That time Christians crusaded against other Christians: Part one

The Fourth Crusade: 1202-1204: Read time - 6 minutes 52 seconds
Fourth Crusade meme

What’s up it’s The History Buffs😎. Check out our sources, timeline of events, and defined terms at the bottom. Enjoy‼️

What Knights do for fun

Back in the Middle Ages, there wasn’t much to do for fun. Instead of video games and Netflix, there were plagues, famines, and most fun of all – crusades.

Crusades: A series of military expeditions that usually refer to the attempts by Christian powers to take the Holy Land from the Muslims. Three major crusades happened prior to this one (Fourth Crusade).

The priests of Europe were sent to rally the people in a religious frenzy in what would become known as the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204). In an attempt to dispel the Muslim occupiers from the Holy Land, the crusaders would *squints at notes* sack and conquer the largest Christian city in the world.

Holy Land General Area
General area of the Holy Land highlighted in red

Pope Innocent III would be elected to the papacy in 1198. He was a pope with ambition who implemented wide-sweeping reforms, excommunicated nobles who didn’t follow Catholic values, and most importantly called for the Fourth Crusade.

Pope Innocent III: The pope who oversaw the Fourth Crusade. Considered by many the most influential people in the Middle Ages.

The biggest problem was that many of the major Catholic powers were a bit preoccupied. France and England were engaged in a bitter war, the Holy Roman Empire was in a succession crisis, and Spain was busy with the Reconquista. Luckily many nobles who had their own armies took up the cross because feudalism.

Feudalism: A social system in which the nobles held lands from their monarchs in exchange for military service. 

The priests tasked with recruitment gave visions of adventure, plentiful treasure (not very Christian I know), and most importantly penance; the remission of all sins. This basically meant a knight could go kill and pillage and still go to heaven. Swept by religious fervor, thousands of men and women took up the cross.

“In our time God instituted holy warfare, so that the arms-bearers and wandering populace… should find a new way of attaining salvation; so that they might not be obliged to abandon the world completely, as used to be the case, by adopting the monastic (monks/nuns) way of life… but might obtain God’s grace to some extent while enjoying their accustomed freedom and dress, and in a way consistent with their own station.”

-Guibert of Nogent

*Guibert basically states that people can attain salvation through holy warfare rather than strictly following the bible. Rad.

Pope innocent III
Pope Innocent III. Unknown artist circa 1219

Stardust Crusaders: A Bizarre Adventure

At the end of the First Crusade in 1099, the crusaders did secure significant territory in the Levant including Jerusalem. These kingdoms would be known as the Crusader States. Only a little more than a decade earlier, the Muslim Ayyubid Dynasty conquered much of the region including Jerusalem in 1187. Now only a small sliver of coastal territory remained in Christian hands.  

Levant: In this story, it’s basically the same thing as the Holy Land. The Levant refers to a region covering the western coasts of modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

Crusader States: Four crusader states that were established in the Levant during the First Crusade. 

Ayyubid Dynasty (1171-1260): Established by the Muslim leader Saladin, this dynasty had recently conquered much of the crusader states.

Ayyubid Dynasty
Map of the Ayyubid Dynasty. Alexandria was one of the wealthiest port cities in the Mediterranean.

The Ayyubid Dynasty also controlled Egypt, which was by far the most prosperous region within its borders – and the target of the crusaders. 

Egypt has always been the breadbasket of the Mediterranean and could easily supply an invasion force. Not to mention the lucrative trade routes that ran from North Africa to India. It was obvious that conquering Egypt would not only ensure Christian domination over the Holy Land, but also the entire Mediterranean. 

Of course, this was only known to a few leaders, since “Let’s conquer Egypt to secure geopolitical influence” didn’t have the same ring as “Let’s liberate the land where our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was born from the infidels.”

Map of the planned route to Egypt and Jerusalem. Courtesy of Kings and General’s Sack of Constantinople 1204 - Fourth Crusade DOCUMENTARY.

The Doge before the Meme

The crusaders planned to sail down the Nile River, but they needed ships, and Venice had the goods. The Venetian Republic, located in northwestern Italy, was a powerful maritime power and the city of Venice itself was a huge center of trade. 

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

When crusaders started to arrive in Venice in 1202, they requested the construction of what would be the largest navy a Christian power had ever built until that point. To give you the scale of this project, Venice had to cease all commercial trade for a year to focus on building this navy. Imagine a country like France or Canada ceasing all trade for a year to concentrate all of its efforts on building a navy.

“We will build transports to carry 4,500 horses and 9,000 squires, and other ships to accommodate 4,500 knights and 20,000 foot sergeants. We will also include in our contract a nine months’ supply of rations for all men and fodder for all the horses… The total cost of all that we have outlined here amounts to 85,000 marks. And we will do more than this. We will provide, for the love of God, fifty additional armed galleys, on condition that so long as our association lasts we shall have one half, and you the other half, of everything that we win (loot), either by land or sea…”

Geoffrey of Villehardouin

While the Venetian council resisted, Enrico Dandolo, the Doge (leader of Venice, unrelated to the meme) was all for it, even promising to travel with the crusaders himself with 10,000 more Venetian soldiers. This was a large amount of soldiers and the Doge himself was also 93 years old and blind. 

Enrico Dandolo: The Doge of Venice who ruled from 1192-1205

Doge meme

Unfortunately the navy may have been too grand. Have you ever been in a situation where your friend is like “yo come to this party, it’s going to be wild” but there’s actually only like 10 dudes and one girl who looks really uncomfortable? Yeah.

How to pay off debts in Medieval Europe

In the end, only around 12,000 of the promised 33,500 crusaders arrived and could only pay half the cost. Doge Dandolo wouldn’t let the crusade continue without payment, but he had an alternative. He proposed that if the crusaders could capture the city of Zara, he would let the crusade continue.

Zara: A wealthy merchant city located on the coast of modern-day Croatia. It threatened Venetian trade.

Zara was a wealthy mercantile city about 165 miles southeast of Venice on the coast of modern Croatia. Zara threatened Venetian trade and naturally having a massive army indebted to you presents a great opportunity to gain a competitive advantage. A couple of problems were:

  1. Zara is Catholic
  2. Zara is ruled by the king of Hungary, who also took up the cross.
Route to Zara
Map of the crusader’s route to Zara (Zara is now known as Zadar)

The leadership of the crusade debated amongst themselves and came to the conclusion that despite their situation, it would be immoral to conquer another fellow Catholic city. Just kidding, the crusaders decided to attack Zara.

This plot was only known by the nobles since most of the crusaders would understandably be upset at killing their fellow Catholics (however, everyone knew Zara was Catholic once Zara its defenders hung crosses over the wall to appeal to the conscience of their besiegers). 

The city was no match for the crusaders and surrendered after two weeks on November 24, 1202. The crusaders would then shelter the winter in Zara and then finally go to Egypt.

Pope Innocent III caught wind of the invasion and was absolutely pissed. He excommunicated everyone involved. Later the pope relented, understanding the predicament of the crusaders. He would rescind the excommunication if the crusaders returned their spoils and promise to never attack another Christian settlement unless it was absolutely necessary. Everyone accepted except for the gigachad Venetians because treasure>eternal salvation.

Venetian meme

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Byzantine Shenanigans

Now let’s hop over to the shit show which was the Byzantine Empire, which may seem unrelated but stay tuned.

Byzantium/Byzantine Empire: The eastern half of the Roman empire that survived when the Roman Empire fell in 395 AD.

In 1203, Byzantium was strong but increasingly stagnant. There’s also been some family drama so let’s break it down: 

  • Isaac II was the Byzantine Emperor from 1185-1195 until he was blinded, imprisoned, and overthrown by his brother, Alexios III
  • Alexios III overthrew his brother Isaac II and is the current Byzantine Emperor
  • Alexios VI (confusing I know) is the son of Isaac II who fled the empire with a bunch of money

Luckily for the escaped Alexios VI, he knew of a massive army that desperately needed money. You see, the capture of Zara didn’t fully pay the debts, but merely postponed the payments. 

Alexios VI sent a message to the crusaders, asking them to capture the capital city of Constantinople and restore the young emperor and his father to the throne. In return, he promised more than enough money to pay off the crusader’s debt, provisions for every man in the army, and to accompany the crusaders with 10,000 troops once the city was captured.

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

Alexios VI
The 146th imperial portrait in Mutinensis depicting Alexios VI.

The most important thing Alexios VI promised was for the Orthodox Church to recognize papal authority. For a vast oversimplification, the Schism of 1054 saw the church split into the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches due to theological and political differences. Ever since, the churches have been bitter to one another, but they at least tolerated each other. Think of it as Donald Trump and Barack Obama playing on the same basketball team.

Schism of 1054: In 1054, the church split into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church. Also known as the “Great Schism” or “East-West” schism.

Once again the crusaders were faced with a moral dilemma. Should we invade another Christian city?

Hell yeah we should!

Many saw this as a great way to pay off their debts and felt compelled to correct the unjust usurpation of Isaac II. Some nobles disagreed and took their armies straight to the Levant, but the majority of the nobles would travel to Constantinople. 

After seven months, it was time for the crusader’s new adventure. The Venetians and Zara peacefully negotiated a treaty… just kidding the Venetians razed the entire city only leaving the churches.

The crusaders were on their way, only making a few pit stops to gather supplies and food (also raiding). Doge Dandolo and some nobles would wait in the newly razed Zara to receive Alexios VI. When he arrived, Alexios VI became popular among the crusaders as much of the leadership took a liking to him.

A sight that none had ever seen

Constantinople was indisputably the largest city in the Christian world. It was a bastion of Christianity that boasted a population of 375,000-400,000. For comparison, Paris and Venice only had about 60,000 each. 

When the men first gazed upon the city, they could hardly believe their eyes. The city stretched into the horizon, with grand churches and monuments dominating the skyline. Lavish vineyards sprawled across the city. It was obvious that this city held more wealth than they could ever dream of. 

“There was indeed no man so brave and daring that his flesh did not shudder at this sight (Constantinople). Nor was this to be wondered at, for never had so grand an enterprise been carried out by any people since the creation of wonderland.”

Geoffrey of Villehardouin 

Hagia Sofia in 2013. Completed in 537 AD, the Hagia Sophia was one of the most important churches in the Christian world until the Ottoman conquest in 1453.

Meanwhile, Emperor Alexios III sat back complacently within the walls of Constantinople. Work was done to improve the defenses, but it didn’t seem like there was any sense of urgency. The Byzantine army was still formidable and could field at least 15,000 men with the added advantage of defense. Either way, the crusaders could not yield now. Debt doesn’t pay itself. 


*Estimates of the Byzantine army vary from 15,000 to 30,000 (the crusaders said the army consisted of 60,000 men)

On the next episode of Dragon Ball Z, watch our “heroes” conquer the grandest city in the world! On the next episode of dRaGoN bALL z!!!!!

Part Two

Timeline - Terms - Sources

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.

Alexandria: A powerful merchant city located on the Nile Delta.

Alexios III: The Byzantine Emperor who overthrew his brother, Isaac II.

Alexios VI: The escaped son of Isaac II who asked the crusaders to restore him to the throne. 

Ayyubid Dynasty (1171-1260): Established by the Muslim leader Saladin, this dynasty had recently conquered much of the crusader states.

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

Crusades: A series of military expeditions that usually refer to the attempts by Christian powers to take the Holy Land from the Muslims. Three major crusades happened prior to this one (Fourth Crusade).

Crusader States: Four crusader states that were established in the Levant during the First Crusade.

Feudalism: A social system in which the nobles held lands from their monarchs in exchange for military service. 

Holy Land: Refers to the land around modern-day Palestine and Israel.

Isaac II: The Byzantine Emperor who was blinded and dethroned by Alexios III. Father to Alexios VI.

Levant: Refers to the eastern Mediterranean coast that stretches from the modern-day borders of Egypt to Turkey. 

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

Schism of 1054: The split of the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Church

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

Zara: A wealthy merchant city located on the coast of modern-day Croatia. Threatened Venetian trade.


The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople by Jonathan Phillips

The Fourth Crusade 1202–04: The betrayal of Byzantium (Campaign) by David Nicolle

Kings and Generals sack of Constantinople 1204 – Fourth Crusade DOCUMENTARY.

Image Credits by User:Arab League under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication by Arild Vagen under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. ation_of_the_Latin_Empire.png by Kandi under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Courtesy of Trinity Armory