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Fourth Crusade

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The Fourth Crusade (12021204), also known as the Byzantine Crusade, was originally designed to conquer Muslim Jerusalem through an invasion of Egypt. Instead, in April 1204, the Crusaders of the West invaded and conquered the Christian (Eastern Orthodox) city of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. This is seen as one of the final acts in the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church. It has been often described as one of the most profitable and disgraceful sacks of a city in history.[1]

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Attack on ZaraEdit

Main article: Siege of Zara

As there was no binding agreement among the crusaders that all should sail from Venice, many chose to sail from other ports, particularly Flanders, Marseilles, and Genoa. By 1201 the bulk of the crusader army was collected at Venice, though with far fewer troops than expected; 12,000 instead of 33,500. Venice had performed her part of the agreement: there lay 50 war galleys, 150 large transports, and 300 horse transports - enough for three times the assembled army. The Venetians, under their aged and blind Doge, would not let the crusaders leave without paying the full amount agreed to, originally 85,000 silver marks. The crusaders could only pay some 51,000 silver marks, and that only by reducing themselves to extreme poverty. This was disastrous to the Venetians, who had halted their commerce for a great length of time to prepare this expedition.

Dandolo and the Venetians succeeded in turning the crusading movement to their own purposes as a form of repayment. Following the 1182 massacres of all foreigners in Constantinople, the Venetian merchant population had been expelled by the ruling Angelus dynasty with the support of the Greek population.[2] These events gave the Venetians a hostile attitude towards Byzantium. Dandolo, who joined the crusade during a public ceremony in the church of San Marco di Venezia, proposed that the crusaders pay their debts by attacking the port of Zara in Dalmatia.[3] The city had been dominated economically by Venice throughout the twelfth century, but had rebelled in 1181 and allied with King Emeric of Hungary and Croatia (the two were in a personal union). Subsequent Venetian attacks were repulsed, and by 1202 the city was economically independent, under the protection of the King. [4]

The Hungarian king was Catholic and had himself agreed to join this Crusade (though this was mostly for political reasons, and he had made no actual preparations to leave). Many of the Crusaders were opposed to attacking Zara, and some, including a force led by the elder Simon de Montfort, refused to participate altogether and returned home. While the Papal Representative to the Crusade Peter Cardinal Capuano endorsed the move as necessary to prevent the crusade's complete failure, Pope Innocent was alarmed at this development and wrote a letter to the Crusading leadership threatening excommunication.[5]

Historian Geoffrey Hindley's The Crusades: Islam and Christianity in the Struggle for World Supremacy mentions that in 1202, Innocent III “forbade” the Crusaders of Western Christendom from committing any atrocious acts on their Christian neighbours, despite wanting to secure papal authority over Byzantium (Hindley 143, 152). This letter was concealed from the bulk of the army and the attack proceeded. The citizens of Zara made reference to the fact that they were fellow Catholics by hanging banners marked with crosses from their windows and the walls of the city, but nevertheless the city fell after a brief siege. Both the Venetians and the crusaders were immediately threatened with excommunication for this by Innocent III.

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Further attacks on ConstantinopleEdit

Alexius IV realised that his promises were hard to keep. Alexius III had managed to flee with 10,000 pounds of gold and some priceless jewels, leaving the imperial treasury short on funds. At that point the young emperor ordered the destruction and melting of valuable Byzantine and Roman icons in order to extract their gold and silver. In the eyes of all Greeks who knew of this decision, it was a shocking sign of desperation and weak leadership, which deserved to be punished by God. The Byzantine historian Nicetas Choniates characterized it as "the turning point towards the decline of the Roman state".

Thus Alexius IV had to deal with the growing hatred by the citizens of Constantinople for the "Latins" and vice versa. In fear of his life, the co-emperor asked the Crusaders to renew their contract for another six months, to end by April 1204. There was, nevertheless, still fighting in the city. In August 1203, the crusaders attacked a mosque, which was defended by a combined Muslim and Greek opposition.

On the second attempt of the Venetians to set up a wall of fire to aid their escape, they instigated the "Great Fire", in which a large part of Constantinople was burned down. Opposition to Alexius IV grew, and one of his courtiers, Alexius Ducas (nicknamed 'Murtzuphlos' because of his thick eyebrows), soon overthrew him and had him strangled to death. Alexius Ducas took the throne himself as Alexius V; Isaac died soon afterwards, probably naturally.

The crusaders and Venetians, incensed at the murder of their supposed patron, demanded that Murtzuphlos honor the contract which Alexius IV had promised. When the Byzantine emperor refused the Crusaders assaulted the city once again. On April 8th, Alexius V's army put up a strong resistance which did much to discourage the crusaders.

The Greeks pushed enormous projectiles onto the enemy siege engines, shattering many of them. A serious hindrance to the crusaders was bad weather conditions. Wind blew from the shore and prevented most of the ships from drawing close enough to the walls to launch an assault. Only five of the Greek towers were actually engaged and none of these could be secured; by mid-afternoon it was evident that the attack had failed.

The clergy discussed the situation amongst themselves and settled upon the message they wished to spread through the demoralized army. They had to convince the men that the events of 9 April were not God's judgment on a sinful enterprise: the campaign, they argued, was righteous and with proper belief it would succeed. The concept of God testing the determination of the crusaders through temporary setbacks was a familiar means for the clergy to explain failure in the course of a campaign.

The clergy's message was designed to reassure and encourage the crusaders. Their argument that the attack on Constantinople was spiritual revolved around two themes. First, the Greeks were traitors and murderers since they had killed their rightful lord, Alexius IV. The churchmen used inflammatory language and claimed that "the Greeks were worse than the Jews", and they invoked the authority of God and the pope to take action.

Although Innocent III had again demanded that they not attack, the papal letter was suppressed by the clergy, and the crusaders prepared for their own attack, while the Venetians attacked from the sea; Alexius V's army stayed in the city to fight, along with the imperial bodyguard, the Varangians, but Alexius V himself fled during the night.

Final capture of ConstantinopleEdit

On 12 April 1204, the weather conditions finally favoured the Crusaders. A strong northern wind aided the Venetian ships to come close to the wall. After a short battle, approximately seventy crusaders managed to enter the city. Some Crusaders were eventually able to knock holes in the walls, small enough for a few knights at a time to crawl through; the Venetians were also successful at scaling the walls from the sea, though there was extremely bloody fighting with the Varangians. The crusaders captured the Blachernae section of the city in the northwest and used it as a base to attack the rest of the city, but while attempting to defend themselves with a wall of fire, they ended up burning down even more of the city. The Crusaders took the city on April 12. The crusaders inflicted a horrible and savage sacking on Constantinople for three days, during which many ancient and medieval Roman and Greek works were either stolen or destroyed. Despite their oaths and the threat of excommunication, the Crusaders ruthlessly and systematically violated the city's holy sanctuaries, destroying, defiling, or stealing all they could lay hands on; nothing was spared. It was said that the total amount looted from Constantinople was about 900,000 silver marks.

Speros Vryonis in Byzantium and Europe gives a vivid account of the sack of Constantinople by the Frankish and Venetian Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade:


The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. Constantinople had become a veritable museum of ancient and Byzantine art, an emporium of such incredible wealth that the Latins were astounded at the riches they found. Though the Venetians had an appreciation for the art which they discovered (they were themselves semi-Byzantines) and saved much of it, the French and others destroyed indiscriminately, halting to refresh themselves with wine, violation of nuns, and murder of Orthodox clerics. The Crusaders vented their hatred for the Greeks most spectacularly in the desecration of the greatest Church in Christendom. They smashed the silver iconostasis, the icons and the holy books of Hagia Sophia, and seated upon the patriarchal throne a whore who sang coarse songs as they drank wine from the Church's holy vessels. The estrangement of East and West, which had proceeded over the centuries, culminated in the horrible massacre that accompanied the conquest of Constantinople. The Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians. The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became an easy prey to the Turks. The Crusading movement thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention. (Vryonis, Byzantium and Europe, p.152).

[6] According to Choniates, a prostitute was even set up on the Patriarchal throne.[7] When Innocent III heard of the conduct of his pilgrims, he was filled with shame and strongly rebuked them.

According to a prearranged treaty, the empire was apportioned between Venice and the crusade's leaders, and the Latin Empire of Constantinople was established. Boniface was not elected as the new emperor, although the citizens seemed to consider him as such; the Venetians thought he had too many connections with the former empire because of his brother, Renier of Montferrat, who had been married to Maria Comnena, empress in the 1170s and 80s. Instead they placed Baldwin of Flanders on the throne. Boniface went on to found the Kingdom of Thessalonica, a vassal state of the new Latin Empire. The Venetians also founded the Duchy of the Archipelago in the Aegean Sea. Meanwhile, Byzantine refugees founded their own successor states, the most notable of these being the Empire of Nicaea under Theodore Lascaris (a relative of Alexius III), the Empire of Trebizond, and the Despotate of Epirus.


Almost none of the crusaders ever made it to the Holy Land, and the unstable Latin Empire siphoned off much of Europe's crusading energy. The legacy of the Fourth Crusade was the deep sense of betrayal the Latins had instilled in their Greek coreligionists. With the events of 1204, the schism between the Catholic West and Orthodox East was complete. As an epilogue to the event, Pope Innocent III, the man who had launched the expedition, thundered against the crusaders thus:

"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 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."
―Paul Halsall, translation by J. Brundage[src]

The Latin Empire was soon faced with a great number of enemies, which the crusaders had not taken into account. Besides the individual Byzantine Greek states in Epirus and Nicaea, the Empire received great pressure from the Seljuk Sultanate and the Bulgarian Empire. The Greek states were fighting for supremacy against both Latins and each other. Almost every Greek and Latin protagonist of the event was killed shortly after. Murtzuphlus' betrayal by Alexius III led to his capture by the Latins and his execution at Constantinople. Not long after, Alexius III was himself captured by Boniface and sent to exile in Southern Italy. Boniface was eventually defeated by Ducas, the despot of Epirus and a relative of Murtzuphlus, and the Kingdom of Thessalonica was restored to Byzantine rule in 1224. One year after the conquest of the city, Emperor Baldwin was decisively defeated at the Battle of Adrianople on 14 April 1205 by the Bulgarians, and was captured and later executed by the Bulgarian Emperor Kaloyan.

Various Latin-French lordships throughout Greece — in particular, the duchy of Athens and the principality of the Morea — provided cultural contacts with western Europe and promoted the study of Greek. There was also a French cultural work, notably the production of a collection of laws, the Assises de Romanie (Assizes of Greece). The Chronicle of Morea appeared in both French and Greek (and later Italian and Aragonese) versions. Impressive remains of crusader castles and Gothic churches can still be seen in Greece. Nevertheless, the Latin Empire always rested on shaky foundations. The city was re-captured by the Nicaean Greeks under Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1261, and commerce with Venice was re-established.

In an ironic series of events, during the middle of the 15th century, the Latin Church tried to organize a crusade which aimed at the restoration of the Byzantine Empire which was gradually being torn down by the Ottoman Turks. The attempt, however, failed, as the vast majority of the Byzantines refused to unite the churches. The Greek population found that the Byzantine civilization which revolved around the Orthodox faith would be more secure under Ottoman rule. Overall, religious-observant Byzantines preferred to sacrifice their political freedom in order to preserve their faith's traditions and rituals. In the late 14th and early 15th century, two kinds of crusades were finally organised by the Kingdoms of Hungary, Poland, Wallachia and Serbia. Both of them were checked by the Ottoman Empire. During the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453, a significant band of Venetian and Genoese knights died in the defense of the city.


Eight hundred years after the Fourth Crusade, Pope John Paul II twice expressed sorrow for the events of the Fourth Crusade. In 2001, he wrote to Christodoulos, Archbishop of Athens, saying, "It is tragic that the assailants, who set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their brothers in the faith. The fact that they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret."[8] In 2004, while Bartholomew I, Patriarch of Constantinople, was visiting the Vatican, John Paul II asked, "How can we not share, at a distance of eight centuries, the pain and disgust."[9] This has been regarded as an apology to the Greek Orthodox Church for the terrible slaughter perpetrated by the warriors of the Fourth Crusade.[1]

In April 2004, in a speech on the 800th anniversary of the city's capture, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I formally accepted the apology. "The spirit of reconciliation is stronger than hatred," he said during a liturgy attended by Roman Catholic Archbishop Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, France. "We receive with gratitude and respect your cordial gesture for the tragic events of the Fourth Crusade. It is a fact that a crime was committed here in the city 800 years ago." Bartholomew said his acceptance came in the spirit of Pascha. "The spirit of reconciliation of the resurrection... incites us toward reconciliation of our churches." [10]

The Fourth Crusade was one of the last of the major crusades to be directed by the Papacy, and even the Fourth quickly fell out of Papal control. After bickering between laymen and the papal legate led to the collapse of the Fifth Crusade, later crusades were directed by individual monarchs, mostly against Egypt. Only one subsequent crusade, the Sixth, succeeded in restoring Jerusalem to Christian rule, and then only for a short time. The Crusades, as it seems, became politically and economically efficient for Crusaders less inclined to follow a spiritual but an ambitious, worldly conscience.

Notes and referencesEdit

  1. 1.0 1.1 Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, intro., xiii).
  2. Donald Nicol, The last centuries of Byzantium, 1261-1453 (Cambridge, 1993)
  3. Zara is the today the city of Zadar in Croatia; it was called "Jadera" in Latin documents and "Jadres" by French crusaders. The Venetian (Italian) "Zara" is a later derivation of the contemporary vernacular "Zadra".
  4. Jonathan Harris, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, pp. 110-11.
  5. "History of the Church", Innocent III & the Latin East, p.371, Philip Hughes, Sheed & Ward, 1948.[1]
  6. "History of the Church Vol II", Innocent III & the Latin East, p372, Philip Hughes, Sheed & Ward, 1948.[2]
  7. "The Sack of Constantinople", Nicetas Choniates, 1204.[3]
  8. [4]
  9. [5] [6]
  10. [7]

See alsoEdit

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