Post-classical history


The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, 1204

On January 8, 1198, Lotario de Conti di Segni was elected Pope Innocent III. At thirty-seven years old he was one of the youngest men ever to hold the title; during his dynamic pontificate (1198–1216) crusading reached new levels of intensity and diversity, both in theory and in practice: the enemies of the Church—inside and outside Christendom—were identified, challenged, and, in some cases, defeated. Innocent was convinced that the faithful could overcome the loss of Jerusalem and the failure of the Third Crusade. He believed passionately that God had called the crusades and that it was the duty of all Christians, not just the warrior classes, to support the true cause. Yet for the crusades to succeed, people had to win divine favor and to do this required a society purified from sin. This ambitious agenda often brought him into conflict with secular powers and, at times, Innocent’s desire far overreached his means but he, of all popes, had a clear aim in mind: “to eliminate from the Holy Land the filth of the pagans.”1

Innocent’s pontificate saw crusading unleashed in new directions: against heretics in southern France (the Albigensian Crusade), against political opponents of the papacy in southern Italy, and, more by accident than design, against the Christian Byzantine Empire, an event that culminated in the horrific sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade. He also encouraged crusading in northeastern Europe and Spain, as well as the Holy Land. So great was contemporary enthusiasm for holy war that one of the most legendary episodes of the medieval age, the Children’s Crusade— a mass migration of the young intent upon reclaiming Jerusalem—also took place during his pontificate.


Events in Rome during May 1212 reveal Innocent’s way of thinking and provide a truly startling demonstration of his understanding of a Christian society working through God to defeat His enemies—on this occasion in Spain.2 The struggle against the Iberian Muslims was at a critical point and the pope knew that King Alfonso VIII of Castile planned to fight a major battle in southern Spain the week after Pentecost on May 20. By way of securing divine favor for the Christians, Innocent decided to stage an enormous procession in Rome.

Records show that Innocent ordered the entire population of Rome—probably about fifty thousand people—to gather on May 16: men, women, and the male clergy were instructed to assemble at three churches. Mass was sung and the processions set out. Each party marched behind a particular cross; nuns led the secular women, the men were led by Hospitaller brothers, and the clergy headed by monks. No one was permitted to wear gold, jewelry, or silk; everyone was to walk barefoot, to pray and to repent of their own sins and the sins of man, and to ask for salvation. As thousands of voices rose and fell in prayer and lamentation it must have created an amazing ebb and flow of sound. The three processions snaked their way through the streets of Rome and channeled their spiritual energy toward the heavens; eventually they reached the open space in front of the Lateran Church where all fell silent. Meanwhile the pope, the bishops, and the cardinals emerged from the chapel of the Sancta Sanctorum bearing a relic of the True Cross and then joined the waiting crowd in the Lateran square. Innocent preached a sermon that almost certainly emphasized Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and explained how a crusader would follow Christ and serve and repay Him through his efforts on earth. The assembly then divided. The women went to the Church of Santa Croce where they heard Mass and a prayer for God’s intercession on behalf of his warriors in Spain, after which they dispersed. The men entered the Lateran Church, still in their subgroups of clergy and laymen, where Innocent presided over Mass; next they went to Santa Croce where the intercessory prayer was said to end the proceedings. Once home, unless sick, everyone was to fast on bread and water. While we can presume that children, the aged, and the infirm did not participate, and that some individuals must have chosen not to join in, the likelihood was that the majority of Rome’s inhabitants were involved. For Innocent even to conceive of the idea of directing an entire city to pray for a conflict taking place hundreds of miles away (and one with no direct Roman interest in it) shows the spectacular breadth of his vision of Christian brotherhood. Praying for crusaders overseas was not an innovation, but this rigidly prescribed focus by one city was indeed a novelty. No realistic parallel can be drawn in the western world today; maybe a major state funeral will interest large parts of a capital’s population or perhaps protests against a particular event, such as kidnappings in South America, have a similar effect, but the idea of trying to compel an entire city to gather for a higher cause is outside of our experience.

The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa did not take place until July 1212, but—crucially for Innocent’s way of thinking—the Christians prevailed. The triumphant pope read Alfonso’s letter to the people of Rome and the victory, self-evidently, was proof that the procession had influenced the result. Thus, if people’s spirituality was directed correctly—and that meant the prayers of the entire community—then God would favor them.


At the start of Innocent’s pontificate, the chances of a successful campaign appeared less propitious. A crusade to the Holy Land directed by Henry VI of Germany had promised much but after his advance forces recaptured Beirut and Sidon, the emperor’s death in 1197 (before he set out in person) brought the enterprise to a close.3 The Holy Land remained in Muslim hands, therefore. In Iberia, Christian forces had been smashed at the Battle of Alarcos (1195) and the six rival rulers of the kingdoms of Spain continued their long-running feuds. Around the same time, a smaller, but no less significant, struggle took place in southern Italy, and its proximity to the papal lands spurred Innocent into a rapid—and, in the long term, highly significant—extension of the concept of crusading.4

On the death of Henry VI, a dispute arose over possession of his southern Italian and Sicilian lands. Henry’s marshal, Markward of Anweiler, wished to be regent for the child heir, Frederick (later Emperor Frederick II), and possibly planned to rule in his own right. Markward allied with Philip of Swabia, another claimant to the German throne, and together they threatened to squeeze the papal lands in central Italy into oblivion. Markward’s brutal military campaigns made strong progress and the pope became so desperate that he contemplated unleashing the ultimate weapon in his spiritual armory: the crusade. In March 1199 Innocent claimed, rather tendentiously, that Markward impeded the planning of the new campaign to the Holy Land and he threatened holy war against the German.

By the autumn of 1199 Markward—perhaps foolishly—had made an alliance with Muslim groups in Sicily, and in November the pope responded to this by offering people who fought his German enemy the same indulgence as those who went to the Holy Land. He wrote: “He [Markward] has called on their [Saracens] help against the Christians . . . and so as to stimulate their spirits more keenly . . . he has spattered their jaws with Christian blood and exposed Christian women to the violence of their desire. . . . Who would not rise up against him who rises against all and joins the enemies of the Cross so that he might empty the faith of the Cross and, having become a worse infidel than the Infidels, struggles to conquer the faithful?”5

Markward’s treaty with the Muslims gave Innocent an obvious reason to initiate a crusade; primarily, however, it was the danger posed to papal lands that pushed him to act. In doing so, Innocent gave life to the idea that political opponents of the Church were appropriate targets for a holy war, a concept that—ironically—in future would find its greatest expression in the conflict with Innocent’s young ward, Frederick. There is little evidence that the localized crusade against Markward ever really blossomed. The pope used the French nobleman Walter of Brienne, from a proud crusading dynasty in the county of Champagne, to try to protect his interests. Walter duly raised an army and between 1201 and 1203 he managed to hold off the German until the latter’s death as a result of surgery for kidney stones. The contemporary Gesta Innocenti reported that at one battle Walter “received the blessing and indulgence from the papal legate . . . [and that] a shining golden cross was seen carried miraculously before the count”.6 The indulgence hints at a crusading ethos, while the reference to a golden cross certainly indicates a belief in divine favor. Walter himself succumbed to wounds suffered in a battle in 1205 but his family’s service would not go unnoticed. Four years later, the French crown and the nobility of Jerusalem, with Innocent’s blessing, chose his younger brother, John of Brienne, to marry the heiress to Jerusalem and to take the crown of the holy city.


While these events were of considerable concern to Pope Innocent, they were of secondary importance compared to his efforts to regain the Holy Land. The limited progress of the Third Crusade and the German Crusade of 1196–97 meant it would require another major expedition to take back Jerusalem.7 Within months of his accession as pope, Innocent issued a new crusade appeal, Post miserabile. Its compelling language exhorted the faithful to act and it railed against the destructive infighting that so crippled the response of the rulers of England, France, and Germany:

Following the pitiable collapse of the territory of Jerusalem, following the lamentable massacre of the Christian people, following the deplorable invasion of that land on which the feet of Christ stood and where God, our king, had deigned before the beginning of time, to work out salvation in the midst of the earth, following the ignominious alienation from our possession of the vivifying Cross . . . the Apostolic See, alarmed over the ill fortune of such calamity, grieved. It cried out and wailed to such a degree that due to incessant crying out, its throat was made hoarse, and from incessant weeping its eyes almost failed. . . . Still the Apostolic See cries out, and like a trumpet it raises its voice, eager to arouse the Christian peoples to fight Christ’s battle and to avenge the injury done to the Crucified One.8

To shame his audience into action Innocent even pretended to quote a Muslim who mocked the Christians’ failures. The pope also criticized the arrogance of earlier crusaders (presumably a reference to the dissent between Richard and Philip during the Third Crusade) and urged new recruits to set out in the correct frame of mind, unclouded by vanity and greed.

Innocent dispatched preachers to France, England, Hungary, and Sicily, although he ignored Spain, where the reconquest continued, and Germany because it was torn apart by civil war. The death of Richard the Lionheart in April 1199 and tensions over Philip’s marital status prevented two obvious candidates from taking the cross, but in November 1199 the elite knighthood of northern France assembled for a tournament at Écry-sur-Aisne, just north of the city of Rheims, in the county of Champagne. There is a paradox here because during the twelfth century the Church consistently censured tournaments as events that promoted the sins of pride, envy, and murder. In contrast, the contemporary nobility were—with no exaggeration—addicted to the thrill and opportunity of such occasions. They were the perfect platform on which to gain status and, more pertinently, to train for war. The massed charges by teams of up to two hundred knights, in an arena that ranged across several miles, was the closest possible replica of real warfare. The idea of a tournament was to capture and ransom opponents, rather than to kill them, but deaths were not uncommon. After such competitions the nobles gathered to feast, dance, and listen to stories and songs—particularly epics that told of the heroes of the First Crusade such as the Chanson d’Antioche. This was, Church disapproval aside, the ideal environment in which to nurture crusading enthusiasm and it is no coincidence that the two comital houses with the greatest crusading traditions, the counts of Flanders and Champagne, were ardent tournament-goers.9

Count Thibaut of Champagne and Count Louis of Blois both had splendid crusading lineages. Thibaut’s father had ruled Jerusalem from 1192 until 1197 when his dwarfish entertainer toppled from a balcony and pulled him to his death. At twenty-eight years old Louis was already a veteran of the Third Crusade, a campaign that had seen his father’s death at the siege of Acre. Once these men took the cross several other important nobles followed suit, including Geoffrey of Villehardouin, a senior figure on the expedition and the author of a memoir of his experiences.10 (Rather than the Latin texts composed by clerical writers that so dominated accounts of crusading during the twelfth century, the growth of vernacular literacy among laymen meant that accounts of the sort Villehardouin wrote became more common.) Simon de Montfort, a noble from the Île-de-France, was another to join the crusade at Écry, and within a couple of months Count Baldwin of Flanders also committed himself to the expedition. Thus it was the nobility of northern France who came to form the nucleus of the Fourth Crusade.11

In the spring of 1200 they gathered at Soissons and started to plan their campaign. Here they made a decision that, unforeseen by them, was to have the most profound consequences for the direction of their expedition and, ultimately, for the history of Christendom itself. The crusaders resolved to sail to the Levant and, given that Pisa and Genoa were at war, they approached the other maritime experts of the day, the Venetians. Pope Innocent had already sent a legate to the city to petition their involvement so this linkup dovetailed with papal thinking anyway.

In March 1201 a specially deputed group of crusaders arrived in Venice to arrange the terms of passage. There they encountered one of the most amazing figures in medieval history: Doge Enrico Dandolo, a man already over ninety years of age and who, for at least the previous two decades, had been blind.12 In spite of his handicap Dandolo was an individual of enormous energy and drive whose behavior on the campaign would attract strong praise and sharp criticism alike. Bishop Gunther of Pairis (a Cistercian monastery in Alsace) described him thus: “He was, to be sure, sightless of eye, but most perceptive of mind and compensated for physical blindness with a lively intellect and, best of all, foresight. In the case of matters that were unclear, the others always took every care to seek his advice and they usually followed his lead in public affairs.”13 To Pope Innocent, however, he behaved in an outrageous fashion that did nothing but cause the crusaders to fight Christians rather than Muslims. Dandolo had governed Venice since 1192 and was clearly a hugely experienced and able politician. After a few days’ consideration the Venetians made their response to the crusaders’ request:

We will build horse transports to carry 4,500 horses and 9,000 squires with 4,500 knights and 20,000 foot sergeants travelling in ships. And we will agree to provide food for all these horses and people for nine months. This is the minimum we will provide in return for a payment of four marks per horse and two marks per man. All the terms we are offering you would be valid for one year from the day of our departure from the port of Venice, to do service to God and Christendom, wherever that might take us. The total cost of what has just been outlined would amount to 85,000 marks.14 And what’s more, we will provide, for the love of God, fifty armed galleys, on condition that for as long as our association lasts we will have one half of everything we capture on land or at sea, and you will have the other. Now you should consider whether you have the will and the means to go ahead.15

The envoys duly agreed to these terms, but the doge still needed the approval of the people of Venice. Such was the scale of this undertaking that it would require the city to suspend its entire commercial operations for a year to fulfill the treaty—a breathtaking and unprecedented commitment. At a meeting held in the mosaic-covered splendor of Saint Mark’s Cathedral, Villehardouin himself addressed the congregation.16 He implored the Venetians, as the greatest seafaring power of the time, to act to help recover Christ’s land. He sought to harness their civic pride and their commercial aspirations to the intrinsic religiosity of the age. Of all the Italian communities, the Venetians are frequently imagined as money-grabbing mercenaries, devoid of the spirituality of many of the other crusaders.17 In large part, the outcome of the Fourth Crusade is to blame for this, but as we will see, their behavior does not entirely merit such opprobrium. They had already taken part in the First Crusade and the 1124 crusade that captured Tyre; on both occasions they eagerly sought relics, just as the other crusaders had. The numerous churches in Venice bear obvious testimony to their conventional, and deep-seated, spiritual values. As Villehardouin reached the climax of his speech, he fell to his knees and cried out to the congregation for help. The doge and crowd responded with cries of “We agree! We agree!” and with “this great outpouring of piety,” as Villehardouin described it, the pact was sealed and the Venetians had joined the crusade.18

The execution of these terms came to exert an unyielding and pervasive influence on the outcome of the Fourth Crusade, far beyond anything that could have been calculated or forecast. The costs per individual were broadly in line with what the Genoese had charged King Philip during the Third Crusade, but it was the sheer scale of the project that proved the devastating structural flaw which drew the expedition to its terrible conclusion. The numbers promised were massive, particularly given the absence of a major monarch to pull troops along with him. By way of comparison, Frederick Barbarossa had led twelve thousand to fifteen thousand men on the Third Crusade, while the money required to pay the Venetians amounted to twice the annual income of the English or French crowns.19 Yet Villehardouin and his colleagues were highly experienced nobles, many of whom had taken part in the Third Crusade; how could they have been so mistaken? Either they must have been confident in promises from people in northern France who planned to take part in the crusade, or else they were breathtakingly—and criminally—optimistic.

One further dimension to the campaign was a secret agreement between the leadership and the doge to begin the crusade with an assault on Egypt, rather than the Holy Land; the intention was to use the former as a staging post en route to Jerusalem.20 Sound strategy and considerable financial advantages lay behind such a plan. As we saw earlier, King Amalric of Jerusalem had made several attempts to conquer Egypt, the Sicilians attacked Alexandria in 1174, and Richard the Lionheart had favored an invasion of the Nile as a prelude to an approach on Jerusalem in 1191. The immense resources of Egypt offered unparalleled opportunities to the Christian military, while control of the coastline would all but guarantee Frankish security at sea. If Egypt came under Frankish power, then the Muslim world—which, since Saladin’s death in 1193, was in a highly fragmented condition anyway—would certainly struggle to recover. The existence of an ongoing truce between the kingdom of Jerusalem and Muslim Syria was a further reason to begin the campaign on the Nile because this arrangement excluded Egypt.

For the Venetians, the chance to become the preeminent trading city in Alexandria was impossible to resist. The city was by far the greatest commercial center in the Mediterranean, yet by the year 1200 Dandolo’s people conducted only 10 percent of their trade there: by contrast, the Pisans and the Genoese held a much stronger position. The pope frowned upon dealings with the Muslims, especially in materials of war such as iron and timber, but in the run-up to the crusade Innocent was flexible enough not to alienate the Venetians and he condoned trade in nonmilitary goods. Dandolo himself had visited Egypt in the 1170s so he was well aware of this tremendous opportunity. If the crusade succeeded, then it would bring the most phenomenal wealth to Venice and, of course, be the crowning achievement of Dandolo’s time as doge. The fact that it might then lead to the recovery of Jerusalem itself would only add further luster to his triumph.

It must be said that this was a hugely ambitious scheme—previous campaigns had seen pretty limited Christian progress in Egypt, although the plan to deliver a large force by sea marked an advance on previous strategy. The decision to take 4,500 horses required the construction of dozens of special galleys, each equipped with slings to carry the beasts, as well as low-level doors that, on landing, could be opened to allow mounted knights to pour straight out of the ship and into battle. In other words, these vessels were a form of medieval landing craft and disgorged, in the form of a charging crusader, the equivalent of an armored car. The Venetians had fifty of their own battle galleys, headed by the vermilion-painted ship of the doge, along with around sixty to seventy large sailing boats that each carried up to six hundred passengers and a hundred crew. In total it would need about thirty thousand Venetians to man the whole fleet—possibly half the adult population and another indication of the scale of the city’s commitment.

The envoys made a down payment of 5,000 silver marks so the work could start immediately and then headed back to France, eager to announce the agreement. By the time they arrived home, however, the crusade had been dealt a heavy blow because the charismatic young Thibaut of Champagne had fallen ill and died on May 24, 1201. The death of this immensely popular figure provoked genuine distress in the region: “no man of his era was loved more by his vassals and by others,” as Villehardouin wrote.21 He could have been an inspirational and unifying figure to the crusaders and his presence might well have drawn many more to take the cross. The epitaph on his richly decorated tomb in Troyes (sadly, no longer extant) revealed his loss as a potential crusader, as well as showing a belief that he would attain the heavenly Jerusalem:

Intent upon making amends for the injuries of the Cross and the land of the Crucified
He arranged the way with expenses, an army, a navy.
Seeking the terrestrial city, he finds the celestial one;
While he is obtaining his goal far distant, he finds it at home.

Thibaut’s passing meant that the crusade needed a new leader, a man of comparable authority and connections. The nobles decided to contact someone from outside France—perhaps a move designed to broaden the crusade’s appeal—and approached Boniface, marquis of Montferrat. We have already met his brothers, namely William Longsword, briefly the husband of Sibylla of Jerusalem and father of Baldwin V; and Conrad, the man chosen to rule Jerusalem but murdered (probably) by the Assassins in 1192. Boniface could boast, therefore, a formidable crusading ancestry. The Montferrat clan also had a history of involvement with Byzantium because another brother, Renier, had married into the imperial family in 1179, although three years later he was poisoned by the usurping Angeloi dynasty. Conrad himself had served as the commander of the imperial army later in the decade before political intrigue forced him to flee for his life in the summer of 1187. Given this history, plus family ties to the ruling houses of France and Germany, coupled with his long experience of war and diplomacy (he was in his mid-forties), Boniface was a genuinely astute choice. The marquis traveled up to Soissons and there, in late August, he formally took the cross.23

For the remainder of 1201 and into early 1202 preaching and preparations for the crusade gathered pace. The most intriguing—and potentially sinister—development took place at Christmas 1201 at the court of Philip of Swabia, king of Germany, in Hagenau. Boniface was visiting his relative when the king’s brother-in-law, Prince Alexius of Byzantium, arrived to seek help. This meeting has aroused considerable suspicion over the years: some have seen it as the foundation stone of an alleged agreement with Boniface that eventually led to the sack of Constantinople. A few years earlier, the prince’s father, Isaac Angelos, had been the victim of a coup led by his brother who now ruled Byzantium as Alexius III. Isaac was blinded and, along with his son, Prince Alexius, cast into prison. The young prince managed to escape and now he haunted the courts of Europe trying to persuade relatives to restore him and his father to their rightful position. While his pleas had some emotional leverage, the fact that the Angeloi family themselves had brutally removed the previous dynasty and that Isaac had allied with Saladin counted against his cause. In any case, the way events on the crusade developed was so unexpected and, in several cases, so far outside of the prince’s control that the idea of a plot hatched at Hagenau is not sustainable. Prince Alexius also visited Innocent, but the pope showed little interest in the case.24


During the late spring of 1202 the northern French crusaders set out on their great campaign. As they headed southward many traveled via the mighty waterways of the Seine and Saône, before they crossed the Alps and moved into northern Italy to assemble at Venice. Here, during the long, hot summer, the catastrophic miscalculation of the previous year’s treaty became apparent. Contingents of crusaders arrived in small groups: every so often the appearance of a senior noble would boost morale, but in essence only a fraction of the huge numbers of men promised actually gathered. Those waiting were stuck out on the Lido, an island seven miles from the main city, prudently housed there by the Venetians to ensure they could not cause any trouble. By August, only about twelve thousand of the stipulated 33,500 men had turned up. Dandolo began to fear the whole plan would collapse and all the sacrifices that he had induced the Venetians to make would be in vain. He appealed to the crusaders: “Lords, you have used us ill, for as soon as your messengers made the bargain with me I commanded through all my land that no trader should go trading, but that all should help prepare this navy. So they have waited ever since and have not made any money for a year and a half past. Instead, they have lost a great deal, and therefore . . . you should pay us the money you owe us. And if you do not do so, then know that you shall not depart from this island before we are paid, nor shall you find anyone to bring you anything to eat or to drink.”25 In desperation the leadership pooled their resources but still fell 34,000 marks short of the 85,000 owed to their hosts. Both parties here faced a deeply uncomfortable dilemma: the crusaders were aware they had made a contractual obligation and that any failure to fulfill it would entail a substantial loss of face. They might have to return home, ridiculed as the men who had reneged on their vows—in such a status-conscious society this was practically unthinkable. On Dandolo’s part, he had persuaded his people to make this huge effort and now it seemed as if it had been a terrible mistake. Not only would this ruin his own standing as doge but it would catastrophically compromise Venice’s finances. It would be an error, however, to view Dandolo as nothing other than a ruthless commercial operator. While the well-being of Venice was—rightly, given his role as doge—central to his actions, he had also chosen to become a crusader. His own father, grandfather, and uncle had taken part in the crusade of 1122–24: in the same way that the French were proud of their crusading ancestry, so was the Venetian.26 His age and blindness were, of course, immense barriers to his participation; at a ceremony in Saint Mark’s he cried out: “I am an old man, weak and in need of rest, and my health is failing,” yet he pleaded to be allowed to take the cross and “protect and guide” his people; the congregation bellowed their support: “We beg you in God’s name to take the cross,” and thus Dandolo bound himself even closer to the cause of the crusade.27

Religious sentiment aside, he needed to find a way forward for all concerned, and here we can see his ability to accommodate the seemingly contradictory demands of holy war and his place as ruler of Venice. By now it was September, and as the autumn weather drew in the chances of a safe journey to Egypt receded. Given the need to make good some of the Venetians’ losses, and the presence of a large morally and financially indebted military force, he proposed an assault on the Croatian city of Zara, 165 miles to the southeast. The Zarans had been former subjects of Venice but had broken free from its overlordship—this represented an ideal opportunity for Dandolo to regain control. There were, however, two serious catches to this scheme: the Zarans were Christians and their present overlord, King Bela III of Hungary, was a crusader. In theory, therefore, his lands were under the protection of the Church and should not be attacked—let alone by another crusading force. Aware of the acutely controversial nature of such a plan, the expedition’s leadership chose not to make an official announcement to the troops and simply gave the order to depart.


In October 1202 the Fourth Crusade set sail from Venice. After months of procrastination and disappointment the relief of finally starting their journey invigorated everyone. The fleet of almost two hundred vessels made a magnificent sight, at the head of the flotilla the winged-lion banner of Saint Mark fluttered and snapped above the vermilion galley of Doge Dandolo. The French crusaders hung their own brightly colored shields from the sides of their boats and everyone sang hymns to invoke divine blessing for their campaign. The eyewitness Robert of Clari was moved to describe the spectacle as “the finest thing to see that has ever been since the beginning of the world.”28

By this time, however, Pope Innocent had learned of the crusaders’ plan to go to Zara and he told his legate, Peter of Capuano, to forbid the assault and to threaten them with excommunication if they disobeyed. This was a major weapon in the Church’s spiritual armory—complete withdrawal from the community of Christians, including all church services and the sacraments; in other words, certain damnation. Yet Peter, who was with the army and could fully appreciate the crusaders’ terrible dilemma, chose not to prevent the fleet sailing to Zara and thereby gave a tacit endorsement of the plan: for him, of paramount importance was the need for the crusade to get going.

Within the ranks of the crusaders themselves, however, there was a huge split. One group of nobles, led by Simon de Montfort, opposed the diversion to Zara and strove to frustrate Dandolo’s scheme. He told the Zarans that none of the French crusaders would attack them and encouraged the defenders to turn down Venetian attempts to negotiate a surrender. The doge was disgusted by the actions of his French colleagues: “You made an agreement with me to help me capture it and now I call on you to do so.”29 From Simon’s perspective the decision to turn the crusade against his coreligionists—whatever the justification—was utterly unacceptable: “I have not come here to destroy Christians,” was his crisp assessment.30 Abbot Guy of les Vaux-de-Cernay, a churchman from Simon’s contingent, obtained a copy of the pope’s letter and read it out to the assembled nobles. At news of Innocent’s disapproval, a physical struggle ensued and Simon had to intervene to stop the doge’s men murdering the abbot. After such an open confrontation it was inevitable that the count would withdraw from the attack. On November 13, 1202, the siege of Zara began in earnest. The Venetian and French crusaders began to set up towers, catapults, and, most threateningly of all, mines. As the siege machinery bombarded the defenses the tunneling advanced well; the creation of such a lethal attacking device usually meant the end of any resistance and once the Zarans learned of its construction they agreed to terms of surrender.

By the end of 1202 the crusade was at least underway. Some progress had been made toward paying off the Venetians, although to Innocent, the price of this was, in moral terms, far too high. He wrote to the crusaders at Zara in excoriating terms: “Behold, your gold has turned into base metal and your silver has almost completely rusted since, departing from the purity of your plan and turning aside from the path onto the impassable road . . . you should have hastened to the land flowing with milk and honey, you turned away, going astray in the direction of the desert.” He could not see how God would favor men who had behaved in such a fashion. To Innocent it was the Venetians who were to blame and he accused the crusaders of paying the Devil the first fruits of their pilgrimage and falling in among thieves (that is, the Venetians). He pronounced a sentence of excommunication against the crusaders as a punishment for their actions.31 Given the spiritually catastrophic consequences of such a decree many crusaders were deeply worried and a group of fearful churchmen made their way to the pope to beg for absolution. Innocent listened to their pleas and promised to consider the matter.32 The episode at Zara was a harsh lesson in just how limited papal control over crusading actually was. Firstly, Innocent’s own legate had ignored his orders, and then the bulk of the main army went completely against a clear directive. While the pope’s power to call a crusade and to care for souls was unchallenged, the practicalities of an ongoing military expedition relied on consent to ecclesiastical authority for any of the further levers to have an impact. The French crusaders’ contractual failure, coupled with the Venetians’ threat to withdraw their shipping, meant that it was pragmatism—wrapped up in an argument about being able to carry on the crusade in the first instance—that won the day. For a man such as Pope Innocent, whose belief in the power and sanctity of his office was absolute, this was an infuriating and horrifying development.

The crusaders spent the winter of 1202 encamped outside Zara. Just before the end of the year envoys arrived representing Prince Alexius. They made a carefully pitched proposal, artfully designed to appeal to the needs and interests of all involved in the crusade:

Since you have left home in the cause of God, right and justice, you should, if you are able, restore their inheritance to those who have been wrongly dispossessed. . . . If God permits you to restore Alexius to his inheritance, he will place the entire empire of Byzantium in obedience to Rome, from which it has formerly been cut off. Secondly, he understands that you have spent your own money and are now poor. Therefore, he will give you 200,000 marks of silver and provisions for the whole army, both the great men and the lesser. He will also go with you in person to the land of Egypt, accompanied by 10,000 men (or he will send them at his expense if you think that would be better). He will provide you with such service for one year. And throughout his life he will maintain 500 knights in the land overseas, supported with his own money.33

This brilliant piece of diplomacy seemed to offer advantages to everyone. For Innocent there was a prospect of the submission of the Greek Orthodox Church, something that popes had desired for centuries. The deal also enabled the crusade to continue—an obvious attraction to the pope and also, of course, to the expedition’s leaders. The problem of the debt to the Venetians would disappear and the Christians’ military resources would be dramatically enhanced. The shortfall of men at Venice would be canceled out and the prospect of a garrison force in the Levant answered another long-running need of the Latin East. The catch was, that in return for this, Prince Alexius wanted to be restored to the throne of Constantinople, something that might require the crusaders to fight their way into the city and install him by force.

Once again, the prospect of attacking a Christian city provoked huge controversy among the crusaders. The fact that Prince Alexius’s father had been illicitly dispossessed of his throne was, as the Byzantine envoys observed, an important point because the notion of regaining land wrongfully taken was a central element in the concept of crusading. Yet many in the rank and file experienced deep disquiet. Some felt that Dandolo’s enthusiasm for the plan was driven by financial motives and a desire to avenge the arrest and ill-treatment of Venetians in Constantinople in 1171. By the early thirteenth century, however, relations between the two powers were mended and due recompense had been made; this was not really, therefore, a relevant issue.34 The northern French crusaders, such as Baldwin of Flanders and Villehardouin, were determined to push through the plan and they tried hard to persuade their colleagues to consent. Given his earlier opposition to the siege of Zara it was inevitable that Simon de Montfort should dissent and he chose this moment to leave the main expedition and take his knights directly to the Holy Land. This did not deter the other nobles and they summoned the prince’s envoys to the doge’s quarters in Zara where they swore to the agreement.35 From this moment onward the crusade was heading for Constantinople.

Pope Innocent had released the French crusaders from the vow of ex communication on condition they perform penance for their sins, but the Venetians showed no contrition and therefore remained outside the Church. Innocent required an oath from the crusaders that they would behave correctly in the future, although the phrasing of his pronouncement created an ambiguity. The men would: “neither invade nor violate the lands of Christians in any manner, unless, perchance, they wickedly impede your journey or another just or necessary cause should, perhaps, arise, on account of which you would be empowered to act otherwise.”36 Intentionally or not, the clause “just or necessary cause” gave the crusaders a loophole to justify their future actions and for some—probably incorrectly—to infer papal support for their decisions.


The expedition left Zara in late April and sailed down the Adriatic to Corfu where it was joined by Prince Alexius. After a few weeks the crusaders gathered themselves together and set sail for Constantinople on May 24, 1203. While many thousands of crusaders and merchants had seen Constantinople over the years, little could prepare the newcomers for its size and splendor. With a population of around 350,000 it was far in excess of anything in the West—Paris, Rome, and the Italian trading cities reached perhaps the fifty to sixty thousand mark. The three and a half miles of land defenses, fully double-walled and with a moat, were the greatest urban fortifications in Christendom; the rest of the city was guarded by the smaller sea walls while a chain protected the entrance to the inlet of the Golden Horn. Close to the waterfront lay the magnificent Bucoleon Palace, while behind it lay the massive bulk of the Hagia Sophia, arguably the greatest church in the world. Villehardouin noted some of the crusaders’ reactions:

Now you can be assured that those who had never seen Constantinople before gazed at it for a long time, barely believing that there was such a great city in all the world. They saw its high walls and mighty towers, with which the city was completely encircled, as well as the fine palaces and impressive churches, of which there were so many that none could believe it if he did not see it with his own eyes, and they could be seen the length and breadth of the city which is the sovereign of all others. Know that there was no man there so bold that his flesh did not tremble, which should come as no surprise for never was such a great project undertaken by as many men since the creation of the world.37

Only now did they realize the immensity of the challenge that lay ahead of them if Prince Alexius was not accepted back by his people. The crusaders made camp in the area of Scutari on what we now call the Asian side of the city. In early July a group of boats set out to parade Prince Alexius before the sea walls. The prince and his allies anticipated a tumultuous acclaim and the start of a peaceful and easy entry to the city: “Behold your natural lord,” they called out.38 Yet as the crusaders’ boats bobbed offshore, most of Constantinople remained utterly indifferent except a few who hurled abuse and taunts at the young man. Such a reception shattered the prince’s assurances that he would be welcomed by a grateful crowd, relieved to have respite from the cruel tyrant Alexius III. The emperor exploited over a century of tension between the Byzantines and the crusaders to encourage the idea that the prince and his western allies intended to deprive the Greeks of their liberty and to subjugate them to the pope. The fact that Prince Alexius had never governed Constantinople, plus his youth and his recent lengthy absence from the city, were further reasons why he lacked a natural groundswell of support. The crusaders ushered their chastened ally away and despondently turned back for camp.

Their first point of attack was to be the suburb of Galata on the northern bank of the Golden Horn. The army divided into seven divisions according to regional identity, a move intended to preserve the coordination and discipline so vital in winning battles. On the night of July 3, 1203, the crusaders prayed for victory as they prepared to make the largest amphibious landing yet attempted in the medieval West. The fleet moved across the Bosporus and as the boats drew close to the shore, archers and crossbowmen sent a hail of fire toward the Greeks. Once the ships touched the shallows the horse transports opened their doors and disgorged the mounted knights, who surged ashore. Troops had gathered to resist the landing, but rather than confront the crusaders at this most vulnerable time they simply retreated.39

The following day brought more success for the westerners with the capture of the Galata Tower, the main defensive structure of the area and, more importantly, the breaking of the chain across the Golden Horn, which gave the Venetian fleet clear access to the Greek navy, a decrepit force that had been neglected for decades by successive emperors; it was duly routed.40 Control over the Golden Horn also provided safe harbor for the Venetian vessels, and the presence of their ships bobbing just opposite the city walls brought home to the Greeks the menace posed by the crusaders.

The attackers debated their next move. The Venetians chose to launch an assault from scaling ladders on the ships; the French preferred to fight on land. They repaired a bridge over the Golden Horn (again with a curious lack of opposition from Alexius III), and set up a fortified camp on the northern edge of the city. Given the size of Constantinople a blockade was unrealistic, and when Alexius III finally began to order sallies and raids the crusaders started to run low on food. By mid-July they had only three weeks’ supplies left and their momentum looked fatally stalled. In desperation, on July 17, they launched a twin-pronged assault. The Venetians sent a hail of arrows and stones toward the walls while a small group pounded at the fortifications with a battering ram. In one memorable incident the aged Doge Dandolo showed unparalleled courage and leadership qualities.41 Angered by the failure of his people to engage closely with the Greeks, he commanded the crew of his galley to pull ahead of the others. With the banner of Saint Mark fluttering close by, the blind old man stood proudly at the prow of his ship. When the boat grounded he ordered himself carried ashore and, as he had hoped, once his men saw that their commander’s banner had landed, they hastened forward, fearful of being shamed by his example. The intensity of this thrust terrified the defenders and a crucial first bridgehead was gained. Alexius III dispatched a contingent of the feared Varangian guard to stem the Venetians’ advance, and while these Russian and Scandinavian mercenaries managed to halt the attack, the Italians responded by starting a fire. Fanned by a strong westerly wind the flames soon consumed about 120 acres of the eastern side of the city—another serious blow to the inhabitants.

The trauma of seeing dense clouds of black smoke billowing over Constantinople belatedly prompted Alexius III to act, and he led out the bulk of his army to confront the crusaders in front of the great Theodosian walls on the northeastern edge of the city. The westerners were terrified by the immensity of the Byzantine forces. While precise figures for the Greek army are unknown—it must have been many thousands—the crusaders (excluding the Venetians) by now numbered around five hundred knights, five hundred other mounted men, and around two thousand foot soldiers. Back at their camp the cooks and stable lads donned pots and horse blankets for protection, so great was their fear of being overwhelmed. As the Byzantines drew up, the crusaders advanced toward them in tight formation. Some of their leaders wanted to stop or retreat to camp, but others counseled them to hold their nerve and, in the face of seemingly hopeless odds, the westerners continued to move resolutely forward. A small waterway, the River Lycus, barred their way, yet Alexius III, far from choosing this moment to unleash a tidal wave of his own troops, decided to withdraw behind the city walls. The reasoning behind such a baffling move is almost impossible to fathom. Certainly the Greeks feared the impact of a crusader cavalry charge, but the Byzantines’ numerical advantage surely meant they could sustain a degree of loss. The crusaders were adamant that it was their martial vigor that had won the day and one of their leaders, Hugh of Saint-Pol, proudly reported: “When they saw that we were brave and steadfast and that we moved forward . . . in formation and that we could not be overrun or broken they rightly became terrified and confused. Retreating before us they dared not fight by day.”42 Villehardouin experienced an overwhelming sense of relief: “Know that God has never delivered any people from such great danger as He did the army that day. Know moreover that there was no man present so brave that he did not feel very glad about this.”43 The long-held stereotype of the effeminate and unwarlike Greek had been confirmed.

The blow to Byzantine morale was catastrophic. There was fury inside Constantinople and the eyewitness Niketas Choniates wrote that Alexius III “returned in utter disgrace, having only made the enemy more haughty and insolent.” Given their fast-expiring supplies of food, the emperor need only have contained the crusaders for a matter of days before they would have been obliged to leave or to sue for peace. Choniates was scathing about Alexius III’s 'font-size:10.0pt;font-family:"Times New Roman",serif;color:blue; position:relative;top:-3.0pt'>44

On the night of July 17 the emperor gathered as much money as he could find and fled Constantinople. The following morning senior Byzantine officials went to his predecessor, the sightless Isaac Angelos, and, in contravention of the customary practice of refusing to crown a blind man, offered him the imperial robes and insignia. They hoped the returnee ruler would influence his son, Prince Alexius, to call off his allies and they sent messengers to the crusaders’ camp seeking peace. As news of events overnight broke, a huge cheer erupted from the westerners; from the verge of defeat, God had granted them victory—and with relatively few casualties. Then, in due fulfillment of the agreement between Prince Alexius and the Crusaders, the youth was enthroned as co-emperor with his father.

Villehardouin led an embassy into the city for talks to confirm that Isaac would uphold his son’s promises. The envoys passed in front of the gathered Byzantine courtiers, attired in their customary splendor. Isaac was appalled when he learned the details of Alexius’s pact with the crusaders, but given the latter’s obvious ascendancy he could not resist. Villehardouin reported his reaction: “In truth, this agreement is a most burdensome one, and I do not see quite how it can be fulfilled. However, you have done both my son and myself such a service that if you had been granted the whole empire you would have well deserved it.”45 While Villehardouin may have massaged the moral worth of Isaac’s words, as well as hinting at some of what was to come, this assessment of the onerous nature of the deal was true enough.

The crusaders withdrew over the Golden Horn and camped in the Galata district of the city. They were well provided with food and most took the opportunity to visit the churches of Constantinople and to see the many magnificent collections of relics. This was also an ideal time for the crusaders to appreciate the Greeks’ true wealth and to learn exactly where their treasures were stored.

The westerners sent home a series of triumphant letters that carefully portrayed the merits of their actions and pointed out the advantages of their decision to go to Constantinople.46 Innocent remained highly antagonistic toward the doge, although several crusade leaders made a point of stressing his virtues and described a man “who is prudent, discreet and skilled in hard decision-making.”47 They also reminded Innocent of the immense advance in spiritual authority that had accrued to the papacy: “We carried on the business of Jesus Christ with His help, to the point that the Eastern Church (whose head is Constantinople), along with the emperor and his entire empire, reunited with its head, the Roman pontiff . . . acknowledges itself to be the daughter of the Roman Church.”48


In his coronation speech, Alexius IV clearly envisaged problems in fulfilling this promise: “we will prudently and with all our might, influence the Eastern Church towards the same end;” in other words, he was unable to guarantee the Orthodox clerics would follow his lead—a sign of his own weakness as much as anything else.49 Alexius IV also began to hand over the vast sums of money he owed the crusaders, although he was soon compelled to melt down precious icons and relics to pay his allies, a move that provokeddeep hostility from his own people. Choniates wrote of the subversion of the Byzantine state and “of revered vessels seized from churches with utter indifference and given over to the enemy troops as common silver and gold.”50

By the late summer of 1203 it was too late to invade Egypt, although that certainly remained the crusaders’ intention. Instead they decided to help Alexius IV and set out on a tour of the region designed to consolidate his authority and to raise money. As the young emperor acknowledged, “You should know then that the Greeks hate me on account of you. If you leave I will lose this land and they will put me to death.”51 Alexius also promised to supply the westerners with all necessary supplies and to help the Venetians prepare their fleet ready to embark in the spring of 1204.52

While Alexius IV and the leading French crusaders were away, tensions between the Greeks and the remaining westerners took a serious turn for the worse. A group of crusaders attacked a small mosque—probably built for Muslim traders during Isaac’s alliance with Saladin—near the shoreline of the Golden Horn. The occupants begged the locals for help and, only too pleased to turn against the hated invaders, many citizens rushed to join the fray. In response, as they had done during the first siege of Constantinople back in June, the crusaders started a fire, although this time the consequences were incomparably worse. The blaze lasted for three days and ripped through areas of wooden housing, turning more than four hundred acres of the city into a smoldering, charred wasteland. Understandably the Greeks were outraged at this vandalism of their precious city, and any westerners living in Constantinople—including several thousand traders based there—had to flee and take shelter in the crusaders’ camp at Galata.53

Isaac remained obliged to keep melting down precious objects to pay the westerners. In a play on his family name of Angelos, Choniates condemned him as “the incendiary angel of evil,” but by mid-November he stopped handing over any money and tensions grew. The return of Alexius IV and the northern French nobles brought even further trouble. The lack of cash infuriated the crusader leadership, but Alexius knew they could not set sail for Egypt at that time of year and that they relied on him for food. Violence and skirmishing grew ever more frequent and eventually both sides called for a formal summit.

The crusader delegation brought along the sealed documents that testified to the agreement between Alexius and themselves. They reminded him of his moral and financial duties but now added a threat: if he failed to comply, “you should know that from this time forward they [the crusaders] will not regard you as their lord or friend. Instead they will recover what is owed to them by whatever means necessary . . . they have never acted deceitfully and it would be against the custom of their country to do so.”54 This warning, combined with the slight on the Greek character, provoked outrage and the envoys barely escaped the palace alive. Alexius IV, of course, could neither deny the oath, nor, in a hall of his own people, favor the westerners.

Dandolo made one last attempt to recover the situation. He approached Alexius in person and urged him to remember what the crusaders had done for him, but the young man was so paralyzed by his own political weaknesses that he dismissed the doge with insults. Dandolo exploded with rage: “Wretched boy! We dragged you out of the filth and into the filth we will cast you again. And I defy you, and I give you warning that I will do you all the harm in my power from this moment forwards.”55 “And so the war began,” as Villehardouin succinctly observed.56

On the night of January 1, 1204, the Byzantines made their most confrontational move yet. They filled seventeen vessels with combustible materials and, with the wind behind them, dispatched this deadly, floating pyre toward the Venetian ships. If the Greek boats became enmeshed with those of the Italians, then the crusaders would be at the mercy of the Byzantine Empire. A watchman sounded the alarm and the doge ordered galleys to row out to the burning boats, throw grappling irons onto them, and pull them out into the channel. Against a backdrop of jeering locals the Venetians accomplished this task quite brilliantly and saved their ships.

Such an aggressive action only increased the likelihood of full-scale confrontation. A Byzantine noble known as Murtzuphlus (a nickname meaning “mono-eyebrow”) emerged to focus the opposition to the westerners. Anger toward Alexius IV and his increasingly feeble father, Isaac, reached a peak. “Like a boiling kettle to blow off a steam of abuse,” a mob barged into the Hagia Sophia and demanded that the senate and leading churchmen elect a new ruler.57 Candidate after candidate declined such a dangerous role until a young noble named Nicholas Kannavos was seized and, against his will, anointed emperor on January 27. Later that day a desperate Alexius IV turned to the crusaders for help but his invitation for them to enter the city proved the final act of provocation to his enemies. That night, Murtzuphlus arrested him and cast him into prison. Within hours the usurper was crowned emperor (with the formal title of Alexius V). Now there were four holders of the imperial title in Constantinople—a ridiculous situation for one of the greatest institutions in Christendom, and a sign of just how moribund the Byzantine Empire had become.

Within days Murtzuphlus killed Kannavos and Isaac: he also started to re-fortify the defenses of Constantinople and his energetic style inspired the imperial forces. Three Venetians were captured and Murtzuphlus commanded them to be suspended from hooks in front of the city walls before he personally set them alight in a gruesome demonstration of his personal hatred of westerners. Predictably, he withdrew food markets from the crusaders, which forced them to forage over considerable distances. Murtzuphlus planned to ambush one such raiding party but, disastrously for him, he lost not only the battle but also the great talisman of the Byzantine army, an icon of the Virgin, described as “a fellow general” by Choniates. To the crusader Robert of Clari this was inevitable because, as a usurper, the Greek “had no right to carry it and so was defeated.”58 Murtzuphlus foolishly tried to deny the loss to his people, and when the crusaders learned of this deception they cheerfully paraded the icon in front of the walls to humiliate their rival.

Last-ditch attempts at diplomacy failed and, as Choniates pithily noted, “Their inordinate hatred for us and our excessive disagreement with them allowed for no humane feeling between us.”59 Murtzuphlus still feared that the crusaders might join with Alexius IV, and so on February 8 he strangled the young man; a grim end to the life of an individual whose efforts to assume his personal inheritance had provoked consequences of such terrible magnitude. To the crusaders, the murder of Alexius IV provided a powerful justification for the removal of his killer. Now, camped outside an implacably hostile city hundreds of miles from home, denied food, and in no condition to continue to the Holy Land, their options were extremely limited. If they gave up it would be a cause of intolerable shame and criticism, and their justification for going to Constantinople in the first instance had become redundant. In these circumstances, they decided to assault the city and to remove the treacherous Murtzuphlus.60


Both sides prepared for war. The Venetian ships were equipped with, as Robert of Clari wrote, “marvellous engines.” They lashed together yardarms to form bridges about 110 feet long, suspended high on the mastheads and covered with hides to protect the attackers from missiles. These huge tubes would be brought up to the city walls to disgorge the crusader knights onto the battlements. Similar devices had been deployed the previous summer and, in an effort to counter them, Murtzuphlus ordered huge wooden towers to be constructed on top of the walls along the Golden Horn. These unwieldy creations, projecting perilously outward from the fortifications, and in some cases six or seven stories high, were covered in vinegar-soaked hides to protect them from missiles and flames. The end result must have looked like some freakish shantytown, but they were to play a crucial role in resistance to the attack.61

As the crusaders organized their resources they also planned the division of their conquest. The senior leadership drew up what is known as the “March Pact” in which they agreed that all booty was to be centrally pooled with the first call being to pay off remaining debts to the Venetians. The identities of the Latin emperor and the patriarch were to be decided by a committee of six Frenchmen and six Venetians, a reflection of the parity of effort that the two groups had put into the enterprise. A further committee would allocate the lands of the Byzantine Empire to the conquerors while, naturally, the Venetians were guaranteed a position of economic dominance. The need to bring stability to the new empire was recognized in a decision to put off sailing to the Holy Land until 1205; finally, oaths were taken to try to prevent assaults on women and churchmen in the aftermath of the capture.62

On April 8, 1204, the crusaders loaded their ships, then sought absolution for their sins from the priesthood and prayed for divine aid. The next day the fleet—almost a mile long according to Villehardouin—began the short journey over the Golden Horn. Arranged in their familiar divisions, they moved across the inlet. In some areas a narrow strip of land lay between the fortifications and the water and it was here the French set to work. Scaling ladders were put to the walls and siege engines began to bombard the city; in turn, the defenders fired back their own missiles and poured boiling oil down onto the besiegers. Murtzuphlus proved an able commander and his sharp direction brought proper spirit to the Greeks’ resistance. The weather conditions helped him too—a contrary wind prevented the Venetian ships from drawing as near to the walls as they had hoped. Being unable to engage closely, the crusaders withdrew, to a huge cheer from the Greeks. Morale in the crusader camp was, unsurprisingly, fragile. The leadership acted quickly to prevent a complete collapse of hope and tried to encourage the troops; the clergy argued that the day’s events were simply a divine test of the crusaders’ resolve. They preached powerful sermons that claimed the Greeks were “worse than the Jews” and that their disobedience to the papacy merited punishment. In consequence, the crusaders were justified in their actions and deserved divine blessing and remission of their sins.63

Four days later a second assault began. Again there was a period of fierce bombardment from both sides: “cries from the battle were so great that it seemed that the whole world was quaking,” wrote Villehardouin.64 At first it looked as though the Byzantines were holding firm but a fortuitous change in the breeze finally brought the crusaders’ ships up to the walls. Robert of Clari described what happened next: “by a miracle of God, the ship of the bishop of Soissons struck against one of the towers, as the sea, which is never still there, carried it forward.”65 Some of the Venetian vessels were lashed together in pairs and, appropriately enough, the Paradise and the Lady Pilgrim were the ships whose ladders locked one of the towers in a lethal embrace. Fortified by a potent combination of prayers and the offer of 100 silver marks to the first man onto the walls, crusaders gathered at the exits of their fortified bridges, swaying high above the deck and conscious that a mistimed jump would cause them to plummet to their death. Once over the dizzying chasm there remained the small matter of the defenders. A Venetian leaped across only to be killed, but two French knights succeeded in creating the space for others to join them and soon the first crusader banner fluttered above the battlements of Constantinople. To make real progress, however, required an entrance at ground level.

On the shoreline a group of men from Amiens hacked and battered away at a small, bricked-up door.66 As stones and debris thudded down onto their protective mats and shelters they managed to breach the makeshift barrier. Aleaumes of Clari, a belligerent priest, volunteered to be the first to enter. He had to struggle through a hole about the size of a small fireplace, beat off the waiting Greeks, and then resist long enough to allow his colleagues to follow. As he crawled through the gap, blows rained down on top of him but, incredibly, he survived and then, much to the defenders’ horror, he stood up, stepped forward, and began to fight. Such was their fear of this seemingly indestructible man that the Greeks fled, leaving Aleaumes to call back for his friends to join him. Once into the streets this small group of crusaders soon found a gate and forced this open to allow mounted knights to pour into Constantinople and seal the city’s fate. By nightfall the districts close to the Golden Horn had fallen and the crusaders paused to rest. Overnight Murtzuphlus decided to emulate Alexius III by fleeing; once news of this spread, the senior figures who remained decided to surrender. The Greeks hoped that their submission would prevent any further violence, but to the crusaders the removal of any active opposition meant they could begin the sack of Constantinople in earnest.

As the mob fanned out across the city, the senior nobility hurried to secure the imperial palaces. Boniface of Montferrat took the Bucoleon, where he found “such a store of precious things that it is impossible to describe the treasures that were in that palace, for there were so many they were endless and innumerable.”67 While the takeover of the palaces was relatively orderly, the rank and file ignored their earlier vows to behave with restraint. Infuriated at their dismal treatment by the Byzantines, fortified by a belief in divine favor, and inspired by pure and simple greed, they despoiled churches and houses and killed and savaged without distinction. “So those who denied us small things have relinquished everything to us by divine judgement,” was the sanctimonious observation of Baldwin of Flanders.68 The crusaders ransacked the Hagia Sophia, the spiritual heart of Byzantium. Drunken westerners cavorted beneath its magnificent mosaic ceiling, a prostitute danced on the altar and then straddled the patriarch’s chair; meanwhile pack animals were brought in to carry away the spoils of war. Elsewhere, even Latin churchmen joined this orgy of acquisitiveness. Abbot Martin of Pairis found the treasury at the imperial foundation of the Church of the Christ Pantocrator. He grabbed the feeble old Orthodox monk who guarded the precious objects stored there and bellowed at him: “Come, faithless old man, show me the more powerful of the relics you guard. Otherwise understand that you will be punished immediately with death.”69 The quivering monk handed over what he had and the abbot departed, his robes bulging with booty like an incompetent shoplifter. Such an image, regardless of explanations of divine favor, is hard for us—and indeed for some contemporaries as well—to see in anything other than an overwhelmingly cynical light. Immense numbers of relics made their way back to the churches of western Europe. While the four horses and the objects in the treasury of Saint Mark’s in Venice are the most famous of these, many other crusaders gave precious objects to their local churches when they returned home.70

It was not just the fabric of Constantinople that was shattered; its people were brutalized too—even nuns were violated. Nicholas Mesarites, a contemporary Byzantine author, wrote of “westerners tearing children from mothers and mothers from children, treating the virgin with wanton shame in holy chapels, viewing with fear neither the wrath of God nor the vengeance of men.”71 To the Greeks, such behavior was inexcusable. Choniates argued passionately that the crusaders were exposed as greedy fraudsters, sinners against Christ. He compared Saladin’s humane treatment of his captives at Jerusalem in 1187 with the brutality of the westerners against their fellow Christians; the implication was clear: even a Muslim was superior to the barbaric crusaders.72

Even though many of the crusaders had taken loot for themselves the conquerors gathered mountains of spoils to share out. The Venetians were finally paid off and individuals given specific amounts according to their rank. The next major decision was to elect an emperor.73 On May 9 the committee assembled and after a long debate it voted for Count Baldwin of Flanders. To Boniface of Montferrat, the nominal leader of the crusade, this was something of a blow, but he conceded with some grace; in any case, Baldwin was recognized as a good choice. A week later, dressed in the magnificent imperial robes, the Fleming was anointed and crowned the emperor of Constantinople, one of the greatest titles in the known world. The fate of Doge Dandolo is worth mentioning too. Given his extreme age he wrote to the pope and asked to be released from his pilgrimage vow to go to Jerusalem. Innocent remained furious with the doge for his behavior at Zara and his lack of any subsequent remorse. Thus, one imagines, the pope took grim pleasure in rejecting the request. Innocent assured Dandolo that because the doge was so important to the leadership of the crusade it would be dangerous to agree to his petition because it might endanger the expedition. Politely checkmated, the doge could argue no further, although the issue soon became irrelevant when he died in June 1205.74

In the aftermath of the conquest of Constantinople the Latins fought hard to extend their power. Boniface of Montferrat took control of Thessalonica, the Venetians seized Crete and Corfu to form essential parts of their trading empire, and the Villehardouin clan established themselves in the Peloponnese.75 There was, of course, opposition. Murtzuphlus was soon captured and executed, but other Greek nobles became a focus for anti-Latin feelings and the hostility of the Christian king of Bulgaria was a further distraction. It was fighting the latter’s armies at Adrianople in April 1205 that Louis of Blois was killed and Emperor Baldwin seized and never seen again. This disastrous defeat led to the first of a series of appeals for help from western Europe. In the same way that many men had returned home after the First Crusade, so the Latin Empire of Constantinople (as it is known) suffered from a lack of manpower too. In part this was a consequence of its unforeseen creation. While it possessed ties with certain regions, such as Flanders, Montferrat, and Venice, the thirteenth century saw a multiplicity of different draws on crusading enthusiasm. Some proved much closer to home than the Latin Empire and because it could never possess the allure of the holy city of Jerusalem, it was doomed to be something of a poor relation to the Holy Land.

One of the most intriguing reactions to the Fourth Crusade was that of Innocent III.76 He had, as we saw, tried to prevent the expedition from attacking Christian lands, although the caveats within these directives proved easy to circumvent or to ignore. The pope’s early reaction to the news of the capture was very positive. He wrote in November 1204 that God had transformed the Byzantine Empire from “the proud to the humble, from the disobedient to the obedient, from schismatic to Catholic.”77 He was prepared to award full crusading privileges for the defense of the Latin Empire and continued to speak of “the miracle that has come to pass in these days” into 1205.78 By midsummer of that year, however, his tone had changed. First, the legate on the crusade released the men from their vows to go to the Levant—a realistic move given the vulnerability of the empire, but one that ended Innocent’s hopes of the crusade ever reaching the Holy Land. More seriously, visitors to Rome began to detail the full atrocities of the sack—matters passed over by the crusaders’ reports of the event—and the pope learned of the terrible violation of women and the destruction of churches. He was appalled at the sordid, grasping behavior of the crusaders and noted that the Orthodox Church would have no wish to acknowledge papal primacy if it saw in the Latins “nothing except an example of affliction and the works of hell, so that now it rightly detests them more than dogs.”79 To Boniface of Montferrat he railed, “you turned away from the purity of your vow when you took up arms not against Saracens but Christians . . . preferring earthly wealth to celestial treasures.”80 Most dramatically of all, we sense a spiritual crisis in the head of the Catholic Church, baffled by the ways of the Lord and wondering how his God could let such a thing happen. “Who can know the mind of the Lord?” was his troubled and unsettled conclusion.81

The Fourth Crusade remains one of the most controversial of all crusading expeditions. While conspiracy theories have accused the pope, the Venetians, and various of the crusade leaders of plotting the diversion to Constantinople, none of these can be sustained. Originally, the campaign planned to attack Egypt but it was the disastrous terms of the Treaty of Venice that drew the crusaders to Zara and then laid them open to the offer of Prince Alexius. Ironically, therefore, it was a Greek who steered the campaign toward Constantinople; otherwise, there is no hint that this was a realistic desire on the part of anyone. The chronic instability of the Byzantine Empire during the early thirteenth century, combined with the desperation and the determination of the crusaders—men whose military expertise had become so honed and reinforced in the course of their experiences—gave them the opportunity to pull off an improbable and tragic victory, and an event still remembered in the Orthodox world today.

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