Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The Crusades: The Latin Empire of Constantinople

The second Crusade set out about fifty years after the first. Since Urban had preached the first enthusiasm for the Holy War had spread so that even sovereign rulers had become infected by it, and now Louis VII, king of France, and Conrad III, emperor of Germany, became the leaders of the new venture. But this Crusade accomplished nothing.

The Third Crusade

The third Crusade was called forth by the recapture of both Acre and Jerusalem by the Turks. This time three kings led the armies, Richard Cur de Lion, king of England; Philip II, king of France; and Frederick Red Beard, or Barbarossa, emperor of Germany. Frederick, however, died long before he reached the Holy Land. Philip and Richard went on, and after a siege of nearly two years, they recovered possession of Acre. Then Philip and Richard quarrelled, and Philip went home. Richard lingered on in Palestine, but he could not regain possession of Jerusalem, and at length, after signing a truce of three years with the Sultan, he, too, returned home.

Fourth Crusade

The fourth Crusade had far more effect on Europe than on Palestine. For instead of going to Jerusalem the Crusaders turned aside and took Constantinople.

Isaac II, a weak and degenerate emperor, had been deposed and blinded by his brother Alexius, who caused himself to he crowned as Alexius III. But Isaac's son, a boy of twelve, also named Alexius, escaped from Constantinople, fled to Italy, and there and in other European states begged for help against the usurper. He received it at last from the Crusaders gathered to fight for the city of God.

These Crusaders had already turned from their first purpose, and had helped the Venetians to recover the City of Zara which had revolted from the Republic of Venice, and placed itself under the protection of the king of Hungary. They had done this, too, in spite of the thunders of the pope, who forbade them to touch the city. For the king of Hungary had taken the cross, "and he who attacked a city belonging to him made himself an enemy of the Church," said the pope.

By the time Zara was taken it was too late in the year to go on to Palestine, so the Crusaders passed the winter there. And here came young Alexius to entreat their aid. In return he promised to pay a large sum of money, and in his own and his father's name, swore to put an end to the division between the Greek and the Roman Church, and bring the whole Eastern Empire under the sway of the pope. That, surely, thought the Crusaders, would be a righteous deed, and in spite of some opposition among their ranks, they promised Alexius the help he craved.

The Crusaders attack Constantinople

So in April 1203 the Crusaders set sail. A great company of Venetians joined them also, and Constantinople was attacked both by land and sea, and the great city which had so often withstood the onslaught of heathen and infidel, fell before the host of Christian brigands. Alexius fled, the feeble and now blind emperor Isaac was restored to the throne with his son Alexius IV as co-emperor.

But two such emperors, one blind and decrepit, the other young and utterly frivolous, were ill-fitted to rule the Empire in troublous times. When Alexius tried to fulfil his promise, to bring the Empire under the sway of the pope the people rose in rebellion. During the turmoil the old emperor Isaac died, and Alexius also was slain, his reign having lasted only six months.

A new emperor, Alexius V, was placed upon the throne, but the Crusaders took up arms against him. Constantinople was sacked and burned, and Alexius V fled for his life. Then from among their own number the Crusaders chose another emperor, Baldwin, Count of Flanders.

In the Eastern Empire the feudal system was unknown. The emperors might be despotic or corrupt, but at least their subjects had not to fear the rapine of their fellow-subjects. Now its Latin conquerors endeavoured to introduce the feudal system. The Empire was parcelled out among them, and the emperor became merely a feudal chieftain. The Greek clergy were driven from their churches, and a host of priests and monks were imported from Rome in order to convert the people. For, although the Greeks were Christians, because they did not acknowledge the pope as head of the Church, they seemed to the narrow-minded Crusaders to be infidels, almost as much as the Mohammedans, and in sore need of conversion.

But the task of turning the Eastern Empire into a feudal state, and the Greek Church into an obedient daughter of Rome, proved a task too great for the Latins. There was no sympathy between the rulers and the ruled. The Greeks were worn out and effete, but their learning and culture were far beyond that of their western conquerors. Their ideas of civilization were altogether different. Yet for fifty-seven years the Latin Empire struggled on. Then one day, with a mere handful of soldiers, a Greek general surprised and took Constantinople. The Frankish emperor, Baldwin II, fled away, a Greek emperor (Michael VIII) was once more proclaimed, and the Latin domination of the Eastern Empire came to an end.

Fifth Crusade

The only Crusade after the third which brought any relief to pilgrims to the Holy Land was the fifth. That, strange to say, was followed, not by the pope's blessing but by his curse. For Frederick II, emperor of Germany, who led it, was under the ban of the Church when he set out. That an excommunicated man should dare to fight for the Lord's Tomb seemed a mockery and an insult, a cause not for rejoicing but for sorrow and anger. Yet Frederick succeeded where others had failed. He fought little, but by diplomacy he won a ten years' truce from the sultan, and also the assurance of a safe passage for pilgrims through Palestine to the Holy Places.

Other Crusades followed but they did little for the cause. The passionate enthusiasm which had made the first possible died down. One by one every town which the Crusaders had conquered was again taken from them by the Mohammedans until only Acre was left. At length that, too, fell before the Turks, and in 1291 the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem came to an end.