The Fourth Crusade

  By Timotheus, 3 November 2006; Revised
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The Crusades are one of the darkest spots on the history of Europe. Though still occasionally fondly remembered for the romantic glory they were supposed afterward to have entailed, most people now realize them for what they were: aggression, mainly on the part of the French and Italians, based on misguided theological principles; the desire to release the fighting spirits of the nobles in a “holy” war against the heathen rather than against fellow Christians and Europeans; a quest for gold looted from the places they conquered and glory won on a battlefield; and a violent, bloody, outburst of passionate hatred towards Muslims and Jews that left thousands dead.

Among all the crusades, the Fourth particularly bears a black mark of shame. Here the “armies of God” did not even fight the Muslims they had been sent against, but, blinded by greed, controlled by the Venetians, fought twice against fellow Christians, whom they were ostensibly protecting and benefiting by their wars in Palestine. Even contemporaries of the ill-fated expedition condemned the diversions to Zara and Constantinople. Pope Innocent III wrote in a letter to Baldwin of Flanders, “You vowed to liberate the Holy Land, but you rashly turned away from the purity of your vow when you took up arms not against Saracens but Christians. The Greek Church has seen in the Latins nothing other than an example of affliction and the works of Hell so that now it rightly detests them more than dogs.”

The Beginnings of the Crusade

The story of the Fourth Crusade immediately follows that of the Third. As Richard Coeur-de-Lion had failed to retake Jerusalem, plans were set up to return to the Holy Land and make another attempt. But Continental politics intervened, and by the time the plans fell into cohesion, both Richard of England, Philip of France, and Saladin the Sultan were dead. Philip of Swabia and Otto of Brunswick fought for the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. And a new pontiff had been elected in Rome: Lothario of Segni, who took the name Innocent III.

Innocent firmly believed in the supremacy of the Roman bishop above all else, and decided that the papacy itself should take charge over the next crusade. However, after the initial impetus had been given to the crusade by the papal representative Fulk of Neuilly in 1199, and an initial body of men raised by Count Thibaud of Champagne, the workings of the matter began to fall out of his hands. When Thibaud died unexpectedly in 1200, the Crusade became mainly guided by the Venetians.

The very organization that the French and Italians wished to lend to the Fourth Crusade, thereby making it different from the preceding campaigns, turned out to be the chief cause of its diversion. Boniface of Montferrat, the new leader of the Crusade, arranged a contract with the Republic of Venice in which they would transport 33,500 men to Palestine for a significant fee. This was no mean undertaking; the Venetians would have to suspend their commercial activities, using nearly their entire fleet of galleys, building more, and training and paying many soldiers and sailors, during the time in which their services were engaged by the Crusaders. Messengers were sent throughout France and the Low Countries exhorting all to come take the cross and come to Venice. (In the previous crusades, small groups of soldiers lead by a noble would come to Palestine in separate groups.)

The Doge of Venice at that time was Enrico Dandolo, an extraordinary man. Fully blind, older than ninety, he still lived life with vigour, watching out keenly for the interests of profit, for his city and himself. He had shrewdly enriched Venice and ensured the succession of his son to the throne upon his death, which he estimated to be not far off. Nevertheless, he weighed the offer of the crusaders and accepted it. It would be a daring undertaking, but the potential rewards would be great. The object of the Crusade at the time was to strike at Egypt, the heart and hearth of the Sultanate Saladin had built, and by striking at the root of the tree wither the branches, and cause the apple of Jerusalem to fall into their hands. Egypt was by no means a poor place; much plunder could be taken from it, and many lucrative trading privileges arranged at Alexandria. Further, the Doge promised to send a large contingent of troops with the crusaders, and to personally commit himself to the cross and come to Palestine with the rest of the army.

The Diversion to Zara

As it turned out, however, Boniface of Montferrat had badly misestimated the amount of troops that would show up at Venice. When the arranged time for payment had come, there were scarcely twelve thousand men for the thirty-four thousand Boniface had promised. Some people, spurning the official organization, chose to sail from other ports. But all in all, even counting those, turnout was much worse than expected. As a result, the crusaders, many of whom had sold or mortgaged much of their possessions to come to Venice, had to pay significantly more money to pay the eighty-five thousand pieces of silver. When all the money was counted, the crusaders were fifty thousand pieces short. Pockets were dug into, possessions sold; the nobles gave up many of their ornaments and the common soldiers reduced themselves to poverty, but there yet remained thirty-six thousand pieces of silver to pay.

(The story of the crusaders who did not go with the official crusade during the beginning of the thirteenth century is not told often, and thus I have little data about it. Presumably, these, and others who refused to attack Zara and Constantinople, preferring to keep their vows to sojourn to the Holy Land, finding that they lacked the numbers to make any significant impact, made a few pilgrimages to some “holy” sites and returned to their homes.)

Enrico Dandolo was no fool. He knew that if he, for the thirty-six thousand pieces, refused to take the crusaders to the Levant, he would earn for Venice the eternal enmity of France, Flanders, and Rome. He also knew he had a powerful military to dispose of as he wished, and if he displeased them, Venice might suffer terrible consequences. Therefore, he turned a potentially ruinous financial situation to his advantage. As it turned out, there was a city on the Dalmatian coast called Zara. Though subject to Venetian overlordship for a long time, it wished to be its own independent commercial power, with its chief good the many great forests of good oak wood that it controlled. It revolted from Venice in 1181, and signed a treaty with Hungary for military protection. Dandolo told the crusaders that if they would take Zara for him, he would consider the debt paid.

Thus, even though king Emico of Hungary had taken the cross (in an attempt to pre-empt such opportunism as this, as states engaged in a crusade were forbidden to make war against one another), the crusaders left the bay of Venice and sailed to Zara. Innocent III, in a furor, disowned the crusade and excommunicated the army, but to keep the morale of the troops up, the leaders of the crusade kept this knowledge from the general body. A few crusaders, conscience-stricken over attacking a Christian city, left the Venetians to find their own way to Palestine, but most followed the pragmatic logic of Boniface of Montferrat, agreeing that this was the only way the crusade would be likely to get to Jerusalem. Such logic would be used again when the crusaders were diverted a second time, to disastrous effect for the original intentions of the crusaders.

Who is the Legitimate Byzantine Emperor?

Notwithstanding some dissensions between the French crusaders and the Venetians, Zara surrendered after two weeks. After the requisite plunder and loot, the Venetians crossed off the debt that the crusaders owed them, and the army settled down for winter. In the meantime, a young and distressed Byzantine came to the leaders of the crusade, seeking military assistance. Though his offered had been refused before, he gave it again: 200,000 pieces of silver, provision for the crusade all throughout its existence, ten thousand men to march with them to Outremer, and five hundred knights to stay behind and garrison it when everyone was gone; most lucrative of all, the subordination of the Constantinopolan church to the Roman, if only the army would come with him to the Queen of Cities and retake for him the imperial throne that he had been unlawfully deprived of.

The young man was Alexius Angelos. He was the son of Isaac II Angelos, the grandson of Alexius I Komnenos. Alexius I and his successors as emperor, Alexius II, Andronicus I, and Isaac II, had been in general a bad run of emperors. They attempted to walk a fine line of diplomacy, as they always had, between the commercial interests of Venice and the anti-Latin sentiments of the populace; between the Christian crusaders and the Muslim caliphate to the south; between the Norman ambitions to conquer Constantinople, the Roman ambitions to the title of the One True Church of God, and the German ambitions to be recognized as the true successors to the secular Roman empire; between the Seljuks, Bulgarians, Serbs, and Hungarians. Byzantium was a state isolated, generally hated and friendless. It took superb diplomatic skill, and vast amounts of gold, to stay afloat in those troubled waters. The Byzantines had always been able to do it, but internal dissensions doomed it this time. Isaac II, after killing Andronicus, had reigned for ten years until his brother, Alexius III, deposed and blinded him, putting him in prison.

It was Alexius III who was emperor at this time, and his nephew, who would become Alexius IV, who stood pleading before Boniface of Montferrat. His amazing offers swayed the leadership, and they agreed to follow him to Constantinople. Perhaps, also, though this had never been their plan in the beginning, they began to think of the wondrous plunder they might get from attacking Constantinople, and of the grudges and grievances they held against the Greeks. Convincing the army was a little tougher, as the troops were more inclined to think directly on the lines of going to Jerusalem, rather than going to Venice so that they could go to Zara so that they could go to Constantinople so that they could go to Jerusalem. But after Boniface of Montferrat, Baldwin of Flanders, and some others of the leadership went down weeping on their knees before the company, they agreed to go to Constantinople.

The First Siege of Constantinople

Alexius had apparently convinced the crusaders that the Byzantines would immediately acknowledge him as their rightful lord, so there was no small measure of surprise while he was booed when he was set before the walls. The crusaders then began preparing for an assault. The Venetians forced open the chain that guarded the harbor, and on the 17th of July, 1203, a concerted attack was made. The Venetian galleys attacked the sea walls while the French crusaders attacked the land walls.

Though vastly outnumbered by the Byzantines, Alexius III did not possess the heart to fight, nor did he instill his troops with one. Only the Varangian Guard and the formidable walls of Constantinople gave any resistance. The Venetians

The Fourth Crusade
The Fourth Crusade
succeeded in taking a portion of the city, but, being attacked by the Varangians, they set that sector on fire to cover their retreat. The fire burned long and hot and destroyed a great portion of the city. Though the attack failed the city, the crusaders had succeeded in breaking the spirit of Alexius III. Taking as much gold as they could from the imperial treasury, he stole off that night.

When the Byzantines realized their emperor had abandoned them, they named Isaac Angelos emperor. Isaac opened the gates of the city to the crusaders, who proclaimed Alexius co-emperor with Isaac. When Isaac was told of the conditions by which he had his throne, he was sick at heart, and apprehensive, for mismanagement of the imperial treasury in years past had not left enough to pay the crusaders. Nevertheless, powerless and blind, he acquiesced, and was henceforth sidelined by his son.

The Deposition of Alexios IV

Already Alexius had emptied the treasury and was imposing extremely heavy taxes, to pay his debt to the crusaders. Alexius’s position was very unstable, and he promised the crusaders even more money if they would stay longer and keep order for him. It did not work. For centuries the Greeks had despised Westerners, who were only too happy to reciprocate. There were many anti-Latin riots, and when the crusaders tried to raid a mosque, Muslims and Greeks united to fight back the Italians. Once again, they set buildings on fire to cover their retreat. The conditions were very dry and hot, and more than a tenth of the city burned down as a result.

There could clearly be no further harboring of the crusaders by Constantinople. A stronger leader might have been able to salvage the situation, but Isaac was descending into insanity and Alexius was inexperienced and paralyzed. When the crusaders sent Conon of Bethune to Alexius to remind him of their demands, Alexius, in fear of his life from the Byzantine nobles, refused to pay them any further money. This enraged the Franks, who began preparing to take the city all over again.

In the meantime, the inside of Constantinople was in turmoil. A certain Nicholas Kannavos was appointed emperor by the mob, and Alexius Ducas, commonly called Murtzuphlus, began leading opposition to Alexius IV. Murtzuphlus murdered Alexius on the 8th of February, 1204, and proclaimed himself emperor as Alexius V. Though he had some military talent, he suffered a serious reverse when he attempted to attack the crusader camp under the protection of a very precious icon of Mary. Being roundly defeated, he fled in abject haste, losing both the icon and the imperial standard.

The Second Siege of Constantinople

The crusaders were in a worse position than it might seem. Alexius IV had been their only friend in Constantinople, and now they had no way of getting food and no way of continuing the crusade, with no money to reach the Levant. The Venetians could just sail home; they had gambled and lost. But the Franks were stuck. They had to attack. Thus they drew up an agreement with the Venetians. They would attack. An agreement was reached over how an emperor was to be selected and how to divide the Byzantine empire among them. They stormed the city on the 9th of April.

Murtzuphlus offered solid resistance, and it proved difficult for the crusaders to make any headway. There were contrary winds in the Golden Horn, and the sea attack did not go as planned. So the crusaders held off for four days. The leaders of the crusade fulminated against the Greeks, calling them traitors, murderers, cowards, and worse than Jews. The priests assured the fighters that they were doing a work of merit and would surely go to heaven if they died in the battle. Prostitutes were cast out of the camp in an effort to holify the endeavour. On the 13th of April, the winds were just right, and the crusaders attacked again.

The pincer attack proved decisive. A tower was taken, then another. Murtzuphlus faltered, and disenheartenment spread among the Greeks like a virus. The defenders fled, and Murtzuphlus abandoned the city. A noble named Lascaris was selected as emperor, but when the Varangian Guard itself took flight, he followed suit. The crusaders seemed astonished at their rapid victory and began to, at first tentatively, then with full abandon, plunder and loot. Boniface of Montferrat and Baldwin of Flanders moved quickly, staking out the two greatest palaces, the Bucoleon and the Blachernae, as their own. Another fire broke out, burning down more of the city.


The terrible sack of Constantinople would be tedious to describe. The crusaders were amazed with the great wealth of the city, and took much gold for themselves. In the end, the nobles came out the most ahead, because they knew where to look for treasure and made a systematic sack. Rape, murder, and pillage were the only laws of the city for a few days. Byzantines flew out of the city in a stream that became a rushing river. Churches were defiled, and icons looted. When order was restored, and Baldwin of Flanders selected as the first Latin Emperor, countless works of art and religious significance made of gold, silver, bronze, and iron were taken from the churches, palaces, and streets, and fed to the eternally hungry fires who never say, “It is enough!”

The Latin Empire led a short and troubled existence. The Venetians took large portions of land for themselves, including the island of Crete, which would remain theirs for four hundred and fifty years. The Franks were left to divide the rest of the land for themselves, with Boniface of Montferrat ruling Thessalonica, a fief which had previously belonged to his family. Baldwin of Flanders only enjoyed the imperial throne for a year. He was captured and killed by the Bulgarian king Johanitza while defending Thessalonica from Bulgarian attack. Enrico Dandolo died without returning to Venice. Murtzuphlus was killed, but Lascaris set up a Byzantine successor state in Nicaea, and harried the Latins. Eventually his successors would retake the city from Baldwin’s successors in 1261.

The chief result of the Fourth Crusade was the immense weakening of the Byzantine Empire. Even when it was reestablished, it never attained to the power and wealth it had once. It could no longer be relied upon as a bulwark from the Turks, and the fall of Constantinople to them in 1453 was only the logical conclusion of the Fourth Crusade. Another consequence was the essential discontinuation of massive crusades. Once the crusaders had established their Latin kingdom, its maintenance was a full time job. Jerusalem was clearly out of the picture, and the papal legate for the crusade absolved the crusaders from their vows.

Finally, the Fourth Crusade provided an immense profit to the city-state of Venice. Enrico Dandolo’s wager had paid off in an even greater way than he had expected. The massive

Enrico Dandolo
Enrico Dandolo
wealth of Constantinople was for the most part transferred to Venice, as the Four Horses of Mark testify. From beginning to end the Venetians had a hand over the crusade, and while they did not purposefully divert to Constantinople, they saw their opportunities and took them, being sure to reserve a heavy chunk of booty in the process. As a direct result of the Fourth Crusade, Venice was established as the commercial power of the Eastern Mediterranean, and even when Michael Paleologus took the city back with the help of the Genoese, depriving Venice of their trading privileges in the city, that was not to change for hundreds of years. (Oddly enough, it would later be the Venetians who emulated the Byzantines when they engendered the enmity of the rest of Europe by trading with the Turks when everyone else was trying to fight against them.)

The Fourth Crusade – a military feat, and a tragedy. Who knows whether, with the wealth and power intact from before this terrible military venture, the city of Constantine might have been able to successfully resist Mehmet II in 1453? Or if, taking Constantinople with its vast wealth intact, Mehmet would have been able to appropriate the entirety for himself and fund a vast campaign to bring Europe to its knees?



Jonathan Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople

Jonathan Harris, Byzantium and the Crusades and other Wikipedia pages

Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th Edition, Crusades.

Robert of Clari’s account,

      reproduced at

Peter Noble, Eyewitnesses of the Fourth Crusade

The Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies: The Byzantine Empire and The Fourth Crusade

       and at