The Fourth Crusade: The Crusaders Conquer… Constantinople?
In 1204 the crusading army did the unthinkable – it sacked Constantinople. The conquering of a Christian city, the nucleus of the Byzantine Empire, is an event that has been seen in two different lights. Was it a series of unfortunate, unavoidable occurrences or was it one that was grasped by the opportunists participating, and those that were not, in the crusade?
Richard I of England had made it clear that in order to capture, and hold, Jerusalem the Christians would need control of Egypt. Richard, however, died before he could fulfill his wish to lead another crusade, but the next major expedition left with the intention to traverse Egypt. But to attack Egypt would require a naval fleet, something that was not so readily available to Western European powers.
In 1201 Venice was tasked with providing this fleet, at a cost of course. The ships and sailors were the Venetians’ responsibility, while the crusaders were accountable for ensuring numbers and the finance. A year later the ships were complete and the crusaders congregated at Venice. The problem? Only a reduced army was present, roughly a third of the expected number. With the crusaders unable to pay the debt owed to the Venetians, Doge Enrico Dandolo offered a solution: sack the city of Zara and pay with the spoils. Zara, however, was a Christian city.
The Good, The Bad… and the Christians?
The actors in this particular crusade included no western kings; in England and France King John was busy warring against King Philip, and in Germany the question of the Holy Roman Emperor’s succession had caused a dispute with the papacy. So when Pope Innocent III called for a crusade it was only answered at a tournament (which was ironically prohibited by the Church) in France by a group of knights. Count Thibaut of Champagne was the natural leader, though his death in 1201 passed the mantle to Count Boniface of Montferrat. That less than the intended number convened at Venice can be attributed to his death; just as his ‘involvement drew others to take the cross’, his death may have ‘actively deterred people from joining’ the crusade. Of note is also Baldwin, Count of Flanders, but he becomes more important after the sack of Constantinople.
Doge Dandolo, an infamously blind man, had been ruler of Venice since 1192 and held the Byzantines in distaste. The other crusading leaders admired his astute military and diplomatic leadership.
On the opposite side we’d normally have a list of Islamic leaders that led the resistance against the crusaders. The Fourth Crusade, however, was no regular expedition. King Emeric of Hungary, whose kingdom included the aforementioned Zara, was the first to resist the crusaders. That the Hungarian king had taken the cross (though he never made any preparations to partake) meant that his lands were under the protection of the Church.
Byzantium was in a state of unrest during this period. Alexios III had overthrown his brother, Isaac II, in 1195. Isaac was blinded and then imprisoned alongside his son, the future Alexios IV, who would carelessly change the course of the crusade. Upon his escape from imprisonment he fled to his sister, who was conveniently married to Philip of Swabia (embroiled in that dispute with the papacy over the title of Holy Roman Emperor). This led to a promise to the crusaders of extra men and finance if they placed him on his father’s rightful throne. And thus, after Zara, the crusade was destined for Constantinople rather than Jerusalem.
Under the sovereignty of King Emeric following a rebellion in 1181, Zara had previously been under the economic control of Venice. To attack a Christian city was not unprecedented, but to do so to one that was protected via crusading privileges was. It was a move that brought the threat of excommunication and one that caused Simon de Montfort (a prominent French warlord on crusade) to retort ‘I have not come here to destroy Christians.’
Those that were against the move were nullified and in late 1202, Zara was besieged. Within weeks the city had caved and agreed to a surrender. Were the crusaders able to pay their debt to the Venetians? No.
This is where the young prince Alexios enters the fray. After fleeing to his brother-in-law, Philip of Swabia, he requested military aid to restore him to the Byzantine throne. Philip was in no position to offer this; he was warring with Otto of Brunswick and the papacy to consolidate his rule. While Alexios was present at Philip’s court, however, Boniface (Philip’s cousin) arrived. Boniface had departed the army before the attack on Zara, for reasons that have been much debated, and this allowed the path of the crusade to be redirected towards Constantinople. In exchange for his throne, Alexius offered not only military aid and finance, but the promise to maintain a garrison in defence of the Holy Land, solving the issue that had plagued it since its establishment after the First Crusade.
It was an offer that was difficult to turn down. But putting Alexios on the Byzantine throne would not be a matter of diplomatic relations; he would have to be placed there by force. That’s exactly what happened.
Taking Constantinople would be no mean feat, it was a city that had never been breached before. In June 1203 the crusaders were at Constantinople, and within a year the city had been sacked. On the backfoot, Alexios III was forced to retreat and to the dismay of the Byzantine population he fled to Thrace. Without a leader the Byzantine officials reinstated Isaac as emperor, leaving the crusaders in a rather interesting situation. Their goal was achieved, but to hold Byzantium to the young prince’s promises they enforced his coronation on 1st August 1203 as Alexios Angelos IV, co-emperor.
Alexios IV quickly realised that it would be rather difficult to fulfil his promises to the crusaders. Byzantium was in no position, financially or militarily, following poor previous rulership especially Alexios III who had left the treasury vastly short of sums. In an attempt to appease the army at his doorstep, Alexios IV used various methods to raise the money, including melting artefacts for their gold and silver. His rule was quickly seen as weak, his father was unable to protect him and the crusaders’ and the byzantines’ patience was wearing thin. By 1204 February he had been overthrown and murdered by Alexios V, who was staunchly against the crusaders’ presence.
Alexios V refused to bow to the will of the crusaders and was the second emperor in two years to flee. Three days later on 12th April 1204 stormed the city, and by 13th April Constantinople had been sacked. Thus began the Latin Empire of Constantinople, whose first ruler would be aforementioned Count of Flanders, now Baldwin I, Latin Emperor.
A Failure From The Beginning?
Was the crusade deemed to fail from the beginning? No. Many factors led to the bizarre aspects of the crusade, of which the failure to pay the Venetians was that which caused a knock-on effect. It can be argued that the negotiators at Venice made poorly judged estimations, and also that the death of Thibaut directly negatively impacted the number of participants. It would be unfair to say that the characters that worked against the crusade reaching its intended destination were not working with religious zeal and did not want to liberate Jerusalem.
However it’s important to not forget the participants that forged the crusade to their will. Doge Dandolo was quick to use the crusaders to his own advantage in exacting revenge on Zara (and perhaps even Byzantium as it’s relationship with Venice had become hostile). The young prince Alexios was no doubt making promises that he would not have entirely known that he could fulfil. He also included the promise of uniting the Greek Orthodox church under the authority of the papacy, something that would have been of great appeal to Innocent III, though its practicality was questionable.
The organisational failures from this crusade would become a learning point for future expeditions. The next crusade was finally able to attack Egypt, and the fight for the Holy Land continued.