The Fourth Crusade: Blood and Plunder

Written by Chris Riley.

The year is 1204, Western Crusaders are at the gates of one of the finest cities in the world. No, not Jerusalem but the very Christian Constantinople, the Byzantine capital and for some reason, the target of the Fourth Crusade. Before we can even hope to understand how, just eight years after the end of the Third Crusade, Innocent III (picking up from where his predecessor, Gregory VIII left off) was back again preaching for attacks on Ayuubid held lands in the east, we must first go back a few years and this time, to the Republic of Venice.

A much more modern image of the walls of Constantinople, showing the chain that blocks the route to the harbour SOURCE:

Unfinished Business

As mentioned before, the third crusade was fresh in the memories of the Pope and with Jerusalem still well in Muslim hands, the goal of retaking it hadn’t changed. The great Ayuubid leader Saladin had died in 1193, robbing the Muslim forces of their greatest general and giving the western world their best opportunity to lead an expedition to the Levant. The only issue was, Europe was tired of crusading with many countries at war with each other (shock, its England and France).

Direct attacks on the Holy Land had been tried several times before, and with the exception of the First Crusade, all had failed.

An idea that was floating round since the failed attempt by Richard the Lionheart, was to attack the centre of the Ayuubid power in the region, Egypt. Egypt had been the heart of the Ayuubid empire since it was taken in 1169, both a worthy target and, potentially not expecting to bear the brunt of a full Christian attack.

By 1202, the plan to attack Egypt had been finalised, the Pope sent out the call for all the Christian Kings, princes and laymen alike, to take up the cross once again, his request was not met with the greatest of responses. England and France, the two biggest players of the Third Crusade, were in no fit state to wage war in the east, as they were far to busy waging war on each other, and the Holy Roman Empire was trying to distance itself from Papal control, removing the three biggest factions from the fray. What was left was lesser French and Italian nobles, hoping this new foray into the breech would bring them riches and land.

The Merchant of Venice

With the target set, the Pope and his French and Italian allies needed to form an army and, get a navy large enough to ferry a force expected to number around 35,000 men. They turned to perhaps the greatest naval power of the age, the Republic of Venice.

Venice had emerged as one of the finest naval powers of the age with the Doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo being both a pious Christian and an astute business man.

An engraving of Enrico Dandolo, from the early 19th century SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons

Dandolo offered a fleet large enough to move the vast amounts of men and horses across the ocean and only expected the completely reasonable payment of 85,000 marks (a completely unreasonable fee) to take the crusaders now led by the Italian nobleman, Boniface of Montferrat across the Mediterranean sea. The original goal was for about 30,000 men, made up of mounted knights and regular foot soldiers, to gather at ports in and around Venice but, only about 12,000 men arrived in Venice and more important for Dandolo, without the money that he was now owed for the massive fleet.

Turning the crusaders away would be a massive blow to the prestige of both Pope Innocent and, of Venice so nether wanted to call it a day. Always the keen statesmen, the Doge suggested that in order to pay off their debts, the crusaders attack the city of Zara, a city under the control of the very Catholic Hungarian king. The idea of attacking a Christian city such as Zara wasn’t very popular, and upon hearing of the plan, many of the crusaders simply returned home, leaving an even more deleted force to limp across the Adriatic Sea to Zara, in modern day Croatia.