Alexios III Angelos

Geoffrey's Crusade 2: Imperial Virtues

The Fourth Crusade at Constantinople

In November of 1202, the people of Zara looked down and saw an army encamped at their walls and a fleet in their harbour, and they had no doubts as to their Venetian visitors intentions. So when the Zaran envoys sent down to the camp arrived at the doge’s pavilion, they came with a pretty clear grasp of the state of things. They came to submit themselves and their city to Venetian rule almost unconditionally; all they asked in return was that their people should not be killed. But even at such easy terms, the doge wouldn’t accept their surrender without consulting his allies first.

Dandolo left the Zarans, and in his absence, others came in to speak with them with words of encouragement. These were some of those who remained unhappy about the idea of attacking this city, and they assured the Zaran contingent that the crusading army was never going to do so, and that they had only the Venetians to worry about. If the Zarans could just resist them for a while still, then matters could be sorted out peacefully without their having to surrender. 

No doubt extremely heartened by this new information, the representatives of the city left immediately, so that when Dandolo came back to say that their submission would be accepted, he found them already gone. Geoffrey was probably there, in the pavilion, and our man in the room reports that in the confusion that followed, an abbot then stood, and he said, "Lords, I forbid you, on the part of the Pope of Rome, to attack this city; for those within it are Christians, and you are pilgrims." And the pope had forbade it too, on pain of excommunication, in a letter which may have just caught up to the crusaders. 

I like to imagine a pause here, a silence, a moment of processing and uncertainty, and then fury. Everyone shouting. The Venetians were enraged. They were about to physically attack the abbot, and maybe kill him, but the Count of Montfort stepped in their way. The doge meanwhile was yelling that he’d been betrayed. They’d stolen this city out from under him, and he demanded now that they honour their word. No threats of excommunication were keeping him and his people from what was theirs, and the crusaders had better do as they promised, especially after all those problems with paying their bills.

As had happened at every point of this story, there were some who would not go over this particular bridge. They were looking at trading a crusading indulgence for an excommunication, and then they were looking up at those walls and seeing the crucifixes which the Zarans had hung there like shields. It was just too much. They refused to take this city against the word of the pope. But there were too few of them, too few to carry the argument, and too few to justify Zaran confidence that all was as they'd been told: that these people would never attack them.

Because not many crusaders took themselves aside from what was to come. The Venetians were still there for what they believed was theirs, and the great bulk of the crusaders were also on board for this unpleasant but necessary action. 

Trenches were dug around and siege engines were put to work, while ladders were raised from the ships and sappers went in beneath the walls. The Zarans tried fighting back, and they tried appealing to papal authority to settle the argument. But they saw that neither were working and that their walls would not stand. After five days, on November 24th, they surrendered, and the city was taken, Venetians and crusades alike plundering and destroying with little sign of restraint. Some sources speak of relatively little loss of life while others are so full of bodies there were not enough left alive to bury them. 

The occupying force had a long winter ahead.

Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World. As always, I at this time want to remind you that review and subscribing to Human Circus is how we stay out of debt with the Venetians, and that by your signing up to the Patreon for as little as $1 a month, we still get to keep all the goodly boats too. Now, back to the crusade.  

With Zara occupied, the crusaders and Venetians settled down to a no-doubt uncomfortable time. Indeed, both our sources speak of an ugly episode immediately following the taking of the city. 

The Venetians were to stay in the port, close to the ships, and the crusaders in another part of the city. But though he doesn’t say how it happened, Robert records that “a great contention arose betwixt the Venetians and the baser sort amongst the pilgrims, which lasted a full night and half a day,” and that it was difficult for the knights to separate them. Where they once managed to calm the fighting in one place, it would spark off again in another. Geoffrey called it a “a great misadventure in the host, at about the hour of vespers; … a fray, exceeding fell and fierce,” that raged in nearly every street, with “swords and lances and cross-bows and darts; and many people were killed and wounded.” One “high lord of Flanders ... was struck in the eye, and ... died ... and many another of whom less was spoken.” Eventually, peace was made, and the leaders on both sides worked to maintain it, and the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade relaxed into their Zaran winter.

The situation there had led to a flurry of communications with Rome. The king of Hungary had been enraged by the crusaders actions, but had still been willing to join them on their crusade if only they abandoned the city. When they had refused, citing their promise to the Venetians, he had called on the Pope to restore the city to his protection, and Innocent had responded in a most illustrative way. He had vigorously condemned the attack on the city, made against his explicit prohibition, and he had demanded that it  be returned immediately to its occupants and to the Hungarian king, but just as interesting was what he didn’t do. He did not act on his threats to nullify their indulgences or to apply excommunication. As angry as he was, he did not actually want them to go home.

So as letters were sent to Rome, seeking absolution, and Dandolo and the other leaders sorted out their next move, or, in other tellings, as Dandolo finessed the next step of his malevolent master plan into being, another storyline was starting to catch up to them. It had been building for some time in the background of all of this, but I didn’t mention it last episode, so let’s catch up on things now. 

For us, that means going back to April of 1195, to the Byzantine Emperor Isaac II, and to the treachery of his elder brother who had himself declared emperor while they were both hunting in the south of Thrace. Isaac was promptly blinded, a disfigurement which rendered one unfit for rule, but his son Alexius was not. Alexius and his blinded father seem to have been given a surprising amount of freedom by their power-seizing relative - maybe he felt a little bad about the whole thing - and they would put that freedom to use in getting Alexius out of there. By 1197, his sister Irene was in Germany and married to Philip of Swabia, contender for the crown of Germany, and Isaac and Alexius had a powerful ear in which to whisper for help. 

It was all arranged in secret, with the help of the young man’s tutor. They promised not to act against the emperor, but what were promises, made to a usurper? When the prearranged moment arrived in 1201, when Alexius was with the emperor in Thrace, he slipped away and onto a waiting Pisan merchant ship. His pursuers searched all the ships, his included, but they couldn't find him. He'd already changed his appearance, his hair and his clothes. He was mingling with the merchants, and, somewhat amazingly, there was nobody on hand who could identify him.

Alexius escaped, and he went to Germany with his tale of woe. He encountered Boniface of Montferrat, who you’ll remember from last episode as the leader of the crusade, and Boniface would have been very interested in what Alexius had to say. Boniface had his own family history where Constantinople was concerned. His youngest brother had died of Byzantine imperial politics, and his older brother had been caught up in it too, and come away from it feeling cheated, at least until his assassination in Tyre. There seems to have been no immediate offer of help from Boniface though, or from his lord and cousin, Philip of Swabia, and so Alexius moved on to Rome.

There, before Innocent III, the young Byzantine noble found even less assurance. The pope was not prepared to back him, or to believe too easily that the boy before him was universally beloved among his people. But despite these failures to win support or arms for his bid to return home, the cause of Alexius was soon to be that of the moment.

According to Robert de Clari, morale among the men was very low that winter. They’d gone against the pope to take this place, deeply resented their Venetian “allies,” and had already exhausted such money and supplies that they wondered how they could possibly carry on to Alexandria, or Syria, or anywhere really. As it was, what could they accomplish if they did? And the Venetians, meanwhile, were no happier. They’d sustained by far the higher losses in the recent brawling, and were still yet to be paid by their adversaries in that fight.  

Have hope, the Venetian doge had urged them all, in Robert’s telling; there was very rich and abundant country in Greece, and if they went there, they would restore themselves for wherever they wished to go next, if they could but “find a reasonable occasion for going thither.” Indeed, all they needed was a “reasonable occasion,” and that was the cue for Boniface, who had recently rejoined the party, to step up and to speak. He told of having been in Germany and having met a very intriguing young man, “brother to the wife of the Emperor of Germany, ... son of the Emperor Isaac of Constantinople, from whom one of his own brothers had taken away the empire by treachery.” Whoever had this young man with them, Boniface continued, would have their reasonable occasion. They would have great ease of passage into Constantinople and whatever supplies they should possibly want or require.

Robert has the eager host then sending two knights to Germany to ask after the young man in question, and he graciously accepting their proposal at his brother in law’s urging, but Robert was, as we talked about last episode, not always in on all that was going on. Geoffrey tells us that two envoys came from Philip of Swabia and Alexius and that they spoke to Dandolo and the other leaders in the Zaran palace where the doge was staying, and that they made the following proposal.

If the crusaders would reunite Alexius with his imperial inheritance, then he would pay them 200,000 silver marks and food for all; he would accompany them onwards on their crusade and provide 10,000 men for the purpose; he would submit to the rule of Rome, and he would establish a lifelong commitment of 500 knights for the defence of the Holy Land. It was a rich offer, but it was not met with immediate open arms.

It was argued vigorously over during a parliament the following day. A Cistercian Abbot, among others, would not have it; these men had not left their homes to fight Christians, and it was held that they ought instead to go to Syria and there do what they could. To this the other side replied that if they went straight to Syria then what they could do was precisely nothing; they need only look to what had become of those who had already left from other ports to see that. If the Holy Land was to be taken it could only be by way of Egypt or Constantinople. If they rejected Alexius’ offer, then their lot was to be shame to last for all time. 

Boniface, Robert says, was all for it, having his own reasons to want revenge on Constantinople and, the lord himself would later maintain, a realistic idea of the provisions the army needed. And Dandolo, he would have needed no encouragement. Maybe the chronicler Niketas was overdoing it by describing the doge as “a creature most treacherous and extremely jealous of the Romans [Byzantines], a sly cheat who called himself wiser than the wise,” but Dandolo knew very well how much a hostile Constantinople had hindered Venetian business, and just how much an emperor who owed them everything might help it flourish. And, like Boniface, he would have had some notion of the logistical requirements for moving forward, and also some desire for any plan that would see the crusaders able to pay their bill. 

The host was split though, laymen and clergy. Of the latter, Geoffrey says, some “prayed and besought the people, for pity's sake and the sake of God, to keep the host together, and agree to the proposed convention,” while others followed the Abbot of Vaux de Cernay in voicing their opposition. In the end, the deal was accepted, and a date set. Fifteen days after the coming Easter, they were to bring Alexius into Constantinople, but Geoffrey tells us that only 12 people of sufficient stature could be found willing to take the oath, among them Boniface, Baldwin, and Louis, and this did not bode well for the army which rested in Zara and waited on the spring. After this pause, we’ll hear what happened.

...

As Geoffrey puts it, “the hearts of the people were not at peace.” Knights left on embassy to Syria, swearing on relics to return, and never came back. Others slipped away on merchant ships, and 500 of these drowned from one ship. And then there was the fact that this was still an army engaged in hostile occupation, and if the crusaders felt that they had much greater affairs to see to in the future, the here and now of it all was still very much on the mind of the locals. One company that abandoned the host was reminded of this as they were ambushed attempting to leave overland; many were killed and the remainder forced to return. Others left more successfully. Simon of Montfort, Enguerrand of Boves, and the Abbot of Vaux de Cernay were all important figures who elected to fulfill their vows elsewhere.

It was not all bad though. They’d sent 4 envoys to see the pope about absolution - and one of those four had jumped ship himself - but the other three had done their job well. Word had arrived that Innocent understood entirely that it was only through the failure of others that the crusaders had been forced to such mischief. So they were scolded but absolved. However, you needed to repent in order to be excused and the Venetians were in no way repentant. They were excommunicated, but Innocent separately let it be known that the crusaders could, against normal rules, continue to accompany the severed-Venetians. What mattered now above all else, was to hold the thing together, and a series of “practical” compromises was being asked of all involved to do so.

Amazingly, an army did hold together through all this until the spring, when the time came to load up again on the ships. I suspect it came as a huge relief for the leadership to leave Zara behind and at last be moving forward, their view of the Venetians dismantling the city receding in the rear view mirror. For some, it was now closing in on a year since they’d first mustered in Venice, and the whole adventure had not yet lived up to its promise. 

The fleet’s first major port of call which the chronicles mention was the island of Corfu, off the coast of present-day Greece where it meets Albania. There they stayed for three weeks, and that was where most of the army had their first look at their imperial saviour. They heard of his coming, and they came down to greet him “with great joy and great honour,” and Robert reports that, understandably, “he was glad as no other man ever was.” Corfu also brought a reminder that this army was really not an army in the modern sense, with cohesion and clear command structure because on Corfu, again, it almost came apart, as a large body of men, perhaps even half, took themselves apart from the rest and planned to call for ships to carry them elsewhere after the rest had departed. Only the intervention of Boniface, Alexius, and the other leaders rescued the situation, the lords and abbots falling to their knees in a tearful appeal to the malcontents and refusing to move until they had rejoined the host. 

If many of the crusaders were unhappy with the plan, Corfu showed also just how unhappy the people of Constantinople were going to be with having this Alexius foisted upon them. This was no return of a beloved prince; on the contrary, the locals bombarded the Venetians ships in the harbour. 

The fleet finally left Corfu with all aboard on May 24th, a day when the sky was clear and the wind in their favour, and the sight of sails and ships covering the waters filled Geoffrey with happiness, and likely the hope that this was all going to work out after all. 

They passed ships going the other way bringing home knights that had not joined them in Venice, and Geoffrey bitterly noted that they would not show their faces, save for one sergeant who had himself brought over and inspired the thought that “even after following a thousand crooked ways a man may find his way right in the end.”

On they went, overrunning the island of Andros by force, and then coming to the city of Abydos, where Troy had once stood at the mouth of the Hellespont, and its people, Geoffrey said, “had no stomach to defend themselves.” But of course they had no real capability to defend themselves against such strength. They would not have seen the straight as Geoffrey did, “in flower with ships and galleys” and “a great marvel to behold.” They would have only seen another wave of armed men washing up on their shores. As it was, the city was placed under guard and lost nothing, Geoffrey claims, but the crusaders still helped themselves to the winter-wheat in the fields before they left. Ahead of them now, was Constantinople.

And waiting there was Alexius’ uncle, the Byzantine emperor who, I should now mention, was also named Alexius. Now Emperor Alexius is not very kindly portrayed in the chronicles, and I don’t just mean they said he was a usurper who had his brother’s eyes put out. There’s the story that after first appearing before the people of the city as emperor in the Hagia Sophia, he was then thrown from his horse, his newly placed crown breaking on the ground where it landed - hardly an auspicious start. And then there was the time that, without apparent cause, the floor before the emperor’s bed had given way and several had fallen and been hurt, and one eunuch had actually died. As the chronicler Niketas records, “God guides the steps of some or trips them up.”  

Early hopes that Emperor Alexius’ rule would prove strong had long since been dashed, as it seemed that for all the effort he had exerted in winning the throne he then gave himself over to “lavish luxury and pleasure,” once it was his. That was the man that the fleet of Boniface, Geoffrey, Robert, and the rest was bearing down on, and he knew they were coming. 

He knew, but there was little he could or would about it. Niketas wrote that the emperor had been kept informed of the movements of the crusaders all along, but that, quote, “his excessive slothfulness was equal to his stupidity in neglecting what was necessary for the common welfare,” and when proposals were put to him for the defence of the city, “it was as though his advisors were talking to a corpse.” He had eventually ordered the imperial fleet made ready, but what a joke that was, for such a thing scarcely existed anymore. Its once awesome might had been frittered away. And that had been a process of decades, not to be laid at his feet alone, but he’d done nothing to help matters. Even in 1171, already in decline, they’d put forth 150 galleys against Venice. Now, the man in charge was his empress’ brother in law, a man with a much greater gift for enriching himself and upending political opponents than for putting boats into the water, so that when the call came, far too late, to mobilize, only 20 ships were to be found, and those “rotting and worm eaten.” The emperor was just going to need to trust in those walls, which had held out so many for so long.

Our Robert was just approaching walls. The ships had been decked out to be as grand a sight as possible, and as it approached - with the transports out front propelled by oars and then the galleys under sail - the people of the city looked down on the fleet from walls and from rooftops, according to Geoffrey, “so many people ... that it seemed as if there could be no more people (in the world).”  They “looked upon it with wonder,” Robert says, but I’m sure there was more than a little trepidation too, for these people’s experience of their Latin Christian cousins had often been unpleasant. Below on the waters, the crusaders in turn gazed up at “the greatness of the city which was so long and so broad.” For many of the Venetians it was a familiar enough sight, but for others it would have been entirely overwhelming, and they perhaps wondered if they had made the right decision in coming there after all. From Geoffrey, we read:

Now you may know that those who had never before seen Constantinople looked upon it very earnestly, for they never thought there could be in all the world so rich a city; and they marked the high walls and strong towers that enclosed it round about, and the rich palaces, and mighty churches of which there were so many that no one would have believed it who had not seen it with his eyes-and the height and the length of that city which above all others was sovereign. And be it known to you, that no man there was of such hardihood but his flesh trembled: and it was no wonder, for never was so great an enterprise undertaken by any people since the creation of the world.

And with that modest assessment, they took harbour at Chalcedon, across the water.

In the days that followed, they settled in very comfortably, the counts and barons in an imperial palace, apparently “one of the most beautiful and delectable that ever eyes could see,” while others were about the houses of the city or, for the larger part, in tents. They watched at first as missiles launched at their ships fell short into the waters. They foraged - Geoffrey says that “those obtained supplies who needed them, and that was every one in the host,” so we can imagine life was pretty grim for the local inhabitants. They had a little skirmish, small but enough for those involved to bring back horses, tents, and other spoils, and to feel good about themselves. 

They received an envoy from the emperor, a native of Lombardy named Nicholas Rosso, who, on behalf of his lord, expressed surprise to find such worthy men there, on his land. What were they doing there? To this they replied that they were not on his land at all, as he had seized it wrongfully, that he could simply submit to the mercy of his nephew, who was among them, and that if Rosso was not returning with word that the usurper would do so, then he need not come again at all. And he didn’t.

Next, the crusaders decided to play the Alexius card. They were still certain that much of the city must want to welcome Alexius as their rightful emperor. Robert credits Dandolo with the suggestion. Take the young man on a ship, the doge is to have said; bring him close to the shore under truce, and “ask the folk of the city whether they will acknowledge the youth as their lord.” But people should not ask such questions, if they are not confident of the answer. 

The youth was loaded aboard and shipped out along the walls for all to admire, and the good people of Constantinople were invited to recognize their true emperor:

“Behold your natural lord;” Geoffrey has it said, “and be it known to you that we have not come to do you harm, but have come to guard and defend you, if it so be that you return to your duty. For he whom you now obey as your lord holds rule by wrong and wickedness, against God and reason. And you know full well that he has dealt treasonably with him who is your lord and his brother, that he has blinded his eyes and reft from him his empire by wrong and wickedness. Now behold the rightful heir. If you hold with him, you will be doing as you ought; and if not we will do to you the very worst that we can." 

Then, in a delightfully Pythonesque turn, the people actually refused to recognize the fellow being paraded before them; they claimed to know nothing at all of this young man on the boat and instead heaped abuse on he and his Latin companions. The crusaders were left with no other option than to go away and to prepare to do the very worst that they could. 

Masses were spoken. Wills were drawn up, many men taking what could be a last opportunity to make gifts that would tip the scales of judgement in their favour. They crossed the waters and landed on the shore, what opposition there was melting away at the lowering of lances. They looted the enemy’s abandoned pavilions, and they camped in the Jewish quarter with an eye making the tower of Galata their next step, for there, the north end of the great chain preventing entry into the harbour was fixed. Plans were made to take it the following day

Going by Geoffey’s depiction, there was a sortie made by the defenders of the tower, and supported by forces from the city on barges. He speaks of a certain James and his men taking the initial brunt of the attack and of James himself taking a lance to the face before the general alarm was raised and men rushed in from all directions, killing several, and driving the others back. Many of the tower chose in retreat to opt for the barges rather than getting back in the tower. Some drowned in the attempt, but others made it. Those rushing back for the tower found the attackers pressing in too close upon them to get close the gates. There was a “terrible fight,” Geoffrey says, before the tower was taken, its defenders killed or made prisoner. 

By his accounting it had been a heroic action, but then he was a heavily invested participant. By the reckoning of Niketas, it was, quote, “a sight to behold the defenders fleeing after a brief resistance,” and it must be said that though he is highly critical of the man at the top, the chronicler does find space for complementary words as to the efforts of the defenders themselves.

However fiercely the defenders had fought, the tower was lost, and with it that defensive chain, which was promptly broken. The Venetian ships swarmed into the harbour and quickly captured the vessels that lay within. Conquering Constantinople had proven impossible for nearly 900 years, but it seemed to be all going easily enough so far. After this pause, we’ll hear what happened next.

There’d been some discussion of how exactly the attack on the city might be done. The Venetian doge favoured an assault by sea with something like siege towers employed to go from boat to wall, but the French knights, understandably, were less enthusiastic about swaying about over the sea. They would feel much better to have their horses and solid ground beneath them. So a compromise was reached: they would have cake and pie. The Venetians would go by water, the French by land, and all was made ready.

On the boats, the siege ladders were prepared, the elevated bridges which could be raised and lowered by cables bound to the masts, and mangonels and petraries to bombard the walls, while on land they were laying out their own siege engines, palisades, and barricades, with one division on guard towards the gates at all times, and six or seven times a day all being required to rush to arms against raiders. They “could not sleep,” Geoffrey said, “nor rest, nor eat, save in arms.” 

The attackers were under pressure, and not only from what might come out of the gates. They had but a little flour and salted meat, and fresh meat only when a horse was killed; there was food enough, Geoffrey reckoned, for just three weeks. They were ill-prepared, astonishingly so for an army that was threatening Constantinople, and the clock was ticking. Food aside, how long would that half of their number who’d wanted to jump ship going to stick around? They’d wanted out on Corfu. Were they likely to stay for a grinding siege?

Perhaps accelerated by concerns such as these, on July 17th, the attack on the city properly began. Three of the French divisions held back to guard the camp, while four went forward against the walls, swarming around a battering ram and up ladders. They clashed with Pisans and the ax-wielding Varangian Guard. Fifteen or so set foot on the walls, fighting with sword and axe, but they were cast down or made prisoner. Others breached the wall and into a passageway, but were repulsed. It was, by Niketas’ words, a “horrendous battle … fraught with groaning on all sides,” and there were many wounds and broken bones. 

Meanwhile, their Venetian colleagues were also facing resistance. Their ships, covered with ox-hide against fire, formed up in a line where the walls met the shore, and the sky above them swarmed with projectiles. Arrows, crossbow-bolts and stones flitted between ship and wall. The line closed enough at times that those elevated bridges were brought within reach for lance or sword to cross, and there was “tumult and noise ... so great that it seemed as if the very earth and sea were melting together,” but the men of the ships were wary of going to close to shore. Until their doge made another intervention, the one for which he is perhaps most legendary. 

Sensing the timidity of his side’s attack, Dandolo, standing at the prow, clad in armour, and St Mark’s banner in hand, ordered his ship to advance to the fore as an example to the others. He shouted down the querulous objections of those around him and stood undeterred by the the arrows whistling around him. Then, as his ship reached shore, the blind 90-something year old lept nimbly down to solid ground, the first man on the beach, and planted his banner there in the sand. Seeing their doge so fearless, his men followed with enthusiasm. 

And this almost certainly is not how it happened, but it still gets repeated here and there. However, we can actually see the seeds of such a story in Geoffrey’s account, which is admittedly that of a man who was very busy elsewhere at the time. His version starts in a similar place, with the Venetians hesitant to advance, but Enrico doesn’t swim to shore in full armour and bearing a cross, or anything of the sort; what he does do is insist that his ship, with its very, very distinctive colour and appearance, rush to the shore; he does threaten “justice upon [his people’s] bodies with his hands” if they failed to comply; and he does stand at the prow with his banner as it surges forward and stirs the others to follow. Maybe this version of the story is still an embellishment, but it is rather more believable. 

Whatever brought them rushing to the walls, the Venetians quickly found success, and Geoffrey wasn’t sure exactly how it had happened. “A strange miracle,” he called it, that the defenders fled from the walls and abandoned them to the attack. From Niketas, we get a less miraculous explanation: they’d actually been able to shoot and strike down on the walls from those elevated bridges and made easy work of it from such superior positions. Soon, the Venetians were able to spread out and to take 25 towers. And for just a moment then, a pretty long moment, the city seemed as if it were theirs. 

They were atop the wall and looking out over it all, sending for the French knights to come quickly, and they ventured in, taking horses and other spoils, but they couldn’t go far into that vast city. They were too few, and would be lost and easily overcome in the streets, and they could see, among other things, the mass of fighters that were headed their way, too many for them to possibly hold back. Pulling back, they set a wall of flames among the buildings before them. Then they watched as the wind picked up from their backs and drove the fire before it, deeper in the city, so that they could no longer see their opponents through the smoke and the blaze, and a vast area was soon consumed by it.

For all this success, their allies on land would not be answering the call to join them, for the crusaders had now poked at the wasps’ nest with their stick long enough that an imperial army had come out to answer their challenge. Whether it was because of the damage to the palace from flying stones, the smoke wafting in from the Venetian-sparked fires, the scorn of his people, or some other reason, Emperor Alexius had finally shifted himself. He had left what Niketas described as the “apartments of the Empress of the Germans,” and he had come out into the world to get involved.

A “huge array,” Niketas called the army that went out with him, of “the flower of the city,” a sight to make his enemies shudder, and the testimony of Robert and Geoffrey does not dispute this. His army poured forth from multiple gates, making it “seem,” Geoffrey said, “as if the whole world were there assembled,” while Robert, getting a little carried away, saw one hundred thousand horsemen, and all the footmen of the city lined before the walls.

The crusaders for their part, formed up in three division before their camp, first archers and crossbowmen, then mounted knights, then sergeants and squires with a group of 200 hundred knights who went without horse. They formed up towards the emperor but didn’t advance, for to do so would have been to be enveloped and lost. The other four divisions were set to guard the camp, and, in an indication of how seriously the threat was taken, these were joined - guarding one side it seems - by every kitchen-knave and common fellow they could muster, wrapped in saddle cloths and armed with copper pots and pestles so that they were, apparently, horrible to look at..

At this point, Geoffrey describes a prolonged standoff, neither side too willing to close with the other, but Robert has a slightly different story. He was among the three divisions directed towards the emperor’s men, those of the Count Baldwin of Flanders, his brother Henry, and that of Count Hugh of Saint-Pol, where Robert’s lord Peter of Amiens was, and he gives us a look at the operation of this army in action. 

Baldwin’s division had the vanguard, and they began to ride towards the emperor, and Hugh’s and Henry’s divisions followed, all shining in “emblazoned trappings or with silken cloth,” and companies on foot behind each. They advanced, and the emperor’s people came forward to meet them, but as Baldwin had left the camp and its army a full two crossbow shots behind him, his advisors spoke up. Better to go no further, they pointed out. If they were to close with the enemy here, there would be no help for them. Much better to withdraw towards the palisades and let the enemy come to them if he was willing. 

Thinking the advice good, Baldwin and his division wheeled about, and his brother Henry’s did also, but that of Hugh of Saint-Pol, where Robert was, did not. He and his men remained in the field, as they were, and Hugh’s people shouted that Baldwin had surrendered the vanguard shamefully and that they ought to take it. Now Baldwin, seeing they hadn’t moved, sent a messenger, asking them to turn back with him, but Hugh would not. And Baldwin sent more messengers, asking for God’s sake that they not bring shame on him for doing as he was advised, but rather turn back and join him. But again, Hugh would do no such thing. Instead, a shout went up from the two leaders of his division that they should ride forward at full speed, and so they did.

Robert was among them as they charged, and he allowed himself in recording this moment, to slip into fantasy a little, and imagine that the ladies of the palace had gone up to the windows and looked down at he and his comrades and said to one another that they seemed as angels, “such goodly men were they.” 

Now Baldwin’s knights said to him that he was doing a most shameful thing by not immediately riding after Hugh, and that if he did not move himself immediately, then they could follow him no longer. So, of course Baldin did as they said. With Henry’s division following, he and his men gave chase, pulling even with Hugh and moving ever closer to the emperor’s men. The counsel had been for them to pull back, keep tight and together, and let the enemy come to them, but now, in their efforts to outdo one another, they had far outstripped any support and were close enough that crossbow shots began to be exchanged. 

As Baldwin and the others crested one last hillock, they halted, the enemy before them on the other side of a canal, also stopped in their tracks. What to do now? Discussions were had among the leaders. Their distance from the camp and any possible reinforcement was no more helpful now then it had been before, and having rushed all the way over there, actually attacking didn’t look like a good option. What were they to do? 

As they considered their options, the decision was taken out of their hands. The emperor, apparently without a blow being struck, was going to withdraw.

What bitterness it must have been to be looking out from Constantinople just then. Niketas wrote that “a work of deliverance would have been wrought had the emperor’s troops moved in one body against the enemy, but now the nagging idea of flight and the faintheartedness of those about him thwarted Alexius from what needed to be done. To the joy of the Romans [of Constantinople] he drew up the troops in battle array and moved out, ostensibly to oppose the Latins, but he returned in utter disgrace.”

According to Robert, there was a “great murmuring” in the city then that if this emperor of theirs would not take up arms on their behalf and protect them from the crusading army, then perhaps they would go and take another look at that young man, for maybe they’d rejected him too soon. And Emperor Alexius assured them that he would do as they asked. He would fight the invaders. He would fight them tomorrow. However, that’s not what he did. Instead, he made for the palace and made ready his escape. He gathered gold and gems and pearls. It’s possible that he really intended to use them to gather some reliable mercenaries, having no faith in his own troops beyond the Varangian guard and Pisans, who were too few in number to carry the day themselves. But he would not be returning. 

Outside the walls, the crusaders returned to their camp. They laid aside their arms and armour. They were “weary and overwrought.” First the combat at the wall and then the tension of the standoff against what all sources seem to indicate were overwhelming numbers, would have been exhausting. They joyfully exchanged news of the doings of the day with the Venetians, but they did not eat or drink much, for their stocks were now too scarce for that. 

They did not know that as they dreamed, that the emperor was abandoning his city. That he made off from the palace in the middle of the night, and that in the morning, the sun would rise on a very different world, where they were concerned, one in which the imperial throne would be vacant and Alexius gone.

As Niketas wrote, “it was as though he had laboured hard to make a miserable corpse of the city.” He was a “miserable wretch among men,” the chronicler continued, “neither softened by the affection of children nor constrained by his wife’s love, nor … moved by such a great city.” But Niketas had some surprisingly kind words for the now former emperor too. If he had been excessively concerned with comforts, he had not been such a bad sort in other ways. He was mild of temperament, and accessible to any who wished to speak to him, and “sometimes, one could contradict him without placing restrictions on oneself in speech.” He had little time for slanderers or flatterers, and he had been forever stricken by guilt for what he had done to his brother, and that had apparently affected him deeply. Niketas continues:

“If it be exceedingly difficult for emperors not to cut down the ears of corn which overtop the rest, and not to leap brutally upon those who have offended them, then one could see that Alexius was rich in such virtue. He did not drive a stake into the eyes to implant darkness or prune the limbs of the body as though they were grapevines, to become a butcher of men. As long as he wore the gloom-stained purple, no woman put on black. Neither did fire flash from his eyes like rays from gems, nor did he abuse others with insults so that teardrops the size of round pearls should fall.”

And that is where we’ll leave things for today. Next episode, we’ll meet the new emperor. Maybe even more than one, for Constantinople could be a tricky place to rule. Thanks for reading. 

Sources:

  • Geoffrey de Villehardouin. Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, translated by Frank T. Marzials. J.M. Dent, 1908.

  • Three Old French Chronicles Of The Crusades: The History Of The Holy War; The History Of Them That Took Constantinople; The Chronicle Of Reims, translated by Edward Noble Stone. University Of Washington Publications In The Social Sciences, 1939.

  • O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, translated by Harry J. Magoulias. Wayne State University Press, 1984.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Queller, Donald E. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 1201-1204. Leicester University Press, 1978.