The Debate on the Fourth Crusade
History Compass, Volume 2, Issue 1 (2004)
This article examines attempts over the past two hundred years to account for the diversion of the Fourth Crusade to Constantinople and its sack of the city in 1204. While nineteenth-century scholars dreamed up far-fetched conspiracy theories, their successors often put the whole thing down to a series of unforeseen accidents. The debate now seems to have reached a stage where historians set the episode in a much wider context and consider a multitude of factors, though the element of chance will probably always have to feature.
The Fourth Crusade and its diversion to Constantinople have generated endless debate and controversy, and there is no sign of it abating at the present time, especially as 2004 marks the eight-hundredth anniversary of the crusade’s capture of Constantinople on 12 and 13 April 1204. Part of the fascination with the Fourth Crusade undoubtedly lies in the extraordinary reversal of its original intention. It was launched by Pope Innocent III in August 1198 with the aim of retaking Jerusalem from the Muslim Ayyubids whose leader Saladin had captured the city in 1187. The leaders of the crusade formed a plan whereby a Venetian fleet would carry a large army of French knights to Egypt. Having conquered the country and thus neutralised the centre of Ayyubid power, the army would then march on Jerusalem. In the event, the expedition did quite the reverse.