Not Conspiracies but Mistakes


A new popular account cuts through some popular misconceptions to provide an accurate accounting for the disasters of the Fourth Crusade. 

Recently, in a course I taught on the Crusades, one of my students was an elderly nun whose ministry was centered on working with Byzantine Catholics and Orthodox Christians. She explained that she had signed up for the class in large part due to the amount of animosity these Eastern Christians exuded when discussing the Crusades; she wanted to become better acquainted with the topic so that she could understand the source of their anger.

This story is just one illustration of how in the 21st century the events of the Fourth Crusade still loom large over Catholic-Orthodox relations. In their June 2004 meeting in Rome, Pope John Paul II and Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, both alluded to the 1204 sack of Constantinople. Reflecting upon this infamous event, the Pope commented, "In particular we cannot forget what happened in the month of April 1204. How can we not share, at a distance of eight centuries, the pain and disgust?"

Three theories

Many theories have been spun and conspiracies claimed to explain the outcome of the Fourth Crusade. Originally intending to attack the center of Muslim power in Egypt, the crusade was ultimately derailed, and transformed into a successful attack on Constantinople. In a new book on the Fourth Crusade, Jonathan Phillips, a historian at the University of London, provides a lively narrative of the origins, evolution, and culmination of this controversial campaign. Phillips focuses especially on why the crusade followed the path it did, identifying some of the underlying causes for the diversion of the effort from its original intended course.

There are three main schools of thought concerning the Fourth Crusade. The "clash of civilizations" theory posits that 1204 was the inevitable outcome of hostility between East and West, which had been growing since the schism of 1054. A second interpretation, the conspiracy school, offers a variety of scenarios worthy of Oliver Stone in order to explain the derailment of the crusade. For example, some analysts hold that Pope Innocent III was behind the diversion, arguing that the pontiff planned the attack as a way of reasserting papal hegemony over Byzantine Christians. Others, more numerous, claim that the 1204 sack was the work of the Venetians, who used the crusade as a means to expand their own commercial clout and to repay the Byzantines for past injustices. Whatever the alleged conspiracy might be, proponents of this second school generally agree that the attack on Constantinople was the result of early premeditation.

The final and most recent of the interpretative schools is the "accident" theory, which argues that the diversion of the Fourth Crusade was due to a series of missteps that ultimately led the crusaders to attack the Byzantine capital. This interpretation is generally accepted by historians who have studied the crusades, but has not entirely penetrated the popular consciousness. Phillips' book aims to do just that.

The Fourth Crusade was the outgrowth of Pope Innocent III's August 1198 crusading call. The young pope envisioned that this crusading expedition would retake Jerusalem and perhaps provide the opportunity for improving relations between Rome and Byzantium. The initial reaction to Innocent's proclamation was rather muted as various European rulers were either immersed in efforts to beat back their own domestic foes or busy warring on each other's nations.

The first significant response was in November 1199, at a tournament in France, where Count Thibaut of Champagne, Count Louis of Blois, and many other participants vowed to go on crusade. Phillips notes how chivalric enthusiasm probably contributed significantly to this sudden outburst of crusading zeal.

The Venetian role

As more and more people took the cross, the leaders met to discuss the preparations for the forthcoming enterprise. During the Third Crusade, the kings of England and France had utilized the royal treasury to underwrite campaign costs and used their respective navies to ferry their armies to the Holy Land. The lack of royal involvement in the Fourth Crusade, however, was to have a critical effect on the planning of the venture, as the crusade leaders lacked the manpower, money, and machinery to which a medieval king had access. The crusaders needed to seek assistance from an outside party.

A committee of six envoys — one of them being Geoffrey of Villehardouin, who later wrote a famous chronicle of this crusade — was entrusted with the task of contracting transportation to Egypt. To provide this service the envoys chose Venice, which was famed for its seafaring might. In April 1201 the crusaders and Venetian rulers agreed to a contract providing for passage to Egypt for the following summer. The terms were specific: transportation would be furnished for 4,500 knights and horses, 20,000 foot-soldiers, and 9,000 squires, in return for 85,000 marks. The Venetians themselves committed 50 additional ships for the crusade, on the condition that they and the crusaders would split all the spoils.

Historical analysis of the Venetian role in the Fourth Crusade is particularly contentious. As previously noted, many writers maintain that the Venetians commandeered the crusade in order to settle a score with the Byzantine Empire and to extend their trading power. Enrico Dandolo, the 90-year-old Doge of Venice, is usually singled out as a central figure in the diversion of the crusade, because he supposedly harbored a longstanding vendetta against the Byzantines. One legend claims that during an 1172 embassy to Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor had blinded the Doge. According to the story, Dandolo subsequently swore vengeance on the Greeks: an oath that he was finally able to fulfill through this crusade. Other writers argue that the Venetians rerouted the crusade from Egypt to Constantinople because they wanted to increase their commercial presence there.

Phillips thoroughly debunks these legends and faulty theories concerning the Venetians. He points out that Dandolo's blindness did not occur until after 1176, so that it could not have occurred during his trip to Constantinople four years earlier. He notes that Venice already enjoyed a substantial market in Constantinople, but none in Egypt, so any commercial motivation would have led them to retain the original objective. Concerning Venetian motivations as a whole, Phillips strikes a good balance, observing that while mercantile interests were certainly a factor in their planning, it was the spiritual appeal of the crusade that moved Venetian leaders to participate in this venture.

Venetian spiritual and commercial interests collided, however, in the summer of 1202 when the crusaders fell well short of the number of participants they had envisioned, and were unable to raise the money they had promised for transportation. The envoys had been too ambitious in their estimates. (In his defense of his own diplomatic effort, Villehardouin later argued that many of the European nobles who had promised to take part in the crusade reneged on their vows, or departed from other ports.) Whatever the reason for the shortfall, the two parties were at a stalemate.

Turned against Christian foes

Having invested heavily in the construction of the massive fleet required to satisfy the crusaders' stated requirements, the Venetians were now loath to give up on the project. So they offered a new proposal: they would still ship the army to Egypt, provided that the crusaders first helped them to reassert Venetian authority over the city of Zara on the Dalmatian coast. Knowing that the very existence of the crusade was at stake, the leaders agreed to this diversion.

Thus began the first step in the diversion from the original crusading plan. At Zara a momentous precedent was set: turning the crusade aside from its goal in the Holy Land, and using the crusader army to fight against Christians. Many crusaders objected to the attack and left the army at that stage.

Many people today are unaware that the Fourth Crusade initially went to Constantinople to restore Prince Alexius Angelus and his imprisoned father to the Byzantine throne. After the diversion to Zara, representatives of Alexius met up with the crusaders, informing them that he would pay their remaining debt to the Venetians and assist them in attacking Egypt if they would help him regain his rightful position. Thus a second diversion, and a second battle against Christian foes, was proposed.

Considering their precarious position, the benefits of assisting the prince, and the legitimacy of his claim, the crusaders accepted the proposal. In July 1203 they succeeded in driving Alexius' foes from Constantinople, enabling the young prince to become co-emperor with his newly freed father.

The crusaders kept waiting for Alexius to fulfill his many promises, but only a small portion of the money was paid. As they waited, a political rival in Constantinople murdered Alexius and his father, setting himself up as emperor. When the new Byzantine ruler refused to pay the crusaders the sum they were still owed, they decided to attack Constantinople once again. Against great odds they defeated the Byzantines, capturing the seemingly impregnable city, and sacking it for three days. Phillips vividly relates many of the egregious events that occurred during these 72 hours of pillaging, making evident "the pain and the disgust" which they prompted from John Paul II. As a conciliatory gesture, Pope John Paul recently returned to Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople the bones of St. John Chrysostom, relics that were seized during the sack of 1204. (See "No Insurmountable Obstacles," Catholic World ReportJanuary 2005.)

A lasting legacy

The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople is a first-rate study of this remarkable campaign, whose infamous outcome still has ramifications today. Although there is little new historical scholarship in the book, Phillips succeeds in transmitting the major research on the Fourth Crusade to a non-academic audience in a lively and accessible manner, wading through the conspiracy theories and superheated rhetoric so common in the field. This is no small feat.

Along the way Phillips makes some very important points. He underlines the complexity of motivations for participating in a crusade, and the importance of the chivalric background of the Fourth Crusade's leaders. He also points out that Pope Innocent III forbade the crusaders to attack Zara and then Constantinople, but lacked the ability to enforce this prohibition.

Some readers might be annoyed by the occasional diversions Phillips makes from the main narrative, to discuss special points of interest such as how tournaments were conducted or how siege engines worked. I would argue that although he has a good command of his sources, at times he uses them too literally — for instance, in a chapter discussing a crusading sermon purportedly preached by Martin of Paris. I would also dispute the emphasis Phillips places throughout the text on the death of Thibaut of Champagne — who died before the crusade ever departed Europe — as a major setback for the crusade. Thibaut's role as leader was merely titular, much like that of Stephen of Blois in the First Crusade. Moreover, even if Thibaut had lived, it is extremely unlikely that he would have been able to offset the shortages in manpower and money that hampered the crusade from its outset and caused the initial diversion to Zara. These minor shortcomings do little to detract from an excellent book.

As Phillips notes in his conclusion, "The legacy of the sack of Constantinople is most acute in the Greek Orthodox Church where a deep-rooted bitterness at the perceived betrayal of Christian fraternity has long lingered." A good illustration of this point is John Paul II's 2001 visit to Greece, during which some hostile protestors condemned the Pope as the anti-Christ, while even the Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos highlighted the 1204 sack during his joint public appearance with the Pontiff. While addressing an audience of the Greek Orthodox hierarchy, the Pope specifically lamented this event: "It is tragic that the assailants, who set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their brothers in the faith. That they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret."

Ironically, when Pope Urban II called the First Crusade in 1095, it was partially envisioned as a way to repair the recent rift between Eastern and Western Christians. In recent years, apologizing for the events of the Fourth Crusade has become a central feature of the same quest: the Church's advance down the long road to reunion.


Vincent Ryan. "Not Conspiracies but Mistakes." Catholic World Report (February, 2005).

This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic World Report.

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Vincent Ryan, a doctoral candidate in medieval history at Saint Louis University, has presented papers on various aspects of the Fourth Crusade at the International Medieval Congress and the Midwest Medieval History Conference.