Why Did the Fourth Crusade Sack a Christian City?

History Hit

2 mins

10 Nov 2015

In 1202, the Fourth Crusade took an unexpected turn when it attacked the city of Zara. The Crusaders plundered the city, raping and pillaging the Christian inhabitants.

The Pope calls for a new Crusade

In 1198, Pope Innocent III called for a new crusade to retake Jerusalem. Despite the failure of the Third Crusade just six years earlier, the Pope’s call was nevertheless answered by an army of 35,000 men within two years.

Many of these men came from Venice. Innocent persuaded the Venetians to grant him the use of their ships to transport his crusade, in return for payment.

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Paying the Venetians

Payment for these ships was supposed to come from the eager and pious crusaders but by 1202 it was clear this money couldn’t be raised.

The solution came in the form of the city of Zara, which had revolted against Venetian rule in 1183 and declared itself part of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Despite the King of Hungary being among those who agreed to join the Crusade, the Venetians instructed the crusaders to storm the city.

The Doge (magistrate) of Venice preaching the Fourth Crusade

A shocking turn of events

After some perfunctory protests, the crusaders shocked the Pope and the world by agreeing to go ahead. Pope Innocent wrote a series of letters castigating this decision, but the men who had signed up for his crusade were now intent on ignoring him. Zara promised plunder, wealth and reward after months of travelling and waiting idly in Venice.

As the reality of what they were about to do sank in, some crusaders – like Simon de Montfort (father of the founder of English parliament) – were suddenly struck by the enormity of it and refused to take part.

That didn’t stop the bulk of the force. Not even the defenders draping Christian crosses on the walls of the city could save them. The siege began on 9 October. Great siege engines poured missiles into the city and most of the inhabitants fled while they had the chance to nearby islands.

An army excommunicated

The city was sacked, burned and looted. Pope Innocent was appalled and took the unprecedented step of excommunicating the entire army.

The Fourth Crusade attacks Constantinople in this painting by Palma Le Jeune

It was an extraordinary episode. But the Fourth Crusade wasn’t done yet. It ended with the capture and sacking of another Christian city – Constantinople. In fact, the men of the Fourth Crusade never reached anywhere near Jerusalem.

In 2004, the Papacy issued an apology for the actions of the Fourth Crusade.

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