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Venice and the Fourth Crusade

John Godfrey describes how the capture of Constantinople in 1204 was an unexpected result of the Crusading movement.

By the closing years of the twelfth century the crusading movement was over its peak, but still had plenty of life in it, and, indeed, had become a tradition, appealing, as all traditions do, to men impelled by varying motives.

The words of Anna Comnena - in connection with the First Crusade - could be applied also to the Crusaders of a century later:

‘Some were guileless men and women marching in all simplicity to worship at Christ’s tomb, while others were of a more wicked kind’.

The Third Crusade marked the end of an age. Never again would an expedition under such high-powered leadership set out from the west. On the opposite side, Saladin had died in 1193. In 1197 a force of German crusaders attempted a march on Jerusalem which collapsed on the arrival of a Muslim army from Egypt. In the spring of 1199 the greatest of Crusaders in English eyes, Richard Coeur de Lion, died from a chance arrow in a minor skirmish in the Loire valley.

Little had so far been resolved, and it must have been taken for granted in western Christendom that another major campaign to recover the Holy Places would be attempted. The Holy War was still in being; something men now regarded as part of the natural Christian order, like the endowing of abbeys or the building of cathedrals. The result was the Fourth Crusade, which has been harshly judged by virtually all historians.

Some will see in the Crusade a classic example of what happens when one situation is allowed to drift into another without single-minded devotion on the part of the principals to the original aims of an undertaking. The enterprise did, it is true, end in a complete victory, of a sort - a result made possible by a mingling of feudal valour, Christian idealism, the commercial profit motive, and sheer human cunning.

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