Attack On Constantinople By The Fourth Crusade History Essay

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church had high interests in the religious areas dominating the Holy Land. The Crusades set out to “take back” this region for religious and economic control. The Holy Land served as a pivotal landmark for the Christian Orthodox World because of its religious symbolism and the power that came with the control of the city. To both religions, the importance of the city was pivotal, since Jesus and Muhammad served as icons located in Jerusalem, so tensions escalated throughout the Crusades two hundred year existence. With the Muslim religion on the rise in the Middle East and Asia Minor, the Catholic Church found itself in a desperate situation where they were losing money, support, and territory. What was so different from the other Crusades that made the Fourth stand out? Why would the Crusaders organize another Crusade when they didn’t have the necessary funds to pay for the voyage, which immediately put them in the hands of the only able city, Venice? How did a religious conquest turn into a political escapade that benefited the Venetians instead of the very Church that all of Europe had served under? The intentions of the 4th Crusade were systematically altered through devious planning that resulted in Venice manipulating the Crusaders to submit to the will of Doge Enrico Dandolo, and change the balance of power that resulted in Constantinople being conquered instead of Jerusalem.

When Pope Innocent III assumed power in the Papacy, in 1198 he immediately sent letters preaching about another Crusade. Whether it was a matter of pride from previously failed Crusades or the desire for glory from the Papacy, Pope Innocent III made the call for all European nations to pool together their forces needed for the journey. The young, vibrant Pope wanted another Crusade to become his legacy to take back Egypt and Jerusalem to restore the power that the Holy Roman Empire once held. Different from previous Crusades, they devised a plan to travel by sea and take over Egypt, which at the time, was the Moslem capital because of its critical position between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, and then continue north onto Jerusalem. [1] The Pope then chose Boniface Montferrat to lead this Crusade force in order to retake the Holy Land.

Though the 3rd Crusade ended in the year 1192, the actual crusade took longer than expected due to the death of King Richard, which sparked conflict between England and France. Nations were at first timid about participating in another Crusade because they had problems of their own to deal with. When tensions finally subsided in the year 1201, the Crusade finally made some progress as all of the Catholic nations put taxes in place to fund the Crusade. The main problem facing the Crusaders was transport; the only logical mode of transportation was by sea, but the only place that had the potential to manufacture the entire Crusade was the city of Venice. In previous Crusades, traveling that great distance by land was not only time consuming, but a great expense, so a route by sea seemed proper.

Venice was the only state that could meet the needs of the Crusaders to provide the necessary supplies needed to fund the trip, so the Crusaders sent six envoys to make a compact to Venice for a fleet to transport the Crusaders to Egypt. [2] The Crusaders, led by Boniface Montferrat, were unable to pay the money demanded from the Venetians for the fleet they were constructing, so Doge Enrico Dandolo compromised and decided that payment would be postponed in return for the capture of Zara, a rival city located on the coast of Dalmatia. Although the Crusaders weren’t particularly fond of the idea of being in debt, Pope Innocent III agreed to the terms to get the Crusade on track and in motion. But why would the Crusaders and Pope Innocent allow the 4th Crusade to continue when they were already at a financial disadvantage? Was it because the Pope wanted to redeem the glory of the Church by retaking Jerusalem at the cost of the entire Crusade? The Venetians were in a surprising advantage of the Holy Roman Empire since the Papacy was pushing for the success of a new Crusade without adequate funds, which gave Dandolo the freedom to plot out the Fourth Crusade where it would solely benefit Venice economically, financially, and politically by taking out cities like Zara.


As the Fourth Crusade was being constructed, the Venetians were assembling the massive fleet while the Church gathered their military, where every soldier had to swear a vow to serve the Crusade and the Catholic Church to the ultimate end. But as the debt began to build up as the departure of the fleet kept being delayed and the funds that Venice demanded were not met, so Doge (Chief Magistrate) Enrico Dandolo saw a crucial opportunity to take advantage of the Crusaders unfortunate situation. He would delay the payments needed for the ship, with the help of the King of Hungary, so that the Crusaders were offered protection, in exchange for the recapture of the city Zara, which was a naval and commercial rival of Venice. [3] The supplies that they needed were promised if they conquered Zara, but many disapproved with this decision since the city was still in fact a Christian city, and was deemed unethical. With the persuasion of Dandolo, the Crusaders had no choice but to ignore the threats made by Pope Innocent III and come to terms that they’re only option was to cooperate or abandon the overall Crusade. So the Crusade was already off course before they even set sail as they were convinced to capture the city while the Venetians promised passage to Egypt in exchange for Zara.

A fleet of over 200 ships set out in October 1202 and arrived to the city in less than a month, where the city stood no chance of defending itself against such a large force. The city fell in five days and surrendered in less than two weeks. [4] Even though Zara was a Christian city, the Crusaders still pillaged the city, and to the outcry of Pope Innocent, excommunicated those that had taken part in the ransacking. [5] With the Crusades entire dependence on the funds, goods, and ships provided by the Venetians, the Crusaders placed the blame onto the Venetians to avoid punishment, so the Church resolved the issue with the promise that the Crusade continue on its original course, while revoking his original excommunication order.

While the Crusade was residing in the besieged city of Zara, the Crusaders realized that the provisions that they had were running out and they could not afford the costs to cross the Mediterranean to Egypt. Although the Venetians offered to supply more loan funds, the Crusaders refused to save themselves the trouble of having to pay back an even larger sum of money. Even though they received adequate amounts of food, supplies, and other provisions from the city of Zara, it would not be enough to make the long journey to Egypt. The Venetians also had one more option, which would be their ace in the hole: Constantinople, the wealthiest city in Asia Minor and their biggest trading rival.


While the Crusade was residing in the besieged city of Zara, the Crusaders realized that the provisions that they had were running out and they could not afford the costs in order to get to Egypt. [6] No one had expected the Fourth Crusade to be in such a financial crisis that they spent more time planning a new course of action. They soon faced a difficult situation where they could have either give up on the Crusade and return to Europe, or cooperate with the Venetians and continue on towards Constantinople. [7] The Crusaders knew they already faced punishment from being excommunicated because of the pillage at Zara, so they did not want to place themselves in even more danger by attacking Constantinople, which was a Greek Orthodox Christian city as well. [8] Evidently, the Crusaders continued under Enrico Dandolo and agreed to participate on the new journey to capture the city of Constantinople.

Whether by coincidence or strategic planning, a man named Alexius IV appealed to the Crusaders to help him reclaim the throne of Constantinople with the promise of 200,000 marks, food, 10,000 soldiers, which was an offer the Crusaders couldn’t turn down given their situation. Was Venice’s ultimate goal to conquer Constantinople by manipulating the Crusaders to carry out the physical task of conquering major metropolitan cities? At the beginning of the Crusade, Alexius appealed to the Crusaders to help him out, but the Pope quickly refused the offer since the idea of attacking the largest metropolitan Christian city seemed insane. But as the resources became limited it turned the Crusaders attention towards aiding Alexius IV with his promise. By helping the Crusade on its way to Egypt, the capture of Constantinople would install not only a new Emperor that would restore the city to the authority of the Pope, but aid the Crusaders pursue their destination to Egypt.

After Zara, Boniface Montferrat came to the realization that what was expected out of the Fourth Crusade could not be accomplished without the help of Venice. Not only were the Crusaders promised a financial relief for their unfavorable situation, but the Venetians would economically benefit as well since Constantinople stood as Venice’s biggest trading rival. [9] Regardless of the situation, the Crusaders continued to follow the orders of Dandolo, even though they swore an oath to the Church. Since the Crusaders were already excommunicated from the Church, what authority did the Pope have on the success of the 4th Crusade when they faced a precarious situation? The Crusaders were stuck committed to the plans that had changed for Venice, so the Pope’s control over the Crusade force was virtually nonexistent as they sailed further away from the Holy Roman Empire.

Enrico Dandolo took advantage of the situation that had unfolded in favor of Venice since the Crusaders had no other alternative at this point. They were broke, running short of supplies, excommunicated, and sailing on Venetian ships, so as the winter passed, the fleet set sail for Constantinople in April 1203. With the promise of all the supplies that they could ever need, the Crusaders trusted Alexius IV because they knew that Constantinople was the wealthiest city in Asia Minor, so the claims that he made didn’t seem that extreme. Though the city was Greek Orthodox, the idea of restoring control of the city to the Pope would not only pardon the excommunication, but give the Holy Roman Empire a stronger political position over Asia Minor.

This opportunity was too good to pass up, not that the Crusaders had any other option in this situation. Constantinople was a prize much greater than the Holy Land, and realistically, was much easier to attack and take control of. It is obvious that Venice would have liked to achieve a greater source of power through the elimination of their political rivals, but was the Fourth Crusade a deliberate plan of action that was constructed at the initial beginning of the Crusade, or the deliberate misconduct of a single city taking advantage of a financial crisis that faced the Holy Roman Empire? Also, was the Crusade transforming from a religious campaign to a political adventure? Whether Egypt was still on the agenda, it would appear that now the Crusade was taking a complete different direction with the purpose of relieving political opposition but for the Venetians who were in control of the financial obligations. [10] What the Crusaders did not know was that Venice had gone behind the Crusaders and actually signed a treaty with the Egyptian trade, so was Egypt ever a realistic destination?

The Siege of Constantinople

By June 1203 the fleet was anchored off of Constantinople, awaiting the promised return of Alexius IV to power. While Alexius appealed to the city to restore his rightful position, the people of the city realized that he had brought with him an entire army to enforce his kingship. Constantinople assumed that this large force was stopping on its way towards Egypt, but once they saw Alexius IV, realized that the Crusaders were there under the exiled Emperor to take back the city in his name. The Crusaders didn’t waste any time as they assaulted the city, strategically used the large fleet to its advantage as they flanked the cities natural defenses. [11] At the sight of such a large force outside the city walls, most of the citizens took what they could and fled the city, while the others that remained continued to protest against Alexius’s motives.

Their first target was the Golden Horn, an inlet that divided Constantinople and formed a natural harbor, an obvious location for the Byzantine fleet. As the Venetians arrived at Galata, all that separated them was a great iron chain which spanned across the bay and secured the flank of the city from naval attack and prevented any unwanted ship from entering. The chain was connected to the Tower of Galata, which the Crusaders fleet immediately disposed of, as any resistance was quickly quelled. Once the chain fell, the Byzantine fleet was crushed since that stood no chance to the massive fleet. Constantinople soon found itself surrounded to the massive Crusade force as they prepared for the first assault.

On July 17, 1203 the first assault of Constantinople was underway. The Venetian fleet assaulted the city’s seaward walls with great ladders as the French forces of the Crusade attacked the front of the city, which resulted in disaster. Though the Venetians were successful in destroying some of the city’s major defense towers and setting fire to some parts of the city, but were eventually driven off by the infamous Varangian Guard. Only after one day of conflict, the emperor of Constantinople, Alexius III, and brother of Isaac II, fled the city to Thrace. The great city walls of Constantinople had been breached and the people of the city had basically given up hope after a single day, including the Emperor. All he took with him was his daughter, 10,000 gold pieces and other jewels, and a few members of his court and leaving everyone else to fend for themselves at the mercy of the Crusaders. As day approached, the Crusaders realized that Constantinople remained leaderless, and as word spread, the city lost all moral and surrendered to save the city from being completely destroyed. Virtually in no time, the greatest city of the world fell without even a struggle, because the Venetian fleet had attacked the city at its weakest location, so the great city walls were overwhelmed without trouble.

As Constantinople remained leaderless by the disappearance of Alexius III’s from the throne, Byzantine acted fast and placed Isaac II on the throne before the Crusaders had the opportunity to put Alexius IV in as their puppet emperor. Constantinople claimed that since Isaac II was Alexius IV’s father, that there was no need for the fighting to continue. But the Crusaders had other plans to remain around the city to ensure that they were rewarded with the money they were promised, so they demanded that Alexius IV be named co-Emperor to ensure he stayed true to his word. On August 1, 1203 Alexius IV was named Emperor, but the situation didn’t become any better. It had been very easy for him while he was in exile to make great promises to the Crusaders, but when the time came and he was restored to his kingship, he found that it was impossible to fulfill every condition that was promised.

Much like the Crusaders at the beginning of the Crusaders in Venice, Alexius IV realized that his promise of 200,000 marks was too good to be true. While he claimed that he would reward the Crusaders for doing a personal favor, the majority of the public felt outraged with the decision Alexius committed. He already was unpopular because the city was at the time in peace until the Fourth Crusade showed up and forced the conquest of the city. [12] When he was only able to come up with half of the money, he immediately raised taxes within the city, committed to any means necessary to produce some sort of money, but still came up short. Even though most of the money went right back to the Venetians, the Crusaders still demanded the money that they were promised. The Crusaders found themselves enduring the winter months once again while they awaited to receive the money they desperately needed to repay their debt, but also because Alexius IV demanded the Crusaders help in ensuring his position as Emperor, knowing that if the fleet left, a coup d’état was inevitable.

During the winter months between 1203-1204, the Crusaders became restless as Alexius IV and Constantinople simply did not come up with the money. Alexius IV began to travel to Thrace and other cities to scrounge up the 100,000 marks he still needed. As the frustration continued to build up for the Crusaders, fires and revolts started to occur from individual groups of soldiers traveling to the city and creating havoc. [13] These countless acts of destruction, along with the great fires that burned good portions of the city, led to a Byzantine revolt by the city’s own population. Fed up with the Crusaders presence, fed up with their forced Emperor Alexius IV, the Byzantine people on January 1, 1204 attacked the very Crusaders stationed in and around the city. Along with the Varangian guard, they not only forced the Crusaders out of the city, but even attempted to burn the Venetian fleet resting in the harbor, but were unsuccessful. The people of Constantinople then took Alexius IV out of power, along with repelling their Christian invaders out of the city, and forced the Crusaders back to the Tower of Galata.

Finally the Crusaders had had enough. Even though Alexius IV had done what he could to get the money he owed, the Crusaders became restless as the city began to revolt against them. Once they Byzantines had started their revolt, the Crusaders had no other alternative but to turn their attention towards the city. Because Alexius IV was so unpopular in the city, along with Isaac II, were forcibly removed from the throne and killed by his own people. With the city remained leaderless, surrounded by the Crusaders, with no sign of help anywhere, but still provoked tensions with the Crusaders. What made matters worse was that the invading Crusaders were put into a desperate situation, so the city knew that the only alternative was to forcibly take the city to maintain the supplies they needed. The revolt against the Crusaders showed the city still held some type of resistance, even if it was out of desperation, which meant that the first assault was not enough to put the city into complete Crusade control.

The Final Assault

With Alexius IV out of power, the new emperor Alexius V usurped the throne of Constantinople and assumed control of the city for the short period of time that the city remained in Byzantine control. Not only was the Varangian Guard supporting the newly appointed Emperor, but Alexius V began fortifying the city to prepare for the next assault. As the Crusaders began to run out of provisions once again, the desire to continue the Crusade to Egypt was far from probable, so another assault was bound to happen. On April 12, 1204, the entire Crusade force attacked from the Golden Horn and breached the city walls. The defenses were simply no match for the amount of soldiers pouring into the city, so it was only a matter of time before Alexius V and the Varangian guard was forced to retreat from Constantinople. Overnight, the morale and determination of the Byzantine people was crushed, knowing that a good portion of the city had been taken and the city walls were once again penetrated. The Crusaders, who expected a long, hard fight to last for weeks, were amazed that the city had virtually given up within one day. The people of the city were fleeing out of the south gates, as the Varangian guard put up or gave no resistance whatsoever, so exactly a day later on April 13, 1204, the city had surrendered.

As people continued to flee Constantinople to the south, the Crusaders continued to disperse throughout the city and introduce themselves to the wealthiest city in the world. How had the largest and most powerful city of the Christian world fallen to the Crusaders? The Venetians had properly used the gullibility of the Crusaders to attack their ally, while the debt that the Crusaders had fallen into made any type of disobedience futile.

Even though the Crusaders were satisfied with the capture of Constantinople, everyone had completely forgotten about proceeding onto Egypt and Jerusalem, which is exactly what Venice had wanted to happen. With the debt and problems that they had already fallen into, the Crusaders were content with what they had just accomplished, and were too occupied with repaying the debt so that they were not in service to the Venetians anymore. The conquest of Egypt was no longer the objective of the Fourth Crusade, but had turned into the works of the Venetians, whose greed made the Crusaders susceptible to political conquests. Also the Crusaders had little to no bargaining in the decisions of the Fourth Crusade; but were now content with the decisions of the Venetians, who had lured them to take the Christian city of Constantinople.

The Sack of Constantinople

With nobody to stand against the Crusaders, the wealthiest city in the world now laid at the disposal of the Crusaders. As soon as the city surrendered, the soldiers began pillaging, raping, and defacing everything and anything of value within the city walls for three straight days. [14] The role of authority fell silent as the Crusaders finally was paid off as their debt to the Venetians, but then began acquiring as much wealth as possible by anything of value: artwork, gold, treasures, and religious relics. Even though the Venetians participated in the pillaging, they only took religious and art relics, where most of them were transported back to the Venetian Churches. Personal accounts of the pillaging are said to have been the worst to have ever taken place in history,

“. . . How shall I begin to tell of the deeds wrought by these nefarious men! Alas, the images, which ought to have been adored, were trodden under foot! Alas, the relics of the holy martyrs were thrown into unclean places! Then was seen what one shudders to hear, namely, the divine body and blood of Christ was spilled upon the ground or thrown about. They snatched the precious reliquaries, thrust into their bosoms the ornaments which these contained, and used the broken remnants for pans and drinking cups,-precursors of Anti-Christ, authors and heralds of his nefarious deeds which we momentarily expect. Manifestly, indeed, by that race then, just as formerly, Christ was robbed and insulted and His garments were divided by lot; only one thing was lacking, that His side, pierced by a spear, should pour rivers of divine blood on the ground.” [15] 

Every site that held some religious importance including relics, tombs, churches, were all desecrated by the very Christians who served under the same religion, but the Crusaders were set on taking whatever they could carry out of the city. [16] Was it out of frustration that the Crusaders actions were considered barbaric on the city? Or was it for greed that the wealthiest city laid at the hands of a desperate Crusade force? For certain, the promise Alexius IV had made to ensure the Crusaders restoring his throne was now taken by the Crusaders themselves during the three days. Thousands of pieces of artwork were stolen from houses, churches, temples, and all were looted for anything of value, while the people still remaining in the city, considered them savage barbarians for the crimes they were committing. Even though the Venetians participated in the plunder, Doge Enrico Dandolo looked to ensure the economic control Venice had on the trade routes in the immediate area. He immediately set out to appoint a new emperor in favor of the Venetians, one that would no longer be a threat to Venice’s power. Not only had they taken out their two biggest rivals, but now possessed the control of the major trade routes between Europe and Asia.

Much to the surprise of the Crusaders, Pope Innocent III actually forgave the army for attacking another Christian city, but preached that they secured the rule of Constantinople in the hands of the Holy Roman Empire. Although at the start of the assault of the city he expressed great disapproval, he was soon silenced when he learned of the success of the Crusaders,

“…Pope Innocent III was furious at the conquest of Constantinople. He wrote the following letter in anger to the papal legate. Despite these bitter words, there was little that the Pope could do to alter what had happened and so, as his initial anger subsided, Innocent first recognized and then embraced the new order in Constantinople”. [17] 

By proclaiming that it was the will of God that led to the events of Constantinople, the Pope justified the Crusade by describing it as a righteous and necessary voyage, by properly restoring the power to the Church that they were systematically striving for with Egypt and Jerusalem. Though the Crusaders were still excommunicated the Pope removed the ban of the soldiers due to their great victory at Constantinople. He does not punish the Crusaders for the actions that they committed, but Pope Innocent III proceeded in reuniting the Greek and Latin Churches to grant even more power for the Papacy. In a way, the conquest of Constantinople diverted everyone’s attention from the real purpose of the Fourth Crusade, but to one of shock that the greatest city had fallen to another Christian force.

The issue of who would be put in place for the emperor of Constantinople came into order once the city had been ravaged. After the pillaging and ransacking had been accomplished and the Crusaders took anything of value that they could carry, the leaders of the Crusades disputed over who would now control the vulnerable city. Boniface of Montferrat seemed the obvious choice since he was still the leader of the Crusade, but Venice had other plans. To maintain the power that they just received, Venice and Dandolo were not about to compromise it by entrusting Boniface, who had multiple allies in Europe. [18] Instead, Enrico Dandolo preferred an individual who would be able to serve as a puppet emperor, that would be less threatening to the trade investment in Venice, so Dandolo named Baldwin, Count of Flanders, was claimed Emperor of Constantinople. With Dandolo still in control of the Crusade, Boniface of Montferrat had little power to oppose his decision.


At the end of the Fourth Crusade, the Venetians came out on top instead of the Church that initially started the Crusade. Pope Innocent’s legacy of re-conquering the Holy Land was preoccupied by financial obligations that allowed the Crusade to be turned into the Venetians plans of greed to dominate the trade rights between Europe and Asia. The only benefits that the Crusaders accomplished on the Fourth Crusade were the many of the treasures within Constantinople, along with reclaiming the city under the Holy Roman Empire. The Crusade ended in 1204, but Venice placed Constantinople in a position where the emperor and the entire city were no longer a threat to their trade embargo, and successfully diverted the entire Crusade away from Egypt who they had formed a profitable trade agreement. All the treasures the Crusaders took from the city, plus the money confiscated from Alexius IV, went mostly to pay back the debt they still had with the Venetians.

Pope Innocent III high hopes of being the savior of the entire Crusades quickly turned into a desperate situation. Enrico Dandolo used precise planning to manipulate the Crusaders in order to take care of Venice’s political opposition. The success of their trade allowed Venice to fund the Crusaders where they had no choice but to cooperate or risk being abandoning the entire Crusade near cities like Constantinople and Zara. Some historians debate whether Dandolo had planned this entire Crusade, or whether events just simply fell into place that allowed Venice to come out on top financially and politically with the trade routes between Europe and Asia. Regardless, the acquisition of Constantinople and the Greek Empire was the most unexpected and greatest prize.

After the Fourth Crusade, Constantinople was left in a state of chaos. The city was never able to fully recover its status as the most powerful and wealthiest city in Asia Minor until sixty years later when the Ottoman Empire took control of the city during the Ottoman Conquests. Over one thousand years of art, treasures, and relics were taken out of the city within three days, so the city’s religious importance was never the same. The greed of Venice and the gullibility of the Crusaders contributed to the destruction of the strongest city that had survived for over a millennia. What made it even worse was the fact that the Crusaders, who served under a Christian flag, defiled the city of Constantinople without remorse whose only motives could have only been out of greed. The Fourth Crusade was manipulated from the beginning, resulting in the conquest of Constantinople, instead of Egypt and Jerusalem.

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