In 1204 a singular event occurred which shook the Western World: Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) Empire,  long the bastion of Eastern Christendom and bulwark against Islamic expansion, was captured and sacked. Not by its Muslim enemies; but by an army of Christian “Crusaders”!

Thus began a period in which the Crusader movement became misdirected, seemingly attacking everywhere except to recover Jerusalem and the Holy Land!

From 1204 until 1272 there were eight Crusades (only six of which are counted as ”official” Crusades) launched. Of these, only two actually arrived in the “Holy Land” (Syria/Lebanon/Palestine).

The Crusader movement had indeed “gone wild”!

It should be remembered that the original purpose of the Crusades, motivated by Pope Urban II’s sermon at Clermont in 1095, was to succor the beleaguered Christian empire of Byzantium from the Seljuk Turks; and to recover Jerusalem and the Holy Land, captured by the Muslims in the 7th century. Yet in 1204, just 109 years later, Byzantium was captured and sacked by a Crusader army! How had this movement become so misdirected?

The answer is that like all things created by man, the Crusades were able to be turned to the uses of the venial and corrupt; to be used for their own purposes by powerful and ambitious men.


The Third Crusade had failed to liberate Jerusalem; ending instead with a negotiated settlement between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. (See Part Two here) The dust had barely settled when the new Pope, Innocent II, was preaching another Crusade. After some time and effort, the Fourth Crusade was launched.


Pope Innocent III

In 1202, a 13,000 strong Crusader army of mostly French and Flemings contracted with the blind Doge (ruler) of Venice, Enrico (Henry) Dandolo, for transport to Egypt. From there, it was planned to deliver a crippling blow to the Ayyubids; the successors of Saladin who ruled both Egypt and Syria. From here, it was thought Jerusalem could subsequently be liberated.

However, the cost of transportation was more than the Crusaders could pay. They reached a compromise with the Venetians: to stop in route at the Adriatic coastal city of Zara; a former Venetian dependency now aligned with Hungry. As the Crusader army invested the city, the terrified citizens hung banners marked with crosses from the battlements and windows of the city; to show that they were fellow Catholics. This did not save them, and the Crusader forces nevertheless stormed the city; followed by the usual sack-and-pillage.

The unscrupulous Enrico Dandolo had  thus used the zealous but impoverished Franks to achieve Venetian political ends; however irrelevant to the goals of the Crusade.

When word reached Pope Innocent III, he was immediately outraged at this attack upon fellow Christians; and in a letter to the army’s leadership, threatened the Crusaders with excommunication. However, the Crusader leaders did not disclose the Pope’s letters to the rank-and-file; who continued to believe they had Papal absolution for any acts committed while on Crusade.

At this junction, an exiled Byzantine prince arrived in the Crusader camp; and history reached one of its turning points.

Alexios IV Angelos was the son of the deposed Emperor Isaac II Angelos. He now joined the Crusader camp as a guest of one of its leaders, Boniface, Marquess of Montferrat. He offered the cash-strapped Crusaders a seemingly splendid offer: restore him to the Byzantine throne, overthrowing in the process the reigning ”usurper”, his uncle Alexios III. In return, the exiled prince offered to pay the entire debt still owed to the Venetians, give 200,000 silver marks to the Crusaders, contribute 10,000 Byzantine professional soldiers for the Crusade, undertake the maintenance of 500 knights to be stationed in the recaptured Holy Land, the service of the Byzantine navy to aid in the transport the Crusader Army to Egypt, and (perhaps most tantalizing of all) to place the Orthodox Church under the authority of the Pope in Rome!

This was a staggering offer! Though the wily Dandolo, who had extensive knowledge of the situation in Byzantium, must have known that these were pipe dreams well beyond the ability of any Byzantine Emperor to deliver (the Empire’s treasury was near empty, her once proud fleet mostly scrapped, and neither the Orthodox clergy nor the people of Constantinople would ever submit to the Pope’s authority); the less informed Frankish leaders were eager to accept Alexios’ offer. Doge Dandolo had his own reason for encouraging the redirection of the Crusade to Constantinople.

Map of the fourth crusade

Byzantium had once been the master of Venice, then its ally, and in the last century a commercial rival. Like many other states, the Venetians had long maintained a merchant community resident in Constantinople. The Venetians had proven to be bad guests in the city, brawling with their rivals, the Genoese, in the streets and demonstrating scorn for the city’s Greek citizens. In 1171, the Emperor Manuel I Comnenus had expelled the Venetians from the Empire; confiscating all of their property. War had followed, and a state of tension had existed ever since.

Some historians have speculated that Enrico Dandolo had a more personal grudge against the Byzantines. It has been suggested that he lost his eye site as a younger man,  as a result of a blow to the head received from the Greeks during a riot in Constantinople. Though there is no proof for this, if true it adds a personal motivation to what was to come.

Now, with the Crusaders willing to divert their efforts against Constantinople, the Doge had found a perfect opportunity to strike a blow against his city’s enemy, and to settle an old score.

The Crusader armada arrived at the great city at the beginning of July, 1203. Landing outside the suburb of Galatia, they found themselves opposed by the Byzantine army drawn up for battle. The Frankish knights disembarked and charged immediately. The fury of their attack routed the Byzantine forces, some of whom fled into Galatia. The Franks, hot on their heals, captured the gates of this vital suburb; and with it the Tower of Galatia. This fortress warded Constantinople’s main harbor, the Golden Horn. A chain normally stretched across the harbor, from the Galatia Tower to a similar bastion on the opposite shore, at Constantinople. With the Galatia side captured, this “boom” was lowered, and the Venetian armada sailed into the Golden Horn.


Land Walls of Constantinople

The Crusader army set up camp to the northwest of the city, opposite the Blachernae Palace; the current residence of the Imperial family. On July  17, the siege began in earnest; with the Franks attacking the land walls, and the Venetians assaulting the weaker seawall guarding the harbor side of the city.

Constantinople boasted the strongest defenses of any city in the Western World. Positioned on a broad peninsula, the landward side was guarded by a defensive system of triple walls. The outer-most and lowest wall was a mere breastwork, defended by a water-filled moat (though in 1204, the moat had been left in disrepair and was dry). The middle wall was some 27 feet high, and was in turn overlooked by an even higher inner wall, whose towers reached up to 70 feet. Each wall could provide covering fire over the one before it.


Constantinople had been under siege before: By Persians, Avars, Slavs, Arabs (twice), Bulgars, by the Rus (three times), and by native Byzantine forces during time of civil war. Never before had it fallen.

However, this was the first time the harbor had fallen to an enemy, and while the Franks tied down the best Byzantine troops (the elite Varangian Guard), Venetian galleys sporting siege ladders assaulted the much weaker harbor wall. When the Varangians rushed to repulse the Venetians swarming over the battlements and into the harbor district, the Venetians set fire to that quarter before retreating. The fire greatly damaged the city, destroying some 120 acres of houses and shops, leaving some 20,000 residents homeless.


Alexios III now led a large part of the garrison outside the city, against the Franks opposite the Blachernae district. Despite outnumbering the Crusaders, the Emperor lost his nerve and retreated back into the city without striking a blow! This disgrace turned the army against him, and Alexios fled the city, taking with him much of what remained of the treasury. The Byzantine officers deposed the Emperor; and returned to the throne the deposed emperor, Isaac II.

This left the Crusaders in an embarrassing position. They had achieved the deposition of the “usurper”. But their real aim of seeing Prince Alexios’ promises realized could only be met with the exile on the imperial throne. Eight years of imprisonment (including being blinded) had left Isaac II enfeebled, and his wits addled.  So, it was agreed by both sides that his son would be made co-Emperor, as Alexios IV.

But it was now Alexios’ turn to be embarrassed, as it became apparent that his promises were hollow. In an attempt to pay the Crusaders the promised silver, he ordered bejeweled and gilded religious icons to be stripped and melted down; as well as handing over whatever of value remained to the church or in the Imperial Palace. This shocked and estranged the Byzantine populace, who quickly turned against the Emperors. Fighting in the streets broke out between angry mobs and the Crusader forces, supporting their ally Emperor. Large portions of the city were again burned down by the Venetians, as a way of driving back the mobs.

The situation reached a boiling point in January of 1204. A nobleman of the Imperial Court, Alexios Doukas (nicknamed “Mourtzouphlos” because of his thick eyebrows),  staged a coup, overthrowing Alexious IV and subsequently having him strangled. His father, Isaac II,  apparently died of shock at this turn of events.

The Crusaders, incensed at the overthrow and death of their ally, demanded that Mourtzouphlos honor the agreements made to them by Alexios IV. Mourtzouphlos refused, and the Crusaders renewed their attacks on the city.

However, the new Emperor was a soldier of some ability, and with the support of the army and citizens was able to repulse all attacks for two days. But on the third day of assaults, the new emperor lost his nerve, and fled the city. Despite this, the army fought on; the Varangians in particular inflicting bloody casualties upon the Venetians along the sea wall. On April 12, 1204, the Crusaders used fire to push back the defenders and to expand foot holds gained within the walls. Much of the city was damaged, and its residents turned into refugees. Finally, on April 13, the city fell to the Crusaders.


What followed was the most shameful chapter in the history of the Crusades; as Constantinople, capital of the ancient Eastern Roman Empire, was subjected to three days of vicious sack-and-pillage. Nothing and no one was spared: not churches or monasteries, nor palaces or the lowest hovels. Rape and murder were the order of the day.  One author described the scene thus:

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 Crusading movement had reached a moment of supreme irony: started, in part, in response to an appeal by their Byzantine co-religionists for aid against the Turks; the Fourth Crusade saw Byzantium sacked as savagely by the Christian Franks as it would have been had it fallen to its Seljuk enemies.

Following the fall of the city, the Crusader lords would divide up the remnants of the Byzantine Empire between themselves. Baldwin of Flanders would be named “Emperor” of a Latin Empire, set up to replace Byzantium. Boniface of Montferrat would be named King of Thessalonica. Geoffrey of Villehardouin and William I of Champlitte would conquer Athens and the Peloponnese, setting up the Principality of Morea, which would endure for a century. All the Crusader states established upon the ruins of Byzantium would eventually be recovered by the Byzantines in the following century.

Byzantium, however, would never recover. Its last centuries would be spent recovering its territories from the ”Latins”, under the Palaeologus dynasty; and in defending itself from the growing power of its Ottoman Turkish neighbors.  Constantinople, once the largest city in Europe, would become a virtual ghost town. Even after it was recaptured by the Byzantines in 1261, it never recovered either its population or its power. Large swaths of the city were never rebuilt after the fires of 1204. When the Ottoman Turks finally captured the city in 1453, it was but a hollow shell within its still-great walls.

ruined Blachernae palace

Ruins of the  Blachernae Palace, residence of the Medieval Byzantine Emperors. It was in this section of the walls that the Franks broke into the city in April, 1204 


To listen to discussion of “Crusaders Gone Wild!”, to here to my appearance on the Silvio Canto Show!



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