Sack of Constantinople 1204 - Fourth Crusade DOCUMENTARY
Alexios III Angelos usurped the throne of the struggling Eastern Roman Empire in 1195, with no allies and very little resources, but for a brief moment, his realm was stable. However, that stability wouldn’t last, as suddenly an army of Crusaders found itself at the walls of Constantinople. But how and why did the Fourth Crusade end up sacking Constantinople and what were the consequences of these events? Preservation of knowledge is one of the noblest human pursuits and the sponsor of this video Blinkist is all about preserving and sharing knowledge by making it easily digestible even for the busiest among us. Blinkist takes the most interesting and relevant non-fictional books and turns them into 15-minute audios – blinks. More than 3000 titles are already available which means that you can learn on the go, learn fast, and always improve your knowledge, no matter how time-constrained you are.
Blinkist titles range from Entrepreneurship to Philosophy, from Psychology to Politics, but most importantly for us, there are 100s of historical books that you can listen to! Imagine learning the most important facts of 4 books in just 1 hour! Mary Beard’s Civilization and Chip Walter’s Last Ape Standing are perfect if you want to learn more about human civilizations! New titles are added all the time! Support our channel and your growth - get yourself premium access to knowledge! The first 100 people to go to blinkist.com/kingsandgenerals are going to get unlimited access for 1 week to try it out. You’ll also get 25% off if you want the full membership! Alexios III who became emperor by blinding his brother Isaac II was one of the most inept rulers Constantinople ever saw, but at the same time he was one of the luckiest. In order to solidify his claim, he took the money gathered for military expeditions and spent it bribing the aristocracy. He made the sale of offices legal again and despite his usurpation had no interest in ruling, so he left the administration of the Empire in the hands of corrupt officials and his wife Euphrosyne.
Another Alexios, who pretended to be Manuel’s son, dyed his hair, mimicked his stutter, and convinced the Seljuks he was the rightful heir to the throne. This started a war with the Seljuks, which weakened the Byzantine hold over Anatolia. The diplomatic problems were mounting and on Christmas 1196 Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI demanded a tribute of 1 600 pounds of gold, for which Alexios plundered the imperial tombs and raised a heavy tax on the Empire. But just as the coin was collected, Henry died. Luckily for Alexios, the pretender was assassinated in 1197, which slowed down the Seljuk momentum.
A big part of those funds was used to conclude peace with the Sultanate of Rum. The Byzantine problems continued over the next few years, the coastal regions of the empire were pillaged by the Genoan pirates, showing the weakness of the empire. The internal situation was also difficult, as in 1201 John Komnenos the Fat attempted to usurp the throne as his supporters chanted his name and burned down several churches, but that night a loyalist cut his head off, ending the coup.
In the north, shortly after Ivan Asen I was assassinated, his brother Peter became the Tsar of Bulgaria, but also was assassinated soon after. The throne passed to their younger brother Kaloyan, who was a powerful military commander in his own right. The start of his reign was focused on obtaining legitimacy from the Pope and after a lengthy correspondence, he received the title of king, in return for converting Bulgaria to Catholicism. To the west, a Serbian pretender rose to the throne with the aid of the Pope and Hungary, reducing the buffer zone, but the original Serbian monarch was restored with the aid of Bulgaria, which showed that the Second Bulgarian Tsardom is becoming a player in the region. The pope who gave Kaloyan the title was Pope Innocent III, whose 18-year reign influenced every part of Christendom and who was the man behind the pro-Catholic coup in Serbia in 1202: He excommunicated monarchs, annulled marriages, recovered central Italy and the Kingdom of Sicily from the Normans, involved himself in the Holy Roman Empire’s succession crisis, created several holy orders, advocated for the crusade against the Cathars and held a strict anti-Jewish policy.
However, his greatest ambition was the recovery of Jerusalem. As the Third Crusade failed to retake Jerusalem, Innocent called for a new Crusade in August 1198. It took more than a year before several French nobles took the cross . Their leader Count
of Champagne Theobald III was a 20-year-old energetic and charismatic man, related to English and French crowns , and he was soon joined by other powerful aristocrats like Count of Blois Louis, Earl of Leicester Simon of Montfort, and Renaud of Montmirail. By 1200, Theobald managed to recruit many knights from Flanders . However, the timing of this crusade could hardly be worse. Philip II of France was at war with John of England and the Holy Roman Empire was in the middle of a succession war.
Despite the lack of participants the nobles remained hopeful and devised a very ambitious plan to retake the Holy Land: Egypt was the center of Muslim power and with Saladin dead, the crusaders would sail up the Nile, take Egypt, and march on Jerusalem from this new base. The goal of the crusade was to retake Jerusalem and to prevent desertion, so only the leadership knew this plan. The leaders sent envoys to the only city that had enough naval power to turn it into a reality. In February 1201, the leader of the Venitian republic doge Enrico Dandolo welcomed the envoys.
This was the moment Venice was waiting for - a crusade that would give it wealth, allies, prestige, and above all trade ports in the richest part of the Mediterranean. So two weeks later the sides came to an agreement: Venice would halt all commercial enterprises for a year in an effort to build the best fleet in the world. While Crusaders promised an army of 4500 knights, 9000 squires, and 20000 footmen and crossbowmen and agreed to pay the Venetians 4 marks for every horse and 2 silver marks for each man which amounted to 85000 marks.
Additionally, the Venetians would supply the army with food for 9 months and receive half of the plunder obtained on either land or sea. But then disaster struck, Theobald died of an unknown disease at the age of 22. For several months the crusaders sought out a new leader, but every noble they asked declined, until they reached out to Marquis of Montferrat Boniface, whose wealth and name gave new life to the expedition bringing in a wave of recruits, including knights from Italy and Burgundy. Still, the prolonged delay, death of the leader, general lack of interest due to regional conflicts, selection of a new leader who was Italian, while the majority of the Crusaders were French, eroded the enthusiasm. Thousands of men sailed off from different ports directly to the Holy Land and only 12000 crusaders showed up on the Venetian doorstep, a far cry from what was pledged. This angered the Venetians, who lost a year’s worth of trade while spending on the ships and supplies.
The crusaders also failed to come up with the silver they had promised . However, Dandolo proposed a solution: The crusaders would loot the trade port of Zara, which Hungary took from Venice 20 years prior, and pay their debts with the spoils they would take. Thousands of crusaders disliked this and left, but the majority agreed. This new plan appeased the Venitian council and the 93-year old blind Doge gathered his people in St Mark's square in an effort to win their support.
“Signors, you are associated with the most worthy people in the world, and for the highest enterprise ever undertaken; and I am a man old and feeble, who should have need of rest, and I am sick in body; but I see that no one could command and lead, you like myself, who am your lord. If you will consent that I take the sign of the cross to guard and direct you and that my son remains in my place to guard the land, then shall I go to live or die with you and with the pilgrims." And when they heard him, they cried with one voice: "We pray you by God that you consent, and do it, and that you come with us!" With that speech, the crusade took a new form, with a new leader and tripled in number, as 20000 Venetians joined it, at least a quarter of the population. Oarsmen, merchants, and marines took the cross and now outnumbered the other crusaders 2 to 1.
On October 1, 1202, the Fourth Crusade departed for Zara, which was protected by high walls, and a small harbor chain. The port fell instantly and the city was besieged. The defenders sent an envoy to the Doge offering their surrender. The crusaders could plunder and take the city, as long as the people were unharmed.
Dandolo went to consult his fellow crusaders first, but while he was away, members of the faction that didn’t want to attack a Christian city and wanted to go to the Holy Land contacted the envoy: "Why should you surrender your city? The pilgrims will not attack you - have no care of them. If you can defend yourselves against the Venetians, you will be safe enough". This message essentially ended the negotiations.
Meanwhile, the Doge and the nobles agreed to accept the surrender and were stunned to find out the envoys were gone. To make matters worse a papal envoy arrived threatening anyone who attacked the city with excommunication, but it was too late to turn back now. The discord within the army was at an all-time high as some camped further away from the city, while the main force began firing their siege weapons at the walls and sent sappers to mine its towers. Five days later the city surrendered under the same conditions as before, but already the cracks were showing, especially due to their excommunication. Winter had arrived and the host quartered in the rich city with the Venetians taking the coastal side and the crusaders taking the inland side, both of which were plundered.
Three days after the occupation a fight broke out within the city between the Venetian and Latin crusaders. The battle engulfed Zara as steel clashed and crossbows were fired until the morning, leaving many dead on both sides, including some civilians. An uneasy truce was made between the Doge and the nobles who desperately tried to keep the army from falling apart, which was particularly difficult with the absence of Boniface who arrived two weeks later alongside a fresh German contingent and an envoy from King of Germany Philip of Swabia. The latter was busy fighting over control of the Holy Roman Empire but saw the opportunity to put his brother-in-law Alexios IV Angelos in charge of the East and played a key role in convincing him to turn to the crusaders for help.
In our previous episode, we covered how the founder of the Angelos dynasty, Issac II was usurped by his brother Alexios III, who blinded and imprisoned him alongside his son Alexios IV. The latter was freed by Pisan merchants and was waiting for the right moment to free his father and retake the throne. He had heard of the financial struggles of the crusaders and offered them 200000 silver marks.
Additionally, he promised to either go alongside the crusaders to the Holy Land or send 10000 men in his stead. But above all, he promised to put the Orthodox Church under the primacy of the Pope. Contemporary sources claim that the leaders of the crusade were compelled to right the wrong done to Alexios IV because of their code of chivalry. Still, even more men deserted, and with Simon de Montfort going to the king of Hungary, most of the nobles who started the crusade had either died or left. The crusaders sent envoys to Pope Innocent III to obtain absolution and requested that he allow the expedition to restore Alexios IV to the throne.
Both were approved once Innocent III realized this was the best chance to end the East-West schism. Once they celebrated Easter in April of 1203, the Venetians razed Zara and tore down its walls, before departing alongside Alexios IV. The fleet slowly made its way towards Constantinople, with Corfu, Andros and Abydos willingly opening their gates to the young Alexios. This slow crawl didn’t go unnoticed by his uncle Alexios III who prepared the city's defenses and rallied his people against the invaders. Unfortunately, there was nothing for him to do but wait since none of the provinces sent reinforcements to the capital.
The Byzantine fleet of the time was made up of 20 rotting galleys, which were stripped of anchors and sails by a corrupt official, so there was no way to counter the crusaders. Unopposed, the crusaders disembarked and made camp at Chalcedon and Scutari, with Constantinople on the horizon. The Emperor sent terms that were rejected, had smaller contingents harass their foraging parties, and gathered his army at Galata. With Boniface and Dandolo beside him, the young Emperor boarded a galley and revealed himself to the thousands of people gathered on the city walls, but none cheered for him, so the crusaders prepared for battle. On July 5, 1203, the Venetians manned the ships, while the crusaders formed seven divisions each led by one of the leaders. Alexios III was in a perfect position to defend his shores, but he was up against the biggest amphibious assault in medieval history.
The specially designed Venetian troop transports unleashed the heavy knights, their charge covered by archers and crossbowmen. The first wave allowed for the infantry to safely make their way to the beach and put more pressure on the defenders. As soon as the lances were lowered the Byzantines began to flee to the fortress of Galata. With the beachhead secure the knights mounted their horses and made their way to the Imperial tents and pavilions, which were abandoned, leaving many spoils behind.
In order to access the Golden Horn, the massive chain had to be removed, and to do that Galata had to fall and so another siege began. It is here we see the first sign of resistance, as the defenders rushed out of the gates in an attempt to surprise the enemy. However, the Byzantine force was no match for the highly disciplined crusaders who pushed them back and managed to get to the gate before it was closed. Galata was stormed while many defenders were cut down or drowned.
The chain was broken and the crusaders were one step closer to achieving their goal. A city of 350000, Constantinople had around 15 000 men ready to defend it, of which 5000 were Varangian guards. Its great walls had seen many invaders come and go over the centuries.
The sea wall however was its weak spot, one the Venetians were ready to exploit, tying scaling ladders to their masts as they loaded up their mangonels. Meanwhile, the crusaders landed further down the Golden Horn before camping outside the northwestern tip of the city. The camp was defended by palisades and constantly harassed by Byzantine troops that rushed out of the gates to inflict minor casualties, a strategy that proved very unsuccessful. During one of these sallies, the Burgundian division broke the attackers and chased them back to the walls, inflicting heavy casualties. After 10 days of skirmishes and preparation, the assault of the city began on 17 July 1203. Half of the crusader force mounted scaling ladders and finally met their match as they clashed with the notorious Varangians.
Sword met the ax, and in the end, the Norsemen gained the upper hand, forcing the Latins to withdraw back to their camp. As the crusaders pressed the defenders, the Venetian fleet engaged the other side of the city across the sea walls. Despite their siege ladders, mangonels, and cover fire, they made little progress. Then suddenly the old Doge disembarked on the coast in front of the walls, rallying his people with the banner of their patron saint Mark in his hands. Emboldened by this act of bravery, the Venetians rushed forward taking tower after tower. The defenders were overwhelmed and began to flee, while the marines took 25 of the 103 towers across the walls.
The Byzantines attempted to dislodge them, but the Venetians lit a massive fire that engulfed the city and prevented any counter-attack. As the sea walls fell, Alexios III gathered all of his forces and rode out to meet the crusaders head-on. Seeing this the crusaders formed up behind their defenses, ready to meet their numerically superior foe. The Latins formed up in good order, with archers and crossbowmen in front of the knights. Even the camp followers joined in, donning horse quilts and copper cooking pots for protection. The leaders ordered their men to take no action without a formal command, fearing desperate acts of heroism or retreat.
Some would later write that it felt as if a huge wave was about to come crashing down on them. But Alexios III froze and he and his army halted their movement, waiting for the enemy to make the first move. Meanwhile hearing of this standoff the Doge commanded his men to retreat from the walls and go to aid their allies. He was the first to disembark on the coast, soon joined by his warriors.
We are not sure what happened, but it seems that seeing the Venetians approaching the area, Alexios ordered a full retreat. That night he stole 1000 pounds of gold from the treasury and fled to Thrace. After almost a decade of being imprisoned, blinded Issac II was dragged out of his cell and dressed in purple by the desperate citizens.
The crusaders sent envoys to negotiate with Issac and he received them well. The promises made by his son were confirmed. Immediately after the crusaders entered the city with Alexios IV who was welcomed with open arms by the people who had recently refused him. There was a great feast and a coronation that made him co-emperor. In order to prevent another clash with the local populace, crusaders stationed themselves in Galata, where soon after his coronation Alexis IV arrived.
He was well aware that the original agreement the crusaders made with Venice expired on September 29 and found it difficult to gather the 200000 marks he promised, so he asked for the term to be extended and for the Catholics to winter in his lands until March, which would give him time to collect the funds. Additionally, he asked for Latin aid in vanquishing his uncle in Thrace. Once again the crusade was delayed and many were unhappy with the situation, but the Doge and other leaders convinced them that it would be pointless to leave empty-handed, only to winter in the Holy Lands. The crusaders agreed and over half of them left to attack Alexios III who was organising resistance in Adrianople. The Latin Quarter in Constantinople was repopulated after the massacre of 1182, and while Alexios IV was away, a fight broke out between the Latin and Greek inhabitants of the city, as the latter decided to scapegoat the Latins. The struggle escalated to a massive fire that burned down a huge portion of it, melting down churches and killing thousands as the crusaders watched from the other side of the Golden Horn.
Approximately 15000 Latins made their way to Galata where they joined the pilgrims seeking protection from the locals. gold The Emperor returned in November to a devastated Constantinople, with an empty treasury and furious populace. Alexios paid small installments of the promised payment, melting down precious church relics, while feeding the crusaders at his doorstep. Discontent with his weak and blind leadership continued to increase, and a riot broke out in January 1204 which saw the co-emperors sending their relative Alexios Mourtzouphlos to the crusaders for aid once more.
The envoy used the discontent of the Varangian guard, who probably weren’t paid and hated the crusaders. The guard was bribed, murdered the co-emperors, and brought the envoy to the throne as Alexios V. The new emperor renewed the hostilities by launching a preemptive strike on the Crusaders, as he knew that they would soon attack him to avenge Isaac and Alexios IV. Giant wooden structures were to be built on top of the sea walls, making them more difficult to take. While the defenses were strengthened the Byzantines sent 7 large ships filled with lumber, tow, resin, and barrels and directed them towards the Venetian fleet.
The fire ships could very well have taken out a big portion of the crusader navy, if not for the quick response from the Venetians who managed to attach hooks to the approaching vessels, redirecting them away. This was the last time the crusaders argued over departing to the Holy Land as they discussed the situation. In the end, the murder and usurpation, broken promises and 15000 Latins who had fled to their camp led to one clear decision. The crusader forces would assault the city and this time they would not do so to place some pretender on the throne but to take it for themselves.
In March 1204 the leadership laid out plans on how to divide the Eastern Roman Empire among them and how to evenly distribute the spoils. Once that was confirmed, they decided to focus all of their efforts on the sea walls. On 9 April the assault began as the walls were scaled on dozens of different points along the northern side, but a strong wind made it difficult for the ships to disembark and many were left stranded between the Golden Horn and the sea walls. The defenders relentlessly shot volleys of arrows, bolts, and rocks and managed to repulse the attacks. Back in Galata, the defeated host made plans and some suggested to readjust the strategy and strike from a different point, but the Venetians managed to convince them that there were no other options, arguing that if an attack was made further south on the walls, the currents would carry the fleet away. Instead, a decision was made to bind the galleys in pairs and build giant fighting platforms that would act as naval siege towers.
Meanwhile, Alexios V camped just outside the city in an effort to draw the crusaders out, which only depleted the already weakened garrison. On April 12, the second assault commenced and two of the largest ships in the fleet bound together embraced one of the towers. Elsewhere a small contingent armed with pickaxes made way to the walls.
The defenders tried everything to stop them, but the armor and shields blocked most of the projectiles allowing for a small gap to be opened in the wall. Knights crawled through the gap and held their ground against the waves of Greeks trying to stop them. At this point, the Varangians, who still weren’t paid, decided to desert, leaving the Queen of Cities to fall. Rather than overextend, the crusaders consolidated their position. Dandolo remained on the ships, count Baldwin took the scarlet tents that Alexios V abandoned, while his brother Henry took the Blachernae palace and Boniface camped within the city. In anticipation of a midnight attack, the latter group started a fire within the city which was carried further inward by the wind and burned for nearly 24 hours.
As his final attempt to rally the defenders failed, Alexios V fled to the west. When the fire burned out, there was no resistance left, no leadership, no Varangian guard, and no Empire. The leaders of the host took certain precautions to limit further devastation on the already battered city, by setting up special points where all the loot was carried away and then divided equally, but many took to mindless plundering, reaving and raping. How many priceless works of art were stolen, melted down, or destroyed and how did the rest of the world react to the collapse of the city and empire that stood its ground for 873 years? These questions deserve to be covered in a separate video, so make sure you are subscribed and have pressed the bell button to see it. Please, consider liking, commenting, and sharing - it helps immensely. Our videos would be impossible without our kind patrons and youtube channel members, whose ranks you can join via the links in the description to know our schedule, get early access to our videos, access our discord, and much more.
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