The extensive collection of relics in the city of Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey) when it was the capital of the Byzantine Empire made it a premier pilgrimage site, but in 1204 and shortly thereafter many of these sacred items were carried off as booty by the army of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204).
Constantinople’s relic wealth was well known in the West, as is witnessed by the twelfth-century French romantic epic Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne à Jerusalem et à Constantinople, but there is no evidence to support the thesis that the crusaders decided to assault the city to gain its relics. Once they had secured the city, however, soldiers and clerics alike participated in widespread despoliation of Byzantium’s churches.
The pillagers included Robert of Clari, who provides a wide-eyed account of Constantinople’s relics in his chronicle La Conquête de Constantinople. Robert claims that in March 1204, when the crusaders realized that they would have to take the city again (this time for themselves), they swore upon relics that they would not break into any church or monastery. Abundant evidence makes it clear that these oaths proved ineffective in staying the hands of many crusaders from looting relics. Robert himself donated to the monastery of Corbie a crystal cross reliquary taken from Constantinople.
Robert’s theft of relics was minor compared to that of the crusade’s highest-ranking clerics. The booty of the crusade’s chief prelate, Nivelon, bishop of Soissons, included the heads of seven saints (John the Baptist; the apostles Thomas, Thaddeus, and James; and saints Stephen, Blasius, and Dionysius the Areopagite) and the crown of St. Mark’s head. Not to be outdone, Conrad, bishop of Halberstadt, collected a piece of the skull of St. John the Baptist and the head of James, the brother of Jesus, as well as major pieces of the apostles Peter, Paul, Andrew, Simon, Philip, and Barnabas. A portion of the head of John the Baptist also found its way into the hands of Doge Enrico Dandolo, who donated it to the church of St. Mark in Venice.
Although proud of their treasures, few of the pious thieves admitted their larceny. A Greek source charged Bishop Conrad with stealing relics, but at home Conrad publicly stated that all his relics were gifts from Emperor Alexios IV Angelos and various churchmen (presumably Byzantine ecclesiastics). Conceivably Conrad had received some relics from Alexios IV prior to January 1204 as a reward for his support of the young man’s claim to the throne, but there is no reason to believe that Bishop Conrad did not participate in the general rush to collect purloined relics after the city fell to the crusaders. An exception to this cover-up was Martin of Pairis. Gunther of Pairis celebrated in prose and verse his abbot’s pilfering of relics, justifying it on the grounds that the Greeks did not deserve to possess these sacred treasures because of their errors and sins. Martin had much to celebrate, inasmuch as he had brought back to his monastery numerous relics, including a trace of the Sacred Blood and a large piece of John the Baptist.
With all of this thievery, it is a wonder that Constantinople had any relics left after 1204, but it did, and they were still avidly sought. In 1238-1239 and 1241, the financially strapped Baldwin II, Latin emperor of Constantinople, sold the Crown of Thorns and assorted other relics associated with Christ’s Passion to King Louis IX of France, who commissioned a royal chapel in Paris, the Gothic masterpiece known as Sainte-Chapelle, to house the treasures.