George Bingham discusses The Fourth Crusade

The Fourth Crusade: Rejecting the Revenge Narrative

The Fourth Crusade marks a crucial moment in the history of crusading upon which the values largely pivoted away from the traditional prioritisation of religious symbolism towards financial and territorial gain. Although there have always been capitalistic attitudes amongst crusaders, this had previously always been seen as a secondary priority. However, the sacking of a Christian city, albeit Greek Orthodox, clearly “perverted every principle of the crusading movement”[1]. This crusade undeniably represented the complete corruption of the original goals and values of crusading, but the real debate is why did the Crusade end up at the gates of Constantinople?

The narrative of the Fourth Crusade centres around Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice, who by either a series of accidents or malicious intent led the crusade to Constantinople instead of the planned target of Alexandria. Whether this decision was forced upon him by unfortunate circumstances or part of a vindictive plot of revenge is a contentious debate. Analysing Dandolo’s decisions is complex because most of his life is shrouded in mystery. The earliest record of him, beside his birth in 1107, is his involvement in an expedition that was responding to the seizure of Venetian goods and property in Constantinople in 1172. Therefore, due to the lack of recorded information on the majority of his life, it is necessary to reflect on the bitter relationship between the Byzantine empire and Venetian traders when seeking to analyse any potential resentment Dandolo might have had towards Byzantium.

The fractured relationship between these Mediterranean powers has caused some to speculate that Dandolo, out of both spite and capitalistic endeavour, was behind the diversion to Constantinople. This theory of calculated revenge is based on two notable events in Constantinople “which Venice never forgot or forgave”[2]. The first is the aforementioned seizure of Venetian property and goods in 1172. And although the Venetians were soon allowed to resume trading in the city, the refusal of any compensation and the prioritisation of the trading rights of rival Pisan traders resulted in considerable resentment towards the Byzantine Empire. This was compounded by a massacre of Latins in Constantinople in 1182 which resulted in the deaths of several Venetians. This clearly soured an already bitter feeling amongst Venetians. This bitterness resulted in Charles Brand to speculate that Dandolo “hated the Byzantines” and agreed to the crusade as it “might be diverted against Constantinople”[3].

This bitter relationship is in stark contrast with the peaceful prosperity of Venetian traders in the Muslim ports of Egypt and Syria. This immensely profitable trade combined with Venetians reputation as “unabashed capitalists”[4] has resulted in the suggestion that Dandolo diverted the crusade away from the profitable trading port of Alexandria. As well as protecting the prosperous trade in Egypt, an attack on Constantinople would also effectively dismantle the Byzantine empire which Venetians viewed “as the last obstacle to securing Venetian supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean”[5]. However, the idea of Dandolo executing a pre-meditated plan of retribution and economic gain has a significant flaw. Although there is motive amongst Venetians for revenge, this narrative fails to account for the series of unforeseen events and disastrous mistakes that occurred after Innocent III called for the Fourth Crusade.

The journey to Constantinople began with the arrival of six envoys to the city of Venice in 1201. They represented the Counts of Champagne, Blois and Flanders and were sent to negotiate with the Venetians to build a fleet to transport an unprecedented number of crusaders. This challenging task came with the considerable reward of 85,000 marks as well as 50% of any territorial or economic gain made. However, the cost of building the 200 galleys needed to transport the promised number of crusaders would leave the Venetian economy entirely reliant on the financial success of the crusade. Their precarious financial situation was only made worse when only a third of the promised army arrived and more significantly, they were only able to pay 50,000 marks. This economic pressure on the Venetian state potentially forced Dandolo into prioritising the financial side of the crusade. This is the opinion of Donald Queller who argues that the Venetians were “just as pious as the northern crusaders, and just as anxious to reach Egypt”[6] but due to the instability and financial situation of the crusade they were forced to make the infamous decision to divert to Constantinople.

However, before this, Dandolo used the leverage of the unpaid debt to pressure the other leaders of the crusade into launching an assault on the small island of Zara. The island had rebelled from Venetian rule but was controlled by a Roman Catholic ruler, and thus clearly not a qualified target for a religious crusade. That the attack still took place possibly means that Dandolo had decided to use this crusade to settle Venetian vendettas. Innocent III had pre-empted this forced reunification and had specifically warned against any diversion to Zara. So why did Dandolo take this risk? It was likely a desperate attempt to appease the Venetian public after he had plunged them into an economic crisis. Therefore, an attack on a Christian island went ahead in open opposition to a direct warning from the Pope. This decision was heavily criticised by contemporaries with Gunther of Pairis describing the attack as “detestable business”[7]. However, a far more damaging condemnation was the Pope’s decision to excommunicate everyone involved. Due to the likely response of mass desertions, this news was completely suppressed by the leadership group and the crusaders set off once again, unaware of their banishment from the Catholic church. The occupation of an island to reassert its subservience to Venice, clearly demonstrated the Crusade’s lack of a strong moral compass. This was exacerbated by the equal status of the leaders of the Crusade which resulted in an unclear chain of command as well as the added impetus on financial success necessitated by Venice’s economic situation. This resulted in the corruption of religious aims by monetary goals. Despite these clear issues, at this point the crusade was not irredeemable and the capture of the major city of Alexandria would have led to the forgiveness of the sins committed at Zara.

Before any potential attempt was made to recover the reputation of this Crusade, an envoy arrived with a tantalising offer. The envoy was from Prince Alexios Angelos, the son of the recently deposed Byzantine Emperor Isaac II, and he offered the immense sum of 200,000 marks, a contribution of 10,000 troops to the crusade and a pledge to place Byzantium under the Pope in exchange for the Crusade assisting him in regaining the throne from Alexios II, his usurping uncle. This would provide invaluable support to the Crusade and appease the still furious Pope. However the improbability of these promises being fulfilled meant this was incredibly risky but the lure of both immense financial reward and unprecedented military support was too enticing for the majority of the crusading party[8]. The domestic chaos of the Byzantine empire combined with the endless ambition and desperation of the young Prince Alexios resulted in the further diversion of the Crusade which now acted like a mercenary force. Despite the capitalistic corruption of crusading values, the unforeseen nature of the chaotic circumstances within Byzantium seemingly refutes the narrative of Dandolo’s malicious plan but does not rule out that the resentment he held contributed to him accepting the offer of Alexios.

The instability of the Byzantine empire meant that the vulnerable capitol offered token resistance to the crusaders, who were able to scale the sea walls from the Venetian galleys and push the defenders back with both sword and fire. Upon his release from imprisonment, Isaac II was crowned co-emperor alongside his ambitious son. However, predictably the alliance with the crusaders turned sour over the Empire’s inability to pay the promised marks. Despite desperate attempts to raise the money, including raiding churches and selling items from the royal household, Alexios eventually had to admit to the crusaders he could not possibly raise the promised amount of marks or even attempt to raise the 10,000 soldiers. This enraged Dandolo who reportedly replied with “We have dragged you out of the dunghill, and into the dunghill we will cast you again”[9]. This demonstrates Dandolo’s distrust of Byzantine leadership, perhaps due to his experience as diplomat to Constantinople, one of his rare recorded roles prior to his dogeship. However, the Angelos’ rule soon ended due to the unpopularity of their attempts to pay a foreign army via the raiding of churches and emptying the royal coffers. A minor palace figure, Alexios Doukas, managed to harness this civil unrest as well as the dissatisfaction of powerful courtiers and military leaders to trigger a peaceful revolt within the palace that resulted in the deaths of both Isaac and Alexios.

This new emperor still had the difficult problem of a hostile army demanding an impossible repayment. Aware of the unpopularity of any further concession, Doukas adopted a hostile approach and immediately ordered the crusaders to “vacate his land” and upon their refusal attempted to set fire to the Venetian galleys. This elicited a second assault upon Constantinople but instead of appointing a puppet emperor to organise their full payment, the Crusaders decided to secure the promised marks directly. The flags of France and Venice were raised above the burning city as the un-restrained crusaders pillaged its wealth. Despite the appointment of Baldwin of Flanders as Emperor, this defeat effectively shattered the once great Byzantine Empire. It dissolved into small kingdoms controlled by the previous governors or local elites.

In conclusion, the narrative that Dandolo only agreed to the crusade to exact revenge upon the Byzantine Empire can be completely rejected. This rejection is due to the sheer unpredictability of the events that drew the crusaders to Constantinople which no one could have foretold or planned. The sudden financial prerogative due to the lack of fully payment combined with the instability of both the Byzantine empire and the Crusade resulted in the acceptance of an unreliable offer out of desperation. Despite this, it is likely that Dandolo did hold considerable resentment towards Byzantium which perhaps reflects in his distrust of Byzantine leadership and his lack of inhibitions in sacking a Christian city. However, it is undeniable that a series of accidents, some avoidable, pushed the Crusade towards Constantinople.












[1] CRUSADERS by Dan Jones, Pg341

[2] ‘Byzantium and the Crusades’ by Steven Runciman, Pg22

[3] ‘Byzantium Confronts the West’ by Charles M Brand, Pg206

[4] ‘Outside and Inside the Fourth Crusade” by Thomas F Madden, Pg728

[5] Byzantine Empire by Robert Browning, Pg187

[6] ‘The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 1201-1204’ by Donald E Queller

[7] ‘The Capture of Constantinople’ by Gunther of Pairis, Pg79

[8] Although the majority of the Crusade went to Constantinople, a party led by Simon of Montfort and Renaud of Montmirail headed to Syria

[9] ‘The Conquest of Constantinople’ by Robert of Clari, Pg59