The End of the Fourth Crusade and the Early Years of the Latin Empire, 1204–5 Part I

The story of the Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204-61) is a convoluted and frustrating tale. The crusade had culminated in Baldwin’s coronation, but the attempt to consolidate this achievement meant years of warfare, brief periods of progress and peace and, for many of the main actors, a violent death. Yet the impact of the events of April 1204 went far beyond the walls of Constantinople. A change of such magnitude in the landscape of the Christian world had enormous consequences for many different peoples, not just those in and around the Byzantine Empire. The papacy, the Crusader States in the Levant, the families and countrymen of the crusaders back in western Europe, the Italian trading cities and the Muslim world: each had to calibrate and assess a political and religious topography that had never previously been conceived of. A full consideration of these issues would, however, fill another book and the main concern here is with the early years of the nascent Latin Empire.

In the first months of his reign Baldwin experienced two unexpected and agonising difficulties: the challenge of an internal rebellion and the tragedy of personal bereavement. After his coronation the new emperor started to allocate Byzantine lands to his followers, although many of these areas remained under hostile control. Baldwin had to defeat several challengers who included: Murtzuphlus, Alexius III, Theodore Lascaris (leader of a group of the Byzantine exiles and brother of Constantine Lascaris, the man elected emperor on the eve of the crusader conquest) and, most seriously of all, the powerful King Johanitza of Bulgaria. Given this formidable array of contenders there was every likelihood of a protracted and bloody fight to extend and sustain Latin rule in Greece, but before beginning this, the emperor had to confront an issue closer to home.

The March Pact of 1204 had stated that the unsuccessful candidate for the imperial throne would receive the Peloponnese peninsula and lands in Asia Minor. Following Baldwin’s coronation, Marquis Boniface wanted to renegotiate this: he wished to exchange the territories originally stipulated for the kingdom of Thessalonica, because the latter lay near the kingdom of Hungary – the royal house of his new wife. Boniface had a further interest in Thessalonica through his deceased brother Renier, who had been granted overlordship of the city by Manuel Comnenus as a part of his marriage gift in 1180. Villehardouin mentioned a ‘serious discussion of the pros and cons’ of the situation before Baldwin agreed to this proposal. Some of the emperor’s men opposed the idea, presumably because they had earmarked it for themselves and viewed it as a better prospect than territory in Asia Minor – land that was under threat from Theodore Lascaris and the Seljuk Turks. Boniface, however, had been the nominal leader of the crusade and, if Baldwin turned him down, he could simply leave for home, thereby depriving the Latins of one of their most powerful nobles. This fear of losing manpower had shaped the crusaders’ pre-election discussions and this same concern now surfaced again. The emperor granted Boniface the kingdom of Thessalonica, and amidst much rejoicing the marquis paid homage for the land.

The Latins’ first aims were to extinguish the threat of Murtzuphlus and to bring western Thrace under their authority. As Baldwin led a large army out from Constantinople, the aged doge and the infirm Louis of Blois, along with Conon of Béthune and Villehardouin, remained to preserve authority on the Bosphorus. The Latins’ initial target was Adrianople, a major city about 100 miles north-west of Constantinople, which soon submitted to an advance force led by Henry of Flanders. Murtzuphlus was known to be in the vicinity, but managed to stay ahead of the Latins to reach the settlement of Mosynopolis, around 160 miles west of Constantinople.

The ruler of this town was Alexius III, who had fled from the crusaders in July 1203. Might the two deposed emperors join forces to confront their mutual enemy? Initial contacts were extremely cordial. Alexius offered to give his daughter in marriage to Murtzuphlus (with whom she was already romantically involved) and suggested a formal alliance.

One day Murtzuphlus and a few companions came into Mosynopolis to dine and bathe. As soon as his principal guest arrived, Alexius took him aside into a private room where his men were waiting. They flung Murtzuphlus to the ground, held him down and tore his eyes out. The gestures of friendship had been a façade because Alexius III had no shred of trust for a man who had so callously murdered a rival, and he now showed similar ruthlessness in eliminating a challenger to his own position. Alexius III had signalled his determination to lead the opposition to the Latins alone. To Villehardouin this brutality was yet more evidence of the inherent duplicity of the Greeks: ‘Judge for yourselves, after hearing of this treachery, whether people who could treat each other with such savage cruelty would be fit to hold lands or would deserve to lose them?’ Once Baldwin heard of this gruesome act he marched towards Mosynopolis as fast as he could, but Alexius III departed and all the people of the region submitted to Latin rule.

At this moment, after years of close and effective co-operation, a serious rift developed between Baldwin and Boniface. Despite the emperor’s promise to give Thessalonica to the marquis, when Boniface asked permission to take control of the region and, at the request of its people, to fight off an incursion from the Bulgarians, Baldwin rejected the idea. The emperor decided to march there and take possession of the lands himself. Boniface was understandably enraged: ‘If you do, I shall not feel you are acting for my good. I must tell you clearly that I shall not go with you, but break with you and your army.’

Villehardouin was perplexed by these developments and wrote how ill-advised this breach was. One senses that his sympathies lay with Boniface and that he felt the emperor had taken bad counsel, perhaps from men who wanted parts of Thessalonica for themselves or who felt that the new emperor should assert his authority over the marquis. Baldwin would achieve the latter goal by going to the lands in person and then publicly bestowing them upon Boniface, rather than letting the marquis assume power by himself.

Furious at such shabby treatment, Boniface stormed away towards Demotika, south-west of Adrianople. Many nobles followed him, including the German contingent and warriors of the standing of Jacques of Avesnes and William of Champlitte. As Baldwin took possession of Thessalonica, Boniface made his displeasure clear: he seized the castle of Demotika from the emperor’s men and laid siege to Adrianople. Messengers rushed to Constantinople to tell Count Louis and Doge Dandolo of these troubling events. The senior crusaders cursed the people who had fomented this rupture, because they feared such divisions might expose them to the loss of all their hard-fought gains. Diplomacy was called for and once again Villehardouin came forward. He approached the marquis ‘as a privileged friend’ and reproached him for acting so rashly. Boniface countered by saying that his behaviour was entirely justified and that he had been grievously wronged. Eventually, Villehardouin persuaded him to place the matter in the hands of the doge, Count Louis, Conon of Béthune and himself. This core of men had been at the heart of the crusade throughout, and it is a mark of the respect in which they were held that Boniface agreed to this idea.

When Baldwin heard that the marquis had besieged Adrianople, his first reaction was one of anger and he wanted to rush to the city and confront him. The situation seemed to be spiralling out of control. Alas! What mischief might have resulted from this discord! If God had not intervened to put things right, it would have meant the ruin of Christendom,’ lamented Villehardouin.6 During the emperor’s stay outside Thessalonica a serious illness had hit the Latin camp. Amongst those who perished were the imperial chancellor, John of Noyon; Peter of Amiens, one of the heroes of the capture of Constantinople; and around 40 other knights. These losses were a grievous blow to the westerners and revealed how easily their numbers could be depleted. Perhaps such sad events brought Baldwin to his senses. When envoys from the crusaders in Constantinople arrived to mediate, some of his nobles decried this as impertinence. Baldwin, however, disagreed and came to see that, in the longer run, he could not alienate the quartet of senior men, as well as Marquis Boniface, and he consented to submit to the judgement of the four nobles.

Back in Constantinople the wise old heads quickly convinced the emperor of his mistake and of the need for reconciliation. Boniface was summoned to the city and many of his friends and allies came to greet him warmly. They organised a conference and decided that Thessalonica and its environs would be given to the marquis as soon as he handed over the castle of Demotika. When this was done, Boniface rode west to take hold of his rightful lands and most people in the region quickly came to recognise his authority.

It was at this point, in September 1204, after the resolution of this wasteful bout of in-fighting, that Villehardouin was able – for the only time in his history – to write of calm in Latin Greece. He said that ‘the land of Constantinople to Salonika [Thessalonica] was at peace. The road from one city to the other was so safe that although it took twelve days to cover the distance between them people were able to come and go as they pleased.’

The westerners began to extend their operations into the Greek islands and across the Bosphorus into Asia Minor. The Venetians took the islands of Corfu and Crete, two valuable and fertile areas in their own right, but also vital staging posts on the sea routes to and from the eastern Mediterranean. Louis of Blois planned the annexation of the duchy of Nicaea, although the count’s health remained poor and he sent the mighty Peter of Bracieux to make war on the Greeks there.

Around this same time the Latins achieved a genuine coup. The blinded Murtzuphlus had managed to escape from Alexius III and was trying to flee into Asia Minor, but informers betrayed his movements and he was captured and brought to Constantinople. The Latins were elated because at last they held the man who had murdered their candidate for the imperial throne, who had directed the fire-ships against them, and whose virulent anti-western invective had caused them so much suffering.

Murtzuphlus knew that he was going to pay a terrible price for his deeds and he could only hope that the westerners would be marginally less cruel than some of his own predecessors had been. In September 1185 Emperor Andronicus had met a particularly grisly fate. At the end of the coup that removed him from power he was seized by the supporters of Isaac Angelos, cast into prison and grotesquely tortured. One eye was gouged out, his teeth torn out, his beard pulled out and his right hand severed. He was paraded through the streets of Constantinople on the back of a mangy camel to face the spiteful savagery of the mob. Some poured human and animal excrement onto him, others pelted him with stones and a prostitute emptied a pot of her urine over his face. In the forum Andronicus was hung upside down and had his genitals hacked off. A few of the crowd thrust swords into his mouth, others between his buttocks, before finally, mercifully, Andronicus expired – surely one of the most public and hideous deaths of the medieval age.8 Could Murtzuphlus hope for greater mercy from the Latin ‘barbarians’?

Some form of hearing or show-trial was held and Murtzuphlus tried to justify the killing of Alexius IV. He claimed that the young emperor was a traitor to his people and that many others had supported his (Murtzuphlus’s) actions. There was, of course, some truth to these arguments, but no heed was paid to the Greek’s desperate pleas and he was sentenced to death. The question remained: how should the captive die?

Baldwin consulted with his nobles. Some recommended that Murtzuphlus should be dragged through the streets, others simply wanted him hanged. It was the doge of Venice who came forward with the solution. He argued that Murtzuphlus was too important a man to be hanged. ‘For a high man, high justice!’ he exclaimed. ‘In this city there are two columns . . . let us make him mount to the top of one of them and then have him thrown to the ground.’ The match of this play on words and the unpleasantness of the proposal pleased everyone and they agreed on death by precipitation. The form of punishment may also have been known to Baldwin and Henry of Flanders because similar executions had taken place earlier in the twelfth century in the city of Bruges.

In November 1204 Murtzuphlus was taken to the column of Theodosius in the Forum of the Bull. As he was led up the narrow steps inside, the baying of the crowd must have been temporarily muffled by the interior of the pillar. He had, of course, seen the column many times and knew where he stood, although now his lack of sight added a further element of hopelessness to his doomed situation.

Emerging from the narrow, cylindrical stairwell into the clear air on the top of the pillar, the defeated emperor must have sensed the space below him. There is no record of any prayers or speeches; one sharp push and he was propelled into the void, where his body fell feet first, accelerating and plummeting headlong, before twisting sideways to thump violently onto the stone ground, a ruptured and shattered sack of flesh and bone. Villehardouin claimed that the decoration of the column included a representation of a falling emperor and marvelled at the coincidence of this with Murtzuphlus’s death.

Within a few weeks the Latins would remove another challenger to their power when Alexius III was captured by Boniface near Thessalonica. The emperor’s scarlet stockings and imperial robes were dispatched to Constantinople to show what had happened and he was imprisoned. Alexius was not a figure so reviled as Murtzuphlus and he was sent to the marquis’s homelands in northern Italy.

Towards the end of 1204 the brief period of calm mentioned by Villehardouin was about to come to a close. Serious opposition to Latin rule began to appear: the Byzantine noble Theodore Lascaris led uprisings in Asia Minor, and in northern Thrace King Johanitza stirred tensions near Philoppopolis. The westerners faced the prospect of having to fight a war on two fronts – a task compounded by the failing health of their leaders. The doge found it difficult to leave Constantinople; Louis of Blois remained ill; and Hugh of Saint-Pol became crippled by gout that meant he could not walk. Fortunately, a large group of crusaders led by Stephen of Perche and Reynald of Montmirail, both cousins of Louis of Blois, arrived from Syria.

Stephen had left the main body of crusaders back in the autumn of 1202 when illness prevented him from embarking at Venice with the main fleet, although he had then chosen to sail to the Holy Land rather than Constantinople. Reynald had taken part in a diplomatic mission to the Levant following the capture of Zara but, contrary to his promise, he had failed to return to attack Byzantium. By late 1204, however, both men wished to assist their fellow-crusaders and perhaps hoped for a share in the spoils of victory.

The coming of Reynald and Stephen was not, however, wholly a cause for celebration: they carried the terrible news that Emperor Baldwin’s wife, Marie, had died of plague in the Holy Land. Her connections with the crusade were tragic and complex. Her brother, Thibaut of Champagne, had been the original choice to lead the expedition before his death. Marie had taken the cross with Baldwin, but could not accompany him because she was pregnant with their second child (they already had an infant daughter, Joan, born in 1199 or early 1200). Once she had given birth to another girl, Marie set off for Marseille, leaving her babies in the care of one of Baldwin’s younger brothers. Sadly, the two girls never laid eyes on either of their parents again. In the spring of 1204 Marie sailed towards Acre, ignorant of her husband’s second attack on Constantinople. Almost immediately after she landed, however, messengers told of his success and summoned her to Constantinople as the empress. Marie was delighted, but before she could begin her journey she fell victim to an outbreak of plague that ravaged the Crusader States at that time. She died in August 1204 and her husband’s envoys brought only a corpse to Constantinople, rather than the emperor’s adored and admired wife. Baldwin’s fidelity and devotion, so praised by Niketas Choniates, were cruelly unrewarded and he was crushed by these mournful tidings.

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