Post-classical history


‘These forerunners of Antichrist’

The Sack of Constantinople, April 1204

AS THE MASS of crusaders started to plunder Constantinople their leaders moved swiftly to secure the city. The first priority was to take control of the main imperial residences, the Bucoleon (the Great Palace) and the Blachernae. Boniface of Montferrat immediately rode down to the former and the gates opened to him, on condition that those inside were spared. Many senior figures from the Byzantine hierarchy had taken shelter in this complex, including members of the various imperial families. The haughty Agnes, sister of King Philip of France, was present, along with Margaret, the widow of Isaac Angelos and sister of the king of Hungary. More importantly to the crusaders, the palace was packed with treasure accumulated over centuries of imperial rule. Villehardouin could hardly describe the riches on display: ‘there was such a store of precious things that one could not possibly count them’.1 Boniface left a garrison of men to hold the palace castle and to guard the fortune within.

In the north of the city, Henry of Flanders entered the Blachernae palace on the same terms and he too discovered magnificent prizes and left men to protect the crusaders’ new-found wealth. While the takeover of these two locations seemed relatively orderly, events elsewhere saw an explosion of greed and violence as the crusaders found themselves in a treasure-trove of unimagined proportions. Some accounts pass over this shameful and tragic episode in silence: Villehardouin and Robert of Clari, to name but two. Others, such as Gunther of Pairis, provide some startling revelations but, predictably perhaps, it is from two Byzantine writers, Niketas Choniates and Nicholas Mesarites, that the most vivid and lurid descriptions of the sack of Constantinople emerge.

In spite of the crusaders’ sworn agreements to regulate the behaviour of the western troops, the allure of so much booty - and certain tensions within the crusader force itself - could not be resisted. Fired by a belief that God was rewarding them for fighting the impious and murderous Greeks, the crusaders saw their actions as legitimate and justified. The westerners’ lust for wealth drove them to seize and despoil citizens and city alike and. in their righteous zeal, they gave little thought to the feelings of those whom they ravaged or the sanctity of the places they ransacked. As Baldwin of Flanders chillingly observed: ‘So those who denied us small things have relinquished everything to us by divine judgement.’2

The crusaders spread into the city like a deadly virus running through the veins of a weak old man: they shut down movement and then they ended life. To Niketas they were ‘forerunners of Antichrist, the agents and harbingers of his anticipated ungodly deeds’.3Churches were an obvious target for the westerners and they gathered hundreds of magnif icent icons. Precious reliquaries—containing the remains of saints who had suffered for Christ’s sake—were torn from the altars; the bread and wine that signified the body and the blood of Christ were spattered onto the ground. Although His [Christ‘s] side was not pierced by the lance yet once more streams of Divine Blood poured to the earth’, as Niketas sadly commented.4 Nicholas Mesarites wrote of:

war-maddened swordsmen, breathing murder, iron-clad and spear bearing, sword-bearers and lance bearers, bowmen, horsemen, boasting dreadfully, baying like Cerberus and breathing like Charon, pillaging the holy places, trampling on divine things, running riot over holy things, casting down to the floor the holy images (on walls or on panels) of Christ and His holy Mother and of the holy men who from eternity have been pleasing to the Lord God.5

The Hagia Sophia, Constantinople’s greatest, most glorious building and the spiritual heart of the Byzantine Empire, was ravaged and defiled. This, above all else, symbolised the collapse of a once-mighty civilisation and the arrival of a new, aggressive power that, in the short term at least, cared little for the majesty of the imperial past. The high altar, an extraordinary piece of craftsmanship made from a blend of precious metals and fused into one multicoloured object, was divided into pieces so as to reward several different claimants. The spiritual value of an item was often ignored in the face of an overpowering need to gain plunder. It was as if the crusaders had the most consuming addiction imaginable —a need that could only be satisfied by jewels and precious metals. Of course, not everything was broken up: a glance in the treasury in St Mark’s in Venice, or a view of the four famous horses in the cathedral museum there, is evidence enough that some valuables were simply taken whole. 6

Within hours, centuries of precious offerings were gathered up. It was not just movable objects that were taken, for the fabric of the Hagia Sophia itself was attacked. For example, as the crusaders stripped the silver overlay from the pulpit gates, the carefully deployed workmanship of years was destroyed. So huge was the haul that the holy thieves had to bring pack animals into the building. The excrement of mules and asses fouled the smooth marble floors of the house of God; men and beasts slipped and fell as they struggled to move their burdens away. The pollution of the great church was absolute.

It was not just the knights and foot-soldiers who seized valuables. Gunther of Pairis gives an astonishingly candid account of the behaviour of his superior, Abbot Martin, during the sack of the City.7 After Martin had taken part in the mission that sought papal forgiveness for the siege of Zara, he had travelled to the Holy Land (April 1203) before rejoining the crusaders at Constantinople. When Martin saw everyone enriching themselves, he resolved to acquire some of the precious relics for his own church. With two companions he hurried towards the monastery of Christ Pantocrator, the magnificent foundation of the Comnenus dynasty that lay in the centre of Constantinople. In recent months the Greeks had used this as a repository for the wealth of neighbouring monasteries, including those lying outside the city walls, in the hope that it would be a place of safety. Knowledge of this treasure store was spread to the crusaders by those westerners expelled from the city in the weeks before it fell, and so it was, from the start, an inevitable target for the looters. Martin headed for the monastery, not, as Gunther assures us, to take gold and silver, but to find relics; he was only prepared to commit sacrilege in a holy cause. To a modern audience, this may seem a slim distinction, particularly given what followed. Ignoring the main treasury located in the body of the church, Martin sought out the sacristy, the place where the most precious religious objects were kept.

There he found an old man with a long white beard—a priest. Gunther asserts that the abbot took him to be a layman, because western monks were clean-shaven. This may be so, but it is certainly surprising that Martin appears not to have seen a single Orthodox monk in his travels in the eastern Mediterranean. In any case, he roared: ‘Come, faithless old man, show me the more powerful of the relics you guard. Otherwise, understand that you will be punished immediately with death.’ hile the priest could not understand the precise meaning of Martin’s guttural bellows, he plainly registered the message. Shaking with fear, he tried to calm the abbot in the few words of Latin that he could muster. Martin clarified what he was seeking. Gunther claims that the priest realised that the abbot was a man of religion and reasoned that it was preferable to surrender the relics to a man of the Church—however violent and intimidating —than to knights whose hands were stained with blood.

The old man led Martin over to an iron chest. The priest opened it and the abbot gazed in wonder at the religious treasures it contained—a sight more ‘pleasing and more desirable to him than all the riches in Greece’. The urge to seize these fabulous objects overcame him: ‘The abbot greedily and hurriedly thrust in both hands, and, as he was girded for action, both he and the chaplain filled the folds of their habits with sacred sacrilege: Martin probably made some assessment as to which were the most valuable of the relics, or perhaps he communicated with the old priest as to the provenance of certain pieces. Then, having taken those things that he believed to be most powerful, the ‘holy robber’ departed. The image of a western abbot towering above an ageing Orthodox monk and threatening him with death is hard to view in anything other than a cynical light. Even for Martin, as the existence of Gunther’s text shows, there was a need to explain these actions. The justification he gave reflected divine approval for the capture of Constantinople, encompassed here by the fact that Martin himself shed no blood and that he looked after the relics with great care.

With his robes weighed down with precious artefacts, Martin started to labour back to his ship to deposit the haul. He presented a faintly ridiculous sight, and Gunther acknowledged this. People who met him could tell from his bulging appearance that the abbatial robes concealed more than just a man of God. They cheerfully asked him whether he carried any loot and why he appeared so burdened. With a twinkle in his eye Martin responded: ‘We have done well’; to which they responded: ‘Thanks be to God’.

The abbot was concerned to escape from the crowds of looters as soon as possible and to store his cargo. Accompanied by only one of his chaplains and the old priest, who probably judged that his own safety was best assured by staying with this important figure, Martin got back to his ship and then remained in his quarters waiting for calmer times. While the chaos of the initial sack subsided, he venerated the holy objects and probably learned the identity of even more of them. In the next day or so, the old priest arranged some suitable accommodation for Martin and his entourage within the city and then, once more bearing his secret treasures, the abbot moved to this house where he concealed his prize. Perhaps Martin was afraid that others might steal such precious objects, or he may have worried that they would be discovered and handed over to the general war chest. In any case, he continued to cherish his collection through the summer of 1204.

It was not only Martin who gathered relics. As the crusaders tore their way through Constantinople, the number of items that they plundered was enormous. Two of the eye-witness accounts, those of Anonymous of Soissons and the Deeds of the Bishops ofHalberstadt, contain formal lists of the relics that particular churchmen brought back to their home church. This was a unique opportunity to present pieces of inestimable value to institutions that could not have dreamed of such spiritual riches and, after the crusade, certain regions of northern Europe became flooded with holy objects.

Bishop Nivelo of Soissons, whose ship had made the first contact with the walls of Constantinople, was soon sending numerous treasures back to his cathedral church, including the head of the Protomartyr Stephen, a thorn from the Crown of Thorns and the finger of the Apostle Thomas, which he is said to have placed in the Lord’s side. Nivello also rewarded the nuns of the abbey of Our Lady of Soissons with a belt of the Virgin Mary, and to the abbey of St John of Vignes he dispatched the forearm of St John the Baptist. When Nivelo himself returned to northern France in 1205 he took with him the head of John the Baptist and the head of the Apostle Thomas, as well as two large crucifixes made from the True Cross—an astonishing haul that demonstrates Nivelo’s seniority amongst the crusading clergy.8

Bishop Conrad of Halberstadt took home a fine selection of relics, including further parts of the True Cross as well as dozens of relics from the bodies of the apostles (the head of James, Christ’s brother) and many other saints. So many objects came back with him that Conrad had to build a new altar to house them and he also contributed gold, silver, purple cloth and two splendid tapestries to decorate his church.9

When one adds to these records the information in narratives such as that of Robert of Clari and the evidence in, for example, the treasury of St Mark’s in Venice, then one can begin to glimpse the scale of the plunder. Robert wrote of a phial of Christ’s blood coming from the church of the Blessed Virgin of the Pharos in the Bucoleon palace, along with the Crown of Thorns and a robe of the Virgin Mary.

So much more material must have gone back to northern Europe than has been recorded. Sometimes it has left a trace, as in the case of the northern French village of Longpré-les-Corps-Saints, near Amiens, which derives its name from the relics brought back to the church by the Fourth Crusader Aleames of Fontaines.10 In the majority of cases, however, the loot has passed out of sight and was absorbed into the treasure houses, churches or palaces of the West, or was simply melted down at Constantinople and lost for ever. Some items the Greeks managed to take with them. Robert of Clari wrote that the church of the Blessed Virgin of the Pharos in the Bucoleon palace contained the grave cloth in which Christ was wrapped and which clearly displayed His features. The crusaders could have seen this precious relic during their visits to the city in the latter half of 1203, but as an object that was easily transportable it must have been spirited away the following April because, as Robert lamented, no one knew what had become of it.11

To Niketas, the most insufferable aspect of the sack of Constantinople was the westerners’ utterly uncompromising treatment of the inhabitants. Any attempt to reason with the conquerors provoked a drawn dagger and the prick of cold steel. People who tried to leave the city were stopped and their carts ruthlessly plundered. So focused were the crusaders on the desire for loot that many no longer seemed capable of reason.

The westerners’ aggression found an outlet in sexual violence, too. As with so many armies through the ages, the defiling of a defeated enemy’s women was both a physical release and another manifestation of victory. With no heed to their victims’ screams, and ignoring the anguished cries of fathers, husbands or brothers, the crusaders forced themselves upon women, young and old, married or maiden. Niketas asked: ‘Did these madmen, raging thus against the sacred, spare pious matrons and girls of marriageable age or those maidens who, having chosen a life of chastity, were consecrated to God?12 Nicholas Mesarites wrote of the westerners ‘tearing children from mothers and mothers from children, treating the virgin with wanton shame in holy chapels, viewing with fear neither the wrath of God nor the vengeance of men’.13

Some of those spared were taken off as captives to be ransomed. People tried to hide from the crusaders and a few attempted to seek sanctuary in the churches, but ‘there was no place that could escape detection or that could offer asylum to those who came streaming in’.14 Over the next few days the invaders were relentless and thorough in their stripping of the city and rooted out anything of worth, no matter how well hidden it was.

They appropriated houses, turning out the inhabitants or taking them prisoner. Villehardouin’s comment on this was very matter-of-fact: ‘everyone took quarters where they pleased, and there was no lack of fine dwellings in that city’.15 Interestingly, for Robert of Clari, the issue of accommodation was far more divisive. As a senior member of the crusade hierarchy, Villehardouin must have been allocated an appropriately sumptuous palace from the many that existed within Constantinople. From Robert’s far humbler perspective, the leadership had chosen to look after its own needs and to ignore those of the poor. Robert alleged that the division of the best houses was settled amongst the nobles, without the knowledge or agreement of the lesser men, and he saw this as a sign of future bad faith and betrayal of the common people.16

The crusaders seized more than money, relics, precious objects and houses. They paraded around the streets wearing splendid robes. They adorned their horses’ heads with fine linen veils and the drum-shaped hats and wigs of curly white hair popular amongst the women of the city. There were enormous alcohol-fuelled celebrations. A western prostitute, quickly returned from her pre-battle exile, straddled the patriarch’s throne in the Hagia Sophia and then jumped up to sing and dance around the sacred altar, kicking up her heels and delighting her audience.

The wine cellars of Constantinople were ransacked and such was the westerners’ urge to drink that they did not, as was customary at the time, bother to mix in water. Singing and revelry lasted day and night. Some men ate local foods, others commandeered the ingredients needed to make dishes more familiar to them. They stewed the chine (backbone) of oxen in great cauldrons, they boiled chunks of pickled hog with ground beans, flavoured with a powerful garlic sauce. Then they sat and ate their fill, regardless of whether they were using sacred objects as tables, chairs or stools.17

Niketas Choniates himself fell victim to the crusaders and from his narrative we get an exceptional insight into the experiences of an individual on the receiving end of the looting. History is often said to be written by the victors; in medieval times this was especially true and so, while bearing in mind the author’s understandable prejudices, Niketas’s work offers a rare and revelatory perspective. ‘On that truly hateful day’ (13 April), as he aptly described it, many of his friends gathered at his house. His main residence had been destroyed in the fire of late 1203 and this new property stood near the Hagia Sophia.

As the crusaders spread towards them, Niketas and his companions saw how they grabbed at people, extorted money and goods or committed assaults. The Greeks had to improvise: part of the author’s household was a Venetian-born wine-merchant named Dominic and his wife. This man possessed a helmet, armour and weapons, which he donned to pretend that he had just taken the house for himself When crusaders arrived to take over the property, Dominic beat them away, cursing them in their own language and claiming that the house and those inside were already his. Over the next few hours, more and more men tried to lay claim to the place and Dominic despaired of being able to resist them. During a lull in these events he urged Niketas and his household to depart so that the men could remain free and the women inviolate.

Dominic led the Greeks to the house of another Venetian who had elected to stay in the city despite the recent hostilities. They did not rest there long, but chose to be dragged along by the hands behind Dominic, as if they were his prisoners. Soon, however, the servants in Niketas’s household melted away to fend for themselves. They left their master and his friends to carry on their shoulders the children who were too small to walk and left the writer to protect an infant at his own breast. Niketas’s wife was heavily pregnant and this, of course, added yet another pressure to the group. This proud, educated man led his entourage around Constantinople for five days before accepting that the situation could only deteriorate further: the crusaders continued to strip the city of all its valuables and to assault its people. Niketas decided that they had to leave.

On 17 April 1204 they began to make their way towards the Golden Gate—the site of so many triumphal returns for the emperors of Byzantium in days gone by. Now it was the exit point for refugees, driven from their homes by the barbarian invaders. As Niketas and his household moved towards the gate they passed many westerners laden with booty. Sometimes crusaders stopped the group to see if they were hiding fine clothes under their dirty tunics or concealing gold or silver on their person. While some of the crusaders looked for money, others were more interested in the young women in the party, and Niketas told his female companions to dirty their faces and to walk where the crowd was thickest so as to attract least attention. The small party of Greeks prayed for their safe passage and implored God that they should pass through the Golden Gate unharmed.

At the church of the Martyr Mokios one particularly predatory crusader grabbed a young girl from the midst of the group and started to drag her away, clearly intending to rape her. The girl’s father, an ageing judge, appealed for mercy, but he was thrust aside. He fell into the mud by the side of the road where he lay calling for someone to assist his daughter. He asked Niketas himself to help and, in an act of extraordinary courage, the writer chased after the abductor, imploring him to leave the girl alone. From Niketas’s descriptions of the sack of Constantinople one might expect that his efforts would have earned him a dagger in the chest. But such callous treatment of women cannot have been universal amongst the westerners because Niketas managed to convince some passing crusaders that they should prevent this outrage. So great was his agitation that he even pulled some of them along by the hand to encourage them to help.

They followed the thug back to his lodgings, where he locked the girl inside before turning to face his pursuers. Niketas accused the man of ignoring the commands of his leaders—presumably a reference to the oaths concerning the sanctity of women taken before the siege began— and depicted him as ‘braying like a salacious ass at the sight of chaste maidens’. He then turned to the crusaders nearby and challenged them to abide by their own laws and again he implored them to defend the girl. He appealed to the feelings of those who had wives and daughters of their own and he also prayed to Christ for help. His arguments soon struck a chord with his audience and they began to insist on the girl’s release. Initially the evildoer tried to ignore these protests, but he soon realised that the men were deadly serious when they threatened to hang him unless he freed her. Finally, reluctantly, he let the girl go, much to the delight and relief of all, and Niketas and his party hurried away and out of the Golden Gate.

Niketas described his anger and sorrow at leaving the city behind. He raged against the walls for remaining upright, yet failing to protect the inhabitants. He wondered when he would see the place again, ‘not as thou art, a plain of desolation and a valley of weeping, but exalted and restored’.18 The writer and his party found their way to Selymbria, a town in Thrace, where they settled. He mentions the ridicule to which the local people subjected the fallen citizens and how they delighted in the great and the good being brought down to their level.

Nicholas Mesarites also witnessed crusader greed, violence and ill-treatment of the Greeks. He related that:

breasts of women were searched [to see] whether a feminine ornament or gold was fastened to the body or hidden in them, hair was unloosed and head-coverings removed, and the homeless and money-less dragged to the ground. Lamentation, moaning and woe were everywhere. Indecency was perpetrated, if any fair object was concealed within the recesses of the body; thus the ill-doers and mischief-makers abused nature itself. They slaughtered the new-born, killed prudent [matrons], stripped elder women, and outraged old ladies. They tortured the monks, they hit them with their fists and kicked their bellies, thrashing and rending their reverend bodies with whips. Mortal blood was spilled on the holy altars, and on each, in place of the Lamb of God sacrificed for the salvation of the universe, many were dragged like sheep and beheaded, and on the holy tombs, the wretched slew the innocent.19

Palm Sunday and then Easter Day brought a brief pause in the looting as the crusaders gave thanks for the victory that the Lord had granted them. By this point the bulk of the movable plunder had been collected and it was time to share it out according to the agreement made the previous month. Three churches had been earmarked as storehouses for all the spoils of war, and ten Frenchmen and ten Venetians were set the task of guarding them. Day after day, men or carts had drawn up carrying the most incredible riches. Mountains of gold and silver objects, jewels and precious cloth all arrived at these buildings. The scale of the haul was immense and almost impossible to convey. Robert of Clari described the volume of plunder in epic terms: ‘Not since the world was made was there ever seen or won so great a treasure or so noble or so rich, not in the time of Alexander nor in the time of Charlemagne nor before nor after. Nor do I think, myself, that in the forty richest cities of the world there has been so much wealth as was found in Constantinople.’20

To Villehardouin the volume of treasure was similarly vast: ‘Geoffrey of Villehardouin here declares that, to his knowledge, so much booty had never been gained in any city since the creation of the world.’21 Baldwin of Flanders wrote of ‘an innumerable amount of horses, gold, silver, costly silk tapestries, gems and all those things that people judge to be riches is plundered. Such an inestimable abundance ... that the entire Latin world does not seem to possess as much.’22

It is plain, however, that not all the men were scrupulous in submitting the booty to the common purse. All the oaths made beforehand were an indication that the crusade leaders expected people to hold back plunder and to try to keep it for themselves. Their fears were to be entirely justified: faced with the sensational riches they discovered in Constantinople, many found it impossible to surrender everything they had taken. Greed, long portrayed by churchmen as one of the greatest vices of the crusading knight, took firm root in the hearts and minds of the westerners. Tempted by the prodigious wealth that lay in front of them and disregarding any threats of hanging or excommunication, they kept back huge sums of money—possibly as much as 500,000 marks23 —more indeed than the sum gathered in the official treasury.

Whatever the value of the purloined goods, there was enough in the common purse to pay off the first tranche of debts recorded in the March Pact. In other words, the Venetians received the 150,000 marks owed to them and the French crusaders 50,000. There was then a further 100,000 marks that the two groups divided equally between them, as well as 10,000 horses of various breeds.

The money was distributed amongst the crusaders according to a strict formula: a knight received twice as much as a mounted sergeant, who in turn was given twice as much as a foot-soldier. The Devastatio Constantirzopolitana provides detailed figures, stating that each knight received 20 marks; clerics and mounted sergeants 10 marks; and foot-soldiers five marks. This matches the ratio noted by Villehardouin and computes fairly neatly to a force of 10,000 men in the combined French, German and northern Italian contingents, with a further 10,000 Venetians, bringing the total crusading army to 20,000—a figure cited by Geoffrey himself.24

Villehardouin was, tacitly at least, disappointed with the amount of spoil collected, although as we have seen, a huge proportion of the booty never reached the official treasuries. But if he was comparatively phlegmatic, Robert of Clari was incandescent. The lesser men had all seen Constantinople’s breathtaking wealth with their own eyes and their expectations of personal gain were commensurately high. When the funds were dispensed there was disbelief; foul play was deemed certain and Robert accused the treasury guards and the senior leaders of siphoning off whatever they wished. He denounced them for taking gold ornaments, cloth of silk and gold, and for sharing nothing other than plain silver—the mere pitchers that ladies would carry to the baths, as he complained—with the lesser knights and foot-soldiers. This, Robert believed, was an unjust reward for those who had shared in the sacrifices and struggles of the campaign and he hinted that this unfair treatment had repercussions for the leaders.25

There was a notably personal edge to Robert’s complaints because his brother Aleaumes—the man who had, arguably, been the bravest of all in the taking of Constantinople—was given only 10 marks as a cleric. Yet Aleaumes wore a chain-mail hauberk and owned a horse, just like a knight, and his martial prowess was conspicuous. He appealed to Hugh of Saint-Pol for parity with the knights and the count gave judgement in his favour: Hugh himself witnessed that Aleaumes had done more than all the 300 knights in his division.26

Some attempts were made to track down those known to have hidden valuable objects for their own personal benefit. Villehardouin claims that many men were hanged, including one of Hugh of Saint-Pol’s knights who was strung up with his shield around his neck to broadcast his own shame and that of his family.27

Throughout the sack of Constantinople the crusader camp had been alive with discussion, rumour and gossip as to the choice of a new emperor. The whole army was summoned to a meeting and a lengthy and vigorous debate ensued. In the end the decision came down to the two most obvious candidates: Boniface of Montferrat and Baldwin of Flanders. Yet to choose between these two fine men was extremely difficult and the other leading nobles worried that whoever lost would depart from the host and take his men with him, leaving the victor in a seriously compromised position. They drew a parallel to the First Crusade when, after the election of Godfrey of Bouillon as the ruler of Jerusalem, his rival, Raymond of Saint-Gilles, was so envious that he induced many others to abandon Godfrey, with the result that hardly any knights remained to hold the fledgling state together. Only through God’s protection, they concluded, had the land of Jerusalem survived. In order to avoid a repetition of these events, the leadership in 1204 proposed that the unsuccessful candidate should be rewarded with lands of such scale and value that he would be pleased to remain in the region. This idea was supported by everyone, including the two candidates.

Only the doge of Venice remained uneasy about the potential for serious trouble if the failed candidate reacted badly. He advised that Boniface and Baldwin should vacate their imperial palaces and that the buildings should be placed under a common guard. He argued that whoever was elected emperor should be able to take possession of the palaces as he wished. In other words, he thought that a reluctant loser might choose not to hand over his residence and would then have a powerful base from which to cause trouble. Again, the two nobles involved acceded to the proposal and the election process continued peacefully.

The major challenge that faced the French, German and northern Italian crusaders was how best to select their six electors, as required by the March Pact. Because both the candidates came from this broad group. the identity of the electors could easily load the voting process in one particular direction. Robert of Clari wrote that each man attempted to place his own people into the sextet and there followed days of intense debate as the haggling and arguments dragged on. In the end it was decided that six churchmen should be chosen, on the basis that they would not be swayed by political considerations. As Baldwin himself (unsurprisingly) wrote: ‘all partisanship [was] put aside’.28 The clerics were the bishops of Soissons, Halberstadt andTroyes, the bishop of Bethlehem (a new papal legate), the bishop-elect of Acre and the northern Italian abbot of Lucedio. The worthiness of this group may not be in doubt; whether it was free of bias is less clear: Peter of Lucedio had accompanied Boniface to Soissons when he took the cross, and Conrad of Halberstadt was a partisan of Boniface’s overlord, Philip of Swabia. Set against this, John of Noyen, now the bishop-elect of Acre, had been Baldwin of Flanders’s chancellor.

The Venetians used a different method of selecting their electors. Familiar as they were with government by committee and council, the doge directed a distinctive process. Dandolo chose the four men he most trusted and made them swear on holy relics that they would select the six people most worthy of the task. As each individual was identified, he was obliged to come forward, not talk to anyone and go into seclusion in a church until the full meeting of the Venetians with the other crusaders.

The crucial assembly took place in the chapel of the palace occupied by the doge himself. A mass of the Holy Spirit was chanted to seek divine guidance for the imminent debate. The chapel doors were shut and the discussion began. There is no extant eye-witness account, and the details of the conference remain secret. In the palace outside, partisans of the two candidates gathered anxiously. The committee was making a decision of quite stupendous dimensions: the elevation of a man to the rank of emperor, and the acquisition of all the status, wealth and lands that came with it, was a staggering responsibility. A Catholic emperor would also represent a massive extension of lands under the authority of the papacy.

The council worked late into the night of May until it made its choice—a unanimous selection, according to Villehardouin. They appointed Bishop Nivelo of Soissons to announce the result. Everyone had assembled in the great hall and the tension was palpable as he stepped forward. Which of the two men would win the imperial crown? As the smoke from candles and braziers drifted slowly upwards, hundreds of eyes fixed upon Nivelo; men crowded around him as they strained to see and hear. A pause for silence and then he spoke:

Lords, by the common consent of all of you we have been delegated to make this election. We have chosen one whom we ourselves knew to be a good man for it, one in whom rule is well placed and who is right well able to maintain the law, a man of gentle birth, and a high man. You have all sworn that the man whom we elect shall be accepted by you, and that if anyone should dare to challenge his election you will come to his support. We will name him to you. He is Baldwin, count of Flanders.29

A roar of approval echoed around the hall and the news coursed through the city. The French contingent was jubilant; the marquis’s men were understandably despondent. We do not know Boniface’s true feelings, but Villehardouin reports that he nobly acknowledged his opponent’s victory and paid him due honour. He drew deeply on the chivalric ethos of the court of Montferrat and abided by the pre-election agreements: there was none of the divisive friction that had been so feared. In the short term, at least, it seemed that the consensual, conciliar approach had paid off and Baldwin was able to enjoy his success to the full.

The churchmen, the leading nobles and the French crusaders proudly escorted the emperor-elect to the Bucoleon palace, the seat of imperial power and Baldwin’s new home. The next priority was to fix a date for the coronation ceremony. They chose Sunday 16 May, one week later.

Niketas Choniates gave his own reasons for Baldwin being preferred to Boniface. The Greek regarded Doge Dandolo as the moving force behind the Fleming’s selection. Niketas hated the doge and regarded him as a scheming and self-interested man who would have competed in the ballot himself, had his blindness not rendered him ineligible for the imperial dignity. Niketas neglected to add two other important reasons for Dandolo not standing: first, the Venetians advanced years and, second, a general awareness that by choosing him the crusaders would be open to accusations that their campaign was motivated by financial considerations. Notwithstanding his great abilities, it would have been political and diplomatic suicide to choose Dandolo as emperor.

Putting aside Niketas’s prejudices, his analysis of why the Venetians favoured Baldwin is fundamentally plausible. He suggests that the doge wanted an emperor who would not be too ambitious and whose lands were some distance from Venice, so that, if the two parties fell out in the future, Dandolo’s home city would not be threatened. Boniface, of course, was based in northern Italy, uncomfortably near Venice; and he had a close association with the Genoese, one of the other major trading powers of the medieval Mediterranean. The possibility of an emperor sympathetic to the Uenetians’ great rivals, who might threaten the commercial privileges secured through the toil and sacrifice of the present campaign, could not be countenanced: ‘thus those things which the many with sight could not clearly perceive, he who was sightless discerned through the eyes of his mind’.30 On this basis, the six Venetian electors were always likely to vote against Boniface and, as long as a plausible alternative existed—which Baldwin certainly was—then only one of the six churchmen needed to be swayed to deny the marquis the imperial throne. The Flemish candidate’s natural supporters—the bishops of Soissons and Troyes and the Flemish bishop-elect of Acre—gave him a comfortable majority. The remaining three churchmen, notwithstanding the northern Italian home of Peter of Lucedio, may well have concluded that Baldwin was the best man anyway, or else they decided to join the winning side and deliver a unanimous verdict.

The week leading up to the coronation saw frantic activity in Constantinople as the westerners prepared for the formalisation of their conquest. The mercers, tailors and clothiers of the city did tremendous business as the crusaders spent some of their new-found wealth on the finest robes available. The need to be seen in the most magnificent attire possible brought out all the ostentatious vanities and competitive instincts of the chivalric courts of the West. Many splendid robes and gowns were made from the famous silk cloth created in the western parts of the Byzantine Empire, and these beautiful garments were adorned with precious stones looted from the city.

Another formal event took place on Saturday 15 May when Boniface married Margaret, the widow of Isaac, to continue the Montferrat dynasty’s links to the Angeloi family begun with his brothers Conrad and Renier. The marriage may perhaps have made him a more natural candidate as emperor of the Greeks—had not the decision to crown Baldwin already been taken. On a more sober note, Odo of Champlitte, one of the senior crusader nobles, fell ill and died. He was buried with full tributes in the Hagia Sophia.31

On 16 May 1204 an escort of the leading clergy and the senior French, northern Italian and Venetian nobles collected Baldwin from the Bucoleon palace and escorted him with due honour to the Hagia Sophia. Once at the church, dressed in his splendid robes, he was led to the altar by Louis of Blois, Hugh of Saint-Pol, Marquis Boniface and several ecclesiastics. In front of a packed congregation, all dressed in their resplendent new clothes, Baldwin was stripped to the waist, anointed, reclothed and then formally crowned emperor. The crusader conquest of Constantinople was complete. In a hall filled with western adventurers, an expedition that had set out to free the holy places reached a climax that no one could have predicted, as a Flemish count took control of one of the most powerful political entities in the known world.

Baldwin sat upon the imperial throne and listened to mass, in one hand holding a sceptre and in the other a golden globe topped by a cross. Robert of Clari pointedly acknowledged this rarefied level of authority when he wrote that ‘the jewels which he was wearing were worth more than the treasure a rich king would make’.32 After mass the new emperor processed out of the great church, mounted a white horse and was escorted back to his palace to be seated upon the throne of Constantine. There Baldwin sat, at the very epicentre of the imperial dignity and a clear symbol of the westerners’ perception of a continuity between themselves and the Greek rulers. Then the knights and churchmen and all the Greek nobles paid homage to him as emperor. With the formalities complete, it was time for the coronation banquet; tables were placed in the hall and a sumptuous feast rounded off the first day of what we know as the Latin Empire of Constantinople.

In the aftermath of the sack, writers from both sides reflected on events and considered how and why they had happened. Baldwin himself wrote a series of letters to prominent figures in Europe to explain the situation in Greece. Letters addressed to the archbishop of Cologne, the abbots of the Cistercian order, to ‘all the Christian faithful’ and, most importantly, to Pope Innocent III himself survive. As in the case of earlier letters from the crusade leaders, such as that of Hugh of Saint-Pol in the summer of 1203, this missive had to outline and justify the progress and outcome of the expedition. Baldwin was aware that the campaign was open to charges from several different quarters: the crusaders had disobeyed papal commands concerning attacks on the Byzantines; they were motivated purely by money; they had neglected their brethren in the Holy Land and had discredited their crusading vows. This letter is, therefore, a thoughtful and highly polished piece of writing. In modern terms we would regard it as political ‘spin’—putting a positive gloss on events that have provoked controversy or disquiet. The new emperor’s close circle, particularly the highly educated clerics, worked hard to support his case by peppering the narrative with an impressive array of biblical and rhetorical apparatus.

The basic thrust of Baldwin’s letter was to emphasise divine endorsement for what had taken place: ‘Divine Clemency has performed a wondrous turn of events round about us ... there can be no doubt, even among the unbelievers, but that the hand of the Lord guided all of these events, since nothing that we hoped for or previously anticipated occurred, but then, finally, the Lord provided us with new forms of aid, insamuch as there did not seem to be any viable human plan:33 The very success of the expedition had to be God’s will. This was the best and strongest argument that the crusaders could muster.

The emperor gave a narrative of events from August 1203 onwards, taking great care to illuminate Alexius IV’s lies and perjury and in particular his failure to adhere to the promises in the Treaty of Zara, which had led the crusade to Constantinople in the first instance. He was held responsible for the attack of the fire-ships (perhaps untrue) and for inflicting terrible hardships on his own people. Murtzuphlus was damned as a perjurer for failing to keep his promise to hand over the Blachernae palace in return for crusader support of Alexius. Murtzuphlus was then depicted as a traitor and murderer for his brutal removal of the young emperor. Baldwin was careful to detail the final attempt to make peace when the doge met the Greek usurper, and the letter laid stress upon Murtzuphlus’s refusal to submit the Orthodox Church to Rome, a matter of obvious importance to Innocent.

Baldwin consistently ascribed crusader successes, such as the capture of the icon of the Virgin Mary and the lack of damage wrought by the fire-ships, to the blessing of God. This divine approval was, naturally, linked to the crusaders’ proper moral purpose, and during the final assault on Constantinople the Fleming portrayed them as attacking the city ‘for the honour of the Holy Roman Church and for the relief of the Holy Land’.34 When he described the storming of the battlements he again chose to explain the crusader victory in divinely ordained terms: ‘at the Lord’s bidding a vast multitude gives way to very few’. While Baldwin did not shy away from mentioning the killing of many Greeks, he chose to omit the more unpleasant details of rape, pillage and sack that took place. The scale of the booty (‘an inestimable abundance’) was noted as he emphasised the triumph of such a small force. Baldwin wrote: ‘we might safely say that no history could ever relate marvels greater than these so far as the fortunes of war are concerned’. This was the kind of language and hyperbole that authors used after the capture of Jerusalem by the First Crusade in 1099 and, like the remarkable achievement of that earlier expedition, the campaign of 1204 had to be blessed with God’s approval. Quoting from Psalms 98 and 118, Baldwin wrote: ‘Now however, we do not wrongly lay claim to this victory for ourselves because the Lord’s own right hand delivered Himself and His powerful arm was revealed in us. This was done by the Lord, and it is a miracle above all miracles in our eyes:35 In other words, the diversion to Constantinople was justified and above reproach.

Further sections of Emperor Baldwin’s missive cast the destruction of the perfidious Greeks as a valid crusade in itself. He claimed, correctly, that some churchmen and soldiers from the Holy Land were present at his coronation and that ‘above all others their joy was incalculable and unrestrained’, and that they gave thanks to God ‘just as if the Holy City had been restored to Christian worship’. The reason for their delight was that the crusade had ended the Greeks’ enmity towards the holy warriors. Baldwin criticised the Byzantines’ alliances with the Muslims, their supplying of the infidel with arms, ships and food, and their disregard for their shared bond of faith with the westerners. He drew attention to their lack of respect for the papacy, to the various liturgical and practical differences of religious observance between the Orthodox and the Catholics, and how the former viewed all westerners as dogs. Baldwin argued that the Greeks had provoked God by their sins and, through the crusaders, He had punished them.

Having portrayed the conquest of Constantinople as a crusade against heathens, Baldwin took care not to forget the expedition to the Levant. He expressed the hope that, once the Byzantine lands were stabilised, he would travel on to the Holy Land. In the meantime he turned to Innocent for support and, making clear that he regarded his new responsibilities as a spiritual matter, Baldwin urged the pope to call for a crusade to help the nascent Latin Empire and promised that those who came would be rewarded with lands and honours according to their station. He also asked for churchmen to come and settle, having first gained the permission of their religious superiors.

Baldwin also appealed to Innocent to summon a General Church Council in Constantinople. This would enable the pope to formally demonstrate the submission of the Orthodox to the Catholics and would act as a public blessing for the capture of Constantinople. The emperor cited earlier popes who had visited the city several centuries before and implored Innocent to follow suit.

Baldwin closed his letter by commending the honest and prudent conduct of the clergy in the course of the crusade and by providing a ringing commendation of the character of Doge Dandolo and all the Venetians, ‘whom we find to be faithful and diligent in all circumstances’.36 The fact that some of the crusader clergy had chosen to suppress papal correspondence at Zara, and that Innocent was one of many who were deeply suspicious of Venetian motives, meant that it was important for the emperor to bolster the credibility of the Italians. The letter was dispatched in the summer and would probably have reached the pope in around September or October 1204.

If Baldwin was in the happy position of explaining the capture of Constantinople from the perspective of the victor, Niketas Choniates had to comprehend the reverse. The loss of Constantinople was a’ massive personal blow; its devastation provoked pain at the outrages perpetrated against its people and fabric, as well as anger against those who committed such terrible deeds: ‘crimes committed against the inheritance of Christ’. To him, the greed, the inhumanity and arrogance of the westerners were unbearable. He constructed a coruscating indictment of their motives. Most particularly he blamed the leadership and mocked their high moral stance: ‘They who were faithful to their oaths, who loved truth and hated evil, who were more pious and just and scrupulous in keeping the commandments of Christ than we Greeks: He claimed that the crusaders had entirely abandoned their vows to cross over Christian lands without shedding blood and to fight the Muslims. He also reviled them for their sexual impurity as men ‘consecrated to God and commissioned to follow in His footsteps’.37

His conclusion was scathing: ‘In truth they were exposed as frauds. Seeking to avenge the Holy Sepulchre, they raged openly against Christ and sinned by overturning the Cross with the cross they bore on their backs, not even shuddering to trample on it for the sake of a little gold and silver.’38 Niketas then drew a simple parallel: when the First Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099 they had shown no compassion to the Muslim inhabitants. When, 88 years later, the Muslims had taken the holy city back they had behaved far better, neither lusting after the Christian women nor ‘transforming the entranceway to the life-giving tomb [the Holy Sepulchre] into a passageway leading down into Hades’. By ransoming the defenders cheaply and letting them keep their possessions, the Muslims had dealt magnanimously with the defeated people of Jerusalem.

To draw such a damning comparison with, of all people, the Muslims was, of course, richly ironic. The analogy was also true: Saladin’s men did spare the majority of those in Jerusalem, yet the Fourth Crusaders had slaughtered their fellow-Christians. The implication here is obvious: to Niketas, the westerners’ behaviour rendered them worse than infidels. For a second time, therefore, the crusaders had been revealed as blood-thirsty barbarians. His analysis ended with a simple observation: ‘How differently ... the Latins treated us who love Christ and are their fellow-believers, guiltless of any wrong against them.’39

This devastating analysis of the crusaders’ performance was borne out of Niketas’s anger at the events of 1203—4 although, as we have seen, the author also believed that the Byzantines contributed much to their own downfall through the lamentable actions of their leaders and the sins of their people.40

Nicholas Mesarites, addressing himself to his fellow-Byzantines, condemned the crusaders along broadly similar lines: ‘Such was the reverence for holy things of those who bore the Lord’s Cross on their shoulders, thus their own bishops taught them to act. Then why designate them as such? Bishops amongst soldiers or soldiers amongst bishops? And why recount many things in this speech? You all know how these dreadful deeds ended, for you were not among those who practised violence, but among those who endured it:’41

In the short term, Niketas and Nicholas had to deal with day-to-day survival, but for Emperor Baldwin there was a need to take a longer view. Aside from trying to influence the way in which the crusade was perceived in the West, he had to start the business of government. He appointed John, bishop-elect of Acre (and former chancellor of Flanders), as his new chancellor and set about gathering the money needed to run his empire.

To produce more cash would require the regime to look beyond the movable treasures already looted. They began to examine the fabric of Constantinople ever more closely and to inflict even greater destruction on the legacy of centuries of Byzantine rule. A few more items remained to be plundered and the westerners’ treatment of one of these objects crossed yet another rubicon of propriety.

The church of the Holy Apostles contained a mausoleum holding the tombs of some of the great Byzantine emperors of the past, including Justinian. Not content with pillaging all the church’s ornaments and chalices, the crusaders broke open the great imperial tombs. These mighty sarcophagi, made of the purple porphyry marble that signified imperial status, held not just corpses, but also gold, jewels and pearls. Justinian’s body was found to be in almost perfect condition; in the 639 years since his death his cadaver had barely decomposed. In medieval terms this was a sign of great sanctity and divine endorsement of a good life. While the crusaders were duly impressed, it did nothing to halt their stealing the valuables lying around the imperial body. As Niketas searingly observed: ‘In other words the western nations spared neither the living nor the dead, but beginning with God and his servants, they displayed complete indifference and irreverence to all.’42

Precious metals were stripped from public buildings and monuments in order to create wealth: melted down and minted into coins, they allowed the westerners to start paying wages and to finance projects of their own. Many of Constantinople’s great statues were callously cast to the ground and consigned to the smelting furnaces. The bronze figure of Hera was pulled down and carted off to the fires; such was its huge size that her head was said to have needed four yokes of oxen to carry it away. Other statues, such as Paris, Alexander and Aphrodite, joined Hera in the dust. The extraordinary wind-vane, the Anemodoulion, a mighty equestrian statue from the Forum of the Bull, was also dragged off to feed the insatiable fires.

Constantinople was becoming transformed from the greatest city in the Christian world to a scarred and ragged shadow of its former splendour. Its fine walls were hideously misshapen by the remains of the wooden siege defences; three terrible fires had damaged buildings right across the city; and now the monuments that had commemorated and sustained the Byzantines’ cultural identity were being torn down. Pedestals stood shorn of their statues, alcoves lay bare, except where a sad stub of metal marked where finely crafted figures had once stood.

The Hippodrome was stripped of its decorations: a great bronze eagle; representations of charioteers; a massive hippopotamus with a crocodile or basilisk in its jaws; a stunning, shapely figure of Helen of Troy, who ‘appeared as fresh as the morning dew, anointed with the moistness of erotic love on her garment, veil, diadem and braid of hair’.43

Alongside the crusaders’ continued ruination of the Queen of Cities they behaved uncouthly amongst themselves. Enriched by their new-found wealth, the conquerors engaged in endless bouts of gambling and gaming, or else they fought one another, even including their wives as part of the wager. Displaying the rather condescending superiority of a highly educated imperial official, Niketas concluded that one might expect little else of a group of ‘unlettered barbarians who are wholly ignorant of their ABCs, [and] the ability to read and have knowledge of ... epic verses’.44

From Emperor Baldwin’s perspective, the need to generate money was an imperative that sentiment or aesthetics could not resist; his responsibilities as an anointed ruler required immediate action and it was to the wider issues of government that he now turned.

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