The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204)

 The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204)

Pope Innocent III, from 1198, ignored the agreements between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, and called for a fourth crusade to reclaim Jerusalem. But this time he is not followed by the main European rulers, and it is barons who will answer the call and ask for help from the mighty Venice. It is not the infidels who will suffer the consequences, but "the second Rome": Constantinople!

Byzantium and the Latins

Tensions have hardly ceased between the Byzantines and the Crusaders since the First Crusade, and the various emperors have always maintained an influence on events in the Holy Land, not hesitating to play against the Latins at times. But the Empire has been in crisis since the 1180s, following the death of Manuel Comnenus. In 1182, a coup d'état brought Andronicus Comnenus to power at the expense of Alexis II, the legitimate heir; It was then that the inhabitants of Constantinople, galvanized by the men of Andronicus, massacred the Latins of the city! The antagonism between Greeks and Latins is twofold: religious since the schism of 1054, and economic with the emergence of the Italian cities, which endanger the hegemony of Byzantium in the eastern Mediterranean; to this we can add the political dispute that we have already mentioned, accentuated in the following years by the passage of Frederick Barbarossa during the Third Crusade, which directly confronted Byzantine armies while Isaac II was allied with Saladin.

The Byzantine Empire is under internal tension, but also external with a Bulgarian threat more present than ever without forgetting the Turks, and this benefits Alexis III who overthrows Isaac II. On the eve of the Fourth Crusade, imperial power is still far from being stabilized ...

Venice at the end of the 12th century

The emergence of the famous Italian city took place in the context of the wars with the Holy Germanic Empire of Frederick I, and the creation of the Commons system. Venice maintains privileged relations with Constantinople since agreements dating from the end of the 11th century, which allowed it to gain the upper hand over its Italian rivals in the eastern Mediterranean.

In 1183, the Peace of Constance made it possible to settle for a time the conflict between the Germanic Emperor and the Italian cities, which gave Venice (and its rivals) free rein to continue their economic development in complete independence. The death of Frederick I, then quickly that of Henry VI, did not change the situation as their successor Frederick II was turned towards southern Italy and Sicily.

Venice is therefore in a strong position when the Crusaders are looking for a fleet to transport them to the Holy Land.

The departure in crusade

Like his predecessors, the Pope intends to use the crusade to unify the powers behind his authority, in the midst of the Franco-English war, not to mention the dangers even closer to him in the Italian peninsula. But he only managed to recruit barons, despite his attempt to mediate between Philippe Auguste and Richard the Lionheart through the intermediary of the legate Pietro Capuano. It was Foulques de Neuilly who was responsible for preaching the crusade from the end of 1198, but it was not until the end of 1199 and the tournament of Ecry for the crusade to really take shape. It was to be led by the Count of Champagne, Thibaud (he died in 1201 and was replaced by Boniface de Montferrat), and by the elite of the knights of northern France including Louis de Blois and Simon de Montfort. The Crusaders then ask the Italian cities to transport them, but Genoa and Pisa refuse and then only Venice remains with which agreements are signed providing for transport but also the sharing of any conquests.

It was decided to meet in 1202 in the Italian city, but to then proceed directly to Egypt. Indeed, the situation with Byzantium being more tense than ever, the road always taken until then, the one that passes through Constantinople, is no longer very safe ...

The Hijacked Crusade: The Capture of Zara

The crusader army regrouping in Venice is smaller than expected; the problem is, the Venetians had planned to embark 30,000 men, and are determined to be paid for it. In the end, 34,000 marks were missing out of the 85,000 demanded by Venice. Doge Enrico Dandolo then offered the Crusaders a moratorium on their debt if they helped him take Zara, Dalmatia. The problem is that the city, admittedly rebellious, is Christian and immediately the Pope warns that he would not tolerate a Christian city being attacked by soldiers of Christ!

Venetians and Crusaders passed by, and Zara was surrounded in November 1202. Its inhabitants hung crosses on the walls to signify that they were Catholics, attempted negotiations, and tensions built up among the Crusaders. But at the insistence of the doge, the assault was given on November 24! The city is looted, the Crusaders settle there, but Innocent III only excommunicates the Venetians ...

The Crusaders "liberate" Constantinople!

Indeed, during the siege negotiations brought other decisive actors: this is how Philippe of Swabia, apparently contacted by the crusader Boniface, made contact with his brother-in-law, Alexis; he is the son of the Byzantine emperor Isaac II, defeated and blinded by Alexis III in 1195. The young man escaped from prison and met in Zara, thanks to the intervention of Philip, Boniface de Montferrat and asked him to help him against the usurper Alexy III. Among the terms of the agreement, the promise of the reunion of the two churches; but in Rome, Innocent III does not seem to approve this agreement. Negotiations continued, and Philip of Swabia managed to secure the support of the Crusaders through the large sums of money promised by Alexy IV. Despite disagreements among the barons, the agreement was approved, including by the Venetian doge, and the young Byzantine prince joined the crusaders in Corfu in April 1203. The Pope did not interfere, not wanting to break the momentum of the crusade.

The Crusaders remember to raze Zara when they leave, then set out for Constantinople, which they reach a month later. But contrary to what Alexis IV had promised them, the Byzantines do not welcome them as liberators from the yoke of Alexis III! The seat is therefore compulsory. On July 6, the capture of Galata allowed the Crusader Fleet to advance into the Gulf, but it was not until July 17 that the usurper escaped the city, defeated. The legitimate emperor, Isaac II, is restored but must forcibly ratify the promises of his son, crowned co-emperor on 1er August.

The crime against Constantinople

Very quickly, however, difficulties appeared. The Empire is not what it used to be, and the emperors are unable to keep their promises, either financially or religiously. The Crusaders are also wary of Isaac II, who had been allied with Saladin, and relations between Greeks and Latins in the city are abysmal. An "anti-Latin party" is born in Constantinople, led by the son-in-law of Alexis III, Alexis Murzuphle (or Alexis Doukas); on January 29, 1204, he imprisoned and strangled Alexis IV, which old Isaac II did not resist for long! Alexis Doukas is crowned emperor, under the name of Alexis V.

Of course, the Crusaders take a dim view of the coming to power of someone who stirs the crowds against them, and who probably has no intention of paying off the debts of his predecessors. In addition, they are still indebted to Venice, which is growing impatient, and the crusade does not advance ... The barons and the doge sign new agreements to share the booty after the capture of the city, which occurs on April 13, 1204 after a few days of heavy fighting. It is looted without any scruple for three days, even within the walls of Hagia Sophia, where precious stones are torn from the altar; the throne of the patriarch is desecrated by a prostitute, just like the tombs of the emperors, open and the bodies stripped! The rest of the city is also devastated, the Venetians even afford the quadriga statue which is now on the facade of Saint Mark's Basilica ...

The partition of the empire and the end of the Fourth Crusade

Curious way of leading a crusade one might notice, but it is difficult to point out the culprits so easily. The sequence of circumstances was fatal, but we can also point out the ambitions of some, such as Boniface de Montferrat, or the diplomatic maneuvers of the Hohenstaufen, through Philippe de Souabe, to weaken the Empire and thus facilitate their projects in Central and Eastern Mediterranean. Finally, obviously, we can hardly put aside the ambitions of Venice ... It would seem, however, that the majority of the Crusaders were against the deviation of the Crusade, whether on Zara or Constantinople (there would even have been some of them who would have reached Palestine before even going to Venice!). Then, the need for unity within the Crusader army, and the real chain of events, such as the crimes of Alexis V, could hardly lead to anything other than drama. But above all, this confirms the difficulties encountered since the First Crusade between Byzantines and Latins, and the inevitable competition for hegemony in the region. Beyond that, the rivalry between the two Churches did not help matters and, obviously, the capture of Constantinople definitively shatters the hope of a rapprochement, so much resentment still remains today.

The capital controlled by the Latins, the empire itself is divided between the victors: it is the "Partitio Romanie". An Eastern Latin Empire therefore emerges from the ashes of Constantinople, and it is Baldwin VI of Hainaut who is imposed as emperor by the Venetians, to the detriment of Boniface de Montferrat who will found the kingdom of Thessaloniki. Venice took over most of the islands, and one of its own, Marco Sanudo, founded the Duchy of Naxos.

However, the Byzantines were not totally defeated: several princes founded other kingdoms, the main ones being the Empire of Trebizond, ruled by the Comnenus (and which will exist until 1461), and especially the Empire of Nicaea, directed by Théodore Ier Lascaris. It was one of his successors, Michael Palaeologus, who in 1261 succeeded in retaking Constantinople and re-founding the Byzantine Empire with the support of Genoa.

In the meantime, what happened to the crusade? The Latin clerics took advantage of their "luck" to seize the many relics that were kept in Constantinople, and brought them back to the West. It would seem that this was enough because we no longer hear about the crusade ordered by Innocent III ... Subsequently, it is above all sovereigns who will have the initiative of the crusade, including Saint-Louis but first Frederick II, despite a last attempt by Innocent III.


- M. BALARD, Les Latins en Orient (XIth-XVth century), PUF, 2006.

- J.C. CHEYNET, Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire, A. Colin, 2006.

- F. MENANT, L’Italie des communes (1100-1350), Belin, 2005.

- J.P. DELUMEAU, I. HEULLANT-DONAT, Italy in the Middle Ages (5th-15th century), Hachette, 2005.

Video: Why the Fourth Crusade Attacked Constantinople