Column: Retronomicon: The Greed and Folly of the Fourth Crusade

By J. Keith Haney

As this season of Grimm has made a couple of passing-if-important references to the Fourth Crusade, it would behoove us to take a closer look at this particular European misadventure in religious warfare. Too much of the public’s perception of the Crusades is caught up in Robin Hood legends or (for the millennials) Assassin’s Creed, both of which have a primary focus on the Third Crusade. Why that one was more famous than the First Crusade (which was the ONLY successful one of the lot) has more to do with mythmaking in the form of its two primary opponents, King Richard Coeur de Leon (or “Lionheart,” as he is more commonly called) of England and Salah Al-Din (mispronounced as “Saladin” by Westerners). It’s worth pointing out that Ridley Scott’s depiction of Richard in the most recent version of “Robin Hood” is closer to the mark than most others, portraying him as a butcher and a poor king who was more interested in leading armies into battle than actually, you know, RULING. All the gain he made in the Third Crusade? Strictly from negotiation, with the exception of the capture of the city of Acre and the island of Cyprus. The worst part was that he could have got what he got without wasting the lives of thousands of people. But no…he had to go for the military conquest option.

Thankfully, this is not his story. Our story begins roughly one year before his death.

It all started with the ascension of Pope Innocent III in 1198, a pontiff who began calling for a new Crusade almost immediately upon ascending the papal seat. In the previous three crusades, this sort of thing had been entrusted to the great Christian kings. In addition to Richard, King Phillip Augustus of France (who was a bitter rival of Richard’s back in Europe) and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa also took part in the Third Crusade. But this time out, all the royals had more than enough troubles at home. The newly ascended King John of England was duking it out with Philip while the succession of the Holy Roman Emperor was embroiled in one of its typical power struggles. Still, nobody (least of all, Innocent) ever said that it HAD to be a king who freed the Holy Land and that’s where the crusade’s eventual leaders came into the picture.

The official story (which, given subsequent events, there is every reason to doubt) is that said leaders first got the idea to get involved during a tournament at Ecry-sur-Aisne in the north of France in 1199. Just as an aside, throw out any notions you may have gotten about such tournaments from the movies or The Tudors. Tournaments during this period were more like the Roman arenas of old. If you wanted to watch, you did it behind castle walls for your own safety. In the field below, hundreds of men charged at one another in mock battle at the signal of a herald. Once everybody who got knocked off their horse was on the ground, it switched to a general melee, boots on the ground and swords out. The winner’s circle was reserved for the team that had kept their ranks the tightest. While the idea was just to capture the other side, fatalities were frequent occurrences (In fact, one of Richard Cour de Leon’s brothers, Geoffrey of Brittany, had been killed during one such tournament in 1186).

In light of the above, what supposedly happened at THIS tournament makes little-to-no-sense. Everybody on the field allegedly suddenly got so upset about the fact that the Holy Land was in the hands of “infidels” that they all fell to their knees and swore oaths to take up the cross. Among the knights who interrupted their little war game for this sudden bout of piety was the tournament’s organizer, Count Thibault of Champagne. It seems a bit more likely that the Count thought that going to the Holy Land to actually kill people that the Church wouldn’t miss, rather than deal with a boring tournament, was a great idea. Regardless of what set the ball in motion, Thibault definitely held a good many assemblies over the next several months to hammer out the details. Two other nobles with crusading family backgrounds (who had also been at this same tournament) took part in putting the pieces together: Count Baldwin of Flanders (Thibault’s brother-in-law) and Count Louis de Blois. Another important player in this drama wound up becoming part of the leadership: Marquis Boniface de Montferrat, who had family ties to Jerusalem’s ruling dynasty.

All four were determined to do this crusade differently from the previous efforts. Louis himself was a veteran of the Third Crusade, which may be why the leaders decided to heed King Richard’s advice about striking Egypt, the literal and economic center of the Muslim world thanks to the Nile Delta. From there, it would be a short march up to Jerusalem proper. Another advantage was that the troops would not be overly tired from the long marches of the previous crusades. When it was time to fight, they’d be fresh. There was one small point that needed to be addressed before they could carry out this plan: They needed ships. Scratch that…considering the fact that they were sending a huge army overseas, they were going to need a LOT of ships. It may have been Boniface, a native-born Italian who would know, who came up with the idea of getting such ships as they would need from Venice, a city-state recognized as having the finest mariners in the world.

His fellow nobles apparently agreed because they sent a six-knight delegation headed up by Geoffrey of Villehardouin, Marshal of Champagne, to go to Venice to make a business deal. The Doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, was way past his 80th birthday by this time (pretty impressive, really, when you consider that you were lucky to live to see thirty during this era) and nearly blind in his eyes, to boot. However, he was still a vigorous man in his elder years and his wits remained sharp enough to extract a very good price from the crusaders. For the low price of 84,000 silver marks and half of everything the crusaders took for loot, he and his council would build the crusaders 50 war galleys, fully crewed, in addition to the ships needed to transport 33,500 men and 4,500 horses. Incidentally, the size of the force was what Geoffrey promised the crusaders could deliver, with no actual basis in arithmetic. Thus, this deal shall be hereafter referred to as Mistake #1.

During this phase, things only went downhill from there. First, Count Thibault wound up dying before the crusade could even head for Venice. Boniface was selected to be his successor on account of the Jerusalem blood ties. Then, when the crusaders rolled up into Venice in the latter part of the spring of 1202, they only had 10,000 men with them and not nearly enough funds to pay up the 84,000 silver marks agreed upon. Like most loan sharks, Doge Dandolo was not inclined to just forgive the debt simply because the crusaders couldn’t pay up. His city had given up a lot of its regular commerce just to build these damn ships for these would-be holy warriors. So…no money, no crusade.

However, Dandolo wasn’t completely heartless about it. He made them an offer: suspension of payment on the ships in exchange for taking care of a little problem. The city of Zara (later Zadar, in what would become Yugoslavia) was turning into a serious commercial rival to Venice, so if the crusaders could help the Doge conquer that city before it got to be more of a problem….

A good many crusaders balked at this little deal and for good reason. For one, Zara just happened to be a Christian city. For another, it was under the official protection of King Andras of Hungary, who had also taken up the crusaders’ cause. Still, the leadership didn’t see any other way around this roadblock and said yes to the deal.

Once they managed to arrive on November 10, 1202, it was no real contest. Zara fell after just 14 days of siege on the part of the crusaders. But the cost to the cohesion of their cause was troubling. A good many crusaders deserted during the siege out of pious atonement. Pope Innocent himself was not amused by the thought of Christians killing each other when they should have been turning their swords on Muslims. He made a move to excommunicate Venice and held the threat of doing that to the rest of the crusade over their heads for months. Finally, because this little side trip had cost them so much time that they couldn’t sail to Egypt in the weather that was coming, the crusaders had to take up winter quarters in Zara so that they could make the trip next spring.

It’s at this point in our story where things take a serious turn for the weird. While the crusaders are busy figuring out whether or not the Pope has damned them in the hereafter (No doubt, a good many of them had thought that the Venetians had done that to them in the here and now), Prince Alexius Angelus, son of the deposed (and blinded) Byzantine Emperor Issac II, came to their camp with an offer of his own. The current emperor of the Byzantine Empire (also called Alexius, in this case, Alexius III) needed to pay for the insult that had been done to the Prince and his father by deposing and imprisoning them. It’s often theorized that Prince Alexius heard about the crusade in the first place from the 1201 Christmas court of King Philip of Swabia. Alexius was Phillip’s brother-in-law and Boniface was one of the Swabian king’s vassals. Somehow, word of the crusade’s current predicament must have gotten to the Prince, as well. Otherwise, why meet with them at all?

Prince Alexius made them a very tantalizing offer: Put him on the throne of Constantinople (the Byzantine Empire’s capitol) and he would use the royal coffers to pay off the crusaders’ debt to the Venetians. In a sentiment that would be echoed by the George W. Bush Administration vis-à-vis Iraq roughly nine centuries later, the Prince assured his hosts that the current emperor was hated and that the crusaders would be greeted as liberators. Moreover, he presented this as a chance to unify the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox churches, a split that had paralleled the breakup of the Western Roman Empire itself. Surely, pious Christians like themselves could see that as a good thing, right?

Sigh…apparently, these guys didn’t know the old story about the Trojan Horse, or they would have remembered that bit about “Greeks bearing gifts.” As it was, when spring rolled around in 1203, the crusaders set sail for Constantinople, committing Mistake #2 in the process.

None of this is to say that Byzantium (as the Byzantine Empire was also called) wasn’t due for a wrecking ball makeover. Though it was still the most powerful Christian force in that part of the world (who often sneered at the backwards cousins in Europe), the previous two decades had brought forth a great deal of internal dry rot. The palace coup that had deposed Issac II was only the latest in a long line of such actions. The lack of central control meant at least fifty-eight uprisings and rebellions from the provinces during the last quarter of the twelfth century, among them the successful secessions of Cyprus, Bulgaria and the Asia Minor city of Philadelphia.

At one point, Byzantium had even allied with Salah Al Din during the Third Crusade, putting the city at odds with Frederick Barbarossa’s forces. Worse yet, Alexius III had no clue how to right things. By way of an example, he made his brother-in-law admiral of the Byzantine navy. Said brother-in-law then turns it into a money-making operation for his own profit by selling off gear or even entire ships. If one contemporary eyewitness named ‘Niketas Choniates’ is accurate in his reporting, this left the navy with about twenty decrepit ships from a starting number of one hundred and fifty, most of which were in much better condition.

However, Prince Alexius had oversold his own appeal to the crusaders. This was proven beyond a reasonable doubt when, at the Doge’s suggestion, the crusaders tried to trigger a popular revolt on July 3, 1203. The plan was to sail up the Bosporus with Alexius in full state regalia and that the Byzantines would cheer their long-lost emperor. They got a hail of arrows for their troubles. However much they despised Alexius III, the Byzantines had no love for a pack of barely civilized Western barbarians taking over THEIR empire.

So, it was decided to make a play for Constantinople, which had been keeping out foreign armies, some of them tougher than the crusaders, for five hundred years. Nor were all the troops on the walls slouches; in addition to troops from Venice’s rival in Italy, Pisa, there was also the Varangian Guard, the toughest troops that the Empire had to offer. Still, thanks to Alexius III’s useless brother-in-law, there were no ships to stop the crusaders from landing on July 5th at the Tower of Galatia. Thanks to the French knights slicing through Alexius III’s pathetic forces (none of them the Varangian Guard, apparently), taking the Tower was fairly quick.

The city itself proved to be a tougher nut to crack. The Doge and his Venetian forces took the harbor wall in an amphibious assault. The crusaders, having stupidly committed themselves to attacking a land wall, were getting hammered by the Varangian Guard, Alexius III leading the counterattack. Baldwin had actually hung back, as he knew their assault was going to be suicidal, but the others charged forward, so he had to follow in order to save face. In the end, the Doge had to abandon his own gains to come to their rescue.

Alexius III should have been sitting pretty, as he had succeeded in holding off the crusaders. But his nerve cracked under the pressure. He fled into the night with his favorite mistress and favorite daughter (leaving the wife at home by herself, it must be said). The remaining Byzantine nobles quickly restored Issac II to the throne (Never mind that if you were blind, you weren’t supposed to rule), which made the crusaders demand that Prince Alexius also rule alongside him. With no central figurehead left to rally the city’s defenses, the nobles agreed.

The aftermath turned out to be Zara Part II. The newly-crowned Alexius IV found out the hard way that the imperial treasury was completely maxed out (You didn’t think that Admiral Graft was the only one looting the Empire from the inside, did you?), leaving the crusaders still in debt to the Venetians. Also, it was once again too late in the season to make a play for the Holy Land, so the crusaders had to stay outside the city walls until the seasons turned again. But what made this far uglier than what had happened at Zara was the intense racism between the two camps. The Byzantines in particular began to turn on all Westerners, and not just the crusaders. The Pisans who had fought so hard to defend them wound up paying for their loyalty in gallons of blood spilled during city riots, making them flee to the crusader camp for safety.

Then Alexius IV, the emperor they had put on the throne and were having a steadily worsening relationship with, managed to get himself imprisoned by an advisor named ‘Alexius Ducas’ (AKA Mourtzouphlos, so-named for his bushy eyebrows), who then seizes the throne as Alexius V. Given how much bad luck was associated with that name, it might have been safer to go with something else…especially given what happened next.

It started off pretty well for the newly crowned emperor. He shut the city gates against the crusaders, and struck hard and fast at the Venetian galleys with a fire-ship attack. But Alexius V blundered when he went after a crusading foraging party. The French knights rallied their forces and made off with the imperial standard and icon. When he got back, he tried bluffing his people on what had happened to those emblems by saying that they were in safekeeping. Once word got back to the crusaders, they wasted little-to-no time hoisting up the missing pieces on a Venetian war galley. Alexius IV paid the price for that move when his successor had him strangled in his cell to ward off a palace revolt. The newly re-imprisoned Isaac II wasn’t too far behind his son, though he didn’t need any help in dying.

That proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. The leaders of the crusade decided that the only way to ensure their safety was to take the Byzantine Empire for their own. In an assault, the likes of which wasn’t seen again until the invasion of Normandy in 1944, the crusaders and Venetian allies launched an attack on the harbor wall on April 9, 1204. While the assault itself was repulsed, they finally broke through with a follow-up assault on April 12th, which had the important innovation of an assault bridge that got them over the wall and into Alexius V’s command post. After an ineffective counterattack, the Emperor retreated and eventually fled the city during the night.

Three days of street fighting, looting and other related atrocities followed as the Queen of Cities reeled under the weight of the sack. Countless treasures from antiquity were either destroyed or stolen in the ensuing chaos (In fact, this might have been the point where Nick’s ancestors would have gotten their hands on the super-weapon Mama Grimm mentioned). The most obvious example of this looting is still seen in Venice to this day: four bronze horses that stand in front of St. Mark’s.

For all the hopes of uniting Eastern and Western Christianity that Innocent III had pinned to this disastrous turn of events, it was not to be. Baldwin of Flanders became the first Emperor of the newly-christened Latin Empire of Byzantium only to get captured the very next year in a battle that should never have been fought. The Latin Empire kept shedding territory after territory to Byzantine successor states for the next fifty years. The Greeks retook their beloved city in 1262, but the damage had been done. In 1453, a little under two centuries after this last event, the Ottoman Turks would sack Constantinople once and for all, paving the way for the modern-day city of Istanbul, Turkey.

It’s hard not to see a reflection of this crusade, which never reached Muslim lands, in the machinations of Renard, Adalind and the Families. The intense racism on display is also interesting to note, given what Mom told Nick about the Wesen Wars of 1205, a mere two years after Constantinople’s sack. Maybe one led to the other?