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.

A map showing the Adriatic sea, and the very short distance from Venice to Zara SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons

The Latin leaders including Boniface of Montferrat, kept the plan to attack the city hidden from many of their men to avoid any more deserting but when the Pope found out, he was so furious he excommunicated the entire crusading army, including the Venetians. The only good thing for the crusaders was that, upon hearing that the majority of the army didn’t know about the attack on Zara, the Pope only excommunicated the Venetians, allowing the rest of the army to go about their lives with God at their backs.

By November of 1202, the city of Zara had fallen to the crusaders who then sacked the city, hoping to gain enough wealth to pay back Venice for the ships that had ferried them just over 150miles. The citizens of Zara tried to protest their faith by hanging banners showing large crosses on, hoping to stop the onslaught, but the attacking army continued with no regard for their fellow Christians.


From bad to worse

After the sack of Zara, the crusaders were still in debt to the Venetians and were now getting desperate for money. An opportunity presented itself in the form of a banished and exiled Byzantine prince named Alexios, who along with his father, had been kicked out of Constantinople and replaced by another Alexios, Alexios III. Prince Alexios offered Boniface virtually everything he had ever wanted, 10,000 extra troops, enough money to pay back the Venetian debt plus a little extra and, he swore to place the Eastern Orthodox Church under the protection and guidance of the Western Catholic Church and thus the Pope. These terms were far too good for the Pope and the crusaders to turn down and, it gave the Doge of Venice reason to attack his old maritime enemy, the Byzantine empire.

Alexios and the crusade leaders agreed to ‘liberate’ the city, putting Alexios back on the throne in Constantinople, where he claimed he still had strong support, leaving in early 1203 to lay siege to city. Arriving in June of 1203, the crusader army needed to get into the harbour of Constantinople known as the Golden Horn which was blocked by a giant chain also, they attempted to weaken the Byzantine forces by attacking the towns of Chalcedon and Chrysopolis, beating back a large contingent of Byzantine forces in the process.

The conquest of Constantinople, 1204 by David Aubert (1449-79) SOURCE: Public domain

The crusader fleet managed to capture the towers on the harbour edge, allowing the chain to to be dropped and the Venetian fleet to enter the harbour. With the Latin army now on the walls of the city, the Varangian guard (the Emperors personal body guard, made up of axe wielding Scandinavians) fought valiantly before retreating as the city burned around them.


The Latin Empire and the destruction of Constantinople

After Alexios III fled after a failed counterattack, Prince Alexios (later knows as Alexios IV Angelos) was forcibly put back on the throne (with little support from the local population I may add) when things continued to get worse. There was no chance of the promised 200,000 marks being raised, and the byzantines began to melt down priceless holy relics that had been in the city for centuries, just to attempt to pay the crusaders off. This destruction of history, left a stain on the byzantines that was never forgotten and, to make things worse, the massive debts were never paid off.

After some time, a local politician known as Mourtzouphlos, kicked Alexios from the throne claiming the emperorship for himself, taking the name Alexios V (shock), angering the Latin crusaders still stationed outside the city. What followed on the 12th April 1204, will live on in infamy as a complete failure of the crusader movement. The city of Constantinople was attacked, sacked and destroyed by the Latin army who murdered and raped over 100,000 of the city’s population, looting or destroying countless pieces of Greco-Roman and medieval art in the process.

The destruction of the finest city in the world wasn’t the end of it for the Byzantines and their empire, because the leaders off the crusade decided to split up the empire to form the Latin Empire, giving large swaths of land and money to the greedy Venetians in the process.

A map showing the newly partitioned empire (Empire of Nicaea was essentially the Byzantines) SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons via Varana

It is safe to say that the Fourth Crusade was a complete and utter waste of time and of life. Failing to even reach the Holy Land, choosing instead to seek riches and plunder all the while killing fellow Christians, all for the sole aim of paying back a debt owed to the Venetians under the Doge. The disgraceful murder of thousands and thousands of innocents after Constantinople fell, is inexcusable and even at the time, opinions of the sack of the old city were mixed. It can be argued that the events of then Fourth Crusade weakened the Byzantine empire (that would return to the region just a few decades after the failed Latin Empire crumbled) so much so that, when the Ottoman Turks pushed further west, the city stood no chance, eventually falling to the Ottomans in 1453.


Written by Chris Riley.

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Thanks for Reading.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.

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