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The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople

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Jonathan Phillips sees one of the most notorious events in European history as a typical ‘clash of cultures’.

Capture of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204The capture of Constantinople by the armies of the Fourth Crusade was one of the most remarkable episodes in medieval history. One of their number wrote, ‘No history could ever relate marvels greater than those as far as the fortunes of war are concerned’. On April 12th, 1204, an army of perhaps 20,000 men and a fleet of about 200 ships crewed by Venetian sailors and warriors, broke in and began to loot the greatest metropolis in the Christian world. Constantinople’s mighty walls had resisted numerous onslaughts as the Avars, Persians and Arabs had tried to assail its defences over the centuries. Yet always ‘the queen of cities’, as the Byzantines described their capital, had survived. What had brought the crusaders to attack their fellow Christians and how did they manage to succeed? The crusaders understood their success as a manifestation of God’s will. One commented, ‘There can be no doubt that the hand of the Lord guided all of these events’. 

There was a history of difficulties between the two parties, dating from the 1054 Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. This concerned matters of doctrine, religious practice and papal authority and gave an added sharpness to future disputes. The advent of the crusades in 1095 brought further tensions often created by large and sometimes ill-disciplined armies passing through the Byzantine Empire en route to the Holy Land. Greek purges of the Venetian (1171) and western (1182) communities in Constantinople added to this record of troubles. 

Relations between Byzantium and the West at this time were often characterised as a clash of cultures. The Greeks viewed themselves as civilised superiors to the barbaric and violent westerners; the people of Europe regarded the Byzantines as unwarlike, effeminate and duplicitous. In the fullest sense, of course, these stereotypes were inaccurate: the Latin West produced thinkers of the calibre of Anselm of Bec and St Bernard of Clairvaux; magnificent buildings such as the 531-feet long abbey of Cluny testify to practical and artisitic qualities as well. Equally, brutality was not exclusive to the westerners; the Byzantines were capable of extraordinary unpleasantness. The death of Emperor Andronicus I Comnenus in 1185 bears witness to this. With one eye gouged out, his teeth pulled out and his right hand severed, he was paraded through the streets of Constantinople, pelted with excrement before being hung upside down, having his genitals hacked off and finally killed by sword thrusts into his mouth and between his buttocks.

Nonetheless, however unsubtle or partial these respective viewpoints were, they can cast some light on the events of 1203-4 because, though other issues were involved, one key factor was the contrast between the westerners’ military power and the Greeks’ lack of fighting ability. 

By the start of the thirteenth century the chivalric culture gripped the knightly classes of northern Europe. The intensive internecine warfare of the early twelfth century had become subsumed under an all-encompassing code of conduct that fell under the banner of chivalry. This included notions of honour and service, the patronage of chansons de geste, ideas of courtly love and, most pertinently to the crusades, the popularity of tournaments. 

At the time of the Fourth Crusade, tournaments were not yet orderly contests between two individuals facing each other across the lists in front of ordered ranks of spectators. Rather, they were fast-moving, brutal struggles, sometimes involving hundreds of men. Contests ranged over many acres of lands with the ‘arena’ designated by particular fortresses or villages. Spectators were confined to  the safety of castle walls to watch the fighting. On the herald’s signal, two teams would charge each other; the thundering of hooves and the shouts of men were followed by a terrible impact as the combatants began with a lance charge. Then, hand-to-hand fighting broke out and victory was usually achieved by the side that preserved best order. The idea was to capture opponents, rather than to kill or harm them, although in such a heated atmosphere accidents were frequent. In 1186, for example, Richard the Lionheart’s younger brother, Geoffrey of Brittany – a man famed for his fighting prowess – perished at a tournament. In spite of the dangers, many knights took part in a circuit of such events across northern Europe. The co-ordination of groups of knights and the violent ebb and flow of a tournament provided by far the most realistic preparation for actual warfare that could be imagined. Alongside the military aspect of these gatherings there were also splendid feasts. Castles might be specially decked out in bright banners, minstrels and entertainers hired and long evenings spent celebrating the deeds of warriors past – some of whom included the heroes of the First Crusade. 

Churchmen viewed tournaments in a darker light because, alongside the promotion of violence, they appeared to encourage the vices of pride, envy, gluttony and lust. Prohibitions of such occasions were largely in vain, however, because by the time of the Fourth Crusade they had become an integral part of the knightly culture of the West. Ironically, among the leading patrons were the nobility of Champagne and Flanders – the two areas most associated with the crusades at this time. The counts of Flanders had been on crusades to the Holy Land in 1099, 1108, 1139, 1147, 1157, 1164, 1177 and 1191 – an unequalled commitment to the cause of Christ. 

When Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) launched recruitment for the Fourth Crusade he was unable to enlist the kings of the West; Richard I was killed in 1199, King John was too preoccupied fighting Philip II Augustus of France, and the German empire was the subject of a bitter succession dispute. It fell to the leading noble families of northern Europe to take the cross, including Count Baldwin of Flanders, his brother-in-law Count Thibaut of Champagne, Count Hugh of St Pol and Count Louis of Blois. Alongside the extensive crusading traditions in these men’s blood, a number of them – such as Louis of Blois – had taken part in the Third Crusade (1189-92). The most important addition to their number was the northern Italian, Marquis Boniface of Montferrat, another veteran of the tournament scene and member of a family that had been twice married into the ruling dynasty of Jerusalem over recent decades. The men at the core of the Fourth Crusade, therefore, were tough, highly experienced fighters. 

In tandem with this formidable force came the Venetian fleet. The northern Europeans had decided that the most effective way to regain Jerusalem was through the conquest of Egypt. The Nile delta would provide the financial and strategic strength for a long-term tenure of the Holy Land, but to capture it would require a huge naval force. The crusaders approached the acknowledged master mariners of the day and contracted the Venetians to supply a fleet. In the autumn of 1202, around 200 ships, adorned with brightly coloured pennants, set sail. As the crusaders sang hymns to fortify themselves (‘Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire and lighten with celestial fire’) an eyewitness  wrote of ‘the finest thing to see that has ever been since the beginning of the world.’

These ships represented the most advanced naval technology of the day and were crewed by expert sailors, accompanied by many Venetian warriors who had also taken the cross. While the Venetians were among the leading commercial powers of the time they were, as was the entire Latin West intensely religious and had been involved in earlier crusades. On this occasion they were led by the remarkable Doge Enrico Dandolo, who was probably in his early nineties, and had been blind since the 1170s. One of the most charismatic leaders of any military campaign, the doge was commended by his allies as ‘a man who is prudent, discreet and skilled in hard decision-making’. 

A combination of the powerful knights of northern Europe and the excellent Venetian navy formed a potent threat. Yet the forces of Christian Europe had only a patchy military record and could be defeated for a variety of reasons, some self-inflicted and others a reflection of their opponents’ strengths. 

The overriding difficulties that faced the Fourth Crusaders in particular were a lack of men and money. In April 1201, the leaders made a contract with the Venetians to transport to the Holy Land and provision 33,500 men for a year, in exchange for 85,000 silver marks. The Venetians would also take part as an equal crusading party. By the summer of 1202, however, only around one-third of the provisional number of crusaders had reached Venice and these men could not hope to find the sum of money outstanding. To forestall the payment Doge Dandolo suggested an attack on the port of Zara (now Zadar in Croatia), a settlement that, until recently, had been under his control. There was, however, a serious problem with this idea: Zara was a Catholic city and its new overlord, King Emico of Hungary, was also signed with the cross. Emico was, therefore, under the protection of the papacy and to take Zara would be to invite almost certain excommunication. Some of the crusaders could not stomach the idea of fighting their fellow Christians and left to seek other ways to travel to the Holy Land, but the remainder – who argued that, without the help of the Venetians, the expedition would collapse immediately – stayed to capture the city, taking it on November 24th, 1202. Innocent III was furious and issued a bull of excommunication, although this was soon withdrawn from the French crusaders after a penitent delegation persuaded him that the liberation of the Holy Land was best served by such a move. The Venetians, however, saw the Zarans as rebels and refused to apologise. Their excommunication remained in place, although the crusade leaders suppressed it for fear of inciting further discontent. 

In early 1203, another ingredient was added to the mix. Envoys from Prince Alexius Angelos, a claimant to the Byzantine imperial title, arrived in the crusaders’ camp at Zara. Well aware of the westerners’ lack of men and money he made a persuasive offer: if they helped to reinstate him in Constantinople he would pay them 200,000 marks, give them all the supplies they needed and provide an army of 10,000 men. He would also place the Greek Orthodox Church under the authority of the papacy. But once again, the prospect of turning their weapons against their Christian brothers appalled many of the crusaders and another body of men chose to leave. Those who remained were convinced that joining with the Prince presented the most effective way of achieving the means to their goal. 

Prince Alexius had assured the westerners that he would be welcomed back by his people. Unfortunately, these hopes were unfounded and by June 1203 it was evident to all in the crusader army that they would have to fight to get him re-instated. The mere sight of Constantinople’s massive walls put fear into their hearts; they had ‘never imagined there could be so fine a place in the world’, yet ‘there was indeed no man so brave and daring that his flesh did not shudder at the sight’. What hope did such a small force have against the mighty Byzantine Empire?

In fact, by the early thirteenth century, the Byzantine world was in a fragile condition, corroded by two decades of internal feuding. The death of Emperor Manuel Comnenus (1143-80), presaged a series of regencies, usurpations and coups. Between 1180 and 1204 no fewer than fifty-eight rebellions or uprisings took place across the empire. Prince Alexius’s father, Isaac Angelos (1185-95), had come to power by such means, but was deposed and blinded by his brother, Alexius III. Coupled with this chaos in leadership, external and internal forces had also imposed serious pressure on the Greeks. In 1176 the Seljuks of Asia Minor had heavily defeated a large Byzantine army at the Battle of Myriocephalum. In 1185, the Sicilians had sacked Thessalonica, the empire’s second city. Five years later, an alliance with Saladin brought the Greeks into conflict with the huge crusading army of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany (1152-90) and the Byzantines were swiftly pushed to one side. With the decline in central authority the provinces sought advantage too. In 1184, Cyprus broke away, the following year the Bulgarians revolted, and in 1188 the city of Philadelphia in Asia Minor seceded. 

Amid such chronic instability, it is not surprising that the Byzantines’ military strength declined, most alarmingly in the navy. In 1169, the Greeks had sent a splendid fleet of 150 ships to help the Crusader States fight the Egyptians. By the time of the Fourth Crusade, however, Niketas Choniates, an eyewitness, observed that only twenty half-rotten vessels could be mustered to face the invaders. The Greeks’ land forces,  were not so feeble. At their core was the Varangian Guard, an elite unit made up of foreign mercenaries (often Scandinavians) armed with fearsome double-headed axes. Furthermore, the sheer size of Constantinople’s population gave the Byzantines numerical superiority. 

In July 1203 the crusaders staged an amphibious landing. Capturing the suburb of Galata, they broke through into the harbour of the Golden Horn and took a section of the sea walls. The Venetian mariners were able to brush aside Greek opposition and use their skills to adapt their vessels to take siege towers, bringing the ships up to the sea walls to disgorge safely the armed men necessary to continue the assault. 

In contrast, the Greek resistance was patchy and usually relied on the presence of contingents of the Varangian Guard. There was a glaring difference between the two forces in quality of leadership. When  Dandolo sensed that his men were making insufficient progress during the assault he threatened dire punishment for any that shirked the fight and demanded that the sailors land him on the shore. The crew obeyed and propelled his vermilion vessel forwards; Dandolo on the prow, the winged lion on the banner of St Mark flying before him. As the doge calculated, the other Venetians were shamed by the old man’s bravery in landing – they could not abandon their venerable leader. Instead they rushed to join him. This sudden onslaught had the desired effect and the Venetians took a length of the walls. 

Dandolo’s boldness contrasts with the actions of Emperor Alexius III later the same day. Realising that he needed to make some kind of response he led his men onto the plains outside the land walls to confront the crusader knights. As line after line of Greek troops strode out of the city the sheer size of the Byzantine army daunted Geoffrey of Villehardouin: ‘you would have thought that the whole world was there assembled’. Another witness believed that the Greeks had seventeen divisions of men compared to the crusaders’ seven, but the westerners’ mounted men, who probably numbered around 1,000, took the initiative and advanced. The Byzantine army seemed to cover the plain, flanked to one side by the walls of Constantinople which were also crammed with troops. As the Greeks moved forwards too, the westerners seemed briefly on the verge of losing formation – one group wanted to keep going and, in chivalric fashion, viewed the pause proposed by the others as a loss of honour. Fortunately, the moment passed and the battle line held: the crusaders waited for the onslaught, yet, incredibly, it never came. The Emperor ordered a retreat back into the city and the bemused and relieved westerners watched their opponents march away. Whatever tactical reasons lay behind this move, psychologically it appeared to all as a devastating admission of defeat. The crusaders wrote that ‘astounded at our steadfastness (given our small number), he ignominiously turned his reins and retreated’; the Byzantine writer Niketas Choniates wrote that Alexius ‘returned to the city in utter disgrace’. That same night the emperor fled into exile and the following day the crusaders and Prince Alexius entered the city in triumph. 

Ten months later, the crusaders had to break into the city a second time. In the interim, their hopes of receiving the support promised by the Prince (now Emperor Alexius IV) had evaporated. The Byzantines resented his ‘barbarian’ allies and suspected the Venetians of being motivated by a desire to secure commercial privileges. When Alexius IV started pressurising his people for the money he owed the crusaders, they began to turn against him; equally, the westerners were increasingly angry at the Emperor’s failure to fulfil his side of the bargain. Eventually, Alexius IV’s position became untenable and he was murdered by the virulently anti-western noble known as Murtzuphlus, a name that denoted his huge eyebrows that joined together on his forehead. Murtzuphlus intensified agression towards the crusaders and they began to struggle to find sufficient food supplies. 

Thus, by March 1204, the westerners were camped outside a deeply hostile city, thousands of miles from home, with only limited provisions and facing increasingly frequent assaults from a man who had murdered their ally, the rightful ruler of Byzantium. Their position desperate, they felt compelled to attack Constantinople, and justified in doing so. As the crusade progressed, Pope Innocent III had issued edicts forbidding attacks on Christian lands, but by this stage the churchmen in the crusader army argued that they had sufficient cause to fight the ‘heretics’. The longstanding effects of the schism were brought to bear and the Byzantines were described as ‘the enemies of God’ in a sermon delivered to the troops. In opposing the crusade they might also be seen to be hampering God’s work, which was another reason to incur divine disapproval. 

On April 9th, 1204, therefore, the crusaders launched an attack on the sea walls along the Golden Horn. Once again their ships were topped with huge and unwieldy siege towers. Some bore walkways, made from ships’ yard-arms 110 feet long, lashed high on the masts, 95 feet above deck. Handrails and fire-resistant coverings of hide were added to protect those inside as they prepared to try to get a foothold on the walls. 

This time, however, the Byzantines were well prepared. Murtzuphlus had ordered enormous wooden constructions, some six or seven storeys high according to contemporaries, to be erected on top of the existing walls to prevent the crusaders from gaining access. The crusaders began their assault, but the Greeks stood firm and they were forced to withdraw. Murtzuphlus and his people were jubilant; they mocked and jeered at their enemies and some dropped their trousers and exposed their backsides in contempt. 

The crusaders were despondent. Their expedition, which had set out in such splendour almost two years previously, appeared to be foundering on the shores of the Bosphorus. They would either face death or imprisonment at the hands of the Greeks, be forced to return home in disgrace, or else struggle on to the Levant where, penniless and tired, they could hope to achieve little. The leadership steeled the men for one final effort, and on April 12th, another attack was launched. 

All through the morning the battle raged and it seemed as if the Byzantines were poised to gain the upper hand again. Then, just after midday, the crusaders received a crucial stroke of good luck: the wind began to blow from the north and their ships, which had been unable to reach the walls along the Golden Horn, were able to move up close. Two of the largest vessels, the Paradise and the Lady Pilgrim, had been tied together to create a larger fighting platform and the great siege equipment reached out to embrace one of Constantinople’s towers. 

The first man across, a Venetian, was killed, but the second, Andrew of Dureboise, managed to survive and enable a tower to be taken. Further along, Aleaumes of Clari squeezed through a small hole created in the walls and fought off enough Greeks to allow his comrades to follow him in. This astonishing feat was the trigger to the collapse of Byzantine resistance and the crusaders began to pour into the city. The toughness acquired on the tournament fields of Europe, the shared bond of their long expedition and the skills of the Venetian sailors enabled them to exploit the favourable elements and to capture the city. 

That same night Murtzuphlus fled. Over the next few days the westerners began to put the city to the sword. Many of its citizens were slaughtered and women of all ages were raped as the crusaders ruthlessly despoiled the metropolis. The great cathedral of the Hagia Sophia was stripped of its priceless relics and the hundreds of churches and palaces of Constantinople were pillaged. 

To the crusaders, God had approved their actions by granting them victory and many returned home proudly bearing precious relics. At first, Pope Innocent III was delighted but, as news of the atrocities became clear, he changed his view and began to express anger and disgust at the westerners’ actions. He accused one senior noble of ‘turning away from the purity of your vow when you took up arms not against Saracens but Christians … preferring earthly wealth to celestial treasures’. 

On May 16th, 1204, as the crusaders gathered in the Hagia Sophia to acclaim Baldwin, Count of Flanders, the first Latin Emperor of Constantinople, some may have reflected how fate had conspired to bring them to the Bosphorus. An expedition of warriors sworn to liberate the Holy Land had created a new outpost of the Catholic Church, yet it was at the expense of fellow-Christians. In pursuing their attempts to sustain the crusade to the Holy Land, they had become tragically sidetracked. Until the murder of Alexius IV their hopes might have been realised, but after this they were trapped. Ironically, in the long run, the need to support the new Latin Empire of Constantinople against Byzantine counter-attacks proved a drain on the crusading resources of the West, and by 1261 Constantinople was again in Greek hands. Yet it was the unleashing of the tensions generated through arduous months camped outside Constantinople, coupled with longstanding problems between Byzantium and the West, that was to leave a legacy of ill-feeling. To the Greeks, the barbarians of Europe had lived up to their reputation.

Further reading: 
  • J.P.Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople (Jonathan Cape, 2004)
  • M.Angold,The Fourth Crusade: Event and Context (Longman, 2004)
  • D.E.Queller and T.F.Madden, The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).
  • Accounts of the Fourth Crusade can be found in: Chronicles of the Crusades, tr. M.R.B. Shaw (Penguin, 1963) and A.J. Andrea, Contemporary Sources for the Fourth Crusade (Brill, 2000). 

Jonathan Phillips is Senior Lecturer in History at Royal Holloway, University of London

Historical dictionary: Crusader States


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