The Fourth Crusade was a classic case of plans gone awry, with consequences far from those the planners had intended. Nevertheless, the idea that the assaults upon the Byzantine capital were an accident or a great crime is misleading. This outdated view was perhaps most famously expressed by Steven Runciman, when he wrote that, ‘There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade’. Unfortunately, the view that the entire episode was a gigantic Venetian plot remains deeply rooted. In reality the Crusaders had already developed several fronts during the 12th century, and although previous attacks on Byzantium had not been categorized as crusades, the concept of ‘crusades against Schismatic Greeks’ was an accepted idea after the Fourth Crusade. In opposition to this ‘conspiracy theory’ is a now widely accepted ‘cock-up theory’, which interprets the campaign as a series of unforeseen circumstances. Yet even this is simplistic. Nevertheless, the vulnerability of the Byzantine Empire to invasion had long been known, especially to Venetians, and the suggestions put forward by their leaders during the course of the crusade were certainly not based on ignorance.
The story of the patron saint of Venice, St Mark, in the mosaics of the Cathedral of San Marco, includes illustrations of the ships that made the Republic wealthy and powerful. (Author’s photograph)
A number of 11th- or 12th-century bronze chapes, probably for dagger sheaths, have been found in southern England. On one side is a mounted warrior with a kite-shaped shield and a massive axe. This is so unlike the normal military images of that time and place that the owner seems to be declaring, ‘I am not a Norman knight!’ Might they have been for returning English Varangian Guardsmen? A – Damaged example (Peter Woods private collection); B - Complete example (inv. 59.94/45, Museum of London, London)
What then, did Pope Innocent III hope for when he called for a new crusade? He seems to have been the first major crusade propagandist to recognize the value of current information from the Crusader states. Hence Pope Innocent III sent letters to the leading churchmen of the Latin East, seeking updated political and military assessments of the surrounding Muslim states. Unfortunately for the pope, the Patriarch of Jerusalem did not consider a major crusade to be wise in the existing circumstances. Instead his reply expressed the remarkably optimistic belief that the ‘Saracens’ were prepared to hand over ‘Syria’ – perhaps meaning the Holy Land of Palestine – if they were assured that their other possessions would not be invaded.
Sadly, Pope Innocent III disagreed, and promptly published an encyclical (papal letter) calling for an expedition to liberate Jerusalem, which had been lost to Saladin back in 1187. Innocent III also delegated legates to prepare the ground, with Cardinal Soffredo going to Venice to organize the necessary naval support and Cardinal Peter Capuano attempting to negotiate peace between the quarrelling rulers of France and England, while two other cardinal legates tried to negotiate an end to the long-standing war between Genoa and Pisa. In the event, neither kings nor emperors took part in the Fourth Crusade, but Pope Innocent III’s efforts to promote the expedition lower down the social scale were more successful.
From the start it was obvious that the Byzantine Empire would play a major role in Innocent III’s thinking, though not as the crusade’s primary target. What the pope apparently had in mind were transit rights, and logistical and perhaps financial support. This, and the pope’s impatience with Byzantine caution, was expressed in a letter he sent to Alexios III in November 1199: ‘If you wish to wait, because the time of the redemption of that same land is unknown to men, and do nothing by yourself, leaving all things to divine disposition, the Holy Sepulchre may be delivered from the hands of the Saracens without the help of your aid. Therefore through negligence your Imperial Magnificence will incur divine wrath.’ However, there is no reason to believe that the pope intended this ‘divine wrath’ to come in the form of a crusade.