April 14


Bulgars defeat the forces of the Latin Empire

Devoted readers of this blog will remember that on April 12 we recounted the story of the fall of Constantinople in 1204 to the forces of the Fourth Crusade who overthrew the Orthodox Byzantine rulers, sacked the city and established a Catholic empire. The first emperor of this new state was Baldwin of Flanders, a western knight who faced resistance from both his fellow crusaders and rebellious Greeks. In 1205 his army was defeated by an army of Bulgars and their pagan allies from the Eurasian steppes, the Cumans. Baldwin was captured and disappears from history except for a legend that he was murdered by his captors and his skull turned into a drinking goblet, the same fate to which the Bulgars had subjected the emperor Nicephorus in 811.

In Western Europe Baldwin became one of those kings whose shadowy fate inspired impostors, like the False Dmitri (I and II) in Russia and the Princes in the Tower who bedevilled the reign of Henry VII in England. A minstrel named Bertrand appeared twenty years later and claimed to be Baldwin, explaining his absence by a story of having become a hermit. Though Bertrand was exposed as a fake, a number of other impostors appeared for the next few decades and inspired discontented peasants to follow them.

The Catholic or Latin Empire never really took hold in the ruins of the Byzantine state and in 1261 Michael Paleologus would succeed in driving the westerners out of Constantinople and establishing the last Orthodox dynasty in the empire.

April 13


Birth of the Most Hated Woman in America

Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a cantankerous and foul-mouthed activist and one of the most influential women of her generation. Her relentless court cases and her founding of American Atheists scored a number of victories for godlessness and the separation of church and state in America.

Born into a Presbyterian family, she led a disordered life for some time, marrying, serving in the Second World War, discarding a husband, taking a lover, having children by different men, battling depression, and fleeing to Europe to defect to the Soviet Union, which she respected for its state atheism. After the USSR declined her bid for citizenship, O’Hair returned to Baltimore where she launched a lawsuit against the local school board for requiring Bible readings. The case reached the Supreme Court in 1963 and O’Hair was victorious: compulsory Bible readings were outlawed in American public schools. She would go on to try and prevent an astronaut from a Bible reading in space; she encouraged governments to tax the Catholic Church; she railed against the phrase “In God We Trust” on currency; and tried to ban the pope from holding mass in a public park. She served as the president or de facto leader of American Atheists from 1963 to 1995.

Her oldest son, William Murray, left atheism for Christianity and was disinherited by his mother. She remarked on his apostasy: “One could call this a postnatal abortion on the part of a mother, I guess; I repudiate him entirely and completely for now and all times. He is beyond human forgiveness.” He is now a Baptist minister and continues to speak out against O’Hair’s irreligion.

In 1995, she, her son Jon, and her grand-daughter Robin were kidnapped by a former employee of American Atheists and forced to withdraw considerable sums of money before they were murdered, dismembered and buried on a Texas ranch.

A recent movie, The Most Hated Woman in America, cast the attractive actress Melissa Leo as O’Hair. Somewhere, O’Hair is snickering.

April 12


The Fourth Crusade takes Constantinople

One of the most tragic and pathetic moments in Christian history is the story of the doomed Fourth Crusade which aimed at recapturing Jerusalem but which ended in the sack of Christendom’s greatest city.

The tale begins with the fall of Jerusalem to the Islamic sultan Saladin in 1187. The Third Crusade, led by Europe’s greatest monarchs — the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, the wily Philip Augustus of France, and Richard Lionheart of England — failed to regain the city in the 1190s but the crusading urge did not die. Papal efforts were made to launch a Fourth Crusade. Innocent III issued the bull Post miserable which called on Christian kings to attack Muslim powers in the Levant; none at that exalted rank heard his call but a number of mid-level nobles responded and agreed to gather in Venice in 1202 and mass for an attack on Egypt. They contracted with Venetian authorities to provide a massive fleet to carry the anticipated 35,000 troops and horses across the Mediterranean. In the end, however, only about 12,000 knights and soldiers showed up.

This left the Venetians in a pinch: they had constructed hundreds of ships, assigned thousands of sailors and bent their entire economy for a year to fulfill the crusaders’ orders. Of the promised 85,000 silver marks, the crusaders who had appeared in Venice could only come up with 49,000. On the one hand, Venice desperately needed the money and could refuse to sail if the bill was not paid; on the other hand, they did not want 12,000 heavily-armed warriors camped close to Venice to turn hostile and attack the city. A disgraceful compromise was reached between the aged doge Enrico Dandolo and the crusaders: if the knights would agree to lay siege to the city of Zara, a commercial rival to Venice on the Adriatic coast, Venice would discount the money owed them. Learning that not only was Zara a Roman Catholic city but that its overlord was a vassal of the pope who had taken a crusader’s oath, many left in disgust and returned home. However, enough felt that this was the only way the crusade could continue and held their nose at this moral lapse. The crusade proceeded to Zara (in modern Croatia) and took the city. The pope was furious and threatened excommunication.

The story becomes even more complicated and venal at this point. To Zara, where the crusade was wintering, came Alexius Angelus, a Byzantine prince whose father, the emperor Isaac II, had been deposed, blinded and thrown into prison by his usurping brother Alexius III. (There will be a plethora of Alexii showing up, so keep a close eye on their assigned number). The young man made the following astounding offer to the crusaders.  He would pay off the entire Venetian bill and throw in an additional 200,000 silver marks to the crusaders. He would contribute 10,000 troops to the attack on Egypt and promise to maintain 500 knights to garrison the Holy Land. Finally, he vowed to end the Great Schism between Orthodoxy and Catholicism by submitting the Byzantine empire to the papacy. All the crusaders had to do was to attack Constantinople and restore his father to the throne. Naturally, the Venetians were all for this rancid proposal as the two cities were always at economic and political odds with each other.

So in 1203 the crusaders set sail for the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and its massive land walls which had held off would-be conquerors for 800 years. After a series of battles outside the walls, the usurping Alexius III scurried off and Isaac was restored by the Byzantines to the throne. Constantinople now faced the impossible task of fulfilling the outlandish promises the young prince had made. In order to assure that happened the crusaders insisted that the young man be made co-emperor with his father and so he was enthroned as Alexius IV.

While the crusaders camped impatiently outside the city, Alexius IV scoured the city for money but found that his uncle had made off with the treasury as he escaped. So churches were ransacked for their gold and silver, and even icons were melted down to satisfy the debt, causing unrest among the iconophile populace. A riot broke out in which westerners were killed by local mobs; in retaliation Venetians and other crusaders attacked a mosque and burnt down much of Constantinople.

Unrest in the city grew in early 1204. The elderly emperor Isaac died in January and a military usurper deposed Alexius IV, killing him in February. This ambitious general now ruled as — what else? — Alexius V. A final showdown was coming between the Fourth Crusade and the Byzantines. Open warfare broke out, Alexius V fled and on April 12, 1204 crusaders and Venetians broke into the city.

What followed was awful. Rape and loot proceeded at an industrial level. Much of Constantinople was destroyed, never to be rebuilt. The greatest church in Christendom, Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom was desecrated. Holy relics and massive wealth were stolen and sent to western Europe to enrich the Venetians and the French. Priceless art and manuscripts were wantonly ruined. The crusaders set up a Latin Kingdom in Constantinople and announced a reunion with the Roman church while Byzantine nobles went into exile and plotted their return.

The consequences of the Fourth Crusade are incalculable. As Innocent III angrily predicted, it soured relations between Eastern and Western Christians:

How, indeed, will the church of the Greeks, no matter how severely she is beset with afflictions and persecutions, return into ecclesiastical union and to a devotion for the Apostolic See, when she has seen in the Latins only an example of perdition and the works of darkness, so that she now, and with reason, detests the Latins more than dogs? As for those who were supposed to be seeking the ends of Jesus Christ, not their own ends, who made their swords, which they were supposed to use against the pagans, drip with Christian blood, they have spared neither religion, nor age, nor sex. They have committed incest, adultery, and fornication before the eyes of men. They have exposed both matrons and virgins, even those dedicated to God, to the sordid lusts of boys. Not satisfied with breaking open the imperial treasury and plundering the goods of princes and lesser men, they also laid their hands on the treasures of the churches and, what is more serious, on their very possessions. They have even ripped silver plates from the altars and have hacked them to pieces among themselves. They violated the holy places and have carried off crosses and relics.

The resulting hostility exists to this day. The fall of Constantinople gutted the Byzantine Empire which for centuries had guarded the eastern borders of Christianity from barbarians and Islam — it would now be too weak to hold off new invaders who would soon pour in from the Middle East. The crusading movement which should have focussed on retaking the Holy Land was now diverted into propping up the Catholic rulers of the rump Byzantine state.

April 11


Premiere of Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion

J.S. Bach wrote a number of musical settings for depicting the events of Christ’s final days leading up to his execution, but only his treatment of St Matthew’s and St John’s gospel accounts survive. Written for a 1727 Good Friday performance in Leipzig’s St Thomas Church where he was employed as cantor, the work is divided into two parts: the first encompasses the Last Supper, the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane and his betrayal and arrest; the second deals with the trial, crucifixion and burial culminating in the great chorus Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder, “We sit down in tears”. Bach revised it on a number of occasions and the version usually performed dates from the middle of the 1740s, set for two choirs and two orchestras.

Here is the entire 2 hours and 43 minutes of the masterpiece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jm1os4VzTgA&spfreload=10

For those who wish a highlight only, here is the final chorus Wir setzen uns mit Tränen niederhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7X41SUO5-o&spfreload=10

The lyrics are:

We sit down with tears

And call to you in your tomb
Rest gently, gently rest!
Rest, you exhausted limbs!
Your grave and tombstone
For our anguished conscience shall be
A pillow that gives peace and comfort
And the place where our souls find rest.
With the greatest content there our eyes
will close in sleep.

April 10

1821 Execution of Patriarch Gregory V

When the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 they ended the Roman  Empire and extinguished the last imperial dynasty, the Paleologi; but they kept in place the office of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Christianity would be tolerated in the Turkish domains under a number of restrictions and penalties but would be allowed self-government in religious affairs. Mehmet the Conqueror chose the fiercely anti-Catholic monk Gennadius Scholarius to be the first of the puppet Ecumenical Patriarchs. As such, he was not only head of the empire’s Orthodox inhabitants (Ethnarch of the Rum millet), he was also responsible for their good behaviour. This was a difficult task as the sultan’s various Greek, Bulgarian, Serb, Croat, Wallachian, and Albanian Christians often resented Turkish rule. A number of patriarchs would be punished if their coreligionists acted up. In 1821 it would be the turn of Gregory V.

That year much of Greece rose in revolt against Turkish rule. Patriarch Gregory, anxious lest the rebellion bring down a wider hostility to his Orthodox followers, denounced the rising. That was insufficient to stave off the ire of Sultan Murad II who ordered the execution of Gregory and other Christian bishops. Gregory was arrested as he emerged from Easter Mass and hanged in the doorway of the patriarchal compound where it remained for days, after which his body was dragged through the streets of Constantinople and thrown in the harbour where it was recovered by fishermen. Today it rests in a cathedral in Athens.

This atrocity did much to stir up European support for Greek independence which was eventually won by 1830. The gate in which the patriarch was hanged was sealed shut in his honour and has remained closed in the 200 years since.

April 9

1865 Lee surrenders at Appomattox

The American Civil War, aka the War Between the States, aka the War of Northern Aggression, aka the War for Southern Independence, aka the Great Rebellion, had begun effectively in 1861 with the bombardment of a Union fort in Charleston harbor. It effectively ended four years later with the decision by Robert E. Lee to surrender his Army of Northern Virginia after losing a final battle to Ulysses S. Grant close to the village of Appomattox Court House. Lee had been trying to link up with other remaining Confederate forces but, surrounded and cut off from supplies, had to admit that he, and the Southern cause, were finally at the end of their rope. “There is nothing left for me to do”, he said, “but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

On the afternoon of April 12, in the parlor of a house owned by Wilmer McLean, Lee met Grant and agreed to very generous terms: the rebels would down their major weapons but would be allowed to march home under parole keeping their personal baggage, sidearms, and horses. Food for the journey was provided by the Union commissary and there was a tactful lack of triumphalism in the behaviour of the Northern Army. General Joshua Chamberlain, hero of Little Round Top, ordered his men to salute the passing grey-clad soldiers:

Instructions had been given; and when the head of each division column comes opposite our group, our bugle sounds the signal and instantly our whole line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, gives the soldier’s salutation, from the “order arms” to the old “carry”—the marching salute. [Confederate General] Gordon at the head of the column, riding with heavy spirit and downcast face, catches the sound of shifting arms, looks up, and, taking the meaning, wheels superbly, making with himself and his horse one uplifted figure, with profound salutation as he drops the point of his sword to the boot toe; then facing to his own command, gives word for his successive brigades to pass us with the same position of the manual,—honor answering honor. On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead!

Secessionist armies remained in the field as far away as Texas but Lee’s surrender prompted theirs as well. On May 9, the end of the war and of the Confederate States of America became official.



April 8


Krak des Chevaliers falls to Muslim forces

When the knights and princes of the First Crusade recaptured much of the Holy Land for Christendom in 1099, they found that it would require considerable military might to defend it. That task fell largely on members of a new kind of organization: the military monastic orders, principally the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers or the Knights of St John. Originally begun as groups dedicated to serving the sick and pilgrims, they grew in the early twelfth century into formidable armies of warrior monks. Based in fortresses in what is now Israel, Syria and Lebanon they were the backbone of the crusader kingdoms of the Levant.

The most impressive of their castles was the Hospitaller fortress of Krak, built on a hill overlooking a strategic road that connected the cities of Homs and Tripoli. Supported by donations from European Christians, loot from raiding Muslim areas, and the revenues from surrounding farms, the Knights of St John in the Krak garrison worked to erect ever more impregnable defences, manned by over 2,000 soldiers.

By the late 13th century, however, the crusader kingdoms had been reduced to a few forts and a narrow strip of the Mediterranean coast. Muslim disunity, from which the crusaders had benefited, had ended and Islamic armies under Baibars, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt succeeded in besieging Krak in 1291. After their outer fortifications had been been breached, a letter (probably forged) reached the beleaguered garrison of 300 warriors by carrier pigeon; it purported to be from the Hospitaller Grand Master and counselled the Knights to surrender. This they did and on April 8, 1291 they turned the fortress over to the Mamluks and marched away. The fall of Krak is often held to signal the end of the era of crusader states on the eastern Mediterranean mainland.

The castle still stands and because of its commanding position is still used militarily in the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

April 7


Trial by fire in Florence

Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98) was a Dominican monk whose career of outspoken criticisms of the pope, wild apocalyptic prophecies, and involvement in Florentine politics ended in a bizarre confrontation in front of a giant bonfire.

Savonarola was born in Ferrara and entered the Dominican order in 1475. An early attempt to win influence in Florence failed and he spent a number of years as an itinerant preacher before he was invited back to Florence at the behest of the humanist Pico della Mirandola. Florence was then at the height of its Renaissance glory, governed by the Medici clan and its leader Lorenzo the Magnificent who became Savonarola’s patron. The monk, however, did not feel himself bound to be a grateful supplicant of the powerful: his preaching scorched the rich and denounced the corrupt clergy. When Lorenzo lay dying in 1492 it is said that he sent for Savonarola to give him the last rites. “Will you return your ill-gotten gains and restore the liberty of Florence?” asked the Dominican. When Lorenzo refused, Savonarola left him unshriven. (Or so the story goes; other sources have Savonarola and Lorenzo reciting prayers together.)

Lorenzo’s death led to a short spell of government by his son Piero the Unfortunate who was driven from Florence in 1494 and replaced by a republic inspired by the preaching of Savonarola. For a time the monk held sway, instituting a reign of moral repression, political experimentation, and financial incompetence. When the King of France failed to fulfill some of Savonarola’s prophecies and the pope excommunicated him, his enemies inside Florence came out into the open. In 1498 one of his followers foolishly agreed to a challenge by some Franciscan monks who were fierce critics of Savonarola: which side could enter flames and emerge unscathed? Despite many misgivings Savonarola agreed to the test.

On April 7, 1498 a huge bonfire was set up in the midst of the city’s main square. The volunteers from both sides had prepared with a week of prayer and fasting. A roped-off walkway led to the pyre; three Franciscans and Savonarola with two supporters would walk along in it into the fire. The Piazza was filled with Florentines eager to see which faction would display God’s approval by surviving the inferno. Security was heavy: foreigners were banished from the city and a strong guard set to prevent disorders. The Franciscans arrived quietly but the Dominicans paraded in singing a psalm.

At this point delays began to occur. The Franciscans demanded that Savonarola remove his heavy robe; he agreed. The Franciscans then insisted he remove his undergarments lest they be enchanted with fire-prevented spells; finally, both sides agreed to exchange garments. Then the Franciscans objected to Savonarola carrying the eucharistic host into the flames. After many hours and much argument, it began to rain and the event was cancelled.

Florentines interpreted this turn of events as a divine repudiation of Savonarola. The citizens turned against their prophet with a vengeance. Mobs sacked the Dominican church; Savonarola and his associates were arrested and tortured. On May 23 the Dominicans were hanged and burnt in the same square where the trial by fire was to have taken place.

April 6

A very grim day in history with a number of catastrophic events.


Louis IX (later St Louis), King of France, is captured by Muslim forces during the ill-fated Seventh Crusade. He will be ransomed and return home, but will not lose the crusading spirit. On his next attempt to invade North Africa he will die at Tunis.


Mehmet II begins the Ottoman siege of Constantinople which will eventually capture the city and bring down the Byzantine Empire.


A rebellion by black slaves to burn down New York breaks out. It begins with arson and then an ambush of white people, killing 9 and wounding 6. The perpetrators were hunted down and captured; most of them were burnt at the stake, though one was broken on the wheel. Laws were tightened to prevent any repetition of such an uprising.


Quebec politician Pierre Elliot Trudeau wins the Liberal Party leadership and becomes Prime Minister. Canada has yet to recover.


Major League Baseball sanctions the use of the “designated hitter” for the American League. The National League continues to hold out against this hideous innovation.

April 5


Jan Matthys dies outside Münster

Jan Matthys van Haarlem (c. 1500-1534) was a Dutch baker who converted to Anabaptism in the 1520s. By 1533 he had convinced himself that he was the reincarnated prophet Enoch and began to preach the coming Apocalypse. His followers infiltrated the city of Münster in Westphalia and summoned Matthys in January 1534 to become the leader of the New Zion. They drove out the Catholic inhabitants of the city and instituted a regime of the godly who were awaiting the End Times. Community of goods, simple living, adult baptism, and theocracy was the new order of things with Matthys as the deciding voice. The seizure of the city led the Catholic bishop to summon help from German princes to crush this dangerous heresy and Münster was soon under siege (pictured above).

In the middle of a wedding banquet Matthys was seized by the Holy Spirit, and cried out, “Father, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” With a deep sense of gloom he bade farewell to his followers and left the room, claiming that he had been supernaturally instructed that he should go out of the city to confront his enemies. On the next day, at high noon on Easter Sunday, he imitated Gideon and chose thirty companions to sally forth against the Bishop’s army. The poor loon, no warrior by any means, and his band were quickly killed. Matthew’s head was paraded around the walls on a pole and his genitals were nailed to the town gates. His death meant that leadership devolved on the even more radical John of Leiden whose rule of the doomed Anabaptists became bizarre and tragic.