This article will examine the fourth Crusade leading up to the conquest of Constantinople and shortly thereafter from the perspective of Geoffrey de Villehardouin, a thirteenth-century Frankish knight. The source used in assessing the fourth crusade will be the Conquest of Constantinople written by Geoffrey de Villehardouin and translated by Caroline Smith, Penguin Classic edition published in 2008. All page references given hereafter come from this work.
There have been many modern attempts to re-write history or paint a revisionist picture of this highly controversial subject. Using an eye witness account of the events that transpired the researcher can be sure to gather information from a primary source that presents the ‘bare bones’ of what occurred. Of course, the researcher has to take into account that Geoffrey de Villehardouin is by no means an objective source of information; after all he was one of the pilgrims sent on a crusade to Egypt which later became routed by the siege of Constantinople. The researcher needs to be aware of this fact and examine what Villehardouin records in comparison with other contemporary chroniclers of his time. Due to length considerations only Geoffrey’s view of the conquest will be examined in this article.
The fourth Crusade did not originally begin as a crusade against Constantinople but was rather a crusade preached by a priest known as Fulk of Neuilly, and later on given Papal authority by Innocent III as a pilgrimage to restore Jerusalem (p. 1). The indulgence offered by Innocent and described by Geoffrey as very generous was that all those who take the cross and serve the army for a year would be absolved from any sins they had committed and confessed (p. 1). During a conference in Compiegne, where a great deal of barons and counts who had taken up the cross met, a decision was made to send out six of their best envoys (which Geoffrey was a part of) in an attempt at planning the pilgrimage, namely the route they would take and a date the operation would begin (p. 7). These envoys were given full authority on behalf of the barons and counts binding them to whatever agreements the envoys arrived at (p. 7). The place Geoffrey and the rest of the envoys had agreed to visit in search of resources was Venice and rightly so as Geoffrey points out since the Venetians apparently had an abundance of ships and vessels, more than any other port (p.8).
Venice is where the envoys met Enrico Dandolo, the dodge of Venice, and struck up what can be viewed as one of the most important deals in the history of crusading. The envoys asked the dodge for ships and a fleet in order to conquer the Holy Land, and after about a week of consideration and some debate with the envoys and fellow statesmen the dodge set down his conditions for the deal: “We will build horse transports to carry 4,500 horses and 9,000 squires, with 4,500 knights and 20,000 foot sergeants travelling in ships. And we will agree to provide food for all these horses and people for nine months. This is the minimum we would provide in return for a payment of four marks per horse and two marks per man. All the terms we are offering you would be valid for one year from the day of our departure from the port of Venice…The total cost of what has just been outlined would amount to 94,000 marks….we will provide, for the love of God, fifty armed galleys, on condition that for as long as our association lasts we will have one half of everything we capture on land or at sea, and you will have the other” (p. 8,9).
The envoys confirmed this arrangement financially binding the barons of France to the Venetians and in return giving the Venetians a sweet deal of expanding their territorial prospects, from this point forward the Venetians and pilgrims literally have to work as a single cooperative body or the whole pilgrimage would become a disaster. A destination of Cairo Egypt had been chosen by the heads of the expedition but it was kept under wraps, instead it was said simply that the pilgrims were going overseas (p.11). Oaths were made to uphold the terms laid out by both parties and messengers were sent to Innocent III for confirmation of the deal, as Geoffrey puts it, the pope confirmed most willingly (p.11). The pilgrims borrowed 2,000 marks and made a down payment in order so that work on the fleet might begin, then they left to their homelands and began to recruit others for the pilgrimage (p.11).
The Venetians had assembled a massive and most impressive fleet and it was now time for the barons to return and pay their half of the deal. Unfortunately for the pilgrims and Venetians, many of the barons and counts did not come to Venice and thus could not pay what they owed (p.18). According to Geoffrey many of the preudommes were scared of the voyage undertaken at Venice and wanted the army to break up (p.16, 19), or the large numbers of pilgrims had simply taken different routes and ended up in other ports than Venice (p.17). This caused a great discord to both the pilgrims and the Venetians who rightfully wanted their money. The army was now in danger of disbanding and bringing failure to the whole expedition, the pilgrims simply did not have enough people to provide the money due the Venetians, thus the Venetians were under no obligation to provide the pilgrims with a fleet – in all Geoffrey records that the pilgrims were 34,000 silver marks short of what they owed (p.19).
The pilgrim leaders paid the Venetians what they had and asked to be taken if the Venetians were so willing (p.19). Enrico and the Venetians had a different deal in mind; they proposed that they would keep whatever was paid them and suspend the debt of 34,000 marks until a later time in return for help in retaking the city of Zara, which was captured from the Venetians by the king of Hungary (p. 19). The pilgrims agreed to this deal with some opposition from their people and Enrico Dandolo took up the cross in a great show of passion along with many other Venetians who followed his example (p.20).
On the tenth of November 1202 the expedition arrived before the city of Zara in Slovenia and took the city by force breaking the harbor chain and laying siege the next day (p.22). According to Geoffrey there had been messengers who came out of Zara and offered to surrender the city along with all its possessions if the pilgrims just spared the lives of the inhabitants (p.23). This offer was short lived as some of the pilgrims who wanted to see the army disband secretly told the messengers from Zara that the pilgrims would not dare to attack their city and the inhabitants had nothing to fear, having this insider information the messengers went back to the city and no deal was struck (p.23).
Apparently there had been much conflict among the pilgrims, some of which wanted to proceed with the siege, and some that wanted to end it on account of it being against fellow Christians (p.24). The argument as presented by Geoffrey went something along the lines of Christian fighting Christian (which would go against everything the crusading movement stood for) versus being shamed for a failed expedition. The abbot of Vaux announced on behalf of the Roman Pope that he forbids pilgrims campaigning against Christians, but he was quickly silenced and the barons proceeded with the siege (p.24). After five days of fighting the town of Zara was surrendered under the same conditions asked previously, the town was now under Venetian authority and split up in two sections, one side French the other Venetian, until after winter passed and the pilgrims could make their next move (p.24).
While in Zara envoys had arrived from Germany on behalf of King Philip and the prince of Constantinople who was King Philips brother by marriage. These envoys came bearing news that the Emperor of Constantinople (Isaac II Angelus) had been wrongly usurped of his throne being blinded and imprisoned by his own brother Alexius III Angelus (p.20, 26). Isaac’s son, or young Alexius (who would later be crowned Alexius IV Angelus), was also imprisoned by Alexius III but later managed to escape and now came seeking help from the pilgrims in order to restore him and his father as the rightful emperors. Young Alexius had promised to place the entire Romanian realm under the authority of Rome, to pay 200,000 silver marks and give provisions to the whole army, to personally accompany the crusade to Egypt with 10,000 of his own men for an entire year, and to maintain 500 knights in the Holy Land supported by his own money throughout his entire life – in return for the pilgrims help in restoring the young Alexius and his father as the rightful emperors (p.26).
Again there was discord among the pilgrims with many men, such as the abbot of Vaux, protesting on account of campaigning against more Christians. At this time the pilgrims were divided, with some in support of the treaty with the Greeks that had agreed to help young Alexius, some deciding rather to go to Syria and start their expedition there, and some even resorted to flight; this way a lot of pilgrims abandoned the quest and the army lost many useful knights (p. 27, 28). As Geoffrey puts it, the pope was not too happy with the capture of Zara so the pilgrims sent envoys to Rome begging the popes forgiveness and explaining their side of the story, for the most part they had no other option but to attack the mainly Christian city as their own men had defected and the army was now in danger of being lost (p.29). Geoffrey states the pope absolved all of the pilgrims from their sins and begged to keep the army together (p. 29).
The pilgrims had departed Zara to Constantinople and the Venetians were joined by young Alexius later before departing themselves (p. 30). After sailing around southern Greece and stopping at numerous ports and islands the pilgrims arrived at Chalcedon, one of the Byzantine Emperors palaces situated across Constantinople on the other side of the Straights of Saint George. From there they sailed closer to Constantinople reaching a palace called Scutari where they spent the next nine days while Alexius fortified his defense (p. 33, 36). The pilgrims announced why they had come and that the Emperor should surrender himself to the authority of young Alexius in exchange for a pardon, this offer was declined by the Greeks and so the pilgrims started organizing battalions for the attack (p.38).
There were a few skirmishes between the Greeks and the pilgrims prior to the main attack in which Geoffrey recount the great deeds of the frugal blind doge and the Venetians. The dodge had leapt out of his galley before any of his men could come ashore and had placed the banner of Saint Mark in the ground; this act compelled the Venetians to fight strongly, eventually capturing twenty five towers by themselves and setting fire between them and the enemy (p. 46).The Franks also fought bravely and undermanned, taking on sixty of the Greek battalions with their six, but when the dodge decided to help the pilgrim camp the Emperors forces withdrew ending the first siege of Constantinople (p. 47-48).
A great fortune befell the pilgrims during that night, the Emperor Alexius decide to sneak out and abandon his kingdom and thus the Greeks were left with no emperor. Their only choice was the imprisoned one, Isaac, and so the Greeks released him from prison and swore their obedience (p. 48). Isaac agreed to his son’s deal with the pilgrims and soon after Alexius was crowned co-emperor of the empire (p. 50-51).
As Geoffrey tells it the newly crowned emperor Alexius paid off some of the money promised to the pilgrims and then left Constantinople in order to further secure his lands after which time he would finish paying the debt (p.54). While Alexius was away a brawl had broken out between the Greek and Latin inhabitants of Constantinople in which one of the parties set the town ablaze, Geoffrey writes that he does not know who started the fire which ravaged for a week taking much of the city with it, but after it had passed none of the Latin residents wanted to stay inside of the city and crossed to the pilgrims camp. This marks a decline in relations between the Greeks and the pilgrims, according to Geoffrey, since there was nobody to blame but each-other(p.55).
When Alexius returned to Constantinople he decided that his debt had been paid and he owed nothing more to the pilgrims. The pilgrims recognized the emperors actions as wicked ‘Greek treachery’ sending out envoys to the emperor, among which Geoffrey was part, stating they would be very pleased if the emperor decided to pay back but “if you do not do so you should know that from this time forward they [the pilgrims] will not regard you as their lord or as their friend. Instead they will recover what is owed them by whatever means necessary” (p. 56-57). The Emperor was outraged and the envoys barely made it out of the palace alive, so war began anew.
Geoffrey once again mentions the Venetians grand victories on the sea, their ability to divert Greek attacks and use them against their enemy as they had done by sending burning galleys back up stream at the Greeks. This fighting apparently went on for a long time into winter (p. 58). A Greek highly regarded by the Emperor, named Mourtzouphlus, decided to betray Alexius by sneaking into his bedchamber at night to imprison him. When the emperor Isaac heard about this he fell ill and died. Mourtzouphlus took the crown for himself and shortly after he strangled Alexius spreading word that the emperor died of natural causes, following with an honorable burial and display of grief (p. 59).
The barons decided to besiege Constantinople nonetheless since the new ruler was in no position to hold lands as he acquired them through murder, and more so the Greeks were no longer under Roman authority (p. 60). Thus the second siege of Constantinople was under way. On the twelfth of April 1204, after many battles with Mourtzouphlus and with much help from the Venetian ships, the pilgrims succeeded in taking the city of Constantinople (p. 66). Mourtzouphlus fled the city and once more fire lit the skies of Constantinople, again with nobody around to blame; as noted by Geoffrey this being the third time Constantinople was on fire since the arrival of the Franks (p. 66).
Agreements had been made prior to the siege of how the new emperor was to be elected and any booty acquired distributed. The agreement between the Venetians and the Franks was that if they were successful in entering the city, “all the booty seized should be gathered together and then shared among the entire force, as was fitting….six Frenchmen and six Venetians would be chosen who would…elect as emperor the man they believed would be of greatest benefit to the land. The man made emperor…would receive one quarter of all their conquests both inside and outside the city, and would have the palaces of Bocoleon and Blachernae. The remaining three-quarters of their conquest would be divided equally, half going to the Venetians and half to the people of the army. Twelve of the wisest men from the pilgrim army and twelve from the Venetians would be chosen who would then distribute fiefs and possessions among the men, determining what service each of them owed to the emperor” (p. 62-63).
It was also agreed that anyone who wished to leave the service after one year was free to do so (p. 63). This seems fair since the Venetians played as big a role in the crusade as did the pilgrims. After the siege a council met and chose Count Baldwin and Marquis Boniface as the candidates for new emperor, in order not to arouse the jealousy of either one the council decided that whoever was elected should give the other all the lands located on the other side of the straights as well as the island of Greece (p. 69). Baldwin was elected emperor and the marquis became the emperor’s vassal.
During this time the pilgrims struggled to keep the army alive and continued to sack Greek cities. The pilgrims were not in a good position as they were surrounded on all sides by bitter Greeks and were fighting among themselves for possession of land. Even the marquis, who had received a great deal of land, had to be persuaded into staying by being granted the city of Salonika which he wanted in exchange for the lands agreed to previously (p. 71). This Baldwin did grant, but later on did not listen to the marquis when asked to stay behind, letting the marquis arrive in his lands unaccompanied by the emperor (p. 74). This resulted in the marquis defying the emperor and taking some of the emperor’s lands including Demotika and Adrianople, over which the emperor was enraged (p. 74-78). In turn the marquis was put in a bad position along with all the pilgrims causing discord and the ‘taking of sides’ among the army. Already there are factions forming based on loyalty to the immediate lord and one’s own homeland, or monetary and geographical gain.
Overall there were many problems for the new Latin Empire, among which was disagreement and infighting within the pilgrim ranks, and opposition and betrayal by the apparently loyal Greeks. Many Greeks defied their new lord rebelling and fighting back such as Sgouros, Michael of Arta, Theodore Lascarus , as well as Johanista, the king of Vlachia, setting out on campaigns into the new empire (p. 81, 84, 90). The pilgrims faced staunch opposition with dwindling resources from the ravaged towns, they simply did not have the manpower to run the new empire, and to the Greeks who looked for every opportunity to rebel they were unwelcomed trespassers.
A great weakness of the Latin Empire was its unpopularity with the Greeks which evoked many betrayals. The first instance of this was the rise of Greek strongmen after the fall of Constantinople. These included Sgouros (p. 81), holder of Corinth and Nauplia, Michael (p. 81), who held the city of Arta, and Theodore Lascarus (p. 84), who, out of all, had the best claim by being married to a daughter in the royal line and held the lands beyond the straights. All these strongmen contributed to the problem of stretching the manpower of the new empire beyond breaking point, thus any defeat suffered by them could lead to disaster for the Latin Empire. Another instance of Latin unpopularity with the Greeks was the Greeks betrayal by involvement with the Johanista, king of Vlachia and Bulgaria. The Greeks made a pact with king Johanista that they would make him emperor if he would help regain lands that were lost from the conquests made by the pilgrims and the Venetians (p. 90). The new empire now faced enemies on almost all of its fronts.
The Latin Empire, which although had a good organizational structure, proved to be impractical when trying to rule the territories of Constantinople and the surrounding areas. Problems of man power and a large opposition force compounded to make the Empire very weak and based on shaky ground. While trying to control the provinces that surrounded Constantinople, the armies of crusaders were faced with one enemy after another, sometimes striking at the same time, thus contributing to the many losses of territory. Yet it should be noted that many battles were won by the Latin armies and despite such opposition, the Latin Empire still held out for a number of years. This could be contributed to the unity of the crusaders and the fragmentation of their opposition, because of the number of Greek strongmen and the opposition of local natives, such as the Armenians, who wanted freedom from Greek control. Thus, even with the odds staked against them, the crusaders were not only able to take control of Constantinople, but also remain an Empire for a number of years.
It seems from Geoffrey’s account of the conquest that nothing would be possible if not for the Venetian ships and Enrico Dandolo. The Venetians were the life blood of the whole crusade dutifully helping their brothers in Christ while the pilgrims were rightly justified in the siege both times, each time because the emperor did not deserve the throne. Alexius had come to them for help, which they most graciously provided, and afterword expected nothing more than to be repaid for their exemplary service on which the emperor defaulted. The pilgrims were simply taking the only opportunity to go ahead with their expedition, in which after all Geoffrey had himself secured the plans for and no doubt hoped everything would go smoothly. In other words, there was no other choice for the pilgrims, according to Geoffrey.