The Story of the Latin Empire of Constantinople
BYRON: Childe Harold.
A LTHOUGH the usurper had fled, the position of the Emperor Isaac, and that of his son Alexios, the virtual ruler, was by no means serene. Money had to be raised in order to pay the sum promised to the Crusaders, and the taxes levied in consequence did not endear them to the Turks. They had good reason to distrust the loyalty of their subjects, and to dread what might happen if the Crusaders withdrew from the neighbourhood of the city.
So the young prince Alexios, betook himself to the camp and in his father's name used his utmost powers of persuasion to induce the chieftains to remain.
"You have restored to me life, honour and empire," said he " I ought to desire but one thing more, the power to fulfil my promises. But if you abandon me now and proceed to Syria, it is impossible that I should furnish you with either the money, troops or vessels that I have promised. The people of Constantinople have received me with many demonstrations of joy, but they love me not the more for that. I am hated by them because you have restored to me my heritage. If you forsake me, my life or throne would probably fall a sacrifice to my enemies. I implore you, therefore, to defer your departure until the March of next year, and I will promise in return not only to provide your army with all necessary supplies till Easter, but also to engage the Venetians to support you with their fleet till Michaelmas."
The usual division of opinion followed, but the supporters of the Emperor had their way, and the latter showed his gratitude by paying large sums of money to his allies, money that had to be raised by heavy taxes or by selling the treasures stored in the churches. This measure did more than anything else to inflame the Greeks against the Crusaders, for it lent colour to a report that had got about, to the effect that the ancient religion of the Greek Catholics was about to be altered in many ways, and brought into line with that of the Church of Rome.
It was while the young Alexios was absent on a kind of triumphal march through his father's dominions that the suppressed fury of the citizens was kindled into a blaze by the rude behaviour of a handful of the Crusaders.
There was a mosque at Constantinople, which had been built at the request of Saladin for the use of the followers of Islam. From this the worshippers were one day emerging when a band of half intoxicated Flemings and Venetians endeavoured to insult them by forcing an entry. The Mohammedans protected their building with all their energy, and their opponents promptly set it on fire. The fire spread to the neighbouring buildings, and the quarrel, at first a mere street-fight, grew fast and furious.
"No man could put out or abate that fire," says Geoffrey, " it waxed so great and horrible. And when the barons of the host, who were quartered on the other side of the fort, saw this, they were sore grieved and filled with pity-seeing the great churches and the rich palaces melting and falling in, and the great streets filled with merchandise burning in the flames; but they could do nothing."
For two days and two nights the fire lasted, and so strong was the feeling of the city that all Latin settlers there fled with their goods and took refuge in the Crusaders' camp. Again and again the fire broke out, until from east to west its track could be marked out by one unbroken line of destruction and desolation. From the height where their camp was pitched, the Crusaders could but watch the terrible scene with dismay, knowing, as they did, that their men had been its cause.
The return of Alexios did not mend matters. A silence as of death reigned in the blackened streets; looks of hatred met him wherever the people were to be accosted. Moreover, the fact that he had by no means fulfilled his promises of payment to the host led to deep distrust of him in that quarter. Envoys were sent to demand that the Emperor should keep his pledged word, and their speech to him ended with these significant words.
"'Should you do so, it shall be well. If not, be it known to you that from this day forth, they will not hold you as lord or friend, but will endeavour to obtain their due by all the means in their power. And of this they now give you warning, seeing that they would not injure you, nor any one, without first defiance given; for never have they acted treacherously, nor in their land is it customary to do so.'"
There was but one answer to this defiance, seeing that the Emperor could not pay even if he would. He knew too well that he and his son had forfeited even the natural respect due to their position; Isaac, because he was a mere figure-head completely in the hands of Alexios, the real Emperor in all but name; and the latter because of the want of dignity he had shown even in his most friendly days, when on visiting the camp, he had permitted the rough Venetian sailors to snatch off his jewelled circlet and to force upon his head one of the dirty linen caps worn by themselves.
Just at this time, too, the young prince was very much under the influence of a certain "Mourzoufle," or "He of the black eyebrows," as the nickname implies. This man, having laid his own plans in secret, strongly advised Alexios to defy the Crusaders; and so the war began with an unexpected piece of trickery on the part of the Greeks.
"They took seven large ships and filled them full of big logs, and shavings and tow and resin and barrels, and then waited until such time as the wind should blow strongly from their side of the straits. And, one night, at midnight, they set fire to the ships, and unfurled their sails to the wind. And the flames blazed up high, so that it seemed as if the whole world were afire. Thus did the burning ships come towards the fleet of the pilgrims and a great cry arose in the host, and all sprang to arms on every side. It seemed as though every ship in the harbour would fall a victim to this device, but the Venetians did good service on that day, turning the burning boats out of the harbour with such skill that only one ship was utterly destroyed."
From the walls of Constantinople the Greeks had watched what they hoped would be a heavy blow to the Crusaders, who, bereft of their fleet, would not be able to get away either by land or sea. Great was their dismay when they perceived that the main effect was to rouse the pilgrims to take a desperate revenge upon them for their dastardly deeds.
Now came forward the crafty Mourzoufle, and, whilst pretending to act as go-between for Isaac and the French barons, secretly stirred up a revolution in the city against the Emperor.
Just as he had succeeded in convincing Alexios that it was unsafe for him to have anything to do with the Crusaders, a tumult broke out in the city. Crowding into the great church of St Sophia, a reckless mob pronounced that Isaac and Alexios were deposed, and elected an unknown and feeble-minded youth, named Canabus, in their place.
When Alexios heard of this, he shut himself up within the royal palace and sent messengers to Boniface, Marquis of Montferrat imploring his help. But while the Marquis was generously hastening to protect him, Mourzoufle was before him, and was whispering in the ear of the young man that the appearance of Boniface meant that the Latins had seized Constantinople for their own. His allies were busy spreading a report of the assault of the city by the Crusaders, and when Montferrat thundered at the gates of the palace, he was not only refused admittance but found himself in a position of the greatest danger from the fury of the people who thronged the streets.
While he was fighting his way through these, the terrified Alexios, had put himself into the hands of Mourzoufle, who promised to lead him to a place of safety. This turned out to be a dungeon, from which the unfortunate young prince was never again to emerge alive.
Regardless of the election of poor wretched Canabus, Mourzoufle now appealed to the people to state their will, saying that until they made this known he was holding captive an Emperor whose plans were not to be trusted. A great shout from the fickle Greeks proclaimed " He of the Black Brows," as their new choice, and he was forthwith carried to St Sophia and crowned as Emperor.
"When the Emperor Isaac heard that his son was taken and Mourzoufle crowned, great fear came upon him, and he fell into a sickness that lasted no long time. So he died. And the Emperor Mourzoufle caused the son, whom he had in prison to be poisoned two or three times; but it did not please God that he should thus die. Afterwards the Emperor went and strangled him, and when he had strangled him, he caused it to be reported everywhere that he had died a natural death, and had him mourned for and buried honourably as an Emperor, and made great show of grief."
"But," as Geoffrey further remarks, "murder cannot be hid, and this deed of the Black-Browed only hastened on the attack which the Crusaders were about to make upon the city."
The aim of this second siege of Constantinople was not merely to punish the murder of the Emperor. The Crusaders had resolved that, from henceforth, no Greek, but a Latin sovereign should rule the Eastern Empire, to be elected by an equal number of French and Venetians acting as a committee.
One of the most interesting incidents of the siege is told us by another chronicler, Robert of Clari. He tells us that a small troop of besiegers had come to a postern door in the city walls which had been newly bricked up. Amongst them was a clerk named Aleaume of Clari, who had done more deeds of prowess than any man in the host, "save only the Lord Peter of Bracuel."
"So when they came to the postern they began to hew and pick at it very hardily; but the bolts flew at them so thick, and so many stones were hurled at them from the wall, that it seemed as if they would be buried beneath the stones. And those who were below held up targets and shields to cover them that were picking and hewing underneath; and those above threw down pots of boiling pitch and fire and large rocks, so that it was one of God's miracles that the assailants were not utterly confounded; for my Lord Peter and his men suffered more than enough of blows and grievous danger. However, so did they hack at the postern that they made a great hole therein, whereupon they all swarmed to the opening, but saw so many people above and below, that it seemed as if half the world were there, and they dared not be so bold as to enter.
"Now when Aleaume, the clerk, saw that no man dared to go in; he sprang forward and said that go in he would. And there was present a knight, a brother to the clerk (his name was Robert), who forbade him and said he should not go in. And the clerk said he would, and scrambled in on his hands and feet. And when the knight saw this he took hold of him by the foot and began to drag him back. But in spite of this, the clerk went in. And when he was within, many of the Greeks ran upon him and those on the wall cast big stones on him; and the clerk drew his knife and ran at them; and he drove them before him as though they had been cattle, and cried to those outside, to the Lord Peter and his folk, 'Sire, come in boldly, I see that they are falling back discomfited and flying.' When my Lord Peter heard this they entered in, and there was with him about ten knights and some sixty foot soldiers, and when those on the wall saw them they fled helter-skelter.
"Now the Emperor Mourzoufle, the traitor, was near by, and he caused the silver horns to be sounded, and the cymbals, and a great noise to be made. And when he saw my Lord Peter and his men, all on foot, he made a great show of falling upon them, and spurring forward, came about half-way to where they stood. But my Lord Peter, when he saw him coming, began to encourage his people and to say, 'Now, Lord God, grant that we may do well, and the battle shall be ours. Let no one dare to think of retreat, but each bethink himself to do well.' Then Mourzoufle, seeing that they would in no wise give way, stayed where he was and then turned back to his tents."
One likes to dwell upon such brave tales as this, that one may the longer defer the miserable sequel of this success.
The city was taken on the Monday of the Holy Week of 1204, when Mourzoufle had shut himself within his palace as a preliminary to flight at the first opportunity.
On the Tuesday, when he had fled from the Golden Gate, the Crusaders occupied the whole city" for they found none to oppose them." The bishops and clergy who were with the host had strictly charged the soldiers to respect the churches of the city, as well as the monks and nuns of the religious houses, but they had spoken in vain.
The taking of the city was disgraced by the most terrible scenes of violence, cruelty, and sacrilege. The
beautiful church of St Sophia was defiled by drunken wretches, who drained the sacred vessels from the altar, and sang low songs where only the stately psalms and hymns of the Eastern Church had been heard. Not one sacred building was spared, but rifled of its treasures; its costly lace and beautiful carving was left bare and desolate, too often stained with the blood of the slain. No wonder that the Greeks regarded with utter horror the behaviour of their fellow Christians, who had once been so eager to urge the union of the Churches of East and West. Well might the pope exclaim, when he heard of the horrible excesses, "How shall the Greek Church return to unity and to respect for the Bishop of Rome, when they have seen in the Latins only examples of wickedness and works of darkness, for which they might justly loathe them, worse than dogs?"
Nor were the churches the only objects of the spoilers. Some of the beautiful statues, the work of Greek sculptors in the best days of the art of Greece, were smashed to atoms by the rough soldiers; others, of bronze, were ruthlessly melted down into money.
Many of the inhabitants of the city fled, amongst whom was the Patriarch, or Archbishop, who had scarcely time to clothe himself, and was without food or money. The misery and humiliation of the proud city of Constantine were completed when Baldwin, Count of Flanders, a brave young baron, but utterly out of sympathy with Greek ideas, was crowned Emperor.
The story of the Latin empire of Constantinople scarcely belongs to that of the Crusades. It lasted for fifty-seven years (1204-1261), and was marked by the constant unrest and revolution of one part of the empire or another. Thus it never became firmly settled, for the Latin Emperor had no real power in the land. A short time after his election, most of the Crusaders returned to their own homes. Two years after the taking of the city, both Boniface of Montferrat, leader of the expedition, and the brave old Dandolo, Doge of Venice, died. The latter may perhaps be blamed as being the means of turning aside the Crusaders from their original undertaking, the relief of the Holy Land; but the real blame lies with those who broke their promise to share in the expenses of the expedition and thus forced the host to do as Dandolo required of them.
What then had become of those faithless remnants of the Fifth Crusade? Their story is soon told.
One small army reached Palestine and strove to join Bohemond of Antioch, a descendant of the famous Crusader. Falling into an ambush of the Saracens, the whole of the force was massacred or taken prisoner, with the exception of a single knight. Another section of the Crusaders actually reached Antioch and became absorbed in the quarrels between Bohemond and the Christian prince of Armenia. Not a blow was struck for the deliverance of Jerusalem, and nothing was gained by the Crusade as far as the Holy War was concerned.
On the other hand, the Fifth Crusade has an importance all its own; for the capture of Constantinople opened a door to the East that had been closed too long. Not only did it sow the seeds of that commercial prosperity which made Venice "hold the gorgeous East in fee, and be the safeguard of the West," but it enabled Western Europe to catch a glimpse of that wealth of art and literature which were stored within the city walls, and which were not to be spread broadcast over the land until the days of her fall into the hands of Islam.