The Fourth Crusade that was launched in 1203 (as listed on the Bible Timeline Poster with World History) ranked as one of the messiest and most violent of all the Crusades. None of the Crusaders who left Europe ever reached the Holy Land nor the seat of power of the Ayyubids which was Egypt. Strapped for cash, the Crusaders only succeeded in occupying the city of Zadar after an agreement with the Venetians. In 1204, they sacked Constantinople, removed its Greek rulers, and established the Latin Empire. The failure of the Fourth Crusade angered Pope Innocent III who denounced them for the destruction of Constantinople.
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The Fourth Crusade: Messy, Broke, and Adrift
Pope Innocent III was elected in 1198. He immediately launched a new Crusade to take back Jerusalem from Muslim hands. He sent one of his cardinals to France and the other one to Venice. The France-bound cardinal was tasked to reconcile King Philip II and King Richard the Lionheart so they would lead the new Crusade. Both kings did not want to join at first since the last Crusade did not end well for them. But the two kings eventually agreed to sign a peace treaty and prepared to return to the Holy Land. This plan, however, was put on hold when Richard was killed in 1199.
The other cardinal went to Venice, and he convinced the city’s leader to provide them with ships with which to transport the new Crusaders. Pope Innocent also did not give up on convincing the European noblemen to join the Fourth Crusade. Between 1199 and 1200, Count Theobald of Champagne, Count Louis of Blois, and Count Baldwin of Flanders answered the call to join the Crusade.
Henry VI of Germany died in 1197, and he was succeeded by his brother, Philip of Swabia, as Holy Roman Emperor. Philip had married the Byzantine princess Irene Angelina in the same year. Over at the Byzantine court, Irene’s father, Isaac II Angelos, was deposed by his own brother. His heir, the young Alexius, was also imprisoned. Alexius escaped Constantinople and travelled to the court of his brother-in-law in Swabia for shelter. Philip also had his own problems with the German noblemen, so he could not leave Germany for the Holy Land.
Soon, European noblemen and knights made their way to Venice so they could board the ships to the Holy Land. They arrived in Venice in 1202, but there were too few of them. They discovered that there were too few Crusaders in Venice, so they were strapped for cash. Since their money was not enough, the ruler of Venice, Doge Enrico Dandolo, would not allow them to board the ships they financed specifically for this mission. They could not go forward, but they could not return to their homes, too, as it would mean humiliation.
From One Bad Idea to Another
So Enrico Dandolo offered them a way out. They would attack the city of Zadar (Zara), and in exchange, the Venetians would let them board the ships to the Holy Land. The problem was that Zadar was a Christian city and it was held by the only king who promised to join the Crusade. These facts did not matter for the Crusaders, and they went ahead with the siege. The confused defenders of Zadar surrendered after a fierce siege. The Venetians allowed the Crusaders to sail to the Holy Land, but winter stood in their way. So the voyage was once again postponed, and they were forced to stay in Zadar for the time being.
In Germany, Philip was still unable to leave his kingdom to join the Crusade because his hold on the throne was threatened by his brother Otto. So the young Alexius came up with a plan: enlist the stranded Crusaders in Zadar in removing the usurper in Constantinople. Alexius promised thousands of his own men to add to the ranks of the Crusaders. He also pledged money to pay off the Crusaders’ debts to the Venetians. Some of the Crusaders wanted to accept the offer, while others wanted to go on to the Holy Land once winter was over. Another group wanted to sail off to Egypt and attack the Ayyubid rulers instead.
Those who wanted to go to Constantinople and oust the emperor eventually won. They marched to Corfu to meet with Alexius, but many of those who did not agree with the plan went home. The rest of the Crusaders sailed to Constantinople and arrived in the Bosphorus with Alexius in summer of 1203. When they arrived, they were forced to besiege the city because the defenders closed the city gates on them.
The siege went on for several days until they finally broke through the city walls. The usurper (Alexius’ own uncle) fled, and Isaac II Angelos was freed from prison. He then crowned his son Alexius as his co-emperor, but Alexius knew that his hold on the crown was not secure. He offered to keep the Crusaders on his payroll so that they would stay until spring. Money was something neither he, nor his government had, so he had to impose higher taxes on his people to pay the Crusaders. The people hated Alexius for it, but he had a greater problem when the Crusaders fought among themselves. The resentful residents of Constantinople also hated them.
The Sack of Constantinople
A high-ranking military officer named Mourtzouphlos then rebelled and deposed Alexius. He proclaimed himself the new emperor and ordered the death of the previous emperor. It was clear to the Crusaders that the payment will never come at this point. Broke and humiliated, the dream of fighting in the Holy Land or in Egypt all but disappeared. The restless Crusaders had enough. They attacked Constantinople in 1204 and the beaten down Byzantine troops fought them for some days then fled. The new emperor also escaped the city after his soldiers deserted him.
The Crusaders then rampaged through Constantinople for three days and stole everything they wanted. They went on a killing and raping spree that spared not even the elderly, children, priests, and nuns. After three days, the Crusaders declared Baldwin of Flanders as the new emperor of Constantinople. The news of the rampage reached the horrified Pope Innocent III who immediately condemned the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade. The Crusaders had their taste of chaos, plunder, and bloodshed even if they never reached the Holy Land.
Picture By Eugène Delacroix – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, Link
Angold, Michael. The Fourth Crusade: Event and Context. Harlow: Longman, 2003.
Madden, Thomas F. Crusades: The Illustrated History. Ann Arbor, MI: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2004.
Phillips, Jonathan. The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
Roberts, J. M., and Odd Arne. Westad. The History of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
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