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The Attack On Constantinople By The Fourth Crusade

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

In the years 1203 and 1204, the Fourth Crusade was diverted from its intended destination of Egypt, first to the Christian city of Zara and then to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Both cities were looted and the Crusaders killed fellow Christians. For centuries, this episode has been considered one of history’s greatest blunders; the sacking and takeover of one of the largest Christian cities on Earth by an army supposedly dedicated to stamping out the enemies of Christianity. The tendency of recent scholarship regarding the Fourth Crusade has been either to blame or defend an individual, e.g. Boniface of Montferrat, or a faction of the Crusader forces, e.g. the Venetians, for the diversion that resulted in the sack of Constantinople. Important historians as Alfred Andrea and Ilona Motsiff [1] , Joseph Gill, [2] Donald E. Queller and Gerald W. Day [3] , Thomas Madden [4] , Michael Angold [5] and Jonathan Harris [6] have all discussed several different interpretations of the diversion of the Fourth Crusade as well as who is to blame for this.

Four main primary sources have been studied over and over again in order for an accurate explanation to be given. First, “The Deeds of Innocent III” translated and completed by James M. Powell in 2004. [7] The second primary source is written in 1215 by Gunther, a monk at the monastery of Pairs, in defense of the actions of his abbot Martin who accompanied the armies of the Fourth Crusade. The third major primary source is Geoffrey de Villehardouin’s narrative “On the Conquest of Constantinople”, which has two characteristics: (a) defensive attitude and (b) violent angriness towards Crusaders. The fourth primary source is also a narrative by Robert of Clari; “La Conquete de Constantinople.” Robert of Clari was a lower level knight and participant and that makes Robert’s work potentially valuable, and rare. With both the knowledge of the historical facts around the Fourth Crusade – the diversion to Zara and its capture on the 24th of November 1202 and Constantinople’s capture on 12th April 1204 – and the study of primary sources, it is possible to begin illustrating the importance of the motives that ultimately resulted in diverting the Crusade to the capital of Byzantium.

Boniface, Marquis of Montferrat and secular head of the Crusade, seems the best figure to begin with not only because of his position of power over the other secular leaders, but also because of his antagonism towards Constantinople, which occurred because Boniface and his brother were intimately involved in affairs in Constantinople prior to the Fourth Crusade. [8] While studying Boniface’s role in the diversion of the Crusade proof can be found that before the Crusade ever had any financial difficulty with the Venetians the elected head of the enterprise was already in favour of the cause of young Alexius. [9] Moreover, Boniface, even previous to the excommunication of his troops at Zara, was already aware that the Pope was against any diversion of his Crusade that would result in the bloodshed of fellow Christians. Boniface is also guilty for convincing his fellow nobles, who were on the Crusade for their own salvation, to support him on the siege of Constantinople; a major Christian city. Thus, as Chris Brayer argues: “Boniface acknowledged that Innocent III’s position negates any possibility that his intention in taking the Cross was inspired by religion, since he proceeded to divert the Crusade anyway. Also, his support of the cause of Alexius in the face of that same position indicates that his ulterior motives against Constantinople were certainly paramount in his acceptance of the position as secular head of the Crusade.” [10] According to what has been mentioned so far Boniface of Montferrat had undoubtedly strong motives for diverting the Fourth Crusade.

However, one should not only blame Boniface, since the greedy Venetians and their Doge Enrico Dandolo also had strong motives in diverting the Crusade. Historians Queller and Day mention the long tradition of Venetians in assisting previous Crusades, an argument that “culminates with the Doge and many of his subjects taking the cross themselves.” [11] However, this argument proves to be ineffective, simply because – according to Andrea and Motsiff – Venetians refused to recognise the papal legate Peter Capuano as anything more than a simple cleric. [12] Gill adds to the argument of Andrea and Motsiff, supporting that the Venetians destroyed the papal ban of excommunication, placed on them before Zara, and also that they attempted to be absolved from the excommunication after the fall of Constantinople. [13] The Venetians’ motives, just like Boniface’s, had nothing to do with religion or salvation since they knew that their attacks on Zara and Constantinople were done contrary to the Pope’s wishes. Evidence clearly shows that “the Venetians were using wretched conditions as a bargaining tool to divert the crusaders to Zara” [14] , if not to Constantinople.

Some scholars are trying to blame Pope Innocent III for the diversion of the Crusade to Constantinople. Evidence provided by all four primary sources mentioned in the beginning show no reason to believe that Pope Innocent III ever wanted the Fourth Crusade to result in such a disaster. In spite of this, it can be argued that Pope Innocent III made some mistakes – prior and during the Crusade – that resulted in its diversion. During the gathering at Venice, the Pope used troops already committed to embarking on the Crusade for papal warfare in Italy. [15] Furthermore, he made mistakes such as communicating with Emperor Alexius III, after the activities done by his nephew, Alexius IV, in France during the summer of 1201 and personally accepting a visit from Alexius IV as well. Justifiably, Alexius III was concerned that the Pope might help his nephew to excommunicate him; a letter to Innocent was then written by Alexius III asking him to prevent the conspiracy. Gill states that Innocent’s reply to the Emperor was “reassuring”. [16] Andrea and Motsiff write: “The papal letter was a very sly attempt at blackmail. Innocent hoped to convince an obviously frightened Alexius III was that his only hope lay in his subordinating the Greek Church to the Roman papacy and in joining the crusade against Islam.” [17] The result was that Innocent failed to mention to any of his letters to the Crusaders that Constantinople was not to be attacked for any reason. From Innocent’s side, this should be considered as an omission and not as direct involvement. On 20 June 1203, he wrote to the Crusaders: “Indeed, no matter what evil in this and other things the Emperor and those subject to his jurisdiction have committed, it is not for you to pass judgment on their crimes; you did not take on yourselves the symbol of the Cross to avenge this injury, but rather the shame done to the Crucified to whose honour you have dedicated yourselves in a special way… We want you to bear in mind and We warn you not even venially to contravene the sense of our prohibition by which We forbade you under pain of excommunication to attempt to invade or harm lands belonging to Christians…” [18] Thus the Pope did not by any means wanted the diversion to Constantinople and was committed to the Crusaders’ journey to the Holy Land.

Finally, secular and religious leaders should be considered guilty in diverting the Crusade to Constantinople. Queller provides a passage that describes the thought of the leaders in favour of the diversion of Constantinople while arguing with Simon de Montfort who was against it: “The opposing party responded that they could accomplish nothing in Syria, for it could be recovered only by going to Egypt or Greece. Simon, abbot of Loos, a follower of Baldwin of Flanders, earnestly prayed the host to hold together and to accept the proposal of the envoys. His pleas and the influence of the greater men finally brought about (the proposal’s) adoption, although only twelve of the chief men would affix their signatures to the convention.” [19] They secretly agreed with the Venetians to the excursion to Zara and, ignoring the threats of the Pope, sacked the city. [20] At Corfu, they attempted to convince an entire army to divert to Constantinople and were obviously successful in doing so at the behest of Boniface of Montferrat. An important fact to mention is that Baldwin of Flanders, one of the original singers of the Treaty of Venice, became Emperor of Constantinople after the sack of the city in 1204. [21] These leaders are clearly guilty as far as it concerns the attacks against Zara and Constantinople, but it cannot be wholly proven that it was their primary intent and not just an unfortunate series of events that led them to do so.

In conclusion, there are two facts that should be mentioned: (a) nearly everyone involved in the Fourth Crusade was in some way to blame and (b) there were pre-existing motives to divert the Crusade to Zara and Constantinople among key leaders of the Fourth Crusade, such as Boniface of Montferrat and Doge Enrico Dandolo and his Venetians. Indeed, unlike many of their fellow Crusaders involved, these two figures’ actions against Constantinople have a logical explanation. Truth is that Boniface’s and the Venetians’ motives seem to be the key factor behind the diversion to Constantinople, but still not the prime one. Should the blame be assigned specifically to those two men? There are many other, internal and external, forces and factors one should consider when wondering who was to blame for the diversion of the Fourth Crusade. Some of those were intentional and others not so much. Why not blame those who had given such power to two men – Boniface and Enrico Dandolo – since they knew that they – each for their own reasons – clearly had so much to gain by conquering the Christian city of Constantinople instead of the Holy Land? The unfortunate event of the sack of Constantinople in 1204 and the killing of so many fellow Christians by the Crusaders has very complex forces involved in it.


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