Knights of the Fourth Crusade Capture Constantinople

The knights of the Fourth Crusade ushered in the triumph of militant Latin Catholicism and established Western political and economic power over the Byzantine Empire by capturing Constantinople.

Summary of Event

The fall of Constantinople in 1204 was the culmination of a long historical process of Byzantine decline and the ascendancy of Western political, military, economic, and religious power in the eastern Mediterranean. [kw]Knights of the Fourth Crusade Capture Constantinople (1204)
[kw]Fourth Crusade Capture Constantinople, Knights of the (1204)
[kw]Crusade Capture Constantinople, Knights of the Fourth (1204)
[kw]Constantinople, Knights of the Fourth Crusade Capture (1204)
Constantinople;capture of
Byzantine Empire;1204: Knights of the Fourth Crusade Capture Constantinople[2200]
Turkey;1204: Knights of the Fourth Crusade Capture Constantinople[2200]
Israel/Palestine;1204: Knights of the Fourth Crusade Capture Constantinople[2200]
Europe (general);1204: Knights of the Fourth Crusade Capture Constantinople[2200]
Religion;1204: Knights of the Fourth Crusade Capture Constantinople[2200]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1204: Knights of the Fourth Crusade Capture Constantinople[2200]
Dandolo, Enrico
Innocent III
Isaac II Angelus
Alexius III Angelus
Alexius V Ducas Murtzuphlus
Baldwin I

Beginning with the First Crusade in 1096, the Byzantine Empire feared that the knights were as often interested in taking Byzantine territory as they were in conquering the Holy Land. Crusading armies, particularly when they passed through the Balkans, often pillaged Byzantine provinces. From the Byzantine perspective, the Norman conquest of southern Italy made them a constant military threat to the Balkans, especially at Dyrrachium (now Durrës, Albania) on the Adriatic coast.

In the twelfth century, the Italian cities of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa obtained commercial privileges in the Byzantine Empire and established districts within Constantinople. Yet their economic power and presence within the capital were bitterly resented, and in 1182, the Latins in Constantinople were brutally massacred. Three years later, the Normans seized both Dyrrachium and the important city of Thessalonica, which was ravaged in revenge for the Latin massacre of 1182.

In the Third Crusade, the German emperor Frederick I Barbarossa Frederick I Barbarossa raided the Balkans, seized Adrianople, and sought even to take Constantinople before crossing into Anatolia, where he died. In 1197, Barbarossa’s son, Henry VI, gathered a huge fleet to attack Constantinople, but his death ended the expedition.

The Crusades were a constant threat to the Byzantine Empire, but the empire had been militarily weak ever since the destruction of the Byzantine army by the Seljuk Turks at Myriokephalon in 1176. The Italians were needed to offset the Normans and Germans. The Venetians were permitted to return to Constantinople in 1189, and the Genoese and Pisans followed in 1198.

Tensions between the Byzantine Empire and the Western knights were further strained because the Byzantines had entered into alliances with the Seljuks, as in the First Crusade, and with Egypt in the Third Crusade. The Byzantine Empire was accused of not sufficiently aiding the knights and was blamed for the failure of the Second Crusade. In addition, the Catholic and Orthodox churches were in excommunication since 1054. Doctrinal issues over the bread used in the Mass, the nature of the Holy Trinity of Jesus, and the claims of Rome as the head of the Christian world further divided east and west. Schism;Rome and Constantinople In the Third Lateran Council Lateran Council, Third (1179)[Lateran Council 03] of 1179, the pope claimed papal supremacy over the Orthodox Church. Orthodox Church;Byzantine Empire Thus, the events of 1204 were the culmination of more than a century’s hostility between Byzantium and the West.

In 1198, a new pope, Innocent III Innocent III , ascended the papal throne and soon called for a new Crusade. Most of the knights came from France, Flanders, England, Germany, and Sicily. They were led by Thibault of Champagne, who died just before the Crusade began, Boniface of Montferrat, Baldwin of Flanders, and Louis of Blois.

In Venice, Enrico Dandolo Dandolo, Enrico became doge in 1192 at the age of about eighty-five. Legend had it that he had been blinded some thirty years earlier in Constantinople as a hostage. Dandolo saw the Crusade as a means for extending Venetian influence in the eastern Mediterranean. In addition to accusing Dandolo for turning the Crusade against the Byzantine Empire, scholars have variously accused Philip of Swabia Philip of Swabia (r. 1198-1208), who succeeded his brother Henry VI as emperor of Germany and married the daughter of Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelus Isaac II Angelus , and Boniface of Montferrat, who claimed Thessalonica as king (r. 1204-1207). Such conspiracies are difficult to prove, but there was a general attitude of hostility toward the Byzantine Empire and a willingness to unify the two Christian churches.

The taking of Constantinople in 1204, based on a sixteenth century painting by Tintoretto.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The knights needed Venetian ships, and they agreed to pay eighty-five thousand silver marks for transport and supplies for forty-five hundred knights, nine thousand squires, and twenty thousand sergeants. Venice Venice;Crusades and would also send fifty warships. A secret clause to the treaty stated that the Crusade would in fact be directed against Egypt, the center of Ayyūbid power and the base from which the Muslims had retaken Jerusalem in 1187.

As the knights gathered at Venice in April, 1202, they were able to muster only ten thousand soldiers, but the Venetians refused to lower their fees. Unable to meet the Venetian fees, the knights agreed to the doge’s demand to divert the Crusaders toward Zara, a Venetian dependency on the Dalmatian coast that had been taken by the Hungarians in 1186. Zara fell to the Crusaders, but the Cistercians in the army opposed the action, and Innocent excommunicated the army. Innocent, however, did not want to lose all control of the Crusade; he later lifted the ban on the French and Germans but retained it for the Venetians. He did not forbid contact with the Venetians, however, and this allowed the army to remain together.

In Constantinople, Alexius III Angelus Alexius III Angelus had taken power in 1195 by overthrowing and blinding his brother, Isaac II. Isaac’s son, Alexius, escaped to the West in 1201 and sought help to restore his father to the throne. Alexius joined the Crusade; he offered two hundred thousand marks and declared his intention of unifying the churches. It was an opportunity the Venetians could not refuse. Innocent, although reluctant to change the Crusade, did not condemn the turn toward Constantinople. On July 17, 1203, the Crusaders attacked Constantinople by land and sea. Alexius III fled and the city was taken. The blind Isaac and his son were crowned as coemperors. They managed to pay one hundred thousand marks to the Venetians and knights, but a popular tide of anti-Latin feeling swept the capital, and virtually all Latins were driven from the city to Galata, where the knights were encamped. A new emperor took power as Alexius V Ducas Murtzuphlus Alexius V Ducas Murzuphlus , and both coemperors were murdered. The Crusaders then decided to destroy Byzantine independence and to subjugate the Orthodox Church to Rome. Alexius V was declared a usurper and murderer.

After agreeing among themselves on dividing the Byzantine Empire, the knights launched their attack on April 12, 1204. On April 13, they breached the walls. For three days, the Crusaders ravaged the city. Alexius V was captured and executed by being thrown from a high column in the Hippodrome. Much of the plunder was dispersed to France and Venice, including the sixth century horses that adorn Saint Mark’s Cathedral. One knight, Robert of Clari, remarked that “that two thirds of the wealth of this world is in Constantinople.”

An electoral council of six Venetians and six Frenchmen chose Baldwin Baldwin I , count of Flanders, as emperor of Romania—the Latin empire of Constantinople. He was crowned in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia with the Latin rite. The Venetians had opposed the selection of Boniface of Montferrat but compensated him with Thessalonica. The Venetians and Baldwin divided Constantinople; Baldwin received five-eighths of the city and Dandolo three-eighths. Baldwin was also given southern Thrace, some area along the Bosporus, and important islands such as Lesbos and Chios. Yet the Venetians obtained major acquisitions, including Dyrrachium on the Adriatic, the Ionian islands, most of the islands of the Aegean, Crete, Gallipoli, and territory within Thrace.

Dandolo took the Byzantine title of despot and was not required to pay homage to Baldwin. Venetian clergy were given control of Hagia Sophia, and a Venetian, Morosini, was made patriarch of the Catholic Church in Constantinople. The Venetians held the most important harbors of the Byzantine Empire and secured the seas between Venice and Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire had effectively become a colony of Venice. Innocent III at first welcomed the news of Constantinople’s fall and its religious union with the West, but as he learned of the details of the sack and the dominance of Venice over the church in Constantinople, he expressed concern over the direction that the Crusade had taken. In the end, however, he had to reconcile himself with the results.

Byzantine royalty and nobility formed three new kingdoms in exile: one was the empire of Nicaea just across the Sea of Marmora, a second was the despotat of Epirus in the Balkans, and the third was the empire of Trebizond on the Black Sea. The Latins occupied Constantinople but had great difficulty governing the rest of the empire. Finally, in 1261, a new Byzantine dynasty under Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus Michael VIII Palaeologus (r. 1259-1282) was restored.


Despite the restoration of the dynasty, the Byzantine Empire never fully recovered from the Fourth Crusade. It remained weak and dependent on the West until its final surrender to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The 1204 sack of Constantinople also widened the breach between the Eastern and Western churches.

Further Reading

  • Andrea, Alfred J., ed. Contemporary Sources for the Fourth Crusade. Boston: Brill, 2000. Explores the varied contemporary sources that document the Fourth Crusade, including the “registers” of Innocent III. Bibliography, index.
  • Angold, Michael. The Fourth Crusade: Event and Context. New York: Longman, 2003. Examines the Fourth Crusade as a major turning point in East-West Church relations. Chapters on the Byzantine perspective, the West’s assessment of Byzantium, the Venetians, the Latin empire and church of Constantinople, the Orthodox revival, and Byzantium as myth. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • Bartlett, W. B. An Ungodly War: The Sack of Constantinople and the Fourth Crusade. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2000. Surveys the Fourth Crusade, its “misguided idealism,” the massive physical destruction of Constantinople, and the killing of thousands of its people. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • Choniates, Nicetas. O City of Byzantium. Translated by Harry I. Magoulias. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1984. The major Byzantine source on the Fourth Crusade. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • Clari, Robert de. The Conquest of Constantinople. Translated by Edgar Holmes McNeal. 1936. Reprint. Toronto: University of Toronto Press and Medieval Academy of America, 1996. A classic, brief account by an eyewitness to the 1204 sack of Constantinople. Bibliography, index.
  • Godfrey, John. 1204, the Unholy Crusade. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. A good, concise general survey of the Fourth Crusade. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • Hillenbrand, Carole. The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2000. Chapters explore Muslim reactions to the Crusades, ethnic and religious stereotyping, daily life, the conduct of war, and more. Bibliography, index.
  • Madden, Thomas F., ed. The Crusades: The Essential Readings. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. A collection of previously published articles about the Crusades, including medieval sources, lay enthusiasm, patronage, Byzantium, and the subjection of Muslims. Bibliography, index.
  • Queller, Donald E., and Thomas F. Madden. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 1201-1204. 2d ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997. Adopts a Western European rather than Byzantine perspective on the Fourth Crusade. Maps, extensive bibliography, index.
  • Villehardouin, Geoffroi de, and Jean de Joinville. Memoirs of the Crusades. Translated by Sir Frank Marzials. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. This work contains English translations of the contemporary chronicles of the historian, military leader, and Crusader Geoffroi de Villehardouin. In the section on Villehardouin, the translator also provides a helpful summary of the earlier Crusades