The Fourth Crusade: conspiracy or fiasco?

The Fourth Crusade (1202-04) was the second attempt by the Christians to regain Jerusalem which, having been conquered by the armies of the First Crusade in 1100, had been lost in 1187 after the Battle of Hattin. Shortly after he became Pope in 1198, the highly ambitious Innocent III began preaching a new Crusade. Although it failed to appeal to western Europe’s kings and the Holy Roman Emperor, all of whom were involved in wars amongst themselves, he eventually acquired enough support to make it viable. It was decided that, rather than taking the overland route, the army would travel by sea.

In 1200 the Crusade’s appointed leader, Boniface of Montferrat, sent envoys to Venice to negotiate the provision of ships to carry an army to the Holy Land. 34,000 soldiers were predicted but this turned out to be a gross over-estimate. For various reasons, only about a third of this number turned up in Venice in May 1202. The Venetians had done was asked of them so the problem arose how the army would pay for what they had ordered. What followed was a fiasco of truly international proportions.

It was eventually agreed that the unpaid part of the debt would be discharged if the Crusaders would attack and recover for Venice the (Christian) city of Zara on the Dalmatian coast which had rebelled about 20 years before. Some Crusaders refused to take part in this though most did. After a siege and a sacking, Zara was subdued in November 1202. When Pope Innocent III heard of this he excommunicated the entire army – not a great start to a Crusade.

It got worse. Whether by accident or design, at about this time, Boniface encountered Alexius Angelos, the son of the recently-deposed Byzantine Emperor who had come to the west looking for help. Whether planned or not, the meeting was certainly convenient for both of them. Alexius promised the Crusaders money, soldiers, transport and the obedience of the Greek Orthodox Church to Rome in exchange for their restoring him to his throne. It was an unrealistically generous offer which Boniface was unable to refuse. He and the Venetians bribed, threatened or cajoled most of the other Crusaders into accepting this proposition. The fleet set sail for Constantinople, arriving before its formidable walls in June 1203.

After some skirmishes and a siege the Crusaders entered the city, deposed the current emperor, Alexius III, and installed their Crusaders’ protegé as Alexius IV. The westerners then demanded the payment he had promised Boniface; which – in a repetition of the very situation the Crusaders had found themselves in in Venice less than a year before – he was unable to provide. Relations with Alexius rapidly broke down, as did Alexius’ relations with compatriots, on whom he had inflicted these foreign invaders. The Byzantines had long thought the Franks, as they called westerners, to be uncouth, unsophisticated and brutal. The events of the next few months were amply to justify their opinion.

In February 1204, Alexius IV was deposed and murdered by a nobleman who, appealing to the compatriots’ anti-western sentiments, was accepted and crowned as Alexius V. Matters were now, to the Franks, more clear cut and their army lay siege to Constantinople. Despite the Pope’s appeals for them to desist (some of which were suppressed by the Crusade’s leaders), in April 1204 the Crusaders stormed Constantinople and subjected the city to a sacking of almost unparalleled brutality. Baldwin of Flanders was placed on the throne and the so-called ‘Latin’ emperors ruled the Empire until the Byzantines re-gained control in 1261. Although the empire which it controlled had shrunk considerably, the city of Constantinople had survived unconquered for nearly 900 years, acting as a bulwark against successive incursions by barbarian and Muslim armies intent on westward expansion. It took a force of Crusaders finally to breach its walls.

For a Crusade to besiege and sack two Christian cities, conquer a Christian empire and get itself excommunicated, all without ever leaving Europe, almost amounts to a contradiction in terms. How could this have happened? Historians have long debated whether it was, on the one hand, a massive conspiracy or, on the other, a series of unfortunate events. Discussing the pros and cons of these would fill (indeed, on several occasions, has filled) several books, all written by people vastly wiser than me. When I was studying this subject in 1980 I had a theory of my own about this. 40 years later, I’m afraid it’s vanished. Perhaps it was never really that good. It might have been good enough to convince the examiners but, as events were to prove, I never got to write about. More of that in a bit.

It’s worth stressing that for many, though not all, of the participants a Crusade was a self-evidently good thing, a logical part of their world view. That this was the result of clerical indoctrination and that most people now find the idea repugnant can be taken as read. It’s very dangerous to explore past events with a present-day moral compass. In any event, to consider the failures of the Fourth Crusade on its own terms provides more than enough material and theories to work with. By contemporary standards, it was a disaster. Imposing present-day judgments would only cloud the issue.

If you are so minded, it’s easy to see conspiracies everywhere in life. For many, the default explanation for a grievance or misfortune is an alignment of secretive, powerful and malevolent forces working against our interests. QAnon and many of the vaccine-denier theorists are two current examples but there have been numerous others. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the anti-communist witch hunts in the USA in the 1950s, the faked moon landings, the CIA’s involvement in 9/11 and the death of Princess Diana (allegedly orchestrated by the Duke of Edinburgh) are just some. Most pre-date the internet and social media: but these developments, more than anything else, have given traction and cohesion to countless examples of what might be termed fake news. No matter how crazy your theory, there will be a virtual community that will embrace and share it. Some, like viruses, will achieve pandemic proportions, multiplying and mutating and threatening to infect every person they touch.

One of the main objections I see against any conspiracy is that each seems to require a unfeasibly disparate coalition which cannot possibly hold together; also a shared prescience that the strange goal being striven for could only be brought about by precisely this co-operation at this time, as well as their eternal discretion thereafter to cover their tracks. In most cases, human activity is focussed on an immediate problem. As history regularly shows us, alliances created to address one challenge generally dissolve, often acrimoniously, to be replaced by new coalitions to deal with the next one. Most events, then or now, can’t be orchestrated to anything like this extent. Entropy is everywhere. The Fourth Crusade sits perfectly in this model and requires no more complicated explanation.

There are several points in the fiasco, starting with the estimate of the troop numbers and ending with the sack of Constantinople, where conspiracies have been detected. None seems to hold much water. To take one example, Venice certainly distrusted Byzantium and derived immense benefits from the result of the Crusade: but to suggest, as some have done, that it therefore orchestrated the whole business is post hoc reasoning of the worst kind. So too, Boniface’s meeting with Alexius is cited as having been pre-arranged. It’s true that he absented himself from the attack on Zara to visit his cousin Philip of Swabia, at whose court Alexius happened to be, but if matters had gone as planned until then it’s inconceivable he would have made this excursion at all; or, if in these circumstances Alexius had contacted Boniface, that the Greek prince would have been able to divert a Crusade that was on-track and on-message.

It also shows that, once you’ve crossed a moral line – which the attack on Zara clearly did – it becomes easy to stay there. Each subsequent action is to some extent to justify the initial crime. If by repeating the sin, possibly on the grounds that it’s preventing a worse hypothetical evil or likely to lead to an equally hypothetical good, we hope we can create ends that justify the means. In the final analysis, most political decisions are akin to those of gambler in a casino, hoping that his luck will turn before he runs out of chips. The hope of ending up in profit – an increasingly unlikely goal the longer the game goes on – justifies and sanctifies all the decisions we’ve taken before, however illogical, unethical or opportunistic they might have been.

The more I think about it, the outcome of the Fourth Crusade was a series of a number of unlikely results of the spin of the wheel, each one of which was taken advantage of by one party or another. This seems a useful way of looking at most human activities. We stumble around, largely in the dark, desperately looking for something that might give us an advantage, however briefly. Occasionally, and usually as a result of forces we cannot control and may not even be aware of, this happens. There is rarely a conspiracy involved: or, if there is, its interior tensions or contradictions rapidly defeat its own ends. To believe in a conspiracy is usually also a post hoc process, looking back from a problematic present to an infinity of preceding events, from which you then select the ones that best lead to the conclusion you’ve already convinced yourself is the truth. As soon as you start looking at historical events through the wrong end of the telescope it becomes easy to fit into the puzzle any activity or motive which can explain what happened; or – as when the existence of a conspiracy is identified by the state – can justify its acts of vengeance or repression.

The Fourth Crusade provides an exceptionally good example of three maxims: ‘for want of a nail a shoe was lost’; the law of unintended consequences; and the misquoted adage that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. Things don’t always go according to plan but usually it’s a screw-up, not a set-up, that’s responsible. Even QAnon can learn from medieval blunders.

For all these reasons, the event fascinated me at university, and interests me still. When it came to my finals, I was well-prepared to address it, a question on it always coming up. Through an error that was entirely consistent with the disorganised nature of the event I was hoping to describe, I didn’t end up writing about it that day. Why not can be found in the pages of one of the stories in my book Unaccustomed as I Am, available from all good bookshops (such as the Hungerford Bookshop).

So, getting you to read this far is a conspiracy to get to you to but the book? Well, perhaps. Or, like the Venetians, Boniface of Montferrat or Alexius Angelos, I’m just seeking to turn some unexpected misfortune to personal advantage? Well, perhaps. Either way, history will judge.

Brian Quinn

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