Fourth Crusade


The Fourth Crusade (12011204), originally designed to conquer Jerusalem through an invasion of Egypt, instead, in 1204, invaded and conquered the Eastern Orthodox city of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire.


After the failure of the Third Crusade, there was little interest in Europe for another crusade against the Muslims. Jerusalem was now controlled by the Ayyubid dynasty, which ruled all of Syria and Egypt, except for the few cities along the coast still controlled by the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, now centred on Acre. The Third Crusade had also established a kingdom on Cyprus.

Pope Innocent III succeeded to the papacy in 1198, and the preaching of a new crusade became the goal of his pontificate. His call was largely ignored by the European monarchs: the Germans were struggling against Papal power, and England and France were still engaged in warfare against each other. However, due to the preaching of Fulk of Neuilly, a crusading army was finally organized at a tournament held at Écry by Count Thibaud of Champagne in 1199. Thibaud was elected leader, but he died in 1200 and was replaced by an Italian count, Boniface of Montferrat. Boniface and the other leaders sent envoys to Venice, Genoa, and other city-states to negotiate a contract for transport to Egypt, the object of their crusade; one of the envoys was the future historian Geoffrey of Villehardouin. Genoa was uninterested but Venice agreed to transport 33,500 crusaders (as well as 4,500 horses), a very ambitious number. This agreement required a full year of preparation on the part of the city of Venice to build numerous ships and train the sailors that would man them, all the while curtailing the city's commercial activities.

The majority of the crusading army that set out from Venice in October 1202 originated from areas within France. It included men from Blois, Champagne, Amiens, Saint-Pol, the Ile-de-France and Burgundy. Several other regions of Europe sent substantial contingents as well, such as Flanders and Montferrat. Other notable groups came from the Holy Roman Empire, including the men under Bishop Martin of Pairis and Bishop Conrad of Halberstadt, together in alliance with the Venetian soldiers and sailors led by the doge Enrico Dandolo.

Attack on Zara

Since there was no binding agreement amongst 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. The Venetians, under their aged and possibly 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, and that only by reducing themselves to extreme poverty. The Venetians barricaded them on the island of Lido until they could decide what to do with them.

Dandolo and the Venetians succeeded in turning the crusading movement to their own purposes. Dandolo, who made a very public show of joining the crusade during a ceremony in the church of San Marco di Venezia, proposed that the crusaders could pay their debts by attacking the port of Zara in Dalmatia (essentially an independent community which recognized King Emeric of Hungary as a protector, and which was previously ruled by Venice). The Hungarian king was Catholic and had himself agreed to join the crusade (though this was mostly for political reasons, and he had made no actual preparations to leave). Many of the crusaders were opposed to this, 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 crusade leadership threatening excommunication; 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 excommunicated for this by Innocent III.

Diversion to Constantinople

Boniface, meanwhile, had left the fleet before it sailed from Venice, to visit his cousin Philip of Swabia. The reasons for his visit are a matter of debate; he may have realized the Venetians' plans and left to avoid excommunication, or he may have wanted to meet with the Byzantine prince Alexius Angelus, Philip's brother-in-law and the son of the recently deposed Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelus. Alexius had fled to Philip when his father was overthrown in 1195, but it is unknown whether or not Boniface knew he was at Philip's court. In any case, if the crusaders would sail to Constantinople and topple the reigning emperor, Alexius offered to reunite the Byzantine church with Rome, pay the crusaders an enormous sum, and join the crusade to Egypt with a large army. It was a tempting offer for an enterprise that was short on funds. Greco-Latin relationships had been complex since the Great Schism of 1054. The First and Second Crusades had caused much damage in Constantinople on their way to the Holy Land, and the Greeks had been accused of betraying the crusaders to the Turks. A large number of Venetian merchants were also attacked and deported during anti-Latin riots in Constantinople in 1182. However, the Byzantine prince's proposal involved his restoration to the throne, and not the sack of his capital city. Boniface agreed, and Alexius returned with Boniface to rejoin the fleet at Corfu after it had sailed from Zara. The rest of the crusade leaders eventually accepted the plan as well, but a great many of the rank and file wanted nothing to do with the proposal, and many deserted. The fleet arrived at Constantinople in late June, 1203.

The Crusaders' initial motive was to restore Isaac II to the Byzantine throne so that they could receive the support that they were promised. Conon of Bethune delivered this message to the Lombard envoy who was sent by Alexius III Angelus, who had deposed his brother Isaac. The citizens of Constantinople were not concerned with the deposed emperor and his exiled son; usurpations were frequent in Byzantine affairs, and this time the throne had even remained in the same family. From the walls of the city they taunted the puzzled crusaders, who had been promised that Prince Alexius would be welcomed. The crusaders landed, attacked the northeastern corner of the city, and set a destructive fire, causing the citizens of Constantinople to turn against Alexius III, who then fled. Prince Alexius was elevated to the throne as Alexius IV along with his blind father Isaac.

Further attacks on Constantinople

The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople, by Eugène Delacroix, 1840
The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople, by Eugène Delacroix, 1840

Alexius IV realised that his promises were hard to keep, as Alexius III had managed to take a large amount of money with him, and the empire was short on funds. At that point he 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 characterised it as the turning point towards the decline of the "Romaic state" (as Greeks called their Empire). 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 from the crusaders to renew their contract for another six months (until April 1204). Nevertheless there was still fighting in the city, and the crusaders attacked a mosque (August 1203), 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, attacked the city once more. On the April 8, 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 demoralised army. They had to convince the men that the events of 9 April were not God's judgement 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. To introduce the Jews (supposedly the killers of Christ) as a point of comparison indicates how strongly the clergy wished to convince their audience of Murtzuphlus' evil. Although Innocent III had again warned them not to 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 Constantinople

On the 13th of April, weather conditions finally favoured the crusaders. A strong northern wind aided the Venetian ships to come close to the wall, and 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. Eventually, the crusaders took the city on the 13th of April. The crusaders inflicted a horrible and savage sacking on Constantinople for three days, during which many ancient and medieval Roman and Greek works were 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; according to Choniates a prostitute was even set up on the Patriarchal throne. 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, Rainier 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: "You vowed to liberate the Holy Land but you rashly turned away from the purity of your vow when you took up arms not against Saracens but Christians… The Greek Church has seen in the Latins nothing other than an example of affliction and the works of Hell, so that now it rightly detests them more than dogs".

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 defeated at the Battle of Adrianople on 14th April 1205, and was tortured and executed by the Bulgarian tsar 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 impact on Greece. Notably, a collection of laws, the Assises de Romanie (Assizes of Romania), was produced. 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 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 organise 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. In a way, Greeks thought that the Byzantine civilisation which was centered at the Orthodox faith would be more secure under Ottoman rule, and preferred to sacrifice their political freedom in order to preserve their religion. 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 and crushed by the mighty Ottoman Empire. During the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453, a significant band of Venetian and Genoese knights died in the defence 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." 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." In the opinion of Jonathan Phillips, this was "an extraordinary statement — an apology to the Greek Orthodox Church for the terrible slaughter perpetrated by the warriors of the Fourth Crusade" (Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, intro., xiii).

The Fourth Crusade was the 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 directed against Egypt. Only one subsequent crusade the Sixth, succeeded in restoring Jerusalem to Christian rule, and only briefly.


Primary Sources

  • Nicetas Choniates, The Sack of Constantinople
  • Robert of Clari, The Conquest of Constantinople (see also excerpts from another translation)
  • The Sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders (excerpts from several contemporary accounts)
  • The Fourth Crusade 1204: Collected Sources (excerpts from several contemporary accounts)
  • Geoffrey de Villehardouin, Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople
  • Pope Innocent III, Reprimand of Papal Legate
  • Chronicle of Morea

Secondary Sources

  • Jonathan Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople
  • 'Crusades' - Encyclopædia Britannica. 2006.
  • W.B. Bartlett, An Ungodly War: The Sack of Constantinople & the Fourth Crusade. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000.
  • Charles Brand, Byzantium Confronts the West, 1180-1204, ISBN 0-7512-0053-0
  • Nicholas A. Cooke, "The Sack of Constantinople." 2000
  • John Godfrey, 1204: The Unholy Crusade. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
  • Ralph-Johannes Lilie, Byzantium and the Crusader States, 1096-1204, trans. by J.C. Morris and Jean E. Ridings. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993; orig. pub. 1988.
  • Serban Marin, A Humanist Vision regarding the Fourth Crusade and the State of the Assenides. The Chronicle of Paul Ramusio (Paulus Rhamnusius), Annuario. Istituto Romeno di Cultura e Ricerca Umanistica v. 2 (2000): 51-57
  • Edgar McNeal and Robert Lee Wolff, The Fourth Crusade, in A History of the Crusades (edited by Kenneth M. Setton and others), vol. 2, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962
  • Donald M. Nicol, Byzantium and Venice: A Study in Diplomatic and Cultural Relations ISBN 0-521-42894-7
  • Peter S. Noble, Eyewitnesses of the Fourth Crusade - the War against Alexius III, Reading Medieval Studies v.25 (1999)
  • Jonathan Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, London: Pimlico, 2005.
  • Donald E. Queller, The Latin Conquest of Constantinople, New York, London, Sydney, Toronto: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1971
  • Donald E. Queller and Thomas F. Madden, The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople (2nd Edition, 1999) ISBN 0-8122-1713-6
  • D. E. Queller and Susan J. Stratton, "A Century of Controversy on the Fourth Crusade", Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History v. 6 (1969): 237-277; reprinted in D. Queller, Medieval Diplomacy and the Fourth Crusade, London: Variorum Reprints, 1980

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