The Real Story of the Fourth Crusade

April 15, 2014 | 8 comments

810 years ago this week, on April 13, 1204, an unthinkable act occurred: Christian armies sacked Constantinople, in what became known as the Fourth Crusade. The Crusades are among the most misunderstood events in Catholic history, and the Fourth Crusade is frequently cited by critics of the Crusades and the Church in an attempt to discredit both.    

The notoriety of the Fourth Crusade comes from its (originally) unintended conquest of Constantinople, in which Christians fought Christians—to the horror of Pope Innocent III and to the scandal of modern-day Catholics. The story of how the Fourth Crusade came to Constantinople, beginning with great promise but ending in abject disaster, is one of the most intriguing in the entire history of the Crusades. 

Pope Innocent III called for a new Crusade on August 15, 1198. French barons met to formulate plans for the Crusade and decided to travel to the Holy Land by sea.  In order to secure their transportation, the barons sent six ambassadors to Venice to negotiate with the doge, Enrico Dandolo.  Venice was eager to supply the ships, especially since the Crusaders promised the arrival of an immense army of over 30,000 men.

Today it is hard to fathom that the calculation of a number could be the cause of a Crusade gone awry, yet therein lies the truth of why the Fourth Crusade went so horribly wrong. 

The ambassadors based their estimate on potential Crusaders, not those who had already taken the Cross. Thus they grossly overestimated, and only 13,000 warriors made their way to Venice by the deadline.  The agreement with the Venetians called for the Crusaders to pay an amount based on the estimated number of warriors; when less showed, it placed the Crusade in jeopardy, since the Crusaders could not pay for their transportation.  This was a problem for Venice as well, which was faced with a severe financial disaster if the Crusaders did not pay their debt. 

Forgiving the debt was out of the question, so Dandolo proposed the Crusaders help the Venetians conquer the Croatian city of Zara (previously under Venetian control). Dandolo’s offer proved problematic, as Zara was controlled by King Emeric of Hungary, who had previously taken the Cross; therefore, his lands were protected by the Church, and attacking a Crusader’s land resulted in excommunication.

The Crusaders were thus faced with a serious moral quandary. They did not have the money to pay the Venetians, but the Venetian plan to keep the Crusade from crumbling threatened their souls. Debate raged among the Crusaders about their choices; eventually most decided to accept Dandolo’s offer.  

When news of the Crusade’s diversion reached Pope Innocent III, he sent a letter to the leaders forbidding them from attacking Zara; they ignored the letter and hid it from the rank and file. As the Crusaders besieged the city, its inhabitants lowered banners with crosses over the walls to remind them they were attacking fellow Christians. The tactic did not work, and eventually the Zarans sued for peace. When news of the fall of Zara reached the pope, he wrote another letter to the Crusade's leaders, excommunicating them.

As they wintered over in Zara, the Crusaders were approached by envoys from an exiled Byzantine prince with a truly remarkable offer. The envoys told the Crusaders that Prince Alexius Angelus needed their help to free his deposed and imprisoned father, Emperor Isaac II, and return his family to power.  In return, Alexius promised, among other things, to pay the Crusaders 200,000 silver marks, enough to pay off the Venetian debt with a surplus to finance the campaign to the Holy Land. Pope Innocent III soon got wind that Crusaders were thinking of going to Constantinople, so he wrote another letter, warning them against such action. Once again, his protestations were ignored.

The Crusaders traveled to Constantinople and were shocked to learn the inhabitants were not interested in opening the city to Alexius Angelus, so they besieged the city, causing the usurper Alexius III to flee. The young prince became co-emperor (Alexius IV) with his released father and tried to fulfill his promises to the Crusaders.  But he was unable to produce all the promised money, despite the extreme measures of confiscating sacred icons and vessels and stripping dead emperors of their rich vestments. Before long, Alexius IV’s affiliation with the Western warriors proved unpopular, and eventually he was imprisoned by his chamberlain, Alexius Ducas (nicknamed Mourtzouphlus), who declared himself emperor (Alexius V).

Alexius V played tough with the Crusaders and ultimately ordered the murder of Alexius IV. Unable to finance their journey from Constantinople to Jerusalem and faced with the murder of Alexius, who owed them money, the Crusade's leaders decided to attack Constantinople a second time—which they did, brutally.

The sack of Constantinople in 1204 remains one of the enduring memories of the Crusades. It is often used to further the falsehood that the Crusades were primarily “land-grabs” or motivated by greed and desire for booty. Despite the clear papal protestations at the time, blame is still placed inappropriately with the Church for these tragic events.

Yet the Fourth Crusade was not motivated by greed. Neither was it part of some Roman plot against the East. The Crusaders desired to campaign in the Holy Land with the ultimate goal of liberating Jerusalem. It was a series of bad decisions, overzealous calculations, and historical accidents that knocked the Crusade off course and resulted instead in an attack upon fellow Christians in the Queen of Cities. 

If you want to learn more about the Crusades, check out my audio set, The Real Story of the Crusades, available now from Catholic Answers Press.



Steve Weidenkopf is a lecturer of Church History at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and the creator and author of Epic: A Journey through Church History, an adult faith-formation program on the 2,000-year history of the Church. His book, The Glory of the Crusades,...

Comments by Members

#1  Logan Rieck - Albany, Illinois

I had heard about the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders but I never knew the historical context. Thank you for the insight! I always loved history.

It seems that the Church is continually smeared by palatable ignorance for its detractors instead of the truth being told. I'm sure that the Church must continue to labor to eradicate this ignorance for many years to come.

God bless, I really enjoy articles like this, may His truth be told.

April 15, 2014 at 2:59 pm PST
#2  toral vora - oslo, Vestfold

Spam deleted.

April 16, 2014 at 6:00 pm PST
#3  Esteban Montanez - Montebello, California

Wow! Truly eye-opening. I also recently purchased and listened to "The Real Story of the Crusades" and I love it. Though it doesn't go into detail about any one particular crusade, like the article above, it gives us Catholics just what we need to know about the Crusades, in order to be able to "eradicate ignorance" little by little, as Logan has mentioned above. I have discovered a new love for history, especially when it seeks to uncover the truth of the history of the Church. I truly recommend it anyone.

April 17, 2014 at 11:29 pm PST
#4  Esteban Montanez - Montebello, California

Ps. Thank you Catholic Answers for promptly deleting #2 above. I actually rushed to register on this site in order to request just that.

April 17, 2014 at 11:32 pm PST
#5  Pawel Huszcza - London, London City of

What there is not to understand? "The explicit cause was the reports received from Jerusalem concerning the maltreatment of Christian pilgrims and the manner in which their access to the Holy Places was obstructed. In many of these reports, the malevolence of the Jews was also stressed, so that from the beginning the ground was prepared for including the Jews in the freshly stimulated animosity against the unbelievers" (except that it wasn't actually fresh).

And so...

They have leaft a trait of distruction and mass-murder. They were so feared that many Jews decided to commit suicides even mass-suicides rather than convert to Christianity. many were killed anyway. Even greater and more postrous was destruction in Palestine itself were Jews decided to fight along their Muslim lords. Whole cities were cut to the ground (Muslims, Jews and even Christians). People were burnt alive - famous example - conquest of Jerusalem and faous example of shuting 1000 Jews in Synagogue and burning them alive together with the building surrounded by crusaders who took their time to enjoy every moment.

"Godfrey of Bouillon himself had vowed that he would not set out for the Crusade until he had avenged the crucifixion by spilling the blood of the Jews, declaring that he could not tolerate that even one man calling himself a Jew should continue to live."

April 19, 2014 at 11:08 pm PST
#6  Steve Weidenkopf - Springfield, Virginia - Catholic Answers Blogger

Pawel - you appear to quote some source in your comment but do not provide the citation for it. Regardless, the accusation that Godfrey of Bouillon, the Defender of the Holy Sepulchre, was a bloodthirsty anti-Semite is not supported by authentic historical data. Although pogroms erupted in the Rhineland at the end of the 11th century and some so-called Crusaders were involved (Count Emich chief among them), the notion that killing Jews was an inherent element of the Crusading movement is patently false. The Church never condone nor supported Count Emich's persecution of the Rhineland Jewish communities. In fact, the bishops of Speyer and Worms specifically helped and tried to protect the Jewish people in those cities from attack. Due to ecclesial involvement, Emich actually changed his tactics and attacked Jewish communities in cities where there wasn't a resident bishop. Your comment highlights one of several myths utilized by modern critics to bash the Crusades and Church. Unfortunately for the critics the historical record does not support the false narrative but rather demolishes it.

April 21, 2014 at 10:30 am PST
#7  ds thorne - Fairfax, Virginia

It's easy to build myths out of the Crusades. For Walter Scott, they were to be romanticized as the chivalric ideal. For many other Protestant figures as well as Enlightenment thinkers, they were the symbol of everything ignorant, brutal and otherwise loathsome about either the Catholic Church or religion in general. The antidote to this tendency is to dig into the facts, as is done here. History is always a mixed bag - you can never get it to say exactly what you want it to. Many thanks for this entry!

~DS Thorne,

April 25, 2014 at 8:23 am PST
#8  Michael Bascon - San Diego, California

Thanks Steve for posting this article, I feel like the Crusades a long with the inquisition are topics Catholics like to stay away from , when look at historical evidence there is no need to as long as we clarify what really happened. Keep up the great work.

April 27, 2014 at 8:02 pm PST

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