Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

An Inglorious Diversion: The Deplorable 4th Crusade

Every nation has a sense of its own history but as with individual memories of past events, the recall tends to be somewhat selective. Events that are regarded as key moments in the history of one country are unlikely to correspond with those of another. The victories over the French at Crecy, Agincourt and Waterloo, for instance, are part of English national mythology, but they are scarcely remembered at all in France (or anywhere else for that matter). And this is equally true on the larger scale of events. In western Europe the Crusades are still remembered as a sequence of epic, romantic adventures - but in the Middle East these incursions are viewed in a quite different light.


The First Crusade, which was called by Pope Urban in 1095, was among the more successful of these military adventures, but its culmination must be regarded as one of the most shameful events in the whole of medieval history. In June 1099, after an expedition across Europe that had been marked both by incredible hardships and every kind of savagery and excess, the Crusader army finally reached its objective, the Holy City of Jerusalem. The city was immediately put to siege, and a week later, when the Crusaders had fully assembled their forces, it was stormed. When they entered the city the soldiers of Christ set about killing every living being within it, without discrimination. Men and women, children and the aged, were slain wherever they were found - in the streets, in their houses, in their places of worship. No mercy was shown. This carnage carried on throughout the day and continued into the night. By morning the only Moslem survivors were those who had managed to lock themselves in the great Mosque of al-Aqsa. When they had finished their work elsewhere a large group of Crusaders forced entrance into this holy place and slaughtered everyone within. The surviving Jews, who had sought sanctuary in their main Synagogue, were to meet a similar fate. The doors of the building were guarded to prevent anybody leaving, and it was set on fire. All perished in the flames.

In a later account of these events (Gesta Dei per Francos, 'God's work done by the hand of the Franks') one of the principle Crusader knights related how, on leaving the area of the Temple, he was forced to pick his way through piles of corpses and blood that reached as high as his knees. On the day after the Crusaders entry the streets throughout Jerusalem were strewn with bodies. When there were no more Muslims or Jews left, when every last inhabitant had been slain, the conquerors held a solemn service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where they gave thanks to God for their victory.

This appalling episode has not featured very prominently in European accounts of the Crusades - but it has never been forgotten by the peoples of the region. Indeed, the memory of this massacre became a dreadful point of reference, which long stood in the way of attempts by more enlightened elements to establish peaceable relations between the various religious communities in this part of the world.

At the time, needless to say, news of the capture of Jerusalem was received with great jubilation throughout Western Europe. In fact the success of this first Crusade in achieving its objective of 'freeing the Holy Places' was to provide the inspiration for a further four centuries of western military involvement in the Middle East. But no subsequent Crusade was ever to attain its goal in so clear-cut a manner as the First. From the time of this initial triumph the history of the Crusading powers in the Holy Land was essentially that of a long drawn out decline - of inconclusive military campaigns and internal bickering - until their final expulsion at the end of the 13th century. In fact the most enduring legacy of the determination of the Christian Crusaders to deliver the Holy Places from the Muslim infidels was to generate a corresponding fanaticism in the Islamic sphere to expel the Frankish infidels from their lands.

The deplorable effects of the Crusades on Christian relations with the Islamic world, serious though these were, were not the end of the harm done by the western Knights, who went on to inflict further, and just as lasting, damage on their Eastern co-religionists. Just as the main effect of the earlier Crusades was to terminally poison the relationship between Western Christianity and Islam, that of the notorious 4th Crusade was to completely alienate the Eastern Church and its dominions from its co-religionists in the West - and in the process to devastate the greatest metropolis in the world. This story, an example of betrayal and vandalism on an almost unimaginable scale, has also tended to be played down in conventional western histories of the Crusades .

At the time of the 4th Crusade the rivalry between the Eastern, Greek, and Western, Latin, halves of Christendom (and their respective claims to doctrinal ascendancy), had been rumbling on for centuries. The Great Schism between the two had occurred in the 11th century, when each side formally excommunicated the other, but this had only been the final act in an extraordinarily long drawn-out theological dispute - and the Schism did not seriously affect trade and other normal exchanges between states. There was little question though that, in every civilised sense, the East remained the dominant sphere. This had been the case since Rome had fallen to the northern barbarian tribes in the 5th century, with the subsequent disintegration of the Western Empire. Byzantium, by contrast, had managed to fend off the barbarians and remained as a bastion of the eastern Mediterranean.

By 1200 AD, the time of which we are speaking, Constantinople had been the guardian of Christian civilisation for almost nine centuries and had a cultural continuity that reached all the way back to the ancient Graeco-Roman world. Its geographical position, astride the main trade routes between Asia, Russia and Europe, had made it wealthy and is estimated to have had a population approaching a million at this time. The capitals of Western Europe were modest by comparison; the ten largest of them could easily have been accommodated within the walls of Constantinople - and this city was not only prosperous, but highly cultivated. With its many magnificent palaces, churches, monasteries and libraries the Incomparable City was the great repository of European learning and the arts. But at the dawn of the 13th century it was about to suffer the most devastating, and unexpected, barbarian onslaught in the whole of its long history.

In 1198, in one of his first actions as Pope, the young Innocent III, announced his desire for a new Crusade to deliver the Holy Land from the Infidels (who were once again in possession of Jerusalem). As in previous Crusades all those prepared to take up the Cross, or to provide the necessary means, would be granted complete remission of their sins, and all who died in the cause would be conveyed directly to heaven. But the initial response to this renewed call to arms was very disappointing. Much of Western Europe was preoccupied by its own wars at this time and there appeared to be little enthusiasm for a foreign adventure. Innocent's attempts to tax the clergy were equally unproductive, meeting with an unexpected degree of resistance. So, much to Innocents frustration, the plans for an expedition in 1199 came to nothing.

The Pontiff's appeal was, however, taken up by a famous charismatic preacher of the time, one Fulk of Neuilly - and his efforts at generating enthusiasm for a Crusade were rather more successful. With Innocents encouragement Fulk embarked on a rabble-rousing tour of France and the Low countries, during which he persuaded many thousands to take up the cross. Gradually, a mass-movement of a characteristically medieval kind began to gather momentum; the Crusade-mania was revived. Importantly for the cause, the nobility were drawn into in the movement - although the motives of this group were, as ever, distinctly ambiguous. Many of these warlike aristocrats were attracted to the Crusades less by religious motives than by the sheer love of fighting, and of course the promise of acquiring new possessions in the conquered lands.

For whatever reason, by the first year of the new century it was agreed, in meetings at the highest feudal level, that a Fourth Crusade should take place - but there followed the usual protracted arguments as to how and when the expedition should be mounted and, most importantly, who should lead it. There was a great deal of discussion on strategy, particularly on the matter of actually getting to the Holy Land. The difficulties of the long journey over land were well known by now, and it was eventually decided that the armies should instead take the sea-route to the Holy Land. This was problematic to begin with, since none of them had ships of their own. The leaders of this expedition were, however, determined that this Crusade should be better organised than its predecessors and they decided to arrange their army to be transported by one or other of the great Mediterranean maritime cities. They soon found though that there was little choice in this matter. Investigations revealed that, as a result of the recent conflict between Pisa and Genoa, neither were able to provide the numbers of ships of the order required for a Crusading army. This left Venice as the only serious possibility.

Accordingly, a group of Crusader Barons travelled as envoys to Venice in the winter of 1200-1201, where they presented their request to the Doge, Enrico Dandolo. After weeks of negotiation the Venetian Great Council finally agreed to provide 450 ships, sufficient to carry an estimated army of 35,000 men, their armour and horses at 4 Marks per man and each horse. This was rather more than the knights had expected, but the Venetians offered to throw in fifty of their own war-galleys in return for receiving half-shares in any conquests made by their combined forces. The Crusader grandees, who were keen to get on with the invasion, agreed to this and a solemn Treaty was signed, each side swearing their intention to work together to recover the Holy Land for Christendom. The envoys returned triumphantly to report the success of their mission, and the Venetians immediately set to work building the enormous fleet.

Unfortunately, by the time the envoys had returned to France they found that the enthusiasm for a Crusade had once again diminished. Assembling a crusading army, composed as they usually were of a fractious, ignorant soldiery, had always been a difficult matter; but this one seemed more inchoate than most. The effects of Fulk's charismatic preaching had worn off, and many that had previously committed themselves had simply backed out. Others had, in the meantime, decided to make their own way to the Holy Land, or had gone off fighting elsewhere. And a great deal of the monies that had been promised failed to materialise. Neither the clergy nor the feudal Lords had managed to raise anything like the amount needed to fund the enterprise, so the project was seriously under-funded from the beginning.

The Grand Strategy for the Crusade was that the army should assemble at Venice, ready to embark in the spring of 1202 for Egypt, where a base would be established before pressing north to Jerusalem. This latter part of the plan actually made good military sense, but it had to be withheld from the rank and file, who would have been suspicious at anything less than a direct assault on the Holy Land. When the time came for the great assembly at Venice however the Crusades disorganisation was exposed, when only about one third of the expected forces turned up. The Frankish chaos contrasted sharply with Venetian efficiency. All the ships that had been asked for were ready on time, the Venetians had completely fulfilled their part of the deal. To the great embarrassment of the Frankish knights it now appeared that there were insufficient soldiers to be carried, or money to pay for, the boats that had been so confidently ordered. The Crusade had become a fiasco before it had even got under way. The Doge demanded that the Knights should pay what was owed, but it soon became apparent that they could not raise as much as half the amount.

Matters fell into a stalemate. The Crusaders were camped on a sandy island a short distance away from the city of Venice, and as the weeks wore on conditions there became increasingly difficult. They had not planned to stay in this place; sanitation was poor, as were the food and water supplies. Morale plummeted and many had to borrow funds from Venetian money-lenders (at exorbitant rates) simply to keep themselves alive. The aim of reconquering the Holy City, for which they had given solemn vows, began to appear increasingly remote. The Venetians were equally unhappy with the situation. Not only had they failed to be paid for the huge number of ships that they had built, but they now had an ill-disciplined, increasingly restless foreign army sitting on their doorstep.

The situation was fraught. But the Doge, Enrico Dandolo came up with a possible solution. If the Crusader army could help Venice with a certain local problem (for which they were admirably equipped), the city would be willing to postpone the payment of the outstanding 34,000 Marks 'until such time as God permitted them to gain conquests'. What Dandolo proposed, in fact, was nothing less than an invasion of the port of Zara, a rival, on the opposite side of the Adriatic. Zara had, in the past, been under Venetian control, but in more recent times had thrown off its masters, aligned itself with their enemies, and had became something of a thorn in their side. From a Venetian point of view it needed to be subdued. If the Crusaders could help out with this problem which, given the size of their combined forces, should be an easy matter, both could then proceed on to the Holy Land as planned. Each side would benefit. The fact that Zara was a Christian city, and Catholic at that, was simply glossed over.

The Crusader Barons were deeply suspicious of the Venetians intentions, but in the circumstances felt they had little choice but to accept the offer. The only alternative for many of them was to return home in shame. If they agreed to the plan they could at least get their armies out of Venice and, after this diversion, shipped off to engage the Infidel. With great misgivings the leaders went along with the idea, although for the time being they felt that it was expedient to withhold the arrangement to crush Zara from their rank and file until later in the day. The feudal Lords that were leading this Crusade were, however, themselves the dupes of a far greater deception.

At the very time that the Crusaders had begun to assemble in Venice, a Venetian mission had arrived in Egypt, for the sole purpose of negotiating a trade agreement with the Sultan at that time, al-Adil. They were not slow to inform him of the Crusaders intentions with regard to his possessions, and managed to extract exclusive trading concessions in return for promises that they would thwart any attempt by the Franks to attack Egypt. This meant, of course, that even before the Crusaders had arrived in Venice, the Great Council were scheming to use this force for their own ends. That the leaders of Crusaders were so inept in their organisation as to place themselves in the Venetians debt simply broadened the scope of Venetian opportunity - and they were notoriously opportunistic. The main figure behind these machinations was the Doge, Enrico Dandolo, the very man that the Crusaders had been negotiating with from the beginning, and to whom they were now bound by honourable treaty.

At this time Dandolo was a very old man, and he was blind, but he was possessed of extraordinary energy and ambition - and of a desire for revenge against the city of Constantinople. The story was, that, in his youth, whilst on an embassy to Constantinople, he had become involved in a brawl that had left him partially blinded. Since that time he had a personal animosity towards the city, and his own bitterness was allied to the jealousy felt by many Venetians towards their more powerful rival. It is clear that Dandolo saw quite early on that the chaos of the 4th Crusade might present an opportunity for a military expedition against the despised Constantinople; he was also devious enough to realise that he would have to maintain the deceptive promise of an alliance against the Infidels.

The combined Crusader/ Venetian fleet finally left Venice in October 1202. Although it was not as large as that originally planned, it was still impressive, consisting of some two hundred vessels. Most of the Crusaders had by now been informed of the proposed attack on Zara, but were under the impression (having been led to believe so by their leaders) that the 'unfortunate necessity' of attacking the town had been approved by Pope Innocent himself. This unlikely justification for their involvement in an assault on fellow Christians had no basis at all. In fact, when he heard of the plan, the Pope was utterly appalled, but by the time his objections reached Venice the fleet had left.

As it progressed along the Dalmation coast the Venetians made full use of the Allied Armada. They stopped at every larger port on the way, calling for their 'loyalty and support'. Naturally, all were suitably impressed (and intimidated) by this show of strength. These displays naturally slowed the journey down considerably, to the continuing annoyance of Crusaders, and the force did not finally reach Zara until November. Its sheer size meant that the fall of the city was a forgone conclusion. The Zarans negotiated surrender, but the army was, nevertheless, unleashed upon the town. The Crusaders had been waiting for battle for months and in their frustration the terms of the surrender (and any feeling for fellow-Christians) was swept aside. The slightest resistance met with overwhelming force and Zara was rapidly overwhelmed. Buildings, including churches, were plundered and destroyed and hundreds of citizens were killed. When the town had been subdued the Crusaders and Venetians themselves began to quarrel over the spoils and fighting broke out between these supposed allies, again leading to great loss of life. Great sections of the town were reduced to rubble in these skirmishes. The respective leaders of each side eventually imposed peace, and in this way, with any contact with the Infidel as remote as ever, the first engagement of the 4th Crusade ended.

The Crusaders assumed that, having reduced Zara, their mission to the Holy Land would proceed forthwith - but Dandolo now insisted that the fleet should over-winter in what remained of the town. The Crusaders objected, and once again felt that they were being used by the Venetians (as indeed they were), but once again had little choice in the matter. The Venetians owned the ships, and the Crusaders could not, by any means, sail them. It was very much in Venetian interests to secure their hold on Zara (and to ship out the loot that they had acquired), but the Crusaders remained unhappy at the situation, particularly when they were informed that the fleet could not now sail until the following Easter. The majority of the Crusaders were still unaware of their leaders plan to free the Holy Places by attacking Egypt first. But duplicity was rife at all levels. Dandolo, whilst constantly reassuring the Crusaders that their aim of getting to the Holy Land would be met, was making his own very different plans.

The Doge used the sojourn at Zara to gradually introduce the Crusader Barons to a further and far more ambitious detour, namely to 'liberate' the great city of Constantinople itself. The Barons were far from enthusiastic about this scheme, but by now they were time entirely dependent on the Venetians for supplies; they still massively in debt to Venice, and there was still no alternative way of transporting their army across the Mediterranean. While no doubt concealing his personal hatred of the city, Dandolo laid out his justifications for this adventure. The present Byzantine Emperor had only recently attained the throne (by deposing and blinding the previous incumbent, his own brother). The son of this unfortunate man had escaped from Constantinople and was promising to pay the money that the Crusaders still owed to the Venetians, and more, if they helped him to regain the throne. This pretender, Alexius, had made the further extravagant promise to unite the eastern and western halves of Christendom were he restored. If they helped this Alexius to the throne the Crusaders would, according to Dandolo, merely be assisting in a palace coup - with benefits to themselves, and to Christendom as a whole (with the submission of the Church of Constantinople to Papal Rome). He also pointed out that Byzantium had never in the past been particularly helpful to the Crusader cause. After much argument the Barons once again acquiesced in the Doges scheme. It was, indeed, the only way that they could now reach their intended destination - and once again they chose not to inform the rank and file of the plan for the time being.

At Easter the fleet once more took to the seas. Zara itself had been levelled to its foundations by the Venetians and was left as a dead city, never to recover its former state. As before, the Venetians ensured that the fleet made a show in every major port along the way. By this time they had Alexius, the Byzantine pretender, with them and in every Greek port they encountered he was paraded before the citizenry with a demand for allegiance to his cause. Progress towards Constantinople was slow, but the fleet finally reached the Incomparable City in July 1203.

The inhabitants were amazed by the appearance of the Crusader fleet, and crowded the sea-walls to witness the spectacle. The armada was indeed impressive, but they felt secure. No enemy in the long history of the city had ever breached its massive defences. A Venetian flag-ship, with Alexius displayed prominently on the deck, sailed close to the sea-walls, calling for his recognition. But much to their chagrin the crowds simply jeered and insulted the Pretender, and his Venetians and Frankish friends. The promised palace coup simply did not materialise, and it began to appear that Alexius had no popular support whatsoever. After several further attempts it became clear to the westerners that if they wished to continue with their avowed mission of setting Alexius on the throne they would have to force their way into this apparently impregnable city, a daunting prospect.

But, as Dandolo was well aware, the citizens of Constantinople were not as secure as they imagined. The city was, at this time, unusually vulnerable. Its defending army badly lacked leadership, and consisted almost entirely of mercenaries. Its navy was similarly affected, with poorly trained sailors and ships that were in a shocking state of disrepair. At a Council of War Dandolo urged that the combined forces of Venetians and Crusaders should risk all and attack the city. An audacious plan was hatched, involving the use of landing bridges suspended from the ships masts. On 17th July, after some intensely bitter fighting, the Venetian contingent managed to seize a section of the sea-walls in this way. Having gained this foothold they proceeded to set fire to some adjoining houses, starting a conflagration that rapidly spread and soon engulfed a broad section of the city. With the Byzantines desperately trying to contain the fire the Venetians and Crusaders were able to consolidate their position within the walls. When it was realised that the impossible had happened, that the westerners had, against all odds, broken into the city, the Emperor fled (deserting his wife and children as well as his citizens), greatly adding to the shock experienced by the inhabitants.

The invaders, now established in the burnt-out section of the city, braced themselves to meet bitter resistance, but they had quite misjudged the inhabitant’s temperament. The Byzantines were supreme realists, with little loyalty to the person of the Emperor; they had seen too many plots and intrigues for this. So rather than being attacked the western invaders were soon being warmly welcomed by a delegation of city magnates, who showered them with gifts, and effusively thanked them for their assistance in restoring the rightful Emperor. To their great surprise they were informed that Alexius's father, the blinded Isaac had already been replaced on his throne. Isaac had been hastily dragged from the dungeons where he had lain for the past eight years, and was cloaked him in the royal robes. This completely took the wind from the sails of the allied force who had no idea that he was still alive. The ostensible motive for their assault on the city now seemed discharged, and their justification for a continued presence in it seemed questionable to say the least. Discomforted, they insisted that their man, the pretender Alexius, be crowned co-Emperor alongside his father, a request that the Byzantines were only too willing to concede. Clearly their priority was to get these barbarous invaders out of their city as soon as possible.

With Alexius installed, the Venetians and Crusaders were politely asked to leave the walled city and camp outside - with assurances that they would be provisioned until such time as they could resume their pilgrimage. The Crusaders still anticipated the payment of their debt to the Venetians, which Alexius had pledged, and both they and the Venetians awaited the imminent submission of the Greek Church to Rome, to which he had also rashly committed himself. Neither of these promises materialised. Now that he had the responsibility of an Emperor Alexius was in an entirely different position from that of a dispossessed Pretender. In any case the states coffers were empty and the clergy utterly resistant to the idea of subservience to Rome. He was unable to deliver either money or credo, and an extremely uneasy situation developed. While they were waiting for their money the Crusaders spent much of their time visiting Constantinople, where they were awed by the wealth and grandeur of the city. They were constantly fobbed off with gifts, but these were never sufficient to enable them to reduce their debt to the Venetians (on whom they were reliant to get them away from the city). Throughout the latter months of 1203 the atmosphere steadily grew tenser.

Inevitably the stalemated situation degenerated into violence. Enrico Dandolo aggravated the situation by making impossible demands on the Byzantine nobles. Greek mobs, enraged by the westerner’s arrogant behaviour, attacked groups of drunken soldiers. The Latins responded in kind, setting off a disastrous fire that burnt for days, destroying a quarter of the city. In the ensuing chaos, with great tracts of the more opulent sections of the city reduced to smouldering ruins, and a hundred thousand of its citizens left homeless, the Latins finally abandoned the pretence that their involvement was part of a Fourth Crusade. War was declared on Constantinople.

The destruction, looting and rapine that followed was on a scale that has few parallels in history. The most that could be said of the invaders was that Venetians looted to a purpose, whereas the 'Crusaders' had no such cultural sensibility and simply destroyed everything they could not carry. Palaces were wrecked, paintings defaced, libraries burned. The invaders showed no respect whatsoever for churches or monasteries - nuns were raped in their convents, the cathedrals were stripped of, their treasures. Citizens were tortured for goods that they had tried to hide. Women who were not raped were murdered. The dead and wounded, men, women and children lay everywhere in the streets. The carnage continued for three days until Constantinople, the largest and most beautiful city in the world, was a scene of utter desolation.

Over the centuries Constantinople had become filled with works of art of every period from that of classical Greece onwards, but in their frenzy of greed and blood lust the ignorant Franks were interested only in the most portable loot. Statues that had survived from ancient times were smashed, precious collections of ancient manuscripts were used as bonfires, jewels were prized from sacred Icons before they too were burned, sacred vessels were melted down. The Venetians were less destructive, but they were more systematic in their plunder, and even after these scenes of wholesale destruction the quantities of booty that they took from the city were staggering. The Venetians crated up and shipped out vast quantities of gold and silver, of jewels and paintings, silks and furs. Rarely in history had so much taken from one power by another. The Rape of Constantinople was not simply a shocking barbarian onslaught; the element of calculation supplied by the Venetians made this the greatest robbery of all time. It was almost the death of a grand city, and of a civilisation.

After the conquest and pillage of the capital, the Franks and Venetians went on to establish their own short-lived 'Latin Kingdom', and in doing so they furthered the dismemberment of the Eastern Empire. In this way they compounded their greed and destructiveness with an act of gross political folly. By so fatally weakening Byzantium the Latins effectively dismantled the principle Christian bastion against Islam, the very enemy that their campaign had supposedly been directed against. The long-term effects were utterly disastrous (not least for the Crusader Kingdom itself). In time a new Turkish force arose, the Ottomans, who swept across Asia Minor, which was forever lost to Christendom, and went on to conquer the Byzantine European territories and most of the Middle East. The map was forever changed, and these changes were facilitated by the Fourth Crusade.

Eastern Christianity ultimately survived, but the mistrust of their Western brethren was greatly intensified by the Fourth Crusade. The notion, put forward by Dandolo, that Crusader intervention might end the Schism between the two was always completely spurious, a convenient justification for his vindictive ambitions. In reality the division between the two halves of Christendom was fixed into permanence after 1204.

Ironically, the tragic destruction and dispersal of so much of Byzantines cultural wealth led to some positive results. The Venetians, as indicated, were more discriminate in their plunder, and much of the art and precious manuscripts that they shipped out fell eventually into the hands of Italian scholars. The spread of Humanism in the West, and the advent of the Renaissance itself was, to a great degree, achieved as a result of the ruination of Eastern Christendom