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5. Third Crusade |
In valor and infamy the Crusades collapse into a tale of calamity

Third Crusade is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page , of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The lionhearted Richard reaches Jerusalem and folds, the sack of Constantinople fuels fury against the West, Acre falls, and Christian thousands are sold into slavery

Third Crusade - In valor and infamy the Crusades collapse into a tale of calamity

Third Crusade - In valor and infamy the Crusades collapse into a tale of calamity
In this famous 1860 statue by Carlo Marochetti, Richard the Lionheart, sword in hand, stands guard outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. Early on, in wars fought for his father and against him, Richard established a well-deserved reputation as a superb military commander. Like his father, he was mercurial, given to snap decisions he would later regret. But war was his métier, and as a strategist, general, and leader of men he had no equal. His father’s death made him king of England and duke of Normandy. Almost immediately he embarked on the Third Crusade.

For a thoroughly shocked and shaken Europe, the fall of Jerusalem in October of 1187 raised a difficult theological question. Why would a just God allow his people to lose their holiest city to the Muslims? The news of the city’s dire peril may even have fatally shocked Urban III, pope for less than two years, whose death on hearing it left his amiable, frail, but energetic eighty-seven-year-old successor, Gregory VIII, to come up with an explanation. Gregory didn’t or couldn’t. All he could and did do was issue a desperate call for a third crusade. It would prove the biggest ever, and it would fail.

Saladin, Jerusalem’s conqueror, had had a theological epiphany of a different sort. By sword and sagacity he had united Egypt, Damascus, and northern Syria, then, at age forty-eight, had fallen gravely ill and hovered near death. But, astonishingly, he had recovered, renewed his fervid piety, and decisively defeated the Christians. Now he reigned supreme in the Holy City–a recovery and victory he attributed wholly to Allah.

Saladin had crowned these accomplishments by strictly prohibiting the killing of any Christians, freeing those who could raise a ransom and some who couldn’t, immediately releasing the widows of slain crusaders, sending civilians safe to the surviving Christian forts along the Mediterranean coast, and guaranteeing accessibility to the Holy Sepulchre for Christian pilgrims. All this was much in contrast to the slaughter the Christians had unleashed upon Jerusalem when they took the city a century earlier and to the savage vengeance Saladin’s Muslim successors would inflict on Christians in the century that followed.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Josias of Tyre, who had brought the bad news to Europe in a ship somberly equipped with black-dyed sails, had a ready explanation for the calamity: God clearly had become exasperated with the sinful lives Christians were leading in Outremer. He carried a poignant letter from the master of the Templars in Jerusalem. “How many and how great are the calamities that our sins require,” it lamented. “The anger of God has lately permitted us to be whipped. We are unstable. O sad fate!”

Few could deny that the Christians of Outremer had become at best a soft people–slothful and licentious; languishing in a world of figs, carpets, and dancing girls; intermarrying with Syrian, Armenian, and Byzantine women to produce what some saw as a race of half-castes. “From childhood they are pampered and wholly given to carnal pleasures,” mourned the bishop of Acre. He portrayed a depraved society, heedless of the church, with crime rampant, men strangling their wives if they didn’t like them, and wives killing their husbands with poisons, sold freely on the streets, to take other lovers. No one trusted anyone else, he charged, and church properties were turned into whorehouses, which proliferated everywhere.1

Though his zeal for the crusade never faltered, the frail Pope Gregory died of fever two months after his investiture while striving to unite the warring Pisans and Genoese behind the cause. His successor, Clement III, turned to Europe’s monarchs for support, appealing directly to the emperor Frederick Barbarossa and dispatching Josias of Tyre to petition the kings of England and France.

Barbarossa, now in his sixties but as powerful a soldier as ever, readily accepted the call and began to assemble a crack German army numbering one hundred thousand men. Unhappily, he would die on his way to the Holy Land, gravely fragmenting his forces and leaving those of France and England to play the pivotal role (see chapter 4).

When Josias crossed the Alps in January of 1188, Henry II was king of England; duke of Normandy, of Aquitaine, and of Gascony; count of Anjou and of Nantes; lord of Ireland; and the richest monarch in Europe. In atonement for his role in the assassination of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury (see sidebar, pages 96—97), Henry had been sending sizeable annual stipends to support Outremer. His relations with King Philip II of France were cordial but strained, partly because of a lingering dispute over control of Vexin (the area between their domains in what would eventually become northeastern France) and partly because Philip’s half-sister Alice was, in unreliable palace gossip, Henry’s mistress, which is why his son Richard wouldn’t marry her, a thesis that finds no support in the French chronicles.

After hearing Josias’s woeful account, both Henry and Philip vowed to raise armies and depart for Outremer within a year, with Philip’s men wearing red crosses, Henry’s white, and the Flemish green. But Henry would not live to complete his vow. Upon his death in July 1189, his son would succeed him as King Richard I and effectively become leader of the Third Crusade.

The third of the five sons of Henry and the inexhaustible Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard had not been expected to become king but had otherwise notably distinguished himself. Tall, lithe, and powerfully athletic, with handsome, ruddy features and reddish blonde hair, he had been dubbed “the Lionheart” for his courage and matchless strategies in wars both for and against his father. He had also been accused by one acknowledged enemy of cruelty and rape, having allegedly commandeered wives, daughters, and sisters of his own freemen and, when he was finished with them, turned them over to his troops as prostitutes. His father disliked and distrusted him (with reason), and the sentiment was mutual (also with reason). Richard was his mother’s favorite and supported her in her recurrent rebellions against her husband, whose heir he became only on account of the premature deaths of his two older brothers.

Philip, though eight years younger than Henry, had been king for almost ten years when he took up the cross. He had grown up a close friend of the more charismatic Richard, but the crusade would strain and eventually crack any bond between them. This was not only because they would become rivals for its leadership but also because their attitudes, their mannerisms, their proprieties, their intuitions, their pleasures, their displeasures, and their entire concept of what constitutes acceptable conduct for a king were not only different but actively alien.

Richard, for instance, wore a two-handed battle sword with a golden grip, carried a shield appointed with the single lion of Aquitaine, and rode a massive Spanish stallion using golden stirrups. From his mother he had acquired an appreciation for music and poetry. He also loved fine food and drink, hunting, jousting, and hawking. He told bawdy stories, liked to swear obscene oaths on Jesus’ body, and would insult his clerics, knowing they dared not respond. Like his father, he was mercurial, given to snap decisions he would later regret, and although he loved to organize, he hated to administer. War was his métier, and as a strategist, general, and leader of men he had no equal.

Much of Richard’s behavior shocked or cowed Philip, who, though the more effete of the two, was slovenly in dress and grooming, blind in one eye, pale, and rather ugly, evidencing few of the qualities that in later years would see him acclaimed as Philip Augustus, greatest of the Capetian kings. But in Outremer he possessed neither Richard’s charm nor his daring. He hated risk, had no interest in hunting or any other rugged sport, knew no Latin, and was seemingly paranoiac and delusional. By the conventions of the day, he was a notable prude, once ordering a man dunked three times for swearing and thereafter prohibiting swearing everywhere in his kingdom. “The French king goes about so daintily that I am afraid he may spring on me,” smirked the poet Bertran of Born. To Philip, Richard came on as an arrogant, foulmouthed boor.2

The two set off from Vezelay, in central France, in the summer of 1191 with their armies numbering a combined one hundred thousand. If one were killed, the other was to take over his command. If either broke this pledge, he was to be excommunicated. Richard also promised to marry Philip’s half sister Alice within forty days of his return, whatever her relationship with his father.

Richard traveled to his ships in Marseille, Philip to his in Genoa. After much adventure and misadventure (including Richard’s subduing of Sicily, his capture of Cyprus from its Byzantine king, and his marriage there to Berengaria of Navarre), the two kings and their fleets finally arrived at Acre, the Muslim-held fortress on the Mediterranean coast–Philip in April and Richard in June of 1191.3 There they joined in the siege of the city that had begun in the fall of 1189.

Meanwhile, Saladin, with Jerusalem securely in his possession, had released its erstwhile king, the ever-bungling Guy of Lusignan. Perhaps to regain respect, Guy had recruited other knights liberated by Saladin after ransom and had laid siege to Acre. This city, jutting westward into the sea on two sides and facing the Plain of Acre on the east, had been the traditional port of disembarkation for Christian pilgrims, a great marketplace of the eastern Mediterranean, and home to the Hospitallers’ biggest hospital and hostel. After taking the city from the Christians, Saladin had fortified its east-facing walls.

There Guy and his army grimly maintained the siege. Near starvation after two winters without success, his rank and file was subsisting on grass and dry bones while his knights bought what provisions they could from unscrupulous entrepreneurs at a hundred times the fair value. Saladin, communicating with Acre’s besieged garrison by means of carrier pigeons and swimmers, was encamped on a hill to the southeast, separated from Guy’s forces by a trench across which he would make occasional forays. Such was the situation when first Philip and then Richard arrived in their galleys with their troops and siege engines.

Landing on April 20, Philip did a workmanlike job with his army’s giant mangonels (a type of catapult) and rams. In fact, he twice breached the walls of the Accursed Tower (so named because it was believed to have been there that Judas’s thirty silver pieces were minted). But the city held, and Philip had already failed as a commander before Richard arrived in June.4

Besieging castles was one of the two main forms of battle in the Middle Ages (the other being the skirmish). Richard’s miners soon weakened the walls by tunneling beneath them. His mangonels, although smaller than Philip’s, lobbed harder and denser granite boulders, which Richard had expressly transported from Sicily. His Norman archers atop wooden siege towers fired bolts from their crossbows, a weapon that Richard valued above all others despite papal encyclicals against its use as inhumane.

Then he moved in the “Mategriffon,” the wooden castle he had first built for his battle in Sicily. Its walls were covered with vinegar-soaked cord, the only substance that could withstand that petroleum-based ancestor of napalm known as “Greek fire.” Aloft on this perilous structure with his crossbow, Richard could serenely pick off Muslims on the city walls. Even when ill with a serious case of scurvy, though feverish and with his hair falling out, he had himself carried to this tower to resume the sport.

Shortly after his arrival, Richard relayed word to Saladin, whom he admired as a chivalrous enemy, that he wanted to parley; perhaps they could reach a settlement. Saladin refused but sent him a gift of fruit and also arranged for his brother Malik al-Adil to be available to conduct talks on Saladin’s behalf. Thus, although Saladin and Richard would never meet face to face, an unlikely friendship developed between the English king and Saladin’s brother.

The long siege had taken a fearful toll on the occupants of the city. By early July of 1191 Acre’s emirs, facing starvation and an ever-strengthening force outside their walls, offered to surrender despite Saladin’s assurances, conveyed via pigeon post, that provisions would arrive any day from Egypt. This independent action by the emirs, along with the flat refusal of Saladin’s army on July 5 to attack the crusader camp, was the first hint that the sultan’s grip on his forces was slackening. On July 11 the emirs accepted Richard’s terms, which included demands for the payment of two hundred thousand gold pieces, the release of fifteen hundred Christian prisoners, and the return of the true cross, which Saladin had captured after the defeat of the Christians at the Horns of Hattin (see pages 78—79). When a swimmer arrived and told Saladin the terms that he would be called upon to implement, the infuriated sultan began an answer forbidding the emirs to accept. Even as he was composing the letter, however, he saw the Christian banners being unfurled on the towers of Acre. Now he was bound to honor the accord, and Richard held twenty-seven hundred members of the garrison to ensure compliance.

After the crusaders took up residence in Acre, squabbles erupted when Richard refused to split the spoils with anyone but the French. The duke of Austria, who had taken command of Barbarossa’s depleted German forces, claimed equal status and raised his banner on one of the towers, only to have it torn down by Richard’s troops. The duke marched home in disgust, and this insult would later return to haunt Richard.

Philip, never a particularly enthusiastic crusader and resentful of Richard’s preeminence, now fell ill with a malady that would afflict him for the rest of his life, while the same scourge nearly killed Richard then and there. Philip announced that he must return immediately to France. Leaving most of his troops under the command of Duke Hugh of Burgundy, he promised not to molest Richard’s kingdom in Europe while the latter remained in the Holy Land, a promise he was reluctantly obliged to keep.5 Conrad of Montferrat, whose Christian forces from Tyre had joined the siege, wanted no part of an army now controlled by Richard. He also stormed home.

Before advancing the eighty miles south to Jerusalem, the English king had to complete negotiations with Saladin, and conditions were agreed upon. Saladin began defaulting on them, however, upon which Richard refused to release his twenty-seven hundred prisoners. Unless the accepted terms were honored, he threatened, he would execute them all. Saladin, perhaps thinking this a bluff, let the deadline for compliance pass, so Richard had the captives tied together and marched out onto the plain. There, in full view of the Muslim army, they were butchered along with their wives and children. Ambrose, Richard’s poet/balladeer (jongleur in French), in his History of the Holy War, blames this atrocity on Saladin, who by defaulting “had no regard whatsoever for those who had defended Acre for him.” Muslims, however, saw this slaughter as an infamous act that they would on no account forget, and Saladin would no longer be merciful toward Christian captives.

Through parched and spider-infested land Richard headed south, leading tens of thousands of soldiers who were signally reluctant to depart from the delights of Acre. An even grumpier duke of Burgundy brought up the rear with the equally unenthusiastic French. All the way they were harassed by Muslims, who hacked captives to pieces at any opportunity. The plan was to capture Jaffa (a borough in modern Tel Aviv) and secure that coastal city as a mustering point for the final twenty-five-mile push east to Jerusalem.

Saladin chose the Plain of Arsuf, just north of Jaffa, for his first great open battle with the crusaders since he had slaughtered them at Hattin, thereby dooming Christian Jerusalem. But Richard had been forewarned of his plan. On the morning of September 7, 1191, he arranged his army in a strategically constructed series of concentric circles. The bowmen were in the outer circle, the knights were behind them, and he and his Norman troops took the center.

The Muslims attacked in mid-morning, thirty thousand of them, according to Ambrose. First came wave after wave of lightly armed African and Bedouin foot soldiers. Hurling arrows and darts, they threw Richard’s first circle of infantry into temporary disorder but could make no impression on the heavily armed knights behind them. The infantry was followed by Turkish horsemen armed with axes and sabers. But as Saladin’s troops withdrew to muster for each new attack, Richard’s outer circle re-formed and the whole process started anew.

Richard’s strategy was to tire the enemy before ordering his knights to charge, but the knights grew impatient, begging him to let them advance. Though he insisted they hold back, finally two knights defied him and charged anyway. Richard, demonstrating his commander’s instincts, instantly rode out ahead and led the charge, thus preventing chaos. The Muslims were overwhelmed. They fled, and by evening the Christian army commanded the field. Continuing its march, it easily took Jaffa and began preparations to move on the Holy City.

What followed became the abiding mystery of the Third Crusade, for Richard the Lionheart would never capture Jerusalem. In the coming year he would twice approach it and twice turn back, once coming within five miles and gazing upon its walls and the Mount of Olives from Nebi Samwil, with tears of frustration in his eyes. For eight centuries historians have searched the record of events to find the reasons. For his first default there is some convincing explanation. In the winter of 1191 to 1192 the rains were torrential. The Templars and the Hospitallers told him that a siege in the hills of Judea would quite literally be a washout. Moreover, they advised, if Richard did capture Jerusalem, who would remain to man it? His weary troops would want to return home. Reluctantly, and to the disbelief of both the Muslims and his own Christian soldiers, Richard retreated.

That winter he busied his disconsolate men with the rebuilding of Ascalon, the port south of Jaffa that Saladin had demolished for fear that the crusaders might use it as a departure point for an attack on Egypt. During that winter and spring Richard won two celebrated battles: one to capture Darum, the southernmost coastal fortress; the other to foil, with just fifty knights, a Muslim reoccupation of Jaffa. But back in Acre the chronically warring Pisans and Genoese, the crusade suppliers, went at each other again, with the Pisans seizing the city and the Genoese and French fighting to repossess it. Richard arrived and effected a shaky truce but came away convinced of a grim reality: peace must somehow be made with Saladin.

Saladin, meanwhile, had his own problems. Having suffered two major defeats, he had become unpopular with his emirs. In bad health and weary of war, he was ready to talk terms. He even considered Richard’s bizarre proposal that Saladin’s brother al-Adil marry Richard’s sister Joanna and they jointly rule Jerusalem and Palestine. But Joanna, widow of King William of Sicily, swore she would prefer martyrdom to marrying a Muslim, while al-Adil, although entranced by the idea of a Christian queen, was not prepared to convert to Christianity. Richard suggested his virgin niece from France as an alternative, but this proposal failed to appeal because al-Adil’s heart remained set on Queen Joanna.

Richard’s difficulties grew. Back home, his younger brother John, dissatisfied with the territory assigned him by Richard, was gathering a cadre of nobles to usurp the throne. Richard was also tiring of the noisome politics of Outremer. He had appointed the hapless Guy of Lusignan as king for life of Christian Palestine, to be succeeded by Tyre’s Conrad of Montferrat, but Outremer’s council of nobles objected. They wanted Conrad as king immediately. Richard agreed and mollified Guy by selling him Cyprus, which the Lusignan line would control for the next three hundred years. As fate would have it, Conrad’s reign would be cut short when he was stabbed on the streets of Tyre by a pair of assigned killers from the Assassin sect (see sidebar, pages 76—77). So Richard made his nephew king of Jerusalem, marrying him into the bloodline of the former monarchy.

The circumstances of the Lionheart’s next approach to Jerusalem, in June of 1192, deepen much further the mystery of his second withdrawal. His troops, positioned in Beit-Nuba, were within twelve miles of the prize. Morale was high even among the duke of Burgundy’s hitherto recalcitrant French, and the crusaders had just captured a caravan from Cairo with a veritable cornucopia of supplies: three thousand horses, three thousand camels, an arsenal of weapons, and food and gold aplenty for a long siege. Moreover, the garrison within the city had been gravely weakened. Saladin had posted his main fighting force outside and planned a flank attack on the besiegers–although he later conceded that he had believed himself incapable of defeating them and had already considered Jerusalem lost.

Then, on June 24, the utterly unforeseen occurred. As his forces eagerly planned which walls they would breach and on which towers place their triumphal banners, Richard called together his commanders and gave them the news. The attack was off. They were going home. Their dismay and astonishment challenge description.

What had caused this change of heart and plan? Was it, as the derisive French would later have it, cowardice? Was it the prophecy of the crusade’s impending doom, which Richard had heard from a Cistercian abbot? Was it the perennially vexed question of who could maintain Christian Jerusalem after the crusaders departed? Was it the alarming news from his chancellor that the perfidious Philip was now attacking English lands, threatening Richard’s kingdom? Was it just Richard’s paradoxical caution when preparing for battle–a trait much at odds with his dauntless ferocity when actually fighting it?

James Reston, Jr., in his eminently readable account of the Third Crusade (Warriors of God), discerns an “element of self pity” in Richard’s own recorded explanation. The Lionheart told his grim-faced nobles, according to one chronicle, “If I should lead the host to besiege Jerusalem the way you advise and the endeavor should come to defeat, all my life long I should be blamed, even shamed and reviled. I am aware, of course, that there are people here and in France who would love to see me make such a mistake, so that they might broadcast it far and wide and bring infamy to my spotless name. But with such a doubtful result, I deem it wrong to rush rashly forward.”

In any event, he signed the five-year peace treaty with Saladin that would allow him to leave. The Christians retained all the coastal cities south to Jaffa, and both they and the Muslims gained free access through each other’s lands. Ascalon was to be demolished again. Two Latin priests and two deacons were authorized to serve at the Holy Sepulchre.

In October 1192 Richard sailed from Acre, vowing to return, but he never did. A shipwreck forced him to travel overland through Austria, where the Germans, still smarting over their rejection at Acre, arrested him, charging that he had paid the Assassins to murder Conrad. He was imprisoned for fifteen months until a large ransom was paid, then spent the next five years confounding John’s intrigues in England and Philip’s hostilities in France. Dying of a crossbow bolt wound on April 7, 1199, he was succeeded by the generally unsatisfactory John, signatory of the Magna Carta (see sidebar, page 139). Richard was “pleasant, upright, magnanimous, and excellent,” one admirer asserted, namely Saladin. He would rather have the Holy Land fall into Richard’s hands, said the great sultan, as recorded by an Arab chronicler, “than those of any other prince he had ever seen.” Saladin himself, exhausted and sick, had died on March 3, 1193.

By then the Third Crusade, too, was all but dead. Edward Noble Stone, translator of balladeer Ambrose’s versified account of it, summed it up as “heroic and useless,” but perhaps “useless” is too strong. Although wildly disproportionate to the money and manpower expended, and although it failed to recapture the Holy City, it secured a strip ten miles wide stretching ninety miles along the Mediterranean coast from Tyre to Jaffa that would remain Christian for almost all the ensuing century. It also secured Cyprus, and it ended Saladin’s career of conquest. Upon the death of the great sultan, the Muslims, respecting none of his seventeen squabbling sons, fell again into disunity.

Pope Celestine III had few illusions about the crusaders. They were driven, he declared, “not by the fear of God or any stirring of penitence. Pride and vainglory directed all their enterprise.” His successor, the astute and powerful Innocent III, had a different diagnosis. The Second and Third Crusades failed, he concluded, because kings ran them, not Rome. Had not the First succeeded without the help of kings? Innocent therefore called for a fourth, to be fought by counts and dukes under the strict control of the pope and his legates. But the Fourth Crusade was to prove infinitely the worst disaster of all. Not only would it utterly fail to penetrate Islam, it would also commit an atrocity that would embitter eastern Christians against western for centuries to come, catastrophically widening the gulf between them.

Since no kings meant no big money and the Muslims had by now closed the overland route through Anatolia (modern Turkey), major funding would be needed for sea transport. Equally inescapable would be a key role for Venice, renowned for its shipbuilding and mercantile fleet. Therefore, in 1202, ten years after Richard’s dumbfounding withdrawal from Jerusalem, the Venetian city-state was designated as a mustering point for the French and Flemish troops of the Fourth Crusade. The French were led by the massive and fiery Boniface of Montferrat, brother of the assassinated king of Jerusalem. The Flemish leader was the smaller, calmer, weaker, and much more amiable Baldwin of Flanders.

Venice, majestically known as the “Serene Republic,” was controlled by the blind and conniving old doge Enrico Dandalo.6 In his eighties but undiminished in vigor and guile, Dandalo had no demonstrable interest whatever in the crusade’s stated objective–returning Egypt to the Christian fold–or in alienating Muslim authorities there.7 Egypt was crucial to Venice’s Mediterranean trade, and the doge had promised Sultan al-Adil, who had succeeded Saladin, that he would never attack Egypt, a commitment he neglected to mention to the crusaders. Dandalo’s real objectives were to regain territory lost to the Christian Byzantines at Constantin-ople, to improve the security of Mediterranean trading routes, and to humiliate and subjugate the Eastern Empire. In the 1170s the government at Constantinople had imprisoned all Venetians in its domain and seized their goods. For this the doge sought retribution.

Gathered in Venice, the crusaders found themselves unable to pay the eighty-five thousand marks needed for passage to the Egyptian coast. Doge Dandalo offered to provide free transport, supplies, and additional troops if they would stop at the Adriatic city of Zara and take it back from the Hungarians, who were Byzantine allies. All booty would be split fifty-fifty, thus paying the passage bill. To the crusade’s secular leaders, this offer was irresistible; to the church, it was unthinkable. As titular head of the crusade Innocent had stipulated that it must never attack Christians; the Hungarians not only were Christians, they were western Christians. The crusade’s military leaders, however, regarding this as an unfortunate but unavoidable circumstance, accepted the doge’s offer, attacked Christian Zara, and, after four days of fierce fighting, seized and sacked it.

The crusade’s next ostensible objective was the Egyptian port of Damietta, in the Nile Delta, but the doge now had another idea. Why not first seize the seat of Byzantine power, seemingly imperishable Constantinople?8 Innocent, although he longed to amalgamate the two churches under Rome’s banner, could hardly countenance such an attack on the ancient Christian city. The doge, however, soon came up with a pretext. The current Byzantine emperor had gained the throne by deposing and blinding its legitimate occupant. But the daughter of the deposed emperor was married to the king of Germany, so his son fled westward to seek aid from his sister and his brother-in-law. Here, surely, was a chance to see justice done by putting the young man on his father’s throne, a service the crusaders could perform in passing.

The twenty-one-year-old pretender, designated to rule his father’s domain as Emperor Alexius IV, added an explicit and potent promise. “If God allows you to restore me to the throne,” he told the crusaders, “I will place all my empire under obedience to Rome.” Unable to stop the assault, Innocent could do nothing more than stipulate that no Christians be attacked.

Some few crusaders quit at this point, but most sailed on to Constantinople. They disliked the Byzantines anyway. Had they not deliberately betrayed and helped destroy the French contingent in the Second Crusade? (There is historical evidence for this.) Further, as Antony Bridge puts it in his 1980 book, The Crusades, the westerners tended to look upon the Byzantines with “the sort of angry scorn felt by country bumpkins for supercilious and unmanly city dwellers.”

On July 17, 1203, the Venetian armada of 450 warships, merchantmen, and transports dropped anchor outside the walls of the city considered the world’s most beautiful. Here lay much of Christendom’s accumulated learning and literature; here were its most magnificent works of art; here were the relics of countless saints, including, most people believed, the head of John the Baptist and the rod of Moses; and here, according to one contemporary chronicler, reposed three quarters of the world’s wealth. So the crusaders marveled as they sailed up Constantinople’s seven-mile-long Golden Horn, one of the finest natural harbors in the world. “The men in the ships regarded the grandeur of the city,” wrote Robert of Clari, a French soldier, “so large it was and so long, and they were dumb with amazement.”

Though trouble did not erupt immediately, the citizens failed to welcome the pretender as that young man had confidently asserted they would. The crusader leadership therefore offered the usurper, reigning as Alexius III, a choice: immediate abdication or annihilation. Alexius III complied, but court officials dragged the old blind king from his dungeon and reinstalled him as emperor, hoping the crusaders would be satisfied with this and would leave. But Boniface, the French leader, insisted that the young pretender share the throne with his father, and the Byzantines perforce acquiesced. On August 1, 1203, in the Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) he was crowned Alexius IV Angelus.

But his subjects did not take kindly to Alexius IV, nor did they appreciate the drunken Frenchmen and swaggering Venetians who camped outside their gates and made regular forays into the city to drink, whore, and assault people. The final atrocity came when crusaders burned down a mosque used by visiting Muslims and the fire spread to destroy a quarter of Constantinople. In February 1204 a general named Murzuphlus, proclaiming himself Alexius V, led a revolt. Alexius IV was deposed and strangled, and his aged father soon died of grief in the dungeon to which he was returned.

The crusaders sailed their ships to the head of the Golden Horn and began assaulting the walls, some of them from towers built on their ships. The Greeks held them off for a time, but on April 12 the walls were breached and the French and Venetians poured into the city. Doge Dandalo, who led them all, notwithstanding his blindness, took up residence in the five-hundred-room Great Palace. What followed was something that Steven Runciman, twentieth-century historian of the Crusades, calls “unparalleled in history.” Nicatus, a contemporary Byzantine chronicler who watched it all before making his escape, claimed that the Muslims would have been more merciful.

The Venetians looked after looting; the French and the Flemish took charge of destruction. Thousands were killed as drunken crusaders stormed through the narrow streets, brandishing their swords. Nuns were raped in their convents. Children were lifted by their feet and swung against walls, their heads cracking like coconuts. In Hagia Sophia, the preeminent church of eastern Christendom and still one of the seven architectural wonders of the world, soldiers tore down silk curtains, ripped silver from the sanctuary screen, and swilled down the sacramental wine. A prostitute sat on the patriarch’s throne and sang bawdy French songs.

Fabulous bronze statuary dating back to ancient Rome and Greece was melted down for its copper. What wasn’t looted or put to the furnace was destroyed by raging fires that melted the city’s renowned mosaics and enamels. Crusader Geoffrey of Villehardouin wrote in his chronicle, “More houses were burnt in these fires than are to be found in any of the three largest cities in France.”

Relics from the Holy Land, gathered during Byzantium’s nine centuries of proximity to it and three centuries of jurisdiction over it, were collected. They would be distributed among the churches of Italy, France, and England.9 A Cistercian abbot called Martin threatened to kill a Greek priest in the Church of the Pantocrator (or Almighty) unless he yielded its relics to him. Abbot Martin reportedly pranced out of the church cradling in the bulging skirt of his cassock bits and pieces of twenty-eight men and eight women saints, including, it was said, a fragment of the true cross, an entire arm of St. James, and much of an arm belonging to St. John.

“Never in Europe was a work of pillage more systematically and shamelessly carried out,” wrote the Victorian historian Edwin Pears in The Fall of Constantinople: A Story of the Fourth Crusade. “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.”

The affable and malleable Baldwin of Flanders was assigned the dubious job of emperor, and control of Byzantium’s valuable territories was divided between Dandalo and Boniface. Rebellions would roil in the captured lands. Baldwin would be killed a year later. The Byzantine Empire, which for nearly six hundred years had stood as Christendom’s great bastion against Islam, would continue to stand for another 250 before ultimately falling to the Muslim Turks, but it had been irrevocably weakened by the Fourth Crusade.

In Rome, Innocent III was at first glad to hear that Rome’s control now extended over its eastern sister–until he heard, to his horror, how this was accomplished. The atrocities committed by the crusaders were shocking enough. Worse yet, they turned an already hostile Orthodox clergy into implacable enemies of Rome.10 By the time the Ottomans finally captured a much-diminished Constantinople in 1453, a sardonic saying had gained currency: “Better the sultan’s turban that the cardinal’s hat.”11

Thus, by 1204, more than a century after their hopeful inauguration, the Crusades had become a catalog of disaster. The Turks were gaining strength in Anatolia. The Mongols were menacing both Islam and Christianity from the Asian plains. Islam reigned undisturbed and largely unchallenged in the Levant, while the Christians clung to the coast. There would be three more crusades in the thirteenth century, none of which would significantly change the status of 1204.

What did change radically was the Muslim leniency of Saladin’s rule. Slave soldiers called the Mamluks, purchased as children from the Turkish peoples north of the Black Sea and raised as vicious fighters, rebelled and took over the sultanate in Egypt. In the mid-1260s a ruthless red-haired Mamluk sultan named Baibars began an intensive campaign to exterminate the surviving Christians of Outremer. This enormous, dark-skinned Turk, notable for one blue eye and one blind white one, razed Caesarea, Beirut, and Antioch, slaughtering much of their populations and taking inordinate pleasure in beheading and mutilating nobles. He captured and enslaved so many Christian boys and girls that it was said the bottom fell out of the slave market. Baibars was a man, notes historian Runciman, “unimpeded by scruple of honor, gratitude or mercy.”

In 1277 Baibars accidentally drank some poisoned koumiss (mare’s milk liquor) intended for an enemy and died. His thoroughgoing policy of Christian extermination was taken up by his successors, however, who sacked and razed Tripoli in 1289, leaving Acre as the last major Christian fortress in what had been Christian Outremer. On April 5, 1291, the Mamluk sultan al-Ashraf and a great army of Egyptians and Syrians–Arab chroniclers claim a quarter million–surrounded the forty thousand men, women, and children then inhabiting the city Richard had taken a hundred years earlier. This time the Muslims had big siege engines, including a new kind of mangonel that catapulted clay pots of gunpowder, which exploded on impact. The defenders held out for just over a month, during which time Christian subjects of King Henry of Cyprus were able to evacuate some of the women and children to that island in their supply ships.

In mid-May the Accursed Tower was breached and Muslim soldiers poured in, slaughtering everyone they found on the street. Comely women and girls in the hundreds disappeared into the harems of Mamluk emirs. The price of child slaves dropped to its lowest level ever: one dirham each. By May 18, 1291, al-Ashraf controlled the city and set about its systematic destruction; never again would Acre be a beachhead for crusades against Islam. The remaining Christian cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Haifa, along with three Templar castles, were quickly accorded the same treatment, and al-Ashraf burned the orchards and poisoned the soil all along the coast to discourage further Christian incursions. Crusades against the Holy Land, for all intents and purposes, were over.12

Viewed seven hundred years later, the Crusades are a self-evident failure. Their aim was the Christian recovery of the Holy Land, and it didn’t happen. There was another irony as well. In the first call to arms in 1095, Pope Urban II had spoken of “a barbarous people, estranged from God” that threatened the empire of eastern Christendom, desecrated churches, raped women, and mutilated their victims. The crusaders themselves, in many cases, turned out to be just as bad and sometimes worse. The eastern and western churches were split asunder. Between one and two million people (estimates vary wildly) were killed in the fighting or by accompanying disease.

“Seen in the perspective of history,” Runciman concludes, “the whole crusading movement was a vast fiasco.” As a military venture they unarguably were a catastrophe. When they began, the Muslims were barely beyond Syria. A century after Acre fell, the Muslim Ottoman Turks would be on the Danube. Others, however, hold that the Crusades, by checking the advance of the Seljuk Turks, at least postponed by a century or two Islam’s invasion of eastern Europe. One lesson seemed conclusive: Christians must resist Islam by force of arms when necessary, but by force of arms they will never conquer it. That’s a job for missionaries, not soldiers, and they will have to be very dedicated missionaries indeed.

This is the end of the Third Crusade category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 116, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Third Crusade from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at