The last few months of 1204 and the early months of 1205 saw an exhausting round of conflicts in Asia Minor, the Peloponnese (where Villehardouin’s young nephew fought with distinction) and the lands near Thessalonica. The Greeks realised that the Latins were severely stretched and they proposed an alliance with King Johanitza. They promised to make him emperor, to obey him and to slay all the French and Venetians in the empire. Given the history of serious enmity between the Bulgarians and the Byzantines, this was a strange combination, but it clearly showed Theodore Lascaris’s determination to remove the Latins.
In January 1205 the westerners lost Count Hugh of Saint-Pol who succumbed to gout. He was buried in the church of St George of Mangana in the tomb of Sclerene, an eleventh-century imperial mistress, although soon afterwards his remains were transferred back to northern France and laid to rest in the abbey of Cercamp in his home county.
Around the same time the most serious revolt yet broke out when the key city of Adrianople rose in rebellion. The emperor called his principal advisers together. The doge, Louis of Blois and Baldwin agreed to pull in as many men as possible and to concentrate on this deepening crisis.
As the first contingents arrived from Asia Minor, Baldwin was eager to head towards Adrianople with all possible speed. For the first time in months, Louis of Blois was fit to take his place in the army and together they prepared to set out. Henry of Flanders and many other men were still to come, but Baldwin decided to press on with just 140 knights. On 29 March they reached Adrianople to see banners proclaiming allegiance to King Johanitza fluttering from well-defended walls and towers. Despite their lack of numbers the Latins mounted two attacks on the gates. As Baldwin and Louis directed operations they were joined by another familiar figure from the senior hierarchy of the crusaders. To demonstrate the importance of this campaign a force of Venetian knights had joined the northern Europeans, and at their head was Dandolo himself. The doge had ignored his age and apparent infirmity – he had asked the pope for absolution from his vow to allow him to return home – and insisted on commanding his men on this rare, and crucial, inland expedition.
Johanitza learned of the Latins’ weakness and hurried south to Adrianople with as large a force as he could muster. Alongside his own knights he had a huge group (numbering 14,000, according to Villehardouin) of mounted Cumans, fierce pagan nomads whose endurance and brutality made them formidable opponents.
The Latins struggled to find supplies and spent Easter 1205 desperately foraging for food and trying to build siege engines and dig mines so that they could break into the city. All the while Johanitza moved closer, until on 13 April an advance force of Cumans raided the westerners’ camp. The call to arms was raised and the knights rushed to confront the enemy. The Cumans soon wheeled away and, for once, the Latins’ customary discipline eluded them and they carried on the chase, quickly becoming spread out. The Cumans swiftly turned and unleashed volleys of arrows at their opponents, wounding many of the Latins’ horses, but killing few. The westerners faced about and retreated – it had been a close escape.
The leadership was furious. A meeting was called to demand much tighter control and orders were issued proclaiming that no one should do more than form up in proper order outside the camp. Nobody was to move unless explicitly ordered. The whole army knew that there would be a major battle the following day and the next morning the men said mass and confessed their sins.
In the early afternoon the Cumans charged forward once more. First out of the camp was Count Louis of Blois. Disastrously, he completely ignored the previous night’s agreement and set off in hot pursuit of the enemy, urging Baldwin to follow suit. Perhaps Louis was trying to compensate for his sickness-induced failure to take part in the conquest of Constantinople. If so, his need to perform glorious deeds overcame any sense of discipline at a terrible cost. As the excitement of the pursuit invigorated Louis’s men, they harried the pagan warriors for miles before, inevitably, beginning to lose formation and tire – exactly what their opponents hoped for. As the Cumans had shown only the previous day, their tough nomadic ponies and expert riders were skilled in the art of turning on the retreat. Many, many times crusader armies had been defeated by Turkish or Syrian troops performing just such a manoeuvre and the impetuosity of the count of Blois meant that another force of men was doomed to join that sad list. With the strength of the Latin onslaught hopelessly diluted across a broad front, the Cumans swung around and hurtled back towards the westerners, screaming and firing their arrows.
Shocked by this, some of the less experienced men in the Latin army – probably recruits from Constantinople – began to panic and the line rapidly started to disintegrate. Baldwin had been forced to follow the initial charge; he caught up with the fighting and found himself close to Louis. The count had been badly wounded and was soon knocked from his horse. Amidst the churning frenzy of the conflict the Latin knights plunged towards the stricken noble. They drove the Cumans away from Count Louis and, in the vortex of battle, created a small space sufficient to raise him to his feet and examine his wounds. They begged him to go back to camp because of the severity of his injuries, but he refused: ‘God forbid that I should ever be reproached for flying from the field and abandoning my emperor.’ Regardless of the Latins’ bravery, sheer weight of numbers started to tell and one by one they began to fall. Still, however, Baldwin urged his men on. He swore to fight to the last and defended himself with even greater vigour, but on this occasion chivalric loyalty and knightly prowess were not enough. The Cumans closed in on their prey. Inevitably, perhaps, given the number of battles they had fought, the Latins’ good fortune had finally run out. ‘In the end, since God permits such disasters to occur, the French were defeated,’ mourned Villehardouin. Louis was killed and Baldwin was overcome and taken prisoner. The Cumans slaughtered many other veteran knights and, in one devastating engagement, a large part of the crusader elite was ripped away.
Those who escaped rushed back to the camp where Villehardouin was in charge. By now it was mid-afternoon and he gathered together a force of men to try to halt the Cumans’ pursuit of his ailing colleagues. Their efforts succeeded and the pagans started to drop back in the early evening. Villehardouin found himself the senior surviving French noble. He sent word of the disaster to the Venetians, whose men had not been involved in the day’s conflict. The doge and Geoffrey must have been shattered – their emperor was in captivity and many close friends and brave knights were dead. The only option was to retreat. The canny Dandolo suggested the best way to get a head-start on Johanitza. Even as night fell, he advised Villehardouin to keep his own troops lined up outside the camp and, at last, the Cumans returned to their base on the far side of Adrianople. The doge himself went around the tents, encouraging the Latins to take heart and telling them to put on their armour and wait for orders. When it was completely dark they marched away as quietly as possible. The fact that the Cumans had withdrawn from the field helped the westerners to leave undetected.
Their target was Rodosto, a three-day march away on the coast, but the wounded hampered any quick progress. One group of Lombards split away and managed to reach Constantinople within two days (16 April), where they broke the awful news to Peter Capuano, the papal legate, and Conon of Béthune, who was in charge of the city.
As the defeated troops struggled back towards Rodosto they met some comrades who had come over from Asia Minor and were heading to join the main force. Many of these men, such as Peter of Bracieux, were vassals of Count Louis and were grief-stricken at the loss of their lord. There was little time for mourning, however: Johanitza had marched up to Adrianople, discovered that the Latins had fled and was now in hot pursuit. Villehardouin urged the new arrivals to take over as the rearguard while the wounded and the weary carried on to Rodosto as swiftly as they could. They managed to reach the town in safety, where they encountered Henry of Flanders and more reinforcements. Had the whole force assembled before riding to Adrianople, the outcome of the campaign – assuming greater discipline – might well have been very different. The Latins were now in a deeply perilous position and they made Henry of Flanders regent of the empire, pending his brother’s possible release from captivity. In the meantime, as Johanitza’s men ravaged across the region, almost the entire mainland territory of the Latins went over to the Bulgarian king.
Back at Constantinople the remaining leaders resolved to ask for help from Pope Innocent, from Flanders, France and other countries in the West. In doing so they were following a practice long established by the Christian settlers in the Holy Land. Throughout the twelfth century the settlers in the Levant had turned to their fellow-Catholics in Europe seeking military and financial support. Sometimes they had been rewarded with a new crusade; more usually, however, only small groups of knights responded to these appeals because – excepting the most urgent of occasions, such as the fall of Jerusalem in 1187 – the remainder were too occupied in their own affairs to help. In 1205 the Latins chose the bishop of Soissons and two senior French knights to convey these requests while their colleagues remained at Constantinople in fear of their lives.
Around the same time, Doge Dandolo sent a letter to Pope Innocent asking to be absolved from his pilgrim’s vow to relieve him of the need to journey to Jerusalem. Perhaps the news of the plague that was affecting Acre, coupled with his age and the prospect of another long voyage to the Levant, caused the Venetian to fear for his survival in the next part of the expedition. He may also have wanted to return home to die and to better assure the succession of his son as doge. Dandolo assured the pope that his departure would not affect the presence of the Venetian fleet and insisted that it would continue to serve the crusade as arranged.
The case for recognising Dandolo’s increasing frailty was obvious, yet Innocent politely, but firmly, rejected it. He had abhorred the doge since the siege of Zara and here – gently and, one suspects, with some degree of satisfaction – he turned the other crusader leaders’ praise of the old man back against Dandolo. Surely, Innocent argued, on account of the importance that Emperor Baldwin and his colleagues attached to the doge’s advice, it would not be prudent to approve the request, lest it caused the army going to the Holy Land to fail. Furthermore, he continued, ‘someone or other could fault you’ for having been a crusader who had avenged the injuries done to the Venetians at Zara, but who had not avenged the injuries done to Christ by the enemies of the faith. Innocent intimated, therefore, that he was acting in Dandolo’s own best interests by protecting him from accusations of wrongful motivation and insisting that he stayed on the crusade.
Innocent’s response was, in fact, almost irrelevant because in June 1205 there was yet another heavy – if by now hardly unexpected – blow to the Latin presence in Byzantium when, aged over 90, Dandolo died. He was buried with due honour in the church of Hagia Sophia, where a small memorial to him still stands. The doge was probably the most remarkable of all the crusaders: neither his age nor his blindness prevented his agile mind and unparalleled grasp of strategy from exerting the most powerful influence over the expedition. If his insistence on the campaign at Zara brought him criticism from some quarters, it is noticeable that his standing amongst his fellow-leaders on the crusade remained extremely high; and on many occasions his were the ideas and plans employed by the westerners. His loss meant that only Marquis Boniface (based at Thessalonica), Conon of Béthune, Villehardouin and Henry of Flanders remained alive, and at liberty, from amongst the senior nobility who had set out on the original expedition.
While some knights and nobles from the Fourth Crusade settled in Greece and began to set up flourishing dynasties, many of the other crusaders returned home. A number travelled via the Holy Land where they completed their pilgrimage vows; the others sailed directly back to the West. They had been away for more than three years. Children had grown up, parents and relatives may have died, lordships and abbacies changed hands. The crusaders themselves had endured the most appalling hardships, had seen horrors and wonders beyond imagination, and now they came home, relieved and thankful to have lived through the great ordeal. They carried news of fine deeds, of the forging of new friendships, the loss of companions, the splendour of Constantinople and the perfidy of the Greeks. Many brought back treasure and valuable reliquaries that did much to repay the money they had needed to set out in 1202.
Robert of Clari probably departed for France in the late spring of 1205. The death of his lords, Peter of Amiens (summer 1204) and Hugh of Saint-Pol (March 1205), may well have prompted him to leave shortly before the defeat at Adrianople. Robert brought back various relics, including a part of the True Cross, one of several treasures he gave to his local abbey of Corvey. Aside from this and the writing of his narrative we know nothing more of his fate, other than that he was alive in 1216, the last event mentioned in his work.
For prominent men, such as Bishop Conrad of Halberstadt, there is a record of their journey. Conrad sailed to the Holy Land in August 1204 and his voyage from Constantinople to Tyre took almost seven weeks. Soon after he arrived, the archbishop of Tyre prepared to set sail for Greece, and in the light of Conrad’s status as a bishop, he asked the German to look after his flock during his absence. Conrad gladly agreed and took up residence in the archiepiscopal palace where he consecrated various churchmen and conscientiously oversaw the repair of the city walls after an earthquake. He also toured pilgrimage sites, including the church of Our Lady in Tortosa (a beautiful building that still exists today in southern Syria) where the saint cured him of a bout of fever. The following spring Conrad took leave of the people of the Holy Land and, after a two-month voyage, reached Venice on 28 May 1205. News of his return had been sent ahead and the dean of Halberstadt and others from the church travelled down to Venice to meet their superior. The Venetians also paid Conrad great respect and on the day of Pentecost (29 May) he was led by Renier Dandolo, the vice-doge, and the clergy of Venice to St Mark’s church where they celebrated mass.
Before travelling north to Germany, Conrad visited the pope. He carried with him a letter from King Aimery of Jerusalem (1197–1205) and the churchmen of the Holy Land, which recommended him as a person worthy of apostolic favour. Innocent duly acknowledged this and, fortified by a papal benediction, Conrad began the last leg of his journey. As he approached Halberstadt, Duke Bernhard of Saxony, his nobles and churchmen came out to meet the bishop and celebrate his homecoming. Conrad obviously had a good eye for public display and he arranged for a bier to be carried before him upon which were shown the relics he had taken from Constantinople. The entire local population flocked to see such a great spectacle and all cried out blessings on the man who had brought such valuable articles back to their land.
On 16 August 1205 Conrad was escorted to the doors of the church of St Stephen where the clerics happily sang the antiphon Iustum deduxit Dominus (‘The Lord has led forth the just man). Then Conrad delivered a sermon identifying all of the relics that he had gathered – objects that would now reside in the church. He also proclaimed an annual festival throughout the diocese to honour the day of the relics’ arrival and, in one sense, to commemorate his own achievement. These joyful events offer a glimpse of what some returning crusaders could expect. Not all could boast the reception arranged at Halberstadt, but the process of celebration, reception of relics and then storytelling was, in outline at least, repeated widely across western Europe.