Story of the Crusades - E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

The Forsaking of the High Enterprise

'Tis Greece, but living Greece no more.

BYRON: Childe Harold.

The Siege of Zara affords one more example of the fatal disunion which was always appearing among the ranks of the Crusaders.

From the first, the Abbot de Vaux, who had to some extent taken the place of the priest Fulk (now gone to his rest), had protested against warring upon the King of Hungary, who was himself a Crusader. The Pope sent urgent messages forbidding the whole enterprise; and when he found that the Venetians paid no heed to this prohibition, the Marquis of Montferrat, leader of the host, found convenient business which would for some time detain him from leading the host against his fellow- Christians.

Even when the Crusaders assembled before the city walls, there were plenty of traitors in the camp only too ready to work mischief. When the people of Zara, utterly dismayed at the sight of the great host before their walls, sent messengers to the Doge, offering to yield up city and goods, if only their lives were spared, the latter replied, quite rightly, that he must first get the consent of the counts and barons of the Crusading pilgrims before he could accept any conditions.

But while the Doge tried to obtain this consent, some of the discontented and disloyal members were busy talking to the envoys. "Why should you surrender your city? The pilgrims will not attack you-have no fear of them. If you can defend yourselves against the Venetians, you will be safe enough." One of them even went upon the walls of the city and made a similar declaration to the citizens.

Consequently the envoys returned to those who sent them, and the negotiations were broken off.

Meantime the Doge and the barons had promptly decided to accept the conditions offered, and were returning to make this known in public, when the Abbot de Vaux confronted the council with—"Lords, I forbid you on the part of the Pope of Rome to attack this city; for those within it are Christians and you are pilgrims," and then informed the Doge that the envoys had departed.

Great was the wrath of Dandolo, as he declared to the counts and barons, "Signors, I had this city, by their own agreement, at my mercy, and your people have broken that agreement; you have covenanted to help me to conquer it, and I summon you to do so."

"Now are we ashamed if we do not help to take the city," was the verdict of the Crusaders when the matter had been discussed, and they came to the Doge and said

"Sire, we will help you to take the city in despite of those who would let and hinder us."

It was a sorry business altogether, that siege of Zara, and though we may sympathise with their reluctance to attack their fellow-Christians with the arms destined for the fall of Islam, we must remember the solemn undertaking given to the Doge in payment of a just debt. Fortunately the siege lasted but five days, when the citizens, finding their position hopeless, surrendered the city on condition that their lives were spared. With great generosity the Doge divided the town into two parts, and handed one over to the French for winter quarters. The Venetians settled on the other, for it was impossible to return before Easter.

Scarcely had they been lodged there three days when "there began a fray, exceeding fell and fierce, between the Venetians and the Franks . . . and the fray was so fierce that there were but few streets in which battle did not rage with swords and lances and cross-bows and darts; and many people were killed and wounded."

Perhaps this incident served to convince the leaders of the difficulty of inducing the quarrelsome soldiers of two nations to sit down together in peace for any considerable period, and to induce them to look with more favour upon their next visitors. These were the envoys of King Philip of Germany and the young Alexios, who came, bringing this message to the Crusaders and the Doge:

"Lords," said King Philip, "I will send you the brother of my wife, and I commit him into the hands of God-may He keep him from death-and into your hands. And because you have fared forth for God, and for right, and for justice, therefore are you bound, in so far as you are able, to restore to their own inheritance those who have been unrighteously despoiled. And my wife's brother will make with you the best terms ever offered to any people, and give you the most puissant help for the recovery of the land oversea."

This proposal was the occasion of much debate. The Abbot de Vaux was all for the dispersal of the host, or an immediate advance upon Palestine. The other side pointed out that they would not be able to do anything, disunited as they were, if they went to Palestine, and that it was only" by way of Babylon or of Greece, that the land oversea could actually be recovered."

"If we reject this covenant," they urged, "we shall be shamed to all time."

So the treaty with Alexios was accepted, even by the Marquis of Montferrat, who had at first held aloof in deference to the wishes of the Pope. Innocent himself did all in his power to break down their resolve, hurling the bolt of excommunication upon the Venetians, and warning the Crusaders that the Empire of Constantinople was under his special protection. But Dandolo remained unmoved, and the Crusading chiefs, influenced by the desire for the rich booty of Constantinople, were all on his side save Simon de Montfort, who betook himself, with his men, and several of his colleagues, forthwith to the Court of Hungary. It was pointed out to the Pope that the fall of Constantinople would bring back the Eastern Church within the fold of the Western Church, and the threats of Innocent grew fainter and fainter as preparation for the attack went on apace, and the young prince Alexios himself joined the host at Zara.

So, on the Eve of Pentecost, 1203, "there were all the ships assembled, and all the transports, and all the galleys of the host, and many other ships of merchants that fared with them. And the day was fine and clear, and the wind soft and favourable, and they unfurled all their sails to the breeze.

"And Geoffrey, the Marshal of Champagne, who dictates this work, and has never lied therein by one word to his knowledge, and who was, moreover, present at all the councils held-he bears witness that never was yet seen so fair a sight. Well might it appear that such a fleet would conquer and gain lands, for, far as the eye could reach, there was no space without sails, and ships, and vessels, so that the hearts of men rejoiced greatly."

At the Straits of Malea they met two ships full of the pilgrims who had deserted them at Venice and taken their own way; "Who, when they saw our fleet so rich and well-appointed, conceived such shame that they dared not show themselves."

From one of these a sergeant suddenly let himself down into a boat, saying to those on deck, "I am quits to you for any goods of mine that may remain in the ship, for I am going with these people, for well I deern they will conquer lands."

"Much did we make of the sergeant," comments Geoffrey, quaintly, "and gladly was he received into the host. For well may it be said, that even after following a thousand crooked ways a man may find his way right in the end."

And so at length they came to the port of St Stephen, from whence they had a good view of Constantinople. "Upon which they looked very earnestly, for they never thought there could be in the world so rich a city; and they marked the high walls and strong towers that enclosed it round about, and the rich palaces and mighty churches—of which there were so many that no one would have believed it who had not seen it with his eyes—and the height and length of that city which above all others was sovereign.

"And be it known to you that no man there was of such hardihood, but his flesh trembled; and it was no wonder, for never was so great an enterprise undertaken by any people since the Creation of the World!

"Next day they took port before the magnificent royal palace that faced the city, just across the straits, and finding plenty of corn, for it was harvest time, the leaders took possession of the palace, and all were well content."

It was not long before the usurping Emperor Alexios realised his peril, and sent to them envoys bearing fair messages.

"Lords," said they, "the Emperor Alexios would have you know that he is well aware that you are the best people uncrowned, and come from the best land on earth. And he marvels much why, and for what purpose, you have come into his land and kingdom. For you are Christians, and he is a Christian, and well he knows that you are on your way to deliver the Holy Land oversea and the Holy Cross and the Sepulchre.

"If you are poor and in want, he will right willingly give you of his food and substance, provided you depart out of his land. Neither would he otherwise wish to do you any hurt, though he has full power therein, seeing that if you were twenty times as numerous as you are, you would not be able to get away without utter discomfiture if so be that he wished to harm you."

"Then arose that good knight, Conon of Bethune, and said, 'Fair sirs, you have told us that your lord marvels much why we should have entered into his kingdom and land. Into his land they have not entered, for he holds this land wrongfully and wickedly, against God and against reason. It belongs to his nephew, who sits upon a throne among us, and is the son of his brother, the Emperor Isaac. But, if he is willing to throw himself upon the mercy of his nephew and to give him back his crown and empire, then will we pray his nephew to forgive him, and bestow upon him as much as will enable him to live in wealth. And if you come not as the bearer of such a message, then be not so bold as to come here again.'"

Next morning the Crusaders determined to show the young Alexios to the people of the city; so the Doge of Venice and the Marquis of Montferrat entered into one galley, taking the prince with them, and the knights and barons crowded into as many other boats as they could get. They came close to the city walls and showed the youth to the Greeks, saying, Behold your natural lord! And be it known to you that I have not come to do you harm, but have come to guard and defend you, if so be that you return to your duty. Now behold the rightful heir. If you hold with him you will be doing as you ought, and if not, we will do to you the very worst that we can."

But the citizens were far too much in awe of the Emperor Alexios to show a sign of sympathy, and so they returned to the host.

Then a terrible siege began, and for ten days both sides fought with might and main. One of the most interesting incidents is thus related by the eye-witness Geoffrey.

"Now may you hear of a strange deed of prowess; for the Doge of Venice, who was an old man and saw naught (seeing he was blind) stood, fully armed, on the prow of his galley, and had the standard of St Mark before him; and he cried to his people to put him on land, or else that he would do justice upon their bodies with his hands.

"And so they did, for the galley was run aground, and they leapt therefrom, and bore the standard of St Mark before him on the land.

"And when the Venetians saw the standard of St Mark on land, and the galley of their lord touching ground before them, each held himself for shamed, and they all got to the land, and those in the transports leapt forth and landed; and those in the big ships got into barges, and made for the shore, each and all as best they could.

"Then might you have seen an assault, great and marvellous and to this bears witness Geoffrey de Villehardouin, who makes this book, that more than forty people told him for sooth that they saw the standard of St Mark of Venice at the top of one of the towers, and that no man knew who bore it thither.

"Now hear of a strange miracle. Those that are within the city fly and abandon the walls, and the Venetians enter in, each as fast and as best he can, and seize twenty-five of the towers, and man them with their own people."

That same night, after a disgraceful retreat from a conflict before the gates, the Emperor Alexios "took of his treasure as much as he could carry, and of his people as many as would go," and fled from the city.

The rest of the citizens drew the poor blind Isaac from his dungeon, clothed him in the imperial robes, and seat- ing him on a high throne, did obeisance to him; after which they hastened to tell the prince Alexios and the barons of what had happened.

Great was the joy throughout the host. "Him whom God will help can no men injure," was said of young Alexios, yet with the distrust which the Greeks always inspired, the leaders hastened to send envoys to enquire whether Isaac meant to ratify the covenant made by the prince, his son. With much reluctance, this was done, though the words with which the request was received might well be thought to ring false.

"Certes," said the Emperor, "this covenant is very onerous, and I do not see how effect can be given to it, nevertheless, you have done us such service, both to my son and to myself, that if we bestowed upon you the whole empire, you would have deserved it well."

There was now nothing else to wait for save the coronation of the new Emperor, and when once that was over, had their hearts been really set upon the cause of God, they would resolutely have turned their faces to the Holy Land. But they had already too lightly forsaken their high enterprise, and readily turned away again from its fulfilment.