The Fate of the Latin Empire, 1206–61

The Latin Empire, Empire of Nicaea, Empire of Trebizond, and the Despotate of Epirus-the borders are very uncertain.

On 15 August 1261 – fifty-seven years after the Fourth Crusade had sacked the Queen of Cities – Michael Palaeologus, the ruler of Nicaea, processed into the Hagia Sophia where he was crowned emperor of Byzantium. The Greeks had reclaimed Constantinople. Other spoils of the Latin victories in 1204 – such as the principality of Achaea and the island of Crete – remained in western hands but the heart of the conquest had been torn out.

As the first generations of Frankish settlers in the Holy Land had discovered, large-scale backing from the West was needed to consolidate their new territories. As early as 1211 Emperor Henry of Constantinople (1206–16) wrote: ‘nothing is lacking for the achievement of complete victory and for the possession of the empire, except an abundance of Latins, since . . . there is little use in acquiring [land] unless there are those who can conserve it’. Yet ultimately, the support of a second Catholic satellite in the eastern Mediterranean proved too great a demand on the physical and emotional resources of Europe.

In the course of the thirteenth century the scope of crusading extended considerably. In 1208 Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heretics of southern France. There was also, as before, continuous activity in the Baltic region and periodic campaigns against the Muslims of the Iberian peninsula. Crusading proved a highly flexible concept and in the middle of the thirteenth century, as relations between the papacy and Emperor Frederick II of Germany became hostile, a holy war was preached against the most powerful secular figure in the West. From the late 1230s a new and terrifying force began to appear on the borders of eastern Europe and soon threatened the Levant as well. The fearsome Mongol hordes were in the process of creating the largest land empire in the history of the world, stretching from Hungary to the China Sea, and in 1241 the papacy called for a crusade to combat this deadly menace. Given this extraordinary level of crusading activity – not all of which was met with approval or enthusiasm by the knightly classes of Europe – the chances of a new and comparatively distant sphere of holy war attracting widespread support were slim.

Probably the greatest obstacle to the flowering of the Latin Empire was the situation in the Holy Land. By the mid-thirteenth century, after decades of relative stability, the settlers’ position had deteriorated sharply. In August 1244 at the Battle of La Forbie, 1,034 out of 1,099 knights from the Military Orders were slain. This prompted the Seventh Crusade (1248–54), a substantial expedition consisting of more than 2,500 knights, properly financed by the French crown and the French Church, and led by the saintly King Louis IX. The resources and motivation demanded by an undertaking of this scale could not be summoned repeatedly, particularly if, as with Louis’s crusade, the campaign failed.

The fundamental problem for the Latin Empire was that it lacked the unparalleled cachet of the Holy Places. It could not boast of a biblical past and it had not been seized from the hands of the infidel, but rather from Christians, albeit heretics. Baldwin’s lands were in competition with the allure of the Holy Sepulchre, quite apart from the existing regional holy wars in Spain, the Baltic and the new campaigns in southern France, and those against the Mongols and Frederick II of Germany. For this reason the conquests of the Fourth Crusade were always destined to struggle for attention except from those parties directly interested in the area, such as the Montferrat dynasty or the Venetians. The fact that the Latin emperors were not from a royal house of the West, coupled with a decline in the standing of the counts of Flanders, reduced the obvious sources of help even further.

As early as 1204, the Latin Empire and the Holy Land competed with each other for the attention of the Christian world. A letter from the archbishop of Nazareth pleaded for assistance ‘for the recovery of the patrimony of the Crucified One’; yet around the same time the papal legate, Peter Capuano, released crusaders at Constantinople from their obligation to go to the Levant so that they could stay to defend the new empire. The appeal sent to the papacy in the aftermath of the Battle of Adrianople was another request for help that reached the West just as the pleas from the archbishop of Nazareth were being considered.

In the early years, the Latin conquerors and the papacy had clung to the belief that their conquests might help the holy war against Islam, but this optimism was utterly misplaced. Even Pope Innocent came to recognise the conflict between consolidating the Latin Empire and liberating the Levant. In 1211 he wrote to Emperor Henry and grumbled, ‘since you and other crusaders have striven to capture and keep the empire . . . principally in order that by this means you may bring help more easily to the Holy Land, you have not only failed to provide any assistance in this, but have also brought trouble and damage . . .’ to those trying to resist the infidel.

In the aftermath of the conquest, the prospect of land and money had attracted people from – of all places – the Levant. In 1202–3 the Crusader States had experienced a plague, a colossal earthquake and were confronted with a numerically overwhelming enemy. Thus, in the aftermath of the conquest of Byzantium, many inhabitants of the Levant – unwilling to pass up new opportunities to win land and money – eagerly decamped to Constantinople. As we have seen, men such as Stephen of Perche, Reynald of Montmirail and Geoffrey of Villehardouin’s nephew (as well as some recent settlers in the kingdom of Jerusalem, such as Stephen of Tenremonde, a Fleming who had remained after the Third Crusade) were quick to abandon the defence of the Frankish East. Defections such as these caused Pope Innocent to complain that the exodus of pilgrims from the Holy Land left it weakened. Of course, given their overall vulnerability, the papacy was obliged to call for support for the Christians in the new empire. Yet every time a crusade set out, or money was sent to Constantinople, it meant less assistance for the Holy Land. Thus, far from preparing a way to liberate Christ’s patrimony, the conquests of the Fourth Crusade actually weakened it.

It was not, however, until 1224 that the first crusade preached for the defence of the Latin Empire prepared to set out. This was a northern Italian (Montferrese) expedition focused on the relief of Thessalonica, but the leadership was delayed by illness and lack of funds and by the time the crusade reached the area, the city had already surrendered to the Greeks of Epirus.

Notwithstanding the adverse effects on campaigns to the Holy Land, the papacy tried hard to persuade some potential crusaders that they should fight for the Latin Empire instead of going to the Levant. In 1239 Richard of Cornwall, brother of King Henry III of England, and his companions were asked to commute their vows to Jerusalem in return for a money payment to help Constantinople or to go there in person, but they refused to be diverted and to shed Christian blood. The popes raised direct clerical taxation in Greece for the defence of the empire but the large-scale crusade that was required to defeat the Byzantines never looked like materialising. In fact, by 1262 Pope Urban IV was so desperate to encourage a new expedition to regain Constantinople that he offered free passage to participants (in contrast to the payments to the Venetians required in 1204) and – astonishingly – an indulgence of 40–100 days’ penance for simply listening to the crusade sermon in the first instance.

The Latin emperors worked hard to gather men and money and Baldwin II (1228–61) resorted to long tours around the courts of western Europe (1236–9 and 1244–8) in the hope of securing support, but all he received were polite displays of interest, small gifts and open-ended promises. Baldwin himself cut an unimpressive figure and contemporaries described him as ‘young and childish’ and not the ‘wise and vigorous’ figure needed.

In 1237 he had to pawn the Crown of Thorns, worn by Christ on the Cross, to a Venetian merchant for 13,134 gold pieces. When he could not redeem the debt, the relic was taken by agents acting for the pious King Louis IX of France, who was so delighted with this treasure that he constructed the magnificent Sainte-Chapelle in Paris especially for it. A year later Louis was involved in a more secular transaction when Baldwin mortgaged him the title to the county of Namur (a region of northern France – a link back to the emperor’s Flemish forefathers) for 50,000 livres. By 1257 so impoverished was the empire that Venetian creditors required Baldwin’s son Philip as surety for a loan, and even the lead from the palace roof was being sold to generate cash.

In spite of this generally sorry tale on the mainland, the fertility and relative security of the principality of Achaea (in the Peloponnese peninsula), and the Venetian-controlled island of Crete, formed two regions of economic strength. The export of bulk products, including wheat, olive oil, wine and wool, as well as luxury items such as silk, created real wealth for the Italians and the Villehardouin dynasty who ruled Achaea. The latter fostered a flourishing court life and the chivalric traditions of the West blossomed. On one occasion Geoffrey II (1229–46) rode through his lands accompanied by 80 knights wearing golden spurs and the French spoken in Achaea was said to be as good as that in Paris. Frescos depicting chivalric deeds decorated palace walls, and tournaments and hunting were popular pastimes. The capture of Prince William (1246–78) at the Battle of Pelagonia (1259) marked the end of Achaean ascendancy, although the principality did survive through the female line. Crete remained under Venetian rule until 1669 and was by far the most durable manifestation of the Fourth Crusade.

Elsewhere the Latins were less successful. Boniface of Montferrat did not enjoy his hard-won prize of the kingdom of Thessalonica for long. In September 1207 he was killed in battle, and years of pressure from the Greek rulers of Epirus led to their winning Thessalonica in 1224. It was, however, the empire of Nicaea, based in Asia Minor, which posed the most potent threat to the Latins. John III Vatatzes (1222–54), later canonised by the Orthodox Church, pushed the westerners out of Asia Minor, established a bridgehead at Gallipoli on the European side of the Bosphorus and later took over Thessalonica to tighten the noose around Constantinople. John’s death meant that the final push to eject the Latins came from his general, Michael Palaeologus, who became regent for John’s young son and then seized the imperial title for himself. The boy was, inevitably, imprisoned and blinded.

In July 1261, as the Greeks gathered for a full assault on Constantinople, a sympathiser opened one of the gates and the Byzantine advance party took the city with barely a struggle. Most of the Latin garrison was engaged on a campaign elsewhere and the citizenry were generally pleased to see the return of their natural lords. So unexpected was this turn of events that Michael Palaeologus had yet to cross the Bosphorus. His sister, Eulogia, heard the news early one morning and, as her brother lay sleeping in his tent, is said to have crept in and tickled his feet with a feather. When he awoke she told him that he was now the ruler of Constantinople. Playing along with her lighthearted mood, Michael laughed, but refused to accept what he heard. Only when a messenger entered with the imperial crown and sceptre did he believe it; God had indeed delivered Constantinople back to the Greeks. The principal achievement of the Fourth Crusade was thus wiped out.

In reality then, the Latin Empire proved to be an unwanted burden that only hindered the cause of the Holy Land. It expired 30 years before the fierce Mamluk dynasty prised the westerners from the city of Acre (1291) to mark the end of Christian power in the Levant until the British general, Edmund Allenby, entered Jerusalem in 1917. By one of history’s neater ironies, in later centuries, as the reconstituted Byzantine Empire struggled against the mighty Ottoman Turks, the papacy tried to rouse western Europe for another crusade to help defend the Greeks. The effort failed and, when the Ottomans took the city of Constantinople in 1453, it was finally lost to Byzantium for ever.

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