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.