The Fourth Crusade

(modified from the wikipedia article)


Ayyubid Sultan Saladin had conquered most of the Frankish, Catholic Kingdom of Jerusalem, including the ancient city itself, in 1187. The Kingdom had been established 88 years before after the capture and sack of Jerusalem by the First Crusade. The city was sacred to both Christians and Muslims and returning it to Christian hands had been a primary purpose of the First Crusade. Saladin’s was a Muslim dynasty, and his incorporation of Jerusalem into his domains shocked and dismayed the Catholic countries of Western Europe. The Crusader states had been reduced to three cities along the sea coast: Tyre, Tripoli and Antioch.

The Third Crusade (1189–1192) reclaimed much land for the Kingdom of Jerusalem, including the key towns of Acre and Jaffa, but had failed to take Jerusalem itself. The Crusade had also been marked by a significant escalation in long standing tension between the Germanic princes of western Catholicism and the Byzantine Empire still centered on Constantinople. The experiences of the first two Crusades had thrown into stark relief the vast cultural differences between the two Christian civilizations. The Latins (as the Byzantines called them because of their adherence to the Latin Rite) viewed the Byzantine preference for diplomacy and trade over war, as duplicitous and degenerate, and their policy of tolerance and assimilation towards Muslims as a corrupt betrayal of the faith. For their part, the educated and wealthy Byzantines saw the Latins as lawless, impious, covetous, blood-thirsty, undisciplined, and (quite literally) unwashed.

The leader of the Third Crusade, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa openly plotted with the Serbs, Bulgars, Byzantine traitors, and even the Muslim Seljuks against the Empire and at one point even sought Papal support for a Crusade against the Orthodox Byzantines. The Third Crusade had also seized the breakaway Byzantine province of Cyprus. But rather than return it to the Empire, Richard I of England sold the island to the Knights Templar.

Barbarossa’s army had quickly disintegrated and took ship back to Europe after his death, leaving the English and French, who had come by sea, to fight Saladin. In 1195, Henry VI, son and heir of Barbarossa, sought to efface this humiliation by declaring a new Crusade and in the summer of 1197 a large number of German knights and nobles, including two Archbishops, nine bishops, five dukes and numerous other nobles sailed for Palestine. There they captured Sidon and Beirut, but news of Henry’s death along the way, sent many of the leaders quickly back to their estates in Europe. Deserted by their leaders, the rank and file Crusaders panicked before an Egyptian army and fled to their ships in Tyre.

Also in 1195 Byzantine Emperor Isaac II Angelus was deposed by his brother in a palace coup. Ascending as Alexios III Angelos, the new emperor had his brother blinded (a traditional punishment for treason) and imprisoned. Ineffectual on the battlefield, Isaac had been an incompetent ruler who had let the treasury dwindle, outsourced the navy to the Venetians, and distributed military weapons and supplies as gifts to loyalists, fatally undermining the Empire’s defense.

However, the new Emperor was to prove even worse. Anxious to shore-up his position, he spent even more of the treasury. His attempts to secure the support of border commanders undermined central authority. In favour of adopting a lavish court life-style, he neglected defense and diplomacy completely and it is rumoured that he has been reduced to plundering Imperial tombs to meet expenses. It is also said that his chief admiral and brother-in-law of the Empress, Michael Stryphnos, reportedly sold the fleet’s equipment down to the nails to enrich himself.


Pope Innocent III succeeded to the papacy in 1198, and the preaching of a new crusade became the goal of his pontificate, expounded in his bull Post miserabile. 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 organised at a tournament held at Écry by Count Thibalt of Champagne in 1199. Thibalt was elected leader, but he died in 1201 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 Marshal of Champagne, Geoffrey de Villehardouin. Genoa was uninterested, but in March 1201 negotiations were opened with Venice, which agreed to transport 33,500 crusaders, a very ambitious number. This agreement required a full year of preparation on the part of the Venetians to build numerous ships and train the sailors who would man them, all the while curtailing the city’s commercial activities. The crusading army was expected to consist of 4,500 knights (as well as 4,500 horses), 9,000 squires, and 20,000 foot-soldiers.

While this number would appear to be farcically large, and indeed the Great Council of Venice were suspicious of it, but Villehardouin and his fellow envoys claimed that it was the result of an exhaustive survey of those who had pledged their support to the Crusade in the two years prior to the negotiations taking place. Mollified by the assurances of the envoys and by their own doge, Enrico Dandolo the Venetians bent their industrious nature to the task and got to work.

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 the Pairis Abbey and Bishop Conrad of Halberstadt, together in alliance with the Venetian soldiers and sailors led by the doge Enrico Dandolo. The crusade was to be ready to sail on June 24, 1202 and make directly for the shores of Egypt. This agreement was ratified by Pope Innocent, with a solemn ban on attacks on Christian states.


As there was no binding agreement among the crusaders that all should sail from Venice, many chose to sail from other ports, particularly Damme (in 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. About 4-5,000 knights and 8,000 foot soldiers showed up. The Venetians had performed their part of the agreement: there lay 50 war galleys and 450 transports—enough for three times the assembled army. The Venetians, under their aged and blind Doge Dandolo, would not let the crusaders leave without paying the full amount agreed to, originally 85,000 silver marks.

The crusaders could only pay initially 35,000 silver marks. The Enrico Dandolo threatened to keep them interned unless full payment was made so then a further 14,000 marks was collected, 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. In addition to this about 14,000 men (out of Venice’s population of about 120,000 people) were needed to man the entire fleet, placing further strain on the Venetian economy.

Dandolo and the Venetians considered what to do with the crusade. It was too small to pay its fee, but disbanding it would lead to great shame upon Venice, as well as the loss of significant money and trading activities. 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 intimidating many of the local ports and towns down the Adriatic which would culminate in the attack of the port of Zara in Dalmatia. The city had been dominated economically by Venice throughout the 12th century, but had rebelled in 1183 and allied formally with King Emeric of Hungary and Croatia. Subsequent Venetian attacks were repulsed, and by 1202 the city was economically independent, under the protection of King Emeric.

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 due to repeated dynastic strife with his brother, Andras). Many of the Crusaders were opposed to attacking Zara, and some, including a force led by Lord Simon de Montfort, refused to participate altogether and worked to prevent violence against the Christian city. While the Papal legate to the Crusade, Cardinal Peter of Capua endorsed the move as necessary to prevent the crusade’s complete failure, Pope Innocent III was alarmed at this development and wrote a letter to the Crusading leadership threatening excommunication.

It took almost a month for the crusade to sail for Zara, as they spent considerable time slowly sail down the eastern coast of the Adriatic in a show of force for the benefit of Venice. The fleet arrived slowly and piecemeal before the city of Zara in early November, and many of the crusaders were surprised to find the fighting begun without them.

The citizens of Zara had 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 was assaulted by the men of Venice as soon as they arrived. Count Louis of Blois also lent his men to this initial attack, which was soon aborted due to lack of support from the main body of soldiery. Negotiations were begun for the peaceful surrender of the city, but quickly broke down due to antipathy between the Venetians and Zarayans, as well as a misunderstanding on the part of the latter party that the crusade would not take part in any military action on the city. A short siege commenced, and after some ten days the city fell and was sacked.

It is thought that perhaps 500 citizens died in the ensuing scramble for riches, but most of the blood-letting that took place actually occurred between the Franks and the Venetians, who swiftly fell to argument over the spoils. Regardless, much of the plunder was soon turned over to the Venetians, in partial repayment of the debt. This sparked resentment between the soldiers and the sailors, which soon boiled over into one major riot and a series of smaller public quarrels in the months to come, as the Crusade elected to winter in the conquered city.

Simon de Montfort took no part in the hostilities, and sternly criticised the siege. He kept his own men away from the fighting, and almost 2000 men followed his example. and his associates, including Abbot Guy of Vaux-de-Cernay, soon left the Crusade altogether from Zara and traveled to King Emeric of Hungary’s territory. Many of those 2000 men went with them, but the breakaway army soon disbanded after it became clear that the Hungarian king considered his pledge to take the Cross had been made forfeit due to the attack on his vassals.

The role of Boniface of Montferrat in the attack is also shrouded in mystery. Some claim to have seen him during the sack, while others swear that the Marquis was away from the army at the time, journeying to winter with his cousin, Phillip of Swabia.

When Innocent III heard of the sack he sent a letter to the crusaders excommunicating the entire army that remained, and ordered them to return to their holy vows and head for Jerusalem. Tense negotiations commenced over the winter, with numerous envoys (including [[:geoffrey-villehardouin | Marshal Villehardouin) journeying to Rome to plead the case of the Crusade with the pope. Innocent shortly reconsidered his decision. Regarding the Crusaders as having been blackmailed by the Venetians, he rescinded the excommunications against all non-Venetians on the expedition.

To be Continued

The Fourth Crusade

The Concord of Ashes Haligaunt