History’s Greatest Fiasco

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By August 1198, the newly elected Pope Innocent III was desperate. For several centuries, Christendom had seemed to be in decline; the First Great Schism a hundred and fifty years earlier had split Christianity into Orthodox and Catholic branches, heretic movements were springing up throughout Western Europe and all the while the Islamic armies of the caliphates continued their relentless advance in every direction. The First Crusade seemed to have stemmed the inexorable Muslim tide, only for Saladin to have thoroughly reversed the gains of that campaign. The Kurdish warlord had steamrollered the crusader kingdoms in the Near East, retaken Jerusalem and beaten back any and all Christian opposition. Once again, the Holy Land was under Muslim control, a situation that was utterly intolerable for the new Pontiff. Accordingly, Innocent began preparing a new Catholic expedition to the Levant. 

From the beginning, this was to be a crusade like no other – it was to be Christianity’s great punch, which would entirely eject Islam from the Middle East. For the Catholic lords who answered Innocent’s call to arms (almost all of whom were French nobles) had learned the lessons of the Third Crusade; they realised it would be impossible to subdue the Levant while Egypt served as a power base for their Muslim foes. Therefore, instead of marching through Anatolia and Syria to reach the Holy Land, the crusading lords planned on sailing to the Nile Delta, from where they would conquer Cairo and then strike north via the Sinai Peninsula. This plan was strategically sound, but made for poor propaganda; for the average Christian, fighting in Egypt had nowhere near the spiritual significance of following the footsteps of Christ in the sands of the Palestine. Fortunately, the crusading lords had a simple plan to deal with this problem. They lied. Instead of informing their soldiers of their true plans, they proclaimed to their men that they would follow the well-worn strategy of every crusade thus far, and head straight for the Holy Land. This was the first and founding lie of the Fourth Crusade, but it would not be the last. 

The crusading lords’ concealed plan hinged on them having a large enough fleet to transport their troops directly to Alexandria, and there was only one state that could possibly provide a navy of that size. Of the myriad maritime cities of the medieval world, Venice was by far the most powerful; under the leadership of the Doges, she had become Europe’s premier naval power and the Queen of Adriatic. At this time, Enrico Dandolo was the man guiding the serene ship of state. Elected in his eighties as a stopgap leader, Dandolo proceeded to shock contemporaries by enjoying a lengthy and successful reign. He was over ninety by now and, though his mind was as sharp as ever, he was completely blind. The very personification of the people he led, he was shrewd, ruthlessly calculatingly and utterly cynical, and he drove events with an incredible will and energy. This was the man that the crusading lords went to haggle with.

Eventually, the Venetians pledged to provide the ships needed to ferry around 4,500 knights and 29,000 foot soldiers. In return, the crusaders promised to pay two marks for every man and four marks for every horse transported, meaning – once certain other expenses had been accounted for – that they owed the Venetians a massive total of 84,000 marks. The undertaking was a gamble for the Serene Republic; constructing the roughly five hundred ships needed to ferry the holy army would require the total effort of the entire city for more than a year. If the crusaders failed to pay, the Venetians, having no other source of income, would be economically ruined. Yet as with all great gambles, there was also the prospect of immense reward; not only was 84,000 marks a colossal sum, but the crusaders also hinted that they would reward the Venetians with a monopoly on lucrative Levantine trade once Egypt and Palestine had been successfully subdued. 

While the Venetians began constructing the commissioned armada, the French nobles left to rally their forces. When they returned to Venice in 1200, they were met with a massive fleet, fully equipped with sailors and supplies. And then everything went wrong. For the crusading lords had estimated that 33,5000 men would appear to take the cross, but by June, only 12,000 had materialised. This manpower deficit meant that the nobles now lacked the ability to raise funds, and could only offer the Venetians 50,000 marks. Enraged, the Venetians refused to ferry the crusaders anywhere until they had received the remaining 34,000 marks that they were owed.

With the crusade on the edge of abject strategic ruin and Venice on the edge of abject financial ruin, it fell to Dandolo to find a solution. The aged Doge brokered a simple compromise: if the crusaders would help him subdue Zara (a Christian city on the eastern Adriatic that had broken ties with Venice) then he would postpone collecting the enormous debt that the Republic was owed. The crusading lords, trapped between a rock and a hard place, consented, and in September 1202, the fleet set sail for Zara. Sensing the trouble that lay ahead, Dandolo ordered the papal legate, the theoretical leader of the crusade, to return to Rome, leaving the army entirely in the hands of him and his fellow noblemen.

Innocent, however, still managed to learn of the scheme. The Pontiff was apoplectic that his sacred crusade had been hijacked for as profane a purpose as the expansion of Venetian power, and he immediately sent messengers to warn the crusaders that they would be excommunicated if they dared proceed with their plans. But without his legate present, Innocent had no way of ensuring that the rank and file soldiers heard of his ultimatum. The crusading lords did what they had done thus far, and simply elected to not inform their troops of the Pope’s instructions. The people of Zara couldn’t hope to resist the apocalyptic host, and instead tried to shame their fellow Christians by placing images of the cross on the city’s walls. The crusaders didn’t care; Zara was stormed, sacked and systematically stripped of its valuables anyway. The Pope immediately excommunicated the entire crusade, another fact that the army’s leaders forgot to mention to their soldiers. 

While the crusaders lingered in Zara, unsure exactly how to proceed next, news came from the nearby Byzantines. These men were the medieval successors to the Romans of antiquity, but by this time their holdings had been confined to the Balkans, Crete and Anatolia. Their magnificent capital of Constantinople straddled the Bosporus Straits, and was the last glory of the empire that had once boasted of limitless expansion. At 300,000 strong, the city was the pride of the Emperors; it was the largest, wealthiest and most beautiful metropolis of the era. Its occupants were the heirs to Rome’s long history, the Roman identity and the truly vicious nature of Roman politics. 

The previous Byzantine Emperor, Isaac Angelus, had lost both his crown and his eyes to his brother, Alexius. The son of this deposed monarch, also named Alexius, had for some time been scheming to restore his father, and he now sought to use the holy warriors-cum-mercenaries to his advantage. He sent envoys to Zara, and promised that if the crusaders returned his father to the imperial purple, he would in turn place the Orthodox Byzantines under the authority of the Catholic Pope, provide military assistance in the coming campaign and pay the 34,000 mark debt owed to the Venetians. The offer was too good to resist. And so, instead of heading south for Alexandria, the crusaders sailed eastwards for Constantinople, where a nasty surprise awaited them. 

Alexius had promised his new allies that his partisans would open the city gates, and that they would simply need to stroll into the imperial palace and depose his uncle. Yet Alexius and his contingent of ‘Latins’, as the Greek Byzantines dismissively referred to them, were far from popular within the capital, and the people rallied against the invaders. When the crusaders ordered the defenders to allow them entry, the city gates remained stubbornly sealed, and the Latins were forced to lay siege to Christendom’s most magnificent metropolis.

On 17 July 1203, the crusaders struck. Constantinople was defended on land by the colossal Theodosian Walls, fortifications which even the comically large Turkish cannons of the 15th Century would struggle to contend with. The unprepared crusaders were certainly no match for them, and the Byzantines beat them back with ease. At the same time, however, Dandolo led an amphibious assault; fully armoured, the blind nonagenarian stood at the prow of the first ship to reach the land, urging his fellow Venetians onwards. By the end of the day, this heroic advance had captured several towers, and the crusaders were poised to begin the final stage of their assault. The Byzantines still had an enormous army stationed inside the city and the elite Varangian guard – perhaps the most fierce battalion in Christendom. Yet Emperor Alexius’ nerve broke, and that night he fled Constantinople. Crusading forces streamed into the city, Isaac was transferred from a jail cell to the throne room and Alexius Angelus was named as his co-monarch.

Yet like all men who rise to power by promising everything to everyone, Alexius soon began to disappoint. It quickly became apparent that the promises he had made in Zara were utterly unfulfillable; the Greeks would never accept Papal supremacy and Byzantium could never afford to pay the bribes Alexius now had to hand out. The treasury was emptied, but there was not nearly enough gold there to satisfy the occupying army. A desperate Alexius levied immense taxes and when even these proved insufficient, the new Emperor had to order his subjects to melt down Byzantium’s sacred statues and art. Yet it was still not enough.

Sitting at the centre of world trade, Constantinople was an extremely cosmopolitan city, and had long played host to resident Italian communities. Under normal circumstances, the Italian immigrants co-existed peacefully with the Byzantine Greeks, but now, amidst the looting and taxing, ethnic tensions erupted. When the Italians were attacked, crusading forces intervened on their fellow Latins’ behalf, and before long flames ripped through the city. On 1 December, the mob violence escalated. Soon, crusading forces were battling with the Byzantine Greeks in the city streets. In the fighting, a nobleman named Alexius Ducas became increasingly popular, largely by promising that he would not meekly do everything the foreign invaders demanded. On 27 January, Ducas, sensing his moment, burst into Angelus’ bedroom, threw him into a cell and had himself crowned Emperor. Soon after, negotiations between the Byzantines and the Latins broke down, and the new monarch expelled the crusaders from Constantinople and ordered them to leave his empire at once. 

For the French and Venetians, obedience offered only an ignominious end to the crusade and an unspeakably massive financial loss. Ducas was deluding himself if he ever believed the Latins would simply accept such a reality, and before long the crusaders began their second siege of Christendom’s greatest city. The fighting was even more desperate and confused than on the first occasion, and for days the affair hung in the balance. On 12 April 1204, however, a combination of European armour, the Venetian fleet and crusading zeal won the day. One monk, Peter of Amiens, made what should have been a suicidal assault on the walls and, in a fit of religious fervour, managed to singlehandedly secure a gate. Crusaders streamed in, chaos ensued and Alexius Ducas fled. Another noble was raised to the purple, but after a reign lasting hours, he followed Alexius’ footsteps in flight. Finally, the Byzantine assembly voted to name Boniface (one of the leading crusaders) a the new Lord of Constantinople, hoping to signal that they had surrendered. Boniface’s first and final act was sack the city.

The palaces, tombs and churches of Constantinople were ruthlessly plundered. Not even the Hagia Sophia was spared, and the entire city was drowned under a wave of destruction. Everywhere there was murder, rape and pillaging. The sacred relics were all confiscated as Byzantium was stripped of its prized blood of Jesus, the Holy Shroud and the last remains of the Crown of Thorns. Most famously, the Venetians stole the four bronze horses which adorned the hippodrome; today, they lie inside St Mark’s Basilica. In addition to the metal sculptures, the Venetians carried off with them treasure worth some 250,000 marks – thrice the amount they had originally been supposed to receive.

The crusade effectively dissolved afterwards; a few crusaders went on to the Middle East, but they achieved nothing of note. With the Greeks in chaos, the Latins carved up their lands. The Venetians took a total of ⅜ of the Byzantine Empire, gaining most of the islands and ports of the Aegean. Dandolo remained in the region to oversee the Republic’s new acquisitions, and ironically now rests in the city he helped plunder. Constantinople itself became part of the newly declared Latin Empire, while Byzantine refugees formed a remnant state centred around Nicaea. Eventually their diaspora ended, but exile had clearly taken its toll by the time Constantine’s heirs returned to his city. Though the Byzantines limped on for another two centuries, they never recovered their old imperial lustre, and in 1454 the young, brilliant ambitious Mehmed the Conqueror captured Constantinople. Thus the last embers of the Roman flame were snuffed out. A Venetian fleet had been dispatched to defend the city from the Sultan’s armies, but they arrived too late to offer any assistance. In a feat of cynical pragmatism worthy of Dandolo himself, the Venetian envoys attached to the armada simply used the opportunity to negotiate favourable trade treaties with Constantinople’s new masters.

The Christian crusades resulted in some of the most baffling, bizarre and Baldeickian events imaginable – memorable examples include the goose that led an army and the twenty years spent purging Southern France of heresy. Yet nothing was nearly as absurd as the expedition that deposed three Byzantine Emperors, sacked the greatest city in Christendom and disobeyed more Papal orders than it heeded. Ultimately, the only lasting legacy of the Fourth Crusade was the weakening of Europe’s great bulwark against Islam and the spoiling of the greatest jewel in the Mediterranean.

Akroyd, P., 2009. Venice: Pure City. Random House

Crowley, R., 2012. City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire. Faber and Faber

Philippa J., 2005. The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople. Pimlico