You took the Cross upon your shoulders; and on that Cross and on the Holy Gospels you swore that you would pass over Christian lands without violence, turning neither to right nor. to left. You assured us that your only enemy was the Saracen, and that his blood only would be shed . . .
Far from carrying the Cross, you profane it and trample it underfoot. You claim to be in quest of a pearl beyond price, but in truth you fling that most precious of all pearls, which is the body of our Saviour, into the mud. The Saracens themselves show less impiety.
Nicetas Choniates, 'Alexius Ducas', IV, iv
The end of the twelfth century found Europe in confusion. The Empires of both East and West were rudderless; Norman Sicily was gone, never to return. Germany was torn apart by civil war over the imperial succession and both England and France were similarly - though less violently - occupied with inheritance problems following the death of Richard Coeur-de-Lion in 1199. Of the luminaries of Christendom, one only was firmly in control: Pope Innocent III, who had ascended the papal throne in 1198 and had immediately proclaimed yet another Crusade. The lack of crowned heads to lead it did not worry him; previous experience had shown that Kings and princes, stirring up as they invariably did national rivalries and endless questions of precedence and protocol, tended to be more trouble than they were worth. A few great nobles would suit his purpose admirably; and Innocent was still casting about for suitable candidates when he received a letter from Count Tibald of Champagne.
Tibald was the younger brother of Henry of Champagne, Count of Troyes, who had been ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem - though he was never crowned King - from the time of his marriage to Amalric I's daughter Isabella in 1192 until his accidental fall from a window of his palace at Acre in 1197. He had not accompanied Henry to Palestine; but as the grandson of Louis VII and the nephew of both Philip Augustus and Coeur-de-Lion, he had the Crusades in his blood. He was energetic and ambitious; and when, in the course of a tournament at his castle of Ecri on the Aisne, he and his friends were addressed by the celebrated preacher Fulk of Neuilly, who was travelling through France rallying support for a new expedition to the East, he responded immediately. Once he had sent a message to Pope Innocent that he had taken the Cross, there could be no other leader.
It was clear to everyone, however, that major problems lay ahead. Coeur-de-Lion, before leaving Palestine, had given it as his opinion that the weakest point of the Muslim East was Egypt, and that it was here that any future expeditions should be directed. It followed that the new army would have to travel by sea, and would need ships in a quantity that could be obtained from one source only: the Venetian Republic. Thus it was that during the first week of Lent in the year 1201, a party of six knights led by Geoffrey de Villehardouin, Marshal of Champagne, arrived in Venice. They made their request at a special meeting of the Great Council, and a week later they received their answer. The Republic would provide transport for four and a half thousand knights with their horses, nine thousand squires and twenty thousand foot-soldiers, with food for nine months. The cost would be 84,000 silver marks. In addition Venice would provide fifty fully-equipped galleys at her own expense, on condition that she received one-half of the territories conquered.
This reply was conveyed to Geoffrey and his colleagues by the Doge, Enrico Dandolo. In all Venetian history there is no more astonishing figure. We cannot be sure of his age when, on 1 January 1193, he was raised to the ducal throne; the story goes that he was eighty-five and already stone-blind, though this seems hardly credible when we read of his energy - indeed, his heroism - a decade later on the walls of Constantinople. But even if he was in only his middle seventies, he would still have been, at the time of the Fourth Crusade, an octogenarian of several years' standing. A dedicated, almost fanatical patriot, he had spent much of his life in the service of Venice, and in 1172 had been one of the Republic's ambassadors on the abortive peace mission to Manuel Comnenus.
Did his loss of sight date from this time? According to his later namesake, the historian Andrea Dandolo, his arrogance and stubbornness antagonized Manuel to such a point that he actually had him arrested and partially blinded; on the other hand a contemporary and so possibly more reliable source - an appendix to the Altino Chronicle - reports that the next Venetian embassy to Constantinople was sent only after the three previous ambassadors had returned safe and sound. This, combined with what we know of Manuel's character and the absence of any other references to what must have created a major outcry in Venice had it in fact occurred, suggests that imperial displeasure cannot be blamed on this occasion. Another theory1 holds that while in Constantinople Dan-dolo had been involved in a brawl, in the course of which his eyes had been injured. This too seems improbable in view of the Altino testimony; besides, he was not even then in his first youth, but a mature diplomatist of fifty or so. Thirty years later, at any rate, the facts are no longer in doubt. Geoffrey de Villehardouin, who knew him well, assures us that 'although his eyes appeared normal, he could not see a hand in front of his face, having lost his sight after a head wound'.
Fortunately for posterity, Geoffrey has left a full record not only of the Crusade itself but also of these preliminary negotiations. No one was better placed to do so, and few men of his time could have done it better. His style has clarity and pace, and in his opening pages he gives us a vivid account of Venetian democracy in action. The Doge, he writes,
assembled at least ten thousand men in the church of St Mark, the most beautiful that there is, to hear the Mass and to pray God for His guidance. And after the Mass he summoned the envoys and besought them, that they themselves should ask of the people the services they required. Geoffrey de Villehardouin, Marshal of Champagne, spoke by consent for the others . . . Then the Doge and people raised their hands and cried aloud with a single voice, 'We grant it! We grant it!' And so great was the noise and tumult that the very earth seemed to tremble underfoot.
On the following day the contracts were concluded. Geoffrey notes in passing that the agreement did not mention Egypt as the immediate objective. He gives no explanation; but he and his colleagues were almost certainly afraid — and with good reason as it turned out - that the news would be unpopular with the rank and file, for whom Jerusalem was the only legitimate goal for a Crusade and who would see no reason to waste time anywhere else. Moreover an Egyptian expedition would necessitate a dangerous landing on a hostile shore, as opposed to a quiet
1 Runciman, A History of the Crusades, Vol. Ill, p. 114.
anchorage at Christian Acre and an opportunity to recover from the journey before going into battle. The Venetians for their part would have been only too happy to cooperate in the deception, for they too had a secret. At that very moment their own ambassadors were in Cairo, discussing a highly profitable trade agreement; and in the course of these discussions they are believed to have given a categorical undertaking not to be party to any attack on Egyptian territory.
Such considerations, however, could not be allowed to affect plans for the Crusade, by which still greater prizes might be won; and it was agreed that the Crusaders should all forgather in Venice on the feast of St John, 24 June 1202, when the fleet would be ready for them.
Just how Enrico Dandolo proposed to deflect the Frankish Crusaders from Egypt we shall never know. He and his agents may have been partly responsible for leaking the Egyptian plans through the countries of the West; certainly these became public knowledge in a remarkably short time. But if he hoped that the popular reaction to this news would induce the leaders to change their minds, he was mistaken. It was the followers who changed theirs. Many, on hearing of their proposed destination, renounced the Crusade altogether; many more decided to head for Palestine regardless, arranging their own transport from Marseille to one of the Apulian ports. On the day appointed for the rendezvous in Venice, the army that gathered on the Lido numbered less than one-third of what had been expected.
For those who had arrived as planned, the situation was embarrassing in the extreme. Venice had performed her share of the bargain: there lay the fleet, war galleys as well as transports - no Christian man, writes Geoffrey, had ever seen richer or finer - but sufficient for an army three times the size of that assembled. With their numbers so dramatically reduced, the Crusaders could not hope to pay the Venetians the money they had promised. When their leader, the Marquis Boniface of Montfer-rat - Tibald of Champagne having died shortly after Villehardouin's return the previous year - arrived in Venice rather late, he found the whole expedition in jeopardy. Not only were the Venetians refusing point-blank to allow a single ship to leave port till the money was forthcoming; they were even talking of cutting off provisions to the waiting army - a threat made more serious in that the bulk of that army was confined to the Lido and strictly forbidden to set foot in the city itself. This last measure was not intended to be deliberately offensive; it was a normal precaution on such occasions, designed to prevent disturbances of the peace or the spread of infection. But it scarcely improved the atmosphere. Boniface emptied his own coffers, many of the other knights and barons did likewise, and every man in the army was pressed to give all he could; but the total raised, including quantities of gold and silver plate, still fell short by 34,000 marks of what was owing.
For as long as the contributions continued to come in, old Dandolo kept the Crusaders in suspense. Then, as soon as he was sure that there was no more to be got, he came forward with an offer. The Venetian city of Zara,' he pointed out, had recently fallen into the hands of the King of Hungary. If, before embarking on the Crusade proper, the Franks would agree to assist Venice in its recapture, settlement of their debt might perhaps be postponed. It was a typically cynical proposal, and as soon as he heard of it Pope Innocent sent an urgent message forbidding its acceptance. But the Crusaders, as he later came to understand, had no choice.
There followed another of those ceremonies in St Mark's that Enrico Dandolo, despite his years, handled so beautifully. Before a congregation that included all the leading Franks, he addressed his subjects. Geoffrey de Villehardouin, who was there, reports his speech as follows:
'Signors, you are joined with the worthiest people in the world, for the highest enterprise ever undertaken. I myself am old and feeble; I need rest: my body is infirm. But I know that no man can lead you and govern you as I, your Lord, can do. If therefore you will allow me to direct and defend you by taking the Cross while my son remains in my place to guard the Republic, I am ready to live and to die with you and the pilgrims.'
And when they heard him, they cried with one voice, 'We pray God that you will do this thing, and come with us!'
So he came down from the pulpit and moved up to the altar, and knelt there, weeping; and he had the cross sewn on to his great cotton hat, so determined was he that all men should see it.
Thus it was that on 8 November 1202 the army of the Fourth Crusade set sail from Venice. Its 480 ships, led by the galley of the Doge himself, 'painted vermilion, with a silken vermilion awning spread above, cymbals clashing and four trumpeters sounding from the bows', were however bound neither for Egypt nor for Palestine. Just a week later, Zara was taken and sacked. The fighting that broke out almost immediately afterwards between the Franks and the Venetians over the division of the spoils scarcely augured well for the future, but peace was eventually
1 Now Zadar, on the Dalmatian coast.
restored and the two groups settled themselves in different parts of the city for the winter. Meanwhile the news of what had happened had reached the Pope. Outraged, he at once excommunicated the entire expedition. Though he was later to limit his ban to the Venetians alone, the Crusade could hardly be said to have got off to a good start.
But worse was to follow. Early in the new year a messenger arrived with a letter for Boniface from Philip of Swabia - not only Barbarossa's son and the brother of Emperor Henry VI, whose death five years before had left empty the imperial throne of the West, but also the son-in-law of the deposed and blinded basileus Isaac Angelus. Now it happened that in the previous year Isaac's young son, another Alexius, had escaped from the prison in which he and his father were being held; and Philip's court had been his obvious place of refuge. There he had met Boniface shortly before the latter's departure for Venice, and there the three of them may have roughed out the plan which Philip now formally proposed in his letter. If the Crusade would escort the young Alexius to Constantinople and enthrone him there in place of his usurper uncle, Alexius for his part would finance its subsequent conquest of Egypt, supplying in addition ten thousand soldiers of his own and afterwards maintaining five hundred knights in the Holy Land at his own expense. He would also submit the Church of Constantinople to the authority of Rome.
To Boniface the scheme had much to recommend it. Apart from what appeared to be the long-term advantages to the Crusade itself and the opportunity to pay off the still outstanding debt to Venice, he also smelt the possibility of considerable personal gain. When he put the idea to Dandolo - to whom, also, it probably came as a less than total surprise -the old Doge accepted it with enthusiasm. He had been in no way chastened by his excommunication; this was not the first time that Venice had defied papal wishes, and it would not be the last. His earlier military and diplomatic experiences had left him with little love for Byzantium; besides, the present Emperor had on his accession made intolerable difficulties over renewing the trading concessions granted by his predecessor. Genoese and Pisan competition was becoming ever more fierce; if Venice were to retain her former hold on the Eastern markets, decisive action would be required. Such action, finally, would involve a welcome postponement of the Egyptian expedition.
The Crusading army proved readier to accept the change of plan than might have been expected. A few of its members refused outright and set off for Palestine on their own; the majority, however, were only too happy to lend themselves to a scheme which promised to strengthen and enrich the Crusade while also restoring the unity of Christendom. Ever since the great schism - and even before - the Byzantines had been unpopular in the West. They had contributed little or nothing to previous Crusades, during which they were generally believed to have betrayed the Christian cause on several occasions. Young Alexius's offer of active assistance was a welcome change and not to be despised. Finally, there must have been many among the more materialistically inclined who shared their leader's hope of personal reward. The average Frank knew practically nothing about Byzantium, but all had been brought up on stories of its immense wealth. And to any medieval army, whether or not it bore the Cross of Christ on its standard, a fabulously rich city meant one thing only: loot.
Young Alexius himself arrived in Zara towards the end of April; and a few days later the fleet set sail, stopping at Durazzo and Corfu, in both of which he was acclaimed as the rightful Emperor of the East. On 24 June 1203, a year to the day after the rendezvous in Venice, it dropped anchor off Constantinople. The Crusaders were astounded. Geoffrey reports:
You may imagine how they gazed, all those who had never before seen Constantinople. For when they saw those high ramparts and the strong towers with which it was completely encircled, and the splendid palaces and soaring churches - so many that but for the evidence of their own eyes they would never have believed it — and the length and the breadth of that city which of all others is sovereign, they never thought that there could be so rich and powerful a place on earth. And mark you that there was not a man so bold that he did not tremble at the sight; nor was this any wonder, for never since the creation of the world was there so great an enterprise.
Alexius III had had plenty of warning of the arrival of the expedition, but had characteristically made no preparations for the city's defence; the dockyards had lain idle ever since his idiotic brother had entrusted the whole Byzantine shipbuilding programme to Venice sixteen years before; and according to Nicetas Choniates - who as a former imperial secretary was well placed to know what was going on - he had allowed his principal admiral (who was also his brother-in-law) to sell off the anchors, sails and rigging of his few remaining vessels, now reduced to useless hulks and rotting in the inner harbour. He and his subjects watched, half-stunned, from the walls as the massive war fleet passed beneath them, beating its way up to the mouth of the Bosphorus.
Being in no particular hurry to begin the siege, the invaders first landed on the Asiatic shore of the straits, near the imperial summer palace of Chalcedon, to replenish their stores. 'The surrounding land was fair and fertile,' writes Villehardouin; 'sheaves of new-reaped corn stood in the fields, so that any man might take of it as much as he needed.' There they easily repulsed a half-hearted attack by a small detachment of Greek cavalry - it fled at the first charge, but its purpose was probably only reconnaissance - and later, with similar lack of ceremony, dismissed an emissary from the Emperor. If, they told him, his master was willing to surrender the throne forthwith to his nephew, they would pray the latter to pardon him and make him a generous settlement. If not, let him send them no more messengers, but look to his defence.
Soon after sunrise on the morning of 5 July, they crossed the Bosphorus and landed below Galata, on the north-eastern side of the Golden Horn. Being a commercial settlement, largely occupied by foreign merchants, Galata was unwalled; its only major fortification was a single large round tower. This tower was however of vital importance, for in it stood the huge windlass for the raising and lowering of the chain that was used in emergencies to block the entrance to the Horn.1 To defend it a considerable force was drawn up, with the Emperor himself rather surprisingly at its head. Perhaps - though given the general demoralization of the Byzantines since the coming of the Angeli, it is far from certain - the defenders might have done better under different leadership; everyone knew how Alexius had seized the throne, and his character was not one to inspire either love or loyalty. In any case the sight of well over a hundred ships, disembarking men, horses and equipment with speed and precision - for the Venetians were nothing if not efficient - filled them with terror, and scarcely had the first wave of Crusaders lowered their lances for the attack than they turned and fled, the Emperor once again in the lead.
Within the Galata Tower itself, the garrison fought more bravely, holding out for a full twenty-four hours; but by the following morning it had to surrender. The Venetian sailors unshackled the windlass, and the great iron chain that had stretched over five hundred yards across the mouth of the Golden Horn subsided thunderously into the water. The fleet swept in, destroying such few seaworthy Byzantine vessels as it found in the inner harbour. The naval victory was complete.
1 The tower no longer stands, having been demolished in 1261. The present Galata Tower is a fourteenth-century replacement on a different site.
Constantinople, however, did not surrender. The walls that ran along the shore of the Golden Horn could not compare in strength or splendour with the tremendous ramparts on the landward side, but they could still be staunchly defended. Gradually the Byzantines began to regain the courage and determination that they had heretofore so conspicuously lacked. In all the nine centuries of its existence, their city had not once fallen to a foreign invader. Perhaps, until now, they had never really thought it could. Awake at last to the full extent of the danger that threatened them, they prepared to resist.
The assault, when it came, was directed against the weakest point in the Byzantine defences: the sea frontage of the Palace of Blachernae, which occupied the angle formed by the Land Walls and those following the line of the Horn, at the extreme north-west corner of the city. It was launched on the morning of Thursday, 17 July, simultaneously from land and sea, with the Venetian ships riding low in the water under the weight of their siege machinery: catapults and mangonels on the forecastles, covered gangplanks and scaling-ladders suspended by rope tackles between the yard-arms. The Frankish army, attacking from land, was initially beaten back by the axe-swinging Englishmen and Danes of the Varangian Guard; it was the Venetians who decided the day - and, to a considerable degree, Enrico Dandolo in person.
The story of the old Doge's courage is told not just by some biased latter-day panegyrist of the Republic, but by a Frankish eye-witness: Geoffrey de Villehardouin himself. He reports that although the Venetian assault craft had approached so close in-shore that those manning the ladders in the bows were fighting hand-to-hand with the defenders, the sailors were at first reluctant to beach the vessels and effect a proper landing.
And here was an extraordinary feat of boldness. For the Duke of Venice, who was an old man and stone-blind, stood fully armed on the prow of his galley, with the banner of St Mark before him, and cried out to his men to drive the ship ashore if they valued their skins. And so they did, and ran the galley ashore, and he and they leaped down and planted the banner before him in the ground. And when the other Venetians saw the standard of St Mark and the Doge's galley beached before their own, they were ashamed, and followed him ashore.
As the attack gathered momentum, it soon became clear to the defenders that they had no chance. Before many hours had passed, Dandolo was able to send word to his Frankish allies that no less than twenty-five towers along the wall were already in Venetian hands. By this time his men were pouring through breaches in the rampart into the city itself, setting fire to the wooden houses until the whole quarter of Blachernae was ablaze. That evening Alexius III Angelus fled secretly from the city, leaving his wife and all his children except a favourite daughter - whom he took with him, together with a few other women, ten thousand pounds of gold and a bag of jewels — to face the future as best they might.
Byzantium, at this gravest crisis in its history, was left without an Emperor; and it may seem surprising that a hastily-convened council of state should have fetched old Isaac Angelus out of his prison and replaced him on the imperial throne. Thanks to his brother's ministrations he was even blinder than Dandolo, and had moreover proved himself a hopelessly incompetent ruler; he was, however, the legitimate Emperor, and by restoring him the Byzantines doubtless believed that they had removed all grounds for further intervention by the Crusaders. So in a way they had; but there remained the undertakings made by young Alexius to Boniface and the Doge. These Isaac was now obliged to ratify, agreeing at the same time to make his son co-Emperor with him. Only then did the Franks and Venetians accord him their formal recognition, after which they withdrew to the Galata side of the Golden Horn to await their promised rewards.
On i August 1203, Alexius IV Angelus was crowned alongside his father and assumed effective power. Immediately he began to regret the offers he had made so rashly at Zara in the spring. The imperial treasury, after his uncle's extravagances, was empty; the new taxes that he was obliged to introduce were openly resented by his subjects, who knew all too well where their money was going. Meanwhile the clergy -always an important political force in Constantinople - were scandalized when he began to seize and melt down their church plate and perfectly furious when they heard of his plans to subordinate them to the hated Pope of Rome. As autumn gave way to winter the Emperor's unpopularity steadily grew; and the continued presence of the Franks, whose greed appeared insatiable, increased the tension still further. One night a group of them, wandering through the city, came upon a little mosque in the Saracen quarter behind the church of St Irene, pillaged it and burnt it to ashes. The flames spread, and for the next forty-eight hours Constantinople was engulfed in its worst fire since the days of Justinian, nearly seven centuries before.
When the Emperor returned from a brief and unsuccessful expedition against his fugitive uncle, it was to find most of his capital in ruins and his subjects in a state of almost open warfare against the foreigners. The situation had clearly reached breaking-point; but when, a few days later, a delegation of three Crusaders and three Venetians came to demand immediate payment of the sum owing to them, there was still nothing he could do. According to Villehardouin - who, predictably, was one of the delegates - the party narrowly escaped a lynching on its way to and from the palace. 'And thus,' he writes, 'the war began; and each side did to the other as much harm as it could, both by sea and by land.'
Ironically enough, neither the Crusaders nor the Greeks wanted such a war. The inhabitants of Constantinople had by now one object only in mind: to be rid, once and for all, of these uncivilized thugs who were destroying their beloved city and bleeding them white into the bargain. The Franks, for their part, had not forgotten the reason they had left their homes, and increasingly resented their enforced stay among what they considered an effete and effeminate people when they should have been getting to grips with the infidel. Even if the Greek debt were to be paid in full, they themselves would not benefit materially; it would only enable them to settle their own outstanding account with the Venetians.
The key to the whole impossible affair lay, in short, with Venice - or, more accurately, with Enrico Dandolo. It was open to him at any moment to give his fleet the order to sail. Had he done so, the Crusaders would have been relieved and the Byzantines overjoyed. Formerly, his refusal had been on the grounds that the Franks would never be able to pay him their debt until they in their turn received the money that Alexius and his father had promised them. In fact, however, that debt was now of relatively little interest to him - scarcely more than was the Crusade itself. His mind was on greater things: the overthrow of the Byzantine Empire and the establishment of a Venetian puppet on the throne of Constantinople.
And so, as prospects of a peaceful settlement receded, Dandolo's advice to his Frankish allies took on a different tone. Nothing more, he pointed out, could be expected of Isaac and Alexius, who had not scrupled to betray the friends to whom they owed their joint crown. If the Crusaders were ever to obtain their due, they would have to take it by force. Their moral justification was complete: the faithless Angeli had no further claim on their loyalties. Once inside the city, with one of their own leaders installed as Emperor, they could pay Venice what they owed her almost without noticing it and still have more than enough to finance the Crusade. This was their opportunity; they should seize it now, for it would not recur.
Within Constantinople too, it was generally agreed that Alexius IV must go; and on 25 January 1204 a great concourse of senators, clergy and people gathered in St Sophia to declare him deposed and elect a successor. It was during their deliberations - which dragged on inconclusively for three days before fixing on a reluctant nonentity named Nicholas Canabus - that the only really effective figure at that moment on the Byzantine stage took the law into his own hands.
Alexius Ducas - nicknamed Murzuphlus on account of his eyebrows, which were black and shaggy and met in the middle - was a nobleman whose family had already produced two Emperors and who now occupied the court position of protovestarius, with its rights of unrestricted access to the imperial apartments. Late at night he burst into where Alexius IV was sleeping, woke him with the news that his subjects had risen against him and offered him what he claimed was the only chance of escape. Muffling him in a long cloak, he led him by a side door out of the palace to where his fellow-conspirators were waiting. The unhappy youth was then clapped into irons and consigned to a dungeon where, having survived two attempts to poison him, he eventually succumbed to the bowstring. At about the same time his blind father also died; Villehardouin, with that impregnable naivete that characterizes his whole chronicle, attributes his demise to a sudden sickness, brought on by the news of the fate of his son; it does not seem to have struck him that so convenient a malady might have been artificially induced.'
With his rivals eliminated - and Nicholas Canabus having retired once again into the obscurity he should never have left - Murzuphlus was crowned in St Sophia as Alexius V. Immediately he began to show those qualities of leadership that the Empire had lacked for so long. For the first time since the Crusaders' arrival the walls and towers were properly manned, while workmen sweated day and night strengthening them and raising them ever higher. To the Franks, one thing was plain: there was to be no more negotiation, far less any question of further payments on a debt for which the new Emperor in any case bore no responsibility.
1 A fellow Crusader, Robert of Clary, probably comes closer to the truth when he writes: 'Si li fist lachier urn corde u col, si It fist estranler et sen pere Kyrsaac attsi.' (He [Murzuphlus] had a cord put about his neck and had him strangled, together with his father Isaac.')
Their one chance was an all-out attempt on the city; and now that Murzuphlus had not only usurped the throne but had revealed himself as a murderer to boot, they were morally in an even stronger position than if they had moved against Alexius IV, a legitimate Emperor and their erstwhile ally.
An all-out attempt on the city: it was exactly what Enrico Dandolo had been advocating for months, and from the moment of Murzuphlus's coup the old Doge seems to have been recognized, by Venetians and Franks alike, as the leader of the entire expedition. Boniface of Montferrat strove to maintain his influence; with the imperial crown almost within his grasp, it was more than ever vital to him that he should. But his association with the deposed Emperor had been too close, and now that Alexius IV had gone he found himself in some degree discredited. Besides, he had links with the Genoese - and Dandolo knew it.
Early in March there began a series of council meetings in the camp at Galata. They were concerned less with the plan of attack - despite Murzuphlus's work on the defences, its success was apparently considered a foregone conclusion - than with the future administration of the Empire after its conquest. It was agreed that the Crusaders and the Venetians should each appoint six delegates to an electoral committee, and that this should choose the new Emperor. If, as was expected, they decided on a Frank, then the Patriarch should be a Venetian; otherwise vice versa. The Emperor would receive a quarter of the city and of the Empire, including the two chief palaces - Blachernae on the Golden Horn and the old palace on the Marmara. The remaining three-quarters should be divided equally, half going to Venice and half in fief to the Crusading knights. For the Venetian portion, the Doge was specifically absolved from the need to do the Emperor homage. All plunder taken was to be brought to an agreed spot and distributed in similar proportions. Finally, the parties were to undertake not to leave Constantinople for a full year - until March 1205 at the earliest.
The attack began on Friday morning, 9 April. It was directed against that same stretch of sea wall facing the Golden Horn where Dandolo and his men had distinguished themselves nine months before. This time, however, it failed. The new, higher walls and towers, no longer accessible from the Venetian mastheads, provided useful platforms from which the Greek catapults could wreak havoc among the besiegers below. By mid-afternoon the attackers had begun to re-embark their men, horses and equipment and beat their way back to Galata and safety. The next two days were spent in repairing the damage; then, on the
Monday following, the assault was renewed. This time the Venetians lashed their ships together in pairs, thus contriving to throw twice as much weight as before against each tower. Soon, too, a strong north wind blew up, driving the vessels far further up the beach below the walls than the oarsmen could ever have done and allowing the besiegers to work under cover of makeshift shelters stretched from one mast to another. Before long, two of the towers were overwhelmed and occupied. Almost simultaneously, the Crusaders broke open one of the gates in the wall and surged into the city.
Murzuphlus, who had been commanding the defenders with courage and determination, galloped through the streets in a last desperate attempt to rally his subjects. 'But', writes Nicetas,
they were all swept up in the whirlpool of despair, and had no ears either for his orders or his remonstrances . . . Seeing that his efforts were in vain, and fearing to be served up to the Franks as a choice morsel for their table, he took flight, accompanied by Euphrosyne, wife of the Emperor Alexius [III] and her daughter Eudocia, whom he passionately adored; for he was a great lover of women and had already repudiated two wives in a manner not canonical.
The three sought refuge with the ex-Emperor in Thrace, where Murzuphlus duly married Eudocia and began to gather his forces for a counter-offensive.
Once the walls were breached, the carnage was dreadful; even Villehardouin was appalled. Only at nightfall, 'tired of battle and massacre', did the conquerors call a truce and withdraw to their camp in one of the great squares of the city.
That night, a party of Crusaders, fearing a counter-attack, set fire to the district which lay between themselves and the Greeks . . . and the city began to blaze fiercely, and it burnt all that night and all the next day until evening. It was the third fire at Constantinople since the Franks arrived. And there were more houses burnt than there are to be found in the three greatest cities of the Kingdom of France.
After this, such few defenders as had not yet laid down their arms lost the spirit to continue. The next morning the Crusaders awoke to find all resistance in the city at an end.
But for the people of Constantinople the tragedy had scarcely begun. Not for nothing had the army waited so long outside the world's richest capital. Now that it was theirs and that the customary three days' looting was allowed them, they fell on it like locusts. Never, since the barbarian invasions some centuries before, had Europe witnessed such an orgy of brutality and vandalism; never in history had so much beauty, so much superb craftsmanship, been wantonly destroyed in so short a space of time. Among the witnesses - helpless, horrified, almost unable to believe that human beings who called themselves Christians could be capable of such enormities - was Nicetas Choniates:
I know not how to put any order into my account, how to begin, continue or end. They smashed the holy images and hurled the sacred relics of the Martyrs into places I am ashamed to mention, scattering everywhere the body and blood of the Saviour. These heralds of Anti-Christ seized the chalices and the patens, tore out the jewels and used them as drinking cups ... As for their profanation of the Great Church, it cannot be thought of without horror. They destroyed the high altar, a work of art admired by the entire world, and shared out the pieces among themselves . . . And they brought horses and mules into the Church, the better to carry off the holy vessels and the engraved silver and gold that they had torn from the throne, and the pulpit, and the doors, and the furniture wherever it was to be found; and when some of these beasts slipped and fell, they ran them through with their swords, fouling the Church with their blood and ordure.
A common harlot was enthroned in the Patriarch's chair, to hurl insults at Jesus Christ; and she sang bawdy songs, and danced immodestly in the holy place . .. nor was there mercy shown to virtuous matrons, innocent maids or even virgins consecrated to God ... In the streets, houses and churches there could be heard only cries and lamentations.
And these men, he continues, carried the Cross on their shoulders, the Cross upon which they had sworn to pass through Christian lands without bloodshed, to take arms only against the heathen and to abstain from the pleasures of the flesh until their holy task was done.
It was Constantinople's darkest hour - even darker, perhaps, than that, two and a half centuries later, which was to see the city's final fall to the Ottoman Sultan. But not all its treasures perished. While the Frenchmen and Flemings abandoned themselves to a frenzy of wholesale destruction, the Venetians kept their heads. They knew beauty when they saw it. They too looted and pillaged and plundered - but they did not destroy. Instead, all that they could lay their hands on they sent back to Venice — beginning with the four great bronze horses which had dominated the Hippodrome since the days of Constantine and which, from their platform above the main door of St Mark's, were to perform a similar function, for the best part of the next eight centuries, over the Piazza below.1 The north and south faces of the Basilica are studded with sculptures and reliefs shipped back at the same time; inside the building, in the north transept, hangs the miraculous icon of the Virgin Nicopoeia - the Bringer of Victory - which the Emperors were wont to carry before them into battle; while the Treasury to the south possesses one of the greatest collections of Byzantine works of art to be found anywhere — a further monument to Venetian rapacity.
After three days of terror, order was restored. As previously arranged, all the spoils — or that part of them that had not been successfully concealed - were gathered together in three churches and careful distribution made: a quarter for the Emperor when elected, the remainder to be split equally between the Franks and Venetians. As soon as it was done, the Crusaders paid their debt to Enrico Dandolo. These formalities satisfactorily concluded, both parties applied themselves to the next task: the election of the new Emperor of Byzantium.
Boniface of Montferrat, in a desperate attempt to recover his lost prestige and strengthen his own candidacy, had tracked down the Empress Maria, widow of Isaac Angelus, and married her. He need not have bothered. Dandolo refused outright to consider him and -since the Franks were divided while the Venetians voted as a single bloc - had no difficulty in steering the electors towards the easy-going and tractable Count Baldwin of Flanders and Hainault, who on 16 May received his coronation in St Sophia — the third Emperor to be crowned there in less than a year. Although the newly-appointed Patriarch, the Venetian Tommaso Morosini,2 had not yet arrived in Constantinople and so could not officiate at the ceremony, there can have been few among those present who would have denied that the new Emperor owed his elevation entirely to the Venetian Republic.
In return, Venice appropriated the best for her own. By the terms of her treaty with the Crusaders she was entitled to three-eighths of the city and the Empire, together with free trade throughout the imperial dominions, from which both Genoa and Pisa were to be rigorously excluded. In Constantinople itself, the Doge demanded the entire district
1 Alas, no longer. Some years ago the Italian authorities, pleading atmospheric pollution, saw fit to incarcerate them in a small, dark room within the Basilica and to replace them on the gallery with lifeless replicas in fibreglass.
2 'Fat as a stuffed pig,' snorts Nicetas, 'and wearing a robe so tight that it seemed to have been sewn on to his skin'. Though already a monk, Morosini had not taken orders at the time he was selected for the Patriarchate. He was ordained deacon at once, priest a fortnight later and bishop the following morning.
surrounding St Sophia and the Patriarchate, reaching right down to the shore of the Golden Horn; for the rest, he took for Venice all those regions that promised to reinforce her mastery of the Mediterranean and to give her an unbroken chain of colonies and ports from the lagoon to the Black Sea. They included Ragusa and Durazzo; the western coast of the Greek mainland and the Ionian Islands; all the Peloponnese; Euboea, Naxos and Andros; the chief ports on the Hellespont and the Marmara -Gallipoli, Rhaedestum and Heraclea; the Thracian seaboard, the city of Adrianople and finally, after a brief negotiation with Boniface, the all-important island of Crete. The harbours and islands would belong to Venice absolutely; where mainland Greece was concerned, however, Dandolo made it clear that as a mercantile republic Venice had no interest in occupying more than the key ports. For the rest, she was only too pleased to have the responsibility taken off her hands.
Thus it emerges beyond all doubt that it was the Venetians, rather than the French or Flemings - or even the Emperor Baldwin himself, who remained little more than a figurehead - who were the real beneficiaries of the Fourth Crusade; and that their success was due, almost exclusively, to Enrico Dandolo. From that day, four years before, when the Frankish emissaries had arrived on the Rialto to ask the Republic's help in their holy enterprise, he had turned every new development to Venetian advantage. He had regained Zara; he had protected Egypt from attack and so preserved Venice's commercial interests with the Muslim world; he had subtly redirected the Frankish forces towards Constantinople, while leaving the ostensible responsibility for the decision with them. Once there, his courage had largely inspired the first attack; his capacity for intrigue had brought down the Angeli, making essential a second siege and the physical capture of the city; his diplomatic skill had shaped a treaty which gave Venice more than she had dared to hope and laid the foundations for her commercial Empire. Refusing the Byzantine crown for himself - to have accepted it would have created insuperable constitutional problems at home and might well have destroyed the Republic - and declining even to serve on the electoral commission, he nevertheless made sure that his influence over the election (which was held under his auspices, in the old imperial palace that he had temporarily appropriated for himself) would be tantamount to giving Venice a majority and would ensure the success of his own candidate. Finally, while encouraging the Franks to feudalize the Empire - a step which he knew could not fail to create fragmentation and disunity and would prevent its ever becoming strong enough to obstruct Venetian expansion - he had kept Venice outside the feudal framework, holding her new dominions not as an imperial fief but by her own right of conquest. For a blind man not far short of ninety it was a remarkable achievement.
Yet even now old Dandolo did not rest. Outside the capital, the Greek subjects of the Empire continued their resistance. Murzuphlus was to cause no further trouble: soon after his marriage he was blinded in his turn by his jealous father-in-law, and when in the following year he was captured by the Franks they brought him back to Constantinople and flung him to his death from the column of Theodosius in the centre of the city. But — as the next chapter will tell — another of Alexius Ill's sons-in-law set up an Empire in exile at Nicaea, two of the Comneni did the same at Trebizond and, in Epirus, a bastard Angelus proclaimed himself an autonomous Despot. On all sides the erstwhile Crusaders had to fight hard to establish themselves, nowhere more fiercely than in Venice's newly-acquired city of Adrianople where, just after Easter, 1205, the Emperor Baldwin fell into the hands of the Bulgars and the old Doge, who had fought determinedly at his side, was left to lead a shattered army back to Constantinople. He is not known to have been wounded; but six weeks later he was dead. His body, rather surprisingly, was not returned to Venice but was buried in St Sophia - where, in the gallery above the south aisle, his tombstone may still be seen.
He had deserved well of his city; it is a source of greater surprise that the Venetians never erected a monument to the greatest of all their Doges. But in the wider context of world events he was a disaster. Though it cannot be said of him that he gave the Crusades a bad name, that is only because the record of those successive forays over the previous century had already emerged as one of the blackest chapters in the history of Christendom. Yet the Fourth Crusade - if indeed it can be so described - surpassed even its predecessors in faithlessness and duplicity, in brutality and greed. Constantinople in the twelfth century had been not just the wealthiest metropolis of the world, but also the most intellectually and artistically cultivated and the chief repository of Europe's classical heritage, both Greek and Roman. By its sack, Western civilization suffered a loss greater than the sack of Rome by the barbarians in the fifth century or the burning of the library of Alexandria by the soldiers of the Prophet in the seventh - perhaps the most catastrophic single loss in all history.
Politically, too, the damage done was incalculable. Although Latin rule along the Bosphorus was to last less than sixty years, the Byzantine
Empire never recovered its strength, or any considerable part of its lost dominion. Under firm and forceful leadership - which would not be lacking in the century to come - a strong and prosperous Byzantium might have halted the Turkish advance while there was still time. Instead, the Empire was left economically crippled, territorially truncated, powerless to defend itself against the Ottoman tide. There are few greater ironies in history than the fact that the fate of Eastern Christendom should have been sealed - and half Europe condemned to some five hundred years of Muslim rule — by men who fought under the banner of the Cross. Those men were transported, inspired, encouraged and ultimately led by Enrico Dandolo in the name of the Venetian Republic; and, just as Venice derived the major advantage from the tragedy, so she and her magnificent old Doge must accept the major responsibility for the havoc that they wrought upon the world.