Alexios IV Angelos

Geoffrey's Crusade 3: One Alexius After Another

Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople, 1204

Fair to say, that it’s often a good thing to keep one’s promises, maybe even more often than often. Perhaps usually, or mostly. It’s generally good to stick to agreements one has made, some would say necessary and always. If you have given your word or put your name down on paper, then you must see things through exactly as you had said you would. But this current series is not a great argument for that type of honesty, if that’s the right word.

The story of the Fourth Crusade has been presented in a variety of unflattering ways: as a kind of ultimate expression of the cynicism of the entire crusading project as being one of naked greed rather than religious enthusiasm, or as the work of a single nefarious power bending the course of events to their will. Was it the case that the Venetian doge, Enrico Dandolo, was the masterful manipulator, taking the crusaders for everything they had and more and steering violence away from his city’s trading interests in Egypt? Or was Philip of Swabia the smoking man in the back room? Was it his it his personal goals or, to a lesser extent, those of Boniface of Montferrat that had steered events from their original course? Was the pope himself to blame, for summoning up a crusade and then tapping its resources to other ends?

One theme that has struck me in putting together this series is the potentially dooming nature of a handshake, the way agreements made in this story seem cursed to develop a kind of horrifying momentum of their own, and to carry their participants along with them. The way the ominous music seems to pick up the moment terms are set and, without discounting human agency too much in all of this, the scales start to tip towards disaster, unless you were of the Ayyubid Sultanate that is.     

Hello, and welcome. I'm Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World. A quick reminder before we get properly started: rating, reviewing, subscribing, and spreading the word is how we keep our walls intact and even our suburbs free of fire. And by signing up for the Human Circus Patreon, for as little as $1 a month, you ensure a sustainably defended city, no matter what mangonels or boating peoples may be brought against it. On that note, big thank-yous go out to new patrons Malte, Derrick, Aaron, and Neil. Thank you all very much for your support! And now, back to our story.

When last we spoke, Emperor Alexius was scuttling out the gates under cover of darkness, as July 17th of 1203 became July 18th. Inside Constantinople, the people of the palace awoke to their lack of emperor and were thrown into confusion. There were some who would have been bound to the now departed Alexius and would have feared what was to come.  Others would have seen opportunity in this power vacuum, an invitation to advance themselves, maybe even to the highest of steps. The rest would simply have worried, for their city and themselves, for what would happen now, with the Latins at their gates.

From Niketas, we know that the eunuch Constantine, minister of the imperial treasuries, was one to take matters in hand, that he measured support for what was to come, and we can imagine the whispered conferences in the gardens and corridors. Probably there were many such plans being made, many would-be-emperors flickering into being and then sputtering out, tantalizingly close to power.

Constantine solidified a faction within the palace. He assembled the ax-bearers of the Varangian guard and had the empress and all her relations seized. Then, when all was ready, he called for Isaac, the former emperor. He who had been blinded through his brother’s treachery was freed from imprisonment and dressed in magnificent clothes. He was led back to the imperial throne, and word was sent to his son.

In the camp, the news was met with joyous celebration, for the way which had seemed so hard now looked as if it had been made easy overnight. Robert speaks of “great rejoicing and much pomp,” but in Geoffrey it is tempered with something else, with the crusaders rushing to their arms and armour as the news first arrived, having little faith in its source and every reason to suspect it as but cover for another attack; then, as more messengers came out of the city, with the crusaders sending in envoys to let it be known that they would not be sending in Alexius until his father guaranteed that his promises would be honoured. And the promises were big, expensive ones, crushingly so, and like those the French lords had made with Venice, they were going to be impossible to keep.

But that was all for the future. For now, the mood was still celebratory. Envoys entered Constantinople, and of course, Geoffrey was among them. They dismounted before the gates and then walked in, unopposed but passing through a corridor of Varangian guard that flanked them all the way to the palace, and to the overwhelming spectacle of the Byzantine emperor and a great press of the city’s highest men and women in all their adornments. Once the pleasantries were out of the way, they spoke to the emperor in a more private setting and made known their demands and their agreement with his son. And what was that agreement, he asked. And they told him.

His son as emperor. Obedience to Rome. 200,000 silver marks. A year’s supply of food. 10,000 men for the cause. A standing force of 500 knights in the Holy Land. “Such is the covenant that your son made with us,” they said, “and it was confirmed by oath, and charters with seals appended, and by King Philip of Germany who has your daughter to wife. This covenant we desire you to confirm."

“Oh,” he might have replied, darkness slipping a little into even the brightness of a day which had begun with being given both his freedom and the imperial crown. It was an onerous agreement, he pointed out, and maybe he thought a little as Niketas would, that his son had been a, quote, “witless lad ignorant of affairs of state,” and had not “comprehended any of the issues at stake.” However, he reassured the envoys that what had been agreed would be respected, and he confirmed it with oaths and with sealed charters.

And all was wonderful, for a while. The lords of the crusading army rode in with Alexius and saw him seated on a golden throne alongside that of his father as co-emperor, and they joined the citizenry of the city in honouring both. “The joy,” in Geoffrey’s words, “was great inside Constantinople; and also without, among the host of the pilgrims, because of the honour and victory that God had given them.”

The joy was great. But the host would not be putting down roots inside the walls, according to Robert because they could in no way trust the traitors of the city. Maybe that was an assessment stained by what was to come though. Geoffrey has the request put in by the emperors themselves, that the crusaders camp across the straight and away from any quarrels that might kick off between the recent combatants.  

The host, well provisioned now, would visit the city by barge, and marvel at its astounding wealth, its many great palaces and grand churches, and its relics beyond count. Some of the barons were there with Alexius when he greeted with honour the King of Nubia, “a king,” Robert tells us, “whose flesh was all black, and [who] had a cross in the middle of his forehead, which had been made with hot iron ... burnt into the skin.” They heard him relate, through an interpreter, that his land was 100 days journey beyond Jerusalem, where he had gone on pilgrimage. 60 men had begun the trip, and, for reasons that are not given, only 10 had survived that 100 day journey, and only 2 were now left with him in Constantinople, where he stayed in a rich abbey. He still planned to journey on to Rome, he said, to Santiago de Compostela, and, if he still lived, back to Jerusalem, and there to die. The barons listened, and they looked with wonder. 

The crusaders also received a visit from a Sultan of Konya seeking aid against his brother who had taken what was his. This was actually the former Seljuk Sultan of Rum, Kaykhusraw I, who had lost out to his brother in 1196, and lived in Constantinople ever since. He would eventually regain the throne, but not with the help of these crusaders, who decided, upon consideration, that they were engaged enough already with the emperors. 

They had been fed and they had been paid, in part at least, and for now they were content, or some of them were. Others thought it was surely time for them to be moving along towards their real goal. This had not, after all, been sold to them as a Crusade on Constantinople when they first made to gather in Venice. Still, Alexius begged their patience, their continued presence, and their force of arms, promising to pay their costs and those of the Venetians if they would remain on through March. Alexius argued that he could not entirely fulfill their covenant right then and there, and besides, if they were to leave, all that they had done for him, substantial as it was, would be for nothing. He was hated by his people because of them, he said. As things stood, the moment they were gone he was sure to be killed and the land they had taken for him lost. That, as the crusader leadership well knew, would also mean the loss of his promised help and his submission to Rome. And they had, after all, agreed to help him win his throne. Could that task really be considered done?

Not all were at all happy about it, but the crusaders stayed to see things through. 

Some half of the men accompanied the young emperor as he moved against his uncle, the other Alexius. And Boniface, Hugh, Henry, and many other barons went with them. For months they campaigned, Robert tells us, conquering 20 cities and 40 castles, doing well for themselves, and helping to win Alexius control over elements of an empire without which he was never going to muster the resources to repay his debts. 

They returned on November the 11th, the crusaders received joyfully by their comrades, and Alexius given the triumphal treatment by his courtly followers, moderate though his victories had been. But things had not gone so well while they were away. There had been fighting in the city, and terrible fires too. 

On August the 19th, a mob had stormed into the quarters of the city that were home to Italians, often Italians who had grown up in the city and, in the case of the Pisans, had just recently been on the walls defending it against the crusaders. Rage and resentment against foreigners spilled over, harming even those who had made their city strong, and destroying churches, shops, homes, and people. 

Then, days later, had come the fire. Geoffrey hadn’t been sure who had done the malicious deed, but Niketas was not in any doubt. Pisans of the city had crossed the water and befriended their Venetian former-adversaries and, together with some of the French contingent, entered Constantinople at night by fishing boats. It was a kind of raid, or perhaps something less organized than that, on the Muslim quarter of the city, a target for those frustrated in their desire to fight Muslims in the Holy Land. There, they had stolen what they could and torched a mosque. They had fought with the locals, and with the Muslims’ neighbours who had rushed to their defence, not as many as should have, Niketas says, but it was enough to drive the attackers back. They’d done as the Venetians had done then, and deliberately used fire as a barricade to cover their retreat. And it had spread beyond all possible expectations. 

I’ll quote Niketas here in his description of what happened, and it is worth noting here that his house was also damaged in the fire. For him this was no abstract event.

He writes:

It was a novel sight, defying the power of description… the fires ignited at this time proved all the others to be but sparks. The flames divided, took many different directions and then came together again, meandering like a river of fire. Porticoes collapsed, the elegant structures of the agorae toppled, and huge columns went up in smoke like so much brushwood. Nothing could stand before those flames. Even more extraordinary was the fact that burning embers detached themselves from this roaring and raging fire and consumed buildings at a great distance. Shooting out at intervals, the embers darted through the sky, leaving a region untouched by the blaze, and then destroying it when they turned back and fell upon it.

… the fire, advancing gradually and leaping over the walls … ravaged the dwellings beyond, and flying embers burned a ship sailing by. The so called Porticoes of Domninos were also reduced to ashes… The Forum of Constantine and everything between the northern and southern extremities were similarly destroyed. Not even the Hippodrome was spared, but the whole section towards the Demes as well as everything leading down to the harbour of Sophia was engulfed in flames.

… Woe is me! How great was the loss of those magnificent, most beautiful palaces filled with every kind of delight, abounding in riches, and envied by all.

In a moment, we’ll follow events in the city after the fire. First though, a word from Noah who is the host of the excellent History of Vikings podcast, another Recorded History network show that I can happily recommend.

...

The Latins of the city, didn’t wait around to see where the blame for the fires would be laid. This place had been their home, but many of their homes had been levelled, and now “some fifteen thousand, small and great,” as Geoffrey has it, had taken their families and what possessions they could. 

And this was probably quite sensible of them. Tensions clearly had been on the rise. There had been the recent fighting and the fire, the bad feelings naturally brought about by invading forces involving themselves in imperial politics, the prospect of submitting to Rome, the unease at the emperors’ ongoing failure to entirely fulfil their end of the deal, and then there was what had been done to make those initial payments. 

Uncle Alexius had not left the treasury in good health when he’d fled in the night. Heavy taxes had been necessary to pay the crusaders, and then, as if that didn’t do enough to turn the populace against young Alexius, the next step surely would. With little ready money at hand, the churches were plundered. Niketas wrote of vessels seized and melted down for common coin, icons hacked at with axes, anything of value extracted by force, and then, even more bitter, the crusaders selling their gains or else spending them as but profane metals. It was enraging. Some in the city said the fire had been a punishment, for they had prized their own possessions but neglected God’s treasures, but what anger they did not reserve for themselves, they directed towards the Latins and their own rulers.

Niketas clearly loathed both emperors, spoke of them “pray[ing] for the end of all things, these firebrands of the country, flaming in visage, thus personifying the angel of evil,” and he gives us quite a picture of their days in power. Alexius took to spending his time in the camps of “the barbarians,” whiling away the days with drinking and with dice, his entourage jokingly replacing the “gold-inlaid and bejeweled diadem on his head” with a “shaggy woollen headdress.” Isaac, meanwhile, muttered darkly against the blunderings and excesses of his son. Angered at his authority and prestige slipping away in favour of Alexius, he spoke of his son’s lack of self-control, his ill-formed character, and his general uselessness. And he turned increasingly to oracles, divination, and astrology, swallowing all he heard, and believing himself destined to become ruler of a united east and west, a universal lord, a god-man, and with his sight restored. He was prey to streams of monks who drank from his banquet table and prophesied freely as to his returned strength. Or so Niketas tells us. 

The Byzantine chronicler also shows us the irredeemably greedy crusaders, laughing at the foolishness of their imperial host, and returning again and again to snatch yet more treasures, their gluttony for gold impossible to satisfy now they had a taste for it. But from Geoffrey it’s a distinctly different picture. The treasure came in but a trickle, always delayed, and never even approaching the amount promised, until at last the payments ceased, and not even the pleadings of Boniface, who had done so much for Alexius, could turn the tap back on. 

We should appreciate that Alexius found himself here in a difficult position, an untenable one really. Maybe his head genuinely had swollen while in office, and maybe his recent military successes had convinced him he no longer had need of his former friends. Or maybe his situation was impossible. His Latin allies wanted their money among other things, but even if he could juice his people sufficiently, they were very likely to kill him for the squeezing. Doing away with emperors was not so normatively out of the question as he would have liked, and there was besides a prevailing attitude that nothing at all should be given to the crusaders, even if they could. As for submitting to Rome, that was quite out of the question. In this light, it's easy to see how Alexius may felt unable to do more than placate those outside the city with pleas for time while trying to anticipate the plots of those inside its walls.

Outside, a parliament was held, of the crusading lords and the Venetian doge, and it was decided that one last effort would be made to see the agreement peacefully resolved. A few good envoys would be sent to present their case and deliver their ultimatum, to make clear that if the emperor would not willingly give what was theirs, then their allegiance to him was at an end and they would have it by other means. As was ever the case when important matters were to be discussed, Geoffrey was one of those good envoys. 

Three for the French host and three for the Venetians armed themselves, mounted up, and went into the city, in some fear for their lives. At the palace, they left their horses and were brought to a room where the two emperors sat on a pair of thrones, many of their nobility about them. It was not Geoffrey who then spoke, but another, who was chosen for wisdom and eloquence. This was what he said:

Sire, we have come to thee on the part of the barons of the host and of the Doge of Venice. They would put thee in mind of the great service they have done to thee-a service known to the people and manifest to all men. Thou hast sworn, thou and thy father, to fulfil the promised covenants, and they have your charters in hand. But you have not fulfilled those covenants well, as you should have done. Many times have they called upon you to do so, and now again we call upon you, in the presence of all your barons, to fulfil the covenants that are between you and them. Should you do so, it shall be well. If not, be it known to you that from this day forth they will not hold you as lord or friend, but will endeavour to obtain their due by all the means in their Power. And of this they now give you warning, seeing that they would not injure you, nor any one, without first defiance given; for never have they acted treacherously, nor in their land is it customary to do so. You have heard what we have said. It is for you to take counsel thereon according to your pleasure.

And did all of this enamour the envoys to their Byzantine hosts? Shockingly, it did not. All present were appalled. They were “amazed and outraged,” that these outsiders would speak to their emperors so, and in their own hall too. Dark were the looks they now gave Geoffrey and his companions in the clamour that erupted. But they did not attack. 

The envoys made their very uncomfortable way back to the safety of the encampment, feeling, I’m sure, the prickling sensation at their backs that might turn to swords or arrows at any moment, listening for the shouted orders that they be taken or killed on the spot, and looking warily at the angry locals who might as easily form a mob, no matter their leaders’ intentions. They passed through the gates with relief and then out of the range of the walls and to safety, where they informed the leadership of what had transpired. 

Robert tells us that after the emperors made this last refusal to pay what was owed, Dandolo made one last attempt to speak with Alexius. “What thinkest thou to do?” he asked of the young emperor. “Wilt thou not hold at all to our agreement, nor fulfill any more of them?” And when Alexius answer that he would not fulfil any more than he already had, the doge responded with anger. “Wilt not?” he snapped. “Naughty lad. We have raised thee off the dunghill, and on the dunghill will we cast thee back again!”  

The way forward now was clear, and the crusaders were, again, going to be attacking the city of Constantinople. But in whose interest was it for them to do such a thing? Not that of the people of the city. Nor, in large part, the crusaders. Only, it has been argued, in that of the Venetians whose doge, now hit on a much more ambitious goal than throwing in against the Ayyubids: a creature of the Venetians on the imperial throne. 

It's a point with some merit, but to accept this “Dandolo as puppet master” is to reduce the other powers involved to homogenous units each having but one mind and will. There would have been plenty of people within the city who would have been quite pleased with what this crisis was doing to the emperors - we’ll be meeting one soon now - and likewise there would have been many outside of those walls who started to think about carving out something here for themselves, just a little further north than they might have planned back in France. For the more ambitious on both sides, the imperial throne was in play, and renewed warfare a pretty attractive proposition. 

That winter, as 1203 turned to 1204, skirmishes between the two sides were frequent, with Geoffrey claiming that his side’s casualties were always the lesser and Niketas saying that the results were much more mixed. No longer supplied by the emperor, the attacking forces scoured the countryside for food, and pillaged and burned churches, homes, and palaces. Still, Robert tells us, there was a great shortage of supplies, that wine sold for 12-15 shillings, a hen 12, and an egg for 2. Only of biscuit was there no such lack. Of that they had enough for the season.

The most dramatic blow of the conflict never really landed. “A great treachery,” Robert called it, but one that could have done irreparable damage to the crusaders. The plan took darkness; it took the right wind; it took, by Geoffrey’s count, seven ships. Those ships were filled with the driest of wood and pieces of pig fat, set alight, and sent across the straight, the wind carrying them towards the Venetian fleet. And they’d do it again two weeks later, the beginning of January, this time with more ships and their prows chained together. Both nights, the alarm was raised in time.

Geoffrey describes the heroism of the Venetian sailors in dealing with the threat, which he specifically notes that he witnessed. How from galleys and smaller boats they hooked the flaming ships and laboured to steer them away. How those not busy on the water formed up on land, thinking themselves about to be attacked. How the people of the city had come down to the shore in numbers without end to watch the drama unfold, “their cries ... so great that it seemed as if the earth and sea would melt together.” And if the noise and heat, the chaos, were not enough to deal with, these spectators put to boats themselves and peppered the Venetians with arrows as they worked. Still, in all this confusion, the Venetians managed to maneuver the weaponized ships into the current, and the sun would rise over those burning wrecks being carried away without harm, save for one Pisan ship and those wounded by arrows.

This would seem to be a bit of last effort on the part of our emperors. If Niketas is to be believed, they had hardly involved themselves in the defence of they city at all anyways. Alexius in particular may not have wanted to act in violence against his former protectors, especially Boniface, who he had been closest to, or maybe the two had simply lost their grip on the levers of power. Either way, power was about to be wrenched away from them entirely, and in Byzantine politics, there were no easy retirements.

But first, a quick pause.

In the final days of January, 1204, opposition to the emperors came to a boil. Everyone knew that they had to go, but the question remained as to what was to be done. Senators, clergy, and other leading citizens came together in the Hagia Sophia. Niketas was there, and looked on, sickened by what he saw. All were of the same mind, but at a loss as to who they should nominate as their new leader. They knew full well, Niketas says, that whoever it was would quickly be killed. And he himself kept his silence; he knew the faults of men, he said, and allowed bitter tears to roll down in his face, for he foresaw that nothing good was to come for his people. 

The congregation cast about for someone to take up the leadership, apparently so desperate to do so that they tried to press it on anyone of nobility who would have it. But none would. One nominee even took on the costume of a monk to escape their attention, Finally, on the third day of this, the title was given to a young man named Nicholas, against his will. And you might be wondering what Alexius was doing during all of this. He was not so isolated that he had not heard of what was happening. He sent one last time for the help of Boniface, arranging, Niketas says, to have crusaders brought into the palace to secure his safety, but his chamberlain acted first. 

This man has been in and around the story for a while now, and his name, most inconveniently, was also Alexius. This was the new, new Alexius, but he’s often known by the name Mourtzouphlos, a reference to his heavy eyebrows which met in the middle. Mourtzouphlos was descended from the Komnenian emperors who had dominated the 12th century, and he had been imprisoned under the old, old Alexius and then freed by Isaac in what reads as one of the earliest acts in Isaac’s second go as emperor. He was credited with showing leadership and bravery in opposing the Latins over the winter of 1203-1204, and even by Niketas who pretty clearly had no love for the man that, though not part of this story, had him pushed him from office. And then, when an opening presented itself, Mourtzouphlos took it. 

He shook Alexius awake with news that his people had risen up; they were coming to kill him. And this wasn’t a rushed act of rashness on his part. He’d already set the table. He’d been the one to transmit Alexius’ request to Boniface, and he’d used it against his emperor. None of the nobility who he’d shared it with would defend Alexius now. He’d won over the eunuch in charge of the treasuries, a weak man fond of ill-gotten gains if Niketas is anything to go by, and he’d lined up the Varangian Guard too. So all was ready when he convinced a sleep-befuddled Alexius that everyone from blood-relations to the ax-wielders were at his doors, making a furious assault and wanting nothing more than to tear him to pieces with their hands. The emperor quickly agreed to be covered with a long robe, and led away “to safety” by a little-known side entrance.

A grateful Alexius is to have softly sung from the Book of Psalms, “For in the day of mine afflictions he hid me in his tabernacle; he sheltered me in the secret of his tabernacle.” But then, as the reality of his situation became clear, “His lips are deceitful in his heart, and evil has he spoken in his heart,” and then, his legs in chains, “To me spoke peaceably but imagined deceits in their anger.” 

He was poisoned, three times Geoffrey says, “but it did not please God that he should thus die, so he was then strangled,” the whole process an indication, I think, that Mourtzouphlos still had reason to care about appearances, that he didn’t feel able to simply throttle the emperor in his chamber and get away with it. And some writers have Alexius lingering on a little more, the strangling occurring only after other events had taken place, and the subtler attempts had failed. Geoffrey also notes that Isaac took ill from fear around this time, and of his illnesses died, but it’s very possible that he was poisoned too. Either way, they were out, and the new Alexius was in, and acclaimed as emperor in the palace while poor Nicholas, he who’d had the title forced upon him the church, was taken and his head cut off. The reign of Alexius V had begun. 

In him, the city now had a much more vigorous defender, and they were going to need it. Maybe their assailants didn’t require another reason to attack, but they could certainly feel they had the moral high ground now. They weren’t attacking a former ally. Now it was a treacherous usurper, a murderer who had unseated what they had put in place, no matter that they had intended to do much the same. During winter, they had been cut off from assistance, supplies, and the promise of help to come in the Holy Land, and the prospects for actually getting to that place were looking particularly bleak. The clergy, including those who spoke for the pope, made it known that “any one guilty of such a murder [as Alexius V was] had no right to hold lands, and that those who consented thereto were abettors of the murder; and beyond all this, that the [people of the city] had withdrawn themselves from obedience to Rome.” The war was just, and those involved would enjoy the indulgences of crusade. 

However, some of the crusaders were going to need to take action in order to keep themselves in it. Food was in short supply and large numbers of horses had already been sacrificed. Foraging and raiding were dangerous necessities. Robert tells us, for example, that Henry, brother to Count Baldwin of Flanders, found himself in need of resources and, with a small body of men, went at night to a nearby city. He seized animals, food, and clothing, and dispatched it all by boat before heading back, but Alexius was waiting for him.

This was not an emperor in the mould of the former Alexius or his father. He was not waiting in his palace. Alexius V had heard word of Henry’s little outing and had arranged to ambush him on the return trip, at the entrance to a wood. But in the skirmish that followed, it was not Henry and his men who broke; it was the emperor’s. A wounded Alexius fled for his life with the crusaders in hot pursuit, losing his standard and his cloak in process. Worse, his patriarch had been struck a heavy blow on the head and lost the icon of Mary which accompanied an emperor when going to battle, a sign, Robert thought, that he had not the right to carry it. With those rich prizes, the crusaders were content, and they would parade before the walls of Constantinople with these tokens of their dominance, effectively disproving the boasts of victory that Alexius had spouted upon his return.

And maybe it was this victory that filled them with such confidence. They gathered to make plans, maybe also on how to actually take Constantinople, but that’s not what Geoffrey and Robert emphasized. The bulk of the meeting seems to have been concerned with what they would do after they took it. This was how the loot was to be divided. That was who should rule what land. This was how emperor and patriarch ought to be selected. They concluded that all would stay to serve the new emperor until the spring of 1205, and they swore on all of this on holy relics. 

They had it all worked out, but they were actually going to need to take the city first. The initial large-scale attacks that Geoffrey and Robert mention, occurred in early April. They were “a marvellous sight,” and they were concentrated on the harbour walls where the Venetians had before had some success. But they didn’t work. The ships brought their sky bridges against the walls and towers, but the wind on that day made it difficult to bring them close enough. Stones and other missiles from  the walls shattered the attackers’ siege engines or caused those by them to flee. Geoffrey even admitted that they lost more on that day than did the defenders, who, to quote Robert, “began ... to hoot and to shout right lustily; and they went up upon the walls and let down their breeches and showed them their buttocks.”  

Alexius had not wasted his time since taking power. Reinforcements had been brought into the city. Ditches had been dug near the base of the walls, making it difficult to bring siege engines against them. The walls and towers had been strengthened and were better protected than before, with wooden towers projecting over and out from the stone ones, so that the Venetian sky bridges no longer enjoyed the advantage of height. Venetian prisoners had been tortured to death in sight of their comrades. From his hilltop command position, overlooking events, Alexius  had his silver trumpets sounded and spoke boastfully to his people of his great success. The crusaders needed to reconsider. 

Some would have been just as happy to let the waters carry them away to the sea. Some wanted to approach the city at a different point, further along the walls where the defences were less formidable, but as the Venetians pointed out, the currents there would make this difficult. Instead, the doge or one of his men suggested the attacking ships be lashed together in pairs, so that two should be able to reach each tower, for at a one-to-one ratio, the men in the towers had enjoyed the advantage. They would take the weekend to refit, repair, and rest, and on Monday they would attack again.

They were downcast after their failure, and that Sunday, sermons were spoken throughout the camp, reassuring one large gathering after another that their cause was righteous, that their enemies were faithless traitors who were disobedient to Rome and God and had murdered their lord. They were, in the unfortunate terms that Robert puts it, “worse than Jews.” To attack them then “was no sin, but rather was it a good work and of great merit.” The crusaders, in other words, could go happily to battle in the knowledge that they were on the side of the good, and would prevail. They made their confessions, drove out the sex workers from their encampment, and made ready for the next day.

Again, the ships were brought close to the towers, and arrows and Greek fire launched up, but the fire took no hold on the tower’s leather coverings. From the wall, stones came hurtling down, but the Venetians had prepared for this and their ships were well protected by shelters of timber and vine. It was a stalemate. And Robert tells us how it was broken. 

He says that one particular ship, that of the Bishop of Soissons, was brought by the waves against a tower, and from it a Venetian managed to pull himself inside. But it was, then as ever, not necessarily the best thing to be the first off the boat, and he was promptly cut to pieces by the swords and axes of those within. However, the second man in the tower was a different matter. He dragged himself in, and, as had just happened, they fell on him, chopping away, but, being a fully armoured knight, he did not succumb. He rose to his feet like some 13th-century terminator. He drew his sword. And the astonished defenders ran. They fled down to the story below, which caused the fighters there to turn and run themselves. They didn’t know it was one armoured man upstairs, only that their comrades were in panicked flight, and the tower emptied out even as more attackers managed to make their way in at the top. 

A second tower was taken, and then more, but the men who had taken the towers weren’t willing to leave them. Despite their successes, they were still surrounded by their enemies, on the walls and below, and they had nowhere to go. 

That was when Peter of Amiens had seen their predicament, had come to shore with his men, and had spied an opportunity. There was a disused side-door, no longer a door really, just the walled up space where it once had been. That was where he attacked. 

He and his men hacked away with sword and axe, timber, bar, and pick, others behind them holding up shields against the efforts of those on the walls above. It was “a miracle of God that they were not all destroyed,” Robert says, and it sounds like it too, what with the bolts and great stones hurled down upon them in such quantities that it threatened to bury them, not to mention the pots of boiling pitch and Greek fire. Amazingly, in all that chaos, they cut a way through, they peered in, they found so many people on the other side that it seemed as if the entire world was there assembled. And they did not want to go in. 

But Robert’s brother Aleaume did. He’d been at the forefront of much of the fighting, and this was no exception. Robert told him not to go in. He insisted. When his brother still got down on hands and feet, he actually grabbed at his feet to pull him back. None of this stopped Aleaume though. He went on through, drew his blade, and if his brother is to be believed here, rushed at the first people he saw, driving them from the opening before calling on his friends outside to join him. 

And the emperor was close, close enough make a great show of spurring his horse at them in “don’t hold me back”/”DO hold me back” sort way, and then fleeing to safety within the city. 

Niketas’ account of all of this is surprisingly similar, of a pair of knights first leaping into one of the towers and frightening off the auxiliaries within. And of Peter and his men cutting their way through a gate and then scattering the would-be defenders, but he doesn’t credit Robert’s brother with this feat; it was the terrifying sight of Peter, unusually tall and wearing a helm that was shaped like a fortified city. To quote Niketas, “The noblemen about the emperor and the rest of the troops were unable to gaze upon the front of the helm of a single knight so terrible in form and spectacular in size and took to their customary flight as the efficacious medicine of salvation.” The attackers would not turn and run. So their opponents did.

The crusaders were now inside. They’d made their way in at three separate gates. The walls had been abandoned, and Niketas tells us that they “ran everywhere and drew the sword against every age and sex.” Constantinople lay open before them, it’s people no longer organized against them, but rather scattered, seeing to their own families, their own possessions, some burying what was valuable to them, others simply fleeing the city, for their assailants had never even hoped to surround it. 

The attackers were weary from fighting though. The day had been long, and they had no wish to be ambushed in the narrow streets. Better, they thought, to wait until the morning, to assemble again, and to offer battle in the open squares. So that’s what they did, taking food, and then passing the night there, just inside the walls. Passing the night in a state of some nervous excitement, I imagine, with every expectation that the day ahead would be a hard one, for many perhaps a final one.

Those who did manage to get some sleep, woke to yet more flames in the morning. Around the quarters of Boniface, certain people - Geoffrey claims not to know who. Others have since pointed to the men of a certain German count - had set defensive fires between themselves and the threat of attack, and once more, for the third time since the arrival of the Crusaders, Constantinople was burning. It had lost more houses, Geoffrey says, “than there [were] houses in any three of the greatest cities in the kingdom of France.” The city had suffered much. And it’s emperor, not for the first time, had had enough. 

When the crusaders assembled that morning, they found that there was to be no further fight, for Alexius V was gone. He had made a big show of readying to attack them the night before, but had then ridden in fear straight on out the Golden Gate, or so Geoffrey tells us. Niketas gives us a slightly different picture though. The emperor had gone about the city, making every effort to rally his people, but to no avail. They were done. He saw no need to wait around for whatever fate the Latins would assign him, so he slipped away on a small fishing boat, taking various imperial family members with him. A successor had been found immediately, but his efforts to muster some defence had also failed. So, unopposed, the crusading lords picked their palaces. 

As Geoffrey tells us, “Every one took quarters where he pleased and of lodgings there was no stint ... and greatly did they rejoice and give thanks because of the victory God had vouchsafed to them-for those who before had been poor were now in wealth and luxury.” But Robert grumbles that the rich and powerful of the host, “straightway began ... to deal treacherously with the lowly folk and to show them bad faith and ill comradeship.” And Niketas, of course, has a rather darker view of the proceedings. 

The populace, he says, moved by the hope of propitiating [the attackers], had turned out to greet them with crosses and venerable icons of Christ as was customary during festivals of solemn processions. But [the crusaders’] disposition was not at all affected by what they saw, nor did their lips break into the slightest smile, nor did the unexpected spectacle transform their grim and frenzied glance and fury into a semblance of cheerfulness. Instead, they plundered with impunity and stripped their victims shamelessly, beginning with their carts. Not only did they rob them of their substance but also the articles consecrated to God; the rest fortified themselves all around with defensive weapons as their horses were roused at the sound of the war trumpet.

What then, Niketas continued, should I recount first and what last of those things dared at that time by these murderous men?

For us those things will have to wait. I’ll be back next episode with the story of the sack of Constantinople, the looting, and one particular story, a travel story of sorts, that emerged from it. Thanks for listening, everybody. I’ll talk to you then. 

Sources:  

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

  • Three Old French Chronicles Of The Crusades: TheHistory Of The Holy War; The History Of Them That TookConstantinople; 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 ofVenice. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

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

  • Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Decline and Fall. Viking, 1995.

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


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.