That time Christians crusaded against other Christians: Part two

Fourth Crusade meme
The Fourth Crusade: 1202-1204: Read time - 10 minutes 34 seconds

If you haven’t already, read part one. Unless you’re just a chaotic kind of person.

Let the battle begin! June 5-17, 1203

The walls that ran alongside the Golden Horn estuary were the weak point of Constantinople. The only way to access the estuary was to enter through a narrow strip of water, which was blocked by an iron chain. In order to take down the iron chain, the suburbs of Galata had to be taken first. The Venetians would man the ships while the crusaders landed on the shore north of Galata. To oppose the landing, the Byzantines set up camp outside the walls of Galata.

Golden Horn: An estuary in modern-day Istanbul, Turkey. Separated Galata from the main city.

Constantinople: The capital of the Byzantine empire. Modern-day Istanbul.

Galata: A suburb of Constantinople that lay across the Golden Horn

Venice: A powerful merchant city located on the northeastern coast of Italy.

Map of the invasion of Galata. Crusader's path marked by white arrows. Courtesy of Kings and General’s Sack of Constantinople 1204 - Fourth Crusade DOCUMENTARY

Knights and archers stormed the shore in what at the time was the largest amphibious assault in history. Arrows were exchanged while the knights set up formation and lowered their lances. At the sight of this, the Byzantine force… retreated. They left all of their tents and pavilions behind which were filled with valuables without a fight.

The next day a force of Byzantines stormed out the gates of Galata in hopes to surprise the crusaders. No match for the disciplined crusader army, the Byzantine forces were routed and retreated back to the walls.

The crusaders followed closely on their heels and the guards couldn’t close the gate in time. The crusaders stormed Galata and took down the iron chain. The Venetian fleet quickly laid waste to the Byzantine navy and the Venetian ships occupied the Golden Horn.

The leadership planned their strategy. They would wait a few more days until besieging the city. The Venetians would lay siege to the shitty walls alongside the Golden Horn while the rest of the army would focus on the northwestern tip of the city. 

The crusaders camped outside the northwestern walls were continuously harassed by Byzantine units that ran out for quick raids. The crusaders would usually inflict heavy casualties on the Byzantines while incurring little themselves. 

Location of the crusader camp and the Venetian Navy: Courtesy of Kings and General’s Sack of Constantinople 1204 - Fourth Crusade DOCUMENTARY

The man with the biggest balls always wins

The entrance to the Golden Horn. You can see the chain that blocks ships from entering.

The day of the siege had come. The crusaders rushed the walls with their siege engines. Many were cut down by arrows and boulders, but some made it to the walls and laid down their scaling ladders. They were met with the elite Varangian Guard and their feared battle axes. The crusaders finally met their match and were forced to retreat.

Varangian Guard: An elite unit of the Byzantine army. They were mostly composed of Nordic people and Anglo-Saxons. This was purposeful so they wouldn’t have any political loyalties.

Fourth Crusade
A 16th century CE painting by Domenico Tintoretto depicting the Venetians attacking the sea walls of Constantinople in 1204 CE during the Fourth Crusade.

As planned, the Venetians assaulted the walls alongside the Golden Horn. Catapults mounted on the ships launched projectiles into the watchtowers that ran along the wall. The Venetians managed to land on the narrow strip of land between the walls and water, but arrows and boulders took out many. The dead lay strewed about, while the wounded cried for help. It was apparent that the Venetians were losing and Doge Dandolo knew he had to step up.

Doge Dandolo: The highest authority in Venice who traveled with the crusaders.

The Doge grabbed the banner of St. Mark and demanded his sailors to let him land on the shore. The men complied and through volleys of arrows and boulders, the Doge’s ship rowed ahead. At the sight of their blind and elderly leader, the men felt ashamed but also reinvigorated and rallied around their leader. They charged the walls and once the defenders realized the tenacity of their foes, they retreated. The Venetians had breached the walls.

St. Mark: Mark the Evangelist – the patron saint for Venice

Alexius III concentrated his best units against the crusaders in the northwest and didn’t think the Venetians would pose a serious threat. It was a costly mistake as Alexius III was forced to redeploy his Varangian Guards to where the Venetians had breached. The elite unit slowly started to push the Venetians back. Pressed for options, the Venetians lit a fire in between themselves and the Byzantines. 

Alexius III: The current Byzantine emperor who overthrew his brother, Isaac II.

By what was seemingly divine intervention, the wind suddenly blew towards the Byzantines who were forced to retreat. This fire would destroy 120 acres of land, destroying the homes of 20,000 Byzantine citizens. 

Retreating is the new Meta

In a last-ditch attempt to change the tide, Alexius III took the bulk of his army and decided to march on the camp of the crusaders. The Byzantines had almost double the number of soldiers than the Catholic army. The crusaders were terrified at the massive army and one described it as “like we were facing the population of the entire world.” However, the army halted and waited for the crusaders to make the first move. The crusaders took this opportunity to retreat across the Lycus river in a more fortified position. After hearing of the crusader’s plight, Doge Dandolo rallied a group of men to aid the crusaders. 

While the two armies were still in a standoff, the Venetians landed on the shore.  At the sight of this, Alexios III… retreated, despite still holding onto a large numerical advantage. Contemporaries say that he didn’t have the stomach for war or he felt bad about blinding and imprisoning his brother, but the general consensus was that he was just a massive pussy.

At this point, Alexios III knew his people had lost all trust in him. He knew that if he was captured by them or the crusaders, he would probably have died a less than ideal death. He would flee the city that night. The citizens, absolutely terrified of what the crusaders may do to the city, retrieved Isaac II from prison and had him receive his son and the crusaders. The crusaders had won and Alexios VI and Isaac II would reign as co-emperors. 

Emperor Alexios VI: The Byzantine emperor who asked the crusaders to restore him to the throne.

Emperor Isaac II: The Emperor before Alexios III and father to Alexios VI. He was usurped, blinded, and imprisoned by his brother, Alexios III

Despite the advantage of fortified defenses, the Byzantines lost in a mere 12 days. The Byzantine leadership was terrible and did nothing near enough to prepare for the invasion. Their army was also composed of many mercenaries who were probably a bit less motivated than the debt-ridden and religiously fanatical crusaders. Not to discredit the crusaders as they were disciplined, experienced, and worked in near-perfect cohesion with each other. The crusaders paired with the Venetian fleet were truly a formidable foe. I guess with the power of friendship you can do anything!!! 

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You don't sack a city for nothing

The crusaders would stay at Galata until they received everything Alexios VI promised. Alexios VI was pretty strapped for cash and resorted to melting down holy relics to pay the debt. This was truly a last resort – these relics were part of what made Constantinople the powerhouse of Christianity that it was. 

To melt them would surely invoke the wrath of God…

Alexios VI didn’t see a feasible way to pay off his debts, so he proposed a solution to the army – stay the winter here and let me consolidate power, and then I can pay off my debts. 

The crusaders were tired of the delays and wanted to get on with the crusade however, they didn’t have a choice. Understandably, the citizens of Constantinople hated the crusaders and in extension, Alexios VI. If the crusaders left, it was likely that Alexios VI would be overthrown and have no way to pay off the debts.

Byzantine Shenanigans: Part II

During the winter, relations would only get worse between the citizens of Constantinople and the crusaders/Alexios VI. Often groups of crusaders would clash with the population, resulting in many civilian deaths. Even Isaac II said of his own son, “he kept company with depraved men (the crusaders) whom he smote on the buttocks and was struck by them in return.” 

Things reached a boiling point when the Byzantines made an attempt to burn the Venetian fleet with fire ships but were unsuccessful. The culprit was unclear but it sure did piss the crusaders off. The crusaders knew that their continued presence would only lead to more trouble. They gave Alexios VI an ultimatum; pay up or catch these hands.

Isaac II would soon die afterwards and this marked where the people fully turned on his son. They threw Alexios VI in prison and crowned a new emperor, Alexios V. Thankfully his nickname was Murtzuphlus, which we’ll refer to him as since we have too many damn Alexioses.

Murtzphlus: The emperor of Byzantium after overthrowing Alexios VI. His real name is Alexios V, but most historians refer to him as Murtzphlus.

Fourth crusade Alexios

Murtzuphlus, who was actually somewhat capable built up the defenses of the city, including watchtowers along the Golden Horn’s walls that reached up to seven feet tall. He also cut off supplies and launched raids on the crusaders. On one of these raids, three crusader knights were captured and burned alive. The crusaders watched in horror as their comrades burned, listening to their screams and smelling the burning flesh. Finally, to secure his power, Murtzuphlus killed Alexios VI. He was said to have strangled him with his own bare hands. I guess there can only be one Alexios. 

Fourth crusade Alexios

How many times can you fight Christians in a crusade?

After the murder of Alexios VI, the crusaders and Murtuzuphlus realized that peace was the only way to…  just kidding it was time for war. Murtzuphlus was sure as hell not going to pay off the debts. With no food, supplies, or money left, the crusaders had no way to continue the crusade. 

This battle was for keepsies. If the crusaders won, one of the leading nobles or Venetians would be the emperor of the last vestige of the great Roman Empire. The crusaders decided amongst themselves how to divide the loot, how to elect the new emperor, and to stay at least one more year to consolidate power, yet again pushing back the crusade.

Murtzuphlus Alexios V Doukas
The 147th imperial portrait in Mutinensis depicting Murtzuphlus

They then swore on holy relics that women should not be sexually assaulted, churches were not to be looted, and monks or priests should not be harmed. The penalty for breaking this promise was death and excommunication. Basically, if you broke these, it was a one-way ticket to hell. On April 8th, 1204, almost ten months after first arriving at Constantinople the crusaders would once again besiege the grandest city in the world.

This is still a crusade right?

This time the whole army would assault the wall along the Golden Horn. The crusaders disembarked from their ships and onto the narrow strip of land between the estuary and the walls of the city. From their newly built watchtowers, the defenders fired arrows and missiles on the crusaders. 

The attackers who made it to the walls laid down their ladders and attempted to climb. The defenders poured boiling oil and large boulders on the men. The ones who did make it to the top were knocked off and plummeted to their deaths or were crippled.

No progress was made and the crusaders had to withdraw. A knight named Robert of Clair wrote that many of the Byzantine defenders jeered and pulled down their pants, showing their exposed buttocks to the retreating men. 

Bro I swear, it's just a halftime break

The crusaders were demoralized after seeing the exposed asses of their adversaries and figured that this was the wrath of God. The nobles seeing this decided it was time for a religious pep talk. They made all the men give confessions and cast out all the prostitutes from the camp (I have this image in my mind where hundreds of prostitutes stumble into some town and everyone is just super confused). 

They dehumanized the Byzantines, calling them cowards and heretics. They then tied ships together creating fighting platforms with mounted ladders from which the crusaders could better scale the walls. 

After the boost in morale, the crusaders would try again three days later. The assault began similarly to the first one with the Byzantines holding the upper hand. This was until the wind blew in the crusader’s favor and the ships were able to get close enough so that the mounted ladders could almost reach the walls. The attackers had to jump from the wall, safely to the towers, or else plummet to their death. 

The first crusaders over the walls were hacked to death, but the Byzantines were quickly overrun and retreated. The crusaders took more and more of the watchtowers and even breached the walls on the ground level.

A large number of the Varangian Guard and Byzantine nobles deserted the city, while the rest of the army broke down per usual as more and more crusaders entered the city. Murtzuphlus, fearing a less than ideal death, fled the city.

Fourth Crusade
A painting by Domencio Tintoretto of the siege c. 16th century

Let the sacking commence

Remember when the crusaders swore on holy relics to not pillage the city? Yeah about that…

The crusaders tore the city apart. Holy relics and works of art that were accumulated over centuries were stolen and destroyed. The magnificent churches that used to be the heart of the city were defiled. Priests and monks who tried to defend the sacred treasures were beaten and cut down. Even Catholic priests who traveled with the crusaders took part in the looting.

The crusaders raped virgins, nuns, married, and unmarried women alike. Scenes of mothers being torn away from their children and daughters being torn from their mothers were all too common. To be fair to the crusaders, this was largely done on an individual level and many men even tried to stop these acts. Nonetheless, the population was devastated.

It’s hard to imagine the terror the citizens felt. The terror of losing their homes, possessions, families, and their own lives. This was no fault of their own, but the fault of incompetent rulers. In events that happened centuries ago, we tend to forget the suffering that happened on the individual level, but these were real people too, who all have their own story. 

Anyways, after three days of pillaging, It was time to choose an emperor for the new Latin Empire of Constantinople.

“Lamentation, moaning, and woe were everywhere. Indecency was perpetrated, if any fair object was concealed with the recesses of the body; thus the ill-doers and mischief-makers abused nature itself. They slaughtered the new-born, killed prudent matrons, stripped elder women, and outraged old ladies. They tortured the monks, they hit them with their fists and kicked their bellies, thrashing and redning their reverend bodies with whips. Mortal blood was spilled on the holy altars, and on each, in place of the Lamb of God sacrificed for the salvation of the universe, many were dragged like sheep and beheaded, and on the holy tombs, the wretched slew the innocent.” 

Nicholas Mesarites, Byzantine writer

Aftermath

There were two leading nobles, Boniface of Montferrat and Baldwin of Flanders, who were candidates for the crown. On May 9th, 1204, through a predetermined system of electors, Baldwin of Flanders was selected to be the first emperor of the Latin Empire of Constantinople. This was a surprise to Boniface of Montferrat as he was the official leader of the crusade.

Baldwin of Flanders: A leading noble in the crusade who was elected as the first emperor of the Latin Empire of Constantinople. He was seen as a man of virtue who held up the crusader ideals.

Boniface of Montferrat: A leading noble in the crusade who was chosen as the overall leader. His family had close ties to the crusade, including a nephew and brother who were both once kings of Jerusalem. 

Latin Empire of Constantinople: The new empire that formed after the crusader’s victory at Constantinople 

Doge Dandolo held a lot of influence over the election and was a huge proponent of Baldwin as he was seen as a man of virtue and would not become a tyrant. Boniface’s land was also in Italy, close to Venice and the Doge did not want to give power to someone who could threaten his homeland.

Pope Innocent III was elated to hear of the capture and thought it was God’s will that the heretics of the east fell. Elation turned to disgust when he heard what the sack was like. The nobility conveniently left out all the non-Christian things they did. Pope Innocent III questioned the true motives of the crusaders, but did not excommunicate anyone as holding on to the newly captured lands was more important.

The Latin Empire would last from 1204 to 1261. Despite holding on to the capital, the rest of the country despised the westerners. The Byzantines would eventually recapture Constantinople in 1261, ending the 57-year-old Latin Empire. Byzantium however, would never return to its former glory. On May 29th, 1453, the Ottoman Empire would capture the city and the last vestiges of the Roman Empire disappeared forever.   

Oh yeah, and the crusade? Nah never happened.

Author's note

This story largely focuses on the crusader’s point of view. If told from the Byzantine’s side, the story would be much different. There was also so much more stuff I wanted to include, especially more about the leading figures of the crusading army. 

It’s hard to forget in events that happened centuries ago that these were real people. Of the thousands of soldiers and civilians who died, each had their own story. Many sons, daughters, wives, husbands, parents, friends wept at the death of their loved ones. Especially during the sack, I can’t imagine the horror the defenseless citizens felt.

This was a vast oversimplification of events told in a narrative format. To know the full story you would have to read a lot of books… so check out our recommended readings!

Timeline of Events - Terms - Memes - Sources

In part one…

1054: The Great Schism splits the Christian church into two factions.

1171-1260: The Muslim Ayyubid Dynasty is established by Saladin.

1185: Isaac II is blinded and imprisoned by his son, Alexios VI

September 1187: Saladin takes Jerusalem.

January 8, 1198: Pope Innocent III is elected pope. 

August 1198: Pope Innocent III calls for a crusade.

April-May, 1202: Crusaders arrive in Venice.

November 10-24, 1202: Crusaders capture Zara.

April 7, 1203: The crusaders depart Zara for Constantinople. 

June 23, 1203: The crusaders arrive at Constantinople.

The first siege of Constantinople

July 4, 1203: The crusaders decide to attack Constantinople after failed negotiations

July 5-6,1203: The crusaders capture Galata

July 10-16,1203: The crusaders besiege the city

July 17, 1203: The Venetians capture and break through the walls and start a massive fire Alexios III flees the city that night

August 1st, 1203: Alexios VI and his father Isaac II are crowned as co-emperors

Interlude period

August-December, 1203: Small altercations between the citizens and crusaders erupt, further increasing tensions.

January 1, 1204: Byzantines unsuccessfully attempt to burn the crusader fleet with fire ships

January 25, 1204: Isaac II dies around this time, prompting the removal of Alexios VI and the crowning Murtzuphlus as the new emperor.

February 8, 1204: Alexios VI is killed.

The sack of Constantinople:

April 9, 1204: The Venetian and crusader forces assault the city, but are pushed back

April 12: The crusaders launch another assault and successfully breach the walls. Murtzuphlus flees the city that night

April 12: The crusaders pillage the city for three days

Aftermath

May 1204: Count Baldwin of Flanders is elected emperor of the Latin Empire of Constantinople 

1261: The Empire of Nicea, founded by escaped nobles, reconquers Constantinople and restores the Byzantine Empire

1453: The Ottoman Empire conquers Constantinople, marking the end of the Byzantine Empire

Alexios VI: The Byzantine emperor who asked the crusaders to restore him to the throne.

Baldwin of Flanders: A leading noble in the crusade who was elected as the first emperor of the Latin Empire of Constantinople. Was seen as noble and virtuous.

Boniface of Montferrat: A leading noble in the crusade who was chosen as the overall leader.

Constantinople: The capital of the Byzantine empire. Modern-day Istanbul.

Doge Enrico Dandolo: The highest authority in Venice who traveled with the crusaders.

Galata: A suburb of Constantinople that lay across the Golden Horn.

Golden Horn: An estuary in modern-day Istanbul. Separated Galata from the main city.

Isaac II: The Emperor before Alexios III and father to Alexios VI.

Latin Empire of Constantinople: The new empire that formed after the crusader’s victory at Constantinople 

Murtzphlus: The emperor of Byzantium after overthrowing Alexios VI. His real name is Alexios V, but most historians refer to him as Murtzphlus.

Pope Innocent III: The pope who oversaw the fourth crusade. One of the more influential popes in history.

St. Mark: Mark the Evangelist – the patron saint for Venice

Varangian Guards: An elite unit of the Byzantine empire that often wielded battle axes

Venice: A powerful merchant city located on the northeastern coast of Italy.

 

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