The Fourth Crusade

by Eldert Bontekoe

     This issue's article is a story of good intentions gone bad, of promises made and broken, and most of all a story steeped in irony. The Fourth Crusade was undertaken to free the Holy Sepulcher and defend the Christians against the infidel. But not a single blow was struck against an Islamic foe and it ended with the greatest city in all Christendom largely destroyed. But the Crusaders were not easily deflected from their goal. It took a blind but ingenious ruler in his eighties to pull one of the biggest switches in history. But before I get to that story, let me recap what has happened in the Holy Land since the Third Crusade - for this will be the closest this narrative gets to the Holy Land.

Silver Denier of Bohemund III showing a Crusaer knight -- Lot 510

The Crusader States in Syria After the Third Crusade

     The counties of Antioch and Tripoli united when Raymond III (1152-87) died and left Tripoli to Bohemund III of Antioch (1163-1201) who assigned his son, Bohemund IV, to rule Tripoli (Tripoli: 1187-1233, Antioch: 1201-33). As you recall from the previous Crusades article, Cyprus was sold to Guy (1192-94) and, upon his death, was subsequently ruled by his brother Aimery of Lusignan (1194-1205). Cilician Armenia came into its own under Prince Levon II (1187-98) who took the tile of King Levon I (1198-1218) after his coronation as an Imperial vassal. An interesting silver tram is struck showing his coronation (see lot 522).

Silver tram Levon I of Armenia showing the king enthroned -- Lot 523

     The city of Jerusalem remained in Arab hands throughout the period of this article. The once great Kingdom of Jerusalem was now reduced to several coastal cities. When King Henri de Champaign died in 1197, Isabelle, his widow, married for the fourth time. This time the honor (and the Kingdom of Jerusalem) went to Aimery of Lusignan (1197-1205) who was already King of Cyprus. Aimery ruled as King consort (King by virtue of his marriage to Isabelle, the Queen). When Aimery died, Jerusalem reverted back to Mary of Montferrat (the eldest offspring of Isabella, by her marriage to Conrad). Hugh, Aimery's son, inherited Cyprus but not Jerusalem. John of Ibelin ruled as regent (1205-10) until Mary came of age and married John de Brienne who ruled as King consort (1210-25).

Henry VI's Aborted Crusade

     The failure of the Third Crusade to liberate Jerusalem weighed heavily on all of Christendom. Henry VI (Holy Roman Emperor, HRI, 1190-97) announced his plans to take the cross following his conquest of Sicily. Preparations were made and about one thousand German Crusaders arrived in the Holy Lands. Armenia and Cyprus were raised to Kingdoms in the Holy Roman Empire. But all the preparations were for naught, as Henry would die in Messina, Sicily at the age of 32 before he could begin his crusade.

     His son, Fredrick was far to young to rule and he and his mother Constance and Sicily were put under the care of the new Pope, Innocent III. Henry's brother, Philip of Swabia took control of the lands for the Hohenstaufen. But soon, Otto of Brunswick took up a rival position for the House of Welf. So the Crusader ambitions remained dormant for a few years. Remember Philip, he fits into our narrative a bit later.

Strained Relations between Byzantium and Western Europe

     It is a long standing tradition that before anyone recounts the events of the Fourth Crusade one has to try to explain why it happened or at least some of the motivations that led up to it. One would think that Byzantium (who were called Greeks by the Crusaders) and the Crusaders (who were called Latins) who shared a common enemy and a common religion would be on the same side, but war makes strange bedfellows and the two forces were often allies but rarely friends.

     The events of the First Crusade soured their relations when the two factions undermined each others efforts and argued over the fruits of the conquests. In 1171/2, Emperor Manuel I Comnenus (1143-80) became tired of the special trading concessions that had been granted to the Venetians and had them arrested and seized their goods. Again in 1182 the Greeks turned on the Latins in Constantinople and in a mob action (known as the Latin Massacre) rampaged through the streets killing all westerners they met. Isaac II's alliance with Saladin against Fredrick Barbarossa in the Third Crusade also fueled the Latin's distrust of the Byzantines.

     Of course, the Westerners did their share to aggravate the Byzantines starting with the conquest and vicious sack of Thessalonika by the Normans. Followed by threatened attacks on Constantinople by both Henry VI and Fredrick Barbarossa.

Preaching the Crusade

     The Fourth Crusade began normally. It was conceived by pope Innocent III and preached by Faulk de Neuilly. It was at a tournament in Eciri (Champagne, France) in 1199 where the idea of another crusade first began to jell. The Crusaders thought an campaign against Egypt would isolate Syria from its support and allow the conquest of Jerusalem. Consequently, the Crusaders began to plan to raise an army and make the journey by ship to Syria and eventually overland to Egypt.

     Thibault of Champagne was to be the leader, but he died before the crusade could start. He willed most of his money to his vassals to outfit crusade. Upon his death, Marquis Boniface was elected as the new leader of the Crusaders. The principle Crusaders were Count Baldwin of Flanders and Hainault (1195-1206) and Geoffory de Villehardouin who wrote a first hand account of the crusade. As we will see, Enrico Dandolo Doge of Venice (1192-1205) was also to join the crusade.

The Covenant with Venice and Redirection of the Crusade to Zara

     Any Crusade needed to begin with transport to Syria. But such a crossing was an enormous undertaking. No existing single fleet in Christendom could carry and supply the Crusaders. The Crusaders wanted to travel together so that their army would arrive in mass rather than piecemeal. Venice was the only state that could even consider such a massive undertaking.

     The Crusaders reached an agreement with Venice in April 1201 where they were to pay 85,000 marks of silver (a mark is a unit of account equal to two-thirds of a pound) and Venice would provide transport for 4500 knights (and their horses), 9000 Squires (and their horses) and 20,000 foot soldiers plus 50 warships and nine months supplies. The Crusaders also agreed to share all the spoils of war equally with Venice. All this was to be done in about a year by St. John's Day (June 24, 1202). Despite the enormity of the undertaking, Venice was ready on the appointed day and the Crusaders were unable to pay them.

     It seems that the Crusaders had over-estimated the size of their force at Venice. Many of the Crusaders left directly from other ports (especially Marseilles) to travel to Syria. Whatever the reason, the Crusaders at Venice numbered only 12,000 and they could not pay what they had promised. After each knight paid his portion and they were short of the total, several leaders of the crusade decided to pay all the money which they had. They were still 34,000 marks short and under the terms of the agreement. Venice could keep what had been paid to date and would be under no obligation to transport the Crusaders.

     The Crusade seemed doomed until the Doge, Enrico Dandolo, suggested a self-serving alternative. If the Crusaders would help him capture the city of Zara (lost during the expansion of Hungary in 1186) in the name of Venice, the Crusaders could pay the balance due form their share of the booty. To seal the deal, Venice joined the crusade and the Doge spoke to the assembled Venitians in the church of St. Mark taking command of their forces: "Sirs, you are associated with the best and bravest people in the world in the highest enterprise anyone has undertaken. Now I am an old man, weak and in need of rest, and my health is failing. All the same, I realize that no one can control and direct you like myself, who am your lord. If you will consent to my taking the cross so that I can protect and guide you, and allow my son to remain here in my place to guard the state, then I shall go to live or die with you and the pilgrims." [Villehardouin]

Detail the church of St. Mark in Venice -- Photo by author

     And so, despite many objections (including the Pope's), the crusade was diverted to attack the Christian city of Zara.

     Zara surrendered in two weeks after a fierce but short siege and was thoroughly looted. Trieste and Mullia were also captured to consolidate their position. Upon hearing of the diversion, Pope Innocent denounced their actions. He excommunicated the whole Crusade. The Crusaders appealed to the Pope: "Your Holiness, our lords beg you to take a merciful view of their capture of Zara, seeing that our people had no better choice Š to keep the army together" Ultimately, Innocent had little choice but to absolve them from their transgressions (although the Venetians were not absolved of their complicity in the attack).

Siver Baudekin of Gui IV of Elincourt showing a charging knight -- Lot 430

     It was the winter of 1202 by the time the dust had settled and Zara was under control, much too late in the year to start another military campaign. The Crusaders began to plan their travel to Syria and the eventual military objective of Damietta, Egypt to cut support to Jerusalem. At worst they figured (and rightly so as later events will prove) that they could trade Damietta for Jerusalem. At best, they could close down a whole front. But before they could set off, the Crusaders had several months to winter at Zara, more than enough time for another strange twist.

Enter Alexius Angelus

     Byzantine Emperor Alexius III (1195-1203) came to power by deposing and blinding his brother, the then current Emperor Isaac II (who had his own troubles with the Crusaders during the Third Crusade, suffered the loss of Cyprus to Richard the Lionhearted, and fell victim to rising Bulgarian might). Emperor Alexius III also imprisoned Isaac's son, Alexius Angelus, but he escaped and made his way to the court of Philip of Swabia.

     There he appealed to his sister, Irene, Philip's wife, for aid to free his father and regain his kingdom. Philip knew a good opportunity when he saw one and arranged to send a message from Alexius to the Crusaders. In the message, Alexius asked the Crusaders to avenge the unjust deposing of his father and restore the Christian Byzantine Empire to its just ruler. For this, he promised to give the Crusaders 200,000 marks of silver, food for a year for their army, and supply a 10,000 man force for a year to aid the Crusaders in Syria/Egypt. He further promised, that once Jerusalem was reconquered, he would supply a further 500 knights as a permanent defensive force for the city. Also to entice the religious leaders, he promised to return the Eastern Church under the control of the Papacy.

     Enrico Dandolo and Boniface liked the offer immediately. Venice did not want to attack Egypt its trading partner and preferred to attack Constantinople, its trading rival. Boniface supported the Hohenstaufen plan for influence (through Philip's wife, Irene, Isaac's daughter). The idea of attacking a Christian city and further diverting the crusade from its strategic purpose was unacceptable for many. Others were looking for any excuse to leave and go directly to Syria or return home. The Pope was contacted about the offer, but the papal objection was delayed and arrived too late, the Crusaders had already sailed to Corfu.

     Alexius joined the Crusaders at Corfu. After much lively discussion, but with the consent of the religious leaders present, the Crusaders ratified their pact with Alexius and set off for Constantinople.

The Crusaders Attack Constantinople

     Constantinople was the biggest city ever seen by Europeans. "They noted the high walls and lofty towers encircling it, and its rich palaces and tall churches, of which there were so many that no one would have believed it to be true if he had not seen it with his own eyes ŠThere was indeed no man so brave and daring that his flesh did not shutter at the sight. Nor was this to be wondered at, for never before had so grand an enterprise been carried out by any people since the creation of the world." [Villehardouin]

     The Crusader army was scarcely big enough to besiege a single gatehouse let alone the whole city. At first, the Crusaders tried to start a rebellion on behalf of Alexius Angeles by sailing him around the city. When this was unsuccessful, they began an assault. Through the use of the Venetian navy, they were able to take the tower at Galata and break the chain across the harbor and sail their troops into the city. After establishing this beachhead, the Crusader began to plan for the long conquest of the city, still protected by several castles and palaces. Unexpectedly, Emperor Alexius fled the city with most of its treasury. The palace guard returned Isaac to power. The Emperor received the Crusaders and his son. Isaac named Alexius co-emperor and they jointly renewed the pledges to the Crusaders, but Isaac said it would take time to consolidate their power and meet the terms.

Gold coin of Constantine IX (l, Lot 12), Billon Trachy of Isaac II (r, Lot 373)

     Small payments were made to the Crusaders, but Isaac and Alexius were slow (and likely unable) to meet their obligation to the Crusaders. Alexius tried to satisfy the terms of his oath. He attempted to force the supremacy of Rome over the clergy but was resisted. He raised taxes to pay the debt. "But since the recipients considered the sum to be but a drop (for no nation loves money more than this raceŠ)" [Choniates], Alexius resorted to confiscating church plate which he had melted down to help settle the debts to the Venetians.

     Tensions between the Greeks and Latins grew over the winter of 1203, until a fire was started (likely an accident) which burned one quarter of the city. The Crusaders pressed their claims with threats in February 1204, and the Byzantines answered by starting hostilities.

     Alexius Murzuphlus became the leader of the nationalist forces, tired of the heavy handed rule of Alexius and Isaac and looking to expel the Latins, they started a riot in January 1204. After the unfortunate fire and subsequent the threats by the Crusaders, Murzuphlus stormed the palace. Isaac died of (imposed) "grief" in prison. Alexius proved more durable, "twice Murzuphlus offered Alexius the cup that quenches life; but when he proved more vigorous than the poison Š [he] cut the thread of his life by having him strangled, squeezing out his soul, so to speak, through the straight and narrow way, and sprang the trap leading to hell". [Choniates] Alexius Murzuphlus was crowned as Emperor Alexius V on February 6, 1204.

     This palace coup eliminated the official reason for the Crusaders actions. No longer could they claim to be supporting the just Emperor against the usurpers. Venice argued that they should conquer the city and install a Latin Emperor. The Crusaders met in March of 1204 and agreed on the split of spoils and a method to select an Emperor and started to lay siege to the city. The main Crusader army was repulsed from its frontal attack, but the Venetian fleet captured a section of the walls. The outer walls were controlled by the Crusaders on April 12. The Crusaders started a fire to screen the Byzantines from attacking their position, but the attack never came. The next day Alexius V fled. Theodore Lascaris was next proclaimed Emperor, but he refused the honor and fled with many of the nobles of the city.

     The city was taken again. The great treasures of the ancients, important religious relics, any portable object was looted in an orgy of gluttony that lasted over three days. The spoils were divided and a Latin emperor was elected. Constantinople would never recover. Truly it was a tragic victory.

     Upon hearing only of the conquest of Constantinople Pope Innocent called it a "splendid miracle" then modified his praise in a second letter indicating that while grateful for Constantinople he would have been even more pleased at the capture of Jerusalem. Then the news of the sack of the city arrive and Innocent was aghast. In a letter to Peter Capuano, his legate, he lamented: "these powerful warriors of Christ, who should have wielded their weapons only against the infidels, have bathed in the blood of Christ".

The Creation of the Latin Empire and Frankish Greece

     Baldwin of Flanders was elected Emperor and crowned in St. Sophia. He received one-quarter of the loot to finance the Empire. Boniface eventually claimed Macedonia and Thessaly as his share and married Irene, the wife of Isaac, daughter of the King of Hungary. Venice took all the coastal cities, Crete, and the Aegean Islands. Everybody in the army had a share of the booty. In theory, 3/8 went to Venice, 3/8 to the Crusader knights and 1/4 kept by Baldwin as Emperor. The Crusaders mostly melted down the loot into convenient bars or used the bronze for the statues to strike coins (see lot 730). The Venetians valued the artistry of the objects and transported much back to Venice. The golden altar (Pala d'Oro) in St. Mark is studded with gems brought to Venice after the Fourth Crusade. But perhaps the most famous booty are the four horses (quadriga) displayed in the arches on the balcony of St. Mark's. Many of the religious relics can still be seen in churches throughout Europe the most famous is the shroud of Turin [thought to be the same 'burial shroud of Christ' which taken from Constantinople].

     Events started well for the Latin Empire. Baldwin expanded the Empire to the south and Lascaris seemed unable to resist. Boniface pressed with his forces to the west then south. Ultimately, he traded his conquests to Baldwin for his allotted Macedonia and Thessaly and established the Kingdom of Thessalonika. His vassals captured southern Greece. In Attica, the Burgundian, Otto dela Roche formed the Duchy of Athens in the fall of 1204. Achaia was founded by William de Champette in 1205; it would later become the stronghold of the Villehardouins. But the Latins made a grave error in rejecting King Kalojan of Bulgaria (1197-1207) in his offer of alliance. They could hardly afford another enemy, let alone the most powerful in the region.

The four horses looted from Constantinople, now in Venice Photo by author

The Fall of the Latin Empire

     The exiled Greeks entered the void and offered Kalojan, their former enemy, the title of Emperor if he would rid them of the Latins. Kalojan, for reasons of his own, launched his attack from Bulgaria leading his own troops, the Vlachs, and an allied force of Cuman horseman from the Steppes. With extreme ruthlessness, he had captured Adrianople in February, 1205.

     By late March, Emperor Baldwin began to siege to the city. Baldwin had the superior forces, and easily routed Kalojan's light horse archers who retreating into the city in the first engagement. On the next day, April 14 1205, John's light horseman offered the same feeble resistance, only this time the retreating forces led the knights into an ambush from the bulk of the army. Baldwin and many of the premier knights of the army were captured and led away to captivity and eventual death. Doge Enrico Dandolo, who escaped the trap at Anrianople, died later that year. In 1207, Boniface was killed by a Bulgarian raiding party. So in the course of three years all the leaders of the Fourth Crusade were dead.

Left: Billon Denaro of Enrice Dandolo -- Lot 458

Right: Bronze Trachy of the Latin Empire -- Lot 703

     The uncertainty of Baldwin's fate left the Crusaders in disarray. Much of their conquests were captured by Kalojan. Baldwin's brother Henry was eventually elected Emperor (1206-16) following rumors of Baldwin's death. Henry was an able leader and a good general, but the Latin Empire was in grave peril. They were fighting a two front war and losing on both sides.

     By 1207, Kalojan was besieging Adrianople again (Adrianople was retaken by the Crusaders following the 1205 capture) and Theodore Lascaris of Nicaea was on the verge of conquering Cyzicus and the island castle of Kibotos. Both cities seemed lost and the pincer was closing on Constantinople.

     Henry sent his troops by ship to attack Lascaris' troops outside Kibotos. The Greeks burned their ships and fled on foot unwilling to risk a battle. The siege on Cyzicus was relieved shortly thereafter. On the other front, Kalojan's mercenary horse archers refused to continue until they had collected all the booty they could carry. Kalojan was on the verge of capturing Adrianople (the wall was completely down in some places) but felt he had to retreat without his skirmisher horse archers to shield the main army from counter attack. Clearly this is an error in reconnaissance, since there was no Latin army in the field to attack him, they were still busy at Cyzicus.

     This was the turning point for the Latins. By 1211 Henry was able to stop the advances of Nicaea. In 1214 a two year truce was signed with Nicaea at the cost of several Latin held cities.

     In Thessalonika, the infant Demetrios (1207-24) succeeded his father and Hubert of Briandrate was named Regent. But Hubert refused to accept Emperor Henry as his feudal overlord. Henry marched to Thessalonika and deposed Hubert and crowned the young Demetrios. Since the later events in Thessalonika to not bear directly on the Latin Empire, I'll skip to the end and say that Demetrios was unable to stop the expansion of Epirus and its new leader, Theodore Angulus Ducas Commenus (1224-30). In 1224, Epirus overran the capital. Demetrios had lost and fled to Italy.

     Back in Bulgaria, Kalojan died mysteriously in October 1207 following the siege of Andrianople. The rightful heir was John Asen, Asen's son, who was only eleven years old. Boril, Kalojan's nephew, usurped the throne (1207-18). John fled to Russia. During Boril's reign the fortunes of Bulgaria declined. Internal differences caused cities to defect, the Latin army regained much of Thrace, and the Serbs whittled off cities in the north. After trying alliances with all the other players, Boril made an alliance with the Latin Empire in 1213 and also the Hungarians. Alliance attacks against the Serbs were successful but indecisive. When Emperor Henry died in 1216 and King Andrew of Hungary (1205-1235) went on the Fifth Crusade [the subject of a future article] in 1217, the time was right for John to return. In 1218, he defeated and blinded Boril and was crowned Tsar John II Asen (1218-41).

     John III Vatatzes (1222-54) became the next Emperor of Nicaea. By 1225, he had forced the Latins out of Asia Minor and conquered part of eastern Thrace. The expanding Epirus became a bother for both Bulgaria (much of their expansion was through the conquest of Bulgarian territory) and Achaia. John of Bulgaria mobilized his army and conquered Epirus and Macedonia in 1230. In the process he captured Theodore. This war kept the two enemies of the Latins busy and saved Constantinople for a few more years.

     Robert died in 1228 and was succeeded by his young brother Baldwin II (1228-40 under various regencies, sole rule 1240-61) as Emperor. The Barons gave the regency to John de Brienne (1231-37), the former King of Jerusalem. John held out against a combined attack of Nicaea and Bulgaria in 1236, but it was basically a breakdown of the coalition that saved the Latins. When John died in 1237, the Empire consisted of little more that Constantinople itself.

     Baldwin traveled throughout Europe trying to raise money and support. He sold all he owned in his efforts. He even used his son, Philip, as collateral for a loan. But despite all his efforts, he could not start a crusade to help him. The house of cards finally fell on July 25, 1261 when Michael VIII (1259-82) of Nicaea conquered Constantinople with no real resistance. The Byzantine Empire was reestablished, but it was forever devastated by the actions of the Fourth Crusade.

     The Venetian monopoly in the eastern Mediterranean was dissolved with the collapse of the Latin Empire. The Genoese came to the forefront under a treaty with Michael. All that remained of the Fourth Crusade were the states of Achaia and Athens in Greece and of course the great vacuum left through the destruction of the once-grand cities of Byzantium.

     The Byzantine chronicler, Niketas Croniates in summarizing the actions of the Crusaders concludes that: "In truth, [the Crusaders] were exposed as frauds. Seeking to avenge the Holy Sepulcher, they raged openly against Christ and sinned by overturning the Cross with the cross they bore on their backs, not even shuttering to trample it for the sake of a little gold and silver. By grasping pearls, they rejected Christ, the pearl of great price."

St. Sophia in Constantinople and a section of the wall - 19 Cent. photo

Select Bibliography

Villehardouin, The Conquest of Constantinople, translated by M. Shaw, Penguin, New York, 1963

Niketas Choniates, Historia, translated by Harry Magoulias, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1984

Steven Runiciman, A History of the Crusades, Cambridge, 1951

Kennith Setton (ed), A History of the Crusades, Madison, 1969

John Godfrey, 1204, The Unholy Crusade, Oxford, 1980

Ernle Bradford, Story of the Fourth Crusade. New York, 1967

D. Metcalf, Coinage of the Crusaders and the Latin East, Oxford

John Fine Jr, The Late Medieval Balkins, Ann Arbor, 1994

George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, Rutgers


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