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  • James Houser

April 13, 1204 - Fourth Crusade & the Siege of Constantinople

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

April 13, 1204. What was supposed to be a plan to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims gets flipped-turned upside down. On this day, the Fourth Crusade goes completely off the rails by capturing and pillaging not Jerusalem but Constantinople, the capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire. Good job, guys.

I’m not going to go into a long rant here about how the Crusades are totally misunderstood – even though I could, and if you ask I will. Let’s just say that there was a lot more to them than the two favorite views, “evil Christians attacked innocent people for stupid religious reasons” or “brave Christians launched a defensive war against evil Muslim expansion.” Both of these are absolutely wrong. Both religions fought each other and themselves all the time, there were heroes and villains on both sides, it was complicated, let’s move on.

In 1187, a Muslim army led by Egyptian Sultan Saladin recaptured Jerusalem from the Christians that had held it since the First Crusade of 1100. Saladin’s offensive reduced the Crusader Kingdoms to tiny footholds on the coast, and in 1189 he also defeated King Richard the Lionheart’s attempt to retake Jerusalem in the Third Crusade. The Egyptian Kingdom was strong, wealthy, and nearly unassailable. Any new Crusade would find it a tall order to retake the Holy Land, and they wouldn’t have Richard the Lionheart leading them.

Pope Innocent III wanted a new Crusade to retake the Holy Land.

He couldn’t get any Kings interested; the Holy Roman Emperor had resumed his usual war with the Pope and the Kings of England and France were happily beating the crap out of each other. Finally, the Pope was able to rouse up enough semi-motivated nobles to put together an expedition. They had one huge problem: they were drastically short of cash. Without a King on board, it was hard to secure loans or drum up the dough to put an army in the field, and war is an expensive business.

The Crusaders, led by Count Boniface of Montferrat and Count Baldwin of Flanders, decided to hire the Venetian fleet to sail them to the Holy Land. Previous Crusades had made the long, difficult march through Europe and the Middle East. This march could almost take a year. Worried that this army would fall apart if it had to march, the Crusaders got an agreement from the Venetians to transport them to Egypt.

The problems started when they showed up. Venice, led by its ancient and blind Doge Enrico Dandolo, refused to take the Crusaders on board until they paid the full sum of 85,000 silver marks (I shouldn’t have to say that that is a staggering sum). The Crusaders didn’t have the money, and that wouldn’t do. This was a very expensive expedition for Venice, too, and they needed to get paid. Screw you, pay me.

Dandolo decided to make the Crusaders pay their way in services rather than in silver. First, he wanted the city of Zara captured. Zara sits on the Adriatic coast in what is now Croatia; it had rebelled against Venice a few years earlier and allied itself with Hungary. Hungary’s King Emeric was himself a Crusader, and this didn’t sit right with the Christian conquerors. A few of them went home. The rest, though, went on ahead and helped the Venetians assault Zara.

Despite the citizens of Zara waving cross banners and hanging the symbol from the walls of their city, the Crusaders stormed and sacked Zara on November 24, 1202. As the Venetians carried off their loot, pleased as punch, Pope Innocent III furiously excommunicated the Crusader leaders. The leaders, hearing of this, concealed the news from their troops.

Then someone got the bright idea to sack Constantinople.

Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, the wealthiest and most powerful Christian state in Europe. There was bad blood between the Pope in Rome and the Byzantine Greek Orthodox Church, and the split between the two had been called the “Great Schism” for some time. There were still lingering hopes of restoring a unified Christian Church, though.

The Byzantines had been the first to call for a Crusade, asking the Pope to send troops and money to help defend their eastern frontier from the Arabs and the Turks in Syria and Armenia. The Pope turned this request for mercenaries and money into the First Crusade, and the rest is history. Crusaders had abused Byzantine hospitality on their way to Jerusalem and Emperors had fought with Crusader Kings over key cities and territory. The Venetians had no love lost for the Byzantines either due to a long-running trade conflict. Dandolo, in fact, had been blinded by the Byzantines after one such clash. He wanted to see Venice’s great rival annihilated.

Count Boniface, the leader of the Crusade, then produced Alexios IV Angelos, son of the recently overthrown Byzantine Emperor Isaac II. Alexios promised the Crusaders that if they restored him to the throne, he would pay their entire debt to the Venetians and more, give them troops and ships to take them to Egypt, and place the Church under control of the Pope. This sounded like a deal, and with something vaguely resembling a good cause if you squinted, the Fourth Crusade finally went completely off the rails and headed for Constantinople.

They would never make it to Egypt. Talk about mission creep.

The Fourth Crusade arrived on June 23, 1203, and immediately pitched into a siege. Constantinople had resisted hundreds of attacks from land and sea for the last 800 years, but in almost all those cases they had prior warning of the attack. This time, there was no such warning. Only 15,000 troops held the enormous capital, and they had to deal with an equal number of Crusaders with naval superiority.

The current emperor was a weak man who fled the city early on, leaving the throne to Isaac II, Alexios’ father. Now the Crusaders had lost their entire cause for attacking the city, so they called a truce. Isaac and Alexios immediately realized they had nowhere near enough money to pay the Crusaders what Isaac’s dumbass son had promised. After much negotiating, civil unrest from the city’s people, intrigues and infighting, the people of Constantinople overthrew Isaac and Alexios and raised up an anti-Catholic nobleman as Alexios V in April 1204. The Crusaders lost patience and assaulted the city once more.

The Catholic clergy gave the Crusaders and Venetians their blessing for what they were about to do after spinning a long line of poor logic and terrible moral reasoning, and on April 9 they began their assault. On April 12, the Crusader assault finally succeeded. As they entered the city, the burning and pillaging began.

The Crusaders and Venetians sacked Constantinople for three days. Much of the ancient Greco-Roman art and medieval Byzantine mosaics were destroyed, and many civilians were killed and their property looted. Despite the pleading from both Catholic and Greek clergy, the Crusaders spilled into and desecrated the city’s glorious churches, smashing the icons and burning the holy books in the Hagia Sophia. The shining beacon of Christianity to the Greek world, the greatest city on earth, the jewel of the Mediterranean was hollowed out in the three-day orgy of vengeance and violation.

The short-term impact of the Sack of Constantinople was the temporary breakup of the Byzantine Empire. Its old territory across Greece and Turkey fractured into multiple kingdoms, some led by Fourth Crusaders trying to capitalize on their rape of the Empire, others by Byzantine noblemen trying to rebuild it. In 1261, Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII retook Constantinople and restored the Byzantine Empire, at least in name.

As for the Fourth Crusade itself? The expedition basically ended at Constantinople. Most of the leaders were too busy trying to carve out their own stretch of prime Byzantine real estate instead of actually leading the Crusade on to, you know, its actual target. Both Boniface and Baldwin tried to build “Kingdoms” in Greece and Constantinople but both died at the hands of the resurgent Bulgarians, who appear to have been the real winners here. A few men did eventually make their way to the remnant Crusader Kingdoms, where they did shit-all.

The long-term consequences, however, were immense. The Byzantine Empire had been the bulwark of Christianity that held off Muslim invasion of Europe for centuries. On several occasions, the resistance of Constantinople had probably saved Western Europe from Arab or Turkish invasion. No longer. Even when the Empire was restored in 1261, it was a shadow of its former self. It would linger, clinging desperately and hopelessly to life, as it was eaten away by Muslim challengers, including an energetic little group of Turks called the Ottomans.

In 1453, Constantinople would finally fall to the Ottomans, and Catholic Europe would have the chance to learn what it should have been afraid of.

Finally, the East-West split in Christianity was now set in stone. Catholics and Orthodox would never join together, at least not in this millennium. There were times in the Middle Ages when this seemed like a real possibility, due to negotiations between the Pope and the Byzantine Emperor. The Greek Orthodox, though, could never forgive the Catholics for what their Crusade had done to their beautiful city. On the edge of destruction in 1453, as the Ottomans laid siege, the people of Constantinople refused any help from the Catholics. “Better death by the Turk than slavery to Rome” was the motto.

The Byzantine Empire had started the Crusades through a simple request for money and men to help them save their lands, and a Crusade ended up costing them everything. Sometimes history has a sick sense of humor.

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