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THE STORY OF THE LATIN EMPIRE OF CONSTANTINOPLE
Greece, change thy lords, thy state is still the same,
Thy glorious day is o'er, but not thy years of shame.
BYRON: Childe Harold.
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
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
 "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
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
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
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
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.