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Crusaders capture Constantinople

La Conquête de Constantinople by Geoffroi de Villehardouin, c 1330. Source: Bodleian Library. MS. Laud Misc. 587

This Day in World History

April 12, 1204

Crusaders Capture Constantinople

On April 12, 1204, French and Italian Crusaders breached the walls of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire and one of the richest cities in the world. Their capture of this rich prize launched one of the most destructive sacks of a city in history. But why did Crusaders who set off to win control of the Holy Land from Muslims attack the chief city of the Eastern Orthodox Church?

The Crusade had been planned in 1201 with high hopes. Crusaders would pay 85,000 silver marks to Venice to carry more than 33,000 fighters to the Holy Land and maintain them for a year. Grand plans foundered on reality. By 1202, the Crusaders had fewer men than they hoped and less money than Venice demanded. Venice’s Doge suggested that the Crusaders capture the city of Zara, in modern Croatia. Though it was a Christian city, they overcame their scruples and conquered Zara, gaining wealth to partly satisfy the Doge.

Then a claimant to the Byzantine throne appeared and promised the Crusaders vast wealth if they helped him gain the throne. Some Crusaders refused to fight fellow Christians, but enough consented to mount a campaign against Constantinople. They gained some success and the cowardly Emperor Alexius III fled, allowing the claimant to be crowned emperor.

A year later, though, relations between the Crusaders and the Byzantines had deteriorated. The new emperor had been murdered, and the man who took over — Murtzuphlus — determined to fight the westerners. Camped outside the city walls, running short of supplies, and harassed by Byzantine forces, the Crusaders attacked.

The first assault failed to gain the city, but the attack on April 12 succeeded. What followed was the thorough destruction of “the queen of cities.” Much of the city burned, and the rest was sacked for three days, as the French and Venetians took anything of value. A Byzantine chronicler lamented “Oh, immortal God, how great the afflictions of the men, how great the distress!”

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