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Fourth Crusade: Conquest of Constantinople

Originally published by MHQ magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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In April 1204, the armies of the Fourth Crusade broke into the city of Constantinople and began to loot, pillage, and slaughter their way across the greatest metropolis in the Christian world. Within months Pope Innocent III, the man who had first called for the Crusade, bitterly lamented the spilling of 'blood on Christian swords that should have been used on pagans' and described the expedition as 'an example of affliction and the works of Hell.'

Niketas Choniates, one of the inhabitants of the city, condemned the Crusaders' actions in understandably harsh terms: 'In truth, they were exposed as frauds. Seeking to avenge the Holy Spirit 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 or silver.' To the Crusaders themselves, the capture of Constantinople seemed an astonishing turn of events. One wrote: 'We might safely say that no history could ever relate marvels greater than these so far as the fortunes of war are concerned….This was done by the Lord and is a miracle above all miracles in our eyes.'

How could a combined land and naval force of perhaps twenty thousand men take a city with an estimated population of 350,000? In reality, the combination of a particularly favorable set of political circumstances, military and maritime skills of the highest order, religious zeal, and sheer good fortune enabled the Crusaders to succeed.

Before we explore the reasons behind this victory, it is crucial to explain why the Fourth Crusade arrived at Constantinople. Just over one hundred years earlier, in November 1095, Pope Urban II had issued a call to the knights of France to liberate the city of Jerusalem from Islam. In return for their efforts, these warriors would be rewarded with the remission of all their sins.

In spite of the intense religiosity of the time knights were, because of their way of life, deeply immersed in sin; the prospect of receiving an unprecedented spiritual reward (thereby avoiding eternal damnation) and being able to continue to fight was hugely alluring. To some men the prospects of land and loot were additional attractions. Urban's appeal received a rapturous response, and around sixty thousand men spent the next three years struggling across Asia Minor toward the Holy Land. They endured terrible hardships — starvation, enemy attacks, and sickness — but eventually, on July 15, 1099, they captured Jerusalem, the epicenter of the Christian faith. A Second Crusade in 1145-49 ended ingloriously, with the Christians abandoning their siege of Damascus after four futile days.

The Muslim world took several years to understand and to respond to this new war of religious colonization, but then the jihad, or countercrusade, slowly gathered momentum. Finally, in July 1187, Saladin crushed the Christian army at the Battle of Hattin, and two months later, he regained Jerusalem and much of the Levant for Islam.

The people of the West were horrified; the pope was said to have died of a heart attack, and his successor launched the Third Crusade. In spite of the participation of the mightiest Western rulers of the day (the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, King Philip II Augustus of France, and King Richard the Lion-Hearted of England), they only managed to regain control of the Palestinian coastline. It remained essential, therefore, for the Christians to launch a new campaign. When Innocent III was elected to the papal throne in 1198, he made the recovery of Christ's patrimony his overriding priority: the Fourth Crusade was born.

Preachers urged the faithful to act, but the monarchs of the day were too preoccupied with domestic issues to respond. Instead, it was the next strata of society, the senior nobility, who took up the cross and prepared to journey to Jerusalem. Foremost among these were the counts of Champagne, Blois, and Flanders. These families had a magnificent crusading heritage: The counts of Flanders had been to the Holy Land in 1099, 1108, 1139, 1147, 1157, 1164, 1177, and 1190 — an unparalleled level of commitment. Crucial for the outcome of the Fourth Crusade, they were also enthusiastic supporters of an integral part of knightly life at the time: the tournament. The chivalric culture of the day was a combination of status, religion, ritual, patronage, and a warrior ethos. The central stage for these young knights to display their prowess was the tournament field, and afterward great feasts would be held where the audience listened to tales of the deeds of heroes of days past (such as the men of the First Crusade) or the mythical quest for the Holy Grail.

Tournaments were held in a regular circuit of events across northern Europe and were easily the most realistic preparation for warfare. Roger of Howden, a contemporary writer, commented, 'He is not fit for battle who has never seen his own blood flow, who has not heard his teeth crunch under the blow of an opponent, or felt the full weight of his adversary upon him.' Tournaments of the late twelfth century bore little resemblance to the bright, highly ritualized affairs depicted by modern moviemakers. There was no well-ordered arena with grandstands full of seated spectators watching two men charge at each other. Instead, teams of up to two hundred knights fought a contest that ranged over miles of open countryside, with spectators confined to castle walls for their own safety. On the signal of a herald the two sides would charge, and with a splintering of lances they smashed into one another. Hand-to-hand fighting would break out as each group sought supremacy; the winners were likely to be the team that best preserved good order. Of course, the idea was to capture rather than kill an opponent, although fatalities were not uncommon. However, tournaments taught tight discipline, good coordination, and fighting skills — all essential elements in bringing victory to the northern European Crusaders.

Alongside the strength of their knights, the Crusaders had another formidable military attribute at their disposal: the Venetian navy. The involvement of the foremost maritime power of the day was a consequence of the Crusade's target: Egypt. It was a widely held belief at the time that the best way to regain Jerusalem was to seize the Nile Delta, because its enormous wealth would give the Christians the strength and resources to make long-term tenure in the holy city feasible. As one Muslim contemporary advised his leader, 'From Egypt you can defy all other monarchs; if you hold it, you hold the entire East and they will strike coins and recite prayers in your name.' To attempt the conquest of Egypt, a delegation of northern European knights traveled to Venice to negotiate a deal to transport the army to the Nile.

The ruler of Venice, Doge Enrico Dandolo, was an incredible man; blind and over ninety years old, he still radiated enormous charisma and authority and was keen to close the contract and, as is often forgotten, to enable his people to share in the spiritual benefits of the Crusade. Venice was as full of churches as any other medieval city, and to suggest a complete absence of religious motives from his efforts to involve his city is simply not credible. Nonetheless, the opportunity to secure prime trading privileges in Alexandria, by far the most important port in the entire Mediterranean, was also highly attractive. For Dandolo the chance to assist the Christian cause and to place his city in a position of trading supremacy would represent a dazzling legacy to future generations.

In April 1201, the Crusaders agreed to return to Venice the following year with 33,500 men and eighty-five thousand marks — an enormous commitment — in return for passage and provisioning of a fleet. It is not known why these experienced negotiators made a contract on such a scale; perhaps they were convinced that many more were poised to take the cross. They were wildly optimistic in their calculations and unwittingly imposed a destructive and crippling straitjacket on the expedition.

To complete their side of the bargain, the Venetians closed their entire commercial operations for a year — a demonstration of the massive effort required to build and equip a fleet of such a size. The ships were of three basic types: troop carriers, horse transports, and battle galleys. The troop carriers were by far the largest, with the greatest called World in acknowledgement of its size. Evidence from mosaics, ceramics, and manuscripts reveal these vessels as short, rounded creations approximately 110 feet long and 32 feet wide. Wooden structures known as 'castles' took the height of the hull over forty feet, and a massive steering oar provided directional control. A crew of about one hundred men joined six hundred passengers for a journey to the East that lasted six to eight weeks. The horse transports had specially designed slings to carry their precious cargo; once the ship drew close to shore, a door below the waterline could be opened to allow a fully armed and mounted knight to charge directly into battle — rather like a modern landing craft disgorging a tank. Finally, the long, slim Venetian battle galleys formed the principal fighting force in the fleet. These vessels, powered by one hundred oarsmen and carrying a metal-tipped ram just above the waterline, protected the fleet from hostile ships.

The first of the northern European Crusaders started to gather in Venice in the summer of 1202, but as time wore on it became apparent that the huge army promised by the envoys was not going to materialize. In fact, only around twelve thousand men arrived, and they could not hope to find the necessary cash to pay the Venetians. Clearly, this was a crisis for the Crusaders; for Doge Dandolo it represented a disaster, too. He had urged his fellow citizens to take on the Crusaders' contract, and now he had to explain to his people how he would protect their investment of time and effort.

The doge proposed an interim solution. Payment would be forestalled while the expedition went to the port of Zara (Zadar in modern Croatia) on the Adriatic. The city had recently escaped from Venetian overlordship, and the doge saw the presence of the Crusader army as an opportunity to reassert proper order. There was, however, one catch: The Zarans now were under the jurisdiction of King Emico of Hungary, and he had taken the cross. His lands, therefore, were subject to the protection of the papacy. Could a Crusade attack a Catholic city in such circumstances? To many in the army, such a scheme seemed abhorrent. Pope Innocent was furious and threatened the Crusaders with excommunication, but the Venetians insisted: Take Zara or they would not set sail.

The leadership of the Crusader army faced a dilemma. They were already deeply embarrassed by their failure to fulfill their side of the bargain at Venice. Now, if they refused the doge's request, they would be forced to return home in shame. If, however, they tolerated this aberration, then the greater cause — recapturing Jerusalem — would still be attainable. The leaders suppressed Pope Innocent's threat of excommunication. While some of the Crusaders left the fleet, the majority chose to stay, and they duly besieged and captured Zara in the autumn of 1202.

Pope Innocent wrote, '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 have, so to speak, withdrawn your hand from the plough…for when…you should have hastened to the land flowing with milk and honey, you turned away, going astray in the direction of the desert.' He excommunicated the Crusaders and the Venetians, and although a penitent delegation from the former group managed to gain absolution, the latter were viewed in a largely negative light from that time onward.

As the fleet wintered in Zara, they received a delegation bearing an intriguing offer. Representatives of Prince Alexius Angelos, a claimant to the throne of Byzantium, arrived at the Crusader camp. Well aware of their ongoing shortfalls of men and money, the prince offered to provide two hundred thousand silver marks, the services of ten thousand fighting men, provisions for all the Crusaders, and maintenance of a garrison of five hundred men in the Holy Land. Even more enticing, these Byzantines indicated that the Orthodox Church would recognize the authority of Rome.

Back in 1054, a long-running dispute between the Orthodox and the Catholic churches over differences of liturgy and doctrine resulted in a formal schism (which lasts to the present day). If Prince Alexius fulfilled his promise, this development would represent a huge increase in authority for the Catholic Church. There was, of course, a price attached to this. The Crusaders had to take the prince back to Constantinople and secure the imperial throne for him. This, his envoys assured the Crusaders, would be easy since the people resented the incumbent ruler of Byzantium, Emperor Alexius III, and would welcome the young man with open arms. The idea of restoring land to a wrongfully dispossessed cause was something the Crusaders — in their efforts to regain Christ's land for the faithful — could easily understand and, in conjunction with their dire financial position, made the Greeks' offer very attractive.

Once again the Crusade was plunged into a terrible crisis. Significant numbers of the army could not stomach the idea of turning their weapons against another group of Christians; as one argued, 'They had not left their homes to do any such thing and for their part they wished to go to the Holy Land.' The majority of the leaders took a longer view. To them the ultimate goal of the Crusade remained Jerusalem, and with this in mind, they accepted the proposal in January 1203. With the support of Prince Alexius they would be in a far stronger position to accomplish their aim. The supreme irony is, therefore, that it was through the direct invitation of a Greek prince that the Fourth Crusade turned toward Constantinople. Contrary to many speculations, there had never been any premeditated plan to do this.

Conspiracy theories have abounded. For example, some historians have claimed Doge Dandolo was blinded on an earlier visit to Constantinople and now sought revenge. In reality, contemporaries attest that he could see long after this date. The Venetians have been accused of steering the Crusade toward the wealth of Byzantium, yet the spoils in Egypt were far, far greater. The reality remains: Prince Alexius was responsible for bringing the Crusade to Constantinople.

In June 1203, the fleet sailed through the Dardanelles and down the Bosporus. As they caught their first glimpse of Constantinople, many of the knights were awestruck. Never had they seen such a splendid sight. Geoffrey of Villehardouin, marshal of the county of Champagne, wrote:


I can assure you that all those who had never seen Constantinople before gazed very intently upon the city, having never imagined there could be so fine a place in the entire world. They noted the high walls and lofty towers encircling it, and its rich palaces and tall churches, of which there were so many that no one would have believed it to be true if he had not seen it with his own eyes, and viewed the length and breadth of that city which reigns supreme over all others. There was indeed no man so brave and daring that his flesh did not shudder at the sight. Nor was this to be wondered at, for never had so grand an enterprise been carried out by any people since the creation of the world.

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Roman emperors seeking a safe haven from the barbarians ravaging their homelands had founded Constantinople in the fourth century. Over the centuries the 'new Rome' came to dominate lands across Asia Minor as well as modern Greece, Albania, and Bulgaria. 'The queen of cities,' as her proud inhabitants called her, lay on a triangle of land bounded on one side by the inlet of the Golden Horn, on another by the Bosporus, and on the landward side by the mighty Theodosian walls, still standing today and running uninterrupted for three and one-half miles. The city was filled with superb churches and palaces boasting splendid relics and treasures on a scale far beyond the Crusaders' experience. The greatest church of all, Hagia Sophia, remains one of the world's most impressive buildings, topped by its central dome, 180 feet high.

At the time of the Fourth Crusade, however, the Byzantine Empire was in a seriously weakened condition. For much of the twelfth century there had been genuine order, but the death of Manuel Comnenus in 1180 had provoked a period of instability that continued to plague the empire. In the seventy-nine years before Manuel's death there had been only three rebellions; in the twenty years after there were fifty-eight. The precarious condition of the Byzantine Empire could only benefit the Crusaders.

Emperor Alexius III proved an astute, capable political operator. Hearing of the imminent arrival of his young challenger, he spread propaganda dismissing Alexius Angelos' claim and drawing attention to the prince's 'barbarian' allies. He argued that the Crusaders had 'come to destroy their ancient liberty and they were hastening to return the place and its people to the papacy and to subjugate the empire.' (The idea of stirring up local opposition against an outside force is familiar to us today from the Iraq conflict.) Alexius III's rhetoric proved highly effective, and when the Crusade leaders paraded their ally in front of the walls of Constantinople, the populace reacted to his presence with either utter indifference or hostility. This was a calamity for the Crusaders; now they would have to fight.

On July 5, 1203, across the Golden Horn from Constantinople, they mounted the largest amphibious assault yet attempted in medieval warfare. The Greeks did not oppose their landing, and the Crusaders quickly drew themselves up into the ordered battle line that they would adopt repeatedly over the next few years. They formed up into seven divisions, according to their origins: two from Flanders; one each from Blois, Amiens, Burgundy, and Champagne; and a rear guard of a combined Lombard and German force. The Venetians remained in charge of the fleet.

Soon the Crusaders captured the suburb of Galata, and then the fleet broke through the huge chain slung across the entrance to the Golden Horn. The chain was designed to protect the slightly weaker walls along the inlet, and its destruction allowed the Crusaders precious access to this more vulnerable side of the city. Soon both elements of the Crusader army began to engage the Greek forces and to demonstrate their special military expertise. The Venetian ships used scaling ladders and crossbeams to try to breach the walls along the Golden Horn while their comrades deployed themselves on the open land outside the Blachernae Palace at the northwestern tip of the city.

By July 17, the Venetians managed to get a hold on the walls, but Emperor Alexius sent his crack troops, the formidable Varangian Guard, to resist them. These men were mercenaries, often of Scandinavian origin, whose chief weapon was a mighty ax. They halted the Venetians' progress, but outside the walls to the north the Frankish knights faced a potentially disastrous confrontation. After a couple days of futile bombardment, the Byzantines decided to deploy their field army. The size of their force — up to seventeen divisions — dwarfed that of the Westerners. One Crusader wrote, 'You might have thought the whole world was there assembled.' Meanwhile, the Venetians started fires, and billowing clouds of smoke formed a menacing backdrop to the Constantinople skyline.

The Franks formed up in good order, with archers and crossbowmen in front of the knights. Even the camp followers joined in, donning horse quilts and copper cooking pots for protection. The Greeks advanced toward the Crusaders. The Western leaders had laid down the strictest instructions not to break ranks before a formal command. So many times in the past — desperate to perform an act of heroism — individuals or small groups of men had charged at an enemy only to fatally compromise the strength of their forces and to lose their own lives.

At one moment the Crusaders nearly lost formation, but they carried on until the enemy stood just across a small brook. The Westerners were terrified; one wrote that it felt as if a huge wave was about to come crashing down on them. They were poised to retreat when, unbelievably, Emperor Alexius gave the signal for his men to withdraw. The Crusaders were amazed. They could barely comprehend why such a vast force had not challenged them. It will never be known why the emperor made this decision; perhaps the reputation of the Crusader heavy cavalry — said to be able to charge through the walls of Babylon — deterred him. Their determined march toward the Byzantine forces may have made him fear the cost of breaking their lines. One of the Crusade leaders certainly believed this: 'When they saw that we were brave and steadfast and that we moved forward one after the other in formation and that we could not be overrun or broken they rightly became terrified and confused. Retreating before us they dared not fight.' Yet surely the Byzantines' sheer numbers and the fact that they had mounted knights of their own would have given them a decisive advantage.

In any case, the emperor had lost the will to fight. On that same night, he stole out of Constantinople and fled into exile. The following day, the news began to spread and the Crusaders and their young ally made a triumphal entry into the city. On August 1, 1203, he was crowned Emperor Alexius IV. It seemed that the Crusaders' gamble had paid off and they could look forward to a restful winter before proceeding on to the Holy Land with a bigger and properly resourced army. Plainly, this did not happen. What destroyed the dream of Orthodox-Catholic cooperation?

The seeds of discontent lay in the Byzantines' resentment toward their new emperor's 'barbarian' allies. The agreement between Alexius IV and the Crusaders meant that the citizens of Constantinople were required to produce the huge sums of money promised to the Westerners. The Crusaders began to push for settlement of the debt. The harder Alexius IV tried to pressure his subjects into paying, the more they resisted. The young man had little political experience and lacked a solid local power base. Soon he was hopelessly trapped. Amid increasing tensions, the virulently anti-Western noble Murtzuphlus murdered the emperor on February 8, 1204.

Attacks on the Crusader camp followed. An audacious attempt to destroy the Venetian fleet using fire ships almost succeeded. Only the sailors' skill in using hooks and ropes to drag the burning vessels away from their own averted disaster. With their ally gone, the Westerners' position became increasingly grim. They struggled for supplies and faced ever-increasing hostility from the Greeks.

As they considered their position, few options remained. They could return home as failures or they could carry on to the Holy Land, although their weakened condition made it unlikely that they could recover Jerusalem. A third alternative was to assault Constantinople itself. While an attack on a Christian city still seemed contrary to their vows, they could now construct a case in which the Greeks were murderers and oath-breakers. Furthermore, the Orthodox Church remained independent of Rome; the legacy of the 1054 schism could be brought to bear, and the Byzantines could be branded as heretics. Pope Innocent III would doubtless have objected to these arguments, but the churchmen in the Crusader army, dealing with their desperate position outside Constantinople, endorsed an attack as part of the Crusade.

The two sides prepared for the decisive encounter. The Westerners decided to focus their attention on the walls along the Golden Horn; as in the previous year's assault, they would use the Venetian ships as the main method of gaining entry into the city. They hoisted huge beams above the decks and lashed them across the masts. The shipwrights and carpenters created a fighting platform about ninety-six feet above the deck. They covered this with hides to protect the men from fire and arrows as they walked two abreast along what was, in effect, a huge tube projecting out from the ships. The idea was to deliver the men to the top of the battlements so they could then fight their way onto the walls and gain a foothold for others to follow.

The Greeks did not sit by and wait passively. Murtzuphlus, who was by now crowned emperor, ordered the defenses along the Golden Horn to be strengthened. Byzantine workmen began to smother the regular line of crenellations and towers with a hideous shantytown of multistoried wooden constructions (some said to be six levels high) designed to make a barrier tall enough to defy the Westerners' ships.

The Crusaders made their final preparations on April 8. The priests moved through the army, taking the confessions of all the men and praying for victory. The next morning ships sailed up to the walls and the onslaught began. Both sides fired a hail of stones at each other. Archers released clouds of arrows as the tumult of battle grew. Try as they might the Crusaders could not get their vessels close enough to land, and as the day wore on it became apparent that the Byzantines were holding firm. They began to taunt the Westerners with obscene gestures, delighting in their lack of progress. The dispirited Crusaders withdrew; it seemed that God had not favored them. Morale was terribly low, food was in short supply, and many of the men wanted to abandon the siege. At this darkest point of the campaign, the leaders gathered and resolved to make one more attack.

After a couple of days spent refitting their equipment, the Crusaders launched their last assault on April 12. At first they made little impact, and it seemed as if the expedition was about to disintegrate. Around midday, however, the Crusaders received a vital stroke of good luck — or, as they saw it, divine intervention. The wind began to blow from the north, and this finally pushed their ships right up to the walls of Constantinople. At last they could make a proper attempt to get into the city.

Two of the mightiest ships in the fleet, Paradise and Pilgrim, had been lashed together to create the biggest assault platform of all. As this leviathan inched forward, its twin flying bridges reached out to give a lethal embrace to one of the towers. Poised high above the ship, two Crusaders — one Venetian, one French — must have looked out of their protective tunnels at the defenses of Constantinople and prepared themselves to brave the line of grim-faced defenders. The Venetian jumped first, but defenders slaughtered him almost immediately. His comrade, Andrew Dureboise, was more fortunate and managed to resist the blows of the enemy long enough to allow others to join him. Soon they drove the Greeks from the tower; one small finger hold had been gained.

For real progress, however, the Crusaders would need a bigger bridgehead. Peter, lord of Amiens, saw a bricked-up postern gate with a narrow strip of land in front of it. He sent a contingent armed with pickaxes to try to break through. The gate became a magnet for the two sides; the Crusaders brought up protective shields as the Greeks gathered above to bombard them with rocks and pour boiling oil down upon them. The Westerners resisted, slowly chipping through the walls to make a small breach.

An eyewitness account of this episode from Robert of Clari, a northern French knight, represents an emerging genre of historical writing: narratives of martial experiences written by the knights and nobles who were directly involved instead of second-hand accounts written by clerics. Robert's work is noteworthy because he was not one of the expedition's leaders; his view is more that of a frontline soldier. Robert had a particular interest in this incident because the man who chose to go through the gap first was his brother, Aleaumes. The hole must have been small — imagine crawling through a fireplace — and on the other side waited heavily armed defenders. Robert was torn between admiration for his brother and a filial sense of protection. He tried to drag his brother back, but Aleaumes kicked him away and, putting his faith in God, squeezed through.

Immediately, the Byzantines descended upon him, raining down blows and cutting him with swords. Incredibly, the armored Aleaumes survived, rose to his feet, and warded them off. The Greeks were horrified; it was as if the knight had risen from the dead. Petrified, they turned and fled. 'Lords enter hardily! I see them drawing back dismayed and beginning to run away,' called Aleaumes, and other men pushed through the hole and joined him. Once inside, Peter of Amiens quickly directed them to the nearest gate in the walls, and within minutes the Crusaders opened it. They had breached Constantinople's defenses and could now pour into the city.

Murtzuphlus tried to rally his troops, but he had to fall back. The Westerners took possession of the northern section of the city, then chose to consolidate their position rather than spread out across the entire metropolis and drastically dilute their strength. As happened the previous year after a serious military setback, the Byzantine emperor chose to flee rather than resist. Under the cover of darkness, Murtzuphlus scurried away to try to prolong his resistance to another day.

On the morning of April 13, a delegation of Byzantine churchmen and senior nobles offered their submission to the Crusaders. Their hopes for a peaceful takeover were, however, entirely in vain. The tension of waiting outside the city walls for months, suffering the attacks of the Greeks, and enduring the broken promises of food and aid, as well as a sense of anger toward people they viewed as heretics and murderers, spilled over into a surging mass of violence and destruction.

Over the next three days, the Crusaders swarmed across the city, breaking into churches, palaces, and houses, and seizing booty with an insatiable greed. Nicholas Mesarites, a contemporary Byzantine writer, observed 'war-maddened swordsmen, breathing murder, iron-clad and spear-bearing, sword-bearers and lance bearers, bowmen, horsemen, boasting dreadfully, baying like Cerberus and breathing like Charon, pillaging the holy places, trampling down on divine things, running riot over holy things, casting down to the floor the holy images of Christ and His holy Mother and of the holy men who from eternity have been pleasing to the Lord God.'

Eventually, calm returned and the spoils of war could be apportioned; at last the Venetians were paid the money owed to them. The Crusaders elected Count Baldwin of Flanders as the first Latin Emperor of Constantinople and divided the Byzantine lands amongst themselves and their Venetian allies.

Soon they began to send news of their achievement back to the West, arguing that God had exercised his judgment on the sinful Greeks. Initially, Pope Innocent was overjoyed and celebrated the Crusaders' success, but as he received news of their atrocities against defenseless women and children and their plundering of the holy sites, he condemned them as 'having turned away from the purity of your vow when you took up arms not against Saracens, but Christians…preferring earthly wealth to celestial treasures.'

The Crusaders faced a difficult struggle to establish their new empire. Many of the men returned home; some went on to complete their pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Those who remained had to fight a series of battles against the surviving Greeks, as well as the fearsome king of the Bulgarians to the north. At first the Westerners' strict discipline stood them in good stead, but eventually their good fortune deserted them; in April 1205, the Bulgarians defeated them and Emperor Baldwin perished. The Latin Empire struggled on until 1261, when the Greeks retook Constantinople, although the Venetian territories, based in the safer and commercially advantageous islands (especially Crete), flourished until the late sixteenth century.

The ruler of Venice, Doge Enrico Dandolo, was an incredible man; blind and over ninety years old, he still radiated enormous charisma and authority and was keen to close the contract and, as is often forgotten, to enable his people to share in the spiritual benefits of the Crusade. Venice was as full of churches as any other medieval city, and to suggest a complete absence of religious motives from his efforts to involve his city is simply not credible. Nonetheless, the opportunity to secure prime trading privileges in Alexandria, by far the most important port in the entire Mediterranean, was also highly attractive. For Dandolo the chance to assist the Christian cause and to place his city in a position of trading supremacy would represent a dazzling legacy to future generations.

In April 1201, the Crusaders agreed to return to Venice the following year with 33,500 men and eighty-five thousand marks — an enormous commitment — in return for passage and provisioning of a fleet. It is not known why these experienced negotiators made a contract on such a scale; perhaps they were convinced that many more were poised to take the cross. They were wildly optimistic in their calculations and unwittingly imposed a destructive and crippling straitjacket on the expedition.

To complete their side of the bargain, the Venetians closed their entire commercial operations for a year — a demonstration of the massive effort required to build and equip a fleet of such a size. The ships were of three basic types: troop carriers, horse transports, and battle galleys. The troop carriers were by far the largest, with the greatest called World in acknowledgement of its size. Evidence from mosaics, ceramics, and manuscripts reveal these vessels as short, rounded creations approximately 110 feet long and 32 feet wide. Wooden structures known as 'castles' took the height of the hull over forty feet, and a massive steering oar provided directional control. A crew of about one hundred men joined six hundred passengers for a journey to the East that lasted six to eight weeks. The horse transports had specially designed slings to carry their precious cargo; once the ship drew close to shore, a door below the waterline could be opened to allow a fully armed and mounted knight to charge directly into battle — rather like a modern landing craft disgorging a tank. Finally, the long, slim Venetian battle galleys formed the principal fighting force in the fleet. These vessels, powered by one hundred oarsmen and carrying a metal-tipped ram just above the waterline, protected the fleet from hostile ships.

The first of the northern European Crusaders started to gather in Venice in the summer of 1202, but as time wore on it became apparent that the huge army promised by the envoys was not going to materialize. In fact, only around twelve thousand men arrived, and they could not hope to find the necessary cash to pay the Venetians. Clearly, this was a crisis for the Crusaders; for Doge Dandolo it represented a disaster, too. He had urged his fellow citizens to take on the Crusaders' contract, and now he had to explain to his people how he would protect their investment of time and effort.

The doge proposed an interim solution. Payment would be forestalled while the expedition went to the port of Zara (Zadar in modern Croatia) on the Adriatic. The city had recently escaped from Venetian overlordship, and the doge saw the presence of the Crusader army as an opportunity to reassert proper order. There was, however, one catch: The Zarans now were under the jurisdiction of King Emico of Hungary, and he had taken the cross. His lands, therefore, were subject to the protection of the papacy. Could a Crusade attack a Catholic city in such circumstances? To many in the army, such a scheme seemed abhorrent. Pope Innocent was furious and threatened the Crusaders with excommunication, but the Venetians insisted: Take Zara or they would not set sail.

The leadership of the Crusader army faced a dilemma. They were already deeply embarrassed by their failure to fulfill their side of the bargain at Venice. Now, if they refused the doge's request, they would be forced to return home in shame. If, however, they tolerated this aberration, then the greater cause — recapturing Jerusalem — would still be attainable. The leaders suppressed Pope Innocent's threat of excommunication. While some of the Crusaders left the fleet, the majority chose to stay, and they duly besieged and captured Zara in the autumn of 1202.

Pope Innocent wrote, '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 have, so to speak, withdrawn your hand from the plough…for when…you should have hastened to the land flowing with milk and honey, you turned away, going astray in the direction of the desert.' He excommunicated the Crusaders and the Venetians, and although a penitent delegation from the former group managed to gain absolution, the latter were viewed in a largely negative light from that time onward.

As the fleet wintered in Zara, they received a delegation bearing an intriguing offer. Representatives of Prince Alexius Angelos, a claimant to the throne of Byzantium, arrived at the Crusader camp. Well aware of their ongoing shortfalls of men and money, the prince offered to provide two hundred thousand silver marks, the services of ten thousand fighting men, provisions for all the Crusaders, and maintenance of a garrison of five hundred men in the Holy Land. Even more enticing, these Byzantines indicated that the Orthodox Church would recognize the authority of Rome.

Back in 1054, a long-running dispute between the Orthodox and the Catholic churches over differences of liturgy and doctrine resulted in a formal schism (which lasts to the present day). If Prince Alexius fulfilled his promise, this development would represent a huge increase in authority for the Catholic Church. There was, of course, a price attached to this. The Crusaders had to take the prince back to Constantinople and secure the imperial throne for him. This, his envoys assured the Crusaders, would be easy since the people resented the incumbent ruler of Byzantium, Emperor Alexius III, and would welcome the young man with open arms. The idea of restoring land to a wrongfully dispossessed cause was something the Crusaders — in their efforts to regain Christ's land for the faithful — could easily understand and, in conjunction with their dire financial position, made the Greeks' offer very attractive.

Once again the Crusade was plunged into a terrible crisis. Significant numbers of the army could not stomach the idea of turning their weapons against another group of Christians; as one argued, 'They had not left their homes to do any such thing and for their part they wished to go to the Holy Land.' The majority of the leaders took a longer view. To them the ultimate goal of the Crusade remained Jerusalem, and with this in mind, they accepted the proposal in January 1203. With the support of Prince Alexius they would be in a far stronger position to accomplish their aim. The supreme irony is, therefore, that it was through the direct invitation of a Greek prince that the Fourth Crusade turned toward Constantinople. Contrary to many speculations, there had never been any premeditated plan to do this.

Conspiracy theories have abounded. For example, some historians have claimed Doge Dandolo was blinded on an earlier visit to Constantinople and now sought revenge. In reality, contemporaries attest that he could see long after this date. The Venetians have been accused of steering the Crusade toward the wealth of Byzantium, yet the spoils in Egypt were far, far greater. The reality remains: Prince Alexius was responsible for bringing the Crusade to Constantinople.

In June 1203, the fleet sailed through the Dardanelles and down the Bosporus. As they caught their first glimpse of Constantinople, many of the knights were awestruck. Never had they seen such a splendid sight. Geoffrey of Villehardouin, marshal of the county of Champagne, wrote:

I can assure you that all those who had never seen Constantinople before gazed very intently upon the city, having never imagined there could be so fine a place in the entire world. They noted the high walls and lofty towers encircling it, and its rich palaces and tall churches, of which there were so many that no one would have believed it to be true if he had not seen it with his own eyes, and viewed the length and breadth of that city which reigns supreme over all others. There was indeed no man so brave and daring that his flesh did not shudder at the sight. Nor was this to be wondered at, for never had so grand an enterprise been carried out by any people since the creation of the world.

Roman emperors seeking a safe haven from the barbarians ravaging their homelands had founded Constantinople in the fourth century. Over the centuries the 'new Rome' came to dominate lands across Asia Minor as well as modern Greece, Albania, and Bulgaria. 'The queen of cities,' as her proud inhabitants called her, lay on a triangle of land bounded on one side by the inlet of the Golden Horn, on another by the Bosporus, and on the landward side by the mighty Theodosian walls, still standing today and running uninterrupted for three and one-half miles. The city was filled with superb churches and palaces boasting splendid relics and treasures on a scale far beyond the Crusaders' experience. The greatest church of all, Hagia Sophia, remains one of the world's most impressive buildings, topped by its central dome, 180 feet high.

At the time of the Fourth Crusade, however, the Byzantine Empire was in a seriously weakened condition. For much of the twelfth century there had been genuine order, but the death of Manuel Comnenus in 1180 had provoked a period of instability that continued to plague the empire. In the seventy-nine years before Manuel's death there had been only three rebellions; in the twenty years after there were fifty-eight. The precarious condition of the Byzantine Empire could only benefit the Crusaders.

Emperor Alexius III proved an astute, capable political operator. Hearing of the imminent arrival of his young challenger, he spread propaganda dismissing Alexius Angelos' claim and drawing attention to the prince's 'barbarian' allies. He argued that the Crusaders had 'come to destroy their ancient liberty and they were hastening to return the place and its people to the papacy and to subjugate the empire.' (The idea of stirring up local opposition against an outside force is familiar to us today from the Iraq conflict.) Alexius III's rhetoric proved highly effective, and when the Crusade leaders paraded their ally in front of the walls of Constantinople, the populace reacted to his presence with either utter indifference or hostility. This was a calamity for the Crusaders; now they would have to fight.

On July 5, 1203, across the Golden Horn from Constantinople, they mounted the largest amphibious assault yet attempted in medieval warfare. The Greeks did not oppose their landing, and the Crusaders quickly drew themselves up into the ordered battle line that they would adopt repeatedly over the next few years. They formed up into seven divisions, according to their origins: two from Flanders; one each from Blois, Amiens, Burgundy, and Champagne; and a rear guard of a combined Lombard and German force. The Venetians remained in charge of the fleet.

Soon the Crusaders captured the suburb of Galata, and then the fleet broke through the huge chain slung across the entrance to the Golden Horn. The chain was designed to protect the slightly weaker walls along the inlet, and its destruction allowed the Crusaders precious access to this more vulnerable side of the city. Soon both elements of the Crusader army began to engage the Greek forces and to demonstrate their special military expertise. The Venetian ships used scaling ladders and crossbeams to try to breach the walls along the Golden Horn while their comrades deployed themselves on the open land outside the Blachernae Palace at the northwestern tip of the city.

By July 17, the Venetians managed to get a hold on the walls, but Emperor Alexius sent his crack troops, the formidable Varangian Guard, to resist them. These men were mercenaries, often of Scandinavian origin, whose chief weapon was a mighty ax. They halted the Venetians' progress, but outside the walls to the north the Frankish knights faced a potentially disastrous confrontation. After a couple days of futile bombardment, the Byzantines decided to deploy their field army. The size of their force — up to seventeen divisions — dwarfed that of the Westerners. One Crusader wrote, 'You might have thought the whole world was there assembled.' Meanwhile, the Venetians started fires, and billowing clouds of smoke formed a menacing backdrop to the Constantinople skyline.

The Franks formed up in good order, with archers and crossbowmen in front of the knights. Even the camp followers joined in, donning horse quilts and copper cooking pots for protection. The Greeks advanced toward the Crusaders. The Western leaders had laid down the strictest instructions not to break ranks before a formal command. So many times in the past — desperate to perform an act of heroism — individuals or small groups of men had charged at an enemy only to fatally compromise the strength of their forces and to lose their own lives.

At one moment the Crusaders nearly lost formation, but they carried on until the enemy stood just across a small brook. The Westerners were terrified; one wrote that it felt as if a huge wave was about to come crashing down on them. They were poised to retreat when, unbelievably, Emperor Alexius gave the signal for his men to withdraw. The Crusaders were amazed. They could barely comprehend why such a vast force had not challenged them. It will never be known why the emperor made this decision; perhaps the reputation of the Crusader heavy cavalry — said to be able to charge through the walls of Babylon — deterred him. Their determined march toward the Byzantine forces may have made him fear the cost of breaking their lines. One of the Crusade leaders certainly believed this: 'When they saw that we were brave and steadfast and that we moved forward one after the other in formation and that we could not be overrun or broken they rightly became terrified and confused. Retreating before us they dared not fight.' Yet surely the Byzantines' sheer numbers and the fact that they had mounted knights of their own would have given them a decisive advantage.

In any case, the emperor had lost the will to fight. On that same night, he stole out of Constantinople and fled into exile. The following day, the news began to spread and the Crusaders and their young ally made a triumphal entry into the city. On August 1, 1203, he was crowned Emperor Alexius IV. It seemed that the Crusaders' gamble had paid off and they could look forward to a restful winter before proceeding on to the Holy Land with a bigger and properly resourced army. Plainly, this did not happen. What destroyed the dream of Orthodox-Catholic cooperation?

The seeds of discontent lay in the Byzantines' resentment toward their new emperor's 'barbarian' allies. The agreement between Alexius IV and the Crusaders meant that the citizens of Constantinople were required to produce the huge sums of money promised to the Westerners. The Crusaders began to push for settlement of the debt. The harder Alexius IV tried to pressure his subjects into paying, the more they resisted. The young man had little political experience and lacked a solid local power base. Soon he was hopelessly trapped. Amid increasing tensions, the virulently anti-Western noble Murtzuphlus murdered the emperor on February 8, 1204.

Attacks on the Crusader camp followed. An audacious attempt to destroy the Venetian fleet using fire ships almost succeeded. Only the sailors' skill in using hooks and ropes to drag the burning vessels away from their own averted disaster. With their ally gone, the Westerners' position became increasingly grim. They struggled for supplies and faced ever-increasing hostility from the Greeks.

As they considered their position, few options remained. They could return home as failures or they could carry on to the Holy Land, although their weakened condition made it unlikely that they could recover Jerusalem. A third alternative was to assault Constantinople itself. While an attack on a Christian city still seemed contrary to their vows, they could now construct a case in which the Greeks were murderers and oath-breakers. Furthermore, the Orthodox Church remained independent of Rome; the legacy of the 1054 schism could be brought to bear, and the Byzantines could be branded as heretics. Pope Innocent III would doubtless have objected to these arguments, but the churchmen in the Crusader army, dealing with their desperate position outside Constantinople, endorsed an attack as part of the Crusade.

The two sides prepared for the decisive encounter. The Westerners decided to focus their attention on the walls along the Golden Horn; as in the previous year's assault, they would use the Venetian ships as the main method of gaining entry into the city. They hoisted huge beams above the decks and lashed them across the masts. The shipwrights and carpenters created a fighting platform about ninety-six feet above the deck. They covered this with hides to protect the men from fire and arrows as they walked two abreast along what was, in effect, a huge tube projecting out from the ships. The idea was to deliver the men to the top of the battlements so they could then fight their way onto the walls and gain a foothold for others to follow.

The Greeks did not sit by and wait passively. Murtzuphlus, who was by now crowned emperor, ordered the defenses along the Golden Horn to be strengthened. Byzantine workmen began to smother the regular line of crenellations and towers with a hideous shantytown of multistoried wooden constructions (some said to be six levels high) designed to make a barrier tall enough to defy the Westerners' ships.

The Crusaders made their final preparations on April 8. The priests moved through the army, taking the confessions of all the men and praying for victory. The next morning ships sailed up to the walls and the onslaught began. Both sides fired a hail of stones at each other. Archers released clouds of arrows as the tumult of battle grew. Try as they might the Crusaders could not get their vessels close enough to land, and as the day wore on it became apparent that the Byzantines were holding firm. They began to taunt the Westerners with obscene gestures, delighting in their lack of progress. The dispirited Crusaders withdrew; it seemed that God had not favored them. Morale was terribly low, food was in short supply, and many of the men wanted to abandon the siege. At this darkest point of the campaign, the leaders gathered and resolved to make one more attack.

After a couple of days spent refitting their equipment, the Crusaders launched their last assault on April 12. At first they made little impact, and it seemed as if the expedition was about to disintegrate. Around midday, however, the Crusaders received a vital stroke of good luck — or, as they saw it, divine intervention. The wind began to blow from the north, and this finally pushed their ships right up to the walls of Constantinople. At last they could make a proper attempt to get into the city.

Two of the mightiest ships in the fleet, Paradise and Pilgrim, had been lashed together to create the biggest assault platform of all. As this leviathan inched forward, its twin flying bridges reached out to give a lethal embrace to one of the towers. Poised high above the ship, two Crusaders — one Venetian, one French — must have looked out of their protective tunnels at the defenses of Constantinople and prepared themselves to brave the line of grim-faced defenders. The Venetian jumped first, but defenders slaughtered him almost immediately. His comrade, Andrew Dureboise, was more fortunate and managed to resist the blows of the enemy long enough to allow others to join him. Soon they drove the Greeks from the tower; one small finger hold had been gained.

For real progress, however, the Crusaders would need a bigger bridgehead. Peter, lord of Amiens, saw a bricked-up postern gate with a narrow strip of land in front of it. He sent a contingent armed with pickaxes to try to break through. The gate became a magnet for the two sides; the Crusaders brought up protective shields as the Greeks gathered above to bombard them with rocks and pour boiling oil down upon them. The Westerners resisted, slowly chipping through the walls to make a small breach.

An eyewitness account of this episode from Robert of Clari, a northern French knight, represents an emerging genre of historical writing: narratives of martial experiences written by the knights and nobles who were directly involved instead of second-hand accounts written by clerics. Robert's work is noteworthy because he was not one of the expedition's leaders; his view is more that of a frontline soldier. Robert had a particular interest in this incident because the man who chose to go through the gap first was his brother, Aleaumes. The hole must have been small — imagine crawling through a fireplace — and on the other side waited heavily armed defenders. Robert was torn between admiration for his brother and a filial sense of protection. He tried to drag his brother back, but Aleaumes kicked him away and, putting his faith in God, squeezed through.

Immediately, the Byzantines descended upon him, raining down blows and cutting him with swords. Incredibly, the armored Aleaumes survived, rose to his feet, and warded them off. The Greeks were horrified; it was as if the knight had risen from the dead. Petrified, they turned and fled. 'Lords enter hardily! I see them drawing back dismayed and beginning to run away,' called Aleaumes, and other men pushed through the hole and joined him. Once inside, Peter of Amiens quickly directed them to the nearest gate in the walls, and within minutes the Crusaders opened it. They had breached Constantinople's defenses and could now pour into the city.

Murtzuphlus tried to rally his troops, but he had to fall back. The Westerners took possession of the northern section of the city, then chose to consolidate their position rather than spread out across the entire metropolis and drastically dilute their strength. As happened the previous year after a serious military setback, the Byzantine emperor chose to flee rather than resist. Under the cover of darkness, Murtzuphlus scurried away to try to prolong his resistance to another day.

On the morning of April 13, a delegation of Byzantine churchmen and senior nobles offered their submission to the Crusaders. Their hopes for a peaceful takeover were, however, entirely in vain. The tension of waiting outside the city walls for months, suffering the attacks of the Greeks, and enduring the broken promises of food and aid, as well as a sense of anger toward people they viewed as heretics and murderers, spilled over into a surging mass of violence and destruction.

Over the next three days, the Crusaders swarmed across the city, breaking into churches, palaces, and houses, and seizing booty with an insatiable greed. Nicholas Mesarites, a contemporary Byzantine writer, observed 'war-maddened swordsmen, breathing murder, iron-clad and spear-bearing, sword-bearers and lance bearers, bowmen, horsemen, boasting dreadfully, baying like Cerberus and breathing like Charon, pillaging the holy places, trampling down on divine things, running riot over holy things, casting down to the floor the holy images of Christ and His holy Mother and of the holy men who from eternity have been pleasing to the Lord God.'

Eventually, calm returned and the spoils of war could be apportioned; at last the Venetians were paid the money owed to them. The Crusaders elected Count Baldwin of Flanders as the first Latin Emperor of Constantinople and divided the Byzantine lands amongst themselves and their Venetian allies.

Soon they began to send news of their achievement back to the West, arguing that God had exercised his judgment on the sinful Greeks. Initially, Pope Innocent was overjoyed and celebrated the Crusaders' success, but as he received news of their atrocities against defenseless women and children and their plundering of the holy sites, he condemned them as 'having turned away from the purity of your vow when you took up arms not against Saracens, but Christians…preferring earthly wealth to celestial treasures.'

The Crusaders faced a difficult struggle to establish their new empire. Many of the men returned home; some went on to complete their pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Those who remained had to fight a series of battles against the surviving Greeks, as well as the fearsome king of the Bulgarians to the north. At first the Westerners' strict discipline stood them in good stead, but eventually their good fortune deserted them; in April 1205, the Bulgarians defeated them and Emperor Baldwin perished. The Latin Empire struggled on until 1261, when the Greeks retook Constantinople, although the Venetian territories, based in the safer and commercially advantageous islands (especially Crete), flourished until the late sixteenth century.

The events of April 1204 are etched onto the consciousness of Crusade historians, both past and present, as well as the people of Constantinople and the Greek Orthodox Church. Sir Steven Runciman in his A History of the Crusades described it as 'a sin against the Holy Ghost.' As recently as the summer of 2001, Pope John Paul II wrote: 'It is tragic that the assailants, who set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their brothers in the faith. That they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret.'

Medieval crusading has an obvious relevance to the tensions of the modern world, be they statements by George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, or Saddam Hussein. It is worth remembering, however, that medieval crusading — and its legacy — stretches far wider than the conflict between Islam and the West it is so commonly perceived to be.



This article was written by Jonathan Phillips and originally published in the Autumn 2005 edition of MHQ. Jonathan Phillips is a reader in Crusading history at Royal Holloway, University of London. This article is adapted from his recent book The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, Viking, 2004.

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7 Responses to “Fourth Crusade: Conquest of Constantinople”


  1. 1

    [...] be back on the shelf yet. However, I find someone who clearly read the same book writing an article on Historynet.com which basically repeats the relevant text: To complete their side of the bargain, the Venetians [...]

  2. 2
    juan says:

    wow

  3. 3

    [...] set the Roman Church further down its path of infallibility via a singular church institution.  Not much later, the Western siege of Constantinople happened as part of the greater crusades – probably also [...]

  4. 4

    [...] set the Roman Church further down its path of infallibility via a singular church institution.  Not much later, the Western siege of Constantinople happened as part of the greater crusades – probably also [...]

  5. 5
    Hieronymous says:

    Well written summary, but the author's repetitious and intellectually lazy allusions and anachronisms to the modern conflicts in the Near East and Central Asia as being at all relevant or comparable completely ruins the read and takes the audience on a totally unnecessary detour to modern history. What possible thing could the author hope to achieve by inserting modern political dialogue into a retelling of the Fourth Crusade?

    Furthermore, to do even more damage to the author's credibility, he does not explain or go further into detail how the Fourth Crusade – or the Crusades in general – are compatible with the modern war on terror. Is the modern conflict really a spiritually motivated invasion behind its pretenses of strategic isolation and destruction of the opponents of western interests? Is there wide spread looting, repression, and tyranny pervasive? Are the conflicts a plan to cement military reputation, divide spoils, pay debts, and glorify the west with untold riches?

    These are things the author should shy away from if he cannot answer these questions and make the comparison honestly. The author should have utilized some better judgment and kept his personal prerogatives separate from a source-based documentation and retelling of history as it was.

  6. 6

    [...] set the Roman Church further down its path of infallibility via a singular church institution.  Not much later, the Western siege of Constantinople happened as part of the greater crusades – probably also [...]

  7. 7

    [...] wasn’t just a monstrous propensity of non-Europeans. After the Fourth Crusade’s soldiers of 1204 — the flower of Western Christendom — overran Constantinople, they [...]



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