Post-classical history


The Fourth Crusade: Preparations

The central irony of the Fourth Crusade sprang from its achievements. The capture of Constantinople in April 1204 and the subsequent annexation by western lords of large tracts of the Greek empire constituted for many participants and witnesses a memorable and admirable triumph of western chivalry. Against great odds, as one of their leaders Geoffrey of Villehardouin was later at pains to emphasize, the crusaders had overcome ‘the greatest, most powerful, and most strongly fortified city in the world’.1 Yet every step of the way – from the treaty with Venice that insisted on a general muster there in 1202; to the attack on the Dalmatian port of Zara; to the diversion to Byzantium in 1203 – was accompanied by divisions, doubts, arguments and defections. The triumph itself seemingly required constant justification, at the time and subsequently. The Greek conquests failed to ignite much western interest or support, at least once the great holy booty of relics had been secured. This ‘new France’, as Innocent’s successor Honorius III called it, failed to capture the imagination to compete with the Holy Land. While Byzantium never fully recovered from the trauma of defeat and partition, the effect of the Fourth Crusade on most of western Europe remained peripheral. The exception was Venice, a city that had gambled and gained hugely on this unexpected inauguration of its international empire. Yet the image of a Christian army of crusaders laying waste the ancient Christian capital of Constantinople appeared, at the very least, striking, if not actively disturbing. The pope was appalled.2 A victory of pragmatism, perhaps even desperation, over idealism, conscience, even, some argued, law, the Fourth Crusade left its main purpose unrealized, the recovery of Jerusalem. Whatever the religious dimension of attacking the schismatic Greeks, the essential excuse for the events of 1203–4 depended on a variety of just war explanations allied to the rationale of expediency. By the time the enterprise to fight for the Holy Land was effectively called off in the summer of 1205, there had been no holy war. The crusade had been cancelled before it had begun.


Early recruitment for Innocent III’s crusade owed much to a ghost. Looking back half a century later, a knowledgeable Cistercian, Alberic of Trois-Fontaines, characterized the enterprise as ‘an overseas expedition of nobles signed with the Cross who had formerly abandoned King Philip when King Richard attacked, as well as other barons’.3 Half a decade of intense conflict had forced most of the higher nobility of France to choose between allegiance to the Capetians or alliance with the Angevins. In the late 1190s, Richard’s partisans included the counts of Flanders, Blois and St Pol, all prominent future leaders of the crusade. The death of Richard in April 1199 transformed prospects. While he lived, few nobles in any region of France would have been happy or sensible to leave for the east with the contest between the kings of France and England active and unresolved. No amount of fine words from Fulk of Neuilly could shift political necessities. The value of church protection for absent crusaders had been starkly exposed by the fate of Richard’s own French lands in 1193–4. However, on Richard’s death, new accommodations were reached, not least because of the rebarbative personality of Richard’s successor John, one of the most unsuccessful medieval monarchs who lost an empire and united his own baronage in dislike, resentment, fear and, ultimately, rebellion. The awkwardness facing Richard’s former allies could honourably be resolved by a decision to take the cross, a move that would serve the interests and win the approval of the king of France. Many of the great lords of northern France were young men. In 1199, the counts of Flanders, Blois and Champagne were all in their twenties, childless or with infants as heirs. For King Philip, their absence on crusade would remove proven or potential troublemakers and offer chances for lucrative royal intervention in their territories through regency or wardship arrangements.

In the winter of 1199–1200 a closely related group of great nobles from northern France accepted the cross, the counts of Champagne and Blois during a tournament at Ecry-sur-Aisne on Advent Sunday, 28 November, and the count of Flanders in Bruges on Ash Wednesday, 23 February.4Theobald of Champagne and Louis of Blois were cousins. Baldwin of Flanders was married to Theobald’s sister, Marie, who took the cross with him, although heavily pregnant. The dates were not coincidental, each falling on the first days of the two great penitential seasons of the Christian year, Advent and Lent, familiar times to take the penitential vow of the cross. These were far from spontaneous acts, each count having assembled large numbers of important vassals to take the cross. The timing may also indicate wider preparations involving the pope, although there is no direct evidence for this. A month after the ceremony at Ecry, Innocent issued his bull announcing his own financial provision for the expedition.5 The pope may have been waiting for news of the public commitment by the French nobles. Certainly the preamble to the bull of 31 December implied that action had already begun to which the pope wished to be seen to contribute. He also assigned two papal legates to travel to the Holy Land. At the same time, the preaching campaign was revived or extended, for example to Germany and the British Isles.6

The preaching campaign for the Fourth Crusade was organized through three agencies: papal legates; local bishops; and the Cistercians. Even Fulk of Neuilly fitted this scheme. Innocent declared that his appointment to preach the cross had been made with the ‘advice and assent’ of the legate to France, Peter Capuano.7 A well-informed Cistercian source insisted that Fulk had previously adopted the cross at the order’s general chapter at Cîteaux on 4 September 1198 and subsequently had failed to persuade many Cistercians to help in the preaching campaign. It was later alleged in Outremer that some of Fulk’s ‘innumerable wealth’ was deposited with the Cistercians, who sent it to the Holy Land to pay for repairs to the walls of Tyre, Beirut and Acre.8 Whatever the truth or pious fictions associating Fulk with the Cistercians, other members of the order played significant roles both in preaching and accompanying the crusade. Abbot Martin of Pairis roused considerable enthusiasm at Basel, probably in May 1201, after a modest response to the earlier preaching of the local bishop. He subsequently joined the Basel crusaders on their journey to the muster at Venice in the summer of 1202. The abbots of Loos and Les Vaux de Cernay were leading figures on the expedition itself, although finding themselves on opposite sides of the argument over the diversion to Byzantium. Cistercians, including the abbot of Luciedo, were among the entourage of Boniface marquis of Montferrat when he arrived in France to accept the leadership of the crusade in the late summer of 1201; they may have been instrumental in persuading him to accept the task. In September 1201, the Cistercian General Chapter at Cîteaux played host to Boniface and other crusade leaders at an assembly that included Fulk of Neuilly and, possibly, Martin of Pairis.9 The evangelical tradition of St Bernard and the Second Crusade, which had sustained Cistercian enthusiasm for the crusade after 1187, provided the expedition’s organizers with a useful web of proselytizing, information and influence. The order was exempted from the clerical tax of 1199. Its role perhaps added spice to Richard I’s gift to them of his greed.

However, as before, preaching operated as part of a process of public commitment. When Martin of Pairis preached at Basel, his audience were bursting with expectation, filled by rumours of preaching elsewhere, ‘prepared in their hearts to enlist in Christ’s camp… hungrily anticipating an exhortation of this sort’.10 Whatever frisson of excitement or moment of epiphany struck congregations, the decision to take the cross depended on a long chain of conscious individual and collective calculations and decisions. This deliberate and complex activity took time to gain the acceptance, permission and support of family, lords, tenants or vassals, and to begin the necessary material as well as spiritual preparations. The sermons stood as ritualized representations of this, taking the cross confirming as much as inspiring enlistment. But months and years were required to convert the commitment into action, because, unlike the First Crusaders in 1095–6, their successors increasingly knew what to expect and took pains to anticipate the difficulties.

Between 1199 and 1202, crusade recruitment extended from the Irish Sea to the Adriatic, from Saxony to Lombardy and Provence. Yet the core regions stretched from Flanders southwards through Champagne and the Ile de France to the Loire. It gave the appearance of a very French affair. The carefully crafted ceremony at Ecry lent important momentum. One of those who took the cross there with Count Theobald, Geoffrey of Villehardouin, marshal of Champagne, noted that ‘people throughout the country were greatly impressed when men of such high standing took the cross’.11 Whatever private conviction or enthusiasm prompted responses to the call of the cross, networks of family, lordship, region, community and tradition exerted a powerful influence. As with a number of the German crusade leaders four years earlier, the youth of some of the French counts may have encouraged adventure. Preaching alone was insufficient. Many noble crucesignati boasted distinguished crusading pedigrees. Theobald of Champagne’s father, Count Henry I, had twice visited the Holy Land, the first time with the Second Crusade; his elder brother, Count Henry II, from whom he had had inherited the county, had been one of the commanders of the Third Crusade and ruler of Jerusalem 1192–7. Louis of Blois, as a teenager, had campaigned with his father in Palestine on the Third Crusade. Baldwin of Flanders was heir to one of the most distinguished of all crusade traditions, stretching back to Count Robert II on the First Crusade and including three other twelfth-century counts. Other veterans included Geoffrey of Villehardouin, who had spent four years in a Muslim prison after being captured outside the camp at Acre in 1190, and Simon de Montfort, who had only just returned from the Holy Land.12

In retelling the story of the Fourth Crusade, eyewitnesses grouped noble recruits in regional or lordship associations. The Picard knight Robert of Clari described bodies of crusaders from Picardy, Flanders, Burgundy, Champagne, the Ile de France, the Beauvaisis and the Chartrain, dividing them between the very rich and those he called ‘poor’, men of his own modest but knightly standing who demonstrated and shared in the ‘prouesse’ of the chivalric elite, if not always their pick of the booty.13 Villehardouin similarly listed recruits according to family and regional affinities, although he arranged them more hierarchically under the precedence of their local counts. When Baldwin of Flanders took the cross, his wife and brother, Henry, and a significant entourage of local nobles accompanied him. His example was soon followed by neighbouring lords in Artois and Picardy, such as Hugh IV count of St Pol and his nephew Count Peter of Amiens, one of whose vassals was Robert of Clari. In Flanders, as in Champagne and Blois-Chartres, the public commitment of the great regional overlord drew in wider aristocratic circles. In Burgundy, by contrast, with Duke Eudes III declining to participate, numbers of prominent lords recruited were fewer, and included Odo of Champlitte and his brother William, who were closely related to the Champagne comital family. However, recruitment was not confined to the networks of locality, kin and clientage in northern France. Although there was minimal enrolment in England, by 1202, crusaders from southern Burgundy and Forez were making their way east via Marseilles. Southern Germany and the Rhineland had been evangelized from early 1200 to some effect. The force from Basel that set out in 1202 included Abbot Martin of Pairis, who had led some of the local preaching. This alternative focus of support around local bishops or a monastic order, such as the Cistercians, was shown by the bishops of Autun in Burgundy, Soissons and Troyes in Champagne, the abbot of Loos in Flanders and, more eccentrically, the bishop of Halberstadt in Saxony, an unorthodox crusader.

In 1202, Conrad of Krosigk, the new bishop of Halberstadt, was excommunicated by the papal legate, Cardinal Guy of Palestrina, for his fierce partisanship on behalf of Philip of Swabia, whose claims to the German throne were then being strongly opposed by Innocent III. Undaunted, Bishop Conrad took the cross on 7 April 1202, ‘judging it wiser to fall into the hands of God than into the hands of men’.14 After accompanying the main crusade force from Venice to Zara and Constantinople, he fulfilled his vows in the Holy Land late in 1204. Only then did he receive absolution for his excommunication, reluctantly confirmed by the pope in June 1205. For the whole of his crusade, Bishop Conrad was an excommunicate. His equivocal status did not seem to interfere with his contacts with ecclesiastical authorities nor inhibit his acquisition in the Greek capital of choice relics, silks, precious stones and other lustrous fabrics and tapestries. Conrad’s status and enthusiasm cut across legal niceties. He seems to have arranged for his memoirs to be recorded during his retirement in 1209. In them, acceptance by the mass of sceptical crusaders of the decision to divert the crusade to Constantinople in 1203 was ascribed to the crusaders being ‘swayed partly by prayers, partly by price’.15 Prayers and price: rather a neat description of the whole crusade.

The piety of crusaders in the cause of the Holy Land should not be discounted. Documentary as well as chronicle evidence for the now traditional pious bequests and arrangement of affairs survives in some abundance. The testimony of events proves personal and collective commitment even to death. As crucesignati poets put it, the choice between the lady love and the cross is an unfair contest, ‘whether to go to God or to remain here’.16 Theobald’s enthusiasm seems to have played a significant part in setting the crusade in motion, even if his early death allowed him to be given the role of the lost leader unsullied by the compromises of subsequent events. However, the importance at least of the comital commanders, Theobald especially, was due as much to their wealth as to their status or conviction. When Hugh count of St Pol complained that, by July 1203, when the crusade army arrived outside Constantinople, he was heavily in debt, this reflected the expense of the campaign rather than his original financial position.17 Baldwin of Flanders and Theobald of Champagne were probably the richest nobles in France, their combined resources rivalling those of the king. Louis of Blois, also by the right of his wife count of Clermont, controlled another extensive and rich block of territory. The ability of these lords to subsidize their followers provided the necessary mixture of incentive and control.

Crusading had developed into a joint enterprise operation. Great lords paid the expenses of their immediate entourage as well as any mercenaries. Beyond that, almost as an attribute of lordship, many leaders saw it necessary to subsidize their aristocratic vassals as well. Fleets, such as Richard I’s, could also be partly funded by a commander. The experience of twelfth-century crusading had suggested that central funding contributed to efficiency and order in planning and execution. Against this, the canonical assumption of payment by the individual crucesignatus remained strong, although, with Innocent III’s financial expedients, beginning to weaken. The Fourth Crusade occurred during a period of change from mainly self-financed expeditions to those predominantly underwritten by the leaders and the church that became a feature of the mid-thirteenth century and later. In this, crusading armies reflected patterns of military organization emerging across Europe. In 1199–1202, at the very least, to attract support, the crusade leadership, as the pope recognized, needed to be prepared openly to offer financial support to their followers. However, as they were to be forcibly reminded, the paymaster retained authority only for as long as he remained solvent. No cash, no control and, ultimately, no crusade. The experience of the Fourth Crusade stripped aside sentimental views of the material basis of crusading, its course almost wholly determined by finance and the constant quest for resources. From the outset, the crusade leaders understood this. Theobald of Champagne had calculated he needed 25,000 livres to pay his own retinue and proposed another 25,000 livres to retain other troops. Innocent III assumed the conscription of warriors for pay. On campaign at Constantinople, Hugh of St Pol reckoned knights as well as mounted sergeants and infantry required wages, if only to cover expenses.18 Baldwin of Flanders provided Gilles de Trasignies, later a hero of a vernacular verse romance and one of his sworn vassals (home lige), 500 livres to go with him on crusade. The count also hired experienced troops. Along with clothing, food and other provisions, Baldwin sent some of these in his own ships with a fleet that sailed from Flanders in the summer of 1202 under the command of the governor of Bruges and others. This was evidently a comital project. When they arrived at Marseilles at the end of the year they sought Baldwin’s orders as to where to go next.19 Without such investment by the leaders there would have been no crusade.

Funds were sought across Europe. Count Baldwin was one of the richest men in Europe, his county the centre of a woollen cloth industry and trade that stretched from the British Isles to the Mediterranean. Even so, in 1202 he tried to raise money directly from his subjects, with the permission of their immediate overlords.20 Bishop Conrad of Halberstadt received 550 silver marks from the dean of Magdeburg.21 Apart from the apparently unsuccessful clerical tax of 1199, a voluntary lay tax of a fortieth was proposed in England and France in 1201. This may have aroused Philip II’s hostility, as did other ecclesiastical crusade ordinances.22 In England some money may have been raised and paid out, possibly including 1,000 marks King John of England gave his nephew Louis of Blois.23 Odo of Champlitte and Guy of Thourotte, poet and castellan of Coucy, may have received money collected by Fulk of Neuilly.24 Lesser crusaders resorted to traditional methods of fundraising. Hilduin of Villemoyenne in Champagne, in a series of land sales, received at least 280 livres, 200 of which was paid over by the monks of St Peter of Montier-le-Celle in pennies.25 A ‘fidelis’ of Baldwin of Flanders, Romond, mortgaged property for a six-year loan of 140 livres in Hainault money.26 The problem with all these measures, as on previous campaigns, lay in the inability of crucesignati to budget accurately for future expenses. Hugh of St Pol was not the only one forced into debt by the expenses of the campaign. Finance may have determined the initial structure of the crusading armies but, again in common with earlier crusades, the need to find large sums of money during the expedition itself exerted a no less overwhelming influence on strategy, objectives and outcome.


Preaching, recruitment and planning were not sequential processes but ran in parallel. Until late 1199, there is little evidence of the last. However, Innocent’s appeal of August 1198 was not produced in a vacuum. In terms of international strategy, thanks to the German crusade, knowledge of events in the Holy Land was recent and vivid. The following year, the pope elicited a report on the situation in the Holy Land from Patriarch Aymar of Jerusalem.27 One of the striking features of the Fourth Crusade was the acute awareness of the high command of the politics of the Near East and the constant stream of communication between western planners and the Franks of Outremer. Given the Palestine truce of 1198, an expeditionary force to the Holy Land would not have been welcome. This seemed to be of some importance to the crusade high command. In their 1201 treaty with the Venetians to mount an attack on Egypt, they explicitly agreed the fleet would sail direct to Egypt, implying an avoidance of a landfall in mainland Outremer, which would compromise King Aimery’s diplomacy.28 This insistence on deferring to the 1198 truce may partly explain the leadership’s consistent and strident hostility to any who wished to leave the army to sail straight to Palestine. However, even if Egypt had been suggested to or by the pope in 1198–9, no evidence of it emerged, and circumstantially it seems unlikely. The propaganda talked exclusively of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Even in 1201 the choice of Egypt as a destination was deliberately kept secret. In a sign of the fluidity rather than clarity of strategic planning, the Flemish fleet that sailed into the Mediterranean in the summer of 1202 had no exact idea where they were going to rendezvous with Count Baldwin, still less their ultimate destination. Despite distant orders to the contrary, left to themselves, in the spring of 1203 they proceeded to Acre.29 Countless others who embarked in 1201–2 did the same.

From the start, Innocent cast his diplomatic net wide. He sought to engage the Byzantine emperor Alexius III in his plans more constructively than Henry VI had treated Alexius and his predecessor. Between 1198 and 1202, the pope and the Greek emperor exchanged at least eight embassies and twelve substantial letters.30 At first, Innocent conducted an intensive diplomatic effort to persuade Alexius to accept church union and give material assistance to the crusade, beginning by proposing Greek participation in the expedition in return for crusade indulgences. This offer presupposed Byzantine acceptance of papal authority that Innocent assumed as a sine qua non. Repeated references to the example of Manuel I stood as coded criticism of Greek failure to help the crusade. After some cautious encouragement from Alexius, in the winter of 1199–1200 the negotiations soured. Alexius called for the restoration of Cyprus and restated imperial independence from Rome. This prompted a harder line from the pope, who had also been securing alliances with neighbours of Byzantium: King Emeric of Hungary took the cross, and Kalojan of Bulgaria received coronation from a papal legate. However, Alexius III’s ultimate rejection of Innocent’s approaches failed to persuade the pope that Byzantium merited destruction or conquest. As late as the spring of 1203, with the crusade fleet already under sail for Byzantium, Innocent expressly forbade any attack on Constantinople.31

If diplomacy and gathering intelligence had begun in 1198, no grand scheme could be devised until a crusade army and leadership were in place. At meetings at Soissons and Compiègne in the summer of 1201, the French crusade leaders discussed timing and objectives. The Compiègn meeting of the crusader counts and barons – a parlement according to Villehardouin, who was there32 – provided a foretaste of how the crusade was to be run, by committee and deliberative assembly. Although Theobald of Champagne had provided the initiative for the enterprise and was, in some senses, accepted as its prime mover, in the absence of a royal overlord, command was collegial. The crusaders at Compiègne held a lively debate, chiefly it seems on transport, but possibly also on the destination of the expedition. It was decided to send to Italy six ambassadors, drawn from the affinities of the three dominant figures, the counts of Flanders, Champagne and Blois, to choose and negotiate with a carrier for transport east. Given that Egypt appeared in the agreement reached by this delegation, it is possible that the Compiègne parlement proposed it. At least four of the ambassadors, who were given plenipotentiary powers to seal a treaty binding their principals, were veterans of the Third Crusade: Villehardouin himself and Milo of Brébant (Champagne); Conon of Béthune (Flanders); and John of Friaise (Blois). Egypt had been regarded as the key to the fate of the Holy Land since before the Third Crusade, but Richard I’s campaign had emphasized its importance, a theme of various accounts of the Palestine war of 1191–2 that were already beginning to circulate. It had now become something of an orthodoxy, a convenient one in view of the 1198 Palestine truce.

Despite Innocent’s diplomacy in central Europe, the decision to travel east by sea was inevitable, even if the Nile Delta had not been the objective. It had been proved to be quicker, safer and more conducive to professional control, although requiring more initial capital outlay. Crusading fleets had been sailing from northern European waters to Syria for over a century. They had materially sustained the efforts of the Second Crusade as well as the siege of Acre in 1189–91. Baldwin of Flanders was preparing to send a squadron of his own, as had Richard I in 1190. However, as in 1190, embarkation of the whole expeditionary force from North Sea and Channel ports was precluded by the numbers of crusaders, their political affiliations and geographic locations, the length of the voyage around the Iberian peninsular and a general landlubbers’ fear of the sea and seasickness. The shortest passage with the most experienced carriers was necessary. This meant Italy.

The options facing the ambassadors were limited. Genoa and Pisa had played central roles in the Third Crusade, but were still locked in fierce, hostile competition. Robert of Clari recorded the rumour that the Genoese refused help outright, perhaps in reaction to their possibly less than satisfactory experiences with Philip II. The Pisans apparently balked at the sheer size of the contract. This may have persuaded the ambassadors to try the greater shipbuilding capacity of Venice first. Innocent III had already despatched Cardinal Soffredo of St Praxedis to Venice in 1198 ‘to help the Holy Land’ (‘pro Terrae Sanctae subsidio’), although there is no evidence of Franco-papal collusion.33 Venice could claim a crusading tradition only little less consistent than her Ligurian and Tuscan rivals. For a century, pilgrims and crusaders had used Venice as a port of embarkation for the Holy Land and Venetians as carriers for their return journeys. For the Venetians, piety and profit were not mutually exclusive but, ideally, complementary. In a demonstration of enthusiasm for the cause of the Holy Land, a significant Venetian fleet had travelled to Palestine in the wake of the First Crusade in 1099–1101, assisting in the capture of Haifa but also acquiring the relic of St Nicholas of Myra. Their crusade of 1122–5 was designed to put pressure on the Byzantines to renew trading privileges.34 It included raids on Adriatic ports and plundering Greek islands for booty and relics. However, the Venetian fleet also fought an Egyptian fleet off southern Palestine and supplied vital assistance in the capture of Tyre in 1124. That this help came at the price of extensive commercial and legal rights in the conquered port did not contradict the material and human cost. Campaigning in the Levant represented a hugely risky venture, individually and civically. The potential rewards were great, but so too were the dangers of ruin. Ships engaged in war were unavailable for trade. The twelfth-century balance sheet of Venetian involvement with the crusades was not exclusively financial.

Nonetheless, any bargain struck between Venice and the crusaders needed to be realistic for both sides. On it depended the fate of the whole enterprise, a significance evidently not lost on the crusade planners at Compiègne or their representatives, still less the doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo (1192–1205) and his advisors. The French ambassadors arrived in Venice in early February 1201. Weeks of careful negotiation ended in agreement in April. After a highly theatrical ceremony in St Marks’s designed to symbolize the corporate sanction and commitment of the Venetian popolo, a treaty was sworn, signed and sealed. Under it, the Venetians engaged to provide specialist transport vessels (uissiers) for 4,500 horses with 9,000 squires, as well as ships (nes) for 4,500 knights and 20,000 foot sergeants, with provisions for men – water, wine, wheat, flour, fruit, vegetables, etc. – and horses for a year. In return, the crusaders would pay four marks per horse and two per man, a total of 85,000 marks. The Venetians themselves would contribute their own fleet of fifty galleys on condition that each party shared equally all conquests, by land or sea, for the duration of the contract. The crusaders were to muster at Venice by 29 June 1202. Payments were to be made in four instalments: 15,000 marks on 1 August 1201; 10,000 on 1 November; 10,000 on 2 February 1202; the balance of 50,000 at the end of April 1202. To allow building of the fleet to begin immediately, the crusader ambassadors borrowed 5,000 marks, which they deposited with the doge. A secret understanding that the destination of the armada would be Egypt, specifically Cairo, ‘because from there the Turks could be more easily crushed than from any other part of their territory’, was omitted from the text of the treaty for public relations reasons.35However, the nature of the fleet, including the specialist uissier landing craft and the large squadron of Venetian galleys, clearly indicated an intended attack on hostile beaches and fighting at sea or in rivers, the Nile Delta, not the friendly port of Acre or the hills of Judea.

The Treaty of Venice became possibly the most famous and notorious transport contract in European history. As the ultimate cause of determining the course of the Fourth Crusade to the walls of Constantinople, it has attracted enormous controversy, starting with some of the crusaders themselves, who lived with its consequences.36 The terms of the treaty acted as a vice from which the crusaders were unable to escape for the simple reason that the fundamental calculation on which the agreement was based proved spectacularly wrong. The fixed price in the treaty assumed an army of 33,500. This cut two ways. The crusaders had to collect the numbers because part, at least, of the price would have to be met by the individual crucesignati, even if the bulk of the money was expected to be met by the crusade leadership. The Venetians had to insist on the agreed price both because the fleet had to be prepared before the crusaders arrived and because of the effect of its construction on the Venetian economy. As Robert of Clari reported the doge arguing in 1202,

as soon as your messengers had made the bargain with me I commanded through all my land that no trader should conduct any business but that all should help prepare this navy. So they have waited ever since and have not made money for a year and a half.37

On top of that, unspecified in the treaty, but unavoidable, the Venetians needed to provide the crews for the fleet. On one recent calculation, these could have numbered over 30,000. Deprived of a large proportion of commercial income for a year, investing in a highly risky venture that promised no immediate dividend, the Venetians, especially the doge, whose pet project it so evidently was, were gambling as much as the crusaders.

Thus the treaty became a potentially ruinous trap for both parties. The central issue revolved around the numbers. Per head, the sums negotiated for carrying the horses and men were not exorbitant. They were in line with Philip II’s contract with Genoa in 1190. But was it realistic to expect so many crusaders to enlist and, equally uncertain, follow the provisions of a contract drawn up only by one group of leaders? For all their wealth and political clout, the French counts had no authority to bind any but themselves and their vassals. Were the crusade ambassadors, therefore, ignorant, naive or just hopelessly optimistic? Not necessarily. In 1198, the pope had invited counts, barons and cities to raise troops according to their resources. His proposed clerical tax had been intended to pay for an army of mercenaries whose numbers could, presumably, have been calculated with some degree of accuracy. It may have been just such a force that Theobald of Champagne envisaged supporting with his treasure of 25,000 livres. The 20,000 ‘serjanz à pié’ of the Venice treaty possibly referred to this division of soldiers paid out of central funds. If so, the figure had probably been reached by the crusade leaders at Compiègne. If Robert of Clari is correct, Villehardouin and his colleagues already knew the massive scale of their proposed army before they reached Venice; it was what persuaded Pisa not to join the bidding. Veterans of the Third Crusade had seen tens of thousands of troops shipped to Palestine between 1189 and 1191. Richard I’s fleet when it sailed from Messina in 1191 probably comprised over 200 ships. A recent estimate of the number of war galleys, horse transports and passenger ships needed to fulfil the 1201 treaty puts the total figure at over 240 vessels, a figure not far from Nicetas Choniates’s estimate at the time. According to two independent crusader witnesses, the fleet that actually embarked from Venice in October 1202 numbered around 200 ships, still capable of carrying upwards of 20,000 men and crew.38The Treaty of Venice may have exaggerated the putative size of the crusade host that would arrive at Venice, but the figures agreed were not beyond reason.

Neither did inflated figures serve the interests of the Venetians, who stood to bear a massive loss if the contract was broken. The idea that the Venetians deliberately overpriced their services or increased the size of the contract in order to subvert the enterprise for their own advantage lacks circumstantial evidence unless it is assumed that they had a deep-seated plan to use the crusade to establish an empire of their own. Both the treaty and recent Venetian history makes this appear unlikely. There is nothing in the 1201 agreement to cast doubt on the sincerity of the plan to attack Egypt. There was no pressing need for war with Byzantium. Although Venetians had suffered badly from Greek hostility in 1171 and 1182, losing commercial privileges and their base in Constantinople, by 1187 their trading quarter had been restored and in 1189 reparations for the expulsion of 1171 agreed. Dandolo himself successfully negotiated a final settlement and confirmation of Venetian rights in the Byzantine empire in 1198. This secured Venice special status in the empire and free access to its markets, although Alexius III’s increasing favour towards the Genoese, who were especially dominant in the Black Sea, may have caused disquiet.39 More generally, Venice was not, in 1201, an imperial power in a political as opposed to commercial sense. Nothing in Doge Dandolo’s career suggested he was contemplating a radical departure from the vigorous pursuit of traditional Venetian interests. Nicetas Choniates thought Dandolo was motivated by revenge for longstanding personal as well as civic injuries done him by the Greeks.40 Yet despite the almost certainly groundless rumours that he had been blinded in Constantinople during the troubles of 1171, Dandolo seemed to be content with a pacific policy towards the Byzantines and the new status quo of the 1198 treaty. With well over half of Venice’s eastern trade coming through Byzantium, peace offered a more secure future than war.

Egypt and the great entrepût of Alexandria presented a very different option, a greater risk for a much greater potential profit. The centre of the hugely lucrative spice trade, handling the spices that had been shipped from south-east Asia to the Red Sea ports and thence to the Nile before forward transit to Europe, as well as a source of wheat, sugar and alum (used in dyeing and leather making) and a market for timber and metals, Alexandria had accommodated western traders since the eleventh century. However, compared with Genoa and Pisa, Venice maintained only a modest presence there, trade with Egypt constituting perhaps 10 per cent of the city’s eastern business. Dandolo had seen the opportunities at first hand during a visit to Egypt in 1174. In 1198, perhaps in response to Cardinal Soffredo’s mission, the pope granted a licence to Venice to continue trading with Egypt in non-military materials (i.e. not metal and timber) despite the general, and largely ignored, ban decreed by the Third Lateran Council.41 A successful crusade presented Venice with the chance to expand its share of the richest market in the Levant. The stipulation in the 1201 treaty for equal shares in any conquests recognized Venice’s enormous risk as well as its huge material and human contribution, with the war galleys and numbers of crew amounting to only little less than the estimated crusader army. It also echoed the so-called Pactum Warmundi of 1124, under which the Venetians had agreed to assist the Franks under Patriarch Gormund of Jerusalem capture Tyre in return for a third of the city.42 In a new Frankish Alexandria, Venice would control most of the trade. Thus the crusade presented Venice with a unique commerical opportunity, a chance to assert civic patriotism and the undying glory of winning back Jerusalem, which the city’s Genoese and Pisan rivals had failed to achieve ten years before. It is profitless to disentangle these motives; each complemented the other in reinforcing what was an unprecedented act of corporate faith in both the crusade ideal and its practical achievement. The grand public ceremony in St Mark’s to accept the treaty – attended, Villehardouin insisted over-excitedly, by 10,000 people – formed an appropriately lavish act of civic dedication.


After leaving Venice, four of the French ambassadors unsuccessfully tried to interest Genoa and Pisa in a share of the crusade’s business, presumably hoping the Venice treaty would act as an incentive. Villehardouin and one of Count Baldwin’s envoys pressed on towards France.43 Crossing the Mont Cenis pass, they encountered a group of Champagne crusaders travelling south, bound for Apulia, where their leader, Walter of Brienne, held claims. His small company found service with the pope fighting Markward of Anweiler. None of them reached Venice. This chance meeting underlined one of the most obvious faults in the Venice treaty. Those who could afford the journey east for themselves or who had no contacts with the three great French counts were under no obligation to abide by the treaty. Villehardouin’s account of the crusade is peppered by asides lamenting or criticizing the contingents that avoided Venice and made their way east independently. These included not just those outside the Champagne–Flanders–Blois orbit, such as the bishop of Autun, the count of Forez and crusaders from the Ile de France, but also many who had received financial help from Theobald of Champagne, including Renaud of Dampierre, the count’s own substitute. The same was true of some Flemish lords, such as Gilles de Trasignies, who enjoyed Count Baldwin’s largesse. The Flemish fleet also fell outside the Venice treaty; probably it was never intended to rendezvous at Venice. The binding nature of the oaths sworn at Venice that Villehardouin insisted upon appeared less obvious to others. The surprise is less that so few mustered at Venice but that so many with no direct association with the crusade leaders took advantage of the transport on offer, including the Basel crusaders with Martin of Pairis, lords from the middle Rhine under the count of Katzenellenbogen and the companions of the bishop of Halberstadt in Saxony.44

The cohesive nature of the enterprise was further threatened by the death on 24 May 1201 of Theobald of Champagne shortly after Villehardouin’s return from Venice. A seemingly charismatic enthusiast, despite his inexperience, his fellow crusading counts may have recognized him as their leader, possibly because of his youthful political neutrality in the contest between his uncles Philip II and Richard I. He left the 50,000 livres for the crusade, half for his own followers and half to help cover the crusade’s general expenses, which presumably included the Venetian transport fee. If his money had gained Theobald authority over the expedition, his legacy acted as a bait to tempt another to take his place. The manoeuvres during the early summer of 1201 to find a replacement for Theobald with the now explicit brief to command the expedition (‘la seigneurie de l’ost’)45remain obscure despite or perhaps because one of main players was Villehardouin himself. According to his testimony, he was part of a delegation of Champenois notables who offered Theobald’s money and the leadership first to Duke Eudes of Burgundy and then to another of Theobald’s cousins, the count of Bar-le-Duc. Both refused. Finally, at another gathering of the crusade leaders in June or July at Soissons, whose bishop, Nivelo, had already become established as the most influential bishop attached to the enterprise, Villehardouin proposed an unexpected candidate, Boniface marquis of Montferrat in northern Italy. The assembled lords agreed he should be approached.

The choice of Boniface was both something of a coup and something of a mystery. The Montferrat family was immensely grand, related to the Capetians and the Hohenstaufen and with a pluperfect crusading pedigree. Boniface’s father had fought on the Second Crusade and at Hattin; his eldest brother, William, had been the first husband of Sybil of Jerusalem in 1176 and father of Baldwin V. Another brother, Renier, had tried his luck in Byzantium politics, marrying Manuel I’s muscular daughter Maria in 1179 and losing his life in the coup against his brother-in-law Alexius II by Andronicus I in 1182. A third brother, Conrad, married Theodora Angelus, sister of the Byzantine emperor, Isaac II, before avoiding the fate of his brother by sailing to Tyre in the summer of 1187 just in time to save the port from Saladin and begin his quest for the crown of Jerusalem. Boniface himself had been Isaac’s first choice for the hand of Theodora but, showing more scruples about bigamy than Conrad was later to display, declined as he was already married. This rather mixed record catalogues an important context for the events of the Fourth Crusade. Western aristocrats had been seeking their fortunes in Byzantium since the eleventh century, often with Greek encouragement. From mercenary chiefs to adopted members of the imperial family, the status of westerners rose, as more of Byzantine military and naval service were subcontracted to non-Greeks in the twelfth century. So, too, did local xenophobia and hostility. The family history also highlighted the differences between Boniface’s background and those of most of the French nobles who now sought his leadership.

Yet if Boniface possessed unusually apposite credentials for a crusade commander – immense wealth, exemplary connections, chivalric repute – his selection was unexpected. A whiff of conspiracy hangs over the whole episode. Villehardouin may have played a more significant role than he was prepared to recall. The first peculiarity lay in who was not chosen as the new leader. By virtue of wealth, commitment, size of following, traditional crusading ties and familiarity with the plans already in place, the most obvious replacement for Theobald was Count Baldwin of Flanders. His leadership may have caused problems for the Champenois, witnessed by their search elsewhere, or for Louis of Blois, Theobald’s cousin. More clearly, Baldwin’s elevation, giving him added authority, status and access to funds, would scarcely have been welcomed by Philip II, against whom he had allied only a few years earlier. The approaches to the duke of Burgundy and the count of Bar-le-Duc may have represented a case of ‘anyone but Baldwin’.

The second oddity rested with Boniface himself. Even Villehardouin admitted that his nomination was controversial, with many opposing the marquis.46 Until 1201 the crusade had been run by a close-knit group of young, related French counts. Boniface was a middle-aged Italian who may not even have spoken langue d’oil, the vernacular of his would-be companions. He had not taken the cross and was probably personally unknown to most of those who endorsed his candidacy. The only one who may have encountered the marquis was Villehardouin, who possibly met him in Italy on his return from Venice. Another who knew Boniface was Philip II. According to a life of Innocent III, the Gesta Innocenti, written only a few years later, it had been King Philip who had proposed Boniface in the first place. Certainly when Boniface came to France, before accepting the leadership, he visited Philip first. His formal acceptance of the cross and the ‘seigneurie de l’ost’ at Soissons was presided over by Bishop Nivelo, who enjoyed royal favour.47The evidence of Capetian political intrigue is circumstantial but neither incredible nor unlikely. It would not only have been out of character but politically foolish for Philip not to try to influence events of profound tenurial and diplomatic significance.

The sense of Boniface’s detachment from the other leaders persisted. After his appointment, he conducted his own independent diplomacy surrounding the crusade involving his cousin, Philip of Swabia, and the succession to the Greek throne. He was late arriving at Venice in 1202, leaving most of the arrangements for paying the Venetians to Baldwin of Flanders. He did not sail to Zara with the fleet in October 1202, arriving there only after the city’s fall in November. He delayed leaving Zara for Corfu in April 1203 to wait for his protégé, young Alexius Angelus, whose bid for the Byzantine throne Boniface had championed. This is not to suggest that Boniface subverted the crusade for his own ends or never intended to campaign in the Levant. However, his perspectives and interests were not those of his French colleagues. As the crusaders were securing Constantinople after its fall on 12 April 1204, Greek citizens apparently came up to westerners crying, ‘Aiios phasileos marchio,’ or ‘Blessed king marquis’: ‘they did so because they thought the marquis, whom the Greeks had known well… was undoubtedly about to be king of the captured city’.48 Boniface’s actual relationship with the French counts was made clear a few weeks later, when, despite being the nominal leader of the crusade, he failed to gain election as the new Latin emperor of Constantinople. That went to Baldwin of Flanders. Philip II would have been pleased. Count Baldwin would not be returning home.

In August 1201 Boniface was installed as leader of the crusade, seemingly with more powers than had been accorded Theobald. The other leaders probably swore oaths of fealty to Boniface to establish some hierarchical order in what at the best of times remained a quarrelsome and fissiparous command structure. Importantly, Boniface added his own sworn ratification to the Treaty of Venice.49 He then left the other commanders to settle his affairs and visit Germany. There, at Philip of Swabia’s Christmas court at Hagenau, he met the exiled Byzantine pretender and Philip’s brother-in-law Alexius Angelus, whose appeals for help added a new dimension to the crusade’s strategic possibilities. Boniface’s tour may have encouraged further German recruitment, not least among supporters of Philip of Swabia, such as Bishop Conrad of Halberstadt.

These German contingents were among the last to reach Venice in the late summer of 1202.50 Before them, from Easter 1202 onwards, thousands of crucesignati and hired troops, who may or may not have taken the cross, had converged on the Venetian lagoon. Their travel experiences evidently differed. Abbot Martin of Pairis with his Basel company received enthusiastic hospitality at Verona, where they stayed for some weeks in May or June, even though the city was already crammed with crusaders heading eastwards. Another visitor at Verona at the time was Alexius Angelus, trying to drum up support for his cause. Others encountered a different sort of Lombard welcome, with crusaders denied markets and hurried on, not being allowed to stay anywhere for more than one night, an indication that local resources and charity were equally finite.51 Lombardy was particularly affected, with the German and most of the French contingents passing through, even if some of them decided to sail from the ports of southern Italy rather than Venice. This soon became a serious problem. Baldwin of Flanders, one of the first important lords to reach Venice, was sufficiently worried about the commitment even of Louis of Blois to send Villehardouin and Hugh of St Pol to meet him at Pavia to stiffen his resolve. Even this failed to persuade many travelling with or at the same time as Count Louis not to seek transport elsewhere. Reaching Piacenza, some well-connected Frenchmen from the Ile de France, Champagne and Flanders turned south to Apulia, probably to Brindisi.52 Even those who did proceed to Venice arrived well after the supposed deadline of late June.

This haemorrhaging of troops exposed two central flaws in the planning. The lack of generally accepted authority, not uncommon on crusade, was compounded by the leadership’s decision to keep their strategy a secret, at least from many recruits outside the orbit of the inner circle. If the expedition had been bound for Acre, the Fourth Crusade could have followed the Third and anticipated the Fifth in seeing waves of autonomous armies reaching the Holy Land over a number of sailing seasons or passages. However, many crusaders not only felt no obligation to honour the Venice treaty but, perhaps like the Flemish fleet that embarked in the summer of 1202, had little idea that the target was Egypt, still less what the timing and tactics were to be. They followed precedent and expectation in heading for Palestine. Despite Villehardouin’s blaming them for the subsequent problems encountered by the main crusade army, it is hard to see they were in any way at fault. Responsibility for the prospect of the terms of the Treaty of Venice coming unstuck, and with it the whole elaborate and possibly over-prescriptive crusade plan, lay squarely with those who had agreed to it in the first place. They now had to cope with the consequences.


16. Europe and the Near East in the Thirteenth Century

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