Post-classical history

Chapter Nine



Although Europe continued to send additional crusading armies to the Holy Land, the burden of defense fell mainly on the knightly orders as commemorated in the marble tomb of a Knight Templar in London. His large shield indicates that he fought as an infantryman.
© Foto Marburg / Art Resource, NY

THE CRUSADER KINGDOMS were never at peace, nor could they have been. As Jonathan Riley-Smith explained, “for ideological reasons, peace with the Muslim world was unattainable.”1 Temporary treaties were possible, but, given the doctrine of jihad (holy war), no lasting peace could be achieved except by surrender.

In keeping with jihad, at all times there were raids from Muslim-garrisoned cities within the crusader kingdoms and frequent probing attacks from the Muslim rulers across their borders. For more than forty years these threats were successfully repelled with the help of the military orders and the constant flow of knightly pilgrims, many of whom stayed on to fight for a time—sometimes for as long as several years. But this standoff was too good to last.

In the autumn of 1144, Count Joscelin II, ruler of the county of Edessa, formed an alliance with the Ortoqid Turks and led his army east to campaign against the Seljuk Turks led by Imad al-Din Zengi. But Zengi outmaneuvered them and attacked the city of Edessa, now poorly defended. On Christmas Eve, Zengi’s troops broke into the city, and those inhabitants who were not slain were sold into slavery. In the wake of this disaster, Count Joscelin fled to Turbessel, from where he was able initially to hold that portion of his realm west of the Euphrates. In 1150, on a journey to Antioch, Joscelin got separated from his escort and fell into Muslim hands. Zengi had Joscelin’s eyes put out and locked him in a dungeon, where he died nine years later.


News of the fall of Edessa reached the West in early 1145 via returning pilgrims and came “as a terrible shock” to Christians in Europe. “For the first time they realized that things were not well in the East.”2 Consequently, Pope Eugene III issued a bull,Quantum praesecessores, calling for a new Crusade. The pope’s message aroused little interest. However, the pope soon had the wisdom to recruit Bernard of Clairvaux to his cause, and when the most powerful, persuasive, and revered man in Europe began to preach a Second Crusade, things began to happen.

One thing that happened was that Bernard convened a gathering of the French nobility at Vézelay in Burgundy. “The news that Saint Bernard was going to preach brought visitors from all over France…Very soon the audience was under his spell. Men began to cry for Crosses” to sew on their chests.3 Bernard was prepared for this and had brought many woolen crosses. The decisions to take the cross were not spontaneous; the people “knew why they were there.”4 Even so, Bernard ran out of crosses and tore up his cloak to make more.

Among those who volunteered that day was King Louis VII of France. He had long been planning a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but Bernard convinced him he should lead an army of crusaders. Consequently, Louis, together with his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and a select group of princes and nobles, prostrated themselves at Bernard’s feet and accepted the cross. Louis was twenty-five at this time and was only beginning his “long career of energetic ineffectiveness,” as Christopher Tyerman so aptly put it.5

Next, Bernard went to Germany, where he convinced King Conrad III and his nephew Frederick Barbarossa to take the cross. Unlike Louis, Conrad was in his early fifties and had considerable military experience. In fact, he had twice previously campaigned in the Holy Land. As in France, the German nobility flocked to hear Bernard, and again there was a public show of taking the cross by men who already had agreed to go.

Just as the First Crusaders were drawn from a closely knit network of family ties, the same was true of those who took the cross this time as well—especially among the French. Not only were most of the volunteers related to many other volunteers, but there were dense family ties to those who had gone on the First Crusade; the majority of the nobles who went had “crusading forefathers.”6

Unfortunately, as enthusiasm for a new Crusade spread across Germany, it reignited the same anti-Semitism that had caused a rash of attacks on the Rhineland Jews at the start of the First Crusade. As pointed out in chapter 6, these attacks had been the work of a few, but they had set a pattern by directing attention to the issue of continuing to permit Jews to reject Jesus in a context where religious conformity was of growing concern. Even a few churchmen succumbed to this temptation. Abbé Pierre of the French monastery at Cluny pointed out, “What good is the good of going to the end of the world at great loss of men and money, to fight Saracens, when we permit among us other infidels who are a thousand times more guilty toward Christ than are the Mohammedans?”7

Nevertheless, it was not in France, but only in the Rhine Valley, that massacres of Jews took place—once again in Cologne, Mainz, Metz, Worms, and Speyer.8 In this instance, a Monk named Radulph helped stir up the anti-Semitic outbursts. But the death toll would have been far higher had it not been for the intervention of Bernard of Clairvaux. When word reached him about the attacks on Jews, Bernard rode as rapidly as he could to the Rhine Valley and ordered an end to the killings—and they ceased! His intervention was reported by Ephraim of Bonn, a Jewish chronicler:

Then the Lord heard our sigh…He sent after the evil priest a decent priest, a great man…His name was Abbot Bernard, from the city of Clairvaux…[who] said to them[,] “It is fitting that you go forth against Muslims. However, anyone who attacks a Jew and tries to kill him it is as though he attacks Jesus himself. My pupil Radulph who advised destroying them did not advise properly. For in the book of Psalms is written concerning the Jews, “Kill them not, lest my people forget.’” Everyone esteemed this priest as one of their saints…Were it not for the mercies of our Creator Who sent the aforesaid abbot…there would not have been a remnant or survivor among the Jews.9

Historians have tended to skip the Second Crusade.10 Jonathan Phillips’s 2007 book is the first “full treatment”11 since Bernhard Kugler’s monograph, published in 1866. This neglect is nothing new. Otto of Freising, the respected historian who commanded a major German contingent that was annihilated during the Second Crusade, wrote that “since the outcome of the expedition, because of our sins, is known to all, we…leave this to be related by others elsewhere.”12 Consequently, while all of the general histories of the Crusades give extensive coverage to the Battle of Dorylaeum in 1097, the second Battle of Dorylaeum in 1147 receives only a few sentences despite the fact that it was a far bloodier and much more decisive engagement.

It is a mistake to neglect the Second Crusade, because of two very important consequences: It gave a serious and long-lasting blow to the crusading movement in the West, undermining both confidence and commitment. And it restored Muslim confidence; after decades of defeats, usually by far smaller Christian forces, they now believed they could measure up.

The brief account that follows ignores the various “sideshows” to the Second Crusade involving the campaign against the Slavs and the conquest of Lisbon.

As a result of Bernard’s effective efforts, it had been agreed that the two most powerful monarchs of Europe would lead two great armies to the Holy Land, setting forth at about Easter 1147. As would be expected, the departures were delayed, and the Germans left in May, the French following in June. As might not have been expected, the two monarchs chose to follow the same route to Constantinople, going overland across Hungary and Bulgaria. Having been in the lead, the Germans reached the Byzantine capital on September 10. That arrival date reflected an army so burdened with camp followers and “substantial contingents of unarmed pilgrims taking advantage of the protection afforded by the military expedition” that it had traveled at less than ten miles a day—far slower than the armies of the First Crusade.13

When the Germans reached Constantinople, they found they were not very welcome; had it been up to the Byzantines, there would not have been a Second Crusade. Indeed, just prior to the departure of the crusaders from Europe, the Byzantine emperor Manuel Comnenus had concluded a twelve-year treaty with the Seljuk sultan of Konya (Iconium), who would soon be at war with the crusaders. When the Europeans learned of this arrangement, it added to their already deep suspicions and antagonism towards the “perfidious Greeks.”14 For his part, Manuel was deeply disturbed at having such a large and potentially unruly force camped near his capital. So, just as the emperor Alexius had pressured the First Crusaders to cross into Asia Minor, so, too, the emperor Manuel pressed the Germans to cross the Bosporus—adding substantially to the distrust and dislike the Europeans felt toward the Byzantines. Having crossed over, Conrad decided not to wait for the French but to push on to recover Edessa.

Given the size of his army—perhaps as many as thirty thousand bearing arms15—this was not a rash decision. Moreover, Conrad probably hoped that, once free to plunder the countryside, he could somewhat overcome his dire shortages of food and fodder; Emperor Manuel had promised supplies but failed to deliver them. So Conrad marched his army and a huge contingent of noncombatants to Nicaea. There he split his expedition, placing most of the noncombatants under the leadership of Otto, bishop of Freising, who followed the more westerly road through Philadelphia and on to the port of Adalia (whence they sailed to Tyre). Swarms of noncombatants—many of them elderly, most of them poor—were always a stressful drain and hindrance to the crusaders. Despite strenuous efforts to persuade them not to come, large numbers always showed up and had to be fed and protected, while greatly slowing the pace of the advance.16

Meanwhile, moving along the same route followed by the First Crusaders, Conrad’s army marched down the road to Dorylaeum (see map 7.1, Chapter 7). Although the emperor had not sent any supplies, he did provide Conrad with a group of experienced Byzantine guides, whose purpose may have been to lead the crusaders to their destruction. Some modern historians doubt the claims by the crusaders that they had been betrayed by their guides, but no one challenges that the Byzantine guides did disappear during the night just prior to the Muslim ambush of the Germans.

In desperate need of provisions and especially short of water, the German crusaders reached the small Bathys River near Dorylaeum on October 25. The weary and thirsty troops broke ranks and scattered along the river to drink, and the knights dismounted and led their horses to the stream. At that moment “the whole Seldjuk army fell upon them…It was a massacre rather than a battle.”17 Most of the German crusaders were killed, and Conrad was wounded. The king did manage to rally a remnant of perhaps two thousand troops and retreat to Nicaea, where the Greeks confronted them with “exorbitant prices for food.”18 Then the French arrived and Conrad merged his small force with theirs, but he soon fell ill and was evacuated back to Constantinople.

The French had been greeted with an even more hostile reception from the Byzantines than had the Germans—so much so that they briefly entertained the idea of an attack on Constantinople. To avoid the dreadful route south that had helped defeat the Germans, Louis led his French army west toward the port of Ephesus with expectations that by remaining within Byzantine territory he would find the locals cooperative and receive supplies by sea from Emperor Manuel. But the locals were of no help, and no supplies came. Not surprisingly, the army became increasingly disorderly. To restore discipline to the march, Louis placed a Knight Templar in command of each unit of fifty. This paid big dividends when, despite the crusaders’ being in Byzantine territory, the Seljuk Turks, allied though they were to the emperor, attacked just beyond Ephesus. Some historians suggest that the emperor had conspired with the Turks; 19 in any event, the Muslims were routed by the French.

At this point Louis turned his forces eastward and headed for the port of Adalia, where he had been promised they would be met by a Byzantine fleet that would ferry them to a landing just west of Antioch. Of course, the fleet sent by the emperor was much too small to accommodate more than a fraction of the army. Some recent historians take this as additional evidence that Manuel “connived at their [the crusaders’] destruction.”20

After making the best preparations he could, Louis sent the bulk of his army overland to Antioch while he, his court, and as many troops as could be accommodated boarded the ships. The overland march was hopeless. When it began, the horses already were dying by the hundreds and everyone faced starvation. Muslims harassed them along the way, killing all stragglers and foragers. Only a handful of those who set out reached Antioch.

Having sailed safely to Antioch, Louis went to Jerusalem to fulfill his vow for a pilgrimage. Conrad had recovered from his wounds and illness and was already in the Holy City, as were leaders of forces newly arrived from the West. A council of war was held in Acre during which the visiting Europeans and Baldwin III, king of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, agreed to attack Damascus. (No representatives of Antioch, Edessa, or Tripoli attended.) The plan had an excellent strategic basis but was tactically ill advised. After an abortive attempt at a siege, and having suffered substantial losses, the Christian forces gave up the attempt.

The Second Crusade was over. Boarding ships provided by the Normans from Sicily, the French king and his entourage headed for home—only to suffer a narrow escape when attacked by a Byzantine fleet. (The Normans and the Byzantines still were fighting over possession of southern Italy.) Of course, this further inflamed Western antagonism toward the Byzantines.


In the wake of the Second Crusade, there was a burst of castle-building in the kingdoms, most of the structures financed, and their construction supervised, by the knightly orders. In 1166 there were at least fifty main castles and citadels (a fortification inside a city’s walls) scattered across the kingdom of Jerusalem, 21 and hundreds of crusader castles and defensive towers have been mapped by modern archeologists.22 They were very strongly built and based on European rather than Byzantine designs. Given that survey instruments did not exist, the castles are remarkably well sited, taking advantage of even slight elevations in the landscape. Many of them are within view of another castle, and it long was thought that signals were passed from one to the next. But there is little evidence of any signaling.23 Nor were the castles and towers designed as a defensive “line”: they were not a continuous wall.24 Instead, the castles were used to house military forces who would sally forth to fight an enemy in the field or, when too outnumbered, would wait secure behind their walls until a field army arrived to attack the enemy.

The failure of the Second Crusade to attempt to regain Edessa, and the abortive siege of Damascus, cost Countess Beatrice the remainder of the county of Edessa in 1150, soon after her husband, Joscelin, was taken captive. Having successfully defended her fortress at Turbessel against Muslim attack but aware that she could not withstand another onslaught that was bound to come, she received a message from the Byzantine emperor Manuel. He offered not to march to her defense, but to buy her remaining territory. After consulting with rulers of the other kingdoms, Beatrice agreed, although both she and the others “were loath to hand over territory to a hated Greek.”25 Manuel sent many bags of gold to the countess, who then turned over her fortresses to Byzantine troops, who proceeded to lose the entire territory to the Muslims a year later.

The losses in the north did not reflect military weakness of the kingdom of Jerusalem. Hence, in January 1153 King Baldwin III of Jerusalem led a powerful army south against the Egyptian stronghold of Ascalon. Known as the Bride of Syria, the city had long sheltered Muslim raiders who preyed upon pilgrims and Christian villages. Marching against Ascalon, Baldwin was accompanied by the Grand Masters of both the Templars and the Hospitallers and their best knights and sergeants. A long siege ensued. Then, in July, the Templars forced a breach in the wall. As too often happened, the Templars then crossed the line separating bravery from foolhardiness and, despite numbering only forty knights, refused reinforcements while they entered the city. When the Muslim defenders realized how few Templars were attacking them, they rallied, killed them all, secured the breach, and dangled the Templars’ corpses from the city walls.

But by mid-August the Muslims realized they could not hold out much longer. A surrender agreement was reached allowing all inhabitants of the city to leave in safety with all their movable goods—which they did. Lordship of the city was given to Baldwin’s brother, the Count of Jaffa, and the great mosque was consecrated as the Cathedral of Saint Paul. Baldwin III died in 1162 at age thirty-three; it was widely but probably erroneously believed that he had been poisoned by a Syrian physician. He was succeeded by his brother Amalric, Count of Jaffa and Ascalon.

Meanwhile, in Egypt the decadent Fatimid Caliphate had fallen apart. Nasr, the son of the vizier Abbas, murdered the caliph, and Abbas then murdered the caliph’s brothers and placed a five-year-old boy on the throne. When the army turned against them, father and son were forced to flee north, only to encounter Templars, who routed their escort—during which action Abbas was killed and Nasr was captured. The Templars sold Nasr back to the caliph’s court in Cairo for the huge sum of sixty thousand dinars, whereupon “the late Caliph’s four widows personally mutilated him.”26 Then he was hanged above the main city gate, and his remains dangled there for two years. In 1160 the boy caliph died and was succeeded by his nine-year-old cousin, and the constant court intrigues continued.

Seeing this confusion as an opportunity to secure his southern flank, in 1163 Amalric led an army into Egypt. He took Cairo and Alexandria but eventually became alarmed by troubles up north, particularly a threat to Tripoli, and signed a treaty designating that the Egyptians pay him an annual tribute of one hundred thousand pieces of gold. In 1167, Amalric led his army back into Egypt and laid siege to Alexandria. Again the Egyptians negotiated and agreed to a huge tribute payment, and again Amalric returned to Jerusalem. But the next year he attacked again, supported by the Knights Hospitallers. The Knights Templars, however, refused to march with him, saying Amalric’s cause had nothing to do with their mission. In October, Amalric’s army seized Bilbeis, just north of Cairo, and massacred or enslaved the inhabitants. This time the Egyptians paid him 2 million pieces of gold to leave. In 1169 Amalric came again, supported by a Byzantine fleet, and laid siege to Damietta, at the very mouth of the Nile. The siege was marred by conflict between Amalric and the Byzantines, which led to a truce between the Christian forces and the new sultan of Egypt, Salah ad-Din, known in the West as Saladin.


Saladin was a Kurd, the nephew of Shirkuh, who conquered Egypt in 1169 for the Fatimid ruler of Syria, Nur ad-Din, who campaigned many times against the crusader kingdoms. As a reward, Shirkuh was appointed vizier of Egypt, but he died after only two months in office, and Saladin succeeded him. Because Saladin was not yet quite thirty, his promotion did not sit well with many older veterans. But he smoothed over their discontents and soon was the real ruler of Egypt, although he remained careful to preserve the appearance of Nur ad-Din’s rule, even while he obviously went his own way. For example, in 1171 he suppressed the Egyptian Fatimids and united Egypt with the Abbasid Caliphate. In addition, Saladin refused to join Nur ad-Din in two invasions of the kingdom of Jerusalem—one in 1171 and a second in 1173, both of which were unsuccessful. Eventually Nur ad-Din realized he had an enemy in Egypt and in 1174 began assembling an army to march against Saladin. However, he developed an abscess and died at age fifty-nine. Although Nur ad-Din’s son was recognized as the legitimate heir to the throne, Saladin quickly married Nur ad-Din’s forty-five-year-old widow27 and seized the throne. Thus were Syria and Egypt brought under a single rule.

Although the continuing success of crusader forces against larger Muslim armies was remarkable, it also was contingent to some extent on Muslim disunity—there being obvious limits to the numerical odds that the Christians could overcome. Had the kingdoms been surrounded by a united enemy, not only would they have faced far larger invading armies, but they could have been threatened from all three land sides at once. When Saladin became sultan of Egypt, that eventually became his strategy.

Saladin’s chances of success were greatly increased by the incompetent leadership of Emperor Manuel, which brought disaster to the Byzantine army in 1176 when he led an expedition against Sultan Kilij Arslan’s capital of Iconium (Konya). Pursuing his Turkish enemies into a mountain pass at Myriokephalon, the emperor allowed his troops to get strung out along a narrow road. The Turks had hidden large forces above the road and suddenly attacked downhill, whereupon Manuel’s courage failed and he fled. When his troops broke ranks and tried to flee as well, the whole army was destroyed. “It would take many years to rebuild it; and indeed it was never rebuilt. There were enough troops left to defend the frontiers…But nevermore would the Emperor be able to march into Syria…Nor was anything left of his prestige.”28 Thus, Muslims facing the crusader kingdoms from the north no longer need worry about a threat to their rear from Constantinople. Worse yet, the Byzantines proceeded to conspire with Saladin against the kingdoms, as will be seen.

Meanwhile, following the death of Amalric in 1174 at the age of thirty-eight, his thirteen-year-old son was crowned as Baldwin IV, king of Jerusalem. Two years later he came of age and took control. Despite suffering from leprosy since boyhood, which soon made him unable to mount his horse unaided and afflicted him with rapidly failing sight, Baldwin lived far longer than expected and, in 1177, at Montgisard, led his far smaller army to a brilliant and bloody victory over a large Egyptian army led by Saladin, that being the latter’s first attack on the Christians. While Baldwin IV lived (he died in 1185), Saladin’s attempts against the kingdom continued to fail: he launched major efforts in 1183 and 1184.29

Initially, Saladin had much better luck against his Muslim neighbors. Soon after coming to power in Egypt, he seized the throne of Syria, taking Damascus in 1174. Later he conquered the former province of Edessa by taking Aleppo in 1183 and Mayyafariqin in 1185. The Christian kingdoms were now surrounded on three sides, with their backs to the Mediterranean Sea. This situation was noted at length by Archbishop William of Tyre in his History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, written before Saladin began his attacks on the kingdoms: “In former times almost every [Muslim] city had its own ruler…not dependent on one another…who feared their own allies not less than the Christians [and] could not or would not readily unite to repulse the common danger or arm themselves for our destruction. But now…all the kingdoms adjacent to us have been brought under the power of one man.”30

Also in 1185, the Byzantine emperor initiated negotiations with Saladin, and after several years of talks and frequent exchanges of huge gifts, they signed a treaty to join forces against Western Christians in the Holy Land and any new Crusades.

Even so, the Christians were not in dire straits, still having a sizable field army of well-trained, well-armed troops, including Knights Templars and Hospitallers—altogether numbering perhaps twelve hundred knights and twenty thousand infantry. Given the qualitative differences, they should not have felt especially threatened when, in 1187, Saladin gathered an army of about thirty thousand in Syria to come against them.

In an effort to draw the Christians into battle at their disadvantage, Saladin sent some of his troops to attack the city of Tiberias. As expected, the outmanned residents withdrew into the city’s citadel, having dispatched messengers begging for help. Initially, the Christian leaders met in conference and decided against marching to the relief of Tiberias. But several sought out King Guy of Jerusalem later and convinced him to reverse that decision. So the next morning the Christian army began to march—constantly exposed to harassing strikes against its flanks and rear guard. It was an arid terrain, and soon the troops, and especially the horses, were suffering from thirst. By the next morning the suffering was acute, and the army headed for the nearest source of water at Hattin; Saladin’s main army was between them and Lake Tiberius, from which the Muslims had plentiful water.

Then, as the sun rose and with the wind at their backs, Saladin’s forces set fire to large collections of brush, and the smoke made it difficult for the Christians to keep track of their units. Soon the infantry began to break their formations and head for water, leaving the cavalry on their own. At this auspicious moment, Saladin’s troops charged against the disorganized Christians, and a brutal battle ensued. Several times thundering charges by the Christian knights nearly turned the tide, but eventually chaos reigned and the slaughter began. Thousands died in battle, and all of the Templars and Hospitallers taken captive were beheaded; the other captives were enslaved.

With the crusader field army destroyed, the kingdoms were at Saladin’s mercy and were quickly overrun. Most of the cities and fortresses surrendered without a fight, having few defenders. Jaffa did hold out and had to be taken by storm, which resulted in the entire population of survivors being sold into slavery. Within two months there remained only Tyre, Antioch, Tripoli, “a few isolated castles[,] and the Holy City of Jerusalem.”31

Jerusalem was crowded with refugees from other cities already fallen to the Muslims: “[f]or every man there were fifty women and children.”32 There were only two knights in Jerusalem. So, arms were distributed to every able-bodied man—although most knew little or nothing about how to use them. In late September, Saladin’s army arrived and surrounded the city. After several days of preparation the Muslims attacked the walls and met furious resistance from the tiny band of untrained defenders. Repeated attacks brought repeated failures, but after five days a breach had been made in the wall. Some of the Christian fighters wanted to charge out through the breach and fight to the death. But cooler heads prevailed, noting that only by surrender could they prevent all the women and children from becoming slaves. So they asked Saladin for surrender terms. He demanded a ransom of ten gold pieces for each man to be spared (with two women or ten children counted as one man). As for the poor, Saladin agreed to free seven thousand of them in return for thirty thousand besants.33 That left thousands without hope. If, in the end, there was no massacre, about half of the city’s Latin Christian residents were marched away to the slave markets.

There is an aspect of the fall of Jerusalem that is very seldom mentioned by historians. The Greek residents of the city, fully aware that an alliance was being formed between the Byzantine emperor and Saladin, “were ready to betray the city” by opening the gates. In return for their support, Saladin had all the Christian churches in the Holy Land converted from the Latin to the Greek Orthodox rite, in keeping with the treaty he signed in 1189 with Emperor Isaac.34


As Robert Irwin pointed out, “In Britain, there ha[s] been a long tradition of disparaging the Crusaders as barbaric and bigoted warmongers and of praising the Saracens as paladins of chivalry. Indeed, it is widely believed that chivalry originated in the Muslim East. The most perfect example of Muslim chivalry was, of course, the twelfth-century Ayyubid Sultan Saladin.”35

This view of the chivalrous Saladin is rampant among historians. In his esteemed study The Kingdom of the Crusaders, Dana Carleton Munro put it this way: “When we contrast with this [the crusader conquest of Jerusalem] the conduct of Saladin when he captured Jerusalem from the Christians in 1187, we have a striking illustration of the difference between the two civilizations and realize what the Christians might learn from contact with the Saracens in the Holy Land.”36 (Notice the present tense.) In similar fashion, the distinguished Samuel Hugh Moffett noted that Saladin “was unusually merciful for his time. He allowed the Crusaders, who had entered it [Jerusalem] in a bloodbath, to leave the city in peace.”37 It was in this same spirit that, in 1898, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm visited Damascus and placed a bronze laurel wreath on Saladin’s tomb. The wreath was inscribed to “the Hero Sultan Saladin…From one great emperor to another.”38

Admiration for Saladin is not a recent invention. Since the Enlightenment, Saladin has “bizarrely” been portrayed “as a rational and civilized figure in juxtaposition to credulous barbaric crusaders.”39 Even Edward Gibbon, writing in 1788, noted, “Of some writers it is a favourite and invidious theme to compare the humanity of Saladin with the massacre of the first crusade…but we should not forget that the Christians offered to capitulate, and that the Mahometans of Jerusalem sustained the last extremities of an assault and storm.”40 There we have it, one of the primary rules of warfare at that time: cities were spared if they did not force their opponents to take them by storm; they were massacred as an object lesson to other cities if they had to be stormed, since this usually inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers. This rule did not require cities to surrender quickly: long sieges were acceptable, but only until the attackers had completed all of the preparations needed to storm the walls. Of course, cities often did not surrender at this point because they believed the attack could be defeated.

Not only have Saladin’s modern fans ignored this rule of war; they have carefully ignored the fact, acknowledged by Muslim writers, that Jerusalem was an exception to Saladin’s usual butchery of his enemies. Saladin had looked forward to massacring the Christians in Jerusalem, but he offered about half of them a safe conduct in exchange for their surrender of Jerusalem without further resistance. In most other instances Saladin was quite unchivalrous. Following the Battle of Hattin, for example, he personally participated in butchering some of the captured Knights Templars and Hospitallers and then sat back and enjoyed watching the execution of the rest of them. As told by Saladin’s secretary, Imad ed-Din: “He [Saladin] ordered that they should be beheaded, choosing to have them dead rather than in prison. With him was a whole band of scholars and Sufis and a certain number of devout men and ascetics; each begged to be allowed to kill one of them, and drew his sword and rolled back his sleeve. Saladin, his face joyful, was sitting on his dais; the unbelievers showed black despair.”41 It seems fitting that during one of his amazing World War I adventures leading irregular Arab forces against the Turks, T. E. Lawrence “liberated” the kaiser’s bronze wreath from Saladin’s tomb, and it now resides in the Imperial War Museum in London.


Saladin blundered when he failed to move quickly to fully occupy the kingdoms in the wake of the catastrophic crusader losses at Hattin. He seems to have assumed there was no need to hurry. After all, the Christian cities were desperately short of armed defenders: they had been stripped to form their now-defeated army. But the cities were strongly fortified, and Saladin’s mostly cavalry forces “had no taste for attacking fortifications.”42 In addition, loaded down with booty, much of Saladin’s army had drifted away. Consequently, Saladin not only moved rather slowly but found it in his interest “to buy” the surrender of cities “by allowing the inhabitants to go free.”43

But where could they go? Of course, the Muslim residents of the surrendered cities had no need to go anywhere, and many of the Greek Christians were allowed to stay as well; Saladin was on the verge of signing a treaty with Emperor Isaac. But the European Christians had no choice but to flock to their last unconquered cities: Antioch, Tyre, and Tripoli.

The arrival of so many refugees strained the food supplies of these enclaves, especially at Tyre, where the majority of noble refugees gathered, but they also added substantial numbers of defenders—some survivors from Hattin, many fighting men who had formed the small garrisons left behind in the castles and cities when the rest marched to Hattin, and large numbers of able-bodied males who could be armed. Moreover, since the Christian enclaves were centered on port cities, they could be supplied and reinforced by sea. And they were.

Perhaps no single event had as much impact on saving the crusader kingdoms as did the arrival at Tyre of a ship carrying Conrad of Montferrat. Conrad had been in Constantinople on his way to join his father, William V, the Marquess of Montferrat, who had gone to the Holy Land in 1183 and taken command of the major castle of Saint Elias, just north of the Dead Sea. When Conrad learned of Saladin’s latest invasion, he immediately set sail for Acre with a small band of knights. As his ship entered the harbor, the bells that always announced the arrival of a ship did not ring, so Conrad became suspicious and did not anchor. When a harbor official came out in a boat to see who they were, Conrad learned that the city had fallen to Saladin, and he promptly sailed north to Tyre.44

Conrad arrived in Tyre to discover that its leaders were considering surrender. But they took heart at the arrival of Conrad and his companions and placed him in command to prepare the city for a defiant defense. Eventually, Saladin arrived and began a siege of the city. But the walls were stout and the defenders were obviously well armed and determined, and the Muslims could not prevent traffic in and out of Tyre’s harbor. So Saladin soon took his army elsewhere in search of easier pickings. But in November, finally having fully realized the importance of this Christian seaport, Saladin returned to Tyre, this time with two new plans for conquest. First of all, he brought with him Conrad’s father, who, although quite elderly, had fought at Hattin and been taken captive. Marching the old man out into full view from the walls of Tyre, Saladin had a crier inform Conrad that his father would be killed unless he surrendered the city. According to Arab sources, Conrad was “a devil”45 who shouted back that his father had lived long enough. Beaming with pride at his son’s steadfastness, William V was marched away and eventually released.46

Saladin’s second plan to take Tyre was far more dangerous to the city. For the past decade, Saladin had been building an Egyptian navy.47 It had recently proved its worth in skirmishes with several small fleets trading with the kingdoms. Now he sent ten of his galleys to blockade Tyre’s harbor, setting up an effective siege. Conrad met this threat by sending Tyre’s galleys to launch a dawn attack on Saladin’s blockaders. Finding the Muslim crews asleep and without lookouts, the attackers met with total success: five Egyptian galleys were captured, and the other five went aground when, with Christian galleys in close pursuit, their crews jumped overboard.48 While this naval debacle was under way, Saladin massed his troops and attacked the city, assuming that at that moment Conrad’s attention would be on the harbor. But when Saladin’s troops approached, Conrad led his knights charging out of the gates and surprised and routed Saladin’s entire army. Setting fire to his siege engines to keep them out of Christian hands, Saladin marched away.

Tyre was safe. Soon thereafter a large Norman fleet from Sicily arrived to resupply and greatly reinforce Tripoli and Antioch. It would be another century before the Muslims could again push the crusaders to the water’s edge.

Conrad’s stunning victories over Saladin made him famous all over Europe and would eventually result in his selection as king of Jerusalem. Meanwhile, he dispatched emissaries to Europe to urge another Crusade. The delegation was headed by Joscius, the new archbishop of Tyre. (Joscius had replaced the historian William of Tyre.) In January 1189 the archbishop gained an audience with King Henry II of England and King Philip II of France, who were meeting to discuss their territorial disputes. “So eloquent was his appeal for aid for the Holy Land that both kings, the count of Flanders, and many other lords took the cross, and agreed to begin preparations for a new crusade.”49 Meanwhile, the new pope, Clement III, managed to convince Germany’s Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, to take the cross once more. (Frederick had accompanied his uncle Conrad III on the Second Crusade.)


The new Crusade began in disjointed fashion. The English and the French had first to settle several bitter disputes. Then Henry II died and his son Richard (already known as the Lionhearted) was crowned king of England. Richard had also taken the cross, so the English commitment to the Crusade remained. But because the English crown still had huge holdings in France (the entire Atlantic coast was theirs), he and Philip II had much to negotiate before they could head east. Meanwhile, Frederick Barbarossa began marching to the Holy Land.


On May 11, 1189—twenty-three months after the Battle of Hattin—the emperor Frederick led his army out of Regensburg (Ratisbon) into Hungary and then through Serbia and on toward Constantinople. As always, it is very difficult to say how many troops Frederick had enlisted, but all sources agree that it was a large number. Many historians have settled on one hundred thousand, 50 but that seems rather high. More likely is the estimate that Frederick had assembled three thousand knights, 51 and it was usual for there to be about five or six times as many infantry as knights, which would have amounted to around twenty thousand first-line fighting men. Of course, there must have been the usual contingents of camp followers and commoners, so there might have been one hundred thousand people on the march. Whatever the actual number, it was sufficient so that news of the Germans marching toward him caused Saladin considerable worry, and he exerted himself in trying to raise an army able to meet them. In addition, Saladin had a Byzantine card to play.

After several years of negotiations and the exchange of piles of expensive gifts, in 1189 the Byzantine emperor Isaac entered into a mutual defense treaty with Saladin, committing the Byzantine army against all Western forces attempting to reach the Holy Land. Consequently, when in advance of his march to the Holy Land Emperor Frederick sent the bishop of Münster and other distinguished Germans to the Byzantine court to arrange passage, Isaac imprisoned them and gave their horses and equipment to Saladin’s representatives.52 Then, contrary to the usual failure of the Byzantines to live up to their agreements when it might prove costly to do so, when Frederick’s army crossed into Byzantine territory, Isaac caused irregular forces to harass him along the way and then dispatched his main army to stop the Germans at Philippopolis. But Frederick’s crusaders simply swept the Byzantines aside, inflicting immense casualties. Then, in order to force the release of the bishop and his retinue, Frederick devastated a substantial area in Thrace as he moved toward Constantinople.

At this point, Isaac wrote an astonishing letter to Saladin claiming to have rendered Frederick’s forces harmless: “[T]hey have lost a great number of soldiers, and it was with great difficulty that they escaped my brave troops. They were so exhausted that they cannot reach your dominions; and even if they should succeed in reaching them, they could be of no assistance to their fellows, nor could they inflict any injury on your excellency.”53 Nevertheless, Isaac wished Saladin to send him troops. None came.

Meanwhile, Frederick’s powerful forces marched onward, seized Adrianople, and “even planned a siege of Constantinople.”54 So, in February 1190, Emperor Isaac surrendered and signed the Treaty of Adrianople, which ceded Frederick free passage and supplies, and gave him distinguished hostages to ensure that the treaty was fulfilled.

During this time, several Greek Orthodox bishops “who favored Saladin out of hatred for [Latin Christians]”55 kept him abreast of what really was going on—of Frederick’s easy passage through Byzantium and of his successful storming of the Muslim-held fortress city of Iconium (Konya) with only slight losses. Moving on toward Antioch with no substantial forces in his way, Frederick fell from his horse while fording the Saleph River and drowned. Frederick’s death ended the German Crusade. He had been adored and trusted by all his subordinates, and although he was replaced by his son Frederick, the Duke of Swabia, the army was devastated by the emperor’s death. Over the next several days huge numbers simply turned around and went home. Ten days later, when young Frederick reached Antioch, his army may have shrunk to five thousand effectives, and when he reached the coastal area of the kingdom of Jerusalem he had only about three hundred knights.56 Saladin breathed a great sigh of relief.57


Meanwhile, Richard the Lionhearted and Philip Augustus of France were gathering their forces, raising huge sums to meet the costs of crusading, and getting ready to set out. But they had no intentions of following the overland route through Byzantium. They planned to sail to the Holy Land, taking full advantage of Saladin’s failure to capture all of the Christian ports.

But long before Richard and Philip Augustus embarked, the Christian cause was greatly strengthened by the arrival of “a series of crusading fleets [from] the ports of northwestern Europe. They bore Danes, Frisians, North Germans, Flemings, English, Bretons, and men of Northern France.”58 It is impossible to know how many new crusaders were involved, but “there is no doubt that by New Year 1190 hundreds of Christian ships of all types were either beached or anchored around [Acre].”59 These newcomers joined King Guy of Jerusalem in laying siege to the city. Saladin met this threat by bringing up his army, and, by surrounding the area, he placed the Christian siege under siege.

A stalemate ensued because Saladin could not persuade his troops to attack the crusader ranks. In the restricted ground on which the city of Acre stood, the Muslims could not use their hit-and-run tactics and scatter to safety if charged by heavy cavalry. Nor were they willing to attack the ranks of solid infantry, for “the crossbows of the crusaders outranged their bows, and the solid line of spears formed an almost impossible obstacle.”60 With the Christians being resupplied by sea, a standoff began. In an effort to perfect his siege, Saladin placed a fleet of fifty galleys in the harbor at Acre to prevent resupplies from coming in. This seems not to have been adequate, and so in June 1190 he sent the remainder of his new Egyptian navy to fight its way into the harbor at Acre.61 It is not clear that the Christians resisted this move since it was greatly to their benefit. For one thing, this allowed the Christian fleets uncontested passage up and down the coast. More important, powerful crusader fleets soon blockaded the Acre harbor, trapping Saladin’s entire navy.

In March 1191, Philip Augustus and his French flotilla arrived at Tyre and from there went south and joined the siege of Acre. Meanwhile, Richard stopped in Cyprus, where his treasure ship had gone aground during a storm. This island was under the control of a Byzantine rebel, Isaac Comnenus, who had seized the English treasure and held the crew and troops aboard, although he released the civilian passengers, including Richard’s new fiancée, Berengaria of Navarre. Initially, Isaac also agreed to return both treasure and troops. Then, thinking he was secure in his great fortress at Famagusta, he broke his word and issued orders for Richard to leave the island. Enraged, Richard and his English forces quickly overran the island, much to the pleasure of the local population; apparently Isaac was a tyrant, given to raping virgins and torturing rich citizens. He surrendered without a fight when Richard promised not to put him into irons; Richard “kept” his word by locking him up in silver chains. After his release in 1194, Isaac returned to Constantinople, where he was poisoned in 1195.

The conquest of Cyprus gave the crusaders an extremely important naval base from which they could support and supply the kingdoms so long as they held any port cities. From Cyprus, Richard sailed his army to join the siege at Acre, arriving in June. Soon after the English landed, the crusaders were further reinforced by a fleet from Genoa. These new forces quickly swept aside the encircling outer Muslim lines and advanced to the gates of the city. The Muslim garrison surrendered—without Saladin’s permission. Saladin’s entire navy surrendered as well; many crews simply jumped overboard and swam ashore.

With Acre secure, it was time to begin the recovery of the kingdoms, but without the king of France. At this moment Philip Augustus withdrew and went home. He had long been very ill with dysentery, but the main reason he left was to settle urgent political disputes that had arisen back in France. However, Philip did leave behind several thousand troops, and the funds to pay them.

Now the Third Crusade came down to a match between Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin.


Richard was a complex character: “As a soldier he was little short of mad, incredibly reckless and foolhardy, but as a commander he was intelligent, cautious, and calculating. He would risk his own life with complete nonchalance, but nothing could persuade him to endanger his troops more than was absolutely necessary.”62 Troops adore such a commander.

In August 1191, Richard organized his crusader army and began to march south from Acre along the coast in the direction of Jerusalem. His force consisted of about four thousand knights, fourteen thousand infantry, and two thousand Turcopoles—light infantry, most of them hired locally. The infantry included a substantial number of crossbow teams. Because of the summer heat, the crusaders marched only during the mornings, and Richard was careful to situate his camps where there was adequate water; he was not about to be forced to fight at a disadvantage simply because of thirst. The fleet followed the army down the coast, resupplying them so they were independent of local sources. The fleet also took aboard those wounded by Saladin’s hit-and-run mounted archers, who lurked wherever there was cover.

Unfortunately for the Muslims, their constant harassment failed to goad the crusaders into breaking their solid formation—the heavy cavalry on the ocean side shielded by an impregnable column of infantry and crossbow teams. So, reluctantly, and at the urging of his emirs who still basked in the glow of Hattin, Saladin decided to risk a pitched battle. He chose a spot where his army’s northern flank was protected by the forest of Arsuf (or Arsur), with wooded hills to the south. On September 7, 1191, the Muslims attacked, using their standard tactic of rush in and then retreat, hoping to get the crusaders to break ranks and pursue them. But with Richard riding up and down the formation, the crusaders stood firm63 while their “crossbowmen took a heavy toll.”64 At this point, the Muslims launched a more determined attack. Once they were committed, the crusader heavy cavalry passed through the ranks of the infantry and launched a massive charge against Saladin’s forces. They not only inflicted heavy losses but did not scatter in pursuit of the enemy—as Christian heavy cavalry had so often done in the past. Instead, Richard was able to keep the knights under control and lead them back to form up again. When the Muslims attacked again, they were slammed by another cavalry charge. And then another. Having suffered huge losses—including more than thirty emirs—Saladin’s forces fled the field.

“But more important…Saladin’s troops became convinced that they could not win in the open field, and lost all interest in attempting pitched battles. The battle of Arsuf was the last [Muslim] attempt to destroy king Richard’s host.”65 In fact Saladin’s army became increasingly reluctant to face crusaders under any circumstances. A year after their defeat at Arsuf, a substantial army sent by Saladin to recapture Jaffa confronted Richard and a tiny force of fifty knights (only six of them mounted) and several hundred crossbowmen. Although they very greatly outnumbered Richard’s force, the Muslims did not prevail—partly from unwillingness to press their attack.66 Even so, they suffered terrible losses. This was the last significant engagement of the Third Crusade; both sides were more than ready for diplomacy.

It often is suggested that because Richard failed to reconquer Jerusalem, Saladin prevailed in denying the West that most important measure of the success of the Third Crusade. In truth, Richard made no attempt to retake the Holy City, and Saladin held it only by default. Richard knew that Jerusalem was of immense symbolic importance in Europe but recognized that it was a military liability—that to protect Jerusalem from Muslim attacks would require a large garrison and a safe corridor to the sea. But once his army went home, the kingdom of Jerusalem would lack the resources needed to meet either requirement. Better that the kingdom have secure borders that maximized the effectiveness of its armed forces than that Jerusalem itself be returned briefly to Christian control. Instead, Richard included a clause in the Treaty of Ramla he signed with Saladin in 1192 that allowed unarmed Christian pilgrims access to the city.

Saladin may have signed that agreement in good faith, but he died a year later, at age fifty-five. Only six years after Saladin’s death, Richard died from a crossbow wound suffered while putting down a revolt in part of his French territory. He was forty-one.

Unfortunately, few back in Europe saw the inevitability and the wisdom in Richard’s unwillingness to retake Jerusalem. Thus, a year before Richard died, Pope Innocent III had begun to call for a new Crusade.


Because the Fourth Crusade culminated in the crusaders’ sacking Constantinople, it has long served as a primary “proof” that the Crusades were a shameful episode in the greedy history of the West. Only six years after the world had learned of the Nazi death camps and the extent of the Holocaust, the distinguished Cambridge historian Steven Runciman could write: “There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.”67 Runciman certainly knew that many other cities of this era not only had been sacked but had had their populations massacred to the last resident, compared with probably fewer than two thousand deaths68 during the crusader sack of Constantinople, a city of about 150,000.69 So why this uniquely extreme condemnation? Ah, but the others were just dreary medieval cities; this was the “great city…filled with works of art that had survived from ancient Greece and with the masterpieces of its own exquisite craftsmen.”70 Indeed, admiration for the sophisticated city is a standard theme in the outrage against the Fourth Crusade. As Speros Vryonis put it, “The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack…Constantinople had become a veritable museum of ancient and Byzantine art.”71 Or, in the words of Will Durant, the crusaders “now—in Easter week—subjected the rich city to such spoliation as Rome had never suffered from Vandals or Goths.”72 There even is a whole school of scholars who, in addition to lamenting the damage to the city, claim that the Fourth Crusade was from the start nothing but a diabolical Venetian plot to eliminate Byzantine commercial competition.73

These bitter condemnations of the Fourth Crusade led Pope John Paul II, in 2001, to apologize to the Greek Orthodox Church: “It is tragic that the assailants, who set out to secure free access for Christians in the Holy Land, turned against their brothers in the faith. That they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret.”74

Nothing here about the prior sacks of the city by Byzantines themselves during political coups: in 1081 Alexius Comnenus “allowed his foreign mercenaries to plunder the capital for three days.”75 Nor is there a word to acknowledge the centuries of Orthodox brutalities against Latin Christians: in 1182 the emperor incited mobs to attack all Western residents of Constantinople, during which “[t]housands, including women, children, and the aged, were massacred”76—many more deaths than are thought to have occurred during the city’s sack by the crusaders.77 Not a word about the instances of Byzantine treachery that occurred during each of the first three Crusades and that cost tens of thousands of crusaders their lives. Surely it is not surprising that these many acts of betrayal built up substantial animosity toward Byzantium. Then, in 1204, those who had journeyed east as members of the Fourth Crusade also were deceived by a Byzantine emperor who, after the crusaders helped restore him to the throne, broke his glittering promises and launched fire ships against the crusader fleet. Meanwhile, the Latin residents of Constantinople fled the city in fear of their lives—recalling the massacre of 1182—and took refuge in the crusader camp. This left the crusaders “without food or money,”78 stranded on a hostile shore. That’s when they attacked Constantinople.

Now for the details.

Pope Innocent’s initial call for the new Crusade was ignored. The Germans were on the outs with Rome, while the French and English were at war again. But just as the lethargic response to the Second Crusade was overcome by the efforts of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the Fourth Crusade was in response to the exertions of Fulk of Neuilly—a French cleric who accepted the pope’s request to preach a new Crusade. The climax came during a tournament held by Count Thibaut of Champagne in 1199. In the midst of the usual dangers and injuries involved in jousting matches, concerns over the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem arose, and Count Thibaut ended up leading a group of his friends and relatives in taking the cross.79 From there, enthusiasm for a new Crusade spread and the planning began.

Once again it was agreed that the crusaders would go east by sea, but with a brilliant change in destination. Why fight peripheral battles in the Holy Land when Egypt was the aggressive power? So the original plan was to sail an irresistible army to the mouth of the Nile and put the enemy out of business for good. It made a great deal of sense.

Of course, those organizing the new Crusade had no navy. So they sent a delegation to Venice, then the primary naval power in the Mediterranean. The Venetians agreed to transport forty-five hundred knights with their horses, nine thousand squires, and twenty thousand infantry, plus food for nine months and an escort of fifty fighting galleys for the price of ninety-one thousand marks.80 To meet this enormous obligation the Venetians had to suspend nearly all of their foreign trade and devote a year to the rapid construction of boats.

In June 1202 the promised Venetian fleet was ready. Unfortunately, the crusaders had gathered only about a third of the force they had planned on. And since they were expecting to pay the Venetians by charging each crusader for his passage, the shortfall in numbers left them about thirty-one thousand marks short of the sum promised to the Venetians, even after the leaders borrowed all they could from moneylenders.81 At this point the doge of Venice offered a solution.

Doge Enrico Dandolo was well into his eighties and blind, but he remained a brilliant, inspirational, and extremely energetic leader.82 What he proposed was that the Venetians join the Crusade and that payment of the remaining balance be postponed. In return, on their way to Egypt the flotilla would stop and conquer Zara (or Zadar), a city on the Dalmatian coast across the Adriatic Sea from Venice, which had recently rebelled against Venetian rule.

So, on October 1, 1202, the crusader fleet of more than two hundred ships, including sixty war galleys, left Venice with about fifteen thousand fighting men and thousands of horses aboard, bound for Zara.83 In late November, Zara surrendered without resistance, and soon thereafter the crusader fleet sailed on south to Corfu to winter.

At this point an exiled Byzantine prince, Alexius, the son of deposed emperor Isaac II and himself a claimant to the throne, made the crusaders a remarkable proposal. In return for their aid in recovering the throne, Alexius would pay them two hundred thousand silver marks, supply all provisions for their expedition against Egypt, reinforce the expedition with ten thousand Byzantine troops, submit the Greek Church to Rome, and then permanently station five hundred knights to augment the forces of the Christian kingdoms in the Holy Land.84 Not only was the offer of immense, immediate benefit; perhaps more important, it proposed a longed-for solution to the problem of sustaining the kingdoms. It always had been obvious that the kingdoms were in permanent jeopardy so long as their security was dependent on Europe. But if the primary responsibility could be shifted to Byzantium, help would be much closer and far more dependable—especially if threats from Egypt were eliminated. And so the fleet rounded Greece and set sail for Constantinople.

On July 5, 1203, the crusader fleet landed at Galata, across from Constantinople, and the Venetians broke the chain blocking the entrance to the Golden Horn and then sailed into the city’s harbor. The current Byzantine emperor had so utterly neglected Constantinople’s defense that the few rotting galleys that the Greeks could send against the Venetians were sunk in moments. Then, on July 17 came the attack on the city. With the blind old doge waving the banner of Saint Mark in the lead galley and “shouting at his forces,”85 some Venetians landed. When his forces seemed hesitant to scale the walls, the doge demanded to be set ashore, and, as “Dandolo had calculated, [the men] were shamed by the old man’s bravery; they could not abandon their venerable leader and rushed to join him.”86 The walls were scaled, gates were forced, and the Venetians occupied a portion of the city. Meanwhile, the crusader army marched toward the city from the other side. When the Greeks marched out a huge army to confront them, the crusaders formed solid ranks and awaited their attack. None came; the Greeks decided to withdraw instead. That night the emperor deserted, whereupon the Byzantines opened the remaining city gates and accepted Alexius IV as their new emperor. In response, the crusaders marched out of the city and camped across the Golden Horn at Pera.

At first things went well. Although he found little money in the treasury, Alexius IV began to pay installments on his debt of two hundred thousand marks. But he faced unflinching hostility from his subjects; the priests and upper classes hated Latins and held them in contempt. As tensions grew, “the remaining resident Latins,” to escape what seemed to be an impending massacre, “took their families and as much as they could of their property and crossed the harbor to join the crusaders.”87 Shortly thereafter, Emperor Alexius shifted with the political wind and ceased making payments on his debt. War became imminent.

Twice the Greeks sent fire ships against the Venetian fleet; the formula for Greek fire seems already to have been lost. The attacks failed. Meanwhile, inside the city a palace coup placed another member of the royal family—known as Mourtzouphlus because he had bushy eyebrows that met—on the throne. He strangled Alexius IV with a bowstring and murdered other possible royal claimants. The new emperor immediately began to strengthen the defenses and sent troops to cut off all supplies to the crusaders.

As the esteemed French historian Jean Richard explained, “The situation of the crusaders became impossible…[they] were without food or money, far from the theatre of operations they wished to reach. The Venetians were no better placed; they too had counted on the subsidies promised by Alexius IV.”88

So the leaders gathered and evaluated the possibilities. Their diversion to put a new emperor favorable to the West on the Byzantine throne had been costly in time, money, and lives. Whatever the state of the emperor’s treasury, Constantinople was bursting with immense wealth. They decided to sack the city, and an agreement was reached as to how the booty would be gathered up and divided. Unfortunately, the group also decided to put the throne of Byzantium firmly in Western hands by instituting a new dynasty.

The crusader plan was to assault the walls and towers from flying bridges extended from the masts of the largest transport boats, meanwhile landing additional troops and cavalry on the shore. On April 9 the attack began and eventually failed—partly because an unfavorable wind forced the fleet offshore. On April 12, with a strong wind at their back, the Venetians were able to grapple their flying bridges to some of the towers, crusaders drove the defenders from that section of the wall, and some descended and broke down gates from inside. Mounted knights rode into the city. By nightfall the crusaders held a section of the city several hundred yards in from the walls. They slept in their ranks, expecting fierce resistance in the morning. Instead, Mourtzouphlus fled during the night and all resistance collapsed; most of the upper classes had already fled.89

For three days the crusaders sacked the city. Most accounts stress rape and murder rather than the looting. No doubt such brutalities occurred, but the estimated death rate was low (as noted), while the booty was immense; to speak of “sacking” a city is in reference to soldiers stuffing sacks full of valuables. The commanders ordered that all booty be turned in for division. Of course, much was held out—especially small valuables such as jewels. Even so, what was turned in eventually yielded four hundred thousand marks as well as ten thousand suits of armor.90

With the city at their feet, the Europeans went ahead with their plans for a new dynasty. Thus, Baldwin of Flanders was installed as the new emperor of Byzantium. As might have been expected, his successful rule required the presence and backing of a Western army. When they placed Baldwin on the throne, the crusaders had pledged to remain to defend him until 1205; all plans for an attack on Egypt had been discarded. When that date was reached, the Fourth Crusade was officially ended, and about seven thousand fighting men boarded Venetian ships and sailed home. Without their backing, huge hunks of the empire soon broke away, and by 1225 there was little left under Western rule, although a Western emperor held on in Constantinople until 1261.


The conquest of Constantinople was very badly received in the West; the pope was especially angry. For one thing, the initial retaking of Zara encouraged the conclusion that the entire enterprise had been nothing more than Venetian opportunism. In addition, the attacks had all been on Christians—albeit of the Eastern variety. But most important was the fact that nothing had been done to recapture Jerusalem or to drive the Egyptians out of the Holy Land. That was unacceptable to Pope Innocent III. There must be a Fifth Crusade.

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