The sack of the richest city in Christendom, which had been the bribe offered to the crusaders to violate their oaths, was made in the spirit of men who, having once broken through the trammels of their vows, are reckless to what lengths they go.
Continuing Constantinople Taken by the Western Crusaders,
our selection from The Fall of Constantinople Being the Story of the Fourth Crusade by Edwin Pears published in 1903. The selection is presented in six easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in Constantinople Taken by the Western Crusaders.
Time: April, 1204
The crusaders had expected another day’s fighting, and knew nothing of the flight of Mourtzouphlos. To their surprise, they encountered no resistance. The day was occupied in taking possession of their conquest. The Byzantine troops laid down their arms on receiving assurances of personal safety. The Italians who had been expelled took advantage of the entry of their friends and appear to have retaliated upon the population for their expulsion. Two thousand of the inhabitants, says Gunther, were killed, and mostly by these returned Italians. As the victorious crusaders passed through the streets, women, old men, and children, who had been unable to flee, met them, and, placing one finger over another so as to make the sign of the cross, hailed the Marquis of Montferrat as king, while a hastily gathered procession, with the cross and the sacred emblems of Christ, greeted him in triumph.
Then began the plunder of the city. The imperial treasury and the arsenal were placed under guard; but with these exceptions the right to plunder was given indiscriminately to the troops and sailors. Never in Europe was a work of pillage more systematically and shamelessly carried out. Never by the army of a Christian state was there a more barbarous sack of a city than that perpetrated by these soldiers of Christ, sworn to chastity, pledged before God not to shed Christian blood, and bearing upon them the emblem of the Prince of Peace. Reciting the crimes committed by the crusaders, Nicetas says, with indignation: “You have taken up the cross, and have sworn on it and on the holy Gospels to us that you would pass over the territory of Christians without shedding blood and without turning to the right hand or to the left. You told us that you had taken up arms against the Saracens only, and that you would steep them in their blood alone. You promised to keep yourselves chaste while you bore the cross, as became soldiers enrolled under the banner of Christ. Instead of defending his tomb, you have outraged the faithful who are members of him. You have used Christians worse than the Arabs used the Latins, for they at least respected women.”
An immense mass of treasure was found in each of the imperial palaces and in those of the nobles. Each baron took possession of the castle or palace which was allotted to him, and put a guard upon the treasure which he found there. “Never since the world was created,” says the marshal, “was there so much booty gained in one city. Each man took the house which pleased him, and there were enough for all. Those who were poor found themselves suddenly rich. There was captured an immense supply of gold and silver, of plate and of precious stones, of satins and of silk, of furs, and of every kind of wealth ever found upon earth.”
The sack of the richest city in Christendom, which had been the bribe offered to the crusaders to violate their oaths, was made in the spirit of men who, having once broken through the trammels of their vows, are reckless to what lengths they go. Their abstinence and their chastity once abandoned, they plunged at once into orgies of every kind.
The lust of the army spared neither maiden nor the virgin dedicated to God. Violence and debauchery were everywhere present; cries and lamentations and the groans of the victims were heard throughout the city; for everywhere pillage was unrestrained and lust unbridled. The city was in wild confusion. Nobles, old men, women, and children ran to and fro trying to save their wealth, their honor, and their lives. Knights, foot soldiers, and Venetian sailors jostled each other in a mad scramble for plunder. Threats of ill-treatment, promises of safety if wealth were disgorged, mingled with the cries of many sufferers. These “pious brigands,” as Gunther aptly calls them, acted as if they had received a license to commit every crime. Sword in hand, houses and churches were pillaged. Every insult was offered to the religion of the conquered citizens. Churches and monasteries were the richest storehouses, and were therefore the first buildings to be rifled.
Monks and priests were selected for insult. The priests’ robes were placed by the crusaders on their horses. The icons were ruthlessly torn down from the screens or were broken. The sacred buildings were ransacked for relics or their beautiful caskets. The chalices were stripped of their precious stones and converted into drinking-cups. The sacred plate was heaped with ordinary plunder. The altar cloths and the screens of cloth of gold, richly embroidered and bejewelled, were torn down, and either divided among the troops or destroyed for the sake of the gold and silver which were woven into them. The altars of Hagia Sophia, which had been the admiration of all men, were broken for the sake of the material of which they were made. Horses and mules were taken into the church in order to carry off the loads of sacred vessels and the gold and silver plates of the throne, the pulpits, and the doors, and the beautiful ornaments of the church. The soldiers made the chief church of Christendom the scene of their profanity. A prostitute was seated in the patriarchal chair, who danced, and sang a ribald song for the amusement of the soldiers.
Nicetas, in speaking of the desecration of the Great Church, writes with the utmost indignation of the barbarians who were incapable of appreciating and therefore respecting its beauty. To him it was an “earthly heaven, a throne of divine magnificence, an image of the firmament created by the Almighty.” The plunder of the same church in 1453 by Mahomet II compares favorably with that made by the crusaders of 1204.
The sack of the city went on during the three days after the capture. An order was issued, probably on the third day, by the leaders of the army, for the protection of women. Three bishops had pronounced excommunication against all who should pillage church or convent. It was many days, however, before the army could be reduced to its ordinary condition of discipline. A proclamation was made throughout the army that all the booty should be collected, in order to be divided fairly among the captors. Three churches were selected as depots, and trusty guards of crusaders and Venetians were stationed to watch what was thus brought in. Much, however, was kept back, and much stolen. Stern measures had to be resorted to before order was restored. Many crusaders were hanged. The Count of St. Paul hanged one of his own knights with his shield round his neck because he had not given up the booty he had captured. A contemporary writer, the continuator of the history of William of Tyre, forcibly contrasts the conduct of the crusaders before and after the capture. When the Latins would take Constantinople they held the shield of God before them. It was only when they had entered that they threw it away, and covered themselves with the shield of the devil.
We want to take this site to the next level but we need money to do that. Please contribute directly by signing up at https://www.patreon.com/history