The Crusaders sacking of Constantinople in 1204 AD

We got an email that said:

Also, during the Crusades- many Orthodox Christian Churches were pillaged and destroyed in the area and many holy relics and ancient items stolen or destroyed (among them the Holy Napkin) by the Catholics, who had mostly forgotten the Orthodox. 

This is perhaps the most unfortunate circumstance in Catholic Orthodox relations. It is often considered the "slam dunk" in the argument that the Catholic Church is not of God. There is much criticism of Catholics over this. As obvious as this might seem:

There is not one Catholic alive today who participated in the sacking of Constantinople. They all died centuries ago. Every one of them had to face God. God knows the heart of every individual involved and justice has been served.

We had no part in the sacking of Constantinople, nor has any Catholic alive today. These incidents happened during one of the most brutal times in human history, which any medieval movie will confirm. It has become a theme that some Orthodox pastors have repeatedly preached to their congregations about Catholics.

The situations leading up to the sack and the sack itself have left deep scars. Pope JP II addressed the Archbishop of Athens and Primate of Greece. He said:

"Clearly there is a need for a liberating process of purification of memory. For the occasions past and present, when sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by action or omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters, may the Lord grant us the forgiveness we beg of Him."

"Some memories are especially painful, and some events of the distant past have left deep wounds in the minds and hearts of people to this day. I am thinking of the disastrous sack of the imperial city of Constantinople, which was for so long the bastion of Christianity in the East. It is tragic that the assailants, who had set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their own brothers in the faith. The fact that they were Latin Christians [Roman Catholics] fills Catholics with deep regret. How can we fail to see here the 'mysterium iniquitatis' at work in the human heart? To God alone belongs judgment and, therefore, we entrust the heavy burden of the past to his endless mercy, imploring him to heal the wounds that still cause suffering to the spirit of the Greek people."


The Sack of 1204, what happened?

By Mark Bonocore

I've recently been reading a book by John J. Robinson called "Dungeon, Fire, and Sword --a history of the Crusades". Robinson is clearly no friend of the Roman Catholic Church, and I will even go so far as to say that he is anti-Catholic in his point of view, but he does give an interesting account of the Crusader's sack on Constantinople in 1204. I thought I'd share this with you, so that we might explore the history. This is why I'm using "anti-Catholic Robinson" as the source. While I am certainly not defending the atrocities committed, I think many will find it enlightening that the sack of Constantinople was not a "diabolical plan" sponsored by the papacy. It was a very sad story all around.

The Crusades began in the 1090’s –that is, 40 years after the Orthodox desecrated the Latin Eucharist and holy books (because they were in Latin rather than Greek).    The Byzantine patriarch attacked the Latin churches in Constantinople itself  - - Latin-speaking churches which existed since the time of Constantine; and he declared that their Eucharist was invalid because the Romans use unleven (rather than leven) bread -- something that the Western Church (along with the Armenian Church) has always done since the time of the Apostles (Jesus Himself used unleven bread at the Last Supper, since it was a Passover feast and there would not have been any leven bread in Jerusalem at the time). But, the Eastern Patriarch Cerularius tried to force the Byzantine rite on the Romans living in the Eastern Empire. So, he took armed soldier into the Latin churches in Constantinople, and had them open the Tabernacles and throw the consecrated Eucharist in the streets. This is discussed by both Kallistos Ware and by Meyendorff in their books. This is the origin of Rome (a church which continued to permit and encourage Byzantine worship in its own city) serving Cerularius with a bull of excommunication in 1054. Cerularius did this because the Franks who were vassals of the Roman Empire were gaining political power in the Balkans and so the Emperor and Patriarch wanted to brand them as heretics and thus reject their authority in the Balkans.   

Around 1201, Count Tibald of Champagne approached Pope Innocent III with the idea of a new crusade to the Holy Land. Innocent agreed to the proposal, especially since Tibald was not a king or emperor, and wouldn't try to usurp authority and use the crusade for his own purposes, as the kings of the 3rd Crusade had done.

In the following year, the Crusade leaders met to plan strategy. It was agreed that the point of attack would be Egypt, which Richard the Lionheart himself had called the "soft underbelly of Islam." The leaders therefore began negotiations with Venice --the only naval force in the world at the time who could transport a Christian army to that location.

The Grand Council of Venice

The Grand Council of Venice agreed to provide transport for 4500 knights, 9000 squires and sergeants, 20,000 foot soldiers, and 20,000 horses. They would also provide enough food for 1 year, and supply 50 war galleys manned with Venetian troops to fight alongside the Crusaders in the Nile delta.

In payment, the Venetians would receive 85,000 silver marks, plus 50% of all loot collected from the Muslims.

The plan was for the Crusading armies to assemble at Venice by June of 1202. But, with the deal newly struck, Count Tibald died, and the Crusaders elected Boniface of Monferrat as their new leader. The choice of Boniface had to do with his being the uncle of Princess Maria of Jerusalem; thinking that this would assure good relations with the barons of the Holy Land.

But, as fate would have it, Boniface spent that winter in Germany with Philip of Swabia --the same prince from whom Pope Innocent had recently denied the imperial crown. Philip's wife, however, was the Byzantine princess Irene Angelina: the daughter of Byzantine emperor Isaac Angelus, who had recently been deposed and blinded and was languishing in a dungeon in Constantinople.

Irene was concerned about her father, and even more about her younger brother Alexius. He had not been imprisoned, but was living under house arrest with their uncle Alexius III, who had seized the throne for himself. Irene asked Boniface to find out what he could about her brother while in the East.

But, Irene's brother Alexius arrived at Philip's court before the end of the winter. He had escaped to Sicily with the help of some friends, and was then taken safely to his sister in Germany. The young heir to the Byzantine throne thereafter decided to join the Crusade, seeing Boniface of Monferrat as an ally who might help him regain his kingdom.

Meanwhile, the Venetians were up to intrigue of their own. They by no means wanted a crusading army attacking Egypt, which would cut off their lucrative trading centers there. So, while still negotiating w/ the French crusaders, Venetian envoys were in Cairo making even more favorable concessions. In an agreement signed in April of 1202 --only 2 months before the launch of the Crusade --the Venetians promised Sultan al-Adil that the crusaders would never reach Egypt.

By June, the Crusade was assembled, but not their money. For the next three months they camped on an island in the Venetian lagoon, hard pressed by their Venetian hosts, who refused to budge until they were paid the remaining 35,000 marks owed them.

The Doge of Venice

Meanwhile, the crusade leaders negotiated with the elderly Doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, who was especially interested in the relationship of Boniface Monferrat and young Prince Alexius. Dondolo had always hated the Greeks --not only because they were Venice's commercial rivals, but because as a youth he had suffered a face wound in the streets of Constantinople that had almost totally blinded him. The usurper Alexius III had taken a hard line with Venetian traders, who depended upon the Greek trading stations to get furs from Russia and silks from China, so the Doge was very "sympathetic" to his young Byzantine guest.

In September, the Doge revealed the first part of his plan. The Venetians had lost the fortified city of Zara (on the Dalmatian coast) to the king of Hungary. Venice wanted it back. The crusaders objected bitterly to attacking fellow Christians, but had little choice if they wanted to continue eating. So, in November of 1202, they sacked Zara and retook it for the Venetians after much fierce fighting. It is important to note that this first battle of the 4th Crusade was against Western Christians, not Eastern ones).

Pope Innocent III excommunicates the crusaders, but lifts it upon learning details

Upon hearing this in Rome, Innocent III excommunicated the Crusaders, but lifted the excommunication once he learned that they were pressed into it by the Venetians.

The Crusade wintered in Zara, and during that time Doge Dondolo, Prince Alexius, and Boniface of Monferrat formed a plan. If the Crusade would go to Constantinople and help Alexius regain the throne, the young prince would assure the success of the Egyptian invasion. He would pay the Crusaders' debt to Venice, as well as fortify the Crusading army with 10,000 Byzantine soldiers; and once the war was over, he would maintain 500 mounted men in the Holy Land to help the Christians hold Egypt. And, most important of all, he would guarantee that the Greek Church would recognize the primacy of Rome. It seemed like a very good deal. ...Especially to the Venetians, who had their own ideas.

The Crusade left Zara in April of 1203, arriving before the walls of Constantinople two months later. After a few skirmishes, the Venetians managed to break the chain that barred the harbor and surround the city with their navy.

Surprised by the Venetians' strategy, the usurper Alexius III fled the city; and the officers of the court quickly took the sightless Isaac from the dungeon, bathed and dressed him in imperial purple, and sent word to the crusaders that the rightful emperor had been restored to his throne. But, the crusaders' contract was with his son, Alexius; and it was soon negotiated that the youth would reign as co-emperor with his father; and so he was crowned Alexius IV in Hagia Sophia on August 1, and the gates of Constantinople were opened to the victorious crusaders.

But, now that it was time for Alexius VI to keep his promises, he found that this was impossible to do. Not only did the Greek patriarchs refuse to recognize the authority of Rome, but Alexius III had raped the imperial treasury of most of its money. Paying the crusaders' debt and financing their Egyptian expedition was now out of the question (or at least that's what the imperial court claimed). To raise some of the capital, Emperor Alexius sent parties of soldiers to seize gold and silver objects from the churches --something the Crusaders would later imitate.

This attempt to raise the money continued throughout the rest of the year, while the Westerners wandered through the streets of the capital drinking, whoring, and brawling. A band of "impatient" French soldiers set fire to a mosque used by local Muslims, and the fire spread, destroying an entire section of the city.

A play for power by Alexius III

In January of 1204, 5 months after the crusaders were admitted to the city, the son-in-law of the usurper Alexius III , Alexius Marzuphlus --apparently trying to make a play for the crown himself --organized a riot against the unwanted Westerners. A few weeks later, an embassy of the Crusaders was attacked by the crowd as they left the imperial palace. Soon after, a mob of Byzantine citizens flooded into Hagia Sophia and declared that Alexius IV was deposed, nominating a nobleman named Nicholas Canabus in his place. But, Marzuphlus, the usurper's son-in-law, had no intention of letting someone else reap the rewards of the uprising he started. With a band of armed soldiers, he stormed the imperial palace, and both Canabus and Emperor Alexius IV were dragged off into prison --the young Alexius being immediately executed; strangled to death with a bowstring! ...As meanwhile, his blind father, Emperor Isaac, was savagely beaten; dying a few days later.

With the deaths of their imperial candidates, the crusaders camped outside the city now knew they had no other choice but to storm the walls of Constantinople. The attack began on April 6 1204, and lasted just six days, with final victory coming about through a strangely-built Venetian siege machine and a mysterious fire, which many believe was started by Venetian agents inside the city.

With victory in sight, the Crusaders took council to choose their own Catholic emperor to rule when the city was theirs. The Venetians had only one condition. If the new emperor was to be a Frankish crusader, the new Roman patriarch must be a Venetian. With this agreed, they divided up the spoils. The imperial palace, along with 25% of the city and Byzantine lands would go the the new emperor. The other 75% would be divided between the Crusaders and the Venetians equally. There was no mention of any expedition to Egypt.

All seemed in reasonably good order that night when the Venetian Doge and the crusading nobles gathered in the imperial palace. Then the Doge made his announcement --his final act of vengeance on the Greeks for the blinding facial wound he had received as a youth. As a reward for all their suffering and hardships, the army would have three days to plunder the city! This they did with wanton abandon --killing, desecrating, raping, burning, destroying.

After the 3-day debauchery

After the 3-day debauchery, the army was brought to a reasonable state of control, although many resisted the order that their plunder should be delivered to three collection points throughout the city. A French count hanged one of his own knights for hoarding some loot; and Greek citizens were routinely tortured for hiding treasure.

The first payment made from the plunder was the money owed to the Venetians: the Crusader's debt, which Emperor Alexius had promised to pay. These rest was divided equally with the Venetians, a sum of 400,000 marks, which one chronicler noted was seven times the annual royal revenue of the entire kingdom of England.

Next came the division of the land. With the whole empire to hand out, there was more than enough. Commander Boniface of Monferrat (the patron of the late Alexius) received broad territories, including the island of Crete, which the Venetians were more than happy to buy from him with part of their treasure.

The beginning of the Latin Empire of Constantinople

Then, on May 16, 1204, in the restored cathedral of Hagia Sophia, the imperial crown of Constantinople was placed on the head of Count Baldwin of Flanders. This was the beginning of the Latin Empire of Constantinople. The Egyptian Crusade was a dim, distant memory, and the entire crusading army found itself excommunicated by Pope Innocent III excommunication which he was eventually persuaded to revoke.

Horrible and utterly indefensible as the sack [of 1204] was, it should in justice be remembered that it was not totally unprovoked; more than once (as in the massacre of 1182) the Greeks of Constantinople had treated the Latins there as they were now being treated . . . Historians who wax eloquent and indignant - with considerable reason - about the sack of Constantinople . . . rarely if ever mention the massacre of the Westerners in Constantinople in 1182 (only 22 years before) . . . a nightmarish massacre of thousands [about 2000 Greeks were killed in Constantinople in 1204, according to secular historian Will Durant], . . . in which the slaughterers spared neither women nor children, neither old nor sick, neither priest nor monk. Cardinal John, the Pope's representative, was beheaded and his head was dragged through the streets at the tail of a dog; children were cut out of their mother's wombs; bodies of dead Westerners were exhumed and abused; some 4,000 who escaped death were sold into slavery to the Turks.

{Carroll, ibid., pp. 157, 131}

Eastern Orthodox scholar, Bishop Ware, also honorably writes about the Orthodox share of the blame in these massacres:

"Each . . . must look back at the past with sorrow and repentance. Both sides must in honesty acknowledge that they could and should have done more to prevent the schism. Both sides were guilty of mistakes on the human level. Orthodox, for example, must blame themselves for the pride and contempt with which during the Byzantine period they regarded the west; they must blame themselves for incidents such as the riot of 1182, when many Latin residents at Constantinople were massacred by the Byzantine populace.

{Ware, ibid., p. 70}

Catholic historian Warren Carroll recalls two other lamentable Byzantine incidents:

In 1171 (only ***33 years**** before), on the orders or at least with the tacit approval of the Byzantine government, thousands of Venetians in the Eastern empire had been killed, mutilated, or arrested and held for years in prison.

{Carroll, ibid., p. 150}

[In 1188] ...(only **16 yrs** before) Frederick Barbarossa . . . requested permission of the Eastern Emperor, Isaac II Angelus, for passage of his army through Byzantine dominions on the way to the Holy Land, and for the right to purchase food for his troops within them. Isaac said he agreed . . . but in fact Isaac was resolved to oppose the passage of the crusaders, and made contact with Saladin [the Muslim commander] to concert plans "to delay and destroy the German army." About this "Byzantine treachery" there is no doubt; even the many modern Western historians sympathetic to Byzantium and hostile to the Crusades have to admit it [e.g., Emperor Isaac, in 1187, had written Saladin to congratulate him for his great achievement of re-taking Jerusalem from the Latin crusaders] . . .

[Frederick's envoys, imprisoned for a time] returned to Frederick . . . with infuriating (and accurate) reports of the Byzantine alliance with Saladin, plans to destroy the crusading army as it crossed the Dardanelles, and the violent anti-Western attitude of Patriarch Dositheus of Constantinople, who had offered unconditional absolution to any Greek killing a Westerner. Frederick passed on this information to his son Henry, . . . to ask the Pope's approval for a crusade against the Eastern Empire because of its treachery and dealings with the enemy. No Papal approval was given and Frederick soon thought better of the idea . . . Though a war against Christians was indubitably a perversion of the crusading ideal, Emperor Isaac's acts against the crusaders had clearly been acts of war . . . Everything that the Fourth Crusade later did to Christendom's discredit, Frederick Barbarossa refused to do .... The extent of Byzantine provocation of the Third Crusade is obvious from the sequence of events. It would be a long time before anyone in the West would trust them again. {Carroll, ibid., pp. 130, 132-133}

Charis kai eirene / Slava Isusu Christu!

By Mark Bonocore, edited by Hugh