The Fourth Crusade 1202: Unraveling the Controversy and Chaos of a Medieval Epic

The Fourth Crusade was launched by Pope Innocent III. The objective of this religious Fourth Crusade was to recover Jerusalem from the Ayyubids.

Pope Innocent III Fourth Crusade

The Fourth Crusade continued from 1202 to 1204. However, the Crusader army became embroiled in several other conflicts along the journey to the Holy Land.

“The Fourth Crusade was the greatest catastrophe that ever befell the Latin East.”

Steven Runciman, historian and author of “A History of the Crusades

Medieval Constantinople

The most notable among these was the conquest and sacking of Constantinople. The Fourth Crusade was a decisive event in cementing the schism between the Eastern and Western churches.

The sacking of Constantinople *Fourth Crusade

Fourth Crusade *Background

The Third Crusade had ended with considerable military successes for the Crusaders. However, the city of Jerusalem remained in the hands of the Muslims.

In 1202, Pope Innocent III called for another crusade to recover the holy city for Christendom. The bulk of the Crusaders for the Fourth Crusade came from France, Flanders, and the Holy Roman Empire.

“The Fourth Crusade was a watershed moment in Christian-Muslim relations and a turning point in the history of Byzantium.”

Jonathan Phillips, historian and author of “The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople”

Notable leaders of the crusade included Boniface of Montferrat and Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice.

The original plan of the Crusader army was to bring together all the soldiers, knights, and resources at Venice. The state of Venice agreed to transport them across the sea to Egypt in return for a fee.


Fourth Crusade *Journey of the Crusader Army

In 1202, the Crusader army gathered in Venice. However, only 12,000 men arrived as opposed to the expected 35,000 soldiers.

The Venetians had made preparations to transport more than 30,000 men and they wanted full payment before transporting the Crusaders across the sea.

“The Fourth Crusade was a tragedy for the Western Church, for the Byzantine Empire, and for the Muslims of the Near East.”

Thomas Asbridge, historian and author of “The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land”

When the Crusaders couldn’t pay the money, the Venetians instead asked them to attack the city of Zara. Zara was a port city that competed with Venice for commerce. In November 1202, the Crusaders attacked Zara and pillaged it even though it had a Catholic population.

This led the Pope to excommunicate the Crusader army, although this ex-communication was later rescinded.

“The Fourth Crusade was an event that illustrates the dangers of using religion as a political tool.”

Helen Nicholson, historian and author of “The Crusades”

Fourth Crusade *Fall of Constantinople

The Byzantine Empire was in political turmoil at the time. Emperor Isaac II Angelos had been deposed by his brother.

Prince Alexius Angelos began negotiations with the Crusader army to restore his father to the Byzantine throne in return for rich favors.

The crusaders accepted the offer and arrived at the walls of Constantinople in June 1203.


“The Fourth Crusade was marked by greed, political manipulation, and religious zealotry, rather than any true sense of religious duty.”

Christopher Tyerman, historian and author of “God’s War: A New History of the Crusades”

The Crusader army successfully besieged the city and was able to have Emperor Alexios restored to the throne. However, both Alexios and his son were killed in 1204 after a popular uprising.

The Crusaders didn’t receive the payment they had been promised, so they proceeded to plunder the riches of the city. The fall and sacking of the city eventually led to a fragmentation of the Byzantine Empire.

Byzantine Empire

Fourth Crusade *Establishment of Latin States

After the sack of Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire was broken up and divided among the Crusaders and the Venetians. This led to the establishment of the Latin Empire.

A number of other Crusader states also sprung up in the place of the former Byzantine Empire. This very nearly extinguished the Byzantine rule although a revival would later restore some portions of the Empire.


Fourth Crusade *Result and Aftermath

The Fourth Crusade failed in its stated objective of conquering Egypt, defeating the Ayyubids, and regaining control of Jerusalem. Instead, the most notable event of the Fourth Crusade was the sacking of Constantinople.

The city that was the crowning jewel of Christendom in the East was looted and plundered of all its riches, and burnt to ashes.

Byzantine Cities Constantinople Turkey

The Christian world at large was horrified at the event. This led to a deeper schism between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

It also depleted the strength of the Byzantine Empire. Although the Empire would later be restored, it could never regain its original strength and subsequently fell to the Ottoman Empire.

Main Events of the Fourth Crusade List

In 1198, Pope Innocent III called for a new crusade to retake Jerusalem from the Muslims.
The Crusaders initially planned to attack Egypt, but they faced financial difficulties and had to seek support from the Venetians.

The Venetians agreed to transport the Crusaders to Egypt in exchange for payment, but the Crusaders were unable to pay the full amount.

To make up for the shortfall, the Venetians convinced the Crusaders to help them capture the Christian city of Zara (now Zadar in Croatia) in 1202.

The capture of Zara angered the Pope, who excommunicated the Crusaders for attacking a fellow Christian city.

The Crusaders then went to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, in 1203, with the aim of securing support from the Byzantine Emperor for their crusade.

However, tensions arose between the Crusaders and the Byzantines, and the Crusaders ultimately sacked Constantinople in 1204, causing significant damage to the city and the Byzantine Empire.

The Crusaders then established the Latin Empire of Constantinople and installed a new emperor, Baldwin I, in place of the Byzantine Emperor.

The Latin Empire of Constantinople lasted until 1261, when the Byzantines recaptured Constantinople and restored their empire.


5 Great Books About the Fourth Crusade

“The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople” by Jonathan Phillips:
This book provides an in-depth examination of the Fourth Crusade, its causes, events, and consequences, with a particular focus on the sacking of Constantinople.

“The Crusaders in the East: A Brief History of the Wars of Islam with the Latins in Syria During the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries” by Amin Maalouf:
This book covers the entire history of the Crusades in the East, including the Fourth Crusade, from a Muslim perspective.

“The Fourth Crusade” by Donald E. Queller and Thomas F. Madden:
This book provides a comprehensive account of the Fourth Crusade, from its origins to its aftermath, with a detailed analysis of the political, religious, and social context of the time.

“The Fourth Crusade: Event, Aftermath, and Perceptions” edited by Thomas F. Madden:
This collection of essays by leading scholars provides a multidisciplinary approach to the Fourth Crusade, covering topics such as the Byzantine perspective, the role of Venice, and the impact on the medieval world.

“Byzantium: The Decline and Fall” by John Julius Norwich:
This book covers the history of the Byzantine Empire, including its downfall during the Fourth Crusade, with a lively and engaging narrative style that makes it accessible to general readers.