After Ayyubid Sultan Saladin shocked and dismayed the Catholic countries of Western Europe by capturing Jerusalem, knights in a wave of mass emotion began to weep for the Holy Land that was now held captive. The powerful French barons sent envoys to Venice, the leading seafaring city, to arrange transportation for the crusading army. Enrico Dandalo, the elected Duka of Venice, welcomed them kindly. He agreed to produce a fleet for the crusaders which was supposed to amount to 33,000 soldiers, moreover, provide forces and war galleys. The passage costs would be collected from the crusaders when they arrived to Venice the following year. They also decided to strike Eygpt, the heart of Muslim power and Venice’s business partner, in order to weaken the Muslims and then attack Jerusalem to win it back.
When the crusaders began to appear in Venice in 1202, Pope Innocent III and the barons were very disapponted. It was clear that the French envoys had miscalculated the number of recruits. There were only 12,000 soldiers whereas they had expected around 33,000 soldiers. The leading barons paid more but it was still not enough for Venice. Enrico Dandalo was very upset because the mistake threatened to plunge Venice into a great financial crisis.
The Fourth crusade seemed at the point of collapse. Enrico Dandalo decided to take advantage of the situation. He offered another proposal which pious crusaders called the devil’s bargain. Enrico Dandalo agreed to allow the fleet to sail without full payment, but in return the army of crusaders must also conquer Zara which at the time was rebelling aganist Venice and was under the protection of the King of Hungary. The barons, seeing no other option, agreed to this deal with the devil.
The crusaders set sail to Zara despite the threat of papal excommunication. They attacked and conquered it after two weeks under siege. The crusaders set up for winter in Zara instead of leaving for their intended destination. The leaders of Fourth Crusade met with Prince Alexius Angelus who claimed to be the rightful emperor of the Byzantine Empire in Zara. Alexius Angelus promised them a large amount of money and offered the Byzantine army to join in the crusade if he were placed on the throne. The offer was happily accepted. The leaders of the crusade decided to topple current emperor Alexius III and replaced him with Alexius Angelus.
The crusaders set out from Zara in the the spring to head to Constantinople. They landed on the Asian side of the Bosphorus in June. Enrico Dandalo didn’t want to fight at first. The leaders of the crusade tried to trigger a popular rising in Alexius Angelus’s favor. When they saw that there would never be a popular rising aganist Alexius III, they settled down to take the serious matter into their own hands.
The crusaders crossed the Bosphorus on the 5th of June. Emperor Alexius III led a large army out to confront the incoming invaders. The crusaders, covered by the firing of crossbows and archers, ran onto the beach.The Byzantines retreated when they saw French knights before them. The crusaders attacked Galata Tower but the Byzantines fought very hard. The Venetian fleet rowed into the harbor. The Byzantines only lost the unwalled suburbs of Pera at the end of the fight. Neither the crusaders were succesful in conquering the city nor were Byzantines able to force the crusaders away.
The second attack began on the 17th of June. Venetians attacked the harbor walls. They set fire to nearby buildings. The fire was spread by the wind and much of the city burned down. Although Byzantines defeated the French knights on land and succeed to defend the city aganist the Venetian fleet, Alexius III lost his nerve and fled from the city during the night. The defenders were left leaderless. Alexius Angelus entered the city and succeeded to the throne with the crusaders’ blessing.
By the time Alexius had been crowned, it was too late in the season to continue the crusade. Instead they were forced to wait until the spring to set sail for Egypt. Understandably, the crusaders were eager to recieve what Alexius Angelus had promised them. Unfortunately the young emperor was not able to keep his promises because the imperial treasury was empty. First, he raised taxes in order to collect enough money to satisfy the crusaders but the attempt failed. Out of desperation priceless pieces of art made from bronze were melted down. His subjects quickly realized that their emperor was weak which sparked riots throughout the city. One of the riots caused a second disastrous fire. The fire left many homeless and much of the city was destroyed again.
Alexius Angelus was stuck. He couldn’t collect enough money to satisfy the crusaders, nor could he force them out. He took misleading advice from his adviser, Ducas, who lured Alexius into a trap and imprisoned him. Ducas took the throne for himself. The new emperor prepared his city for the battle. He crossed a line and launched a fireship attack on the Venetian fleet. It’s said that no one has ever defended themselves as well as the Venetians did that night.
Enrico Dandalo wanted to give Ducas a brutal response to his attack. The Venetian fleet moved aganist the harbor walls. The attempt went very badly for the crusaders. Emperor Ducas was commander and organized everything by himself. When the crusader army retreated, he told his soldiers that he was a real man and the real king, and that he would destroy all the enemies of Constantinople. Dukas won trust of all the Byzantines that day.
The crusaders were unhappy about their repeated failures. Enrico Dandalo earned a position of leadership after their last attempt had ended badly. Enrico Dandalo organized the army and attacked Constantinople for one last time. The Byzantine defenders were routed and Dukas fled from the city. Constantinople was punished for three days by the crusaders. Constantinople’s beautiful legendary buildings were attacked and vandalized. The crusaders stole the best of the fallen city’s treasure and looted Hagia Sophia. They targeted the civilian population too. They raped women, killed innocent people as they liked and stole anything the residents had left.
The city was ruled by the crusaders for more than fifty years until it was retaken by Byzantine emperor Michael Paleologus. The crusaders left the city devastated, neglected and dejected. Neither Constantinople nor the Byzantine Empire ever recovered. The empire was finally extinguished by the Turks in 1453 with fall of Constantinople.
Photo Credits: Palma Le Jeune (1544–1620)