Post-classical history

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The Fourth Crusade

The successes of Richard the Lionheart were impressive, but they did not include the redemption of Jerusalem. From the medieval perspective, the purpose of the crusader states was the protection of the holy sites; they were not an end in themselves. Although Jerusalem was once again open to Christian pilgrims, it remained in Muslim hands.


Shortly after his election in 1198, Pope Innocent III (1198–1216) proclaimed a new crusade (photospread illustration 6). Innocent was a young pope, only in his thirties at his accession. He was keenly intelligent and politically astute. During his pontificate, he expanded papal power and influence throughout western Christendom. Above all, Innocent was determined to restore Christian control over the Holy Land. No goal was nearer to his heart than the reconquest of Jerusalem. He was convinced that all Christendom would need to be mobilized for the effort. Those who could not fight should fast and pray. He ordered collections to be taken up in every church, and even the clergy and monasteries were instructed to render a portion of their income for the sake of the crusade. Innocent meant for his new crusade to overshadow all others.

But Innocent faced the same kinds of problems that plagued Gregory VIII when he called the Third Crusade. Once again, the kings of England and France were at war. Richard I was busy reclaiming the lands that Philip II had taken from him while he was on crusade. Although eager to return to the East, Richard would not leave France until he had restored his domains and had his revenge on Philip. Germany was in even worse condition, torn between two rival claimants to the imperial throne: Philip of Swabia and Otto of Brunswick. These power struggles and others occupied many of the fighting men in Europe.

No crusade could begin until some measure of peace was restored in the West. Innocent sent out papal legates to negotiate the necessary truces. In France, Richard received Cardinal-legate Peter Capuano, who urged him to make peace with Philip so that he or his vassals could travel to the land of Christ. The king angrily pointed out that were it not for the treachery of Philip, he could have remained in the Holy Land and would by now have restored Jerusalem. What had the church done to safeguard his lands while he was away? Now the pope wanted him to strike a truce while Philip still held some of those stolen territories? So great was Richard’s storm of fury that Peter fled lest the king carry out his threat to castrate him.

Despite the rocky start, truce negotiations did bear fruit. Richard and Philip agreed in principle to a five-year truce, although the exact parameters were still problematic.

But in March 1199, the odds finally caught up with Richard. While surveying a castle siege without donning his armor, he was hit by a crossbow bolt. The surgeon’s knife did the rest. In April he died of gangrene. With the death of the crusader-king, many despaired that Innocent’s new crusade would ever materialize.


The Fourth Crusade was saved by the actions of two men. The first was a spellbinding crusade preacher, Fulk of Neuilly, who filled the French countryside with the pious zeal to risk all for the good of Christ. Thousands took the cross after hearing him speak, although most were poor and therefore of no military use. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm sparked by Fulk also recommended the languishing crusade to the chivalric minds of the nobility. One of those was Count Thibaut of Champagne. Thibaut was the brother of Henry of Champagne, who had ruled the kingdom of Jerusalem from the death of Conrad of Montferrat in 1192 to his own death in 1197. Like his brother, Thibaut was a good warrior, intelligent, and attractive. On November 28, 1199, Thibaut hosted a knightly tournament at his castle at Ecry-sur-Aisne. It was a glamorous event, although overshadowed by the recent death of the most chivalric of kings (and Thibaut’s uncle), Richard I.

During the revelry of the tournament, Thibaut announced that he would no longer use his weapons in sport, but instead would place them in the service of the Lord. Immediately, he was joined by his cousin, Count Louis of Blois. Many more of the participants followed suit, each taking the vow of the cross. The crossing of Thibaut and Louis gave the foundering crusade a foundation on which to build. Enthusiasm among the nobility swelled. In February 1200, the illustrious Count Baldwin of Flanders also took the cross and was joined by his wife, Marie, the sister of Thibaut. Many other Flemish nobles joined him. Although they were not kings, Thibaut, Louis, and Baldwin were among the most powerful lords in France. All three were young men in their twenties, eager to finish the work of Richard I in the East. At last, the Fourth Crusade was coming to life.

A council of the leading crusading barons met at Soissons in early 1200. There they discussed the timetable and goals of the new crusade. They agreed at the start that they would not venture down the land route across the Byzantine Empire but would instead follow King Richard’s example and travel by sea. Unlike the king of England, though, none of these feudal lords possessed a sizable fleet. They decided, therefore, to contract vessels from a maritime port. Thibaut, Louis, and Baldwin each appointed two of their men to a six-man committee with full powers to make contracts in their names. These six were to travel to whatever port seemed best and make whatever arrangements they thought wise and prudent. One of these men was Geoffrey of Villehardouin, the marshal of Champagne. His memoirs are one of the most valuable sources for the Fourth Crusade.

The envoys chose the Republic of Venice because they knew that it had an established crusading tradition and sufficient resources to provide a large fleet for the forming crusade. They may also have known that Pope Innocent had earlier discussed the forming crusade with the Venetians. During the winter of 1200–1201, the envoys crossed the Alps and made their way to the lagoon city. The doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo (1192–1205), was extremely old (probably in his nineties) and blind; nevertheless, he remained intellectually vigorous and extremely perceptive. He received the French envoys with joy and listened intently to their request. It was a weighty one. The men told the doge of the great crusade that was forming across Europe and their need for vessels and provisions. They begged him to take pity on the land of Christ and assist them in their holy task. It was probably at this point that the envoys revealed to Dandolo that the barons planned to take up the strategy of Richard I by attacking Egypt first before moving on to capture Jerusalem. The crusade’s initial destination, however, was to remain secret, because the barons feared the rank and file crusaders might oppose it. Dandolo promised to do all that he could to gain the assent of the people of Venice to their proposals.

After some negotiation, the Republic of Venice agreed to supply the crusaders with one year’s provisions and sufficient vessels to transport forty-five hundred knights and their horses, nine thousand squires, and twenty thousand foot soldiers to Egypt in return for 85,000 marks of Cologne (more than twenty tons of pure silver). In addition, the Venetians agreed to supply fifty manned war galleys at no cost, provided they received an equal share of any war booty. The fleet would be ready to sail on June 29, 1202. The envoys enthusiastically signed the treaty, and the pope subsequently ratified it.

Meanwhile, Thibaut of Champagne had fallen ill. Although bedridden when the envoys told him of the treaty with Venice, the news of the great fleet so lifted his spirits that the young count leapt to his feet and rode his finest horse. His illness remained serious, however, and he finally died on May 24, 1201. He was laid in a tomb with the inscription:

Intent upon redeeming the Cross and the land of the Crucified

He paved a way with expenses, an army, a fleet.

Seeking the terrestrial city, he finds the heavenly one;

While pursuing his goal far away, he finds it at home.1

The loss of Thibaut was a serious blow to the forming crusade. The barons decided to offer the titular command of the enterprise to another great lord. As with any crusade, the title of commander in chief was largely honorary, yet it could be used to entice another baron to take the cross, one who would bring with him additional troops.

After some discussion, it was decided to offer the command to Marquis Boniface of Montferrat. Unlike the barons of France, Boniface was a mature man in his fifties with a lifetime of practical experience. His family was no stranger to the crusader states. Boniface’s brother was Conrad of Montferrat, the savior of Tyre, who had received the crown of Jerusalem only to be murdered by the Assassins. Another of his brothers was William Longsword, the husband of Sibylla and father of King Baldwin V of Jerusalem. Boniface readily accepted the barons’ offer.

Venice put all of her energies into preparing for the new crusade. The fleet that the crusaders had contracted was truly enormous, exceeding five hundred major vessels. The republic suspended all merchant activity, pressing all of her trading vessels into service for the crusade. In addition, many new ships were built and enormous stores of provision purchased. With unshakable determination, the Venetians completed their task. The largest fleet assembled in Europe since antiquity stood ready to transport the Fourth Crusade across the Mediterranean to Egypt.

The crusaders were not quite so conscientious in keeping their part of the bargain. According to the treaty, they were to have paid the Venetians for the fleet in four installments by April 1202; yet when the first crusaders arrived in Venice in June, they had made only a small down payment. Furthermore, although the fleet was to depart on June 29, only a fraction of the crusaders had arrived in Venice by that date. Even the papal legate did not show up until July 22. By that time, it was clear that the crusade was in trouble. Without a king like Richard I to lead them to a single port, many crusaders felt justified in making whatever arrangements seemed best for their own transportation. As long as they joined the host in the East, they reasoned, what difference did it make where they embarked on their journey?

To the leaders of the Fourth Crusade, it made all the difference in the world. The envoys had contracted for a fleet and provisions for 33,500 men. The cost of the fleet was to be collected from the individual crusaders. As it happened, only about 11,000 of them arrived at Venice. With one-third of the projected number, when transportation costs were collected they amounted to only one-third of the promised payment. In short, the crusaders could not pay their bill. For his part, Doge Dandolo could not renounce payment for the fleet. To do so would represent an enormous, possibly ruinous financial injury to Venetians across the lagoon. Venice was a republic. Dandolo did not have the power to settle the crusaders’ debts on the backs of his own countrymen.

In his memoir, Villehardouin blames the crusade’s troubles on those crusaders who sailed from other ports. The real blame, though, lay with Villehardouin himself and his fellow envoys, who drastically overestimated the number of crusaders who would be ready to depart in the summer of 1202. In the medieval West, an army of 11,000 was enormous, an army of 33,500 almost unheard of. The envoys probably were guided by the widespread enthusiasm for the crusade that swept France in 1201 and the reports of Fulk of Neuilly’s crossing more than 200,000 people. Perhaps they even considered 33,500 to be a conservative figure. The facts, however, were different. Although the Fourth Crusade was large, it was only one-third the size needed to pay for the fleet it had leased.

It was a difficult summer for the crusaders. They camped on the Lido, a sun-baked and barren island at the edge of the lagoon. There they waited week after week, staring at the magnificent fleet across the water and going nowhere. They naturally became restless and rowdy, and they began to blame the Venetians for the delay. The Venetians, for their part, were exasperated with the northerners for their failure to keep their bargain. Matters could not stay as they were. A disgruntled army in the lagoon could cause significant damage to the maritime republic. The crusaders needed to depart.

In August, Dandolo met with the crusade leaders. He pointed out that the Venetians had met their obligations to the letter and reminded the leaders of the Venetians’ great patience thus far. Payment was already four months late, and they could wait no longer. He demanded that the crusaders pay what they owed. The leaders agreed with the doge, so the word was sent to the host that all should pay not only their passage but all that they could afford to complete their covenant with Venice. Many of the poorer crusaders had nothing more, and others indignantly refused to pay anything beyond their individual passage. The barons set the example by handing over large sums of money and gold plate. The crusading bequest of Thibaut of Champagne was also rendered. Still, in all it was only half of what they owed.


Dandolo met with his council to discuss the dire situation. The crusaders had paid all they had; there was simply no way for them to meet their obligations. A solution was needed—and right away. Soon it would be October, when voyages on the Mediterranean stopped altogether. The council suggested a compromise. Zara, a city on the Dalmatian coast, had years earlier rebelled against Venetian rule. Venice’s attempts to recapture the well-fortified city had been unsuccessful. If the crusaders would agree to assist Venice in returning Zara to obedience, then the Venetians would suspend the crusaders’ debt until they could acquire it in war booty. The crusade could spend the winter at Zara and depart for Egypt in the spring.

The crusading leaders discussed the Venetian offer. There was no doubt that the recovery of Zara was a just act, but there were other complicating factors. Zara was currently controlled by King Emeric of Hungary (1196–1204), who had himself taken the crusader’s cross in 1200. Although Emeric had no plans to crusade in the near future, it remained that his lands were under the protection of the church. Some worried about the shedding of Christian blood, although fighting Christians on the way to the Holy Land had become rather standard. Richard I and Frederick I had waged protracted wars against Christians during the Third Crusade. With mixed feelings, the leaders finally accepted the proposal. The alternative was the dissolution of the crusade.

The decision to go to Zara posed a difficult problem, though, for the papal legate, Peter Capuano, who had joined the crusade as the representative of Innocent III. The cardinal knew well that the pope opposed any military action against the port city. Indeed, he had earlier sent instructions to Doge Dandolo that the crusade was not to harm Zara or the lands of King Emeric. Yet if Capuano spoke out openly against the deal, the faltering crusade would surely collapse. Innocent would not like that. The legate, therefore, struck upon a clever solution. He quietly advised those who asked him about the side trip to remain quiet and prepare for the fleet’s departure. Once the crusade was under way and out of Venetian territory, then the legate would inform the rank and file that they were forbidden to attack Zara. The Venetians would have no choice but to accept yet another broken deal. As it happened, though, Doge Dandolo discovered the legate’s strategy and told him plainly that he would not allow it. If Peter Capuano wished to renounce his legateship and join the crusade as a humble preacher, he was welcome to do so. But Dandolo would not suffer the legate to board Venice’s fleet with the firm intention of double-crossing the Venetians. Outraged, Capuano left Venice and headed straight to Rome to report on events.

As the crusaders in Venice prepared for their long-delayed departure, their leaders received an intriguing proposal. Alexius Angelus, a young refugee prince of Byzantium, sent envoys to some of the crusader barons asking them to take pity on him. The young man’s father, Emperor Isaac II (1185–95), had been blinded and deposed by his own brother in 1195. The usurper, Alexius III (1195–1203), imprisoned Isaac and kept his nephew and namesake on a short leash in Constantinople. But the young Alexius managed to escape his uncle’s clutches and fled west, to the court of Philip of Swabia. He now begged the crusaders to take up his cause and right the wrong perpetrated by his evil uncle. He assured them that the people of Constantinople yearned to welcome him as their ruler if only someone would return him to the imperial city. In return for this act of Christian charity, young Alexius would reward the crusaders handsomely and assist them on their mission to Egypt. There was much to commend this proposal to the barons. Not only would it relieve their poverty, but with the support of the Byzantine Empire the crusade would have an excellent chance of achieving its goals. They sent envoys to the court of Philip of Swabia to relate their interest in the plan.

In early October, the great fleet, arrayed in the bright colors of the crusading barons, set sail. Accompanying the crusaders was the aged Enrico Dandolo, who took the cross to lead the Venetians on their holy journey. With the assent of the people, he left his son, Ranier Dandolo, as vice doge during his absence. Given his advanced age, Dandolo surely knew there was little chance that he would ever return to the lagoon of Venice. The imposing fleet made its way south along the Dalmatian coast, receiving oaths of loyalty and material support from Venice’s cities there. On November 10, the ships cast anchor at Zara. The crusaders disembarked, pitched their tents, and prepared for a siege.

The people of Zara were not fools; they saw clearly that they could not withstand an attack by so large a force. Two days after the fleet arrived, they sent envoys to discuss terms of surrender. Dandolo received the Zarans and agreed to their terms but then departed to discuss the matter with the crusading barons. While the envoys waited in the doge’s tent, the powerful French lord, Simon of Montfort, visited them. Simon had been one of the first barons to take the cross and remained one of the crusade’s staunchest promoters. But he did not like the way things were going lately. To his mind and those of his followers, the crusade had veered off course, hijacked by the Venetians, who were using the holy army for their own profane goals. He knew that a letter had just arrived from Pope Innocent III forbidding the crusaders to attack Zara or any Christian city. It was more than he could bear to think that the Venetians would now win a city that, without French help, they could not take for themselves. Simon, therefore, informed the Zarans of the friendship of the French. If they could defend themselves against the Venetians, they would be safe enough. The Zarans thanked Simon profusely and returned to their city.

When Dandolo and the barons returned to the doge’s tent, they found no surrendering Zarans, only Simon and his followers. The peaceful surrender was scuttled. A Cistercian in Simon’s entourage, Guy of Vaux-de-Cernay, approached the crusading barons with the papal letter in hand and exclaimed, “I forbid you, on behalf of the Pope of Rome, to attack this city, for those within are Christians and you are crusaders!” To ignore this prohibition, he continued, would mean excommunication. The Franks were astonished and the Venetians outraged. Dandolo turned to the barons and said, “Lords, I had this city at my mercy, and your people have deprived me of it; you have promised to assist me to conquer it, and I summon you to do so.”2

The crusade leaders were again in a difficult bind. On the one hand, they did not wish to incur the penalty of excommunication. They endured the hardships of a crusade for the salvation, not peril, of their souls. On the other hand, they had sworn to assist the Venetians if necessary. It was all well and good for the pope to forbid the attack now, but the papal legate had remained resolutely silent a few months earlier when they had struck their bargain with Venice. The barons were also angry with Simon of Montfort. He had become a tiresome malcontent ever since the crossing of Boniface of Montferrat. It seemed to them that he cared for nothing but increasing his own power at the expense of others. They would not let him have his way now. They informed the doge that they would honor their promises by attacking Zara. Simon of Montfort and his followers withdrew from the army to avoid the sin, pitching their tents at a distance.

With great energy the crusaders attacked the walls of Zara, on which the city inhabitants draped crosses, making clear that it was a Christian city under the protection of the pope. The city succumbed in less than a week. It was quickly divided between the Franks and Venetians, and both groups prepared for the winter.

With the fall of Zara, the Fourth Crusade was now an excommunicate. Swiftly, the Frankish crusaders sent envoys to Rome to beg forgiveness from the pope. Innocent was pleased to see their remorse and, after strong admonitions, allowed his legate to give absolution to the Franks. The Venetians were another matter. They had sent no one to Rome. Dandolo knew well that Innocent would require that the Venetians return Zara to the king of Hungary before offering absolution. He therefore planned to destroy the city first and ask for forgiveness later. The pope formally excommunicated the Venetians—more than half the army—although he gave permission to the Franks to continue to travel with them. When Boniface of Montferrat received the bull of excommunication, he suppressed it. As a result, the Venetian crusaders believed that they had been absolved along with the French.


On January 1, 1203, envoys from Philip of Swabia arrived in Zara on behalf of young Alexius Angelus. After relating again the story of the treacherous Alexius III, they begged the crusaders to transport the young prince to Constantinople, where the people would welcome him. In return for this service, the young Alexius promised to place the Greek church in obedience to Rome, join the crusade with an army of ten thousand men, permanently maintain five hundred knights in the Holy Land, and pay the crusaders 200,000 silver marks. It was a stunningly attractive offer, and it seemed to come at the perfect time. The crusaders’ transportation contract with the Venetians was set to expire in June, and they had not even paid what they owed for the first year. By helping Alexius to his throne, they could perform a good and chivalrous deed, save themselves from poverty, and strengthen the crusade for its mission in the East. The young Alexius also offered them food, which was running short. Despite these incentives, the majority of the crusading host wanted nothing to do with the proposal. They had only just received absolution for their attack on Zara, and they were not eager to incur the pope’s wrath again. The crusade was already heavily delayed. The majority were tired of waiting. A detour to Constantinople, they insisted, was out of the question.

Without the support of the rank and file, a few of the leading barons—Boniface of Montferrat, Baldwin of Flanders, Louis of Blois, and Hugh of Saint Pol—nevertheless signed a treaty committing the Fourth Crusade to supporting Alexius Angelus in his bid for the throne of Byzantium. The decision was extremely unpopular. Hundreds left the crusade in disgust, making their own way to the Holy Land. Hundreds more washed their hands of the whole mess and went home. Those who remained were by no means unified. Although the rank and file eventually agreed to the diversion to Constantinople, they insisted that they remain only briefly and then make all speed to Outremer.

On April 20, the crusaders set sail for the Byzantine island of Corfu, where they waited for the arrival of the young Alexius. Relations with the Greeks of the island were good at first, but that changed when the inhabitants discovered what the crusaders were up to. No sooner had the pretender to the throne arrived at Corfu than the Byzantines attacked the Venetian vessels. In response, the crusaders laid waste to part of the island. The reaction of the Greeks to their “rightful” emperor did not augur well for his reception in the imperial city.

Innocent III knew all about Alexius Angelus and his promises. The young man had already visited the pope to ask for assistance in his bid for the throne. Innocent sent him packing and later informed Boniface of Montferrat that the crusade was to have nothing to do with this scheme. The pope, therefore, was not happy when he learned that his penitent soldiers were once again disobeying his commands. He wrote a strongly worded letter to the crusaders forbidding them to travel to Byzantium:

Let no one among you rashly convince himself that he may seize or plunder Greek lands on the pretext that they show little obedience to the Apostolic See, or because the emperor of Constantinople deposed his brother, blinded him, and usurped the empire.3

Although these actions were unjust, they were not the crimes that the crusaders had sworn to avenge. Rather, their duty was to punish the greater injuries to the crucified Christ.

The crusade fleet sailed through the Aegean and the Sea of Marmara with no resistance. On June 23, it entered the Bosporus, where the crusaders got their first glimpse of the legendary city of Constantine. They were awestruck. Constantinople was simply beyond the ken of the Franks. The ten largest cities in western Europe could have fit comfortably within its walls. Robert of Clari, a simple knight of Picardy and one of the crusaders, wrote:

For no man on earth, however long he might have lived in the city, could number [the marvels] or recount them to you. And if anyone should recount to you the hundredth part of the richness and the beauty and the nobility that was found in the abbeys and in the churches and the palaces and in the city, it would seem like a lie and you would not believe it.4


Here these hardy knights of the medieval world came face to face with the still-beating heart of antiquity. No man, said Villehardouin, was so brave and daring that he did not shudder at the sight, and with good reason. Constantinople was legendary not only for its opulence but also for its impregnable fortifications. Beyond those, Alexius III had a garrison three times the size of the crusader army. Beyond those, he had several foreign mercenary corps, including the elite Varangian Guard. In its long history, Constantinople had shrugged off armies ten times the size of the Fourth Crusade. To the people of the city, the westerners were an annoyance and an oddity, but not a real threat.


Figure 3. Ruins of Constantinople’s Sea Walls along the Bosporus. Photo by the author.

Of course, the crusaders had not thought an attack on Constantinople would be necessary at all. They made camp across the strait and awaited the expected popular uprising that would overthrow the usurper in favor of the true emperor. It did not happen. After waiting for more than a week, they considered the possibility that the citizens of Constantinople were unaware that the Latin knights came as friends, delivering the Greeks’ exiled lord. Doge Dandolo and Boniface of Montferrat took the young Alexius on the doge’s vermilion galley and rowed it near the city walls. There they displayed the young man and shouted their good intentions. The Byzantine people on the walls responded with hoots, howls, vile insults, and missiles. All of this stunned the crusaders. Clearly, they had been misled. No peaceful coup was going to take place after all.

Once again, the crusaders were in a tight spot. They were deep in hostile territory on a fool’s errand with no means of escape. Technically, the contract for transportation had expired, and the crusaders had not yet finished paying their bill. They needed the money that young Alexius had promised to them. They were also duty bound to help this victim of treachery whom they had befriended. With enormous courage, they prepared to attack a city of a half-million souls. As Villehardouin noted, “Never have so many been besieged by so few.”

On July 5, the ships crossed the Bosporus and the crusaders attacked the suburb of Galata. The Byzantine soldiers, though numerous, were inept and cowardly. Galata fell almost immediately. The Venetian galleys then occupied the port. Without a navy to speak of, Alexius III was powerless to stop the crusaders. A few days later, the crusaders launched a two-pronged attack on the city’s far northwest corner. The knights concentrated their attack on a small section of the land walls, while the Venetians attacked a section of the sea walls. The Frankish forces fought valiantly, but the city’s defenders easily repulsed them. The Venetians had more luck, gaining control of a portion of the sea walls and even advancing cautiously into the city itself. As a defensive measure, the Venetians set fire to a number of buildings. The fire was swept by strong winds and devastated a sizable portion of the far northern city before it was contained. The Venetians were soon forced to retreat.

That night, while the crusaders considered the extent of their losses, Alexius III considered the extent of his. Although he was winning militarily, he was losing politically. Many Byzantines were disgusted that their emperor had not led the numerically superior Byzantine forces out against the Latins. Others were angry about the damage from the Venetian fires. They did not want further damage to the city simply to save Alexius’s reign. Why not accept the young Alexius as emperor? Whether the brother of Isaac II or his son reigned was a matter of trifling importance to Byzantines who had seen far more drastic changes in their lives. Alexius III smelled trouble. He could hear the hushed mumbling and see the averted eyes and strained smiles that suggested a palace coup. That night, he packed as much money as he could carry and fled the city.

The next morning the crusaders were shocked to receive emissaries from Isaac II. They proclaimed that the usurper had fled in the night and that the people of the city had restored Isaac to the throne. This was welcome and joyous news for the crusaders, but it did have a worrisome wrinkle. It was their understanding that Isaac II was unfit to rule because he was blind. If Isaac was indeed restored, the crusaders could hardly oppose it, but they did want to make certain that he recognized the debt he owed to them. They sent envoys to the imperial court with the treaty they had made with young Alexius and asked Isaac II to ratify it. When the promises of the young man were read to the emperor, he knew immediately that they would be impossible to fulfill. He protested that they were unreasonable, but the envoys insisted that the contract be honored. Finally, Isaac agreed, and Alexius was escorted into Constantinople amid great jubilation. Shortly thereafter, Alexius IV (1203–4) was crowned co-emperor. Isaac, old and blind, observed his power waning as his son took control of the Byzantine state.


With the elevation of Alexius IV, Constantinople’s attackers became its tourists. For the first time ever the doors of the city were opened to a crusade army. The westerners walked the ancient streets with wide eyes and open mouths. The great forums, columns, statues, and public buildings amazed them. As pilgrims, they sought out the city’s plentiful churches and monasteries. Constantinople held more relics than Jerusalem and Rome combined, and the crusaders were eager to see them and acquire their special graces. The soldiers were no longer poor, either. Alexius IV paid half of the money he promised and began making installment payments on the rest. With this infusion of cash, the crusaders paid off their debt to the Venetians with money to spare. Alexius IV moved to keep his other promises as well. He sent a letter of obedience to Innocent III and another letter to the sultan of Egypt telling him to prepare for a great army to sweep Islam from the homelands of Christianity once and for all.

The euphoria of the victory at Constantinople did not last long. Alexius IV found it increasingly difficult to find the money to pay the remainder of his debt to the crusaders. After confiscating the wealth of those who supported his uncle, he was still short of funds. Recklessly, he ordered the tombs of emperors opened and their jewelry removed. He even seized ecclesiastical items like chalices and icons, which he destroyed for their precious metals and gems. The citizens of the city watched the sacrilege with horror. It was intolerable to them that the wealth of Byzantium should be stripped away and handed over to these barbarians from the West. Relations between Byzantines and Latins had been very poor in Constantinople for decades, and the presence of the crusaders only made them worse. Fearing a riot, Alexius IV asked the crusaders to withdraw from the city and camp across the Golden Horn in Galata and Pera. They agreed.

Alexius IV’s attempt to settle his debt was making him bitterly unpopular. He feared that if he paid anything further to the crusaders, he would lose his throne. On the other hand, if he did not have their military support, he feared a palace coup. Desperate, the young emperor met with the crusade leaders and begged for patience. He would pay every penny he owed them, he insisted, but he needed additional time. If the crusaders would consent to remain in Constantinople over the winter, he guaranteed that he would settle his account with them by the beginning of the sailing season in March 1204. In return, he offered to extend the lease on the Venetian vessels for an additional year at his own expense.

Alexius’s proposal was met with a great deal of grumbling among the rank-and-file crusaders. The leaders had assured them that the crusade’s stay at Constantinople would be brief. Now they were being asked to remain for the better part of a year. Yet what was the alternative? It was already too late in the season to depart for Syria, and they had not yet received the full reward they were promised. The soldiers agreed to winter at Constantinople after their leaders swore to provide vessels to sail east in March no matter the situation in Byzantium.

Alexius IV made a few token payments to the crusaders, but not much more. In his court, his advisers urged him to send the crusaders away. He had already paid them too much, they said. It was not for these insolent barbarians to dictate to the emperor of Rome. Fearing for his throne, the young emperor accepted this advice. He stopped visiting his old friends in their camp, and soon even the token payments dried up. Matters became even more tense when a small group of westerners set fire to a city mosque and other nearby buildings in August 1203. The small fire was whipped by a high wind into an uncontrollable blaze. The inferno grew rapidly, becoming one of the most destructive urban fires in human history. With great ferocity it tore through the central sections of the city, laying waste to its most populated and wealthy regions. There were few casualties, but the material cost was staggering. For the citizens of Constantinople, the Western visitors were no longer just annoying—they were genuinely hated. Fearing reprisals, the Latin residents of the city fled across the water to join the crusading army.

In November 1203, the crusade leaders began to suspect that they would never see the money that Alexius owed them. They sent a last delegation to the emperor reminding him of the great service they had rendered and the solemn promises he had made. They called on him to confirm those promises or else the crusaders would no longer call him friend and would do all in their power to seize their payment from his domains. When they heard the harsh words of the crusaders, the court attendants erupted in anger. No one had ever dared to defy an emperor in his own court! This is what came of befriending barbarians! Alexius remained silent, frozen between his friends and his countrymen. The envoys left the palace and returned to the crusader camp.

The feudal morality of the Western knights was satisfied. Alexius had failed to fulfill his promises to the crusaders, and the crusaders had formally defied him. Because the emperor would not pay what he owed, the knights felt justified in raiding his lands to “pay ourselves.” The emperor dispatched troops to defend various crusader targets, with mixed results. There was a strong sentiment in Constantinople that the emperor should lead the imperial army against the crusaders and crush them once and for all. Alexius could not bring himself to do that, although he frequently promised to do so. In reality, he had no wish to destroy the crusaders because he believed he might need them again. He also knew that the crusade could not remain in Byzantium after March, when the rank and file would demand transport to the East. If he could ride the storm until then, all would be well.

But the young emperor was not the equal of the storm. The population of Constantinople was bubbling over in its rage against the crusaders. They were tired of Alexius’s empty promises and lame excuses. They wanted action. At last, the frustration broke out in a mass demonstration that centered on the great church of Hagia Sophia. The mobs demanded a new emperor and refused to let the members of the Senate leave until they had chosen one. No one wanted the job. It was plain that a rival emperor would have a difficult time removing Alexius IV from the palace, particularly if he called on his old friends, the crusaders. At last, the mobs settled on a young nobleman, Nicholas Canabus, who was captured and forcibly crowned. He never left Hagia Sophia. His motley collection of followers abandoned him at the first hint of opposition, and he was later executed by Alexius V Ducas Mourtzouphlus, whose rise to the imperial throne was the next act in this unfolding tragedy.

When Alexius IV heard of the uprising, he panicked. Quickly, he called his trusted lieutenant, Mourtzouphlus, and sent him to the crusader camp to retrieve Boniface of Montferrat. Mourtzouphlus was a cagey character, the veteran of several palace coups. He had already been defeated in battle by Boniface and was therefore not pleased to hear that the crusade leader would be restored to his old position in the court. He obeyed the emperor, bringing the marquis to the palace, and then disappeared to plan his own course of action.

The young emperor pleaded with Boniface for forgiveness, blaming the whole matter on his counselors and his people. He renewed his promise to pay the crusaders what he owed and invited them to occupy an imperial palace as collateral. Boniface accepted the apology and returned to the crusader camp to muster a contingent to garrison the palace.

Mourtzouphlus was quicker. With well-placed bribes and political skill, he convinced the Varangian Guard to neglect their duties to the emperor for one night. Very late, Mourtzouphlus rushed into the emperor’s chamber and woke him, saying that there was a large and angry crowd outside the palace. Alexius pleaded with his servant to save him. Mourtzouphlus obligingly covered the emperor with a blanket and spirited him away down a secret stairway—at the bottom of which was a jail cell. With the young man locked up, Mourtzouphlus declared himself the new emperor of Constantinople. Isaac II, who had drifted into senility, conveniently died at about the same time.


Mourtzouphlus was crowned Alexius V (1204) on February 5, 1204. Although crafty, he was also a courageous soldier and an able commander. With great energy, he oversaw every aspect of defensive operations on the city’s harbor walls. He did all that he could to put a stop to the crusader raids on the countryside, but his efforts were hamstrung by the poor quality of the imperial troops. No matter their numerical superiority, the Greek soldiers proved themselves utterly incapable of withstanding an attack from the Frankish knights. At the first hint of difficulty, they fled. Mourtzouphlus learned this at first hand when he ambushed a crusader raiding party with a very large army of mounted soldiers. With bravery and zeal, the Franks turned a hopeless situation into a spectacular victory. In the skirmish, the emperor even lost the precious icon of the Virgin Mary that Byzantine armies had carried into battle for centuries.

A few days later, Mourtzouphlus met with Enrico Dandolo to discuss a peaceful end to the problem. From the Frankish crusaders’ point of view, Mourtzouphlus was a disloyal vassal who had rebelled against his lord. Dandolo informed the emperor that the crusaders did not recognize his authority. They demanded that he release Alexius IV and inform him that he should pay the crusaders what he had promised. Mourtzouphlus, of course, refused. Realizing that the crusaders’ deal with Alexius was the moral underpinning for their attacks on Byzantium, he ordered the young man strangled the next day.

The death of Alexius IV was greeted with cries of good riddance from the crusading rank and file. They were tired of the whole tawdry affair at Constantinople. For two years, they had struggled with little and were no closer to completing their vows. March was only a few weeks away. When it came, they could finally shake the dust of Byzantium from their feet. For the crusade leaders, however, the news of Alexius’s death was much more troubling. The young man owed them money. While he was emperor, they were justified in raiding his domains to recapture it, but their agreement was with him and his father, not with Mourtzouphlus or the people of Byzantium. Their reason for remaining at Constantinople disappeared with the death of Alexius. In March, the rank and file would demand transport to the Holy Land, and the leaders would be bound by oath to deliver—but they could not. There was no money to pay the Venetian vessels for which Alexius IV had contracted but never paid. Their food supply was also low because they had stripped the countryside bare for miles around. How were they to move an army so far without transportation or provisions? Boniface of Montferrat clearly did not wish to abandon Constantinople to the hated Mourtzouphlus. Like his brothers before him, Boniface had been close to the allure of imperial power. He did not relish leaving it behind to lead a poverty-stricken army across the sea.

The bishops and abbots of the Fourth Crusade gave the leaders the solution they needed. After examining the situation, they decreed that Mourtzouphlus was a murderer and therefore had no right to rule in Constantinople. By accepting him as their leader, they continued, the people of Byzantium were abettors of murder. They were also grieved to see that the Greek church remained disobedient to Rome. For these reasons, they concluded, a war against Constantinople was right and just, and all who died in such a war would share in the crusading indulgence of the pope. In other words, the prelates of the crusade redefined an attack on Constantinople as a legitimate function of the crusade. The rank and file no longer had reason or right to demand transport to Palestine, for their holy work was in Byzantium itself.

With that settled, the crusaders prepared their vessels for an attack on Constantinople’s harbor walls. Because the Golden Horn was meant to be a secure harbor, the city’s fortifications there were the weakest; nevertheless, they were still monumental, and Mourtzouphlus had strengthened them with the addition of wooden towers. The Venetians rigged flying bridges on the top of their ships’ masts so that the soldiers could fight their way onto the walls (photospread illustration 7). The attack came on April 8, 1204. Despite brave efforts, the crusaders were never able to bring sufficient ships to the walls to constitute an effective threat. Late in the day, a strong wind blew the vessels away from Constantinople. To crusaders and Greeks alike, it seemed like the hand of God pushing back the attackers.

The crusaders suffered significant casualties in the attack, while the Byzantines had almost none. Throughout the camp, a wave of fear gripped the soldiers’ hearts. Despite the assurances of their clergy, it seemed clear that it was not God’s will for a crusade army to wage war on the greatest Christian city in the world. Most refused to have anything further to do with the attack and began to state openly that they wanted to leave Byzantium. Even among the leaders there was a strong desire to depart. Yet Boniface of Montferrat and Enrico Dandolo convinced the others to try once more. Dandolo suggested that the vessels be tied together in pairs so that a greater force could be brought to bear on concentrated points along the wall.

On Sunday, April 11, the host was called to hear Mass. The clergy gave fiery sermons on the righteousness of their war against Constantinople. The Greeks, they reminded the army, had murdered their Lord and were therefore “worse than Jews.” They had also removed themselves from obedience to Rome and considered anyone who followed the pope to be “dogs.” These sermons sought to de-Christianize the Byzantines and personalize the struggle for the common soldier. The clergy then called on all the crusaders to take communion and make a confession so that they would be ready to face the enemies of Christ. The rank-and-file crusaders had no idea that the verdict of their bishops contradicted the commands of the pope. The crusade again crystallized around the episcopal invention.

The crusading army boarded its vessels and attacked Constantinople again on April 12, 1204. The battle raged most of the day with the crusaders gaining very little. By the early afternoon, they had captured a few towers on the harbor walls, but they were so surrounded by Byzantine forces that they dared not advance farther. A small group of about ten knights and sixty sergeants led by Peter of Amiens landed on a narrow strip of ground outside the wall and near the shore. There they discovered a postern gate that the defenders had walled up. They fell upon it zealously with whatever implements they had on hand. It was hard going and dangerous, for from above the Greeks rained down on them immense stones and boiling pitch, which they deflected with their shields. At last, they succeeded in making a small hole. Peering through, they saw a huge crowd of soldiers inside. Surely, it was suicide to enter. One man, an armed priest named Alleumes of Clari, insisted on the honor of being the first to enter Constantinople. No amount of pleading from his comrades would dissuade him. His brother, Robert of Clari, was particularly upset and even tried to prevent him from crawling through the hole by grabbing his legs. It was no use. Alleumes scrambled through to the other side, where he was faced with an armed multitude.

Then an amazing thing happened. With enormous confidence, Alleumes drew his sword and ran toward the Greek troops. They scattered. Once again, the poorly trained Byzantine troops proved themselves unwilling to fight unless the danger to themselves was minuscule. Because most of them were provincials, they saw no reason to risk their lives for the sake of the capital. Alleumes called to his companions, who now crawled through the hole, drew their swords, and kept their backs to the wall. When Greek troops at other locations saw the flight of those stationed near the walled gate, they panicked and abandoned their positions along the walls. Soon there was a snowball effect as the imperial army abandoned the length of the fortifications in a mad dash to escape the city—all because of the entry of fewer than a hundred crusaders. Mourtzouphlus, who watched the debacle with horror, spurred his horse and single-handedly charged the small party. When he saw that they would not retreat, he stopped and returned to his command station. With no one to stop them, Alleumes and his comrades opened the city gates, and the entire crusading army swarmed in.

That evening, the crusaders camped in the open region of the north city that had been burned by the Venetians nine months earlier. Strict orders were given to the host that no one was to venture farther into the city itself. In the winding streets and back alleys of the megalopolis the mobs could pick off crusaders easily. They resolved to call for the surrender of the city on the morrow. If that was refused, they would begin burning the place down.

With the imperial army in full retreat, Mourtzouphlus could rely only on the Varangian Guard. It was not enough. Desperately, he rode through the streets exhorting the people of Constantinople to rise up and defend their city from the invading westerners. No one would listen. From their perspective it was not their city that was at stake, but Mourtzouphlus’s crown. They would not suffer further damage to the capital to save his reign. Instead, they made plans to offer the city peacefully to Boniface of Montferrat, who they assumed would be the new emperor. Once he had the imperial throne, they expected that Boniface would restrain his army, since it was not in his interest to have his city destroyed. At least that is the way it had worked in all the other armed coups in Constantinople’s long history. Without the support of the people or the army, Mourtzouphlus fled the city.


On the morning of April 13, Boniface received an honor delegation of dignitaries and clergy who offered Constantinople to him. The triumphal procession was prepared. The streets were lined with citizens ready to acclaim their new emperor on his way to Hagia Sophia, where he would receive the diadem. Boniface wanted nothing more than to accept this offer, but he could not. A few weeks earlier the crusade leaders had signed a treaty stating that if the city fell to them the emperor would be elected by a council of Franks and Venetians after the city’s booty was distributed. Although Boniface hoped to win that election, in the meantime it was in his interest, and in the interest of every crusader, to pick Byzantium clean.

The army of Christ fell upon the Queen of Cities with startling ferocity. The crusading host and the Latin refugees merged into a hideous mob driven by greed, lust, and hatred. Oaths sworn on the Gospels to leave women and ecclesiastical buildings unmolested were forgotten in the frenzied anarchy. The crusaders streamed down the opulent avenues, where the people of the city stood with their precious icons to welcome the new emperor. They were the first to have their goods stripped from them. The soldiers broke into the palaces of Constantinople’s elite, confiscated everything, and expelled the owners. With nowhere to live, these bands of ragged lords streamed out of Constantinople, leaving it to its Latin conquerors. In the holy sanctuaries, the Latins stripped the altars of all precious furnishings, smashed icons for the sake of their silver or gems, and defiled the consecrated Eucharist and Precious Blood. Radiant Hagia Sophia was stripped of everything of value. The priceless altar fashioned from precious metals, gems, and marble was smashed into pieces and divided among the looters. A French prostitute was put on the throne of the patriarch, where she provided entertainment for the looters with her bawdy songs and high-kicking dances.

Equally sought after in the churches and monasteries were Constantinople’s hoards of relics. Thousands of items were shipped back to the West. A few of the city’s priceless works of ancient art were also sent home—but only a few. These included the four magnificent bronze horses that Enrico Dandolo sent back to Venice, where they would become the new symbol of Venetian prosperity and pride. Most of the artworks were simply destroyed. Hundreds of ancient bronze masterpieces were melted down for coin. Thousands of Byzantines took what little they still had and abandoned the ancient city of New Rome.

The sack of Constantinople ranks as one of the most profitable and shameful in history. Although a sack of a city that resisted capture was acceptable in the medieval moral code, it is clear that the crusaders did much more than just plunder. Despite their oaths and the threat of excommunication, they ruthlessly and systematically violated Byzantium’s holy sanctuaries, destroying, defiling, or stealing all they could lay hands on. Many also dishonored their vows to leave the women of Byzantium unmolested. When Innocent III heard of the conduct of his pilgrims, he was filled with shame. He wrote to his legate:

For they who are supposed to serve Christ rather than themselves, who should have used their swords against the infidel, have bathed those swords in the blood of Christians. They have not spared religion, nor age, nor sex, and have committed adultery and fornication in public, exposing matrons and even nuns to the filthiness of their troops.5

Nicetas Choniates, a Byzantine senator who witnessed the events, contrasted the sack of Constantinople with the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin, judging that Byzantium would have fared better had it been conquered by the infidel. He lashed out at the crusaders, who had sworn to deliver Jerusalem, promised to kill no Christians, and even proclaimed that they would refrain from sex until they had arrived in the Holy Land:

In truth they were exposed as frauds. Seeking to avenge the Holy Sepulcher, they raged openly against Christ and sinned by overturning the Cross with the cross they bore on their backs, not even shuddering to trample on it for the sake of a little gold and silver.6

The Byzantines’ deep sense of betrayal and bitter anger toward the Latins would become lasting legacies of 1204 that, for many, still live today.

In May, the representatives of the Frankish and Venetian crusaders met to elect a new emperor of Constantinople. They chose Baldwin of Flanders. He was crowned in Hagia Sophia and escorted to the Great Palace, where the Flemish knight took his place on the throne of the Caesars. The new patriarch of Constantinople, Thomas Morosini, was a Venetian priest. Faced with a fait accompli, Innocent III absolved the crusaders and welcomed Constantinople back into the Catholic fold. The Byzantine Empire was divided among the emperor, the Franks, and the Venetians. Thus was constituted the Latin Empire of Constantinople, a new feudal state built on the ruins of the Byzantine Empire. The candle of Byzantine civilization remained lit in Nicaea, where a state in exile was formed. In 1261, the sickly Latin Empire fell to the forces of Nicaea, and the Byzantine Empire was restored, but Constantinople would never be the same. The Queen of Cities had become poor, dilapidated, and largely abandoned.

The Fourth Crusade was a disappointment to the people of the crusader states, who had counted on its help to expand Christian power and perhaps reconquer Jerusalem. It was also a disappointment to the pope, who had watched helplessly as it spun out of control. He still hoped the crusade would press on to the Holy Land after consolidating its Byzantine conquests, but that was not to be. The crusaders remained in Byzantium for a year to defend the new empire and then took their riches and went home. They received heroes’ welcomes. For most Europeans, the outcome of the Fourth Crusade was God’s vengeance on the Greeks for their treacherous betrayal of the Holy Land. The favor of Christ now rested with his brave soldiers from the West, and it was therefore only right that he should bestow on them the empire of the East.

The belief that the conquest of Byzantium would assist in the conquest of the Holy Land was a mirage. The Latin Empire was so weak that it teetered constantly on the brink of destruction. It never freed itself from its own troubles long enough to consider the condition of Jerusalem. In truth, the Latin Empire weakened the crusader states, for it siphoned off to Greece some of Europe’s crusading energy in a desperate attempt to prop up the remnants of the Fourth Crusade.


1. Donald E. Queller and Thomas F. Madden, The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 224.

2. Ibid., 75.

3. Ibid., 102.

4. Robert of Clari, The Conquest of Constantinople, trans. Edgar Holmes McNeal (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), 112.

5. Queller and Madden, The Fourth Crusade, 198.

6. O City of Byzantium, Annales of Niketas Choniates, trans. Harry J. Magoulias (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984), 316.


Illustration 1. Peter the Hermit leading the First Crusade. Miniature from Egerton Manuscript 1500, f. 45v. © De Agostini/The British Library Board.


Illustration 2. Templar riding into battle. Fresco from Templar Chapel, Cressac, France. Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY.


Illustration 3. Eleanor of Aquitaine. Tomb in Fontev-rault Abbey, France. Erich Lessing/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY.


Illustration 4. The battlefield on the Horns of Hattin. Photo by the author.


Illustration 5. King Richard I the Lionheart. Tomb in Fontevrault Abbey, France. Erich Lessing/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY.


Illustration 6. Pope Innocent III. Fresco in Monastery of San Benedetto in Subiaco, Italy. Alfredo Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY.


Illustration 7. Crusaders attacking the walls of Constantinople, 1204. Mosaic fragment from San Giovanni Evangelista in Ravenna, Italy. Photo by the author.


Illustration 8. Crusaders expelling the inhabitants of Carcassonne, 1209. Miniature from Grandes Chroniques de France. © British Library Board/Robana/Art Resource, NY.


Illustration 9. St. Francis preaching to Sultan Al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade. Scala/Art Resource, NY.


Illustration 10. King Louis IX embarks on Crusade, 1248. Miniature from Chroniques de France ou de Saint Denis, vol. 1. © British Library Board/Robana/Art Resource, NY.


Illustration 11. Ruins of the Templar House in Acre. Photo by the author.


Illustration 12. Battle of Lepanto, 1571. The patron saints of the Christian forces plead to the Virgin for victory against the Turks. Painting by Paolo Veronese. Erich Lessing/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY.


Illustration 13. Statue of Saladin and defeated Crusader lords in Damascus, Syria. Photo by Colin McLurg.

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