Geoffrey's Crusade 5: Boniface, Baldwin, and the Bulgarians

Baldwin I of Constantinople

As the crusading French, Venetians and others celebrated their great victory in Constantinople, a victory they could scarcely have imagined was possible, others were keeping their head down or leaving the city entirely. Niketas, our Byzantine source, at first enjoyed the protection of a Venetian born acquaintance, a merchant of the city who clad himself all in armour and pretended to be one of the conquerors himself. The Venetian laid claim to Niketas’ household, declared that he had reached it and its spoils first, and turned back any would-be plunderers.

But as the pillaging and violence in the city heated up, this man despaired of successfully defending his claim and his friends, and he urged them to leave. So on April 17th, 1204, they made their way with infants and possessions on their shoulders, their servants, understandably, having abandoned them. They went as the “captives” of friendly Venetian Constantinoplites, going as if they had been taken at spear-point, yet there was danger all the same. 

They inched along, exposed in the street, people they knew coming out to escort them on their way to the gates. Women and girls were in the centre, Niketas’ very pregnant wife included, and they rubbed their faces with mud to try and discourage unwanted attention. And passing soldiers, daggers at their belts and swords hanging by their horses, watched them closely. Some of these were loaded down with spoils already, while others would halt the party to see if there wasn’t a bit of fine cloth or silver hidden about them somewhere. Still, they made out. They made it out through the gates, where Niketas hurled himself to the ground and reproached the walls of his city. 

How could they alone be insensible to this disaster? “Neither shedding tears nor lying in ruins upon the earth. ‘If those things for whose protection [they] were erected no longer exist, being utterly destroyed by fire and war, for what purpose [did they] still stand?’” 

Niketas railed against those walls for a time, then turned aside, and he and his family went away weeping to the city of Selymbria, while behind them, the struggle for power and position within Constantinople was just beginning.

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And now, back to the story.

With the Halloween special and the episode on sacred theft, it feels like a long while since we’ve been talking about Robert, Geoffrey, and the rest, but that’s what we’ll be doing today. We’ll be finishing up their story, and that of the Fourth Crusade. So far I’ve covered the spoils of the crusaders’ victory at Constantinople, at least in terms of movable wealth, religious and otherwise, but there was another kind of treasure at stake, that of titles, and of one title in particular.

As as is often the case in this story, Geoffrey gives us a pretty positive presentation of things, and maybe a sanitized one? He says that as had been previously set out, a council of twelve men was chosen, ecclesiastics and Venetians, to select the new emperor, and though there was no shortage of applicants for the job, there were only ever two real choices: Boniface of Montferrat and Baldwin of Flanders. 

In Geoffrey’s depiction, the leading lights of the crusade saw the situation clearly, and perceived equally well how it quickly it could all come apart, how severely an unhappy loser could harm them all were he to feel slighted enough to take his ball and go home. If the throne should go to Boniface, then what might Baldwin do out of bitter jealousy, and what if the reverse were true? And if the Venetians were to make the push for their own doge, if the Venetian Great Council should even allow it, then wouldn’t both men abandon them in anger? 

These were not idle questions, and those who asked had other examples from previous crusades to ponder, with Geoffrey mentioning the 11th-century falling-out between Godfrey de Bouillon and Raymond de Saint-Gilles in particular. The solution they hit upon was for it to be arranged ahead of time that the loser of the election would receive a kind of consolation prize, a great gift of land that would insure they remained supportive, content, and in the region. Once that was all arranged, and with the agreement of both leading candidates, the election went ahead.  

It was held in a rich chapel within a palace, the Boukoleon Palace according to Robert, and all around it, the crusading lords gathered, surrounded by their men, for all were eager to know the decision. They waited, and when the moment came, they watched the Bishop of Soissons emerge and speak the name of the new emperor: Baldwin of Flanders. 

He was a reasonable choice, widely respected and in command of more men, and, quote, “A cry of joy was raised in the palace, and they bore the count out of the palace, and the Marquis Boniface of Montferrat bore him on one side to the church, and showed him all the honour he could. So was the Count Baldwin of Flanders elected emperor, and a day appointed for his coronation, three weeks after Easter (16th May 1204). And you must know that many a rich robe was made for the coronation.”

So that was all extremely pleasant and nice, but was it so?

Robert didn’t think it was. And admittedly, he was not an insider in all of this like Geoffrey. Rather, he’s thought to give us the word that was going around on things, and in this case, that word didn’t sound so good. He speaks of fifteen days of infighting over the composition of the electoral council itself, with each important lord kept putting forward his own men as simply the best and most reliable when it came to making really important choices like picking a good emperor, like picking someone like them. And then when it came time to hear the announcement, he says, the larger part “greatly feared and suspected that the Marquis [de Montferrat] would be named.” And when he wasn’t, then all were “right glad of it,” except of course for those who were “sore displeased thereat.”

So that doesn’t sound quite as chummy as in Geoffrey’s depiction, and, as I feel like I’ve said many times already in this story, the Niketas version made it all look even less amicable. Why was Baldwin chosen? According to Niketas, it was because the Venetian doge said so.

Boniface had been the leader of the crusade, had married Isaac’s widow and moved into the Boukoleon Palace, and he was assumed by many among both conquered and conquerors to be all but certain for the throne, but he was also a little tainted by his past-affiliation with Alexius, and then there was the fact that Dandolo didn’t want to give power to someone like Boniface, among other things a powerful Lombard lord whose people might easily sweep south and into Venice, should it ever come to that. He wanted someone more compliant, someone less ambitious, less experienced in statecraft, and less well-situated to bring his power to bear against the doge’s city if things went wrong. And Dandolo got just what he wanted. 

The big day arrived, and all the abbots and barons on horseback brought the new emperor to the Hagia Sophia. There, he was dressed in robes and shoes set with precious stones, and a rich cloak with gems forming eagles “that shone so that it seemed as if the cloak were all alight.” He was taken before the altar, where the counts Louis and Saint-Pol carried banner and sword, and Boniface the crown. And the bishops came and blessed the crown, and they made the sign of the cross over it, and they placed it on his head. 

Emperor Baldwin waited sceptre in hand while mass was sung. Then, a white horse was brought to him, and with no foreboding tumbles on the way, he was taken back to the Boukoleon Palace. He was set on the imperial throne, and all did him reverence. Then they feasted, the emperor “and all the barons in the palace with him,” and “when they had eaten, then the barons departed and all went their ways to their habitations, but the emperor remained in his palace.” The palace, remember, where Boniface had recently lived. 

So what now? Baldwin had an empire in theory; the crusaders had all kinds of things, in theory, and Niketas writes of the Latin conquerors divvying up their world in a grab for territory. They had its most important city, so surely they had the whole thing, and could claim, trade, and tax, to their heart's’ content. From North Africa to Spain, to Persia, and to the northern regions, everything was apportioned. And Robert has something of the sort happening too, with Henry, the emperor’s brother, demanding one kingdom so that he might go off and conquer it, and Louis de Blois another, and Hugh of Saint-Pol a third, and so on. However, if anything was actually to be had from those kingdoms, then they were still going to need to go out and take them. 

Emperor Baldwin himself went touring the countryside, his brother Henry going before him, not so much on a military campaign as a triumph proceeding westwards towards Adrianople. Everywhere he went, the people surrendered and honoured him, and all seemed well. But all was not well. There were various threads starting to unravel, and some sooner, some later, they were going to threaten the Latin Empire, its unity, and its existence. 

One thread was that the conquerors would not be smoothly and seamlessly taking up the apparatus of the Byzantine rulers. Niketas wrote that Baldwin refused to receive leaders of the military and civil bureaucracy. He did not take them under his own rule, and he lost much potential support as well as valuable experience when he denied the local elite any way of finding a place in his new regime. He also offered no alternative employment to the kingdoms that were springing up everywhere within the old Byzantine territory, quote/unquote “empires” even, in the Greek successor states of Trebizond, Epirus, and Nicaea.

And while this was happening within that territory, there were equally important blunders to be made without. Potential Seljuk and Bulgarian alliances were going to be proudly rejected, and a basically inadequate military force was going to be exposed to hostility from too many sides. 

But that was a little ways in the future still. For now, concern may have centred around two men. On the one hand was Boniface, Marquis of Montferrat, and on the other a former emperor: Alexius Doukas, otherwise known as Mourtzouphlos.

The latter, you might be forgiven for having forgotten all about. Maybe you thought him dead, of betrayal, or plague, or public misadventure, or he just slipped your mind entirely, melting in among the other imperial also-rans of the early 13th-century. But he hadn’t gone anywhere, or at least, he hadn’t gone very far. 

In Geoffrey’s account, we find him fleeing before the advance of crusaders coming out of Constantinople. We find him taking refuge with another old familiar face. We find him want to join forces with Alexius Angelos, and if you’re having trouble keeping track of your Alexiuses, that would be the treacherous brother that had displaced Isaac back in 1195, the uncle of the Alexius that the crusaders had originally brought to Constantinople to put on the throne. He was the one who now welcomed Mourtzouphlos in, who invited him to solidify their alliance by marriage to his daughter, who had him round to share a meal, and to go to the baths, and who then had him held down on the floor, and his eyes plucked out. 

Geoffrey put the event to use, finding some propaganda value in the story. Look at this cruel brand of treachery, he said; can any people who were capable of such a thing ever have deserved to rule over the land? The justification of what he and his fellow crusaders had done was never far from his mind.

In Robert, the unfortunate Mourtzouphlos, who had after all only overthrown his ineffectual overlords and sought to defend his people - and seize supreme power along the way - hardly fared any better. There is no mention there of putting out the eyes, but there is mention that he was unlucky enough to come across Henry and his men in a narrow pass and so be taken prisoner. Emperor Baldwin conferred with his men, and some said the prisoner should be hung and others that he be drawn and quartered. But it was the doge who thought him too highly-born for hanging and suggested a more fitting end, and so Mourtzouphlos and his imperial ambitions were pushed from the top of the Column of Theodosius, and shattered on the ground below. “For a high man, high justice,” Dandolo is said to have joked.

The ex-emperor’s story was over, but there was plenty of ambition still to go around, and after this break, we’ll talk about some of that.

The other figure of immediate concern was of course Boniface. Geoffrey has him fully participating in Baldwin’s coronation, and with no sign of a grudge, but he also him pretty quickly maneuvering to better his situation. There was already a parcel of land allotted to him, but he pushed for a trade. Couldn’t he instead have the Kingdom of Thessalonica? It was closer to his wife’s brother, the King of Hungary, and besides, it was to have been his brother’s in 1180. And Baldwin agreed. Or according to Geoffrey he did. Robert has him refusing, saying he couldn’t give what wasn’t his but rather the Venetians’ and the Barons’, but still refusing. However it played out, at some point, things became less and less agreeable between the two.

They were on the move, heading west, Boniface generally a little behind as he was travelling with his wife, we read, and thus his household and all that goes with it. He was moving to install himself and his family in Thessalonica, while Baldwin was on his victory tour, accepting fealty and, as Geoffrey frames it, pursuing Alexius, the eye-gouger. At some point, Baldwin lingered, Boniface caught up and set his pavilions nearby, and tensions came out into the open. 

They were heading towards Thessalonica, and Boniface made his feelings very plain. If they went any closer, if the emperor entered into his land, into Boniface’s land that he had heard was waiting ready to give itself up to him, then Boniface would follow him no further. In Robert, it’s very much an ultimatum: the emperor would turn aside or Boniface would go back to Constantinople and do what he must for himself. In Geoffrey, it’s more of a request: don’t go to Thessalonica. Let me. Let me install myself and gather up all resources that you need, and then let us go together against the Bulgarian king. Do not ruin my land. Baldwin’s response is also framed slightly differently in the two sources, but it would come to the same thing in the end. 

In Robert, Boniface’s position is presented as being painfully unreasonable, an egotistical assault upon the crusaders’ cause, and it was responded to accordingly. Niketas on the other hand has Boniface dumbfounded at his comrade’s betrayal. And Geoffrey, who was back in Constantinople at the time, expressed bitterness towards both sides. Who had advised the emperor to deny Boniface’s request, and how ill-advised were they both? What ill-fortune had they brought upon themselves and upon Christendom itself? Whoever was the more ill-advised of the two, the Marquis de Montferrat was turning away in disgust and anger. Baldwin was going on to Thessalonica, and Boniface was going to go do as he’d said, and carve something out for himself.

Boniface and his people came first to a castle, very strong, and very rich, and called Demotica, and the people surrendered to him - because of treachery, Robert says; because they recognized his wife, the former empress, Geoffrey says. And then he went on to Adrianople, and this one wasn’t held by some local leader who’d had a series of emperors knocked from their perches above him and had little reason to hope that help would soon arrive. It wasn’t going to surrender immediately. This one was held by Eustace of Flanders. It was defended by the people who Emperor Baldwin had left there, and that was where Boniface was pitching his tents and pavilions and laying siege to his fellow crusaders, a sign of just how seriously things had gone awry. 

Eustace responded to his awkward predicament by dispatching messengers for Constantinople where the Venetian doge and the Count of Blois governed in the emperor’s absence. And they and the other barons were incensed. What idiocy was this, that threatened to corrode all they had won by their conquests and bring it to ruin. They agreed to send negotiators to attempt to undo this war before it really got going, and naturally, one of those negotiators would be Geoffrey, who was well known and liked by Boniface. 

The marquis received the envoys with good will. He heard them out, and he defended his actions as being provoked by the emperor’s obstinate refusal to give over what was his. But he agreed to turn his cause over to the care of the council in Constantinople. The siege was raised, and Boniface returned for now to his wife in Demotica, Geoffrey and the others went back to Constantinople, and messengers were sent out to inform Baldwin of what had happened. 

It was fortunate for the crusaders that they did, and that they reached Baldwin when they did, because they didn’t find him idle. He had taken Thessalonica and then received word of Boniface’s doings behind him, and as you’d expect, he was no happier to hear the news than Louis and Dandolo had been. He and his men had set out immediately to relieve Adrianople and cut Boniface and his men to pieces. Fortunately for both sides, the messengers reached him first.

They told him that the barons in Constantinople sent health and greeting to him as their lord, but also that they complained to him and to God of those whose council had brought discord between and he and Boniface, cleverly making it an issue of bad advice and not a bad emperor; they said that they would not suffer him to go to war and asked him to submit to their ruling on the matter just as Boniface had. The emperor told them he would need some time, and he took the matter to his council. 

Of course, this was the council that had in the first place advised him on the break with the marquis, and they were beyond angry at the challenge from Boniface and from the barons. And Robert has this anger extending well beyond the council. The outrage in the host was such that when they heard the arrangements that been made for peace, they voiced loudly that it would not matter; if they caught up to the marquis, they were still going to cut him up. And their mood was not at all improved when they heard from the very same messengers that in their absence from Constantinople, the remaining spoils had been divided. They were beside themselves then with righteous fury, on the cusp of killing the men who had brought the news in a violent mob action, and only the intervention of Baldwin and the others leaders managed to calm them slightly.  

In the end, the men agreed not to kill the messengers, and Baldwin and his council agreed that they and could not lose the friendship of the doge and the others in Constantinople, and Boniface agreed to return to the city to hear what they had to say, though he didn’t actually promise to abide by it.

As he and his men made their way home, Boniface was being informed of this and summoned to do as he’d promised and present himself, but that must have been a difficult choice in itself. He had made some enemies by that point and knew full well that Baldwin bore no great love for him, knew that many others also were now against him. But he went. He went, he stuck to his demands, and he received what he had asked for all along: the Kingdom of Thessalonica, which he departed for with his wife and all his people. But neither he nor his emperor were going to have very long to enjoy their winnings, for though I’ve been focusing here to a large extent on the dangers they presented to each other, there were other threats on the immediate horizon.

One of those threats gets a bit of foreshadowing in Robert’s telling. Back when Mourtzouphlos had been emperor, there had come to the crusaders a man named John, seeking their aid in his cause, and promising his own aid in return. What he had wanted was to be crowned by them as King of Wallachia. It was a land within the empire, and he promised to hold it for them, and to come to Constantinople with 100,000 men, and if this was clearly an exaggeration, then it at least should be acknowledged that this John did have the friendship and service of the Cumans, the Turkic horse people with whom he regularly raided Byzantine lands. So absolutely, he could have pressed a substantial amount of weight down on the crusaders’ side of the scales, but they hadn’t been interested. They’d answered that “neither with him nor with his help had they any concern; and let him know of a surety that they would trouble him and work him evil if they could,” and Robert noted that this was and would be a “shame and grevious pity.”

So keep that in mind, as we roll things forward again to Emperor Baldwin’s reign, and as we see Boniface heading for Thessalonica and Baldwin and the doge continuing to divide up the land and send out lords to lay claim to it. And as Geoffrey tells it, “the covetousness of this world, which has worked so great evil, suffered them not to be at peace, for each began to deal wickedly in his land, some more, and some less, and the [people] began to hate them and to nourish a bitter heart.”

Boniface tasted a little of that bitterness as he made to move into his new home. The governor Baldwin had left in Thessalonica had most inconveniently died, and in the space he left, a high-ranking Greek had sized a few cities and made war on the marquis, while another Greek, who Boniface believed to be his ally, left the host without warning, occupied his own city, and also made war. 

Meanwhile, Baldwin was having problems too. For one thing, his wife had died. She’d been pregnant when he’d left, so she hadn’t travelled with them, but since giving birth had left and made her way by sea to Acre. There she had heard that Baldwin had been made Emperor in Constantinople, but there too she took sick and passed away, one of many spouses who never saw their family again once they had departed. And in addition to this heavy personal blow, Baldwin was hearing that Adrianople was threatened once again, but this time not by his crusading rival. This time it was in revolt.

At times in this story, it’s been too easy to think of the protagonists of the Fourth Crusade as interacting with a kind of parade of NPCs, Alexius, Isaac, Alexius again, and Alexius again again, somehow wielding power over an all too vaguely conceived people, of a city, and of an empire. And, out of convenience, I’ve at times called those people Byzantine because that is what we tend to call them, but as you may already be aware, that’s not what they tended to call themselves. Rather, it’s a more modern term, derived from the pre-Constantine name of the city. “Greeks” came to be used at times, as the empire became more overwhelmingly, though never exclusively, Greek speaking, and that’s what Robert seems to call them but again, that’s not how they would self-identify. They knew themselves as Romans. 

And the Romans were fighting back against the invaders. Roman leaders were opposing Boniface, as I mentioned a moment ago; they were fighting with Baldwin’s brother Henri; they were fighting with Geoffrey’s nephew, also named Geoffrey. I want to make clear here that they were not passive observers in this, bowing to whichever lord rode their way. They were rising up at Demotica and Adrianople, and there they were either asking for or accepting help from the man we’ve recently met as John, the one who was once to have looked to the crusaders for help and friendship, but received neither. 

Now John the Wallach, as you might read of him in Robert’s telling, will also appear in history as Johanitsa, but if you go looking for him in your own research, you might do better to look for Kaloyan, the King of the Bulgarians. Having been rebuffed in his attempts to deal peacefully with his new neighbours, Kaloyan was now employing other means, and he was going to be there at Adrianople as Baldwin tried to take back the city from its rebellious Romans in the spring of 1205.

The crusader army that made to besiege Adrianople was not as large as it might have been, for there were many off fighting elsewhere at this point. When Baldwin and Louis de Blois departed from Constantinople, they went with the numbers they could pull together relatively quickly and joined the men that had mustered in the area. After them, came a force commanded by the old Venetian doge, even with his age and poor eyesight, his presence perhaps necessitated by the fact that there were few senior men left in the city. Most were away pursuing their prizes and carving out territories, and Count Hugh of Saint-Pol, who had remained, had died of gout. So Dandolo went himself.

They all gathered before Adrianople, in their pavilions outside of missile range, and prepared to besiege it. They first constructed siege engines, and then in the days that followed, they shot and were shot at. They dug beneath the walls, removing the soil as secretly as possible and shoring up the tunnels with dry timber. It was after a few weeks of this, that Kaloyan made his first move.

He started by sending out a Cuman raiding party, to attack the sheep and horse grazing around the edges of the besiegers’ camp, and in doing so to get a sense of his enemy’s organization and response. And the response to this probing attack was highly illustrative. 

At first sight of the approach Cumans, the crusaders took immediately to lance and horse and charged. The raiders wheeled about, firing arrows behind them as they went, and the crusaders followed. They had not yet learned not to eagerly follow bodies of horse archers, lightly armed and on swift horses, that went easily into retreat, and they received heavy casualties before giving up the chase. Recognizing their foolishness, the emperor and his council let it be known that if they were attacked again, they were to form up before the camp and they were not to go charging after anyone.

But the next day, April the 14th, Kaloyan repeated the maneuver, and having read his opponent’s response to his feint, this time the trap was well and truly set. His Cuman allies, a larger party this time, did as they had before, rushing in as if on an attempted raid and then withdrawing as the response came, fleeing before that response, leading the crusaders on. Their pursuers, quite against the arranged plans and apparently at the instigation of Count Louis de Blois’s angry rush, followed even further than they had before, far enough to exhaust their heavy horses in the extended charge, and far enough to be among the pits that had been dug for the purpose, and which men and mounts plunged into, and among Kaloyan’s troops that had been hidden in ravines and around the hilltops above. 

And I’ll read from Niketas here in describing what happened next. 

The Latins, exhausted from the exertion of the chase, with horses thoroughly spent, were ensnared by the unwearied Cuman troops, cut off, and encircled. Overpowered by the multitude of Cumans in hand to hand combat, they were thrown from their horses. One was surrounded by many; the throats of the stiff-necked were exposed to the scimitar or to the noose, and many of their horses were mutilated. As [their enemy] fell upon them like a never-ending black cloud, they could not disentangle themselves from the horses or find any means of escape. So fell the flower of the Latin host and those who were far-famed for their prowess with the lance.

Those who could, fled, making for the camp, and it was Geoffrey de Villehardouin coming to meet them with a body of men around which they could rally that stopped the route from rolling right through and into the camp. Now, lesson at last learned, they held their ground in the face of Kaloyan’s attacks, waiting, not chasing, until night came, and their enemy at last retired. In the darkness, torches were lit in large numbers, as if an army remained to offer battle. Then Geoffrey, Dandolo, and the rest, slipped away, leaving no men but all their tents behind them, and marched until dawn, with Geoffrey commanding the rear-guard, ever uneasy that Kaloyan’s pursuit, when it inevitably came, might find them and finish the job. 

It had been a disaster. Count Louis was dead, and many more with him, and Emperor Baldwin, well his fate was at first unknown. Robert reported that none ever knew what became of him, but as Niketas and Geoffrey noted, he was taken prisoner, and there are all sorts of stories of how he may have been abused, tortured, starved, or perhaps, depending on who you listen to, treated with perfect decency. Some would say his skull would become an ornamented drinking cup, and Niketas has Kaloyan ordering his limbs cut off at the knees and elbows before having him cast down into a ravine to live out a last three days in pain as food for the birds. What is certain is that Baldwin would die in captivity, one more emperor of Constantinople departing from our story. 

And we’ll continue that story in just a moment. But first, a quick break.

In the days that followed, Geoffrey and Dandolo and the rest of the survivors would continue their flight from Adrianople, wary of the pursuing army that might easily destroy them, if only it caught them. One party of knights would split off, making their own way more quickly back to Constantinople where they’d spread dismay over the uncertain fate of their colleagues, and then later face recriminations for having cowardly abandoned them. 

The rest of them were reinforced by groups that had been rushing to join the siege at Adrianople, the parties encountering each other with nervous aggression followed by relief, and then deep sadness. They made their way, day by fearful day, to Rodosto, a rich and strong port city whose Greek speaking Roman population did not, or could not, oppose the sudden arrival of this armed body of men. For now at least, the crusaders were safe. And they would be safe to watch bitterly as 5 ships of crusaders headed home from Constantinople arrived, refused their prayers to stay on, and then sailed away. Safe to curse the name of Peter of Frouville, who had abandoned all his people and belongings for a spot on one of those ships. Safe to call for Baldwin’s brother Henry to take his place. Safe, but not feeling terribly safe.

All about them on the land, Kaloyan’s forces went as they would. The crusaders had the worst of their encounters, but worse still was the lot of the Romans in the provinces where now-desperate crusaders plundered, and then Kaloyan’s men plundered again. As they marched from Rhaedestus to Constantinople, there was little the men of the fourth crusade controlled. They settled into strong points, few and far between, and they fought against a tide that rolled in against them, from the northwest, and from Roman leaders like Theodore Laskaris, first Emperor of Nicaea, from the southeast.  

Help was sent for, to aid the cause of the Latin Empire, sent to the pope and any and all that would listen, but it wasn’t coming. If anything, as those 5 ships passing Rhaedestus indicated, it was leaving, and other blows were in store for the crusaders. In May of that year, just over a month after the flight from Adrianople, Enrico Dandolo, the Venetian doge, died in intestinal agony. He’d lived a remarkable life and, no matter where you sit on the spectrum of Dandolo legends, had clearly been an astonishingly vigorous 90-something, but that final campaign had been too much for him. And the crusade lost another of its leaders.

If all of this sounds like it’s spiralling towards disaster, straight from its flawed beginnings to its inevitable demise, then that’s not far from the truth. The record of what follows is full of Kaloyan’s victories, of cities sacked and their occupants slaughtered, whether Crusaders or Romans. Henry, initially regent and later emperor in replacement of his brother, did not roll over and die, but there was death all around. His marriage to Boniface’s daughter, which would have shored up the bond between to two, now more crucial than ever, was short lived, as the new empress soon died, thought not so soon that he couldn’t tell the marquis she was pregnant when the two next met, so perhaps her death was caused by childbirth. His forces campaigned on both sides of the water, and had some successes, but dealing with both Kaloyan and Theodore Laskaris was burdensome, especially when the two actually started cooperating, and Geoffrey attests that the crusaders were scattered and everywhere “distracted and oppressed by war,” and that Emperor Henry was himself torn. He wanted to relieve Adrianople from its suffering under one siege, but he needed to rescue Peter of Bracieux, and Payen of Orléans from another besieged city, and then the people of Thierri of Loos at quite another, or else lose them. He could not be everywhere. 

But then, his luck seemed to turn. Theodore offered a truce, at a price, and he bought that truce, allowing him to finally, after a number of false starts in that direction, go and break up the siege of Adrianople, and even to briefly go on the offensive entering Kaloyan’s land and gather up many provisions. Finally, on his return to Adrianople, there was more good news. There was word from Boniface. 

The marquis had really been off in his own world, engaged in all kinds of trouble around Thessalonica while Henry was putting out fires from Constantinople, with enemies everywhere between, and the two had not seen each other in some time. Now, messengers arrived from Boniface, asking for Henry to meet him by a certain river, and Henry happily agreed. 

The two met in a fair field, and stayed there for two days, sharing news that the other would not have known. They said that “as God had granted that they should come together, so might they yet again defeat their enemies. And they made agreement to meet at the end of the summer, in the month of October, with all their forces, in the meadow before the city of Adrianople, and make war against [Kaloyan]. So they separated joyous and well content. The marquis went [west], and the Emperor Henry [east].”

They were never to make that appointment though. Not long after, Boniface’s rear guard would be ambushed as he travelled. He’d rush back and into the fight, but in the process he’d be wounded by an arrow beneath the shoulder, and he’d bleed and he’d bleed. His followers would try to keep him on his horse, but as he grew fainter, they lost hope, and abandoned him to his attackers and to his fate. 

The crusaders were one lord less, their one-time leader mourned by Geoffrey as “one of the best barons and most liberal, and one of the best knights in the world!” But Niketas would take a very different angle, writing that his death, quote, “came to the delight of all Romans - this surly man was fond of gold, pertinacious, opinionated, a monster who preyed on Romans. To the Thessalonians the arrow was the answer to a prayer and truly believed to be wrought, if not discharged, by the hand of the Almighty … he was an unbearable and unappeasable evil. Having received the gaping wound, he was sent on his way to Hades by the Romans with malignant glee.”

The head of Boniface of Montferrat would be cut from his body and would be presented to Kaloyan as a gift, but Kaloyan himself wouldn’t have long to enjoy his present. He’d besiege the city that had recently been Boniface’s, but he’d encounter trouble, and there are all kinds of stories as to what kind. 

My favourite is actually that of one of our sources here, Robert de Clari. He says that the trouble was inflicted by none other than St Demetrius, whose body lay in the city and was said not to allow the city to be taken by violence. Faced with this most recent threat, St Demetrius had appeared in the night, and in Kaloyan’ tent, and speared him where he slept. There were other versions, tellings that relied less on saints rising from the dead to distribute stabby justice in the darkness, more garden-variety betrayals and assassinations, but it all came to the same thing in the end. The Bulgarian menace that had haunted the crusaders and their Latin Empire was gone, but Baldwin, Dandolo, and Boniface too.

Emperor Henry wasn’t though, not quite yet. He survived Kaloyan’s challenge. Robert tells that he lived to marry the daughter of his successor, and to crown Boniface’s son in Thessalonica. But that was where he died, in 1216. His death, the same year as Pope Innocent III’s, ended what would turn out to be a unique period of relative calm in the rule of the Latin Empire, which would itself stagger on until 1261 when Constantinople was taken by the Nicaeans, some would say retaken by the Byzantines, and when our friends the brothers Polo would leave the city on a little business venture.

Even that wasn’t quite the conclusion of the story of the Fourth Crusade though. Of the crusader states that had sprung up during those years at the beginning of the 13th century, some would even be there to be absorbed into the Ottoman Empire when it came. That spiralling disaster I spoke of would go on spiralling on for a long time still, long after its initial protagonists had passed on from this world. 

As for our narrators, Niketas would live out the rest of his life at the court of Theodore Laskaris, in Nicaea, dying around the same time as Henry. And Robert de Clari and Geoffrey de Villehardouin, would of course survive those tumultuous years to record their versions of events. And how Robert would end his, is, I think, a good note for us to end on too. I’ll be back in a few weeks with something new and medieval. Thanks for listening, everyone. To quote Robert de Clari:

Now have ye heard the truth, in what manner Constantinople was conquered, and in what way Count Baldwin of Flanders became emperor thereof, and my Lord Henry his brother after him; for he who was there and who saw these things and who heard the testimony thereof, Robert of Clari, Knight, hath also caused the truth to be put down in writing, how the city was conquered; and albeit he may not have recounted the conquest in as fair a fashion as many a good chronicler would have recounted it, yet hath he at all times recounted the strict truth; and many true things hath he left untold, because, in sooth, he cannot remember them all.


  • 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.

  • 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 4: Simon & the Seven Thieves

Sack of Constantinople

When Robert de Clari entered Constantinople, he spoke with wonder of what he witnessed. There was the Palace of the Lion’s Mouth with its 500 chambers “all wrought in mosaic work of gold,” and among its 30 chapels, its wonderful Holy Chapel, with its precious stone pillars, its white marble floors, and its relics. There were two pieces of the True Cross, “as thick as a man’s leg and a fathom in length”; the lance which had been plunged into Christ’s side; two of the nails that had been driven into his hands; a crystal phial of his blood; the tunic which was torn from him; his crown, not of thorns, but of “sea rushes, sharp as dagger blades.” There were the clothes of Mary and the head of John the Baptist, a likeness of St. Demetrius from which oil ran without end, and a tile and towel, both of which bore the imprint of God’s face. There were so many more that Robert could not begin to describe them all, or indeed to understand them.

At the Hagia Sophia, Robert was struck by its “altogether round” shape, its magnificent pillars, each with their own powers of healing a specific malady, and its “high altar … so rich that the price … could not be reckoned.” It was the riches there that struck him most: so much silver, gold, and gems, so much magnificence. But he also took note of a tube, a mysterious tube of unknown metal, “of the size of one of those pipes such as sheperds pipe upon,” and of a certain miraculous virtue. Whenever a sick person would put their mouth to the tube, it would seize them, holding them fast so that their eyes would roll up in their heads, and it would draw the poison in their body out through their throat. But if you were to put your lips to the tube when you were well - because it’s always a good idea to mouth items previously mouthed by multitudes of desperately sick people - well then it would not hold you, which was probably for the best.

Outside the church, there was a thick pillar, “thrice the spread of a man’s arms, and ... full fifty fathoms high.” And at its top, a great stone, and a horse with a copper-cast figure upon it, identified by Robert and others as Heraclius, but it was what we know as the Column of Justinian, the 6th-century ruler stretching one hand out towards “Heathendom,” Robert tells us, and in his other holding an apple marked with a cross.

Robert and the other crusaders were in awe of the hippodrome, its open space a full crossbow shot and a half in length. They were amazed at the numbers of people, of priests, of abbeys, and of the riches they contained. They saw the marble table that Jesus was placed on after being brought down from the cross, and they saw the tears that Mary had cried over him. They saw the shroud which Jesus had been wrapped in, the one which raised itself up every Friday, to reveal his form, and Robert noted that nobody knew what became of it after the city fell.  

It was said of one gate that the golden ball above it would protect the city from lightning strikes so long as it remained there, and this was no small thing given how vulnerable the place was to fires. Over another gate were a pair of copper elephants, so enormous that it was a marvel to behold them. That was the Golden Gate, never opened, Robert thought, save in victory, when the emperor would, in the city’s brighter times, re-enter after battle, parading upon a chariot for all the people to share in his triumph, and to honour him.  

But these were not those times. 

There, behind the two copper women, 20 feet high and both very beautiful, had been where the moneychangers would come to sit, with piles of coins and precious stones before them, open for business, but there were much fewer of them now, that Constantinople was taken. And elsewhere in the city, Robert tells of two pillars, 50 fathoms high and with a hermit living on the top of each, stylites we would say. On these pillars were portrayed and written prophecies of all that had come to happen to Constantinople and all that was yet to come. And there, for all now to look on, were the Latin invaders and the boats by which they had won their way in. None had been able to see them for what they were until it was too late, but now, with the invaders in the city, people came, and they mused on this, their fate, and that of their city. 

Hello, and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus. If you wish to keep our chamberlains from offing our emperors in the night, if you’re enjoying what I do and think it’s worth supporting, please do consider doing so on my Patreon page, that’s, where every $1 a month and up makes a difference for me. And on that note, I want to say thank you to my newest patron, who goes by the delightful name of Ephemeral von Hinterland. Thank you very much! And now, back to the story. 

Today, that story takes place in the aftermath of the fall of Constantinople to the fighters of the Fourth Crusade. It’s what happened in the city once the bulk of the fighting was over. It’s something of a caper film, starring an intrepid party of Venetians.  But before we get to that, let’s check in with Robert and Geoffrey, and Niketas. The fate of the city had already been decided when the invaders found, on the morning of Tuesday, April 13th, that there was no one now to oppose them. What followed were three days of violence, plundering, and all the other ugliness included in the sack of a city.

Geoffrey speaks of something very organized. Three churches were established as collection points and a guard set, made up “of ten noble knights from amongst the pilgrims, and ten Venetians who were reputed to be honourable men,” Robert says. All of this had been sworn to before they’d even taken the walls, as part of what we now call The March Pact, the meeting I mentioned last episode, where they hammered out who would get what, what loot, what land, what title, when victory came. And also what they were not allowed to do. Robert mentions being required to swear not to do violence to any women or despoil any church, but Niketas would say they were oath-breakers on both counts. 

There was every reason for making these March arrangements before taking Constantinople. There was every chance they’d be able to temporarily occupy a section of the city and loot it, even if the whole placed proved too much for them. They had to promise to reimburse the Venetians for money owed, needed to guarantee that they would be able to, and it was also always better to decide how to divide the ice cream before that awkward moment when someone was actually holding it and everyone had their swords out. When you didn’t make plans ahead of time, you had problems like what William of Tyre claimed had happened at Ascalon in 1153. There, a group of Templars were said to have kept others from following them through a gap in the walls just so they didn’t have to share the spoils, but then they’d been cut off from those others and killed. The episode may not have really occurred in that way, but the lesson was out there to be learned. Rules established beforehand save bloody acrimony after the fact. 

In this case, there was to be fairness in distribution, with each getting a share according to their station: 2 men on foot equalling 1 horseman, 2 horsemen equalling 1 knight. However, despite these precautions and the threats of punishment, some, Geoffrey admitted, did hold back what they had taken, or committed outright theft. And of course this would happen. The temptation was strong, and “not a few” were hung as a result, including one knight who had followed Hugh of Saint-Pol. “...the covetous began to keep things back,” Geoffrey said, “and our Lord began to love them less. Ah God! How loyally they had borne themselves up to now!” 

Robert was even less content with the whole thing. From the first moments of occupation - really that first day inside the wall when you get the sense he hadn’t previously realized what the game was going to be - he’d seen the rich and highly placed take advantage of those beneath them. The treasure now gathered in the churches was a marvel to behold, true; it seemed so much that not even the 50 other richest cities of the world could equal it, and it was said locally “that two-thirds of all the wealth of the world was in Constantinople, and that the other third was scattered throughout the world.” But Robert says that the guards assigned to the churches were the ones most guilty of theft, that they used their position to help themselves as they pleased, and that the richest of the conquerors simply wandered in and likewise had from the hoard what they wanted, whether it be jewel, or silk, or gold.

And Niketas, as we heard a bit of at the end of last episode, he was of course rather more critical than either crusader of what went on in Constantinople. It wasn’t a question of spoils won to him, but of violence done to his city, its people, and its holy places.

Niketas describes the destruction of icons and trampling of relics, all in order to get at what money was to be had in jewels and adornments. 

"These forerunners of Antichrist," he raged, "chief agents and harbingers of his anticipated ungodly deeds, seized as plunder the precious chalices and patens; some they smashed, taking possession of the ornaments embellishing them, and they set the remaining dishes on their tables to serve as bread dishes and wine goblets. Just as happened long ago, Christ was now disrobed and mocked, his garments were parted, and lots were cast for them by this race; and although his side was not pierced by the lance, yet once more streams of Divine Blood poured to the earth."

And there’s more. A lot more, in fact. There was hardly a sin that Niketas did not find the crusaders guilty of, and he filled pages in making his point. He painted a scene of gross moral corruption, of frauds draped in crosses polluting the holy places of his city. In one striking passage, he describes the greedy raiders leading mules into the temple to pack out their ill-gotten gains, and how, quote, “some of these; unable to keep their feet on the smoothly polished marble floors, slipped and were pierced by knives so that the excrement from the bowels and the spilled blood defiled the sacred floor.” 

And those were some of the views, broadly speaking, from the conquered and the crusaders, but what of the Venetians? I’ve regularly divided them from “the crusaders,” in quotes, for convenience and clarity, but it’s at the cost of perhaps implying that the Venetians were something else, that they could not be crusaders themselves but were rather a bunch of bloodthirsty merchants or mercenaries, that they were somehow less capable of religious feeling than their co-religionists, and that each and every one of them was every bit as conniving as their doge, in his common portrayal. 

But clearly that’s not accurate. 

This story then is a kind of antidote to that picture because although it is a tale of theft, it’s not money that the Venetians involved were after. This is not to say that Venetian plundering during the sack of the city was any less treasure-oriented than the other crusaders. Actually, if there’s a difference, it’s generally thought that they tended to seize pieces of art as intact pieces, not breaking them apart for the value of their raw materials. Most famously, their take included the Cavalli di San Marco, the four bronze horses which long adorned the Saint Mark’s Basilica. However, this is not the story of those horses. In our story, something else entirely was taken. It was a saint. Or at least, the body of a saint. A holy relic. 

And that’s what we’ll get into in a moment now, after this quick break.

"In the memory of the blessed Simon the prophet, I will tell in what way and by what means his body was translated from the city of Constantinople and taken through the Adriatic Sea to the city called Venice."

So begins the Translatio Symonensis, the written record which does exactly that and was recovered in 1995 in Milan, in a 14th century collection of Venetian hagiographies. It, along with the excellent work of historian David M. Perry, will be my source here. 

"With the city captured," the text continues, "those who did not die began to plunder certain fortifications, palaces, and buildings that were filled with gold and silver. In the army, there were seven citizens of the Rialto. These seven were better men, because of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit."

And we know who those seven “better men” were. The names that have come down to us are Andrea Balduino, Pietro Steno, Leonardo Steno, Marino Calvo, Angelo Drusario, Nicola Feretro, and Leonardo Mauro. It all started on the ship, with Andrea and Pietro speaking of Simon, their parish’s patron saint. Did not his blessed body lie there in that very city, asked Andrea. Why yes, it did, Pietro confirmed. He could not remember exactly where, but he had been to see the city, and the saint, just two years earlier, with his uncle. The streets of Constantinople were not easy to follow, but if they just started at the Hagia Sophia, then he was sure that he could find the way from there.  

These two ringleaders, likely men of Venice’s merchant class, said a quick prayer, as they often in would in this story, and they looked to assemble their team. Andrea brought together men from their neighbourhood, from their church parish, people they could trust, and he found 10 of them. Together, they made a little scouting run

Working back from the Hagia Sophia, they found what they were looking for. They located the Church of St. Mary of Chalkoprateia, and within, a marble ark with their saint inside. Above it hung an image of a young Jesus being placed in Simon’s arms. Before, was a well of living water in which hung a miraculous orb; glowing as if made from a burning ball of wax, it was not visible to those who were dishonest, so it served as a testament to the Venetians honourable intent. They took their time, seeing all that was to be seen, and knowing all that was to be known of their target. Then, they retreated to their ship. 

There, they took a vow of secrecy, and they planned. They chose Palm Sunday to go into action, and just to put that into context, the city had been taken, and those first three days of violent looting begun, on April 13th. Palm Sunday would be the 18th, when people could be expected to be otherwise occupied and to not notice their little group going about its secret business. It wasn’t so much the locals they were worried about, the people of the city who had now little enough say over their own bodies, let alone those of the dead. Their concern was with their own side. Though it sounds like open-season had been declared, this was something - looting a church - that there had been a sworn agreement against, and people were being hung for keeping spoils to themselves. It was, it seems to me, no crime, unless you were caught. So they just had to not get caught. 

They began “when Palm Sunday had not yet ended,” with Andrea saying to his comrades:

"See, soldiers of Christ, rouse yourself in a manly way, tighten your belts, and trust in God. Do not fear Death nor the dangers of money. With faith in God we can be audacious, with the same type of audacity as with which we secured these walls."

And the other eleven answered back with one voice: “He who fears may die, because fear comes with punishment. As the scripture says, he who fears is not perfected in charity.” Confident and ready then, they left the ship.

They split into two groups, so as to not draw attention to themselves, five going by one route and seven, the seven I have already named, going the other, with plans to rendezvous at the church. But as you may have guessed from my only reading seven names, that was not how it went. That unnamed five became confused in their way. Maybe they were the group that had to take the unfamiliar way, while the other retraced steps previously taken, and they were lost in that huge city’s narrow streets and never reached the church. Maybe they never existed at all. 

Our seven did though. They paused outside the door to speak for a moment on the value of doing things quickly and without pause, Andrea reminding his comrades that “he who goes intelligently goes boldly,” and that “all good things are done with quick work.” Then, it was decided that three should enter and take what they had come for while four would guard the doors and make signs to those within should anyone approach. 

So in went the three to find the ark, their St. Simon within, but once they were there and in front of the thing, nobody could actually bring himself to open it. They started urging each other on. Surely it would be better if you should be the one! No, no, after you. You should pry it open. But not one actually took it upon themselves to do it, and from outside they heard calling. What was going on in there, their friends at the door wanted to know, the minutes the three had spent inside probably feeling like much, much more than that. Was there a problem? Were they done?

Not only were they not done, the reluctant three heard the voices of and reacted with alarm and fright. Was someone else out there? Was it time to flee or to fight? Naturally, the lookouts were not impressed by this timidity. “Where is your courage,” they demanded. “Are you men? Go, in the name of God, and complete your work knowing that God is with you. It would be better if you were dead than to leave empty-handed and without the precious treasure.”

So back in the three went, and this time, there was less delay. Andrea swung his hammer, cracking the ark open and revealing a lead case inside. That too was struck open, revealing yet another lead box within. This third one was wrapped in iron bands, but they were rusted out and already broken. Andrea stepped back then, for if he had smashed their way in, someone else ought to bring the saint out. That someone else would be Pietro, Pietro who now revealed his vision of the night before, of alone aiding mass back in Venice, with no one else there to help the rector. 

His companions insisted it should be the same then in the church as it had been in his vision, and Pietro, unhurried, in this telling at least, by the pressuring of their comrades outside or by fear of interruption, took a moment to pray: 

"Oh most sacred Simon the Prophet, who deserved to hold our lord and saviour Jesus Christ, the true light, revelation, and glory of the tribes and people of Israel, in your arms, do not turn your attention to my sins. Through your mercy make us worthy to lift up and hold your precious limbs in our hands, in order that, illuminated, we might succeed in transferring you to our lands. Thus we and our people, with great gratitude, could honour you properly and bless the Lord of lords, who lives and rules the entire world."

“Amen,” answered the other two, and down Pietro reached to pull out the bones of St. Simon, lowering them onto the purple cloth they had prepared. And as he touched the bones, a smell filled the church. It was a sweet smell like that of balsam wood and so strong that it reached the look-outs outside and caused them to call out, in joy and fear, that God was surely with them. Pietro hurried on, revealing not just bones, but also small marble containers with the teeth of the saint, a broken ring, and the milk of the virgin Mary, which they somehow all immediately recognized, presumably by its miraculous properties. They took it all, and they made their way back to the ship. 

They went with haste now, the evidence upon them much worse than any previous signs of suspicious activity, if they were caught. And that evidence was not doing any of the work of concealing itself for them. There was that powerfully sweet smell, strong enough to attract curiosity, and now there was a light too. No one had challenged the progress of the seven through the streets of conquered Constantinople, but when they had the saint’s relics safely on the ship, and stowed away in a box of aromatic herbs, it began to glow. It started to glow with a such a fierce light that not even that of candles could, by comparison, hide it. Quote: “Because God wished to reveal the sacred items by way of miracles. Even at night when most people were sleeping on the ship, the relics glowed fully and splendidly, and most of the people awake wondered at its brightness.”    

If the thieves had achieved success in bringing St. Simon onto their ship, they still couldn’t actually leave. There was that item in the March Pact, that all must remain and aid the new emperor, whoever that might turn out to be, and there was the decree of their doge, Enrico Dandolo, enforcing it. No matter how clearly Simon’s relics shone out like a bat-signal to those looking down from the city’s hills, there was to be no getting away. With some reluctance, I imagine, the thieves smuggled Simon’s body back into the city and away from from their watchful eyes.

They took it to a small chapel within a palace. There’s no mention of which one, but it must have been somewhere they were already familiar with, very likely somewhere they’d plundered just days before. In the chapel, they found an old woman caring for the space, lighting candles and offering incense, and, in an astonishing leap of faith, they left their package in her care. They implored her to keep it secret and promised money for the upkeep of the chapel in return. 

The old woman was either swayed by the money, was simply honest, or, as the Venetians’ seemed to think, was simply ignorant, because she kept their secret. She kept it well for them for six months. That was six of months of political turmoil and infighting among the crusaders, and also of rumours circulating of the saint’s disappearance, grumblings among the locals which reached the ears of the leadership. The doge decreed that any who brought in the missing relics would receive their weight in gold, but maybe this was an invention in the text, a way of showing the Venetians’ worthiness. Sights and smells had signalled God’s approval of their actions, and their success in the venture would signal the saint’s. Now, quote, “The Lord strengthened the hearts of the … men, and none of them were seduced by the love of money, but firmly persisted in their good plan,” and maybe they really were required to resist this temptation; maybe it was by bribery and confiscation that Dandolo and other leaders acquired many of holy relics that would make their way west from Constantinople, or maybe this was just a bit of artifice by which the authors would tell us that these were men morally equal to their high intent.

Whatever the particulars, none of them cracked, and that elderly caretaker of the chapel didn’t either. They held it all together until one of their number was allowed to return to Venice. It was Angelo Drusario whose lot it was to return home, and we don’t know much about his journey back. The text does tell us that “the number of sea-borne miracles that … God judged them worthy to be shown,” was beyond the human ability to describe, and this sort of thing was very much in keeping with this sort of story, that of furta sacra, or holy theft. 

What’s not in keeping, is that there’s no more detail as those miracles on water, and no adventures at sea to test our protagonists, and for which they must rely on the aid of their saint to survive. Instead, we only learn that rejoicing and praise greeted the relic’s return to Venice, that the Patriarch of Grado and the Bishop of Castello oversaw their internment “in a marble ark beneath the altar in the church of St. Simon on the Rialto; and the orations flourished there on that same day.” A business that had begun in the darkness of secrecy and theft was now recognized in the light and made holy.

In a moment, we’ll go further into the wider world of sacred plunder in Constantinople, but first, a quick break. 

This story of ours was of course not the first one of Venetians bringing relics home in less than officially authorized circumstances. Most famously, there’d been the 9th-century theft of San Marco’s bones from Alexandria by a pair of merchants. But it was also not the only act of relic-theft in Constantinople once the crusaders got in. 

The take from that city was generous in relics. The Bishop of Soissons alone is to have brought home a head of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, Thomas the Apostle’s finger and head, a Crown of Thorns thorn, a belt and scrap of cloth from Mary’s garments, another scrap from Christ’s last supper-wear, a forearm and head from John the Baptist, a rib and head from St. Blaise, fragments of the True Cross, and the staff of Moses. 

Now you might think that this bishop, this energetic head-collector, was a thief-extraordinaire, and that our Venetian friends’ activities paled in comparison to his prolific burgling. However, much of his haul he seems to have had from a chapel in the Bucoleon Palace, a palace which was under the administration of his friend, Boniface of Montferrat, during the first month of occupation. This was not stealing then. This was confiscation. It was authorized and legitimate theft, not done in secrecy while guarding the door against one’s “allies” interrupting the looting.

Between the extremes of the Venetian 7’s conspiracy and the bishop’s taxation, is one of my favourite stories of sacred theft. Dalmacius and Poncius were two knights who had, upon being released of their duties in Constantinople, failed in trying to reach Jerusalem, and returning disappointed, had requested of the papal legates that they be allowed to take a relic. The legates had given their permission, but did not allow the knights to buy one. So Dalmacius and Poncius had needed to find what they wanted by other means. They had dropped in on the Monastery of St. Mary Peribleptos and, while Dalmacius distracted the monks with questions about St. Clement, Poncius is supposed to have walked in and walked out with the saint’s head.  

Even more in the thick of things was Abbot Martin of Pairis. He located a priest in a monastic complex already being looted by crusaders, and he forced the man, under threat of death, to reveal the valuables. Martin would eventually come away with some of the blood of Christ, wood from the cross, a piece of John the Baptist, the arm of James the Apostle, and more.

Even one of the Papal Legates got in on the act. Peter Capuano wound his way through Southern Italy leaving a trail of relics behind him. His hometown of Amalfi received the head of its patron saint, St. Andrew, while Gaeta got the head of St. Theodore. In Sorrento, he left relics of James the Apostle, at the Abbey of Monte Cassino, St. Athanasius’ arm, and at Naples, pieces of other saints. 

And there are countless other stories, too many to mention here. Robert de Clari, who we’ve been following, is himself said to have brought fragments of the True Cross back with him to the Monastery of Corbie, where his chronicle would be recorded on vellum. 

All of this is to say that Constantinople was absolutely harvested in and after 1204. Relics of all descriptions were taken and trucked across Europe, along with the other riches of the city, and in this climate, trafficking and forgery thrived, very old businesses both.

You might be wondering, with all of this pillaging, all of this emptying out of treasury and church, how could the crusaders defend their actions? How could they possibly justify what they had done? We can start to answer this question by examining the Translatio of the Venetians. How did it present its heroes’ actions in the best possible light?

One way was through the villainizing of the “victims” in the story, and the author wasted no time in accomplishing this. The first paragraph establishes the citizens of Venice as “most Christian people, filled with the Catholic faith, and most eager to serve the army of Christianity … born of a noble race, but … ha[ving] a faith even more noble.” By the second, it’s the turn of the people of Constantinople: they’re hated by God “on account of their iniquities.” Wicked, impious, malignant, and arrogant, they were the target of this most just crusade. In fact, there’s no mention that it might ever have gone elsewhere, to Egypt or Jerusalem for example.     

Another method of justification was emphasizing the goodness of the individuals involved in the theft. If they were truly good, then what they had done must surely also be good, and these people were very good indeed. The text tells us, with reference to the Book of Isaiah, that our protagonists had “a spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and fortitude, of knowledge and piety, and a spirit that feared God.” “... although they might have numbered seven, nevertheless they were as one, because they shared one spirit and one faith they discovered the body of the blessed Simon prophet of the lord.” 

Elsewhere in the text, as the group pray for the success of their venture, they ask for assistance in finding the saint, and they evoke the three magi in doing so, seeming to compare the search for the son of God with their search within the city. If the twelve’s mission was like that of the three, then how could it be wrong?

Finally, as you might have guessed, the production of the text itself is part of the act of justification. It wasn’t just how the relic was gained. It wasn’t just having possession. The story was important, and where the resources were available, a narrative would sometimes be commissioned that would help to establish the relic in its new home. That would include the story of the acquisition, its journey home with the saint usually intervening on its bearers behalves, and also miracles on arrival. Authenticity, meaning, and significance would be attached to the object, through the kind of ceremonies that occurred at the Church of Saint Simon, and through a new tradition of miracles in this new context. 

But the pope, you might be asking, what of his reaction? What did Innocent III think of all of this? It had after all, not gone quite according to plan. His threats of excommunication, and attempts to steer the ship once it had disembarked, had largely failed. Some men had been dislodged, it was true, but he’d had little effect on the direction things took. However, now the great city of Constantinople had been taken, and it might perhaps at last rejoin with western Christianity. Surely that counted for something?

Well, it did, at least at first. When the news reached Innocent that the city had been taken, news which was delayed by Genoese piracy, he seems to have been overjoyed, but in quite a pointed way. In a letter to Count Baldwin, he praised the accomplishment as that of God “work[ing] magnificent miracles with [the crusaders] for the praise and glory of his name, for the honour and the profit of the Apostolic See, and for the benefit and exaltation of the Christian people.” Innocent had never approved of the conquest in the first place, but now it had happened, he placed the new lands “under the primary protection of St. Peter.” He offered help, the crusading indulgence for those defending Constantinople, but also a warning. The city had fallen because its people had strayed from Rome; let not its new occupants do the same. Let them instead, quote:

"...diligently and faithfully make sure that ecclesiastical goods, both fixed and moveable, are protected until they might be properly organized in accordance with our authoritative decision, so that those things that are Caesar’s might be rendered to Caesar, and those things that are God’s might be rendered to God without confusion."

Of course, as we’ve seen there had already been some “confusion” of that sort, and there were going to be years of confusion to come. That aside, even within the terms of the March Pact, there was much for the pope to take issue with. There was language around the divvying up of church property, and then there was the agreement that whichever side in the conquering force that lost out in seeing their own man as emperor would get to appoint the patriarch. This was clearly a power that Innocent would have thought belonged to Ceasar and not one he could surrender willingly to the Venetians. 

Still, Innocent seemed willing to compromise. He accepted the narrative that Dandolo and Baldwin presented in their letters about the the March Pact, that the tangled route which had led to the conquest of Constantinople was divinely inspired, and though he did not at first accept the Venetian appointment to the office of patriarch, he did then rush their chosen man through ordainment as deacon, priest, bishop, and then patriarch, all in the month of March, 1205.

However, he would not remain so amenable. As time passed, the looted church property failed to to be returned, and the Greek population failed to convert, his position shifted. He’d tried offers of rewards, and threats, but his legate, Capuano had released the crusaders from their vows, requiring only that they stay for a year to defend their conquest. Events had truly slipped from the pope’s grasp, and in his letter to Capuano, and in a very similar one to Boniface, he made his displeasure clear:

"How will the Greek Church … return to ecclesiastical unity and devotion to the Apostolic See, a church which has seen in the Latins nothing except an example of affliction and the works of Hell, so that now it rightly detests them more than dogs? … It was not enough for [the Latins] to empty the imperial treasuries and to plunder the spoils of princes and lesser folk, but rather they extended their hands to church treasuries and, what was more serious, to their possessions, even ripping away silver tablets from alters and breaking them into pieces among themselves, violating sacristies and crosses, and carrying away relics."

He wasn’t just concerned with plunder, by the way. There was talk too of swords dripping with Christian blood, and incest, adultery, and fornication. 

It was all part of the narrative which was building around the Fourth Crusade. The providential victory at Constantinople had given way to a much more accusatory tone. By their sin, by their own greed and gold-lust, their looting of the Greek churches, the crusaders had diverted much needed men and resources from the Holy Land, and they had corrupted the path which God had laid down for them. 

That was the climate within which saintly translation narratives were produced. Some of them sought as best they could to erase Constantinople from their stories. They might, for example, speak of relics brought out of disaster in the Holy Land to new homes in France, with no mention made that the items in question were really had from the looting of 1204. One way or another, these stories found ways to work around that tricky issue and with it the pope’s castigation. But not the Venetians. Strikingly, their stories did not at all avoid the question of the relics’ origins. As we’ve seen, they found other ways to craft the image of the pious thief, even as the situation in Constantinople darkened, and with it, the future of its Latin Empire. 

As for Robert and Geoffrey, they would directly tie the problems to come with the looting of 1204. Robert saw those misfortunes as, quote, “the Lord God tak[ing] vengeance on them for their pride and their bad faith which they had shown toward the poor folk of the host, and for the horrible sins that they had committed in the city after they had taken it,” while Geoffrey would grimly conclude that “full oft do the good suffer for the sins of the wicked.” 

But we’ll get into those problems, that suffering, next episode. I’ll be wrapping up this round of the Fourth Crusades, and the stories of the characters that we’ve been following.


  • 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.

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

  • Perry, David M. Sacred Plunder: Venice and the Aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. Penn State Press, 2015.

  • Perry, David M. "The Translatio Symonensis and the Seven Thieves: A Venetian Fourth Crusade Furta Sacra Narrative and the Looting of Constantinople."

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

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. 


  • 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. 


  • 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.

Thomas Dallam 7: A Concert for the Sultan

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Today, we conclude a journey begun over 400 years ago, from London to Constantinople with an unusual musical instrument/timepiece. We also conclude a journey begun a few months ago, when I started looking at this Lancashire organ maker and his trip to see arguably the most powerful man in the world at the time, not an argument I’m actually going to get into here by the way. Last episode, I talked about the leg of Thomas Dallam’s journey from Algiers to the Hellespont, and we left him within striking distance of Constantinople. Today, we’ll talk about the last stretch and take him into the city to look at his experiences there and his place in the grand politics of the day. We won’t quite cover all of Dallam’s travels, but this will be will the end of our travels with him. Let’s get started.

I told you last time that the Hector waited for a wind to take them, and that Henry Lello, the English representative in Constantinople sent a small boat to collect some of those aboard as well as certain important letters. Under the charge of future ambassador Thomas Glover, the boat was powered by slaves, so it didn’t need to wait on the winds. And it must have been quite small, because Glover had to hire 2 more boats to carry 16 men from the Hector who were either associated with the presents or would serve the ambassador. 

The cruise up the Hellespont seems to have been fondly remembered by Dallam. They stopped in at an Italian consul’s home in Gallipoli where they were warmly received, and then dined heartily the next night on mutton, half of it boiled, half roasted, gathered round a fire beneath some old castle walls. It was a simple meal but he wrote of them eating merrily and sweetly. There was wine and bread aplenty at the next stop, though also the threat of violence when some of the party wandered in the vineyards uninvited, violence addressed first by one particularly stout member of the party and then rather more conclusively by Thomas Glover’s restitution payments. The next town also brought readily available wine, at a penny a jug, as well as corn and silkworms. Dallam noted the poverty of the people as they passed through, saying that it was the Turks who kept them so by living off the fruits of their labour.

The 9th of August they stayed in a building on the edge of town, at the brink of a hillside, looking down from the height of St Paul’s church on the sea below. Their lodgings were in a kind of attic reached by ladder and furnished with nothing beyond bare boards and a shelf with 2 pitchers and 2 platters. A hole in the stone wall let in some light. There’d be no bed to rest on for the travellers, but actually they’d had no bed to sleep in this whole time; they hadn’t even had occasion to take off their clothes. Walking in among some woods to pass the hours before dark, they found an abundant soft weed, and they pulled up great handfuls of it to use as pillows beneath their heads. 

The company settled in comfortably enough to sleep, but scarcely 30 minutes had passed before the bugs in their scavenged cushions made themselves known, biting worse than any flea Dallam and his fellows had felt. They bundled the weeds out the door and furiously swept clean the house, but try as they might, they could not make themselves clean. Settling back down, no longer so comfortable, they could not get back to sleep. 

Like a good camp counselor, Glover tried to distract them from their troubles. Dallam seems to have quite liked Glover, calling him by name even in his writing and recording Glover’s readiness to spend money where necessary to smooth things over and facilitate their travels. That night, in that “Dark, uncomfortable, house,” Glover spoke of the strange animals he had seen, the beasts and the vermin, and the snakes. He talked a lot about the snakes, adders, and serpents in all their variations. Some fell asleep and others lay quietly, waiting for day to come and resting as best they could. 

At some point, a man named Mr. Baylye got up and went outside; obviously there were no bathroom facilities in the house. Finishing up, he turned to come back but felt something wrap itself about his ankles. Glover’s stories of snakes still fresh in his mind, he yelled out in fear. 

As it happened, it was only his silk garter which he’d loosened when he’d lain down to sleep. The wind had blown it, tangling it with his legs, and Mr. Baylye shouted “A serpent! A serpent! A serpent!” They heard him inside, but not clearly. They were wary of attack and each had his sword by him save for two who had muskets at hand. When they heard the cry of alarm, what those in the house heard was “Assaulted! Assaulted!” In the darkness, chaos erupted. One man, feeling around in a panic, couldn’t find his sword and, thus unarmed, thought to escape up the chimney; it collapsed down on him, part of it striking his head. Another slashed blindly about him, miraculously only cutting down the room’s solitary shelf, and smashing the pitchers and plates. Others thought the roof was being caved in on them as part of the attack. At some point, the lone janissary who accompanied them determined that their cause was hopeless, lifted up a loose board, and dropped into the dark space below. Finally, Baylye, the cause of all this madness wrestled the door open. Once he’d got him speaking, Glover quickly determined what had occurred and located the offending garter on the ground outside. A head count was taken, and, remarkably, all were accounted for, with only minor injuries, save for the janissary. Eventually, the situation being settled, he too was located and helped back up through the floor. The rest of the night passed uneventfully. 

The next morning, the building’s owner came by, helped retrieved the janissary’s garment which he’d lost while hiding, and presumably had something to say about the shocking degree of damage the men had managed to do in the space of a night’s sleep.

That morning they started on the final stretch, some by mule, others, Dallam included, by boat. They were just days away from Constantinople, which Dallam only now also refers to as Stamboul, and little of note occurred: a night of courteous entertainment here, a great abundance of musk melons there. 

On Wednesday, August the 15th, Dallam arrived in Constantinople, a city wrapped in 12 miles of Theodosian walls. He wasted no words in describing it, too busy perhaps for such things, but just 6 years earlier another English traveller had written of it. It was, quote, “matchable with any city in Europe, as well in bigness as for the pleasant situation thereof, and commodious traffic and bringing of all manner of necessary provision of victuals, and whatsoever else man’s life for the substantiation thereof shall require.” 

The following day, the 16th, the Hector arrived. Work began immediately on repainting it, prettying it up for public display, and Dallam and his people retrieved the present and brought it out to the ambassador’s house in Gallata, the Christian quarter on the northern shore of the Golden Horn. There being no room there to set it up inside, a shelter was hastily constructed in the courtyard, and on the 20th, with Lello and various gentlemen, probably merchants, looking on, the chests were opened. 

Lello, “the Fog” to those acquainted with his sour outlook, would have been deeply dispirited by what he saw. Years, they had waited, years! And for what? Boxes of garbage, to look at them. All of the glueing work was decayed, and various pipes were bruised or broken; mould was likely a problem, and surely the paintwork in terrible shape. Six months in the hot hold of a ship had not been good to Dallam’s organ. It was worthless, not worth 2 pence, the man pronounced, bitterly amazed at what had arrived on his doorstep and probably already contemplating the unpleasant ways this disappointment affected him.

But Dallam had some harsh words for them, words which he referred to but would not repeat in his writing. We can be certain though that he would have strongly pointed out, with much colourful language, that the present, his work, was not worthless; this was the entire reason he’d been brought along, and the need to make some repairs was not entirely unexpected. He could fix this. 

And the merchants were very pleased with this news, as, I’m sure, was Lello. One man, the consul William Auldridge, even offered a handsome bonus from his own pocket should Dallam be true to his word. So Dallam, no time for playing the tourist here, set to work. 

This hard work plays out in Dallam’s writing more in his silence than his words. Entries are terse, and few and far between. On one day, he writes, an exiled Moroccan king arrives to look in on his labours, and stays for half the day. That day also, the Hector pulled in closer to the palace complex. As The Ascension had done years earlier, with his father the audience, the Hector now performed its salutation for Mehmed, and this Dallam does describe in detail. 

The Hector looked the part in its new paint with as many men as it could muster turned out with muskets. Dallam writes: “All things being ready, our gunners gave fire, and discharged 8 score great shot, and betwixt every great shot a volley of small shot; it was done with very good decorum and true time, and it might well deserve commendations.” Clearly, Parsons had made certain there wouldn’t be a repeat performance for the poor show they’d given the Ottoman admiral less than a month before.

However, Dallam, not normally given to superstition or ascribing events to otherworldly intervention, sensed in what transpired an evil in performing this “great trumpet and charge,” for an infidel. The ship’s carpenter was the one sick man aboard the ship and maybe the same man who’d been previously suspected of carrying the plague. With the sounding of the first great shot, he died. As the salute drew to a close, one of the gunners came to a more violent end. He rammed fresh powder into the breach, but there was still fire within, and the powder exploded immediately, tearing him to pieces. His lower parts were only found days later, 2 miles away, and his head in another place. Could this be a heavenly sign that they did not do right in their mission? Whatever evil, or bad luck, may have been revealed in the performance, Dallam writes that on August the 30th, his work with the organ was completed. 

Delivery didn’t occur right away though. Dallam recorded a series of contacts over the next days. Lello taking a gift to the Grand Vizier on the 3rd, a visit from the Kapi Agha or chief white eunuch on the 4th, and on 7th from the Bostanci-basi, the “chief gardener” whose responsibilities varied over time but might include everything from escorting the Sultan in the gardens to “pruning” the high-ranked via execution. Dallam has little to say of any of these exchanges with extremely powerful figures, but then he seems to have little to no knowledge of the politics of the port. 

With our advantage over him, we can guess at the diplomatic bustle that was playing out over these days, as Lello frantically busied himself with making certain that the wheels were well greased, just dripping with grease, and that nothing, no interventions from his local rivals for example, could prevent his audience being a complete and utter success. On Saturday the 8th, the organ was taken down, and on the 11th, a Tuesday, taken over the water and to the Sultan’s court. With Dallam’s entry, we get a taste of the palace complex. 

You come first to a gate, one of many and like the rest both closed and guarded. Once through, you notice 5 great pieces of brass bearing Christian arms, a reminder of the city’s not so distant history. On you walk, through delightful gardens, hedged on either side with tall cypress, evenly spaced, and, beyond them, fruit trees of all sorts, lacking nothing that is good. The way leads up-hill, between two walls for a quarter mile, until you come to a second iron gate. Like the first, it is closed, and your interpreter calls out to those within. They are expecting you, but still your business must be clearly announced before they will open the gates and permit you to enter. Now, you have left the gardens behind. Here, there are buildings, and very stately ones they are, with courts of marble. Each has its fruit trees, and there is an abundance of grapes, of many different varieties, so that they might be enjoyed all through the different seasons of the year.    

The building you enter is more like a church than a dwelling. It has two ranks of marble pillars with pedestals of brass; 3 of the walls come but halfway up to the roof, the top left open to the air save when the weather causes cotton hangings to be let fall; the 4th is made of a type of stone in which you can see your reflection as you pass. Rich, silk carpets cover every step. To the side is a fish pond, its inhabitants flashing many different colours as they flit about the shallows. There are no stools, no tables, only one couch.

Within the building, curiously, there is a smaller house, its carving, varnish, and colours, unlike any that you have seen before. There, you learn, the Sultan, killed his 19 brothers when he took the throne; it was built only for the strangling of every emperor’s brethren.

These were Dallam’s impressions of the palace complex, as he set about reassembling the organ in a place that few outsiders would ever have seen. As he worked, Safiye, the Sultan Mother who you may remember from the last mini-episode, received her gift from Elizabeth, a magnificent coach worth 600L. It was an appropriate present for the person rumoured to hold the most power within the palace, perhaps even superior to that of her son.

By the 15th, Dallam’s work was completed, and on the 18th he performed privately for the Kapi Agha and his friend. And they loved it. Again, Dallam found himself gathered up in hugs, kisses, and now the fervent wish that he should stay on among the Ottomans in the service of the Sultan. Such wishes were not yet as disquieting to him as they would be, and his most important performance was still to come.

On the night of the 24th, Lello called Dallam in for a chat. There was quite a bit riding on this for the ambassador. I haven’t mentioned all of his interests of yet, but he had a lot on his plate. Everything had to go perfectly, or else the trade capitulations might not be renewed, the profitable control over Dutch shipping might not be theirs, and his own ambitions to establish a Protestant church in Galata would be quite out of the question. And maybe Dallam did not seem to be taking the whole matter quite seriously enough. We can imagine his easy confidence rubbing unpleasantly on the ever worried Lello, a man with both more knowledge of the present situation and quite a bit more of his own skin in the game. However, Lello needed Dallam, and, though it must have deeply annoyed him, he needed Dallam to succeed. So Lello brought him in for a little locker room talk.

Lello’s seriousness, and perhaps his speaking to him directly in earnest, seems to have made some impact on Dallam because he records the ambassador’s words at length. First, he says, the ambassador gave him a great charge to carry out, to go the next morning and see to it that all was as perfect as it possibly could be with the instrument, for later that day the sultan would finally see and hear the gift. Then, Dallam wrote, perhaps a little wryly, “The ambassador spoke to me in Love after he had given me my charge.” 

What Lello said amounted to the following: you who have come so far and at such great effort and risk to your life, may expect some reward from the sultan or at least think yourself deserving of looking upon him. Put those thoughts out of your head. You will receive nothing. This is no Christian prince you come to visit; this is the enemy of all Christians, and he thinks that anything we bring to him or do for him is for fear of him or for some favour we hope to receive from his hand.

Lello went on to describe to Dallam what was to happen the next day, the ceremonial kissing of the sultan’s hand. I won’t outline that here because it all sounds very much like the hand kissing ceremony [Edward Barton] went through just a few episodes ago. Actually, that having been the last time an english representative was received, that was probably the occasion Lello had in mind too. The ambassador concluded: your coming home our merchants shall give you thanks, if [your work] gives the sultan content this one day. I care not if it be none after the next, if it do not please him at the first sight, and perform not those things which it is told him that it can do, he will cause it to be pulled down that he may trample it under his feet. And then shall we have not suit granted, but all our charge will be lost.

Dallam responded with confidence, that there need be no doubt in himself or his skill, that his care and talent had been on display for all to see those last days, and that the gift itself, not just fixed, was now in some ways even better than when her majesty the queen had beheld it. With that last mention of his successful performance for Elizabeth, Dallam was maybe indulging in little one-upmanship with this man who sought to lecture him, a man he'd now sometimes refer to in writing as “Lord” rather than “ambassador,” but still never by name. 

August 25th, 1599, was the big day for the both of them. Lello was as ready as an anxious man given years to think on an event can be and Dallam, well Dallam was, as ever, ready for anything. That morning, Dallam was out first, setting off with his engineer Harvey, Buckett the painter, and Watson the joiner. He went to give the present its last looking over. Lello followed looking a king without a crown, with 22 gentlemen and merchants on horseback, including Auldridge and 2 future ambassadors in the port, all in cloth of gold, and 28 more on foot in what Dallam terms Turkish fashion blue gowns and Italian fashion silk capes. 

From where Dallam was finishing his preparations he saw the sultan Mehmed set foot ashore, and he was told to get out of the room which housed the gift. The sultan was hurrying there, very eager to see it, and Dallam should not be there when he arrived. One door closed behind Dallam, and another opened, receiving the sultan and, it seemed to Dallam as listened, 400 people who just then been set at liberty and who now made a great sound of admiration at first sight of the present. Mehmed seated himself, and in the silence that followed, the organ, as Dallam had set it to do, sprang to life.

First, there was the striking of the clock, then the ringing of bells, and then a song of 4 parts. Figures rose from the top corners and sounded silver trumpets. Then a song of five parts was played and the birds and bush on top of the organ shook and sang, and there were other motions too, to fill the sultan with delight. And he was delighted. Mehmed stayed until the next hour to take in the whole spectacle again, and hearing and seeing it all once more, he said that it was good. He sat very near it now, where a person would sit to play it really, and he asked about the keys. Why did they move when there was nobody pressing them? Might they be played? Could anyone there play them? 

Now Dallam found himself not only hovering behind the door but ushered inside, and the sight ,he wrote, was wonderful to him. Sultan Mehmed was there, only 18 paces away, and behind him, dazzling his eyes, were the followers of the court: 200 christian born, all in gold, silk, and Spanish leather, cleanly shaven save for a squirrel's tale behind their ears and a moustache on their lips; 100 he called dum-dum men, without speech or hearing, in gowns of gold but caps of violet velvet; the last 100 he said were dwarfs, short but heavy bodied, all in gold again, and carrying scimitars at their side. 

This Dallam saw, and wondered at, and then the Kapi Agha indicated that he should step forward and play the organ. However, Dallam had Lello’s stern words fresh in his head and would not have forgotten that death could be the penalty for any perceived slight. No no, he demurred; he couldn't even get to the keys without presenting his back to Mehmed and physically brushing against him. But the Sultan spoke and the Kapi Agha merrily wished Dallam courage and pushed him on.

Dallam bowed to Mehmed, his head as low as his knees, and then he sat at the organ. He was close to the sultan now, close enough to see the fair scimitar at his side, the bow and quiver of arrows, the ½ inch diamond on the sultan’s thumb ring, so close that his pants brushed Mehmed’s knee when he turned to sit, so close that Mehmed couldn't properly see around him to watch his hands as he played, so close that when Mehmed rose up to see, he bumped Dallam roughly; and Dallam played on, though he thought the sultan had stood to draw his scimitar and cut off his head. He played what must rank as one of history’s more nerve wracking musical performances. He played until the next hour struck, and then he covered the keys and, bowing again, he made to withdraw. All in the audience seemed glad, and Mehmed thrust behind him a fistful of gold, which the Kapi Agha retrieved and delivered to Dallam. Seizing this unlooked for prize, Dallam fled the room, probably exhausted from tension and effort but filled with success and pleasantly weighed down by 45 gold pieces.

After his concert, Dallam rushed to the gate where Lello was to have entered, and he found the ambassador and his escort still waiting there, having waited 2 hours for their moment with the sultan, the kissing of hands which wasn't going to happen. Lello hurried to meet him: had the sultan seen his present? Had he liked it? Yes, answered Dallam, and he’d given gold out of his pocket. They waited a little longer, as 500 strangely dressed horsemen paraded past them, probably the sepahi, the palace cavalry, and 500 janissaries, and then, taking their horses, they returned to Lello’s house. 

Everyone had questions for Dallam. He was of course the centre of attention, made to recount in detail all that had transpired, and all were very happy that the day had gone so well. Lello alone of the company was silent. When asked what he thought, he said he regretted only that, not anticipating events, he had not thought to spend some money on seeing Dallam better attired, but I'm sure he had other regrets too; his day had been spent standing at the gate, sweating in his finest clothes and waiting for his audience and for one of the most important moments of his embassy, maybe the most important. His relief was flavoured with at least a little disappointment.

In the days that followed, Dallam lived rather well, much better than a craftsman from Lancashire could ever have anticipated; he boasted of dining for a month within the palace complex. But unlike some of his countrymen, he does not seem to have been tempted to stay. Others did. One of his interpreters he described as a Turk, but a Cornish man born, and another, a man named Finche, as in religion a perfect Turk, but originally from Lancashire himself. How strange it must have seemed to Dallam to meet another Lancashire man here at the heart of the Ottoman empire, but if indeed he found it striking, he did not remark any further upon it. 

Dallam had no shortage of opportunities to stay, and to stay comfortably. One day, after he’d wrapped up some last adjustments to the organ’s workings, he was pressed as to his personal situation. Had he a wife? Children? Yes, yes, he lied, he did, a wife and children in England who all expected his return and were very much looking forward to seeing him. Further questions elicited further lies from the very much single and childless Dallam, and the promise that if he stayed with them he could have two wives. Later that night, he shared his concerns with Lello, but Lello does not seem to have allayed his concerns to any great degree. He advised that Dallam should not outright refuse any request from his hosts for him to stay, for firm refusal might be met by forced imprisonment. Better, Lello said, to go easily with the Ottomans, be a willing guest and wait for the ideal opportunity to return home. Dallam might have felt some twinges of alarm at this point. 

The weekend of October the 12th, Dallam was invited back for a look round what he calls the Sultan’s privy chambers, his gold and his silvers, his chars of state. Dallam’s guide on this little private tour actually insisted he sit down in one of those chairs, draw a sword used, he said, to crown kings, and really get a feel for the royalty of it all. Many wonderful things Dallam was shown, not all of which he chose to write, but he did write down this next thing. His guide waved him over to a grate in the wall, beckoning him towards it but also signing that he himself could not go close. Dallam approached, probably feeling a cautious curiosity. What was he being urged to look on through this iron grate? 

At first he thought they were boys in the courtyard on the other side, but then he noticed their long hair hanging down their backs, and he wrote “I knew them to be women, and very pretty ones indeed.” He stared through, taking in the details of the 30 figures playing with a ball on the other side of the wall: their pearls, the jewels in their ears, their red or blue satin coats, their pants of a material so fine he could see the skin of their legs. He stared so long at these concubines that his guide, who would not himself dare to look, began to become impatient, angry even. He stamped his foot and violently gesticulated; his life was on the line should anyone come across them. Eventually, very slowly, Dallam drew himself back from the opening. Later that day, he excitedly told an interpreter what he’d seen, but was quickly hushed up; didn’t he realize that if a Turk heard him, his guide would be killed?! 

Then Dallam paused on a rare moment of reflection: the women he’d seen in the courtyard had not chanced to look up at the opening that entire time he’d looked in, but what if they had? What if they’d noticed him, this strange, unfamiliar face peering in at them from the grate? Surely, they’d have found him as novel and interesting as he’d found them. Surely, they’d have come over to look back into his face, and wonder at the sight of him, as he’d wondered at the sight of them. 

But it seems clear to me that it was not by coincidence, no lucky chance, that none of the concubines looked up and saw Dallam there at the window. Though there was only that iron grating separating the 2 courtyards, it may as well have been a one-way mirror, with the concubines on display as surely as if they’d been appearing to Dallam on a tv screen. Only those who were so privileged would look in, and, I think likely, nobody would be looking out. 

The following day was to be that of the Hector’s departure, and Dallam had his things brought aboard; he himself was on the ship when word came through from the palace that it could not leave. Lello heard word of this first, and initially he was deeply concerned. There was a daily penalty to payed to the ship’s owners if it did not leave on schedule, and he was particularly fearful that a member of the crew had inadvertently given offense to someone of importance. Further inquiries uncovered the truth though: there had been talk that it was the workman who’d set up the present who must stay, none other than Dallam himself!

Our poor friend had unwittingly found himself in a kind of Trainspotting moment. As Renton and Spud discuss before Spud’s job interview, if you don’t look like you’re trying, you’re off social assistance, but if you do too well you’re in danger of getting the job. Dallam had more to worry about than government programs - there was the imminent threat of beheading even as he performed, in his mind at least - and it seemed like he had in fact done too well; he’d been offered the job. And it didn’t look like he could refuse. 

Now, informed of this new development, that the Hector would be making its return journey without him, he lost his customary cool a little. He raged at Lello in despair of ever seeing his England again. Now, he bitterly lamented, had, quote, “come to pass which I ever feared, and that was that he [Lello] in the end would betray me, and turn me over into the Turk’s hands, where I should live a slavish life, and never company again with Christians… .” 

Lello was patiently sympathetic with him, hearing him out. He had, after all, got what he’d wanted, mostly. Mehmed was pleased at least, and that was all that mattered for now. Lello could afford to be patient, to put his hand on his shoulder, to say this delay was no plot of his own, to say he had no idea of it himself until just then, and and to say stay and worry not about this one little boat departing without you. The Hector wasn’t even going directly to England, but first to Iskenderun, a place so corrupt that many men would surely sicken and die there, and Dallam could easily travel more comfortably at some later date. All that, and Lello presumably didn’t want costly setbacks in the Hector’s sailing. Dallam accepted the ambassador’s arguments, so nobly did Lello seem to him to speak. He and that ship would be parting ways, but not for ever. He’d see the Hector again, and presumably Parsons too, in February when their paths home crossed, but that would not for a while yet.

For now, he was stuck in the sublime port of Constantinople and evidently itching to get home. He went immediately back to the palace complex, where he was wanted to see about setting up the organ in a different room, and there he was met with further hugs and embraces but also something a little disconcerting. As he walked down the steps and away from the building which had housed the instrument, one of the men who cared for that building, one who he’d dealt with before, suddenly seized him from behind and bodily hauled him back inside, dropping him, Dallam couldn’t help but notice, right next to the little house within the building where the Sultan’s brothers had all been strangled. Coming right after being prevented from leaving with the Hector, all of this might have badly rattled Dallam and any confidence he had in one day seeing England, but apparently he kept his cool. He simply asked his interpreter why the man had done this, and the man laughed; he’d only wanted to see what Dallam would do if forced to stay he said, through the interpreter. Well, Dallam replied, that was hardly necessary, for he would stay for as long as the Sultan desired. The situation defused, he returned to his work of moving the installation. 

Despite the repeated attempts to get him to stay, it seems the Sultan did not ultimately care if he did. Maybe he, or whichever palace figures had given Dallam their attention, simply lost interest in the man from Lancashire. They had the run of an immensely powerful empire, and new gifts and exotic delights would have been constantly paraded before their eyes; for how long could they have cared for this particular oddity? Lello might actually have hurried this process along; he was responsible, Dallam wrote, for keeping Dallam from going to his work one sabbath day, and I don’t know if Lello would have known this or not, but it was the day that the Sultan had decided to come and sit by Dallam and watch his work on the present. When Dallam didn’t show up, the visit was not rescheduled. Maybe other gifts, or matters of state, occupied Mehmed after that.

On Wednesday the 28th of November, Dallam departed from Constantinople in a Turkish ship, free to go but clearly not entirely confident that he would always be so. He was weak with fever, and Lello thought he should not go at all, that the return journey might the end of him. Dallam would hear none of it though. There was a group of promising travelling companions making their way for England, better than he might expect to go with for years to come, and besides, he’d rather die in the attempt than remain in the Ottoman city. He had found, he wrote, that he could not live if he stayed behind. 

Dallam’s journey home is an interesting series of events itself and not short on adventures and threats to his life, but I will not go into that here, not now. We’ve come to the end of the Dallam story that I intended to tell, and this seems like as good a place as any to make an ending. For now, let’s just say that Thomas Dallam entered London in late April of the year 1600 with his mate Harvey, 2 others, and a Spanish captain taken as prisoner on the return journey. 

Dallam would make true his lies as to a wife and family; he’d marry, have children, and go on to quite a career. Likely sailing on the success of his Ottoman adventures, he’d rise to great prominence in the resurgence of the English organ in the reign of King James I and beyond in the careers of his son and grandson. Actually, you can tell a pretty interesting story about English history and religion tracing a few hundred years of organ building, but I won’t be doing that today.  

What of the other characters we spoke of over the last 8 episodes? In Persia, the Safavid Shah Tahmasp was dead, as were his sons, Ismail and Mohammad, but Anthony Jenkinson, the man who visited the Shah, as well as Ivan the terrible and Suleiman the Magnificent, both long dead by this point, was, remarkably, still alive. Born in 1529, he had another decade to go before being buried at a Rutland church. In Morocco, the Saadi Sultan, Ahmad al-Mansur was still ruling when Dallam arrived home and would be for just a few more years yet. But then, in 1603 he was dead, and so were Mehmed III, the Ottoman Sultan who so enjoyed Dallam’s work, and Elizabeth too. It was a very bad year to be part of this story. Elizabeth’s death brought James I to the throne in England and with him a pivot back towards Spain, back towards the continent. Relations in Europe and with the Mediterranean world were going to shift, but that’s a story for a different time. 

And that magnificent organ with its clockwork figures and holly bush, the one that had so enchanted an Ottoman Sultan, it did not have long to live either, sadly. Mehmed’s son Ahmed I was less fond of the instrument, and he was more inclined than his father had been to take issue with its figures mimicking the creations of god. The story goes that he smashed it to pieces himself. 

Dallam then, would outlive perhaps his most noteworthy creation, but anyways there had been other organs along the way. That, and in the years 1599 and 1600 he’d been to Constantinople and back, and he’d lived to write about it. And for that, I am glad. 

Thomas Dallam 6: From Algiers to the Hellespont

The Hellespont

Welcome back to Human Circus, and welcome back to the journey of Thomas Dallam, carrying to Constantinople Elizabethan England’s gift for the Ottoman Sultan and with it any hopes for strong ongoing Anglo-Ottoman relations. In February, 1599, he’d left England, Elizabeth, and the merchants of the Levant Company behind. Ahead of him, waiting anxiously was Henry “the Fog” Lello, anxious for the gift that would allow him to remain in good standing and present himself before Mehmed III and to renegotiate the trade capitulations between the two sides. And Dallam, Dallam when we left him was leaving Algiers after a small taste of adventure on foreign shores. Last episode we saw him depart, saw him get a bit of experience at sea, and saw him quickly come loathe the captain of his ship, The Hector. This episode, sponsored by Luke and Annie, wonderful people both, I’ll be talking about that leg of the journey between Algiers and Constantinople and hopefully along the way getting a little at what Dallam was like, what fascinated, interested, or annoyed this organ builder from Lancashire.

When we left Dallam, and the Hector left Algiers, he headed east along the North African coast. He noted along the way what had been the city of Carthage and a little later the great and large town of Tunis with its compliment of Turkish galleys. Next came the island of Sicily, fruitful, famous, and pleasant, and rich with corn and fruit of all kinds, and then on the right, the island of Malta, ruled by the king of Spain but held by the Knights of Rhodes. And from there on east the Hector would sail. 

However, it wasn’t only pleasant lands and fortified port towns to be seen when out-a-sailing. On two occasions, other ships were sighted, and this was no time for a pleasant trumpet fanfare and figurative tip of the hat in passing. Instead, such moments offered the opportunity of practising a little casual piracy. The Hector was big enough to hold its own, and apparently fearsomely enough fitted out to provide plausible threat to a group of seven pirate ships; it was therefore threatening enough to take on some profits itself. Far from avoiding conflict at sea in order to best preserve his rather important cargo and mission, Captain Parsons couldn’t resist crimes of opportunity. One ship of Marseilles was boarded near Malta but, disappointingly, little of value was found aboard. Another, however, brought better luck. 

Seeing neither flight nor fight to be an attractive option, its captain instead put out with a boat of presents, bringing aboard the Hector Turkish carpets, silks, and some peculiar 7 or 8 foot salted fish that were completely unfamiliar to Dallam and the English sailors. Sadly, they were never to sample this new gastronomic delight, for Parsons, in a repeat of his encounter with the Dunkirkers, sent the captain safely on his way, and his gifts, including the salted fish, went with him. Again, his sailors were aggrieved, and understandably so. Their officers had boarded the ship and found great stocks of Spanish goods, and even if that cargo was not to be touched, they might at least have enjoyed a bit of silk and salted fish. But no. Their good captain announced to the crew that the ship and its cargo was from Chios where there was an English consul named Willyam Auldridge; he gave this and “other idle reasons,” Dallam wrote, dismissively asserting that Parsons had received some secret bribe, but maybe he was here treating the captain unfairly, the alleged money bag still too fresh in his memory.

Parsons may have truly had in mind that trouble would have been caused for Auldridge, for English trade more generally, and for himself and the Hector’s crew in particular, were he to plunder the ship or be seen to engage in piracy by accepting these “gifts” from its intimidated captain. He had some experience in safely taking merchant vessels into Ottoman lands, and he may have been familiar with cases like that of Peter Baker and the Bark Roe, who I mentioned in episode 3 of the Dallam series, cases where Englishmen had preyed on the wrong ships, in the wrong waters, or taken on the wrong cargo. He would have known, but Dallam may well not have.

And maybe Dallam’s cynical assumption of bribery and idle excuses was accurate, but he really doesn’t seem, based on his writing alone here, to have been in much of a position to judge Parsons’ stated reasons. He was not an experienced traveller or merchant, and though he had such men around him during the voyage, it’s not clear that he spoke to them at all. 

We know, for example, that John Sanderson was on the ship. Sanderson was a very experienced man, one who was making his third trip to Ottoman lands and who had served as Edward Barton’s assistant, standing in for him when Barton went to war, but in his admittedly brief writings on this trip, he makes no mention of Dallam. And Dallam never refers to Sanderson. He never refers by name to any of the Levant Company merchants in fact. When he has call to mention their activities, when he refers to their having done something, it’s always as “our merchants.” He won’t say Lello’s name, only ambassador or “my lord,” won’t say Parsons’ name, only “the ship’s master.” He will however name the boys and servants who die as the journey progresses: Thomas Cable, John Knill, and John Felton, and he’ll name the ship’s physician who he gathers herbs and roots with, his joiner who goes ashore with him, the coachman who accompanies him on a little adventure, the preacher who falls into a bit of misadventure. It very much seems that he spends his time at sea entertaining the men with his music, and when they come to shore he’s badgering his peers into joining him. He does not appear to have been mixing with experts when aboard, and his assessment of Parsons’ actions, as much as his distaste for the man amuses me, may not be entirely accurate. 

Having alluded to Dallam’s adventures ashore, let’s explore them here. It’s where you really start to get a sense for his character, his personality. Dallam was not the type of traveller to lock himself away in his hostel room, perusing modern classic paperbacks. The wide world was strange to him, but at every opportunity he was going to go out and see it, and if at all possible, touch it, taste it, and talk to it too. 

So when the Hector is nearby, he rows to Tarsus, the birthplace of Saul who would be the Christian Paul, and he picks Samphire, an intriguing sounding sea vegetable off the rocks there. He’s among those who go bargaining for food when food runs low at Chios, giving him the occasion to acquire and flip a bag of garlic for profit; and the provisions were running so low actually that they’d been eating only rice boiled in dirty water for three days. And when there’s the chance at what he refers to as Scandaroune, modern day İskenderun in Turkey, he is of course one of the men who goes ashore hunting.

On July 16th, the Master Gunner and two of his men, Dr. Chancie, a trumpeter, and Dallam and his mate John Harvie, all took up muskets, powder, and shot and went inland in search of wild fowl and wild beasts, namely foxes and swine. They entered the woods and looked to find some pathways, hoping to avoid tearing their clothes on the bushes. And things went well enough, except that every few boat-lengths or so they happened upon men lying in the bushes, men Dallam identified as mountaineers, and these so-called mountaineers all had a bow or other weapon. These were for killing wild fowl Dallam and his friends were sure, showing a mind-blowing degree of confidence in this strange land that the world was not about to snuff them out, and not at all making the kind of assumption that I would make were I to be wandering in unfamiliar woods and happen upon unknown armed men. 

But Dallam and his companions carried on, covering “some miles into the wilderness,” until they found themselves in a square of open plain. Ahead, they saw two great heads, and then they heard the thunderous snuffling sound they produced. Greater even than the mighty oxen they were familiar with, the two buffaloes went running off, probably startled by the men lurching ungracefully into their presence.

Then the men of the Hector were rudely awoken from their fauna inspired reverie by a sudden revelation. Forty of those mountaineers, those innocent hunters of fowl, were gathering round and clearly seeking to encircle them. Worse, looking back, they could no longer see their ship, not even the masts, for the trees were too high. So they fled, Dallam and the others, running now with little regard for pathways and less now for clothes. They tore through thorns and briars until, within a mile of the shore, they could see their ship. And with apparent ease they forgot the threat of the mountaineers as quickly as they had initially dismissed it, and they found a “fair fountain of very comfortable water.” Soon, Dallam’s reader finds that the page has turned to other matters, to the walls of Scandaroune’s houses and to the strange vermin that scamper up and about those walls. There is a reference to a great adder leaping down at them from a fruit tree, then the note: “A great number of such small matters I will omit.” 

Danger comes and goes somewhat casually in Dallam’s writing, and he certainly does not play it up to make of himself something braver or greater than he is. Maybe it’s because of his ignorance of the wider world that he does not really believe it can harm him; perhaps he is simply supremely and unquestioningly confident in his own wits and good sense. Really, it’s hard to know why he wrote the way he did without knowing why he wrote at all; who was he writing to? Did he intend ever to publish? He didn’t, as far as we know, and this despite a fair number of works on the Turks being published in early 17th century England, 3 in 1603 alone that we know of. 

Dallam does not, in any case, always face danger when he steps ashore. But he does always reveal something of his character, or at least his character in his own portrayal. When he goes looking for supplementary foodstuffs on Chios, it is against the wishes of the Captain. Parsons hears of his going when he is already down in the boat and tries to have him come back aboard, but neither Dallam nor the gentlemen he is going with will have any of it. Dallam informs the captain that he is but going ashore to drink some water and set foot on land a moment, and the men he his with hold him on either side. Seeing that Dallam and the company are indeed intent on going, the resigned Parsons warns them that to steal any mastick, cotton or grapes when on land will see them imprisoned for a full year, with no hope of freedom, and that if they had not returned when the Hector had taken on water then they would be left behind, but Dallam only writes, “but we feared not that.” He thought himself too valuable for the captain to leave him behind, and he was probably right. 

As it happened, there was little to fear on this little expedition. The whole thing wound up at a trade consul’s home, where they found the consul at a table with “6 very gallant gentlewomen, and very beautiful.” At first the consul greeted them warmly, but soon he had cause to regret their coming. All the common folk of the area came to see them, and they did so by climbing the walls around the consul’s home, walls which do not seem to have been made for this sort of thing. Repeatedly the consul chided them, I imagine like an irritable teacher making no headway at all with his students, but they would not be dissuaded. Eventually, under the increasing weight of the curious crowds and much to the consul’s profound irritation, great sections of the wall came tumbling down. Sensing they may no longer be quite as welcome, the company departed. 

As they left, Dallam wondered at the appearance of the women he saw, stating that no part of the world could compare to the women of the country for their beauty, and he also found time in his writing here for another little dig at Captain Parsons. They should have had a much better time of it if only they’d gone to the larger city just a few miles further; there was after all an English consul there, but the unbearable Parsons would not put in at the city, quote, “for fear of being put to some charge; for he was very miserable and sparing man, all for his own profit, and not regarding to satisfy other men’s desires, or to give his passengers any content.” Maybe Parsons really was just such a miserable fellow, driven only by his own grim pursuit of monetary gain and immune to the cares of others, or maybe he had his own good reasons for not wanting to go to the larger city and the complications they might more likely find themselves entangled in there. This was not, after all, a pleasure cruise undertaken to entertain Dallam and his fellows; there was an important mission being undertaken here.    

But Dallam wasn’t too concerned about that mission, not until he reached his destination at least. He was like the closer in a baseball game who knows he’ll never need to pitch before the 9th inning, and so he can, and may as well, relax until then. And relax and enjoy himself as best he could, he did. Probably Dallam’s longest description of any event in his travels is reserved for a curious little excursion on Zante, a Greek island held by the Venetian Doge but for which tribute was paid to the Ottoman Sultan.

When the Hector came to anchor at the town or city of the same name, Dallam looked up past the town to the steep hills beyond. He saw the castle from which the proveditore ruled. He wrote of currant gardens, olive groves, and vineyards. But he couldn’t go ashore, not yet, for they had come from Algiers, and the occupants of any ship which had come from any part of the Turkish domains must provide a Venetian written letter of health or wait 10 days at sea or in the prison before they could freely walk about. The men of the Hector, I see no mention of any women aboard, waited 6 days before they were allowed to proceed, and in those 6 days, Dallam “took great notice of a little mountain…” which, he said, “seemed to be very pleasant place to take a view of the whole island and the sea before it.” Being forced to just sit there with little to distract him from that little mountain, nurtured a healthy obsession in Dallam’s mind. He would be going to that mountain. He made a promise to himself in fact, a vow. And he started working on a couple of his shipmates, Michael Watson and Edward Hale, bringing them round to the idea of joining him.   

And they seem to have been reluctant. That’s really indicated I guess by the fact that he had to convince them at all, but when the opportunity came to go, he challenged them with their word, [You did say you would go with me.] And so they did go off together. They slipped a little something to some sailors who brought them round to what they thought was the foot of the hill, but when they reached land they found they were still some 2 miles off. I’m sure at this point that Watson and Hale were all for getting right back on the boat, but whether the sailors had already departed or Dallam bullied them into agreement, they did eventually continue on and find their way to the bottom of the little mountain. It was early in the morning and they began to climb. 

After half a mile, they looked up and saw a figure uphill, alone but wearing a cape from which 5 horns seemed to be protruding and carrying a great clubbed staff. Dallam and his friends were basically unarmed. They’d been told they had to be when they went ashore, so they only had small cudgels in their hands. And Watson was afraid already. This was probably a shepherd out tending to his flock; he actually had great herds of sheep and goats with him, but Watson was not convinced. He wanted to go back. Surely, the place was inhabited by savage men, savage men who might easily do them wrong, for they had neither sword nor dagger to their hands. However, Watson was eventually talked into going on, so on they went, on until they were closer to the man. They could see now that he was definitely a herdsman, but Watson had gone as far as he would, as far as his fear would allow him to. He actually swore that he would not take another step forward, come of it what may, and Hale really didn’t sound much more confident, muttering quietly that he would not leave Dallam alone. Watson stayed, and the other two went on.

It’s easy to laugh at the timid Watson here. Just go on you think; travel is an exciting experience and you have to try new things. But this was really not a question of partaking in a bit of local colour, a festival perhaps, rather than watch from the sidelines. This is more along the lines of encountering a stranger away from town in a western movie, where, outside of any sense of order and civility, only your own mastery of violence can save you from it. Watson was very, very, far from town. Really, town, the place of any kind of comprehensible order, was as far away for him as London, or its stand in the Hector. Should this herdsman see fit to strike them down on the hillside, and Watson rather thought he would, then there was nothing to prevent him from doing so.

But of course he didn’t. Watson lingered on the hill, probably ducking down behind some bushes in case that herdsman changed his mind, and the intrepid Dallam and somewhat less enthusiastic Hale continued. They came to a man leading two horses down towards the town, and this man too did not crack them on the head. Instead he smiled, bowed his body towards them, hand to chest, and indicated that they should carry on up the hill. Oddly, this passing encounter, hospitable enough in Dallam’s description, unhinged Hale a little more; he wanted very badly to go back, but Dallam insisted that to stop now would be to break the vow that he, Dallam, had made with himself, and Hale must go with him. 

As they reached the top, they found a green space and a small square dwelling, which Dallam later learned had once housed an anchoress, a religious woman who had lived for 500 years and only recently died. Across the green was another building some 20 paces long, and as they looked on a man within passed a copper kettle through the window to another man on the outside. Dallam, clearly being the sort of person who’s very comfortable approaching strangers, immediately started forward, for he was thirsty, while Hale, certainly not that sort of person, hung back. 

Dallam found, when he had presented himself and his thirst in pantomime to the strangers that they did not offer him the kettle of water. Rather they presented a silver bowl of red wine. Delighted, Dallam called upon to Hale to approach and join him in a “carrouse to all our friends in England,” but of course Hale only shouted that he really ought to reconsider drinking the strangers’ wine. With a shrug, Dallam drank and found, to his delight, that it was the best that ever he drank, and when the bowl was refilled with white wine he pronounced it to be even tastier than the first. Hale meanwhile, overcame his fright enough to approach and take a little water. 

Now Dallam was faced with the question of how he ought to express his appreciation. Might payment be the proper thing? Unfortunately he had only a Spanish silver coin with him, and that was waved away when he offered it. Next he tried one of the two small knives he carried, gilded and graven. This was more excitedly received. His two new friends even proceeded to wrestle over it before the victor ushered him bodily round the house and into what turned out to be a pew within a curiously painted and decorated chapel. Following a religious service, of which Dallam could make no sense at all, they went back into the house. There they sat down to a meal, and while Hale abstained, Dallam helped himself to good bread, good cheese, an egg, and good wine. And then 7 very young women and one very ancient woman who was dressed all in black came forward. Dallam wrote that he thought that were nuns, but also that presently he knew they were not. Sensing that a transaction might be possible, he tried everything. To the closest young woman he offered the bowl of wine, the coin, his other knife, but she only earnestly thanked him for the gift of the knife with signs and bows. 

Presently, they left, collecting Watson on the way down. Apparently he had been laying in the bushes the whole time and was not only highly embarrassed but by this time also extremely hungry, not having been able to take advantage of the excellent local bread, cheese, and wine. Down into town they went, where they met with their fellow passengers. There, in a house which bore the sign of a white horse, a kind of pub perhaps, Dallam regaled them with the story of his morning. He heard from a local man that likely no Englishman had ever entered the house on the top of the hill before, and the rest of his audience were also highly interested. Nine of the gentlemen listening were so interested that they immediately hired a guide and went for a look themselves. From the guide they learned the required procedure: first, make an offering of money at the chapel; then, they should have all kinds of entertainment. Very late that evening they returned to heartily thank Dallam for what they’d seen. 

It’s an odd little story, at least in the depth of detail Dallam invests it with, the sheer amount of time he spends writing about in contrast to other events. Clearly, it was important to him. He was excited by his little adventure to the house. Again, it’s hard to say who he was writing this for, but he was proud to share, or perhaps only to remember, this portrayal of himself as a confident explorer, and a breaker of new ground, and his colleagues as alternatingly frightened and bumbling, and sometimes both. Of course, there is an element of bumbling to his own behaviour in the story. There’s his uncertainty as to what he’s found himself in the middle of and how the transaction is supposed to work, his attempt to press his Spanish silver coin first on his initial host and then on the women, but he seems content enough with his share of the experience, a half day spent atop the hill of that Greek island, in exotic surroundings and enjoying the best wine that ever he’d had, and laughing at the expense of Ned Hale the coachman. Not a bad morning at all really. 

There’s something else the story brings up though, and it’s in that mention of the anchoress, that 500 year old anchoress who had unfortunately died just before our friend’s arrival. If you don’t know, an anchoress, or an anchorite, is a devotee who has withdrawn from secular society and confined themselves to one space, a cell, where they pursue their religious life in confinement, and in seclusion from the world of man, the fallen world within which their life has effectively ended. 

One of the things that really springs out to me in reading Dallam’s description of his journey is the lack of religious references in describing the landscape. There are some; for example, there’s the mention of passing Saul’s Tarsus, and there is talk of the island of Rhodes once held by Christian knights, but when comparing this to my last series, following the travels of Johann Schiltberger at the end of the 14th century and the early 15th, the difference is quite stark. With so many of the locations described by Schiltberger, or the Schiltberger scribe, it’s the saint that lived there and the miracles that had occurred there that define the town or city. There’s really nothing of the sort in the Dallam. Some of the difference comes of course because Schiltberger passes through the Holy Land, but I don’t think this is responsible for the disparity in its entirety. It’s just that that is not how Dallam understands his landscape; he doesn’t move in a world made comprehensible by the transcendent. So when we hear that the 500 year old anchoress has only recently died, it reminds me a bit of the elves going west in The Lord of the Rings and of the disenchantment of Middle Earth. For a man like Dallam, the magic of the saints no longer animated the world as it had for Schiltberger just 200 years earlier. I realize a sampling of two is nothing to build broader generalizations upon, but the contrast is very noticeable.

What did animate Dallam’s world? Maybe to ask this question of Dallam is really to ask what piqued his interest, what in all of the new things that surrounded him he saw fit to record. Let’s take a moment here to turn to those. 

One theme that contrasts with the sparsity of Christian references is the relative prominence of those to the Ancient world. There are mentions of the birthplaces of Pythagoras and Helen, and of the walls of Troy. Dallam, ever the forerunner of the modern tourist, goes ashore with a hammer brought along for the purpose and hammers out for himself a chunk of ancient history; he actually takes a piece of what he identifies as a Trojan pillar as a souvenir.

A new practice or way of doing things also seems to have always caught his attention. There was the method for hatching chickens in Algiers, and there was is another bird related innovation that he seized on immediately: carrier pigeons. Dallam writes of sitting in a merchant’s house in Scandaroune, and of the pigeons feeding there amongst them in the house. Suddenly, they are joined by a new arrival, a white-coated pigeon which is greeted with a “Welcome, Honest Tom,” from the merchant, who picks him up and takes a letter from beneath his wing. Dallam marvelled that it was from Aleppo, 3 score and 12 miles distant by his reckoning, and had been dispatched only 4 hours earlier, truly a remarkable feat! He thought the whole thing truly strange, but soon observed that it was actually accomplished quite regularly and always took only 4 hours. 

Food seems also to have merited a mention. There were grapes taken from the wines, though this provoked beatings and the loss of some garments at the hand of local Greeks. Bread and hens were purchased from other Greeks, with less violent results. There were sweet meats, little cakes, and good raspberry drink on Chios; and at other places great stocks of fowl or wild swine; a bread of millet finer than any of wheat; and fresh water, fresh water wherever it might be found was by far the most mentioned consumable. The alternative was, after all, the stinking and foul water of a ship too long away from land.  

And then there were the Janissaries. Dallam admired those he identified as the soldiers of Damascus tremendously, saying that “every day would come riding to the seaside a great company of brave horsemen, with their lances and other weapons.” Over some days he expressed interest in these men, again calling them “brave,” noting their lances, bows, and scimitars, and concluding that “Not only their manner of shouting, but their bows and arrows be strange.” He even seems to have made attempts to talk to them, but found the language barrier insurmountable. Really, I find it striking that he chose to approach these armed men of faraway lands at all. They were the same soldiers whose presence had prevented The Hector from bringing its goods to land to be shipped to Damascus, for fear that they would simply take it by force. His doing so seems to indicate to me either an unshakeable confidence in the basic decency and approachability of humans the world over, or an unreflective assumption that as an English subject of the Queen, and one who had performed for the Queen no less, he had nothing to fear from a world which would surely not seek to offer him harm. Or maybe he was moved by some other impetus. Not being a confident and curious 16th century English organ builder, it’s hard for me to say.  

At other times, Dallam had an eye for fortifications and the strength of walls, though not, I think, born of any great technical or tactical knowledge. Rather, he would admire a strong or sometimes very strong town, its stout walls, and sometimes the armaments upon them. Rhodes, for what it’s worth, gets his stamp of approval here, for having walls that were not just strong or very strong, but marvelously strong and with an impressive display of great ordinance. He also mentions having a pitcher of wine while on Rhodes, but though he remarks that it only cost them one penny, he does not compare it to the heavenly stuff which he’d tasted in that hilltop house.

Rhodes is also the scene for another of his pet subject matters: encounters with “the Turk.” They had hardly dropped anchor in the harbour, which they shared with a large Ottoman galleon, when the Hector was swarmed by “five hundred Rude Turks,” his words, not mine. The next day brought guests of greater importance, the deputy of the governor, or Pasha, and several important men of the island, and the people of the Hector sought to make them welcome as they might be and, being as they were in the middle of a longish voyage, that meant an impromptu virginal concert in the gunroom. Fortunately, the deputy and his company seemed very pleased by the performance. Dallam wrote that “Diverse of them would take me in their arms and kiss me, and wish that I would dwell with them.” He doesn’t say what he makes of this exactly. The evening ended with the traditional gift giving, a length of broadcloth sufficient for the Pasha to have a vest or gown. All seemed well.

However, on the following day, two from the Hector were arrested in town, and Dallam himself only escaped this fate because one of the locals who’d so enjoyed his music the night before signalled to him that trouble was on the way and that he should leave as quickly as he could. Dallam and his buddies scurried off while Mr. Maye, the preacher, and an under butler, locked in conversation round a fountain, were scooped up and locked away.They somehow got a letter through the next day, saying that they were chained to a post and couldn’t sit down, were periodically threatened with whippings and, quote, “were not able to endure that miserable life and sharp punishment.” Dallam remarked, either in dry lack of sympathy or to emphasize their dramatic plight, that the letter read as if they had been imprisoned for 7 years.

Both under butler and preacher are going to be rescued from their unpleasant predicament; the whole thing turns out to be a matter of slighted pride and that deputy not receiving his due in the form of an appropriate present, and not just something to pass along to his pasha. So the situation was resolved easily enough once the problem was clearly understood. Parsons and the 5 merchants who accompanied him protested that the deputy was hindering the progress of the Sultan’s present and even threatened to send word to the Sultan letting him know the cause of the delay. However, the deputy felt secure enough in his position to hold out for the gift he deemed he was owed. Dallam summed up the moral of the story with the words “Here you may see the base and covetous condition of these rude and barbarous dogged Turks, and how little they do regard Christians.”

However, it’s not totally clear who was at fault here. I mean, maybe menacing the preacher and under-butler with whippings, and keeping them chained upright to a post, was a bit excessive, and maybe that deputy was acting out of a swollen sense of self-importance and throwing his weight about in unexpected ways, really taking advantage of the absence of his superior. But I also think back to the advice of Harborne, the English ambassador I talked about a few episodes ago, advice given to a newly arrived consul that it was better for him to pretend to be sick on arrival and completely avoid social engagements than it was to stumble through not knowing who was owed what, in honours and in gifts. And whether you thought of them as freely-given gifts or as thinly-veiled bribes, presents were a really important part of the economy, and of progressing safely through and achieving one’s desired ends in the Ottoman world. Really, it’s somewhat surprising that with men like Sanderson, making his third trip, Parsons, who had at least some experience in the area, and the merchants of the Levant Company, that at least a token gift would not be provided to a local official come aboard.  

On another occasion, perhaps having learned his lesson on Rhodes, Parsons acted with more awareness of the gift issue. Actually, he fled at the first sign of a Turkish vessel seeking to make contact, even when he learned that there were two Englishmen aboard, and he did so, Dallam writes, because he knew he’d be obliged to give its captain a gift. As it happened, the two men only wanted to warn the Hector that a Turkish admiral’s ship, and 15 other galleys, were approaching, so that they may act appropriately. More gift troubles were ahead.

Sure enough, soon after the men of the Hector saw them coming down the Hellespont, that waterway between the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean. Dallam wrote admiringly of the “marvelous show,” which they made. He seems to have appreciated the people of this part of the world most when they were, one way or another, all dressed up for war. Quote, “they were so curiously painted with fair colours and good varnish. The slaves that were in them rowing sat all naked. As they were rowing towards Tenedoes, the wind came fair for them, and then they cut their sails, and the slaves were covered with a piece of canvas that spread over them all. When the galleys were under sail they showed much better than they did before. The sails were made of cotton wool, and one cloth very white, and another very blue, and the masts of the same colours.”    

As the galleys sailed by, Parsons gave the order for the appropriate acknowledgement, which meant unleashing a salvo of respectful cannon-fire. It was poorly done, Dallam wrote, but at least the nearby walls of Troy made for echoes which rolled back and made each piece sound like five, but echoes or not, the admiral was not pleased. He sent over a galley demanding to know why he’d been saluted so poorly, and for that matter where his present was. Rather awkwardly, Parsons found himself having to explain that his present was in fact packed up below decks and he didn’t even know which one it was. The admiral would just have to wait until the Hector docked, like everyone else, like the Sultan. And as for the poor show of guns, well, he said, shovelling out a little lie, he hadn’t known it was the admiral’s vessel. Surely, if he had he would have fired off everything his ship had. 

The admiral’s representative was only slightly mollified by this explanation however, for he made clear that wherever the admiral’s primary gift may currently be stored, something was going to need to be coughed up right there and then; furthermore, he would quite like a little something for himself. Two holland chests were eventually found that would do for the admiral, and, after initially insisting that he honestly had nothing left on the boat to give, Parsons came up with some tobacco and pipes for the captain. And just in case you’re wondering, yes, Dallam does also sometimes mention officials coming aboard and bringing gifts of their own to give, though that certainly doesn’t seem to have been the case here. The two sides parted, and another round of shot was offered up as the admiral went on his way, and the Hector closed in on the final stretch, up the Hellespont and towards Constantinople. 

And that’s where we’ll leave Dallam for now, becalmed as it happens, and preparing to transfer over to a smaller boat which the Ambassador Lello had sent from Constantinople. He’s heard that they’re making no progress and waiting on the wind, not to mention the fact that there’s a sailor aboard who may have the plague, and, as you’ll understand if you’ve been following at least the last few episodes of this series, he’s pretty anxious for them all to arrive. That’ll be for next episode, the arrival of the famous organ and its maker, our main character, at last making his grand delivery. And we’ll see how Dallam fits in, how he fits in like an elephant shaped peg in a square hole, with the deadly serious business of the sublime port and the imperial court.

Thomas Dallam 5: Dallam Departs

Thomas Dallam’s Story

Welcome back to Human Circus, and welcome back to my series on the life and times of Thomas Dallam, with the emphasis thus far squarely on the times and the life aspect rather lacking. Today, in exciting news, Dallam has arrived. At last, he will leave London for the court of Sultan Mehmed III, and we’ll be talking about it. If this is your first time listening to the podcast, you won't know why this is so exciting for me, but you see, I initially picked out Dallam’s story as an interesting one to cover back when I was talking about Schiltberger and Timur. I thought this would make a nice one or two parter; a man sails to Constantinople with an organ, quick and easy. Further reading on the subject led to what was basically a six episode prequel, on Elizabethan engagement with the Islamic world and on how those worlds were not so distinct as we might imagine, a story within the story of 16th century globalization you could say. But now it's Dallam time; there’ll be sailing and piracy and the sight of new lands. First though, let's recap.

And let's not be exhaustive about it. Let's just keep in mind that in Constantinople Mehmed is sultan, though some portion of the real power was said to have rested with his mother Safiye and even with Safiye’s financial agent Esperanza Malchi, at this time not yet murdered by the palace cavalry. The English ambassador Edward Barton has died, and his successor Henry Lello is waiting anxiously for the appropriate gifts to be sent from England, the gifts without which he will not be able to present himself to the Sultan and be recognized as an ambassador for Queen Elizabeth. And the gifts were late, embarrassingly, appallingly, late, not just because they were needed so that Lello could have his audience with the sultan but also because some material acknowledgment was really required that Mehmed had become the sultan. A congratulations card of sorts was in order, and it was long, long, overdue. Edward Barton had literally died waiting for it. Mehmed had become sultan in early 1595 and Dallam leaves in 1599. It's a bit of a gap.

And Lello, holding it all together in Constantinople was, though apparently a well educated man, not the energetic and charming fellow who'd come before him. His nickname was actually “Fog” on account of his melancholic character and he seems to have inspired a certain amount of dislike, scorn really, for his awkward and anxious manner. You can see it descriptions of him speaking to the Ottomans, how he stood, quote, “like a modest housewife, and began a trembling speech in English… Sounding like the squeaking of a goose divided into semiquavers.” Personality aside, Lello lacked the great depth of on the job in the Ottoman Empire experience that Barton had started with, and now, the English commercial agreements having lapsed with Murad’s death, he was the one who'd need to renegotiate them. Something needed to be done, but how did Dallam come into this?

Sadly, a lot of the details are missing here. Maybe Barton’s suggestion, a rooster shaped clock from Elizabeth's palace, inspired the idea of something clock related? Whatever the thinking behind it, we do know that the Levant Company commissioned the item, and this is interesting in itself. It was undoubtedly important to both crown and company to smooth things over with the Ottomans, but, as had happened before, Elizabeth and her councillors were in no way going to be persuaded to foot the bill. So, again, that was left up to the company.

The company’s contract was with a man named Randolph Bull, a London goldsmith, and he must have been responsible for the elaborate casing and the decorative elements, while Dallam took charge of the workings of the device. The results sound spectacular. 

It was an organ and a clock, 5.5 feet wide, 4.5 deep, and 12-16 high, with a 4 foot disparity between the initial specifications and Dallam's accounting. There was to be a keyboard at which an organist could play, and 4 times a day it would play itself. There would be a 24 hour clock face and a 16 bell chime; upon the corners part way up, two figures should be crafted to raise silver trumpets to their lips and blow; higher, a holly bush of birds which would sing and shake their wings; somewhere about the machine were to go the representations of 7 planets, each to appear at their time and present their symbol; the base was to be made of oak and raised above the ground by 5 bronze lions. All about were to be decorative friezes, pillars, and turrets. 

And there was more! A bejewelled Queen Elizabeth was to be surrounded by 8 men and a pair of angel trumpeters to flank her. Above that was to be a human head topped by a rooster, something I've seen and been confused by on a building in Prague, with crescent marked pyramids to either side. And the list of clockwork movements that should be produced starts to get absurd: the true movement of the moon, armed men striking a great bell at noon, the 8 figures around the queen bowing toward her in turn and and being acknowledged by a movement of her sceptre, an angel turning an hour glass, and so on, and on and on. But we don't know how much of this made the final design. Dallam does mention birds, silver trumpeters, planets, and “diverse other motions,” so it's up to us to imagine, but you should imagine something pretty impressive. 

In November of 1598, the organ made its first grand performance at the London Banqueting Hall. It was a canvas topped pavilion, but we should not think of the kind of thing you might now rent for an outdoor event. This was painted, garlanded, featured exotic fruits of all kinds, tiered flooring, and 292 glass lights, and it apparently took 3 weeks for 375 men to build. The temporary structure stood from 1581 until the 4th year of King James’ reign. It would have been a grand setting for the organ’s performance, but the performance too we will have to imagine.

Before an audience composed of the queen, her court, and her merchants, perhaps others, the machine proved its worth as the kind of prestige present that they wanted to impress the sultan with. And Dallam, it's presumably proud creator, said basically nothing of it, at least not in the portion of his writings that we know of. He will allude to the event, remarking here or there that having performed for the queen he has nothing to worry about in later challenges, but that's all he has to say about what must have been a pretty special moment in his life. Who was this Thomas Dallam?

Unfortunately, Dallam’s background is difficult to trace in any great detail. We know what he went on to become in terms of his great success in the business of organ building, notably an organ for King’s College of Cambridge and for Worchester Cathedral, and we can see that success transmitted down through his sons’ and grandson’s accomplishments in the same field, but of his past, there is less. I have seen it suggested in one source that his family may have been recusant Catholics of noble lineage, but I have not seen that claim repeated. 

We do know that he was from Lancashire, born around 1575, and that he moved to London where he entered the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths as an apprentice and became a liveryman, a free man with rights to wear that guild’s uniform or insignia. Surely he must have thrived, must have achieved successes of some kind to have drawn the Levant Company merchants’ attention when they came to commission the all-important gift. Or perhaps his inclusion on the project was always an afterthought. The original contract was after all not with him, but with the goldsmith; maybe Dallam’s addition came later. 

At some point, it must have been decided that he should actually accompany his creation. It doesn’t seem to have been in the initial plans, or at least Dallam did not know of those initial plans -he writes of having to make his preparations in a rush and without the benefit of advice - but his making the journey made sense. The organ was a fairly delicate instrument complete with a multitude of moving parts, and it was going to be dismantled and carried to Constantinople by sea. Of course its maker ought to go with it, and he would not go alone. He would take his mate John Harvey, responsible for the clockwork elements, Rowland Buckett, a painter and son of a London shoemaker, and Michael Watson, a joiner who I've seen described as a timid and fearful fellow. Whatever their other shortcomings the small crew would be responsible for making the present look appropriately presentable at the end of its ocean voyage.

If our picture of his early years is incomplete, his hurried arrangements for departure are pretty clear to us thanks entirely to Dallam’s wonderfully scrupulous accounting. It's how the text of his travels begins. In pounds, shillings, and pence, he records an itemized list of expenses, so we know for example that he got one hatband for 4 shillings, 2 pence, but spent much less on the second one, only 1 shilling. We know that he spent quite a bit on clothing actually: 1 pound 2 shillings on a suit of sackcloth to wear at sea and 1 pound 18 on a presumably nicer one; 3 shirts reads one entry and then 6 shirts more another; there are items for a dozen handkerchiefs, a pair of garters, and 2 pairs of stockings, not many for a lengthy sea voyage one might think, but on the other hand he has 3 pairs of shoes which total up to the cost of his single hat. He also lists a chest to put everything in.

One of Dallam’s more expensive items is a pair of virginals, something like a small harpsichord, that he perhaps brought along for entertainment but which will come to bear on his story. He takes along an arming sword, a one-handed weapon, and a number of knives, though the latter he seems to use as gifts on his travels. There are bars of tin, perhaps to be used in potential repairs on the organ or perhaps in currency or trade. Finally, there is food. There is oatmeal, 10 pence worth, but there are also spices and seasonings: sugar, nutmeg, mace, cloves, and pepper, along with oil and vinegar and prunes and raisins. Dallam evidently planned to augment his diet while aboard the ship, at least in flavour and fibre if not much in nutrition, and of course most of these foodstuffs which he was now carrying from England would have had to have been shipped there. I find this a really interesting detail actually, that already, in the 16th century, a London craftsmen might be so attached to the use of imported spices like mace and nutmeg as to not leave them behind when travelling.

Dallam’s final items on the list are for lodgings: at Graves End, at Deale Castell, at Dartmouth, at Plymouth, and then one at Argeare in Barbarie, Algiers in fact, but there we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little. Dallam hasn’t left England yet. But he's about to.

He leaves London on the ninth of February, a Friday he tells us, and joins the Hector, his ship, at Graves End. He loads his chest aboard and then passes some days in town, waiting for the Hector and its cabins to be made ready for passengers. By the afternoon of the 13th, all is ready, and they sail along the coast to Deal, north of Dover, and wait there 4 days for a wind to take them, an immediate reminder of how dependent they are upon nature. And the wait is too much for some. When the wind came it was nighttime and Dallam tells us that some of the company had taken to drinking too merrily in the town. A man was dispatched to gather them up, but one of the Hector’s five trumpeters was past the point of reason, or maybe he'd just come to his senses regarding the relative merits of life on the waters. He locked the door of his chamber, and when the man from the ship called up to him from beneath his window he called down a series of insults in response, much, I imagine, like the French soldier in Quest for the Holy Grail. This was one trumpeter who would not be going to sea. For the rest, “the wind serving well, [they] sailed merrily by Dover, and so along the Sleve,” the ship’s remaining musicians playing their farewells. Yes, dear listener, Thomas Dallam has left England. 

He will not have to wait for foreign lands to find adventure. Roughly 30 leagues to sea, he writes that a contrary wind came up and stormed marvellously for 8 and 40 hours. They were not far from home but already they had lost the Lanerett, the vessel which was to accompany them as far as the Adriatic, and soon in a stormy night and a foggy day in which they could not see the sun, they had lost themselves. As the sky eventually cleared, they recognized their position, all but upon the rocks, rocks which Dallam misleadingly identified as lying between England and Ireland. In imminent danger, his description here is quite wonderful:

Then our mariners did labour to get into the main ocean again, but the storm not altogether ceasing, but the fog more increasing, we were the next day at a non plus again, not knowing where we were, but being under sail, and the fog very thick. Upon a sudden we saw the sea break against the shore, the which was very great rocks, and we were so near the shore that it was not possible to cast about in time to save ourselves from shipwreck, but it pleased almighty God so to defend us from harm that were just before the harbour at Dartmouth, a very strait entry betwixt great rocks that are on both sides of that entry. Then we are all very joyful, and entered in there very willingly.

- Thomas Dallam, February

We won’t often hear Dallam thank God or attribute much of anything to his doing, but here on the brink of disaster in home waters he does. Perhaps it being near his home made it easier and more natural to see the actions of God in a recognizable world. Maybe, as we’ll come to see, Dallam’s world was, simply put, less permeated by God than Schiltberger’s had been, just 200 years before. But we’ll get to that. 

At Dartmouth they sent out riders up and down the coast and they heard news of the Lanerret. Apparently it had lost its topmast in the storm, been chased by privateers known as Dunkirkers, and had run aground in efforts to evade them. Word had been sent that it would make its way to Plymouth, and there indeed they found it, but they also found further signs of trouble, and yes, they still hadn’t really, finally, completely left England. In the Plymouth sound was a little caravel, and as the Hector made its way out on March 16th, the caravel’s occupants recognized the larger ship and sounded a trumpet to request a parley. Two sailors came across and boarded the Hector. Their information was not encouraging.

It seemed that they had previously been on a much larger ship than the caravel, a man of war from Plymouth named the Plough, but the Plough had been taken by 7 ships of Dunkirkers, the same who had chased the Lanerett, and these Dunkirkers knew of the Hector. They had demanded information on its whereabouts from the Plough’s crew, killing some to loosen the tongues of the others. “Where was the Hector? Had it departed yet?” they demanded to know, questions the unfortunate sailors of the Plough could hardly answer. Many of those sailors were now missing, and to just 6 the Dunkirkers had given the caravel and sent them on their way - one wonders why actually, what the 6 had done to earn this odd bit generosity. The two survivors on board the Hector concluded their story by urgently warning the Hector’s master not to go to sea, not without a great company at least, and it seems sound advice. Perhaps, to ask of it by name, the pirates knew something of the Hector’s purpose, or maybe they needed only to know of it as a ship which traded in far off Ottoman lands to guess that it would yield a rich cargo. Either way, the Hector was now hunted by pirates, 7 sails worth, and well before it reached the anticipated dangers of corsairs or Spanish privateers on the Mediterranean.

So, naturally, the ship’s captain proclaimed that he “would not stay one hour for any more company than God had already sent him,” and, ignoring all warnings, the Hector sailed forth with the Lanneret quickly falling well behind it. By the 8 the next morning, 3 sails were spotted, and soon after, another 4. Evasion was likely possible but the captain deemed it best not to show themselves as cowards; the wind could always turn against them and then the Dunkirkers would only be encouraged in their attack. Instead, they prepared for contact: the gunners made ready their ordinances, the cloths known as fightes were hung about the middle of the ship to conceal the men, and muskets and bandoliers were handed out to all. Then they turned to confront their would-be pursuers.

It was not an inexperienced man in charge. He’s never mentioned by name in Dallam’s text, but the master of the Hector was Captain Richard Parsons. Dallam will grow to despise him, but he seems to have been considered very capable, and he'd sailed this way before, carrying William Harborne, England’s first ambassador, to Constantinople in fact. And the ship he commanded was no easy pickings for pirates. As I've mentioned in a previous episode, there was less than you'd think separating a merchant vessel of this type from a man of war, and the great bulk of the ships which faced the Spanish Armada had been armed merchantmen. The Hector, at 300 tons, was of the largest class of these merchantmen, their construction subsidized by a government that knew well their value in national defence. It carried 27 guns, around half the larger 9-pounders and the rest a mix of smaller pieces. 

As the two sides closed, the captain had the Hector swing about so that the Dunkirkers should see for the first time its full length and complement of gun ports. As he’d hoped, the pirates, thinking they’d accidentally confronted one of the queen’s ships, turned and fled, with the Hector in pursuit. But the Hector was big and fast, and within a half hour had brought them into range of its guns. Three warning shots were given without effect, so the master gunner was ordered shoot his next through the admiral’s mainsail. This did have effect, and the 7 ships were ordered in alongside the Hector under threat of sinking, and herded reluctantly along, all the while their crews largely keeping out of sight below decks.

If Captain Parsons had thus far acquitted himself admirably in fending off threats both natural and otherwise, it was right here, in the aftermath of the Dunkirkers event, that Dallam’s opinion of him permanently soured. When 3 of the Dunkirkers’ captains came aboard, a member of Dallam's crew saw that one carried beneath his arm “a good long money bag full of something,” and as the 3 went with Parsons into this cabin, the muttering amongst the men would have been deafening. Meanwhile, the Dunkirkers who'd brought the 3 captains aboard were standing about the deck, presumably idly smoking and trying not to look nervous or something similar, and one of the Hector’s sailors steps forward and says: I know this man! He's an Englishman. And the pirate denies this, denies everything, denies being able to speak or even understand English, and of course he does all of this in perfectly good English. 

Now curiosity is spreading, and a mate and a few others have taken some sailors for a look round 3 or 4 of the ships, so just as the Captain Parsons comes out from his quarters to declare the ships to be carrying wine for the King of France, this exploration party returns to report that the ships contain nothing but soldiers and a wide variety of weapons. Parsons is rather perturbed by this contradiction, angered and embarrassed. He sends the Dunkirkers on their way and reserves his irritation for his officers, and Dallam is not alone in his bitterness. In his view, and that of many on the ship I'm sure, they’d had a fantastic opportunity to bring into England a prize, in the 7 ships, like no other merchantman had managed, and the glory of its taking which would have been shared all round. What they'd got instead was that long moneybag for the captain. Parsons had essentially taxed the pirates’ plunder.

In a kind of postscript to these events, Dallam writes that those 7 ships, which they could so easily, and profitably, have brought in, were well known to have then robbed or taken 60 ships of England and other countries. Piracy was alive and well not only off the Spanish and Barbary coasts. Henceforth, Dallam's account of Parsons would be coloured by disdain, and this would not prove to be an isolated incident of the captain putting his own interests first. For now though, he had steered them to safety through both natural and unnatural threats.

The 24th there came an infinite body of porpoises about our ship, the which did leap and run marvellously. The 25th we saw 2 or 3 great monstrous fishes or whales, the which did spout water up into the air, like as smoke does ascend out of a chimney. Sometimes we might see a great part of their body above the water. The calm did yet continue.

- Thomas Dallam, March

After the pirate incident, things seem to have settled down a little. Stanley Mayes in his book on Dallam reports that he passed the time playing songs on his virginals, songs like “Watkin’s Ale,” “Malt’s Come Down,” “The Carman’s Whistle,” and “Whoop! Do Me No Harm, Good Man.” The ship made progress, and Dallam was able to notice and enjoy things like infinite bodies of porpoises. 

On the 27th of March a very fair wind brought them into the Mediterranean. Dallam noted the narrowness of the straight, the fairness of Tarifa on the Spanish side and the high rocks of Ape Hill on the Moroccan, or as he terms it, Barbaric coast. He points out Gibraltar, strong and fair to the view, and the many galleys and men of war that lie there, and like all English travellers to the Spanish coast, he marvelled at the weather. In Plymouth, he writes, only 11 days before, there had been no sign of greenery on tree or hedge, but now, here, it was exceedingly hot, and the trees on both sides were very green and the trees full blown. Dallam wondered at the difference in such a short time. 

During the following days, he named more towns and cities as he passed them, Marvels and Malligan, or Marbella and Malaga, admiring the soil and climate nearly 400 years before his fellow English would flock to and overrun the same stretch of coast. On the 30th of March, the Hector entered the harbour of Algiers. Nominally under the control of the Ottoman Sultan, Algiers had, and would long have, a fearsome reputation for piracy, ship taking, and enslavement. English merchants had sought to exploit it as a trading centre but found it hard going. Dallam described Algiers in some detail, his first chance to set foot on foreign soil and our first chance to read Dallam the travel writer. 

It made a very fair show, he wrote, fair, you may now be realizing, being his descriptive of choice. It lay close to the sea, strongly walled upon a very upright hill and looking very much like a top sail. Its buildings were made of stone and lyme, and most of them covered with plaster of paris. The streets were tight and not easy to pass through, so narrow that a man on top of one flat roof might be able to cross most of the town from rooftop to rooftop, an image evoking hundreds of movie chase scenes in the minds of Dallam’s future readers. 

At the request of the ship’s surgeon and physician, the delightfully named Mr Chancie - who wouldn’t want a Dr. Chancie? - Dallam and 3 or 4 others accompanied Chancie inland to gather roots and herbs. On the foraging expedition, he again marvelled at the weather and what it had produced, the corn, wheat, and barley, and the young oranges and apples, and he saw this and more brought into the town’s markets by the “Moores and other people” driving asses. He writes of their shouts in warning to the people ahead on the road, calls of “Balocke! Balocke!” to his ears at least. He notes great numbers of Jews and larger numbers of Turks, but he does not bother describing them. He does on the other hand write of the “Moores,” their clothing, and the weapons they carried, their darts and bows. 

Dallam also writes of the plentiful bath houses, the cook houses for the dressing of meat, which he speaks highly of, and the prices in the markets, which he views very favourably, particularly for partridge and quail. Continuing with the bird theme, he refers to the local method of artificial hatching chickens, a method he says “[he] cannot plainly describe, but hereafter [he] may, if God permit.” But God never does permit. It’s one of Dallam’s maddening habits, that he often puts a topic aside for later, promising further description down the road, further description which never materializes at least in the document that has come down to us. 

At this early stage of the journey, Dallam is already over-confident in making generalizations about the people he encounters. The Turks, he says, drink nothing but water. The Turkish and Moorish women go about always with their faces covered and it is said they are believed not to have souls. The men are very religious in their own fashion and their mosques very fine. They are however, quote, “all in general very covetous, and use all the policy they can to get from the Christians, lawfully or unlawfully, as much as they may.” But if they were greedy, the real menace, he tells us, was the renegade Christian, a villainous figure who prowled the coasts in search of Christians he might sell into slavery. Dallam makes no mention of having met one of these, so we can assume he’s here relaying the stories he’s been hearing aboard the Hector. He’s had little to do after all, except play music, and soak up naval jargon as well as the tales of more experienced travellers and the rumours and hearsay traded among his fellow first-timers. 

There’s a bit of excitement in Algiers before the Hector leaves town. The local ruler sends for the Hector’s captain and its gift for the sultan, is embittered when only the former shows up, and promptly imprisons Captain Parsons, sending next for Dallam himself. However, when Dallam repeats Parsons’ story, that assembling the organ would be a lengthy and difficult process, they are both released and sent along with 2 bulls and 3 sheep, all of which Dallam deems to be excessively lean, leading him to ponder that the Turks think their worst things too good for Christian consumption. His interview with the perturbed ruler must have been a tense affair; I doubt he would have minded all that much if Parsons had been stuck in Algiers for a time, but I’m sure that’s not what he had in mind for himself and the Hector. There’s no hint of worry though in his terse description of the meeting. Maybe his arrogance at having performed for the Queen of England, arrogance which will later be very much in evidence, sustained his nerves there in Algiers. Maybe the whole thing was so unpleasant that he simply didn’t want to dwell on it in writing. 

On April 4th, the Hector departed unmolested from Algiers. The 7th brought the eve of Easter and, Dallam writes: 

...we saw very strange lightning in the sky, or in the air. It was very wonderful and strange, for we might see the air open and a fire like a very hot iron taken out of a smith’s forge, sometimes in likeness of a roning worm, another time like a horseshoe, and again like a leg and foot.

The city seems to have awakened a taste in Dallam for further adventure and, as he watched the lightning storm from the ship’s deck, he was determined to roam further at his next opportunity.     

For us, that next opportunity will be next episode. The Hector’s voyage is going to continue on towards Constantinople; Dallam will wander a little further afield from its safety and he’ll succumb to the apparently irresistible desire of tourists in all eras and steal himself a little piece of antiquity; there’ll be more piracy, most of committed by the Hector; and there’ll be a string of interesting little intercultural encounters as Dallam navigates the new, wide world with more boldness than knowledge. Until then.

Thomas Dallam 4.5: Esperanza Malchi and the Ottoman Harem

Imperial Concubine

Today I want to tell a short story, a story of a rise to power, wealth, and influence within the perilous context of the Topkapi Palace in 16th century Constantinople. It’s the story of a Jewish woman named Esperanza Malchi, the world which she flourished in, the heights she reached, and the violence that eventually consumed her. Unfortunately, there is no great wealth of source material on Malchi, but, as always, there are a number of interesting things to talk about along the way. We’ll begin with the time she was born into.

As you’ve heard in other episodes, the Ottoman world was not a homogenous one. This was true in the early days of the Osmanlis making raids on neighbouring Turkish Beyliks or into Balkan Europe, and it’s certainly true here in the 16th century, from its soldiers, to its capital city’s citizenry, to its palace. Working in and around the palace could be found, among others, Jews from post-expulsion Spain, Venetian converts to Islam, slaves from the Balkans and Caucasus, eunuchs from the Nile region, and Christians who came to be united with family members already serving under the sultan. Interestingly, conversion from Christianity to Islam ran somewhat along gender lines as while men were required to convert to advance their careers or gain their freedom, women could remain Christian even if they married a Muslim man. The long and the short of all this was that the Ottoman Empire was strikingly international in character, a place where a Norfolk merchant named Samson Rowlie would govern the finances of Algeria under the name Hassan Aga, where one of the most powerful men in the palace was a Venetian eunuch who had taken the name Gazanfer, where a convert born of a Genoese noble family would become Grand Vizier, and where you might meet Esperanza Malchi.

Malchi’s rise to prominence was a product of her connection to Murad III’s Haseki Sultan, his chief or favourite consort, Safiye, and Malchi and Safiye lived at a time when a leading role in the palace harem, home to female servants, slaves, relatives, and concubines, had quite a bit of power attached to it. 

It had not always been so. Earlier sultans, commanding their empires from the field and at the head of their armies, had tended to dispatch the mothers of princes off to the territories where the princes were to govern. Those women were thus kept away from any central levers of power and from the sultans’ travelling courts. But starting with Suleyman’s wife Hurrem in the 1530s-50s, and more definitively with her son Selim II’s Haseki Sultan, Nurbanu, things had started to change.

The empire had essentially ceased to expand, and, following Suleyman, the sultans were not abroad leading armies; they were, as we heard of Murad in previous episodes, getting increasingly comfortable at home. It was becoming more and more a sultanate of the palace. And it was becoming what is often referred to as the sultanate of women. 

When Murad III became sultan and brought Safiye and the rest of his household to the capital, his mother, Nurbanu, also moved into the Topkapi Palace, taking her place in lavishly built new apartments in its harem, which quickly expanded during this period; Murad, a far cry from the sultans of the past who had taken council on campaign from their grand viziers and other men, took up residency there, and influence moved away from the viziers and ministers and into the harem from which the Kizlar Aga, the chief African eunuch, along with Nurbanu and Safiye, wielded growing power.

This is a period where you have the Venetian ambassador noting that Safiye and Nurbanu governed everything, and you had to “depend on them, or at least not have them against you.” “Governed everything,” was perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but the harem was by this point selling political appointments and controlling the enormous wealth of former sultans. Connection with the women within its walls was also seen as the path to establishing something like a transmitted nobility for the political slave class.

So we have a change in the empire, with the end of its expansionist phase, and a change in the habits of Sultans, with rule from the back of a horse or a military camp moving to rule from the domestic comforts of the palace and the harem; and we have a series of women seizing the opportunities these changes presented to, by some accounts, dominate an era of Ottoman rule. That domination is really going to come to fruition in the 17th century, when child heirs to the sultanate will grow up while their mothers see to the business of empire, but here in our story is when it begins. Safiye herself will grow in stature until it will be said that her son the sultan, then Mehmed III, was really not a ruler, but only an administrator, and that Safiye and her inner circle of court women and senior eunuchs were truly in control.

The interesting thing about all this power, though, was that it was held by people who were, in a sense, prisoners, however luxurious their cells, or palace, may have been. And yet, if these cells may have limited their physical movement, there were certainly avenues by which the outside world reached in to them, and ones by which those in the harem reached out and acted upon it. Looking at the efforts of a variety of foreign rulers, merchants, representatives, and ambassadors to engage with the women of the palace, the picture that emerges is one of networks of dwarves, mutes, eunuchs, and servants, all cultivated for proximity to the harem; and among these figures, one that stands out to me is the kira

The kira was a woman who acted as a kind of financial agent for the women of the harem. She would bring them jewelry, clothing, cosmetics, and other goods; she would provide secretarial services to them, writing and sending correspondence, and sometime, it seems, be something of a confidant. She might act as a go-between, conducting dealings with ambassadors, as the kira Esther Handali did, carrying messages to and from the Venetian bailo. She might play the game for her own ends, as Handali also did, bringing the bailo’s presents and petitions in and the letters out, but also passing along the goings-on of the palace and regularly receiving gifts from the doge of Venice. She might, as it was rumoured Malchi had done, siphon off gifts intended for one ruler or another. She might, as Malchi did, write to the Queen of England.

Esther Handali died in mid-December, 1588, though there is some disagreement over the year, after 3 months of illness at the conclusion of which she was unable to leave her bed. Until the end, she received letters from Safiye, asking after her health or asking her to tell the Venetians to tear down their castles near the borders. Handali’s own final letter is said to have been a request for more cushions. Some time after she died, Esperanza Malchi took her place with Safiye. 

I would very much like to be able to tell you in detail of Malchi’s beginnings, of where she was from and by what turns her life had taken her to this point. However, details are maddeningly hard to come by here. Handali had come to the position first as a partner in her husband’s business; he had been a merchant and she initially brought his goods into the harem and then, following his death, proceeded independently as she was well established by that point. However, there’s no such mention when it comes to Malchi; we hear of sons, but not a husband. Perhaps she had worked with Handali in her dealings with the Venetians and that’s how she’d gotten close to Safiye; maybe she’d already been providing similar services to other ladies of the harem. But that’s just speculation. Perhaps the Jewish population of the city might give us some clues. 

Constantinople had a very large Jewish population by this point, and its arrival can be traced in rough forms: forced resettlement following the Ottomans’ capture of the city, Ashkenazi Jews arriving from central Europe in the early 15th century, large numbers of Sephardic Jews following the expulsion from Spain in the late 15th century and more from Portugal after forced conversion and then the inquisition, and then, like a wave moving west to east, building intolerance in the 16th century Italian states pushing families, some of whom had moved from Spain and Portugal, to leave, many headed for Ottoman lands, and many of those for Constantinople. I have sometimes seen Malchi described as Italian and other times as Spanish born, and I’m not entirely sure if she was in fact born in Spain and lived in Italy for some time before coming to Constantinople or if instead the idea that she had any Italian connection at all comes of her being confused with Handali, which often seems to have happened. Malchi could have arrived in Constantinople from Iberia with the “New Christians,” the forced converts, many of whom sought to leave behind their double lives in the 1550s and 60s, but this is, again, speculation. For now, it looks like we’ll have to accept her somewhat mysterious origins and move on, to find Malchi’s role in the city of Constantinople.       

Actually, we’ve already seen something of her role in past episodes. Though I haven’t pointed her out, Malchi has had her hands in our story already. When Edward Barton’s ship finally came in last episode, when the Ascension appeared on the horizon and eased, for a time, his anxiety over the necessary gifts, I mentioned that there were presents not just for the sultan but for a broad range of important figures, and some seemingly unimportant ones. One of those receiving gifts was, of course, Safiye. 

Safiye was said to have been delighted with her present which consisted of a picture of Elizabeth set with rubies and diamonds, some gilt plate, some garments of golden cloth, and a case of silver and gilt bottles. She was delighted enough to send word to Barton asking what she might send in return and, following his recommendation, to send gowns of golden cloth, a Turkish girdle, and a thank you note. This exchange between the two royal women was handled on Elizabeth’s end by Edward Barton and on Safiye’s by Esperanza Malchi.

It was an important relationship that Malchi was facilitating. The English, like the other sides in this diplomatic game, were very aware of the importance of cultivating Safiye as an ally, and they perhaps had a bit of an advantage here, for a queen might write directly to Safiye where a king could not. And there would be more communications, more gifts sent between the two. The ship carrying Thomas Dallam would carry a magnificent carriage worth 600lbs and Safiye responded with “a robe, a sash, two gold-embroidered bath towels, 3 handkerchiefs, and a ruby and pearl tiara,” and, perhaps more importantly, a letter in which she promised to act on Elizabeth’s behalf: 

I will take action in accordance with what you have written. Be of good heart in this respect. I constantly admonish my son … to act according to the treaty. I do not neglect to speak to him in this manner. God willing, may you not suffer grief in this respect.

Malchi felt confident enough in her position, that she also actually wrote to Elizabeth in her own name. She offered her services to the foreign monarch and requested she be sent “rare distilled waters of every kind for the face and odiferous oils for the hands… .” It seems a bit presumptuous, even if the waters and oils were intended for Safiye, but Malchi had every reason to feel confident. She had by all accounts amassed quite a fortune by this point, working as Safiye’s financial agent. She’d gained contracts for herself and her sons, acquired the rights to lucrative tax farms, apparently including the sheep tax and the Christian tax, and invested successfully in trade. Her wealth at the time was immense, and, apparently, so was her power.       

A secretary at the English embassy later wrote of this period that: 

...the whole government of the Empire rested in the hands of one [Malchi], a young and audacious woman, by the extraordinary favour and love of the Queen Mother so that nothing was left to the counsel and order of the Vizier and grave Seniors, but was first to receive approbation and authority from her; the black eunuchs gave laws to all, and the cabinet councils were held in the secret apartments of the women; and there were prescriptions made, officers discharged, or ordained as were most proper to advance the interest of this Feminine Government.

And there’s more, implying, among other things, a sexual relationship between Malchi and Safiye. Whatever the accuracy of all of this, Malchi had become a very visibly successful player in a particularly dangerous game within the sultan’s palace.

As I alluded to in an earlier episode, the sultan was often at the mercy of janissaries or the sepahis, the palace cavalry, rising up and violently expressing their displeasure, and when that happened, you didn’t want to be the one they blamed for inflation or whatever other financial difficulties had stirred them up. Even being a favourite of the sultan himself couldn’t save your life if things turned against you. In 1603, the very powerful kapi agazi, or chief of the white eunuchs, was beheaded before Mehmed and this despite his alliance with Safiye and the Sultan’s tearful efforts to save him. 

Just as power and powerful patrons were no protection, when you died, the family you’d protected, supported, and found positions for, was exposed to the hungry forces that waited only for their opportunity. That kapi agazi’s brother was killed 4 months later, and there are countless examples of this sort, where the fall of the most powerful member of the family is quickly followed by the deaths of others. To be without power in Malchi’s world was to be exposed to the whims of those who held it, but to have it yourself seems to have been to march down the night streets with a lit torch, a beacon for hungry eyes and a temptation to be torn away.

I have seen in one source that Mehmed granted to Malchi the profits of the Sepahi, and, if this is true, it seems hard to imagine he could not predict the results; perhaps this was even his way of getting rid of her. But probably, no such direct infringement would have been necessary to excite their anger. Malchi was said to be the agent through which Safiye received her bribes, there were those stories that Malchi and a clique of senior eunuchs and harem women were running the empire, and then there was the perennial issue of the debased currency in which the Sepahi were paid. When the palace cavalry rose up again in March of 1600, the targets of their wrath were Malchi and her allies. I have seen what happened next told a few different ways, though they all come to the same place. 

It is sometimes said that when the violence broke out, a terrified Mehmed and Safiye immediately turned Malchi out of the palace, giving up the one the angry soldiers desired as sultans had done before them and would do again. This version then has her fleeing for the Black Sea by boat but being intercepted and pulled ashore. Other tellings have her dragged from her house. Sometimes it is said that she was taken to the Grand Vizier’s palace, and that he, unawares that his own doom was only a few years off, signalled from within that they may do what they wanted with her; sometimes she is said to have hidden herself within his palace only to have him give her up, caving to the pressure of the Sepahis at his door, or perhaps only feigning the appearance of resisting that pressure at all. Sometimes she is said to have been stabbed to death in his yard. 

There are variations on a theme here, but they come to much the same thing. She was brutally killed and her body torn apart, in some tellings by dogs in the public square where she was dragged to, in some by soldiers who cut her into pieces and are said to have carried those pieces about the city, displaying them for all to see. Her head was taken on a pike and her right hand nailed to the door of a qadi, or judge, who was said to have often kissed it and sought favour from her. Malchi’s family didn’t escape unscathed either. Her eldest son was head of the customs office in the port, no doubt a position that his mother had arranged for him, and he died with her, or perhaps the following day. In one telling his large, fat, body is laid out next to hers in the square for the dogs to eat, but they will not do so, clearly, I think, a way of writing his corruption into the story, his dead body made unhealthy by the immoral nature of his acts when alive.

Another element to this act of violence is the anti-Semitic one. Constantinople had a large Jewish population, as I touched on earlier, and many of them successfully built careers as Malchi did within the conjoined worlds of the palace and the port, but I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this was entirely a place of peace and comfort where all religions were equal. Jews were frequently subject to sudden “taxes” imposed by soldiers and in the events around Malchi’s death, an English member of the embassy noted that the soldiers carrying the pieces of her body specifically menaced Jewish citizens with them and that in the days that followed the Jews of the city did not dare come out of their houses for those that did were beaten and stripped of their clothes. 

The killing, however, seems to have wound down after that. The angry Sepahi demanded of Mehmed the heads of a chief eunuch, a captain of the garden, and a financial administrator, along with the banishment of Safiye, but they were apparently calmed with the Sultan’s promise to “counsel his mother and correct his servants.” Rebellious soldiers were not punished for this sort of uprising. Rather, it seems to have become somewhat expected by this point, so long as it was directed against pawns, even very powerful ones, and not queens or kings. The blood of Malchi and her son had been enough to satisfy this particular uprising. 

In a few years, it would the janissaries turn to revolt, and so it would continue. But it will have to continue without you and I. We’re going to pause here. When you hear from me again, it will at last be the preparations and departure of Thomas Dallam that we’ll talk about. He’ll be bound for the port of Constantinople, to stumble unwittingly into the games of death and diplomacy that were proceeding there, and he’ll be accompanying one of those incredibly important presents. Remember that Edward Barton is at this point dead, and his replacement, Henry Lello waits anxiously for the shipment that will allow him to kiss the sultan’s hand and be recognized. He will have to wait just a little longer.  

Thomas Dallam 3: England’s First Ambassador


Welcome back to my ongoing exploration of Elizabethan English trade with Islamic powers, and my ongoing attempt to get to the story of Thomas Dallam, the man I’m going to be talking about pretty soon now.

Last full-length episode, we talked about England’s developing friendship with Saadian Morocco under al-Malik and al-Mansur, and I mentioned at the end that there was at the same time an association building between England and the Ottoman Empire. When we last looked in on the state of Anglo-Ottoman diplomacy in the episode about Jenkinson’s visit to Safavid Persia, we saw Ottoman Sultan Suleyman interceding against English traders. Things had to change quite significantly for that relationship to reach the exchanging of gifts stage, and it’s the later developments of that change that we’ll be talking about here, largely through a look at the efforts of a single English representative in Constantinople, a man named William Harborne.

We could start in 1579. Just to contextualize that a little, that puts us one year after the Battle of the Three Kings and into the reign of al-Mansur in the Moroccan storyline. In the Anglo-Ottoman context, it’s the year when a letter arrives for Elizabeth from Sultan Murad III.

Historian Lisa Jardine describes the letter as a physical object of great beauty, from its ornate calligraphy, to the gold dusting, to the satin bag sealed in silver in which it was sent. It was a response to the requests of an English merchant, then in Constantinople, that his country receive full commercial privileges. There was no sense in the writing of an exchange between equals – it apparently addressed itself as a “Command to Elzabet, who is the queen of the domain of Anletar,” and that satin bag was also how communications, or orders, to the Caucasian princes would be sent – but as to questions of commerce it was promising. Elizabeth was assured that when, “her agents and merchants shall come from the domain of Anletar by sea with their barks and with their ships, let no one interfere.” We read:

We [the Sultan here appearing as the royal we] therfore haue sent out our Imperiall commandement to all our kings, iudges, and trauellers by sea, to all our Captaines and voluntarie seafaring men, all condemned persons, and officers of Ports and customes, straightly charging and commanding them, that such foresaid persons as shall resort hither by sea from the Realme of England, either with great or small vessels to trade by way of marchandize, may lawfully come to our imperiall Dominions, and freely returne home againe, and that no man shall dare to molest or trouble them.

Interestingly, there was an addition to this letter when it was translated into Latin from its original Turkish, an addition which Harborne may have arranged for. It called upon Elizabeth to in turn reciprocate this good will in opening her ports to the Ottoman merchants, but of course, as indicated by the lack of such a request in the original, the Sultan would not have cared for such reciprocity, would not have asked for it, because England was not a partner; it was a petitioner, well beneath his realms in terms of power, prestige, and significance.

In her response, Elizabeth gives no hint of this in identifying herself, rather optimistically,  as Queen of England, France, and Ireland, but she thanks this “most imperial and most invincible prince,” acknowledging “how graciously, and how favourably the humble petitions” of her subject had been received. Things with the sultan were off to a good start.

In 1574, Sultan Murad III had come to power following the death of his father Selim II, and he had his 5 younger brothers strangled to avoid any questions over succession, a process that will become familiar. He tends to be viewed as a kind of wealthy shut-in. Unlike Sultans as recently as his grandfather, Suleyman the Magnificent, Murad did not go out on campaign; he preferred to remain in the imperial city. Indeed, if the stories are to be believed, he did not even leave his palace in later years.

From that palace, Murad oversaw an Ottoman Empire that was back at war with the Safavids of Persia to the east, incidentally spoiling the trade of the Muscovy Company which Jenkinson had sought to establish there. And to west, it was fixed in an on-again-off-again war with Central Europe’s Habsburgs. His time is noted for the rise to prominence of the ladies of the court: the Sultan mother, and his wife, Safiye, who we’re going to hear quite a bit about soon. Unfortunately, it is also noted for the financial difficulties the Ottomans found themselves in, problems which, as we’ll see, could lead to the Sultan being somewhat at the mercy of angry janissaries in a way that will be comfortingly familiar to anyone who’s read a little about, for example, the Roman Praetorian Guard. But more of that later. For now, the letter, and Elizabeth’s subject.

It was not the first letter this sultan, or at least his administration had written to Protestant Europe. In 1574, a letter addressed to the Lutherans of Spain and the Low Countries extensively complemented their religion. It read, in part:

You, for your part, do not worship idols, you have banished the idols and portraits, and bells from churches, and declared your faith by stating that God Almighty is One and Holy Jesus is His Prophet and Servant, and now, with heart and soul, are seeking and desirous of the true faith; but the faithless one they call the Pope does not recognize his creator as One, ascribing divinity to Holy Jesus, and worshipping idols and pictures which he has made with his own hands…

And it continues along these lines, revealing, whatever its motivations or authenticity, the kind of search for similarity between Islam and Protestantism that we’ve seen before, an establishing of common ground through religion. Perhaps it would prove helpful to the merchant, that subject of Elizabeth’s, who would be petitioning for commercial privileges a few years later.

That subject was, in fact, a man named William Harborne, and of course, he did not find himself in Constantinople accidentally. He was the representative of an Edward Osborne of the Clothworkers’ Company. Osborne and one of his colleagues had in 1575 dispatched two men with the intent of opening up the Ottoman territories to trade. Over 18 months in Constantinople, those two, named Clements and Wright if you’re wondering, had eventually achieved their goal: safe conduct and access for William Harborne

Harborne traveled overland to avoid the notice of hostile naval forces, and he took the step of disguising himself as a Turk from Poland on, joining with a trading caravan to escape the notice of spies.

He arrived in a Constantinople that through forced settlement had grown back up to some 3 to 500 thousand under the Ottomans, a much larger population than London with its roughly 200 thousand. And the city had changed in other ways in that time. Under Mehmed alone, there were said to have been 190 mosques, 24 madrasas, 32 bath houses, and 12 markets built. Harborne would be staying in Galata, across the Golden Horn inlet from Constantinople, and largely populated with Christian and Jewish merchants.

But Osborne and his man Harborne were not the only ones pursuing Turkish trading opportunities.The Mercers’ Company, a rival to the Clothworkers’ Company, also had a representative in Constantinople, and in 1577 he acquired promises of safe conduct for the trade in cloth, tin, lead, and steel. We can actually read early estimates for the voyage that resulted from his agreement. We read of the two ships making the journey, the 300 ton Swallow and the 120-ton Pelican. We read of a cargo of 40 tons of hardwood, 20 hundredweight of tin, 90 fodder of lead, 2000 ordinary blue Hampshire kerseys and 100 clothes of all sorts, and it’s worth noting that this tin and lead would be used in the manufacture of weapons. The Pelican wouldn’t actually be making the journey; it would be renamed the Golden Hind and carry Francis Drake on his circumnavigation, but the trip would still happen. Anglo-Ottoman trade was underway, but this voyage seems to have been made under special license arranged through the French. Harborne was still going to need to advance the English cause.

However, he would need to do this in an only semi-official capacity. When he returned to the Sublime Porte following the successful exchange of royal letters, there was some negotiation as to how he would declare himself. The merchants sought the most power and prestige possible for their representative; they wanted him named as Elizabeth’s ambassador to the Ottomans. But Harborne’s mission was not going to be cheap. There were travel costs to consider, he was also going to need a salary, and then there were the great quantity of gifts to all levels of the Ottoman government which he would encounter, if the mission was to be a success at least. No, the whole thing was going to be quite, quite, expensive, and Elizabeth was not looking to pay for it. What all this meant, aside from a substantial delay as things worked themselves out, was that Harborne presented himself again to the Ottoman court as a man funded by the merchants and carrying the royal commission of “our true and undoubted orator, messenger, deputy and agent,” but not, for now, ambassador. And this would have some consequences.

Harborne played the familiar dual role of promoting the interests of the Queen and her merchants, but he faced opposition in doing so. There was an attempt to arrest him in Majorca, but there, in not his only turn as an actor, he dressed and presented himself as the ship’s captain and evaded captor. In Constantinople, French, Venetian, and Imperial Habsburg representatives actively opposed his arrival and lobbied against his receiving any kind of friendly or official reception, and they seized upon his status. Harborne was belittled as a mere merchant, but the Ottomans seem not to have minded, and Harborne had a streak of belligerent patriotism that rose to this kind of adversity. He complained vigorously to the Grand Vizier that the other ambassadors “had no right to consider his private position, but only the magnificence of the Queen his mistress,” and he apparently ”came to blows” with an official who characterized the English sailors as mere pirates.

Harborne wasn’t only an antagonistic cheerleader though. He had a good understanding of the importance of gift-giving and spread the baubles about appropriately, and the English would come to make good use of this necessitated gift giving; they tended to take the opportunity to promote their merchandise, garments of English cloth, English clocks and watches, and so on.

Harborne’s job was not limited to swanning about the Sultan’s palace dropping presents. He was kept busy seeing to it that the promises which he had received from the central government were honoured by its administrators of all levels and across its lands. These were people who might see English traders as resources to be mined, without recognition for rulings from above. Often, Harborne would need to take up the cause of English merchants or captains to see their ships, goods, money, or freedom restored, if still possible, according to the terms of the agreement. Sometimes, it was his own cause he needed to take up; in one such case, he petitioned the Grand Vizier because one of his, Harborne’s that is, servants had been “assassinated by thieves within one day’s journey of this famous city, and they robbed him of his goods and money to the sum of 4,000 Ducats.” His success in this petition is uncertain.

In his dealings, Harborne faced not only the opposition of his European opposite numbers in the city and the predations of pirates and port officials, but also the inherent difficulties of his business with the Ottomans. He was writing in Latin or Italian for translation in Turkish, and great leaps in understanding could, as you might imagine, be made in one direction or another in that translation process. He also had to operate within a minefield of palace intrigues, the Grand Vizier striving against the Sultan’s consort, and the Janissaries against the Sepahi palace cavalry. This rivalry between the two military bodies could be seen as a viable divide and rule tactic on the part of the Sultanate, but it just as often seems to have resulted in the Sultan being ruled by one or the other’s violent expression of their will, the specific expression often enough being the slaying of an official on whom they blamed the economic woes of the moment. When tensions between the two spilled over, you ended up with scenes like Mehmed III’s circumcision celebration, which had to be called off when a battle erupted between the two sides.  

Another moment of violence in the Ottoman court would have had immediate consequences for the English cause. Much of Harborne’s dealings seem to been through the friendly Grand Vizier, Sokollu Mehmed. He was a man of sufficient skill and subtlety to have served in that position under 3 different Sultans, not just survived, but actually thrived in this position of esteem and power. But on October 12th, 1579, he was stabbed to death in the council chamber, apparently by a Bosnian dervish, though it was widely believed that that the Sultan’s mother was behind the act. The killing marked a turning point not just for Sokollu Mehmed himself, but also for the position of Grand Vizier which, following his 15-year run, saw 11 different men take it up in the next 2 decades.

These obstacles would not prevent Harborne’s business from flourishing. He operated a trading network that brought in currants, oil, wine, flax, cotton, and carpets from across the expanse of the Ottoman possessions, and he went about with an escort of Janissaries. However, with all his success in trade and in bringing about the Anglo-Ottoman capitulations, the agreement between the two, the situation was still fragile, and terribly, terribly vulnerable to actions outside his control.

In March of 1581, Harborne had reason to meet briefly with the captain of a ship called the Bark Roe. Harborne was on the island of Chios and headed for the Holy Land, when he was able to facilitate the ship’s departure, making sure the rules of the new agreement were understood by a local port official, showing that port official the document in fact, as he’d heard nothing about it. The Bark Roe had sailed from London in September 1580, carrying cloth, wood, and metals, and this included broken bell metal; I’m not sure if I’ve already mentioned this in another episode, but the English were by this point stripping the metal from Catholic churches in a kind of reverse swords-to-plowshares policy that saw the materials traded away and used in war materials such as the casting of guns. This was the business of the ship’s captain, a Peter Baker of bad reputation, who apparently hired crew on without telling them that their business would be more than trade alone. After parting with Harborne, and selling his cargo, Baker took the 160 ton, 24 cannon, Bark Roe south in search of plunder. At first, he met with little success, but then he and his men took two ships in the Peloponnese, Turks they thought; but as it happened, these were Greeks carrying fabrics and silks owned by a group of Greek and Venetian merchants, and the passengers included Greek Orthodox priests from Ottoman territory.

Basically, Baker had angered everybody and done so not as an individual, but as an English captain, and his crew seems to have had some awareness of what the transgression meant for them. They did not want to be charged with piracy and insisted that he put in at Malta to make their appeal. There, they were promptly imprisoned and charged by the Greeks, who sought the return of their cargo, and the Venetians, who asked 12,000 ducats. Unfortunately, for Baker and his crew, this was not the full extent of their problems. Those captured priests were from the territory of Admiral Qilich Ali Pasha. I haven’t talked about him here, but he’s already not a fan of Harborne’s. He’d been profoundly irritated a few years earlier to have to return the English sailors he’d seized as slaves, something which Harborne had negotiated. Now, the admiral was going to take the opportunity to pay Harborne back for the trouble he’d caused him, and he accused Harborne of being a spy and a pirate who ought to be imprisoned, fined, and have his trade capitulations canceled.

And Harborne was arrested and his assets taken, making it impossible for him to make good on his operating debts, and the capitulations he’d negotiated were, temporarily at least, canceled. Around this time, he wrote home to England, and it reads as a kind of Shakespearean soliloquy:

Quote, “Behold in what pit of perplexity and snares of unluckiness (almost inevitable) I am entangled through the unchristian and detestable dealings of Peter Baker…. The intolerable grief of mind which these pirates have caused me, I cannot utter.” Harborne was in a bad situation and had to plead for the assistance of his rival, the French ambassador, in guaranteeing his debts. He’d win his freedom, and open negotiations with the Grand Vizier, and then he’d flee the city, headed back for London.

Meanwhile, on Malta, Baker and his crew were caught up in events larger than themselves and their thoughtless act of piracy. The Grand Inquisitor Federico Cefalotto had been in the process of attacking Malta’s Knights of St John of Huguenot, and in his report, Baker’s crime was rolled up into a broader anti-Catholic scheme. He wrote to Rome that “The plot of the capture of Malta was conceived by the English Queen, the Duke of Alencon and the Turks through their intermediary, Peter Baker.” It was a conspiracy of Muslim Turks, and English and French Protestants, and Baker and 8 of his men were sent to Rome to be charged with heresy.

Elizabeth, I’m sure, cared very little for the unfortunate Mr. Baker who’d put her in this position, but if he’d be abandoned to his fate, the Anglo-Ottoman connection was an important one which she was going to try to salvage. She wrote to Sultan Murad, essentially begging him to “not withdraw his gracious favour,” and it worked. Under the condition that an official ambassador be appointed, England’s privileges were restored. And you might be wondering why, why would the Sultan care about England? Did he in fact? One Venetian observer certainly thought so. In a few years, he would write that Murad “places especially great worth on the friendship of the Queen of England, because he is convinced that, owing to the religious schism, she will never unite against him with other princes in Christendom; she will, on the contrary, always be an excellent instrument for disturbing and thwarting such alliances.”

This seems like a good point to pause and quickly consider attitudes to the Anglo-Ottoman friendship, in England and elsewhere. I can’t give the topic the attention it deserves here, not without getting horrendously sidetracked, but there are a few things that I would like to point out, voices of the position that was still uncomfortable with all these dealings with the Ottomans. We can hear them in the theatre, in the 1581 play, The Three Ladies of London, by Robert Wilson, where the character of a greedy Italian merchant addresses Lady Lucre saying “Me and my countrymen have sent over Bell-metal to make ordnance, yea and ordnance itself beside, that my country and other countries be so well furnished as this country, and have never been espied.” 

Obviously, the conversion of Christian church metal, even Catholic church metal, into Turkish guns could be a point of some unease. Actually, the way trade with the Ottomans enters Elizabethan theatre is a whole interesting topic to itself, even when it only comes in snippets, like the line from one of Macbeth’s witches, that  “Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ the’ Tiger,” the Tiger actually being a ship whose occupants would eventually make it all the way to the court of Akbar in 1585. But to get back to Elizabethan discomfort, we can also read it in the letter of John Aylmer, Bishop of London, in which he writes that: 

Surely in mine opinion it is very strange, and dangerous, that the desire of worldly and transitory things should carry men so far, with such kind of traffic, which neither our ancestors before us knew of, nor can be attempted without selling of souls for purchasing of pelf to the great blemish of our religion and the shame of our country.

The Bishop continues: 

...if your Lordship and the rest of your brethren could by your authority stay such intercourse with infidels and save the souls of our people from the Gulf of Mahomet, I think you should do a gracious deed and win an everlasting remembrance.

Interestingly, Harborne himself was not entirely comfortable with the dealings with the Ottomans. He later complained in his memoirs of, quote, “the perverse condition of those Turkish infidels with whom forcedly so long I was conversant,” and wrote of his “continual earnest prayer to god … that her Majesty in her just defence might never need this heathen tyrant his assistance… .”

Of course, if some in England were feeling the tensions of their new friendships, you can imagine that those on the continent were equally uncomfortable, but for different reasons. They were largely all playing the same game at this point: Phillip of Spain had reached a peace agreement with Murad, and his ambassador in London wrote anxiously of England’s trading successes in the East; the French ambassador in Constantinople had been actively competing with Harborne, trying to protect France’s privileged position with the Ottomans but worrying that Harborne was highly favoured by their hosts; the Imperial Habsburgs’ representative in the city also expressed concerns about this “so-called merchant Harborne,” and he nurtured darker suspicions, of a plot to grant the Ottomans safe ports and a stepping stone into Western Europe.

One of the consequences of the Baker situation was the regulation of trade with Turkey in the form of “The Letter Patents, or Privileges Granted by her Majesty to Sir Edward Osborne, Master Richard Staper, and certain other Merchants of London for their trade into the dominions of the Great Turk,” in other words, the formation of the the joint-stock Turkey Company. The company was given a 7-year term, required to make a yearly customs payment of 500 pounds, and, in keeping with Murad’s demands, needed to appoint an official ambassador. Despite the cloud under which he’d left Constantinople, and his personal feelings about the “infidels,” William Harborne was actually going to be that official appointee. He had after all been doing quite a good job by all accounts, and Baker’s piracy was hardly his fault. There remained only the small matter of who would cover the costs of his return.

Harborne still owed 600 pounds, no small amount, and travel costs, a reasonable salary, and a substantial fund for gift-giving/bribery would all add up to quite an expensive endeavour. The Turkey Company’s governors argued that his going to Constantinople in response to Murad’s demand was crucial to Elizabeth’s diplomatic goals with the Ottomans, and thus the crown should cover the costs but this, fairly reasonable argument had no effect. William Harborne was commissioned “to be her majesty’s ambassador or agent in the parts of Turkey,” on November 20th, 1582, and he returned to Constantinople on the Susan, a Turkey Company ship. As an official ambassador fully funded by merchants he arrived on March 29th, 1583.

Harborne set up shop  in the Findikli district, well away from the other ambassadors. There, he established his embassy, complete with Janissary guards and a staff of interpreters, servants, and negotiators as well as his secretary, Edward Barton, the man who would come to replace him. He spread around the gifts right away, and he attended a formal audience with Sultan Murad. At that audience, we get a sense for what kind of presents this sort of occasion entailed. By way of a Venetian ambassador, we hear that the Sultan was given “a most beautiful watch set with jewels and pearls, ten pairs of shoes, two pretty lap dogs, twelve lengths of royal cloth, two lengths of white linen, and thirteen pieces of silver gilt.” This kind of diplomacy did not come cheaply, but Harborne was recognized as official ambassador and the capitulations were renewed.

Now, he was also able to appoint consuls, and he did so, for Syria, Egypt, Algiers, Chios, and Patros. In his dealings with these men we get some sense of his attention to detail. In a letter to Richard Forster, the newly appointed consul in Syria, he advised him as to his arrival, urging first that he be apparelled in the best fashion possible. He then writes, quote:

After your coming, give it out that you be crazed and not well disposed, by means of your travel at sea, during which time, you and those there are most wisely to determine in what manner you are to present yourself to the Qadi, and other officers: who every of them are to be presented according to the order accustomed of others formerly in like office.

There was, in other words, a very well established right way in which to do things, and one was better to feign sickness while getting a sense for how and in what order these rituals were to be performed than to think that one could lurch through them in ignorance. And people would be watching – Harborne also made this clear – the Qadi and other officers, of course, but also the French and Venetians who, Harborne rather amusingly writes, will, quote:

...haue an enuious eye on you: whome if they perceiue wise and well aduised, they will feare to offer you any iniurie. But if they shall perceiue any insufficiencie in you, they will not omitte any occasion to harme you. They are subtile, malicious, and disembling people, wherefore you must alwayes haue their doings for suspected, and warily walke in all your actions… .

He also particularly made clear that Forster should make sure that he was treated with at least the respects accorded to the French.  

If Harborne did not enjoy the company of his fellow ambassadors among the Ottomans, he at least thrived in his official position. He succeeded, even while the French continued to press for his removal from the city, in seeing the customs duties payable by English merchants lowered during his time. And he continued to strive on behalf of waylaid merchants, ships, cargo, and crew, though not always before the captives had been forcibly circumcised and, as was then said, “turned Turk.”

However, he was soon called upon to take on a rather more difficult diplomatic goal. This was because he was in regular contact with Francis Walsingham, a man who you’ll hopefully remember from the Moroccan episode, and Walsingham was urging him to bring the Ottomans in on the looming Anglo-Spanish war, a war that was tipping towards open hostilities in 1585 as plans took shape for what would become the armada’s attempted assault on England.

Walsingham, also responsible for the delightfully titled document “A Plot for the Annoying of the King of Spain,” had been calling for Harborne to have the Sultan draw some of his military might away from Persia and bring it to bear on Spain. Now, he wrote that Elizabeth was resolved to oppose Spain in the Low Countries, and, quote, “whereof it is not otherwise likely but hot wars between him and us, wills me again to require you effectually to use all your endeavour and industry in that behalf.” The home run would be getting the Ottomans to actually attack the Spanish fleet, but this was asking a lot. Even the appearance of preparations for such an attack, Walsingham acknowledged, could be effective in not allowing Philip to comfortably extend his full strength West towards England for fear the Ottomans soon might be sailing into view.  

Moving the Sultan on this front would not be easy though, and the effort seems to have brought Harborne considerable stress, heightening the stakes of the game he was playing. He referred to, quote, “the subtle secret devices of [his] many enemies both Christian and heathen,” and he claimed that the Venetians were to receive 160,000 ducats from Spain to have him expelled from the city. Against this pressure, Harborne worked a network of contacts around the sultan, including Murad’s tutor and the admiral who’d once had him expelled from the city, no doubt at some cost in the currency of gifts.

Though his personal responsibility is difficult to assess at this point, Harborne claimed success in spoiling the renewal of truce between Phillip and Murad, and Walsingham seems to have been delighted. This alone meant that Philip could not be too sure of his Mediterranean ports. Walsingham wanted more though. He wrote to Harborne of Francis Drake’s fleet off the coast of Spain which had already “entered diverse ports of Spain and Portugal,” and added that he left it up to Harborne to “publish[], urge[], and enlarge[] as [he saw] cause.” Perhaps, Walsingham was indicating, a joint naval operation with the Ottomans might be arranged.

And this was what Harborne attempted. He wrote to Murad in 1587 with appeals to his religion, and to his pride. The letter, in part, reads:

Do not let this moment pass unused, in order that God, who has created you a valiant man and the most powerful of all worldly princes for the destruction of idol-worshippers may not turn his utmost wrath against you if you disregard his command, which my mistress, only a weak woman, courageously struggles to fulfill.

After warning of the consequences if Murad were not to act, he continues:

If, however, Your Highness, wisely and courageously, without delay, will undertake jointly with my mistress war upon the sea (which the Almighty God, the pledged faith, the favourable moment, the fame of the glorious house of Othman, and the salvation of your empire unanimously advise), then the proud Spaniard and the mendacious pope, with all their adherents, will not only be cheated of their cherished hope of victory but will also receive the penalty for their audacity.

Of course, we know that this proposed Anglo-Ottoman naval venture never came off. Harborne bitterly identified that the Ottomans had always been too concerned with Safavid Persia to extend themselves to the west in the, extremely expensive, form of a fleet. And Harborne’s time in the city was at last coming to an end. It had been a stressful job, and an expensive one. He complained that the company had not been regular in paying his salary, and some of his living costs were actually covered by an allowance Murad granted him. During his embassy, Harborne spent 15,341 pounds on gifts, wages and the administration of his household. He hadn’t brought Ottoman ships to Spanish shores, but he might have wrecked their truce, and he had established a substantial trading network of English factors and contacts and facilitated 19 ships a year sailing for Ottoman-controlled ports on behalf of the Turkey Company.  

On August 13th, he left the city for the final time, bound for a much quieter life in Norfolk. Behind him, he left a man named Edward Barton, his 25-year-old secretary, in charge of matters. In Hamburg, on his way home, news reached him that the Spanish armada had failed.

And I think that’s where I’ll leave things for today. Next week, we’ll look at Barton’s time and his own struggles in the city, as we creep closer to Thomas Dallam. And I realize Dallam has been getting steadily further and further away as this series has gone on, and you may well be realizing that I didn’t carve all this out in stone before I started. At this point, Dallam’s really not the main character, rather he’s a culmination of a story of early modern globalization, the story of Elizabethan engagement with the Islamic world, in trade and in diplomacy. Dallam does actually exist though. I promise.