that day those of the host lost more than the Greeks, and much were the Greeks rejoiced thereat.’ The Novgorod Chronicle claims that ‘the citizens killed about 100 Franks’.






1 8 April: Crusaders put their horses aboard the transport ships. Many Crusader and Venetian troops also go aboard late in the day.

2 8 April: Emperor Alexios V establishes his command post on the hill of the Pantepoptes Monastery.

3 9 April, early morning: Crusader and Venetian forces assault the Golden Horn fortifications, the Crusaders coming ashore where there is open ground between the fortifications and the shore. Some Venetian ships attack fortifications that are close enough to be assaulted directly from the ships’ masts or yards.

4 9 April, evening: Around the time of vespers (evening prayer), the Doge of Venice summons a council of the Crusader leadership, probably in Galata.

5 10–11 April: Senior churchmen preach sermons to revive the Crusader army’s morale while ‘light women’ are expelled from the camp.

6 12 April, dawn: Crusaders and Venetians attack same area.

7 12 April, afternoon: A strong northern wind drives ships farther ashore, enabling attackers to seize some towers and walls and to break through a blocked postern gate.

8 12 April, afternoon: Emperor Alexios V tries to counterattack but then retreats to the Boukoleon Palace.

9 12 April, late afternoon: Crusaders and Venetians enter through four gates and capture the Emperor’s hilltop command post. Boniface of Montferrat’s troops are probably on the far left of the line.

10 Night of April 12–13: Alexios V flees westward.

11 Night of April 12–13: Byzantine fugitives disperse in many directions.

12 Night of April 12–13: Baldwin of Flanders establishes headquarters in Pantepoptes Monastery.

13 Night of April 12–13: The Byzantine leadership selects a new emperor, but he is unable to muster effective resistance.

14 Night of April 12–13: The Crusaders and Venetians ignite a third major fire.

15 13 April: Varangian Guard flees the city.

16 13 April: Boukoleon Palace surrenders to Boniface of Montferrat.

17 13 April: Blachernae Palace surrenders to Henry of Flanders.

18 13–15 April: The conquerors pillage, sack and slaughter for three days.

19 16 May: Count Baldwin of Flanders is crowned as first Latin Emperor of Constantinople.


When the newly installed Byzantine Emperior Alexios was unable or unwilling to provide the Crusader army with the money it demanded, the Crusader leadership decided that the existing Byzantine government must be toppled.

As the dispirited attackers withdrew to the northern side of the Golden Horn, the Byzantines celebrated, as Robert de Clari witnessed: ‘They began to hoot and to shout right lustily, and they went up upon the walls and let down their breeches and showed them their buttocks.’ Having retreated back to their camp, the leaders of the Crusader and Venetian leaders held council in a church. Some now suggested they should attack Constantinople’s southern seaward walls, but the Venetians pointed out that the current would carry their ships down the straits, so it was eventually agreed that another attack would be made on the Golden Horn walls on Monday.

Saturday and Sunday were spent repairing and refitting ships and siege weaponry. This time the vessels carrying scaling ladders would be lashed together in pairs, each of which would attack a single tower in order to outnumber the defenders. Robert de Clari described efforts to restore morale: ‘Then did the bishops preach sermons throughout the host … and they showed the pilgrims that the battle was a righteous one, for that the Greeks were traitors and murderers, and that they were faithless… And an order was given that they should seek out and remove all the light women from the host, and send them very far away from the host.’

Early on Monday morning the Fourth Crusade launched another assault. This time, as Villehardouin noted: ‘Those of the city stood in much less fear of them … and were in such good spirits that on the walls and towers you could see nothing but people.’ This time the Crusaders’ siege bridges might have been longer, the Novgorod Chronicle maintaining that the attackers came in ‘40 great ships which had been tied to one another… Their other ships and galleys stayed back, fearing to be set afire.’ In fact the horse-transports again beached in more open places, rather than attacking the fortifications directly.


Fully armoured knights attacking a tower with a battering ram, in the Eneit. (Ms. Germ. Fol. 282, f. 46v, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Ms. Germ. Fol. 282, f. 46v, Berlin)


This singularly bloody combat scene shows knights in typical German arms and armour from the period of the Fourth Crusade. (Jungfrauenspiegel, Kestner Mus, Hannover)

Once again, the opposing armies bombarded each other with mangonels, crossbow bolts, arrows and incendiary weapons. The ships were of course vulnerable to fire, but so were the tall wooden structures that had been added to the tops of the city’s stone towers. As Robert de Clari observed: ‘The fire could not take hold there because of the hides wherewith the towers were covered. And those within the city … were discharging some three score petraries [stone-throwing mangonels]… But the ships were so well covered with timber and with vine-cuttings that these did them no great mischief.’

The defenders prevailed until around midday, and Robert de Clari could see Emperor Alexios V directing on his hilltop command post, ‘causing his trumpets to sound, and his timbrels, and making great display; and he was encouraging his men and … sending them wheresoever he saw that the need was the greatest’.

Robert of Clari maintained that only four of five ships were tall enough to reach the tops of the Byzantine towers, and even when the attackers managed to reach these they seemed unable to get farther, even when the weather helped. Villehardouin described how the first tower was taken when a sudden northerly wind drove several ships farther ashore, including a linked pair named the Pilgrim and the Paradise, one being allocated to the Bishop of Soissons, which got so near a tower, ‘the one on the one side and the other on the other … that the ladder of the Pilgrim joined on to the tower’.

Robert de Clari described the same event, and how a Venetian and a Frenchman used the device that had been added as an assault ramp: ‘And so soon as the ship hath fallen foul of this tower, the Venetian layeth hold with hands and feet, as best he can, and getting himself at last within the tower.’




As soon as men from one of the pairs of lashed-together Venetian assault ships managed to win control of the summit of a tower in the Golden Horn fortifications of Constantinople, ten knights and 60 other soldiers scrambled ashore on a narrow piece of ground between the water’s edge and the neighbouring wall. Their leader had noticed a small but bricked-up postern gate, which his men immediately attacked with whatever instruments were available, including their own weapons. A hole big enough for a man was made, but the Crusaders were then daunted by the number of enemy waiting for them inside. At this point a clerk named Aleaume de Clari scrambled through despite his brother, the famous chronicler and knight Robert de Clari, grabbing him by the leg and trying to pull him back. Aleaume was then joined by Pierre, the Châtelain of Amiens, who was an exceptionally tall, powerfully built and heavily armoured knight. The defenders, local militia rather than professional soldiers, were appalled by the sight of this huge Frenchman in his great helm ‘shaped like a castle’ and dared not attack him.

Just inside the fortification was the steep hill of the Pantepoptes Monastery, where the Byzantine Emperor Alexios V had established his command post. Seeing the danger posed by this Crusader breakthrough, the Emperor tried to launch a counter-attack, but his disheartened troops refused to close with the enemy. Constantinople was doomed.


The area just beyond the north-western fortifications of Constantinople is hilly and cut up by narrow valleys. It was here that the forces of the Fourth Crusade defeated the last major Byzantine sortie. (Author’s photograph)

This courageous or foolhardy man was promptly attacked by the defenders, who ‘cut him all in pieces’ with axes and swords. But, as the waves pushed the ship forwards again, Andrew of Urboise (or Dureboise), ‘lay hold with feet and hands to the tower until he gat himself up inside it, upon his knees’. Unlike his Venetian comrade, Andrew was fully armoured, so that the enemy’s blows ‘wounded him not’, whereupon ‘the knight rose up on his feet, and … drew his sword’. This seemingly so frightened the defenders that the wooden upper tower was abandoned.

According to Nicetas the defenders were ‘auxiliaries’, meaning local militia rather than professional soldiers: ‘The other knight came in after the first, and after him came in folk a plenty. And when they were within, they took strong ropes and stoutly lashed that ship to the tower, and when they had made her fast, there came in yet other folk a plenty.’ However, the movement of the ship threatened to destroy the wooden tower, so it was cut adrift again.

Emperor Alexios V saw this threat and urged his troops to counter-attack, but, according to Robert de Clari, another ship made contact with a second tower, which was similarly taken. Even so, the Crusaders and Venetians held only the upper parts of these towers, not the walls on either side nor the ground beyond, where large numbers of defenders gathered. In this crisis Lord Peter, the châtelain of Amiens, led his ‘ten knights and three score men-at-arms’ to a small area of flat ground between the wall and shore where a postern gate had been bricked up.

The resulting break-in was described in detail by Robert de Clari, who took part along with his brother: ‘And there was a certain clerk, Aleaume of Clari by name… Now when they were come to this postern gate they began to hack away at it right valiantly; but so thick flew the [crossbow] bolts and so many were the stones hurled down from the walls that it seemed in all likelihood they would be buried in the stones.’ Other men had large shields, with which they protected those attacking the wall, but the Byzantine defenders also dropped pots of Greek fire. ‘Yet did they hack away at that postern gate with axes and good swords, with timbers and bars and picks, until at last they made a great breach therein.’ Beyond the passageway so many Byzantines were awaiting them that the Crusaders dared go no farther.

Robert’s heroic brother now stepped forward: ‘But when Aleaume the Clerk saw that none dare enter there, he sprang forward and said that he would go in. Now there was present a knight, his brother, Robert of Clari by name, who forbade him and said that he should by no means go in. And the clerk said that he would do so, and he gat himself in on his hands and feet.’ Robert grabbed Aleaume’s foot and tried to pull him back, ‘but at last, despite his brother … the clerk went in. And when he was within, a multitude of the Greeks fell upon him, and they that were upon the walls began to cast down great stones at him. When the clerk saw this, he drew his knife and rushed upon them and made them to flee before him like cattle.’ Then Aleaume de Clari shouted back, ‘Sirs, enter boldly! For I see that they are utterly confounded and are fleeing away.’

Nicetas gives more credit to a particularly tall and heavily armoured French knight who should probably be identified as Peter of Amiens:

A knight by the name of Peter entered through the gate situated there. He was deemed most capable of driving in rout all the battalions, for he was nearly nine fathoms tall [a poetic exaggeration taken from the ancient Greek Odyssey] and wore on his head a helmet fashioned in the shape of a towered city [a flat-topped great helm]. The noblemen about the emperor and the rest of the troops were unable to gaze upon the front of the helm of a single knight so terrible in form and spectacular in size and took to their customary flight as the efficacious medicine of salvation.

Robert de Clari pointed out that the knight was not really alone: ‘My Lord Peter and his people came in. And there were not more than nine knights with him; nevertheless, there were some three score men at arms with him… And when they were within and they that were standing upon the walls in that place beheld them, then were these so greatly terrified that they … abandoned a great portion of the wall and fled.’

All the sources agree that Emperor Alexios V had the trumpets and drums sounded in an attempt to organize a counter-attack, though Robert de Clari dismissed this as merely a show of resistance: ‘Then he made a great pretence of falling upon them and of spurring his horse, and he came about half-way up to them.’ Lord Peter of Amiens encouraged his men, expecting a hard fight, but, ‘When Mourtzouphlos the traitor saw that they would in no wise flee, he halted, and then he turned back to his tents.’ TheNovgorod Chronicle was shocked by the way the Emperor was abandoned by his followers: ‘Emperor Mourtzouphlos was encouraging the boyars [noblemen] and all the people, wanting to fight … but they would not listen to him. They all ran away from him. The Emperor ran from them [the Franks], and they chased him to the Horse square [Hippodrome].’

Resistance now collapsed. Robert de Clari describes how Peter of Amiens’ men went to the nearest gate and smashed it open from the inside, using axes and swords, ‘until they broke the iron bolts, which were very strong, and the bars… And when the gate was opened and they that were without saw this, then they brought up their transports and led forth their horses and mounted them.’ Villehardouin focused on the taking of four towers, after which, ‘All begin to leap out of the ships and transports and galleys, helter-skelter, each as best he can, and they break in some three of the gates and enter in. And they draw the horses out of the transports; and the knights mount and ride straight to the quarters of Emperor Mourtzouphlos [Alexios V].’

This second siege of Constantinople, which resulted in the conquest of the Byzantine capital in 1204, hardly featured in Raimbaut de Vacqueyras’ ‘Epic Letter’, while other sources make no mention of Boniface of Montferrat, the nominal commander of the Fourth Crusade, nor of his troops. They must have been involved in the successful assault, but probably entered the city after the French and Venetians had broken in. The fact that Boniface also took control of the Boukoleon Palace, whereas Baldwin took the Blachernae Palace, suggests that the Marquis’ men were at the western end, or left flank, of the attack. This might also account for Baldwin of Flanders rather than Boniface of Montferrat subsequently being chosen as the first Latin Emperor of Constantinople.


This early 13th-century wall painting of St Orestes comes from a church at Episkopi, which is now submerged beneath a reservoir. (Byzantine Museum, Athens)

Robert de Clari noted that Emperor Alexios V abandoned his hilltop command post so quickly that ‘his coffers and his jewels’ were left behind, to be captured by Peter of Bracheux, while Nicetas reported that, having despoiled the Emperor’s tents, the Crusaders took the Blachernae Palace without much resistance and established their own headquarters in the Pantepoptes Monastery, on the same hill that Alexios V had used as his command post. Meanwhile, as the Byzantine chronicler wrote: ‘The emperor went hither and yon through the City’s narrow streets, attempting to rally and mobilize the populace who wandered aimlessly about. Neither were they convinced by his exhortations nor did they yield to his blandishments.’

Eventually Alexios V gave up the struggle and returned to the Boukoleon Palace, which lay in the eastern part of the city, near St Sofia. During the night of 12–13 April he boarded a small ship along with Empress Euphrosyne, the wife of his predecessor Emperor Alexios III, and some of her daughters. According to the unsympathetic Nicetas, Alexios V passionately loved one of them, who was named Eudokia, ‘for he had frequently engaged in sexual intercourse from the first appearance of hair on his cheek, and he was a proven lecher in bed, having put away two wedded wives’.

The remaining Byzantine elite did not immediately surrender after Emperor Alexios V fled but instead tried to find a new emperor. Those who came forward as potential candidates were Constantine Doukas, who was probably the son of John Angelos Doukas and the uncle of Emperors Isaac II and Alexios III, and a certain ‘Laskaris’, who was probably either Constantine Laskaris or his brother Theodore Laskaris, who would become the future Emperor of Nicaea. Laskaris was chosen, but although he urged the army and people to resist, he found no real support, and, like most of the rest of the Byzantine aristocracy, soon had to flee the city. Nicetas was particularly disappointed by the way in which the elite Varangian Guard tried to use this crisis to extort higher wages. In the event they too had to flee the capital.

The following morning the Crusaders and Venetians found themselves, somewhat unexpectedly, in uncontested possession of Constantinople, Byzantine resistance having fizzled out during the night. Many of the city’s wealthier citizens had by now fled, some pulling down the newly-built defences on the Golden Gate so that they could escape westwards towards Thrace and Macedonia – presumably accompanied by wagons loaded with their possessions. The ‘holy warriors’ of the Fourth Crusade now indulged in the worst orgy of massacre, pillage, rape and wanton destruction that the great city of Constantinople ever saw. The killing and devastation was far worse than the relatively restrained Ottoman conquest would be in 1453, and it brought the Fourth Crusade to a shocking end – at least in the Byzantine world.

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