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Alfred J. Church

Of What Befell at Constantinople

I have seen many strange things in these wars, but nothing stranger than that which I am about to relate. (It befell, I should say, some eleven years after the matters above related.) Some cause, which it boots not to relate, had constrained me to make a journey farther to the west than I had ever gone before in all my wanderings, namely to a city which is named Venice, situate on the Adriatic Sea. 'Tis a strange place, built in the very midst of the sea, where the streets are of water, and where men move to and fro on boats rather than by help of horses and chariots. But it is a wealthy place, none wealthier, I take it, in the whole world, for the merchandise of many lands is both sold and bought there, and not without much profit to them that deal with it. Not Tyre herself, in the days of her prosperity, was to be preferred to this same city of Venice. Her merchants were, indeed, among the great ones of the earth. Having come therefore to this place on an errand of commerce, for so much I may say, I was a witness to the things of which I am about to tell. There came six envoys from the land of France, who brought this message from the King and the nobles of that land: "We have bound ourselves by an oath to do all that in us lies to win back from the infidels the Holy Sepulchre of the Lord Christ. For it, having been won by Godfrey of holy memory, was lost now some fifteen years since, nor have they that have essayed to bring it back under the dominion of Christian folk been able so to do. Now we, having gathered together a host of men vowed to this service, do beseech your help in the same; and the help which we would fain have from you is this, that you carry us across the sea in ships. The journey by land is long and perilous, across deserts and over mountains, and they that have gone before have suffered much damage therefrom, which damage we shall escape if only you will hearken to our prayer."

To this request the rulers of Venice, after no little deliberation and bargaining, agreed. And the conditions were these. That the army should be gathered together at Venice by midsummer in the year next to come, that the city of Venice should provide ships in which four thousand five hundred knights with such horses as they needed and thirty thousand foot soldiers might be carried to the land of Palestine, and that provision of food for so many horses and men should be made for the space of nine months; and that, on the other hand, the leaders of the army should pay for this same service of transport and food fourscore and five thousand marks of silver, and furthermore that all cities and countries whatsoever that should be conquered by the same army should be divided into two equal parts of which the Crusaders should have the one and the said city the other.

The price was, of a truth, high; but the princes could not choose but accept them. And so the covenant was made; but it was never executed, and this for lack of money. The city of Venice, indeed, performed its part without defect or stint; so great a provision of ships and food was never made; but the Crusaders had not wherewithal to pay. The chiefs and nobles had spent much on their preparations of arms and engines of war and horses and the like, and the common men loved rather to receive wages for their service than to pay. So, when they had gathered all that they had, whether of money or of vessels of gold and silver—and these the possessors gave without stint—it was found that there wanted yet more than thirty thousand marks. Thereupon the chief magistrate of Venice said to the leaders: "There are certain cities in Hadria which have cast off their obedience; help us now to subdue them, and we will do this service of transport for you without delay. Part of the price we will excuse, and part we leave to another day, when you, having succeeded in your enterprise, shall have gained wherewithal to pay."

The thing pleased not the chiefs altogether. They had leagued together to make war against the infidel, and now they were to meddle in a private quarrel and turn their arms against Christian folk. But what should they do? For now they could neither go backwards nor forwards. These things being so, they accepted, not a little against their will, these conditions. Nor, indeed, had this been all, had there been much harm. The men of Venice were content with the conquest of one city; nor did this delay the army more than some five days or so. But that which came after was altogether without excuse.

A certain Alexius had been driven from the throne of New Rome by a kinsman, he and his father together with him. This man, having made interest with the chief lord of Venice and with the leaders of the Crusaders, came forward and spoke to this purpose, "I would not deny that the Emperors of New Rome have not rendered such help and service as it was their duty to render to those who have aforetime sought to recover the Holy City from the infidel. They have looked too much to their own interest and have sought too much their own gain. Nor do I doubt that but for this hindrance these enterprises had fared more prosperously than we know them to have done. Let us therefore take counsel together how these things may be better ordered for the future. If you, for your part, will drive out the man who has wrongfully taken to himself the Empire of New Rome and will set me on the throne of my father, then I, for my part, will do all that shall in me lie to set forward your enterprise. For first I will pay you, so soon as I shall have been restored to my kingdom, two hundred thousand marks of silver; also for the year next following I will furnish equipment and wages for ten thousand men, and, for so long as I shall live, the same for five hundred knights. So much I promise for the present time; and for the future this, that the city of New Rome shall always be for an ally and helper both in the making of your conquests and in the maintaining of the same. And furthermore I promise this also, that both I and my people will render spiritual obedience to the Bishop of Rome, a thing which, to our great loss, we have refused in time past."

The chief ruler of Venice was earnest with the Crusaders that they should hearken to the Prince. "For," said he, "this man, being set by you on the throne that is his by right, will do you such service as can be done by none else." But whether, in so speaking, he looked to the cause of the Crusaders or to the interests of his own city, is more than I can say.

There was no little debate, and, I may say, dissension among the Crusaders on this matter. Some, and these, for the most part, of the more honourable kind, were firmly set against this plan. "Who are we," said they, "that we should be judges and dividers between these people, that we should adjudge the kingdom to this man or that? We have bound ourselves by an oath to make war against the unbeliever; shall we be turned aside by gold and silver to bear arms against Christian folk? We may not do it; no, not though we should so attain the end of our enterprise." Some turned back, and would go no farther; and these had the countenance of the Bishop of Rome; others went, indeed, but bore a great grudge in their hearts against them who had devised this matter. But the counsel pleased the greater part. Some, I doubt not, honestly believed in their hearts that such service was well pleasing to God; to many it seemed but of the smallest moment in what cause and for what end they waged war, so that they had so much of pay and plunder as they desired.

There is no need to tell all that befell when the Latins—who shall call them Crusaders when they had so turned aside from their purpose?—came before the city. I will briefly relate the sum and substance of the matter. First, then, the Latins laid siege to the city, and made some way towards the taking of it, burning the fleet and making a breach in the walls; thereupon the usurper fled secretly by night, taking with him neither wife nor child, but only so much treasure of gold as he could carry. Then the nobles and chief men of the city, going to the prison where the lawful emperor was shut up, made obeisance to him and set him on the throne. This done, they sent messengers to Prince Alexius, his son, who was in the camp of the Latins, saying, "He that had unlawfully taken the kingdom is departed; your father bids you come that he may have your help and counsel." Then the prince said to the chiefs of the besiegers, "Hold your hands awhile; in the space of a few hours I shall be lord of this city, and I will pay you all that is your due." And this they did, but the event was far other than he and they looked for. For when the prince, who, it should be said, reigned together in the kingdom with his father, bestirred him to fulfill that which he had promised, taking the money that was in the treasury, aye, and the gifts and ornaments from the churches, there was great murmuring among the people. After not many days there was rebellion, and both the prince and his father perished; and yet another usurper was set upon the throne. Thereafter there was a siege for three months and more; but the Greeks are not men of war; they live too softly; and when the engines of the Latins had made a breach in the walls, they dared not stand in the gap. I do declare that there was not a city taken from the Turks that cost their adversaries less than New Rome cost the army of the Latins that day. It must be said that of bloodshed there was little after the taking of the city, but of plundering much. Never, I take it, did army spoil so wealthy a city. The common stock which was divided was no less than five hundred thousand marks of silver, over and above that which men took secretly for themselves. Nor was there treasure of gold and silver only; there was great store of jewels and silks and gold. The very churches were not spared by these plunderers. Because the Greeks own not the same obedience as the Latins, these showed them as little reverence as if they had been heathen. Verily it was an evil day when the army turned aside from its lawful errand to make war upon Christian folk. It was borne in upon me that never after this should the cause prosper.

The Latins chose for their emperor one Baldwin, Count of Flanders, but he reigned for a year only. Nor did his kingdom prosper; it was founded in unrighteousness, and prospered according to its deserts. For some fifty-and-seven years it endured, growing still more and more feeble, and the end of it was a shame and a disgrace, for the city was taken by some few score of men.