Venice’s Need for Settling the ‘Byzantine question’ by Conquest: The Fourth Crusade’s Second Siege of Constantinople (early 1204)

Venice’s Need for Settling the ‘Byzantine question’ by Conquest: The Fourth Crusade’s Second Siege of Constantinople (early 1204)

By Filip Van Tricht

Byzantion’dan Constantinopolis’e İstanbul Kuşatmaları, edited by Murat Arslan ve Turhan Kaçar (Istanbul: Araştırmaları Enstitüsü, 2017)

The Fourth Crusade – the capture of Constantinople

Introduction: In the late spring of 1203 the Fourth Crusade’s main army arrived before the gates of Constantinople. Originally the crusade leaders had decided upon an attack on Egyptian Alexandria, but financial issues had lead them to deviate from this path.

The crusade’s original ‘big four’ – count Baldwin IX/VI of Flanders and Hainault, count Thibaud III of Champagne (who after his untimely death was replaced by marquis Boniface II of Montferrat), count Louis I of Blois, Chartrain and Clermont, and count Hugo IV of Saint-Pol – had concluded a transport contract with the city of Venice, which was to provide a fleet to ship the entire army across the Mediterranean. However, when the army assembled at the Serenissima in June 1202, they were not able to meet their financial obligations. In this context an arrangement was reached by which Venice would defer payment, while the crusaders would help to conquer the Croatian town of Zara.

After this first deviation a second deviation was also decided upon. While overwintering at Zara the crusade leaders, including the Venetian doge Enrico Dandolo who had meanwhile personally joined the undertaking, accepted the offer that the Byzantine prince Alexius (IV) Angelus had proposed to them. Alexius was the son of former emperor Isaac II Angelus (1185–1195), who had been deposed and replaced by his own brother Alexius III (1195–1203). Young Alexius had fled Constantinople in 1201, travelling to the West to the court of his brother-in-law rex Romanorum Philip of Swabia (1198–1208), who had married his sister Irene.

From there he had contacted the crusade army assembling in Venice, requesting that they should help him gain the imperial throne in return for the following: the payment of 200.000 marks of silver, substantial Byzantine participation in the crusade, a permanent garrison of 500 men in the Holy Land as long as he lived, and ecclesiastical union with Rome. The crusade leadership, adopting a typically Western perspective on the Byzantine succession question and as has been mentioned in dire financial straits, chose to consider prince Alexius as the rightful claimant to the throne, thereby relegating the ruling emperor Alexius III to being a mere usurper.

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